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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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They said it was dead. They said it was over. They said it would never return again. But what they didn’t count on was the fact that when I leave a city I doggone LEAVE a city! Ladies and gentlemen, I have grabbed my jumper cables, attracted a lightning storm of epic proportions, and rejuvenated the monster. In short, I’m having a final Kidlit Drink Night to say goodbye to New York City.
What: Kidlit Drink Night: Bye Bye Birdie Edition
When: Tuesday, July 14th at 6:00 p.m.
Where: The Houndstooth Bar at 520 8th Avenue at 37th Street. We’ll be in the lower portion.
Why: Because I’m leaving and I would like to say goodbye to you. Or, if you happen to be in New York at that time, hello to you. I’m not all that choosy.
While I acknowledge that from a thematic standpoint it would have made more sense to say goodbye in the Bookmarks Lounge or the Bemelmans Bar, I figured I’d instead choose a venue where you could, say, afford a glass or two of something. So come on over to midtown to bid me farewell and luck with my move to beautiful Evanston, IL. Buy me a drink and I may restrain myself from bragging about the beauty of the town, the impossible coolness of the library, the incredibly cool children’s literature community that thrives there, the fact that I can now rent a house with a mudroom, etc. etc. etc.
See you next week!
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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Boats for Papa
By Jessixa Bagley
Roaring Brook Press (an imprint of Macmillan)
On shelves now
So I’m a snob. A children’s literature snob. I accept this about myself. I do not embrace it, but I can at least acknowledge it and, at times, fight against it as much as I am able. Truth be told, it’s a weird thing to get all snobby about. People are more inclined to understand your point of view when you’re a snob about fine china or wines or bone structure. They are somewhat confused when you scoff at their copy of Another Monster at the End of This Book since it is clearly a sad sequel of the original Jon Stone classic (and do NOT even try to convince me that he was the author of that Elmo-related monstrosity because I think better of him than that). Like I say. Kid book snobbery won’t get you all that far in this life. And that’s too bad because I’ve got LOADS of the stuff swimming between my corpuscles. Just take my initial reaction to Jessixa Bagley’s Boats for Papa. I took one glance at the cover and dismissed it, just like that. I’ll explain precisely why I did so in a minute, but right there it was my gut reaction at work. I have pretty good gut reactions and 99% of the time they’re on target. Not in this case, though. Because once I sat down and read it and watched other people read it, I realized that I had something very special on my hands. Free of overblown sentiment and crass pandering, this book’s the real deal. Simultaneously wrenching and healing.
Buckley and his mama are just two little beavers squeaking out an existence in a small wooden house by the sea. Buckley loves working with his hands (paws?) and is particularly good at turning driftwood into boats. One day it occurs to him to send his best boats off into the sea with little notes that read, “For Papa. Love, Buckley”. Buckley misses his papa, you see, and this is the closest he can get to sending him some kind of a message. As Buckley gets better, the boats get more elaborate. Finally, one day a year later, he runs into his house to write a note for papa, when he notices that his mother has left her desk open. Inside is every single boat he ever sent to his papa. Realizing what has happened, Buckley makes a significant choice with this latest seagoing vessel. One that his mama is sure to see and understand.
The danger with this book is determining whether or not it slips into Love You Forever territory. Which is to say, does it speak more to adults than to kids. You get a fair number of picture books with varying degrees of sentimentality out there every year. On the low end of the spectrum is Love You Forever, on the high end Blueberry Girl and somewhere in the middle are books like Someday by Alison McGhee. Some of these can be great books, but they’re so clearly not for kids. And when I realized that Boats for Papa was a weeper my alarm bells went off. If adults are falling over themselves to grab handkerchiefs when they get to the story’s end, surely children would be distinctly uninterested. Yet Bagley isn’t addressing adults with this story. The focus is on how one deals with life after someone beloved is gone. Adults get this instantly because they know precisely what it is to lose someone (or they can guess). Kids, on the other hand, may sometimes have that understanding but a lot of the time it’s foreign to them. And so Buckley’s hobbies are just the marks of a good story. I suspect few kids would walk away from this saying the book was uninteresting to them. It seems to strike just the right chord.
It is also a book that meets multiple needs. For some adult readers, this is a dead daddy book. But upon closer inspection you realize that it’s far broader than that. This could be a book about a father serving his time overseas. It could be about divorced parents (it mentions that mama misses papa, and that’s not an untrue sentiment in some family divorce situations). It could have said outright that Buckley’s father had passed away (ala Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas which this keeps reminding me of) but by keeping it purposefully vague we are allowed to read far more into the book’s message than we could have if it was just another dead parent title.
Finally, it is Bagley’s writing that wins the reader over. Look at how ecumenical she is with her wordplay. The very first sentences in the book reads, “Buckley and his mama lived in a small wooden house by the sea. They didn’t have much, but they always had each other.” There’s not a syllable wasted there. Not a letter out of place. That succinct quality carries throughout the rest of the book. There is one moment late in the game where Buckley says, “And thank you for making every day so wonderful too” that strains against the bonds of sentimentality, but it never quite topples over. That’s Bagley’s secret. We get the most emotionally involved in those picture books that give us space to fill in our own lives, backgrounds, understandings and baggage. The single note reading, “For Mama / Love, Buckley” works because those are the only words on the page. We don’t need anything else after that.
As I age I’ve grown very interested in picture books that touch on the nature of grace. “Grace” is, in this case, defined as a state of being that forgives absolutely. Picture books capable of conjuring up very real feelings of resentment in their young readers only to diffuse the issue with a moment of pure forgiveness are, needless to say, rare. Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan was one of the few I could mention off the top of my head. I shall now add Boats for Papa to that enormously short list. You see, (and here I’m going to call out “SPOILER ALERT” for those of you who care about that sort of thing) for me the moment when Buckley finds his boats in his mother’s desk and realizes that she has kept this secret from him is a moment of truth. Bagley is setting you up to assume that there will be a reckoning of some sort when she writes, “They had never reached Papa”. And it is here that the young reader can stop and pause and consider how they would react in this case. I’d wager quite a few of them would be incensed. I mean, this is a clear-cut case of an adult lying to a child, right? But Bagley has placed Buckley on a precipice and given him a bit of perspective. Maybe I read too much into this scene, but I think that if Buckley had discovered these boats when he was first launching them, almost a full year before, then yes he would have been angry. But after a year of sending them to his Papa, he has grown. He realizes that his mother has been taking care of him all this time. For once, he has a chance to take care of her, even if it is in a very childlike manner. He’s telling her point blank that he knows that she’s been trying to protect him and that he loves her. Grace.
Now my adult friends pointed out that one could read Buckley’s note as a sting. That he sent it to say “GOTCHA!” They say that once a book is outside of an author’s hands, it can be interpreted by the readership in any number of ways never intended by the original writer. For my part, I think that kind of a reading is very adult. I could be wrong but I think kids will read the ending with the loving feel that was intended from the start.
When I showed this book to a friend who was a recent Seattle transplant, he pointed out to me that the coastline appearing in this book is entirely Pacific Northwest based. I think that was the moment I realized that I had done a 180 on the art. Remember when I mentioned that I didn’t much care for the cover when I first saw it? Well, fortunately I have instituted a system whereby I read every single picture book I am sent on my lunch breaks. Once I got past the cover I realized that it was the book jacket that was the entire problem. There’s something about it that looks oddly cheap. Inside, Bagley’s watercolors take on a life of their own. Notice how the driftwood on the front endpapers mirrors the image of Buckley displaying his driftwood boats on the back endpapers. See how Buckley manages to use her watercolors to their best advantage, from the tide hungry sand on the beach to the slate colored sky to the waves breaking repeatedly onto the shore. Perspective shifts constantly. You might be staring at a beach covered in the detritus of the waves on one two-page spread, only to have the images scale back and exist in a sea of white space on the next. The best image, by far, is the last though. That’s when Bagley makes the calculated step of turning YOU, the reader, into Mama. You are holding the boat. You are holding the note. And you know. You know.
I like it when a picture book wins me over. When I can get past my own personal bugaboos and see it for what it really is. Emotional resonance in literature for little kids is difficult to attain. It requires a certain amount of talent, both on the part of the author and their editor. In Boats for Papa we’ve a picture book that doesn’t go for the cheap emotional tug. It comes by its tears honestly. There’s some kind of deep and abiding truth to it. Give me a couple more years and maybe I’ll get to the bottom of what’s really going on here. But before that occurs, I’m going to read it with my kids. Even children who have never experienced the loss of a parent will understand what’s going on in this story on some level. Uncomplicated and wholly original, this is one debut that shoots out of the starting gate full throttle, never looking back. A winner.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
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Misc: Be sure to check out this profile of Jessixa Bagley over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.
You read that right, folks. Karen Cushman has a new book coming out (hooray!) and it’s not like her books in the past. Cushman has embraced her fantastical side in her latest title, Grayling’s Song. Here’s the plot description:
“When Grayling’s mother, wise woman Hannah Strong, starts turning into a tree, Hannah sends Grayling to call “the others” for help. Shy and accustomed to following her mother in everything, Grayling takes to the road. She manages to summon several “others”—second-string magic makers who have avoided the tree spell—and sets off on a perilous trip to recover Hannah’s grimoire, or recipe book of charms and potions. By default the leader of the group, which includes a weather witch, an enchantress, an aspiring witch, a wizard whose specialty is divination with cheese, and a talking and shape shifting mouse called Pook, Grayling wants nothing more than to go home.
Kidnapping, imprisonment, near drowning, and ordinary obstacles like hunger, fatigue, and foul weather plague the travelers, but they persist and achieve their goal. Returning, Grayling finds herself reluctant to part with her companions—especially Pook. At home she’s no longer content to live with her bossy mother, who can look after herself just fine, and soon sets out on another journey to unfamiliar places . . . possibly to see the young paper maker who warmed her heart.”
To get a sense of the book, I had the honor of asking Ms. Cushman a couple questions about his new direction.
Betsy Bird: It’s always a cause for celebration when a new Karen Cushman book is on the horizon. This book does feel, to some extent, like a bit of a departure for you. While it has a historical feel, there’s magic in its bones. Have you always wanted to write a fantasy? Or is this a newfound desire?
Karen Cushman: It is definitely a departure. After eight historical novels about gutsy girls (and Will), I wanted to try something different. I had an idea for a fantasy. How difficult could it be? I would not be bothered by all that pesky history, the rules and boundaries that constrain an author writing about a real time and place.
That shows how much I know about fantasies. A fantasy world has as much history, as many rules and boundaries and limitations, as historical fiction, but the author has to invent them. For both fantasy and historical fiction authors, our task is to make a world come alive within boundaries. .
Grayling’s Song takes Grayling reluctantly on a journey to free her mother from a curse. I set myself a difficult task: to write a fantasy in which magic exists but is sometimes harmful and never the answer. Grayling has to get herself and others out of danger without magic–by being thoughtful, observant, cooperative, persistent, and determined. In other words, human. My husband calls it an anti-fantasy. And that’s the point: magic is not the answer.
BB: Can you tell us a little bit about the origins of the book itself?
KC: The book began with the image of Grayling’s mother rooted to the ground. I’m not a big fantasy reader and had never before thought about writing a fantasy, but that image appeared in my head and I wanted to find out more, so I had to make it up and write it down.
BB: What are some of the children’s fantasy novels that you yourself have enjoyed reading (either when you were a child or now as an adult)? Have they influenced this book in any way?
KC: I don’t remember fantasy being popular when I was young. Science fiction, yes, but I wasn’t interested. The first fantasy I recall reading is Peter Beagle’s wondrous The Last Unicorn, and I was all grown up and married before that. Since then I have found several fantasies to love: Lloyd Alexander’s five Chronicles of Prydain books, which I read over and over with my daughter, The Hobbit, The Once and Future King, Ella Enchanted, The Princess Bride, Plain Kate, Seraphina, The Goblin Emperor.
I think their influence is mostly in their wide spectrum. There is no one right way to write fantasy, they told me, no correct kind of character, no approved method of magic. And several of them gave me permission to be funny, ironic, and downright silly at times.
BB: So many authors have difficulty writing standalone books. Which is to say, books that don’t require sequels. Looking at your titles, I don’t know that you’ve ever done a sequel. Is there a particular reason for this? Do you think you might try one in the future? I’m sure your fans have asked you to
KC: Stories seem to come to me all of a piece–a beginning, middle, and end, all in one book. I had thought about writing a sequel to Catherine Called Birdy for my second book but my editor didn’t like sequels and urged me to try something else. So I did. That something else was The Midwife’s Apprentice, which won the Newbery Medal in 1996. Good call, Dinah.
I still think about that Birdy sequel. I have a plot and characters, but I’m not sure I could recapture that voice. Birdy’s voice is so distinctive and pretty well known. But maybe, maybe…
BB: Speaking of which, recently you were a bit in the news when Lena Dunham announced that she was adapting Catherine Called Birdy, one of her favorite books, to the silver screen. I assume that you’ve had interest from Hollywood in the past, but this felt a bit more serious. Did it catch you off-guard?
KC: Off-guard is an understatement. Several people had sent me the comment Lena made stating that Catherine Called Birdy and Lolita were the two best books for girls. That’s pretty rare company but I thought no more about it until a contract for an option appeared from Lena’s company.
I’ve met with Lena, who is bright and lovely and sweet, much smarter and nicer than Hannah from Girls. Lena is excited about the project and determined to make it happen so I have my fingers crossed.
