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

Castle Hangnail
By Ursula Vernon
Dial (an imprint of Penguin Group)
ISBN: 978-0803741294
Ages 8-11
On shelves April 21st

These are dark times for children’s fantasy. Dark times indeed. Which is to say, when I pick up a fantasy novel for kids, more often than not I find the books filled with torture, violence, bloody blood, and other various unpleasant bits and pieces. And honestly? That is fine. There are a lot of kids out there who lap up gore like it was mother’s milk. Still, it’s numbing. Plus I really wish that there was more stuff out there for the younger kiddos. The ones who have entered the wide and wonderful world of children’s fantasy and would rather not read about trees eating people or death by cake. Maybe they’d like something funny with lovable characters and a gripping plot. Even Harry Potter had its dark moments, but in the early volumes the books were definitely for the younger readers. Certainly we have the works of Eva Ibbotson and Ruth Chew, but newer books are always welcome, particularly if they’re funny. Maybe that’s part of the reason why Castle Hangnail blew me away as much as it did. Here we have a story that knows exactly what it is, what it wants to do, and manages to be hilarious and charming all at the same time. If you like your children’s fantasy novels full of psychotic villains and mind-numbing action sequences, seek ye elsewhere. This one’s for the kids.

To some, Castle Hangnail might appear to be a “pathetic rundown little backwater” but to the minions who live there it’s home. A home desperately in need of a new Master and Mistress. After all, if they don’t get someone soon the castle might be sold off and destroyed. Maybe that’s why everyone has such mixed feelings at first when Molly appears. Molly is short and young and wearing some very serious black boots. She looks like a 12-year-old kid and Majordomo, the guardian of the castle, is having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that she’s supposed to be their new Wicked Witch. Yet when he gives her the necessary tasks to make Castle Hangnail her own, Molly appears to have a couple tricks up her sleeve. She may have her secrets but everything seems to be okay . . . that is until the REAL master of Castle Hangnail arrives to claim it.

Basically what we have here is Downton Abbey for kids, albeit with significantly more dragon donkeys (and isn’t Majordomo SUCH a Carson?). This raises the question of where precisely this book takes place. Remembering that author Ursula Vernon herself is not actually British, one supposes that the story could be read as a U.S. tale. Due to its distinct Eva Ibbotson flavor, the initial inclination is to see the book as British. Our picturesque little towns pale in comparison to their picturesque little towns, and we’ve far fewer castles lying about the place. Still, there’s no reason it couldn’t be American. After all, I’ve seen many an American author fall into the trap of putting cockney characters into their books for no apparent reason. Vernon has a good head on her shoulders. She’s not falling for that game.

Truly a book like this hinges on the characters created. If you don’t believe in them or don’t like them then you won’t want us to follow them into your tale. You have to sympathize with Majordomo, even when he does some unfortunate things. You have to like Molly, even when you don’t initially understand her back-story. It takes a little while but Vernon also makes it clear how someone can be wicked as opposed to evil. “Wicked was turning somebody into an earwig and letting them run around for a week to give them a good scare. Evil was turning someone into an earwig and then stepping on them.” An evil heroine is tricky to love. A wicked one is on par with your average 12-year-old reader.

Speaking of characters, Vernon makes some very interesting narrative choices as well. For example, our heroine is introduced to us for the first time on page six. However around Chapter 33 she disappears from the storyline and really doesn’t appear again until Chapter 39. You have to have a very strong supporting cast to get away with that one. It would be a lot of fun to ask kid readers who their favorite character was. Did they prefer Pins or his neurotic goldfish? The minotaurs or the moles? Me, I like ‘em all. The whole kooky gang. For a certain kind of reader, there’s going to be a lot of allure to having minions as lovable as these.

Even the lightest bit of middle grade fluff needs a strong emotional core to keep it grounded. If there’s nothing to care for then there’s nothing to root for. For me, the heart of this particular tale lies in Molly’s relationship with the evil sorceress (and teenaged) Eudaimonia. Lots of kids have the experience of wanting to befriend someone older and meaner. The desire to please can lead a person to act unlike themselves. As Molly says, “It’s like a weird kind of magic . . . Like a spell that makes you feel like it’s all your fault.” Molly also wrestles with being different from her kittens and sparkles loving twin and so the theme of finding yourself and your own talents come to the fore.

And now a word in praise of humor. Funny is hard. Funny fantasy? That’s even harder. Vernon has always blown away the competition in the hilarity department. Pick up any “Danny Dragonbreath” comic and you’ll see what I’m talking about. She can sustain a narrative for an early chapter book, sure, but full-blown novels are a different kettle of fish (is that a mixed metaphor?). So how does she do? You’d swear she’d been churning these puppies out for years. Here are three of my favorite lines in celebration:

- “Harrow was one of those people who is born mean and continues to lose ground.”

- “Magic was a requirement in a new Master, unless you were a Mad Scientist, and Molly didn’t look like the sort to hook lightning rods up to cadavers while wild Theremins wailed in the background.”

- “For there are very powerful spells that are very simple, but unless you happen to be the right sort of person, they will not work at all. (And a good thing too. You can raise the dead with five words and a hen’s egg, but natural Necromancers are very rare. Fortunately they tend to be solemn, responsible people, which is why we are not all up to our elbows in zombies).”

