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About me: "Well, I work at the most succulent plum of children's branches in New York City. The Children's Center at 42nd Street not only exists in the main branch (the one with the big stone lions out front) but we've a colorful assortment of children's authors and illustrators that stop on by. I'm a lucky fish. By the way, my opinions are entirely my own and don't represent NYPL's in the least. Got blame? Gimme gimme gimme!"
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By: Betsy Bird
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Okay . . . soooooooo this. Look at this, oh ye children’s librarians. Breathe this. LIVE this! Become this.
So naturally I had to find out who she is. Go to YouTube and she has numerous videos under the moniker OoeyGooeyLady. Almost all her videos date back two years. Real name? Lisa Murphy. And as you might expect, she has a whole web presence as well. Certainly those videos, the hand rhymes ones, are invaluable for children’s librarians. There are other good ones there too. Here’s a different one of her videos on respecting kids.
Kinda sorta could watch her all day. Thanks to Alison Morris for the link.
From this blog I complain about so many things you’d think I was some kind of permanent grumpus. For example, you know what really bugs me? When a TV show or movie can’t be bothered to show a kid reading a real children’s book and instead gets their prop team to make some fake one. Recently I watched an episode of Louie that did just that (though props to the show for making it clear that a woman who knows her children’s literature is desirable, particularly if she’s played by Parker Posey). So though I’m loathe to credit commercials, Intel got it right when they decided to hire Bob Staake for a bit rather than just make someone up. Credit too to Travis Jonker for spotting the Staake.
Thanks to 100 Scope Notes for the link.
At first I thought this animated book trailer for Lizi Boyd’s Flashlight was burying the lead. Yes the book looks good, but listen to that music. Then look at the credit at the end. “Original Music by Eric Wright”.
Turns out I was confusing the fellow’s name with Eric Wight. An easy mistake to make.
A nice video from Louisville on the importance of reading early:
It’s a good piece but I was a little perturbed by the accompanying How Many Children’s Books Have You Read? piece. Apparently this list was created by a National Education Association survey of teachers. So . . . Dom DeLuise? Really? And Love You Forever? *sigh*
Two of my favorite guys. Just talking. Dishing the dirt. Signing the books. You know how it is. It’s Tom Angleberger and Jonathan Auxier.
Oh. And this may be useful in the future. Just in case we ever want to set up an official yo-yo author tour (hey, you never know).
And for our off-topic video, for no particular reason, here is author Steve Almond tearing to teeny tiny shreds the song “Africa” by Toto.
Thanks to Mom for the link!
By: Betsy Bird
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The Madman of Piney Woods
By Christopher Paul Curtis
On shelves September 30th
No author hits it out of the park every time. No matter how talented or clever a writer might be, if their heart isn’t in a project it shows. In the case of Christopher Paul Curtis, when he loves what he’s writing the sheets of paper on which he types practically set on fire. When he doesn’t? It’s like reading mold. There’s life there, but no energy. Now in the case of his Newbery Honor book Elijah of Buxton, Curtis was doing gangbuster work. His blend of history and humor is unparalleled and you need only look to Elijah to see Curtis at his best. With that in mind I approached the companion novel to Elijah titled The Madman of Piney Woods with some trepidation. A good companion book will add to the magic of the original. A poor one, detract. I needn’t have worried. While I wouldn’t quite put Madman on the same level as Elijah, what Curtis does here, with his theme of fear and what it can do to a human soul, is as profound and thought provoking as anything he’s written in the past. There is ample fodder here for young brains. The fact that it’s a hoot to read as well is just the icing on the cake.
Two boys. Two lives. It’s 1901, forty years after the events in Elijah of Buxton and Benji Alston has only one dream: To be the world’s greatest reporter. He even gets an apprenticeship on a real paper, though he finds there’s more to writing stories than he initially thought. Meanwhile Alvin Stockard, nicknamed Red, is determined to be a scientist. That is, when he’s not dodging the blows of his bitter Irish granny, Mother O’Toole. When the two boys meet they have a lot in common, in spite of the fact that Benji’s black and Red’s Irish. They’ve also had separate encounters with the legendary Madman of Piney Woods. Is the man an ex-slave or a convict or part lion? The truth is more complicated than that, and when the Madman is in trouble these two boys come to his aid and learn what it truly means to face fear.
Let’s be plainspoken about what this book really is. Curtis has mastered the art of the Tom Sawyerish novel. Sometimes it feels like books containing mischievous boys have fallen out of favor. Thank goodness for Christopher Paul Curtis then. What we have here is a good old-fashioned 1901 buddy comedy. Two boys getting into and out of scrapes. Wreaking havoc. Revenging themselves on their enemies / siblings (or at least Benji does). It’s downright Mark Twainish (if that’s a term). Much of the charm comes from the fact that Curtis knows from funny. Benji’s a wry-hearted bigheaded, egotistical, lovable imp. He can be canny and completely wrong-headed within the space of just a few sentences. Red, in contrast, is book smart with a more regulation-sized ego but as gullible as they come. Put Red and Benji together and it’s little wonder they’re friends. They compliment one another’s faults. With Elijah of Buxton I felt no need to know more about Elijah and Cooter’s adventures. With Madman I wouldn’t mind following Benji and Red’s exploits for a little bit longer.
One of the characteristics of Curtis’s writing that sets him apart from the historical fiction pack is his humor. Making the past funny is a trick. Pranks help. An egotistical character getting their comeuppance helps too. In fact, at one point Curtis perfectly defines the miracle of funny writing. Benji is pondering words and wordplay and the magic of certain letter combinations. Says he, “How is it possible that one person can use only words to make another person laugh?” How indeed. The remarkable thing isn’t that Curtis is funny, though. Rather, it’s the fact that he knows how to balance tone so well. The book will garner honest belly laughs on one page, then manage to wrench real emotion out of you the next. The best funny authors are adept at this switch. The worst leave you feeling queasy. And Curtis never, not ever, gives a reader a queasy feeling.
Normally I have a problem with books where characters act out-of-step with the times without any outside influence. For example, I once read a Civil War middle grade novel that shall remain nameless where a girl, without anyone in her life offering her any guidance, independently came up with the idea that “corsets restrict the mind”. Ugh. Anachronisms make me itch. With that in mind, I watched Red very carefully in this book. Here you have a boy effectively raised by a racist grandmother who is almost wholly without so much as a racist thought in his little ginger noggin. How do we account for this? Thankfully, Red’s father gives us an “out”, as it were. A good man who struggles with the amount of influence his mother-in-law may or may not have over her redheaded grandchild, Mr. Stockard is the just force in his son’s life that guides his good nature.
The preferred writing style of Christopher Paul Curtis that can be found in most of his novels is also found here. It initially appears deceptively simple. There will be a series of seemingly unrelated stories with familiar characters. Little interstitial moments will resonate with larger themes, but the book won’t feel like it’s going anywhere. Then, in the third act, BLAMMO! Curtis will hit you with everything he’s got. Murder, desperation, the works. He’s done it so often you can set your watch by it, but it still works, man. Now to be fair, when Curtis wrote Elijah of Buxton he sort of peaked. It’s hard to compete with the desperation that filled Elijah’s encounter with an enslaved family near the end. In Madman Curtis doesn’t even attempt to top it. In fact, he comes to his book’s climax from another angle entirely. There is some desperation (and not a little blood) but even so this is a more thoughtful third act. If Elijah asked the reader to feel, Madman asks the reader to think. Nothing wrong with that. It just doesn’t sock you in the gut quite as hard.
For me, it all comes down to the quotable sentences. And fortunately, in this book the writing is just chock full of wonderful lines. Things like, “An object in motion tends to stay in motion, and the same can be said of many an argument.” Or later, when talking about Red’s nickname, “It would be hard for even as good a debater as Spencer or the Holmely boy to disprove that a cardinal and a beet hadn’t been married and given birth to this boy. Then baptized him in a tub of red ink.” And I may have to conjure up this line in terms of discipline and kids: “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink, but you can sure make him stand there looking at the water for a long time.” Finally, on funerals: “Maybe it’s just me, but I always found it a little hard to celebrate when one of the folks in the room is dead.”
He also creates little moments that stay with you. Kissing a reflection only to have your lips stick to it. A girl’s teeth so rotted that her father has to turn his head when she kisses him to avoid the stench (kisses are treacherous things in Curtis novels). In this book I’ll probably long remember the boy who purposefully gets into fights to give himself a reason for the injuries wrought by his drunken father. And there’s even a moment near the end when the Madman’s identity is clarified that is a great example of Curtis playing with his audience. Before he gives anything away he makes it clear that the Madman could be one of two beloved characters from Elijah of Buxton. It’s agony waiting for him to clarify who exactly is who.
Character is king in the world of Mr. Curtis. A writer who manages to construct fully three-dimensional people out of mere words is one to watch. In this book, Curtis has the difficult task of making complete and whole a character through the eyes of two different-year-old boys. And when you consider that they’re working from the starting point of thinking that the guy’s insane, it’s going to be a tough slog to convince the reader otherwise. That said, once you get into the head of the “Madman” you get a profound sense not of his insanity but of his gentleness. His very existence reminded me of similar loners in literature like Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson or The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton, but unlike the men in those books this guy had a heart and a mind and a very distinctive past. And fears. Terrible, awful fears.
It’s that fear that gives Madman its true purpose. Red’s grandmother, Mother O’Toole, shares with the Madman a horrific past. They’re very different horrors (one based in sheer mind-blowing violence and the other in death, betrayal, and disgust) but the effects are the same. Out of these moments both people are suffering a kind of PTSD. This makes them two sides of the same coin. Equally wracked by horrible memories, they chose to handle those memories in different ways. The Madman gives up society but retains his soul. Mother O’Toole, in contrast, retains her sanity but gives up her soul. Yet by the end of the book the supposed Madman has returned to society and reconnected with his friends while the Irishwoman is last seen with her hair down (a classic madwoman trope as old as Shakespeare himself) scrubbing dishes until she bleeds to rid them of any trace of the race she hates so much. They have effectively switched places.
Much of what The Madman of Piney Woods does is ask what fear does to people. The Madman speaks eloquently of all too human monsters and what they can do to a man. Meanwhile Grandmother has suffered as well but it’s made her bitter and angry. When Red asks, “Doesn’t it seem only logical that if a person has been through all of the grief she has, they’d have nothing but compassion for anyone else who’s been through the same?” His father responds that “given enough time, fear is the great killer of the human spirit.” In her case it has taken her spirit and “has so horribly scarred it, condensing and strengthening and dishing out the same hatred that it has experienced.” But for some the opposite is true, hence the Madman. Two humans who have seen the worst of humanity. Two different reactions. And as with Elijah, where Curtis tackled slavery not through a slave but through a slave’s freeborn child, we hear about these things through kids who are “close enough to hear the echoes of the screams in [the adults’] nightmarish memories.” Certainly it rubs off onto the younger characters in different ways. In one chapter Benji wonders why the original settlers of Buxton, all ex-slaves, can’t just relax. Fear has shaped them so distinctly that he figures a town of “nervous old people” has raised him. Adversity can either build or destroy character, Curtis says. This book is the story of precisely that.
Don’t be surprised if, after finishing this book, you find yourself reaching for your copy of Elijah of Buxton so as to remember some of these characters when they were young. Reaching deep, Curtis puts soul into the pages of its companion novel. In my more dreamy-eyed moments I fantasize about Curtis continuing the stories of Buxton every 40 years until he gets to the present day. It could be his equivalent of Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House chronicles. Imagine if we shot forward another 40 years to 1941 and encountered a grown Benji and Red with their own families and fears. I doubt Curtis is planning on going that route, but whether or not this is the end of Buxton’s tales or just the beginning, The Madman of Piney Woods will leave child readers questioning what true trauma can do to a soul, and what they would do if it happened to them. Heady stuff. Funny stuff. Smart stuff. Good stuff. Better get your hands on this stuff.
On shelves September 30th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
First Sentence: “The old soldiers say you never hear the bullet that kills you.”
Like This? Then Try:
Notes on the Cover: As many of us are aware, in the past historical novels starring African-American boys have often consisted of silhouettes or dull brown sepia-toned tomes. Christopher Paul Curtis’s books tend to be the exception to the rule, and this is clearly the most lively of his covers so far. Two boys running in period clothing through the titular “piney woods”? That kind of thing is rare as a peacock these days. It’s still a little brown, but maybe I can sell it on the authors name and the fact that the books look like they’re running to/from trouble. All in all, I like it.
For Thursday, September 18th 2014
Contact: Alexandra Pearson
Ninth Annual Carle Honors
Celebrating Early Literacy and the Art of the Picture Book
2014 gala to fête author/illustrator Jerry Pinkney and other luminaries in the field
On Thursday, September 18, hundreds of children’s book artists, authors and advocates will come together to celebrate The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art’s ninth annual Carle Honors at Guastavino’s in New York City. This benefit gala will honor five individuals who have been instrumental in making children’s books a vibrant art form that supports art appreciation and early literacy.
When: Thursday, September 18, 2014
5:30 pm Reception with cocktails, dinner fare, and silent auction
7:15 pm Presentation of The Carle Honors
8:00 pm Dessert, coffee, and auction
9:00 pm Auction close
409 East 59th Street
New York, NY 10022
Who: Hosted by Eric and Barbara Carle, Museum co-founders
Presented by Tony and Angela DiTerlizzi
Charles and Deborah Royce, 2014 co-chairs
2014 Carle Honors honorees include:
· Artist: Jerry Pinkney – Illustrator of more than 100 books for children and winner of numerous awards, including the 2010 Caldecott Medal for The Lion and the Mouse
· Angel: Reach Out and Read – Promoters of early literacy and school readiness through programs in pediatric exam rooms nationwide; represented by Brian Gallagher and Dr. Perri Klass
· Mentor: Henrietta M. Smith – Influential children’s librarian, scholar, and author; advocate for quality and diversity in children’s literature
· Bridge: Françoise Mouly – Publisher and editorial director for TOON Books, high-quality comics for young children; art editor of The New Yorker
Why: The Carle Honors awards recognize individuals in four distinct forms: Artist, for lifelong innovation in the field; Mentor, for the editors, designers, and educators who champion the art form; Angel, for those whose generous resources make picture book art exhibitions and education programs a reality; and Bridge, for individuals who have found inspired ways to bring the art of the picture book to larger audiences through work in other fields.
For just over a decade, The Eric Carle Museum has been collecting, preserving, presenting and celebrating picture books and their illustrations with the mission to foster a love of art and reading in all ages. The only full-scale museum of its kind in the United States, The Carle was the recipient of the 2013 Commonwealth Award for Creative Learning for its exceptional demonstration of the importance of creativity and innovation to student achievement and success. In addition, The Carle has received two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts which help bring nationally acclaimed artists to local schools that normally do not have access to picture books. The Carle Honors is a key fundraiser providing critical support for the Museum’s mission and programs.
