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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!"
Statistics for A Fuse #8 Production
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Which of the following types of children’s books are, in your opinion, the most difficult to write: Board books, picture books, easy books (for emerging readers), early chapter books, or middle grade fiction (older chapter books)? The question is, by its very definition, unfair. They are all incredibly hard to do well. Now me, I have always felt that easy books must be the hardest to write. You have to take into account not just the controlled vocabulary but also the fact that the story is likely not going to exactly be War and Peace (The Cat in the Hat is considered exceptional for a reason, people). And right on the heels of easy books and their level of difficulty is the early chapter book. You have a bit more freedom with that format, but not by much. For a really good one there should be plenty of fun art alongside a story that strikes the reader as one-of-a-kind. It has to talk about something near and dear to the heart of the kid turning the pages, and if you manage to work in a bit of a metaphor along the way? Then you, my dear, have done the near impossible. The last book I saw work this well was the extraordinary Sadie and Ratz by Sonya Hartnett, a book that to this day I consider a successor to Where the Wild Things Are. I didn’t expect to see another book tread the same path for a while. After all, these kinds of stories are enormously difficult to write (or did I mention that already?). Enter Dory Fantasmagory. Oh. My. Goodness. Pick up my jaw from the floor and lob it my way because this book is AMAZING! Perfection of tone, plot, pacing, art, you name it. Author Abby Hanlon has taken a universal childhood desire (the wish of the younger sibling for the older ones to play with them) and turned it into a magnificent epic fantasy complete with sharp-toothed robbers, bearded fairy godmothers, and what may be the most realistic 6-year-old you’ll ever meet on a page. In a word, fantastico.
She’s six-years-old and the youngest of three. Born Dory, nicknamed Rascal, our heroine enjoys a rich fantasy life that involves seeing monsters everywhere and playing with her best imaginary friend Mary. She has to, you see, because her older siblings Luke and Violet refuse to play with her. One day, incensed by her incessant youth, Violet tells Rascal that if she keeps acting like a baby (her words) she’ll be snatched up by the sharp-toothed robber Mrs. Gobble Gracker (a cousin of Viola Swamp if the pictures are anything to go by). Rather than the intended effect of maturing their youngest sibling, this information causes Rascal to go on the warpath to defeat this new enemy. In the course of her playacting she pretends to be a dog (to escape Mrs. Gobble Gracker’s attention, naturally) and guess what? Luke, her older brother, has always wanted a dog! Suddenly he’s playing with her and Rascal is so ebullient with the attention that she refuses to change back. Now her mom’s upset, her siblings are as distant as ever, Mrs. Gobble Gracker may or may not be real, and things look bad for our hero. Fortunately, one uniquely disgusting act is all it will take to save the day and make things right again.
This is what I like about the world of children’s books: You never know what amazingly talented book is going to come from an author next. Take Abby Hanlon. A former teacher, Ms. Hanlon wrote the totally respectable picture book Ralph Tells a Story. It published with Amazon and got nice reviews. I read it and liked it but I don’t think anyone having seen it would have predicted its follow up to be Dory here. It’s not just the art that swept me away, though it is delightful. The tiny bio that comes with this book says that its creator “taught herself to draw” after she was inspired by her students’ storytelling. Man oh geez, I wish I could teach myself to draw and end up with something half as good as what Hanlon has here. But while I liked the art, the book resonates as beautifully as it does because it hits on these weird little kid truths that adults forget as they grow older. For example, how does Rascal prove herself to her siblings in the end? By being the only one willing to stick her hand in a toilet for a bouncy ball. THAT feels realistic. And I love Rascal’s incessant ridiculous questions. “What is the opposite of a sandwich?” Lewis Carroll and Gollum ain’t got nuthin’ on this girl riddle-wise.
For me, another part of what Dory Fantasmagory does so well is get the emotional beats of this story dead to rights. First off, the premise itself. Rascal’s desperation to play with her older siblings is incredibly realistic. It’s the kind of need that could easily compel a child to act like a dog for whole days at a time if only it meant garnering the attention of her brother. When Rascal’s mother insists that she act like a girl, Rascal’s loyalties are divided. On the one hand, she’ll get in trouble with her mom if she doesn’t act like a kid. On the other hand, she has FINALLY gotten her brother’s attention!! What’s more, Rascal’s the kind of kid who’ll get so wrapped up in imaginings that she’ll misbehave without intending to, really. Parents reading this book will identify so closely to Rascal’s parents that they’ll be surprised how much they still manage to like the kid when all is said and done (there are no truer lines in the world than when her mom says to her dad, “It’s been a looooooooong day”). But even as they roll their eyes and groan and sigh at their youngest’s antics, please note that Rascal’s mom and dad do leave at least two empty chairs at the table for her imaginary companions. That ain’t small potatoes.
It would have been simple for Hanlon to go the usual route with this book and make everything real to Abby without a single moment where she doubts her own imaginings. Lots of children’s books make use of that imaginative blurring between fact and fiction. What really caught by eye about Dory Fantasmagory, however, was the moment when Rascal realizes that in the midst of her storytelling she has lost her sister’s doll. She thinks, “Oh! Where did I put Cherry? I gave her to Mrs. Gobble Gracker, of course. But what did I REALLY ACTUALLY do with her?” This is the moment when the cracks in Rascal’s storytelling become apparent. She has to face facts and just for once see the world for what it is. And why? Because her older sister is upset. Rascal, you now see, would do absolutely anything for her siblings. She’d even destroy her own fantasy world if it meant making them happy.
Beyond the silliness and the jokes (of which there are plenty), Hanlon’s real talent here is how she can balance ridiculousness alongside honest-to-goodness heartwarming moments. If you look at the final picture in this book and don’t feel a wave of happy contentment then you, sir, have no soul. The book is a pure pleasure and bound to be just as amusing to kids as it is to adults. Like older works for children like Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, Dory Fantasmagory manages to make a personality type that many kids would find annoying in real life (in this case, a younger sibling) into someone not only understandable but likeable and sympathetic. If it encourages only one big brother or sister to play with their younger sibs then it will have justified its existence in the universe. And I think it shall, folks. I think it shall. A true blue winner.
As a mother who recently spent the better part of twenty hours in a car with a three-year-old and a three-month-old baby, I feel a special kinship with parents who have also engaged in the ultimate endurance sport: travel with children. If you feel no particular sympathy for those engaged in this activity that is because you have not experienced it firsthand yourself. But even when my daughter was projectile vomiting regularly and even when the breast pump tipped to one side spilling milk all over my pants and EVEN WHEN I found myself wedged in the backseat between two car seats trying to change my son’s diaper on my lap while parked, I could still feel grateful because at least it was just a vacation. It wasn’t like we were moving to a new town or anything. Because if I’d had to deal with the abject misery of my three-year-old on top of the vomit/milk/diapers I don’t know how my sanity would have remained intact. And yet, other parents do it all the time. Every day someone somewhere packs up all their worldly possessions, their pets, and their miserable offspring and heads for a whole new life. It’s daunting. You can’t help but admire their guts. And boy, you’d sure like to hand them a book that they could use to show their kids that as scary as a move like that can be, ultimately it’s going to be okay. Enter a book so sparse and spare you’d never believe it capable of the depth of feeling within its pages. Deborah Underwood lends her prodigious talents to Bad Bye, Good Bye while artist Jonathan Bean fills in the gaps. The effect is a book where every syllable is imbued with meaning, yet is as much a beautiful object as it is a useful too.
“Bad day, Bad box” says the book. On the page, a boy wrestles with a moving man for possession of a cardboard box, doomed to be loaded into the nearby moving van. The boy, we see, is in no way happy about this move. He clearly likes his home and his best friend, who has come with her mother to bid him goodbye. On the road he and his little sister pitch seven different kinds of catfits before sinking into a kind of resigned malaise. Time heals all wounds, though, and with the help of a motel swimming pool, diners, and multiple naps, they arrive in their new town in the early evening. As the family and movers pile boxes and other things into the new house, the boy meets another kid who just happens to live next door. Together they collect lightning bugs and star gaze until that “bad bye” at the beginning of the book morphs into a far more comfortable “good bye” when the new friends bid each other goodnight.
This isn’t Underwood’s first time at the rodeo. The art of the restrained use of language is sort of her bread and butter. Anyone who has seen her work her magic in The Quiet Book is aware that she says loads with very little. I sincerely hope someone out there has been bugging her to write an easy book for kids. The talent of synthesizing a story down to its most essential parts is a rare one. In this book there is a total of 57 words (or so). These usually appear in two word pairs and by some extraordinary bit of planning they also rhyme. We begin with all “bads”. It goes “Bad day, Bad box / Bad mop, Bad blocks / Bad truck, Bad guy, Bad wave, Bad bye.” The book then slips into neutral terms as the initial misery wears off. Then, as we near the end the “goods” come out. “Good tree, Good sky / Good friend, Good bye.” Such a nice transition. You could argue that it’s pretty swift considering the depths of misery on display in the early pages, and that’s not too far off, but kids are also pretty resilient. Besides, motel swimming pools do indeed go a long way towards modifying behavior.
Jonathan Bean’s one to watch. Always has been. From the moment he was doing Wendy Orr’s Mokie & Bik books to the nativity animalia title “One Starry Night” to all those other books in his roster, he proved himself a noteworthy artist. Watching his work come out you have the distinct sense that this is the calm before the storm. The last minute before he wins some big award and starts fielding offers from the biggest names in the biz. In this book I wouldn’t necessarily have said the art was by Bean had I not seen his name spelled out on the cover. It’s a slightly different style for him. Not just pencil and watercolors anymore. A style, in fact, that allows him to try and catch a bit of Americana in the story’s pages. When Underwood writes something like “Big hair, White deer” it’s Bean’s prerogative to determine what that means exactly. His solution to that, as well as other sections, is layering. Time and landscapes are layered on top of one another. America, from diners and speed limit signs to windmills and weathervanes, display scenes familiar to traveling families. A great artist gives weight and meaning to the familiar. Jonathan Bean is a great artist.
Now the cover of this book is also well worth noting. I don’t say that about a lot of picture books either. Generally speaking a picture book’s cover advertises the book to the best of its ability but only occasionally warrants close examination. Jonathan Bean, however, isn’t afraid to convey pertinent information through his cover. In fact, if you look at it closely you’ll see that he’s managed to encapsulate the entire story from one flap to another. Begin at the end of the book. Open it up. If you look at the inside back flap the very first thing you’ll see underneath the information about the author and the illustrator is the image of the boy in the story straining against his seatbelt, his face a grimace of pure unadulterated rage. Now follow the jacket to the back cover of the book and you see the boy crying in one shot and then looking miserably back in another. The weather is alternating between a starry night sky and a windy rainy day. Move onto the front cover and the rain is still there but soon it turns to clear skies and the boy’s attitude morphs into something distinctly more pleasant. In fact, by the time you open the book to the front flap he’s lifting his hands in a happy cheer. The attitude adjustment could not be more stark and it was done entirely in the span of a single book jacket. Not the kind of thing everyone would notice, and remarkable for that fact alone.