Parents wander into the children’s room of a library. They ask the librarian at the desk to recommend a fantasy novel for their 8-year-old. “Nothing too scary”, they say. “Maybe something funny. Do you have anything funny?” Until now the librarian might try a little Ibbotson or a touch of E.D. Baker. Perhaps a smattering of Jessica Day George would do. Still, of all of these Castle Hangnail appeals to the youngest crowd. At the same time, it can be equally enjoyed by older kids too. Smart and droll, it’s the fantasy you’ve always wanted to hand to the 10-year-old Goth girl in your life (along with, let’s face it, everybody else you know). A true crowd pleaser.

On shelves April 21st.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Other Blog Reviews: Views From the Tesseract

Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus



3 Comments on Review of the Day: Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon, last added: 4/12/2015
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27. If you could change any rule . . .

Let us say that the gods have decreed that you shall now be The Supreme High Muckety-Muck of the American Library Association, hitherto allowed to command your librarian minions throughout the Americas.  Let us say that in your infinite wisdom you have decided to use this power for only good, and not evil.  Now you are seated at the great High Table of Librarianitude.  Your faithful hoards await your simplest command, you need only utter it.

The question before you then is this: You have the power to change any rule pertaining to the Youth Media Awards.  You can change only one.  So what do you do, what DO you do?

This is a game I like to play with myself from time to time.  We all have things we’d like to change, but short of acquiring High Muckety-Muck status, the likelihood of actually getting any of the following changed is strictly in the realm of the fantastical. Today, I think I’ll just break my own rule of “only one” and play around with different scenarios for the heck of it.

Here are some of my top choices:

- Create a graphic novel award.  More specifically, an award for “illustrated novels”.  Because of you just say “comics” or “graphic novels” then you leave yourself wide open for future librarians having to parse semantics as they relate to books with different degrees of illustration.  Would a book like Hugo Cabret count?  Would Diary of a Wimpy Kid?  Use the term “illustrated novels” and all is well.  That just leaves the name of the award.  I’d propose either The Selznick or The Bell (alternate name: “The Cece”).

- Create a poetry award.  Because, quite frankly, it’s weird that we don’t have one.  Really very weird.  The only thing I can figure is that the sheer lack of poetry in a given year written for children and teens might contribute to folks thinking that such an award shouldn’t be around.  But the Pura Belpre Award got over that problem by initially coming out every other year.  Surely the poetry award could do the same.  But what to name it?  I know she doesn’t strictly do children’s poetry, but she’s done enough of it that I think The Giovanni has a lovely ring to it.  The Nikki Giovanni Award for Children’s Poetry.  How is this not a thing?

- Change the age range on the Newbery.  Of course, even as I write this, there’s a children’s book out this year that is clearly in the 13-14 year-old age range that I’m stumping for.  Still, I feel like the Newbery age range criteria of “up to and including fourteen” is a relic of the pre-Printz Award days.  I have heard the defense for this age cap, one being that books that fall in the range of my own beloved frontrunner would be lost come award season.  Entirely possible.  That’s why we should consider the idea to . . . .

- Create a middle school award.  Pity the middle school books.  Occasionally they do very well for themselves (see: this year’s Newbery Award winner) but a lot of the time they fall between the cracks.  And considering all the middle school/junior high librarians out there, wouldn’t it be nice if there was an award out there for them?

- Create a Batchelder-like award for foreign illustration - We have a great award for translation, no question.  But year after year the most beautiful imports pass by, unnoticed.  Think of books like Shaun Tan’s The Arrival.  I’d be willing to settle for a generalized “import” award.  Australia.  England.  Mexico.  South Africa.  It would all be up for grabs.  Now at this point folks might say that we have entirely too many awards.  All right, then.  Why not consider getting rid of one or two?

- Remove the Carnegie Medal.  This is probably the most contentious proposal listed here.  I’m sure the Carnegie has its supporters.  However, it’s a bit of an unfair game.  Of the twenty-five winners since the award was established in 1991, fourteen of those have been Weston Woods.  Indeed in the last ten years Weston Woods has won eight times.  Initially I think there was more competition for the award.  These days, it’s mostly how I learn about the newer Weston Woods releases.  That said, I’m fairly certain that someone who has served or is serving on the Carnegie committee is reading this.  If so, please tell me straight out why this is an important award.  Failing that, fans of it please rally behind your flag.  Don’t mince words.  Explain why it should stick around for the rest of our natural born lives.

Those are my particular fantasy changes.  We all harbor them from time to time.  How about yourself?  What would you like to mess with, if given the ultimate supreme power to do so?


11 Comments on If you could change any rule . . ., last added: 4/7/2015
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28. Press Release Fun: The Kids Author Carnival Returns!

Here in New York there’s a Teen Authors Festival that makes the rounds once a year. Inspired by David Levithan’s style, a Kids Author Carnival was created. It’s now in its second year. Check out that line-up!



The 2nd annual Kids Author Carnival will take place at the Jefferson Market branch of the New York Public Library on Saturday, May 30, 2015. The event begins at 6:00 pm and lasts until 8:30 pm. Doors open at 5:30pm.