Reservations: Individual Tickets: Patron Tickets are $600 per person, and include cocktails, dinner fare, presentation, dessert. Specially priced tickets for educators are available at $100 (includes only presentation and dessert).
Sponsor Tickets: New Individual Sponsor tickets are available for $750; sponsorship packages start at $5,000. New sponsor levels include a personal tour of The Carle’s exhibition, Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans, at the New-York Historical Society.
For more details or to purchase a sponsorship/ticket to the event, please call (413)-658-1118 or visit www.carlemuseum.org/carlehonors2014
For media credentials, additional press information and/or images, please contact Alexandra Pearson at Alexandra@rosengrouppr.com or 646-695-7048.
About The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art:
The mission of The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, a non-profit organization in Amherst, MA, is to inspire a love of art and reading through picture books. The only full-scale museum of its kind in the United States, The Carle collects, preserves, presents, and celebrates picture books and picture book illustrations from around the world. In addition to underscoring the cultural, historical, and artistic significance of picture books and their art form, The Carle offers educational programs that provide a foundation for arts integration and literacy.
Eric and Barbara Carle founded the Museum in November 2002. Eric Carle is the renowned author and illustrator of more than 70 books, including the 1969 classic, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Since opening, the 40,000-foot facility has served more than half a million visitors, including over 30,000 schoolchildren. Its extensive resources include a collection of more than 12,000 picture book illustrations, three art galleries, an art studio, a theater, picture book and scholarly libraries, and educational programs for families, scholars, educators, and schoolchildren. Educational offerings include professional training for educators around the country. Museum hours are Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday 12 noon to 5 p.m. with special extended summer hours. Admission is $9 for adults, $6 for children under 18, and $22.50 for a family of four. For further information and directions, call 413-658-1100 or visit the Museum’s website at www.carlemuseum.org.
I was trying to remember the last theater review I wrote for this site. At first I thought it might be the review I did way way back in the day for the staged adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline where the main character was played by a heavyset middle aged woman (it worked quite well, thank you very much). Then I remembered that I did write up the Matilda musical when Penguin was kind enough to offer tickets to local librarians. Still, that was over a year ago and my theater going has shriveled in the wake of my increasing brood. What would it take to get me back in the swing of things? Good friends from my past, apparently.
The Snow Queen, which I have discussed here briefly before, came to NYC as part of the 2014 Musical Theatre Festival (spellcheck is questioning why I chose to spell it “theatre”, by the way). Having originated in the San Jose Repertory Theater the composer of the show is one Haddon Kime, a friend of mine from long back. Indeed his wife Katie presided over my wedding and long ago he created the music for my very brief foray into podcasting. He’s always been ridiculously talented but I confess that I’d never seen a show of his. Until now.
For those of you unfamiliar with the plot of this Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, here’s the long and short of it. Two kids, Gerta and Kai, are best buddies. Then one day two shards of a magic mirror enter Kai’s eye and heart, rendering him a cold-hearted bastard (which is to say, a teenager). Along comes The Snow Queen who takes Kai away to her magic palace up North. Rather than just mourn her friend, Gerta sets out to rescue him, encountering rivers, witches, crows, royalty, thieves, and more. When she finds Kai he doesn’t exactly want to leave, so engaged is he in a puzzle The Snow Queen set up for him. Fortunately love wins out, and the two kiddos go back home.
As the novel stands it is unlike most Andersen tales in that it has a metaphor so clear cut you’d swear it had been ghostwritten by Freud himself. The shards of glass in Kai’s heart and eye are so clearly a stand-in for the changes adolescence that it’s scary. Indeed, when Anne Ursu wrote the Snow Queen inspired novel Breadcrumbs, she made explicit what is only implied in the Andersen tale. With that in mind, I was very curious how a staged production of the show would deal with some of these themes.
Right from the start the show casts Kai and Gerda as adults playing children. This is a clever way of dealing with adolescence in a theatrical setting. Years ago the remarkable staged adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials saga cast two adults as Lyra and Will, allowing them to learn and grow throughout the show. And since Kai spends a fair amount of time in this show begging a grown woman in a white garter belt to kiss him, this was a wise choice.
I suppose you could say they decided to give the show a Steampunk feel. There were a fair number of corsets and goggles, but it wasn’t overwhelming. When I saw a Steampunk version of The Pirates of Penzance a couple years ago the effect was overdone. Here it was subtle, more evident in the clothing than anything else. Each character was outfitted in a simple but effective manner, none so effective as The Snow Queen herself. Played to the hilt by the commanding Jane Pfitsch, she’s a photo negative of The Phantom of the Opera, bedecked all in white, luring a boy through a window (as opposed to the Phantom bedecked all in black, luring a girl through a mirror). Admittedly her very cool costume resembled that of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” outfit from the MTV Music Video Awards, but there’s no crime in that. Her blond bob stood in stark contrast to the elaborate headwear of Elsa in the Disney Snow Queen adaptation Frozen. But it was her singing voice and violin playing that gave her true power. A very strong soprano, you can actually see her right now in the current revival of Cabaret as Rosie. As for the violin playing, this show followed the current trend of having the performers play instruments on the stage, but her violin contained not a jot of fly-by-night fakery. This girl could play! I was impressed.
Other strong performances included Eryn Murman as Gerda, Reggie D. White as a Troll, a Hyacinth, a Prince, and a Reindeer respectively, and Jason Hite as an oddly sexy River, Crow, and Italian (for no particular reason) Daisy. But the strongest actress, aside from The Snow Queen herself, was clearly Lauren Cipoletti. There is much to be said for performers that have fun with their roles. Cipoletti, by all appearances, seemed to be having a blast. First she was a rosebush, and though all she does is preen in a manner best befitting The Rose of The Little Prince, you are entranced. Later she came on as an adorable nerdgirl princess, pulling off the cheery “Never Give Up” song that might have wilted in a lesser performer’s mouth. Best, however, was last since her most memorable role was the psychotic Little Robber Girl. Singing “I Want That”, a ballad worthy of Veruca Salt herself, Cipoletti let her freak flag fly. She was punk one minute and a cabaret singer the next. She was Amanda Palmer and Courtney Love and a whole host of other wild women. You didn’t trust her not to slit your throat while cooing sweet nothings in your ears all the while. I’ve always loved the Little Robber Girl. Now I adore her.
The music? Superb. Catchy. Hummable. I have actually been humming the song “Flying” ever since I saw it online, actually. See, here’s a taste.
New York News
Neat, right? The show is jam-packed with music, making it almost more operetta than musical. Haddon mixes up the styles, creating punk rock anthems and Southern bluegrass and Irish ballads depending on what fits best. Should the show ever get picked up it could, of course, be cut down. Some songs were lovely but easy to do away with. In fact the song “Gone” was probably the loveliest of the batch, but superfluous in terms of plot.
As I exited the theater during intermission I saw a small girl wearing a Frozen t-shirt. Since it was a 9 p.m. performance she was the only one of her kind to do so, but I like to think that there were other kids in the audience in a similar state of mind. Kids entranced by Frozen who have an interest in the original source material. My husband has always said that Frozen feels more like a prequel to The Snow Queen than anything else. A cool thought (no pun intended). However you look at it,
The show ended its run July 20th and one can only hope and pray that it gets picked up here in the city in some manner. For another opinion check out the New York Times review A Fairy-Tale That Rocks in which reviewer Anita Gates calls parts of the show “evocatively effective”. Also check out the TheaterMania review which calls Haddon’s score, “an endlessly listenable pastiche with elements of bluegrass, punk rock, and symphonic metal.”
Interested in reading the original story? For the best round-up of Snow Queen works, go to the SurLaLune Fairy Tales site containing Modern Interpretations of The Snow Queen. There you will find a list that is jaw-dropping in its content. It really is a remarkable collection.
When I originally read The Riverman by Aaron Starmer this year it blew me away. I couldn’t think of anything to really compare it to. Entirely original, wonderful and strange, it has remained quite clear in my memory ever since. Yet I was shocked when I learned that it was just the first in a trilogy. At first I couldn’t reconcile the first book with a second in my brain. Yet as time passed I found myself really and truly wanting to see where it would go. It’s as if my entire interpretation of the first book hinges on the second. Well, I am pleased and honored to present to you today a cover reveal for its sequel.
Ladies and gentlemen . . . The Whisper!
On shelves March 17, 2015.
Many thanks to Mr. Starmer and Macmillan for allowing me to reveal the jacket here today.
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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Princess Sparkle-Heart Gets a Makeover
By Josh Schneider
Clarion (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
On shelves now
Sometimes I’ll just sit back and think about how the advent of the internet has affected literary culture. I don’t mean book promotion or reviews or any of that. I’m talking about the very content of books themselves. On the one hand, it accounts for the rise in Steampunk (a desire for tactile, hands-on technology, gears and all). On the other, it has led to a rise in books where characters make things. So why, you may be asking yourself, am I saying all this when ostensibly I’m supposed to be reviewing a picture book with the title Princess Sparkle-Heart Gets a Makeover? Because, best beloved, Josh Schneider has created a picture book that provides solutions. If something terrible happens to something you love, do you sit on the floor and cry and bemoan your fate? NO! You go out and find the solution, even if it means getting your hands a little dirty. We’re seeing a nice uptick in books where kids make things and fix things on their own. Add in a jealous doggy and a twist ending that NO ONE will see coming and you have a book that could easily have been written in the past but contains a distinctly 21st century flavor through and through.
Amelia just couldn’t be happier. When she gets her new doll, Princess Sparkle-Heart, the two bond instantly. They do tea parties, royal weddings, share secrets, the works. Never mind that Amelia’s pet dog eyes their happiness with an envious glare. The minute the two are separated, it acts. One minute Princess Sparkle-Heart is reading a book to herself. The next, she’s a pile of well-chewed bits and pieces on the floor. At first Amelia is distraught, but when her mother proposes putting the doll back together Amelia provides direction and ideas. This is the all-new Princess Sparkle-Heart, ladies and gentlemen. One that is NOT going to be taken advantage of again.
I’ll be the first to admit to you that I like a little weird with my children’s literature. The only question is whether or not kids like the same kind of weird that I like. There’s no question that some of them do have a taste for the unusual, after all. It’s adult selectors that grow disturbed by some of this author/illustrator’s choices. In the case of Princess Sparkle-Heart (can I tell you how much I love that her last name is hyphenated?) I’ve already seen a schism between some adults and others. Some adults find this book freakin’ hilarious. They love the odd way in which Schneider chooses to empower his heroine. Others aren’t amused in the least. For my part, I found it a wonderful new girl/doll story. I was particularly fond of the spread where Amelia looks at a wall of fashion magazines and zeroes in on the sole solitary superhero comic found there instead. So if Schneider is telling readers something, he’s being subtle about it.
I’ve also been noticing a rather nice trend recently in books starring young girls. There’s a real movement in the country right now to give girls the impetus to make and create and build. Books like The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires where the heroine not only builds but deals repeatedly with disappointment are really quite fabulous. In Princess Sparkle-Heart Amelia’s unseen mother is the one doing the construction of a new princess, but it’s Amelia who provides the number of parts and the specifications. If the new princess is completely different from her prior incarnation, that’s thanks to Amelia’s contributions. Meanwhile the Frankenstein connection that some have noted (and that I entirely missed the first time around) is clearly intentional. How else to explain the two screws that appear in the “M” of the front cover’s “Makeover”? No doubt Princess Sparkle-Heart’s conversion will strike some as monstrous. For others, it’ll be like your average everyday superhero origin story. Nothing wrong with that!
I’ve been oddly amused by dog books this year. I am not a dog person. I can take ‘em or leave ‘em. But in 2014 we’ve seen some really spectacular canine picture books. Things like Shoe Dog by Megan McDonald, and I’m My Own Dog by David Ezra Stein, and now this. The dog in this particular book is awfully similar to the one in Bears by Ruth Krauss as re-illustrated by Maurice Sendak, with its jealousy of a beloved toy. Cleverly Schneider has positioned the dog’s growls to serve as a running commentary behind the action. A low-key “GRRRRRRRRRR” runs both on and off the page, bleeding into the folds, falling off the sides. Schneider’s humans never have pupils (and combined with her red hair this gives Amelia a distant L’il Orphan Annie connection) but the dogs and stuffed animals do. As a result, the dog ends up oddly sympathetic in spite of its naughty ways (and indeed there is a happy ending for all characters at the story’s close).
Occasionally folks will ask me for “Princess Book” recommendations. Admittedly I’m far more partial to subversive princess tales (The Paperbag Princess, The Princess and the Pig, etc.) than those that adhere to the norm. Keeping that in mind, this is definitely going into my princess book bag of tricks. With its twist ending, strong female character, and princess that looks like she could take down twenty monsters without a blink, I’m a fan. I wouldn’t necessarily hand it to the kid looking for fluff and fairies and oogly goo, but for children with a wry sense of humor (and they do exist) this book is going to pack a wallop. Funny and surprising and a great read through and through. You ain’t never seen a makeover quite like THIS before.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Bears by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Maurice Sendak
Other Blog Reviews: Sal’s Fiction Addiction,
Professional Reviews: A star from Publishers Weekly, A star from Kirkus,
Misc: There is a TON of stuff related to the book on the publisher’s website. Everything from sewing patterns to a Q&A to early sketches to more more more!
I had the pleasure of seeing just the most delightful show the other day. The Snow Queen’s run is ending, but you can at least enjoy this little number from it. It’s been caught in my head all week. I bestow that honor now upon you.
New York News
And the award for best set design in a book trailer goes to . . .
Mildly miffed that this trailer came out in February but that I only found it now, though.
And now the Weird Al video that shall outlive him thanks to English teachers around the world. They shall play it from now until the internet burns down to a dark, black piece of coal.
Just when you think they’ve done absolutely everything one can do with the physical book, they turn around and come up with something COMPLETELY NEW! Trust the Japanese to come up with something this lovey. More information can be found here.
MOTION SILHOUETTE from KYOT∆® on Vimeo.
Thanks to Marci for the link.
Finally, I was shocked that some friends of mine had forgotten this old Italian video where a fellow performs fake English. So here we go. Fake English for one and all. Love this.
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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- Howdy do. As per usual I’m going to direct you this morning to that lovely little Wild Things website where Jules Danielson and I have been posting the stories that got cut from our upcoming book Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature. If you haven’t already seen them you might like to read some amusing stories about:
- Some Madeleine facts you may not have known, two straight lines and all.
