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About me: "Well, I work at the most succulent plum of children's branches in New York City. The Children's Center at 42nd Street not only exists in the main branch (the one with the big stone lions out front) but we've a colorful assortment of children's authors and illustrators that stop on by. I'm a lucky fish. By the way, my opinions are entirely my own and don't represent NYPL's in the least. Got blame? Gimme gimme gimme!"
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1. The Sibling Reality: When Picture Books Stop Being Nice and Start Getting Real

I love it when a blog title makes me sound old.

Now that my kids have reached the ripe ages of five and two, I’m finding myself more interested in picture books that pick apart the nature of sibling relationships in interesting ways .  I don’t mean fighting.  I mean that crazy pushmepullyou of loving each other to the extreme mixed with scream-at-the-top-of-your-lungs annoyance.  With that in mind, I’ve been trying to come up with a variety of picture books that celebrate this tricky balance.  Books where it’s not all sweetness and light nor vinegar and . . . uh . . . darkness (note to self: work on metaphors before posting to readership).

Here’s just a quick smattering of some of my favorites at this precise moment in time.

Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan, ill. Sophie Blackall

BigRedLollipop

I am now and forever Team BRL.  Back in the day when I reviewed it I mentioned that for me this is a book about grace.  Telling kids to forgive other kids is tricky, but telling them to forgive their little annoying siblings?  Add in the fact that this is one of the very rare picture books you’ll find about a American Muslim family that isn’t about their faith in some way and you’ve got yourself a winner.

Cooking with Henry and Elliebelly by Carolyn Parkhurst, ill. Dan Yaccarino

cookinghenry

Speak truth to me, but softly.  Give me picture books about siblings, but get a little heart in there.  Now in some ways, I feel that Parkhurst’s book remains one of the funniest and most honest displays of sibling relationships I’ve ever seen.  That moment when the mom says, “Sweetie, she’s two. You don’t have to do what she says,” just squeaks with familiarity.  I am that mom.  I live that mom’s life.  Albeit with the genders of the kids switched.

A Birthday for Frances by Russell Hoban, ill. Lillian Hoban

birthdayfrances

I’m in that weird position as a librarian where I know all the “classic” children’s picture books and I know to read them to my kids, but I’m still shocked when I finally discover that some of them are more contemporary, funny, and honest than a lot of the stuff being published today.  Take Frances.  Now there’s a character I hope we never lose.  She has lots of great books but this may be my favorite.  Clearly Russell Hoban knew children, because that relationship between Frances and her sister has all the qualities of a real sisterhood.

Baby Says by John Steptoe

BabySays

*checks watch*

Nope.  Still not back in print.  Still weird.  He just got a street named after him, guys.  The fact this isn’t even a board book is bizarre.  My son loves it, possibly because the baby gets to bean the brother upside the head with a teddy bear and all that brother does is sigh and get the kid out of his crib.  But that shot of the messy baby kiss on his brother’s nose . . . I’m not a sentimental soul in the least, but that gets me.

I’m open to any and all suggestions for more titles of this ilk, if you have them.

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9 Comments on The Sibling Reality: When Picture Books Stop Being Nice and Start Getting Real, last added: 9/28/2016
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2. Review of the Day: Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet

cloud-and-wallfishCloud and Wallfish
By Anne Nesbet
Candlewick Press
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-7636-8803-5
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

Historical fiction is boring. Right? That’s the common wisdom on the matter, certainly. Take two characters (interesting), give them a problem (interesting), and set them in the past (BOOOOOORING!). And to be fair, there are a LOT of dull-as-dishwater works of historical fiction out there. Books where a kid has to wade through knee-deep descriptions, dates, facts, and superfluous details. But there is pushback against this kind of thinking. Laurie Halse Anderson, for example, likes to call her books (Chains, Forge, Ashes, etc.) “historical thrillers”. People are setting their books in unique historical time periods. And finally (and perhaps most importantly) we’re seeing a lot more works of historical fiction that are truly fun to read. Books like The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, or One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, or My Near-Death Adventures by Alison DeCamp, or ALL of Louise Erdrich’s titles for kids. Better add Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet to that list as well. Doing what I can only characterize as the impossible, Nesbet somehow manages to bring East Germany in 1989 to full-blown, fascinating life. Maybe you wouldn’t want to live there, but it’s certainly worth a trip.

His name is Noah. Was Noah. It’s like this, one minute you’re just living your life, normal as you please, and the next your parents have informed you that your name is a lie, your birth date is wrong, and you’re moving to East Berlin. The year is 1989 and as Noah (now Jonah)’s father would say, there’s a definite smell of history in the air. His mother has moved the family to this new city as part of her research into education and stuttering (an impediment that Noah shares) for six months. But finding himself unable to attend school in a world so unlike the one he just left, the boy is lonely. That’s why he’s so grateful when the girl below his apartment, Claudia, befriends him. But there are secrets surrounding these new friends. How did Claudia’s parents recently die? Why are Noah’s parents being so mysterious? And what is going on in Germany? With an Iron Curtain shuddering on its foundations, Noah’s not just going to smell that history in the air. He’s going to live it, and he’s going to get a friend out of the bargain as well.

It was a bit of a risk on Nesbet’s part to begin the book by introducing us to Noah’s parents right off the bat as weirdly suspicious people. It may take Noah half a book to create a mental file on his mom, but those of us not related to the woman are starting our own much sooner. Say, from the minute we meet her. It was very interesting to watch his parents upend their son’s world and then win back his trust by dint of their location as well as their charm and evident love. It almost reads like a dare from one author to another. “I bet you can’t make a reader deeply distrust a character’s parents right from the start, then make you trust them again, then leave them sort of lost in a moral sea of gray, but still likable!” Challenge accepted!

Spoiler Alert on This Paragraph (feel free to skip it if you like surprises): Noah’s mom is probably the most interesting parent you’ll encounter in a children’s book in a long time. By the time the book is over you know several things. 1. She definitely loves Noah. 2. She’s also using his disability to further her undercover activities, just as he fears. 3. She incredibly frightening. The kind of person you wouldn’t want to cross. She and her husband are utterly charming but you get the distinct feeling that Noah’s preternatural ability to put the puzzle pieces of his life together is as much nature as it is nurture. Coming to the end of the book you see that Noah has sent Claudia postcards over the years from places all over the world. Never Virginia. One could read that a lot of different ways but I read it as his mother dragging him along with her from country to country. There may never be a “home” for Noah now. But she loves him, right? I foresee a lot of really interesting bookclub discussions about the ending of this book, to say nothing about how we should view his parents.

As I mentioned before, historical fiction that’s actually interesting can be difficult to create. And since 1989 is clear-cut historical fiction (this is the second time a character from the past shared my birth year in a children’s book . . . *shudder*) Nesbet utilizes several expository techniques to keep young readers (and, let’s face it, a lot of adult readers) updated on what precisely is going on. From page ten onward a series of “Secret Files” boxes will pop up within the text to give readers the low-down. These are written in a catchy, engaging style directly to the reader, suggesting that they are from the point of view of an omniscient narrator who knows the past, the future, and the innermost thoughts of the characters. So in addition to the story, which wraps you in lies and half-truths right from the start to get you interested, you have these little boxes of explanation, giving you information the characters often do not have. Some of these Secret Files are more interesting than others, but as with the Moby Dick portions in Louis Sachar’s The Cardturner, readers can choose to skip them if they so desire. They should be wary, though. A lot of pertinent information is sequestered in these little boxes. I wouldn’t cut out one of them for all the wide wide world.

Another way Nesbet keeps everything interesting is with her attention to detail. The author that knows the minutia of their fictional world is an author who can convince readers that it exists. Nesbet does this by including lots of tiny details few Americans have ever known. The pirated version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that was disseminated for years throughout the German Democratic Republic? I had no idea. The listing of television programs available there? Very funny (did I mention the book is funny too?). Even the food you could get in the grocery store and the smell of the coal-choked air feels authentic.

Of course, you can load your book down with cute boxes and details all day and still lose a reader if they don’t relate to the characters. Noah could easily be reduced to one of those blank slate narrators who go through a book without a clear cut personality. I’m happy to report that this isn’t the case here. And I appreciated the Claudia was never a straight victim or one of those characters that appears impervious to the pain in her life. Similarly, Noah is a stutterer but the book never throws the two-dimensional bully in his path. His challenges are all very strange and unique to his location. I was also impressed by how Nesbet dealt with Claudia’s German (she makes up words or comes up with some Noah has never heard of and so Nesbet has the unenviable job of making that clear on the page). By the same token, Noah has a severe stutter, but having read the whole book I’m pretty sure Nesbet only spells the stutter out on the page once. For every other time we’re told about it after the fact or as it is happening.

I’ve said all this without, somehow, mentioning how lovely Nesbet’s writing is. The degree to which she’s willing to go deep into her material, plucking out the elements that will resonate the most with her young readers, is masterful. Consider a section that explains what it feels like to play the role of yourself in your own life. “This is true even for people who aren’t crossing borders or dealing with police. Many people in middle school, for instance, are pretending to be who they actually are. A lot of bad acting is involved.” Descriptions are delicious as well. When Claudia comes over for dinner after hearing about the death of her parents Nesbet writes, “Underneath the bristles, Noah could tell, lurked a squishy heap of misery.”

There’s little room for nuance in Nesbet’s Berlin, that’s for sure. The East Berliners we meet are either frightened, in charge, or actively rebelling. In her Author’s Note, Nesbet writes about her time in the German Democratic Republic in early 1989, noting where a lot of the details of the book came from. She also mentions the wonderful friends she had there at that time. Noah, by the very plot in which he finds himself, would not be able to meet these wonderful people. As such, he has a black-and-white view of life in East Berlin. And it’s interesting to note that when his classmates talk up the wonders of their society, he never wonders if anything they tell him is true. Is everyone employed? At what price? There is good and bad and if there is nuance it is mostly found in the characters like Noah’s mother. Nesbet herself leaves readers with some very wise words in her Author’s Note when she says to child readers, “Truth and fiction are tangled together in everything human beings do and in every story they tell. Whenever a book claims to be telling the truth, it is wise (as Noah’s mother says at one point) to keep asking questions.” I would have liked a little more gray in the story, but I can hardly think of a better lesson to impart to children in our current day and age.

In many way, the book this reminded me of the most was Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. Think about it. A boy desperate for a friend meets an out-of-the-box kind of girl. They invent a fantasyland together that’s across a distinct border (in this book Claudia imagines it’s just beyond the Wall). Paterson’s book was a meditation on friendship, just like Nesbet’s. Yet there is so much more going on here. There are serious thoughts about surveillance (something kids have to think about a lot more today), fear, revolution, loyalty, and more than all this, what you have to do to keep yourself sane in a world where things are going mad. Alice Through the Looking Glass is referenced repeatedly, and not by accident. Noah has found himself in a world where the rules he grew up with have changed. As a result he must cling to what he knows to be true. Fortunately, he has a smart author to help him along the way. Anne Nesbet always calls Noah by his own name, even when her characters don’t. He is always Noah to us and to himself. That he finds himself in one of the most interesting and readable historical novels written for kids is no small thing. Nesbet outdoes herself. Kids are the beneficiaries.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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6 Comments on Review of the Day: Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet, last added: 9/27/2016
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3. Fusenews

Happy Fusenews day to you, guv’nor.  In today’s episode we tip our hat to a post last week that is probably my most popular of all time.  Who knew knitting needles could be such lightning rods?  In any case, on with the newz!


 

boywhodrewHow old is the picture book biography as we know it today?  Recently I’ve been thinking long and hard about what its purpose is, as well as its limitations.  Jacqueline Davies has thought longer and harder in some ways, though, since her recent post Writers and the Real Estate Market takes a very personal look at the choices she made when she wrote The Boy Who Drew Birds.  She makes some remarkably interesting points about content and format.


 

Boy, it must be hard.  Every year, without fail, Marjorie Ingall (Mamaleh Knows Best) scours the publishing world for great Jewish-centric books for kids.  The pickings are almost always slim, but once in a while you get some really good biographies. Picture book biographies (I sense a theme to today’s post) no less.  The first is of the current Ruth Bader Ginsberg bio in the piece Teaching Kids the Value of Dissent and the other Rich Michelson’s most recent bio in Leonard Nimoy’s Fascinating Life.  Great books.  Great write-ups.


 

Librarians.  We have one of those professions where it’s pretty clear that whenever we appear in the news, 50% of the time it’s not about something good.  Case in point, the recent news about a thrifty library cataloger who donated $4 million to his employer after his death.  His employer, however, was a university library.  So, naturally, $1 million of that is going to a football scoreboard.  Some folks are less than entirely pleased with that development.


 

I mentioned it last week but I’m mentioning it again today because it’s a darn good cause.  If you don’t know about why authors and illustrators alike (as well as celebs like Al Roker and Nicole Kidman) are painting piggy banks for auction, you should fill yourself in here.  A good cause and you get art.  The bidding just started yesterday, so don’t be left behind. And I know I won’t get it, but this is my own personal favorite piggy:

bruelpiggy


 

I already read this four years ago, but with the recent passing of Gene Wilder I saw it included in a Chronicle Books newsletter and just couldn’t resist putting it up again.  It’s Gene Wilder’s handwritten notes on the changes he’d prefer to the Willy Wonka costume he was initially given.  Ole blue eyes himself.


 

Daily Image:

Maurice Sendak was initially going to design that old movie Return to Oz?!?  Apparently it never happened but he did create a publicity poster for the ad campaign.  Not that it really looks like any of the characters in the movie (I’m working on a couple theories on who the guy on the far right is) but in terms of the book Ozma of Oz, it’s not terrible.

sendakoz

Many many thanks to J.L. Bell at Oz and Ends for this image.  Yet another old post from 2012.  I’m having that kind of a day.

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3 Comments on Fusenews, last added: 9/26/2016
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4. Famous Illustrators’ Depictions of Knitting Ranked in Order of Competency

Two years ago I wrote a piece called The Scourge of Upside Down Knitting in which I raged unto the heavens against picture books where the artists put little work into bothering to figure out if knitting needles should be held up or down.  Well, it’s time for me to apologize to those illustrators.  If depicting knitting needles with the ends to the sky is irresistible to you, you’re in good company.  Seems that every picture book illustrator of the past put you on the wrong path early.

Today, we rank the great illustrators history and see how precisely they’ve chosen to portray knitters.  As a refresher, here is how you hold knitting needles:

kidsknit-237x300

The method of holding them with the ends up is not unheard of, but it is rare. For example, I tried to find a Google Image of that particular style for the piece and failed utterly.

From Worst to Best: Knitting in Children’s Literature

Dr. Seuss

seussknit

To be fair, I know very little about the fibers of Truffula Trees.  It is possible that one has to . . . um . . .  Okay, I’m not entirely certain what the Onceler’s family is doing here.  They appear to be stabbing the fibers in a downward manner with their needles, miraculously producing thneeds.  This exact image isn’t exactly from the book (I think it’s wallpaper) but it’s an accurate depiction of what Seuss drew.  Whatever floats your boats, guys.  Just don’t call it knitting.

