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About me: "Well, I work at the most succulent plum of children's branches in New York City. The Children's Center at 42nd Street not only exists in the main branch (the one with the big stone lions out front) but we've a colorful assortment of children's authors and illustrators that stop on by. I'm a lucky fish. By the way, my opinions are entirely my own and don't represent NYPL's in the least. Got blame? Gimme gimme gimme!"
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By: Betsy Bird
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Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West
By Candace Fleming
A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Book Press (a division of Macmillan)
On shelves September 20th
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we present history to our kids. Specifically I was thinking about picture book biographies and whether or not they’re capable of offering a nuanced perspective on a person’s complicated life. Will we ever see an honest picture book biography of Nixon, for example? In talking with a nonfiction author for children the other day, she asked me about middle grade books (books written for 9-12 year olds) and whether or not they are ever capable of featuring complicated subjects. I responded that often they’re capable of showing all kinds of sides to a person. Consider Laura Amy Schlitz’s delightful The Hero Schliemann or Candace Fleming’s The Great and Only Barnum. Great books about so-so people. And Candace Fleming… now there’s an author clearly drawn to historical characters with slippery slidey morals. Her latest book, Presenting Buffalo Bill is a splendid example of precisely that. Not quite a shyster, but by no means possessing a soul as pure as unblemished snow, had you asked me, prior to my reading this book, whether or not it was even possible to write a biography for children about him my answer would have been an unqualified nope. Somehow, Ms. Fleming has managed it. As tangled and thorny a life as ever you read, Fleming deftly shows how perceptions of the American West that persist to this day can all be traced to Buffalo Bill Cody. For good or for ill.
What do you think of when you think of the iconic American West? Cowboys and sage? American Indians and buffalo? Whatever is popping up in your head right now, if it’s a stereotypical scene, you’ve Buffalo Bill Cody to thank for it. An ornery son of a reluctant abolitionist, Bill grew up in a large family in pre-Civil War Kansas. Thanks to his father’s early death, Bill was expected to make money at a pretty young age. Before he knew it, he was trying his luck panning gold, learning the finer points of cowboy basics, and accompanying wagon trains. He served in the Civil War, met the love of his life, and gave tours to rich Easterners looking for adventure. It was in this way that Bill unwittingly found himself the subject of a popular paperback series, and from that he was able to parlay his fame into a stage show. That was just a hop, skip, and a jump to creating his Wild West Show. But was Bill a hero or a shyster? Did he exploit his Indian workers or offer them economic opportunities otherwise unavailable to them? Was he a caring man or a philanderer? The answer: Yes. And along the way he may have influenced how the world saw the United States of America itself.
So let’s get back to that earlier question of whether or not you can feature a person with questionable ethics in a biography written for children. It really all just boils down to a question of what the point of children’s biographies is in the first place. Are they meant to inspire, or simply inform, or some kind of combination of both? In the case of unreliable Bill, the self-made man (I’m suddenly hearing Jerry Seinfeld’s voice saying to George Costanza, “You’re really made something of yourself”) Candace Fleming had to wade through loads of inaccurate data produced, in many cases, by Bill himself. To combat this problem, Ms. Fleming employs a regular interstitial segment in the book called “Panning for the Truth” in which she tries to pry some grain of truth out of the bombast. If a person loves making up the story of their own life, how do you ever know what the truth is? Yet in many ways, this is the crux of Bill’s story. He was a storyteller, and to prop himself up he had to, in a sense, prop up the country’s belief in its own mythology. As he was an embodiment of that mythology, he had a vested interest in hyping what he believed made the United States unique. Taking that same message to other countries in the world, he propagated a myth that many still believe in today. Therefore the story of Bill isn’t merely the story of one man, but of a way people think about our country. Bill was merely the vessel. The message has outlived him.
I’ve heard folks online say of the book that they can’t imagine the child who’d come in seeking a bio of Buffalo Bill. Since kids don’t like cowboys like they used to, the very existence of this book in the universe puzzles them. Well, putting aside the fact that enjoying a biography often has very little to do with the fact that you already were interested in the subject (or any nonfiction book, for that matter), let’s just pick apart precisely why a kid might get a lot out of reading about Bill. He was, as I have mentioned, a humbug. But he was also for more than that. He was a fascinating mix of good and evil. He took credit for terrible deeds but also participated in charitable acts (whether out of a sense of obligation or mere money is a question in and of itself). He no longer fits the mold of what we consider a hero to be. He also doesn’t fit the mold of a villain. So what does that leave us with? A very interesting human being and those, truth be told, make for the best biographies for kids.
The fact that Bill is a subject of less than sterling personal qualities is not what makes this book as difficult as it is to write (though it doesn’t help). The real problem with Bill comes right down to his relationships with American Indians. How do we in the 21st century come to terms with Bill’s very white, very 19th century attitudes towards Native Americans? Fleming tackles this head on. First and foremost, she begins the book with “A Note From the Author” where she explains why she would use one term or another to describe the Native Americans in this book, ending with the sentence, “Always my intention when referring to people outside my own cultural heritage is to be respectful and accurate.” Next, she does her research. Primary sources are key, but so is work at the McCracken Research Library at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming. Her work was then vetted by Dr. Jeffrey Means (Enrolled Member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe), Associate Professor of History at the University of Wyoming in the field of Native American History, amongst others. I was also very taken with the parts of the book that quote Oglala scholar Vine Deloria Jr., explaining at length why Native performers worked for Buffalo Bill and what it meant for their communities.
What surprised me the most about the book was that I walked into it with the pretty clear perception that Bill was a “bad man”. A guy who hires American Indians to continually lose or be exploited as part of some traveling show meant to make white Americans feel superior? Yeah. Not on board with that. But as ever, the truth is far more complicated than that. Fleming delves deep not just into the inherently racist underpinnings of Bill’s life, but also its contradictions. Bill hated Custer when he knew the guy and said publicly that the defeat of Custer was no massacre, yet would reenact it as part of his show, with Custer as the glorified dead hero. He would hire Native performers, pay them a living wage, and speak highly of them, yet at the same time he murdered a young Cheyenne named Yellow Hair and scalped him for his own glory. Fleming is at her best when she recounts the relationship of Bill and Sitting Bull. A photo of the two shows them standing together “as equals . . . but it is obvious that Bill is leading the way while Sitting Bull appears to be giving in. What was the subtext of the photo? That the ‘friendship’ offered in the photograph – and in Wild West performances – honored American Indian dignity only at the expense of surrender to white dominance and control.”
I’m writing this review in the year of 2016 – a year when Donald Trump is running for President of the United States of America. It’s given me a lot of food for thought about American humbuggery. Here in the States, we’ve created a kind of homegrown demagoguery that lauds the successful humbug. P.T. Barnum was a part of that. Huey Long had it down. And Buffalo Bill may have been a different version of these men, but I’d say he belongs to their club. There’s a thin line between “self-made man” and “making stuff up”. Thinner still when the man in question does as much good and as much evil as Buffalo Bill Cody. Fleming walks a tightrope here and I’d say it’s fair to say she doesn’t fall. The sheer difficulty of the subject matter and her aplomb at handling the topic puts her on a higher plane than your average middle grade biography. Will kids seek out Buffalo Bill’s story? I have no idea, but I can guarantee that for those they do they’ll encounter a life and a man that they will never forget.
On shelves September 20th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
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By: Betsy Bird
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I do not know where Monica Edinger found our first video today. All I know is that she discovered a video that is absolutely the most interesting thing you’ll see all week. It’s a young Maurice Sendak. He’d recently won the Caldecott for Where the Wild Things Are. I’ve never seen anything like this before. And who knew you could kinda sorta flip Pierre?
Thanks to educating alice for the link. If you have a Margaret Wise Brown interview hidden away somewhere I’d be happy to take it off your hands. Ditto a copy of Pinocchio illustrated by Mussino. He makes a strong case.
Not long ago I mentioned that Dan Gutman’s book The Kid Who Ran for President was notably talked up on Last Week Tonight (John Oliver’s show). Now I’ve heard that the book was reportedly the most read review on pw.com last week. It would be a shame not to show the video in question. Here it is then, in all its Gutmanesque glory:
This just in! “Carla D. Hayden will be sworn in as the 14th Librarian of Congress in a historic ceremony in the Thomas Jefferson Building Wednesday, Sept. 14 at noon. The ceremony will be broadcast live on the Library of Congress YouTube channel. The YouTube broadcast will be captioned.” So it’s not up yet, but if you’ve time this Wednesday you might want to tune in and see it for yourself. She is, after all, the first Librarian of Congress to have an actual library degree in over 50 years.
Here’s a fun one for the Dahl fans. In this hour-long video, David Walliams presents a celebration of Roald Dahl’s children’s books, from The BFG to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It also happens to include contributions from Steven Spielberg and Julie Walters.
Thanks to Zoe Toft for the link.
Why did the PBS News Hour feature Christian Robinson recently? I care not. All that matters is that he’s great to listen to.
Thanks to Elisa Gall and Aunt Judy for the link.
And for the off-topic video of the day, I’m hat tipping Brian Biggs for passing this along. I like a video that doesn’t pound you over the head with its message. This sort of connects well to my recent interview with Mr. Biggs where we discussed gender roles in children’s books. As they say in this video, have a think in your head.
Thanks to Brian for the video.
Oh, my stars and garters. You lucky authors out there that have written books with math in them in some way are in for a treat. The Mathical Book Prize is now accepting submissions from all comers, be they picture books, middle grade, or YA. What is this prize of which I speak? In its own words:
The 2017 Mathical Book Prize seeks both new and previously published titles that connect literacy to encouraging children in grades PreK-12 to engage in mathematical thinking!
Mathical Winners and Honor Books come from all genres and publishers, and include fiction, nonfiction, poetry and picture books, introductions to big ideas in science and technology, biographies of people around the world who loved math, and more.
Mathical Books aren’t textbooks or workbooks, but stories that include a wide variety of topics that build math literacy, encourage exploration, and inspire kids to see math as a way to interact with the world around them. For a list of previous winners and honor books, visit www.mathicalbooks.org.
The Mathical Book Prize is organized by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) in Berkeley, California, in partnership with the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE) and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), two of America’s largest professional educator associations.
Deadline for submission: September 22, 2016
So get on this, people. Math doesn’t get a lot of attention these days. Let’s see what we can’t do to turn a little attention its way.
By: Betsy Bird
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This blog has spoiled me beyond all hope or recognition. Over the years I’ve used it to find nannies, to get books re-published, and now it has solved a mystery that lay dormant for years. Back in November of 2009 I decided I wanted to track down a book from my childhood. Writing stumpers into the internet ether is usually rather pointless and the post Thanksgiving: The Ernestine Mystery was no exception. So imagine my surprise when reader Desiree Preston wrote me the following note this week:
“Speaking of happy childhood memories, I was able to track down what is for sure the book I was looking for when I read you article at http://blogs.slj.com/afuse8production/2009/11/26/thanksgiving-the-ernestine-mystery/#comment-4765. I don’t know if it is really the one you were looking for, but I thought I’d let you know. It is called Good Old Ernie by Jerry Mallett. Shout out to my second grade teacher, Judy Gomoluch, who is still good friends with my fourth grade teacher Mary Kain, and saw and answered my Facebook post.”
Could this be true? Jerry Mallett? So I tracked down the cover and lo and behold . . .
That’s it, people. I can’t believe it. After seven years the mystery is solved. Let that be a lesson to you, kids. DON’T STOP BELIEVING! HOLD ONTO THAT FEEEEEEEELING . . . .
So what else is going on in the wild and wonderful world of children’s literature? Well, since I’m already talking about Thanksgiving, it’s not much of a stretch to mention Christmas as well. Now has anyone else noticed that there are a LOT of Nutcracker books out in 2016? I honestly think I’ve seen five different picture book versions of the story, all from different publishers. Now I’ve heard something that may interest my Chicago readers. Brian Selznick has recently been working on some fun new projects, including a Chicago related ballet. According to him . . .
“I’m writing the story for the new version of The Nutcracker (to be set during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair) at the Joffrey choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. It premieres this December! I think it’s going to be good…http://joffrey.org/nutcrackerbios.”
One glimpse at the folks behind it (Basil Twist! Christopher Wheeldon!) and I don’t merely “think” it’s going to be good. I know it’s going to be good. Sendak (the only other children’s book illustrator I know who had a hand in a reinterpretation of The Nutcracker) would be proud. Hat tip to Brian for the tip.
Now let’s double back to NYC, since I’m sure there are folks in that neck of the woods that would like a little children’s literature-related fun. Interested in a book festival that’ll get you out of the city? Why not try The Warwick Children’s Book Festival? As it was sold to me . . .
“Apple- and pumpkin-picking, farm markets, lovely shops, galleries and restaurants downtown…lots to enjoy for families looking for a fun afternoon on a holiday weekend. And among other illustrious authors and illustrators such as Wendell Minor, Jane Yolen, Ame Dyckman, Brian Karas, Roxane Orgill, one of your Boston Globe/Horn Book 2016 award winners, will be there with Jazz Day! And…the Festival is presented by Albert Wisner Public Library, winner of the Best Small Library in America 2016 award conferred by Library Journal! We’re excited to invite everyone from the NY Metro Area to discover our festival, our library and our town.”
Go in my stead, gentle readers. Go in my stead.
I’ll linger just a tad longer in the NYC area since to my infinite delight I found that the irascible, entirely delightful Brooklyn librarian Rita Meade has just been named a “Celebrity Librarian” and one of The Brooklyn 100. Go, Rita, Go!
Now I’ll hike back over to the Midwest again. Maybe I’ll stop in Detroit on the way. Why? Because in a bit of absolutely fascinating news we’ve learned the the newest American Girl is Melody Ellison, a child of early ’60s Detroit. Mental Floss also had this to say about the gal:
A six-member advisory board worked to craft her portrayal and included prominent members of the NAACP, history professors, and the President and CEO of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. Along with author Denise Lewis Patrick, they worked together to ensure Melody’s story was as true to life as possible—including her hair. The texture of the doll’s locks was changed multiple times to reflect the era.
“In the late ’60s, the majority of African-Americans did have straight hair,” Juanita Moore, President and CEO of the Wright Museum, said to the Detroit Free Press. “It may not have been bone straight, but it was straightened.”
Thanks to PW Children’s Bookshelf for the news.
No doubt you’ve heard it elsewhere by now, but the saddest information of the week was that Llama Llama’s mama, Anna Dewdney, died recently. I don’t think my family owns any full runs of picture book series . . . with the exception of the Llama Llama books. There’s a lovely obit for her in PW worth looking on. She will be missed.
Turn now to happy news. They’ve announced the speakers for the upcoming ALSC Mini Institute, which will occur before the ALA Midwinter Conference in January. Behold the speakers for yourself, then sign up.
Me stuff. The very kind Suzanne Slade interviewed me about my picture book Giant Dance Party at the blog Picture Book Builders. Woohoo! Still in print, baby!
Pop Goes the Page at Princeton is still up to their usual tricks. Today they’re wowing us with their tribute to Alice in Wonderland. Try not to keen too mournfully when you realize you missed a chance to hear Leonard Marcus talk about the book’s relationship to surrealism.
Not much on the roster today, so why don’t I just send you off with a picture of me reading the latest John Patrick Green graphic novel Hippotomister to my kids? They adore it, by the way. So two thumbs up from 2-year-olds and 5-year-olds equally over here.
Last week I was sick. Sick as a dog sick. Sick in that way where you feel the cool breezes coming through your window and have a fleeting glimpse of how lucky you are to be sick at the end of the summer rather than even a week earlier when your misery could have only have been compounded by hot winds and bright, horrible, happy sunlight.
In the midst of all this lovely blah-ness I was given the chance to speak with a German reporter about political picture book biographies. Thanks to the fever I’ve only a mild inkling of what I said (we’ll all find out together, yay!) but I do remember a long discussion of American picture book biographies and nuance. Look at the bios of Hillary out there for kids and you’re not going to find much within them beyond praise. How true is that of other picture book biographies? Are they capable of showing several sides of an individual or are they, by definition, only able to show the good sides of their subjects and never the bad?
I’ve been pondering this for the past week and I don’t know if I’m any closer to an answer. A picture book biography by its very nature is supposed to tell a child more about a subject. Moreover, that subject is supposed to be someone that child should learn and grow from as well as emulate in their own lives. You will not find picture book biographies of Hitler or Ted Bundy because that flies in the face of a picture book bio’s purpose in life. The only time you can come close is when you write a parody for adults like A Child’s First Book of Trump.
But is that actually true? I mean, if a kid is supposed to emulate a picture book biography’s subject and you don’t show their flaws and failures, doesn’t that automatically make the subject seem otherworldly and perfect? Isn’t there value in displaying the problematic areas and showing how someone surmounted them?
I set out to locate a couple picture book biographies of people who led complicated lives. How did their picture book biographers choose to handle their less than stellar personal qualities? When drawing up the list, I was surprised to find that the most examples involve drugs. I made a conscious effort to include some of those, but to come up with other personal failings as well.