- The downside of owning your own tropical island, even if you DID do all the art for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
- The story I was MOST sorry to cut. War of the Pooh! It’s what happened when a British MP decided that the dolls of Pooh and friends had to come back to the UK. What followed . . . got a little crazy.
- A quick look at some of the WORST school visits suffered by authors and illustrators of all time.
- Children who would one day become writers bugging cranky older authors. It’s one of the more peculiar posts but it has nothing on . . .
- Udders, cleavage, and a monster penis. Need I say more?
- A nightmare publishing story to rival publishing stories.
- The New York Public Library’s pathetic summer reading list for kids. Come again? That would be The New York Post taking issue with a list that includes books kids would have fun reading as well as dreaded diversity. Apparently if a book contains a non-white kid it can’t possibly be any good and must have appeared on a summer reading list to appease some kind of demographic. Full disclosure, I’m one of the folks that made the list (which wasn’t just for NYPL but for Brooklyn and Queens library systems as well) so all I’ll do is gently point you to Rita Meade’s incredibly restrained response.
- And how did you spend your evening last night. For my part, I saw The Snow Queen. The composer of the show is my buddy Haddon who, years ago, did the intro music for a podcast I posted for a while (the podcast is no longer up so his good work has been lost to the wilds of time). Now the show is here for a limited run in NYC, before the inevitable Frozen musical steals its thunder. Of Snow Queen musicals there can apparently be only one. Here’s a New York Times article about the show, if’n you’re interested.
Where do you even get a Where’s Waldo costume, I wonder. Everyone’s favorite stripey hero is key to this very clever children’s bookstore promotion thingy thing. In Kalamazoo the fabulous bookstore Bookbug is hiding Waldo in 26 of the local businesses on sort of a scavenger hunt. Other small town bookstores take note. It’s good for the store and good for the other businesses. I love a clever campaign. Thanks to Colby Sharp for the link.
If you have ever taken the Leonard Marcus walking tour of children’s literature here in NYC then you’ve probably seen Margaret Wise Brown’s house in Greenwich Village. Good thing you did since the poor little structure is slated to be razed. Has someone alerted Leonard? I think we’d better start sounding the alarm on this one.
- Don’t have enough conferences in your life? Well The Nerdy Book Club was kind enough to feature this post on the upcoming Kidlitcon. The only conference out there for children’s and YA literature bloggers, it’s happening in October in beautiful Sacramento, CA. Would that I could go! If you’re able, I highly recommend a trip.
- This. Just . . . . this. No words.
- Not a shabby idea. Over in Britain they recently had a Great children’s books author bake off for all those novels and picture books featuring baked goods. I am hungry. Therefore someone should do this over on our side of the pond. And then invite me. Nom nom nom nom.
Finally, could somebody do this for a couple works of children’s and YA literature?
If I had my choice I’d like some Westing Game tights. And imagine how much money you could make off of The Fault In Our Stars tights. The mind boggles. Thanks to Aunt Judy for the link.
When you grow up with a mother who is a knitter, there are certain facts in life that you simply have to accept. Knitting all the time, everywhere, is the norm. A bookshelf full of different kinds of yarn is not weird. Fiber Fests are de rigeur and knowing the difference between a gossip wheel and a walking wheel (when talking spinning wheels) is par for the course. Don’t even get me started on drop spindles and dying wool with Kool-Aid. Not that I ever took to the craft myself. Maybe it was just so prevalent in my home that I never felt the necessity to learn. Also, why learn to knit when my children are amply provided for, not just by my always knitting mama, but by her friends and my knit-worthy co-workers as well (Alison Hendon shout out!)?
My mom, as it happens, is heavily involved in the knitting blogger community as a commenter. I have honest-to-gosh had people say to me, “I saw that someone called Rams commented on your blog. Is that the same Rams as the one on Ravelry?” Mom be famous. And like all knitters, she pays attention to how they are portrayed in children’s literature.
In a recent Harper Collins post the comment section suddenly got very interested in the subject of books in which knitting is accurately represented. The talk started bring up book after book, so that I suddenly had the idea for this post. You see, the portrayal of knitting by illustrators is very touch and go. Artists are not particularly thrilled by the notion of the ends of knitting needles going down, in spite of the fact that that’s how one actually knits. So as often as not you’ll see an image like this with the ends up:
Note the knitting needles to the right.
Rather than this:
Not sure what their fingers are supposed to be doing here, but at least the needles are down.
Here then, are a couple of our favorite artists, answering the “Does the illustrator care how to hold knitting needles?” question. The answers may surprise you.
DOES THE ILLUSTRATOR CARE HOW ONE HOLDS KNITTING NEEDLES?
Penguin in Love by Salina Yoon – YES!
You’ll find that for some of these books I don’t have images of the knitters knitting, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. A penguin is naturally going to have some difficulty knitting since it is without phalanges, but in spite of this impediment Yoon’s flightless waterfowl still knows the proper way to hold its needles.
Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, ill. Jon Klassen – NO
When the Caldecott committee sat down and considered Barnett and Klassen’s fabulous book for an Honor, did the fact that its heroine didn’t know how to hold knitting needles ever come up? Was there a knitter on the committee? Or did they feel that in light of the lovely art and great storytelling that this wasn’t an issue? It’s surprising, certainly, to find that for all his talent and charms, Mr. Barnett is unaware of how one knits. However, knowing knitters I suspect he has been informed of this misdeed more than once, and shall continue to be told for years to come.
Swamp Angel by Anne Isaacs, ill. Paul O. Zelinsky – YES!
Interesting, is it not, that I can find images of people knitting incorrectly but never correctly? What does that say, I wonder, about the state of knitting today? If you know Zelinsky then you know he is meticulous in his research. If someone is, say, spinning straw into gold as in his Rumpelstiltskin, then doggone it he’s going to create the world’s most accurate spinning wheel. And if Swamp Angel is going to knit something gigantic using (as I recall) trees for needles then you can BET Paul will make that image as correct as he can. Other award winning artists take note.
The Hueys in the New Sweater by Oliver Jeffers -NO
Nope. Not even close. Repeated several times over in the same book, too.
Nana in the City by Lauren Castillo – YES!
This one’s not out yet, but when it is you’ll have a chance to see some truly keen knitting on the part of Nana here. Castillo, one suspects, actually knows from whence she draws. Well done!
Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters by K.G. Campbell – NO
This one breaks my heart because I was a BIG fan of this book when it came out. It’s delightful. It just doesn’t know how to portray the act of knitting. Doggone it.
Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch – YES!
A rare graphic novel where knitting is not only important but the climax of the book hinges on it. And you can BET that when it came to knitting, Barry studied precisely where the fingers are supposed to go.
This begs the question: Is it possible to knit with the ends of the needles pointed high to the sky? I leave that to the knitters to answer. In the meantime, what are some of your favorite knitting books for the kiddos? How did those needles fare? High to the sky or low and proud?
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegretation
By Duncan Tonatiuh
Harry N. Abrams
On shelves now
If I blame my childhood education for anything I suppose it would be for instilling in me the belief that the history worth learning consisted of a set of universally understood facts. One event would be more worthy of coverage than another. One person better positioned for a biography than another. It was only in adulthood that I started to understand that the history we know is more a set of decisions made decades and decades ago by educators than anything else. Why were weeks and weeks of my childhood spent learning about The American Revolution but only a day on the Vietnam War? Why did we all read biographies of Thomas Edison but never about Nicolas Tesla? And why did it take me 36 years before someone mentioned the name of Sylvia Mendez to me? Here we have a girl with a story practically tailor made for a work of children’s nonfiction. Her tale has everything. Villains and heroes (her own heroic parents, no less). Huge historical significance (there’d be no Brown v. Board of Education without Sylvia). And it stars Latino-Americans. With the possible exception of Cesar Chavez, my education was pretty much lacking in any and all experience with Latino heroes in America. I’m therefore pleased as punch that we’ve something quite as amazing as Separate is Never Equal to fill in not just my gaps but the gaps of kids all over our nation.
Sylvia is going home in tears. Faced with teasing at her new school she tells her mother she doesn’t want to go back. Gently, her mother reminds her that teasing or no, this is exactly what the family fought so hard for for three long years. In 1944 the Mendez family had moved to Westminster, California. When the first day of school approached their Aunt drove five of the kids to the nearby public school. Yet when they arrived she was told that her children, with their light skin and brown hair could attend but that Sylvia and her brothers would have to go to “the Mexican school”. Faced with hugely inferior conditions, the Mendez family decides to fight back. They are inspired by a lawsuit to integrate the public pools and so they hire the same lawyer to take on their case. In court they hear firsthand the prejudices that the superintendent of their district holds dear, but ultimately they win. When that decision is appealed they take it to the state court, and win once more. Remembering all this, Sylvia returns to school where, in time, she makes friends from a variety of different backgrounds. Backmatter consists of an extensive Author’s Note, a Glossary, a Bibliography, additional information About the Text, and an Index.
When I say that Sylvia’s story adapts perfectly to the nonfiction picture book form, I don’t want to downplay what Tonatiuh has done here. To tell Sylvia’s story accurately he didn’t have a single source to draw upon. Instead the book uses multiple sources, from court transcripts and films to books, websites, articles, and reports. Culling from all of this and then transferring it into something appropriate and interesting (that is key) for young readers is a worthy challenge. That Tonatiuh pulls it off is great, but I wonder if he could have done it if he hadn’t interviewed Sylvia Mendez herself in October 2012 and April 2013. Those who know me know that I’m a stickler for non-invented dialogue in my children’s works of nonfiction. If you can’t tell a real story without making up dialogue from real people then your book isn’t worth a lick. At first, it appears that Tonatiuh falls into the same trap, with Sylvia wondering some things and her family members saying other. Look at the backmatter, however, and you’ll see a note “About the Text”. It says that while the trial dialogue comes from court transcripts, the rest of the book came from conversations with Sylvia herself. So if she says her parents said one thing or she thought/pondered another, who are we to doubt her? Well played then.
Librarians like myself spend so much time gushing over content and format that often we forget one essential element of any book: child-friendliness. It’s all well and good to put great information on picture book sized pages, but will any kid willingly read what you have? In this light, framing this book as a flashback was a clever move. Right from the start Tonatiuh places his story within the context of a child’s experience with mean kids. It’s a position a great many children can identify with, so immediately he’s established sympathy for the main character. She’s just like kids today . . . except a hero. At the end of the book we have photographs of the real participants, both then and now. As for the text itself, it’s very readable, keeping to the facts but, aided by the design and the art, eclectic enough to maintain interest.
When we talk about Tonatiuh’s art it’s important to understand why he’s chosen the style that he has. In interviews the artist has discussed how his art is heavily influenced by ancient Mexican styles. As he said in an interview on the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, “My artwork is very much inspired by Pre-Columbian art, especially by Mixtec codices from the 14th century. That is why my art is very geometric, my characters are always in profile, and their ears look a bit like the number three. My intention is to celebrate that ancient art and keep it alive.” Heads of participants are always shown from the side. This is combined with the decision to digitally insert real hair, of a variety of shades and hues and colors, onto the heads of the characters. The end result looks like nothing else out there. There are mild problems with it, since the neutral expression of the faces can resemble dislike or distaste. This comes up when Sylvia’s cousins are accepted into the nearest public school and she is not. Their faces are neutral but read the wrong way you might think they were coolly unimpressed with their darker skinned cousin. Still, once you’ve grown used to the style it’s hardly an impediment to enjoying the story.
I think it’s important to stress for our children that when we talk about “integration”, we’re not just talking about African-American kids in the 1950s and 60s. Segregation includes Native Americans, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, and more. At one point in this book the Mendez family receives support from the NAACP, the Japanese American Citizens League, and the American Jewish Congress amongst others. Sylvia’s mother says, “When you fight for justice, others will follow”. For children to understand that freedom is never a done deal and that increased rights today means increased rights in the future is important. Books like Separate is Never Equal help drill the point home. There is absolutely nothing like this book on our shelves today. Pick it up when you want to hand a kid a book about Latino-American history that doesn’t involve Chavez for once. Required reading.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
Occasionally I’ll premiere a book trailer here or there. Particularly when it’s from a children’s author whose work I admire. If the name “Elizabeth Rusch” is ringing some bells, there may be a reason for that. Back in the day I was a huge fan of her The Mighty Mars Rovers as well as that gorgeous Volcano Rising and For the Love of Music : the remarkable story of Maria Anna Mozart. Now she’s debuting her middle-grade graphic novel Muddy Max: The Mystery of Marsh Creek August 5 with Andrews McMeel/AMP for Kids. Her tech savvy 13-year-old son made her book trailer, which is sweet.
First and foremost, hello. How are you? Are you having a nice day? So nice to see you here, but before we go any further I must tell you that you very much need to leave me. Just for a little while. As you may have heard, my book with Jules Danielson and Peter Sieruta, Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, is coming out August 5th. To prepare, Jules and I have created a blog that posts a story a day that got cut from our final book. Here’s what you may have missed so far:
- A story about the greatest ALA Conference photo of all time.
- A tale of all the various authors and illustrators who have gotten advice from Maurice Sendak over the years.
- Advice on why you should never invite Hans Christian Andersen to stay the night.
- A tribute to everybody’s favorite Wicked Angel.
- Two rough broads / Newbery and Caldecott winners.
- A tribute to the fantastic Nancy Garden.
That said, here’s all the other news what wuz.
- All the world is ah-buzz with the information that J.K. Rowling just released on Pottermore. Rita Skeeter is still reporting (so no, there is no justice in the universe) and she has the scoop on 34-year-old Harry today, as well as his buddies. For my part, I’m just socked that I’m only two years older than Harry. Makes my crush on Snape that much more creepy, I guess.
- One of my favorite blogs, Pop Goes the Page by the Cotsen Children’s Library, is turning one! Best of all, if you send them your artistic birthday well-wishes, the selected winner will receive a $150 online shopping spree at Discount School Supply. Not half bad! Go do that thing.
- Credit Martha Parravano for creating a quite incisive interpretation of the Caldecott winners and near misses of 2013. Lots to chew on, even if you don’t always agree.
- There were many reasons to attend this last ALA Conference in Vegas. But three in particular are standing out for me today. Reason #1: I could have seen Mo Willems and Daniel Handler sharing a stage at the same time. THAT would be an event well worth witnessing. Can I get a witness who was there?. Reason #2: Starr LaTronica’s Shoes.
Need I say more?
Reason #3: This blog got a little shout out in Brian Floca’s Caldecott speech. See if you can spot where it is (hint: it’s not by name).
- Anywho, I wasn’t able to attend that conference because of my pregnancy. I also wasn’t able to attend this conference: The Second Annual 21st Century Nonfiction Conference. Doggone it. Held in lovely New Paltz, NY, I was pleased at least to see that my co-worker Amie Wright kicked butt and took names. You can read a great write-up of the event here.