P.D. Eastman

eastmanknit

Et tu, Eastman?  I was merrily reading Robert the Rose Horse when I saw this image.  I may have to give Eastman points for the inherent humor of it, though.  Knitting without digits.  Think about it for a moment.

Garth Williams

garthwilliamsknit

I’m with you, kitten.  Shocked SHOCKED that the great Garth Williams failed to get this right.

Tove Jansson

jannsonknit

No word on whether or not Moominmamma . . . oh, wait.

jannsonknitDarn it.  No pun intended.

Edward Gorey

goreyknitWait!  This just in!  I believe this is an image from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.  If so, then this cat isn’t knitting but tatting.  And if she is tatting then it’s possible the needles go up, right?  So let’s just find an image of someone tatting.

emma2--Emma Everson uses a shuttle made in the late 1880s to tat a method of tying lace patterns by hand.

So much for that.

Clement Hurd

hurdknit

I think we may have a winner.  Yes, it looks like it.  Granted, she’s put the knitting down on her lap to whisper “Hush” to the bunny in the bed, but I think it very likely that the needles were held correctly before then.  Shall we give it to him?

Okay.  Enough with the deceased.  Let’s see how some of our contemporary masters fare in this game.

Patricia Polacco

patriciapolaccoknit

Didn’t see that one coming.

Jerry Pinkney

pinkneyknit

YES!!  And Pinkney for the win!  The cat’s needles are down, I REPEAT!  The cat’s needles are down!

Paul O. Zelinsky

zelinskyknit

Considering how much work Paul put into getting the spinning wheel right in Rumpelstiltskin, it’s little wonder he’d get the knitting right in Swamp Angel.

Sophie Blackall

sophieblackallknit

Cheating a bit here.  This is from one of Sophie’s Missed Connections pieces and not from a children’s book, but it at least proves that if knitting ever does come up in one of her books, she’ll know what to do about it.

Jan Brett

brettknit

I suspect I would have had a small heart attack if it turned out that Ms. Brett didn’t know knitting.  She has, after all, portrayed some of the greatest illustrations of stitching ever seen in a picture book.

Notable missing illustrators aren’t listed here simply because I couldn’t figure out if they ever depicted knitting in their books.  Hence the lack of John Steptoe, Maurice Sendak, Trina Schart Hyman, Grace Lin, Tomie de Paola, Yuyi Morales, and others.  If you’ve inside knowledge on the matter, have at it.  Other contemporary illustrators like Lauren Castillo or Jon Klassen can be found on the previous piece about knitting books in 2014.

Have a favorite I didn’t include?  Let me know!

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20 Comments on Famous Illustrators’ Depictions of Knitting Ranked in Order of Competency, last added: 9/23/2016
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5. Press Release Fun: Meanwhile, Back in NYC . . .

So I’m no longer in New York City anymore as you might have noticed but that doesn’t meant there aren’t some fantastic events going on there.  Free events.  Free events at my old stomping grounds, NYPL.  It’s all in conjunction with Banned Books Week and the guests are a bit on the famous side.  Gene Luen Yang.  Katherine Paterson.  Rita Williams-Garcia.  STRANGER THINGS!!!  *ahem*  In any case, behold below.  I give you one heckuva fantastic week.


 

Banned Books Week annually celebrates the freedom to read. Highlighting the value of free and open access to information, Banned Books Week brings together librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types in shared support of the freedom to seek, to publish, to read, and to express ideas. The Library is hosting a series of events September 25-October 1 celebrating the freedom to read with some of your favorite children’s authors!

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Reading Without Walls: Author Event with Gene Luen Yang (and special guest Walkaround Grover!)

Join the New York Public Library in partnership with Sesame Workshop (the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street!) on Sunday September 25 from 10:30 AM-12 PM (doors open at 10:15 AM), as we welcome the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Gene Luen Yang, joined by his furry friend, Sesame Street’s Walkaround Grover, to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the Sesame Street classic storybook,The Monster at the End of this Book. Yang will read aloud this time-honored tale (first published in 1971 by Little Golden Books) and will discuss his ‘Reading Without Walls’ initiative, which encourages readers to explore books of diverse voices, genres, and formats.

This ticketed event is free and open to the public. Registration required.

Tough Topics in Middle Grade: Author Panel 

Presented in partnership with iLoveMG please welcome the following guests* to the library Wednesday September 28 from 6-8 PM:

  • Paul Griffin: When Friendship Followed Me Home
  • James Howe: The Misfits series
  • Kathleen Lane: The Best Worst Thing
  • Nora Raleigh Baskin: Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story
  • Rita Williams-Garcia: Gaither Sisters series (One Crazy Summer, P.S. Be Eleven, Gone Crazy in Alabama)

With special Guest Moderator author Phil Bildner.

*Author Panel subject to change due to author availability 

This ticketed event is free and open to the public. Registration recommended.

Stranger Things in Middle Grade Author Panel (at Brooklyn Public Library) 

Presented in partnership with iLoveMG please welcome the following guests* to the library Thursday September 29 from 6-8 PM

  • Tracy Baptiste: The Jumbies
  • Kelly Barnhill: The Girl Who Drank the Moon
  • Max Brallier The Last Kids on Earth series
  • G.D. Falksen: The Transatlantic Conspiracy
  • Chris Gabenstein: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library and Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics
  • Doogie Homer: Kid Legend series (Kid Presidents, Kid Athletes, and Kid Artists)

With Moderator Christopher Lassen from the Brooklyn Public Library and New York Public Library.

*Author Panel subject to change due to author availability 

This ticketed event is free and open to the public. For more information visit: https://goo.gl/iLW2ND

The Great Gilly Hopkins: Author Event with Katherine Paterson 

Join the New York Public Library Saturday October 1 from 2-3 PM as we welcome Katherine Paterson and her sons, David and John, to discuss Ms. Paterson’s enduring young adult classic THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS and new feature film version of THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS debuting in theaters and On Demand October 7.

This ticketed event is free and open to the public. Registration recommended.

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2 Comments on Press Release Fun: Meanwhile, Back in NYC . . ., last added: 9/22/2016
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6. Review of the Day: They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel

TheyAllSawCatThey All Saw a Cat
By Brendan Wenzel
Chronicle Books
$16.99
ISBN: 978-1-4521-5013-0
Ages 4-7
On shelves now

It’s funny. Unless you’re a teacher or librarian, a grown adult that does not work or live with children will come into very little contact with picture books. Then, one day, they produce a few kids and BLAMMO! They are shot into a world they haven’t visited since they were young themselves. They grab frantically at the classics, discover that a lot of them don’t work with very very young children (since when did Horton Hatches the Egg have so many words?!?), and then occasionally turn to the experts for help. And why? Parents’ reasons are not united on this front. Some read to their kids to instill a love of reading. Others to build little brains. Others to simply fill the long hours of the day. Occasionally a parent will also use a book to teach some kind of a lesson. If the parent is unlucky they will get stuck with a book sticky with didacticism (an unpleasant book that sucks all the joy out of the reading experience). But if they are lucky (or they are in the hands of a capable professional) they might find just the right book, teaching just the right lesson. Here’s an example: Let’s say you wanted to teach a kid empathy or how our perceptions change depending on our own experiences and who we are. How do you show that in 32 pages? Well, you could pick up some cloying, toxic dribble that overuses words like “hugs” and “friendship”. Nine times out of ten, that’s what’s going to happen. Or, if you are a clever parent, you pick up a book like They All Saw a Cat. It looks at first glance like it’s just about a cat. Delve a little deeper and you’ll find it about science and art and perception and empathy. And it does it all with very simple sentences, repetition, and a lot of white backgrounds. Not too shabby. Not too shabby at all.

theyallsaw1“The cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, ears, and paws . . .” In that walking it is seen. It is seen by a child, a dog, and a fox. It is seen by a fish, a mouse, and a bee. It is seen by a bird, a flea, a snake, a skunk, a worm, and a bat. And what’s important is that this “seeing” changes with every creature. For mice and dogs, the cat is perceived through the lens of their own interactions with it. For worms and bats the cat is only visible through the ways in which it moves through space (vibrations through the ground and the ways in which echolocation shape it). By the end we see a hodgepodge cat, a mix of how each animal sees it. Then the cat comes to the water, viewing its own reflection, “and imagine what it saw?”

The book this actually reminded me of the most was that old Rudyard Kipling story “The Cat Who Walked By Himself”. Unlike that tale we never really get this book from the cat’s perspective. Indeed, the cat is often only visible when others see him. The similarity to Kipling comes with the language. That very first sentence, for example: “The cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, ears, and paws . . .” And as in the original art for that story, the cat here is often pictured from the back. There’s a lot of debate about whether or not a book written by one person and illustrated by another can ever be as strong as a book that is written and illustrated by the same artist. They All Saw a Cat makes a fairly strong argument that artist who are also authors are the better way to go. Wenzel’s sentences are so perfectly layered here. If anything, they match the personality of a cat. There aren’t many words, true. But the measured tone is at once soothing and scintillating. I liked how the book broke up the animals. The first three are potential predators. The second three are potential theyallsaw2prey. The final six are strict observers. It also ends perfectly with the best possible sentence. Not all picture books, no matter how beautiful they look, are capable of sticking their landings. This one does.

In this book the publication page (where they tend to describe the artist’s process) gets a little slaphappy. It reads (and I am quoting this precisely), “The illustrations in this book were rendered in almost everything imaginable, including colored pencil, oil pastels, acrylic paint, watercolor, charcoal, Magic Marker, good old number 2 pencils, and even an iBook.” The other day I was listening to a podcast where one of the speakers speculated that including this kind of information in a book changes the adult reader’s perspective. Would I think less of this book if I found out it was done in digital ink? Possibly, though I should note that I was blown away by the art long before I ever turned to see how it was made. And while digital art is great and has its place, I’d like to see the program that replicates what Wenzel’s done here.

theyallsaw3The sheer beauty of the book is what strikes you first when you read it. Consider the two-page spread where on the left-hand side you see the cat through snake vision, and on the right-hand side you see the cat through skunk vision. The snake’s view is a vibrant shock of color, all yellows and reds and blues. The skunk’s in contrast, looks like the soft grainy sepia-tones of an old film. Maybe Casablanca. Put together, side-by-side, the same cat is its own opposite. But if Wenzel were constantly wowing you with eye-popping images that wouldn’t really support the narrative flow. That’s why the pacing of the book is key. Wenzel starts the book out very slowly, with lots of white backgrounds and views akin to what we see as people. The child, dog, and fox all see the cat similarly (though I loved the oversized bell around its neck, indicating the fox and dog’s superior sense of hearing through a visual medium). The fish is the first moment you start to separate from human visuals. The cat’s large, yellow eyes are 80% of the two pages. But it is the mouse’s Basquiat-esque view of the cat that steals the show. The red background, and the cat all teeth and claws, and terrifying eyes is a far cry from the cuddly creature at the start of the story. It’s also the moment when the child readers come to realize that perception is personal.

An interesting criticism of this book is linked precisely to the more science-y aspects of the text. One of the commenters on a blog post I wrote, that included this book, said that, “I desperately wanted some nice science-y back matter to tell us how and why different animals see the cat the way they do. Sure, we can go OH, this animal must be colorblind! This animal ‘sees’ by sonar! But c’mon, throw us an edu-bone here. It felt like such a missed opportunity.” This is an interesting note. We’ve grown used to useful backmatter in this post-Core Curriculum world of ours. Would this book have been stronger if it had contained a science element to it? Yes and no. It would have been a real boon to teachers, you betcha, and probably to perceptive parents who could have turned it into a lesson for young readers. If I had to guess I’d say the reason it wasn’t done may have had something to do with the fact that Wenzel is mixing his fact and fiction here pretty closely. Each animal is “seeing” as it would in the wild, but that is not to say that the art is by any means scientific. The cartoonish quality to the animals (no better exemplified than in the mouse’s bulbous eyes) doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. I would have very much liked notes on the accuracy of the art, but I can understand the fear of asking the reader to take the work too seriously. I don’t necessarily agree, but I understand it.

theyallsaw4How do you discuss this book with kids? Well, you might read it to them, start to finish, and then ask them which picture shows what the cat really looks like. When they select (some will go with the human view but I’ve no doubt a couple will prefer the dog or bird p.o.v.s) you then tell them that actually all the pictures in this book are true. And if you really want to blow their little minds, you tell them that there’s a good chance that the way you see the world isn’t the same way the person next to you does. Everyone, everywhere sees the world different from his or her neighbor. Is it any wonder we have problems? The solution is to try and see things from another person’s view. Now, if the kids think you’re speaking literally or figuratively, it doesn’t really matter. You’ve planted the seed. Or, rather, the book has.

Let us do away with the notion of “cat people” vs. “dog people”. This book is for “people”. End of sentence. And if I got a little crazy in my first paragraph here, filling you in on my view of world peace via picture books, you’ll understand when you read this book. That tired old phrase to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” makes no sense to a kid. But travel a page through another animal’s eyes? There’s never been a better fictional picture book that allows you to do this. If we all see something as simple as a cat this differently, what else might we not see the same? It’s a treat to eye, ear, and mind, but don’t forget. We’re all going to see this book through our own lenses. What will your kids see when they look at it? Only one way to find out.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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7. Newbery / Caldecott 2017: Fall Prediction Edition

Mmmm.  It’s that time again.  The summer is beginning to cool its jets and with fall on the horizon I need to present the third in my yearly four-part prediction series.  What was that fantastic quote Travis Jonker came up with the other day?  Ah, yes.

“Those who have knowledge, don’t predict. Those who predict, don’t have knowledge.” – Lao Tzu

And like Travis, we’re just going to run roughshod over that one.  As ever, I will remind you that my ability to predict these things is a bit on the shoddy side.  You might be better off reading the Mock Newbery and Mock Caldecott lists of Goodreads.  That said, I can give you something those lists can’t: Scintillating commentary!!  Unless you’re reading Heavy Medal or Calling Caldecott (both of which have just started up again).  Then you’ll get commentary from a variety of different voices.  Anyway . . .

Let’s do this thing.

2017 Caldecott Predictions

Ideas Are All Around by Philip Stead

IdeasAllAroundI think I’m going to stick with this one.  Here’s what usually happens when I mention this book on a prediction list.  I say I don’t find it very kid-friendly and then someone responds that they know several kids who love it.  They just happen to be older kids.  One forgets that not all picture books are aimed at three-year-olds.  Stead’s book pushes the boundaries.  It may, in fact, be one of those very rare picture books written for a middle grade audience.  With that in mind, a consideration of the text and image together takes on a different light entirely.

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

jazzday1

Not fish, nor fowl.  Is it nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, poetry, or a picture book?  The Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards placed it squarely in the picture book category (those judges must have been awfully smart, don’t you think, huh huh, don’t you think, huh?) though like Ideas Are All Around it’s for older readers.  A bit of a trend here, eh?  Maybe.  After all, the last few nonfiction Caldecott winners (Finding Winnie, Locomotive, etc.) were on the older side as well.