Personal Difficulty: Died of drug overdose
Does the Book Address This? Sure, but not in the text for kids. Since the text pretty much just shows him as a kid, that was a given. Now one way these books get around the problem of a problematic life is simply to put all the less-than-stellar stuff in the backmatter. If a book does that, can you honestly say that it’s discussing a subject’s complicated life head-on? By the same token, it’s obviously there and has the additional advantage of being readily available to a teacher or parent IF and only IF they want to share it. In this case, mentioning Jimi’s death wouldn’t have made sense in the main body of the text.
Personal Difficulty: Got cozy with a Nazi
Do These Books Address This? Ah, nope. But I’ve a theory on this one anyway. Seems to me that when a person’s personal life involved drug abuse, or even physical violence, that’s something a picture book biography can work with. Sex, in any form, is far more difficult. Read on and you’ll see what I mean a little later.
Personal Difficulty: Drug addiction
Does the Book Address This? Yes. In fact, this turned out to be one of the very few picture book biographies I could find where the text written for kids discussed the fact that the subject of the book had personal failings. As I wrote in my review, “You see the days when his deep sadness caused him to start drinking early on. You see his experiments with drugs and the idea some musicians harbored that it would make them better.” There’s even an in-depth “Author’s Note: Musicians and Drug Use” section at the end. Now the author of this book, Gary Golio, also wrote the aforementioned Jimi Hendrix biography so he’s no stranger to writing about complicated men. If you seek complexity in a picture book biography, this is where you start.
Personal Difficulty: Several, but let’s just stick with the fact that he left his wife for Rosanne.
Does the Book Address This? Not really. It definitely mentions Rosanne and how much Johnny admired her, but the storyline stops strategically before they get togehter. If you want to get into the sticky subject of infidelity the text of the book won’t help you out. But could it even? Could any picture book biography tackle infidelity in any manner without the topic tipping everything in the text in only that direction? Can we state for the record, then, that infidelity cannot ever be discussed in a picture book biography?
Personal Difficulty: Family mental issues and drug addiction
Does the Book Address This? Yep. The problems with his mother are discussed at length in the text. The drug problems come up in the backmatter. This is a pretty good example of a book that has found the right balance in the public and personal, and has found a way to make an honest picture book biography that touches on the big issues and how they formed the man as an artist without letting them take over the book itself.
Robert Miller a.k.a. Tricky Vic
Personal Difficulty: Um . . . his whole entire life? Remember when I said you couldn’t write a bio of a villain? Well, Tricky Vic was more of an anti-hero, but that’s splitting hairs. This may well be the only picture book bio I’ve seen of a true shyster. He was a con man, and he didn’t exactly repent. Or learn. Or grow.
Does the Book Address This? The book doesn’t address anything BUT this! How did Pizzoli do it? There wasn’t even an outcry against this book when it came out. People were on board with it. I wonder if they saw it more as a history than a bio. I wonder too if the fact that Vic isn’t that well known contributed to the lack of protestation. If you wrote a biography of a famous sadist, people would assume the book was, by definition, in favor of that person. But if the person is low-level and not particularly well known it flies right under the radar. Much to chew on here.
Conclusion: Let’s say someone wanted to write a serious picture book biography of Donald Trump tomorrow and have it published by a major publisher. Let us also say that this person was not personally associated with Mr. Trump and wanted to present him as honestly as possible to a child readership. Finally, let’s say that this person wanted this to be a “good” book. Could it be done?
I don’t know the answer to this question. I told the reporter that American picture book biographies were capable of nuance, and I’ll stand by that. But they are also, by their very design, meant to inspire as well as inform. If you take away that initial intent, do you do harm to the form itself?
Deep thoughts for a Tuesday, folks. Be interested in your opinions.
By: Betsy Bird
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By Louise Erdrich
On shelves now
They say these days you can’t sell a novel for kids anymore without the book having some kind of “sequel potential”. That’s not really true, but there are a heck of a lot of series titles out there for the 7 to 12-year-old set, that’s for sure. New series books for children are by their very definition sort of odd for kids, though. If you’re an adult and you discover a new series, waiting a year or two for the next book to come out is a drop in the bucket. Years fly by for grown-ups. The wait may be mildly painful but it’s not going to crush you. But series for kids? That’s another matter entirely. Two years go by and the child has suddenly become an entirely different person. They may have switched their loyalties from realistic historical fiction to fantasy or science fiction or (heaven help us) romance even! It almost makes more sense just to hand them series that have already completed their runs, so that they can speed through them without breaking the spell. Almost makes more sense . . . but not quite. Not so long as there are series like “The Birchbark House Series” by Louise Erdrich. It is quite possibly the only historical fiction series currently underway for kids that has lasted as long as seventeen years and showing no sign of slowing down until it reaches its conclusion four books from now, Erdrich proves time and time again that she’s capable of ensnaring new readers and engaging older ones without relying on magic, mysteries, or post-apocalyptic mayhem. And if she manages to grind under her heel a couple stereotypes about what a book about American Indians in the past is “supposed” to be (boring/serious/depressing) so much the better.
Chickadee is back, and not a second too soon. Had he been returned to his twin brother from his kidnapping any later, it’s possible that Makoons would have died of the fever that has taken hold of his body. As it is, Chickadee nurses his brother back to health, but not before Makoons acquires terrifying visions of what is to come. Still, there’s no time to dwell on that. The buffalo are on the move and his family and tribe are dedicated to sustaining themselves for the winter ahead. There are surprises along the way as well. A boasting braggart by the name of Gichi Noodin has joined the hunt, and his posturing and preening are as amusing to watch as his mistakes are vast. The tough as nails Two Strike has acquired a baby lamb and for reasons of her own is intent on raising it. And the twin brothers adopt a baby buffalo of their own, though they must protect it against continual harm. All the while the world is changing for Makoons and his family. Soon the buffalo will leave, more settlers will displace them, and three members of the family will leave, never to return. Fortunately, family sustains, and while the future may be bleak, the present has a lot of laughter and satisfaction waiting at the end of the day.
While I have read every single book in this series since it began (and I don’t tend to follow any other series out there, except possibly Lockwood & Co.) I don’t reread previous books when a new one comes out. I don’t have to. Neither, I would argue, would your kids. Each entry in this series stands on its own two feet. Erdrich doesn’t spend inordinate amounts of time catching the reader up, but you still understand what’s going on. And you just love these characters. The books are about family, but with Makoons I really felt the storyline was more about making your own family than the family you’re born into. At the beginning of this book Makoons offers the dire prediction that he and his brother will be able to save their family members, but not all of them. Yet by the story’s end, no matter what’s happened, the family has technically only decreased by two people, because of the addition of another.
Erdrich has never been afraid of filling her books with a goodly smattering of death, dismemberment, and blood. I say that, but these do not feel like bloody books in the least. They have a gentleness about them that is remarkable. Because we are dealing with a tribe of American Indians (Ojibwe, specifically) in 1866, you expect this book to be like all the other ones out there. Is there a way to tell this story without lingering on the harm caused by the American government to Makoons, his brother, and his people? Makoons and his family always seem to be outrunning the worst of the American government’s forces, but they can’t run forever. Still, I think it’s important that the books concentrate far more on their daily lives and loves and sorrows, only mentioning the bloodthirsty white settlers on occasion and when appropriate. It’s almost as if the reader is being treated in the same way as Makoons and his brother. We’re getting some of the picture but we’re being spared its full bloody horror. That is not to say that this is a whitewashed narrative. It isn’t at all. But it’s nice that every book about American Indians of the past isn’t exactly the same. They’re allowed to be silly and to have jokes and fun moments too.
That humor begs a question of course. Question: When is it okay to laugh at a character in a middle grade novel these days? It’s not a simple question. With a high concentration on books that promote kindness rather than bullying, laughing at any character, even a bad guy, is a tricky proposition. And that goes double if the person you’re laughing at is technically on your side. Thank goodness for self-delusion. As long as a character refuses to be honest with him or herself, the reader is invited to ridicule them alongside the other characters. It may not be nice, but in the world of children’s literature it’s allowed. So meet Gichi Noodin, a pompous jackass of a man. This is the kind of guy who could give Narcissus lessons in self-esteem. He’s utterly in love with his own good looks, skills, you name it. For this reason he’s the Falstaff of the book (without the melancholy). He serves a very specific purpose in the book as the reader watches his rise, his fall, and his redemption. It’s not very often that the butt of a book’s jokes is given a chance to redeem himself, but Gichi Noodin does precisely that. That storyline is a small part of the book, smaller even than the tale of Two Strike’s lamb, but I loved the larger repercussions. Even the butt of the joke can save the day, given the chance.
As with all her other books Erdrich does a E.L. Konigsburg and illustrates her own books (and she can even do horses – HORSES!). Her style is, as ever, reminiscent of Garth Williams’ with soft graphite pencil renderings of characters and scenes. These are spotted throughout the chapters regularly, and combined with the simplicity of the writing they make the book completely appropriate bedtime reading for younger ages. The map at the beginning is particularly keen since it not only highlights the locations in each part of the story but also hints at future storylines to come. Of these pictures the sole flaw is the book jacket. You see the cover of this book is a touch on the misleading side since at no point in this story does Makoons ever attempt to feed any baby bears (a terrible idea, namesake or no). Best to warn literal minded kids from the start that that scene is not happening. Then again, this appears to be a scene from the first book in the series, The Birchbark House, where Makoons’ mother Omakayas feeds baby bears as a girl. Not sure why they chose to put it on the cover this book but it at least explains where it came from.
It is interesting that the name of this book is Makoons since Chickadee shares as much of the spotlight, if not a little more so, than his sickly brother. That said, it is Makoons who has the vision of the future, Makoons who offers the haunting prediction at the story’s start, and Makoons who stares darkly into an unknown void at the end, alone in the misery he knows is certain to come. Makoons is the Cassandra of this story, his predictions never believed until they are too late. And yet, this isn’t a sad or depressing book. The hope that emanates off the pages survives the buffalos’ sad departure, the sickness that takes two beloved characters, and the knowledge that the only thing this family can count on in the future is change. But they have each other and they are bound together tightly. Even Pinch, that trickster of previous books, is acquiring an odd wisdom and knowledge of his own that may serve the family well into the future. Folks often recommend these books as progressive alternatives to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, but that’s doing them a disservice. Each one of these titles stands entirely on its own, in a world of its own making. This isn’t some sad copy of Wilder’s style but a wholly original series of its own making. The kid who starts down the road with this family is going to want to go with them until the end. Even if it takes another seventeen years. Even if they end up reading the last few books to their own children. Whatever it takes, we’re all in this together, readers, characters, and author. Godspeed, Louise Erdrich.
For ages 7-12
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
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Folks, let me level with you. I only love two things in this world. Cats. And astronauts.
Okay, that’s a lie. I love a whole lot more than just those two things. But let’s say I was stranded on a desert island somewhere and I was told that I could have a book about only two of my favorite things in the world combined. Would I want a book on The Brave Little Toaster + Gene Wilder? Would I want a book on kookaburras + chocolate cake? Would I want a book on the dictamnus plant (YouTube it sometime) + the city of Amherst? Yes to all of these, obviously, but the coolest combination of all time, the one that would make a kind of strange illogical logical sense, would be (you guessed it) . . . .
Cats + Astronauts
Behold. The odd girl gets her wish.
Yep. A brand new graphic novel series from brand new author/illustrator Drew Brockington.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “This looks good. The only thing that could make it better was if there was a cat named ‘Waffles’ involved in some way.” Well, are you in luck. Check out this description of Book #1:
CatStronauts: Mission Moon
When the world is thrust into darkness due to a global energy shortage, the Worlds Best Scientist comes up with a bold plan to set up a solar power plant on the moon. But someone has to go up there to set it up, and that adventure falls to the CatStronauts, the best space cats on the planet! Meet the fearless commander Major Meowser, brave-but-hungry pilot Waffles, genius technician and inventor Blanket, and quick thinking science officer Pom Pom on their most important mission yet!
And it gets better. Because in Book #2 . . . well, read it for yourself . . .
CatStronauts: Race to Mars
Fresh off of their heroic mission to save the world, the CatStronauts–Major Meowser, Pom Pom, Blanket and Waffles–are taking a well deserved victory lap. Parades and fancy awards dinners are the new norm! But around the world, other cat space programs are watching–in particular the CosmoCats, the first cats to go to space! With national pride and scientific research on the line, the world rushes to be the first cats to Mars, and the CatStronauts are starting months behind! Can they catch up and prove their first space-changing mission was no fluke?
Did you catch that? Rival CosmoCats who technically got to space first? Heaven, I’m in heaven . . .
But wait . . . there’s more. An interior spread (you can click on it to make it bigger):
Hat tips and thanks to the good folks at Little, Brown & Co. for allowing me this appropriately kooky reveal.
Consider, if you will, the life of Gene Wilder. Since his death, many people have been doing precisely that. It makes me happy, but since I’ve harbored a not-so-secret crush on the man for decades (a quick search of this blog will back that up) I felt it necessary to point out that for all that he was a great actor, he was also, and often, key in bringing to life various famous children’s literary characters.
The most obvious of these was, of course, Willy Wonka. Without Wilder’s mad genius, the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory could never have been the wonder that it was. A brief hat tip to Gene there:
Mr. Wilder also portrayed The Fox in the live adaptation of The Little Prince. Though not as odd as Bob Fosse’s Snake, it’s still a mighty peculiar role.
Some would then forget but Mr. Wilder also portrayed the Mock Turtle in a made-for-TV adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
In his honor, then, allow me to post all the funny links related to Mr. Wilder and his roles as I can come up with.
First up, long before wrote the picture book Let Me Finish, Minh Lê created this stellar little post about a reality show called The Sweet Life.
I loved it when he was portrayed as one of the many American actors in this faux montage Celebrating 50 Years of American Doctor Who.
Admit it. He would have been glorious.
Next up, one of my favorite How It Should Have Ended videos:
This other little gem came up not too long ago:
And in parting . . .
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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Yesterday, for the first time in a long while, I submitted a Video Sunday for your approval. Trouble is, I may have failed to mention one of the most fascinating videos out there with a tie-in to books for kids, so I’d like to rectify the situation today.
The title of the article read, ‘Last Week Tonight’: John Oliver Turned a 20-Year-Old Kids’ Book with ‘Startling Parallels’ to Trump into a Bestseller. Naturally I tried figuring out what book they were talking about but I was coming up short. Turns out it’s good old The Kid Who Ran for President by Dan Gutman. That’s a title that is consistently on New York City public school reading lists every single year. Wouldn’t be surprised a jot if that’s how Last Week Tonight‘s writing staff heard about it (some of them must have kids). Glad to see it getting a bit of attention here and there. I won’t give away which candidate the “startling parallels” refer to (kidding!). Thanks to PW Children’s Bookshelf for the link.
A Gene Luen Yang comic piece for the New York Times simply called Glare of Disdain? Don’t mind if I do!
Horn Book came out with their 2015-2016 Yearbook Superlatives post once more. Fun bit. I wonder if they collect them throughout the year as they do their reading.
Tis the battle of the smarty-pants! Who did it better? Adam Rex and Christian Robinson at Horn Book or Jory John and Bob Shea at Kirkus? The choice is yours (though Christian Robinson probably sweeps the deck with his magnificent “Black people are magic” line).
See how I’m going from a Horn Book post to a Horn Book / Kirkus post to a Kirkus review? That’s why they pay me the big bucks, folks. In any case, usually when I post a review on this blog I like to link the books mentioned in the review to Kirkus. Why? Because they’re the review journal that has the most free archived older children’s book reviews online. Generally this is a good plan but once in a while it throws me for a loop. For example, a reviewer of the original Nate the Great back in 1972 had serious problems with the title. Your homework for the day is to read the review and then figure out what precisely the “stereotype” the book was faulty of conveying really was. I’ve read this review about ten times and I’m still baffled. Any ideas?
So I worked at NYPL for a number of years (11 in total). Of those, I spent about five or six of them working in close proximity to the original Winnie-the-Pooh toys. And in all that time I never knew them to look as good as they do right now. Oo la la! Goggle at that restored Kanga! And a Piglet where his skin ISN’T falling off his body? I don’t even know the guy now. No word on whether or not the restoration yielded more information on the music box in Pooh’s tummy (or if it’s even still there). Still, they look great (and appear to have a whole new display area too!). Thanks to Sharyn November for the link.
Did you know that Cricket Media (which runs Cricket Magazine as well as other periodicals) has a blog? I tell you this partly because I’m trying to contact someone at their Chicago location and so far my efforts have been for naught. A little help?
Did you know there was a children’s book award for science fiction? Yup. “The Golden Duck Awards, which are designed to encourage science fiction literature for children, have been given annually since 1992.” And as far as I can tell, they may still be going on. Check out their site here to see for yourself. You can suggest books from the previous year too, so have at it, peoples.