- I know you have a lot going on today, but if you enjoyed watching Faerie Tale Theater with Shelley Duvall back in the day then maybe you’ll appreciate this catchy little ditty made out of all the times the charming host said, “Hello, I’m Shelley Duvall.” I don’t do ringtones but if I had to choose one . . .
- I can still remember it like it was yesterday. Way back in 1992 I listened to a librarian read Sukey and the Mermaid by Robert D. San Souci (illustrated by Brian Pinkney) to a group of kids. It was remarkable at the time, not just because it featured a black mermaid, but because it featured a mermaid at all. I don’t know if you read my recent review of The Mermaid and the Shoe, but mermaid picture books aren’t exactly prevalent. Well over at Latin@s in Kid Lit, Cindy L. Rodriguez has written the post Diversity Needed Under the Sea: Not All Mermaids Have Blond Hair and Blue Eyes. Their focus is mostly YA, but it’s interesting to note that aside from Sukey, picture book mermaids of color are few and far between. Fairies of color have it even worse.
- Get out your fightin’ gloves. SLJ has just launched the Up for Debate series. Them’s fighting words (literally).
Trying to figure out how we could pull this off in the States. Over in Britain the Story Museum hired a photographer for its 26 Characters exhibition. His mission? To photograph famous authors as their favorite literary characters. The image of Neil Gaiman as Badger from Wind in the Willows circulated a couple months ago. Now more pics have been revealed and they are lovely. Here are two . .
Philip Pullman as Long John Silver
Michael Morpurgo as Magwitch from Great Expectations
Naturally I’m trying to figure out how we could do this here. The Eric Carle Museum could host the images (we’d have a brief debate over whether or not photography is technically “illustration” and then decide ultimately that it was). Or maybe the Rich Michelson Gallery could do it. Then it’s a question of finding a photographer and picking the authors. As for the costumes and make-up, Britain utilized The Royal Shakespeare Company. Can’t really top that but it would be nice to get professionals involved. Pondering, pondering, pondering . . .
Folks, I talk a fair amount about my upcoming book with Candlewick but I’d be lying to you if I said it was the only book I worked on that’s out this year. For lo, I helped write the introduction for another book that will be coming out this month on the 15th and it is awesome. Behold:
At the end of June The New York Times released the following story: Pediatrics Group to Recommend Reading Aloud to Children From Birth. For those of us in the literacy-minded community, this comes as no surprise. But what about those parents for whom reading aloud poses a challenge? Born Reading: Bringing Up Bookworms in a Digital Age is a delightful aid to any new parent, with (as the official description says) “step-by-step instructions on interactive reading and advice for developing your child’s interest in books from the time they are born.”
So I figured, why not interview the author himself? If only to give you just a taste of what the book has in store. Because you know me. I don’t write introductions for no junk. Jason kind submitting to my grilling.
Howdy, Jason. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
When I was a toddler, my mom took me to the Lyons Township District Library in the village of Lyons, Michigan (population 789). I kept reading and writing for the rest of my childhood, and I ended up studying English at the University of Michigan. After college, I spent two years working with youth groups in Peace Corps Guatemala.
In 2003, I studied journalism at New York University and I have worked as a writer ever since. Most recently, I spent five years as the publishing editor at Mediabistro, where I led the GalleyCat and AppNewser blogs.
There’s no lack of parenting books on the market these days, but your book appears to be doing something we don’t see that often. Can you give me the gist of the project and where it came from?
When my daughter Olive was born in 2010, I wanted her to love books as much as I do.
But it had been more than 25 years since I had read a kid’s book—so I needed some help. I consulted with child development experts to find out the best way to read to my daughter. Then I interviewed librarians, teachers and app creators to find the books, eBooks and apps to share with my child.
Through this research, I discovered the art of “interactive reading” or “dialogic reading.” Child development experts crafted these reading techniques 25 years ago. These simple and easy reading tricks will literally make your child smarter.
I tried to show parents how they can use interactive reading techniques to enrich books, eBooks, apps and any kind of 21st Century media experience. More about the art of interactive reading: http://www.born-reading.com/the-art-of-interactive-reading/
And had you written a book before? How did you hit on the best outline and format for the content?
I had written a book before, but this experience was unique. I was literally living the book with my daughter and my wife.
Over the course of writing Born Reading: Bringing Up Bookworms in a Digital Age, I watched Olive change from a mute newborn into a voracious and opinionated young reader. The form flowed naturally from that growing experience. I dedicated a chapter to each year of a young reader’s life, incorporating all the books, eBooks and apps we read together during the writing process.
Whenever I learned something new from my team of amazing experts, I would immediately share it with Olive and my wife. We all grew up as the book evolved.
I could not help but notice that in the book you don’t just talk to reading specialists and educators but also teachers, librarians, and children’s authors themselves. All told, do you have a rough number of who you spoke to? How did you decide whom to speak to in the end?
I spoke with more than 50 different experts during my writing process. I asked all the questions that I had as a parent or that I had heard from other parents.
For instance, when local parents debated how much screen-time was appropriate for toddlers, I contacted child development experts and neuroscientists to get an expert opinion. It was so amazing to have these experts to guide me every step of the way.
Once Olive could voice her own opinions, I let her interests shape the book as well. When she developed a love of comic books, I reached out to the wonderful folks at TOON Books to find out how to nurture that interest. When Olive got into cooking, we shared the Julia Child cooking app with her. When she obsessed over Disney’s Frozen, I created a whole bundle of new stories to share with her: http://www.born-reading.com/born-reading-bundle-for-disneys-frozen/
One of the things I really liked about the book was the amount of attention given to screen time, particularly when it comes to the youngest children. In our day and age it seems like the wild west in terms of shiny rectangles (as my brother-in-law calls them). Did you initially expect this to take up as much time in your book as it did?
Oddly enough, I first envisioned my book as focused entirely on digital reading and the shift to a new kind of reading. My own reading and writing is mostly digital now, and I imagined my daughter would spend lots of time with these new devices. My wife totally disagreed and wanted to be more cautious.
Once I started exploring the research (and lack of research) into the benefits of digital materials for kids, I realized that I had to caution parents as well as share new kinds of reading. Thanks to the experts I interviewed, I learned how to moderate my daughter’s time on devices and how to make sure she has the best experience with the tablets and smartphones in our house.
These devices can be very seductive, but my wife and I worked together to create a more healthy relationship with technology.
In the course of your research, did you hit on anything that surprised you?
The art of interactive reading was by far my best “discovery.” Many librarians and teachers are trained in these awesome interactive techniques, and they are more than willing to share them with parents.
I was shocked that nobody ever told me about these techniques as we prepared for Olive’s birth. These interactive reading techniques should be taught to parents as they leave the hospital with a newborn. Reading can truly change a child’s life.
At the American Library Association conference this year, a roomful of inspiring librarians shared a list of interactive picture books. Even if you are a shy reader, these books will help make any reading experience more interactive: http://www.born-reading.com/best-interactive-print-books-for-kids/
Any plans for a follow-up?
I really hope my daughter spends the rest of her life as a reader. If I can take the journey with her into middle grade or YA books, I might have to write about that experience as well…
Thanks, Jason! We’ll all look for your book next week!
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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By Lisa Graff
Philomel (an imprint of Penguin)
On shelves now.
In the stage musical of Matilda, lyricist Tim Minchin begins the show with the following lines about the state of children today: “Specialness is de rigueur. / Above average is average. Go fig-ueur! / Is it some modern miracle of calculus / That such frequent miracles don’t render each one un-miraculous?” This song ran on a bit of a loop through my cranium as I read Lisa Graff latest middle grade novel Absolutely Almost. For parents, how well your child does reflects right back on you. Your child is a genius? Congratulations! You must be a genius for raising a genius. Your child is above average? Kudos to you. Wait, your child is average? Uh-oh. For some parents nothing in the world could be more embarrassing. We all want our kids to do well in school, but where do you distinguish between their happiness and how hard you’re allowed to push them to do their best? Do you take kindness into account when you’re adding up all their other sterling qualities? Maybe the wonder of Absolutely Almost is that it’s willing to give us an almost unheard of hero. Albie is not extraordinary in any possible way and he would like you to be okay with that. The question then is whether or not child readers will let him.
Things aren’t easy for Albie. He’s not what you’d call much of a natural at anything. Reading and writing is tough. Math’s a headache. He’s not the world’s greatest artist and he’s not going to win any awards for his wit. That said, Albie’s a great kid. If you want someone kind and compassionate, he’s your man. When he finds himself with a new babysitter, a girl named Calista who loves art, he’s initially skeptical. She soon wins him over, though, and good thing too since there are a lot of confusing things going on in his life. One day he’s popular and another he’s not. He’s been kicked out of his old school thanks to his grades. Then there’s the fact that his best friend is part of a reality show . . . well, things aren’t easy for Albie. But sometimes, when you’re not the best at anything, you can make it up to people by simply being the best kind of person.
Average people are tough. They don’t naturally lend themselves to great works of literature generally unless they’re a villain or the butt of a joke. Lots of heroes are billed as “average heroes” but how average are they really? Put another way, would they ever miscalculate a tip? Our fantasy books are full to overflowing of average kids finding out that they’re extraordinary (Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, Meg Murry, etc.). Now imagine that the book kept them ordinary. Where do you go from there? Credit where credit is due to Lisa Graff then. The literary challenge of retaining a protagonist’s everyday humdrum status is intimidating. Graff wrestles with the idea and works it to her advantage. For example, the big momentous moment in this book is when it turns out that Albie doesn’t have dyslexia and just isn’t good at reading. I’ve never seen that in a book for kids before, and it was welcome. It made it clear what kind of book we’re dealing with.
As a librarian who has read a LOT of children’s books starring “average” kids, I kept waiting for that moment when Albie discovered he had a ridiculously strong talent for, say, ukulele or poker or something. It never came. It never came and I was left realizing that it was possible that it never would. Kids are told all the time that someday they’ll find that thing that’ll make them unique. Well what if they don’t? What happens then? Absolutely Almost is willing to tell them the truth. There’s a wonderful passage where Calista and Albie are discussing the fact that he may never find something he’s good at. Calista advises, “Find something you’d want to keep doing forever… even if you stink at it. And then, if you’re lucky, with lots of practice, then one day you won’t stink so much.” Albie points out, correctly, that he might still stink at it and what then? Says Calista, “Then won’t you be glad you found something you love?”
Mind you, average heroes run a big risk. Absolutely Almost places the reader in a difficult position. More than one kid is going to find themselves angry with Albie for being dense. But the whole point of the book is that he’s just not the sharpest pencil in the box. Does that make the reader sympathetic then to his plight or a bully by proxy? It’s the age-old problem of handing the reader the same information as the hero but allowing them to understand more than that hero. If you’re smarter than the person you’re reading about, does that make you angry or understanding? I suppose it depends on the reader and the extent to which they can relate to Albie’s problem. Still, I would love to sit in on a kid book discussion group as they talked about Albie. Seems to me there will be a couple children who find their frustration with his averageness infuriating. The phrase “Choose Kind” has been used to encourage kids not to bully kids that look different than you. I’d be interested in a campaign that gave as much credence to encouraging kids not to bully those other children that aren’t as smart as they are.
I’ve followed the literary career of Lisa Graff for years and have always enjoyed her books. But with Absolutely Almost I really feel like she’s done her best work. The book does an excellent job of showing without telling. For example, Albie discusses at one point how good he is at noticing things then relates a teacher’s comment that, “if you had any skill at language, you might’ve made a very fine writer.” Graff then simply has Albie follow up that statement with a simple “That’s what she said.” You’re left wondering if he picked up on the inherent insult (or was it just a truth?) in that. Almost in direct contrast, in a rare moment of insight, his dad says something about Albie that’s surprising in its accuracy. “I think the hard thing for you, Albie… is not going to be getting what you want in life, but figuring out what that is.” I love a book that has the wherewithal to present these different sides of a single person. Such writing belies the idea that what Graff is doing here is simple.
Reading the book as a parent, I could see how my experience with Absolutely Almost was different from that of a kid reader. Take the character of Calista, for example. She’s a very sympathetic babysitter for Albie who does a lot of good for him, offering support when no one else understands. Yet she’s also just a college kid with a poorly defined sense of when to make the right and wrong choice. Spoiler Alert on the rest of this paragraph. When Albie’s suffering terribly she takes him out of school to go to the zoo and then fails to tell his parents about this executive decision on her part. A couple chapters later Albie’s mom finds out about the outing and Calista’s gone from their lives. The mom concludes that she can’t have a babysitter who lies to her and that is 100% correct. A kid reader is going to be angry with the mom, but parents, teachers, and librarians are going to be aware that this is one of those unpopular but necessary moves a parent has to face all the time. It’s part of being an adult. Sorry, kids. Calista was great, but she was also way too close to being a manic pixie dream babysitter. And trust me when I say you don’t want to have a manic pixie dream babysitter watching your children.
Remember the picture book Leo the Late Bloomer where a little tiger cub is no good at anything and then one day, somewhat magically, he’s good at EVERYTHING? Absolutely Almost is the anti-Leo the Late Bloomer. In a sense, the point of Graff’s novel is that oftentimes kindness outweighs intelligence. I remember a friend of mine in college once commenting that he would much rather that people be kind than witty. At the time this struck me as an incredible idea. I’d always gravitated towards people with a quick wit, so the idea of preferring kindness seemed revolutionary. I’m older now, but the idea hasn’t gone away. Nor is it unique to adulthood. Albie’s journey doesn’t reach some neat and tidy little conclusion by this story’s end, but it does reach a satisfying finish. Life is not going to be easy for Albie, but thanks to the lessons learned here, you’re confident that he’s gonna make it through. Let’s hope other average kids out there at least take heart from that. A hard book to write. An easy book to read.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
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- Lisa speaks with BookPage about the creation of the book.
We’re getting into the thick of summer now. Both the BEA and ALA conferences have come and gone. Folks are beginning to get a grip on the fall season. So before we go any further I’m going to provide you with a bit of a sneaky peek at Harper Collins and what all they have ah-brewing for the future. It’s a rather lovely line-up. When this preview took place I was at my pregnant-ist. Muy pregnant. Back pain, gargantuan girth, the works. I think I may have given birth two days later, so take that into account if the occasional note here sounds a bit wonky.
The room was lovely and the desserts plentiful. It was also a very full room so each switch to a table played like a game of musical chairs. But once we got ourselves in some kind of a working order fun was to be had.
First up, a table sporting the irrepressible Balzer & Bray. Our little sheets also suggested that editor Jordan Brown would be there but alas twas not the case.