Miracle Man by John Hendrix

MiracleMan

Chant it with me! Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!  Now last time I did a prediction edition I mentioned the whole question about whether or not a Jesus book could win a Caldecott anymore (since, y’know, the first 1938 winner was Animals of the Bible).  Now I’ve found out that I’ll get to talk with The Horn Book Podcast soon about religion and children’s literature in the 21st century.  That should help me straighten out my thoughts on the matter.  In the meantime, I’m keeping this one in the mix.  As I mentioned before, it’s the wildest of my Wild Cards, but I think it may have an outside chance.

Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe

Radiant Child

Speaking of the Horn Book Podcast, there was an interesting discussion the other day with Jules Danielson of the 7-Imp blog about whether or not publishers should include information about how the art was made on the publication page of a picture book.  Roger Sutton was asking if knowledge of how a book is made adjusts your interpretation of the art.  I mentioned this to a friend and they pointed out that in 2016 we’re seeing a crazy amount of eclectic and interesting art in our contenders.  From the found wood of Yuyi Morales’s Rudas: Niño’s Horrendous Hermanitas to the Moroccan influence and mixed media of Evan Turk’s The Storyteller (we’ll get to that) to the found wood (again) of this book, it has never been a better time to get creative with your medium.  And anyway, this book just blew me away.  Technically a bio won the Caldecott last year, but there’s no rule saying it can’t happen repeatedly.  And how awesome would it be for a Steptoe to win the Caldecott again?  Javaka completely deserves it with this book.

Snow White: A Graphic Novel by Matt Phelan

snowwhite

Okay!  So graphic novels have been winning Newberys left, right, and center lately, right?  Which is to say, Newbery Honors.  On the Caldecott side, This One Summer, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki, written by Mariko Tamaki essentially blew our minds when it won a Caldecott Honor two years ago (and it was YA!).  This 1930s reinterpretation of the Snow White story is far younger than Tamaki’s book, and done in an elegant black and white style.  It is, in its own way, very sexy but still child appropriate (I’ll have to review it sometime to figure out how that’s even possible).  Phelan’s never won any Caldecotts that I can tell, but he’s also become more and more accomplished as the years have gone by.  This book would be a risk for the committee, but it would also be a wonderful way of praising Phelan’s evident expertise.

The Storyteller by Evan Turk

Storyteller1

Sometimes a Caldecott winner says something about the times in which we live.  Turk’s book talks about the roles stories have in our lives.  It folds a story within a story within a story and then backs out again without tripping up once.  Visually it’s a stunner, with smart writing to match, but more importantly it’s speaking to the times in which we live.  We are desperate for stories these days.  This book speaks not just to that need but the solution.  Aw, heck.  It may even have a chance at a Newbery.  Look at the art when you get a chance, though.  It’s truly beautiful.

Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie, ill. Yuyi Morales

 ThunderBoy

This book was already mentioned on Heavy Medal’s Ten Picture Books That Can Win the 2017 Newbery Medal.  On the Caldecott side of the equation it’s already received a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor.  It’s one of those books where the art slowly grabs you.  There are circles within circles, connections upon connections.  A long discussion of the book yields treasures.  You will see things you missed many times before.

 They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel

TheyAllSawCat

Someone told me recently that this book is scientifically accurate.  If you’re unfamiliar with it, the premise is that a single cat is viewed in a multitude of different ways by different animals.  I haven’t looked into the veracity of this claim yet, but if true then it’s just another feather in the cap of a remarkable title.  Word on the street says that Chronicle paid a pretty penny for the manuscript.  From everything I can see, it was worth it in the end.


2017 Newbery Predictions

Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet

cloud-and-wallfish

You know, you guys should really listen to that Horn Book Podcast sometime.  It was Roger Sutton who mentioned this book and piqued my interest in it.  I already had a copy at home since it came with rather peculiar swag.  With the book came two little cut out stencils.  One of a cloud.  One of a whale.  Aside from pitying the poor intern that spent at least a day cutting these out, it did interest me.  Good cover.  Good title.  And Nesbet?  That was the author behind that Cabinet of Earths series, right?  Well I’ve been reading it and on some level it reminded me of The War That Saved My Life.  Not the setting so much as just the pure enjoyment I’ve received while reading it.  Roger said something similar himself.  Nesbet has taken 1989 East Germany and just riddled it with interesting details and great writing.  Y’all have to check this out.

Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan

FreedomOverMe

It’s been (checks calendar) six days since this book was released.  Have you read it yet?  Have you, have you?  Because I’d really like to talk to somebody about it.  I think 2016 is going to be The Year of Difficult Writing for me.  So many authors are taking risks, doing things no one’s done before, and creating art in the process.  Mr. Bryan is no exception.  I’ve never seen anything quite like what he’s done here.  Naming this book as even an honor would be a powerful statement.

The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, the Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz

InquisitorsTale

I actually did a double take when I reread my Summer Prediction Edition and found, to my shock and horror, that I had not included this book on the list.  I must have read it right after I posted.  In fact, I know I did since three or four readers named it as a top pick.  Whole lotta religion in this one.  And blood and guts too (this is Mr. Gidwitz we’re talking about) but talk about risks!  He’s basically taking Christianity and Judaism and discussing them in a context almost never seen in middle grade historical fiction (fantasy? fiction?).  Gutsy.  Blood and gutsy.

Pax by Sara Pennypacker

Pax

Ah, Pax.  Let out of the gate early in 2016 with a huge marketing push to match.  It worked in terms of sales, of course.  This book has already become a New York Times bestseller (no mean feat for a book that isn’t part of a series written by a man whose name rhymes with My Own Pen).  It was the earliest book to garner Newbery buzz as well.  Indeed, there’s a reason Heavy Medal chose it as one of the first books of the year to discuss.  Love it or hate it, there is a LOT to chew on in this novel.  It could either sweep the awards or not even get an Honor nod.  Though, if I were a betting woman, I’d say it’s a clear cut Newbery Honor book.

Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West by Candace Fleming

presentingbuffalo

The Newbery is not awarded for difficulty.  If it were, Fleming would be a shoo-in.  Instead, she’s written a middle grade nonfiction biography of a figure forgotten by most kids today.  A biography hasn’t won a Newbery since 1988 (Lincoln, a Photobiography, in case you’re curious).  So the chances of Fleming winning for this book are slim, but I’m a fan of the underdog. The writing is extraordinary, the topic impossible, and the take clever.  We’ll see if the committee agrees.

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo

RaymieNightingale

Like Pax, this is one of those shoo-ins for discussion.  Also like Pax it came out early in the year.  Will the committee be burned out by the time they actually get around to discussing it?  Considering how much there is to discuss about the book, not likely.  If it wins the Award proper that will be DiCamillo’s third Newbery Award (not counting Honors).  Something to chew on.

When Green Becomes Tomatoes by Julie Fogliano

WhenGreen1

Mmm.  Poetry.  Slightly less rare than middle grade biography winners.  After all, verse novels have won.  Monologues done in rhyme have won.  Even straight up books of poetry have, technically, won.  One thing I have learned about this book is that not everybody shares my love of it.  Like humor, the worth of poetry can prove subjective.  Still and all, there’s a groundswell of support for it out there.  One of the loveliest books of the year, by far.

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

WolfHollow

Also known as the book I had to flip to the back of because it became too tense for me not to know how it ended.  They keep comparing it to To Kill a Mockingbird in the ad copy, which I feel is a bit unfair.  Any book compared to Harper Lee’s classic is going to end up with a raw deal.  It’s an interesting take on prejudices and has, by far, the most evil bully in a book I have EVER read.  I wouldn’t call it enjoyable in the same way as the Nesbet book, but it was deeply compelling and beautifully written.

AND NOW . . . THE BOOK THAT IS GOING TO BE SUPER FUN FOR THE NEWBERY COMMITTEE AS THEY TRY TO FIGURE OUT IF IT’S EVEN UP FOR CONTENTION OR NOT . . .

Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, narrative and translation by David Jacobson, Sally Ito & Michiko Tsuboi

areyouecho

Haven’t heard of it?  I bet not.  I have not yet begun to sing its praises on this blog, having just read it, but this is without a doubt one of the most amazing books of the year.

Now this should be an open and shut case of a book that simply can’t be a Newbery contender.  See how I mentioned that there was a translator or two involved in this book?  Right.  Books eligible for the Newbery must have originally been published in the United States.  Case closed, right?  Maybe not.  This book is about the life of a celebrated Japanese poet for children who was rediscovered not long ago, and became famous thanks in large part to one of her poems circulating after the tsunami of 2011.  It pulls no punches and reproduces original translations of her poems throughout the text.

So the book itself was originally published in the States, right?  But the poetry spotted throughout the book comes from a Japanese anthology of Kaneko’s works.  What this means is that even if the poetry has never been translated in this way before, technically the poems have been translated overseas before and therefore the book is not a Newbery contender.  I think.  If true this is a pity since I truly believe that anyone who reads this book will be utterly blown away by what they find inside.  In any case, the author of the poetry is dead and I believe that may be an impediment to its Newbery qualifications as well.  Ah well.  Check it out when you get a chance.  It’s really quite remarkable.

Okay, folks!  Lemme have it!  What did I miss?

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8. Fusenews: “You have no power over me”

Fast fast, like lightning, fast!  It’s a Fusenews round-up of epic quickie proportions!


 

SnowyDayFirst up, my buddy Warren Truitt used to work with me in the Central Children’s Room of New York Public Library.  Then he moved to Alabama.  He’s kept busy, since that time with a long-term personal project.  This one man machine is intent on setting up every single child in every single preschool in Lee Col, AL with three books that they can take home as their own.  To do that, he has set up a very specific registry.  If you want to help him out go to this Amazon wishlist and buy him one or more of the books on this list.  This is a straight up good cause with direct results.  Make yourself feel good about yourself today.


 

In other news, I have been mistakenly complimented.  Cece Bell, the marvelous creator behind such books as El Deafo and the Rabbit and Robot easy book series wrote a post recently in which she wrote the following:

“After El Deafo came out, … Betsy Bird pointed out that the first book in the series (Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover) seemed autobiographical to her. (She was right in some ways—I had initially modeled Rabbit on someone else, but while working on the book realized that the high-strung, anxious Rabbit is pretty darn close to me.) Betsy used her crazy-good comp-lit skills and suggested that my personal connection to the book went even further. She pointed out that while Rabbit might represent me (I’m a rabbit in El Deafo, after all), perhaps the problem-solving Robot might represent the Phonic Ear, my clunky hearing aid from elementary school. I think Betsy was right! Robot drives Rabbit crazy but ultimately helps him out; my Phonic Ear drove me crazy, but ultimately helped me out. A lot.)”

She goes on to explain how the newest book in the series follows in this vein, though she didn’t intend it to do so.  Now, you know me.  I’m vanity incarnate.  I like taking credit for things, but this?  I can’t take credit for this.  In point of fact it was my genius husband who actually came up with the Rabbit & Robot = El Deafo connection.  So I thank you, Cece, but in truth it is Matt Bird who deserves this honor.  I am but his humble vessel, parlaying his theories into the universe.


 

storm-reidSeems like every day we’re getting more and more information about the upcoming Wrinkle in Time movie.  It’s being directed by Ava DuVernay.  This is good.  Oprah will star in some capacity.  Let the Oprah as winged centaur fan art begin!  Still good news.  Mindy Kaling and Reese Witherspoon may be involved somehow.  Better and better.  And lastly, Storm Reid (seen here) will be Meg.  Perfect!  Right age and everything.  BUT, and this is a big but, there is still one way they can mess everything up.  MEG. MUST. WEAR. GLASSES.  If Meg is not wearing glasses in this movie then I am checking out.  Harriet the Spy didn’t wear glasses in that Rosie O’Donnell film and Meg didn’t wear glasses the last time they filmed this.  Team Glasses, that’s me.  Let’s see what happens.  Thanks to Laurie Gwen Shapiro for the link.


 

Anyone else notice that there’s been a distinct increase in the number of articles praising translated books for kids and asking for more out there?  Bookriot just came out with 100 Great Translated Kids Books From Around the World.  I am not familiar with this M. Lynx Qualey but this is top notch writing.  Hooray, #WorldKidLit Month!


 

New Blog Alert: In my travels I just found a new blog via a recent New York Times Book Review.  New to me anyway.  Apparently this woman’s been doing this since 2012.  Meet Catherine Hong.  She works on magazines.  She blogs at www.mrslittle.com.  And she writes on interesting topics with interesting titles.  Here’s a smattering of what I mean:

Read that last one if nothing else.  This is my kind of woman (to quote Animal from The Muppet Show)!


 

The National Book Award longlists were announced this week, people!  And guess what?  There’s a nice equal smattering of YA and children’s literature on the list.  Hooray!  Some years it’s all YA with just one children’s book squeezing in there.  This year there are SIX children’s books, just slightly tipping in favor of younger readers.  I’ve read five of them.  See if you can guess which one I haven’t read.  It’s not as obvious as you might think.


 

And now, your daily reminder that David Foster Wallace once taught Mac Barnett.  I will repeat.  The author of Infinite Jest taught the author of Extra Yarn.  I’m just going to sit and process that for a while.  Carry on.


 

Hey!  Look over there!  At the Horn Book Podcast (I listen to all the episodes – I’m such a junkie) Jules Danielson was on and she said many smart things.  Many!  Go listen to her and feel smart while doing so.


 

Confession: I was just going to coast today, since I’d technically already submitted my four blog posts for the week (Sundays totally counts).  Then Travis Jonker goes and does THREE brilliant posts in. a. row.  This will not stand.  I can’t compete with that.  First he predicted the upcoming New York Times Best Illustrated books for 2016.  Then he did a piece called Who Has Published the Most New York Times Best Illustrated Books in the Last Decade (the answer may surprise you . . . but won’t) and then he followed that up with The Failed Political Campaigns of Children’s Book Characters.  I was particularly keen on the last of these because just two days ago I interviewed Aaron Reynolds about President Squid for this new show I’m doing.  I recommend that if you don’t want to listen to my big face, skip to about 18:30 where you can experience the most enjoyable sensation of watching a really good author/performer read his book aloud.  The voice of President Squid here is fantastic.

Another New Blog Alert: Did you know that the Horn Book has created a new blog?  Designed specifically to aid families that like to read together, the Family Reading Blog just started.  Check it out!


Did I ever tell you about the time I dug through the library equivalent of the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark to try to find Pura Belpré’s puppets for a Leonard Marcus exhibit?  That was fun.  In any case, please check out this article How NYC’s First Puerto Rican Librarian Brought Spanish to the Shelves.  I don’t think they mention it in the piece but there’s actually a great picture book about her called The Storyteller’s Candle/La Velita de los Cuentos.  Check it out if you’ve a chance!


You could do a lot of things with your day today. For my part, I suggest that you read The Paris Review article What We Talk About When We Talk About Ill-Fitting Doll Suits. If nothing else, read the captions on the photographs. They’ll get you through your day. Thanks to Sara O’Leary for the link.