People are always talking about “the great American novel”, as if that’s an attainable ideal. We don’t ever hear anyone talk about “the great American picture book”. I don’t know that Bad Bye, Good Bye would necessarily fit the bill anyway. This is more the picture book equivalent of On the Road than To Kill a Mockingbird, after all. It’s a road trip book, albeit a safe and familiar one. For children facing the frightening prospect of the unknown (and let’s face it – adults hardly do much better) it’s good to have a book that can offer a bit of comfort. A reassurance that no matter how things change, good can follow bad just as day follows night. They are not alone in this uprooting. Somewhere out there, in another car, with another family, there might be a kid just as miserable as they are and for the exact same reason. And like all humans this knowledge ends up being comforting and necessary. Therefore give all your love to Bad Bye, Good Bye. It has necessary comfort to spare.
On shelves now.
Like This? Then Try:
A New Room for William by Sally Grindley
Herman’s Letter by Tom Percival
The Good-Pie Party by Liz Garton Scanlon
Alexander, Who Is Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going to Move by Judith Viorst
Tim’s Big Move by Anke Wagner
Misc: And I interviewed Ms. Underwood about the book here.
Today I am pleased as punch to premiere the brand spankin’ new book trailer for Dan Yaccarino’s middel grade novel debut Zorgoochi Intergalactic Pizza: Delivery of Doom (say that five times fast – I dare you). The video captures humor, pathos, and angry mushrooms. In other words, everything that makes life worth living.
I have never, in all my livelong days, been so proud of an illustrator. And Mary Engelbreit at that. For someone as well-established as she is the decision to create and sell a print with all proceeds going to the Michael Brown Jr. Memorial Fund, which supports the family of Michael Brown, the Missouri teenager who was gunned down by police two weeks ago. Here’s what it looks like:
Next thing you know Ms. Engelbreit is being blasted by haters and trolls for this work. You can read about the controversy and her measured, intelligent response here.
While we are on the subject of Ferguson, Phil Nel created a list of links and resources for teachers who are teaching their students about the events. I was happy to see he included the impressive Storify #KidLitForJustice, that was assembled by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas.
iNK (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids) that group of thirty authors of nonfiction books for children recently came up with an interesting notion. Thinking about how to best reach out to teachers and homeschooling parents they’ve come up with The Nonfiction Minute—a daily posting of intriguing tidbits of nonfiction designed to stimulate curiosity, with a new one published online every weekday. Say they, “Each Nonfiction Minute website entry will include an audio file of the author reading his or her text, so students can actually hear the author’s voice, making the content accessible to less fluent readers. The audio frees us from the constraints of children’s reading vocabulary, which is what makes textbooks and many children’s books designed for the classroom so bland. We can concentrate on creating a sense of excitement about our subject matter for our young listeners, readers, and future readers.” Right now they’re in the the early stages of crowdfunding via IndieGoGo so head on over and give them your support if you can. It’s a neat notion.
I’m not a Dr. Who fan myself but that’s more because I simply haven’t watched the show rather than any particular dislike or anything. So I was very amused by the theory posed recently that Willie Wonka is the final regeneration of The Doctor. And they make a mighty strong case.
And speaking of cool, I almost missed it but it looks as though 3-D printers are creating three dimensional books for blind children these days. The classics are getting an all new look. Fascinating, yes? Thanks to Stephanie Whelan for the link.
This is a bit of a downer. I was always very impressed that Britain had taken the time to establish a funny prize for kids. Now we learn that the Roald Dahl Funny Prize has been put on hold. It’ll be back in 2016 but still. Bummer.
You know, I love The Minnesotan State Fair. I think it’s one of the best State Fairs in the nation. But even I have to admit that when it comes to butter sculptures, Iowa has Minnesota beat. The evidence?
Hard to compete with that. Thanks to Lisa S. Funkenspruherin for the link.
Believe it or not, this year marks the 50th Anniversary of Roald Dahl’s beloved CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. This September, Penguin is celebrating with a week long Skype Tour of the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre!
On the Skype tour:
• The Roald Dahl Museum’s Education Manager will lead your group around
the Museum virtually
• Kids will get a look inside Roald Dahl’s real Writing Hut, featuring
his famous chair and the unusual objects he kept on his desk
• Experience the world of Dahl and the inspiration behind his wonderful
• Participate in a Q&A with the Education Manager
Skype opportunities are available the week of Monday, September 29 – Friday, October 3, 2014 between 9:30am EST and 3:00pm EST/8:30am CST and 2:00pm CST/7:30am MST and 1:00pm MST/6:30am PST and 12:00pm PST.
Maybe it’s Common Core. Maybe not. I’m not always quite certain how far to place the blame in these cases. However you look at it, children’s nonfiction bios are getting weird these days. In some ways it’s quite remarkable. I’m the first one to say that nonfiction for kids is better now than it has ever been. I mean, when I was a young ‘un the only nonfiction I ever enjoyed was the Childhood of Famous Americans series. Not that it was actually nonfiction. I mean, it made these interesting suppositions about the youth of various famous people, complete with fake dialogue (I am the strictest anti-fake dialogue person you’ll ever meet). I enjoyed them the way I enjoyed fiction because, for the most part, they were fiction. Boy, you just couldn’t get away with that kind of thing today, right?
Meet three new “nonfiction” series of varying degrees of fictionalization and authenticity that caught my eye recently. I can’t exactly call them a trend. Rather, they’re simply interesting examples of how publishers are struggling to figure out how to tackle the notion of “nonfiction” and “high-interest” for kids. And it’s now our job to determine how successful they’ve become.
First up, let’s go back old Childhood of Famous Americans. They remain beloved, but they’re problematic. So what do you do when you have a product that slots into that category? You rebrand, baby!
Introducing History’s All-Stars from Aladdin (an imprint of Simon & Schuster). Observe the following covers:
Look vaguely familiar? Pick up the book and you may find the words “Childhood of Famous American” in there individually, but never strung together in that particular order. The publication page only mentions that the books were previously published as far back as the 1950s (little wonder I’m worried about that Sacagawea title, yes). Yet the design, as you can see, isn’t far off so we had to wonder. Is it just the same series? A side-by-side comparison:
The publisher description calls this “a narrative biography” which is technically the accepted term for this kind of book. But there is no way you could use this for a report. They’re fiction, baby. A kind of fiction that doesn’t really have a designated place in a library collection at this time, though that could change. Which brings us to . . .
Ordinary People Change the World – A series by Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos
It’s the series bound to wreck havoc with catalogers everywhere! They look like Charles Schulz characters. They read like nonfiction . . . sorta? Kinda? Kirkus said of I Am Rosa Parks that it was, “A barely serviceable introduction with far more child appeal than substance.” Yet they’re bestsellers and visually incredibly appealing. Published by Dial (a Penguin imprint), the books were a risk that appears to have paid off in terms of dollars. In terms of sparking interest in these historical figures it’s also a success. But is it factual? Is it accurate? Does it stand up to scrutiny? Does it matter? Why shouldn’t it matter? You see the conundrum.
Finally, there’s a series coming out from Scholastic that looks like it might be along similar lines to these, but that I haven’t seen firsthand quite yet:
Called the When I Grow Up series, again we’re seeing historical figures as children. But maybe these are entirely accurate in their retellings? They’re Scholastic Readers, made to meet the needs of early readers. It’s the title “When I Grow Up” that raises the red flag for me. Because, you see, they’re written in the first person. And as a librarian who has had to field reference questions from first graders asking for “autobiographies”, this is problematic. If a book is entirely accurate but seems to come from the lips of its biographical subject, what is it worth in the pantheon of nonfiction?
People will always say that worrying along these lines is ridiculous. If the books are good and spark an interest, isn’t that enough? Why do you have to require strict accuracy at all times? My argument would be that when biographies are written for adults, people are meticulous (hopefully) about maintaining authenticity. Why should we hold our kids to different standards?
It’s a debate. These books just crack it open wide.
Along the same lines (WARNING: Shameless plug looming on the horizon!) I’ve gotten out the jumper cables and restarted the old Children’s Literary Salon at NYPL. Babies have been born and it is time to get back in the swing of things. On that note, on Saturday, September 6th I’ll be hosting one of children’s nonfiction all-stars in a conversation that might very well touch on this topic. Behold!
Personal Passions and Changes in Nonfiction for Children and Teens: A Conversation with Marc Aronson
Author, professor, speaker, editor and publisher by turns, Marc Aronson’s love of nonfiction and his conviction that young people can read carefully, examine evidence, and engage with new and challenging ideas informs everything he does. Join us for a conversation about the changing role of nonfiction for youth, and the special challenges and advantages of this one-of-a-kind genre.
I’m a chick who loves Star Wars. I’m not ashamed of the fact. Feminist icon Princess Leia? I can get behind that (gold bikini or no). So when I saw a galley for that AMAZING Star Wars children’s book coming out with art from the original concept artist Ralph McQuarrie, I was blown away. Here, Tony DiTerlizzi (who did the writing in the book) talks about the film and the art. Geeks unite!
I love that he mentions that moment with the two suns. For me, that was undoubtedly the most iconic scene in the original film. I just loved the realism of it. I am SO reading this to my kids. P.S. For a fun time read the rants about the “Luke, I am your father” line. Or, better yet, don’t.
Now until about a day ago when my niece did it, I didn’t actually know what the Ice Bucket Challenge was. Dav Pilkey takes it on using Flip-o-Rama. Good man.
Ball’s in your court now, CeCe.
I think it’s safe to say that I have never seen an author promote a cinematic adaptation of their award winning book as much as I’ve seen Ms. Lois Lowry talk up the latest film of The Giver. Here she does it again:
How famous is J.K. Rowling? So famous that when she writes an incidental character, NBC News is willing to report on that character getting her own song. According to Salon this is an original song written for Pottermore starring Celestina Warbeck, Molly Weasley’s favorite singer:
And speaking of all things Potter, the thing about learning that there’s a documentary out there called Mudbloods is that you can’t believe you hadn’t seen a film of that name before. It’s an awfully good idea to make a movie about the rise of the real world Quiddich movement. It’s not the first Harry Potter documentary of course but it’s a cute idea. Here’s the trailer:
Man. It would weird to be J.K. Rowling and see this, wouldn’t it? Here’s some additional info.
A little me stuff. I conducted a talk with Mara Rockliff and Eliza Wheeler for Bibliocommons in honor of their latest book The Grudge Keeper. It was recorded, but rather than show our lovely faces the video shows some slides of what we’re discussing. In case you’ve an interest you can take a gander at it. A lot of talking about the process of writing picture books can be found here:
As for the off-topic video, this one’s been making the rounds. It’s one of those videos where you go, “Huh? Huh? Huh? Huh? Ooooooh!”
Celebrate Reading This Fall with Thalia Kids’ Book Club at Symphony Space
The always popular Thalia Kids’ Book Club includes lively discussions between top children’s book authors and their fans, with special guests and a behind-the-scenes look at how books are written and produced. The interactive series is co-presented with the Bank Street Bookstore.
For more information and tickets, visit http://www.symphonyspace.org/tkbc .