Louise Loves Art by Kelly Light
We dove right into this one. HC is quite charmed by debut author/illustrator Kelly Light. You could be forgiven for thinking, at a mere glance, that this was illustrated by Tony Fucile. A fellow former animator, Light was inspired to write this book when her daughter’s art classes at school got cut. In this book Louise and her little brother Art attempt to create art (lowercase) together. Louise is fixated on creating a new masterpiece while Art is fixated on impressing his big sister. And he does get her attention . . . just not in the way she’d prefer. The cat was my personal favorite in this book. Wouldn’t mind seeing it star in a book of its own. Just sayin’. Look for Louise and Art to crop up in a whole series of I Can Read books in the future, by the way.
Tap to Play by Salina Yoon
After years of wondering at last I have my answer. Author/illustrator Salina Yoon, who has probably graced more baby and toddler homes than there are stars in the sky, lives in San Diego. I always wondered where she was! This book is a marked change of pace for the woman. It’s sort of Yoon meet Tullet. Hoping to appeal to a whole generation of young parents that grew up with Q*bert (guilty here), the book follows a little noseless hero by the name of Blip that needs the aid of the reader. You help him win the game by bouncing, tapping, tickling, etc. It’ll be paper over board, much like Press Here. Alongside Richard Byrne’s This Book Just Ate My Dog (seen at a recent Macmillan preview) we’re seeing an uptick in creatively interactive picture books this fall. I wonder what accounts for that.
Lion, Lion by Miriam Busch, ill. Larry Day
Now this is interesting. Here you have a book that reminds me not a little of Jerry Pinkney and Julius Lester’s Sam and the Tigers. In this book a small boy yells for a lion. Then things take a distinctly Pierre-like turn (consider this foreshadowing for something that comes later in this preview). It is rather nice to see a small African-American boy on a picture book. Rare enough, anyway, that it’s notable which, when you think of it, is a problem right there.
I’m Brave by Kate McMullan, ill. Jim McMullan
Alternate Title: How the Heck Have the McMullans Not Written This Yet? At least that was my first thought when I saw this book. Considering they’ve covered trains and garbage trucks and even dinos over the years, it took quite a surprising bit of time before firetrucks made their appearance. Interestingly, this book spends a great deal of time concentrating on some extensively research tools used by firefighters. Cool!
Creature Keepers and the Hijacked Hydro-Hide by Peter Nelson, ill. Rohitash Rao
They’re baaaaack! Remember Nelson and Rao? These two charmers (and they are, if you ever meet them) were behind the lovely but too little lauded Herbert and the Wormhole series a couple years back. I’m pleased to see that Harper Collins believes in them, though. In this particular book a boy moves to Florida for the summer. There, in the swamp behind his grandpa’s house, he finds a group of kids determined to protect some rare creatures like the swamp ape, the Jersey Devil, etc. Then Nessie goes missing. It reminded me a bit of the Suzanne Selfors Imaginary Veterinary series. Sounds like they’d pair well together.
The Zoo at the Edge of the World by Eric Kahn Gale
For half a second there I got confused and thought that this was part of the Brian Chick Secret Zoo series (same publisher, after all). But this is entirely different and by the same guy who did that awesome Bully Book last year. In this story our hero is the son of a famous explorer turned curator of a zoo at the edge of the world. The boy suffers from a severe stutter so no one really knows him except his dad and the animals in the zoo. When it turns out that there’s a jaguar in the zoo that the boy can communicate with, things get interesting. I was reminded of a nonfiction picture book out this year called A Boy and A Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz, ill. Catia Chien that also concerns a kid with a stutter and a jaguar. I love funny connections like that.
Guys Read: True Stories, edited by Jon Scieszka
I love any cover done by Brian Floca, but if I had to change this one I’d probably turn old George Washington there into a grinning Jon Scieszka. Am I crazy? Of all the Guys Read books out there I confess that this is the one I want to read the most. There are a number of reasons for this. First off, this 5th book in the series is entirely nonfiction. Second, the content is from folks like Steve Sheinkin, Candace Fleming and Nathan Hale. Nathan Hale!!! Want want want.
Meet the Dullards by Sara Pennypacker, ill. Daniel Salmieri
There are about five or six books hidden in this preview that are coming out, not in the fall of 2014 at all, but early 2015!!! This is the first. Slated for release around April 2015 (wowzah!) I was surprised to see that Daniel Salmieri is creating books now with folks other than Adam Rubin. This book was described as “The Stupids with boring people” which may be my favorite catchline of the day. The book, without saying too much too early, shows the subversive ways in which the kids in this family declare that being boring is not for them. Best line: “Please. No exclamation marks in front of the children.”
With a ring-a-ding-ding we move on to our next table. And here we find the stylings of Rosemary Brosnan (not there that day, alas), Karen Chaplin, Margaret Anastas, and Nancy Inteli. Onward!
The Graveyard Book Graphic Novel: Volumes 1 & 2 by Neil Gaiman, ill. P. Craig Russell and others
Yea verily do I salivate over these. I was intrigued to see them split the original book in twain. Guess they didn’t want too high a page count in the end. In any case, the first GN covers chapters 1-5 and the second covers the rest. #1 is slated to release in the summer and #2 in the fall. Now it looks at first like P. Craig Russell, the guy who illustrated the Coraline graphic novel, has done this one as well. In truth, however, each chapter in these books is illustrated by a different artist. This solves the problem of many a book-to-comic adaptation (Wrinkle in Time, City of Ember, the aforementioned Coraline, etc.) where the art fails to capture any real originality beyond the source material. Want to see this, I do I do!
Writer to Writer by Gail Carson Levine
Years ago, best beloved, Gail Carson Levine wrote a little book called Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly. It came out around 2006 or so and was purchased by systems in need of writing advice from Newbery Honor winners. Now she’s back, baby, and her latest book is a writer how-to. Filled with exercises and advice, some of it culled from her blog, its publication will come out at the same time as the newly repackaged (and aforementioned) Writing Magic. Apparently Writer to Writer is slated for early 2015 so don’t go digging about for it quite yet. Special Note: Gail is currently working on her MFA in poetry which, for those of us who were fans of her Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It: False Apology Poems is good news.
Eighth Day by Dianne K. Salerni
Ah HA! One I’ve actually read! Not sure if this one was out yet when they presented it but it certainly is now. I think when I initially saw this book I assumed that it was science fiction. It certainly presents itself that way at the start, but soon you get clear on where it’s truly headed. A sort of Percy Jackson meets King Arthur tale, in this story a boy discovers that for some people, when they reach the right age, there’s an extra day wedged in between Wednesday and Thursday. Salerni has taught 5th grade for over twenty years so she knows how to keep a kid’s interest. With it’s Arthurian roots it reminded me a bit of that Adam Rex series (Breakfast of Champions is the most recent). Though it stands entirely on its own, another one is slated to be released next year. FYI!
Goodnight, Already! by Jory John, ill. Benji Davies
That Benji Davies, man. He’s having a bit of a banner year. First we learn at the Macmillan preview that he has the lovely The Storm Whale coming out, and then this. You’re not in Bizzy Bear territory anymore, man (though we haven’t strayed too far since he’s still doing bears, it seems). This book lets Davies stretch his style a little alongside the author of the book All My Friends Are Dead. Remember that book? Here it is in a viral photo that’s been making the rounds lately:
Get it? Anyway, this book is a bit different. In it an overzealous duck annoys to no end an exasperated bear who just wants to tuck in for a good night’s rest. The cover alone will sell it wherever it goes. I was reminded too of A Splendid Friend Indeed by Suzanne Bloom. Granted, in that case it’s a white goose rather than a white duck, but the similarities remain.
Aw, Nuts! by Rob McClurkan
Well I’ll be hornswaggled! Looks like Connie Hsu was right when she said at the recent Little Brown preview that “Nuts are the new legume.” Granted she was talking about The Nuts: Bedtime at the Nut House by Eric Litwin, illustrated by Scott Magoon, but the odds were good that there’d be at least one other nut related book this season and here it is! Bringing to mind that little squirrelly character in the Ice Age movies (albeit with better footwear), this is an interactive picture book. The “Aw, Nuts!” refrain is meant to be yelled by the audience. And yes, by looking at the art you’d be correct in assuming that Mr. McClurkan is yet another refugee from the animation world. This book also marks, to my mind, another trend for 2015. Squirrels! Clearly Flora and Ulysses is to be credited (I joke, but barely).
Our Solar System by Seymour Simon
The initial excitement of the television show Cosmos has worn off a tad, but that doesn’t mean its popularity has ebbed and waned. What better time then to update this Simon classic? Goodbye, Pluto! Consider yourself excised from the record. And happily, we learn that this will be the first in Mr. Simon’s reprinted series plus we’ll be seeing four all new titles as well. Woot!
Harlem Renaissance Party by Faith Ringgold
Remember when I did that post the other day on authors and illustrators who walk away from making any more children’s books? Well if I hadn’t already known about this book I might have included Faith Ringgold on that list. Her Tar Beach is a NYC classic as far as we’re concerned, and if you go to The ABC of It exhibit at NYPL (still going on!) you’ll see that a whole wall has been dedicated to her. Now we learn that in February of 2015 we’re going to get a picture book glimpse at the Harlem Renaissance. Good news for me! I purchase for Harlem libraries! The hero of the book is Lonnie, a kid who has appeared in other Ringgold titles as well. In this book he goes back in time to meet some luminaries like the usual suspects as well as Marcus Garvey (and where is HIS picture book bio, I might ask?). There’s a glossary and a bibliography as well as a further reading section. Backmatter! Love it!
Lemme see, lemme see. Now we’re at a table of Jen Klonsky, Alyson Day, and Kristen Pettit. A very YA table, which is a genre I don’t tend to write up, but that isn’t to say there weren’t a couple that caught my eye. For example . . .
Positive by Paige Rawl
I think I’ve had this vague sense that ever since they invented the HIV cocktail all the prejudice surrounding AIDS just magically dissipated into the ether. Not exactly. This YA memoir is the story of Paige, a kid who was born HIV positive but who, thanks to the aforementioned cocktail, has never been sick. So really it wasn’t an issue until, at a middle school lock-in, she tried to comfort a friend by confiding her own illness. Big mistake. Next thing she knew she was being called “PAIDS” and each and every adult around her failed to stop the bullying. At one point she took fifteen sleeping pills and when she survived she found a new sense of purpose. Paige lobbied her state congress to make school administrators track bullying and make a plan when it happens. Written in a very close first person p.o.v. Paige has since gone on things like The Today Show to talk about what happened. There is also a Resources section in the back for kids going through similar struggles.
This next little guy might look familiar . . .
Why mention him again (I brought him up when discussing Lion, Lion earlier)? Because I was very pleased to discover that all the books in The Nutshell Library, from Alligators All Around to Chicken Soup With Rice to One Was Johnny and, of course, Pierre will be rereleased as board books this month! Too long overdue, this move. In celebration I present a video in which the animated Pierre is set to Amanda Palmer’s rendition of the song:
Watch Out Hollywood! by Maria T. Lennon
Here’s a fun fact you might not know: Author Maria T. Lennon lives across the street from the Houdini mansion in L.A. If that were me or you it might do something seriously wacky to our brains. In her case, she simply worked it into the plot of her latest Middle Child book. In this book our heroine Charlie Cooper is back. Her father is working on the Houdini house and when Charlie saves a friend from the house’s tunnels she inadvertently becomes famous. No surprise, it goes to her head.
The Keepers: The Box and the Dragonfly by Ted Sanders
Love that cover. Ain’t it a beauty? Well, what we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is the first in a four book series. It stars an average boy who one day spots a very strange sign. Which is to say, it has his name on it. Literally. Soon he meets a secret society and gets sucked into the world of Keepers vs. Makers. All the magic in this book is based on real physics so that it’s all potentially possible. You know what that means, don’t you? Common Core!! I ain’t kidding.
Now we come to my publishing imprint (remember?). Greenwillow Books and seated here are Virginia Duncan and Martha Mihalick. And to begin . . .
Cabinet of Curiosities: 36 Tales Brief and Sinister ill. Alexander Jansson
Ah yes! So I see a lot of middle grade fantasy in a given year and sometimes it’s a good idea to leave that stuff up to the professionals. And by professionals I mean librarian Stephanie Whelan who has a very keen sense of what fantasy is good, what is bad, and what is particularly noteworthy. I always trust Stephanie’s opinions in these matters (and so can you if you visit her blog Views from the Tesseract which recently had a great post about the 1982 book Clone Catcher) and she’s read this book and deems it great. So I’m in. You should be too. Coming out simultaneously in both hardcover and paperback, the four authors Stefan Bachmann Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand, and Emma Trevayne, met online and started a blog together. They would then write short stories on different themes (love, cake, fairies, etc.) while their editors edited their longer stuff. Calling themselves The Curators of Curiosities, this is their collaboration.
Circle, Square, Moose by Kelly Bingham, ill. Paul O. Zelinksy
Interestingly enough this was the only picture book being discussed on the Greenwillow fall list. A sequel to Z is for Moose, it returns to the dynamic duo of moose and zebra and covers shapes for the first time. One interesting question that came out of all of this: Are there any squares in nature? Your answers are appreciated. There was some talk of there being another book trailer for this book, but I haven’t been able to find it. In lieu of that, here’s that AMAZING trailer for the previous book Z is for Moose. Because of this trailer I now cannot read these books without the voice of Brian Floca standing in for the zebra.
The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye
Remember Ms. Nye? In terms of her novels for kids she was last seen writing the excellent Habibi. That was published in the last century, however. The time has clearly come for a new book. With that in mind, here is the story of a boy who is slated to move from Muscat, Oman to Ann Arbor, MI (yay, Michigan!). The catch? He does NOT want to go. In a form of protest he refuses to pack his suitcase, so the book focuses on his mother attempting to persuade him to do so. It’s all about the suitcase, baby. I like a lot of things about this book, but mostly I really like that the experience of moving is universal. No kid wants to do it, doesn’t matter where you live.
Nuts to You by Lynne Rae Perkins
“Incredible Journey with squirrels.” Need I say more? That was how the latest Perkins title was described to me. With art on every spread, this definitely struck me as yet another Flora and Ulysses companion novel. It has has some darkness. When a squirrel is picked up by a hawk his companions see this and think they see him get away. With that in mind they set out to find him. Said Greenwillow, it’s a book about storytelling and stories . . . and trees.
A New Darkness by Joseph Delaney
It’s not just a new darkness for Delaney. It’s a new cover look altogether. Fans of Delaney’s Spook’s Apprentice series will be pleased to see that in this book Tom Ward is now 17 and his own spook. The tale is told with two perspectives, his own and that of a 15-year-old 7th daughter of a 7th daughter who wants to be his apprentice. The book stands on its own so you need not have read the previous books in the series to understand it. It’s also part of a three book arc. Naturally I wanted to know when the movie of the first Tom Ward book was coming out. The date? February 6, 2015. Woohoo!