 

By the way, remember Jules Danielson?  Are you aware of the role she played recently in getting 100 authors and illustrators to contribute beautifully painted piggy banks to help bookseller Stephanie Appell pay for her cancer treatments?   Well the piggies got made and they are gorgeous.  Really beautifully done.  Wouldn’t you like to own one?

piggies

Of course you would!  So here are the details then:

How You Can Participate (And Bid on the Piggies!)

  • If you’re in Nashville, join us for the BANK ON BOOKSELLERS party on Sunday, September 25, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. to view all the piggies and get the bidding started! The party is open to the public. A $10 donation is requested at the door.
  • No matter where you are, you can see all the piggies and bid online via BiddingOwl beginning at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, September 25, 2016, through 8 p.m. on Friday, September 30. 
  • Spread the word: share this post and tag it #BankOnBooksellers!

 


Meanwhile, in New York City, Gallery Nucleus is hosting a Labyrinth 30th Anniversary Tribute Exhibition tomorrow (September 17th) from 7-10 p.m. called “Through Dangers Untold”. I would go.


Two great tastes that taste great together: First Book and Lee & Low.  Now these two powerhouses have combined.  LEE & LOW Partners with First Book and NEA Foundation to Expand New Visions Award.  Just in case you were feeling depressed about the state of the world today.


 

Daily Image:

If anyone has any additional information about this book that somehow never got published, I’d love to hear it.

labyrinth

Check out the plot description: “Years before Sarah entered the Labyrinth, a young boy named Jareth faced his own incredible journey in a desperate attempt to rescue his true love from the clutches of the wicked and beautiful Goblin Queen. Archaia and the Jim Henson Company and proud to present an original prequel to Jim Henson’s classic fantasy film.”  Only they didn’t because the book never happened.  Mysterious.  Reminds me of that old fan theory about the movie too.

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9. Children’s Literary Salon: 90-Second Newbery Film Festival!

In just 9 days the Children’s Literary Salon at EPL will be up and running again.  And, as ever, you can watch the proceedings live from your very own home computer right here.

This month, we’re celebrating the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival in all its shameless glory.  Explained thusly:

litsalon90second

Even better news, the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival now has a full-featured website of its own. It indexes and makes searchable all the great movies received over the years, complete with judges’ commentary. The new website also features event listings, links to further moviemaking resources, contest rules, a gallery of the best submissions, a press page, and more.

Do you have kids who might be interested in participating?  Well, the deadline for the sixth annual 90-Second Newbery has been set at January 7, 2017!

See you then!

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10. Unexpected Jolts of Children’s Literature: Ramona invented the original Portlandia

Ooo.  Lots of adult books with smatterings of children’s literature littered about the pages today.  Don’t even know where to start with this one.  Let’s see, eeny meeny miney . . . MO!

Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books by Christine Woodside

libertariansprairie

This is the most interesting of the batch in many ways.  This year saw the publication of the book The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, published by editor William Anderson.  I know these letters well since Jules Danielson and I used them for our book Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature.  Yet little did I know that the story of Rose Wilder was far more interesting than the degree to which she wrote the Little House books herself or whether or not she could swear like a sailor (she could).  Listen to this part of the description:

Rose hated farming and fled the family homestead as an adolescent, eventually becoming a nationally prominent magazine writer, biographer of Herbert Hoover, and successful novelist, who shared the political values of Ayn Rand and became mentor to Roger Lea MacBride, the second Libertarian presidential candidate. Drawing on original manuscripts and letters, Woodside shows how Rose reshaped her mother’s story into a series of heroic tales that rebutted the policies of the New Deal.

Nope.  Didn’t know that one!


 

Lois Lenski: Storycatcher by Bobbie Malone

loislenski

Sometimes a book gets published and I sit in my library and think, “Is anyone else in the entire world going to really read and enjoy this besides me?” Then, after a moment, I’ll get a crazed look in my eye, stand up at my desk, and scream, “THEN I SHALL MAKE THEM ENJOY IT!!!!”  Little wonder my desk is sequestered at the end of my floor, far from my cowering co-workers.  This Lenski bio may have a limited built-in audience but for Newbery die-hards (Strawberry Girl fans, are you with me?) this is a must.  Plus I really like the central conceit involving inherent class structures.  Says the description: “Lenski turned her extensive study of hardworking families into books that accurately and movingly depicted the lives of the children of sharecroppers, coal miners, and migrant field workers.”  Now somebody out there write me a comparative study looking at how Kate DiCamillo has done similar work with working class people in Florida, with a good compare and contrast of the two award winning authors’ work.  And . . . go.


 

Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises by Lesley M.M. Blume

everybodybehaves

Okay.  You’ll bite.  What’s the children’s literature connection here?  Is it the fact that the book’s about Hemingway and we know that his grandson Eddie Hemingway makes picture books?  Is there going to be a revelation in the book that Hemingway based The Sun Also Rises on The Velveteen Rabbit (think about it . . . no, wait, don’t)?  No, it’s a lot simpler than that.  Its author, Lesley M.M. Blume, has made a veritable plethora of children’s books over the years.  My personal favorite was her Modern Fairies, Dwarves, Goblins, and Other Nasties: A Practical Guide by Miss Edythe McFate.  Now she’s getting stellar reviews on the adult side of things.  Bully for her, says I!  Well done!


 

Love From Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother by Donald Sturrock

lovefromboy

What We Know: 2016 marks 100 years since the birth of Roald Dahl.

What That Means: Lots o’ books about Dahl.  Some covering areas we’ve seen before.  Others traipsing into new territory.  I certainly haven’t seen this one before and as the mom of a 2-year-old boy it gets frighteningly close to teary-eyed territory.  I also love this part of the book’s description: “Sofie Magdalene kept every letter her son wrote to her (sadly, her own side of the correspondence did not survive).”  Tsk.  Ain’t that like a boy.


 

The Best “Worst President” by Mark Hannah, ill. Bob Staake

bestworstpresident

Bob Staake cover and interior art.  Nuff said.


 

Walking with Ramona: Exploring Beverly Cleary’s Portland by Laura O. Foster

walkingramona

One of my catalogers came up to me the other day, book in hand.  Baker & Taylor has cataloged this book as 813.54 (literary stuff) but the book is clearly (Cleary-ly?) a travelogue.  Indeed, open it up and you get a whole mess of delightful Portland, Oregon haunts.  Where the HECK was this book when I was moving there, all those years ago?  I would have lapped it up.  As it stands, it’s really very delightful.  Those of you planning to move there, or have friends or kids moving there, grab this thing.  Like I say – Ramona invented the original Portlandia.


 

In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant, Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown by Amy Garygreatgreen

 Hold the phone. Now hand the phone to me.  Someone else besides Leonard Marcus has written a biography of Margaret Wise Brown?  Who is this Amy Gary type personage?  Sez the description: “In 1990, author Amy Gary discovered unpublished manuscripts, songs, personal letters, and diaries from Margaret tucked away in a trunk in the attic of Margaret’s sister’s barn. Since then, Gary has pored over these works and with this unique insight in to Margaret’s world she chronicles her rise in the literary world . . . Amy Gary has cataloged, edited, and researched all of Margaret’s writings for the last twenty-five years.”

Oh.  There you go then.

Okay.  One more.


 

Looking for Betty MacDonald: The Egg, the Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and I by Paula Becker-Brown

lookingbetty

For whatever reason I feel like this is slightly more accessible than the Lois Lenski book.  Probably because MacDonald had a career outside of children’s literature occasionally.  “Readers embraced her memoir of her years as a young bride operating a chicken ranch on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, and The Egg and I sold its first million copies in less than a year. The public was drawn to MacDonald’s vivacity, her offbeat humor, and her irreverent take on life. In 1947, the book was made into a movie starring Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert, and spawned a series of films featuring MacDonald’s Ma and Pa Kettle characters.” Piggle-Wiggle is what she’ll go down in history for, but it’s nice to see another side of her as well.  Could have put a little more work into that book jacket, though.  Seriously, University of Washington Press.  You weren’t even trying.

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11. Review of the Day: Presenting Buffalo Bill by Candace Fleming

presentingbuffaloPresenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West
By Candace Fleming
A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Book Press (a division of Macmillan)
$19.99
ISBN: 9781596437630
Ages 9-12
On shelves September 20th

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we present history to our kids. Specifically I was thinking about picture book biographies and whether or not they’re capable of offering a nuanced perspective on a person’s complicated life. Will we ever see an honest picture book biography of Nixon, for example? In talking with a nonfiction author for children the other day, she asked me about middle grade books (books written for 9-12 year olds) and whether or not they are ever capable of featuring complicated subjects. I responded that often they’re capable of showing all kinds of sides to a person. Consider Laura Amy Schlitz’s delightful The Hero Schliemann or Candace Fleming’s The Great and Only Barnum. Great books about so-so people. And Candace Fleming… now there’s an author clearly drawn to historical characters with slippery slidey morals. Her latest book, Presenting Buffalo Bill is a splendid example of precisely that. Not quite a shyster, but by no means possessing a soul as pure as unblemished snow, had you asked me, prior to my reading this book, whether or not it was even possible to write a biography for children about him my answer would have been an unqualified nope. Somehow, Ms. Fleming has managed it. As tangled and thorny a life as ever you read, Fleming deftly shows how perceptions of the American West that persist to this day can all be traced to Buffalo Bill Cody. For good or for ill.

What do you think of when you think of the iconic American West? Cowboys and sage? American Indians and buffalo? Whatever is popping up in your head right now, if it’s a stereotypical scene, you’ve Buffalo Bill Cody to thank for it. An ornery son of a reluctant abolitionist, Bill grew up in a large family in pre-Civil War Kansas. Thanks to his father’s early death, Bill was expected to make money at a pretty young age. Before he knew it, he was trying his luck panning gold, learning the finer points of cowboy basics, and accompanying wagon trains. He served in the Civil War, met the love of his life, and gave tours to rich Easterners looking for adventure. It was in this way that Bill unwittingly found himself the subject of a popular paperback series, and from that he was able to parlay his fame into a stage show. That was just a hop, skip, and a jump to creating his Wild West Show. But was Bill a hero or a shyster? Did he exploit his Indian workers or offer them economic opportunities otherwise unavailable to them? Was he a caring man or a philanderer? The answer: Yes. And along the way he may have influenced how the world saw the United States of America itself.

buffalobill2So let’s get back to that earlier question of whether or not you can feature a person with questionable ethics in a biography written for children. It really all just boils down to a question of what the point of children’s biographies is in the first place. Are they meant to inspire, or simply inform, or some kind of combination of both? In the case of unreliable Bill, the self-made man (I’m suddenly hearing Jerry Seinfeld’s voice saying to George Costanza, “You’re really made something of yourself”) Candace Fleming had to wade through loads of inaccurate data produced, in many cases, by Bill himself. To combat this problem, Ms. Fleming employs a regular interstitial segment in the book called “Panning for the Truth” in which she tries to pry some grain of truth out of the bombast. If a person loves making up the story of their own life, how do you ever know what the truth is? Yet in many ways, this is the crux of Bill’s story. He was a storyteller, and to prop himself up he had to, in a sense, prop up the country’s belief in its own mythology. As he was an embodiment of that mythology, he had a vested interest in hyping what he believed made the United States unique. Taking that same message to other countries in the world, he propagated a myth that many still believe in today. Therefore the story of Bill isn’t merely the story of one man, but of a way people think about our country. Bill was merely the vessel. The message has outlived him.

I’ve heard folks online say of the book that they can’t imagine the child who’d come in seeking a bio of Buffalo Bill. Since kids don’t like cowboys like they used to, the very existence of this book in the universe puzzles them. Well, putting aside the fact that enjoying a biography often has very little to do with the fact that you already were interested in the subject (or any nonfiction book, for that matter), let’s just pick apart precisely why a kid might get a lot out of reading about Bill. He was, as I have mentioned, a humbug. But he was also for more than that. He was a fascinating mix of good and evil. He took credit for terrible deeds but also participated in charitable acts (whether out of a sense of obligation or mere money is a question in and of itself). He no longer fits the mold of what we consider a hero to be. He also doesn’t fit the mold of a villain. So what does that leave us with? A very interesting human being and those, truth be told, make for the best biographies for kids.

buffalo_bill_wild_west_show_c1899The fact that Bill is a subject of less than sterling personal qualities is not what makes this book as difficult as it is to write (though it doesn’t help). The real problem with Bill comes right down to his relationships with American Indians. How do we in the 21st century come to terms with Bill’s very white, very 19th century attitudes towards Native Americans? Fleming tackles this head on. First and foremost, she begins the book with “A Note From the Author” where she explains why she would use one term or another to describe the Native Americans in this book, ending with the sentence, “Always my intention when referring to people outside my own cultural heritage is to be respectful and accurate.” Next, she does her research. Primary sources are key, but so is work at the McCracken Research Library at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming. Her work was then vetted by Dr. Jeffrey Means (Enrolled Member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe), Associate Professor of History at the University of Wyoming in the field of Native American History, amongst others. I was also very taken with the parts of the book that quote Oglala scholar Vine Deloria Jr., explaining at length why Native performers worked for Buffalo Bill and what it meant for their communities.

What surprised me the most about the book was that I walked into it with the pretty clear perception that Bill was a “bad man”. A guy who hires American Indians to continually lose or be exploited as part of some traveling show meant to make white Americans feel superior? Yeah. Not on board with that. But as ever, the truth is far more complicated than that. Fleming delves deep not just into the inherently racist underpinnings of Bill’s life, but also its contradictions. Bill hated Custer when he knew the guy and said publicly that the defeat of Custer was no massacre, yet would reenact it as part of his show, buffalobillwith Custer as the glorified dead hero. He would hire Native performers, pay them a living wage, and speak highly of them, yet at the same time he murdered a young Cheyenne named Yellow Hair and scalped him for his own glory. Fleming is at her best when she recounts the relationship of Bill and Sitting Bull. A photo of the two shows them standing together “as equals . . . but it is obvious that Bill is leading the way while Sitting Bull appears to be giving in. What was the subtext of the photo? That the ‘friendship’ offered in the photograph – and in Wild West performances – honored American Indian dignity only at the expense of surrender to white dominance and control.”

I’m writing this review in the year of 2016 – a year when Donald Trump is running for President of the United States of America. It’s given me a lot of food for thought about American humbuggery. Here in the States, we’ve created a kind of homegrown demagoguery that lauds the successful humbug. P.T. Barnum was a part of that. Huey Long had it down. And Buffalo Bill may have been a different version of these men, but I’d say he belongs to their club. There’s a thin line between “self-made man” and “making stuff up”. Thinner still when the man in question does as much good and as much evil as Buffalo Bill Cody. Fleming walks a tightrope here and I’d say it’s fair to say she doesn’t fall. The sheer difficulty of the subject matter and her aplomb at handling the topic puts her on a higher plane than your average middle grade biography. Will kids seek out Buffalo Bill’s story? I have no idea, but I can guarantee that for those they do they’ll encounter a life and a man that they will never forget.

On shelves September 20th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

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12. Video Sunday: Have a think in your head

I do not know where Monica Edinger found our first video today.  All I know is that she discovered a video that is absolutely the most interesting thing you’ll see all week.  It’s a young Maurice Sendak.  He’d recently won the Caldecott for Where the Wild Things Are.  I’ve never seen anything like this before.  And who knew you could kinda sorta flip Pierre?