Last year, the inaugural Kids Author Carnival (KAC) at the Jefferson Market Library enjoyed great success. The event featured thirty-eight children’s authors, and over 200 readers attended—the majority of them kids in elementary and middle school.


The goal of KAC organizers—founder Claire Legrand, Lauren Magaziner, and Heidi Schulz, all authors themselves—has always been to create an event geared toward the interests and attention spans of young readers. Instead of typical, hour-long Q&A panels, the KAC offers several 20-minute stations through which children rotate in groups. The stations include book-themed games like Charades and Pictionary, as well as miniature writing workshops. These stations give kids a chance to interact with their favorite authors in a fun, informal setting.


This year, the KAC will showcase thirty-six incredible middle grade authors, including Aaron Starmer (The Riverman), J. A. White (The Thickety), Kirsten Hubbard (Watch the Sky), and Sage Blackwood (the Jinx trilogy).


The event will begin at 6:00pm and last until 8:30pm, with a mass signing concluding the event. Beloved independent bookseller Books of Wonder will once again handle the book sales.


Below is a full list of the KAC 2015 authors:



Patrik Henry Bass

Rebecca Behrens

Sage Blackwood

Jessica Burkhart

Isaiah Campbell

Angela Cervantes

Clay McLeod Chapman

Matthew Cody

MarcyKate Connolly

Elisabeth Dahl

Tara Dairman

Jen Swann Downey

Paul Durham

Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Paula J. Freedman

David Fulk

Andrew Harwell

Veera Hiranandani

Kirsten Hubbard

M.P. Kozlowsky

Claire Legrand

Dana Alison Levy

Matt London

Lauren Magaziner

Jen Malone

Jeff Miller

Gail Nall

Ammi-Joan Paquette

Adriana Brad Schanen

Heidi Schulz

Michelle Schusterman

Tricia Springstubb

Aaron Starmer

Mary G. Thompson

Danette Vigilante

J.A. White


0 Comments on Press Release Fun: The Kids Author Carnival Returns! as of 4/6/2015 5:51:00 AM
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29. Video Sunday: From Argentina to Germany, It’s a Worldwide Trip!

Happy Easter, folks!  Tis a bonny Easter Video Sunday . . . . not really.  One of these videos does show a bunny at one point, though.  Can YOU find it?  The answer is at the end of this post.

First up, my co-writer Jules Danielson was in town recently and managed to get herself on national television while here.  I’ve been in New York for 11 years and haven’t managed such a thing once.  So well done to her!  She’s the second person in this video to stuff their mouth full o’ Peeps.  It’ll make sense when you see it:

Technically this next video is an ad but you have no sense of that until you reach the end anyway. Plus it’s cute:

Weapons of Mass Instruction: A 1979 Ford Falcon Converted in a Tank Armored with 900 Free Books from Colossal on Vimeo.

Of course, as a librarian I want to know how those books were chosen and what the titles are that he hands to the kids. Curation! Curation! Curation! Thanks to Mike Lewis for the link.

I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but Nathan Hale, of the Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series, has started his own YouTube series.  You may have seen his previous video about drawing war hats.  Well, video #2′s out and it’s about drawing everybody’s favorite character, The Hangman.  I love this format for doing videos.  Very nice for illustrators.  Take note, folks.

We’ve been saying for years that someone out there in network television land should interview the Newbery and Caldecott winners again. So PBS Newshour picked up the slack and did a great interview with Kwame Alexander. Of course, they make a rookie mistake right at the start by saying the Newbery is for “young adult literature” (does no one VET the news over there, PBS?) but I’m cutting them slack for doing this at all. Now about Mr. Santat . . .

Next up, Voldemort.  Because what is Easter without something that has NOTHING to do with Easter?

There’s an app out for the amazing book Lindbergh by Torben Kuhlmann.  And, as you might expect, it looks gorgeous.  Torben will be in town while I am in Austin so I am drowning my sorrows in this app.  *sigh*

And for our off-topic video, something appropriately Easterish:

So which video had the bunny?  If you said it was the Nathan Hale post, you’re correct!  Go eat yourself a chocolate.


5 Comments on Video Sunday: From Argentina to Germany, It’s a Worldwide Trip!, last added: 4/7/2015
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30. Of Bunnies and Blood

Morning, folks!  I’ve two spring-like things to draw your attention to today.  Nothing particularly heavy or consequential.  Just light, airy, early April tidbits.

First up, New York Public Library is doing a wonderful 30 Days of Poetry feature where every day of the month a different staff member reads a selection from one of their favorite poems.  Today’s reader?  Myself!  I take a piece out of my favorite poem by Ogden Nash “Don’t Cry, Darling, It’s Blood All Right”, the full text of which you can find on an old post of mine here.  I explain in the recording why I’m fond of that particular bit of verse.

Second, about a year ago, when my sister was still creating her fabulous How To, How Hard, and How Much blog (sadly, no longer in operation) she decided to create bunny biscuits for Easter.  The results were . . . fluffy.  Yes, let’s call them fluffy.