So I give up. Slate? You win. You do good posts on children’s books. I was wrong to doubt you. That post about how your son loves “bad guys” so you read him Tomi Ungerer’s The Three Robbers? That’s good stuff. And the piece on how terrible the U.S. is at translating children’s books? Also excellent. To say nothing of all the other excellent posts you’ve come up with and researched well. I doff my cap. Your pop-up blog is a rousing success. Well done you.
Question: How often has a documentary been made about a nonfiction children’s picture book about a true subject? Once at least.
Saw this next one on the old listservs and figured it might be of use to someone:
I just wanted to pass along an opportunity that I’m hoping that you’ll hope promote for ALSC. Every year, we give away four $600 stipends for ALSC members to attend Annual for the first time. Applications are open now and are being accepted up to October 1, 2016. For 2017, Penguin Random House is including one ticket for each winner to the Newbery-Caldecott-Wilder Banquet. Here is some more information.
Because I just cannot stop with the Stranger Things. This one came via my friend Marci. Look closely enough and you’ll see Will hiding in the Upside Down.
Thanks to Marci Morimoto for the link.
Good morning! We’ve not done a Video Sunday here on Fuse8 in a while, so let’s start with the ritualized boiling of the blood. Which is to say, can picture books be written in an hour? No. But Slate decided to go on and and prove as much. The results:
More interesting, in a way, is the accompanying written piece in which real editors like Alvina Ling and Cheryl Klein critique what the folks here have come up with. Kindly. Very very kindly.
Looks like that Curious George documentary got the Kickstarter backing it was seeking! Love the promo video they created for it. Some killer original footage here that I’ve just never seen before. Check it out:
Thanks to 100 Scope Notes for the link.
A pretty advanced PSA, I must say. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the song it’s parodying, I think you’ll get a kick out of it. The book cameos are particularly keen.
My father-in-law wrote me a week or two ago to tell me that, “CBS Morning news had a lovely piece on the research librarians at the main library (5th and 42nd). I think you would enjoy the segment and probably know some of the featured librarians. Hopefully, the website has the video from this morning’s show.”
They did. It does. Here is the result.
I used to work a floor about the ASK NYPL team. There wasn’t any partition between the floors so you could hear them talk pretty clearly. It was a fascinating process.
Finally, this is sorta off-topic. It’s certainly older. I’m not one for the Cute Kids Saying Cute Things genre, but cute kids with Australian/New Zealand accents? That’s different. Particularly when it’s all part of an effort to raise money for sick kids. And this isn’t entirely off-topic. After all, there are some very interesting children’s books in the backgrounds here. Stick around for the song. It’s not the earnest tripe you fear at first.
Good cause. Good folks.
I recently received a very interesting, if puzzling, question. A friend of mine needed to know, for professional reasons, what I would consider the top themes in picture books these days. By “themes” I don’t mean trends but rather emotional or social lessons for young readers. You might even go so far as to call them the morals we’re trying to impart upon our 21st century offspring.
This is not as easy a question. While I attempt to take meticulous notes on every picture book I read, it’s far easier to keep track of, say, movie cameos in 2016 books than overarching societal anxieties. Still, I managed to whip up a list and then thought, why not share it widely?
Here then are the top themes I’m detecting in picture books this year.
- It’s Okay to Make Mistakes – Particularly as it applies to girls in science or math, but also to how kids do their own art. I’ve seen a lot of books where a kid is making art, messes it up in some way, and then learns how to turn it into something new. By the same token, a lot of books are about how you have to make mistakes to get better at something. And it’s not about failing once or twice but a LOT. Not mention asking as many questions as possible! Hopefully those books where someone tries something three times and gets it done perfectly on the third will be a thing of the past soon.
A Good Example Would Be:
Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty, ill. David Roberts
Though you might just as easily apply this to Ada’s predecessor Rosie Revere, Engineer.
- Gender Roles – Most notably when it comes to boys in dresses (though no girls identifying as boys) as well as just how kids interact with one another. Kids learn gender roles VERY early and enforce those roles with one another. There’s a great book call NutureShock for adults that talks a lot about this. Picture books have always liked this theme (William’s Doll came out in the 1970s, after all) but now it’s ramping up again.
A Good Example Would Be:
I’m a Girl by Yasmeen Ismail
I was initially going to go with the new James Howe picture book Big Bob, Little Bob, but I already mentioned that one in an earlier post. There are remarkably few books where gender stereotypes for girls are as thoroughly knocked to the floor and trampled upon than what you’ll find here. It even saves space to kick to the curb some male gender stereotypes as well at the end. I’m a fan.
- Economic Disparity – We’re finally seeing some books that acknowledge that not all kids have the same resources at home. Some kids have parents who lose their jobs. Others have single family homes. And not every kid you know has parents who can afford to buy them a bike.
A Good Example Would Be:
A Bike Like Sergio’s by Maribeth Boelts, ill. Noa Z. Jones
I think what I love so much about this is the easy breezy ignorance of Sergio. He simply cannot conceive of a world where a boy’s parents wouldn’t be able to buy their son a bike if they wanted to. Meanwhile the character of Ruben is placed in the awkward position of having to hide his family’s economic situation from his best friend. And this is a picture book! We’re finally seeing this topic handled in something other than a Charlie Bucket kind of way. I’m very pleased.
- Unplug – Possibly the MOST popular theme in the past three to four years. Very Willy Wonka in the moralizing sometimes (imagine what Mike TeeVee could have done with a personal device), but important to adults. Many is the picture book where someone turns off all their devices and discovers the wide and wonderful world.
A Good Example Would Be:
Tek, the Modern Cave Boy by Patrick McDonnell
What I like about this book is that since you’ve got a caveperson with a cell phone, adding dinos to the mix really isn’t going to upset anyone. You’ve already gone beyond the pale.
- Try to See It Their Way (or, Everyone’s a Person – Even Mean People) – Picture books where you have to see it from another person’s point of view are becoming very sophisticated these days. Some of them will also show that bullies sometimes have problems at home or at school that cause them to act out. Though, if we’re going to get technical about it, even The Berenstain Bears and the Bully discussed this decades ago.
A Good Example Would Be:
Eddie the Bully by Henry Cole
Bully books aren’t going away anytime soon. Nuanced bully books? That might mark the second wave of titles.
- Apologize When You’re Wrong – Oddly popular as a theme. Owning up to your own mistakes is hard. Books are making that infinitely clear, but also show the right way to do it.
A Good Example Would Be:
What’s Up, Chuck? by Leo Landry
I think this might fall more into the “early reader” category vs. “picture books” but I care not. The interesting thing about this storyline is that when our main character has acted like a spoiled brat for not winning a contest’s first prize medal for the first time in three years, the person who does win gives Chuck (our hero) an out. But Chuck doesn’t take it, and apologizes like a pro. It’s really well executed in a book this simple. Check it out sometime.
- Try Something New – Whether it’s food or school or new friends or whatever, trying something new is a big time theme.
A Good Example Would Be:
School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex, ill. Christian Robinson
So my daughter started Kindergarten this week and I figured this book might make a good gift to her Kindergarten teacher. Turns out, it’s been a HUGE hit in the school, with other teacher vying to borrow it. What I like about it, though, is that it takes time to acknowledge that when you try something new it isn’t instantaneously fantastic. Things go wrong. It takes time to enjoy something you’ve never done before.
And yes, you could argue that these are themes every year, but I feel like they’re particularly prevalent in 2016. What are you seeing that I’ve missed?
By: Betsy Bird
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Who Broke the Teapot?!
By Bill Slavin
On shelves now
In the average life of a child, whodunits are the stuff of life itself. Who took the last cookie? Who used up all the milk and then didn’t put it on the shopping list? Who removed ALL the rolls of toilet paper that I SPECIFICALLY remember buying at the store on Sunday and now seem to have vanished into some toilet paper eating inter-dimension? The larger the family, the great the number of suspects. But picture books that could be called whodunits run a risk of actually going out and teaching something. A lesson about honesty or owning up to your own mistakes. Blech. I’ll have none of it. Hand me that copy of Bill Slavin’s Who Broke the Teapot?! instead, please. Instead of morals and sanctity I’ll take madcap romps, flashbacks, and the occasional livid cat. Loads of fun to read aloud, surprisingly beautiful to the eye, and with a twist that no one will see coming, Who Broke the Teapot?! has it all, baby. Intact teapot not included.
The scene of the crime: The kitchen. The family? Oblivious. As the mother enters the room it’s just your average morning. There’s a baby in a high chair, a brother attached to a ceiling fan by his suspenders, a dad still in his underwear reading the paper, a daughter eating pastries, a dog aiding her in this endeavor, and a cat so tangled up in wool that it’s a wonder you can still make out its paws. And yet in the doorway, far from the madding crowd, sits a lone, broken, teapot. Everyone proclaims innocence. Everyone seems trustworthy in that respect. Indeed, the only person to claim responsibility is the baby (to whom the mother tosses a dismissive, “I doubt it”). Now take a trip back in time just five minutes and all is revealed. The true culprit? You’ll have to read the book yourself. You final parting shot is the mother accepting a teapot stuck together with scotch tape and love from her affectionate offspring.
Generally when I write a picture book review I have a pretty standard format that I adhere to. I start with an opening paragraph (done), move on to a description of the plot in the next paragraph (so far, so good), and in the third paragraph I talk about some aspect of the writing. It could be the overall theme or the writing or the plotting. After that I talk about the art. This pattern is almost never mucked with . . . until today!! Because ladies and gents, you have just GOT to take a gander at what Mr. Slavin’s doing here with his acrylics. Glancing at the art isn’t going to do it. You have to pick this book up and really inspect the art. For the bulk of it the human characters are your usual cartoony folks. Very smooth paints. But even the most cursory glance at the backgrounds yields rewards. The walls are textured with thick, luscious paints adhering to different patterns. There’s even a touch of mixed media to the old affair, what with cat’s yarn being real thread and all (note too how Slavin seamlessly makes it look as if the yarn is wrapped around the legs of the high chair). Then the typography starts to get involved. The second time the mom says “Who broke the teapot?!” the words look like the disparate letters of a rushed ransom note. As emotions heat up (really just the emotions of the mom, to be honest) the thick paints crunch when she says “CRUNCHED”, acquire zigzags as her temper unfurls, and eventually belie the smoothness of the characters’ skin when the texture invades the inside of the two-page spread of the now screaming mother’s mouth.
So, good textures. But let us not forget in all this just how important the colors of those thick paints are as well. Watching them shift from one mood to another is akin to standing beneath the Northern Lights. You could be forgiven for not noticing the first, second, third, or even fourth time you read the book. Yet these color changes are imperative to the storytelling. As emotions heat up or the action on the page ramps up, the cool blues and greens ignite into hot reds, yellows, and oranges. Taken as a whole the book is a rainbow of different backgrounds, until at long last everything subsides a little and becomes a chipper cool blue.
Now kids love a good mystery, and I’m not talking just the 9 and 10-year-olds. Virtually every single age of childhood has a weakness for books that set up mysterious circumstances and then reveal all with a flourish. Heck, why do you think babies like the game of peekaboo? Think of it as the ultimate example of mystery and payoff. Picture book mysteries are, however, far more difficult to write than, say, an episode of Nate the Great. You have to center the book squarely in the child’s universe, give them all the clues, and then make clear to the reader what actually happened. To do this you can show the perpetrator of the crime committing the foul deed at the start of the book or you can spot clues throughout the story pointing clearly to the miscreant. In the case of Who Broke the Teapot, Slavin teaches (in his own way) that old Sherlock Holmes phrase, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
I love it when a book turns everything around at the end and asks the reader to think long and hard about what they’ve just seen. Remember the end of The Cat in the Hat when everything’s been cleaned up just in time and the mother comes in asking the kids what they got up to while she was gone? The book ends with a canny, “Well, what would YOU do if your mother asked YOU?” Who Broke the Teapot?! does something similar at its end as well. The facts have been laid before the readers. The baby has claimed responsibility and maybe he is to blame after all. But wasn’t the mother just as responsible? It would be very interesting indeed to poll a classroom of Kindergartners to see where they ascribe the bulk of the blame. It may even say something about a kid if they side with the baby more or the mommy more.
I also love that the flashback does far more than explain who broke the teapot. It explains why exactly most of the members of this family are dwelling in a kind of generally accepted chaotic stew. You take it for granted when you first start reading. A kid’s hanging from a ceiling fan? Sure. Yeah. That happens. But the explanation, when it comes, belies that initial response. The parents don’t question his position so you don’t question it. That is your first mistake. Never take your lead from parents. And speaking of the flashback, let’s just stand aside for a moment and remember just how sophisticated it is to portray this concept in a picture book at all. You’re asking a child audience to accept that there is a “before” to every book they read. Few titles go back in time to explain how we got to where we are now. Slavin’s does so easily, and it will be the rare reader that can’t follow him on this trip back into the past.
I think the only real mystery here is why this book isn’t better known. And its only crime is that it’s Canadian, and therefore can’t win any of the big American awards here in the States. It’s also too amusing for awards. Until we get ourselves an official humor award for children’s books, titles like Who Broke the Teapot?! are doomed to fly under the radar. That’s okay. This is going to be the kind of book that children remember for decades. They’re going to be the ones walking into their public libraries asking the children’s librarians on the desks to bring to them an obscure picture book from their youth. “There was a thing that was broken . . . like a china plate or something . . . and there was this cat tied up in string?” You have my sympathies, children’s librarians of the future. In the meantime, better enjoy the book now. Whether it’s read to a large group or one-on-one, this puppy packs a powerful punch.
On shelves now
Source: Publisher sent final copy for review.
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Celebrity picture books. The gift that just keeps on giving.
Now in the past I’ve had my say about CPB ah-plenty. Heck, there was an entire chapter devoted to them in Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature. Today, we’ll switch tactics and tackle a topic that no one ever discusses.
Weeeeeeeeeeird celebrity picture books.
Specifically, the ones based on pop songs.
Here is how I imagine how the process usually goes.
Big publisher with lots of money sits down with the people of big famous celebrity singer. Big publishers offers to get a top notch illustrator (who really needs the cash) to illustrate it. Celebrity singer is keen on the idea, a deal is struck, and the book is made. This happens time and again and usually the results are very normal.
But then . . . once in a very great while . . . the impossible happens. The artist is allowed to be . . . artistic.
What do I mean like that? Okay. Let’s start with the pop novelty song turned picture book. And in keeping with the sheer number of foxes in picture books these days (Travis! You need to add the new version of The Dead Bird by Zolotow & Robinson to your list!) I am showing you this:
Remember that little post-Gangnam Style hit on the interwebs? Currently cresting at 616 million views on YouTube (nope, I’m not kidding) someone at Simon & Schuster decided it could be worth it to give the lyrics book form. After all, it sounds like a children’s song in a lot of ways (right down to the elephant going “toot”). And usually when a YouTube sensation gets turned into a picture book you get something like a Golden Book Grumpy Cat or a Tiny Hamster or a talking shell, and that’s fine.
Then there’s this:
I had to wonder how this happened. Did Ylvis insist on having his own illustrator? How did they get Norwegian artist Svein Nyhus in the first place? How could something this . . this . . this cool be based on a YouTube video? It was Debbie Ohi’s blog post My WHAT DOES THE FOX SAY? obsession, solving a mystery AND the new picture book from Simon & Schuster BFYR that answered all my questions. Turns out, Art Director Laurent Linn may have had a hand in the works. Makes sense. The man has fine taste.
And if you’re saying to yourself, “Fine and all, but clearly this is an aberration” you’d be half right. Certainly it would take an act of God for another Svein Nyhus picture book to appear on our shores (our Norwegian picture book illustrators available here in the States are a bit, uh, lacking, shall we say). But odd adaptations of songs into picture book formats don’t stop there. Consider this:
Yep. That’s a Sting song. Now note the name of the illustrator: Sven Völker. We’re with a German this time around. Of course, the interiors might have given that away . . .
I’m sorry but I kind of love this. Obviously the song isn’t really meant to be for kids, but at least they didn’t cutesy it up. It would have been easy to go the Shel Silverstein route and follow the adventures of a chipper little spot as he traverses the world. Instead we get . . . actually, I’m not sure what we get. Something weird, that’s for sure.
These first two books I’ve mentioned work because the publishers decided to get European artists to do the interiors. So how often do you find a song adaptation that’s a bit on the peculiar side and that’s illustrated by an American? Hardly ever. Of course there are some exceptions:
Dylan gets adapted into picture books on a frequent basis. And he usually gets some perfectly good artists like Paul Rogers or David Walker or Jim Arnosky (that one was a surprise). One time he got Jon J. Muth and I got really excited. But the art was pretty standard stuff. There was a paper airplane motif. Ho hum.
But Scott Campbell? He’s different. This guy has a whole life dedicated to his adult cartoons, which are delightful. Ever see this book?