Wednesday, September 10, 7 pm Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller: Nightmares! Tickets: $22 members, non-members $25 Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother, The Muppets), an actor, writer, and musician, teams up with New York Times bestselling author Kirsten Miller (Kiki Strike) to discuss their hilariously frightening middle-grade novel Nightmares!, the first book in a trilogy about a boy named Charlie and a group of kids who must face their fears to save their town. Ages 8 and up. Note: The special ticket price includes a copy of Nightmares! (retail priced at $16.99).Ticket holders will get a copy of the book at the door on September 10. Books will not be available for early pickup.
Sunday, September 21 at 1 pm Pseudonymous Bosch: Bad Magic Tickets: members $12, non-members $15
The mysterious author of the New York Times-bestselling The Name of This Book is Secret goes behind-the-scenes of his new adventure series Bad Magic. The author will be in conversation with Adam Gidwitz (A Tale Dark and Grimm). Ages 9 to 12.
Tuesday, September 23 at 6 pm An Evening with Patricia Polacco Patricia Polacco, the beloved author and illustrator of Thank You, Mr. Falker, and dozens of other favorite picture books, discusses her life and award-winning works. The author and illustrator of more than 70 books for children, Polacco has won every award imaginable in children’s literature. Her latest book is Mr. Wayne’s Masterpiece, an inspired-by-true-life story about overcoming the fear of speaking in public. Ages 6 & up.
Sunday, October 19 at 1 pm An Afternoon with Lois Lowry Tickets: members $12, non-members $15
Reading and conversation with the treasured author of Number the Stars, The Giver, and many other favorite works for kids and teens. Number the Stars, the Newbery Medal-winning novel about the Occupation of Denmark in the Second World War, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Ages 9 and up.
Sunday, November 16 at 5 pm A Celebration of E. B. White All Tickets: $25 (ticket sales benefit First Book).
Stars of Broadway and Hollywood celebrate the work of the beloved writer whose humorous and poignant stories and poetry include Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. Special guests include White’s granddaughter Martha White. Jarrett J. Krosoczka (The Lunch Lady series) will host the event, and actor David Hyde Pierce will also read from the stories. First Book, a non-profit organization, connects book publishers to community organizations to provide access to new books for children in need. Ages 7 and up.
Symphony Space is located at 2537 Broadway at 95th Street in Manhattan, New York City. The box office number is (212) 864-5400. A note to editors: Symphony Space Literary Department presenters are available for interviews. More detailed information about each group and photos are available upon request. Visit http://www.symphonyspace.org/tkbc for updated information.
We appear to exist in a golden age of children’s graphic novel memoirs. Which is to say, there are three of them out this year (El Deafo, Sisters, and The Dumbest Idea Ever). How to account for the sudden tiny boom? If I were to harbor a guess I’d say it has something to do with publishers realizing that the genre can prove a profitable one (hat tip then to Smile). We’re beginning to enter into an era where the bulk of the gatekeepers out there, be they parents or teachers or librarians, are viewing comics not as a corrupting influence but rather as a new literary form with which to teach. Memoirs are particularly interesting and have proven to be a wonderful way to slowly ease kids into the big beautiful world of nonfiction. That said, not everyone’s youth is worthy of a retelling. To tell a memoir well you need to have a narrative arc of some sort. One that doesn’t feel forced. For CeCe Bell, her first foray into graphic novels is also telling the story of her youth. The result, El Deafo, is a remarkable look at a great grand question (What to do when you can no longer hear and feel different from everyone you know?) alongside a smaller one that every kid will relate to (How do you find a good friend?). Bell takes the personal and makes it universal, an act that truly requires superhero skills.
Until the age of four CeCe was pretty much indistinguishable from any other kid. She liked her older siblings. She liked to sing to herself. But a sudden bout with meningitis and something changed for CeCe. All at once her hearing was gone. After some experimentation she was fitted with a Sonic Ear (a device that enabled her to hear her teacher’s voice) and started attending classes with other kids like herself. A family trip to a smaller town, however, meant going to a new school and trying to make new friends. When faced with problems she reverts to her pretend superhero self, El Deafo. With subtlety Bell weaves in knowledge of everything from reading lips and sign language to the difficulties of watching un-captioned television. At the same time the book’s heart lies with a single quest: That of finding the absolute perfect friend.
The rise of the graphic novel memoir of a cartoonist’s youth with a child audience in mind really hit its stride when Raina Telgemeier wrote, Smile. That dire accounting of her at times horrific dental history paved the way for other books in the same vein. So where did my library choose to catalog that graceful memoir? In the biography section? No. In the graphic novel section? Not initially, no. For the first year of its existence it was shelved in nonfiction under the Dewey Decimal number 617.645 T. That’s right. We put it in the dental section. So it was with great trepidation that I looked to see where El Deafo would end up. Would it be in the section on the hearing impaired or would the catalog understand that this book is about so much more than the Sonic Ear? As it happens, the book appears to be primarily cataloged as a memoir more than anything else. Sure the information in there about the deaf community and other aspects of living as someone hearing impaired are nonfiction, but the focus of the story is always squarely on CeCe herself.
The real reason I found the book as compelling as I did was due in large part to the way in which Bell tackles the illogical logic of childhood friendships. So many kids are friends thanks to geographical convenience. You’re my age and live within a certain radius of my home? We’re besties! And Bell’s hearing impaired state is just a part of why she is or is not friends with one person or another. Really, the true arc of the story isn’t necessarily CeCe coming to terms with the Sonic Ear, but rather how she comes to terms with herself and, in doing so, gets the best possible friend. It’s like reading a real life Goldilocks story. This friend is too bossy. This friend is too fixated on Cece’s hearing. But this friend? She’s juuuuuust right.
So why bunnies? Bell could easily have told her story with human beings. And though the characters in this book appear to be anthropomorphized rabbits (reminding me of nothing so much as when guest stars would appear on the children’s television program Arthur) there is no particular reason for this. They never mention a particular love of carrots or restrict their movements to hop hop hopping. They are, however, very easy on the eyes and very enticing. This book was sitting on my To Be Reviewed shelf when my three-year-old waltzed over and plucked it for her own perusal. The bunnies are accessible. In fact, you completely forget that they even are bunnies in the course of reading the book. You also fail to notice after a while how beautifully Bell has laid out her comic panels too. The sequential storytelling is expertly rendered, never losing the reader or throwing you out of the story. One librarian I spoke to also mentioned how nice it was to see that the dream sequences with El Deafo are always clearly delineated as just that. Dream sequences. Fantasy and reality are easily distinguishable in this novel. No mean feat when everyone has a twitchy little nose.
Maybe we’ve peaked. Maybe we’re seeing as many graphic memoirs for kids as we’ll ever see in a given year. But that can’t be, can it? We all have stories to tell, no matter what our upbringing looked like. There’s always some element in our past that’s relatable to a wide audience. It’s the clever author that knows how to spin that element into a storyline worthy of a younger audience. There isn’t a jot of doubt in my mind that CeCe Bell’s book is going to be vastly beloved by nearly every child that picks it up. Engaging and beautifully drawn, to say nothing of its strength and out-and-out facts, El Deafo is going to help set the standard for what a memoir for kids should be. Infinitely clever. Undeniably fun. Don’t miss it.
The advantage of having a bookstore in the library is when it has a tendency towards brilliance. Take this recent list the employees of the Schwarzman Building of NYPL came up with. I can take no credit for this. It’s just smart stuff (and very useful for my ordering as well). With mild tweaks on my part:
READ the book: Alexander and the No Good Horrible Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst
BEFORE YOU SEE the movie, opening in October
READ the book: Here Be Monsters! by Adam Snow
BEFORE YOU SEE the movie, called The Boxtrolls, opening in September
READ the book: A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond
BEFORE YOU SEE the movie, called Paddington, opening in December)
READ the book: The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex
BEFORE YOU SEE the movie, called Home, opening in November
Plus, read How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell before the DVD of How to Train Your Dragon 2 hits the shelves in November.
READ the book: Dracula by Bram Stoker
BEFORE YOU SEE the movie, called Dracula Untold, opening in October
READ the book: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
BEFORE YOU SEE the movie, called The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, opening in December
READ the book: The Maze Runner by James Dashner
BEFORE YOU SEE the movie, opening in September
READ the book: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
BEFORE YOU SEE the movie, opening in November
Plus, pick up John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, then make plans to catch the DVD when it’s released in mid-September
Currently I am maxing and relaxing in Stratford, Ontario enjoying a play or two. Just kidding. By my calculations what I’m actually doing as you read this is driving hell-for-leather out of Canada back to New York City while seated in a rental car’s back seat next to a 3-year-old and a 13-week-old. For hours. And hours. And hours.
As you digest that pleasant little mental image (fun fact: someone in this car gets carsick regularly and it’s not me) I’m going to do you a solid. In case you missed it, we’ve been soliciting authors for special behind-the-scenes tidbits and facts about their 2014 books. These appear one a day on our Wild Things blog (the blog that celebrates Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature). So enjoy what we’ve posted so far and stay tuned because there’s a LOT more where these came from!
First up, a video so good you’d swear we paid to have it made. It’s N.D. Wilson talking gators, football, burning sugarcane fields, and there’s a live recitation of Beowulf in here to make the ladies swoon (the Beowulf lovin’ ladies . . . which is to say my friend Lori Ess):
Christian Robinson was up next and he brought some thoughtful consideration to the depiction of nontraditional families:
Bethany Hegedus followed and her talk touched on spelling errors and matchmaking:
When authors and illustrators asked what kind of video to do I always pointed them to this video of Steve Light. His talk involves runaway primates, which is as awesome as it sounds:
And speaking of primates, Katherine Applegate was a true class act, appearing alongside primate keeper Jody Carrigan to discuss Ivan the gorilla’s more mischievous streak:
How great is Jack Gantos? We asked the man to plug his book and he plugged ours instead! Class act, that one:
Greg Neri came by to talk about the five things you might not know about Johnny Cash, Letterman style:
Jon Scieszka put on a fez. Would that everyone did. A fez just makes everything good:
Lisa Brown’s art may contain the only time in history this particular piece of furniture has appeared in a picture book:
Aaron Starmer told a magnificent story from his own youth that will honestly make your heart bleed a little:
And today we have Lauren Castillo, featuring an editor beloved to many:
Like I say, there are many more to come. Perhaps your favorite will be up soon!
Okay. So we’re still in the thick of book promotion here. As such, I’ll be taking a trip to my home state on Saturday. Yup! It’s a Michigan appearance at Book Beat, the bookstore beloved of my deceased co-writer Peter Sieruta. The Oakland Press did a nice little write up of what’s to come and barring floodwaters (a real concern) I shall be there with Jules Skyping in. Here’s Book Beat’s info on the matter.