1 Comments on Of Bunnies and Blood, last added: 4/4/2015
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31. The Rise in Latino Children’s Literature: A 2015 Accounting

So we need diverse books, which at this point in the proceedings shouldn’t really be news to much of anyone.  You know it.  I know it.  But ascertaining progress can be tricky in these matters.  Anyone who works in publishing knows that it takes years and years for books to reach publication.  Read through any copy of PW Children’s Bookshelf and you’ll have the enormously satisfying experience of noting all the diverse authors being announced there.  Yet it will take some time before their books hit our shelves.  What is there for the kiddos in the interim?

To answer this, I turned to one of the smaller subsets of children’s literature: books starring Latino characters.  In the past this has been a lamentable experience.  Most of what was out there got a Pura Belpre nod and that was it.  There’s a reason the Pura Belpre used to be every other year, folks.  But 2015 has been different.  We’re seeing the number of titles going up up up and I like what I see. Please note however that there is still a lot of work to be done.  In the grand scheme of what is being published (and when we compare the number of books here to the number of Hispanic Americans residing in the States) there is work to be done.

With that in mind, here are the 2015 books starring Latino and Latino-American characters.  I know that there are titles that I have missed.  Feel free to chime in with them in the comments.

Picture Books

Drum Dream Girl by Margarita Engle. Illustrated by Rafael Lopez

Still kicking myself that I didn’t include this in my last Caldecott prediction round-up.  There’s time enough.  By the way, if you want to play the how-many-books-does-Margarita-Engle-have-out-in-2015 game, now’s the time to start counting.  Read the Seven Impossible Things interview with the creators here.

Papa Gave Me a Stick by Janice Levy. Illustrated by Simone Shin

A very simple story about a boy who wants a guitar and the folktale-esque way in which he acquires one.  In a lot of ways it had many similarities to the far more serious . . .

Finding the Music / En Pos de la Musica by Jennifer Torres. Illustrated by Renato Alarcao

Again we have a kid obsessed with getting a guitar (and mariachis too, come to think of it).  However, this book was far more realistic and for an older readership in general.

Hens for Friends by Sandy De Lisle. Illustrated by Amelia Hansen

In 2015 hens are hot.  SLJ recently highlighted three of them, but I’ve seen far far more than that so far.  Case in point this sweet little tale.  It’s a story about keeping backyard chickens and would pair nicely with fellow 2015 release Millie’s Chickens by Brenda Williams.

Little Chanclas by Jose Lozano

If you want to talk about the publisher who’s been putting out Latino children’s literature with the greatest consistency, you’d be amiss in not pointing to Cinco Punto Press.  Each year they’ve a plethora of titles.  If the company’s name sounds familiar that may be because of their recent runaway YA hit Gabi, A Girl in Pieces.  This year they’ve at least two titles that caught my eye.  This and . . .

My Tata’s Remedies / Los remedios de mi tata by Roni Capin Rivera-Ashford. Illustrated by Antonio Castro L.

. . . this.  An intergenerational tale, not too different from . . .

Mango, Abuela and Me by Meg Medina. Illustrated by Angela Dominguez

I know at least two women who hiss and growl every time they see a picture book where the grandmother is portrayed in the stereotypical old lady manner.  So I love how the abuela here is a very realistically aged woman.  The story of how she and her granddaughter overcome their language barriers makes it one of the lovelier books this year.

Salsa: Una Poema Para Cocinar / A Cooking Poem by Jorge Argueta. Illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh

I’m fairly certain there are more bilingual picture books out in 2015 that I’m simply blanking on.  With Mr. Tonatiuh’s rise in fortunes thanks to his ALA Youth Media Award wins for Separate Is Never Equal, I expect we’ll be seeing a lot more of this fella in the future.

The Sock Thief by Ana Crespo. Illustrated by Nana Gonzalez

Note the boy character.  I was happy to see a pretty even split between the boys and the girls in the picture book sphere.  Unfortunately that equality takes a bit of a nose dive as we go up in reading levels.

Early Chapter Books

In many ways, this is the area that has seen the most improvement.  When it comes to Latino characters in early chapter books, you pretty much have Zapato Power or nothing.  This year we’re seeing three new series and one new standalone title.  Unfortunately, the gender tilts a little too far in one direction.

Sofia Martinez: My Family Adventure by Jacqueline Jules. Illustrated by Kim Smith

Look at the attitude on that girl!  Smith’s art goes a long way towards selling Sofia as a character.  You look at this book jacket and you want to know more about her.  Fortunately, you’ll have your chance.  Future Sofia titles are being produced left, right, and central.

Emma Is On the Air: Big News by Ida Siegal. Illustrated by Karla Pena

This one’s a little different since author Ida Siegal is (at least according to Wikipedia) “an American television journalist news reporter who has been an on-air reporter for NBC New York since January 2003″ (you can tell she’s a kind of celebrity because illustrator Karla Pena’s name is nowhere to be found on the cover, at least in this edition).  No complaints here, mind you.  The more the merrier.

Lola Levine is Not Mean! by Monica Brown

Like Drum Dream Girl, which features a Chinese-African-Cuban heroine, Lola Levine is one of the finer heroines sporting a dual heritage.  Peruvian/Jewish, I like this cover particularly since it shows Lola doing what she does best while her brother lies at her side.

