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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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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 (firstname.lastname@example.org), 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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- 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.
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.
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
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.
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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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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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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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
As I have in the past, I’ll be speaking at the Highlights Foundation roundabout July 16th, and it really is just the nicest place to be. With that in mind, here’s a cute little infographic the folks made about their summer camp. Come by, come by!
Book Expo’s a funny beastie. For years it existed for the booksellers of America. Librarians? Sure, they could go but we weren’t exactly encouraged to attend. We had our ALA Conferences and that was nice and well and good.
But times, they change. The internet appeared. The bloggers congealed (I’m trying to find a better term to describe this and honestly this is the best I’ve got). And suddenly librarians weren’t just attending Book Expo. They were being encouraged to attend. Books is books is books. Maybe you understand why I tend to break into near hysterical laughter when I read the whole “print is dead” argument. Tell that to the Javits Center in May.
But before Book Expo really kicks up its heels and gets going, School Library Journal hosts a l’il sumthin’ sumthin’ called Day of Dialog. In terms of sheer concentrated moderation and discussion and smart talking, there’s really no comparison. For one day, the top authors with their amazing new books, many of which aren’t even out yet, do the talky talk thing. And we get to listen in.
In writing this up I’m skipping the YA section (as is my wont) and the publisher preview portion. The talks are always the most interesting part of any Day of Dialog (it’s not called Day of Promotion, after all) so that’s what I’ll report on. Accordingly.
On this day in question Rebecca Miller, our illustrious Editor-in-Chief, stepped up to do the customary intro. She was followed by Luann Toth. And then it was time for our Keynote Speaker to start us off for the day. Whom could it be? Well, his latest book is The Marvels, a title that I have only seen the smallest of glimpses of. My hope was to see it officially somewhere in the course of the week. You can’t hide it from me forever, Scholastic!! Luann, as she introduced him, also mentioned that he had a heckuva amazing exhibit at the D.C. Library’s Great Hall of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library from March 22-June 21. More details are here.
I am talking, of course, about Brian Selznick. To begin the day he started off with a pretty excellent intro, joking that he was going to cover all the topics that, by complete coincidence, were already being covered by the other panels today. And here’s what a stand up and cheer dude he is. He went out of his way to mention every single author and illustrator speaking that day. With that in mind, he said, all he could seem to speak about at this point were cat food, marshmallows and . . . oh, yes. Librarians. Reading slowly: “I . . . like . . . librarians.”
Boy howdy, does he. Because what Brian can do so amazingly is that he can name drop librarians. Even the very first ones who loved him at the start. Case in point,the first shout out was to the East Brunswick library, where he did his research for The Houdini Box. The title came out while he worked at Eeyore’s Bookstore (remove your hats in remembrance, folks) and while there Brian was tracked down by a librarian who proceeded to inform him that he would be coming to her school, she would throw him a dinner party, and he’d stay at her house. Those of us who remember Barbara Gross will believe easily that this conversation took place. Now around this time the great (and funny) author Paula Danzinger said she’d take Brian under her wing, would mentor him, and show him the ways of the world. So when she heard that he had already agreed to stay with Barbara she responded in horror, “You NEVER stay at a librarian’s house.”
But as Brian says, “I think it was clear that everyone in town just did what Barbara Gross told them too.” For example, he found himself in her presence alongside Eileen and Jerry Spinelli who subsequently turned to Brian and asked, “Excuse me, why are we here?”
Brian deftly transitioned this into his first literary “win”. Nancy Westlake in Iowa City, IA was the librarian who got in contact with him then. The award had a name like “The Lemmie Award” or something to that effect. In Nancy’s school, all the kids would vote on their favorite book and get deeply involved in the process. “I don’t like to brag but I went on to win FOUR Lemmie Awards. I’m the most winningest Lemmie Award winner in history.” And so Brian even made a point to fly out when Nancy retired.
I suppose you could say that it’s easy to delight librarians by mentioning librarians and saying how awesome they are. That’s fairly true of any profession. The difference comes in whether or not the speaker actually believes in what they are saying. And in the case of Mr. Selznick, his sincerity shines through.
The talk the turned to how Brian works. As a general rule, Brian refuses to never repeat himself. Instead, his method is to take what he’s learned from his previous books, and then build off of them in some manner. After Walt Whitman he felt he had gone as far as he could in that format (the nonfiction picture book biography). Hence the switchover to Hugo and its new style.
When Brian Selznick writes a book he doesn’t think about themes or big ideas. He thinks about plot. Cool ideas that can be incorporated into a story. In The Marvels, his latest work, the starting impetus was a love of the theater. For him, the emotional motivation is the last thing to go into a story. But when you’re actually reading the books the emotions are the most important part. If you don’t care about them, the plot won’t matter. And readers read what they want into the stories. When he was on tour for Hugo, for example, Brian was told by a reader how much they loved how it was a tale of a person creating their own family. And really, until that moment Brian had no idea that that was what his book was about. It is, to a large part, the readers’ job to figure out what a book is about.
Now let’s talk about book trilogies. Trilogies of any sort are so tricky. If it’s a movie trilogy the second film is always the weakest, unless of course it’s a superhero trilogy, and then the last film is the one to skip. Children’s book trilogies are different. Sometimes they don’t have to have any direct links whatsoever. The Marvels, in a matter of speaking, is the third in Brian’s trilogy. He cited Maurice Sendak and how he thought of his own best known picture books as a kind of trilogy (Where the Wild Things Are, Outside Over There, and In the Night Kitchen). So too does Brian of his own books, though he acknowledges it to be, “A very heavy trilogy”.
In The Marvels there are two stories. One story is entirely in pictures. 400 pages of it or so and it starts off the book. Then that story ends and the rest of the book is in text, 90 years later (coming in at about 200 pages or so). There are five generations of actors involved and theater and all sorts of stuff (I’m being vague not on purpose but because I’m not entirely certain what the plot is). The main character lives in 1990 and pieces together the first, older story which may or may not have a connection to his own tale.
The story was inspired in large part by an old London theater. In researching it he met one David Milne, who encouraged Brian and his husband to go off “mudlarking” with him. Brian, naturally, didn’t know what that meant. Down the crew walked to the Thames, finding that what at first looked like stones and rocks were not, in fact, stones and rocks. They were little pieces of London history. “I was haunted by this image of the detritus of history spread out upon the beach”. In that washed up detrius there was, for him, a connection to the vast power of storytelling. Stories make sense of the past, particularly when the past feels messy and uncontrollable. And the ability to transform life into a story is the triumph of order over chaos, and power over powerlessness. That is what The Marvels is about.
Brian then read a selection from the book, and in it we heard of two characters contemplating not just treasures washed beneath their feet but what in life is memorable, and forgettable, and permanent and impermanent.
In closing he urged us, each and every one, to continue putting the chaotic past into some kind of order.
Then it was time for the panels.
Celebrating the Natural World and Raising Awareness About How to Protect It
Moderated by Julie Roach of Cambridge Public Library.
So here we have a panel consisting of Anita Silvey (Untamed: The Wild Life of Jane Goodall), Louis Sachar (Fuzzy Mud), Paul Fleischman (Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines) (also my first time seeing him), Wendell Minor (Trapped! A Whale’s Rescue), and April Pulley Sayre (Raindrops Roll). The books, as Julie pointed out, ranged from preschool to high school. It was an interesting collection of folks. Sachar was almost the odd man out since his was the only purely fictional book (speculative fiction at that) in the bunch but he worked in the context of the talks.
First off, there was some talk about kids and engaging them in literature. Sayre spoke about how kids these days can really get involved in macro photography, so her latest book (Raindrops Roll) engages kids not only on a gee-this-is-pretty level but also because it’s an art that some of them (with the right equipment, of course) could do. This transitioned gently into how each speaker was engaged by the subject matter of their books. Silvey, for example, said that Jane Goodall begins each talk with a chimpanzee pant hoot. “She had me at the hello pant hoot”. As the answers went down the line, the answers morphed into how the authors became interested in environmental concerns themselves. Paul Fleischman spoke on his picture book training as well, “In picture books Every. Word. Counts. Nothing can be extraneous.” He then quoted Eudora Welty saying that each book teaches you to write it and not the next one (a statement that stood almost in direct opposition to what Brian had been saying earlier about using each book to build onto the next).
Julie tied Sachar back into the conversation by pointing out the loads of science and math in his book. When asked what he hoped kids would get out of it, he said he hoped first and foremost that they’d enjoy it. This has always been his point about his own books. I remember well his desire when Holes came out for it not to be forcibly assigned to kids in school. So I was happy to see that he mentioned in his discussion of his latest novel Fuzzy Mud the whole subplot on “virtue” and how his main character is actually trying to be virtuous. It is, to be fair, one of the most interesting elements of the book and something I hadn’t really noticed until Monica Edinger pointed it out to me. He also said that the book says something about out of control population growth, but I’ll admit that I didn’t pick up on that element at all.
Minor was the only illustrator on board so Julie asked him about his art. Wendell mentioned that generally speaking, when it comes to picture book publishing there’s an understanding that authors and illustrators don’t tend to talk but he and Robert Burleigh do. Frequently. He insists upon it. He mentioned too that Trapped was based on an incident when a whale seemingly thanked the human divers that saved her. I heard the story first on RadioLab myself, and if you ever have a chance to listen I recommend it. They spend a lot of time trying to figure out what exactly the whale was doing since it wasn’t necessarily saying thank you (though that’s what we humans wish it was doing).
Anita did a very funny recap of the difficulties of researching a subject for kids, where she mentioned the first stage (your publisher thinks you know something about the subject of your book and honestly, you don’t), the second stage (you do loads of research and now know everything – too much for a kids’ book), and the third stage (you pare it down). During the course of her talk I was able to ascertain just how smart a speaker Anita is. Her particular talent comes in how deftly she alternates between the serious subject matter and jokes. Meaning and humor. The keys to any good talk.
Julie wondered if there was a common thread that connects each individual author’s books to one another. Their answers were:
April – The hope of getting kids to feel connected to the material.
Paul – The presence of the past. When he was a young adult, Paul lived in a house build in 1770 and it gave him that connection to history that he’s always trying to instill in his young readers.
Wendell – A sense of place and a sense of time. “History is nothing more than stories about very interesting people.” Also, “History is not old. It is now.” That would be the theme of the day, it seems.
