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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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26. Spotted! Author Visits

When I moved to Evanston from New York City I guess I thought my life would calm down a bit.  New York City’s all about the publisher previews, the author events, the crazy dinners for big name authors and illustrators, and it is clearly party central.  And for the most part Evanston is calm.  Quiet.  There’s a gigantic lake big enough to drown whole states just down the block from my library and bloodthirsty peregrine falcons tearing pigeons to shreds outside my window, but otherwise the action is slow.  At least that’s what I thought before I realized that Chicago (which sits just below Evanston) is basically another party central.  Author dinners?  We got ’em.  Gigantic book festivals like Book Expo?  Check and check, mate.  Add in all the booksellers, the fact that the American Library Association is based here, the active SCBWI networks and the existence of groups like the Center for Teaching Through Children’s Books and . . . . no.  No, I am not any less busy.  In fact, I seem to be busier.

Last week a couple authors came to town.  Good ones too.  One traveled from Britain and three from parts not-Chicago.  One came to Chicago and three came to my library.  So in tribute I give you . . .

DavidWalliams

This would be David Walliams posing while I do my best possible Stephen Colbert imitation.  Walliams is one of those celebrities-turned-children’s-book-writers but because he’s British and can walk down the street (in America) without getting mugged by fans, it’s cool.  If you are a fan of Little Britain then he will be familiar to you as he was one of the stars.  On this occasion he was in the States promoting his latest book Demon Dentist.  Of course I like him because of the first book of his I read years ago.  Do you remember The Boy in the Dress?  It came out in the States in 2008 and while it had a somewhat pat ending it was an interesting novel discussing cross-dressing (not transgender issues, which have only recently been addressed in middle grade fiction) in ways that I’d not seen in a book for kids before.

Not long after I was at my desk when I got a message from author Greg Neri.  He was in town and wanted to know if I was available to meet with him and some other authors?  But of course!

Neri&Friends

From left to right that’s Elana K. Arnold (THE QUESTION OF MIRACLES), Beth Fantasky (ISABEL FEENEY, STAR REPORTER), some librarian, and Greg Neri (TRU AND NELLI).  Apparently they were in town doing a tour of Evanston schools.  Random and delightful!  I was so pleased they came by to say howdy and now I’ll be reading all their latest books.  And stealing Elana’s coat.  Possibly not in that order.

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27. Newbery / Caldecott 2017: Spring Prediction Edition

What?  Who?  Now?  Yes, if you’re checking the calendar you’ll see that three whole months of 2016 have gone by and you know what that means.  Prediction time!

But Betsy, you say, that is quite simply the kookiest thing I’ve ever heard. It’s March, for crying out loud.  We’ve ten months until the next award announcement.  And all this is true.  And it is loopy to the extreme that I’m doing this.  Particularly when you consider my track record.  To date:

2008 spring predictions: I get one Caldecott right (How I Learned Geography)

2009 spring predictions: I get two Newberys right (The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and The (Mostly) True Adventures of Homer P Figg)

2010 spring predictions: I get one Newbery right (One Crazy Summer)

2011 spring predictions: I get one Newbery right (Inside Out and Back Again)

2012 spring predictions: I get two Newberys right (The One and Only Ivan and Splendors and Glooms), and one Caldecott right (Green).

2013 spring predictions: I get two Newberys right (Doll Bones and One Came Home) and one Caldecott right (Mr. Wuffles).  But pride goeth before the fall.

2014 spring predictions: Zip. Zero. Zilch.

2015 spring predictions: I get two Newberys right (Echo and The War That Saved My Life)

The thing is, if I’d gotten Zip. Zero. Zilch. this time last year I might have given up the fun prediction game altogether.  But this isn’t really about accurate predictions, is it?  I mean, check out last year’s first listed Caldecott contender.  WHOOPSIE!  No, it’s about pinpointing the books that everyone should be talking about because they’re such great titles.

Now due to a new job where I’m not commuting to work every day (the hour train ride has turned into a sweet 20 minute walk) combined with my participation on the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee for 2016, I am not reading as many middle grade novels as I usually would.  I have made up for that by reading every picture book I get sent.  So you may see that I’ve a better grasp on Caldecott than Newbery this year.  Case in point:

2017 Caldecott Predictions

Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood by F. Isabel Campoy & Theresa Howell, ill. Rafael Lopez

MaybeSomething

See this here in my hand here?  This sign that says, “Rafael Lopez for Caldecott”?  I’m carrying it because sometimes it feels like every year I tout him as a real Caldecott contender (Drum Dream Girl had in in the bag, man!) and every year he slips through my fingers.  Well not this year.  This book (based on something he actually went out and did) is beautiful, socially conscious, and a title that kids actually enjoy reading multiple times.  I feel it this time!  It’s his year!

There Is a Tribe of Kids by Lane Smith

TribeKids

Smith hasn’t won a Caldecott since his Honor for Grandpa Green, but you could argue that this was because he wasn’t really putting his back into it.  This book (in 2016 alone there are four different books on collective nouns, did you know?) takes an esoteric idea and weaves it into a story about finding your tribe, both literally and figuratively.  This is a softer Smith than we usually see, and it may yield great dividends in the future.

Ideas Are All Around by Philip Stead

IdeasAllAround

If any book could do a little tap dance while singing the words, “Cal-de-cott, Cal-de-cott, nothing could be finer“, it would be this one.  It is also THE most esoteric picture book on this list.  It will probably receive criticism for seemingly speaking more to adults than children, but the art really is distinguished.  If anything this feels like a picture book from another country (I’m reminded of the works of Stian Hole in particular).  I’ll be interested in following the conversation surrounding this one in the future.

Cricket Song by Anne Hunter

 CricketSong

My wild card.  There are probably a couple wild cards on this list, but this one is subtle.  The author/illustrator splits the visual narrative into two distinct parts while pairing these images with a soothing text.  It’s a bedtime book in the classic sense but a clever one.  It also has a fox on the cover which, if you haven’t heard it before, is the unofficial animal of children’s books published in 2016.

The Storyteller by Evan Turk

Storyteller1

I’ve already talked at great length about this one but I’d be more than happy to talk about it some more!  Turk’s still new in this field.  He is at the start of his career in children’s books, but the time and the care and the attention and the sheer beauty found in this book is jaw-dropping.  Paired with a brilliant text to match, it has a lot to say about what the role of oral storytelling is in the electronic age.  Big themes.  Brilliant book.

Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph by Roxane Orgill, ill. Francis Vallejo

jazzday1

And speaking of brilliant books, meet Francis Vellejo.  Debut illustrator, and hopefully the man is currently fending off job offers from all the major publishing houses.  Vellejo brings to life a text that could have floundered in the hands of a less adept illustrator.  Plus, as a woman who majored in college in Art with a concentration in Photography, any Caldecott contender that uses photography in some way has my instant and abiding love. Hopefully the use of photographs published in some other form prior to this book’s publication won’t disqualify it from contention.

One Day in the Eucalyptus Eucalyptus Tree by Daniel Bernstrom, ill. by Brendan Wenzel

OneDay

Wenzel’s a fellow to watch in 2016.  He has several books coming out this year and each one is clever.  If I were to bet on just one I might look to this.  Naturally if there were any justice then author Daniel Bernstrom would win something for the rhythmic text here.  In lieu of that, Wenzel’s art is a fabulous complement to the twist on the Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly motif.  Besides, who doesn’t want to see vomiting snakes?

2017 Newbery Predictions

I shall direct you to the Heavy Medal 2017 Newbery Reading List, since what I have here today is fairly small in comparison.  I’m only really going to mention the books that I am certain have a strong fighting chance this early in the game.  These would be:

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo

RaymieNightingale

So I turn to a friend of mine the other day and I ask her to give it to me straight.  “The latest Kate DiCamillo”, I say.  “Is it . . . meaningful?”  You see, I do very well with DiCamillo books when they involve pummeling carnies with errant baseballs, sweet talking toothless horses, or vacuuming up squirrels (to say nothing of giant donuts).  I do far less well when her books make a grab at the old heartstrings.  My friend assured me that while the book does not lack for heart, she was certain I would love it.  And, since we’re talking DiCamillo here, there’s no one in the world who would argue that it’s not a serious contender in 2017.

Pax by Sara Pennypacker, ill. Jon Klassen

Pax

DiCamillo aside, if we had to talk about the book that is managing to get the most Newbery buzz the earliest in the year, Pax is where it’s at.  I received a galley of Pax at the same time that I received a galley of The Nest by Kenneth Oppel last year.  Both books were illustrated by Klassen and I couldn’t help but think that the man had exquisite taste in manuscripts.  Since I had lobbied hard for Pennypacker to get some medal action years ago for her Summer of the Gypsy Moths, I feel this is an honor long since due.

Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune by Pamela Turner, ill. Gareth Hinds

SamuraiRising

So. Friggin’. Awesome.  Weirdly appropriate for the Newbery too, age-wise.  In spite of the fact that this is basically the Samurai version of Game of Thrones (something they mention in the ad copy for this book) the blood and guts aren’t visceral.  Instead you get an amazing examination of the world’s most famous Samurai warrior.  It’s nonfiction and Turner’s backmatter is nothing short of jaw-dropping.

There are some notable books that haven’t been mentioned here, but I want to hear from you.  What’s blowing you away this year?  What can’t you stop talking about?

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28. Children’s Week Bookmark Reveal (psst . . . It’s El Deafo related!)

Books. Kids.  This is pretty basic stuff.  One should read the other.  Preferable requently.  And I suppose that for some of us there’s a perception that urging children to read is a recent phenomenon.  An outgrowth of the digital age when kids have so many things to distract and entertain them.  Gone are the days when books were often the sole source of entertainment in the home.

Perceptions can be misleading.  Take Children’s Book Week.  It sounds contemporary, but actually it dates back to 1919, making it the the longest-running national literacy initiative in the country.  Maybe people had different reasons for pushing Children’s Book Week at its start, but the end results remain the same.  Kids reading books is good.  That’s why I’m mighty pleased to reveal the  Children’s Book Week bookmark art for 2016.