If not, I think I’m helping you out with your holiday gift giving already. That book is a hoot.
In the case of the Dylan book, Campbell appears at first glance to be doing everything straight. Dogs are running free. That’s really all there is to it. But there’s this undercurrent that’s hard to ignore. See if you feel it too:
It just doesn’t feel like other celebrity song books. There’s a wildness reigned in here. The song isn’t one of Dylan’s better ones, so there’s that as well, but at least the pictures are interesting to look at. The downside is that I haven’t seen Mr. Campbell do any picture books since this and Hug Machine. Boo-urns, sez I. More Campbell, please.
I welcome any other suggestions of odd song-adaptation picture books, though I know they’re not easy to come up with. A goodly chunk of them are dull as dishwater. Very straightforward. Artists doing something rote for a nice sized check. But if you do hear of a case where the artist was allowed to be, y’know, artistic, you just let me know. This is the kind of stuff I really dig. And if you can’t think of anything then just sit back and enjoy this fake picture book adaptation of David Bowie’s Major Tom.
Blog tours. Generally speaking I don’t really do them. Nothing against them personally, they just don’t always speak to the tenor and distinctive tone of individual blogs. It takes a particularly keen one to get me out of my hidey-hole so that I’ll participate. It takes, in short, Aaron Zenz.
But first . . . BACKSTORY!!!!
It was at least 10 years ago. I was a young struggling blogger (“struggling” in this case meaning doing just fine with a nice steady job). A fellow by the name of Aaron Zenz contacted me not long after I’d started and asked if I’d take a gander at his book, The Hiccupotamus. It was coming out with a very small publisher, but there was something to it. It was nice looking. Nicer than the average fare, so I took a gamble and said I’d give it a gander. Not only was it nice, but it held together beautifully. It also seems to be one of the longest lived books I’ve ever encountered, traveling as it has from Dogs in Hats Children’s Publishing to Marshall Cavendish to Two Lions. If you look on Amazon you’ll see my May 16, 2006 review of the book there.
And I remembered that Zenz guy. How could I not? First off, his name was “Zenz”. That’s just cool. Second, he had this crazy cool blog he did with his kids called Bookie Woogie (not to be confused with the also amazing but different kid art site Chicken Nugget Lemon Tooty). For years I’d recommend it as what may be the most successful kids book review site written in large part by kids. He’d also come up with these crazy amazing blog posts . And in the interest of complete and utter honesty, they even reviewed Giant Dance Party and made fan art. Like so:
But wait. That’s not all. Because on top of his art, his blog with his kids, and his kids’ kinda of freakishly good art (seriously, they should Pinterest this stuff) they also are responsible for a slew of some of the best 90-Second Newbery videos you’ve ever seen in your life. I think if you keep watching this, the first four are by the Zenzes (Zenzi?).
None of this even touches on all the other stuff Aaron’s done over the years. Nor, you will note, have I even gotten to his books. As you can see, I save the best for last.
Starting with Hiccupotamus, I just kept on enjoying Aaron’s books for years. From his art for Five Little Puppies Jumping on the Bed to Chuckling Ducklings to Hug a Bull, the man makes good literature for the small fry. And now, the best one of all.
Now as I mentioned before, I don’t tend to do blog tours, and part of the reason why is because more than half the time I’m completely impartial (or worse) to the book that author is promoting. Monsters Go Night-Night is different. In one book you get the following:
- A good bedtime book.
- A story that is great for a range of ages (my 2-year-old and my 5-year-old get different things out of the book but both think it’s hilarious)
- Writing that is actually funny for adults too (it may have one of the greatest potty gags I’ve seen in a long time)
- Art that pops
- The ability to be read to a large group (hard for any book to do, let alone well)
The whole premise is based on setting up expectations and then knocking them to the floor in a way that’s completely appropriate for very young ages. Example:
Perfect for pajama storytimes everywhere.
But where did Aaron get the idea for this book? Well, if you’re still up for some video viewing today, this completely adorable video (could someone PLEASE publish a book of Aaron’s literary monsters since I want to see his Gurgi?) explains all:
So here’s where it gets crazy good. Did you see how Aaron turned his son’s art into monsters? Well, he’s been doing the same for other people as well. Aaron asked if my daughter (who is the five-year-old I mentioned earlier) would like to make a monster. He, in turn, would turn it into a piece of art. And the results? Behold:
This was my daughter’s . . . .
. . . and this was Aaron’s.
Side by side . . .
Absolutely love that.
Long story short, this book good. Get book. Read book.
Still don’t believe me? Then check out everyone else on this blog tour. Lotta heavy hitters there. Maybe if you don’t believe me you’ll believe them:
Mon Aug 15 : Watch. Connect. Read.
Tues Aug 16 : 100 Scope Notes
Wed Aug 17 : Nerdy Book Club
Thu Aug 18 : Sharpread
Fri Aug 19 : All the Wonders
Sat Aug 20 : Playing by the Book
Sun Aug 21 : Writing for Kids (While Raising Them)
Mon Aug 22 : A Fuse #8 Production
And if you’d like to see the children’s art his did for these other bloggers’ kids collected for you in one place, just go to the Blog Tour Hub right here.
Thanks to Aaron for looping me into this tour.
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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Kid Beowulf: The Blood-Bound Oath
By Alexis E. Fajardo
Color by Jose Mari Flores
Prologue Color by Brian Kolm
Amp Comics for Kids (an imprint of Andrews McMeel Publishing)
On shelves now.
This is a true story. I started college in 1996. Earlham College. Richmond, Indiana. Nice place. Little Quaker school (“Fight! Fight! Inner light! Kill, Quakers, Kill,” ← our sports chant). Little colleges have little cute traditions. Mine was keen on complicated pranks. One day I go down to the cafeteria for a bowl of Cheerios and lo and behold there, on the ceiling, is this epic mural of two cartoon characters touching fingers ala Michelangelo’s Adam and God in The Sistine Chapel. The characters in question were from a weekly comic in the school newspaper penned by one Alexis Fajardo. From that time onward I would Alexis Fajardo. And I followed his career. He kept up the comic strip (called “Plato’s Republic”) for a while and then started in on this Kid Beowulf graphic novel series. I didn’t get any chance to read them but they had a fun premise and the art really popped. Now, after all these many years, Amp Comics has picked up the series and given it a proper running start. In the grand tradition of Bone, Amulet, and countless other epic quest graphic novels, Fajardo gives us heroes to root for, villains to loathe, and complex characterizations around every turn. He’s come a long way from painting ceilings.
We start with the original epic poem of Beowulf. The original tale of man vs. monster is recounted but, the book assures us, “as men have told it – as I said, they twist the truth. Too blind to know the proper tale of a king’s run-rampant youth . . .” Now we are in the land of the Danes where a headstrong prince threatens a tenuous peace. Hrothgar cannot stand those Heathobards that he feels infringe on his homelands. When he encounters a dragon of great power he makes a deadly pact. Upon his return he begins a reign of destruction and ignorance, eventually fathering his own monstrous daughter. Named Gertrude, she is raised by the same dragon with whom Hrothgar made a pact. All this so that, in time, she will give birth to her own twins. One looks like her and is named Grendel. The other, a fully human boy, named Beowulf. And when they lose and find one another again, that’s when the story truly begins.
One thing I didn’t really expect when I picked the book up was to encounter Fajardo’s inclination to tell his tale in his own time. By all rights, all this book is really doing from the start is setting the stage for future tales to come. Yet though it’s named “Kid Beowulf”, the titular hero and his twin brother don’t even make an appearance until page 120, and even then they’re just babies. The reader’s patience is rewarded if that reader chooses to stick with the storyline, but it means that the best kids for this book won’t be the ones who like simplified narratives of action and adventure on every other panel. No, these books are going to be for those kids who like to sink deep into a world, dwell there for a time, scope out the situations, and understand the motivations. If you’ve a new graphic novel reader on your hands, I wouldn’t start them off with Kid Beowulf. This book is better suited for those kids out there with a little comic-reading experience under their belts.
In a lot of ways, the book series reminds me of the old Asterix and Obelix comics. It’s not an entirely fair comparison since the tone of the two comics is completely different. Yet both spend an inordinate amount of time in an ancient world. Fajardo himself acknowledges this with the creation of two characters that intentionally have many of Asterix & Obelix’s personality quirks. Still and all, the book was far more complicated than I expected. Kids love that stuff, by the way. They love it when an author has the guts to tell a story without feeling obligated to explain everything constantly. And Fajardo doesn’t water down the complexity. You’re either on board with the storytelling from the start or you’re not. The politics of the region is what the plot hinges on continually, so you need to read this with an open mind towards the Geats, Danes, Heathobards, and others. People also come and go, betray one another, and reappear after years and years. To keep track of it all there is a Character Glossary but unfortunately it’s located in the back of the book where it might easily go missed for some time. If you’re handing this book to a kid, I recommend that you point that little element out to them first thing. They’ll thank you for it later.
After sitting down and thinking long and hard about it, I came to the shocking realization that Fajardo likes three-dimensional characters. That shouldn’t be all that shocking, actually. Lots of authors do. But consider the format here. We’re dealing with an epic quest graphic novel series. I mentioned Bone and Amulet earlier and if there’s one thing those stories have in common it’s bad guys that sulk about without so much as a sympathetic hair on their heads. Kid Beowulf is different. There are plenty of guys (and gals, sorta) working for their own selfish interests, but that also are capable of learning and growing. Hrothgar is probably the most flawed fella in the book, but even he does a slow 180-degree turnaround over the decades. And sympathetic characters like Gertrude also have their greedy moments for which they’ll have to pay the price later. It’s so interesting that you could even get this kind of shading in a book based, as it is, on a good vs. bad epic poem like Beowulf. That’s the irony at work.
Considering the time period, the role of women in this book is worthy of examination. Fajardo has sort of a single style when it comes to human women (human girls don’t seem to exist) which is a heavy-lidded femme fatale look, regardless of their positions or names. The one exception to this rule is, of course, Gertrude, and in her monster form she gets to have all the freedom of any of the boys around her. She fights. She gets more than just a couple pages here and there. The book doesn’t even come close to passing the Bechdel Test, and Gertrude’s methods of finding a mate are disappointingly stereotypical, but for the most part she’s a strong female character worthy of examination. There is, however, room for improvement and I sincerely hope future installments will contain at least one other woman who does more than think only of the men in her life.
Sit down for five minutes in any public school in America today and don’t be surprised if you hear the words “Common Core State Standards” waft by at some point. These standards aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and with their focus on nonfiction and folktales, it just makes good clean sense for any author of a fictional work to find some kind of curricular tie-in. Fajardo does just that. In fact, he goes a little bit crazy with it. I could understand the World Map at the start and the finish as well as in color in the backmatter. And the second map, the one of Daneland circa 450 A.D., that was a nice touch. But about the time I noticed the glossary of terms, character glossary, and family tree, to say nothing of the section about the original epic poem itself, Fun Fact section, and Bibliography of recommended sources (which, for the record, is a beautiful collection) I was floored. Add in a large section on how Fajardo draws his characters, inks and colors them, and more and . . . well, you’d be forgiven for feeling that this more akin to a full college course on Beowulf and graphic novels than a single collected comic.
I haven’t mentioned the art itself, of course, which is poor form when reviewing a graphic novel. Fajardo employs two different styles in this book. The first part, during the retelling of the original Beowulf epic poem, is done in a more realistic, cinematic style. Even the colorist is different from the colorist in the rest of the book. Then the book becomes far cartoonier. Tiny too, considering how many panels Fajardo is able to pack into a single page. For some, the seriousness of the content (the fate of Yrs, for example) doesn’t match the style. For others, it will seem a natural complement. For my part I did find the cartoonishness a surprise, considering the actions of the characters, but as the story continued I got used to it. Kids, I suspect, will feel the same way.
There is a school of thought that says that if you let a kid read whatever they want, they’ll work their way around to the classics in time. I read a ton of really truly terrible Harvey comics as a kid. Later I would delve into works like Les Miserables and Middlemarch for fun. Is there a connection? Nobody knows! A lot of parents fear that their kids will gorge themselves on comics, making them wholly and entirely unable to digest literature without pictures. To them, I hand Kid Beowulf. I truly do believe that a comic done correctly, done with panache and interest and a unique style of its own, will garner fans that will seek out other material on the same topic. Not every kid who reads Fajardo’s book is going to take a crack at a little Old English on their own. They may, however, dive into some of those books Mr. Fajardo so helpfully included in his Bibliography. Or they might learn a bit about the poem’s origins. Or they might want to make their own comics about ancient texts. Whatever the case, you can look at this book either as a springboard for bigger better things, or just a good rip-roaring tale that can stand on its own two feet. Whatever your justification, Fajardo has the goods. That painting he made on the ceiling years ago seemed impossible. This series? Attainable. Now go attain it.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus
It’s a booklist kind of week.
Like many children of the 80s I’ve been just delighted by the Netflix 8-part horror fest Stranger Things. I may not get most of the Stephen King and John Carpenter references but the E.T., Aliens, and Akira stuff hits home hard. For work I decided to put up a Stranger Things recommended book display for adult type folks. When I looked online I could only find about two or three such lists already in existence. Odd. But of course, then I started thinking about children’s books. Creeeeeepy children’s books.
When I was a kid, lots of children saw Gremlins, Nightmare on Elm Street, and any number of other horror films. Kids today would get a huge kick out of Stranger Things if they managed to see it. So for those kids who like their books a little eerie, a little creepy, and chock full of monsters and evil scientists, here’s a Stranger Things reading list. Hold onto it for Halloween if you so choose. Just don’t read it if you don’t want things spoiled for you. I may give a couple things away.
Stranger Things Booklist
The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste
Seems appropriate to start with this one. There’s something creepy in the forests stealing the children. Enterprising kids have to outsmart an otherworldly being. Plants and nature play a big part in everything. And it has this nice off-putting vibe to it as well. It would make excellent children’s horror film, if it came to that.
The Inn Between by Marina Cohen
Have you read this one yet? It came out in March and was advertised as “The Shining meets Hotel California” which is one of the more enticing blurbs I’ve come across in a long time. I finished it recently and was quite taken with it. Like Stranger Things, family members disappear unexpectedly and other family members’ voices are heard without being seen. Add in the monster in the basement (monsters?) and you’ve got yourself a VERY misleadingly cutesy cover for what turns out to be a good frightening read. Think of it as Wait Till Helen Comes for the 21st century.
Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi
Grab this one if the thing you liked about Stranger Things was the group of boys uncovering an insidious plot created by evil (local) scientists. Granted, there are more zombie cows in this book than there were in Stranger Things, but there are also good jump-out-of-your-seat scare moments too.
The Flinkwater Factor by Pete Hautman
Of course, when I remembered the evil scientists in Bacigalupi’s books, that naturally led to a reminder about the evil scientists in Hautman’s. And as an extra added bonus, Hautman’s book has someone of superior abilities escaping from the scientists’ lab. In this case it’s a dog, not a girl, but it probably says a lot more words in one page than El does in the whole series.
The Nest by Kenneth Oppel
The monster of this piece is a bit more talkative (not to mention seductive) than the monster of Stranger Things. But we’ve got creepy messages through telephones, blurred lines between fantasy and reality, and that horrific moment when you open a door in your house and discover a horror show waiting just for you.
Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar
Again with the crazy local scientists. This one’s effective at making you want to wash your hands repeatedly as you read it. It also reminds me of that moment when Eleven finds out what happened to Barb. The fuzzy mud here would be right at home in that setting.
The Cabinet of Curiosities by Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand, Emma Trevayne
Your kids may never sleep again. Lots of similarities in these stories with some of the Stranger Things tales. People getting sucked into plants. People getting trapped in other dimensions. And worse.
The Time of the Fireflies by Kimberly Griffiths Little
What is it with books about girls always getting cutesy covers, even when the content is on the darker side? Since this is more of a time travel book, it doesn’t have that many similarities to Stranger Things . . . except at the beginning with the disconnected phones that ring and the creepy messages spoken on the other end. *shiver*
Dreamwood by Heather Mackey
I was trying to find a bad guy equivalent to the tentacled plantlike THING that haunts Stranger Things. Not the monster, but the more insidious system the monster feeds. I considered The Lie Tree, but that doesn’t quite do it. That’s when I remembered Dreamwood and its hellish forest landscape. Oh yeah. Try getting to sleep after reading some of these passages. It’ll definitely curb your desire to hug a tree.
Wake Up Missing by Kate Messner
None of the scientists in these other books really did it for me in terms of the coy friendliness of “Papa”. That is, until I met the scientists in Messner’s book. It’s all happy happy joy joy until you start to dig a little deeper and see what’s really going on. Nature plays a big part in this one too.
The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill
I really enjoyed this one when it came out. Very mysterious. Very eerie. You have a house that isn’t all that it seems, something trying to escape, creepy plants (always with the creepy plants), and a big bad villain. Oh. And children go missing. That’s important.