Poisoned Apples by Christine Happermann
I saw this at a Greenwillow event about half a year ago and I was very struck by its loveliness. I then promptly forgot its title and for months afterwards was at events involving photography in children’s literature trying as hard as I could to recall it. So, in a way, it’s a massive relief to see it finally coming out. A book of poetry, this is punctuated with eerie photographs very much in the vein of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. However, while I thought originally it had a single photographer, apparently it instead has photos from a range of up and coming artists. Like the Graveyard Book graphic novels, it’s not afraid to include more than one creative person within its pages.
Red by Michael Hall
Okay. I know this is coming out in February 2015. My head is aware of this fact, but my heart wants it now now now now now!! On the surface it may look like it was inspired by The Day the Crayons Quit. Not by half. If anything, this is a story about how appearances can be deceiving. A blue crayon is accidentally packaged in a red wrapper. So everyone insists that it draw red things, and yet it just can’t, not even after Scarlet tries to give it a pep talk. They say it’s a tale about coming to terms with you really are, and it is. But in another way this is the first picture book I’ve seen that would be perfect to hand to anyone who has come out as transgender. The metaphor is effortless. And there’s a final line in this book that’ll knock your socks off. Cannot WAIT for this to be released!
Table 5, and it’s great to be alive. Here we find ourselves in the company of Erica Sussman, Alex Arnold, and Katie Ginell with Tara Weikum now relocated to Hawaii. Nice work if you can get it, Tara! Additionally we saw Anica Rissi and Katie Bignell of Katherine Tegen Books.
Endgame: The Calling by James Frey
Not the kind of book I usually cover in these round-ups but this Frey/Johnson-Shelton collaboration has an odd little twist. Remember Masquerade by Kit Williams? No? Hmmm.. Well how about The Clock Without a Face by Mac Barnett? In both cases these were books with real world treasure hunts attached. Moves of this sort are awfully gutsy on the author/publisher’s part. The understanding is that the riddle of the book is so difficult that only a very small segment of the population is going to have the willingness (and brains) to solve all the clues. And though adults tend to be the ones solving the puzzles, the books are almost always published for children. Now, for the first time that I know of, someone is doing the same thing on the YA side. In each book in the Endgame series there is a different puzzle to be solved and a different prize to be found. Don’t ask me to clarify since that’s all I really know. That and the fact that the final puzzles will only appear in the final copies of these books and NOT in the galleys. Clever ducks.
The Scavengers by Michael Perry
Tara Weikum, the editor who I may have mentioned is now all about Hawaii, grew up in a very small town. As an adult she read author Michael Perry’s Visiting Tom (I think) about that very thing. So when Perry reached out to her about writing for kids, she was game. In this dystopian middle grade we’re hearing folks compare it to City of Ember. The environment has been destroyed and most people are living inside giant bubbles. Not our heroine Maggie (who has renamed herself Ford Falcon). She and her family live outside the bubble. Then things take a distinctly Mad Max turn. Blurbs are in from Wendy Mass, Leslie Connor, and Katherine Applegate. Oh, and my librarians really like it. I’m hearing it may be one of the best science fiction books for kids for the year. FYI.
Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai
Before I say anything else about this book I should reiterate that the cover art shown here is by no means final. Just FYI. Now it is mighty exciting to see that Ms. Lai, last seen winning a Newbery Honor for Inside Out and Back Again, has a second novel on the horizon. Slated to release in March 2015, this book is written in prose and set in Orange County. There, a girl lives with her Vietnamese parents and grandmother. When she finds out that she’s stuck visiting Vietnam with said family she’s less than thrilled. Apparently her grandfather was lost in the Vietnam War years ago and her grandma is determined to go back and find him. So basically we have a contemporary Vietnamese middle grade. Score!
TodHunter Moon, Book One: Pathfinder by Angie Sage
Behold! It’s a spinoff series to Sage’s Septimus Heap books. Set seven years after the original, this trilogy is meant to please old fans and new. Alice TodHunter Moon is a fisher who discovers her own magic when she goes to the castle. Folks who know the series will know what that means. And yes. Septimus is in the book.
The Swap by Megan Shull
I was saddened to hear of the recent passing of Mary Rodgers, author of that classic work of children’s fiction (and multiple Disney adaptation) Freaky Friday. Mary sort of pioneered the switching bodies genre in children’s books, so hat tip to her. Her influence continues long and strong with books like this one here. In it, a mean girl switches bodies with the most popular boy in school. Wowzah! You don’t usually get to see boy/girl swap books. Scieszka himself provides the cover blurb here, as you can see. That says something.
Balance Keepers #1: The Fires of Calderon by Lindsay Cummings
An epic fantasy middle grade trilogy with a cover that bring back happy memories of my mother’s old 1970s/80s fantasy novel paperbacks? Don’t mind if I do! Selling this one as “Journey to the Center of the Earth for the Percy Jackson generation”, the book is by YA author Lindsay Cummings of The Murder Complex n’ such. In this book a boy follows a map into the forest and then under the forest. His job? To keep the balance between the below and the above. If he fails fires will destroy New York City. So, y’know. No pressure. And lest you think this book is YA as well, it’s meant to hit squarely into the 8-12 age range.
Clariel by Garth Nix
Oh man. This brings me back. When I was in library school I decided I needed to read all the important YA novels as well as children’s (this was before I decided to specialize solely in the kiddo area). On my list of must reads? Sabriel by Garth Nix. A great book, and one that has its fans, most certainly. The Abhorsen trilogy is well regarded but we haven’t seen a book in the series in a long long time. Now Nix is back (he never really went away) with a prequel to Sabriel. He’s about to make some librarians out there very very happy.
And that’s all she wrote, folks. Except we simply cannot forget about the “meets” as I call them. In some ways, they’re the best part of any preview. Here are the ones I caught this time around!
- “The Breakfast Club with a body count” – Get Even by Gretchen McNeil (shouldn’t that be The Breakfast Club meets Heathers then?)
- “Graceling meets The Selection” – The Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard
- “The Great Gatsby meets Looking for Alaska” – Even in Paradise by Chelsey Philpot
- “Downton Abbey meets Cassandra Clare” – Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White (the book sounds like Rose for the YA set)
- “The Breakfast Club set in a grocery store” – Top Ten Clues You’re Clueless by Liz Czukas (or, alternatively, maybe The Breakfast Club meets Empire Records)
Many thanks to Patty Rosati and & Co. for the invite, the tasty treats, and the books!
So as I may have mentioned there’s a l’il ole book of mine coming out on August 5th by the name of Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature. Co-written with Jules Danielson (of Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast) and the late great Peter Sieruta (Collecting Children’s Books) it’s a peek into the stories behind the stories we all love.
How does one properly celebrate such a book? By showing you the cutting room floor, of course.
Consider this a Director’s Cut look at the book. Together Jules and I have concocted a nifty little website where you can read our reviews and blurbs, check out our tour dates, and other nifty things. The real lure, however, is our blog on the site.
Together, for every day until our release date, Jules and I will reveal a story that didn’t make it into our book. Ever wondered how Charles Dickens really felt about Hans Christian Andersen? What are some of the worst school visits authors and illustrators in the children’s literary business have ever experienced? And what are some of the Newbery and Caldecott Award dinner stories you haven’t heard?
Today we lift off with a preliminary post, but stay tuned ladies and gents! It’s just gonna get better and better as we go.
Like everyone I was shocked and saddened by the announcement that author Walter Dean Myers had recently passed away. The first National Ambassador of Children’s Literature to leave us, there is little to say about his life that hasn’t been said by others far more eloquently than I in the last 24 hours. However, I think it’s important to take into account the context in which the man lived. Because we haven’t just lost a great author. We’ve lost a man that filled a very great need in our children’s literary landscape. A need that is being filled, albeit slowly.
Walter died in the same year that the #WeNeedDiverseBooks trend occurred. That movement began, in large part, thanks to an article he’d written for The New York Times called Where Are the People of Color In Children’s Books? The lack of diversity in our children’s literature became a topic of conversation outside our little sphere thanks to him.
Now when I wrote my post 2013 Middle Grade Black Boys: Seriously, People? I took care to mention his Cruisers series, of course, but I also said, “it appears that unless you’re writing about history, you’re Walter Dean Myers, or you’re a basketball star / former basketball star, you simply cannot get a middle grade book about black boys out there.” Happily 2014 is another case altogether. I’ve seen a marked increase not just in books starring African-American kids but in titles written by authors of color as well.
Because that was one of my first thoughts when I heard of his death. With Walter’s death there is a great gaping hole in our universe. Who’s going to write about and visit the boys in juvenile detention? Who’s going to tackle the tough subjects and not flinch when it may not be the most popular topic of all time? Here in New York his Scorpions and Bad Boy: A Memoir are on loads of summer reading lists. Why is he the only African-American man to be listed for older readers?
And yet, I have high hopes. African-American men are writing more YA and children’s literature than before and, thankfully, publishers are publishing them. So, on the male side of the equation, this year we’re seeing Varian Johnson, Jason Reynolds, Greg Neri, Kwame Alexander, Patrick Henry Bass, and hopefully others as well. No one will ever be able to fill Walter’s shoes but maybe his legacy can be markedly increased representation.
I did not have many chances to speak with Walter. I was horribly intimidated by him in general, so I never quite knew what to say in his presence. Aside from the occasional interview we didn’t interact much. Still, he was incredibly memorable as a person. We’ll all remember Walter in our different ways. For my part, I think I’ll go reread Love That Dog by Sharon Creech. To my mind, no other book of children’s literature gives Walter his due better than that slim little title.
From Harper Collins:
WALTER DEAN MYERS, PROLIFIC AND BELOVED AUTHOR
OF AWARD-WINNING CHILDREN’S BOOKS, DIES AT AGE 76
Myers Touched So Many With His Eloquent and Unflinching Portrayal of Young
Walter Dean Myers, beloved and deeply respected children’s book author, died on July 1, 2014, following a brief illness. He was 76 years old.
In a career spanning over 45 years, Walter Dean Myers wrote more than 100 books for children of all ages. His impressive body of work includes two Newbery Honor Books, three National Book Award Finalists, and six Coretta Scott King Award/Honor-winning books. He was the winner of the first-ever Michael L. Printz Award, the first recipient of the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement, and a recipient of the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults. In 2010, Walter was the United States nominee for the Hans Christian Andersen Award, and in 2012 he was appointed the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, serving a two-year tenure in the position. Also in 2012, Walter was recognized as an inaugural NYC Literary Honoree, an honor given by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for his substantial lifetime accomplishments and contribution to children’s literature.
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of erudite and beloved author Walter Dean Myers. Walter’s many award-winning books do not shy away from the sometimes gritty truth of growing up. He wrote books for the reader he once was, books he wanted to read when he was a teen. He wrote with heart and he spoke to teens in a language they understood. For these reasons, and more, his work will live on for a long, long time,” said Susan Katz, President and Publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books.
Walter Dean Myers was born Walter Milton Myers on August 12, 1937, in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Walter’s birth mother, Mary Myers, died after the birth of his younger sister, Imogene. His father, George, sent Walter to live with his first wife, Florence Dean, and her husband, Herbert Dean, in Harlem, along with Florence and George’s two daughters. Walter would eventually adopt the middle name “Dean” to honor Florence and Herbert.
In Walter’s memoir, Bad Boy, he wrote, “Harlem is the first place called ‘home’ that I can remember.” This sentiment is reflected in Walter’s writing, whether via a love letter to the neighborhood in the picture book Harlem; a story of a boy’s trial for a crime committed in Harlem, in the novel Monster; or the tale of two friends struggling to see a future beyond the community they know in the novel Darius & Twig. Walter spent much of his childhood playing basketball on the courts of Harlem and checking books out of the George Bruce Branch of the New York Public Library. Florence Dean taught Walter to read in their kitchen, and when he began attending Public School 125, he could read at a second-grade level. Though Walter struggled through school with a speech impediment and poor grades, and he had trouble with discipline throughout his school career, he remained an avid reader. His love of reading soon progressed to a love of writing.
Walter wrote well in high school and one teacher, who recognized his talent but also knew he was going to drop out, told him to keep on writing, no matter what—“It’s what you do,” she said. Walter did drop out of Stuyvesant High School, though they now claim him as a graduate (which Walter always found funny). At the age of seventeen, he enlisted in the Army. Years later, after his safe return home and while working a construction job, Walter would remember this teacher’s advice. He started writing again…and he didn’t stop.
Walter’s body of work includes picture books, novels for teens, poetry, and non-fiction alike. In 1968, Walter’s first published book, Where Does the Day Go?, illustrated by Leo Carty, won an award from the Council on Interracial Books for Children. Walter and his son Christopher, an artist, collaborated on a number of picture books for young readers, including We Are America: A Tribute from the Heart and Harlem, which received a Caldecott Honor Award, as well as the teen novel and National Book Award Finalist Autobiography of My Dead Brother, which Christopher illustrated. Walter’s novel Scorpions won a Newbery Honor Medal and the Margaret A. Edwards Award, while gritty teen novels Lockdown and Monster were both National Book Award Finalists. Monster appeared on the New York Times bestseller list, won the first Michael L. Printz Award, and received a Coretta Scott King Honor Award. His stunning Coretta Scott King Award-winning novel, Fallen Angels (1988), about the Vietnam War, was named one of the top ten American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults of all time. Twenty years later, Myers wrote a riveting contemporary companion novel, Sunrise Over Fallujah, which was named a New York Times Notable Book in 2008.
In Invasion (2010), Myers once again explored the effects and horrors of war through young protagonists, this time set in World War II. His upcoming books include Juba!, (HarperCollins, April 2015) a novel for teens based on the life of a young African American dancer, and On a Clear Day (Crown/Random House Books for Young Readers, September 2014). A graphic novel adaptation of Monster (HarperCollins) is also forthcoming.
Walter often wrote books about the most difficult time in his own life—his teenage years—for the reader he once was; these were the books that he wished were available when he was that age. Throughout his life, Walter worked to make sure young adults had the tools necessary to become hungry readers, thirsty learners, and, therefore, successful adults. He frequently met with incarcerated teens in juvenile detention centers and received countless letters thanking him for his inspirational words. Walter also worked with and mentored teenage fan and writer Ross Workman, and they published the novel Kick together. As the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature from 2012-2013, Walter traveled around the United States promoting the slogan “Reading is not optional.” He strove to spread the message that a brighter future depends on reading proficiency and widespread literacy, not only during his two-year tenure as National Ambassador, but beyond. More than anything, Walter pushed for his stories to teach children and teenagers never to give up on life.