This year’s bookmark, commemorating the 97th annual celebration of books for young people and the joy of reading (May 2-8, 2016), is being designed by 2015 Children’s Choice Debut Author finalist Cece Bell, author and illustrator of El Deafo.  You hear that?!?  CECE FRIGGIN’ BELL!

Behold:

Children's Choice Book Week

Did you see that part where I mentioned that Ms. Bell was a “2015 Children’s Choice Debut Author”?  What’s that all about?  Well, each year kids vote on the Children’s Choice Book Awards.  We’re in our 9th year now.  Now the finalists for 2016 have been announced. Voting is now open at ccbookawards.com, and winners will be announced during Children’s Book Week.

And for more fun:

 

  • More information about the bookmark can be found here.
  • Each year, official events for Children’s Book Week give kids the opportunity to connect with their favorite authors and illustrators in person.In 2016, official events – including appearances by beloved children’s book authors & illustrators, children’s open mic nights, read-alouds, book-themed parties, and much more – will be held in all 50 states. Photos from last year are on view here. Event attendees receive complimentary Children’s Book Week posters and tote bags. You can see how these literacy celebrations are shaping up so far here.
  • Literary Landmarks to be designated each day of Children’s Book Week (May 2-8): The ALA-CBC joint committee is teaming up with United for Libraries to designate seven Literary Landmarks™ — one each day — during Children’s Book Week 2016 . (Sites must be tied to a deceased children’s literary figure, author, or their work).
  • The National Ambassador For Young People’s Literature:In early January, the CBC and Every Child a Reader in partnership with the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress appointed heralded graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang to this prestigious position. As part of his mission to instill a lifelong love of reading, Gene Yang will be announcing the Children’s Choice Book Award winners during Children’s Book Week.

Thanks to the good folks at the CBC for the reveal!

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29. Review of the Day: Dwarf Nose by Wilhelm Hauff

DwarfNose1Dwarf Nose
By Wilhelm Hauff
Illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger
Translated by Anthea Bell
Minedition
$19.99
ISBN: 97898888341139
Ages 8-12
On shelves April 1st

It seems so funny to me that for all that our culture loves and adores fairytales, scant attention is paid to the ones that can rightfully be called both awesome and obscure. There is a perception out there that there are only so many fairytales out there that people really need to know. But for every Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty you run into, there’s a Tatterhood or Riquet with the Tuft lurking on the sidelines. Thirty or forty years ago you’d sometimes see these books given a life of their own front and center with imaginative picture book retellings. No longer. Folktales and fairytales are widely viewed by book publishers as a dying breed. A great gaping hole exists, and into it the smaller publishers of the world have sought to fulfill this need. Generally speaking they do a very good job of bringing world folktales to the American marketplace. Obscure European fairytales, however, are rare beasts. How thrilled I was then to discover the republication of Wilhelm Hauff and Lisbeth Zwerger’s Dwarf Nose. Originally released in America in 1995 by North-South books, the book has long been out-of-print. Now the publisher minedition has brought it back and what a beauty it is. Strange and sad and oddly uplifting, this tale has all the trappings of the fairytales you know and love, but somehow remains entirely unexpected just the same.

For there once was a boy who lived with his two adoring parents. His father was a cobbler and his mother sold vegetables and herbs in the market. One day the boy was assisting his mother when a very strange old woman came to them and starting digging her dirty old hands through their wares. Incensed, the boy insulted the old woman, which as you may imagine didn’t go down very well. When the boy is made to help carry the woman’s purchases back to her home he is turned almost immediately into a squirrel and made to work for seven years in her kitchen. After that time he awakes, as if in a dream, only to find seven years have passed and his body has been transformed. Now he has no neck to speak of, a short frame, a hunched back, and a extraordinarily long nose. Sad that his parents refuse to acknowledge him as their son, he sets forth to become the king’s cook. And all would have gone without incident had he not picked up that enchanted goose in the market one day. Written in 1827 this tale is famous in Germany but remains relatively obscure in the United States today.

DwarfNose4I go back and forth when I consider why this fairytale isn’t all that famous to Americans. There are a variety of reasons. There are some depressing elements to it (kid is unrecognizable to parents, loses seven years of his life, etc.) sure. There aren’t any beautiful princesses (except possibly the goose). The bad guy doesn’t even appear in the second act. Still, it’s the peculiarities that give it its flavor. We’ve heard of plenty of stories where the heroes are transformed by the villains, but how many villains give those same heroes a useful occupation in the process? It’s Dwarf Nose’s practicalities that are so interesting, as are the nitty gritty elements of the tale. I love the use of herbs particularly. Whether the story is talking about Sneezewell or Bellyheal, you get the distinct feeling that you’re listening to someone who knows what they’re talking about. Plus there are tiny rodent servants. That’s a plus.

We like it when our fairytales give us nice clear-cut morals. Be clever, be kind, be good. This may be another reason why Dwarf Nose never really took off in the States. At first glance one would assume that the moral would be about not judging by appearances. Dwarf Nose’s parents cannot comprehend that their beautiful boy is now ugly, and so they throw him out. He gets a job as a chef but does not search out a remedy until the goose he rescues gives him some hope. I was fully prepared for him to remain under his spell for the rest of his life without regrets, but of course that doesn’t happen. He’s restored to his previous beauty, he returns to his parents who welcome him with open arms, and he doesn’t even marry the goose girl. Hauff ends with a brief mention of a silly war that occurred thanks to Dwarf Nose’s disappearance ending with the sentence, “Small causes, as we see, often have great consequences, and this is the story of Dwarf Nose.” That right there would be your moral then. Not an admonishment to avoid judging the outward appearance of a thing (though Dwarf Nose’s talents drill that one home pretty clearly) but instead that a little thing can lead to a great big thing.

DwarfNose2When this version of Dwarf Nose was originally released in the States in 1994 the reviews were puzzled by its length. Booklist said it was “somewhat verbose to modern listeners” and School Library Journal noted the “grotesque tenor of the book”. Fascinatingly this is not the only incarnation of this tale you might find in America. In 1960 Doris Orgel translated a version of “Dwarf Long-Nose” which was subsequently illustrated by Maurice Sendak. The School Library Journal review of Zwerger’s version in 1994 suggested that the Sendak book was infinitely more kid-friendly than hers. I think that’s true to a certain extent. You get a lot more pictures with the Sendak and the book itself is a much smaller format. While Zwerger excels in infinitely beautiful watercolors, Sendak’s pen and inks with just the slightest hint of orange for color are almost cartoonish in comparison. What I would argue then is that the intended age of the audience is different. Sure the text is remarkably similar, but in Zwerger’s hands this becomes a fairytale for kids comfortable with Narnia and Hogwarts. I remember as a tween sitting down with my family’s copy of World Tales by Idries Shah as well as other collected fairytales. Whether a readaloud for a fourth grade class, an individual tale for the kid obsessed with the fantastical, or bedtime reading for older ages, Dwarf Nose doesn’t go for the easy audience, but it does go for an existing one.

Lisbeth Zwerger is a fascinating illustrator with worldwide acclaim everywhere except, perhaps, America. It’s not that her art feels too “foreign” for U.S. palates, necessarily. I suspect that as with the concerns with the length of Dwarf Nose, Zwerger’s art is usually seen as too interstitial for this amount of text. We want more art! More Zwerger! I’ve read a fair number of her books over the years, so I was unprepared for some of the more surreal elements of this one. In one example the witch Herbwise is described as tottering in a peculiar fashion. “…it was as if she had wheels on her legs, and might tumble over any moment and fall flat on her face on the paving stones.” For this, Zwerger takes Hauff literally. Her witch is more puppet than woman, with legs like bicycle wheels and a face like a Venetian plague doctor. We have the slightly unnerving sensation that the book we are reading is, in fact, a performance put on for our enjoyment. That’s not a bad thing, but it is unexpected.

DwarfNose3When Zwerger’s Dwarf Nose came out in 1994 it was entering a market where folktales were on the outs. Still, libraries bought it widely. A search on WorldCat reveals that more than 500 libraries currently house in on their shelves after all these years. And while folktale sections of children’s rooms do have a tendency to fall into disuse, it is possible that the book has been reaching its audience consistently over the years. It may even be time for an upgrade. Though it won’t slot neatly into our general understanding of what a fairytale consists of, Dwarf Nose will find its home with like-minded fellows. Oddly touching.

On shelves April 1st.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Misc: Check out this fantastic review of the same book by 32 pages.

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30. Children’s Literary Salon: Ethics in Nonfiction

You know what the kids today are into?  Ethics.  Specifically, ethics in nonfiction.  Could anything be more fun?  Actually, no.  At least, not the way I play it.

As you may know I’ve started my Children’s Literary Salon series here in Evanston, IL and as luck would have it there are a slew of talented locals about who are actually willing to sacrifice a lovely Saturday afternoon with me.  This month I’m pleased as punch to host Candace Fleming (THE FAMILY ROMANOV), Judith Fradin (THE PRICE OF FREEDOM), Barb Rosenstock (THE NOISY PAINTBOX), and Sally M. Walker (WINNIE) for a talk about all the ethical issues surrounding nonfiction for kids these days.  But don’t take my word for it.  Check out this killer poster Evanston Public Library created for the event:

Ethics in Nonfiction

Bet you wish you could attend.  Bet you wish there was some kind of live video feed you could watch of the talk.  Well, guess what?  There is!  Check out the live Google Hangout here on 3/26 at 2:00 CST.  Yes, come on over (virtually) to see some seriously fantastic women talk on a subject with far reaching ramifications.