The Best Friend Battle by Lindsay Eyre

If you noticed that all the prior books were sporting girls and not boys, that is true. We certainly need more boys in all areas but particularly in the early chapter book and middle grade novel areas. In this case, Georgie Diaz isn’t the focus of the book.  No, the heroine is the girl on the far left, and she’s just trying to hold onto her best friend in spite of the (very platonic) friendship overtures Georgie’s engaged in.

Middle Grade Novels

Canned and Crushed by Bibi Belford

When boys do make covers we don’t always see their faces.  Example B:

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan

There are, of course, exceptions to the rules.  This gorgeous cover for one . . .

The Amazing Adventures of Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Considering that the boy lives in England, I’m still gonna count it.  It’s such a great book, after all.

Look Both Ways in the Barrio Blanco by Judy Rose

Quite possibly one of the best book jackets of the year.

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones. Illustrated by Katie Kath

See?  Chickens!  They’re everywhere!

Zack Delacruz: Me and My Big Mouth by Jeff Anderson

Graphic Novels

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson

A good example of casual diversity.  Astrid’s ethnicity is never called into question or even becomes a point of the book.


Growing Up Pedro: How the Martinez Brothers Made It from the Dominican Republic All the Way to the Major Leagues by Matt Tavares

Last year I had a devil of a time finding good picture book sports bios.  They’re out there, folks and they vary in terms of content.  This is one of the winners.

Island Treasures: Growing Up in Cuba by Alma Flor Ada

Brown Girl Dreaming set loose the publisher wheels.  I have no doubt Ms. Engle was working on this for years.  The time is now perfect to release it.  It is, I do believe, a middle grade memoir.  Oh, rarest of beasts.

The Sky Painter: Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist by Margarita Engle. Illustrated by Aliona Bereghici

By my count this is Ms. Engle’s third book out this year.  There may be more in the works.

So what have I missed?  We’ve an entire season on the horizon.  Surely this is just a drop in the ocean, yes?


10 Comments on The Rise in Latino Children’s Literature: A 2015 Accounting, last added: 4/3/2015
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32. And All Our April Fool’s of Yesterday

It sort of defeats the purpose to write a post that reminds folks that it’s April Fool’s Day in the post’s very title, doesn’t it?  I guess I can’t go about claiming wild and wacky things, like Peter Sieruta used to.  Remember his 2012 post on “Selznick syndrome” or 2011′s Charlie Sheen Lands Children’s Book Deal or 2009′s Graveyard Book to Be Stripped of Newbery, or (my personal favorite) his 2008 Ramona piece de resistance?  No?  Then go read them.  The man knew from pranks.

This year pranking is doing very well in the middle grade category.  Mac Barnett and Jory John put out that great The Terrible Two (reviewed best by Travis Jonker).  I’d count The Tapper Twins Go to War by Geoff Rodkey as a great prank book as well.  And if we want to look at books that have come out in the past, I was always fond of Kim Baker’s Pickle: The (Formerly) Anonymous Prank Club of Fountain Point Middle School and M3: Sir John Hargrave’s Mischief Maker’s Manual by John Hargrave.

Today, I bring to you a specific picture book prank so light and airy and sweet that it can hardly be called “prank”.  It’s the kind of thing you might expect from the film Amelie or Color Me Katie.  It’s from last year and called More Bookish Prank Fun.  And to give you a hint of which picture book it references I shall leave you with just a single photograph.

Happy April Fool’s!


5 Comments on And All Our April Fool’s of Yesterday, last added: 4/2/2015
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33. Review of the Day: Red by Michael Hall

Red: A Crayon’s Story
By Michael Hall
Greenwillow (an imprint of Harper Collins)
ISBN: 978-0062252074
Ages 3-6
On shelves now

Almost since their very conception children’s books were meant to teach and inform on the one hand, and to inform one’s moral fiber on the other. Why who can forget that catchy little 1730 ditty from The Childe’s Guide that read, “The idle Fool / Is whipt at School”? It’s got a beat and you can dance to it! And as the centuries have passed children’s books continue to teach and instruct. Peter Rabbit takes an illicit nosh and loses his fancy duds. Pinocchio stretches the truth a little and ends up with a prominent proboscis. Even parents who are sure to fill their shelves with the subversive naughtiness of Max, David, and Eloise are still inclined to indulge in a bit of subterfuge bibliotherapy when their little darling starts biting / hitting / swearing at the neighbors. Instruction, however, is a terribly difficult thing to do in a children’s book. It takes skill and a gentle hand. When Sophie Gets Angry . . . Really Really Angry works because the point of the book is couched in beautiful, lively, eye-popping art, and a story that shows rather than tells. But for every Sophie there are a hundred didactic tracts that some poor child somewhere is being forced to swallow dry. What a relief then to run across Red: A Crayon’s Story. It’s making a point, no doubt about it. But that point is made with a gentle hand and an interesting story, giving the reader the not unpleasant sensation that even if they didn’t get the point of the tale on a first reading, something about the book has seeped deep into their very core. Clever and wry, Hall dips a toe into moral waters and comes out swimming. Sublime.