BB: Well finally, what are you working on next?
KC: Too many ideas are swimming around in my head. I’m working on a short story set in Elizabethan Bath, which may also be a novel. And there is Millie McGonigal waiting for me in San Diego in 1941. And a book about a pilgrimage to Rome, and, oh yes, something about thieving orphans in medieval Oxford. Probably my next book will be one of those. Probably.
BB: A million thanks to you, Karen, for agreeing to speak with me! Just as a side note, Lena Dunham also has a tattoo of Richard Peck’s Fair Weather. Probably the only one in known existence, so her motives are certainly pure.
And now folks . . . the very first Karen Cushman fantasy novel!
Karen Cushman’s acclaimed historical novels include Catherine, Called Birdy, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Midwife’s Apprentice, which received the Newbery Medal. She lives on Vashon Island in Washington State. Her website is www.karencushmanbooks.com.
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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As you may have noticed, I’ve not done a Video Sunday in a while. It now appears that what I was waiting for all this time was Dan Santat’s parody of Serial, turning it into a reenactment of his Caldecott Award call. I’m just ashamed that when he won it didn’t immediately occur to me that, “Wow. We’re going to get a really great video out of this.” Hindsight is 20-20.
Nice that he got to take the shark suit out of mothballs, right?
As a children’s librarian I associate American Girl dolls far more with their books than the actual dolls. This American Girl Dolls: The Movie trailer from Funny or Die will satisfy any children’s librarian that has ever had to shelve those darn books (or struggle with the eternal question of where to shelve them).
Shh! Don’t tell them Mattel owns both Barbie AND American Girls. Thanks to Beth Banner for the link.
So this Meghan Trainor librarian parody video has garnered 77,963 views as of this posting. And I have heard from more than one person that its creator resembles me. Which is infinitely kind but she is (A) Younger (B) Cuter (C) Actually knows how to style hair. Ever noticed that my hair is always a plain bob? I don’t do hair. This woman. She’s all about the hair.
This next one’s a bit of a surprise. Not that it exists (tree to book, book to tree) but that I can’t think of a single American book that has gone a similar route. Usually we just get “bury this bookmark” swag. I think only a small publisher could get away with this. Or an Argentinian one. Wow.
Thanks to Gregory K for the link.
As someone who doesn’t know a thing about making book trailers, I tip my hat to anyone who is capable (or has offspring who are capable) of creating such a thing out of the ether. With that in mind . . .
As for the off-topic video, I’m not entirely certain why I decided to go with baby goats in pajamas today. Maybe it was something in the wind. In any case . . .
Thanks to Aunt Judy for the link.
Did I mention that my new workplace has peregrine falcons? FALCONS, I SAY!
- As the House of Bird prepares for its inevitable move, I find myself rather entranced with my incipient home of Evanston, Illinois. I’m coming to it with almost no prior knowledge of its existence, and find it to be completely and utterly lovely. Example A: Check out this Humans of New York-esque photo series on Tumblr where the library talks to everyday citizens. Good stuff!
- Last month I participated in the 21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference, located conveniently enough in New York City. The conference is rather one-of-a-kind since under normal circumstances nonfiction children’s and YA authors are sidelined at the larger book related gatherings. Here, nonfiction was king and each speaker and attendee was a fan. PW has the write-up of the whole kerschmozzle here.
- Actually, that reminds me. I need some blog recommendations from you guys. What’s your favorite nonfiction children’s book blog site? I ask because I feel like I’d benefit from having a roster to call upon. Name me the best, continually updated site you know of and I will return the favor by directing your attention to this jaw-droppingly awesome series of pocket activities conjured up by the one and only Dana Sheridan of the Cotsen Collection of Princeton University. I adore this. For example, at one point she says, “It would be interesting to apply the pocket activity to literary figures. What would Jane Austin carry in her pocket? Charles Dickens? J.K. Rowling? Why not apply this concept to the sciences? What would Einstein have in his pocket? Marie Curie? I did, in fact, do a modified version of the pocket activity when I designed this Character Book activity at my library. Not a wallet, and not replicas of historical objects, but the concept is still there! People often ask where I get my ideas (see FAQ). This one derives directly from the pocket activity.”
This is what Milo from THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH would have in his pockets.
Like I say. Jaw-dropping.
- Each and every Laura Amy Schlitz novel that is published is cause for cheer and generous carousing in the streets. But just as delightful in many ways are the very good interviews she participates in. Kiera Parrott does a stand up job speaking to Ms. Schlitz about her latest novel with Candlewick. Plus there’s a video. Callo! Callay!
Cool. Here in NYC the Morgan Library is doing a pretty fancy Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland exhibition. There is probably a roster somewhere of all the Alice exhibits going on in 2015 to celebrate her 150th year. If anyone sends me the link you will earn yourself a cup of treacle in thanks.
My fabulous co-workers. Doing the being fabulous thing.
My fabulous Caldecott winner, Dan Santat. Doing the being fabulous thing while thanking bloggers in his incredibly raw Caldecott speech.
On the one hand the Huffington Post article 13 Children’s Book Authors Who Would Have Written Beautiful Fiction for Adults Too is insulting on a very basic level. Many is the children’s book author who has been asked when they’re going to write a “real” book. But just taken at face value, the post is inaccurate. A lot of the authors listed have, indeed, written for adults. I can think of Katherine Paterson and Maurice Sendak just off the top of my head. Apparently the authors of the piece weren’t really interested in delving too deeply into their subject. More’s the pity. A post on favorite authors who HAVE written adult fare could be far more interesting.
- I was chatting with Jules Danielson and Travis Jonker the other day and she mentions this recent article in the Washington Post about Roald Dahl’s granddaughter’s fiancee, who is currently the toast of Orange is the New Black. Travis pointed out that a very different Dahl descendant was also in the news not too long ago, thereby solidifying the man’s status as having the Best Hipster Descendants of any children’s literature icon thus far (step up your game, Shel Silverstein kiddos). I was thinking of all this when I learned about an A.A. Milne relative who is a very different kind of author than his famous uncle. Tim Milne, nephew of A.A. Milne, was recruited into MI6 and wrote the story of Kim Philby, the legendary Soviet master spy. Now somebody get thee hence and write me a Winnie-the-Pooh spy novel!
- Speaking of Travis, he speaks! With Colby Sharp no less.
I’m a children’s librarian and an author. Every summer I ask my librarians to send me the summer reading lists that they get from the kids so that I can make certain we have enough copies of all the books on our shelves. Summer is just a continual month long process of me shifting holds from one record to another and buying books en masse. As far as I can tell, you’ve really made it as an author if you find your name on one of those lists. Well, today I’d like to formally thank a teacher at P.S. 110 who deigned to put my beloved Giant Dance Party on their summer reading list. Thank you, fine and fabulous educator type person! Kinda makes me feel like I “made it” in some way. I’m #17.
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage
By Selina Alko
Illustrated by Sean Qualls
Arthur A. Levine Books (an imprint of Scholastic)
On shelves now.
When the Supreme Court ruled on June 26, 2015 that same-sex couples could marry in all fifty states, I found myself, like many parents of young children, in the position of trying to explain the ramifications to my offspring. Newly turned four, my daughter needed a bit of context. After all, as far as she was concerned gay people had always had the right to marry so what exactly was the big deal here? In times of change, my back up tends to be children’s books that discuss similar, but not identical, situations. And what book do I own that covers a court case involving the legality of people marrying? Why, none other than The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by creative couple Selina Alko and Sean Qualls. It’s almost too perfect that the book has come out the same year as this momentous court decision. Discussing the legal process, as well as the prejudices of the time, the book offers to parents like myself not just a window to the past, but a way of discussing present and future court cases that involve the personal lives of everyday people. Really, when you take all that into consideration, the fact that the book is also an amazing testament to the power of love itself . . . well, that’s just the icing on the cake.
In 1958 Richard Loving, a white man, fell in love with Mildred Jeter, a black/Native American woman. Residents of Virginia, they could not marry in their home state so they did so in Washington D.C. instead. Then they turned right around and went home to Virginia. Not long after they were interrupted in the night by a police invasion. They were charged with “unlawful cohabitation” and were told in no uncertain terms that if they were going to continue living together then they needed to leave Virginia. They did, but they also hired lawyers to plead their case. By 1967 the Lovings made it all the way to The Supreme Court where their lawyers read a prepared statement from Richard. It said, “Tell the court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.” In a unanimous ruling, the laws restricting such marriages were struck down. The couple returned to Virginia, found a new house, and lived “happily (and legally) ever after.” An Author’s Note about her marriage to Sean Qualls (she is white and he is black) as well as a note about the art, Sources, and Suggestions for Further Reading appear at the end of the book.
“How do you sue someone?” Here’s a challenge. Explain the concept of suing the government to a four-year-old brain. To do so, you may have to explain a lot of connected concepts along the way. What is a lawyer? And a court? And, for that matter, why are the laws (and cops) sometimes wrong? So when I pick up a book like The Case for Loving as a parent, I’m desperately hoping on some level that the authors have figured out how to break down these complex questions into something small children can understand and possibly even accept. In the case of this book, the legal process is explained as simply as possible. “They wanted to return to Virginia for good, so they hired lawyers to help fight for what was right.” And then later, “It was time to take the Loving case all the way to The Supreme Court.” Now the book doesn’t explain what The Supreme Court was necessarily, and that’s where the art comes in. Much of the heavy lifting is done by the illustrations, which show the judges sitting in a row, allowing parents like myself the chance to explain their role. Here you will not find a deep explanation of the legal process, but at least it shows a process and allows you to fill in the gaps for the young and curious.
It was very interesting to me to see how Alko and Qualls handled the art in this book. I’ve often noticed that editors like to choose Sean as an artist when they want an illustrator that can offset some of the darker aspects of a work. For example, take Margarita Engle’s magnificently sordid Pura Belpre Medal winner The Poet Slave of Cuba. A tale of torture, gore, and hope, Qualls’ art managed to represent the darkness with a lighter touch, while never taking away from the important story at hand. In The Case for Loving he has scaled the story down a bit and given it a simpler edge. His characters are a bit broader and more cartoonlike than those in, say, Dizzy. This is due in part to Alko’s contributions. As they say in their “About the Art” section at the back of the book, Alko’s art is all about bold colors and Sean’s is about subtle layers of color and texture. Together, they alleviate the tension in different scenes. Moments that could be particularly frightening, as when the police burst into the Lovings’ bedroom to arrest them, are cast instead as simply dramatic. I noticed too that characters were much smaller in this book than they tend to be in Sean’s others. It was interesting to note the moments when that illustrators made the faces of Richard and Virginia large. The page early in the book where Richard and Mildred look at one another over the book’s gutter pairs well with the page later in the book where their faces appear on posters behind bars against the words “Unlawful Cohabitation”. But aside from those two double spreads the family is small, often seen just outside their different respective homes. It seemed to be important to Qualls and Alko to show them as a family unit as often as possible.
Few books are perfect, and Loving has its off-kilter moments from time to time. For example, it describes darker skin tones in terms of food. That’s not a crime, of course, but you rarely hear white skin described as “white as aged cheese” or “the color of creamy mayonnaise” so why is dark colored skin always edible? In this book Mildred is “a creamy caramel” and she lives where people ranged from “the color of chamomile tea” to darker shades. A side issue has arisen concerning Mildred’s identification as Native American and whether or not the original case made more of her African-American roots because it would build a stronger case in court. This is a far bigger issue than a picture book could hope to encompass, though I would be interested in a middle grade or young adult nonfiction book on the topic that went into the subject in a little more depth.
Recently I read my kid another nonfiction picture book chronicling injustice called Drum Dream Girl by the aforementioned Margarita Engle. In that book a young girl isn’t allowed to drum because of her gender. My daughter was absolutely flabbergasted by the notion. When I read her The Case for Loving she was similarly baffled. And when, someday, someone writes a book about the landmark decision made by The Supreme Court to allow gay couples to wed, so too will some future child be just as floored by what seems completely normal to them. Until then, this is certainly a book written and published at just the right time. Informative and heartfelt all at once, it works beyond the immediate need. Context is not an easy thing to come by when we discuss complex subjects with our kids. It takes a book like this to give us the words we so desperately need. Many thanks then for that.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
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Misc: Don’t forget to check out this incident that occurred involving this book and W. Kamau Bell’s treatment at Berkeley’s Elmwood Café.
Folks, one of the things I love about this job is the fact that I get to watch authors’ careers bloom and blossom. I see authors starting out or at the beginning of their careers and watch as they garner praise and flourishes throughout the years. Today’s example is author Lynne Jonell. Back in 2007 I very much enjoyed her book Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat. She’s written so much since then, but her latest is the one that caught my eye. Recently Kirkus said of The Sign of the Cat in a starred review that, “Intriguing, well-drawn characters, evocatively described settings, plenty of action, and touches of humor combine to create an utterly satisfying adventure.” The book follows the adventures of a boy who can communicate with cats. So, right there. You’ve got me. Add in Lynne’s amazing answers to my questions (come for the interview, stay for the reference to a “squishing machine”) and you’ve got yourself a blog post, my friend.
Betsy Bird: Hello, Lynne! So let’s just start with the basics from the get go. Where did this book come from? I mean to say, what was the impetus that made you want to write it?
Lynne Jonell: Hi, Betsy! The first and shallowest impetus for the book was that, back in 2006, I had sent a book off to my publisher but was still in full-steam-ahead writing mode. I wasn’t up for starting a whole new novel just yet, but I thought I could manage a chapter book.