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31. Cover Reveal: Welcome to Wonderland by Chris Grabenstein

Okay, a little background before we launch into this one.  Before Chris Grabenstein wrote Mr. Lemoncello’s Library (a book for which he is justifiably famous) he wrote a whole heaping helpful of other books.  For decades.  Seriously, the man has paid his dues.  Now he has a new book out with absolutely zip, zero, zilch Lemoncello ties and I get to reveal the cover.  Here’s what makes me happy about this:

  1. There is a pink flamingo involved.
  2. Motels make me happy, which I’ll admit is odd but there you go.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you . . . Welcome to Wonderland.

Welcome to Wonderland

A beauty, yes?

And as a delicious little closing, here’s an interview I conducted with said Mr. Grabenstein last year. Note the truly amazing images behind his head.  Now THAT is what a children’s author’s home should look like people.  Stuffs stuffs n’ more stuffs.

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32. Building the Perfect Nonfiction Blog/Site

Recently I taught a course at National Louis University on social media as it pertains to various aspects of literature for kids and teens (I believe the official name of the course was “Social Media and P-12 Youth Literature”).  Never having taught before, I was a bit nervous.  Fortunately my students, a group of savvy teachers and librarians, made for a great group.  In our last face-to-face class we discussed nonfiction blogs, websites, and other resources that offer children’s book tie-ins.  In doing so we stumbled on the perpetual problem of finding the ideal nonfiction book website for use by educators.

It all got me to thinking.  What would the perfect nonfiction online site even look like?  Whether a blog or a website, surely it wouldn’t be too difficult to make one.  So we brainstormed the ideal one-stop-shopping location for folks pining for a website that has it all.

Today, I present that brainstorming to you.  For anyone out there who has too much time on their hands and a yen for nonfiction, here are the official suggestions for . . .

The Perfect Nonfiction Online Site

For Use by Teachers/Librarians/Parents

 

Must Have Aspects:

  • Includes brief reviews of great nonfiction titles that highlight key aspects of a nonfiction text. One of many reasons I wouldn’t be a good creator of such a site.  If you’ve read my reviews then you know that they revel in loquaciousness.  Fun for me, but impractical for teachers who don’t have time to linger on every single book on the site.  Longer reviews could potentially have a home on the site but these would have to be accompanied by bullet points that summarize the main points and discuss the quality of the text.  Long story short, teachers don’t have time for wordy reviews.
  • Good search capabilities (tagging, organizes posts by grade level/topic, etc.).  Lots of lovely reviews won’t do you much good if you can’t find them when you need them, after all.  This site would be best if it could enable teachers to find nonfiction resources quickly.
  • What standards does each book cover?  This is a reference to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which is of particular use to those teachers and librarians working in a public school setting.  Any site that contained this information for each book would be doing the world a service.  Some books come pre-loaded with this information.  For others, it would have to be conjured up from scratch.
  • Is specific about how each book could be used in the classroom. This ties into the previous note about CCSS.  Crafts, activities, video tie-ins, credible online sources, and even readalikes would be great additional information to provide with each book.
  • Text sets. The best way I can describe this one is to direct your attention to the book sets created by MyLibraryNYC.  See how they’ve grouped books together by subject and grade level?  This site would provide similar information.  I wouldn’t mind if a coupled also linked to fictional titles with nonfiction tie-ins to one subject area or another.
  • Personal experiences in using each book with kids. Okay, this one’s key.  Imagine if each book came with a section where teachers and librarians and homeschooling parents could include tips and stories on their successes of failures with individual books.  A testimonials area, as it were.  This could even cover the readability of each book. How is the content? Is it too high level for one grade level or another?
  • Links to educator guides.  Why do too much work when much of it already exists out there for public consumption?

You are now beginning to see why such a site as this does not yet exist (not for free, anyway).  The amount of work each title would require would be ginormous. Then again, think about what would happen if public teachers knew about this site.  It would be their most useful curricular resource.

Someday.

 

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33. Video Sunday: Great Scott!

Ack!  Too many good videos, too little time!  We’ve an embarrassment of riches today.  The only question really is where to start.  And the only natural answer is with Obama’s nominee for the Librarian of Congress.  Not much of a question there, really.

Next up, there is beginning to be a bit of a tradition of authors and illustrators recording videos of how they got “the call” when they won the Caldecott or Newbery (I almost wrote and/or Newbery, which is an interesting near flub).  Last year we had Dan Santat’s video.  This year, Sophie Blackall’s:

At this rate it may behoove us to just give the medals to people who are good at making videos.  And the Newbery Medal goes to . . . Tyler Oakley!

Now let’s get down to brass tacks.  People, there are awards out there that go beyond the mere borders of this great nation of ours.  And the Hans Christian Andersen Award is the greatest of these (though the Astrid Lindgren Award gives it a run for its money).  Now they’ve made a video for us that goes through the 2016 nominees.  I adore this.   I just want to meet all these people.  Suzy Lee!!!  Now, weirdly, I want her to adopt me.  And Iran! How cool is that?

This next book trailer seemingly has an international flavor to it, but is homegrown Americana through and through.  It may also be the most beautiful trailer of 2016 thus far.

Thanks to educating alice for the link.

Earlier this week, Phil Nel posted a killer post called Seuss on Film.  The piece is “a brief (but far from complete) collection of Seuss on film!”  Turns out, it was somewhat tricky getting Mr. Geisel on the old camera.  Phil’s a trooper, though.  He found newsreel after newsreel and has posted them on YouTube for our collective enjoyment.  You should really read his posting yourself.  In fact, I insist upon it.  And just to whet your whistle, here’s a jaw-dropping 1964 discussion with Seuss in New Zealand where he improvises answers to kids’ questions.

As for our Off-Topic Video of the week, I give this to you because I love you.  Really, truly, deeply love you.

1.21Gigawatts

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34. Smell No Evil

There’s gold in them thar book sales!

So I’m at the Evanston Public Library in their booksale room and lo and behold this beauty jumps out at me.

Ccj6zyDWwAEbo8E

Putting aside the fact that this is without a doubt the first and only Sesame Street book that repeats the word “evil” in its title, it took me several viewings before I realized that there were three twiddlebugs at the top reenacting the famous three wise monkeys stance.

Now the book is a scratch-and-sniff title circa 1976 (and this is the 4th printing so it must have been popular).  One person on Twitter mentioned the fact that the covers says that this is “A Golden Fragrance Book”.  Were there others?  You BET there were!  On the back I found a listing of other titles.  They were:

  • The Sweet Smell of Christmas
  • The Winnie-the-Pooh Scratch and Sniff Book
  • Bambi’s Fragrant Forest [surely not a good idea]
  • A Nose for Trouble
  • Detective Arthur on the Scent
  • Little Bunny Follows His Nose
  • Max the Nosey Bear

I remember all too well how popular scratch-and-sniff books were when I was a kid.  I loved them.  I had one (the name long since forgotten so it might well be one of the books mentioned here) where you could scratch a chocolate ice cream cone and smell it.

So what is the history of the scratch-and-sniff book?  It occurred to me that there might well be scratch-and-sniff historians out there that have written long papers on this very subject, so I set off to find out.  I did find a Bookriot link called Scratch and Sniff Books for Grownups and an Economist piece on how scratch-and-sniff really works but the actual history appeared in the conflicting reports from Fiction Circus and Wikipedia.  Long story short, it was a novelty that served its time.

Might we see a resurgence in scratch-and-sniff in the future?  After all, tactile objects are all the rage in this, the digital era.  The internet cannot provide smells yet.  But scent is a fickle commodity.  Remember Smell-o-Vision or Moss Man, the pungent He-Man character that smelled like a particularly potent version of that Christmas tree that smoking drivers would hang off their rear view mirrors?  Smelling weird things is okay for a lark but it’s not the kind of thing you build a business on.

Still, I suspect the children’s book world has another scratch-and-sniff era coming.  And who knows?  Perhaps one day a Caldecott winner will be of the scratch-and-sniff variety.  And if you believe that I’ve got the loveliest little bridge over here that I’d like to sell you . . .

 

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17 Comments on Smell No Evil, last added: 3/6/2016
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35. Review of the Day: The Storyteller by Evan Turk

Storyteller1The Storyteller
By Evan Turk
Atheneum (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
$24.99
ISBN: 9781481435185
Ages 4-8
On shelves June 28th

Credit the internet age for doing what the television age never could. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there is a movement around the world that can be interpreted as nothing so much as a direct response to our digital age. You may have noticed it in small things, like the rise of Steampunk or the sudden surge of interest in Maker stations and the kinds of “hacking” that look suspiciously similar to activities found in shop class in days of yore. All this comes about because people have come to believe that we do not create enough tangible objects in our day-to-day lives anymore. And while this is true, let us not forget that we do not create enough intangible objects either. I’m talking about storytelling, that ancient artform that is currently seeing a worldwide resurgence. It isn’t just the increase in storytelling festivals and podcasts like The Moth here in the States. Young people in countries worldwide are doing what their elders have desired for decades; they’re asking to be told a story. Taking his cues from the newfound interest of young Moroccans in Marrakech in the ancient storytelling tradition, author/illustrator Evan Turk uses the folktale format to craft an original story about storytelling, weaving, history, and language. The end result is a twisty turny story within a story within a story that challenges young readers even as it lures them in.

Once, in the great country of Morocco, storytellers flourished and the cities’ fountains flowed with cool, clear water. As time went on the people became comfortable and forgot about the storytellers, and so they disappeared over the years. So too did the fountains dry up, until one day a boy went looking for some water. What he found instead was an old storyteller. As the man told his tale he would end his story with a story within a story and the boy would find his brass cup filled with liquid. Even as this was happening, however, a desert djinn saw the drought as an opportunity to reclaim the cities that had previously held him back with their fountains. Yet when the djinn was set to level his town, the boy managed to delay him with his storytelling. And as he wove his tale, the people were able to refill their fountains until finally storytelling and water ran freely in the cities once more.