“He was red. But he wasn’t very good at it.” When a blue crayon in a wrapper labeled “Red” finds himself failing over and over again, everyone around him has an opinion on the matter. Maybe he needs to mix with the other kids more (only, when he does his orange turns out to be green instead). Maybe he just needs more practice. Maybe his wrapper’s not tight enough. Maybe it’s TOO tight. Maybe he’s got to press harder or be sharper. It really isn’t until a new crayon asks him to paint a blue sea that he comes to the shocking realization. In spite of what his wrapper might say, he isn’t red at all. He’s blue! And once that’s clear, everything else falls into place.

A school librarian friend of mine discussed this book with some school age children not too long ago. According to her, their conversation got into some interesting territory. Amongst themselves they questioned why the crayon got the reaction that he did. One kid said it was the fault of the factory that had labeled him. Another kid countered that no, it was the fault of the other crayons for not accepting him from the start. And then one kid wondered why the crayon needed a label in the first place. Now I don’t want to go about pointing out the obvious here but basically these kids figured out the whole book and rendered this review, for all intents and purposes, moot. They got the book. They understand the book. They should be the ones presenting the book.

Because you see when I first encountered this story I applied my very very adult (and very very limited) interpretation to it. A first read and I was convinced that it was a transgender coming-of-age narrative except with, y’know, waxy drawing materials. And I’m not saying that isn’t a legitimate way to read the book, but it’s also a very limited reading. I mean, let’s face it. If Mr. Hall had meant to book to be JUST about transgender kids, wouldn’t it have been a blue crayon in a pink wrapper? No, Hall’s story is applicable to a wide range of people who find themselves incorrectly “labeled”. The ones who are told that they’re just not trying hard enough, even when it’s clear that the usual rules don’t apply. We’ve all known someone like that in our lives before. Sometimes they’re lucky in the way that Red here is lucky and they meet someone who helps to show them the way. Sometimes they help themselves. And sometimes there is no help and the story takes a much sadder turn. I think of those kids, and then I read the ending of “Red” again. It doesn’t help their situation much, but it makes me feel better.

This isn’t my first time at the Michael Hall rodeo, by the way. I liked My Heart Is Like a Zoo, enjoyed Perfect Square, took to Cat Tale, and noted It’s an Orange Aardvark It’s funny, but in a way, these all felt like a prelude to Red. As with those books, Hall pays his customary attention to color and shape. Like Perfect Square he even mucks with our understood definitions. But while those books were all pleasing to the eye, Red makes a sudden lunge for hearts and minds as well. That it succeeds is certainly worth noting.

Now when I was a kid, I ascribed to inanimate objects a peculiar level of anthropomorphizing. A solo game of war turned a deck of cards into a high stakes emotional journey worthy of a telenovela. And crayons? Crayons had their own lives as well. There were a lot of betrayals and broken hearts in my little yellow box. Hall eschews this level of crayon obsession, but in his art I noticed that he spends a great deal of time understanding what a crayon’s existence might entail if they were allowed families and full lives. I loved watching how the points on the crayons would dull or how some crayons were used entirely on a slant, due to the way they colored. I liked how the shorter you are, the older you are (a concept that basically turned my 3-year-old’s world upside down when she tried to comprehend it). I liked how everything that happens to Red stays with him throughout the book. If his wrapper is cut or he’s taped together, that snip and tape stay with him to the end. The result is that by the time he’s figured out his place in the world (and shouldn’t we all be so lucky) he bears the physical cuts and scars that show he’s had a long, hard journey getting to self-acceptance. No mean feat for a book that primarily utilizes just crayon drawings and cut paper, digitally combined.

Not everyone thinks, as I do, that Mr. Hall’s effort is successful. I’ve encountered at least one librarian who told me straight out that she found the book “preachy”. I can see why she’d say that. I mean, it does wear its message on its sleeve. Yet for all that it has a purpose I can’t call it purposeful. What Hall has done so well here is to take a universal story and tell it with objects that almost every reader approaching this book will already be familiar with. These crayons don’t have faces or arms or mouths. They look like the crayons you encounter all the time, yet they live lives that may be both familiar and unfamiliar to readers. And in telling a very simple fish-out-of-water story, it actually manages to make kids think about what the story is actually trying to say. It makes readers work for its point. This isn’t bibliotherapy. It’s bibliodecoding. And when they figure out what’s going on, they get just as much out of it as you might hope. A rare, wonderful title that truly has its child audience in mind. Respectful.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Professional Reviews: Kirkus

Other Reviews: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast st Kirkus


6 Comments on Review of the Day: Red by Michael Hall, last added: 3/30/2015
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34. Fusenews: In which I find the barest hint of an excuse to post a Rex Stout cover