The Lost Boy by Greg Ruth
A boy goes missing in a small town. Plants are out of control in the woods. Your greatest enemy might be yourself (or is that more of a Season Two plotline for Stranger Things, do you think?). Kids have to face down terrifying monsters to uncover the truth. Oh yeah. This graphic novel is right at home on this list.
What would you add? Extra bonus points if the book you recommend was published between 1980-89.
This summer I was walking about the Printer’s Row Book Festival in lovely Chicago, IL, passing a group of about twelve 16-year-old girls. All of whom were singing “Satisfied” from the musical Hamilton. It reminded me of similar past experiences walking by large groups of 8-year-olds singing Frozen two years ago. Now Hamilton is slated to open in Chicago in November and I’ve been putting together various booklists for my adult library patrons. And that’s when it hit me. I know 6-year-olds who have Hamilton memorized. I know 10-year-olds who can explain what the Federalist Papers are in minute detail. So why not make a booklist for the #Hamilkids as well?
But surely it had been done before and done well. To the internets! I did a quick search of anyone who might have put together a Hamilton booklist for kids before and lo and behold the site The Card Catalog did exactly that back in October of 2015. Their post Books for Kids Who Love Hamilton is good, but it occurred to me that since there are only four books there, it could be expanded a tad.
Today then, let’s look at some great books. How many books, you ask? A Hamil-TON!
I’m sorry . . . I don’t know what came over me.
To the list!
Alexander Hamilton (Picture Books)
Aaron and Alexander: The Most Famous Duel in American History by Don Brown
I wonder at the timing of this one. This book published in October of 2015, just as Hamilton: The Musical started to peak in popularity. Did Brown get the idea for the book prior to the musical’s creation? Was he already working on it and, when it became clear that this was A Very Big Deal did his publisher (Roaring Brook) encourage him to put all other projects on the backburner and get this one done faster? No idea. What I do know is that it’s one of the finer depictions of the duel and the events leading up to it in picture book form.
Colonial Voices: Hear Them Speak by Kay Winters, ill. Larry Day
While this book doesn’t speak about Hamilton directly to the best of my knowledge, if you’re looking for rhyming Colonial fare, you’ve come to the right place. It takes place on the day of the Boston Tea Party and is told through a variety of voices and professions in the city. It’s also one of those rare books to acknowledge and give voice to slaves in Boston at that time.
Duel! Burr and Hamilton’s Deadly War of Words by Dennis Brindell Fradin, illustrated by Larry Day
Out-of-print (Walker Books, you’ve got a gold mine here!) so better mosey on over to your nearest public library if you want to read it. A lot of hometown pride with this title, since both Fradin and Day were in the Evanston, IL area when this was written. Larry Day, by the way, is also the fellow who illustrated that Kay Winters book I mentioned earlier, so clearly he taps into Colonial America books better than most.
The Founding Fathers!: Those Horse-Ridin’, Fiddle-Playin’, Book-Readin’, Gun-Totin’ Gentlemen Who Started America by Jonah Winter, ill. Barry Blitt
Truthfully I couldn’t remember whether or not Hamilton was in this book, so I had to look it up. Turns out, he is! Like all the other guys here, he gets his own page with his “statistics” and notable qualities, baseball card style. My favorite quote? Alexander Hamilton’s “Stance on France: Not a fan.”
Alexander Hamilton (Older Readers)
Answering the Cry for Freedom: Stories of African Americans and the American Revolution by Gretchen Woelfle, ill. R. Gregory Christie
So long, Johnny Tremain. You had a good run, but the days of depicting Colonial America and the American Revolution as affecting only white colonists are long gone. Hamilton mentions slavery repeatedly and this book (which is out in October) goes further to follow thirteen black men and women alive during the war.
Alexander Hamilton: The Outsider by Jean Fritz
Back in the day (by which I mean the 80s and early 90s) if you wanted a picture book about a Founding Father, Fritz was your best bet. She was one-stop shopping in that respect. Still, she never did a book on Hamilton during that time. Then, in 2011 (which makes one suspect that she might be a bit on the clairvoyant side of things) she wrote this book for kids 10 and up. As extensive biographies for kids go, it’s almost the only game in town.
The Duel: The Parallel Lives of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr by Judith St. George
This one came out in 2009 and was written with a YA audience in mind. In this book you’ll see the similarities between Burr and Hamilton, over and over again. I was particularly interested in the part of the Kirkus review that said, “The author’s ability to lucidly explain the political intricacies of the time is impressive, revealing to readers that politics were as ugly, if not uglier, in the nation’s earliest days as they are now.” Oh, sweet Kirkus. Clearly you failed to fortell 2016.
Which is not to say there aren’t lots more books out there that would fit this topic. Be sure to also check out the similar young Hamil-fan blog posts Hamilton and the Children’s Library from ALSC (which contains more books about Hamilton’s close contemporaries like Washington) and Six Picture Books for #Hamilkids from NYPL (which has the additional bonus of books about hip-hop for young people). Also take a gander at the SLJ article Teaching with “Hamilton”, with a particular eye to the resources at the end.
And there are more books on the horizon! In a recent press release from Random House we learned the following:
“Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, has announced plans to publish a picture book biography on the wife of Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton. Margaret McNamara will serve as the writer for Eliza: The Story of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton.
Phillipa Soo, the actress who played Eliza Hamilton in the Broadway production of Hamilton: An American Musical, has agreed to write a foreword for this project. The release date has been set for Fall 2017. (Playbill)”
If you happen to be in NYC between now and December 31st, please be sure to stop by the main location of New York Public Library. They’ve an exhibit up right now called Alexander Hamilton: Striver, Statesman, Scoundrel. Lots of goodies are on display, including Alexander Hamilton’s Draft of President George Washington’s Farewell Address, August 10, 1796. Sounds fun!
By the way, those of you curious about the little felted Lin-Manuel Miranda at the beginning of this post, it’s by Jack and Holman Wang. You can get more info about it at the Chronicle Books post here.
And in conclusion, be so good as to check out Minh Lê’s tribute to Hamilton in Elephant & Piggie style.
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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A little nepotism to go with your coffee this morning? Don’t mind if I do! As you may know, my husband Matt Bird has a book coming out this spring that is a culmination of his blog’s breakdown of what makes a good story. Called The Secrets of Story: Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers (Writers’ Digest, 2017), Matt takes his Ultimate Story Checklist and makes it easy, accessible, and invaluable. I’ve mentioned all this before. What’s new is that he’s now doing something that I’m personally incapable of. Folks sometimes ask me if I ever do manuscript consultations. I don’t, but there’s a good reason for that: I’m lousy at them. Maybe not lousy, but I’m no editor and that’s the truth. Matt, however, is fantastic at them. Now he’s offering his services to folks who are interested. Children’s books, YA, scripts, adult novels, you name it. Dude’s got mad skills. And I say that as someone who can’t do the same.
All right. ‘Nuff of that. Let’s instead remember that the new school year is nearly upon us. My daughter is about to step out the door and start Kindergarten for the very first time. As such, I’ve been watching the new Kindergarten books of 2016 with a closer eye than usual. And as luck would have it, the Chicago Tribune came ah-calling recently. Check out my favorites of the season in their piece Bumper crop of first-day-of-school books.
AND THE WINNER of the 2016 Society of Illustrators Gold Medal for Original Art goes to . . . . b.b. cronin for his book The Lost House (Penguin Random House/ Viking Children’s Books). Hm? What’s that? You haven’t read it yet? Well let me confess something to you . . . neither had I! I’ve seen it in my To Be Read pile, but as God is my witness I thought it was a reprint of an older title. Now it looks like I’m going to have to move it up in the ranks. Whoops! See the winners in full right here.
Folks ask me, what do you miss the most about New York? It’s been a year since I left The Big Apple, my home of approximately 13 years. I miss a lot of things. My friends. That sense of satisfaction you get around 6 p.m. on a workday, just sitting in Bryant Park with a good book and an iced chai latte. And, of course, the exhibits in town. I just heard about the Pratt Manhattan Gallery’s The Picture Book Re-Imagined: The Children’s Book Legacy of Pratt Institute and the Bank Street College of Education. There’s even some ACM (Anne Carroll Moore) on show! Check out this explanation of the exhibit with photographs galore. Envious. So envious.
Childhood Mystery Solved: I’m pretty sure I’ve zeroed in on the location of Hitler. How’s that again? Well, here’s the thing. When I was a kid I was read a fair number of books. Some stuck in my cranium. Others didn’t. One that did was a book that I recall because it was a collection of poems and nursery rhymes. In one spread it showed the devil and some of his compatriots. Amongst them was a bird with the head of Adolf Hitler. I am not making this up. My mother would sometimes show it to me and explain who it was and why Hitler was bad (or at least that’s my memory). Years later I tracked down what I thought was the book (A Great Big Ugly Man Came Up and Tied His Horse to Me by Wally Tripp) only to find that while it did have a devil in it, there was no Hitler. It was a pretty weird thing to make up, though, so I never lost hope. Then, just the other day, I saw this:
Okay. It isn’t Hitler. But I remember this image perfectly (turns out gigantic Napoleons also have a way of sticking in your brain). I am now convinced that I have relocated the book with that weird Hitler bird. Maybe. In the meantime, I’m beginning to believe that Wally Tripp is one of the great forgotten gems of the American children’s literary world. He did win a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, after all. That ain’t small potatoes. Read more about him here.
New Magazine Alert: And I owe Julie Danielson the credit for locating this one. Called Illustoria, a new periodical is said to be, “a magazine for children that embraces the same values as the current slow-food and maker-culture trends of today, ‘a return to craftsmanship, an appreciation of quality, a celebration of curiosity, creativity, and also the people behind the scenes’.” This sounds interesting in and of itself, but it also sounds familiar on some level. I’m reminded of the Arts & Craft movement that occurred in America and Europe between 1880 and 1910 as a direct response to the industrial revolution. We seem to be experiencing something similar in the face of the digital revolution. Food for thought. In any case, learn more about Illustoria here.
I like Booklist. Honest I do. But how long are they going to make us pay to read their articles online? For example, in a recent edition I was very taken with Daniel Kraus’s funny, smart, and highly informative consideration of the Choose Your Own Adventure phenomenon. In fact, I’ve never read such an interesting breakdown of the series, its popularity when I was a kid, and its fate. Here’s the link to the article, but I hope you have a Booklist subscription ’cause that’s the only way you’ll be able to read it.
Tiny desk contest! Not here, of course. There. Where Marc Tyler Nobleman hangs out. Seems he’s having a Guess the Kidlit Desk Contest. The rules are simple. You guess which author has which desk (and there are 18 in each subcontest). Get ’em right, win a prize. If nothing else, it’s a fascinating glimpse into the desk of the creative mind. Most are far too clean and tidy, though. I think I like this one the best:
Snapchat. It is a thing. I do not know much (read: anything) about. What I do know, though, is that Travis Jonker just used it for the best. thing. ever. Doubt me if you dare.
This just in, in the press release files from the Children’s Book Council:
We are thrilled to announce that acclaimed illustrator Christian Robinson has agreed to design the 2017 Children’s Book Week poster commemorating the 98th annual Children’s Book Week, to take place on May 1-7, 2017. Robinson is the artist behind such beloved picture books as Gaston by Kelly DiPucchio and Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, for which he received a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor and a Caldecott Honor.
The representative from Illinois would like to raise an objection. Behold, a brilliant book:
In this book, kids are encouraged to make their own dollhouses out of cardboard boxes. There are even instructions placed under the dustjacket for that very purpose. As the mother of a girl who is basically a human Maker Station, I recognized instantly the fact that this would be her kind of book. I brought it home and I don’t think 20 minutes went by before she started construction on her own dollhouse. After it was finished (after a fashion) I went online to find out if the publisher or author had a site where kids cold post pictures of their personalized dollhouses. All I found was this promotional video. It’s cute, but why is the mom doing so much of the work? In any case, I would like to propose to either Giselle Potter or Schwartz & Wade that they create such a site. In lieu of that, here’s my 5-year-old’s newest dollhouse.
And, might I note, crumpled up toilet paper really does look like popcorn. Who knew?
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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, Archie comics
, Astrid Lindgren
, book to screen
, children's literature in translation
, Elephant & Piggie
, Little Golden Books
, Minh Le
, Steph Laberis
, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe
, Ursula Vernon
, Add a tag
Here’s the thing about Minh Lê. He doesn’t blog terribly often, but when it does it just sort of explodes like an atom bomb on the scene. His Hamilton starring Elephant and Piggie . . . sheer brilliance. I’m just mad I didn’t think of it myself (not that I could ever have paired the text and art as well as he has). The best thing you’ll read today.
Translation? An art. I once heard that the reason the French are as crazy as they are about Edgar Allan Poe is that his translator (Stéphane Mallarmé?) improved upon the original English. Monica Edinger thinks about translation in the context of Struwwelpeter (love that stuff) and links to a Guardian article you’d do well to notice.
Yesterday my family and I returned from our annual trip to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, ON. While there, my five-year-old saw her very first play; a killer production of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe done with puppetry akin to War Horse. I guess I’ve had C.S. Lewis on the brain anyway, though, since I saw these adorable dioramas of famous scenes in books. Here’s the Wardrobe one:
When phys.org wrote a piece about book deserts (places where children lack access to books) there was a lot to pick apart. Looking through it, I found fascinating the part that said, “While online book sales have grown in recent years, three out of four children’s books are still bought in brick and mortar stores,” as well as, “dollar stores were the most common place to buy children’s books.” Dollar stores. I know that bookstores, aside from being difficult to find in low-income areas, contain books too pricey for most people to afford (see a recent comparison between British and American chain bookstores here), but it never occurred to me that dollar stores would be the obvious next step. If I were a forward thinking self-published author, that’s where I’d concentrate on getting my books. If the money evened out, of course. And speaking of books that are affordable for all people . . .
Good morning, class! I trust you are well rested this morning. Now, when we last met we were reading Leonard Marcus’s Golden Legacy: The Story of Golden Books. Your homework today is to consider the newest Little Golden Book on the market The Little Grumpy Cat That Wouldn’t. Place within the context of the Golden Books’ past how converting a YouTube sensation into a Golden Book both supports and/or undermines their historical legacy. Extra credit if you’ve worked into your report the work of illustrator Steph Laberis and the history of animators contributing to the Golden Books of previous decades. Papers are due in one week. No extensions.
We can’t seem to get her to interview the Newbery and Caldecott winners, but I think Ellen is getting some definite points for personally moving forward with a screen adaptation of Ursula Vernon’s truly delightful Castle Hangnail. Those of you looking for charming younger middle grade fantasy, this book is a delight. You have been warned. Thanks to PW Children’s Bookshelf.
Best title and photo ever:
Riverdale Turns Archie Comics Into a Teenage Noir Soap Opera, and It’s Way Too Much Fun
I don’t care if it isn’t any good. This alone gives balm to my soul.
Travis over at 100 Scope Notes has continued his thought process on the role of critical reviews on blogs. He asks if it is the nature of reviewing to want to think a book is better or worse than it actually is because both of these reactions fall within the “zone of enthusiasm” (be it positive or critical enthusiasm). I’m chewing on this one for a while. You can too.
I lived in Morningside Heights in NYC for about five years and Harlem for six. While there, I was always a bit shocked that there wasn’t a major museum there dedicated to the art and history of Harlem (the Schomburg Library and The Studio Museum in Harlem do what they can but we need something much bigger). This isn’t that, but it’s on the right track. Ms. Renée Watson (not to be confused with Rachel Renee Watson) has started an Indiegogo campaign to lease and renovate the brownstone where Langston Hughes lived and create an arts community there. It’s not specifically about children’s literature, but this is a worthy cause.
If I have learned anything in this life it is that every fake sounding profession out there is actually real. Take opera singing. When my friend since 7th grade, Meredith Arwady, decided to be an opera singer I had no idea that this was a legitimate profession. Now she’s stabbing Placido Domingo in her spare time. She’s also hugely generous. Check out her most recent present to me, purchased in Stockholm. It is a t-shirt, procured at a photography museum, of none other than Astrid Lindgren.
When I get my new author photo, I want it to look like THAT. Thanks, Mimi!
Thusly is the deal. Since taking a job in Evanston, I’m not the big time reader I used to be. I just don’t devour the books as quickly as I once did, nor do I have access to a committee that would discuss a wide range of children’s literature. As such, I’ve decided that the only area where I can reasonably concentrate my efforts is on picture books. So every day at lunchtime I dutifully grab 5-7 picture books and read through them. Even at this rate, this is my To Be Read shelf:
Yet I’ve been lucky enough to see books that are so good that I just want to share them with you today. After all, not sharing their titles feels like hoarding to me. Here then are ALL the 2016 picture books that I think are truly extraordinary. Don’t see something you love? Just assume it’s in that To Be Read pile somewhere.
This list does not include reprints, board books, folktales, nonfiction, or easy books at this time.