Storyteller2My brain is not what it used to be. Remind me again. What’s that term for a story that tells a story that tells a story that ends only when the innermost story doubles back and each tale is finished in turn? Is there a word such a thing? I suspect that the storytellers amongst us would know. The most obvious similarity to this book that comes to mind is, of course, the tale of Scheherazade. Indeed, the boy uses his stories to trick the djinn. And what could be a more natural comparison? In both tales it is storytelling that proves to be the saving of us all. Our thirst is quenched and we are tied to our history like never before. The obvious question then is whether or not Turk’s text is too complex for kids to follow. Sure, he distinguishes between the tales with different colored fonts, but will that be enough to allow them to remember what came before as they plunge deeper and deeper into the narrative? I think there may be some confusion at work, certainly. I wouldn’t necessarily hand this to a three or four-year-old. However, Turk’s text takes pains to remind the reader where the tale was before. The art helps as well. Confusion, such as it is, will be held to a minimum.

I first knew of Turk’s work when he illustrated Bethany Hegedus’s Grandfather Gandhi. In that book he integrated real spun cotton threads into the art, knowing full well the importance spinning had to Gandhi and his followers. In this book, weaving is the craft of choice so I wondered, not without reason, if woven threads would make their way into the art. As it happens, there are plenty of water-soluble crayons, colored drawing pencils, inks, indigo, sugared green tea, and even art created by heat gun and fire in the illustrations, but nothing so simple as thread. Turk mentions this on his publication page and he puts a little note to the reader there as well. It reads, “Look for a blue glimmer of hope to appear around each story!” and a small blue diamond appears. Naturally, I was curious so I looked. Sure as shooting, after each story’s text a diamond appears. However, as the stories appear within stories within stories, the diamonds grow more elaborate and decorative. Then, as the stories end one by one, the diamonds simplify once more. I began searching the art for more diamonds and here Turk doesn’t disappoint. If you look closely at the borders of the book, you see that the diamonds appear when there is hope and fade from blue to brown diamonds when hope dries up. As the storytelling increases the borders fill in more and more blue, just as the townspeople fill their fountains with bowl after bowl of water. Point out to a child reader the diamond motif and you are sure to be surprised by all that they find hidden in these pages.

Storyteller4I should probably say something about Turk’s art itself. When I reviewed Grandfather Gandhi I had difficulty putting into words precisely what Turk does with his images. So I looked at the book’s professional reviews. His art causes reviewers to use terms like “dynamic visuals”, “stylized” and “strikingly patterned”. They say his art displays “bold, expressive imagery” or that he “mixes carefully detailed renderings with abstracted expressions of emotional struggle.” I agree with all of that but no one mentions his faces and hands. The patterns here are striking and upon closer inspection they yield such marvelous details it wouldn’t take much for this art to spin wildly out of control, opting for an abstract approach to the proceedings as a whole. Instead, Turk centers his art through the hands and faces of his characters. Look closely and you’ll see what I mean. The old storyteller’s hands are gnarled and wonderfully expressive, even as his audience of one clutches a single brass bowl. The hands of a cunning neighbor stroke her child as she schemes, while a princess, escaping on the night before her wedding, holds up her hennaed hands in despair. Hands. Heads. Hearts.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about diversity in children’s literature. Specifically, some of that discussion has concerned those books written by white people about other cultures. It’s not a new phenomenon but what is a bit new is the increasing understanding that if you are going to use another culture, you need to do your homework. If, for example, you are setting a story in Morocco, then you need to make the readers understand why you made that choice. That it wasn’t arbitrary. This is yet another of the many reasons I’m so impressed with Turk’s work here. That he sets his story in Morocco (contemporary Morocco, by the look of it) is deeply purposeful. The Author’s Note at the end explains further. From this we learn that Morocco’s public storytellers or hlaykia have told tales for “nearly one thousand years” and yet “Only a handful of master storytellers remain”. All is not lost, though. Renewed interest in storytelling has surfaced, specifically at a restaurant called Café Clock in Marrakech. Turk then closes with a small Bibliography of sources on everything from storytelling to carpet weaving. The book then is not an appropriation of an “exotic” culture done on a whim but rather a considered, thoughtful selection that serves as an ideal setting for a tale about storytelling then, now, and in the future.

Storyteller3It was once part of a children’s librarian’s training to know how to tell a story from memory. Here in America it was even considered part of a children’s librarian’s heritage, though in the last few decades it has been fast forgotten. There are still pockets that remember, though. That’s why books like Turk’s give me the oddest little sense of hope. As I mentioned before, storytelling everywhere is seeing renewed interest. It seems odd to say, but this book, wrapped as it is in classic motifs and themes dating back hundreds, even thousands, of years, is one of the freshest, most timely picture books I’ve had the honor to read in a long time. Visually stunning with a storyline to match, Turk is beginning to make good on his talents. This is a man with storytelling in his blood and bones. Our children reap the rewards. A can’t miss book.

On shelves June 28th.

Source: F&G sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

  • Frederick by Leo Lionni
  • Tell Me the Day Backwards by Albert Lamb, ill. David McPhail
  • The Girl Who Saved Yesterday by Julius Lester, ill. Carl Angel

Misc:

See more images from the book here.

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2 Comments on Review of the Day: The Storyteller by Evan Turk, last added: 3/2/2016
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36. Fusenews: Different cultures. Same battlefield.

  • LeapYearHappy Leap Day!  Unlike Leap Day William here I have no candy to bestow upon the weeping children of the world, but I do have some keen links.  First and foremost, this old newspaper article (possibly The New York Times) courtesy of Andrew Fairweather.  It’s a little difficult to read here but it says, “THE QUESTION: As a librarian, what was the most unusual request ever made of you?” Between the voracious pygmy pig, the nightingale being attacked and the primo embalmer, these are some good reference questions!

AndrewFairweather

Thanks to Andrew Fairweather for the image.

  • Just in case you missed it, on Febrary 24th there was a great piece called “You Will Be Tokenized” in Brooklyn Magazine which moves heaven and earth to correct many misconceptions about working in the publishing industry today (monetary misconceptions amongst others).
  • I’m not one for wallpaper.

What’s that, you say?

You said there’s Carson Ellis wallpaper out there?

EllisWallpaper

I’ll take three houses’ worth, thank you.

Thanks to Alison Morris for the link.

  • Speaking of PW, if you didn’t follow their recent link to this story on publishing children’s literature in Russia, you need to double back and do so. This is the kind of story I’d like to hear about more often.  International publishing is absolutely fascinating to me and we hear so little about it.
  • Read that article and then follow it up with a brief examination of the talk, “Brown Gold: African American Children’s Literature as a Genre of Resistance.”  In one case you have a government cracking down on precisely what children can and cannot read (“Between the ages of 6 and 12, children were allowed to learn about illness but not death”).  On the other you have an examination of children’s books by, “Alice Walker, bell hooks, W.E.B. DuBois, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou and James Baldwin…”  The sole problem with this piece is that it doesn’t delve into Michelle Martin’s speech or link to a transcript.  Still, I love pairing the authoritarianism on the one hand and the resistance on the other. Different cultures.  Same battlefield.  Thanks to Phil Nel for the link.
  • Daily Image:

And finally, Boing Boing recently highlighted these shoes from Irregular Choices.  And though they may require taking out a loan on your home, I wouldn’t say no if you wanted to bequeath them to me in some manner.  I’m a size 9 1/2, in case you’re curious: Alice1Alice2Previous shoe-related posts may be found here.

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9 Comments on Fusenews: Different cultures. Same battlefield., last added: 3/1/2016
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37. Review of the Day: ¡Olinguito, de la A a la Z! / Olinguito, from A to Z by Lulu Delacre

OLINGUITO¡Olinguito, de la A a la Z! / Olinguito, from A to Z
By Lulu Delacre
Children’s Book Press, an imprint of Lee & Low Books
$18.95
ISBN: 978-0-89239-327-5
Ages 4-7
On shelves now

Adults, I have a little secret. Have you ever wanted to sound smart at dinner parties? Knowledgeable in the ways of the world and how it works? It’s easy to do if you know the secret. Come closer… I’ll whisper it to you. Read nonfiction children’s books. Seriously, do that and watch as your brain expands. If I can talk with any competency about the Donner Party or the siege of Leningrad or the Pentagon Papers, it is because I read nonfiction written for people half my age and younger. Most recently I learned about olinguitos. Ever heard of them? If not, you aren’t alone. These shy little rainforest denizens were only discovered and announced as recently as 2013. Not too much is known about them, which makes placing them into picture books a bit of a challenge. Author/illustrator Lulu Delacre had a plan, though. All she’d need to do would be to turn the story of the discovery of olinguitos into a bilingual/alphabet/nonfiction/search & find title. You see? Easy peasy. Or, put another way, so incredibly difficult that no one else would have ever attempted it. But that’s what I like about Ms. Delacre. Sometimes the craziest ideas churn out the most interesting books.

Olinguito1A zoologist from Washington D.C. is in the cloud forest today. He is searching for the elusive olinguito, a squirrel-like mammal that dwells in the trees. Along his path we meet the rainforest in an abecedarian fashion. From the A for the Andes to the M of moss and monkey, finally ending with Z for the zoologist himself, the book observes the many denizens that call the cloud forest their home. The book is entirely bilingual and backmatter (also bilingual) consists of notes on the “Discovery of the Olinguito”, facts about the Cloud Forest, information about the illustrations, hints on how to be an explorer, a heavily illustrated Glossary, “More Helpful Words”, and an extensive list of Author’s Sources.