Thanks to educating alice for the link.  If you have a Margaret Wise Brown  interview hidden away somewhere I’d be happy to take it off your hands.  Ditto a copy of Pinocchio illustrated by Mussino.  He makes a strong case.

Not long ago I mentioned that Dan Gutman’s book The Kid Who Ran for President was notably talked up on Last Week Tonight (John Oliver’s show).  Now I’ve heard that the book was reportedly the most read review on pw.com last week.  It would be a shame not to show the video in question.  Here it is then, in all its Gutmanesque glory:

This just in! “Carla D. Hayden will be sworn in as the 14th Librarian of Congress in a historic ceremony in the Thomas Jefferson Building Wednesday, Sept. 14 at noon. The ceremony will be broadcast live on the Library of Congress YouTube channel. The YouTube broadcast will be captioned.”  So it’s not up yet, but if you’ve time this Wednesday you might want to tune in and see it for yourself.  She is, after all, the first Librarian of Congress to have an actual library degree in over 50 years.

Here’s a fun one for the Dahl fans. In this hour-long video, David Walliams presents a celebration of Roald Dahl’s children’s books, from The BFG to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  It also happens to include contributions from Steven Spielberg and Julie Walters.

roalddahl

Thanks to Zoe Toft for the link.

Why did the PBS News Hour feature Christian Robinson recently?  I care not.  All that matters is that he’s great to listen to.

Thanks to Elisa Gall and Aunt Judy for the link.

And for the off-topic video of the day, I’m hat tipping Brian Biggs for passing this along.  I like a video that doesn’t pound you over the head with its message.  This sort of connects well to my recent interview with Mr. Biggs where we discussed gender roles in children’s books.  As they say in this video, have a think in your head.

Thanks to Brian for the video.

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1 Comments on Video Sunday: Have a think in your head, last added: 9/11/2016
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13. Press Release Fun: Mathical Book Prize Now Accepting Submissions for 2016

mathical-book-prize-logo-vertical-rgb-transparent-200px-wide-150dpiOh, my stars and garters.  You lucky authors out there that have written books with math in them in some way are in for a treat.  The Mathical Book Prize is now accepting submissions from all comers, be they picture books, middle grade, or YA.  What is this prize of which I speak?  In its own words:

The 2017 Mathical Book Prize seeks both new and previously published titles that connect literacy to encouraging children in grades PreK-12 to engage in mathematical thinking!

Mathical Winners and Honor Books come from all genres and publishers, and include fiction, nonfiction, poetry and picture books, introductions to big ideas in science and technology, biographies of people around the world who loved math, and more.

Mathical Books aren’t textbooks or workbooks, but stories that include a wide variety of topics that build math literacy, encourage exploration, and inspire kids to see math as a way to interact with the world around them. For a list of previous winners and honor books, visit www.mathicalbooks.org.

The Mathical Book Prize is organized by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) in Berkeley, California, in partnership with the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE) and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), two of America’s largest professional educator associations.

Deadline for submission: September 22, 2016

So get on this, people.  Math doesn’t get a lot of attention these days.  Let’s see what we can’t do to turn a little attention its way.

mathical-open-graph

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0 Comments on Press Release Fun: Mathical Book Prize Now Accepting Submissions for 2016 as of 9/9/2016 1:31:00 AM
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14. Fusenews: Born and raised in South Detroit . . .

This blog has spoiled me beyond all hope or recognition.  Over the years I’ve used it to find nannies, to get books re-published, and now it has solved a mystery that lay dormant for years.  Back in November of 2009 I decided I wanted to track down a book from my childhood.  Writing stumpers into the internet ether is usually rather pointless and the post Thanksgiving: The Ernestine Mystery was no exception.  So imagine my surprise when reader Desiree Preston wrote me the following note this week:

“Speaking of happy childhood memories, I was able to track down what is for sure the book I was looking for when I read you article at http://blogs.slj.com/afuse8production/2009/11/26/thanksgiving-the-ernestine-mystery/#comment-4765. I don’t know if it is really the one you were looking for, but I thought I’d let you know. It is called Good Old Ernie by Jerry Mallett. Shout out to my second grade teacher, Judy Gomoluch, who is still good friends with my fourth grade teacher Mary Kain, and saw and answered my Facebook post.”

Could this be true?  Jerry Mallett?  So I tracked down the cover and lo and behold  . . .

GoodOldErnie

That’s it, people.  I can’t believe it.  After seven years the mystery is solved.  Let that be a lesson to you, kids.  DON’T STOP BELIEVING! HOLD ONTO THAT FEEEEEEEELING . . . .


 

So what else is going on in the wild and wonderful world of children’s literature?  Well, since I’m already talking about Thanksgiving, it’s not much of a stretch to mention Christmas as well.  Now has anyone else noticed that there are a LOT of Nutcracker books out in 2016?  I honestly think I’ve seen five different picture book versions of the story, all from different publishers.  Now I’ve heard something that may interest my Chicago readers.  Brian Selznick has recently been working on some fun new projects, including a Chicago related ballet.  According to him . . .

“I’m writing the story for the new version of The Nutcracker (to be set during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair) at the Joffrey choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. It premieres this December! I think it’s going to be good…http://joffrey.org/nutcrackerbios.”

One glimpse at the folks behind it (Basil Twist! Christopher Wheeldon!) and I don’t merely “think” it’s going to be good.  I know it’s going to be good.  Sendak (the only other children’s book illustrator I know who had a hand in a reinterpretation of The Nutcracker) would be proud.  Hat tip to Brian for the tip.


 

Now let’s double back to NYC, since I’m sure there are folks in that neck of the woods that would like a little children’s literature-related fun.  Interested in a book festival that’ll get you out of the city?  Why not try The Warwick Children’s Book Festival?  As it was sold to me . . .

“Apple- and pumpkin-picking, farm markets, lovely shops, galleries and restaurants downtown…lots to enjoy for families looking for a fun afternoon on a holiday weekend.  And among other illustrious authors and illustrators such as Wendell Minor, Jane Yolen, Ame Dyckman, Brian Karas, Roxane Orgill, one of your Boston Globe/Horn Book 2016 award winners, will be there with Jazz Day!  And…the Festival is presented by Albert Wisner Public Library, winner of the Best Small Library in America 2016 award conferred by Library Journal!  We’re excited to invite everyone from the NY Metro Area to discover our festival, our library and our town.”

Go in my stead, gentle readers.  Go in my stead.


 

I’ll linger just a tad longer in the NYC area since to my infinite delight I found that the irascible, entirely delightful Brooklyn librarian Rita Meade has just been named a “Celebrity Librarian” and one of The Brooklyn 100.  Go, Rita, Go!


 

melodyprimaryNow I’ll hike back over to the Midwest again.  Maybe I’ll stop in Detroit on the way.  Why?  Because in a bit of absolutely fascinating news we’ve learned the the newest American Girl is Melody Ellison, a child of early ’60s Detroit.  Mental Floss also had this to say about the gal:

A six-member advisory board worked to craft her portrayal and included prominent members of the NAACP, history professors, and the President and CEO of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. Along with author Denise Lewis Patrick, they worked together to ensure Melody’s story was as true to life as possible—including her hair. The texture of the doll’s locks was changed multiple times to reflect the era.

“In the late ’60s, the majority of African-Americans did have straight hair,” Juanita Moore, President and CEO of the Wright Museum, said to the Detroit Free Press. “It may not have been bone straight, but it was straightened.”

Thanks to PW Children’s Bookshelf for the news.


 

No doubt you’ve heard it elsewhere by now, but the saddest information of the week was that Llama Llama’s mama, Anna Dewdney, died recently.  I don’t think my family owns any full runs of picture book series . . . with the exception of the Llama Llama books.  There’s a lovely obit for her in PW worth looking on.  She will be missed.


 

Turn now to happy news.  They’ve announced the speakers for the upcoming ALSC Mini Institute, which will occur before the ALA Midwinter Conference in January.  Behold the speakers for yourself, then sign up.


 

Me stuff.  The very kind Suzanne Slade interviewed me about my picture book Giant Dance Party at the blog Picture Book Builders.  Woohoo!  Still in print, baby!


 

Pop Goes the Page at Princeton is still up to their usual tricks.  Today they’re wowing us with their tribute to Alice in Wonderland.  Try not to keen too mournfully when you realize you missed a chance to hear Leonard Marcus talk about the book’s relationship to surrealism.


 

Daily Image:

Not much on the roster today, so why don’t I just send you off with a picture of me reading the latest John Patrick Green graphic novel Hippotomister to my kids?  They adore it, by the way.  So two thumbs up from 2-year-olds and 5-year-olds equally over here.

HIppotomister

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15. The Nuanced Picture Book Biography

Last week I was sick.  Sick as a dog sick.  Sick in that way where you feel the cool breezes coming through your window and have a fleeting glimpse of how lucky you are to be sick at the end of the summer rather than even a week earlier when your misery could have only have been compounded by hot winds and bright, horrible, happy sunlight.

In the midst of all this lovely blah-ness I was given the chance to speak with a German reporter about political picture book biographies.  Thanks to the fever I’ve only a mild inkling of what I said (we’ll all find out together, yay!) but I do remember a long discussion of American picture book biographies and nuance.  Look at the bios of Hillary out there for kids and you’re not going to find much within them beyond praise.  How true is that of other picture book biographies?  Are they capable of showing several sides of an individual or are they, by definition, only able to show the good sides of their subjects and never the bad?

I’ve been pondering this for the past week and I don’t know if I’m any closer to an answer.  A picture book biography by its very nature is supposed to tell a child more about a subject.  Moreover, that subject is supposed to be someone that child should learn and grow from as well as emulate in their own lives.  You will not find picture book biographies of Hitler or Ted Bundy because that flies in the face of a picture book bio’s purpose in life.  The only time you can come close is when you write a parody for adults like A Child’s First Book of Trump.

But is that actually true? I mean, if a kid is supposed to emulate a picture book biography’s subject and you don’t show their flaws and failures, doesn’t that automatically make the subject seem otherworldly and perfect?  Isn’t there value in displaying the problematic areas and showing how someone surmounted them?

I set out to locate a couple picture book biographies of people who led complicated lives.  How did their picture book biographers choose to handle their less than stellar personal qualities?  When drawing up the list, I was surprised to find that the most examples involve drugs.  I made a conscious effort to include some of those, but to come up with other personal failings as well.


 

Jimi Hendrix

 Jimi

Personal Difficulty: Died of drug overdose

Does the Book Address This?  Sure, but not in the text for kids.  Since the text pretty much just shows him as a kid, that was a given.  Now one way these books get around the problem of a problematic life is simply to put all the less-than-stellar stuff in the backmatter.  If a book does that, can you honestly say that it’s discussing a subject’s complicated life head-on?  By the same token, it’s obviously there and has the additional advantage of being readily available to a teacher or parent IF and only IF they want to share it.  In this case, mentioning Jimi’s death wouldn’t have made sense in the main body of the text.


 

Coco Chanel

CocoChanel

DifferentCoco

CocoLittle

Personal Difficulty: Got cozy with a Nazi

Do These Books Address This?  Ah, nope. But I’ve a theory on this one anyway.  Seems to me that when a person’s personal life involved drug abuse, or even physical violence, that’s something a picture book biography can work with.  Sex, in any form, is far more difficult.  Read on and you’ll see what I mean a little later.


 

John Coltrane

SpiritSeeker1

Personal Difficulty: Drug addiction

Does the Book Address This?  Yes.  In fact, this turned out to be one of the very few picture book biographies I could find where the text written for kids discussed the fact that the subject of the book had personal failings.  As I wrote in my review, “You see the days when his deep sadness caused him to start drinking early on. You see his experiments with drugs and the idea some musicians harbored that it would make them better.”  There’s even an in-depth “Author’s Note: Musicians and Drug Use” section at the end.  Now the author of this book, Gary Golio, also wrote the aforementioned Jimi Hendrix biography so he’s no stranger to writing about complicated men.  If you seek complexity in a picture book biography, this is where you start.


 

Johnny Cash

 HelloJohnny

Personal Difficulty: Several, but let’s just stick with the fact that he left his wife for Rosanne.

Does the Book Address This?  Not really.  It definitely mentions Rosanne and how much Johnny admired her, but the storyline stops strategically before they get togehter.  If you want to get into the sticky subject of infidelity the text of the book won’t help you out.  But could it even?  Could any picture book biography tackle infidelity in any manner without the topic tipping everything in the text in only that direction?  Can we state for the record, then, that infidelity cannot ever be discussed in a picture book biography?


 

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Radiant Child

Personal Difficulty: Family mental issues and drug addiction

Does the Book Address This?  Yep.  The problems with his mother are discussed at length in the text.  The drug problems come up in the backmatter.  This is a pretty good example of a book that has found the right balance in the public and personal, and has found a way to make an honest picture book biography that touches on the big issues and how they formed the man as an artist without letting them take over the book itself.


 

Robert Miller a.k.a. Tricky Vic

TrickyVicPersonal Difficulty: Um . . . his whole entire life?  Remember when I said you couldn’t write a bio of a villain?  Well, Tricky Vic was more of an anti-hero, but that’s splitting hairs.  This may well be the only picture book bio I’ve seen of a true shyster.  He was a con man, and he didn’t exactly repent.  Or learn.  Or grow.

Does the Book Address This?  The book doesn’t address anything BUT this!  How did Pizzoli do it?  There wasn’t even an outcry against this book when it came out.  People were on board with it.  I wonder if they saw it more as a history than a bio.  I wonder too if the fact that Vic isn’t that well known contributed to the lack of protestation.  If you wrote a biography of a famous sadist, people would assume the book was, by definition, in favor of that person.  But if the person is low-level and not particularly well known it flies right under the radar.  Much to chew on here.


Conclusion: Let’s say someone wanted to write a serious picture book biography of Donald Trump tomorrow and have it published by a major publisher.  Let us also say that this person was not personally associated with Mr. Trump and wanted to present him as honestly as possible to a child readership.  Finally, let’s say that this person wanted this to be a “good” book.  Could it be done?

I don’t know the answer to this question.  I told the reporter that American picture book biographies were capable of nuance, and I’ll stand by that.  But they are also, by their very design, meant to inspire as well as inform.  If you take away that initial intent, do you do harm to the form itself?

Deep thoughts for a Tuesday, folks.  Be interested in your opinions.

 

 

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16. Review of the Day: Makoons by Louise Edrich

MakoonsMakoons
By Louise Erdrich
Harper Collins
$16.99
ISBN: 9780060577933
Ages 7-12
On shelves now

They say these days you can’t sell a novel for kids anymore without the book having some kind of “sequel potential”. That’s not really true, but there are a heck of a lot of series titles out there for the 7 to 12-year-old set, that’s for sure. New series books for children are by their very definition sort of odd for kids, though. If you’re an adult and you discover a new series, waiting a year or two for the next book to come out is a drop in the bucket. Years fly by for grown-ups. The wait may be mildly painful but it’s not going to crush you. But series for kids? That’s another matter entirely. Two years go by and the child has suddenly become an entirely different person. They may have switched their loyalties from realistic historical fiction to fantasy or science fiction or (heaven help us) romance even! It almost makes more sense just to hand them series that have already completed their runs, so that they can speed through them without breaking the spell. Almost makes more sense . . . but not quite. Not so long as there are series like “The Birchbark House Series” by Louise Erdrich. It is quite possibly the only historical fiction series currently underway for kids that has lasted as long as seventeen years and showing no sign of slowing down until it reaches its conclusion four books from now, Erdrich proves time and time again that she’s capable of ensnaring new readers and engaging older ones without relying on magic, mysteries, or post-apocalyptic mayhem. And if she manages to grind under her heel a couple stereotypes about what a book about American Indians in the past is “supposed” to be (boring/serious/depressing) so much the better.

Chickadee is back, and not a second too soon. Had he been returned to his twin brother from his kidnapping any later, it’s possible that Makoons would have died of the fever that has taken hold of his body. As it is, Chickadee nurses his brother back to health, but not before Makoons acquires terrifying visions of what is to come. Still, there’s no time to dwell on that. The buffalo are on the move and his family and tribe are dedicated to sustaining themselves for the winter ahead. There are surprises along the way as well. A boasting braggart by the name of Gichi Noodin has joined the hunt, and his posturing and preening are as amusing to watch as his mistakes are vast. The tough as nails Two Strike has acquired a baby lamb and for reasons of her own is intent on raising it. And the twin brothers adopt a baby buffalo of their own, though they must protect it against continual harm. All the while the world is changing for Makoons and his family. Soon the buffalo will leave, more settlers will displace them, and three members of the family will leave, never to return. Fortunately, family sustains, and while the future may be bleak, the present has a lot of laughter and satisfaction waiting at the end of the day.

While I have read every single book in this series since it began (and I don’t tend to follow any other series out there, except possibly Lockwood & Co.) I don’t reread previous books when a new one comes out. I don’t have to. Neither, I would argue, would your kids. Each entry in this series stands on its own two feet. Erdrich doesn’t spend inordinate amounts of time catching the reader up, but you still understand what’s going on. And you just love these characters. The books are about family, but with Makoons I really felt the storyline was more about making your own family than the family you’re born into. At the beginning of this book Makoons offers the dire prediction that he and his brother will be able to save their family members, but not all of them. Yet by the story’s end, no matter what’s happened, the family has technically only decreased by two people, because of the addition of another.

Erdrich has never been afraid of filling her books with a goodly smattering of death, dismemberment, and blood. I say that, but these do not feel like bloody books in the least. They have a gentleness about them that is remarkable. Because we are dealing with a tribe of American Indians (Ojibwe, specifically) in 1866, you expect this book to be like all the other ones out there. Is there a way to tell this story without lingering on the harm caused by the American government to Makoons, his brother, and his people? Makoons and his family always seem to be outrunning the worst of the American government’s forces, but they can’t run forever. Still, I think it’s important that the books concentrate far more on their daily lives and loves and sorrows, only mentioning the bloodthirsty white settlers on occasion and when appropriate. It’s almost as if the reader is being treated in the same way as Makoons and his brother. We’re getting some of the picture but we’re being spared its full bloody horror. That is not to say that this is a whitewashed narrative. It isn’t at all. But it’s nice that every book about American Indians of the past isn’t exactly the same. They’re allowed to be silly and to have jokes and fun moments too.

That humor begs a question of course. Question: When is it okay to laugh at a character in a middle grade novel these days? It’s not a simple question. With a high concentration on books that promote kindness rather than bullying, laughing at any character, even a bad guy, is a tricky proposition. And that goes double if the person you’re laughing at is technically on your side. Thank goodness for self-delusion. As long as a character refuses to be honest with him or herself, the reader is invited to ridicule them alongside the other characters. It may not be nice, but in the world of children’s literature it’s allowed. So meet Gichi Noodin, a pompous jackass of a man. This is the kind of guy who could give Narcissus lessons in self-esteem. He’s utterly in love with his own good looks, skills, you name it. For this reason he’s the Falstaff of the book (without the melancholy). He serves a very specific purpose in the book as the reader watches his rise, his fall, and his redemption. It’s not very often that the butt of a book’s jokes is given a chance to redeem himself, but Gichi Noodin does precisely that. That storyline is a small part of the book, smaller even than the tale of Two Strike’s lamb, but I loved the larger repercussions. Even the butt of the joke can save the day, given the chance.

Makoons2As with all her other books Erdrich does a E.L. Konigsburg and illustrates her own books (and she can even do horses – HORSES!). Her style is, as ever, reminiscent of Garth Williams’ with soft graphite pencil renderings of characters and scenes. These are spotted throughout the chapters regularly, and combined with the simplicity of the writing they make the book completely appropriate bedtime reading for younger ages. The map at the beginning is particularly keen since it not only highlights the locations in each part of the story but also hints at future storylines to come. Of these pictures the sole flaw is the book jacket. You see the cover of this book is a touch on the misleading side since at no point in this story does Makoons ever attempt to feed any baby bears (a terrible idea, namesake or no). Best to warn literal minded kids from the start that that scene is not happening.  Then again, this appears to be a scene from the first book in the series, The Birchbark House, where Makoons’ mother Omakayas feeds baby bears as a girl.  Not sure why they chose to put it on the cover this book but it at least explains where it came from.

It is interesting that the name of this book is Makoons since Chickadee shares as much of the spotlight, if not a little more so, than his sickly brother. That said, it is Makoons who has the vision of the future, Makoons who offers the haunting prediction at the story’s start, and Makoons who stares darkly into an unknown void at the end, alone in the misery he knows is certain to come. Makoons is the Cassandra of this story, his predictions never believed until they are too late. And yet, this isn’t a sad or depressing book. The hope that emanates off the pages survives the buffalos’ sad departure, the sickness that takes two beloved characters, and the knowledge that the only thing this family can count on in the future is change. But they have each other and they are bound together tightly. Even Pinch, that trickster of previous books, is acquiring an odd wisdom and knowledge of his own that may serve the family well into the future. Folks often recommend these books as progressive alternatives to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, but that’s doing them a disservice. Each one of these titles stands entirely on its own, in a world of its own making. This isn’t some sad copy of Wilder’s style but a wholly original series of its own making. The kid who starts down the road with this family is going to want to go with them until the end. Even if it takes another seventeen years. Even if they end up reading the last few books to their own children. Whatever it takes, we’re all in this together, readers, characters, and author. Godspeed, Louise Erdrich.

For ages 7-12

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Professional Reviews:

Other Blog Reviews: BookPage

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17. Cover Reveal: Catstronauts

Folks, let me level with you.  I only love two things in this world.  Cats.  And astronauts.

Okay, that’s a lie.  I love a whole lot more than just those two things.  But let’s say I was stranded on a desert island somewhere and I was told that I could have a book about only two of my favorite things in the world combined.  Would I want a book on The Brave Little Toaster + Gene Wilder?  Would I want a book on kookaburras + chocolate cake?  Would I want a book on the dictamnus plant (YouTube it sometime) + the city of Amherst?  Yes to all of these, obviously, but the coolest combination of all time, the one that would make a kind of strange illogical logical sense, would be (you guessed it) . . . .

Cats + Astronauts

Behold.  The odd girl gets her wish.

CatstronautsMission

CatstronautsMars

Yep.  A brand new graphic novel series from brand new author/illustrator Drew Brockington.

I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking, “This looks good. The only thing that could make it better was if there was a cat named ‘Waffles’ involved in some way.”  Well, are you in luck.  Check out this description of Book #1:

CatStronauts: Mission Moon
When the world is thrust into darkness due to a global energy shortage, the Worlds Best Scientist comes up with a bold plan to set up a solar power plant on the moon. But someone has to go up there to set it up, and that adventure falls to the CatStronauts, the best space cats on the planet! Meet the fearless commander Major Meowser, brave-but-hungry pilot Waffles, genius technician and inventor Blanket, and quick thinking science officer Pom Pom on their most important mission yet!

And it gets better.  Because in Book #2 . . . well, read it for yourself . . .

CatStronauts: Race to Mars
Fresh off of their heroic mission to save the world, the CatStronauts–Major Meowser, Pom Pom, Blanket and Waffles–are taking a well deserved victory lap. Parades and fancy awards dinners are the new norm! But around the world, other cat space programs are watching–in particular the CosmoCats, the first cats to go to space! With national pride and scientific research on the line, the world rushes to be the first cats to Mars, and the CatStronauts are starting months behind! Can they catch up and prove their first space-changing mission was no fluke?

Did you catch that?  Rival CosmoCats who technically got to space first?  Heaven, I’m in heaven . . .

But wait . . . there’s more.  An interior spread (you can click on it to make it bigger):

Catronauts1

Hat tips and thanks to the good folks at Little, Brown & Co. for allowing me this appropriately kooky reveal.

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18. RIP Gene Wilder: Children’s Literature’s Avatar

Consider, if you will, the life of Gene Wilder.  Since his death, many people have been doing precisely that.  It makes me happy, but since I’ve harbored a not-so-secret crush on the man for decades (a quick search of this blog will back that up) I felt it necessary to point out that for all that he was a great actor, he was also, and often, key in bringing to life various famous children’s literary characters.

The most obvious of these was, of course, Willy Wonka.  Without Wilder’s mad genius, the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory could never have been the wonder that it was.  A brief hat tip to Gene there:

Mr. Wilder also portrayed The Fox in the live adaptation of The Little Prince.  Though not as odd as Bob Fosse’s Snake, it’s still a mighty peculiar role.

Some would then forget but Mr. Wilder also portrayed the Mock Turtle in a made-for-TV adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

In his honor, then, allow me to post all the funny links related to Mr. Wilder and his roles as I can come up with.


 

First up, long before wrote the picture book Let Me Finish, Minh Lê created this stellar little post about a reality show called The Sweet Life.


 

I loved it when he was portrayed as one of the many American actors in this faux montage Celebrating 50 Years of American Doctor Who.

Admit it.  He would have been glorious.


 

Next up, one of my favorite How It Should Have Ended videos:


 

This other little gem came up not too long ago:


 

And in parting . . .

YellowBrick

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19. Review of the Day: Kid Beowulf by Alexis Fajardo

KidBeowulfKid Beowulf: The Blood-Bound Oath
By Alexis E. Fajardo
Color by Jose Mari Flores
Prologue Color by Brian Kolm
Amp Comics for Kids (an imprint of Andrews McMeel Publishing)
$10.99
ISBN: 978-1-4494-7589-5
Ages 9-12
On shelves now.

This is a true story. I started college in 1996. Earlham College. Richmond, Indiana. Nice place. Little Quaker school (“Fight! Fight! Inner light! Kill, Quakers, Kill,” ← our sports chant). Little colleges have little cute traditions. Mine was keen on complicated pranks. One day I go down to the cafeteria for a bowl of Cheerios and lo and behold there, on the ceiling, is this epic mural of two cartoon characters touching fingers ala Michelangelo’s Adam and God in The Sistine Chapel. The characters in question were from a weekly comic in the school newspaper penned by one Alexis Fajardo. From that time onward I would Alexis Fajardo. And I followed his career. He kept up the comic strip (called “Plato’s Republic”) for a while and then started in on this Kid Beowulf graphic novel series. I didn’t get any chance to read them but they had a fun premise and the art really popped. Now, after all these many years, Amp Comics has picked up the series and given it a proper running start. In the grand tradition of Bone, Amulet, and countless other epic quest graphic novels, Fajardo gives us heroes to root for, villains to loathe, and complex characterizations around every turn. He’s come a long way from painting ceilings.

We start with the original epic poem of Beowulf. The original tale of man vs. monster is recounted but, the book assures us, “as men have told it – as I said, they twist the truth. Too blind to know the proper tale of a king’s run-rampant youth . . .” Now we are in the land of the Danes where a headstrong prince threatens a tenuous peace. Hrothgar cannot stand those Heathobards that he feels infringe on his homelands. When he encounters a dragon of great power he makes a deadly pact. Upon his return he begins a reign of destruction and ignorance, eventually fathering his own monstrous daughter. Named Gertrude, she is raised by the same dragon with whom Hrothgar made a pact. All this so that, in time, she will give birth to her own twins. One looks like her and is named Grendel. The other, a fully human boy, named Beowulf. And when they lose and find one another again, that’s when the story truly begins.

KidBeowulf3One thing I didn’t really expect when I picked the book up was to encounter Fajardo’s inclination to tell his tale in his own time. By all rights, all this book is really doing from the start is setting the stage for future tales to come. Yet though it’s named “Kid Beowulf”, the titular hero and his twin brother don’t even make an appearance until page 120, and even then they’re just babies. The reader’s patience is rewarded if that reader chooses to stick with the storyline, but it means that the best kids for this book won’t be the ones who like simplified narratives of action and adventure on every other panel. No, these books are going to be for those kids who like to sink deep into a world, dwell there for a time, scope out the situations, and understand the motivations. If you’ve a new graphic novel reader on your hands, I wouldn’t start them off with Kid Beowulf. This book is better suited for those kids out there with a little comic-reading experience under their belts.

In a lot of ways, the book series reminds me of the old Asterix and Obelix comics. It’s not an entirely fair comparison since the tone of the two comics is completely different. Yet both spend an inordinate amount of time in an ancient world. Fajardo himself acknowledges this with the creation of two characters that intentionally have many of Asterix & Obelix’s personality quirks. Still and all, the book was far more complicated than I expected. Kids love that stuff, by the way. They love it when an author has the guts to tell a story without feeling obligated to explain everything constantly. And Fajardo doesn’t water down the complexity. You’re either on board with the storytelling from the start or you’re not. The politics of the region is what the plot hinges on continually, so you need to read this with an open mind towards the Geats, Danes, Heathobards, and others. People also come and go, betray one another, and reappear after years and years. To keep track of it all there is a Character Glossary but unfortunately it’s located in the back of the book where it might easily go missed for some time. If you’re handing this book to a kid, I recommend that you point that little element out to them first thing. They’ll thank you for it later.

After sitting down and thinking long and hard about it, I came to the shocking realization that Fajardo likes three-dimensional characters. That shouldn’t be all that shocking, actually. Lots of authors do. But consider the format here. We’re dealing with an epic quest graphic novel series. I mentioned Bone and Amulet earlier and if there’s one thing those stories have in common it’s bad guys that sulk about without so much as a sympathetic hair on their heads. Kid Beowulf is different. There are plenty of guys (and gals, sorta) working for their own selfish interests, but that also are capable of learning and growing. Hrothgar is probably the most flawed fella in the book, but even he does a slow 180-degree turnaround over the decades. And sympathetic characters like Gertrude also have their greedy moments for which they’ll have to pay the price later. It’s so interesting that you could even get this kind of shading in a book based, as it is, on a good vs. bad epic poem like Beowulf. That’s the irony at work.

KidBeowulf2Considering the time period, the role of women in this book is worthy of examination. Fajardo has sort of a single style when it comes to human women (human girls don’t seem to exist) which is a heavy-lidded femme fatale look, regardless of their positions or names. The one exception to this rule is, of course, Gertrude, and in her monster form she gets to have all the freedom of any of the boys around her. She fights. She gets more than just a couple pages here and there. The book doesn’t even come close to passing the Bechdel Test, and Gertrude’s methods of finding a mate are disappointingly stereotypical, but for the most part she’s a strong female character worthy of examination. There is, however, room for improvement and I sincerely hope future installments will contain at least one other woman who does more than think only of the men in her life.

Sit down for five minutes in any public school in America today and don’t be surprised if you hear the words “Common Core State Standards” waft by at some point. These standards aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and with their focus on nonfiction and folktales, it just makes good clean sense for any author of a fictional work to find some kind of curricular tie-in. Fajardo does just that. In fact, he goes a little bit crazy with it. I could understand the World Map at the start and the finish as well as in color in the backmatter. And the second map, the one of Daneland circa 450 A.D., that was a nice touch. But about the time I noticed the glossary of terms, character glossary, and family tree, to say nothing of the section about the original epic poem itself, Fun Fact section, and Bibliography of recommended sources (which, for the record, is a beautiful collection) I was floored. Add in a large section on how Fajardo draws his characters, inks and colors them, and more and . . . well, you’d be forgiven for feeling that this more akin to a full college course on Beowulf and graphic novels than a single collected comic.

KidBeowulf1I haven’t mentioned the art itself, of course, which is poor form when reviewing a graphic novel. Fajardo employs two different styles in this book. The first part, during the retelling of the original Beowulf epic poem, is done in a more realistic, cinematic style. Even the colorist is different from the colorist in the rest of the book. Then the book becomes far cartoonier. Tiny too, considering how many panels Fajardo is able to pack into a single page. For some, the seriousness of the content (the fate of Yrs, for example) doesn’t match the style. For others, it will seem a natural complement. For my part I did find the cartoonishness a surprise, considering the actions of the characters, but as the story continued I got used to it. Kids, I suspect, will feel the same way.

There is a school of thought that says that if you let a kid read whatever they want, they’ll work their way around to the classics in time. I read a ton of really truly terrible Harvey comics as a kid. Later I would delve into works like Les Miserables and Middlemarch for fun. Is there a connection? Nobody knows! A lot of parents fear that their kids will gorge themselves on comics, making them wholly and entirely unable to digest literature without pictures. To them, I hand Kid Beowulf. I truly do believe that a comic done correctly, done with panache and interest and a unique style of its own, will garner fans that will seek out other material on the same topic. Not every kid who reads Fajardo’s book is going to take a crack at a little Old English on their own. They may, however, dive into some of those books Mr. Fajardo so helpfully included in his Bibliography. Or they might learn a bit about the poem’s origins. Or they might want to make their own comics about ancient texts. Whatever the case, you can look at this book either as a springboard for bigger better things, or just a good rip-roaring tale that can stand on its own two feet. Whatever your justification, Fajardo has the goods. That painting he made on the ceiling years ago seemed impossible. This series? Attainable. Now go attain it.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus

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20. Monster Mash: Aaron Zenz Goes On Tour

Blog tours.  Generally speaking I don’t really do them.  Nothing against them personally, they just don’t always speak to the tenor and distinctive tone of individual blogs.  It takes a particularly keen one to get me out of my hidey-hole so that I’ll participate.  It takes, in short, Aaron Zenz.

But first . . . BACKSTORY!!!!

It was at least 10 years ago.  I was a young struggling blogger (“struggling” in this case meaning doing just fine with a nice steady job).  A fellow by the name of Aaron Zenz contacted me not long after I’d started and asked if I’d take a gander at his book, The Hiccupotamus.  It was coming out with a very small publisher, but there was something to it.  It was nice looking. Nicer than the average fare, so I took a gamble and said I’d give it a gander.  Not only was it nice, but it held together beautifully.   It also seems to be one of the longest lived books I’ve ever encountered, traveling as it has from Dogs in Hats Children’s Publishing to Marshall Cavendish to Two Lions.  If you look on Amazon you’ll see my May 16, 2006 review of the book there.

And I remembered that Zenz guy.  How could I not?  First off, his name was “Zenz”.  That’s just cool.  Second, he had this crazy cool blog he did with his kids called Bookie Woogie (not to be confused with the also amazing but different kid art site Chicken Nugget Lemon Tooty).  For years I’d recommend it as what may be the most successful kids book review site written in large part by kids.  He’d also come up with these crazy amazing blog posts .  And in the interest of complete and utter honesty, they even reviewed Giant Dance Party and made fan art.  Like so:

IsaacGiant

But wait.  That’s not all.  Because on top of his art, his blog with his kids, and his kids’ kinda of freakishly good art (seriously, they should Pinterest this stuff) they also are responsible for a slew of some of the best 90-Second Newbery videos you’ve ever seen in your life.  I think if you keep watching this, the first four are by the Zenzes (Zenzi?).

None of this even touches on all the other stuff Aaron’s done over the years.  Nor, you will note, have I even gotten to his books.  As you can see, I save the best for last.

Starting with Hiccupotamus, I just kept on enjoying Aaron’s books for years.  From his art for Five Little Puppies Jumping on the Bed to Chuckling Ducklings to Hug a Bull, the man makes good literature for the small fry.  And now, the best one of all.

MonstersGoNightNow as I mentioned before, I don’t tend to do blog tours, and part of the reason why is because more than half the time I’m completely impartial (or worse) to the book that author is promoting.  Monsters Go Night-Night is different.  In one book you get the following:

  • A good bedtime book.
  • A story that is great for a range of ages (my 2-year-old and my 5-year-old get different things out of the book but both think it’s hilarious)
  • Writing that is actually funny for adults too (it may have one of the greatest potty gags I’ve seen in a long time)
  • Art that pops
  • The ability to be read to a large group (hard for any book to do, let alone well)

The whole premise is based on setting up expectations and then knocking them to the floor in a way that’s completely appropriate for very young ages.  Example:

MonstersNight

MonstersNight1

Perfect for pajama storytimes everywhere.

But where did Aaron get the idea for this book?  Well, if you’re still up for some video viewing today, this completely adorable video (could someone PLEASE publish a book of Aaron’s literary monsters since I want to see his Gurgi?) explains all:

So here’s where it gets crazy good.  Did you see how Aaron turned his son’s art into monsters?  Well, he’s been doing the same for other people as well.  Aaron asked if my daughter (who is the five-year-old I mentioned earlier) would like to make a monster.  He, in turn, would turn it into a piece of art.  And the results?  Behold:

LilyMonster1

This was my daughter’s . . . .

LilyMonster2

. . . and this was Aaron’s.

Side by side . . .

LilyMonster1LilyMonster2

Absolutely love that.

Long story short, this book good.  Get book.  Read book.

Still don’t believe me?  Then check out everyone else on this blog tour.  Lotta heavy hitters there.  Maybe if you don’t believe me you’ll believe them:

Mon Aug 15  :  Watch. Connect. Read.
Tues Aug 16  :  100 Scope Notes
Wed Aug 17  :  Nerdy Book Club
Thu Aug 18  :  Sharpread
Fri Aug 19  :  All the Wonders
Sat Aug 20  :  Playing by the Book
Sun Aug 21  :  Writing for Kids (While Raising Them)
Mon Aug 22  :  A Fuse #8 Production

And if you’d like to see the children’s art his did for these other bloggers’ kids collected for you in one place, just go to the Blog Tour Hub right here.

Thanks to Aaron for looping me into this tour.

 

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21. When Celebrity Picture Books Go Kuh-kuh-kuh-KRAZY!

Celebrity picture books.  The gift that just keeps on giving.

Now in the past I’ve had my say about CPB ah-plenty.  Heck, there was an entire chapter devoted to them in Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature. Today, we’ll switch tactics and tackle a topic that no one ever discusses.

Weeeeeeeeeeird celebrity picture books.

Specifically, the ones based on pop songs.

Here is how I imagine how the process usually goes.

Big publisher with lots of money sits down with the people of big famous celebrity singer.  Big publishers offers to get a top notch illustrator (who really needs the cash) to illustrate it.  Celebrity singer is keen on the idea, a deal is struck, and the book is made.  This happens time and again and usually the results are very normal.

But then . . . once in a very great while . . . the impossible happens.  The artist is allowed to be  . . . artistic.

What do I mean like that?  Okay.  Let’s start with the pop novelty song turned picture book.  And in keeping with the sheer number of foxes in picture books these days (Travis! You need to add the new version of The Dead Bird by Zolotow & Robinson to your list!) I am showing you this:

WhatFoxSay

Remember that little post-Gangnam Style hit on the interwebs?  Currently cresting at 616 million views on YouTube (nope, I’m not kidding) someone at Simon & Schuster decided it could be worth it to give the lyrics book form.  After all, it sounds like a children’s song in a lot of ways (right down to the elephant going “toot”).  And usually when a YouTube sensation gets turned into a picture book you get something like a Golden Book Grumpy Cat or a Tiny Hamster or a talking shell, and that’s fine.

Then there’s this:

FoxSay1

FoxSay2

FoxSay3I had to wonder how this happened.  Did Ylvis insist on having his own illustrator?  How did they get Norwegian artist Svein Nyhus in the first place?  How could something this . . this . . this cool be based on a YouTube video?  It was Debbie Ohi’s blog post My WHAT DOES THE FOX SAY? obsession, solving a mystery AND the new picture book from Simon & Schuster BFYR that answered all my questions.  Turns out, Art Director Laurent Linn may have had a hand in the works.  Makes sense.  The man has fine taste.

And if you’re saying to yourself, “Fine and all, but clearly this is an aberration” you’d be half right.  Certainly it would take an act of God for another Svein Nyhus picture book to appear on our shores (our Norwegian picture book illustrators available here in the States are a bit, uh, lacking, shall we say).  But odd adaptations of songs into picture book formats don’t stop there.  Consider this:

LittleBlackSpot

Yep.  That’s a Sting song.  Now note the name of the illustrator: Sven Völker.  We’re with a German this time around.  Of course, the interiors might have given that away . . .

LittleBlackSpot1

LittleBlackSpot2

LittleBlackSpot3

I’m sorry but I kind of love this.  Obviously the song isn’t really meant to be for kids, but at least they didn’t cutesy it up.  It would have been easy to go the Shel Silverstein route and follow the adventures of a chipper little spot as he traverses the world.  Instead we get . . . actually, I’m not sure what we get.  Something weird, that’s for sure.

These first two books I’ve mentioned work because the publishers decided to get European artists to do the interiors.  So how often do you find a song adaptation that’s a bit on the peculiar side and that’s illustrated by an American?  Hardly ever.  Of course there are some exceptions:

IfDogsRun

Dylan gets adapted into picture books on a frequent basis.  And he usually gets some perfectly good artists like Paul Rogers or David Walker or Jim Arnosky (that one was a surprise).  One time he got Jon J. Muth and I got really excited.  But the art was pretty standard stuff.  There was a paper airplane motif.  Ho hum.

But Scott Campbell?  He’s different.  This guy has a whole life dedicated to his adult cartoons, which are delightful.  Ever see this book?

GreatShowdowns

If not, I think I’m helping you out with your holiday gift giving already.  That book is a hoot.

In the case of the Dylan book, Campbell appears at first glance to be doing everything straight.  Dogs are running free.  That’s really all there is to it.  But there’s this undercurrent that’s hard to ignore.  See if you feel it too:

IfDogsRun1

IfDogsRun2

It just doesn’t feel like other celebrity song books.  There’s a wildness reigned in here.  The song isn’t one of Dylan’s better ones, so there’s that as well, but at least the pictures are interesting to look at.  The downside is that I haven’t seen Mr. Campbell do any picture books since this and Hug Machine.  Boo-urns, sez I.  More Campbell, please.

I welcome any other suggestions of odd song-adaptation picture books, though I know they’re not easy to come up with.  A goodly chunk of them are dull as dishwater.  Very straightforward.  Artists doing something rote for a nice sized check.  But if you do hear of a case where the artist was allowed to be, y’know, artistic, you just let me know.  This is the kind of stuff I really dig.  And if you can’t think of anything then just sit back and enjoy this fake picture book adaptation of David Bowie’s Major Tom.

SpaceOddity

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11 Comments on When Celebrity Picture Books Go Kuh-kuh-kuh-KRAZY!, last added: 8/31/2016
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22. Review of the Day: Who Broke the Teapot?! by Bill Slavin

WhoBrokeTeapotWho Broke the Teapot?!
By Bill Slavin
Tundra Books
$16.99
ISBN: 978-1-77049-833-4
Ages 3-5
On shelves now

In the average life of a child, whodunits are the stuff of life itself. Who took the last cookie? Who used up all the milk and then didn’t put it on the shopping list? Who removed ALL the rolls of toilet paper that I SPECIFICALLY remember buying at the store on Sunday and now seem to have vanished into some toilet paper eating inter-dimension? The larger the family, the great the number of suspects. But picture books that could be called whodunits run a risk of actually going out and teaching something. A lesson about honesty or owning up to your own mistakes. Blech. I’ll have none of it. Hand me that copy of Bill Slavin’s Who Broke the Teapot?! instead, please. Instead of morals and sanctity I’ll take madcap romps, flashbacks, and the occasional livid cat. Loads of fun to read aloud, surprisingly beautiful to the eye, and with a twist that no one will see coming, Who Broke the Teapot?! has it all, baby. Intact teapot not included.

The scene of the crime: The kitchen. The family? Oblivious. As the mother enters the room it’s just your average morning. There’s a baby in a high chair, a brother attached to a ceiling fan by his suspenders, a dad still in his underwear reading the paper, a daughter eating pastries, a dog aiding her in this endeavor, and a cat so tangled up in wool that it’s a wonder you can still make out its paws. And yet in the doorway, far from the madding crowd, sits a lone, broken, teapot. Everyone proclaims innocence. Everyone seems trustworthy in that respect. Indeed, the only person to claim responsibility is the baby (to whom the mother tosses a dismissive, “I doubt it”). Now take a trip back in time just five minutes and all is revealed. The true culprit? You’ll have to read the book yourself. You final parting shot is the mother accepting a teapot stuck together with scotch tape and love from her affectionate offspring.

WhoBroke2Generally when I write a picture book review I have a pretty standard format that I adhere to. I start with an opening paragraph (done), move on to a description of the plot in the next paragraph (so far, so good), and in the third paragraph I talk about some aspect of the writing. It could be the overall theme or the writing or the plotting. After that I talk about the art. This pattern is almost never mucked with . . . until today!! Because ladies and gents, you have just GOT to take a gander at what Mr. Slavin’s doing here with his acrylics. Glancing at the art isn’t going to do it. You have to pick this book up and really inspect the art. For the bulk of it the human characters are your usual cartoony folks. Very smooth paints. But even the most cursory glance at the backgrounds yields rewards. The walls are textured with thick, luscious paints adhering to different patterns. There’s even a touch of mixed media to the old affair, what with cat’s yarn being real thread and all (note too how Slavin seamlessly makes it look as if the yarn is wrapped around the legs of the high chair). Then the typography starts to get involved. The second time the mom says “Who broke the teapot?!” the words look like the disparate letters of a rushed ransom note. As emotions heat up (really just the emotions of the mom, to be honest) the thick paints crunch when she says “CRUNCHED”, acquire zigzags as her temper unfurls, and eventually belie the smoothness of the characters’ skin when the texture invades the inside of the two-page spread of the now screaming mother’s mouth.