Secondly, as a child, I had always wished I could speak the secret language of animals. Very quickly, a concept took shape—there would be a boy (I had never written about a boy, and it seemed like a new challenge), he could speak Cat (I love cats, plus it seemed that they would be privy to a lot of information—cats go everywhere, and no one worries about whether or not a cat is going to repeat what it hears), and he didn’t know what had happened to his father (every story needs a problem, right? I knew that much.)
Concepts won’t sustain a book for very long, though. For me, there has to be something underneath, some deeper thing that drives me to write a particular story. I usually have no idea what this thing is, or where it is rooted, but I can tell when it is there because I will have an image in my mind—something that haunts me.
When I have a vivid picture—no matter that it makes no sense yet—I know there is power somewhere, there is energy enough for an entire book. Then I will begin to write toward that image. For example, Emmy & the Incredible Shrinking Rat started with a dream of a piece of green paper with a curved line, and later an image of a cane carved with the faces of little girls.
When I was beginning to toy around with The Sign of the Cat, I saw a boy and a kitten in the sea, struggling to stay afloat as the ship they’d been on sailed away into the night. There was a man on deck of the ship, too. He watched the boy without expression, and he did not give the alarm.
Soon more images began to come—a tiger, a squishing machine, Duncan hiding in a closet and watching with horror as a man dug into a pie—and I couldn’t fit them all into a chapter book. I picked up the story from time to time, playing around with it, but it wasn’t until 2010 that some of the pieces came together and I began to work seriously on the book. Now, of course, I know what the book means to me—and it’s full of personal references—but at the beginning, I didn’t have the faintest idea where it was going.
BB: You’re no stranger to the world of fantasy, but sometimes I feel like you tend to keep one foot rooted in the real world as well. You’re not quite a magical realism writer, but when fantastical elements appear in your books they seem to happen in a world very much like our own. Is there any particular reason for that, do you think?
LJ: Yes, absolutely. My favorite books, as a child, were ones in which magical things happened to ordinary children, going about their ordinary business. Then suddenly—wham! The chemistry set made them invisible, the strange coin they picked up off the street gave them wishes, the nursery carpet turned out to contain the egg of a phoenix, the toy ship purchased in a dark and dusty shop could grow to carry four children, and fly… I loved the idea that maybe, just maybe, it might someday happen to me.
Children today may seem more sophisticated than we were, but that’s superficial… deep down, they are developmentally the same, and they believe in the possibility of magic a lot longer than you might think. I have had ten year olds ask me, very shyly, if the magic in my books was real.
That’s why I love to make the world of the book close to the child reader’s world. It seems as if the magic could happen to them, too, someday. And rather than magical realism, perhaps you could call my books “magical science”, because I always base the magic on some scientific concept, to make things even more plausible. For instance, in The Sign of the Cat, I was fascinated with the concept of critical periods of brain development.
There’s a famous study where normal kittens had their eyes covered for a few months after birth. When the covering was removed, the kittens were blind. Their eyes were normal, and there was nothing wrong with the optic nerve, but the connections between the brain and the optic nerve hadn’t been made during a crucial period. There are critical periods with hearing, too, and attachment (think imprinting, with baby ducks), and the acquisition of language.
I thought, what if there’s a critical period where humans had the ability to learn Cat? We wouldn’t know it, because cats can’t be bothered to teach anyone anything, and the chance would go by forever!
BB: What kinds of books did you read when you were a kid? I’m crossing my fingers for the name “Edward Eager” to appear, just so’s you know.
JL: Oh, sure, Edward Eager, of course—but his inspiration was E. Nesbit, and I loved her books even more. The Phoenix and the Carpet, and Five Children and It—masterpieces. I also adored Eleanor Cameron, anything by Ruth Chew (I loved The Wednesday Witch), Hilda Lewis (The Ship That Flew), Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the Narnia books of course, The Hobbit, anything by Elizabeth Enright, Eleanor Estes, Rudyard Kipling; I could go on and on…
I also had an abiding fascination with fiction about Native Americans—the different tribes, how they lived, the various cultures. I had a deep and secret longing to go back in time, before European settlers arrived, and be a Dakota boy. I wanted to be a boy because, in the books, they always had the adventures—and I also decided I would have to have perfect vision, because I was terribly nearsighted and I knew I couldn’t steal horses and count coup when I couldn’t see past my nose. I think this period was at its height when I was in fourth grade, and I remember many summer mornings where I’d grab my favorite stick and go off to some vacant lot or field where I would become that Dakota boy for hours on end.
BB: I once ran a children’s bookgroup and held up a new fantasy for them to peruse. One of them groaned audibly when they saw the number on the spine. “No more series!” she cried. I don’t know that that kid was exactly the norm, but she did at least prove to me that there are kids out there that prefer standalone novels to series books. Is The Sign of the Cat a standalone or the first in a series? How did you come to make that decision?
JL: The Sign of the Cat is a stand-alone. I don’t know how that decision was made, actually—it seems that the book made the decision for me. A reviewer said that Cat was a good “series starter” and I wondered where that came from! But I suppose that everyone, when a book ends, likes to wonder what happens next.
BB: Would you call yourself a “cat person”? If so, do you think a non-cat person could ever write a book of this sort?
JL: I’m more a cat person than a dog person. I like the way cats are a little aloof, and don’t slobber all over you with their affection, and aren’t very needy—but they are capable of deep attachment once you get to know them. I like their independence.
But I don’t own a cat, and I don’t think I needed to be a cat person to write this book. I am most definitely not a rat person, yet I wrote three books about rats!
BB: If you could speak the language of any kind of animal besides cats, what would it be?
JL: Birds. I would so love to fly… I think they might speak very poetically about flight, and they could come to my windowsill and tell me all about it.
BB: And finally, what are you working on next?
JL: I’m working on a time-travel book based in Scotland. And yes—there was an image with this book, too. The first was a postcard of Castle Menzies. My grandfather, whose clan it was, showed me the picture when I was a child, and I never forgot it.
The second image came 45 years later; I had a vivid mental picture of an acorn rolling out from a stone wall. I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew that the stone wall was part of the castle, and I also knew that it was time to get to work on that particular book.
BB: Well, many thanks to Ms. Jonell for joining us today. Now about that “squishing machine” . . .
Those canny readers amongst you will notice immediately that the date of this post is all wrong. What am I trying to pull here? After all, International Migratory Bird Day (as every good schoolchild knows) is always held on the second Saturday in May. Yet here I am on June 29th, saying unto you that it is nigh. And, in a way, it is.
Folks, what is the state bird of Illinois?
Actually, it’s the plucky little Northern cardinal (plucky, because it’s apparently the state bird for seven states), but if we’re talking the state Bird (capital B) then it’s me.
Is it just me, or does this cardinal look seriously displeased with the state of the world today?
On Friday, July 31st I will start my new job as the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system. Which is to say, I am leaving New York Public Library and I will no longer be your roving reporter in NYC.
For the record, that costume is enormously warm.
This may come as a bit of a shock, but for those of you who know me (or who have brushed against me in the past five years) you’ll know that it’s a long time coming. Over the last few years I think I’ve mentioned to friends and acquaintances an “imminent” move to L.A., Minneapolis, Vermont, Connecticut, and Amherst (and I know there are a few additional places I’m forgetting as well). But extricating myself from NYC has been difficult. The only way I can describe it is to the say that it’s been like a big stone lion has been sitting on my back and I’ve had to pluck out its claws one by one before being able to move on (any artist that wants to bring that image to life, I encourage you to do so). Which is NOT to say that I don’t still love NYPL with all the beatings of my blackened little heart. If I could pick up my current job and carry it with me out of NYC I would do so. This city has given me opportunities I could never have found anywhere, and New York Public Library in particular allowed me to attain what I really do believe was my dream job. I owe New York City everything. That said, I am a mother with two small children and I’m a city employee. I may have a lovely life in Harlem but it’s not the kind of thing one can maintain for a long period of time. And so, I go.
I assure you that in terms of this blog, nothing much will change. Thanks to the appearance of Bird #2 my librarian previews pretty much trickled away to nothingness anyway. Plus, Chicago offers a LOT of good possibilities. ALA is centered there. Book Expo is slated to go there next year (which I think is awfully kind of its managers to think of me like that). I could finally attend ChLA for the first time in my life. Add in the LOADS of children’s book names centered in that town and I have big plans. Big big big plans! Watch out, Windy City. We’re about to have a whole lotta fun.
And, of course, my departure from NYC can only mean one thing.
Kidlit Drink Night Returns!!
Awwwwww, yeah, baby. You didn’t think I’d bow out of the New York scene without a bash? A bash to which you and all your kin are invited? Heck no! I want to say bye bye to you in style so for one night only I’ll be holding court at the Houndstooth Pub later in the month (details to come).
And you may, in the midst of the move, see a small gap on the blog postings. Then again, I managed to blog continually when my two kiddos were born, so maybe not. I really have no idea. This blog has never known me to live anywhere else.
Windy City, HO!
When Lisa Von Drasek does a program, you bloody well publicize that program. Here she just let me know about these multiple, awesome programs. Well worth noting, folks.
People often ask me how could I give up being at Bank Street College of Education to live in Minnesota. The answer is the Kerlan Collection. This is one of the largest repositories of Children’s Book manuscripts, art and first editions. We hold the papers of all of the Ambassador’s for Your Peoples Literature (if you are counting in your head that is Scieszka, Patterson, Myers, and DiCamillo) Yet not everyone has the funds to visit the University of Minnesota. It is my goal to bring the collection out of the Cavern and share with librarians and teachers. This is just the beginning. Enjoy.
Today is the launch of Balloons Over Broadway, Melissa Sweet, and the Engineering of a Picture. This is a digital exhibit examining the author/ illustrator research and creative process using the materials in the Kerlan Collection in Children’s Literature Research Collections at University of Minnesota Libraries .
If you are going to ALA, don’t miss the opportunity too hear Melissa Sweet at the ALSC President’s program. Monday, 6/29 1:00 to 2:30
Charlemae Rollins President’s Program — More to the Core: From the Craft of Nonfiction to the Expertise in the Stacks – MCC-2001 (W)
Awarding-winning author and illustrator Melissa Sweet and literacy advocate Judy Cheatham, VP of Literacy Services at Reading Is Fundamental, share the stage to present an informational and inspirational look at the creation of excellent nonfiction and the matchmaking of great books and kids who need them. Libraries’ role in innovative implementation of programs and services to support the Common Core Standards is a central skill and an important contribution to the communities we serve. Even if CCS isn’t a part of your educational landscape, great nonfiction books – how they are created and ways to connect them to children and families is central to our craft and critical to our ability to collaborate with our communities. Let’s be inspired together!
Well, I’m just about as pleased as I can be. For years I’ve adored and promoted and generally yammered endlessly about webcomic artist Kate Beaton and her Hark, A Vagrant strips. Whether it was her Nancy Drew covers or her psychedelic take on The Secret Garden (to say nothing of her history strips) she’s one of my heroes. This year, she’s gone a step further and created her very first picture book. Called The Princess and the Pony, it’s edited by Cheryl Klein and published by Scholastic. As you can see from the cover here, the book contains a fat little pony character that Beaton created for the Hark, A Vagrant strip years ago. On June 30th it’ll hit shelves everywhere. Before that happens, though, I was given the chance to chat a bit with Ms. Beaton about her work.
Betsy Bird: Let’s talk about the impetus for the character of Princess Pinecone here. I get a bit of an Adventure Time vibe off of her, but that might just be because kickass princesses are in the air these days. From whence did she spring?
Kate Beaton: There are a lot of kickass princesses on Adventure Time! Funny you should mention it, because one time years ago, the Pony itself was featured on an episode. Only it was purple. And turned out to be the Ice King in a costume. But they asked my permission, which was cool! Of course I said yes!
Princess Pinecone came to mind almost immediately for me. I’m one of four girls, our house growing up was full of Girl Stuff and princesses are a part of that. I loved princesses myself, I drew them all the time. I don’t think anyone had to tell me to like them, they were my jam. But kids do get lobbed a crazy amount of princess stuff these days, and some of it is a little too much, so if I was going to make a story about one, who she was and what she wanted would be pretty important. Pinecone deliberately sort of looks the princess part with the blonde hair and ribbons, but she’s also small and tough and she’s named for a bristly little plant thing. And really she is only a princess because I tell you she is, it’s not like her status carries the story, because no one else cares that she is a Princess. What’s important is her goals and how she wants to work to achieve them, and her family that supports her.
BB: With your comic background you haven’t had much need to dive into the wide and wonderful world of watercolors before. How was the switchover?
KB: I’m super flattered that you think it is watercolor but it’s digital colors. And that was new to me for sure. I chose digital because it was my first picture book and I was ready to make 2000 mistakes that would need to be fixed. And that happened so god bless photoshop! I picked a color palette and tried my best to make things look ok, but I’m still new to the whole thing. Go to art school, kids.
BB: If you had to choose your top historical real world princesses, which ones would you select?
Rani Lakshmibai is a good one, so is Boudicca, if you are talking warrior types! Or Tamar of Georgia, and of course Eleanor of Acquitaine and Elizabeth I. Or Anna Nzinga. There are a lot you know!
BB: Any plans for future picture book princessing?
KB: I do enjoy this world, so yes! I hope there will be more adventures. Outside of this book, I have sketched out a bigger family and world, so you never know. But first hopefully people like this story.