Oh. And remember when I said I don’t envy this year’s Caldecott committee because we have WAY too many strong books? Here’s a taste of what I mean (though obviously these aren’t all eligible):
Some of the Best Picture Books of 2016 (Thus Far)
ABC: The Alphabet From the Sky by Benedikt Grob & Joey Lee
Yep. It’s an alphabet book based entirely on aerial photography. Crazy thing is, it works. And it’s exceedingly clever. Best of all, if you nitpick any of the chosen letters, they have alternatives in the back of the book. Oddly mesmerizing too.
The Airport Book by Lisa Brown
I already reviewed this one so no surprises here. Just nice to see the rest of the country catching up with my wuv.
Animals by Ingela P. Arrhenius
It’s French, can’t you tell? It’s also gigantic. Coming in at a whopping 13.4 x 18.1 inches it’ll be a nightmare for libraries and a boon to preschools and daycares everywhere. It’s also privy to exceedingly clever typography. When you get it, check out how the animals and their descriptive words match one another.
Armstrong by Torben Kuhlmann
For those of us enamored of Lindbergh, Kuhlmann’s follow-up couldn’t come fast enough. If you run any Calde-not contests this year, better include this one.
The Artist and Me by Shane Peacock, ill. Sophie Casson
It’s a Van Gogh book! It’s a bullying book! Well now you can have both. I don’t usually go for this kind of thing, but Peacock handles the subject of casual childhood cruelty with aplomb.
An Artist’s Alphabet by Norman Messenger
Again with the alphabet books. Still, you’ll almost never find one like this. Not only does it have animals, fruits, insects, and other natural phenomena in the shapes of the capital letters, but the lower-case as well. Plus it’s purdy.
The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield
This one has a slow burn. You read it once and it’s good. Then you think about it for a long time and come back to it again and again and again. It’s about leaving home, seeing the world, and taking what you’ve learned back to the people who supported you in the beginning.
Before Morning by Joyce Sidman, ill. Beth Krommes
There’s a whiff of Caldecott around this one. It’s a very simple story of a girl who wishes her pilot mom could just stay home this once. Better not look at the cover. It’s a spoiler alert of what happens next.
Best Frints in the Whole Universe by Antoinette Portis
Because everybody could use more frints. That and the fact that it’s Portis and she really lets go and has fun with this one.
Best in Snow by April Pulley Sayre
Nope. We still don’t know what to do with Sayre’s photo picture books. Nonfiction or fiction? Poetry or picture books? The choices are infinite. The books are exquisite.
Big Bob, Little Bob by James Howe, ill. Laura Ellen Anderson
Further proof that you can write a book about rejecting gender stereotypes in a smart, new way. This is William’s Doll for a new generation. Little wonder it came from James Howe. Plus I love that it’s the girl in the book that does the reinforcing of stereotypes. In my experience that is often the case.
A Bike Like Sergio’s by Maribeth Boelts, ill. Noah Z. Jones
It used to be that picture books would confront the notion of economic disparity regularly. Not so these days though there are always exceptions to the rule. Boelts already won my love with her Happy Like Soccer. This continues the thread.
Billions of Bricks: A Counting Book About Building by Kurt Cyrus
Every. Single. Brick. Cyrus can account for every single one. It rhymes. It builds. It’s alluring to the construction obsessed and the not-so-construction obsessed. Two thumbs way way up over here.
Can I Eat That? by Joshua David Stein, ill. Julia Rothman
I probably shouldn’t confess this but I always look at Phaidon books with a bit of skepticism. When I get one I have to ask myself, “Is is artsy for grown-ups or fun for kids?” The answer to this book was, “Yes.” Everyone can find something to love here. It upsets expectations wildly. However, a friend rightly pointed out that it is DEFINITELY a book for a certain economic strata. FYI.
Can One Balloon Make an Elephant Fly? by Dan Richards, ill. Jeff Newman
I gave this book to my child’s preschool teacher and the woman went crazy for it. She just thinks it’s the cleverest thing this side of the sun. She isn’t wrong. Plus you get the extra added bonus of seeing more Jeff Newman art. I love that guy.
Christmas for Greta and Gracie by Yasmeen Ismail
If you know me then you know I’m not going to put a holiday book on this list unless it is truly extraordinary. Ismail, who has consistently done amazing work, really goes above and beyond with this one. Younger siblings everywhere will adore it.
City Shapes by Diana Murray, ill. Bryan Collier
I come to Collier with an open mind most of the time. I like his art but I don’t like it every time. Fortunately he’s in top notch form here. Nothing like a good old-fashioned concept book.
Come Home, Angus by Patrick Downes, ill. Boris Kulikov
Another one where I read it the first time and merely liked it. Came back to it later and was struck by the intelligence of the writing and, of course, Kulikov’s fabulous art.
Coyote Moon by Maria Gianferrari, ill. Bagram Ibatoulline
Yep. Reviewed it already. So glad that I did. Talk about a timely subject. Them coyotes is everywhere!
Creation by Cynthia Rylant
Not usually my kind of thing. I might normally eschew this kind of book as too artsy for my tastes. Yet reading it just now I was struck by the beauty of the thick thick paints. Pair it with Miracle Man for kicks.
Cricket Song by Anne Hunter
Despite the fact that it has a cute fox on the cover this is more of a look at time passing and distance than anything else. A truly lovely bedtime book.
Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved, ill. By Charlotte Pardi
Alternate Title: Every single country in the world talks about death in picture books better than America. Well, it’s true. And this may be the most sensitive of them this year. An import worth importing.
Don’t Call Me Grandma by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, ill. Elizabeth Zunon
Shoot. I still adore this. I reviewed it here and I’d re-review it all over again if it meant getting you to notice it. Raise a questionable glass to spiky relatives everywhere!
Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis
Sometimes I wonder if I just like some books because I didn’t like others. I feel really quite guilty that I haven’t reviewed this one yet. Its made up language is so simple and so fun to read. The plot, such as it is, is easy to follow. I just adore it (though I do wonder if that stickbug died midway through the tale).
Dylan the Villain by K.G. Campbell
A great book, sure enough, but I’m giving it extra points for suggesting that super-villainy is genetic. Plus the antagonist is a girl with a purple eye-patch. Extra points for that one.
Elliot by Julie Pearson, ill. Manon Gauthier
Not everyone is going to agree with me on this one, and I accept that. Still, I feel that used in the right context, this book does something that no other book does. Confused? Read my review and all will be clear. Just don’t pick it up expected a cute fuzzy bunny story.
Every Color by Erin Eitter Kono
A polar bear searching for color? Haven’t we seen that plot before? Sorta. The difference is simply that this book does it better.
Excellent Ed by Stacy McAnulty, ill. Julia Sarcone‐Roach
They’ll sell this book to you based entirely on its casual diversity. That is a factor, but the storyline and writing and art are the additional standouts that give it a leg up.
Faraway Fox by Jolene Thompson, ill. Justin K. Thompson
As Travis pointed out earlier, 2016 is the year of the fox. Much of what I like about this title, aside from the art which is stellar, is the fact that it’s a book with a purpose above and beyond telling a good story. Fox family reunification makes for a good story too, though.
From Wolf to Woof!: The Story of Dogs by Hudson Talbott
Sometimes these books straddle the picture book and nonfiction line. But with its story of a boy bonding with a wolf (that shot of his hand on its head is worth the price of admission alone) I’d say it counts. Man does a good dog, too.
Have You Seen Elephant? by David Barrow
I love that kid’s expression. Like he really and truly has no clue where the pachyderm is looming.
Hill & Hole Are Best Friends by Kyle Mewburn, ill. Vasanti Unka
There’s an odd little melancholy to this book about being satisfied with your lot. The ending hints at what the future may hold without insisting upon it. It’s a book and a metaphor all at once.
How to Track a Truck by Jason Carter Eaton, ill. John Rocco
The book I didn’t even know I was waiting for until it arrived. Lots to love here. If you enjoyed How to Train a Train, then you won’t be disappointed. Rocco is in his element.
A Hungry Lion by Lucy Ruth Cummins
A show of hands. How many of you just assumed that this was a British import? Yep. Well, it isn’t. It does, however, have a lovely twist ending.
Ideas Are All Around by Philip Stead
Another one of those books that may or may not be for kids. In the end, the title of this book is about “Picture Books” and there is always the odd child that will become enamored of the title. It is pretty gorgeous.
It’s Not Easy Being Number Three by Drew Dernavich
Someone earlier this year asked me to list all the extraordinary math or number picture books out in 2016. The count was pitifully small. Fortunately, Dernavich is here to save the day. Trucker hat and all (seriously, that 3 is wearing a GREAT hat.
King Baby by Kate Beaton
Just for fun, do a Google image search of this title and author. Now read all the comics she’s put up there. More than just a larf for new parents.
Leave Me Alone! by Vera Brosgol
This may be my favorite picture book of the year. Dunno. I need to think about it for a while. A review of it should be posted on this site this week, at the very least.
Let Me Finish by Minh Le, ill. Isabel Roxas
Isn’t it nice when a friend of yours writes a book and it’s not only good, it’s one of the best of the year. Not too shabby there, Minh.
Lion Lessons by Jon Agee
One of these days Agee’s gonna lose his ability to write such good books. Any minute now . . . any minute . . .
Little Red and the Very Hungry Lion by Alex T. Smith
Excellent storytelling, great art, and if you’ve ever wondered to yourself what a lion’s mane would look like in cornrows, I think I know where you can go to find an answer. I hesitate to use the word “spunky” on this girl, so I’ll just call her “intrepid” and “intelligent” instead.
Lost and Found: Adele & Simon in China by Barbara McClintock
A book for VERY young eyes. I’m beginning to wonder if Ms. McClintock paints with the aid of electronic microscopes. Someday she’s going to paint a book on the head of a single grain of rice. I would read that rice.
Maya by Mahak Jain, ill. Elly MacKay
Empowering. Beautiful. Dreamlike. And I got to have a long conversation with my daughter about banyan trees, thanks to the storyline.
Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood by F. Isabel Campoy & Theresa Howell, ill. Rafael Lopez
His art just makes me happy every time I see it. I’ll never get a tattoo, but if I absolutely had to have one, it might have to be of one of his images. A premiere of the book trailer here, if you’re interested.
Monday Is Wash Day by MaryAnn Sundby, ill. Tessa Blackham
Artistry, when done well and for the right reasons, yields classics. And look at th0se cut paper clothes. A steady hand needed there.
My Favorite Pets by Gus W. for Ms. Smolinski’s Class by Jeanne Birdsall, ill. Harry Bliss
Birdsall! Bliss! Hungry sheep! The story doesn’t exactly write itself, but when the final form is made clear it makes perfect sense.
My Friend Maggie by Hannah E. Harrison
I was tepid on Harrison’s first picture book, enticed by her second, and enthralled by this, her third. The cruel cuts of elementary school are keenly felt here. And the expressions on the animals’ faces? Classic.
Next to You: A Book of Adorableness by Lori Haskins Houran, ill. Sydney Hanson
Aw, yeah. I am so keeping this one the list. Read the review here to know why.
Nobody Like a Goblin by Ben Hatke
And with this book I interviewed Ben and he showed off the alternate cover. I think, after looking at it, you’ll understand why they went with this one.
Old MacDonald Had a Truck by Steve Goetz, ill. Eda Kaban
I have read this book roughly 500 million times to my 2-year-old son. I still like this book even after all of that. That tells me it must be pretty good. There’s always something new to see.
One Day in the Eucalyptus Eucalyptus Tree by Daniel Bernstrom, ill. by Brendan Wenzel
Such a brilliant readaloud! I know there’s another Wenzel book out there that I’m supposed to like more, but you never forget your first. And for me, this was the first Wenzel story I ever really loved. There will be others.
Pond by Jim LaMarche
There are at least two picture books out this year about damming up streams to make ponds. I like this one a lot. Kids really do like to hear about process sometimes. It would actually pair well with Ellen Obed’s Twelve Kinds of Ice.
Poor Little Guy by Elanna Allen
I’m an adult and the surprise ending on this book caught me unawares. Plus I love a good animator-turned-illustrator. This hits all the right picture book beats. Warning: May make you hungry for sushi.
A Promise Is a Promise by Knister, ill. Eve Tharlet
Another import about death. This one has a rather hopeful bent to it, though. It’s not the kind of art I usually like, but the storytelling overcame that personal prejudice.
Rabbit Magic by Meg McLaren
How long McLaren took to get those background bunnies right, I do not know. Once I get the hardcover I’ll be able to sit down and determine if every single bunny in this book has a different personality. I have a theory that this is the case . . .
Real Cowboys by Kate Hoefler, ill. Jonathan Bean
I just got this in yesterday. Shoot. I think it’s also a Caldecott contender. Bean’s usually a sure shot in that area, but it’s Hoefler’s text that raises the book out of the morass of other picture books. I never thought I could like a contemporary cowboy book so much.
Samson in the Snow by Philip C. Stead
I know, I know. If I include both of the Philip C. Stead books out this year, one of the two should have to go. But not this one! It’s so cute and friendly, with that hint of melancholy Mr. Stead always takes care to include, no matter how happy the tale.
School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex, ill. Christian Robinson
How many starred reviews has it gotten? Six? Seven? Then I think we can all agree that it’s probably the best going-to-school book on the market today. Pair it with Mom, It’s My First Day of Kindergarten for a truly inspired pairing.
The Shady Tree by Demi
Aw. This is Demi at her best. An original folktale with a cute and clever bent. Great tone as well.
Shy by Deborah Freedman
In my experience even the not-so-shy kids get a kick out of this one. Plus they’ll love going back through the book to spot Shy on the previous pages.
Skypig by Jan L. Coates, ill. Suzanne Del Rizzo
Crazycool art going on here. I think it’s all clay, but it’s hard to tell. Whatever the medium is, it fits the storyline perfectly. I always have so much fun reading the book that I forget to look up how it’s made.
Sleep Tight Farm: A Farm Prepares for Winter by Eugenie Doyle, ill. Becca Stadtlander
An Ox-Cart Man for the 21st century!
The Storm by Akiko Miyakoshi
You can practically taste the disappointment when that storm rolls in. It didn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor The Tea Party in the Woods, but it’s still a studied, smart take on a common childhood experience.
The Storyteller by Evan Turk
What else could I even possibly tell you about this? Maybe it’ll finally be Turk’s year. He’s talented enough. My review of the book can be found here.
Super Happy Magic Forest by Matty Long
You may notice that this isn’t too dissimilar to Nobody Likes a Goblin. So I clearly have a penchant for picture books that upset fantasy expectations. Both books also look at the nature of quests.
A Toucan Can, Can You? by Danny Adlerman, ill. Various
Love it! Reviewed it recently here. The sheer array of artists makes this one a keeper. Plus it’s catchy. There is much to be said for catchy.
That’s Not a Hippopotamus! by Juliette Maclver, ill. Sarah Davis
Also a big hit in my child’s daycare. It has all the frantic energy of something like Catch That Cookie, but it also speaks to those quiet kids in a class. Good-natured, funny, and a fabulous readaloud to groups of kids.
They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel
Yeah. I stand by everything I’ve said about this book already. One of the best of the year. Bar none.
This Is My Dollhouse by Giselle Potter
At some point here I’ll show you my daughter’s dollhouse. One that was inspired by this book. She’s been working on it every night after daycare. Giselle Potter, you are a genius and I thank you.
The Three Lucys by Hayan Charara, ill. Sara Kahn
Tougher subject matter than your average picture book (and it could comfortably slot in the war and bereavement categories) there’s depth and carefully weighted words at work here.
Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie, ill. Yuyi Morales
I had to have folks explain to me the brilliance of the art. Once I saw it, I could never unsee it. I have heard and understand the concerns, and even agree with them. Nevertheless, this is one of the strongest books of the year. No question.
The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles by Michelle Cuevas, ill. Erin E. Stead
Not that Philip E. Stead ever cornered the market on sweet melancholy. His wife has her own brand at hand.
The Water Princess by Susan Verde, ill. Peter H. Reynolds
Exceedingly beautiful and useful. Give it to any girl looking for princess fare. It’s not what they think they want, but few will turn it away. Plus it was hugely useful in telling my kid about how lucky we are to have water.
We Found a Hat by Jon Klassen
The sweetness of this book caught me off-guard. I’m adding the image of a turtle wearing an oversized hat to my list of Possible Tattoos I’ll Never Get, But Would At Least Consider.
A Well‐Mannered Young Wolf by Jean Leroy, ill. Matthieu Maudet
The ending caught me by surprise. In the best way possible. Definitely NOT American (thank goodness).
Where’s the Elephant? by Barroux
I love how this book sets up the expectation that it’s just another seek and find story and then slowly reveals that it has a bigger point to convey.
Who Broke the Teapot? by Bill Slavin
I was recently in Stratford, Ontario and this book was in a bookstore window. Little wonder. The art is clever and the solution to the mystery (because this really is a mystery in a picture book) is great. And funny, come to think of it.