Anita – The personality of a true believer. She feels particularly connected to those people who give their life, life’s work, and life’s blood for what they do. “I understand that personality.” She pointed out that she has dedicated her own life to children’s books, after all. So there’s a connection there.
Louis – A sense of optimism. That for each of his characters (even in his oldest books) the world is open to them. They can do anything and become anybody. Once they find themselves and persevere through their problems, of course. That was the hardest thing about Fuzzy Mud. It was written with a foreboding sense of impeding catastrophe.
Julie asked if there was a book in any of their childhoods that was a catalyst for them. That made them what they are today.
April: Petersen’s Field Guide to Birds. She just loves a good field guide.
Paul: Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols.
Anita: Her teacher kept saying a swear word. “F.D.R. In my house that was a swear word.” So instead of saying something, she decided to learn more about the subject. That was a turning point for her.
Wendell: His mother would read Beatrix Potter and he fell in love with the animals. He also mentioned how many scientists he’s met that went on to do what they did because of My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George.
Louis: In Our Town by Damon Runyon.
The talk closed up and I got briefly distracted by the #KidPit hastag trending at that time. Apparently it’s a way of pitching unsolicited manuscripts on Twitter. Huh. Who knew?
Focus, Betsy, focus! Next up:
Middle School Confidential:
The Tough and Tender Trials of Today’s Young Teens
And we’re off! After a quick break it was time to spend some time with Tim Federle (Five, Six, Seven, Nate!), Lisa Graff (Lost in the Sun), Luke Reynolds (The Looney Experiment), Rebecca Stead (Goodbye Stranger), and Rita Williams-Garcia (Gone Crazy in Alabama). Essentially, the world’s greatest cocktail party, but on a stage. Moderated by Stacy Dillon I was impressed by the fact that they were able to incorporate an author from a smaller publisher (Reynolds is with Blink) with the big boys.
I was also very excited for this panel because I, for one, have noticed a huge uptick in literature for middle schoolers. Such books are the devil to catalog, of course. Generally speaking there is no middle school section in public libraries so you’re stuck trying to figure out whether or not to place a book in the juvenile section or YA. Neither is quite right. And in a year where I’d argue that two of the three recent Newbery winners were clear cut middle school books (Brown Girl Dreaming and The Crossover), this is a conversation I want to hear people talking about.
First off, Stacy Dillon said that she was going to ask the panelists about “your middle school selves”. But to get them off to an easy start she lobbed them a softball question of what they liked to read when they were in middle school.
Rita: Thirty-One Brothers and Sisters by Reba Paeff Mirsky. Insofar as I can tell, this book is out of print so if any enterprising publisher wants to bring it back, I think I know someone who might be willing to give it a blurb. And Love Story. Of course.
Rebecca: Rebecca was able to come up with the most books in her answer. She loved the James Herriott books. Clan of the Cave Bear. She loved Stranger in a Strange Land and books by Ray Bradbury. And on the younger side, there was Norma Klein’s Mom, the Wolfman, and Me. And I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She even gave a shout out to Daddy Was a Number Runner, which is a book that constantly appears on NYC summer reading lists and is bloody impossible to order for my branches sometimes.
Tim: He said his family moved from San Francisco to Pittsburgh. “We were the first family to ever do that. Ever.” Books he enjoyed included Matilda and stories by Shel Silverstein (like Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back “It’s so pro-gun!”). He also said he tried to read The Shining thinking it would be something about (insert jazz hands) Shining!
Luke: Like a lot of kids, Luke had a challenge going on with a friend to read the longest book. He checked out Crime and Punishment, got to the end, and realized he’d hardly understood a word. Luck also recounted a somewhat surreal moment in his life when he remembered listening to The Autobiography of Malcolm X on audiobook in his suburban neighborhood while delivering papers with his toy poodle in tow.
Lisa: Like Luke she tried to read the longest books, so attempts were made on Moby Dick, The Bible, etc. So she went back to reading books by Roald Dahl, Louis Sachar, and she was obsessed with The Baby-Sitters Club. In the end she had about sixty of them and though they were eventually donated to a school library, she likes to think that they’re still there, along with her own books today.
“Share a secret about your middle school selves”, asks Stacy and Rita lets off a sound like a full balloon emitting air painfully.
Rita: Well, when Rita was young she bonded with her best friend over their professed hatred of boys. She would watch the local gophers with her friend and she’d name them after boys in her classroom. “So . . . we had rocks. And we had slingshots. It was an acceptable thing back then. We didn’t even make them, we bought them at the corner store. They expected us to use them on SOMETHING!” Then they’d wait for one in particular, their main target, to poke his head out. They’d named him after the book Chiefie. They never got him, though. So at school they figured they’d freak out their mortal enemies by staring at them during reading time. Chant: “I have laser eyes, I have laser eyes.” At this point Rita paused and addressed the audience directly. “How many of you have figured out I had a crush on Chiefie?”
Tim: All the way up until he was 14, Tim would sneak into his parents bedroom and sleep on the floor because he was so afraid. This is honestly why he’s so drawn to middle schoolers. He finds the tightrope of “I know everything and I know nothing” so appealing. Around 7th grade, Tim knew he was gay and fortunately he was in a very accepting community so he didn’t feel bad or guilty about it. Just the same, it was a secret because he knew the minute he told somebody it would no longer be his own. He didn’t need to act on it yet. After all, “Not all secrets are bad.”
Luke: He shoplifted quite a bit. In a way, the revenge for this is that when he tells his kids this fact, they say, “Can you teach us?” Really, doing it was how he processed his own fear.
Lisa: “I will tell you but promise not to tweet it.” Note that she didn’t say I couldn’t blog it. Haha! Back in the day Lisa was The Narrator for Joseph and the Amazing Technocolor Dreamcoat (one of six Narrators, actually). The boy she had a crush on played the part of Joseph and, fun fact, he’s now mildly famous on Friday Night Lights now. Anyway, Lisa peeled his name off his cubby and put the sticker on the inside of her vest so she could wear it close to her heart. Awwwww. And THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is why I want her for Funny Girl.
Stacy directed the next question directly to Rebecca. With Goodbye, Stranger in mind she wanted to know about those moments when you say goodbye to someone who has changed or to an old version of yourself. Rebecca for her part said her books were about sensitizing kids to their own lives in a deeper way. There’s this moment when you cross a line into a new kind of awareness, and there’s no going back. For her part, Rebecca has always been genuinely moved by the fact that we change and leave versions of ourselves behind us. The end of childhood (“which is really many ends”) is like a series of deaths (I said something similar to this in my review of her book, by the way). That’s why there’s so much to say about those moments and that’s why we think so much about those moments. Rita chimed in, saying she was blessed in having a character like Delphine who is a child (though she doesn’t know it) and who is often playing the role of a stoic adult. “The death of girlhood” is a plague in general, said Rita, but certainly in the black community. These are girls who don’t truly know what it is to have a childhood. Rita recounted a moment when she once saw a four-year-old feeding her baby brother mashed potatoes, and there was something in the way in which was attending to her brother that showed that she’d done this very often. This is a girl, said Rita, who will never have her childhood or that feeling of complete silliness, giddiness, wonder, and fear. She is being set up for that cycle of being a very young mother. For this and many other reasons, the joy of childhood is something important to Rita in her work.
After this, Luke mentioned that there was a Toni Morrison quote about what kids really want to know is whether or not your eyes light up when you look at them. That’s what writing for middle school is really about. Kids want someone to see not the 10% on top but the 90% below. Lisa said that in her own book, Lost in the Sun, her character Trent is at a crossroads. He can either become the person people think he is or he can bust out of that, which is the harder thing to do. It’s hard for kids to figure out where the truth is and what truth you want to hear.
Stacy then turned the conversation to a popular topic. She pointed out that different themes of bullying appear in each of these author’s books. She asked if bullying was the impetus of the writings or if it just naturally is a part of the middle school experience. Rita, “Well, it helps to have an older brother and sister.” As she pointed out, we never think that we’re the bully, especially if we’re the older sibling. After all, “We’re keeping them in line.” You don’t think you’re the one tormenting someone since you have a different opinion of the situation. She hoped that we see a lot more characterizations of the person who holds the power, in complex ways. She really spoke to the complexity of bullying that is often just NOT in evidence (in books of this sort). I’m with her on this. We gain very little from the one-sided depictions that are so popular in our fiction right now. After Rita spoke, Tim said that when he wrote his first book (Better Nate Than Ever) he was still working with the boys of the musical Billy Elliot. As he watched, he could see that they would bully each other. As a result he wanted to write a kid who was teased for many reasons and then, in time, to write a sequel where even on Broadway he’s still “The last kid chosen for dodgeball”. So when he talks to kids about the experience of being bullied he makes sure to say, “Everything that got me picked on in middle school is what gets me paid now.” And he tells kids that bullying doesn’t stop after middle school which, rather than scaring kids, he think is really important for them to hear and offers a strange kind of comfort. Rebecca, for her part, didn’t consider bullying at all when writing her book but after people started to read it she could see what they were talking about. A particularly interesting point made by Rebecca was the fact that it’s not just kids who bully one another. It’s how a school reacts to a given situation (like, in the case of her book, a sexy selfie). Schools and administrators can BE bullies themselves. Had she focused on bullying as an issue from the start when she was writing, she would have concentrated more on how the kids treat one another.
Stacy asked at this point, “How do you keep something for the middle school rather than YA crowd?” It at this point in the day that I noticed that Tim is not a passive panelist. In point of fact, he is very good at directing the questions on a panel, thereby avoiding the awkward pause that sometimes can come when people don’t want to answer the moderator. Watch him and you’ll see that he keeps everything oiled and running smoothly. As for this question Lisa (who has done both MG and YA novels), said that middle grade books are where kids are feeling out where their place is in the world is and YA titles contain characters figuring out who they are and what makes them unique. With that in mind, tween is where you’re trying to figure out EVERYTHING (it covers both sides). Rita spoke at this point with a, “So, okay, I don’t MEAN to make you squirm”. Then she brought up No Laughter Here. Now this is the rare book that was actually challenged in the NYPL system by a patron who believed that it should be moved from the children’s section to the YA. It was such a brave friggin’ book too. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s about the topic of female circumcision. Said Rita, these particular characters were her best teachers about stepping aside and remembering whose story it is. Of all the books mentioned today, this is probably the quintessential middle school book. Said Rita, you must filter everything you know through your characters perspective and limitations to “as far as they care to know”. Then she knows she has to pull back and even let her characters be wrong about things. Know everything you can possibly know and then know your character and trust your character even more.