So many thanks indeed to Ms. Beaton for her patient responses. And no discussion of princess would be complete without a nod to this.
The Summer Prediction edition of my Caldecott/Newbery ponderings is always a tricky beast. If the spring edition is looking primarily at books coming out in the spring, summer, and early fall, then the summer edition is looking at almost the entire year. However, at this point I’m still relying more on buzz than the considered opinions of colleagues and friends. Once we get to the fall edition I’ll have heard a lot of debates surrounding the books up for consideration and I’ll have a better sense of what folks feel about them. Until then, here’s what I’ve seen this year that I think deserves a closer look.
2016 Caldecott Predictions:
Boats for Papa by Jessixa Bagley
So this is a bit of a strange inclusion on my part, but you’ll get a hint of the background on this book from this recent Seven Impossible Things profile of the book and Ms. Bagley.
Here is my thinking on the matter. When we hand a book a Caldecott, we say we’re doing it to celebrate the art. I understand that. I get that. But if we’re being honest, the books that win are the ones that really reached into our chests, grabbed our hearts, and had the gall to make them pump a little harder. Boats for Papa has the 2015 distinction of being The Official Weeper of the Year. Which is to say, it makes folks cry. A lot. And YET it is not a Love You Forever situation where the writing is clearly for adults rather than kids. So Ms. Bagley is to be commended for the text. The artistic style, I admit here and now, is not for me. But when you are a children’s librarian you must let go of your own personal prejudices towards one style of art or another (if I had my way every Caldecott would go to Sebastian Meschmenmoser, regardless of citizenship or whether or not he has a book out in a given year). And while the style of Ms. Bagley is not to my own taste, I believe that in terms of conveying the storyline, the characters, and the heart of the writing, it does a stellar job. Still, I’d be interested to hear how other feel about it all.
Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle. Illustrated by Rafael Lopez
This is the book I most regretted not mentioning the last time I did a prediction post. I’ve admired Mr. Lopez’s work for years (and honestly feel that The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred deserved far more attention than it ever received). This book is one of those tricky little amalgamations of fact and fiction that will end up in the picture book section of the library while still managing to be CCSS aligned, to some degree. I read it to my three-year-old and she was astonished at the idea that girls could ever be told they couldn’t do anything. Plus it’s just so beautiful. The art is the man’s best work. I’d love to see this get a little attention.
Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick. Illustrated by Sophie Blackall
A straighter nonfiction title. Sometimes I wonder if the amount of background a Caldecott committee hears about a book affects their thinking come award time. Perhaps not. After all, I once attended a pre-ALA Youth Media Award lunch that feted some Caldecott committee members and was showing off books like Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, The Dark, and Pinkney’s The Grasshopper and the Ants. None of whom won a thing. Now if you knew the background behind Ms. Blackall’s art for Finding Winnie, you’d see how meticulous her work is on the book. Yet even without that knowledge the book is a beauty. The endpapers. The red sunrise with the ships sailing to England. The shot of a man, his bear, and Stonehenge itself. Oh, it’s a contender.
In a Village By the Sea by Muon Van. Illustrated by April Chu
Periodically debut illustrators receive Honors (and, once in a great while, awards proper). I know I keep harping on this book but I just think what the illustrator did to complement the text is just so darn brilliant. It rewards multiple readings. Sure, it may be a dark horse contender, but it’s a strong one just the same.
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena. Illustrated by Christian Robinson
It was a little surprising to me how many marketing dollars were placed behind this particular book. Robinson has traipsed mighty close to award territory in the past. With this book he may not be paying a direct homage to Ezra Jack Keats but that was certainly the flavor I detected emanating from the pages. Even after all these months of seeing it I’m still having difficulty piecing my thoughts about it together. All I know is that it’s worthy of discussion.
The Marvels written & illustrated by Brian Selznick
This could just as easily fit on the Newbery Prediction category but since Hugo Cabret won a Caldecott lo these many years ago, this could walk a similar line. Separating itself into a wordless series of pictures in its first half and a text only novel in the second, it may be an even harder sell to the committee than Cabret was. Particularly since the text both within and outside of the pictures is sometimes the only thing that gives them form and function and meaning. But it’s rather remarkable, and committees have a way of rewarding books for that very quality.
The Moon Is Going to Addy’s House by Ida Pearle
Cut paper is a difficult art. Again, we’ve a debut on our hands, and in judging the book one must determine how much credit to hand to the quality of the paper being used (which, as you can see, is rather luminous) and how much to the actual cuttings. To my mind, this book is pretty much without parallel. Just amazing.
Night World by Mordecai Gerstein
Much of the reception to this book is going to hinge on how well people react to the ways in which Gerstein has painted pre-dawn light. One point in its favor: It contains a true moment of awe. When the dawn arrives it’s a jaw dropper of a moment. That’s what you want in an award winner.
Water Is Water by Miranda Paul. Illustrated by Jason Chin
One might rightly ask, why this Chin of all Chins? After all, it’s not as though Jason hasn’t been making similarly stunning books for years. The fact that he’s never gotten award love (at least in the Caldecott area of things) is a problem. I find that sometimes award committees have difficulty rewarding realism that isn’t surrealism (Wiesner wins awards but James Ransome, for example, does not). Here, Chin brings to life this infinitely simple, but incredibly clever, explanation for very young children of the water cycle in its different forms. And he does so with his customary beauty and skill. It’s worth considering at the very least.
The Whisper by Pamela Zagarenski
I’ve mentioned this one before with the note that I’m not usually a fan of Zagarenski’s work. And though I’ve seen that some folks don’t enjoy the storyline quite as much as I do, I’m going to keep this one the list. Of Zagarenski’s work (she is quite fond of floating crowns, you know), I do think this is her best. And if her previous books have won Caldecotts then ipso facto . . .
2016 Newbery Predictions:
Caldecott predictions are generally much easier to include on lists of this sort than Newbery predictions because reading a picture book takes all of 5 minutes, max (unless we’re discussing the aforementioned The Marvels, and then God help your soul). This year I’ve found a lot of books to love but few to seriously consider in this category. However, there were a few exceptions:
Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley
Let it be known that hype makes me wary. Exceedingly wary. So when I walked into a Penguin preview earlier this year and found they’d decked themselves all out in a circus-themed hullabaloo my warning signals lit right up. And sure, author Cassie Beasley was charming with her Georgian ways. Yet she read a passage from this book that would have had a lot more impact if I’d read the book already. So I put it off, and put it off, and all the while my fellow librarians were reading it and telling me in no uncertain terms that it was remarkable. I finally picked it up to read it. The verdict? It really is lovely! See my interview piece on Ms. Beasley about the difficulty in writing a non-creepy circus for more info. I also recommended it at Redbook, so win a copy here if you’re curious.
Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan
I’m still pondering this one, months and months after I read it. I think the supernatural element didn’t really need to be there since the three stories stand perfectly well on their own together. But I can also tell you that every detail of this book has been etched into my memory. And if you’ve any acquaintance with said memory, you’d understand why this must be a remarkable book.
Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia
I had to do some research with my fellow librarians on this one before I could include it here. Not because it isn’t good. There is a vibrant undercurrent of truth running so strongly beneath this narrative that it almost hurts to read. The relationships between the three sisters is one-of-a-kind and powerful. In fact, if you’ve some free time in NYC on Saturday, August 1st we’re going to have a Children’s Literary Salon discussion between Jeanne Birdsall and Rita Williams-Garcia on their series and how it is to write about sisters.
At any rate, I had to determine whether or not the book stood on its own. I’ve read the first two books, so I was in no place to judge. So I handed it to some children’s librarians that had never read One Crazy Summer or P.S. Be Eleven. Their verdict? It works very well without prior knowledge of the previous books. Which means, it’s a true literary contender.
Goodbye, Stranger by Rebecca Stead
I’m just looking forward to the Newbery/Caldecott Banquet where all they serve (once this wins the award) is cinnamon toast and vanilla milkshakes. We’ve hashed the middle school vs. YA elements of this book before, so I’ve no particular desire to do it again here. I will say, however, that if Stead wins it may be the first time in the history of the award that the Newbery goes to a literary agent.
Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower by Greg Pizzoli
Actually, I debated placing this in the Caldecott category. After all, Pizzoli did a rather remarkable job of finding a way to keep his subject anonymous but still visible from page one onward. Yet it is the writing I think about when I consider the book. Synthesizing a single man’s life and turning it into a child-friendly narrative is no mean feat. Pizzoli did it with great cheer and fervor. A nonfiction title that deserves some Newbery love.
The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
My continuing to include this book in the ranking may be due in part to affection more than anything else. Still, I can’t help but think this has all the right elements in place. If kids can get past the cover (a detriment to getting even my staunchest librarians to read it) they’ll be amply rewarded.
Honorable Ineligible Mentions
Every year I read a couple books that I think should win Newbery or Caldecott awards. Yet, for one reason or another, they are ineligible. Here are my favorite ineligible books I’ve read in 2015 thus far.
The Nest by Kenneth Oppel. Illustrated by Jon Klassen
How have I not reviewed this book yet? To my mind it’s the strangest, most wonderful, creeeeeeeeeepy book of 2015. If Oppel wasn’t so inconveniently Canadian we’d be having a very serious debate about this book. By the way – apparently Canadians can serve on the Newbery committee but cannot win the award. How is that fair? I demand new standards, doggone it!
Pax by Sara Pennypacker. Illustrated by Jon Klassen
The bad news is that this book is ineligible for a Newbery in 2015. The good news is that this book is eligible for a Newbery in 2016. Once you read it you’ll be convinced of its worthiness. That said, how is it that Jon Klassen keeps getting to illustrate all the best novels? Did he sacrifice a cow to the book jacket gods? Or is it just that the man has exquisite taste? Hmm.
This Is Sadie by Sara O’Leary. Illustrated by Julie Morstad
Canadian. Again. Morstad has also illustrated Laurel Snyder’s Swan, which could also have been up for consideration. I’m very pleased that folks are finally discovering Julie Morstad, by the way. I still think her board book The Swing is just one of the best out there.
That’s all she wrote, folks! I read most of your suggestions last time so if I missed something it may not have been accidental. That said, I know I’ve not read everything out there. What are your favorites thus far?
Image credit: Travis Jonker
Here’s how I blog. I sit around, twiddling my thumbs, waiting waiting waiting for someone else to write something on a topic that has been bubbling and percolating in my noggin. Then, when they go that extra mile, I STRIKE! Today’s example: Travis Jonker’s piece Where Do You Fall On The Book Critic/Book Champion Continuum? A hotsy totsy topic if ever I saw one.
Here’s the long and short of it. Travis distinguishes between people who evaluate books and people who “champion” them on a continuum. By doing so, he acknowledges that they are part and parcel with one another. Two sides of the same coin. Yet some folks refuse to write critical reviews of books, and prefer instead to simply promote the books they think are great. That is a conscious choice. Others would identify entirely with book criticism and find the notion of “championing” an inherently questionable activity. It is this conflict that I’ve thought long and hard about over the last few years.
For my part, reviewing is the lifeblood of this site. I recently gave a talk in D.C. to the Children’s Book Guild (an organization worthy of a blog post in and of itself) where I discussed many of the ins and outs of reviewership and responsibility. The members had amazing questions about what I do when I’m reviewing a bilingual book and I don’t speak the second language, or what I do when I’m reviewing a piece of historical fiction and I haven’t studied the history in any depth myself. Over and over again it was clear to me that responsibility is the name of the game in reviewing. You are setting yourself up as some kind of expert, telling people why a book is worth their children’s time and energy (let alone their own). As a result, you can’t do it without any forethought.
Then there is the issue of championship. I think it is vitally important to champion books, and not just in reviews. There are a LOT of very good children’s books published in a given year. There are also a ton of mediocre books and a couple outright bad ones. Separating the wheat from the chaff is a large part of championship.
But championship is not without its own responsibilities. I’ve spoken out in the past against that kind of blogging that feels more like an extension of the marketing wing of big publishers than any kind of advocating for the child readers. I’m not separating myself from this. If I get a red beehive wig promoting a book, I’m going to remember that book better than its fellows. Heck, there’s a wooden spoon I got once alongside a copy of Toni Morrison’s Peeny Butter Fudge that makes me think of that book every single time I use it. But when we talk about books on our blogs we have to be careful about what we do. For example, there are folks who are perfectly happy to only promote books from the big five (Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Scholastic, & Little Brown). They make no efforts to seek out and promote books from the smaller houses as well. When you promote only the things that are sent to you for free in the mail, your content is compromised. I say this knowing perfectly well that most of my reviews say that the books I’m reviewing were sent to me by their publishers. What those statements do not make clear is how many of those books I requested from the smaller publishers personally. Of course we don’t all get books from smaller publishers and if every small publisher was inundated with requests from bloggers it would probably cost them a great deal of money. But that’s what your local library is for. That’s what attending conferences like BEA and ALA is all about. That’s what reading Kirkus (the #1 professional review journal of the small press) leads to. You can’t allow yourself to be told what to review by a publisher. No matter how many red beehive wigs they send.
Like I say, championship is important. Without enthusiasm we have no way of getting our kids interested in books. But at the same time we have to examine what we’re promoting. How often do you champion diverse characters? How often diverse authors and illustrators? How often do you talk about a book that was originally published in another country? When people trust your opinions you have sway and power. And with great power . . . well, you get the idea.