  • I’ve been watching The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt recently.  So far the resident husband and I have only made it through two episodes, but I was pleased as punch when I learned that the plot twist in storyline #2 hinged on a Baby-Sitter’s Club novel.  Specifically Babysitter’s Club Mystery No. 12: Dawn and the Surfer Ghost.  Peter Lerangis, was this one of yours?  Here’s a breakdown of the book’s plot with a healthy dose of snark, in case you’re interested.
  • And now a subject that is near and dear to my heart: funny writers. Author Cheryl Blackford wrote a very good blog post on a comedic line-up of authors recently presented at The Tucson Festival of Books. Mac Barnett, Adam Rex, Jory John, Obert Skye, and Drew Daywalt were all there.  A good crew, no?  One small problem – we may be entering a new era where all-white male panels cannot exist without being called into question.  Indeed, I remember years ago when I attended an ALA Conference and went to see a “funny authors” panel.  As I recall, I was quite pleased to see the inclusion of Lisa Yee.  Here, Tucson didn’t quite get the memo.  The fault lies with the organizers and Cheryl has some incisive things to say about what message the attendees were getting.
  • Speaking of Adam Rex, he’s got this little old major feature film in theaters right now (Home).  Meanwhile in California, the Gallery Nucleus is doing an exhibition of Rex’s work.  Running from March 28th to April 19th, the art will be from the books The True Meaning of Smekday and Chu’s Day.  Get it while it’s hot!
  • Boy, Brain Pickings just knows its stuff.  There are plenty of aggregator sites out there that regurgitate the same old children’s stuff over and over again.  Brain Pickings actually writes their pieces and puts some thought into what they do.  Case in point, a recent piece on the best children’s books on death, grief, and mourning.  The choices are unusual, recent, and interesting.

Chomping at the bit to read the latest Lockwood & Company book by Jonathan Stroud?  It’s a mediocre salve but you may as well enjoy his homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Mind you, I was an Hercule Poirot fan born and bred growing up, but I acknowledge that that Doyle has his place.  And don’t tell Stroud, but his books are FAR closer to the Nero Wolfe stories in terms of tone anyway.

Over at The Battle of the Books the fighting rages on.  We’ve lost so many good soldiers in this fight.  If you read only one decision, however, read Nathan Hale’s.  Future judges would do well to emulate his style.  Indeed, is there any other way to do it?

You may be one of the three individuals in the continental U.S. who has not seen Travis Jonker’s blog post on The Art of the Picture Book Barcode.  If you’re only just learning about it now, boy are you in for a treat.

“Really? Rosé?”

That one took some thought.

  • Daily Image:

And now, the last and greatest flashdrive you will ever own:

Could just be a librarian thing, but I think I’m right in saying it reeks of greatness.  Many thanks to Stephanie Whelan for the link.


7 Comments on Fusenews: In which I find the barest hint of an excuse to post a Rex Stout cover, last added: 3/29/2015
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35. Review of the Day: Tricky Vic by Greg Pizzoli

Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower
By Greg Pizzoli
Viking (an imprint of Penguin Group USA)
ISBN: 978-0-670-01652-5
Ages 8-11
On shelves now

I was listening to a favorite podcast of mine the other day when the panelists began discussing the difference between heist films and con man films.  A heist film is one where the entire movie is a build-up to a great and fabulous heist.  Ocean’s 11 and that sort of thing.  In the children’s book world this would be The Great Greene Heist.  A con man film is different.  There you have a single individual, and not necessarily a heroic one either.  Catch Me If You Can is a con man film.  And on the children’s book side?  Honestly, we don’t have a lot of them.  Maybe Pickle by Kim Baker but that’s a stretch.  It really wasn’t until I laid eyes on Greg Pizzoli’s Tricky Vic that I could appreciate what I had been missing all these years.  Told with a relaxed easygoing style, Pizzoli takes one of the world’s most notorious individuals in the con game, and refuses to humanize him.  Here we see a character that was larger than life.  Makes sense that he’d try to sell a structure that was in many ways his equal.

In 1890 he was born Robert Miller, but that didn’t last.  Names came and went and by the time he was an adult, Miller was a professional gambler turned con artist.  His preferred method of payment was gambling on transatlantic ocean liners but then along came WWI and Miller, now calling himself Count Victor Lustig, needed a new occupation.  Through a little low level trickery he got the blessing of Al Capone and then set about bilking the easy rich.  But his greatest feat, and the one that would put him down in the history books, was his successful con of “selling” the Eiffel Tower to prospective buyers.  Though in time he was eventually caught and jailed (in Alcatraz, no less), Vic’s odd life shines a spotlight on those individuals willing to get ahead on our own greed and misplaced hope.  Backmatter includes an Author’s Note, Glossary, Selected Sources, and a note on the art.

Every great picture book biography finds something about an individual that is interesting to child readers.  In The Boy Who Loved Math it was Paul Erdos’s sheer enthusiasm and childlike goofiness.  In The Noisy Paintbox it was Kandinsky’s ability to translate sound to sight and back again.  And in Tricky Vic it’s shamelessness.  Kids don’t often encounter, in any form, adults that unapologetically do wrong.  Vic ultimately pays for his crimes, and in many ways that’s the only way you can get away with what Pizzoli is doing here.  You see, the trouble with con man storylines is that they’re just too much fun.  You can’t help but root for Vic when he pulls the old Romanian Money Box scheme or when he cons the great Al Capone himself.  Really one of the few objections I’ve heard lobbed against the book is a question as to whether or not kids will have any interest in an obscure two-bit criminal.  But like all great nonfiction authors for kids, Pizzoli knows that children’s biographies do not begin and end with Amelia Earhart and Abraham Lincoln.  Sometimes kids appreciate far more the biographies of the people who didn’t go about with halos hovering around their ears.  There’s room on our shelves for the baddies.