Rebecca said that to her mind it’s very hard to distinguish middle grade from YA because it’s so impossible to draw a strict line. Everyone reads different things (just look at what the panelists said they read when they were middle schoolers, after all). So she’d never tell a kid what to read at any given moment. By the same token, she does think that middle grade fiction should include really truthful, honest stories about kids who are 12 and 13-years-old. Maybe kids are reading lots of YA because they are experiencing many of the feelings that are fleshed out in YA books and not found in the middle grade stuff. This ties in quite nicely to the selfie question in her own Goodbye, Stranger, of course.
And what are they working on next?
Lisa: “I’m working on a sequel to A Tangle of Knots.” *clapping comes from audience* “Don’t clap because it’s terrible.” (She’s still in the early draft phase)
Luke: “I’m working on a book that was originally called The Crossover.”
Tim: “I have my first YA novel for next spring The Great American Whatever. And a new cocktail recipe book. It’s called Gone With the Gin.”
Rebecca: Not writing a book at the moment.
Rita: Yesterday she tweeted that she was falling in love with her latest book Clayton Bird Goes Underground (?). Not sure about the spelling on Bird on that one. Hope it’s my last name. Cause that would be awesome.
Now I’m not going to write up the A.S. King luncheon speech, and this is a shame. I didn’t write it down at the time because she’s YA and I don’t cover that topic. Still, she had many wonderful things to say about feminism and inclusion that I dearly hope that someone somewhere wrote this stuff down or, better yet, recorded it. If I hear that anyone has, I’ll link to it here. It was a killer speech.
Nonfiction Goes Graphic (In Format)
Love the parenthetical at work here. Don’t want folks worried that we have Alan Moore here to talk about Lost Girls, or something.
So here we come to our last panel. And, to my mind, it’s a good one to end on because it closes things out with a bang. Jesse Karp was moderating a panel consisting of Don Brown (Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans), Claudia Davila (Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War), Nathan Hale (The Underground Abductor), Maggie Thrash (Honor Girl), and Maris Wicks (Human Body Theater).
Jesse turned out to be a dude. A loquacious dude. So we went a bit over time, but he clearly knew the subject matter and was able to place the books on display in a great deal of context. Right at the start he began by tying in today’s speakers to folks like Spiegelman, Satrapi, McCloud and a lot of the other greats who work in the nonfiction medium. These people, said Jessie, exemplify the breadth and scope of this topic. After introducing them he mentioned that he initially had been a bit worried about doing five panelists since surely one of the books he had to introduce would be a dud. Not the case (and I believe him on this matter).
In an interesting switcheroo, Karp encouraged each person to show a page from their work as they talked about their books. First up, Don Brown. He’s not a strict graphic novelist in the traditional sense but his work is unique and visual. Don mentioned that he’d been making books for kids for more than 20 years, the bulk of which were biographical picture books. So why the switch to graphic novels? To a large extent he was inspired by Maus, which when it came out it answered the question forever as to whether or not historical truth could be done in a graphic format. Brown’s Great American Dust Bowl title was the first book that he tried in this format. Come to think of it, I believe I reviewed it in the Times alongside fellow panelist Nathan Hale’s Donner Dinner Party. With his newest book he selected a more recent tragedy: Katrina. Brown explained with an image how the visual medium is perfect for showing moments like a couple climbing away from the water, having to claw their way out of their own roof. “In a graphic novel you can have action across the page that will emphasize the points you’re trying to make.” He also juxtaposed Bush’s “Heckuva job, Brownie” alongside the images of dead bodies after the flooding. Said he, “All historians have a point of view. If they say they don’t, they’re lying.”
Jesse pointed out that one argument often leveled against comics is that they’re forcing you to see things in a specific, singular way. But as Brown pointed out, doesn’t prose do the same thing? After all, every book has a point of view, even if it’s not immediately apparent. That’s just reality. Imagery is always very dicey and Brown understands why people have a problem with it, particularly when it comes to graphic novels. Similarly, people have the mistaken belief that if it isn’t a photograph there’s something inauthentic about it. But don’t be fooled. There’s no such thing as photorealism. All the elements that make a photo up tell a story apart and beyond words. And Don accepts that and embraces it, so he has no problem with forcing people to witness his own point of view of a historical moment.
Said Jesse, perspective is essential. He then introduced Maris Wicks.
“Maris is great, by the way,” says Don Brown.
“Greetings, human beings”, says Maris.
So Maris began with the statement that she is a big nerd. She loves the natural world and also loves making narrative nonfiction books. Turns out, she’s the one who did the Dian Fossey / Jane Goodall / Biruté Galdikas book, Primates! I had no idea. The style in her latest book, Human Body Theater, is not precisely the same. The reason for this was that Maris wanted the book to be something fierce. “I think self care and self knowledge are really important,” she said. In terms of the slide she wanted to show, her selected section was on cuts and scabs. As she explained, part of the awesome language of comics is that she can go inside the skin of a papercut and there’s a narrative to that. Though, to be honest, there’s a narrative to everything! Whether it’s mucus in our “crazy large nasal cavities” or the beating of our hearts. It is text heavy, but she hopes the playfulness of the writing and art will help. The pictures also help you along with the hope that you’ll be able to tap into the flow of it all. Additional Bonus: There’s a fair amount of anthropomorphism. Said she, “I make a lot of things that don’t talk, talk.” A bit ironically, Maris also works as an educator at an aquarium and she and her co-workers take a bit of care to move away from anthropomorphism there. But in a story like this one, you care more about things if you can relate to them. It’s sort of what Brian said at the beginning of the day about emotions and empathy. If you don’t care about the talking skeleton on the page, what’s going to compel you to keep reading.
Jesse following up on her talk, pointing out that the images of anatomy in this book have a kind of power that a photograph never could. This raw sense of life and animation can’t be found in a photo, so the drawn medium really does contribute to a sense of engagement. But all of that being true, the imagery must to some extent be accurate. So how do you work with primary sources on the visual end and turn them into something “uniquely you” and yet remain accurate at the same time? Maris responded that research is actually her favorite part of any book. For this title, for example, she engaged the services of a lot of textbooks and picture dictionaries. DK’s books for kids were useful, and she looked at them to see how the information on this topic had been presented in earlier children’s books. After all, when information is presented in a different way it creates that all important “ah ha!” moment. And since a lot of what’s in her book is information that is already being learned, what she hopes is that her book is just going to help child readers remember the facts or give them a little different information or just present it in a new way.
Next up was Claudia who confessed at the start that this was her first trip to NY. She was also a little different from her fellow panelists because she was the illustrator of her GN and not the author. This book is a memoir of Michel Chikwanine, a man who, when he was five-years-old, found his free and fun-loving childhood over when he was abducted by rebel soldiers. Her main goal with this book was to honor Michel’s experience as he visits schools and brings awareness to child soldiers around the world. A big part of the book examines his relationship to his father, an activist who was in time killed by the soldiers. In terms of the art itself, Claudia utilizes a more painterly style, rather than pen and inks. This was a conscious choice since it calms down the visuals and doesn’t glorify the violence and action. In many ways, Claudia’s goal with this project was to create the whole book without depicting any violence. In terms of the story’s audience she said it was for grades 4 and up, though I’m afraid I disagree with that. I actually have read this one, since it arrived at my desk and I assumed that it was middle grade. Yet when I read it the content, while not visually graphic, is definitely for middle school readers at the very least.
When Jesse was given a chance to speak he mentioned that he was amazed by the extent to which the art actually controls the reader’s experience. The subject matter is very heavy and yet the style finds a tone that would make Jesse comfortable handing the book to his students but does not get rid of any of the immediacy and authenticity of the text. Don Brown had talked earlier about how he placed President Bush’s panel next to one containing dead bodies for effect, but here it’s not just the placement of the panels but the panel borders that tell a tale. What’s inside of them is still appropriate for kids to read but the borders suggest that what isn’t within these enclosed spaces is far far worse. Claudia responded that she thought it was very important that the book was written in the first person. That way the reader can connect with the experience. Almost every panel has Michel in it so it really is about his specific experience. She went on to say that generally speaking, in a book like this one you never want a duplication of the art and the text or else the art will feel redundant. The text itself is very graphic with tons of detail, after all. And because the text was so graphic it gave her an opportunity to illustrate something “adjacent” to Michel’s experiences.
Next up, one of my favorite comic artists, Nathan Hale. His current book about Harriet Tubman is nothing short of amazing. Jaw-dropping. Spectacular. Nathan said he thought broadly about nonfiction and graphic novels on his way here. And as he did so, a metaphor popped into his head. So imagine if in the 40s, 50s, and 60s in America, all sports started dying off and all that was left was pro-wrestling. That’s what comics in America has been for a very long time. The last 50 years have been guys in tights punching each other. So when people ask him if he read comics growing up he’d say no. But then he realized that he did read newspaper comics. In fact, he was a die-hard comic page reader. Even when Nathan speaks to librarians these days, a lot of them instantly zero in on the superhero stuff. But that’s just not the case around the world. Nate then proceeded to talk about international graphic novels that spanned a wide range of topics. Series like King of Tennis, about a kid who just wants to become the best possible tennis player. There are even comics in other countries that cover OUR history! One that he mentioned is French, from the 1970s, and about soldiers during the Civil War (my husband says the series is The Bluecoats).
BUT! There is good news on the horizon. We’re starting to bring it all back. Getting back to those newspaper comics, Nathan then talked about Bill the Cat and how Alley Oop was beautiful but neeeever funny. His favorites, however, were the political comics because the drawings in them were so crazy. He didn’t know what they were about but he knew they were grown-up stuff and that they were true on some level. So he started adopting that. Think about how he used the animals in Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood. In speaking about his latest book, he said that there was nothing cooler than seeing the country suddenly go Harriet Tubman crazy. She’s trending on Twitter! There’s going to be a movie! Harriet Tubman is one of those names that immediately makes a schoolkid sleepy so Nathan didn’t want to use her name anywhere on the cover. As a result, she’s Araminta for most of the book and then when she changes her name to Harriet Tubman that’s a kind of gasp aloud moment.