So I’m looking at the line that Travis has made. I am a critic first and a champion second, but one cannot exist without the other. If I never wrote a critical review once in a while I’d feel like a fraud. And every critical review I write comes with a price. I like authors and illustrators. I hate conflict. I want everyone to be my friend. But when I have problems with books I want to talk about it with other folks and that sometimes leads to strife with the book creators. I’m no cheerleader. I’m not even a champion. I’m a reviewer. And that’s pretty darn exciting too.
Return to Augie Hobble
By Lane Smith
Roaring Brook (an imprint of Macmillan)
On shelves now
Here is what we can say about Lane Smith – he does not go for the easy emotional pass. There are countless author/illustrators out there for whom risk is an unknown concept. The idea of writing a book, to say nothing of your first middle grade novel, and making something new and strange of it, would put them off entirely. For Smith, it’s all in a day’s work. Indeed he’s made a name for himself in waltzing merrily into the children’s literary unknown. Had he debuted his first novel and it had been some earnest and meaningful tale of a slightly bullied boy who is dealing with a death and befriends the local pixie dream girl who teaches him to love again (currently the most popular plot in 2015 as long as you occasionally switch up the genders) then his fans would have felt a deep sense of betrayal. That said, to avoid the falsely “meaningful” by creating a book devoid of meaning is a step too far in the opposite direction. A little meaning is the glue that holds even the silliest and most esoteric work for kids together. In Return to Augie Hobble Lane Smith embraces that which makes him Lane Smith. Yet while he is clearly unafraid to take risks and try new things, he seems oddly reticent to give his creation a true and beating heart. Does it need one? That’s a question best answered by each individual reader.
Augie Hobble hasn’t the worst life you’ve ever heard of, but on a scale of sucks to ten it scores fairly low. It’s one thing to have to go to summer school because you can’t seem to finish one crummy school project. It’s another thing entirely to be convinced that you’re turning into a werewolf. Working in his dad’s run down fairy tale theme park (called, appropriately enough, “Fairy Tale Place”) Augie at least has his best friend Britt and their mutual intention of building a tree house to distract him. But things are not always what they seem. Pets are disappearing, there are some weird government agents flitting about, and then mysterious writing appears in Augie’s notebook from an unknown hand. Mysteries of this sort can be hard to come by. And when the true story behind the mysteries comes to light, the truth is clearly stranger than any fiction Augie could have imagined.
This is Smith’s first foray into the middle grade world but it’s hardly his first time playing with expectations and forms. His work on Jon Scieszka’s The True Story of the Three Little Pigs and The Stinky Cheese Man remain to this day original, eclectic, and odd. But watching Smith pen his own books been interesting. It’s little wonder that he was at least partially behind the blog Curious Pages “recommended inappropriate books for kids” with a big old picture of Struwwelpeter standing at the top. His picture books have ranged from a diatribe against the electronic world (ending with a word that gave a certain sort of parents apoplexy) to American history gone goofy to a meditative consideration of a life well spend (topiary in abundance). The aberration amongst these books, if it could be called that, was the last book I mentioned, Grandpa Green. In that book Smith slowed his rapid rate, and took stock of life and living. It seems that with “Return to Augie Hobbie” he is now returning to his fast paced existence with a vengeance.
There’s a lot to enjoy about the book, starting with the setting itself. For a time I decided to gather together all the information I could about all the children’s literature related statues in America. Little did I expect that this search would plunge me into an unexpected exploration of fairy tale and nursery rhyme themed parks for kids that preceded and existed in tandem with early Disneyland, only on a much smaller, creepier, scale. So many of them continue to operate today, and so they were pretty much tailor made for an eerie, unnerving book of this sort. If you were to create a book that was essentially “The X-Files” for kids, I can think of no better setting.
It will surprise few to learn that Smith is at his strongest when he’s at his creepiest. And in terms of creepy thrills, there’s an early mystery in the novel that taps into something fearful and primal at our core. Augie keeps a journal with him most of the time. After he experiences a shocking loss he finds to his consternation that someone is scribbling in his beloved book. Suspects abound but the writing itself turned out to be my favorite part of the story. There is true horror in misspelled childlike crawls. If it doesn’t make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up on end then you are made of sterner stuff than I.
Interestingly, it was Smith’s exploration of death that took me out of the book the most. A couple spoilers are going to start cropping up in this review so if you haven’t already signed off and you want to be surprised then I suggest you do so now. When Augie’s best friend Britt dies of an allergic reaction to peanuts, he becomes convinced that he himself is the accidental murderer. Augie is plunged into guilt and when it looks as though his friend’s ghost is somewhere near I wondered where Smith was going. Could the ghost just be an extension of Augie’s guilt? Nope. And all of a sudden Britt’s appearance wipes away what had all the promise of an interesting look at guilt and grief and coping. Not that I wanted this to turn into some introspective Newbery-esque treatise on the healing powers of family or anything. I mean there are friggin’ werewolves in them thar hills. But by the same token I was uncomfortable with how something that was so serious for a second became altogether too light too quickly. All I really wanted was a single moment between the two boys that felt real. Like they understood what their new roles were and had decided to take them on. Even the silliest book has room enough for a little heart, however brief. To excise it from the storyline does the title a disservice.
The other difficulty I had with the book involved the ways in which the central mysteries are solved. And it happened anytime the fantastical moved out of the possible into the real. Now I’ll be the first to admit that you cannot create a work of fiction built entirely on mysteries and mysterious occurrences without eventually saying what’s going on. A book that’s all mystery and no answer is simply a cheat. On the other hand, it takes an enormous amount of talent to reveal a mystery without inspiring in your audience that feeling of deflation that comes whenever a magician explains how he did a trick. The fact of the matter is that while Smith is exceedingly talented at setting up his mysteries, once they crossover from mystery to reality, they lose something. The first time this happens is when a character turns into a werewolf before our very eyes. Until that moment, we’ve had no absolute proof that there’s anything more than wishful thinking on the part of the hero going on in terms of the story’s mysteries. In fact, the revelation is so unexpected that I was left wondering if maybe Smith changed his mind in the course of writing the book and decided to go whole hog on the fantasy elements. When he commits to the bit he commits to the bit, and after the werewolfing of a character everything is pretty much up for grabs. Examples.
I think what Smith may be going for in this book is an intellectual play on fantasy akin to Daniel Pinkwater and his books. The difference between the two lies in how Smith straddles the form. On the one hand he has moments that could break into genuine emotional beats if he’d let them. On the other, if he wanted to really let go and embrace his love of the absurd, there’s room for that as well. Instead, he commits to neither. Moments that should engage the reader’s heart are left feeling empty while the absurdities have a caged in, closed feel. To be frank, I either wanted this book to let Smith’s freak flag fly or to give my heart something to care about. In the end, I have neither.
By the end of the story I had to come to the conclusion that the only way this book makes any sense is if it’s the first in a series. If Fairy Tale Place is meant to be the backdrop to a wide range of freaky happenings, then this is just setting up the premise. Three kids, one of whom is dead, solving supernatural mysteries is interesting. Would that we could just jump to those books and skip this one in the interim. It’s by no means a bad book, but with its fuzzy focus and off-kilter sense of its own audience, I question how many kids are going to engage. A noble, if ultimately unbalance, attempt.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Keep it classy, Bird.
The other day Monica Edinger writes to me, ” I hate performing in public and am far more comfortable shmoozing at dinners and lunches. You seem to be just the opposite.” An interesting statement, to be sure. For while I love me a good lunch and dinner shmooze, I certainly won’t pass up an opportunity to grab a spotlight and milk it for all it’s worth (I also believe a healthy mixed metaphor early in a blog post is good for the constitution, but that’s neither here nor there). Case in point, my recent hijinks alongside Jon Scieszka, hosting the Children’s Book Choice Awards Gala. But Monica wasn’t writing me to merely comment upon my inclinations to dance to Uptown Funk in a purple tux. Recently she wrote a blog post that takes on a problem that I would argue has existed since authors first started to hawk their own books to the public. In Should I Take Up the Banjo? or The Question of Charisma, Monica addresses Paula Willey’s recent statement in a really remarkable BEA round-up post that it’s unfair that the children’s book creator occupation calls upon its denizens to be more of the camp counselor types than of the “cave-dwelling cheeseeater” variety. Monica disagrees to some extent, saying that it wouldn’t be fair to say that everyone is called upon to act this way since we always have introvert role models like Suzanne Collins to consider.
All this reminds me, to a certain degree, of a blog that existed from 2007-2012 that addressed this very issue. Shrinking Violet Promotions was begun by a core group of around seven children’s and YA authors, but was run primarily by authors Robin LaFevers and Mary Hershey. The site included everything from an Introvert’s Bill of Rights and a section dedicated to those that want to quit when their sales tank, to Jung Typology Tests, interviews with introverts, and thoughts on marketing. It was a good supportive site but like many on the web it couldn’t sustain itself beyond the five year mark. In its time it was really the only place I’d ever found that addressed this issue of the writing persona vs. the public persona.
When in doubt, mug. Photo by Yvonne Brooks.
Because the fact of the matter is that you don’t have to be a song and dance man (woman/small inanimate object/etc.) to be a successful children’s author. That is not to say, though, that knowing how to pluck a banjo, use a yo-yo, or sing “Hello” in front of a bunch of juggling children’s book creators won’t be a huge asset to you. Without naming names, I can think of a couple authors and illustrators who are merely okay book creators but do such wonderful live performances that you almost forget that the quality of their books is only so-so. I agree with Paula that to sell yourself is to sell your book. And I agree with Monica that it’s not something publishers should assume that their authors and illustrators are comfortable doing. That said, I sympathize the most with the librarians in this case. How so? Well, many is the librarian or bookseller who has hosted an author or illustrator to a packed house only to find that the person has no ability to keep or hold the attention of their intended audience (i.e. small fry). I once hosted a picture book author of a truly fine, engaging, rhythmic book. It was only when the person started to speak that I realized that (A) They had the world’s quietest voice and I didn’t have a microphone and (B) They had no sense of rhythm when reading their book aloud. They could write it, sure. But read it? That takes an entirely different set of muscles.
Yet it behooves us to remember that that author didn’t get into the business to become a performer. They like, and are very good at, writing for children. But in our current era of self-promotion, publishers often don’t have the money and/or the time to spend on every one of their creators. As a result, you start trying to figure out what your special skills are. I won’t lie to you. I’ve honestly tried to figure out how I could work spinning on a spinning wheel into my talks (it’s my one craft-related skill). Also, Monica’s a teacher and I’m a librarian and I feel those occupations really do give you a leg up when you start in the book creation business. You know the material that’s already out there and you know how to engage the attention of kids. It’s those folks who come into it cold and do it for the love of the books alone that sometimes find themselves out to sea. Fair? Not a jot. But as Shrinking Violet and Monica’s post proved, you’re hardly alone.
Hosting Steve Sheinkin on Fuse #8 TV this month does have a bit of the old bringing coals to Newcastle feel to it. After all, Steve’s been generous in sharing his Walking and Talking comic series with us on this site regularly. So regularly, in fact, that it would be easy to forget that he’s one of our premiere YA nonfiction authors working today. Now his most ambitious book to date is coming out. Called MOST DANGEROUS: DANIEL ELLSBERG AND THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE VIETNAM WAR, it allowed me to commiserate with Steve over everything from our childhood schools’ failure to teach anything about the Vietnam War to the state of YA nonfiction today. Oh! And I also continue my “Reading (Too Much Into) Picture Books” series with a Dallas-like interpretation of Kathi Appelt’s BUBBA AND BEAU MEET THE RELATIVES. There is also a baby cameo. Yes indeed, I will hock my baby to get you to watch my video. I’m just that cunning.
In case you’re interested, all the other Fuse #8 TV episodes are archived here.
Once more, thanks to Macmillan for being my sponsor and helping to put this together.
THE NEW-YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY ANNOUNCES 2015 CHILDREN’S HISTORY BOOK PRIZE RECIPIENT: HELEN FROST FOR SALT
Award to be presented by Chancellor Fariña June 18; Families invited to meet the author June 20
NEW YORK, NY (June 16, 2015)—Dr. Louise Mirrer, President and CEO of the New-York Historical Society, announced today that author Helen Frost will receive New-York Historical’s 2015 Children’s History Book Prize for Salt (Macmillan, 2013), which tells the story of two 12-year-old boys growing up in the Indiana Territory in the midst of the War of 1812. The $10,000 prize is awarded annually to the best American history book, fiction or non-fiction, for middle readers ages 9–12. This year’s award will be presented by New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña on Thursday, June 18 at 12:30 pm in the New-York Historical Society’s Robert H. Smith Auditorium.
“We are pleased to present our 2015 Children’s History Book Prize to Helen Frost,” said Dr. Mirrer. “Salt is a moving book that reflects our mission to make history accessible to children through compelling narratives that allow them to develop personal connections to historical subjects.”
Frost’s Salt skillfully captures the similarities and differences between its two protagonists’ daily lives—Anikwa, a member of the Miami tribe; and James, the son of white settlers. Each page of the book, written entirely in verse, alternates between the boys’ stories. As the natural scarcity of supplies—especially salt—intensifies, the impending war causes the white settlers to threaten and ultimately drive out the Miami tribe. Consequently, the boys’ friendship and trust sours.
“Our educators and historians praise Helen Frost for her deep historical research and extensive consultations with Myaamia individuals living today in the Fort Wayne area to develop the book’s Native American protagonist,” said Alice Stevenson, Director of the DiMenna Children’s History Museum at the New-York Historical Society. “The jury also felt it provided a great entry point for younger readers to begin to understand the American Indian experience within the context of the War of 1812.”