I’ve read plenty of Spanish bilingual picture books in my day. In doing so, I’m a bit handicapped since I don’t speak the language. Still, there are things that I can observe from my end. For example, the difficulty Ms. Delacre must have faced in writing two texts, both of which had to contain specific letters of the alphabet. Now the primary language in this book, to a certain extent, is the Spanish. For each letter the Spanish sections get a lot more use than the English. Take the letter “J”. In the Spanish language section it reads, “Jigua jaguey y jazmin brotan, crecen en tal jardin.” Pretty straightforward. Now in the English: “Jigua, fig, and coffee trees sprout and grow in this garden.” Were it not for the “jingua” we’d be out a J. To be fair, sometimes the two languages get equal use of a letter. “I”, for example, is “insectos incredibles y una inerte iguana” and also “incredible insects, and a resting iguana.” However, more often than not the Spanish gets more words with the chosen letter. This is particularly true near the end of the book where the English translations at times completely do away with the letter at all. In “X” and “U” (surprisingly) not a single word in the English portions begin with those letters. What is clear is that the Spanish is the focus of the book. With that in mind, the book acquires another potential use; excellent reading for people learning Spanish.

Olinguito2It’s been a long time since I reviewed a Lulu Delacre book. I think the last time I seriously considered one was when Ms. Delacre illustrated Lucia Gonzalez’s The Storyteller’s Candle. There, the book integrated newspapers and other mixed media to tell the tale of two children introducing their immigrant neighborhood to the library. Here, the art is also mixed media but there’s a smoothness to it that was lacking in Storyteller’s Candle. In the back of the book Ms. Delacre mentions that there are real pressed leaves and flowers in every picture (something I entirely missed on my first, second, and third reads). There is also a zoologist in every picture, like a fuzzy little olinguito-seeking Waldo. Add in the colors, angles, and gorgeous spreads and you’ve got yourself one heck of a colorful outing. Ms. Delacre even mentions in her note at the book’s end that, just to be honest, these pictures are entirely too clear. “I decided to remove the clouds and limit the vegetation. I represented the fog and mist with squares of translucent paper framing the alphabetic letters. This allowed the species to be in plain sight.” Not only is she honest but creative as well.

I’ll level with you that I’m not entirely certain how one goes about using this book with kids. That is not to say that I don’t think it can be done and done well. But what Ms. Delacre has conjured up here isn’t a simple book. It’s not simplistic. The English text lacks much of the fun alliteration of the Spanish, which means the teacher or parent who reads this with their non-Spanish speaking children will need to span that gap themselves. It’s not a readaloud in the sense that you can just read it to a group without comment. This is an interactive text. You need to be spotting the zoologist, naming the vegetation and animals, flipping back and forth between the pictures and the glossary for clarification on different names, etc. In other words, this book requires the adult reader to be an active rather than passive participant in the reading process. Olinguito is more than mere words on a page.

There’s a soft spot in my heart for any book that proves to kids that there is more out there to find and discover than they might expect. The oceans haven’t been mapped out. Outer space remains, in many ways, a mystery. And hidden in the rainforests are tiny creatures just waiting to be discovered. Our world still needs explorers. If it takes one tiny mammal to prove that to them, so be it. A clever, lovely, wise little book. Knowledge of Spanish helpful, but not required.

On shelves now.

Like This? Then Try:

Professional Reviews:

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38. The Promise of Booger Beard: The Rights of Diverse Silliness

Last year this book came out:

BoogerBeard

It’s pretty much just as gross as you might expect.  Boy sneezes.  The sneeze congeals into a massive beard o’ boogers.  The boy is enraptured with his newfound facial “hair”, though his mom tells him to remove it before he eats.  He’s disinclined.  It was sort of a graphic novel/picture book hybrid.  It also starred a Latino hero and had Spanish words nicely integrated into the text.  It was, in short, the future I want to belong to.

I shall endeavor to explain.  We’ve been talking a lot about diverse children’s literature in the last few years.  A discussion that has been a long time coming.  We talk about needing to see more diverse authors, illustrators, agents, editors, publicists, reviewers, and books (whether they’re YA novels or board books).  In the last year I’ve seen the old myths about why we don’t see more diverse books dying on the vine.  Some still cling there, though.  And one of the most dangerous arguments maintains that it is just plain old difficult to sell diverse books.  That in certain communities children naturally gravitate away from diverse covers in favor of those that feature kids who look a little more white.  Now I’m not saying this isn’t sometimes true.  But let’s take a closer look at what precisely we’re trying to sell to them.  Or rather, what we’re trying to sell to them actually looks like.

A recent article from Publishers Weekly addressed part of this perception.  How Independent Booksellers Hand-Sell and Merchandise Diverse Books is an interesting peek into the bookseller world.  A good piece (with a notable shout out to Evanston’s Bookends and Beginnings!) I was particularly taken with the books that got name dropped.  The Great Green Heist, One Word From Sophia, The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, etc.  You know what those books have in common?  The same thing you’ll find with Booger Beard.  They’re actually fun to read!!

Look.  Historical fiction is awesome.  It has its place in literature.  It allows authors to bring to the fore great writing and to expand young minds on a slate of different topics.  But true diversity doesn’t come until you get goofball diversity.  Books that kids would actually want to pick up for pleasure reading.  Beach reads.  Stuff they trade to one another.  Stuff they sneak trips to the school bathroom to sneak a look at.  I mean, do you know how bloody hard it is to find fantasy novels with African-American kids starring in them?  I’m not saying it’s impossible, I’m just saying it’s hard and it shouldn’t have to be.  Or how about something diverse to hand the kid that likes Diary of a Wimpy Kid?  Got a similar kind of notebook novel that’s diverse in some way?  Aside from the fact that the Dork Diaries have a diverse author/illustrator and there are gay parents in the Popularity Papers, the pickings are slim.

Year’s ago I put all my hopes on Sassy by Sharon Draper.  Remember Sassy?  Here’s the cover:

sassy

That cover made my life.  It was freakin’ rare too.  I’ve never seen another book with a photo of a black girl (or boy, or kid that wasn’t generally white) on an early chapter book jacket before.  Kids looked at that book and wanted to read it.  Now the print edition is unavailable (though apparently you can still get it as an ebook).

So Booger Beard, I salute you.  In you, I hope to find a future of silly, gross, funny, magical, weirdo titles.  Diversity isn’t just about the serious stuff.  Sometimes the funny needs a shot in the arm as well.

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39. Jolts of Children’s Literature in Unexpected Places

This is one of those series I like to do, regardless of whether or not anyone else finds it interesting. So, in effect, it’s the most self-indulgent of my postings.  Still, I think these books say something about how children’s literature is viewed by mainstream culture.  And in that there is a benefit.

Onward!

RomeoJuliet

I include this not merely because it takes Shakespeare and applies a Choose Your Own Adventure format to the template, but because of the art.  There are images in this book by Kate Beaton and Jon Klassen (who are buds) amongst others.  FYI.

WelcomeThieves

Sean Beaudoin is first and foremost a YA author in my eyes.  So to hear that he’s come out with a collection of short stories for adults is interesting.  However, the real thing that caught my eye was a Kirkus description of one of those tales.  Say they, one to watch is the story, ” ‘Base Omega Has Twelve Dictates,’ a really funny satire of teen dystopian fiction.”  This I gotta see.

LauraIngallsWilder

Did you know about this one?  I sure as heck didn’t.  According to the description, this is the first time the letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder have been collected into a single book.  This would have been infinitely useful as a resource when Julie, Peter, and I were writing Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature.  Lackaday.

Next up . . .

Murder42ndStreet

But wait, you say.  Wasn’t this book already featured in an Unexpected Jolt posting?  Ah, no, you’re thinking of this title:

LethalLegacy

That one came out in 2009.  Of the two covers I’m gonna give this one to the new Lehane book since the police-tape-as-lion-necklace is more visually dynamic than a mere “Police Line Do Not Cross” pylon.

And finally . . .

Ten points to anyone who can identify the picture book in this photograph:

BecomingGrandma

It’s clearly a real book.  They didn’t make one up for a photo shoot (which happens a lot more often than you might think).  So what is it?  I thought Mercer Mayer maybe since the central figure is a bit Little Critter-ish but I don’t necessarily trust my instincts on this one.  Help?

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40. Review of the Day: The Magic Mirror by Susan Hill Long

MagicMirrorThe Magic Mirror: Concerning a Lonely Princess, a Foundling Girl, a Scheming King, and a Pickpocket Squirrel
By Susan Hill Long
Knopf (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-553-51134-2
Ages 9-12
On shelves May 10th

What do you want from a fairy tale? Magic? Romance? Derring-do? Despicable villainy? Academics and scholars have puzzled and puzzed until their puzzlers were sore over what it is about the European fairy tale genre that so enthralls us. Recently fairy tale lovers have seen the entertainment industry discover that fairy tales are still a primo source of capital. On the book side of things, I’ve seen a distinct uptick in retellings of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and more in the last five years. Classic fairy tales have it easy. It’s the newbies that have a hard time going. How do you get a foothold in a genre that’s been in existence for centuries? In The Magic Mirror by Susan Hill Long, the author decides to simplify. Merely take the elements that suit the story best (highway robbers, princesses, and just a smidgen of magic) and then weave in some surprisingly stellar writing. The result is fairy tale fare that reminds one of nothing so much as the best of Gail Carson Levine. Funny, friendly, witty and sly, this makes for perfect bedtime reading.

Margaret (or Maggot, depending on who’s talking about her) should technically be grateful for her life. Though she sports a lame foot (an “accident of birth” she’s been told) and is an orphan, she has a roof over her head, food in her belly, and aside from avoiding Thomas, the local bully, not too much trouble in life. But of course she’s desperately lonely, and that’s a problem that’s hard to cure. When she makes the acquaintance of a man with a wooden leg, she receives in a trade a mirror capable of showing anyone their heart’s desire. But what she sees when she peers into it is a strange wild-eyed man she’s never laid eyes on before. When Minka, the woman who cares for Margaret, decides to marry her off, our heroine decides that leg or no leg she is not going to have her life decided for her. And in the course of her adventures she’ll little suspect there are royal mix-ups, a king with little in the way of fatherly feelings, a boy with a bagpipe, and a light-fingered squirrel in her very near future.