Jesse said that humor is clearly central to what Nathan does and that this heavy subject matter is laced with humor but it works all the way through. Yet, at the same time, and not unlike political cartoons, there’s information that needs to be conveyed. There’s real heavy duty information. Everything Nathan does is more interesting to him if it’s visual. It just makes it that much more appealing than an information dump. The thing about graphic novel readers is that they can read a GN faster than a novel, but, by the same token, they’ll reread it many many more times.
Maggie was last. Her book was basically about unrequited summer camp love. It was also about getting your heart pulverized for the first time and now your childhood is OVER (another theme of the day)! Unlike a lot of the other folks, she’s entirely self-taught. Heck, her style changed between the beginning of the book and the end. And as with most memoirs, you’re very involved in her struggles. “You get to be with me with my frustration and my ineptitude”. With comics all the noise of prose is gone. As a result, what’s on the page is intense and immediate. “I’ll never go back.” Jesse concurred, saying that Maggie so powerfully evoked her own feelings that the sense of desperation at work here is palpable. With a memoir, unlike a biography, in some sense you have to punch through the whole idea of perspective and pull the reader into who you are. And he assumed from having read this, it’s a kind of emotional baring of yourself.
Finally, the panel was done and it was the moment of the hour. For the very first time, the announcement of the 2015 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards were happening at Day of Dialog. A VERY smart move (and I’m not just saying that). Up came Roger Sutton (“My brother-in-arms” as Luann Toth called him). It was sort of like getting to sit in on the Emmys. Rebecca Stead was with him as he navigated the PowerPoint.
First awarded in 1967 this particular award is given to excellence in literature for children and young adults. The award calendar is unusual and sets it apart from the usual end-of-year lists. Eligible books this year had to be published between June 1st 2014 – May 31st 2015. In recent years the Globe’s commitment to the award has been considerable, says Roger. He then pointed out the previous winners in the room. Folks like Paul Fleischman, Don Brown, Louis Sachar. Rebecca Stead. He even asked a trivia question: What has won the Boston Horn Book-Globe Award, the Newbery and The National Book Award? The Answer: M.C. Higgins the Great.
And the winners are . . . .
Honors: Egg and Spoon by Gregory Maguire
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
Award: Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell
Honors: The Boys Who Challenged Hitler by Phillip Hoose
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Award: The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming
Honors: It’s Only Stanley by Jon Agee
‘Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers
Award: The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee
Friday, October 2nd the awards will be given out in person.
And that’s all she wrote with very tired, numb fingers, folks! Many thanks to SLJ for letting me tag along and to all the folks for the great day. And the cookies. Seriously, where did the cookies come from? They were amazing. Two thumbs up big time for the cookies.
It’s not that it’s impossible to predict the “next big thing” in children’s literature, but it’s also not exactly a hard science. Indeed, whenever a publisher starts spending beaucoup de bucks on a given title (hardcover f&gs, a serious marketing campaign for a debut author, etc.) I cringe a bit. They’ve made their bets and they’re willing to bank on them. I, on the other hand, make my own kinds of bets. As a Materials Specialist it’s my job to figure out how many copies of any given title should be added to my library system. Sometimes it’s a no brainer. And sometimes I’m far off the mark.
Now picture book blockbuster hits, for whatever the reason, are where I fall down the hardest. It’s not just that I can’t see them coming. It’s often that I’m blind to whatever esoteric elements are in play, making those books big time hits. With that in mind, today I’m going to talk about some of the top picture book blockbusters to come out in the last ten years. Please note that I’m avoiding picture books with TV or other media tie-ins. These are the folks who got where they are on their own merits.
The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak – It’s not the first time someone did this idea (the Elephant and Piggie title We Are In a Book does something very similar to what Novak does here) but I’ll admit that I haven’t ever seen anything exactly, precisely like this. With that in mind I bought a reasonable number of copies for my library system. Then it took off like gangbusters. Folks who’ve never even heard of Novak were pulling it from the shelves. I’m not going to say it’s the most successful celebrity picture book of all time, but it sure comes close. Wowzah.
The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers – Though it’s by no means as pro-union as Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, one does wonder what the anti-union folks out there think about Daywalt’s smash success. Definitely didn’t see this one coming. I figured it was a bit wordy and long for total and complete New York Times bestseller domination but about the time it was on the list for 4+ months I knew we had a genuine blockbuster on our hands.
Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glaser – You know, it’s very cool in some circles to disparage FN, but as crazy huge hits go, I’m a fan. It’s a lot smarter than folks give it credit for. You can trace its initial popularity to its sheer untold gobs of pink fanciness, but it sustains its hold on the marketplace in large part because of the writing.
Good Night, Good Night, Construction Site by Sherri Duskey Rinker, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld – No idea. None. We see fun construction equipment picture books all the time. And we see popular subjects mixed with the bedtime book genre all the time too. Robots go to bed. Dinosaurs. But for whatever reason, this hit all the right buttons. I can’t account for it. Consider me broadsided by its success.
Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Jill McElmurry – I don’t think I realized, until this very moment, that the illustrator of the book is the same woman behind Kathi Appelt’s lovely 2015 title When Otis Courted Mama. Huh! In any case, this is a case of a book that’s a huge hit everywhere in the country except NYC. I only know about it because it’s always on the Publishers Weekly bestseller list.
Pete the Cat by Eric Litwin, illustrated by James Dean – This is one picture book that can credit its massive success to its creators’ self-promotion. It’s also one of the rare self-published books to go mainstream and then blockbuster success. Doesn’t hurt matters any that there’s a catchy little YouTube song that goes with it. Other books have tried to replicate its success. So far, no takers.
Pinkalicious by Victoria & Elizabeth Kann – According to legend, this book came about when an editor heard the song “Fergilicious” and thought it would make sense (post-Fancy Nancy‘s success) to do a book called “Pinkalicious”. So the Kanns were hired and that was that. Like Pete the Cat, subsequent sequels have only been credited to one of the original creators. So there’s that.
Press Here by Herve Tullet – Rarer than the self-published picture book that becomes a massive success? The imported picture book. Translations don’t usually yield the kind of crazy popularity enjoyed by Tullet’s best known title. Still, the King of Preschool Books managed to make his sense of humor, style, and originality work here in the States. No small feat.
Now what did I miss?
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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Morning, folks. What’s that? Why, yes. Yes, I would like to watch this video about Nathan Hale’s newest GN The Underground Abductor. Thank you! Seems to me the man has lucked out in terms of timing too. With people rallying to put Ms. Tubman on the $20 bill, it is now vastly important to learn more about her. Plus, you cannot read this book and not become an instantaneous Tubman fan.
So here in NYC we’ve a little something called the NYC Neighborhood Library Awards. Patrons nominate their local branches and the finalists have these cool videos. The first branch I ever worked in was my beloved Jefferson Market. Look at this and tell me it’s not the most gorgeous place you’ve ever seen.
Jefferson Market Library from Well Exposed on Vimeo.
Now lots of successful children’s authors use their money for good causes. But really, opening an independent bookstore is just a great idea all around. Jeff Kinney talks about his newly opened store here. I love his reasoning behind not making it just a children’s store (though, frankly, that would have been a-okay with me too).
For you Betsy Bird completists out there (hi, mom), here’s a chance to see me talk twice about digital stuff. Once around 6:36 and once around 24:20. This livestream video was done in celebration of a Kickstarter Campaign called Time Traveler Tours & Tales which seeks to meld interactive history with honest-to-goodness books. I was asked to speak about story and electronic media and libraries, so I did just that:
Doggone it. The Scholastic preview just went up and the books look fantastic. And me not going to ALA either. Oh, Book Expo . . . .
And for our off-topic video today, this is sorta kinda on topic. If you want to stretch your definition of “children’s literature”. Recently there’s been a lot of talk about what the 10 best pre-recorded sketches of Saturday Night Live this season were. My heart lies with The Middle Earth Office. For fans of the British office, this is just gravy. Pure gravy.
The Anne Izard Storytellers’ Choice Awards Committee is pleased to announce the recipients of the 12th biennial Awards. The awards will be presented in a ceremony on Tuesday, June 16, 2015, at the White Plains (New York) Public Library. The program is open to the public.
The Anne Izard Storytellers’ Choice Award was established in 1990 by librarians, storytellers and educators in Westchester County, New York, to honor Anne Izard, an extraordinary librarian, storyteller, and Children’s Services Consultant in the Westchester County Library System. The Award seeks to bring the riches of storytelling to greater public awareness by highlighting and promoting distinguished books on storytelling published for children and adults. Folklore, fiction, biography and historical stories must be entirely successful without consideration of graphic elements. Books which enrich a storyteller’s understanding of story, folk traditions, aesthetics, and methods of storytelling are also eligible. Books considered for the Twelfth Award were original material, reprints, or new English translations published in the United States between January 1, 2013 and December 31, 2014.
Recipients of the 12th Anne Izard Storytellers’ Choice Awards are:
Beyond the Briar Patch : Affrilachian Folktales, Food and Folklore by Lyn Ford [Parkhurst Brothers 2014]
The Boy Who Loved Math by Deborah Heiligman [Roaring Brook Press 2013]
Every Day a Holiday: A Storyteller’s Memoir by Elizabeth Ellis [Parkhurst Brothers 2014]
The Golden Age of Folk & Fairy Tales: From the Brothers Grimm to Andrew Lang by Jack Zipes [Hackett Publishing 2013]
The Grudge Keeper by Mara Rockliff [Peachtree Publishers 2014]
The King of Little Things by Bil Lepp [Peachtree Publishers 2013]
Mysterious Traveler by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham [Candlewick Press 2013]
Ol’ Clip Clop: A Ghost Story by Patricia C. McKissack [Holiday House 2013]
Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner [Oxford University Press 2014]
Story by Story: Creating a Student Storytelling Troupe… by Karen Chace [Parkhurst Brothers 2014]
Teaching with Story by Margaret Read MacDonald, Jennifer MacDonald Whitman and Nathaniel Forest Whitman [August House 2014]
Whiskers, Tails & Wings: Animal Folktales from Mexico by Judy Goldman [Charlesbridge 2013]
You Never Heard of Willie Mays?! by Jonah Winter [Schwartz & Wade Books 2013]
For more information, please contact Tata Canuelas, Chair, at email@example.com, or Ellen Tannenbaum, Co-Chair, at firstname.lastname@example.org .
And a happy Thursday to you all. It’s May 21st and that means another episode of Fuse #8 TV is up and running. As per usual I kick the whole kerschmozzle off with a new edition of “Reading (Too Much) Into Picture Books”. Though I had a recent request to tackle The Giving Tree, I couldn’t find an adequate hook. Until I do, I find that the board book Subway by Anastasia Suen (illustrated by Karen Katz) has a spy thriller vibe going on just below its seemingly innocuous surface. Doubt me? Check it out.
As for our special guest, I was pleased as punch to speak to Geoff Rodkey. For years I’ve been a fan of his Chronicles of Egg series. Now he has a whole new bunch of books out, this time with Little, Brown. Beginning with The Tapper Twins Go to War (With Each Other), Geoff speaks frankly and honestly about his screenwriting life, publishers he’s dealt with, and the true nature of his work on the Carmen Sandiego video games.
All other Fuse #8 TV episodes are archived here.
Once more, thanks to Little, Brown for being my sponsor and helping to put this together.
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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, Alligator Pie
, Chad Beckerman
, children's literary history
, Dr. Seuss
, Frances Hardinge
, Funny Girl
, Goodnight Moon
, Jewell Parker Rhodes
, Marcia Brown
, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
, Nick Cave
, Sebastian Meschenmoser
, Shannon Hale
, summer slide
, The Paper Bag Princess
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- When two people sent me this link I assumed that everyone must have already seen it. But when it didn’t show up on PW Children’s Bookshelf I decided that perhaps I might have a scoop. At the very least, it appears that when people think Nick Cave meets Dr. Seuss, I’m the logical person to send that link to. And they’re right. I’ve been hoping for years that some karaoke bar I wander into might have “Red Right Hand” on the roster. So far it hasn’t worked out but I live in hope. Thanks to Stephanie Whelan and Marci for the link.
- There was a nice obituary in SLJ about Marcia Brown, the woman who currently holds the title of Most Caldecotts Ever Won By a Single Person (though David Wiesner looks to be catching up). She’s a former co-worker of mine, if by “co-worker” you give or take 50 years (we both worked in the Central Children’s Room, now called The Children’s Center at 42nd Street). Jeanne Lamb of NYPL gave some great background in this piece. I did speak to someone recently who was surprised that the Shadow controversy hasn’t come up in any obituaries discussing Ms. Brown’s life. I suspect that has more to do with our shortened memories than anything else, but it may be an indication of folks wishing to remember her in the best light.
- You know, just when you think Travis Jonker has come up with all the brilliant posts he’s going to, something like this comes along and blows it all out of the water. You, sir, are a certified genius. You, and your little Aaron Zenz too.
- Work on Funny Girl, my anthology, continues unabated. In that light, Shannon Hale’s magnificent post Stop Shushing the Funny Girls is particularly pertinent. Consider it your required reading of the day.
- “Social fluency will be the new currency of success.” The Shelftalker blog said that Jewell Parker Rhodes’s closing keynote, “Diversity and Character-Driven Stories,” at this year’s ABC Children’s Institute was worth reading and seems they’re absolutely right. Downright inspiring too. Maybe this should be your required reading.
- Nope. I was wrong. Those two posts are your required reading, on top of this one from Art Director Chad Beckerman. His Evolution of a Cover post on Me and Earl and the Dying Girl makes you wish he wrote such things daily. It also clarifies for many of us the sheer amount of work a single book jacket takes.
- This is coming to America next year. As such, I must respectfully ask the universe to please make next year come tomorrow. I am willing to wait 24 hours. See how patient I am? I think I deserve a treat.
- Let’s say you work in a library system where, for whatever reason, you need to justify a massive summer reading program. And let us say that what you need, what you really and truly want, are some cold, hard facts to back up the claim that there is such a thing as a “summer slide” (summer slide = the phenomenon of children sliding back a grade or two over the summer if they don’t read during that time) and that summer reading prevents it. Well, thanks to the efforts of RIF, we now have research to back us up. So for those of you fond of cold, hard facts, tip your hat to RIF.
There’s just something about that Alligator Pie. When twenty-five graphic novelists were asked to name their favorite children’s books, not one but TWO of them mentioned Alligator Pie by Dennis Lee, illustrated by Frank Newfeld. Canadian to its core, it’s one of those classics that most Americans, heck most U.S. children’s librarians, just don’t know. Next time I’m in Stratford, Ontario I’m picking up a copy. After all, any book that influenced both Mariko Tamaki and John Martz has got to be doing something right.
Did you hear about the diversity survey Lee & Low has spearheaded? Did you read the comments on the article? And do you know whether or not any of the big five have agreed to participate yet? Inquiring minds want to know.
- Sure, this news already ran in PW Children’s Bookshelf, but hearing it more than once never hurt anybody. We all have our pet favorites. Mine just happen to be German sometimes:
NorthSouth Books’ Associate Publisher, Andrew Rushton, has acquired a second book by German author/illustrator Sebastian Meschenmoser. Gordon & Tapir, which tells the comical story of odd-couple housemates (a particular penguin and an untidy tapir), received a Special Mention at the Bologna Ragazzi awards (category Fiction) and is short-listed for the German Children’s Book of the Year Award. The author will be on tour in the US this June ending at ALA in San Francisco.
- I miss Peter Sieruta. I miss him a lot. Nobody else had his wit and timing and sheer, crazy historical knowledge in strange obscure areas. So it was with great interest that I recently discovered Second Look Books. Librarian Carol Matic highlights older gems each week, giving a bit of context and history along the way. Good for those still going through Collecting Children’s Books withdrawal.
Need I say more?
Jules, I thought of you. Thanks to Stephanie Whelan for the image.
Billy’s Booger: A Memoir (Sorta)
By William Joyce
Moonbot Books / Atheneum Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
On shelves June 2nd
The fictionalized picture book memoir is a fairly new creation, when you get right down to it. It’s not as if Sendak was telling tales about a little boy in Brooklyn or Margaret Wise Brown was penning nostalgic stories of a girl in a Swiss boarding school. But somewhere during the latter part of the 20th century, the form sort of took off. Tomie dePaola typified it with books like Oliver Button Is a Sissy. Michael Rosen took an adult perspective in The Sad Book. And Patricia Polacco has practically made a cottage industry out of it with stories like Thank You, Mr. Falker and Mr. Lincoln’s Way amongst others. They’re still relatively rare, though, so when you encounter a book like Billy’s Booger: A Memoir (Sorta) your first thought isn’t that this is going to have any bearing whatsoever on author William Joyce’s real life. Instead, you zero on in that word. “Booger”. Kinda hard to get away from. And you want to write the book off as gross based on that alone, but the image on the cover stops you. Not the small waving green guy, though he’s pretty cute (until you realize what exactly he is) but rather the bespectacled wide-eyed boy with the book. Get into the story and you encounter a tale that I can honestly say is unlike any other Joyce creation I’ve read before. Funny and relatable with more Bill Joyce in-jokes that you could shake a stick at, this is a picture book memoir that feels deeply personal. And all it took was a bit of fictional phlegm.
Let it be understood that even before the incidents involving the book, upon which I shall elucidate further in a moment, it was an undeniable fact that Billy was both a usual and unusual kiddo. Usual since he loved “monster movies and cartoons and comic books”. Unusual because he was the kind of child that liked to spice up things he regarded as too regular. This attitude was applied towards everything from homework to sports to the best possible way to eat your peas at dinner (for what it’s worth, the trigonal form is to be recommended). Then, one day, the librarian Mrs. Pagely let Billy know about an upcoming book contest where kids would write and illustrate their very own creations. Billy was seriously psyched and pored his heart and soul into his magnum opus, Billy’s Booker: The memoirs of a little green nose buddy. Suffice to say, Billy did not receive any awards. Distraught and disheartened, he no longer had his former pep and verve. And then, one day, he saw something in the library that pretty much changed his entire life.
You know when you walk into a fictionalized picture memoir that what you are getting can’t possibly be all the facts surrounding a pivotal point in the author’s life. But truth be told, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a straight nonfiction picture book memoir in all my livelong days. So your job becomes figuring out what parts of a given storyline are true and which parts are exaggerations. With Joyce, the text is pretty straightforward. There’s nothing too wild, wacky, and out there involved. It’s the art where the man’s imagination soars. There are the natural exaggerations, like the fact that you never see Billy’s sister without her ear firmly attached to a phone receiver, or the way Billy’s book lights up as he writes in it. Then there are the set pieces. Joyce has always cultivated a true love of 1950s/60s nostalgia. Beehives, cat-eye glasses, buttoned up collars, and skirts replete with crinoline. In Billy’s Booger, Joyce creates for himself an idealized childhood. And in no better place is this visible than when Billy settles down to read the Sunday color comics.
Sharp-eyed spotters with a yen for classic newspaper comics will spend ungodly amounts of time poring over the panels that Joyce has painstakingly created here, trying to figure out what he’s referencing in one comic or another. For my part I was able to identify a Peanuts tribute (that one was pretty easy), a comic about the Shmoos of L’il Abner (only here they’re called “Smooks” and rather than “Al Capp” they’re written by “Al Hat”), a clear cut Little Nemo tribute, what appears to be a Terry and the Pirates homage, Flash Gordon, Dick Tracey (I love that the version here is called “Gunn”), The Gumps (maybe), what appears to be Dickie Dare, Bringing Up Father (no homage, that seems pretty straightforward), Yellow Kid, and Beadle’s Half-Dime Library (seriously, Bill?). These never actually existed all at the same time, of course. But Joyce’s original renderings, done with occasional shocking accuracy, are lovingly compiled. He knows perfectly well that kids reading this book aren’t going to get any of these references. Young parents will probably miss a good chunk of them as well. No, this is something Joyce is doing for himself and for the occasional comic enthusiasts out there who get their kicks out of shining iPhone flashlights on the pages trying like mad to make out the words on these teeny tiny panels.
Similarly, Joyce fills his pages to brimming with miniscule details that can only be considered true shout-outs to his fans. Elements of his future books pepper these pages. When Billy first starts writing his book, a little Dinosaur Bob sits on his desk, holding down papers that contain various Mischievians renderings. At the end of the book you can see his future characters flying through the air. Look closely and you’ll see George from George Shrinks. That floating head? It’s probably Ollie. More Mischievians, a possible robot from his movie Robots (remember that one?), and another Dinosaur Bob. And finally, just to go back to the comics for a second, it appears that Joyce has worked in a reference to Michael Chabon’s picture book The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man. At least that’s how I interpreted his “Jonny Trek” comic written in part by “Mikey Chaboing”. This makes a fair amount of sense, since Joyce once illustrated the cover of Chabon’s book Summerland while Chabon has blurbed various Joyce books over the years.
In the midst of all this fun it would be easy to lose sight of the fact that Joyce’s sense of design and layout are going wild. From the endpapers of kooky ideas to the title page drawn to resemble art from those insipid easy reader books of the 50s (think knock off Dick and Jane). The most ambitious element, however, is the small insert in the center of this book of the titular Billy’s Booger. Now on the bookflap of this title we learn that “William Joyce began writing books in the fourth grade. He’s done a bunch of books since, but this it the true story of his making that very first book. And that book is included in this book.” I understand that, but there is no guarantee that this is the original book itself rather than a modernized version of it. I did wonder, and then pored through it in search of any evidence one way or the other. In the end, I’ve no idea. Does it matter? Probably not. But it does make a reader wonder anyway. Kids, naturally, will take it for granted that it’s the original.
There are reviews I write that are so glowing that I feel compelled to come up with some kind of concern, just so I don’t appear to have fallen for its charms too completely. I’m a reviewer, not a cheerleader, after all. In this case, the best I can do is the fact that sometimes Billy’s sister is drawn in an inconsistent fashion, and his book Billy’s Booger uses that term “gypped” which some folks find offensive. For my part, I found it interesting that if this story is indeed true and Joyce did once submit a book called Billy’s Booger in a book contest then it is fascinating to think that the sole time I’ve seen him return to this kind of gross out humor in a literary form was when he created the aforementioned Mischievians. At the time it felt like an odd aberration in the Joyceian oeuvre. Now, not so much.
We might wonder, why now? Why at this point in his career has Bill Joyce chosen to return to this pivotal moment of his youth? As of 2015 the man is remarkably successful. A former New Yorker cover artist, animator, Academy Award winning filmmaker, app creator, you name it. Heck, the guy even has a statue he designed out there somewhere. In the midst of all this, it’s oddly refreshing to see a book of his that’s just a book. There’s no app tie-in or short film waiting in the wings. It’s a book for its own sake, telling a personal story, filled to brimming with fun and humor and teeny tiny details tailor made for picture book/funny page obsessives like myself. And kids? Let’s not forget the actual intended audience here. They should eat it up with a spoon. It’s just a really nice way of explaining that sometimes critics like myself are not the true arbitrators of whether or not a picture book is any good. Sometimes it really comes down to the kids themselves. They’re the ones who’ll read the title and grab this book so fast it makes your head spin. They say only the rarest kind of best is good enough for our kids. Well this puppy is as rare as it gets and, yes. It’s one of the best. Superhero booger men and all.
On shelves June 2nd.
Source: F&G sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
On a typical day at work I might be called upon to come up with a list of children’s books pertaining to one topic or another. Recently I decided to cull together a GLBTQ list for grades K-3 and one for grades 4-8. Easy peasy. I know a lot of the books, both old and new, and putting them together is a breeze.
The picture book list wasn’t all that hard. Books with two dads are pretty easy to locate (the 10th anniversary of And Tango Makes Three, the upcoming Stella Brings the Family, and so on and such). Thinking up moms . . . that was a little harder, but eventually I was able to locate Antonio’s Card, Heather Has Two Mommies (the newly illustrated edition, of course), and In Our Mother’s House. Not a plethora, but serviceable. Forget about finding any books about girls defying gender roles, though. Plenty of boy in dress books and even a couple transgender titles, but gender fluid girl titles? Not much on offer.
As I moved onto the middle grade list things got tricky. Middle grade novels with two dads or gay guys in general? Again, easy peasy. Popularity Papers, The Manny Files, The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, The Accidental Adventures of India McCallister, etc. Middle grade novels with two moms . . . huh.
It took a lot more effort to find such books. They had to be currently in print, for one thing. And I really wanted moms. Just normal old moms. Not an aunt’s roommate or anything. Finally I had to tap my social media friends and together this is what we came up with:
Middle Grade Titles With Two Moms
- Best Friend Next Door, by Carolyn Mackler
- Case of the Stolen Scarab & Case of the Vanishing Valuables by Nancy Garden.
- A Clear Spring by Barbara Wilson (it’s aunts in this case, but we take what we can get)
- The Friendship Riddle by Megan Frazer Blakemore
- I, Emma Freke by Elizabeth Atkinson
- My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer by Jennifer Gennari
- Penny Dreadful by Laurel Snyder
- I wasn’t able to confirm this but apparently all three Maggie Brooklyns by Leslie Margolis including Girl’s Best Friend, Vanishing Acts, and Secrets at the Chocolate Mansion
- The Flower Power book series by Lauren Myracle
- From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun by Jacqueline Woodson (though we bought the reprinted edition for our YA collections, in part because of the cover).
That’s all she wrote, folks. But if you’ve more you can name of either this (or picture books with gender fluid gals) I’d love to hear ‘em. No YA, though. It’s easy to get YA and middle grade mixed up, but I work strictly in the children’s book realm.
Cover Reveal Day is here once more! This time it’s a true doozy. A Sara Varon (and you know how the kids clamor for her). Here’s a bit of a description and the book itself. And I know my mom would approve of how they’re holding their knitting needles:
Back before Odd Duck, before Robot Dreams, Sara Varon created Sweaterweather. This endearing, quirky volume is a captivating look into Varon’s creative process. It combines short comics stories, essays, and journal entries, and invites the reader into the world of Sara Varon: where adorable, awkward anthropomorphic animals walk the streets of Brooklyn and a surprising, sideways revelation is waiting around every corner.
First Second is proud to introduce Sweaterweather to a new generation of readers in this gorgeous jacketed hardcover, with a new cover and plenty of new content.
Many thanks to the good folks at First Second for this sneaky peek!
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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, A Wrinkle in Time
, book plates (haha)
, Edgar Awards
, Etienne Delessert
, forgotten children's books
, Funny Girl
, Harry Potter
, international children's books
, Kate Milford
, Mathical Book Award
, Native Americans
, Oscar Wilde
, Shannon Hale
, Writing Barn
, writing retreats
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“If kids like a picture book, they’re going to read it at least 50 times, and their parents are going to have to read it with them. Read anything that often, and even minor imperfections start to feel like gravel in the bed.” – Mark Haddon
I’ve just returned from speaking at a magnificent writing retreat weekend at Bethany Hegedus’s Writing Barn in Austin, Texas. That quote was one that Bethany read before Alexandra Penfold’s presentation and I like it quite a lot. Someone should start a picture book blog called “Gravel In the Bed”. If you need a good treat, I do recommend The Writing Barn wholeheartedly. The deer alone are worth the price of admission. And if you’ve other children’s book writing retreats you like, let me know what they are. I’m trying to pull together a list.
- I just want to give a shout out to my girl Kate Milford. I don’t always agree with the ultimate winners of The Edgar Award (given for the best mysteries) in the young person’s category but this year they knocked it out of the park. Greenglass House for the win!
- As you know, I’m working on the funny girl anthology FUNNY GIRL and one of my contributors is the illustrious Shannon Hale. She’s my personal hero most of the time and the recent post Boos for girls just nails down why that is. Thanks to bookshelves of doom for the link.
Not too long ago I was part of a rather large gathering based on one of my blog posts. The artist Etienne Delessert saw a piece I’d written on international picture books and how they’re perceived here in the States. So what did he do? He grabbed local consulates, flew in scholars, invited friends (like David Macaulay) and created an amazing free day that was hugely edifying and wonderful. You can read the SLJ report We need more international picture books, kid lit experts say or the PW piece Where the Wild Books Are: A Day of Celebrating Foreign Picture Books or the Monica Edinger recap International Children’s Books Considered. Very interesting look at these three different perspectives. And, naturally, I must thank Etienne for taking my little post so very far. This is, in a very real way, every literary blogger’s dream come true. Merci, Etienne!
- There’s a lot of joy that can come when when a British expert discusses their nation’s “forgotten children’s classics“. The delightful Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature is out and its editor Daniel Hahn has recapped the books that he feels don’t get sufficient attention in Britain. Very funny to see one of our American classics on this list (I won’t ruin which one for you).
- How do we instill a sense of empathy in our kids? Have ‘em read Harry Potter. Apparently there’s now research to back that statement up. NPR has the story.
- Ooo. Wish I lived in L.A. for this upcoming talk. At UCLA there’s going to be a discussion of Oscar Wilde and the Culture of Childhood that looks at his fairytales. It ain’t a lot of money. See what they have to say.
- Because of I have ample time on my hands (hee hee hee hee . . . whooo) I also wrote an article for Horn Book Magazine recently. If you’ve ever wondered why we’re seeing so many refugees from the animation industry creating picture books, this may provide some of the answers.
- Over at the blog Views From the Tesseract, Stephanie Whelan has located a picture book so magnificent that it should be reprinted now now now. Imagine, if you will, a science fiction picture book starring an African-American girl . . . illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. Do you remember Blast Off?
Of course you don’t. No one does. Stephanie has the interiors on her site. And since the number of books that show African-American girls as astronauts are . . . um . . . okay, I’ve never seen one. Plus it’s gorgeous and fun. REPRINT REPRINT REPRINT!
- Speaking of girls in space, I’ve never so regretted that a section was cut from a classic book. But this missing section from A Wrinkle in Time practically makes me weep for its lack. I WISH it had been included. It’s so very horribly horribly timely.
- As you’ll recall, the new math award for children’s books was established. So how do you submit your own? Well, new submissions for 2015 (and looking back an additional five years) will begin to be received starting June 1st. So FYI, kiddos.
Know a librarian getting married? Or an editor? Or an author? Gently suggest to them these for their registry.
Thanks to Stephanie Whelan for the link.
I’ve always been a particular fan of author/illustrator/cartoonist Ben Hatke. From the moment I first laid eyes on a little graphic novel by the name of Zita the Spacegirl, I was well and truly hooked. Now Ben’s working on a couple different projects and he’s been making the internet rounds talking about them. Today, here at A Fuse #8 Production, he discusses the book Miracle Molly. Here, in his own words, is what Matt has to say about the title, as well as a little sketch art to give you a taste of what’s to come:
The Story Behind Miracle Molly
Different stories call for different formats—this is something I’ve become increasingly aware of as a storyteller. Zita the Spacegirl was always going to be a comics story, and while Julia’s House for Lost Creatures started as a graphic novel, I quickly discovered that it couldn’t have been anything other than a picture book.
Sometimes it’s difficult to tell what format suites a story best. I’ve written and drawn four graphic novels now, and two picture books. When I set out to tell a new story about a little fox-tailed girl named Molly, I was surprised to find myself working on my very first prose novel. I’m excited! And, I admit, a little nervous.
Miracle Molly is a heist story set in a middle school, featuring a benevolent trickster who is not all she seems to be (the fox tail maybe tips you off). It’s a sort of Ocean’s Eleven-meets-Matilda romp, with plenty of twists and turns and surprises along the way.
And maybe a bit of magic to boot.
Ben Hatke is the #1 New York Times Best-Selling author of the Zita the Spacegirl trilogy, as well as the picture book Julia’s House for Lost Creatures. His next book, Little Robot, will be in stores September 2016.
Photo credit: Sophie Blackall
Subtlety was never my strong suit.
And speaking of suits, how crazy is that one? Yes, if you happened to be at this Monday’s 8th annual Children’s Choice Book Awards gala then you may have cast thine peepers on this understated little ensemble. Twitter at the moment is vacillating between whether or not it belongs in the Willy Wonka camp or is the legal property of The Joker. I remain neutral on the matter, though the spats clearly tip the balance in favor of The King of Clowns.
So why, precisely, was I wearing this to the gala? Am I so bereft of dresses that I must resort to tuxedos of luminous hue? Well, it just so happened that I was the co-host this year. You see originally Jon Scieszka was slated to host alongside Oliver Jeffers. However, the situation changed and Jon ended up asking me if I wanted to host alongside him. The catch (or the lure, depending on how you look at it): I would be obligated to wear Oliver’s purple tuxedo alongside Jon’s. Because life, my friends, is too short to not wear a purple tuxedo once in a while.
This being a lifelong dream of mine (lifelong = ever since I saw Jarrett Krosoczka do it) I immediately said yes yes yes yes yes!! However, while my body is many things it is not adequately equipped to fill out a tux. So I was aided in very large part by the generosity of one Marci Morimoto of the Met Museum who turned this:
The shoes, for the record, are spectator shoes which have been in search of the perfect outfit for years. So Monday really was the fulfillment of a rather long dream.
If you’ve not attended the gala before, it’s quite the to do. Exceedingly good food. Delightful company. And a new trendy space that looked something like this:
Purple, yes. We had a theme to maintain. This may or may not have had some bearing on this year’s purple Children’s Book Week poster.
Just to remind you, the CCBA is sponsored by the Children’s Book Council, and all donations and profits from the event go to Every Child a Reader, an organization that focuses on encouraging the love of literature from a young age.
Usually at the gala there’s some kind of wackiness on hand, thanks in part to whoever is hosting at a given moment. In the past we’ve had Jarrett Krosoczka, Lisa Yee, and I believe Robin Preiss Glaser. And boy howdy do the stars come out! Here’s just a brief smattering of the folks at hand:
Cece Bell in the world’s greatest dress. Nuff said.
Andrea Davis Pinkney (putting us ALL to shame)
Brian Selznick, Jacqueline Woodson, and David Levithan
Brian Floca and Katherine Roy (who is due to give birth in August)
E. Lockhart and Jason Reynolds
And initially I looked like this:
Just to prove I can prettify if called upon to do so.
But all good things must come to an end and behind the scenes things began to change. By the time the show began you would have seen something akin to these two yuksters taking the stage:
It only picks up from there.
In the course of the evening there were a couple additional surprises. For example, at one point Jon mentioned that our next presenter was the infinitely “shy” and “understated” Matt de la Pena. A man who was unafraid to come out looking like so:
And from the camera’s p.o.v.:
Jon said the same thing about Jackie Woodson, setting up expectations. So it was all the funnier when she came out looking not wacky in the least but cool, calm and collected:
It’s all about set-up and payoff. When Brian Selznick was announced Jon made it clear that he was a shy guy, and he would never ever wear anything flashy or attention grabbing. Which set everyone up nicely for what I will dub the suit of the century:
I caught a pic of these two fellas prior to this, of course:
For the complete roster of winners you can check out CNN’s coverage of the votes. For a good round-up of the gala itself, Bookish has you covered. And if you’d like to see more of the photos taken that night, they’re accessible here. Please note that most of my photos here are from the Children’s Book Council unless otherwise noted.
Finally, it really is Children’s Book Week right now (May 4-10). Be sure to celebrate reading and books for young people with the event nearest to you! http://bit.ly/1PSuugd
A million thanks to Jon and the good folks at the CBC for making my strange, twisted, delighted little dreams come true. More fun than I deserve, and that’s the truth.
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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Best Books of 2015
, Reviews 2015
, 2015 nonfiction
, 2015 nonfiction picture books
, 2015 reviews
, 2016 Sibert Award candidate
, Lindsay Mattick
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, Sophie Blackall
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Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear
By Lindsay Mattick
Illustrated by Sophie Blackall
On shelves October 20th
What is it with bears and WWI? Aw, heck. Let’s expand that question a tad. What is it with adorable animals and WWI? Seems these days no matter where you turn you find a new book commemorating a noble creature’s splendor and sacrifice on the battlefields of Europe. If it’s not Midnight, A True Story of Loyalty in World War I by Mark Greenwood or Stubby the War Dog: The True Story of WWI’s Bravest Dog by Ann Bausum, it’s Voytek, the Polish munitions bear in Soldier Bear or, best known of them all, the inspiration for Winnie-the-Pooh. With the anniversary of WWI here, the children’s literary sphere has witnessed not one but two picture book biographies of Winnie, the real bear that inspired Christopher Robin Milne and, in turn, his father A.A. Milne. The first of these books was Winnie: The True Story of the Bear That Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh by Sally M. Walker. A good strong book, no bones about it. But Finding Winnie has an advantage over the Walker bio that cannot be denied. One book was researched and thought through carefully. The other? Written by one of the descendants of the veterinarian that started it all. Add in the luminous artwork of Sophie Blackall and you’ve got yourself a historical winner on your hands.
Now put yourself in Harry’s shoes. You’re suited up. You’re on a train. You’re headed to training for the Western Front where you’ll be a service vet, aiding the horses there. The last thing you should do is buy a baby bear cub at a train station, right? I suppose that was the crazy thing about Harry, though. As a vet he had the skills and the knowledge to make his plan work. And as for the bear, she was named Winnipeg (or just Winnie for short), and she instantly charmed Harry’s commanding officer and all his fellow soldiers. During training she was great for morale, and before you knew it she was off with the troop overseas. But with the threat of real combat looming, Harry had a difficult decision to make. This little bear wasn’t suited for the true horrors of war. Instead, he dropped her off at The London Zoo where she proceeded to charm adults and children alike. That was where she made the acquaintance of Christopher Robin Milne and inspired the name of the world’s most famous stuffed animal. Framed within the context of author Lindsay Mattick telling this story to her son Cole, Ms. Mattick deftly weaves a family story in with a tale some might know but few quite like this.
Right from the start I was intrigued by the book’s framing sequence. Here we have a bit of nonfiction for kids, and yet all throughout the book we’re hearing Cole interjecting his comments as his mother tells him this story. It’s a unique way of presenting what is already an interesting narrative in a particularly child-friendly manner. But why do it at all? What I kept coming back to as I read the book was how much it made the story feel like A.A. Milne’s. Anyone who has attempted to read the first Winnie-the-Pooh book to their small children will perhaps be a bit surprised by the extent to which Christopher Robin’s voice keeps popping up, adding his own color commentary to the proceedings. Cole’s voice does much the same thing, and once I realized that Mattick was playing off of Milne’s classic, other Winnie-the-Pooh callbacks caught my eye. There’s the Colonel’s surprised “Hallo” when he first meets Winnie, which struck me as a particularly Pooh-like thing to say. There are the comments between Harry’s heart and head which reminded me, anyway, of Pooh’s conversations with his stomach. They are not what I would call overt callbacks but rather like subtle little points of reference for folks who are already fans.
I was struck my Mattick’s attention to accuracy and detail too. The temptation in these sorts of books is to fill them up with fake dialogue. One might well imagine that the conversation with Cole is based on actual conversations, possibly culled together from a variety of different accounts. Since Mattick isn’t saying this-happened-like-this-on-precisely-this-date we can enjoy it for what it is. As for Harry’s tale, you only occasionally get a peek into his brain and when you do it’s in his own words, clearly taken from written accounts. Mattick does not divulge these accounts, sadly, so there’s nothing in the back of the book so useful as a Bibliography. However, that aside, the book rings true. So much so that it almost makes me doubt other accounts I’ve read.
As for the text itself, I was mildly surprised by how good the writing was. Mattick makes some choices that protect the young readers while keeping the text accurate. For example, when little Cole asks what trappers, like the one who killed Winnie’s mother, do, Lindsay’s answer is to say, “It’s what trappers don’t do. They don’t raise bears.” Hence, Harry had to buy it. She also has a nice little technique, which I alluded to earlier, where Harry’s heart and mind are at odds. The heart allows him to buy Winnie and take her overseas. The mind wins in terms of taking her to The London Zoo in the end.
I like to put myself in the place of the editor of this book. The manuscript has come in. I like it. I want to publish it. I get the thumbs up from my publisher to go ahead and then comes the part where I find an illustrator for it. I want somebody who can emote. Someone just as adept at furry baby bear cubs as they are soldiers in khaki with teeny tiny glasses. But maybe I want something more. Maybe I want an illustrator who puts in the rudimentary details, then adds their own distinctive style to the mix. I’m willing to get an artist who could potentially overshadow the narrative with visual beauty. In short, I want a Sophie Blackall.
Now I’ve heard Ms. Blackall speak on a couple occasions about the meticulous research she conducted for this book. The Canadian flag she initially mistakenly placed on a ship of war has been amended from an earlier draft (the Canadian flag wasn’t officially adopted until 1965). She researched The London Zoo for an aerial shot that includes everything from the squirrel enclosure to Winnie’s small block of concrete or stone. Blackall also includes little visual details that reward multiple readings. A scene where Harry departs on the train, surrounded by people saying goodbye, is contrasted by a later scene where he returns and far fewer people are saying hello to their loved ones. One soldier has lost a leg. Another greets his much larger son and perpetually handkerchief clutching wife. Another doesn’t appear at all. And finally, Blackall throws in beautiful two-page spreads for the sake of beauty alone. The initial endpapers show an idyllic woodland scene, presumably in Canada. Later we’ve this red sky scene of the ship proceeding across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. For a book about WWI, that red is the closest we come (aside from the aforementioned missing leg) to an allusion to the bloody conflict happening elsewhere. It’s beautiful and frightening all at once.
In the world of children’s literature you never get a single book on the subject and then say, “There! Done! We don’t need any more!” It doesn’t matter how great a book is, there’s always room for another. And it seems to me that on the topic of Winnie the bear, friend of Christopher Robin, inspiration to a platoon, there is plenty of wiggle room. Hers is a near obscure tale that is rapidly becoming better and better known each day. I think that this pairs magnificently with Walker’s Winnie. For bear enthusiasts, Winnie enthusiasts, history lovers, and just plain old folks who like a good story. In short, for silly old bears.
On shelves October 20th.
Source: F&G sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
Brinton Turkle: Purveyor of Terror.
For that statement to strike you funny you have to first be familiar with the collected works of a man that, I would argue, was the most successful Quaker author/illustrator in the business.
Today I want to tackle the phenomenon of what happens when you discover a new book from your favorite illustrator, only to discover that it’s surprising in some way. This can happen with someone publishing today who, it turns out, has a long and storied backlist. It can also happen with one of your favorite illustrators from the days of yore. In fact, that’s what happened to author/illustrator Elizabeth Rose Stanton (of the delightful and weird Henny) when she reread one of her kids’ books. And it was by Brinton Turkle.
A quick bit of background first. For those of you unfamiliar with Turkle, you can find a nice biography of him here. His most famous books are debatable. Here in New York I often notice that The Boy Who Didn’t Believe in Spring by Lucille Clifton shows up on a lot of teachers’ reading lists.
Still, I think his Obadiah series (Caldecott Honor book Thy Friend, Obadiah is the only one still in print) remains best known around the country. It was a historical series following a Quaker boy in Nantucket.
Lovely illustrations. Sweet storylines. You’d hardly think the man capable of Do Not Open.
Published in 1981, the innocuous description reads “Following a storm Miss Moody and her cat find an intriguing bottle washed up on the beach. Should they ignore its ‘Do not open’ warning?”
Not to spoil the surprise for you but, no. No they should not ignore the warning. Because the contents are, quite frankly, deliciously horrifying.
What interests me about this book isn’t so much the fact that it’s unafraid to get scary, though it is curious that no one minds. In an age where Pinkerton covers get re-illustrated to remove firearms and Let’s Get a Dog, Said Kate is lambasted for an imagined cigarette, both the Amazon and the Goodreads reviews of this title are remarkably innocuous. Still, more interesting to me is the phenomenon of trusting an artist to keep producing the same old, same old, only to have them launch in an entirely different direction. This is particularly interesting when they have a commercially successful product on the one hand, and yet they yearn to get artistic and creative on the other. Some, like Sendak, could afford to be both but I think we can agree that he’s the exception, not the rule.
Other examples of books that you might be surprised to stumble across, though these are just cases of artists getting silly more than anything else, are:
The Seven Lady Godivas by Dr. Seuss
I had a copy of this at a branch once, and though it was cataloged as adult the pages kept shelving it in the children’s room. I could hardly blame them, though I did wonder if they ever glanced at the cover.
Uncle Shelby’s ABZs by Shel Silverstein
I like to think most folks already know this one, but there’s a possibility that they don’t. My favorite section is still, “G is for Gigolo”. Vintage Kids’ Books My Kid Loves summarizes the book nicely here.
There are others out there, of course. These were just the first that came to my mind.
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This one’s for the writers, but could be of just as much use to those folks who want to be published authors and just haven’t gotten there yet. In my time as a roving children’s librarian I’ve spoken at two different but enchanting writing retreats. I should probably define my terms, though, so when I say “writing retreats” I mean places where authors, incipient and otherwise, pay a fixed amount to be inspired, edited, or taught by a knowledgeable staff. Bonus points if there’s pretty scenery. Extra added bonus points if you get good food.
Recently I was speaking at one such retreat (to be named below) and it got me to thinking. If you wanted to make a compiled list of all the children’s literary retreats in the States, where would you go? Well, you’d go here since I’m going to start trying to compile such a list right now.
If you can think of any that should be added (and specifically target writing for kids and/or teens) mention them in the comments and I’ll include them.
Literary Retreats for Folks Who Write for Kids and Teens
Better Books Marin
Name: Better Books Marin
Location: Marin County, California? The website is a bit spotty on that point.
Who’s It For? The motto is, “A Craft-Based Workshop for Middle-Grade & YA Writers”.
What’s it like? This is a retreat for folks who want a good hands on learning and critique experience. As you can see from this schedule, the days are rigorously planned out. This is the kind of retreat where you get bang for the proverbial buck.
SCBWI Falling Leaves / Spring Leaves
Name: SCBWI Falling Leaves / Spring Leaves Retreat
Location: Silver Bay, NY
Who’s It For? The two retreats (Spring Leaves for the spring and Falling Leaves for . . . well, you get it) rotate genres. So there’s a little something for everyone.
What’s It Like? Both SCBWI members and non-members are able to apply for this retreat. Compared to some other retreats this is an affordable option. Registration does not appear to be currently open for the next fall conference, but one suspects it’s just a matter of time before it opens up.
The Highlights Foundation
Name: The Highlights Foundation
Location: Honesdale, PA
Who’s It For? Boy howdy, you name it! Of all the workshops listed here, the Highlights Foundation’s is the one with the most workshops per year. Everything from science writing and nonfiction picture books to early readers and first chapter books are covered.
What’s It Like? I’ve spoken twice at Highlights with a third engagement is coming up in two months. Basically it’s just lovely. Adorable tiny cabins. Amazing food. Great speakers. It feels more low-key than some of the other retreats, but honestly you can find the workshop that fits your style.
Oregon Coast Children’s Book Writers Workshop (OCCBWW)
Name: Oregon Coast Children’s Book Writers Workshop (OCCBWW)
Location: Oceanside, Oregon
Who’s It For? Everyone, insofar as I can tell. Anyone writing children’s books, anyway.
What’s It Like? This is the rare retreat where you can get actual graduate level course credits for taking the workshops and intensives on offer. Unlike other retreats this one makes no bones about what they hope to accomplish: “Getting attendees published is the end goal.” They do a lot of one-on-one coaching as well.
Picture Book Boot Camp
Name: Picture Book Boot Camp
Location: Phoenix Farm, Western Massachusetts (in the Northampton area, I believe)
Who’s It For? It’s described as a Master Class for working picture book authors.
What’s It Like? Well, this one’s much smaller and more personal than a lot of the other retreats mentioned here. Authors Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple started a boot camp at Jane’s 1896 Victorian farmhouse home in Massachusetts. There appears to be a lot of close attention paid to the attendees (which cap off at 12).
The Speakeasy Literary Retreat
Name: The Speakeasy Literary Retreat
Location: Various. It moves around. Past retreats have been in San Francisco (2012), Fallen Leaf Lake (2013), and Portland (2014). The next one is slated for the Rivendell Writer’s Colony in Sewanee, TN
Who’s It For? That’s a bit unclear. To be a member of the Speakeasy Literary Society you must submit your application and be accepted. One assumes that folks who attend the retreats are also members.
What’s It Like? Informal and without an official schedule. As they (the Speakeasy Literary Society) say, “We have one mission: to encourage children’s publishing professionals to relax and commune in a variety of inspirational settings. Preferably with drinks.” Of the retreats listed in this post, this one’s probably the most laid back.
Name: Whispering Pines Writer’s Retreat
Location: West Greenwich, RI
Who’s It For? Hard to say. This is the rare retreat without a website. At the same time, with its connection to NESCBWI, it’s one of the most successful.
What’s It Like? Now in its 20th year, co-directors Lynda Mullaly Hunt and Mary Pierce are stepping down this year and will be replaced with Julie Kingsley and Cameron Kelly Rosenblum. Described as the kind of place where you “design your own retreat” but with plenty of speakers, games, and fun. Liz Goulet Dubois has recapped several years’ worth of retreats, so you should be able to glean how they go.
Name: The Writing Barn
Location: Austin, TX
Who’s It For? Everyone. Juv and YA alike. Picture books, novels, chapter books, you name it.
What’s It Like? The brainchild of author Bethany Hegedus, it’s just the loveliest space. Wild deer and foxes frolic about the cactus plants while inside the barn you’ve amazing and brainy folks talking about books left and right. I’ve only spoken there once, but it was just the nicest time. Busy? Heck, yeah! And fun.
I’ve heard a rumor that the Spruceton Inn, a bed and bar in the Catskills (run by Jon Scieszka’s daughter, the writer Casey Scieszka, and her author/illustrator husband Steven Weinberg) has the occasional writing and/or illustration retreat. So far there’s nothing to confirm this online, but I know they’re game so if you writerly types want to do an official retreat, think about contacting them.
Sidenote: Laurel Snyder mentioned that, “The Hambidge Center for Creative Arts & Sciences isn’t just for kidlit enthusiasts but they WILL fund YA and kidlit projects, which not everyone does.”
Actually, author Laurel Snyder also pointed out to me that most retreats are of an unofficial nature. As she put it, “I’m doing my third retreat this year, and all three have been DIY– a group of writers getting together in a house in the woods, just because they can!” So in lieu of going to any of these magnificent places, consider renting a cottage for a week and inviting some pals!