The New-York Historical Society annually celebrates the work of an outstanding American history children’s book writer and publisher with the Children’s History Book Prize. The recipient is selected by a jury comprised of librarians, educators, historians, and families of middle schoolers.
At the New-York Historical Society and its DiMenna Children’s History Museum, visitors are encouraged to explore history through characters and narrative. The Children’s History Book Prize is part of New-York Historical’s larger efforts on behalf of children and families, which include creative, multigenerational programs that champion a lifelong appreciation of history and literature. At the DiMenna Children’s History Museum’s popular monthly book club Reading into History, families discuss a historical fiction or non-fiction book they previously read at home, share their reactions, experience related artifacts and documents, and meet prominent historians and authors. Families are invited to join the next book wrap on Saturday, June 20 at 3 pm, which will feature a special Q&A with Helen Frost and fascinating artifacts from the War of 1812 pulled from New-York Historical’s collections.
About the Author
Printz Honor author Helen Frost was born in 1949 in Brookings, South Dakota, the fifth of ten children. She graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in Elementary Education and a concentration in English, and received her Master’s degree in English from Indiana University in 1994. Throughout her career, writing and teaching have been interwoven threads. Frost has published poetry, children’s books, anthologies, and a play, as well as a book about teaching writing; and has taught writing at all levels, from pre-school through university. She is the recipient of a 2009 National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship.
About the New-York Historical Society
The New-York Historical Society, one of America’s pre-eminent cultural institutions, is dedicated to fostering research and presenting history and art exhibitions and public programs that reveal the dynamism of history and its influence on the world of today. Founded in 1804, New-York Historical has a mission to explore the richly layered history of New York City and State and the country, and to serve as a national forum for the discussion of issues surrounding the making and meaning of history.
About the DiMenna Children’s History Museum
The DiMenna Children’s History Museum at the New-York Historical Society presents 350 years of New York and American history through character-based pavilions, interactive exhibits and digital games, and the Barbara K. Lipman Children’s History Library. The DiMenna Children’s History Museum encourages families to explore history together through permanent installations and a wide range of family learning programs for toddlers, children, and preteens.
Politics and children’s literature are, to a certain extent, inextricable. The education of our children is so closely tied into our understanding of what education could and should entail (and for whom) that it is innately political. But there are other issues that are affected by politics too. Children’s author/musician/performer Bill Harley is familiar to many for his good work over the years. Now he’s sent out the following call for better gun laws in our country. For those like-minded authors and illustrators amongst you, this may be of interest.
What can artists do to speak out for a better world? Artists for Safe Kids (ASK) is asking artists who write, illustrate, sing, and perform for children to sign the accompanying statement, hoping to make a difference. We are thinking about other activities and projects to develop, but for now, we’re asking as many artists as possible to sign on to this statement. If you sign, we’ll let you know what we’re up to, and you can decide for yourself what level of participation you’re comfortable supporting. As it is now, the only thing that will happen is that your name will appear when we make a public statement. If you’re interested in doing more, let me know (email@example.com), and please consider passing it on to others you think might be interested.
Children’s Writers, Artists and Performers for Gun Sanity
As artists, writers and performers who work with and for children, we have witnessed with growing concern and despair the tragic effect of gun violence on children. We call out for a saner, more rational gun policy in our country, states and communities. We join with other voices calling for comprehensive universal background checks for gun purchasers, better screening for mental health problems, better gun safety regulations for gun owners to keep children safe from accidental firings, and a limit on semi-automatic weapons and large magazines. We ask you to join us in this call for a safer world.
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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In a Village by the Sea
By Muon Van
Illustrated by April Chu
On shelves now
We talk a lot about wanting a diverse selection of picture books on our library, bookstore, and home shelves, but it seems to me that the key to giving kids a broad view of the wider world (which is the ultimate effect of reading literature about people outside your immediate social, economic, and racial circle) is finding books that go into formerly familiar territory and then give the final product an original spin. For example, I was just telling a colleague the other day that true diverse literature for kids will never come to pass until we’ve a wide variety of gross out books about kids of different races, abilities, genders, etc. That’s one way of reaching parity. Another way would be to tackle that age old form so familiar to kids of centuries past; nursery rhymes. Now we’ve already seen the greatest nursery rhyme collection of the 21st century hit our shelves earlier this year (Over the Hills and Far Away, edited by Elizabeth Hammill) and that’s great. That’s swell. That’s super. But one single book does not a nursery rhyme collection make. Now I admit freely that Muon Van and April Chu’s In a Village by the Sea is not technically a nursery rhyme in the classic sense of the term. However, Merriam-Webster defines the form as “a short rhyme for children that often tells a story.” If that broad definition is allowed then I submit “In a Village by the Sea” as a true, remarkable, wonderful, evocative, modern, diverse, ultimately beautiful nursery rhyme for the new Millennium. Lord knows we could always use more. Lord knows this book deserves all the attention it can get.
On the title page a single brown cricket grabs a rolled piece of parchment, an array of watercolor paints and paintbrushes spread below her (to say nothing of two soon-to-be-necessary screws). Turn the page and there a fisherman loads his boat in the predawn hour of the day, his dog attentive but not following. As he pushes off, surrounded by other fishermen, and looks behind him to view his receding seaside home we read, “In a fishing village by the sea there is a small house.” We zoom in. “In that house high above the waves is a kitchen.” The dog is now walking into the house, bold as brass, and as the story continues we meet the woman and child inside. We also meet that same industrious cricket from the title page, painting a scene in which a fisherman combats the elements, comforted by the picture of his family he keeps beside him. And in another picture is his village, and his house, and in that house is his family, waiting to greet him safely home. Set in Vietnam, the book has all the rhythms and cadence of the most classic rhyme.
When it comes to rhymes, I feel that folks tend to be fairly familiar with the cumulative form. Best highlighted in nursery rhymes likes “The House That Jack Built” it’s the kind of storytelling that builds and builds, always repeating the elements that came before. Less celebrated, perhaps, is the nesting rhyme. Described in Using Poetry Across the Curriculum: A Whole Language Approach by Barbara Chatton, the author explains that children love patterns. “The simplest pattern is a series in which objects are placed in some kind of order. This order might be from smallest to largest, like the Russian nesting dolls, or a range of height, length, or width . . . A nursery rhyme using the ‘nesting’ pattern is ‘This Is the Key to My Kingdom’.” Indeed, it was that very poem I thought of first when I read In a Village by the Sea. In the story you keep going deeper and deeper into the narrative, an act that inevitably raises questions.
Part of what I like so much about the storytelling in this book is not just its nesting nature, but also the questions it inspires in the child reader. At first we’re working entirely in the realm of reality with a village, a fisherman, his wife, and their child. But then when we dive down into the cricket’s realm we see that it is painting a magnificent storm with vast waves that appear to be a kind of ode to that famous Japanese print, “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa”. When we get into that painting and find that our fisherman is there and in dire straits we begin to wonder what is and isn’t real. Artist April Chu runs with that uncertainty well. Notice that as the fisherman sits in his boat with the storm overhead, possibly worrying for his own safety, in his hands he holds a box. In that box is a photo of his wife and child, his village, and what appears to be a small wooden carving of a little cricket. The image of the village contains a house and (this isn’t mentioned in the text) we appear to zoom into that picture and that house where the sky is blue and the sea is calm. So what is going on precisely? Is it all a clever cricket’s imaginings or are each of these images true in some way? I love the conversation starter nature of this book. Younger kids might take the events at face value. Older kids might begin to enmesh themselves into the layered M.C. Escher-ness of the enterprise. Whatever draws them in, Van and Chu have created a melodic visual stunner. No mean feat.
For the record, the final image in this book is seemingly not of the cricket’s original painting but of the fisherman heading home on a calm sea to a distant home. What’s so interesting about the painting is that if you compare it to the cricket’s previous one (of the storm) you can see that the curls and folds of the paper are identical. This is the same canvass the cricket was working on before. Only the image has changed. How is this possible? The answer lies in what the cricket is signing on the painting’s lower right-hand corner. “AC”. April Chu. Artist as small brown cricket. I love it.
So who precisely is April Chu? Read her biography at the back and you see that she began her career as an architect, a fact that in part explains the sheer level of detail at work in tandem with this simple text. Let us be clear that while the writing in this book is engaging on a couple different levels, with the wrong artist it wouldn’t have worked half as well as it now does. Chu knows how to take a single story from a blue skied mellow to a wrath of the gods storm center and then back again to a sweet peach colored sunset. She also does a good dog. I’ll say it. The yellow lab in this book is practically the book’s hero as we follow it in and out of the house. He’s even in his master’s family photograph.
One question that occurred to me as I read the book was why I immediately thought of it as contemporary. No date accompanies the text. No elements that plant it firmly in one time or another. The text is lilting and lovely but doesn’t have anything so jarring as a 21st century iPhone or ear bud lurking in the corners. In Van’s Author’s Note at the end she mentions that much of the inspiration for the tale was based on both her family’s ancestral village in Central Vietnam and her father’s work, and mother’s experiences, after they immigrated to American shores. By logic, then, the book should have a bit of a historical bent to it. Yet people still fish in villages. Families still wait for the fisherman to return to shore. And when I looked at April Chu’s meticulous art I took in the clothing more than anything else. The mom’s rubber band in her hair. The cut of the neck of her shirt. The other fishermen and their shirts and the colors of the father’s. Then there was the way the dishes stack up next to the stove. I dunno. It sure looks like it’s set in a village today. But these things can be hard to judge.
There’s this real feeling that meta picture books that play with their format and turn the fourth wall into rubble are relatively new. But if we look at rhymes like “This Is the Key to the Kingdom”, we can see how they were toying with our notion of how to tell a story in a new way long long before old Stinky Cheese Man. I guess what I like most about “In a Village by the Sea” is how to deals with this duality. It manages to feel old and new all at the same time. It reads like something classic but it looks and feels like something entirely original. A great read aloud, beautifully illustrated, destined to become beloved of parents, librarians, and kids themselves for years to come. This is a book worth discovering.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent by publisher for review.
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By: Betsy Bird
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Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer
By Kelly Jones
Illustrated by Katie Kath
Alfred A. Knopf (an imprint of Random House Children’s Books)
On shelves now
The epistolary novel has a long and storied history. At least when it comes to books written for adults. So too does it exist in novels for children, but in my experience you are far more likely to find epistolary picture books than anything over 32 pages in length. That doesn’t stop teachers, of course. As a children’s librarian I often see the kiddos come in with the assignment to read an epistolary novel and lord love a duck if you can remember one on the spot. I love hard reference questions but if you were to ask me to name five such books in one go I’d be scrambling for my internet double quick time. Of course now that I’ve read Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer I will at long last be able to pull at least one book from my crazy overstuffed attic of a brain instantaneously. Kelly Jones’s book manages with charm and unexpected panache to take the art of chicken farming and turn it into a really compelling narrative. Beware, though. I suspect more than one child will leave this book desirous of a bit of live poultry of their very own. You have been warned.
After her dad lost his job, it really just made a lot of sense for Sophie and her family to move out of L.A. to her deceased great-uncle Jim’s farm. Still, it’s tough on her. Not only are none of her old friends writing her back but she’s having a hard time figuring out what she should do with herself. She spends some of her time writing her dead Abuelita, some of her time writing Jim himself (she doesn’t expect answers), and some of her time writing Agnes of the Redwood Farm Supply. You see, Sophie found a chicken in her back yard one day and there’s something kind of strange about it. Turns out, Uncle Jim used to collect chickens that exhibited different kinds of . . . abilities. Now a local poultry farmer wants Jim’s chickens for her very own and it’s up to Sophie to prove that she’s up to the task of raising chickens of unusual talents.
There are two different types of children’s fantasy novels, as I see it. The first kind spends inordinate amounts of time world building. They will never let a single thread drop or question remain unanswered. Then there’s the second kind. These are the children’s novels where you may have some questions left at the story’s end, but you really don’t care. That’s Unusual Chickens for me. I simply couldn’t care two bits about the origins of these unusual chickens or why there was an entire company out there providing them in some capacity. What Ms. Jones does so well is wrap you up in the emotions of the characters and the story itself, so that details of this sort feel kind of superfluous by the end. Granted, that doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be the occasional kid demanding answers to these questions. You can’t help that.
I have a bit of a thing against books that present you with unnecessary twists at their ends. If some Deus Ex Machina ending solves everything with a cute little bow then I am well and truly peeved. And there is a bit of a twist near the end of Unusual Chickens but it’s more of a funny one than something that makes everything turn out all right. The style of writing the entire book in letters of one sort or another works very well when it comes to revealing one of the book’s central mysteries. Throughout the story Sophie engages the help of Agnes of the Redwood Farm Supply (the company that provided her uncle with the chickens in the first place). When she at last discovers why Agnes’s letters have been so intermittent and peculiar the revelation isn’t too distracting, though I doubt many will see it coming.
Now the book concludes with Sophie overcoming her fear of public speaking in order to do the right thing and save her chickens. She puts it this way: “One thing my parents agree on is this: if people are doing something unfair, it’s part of our job to remind them what’s fair, even if sometimes it still doesn’t turn out the way we want it to.” That’s a fair lesson for any story and a good one to drill home. I did find myself wishing a little that Sophie’s fears had been addressed a little more at the beginning of the book rather that simply solved without too much build up at the end, but that’s a minor point. I like the idea of telling kids that doing the right thing doesn’t always give you the outcome you want, but at least you have to try. Seems to have all sorts of applications in real life.