Is anyone going to challenge me when I say that comparing a book, any book, to The Princess Bride is never a good idea? The Princess Bride inspires a loving fandom that jealously guards its unique storytelling. Still, there are many familiar tropes in that book/film. A princess, a pirate, giants, swordplay, you name it. When writing a new fairy tale you Harry Potter it. You take those familiar elements and weave them into something new. So when Ms. Long wrote The Magic Mirror she did exactly the same thing. Additionally, by splitting her narrative into an increasingly large cast of characters, she gives it a distinctly Princess Bride-like feel. It has humor and fights and baddies in all the same ways. When Kirkus reviewed this book they said that it was predictable and unbelievable (because of the coincidences in the plot). I’d counter that there’s nothing any more predictable or unbelievable here than you’d find in any modern fairy tale, be it Ella Enchanted or Frozen, and just as much joy.

In this particular case it’s Long’s descriptions and characters that stay with a reader long after the book has been put down. Even the foulest villain has an emotional weak spot, and characters that are set up to seem like baddies at the beginning (like Minka) turn out to be pretty soft in the end. Plus you really root for these characters. Some authors think it necessary to drown their villains in a thick sauce of sadism so that when the heroes triumph it’s an even keener victory. But when writing books for 9-12 year olds there’s no need to pile on the bloodshed. In the right writers’ hands, as long as the antagonist is preventing the heroes from their happy ending, that’s all you really need to do to keep the plot moving at a sharp clip. I liked the people I met in this book, but the descriptions were probably my favorite aspect of the novel. Lines like, “Her voice climbed up the sentence like a ladder, and quavered at the top,” make me happy. Ditto wisdoms like “It’s all in the angle of the squint.” Or a description of a cathedral’s shadows where a character “shuffled away from the creeping dark so that she might escape God’s notice.”

I did experience a palpable sense of relief that it was written today, though. Since Margaret has a physical disability (a foot and leg injured long ago that were never set correctly) there is a brief suggestion at one point that there might be a magical remedy to her problem. I was reminded of a similar middle grade novel Handbook for Dragon Slayers which also starred a girl with an injured limb. In that book a cure for her disability is bandied about and ultimately rejected in an excellent manner. Indeed, the book went on to win a Schneider Family Book Award given annually to books that embody, “an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.” Reading The Magic Mirror I had the very clear sense that if this book had been written in the past an easy cure for Margaret’s leg would have been part of the story’s happy ending and that would be that. These days such endings are mildly insulting answers to what, in truth, are very real problems. Happily The Magic Mirror does not fall into such a trap (though sadly the heroine does have some unfortunate thoughts about a successful man with a hunch on his back that did not gel well with the book’s otherwise positive embrace of disability).

As it happens, I did find one particular aspect of the book problematic. This is Ms. Long’s second novel so while the bones of this story are strong there are aspects to the writing that will need a bit of strengthening in the future. Specifically, the exposition. Now the art of exposition is learned, not born. Filling the reader in on a hitherto unknown back-story is no easy task. At best, back-story is woven into the dialogue so naturally the reader is hardly aware that they’re learning about what’s come before. Clunky back-story, in contrast, places huge chunks of it en masse in the same general vicinity of the novel. Alas, near the end of The Magic Mirror the author has set herself up to reveal not just the back-story of our heroine, but of at least three to four other people as well. The result is ultimately somewhat confusing, with new characters popping up (a midwife, a thief’s wife) to fill in the details out of the blue. Without a character guide (which would, admittedly, give away some of the plot) there is little to help kids distinguish between Petra vs. Minka vs. Margaret.

For all that there is a magic mirror in the story the book is pretty devoid of magical activities. You won’t find dragons or wizards or much of anything out of this world here, with the sole exception of the mirror itself. It’s almost a pity that it’s in the title since you could probably hand this title to kids that only like realism (and they do indeed exist) and they’d get just as much out of it as the most ravenous fantasy fan. While it’s not a perfect novel, it is a ripping good yarn that keeps you enthralled from page one onward. Will you see where it’s going? Maybe. But you’ll enjoy the sights along the way. Fine fantastical stuff.

For ages 9-12.

On shelves May 10th.

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41. Fusenews: “I was at dog church!”

  • First and foremost, this:

KadirNewYorker

That would be Kadir Nelson’s tribute to the Schomburg Library in NYC. A couple things to note about it.  First, in an amazing bit of research you can see that he includes both the old Schomburg Library (now overrun with ivy) and the new Schomburg together at the bottom.  Second, the inclusion of Langston Hughes front and center is particularly clever since Langston is practically the first thing a person sees when they enter the building.  Or rather, Langston’s words which are embedded in the very floor.  I do miss the Schomburg. This brought all that back.

  • In all the talks we’ve heard from people about A FINE DESSERT and A BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR GEORGE WASHINGTON, I sometimes feel like we haven’t heard enough from the teachers about how they teach topics like slavery.  That’s why posts like Monica Edinger’s In the Classroom: Teaching About Slavery are so important.  If you read no other link today, read this one.
  • This one’s for the librarians.  Want to know all the different rates publishers charge libraries for ebooks?  A handy dandy chart explains all.
  • Travis Jonker knew not what he hath wrought when he posted about The Most Annoying Board Book Ever.  I know precisely what book he’s talking about (as does anyone else who has encountered it).  I never get rid of books, as my household will attest, but THAT book I gave away with a flourish when I moved.  I wasn’t going to use precious box space cluttering it up with that monstrosity.  One of the buttons that’s supposed to sound like snoring actually sounds like Darth Vader.  And believe you me, you do NOT want the unsettling feeling that Vader is lurking around your house.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 10.22.02 PMSpeaking of radio, have you guys all heard James Kennedy (of 90-Second Newbery and The Order of Odd Fish fame) on Matthew Winner’s Let’s Get Busy podcast?  If you listen to no other interview on that show (and I include my own when I say that) listen to this one.  The two guys basically hit it out of the park right at the start when James mentions the plethora of The Call stories as they relate to ALA Award committees.  The dog church bit . . . seriously, you just have to listen.  And not just because an Oakland newspaper said of James that, “Between his wardrobe choices and excited mannerisms, he had the familiar air of Professor Gilderoy Lockhart in the Harry Potter film adaptations, only he was not a braggart.”  I always think of him as more a Xenophilius Lovegood type, but maybe that’s just the Rhys Ifans talking.

  • Man. I gotta apologize. Somebody somewhere alerted me to the Booktoss piece Say It With Me: Intersectionality and I’ve forgotten who they are.  Mea culpa.  In any case, this is a great piece of writing.  From Beyonce at the Superbowl to Ben Hatke’s Little Robot.  Not an easy connection, but Laura Jimenez manages it.  Kudos.
  • I think I failed to post this before, but Mike Lewis did a killer rundown of the CTTCB’s Social Media Institute in his piece Exiting the Echo Chamber.  I am, however, a little jealous at the title.  Wish I’d thought of it myself.
  • Why, yes.  I would like to attend a Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry exhibition at the Brooklyn Public Library.  However did you know?  But quick question: When did Wendell Minor illustrate the series?  It makes me happy but I want to see that work.
  • Things I’m Surprised More Publishers Don’t Do With Their Backlist: This. I guess it helps if you have a big recognizable name, but still. Now can we PLEASE discuss doing this with William’s Doll?  You want money?  I have money. (Fun Fact: I don’t have money – I just want to see it brought into the 21st century)
The tattered and faded stuffed animals--Pooh, Tigger, Kanga, Eeyore and Piglet--that inspired the children's tales of A.A. Milne sit in a glass case at a branch of the New York Public Library in New York, Thursday, February 5, 1998. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani paid a visit to the animals Thurday to show his support for keeping them in the city.(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Pooh and friends pre-2008

Though it contains an image of the original Winnie-the-Pooh toys that has to be more than eight years old (Donnell Library!), the Huffington Post article Christopher Robin Was Real, And Other Facts About Winnie-The-Pooh’s Author has some nice items in it.  Particularly point #2.  H.G. Wells?  Really?

  • Here’s another one for the librarians.  Booksellers too, as it happens.  According to a recent Nielsen Report, Social Omnivores And Book Placement Majorly Influence Children’s Book Buyership.  No surprises there.  What is surprising is that when it comes to selecting books, “The shelf has more influence than the promotional table, window display, bargain bin, etc. combined by a very wide margin.”.  Yep.  Your displays may look all kinds of pretty, but nothing beats good old fashioned shelving when it comes to checkouts/sales.  Who knew?  Thanks to Carl Schwanke for the link.
  • Word I Don’t Use Enough: Ostrobogulous. Disagree on peril of defining it (though this may help). Thanks to Phil Nel for the link.
  • “Where are the children’s books that celebrate working-class values and voices?” is not a question being asked by many folks here in America.  It is, however, being asked in The Guardian by Elen Caldecott.  And it is a question I would very much like us to start answering over here as well.
  • Daily Image:

Alison Morris, currently working as the Senior Director of Collection Development & Merchandising at First Book, is the cleverest crafty person I know.  Years ago she showed me how to make F&Gs into birdhouses.  Now she’s making classic children’s characters into marble magnets.

MarbleMagnets

Want to make your own?  Instructions can be found here.  Cheers, Alison!

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42. Should Authors and Illustrators Be Allowed to Collaborate?

harry-and-horsieThis past Saturday I held a Children’s Literary Salon here in Evanston on the topic of writing children’s books, common mistakes made by newcomers, where to go for advice, etc. (you can view the talk in its entirety here).  At one point I asked my panel to say one piece of advice they might offer to people who want to write children’s books.  And in time, one person mentioned (as I had hoped that they would) that it is always a mistake to send in a manuscript with an illustrator already in place.

Now this a commonly held belief in the world of children’s book publishing, and it’s true.  Editors would much rather pair your manuscript with an illustrator than have you walk in with one.  The sole time I recall seeing an exception, when it came to a debut author and a debut illustrator, was when David Letterman’s nanny wrote a picture book and a buddy of hers illustrated it (Harry and Horsie, in case you’re curious).