Now when Greg Pizzoli debuted with his picture book The Watermelon Seed two years ago, there was nothing to indicate to me that he had any inclination to go the nonfiction route.  “The Watermelon Seed” utilizes a three-color print job and distinctly retro aesthetic.  That aesthetic remains intact in Tricky Vic but Pizzoli but the technique has been cranked up to eleven.  In “A Note About the Art in This Book” at the back, Pizzoli says that the illustrations seen here were “created using pencil, ink, rubber stamps, halftone photographs, silkscreen, Zipatone, and Photoshop.” The end result is a book that straddles the line between those picture books actually concocted in the 1930s and a distinctly contemporary creation.

Dig a little deeper and Pizzoli’s illustration choices go beyond mere novelty.  The choice to render Vic’s head as a thumbprint has so many different uses.  With a mere change in tone or color, Pizzoli can render his personality and character different from one page to the next.  This chameleon of a man couldn’t ask for better representation.  But much of the success of the book lies in how it tackles the question of Vic as a bad person.  Pizzoli’s choice to make Vic expressionless throughout the book is key to this.  Because kids aren’t exactly reading about a role model, it’s important that Vic never look like he’s having too much fun.  Remove his mouth and eyes and voila!  An instant blank slate on which to project your storyline.  Let the facts speak for themselves.

And speaking of facts, in no time in our nation’s history have picture book biographies for children fallen under as much scrutiny as they do today.  Time was the D’Aulaires could write varying fictional accounts of everyone from Pocahontas to Abraham Lincoln and win Caldecotts for their efforts.  These days, the debate rages around how much an author is allowed to do and the crux of that debate centers on made up dialogue.  I am firmly of the opinion that made up dialogue is unnecessary in a children’s book biography.  However, when handled creatively, there are exceptions to every rule.  And “Tricky Vic” is, if nothing else, vastly creative.  If you read the book the actual text is all factual.  There is some mucking about with the timeline of one of the major events in Vic’s life, but Pizzoli comes clean about that in his Author’s Note in the back, and I give a lot of credit to folks who fess up plainly.  Getting back to the text, look a little closer and you’ll see that there is some made up dialogue but Pizzoli keeps it at a minimum and gives it its own separate space.  Little speech balloons between the characters will occasionally crop up at the bottom of the pages.  The feeling is that these are interstitial fictional bits that simply support the rest of the text.  A reader doesn’t walk away from them thinking that they’re strict representations of the past.  They are, instead, a little colorful complement to the text to give it a lighter bouncier feel.

I recently conducted a Salon in my library on children’s nonfiction picture book illustration and historical accuracy.  During the course of the talk we discussed Vincent Kirsch’s work on Gingerbread for Liberty and the times when a bouncier, more light-hearted feel to the illustrations best fit the text.  In Tricky Vic Pizzoli isn’t going for a meticulous reconstruction of past events in his art.  He’s going for something with a historical feel, but with fun built in as well.  The design elements are what really step things up a notch.  I also loved the factual sidebars that complemented the text but never dominate.  As kids read they encounter sections talking about Prohibition, The Tower’s Critics (the folks who hated it from the get-go, that is), the Hotel de Crillon, Counterfeiting, and Alcatraz.  The end result is as dynamic as it is informative.

I wonder vaguely if this book will receive any challenges from concerned parents living in the mistaken belief that Pizzoli has penned a How To manual for little budding criminals.  As I mentioned before, the line between celebrating your biographical picture book subject and simply reporting on their life is thin.  The beauty of Tricky Vic, I think, is that his life is just as wild and weird as any fictional character.  There is value in showing kids the fools of the past.  I don’t think anyone will walk away from this thinking Vic had it all figured out, but I do think a fair number of them might want to follow-up on Pizzoli’s Selected Sources for a little independent reading of their own.  And if this book encourages just one kid to rethink their attitude towards nonfiction, then this title has earned its place in the world.  The gorgeous art and great writing are just gravy.  For one.  For all.  Un-forgettable.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Other Blog Reviews: 100 Scope Notes

Professional Reviews: The New York Times

Interviews: Greg Pizzoli discusses his technique at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.


1 Comments on Review of the Day: Tricky Vic by Greg Pizzoli, last added: 3/26/2015
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36. Walking and Talking with . . . Andrew Smith

That’s right.

Andrew Smith.

And it’s fantastic. The latest in Steve Sheinkin’s series “Walking and Talking”.

Enjoy it.

Big time thanks to Steve for putting these together and for this one in particular.

Previous editions of this series include:




1 Comments on Walking and Talking with . . . Andrew Smith, last added: 3/27/2015
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37. Where the Wild Books Are: Addressing the State of Global Publishing in America

It’s amazing what a blog post can do. About a year or so ago I wrote some thoughts about picture books created in other countries, and how they are received when they are brought to American shores.  I’ve a great deal of experience with librarians considering some types of illustrations too “weird” to promote to children and parents and it rankles.  Likewise, there are many publishers that eschew a certain kind of look that comes with picture books from other countries.  My blog post sparked something, it seems.  The great illustrator Etienne Delessert caught on to it and the result is the following program, coming this April 18th.  If you are in town and around, I highly suggest you check it out.  The line-up is AMAZING! Plus it’s free and you can register here for it.