“Walter Dean Myers was a compassionate, wonderful, and brilliant man. He wrote about children who needed a voice and their stories told. His work will live on for generations to come. It was an honor to work with him for so many years,” said Miriam Altshuler, Walter’s literary agent.
Walter lived in Jersey City, New Jersey, with his wife Constance. He is survived by Constance, as well as his two sons, Christopher and Michael Dean. He was predeceased by his daughter, Karen.
So I’m having lunch with a fellow from the entertainment industry the other day and by some quirk of conversation we begin discussing Quakerism. I attending a Quaker liberal arts college called Earlham (“Fight! Fight! Inner light! Kill, Quakers, Kill!”) and he, I believe, was raised Quaker. And since the focus of everything in my life is, eventually, children’s literature we started talking about those picture books that Quaker kids love.
Because they do, you know. Befriend enough Quakers and they’ll start talking about the books that raised them. I wasn’t raised Quaker myself but even in college I began to notice the books that came up time and time again when talking with them thar Quaker kids. Back in the day it was a lot of Brinton Turkle. One of my friends went to the same meeting as Mr. Turkle, as it happens. He was prolific in his day and will probably be best remembered for the Obadiah series he helped create. There was Obadiah the Bold, Rachel and Obadiah, and mostly notably the Caldecott Honor book Thy Friend, Obadiah. Sure they were an old timey look at Quakerism but due to the fact that they were also the ONLY picture books with a Quaker hero, they were roundly embraced by the community.
Beyond the Turkle, other books came up fairly often. Byrd Baylor, for example. The Other Way to Listen to some extent and also The Table Where Rich People Sit.
All this got me to thinking about those authors and books that are embraced by distinctive communities. It would be, in many ways, an author or illustrator’s dream to be considered a standard amongst a strong and steady group like the Quakers. So I looked at the site Quaker Books to try to get a sense of those books that would appeal to Quaker kids today. Who are the new Turkle and Baylor? It’s a tricky question. Few names came up time and time again but the site itself makes some rather nice selections, as it happens. I was very impressed by the books that cropped up under the topic of Earth Stewardship & Simplicity. Equality & Community is also quite good. The site also said that authors like Barbara Wright, Haven Kimmel, and Laurie Halse Anderson are Quaker, amongst others.
It’s also pretty up-to-date, a marvel in and of itself. But the number of 2014 titles is relatively small. Here then are some additional 2014 suggestions for anyone looking for terribly current books that reflect Quaker values. I decided to stick with nonfiction, though I’m sure there are picture books and works of fiction that would fit in as well. This is just for starters.
- Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus; ill. Evan Turk – The book that actually inspired this post in the first place. I see very few books for kids that think to discuss anger management in a realistic manner. Nonviolence is as difficult thing to promote in an everyday way for kids, but this book nails it.
- Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker by Patricia Hruby Powell, ill. Christian Robinson – You might not think it a natural Quaker topic but with her interest in human rights worldwide there is much in Ms. Baker’s story to appeal here.
What else would you include?
By: Betsy Bird
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The Dumbest Idea Ever
By Jimmy Gownley
GRAPHIX (an imprint of Scholastic)
Ages 9 and up
On shelves now.
Is it or is it not a good idea to tell young people that they are special and unique? It’s a legitimate question. When I was growing up the emphasis in school was clearly on self-esteem. On Track and Field Day everybody got the standard participation ribbon. Effort, even minimal effort, was rewarded. And if you grew up in a small town there was the extra added benefit of getting to be a big fish in a small pond. The combination of being told you were one-of-a-kind, the best of the best, and more combined with local aplomb has a way of going to a kid’s head. It’s the stuff of the best memoirs, actually, but usually of the adult or YA variety. Not a lot of kids stop to think about how they stack up against the rest of the world when they’re trying to find their feet. What makes The Dumbest Idea Ever different, then, is that it combines the familiar children’s book motif of “finding the thing that makes you special” and the takes it one step further to say “but not THAT special . . . and that’s okay.” I’ve never really seen anything like it. Then again, I’ve never really ever seen an artist like Jimmy Gownley – a guy who has paid his dues and just cranks out better and better work all the time as a result. And The Dumbest Idea Ever gives us a hint of how he got started.
Jimmy’s not special. He was for a while, making the best grades and acting as the star of his Catholic school’s basketball team. But a bout of chicken pox followed by pneumonia changes everything. When Jimmy’s grades start to slip it feels like they’re now out of his control. And faced with the knowledge that he’s no longer special, Jimmy starts turning to the comfort of his comic books more than ever. When a comic he writes inspires a friend to suggest he do something a little more realistic, Jimmy’s not convinced (hence the book’s title). Yet a realistic comic is exactly what propels him out of local obscurity into small time stardom. Now he’s dating the cutest girl in school, getting interviewed by the local news, the works! It’s all going great, but what happens when you discover that the work you’ve been doing isn’t as big and important as you always thought? What happens when you realize that you’ve only just begun?
I’ve noticed an odd little theme in the middle grade (ages 9-12) novels of 2014. A lot of books are tackling the idea of what it means to be average. Books like Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff, where the kid really isn’t exceptional and never will be. It’s like we were afraid to talk about this to children in the past, opting instead to drill it into our kids that they have to excel in everything at all times. Now in the age of helicopter parenting and overbooked schedules, literature for kids is backing off a tad. Admitting that while some kids really are extraordinary, for others it’s okay not to be top of your class or the best in all categories. The journey Jimmy takes in this book starts with his fall from grace as the golden boy of school. It’s the slippery slope of no longer being top dog and then having to deal with that.
I’m one of those children’s librarians who honestly thinks that Jimmy Gownley’s Amelia Rules series is one of the greatest graphic novel arcs in children’s literary history of all time. I own every single book in the series and reread them constantly. For me, Gownley’s characters are flesh and blood and real to me in ways I’ve almost never encountered anywhere else. What’s more, the books get better as they go and aren’t afraid to bring up big questions and dark issues. When Gownley ended the series I was heartbroken. I waited with baited breath for him to give me something similar. ANYTHING, really. So when I heard that he’d penned a graphic memoir of his own life as a kid I was thrilled beyond measure . . . and wary. I’ve been burned before, man, and memoirs of children’s book authors are tricky things. I love ‘em but they’re tricky. Does the writer encapsulate their entire life or just a section? What’s interesting about The Dumbest Idea Ever is that it’s the closest thing I’ve found to Raina Telgemeier’s Smile. Yet through it all there is something distinctly Gownleyish about this entire endeavor that you’d never mistake for anyone else. And how he chooses to frame the book is exceedingly smart.
The heart of the novel, as I see it, is the personal journey we all have to take at some point. We all want to be good at something. Preferably something cool that few others around us are as good at. We want acclaim for this specialness. And then, ultimately, what we really want is universal love and acceptance, preferably without a whole lot of work. It’s that last desire that’ll get you in the end. The crux of the book comes with Jimmy visits New York City for the first time. In some ways, NYC was created for the sole purpose of crushing little souls, like Jimmy, into the dust under its grimy shoe. No matter how good you are at something, there’s somebody in NYC who’s better and the city isn’t afraid to let you know about that fact repeatedly. And when you face the fact that you are, indeed, ordinarily a big fish in a small pond, what do you do? Do you try to better yourself so that you can compete in a big pond, do you relegate yourself to your small pond (no shame in that), or do you give up entirely? That’s something kids everywhere need to think about, even if the choices we’re talking about won’t be something they need to deal with for a couple years.
The thing that librarians tend to forget about children is that they love reading about older kids. You think large swaths of 17-year-olds are reading Archie comics just because the kids are in high school? Not even. So when Jimmy allows himself (so to speak) to enter into high school and to start dating, I didn’t even blink. My worry is that someone will read this book, see that the character ages, and slot this book solely into the YA section of their bookstore or library. And certainly there’s nothing wrong with that. A teen would get a lot out of Jimmy’s journey too. Still I think there’s a lot of value in letting kids see what happens when a child like themselves has their ego squashed into a small pile of goo (to their betterment). It’s nothing something I’ve found in that many books for children, after all.
I live and work in New York City where all the kids I see are little fishies in the world’s biggest pond. You’ll always find little ponds within a big one (my metaphors are breaking down – abandon ship!) so kids will always find people and places that praise them, even when surrounded by a mass of other talented people. That said, NYC kids miss out on the experience of feeling special in a smaller setting. It’s something that yields remarkably creative people, and if they follow that drive to keep going and to succeed based on their own hard work then you sometimes end up with something really cool . . . like The Dumbest Idea Ever. It’s a graphic memoir covering a subject both original and incredibly familiar. Your children’s book bookshelves are better off with this book on them.
On shelves now.
Source: Borrowed printed copy from library for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Smile by Raina Telgemeier
Other Blog Reviews:
Misc: This is fun. Mr. Gownley went back to the schools portrayed in this book to talk about the experience of writing it.
Videos: A low-key book trailer rounds us out.
Today we deviate slightly from our usual rounds into the world of children’s literature to look at children’s television programming in the early 21st century. Put another way, I have a new baby and a three-year-old so this is about the level of literary criticism I’m capable of today. You’ll have to bear with me.
If you are unlike me and do not have a very young child then you may be completely unaware of this particular television show. But if you do know of it then you’ll probably find that this seemingly innocuous little bit of pleasant programming has a kooky core that’s worth looking into.
First off, I’ve always admired the women of the Children’s Media Association. Occasionally, because children’s books and children’s media intersect with great frequency, they’ll have me come in to moderate a panel or speak on a topic. Years and years ago they had me come in and we discussed the fact that some of them were working on this new show that was a kind of spin-off of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. All I really knew about it was that it was going to be called Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. Beyond that, no information. Years passed and nothing happened. Then, in September of 2012, the show finally hit the airwaves. Look at the Wikipedia entry and you’ll see that it was in the works since 2006 or so.
Now the premise of the show is what interests me the most. Without knowing anything about it I just assumed it was an animated version of The Land of Make Believe with all the same Fred Rogers characters. Not exactly. Instead, the idea is that those characters all got older (didn’t we all?) and had kids of their own. So this is the next generation of Make Believe children. Daniel Tiger is the son of Daniel Striped Tiger, a fact reinforced as true when you notice that the dad sports a watch. King Friday XIII is there with his wife but Prince Tuesday’s now in his 20s and he has a little brother that’s around Daniel’s age. X the owl has a nephew, which is a bit confusing since I always assumed that he and Henrietta were an item. You know. The owl and the pussycat and all that. Apparently not since she has a kid of her own and he doesn’t. No word on who the father of her kiddo is. I’m going to continue to hope it’s X and that the kitten shows owlish signs in the future.
Where it gets a little peculiar (and as you can see I’m already getting a bit weird about all this) is when you get to the origins of a little girl named Miss Elaina. Those of you who grew up on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood back in the day will recall this figure:
That’s Lady Elaine Fairchilde. Probably the puppet most directly influenced by old Punch & Judy shows. Voiced by Fred Rogers (a fact that my mother attributes to his mental sanity, since it allowed him to cut loose a little) Lady Elaine was the antagonist of the show. Not necessarily the villain, but she liked to stir things up. She was sort of the closest thing they had to a bad guy. Well credit to the creators of the show because somebody somewhere took a look at this . . .
. . . and said to themselves, “You know what she needs? A hot husband.” Batta bing, meet the new happy family.
Lady Elaine has been paired with Music Man Stan (who actually dates back to the original show). They cut back on her eye make-up and toned down that red nose. Then they gave her a daughter named Miss Elaina, which is sort of awesome since they’re essentially calling her Lady Elaine Jr. Miss Elaina calls everyone “Toots” just like her mom did. Seriously.
Am I the only one who finds the reinterpretation of Lady Elaine just a bit odd? She sort of lost her drive, since this show doesn’t deal in plots long enough to include baddies. Her daughter’s downright sweet as well. In fact the whole show feels like a combination of Dora the Explorer and the original Fred Rogers creation. Still and all, it’s interesting, particularly when you take into account the attention to detail the creators of this show have paid to the original. At times it’s actually a bit unnerving. It’s not just Daniel Striped Tiger’s watch. Read through the Wikipedia page and you’ll learn that the neighborhood doctor is Dr. Anna and “Though human, she shares many characteristics of the platypus family of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: their patriarch, Bill Platypus was the neighborhood physician and spoke with a foreign accent (Scottish, in his case), and his daughter was named Ana.” There are other examples as well, which means that somebody on the staff sat down and watched untold numbers of episodes of the original Mister Rogers program just to make these connections.
Anyone with small kids knows that if you watch enough children’s programming you start to create alternate narrative to the one on the screen so as to maintain sanity. Back in the day my mother really rooted for Maria and David to hook up on Sesame Street, only for the show to go the predictable route of pairing her with Luis instead. The same can be true for this show. For example, Daniel Striped Tiger apparently works in the “Clock Factory” where he grew up. Take that one step further and you can create a kind of Hugo Cabret childhood for him. Living by himself in a clock. Never really leaving. Sad, really.
All told though it’s a good show. We’ve actually used it with our daughter and it worked wonders when it came to getting a shot at the doctor’s office or waiting somewhere (though it was completely and utterly ineffective in terms of getting her to try new foods).
If you’ve other points about the peculiarities of this show, feel free to pass them along. I’m all ears.
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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- As I write this there are countless souls right now in Las Vegas attending the American Library Association Annual Conference. I watch your tweets with envy, my friends. Would that I were there. Some of the first timers have asked me what they shouldn’t miss, but since I haven’t seen the official schedule of events I cannot say. Obviously you’d want to attend the Newbery/Caldecott Banquet on Sunday night. That’s a given. Other than that, I always love watching the Notable Children’s Books Committee debate up a storm. This year I don’t envy them the discussion. LOTS of good books are on the menu and it’s being chaired by my fellow Newbery committee member Edie Ching. A little sad not to see Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson, Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan, Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus, Curiosity by Gary Blackwood, Three Bears in a Boat by David Soman and other favorites on the list of books being discussed but they can’t cover ‘em all. Don’t miss it!
- Anything I say on the subject of the recently deceased Nancy Garden will be inadequate. However I would like to note that she provided invaluable help with the book I recently co-wrote with Jules Danielson. Without her aid we would have been seriously up a tree. I am very sorry she won’t be able to see the final copy herself. She was a joy to work with.