It goes above and beyond merely submitting your book, though.  Once a manuscript has been accepted the author is not to have direct contact with the artist as they illustrate the book.  There are a lot of good reasons for this, of course.  The last thing an editor needs is an insecure author badgering an illustrator who already knows their stuff.

The flip side of this is that the author has no idea what they may get in terms of their art.  Naturally the recent conversations surrounding A Fine Dessert and A Birthday Cake for George Washington come to mind.  In both cases the authors and artists were kept separate.  This may explain too why in both cases the authors made public statements without consulting their illustrators.  They didn’t feel that they were in this together, because they never had been together.  They were purposefully kept apart from the beginning.

Exceptions always exist, of course.  I heard a rumor that Last Stop on Market Street was partially inspired by Christian Robinson telling Matt de la Pena this story from his youth. Regardless of whether or not it’s true, I do believe the two had a fair amount of contact during the creation of the book.  Other author/illustrator pairs have worked in much the same way.  Mac Barnett, for example, appears to be buddies with every single one of his illustrators, to say nothing of his co-writers.

But by and large, if you write a book, you do not really have contact with your artist.  Them’s the rules.  It leads one to wonder if we would have a stronger body of picture book literature if more collaboration occurred.  How many Caldecott winners consist of author/illustrator pairs where the two were collaborating?  I suppose it helps if the author is married to the illustrator (I’m looking at you, Steads).  What are the benefits and do they outweigh the potential problems?

Food for thought.

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43. Caption Contest: What Is Betsy Thinking?

This photo was shot at the Social Media Institute hosted two weeks ago at National Louis University in partnership with the Center for Teaching Through Children’s Books and SCBWI.  It shows me sitting between the illustrious Mike Lewis (he of the oddly fuzzy tie) and the incomparable Colby Sharp.

SeriousBetsy

So the question before you is this: What am I thinking?

It’s a caption contest, folks.  Go!

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44. Cover Reveal: What a Beautiful Morning by Arthur A. Levine

It’s a cloudy February here in Illinois.  Yesterday the heavens opened up and let loose a downpour.  Today it is wet if not actively raining.  We are in the thick of winter, albeit an oddly warm one.  With all this in mind, I think we need some cheering up.

Now a friend recently pointed out to me that there are a plethora of books coming out this year penned by publishers and agents.  Crazy, right?  If I’d been paying attention I’d have put that in my SLJ trending piece.  In any case, today’s cover reveal is from the man who had the wherewithal to bring us Harry Potter.  Arthur A. Levine has a new picture book out (and it’s hardly his first) and it’s coming to our shelves on August 9th.

Behold!

KidsLogoORIGINALFILE

Aw. Bring it all home, Katie Kath.

Thanks to Cassie Drumm for the pic.

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45. Walking and Talking with . . . M.T. Anderson!

There were many fine and fantastic works of nonfiction for older children and teens in 2015.  One such book won the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction Award while another won an Honor.  Now those two authors chat about the process of creating narrative nonfiction.  We’ve featured a fair number of Walking and Talking chats on this site, but I think this one is of particular note.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Steve Sheinkin in conversation with M.T. Anderson:

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 12.06.06 AM

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 12.06.36 AM

For those of you curious about Mr. Anderson’s book you can see my interview with him here.

Thanks to Steve for allowing me to showcase his work.  For previous entries in the “Walking and Talking” series, please be sure to check out the following:

 

 

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46. Video Sunday: I Have Felt It

Are you aware of the Cozy Classics board book series? How about the felted board book versions of the original Star Wars movies? The other night I had dinner with Cozy Classics creator Holman Wang and we talked about his process. Turns out, the felted characters are needle felted entirely. A lawyer by trade, Holman learned how to felt through YouTube videos. Now what goes around comes around as you watch this oddly soothing time lapse YouTube video of his process. It’s an old video (as the dates at the end attest) but that doesn’t make it any less neat.

And as for the aforementioned Star Wars books, here’s Holman himself talking about his various techniques:

Also at that dinner, someone in attendance mentioned that Larry Wilmore on The Nightly Show had covered A Birthday Cake for George Washington. Come again? Yes, you truly know that a book has left our little orbit when it ends up a discussion topic on a Comedy Central evening show. I wouldn’t exactly call this one workplace appropriate, but I would call it funny. Nice too that while he talks about the book he does not speculate about the creators.

Book trailer time. N.D. Wilson has always created the best book trailers. Remember the one he did for Ashtown Burials? Or Boys of Blur?  Well, the latest premiered on Entertainment Weekly very recently:

OutlawsofTime

Thanks to Aaron Zenz for the link.

So I ask James Kennedy the other day to name his favorite 90-Second Newbery Film Festival co-hosts.  And he rattles off a bunch of names but one that he was particularly impressed by?  Nikki Loftin, author of Nightingale’s Nest.  Don’t believe me?  Then check out this killer opening Nikki and James did together.  That woman has pipes!

Of course, I already had insider knowledge to Nikki’s singing prowess.  Two years ago she created a video for Jules Danielson and myself and . . . well, if you just can’t get through your day without seeing a children’s author belting out classic Rogers & Hammerstein on a roof, then are YOU in luck!

And finally, for our off-topic-but-not-really video, I bring you information from beyond the grave.  We all know Michael Jackson, and many of us know Bob Fosse.  Now see how eerie it is when you put one on top of another.  If The Little Prince movie did nothing else, it gave us this:

 

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47. Review of the Day: The Sandwich Thief by Andre Marios

SandwichThiefThe Sandwich Thief
By Andre Marois
By Patrick Doyon
Chronicle Books
$14.99
ISBN: 978-1-4521-4659-1
Ages 7-9
On shelves March 1st

Injustice, that sweet universal quality, makes for great children’s books. Whether it’s a picture book or a young adult novel, if you can tap into a reader’s sense of unfairness you have yourself some children’s book gold. It’s the instantaneous gateway to identification. Adults too often forget how painful those early lessons about how the world is an unfair place feel. Children’s books tap into that feeling, while also giving kids a sense of hope. Yes, the world is a mad, bad place sometimes. But there are times when things work out for the best. And if its takes disgusting flavor balls in delicious sandwiches to reach that cathartic ending, so much the better. I wouldn’t argue that Andre Marois’s The Sandwich Thief is the greatest book on this subject I’ve ever seen (it could use a little work in the empathy department), but when it comes to tapping into that feeling of unbridled rage in the face of a cold, calculating world, this title definitely knows its audience.

There are upsides and downsides to having foodies for parents. On the one hand, they can seriously embarrass you when they overdo your school lunches. On the other hand, delicious sandwiches galore! Marin’s a big time fan of his mom’s sandwich constructions, particularly when graced with her homemade mayonnaise, but then one day the unthinkable occurs. Marin goes to take his sandwich to the lunchroom only to find it is gone! When it happens a second time on a second day Marin is convinced that a thief is in his midst. But who could it be? A classmate? A teacher? Everyone is suspect but it’s Marin’s clever mama who knows how to use her mad genius skills to out the culprit, and in a very public way!

SandwichThief2Writing a good early chapter book takes some daring. The form is so incredibly limited. It’s best to have a story that can be read in a single sitting by a parent, or over the course of several attempts by a child just getting used to longer sentences. In this book Marois sets up his mystery with care. There are lots of red herrings, but the author also plays fair, including the true villain amongst the innocuous innocents. The adults made for particularly interesting reading. For example, I loved the portrait of Marin’s principal Mr. Geiger, a man so rumpled and ill-fed you wonder for quite some time how he got his current position (he redeems himself at the end, though).

I like to tell folks that we are currently in a new Golden Age of children’s literature. This is, admittedly, a fairly ridiculous statement to make since few people can be aware of a Golden Age, even if they are already waist deep in it. Still, the evidence is striking. Never before have authors or illustrators had so much freedom to play around with forms, construction, colors, art styles, etc. It’s not a free-for-all or anything (unless you’re self-publishing) but ideas that publishers might have balked at twenty years ago are almost commonplace today. Take The Sandwich Thief as one such example. Here you have an early chapter book that draws heavily on the classic comic tradition. But speech balloons aside, artist Patrick Doyon makes every single page an eclectic experience. A French-Canadian editorial illustrator who had never made a children’s book prior to this one, in this book Doyon moves effortlessly between two-page spreads, borderless panels, sequential art, the works. You might be so wrapped up in the form that you’d miss how limited his palette is. Working entirely in orange, red, and black, Doyon’s talents are such that you never even notice the missing colors during your reading experience.

SandwichThief3Sadly, there are some aspects to this brand new book that feel like they were written twenty or thirty years ago (and not in a good way). When identifying the potential thieves in his classroom, Marin falls back onto some pretty broad stereotypes. We’re in an era when body acceptance makes old-fashioned fat shaming feel downright archaic. With that in mind, the identification of one student as “Big Bobby” whose “main hobby is eating” is particularly unfortunate. Add in “Poor Marie” whose mom lost her job and can’t afford to eat, and you’ve got yourself an odd avoidance of sympathy. Another reader of this book mentioned that the villains is of a similar lower-socioeconomic level, which is questionable. There are also a couple insults like “Numbnuts” floating about the text that will pass without comment in some households and be a major source of contention in others. FYI.

Winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Illustrated Children’s Literature, French Language, Marois and Doyon’s first collaboration is for any kid that comes in looking for a fun read with a mystery component. With its classy format and striking cover it may even appeal to the Wimpy Kid contingent. Hey, stranger things have happened. It’s a true bummer that the book dumps on so many people along the way but it may still appeal to any kid who craves a little justice in the world. Particularly if that justice comes with the taste of chalk-textured cat pee.

On shelves March 1st.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review

Like This? Then Try:

Professional Reviews: Kirkus

Other Jackets:

It can’t really compare to the English language version, but the original French cover is pretty cute too:

SandwichThiefFrench

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48. Out-of-Print Diversity

There is a perception that we’re all very sophisticated and educated these days, as opposed to the past.  That older books for children have a tendency to be racist or contain outdated ideas.