Enough me stuff. Let’s look at some other books for adults about children’s literature. Now here is a book I can guarantee you have not heard of, but should. Called Reading the Art in Caldecott Award Books (out on September 16th), this is the title I’ve been waiting for for years. A show of hands – how many of you are a bit intimidated when called upon to critique the art in a picture book? Mmmhmm. Yep, me too. It’s not like we all got fine arts degrees or anything. So what qualifies us to say that one piece of art is any better than any other? Authors Gail Nordstrom and Heidi Hammond (a.k.a. my profs in grad school) have written a book that not only explains the process by which the Caldecott Awards are chosen, but that also looks at past award and honor winners and explains why their art is so extraordinary. This book is INVALUABLE and should be considered must-reading for any Caldecott committee hopefuls, folks participating in Mock Caldecotts, or just about anyone interested in picture book awards. That’s my plug and I’m standing by it.
Mallory Ortberg is a genius. I don’t use the phrase lightly. If you haven’t been reading her Children’s Stories Made Horrific on The Toast, you are missing out. Unless you don’t like horror. True horror. I’m still haunted by her version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and I may craft new nightmares out of her Bradbury-worthy version of The Little Prince. And the Madeleine . . . oh dear god, the Madeleine!!! I have no plans to sleep for the next decade or so.
I think by this point we’re all aware of the brouhaha surrounding the abominable new UK edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for adults, yes? No? Well, if you missed it, the BBC summarized the situation here and the cover itself is here:
To my mind the real problem isn’t the Lolita-esque little girl, necessarily (though I’m no fan). I rather dislike it immensely when publishers feel a need to stick a cover on a book that doesn’t reflect diddly squat about the content inside. Which is to say, this girl is not in the book. She’s not Veruca Salt, since Veruca came to the factory with her dad and not her mom. And she’s certainly not one of the other girls, which means the publisher was just going for some kind of campy look. So ladies and gentlemen if you click on no other link in this round-up today, it is well worth your time and attention to go to the 100 Scope Notes piece Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Was Just the Beginning. Without question this is undoubtedly the most amazing bit of satire I’ve seen on a children’s literary blog since the days of Peter Sieruta.
Let this be a lesson to you, my children. If you write something for your library system and 50 years pass, your words may well be bandied about and mocked on whatever future version of the internet exists. Case in point, my library’s staff reviews of children’s books. They’ve been going online. I’m just grateful they’ve been archived at all.
[SPOILER ALERT: This whole review pretty gives away every plot point in both the book and film versions of The Giver. Abandon ship all ye who wish to remain surprised.]
On Sunday night I had an extraordinary experience. I was sitting in a theater, just about to watch Guardians of the Galaxy, and seeing what had to be the lamest run of movie trailers I have ever experienced. I’m talking horrible stuff. The Annie trailer (which ends with a prostitute joke), the Alexander and the Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day trailer (which may rival the Paddington film for Worst Trailer of the Year), and others that made my brain shut down. However it was the last trailer that was particularly interesting to me. It was for the film adaptation of Lois Lowry’s The Giver. For the first time in my life, I was watching a trailer in a theater for a film I had already seen. Since Guardians of the Galaxy is a mighty popular film these days, you may find yourself seeing the same trailer. Don’t believe it, though. The movie, believe it or not, is MUCH better than its preview. Much.
Because I’m currently on maternity leave with a small baby boy I was fairly certain I wouldn’t be able to see an early screening of the film. Fortunately Walden Media was accommodating and so, a week or two ago, I sat down with two buddies and a 10-week old child to see the onscreen adaptation of Lois Lowry’s Newbery Award winning book. And let me tell you, if you had to pick a movie to watch while holding a baby, this probably wouldn’t be your first choice.
I had reason to be skeptical, by the way. When children’s novels make the transition to the big screen they have a tendency to go a bit wonky. Remember Madeleine L’Engle’s straight to DVD Wrinkle in Time (NOT to be confused with the recently announced version)? Or what happened to Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising? And yes, I knew that Ms. Lowry had not only put her stamp of approval on this film but had been actively promoting it, but what did that really mean? So when I sat down and watched it I noted that one of my compatriots had read the original book as an adult when it published and the other had never read the book at all. Their insights proved invaluable.
The thing to remember when you watch The Giver is how long this book has been in the making. Jeff Bridges wanted to do it so long ago that he cast his father, Lloyd Bridges, in the title role with Bud Cort on narration. With the book originally publishing in 1993, this was middle grade dystopian long before Hunger Games came around. As such, a lot of the tropes you’ll find in the film won’t remind you of the current wave of YA dystopias as much as it will dystopias of the past. I’m talkin’ Planet of the Apes / 1984 / Soylent Green / Zardoz stuff (well . . . maybe not Zardoz). The kind where people aren’t quite certain how to use conjunctions anymore. I suspect we may see some reviews of this film that say it’s derivative of the current dystopias, but can you really be derivative if you came first?
The film begins with what looks like a slightly cleaner gated community than you’d usually find. Perfect lawns. Lots of circles. The occasional drone. And zero sexy clothes. We meet Jonas, our hero, and his two bestest buddies Fiona (ten years ago she would have been played by Kristen Stewart) and Asher (one of my compatriots pointed out that he was essentially Rolfe from The Sound of Music). They’re all white. Heck, all the major characters in this film are white. You might chalk that up to flaws in the dystopia, but I dunno. Seems like they could have had Jonas’s mom or dad be of color (after all, they’re not his birth parents or anything).
As for the kids, they are all older teens, a fact that was lamented wildly when it was first announced. However, as much as I’m for films to stay strictly faithful to their books, this change makes a lot of sense. I never quite understood those books where kids find out their lifelong jobs when they’re 12. The age appears to be there solely to allow the book to be shelved in the children’s rather than the YA section. In life, teenagers are more often told to pick their career paths. Plus the themes of the film fit adolescence so well (example: the desire to be the same as everyone else, even if it removes you from your own identity). Plus, kids watching the film at this point will certainly be thinking that this is a pretty great place to live. Teens will be the ones who first see the cracks.
Of course there is no picking in this world. Jonas is on the cusp of finding out what his job for life will be. Played by Brenton Thwaites, it’s a thankless role. A whole lotta yearning, which would try any actor’s patience. Brenton does a good job of it, though, and there’s a faint creepiness to the sunny happy-go-lucky interactions between him and his friends. Very Disney Channel-esque, if less risqué (if such a thing were possible).
When Jonas returns home we meet his mother and father, played by Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgård. To have Katie playing a teenager’s mother is, sadly, par for the course with Hollywood. She’s over 30? Cast her as a mom. But in this society you get the distinct feeling that it makes a lot of sense. If she was handed a baby when she was 18 then sure, she could be Jonas’s mother. It makes sense within the context of the film. Holmes, however, is a bit overshadowed in her role by Skarsgård who ends up being one of the finest actors in the movie. He plays the part of a very earnest, nice guy who would seriously kill you without a second thought if told to do so. This disconnect could tap nicely into a teen’s hidden fears about their own parents. You trust them implicitly when you are a child, but as you grow older you begin to see some character defects (some MAJOR character defects in this case).
We get to know the world a bit better when we hear about people being “released”. That’s where the Soylent Green similarities start to crop up (and if you haven’t seen that film, I assure you that it is MUCH better than one would expect it to be). Then we witness the ceremony where the kids get assigned their jobs and as each one is named a little montage of them over the years plays on a kind of live feed. It becomes clear that these images are plucked from the constant surveillance technology that inundates the place, which gives a nice eerie vibe to what would otherwise feel a lot like those videos parents make for their kids’ graduation ceremonies.
When Meryl Streep arrives via hologram (there are a lot of Star Wars-esque holograms to be found here, partly because Streep’s schedule didn’t allow her to travel to Australia where much of the movie was filmed) she steps into the role of white-haired-woman-in-charge. This is a popular role for great, older film actresses. Heck, the aforementioned Guardians of the Galaxy even had one in the form of Glenn Close. In Streep’s case, her role is as the Chief Elder, an embodiment of the problematic leaders of this society. The nice thing about casting Streep is that she’s able to give a bit more nuance to what would otherwise be a two-dimensional part. The Chief Elder is honestly conflicted by the choices she has to make, but there’s an understanding that society itself wouldn’t have her any other way. Plus, only Streep could give the line “Thank you for your childhood” the right edge. Mind you, I would bet you really good money that as I write this Anthony Lane is wracking his brain to come up with an appropriately cutting line to use to describe her bangs. They didn’t bug me though.
Jonas is assigned to be The Receiver to Jeff Bridges, the titular Giver. Like Streep, Bridges is fantastic to watch. Of course, he has an advantage over her in that he’s the only real person in the whole film for quite some time. A guy who doesn’t waste his time with b.s. Half the time he’s talking you’re not certain if he believes what he says. He’s also the kind of guy willing to play with the whole “chosen one” trope for fun (a fact that I appreciated). He lives in a little house near “the edge” of society itself in a house that’s sort of Dr. Calgari meets M.C. Escher. As The Giver, Mr. Bridges hands Jonas memories of the past via a kind of Vulcan mind meld. The first memory is of a sled, effectively making this film Citizen Kane for kids.
At this point the Garden of Eden references start to crank up big time. Jonas peers into the mist at the edge where nothing is supposed to exist and sees a tree. The first thing he officially sees in color is an apple (Fiona’s pretty red hair notwithstanding – though I suppose you could argue that it had some Biblical significance as well). As Jonas starts to learn more he decides not to take his inoculations, so he puts a bit of blood on a red apple and bypasses the system that way. And, naturally, he uses this apple to try to convince his friend Fiona to do the same. One naturally wonders if sex is going to come up since these are teenagers we’re talking about, but the most you get is some very chaste kissing after the two have plunged into a man made waterfall (now entering metaphor city).
Now did I fail to mention that until this point the film has been in black and white? It has indeed, and that’s fine. It certainly gives the film a kind of Wizard of Oz feel when Jonas at long last begins to see colors.
I watched with great interest how the film handled the darker elements of this society. First off, it’s been a while since I read the book so I couldn’t remember what the first memory of cruelty The Giver would give. In this case it’s a mighty realistic elephant safari. Can you train an elephant to fall down like that? You must. And that was one well trained animal. As for the shockingly horrible memory Jonas accidentally taps into, they went with Vietnam. A clever choice since Vietnam is sort of the perfect American nightmare in and of itself. But as well all know, there is one particular element to the book that causes it to be banned with shocking regularity in schools nationwide. I wondered if the film would show it or skip it entirely, but it’s so essential to the plot that you really can’t take it out. I am referring of course to the murder of a baby.
These days you can’t really kill a dog onscreen anymore. They will never remake Old Yeller for this very reason. But a baby? James Kennedy, the man behind the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival, once told me that when he gets a submission for The Giver there is usually one thing he can count on. The film may skip one part of the book or another but kids ALWAYS include the dead baby scene. They will reenact it with teddy bears or baby dolls or what have you, but it’ll be there. And fair play to the filmmakers. There’s Alexander Skarsgård, all soft sweet talk and pretty eyes, and he friggin’ kills a baby onscreen. If you are in the audience holding a baby at this time it is all the more harrowing. People are going to freak out about this when they see it, but it is probably the #1 most effective method of showing that this world is awful. Even kids and teens will understand that much.
I should note that there are the occasional lighter moments, though it would be a stretch to call this film comedic. You’re so desperate for some lightness, in fact, that the moment when Jonas’s father is telling his daughter that a stuffed elephant is a “mythical hippo”, it works. Plus Jeff Bridges is himself a great source of humor.