Who Wants a Tortoise? by Dave Keane, ill. K.G. Campbell
Hmm. Two Campbell books as well. The man is a master of illustrated a distressed tortoise. Plus it’s kept me from calling turtles tortoises in the recent past.
Wild Eggs: A Tale of Arctic Egg Collecting by Suzie Napayok‐Short, ill. Jonathan Wright
It’s not a good list unless I can get a book from Inhabit Media on here somewhere. And Napayok-Short’s text is just lovely. Some kids may get disappointed that they can’t collect arctic eggs of their own, of course.
Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Austrian, ill. Mike Curato
Yet another case of a picture book subtly reinforcing a belief or understanding. Would actually pair with the aforementioned James Howe book exceedingly well.
Yellow Time by Lauren Stringer
Baby, there is always time for yellow time. Always.
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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, Vera Brosgol
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Leave Me Alone!
By Vera Brosgol
Roaring Brook Press (an imprint of Macmillan)
On shelves September 13th
Knitting. It shouldn’t be so hard. I say this as the grown daughter of a chronic knitterer (not a word). I grew up neck deep in roving. I know the difference between a gossip wheel and a walking wheel (these are different spinning wheels). I know that if you want a permanent non-toxic dye for wool you use Kool-aid, that wool straight from the sheep is incredibly oily, and that out there are people who have turned the fur of their dogs and cats into sweaters. Yet the simplest act of knitting is lost on a good 50% of the children’s book illustrators out there that year after year can’t even be bothered to figure out which way the knitting needles are supposed to go. Down, people. The ends go down. In 2016 alone we’ve seen books like Maggie McGillicuddy’s Eye for Trouble get it wrong. Fortunately 2016 has also seen correctly positioned needles in Cat Knit, Ned the Knitting Pirate, and the greatest knitting related picture book I’ve seen to date Leave Me Alone! A superb readaloud of unparalleled visual humor, this is a knitting picture book par excellence and a pretty darn good original folktale too, come to think of it. Allowing for the occasional alien, of course.
“Once there was an old woman. She lived in a small village in a small house . . . with a very big family.” And by big family we mean big extended family. One gets the feeling that all her grown kids just sort of dump their own children on her, because there are thirty small grandchildren running amok in her home. Winter is coming soon and the old woman is keen on getting some knitting done for her extended brood. Trouble is, knitting and small children do NOT mix. So she picks up her stuff and goes into the deep, dark forest. That’s where the bear family finds her. So she goes to the mountains. Where the goats find her. Next it’s the moon. Where curious aliens find her. That leaves a wormhole where the void turns out to be her saving. Only problem is, it’s lonely in the void. Once her work is done, she heads back and when she sees her grandkids again, she doesn’t have to say a single word.
Here is the crazy thing about this book: It’s Vera Brosgol’s first picture book. I say that this is crazy because this does not read like a debut. This reads like Brosgol has been churning out picture books for decades, honing her skill, until finally at long last she’s produced a true diamond. But no. Some people get all the talent apparently. This is not, I should not, Ms. Brosgol’s first book in general. Her graphic novel Anya’s Ghost got a fair amount of attention a couple of years ago, and it was good. But nothing about that title prepared me for Leave Me Alone! Here we have a pitch perfect combination of text and image. If you were to read this book to someone without mentioning the creator, I don’t think there’s a soul alive who wouldn’t assume that the author and illustrator are one and the same. This is due largely to the timing. Just open the book to the first page. Examine the old woman on that page. Turn the page. Now look how that same woman has been transposed to a new setting and her expression has changed accordingly. Basically this sold the book to me right from the start.
Funny picture books. For an author, creating a picture book that is funny means doing two things at once. You must appeal to both children and parents with your humor at the same time. Do you know how hard that is? Making something that a five-year-old thinks is funny that is also humorous to their parental unit is such a crazy balancing act that most picture book creators just fall on one side of the equation or the other. Make it funny only to adults and then you may as well just forget about the kids altogether (see: A Child’s First Book of Trump). Opt instead to only make it funny to kids and you doom the grown-ups to reading something they’d rather eat hot nails than read again (see: Walter the Farting Dog). But I honestly believe Brosgol has found the golden mean. Both adults and kids will find moments like the older sister stuffing a yarn ball in her brother’s mouth or the presence of the samovar (even in a wormhole) or the bear tentatively touching its nose after the old woman’s vigorous poke very funny indeed.
And let’s not downplay the writing here. There is serious readaloud potential with this book. I’ll level with you. In a given year you’ll see hundreds and hundreds of picture books published. Of these, a handful make for ideal readalouds. I’m not talking about books a parent can read to a child. I’m talking about books you can read to large groups, whether you’re a teacher, a librarian, or some poor parental schmuck who got roped into reading aloud to a group of fidgeting small fry. Few books are so good that anyone and everyone can enrapture an audience with them when read out loud. But Leave Me Alone! may be one of those rare few. Those beautiful butterflies. Those little jewels. The language mimics that of classic folktales, bandying about phrases like, “deep, dark forest”. And there are so many interactive possibilities. You could teach the kids how to yell out the phrase “Leave me alone!” all together at the same time, for example.
As for the art, it’s perfect. There’s a kind of Kate Beaton feel to it (particularly when babies or goats have full balls of yarn stuffed into their mouths). As I mentioned before, Brosgol knows which way knitting needles are supposed to lie, and better still she knows how to illustrate thirty different, and very realistically rendered sweaters, at the story’s end. There are also some clever moments that you’ll notice on a third or fourth read. For example, the very first time the woman yells, “Leave me alone!” she’s exiting the gates to her home and her children’s homes. The only people who hear her are her grown children, which means we don’t have to worry about small ears hearing such a caustic phrase from their grandma. Smart. And did you see that the twins get identical sweaters at the end of the book? Finally, there are the visual gags. The goats that surreptitiously followed the old woman to the moon, nibbling on a moon man’s scanner, for example.
I’ve seen a fair amount of hand wringing over the years over whether or not a children’s book can contain a protagonist that is not, in fact, a child, an animal, or an inanimate object rendered animate. Which is to say, are children capable of identifying with adults? More precisely, an adult who just wants to be alone for two seconds? The answer is swift and sure. Certainly they can. Particularly if the kid reading this book is an older sibling. The concept of being alone, of craving some time for one’s own self, is both familiar and foreign to a lot of kids. I’m reminded of the Frog & Toad story “Alone” from Days With Frog and Toad where Toad has a dark morning of the soul when he learns that Frog would like to have some alone time. Because of all of this, we see a lot of picture books where a character wants to be alone, has difficulty getting that “me time”, and eventually decides that companionship is the way to go (Octopus Alone, A Visitor for Bear, etc.). A few celebrate the idea (All Alone] by Kevin Henkes) but generally speaking parents use these books to convince their perhaps less than socially adept children that there are benefits to the concept of friendship. And there is a place in the world for such books. Fortunately there is also a place in the world for this book.
Folks sometimes talk to me about current trends in picture books. Sometimes they’re trying to figure out what the “next big thing” might be. But of course, the best picture books are the ones that at their core don’t really resemble anything but themselves. Leave Me Alone! isn’t typical. It reads aloud to big crowds of kids with great ease, lends itself to wonderful expressions, pops off the page, and will make anyone of any age laugh at some point. It’s a great book, and if I have to write another 500 words to convince you of it, I can do so. But why delay you from seeing it any longer? Go. Seek. Find. Read. Savor.
On shelves September 13th.
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Source: Galley sent by publisher for review.
Misc: Cute promotion or THE CUTEST PROMOTION? As you can see from this Bustle interview, Ms. Brosgol knit twenty-five teeny tiny sweaters to promote this book. I steal the image for my own nefarious purposes and show it to you here:
Recently Slate decided to create a “pop-up blog” of sorts with a concentration on children’s literature. They’ve called it nightlight. A good name. We would have also accepted “flashlight under the sheets”. In any case, I was initially worried that this would be another case of writers who have just found themselves to be parents writing the same articles we’ve seen a million times before about the usual. And while their writers aren’t children’s literature experts, they’ve surprised me with the quality of their pieces. There was one defending Anne Carroll Moore in a very balanced manner, one on branded children’s books, and one on the rise of LGBTQ stories for families. Yet the one getting the most attention so far is We Don’t Only Need Diverse Books. We Need More Diverse Books Like the Snowy Day.
Professor Ebony Elizabeth Thomas was the person who raised some concerns about the piece in a series of posts the fell under the title Should *The Snowy Day* Be the Example for Diverse Children’s Books?
In the piece Ms. Thomas discusses something that’s always sort of struck me as difficult when we discuss the Keats classic. A classic that I should say I adore, mind you. But consider a situation I encountered about a year and a half ago. From December 10, 2014 through February 7, 2015, the Grolier Club hosted the exhibit One Hundred Books Famous in Children’s Literature. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Collectors from all over the country donated their most precious pieces, bringing together titles never seen together before (and probably never to be seen again). I was floored by some of the offerings. It was only as I looked through them that I began to get a nagging sensation that it was awfully awfully awfully white. In fact, the sole dark face I saw (aside from Uncle Remus on a cover) was Peter’s on The Snowy Day. Coward that I am, I didn’t bring this up at the time. Had I, I suspect the answer would have been similar to the justification given for the inclusion of Harry Potter. Mainly, that the exhibit was only covering “books famous”. And after all, how many diverse children’s books are overwhelmingly famous?
Well . . . quite a few, but let’s first consider why it is that The Snowy Day was included. It was a groundbreaking work during its day (and if you haven’t read the K.T. Horning story of its history or heard about Andrea Davis Pinkney’s upcoming and eerily lovely bio of Keats A Poem for Peter then do so now). Often I hear people say that it was the “first” picture book featuring a black protagonist on the cover. Or that it was the “first” picture book where the color of his skin was incidental. I am not a scholar in the field, but this sounds sketchy to me. Let us consider something else that Ebony Elizabeth wrote in that recent post:
“Where has the mainstream media covered Black authors & illustrators of books for children published in the 60s & 70s that are out of print?”
That got to me. She’s dead right. Because Keats was wonderful but he was by no means the only guy making books about African-Americans out there. A lot of Black authors and illustrators books were out there at the time (paging Langston Hughes). Consider the 2014 Walter Dean Myers article in the New York Times Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books? Actually, no. Scratch that. Go back further. Look at the 1986 Walter Dean Myers article in the New York Times I Actually Thought We Would Revolutionize the Industry. He writes:
“By the end of the 60’s the publishing industry was talking seriously about the need for books for blacks. Publishers quickly signed up books on Africa, city living and black heroes. Most were written by white writers. In 1966 a group of concerned writers, teachers, editors, illustrators and parents formed what was to be called the Council on Interracial Books for Children. The council demanded that the publishing industry publish more material by black authors. The industry claimed that there were simply no black authors interested in writing for children. To counter this claim the council sponsored a contest, offering a prize of $500, for black writers. The response was overwhelming . . .
. . . In 1974 there were more than 900 children’s books in print on the black experience. This is a small number of books considering that more than 2,000 children’s books are published annually. But by 1984 this number was cut in half. For every 100 books published this year there will be one published on the black experience.”
Now let’s double back to Ebony Elizabeth’s question. I repeat, “Where has the mainstream media covered Black authors & illustrators of books for children published in the 60s & 70s that are out of print?”
Well, shoot. I’m mainstream media, right? And out-of-print titles are a delight to me. And yet I have never seriously considered just how many Black penned and illustrated children’s books have disappeared from the public consciousness.
Here’s something else I realized. There are publishers out there that reprint out-of-print titles. Folks like New York Review of Books and Phaidon and such. Yet even in the era of We Need Diverse Books, not a single publisher has ever created an imprint specifically designed to reprint classic and older multicultural children’s literature. Correct me if I’m wrong about this. I’d love to be wrong. But at this moment in time, I haven’t seen a publisher fully commit. Which is to say, there is a gap in the marketplace.
Today then, let’s conjure up a list. Since we began with The Snowy Day, let’s limit it today to picture books by and about African-Americans. I want you to tell me your favorite out-of-print titles. The stipulation is that they have to have been published by a major publisher, they have to feature Black characters, and they have to have been written and/or illustrated by someone African-American. To do this list properly I wish I still had access to New York Public Library’s lists of The Black Experience in Children’s Books dating back decades. In lieu of that, I’ll just start with my own personal favorites.
Here are the books that should be reprinted and reprinted right now.
Baby Says by John Steptoe
I’m beginning with the most egregious of the errors. There are a lot of out-of-print Steptoe books to choose from, but this is the one that’s the weirdest. I mean, Harper Collins itself basically acknowledged that this book was a classic when they included it in their Harper Collins Treasury of Picture Books Classics (<—see? In the title and everything!) That book contains everything from Goodnight Moon and Harold and the Purple Crayon to If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and, you guessed it, Baby Says. So I decided to do some checking. Are any of the other stories in this book out-of-print? Yes. One other – George Shrinks. Be that as it may be, I’d argue that Steptoe’s book is board book perfection. My son, who is two, specifically asks for the “baby book” in that collection and I have read it over and over and over again. So what exactly is going on here? Why is it out-of-print?
My Aunt Came Back by Pat Cummings
This one also makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up in fury. A brilliant book. A fun, catchy, magnificent board book that’s so colorful and delightful that you’ll be happy to read it over and over again. So why exactly is it out of print? Again it’s a Harper Collins title. So, uh, hey, HC. You guys are big. You have a back catalog that’s immense and impressive. Why not start that out-of-print diverse imprint I was just talking about? You clearly have the stock.
The Everett Anderson book series
Had to do some research on this one. As it happens, Everett Anderson’s Goodbye is still in print, but all the other books in the series are long gone. Why? I used to get parents and teachers in my library asking for the other books in the series. Particularly One of the Problems of Everett Anderson which discusses the incredibly difficult topic of what to do when you’re a kid and one of your friends at school is being abused at home. And after all, if you can find another book that covers the same topic with half the skill, all power to you. Until then, reprint these books. Re-illustrate them even, if you like. I wouldn’t mind, as long as the text was available again.
Blast Off by Linda C. Cain and Susan Rosenbaum,
ill. Leo and Diane Dillon
I’ve written about this one before and admittedly I haven’t read it myself. However, it looks beautiful and features an African-American girl dreaming of becoming an astronaut.
This is just to start. Your turn now. Which titles would you add to this list? Tell me and I’ll do my best to add them.
So I’m sitting at the reader’s advisory desk today (it’s a small library so I do 2-4 hours a week) with a co-worker and we get to talking about nurseries. She has a friend who turned theirs into a paean to hunting. We’re talking arrow theme, faux bearskin rug, and antlers antlers antlers. This leads to a discussion of nurseries that are based on pop culture themes (for your daily shot of wonder/horror see the Buzzfeed post 20 DIY Pop Culture Themes For Your Baby’s Nursery).
My babies, for the record, did not have “themed nurseries”. My sense of design is so lacking that basically all I’ve ever done is slap some art into frames, stick ’em on the wall, and call that a job well done. Yet like a lot of non-crafty / non-designy folks, I have great respect for people who have an idea and see it through.
So what happens when people take nursery inspiration from different works of children’s literature? Behold the following!
Oh, take your pick. This is hardly a new idea. The article Parents Create ‘Harry Potter’ Nursey for Their Muggle-Born Little Wizard or 27 Ways to Create the Perfect Harry Potter Nursery will guide you in the right (or wrong, depending on how you look at it) direction.
For this one, you may need to know how to stencil. Stencil reeeeeally well. Seuss lends himself to the nursery setting, though. Check out the post Bryson’s Baby Seuss Nursery for an explanation on how it can be done. These images are just the tip of the iceberg.
Where the Wild Things Are
The ferns in picture #2 were a nice touch. I like how for Wild Things, the general feeling was that a mural was imperative. Only photo #3 thought to make Max’s tree filled room the mural for the baby’s room, though.
This one should have been easy. After all, it’s actually set in a nursery. But finding folks willing to work with that color scheme isn’t quite as easy as you might think. These were the only two GNM nurseries I was able to find.
Now here’s the secret to this post. Pretty much, just type in any famous children’s book and add the word “nursery” and you’ll find something online. Watch:
Type in “Giving Tree Nursery”:
Type in “Rainbow Fish Nursery”:
But why stop with picture books?
Type in “Hunger Games Nursery”:
Type in “Twilight Nursery”:
Now let’s get silly.
Type in “I Want My Hat Back Nursery”:
Type in “Winnie-the-Pooh Dr. Who Nursery”:
Shoot. I didn’t think that would work.
Type in “Struwwelpeter Nursery” . . . .
. . . .
. . . .
Whew! That was a close one.