In an age where publishers are being held increasingly accountable for diverse children’s fare, it’s still fair to say that Unusual Chickens is a rare title. I say this because it’s a book where the main character isn’t white, that’s not the point of the story, but it’s also not a fact that’s completely ignored either. Sophie has dark skin and a Latino mom. Since they’ve moved to the country (Gravenstein, CA if you want to be precise) she feels a bit of an outsider. “I miss L.A. There aren’t any people around here- especially no brown people except Gregory, our mailman.” She makes casual reference to the ICE and her mother’s understanding that “you have to be twice as honest and neighborly when everyone assumes you’re an undocumented immigrant…” And there’s the moment when Sophie mentions that the librarian still feels about assuming that Sophie was a child of the help, rather than the grandniece of the Blackbird Farm’s previous owner. A lot of books containing a character like Sophie would just mention her race casually and then fear mentioning it in any real context. I like that as an author, Jones doesn’t dwell on her character’s ethnicity, but neither does she pretend that it doesn’t exist.
You know that game you sometimes play with yourself where you think, “If I absolutely had to have a tattoo, I think I’d have one that looked like [blank]”? Well, for years I’ve only had one figure in mind. A little dancing Suzuki Beane, maybe only as large as a dime, on the inner wrist of my right hand. I’ll never get this tattoo but it makes me happy to think that it’s always an option. I am now going to add a second fictional tattoo to my roster. Accompanying Suzuki on my left wrist would be Henrietta. She’s the perpetually peeved, occasionally telekinetic, and she makes me laugh every single time I see her. Henrietta’s creator, in a sense, is the illustrator of this book, Ms. Katie Kath. I was unfamiliar with her work, prior to reading Unusual Chickens and from everything I can tell this is her children’s book debut. You’d never know it from her style, of course. Kath’s drawing style here has all the loose ease and skill of a Quentin Blake or a Jules Feiffer. When she draws Sophie or her family you instantly relate to them, and when she draws chickens she makes it pretty clear that no other illustrator could have brought these strange little chickies to life in quite the same way. These pages just burst with personality and we have her to thank.
Now there are some fairly long sections in this book that discuss the rudimentary day-to-day realities of raising chickens. Everything from the amount of food (yes, the book contains math problems worked seamlessly into the narrative) to different kinds of housing to why gizzards need small stones inside of them. These sections are sort of like the whaling sections in Moby Dick or the bridge sections in The Cardturner. You can skip right over them and lose nothing. Still, I found them oddly compelling. People love process, particularly when that process is so foreign to their experience. I actually heard someone who had always lived in the city say to me the other day that before they read this book they didn’t know that you needed a rooster to get baby chickens. You see? Learning!
I don’t say that this book is going to turn each and every last one of its readers into chicken enthusiasts. I also know that it paints a rather glowing portrait of chicken ownership that is in direct contrast to the farm situation perpetuated on farmers today. But doggone it, it’s charming to its core. We see plenty of magical animal books churned out every year. Magical zoos and magical veterinarians and magical bestiaries. So what’s wrong with extraordinary chickens as well? Best of all, you don’t have to be a fantasy fan to enjoy this book. Heck, you don’t have to like chickens. The writing is top notch, the pictures consistently funny, and the story rather moving. Everything, in fact, a good chapter book for kids should be. Hand it to someone looking for lighthearted fare but that still wants a story with a bit of bite to it. Great stuff.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
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Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus
I was flipping through my most recent copy of Horn Book feeling pretty special since I’ve an article in there (“Apples to Elephants: Artists in Animation”) and when I get to the back I see a mention of a book I’ve never heard of before: Why I Don’t Write Children’s Literature by Gary Soto.
If I missed the book it’s not too terribly surprising. The publisher is a university press (University Press of New England, no less). Not my usual bag. And I’m not going to necessarily debate the relative merits or lack thereof of Soto’s point of view. If you want to do that, Roger did a post back in 2013 (long before this book came out) about a Huffington Post piece Soto wrote on the same topic. Roger’s post was called Now You’re Telling Us? and it contains the world’s greatest accompanying photograph (seriously, I wish I could steal it with impunity but he knows where I live). There’s a more recent review of this book specifically over at Bookshots.
What interested me so much about the piece was what it had to say about those children’s and YA authors and illustrators that find themselves subjected to a rousing bit of public shaming. Because, quite frankly, in 2015 that topic is particularly pertinent.
In case you’re not familiar with the case of Gary Soto and why he’s saying he’ll never ever ever write for kids again, no sir, don’t ask him, nuh-uh, *fingers in ears going lalalalalalala!!!!*, here’s a recap. In 2005 Gary was our most prominent Latino guy writer for kids. You’ve heard of Chato’s Kitchen? No? Go out, read it, and come back to me. Okay? Good stuff. He did middle grade as well, though his day job (so to speak) was as a poet. And since he was so incredibly prominent and popular, who should come ah-knocking at his door but Mattel. Yes, the toy company. The toy company that a couple years earlier had purchased the American Girl dolls and was now in charge of publishing some accompanying books. There was a new doll in town by the name of Marisol, and she was in need of a good author. So the deal was pretty straightforward. Gary would write some early chapter books, they’d pay him, happy times all around.
Gary was told he could set the books in either Chicago or New York so he selected Chicago. Specifically, the Pilsen neighborhood. For a while. You see, in the first book Marisol’s mother explains to her daughter that they’ll be moving away from their neighborhood because the parents think it’s too dangerous. The editor okays the book. It goes to press. It’s being read left and right. And then all hell breaks loose.
Here’s how Gary described the incident:
“The first of nearly hundreds of calls began, calls from the mayor of Des Plaines, aldermen, Chicano activists, an art director, Time, BBC, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, NBC’s “Today Show,” ABC’s “World News Tonight,” a journalist from Spain, students, professors–all because I had written a controversial piece of dialogue uttered by Marisol’s mother. She, in her motherly reasoning, argues that they had to move out of Pilsen. The mother spouts, “Dad and I think it’s time that we move out of this neighborhood.” The mother follows up in the same paragraph saying that it was dangerous and there was no place for their daughter (Marisol) to play. This was caught by Andrew Herman of The Chicago Sun-Times, who brought this apparent slight to the public’s attention. Mr. Herman was among the first and last callers. I didn’t pick up. “
As I read this I got the profoundest sense of deja vu. We’ve seen this before. This mass outrage. The piling on. The anger outsized to the supposed crime. What if, then, what if Gary had written Marisol not in 2005 but in 2015?
The interesting thing about Gary’s case is that his book was a very rare case of corporate diversity. Mattel was working to promote a book that was specifically about a girl from a too little lauded minority. We didn’t exactly have tons of early chapter books about Latino girls in 2005 (and we’re not exactly swimming in them today either). I can think of no equivalent to Marisol. Which is to say, a case where a huge company went out and found an author to help promote a product and the product was a girl of a race other than white. Then this happened and we got set back once again.
According to Soto, when you zero in on the moment of outrage, the instigator was Andrew Herman, a reporter from Chicago. But many times when people get angry it can be hard to pinpoint precisely what sets them off. So I got to thinking about the various controversies that might compare to Gary’s over the years with connections to children’s and YA literature (some tenuous) and how they were handled. And if we can learn anything from them, it’s that memory is a short thing and Twitter a mighty weapon. Some examples:
Alice Hoffman and the Twitter scandal – This year folks are talking about Alice Hoffman’s latest title for kids, Nightbird. Not many remember back in 2009 the unfortunate incident that occurred when Ms. Hoffman tweeted the phone number and email address of a professional reviewer. Twitter was only three years old when this incident occurred and Hoffman’s response launched many a think piece about writers and the current state of a kind of social media where there is very little to stop someone from reacting instantaneously without the benefit of time to slow down their responses. But as I say, few remember the incident today, which indicates to me that our memories of these various brouhahas fade faster than we might initially have thought.
James Frey turned Pittacus Lore – There is a longstanding tradition of people blackballed from one profession turning to books for youth. A lot of Hollywood writers went that route. Langston Hughes did too. So when Oprah called out James Frey on whether or not his memoir A Million Little Pieces was factual or not, it seems logical that after the furor that followed he would turn to YA literature. He would go on to seemingly pen the Pittacus Lore books, the first of which was I Am Number Four. That said, even his work on those books was not without its own kind of controversy. Not that many folks were aware of it at the time.
Kaavya Viswanathan and How Opal Mehta Got Kissed – Perhaps no controversy here is quite as famous as that of Ms. Viswanathan. The story of this YA author, fresh out of high school, attending Harvard, and writing YA novels of her own was marred by the discovery that whole swaths of her final book were plagiarized. Folks like Megan McCafferty and Meg Cabot as well as others were cited. Unlike Hoffman and Frey, Ms. Viswanathan has not returned to the world of YA literature, though she graduated with Honors. I was intrigued by a statement from Ms. McCafferty regarding the fact that this was an Alloy Entertainment title and they might have played their own role. “Was it the book packagers who really wrote the book and plagiarized my books or was it her?” Other folks equated her actions with the times we live in today.
Daniel Handler and Andrew Smith – And here we come to the most recent controversies in the children’s and YA realm. In one case, an author spoke at a large book award gala, made a statement that pretty much exploded the internet, and then turned around and apologized and offered compensation for his actions. When Mr. Soto cites in Why I Don’t Write Children’s Literature a writer who said that “in a rare moment of corporate courage [Mattel] didn’t simply give in to the extortion of demands (15 scholarships, plus jobs programs, plus more – I’m surprised they didn’t ask for ponies, too) but stood by its author and its book” I think of the Daniel Handler incident. The “extortion of demands”. Would it have been so awful if Mattel had made a scholarship? What would have been lost? What gained? Seems to me that Mr. Handler made good and went the classy route with his case.
The case of Andrew Smith is where Twitter turns from the place where mistakes are made, as with Ms. Hoffman, to where the fires of outrage are stoked. While Mr. Handler made a statement in front of a very large crowd, Mr. Smith made a statement in VICE that made a bunch of people unhappy. I won’t get into the where or the whys, except perhaps to say that this is an incident that filled my head with thoughts of this nature. More interesting to me is how Smith, like Handler, found his head on a pike with a speed hitherto unimaginable. I was reading up on the Justine Sacco incident the other day, where a single offensive tweet led to a witch hunt of unimaginable size and scope.
So imagine, if you will, that the Gary Soto incident occurred this year. Imagine the tweets. The headlines. Would Mattel have offered a scholarship in 2015 even if they hadn’t in 2005? I think it’s safe to say that Soto would still be deciding not to write for children when all was said and done. I just wonder if in our current state of public shaming whether or not more folks will follow in his footsteps or if we’re getting to the point where there’s a script to follow (it’s no secret that I’ve placed Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed on hold with my library system). And will folks even remember five years later? We don’t have any answers, but at least Soto’s story carries with it some food for thought.
By: Betsy Bird
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Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth
By Judd Winick
Random House Children’s Books
On shelves September 1st
Relentless cheer. You can use it for good. You can use it for evil. You can use it in the name of humor too, but that’s a trickier game to play. I’m not saying it can’t be done. It just takes a certain level of finesse. Now I read a lot of graphic novels for kids in a given year that sell themselves as “funny”. And while I know that humor is subjective, I tell you plain that most of them aren’t of the laugh-out-loud variety. So when someone tries to sell me on the “funny” line with a comic I don’t actually expect that it’s gonna make me guffaw on the subway and embarrass me in front of the other riders. I guess I should be pretty peeved at you, Hilo for doing just exactly that, but how can I be mad at you? Your crazy positive outlook on life combined with your funny funny lines just makes you the most enjoyable hero to hit the library shelves in years. We get a lot of heroes around here but hardly any of them make us laugh. This guy, I like. This guy, your kids will like. This guy’s a keeper.
What if the one thing you were good at up and moved away and left you all alone? D.J. hasn’t the talents of the other people in his family and the way he figures it the only thing he was ever good at was being friends with his next door neighbor Gina. So when Gina moved away, so did the one thing that made him feel important. Three years pass, D.J.’s alone, and that’s when he spots something falling out of the sky. It’s small. It’s blond. And it’s wearing sparkly silver underpants. By all appearances the visitor is a small boy who calls himself Hilo. He doesn’t remember who he is or why he’s there or even what he is, but what he DOES love is discovering everything, and I mean everything, about the world. It looks like Hilo may be from another dimension, which is great. Except it looks like he’s not the only one. And it looks like he’d better remember who he is and fast because someone, or some THING, is after him.
We hear a lot of talk about “likability” and whether or not you relate to a story’s hero. In terms of D.J., I think that even the most accomplished children out there can relate to a kid who feels like he isn’t good at anything at all. Hilo’s a little different. He has more than a smidgen of The Greatest American Hero in his make-up, alongside a bit of Mork from Mork and Mindy and Avatar (the Nickelodeon cartoon). First, you get someone with powers they don’t completely understand. Next, you get a otherworldly funny being with superpowers figuring out day-to-day life. And finally, he’s a kid who ran from his frightening responsibilities and is now trying to undo a great wrong. I really love that last trope a lot because it’s something we all suspect we’d do ourselves when under serious pressure. Plus, like Avatar, Hilo delivers its message with a diverse cast and more than a smidgen of the funny.