As we near the end we gear up for the big escape of Jonas and baby Gabriel. Now for the screenwriter there was a very big dramatic problem at the core of the original book. You want to have an exciting climax to the film where your hero is attempting to do something big. In this case, it isn’t enough for Jonas to be running to safety with Gabe. You can only take that so far. So they’ve added that he must also free everybody’s memories as well, something that can apparently be done by crossing some kind of border. It’s not really explained but since the whole transference of The Giver’s memories isn’t explained in the book either, you can’t really sweat it. Mind you, by crossing this border everyone in society will have as many memories of the past as The Giver himself. And on top of that they alternate Jonas’s flight with the upcoming execution of a friend, which also allows for a dramatic conversation between The Giver and The Elder about knowledge and choices.
Those of us familiar with the original book know that one of the great debates surrounding it for years was the ending. In fact, you could credit much of The Giver‘s success to the fact that the finish was open ended (sequels that settle the matter and Ms. Lowry’s own protests aside). Some people would interpret the end to mean that Jonas and Gabe died while others were convinced that they lived. The question in my mind, upon entering the theater, was whether or not the film would also be open to interpretation in this way. Final conclusion: Probably not. For one thing, Jonas is narrating the whole time and he’s speaking in the past tense. And sure, this might be Ghost Jonas talking, but from what he says you get the feeling that he’s defending himself from people who don’t like how he changed their society. The ending of the film isn’t really cut and dried, though. Jonas and Gabe hear the Christmas carols. They see the sled. They see the house where the songs are coming from. (Gabe also sports what may well be the most authentically runny nose in cinematic history.) They approach and the film ends. But what was the carol they were hearing? “Silent Night”. And what line in the song was clearer to the audience’s ear than any other? “Sleep in heavenly peace.” Hmmmm. I say, the jury is still out.
I mentioned before the whitey whiteness of the film, which really wasn’t necessary. The society itself isn’t all-white, just the major characters in this film. Then there are the women. Were in not for Fiona and Jonas’s rather charming little sister we’d be drowning in a sea of disapproving shrews (Katie Holmes, Meryl Streep, etc.). As it stands, it could be better (Fiona’s more a symbol than a person) but it’s not terrible by any means. As I said before, Streep’s a pro and gives her character a great deal of nuance. She’s not cackling with malicious glee or anything (ala Jodie Foster in Elysium). There are also the flashbacks into the past that Jonas witnesses through his sessions with The Giver. These are sometimes so well done that the last one in particular made me tear up a little. Sadly, while it shows families and protests and other meaningful elements (Nelson Mandela gets some serious screen time) there were no gay families or alternative families in the mix. A bit of a missed opportunity there, folks.
When we consider the pantheon of book to film adaptations, few are word-for-word carbon copies of the books. Even the faithful Harry Potter films had to make the occasional change. Much of what has been done to The Giver is entirely logical. In the end, the best way to judge a book-to-screen situation is to look at the book’s theme. Is this a case like The Lorax where the film upsets the very moral of the original source material? Or will it be more like The Fantastic Mr. Fox and preserve the beauty of the book’s thematic core while clearly establishing itself as its own beast? The Giver happily falls into the latter category. It is most faithful to the book in terms of the themes, the morals, and way in which it confronts the problems with conformity. Over the next few decades millions of children will be shown this Newbery Award adaptation in school. And I, for one, am grateful.
I considered closing this post by embedding a trailer for the film, then thought better of it. For the record, the trailers of The Giver are all universally awful. The initial one made it appear as if the film was in color. After public outcry the studio rushed to assure people that it had simply been cut to look that way. Then came the second trailer which acknowledged that parts were in black and white, but at the same time it contained about five different misleading moments. Rather than watching these trailers I suggest you see the film itself. Or, in lieu of that, this delightful 90-second version created for James Kennedy’s 90-Second Newbery Film Festival. Bonus: No dead babies.
Many thanks to Walden Media for allowing me my own little preview!
It often takes a while to figure out when you’re falling in love with a book. A book is a risk. You’re judging it from page one onward, informed by your own personal prejudices and reading history. Then there’s this moment when a shift takes place. It might be a subtle shift or it might be sudden and violent but all of a sudden it’s there. One minute you’re just reading for the heck of it, and the next you are LOVING what you’re reading, hoping it never has to end. Happily, that was my experience with Barry Jonsberg’s The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee. Lots of books promise you that you’ll fall in love with their odd characters. They’ll say something along the lines of “You won’t like her – you’ll love her.” And usually that’s untrue. But in this case, I really do love Candice. How can you not? She wants to turn her fish atheist, for crying out loud. And on that note . . .
In Candice’s own words, her family could not be considered, “front-runners for Australian Happy Family of the Year.” Her baby sister died years ago, her mother is depressed, her father is angry with his brother (sure that the man got rich on one of his ideas), and her Rich Uncle Brian is a lonely cuss. She’s kind of an odd kid in and of herself. The kind that doesn’t have a lot of friends but doesn’t mind the fact. There are other problems, of course. She worries that her fish has set her up as a false god. She worries that her friend Douglas, who seriously believes he’s from another dimension, intends to throw himself into a gorge. But at least she has her pen pal (who has never written back, but that’s no problem) to write to. And as Candice says, “I want to pursue happiness. I want to catch it, grab it by the scruff of the neck, drag it home, and force it to embrace all the people I mentioned above. I’m just not sure how to accomplish this. But I am determined to try.”
The thing you have to admire about Candice is that she’s a remarkably proactive protagonist. When she’s sick and tired of the broken state of her family she sets out to correct their problems (sometimes with odd results). When she thinks there’s a possibility of a friend doing something stupid she will put herself in harm’s way (or at least, annoyance’s way) to help him out. She’s smart as a whip, a fact that no one around her notices. And Candice is also a relentless optimist, but not in an annoying way. She has no interest at all in what you think of her. Early in the book she mentions that she has lots of friends as far as she’s concerned but that, “As far as everyone else was concerned, I didn’t have a friend in the world. Does that make a difference? I’m not sure.” Kids have so many bully books these days that it’s a huge relief to read one where the mean girl teases Candice and the words have absolutely zippo effect on her whatsoever. Like Teflon in a way, is this kid. Bullied kids make for dull reading. Candice is never dull.
She’s also not autistic. I feel like that kind of statement shouldn’t be as revolutionary as it is. Heck, it’s practically self-explanatory. We’re so used to kids on the autism spectrum in our children’s literature these days that we have a hard time remembering the ones that are just plain old weird. But they exist. In fact, Candice self-diagnoses as weird. When she was young she witnessed her beloved baby sister’s death from SIDS and it mucked her up in a couple ways. Not as many ways as her mother and father, but a lot of ways just the same. So there’s a wonderful scene where a friend’s mother makes the assumption that Candice is autistic. When she says that she is not the friend’s mom asks, “Then what are you?” “I’m me.” That could come off as cute. Here, for whatever reason, it does not.
I’ve already heard a couple people compare this book to Holly Goldberg Sloan’s book Counting By 7s which is understandable, if somewhat misleading. There are some major differences at work. First off, there’s the language. There’s a distinct deliciousness to Candice’s speech patterns. When her uncle wins her a stuffed toy at a fair that “might have been a gnu or a camel with severe disabilities” she tells him in no uncertain terms that it is “vile”. And then the descriptions in the book are also out of his world. A forced smile is described as “one of those smiles when someone has pointed a camera at you for half an hour and neglected to press the shutter.” Her friend Douglas is described as, “His eyes crowd toward the middle, as if they are trying to merge together but are prevented from doing so by the barrier of his nose, which is larger than you’d wish if you were designing it from scratch.” Her mother’s bedroom where she spends much of her time when depressed “smelled of something that had spent a long time out of the sunshine.”
Candice’s problems don’t just disappear miraculously in a puff of smoke either. By the end of the book she’s figured out how to mend some of the bigger problems that have been undermining her family’s happiness, but her sister is still dead, her mother still has depression, and her father still resents his brother. Things are significantly better, but there’s a long road to hoe. It is amazing that a book with this many potentially depressing subplots should be as upbeat, cheery, and downright hilarious as this. Jonsberg’s writing gives the book a skewed one-of-a-kind view of the world that is unlike any other you might encounter. You’ll like this book AND love it. And for what it’s worth, kid readers will too.
There was a time when I worked in the main branch of NYPL with the big old stone lions out front. No longer. These days I work at BookOps, a dual entity that encompasses both NYPL and Brooklyn Public Library. And in my workplace there is a great and grand and massively impressive sorting machine. It’s very Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-esque. I give tours of it all the time. It sorts and assigns all the holds and returns of the system, so you know it’s gotta be cool. Now, thanks to drone technology, you get to see not just where I work (visually stunning this part of Long Island City is not) but the kickin’ sorting machine as well. Feast your eyes!!
In 1996 a bunch of Monty Python guys made The Wind in the Willows. It gets better. Steve Coogan was Mole. Stephen Fry was The Judge. This is not to be confused with a very similar looking version starring Matt James in 2006, of course. Still I’m quite shocked I hadn’t seen it until now. Fortunately there is such a thing as YouTube. Here’s part one:
Thanks to Tom Angleberger for the link.
I sort of adore kids. Allie Bruce at Bank Street was kind enough to show a bunch of them rewriting Battle Bunny / The Birthday Bunny (a book born to be taken and adapted) in their own unique visions.
They do love their poop.
Man. It’s a bummer when someone popular online has your name. It’s even more of a bummer when they’ve rabid fan bases. Meghan McCarthy created a short film to separate her from the other Meghan McCarthys. Can you blame her?
For the record, the only Betsy Birds I know of out there are an Arizona artist and a Muppet. The day I beat that Muppet in Google search results was a happy one indeed.
And for our final off-topic video. This one’s almost on-topic Remember the film Hook? With its Peter Pan link? And the character of Rufio? Well I can’t say this any better than i09 did, so I’ll just quote them verbatim: “Baby Rufio Cosplay Validates The Entire Concept Of Procreation”.
As you may or may not have heard the offices of School Library Journal moved/are moving to a new location here in NYC. As such, a fair number of folks have been cleaning house. One such person wrote me an email letting me know that they had extra copies of “my” SLJ issue and they wondered whether or not I wanted them. I most certainly did (my sole copy was water damaged years ago) but boy, talk about something that makes me feel old. Remember this?
The cover was not without controversy, by the way. Some folks objected to the fact that it was a whole bunch o’ white girls, which was a legitimate point to make. That was my mistake. At the time we had almost zero bloggers to choose amongst but we were not without options
The much greater objection, however, was to the fact that we were holding alcoholic drinks. Imagine! Librarians and teachers and editors who drink! What kind of message is that sending? WON’T SOMEBODY PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!? Looking back on it (one librarian wrote that she could easily have left this face up on her desk where some poor unsuspecting child would have seen it – apparently dooming said child to a lifetime of alcoholism, one assumes) this may have been the incident that inspired the creation of Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature. After all, that book is all about combating this fluffy bunny mentality surrounding folks who work with kids in some capacity. Never mind that we were all adults well over the drinking age. Never mind that what we were actually holding were fake drinks that tasted like nothing so much as used pink bathwater. We work with or for children and therefore must be fine upstanding citizens at all times. There is no room for adulthood when you work with kids, it would seem.
All this happened five years ago. In that time span a lot has occurred not least of which is the state of children’s literary blogs themselves. If you read the piece you’ll see that I include in it a sampler set of kidlit blogs from which to choose and to read called “Ten Blogs You Can’t Live Without”. Most of them remain, to this day, go-to pieces. Others have passed on (Collecting Children’s Books and Editorial Anonymous most notably). I’ve already done a post on children’s literary blogs that have passed on, so today I’d like to consider where the children’s literature blog of the future is going.
Take, for example, The Kidlitosphere. Started as a group to organize and celebrate the bloggers out there, it continues to have annual conferences (the next one is in Sacramento on October 10th and 11th) that are well worth the time and energy taken to attend. The Kidlitosphere has not yet incorporated, but one can hope that it’ll head that way someday. That group has legs and The Cybils, its annual book award, is only more and more popular every year. Since 2009 we’ve seen Book Expo express an interest in book bloggers as well with their own little conference. It is broader than the children’s literary field (and their first conference was exceedingly annoying since they kept repeating over and over that it was the “first” book blogger conference ever in the history of the world, which it most certainly was not) but is well attended.
Then there are the new blogs. In my prime I was able to keep track of new blogs with shocking alacrity. These days a blog essentially has to walk over and bop me over the top of my head with a large heavy object for me to notice it. Still and all, I’ve managed to locate some pretty outstanding blogs over the last five years. Here are the ones I would let you know about if I were to write another article for SLJ about the state of blogging in 2014.
Great Children’s Literary Blogs : A New Sampler Set
The Book Smugglers – Actually they’ve been blogging since 2007 so technically they don’t belong here. They were around when I wrote the SLJ article. That said, I didn’t know about them until relatively recently. They exhaust me, actually. Full of spitfire and verve and personality, these folks give blogging a good name.
Bookie Woogie – Created by Aaron Zenz this is without a doubt the smartest, wittiest father & kids blog out there. Zenz captures the words of his kiddos brilliantly. Once you’re hooked you just can’t stop reading (and those kids make some EXCELLENT points about the books out there).
Books Around the Table – Author blogs come and go. They all seem so fleeting (except Blue Rose Girls, which may be the longest running author/illustrator blog since it started in 2006). This blog has had some serious legs. As it describes itself, “Books Around The Table is the blog of Margaret Chodos-Irvine, Laura Kvasnosky, Julie Larios, Julie Paschkis and Bonny Becker. We are a critique group of children’s book authors and illustrators who have been meeting monthly since 1994 to talk about books we are working on, books we have read, our art and our lives.” Read it. Love it.
The History Girls – Another author blog, this time with a concentration on historical fiction. It’s a great topic and this blog has been blowing and going since 2011. No mean feat! Check out the topic cloud on the side if you’re looking for historical fiction of a particular era or time period.
How To, How Hard, and How Much – Or, put another way, nepotism nepotism nepotism. Yeah, this is my sister’s blog, but when it comes to crazy original crafts you can’t do much better. For example, her recent piece on Origami Monster Bookmarks that you can make yourself . . . well some enterprising picture book author with a book about monsters would be WISE to check this out (to say nothing of the children’s librarians out there). Plus it uses the phrase, “8 minutes per monster” which is just awesome.
Latin@s in Kid Lit – This group blog has five authors and one shared purpose. They came to prominence in the wake of #WeNeedDiverseBooks and have produced consistently compelling and interesting posts ever since. If can add only one of these blogs to your blogroll, it should probably be this one.
Nerdy Book Club – The rise of The Nerdy Book Club is probably the most significant change since that 2009 article. In 2012 (as far as I can tell) a band of bloggers with an educational bent came together to create their own site. If you want to see your jaw do a drop to the floor, check out their blogroll on the side of the site. They have big events where they gather together in a kind of un-conference called Nerd Camp (and its kid-spinoff Nerd Camp Junior) and even their own book awards. Little wonder publishers have picked up on them as a force to be reckoned with.
Nine Kinds of Pie – This is Phil Nel’s blog. A professor at Kansas State, Phil is amazing. An academic and a contributing member to the online conversation about children’s books, his site never fails to make me happy every single time I look at it.
Pop Goes the Page – I love my sister’s craft blog but if you want a pure library program focus then this blog from Cotsen Collection librarian Dana Sheridan is awe-inspiring. Of course there are interviews as well as crafts to be found too. One of my favorite new blogs out there.
The Show Me Librarian – Sure, I’m a librarian but how often do I do posts that another children’s librarian could really use? Posts about storytimes and flannel boards and all that good stuff? If nothing else her recent post on art bots and family forts should convince you to check her out with great regularity.
The Uncommon Core – Though it took a hiatus for a while, the best blog out there to discuss the larger ramification of the Common Core is back in business, baby! It seems strange to me that in the wake of all this CCSS talk there haven’t been more blogs of this sort. At least we have this one.
Views from the Tesseract – Without a doubt this would be the #1 science fiction and fantasy middle grade blog out there (though, to be perfectly honest, I work with Stephanie so I might be prone to a bit of bias). Anytime I want to know how a middle grad work is I hand it to Stephanie and she vets them for me. Her taste is impeccable. Without her there are whole swaths of books I might otherwise miss.
Watch. Connect. Read. – Mr. Schu is the arbitrator of this video blog. Want to see a trailer or filmed conversation about books? Now you know the place to go.
Looks like it’s time to update the old blogroll, eh? All of these are extraordinary. They give me great hope for the future. Blogging, far from the trend some predicted it to be, continues unabated. Of course, this is just a small sampling. If you know of any blogs that cropped up post 11/09 that I should know about, comment here!
By the way, in 2009 when Peter Sieruta caught wind of our controversy he created a faux alternative cover for those disturbed by the presence of lady liquor. Seen here:
As per usual there are some Wild Things links I’d love to share today. Lemme see here . . . Well we got a real stunner of a review over at Chapter 16. That’s some good and gorgeous stuff going down there. Phil Nel called us “Punchy, lively, and carefully researched.” The blog The Boy Reader gave us some serious love. And today on our blog tour we’re at There’s a Book. And then there’s the video at the Wild Things blog. N.D. Wilson sent us a vid of the true behind-the-scenes story of Boys of Blur. It’s kicking off our video series “Wild Things: Sneaky Peeks” where authors reveal the stories behind their books.
Aw heck. I’ll save you some time. Here’s the video. This guy is amazing:
Don’t forget to keep checking back on the site for a new author a day!
It’s one thing to notice a trend. It’s another entirely to pick up on it, catalog the books that represent it, and post accordingly. I’d noticed in a vague disjointed way that there was a definite uptick in the number of picture books illustrated with photographs this year. Trust Travis Jonker to systematically go through and find every last livin’ lovin’ one in his The State of Photography Illustration in 2014 post. In his comment section I’ve added a couple others I’ve seen. Be sure to do the same!
Since I don’t have school age kids yet I’m not in the school loop at the moment. So it was a BIG shock to me to see the child of a friend of mine having her First Day of Kindergarten picture taken this week. Really? In early August? With that in mind, this may seem a bit late but I care not. The melodic cadences of Jonathan Auxier can be heard here recommending truly fantastic summer children’s book fare. The man has fine fabulous taste.
In other summer news I was pleased as punch to read about the Y’s Summer Learning Loss Prevention Program. You know summer slide? Well it’s good to see someone doing something about it. Check out the info. Check out the stats. Check out the folks trying to combat it.
It’s interesting to read the recent PW article Middle Grade and YA: Where to Draw the Line? which takes the issue from a bookseller P.O.V. Naturally librarians have been struggling with this issue for years. I even conducted a panel at NYPL a couple years ago called Middle Grade Fiction: Surviving the YA Onslaught in which MG authors Rebecca Stead, N.D. Wilson (he’s everywhere!), Jeanne Birdsall, and Adam Gidwitz discussed the industry’s attempts to brand them as YA (you can hear the full incredibly painful and scratchy audio of the talk here). It’s a hot topic.
This. This this this this this. By the way, and completely off-topic, how long until someone writes a YA novel called “This”? The sequel could be named “That”. You’re welcome, publishing industry.
Harry Potter fan art is near and dear to my heart but in a pinch I’m happy to consider Harry Potter official cover art as well. They just released the new British covers (and high bloody time, sayeth the masses). They’re rather fabulous, with the sole flaw of never aging Harry. What poor kid wants to look the same age at 10 as he does at 17? Maybe it’s a wizard thing. Here’s one of the new jackets to chew on:
That might be my favorite Dumbledore to date.
There are whole generations of children’s librarians that went through graduate school reading and learning about educator Kay E. Vandergrift. I was one of them, so I was quite sad to read of her recent passing. The PW obit for her is excellent, particularly the part that reads, “Vandergrift was one of the first professors to establish a significant Web presence, spearheading the use of the Internet as a teaching tool. Her website, a self-declared ‘means of sharing ideas and information with all those interested in literature for children and young adults,’ was considered an important resource for those working with children and linked to more than 500 other sites.” If you need to know your online children’s literary history, the story isn’t complete without Kay. I always hoped she’d get around to including a blog section, but what she had was impressive in its own right. Go take a gander.
I don’t consider myself a chump but there are times when even I get so blinded by a seemingly odd fact on the internet that I eschew common sense and believe it to be correct. Case in point: The Detroit Tigers Dugout Librarian. Oh, how I wanted this to be true. Born in Kalamazoo, a town equidistant between Detroit and Chicago, my baseball loyalties have always been torn between the Tigers and the Cubs (clearly I love lost causes). So the idea of the Tigers having their own librarian . . . well, can you blame me for wanting to believe? I WANNA BEE-LIEVE!
I’ve a new pet peeve. Wanna hear it? Of course you do! I just get a bit peeved when popular sites create these lists of children’s books and do absolutely no research whatsoever so that every book mentioned is something they themselves read as children. That’s why it’s notable when you see something like the remarkable Buzzfeed list 25 Contemporary Picture Books to Help Parents, Teachers, and Kids Talk About Diversity. They don’t lie! There are September 2014 releases here as well as a couple things that are at least 10 years old. It’s a nice mix, really, and a great selection of books. Thanks to Alexandria LaFaye for the link.
So they’re called iPhone wallpapers? I never knew that. Neil Gaiman’s made a score of them based on his children’s books.
Maybe it’s just me but after seeing the literary benches cropping up in England I can’t help but think they make a LOT of sense. More so than painting a statue of a cow or a Peanuts character (can you tell I lived in Minneapolis once?). Here are two beautiful examples:
Yes, today marks the official release of my book co-written with Julie Danielson and Peter Sieruta, Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature!! To celebrate we’re engaged in a blog tour. Head on over to 100 Scope Notes for our first post in which we are grilled by the great children’s authors, illustrators, and librarians of the past or, if listening is more your thing, check out my appearance alongside Jules on the Let’s Get Busy podcast (and then look at our full schedule of blog appearance at the bottom of the screen here).
To celebrate, Jules and I are doing something a bit out of the ordinary. As you may know, on our Wild Things blog we systematically posted a lot of the information that never made it into the final book. Now that we’re here at the day of the book’s release we’re done with doing that.
HOWEVER! Does that mean the fun has to stop? Of course it does NOT!
Starting tomorrow the blog at Wild Things is going to start up again. Only this time, instead of posting hidden gems about past children’s books we’re posting hidden gems about current ones. Which is to say, videos.
We solicited a great many authors and illustrators with 2014 book releases to film themselves discussing some behind-the-scenes stories about those books. Want the skinny on Cece Bell’s El Deafo or N.D. Wilson’s Boys of Blur? What’s the real scoop on where Jenni Holm got an idea for The Fourteenth Goldfish? And why, for the love of all that is good and holy, is Jon Scieszka wearing a fez?!?
The answers soon. Because trust me when I say that if you thought you loved their books before, you’re really gonna love what they have to say now.
To kick it off, please enjoy this faux PBS documentary about a children’s author who never was. It feels appropriate to include it here.
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.
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:
Outlawed: The Naked Truth About Censored Literature for Young People
Arne Nixon Center for the Study of Children’s Literature
Henry Madden Library at California State University, Fresno
April 10-12, 2015
While most people are familiar with attempts to censor children’s and young adult literature, the problem of censorship continues to provoke many who believe that children and adolescents benefit from considering diverse viewpoints and cultural experiences. In recent years, many examples of children’s and young adult literature—including The Perks of Being a Wallflower, And Tango Makes Three, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian—have been challenged in schools and libraries. This conference seeks to explore the ways in which censorship affects young readers whose parents, teachers, and civic leaders attempt to navigate thorny terrains of identity in a world in which information circulates more freely than ever before.
This conference will be hosted by the Arne Nixon Center for the Study of Children’s Literature, one of North America’s leading resources for the study of children’s and young adult literature. The growing collection of 60,000 books, periodicals, manuscripts, original art, and papers of authors and illustrators has an international and multicultural emphasis. The Center also houses one of the largest collections of LGBT+ literature for children and young adults in the United States.
Scholars, librarians, teachers, writers, and illustrators are invited to submit proposals for formal presentations, roundtable discussions, and workshops. Presentations may highlight creative work, community engagement, pedagogy, or scholarship. Sessions will last 75 minutes (15–20 min. per presenter).Proposals for individual presentations should be 250-300 words, while proposals for entire sessions should be no more than 500 words. Please include two- to three-sentence biographies for each participant and indicate any audio-visual/media needs.
Possible topics for proposals include, but are not limited to:
· Suppressed or silenced histories
· International contexts for censorship
· Technology and/or digital literacies
· Fan fiction as a response to banned young adult texts
· The use of social media to intervene when books are challenged
· History of censorship and banned book lists
· LGBT+ literature
· Bibliotherapy and censorship
· Recent attempts to ban books based on cultural empowerment movements
· Multiculturalism and diversity
· Sex and censorship
· Creating curriculum that supports the use of banned books
· “Artivism” and subtext in illustrations
· Graphic novels, novels in verse, and experimentation with form
· Libraries (school/community/archives) and closed reference cases
· Publishing or Pre-Censorship
· Schools (K-12, public/private)
· Religion, spirituality, and mysticism in banned books
· Authorial politics and the reception of young adult literature
· Recommended age ratings for books
Submission deadline for proposals (both individual and panel) is November 26, 2014. Submit electronically to firstname.lastname@example.org, Dr. Kathleen Godfrey, English Department, Fresno State.
Tra la! It’s coming! The greatest conference of children’s and YA literary bloggers is coming! And Liz Burns not only has the info but also the reason such an event is cool. Quoth she: “What I love about KidLitCon is it’s about the bloggers. Full stop. That is the primary purpose and mission of KidLitCon. It’s about what the bloggers care about. Oh, there may be authors and publishers there, presenting, and that can be great and amazing. But it’s not about them. They are there to support the blogging community: they are not there saying, what can the blogging community do for us.” Amen, sister. Preach! By the way, the theme this year is Blogging Diversity in Young Adult and Children’s Lit: What’s Next? Be there or be square.
So there’s a new Children’s Book Review Editor at the New York Times and by some strange quirk of fate her name is NOT alliterative (note Julie Just, Pamela Paul, and Sarah Smith). Her name? Maria Russo. Which pretty much means I’ll be tracking her like a bloodhound at the next Eric Carle Honors event. Trouble is, we don’t wear nametags at that event so I’ll probably be the crazy lady grabbing all the women, staring intently into their eyes. Wouldn’t be the first time.
I blame Saving Mr. Banks. One little children’s writer biopic comes out where the writer isn’t seen as all kittens and sunshine (I still loathe you Miss Potter and Finding Neverland) and all hell breaks loose. Now we hear that McG is going to do a Shel Silverstein biopic on the one hand and that there are plans to examine the relationship between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien on the other. I’m just counting the minutes until someone tackles Margaret Wise Brown or the whole Anne-Carroll-Moore-didn’t-like-Stuart-Little story (which you just KNOW is in the works somewhere).
Speaking of films, when I heard that Alan Snow’s delightful Here Be Monsters was being turned into a film called The Boxtrolls I was incredulous. That book? The one I couldn’t get kids to even look at until they made a blue paperback version? I mean I liked it (it came out in a year when sentient cheese was all the rage in children’s literature) but how long was this film in production for crying out loud? Doesn’t matter because according to iO9 it’s brilliant. Good to know.
So Phil Nel, our ever intrepid professor with a hankering for children’s literature, went to ComicCon. Best of all, he’s willing to report his findings to us (so that we don’t have to go!). Read up on Part 1, Part 2 (my favorite for the cameo of Bananaman), Part 3, and Part 4. Phil was there promoting his Barnaby books (which he co-edited with Eric Reynolds). These include Barnaby Volume One: 1942-1943 (2013) and Barnaby Volume Two: 1944-1945 (2014).
Two Little Free Libraries have sprung up near my home across the street from the Harlem branch of NYPL. I couldn’t be more pleased because they mean just one thing to me . . . a place to give away my books!!! Culling books is terribly enjoyable. It’s also part of BookRiot’s incredibly useful post 8 Tips for Moving When You Have a Ton of Books.
Every small publisher needs a staple. Something to keep them going through hard times. Years ago Sleeping Bear Press hit on the notion of writing books with the [letter] is for [word] format and they’ve kept up this abecedarian staple ever since. These are books that are fairly easy to dismiss, sight unseen. You assume you know what to expect. Never mind that they’ve a range of different subjects, authors, and illustrators. For the picture book snob, one glance at the title and you’re immediately dismissive. You think you know what to expect. And of course by “you” I really mean “me”. It was the fact that S is for Sea Glass was written by Richard Michelson that gave me pause. No fly-by-night poet he, I sat down with the book and was happy to find that my expectations weren’t just met but greatly exceeded. Chalk that up to my own personal prejudices then. In this book Michelson and artist Doris Ettlinger gracefully sit back and present to us a most thoughtful, meditative picture book on summer and sea and the relationship between the two. Absolutely lovely and original, this is a summer book of poetry worth remembering and revisiting year after year after year.
“A is for Angel” begins the book. Open it and here you’ll see a girl on her back in the sand. She swings her arms and legs up and down “Like I’m opening and closing a fairy-tale gate” creating sand angels behind her. Welcome to summer. To beaches and tides and those elements of the season a kid can’t wait to experience. Through poetry, Richard Michelson brings to life the little details that make a summer come alive. From doomed sand castles to morally superior seagulls to the child that dreams of someday living in a lighthouse so they’d never have to leave, Michelson places a good, firm finger on the pulse of the warmer months. Artist Doris Ettlinger accompanies him and brings to life not just the obvious moments of summertime but some of the softer more esoteric feelings conjured up by Michelson’s words. The result is a book that will almost smell to you of brine and surf, even in the coldest, frozen depths of the winter.
What is the moment when a book flips that switch in your brain from “like” to “love”? It’s different for everyone. For some it might be a word or a phrase. For others a haunting image or illustration that conjures up a personal memory. In the case of S is for Sea Glass it was the poem “H is for Horizon”. It’s not out-and-out saying you need to contemplate the nature of infinity but it might well be suggesting it. After all, is there any point on the beach so wrought with possibility and promise? As Michelson writes, “If I travel the world or stay here on this beach, / The horizon will always be just beyond reach. / But it’s real as my dreams and it’s always nearby – / That magical line where the sea meets the sky.” Inculcating a kid in poetry that’s fun because the language is fun is as easy as the next Shel Silverstein poem. Inculcating a kid in poetry that’s fun because it expands your horizons (pun intended) and lets your mind wander free is much harder. Michelson manages it here.
The nice thing about the poems is that they aren’t the usual beach fare. Sure you’ll find the standard “O is for Ocean” or “W is for Wave” but Michelson has an impish quality to his selections. “E is for Empty Shells” isn’t just about the shells you find on the beach but also the fact that their innards have been consumed by YOU much of the time. “I is for Ice” isn’t about the cubes in a glass on a hot day but rather the strange and startling beauty of a beach in the blustery depths of winter. Some of the poems will take some practice to read aloud, so parents be ready. “B is for Boardwalk” for example eschews the regular ABAB rhyme scheme for something a little more visually exciting. “D is for Dog” in contrast contains both hard and soft rhymes. There are poems with AABB rhymes and even haikus like the one in “P is for Pail”. Michelson doesn’t distinguish or label the different types of poetry found here, so in terms of curricular ties that feels like a lost opportunity.
It’s always interesting to watch what a kid latches onto in a book like this. My 3-year-old has recently been on a beach books kick. We’d already exhausted Splash, Anna Hibiscus, Ladybug Girl at the Beach, Scaredy Squirrel at the Beach and many others when we came across S is for Sea Glass. My daughter enjoyed the poems, treating each one with equal interest, but the poem she kept going back to and appeared to be haunted by was “Q is for Quiet”. I suspect this may have a lot to do with the image in that book which also appears on the back cover. In it, a girl sleeps, half her hair dark, the other silver white in the moonlight. As she dreams a shoal of fish swim about her across the star strewn sky. Many’s the time we’ve read the book and just come to a dead stop at Q. No need to go further. She gets everything she needs out of this poem alone.
Credit where credit is due to artist Doris Ettlinger then. I was aware of Ms. Ettlinger’s work thanks to books like The Orange Shoes (it tends to come up when patrons want picture books on class distinctions) and other books in the Sleeping Bear Press series. The sea appears to be particularly inspirational to Ms. Ettlinger, though. A strictly representational illustrator most of the time, here her watercolors find much to enjoy in the roaring pounding surf, the ice choked chill of a wintertime beach jaunt, the infinity of the deepest ocean, and that gray/brown gloomy beauty of a rained out beach. The “R is for Rain” sequence in particular is one of her loveliest. Credit too to “Y is for Year-Rounders” where seaside locals celebrate a town empty of tourists in the fall. In her version, Ettlinger conjures up a small town beach resort street at the end of the day, four family members and their dog just tiny black silhouettes against the blazing yellow of a setting sun.
When the weather warms and the leaves reappear on the trees, then it will be the time for families to pluck S is for Sea Glass from the topmost shelves of their bookcases for multiple reads by the seashore. We all do that, right? Keep our seasonal books apart from one another so that when the right time of year appears we’ve books ah-plenty to refer to? Well, if you haven’t before I recommend you start now with this one. Parents buy summery beach titles for their kids regardless of the quality. All the more reason the care and attention paid to “S is for Sea Glass” impresses. There are books a parent does not wish to read 100 times over to their offspring and there are books they wish they could read even more. This book falls into the latter category. A treat for eye and ear alike.
When I was a children’s librarian with NYPL’s Children’s Center at 42nd Street I conducted a lot of class visits with older kids (ages 9-12, usually). Sometimes these would be groups of kids learning how to do research using the library’s resources. For them I covered the usual databases and image library stuff, but also a kind of Why Google Is Not God portion where I showed them very convincing fake websites like the good old Save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus site and All About Explorers. Using these sites I showed them why you need to take every site you encounter online with a grain of salt because someone might be mucking with you.
That’s Google. It should be noted, however, that I never did a Wikipedia portion of my talk. Not intentionally, of course. It just wasn’t as go-to a resource as it is today.
Librarians have a love/hate relationship with a lot of online resources and Wikipedia is no exception. We would be lying if we said we didn’t all use it sometimes, though. I mean, where else are you going to find a fairly accurate listing of the order in which the Rainbow Fairy books are meant to be read? And we understand that everyone should rely on two sources for information gathered there. So with all that in mind how are we to interpret the Amelia Bedelia-related Daily Dot piece I Accidentally Started a Wikipedia Hoax?
In the piece one EJ Dickson says that in college, while high during her Sophomore year, she and a friend went around creating false information on Wikipedia for children’s book authors. “It was the kind of ridiculous, vaguely humorous prank stoned college students pull.” For Peggy Parish they wrote that Amelia Bedelia was based on a Cameroon maid with a lot of hats.
First off, and before we go any further, I’m not entirely certain that the author understands the meaning of the word “accidentally” as found in the title. Perhaps it would be accurate if she had been falling asleep one night and in the course of her head falling forward onto the keyboard in an unconscious state it managed to type out a false Wikipedia entry and enter it without her knowledge or consent. Because the implication as it stands is that everything one does in college is “accidental” and therefore doesn’t count. Mmmhmm.
Personally I found it an odd little piece, but not overwhelmingly disturbing. A friend of mine felt very differently and emailed me the following:
”As a high college student, she very deliberately sabotaged a hugely-valuable communal resource, and now she finds it strange and hilarious that her lies are still doing damage 5 years later …and she’s blaming everybody but herself for the damage she’s done. Yes, Wikipedia will publish your lies if you tell them with a straight face. So will the New York Times, as has been proven over and over. This is why everyone should rely on at least two sources. This obvious fact doesn’t make it cool or funny or righteous to plant lies in either of these information sources. Now she’s off on a Oedipus-like righteous crusade to find the watchdog that fell asleep and let her lies go uncorrected. She might want to look in the mirror.”
That’s a bit stronger than I’d put it, but it’s another way of reading the piece. She does apologize, I should note, though she also admits to finding the entry funny not much later on.
And in case you were wondering, this magnificently wrong little tidbit about Amelia Bedelia does not appear in Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature. I’m happy to say that Candlewick had us source and re-source every quote and fact in that book to the hilt. So no worries there. I do wonder what you take away from the article, however. Is the deliberate planting of lies the responsibility of the resource or the person doing the planting?
JAMES RIVER WRITERS CONFERENCE RETURNING FOR 12TH YEAR WITH IMPRESSIVE LINEUP OF SPEAKERS, WORKSHOPS
Registration is open for one of Virginia’s most popular events for writers
RICHMOND, Va. – What do New York Times bestselling authors, literary agents and award-winning illustrators have in common? They’re all going to be networking and sharing a wealth of knowledge at the 12th annual James River Writers Conference.
The James River Writers Conference returns to Richmond from Oct. 17-19 with new, hands-on workshops, master classes and one-on-one meetings with some of the top agents and publishers. Book Doctors Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry will mark the triumphant return of Pitchapalooza – aka “American Idol” for books – where volunteers will be randomly selected to pitch their work. The Pitchapalooza winner will receive an introduction to an editor or agent appropriate for his or her work.
Sterry says of The James River Writers Conference, “There’s just a cool vibe here. This is a hidden treasure, as far as I’m concerned, right here in Richmond.”
This year’s conference features more than two dozen experienced guest speakers:
Authors and Illustrators
Kwame Alexander, “The Crossover”
Cece Bell, “Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover”
Iris Bolling, “The Heart”
Susann Cokal, “The Kingdom of Little Wounds,” Printz honor recipient
Tarfia Faizullah, “Seam”
Lamar Giles, “Fake ID”
Hugh Howey, Wool series
Brian Jay Jones, “Jim Henson: The Biography”
Kristen Lippert-Martin, “Tabula Rasa”
Sarah MacLean, “Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake”
Kelly O’Connor McNees, “The Island of Doves”
Meg Medina, “Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass,” Pura Belpre award winner
Sheri Reynolds, “The Homespun Wisdom of Myrtle T. Cribb”
Jon Sealy, “The Whiskey Baron”
Ron Smith, “Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery”
David Henry Sterry, “Chicken: Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent”
Agents, Publishers & Other Experts
Kaylee Davis, Dee Mura Literary associate agent
Arielle Eckstut, Levine Greenberg agent
Levine Greenberg, agent and author
Jane Friedman, editor, publisher and professor
Katie Grimm, Don Congdon Associates literary agent
Peter Knapp, Park Literary Group rep
Kimiko Nakamura, Dee Mura Literary rep
Jody Rein, head of Jody Rein Books Inc. and Author Planet
Geoff Shandler, Little, Brown & Co. editor
Alison Weiss, Egmont USA editor
Stacy Whitman, Tu Books founder and publisher
Registration for the annual conference is open, and writing sessions are already filling up. Find more details and a full list of programs at JamesRiverWriters.org.
In the past, determining a bias in the publication of folk and fairytales was a fairly straightforward business. Too many European maids of hair as fair as the silk of corn on your shelves? Bias. But now we’re in the thick of a downturn in the publication of folk and fairytales. We not only need diverse fairy and folktales but we need more fairy and folktales at all! If you can find more than twenty published in a given year, that’s considered a good year. But desperation can lead to poor choices. A librarian might clutch at straws and snap up any such story, just so long as it fulfills a need. In the case of the latest adaptation of the story of Issun Bôshi to the picture book format, however, put your mind at rest. You rarely find such a meticulous combination of stunning art and melodic text as located here. Adapted from a Japanese folktale, Issun Bôshi by Icinori is a stunner. Regardless of whether or not you collect fairy and folktales, you need this on your shelf. Stat.
“We’d like a little boy, any size at all. / We’d like him little, we’d like him small. / We’d love him tiniest of all.” Be careful what you wish for? Not really. When a childless peasant and his wife sing this song on their walk to and from the fields where they toil they are nothing but delighted when the wife gives birth to a kid that would give Stuart Little a run for his money. A clever fellow, Issun Bôshi (for so he is named) grows up and when the time comes he sets off to seek his fortune with just a needle and a rice bowl to his name. Along his travels he is waylaid by a fowl and tricky ogre. Issun Bôshi leaves him and continues further, but when a nobleman’s daughter is taken by that same sneaky demon, it is Issun Bôshi and his incredible size that saves the day once and for all.
Think of all the great fairytales and folktales that involve little people. You’ve your straight fairytales like Thumbelina and Tom Thumb. Your tall tales like Hewitt Anderson s Great Big Life and folktales like Pea Boy. That’s not even mentioning all the tales of elves and dwarfs and what have you. It hardly matters what culture you’re in. Little people, ridiculously little people, are a storytelling staple. I suppose tiny people make for instantaneous identification. Haven’t we all felt insignificant in the face of our great big world at some point in our lives? Wouldn’t we love it if we could overcome our shortcomings (ha ha) and triumph in the end? One of the interesting things about Issun Bôshi is that by the end of the tale he does attain tall status but only as a last resort. When offered height earlier in the tale he shows no interest whatsoever. Sure, he’d like to prove to the nobleman’s daughter that he’s more than a living doll, but as the ending of the book notes, “People say that Issun Bôshi sometimes misses being small.” Read into it whatever you want (missing childhood, missing the simple life when you’ve become “big” in the world, etc.).
The art of the picture book translation is such that as an American who essentially speaks just one language, I am in awe. I’ve also read enough stilted, awkwardly translated books for kids to know when a book is particularly well done. All we know about the translation of Issun Bôshi is that the publication page says “Translation of French by Nicholas Grindell & Co. (Berlin & Ryde)”. So who knows whom the genius was who worked on this book! Whoever it was, it was someone who knew that this folktale would have to be read aloud many times, often to large groups. Heck, the very last line of the book is so beautiful and subtle that I’ve gone back to it several times. It reads, “People say that the nobleman’s daughter has taken a different view of Issun Bôshi and that their story is not yet over.” I vastly prefer that to a romantic ending or even the old standard “and they lived happily ever after.” This ending suggests that there could be more adventures to come and that their fate is not as fixed as your standard folktale would assign. Heck, we don’t even know for certain that they become romantically involved.
Text text text. What about the art? Because it seems to me that in this world you’re often only as good as the pictures that accompany your tale. The author/illustrator of this book is listed only as the mysterious one-namer “Icinori”. Naturally I had to learn more and so in the course of my research (research = looking up information about the publisher) I discovered that Icinori actually two artists. On the one hand you have Mayumi Otero, a French illustrator. On the other you have Raphaël Urwiller, a graphic designer and illustrator. No word on who precisely was responsible for the wordplay here. All we really know is that for this book the art appears to consist of beautiful prints. The Japanese artistic influence is clear, though Icinori has come up with a very distinctive look of their own overall. The primary colors in the palette consist of blue, orange, and yellow. Best of all, there’s time for two-page silent spreads of pure unadulterated beauty. For example, once Issun Bôshi has set out to see the world the story slows down enough for you to witness a gorgeous river landscape, the water and sky a pure white while all around vegetation and animals vie for your eye. I love too how Icinori isn’t afraid to shift scenes between a busy city street scene and the tri-colored drama of Issun Bôshi being dropped down an ogre’s gullet.
There is a sense of relief that one feels when a book turns out to sound as good as it looks. Covers can be misleading. A title that looks like a gem on the outside can yield particularly dull or overdone results inside. Issun Bôshi, I am happy to say, never disappoints. It skips, it hops, it dives, it sings. It entertains fully and leaves the reader wanting more. It does not, therefore, ever come across as anything but one of the finest folktale adaptations you’ve ever seen. High praise. Great book. Must buy.