Not so.

In my *does the math* thirteen years as a children’s librarian I’ve discovered that you can find some real gems if you just dig deeply enough into a library’s backlist.  And just because a title came out twenty or thirty years ago, that doesn’t mean it’s any less forward thinking than our books today (in some cases, more so).

The other day someone asked me a very specific question:  If you could bring back in print any diverse out-of-print children’s book titles, what would they be?

Now the crazy thing is that the first two books I thought of are actually still in-print, albeit in ebook form.  I’ll put them here anyway since they deserve a wider readership.  The first is the delightful Lavender Green Magic by Andre Norton.  Considering the fact that even today I can count the number of middle grade fantasy novels starring African-American characters on one hand, Norton’s book deserves to be better known.

LavenderGreen

The other novel is Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush by Virginia Hamilton.  A slightly more difficult sell as a YA (a genre that I believe dates more quickly than its younger counterparts) it’s still a compelling read.

SweetWhispers

Both of those are available through Open Road Media as ebooks, of course.  You know one book that isn’t?  A book that’s about a black, female, space explorer with art from the Dillons?  I’ve mentioned it once before but it bears repeating:

blastoff

An interior image:

Blastoff

Get more information on the book at Stephanie Whelan’s blog Waiting to Tesseract.

And just to make myself feel old, I’m including here a book that was in-print when I first reviewed it back in 2006 but has since fall out.  The delightful early chapter book Younguncle Comes to Town by Vandana Singh.

Younguncle_cover_1

I know that there are many other out-of-print diverse books out there.  Can you think of any favorites of your own?

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49. Cover Reveal: The Great Shelby Holmes by Elizabeth Eulberg

You know where I lived for eleven years of my New York City life?  Harlem. You know where no one, aside from Walter Dean Myers, ever sets a middle grade novel?  Harlem.  Greenwich Village, Brooklyn, even Queens get more love than Harlem in books for 9-12 year olds.  So you might understand why I’m happy a middle grade novel is set there at long last.  Today’s cover reveal comes via YA-author-turned-middle-grade-writer Elizabeth Eulberg.  Ladies and gentlemen I give you . . .

GreatShelbyHolmes

The quick and dirty:

Shelby Holmes is not your average sixth grader. She’s nine years old, barely four feet tall, and the best detective her Harlem neighborhood has ever seen—always using logic and a bit of pluck (which yes, some might call “bossiness”) to solve the toughest crimes.

When eleven-year-old John Watson moves downstairs, Shelby finds something that’s eluded her up till now: a friend. The easy-going John isn’t sure of what to make of Shelby, but he soon finds himself her most-trusted (read: only) partner in a dog-napping case that’ll take both their talents to crack.

Elizabeth Eulberg was born and raised in Wisconsin before heading off to college at Syracuse University and making a career in the New York City book biz. Now a full-time writer, she is the author of The Lonely Hearts ClubProm & PrejudiceTake a BowRevenge of the Girl with the Great PersonalityBetter Off Friends, and We Can Work it Out. She lives outside of Manhattan with her three guitars, two keyboards, and one drumstick. Visit her online at www.elizabetheulberg.com and on twitter at @ElizEulberg.

So that is that.  The book is on sale September 6th  and is the first in a three book series. Thanks to Lizzy Mason and the folks at Bloomsbury for the reveal.

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50. Review of the Day: Elliot by Julie Pearson

Elliot1Elliot
By Julie Pearson
Translated by Erin Woods
Illustrated by Manon Gauthier
Pajama Press
$16.95
ISBN: 978-1-927485-85-9
Ages 4-7
On shelves April 4th

The librarian and the bookseller face shelving challenges the like of which you wouldn’t believe. You think all picture books should simply be shelved in the picture book section by the author’s last name and that’s the end of it? Think again. If picture books served a single, solitary purpose that might well be the case. But picture books carry heavy burdens, far above and beyond their usual literacy needs. People use picture books for all sorts of reasons. There are picture books for high school graduates, for people to read aloud during wedding ceremonies, for funerals, and as wry adult jokes. On the children’s side, picture books can help parents and children navigate difficult subjects and topics. From potty training to racism, complicated historical moments and new ways of seeing the world, the picture book has proved to be an infinitely flexible object. The one purpose that is too little discussed but is its most complicated and complex use is when it needs to explain the inexplicable. Cancer. Absentee parents. Down syndrome. Explaining just one of these issues at a time is hard. Explaining two at one time? I’d say it was almost impossible. Julie Pearson’s book Elliot takes on that burden, attempting to explain both the foster system and children with emotional developmental difficulties at the same time. It works in some ways, and it doesn’t work in others, but when it comes to the attempt itself it is, quite possibly, heroic.

Elliot has a loving mother and father, that much we know. However, for whatever reason, Elliot’s parents have difficulty with their young son. When he cries, or yells, or misbehaves they have no idea how to handle these situations. So the social worker Thomas is called in and right away he sets up Elliot in a foster home. There, people understand Elliot’s needs. He goes home with his parents, after they learn how to take care of him, but fairly soon the trouble starts up again. This time Thomas takes Elliot to a new foster care home, and again he’s well tended. So much so that even though he loves his parents, he worries about going home with them. However, in time Thomas assures Elliot that his parents will never take care of him again. And then Thomas finds Elliot a ‘forever” home full of people who love AND understand how to take care of him. One he never has to leave.

Elliot2Let me say right here and now that this is the first picture book about the foster care system, in any form, that I have encountered. Middle grade fiction will occasionally touch on the issue, though rarely in any depth. Yet in spite of the fact that thousands and thousands of children go through the foster care system, books for them are nonexistent. Even “Elliot” is specific to only one kind of foster care situation (children with developmental issues). For children with parents who are out of the picture for other reasons, they may take some comfort in this book, but it’s pretty specific to its own situation. Pearson writes from a place of experience, and she’s writing for a very young audience, hence the comforting format of repetition (whether we’re seeing Elliot’s same problems over and over again, or the situation of entering one foster care home after another). Pearson tries to go for the Rule of Three, having Elliot stay with three different foster care families (the third being the family he ends up with). From a literary standpoint I understand why this was done, and I can see how it reflects an authentic experience, but it does seem strange to young readers. Because the families are never named, their only distinguishing characteristics appear to be the number of children in the families and the family pets. Otherwise they blur.

Pearson is attempting to make this accessible for young readers, so that means downplaying some of the story’s harsher aspects. We know that Elliot’s parents are incapable of learning how to take care of him. We are also assured that they love him, but we never know why they can’t shoulder their responsibilities. This makes the book appropriate for young readers, but to withdraw all blame on the parental side will add a layer of fear for those kids who encounter this book without some systematic prepping beforehand. It would be pretty easy for them to say, “Wait. I sometimes cry. I sometimes misbehave. Are my parents going to leave me with a strange family?”

Elliot3Artist Manon Gauthier is the illustrator behind this book and here she employs a very young, accessible style. Bunnies are, for whatever reason, the perfect animal stand-in for human problems and relationships, and so this serious subject matter is made younger on sight. With this in mind, the illustrator’s style brings with it at least one problematic issue. I suspect that many people that come to this book will approach it in much the same way that I did. My method of reading picture books is to grab a big bunch of them and carry them to my lunch table. Then I go through them and try to figure out which ones are delightful, which ones are terrible, and which ones are merely meh (that would be the bulk). I picked up Elliot and had the reaction to it that I’m sure a lot of people will. “Aw. What a cute little bunny book” thought I. It was around the time Elliot was taken from his family for the second time that I began to catch on to what I was reading. A fellow children’s librarian read the book and speculated that it was the choice of artist that was the problem. With its adorable bunny on the cover there is little indication of the very serious content inside. I’ve pondered this at length and in the end I’ve decided that it’s not the style of the art that’s problematic here but the choice of which image to show on the book jacket. Considering the subject matter, the publisher might have done better to go the The Day Leo Said, ‘I Hate You’ route. Which is to say, show a cover where there is a problem. On the back of the book is a picture of Elliot looking interested but wary on the lap of a motherly rabbit. Even that might have been sufficiently interesting to make readers take a close read of the plot description on the bookflap. It certainly couldn’t have hurt.

Could this book irreparably harm a child if they encountered it unawares? Short Answer: No. Long Answer: Not even slightly. But could they be disturbed by it? Sure could. I don’t think it would take much stretch of the imagination to figure that the child that encounters this book unawares without any context could be potentially frightened by what the book is implying. I’ll confess something to you, though. As I put this book out for review, my 4-year-old daughter spotted it. And, since it’s a picture book, she asked if I could read it to her. I had a moment then of hesitation. How do I give this book enough context before a read? But at last I decided to explain beforehand as much as I could about children with developmental disabilities and the foster care system. In some ways this talk boiled down to me explaining to her that some parents are unfit parents, a concept that until this time had been mercifully unfamiliar to her. After we read the book, her only real question was why Elliot had to go through so many foster care families, so we got to talk about that for a while It was a pretty valuable conversation and not one I would have had with her without the prompting of the book itself. So outside of children that have an immediate need of this title, there is a value to the contents.

What’s that old Ranganathan rule? Ah, yes. “Every book its reader.” Trouble is, sometimes the readers exist but the books don’t. Books like Elliot are exceedingly rare sometimes. I’d be the first to admit that Pearson and Gauthier’s book may bite off a bit more than it can chew, but it’s hardly a book built on the shaky foundation of mere good intentions. Elliot confronts issues few other titles would dare, and if it looks like one thing and ends up being another, that’s okay. There will certainly be parents that find themselves unexpectedly reading this to their kids at night only to discover partway through that this doesn’t follow the usual format or rules. It’s funny, strange, and sad but ultimately hopeful at its core. Social workers, teachers, and parents will find it one way or another, you may rest assured. For many libraries it will end up in the “Parenting” section. Not for everybody (what book is?) but a godsend to a certain few.

On shelves April 4th.

Source: Galley sent from publicist for review.

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