In his bio at the back of the book Winick mentions that amongst his various influences he grew up reading the comic strip Bloom County. He’s not the first children’s book author/cartoonist to cite Berkeley Breathed as an inspiration (by the way, I love that Winick’s characters live in “Berke County”), but unlike the Bloom County imitators I’ve seen out there, Winick has managed to take the flavor and humor of the original strips and give them his own distinctive twist. Granted, the tighty whities and method of drawing toes look awfully similar to the feet and underwear of Milo Bloom, but there the direct correlations quit.
Actually, Winick’s artistic style is kind of fascinating. Particularly when it comes to characters’ eyes. A lot of the time he uses the old L’il Orphan Annie technique of keeping the pupils white and blank. But periodically, and for emphasis, small black pupils will appear. Then, in particularly emotional moments, full-color irises as well. Watching when precisely Winick chooses to use one kind of eye or another is a kind of mini lesson in comic drawing techniques in and of itself. Now Hilo is rendered in full-color glory, a fact that Winick uses to his advantage whenever he wants to create something like a portal to the Earth. But what I really liked watching, and the opening sequence is a brilliant example of this, is how he uses panels. The beginning of the book, which is a kind of flash forward into the future events to come, is a mix of action and visual humor. Even though you don’t know who these characters are, you are instantly on their side. Running from gigantic killer robots sort of cuts the “empathy” timeline in half, after all.
Now if I’ve learned anything from my time on this hallowed globe it’s that kids aren’t fans of true cliffhangers. The books where the hero is literally at the end of some screaming precipice or staring down certain death? It bugs them. They won’t stand for it. This isn’t to say that don’t like it when there’s the promise of another volume of their favorite series. But you’ve gotta ease into that, right? Leave them wanting more but solve the problem at hand. I won’t lie to you. Hilo ends on a cliffhanger. Fortunately, it’s the kind that isn’t going to make you mad when you get to it. Unless you can’t get the next book in the series. Then you’ll be furious.
I was trying to find equivalent kid comics to Hilo that know how to ratchet up the funny alongside the fast-paced. There’s a Jeff Smith blurb on this book so obviously Bone comes to mind. But I’d also be sure to mention Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado’s Giants Beware in the same breath. Any maybe Jeffrey Brown’s Star Wars: Jedi Academy just to be safe. All these books understand that while kids will follow an exciting, well-drawn comic to the ends of the earth, throw in a little humor there and they’ll go from merely enjoying it to loving it with some deep, buried part of their little comic-loving souls. That’s the fandom Hilo is poised to create. Good clean laser-beams-coming-outta-your-hands fun for the whole family. Now hand me #2, please. I have some more reading to do.
On shelves September 1st.
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Full credit (or blame, depending on how you look at it) goes to MK Eagle and Gretchen Kolderup on this one. It’s a pretty simple post. Hardly worth mentioning . . . except that at heart I think we’re all 10-year-olds. And it’s completely librarian related, so I don’t even know if you’ll be as amused as we were but . . .
Did you know that there’s a subject heading that’s “Buttocks — Fiction” for children’s literature?
That’s right. A whole subject heading list. When Eagle and Kolderup discovered it they realized that you could easily create a “Buttbook buttlist”. Or you could play a rousing game of “Guess the book!”. Here are some of the headings for the titles we were looking at:
That last one there has a lot of hints in it. Pretty easy to guess, when it comes right down to it.
By the way, by writing this post I am undoubtedly guaranteeing that I’m going to meet my untimely end before I have a chance to write another one. People will be trying to say supportive things about me and my life and when they turn in somber thought to my blog THIS will be the post that greets them.
Folks sometimes ask me if I’ll ever do cover reveals of debuts. It’s an interesting question. Often the books that I’m doing cover reveals of are by authors or illustrators that I admire. If I’m doing a review of someone new, how do I know they’re any great shakes? I don’t, of course, but sometimes you appreciate a book for reasons above and beyond your familiarity with its creator. Take the case of today’s reveal. Called “Rules by Cynthia Lord meets Counting by 7s“, it’s set in Manhattan. That’s nice but if I’m going to be honest I was probably also attracted to the fact that the name “Thyme” is in the title and it reminds me of the old Edgar Eager title Time Garden.
Here’s the publisher description:
When eleven-year-old Thyme Owen’s little brother, Val, is accepted into a new cancer drug trial, it’s just the second chance that he needs. But it also means the Owens family has to move to New York, thousands of miles away from Thyme’s best friend and everything she knows and loves. The island of Manhattan doesn’t exactly inspire new beginnings, but Thyme tries to embrace the change for what it is: temporary.
After Val’s treatment shows real promise and Mr. Owens accepts a full-time position in the city, Thyme has to face the frightening possibility that the move to New York is permanent. Thyme loves her brother, and knows the trial could save his life—she’d give anything for him to be well—but she still wants to go home, although the guilt of not wanting to stay is agonizing. She finds herself even more mixed up when her heart feels the tug of new friends, a first crush and even a crotchety neighbor and his sweet whistling bird. All Thyme can do is count the minutes, the hours and the days, and hope time can bring both a miracle for Val and a way back home.
You can also follow its author, Melanie Conklin, on Twitter at @MLConklin. Many thanks to
When I was asked to participate in the current Circus Mirandus Blog Tour, I was intrigued. You know how sometimes a publisher will fall in love with a debut novel and then promote the whozitz out of it, hither, thither, and yon? Well, that’s what Penguin has done with this title from first time author Cassie Beasley. And whenever that sort of thing happens, I get very skeptical. So I approached the book expecting to find it overwritten or cloying or to have something wrong with it. What I found instead was fresh and fascinating. The kind of book I’d recommend left and right to any kid. And one thing about it struck me as very interesting indeed. You see, most of the circus middle grade books I see are creepy in some way, so I feel like making a book about a circus that a kid might actually want to go to (heck, live in!) is enormously difficult.
For this blog tour I asked Ms. Beasley one very simple question: How do you manage to write a non-creepy circus? Here is her answer:
“When I say that my novel is about a boy trying to find a magic circus, most people respond with enthusiasm. Maybe it’s just that they don’t want to puncture my cheerful debut author bubble, but I like to think they’re genuinely excited by the idea of a circus story. For me, the mention of circuses calls to mind a fantasy world of sequined costumes and cotton candy, and I think it does the same for many others.
Sometimes, though, I meet potential readers who have a different reaction. They want to know if Circus Mirandus is a “creepy” book. They want to know if I’ve written a horror story.
I was surprised the first time someone asked. I initially thought the questioner must be concerned about the fact that my main character, Micah, is trying to save his terminally ill grandfather.
“No,” she said, when I started to explain my thoughts on character death in children’s literature. “I mean the circus. Is it scary?” She paused. “Are there clowns?”
The question actually makes a lot of sense when you consider the role of the circus in fiction. Real-life circuses are meant to delight, but fictional circuses often seem to be designed to do the opposite. An entire page at the (infinitely distracting) TV tropes site is dedicated to the “Circus of Fear,” and the number and variety of evil circuses listed is impressive.
Circuses, traveling fairs, and carnivals are, in some ways, a natural choice for the author in need of a disquieting setting. For one thing, they are supposed to be cheerful places, and transforming something lovely and innocent into something sinister is the basic stuff of horror. A T. rex chasing you is only frightening. A clown chasing you is frightening and also wrong.
And even when we exclude the murderous clowns, a circus still contains so much potential creepiness. It can be a transient and turbulent beast that arrives in an otherwise stagnant environment and starts to change things around. People alter their daily routine. Children sneak out of their houses to see the show. The town is suddenly a temporary home to masked strangers who will perform peculiar feats for a few nights and then depart.
And the performances themselves, the glitz and the mystery, create an otherworldly environment that is magical but fraying at the edges. A carnival is a pretty lie. Regular, imperfect people hide under the face paint, and electric cables power the rides, and sometimes if you look at just the wrong moment you see the magician sneaking around the edge of the curtain instead of vanishing into thin air.
Some people find this incongruity disturbing. Others relish it. It can be fun, after all, to be creeped out.
Having said all of that, my own circus is not menacing. Circus Mirandus is meant to be a place of joy and wonder. It’s where Micah thinks he will find the help he needs to save his grandfather. Most of the darkness in the story comes from Grandpa Ephraim’s illness, which is the sort of everyday horror that many children face. I don’t think it would have been right to distract from that with a terrifying fantasy world.
So, the magic is real, and it is (mostly) used benevolently. At Circus Mirandus, the aerial artists fly without the aid of wires, and there is no risk that any of the children in the audience, even Micah’s analytical friend Jenny, will see through the Lightbender’s illusions.
To the surprise of no one who has met me, Circus Mirandus is the world child-me would have created for herself if she had been given unlimited power.
This doesn’t mean the circus is perfect, as Micah will discover, but it is a force for good in the world. What conflict the circus creates is not the result of something sweet turned rotten, but that of something longed for that is almost out of reach.
I think Micah might tell anyone curious enough to ask how extraordinarily difficult it is to believe in something like Circus Mirandus in this world, especially when the people around you are telling you that your situation is hopeless. I think he might say that you need great reserves of courage to find it. I think he might tell you how hard it can be, once you’ve finally made it, to hold on to the magic.
So, though creepy circus stories abound, mine is not one of them. My circus is a dream world, one that I have tried to fill with the kind of magic that every young person searches for at some point.
For Micah, that search is rewarded in ways he doesn’t expect. But I believe that his decision to make the journey to the circus is ultimately more important than the fact that he reaches it. If there is one idea I want readers to take away from Circus Mirandus, I think perhaps it is this: that at the limits of magic (and even magic has its limits), in that place where we face the darkness, there is only the choice that Micah has to make.
Despair? Or hope?”
Many thanks to Ms. Beasley for her in-depth and fascinating answer and to the good folks at Penguin for inviting her here in the first place.
About Cassie Beasley: website/twitter/goodreads
CASSIE BEASLEY is from rural Georgia, where, when she’s not writing, she helps out on the family pecan farm. She earned her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. CIRCUS MIRANDUS is her first novel.
By: Betsy Bird
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- Of all the most deserving, least lauded children’s book awards out there, my favorite might be The Phoenix Awards. “The award, given to a book originally published in the English language, is intended to recognize books of high literary merit. The Phoenix Award is named after the fabled bird who rose from its ashes with renewed life and beauty. Phoenix books also rise from the ashes of neglect and obscurity and once again touch the imaginations and enrich the lives of those who read them.” They’ve just announced the 2015 winner and I admit that I never read it (One Bird by Kyoko Mori). There was a time, when I was young, when I tried to read as many Phoenix books as possible. Someday, maybe, I’ll try again.
- And speaking of obscure awards, did you see the Seven Impossible Things post on Kirkus recently called The Coolest Picture Book Award You’ve Never Heard Of … A lot of you folks should know about this. I suspect your books would be eligible (it’s for wildlife and nature).
- Heck, while we’re at it let’s also mention once more the Mathical Award which is given to books that “inspire young people to engage with mathematics in the world around them.” The submission info is here. Marc Aronson’s thoughts on the matter are here.
- For those of you in the market for ideas for your next middle grade novel, I suggest checking out this Dunmore, PA housing advertisement. Have at it. Thanks to Kate for the link.
- New Podcast Alert: You know I’m just goofy for new children’s literary podcasts. Heck, I once did an entire Literary Salon on the topic. Well, Ms. Julie Sternberg has just started Play, Memory. As she describes it: “I interview authors and others about the ways in which themes that recur in children’s literature–themes like the secrets we keep in childhood; the times we disappoint our parents; and the times our parents disappoint us–have played out in their lives.”
- And in other podcast news, there’s an interview with Fuse #8 favorite Frances Hardinge over at Tor.com. Because anything that has to do with Ms. Hardinge is awesome. I recently found myself having lunch at the same table as Patrick Ness and, at a loss of anything else to say to him, I realized we both belonged to the Mutual Admiration Society of Frances Hardinge. So to speak. Thanks to Sarah Hagge for the link.
- There’s a nice big post on endpapers up and running at Nancy Vo’s Illustration blog.
This one’s rather interesting to me. Folks in my family often send me links that have to do with libraries or librarians in some way. I find some more useful than others. Still, I was very intrigued by the recent piece called The Archivist Files: Why the woman who started LA’s branch libraries was fired. Wowzah. Them’s good reading.
Speaking of librarians, did you know there’s an entire site out there dedicated to them dressing up and posting pictures of themselves? Yup. Librarian Wardrobe. The more you know.
“But there’s a third set of children’s books: those that fall into an uncanny valley between enjoyable literature and ignorable junk. These are books that exert an irresistible pull on adult consciousness but don’t reward it. They are malign presences on the bookshelf. They hurt. One of them may be the best-selling children’s picture book of all time.” That’s a hard sentence to beat and, as it happens, I agree with author Gabriel Roth every which way from Sunday. He discusses what may be one of the worst “canonical” picture books of all time.
- This doesn’t actually have any connection to children’s literature really (though you might be able to make a case for it) but did you know that there’s a site created by NYPL where you can look at old photos of pretty much every single block in the city? It’s called OldNYC and I’ve just handed you a website that will eat away at your spare time for the rest of the day. You’re welcome.
- I was discussing this with buddy Gregory K the other day. Can you think of a single instance where a Newbery Award winner went out, after winning said award, and became an agent? Because that’s what Ms. Rebecca Stead has just done and I think it’s safe to say that it’s an unprecedented move.
So there’s this artist out there by the name of James Hance. And this, my friends, is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the content he has available. Here’s a taste:
Thanks to Stephanie Whelan for the link.