So, good textures. But let us not forget in all this just how important the colors of those thick paints are as well. Watching them shift from one mood to another is akin to standing beneath the Northern Lights. You could be forgiven for not noticing the first, second, third, or even fourth time you read the book. Yet these color changes are imperative to the storytelling. As emotions heat up or the action on the page ramps up, the cool blues and greens ignite into hot reds, yellows, and oranges. Taken as a whole the book is a rainbow of different backgrounds, until at long last everything subsides a little and becomes a chipper cool blue.

WhoBroke1Now kids love a good mystery, and I’m not talking just the 9 and 10-year-olds. Virtually every single age of childhood has a weakness for books that set up mysterious circumstances and then reveal all with a flourish. Heck, why do you think babies like the game of peekaboo? Think of it as the ultimate example of mystery and payoff. Picture book mysteries are, however, far more difficult to write than, say, an episode of Nate the Great. You have to center the book squarely in the child’s universe, give them all the clues, and then make clear to the reader what actually happened. To do this you can show the perpetrator of the crime committing the foul deed at the start of the book or you can spot clues throughout the story pointing clearly to the miscreant. In the case of Who Broke the Teapot, Slavin teaches (in his own way) that old Sherlock Holmes phrase, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

I love it when a book turns everything around at the end and asks the reader to think long and hard about what they’ve just seen. Remember the end of The Cat in the Hat when everything’s been cleaned up just in time and the mother comes in asking the kids what they got up to while she was gone? The book ends with a canny, “Well, what would YOU do if your mother asked YOU?” Who Broke the Teapot?! does something similar at its end as well. The facts have been laid before the readers. The baby has claimed responsibility and maybe he is to blame after all. But wasn’t the mother just as responsible? It would be very interesting indeed to poll a classroom of Kindergartners to see where they ascribe the bulk of the blame. It may even say something about a kid if they side with the baby more or the mommy more.

WhoBroke3I also love that the flashback does far more than explain who broke the teapot. It explains why exactly most of the members of this family are dwelling in a kind of generally accepted chaotic stew. You take it for granted when you first start reading. A kid’s hanging from a ceiling fan? Sure. Yeah. That happens. But the explanation, when it comes, belies that initial response. The parents don’t question his position so you don’t question it. That is your first mistake. Never take your lead from parents. And speaking of the flashback, let’s just stand aside for a moment and remember just how sophisticated it is to portray this concept in a picture book at all. You’re asking a child audience to accept that there is a “before” to every book they read. Few titles go back in time to explain how we got to where we are now. Slavin’s does so easily, and it will be the rare reader that can’t follow him on this trip back into the past.

I think the only real mystery here is why this book isn’t better known. And its only crime is that it’s Canadian, and therefore can’t win any of the big American awards here in the States. It’s also too amusing for awards. Until we get ourselves an official humor award for children’s books, titles like Who Broke the Teapot?! are doomed to fly under the radar. That’s okay. This is going to be the kind of book that children remember for decades. They’re going to be the ones walking into their public libraries asking the children’s librarians on the desks to bring to them an obscure picture book from their youth. “There was a thing that was broken . . . like a china plate or something . . . and there was this cat tied up in string?” You have my sympathies, children’s librarians of the future. In the meantime, better enjoy the book now. Whether it’s read to a large group or one-on-one, this puppy packs a powerful punch.

On shelves now

Source: Publisher sent final copy for review.

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23. The Picture Book in 2016: Social Themes and Lessons

I recently received a very interesting, if puzzling, question.  A friend of mine needed to know, for professional reasons, what I would consider the top themes in picture books these days.  By “themes” I don’t mean trends but rather emotional or social lessons for young readers.  You might even go so far as to call them the morals we’re trying to impart upon our 21st century offspring.

This is not as easy a question. While I attempt to take meticulous notes on every picture book I read, it’s far easier to keep track of, say, movie cameos in 2016 books than overarching societal anxieties.  Still, I managed to whip up a list and then thought, why not share it widely?

Here then are the top themes I’m detecting in picture books this year.


 

  • It’s Okay to Make Mistakes – Particularly as it applies to girls in science or math, but also to how kids do their own art.  I’ve seen a lot of books where a kid is making art, messes it up in some way, and then learns how to turn it into something new.  By the same token, a lot of books are about how you have to make mistakes to get better at something.  And it’s not about failing once or twice but a LOT.  Not mention asking as many questions as possible!  Hopefully those books where someone tries something three times and gets it done perfectly on the third will be a thing of the past soon.

A Good Example Would Be:

Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty, ill. David Roberts

adatwistscientist

Though you might just as easily apply this to Ada’s predecessor Rosie Revere, Engineer.


 

  • Gender Roles – Most notably when it comes to boys in dresses (though no girls identifying as boys) as well as just how kids interact with one another.  Kids learn gender roles VERY early and enforce those roles with one another.  There’s a great book call NutureShock for adults that talks a lot about this.  Picture books have always liked this theme (William’s Doll came out in the 1970s, after all) but now it’s ramping up again.

A Good Example Would Be:

I’m a Girl by Yasmeen Ismail

ImGirl

I was initially going to go with the new James Howe picture book Big Bob, Little Bob, but I already mentioned that one in an earlier post.  There are remarkably few books where gender stereotypes for girls are as thoroughly knocked to the floor and trampled upon than what you’ll find here.  It even saves space to kick to the curb some male gender stereotypes as well at the end.  I’m a fan.


 

  • Economic Disparity – We’re finally seeing some books that acknowledge that not all kids have the same resources at home.  Some kids have parents who lose their jobs.  Others have single family homes.  And not every kid you know has parents who can afford to buy them a bike.

A Good Example Would Be:

A Bike Like Sergio’s by Maribeth Boelts, ill. Noa Z. Jones

BikeLikeSergios

I think what I love so much about this is the easy breezy ignorance of Sergio.  He simply cannot conceive of a world where a boy’s parents wouldn’t be able to buy their son a bike if they wanted to.  Meanwhile the character of Ruben is placed in the awkward position of having to hide his family’s economic situation from his best friend.  And this is a picture book!  We’re finally seeing this topic handled in something other than a Charlie Bucket kind of way.  I’m very pleased.


 

  • Unplug – Possibly the MOST popular theme in the past three to four years.  Very Willy Wonka in the moralizing sometimes (imagine what Mike TeeVee could have done with a personal device), but important to adults. Many is the picture book where someone turns off all their devices and discovers the wide and wonderful world.

A Good Example Would Be:

Tek, the Modern Cave Boy by Patrick McDonnell

Tek

What I like about this book is that since you’ve got a caveperson with a cell phone, adding dinos to the mix really isn’t going to upset anyone.  You’ve already gone beyond the pale.


 

  • Try to See It Their Way (or, Everyone’s a Person – Even Mean People) – Picture books where you have to see it from another person’s point of view are becoming very sophisticated these days.  Some of them will also show that bullies sometimes have problems at home or at school that cause them to act out.  Though, if we’re going to get technical about it, even The Berenstain Bears and the Bully discussed this decades ago.

A Good Example Would Be:

Eddie the Bully by Henry Cole

EddieBully

Bully books aren’t going away anytime soon.  Nuanced bully books?  That might mark the second wave of titles.


 

  • Apologize When You’re Wrong – Oddly popular as a theme.  Owning up to your own mistakes is hard.  Books are making that infinitely clear, but also show the right way to do it.

A Good Example Would Be:

What’s Up, Chuck? by Leo Landry

WhatUpChuck

I think this might fall more into the “early reader” category vs. “picture books” but I care not.  The interesting thing about this storyline is that when our main character has acted like a spoiled brat for not winning a contest’s first prize medal for the first time in three years, the person who does win gives Chuck (our hero) an out.  But Chuck doesn’t take it, and apologizes like a pro.  It’s really well executed in a book this simple.  Check it out sometime.


 

  • Try Something New – Whether it’s food or school or new friends or whatever, trying something new is a big time theme.

A Good Example Would Be:

School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex, ill. Christian Robinson

SchoolFirstDay

So my daughter started Kindergarten this week and I figured this book might make a good gift to her Kindergarten teacher.  Turns out, it’s been a HUGE hit in the school, with other teacher vying to borrow it.  What I like about it, though, is that it takes time to acknowledge that when you try something new it isn’t instantaneously fantastic.  Things go wrong.  It takes time to enjoy something you’ve never done before.

And yes, you could argue that these are themes every year, but I feel like they’re particularly prevalent in 2016.  What are you seeing that I’ve missed?

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24. Video Sunday: And Stuff Like That

Good morning! We’ve not done a Video Sunday here on Fuse8 in a while, so let’s start with the ritualized boiling of the blood. Which is to say, can picture books be written in an hour? No. But Slate decided to go on and and prove as much. The results:

Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 10.32.41 PM

More interesting, in a way, is the accompanying written piece in which real editors like Alvina Ling and Cheryl Klein critique what the folks here have come up with. Kindly. Very very kindly.


 

Looks like that Curious George documentary got the Kickstarter backing it was seeking!  Love the promo video they created for it.  Some killer original footage here that I’ve just never seen before.  Check it out:

Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 10.43.12 PM

Thanks to 100 Scope Notes for the link.


 

A pretty advanced PSA, I must say.  Even if you’re unfamiliar with the song it’s parodying, I think you’ll get a kick out of it.  The book cameos are particularly keen.


 

My father-in-law wrote me a week or two ago to tell me that, “CBS Morning news had a lovely piece on the research librarians at the main library (5th and 42nd). I think you would enjoy the segment and probably know some of the featured librarians. Hopefully, the website has the video from this morning’s show.”

They did.  It does.  Here is the result.

Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 10.17.47 PM

I used to work a floor about the ASK NYPL team. There wasn’t any partition between the floors so you could hear them talk pretty clearly. It was a fascinating process.


 

Finally, this is sorta off-topic.  It’s certainly older.  I’m not one for the Cute Kids Saying Cute Things genre, but cute kids with Australian/New Zealand accents?  That’s different.  Particularly when it’s all part of an effort to raise money for sick kids.  And this isn’t entirely off-topic.  After all, there are some very interesting children’s books in the backgrounds here.  Stick around for the song.  It’s not the earnest tripe you fear at first.

Good cause.  Good folks.

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25. Fusenews: Dem-o-gorgon or Dem-a-gorgon?

Morning, poppins!

Yesterday, for the first time in a long while, I submitted a Video Sunday for your approval.  Trouble is, I may have failed to mention one of the most fascinating videos out there with a tie-in to books for kids, so I’d like to rectify the situation today.

kidpresidentThe title of the article read, ‘Last Week Tonight’: John Oliver Turned a 20-Year-Old Kids’ Book with ‘Startling Parallels’ to Trump into a Bestseller.  Naturally I tried figuring out what book they were talking about but I was coming up short.  Turns out it’s good old The Kid Who Ran for President by Dan Gutman.  That’s a title that is consistently on New York City public school reading lists every single year.  Wouldn’t be surprised a jot if that’s how Last Week Tonight‘s writing staff heard about it (some of them must have kids).  Glad to see it getting a bit of attention here and there. I won’t give away which candidate the “startling parallels” refer to (kidding!).  Thanks to PW Children’s Bookshelf for the link.


A Gene Luen Yang comic piece for the New York Times simply called Glare of Disdain?  Don’t mind if I do!


Horn Book came out with their 2015-2016 Yearbook Superlatives post once more.  Fun bit.  I wonder if they collect them throughout the year as they do their reading.


Tis the battle of the smarty-pants!  Who did it better?  Adam Rex and Christian Robinson at Horn Book or Jory John and Bob Shea at Kirkus?  The choice is yours (though Christian Robinson probably sweeps the deck with his magnificent “Black people are magic” line).


See how I’m going from a Horn Book post to a Horn Book / Kirkus post to a Kirkus review?  That’s why they pay me the big bucks, folks.  In any case, usually when I post a review on this blog I like to link the books mentioned in the review to Kirkus.  Why?  Because they’re the review journal that has the most free archived older children’s book reviews online.  Generally this is a good plan but once in a while it throws me for a loop.  For example, a reviewer of the original Nate the Great back in 1972 had serious problems with the title.  Your homework for the day is to read the review and then figure out what precisely the “stereotype” the book was faulty of conveying really was.  I’ve read this review about ten times and I’m still baffled.  Any ideas?


winniepooh01-768x512So I worked at NYPL for a number of years (11 in total).  Of those, I spent about five or six of them working in close proximity to the original Winnie-the-Pooh toys.  And in all that time I never knew them to look as good as they do right now.  Oo la la!  Goggle at that restored Kanga!  And a Piglet where his skin ISN’T falling off his body?  I don’t even know the guy now.  No word on whether or not the restoration yielded more information on the music box in Pooh’s tummy (or if it’s even still there).  Still, they look great (and appear to have a whole new display area too!).  Thanks to Sharyn November for the link.


Did you know that Cricket Media (which runs Cricket Magazine as well as other periodicals) has a blog?  I tell you this partly because I’m trying to contact someone at their Chicago location and so far my efforts have been for naught.  A little help?


Did you know there was a children’s book award for science fiction?  Yup. “The Golden Duck Awards, which are designed to encourage science fiction literature for children, have been given annually since 1992.”  And as far as I can tell, they may still be going on.  Check out their site here to see for yourself.  You can suggest books from the previous year too, so have at it, peoples.


So I give up.  Slate?  You win.  You do good posts on children’s books.  I was wrong to doubt you.  That post about how your son loves “bad guys” so you read him Tomi Ungerer’s The Three RobbersThat’s good stuff.  And the piece on how terrible the U.S. is at translating children’s books?  Also excellent.  To say nothing of all the other excellent posts you’ve come up with and researched well.  I doff my cap.  Your pop-up blog is a rousing success.  Well done you.


Question: How often has a documentary been made about a nonfiction children’s picture book about a true subject?  Once at least.


Saw this next one on the old listservs and figured it might be of use to someone:

I just wanted to pass along an opportunity that I’m hoping that you’ll hope promote for ALSC. Every year, we give away four $600 stipends for ALSC members to attend Annual for the first time. Applications are open now and are being accepted up to October 1, 2016. For 2017, Penguin Random House is including one ticket for each winner to the Newbery-Caldecott-Wilder Banquet. Here is some more information.


Daily Image:

Because I just cannot stop with the Stranger Things.  This one came via my friend Marci.  Look closely enough and you’ll see Will hiding in the Upside Down.

http://charamath.tumblr.com/post/148762797238/i-know-the-internet-is-full-of-stranger-things-fan

Thanks to Marci Morimoto for the link.

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