- On the one hand I’m rather grateful that Christian Science Monitor thought to present a list of 25 of the Best New Middle Grade Novels of 2014. With YA always hogging the media it’s very nice to see fare for the younger set getting attention from a publication that isn’t one of the usual suspects. On the other hand, we run into the old problem with defining what middle grade actually is. Threatened by Eliot Schrefer is great but he’d be the first to tell you that the book is straight up young adult. Ditto The Art of Secrets by James Klise, The One Safe Place by Tania Unsworth, Skraelings: Clashes in the Old Arctic by Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley, The War Within These Walls by Aline Sax, A Creature of Moonlight by Katherine Hahn, and A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman. Otherwise, it’s very cool how the list concentrated a fair amount on small presses and Native American authors and publishers.
- Credit Phil Nel with coming up with one of the most fascinating pieces on Dr. Seuss I’ve seen in a long time. Think you know all that there is to know about his famous chapeau donning feline? Then you haven’t seen Was the Cat in the Hat Black?
- There are few thrills quite as great as unexpectedly running into the author of a book you admire. Special credit should go to those librarians that are able to spot the authors who aren’t yet household names but create truly remarkable fare. Extra special credit and cupcakes to those librarians who then get the authors to sit down for interviews. I am a BIG fan of Teri Kanefield’s The Girl From the Tar Paper School: Barbara Rose Johns and the Advent of the Civil Rights Movement. So imagine my delight when I saw that one of my librarians recently interviewed her. Well done, Jill!
- Speaking of librarians I admire, behold this woman:
I’m mildly peeved that I didn’t learn that the Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced With Adversity had been awarded until I stumbled across the fact on Twitter. Reading this article I can see that the win of librarian Laurence Copel, the founder of the Lower Ninth Ward Street Library in New Orleans, is well and truly deserved. In fact, I sort of pity the committee in choosing anyone else after this. Copel kind of sweeps the floor with the competition. How on earth do you compete with THAT? Wowza.
- What do J.M. Barrie, Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, P. G. Wodehouse, G. K. Chesterton, Jerome K. Jerome, and A. A. Milne all have in common? Apparently they were all on the world’s worst cricket team of all time. I don’t even know how I went through life unaware of this until now. Read the article. The amusing “greatest hits” are gonna go right over a lot of American’s heads. So if any of today’s authors are interested in creating, say, a dodgeball team, I’d say there’s a precedent.
- Psst! Care to see some KILLER comics coming out this fall that you may have missed? Check these puppies out. I guarantee you’ve seen nothing like them before.
And for today’s Daily Image, I bring you the coolest idea of all time. When Angie Manfredi tweeted that her library was doing a spy party for the kids called Spy Night, I was impressed. She asked for spy picture books, but all I could come up with was Andy Rash’s Agent A to Agent Z. At any rate, this is the laser maze set-up they created in one of the stacks.
So brilliant I could cry. Thanks to Angie Manfredi for the image!
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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No time to dilly-dally, people! We’ve most of our peers and betters living it up in Las Vegas. Let’s soothe our sorrows of not attending ourselves in some lovely videos then, eh whot?
First off, you may have known that there was a recent Boston Children’s Book Trivia Night. But did you know there was video from the event as well? Indeedy. Just LOOK at that turnout! That’s Jack Gantos moderating. The only trouble with this vid is that it doesn’t contain the answer to his trivia question. Um . . . anyone want to tell it to me?
In other news, Eoin Colfer. Not that his existence is news exactly. It’s just worth making your day brighter to watch him talk a little about . . . well, pretty much anything. In this case, on getting a literary agent. Granted, he looks a bit like a great big blue floating head, but I care not.
In movie news, The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex is finally finding itself in film form. Retitled Home, it has made some interesting changes. The title, for one. J-Lo is now just O. And Tip is a teenager (one suspects the film executives thought kids would start picking up their own parents’ car keys if they saw a kid in a movie driving). We shall see.
Awwww. A Harry Potter rap! It’s never too late folks (and note the complete and utter lack of snark in the lyrics).
Thanks to bookshelves of doom for the link.
And for our off-topic video, this one actually mentions Hagrid at one point (continuing our Harry Potter theme). So we’re awfully close to being on-topic. It’s one woman, seventeen different British accents, and one rocking pair of fantastically 1985 glasses.
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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The Mermaid and the Shoe
By K.G. Campbell
Kids Can Press
On shelves now
Why are magical creatures so hard to write? I’m a children’s librarian. That means that a goodly portion of my day can consist of small starry-eyed children asking for an array of otherworldly cuties. “Do you have any unicorn books?” “Any fairies?” “Any mermaids?” Actually, more often than not it’s their parents asking and you can read between the lines when they request such books. What they’re really saying is, “Do you have any books about a fairy that isn’t going to make me want to tear out my eyebrows when I end up reading it for the 4,000th time?” Over the years I’ve collected the names of picture books that fulfill those needs. Like fairies? The Dollhouse Fairy by Jane Ray is for you. Unicorns? You can’t go wrong with Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great by Bob Shea. But mermaids . . . mermaids posed a problem. It isn’t that they don’t have books. They simply don’t have that many. For whatever reason, writers don’t like doing mermaid books. Easy to understand why. What is a mermaid known for aside from brushing their hair or luring young sailors to a watery grave? Add in the fact that most kids associate mermaids with a certain red-haired Disney vixen and you’ve got yourself a topic that’s avoided like the plague. It takes a bit of originality, spark, and verve to overcome these obstacles. Having read his picture book Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters I knew that K.G. Campbell was a bit of a witty wordsmith. What I didn’t know was that he was capable of creating wholly new storylines that are as satisfying to adult readers as they will be to children. You want a mermaid book? The Mermaid and the Shoe is officially my latest recommendation.
Mermaids are talented creatures. Just ask King Neptune. The merman has fifty (count ‘em) fifty daughters and every single one of them has a talent. Every single one . . . except perhaps Minnow. The youngest daughter, Minnow can’t garden or train fish or sing particularly well. Instead, she asks questions. Questions that nobody seems to know the answers to. One day, a strange red object falls from above. No one, not even Minnow’s stuck up sister Calypso, can say what it is or what it does. Inspired, Minnow goes up to the surface to discover its use. What she finds shocks her, but also gives her a true purpose. She’s not just the youngest daughter in her family any more. No, Minnow is an explorer through and through.
My three-year-old daughter has a laser-like ability to hone in on any new picture book that appears in my bag when I come home from work. I hadn’t necessarily meant to try out The Mermaid and the Shoe on her, but once she zeroed in on it there was no stopping her. At this point in time she doesn’t have much of a magical creature frame of reference so it was interesting trying to explain the rudimentary basics of your everyday merman or mermaid in the context of Campbell’s book. She had a bit of a hard time understanding why Minnow didn’t know what a shoe was. I explained that mermaids don’t have feet. “Why don’t they have feet?” Not much of an answer to be given to that one. Happily she enjoyed the book thoroughly, but with its emphasis on cruel older siblings and the importance of making your own path, this is going to be best enjoyed by a slightly older readership.
As I may have mentioned before, Disney ruined us for mermaids. There will therefore be kids who read this book and then complain that it’s not a cookie cutter Ariel mass media affair. Still, I like to think those kids will be few and far between. First off, the book does have some similarities to the Ariel storyline. King Neptune/Triton is still the buff and shirtless father of a bunch of mermaid sisters and he still has his customary crown, flowy white beard (beards just look so keen underwater, don’t you think?), and triton. The story focuses yet again on his youngest daughter who longs to know more about the world up above. She’s accompanied by an adorable underwater sea creature. But once you get past the peripheral similarities, Campbell strikes out into uncharted territory, so to speak.
With this book Campbell strikes a storytelling tone. It’s a bit more classic than that found in some other contemporary picture books, but it fits the subject and the art. When you read that Calypso called her little sister “useless” the text says, “for sisters can be mean that way.” There’s an art to the storytelling. I loved that Minnow considers the shoe important because “This thing . . . was made with care. It has a purpose, and I will discover it!” As for the plot itself, I’ve never seen a book do this particular storyline before. Maybe it’s because authors are afraid of incurring the litigious wrath of Disney, but shouldn’t more mermaids be curious about our world? The fact that they’d be horrified by our feet just makes complete and utter sense. If you didn’t know they weren’t hands then of course you’d consider them knobby, gnarled and smelly (though how they know about that last bit is up for contention). Campbell knows how to follow a plotline to its logical conclusion.
I also love the core message of the book. Minnow’s talent lies in not just her brain (which I would have settled for) but also in how she sets about getting answers to her questions. At the end of the tale her father proclaims that her talent is being an explorer but I’m not so sure. I think Minnow’s a reporter. She not only asks the right questions but she sets out to find answers, no matter where they lead her. Then she comes back and shares information with her fellow mermaids, reporting her findings and sticking to the facts. You could also call her a storyteller, but to my mind Minnow is out there chasing down leads, satisfying her own curiosity over and over again. You might even say she comes close to the scientific method (though she never sets up a hypothesis so that would be a bit of a stretch).
There’s been a lot of talk over the years as to whether or not the greatest picture books out there are always written and illustrated by the same person (just look at the most recent Caldecott winners if you doubt me). You could argue both ways, but there is little doubt in my mind that Campbell just happened to be the best possible artist for this book . . . which he also just happened to write. I hate the term “dreamlike” but doggone it, it’s sort of the best possible term for this title. Notice how beautifully Campbell frames his images. In some pages he will surround a round image like a window with aspects of the scene (seaweed, fronds, or in the case of the world above, wildflowers). Consider too his use of color. The single red shoe is the only object of that particular bright hue in the otherwise grey and gloomy underwater lands. The mermaids themselves are all white-haired, a fact that makes a lot of sense when you consider that sunlight never touches them. They’re like lovely little half-human cavefish. And then there’s the man’s scope. I was reminded of a similarly aquatic picture book, David Soman’s Three Bears in a Boat in terms of the use of impressive two-page spreads. There’s an image of Minnow confronting a whale that could well take your breath away if you let it. The man knows how to pull back sometimes and then go in for the close-up. I have heard some objections to the mermaids’ teeny tiny seashells that seemingly float over their nonexistent breasts. And true, you notice it for about half a second. Then you get into the book itself and all is well.
With its can do mermaid who seeks answers in spite of her age and size, its beautiful watercolor and pencil crayon imagery, and writing that makes the reader feel like they’re indulging in a contemporary classic, there is no question in my mind that The Mermaid and the Shoe is the best little mermaid related picture book of all time. Utterly charming and unique, I can only hope it inspires other artists and authors to attempt to write more quality works of picture book fiction about magical creatures for the kiddos. It’s not an easy task, but when it works boy HOWDY does it work! Beguiling and bewitching, there’s only one true word to describe this book. Beautiful.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
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I was perusing the old Top 100 Picture Books and Top 100 Chapter Books polls of yore (still my most popular posts, even after all these years) when a thought occurred. Looking at the list you can see a lot of folks who are still working to this day. Your Mo Willemses. Your Eric Carles. And you can see a lot of folks who have departed this great green plain, either long ago or recently. Your Ezra Jack Keatses. Your Margaret Wise Browns (though with that trunk of her spewing out continual books, will she ever truly leave us?).
Then you have an entirely different category. Authors and illustrators that created classics, then just left the field. Poof! No more books. These are the folks that just walked away. They’re rare but they happen and they’re the subject of today’s post.
There are two types of authors/illustrators in this respect. Those who stop at the top of their career and those who stop once they aged a bit and are tired of the business/want to do other things. Of the latter I can think of quite a few who are still kicking about doing their thing. That thing just doesn’t happen to involve producing new works for kids. Judy Blume, for example. If anyone is allowed to rest on her laurels, it would be she. Occasionally she’ll reappear and do something like the Pain and the Great One early chapter book series, but by and large she’s out of the running, doing other things in her life like the Tiger Eyes movie. Beverly Cleary at the grand old age of 98 hasn’t written anything since the last Ramona book Ramona’s World, published in 1999. She occasionally pops up for interviews when folks like NPR remember that she’s still alive. I wouldn’t put it past her to suddenly come out with a final Ramona Quimby book either (which reminds me of Peter Sieruta’s old April Fool’s post on the very topic lo these many years ago).
Perhaps the person that intrigues me most in this respect is Marcia Brown. Does the name ring a bell? She is, I believe, the woman who tied the record for most Caldecott Awards (rather than Honors) with David Wiesner. Considering that her first Caldecott came in 1954 you’d be forgiven for thinking she’d passed on, but in fact she’s currently residing in California. Early in her career she worked for New York Public Library in the same Central Children’s Room that I did and it was there that she would test out her book ideas on the kiddos. For the latter part of her life she dedicated herself to her paintings, no longer working the field of children’s literature. I believe Leonard Marcus went out and visited her relatively recently, but I’m not sure where that interview is slated to appear. Sometimes I wonder if there are books she wished she could have published.
Then there are the folks that left while they were near the peak of their popularity. These are the people that intrigue me particularly. One of the most notable cases would be that of Peggy Rathmann. If you want an example of a picture book author/illustrator who left at the top of her game, see ye no further. The creator of such fantastic books as Goodnight, Gorilla, Ten Minutes to Bedtime, The Day the Babies Crawled Away (note to self: put on hold for daughter), and Officer Buckle and Gloria amongst others, she hasn’t produced a new picture book in ten years. Aside from having the world’s greatest author photo, word on the street has it that Ms. Rathmann is perfectly happy working on her California ranch. So why no more books? No clue but I dare to dream that someday she’ll do an interview with Leonard Marcus or Jules Danielson and we’ll hear from her again. Failing that I’d settle for a new book. *bats eyes in the direction of Nicasio, California longingly*
I considered adding Lois Duncan to this list since she was a young adult author even before the term became popular. There was a time when her books were prolific and wonderful. But reading the recent and marvelously researched BuzzFeed article Who Killed Lois Duncan’s Daughter? I know that this is a very different case. There are authors that quit writing in a genre because they willingly choose to go another direction with their lives. Then there are those that choose to quite writing in a genre because they are forced to go in another direction. Ms. Duncan probably would have been happy to continue writing suspense thrillers, had the circumstances of her life been different.
How long do you give it until you declare that a person is “gone”? If they’re alive then there’s always the possibility, however remote, that they’ll pull another manuscript out from behind their backs at some point. Hope springs eternal, after all. Take J.K. Rowling, for example. Will she ever write another children’s book again? Years ago she suggested that she’d write a “political fairy tale” of some sort, but that manuscript has yet to arise. Considering how successful her nom de plume experiment with adult literature turned out to be, it wouldn’t be a huge stretch to see her pull the same move on the children’s book publishing world. Think about it. What if, some year, a nondescript manuscript from a supposed debut author appeared on the Scholastic line-up and we only found out later that its true author was Ms. Rowling? I’m sort of thrilled by the potential there. It could happen.
You can never really write anyone off either. Norton Juster, for example, was capable of going decades without publishing a thing, only to reappear years later.
Have you any authors or illustrators you wonder about?