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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, Best Books of 2016
, Reviews 2016
, 2016 middle grade fiction
, 2016 realistic fiction
, 2016 reviews
, diverse fiction
, Jason Reynolds
, middle grade fiction
, middle grade realistic fiction
, Simon and Schuster
, Add a tag
By Jason Reynolds
Atheneum (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
On shelves August 30th
This is a generalization, but in my experience librarians really enjoy reading within their comfort zones. They’ll travel outside of them from time to time but always they return to the books that they like the most. Children’s librarians are just the same. The fantasy readers stick to fantasy. The realism fans go with realism. Graphic novel readers with comics. When I served on a yearly committee of librarians in New York I’d notice that some books were difficult to get anyone to read. Horse books, for example, just sat on our shelves untouched. Nonfiction could take some prodding. And as for sports books . . . forget about it. Nobody ever got near them. Still, you can’t give up on them. Mike Lupica and Tim Green may rule the field but that doesn’t mean other people don’t make a lot out of athletics. If our Newbery winning The Crossover by Kwame Alexander taught us anything, it was that. Now Jason Reynolds, a young adult author until this year, has produced a middle grade novel centered on that must unlikely of sports: track. It skirts the clichés. It dodges the usual pitfalls. It makes you care about a kid who keeps messing up over and over and over again. It’ll make you like sports books, even if you can’t generally stand them. And now we’ve got to find a way to get a lot of it into the hands of kids. Stat.
Call him Ghost. You can call him Castle Crenshaw if you want to (that’s technically his name) but he’s been calling himself Ghost ever since the night his dad got drunk and threatened Castle and his mom with a gun. Ghost learned to run that night and you might say he’s been running ever since. He’s got a load of anger inside that he doesn’t know how to deal with so he tends to take it out on others at school. Then one day he spots a track warm-up and takes an instant dislike to the albino kid in the expensive tracksuit. Without thinking about it twice Ghost beats the guy on the track, running on the outside, which gets the attention of the coach. Coach begs Ghost to join and Ghost reluctantly agrees but it isn’t what he expected. The other kids there all have their own lives, few of them easy. The running is much harder than anything Ghost has ever experienced before. And then there’s the fact that no matter how fast he is, Ghost can’t run away from trouble. It follows him and if he’s not careful it’s going to follow him right onto the track.
Baseball. Basketball. Even football. These are the sports of fiction. I doubt anyone has ever run any statistics on it, but if you were to gather together all the children’s sports books and group them by type, the baseball books would undoubtedly outweigh all the others 2:1. That’s because baseball is a game with a natural rise and fall to its action. Basketball has speed and football has brute force, all good things when writing a story. Track? In track you run and then you stop. At least that’s how I always looked at it. For Jason Reynolds, though, it’s different. He didn’t write this book with track as a single focus. He looks at what the sport boils down to. Basically, this is a book about running. Running from mistakes (forgive the cliché), from very real threats, for your life, and for your team. Why you run and where you run and how you run. And if that’s where you’re coming from, then track is a very good choice of a sport indeed.
On paper, this book looks like it’s the sort of story that’s all been done before. That’s where Reynolds’ writing comes in to play. First off, it’s worth noticing that Mr. Reynolds is blessed with a keen sense of humor. This comes to play not just in the text but also in little in-jokes here and there. Like the fact that one of the runners (that, I should mention, gets cut later in the book because his grades are slipping) is named Chris Myers. Christopher Myers is the son of Walter Dean Myers, and a friend to Jason Reynolds. I love Jason’s descriptions too. Mr. Charles at the corner store, “looks just like James Brown if James Brown were white. . .” Or Ghost saying later, “… for something to make you feel tough, you gotta be a little bit scared of it at first.” There are some pretty fantastic callbacks hidden in the story as well. Right at the start, almost like it’s some kind of superhero origin story, we hear how Ghost heard the gun go off that night he ran away from his home with his mom and “I felt like the loud shot made my legs move even faster.” That ties in beautifully with the starter pistol that goes off at the very very end of the book.
But maybe what I like the most about Jason Reynolds’ books is that he applies this keen sense of the complexity to his characters. I don’t think the man could write a straight one-dimensional villain to save his soul. Even his worst characters have these brief moments of humanity to them. In this case, Ghost’s dad is the worst character. You don’t get much worse than shooting at your wife and kid after all. Yet for all that, Ghost still can’t help but love the guy and eats sunflower seeds in his memory. Each character in the book has layers that you can peel away as the story progresses. Even Ghost, ESPECIALLY Ghost, who makes you want to yell and him and cheer for him, sometimes at the same time.
There’s been a monumental push for increased diversity in children’s literature in the last few years. Diversity can mean any number of things and it often focuses on race. In a weird way, increasing the number of racially diverse books on a given publisher’s release calendar isn’t hard if the publisher is dedicated to the notion. Far more difficult is figuring out how you increase the economic diversity. Middle grade characters are almost always middle class. If they’re working class then they tend to be historical. Contemporary lower income kids in realistic novels are almost unheard of. For example, how many books for children have you ever read with kids living in shelters? I’ve read just one, and I’m a children’s librarian. So I watched what Reynolds did here with great interest. Ghost isn’t destitute or anything but his single mom makes ends meet by working long hours at a hospital. Middle class kids are remarkably good at ignoring their own privilege while kids like Ghost become almost invisible. In the book, Ghost’s decision to initially race Lu isn’t solely based on how Lu struts around the track, thinking he’s the bee’s knees. It’s also on his clothes. “…Lu, was decked out in the flyest gear. Fresh Nike running shoes, and a full-body skintight suit . . . He wore a headband and a gold chain around his neck, and a diamond glinted in each ear.” Later Ghost makes a decision regarding a particularly fancy pair of running shoes. That’s an economic decision as well. Those are the most obvious examples, but the book is full of little mentions, peppered throughout, of where Ghost’s class comes in to things. It’s nice to see an author who gets that. We are often affected by forces outside our control, forces we don’t even necessarily notice, particularly when we’re children. If young readers see it, they’ll be reading between the lines, just like Reynolds wants them to.
Right at the beginning of the book, when Coach is trying to convince Ghost’s mom that he should be running, Ghost realizes that he’s in a situation that’s played out in loads of sports films. He thinks, “If this went like the movies, I was either going to score the game-winning touchdown (which is impossible in track) or . . . die.” Sometimes you can gauge how good a book is by how self-aware its characters are. But sometimes you just read a book, put it down, and think, “Man. That was good. That was really good.” This is a book that actually made me tear up, and there aren’t a lot of middle grade books that do that. I was rooting for Ghost hard, right until the end. I was caring about a sport that I’d never otherwise think about in a million years. And I was admiring it from start to finish for all that it accomplishes in its scant 180 pages. This is the book you hand to the kids who want something real and good and honest. There are a lot of Ghosts out there in the world. Hopefully some of them will discover themselves here. Run, don’t walk, to pick this book up.
On shelves August 30th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
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I have a two-year-old son. He is very cute. He is also the most stereotypical boy reader I’ve ever encountered in my life. Trucks, trains, construction equipment, you name it. Unsurprisingly he’s also keen on community workers so every other day we read through Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go. Or, when we’re feeling a bit jaunty, we’ll reach for Everything Goes On Land by Brian Biggs. Combine that with his other relatively new obsession with the Brownie and Pearl books (also illustrated by Mr. Biggs) and you’ll understand that Chez Bird is The House That Biggs Built.
When I heard that Mr. Biggs had a new series coming out from Abrams called Tinyville Town, I was naturally curious. What’s interesting about the books and the series is that rather that conform to the usual Scarry model, the stories examine “the city” as a concept in and of itself. So we had a talk about it and the more he spoke about it, the more interesting it became. The end result is this interview. Bear in mind that this isn’t just about Brian’s work on the series. In the course of this interview he delves into some really interesting ideas about the influence of Italo Calvino, city planning, what Sesame Street did along these same lines, and what we mean when we say something is “timeless”. I urge you to pay particular attention to what he has to say about gender roles and picture books as well.
By the way, I usually do interviews where the interviewer (me) and the interviewee (in this case, Mr. Biggs) are represented solely by their initials. Today, for obvious reasons, that’s not going to work out.
Betsy Bird: I’m interested in how this series tackles the idea of “the city” as more than just one of those random places that people live. Historically, Americans mostly lived in the country. Now we mostly live in cities but books that convey how interconnected we all are to one another there aren’t all that common. So what was the impetus for starting this series in the first place? And what, if you’ll forgive me, makes it different from your average everyday Richard Scarry fare?
Brian Biggs: To be honest, the argument could be made that the impetus for Tinyville Town came from a blog-entry you wrote about Everything Goes back in 2011. That series was definitely about vehicles, but I think you were on to something when you wrote that the first book, Everything Goes On Land, was really about my love for cities. Three years later, when I was playing with the idea of a series of little books about people and their jobs, it occurred to me that this, too, was potentially an excuse to draw another city and explore the streets and buildings within.
I’d put it on the record that Italo Calvino is just as big an influence here as Richard Scarry, and that’s not something you can say for just any board-book for three-year-olds. I read Invisible Cities when I was living in Paris, in 1991, just after college, and the book adjusted the way I looked at these random places that people live, as you write. I could close one eye, and Paris was a chaotic mass of people moving about, with no order, no sense. I could look with the other eye, and it was a latticework of streets and alleys with recognizable patterns and clear intents of the designers. I could squint, and imagine the connections between people in my neighborhood, from the taxi drivers to the family that ran the Chinese restaurant below my building to the woman who operated the laundry across the street. I don’t want to get carried away here — Tinyville Town is not a philosophical prose poem on the nature of our existence. But when later that year I left Paris for the Fort Worth suburb of Euless, Texas, I was able to find these stories there as well. Euless and Paris are nothing alike, yet they are. People go to sleep there, and wake up there, and go to work there, and live their lives there.
When I was a kid, I watched a lot of Sesame Street. Sesame Street did a great a job of finding connections and figuring out how to make a Brooklyn city block relevant to this kid watching tv in Little Rock. That neighborhood sure looked different from my neighborhood. But what I identified with were the people who lived there and their relationships to one another. Bob and Maria and Gordon, and even Oscar and Ernie and Big Bird, interacted with one another in ways that I did and my parents did with neighbors, and the guy at the grocery store, and the mailman. It wasn’t lost on me that, years later in Texas, what Euless and Paris had in common were those same people living vastly different yet very similar lives.
So, Sesame Street is a show that teaches numbers and the alphabet, and entertains kids so their parents can get the laundry done. But it’s much more than that, isn’t it? By hanging these lessons on this setting and with these people, Sesame Street teaches us so much more. Yes, Tinyville Town began as a simple series of little books about people with jobs. A day in the life of a fire fighter, and a veterinarian, and a librarian, doing the things that these people do. And while it might be difficult to explore the nature of existence and sociology in 24 pages, I’m hoping that these influences and these roots give me a stage that’s a little bigger than what might be immediately visible, and a setting in which I might be able to do a little more than count to ten.
Betsy: You’ve done books that take broad concepts and then define them in simple terms that no one else has really thought of before. Your “Everything Goes” series, for example, was both broad and meticulous. Are you doing something similar here?
Brian: Oh, sure. At least, I hope so. The structure of the series is built on this very idea. The larger picture books in the series, “Tinyville Town Gets to Work” being the first, are about the town. How the people of Tinyville Town work together to get something done. These books are the “broad” you mention. The smaller board books are the “meticulous,” each telling the story of one citizen of Tinyville Town. Visually, Tinyville Town doesn’t fill the page the way that Everything Goes does. There aren’t the hidden details and birds with hats. The surprises reveal themselves more slowly and are more relevant to the stories of this town.
Betsy: I mentioned Scarry earlier, and I suspect that of all the classic children’s authors of the past he’s the one you get compared to the most. We’ve this feeling that he’s “timeless” in some way (though anyone who has ever eyeballed Ma Pig’s Jane Fonda-esque headband in Cars and Trucks and Things That Go would take issue with that statement). “Timeless” is a goal of a lot of authors. It’s a kind of key to perpetual publishing. Is that something you consciously think about when you make a series like this one or does it not concern you?
Brian: It does concern me, and I’ve had discussions with Traci, my editor, about ways to make Tinyville Town “timeless.” But I haven’t really worked out exactly what this means, or even whether it is a good idea or not.
For example, one of the first things I decided about this series was that there are no mobile phones in Tinyville Town. When we see a group of people standing at a bus stop waiting for the bus, they were going to be reading books and newspapers, not staring like zombies at their smart phones. I can’t tell you how long it’s been since I saw someone waiting at a bus stop with a book, but there is just something about that scene that I could not bring myself to include. On the other hand, I think readers really like to see things like that they recognize. Early on, in the first Everything Goes book, I have a driver cutting through traffic, talking on his mobile phone. Kids often point this particular detail out. They know it’s something you’re not supposed to do, and they love it on the next page when we see the same driver pulled over by the police car, getting a ticket. Twenty years from now, will a reader know what the heck is going on there? Will we get pulled over in the future for talking to our robot helpers on our telepathic com-links while our automated flying Google cars get us from place to place? Will this scene render Everything Goes dated and dull?
When I was researching firefighters for Tinyville Town, I learned that firehouses aren’t built with sliding poles any more, for insurance reasons. And the firehouses that do have them, don’t use them. But when you talk to kids about fire stations, a pole is still among the first things they want to see. I gotta have that pole, even though it’s an anachronism. So, what is it that makes a book “timeless,” anyway? Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel was one of my favorite books when I was a kid. I had no idea what a steam shovel was, and that book was big-time dated when I read it in the 1970s. But I loved it. It’s timeless. Not because a steam shovel was still a relevant piece of cool construction technology, but because the theme of “new and improved” versus familiar and reliable, and the David and Goliath story buried in that book will always be relevant.
Betsy: So I did this post the other day about gender and how construction workers (and even their equipment) are shown to be both male and female or simply male. Some folks wrote in saying they’d never seen a female construction worker in all their livelong days. You, however, do give professions of every sort dual genders (I was always quite grateful for the female pilot in Everything Goes in the Air). How do you reconcile this with a real world that isn’t always as gender neutral as we’d like it to be?
Brian: I’m going to quote a friend here, who told me that “even if it isn’t seen, that doesn’t mean it’s right and it doesn’t mean things should stay that way. If kids can see it, it’s easier for them to imagine being it.” This friend recently became one of the few female electrical linemen in Philadelphia. A while back, when she saw some early sketches I’d posted for I’m a Firefighter, she pointedly asked me why there were no women working at the Tinyville Town fire station. I couldn’t believe I’d let this get by me. And I was so so happy she’d pointed it out. But did I ask myself how many women really are firefighters? Do I need to go by all the fire stations in Philadelphia to see how many women work there before I can include them in my book?
This ties in directly with the discussion about timelessness, doesn’t it? Ten years ago there was this big brouhaha when someone noticed that the Busytown books he was reading to his kids were different from the ones he had when he was growing up. At some point the publisher had redrawn many of the characters and even some complete scenes to reflect a more modern sensibilty. A father bunny rabbit had joined a mother bunny rabbit in the kitchen preparing dinner. The “pretty stewardess’” job description had changed to “flight attendant” and the “pilot” was no longer “handsome.” The mouse in the canoe was no longer wearing the potentially offensive and stereotypical feathered headdress, and a menorah had been added onto the holiday celebration. These changes came along right around the time I was reading Scarry’s books to my own kids, and as a responsible parent, I was pleased. There was a part of me, the sentimental child within, that wondered if I should be angry at this absurd kowtowing to political correctness, but do I want my daughter thinking that flight attendants are supposed to be pretty? Do I want my son to think that husbands are supposed to be waited on by their wives? These books aren’t supposed to be snapshots of a particular time. They’re not Little House on the Prairie.
Before 2008, one could set a tv show in the near-but-still-far-away future by having a U.S. President be African American, or female. It was maybe somewhat conceivable, but it hadn’t happened yet. Now, there’s a fairly good chance we’re going to elect a female president this year, which would mean that in 2020 there will be a generation of kids who don’t know how impossible this so recently seemed. To these kids, those 43 previous white guys are mere history. That’s just amazing to me.
People have never seen a female construction worker? They’re not paying attention.
Betsy: What’s the ultimate goal with this series?
Brian: Well, of course, the ultimate goal is to create an entertaining, satisfying series of books that kids like to read over and over again. I actually don’t think much about teaching lessons when writing these things, and I don’t think that reflecting the world I live in, or I want my kids and eventual grandkids to live in, is any sort of political agenda, and certainly not a hidden one.
I don’t expect Tinyville Town to be some kind of a catalyst for change. Really, I just want a kid to read I’m a Firefighter, make loud siren noises as the fire truck speeds through town, and cheer when the fire at the bakery is put out at the end. If she then goes to bed thinking “I want to be that,” well, that’s just gravy, isn’t it?
I want to thank Brian for taking quite a bit of time to put down these thoughts for us today. Tinyville Town Gets to Work hits shelves September 6th alongside the board books Tinyville Town: I’m a Veterinarian and Tinyville Town: I’m a Firefighter. And yes, in case you were wondering, there is a librarian on the horizon as well: