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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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Sweaty, sticky, moist Orlando edition.
So here’s a new way to experience the American Library Association Conference. We’re going to tackle it in a visual way. Which is to say, if I took a picture of it, it’s going into this post. Here then is a look at what caught my eye on the conference floor, where the booths are plentiful, the alcohol oddly prevalent, and the carpets super sproingy.
First up, a slew of diverse picture books I hadn’t heard of before that I encountered for the first time at ALA. In no particular order:
This is such a cool book. It’s the children and possibly grandchildren of modern immigrants talking about how much they owe to their forebears. This is the perfect book to combat immigration studies in schools that begin and end with Ellis Island. The text is shockingly simple, but very well done. Look for it!
Other cool looking books included:
Next up, titles that aren’t necessarily picture books that caught my eye for different reasons. All of these look interesting to me in some way. Without comment:
Now for some of the more useful items from the floor.
When you walk past the booths at ALA you may find yourself avoiding eye contact with anyone aside from a large publisher. This act has some problematic repercussions, particularly when the person at the conference is new. Honestly, if the rep from Vox Books hadn’t called me by name I might have missed what is clearly a super cool new innovation in audio picture books. And please bear in mind, if I’m enthusiastic about this it’s because I liked what I heard. I haven’t tried out this product myself yet.
Meet Vox Books. Better yet, take a gander at it.
Okay, so what you’re seeing here is going to be a little unclear at first. Basically, this is a picture book, normal as can be, but with a little, thin, audio component on the left. Do you see it? Right there. It really doesn’t affect the closing of the book at all and it can’t be removed.
Now if you’re library is anything like the ones I’ve worked in, you may have an area where book and CD sets hang off to the side. And as we all know, when they’re returned, half the time the book and CD don’t even match. One library system I worked for tried just creating little pockets for the CDs within the books, but then you couldn’t tell them from the other picture books on the shelves. And then the CDs would get lost.
In this case you have the audio right there, with a headphone jack, the ability to skip ahead or adjust the pages, and some seriously good books. Check ’em out:
Really quite good. You should hear the background music they create as well. The readers are also excellent.
They’ve even covered their bases and done nonfiction books too:
And let me tell you, that hardcore voice reading the Earth Movers book was great to listen too.
I know what you children’s librarians out there are thinking. You’re considering the noise these could create in the library. You aren’t wrong. Remember The Very Quiet Cricket? Ever have the batteries in one of those puppies die on you? You get a sick sounding duck quack emanating from your shelves, randomly, for days. This could be much worse, except you can actually charge these books up. They even ding when you’re supposed to turn the page.
So yeah. Looked neat. Worth exploring, anyway.
Less useful items from the floor? You got it:
First up, it seems that Ripley’s Believe It Or Not is committing hardcore to the children’s book scene. They have early chapter books, nonfiction, board books, you name it coming out. And they had one of their fellas doing caricatures on the floor. Vain critter I am, I couldn’t resist:
Then there was a station set up to help people with copyright advice. I approved of the look of the place:
Have I any regrets from the weekend? Well, I would have liked to have known about this beforehand. I didn’t have any ideas of what to read, but it would have been really fun.
And finally, some good old-fashioned liquid nitrogen.
I’ve seen some fun gimmicks at a conference before, but dipping carmel corn into liquid nitrogen so that when you eat it you look like a dragon spitting smoke . . . well that’s pretty original.
What did the rest of you guys who went see?
Tomorrow – Actual panels n’ stuff!
While I acknowledge that the logical way to write about the ALA Annual 2016 Conference in Orlando would be to do it chronologically, on the cusp of the banquet and all that it entailed, it makes more sense to me to write that part up first and then circle back to the conference in the coming week. Your patience with my erratic nature is appreciated.
It had been some time. Maybe just little more than a year but too long in any case. The last time I had attended a Newbery/Caldecott Banquet I had worn a tuxedo, a hat wearing a hat, tiger gloves, and had tucked a small stuffed carrot in my breast pocket. That was the year that This Is Not My Hat [hat wearing hat], One Cool Friend [tuxedo], Creepy Carrots [carrot in breast pocket], and Sleep Like a Tiger [tiger gloves] had won the Caldecott. For whatever reason, as the years have gone by, I’ve had a penchant for kooky Banquet costumes. 2016 would be no different.
It’s difficult to come up with original costuming ideas, though. For my part, it all started simply, inspired in part by incoming ALSC president Nina Lindsay’s fabulous concoctions (one year she was Martha from the George & Martha books, wearing a gray shirt, a colorful skirt, and a single red flower behind her ear) and partly by the NYPL librarians of yore who would wear thematic hats to honor the Caldecott winners. I still remember stumbling on one of their Office Buckle & Gloria police hats with furry ears in a box at work. So you see, there is a precedent.
Having already covered temporary tattoos of book covers, temporary quotes from books, Shrinky-Dink jewelry of the winners’ covers, and the aforementioned tuxedo combination, I had only the grain of an idea at hand. What if I made a dress out of old card catalog cards? It was an odd idea. Just cards? A skirt alone or a full dress? How do you go about sewing paper together? I toyed with the notion, purchasing some children’s book catalog cards off of Ebay. Then providence entered into the equation some months later when I passed a recycling bin at work and found inside a slew of fantastic children’s literature catalog cards, slated for destruction. And not just any cards either. Newbery and Caldecott winners in abundance! Snowflake Bentley. Trina Schart Hyman’s Snow White. Always Room for One More. So You Want to Be President? And then, the crème de la crème: A Visit to William Blake’s Inn. Which is to say, one of the most highly discussed past winners of the season, due to debate as to whether or not IT was the first picture book to win a Newbery or was, instead, a poetry book.
This discovery clinched the deal, as it were, so I went to my closet to figure out what already existing dress might serve to display the wares. I found an old ModCloth number with a floaty filmy veil of black transparent fabric over the stretchy dress beneath. Perfect! My hope was that the overlying fabric might obscure the cards somewhat from a distance. I like a little flash but this isn’t Library Comic Con or anything. Decorum must be maintained. Card catalog cards already come with pre-made holes, so it was just a question of sewing them on. This left the question of what to do with my hair. I had a brief notion of fanning seven or eight cards into a perfect circle, hot gluing them to a large barrette. This plan was abandoned pretty quickly when I saw just how large eight cards are when fanned together. However, if you cut a single card apart and then glue IT to smaller barrettes, you get very much the same effect. Add in an old pin featuring E. Shepard’s Winnie-the-Pooh characters which I was given years ago for working with the original Pooh toys at NYPL and voila! Your outfit is complete:
Note that the gorgeous Yuyi Morales behind me needs no gimmick to look beautiful.
God help my soul, what I do next year is unclear. I worry I might get a little crazy. Shave the names of the winners into my hair or something. Hmm….
Because I’m not a complete fool, I changed in to this dress in a restroom that was near to the reception for the event. I was also invited in for a little pre-dinner mix n’ mash n’ nosh in a room secured by Little, Brown & Co. After this we proceeded to the dinner where I found myself not far from the high table of winners, seated beside Nina Lindsay (the aforementioned incoming ALSC president), Jonda McNair (three-year term as chair of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee), some Caldecott committee members, Horn Book’s Editor-in-Chief Roger Sutton, and John Schumacher. Immediately to my left was Lindsay Mattick, the author of this year’s Caldecott Award winning book. She had the somewhat eerie experience of knowing that every single place, at every single table, was set with a program featuring Sophie’s illustrations of Lindsay and her son Cole. At some point I yelled across the table to Roger a question about whether or not a Caldecott Award winner (or Honor book, for that matter) has ever featured an illustration of the author within the story itself. Roger didn’t know, but upon further reflection I could think of one case where a Newbery Award winner did. Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson, in case you’re curious. It’s times like these I particularly miss Peter Sieruta. He would have known in a heartbeat.
Lindsay, as it turns out, was a charming dinner companion and after I subjected her to a lengthy story of the sordid history of the Winnie-the-Pooh toys (something I should turn into a blog post one of these days) she told me about her own history of writing the book. As it turns out, this is a very rare case of an author of a picture book being allowed to help select her own illustrator. It was Lindsay’s idea to reach out to Sophie in the first place. That Sophie accepted is due in large part to a series of remarkable coincidences. It appears this book was meant to be.
If you’ve never been to a Newbery/Caldecott/Wilder Banquet I should explain that there are a couple givens. First off, the food is awful. This is not a slight against the organizers in any way. You walk in expecting the food to be bad and, when some aspect of it is particularly nice, you are pleasantly surprised. To sit at a table you have to buy a ticket, but that’s only if you want to eat. In the back of the room is a series of chairs. You are more than free to eat your own dinner beforehand and then sit in the chairs to listen to the speeches. Many do, as it turns out.
Between each course of the meal you may stare up adoringly at the winners and the Chairs of their committees at a high table. It’s sort of like a triple wedding, only the brides and grooms are required to give speeches that will set the world on fire. No pressure or anything, though. No pressure. So you eat, and between courses you amble over to tables where your friends are. Then you mosey back for more food. Amble. Food. I don’t know how long this particular format has been in existence. It’s nice not to masticate during the speeches, which are only given after everyone has had ample time to devour their desserts. Knowing the friendly nature of the children’s literary world, the organizers probably learned years ago that you may as well just allow folks to mix and mingle at length early on.
When at last the speeches did begin they were kicked off by outgoing President, and all around superhuman/fellow Chicago-area resident, Andrew Medlar. In the event of my death I would like to request that Andrew conduct my funeral services. He seems capable of moderating in every situation with apparent ease and wit.
Now the order of the speeches is Caldecott chair, Caldecott winner, Wilder chair, Wilder winner, Newbery chair, Newbery winner. You get a recording of each speech, since they do formally record them beforehand. In the past this has taken the form of CDs, but this year there was a code to access it online. We were also informed that past speeches are going to be digitized for easy access in the future. One wonders how many will be available! I have visions of librarians trading bootleg tapes of early impossible-to-find speeches like Madeline L’Engle’s or Ezra Jack Keats or, the rarest gem of all, Stephen Gammell’s.
Rachel Payne (an old BPL buddy) was the Caldecott Chair who introduced Sophie Blackall. Now I’ve seen Sophie speak in public before. The stereotype of the artist who fears public speaking, while not without truth in some areas, has been eclipsed over the past years by remarkably loquacious illustrators. Just look at the recent winners: Floca, Klassen, Santat. The list goes on and on, and they’re all remarkably capable of pitch perfect eloquence. Sophie was no exception. Early on she began to get choked up, and was swift to shut herself down with a hasty, “Right. More jokes now.” She thanked her shockingly attractive children, her partner, her studio mates, Lindsay Mattick, her editor, her agent, and many more folks. I particularly admired that she kept her thanks as selective as she did. A good speech doesn’t need to thank everyone and the moon. A simple “you know who you are” is sufficient to thanking the masses anyway. And yes, I did get choked up myself a little. Sophie had a hard year (in addition to the mess-which-shall-not-be-named, a close friend passed away). You may read the speech in its entirety here.
Next up was the Wilder Award, a biennial award that for the first time has turned annual. This year it went to Jerry Pinkney, who held the distinction of being the first and only person to win a Virginia K. Hamilton Award and a Wilder Award in the same year. He may also be the first great-grandfather to win both awards, since that is precisely what he is (though you wouldn’t know it to hear or look at him). He was introduced by Chrystal Carr Jeter who wore a magnificent hat. Undeniably the best hat in the room, no question at all. After lauding the man properly, Mr. Pinkney stood up and began to tell the story of his life. Some of it I had heard once long ago when he gave a speech after being honored by the Carle Awards. Some was new. And some hit a chord for a very particular reason.
An odd digression that has a point: Each week the shelvers in my library put together a cart of damaged materials and wheel it up to my desk. There I determine whether or not to reorder, discard, and/or repair the books. One day someone included a MAD Magazine collection that mocked syndicated cartoonists (bear with me – there’s a point to all this). It always kind of depresses me when MAD Magazine collections appear because they’re often beyond repair and yet they’re also out-of-print. As I flipped through the piece (which fortunately was salvageable) I saw the usual jokes made at the expense of Dick Tracy, Dagwood, L’il Abner, etc. Then I saw one making fun of the comic strip Henry. Do you know the strip? It was a funny piece about a kid with a big round head and his small suburban adventures. The style was distinctive, sort of what you’d get if you added Peanuts to Chris Ware with a hint of Crockett Johnson thrown into the mix. The joke in the MAD Magazine bit was the Henry never grows up and has, from the start, actually been a strip about a middle aged man. Why am I telling you all of this? Well, I’d heard in Pinkney’s Carle speech lo these many years ago that as a child he befriended a syndicated comic strip artist. As Jerry tells it, he was working at a newspaper stand and, when business was slow, his boss let him sketch for fun. One day a man asked to see his art and when he saw what Jerry could do he confessed that he was an artist himself. The boy and the man became friends and the man turned out to be John Liney the second creator of the comic strip Henry. In the vast world of syndicated comics, I do believe that Henry has been forgotten to a certain extent. Yet Mr. Liney has gone on to be remembered by Jerry, and by extension we have many wonderful books. So, in a strange sense, Liney’s legacy lives on in his kindness to others.
Jerry talked much more than just about Mr. Liney of course. He spoke at length, and with feeling, about the limited options for African-American men when he was growing up, making it clear that there is still a long road ahead. He talked about his mentors, both the good and the bad. The ones who believed he could go far, and the ones who didn’t. He spoke of African-American art instructors who had shelved their own dreams in a time when the future seemed impossible. His was a speech that took note of the changes in the African-American landscape over a vast number of decades, using his own career to highlight the changes. It was superb, as you might imagine. You can read it in full here.
By the way, has Mr. Pinkney ever been recorded in conversation with Ashley Bryan? Wouldn’t that be the most interesting of discussions? Just putting that out there.
After Jerry it was time for Matt de la Peña. Ernie Cox, the chair of the Newbery committee, introduced him. Not much was made of a picture book’s win of a Newbery Award and how extraordinary and unprecedented (unless you believe A Visit to William Blake’s Inn was a picture book) it was. I was curious to hear Matt speak, of course. I’ve seen him do it twice, once about Last Stop on Market Street at a librarian preview in NYC, and once to a group of librarians about his career, but only in brief. This speech was different in tone, and depth, and content, and feeling. You might not know it was the same guy.
Matt came up, took his award, and then said apologetically that this was lovely but he needed to give the award to his mom. He then proceeded to run down to the audience level, handing his mother the large heavy medal in its velvet lined case to his mom. Then he leapt back to the podium to speak in earnest. Matt talked about his youth, growing up Mexican-American and not much of a reader. He credited the teachers and librarians that fed his reading, even if it was sports magazines during a time when he was supposed to be reading books (his description of how he’d claim to be enjoying War and Peace with all that war and then all that peace is great). He spoke of how he became an author, though not at any particular length. Instead he talked about getting “the call” and how confusing it was for him. As he tells it, he wasn’t expecting to win anything, but he knew that Christian might win a Caldecott proper and that if he did their agent (they share an agent) would ring him up. So he turned on his ringer and a couple hours later a call came in. Only it wasn’t the call he was expecting exactly. Ernie Cox explained to Matt that he’d won a Newbery Award. What picture book author would ever expect such a thing? After Matt hung up he describes it this way:
As soon as we hung up, I called my wife. “Caroline,” I said, in an even voice, “I have something I need to tell you.” I paused for a long time, trying to keep myself in check. Like I have all my life.
“What?” she said. “Is everything okay?”
“I think Last Stop just won the Newbery.”
She paused. “Wait, are you sure?”
“No,” I answered.
She fired up her iPad and went onto the ALA website and looked up the 2016 award committees and asked me, “Okay, was it a man or woman on the phone?”
“Holy shit,” she said. “The chair of the Caldecott is a woman.”
And he could have stopped right there. Could have closed the speech with the usual congrats and approbation and thanks, but to my surprise he kept going. Discussions of “the call” often end acceptance speeches. Matt had more to say. More to say about the kids who read his books who might think that they are worthless and who can find value in themselves by reading. Amongst his stories he told one about visiting a school and giving a copy of his book to a boy who was sitting just a little to the side. And when the boy confronted him later, asking why Matt would have given the book to him, of all people, Matt just told him that he didn’t know why. There just seemed to be something special about the kid. The boy started to cry at this, and his classmates rubbed his back and comforted him, telling Matt that the boy was new to their school. Matt said that’s how he felt like when he got the call about the Newbery. That this group of people thought that there was something special about him. And that the librarians and friends and other members of the children’s literature community out there were the ones rubbing his back and propping him up and telling him it was okay. And let me tell you something, ladies and gentlemen. There was not a dry eye in the house when he said this. You can read the speech in full here.
After that it was receiving line time. The winners all trooped outside while we watched a little of the most recent Weston Woods Award winner . . . I’m sorry. The Carnegie Award winner, That Is Not a Good Idea. Sadly they only showed a little. I would have liked to have watched the whole thing again. Mo Willems, as the fox, does a delicious cackle.
But there were lots of fine and fancy people to talk to, so I lingered and spoke with various folks. And when it was very late, and I was very tired, I was still able to have a tasty root beer float with friends before drifting off to beddy-bye. It was a nice banquet this year. One of the best, really.
A thank you to Little, Brown for my nice ticket and meal.
Okay. So now we’re finally getting some interesting picture book biographies on a regular basis. When I was a kid you had your Helen Keller and your Abraham Lincoln and you were GRATEFUL! These days, people are interested in celebrating more than just the same ten people over and over again. Why this year alone I’ve seen some incredibly interesting picture book biographies of comparatively obscure figures. These include . . .
- Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science: The First Computer Programmer by Diane Stanley, ill. Jessie Hartland
- Ada’s Ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer by Fiona Robinson (Ada’s really hot this year)
- Anything But Ordinary: The True Story of Adelaide Herman, Queen of Magic by Mara Rockliff, ill. Iacopo Bruno
- Around America to Win the Vote: Two Suffragists, a Kitten, and 10,000 Miles by Mara Rockliff, ill. Hadley Hooper
- Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky, ill. Isabelle Arsenault
- Esquivel! Space‐Age Sound Artist by Susan Wood, ill. Duncan Tonatiuh
- Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Ann Cole Lowe by Deborah Blumenthal, ill. Laura Freeman
- I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy, ill. Elizabeth Baddeley
- The Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton by Audrey Vernick, ill. Steven Salerno
- Lift Your Light a Little Higher: The Story of Stephen Bishop: Slave‐Explorer by Heather Henson, ill. Bryan Collier
- Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean‐Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe
- Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea: Marie Tharp Maps the Ocean Floor by Robert Burleigh, ill. Raul Colon
- To the Stars! The First American Woman to Walk in Space by Carmella Van Vleet & Dr. Kathy Sullivan, ill. Nicole Wong
- Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super‐Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton, ill. Don Tate
- The William Hoy Story by Nancy Churnin, ill. Jez Tuya
And those are just the ones I’ve seen!
It’s encouraging. And then I wonder – do people need suggestions for more fun biographies? Because if they do have I got the woman for you!
First off, meet Kate Beaton. You may only know her from her two Scholastic books, last year’s The Princess and the Pony and this year’s King Baby. But Kate has been running an online comic site called Hark, A Vagrant! for years. There are many lovely things about the site, but I’m particularly fond of her brief biographical comics on obscure historical figures. She’s been doing them for years and once in a while I really do see one turned into a picture book (paging Ada Lovelace . . .). So in today’s goofy post I’m going to pull out some of Kate’s work in the hopes that maybe there’s an author or illustrator there who’d like to write a picture book biography about someone awesome and relatively unknown.
By the way, you can follow these links to read these comics in a clearer format, if you like. And I think you can even buy prints of them, if you want.
Katherine Sui Fun Cheung
I legitimately had never heard of her. A badass Asian-American aviatrix heroine? Um… how is she NOT in a picture book bio? Because quite frankly we could use a huge uptick in our Asian-American women bios in general. Particularly if they involve air stunts.
Is it weird that there isn’t a really well-known Henson picture book biography out there? I guess his life wasn’t completely perfect (second family at the North Pole and all) but as African-American explorers go, he’s fantastic. As it happens, this was the first Hark, A Vagrant! comic I ever read. I was a fan for life afterwards.
She helps to discover DNA! She doesn’t get credit for it! This story has everything!
Dr. Sara Josephine Baker
She’s so often just linked to Typhoid Mary, but Ms. Baker did wonders for infant mortality rates and just generally sounds like an amazing woman. And I like how Beaton draws her hair.
Ida B. Wells
I’m pretty sure we’ve had picture book bios on her before, but the only one I can remember was for older kids.
Again, never heard of her. And as Kate put it regarding Nightingale, “” This is timely too since as of three days ago there was a report in The Guardian over the huge furor over a statue honoring Seacole’s achievements. Read it, when you get a chance. Then write a bio of Seacole.
Maybe not so obscure thanks to his biopic, but sure as shooting lacking in some significant pic bios.
Of course when all is said and done, Kate should really just make her own picture book biographies. Or, do a book for older readers of Biographies You Should REALLY Know and Don’t.
Oh, it would work.
Photo credit Sonya Sones (who, coincidentally, did my author photo as well)
As I mentioned in my 2016 Day of Dialog round-up, Richard Peck was the kickoff speaker this year, just before Book Expo. I was moderating the middle grade fiction panel that morning, so I got to hang out with Richard in the green room a little before the event. Now I’ve met him in the past, but very briefly indeed (I think I moderated a table for him at a different Book Expo event years ago). A little more recently I posted on this blog about the fact that actress Lena Dunham has a Fair Weather tattoo. I was assured by Richard’s editor later that she sent Lena a signed copy of Fair Weather after reading my post.
In any case, long story short, Richard by all rights shouldn’t have remembered me. The man meets hundreds of librarians monthly, and yet if he’d forgotten my face he faked it with aplomb. “You reviewed my pocket square!” he declared, and indeed that does sound like me. Story checks out.
When you listen to Richard speak, it’s not talking. It’s not speechifying. It’s pure oratory, in crisp, clean perfection. It makes you long for a time when students were taught public speaking as an artform. And now, you lucky ducks, you have a chance to hear him firsthand. You see, Richard has a new book out. The details, should you be interested, are:
THE BEST MAN by Richard Peck (on sale September 20th; Ages 9-12; $16.99)
When Archer is in sixth grade, his beloved uncle Paul marries another man–Archer’s favorite student teacher. But that’s getting ahead of the story, and a wonderful story it is. In Archer’s sweetly naïve but observant voice, his life through elementary school is recounted: the outspoken, ever-loyal friends he makes, the teachers who blunder or inspire, and the family members who serve as his role models. From one exhilarating, unexpected episode to another, Archer’s story rolls along as he puzzles over the people in his life and the kind of person he wants to become . . . and manages to help his uncle become his best self as well.
And since Richard’s on tour for this book, you can see him yourself. I don’t often post tour dates here, but I do make the occasional exception. And Richard is worth seeing.
Monday, September 19th – DENVER, CO
2526 E Colfax Ave
Denver, CO 80206
Thursday, September 29th – BELLINGHAM, WA
1200 11th St
Bellingham, WA 98225
Friday, September 30th – SEATTLE, WA
Time to Be Announced
Secret Garden Bookshop
2214 NW Market St, Seattle
Sunday, October 2nd – DANVILLE, CA
3 Railroad Ave
Danville, CA 94526
Tuesday, October 4th – PLEASANTON, CA
Time to be Announced
Towne Center Books
555 Main St
Pleasanton, CA 94566
Wednesday, October 5th – SAN JOSE, CA
1378 Lincoln Ave
San Jose, CA 95125
Tuesday, October 18th – NAPERVILLE, IL
123 W Jefferson Ave
Naperville, IL 60540
Wednesday, October 19th –NORTHBROOK, IL
Time to be Announced
1151 Church St
Northbrook, IL 60062
Thursday, October 20th – CHICAGO, IL
The Book Stall
811 Elm St
Winnetka, IL 60093
Friday, November 4th – Raleigh, NC
Quail Ridge Books
4381-105 Lassiter at North Hills Avenue
Raleigh, NC 27609
Richard Peck has won almost every children’s fiction award, including the Margaret A. Edwards Award, the Newbery Medal, the Scott O’Dell Award, and the Edgar, and he has twice been nominated for a National Book Award. He was the first children’s author ever to have been awarded a National Humanities Medal. He lives in New York City.
Greg Neri. Now there’s a guy with range. If he isn’t writing a picture book bio of Johnny Cash he’s doing a middle grade novel on inner city cowboys or a graphic novel on Chicago’s South Side. Some authors fall into predictable patterns. Not Greg. I honestly never know what the man’s going to come up with next. So when I heard that his next novel was a middle grade about the real-life friendship between Truman Capote and Harper Lee, it just kinda made crazy sense.
Greg actually visited me here in Evanston a couple months ago with a small group of fellow authors. Not long after, he touched base and told me that he’d gotten an invitation to speak at the Monroeville courthouse from To Kill a Mockingbird. When that happened, his friend and filmmaker e.E Charlton-Trujillo (who wrote the amazing Prizefighter En Mi Casa) said the two of them should make a little documentary about his journey there in search of the real places and people behind the book.
Now the video is done and it’s a lot of fun to watch. And just because you guys are so handsome and clever, I’ll let you have TWO mini-docs for the price of one. Video #1 is the long version (9.5 minutes). Video #2 is shorter (5 minutes).
Interested in chatting with Greg about his books? Well, if you’re headed to Orlando this week for the Annual Library Conference, he’ll be signing at the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt booth this Saturday at 10am.
Here’s a link where anyone can read more about the book: http://www.gregneri.com/home/#/tru-and-nelle/
Thanks to Greg for the scoop!
Fickle little me. Titles appear. Titles disappear. Many of the books I placed on my Spring 2017 predictions list are gone by June, and what has changed? Aren’t the books as wonderful now as they were when I originally propped them up? Of course they are, but I’ve done enough book discussions in the intervening months that I feel as if I’ve a better grasp on what’s a contender. Not that my track record is by any means perfect. These are, as ever, just my professional opinion. And I may have gone a little crazy with the Caldecott predictions this time around . . .
Be sure to check out the 100 Scope Notes post on books that Goodreads readers think have a real shot too.
2017 Caldecott Predictions
Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie, ill. Yuyi Morales
I read this one a long time ago and liked it just fine. Personally, it wasn’t hitting me in the same way as Yuyi’s previous two books had, but I certainly enjoyed the spirit and energy and sheer love coming off the pages. Then I talked about it with a bunch of other librarians and when we sat down and looked at those images, one after another, and discussed how one leads to another and how well Yuyi is able to convey familial affection with just the simplest of movements . . . well, I’m sold. In fact, I may have just been convinced that this is her best book yet.
Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis
Unlike many of my honored colleagues, I’m pretty darn neutral on Ellis. As a person she’s sweet as peaches on the vine but her art has never left me feeling warm and snuggly. Now those of you who know me know that I’ve a weakness for weirdness. Dark horse medal contenders are my favorites. All the more reason that I should incline towards this strange, silly, downright odd little tale of bugs speaking their own (very comprehensible) language and the flower that inspires them. I’ve read this book many times to my own kids and I can honestly say that it’s a perfect combination of luscious, lovely, occasionally terrifying art and kid-friendly storylines.
This House Once by Deborah Freedman
Dude, I was into Freedman when Scribble came out. When I saw that book I remember thinking to myself, “This lady’s got something to her. By gum, she’s going places!” And yes. I do actually use phrases like “by gum” in my head. I’ve also been known to substitute it for “golly”, “gee willikers”, and “well slap my face and call me Bertha.” But I digress. I’m still parsing my thoughts on this book, which is both like every Freedman book you’ve ever seen and is vastly different from them all. Worth thinking about.
Miracle Man by John Hendrix
I mean, I put it to you. Can a Jesus book win a Caldecott in the 21st century? Considering that the 1938 Medal Winner, which is to say the very first Caldecott ever given out, went to Animals of the Bible, A Picture Book, I’d say there was a precedent. This is another wild card, and I don’t envy the Caldecott committee this discussion. It’s hard to not to be in awe of Hendrix’s typography alone.
Before Morning by Joyce Sidman, ill. Beth Krommes
Do you do that thing I do where if a person has won a Newbery or Caldecott Medal (not Honor) before then you sort of give them second billing when thinking about future award winners? I do that all the time, but when you see a book as gorgeous as this one you put all that aside. In this hot June month, something as lovely, cool, and refreshing as this snowbound wonder book is of infinite relief. Krommes outdoes herself here, and the emotional beats of the book thump strong. Is that a phrase? I’m keeping it in.
The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles by Michelle Cuevas, ill. Erin E. Stead
Mmm. Deceptively simple, this one. Like Krommes, Stead already has a nice and shiny Caldecott Medal under her belt. I had the pleasure of hearing Cuevas and Stead discussing this book during Day of Dialog at Book Expo this year. Here’s a fun game: Read the text without looking at the pictures. You might get an entirely different view of the proceedings. Stead’s mark is so strong and her images so beautiful that it may contribute heavily to the book’s potential win. We shall see.
Ideas Are All Around by Philip Stead
Mind you, he has another book out this year (Samson in the Snow) and it wouldn’t surprise me even a hundredth of a jot if he won the Caldecott for that instead. This is Mr. Stead’s hoity-er toity-er offering. Beautiful, no question. But a touch on the esoteric side.
Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe
I have been waiting for this book for approximately five years. Little, Brown & Co. is sick to death of me asking, “This year? How ’bout this year? Is it coming out this year?” To see the art in person floors you. Steptoe painted entirely on found wood and the storytelling of Basquiat himself is sublime. This is one of my top picks, no question at all. You are in for such a treat when you read it!!!
The Storyteller by Evan Turk
GAH!! So good! So very very very very good. I’m not going to railroad you with reasons. Just read my review if you’re curious.
Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph by Roxane Orgill, ill. Francis Vallejo
Winner of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Picture Books, as awarded by a clearly BRILLIANT committee *cough cough*. Vallejo is a first timer here, but you’d never know it from the art. As I’ve mentioned before, the book doesn’t slot into any categories very easily. Hopefully the committee will recognize the art for what it is – extraordinary and distinguished.
They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel
And, the winner. Done. Nothing more to see here, folks.
I’m sorry . . . you’ve not seen this one? Oh. Well, it’s quite simple. Wenzel has created the Caldecott winner for 2017. Don’t know what’s confusing about that. You’ll understand when you see it for yourself. I don’t want to call it self-explanatory. Let’s just say, it’s a bit of a given.
Freedom in Congo Square by Carol Boston Weatherford, ill. R. Gregory Christie
Like Yuyi’s book, it took me a little while to come around to this one. Christie’s art changes subtly from book to book. Here, he appears to be channeling the ghost of Jacob Lawrence. That’s a good thing. An amazing solution to rendering slavery and its horrors accurately but still in a way that’s friendly to kids on the younger end of the education scale. After you read this one, you just gotta dance.
2017 Newbery Predictions
My Newbery reads continue to lag vs. my Caldecott reads (picture books are just easier to read quickly!). Fortunately, I’ve been lucky in what’s crossed my plate. If the jury would be so good as to consider . . .
The Wild Robot by Peter Brown
A long shot, no question. Its potential relies entirely on the kinds of readers you’ll find on the Newbery committee this year. This book requires one to stretch their incredulity from time to time. If you can do so, the rewards are vast. Such a good bedtime book. It would be a joy to see this make the list.
Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan
I call this one Simon & Schuster’s Secret Weapon. But don’t take my word for it. Read this brief plot description for yourself: “Using original slave auction and plantation estate documents, Ashley Bryan offers a moving and powerful picture book that contrasts the monetary value of a slave with the priceless value of life experiences and dreams that a slave owner could never take away.” Only it’s even better than that. Bryan is doing something completely new here and the writing is perfect. Don’t count this one out. I think it has some real legs.
Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo
It’s good. Deeply sad (a theme in 2016) but an honest-to-goodness page turner. I reviewed it here but I’m still parsing it in my mind. There is a LOT to chew on in these scant little pages.
When Green Becomes Tomatoes by Julie Fogliano
Poor poetry. I’ll be your friend. This is a book where the poems start off sounding pretty rote (this is hardly the first poetry-for-every-season-of-the-year book in the world) but then you get sucked into Fogliano’s writing. I like the art just fine, but the text is the true star of the show. You may read my review here if you’re curious.
Full of Beans by Jennifer L. Holm
Here’s a fun quiz question for you: Has a prequel to a Newbery Honor ever won a Newbery itself? If this book continues Holm’s winning streak we may get our answer. Mind you, Holm has never won herself a Newbery Award proper. This wouldn’t be a bad book to do so. Just saying.
Pax by Sara Pennypacker
We had our Pax push and even a Pax backlash, so at this point I think we’re ahead of the game. Clearly this book has legs and a LOT of people discussing it. I think it continues to be one of the strongest contenders. A book that could only be tossed out on a technicality.
Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune by Pamela Turner, ill. Gareth Hinds
YES! What’s that line from The Princess Bride? “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…” Not so many giants and monsters in this and the true love . . . well, you could make a case for it. Otherwise, I think we’re pretty close. Bloody but upbeat, that’s for sure. You can read my review of it here.
Wolf’s Hollow by Lauren Wolk
Originally written as an adult novel, this book was turned into one for kids with very little touches and tweaks. It’s not an easy read, but it’s a very strong one. I could see it going head to head with all the other major contenders. Better go out and read it when you get a chance. My review is here.
And that’s all she copiously wrote! What have I missed? Spill it. I know there’s a gap in there somewhere a mile wide.
By: Betsy Bird
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By Maria Gianferrari
Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
Roaring Brook Press (an imprint of Macmillan)
On shelves July 19th
I feel as if there was less nature out there when I was a kid. Crazy, right? But seriously, as I grew to be an adult I was appalled at the discovery that other people in the United States had to deal with stuff like ticks and chiggers and painful jellyfish and worse. Me? The worst encounter I ever had with something stinging or biting were a couple of sweat bees on my knuckles. But the critter that seemed the most impossible in terms of everyday encounters has been, and continues to be to this day (until the moment we come face-to-face) the coyote. Coyotes were always the heroes of Wild West tales of Native American folklore. They didn’t just wander into your Michigan backyard or anything . . . did they? Now, thanks to books like the beautiful Coyote Moon I learn that coyotes live in every American state except Hawaii. Best that I get as much information as possible about them then. Thankfully, I’ve lots of help. Maria Gianferrari and Bagram Ibatoulline ratchet up the realism to eleven, making it hard to walk away from this book without considering the modern coyote’s plight.
The sun has set and the moon is on the rise. What better time for a coyote momma to leave her den and search for tasty morsels for her kin? Slipping in and out of the shadows of a suburban neighborhood, the coyote attempts to secure a mouse, a rabbit, and even the eggs of Canadian geese, all to no avail. As the sun begins to rise in the east, however, the coyote smells, seas, and hears a flock of turkeys. There is no hemming or hawing now. Without another thought she secures a big one for her family. Of course, before she returns home, she howls. A potentially dangerous act to perform so close to humans, but fortunately the one person who hears her is the one person who understands why she would howl in the first place. Backmatter consists of Coyote Facts, Further Reading, and Websites.
The book is not written in verse or rhyme, but there’s something inherently rhythmic to Ms. Gianferrari’s text. Listen to how she begins the book: “Moon rises, as Coyote wakes in her den, a hollow-out pine in a cemetery. Coyote crawls between roots. She sniffs the air, arches her back, shakes her fur.” That’s beautiful, that is. Gianferrari’s text is like that from start to finish and it all gets particularly interesting near the end. What an interesting choice it was to switch into the second person near the story’s end. “You open your window… You watch as Coyote slips under the fence painted pink by the sun.” Interesting too that the coyote gets her name capitalized throughout the story. She’s the heroine, no bones about it, and refusing to give her a name keeps her appropriately wild. Capitalizing the word “coyote”, however, gives just the slightest personal bent to an otherwise impersonal descriptive name.
Which brings us to the art. I’ve been a big time fan of artist Bagram Ibatoulline for years. He’s one of those artists that are so good he’ll never ever win any American illustration awards. Such people exist all the time and this is particularly true of artists who truck with realism. Ibatoulline’s challenge here is twofold. On the one hand, he has to render the coyote and her environment in a nighttime setting without sacrificing detail. On the other hand, without giving his character any anthropomorphized tendencies, he also needs to make her sympathetic in her quest to provide food for her babies. The end result is fascinating to watch. With the aid of a full moon, Ibatoulline believably provides just enough light to justify seeing every single solitary hair on the coyote mama’s pelt. Often her eyes are the most colorful things on the page, aided in part by the streetlights as well. He even manages to give the sky that odd pink/grey color it sometimes takes on thanks to light pollution. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it so perfectly rendered in a picture book before. Then there’s his ability to accurately render the light of an early dawn. We see the light striking the trees, the day beginning on the houses, and silhouetted against the lake the mama coyote. And even then, every single hair on her head is present and accounted for. How does he do that?
I read almost every picture book I review to my kids at some point or another, and I’m glad that I do. Even after all these years, they have the ability to surprise me. For example, if you’d asked me if this were a tense or scary book in any way I’d have initially said no. Yet clearly the book is capable of touching a nerve. My staid stoic five-year-old daughter, who recently informed me that The Walking Dead couldn’t possibly be all that scary a show, was positively petrified by the image of the coyote making her first pounce. No wolf attacking Little Red Riding Hood has ever made such an impression on her as that shot. Fortunately, it’s almost as if Mr. Ibatoulline and Ms. Gianferrari anticipated this. As a parent I was able to smoothly flip back three pages and show the baby coyote cubs near the den and explain that this was their mama. The explanation went a far ways towards alleviating her anxiety. Later, when the coyote gets a big mouth of turkey, Ibatoulline frames the shot in such a way as to display minimal carnage. All you get is, on one page coyote’s face ending just under her nose and on the other the tail, drifting feathers indicating the turkey’s dire fate.
Some folks might make the argument that this book is clearly nonfiction, and you could see their point. If we take the heroine of this story to be an average coyote and not a single one, thereby making this an average situation and not a specific one, then combined with the backmatter (the copious “Coyote Facts” as well as the bibliography for both further reading and websites) you almost find yourself in nonfiction territory. So out of curiosity I decided to see how my library’s distributor, Baker & Taylor, characterized the book. Lo and behold, they call it straight up nonfiction, no bones about it. Personally, I don’t agree. For whatever reason, for all that the book is informative and interesting, I still found the storyline just a tad too fictionalized to count as a purely informational text. Why is this? Compare the book to Hungry Coyote by Cheryl Blackford. In both cases you have average coyote storylines, and both very realistic indeed. Gianferrari has the leg up in this case since her book has nonfiction backmatter, but in both cases I felt like I was hearing a story more than I was learning factual information. Certainly authors can do both, but at the end of the day it’s the librarians who’ll decide where to shelve the puppy. And for me, any picture book collection should be honored to receive this book.
After finishing Coyote Moon I truly believe I have a better sense of coyotes now, and not a moment too soon. Just the other day I was told that the house I’m currently renting is on a little street, dubbed by the neighbors “Coyote Way”. I was told not to be surprised if I see those cheerful souls walking down the road to their destination. And while I have no desire to get up close and personal with the clan, it would be cool to watch from my windows. So thank you, Ms. Gianferrari and Mr. Ibatoulline for giving me the confidence, courage, and curiosity to see this through. I have little doubt that those qualities, to a certain extent the very benchmarks of childhood itself, will resonate with curious young readers everywhere. Lots of younger kids love wolves. These coyotes are about to give those wolves a real run for their money. Beautiful work. Beautiful stuff.
On shelves July 19th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
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By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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You know what’s even better than serving on an award committee? Having someone else write about it. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I was on the judging committee for this year’s Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards alongside Chair Joanna Rudge Long and Roxanne Feldman. It was Roxanne who reported on our discussion, and even took photos of where we met (Joanna’s gorgeous Vermont farmhouse), what we ate, and more. There is also a particularly goofy shot of me that is impressive because even without knowing that there was a camera pointed in my direction, I seem to have made a silly face. I am nothing if not talented in that respect.
Speaking of listening in on committees and their discussions, ALA is next week (she said, eyeing her unfinished Newbery/Caldecott Banquet outfit nervously) and that means you have a chance to sit and listen to one particular committee talk the talkety talk. I am referring, of course, to the ALA Notables Committee. This year they’ve released the list of books on their discussion list online for your perusal. A lot of goodies there, as well as room for a lot of books I hope they get to eventually.
I was very sad to hear about the passing of Lois Duncan. Like many of you, she was a staple of my youth. When Jules Danielson, Peter Sieruta, and I were writing our book Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature we initially had a section, written by Peter, on why Lois stopped writing suspense novels for teens. It’s a sad story but one that always made me admire her deeply. She was hugely talented and will be missed.
Speaking of Wild Things, recently I was sent a YA galley by Marcus Sedgwick called Blood Red, Snow White. But lest you believe it to be a YA retelling of the old Snow White / Rose Red fairytale, it ain’t. Instead, it’s about how Arthur Ransome (he of Swallows and Amazons) got mixed up with Trotsky’s secretary and a whole lotta Bolsheviks. What does this have to do with Wild Things? This was yet ANOTHER rejected tale from our book. Read the full story here on our website where we even take care to mention Sedgwick’s book (it originally was published overseas in 2007).
As I’ve mentioned before, my library hosts a pair of falcons each year directly across from the window above my desk. I’ve watched five eggs laid, three hatch, and the babies get named and banded. This week the little not-so-fuzzyheads are learning to fly. It’s terrifying. Far better that I read this older Chicago Tribune article on the banding ceremony. They were so cute when they were fuzzy. *sigh*
In other news, Harriet the Spy’s house is for sale. Apparently.
Sharon Levin on the child_lit listserv had a rather fascinating little announcement up recently. As she told it, she’d always had difficulty finding a really fast way to catalog her personal library. Cause let’s face it – scanning every single barcode takes time. Then she found a new app and . . . well, I’ll let her tell it:
“Shelfie is a free app for iOS and Android (www.shelfie.com) where you can take a picture of your bookshelf and the app will automatically recognize your book spines and generate a catalog of your library. In addition, the team behind the app has made deals with over 1400 publishers (including HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Hachette) to let you download discounted (usually around 80% off) or free ebook or audiobook edition of your paper books (right now these publisher deals cover about 25% of the books on an “average” shelf). The app also lets you browse other readers’ shelves. Shelfie will also give you personalized book recommendations based on how readers with similar taste in books to you organize the books on their shelves. The founder of Shelfie is named Peter Hudson and he’d love to hear any suggestions about how he can make the app better. Peter’s email is email@example.com.“
Thanks to Sharon Levin for the heads up.
I leave NYPL and its delightful Winnie-the-Pooh toys and what happens? The world goes goofy for the story of A.A. Milne and Christopher Robin. Now we just found out that Domhnall Gleeson (a.k.a. Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter films) has just been cast as Milne in an upcoming bio-pic. Will wonders never cease?
Are you familiar with the works of Atinuke? An extraordinary storyteller, her Anna Hibiscus books are among my favorite early chapter books of all time. They do, however, occasionally catch flack of saying they take place in “Africa” rather than a specific country. Recently, K.T. Horning explained on Monica Edinger’s recent post Diversity Window, Mirror, or Neither that Atinuke did this on purpose so that kids in Africa could imagine the stories as taking place in their own countries. That makes perfect sense. The ensuing discussion in Monica’s post is respectful, interesting, and with a variety of different viewpoints, all worth reading. In short, the kind of talk a blogger hopes for when he or she writes something. Well done, Monica.
Big time congrats to the nominees for the Neustadt Prize. It’s a whopping $10,000 given to a children’s author given on the basis of literary merit. It may be the only children’s award originating in America that is also international. Fingers crossed for all the people nominated!
Hooray! The Children’s Book Council has released their annual Building a Home Library list. I love these. The choices are always very carefully done and perfect for clueless parents.
In other CBC news, I got this little press release, and it’s worth looking at:
“For the second consecutive year, the Children’s Book Council has partnered with The unPrison Project — a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to empowering and mentoring women in prison — to create brand-new libraries of books for incarcerated mothers to read with their babies at prison nurseries. Fourteen of the CBC’s member publishers answered the call by donating copies of over 35 hand-picked titles for children ages 0-18 months for each library. The books will be hand-delivered and organized in the nurseries by Deborah Jiang-Stein, founder of The unPrison Project and author of Prison Baby. Jiang-Stein was born in prison to a heroin-addicted mother, and has made it her mission to empower and mentor women and girls in prison.”
You know who’s cool? That gal I mentioned earlier. Julie Danielson. She’s something else. For example, while many of us might just say we were interested in James Marshall, she’s actually in the process of researching him. She even received the James Marshall Fellowship from The University of Connecticut’s Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. As a result she spent a week looking through the James Marshall Papers there. Their sole stipulation? Write a blog post about it. So up at the University’s site you’ll find the piece Finding the Artist in His Art: A Week With the James Marshall Papers. Special Bonus: Rare images you won’t find anywhere else.
I take no credit to this. I only discovered it on Twitter thanks to Christine Hertz of Burlington, VT. It may constitute the greatest summer reading idea I’ve seen in a very long time. Public libraries, please feel free to adopt this:
A couple weeks ago the June 6/13 edition of The New Yorker was the Fiction issue, and in it were essays by five authors, each subtitled “Childhood Reading.” As you might expect, they were ostensibly memories of books read by these authors when they were young. I approached each one with a bit of trepidation, though. Recently I’ve been noticing a tendency that is by no means new, but has only grabbed my attention since I became the Collection Development Manager of Evanston Public Library. It’s a tendency that may even explain why it is that so few adult authors are good at writing books for children.
Do you have the June 6/13 edition of The New Yorker on hand, by the way? Pick up a copy and follow along with me and let’s find out if anything catches your eye.
- The first piece is called “The Book” by Hisham Matar. In it, the author recounts the stories he was read by the adults in his life. He mentions, “It never occurred to me then to question why there were hardly any books for children in the house; none that I can remember, anyway.”
- In “Uninhabited” by Kevin Young the author describes how, as a child, he once read all of Robinson Crusoe in a weekend, and had enjoyed Gulliver’s Travelers earlier that year. Some mention is made later of his enjoyment of Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo which was “a brutal and gory account of the U.S. bombing of Japan during the Second World War, which I had stumbled across…”
- “Surrendering” by Ocean Vuong discusses the moment when an encounter with an audiotape of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the author to write a poem so adept that he was accused of plagiarism.
It is not uncommon for authors of works for adults, when asked what they read as kids, to disassociate themselves entirely from the world of children’s literature. They will often call upon books that straddle the adult and child world, like Treasure Island or One Thousand and One Nights, as if it would be a dangerous thing to admit to having seen a Harriet the Spy or, heaven help you, a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Recounting how you had to stick your fingers in the pages to work your way back from terrible choices would actually make for a lovely little written piece, but that is not their way.
The New Yorker articles are hardly the only examples of this phenomenon, of course. Each Sunday I dutifully read the New York Times Book Review and take time to pore over the interviews in the “By the Book” section. And each time they’ll ask the interviewee what they read as kids. Here are some recent answers:
Nathan Philbrick: In elementary school I read every book about World War I and II that I could get my hands on: Ted Lawson’s “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” Paul Brickhill’s “The Great Escape,” Robert Donovan’s “PT 109.” The one very notable exception was Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” which I read in sixth or seventh grade. Huck’s voice seemed so real, and the scenes on the river were mesmerizing for a kid from Pittsburgh.
Siddhartha Mukherjee: Rail-thin, anxious, despondent, always hungry. I read like a madman: My mother, desperate to feed me material, started collecting old newspapers from the neighbor’s trash. The childhood books that I particularly recall are Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes — both of which I still love to read on vacation. And Salman’s “Midnight’s Children.”
Sebastian Junger: My father grew up in Europe and was relentlessly erudite. That translated into me reading a lot. I read “Moby-Dick.” I read “The Three Musketeers.” I read “Two Years Before the Mast.” And I read anything I could get my hands on about the American Indians and anthropology in general because — by age 12 or so — I’d decided that life in a Stone Age tribe was far more appealing than life in the suburbs, where I lived.
And so on and such.
There are always exceptions. Authors that haven’t been publishing very long often mention true children’s books without any shame at all. Tig Notaro, for example, was asked what she read as a kid, answered, without hesitation, that she loved Beverly Cleary and Amelia Bedelia. The Times asked, “What’s your favorite book to recommend to children?” Answer: ” “Ribsy,” by Beverly Cleary. I have read that book probably one billion times. It never disappoints. I still have it on my bookshelf at home.”
But there’s another factor that seems to be at play here. Looking through a lot of the answers, I noticed that women were more inclined to admit to real books for read kids than their male counterparts. Mary Roach loved Misty of Chincoteague, after all. In the issue of the New Yorker I mentioned earlier, Tessa Hadley waxed eloquent about The Secret Garden while Rivka Galchen should win an award for being the most-up-to-date on her references, thanks to her own children. In “Where Is Luckily” she mentions Moomins, Elephant & Piggie (“in which the protagonist deliberates extensively about the ethical and gustatory implications of sharing…”), Cat in the Hat, The Snowy Day, and the Cozy Classics board book version of Moby Dick.
Is it possible that men generally remember books they encountered much later in life than women, and that’s why you get so many references to Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (which apparently everyone and their brother used to read)? I should note that women will often also eschew mentioning children’s books by name. For example, in her own interview with the Times, Louise Erdrich says she was an inveterate bookworm, but fails to mention a single book she encountered.
In the end, I just have to assume that saying you were the kind of kid who preferred Tom Brown’s Schooldays to, say, R.L. Stine is just the cool thing to do. Good readers read everything, and when they read everything it gives them fodder for their adult writing lives. Heck, if someone asked me what I read when I was a kid I could toss off some nonsense about how I once picked up Puck of Pook’s Hill and that Kipling was really saying something directly to me when first I read “The Bee Boy’s Song”. But honestly, it ain’t true. Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn was far more influential in my life. Doesn’t sound good on paper, though.
I always get a little touchy when adult authors start speaking about children’s literature with an air of authority. For those of us who work with the craft every day, it can feel a bit like they think no one has come up with these ideas before. Nonetheless, sometimes you get some really insightful considerations. Two recent pieces pair very well together. The first is the aforementioned “At Home in the Past” by Tessa Hadley, where the author speaks at length about encountering The Secret Garden as an adult. Though she makes the not insignificant error of saying, “Who would dare to begin a children’s book now with this raw, spare first chapter…?” (it’s a great opening to the book, no question, I suspect we could work up a great list of contemporary books to rival it if called upon to do so), the bulk of the piece is a contemplative consideration of how a good book for kids can continue to enthrall even the most skeptic adult. She ends it so beautifully too. “…I’m not sorry that I grew up on this rich ruitcake diet of feeling and moralizing. There are worse things. This is one of the miracles that fiction works: you can be a doubter and a believer in the same moment, in the same sentence.”
Compare that to Francine Prose’s piece at the back of the New York Book Review section of the Times this past Sunday. When asked “Is It Harder To Be Transported By a Book As You Get Older?” she offers a lovely piece on how “for many children, the line between reality and the imagination is thinner and more porous than it is for most adults.” She recalls her own history with E. Nesbit, Edward Eager, The Borrowers, and Mary Poppins, eventually coming to the conclusion that while an adult may take a “dip” in a book, children are capable of taking a “soak”. She shares the page with Benjamin Moser who mentions children’s books off-handedly, preferring to discuss Les Miserables, The Count of Monte Cristo, and War and Peace.
Perhaps the authors in these interviews are invariable older. When I was a kid the distractions to lure us away from reading were restricted to the television. Now kids have a lot more devices to play with. Combine that with the incredibly healthy children’s book market, and if I were a betting woman I’d say that in twenty or thirty years you’ll see answers about what people read that mention a lot more actual children’s literature. Until then, let’s load those kids out there down with some great books. Moby Dick can wait.
The problem is this: In a given year hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of children’s books are published. Of these, a percentage are really extraordinary. Of that percentage, a smidgen get reviewed on this site. Though I began my blogging career doing a review a day (because I WAS CRAAAAAAZY!!!), I’m lucky if I can get one out a week any more. That means that I end up not praising some truly fantastic fare (except possibly in my end of the year 100 Magnificent Books lists).
Now as a general rule I don’t really do interviews on this site, but once in a while I’ll make an exception. Interviews can be a nice way of highlighting some of those books I probably won’t review but really enjoyed. One of those books in 2016 was Nobody Likes a Goblin by Ben Hatke. A rousing, teasing play on high fantasy novels, condensed into a 40-page picture book, Ben Hatke takes one of the most loathed and abhorred creatures in all of literature and gives him his own day in the sun. Not literally. Goblins aren’t much for the sun. Here now, in a quick and easy interview, is Ben Hatke.
Betsy Bird: So goblins are pretty much the ultimate underdogs of the
fantasy world. I think it’s safe to say there aren’t any famous
goblins out there (always excepting the Goblin King from Labyrinth, of
course). As I recall, there were goblins in your previous picture
book JULIA’S HOUSE FOR LOST CREATURES (another story about magical
creatures finding their place in the world). Why the goblin love?
Ben Hatke: I think you answered that! Who doesn’t love an underdog? Especially a scraggly, scrappy, dirty little underdog?
I think maybe it’s Important to love goblins because the world is full of them. and we all have a little goblin in us.
BB: I’ve read this book multiple times to my 5-year-old
daughter and, naturally, she’s absolutely fascinated with the
reluctantly saved/kidnapped princess who is grumpily carried about
with the other treasures found by the adventurers. What’s her story?
BH: What IS her story?!? There’s a bust of a woman in the treasure room that has a green jewel. The same green jewel is on the woman’s dress. It’s the tiniest of clues that she was turned into a statue. But beyond that? Was she once Skeleton’s true love? We may never know…
BB: Any indication to do a sequel? Or, on a related note, do
you have any future fantasy-inspired picture books in that noggin of
BH: Oh boy. I’d like to visit Goblin again, but possibly in a different format. As for picture books -I love them. There will certainly be more.
BB: What’s next for you?
BH: Lots! The first of a two-volume graphic novel called Mighty Jack releases in September, with the second volume (which is finished) releasing in 2017.
I’m currently working on a middle grade novel that will be out sometime in 2018.
BB: Thanks, Ben! And thanks to the good people at First Second. As an end-of-the-interview treat (like having an extra bit after the credits roll) here is a hitherto unseen, rejected cover for this book. I like it quite a bit. There’s more than a smidgen of pathos at work here:
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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Gabe: A Story of Me, My Dog, and the 1970s
By Shelley Gill
Illustrated by Marc Scheff
Ages 10 and up
On shelves now
The older I get the more I like children’s books that don’t slot easily into neat little categories. Gone are the days when every book you read was easily cataloged, neat as a pin. It may be a nightmarish wasteland out there for catalogers, but the fluidity of books these days speaks to their abilities to serve different kinds of readers in different kinds of areas. Even biography sections of libraries and bookstores are morphing. I remember when Siena Siegel’s To Dance was published and we, the children’s librarians, had to come to terms with the fact that we had an honest-to-goodness children’s graphic novel autobiography on our hands (a rare beastie indeed). I’ve not really seen a book to shake up the biography sections in a similar way since. That is, until now. Gabe: A Story of Me, My Dog, and the 1970s is a textbook case of not being a textbook case. Autobiographical and deeply visual, it offers a slice of 1970s life never approached in this manner in a children’s book before. Different kinds of readers require different kinds of books to feed their little brains. This is a book for dog and pet readers, throwing them into the past headfirst and keeping them there thanks to some truly beautiful art. An original.
Growing up in Florida, Shelley Gill had enough of the vapid, polluted culture she’d grown up with. At seventeen she was out. The year was 1972 and Shelley was volunteering in the medical tent of the first Rainbow Gathering at Table Mountain. When she wasn’t patching up people she was patching up pets. And there was one pet in particular, a blue merle husky mix she named Gabe. When the party was over, Gabe was left and so Shelley kept him by her side. Together they hitchhiked, lived in New Orleans for a time, tried Colorado, suffered through NYC, were parted, reunited, and ultimately found their final home in Alaska. Gill chronicles her life through the dog that helped make that life possible. Backmatter consists of five great historical moments alluded to in the book.
When I was growing up, the 1970s was just that decade we never quite got to in history class because we ran out of time by the end of the school year (thanks, WWII). A child of the 1980s myself, it would take me years and years and a significant chunk of my adult life to get a grasp on that time period. Children’s books that talk about the 70s or are set in the 70s aren’t exactly plentiful. Either they’re entirely about the Vietnam War or the Civil Rights movement or. . . . yeah. No. That’s about it. So Shelley Gill’s decision to place her own story inextricably within the times in which she lived is fascinating. She starts off not with Woodstock (as you might expect) but the far lesser known Rainbow Gathering of 1972. Backmatter relays information about The Vietnam War, the protests, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, and The Age of Aquarius. None of it is enough to serve as a focus for the story, but they do at least offer context and groundwork for kids willing to seek out additional information on their own on any of the mentioned topics.
It’s a surprisingly slight book for the chunk of Gill’s life that it contains. That may have more to do with the author’s square focus on the dog more than anything else. Gabe is first and foremost the center of the book. Gill’s marriage, and even her eventual commitment to dog sledding, pale in the face of this owner/pet love story. In 2011 Adam Gopnik wrote a piece for The New Yorker called “Dog Story” in which he talked about pet owners’ blind adoration of their own dogs. It’s a fun piece because, amongst other things, it really clarified for me the fact that I am just not a dog person. If you have a friendly dog I’ll pet it like crazy and enjoy its company, but other people’s dogs are like other people’s children. You appreciate their existence on this globe (hopefully) but wouldn’t necessarily want one of your own. The interesting thing about Gabe is that Gill makes no bones about his bad qualities. She loves him, psychopathic tendencies and all. He is her constant companion through thick and thin and (craziest of all) the 1970s. I don’t feel particularly gushy towards dogs, but a good writer allows you to feel emotions that aren’t your own. And in that last page, where Shelley cuddles her dying dog? That, I felt.
The text is great, no question, but would be merely okay with a lesser illustrator. So a lot of the heavy lifting going on in this title is due the talents of Marc Scheff. I would love to hear the story of how Marc came to this particular book. A quick look at his various websites and you can see that he describes himself as the kind of artist who creates, “portraits that blend the fantastic and the surreal.” In Gabe Scheff scales back his more sumptuous tendencies, but not by much. He’s sticking to reality for the most part, but there’s one moment, when people are exchanging rumors of an escaped devil dog terrorizing the citizens of New Orleans, where he allows the paper he paints to gorge itself in a blood red beast awash in snarls and drool. Shelley herself is the kind of woman Scheff typically likes to paint. A 20th century Rossetti model, all flowing hair and latent hippie tendencies. Farrah Fawcet would have been envious. And Gabe is consistently fascinating to watch throughout. Scheff’s challenge was to make him tame enough that a girl would do anything to keep him by her side, but also wild enough to attack at a moment’s notice. For the book to work you have to like Gabe on some level. That may be the most difficult challenge of the book, but Scheff is up to the task and the end result is a dog that, at the very least, you respect on some level.
For all that I love the art of the book, there is one element of the design I’d change in a heartbeat, if I had that power. That would be (and this is going to sound crazy to you if you haven’t seen the book yet) the size of the font on each new chapter’s first page. Somebody somewhere made the executive decision to shrink that font down to teeny, tiny, itty-bitty, oh-so-miniscule words. In some chapters this is clearly done to fit a large amount of text into a particular part of the accompanying illustrations. The trouble is that it just looks awful. Right from the bat it sets the wrong tone for everything. It was with great relief that I turned the first page to discover a far larger, lovelier font for most of the rest of the book. Yet with every new chapter there it would be again. That small, horrid little font. A weird complaint, you bet, but for a book that relies so heavily on attractive visuals, this seems an unfortunate misstep.
The more graphic and visual a children’s book, the more opportunities to really put the reader in a historical time and place. For the 9-year-old that picks up and reads this book, the 1970s might as well be the 1670s. Yet together Gill and Scheff transport their young readers. From the sweltering heat of New Orleans to the dry chill under an Aurora Borealis, you are there. Gill writes what she knows and what she knows is the story of her best dog. A moving, eye-popping, ambitious, genre-busting little number. I guarantee you this – you’ll find nothing else like it on your bookshelves today.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- For Shelley Gill’s website go here.
- For Marc Scheff’s website go here.
Alternate Cover Art:
Apparently this was the original cover. Had I seen it first, I probably wouldn’t have minded those eyes, but now? So glad they changed ’em. It looks like she’s mere moments away from taking a big ole bite of doggie.
New York Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library, and the Queens Library system are all magnificent institutions, each with their own tips, tricks, and innovative programs. That said, you cannot get away from the fact that in the end they’re just a collection of branches in a gigantic system. And like many such branches they are unable to partake of the innovations currently sweeping libraries nationwide. I tell you this because since moving to the Midwest I have seen libraries, such libraries, as would make my NYC friends green with envy. Ideas that I didn’t know about. Technologies hitherto unknown. And, like any good little librarian, I want to share all this with you. Because, quite frankly, there’s some killer, crazy, wacky good stuff going on out there and you should be aware of it.
Here then is a smattering of cool things I’ve personally witnessed in libraries in the last year. Very few of these are all that new. I just hadn’t heard about them or seen them in action till now. Those of you in big systems might be in the same boat.
We all know about self-check-OUT machines in libraries already. But in a couple places where staffing was tight and room was ah-plenty I have seen self-check-IN machines as well. I couldn’t find a good online picture of them for this post, so simply imagine that there’s a little hole in the wall. You put your book or DVD on a small conveyor belt, located in said hole. It then automatically checks your item in. Easy peasy.
Redbox-like DVD Dispensers
Every library deals with theft on some level. Sometimes it’s innocuous. Sometimes it’s pervasive. DVDs tend to be the easiest targets too. Sure, you can get all the self-locking cases in the world, but it’s not going to do you a lick of good if someone just takes the dang thing into a bathroom, pries it open with a swiss army knife, and pockets the present inside. My library has talked about just putting out the cases and having the DVDs behind the circulation desk when people check out, but the increased amount of time this would add to the clerks’ already existing jobs is just crazy.
That’s where media boxes / DVD jukeboxes / dispensing machines come in to play. 2,880 disks are available through the one seen here:
That’s one solution anyway.
One of the great complaints surrounding ebooks is that you can’t really browse them the same way you can print books. That’s true, but there are some solutions at hand. The 3M Cloud Library’s Discovery Terminal, for example, allows patrons to scroll through books and download them right then and there to their devices.
A lot of libraries have media centers. They’re nice. You can get computer classes and learn how to use 3D printers. Simpe, right? But when I was in Studio 801 at the Wauconda Public Library, I was shown a world entirely unlike any I’d encountered in a library before. As they say on their site, “The purpose of Studio 801 is to provide library patrons state-of-the-art equipment and software designed to help complete various digital projects, including school, work, and personal projects. Studio 801 offers the space, hardware, and software for library patrons to get creative with graphic design, video, music, photography, digitization, and much more!”
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Green screen rooms, recording studios, areas where you can transfer your VHS tapes to digital FOR FREE! Instruments you can rent for those aforementioned recording studios. A friggin’ APP BUILDER!! Oh, it’s a brave, new, wonderful world, my friends.
Piggybacking on those studios, imagine free spaces you can get from the library that are tricked out with the latest in white screens, Skype capabilities, drop down screens, etc. They exist.
Paper Airplane Launchers
Because who doesn’t love mechanical paper airplane launchers? I mean, really.
Faithful readers will recall that I have gushed on occasion about the book MAYBE SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL by F. Isabel Campoy & Theresa Howell, illustrated by Rafael López. For years he’s been creating truly delicious art in a variety of great books. Remember Drum Dream Girl? Right there. That.
In this latest book, a community comes together to create not just a mural, but a series of public art ventures. Inspired by Mr. López’s public art work with real communities, the book is a joyful dance of colors and tones. I’ve had kids come in for years asking for community garden picture books. Those are great, but if we’re looking for books that speak to the beautification of public spaces, this is a great and slightly different story to start with. There’s even a Twitter hashtag (#maybesomethingbeautiful) for folks looking to show off their own public art discoveries and ventures.
Until then, here’s a truly lovely book trailer for the title. Don’t let it pass you by!
Many thanks to HMH for the link and the scoop.
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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Happy Monday to you! You want the goods? I’ve got the goods. Or, at the very least, a smattering of interesting ephemera. Let’s do this thing.
First and foremost, you may have noticed the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards were announced. The BGHB Awards are some of the strangest in the biz since they encompass the nonexistent publishing year that extends from May to June. How are we to use such an award? No cash benefit is included. And traditionally it has been seen as either a litmus test for future book awards or as a way of rectifying past sins / confirming past awards. This year it’s a bit of a mix of both. Both 2015 and 2016 titles appear on the list. You can see the full smattering in full here or watch a video of the announcement here. And, for what it’s worth, I served on the committee this year, so if you’ve a beef to beef, lay it on me.
Since this news item appeared on Huffington Post I’m not sure if it is in any way true. If not, it’s still a lovely thought. According to HP, the cover artist of Sweet Valley High takes commissions. Just let that one sink in a little. I’m not interested, though. Call me when the cover artist of Baby-Sitters Club starts doing the same.
It’s odd that I haven’t linked to this before, but a search of my archives yields nothing. Very well. Whether or not you were aware of it, The Toast has The Giving Tree in their Children’s Stories Made Horrific series. Shooting fish in a barrel, you say? Not by half. It’s not a new piece. Came out three years ago, as far as I can tell. And yet . . . it’s perfect. The latest in the series, by the way, was a Frog and Toad tale. Sublime.
This Week in Broadway: Tuck Everlasting is out. Wimpy Kid is in.
In other news vaguely related to theater, Lin Manuel-Miranda is slated to star in a 2018 Mary Poppins musical sequel. And no, not on stage. On the silver screen. This, naturally, led to the child_lit listserv postulating over how this could be possible since P.L. Travers had a pretty strong posthumous grip on the rest of the Mary Poppins rights.
So I worked for New York Public Library for eleven years. Eleven years can be a lot of time. During my tenure I observed the very great highs and very low lows of the system. I like to think I knew it pretty well. Now here’s a secret about NYPL: They’re bloody awful at telling you about all the cool stuff they have going on. Always have been. For example, I’m tooling about the NYPL site the other day when I see this picture.
I stare at it. I squint at it. And finally I cannot help but come to a single solitary conclusion . . . that’s my old boss! There. On the left. Isn’t that Frank Collerius, branch manager of the Jefferson Market Branch in Greenwich Village? Yup. The Librarian Is In Podcast seeks to simply talk “about books, culture, and what to read next.” Frank co-hosts with RA librarian Gwen Glazer and they’re top notch. I haven’t made my way through all of them yet. I’m particularly interested in the BookOps episode since that’s where I used to work. And look! I had no idea that Shola at the Schomburg was on Sesame Street.
Howdy, libraries. How’s that STEM programming coming along? Care for some inspiration? Then take a gander at the blog STEM in Libraries where “a team of librarians with a passion for creating fun and engaging STEM programs for library patrons of all ages,” have so far created fifty-seven different STEM program ideas.
A helpful reader passed this on to me, so I pass it on to you: “The latest New Yorker magazine, dated June 6 and 13, may be of interest to you, if you haven’t yet seen it. It’s the Fiction issue, and in it are some essays by 5 authors, each subtitled “Childhood Reading”…with memories of the books, articles, package labels, events from their childhoods that shaped their idea of what reading is and can be. Having read a couple of these so far, I thought of you, and decided to mention them to you, in case you don’t regularly look at the New Yorker, and might not see them.” Thanks to Fran Landt for the link.
In other NYPL news, I miss desperately being a part of the 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing committee. Fortunately, the folks on the committee recently confessed to the books they’re finding particularly good. So many I haven’t see yet. To the library!
You know who won the Best Bookmark Left in a Library Book Award the other day? That’s right. This guy. Check it out:
Sure beats finding bacon. I was forbidden to own these guys as a kid, so I’ve placed this little fellow in a prominent place on my desk. Who wants to bet money that some executive somewhere is trying to figure out how to bring these back? Let’s see . . . the last time they were made they were illustrated by Art Spiegelman. So if Pulitzer Prize winners are the only people who can draw them, my vote for the 21st artist goes to . . . ah . . . wait a minute. Maus is the only graphic novel to ever win a Pulitzer?!?
By: Betsy Bird
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The Wild Robot
By Peter Brown
Little, Brown & Company
On shelves now
There are far fewer robot middle grade books out there than you might expect. This is probably because, as a general rule, robots fall into the Data from Star Trek trap. Their sole purpose in any narrative is to explain what it is to be human. You see this all the time in pop culture, so it stands to reason you’d see it a bit in children’s books too. Never you mind that a cool robot is basically a kid’s dream companion. Take away the kid, put the robot on its own, and you have yourself some philosophy lite. Maybe that’s why I liked Peter Brown’s The Wild Robot as much as I did. The heroine of this book is mechanical but she’s not wrestling with the question of what it means to feel emotions or any of that. She’s a bit more interested in survival and then, after a bit of time, connection. Folks say this book is like Hatchet or My Side of the Mountain. Maybe so, but it’s also a pretty good book about shedding civilization and going wild. In short, living many a city kid’s dream.
The first thing she is aware of is that she is bound in a crate by cords. Once those are severed she looks about. Roz is a robot. She appears to be on an island in the sea. Around her are the shattered remains of a good many other robots. How she has gotten here, she doesn’t know, but it doesn’t take long for her to realize that she is in dire need of shelter and allies. Roz is not a robot built for the outdoors, but part of her programming enables her to adapt. Learning the languages of the denizens of the forest, Roz is initially rebuffed (to put it mildly) by the animals living there. After a while, though, she adopts a gosling she accidentally orphaned and together they learn, grow, and come to be invaluable members of the community. And when Roz faces a threat from the outside, it’s her new friends and extended family that will come to her aid.
They say that all good stories can be easily categorized into seven slots. One of the best known is “a stranger comes to town”. Roz is precisely that and her story is familiar in a lot of ways. The stranger arrives and is shunned or actively opposed. Then they win over the local populace and must subsequently defend it against an incoming enemy or be protected by it. But there is another kind of book this conjures up as well. The notion of going from “civilized” to “wild” carries the weight of all kinds of historical appropriations. Smart of Brown then to stick with robots and animals. Roz is a kind of anti-Pinocchio. Instead of trying to figure out how to fit in better with civilization, she spends the bulk of her time trying to figure out how to shed it like a skin. In his career, Brown has wrestled continually with the notion of civilization vs. nature, particularly as it relates to being “wild”. The most obvious example of this, prior to The Wild Robot, was his picture book Mr. Tiger Goes Wild. Yet somehow it manages to find its way into many of the books he does. Consider the following:
• My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not) – A child sees his teacher as a creature best befitting a page in “Where the Wild Things Are” until, by getting to know her, she is humanized in his sight.
• Children Make Terrible Pets – A bear attempts to tame a wild human child with disastrous results.
• The Curious Garden – Nature reclaims abandoned civilization, and is tamed in the process.
• Creepy Carrots – Brown didn’t write this one but it’s not hard to see how the image of nature (in the form of carrots) terrorizing a bunny in his suburban home could hold some appeal.
• Even the Chowder books and his first picture book The Flight of the Dodo had elements of animals wrestling with their own natures.
In this book, Brown presents us with a robot created with the sole purpose of serving in a domestic capacity. Are we seeing only the good side of nature and eschewing the terrible? Brown does clearly have a bias at work here, but this is not a peaceable kingdom where the lamb lays down next to the lion unless necessity dictates that it do so. Though the animals do have a dawn truce, Brown notes at one moment how occasionally one animal or another might go missing, relocating involuntarily to the belly of one of its neighbors. Nasty weather plays a significant role in the plot, beaching Roz at the start, and providing a winter storm of unprecedented cruelty later on. Even so, those comparisons of this book to Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain aren’t far off the mark. Nature is cold and cruel but it’s still better than dull samey samey civilization.
Of course, you read every book through your own personal lens. If you’re an adult reading a children’s book then you’re not only reading a book through your own lens but through the lens you had when you were the intended audience’s age as well. It’s sort of a dual method of book consumption. My inner ten-year-old certainly enjoyed this book, that’s for sure. Thirty-eight-year-old me had a very different reaction. I liked it, sure I did. But I also spent much of this book agog that it was such a good parenting title. Are we absolutely certain Peter Brown doesn’t have some secret children squirreled away somewhere? I mean, if you were to ask me what the theme of this book truly is, I’d have to answer you in all honesty that it’s about how we see the world anew through the eyes of our children. A kid would probably say it’s about how awesome it is to be a robot in the wild. Both are true.
If you’re familiar with a Peter Brown picture book then you might have a sense of his artistic style. His depiction of Roz is very interesting. It was exceedingly nice to see that though the book refers to her in the feminine, it’s not like the pictures depict her as anything but a functional robot, glowing eyes and all. Even covered in flowers she looks more like an extra from Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky than anything else. Her mouth is an expressionless slit but in her movements you can catch a bit of verve and drive. Alas, the illustrations are in black and white and not the lovely color of which we know Brown to be capable. Colored art in middle grade novels is a pricey affair. A publisher needs to really and truly believe in a book to give it color. That said, with this book appearing regularly on the New York Times bestseller list, you’d think they’d have known what they had at the time. Maybe we can get a full-color anniversary edition in a decade or so.
Like most robot books, Brown does cheat a little. It’s hard not to. We are told from the start that Roz is without emotions, but fairly early on this statement is called into question. One might argue quite reasonably that early statements like. “As you might know, robots don’t really feel emotions. Not the way animals do.” Those italics at the beginning of the sentence are important. They suggest that this is standard information passed down by those in the know and that they believe you shouldn’t question it. But, of course, the very next sentence does precisely that. “And yet . . .” Then again, those italics aren’t special to that chapter. In fact, all the chapters in this book begin with the first few words italicized. So it could well be that Brown is serious when he says that Roz can’t feel emotions. Can she learn them then? The book’s foggy on that point, possibly purposely so, but in that uncertainty plenty will find Brown’s loving robot a bit more difficult to swallow than others. Books of this sort work on their own internal logic anyway. I know one reader who seriously wondered why the RECO robots had no on/off switches. Others, why she could understand animal speech. You go with as much as you can believe and the writer pulls you in the rest of the way.
I’ve read books for kids where robots are in charge of the future and threaten heroes in tandem with nature. I’ve read books for kids where robots don’t understand why they’re denied the same rights as the humans around them. I even read a book once about a robot who tended a human child, loving her as her parents would have, adapting her to her alien planet’s environment over the years (that one’s Keeper of the Isis Light by Monica Hughes and you MUST check it out, if you get a chance). But I have never read a robot book quite as simple and to the point as Peter Brown’s. Nor have I read such comforting bedtime reading in a while. Lucky is the kid that gets tucked in and read this at night. An excellent science fiction / parenting / adventure / survival novel, jam packed with robotic bits and pieces. If this is the beginning of the robot domination, I say bring it on.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
Here is what in truth is just a query masquerading as a legitimate blog post. I am never above misusing my power when I’m curious. And while I’m sure somebody somewhere has brought this up, I certainly can’t recall it being as big a topic as it could be.
The other day I was talking with some folks about ebooks and the state of electronic publishing for kids today. Now as you may or may not know, most library systems don’t have a lot of choices when it comes to purchasing e-materials. At New York Public Library we were a large system so we could afford to buy ebooks from Overdrive, 3M, as well as stuff like Freegal. Here at Evanston Public Library we just have Overdrive and Hoopla.
Now the thing about ebooks is that only a small selection of print materials come out in ebook form in any given season. A colleague of mine recently decided that it would be a good idea to buy a bunch of diverse ebooks for their collection, so they tried to find as many as they could that were available for purchase. The problem? For as few diverse children’s books as we see each and every year, we see even fewer diverse ebooks.
So I put it to you: Is this a problem that is already being discussed and addressed, or is this something we should make a concerted effort to rectify? Have studies been done on this already and I’m just late to the party? I honestly don’t know so I put it to you. If you have some knowledge to drop on me, drop it.
Me? I spent it in Vermont. The rolling green hills. The bears and red squirrels and little tiny insects that think your left nostril is a house and home. The lovely company, particularly when you’re deciding the 2016 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award winners.
Yup. Alongside fellow committee members Roxanne Feldman and Joanna Long (she of the magnificent Vermont home) we put our heads together and came up with some stellar winners.
What’s that you say? You’d like to know who those winners might be? Nothing doing, sweet stuff. You’re going to have to watch the live feed this coming Thursday at 11 a.m. EST like the rest of the world. I’ll give you one hint though: I like these books. I mean I really, really like them.
Stay tuned, faithful readers. The live feed video is here.
Ach. I miss this award. I served on it once and suggested titles for consideration twice. Be sure to check out the honors as well. There are some surprises there that made me really happy.
THE NEW-YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY ANNOUNCES
2016 CHILDREN’S HISTORY BOOK PRIZE
GOES TO PAM MUñOZ RYAN FOR ECHO
NEW YORK, NY – May 25, 2016—Dr. Louise Mirrer, President and CEO of the New-York Historical Society, announced today that author Pam Muñoz Ryan will receive New-York Historical’s 2016 Children’s History Book Prize for Echo (Scholastic Press, 2015). The prize annually awards $10,000 to the best American history book, fiction or non-fiction, for middle readers ages 9–12. This year’s award will be presented by New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña on June 2 at 12:30 pm at New-York Historical’s Robert H. Smith Auditorium.
“We are pleased to present our 2016 Children’s History Book Prize to Pam Muñoz Ryan,” said Dr. Mirrer. “Echo is a richly imagined and structurally innovative book that reflects our mission to make history accessible to children through compelling narratives that allow them to develop a personal connection to historical subjects.”
Muñoz Ryan’s Echo beautifully weaves together the individual stories of a boy in Germany during the early 1930s, two orphans in Pennsylvania during the mid-1930s, and a Mexican girl in California in the early 1940s as the same harmonica lands in their lives, binding them by an invisible thread of destiny. All the children face daunting challenges—rescuing a father from the Nazis, keeping a brother out of an orphanage, and protecting the farm of a Japanese family during internment—until their suspenseful solo stories converge in an orchestral crescendo.
“The theme of standing up to prejudice and injustice and how these struggles are intertwined in the lives of these children from different geographic, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds resonated with our educator, historian, and student jurors,” said Jennifer Schantz, New-York Historical’s Executive Vice President & COO, who helps oversee the DiMenna Children’s History Museum. “The jury also felt this page-turner of a novel provided a great entry point for teachers and children to discuss intolerance that continues to exist today.”
The New-York Historical Society annually celebrates the work of an outstanding American history children’s book writer and publisher with the Children’s History Book Prize. The recipient is selected by a jury comprised of librarians, educators, historians, and families of middle schoolers. The three finalists for the prize included Rhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through the Motown Sound by Andrea Davis Pinkney, I Don’t Know How the Story Ends by J.B. Cheaney, and My Near Death Adventures (99% True) by Alison DeCamp.
At the New-York Historical Society and its Dimenna Children’s History Museum, visitors are encouraged to explore history through characters and narrative. The Children’s History Book Prize is part of New-York Historical’s larger efforts on behalf of children and families. DiMenna regularly presents programs where families explore history together. At its popular monthly family book club Reading into History, families discuss a historical fiction or non-fiction book they previously read at home, share their reactions, discover related artifacts and documents, and meet historians and authors. New-York Historical’s work with middle school readers and their families is grounded in the belief that offering creative opportunities to engage the entire family helps young readers grow and thrive.
About the Author
Pam Muñoz Ryan is the recipient of the Newbery Honor, the Kirkus Prize, the NEA’s Human and Civil Rights Award, and the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award for multicultural literature. She has written more than 30 books, which have garnered countless accolades, including two Pura Belpre Awards, the Jane Addams Children’s Boko Award, and the Schneider Family Book Award.
About the New-York Historical Society
The New-York Historical Society, one of America’s pre-eminent cultural institutions, is dedicated to fostering research and presenting history and art exhibitions and public programs that reveal the dynamism of history and its influence on the world of today. Founded in 1804, New-York Historical has a mission to explore the richly layered history of New York City and State and the country, and to serve as a national forum for the discussion of issues surrounding the making and meaning of history.
About the DiMenna Children’s History Museum
The DiMenna Children’s History Museum at the New-York Historical Society presents 350 years of New York and American history through character-based pavilions, interactive exhibits and digital games, and the Barbara K. Lipman Children’s History Library. The DiMenna Children’s History Museum encourages families to explore history together through permanent installations and a wide range of family learning programs for toddlers, children, and preteens.
New-York Historical Society
As you may or may not know, this past Saturday I conducted a Children’s Literary Salon at my library with panelists Travis Jonker, Mr. Schu, and Colby Sharp. And, as ever, I recorded a live feed of the event. That’s fairly snazzy, but before I post that video here I want to take a moment to thank the City of Evanston. Every Literary Salon I have done has been meticulously recorded by their employees. Then some saintly person somewhere actually edits them. The recordings and sound are loads better than any of my crummy Google Hangout feeds.
As we find this season of the Lit Salons winding down before my summer vacation months, here is a complete roster of lovely videos documenting everything we’ve done.
From the earliest to the most recent we have:
Bringing Books to the Border
In 2014, when more than 70,000 children crossed the southern border into the United States—many of them unaccompanied—it sparked a humanitarian crisis. Infrastructure for food, housing, medical attention, and legal services had to be created, but no less important was the provision of good books and library services in Spanish and indigenous languages. This past spring, IBBY, the International Board on Books for Young People, based in Switzerland, joined REFORMA’s Children in Crisis Project to help bring children’s books to the refugee children still arriving in the Rio Grande Valley. In August, local bookstore owner Jeff Garrett (Bookends & Beginnings) helped organize a fact-finding and book-delivering visit to government, church, and other private agencies responding to the crisis. Speaking about his experiences, with photos documenting the journey, Jeff touches on many of the issues surrounding the border today and what we can learn from those who are working with refugee children every day.
Publishing Children’s Books in the 21st Century
Lots of people want to write and/or illustrate books for kids, but how do you actually go about doing so? What are some of the pitfalls and perks of the job? What should you avoid? What are the common myths? Meet Gemma Cooper (agent), Sara Shacter (Assistant Regional Advisor and author), Ruth Spiro (author), Eileen Meyer (Network Representative and author), and Terri Murphy (Illustrator Coordinator and illustrator) of the Illinois chapter of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) as they discuss the ins and outs of writing and illustrating for kids.
Ethics in Nonfiction for Kids
Do we hold our nonfiction for children to different standards than we do our informational texts for adults? When you’re trying to make something fun for kids to read, where do you draw the line between fact and fancy? Join three of the most experienced nonfiction authors for children, Candace Fleming (THE FAMILY ROMANOV), Judith Fradin (THE PRICE OF FREEDOM), Barb Rosenstock (THE NOISY PAINTBOX), and Sally M. Walker (WINNIE) in a discussion of the increasingly complex and exciting world of nonfiction for children.
On Beyond Narnia – Death and Theology in Children’s Literature
Join children’s authors Jeanne Birdsall (THE PENDERWICKS IN SPRING, 2015) and N.D. Wilson (OUTLAWS OF TIME, 2016) for a discussion of writing children’s literature from both a Christian and a Non-Christian Humanism point of view.
The Art of Enthusiasm
Online gurus and children’s book evangelists Travis Jonker, Colby Sharp, and John Schumacher discuss promoting your favorite literature for kids, making the most of online resources, and spreading the culture of book love and enthusiasm amongst readers of every age.
Stay tuned for more in the future!
Photo credit Laini Taylor
I feel like it’s been a long time since I “reported” on anything. It isn’t just the move to the Chicago area. It’s more that subtly over the years I’ve pulled back from the rote typing that I used to engage in so often. Blame Twitter. Blame aging. Blame my left pinkie finger which, even as I write this, is slowly growing numb.
But when you are at School Library Journal’s Day of Dialog (held in Chicago this time around) and Richard Peck steps up to the podium to give the keynote speech then out comes the laptop, the fingers stretch and crack, and my wordplay becomes a bit more loquacious thanks in large part to the sheer osmosis of Mr. Peck’s presence.
His words don’t hurt either.
Before we go much further I would like to note that today’s reporting is going to have all the care and content of a sugar rush. At first I did very well indeed. Then, as the day goes on, the sleeplessness I encountered thanks to my small children took its toll and . . . well, let’s get back to Mr. Peck. You’ll see for yourself anyway.
He steps up to the podium wearing an immaculate yellow pocket square, which sets off his blue tie. I should note that when I met him earlier in the day he not only remembered me (no easy manner) but said, “You reviewed my pocket handkerchief”, so now I almost feel obligated to continue. It was a nice yellow, certainly, but of more interest is the fact that much much later in the day I would see Mr. Peck again. Day of Dialog closed with all the authors of the panels signing their own books. There I noted that Mr. Peck had changed both handkerchief and shirt. The man is meticulous in his presentation, no doubt about it.
Today we, the audience members, watched as he stepped up and addressed what he called “the people of the story.” Part of any good speech comes in knowing your audience. And Peck, a native born Illinois boy, was in his element. He began by placing Chicago, its history and literature, in context. He got particular claps when he suggested that the Cubs will go to the World Series (which is apparently true, though I’ve heard conflicting reports recently). Honestly, what it really did was make me feel particularly good about moving here. “May all the sons and daughters of Chicago know these, their authors. And wait, one more, mine.” Then he holds up his latest title The Best Man.
Mr. Peck is the kind of fellow that can sound like he’s speechifying even in moments of casual conversation. So when he starts to read, it gives you a second or two to catch up. In today’s case, he performed the switcheroo so seamlessly that it honestly took me a moment to realize that he himself did not place rats under his Aunt Sally’s bed. “And the rats were doing what they could to keep the dull times off her.”
Eventually it becomes clear that all a writer like myself really wants to do is just quote him without cease. I mean, how can I resist? The man is practically built of one-liners. For example:
– “I marched into Kindergarten the day that Hitler marched into Poland . . . but I was better prepared. Because I had a mother who read to me.”
– Holds up a poster of Fair Weather. “This is my idea of a PowerPoint.”
– Twain influenced him heavily. “The same tobacco fueled turn of speech.”
– “Boys don’t want to make imaginative leaps. Boys want to make clear connections.”
– “All the best role models are dead. And all the worst role models are a year ahead of you in school.”
– “Boys in Decatur were not asked how we wished to express ourselves.”
– “My Jr. High students made a writer out of me. They kicked the autobiography out of me… but they taught me how to write. And here’s how . . .”
– “You take 6 drafts to erase yourself out of the manuscript.”
– “All fiction is historical fiction before the ink is dry.”
– “The only way you can write is by the light of the burning bridges behind you.”
Yeah. That last one got a lot of retweeting on the Twitter.
Of course he had to talk about his latest is book. The Best Man is about a boy. One of his role models wants to marry another one of his role models. Both are men. Peck wrote it to make a point that “they may not get in school.” Though, as he is quick to point out, kids today have watched far more episodes of Modern Family than he will ever watch. And when he read a little bit from his latest, and I was personally taken with this line:
“I’m 34. I’m too old to wear shorts in public.”
Said Mr. Peck, the right of whom to marry is a right we should all share. This point transitioned seamlessly into his particular bugaboos. Textbooks, mindlessness of worksheets, and standardized testing come to mind.
Peck touched on his discomfort with texting. “The young find new ways to limit their world . . . 250 texts a day, and not a semicolon among them.” And later, “… they are texting deep into the night, long after failed parents are fast asleep.” Burn.
He received a standing ovation. As Alison Morris next to me pointed out, there is no one more eloquent than he. But, naturally, that leads to jokes about how we should go about making him The Official Elocutioner of Children’s Literature . . . which sounds bad, right? Like you should give him a hood or something. “The Elocutioner of the Revolution is here!” So maybe not.
You can see some of his talk here, thanks to Colleen Seisser:
Next up, the panels! And it took me a little while, but eventually it became clear that panel #1 was a nonfiction picture book panel.
9:45–10:30 am | Panel I: Some Nonfiction! Dynamic informational books for young readers Room DEF
Candace Fleming & Eric Rohmann, Giant Squid (Roaring Brook Press)
Julia Kuo, The Sound of Silence (Little, Brown)
Mara Rockliff, Around America To Win the Vote (Candlewick)
Jane Sutcliffe, Will’s Words (Charlesbridge)
Melissa Sweet, Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White (HMH)
It was hosted by Deborah Stevenson and it was mentioned briefly at the beginning that the largest collection of children’s books outside of the Library of Congress is found at the Center of Children’s Books at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Really? Who knew? Someday I’m going to write The Hardest Children’s Literature Quiz in the World and this fact is going into it.
Once we got into the gist of things it was discovered that Giant Squid is Eric Rohmann’s first piece of nonfiction, and Candy’s first science related nonfiction. The book is, as you might imagine, about giant squids but it was Eric who initially had the idea for it and handed some pictures to Candy he’d storyboarded, saying, “Here are the pictures. I need some words.” But not so many they’d clutter up the pictures. Naturally.
Another panelist was Jane Sutcliffe who wrote Will’s Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk about how Shakespeare’s language has permeated the world. It reminded me a lot of that Greek words book that Gareth Hinds illustrated a while ago, written by Lisa Lunge-Larsen, called Gifts from the Gods: Ancient Words and Wisdom from Greek and Roman Mythology. There before us was Melissa Sweet and her new bio Some Writer!: The Story of E.B. White, a book that Alison Morris informs me is worth reading. Panelist Julia Kuo illustrated The Sound of Silence, which may be the first philosophical picture book I was able to successfully read to my daughter. That kid really and truly found it interesting, that rare combination of cute images with sophisticated content. And the panel was rounded out with Mara Rockliff and her recent title Around America to Win the Vote. I’m a big time fan of another 2016 release of hers, Anything But Ordinary: The True Story of Adelaide Herrmann, Queen of Magic.
If there was a topic to discuss this day it was “truth”. There must be something in the air (possibly the upcoming presidential election, if I don’t miss my guess). In any case, both this panel and the following one on middle grade fiction (moderated by yours truly) thought long and hard about truth and how it relates to children’s literature. In the case of children’s nonfiction, it’s often my go-to topic for Literary Salons. In today’s panel, Melissa Sweet tackled the notion of the word “true” as it related to her art in her E.B. White biography. For instance, she really wanted to draw his home so she collaged it with a photograph of the actual house itself. The end result is part photo / part drawing. And as Sweet says, there’s a lot of interpretation in the art of what happened when you’re drawing images of the past.
Are there clear boundaries between fiction and nonfiction? Candy actually spoke eloquently to this topic at my Lit Salon (and now I’ve a really lovely recorded version here):
In this case, Deborah pointed out how lyrical and lovely the language of Rockliff’s book is, while still staying true to its subject. Rockliff then quoted Deborah Heiligman and the horse poop quote (which I always use as well!). It’s such a good line. Basically, it’s from when Deborah was writing her Natinal Book Award winning Darwin title Charles and Emma. During its creation it was pointed out to Deborah that when writing about true events in the past, if you want to say someone stepped over horse poop in the road, that’s okay because everyone would have done that. But if you wanted to say someone leaned against a lamppost, you can’t actually say that. In an interesting twist it was pointed out that historical picture books can never meet those nonfiction standards because artists still need to make up what you see. It’s something we have to remember. Though, as Mara said, “I don’t worry too much about the lamppost in the yard.”
All this brought to mind the old discussion of why writers are held to such strict standards while illustrators almost have carte blanche in nonfiction picture books.
Rohmann agrees, by the way. He says he can’t really call what he’s doing nonfiction. “The picture being worth a thousand words works against you in this case.” That’s a good line. Why does he feel like this? Well, when he asked two scientists for the color of the giant squid, one expert said that giant squids are red and other said that they’re silver. So, being the guy that he is, he just made them red AND silver in the art. Kuo understood what Rohmann was saying and built upon it. Turns out, The Sound of Silence is actually based on a true story the author heard from her dad. After she wrote it, she asked her dad to tell her the story about the koto player, who starts off the book. But her dad didn’t remember the guy. So what you end up with is a story that’s based on another person’s memory but has blurred and blurred. There’s always something that’s interpreted about any illustration, after all. Because Kuo had to draw Tokyo she used Google street view to aid her. The Tokyo featured in this story, she pointed out, is different from her author’s, particularly since she included her own favorite stores.
Facts suggest a way to tell a story. But in the Shakespeare story Will’s Words there are two sets of facts. Facts about the Globe and Shakespeare’s world and the facts about his words and literature. Sutcliffe said that though facts come first, kids deserve to know where the line is drawn and where fact and fiction lie. Her view is that fact and fiction are “friendly neighbors that borrow from one another.” But people need to be honest with children and always say what is fact and what is fiction. If only in an Author’s Note.
In terms of the Giant Squid book, Deborah said, “We have so few books that talk about what we don’t know.” Good line. Another good line was quoted from the book itself – “It is dangerous to be bite-sized.” Interestingly there’s no early title page in this book declaring “Giant Squid” loud and proud. This was a conscious choice on Candace’s part. She pretty much figured that it would ruin the book. If you start with the word right at the beginning, it destroys the mystery. Instead, you’ll find the title page buried, so to speak, on page 10. Likewise, you don’t see the whole squid until the very end, before it escapes. It was a great panel but I was particularly taken with the random little facts I picked up along the way. Like the fact that apparently giant squids are plentiful, but the only reason we know this is because so many of their beaks show up in the bellies of sperm whales.
Since these are picture books we’re talking about, there was a nice section on the use of color in stories about history. Mara put in a word for it. As she said, picture books have an amazing advantage when it comes to sucking children into the past. Adults think of the past as grey. Kids now are facing loads and loads of historical picture books ablaze in bring colors. That’s gotta make a difference, right?
Deborah turned the conversation to the art in Will’s Words and design. Jane Sutcliffe mentioned at this time how her artist “sacrificed” some birds in his illustrations for the inclusion of the story’s text boxes. Deborah then recounted a Trina Schart Hyman story about the time someone commented to her what a pity these text boxes were when it came to covering up parts of her art. Her tart reply: “That’s why the art was made, you know.” Eric pointed out that as a children’s book illustrator, “you’re not making art to hang over the couch”. A good illustrator finds a way to do more than the text is able to say. “Our audience doesn’t look at a picture. They inhabit a picture.”
We ended with a little discussion of backmatter. Mara Rockliff, a self-described “Research Junkie” brought up an interesting point about it that I’d never heard before. In her Adelaide book Mara didn’t have room to include the explanation of how the bullet catching trick worked. So, instead, she put it on her website. Now that it’s getting hits and she’s getting a real sense of how many people actually read the backmatter of a nonfiction title.
By the way, during the course of this panel Alison and I noticed that Eric has a very nice voice. Very radio friendly. So, and this is bad, we started talking about what we’d call Eric’s radioshow. You may want to cover your eyes for this one. You ready? Okay. It would be called . . . Friends, Rohmann, Lend Him Your Ears.
Oh, it could work.
Not long after this panel came my own:
11:15 am–12:00 pm | Panel II: Truth Be Told: Big questions in middle grade fiction and what adults keep from children Room DEF
Kelly Barnhill, The Girl Who Drank the Moon (Workman)
Adam Gidwitz, The Inquisitor’s Tale (Dutton)
Jennifer Holm, Full of Beans (Random)
Jason Reynolds, As Brave As You (Simon & Schuster)
Raina Telgemeier, Ghosts (Scholastic)
Moderator: Betsy Bird, Collection Development Manager at the Evanston Public Library
Looked something like this:
They were a good group, as you might imagine. However, moderating cuts down significantly on my reporting skills. To hear what was said you’d have to lean heavily on another reporter. Or find the video that may or may not have been recorded at the event. *stares longingly at the SLJ logo on the top of this page*
Our lunchtime speaker was Laini Taylor. Good old, Laini. I like that gal.
Now comes the tricky part. A YA panel was up, and I did make an effort to record what I saw, to some extent. It was:
2:15–3:00 pm | Panel III: Mind-bending Women of YA Room DEF
Sharon Cameron, The Forgetting (Scholastic)
Roshani Chokshi, The Star-Touched Queen (St. Martin’s Griffin)
S. J. Kincaid, The Diabolic (Simon & Schuster)
Laura Ruby, Bone Gap (HarperCollins)
Laini Taylor, Strange the Dreamer (Little, Brown)
Moderator: Janice Del Negro, Associate Professor and Follett Chair at Dominican University
I should warn you that at this point my note taking began to take a turn for the sleepy. So what you’re going to see here are thoughts that might not be quite as connected as they should be. You have been warned.
The whole kerschmozzle started off with a bit of a small bang. “We conferred prior to this panel and decided I wouldn’t ask the sex question first.” Now THAT is moderation, people!
What I liked about the panel in particular were discussions of how women are portrayed in YA novels. For example, Laini Taylor pointed out that for many people Katniss is the norm and that any girl or woman without the physical ability to protect themselves in a YA novel is considered a bad role model. Yet we need these books for the girls who don’t have their dad’s samurai sword in the closet and they need to find ways to protect themselves in different ways. Laini’s characters in her new novel don’t fight. She didn’t want people to be able to defend themselves all the time. There are other ways to be strong than to be able to fight.
Cameron concurred. There’s something in her that backs off from writing to an agenda, even if she agrees with that agenda. “I want to write human characters that are the way the world is.” The quiet rebel.
Laura Ruby mentioned, “I would like to retire the word strong. ‘Strong female characters’. No one talks about ‘strong male characters’.” This ties in pretty directly to Bone Gap, where Ruby wrote about a trapped female character and gave her agency. When she mentioned that maybe she hasn’t been given crap about not having a “strong female character” because she splits her narrative between a male and female character, and one of the female character is aggressive. “But she tends bees!”
Chokshi talks about the degree to which female characters garner criticism. She spoke to the Twitterverse to a certain extent about how we view female writers as well.
Janice mentioned that she wouldn’t mind retiring the word “feisty”. I think it’s ironic now, so I’m unwilling to retire it.
The sex talk came next. Laini mentioned that romance novel type sex in YA novels makes her super uncomfortable. Chokshi said she honestly would have written more sexy scenes but she was living at home with her parents. She’d be sitting at the table typing and her dad would say, “Hey, you want to watch John Oliver?” But she moves out in June so maybe that’ll change. Kincaid discussed her comfort level as a writer. It’s important to be true to the characters’ experience. Laura discussed her “hazy magical bee sex”. She also said that you can get away with a lot more in fantasy than in realistic books.
Of course, the true advantage of YA is time. Kincaid pointed out that unlike a TV show where characters declare their love and immediately have sex, YA novels are allowed to be a bit more thoughtful, to take time, and to speak to their emotional development.
After this, Janice Del Negro spoke to the “These are boy books / These are girl books” divide that occurs in a lot of places (even library programming!). Kincaid called it an “artificial divide.” Cameron said she’s seen some amazing changes in this over the last few years. We’re moving away from the girl in the dress covers. We’re seeing a lot more graphic covers (ala Hunger Games). When she first started writing, people told her her character should be female because they were the ones who were reading and they don’t want to read from a boy’s perspective. She’s seen that notion dissipate over time. Chokshi then said, “reading books doesn’t emasculate you, it strengthens you.” Ruby said she likes tweeting the picture of LeBron James reading Hunger Games when this comes up. Laini likes her newest cover because it could speak to anyone. She likes frilly dress covers too but if it can speak to both genders then let it (I’m paraphrasing here).
So that was that. And the way I figure it, if you’re running an all day even and the plan is to end the day with a panel, make it an interesting panel. Make it a BIG panel. Make it a panel that will make folks want to stick around. It’s 4 p.m. The attendees are tired. They need a little jolt of something
3:45–4:45 pm | Panel IV: What Comes First, the Idea or the Image? Creativity at Play in Today’s Picture Books Room DEF
Kate Beaton, King Baby (Scholastic)
Michelle Cuevas & Erin Stead, Uncorker of Ocean Bottles (Dial)
Richard Jackson & Jerry Pinkney, In Plain Sight (Roaring Brook Press)
Oliver Jeffers & Sam Winston, A Child of Books (Candlewick)
Brendan Wenzel, They All Saw a Cat (Chronicle)
Moderator: Elisa Gall, Librarian and Department Co-chair at the Latin School of Chicago
At this point the fingers went out entirely. Sorry about that. Particularly because Elisa just killed it as a moderator. If I taught a class on How to Moderate Panels, I’d find a tape of what she did with that ginormous panel and just show it. Honestly, it was a work of art. When I moderated that day I asked a single solitary question and my panel ran with it. I never asked another. She, however, not only asked a ton of questions but she was so skilled at drawing out some folks to speak more and others to elaborate on points. Marvelous stuff.
Many thanks to SLJ for asking me to be there. And thanks too to everyone who participated.
A light smattering of things that caught my eye at BEA.
Here’s the thing about Book Expo America. As conferences go it yields less love amongst librarians than our own, beloved American Library Association conferences. And that just makes sense. BEA is about the business side of books. Booksellers are the primary focus and they’re swell folks.
This year the move to Chicago meant that a lot of the local booksellers were a bit worried about turnout. At an author dinner I attended they mentioned their fears that a smaller conference might convince organizers that Chicago wouldn’t be worth visiting in the future. Now as it happened, attendance was down by about 20%. However, the organizers went on record saying that this had been expected, and that the people who did attend were folks who would normally not go to the NYC version.
The advantage of BEA is that the books you see there often are the same books you’ll see at ALA Annual. So you can cut down on the titles you’ll need to ship by simply getting them early.
For my own part, I spent a good chunk of the event attending and moderating and participating on panels. It was Friday before I could give the conference floor and the books on display the proper attention they deserved. So please bear in mind that what I’m listing here today is just a small smattering of what was on display. This is, if nothing else, a very random assortment.
First up, this:
I think I’ve found the profile pic I’ll put up every Mother’s Day from now until eternity.
Feast thine eyes. Oh yes. You know you want that picture book biography. The fact that it’s about a South American real-life heroine? Or that it’s part of a kind of anti-princess series? Icing on the cake.
What you’re looking at is this:
And the company behind it is Books Del Sur. Here’s their own description:
Books del Sur was established by two long time friends, Heather Robertson and Ignacio Muñoz. After Heather became tired of the lack of quality Spanish literature available in her bilingual programs. She contacted Ignacio in Chile and he used his business experience and knowledge of Chilean media to access books for Heather’s students. Their mission is to bring books from South America into the classrooms of Spanish-speaking students in the United States. Books del Sur is based in the Northern Chicago Suburbs and on the world wide web.
So basically these books are all in Spanish. If there are plans for future English translations, I’ve yet to hear of it. Fortunately, on their website you can sign up to hear if English versions will ever become available. And in the meantime, these Spanish versions are magnificent. Here are some of the other women in this series. See if you can guess them by just these shortened cover images:
Really, BEA was all about the international literature. So I became familiar with Books Del Sur on the one hand, as well as Candied Plums on the other.
Candied Plums is a company dedicated to bringing Chinese imported children’s books to the States. They’ve a frontlist of lovely books coming soon, but my favorite by far was this:
Apparently “candy haws” are a bit of a Chinese staple. It was difficult to figure out exactly what they are, but they were described to me as candied crabapples. If that sound gross, don’t worry. Some research indicates that “haws” are a fruit not found in the States. So they may only have some mild similarities to our crabapples. This story is a sweet tale about an old candy haws seller who finds he can’t locate anyone to buy his wares. When he feeds some stray cats on his rounds, his generosity is returned in spades. I’ll be reporting more on Candied Plums in the future, no worries. They’ve given me a lot to think about.
On the nonfiction side of things, this was my favorite surprise find:
Don’t recognize him? Well, basically he was the inventor of lounge music. It gets better. The author is part of a lounge music cover band for him. Love love lovedy love.
Here we have a rare Vanessa Newton-Bradley spotting. Since the George Washington Birthday Cake debacle I was afraid that we’d lose sight of her for a while. Nice to see she’s back in business.
In other news, coloring books are out and this is in:
I kid. Coloring books aren’t out. And as to whether or not this is, or ever will be in, I leave it to you.
On one panel I decried the lack of diverse books in the vein of Wimpy Kid. Someone later showed me this:
Looking forward to grabbing my own soon.
I know you have hundreds of early chapter book mystery books starring Muslim girls, but add just one more to the pile.
Oh. What’s that? You haven’t ANY Muslim girl early chapter book mysteries? Well aren’t you the lucky one today. It’s been out since January. Time we stood up and took notice.
And really, though I saw quite a bit more than this, these are the ones I took pictures of, so that’s all she wrote folks!
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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King of Kazoo
By Norm Feuti
Graphix (an imprint of Scholastic)
On shelves July 26th
When I used to run a children’s book club for 9-12 year-olds, I’d regularly let them choose the next book we’d discuss. In time, after some trial and error, I learned that the best way to do this was to offer them three choices and then to have them vote after a stirring booktalk of each title. The alternative was to let them choose the next book we’d read for themselves. Why would this be a problem? Because given a choice, these kids would do the same kinds of books week after week after week: graphic novels. In fact, it was my job to give them the bad news each week (after they plowed through our small comic section) that we didn’t have any new comics for them. To their minds, new graphic novels for kids should come out weekly, and secretly I agreed with them. But five years ago there really weren’t a lot to choose from. These days . . . it’s not all that different. In spite of the fact that comics have been sweeping the Newbery and Caldecott Awards and our current National Ambassador of Children’s Literature is a cartoonist by trade, the number of graphic novels produced in a given year by trade publishers isn’t much different from the number produced in the past. Why? Because a good comic takes a long time to create. You can’t just slap something together and expect it to hold a kid’s interest. There was a time when this fact would make me mad. These days, when I see a book as great as King of Kazoo, I just give thanks that we’re living in an era where we get any comics at all. A debut GN from a syndicated cartoonist, Kazoo is a straight-up, kid-friendly, rollicking adventure complete with magic, big-headed kings, robots, volcanoes, and trident wielding frog people. Everything, in short, you want in a book.
The King of Kazoo is not a wise man. The King of Kazoo is not a smart man. The King of Kazoo is not a particularly good man. But the King of Kazoo, somehow or other, has a wise, smart, good daughter by the name of Bing, and that is fortunate. Bing dabbles in magic and has been getting pretty good at it too. That’s lucky for everyone since recently the nearby mountain Mount Kazoo kinda, sorta exploded a little. When the King decides the only way to secure his legacy is to solve the mystery of the exploding mountain, he ropes in Bing and silent inventor/mechanic Torq. Trouble is, Bing’s dad has a tendency to walk over everyone who tries to help him. So just imagine what happens when he runs into someone who doesn’t want him to fare well. It’ll take more than magic to stop the evil machinations of a crazed alchemist. It’ll take teamwork and a king who understands why sometimes it might be a good idea to let others take some credit for their own work.
As a general rule, it is unwise to offer up comparisons of any cartoonist to the late, great Carl Barks. The man who lifted Uncle Scrooge out of the money pit to something bigger and better, set the bar high when it came to animal-like semi-humans with long ears and big shiny black noses (not that Barks invented the noses, but you know what I mean). All that said, it was Barks I kept thinking of as I read The King of Kazoo. There’s something about the light hand Feuti uses to tell his tale. The storytelling feels almost effortless. Scenes glide from place to place with an internal logic that seemingly runs like clockwork. I know it sounds strange but a lot of graphic novels for kids these days are pretty darn dark. Credit or blame the Bone books if you like, but for all that most of them contain humor the stakes can run shockingly high. The Amulet series threatens characters’ souls with tempting magic stones, the Hilo books are filled with questions about the absolutes of “good” and “bad”, and the aforementioned Bone books delve deep into madness, apocalypse, and dark attractions. Little wonder a goofy tale about a hare-brained king in a wayward jalopy appeals to much to me. Feuti is harkening back to an earlier golden age of comics with this title, and the end result is as fresh as it is nostalgic (for adults like me).
Which is not to say that Feuti sacrifices story for silly. The biggest problem the characters have to overcome isn’t what’s lurking in that mountain but rather the King’s love of bombast and attention. Each character in this story is seeking recognition. The King wants any kind of recognition, whether he deserves it or not. Torq and Bing just want the King to recognize their achievements. Instead, he takes credit for them. And Quaf the Alchemist has gone mildly mad thanks to years of not receiving sufficient credit for his own inventions. To a certain extent the book is questioning one’s desire for applause and attention on a grand scale, focusing more on how necessary it is to give the people closest to you the respect and praise they deserve.
The style of the art, as mentioned, owes more than a passing nod to Carl Barks. But the seeming simplicity of the style hides some pretty sophisticated storytelling. From little details (like Torq’s missing ear) and sight gags to excellent facial expressions (Feuti is the lord and master of the skeptical eyebrow) and uses of body language (Torq never says a word aside from the occasional sigh, but you are never in any doubt of what he’s feeling). I’m no expert on the subject, but I even think the lettering in the speech balloons may have been done entirely by hand. The coloring is all done on a computer, which is a pity but is also pretty par for the course these days. There’s also something sort of classic to the story’s look. With its strong female character (Bing) you wouldn’t mistake it for a tale published in the 1950s, but on all the other fronts the book harkens back to a simpler comic book time.
I read The King of Kazoo to my four-year-old the other day at bedtime. She’s not the book’s intended audience but her inescapable hunger for comics can drive a mother to grab whatsoever is handiest on the shelf. Lucky is the mom that finds this book sitting there when you need it. Perfect for younger readers, ideal for older ones, and with a snappy plot accompanied by even snappier dialogue, Feuti has produced a comic that will actually appeal to kids of all ages. That King is a kook. Let’s hope we see more of him in the future.
On shelves July 26th
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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I’ve done it again. Delayed my Fusenews too long and now this post is going to overflow with too much good stuff. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.
Me stuff for the start. And in fact, there just so much Me Stuff today that I’m just going to cram it all into this little paragraph here and be done with it. To begin, for the very first time my book Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Chidren’s Literature (co-written with Jules Danielson and Peter Sieruta) was cited in an article. Notably, a piece in The Atlantic entitled Frog and Toad and the Self. Woot! In other news I’m judging a brand new picture book award. It’s the Hallmark Great Stories Award. Did you or someone you know produce a picture book in 2016 on the topic of “togetherness and community”? Well $10,000 smackers could be yours. In terms of seeing me talk, I’m reading my picture book (and more) at the Printer’s Row Lit Fest on June 11th. If you’re in the Chicago area and ever wanted to see me in blue furry leg warmers, now your chance has come here. Finally, during Book Expo I managed to coerce Hyperion Books into handing me three of their most delicious authors (Shannon Hale, Dean Hale, and Eoin Colfer) so that I could feed them to WGN Radio. You can hear our talk here, if you like. And check out how cute we all are:
Colfer, for what it is worth, is exceedingly comfortable. I highly recommend that should you see him you just glom onto him for long periods of time. Like a sticky burr. He also apparently has an Artemis Fowl movie in the works (for real this time!) and you’ll never guess who the director might be.
This is interesting. Not too long ago children’s book author C. Alex London wrote a piece for BuzzFeed called Why I Came Out As a Gay Children’s Book Author. It got a lot of attention and praise. Then, earlier this month, Pseudonymous Bosch wrote a kind of companion piece in the New York Times Book Review. Also Known As tackles not just his reasons for a nom de plume (skillfully avoiding any and all mentions of Lemony Snicket, I could not help but notice) but also how this relates to his life as a gay children’s book author.
Hey, full credit to The New Yorker for this great recentish piece on weeding a collection and the glory that is Awful Library Books. My sole regret is that I never let them know when I weeded this guy:
The copyright page said 1994, but I think we know better. Thanks to Don Citarella for the link.
Cool. The publisher Lee & Low has just released the winner of the New Visions Writing Contest, now in its third year. Congrats to Supriya Kelkar for her win!
New Podcast Alert: With podcasting being so popular these days, I do regret that my sole foray into the form has pretty much disappeared from the face of the globe. Fortunately there are talented folks to listen to instead, including the folks at Loud in the Library. Teacher librarians Chris Patrick and Tracy Chrenka from Grand Rapids, MI (homestate pride!) get the big names, from picture books illustrators to YA writers. Listen up!
New Blog Alert: The press release from SLJ sounded simple. “SLJ is pleased to welcome The Classroom Bookshelf to our blog network. In its sixth year, the Bookshelf features a weekly post about a recently published children’s book, including a lesson plan and related resources.” Then I made a mistake. I decided to look at the site. Jaw hit floor at a fast and furious rate leaving a dent in the linoleum. Contributors Randy Heller, Mary Ann Cappiello, Grace Enriquez, Katie Cunningham, and Erika Thulin Dawes (all professors at Lesley University’s outstanding school of ed.), I salute you. If I ever stop writing my own reviews, you’ll know why.
This one’s just for the New Yorkers. I’m sure you already saw this New Yorker paean to the Mid-Manhattan library, but just in case you didn’t it’s here, “unruly pleasures” and all.
For whatever reason, PW Children’s Bookshelf always goes to my “Promotions” folder on Gmail, so I assume they already mentioned this article. Just in case they didn’t, though, I sort of love that The Atlantic (second time mentioned today!) wrote an ode to Sideways Stories from Wayside School. Thanks to Kate for the link.
Now some Bookshare info. The idea of providing free ebooks for kids with print disabilities is a good one. And, as it happens, not a new one. Bookshare, an online accessible library, just added its 400,000th title to its collection and boy are they proud. Free for all U.S. students with qualifying print disabilities and U.S. schools, they’ve a blog you might want to read, and they service kids with blindness, low vision, dyslexia, and physical disabilities.
You probably heard that Neil Patrick Harris will be playing Count Olaf in the upcoming Netflix series of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Now we have photographic proof.
I wonder if Brett Helquist ever marvels at how much power his art has had over these various cinematic incarnations. The lack of socks is a particularly accurate touch.
File this one under the category: Stuff Parents Notice But Don’t Discuss
You have a child. The child is quite young, let’s say two years of age. The child loves books about tools, ladders, and banjos (and you would be shocked just how many books for kids contain at east one of those three items). What the child loves most in this great big, wide, wonderful world, though, is construction equipment. Excavators and backhoes (don’t call them diggers). Cement mixers and forklifts. And so you, good dutiful parent that you are, go off and attempt to find as many construction equipment books as possible so as to feed this insatiable need.
Time passes. The child is very fond of the books you have chosen. So fond, in fact, that they’ve taken to having you read them over and over and over again in succession. And the adult brain, while capable of doing this, begins to realize that the information coming in is the exact same information that came in five and ten and fifteen minutes ago. So the brain begins to search for meanings in the books. Connections. Something, anything really, to keep it occupied. And that’s when you notice it. Right there. Clear as crystal.
The genders of various pieces of construction equipment.
Because, you see, you cannot check out endless books on crane trucks and steam rollers before you notice how these books choose to gender their anthropomorphized mechanicals.
Today, ladies and gentlemen, we pick apart precisely why one book or another chooses to make a wrecking ball a boy or a grader a girl. Bear with me here. I’ve read a LOT of these books. I need to do something with this information or I may burst.
But first, some history!
Go to your shelves and pick yourselves up a copy of Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever. A staple of the toddler set, and a fixture on living room bookshelves since the year of its publication, 1963.
Now if you’ll take out your copy of Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature and turn to page 69 you will find a remarkably well-written passage (*puffs self up*) regarding Mr. Scarry and gender in his books. It reads, “By the 1970s, author/illustrator Richard Scarry was the object of much feminist criticism for his repeated portrayal of female characters in passive domestic roles in his many picture books showing community workers. But Scarry eventually heeded the cries of sexism aimed at him.” He updated the characters in his book. Back in 2013 I wrote a piece called “Are there any girl bears?”: Gender and the 21st Century Picture Book featuring this fun bit of side-by-side comparison between the original Word Book and its revised edition:
Of course, once you know about the update, the changes are shockingly obvious. Scarry didn’t really bother to match the linework when he redid his art. Or maybe it’s just that the printing technology of the day made for a stark difference in the original and updated characters. Here are two good examples of what I mean:
As you can see, the original images are using these deeper watercolor shades while the new images are much lighter and simpler. I do, however, have to give the man credit for the taxi driver in pearls.
And you know what? I don’t care if the female characters do look Photoshopped in. I’m grateful, dammit, that there are some women doing labor above and beyond secretarial work. Scarry even occasionally put men in roles traditionally considered to be the women’s territory. Mr. Bunny makes breakfast for the family, for example.
Which brings us, naturally, to the present day. In the 1970s there was a big push for diverse books and titles with gender equal characters. Time passed and this pressing need became just a bit less pressing. So let’s take a group of construction equipment titles as an example and see how the ladies fare. After all, if Scarry updated this bear to look like this:
Note that he just put a bow on a bear in this particular case.
then how hard can it be for books today?
I’ll separate these books into two categories. The first are anthropomorphized vehicles. The second, construction workers. This is by no means a complete listing. It’s just what I’ve observed in my own life.
Gendered Construction Equipment
Digger, Dozer, Dumper by Hope Vestergaard, ill. David Slonim
MAN, I love this book. I recently got a copy for my son to see, having remembered it a little late. The edition I received from the library was sparkling and pristine. You know why? Because it’s shelved in the poetry section of the library and few folks think to look there for their construction books. Now I love the way Vestergaard never cheats on a rhyme, that’s true. But really and truly what I adore about the book is the variety of genders she grants her unusually animate objects. The skid-steer loader, excavator, ambulance, steamroller, and forklift all identify as female.
Slonim does give big long eyelashes to all the female vehicles, which seems a bit excessive. You don’t need eyelashes on a Skid-Steer Loader, after all. But as it happens, eyelashes are the preferred method of gender identification on trucks. You can see this as well in:
Go! Go! Go! Stop! by Charise Mericle Harper
In this book there’s only one female piece of equipment and it’s the dump truck.
Not quite as extensive as Vestergaard’s book, but it’s still good to have her there. Again, Harper goes in for eyelashes. Scarry used bows. It’s all relative.
Mighty Dads by Joan Holub, ill. James Dean
An interesting case. Dean doesn’t go in for eyelashes and Holub seemingly gives some of the little construction vehicles female names (“Mitzy” is one of them). It’s not 100% clear, but you can read into it what you like. I think it counts.
Goodnight Goodnight Construction Site by Sherry Duskey Rinker, ill. Tom Lichtenheld
Ah. Alas. My son adores this book. He recently got a stuffed version of the excavator for his birthday and he simply could not be more pleased. But while the pieces of equipment do have genders, they’re all male.
Bulldozer’s Big Day by Candace Fleming, ill. Eric Rohmann
All boy, all the time too.
Gender of Construction Workers
I’ll be the first to tell you that of all the construction workers who have been helping to build the duplex next door to my house, not one of them has been female. Still and all, there is a benefit to young readers seeing girls build in some way. So with that in mind . . .
Dig, Dogs, Dig: A Construction Tail by James Horvath (and subsequent sequels like Build, Dogs, Build and Work, Dogs, Work)
I’m writing this at a bit of a disadvantage. I’ve seeing Dig and Build but I haven’t seen Work quite yet. Still, on the basis of the first two books in the series, I have one comment: Roxie needs to do some real work. You see, in the book there’s this pink dog named Roxie who joins the apparently all-male crew on their digs (yes, she has eyelashes). The problem is that Roxie doesn’t have much to do. For example, on the back of Build, Dogs, Build you can see her welding:
But inside they changed it so that the dog doing the welding wasn’t her. All Roxie got to really do in this book was install a doorbell. Dig, Dogs, Dig wasn’t much better. There she just handed down hammers. I’ll be looking at Work, Dogs, Work soon. Hopefully they put that gal through her paces. She needs to earn her keep!
Construction by Sally Sutton
Very nicely done. It’s not overt but the construction workers do include female crew members.
Whose Trucks? by Toni Buzzeo, ill. Jim Datz
These board books are fantastic. Men and women work together everywhere. Also, the kids playing with the trucks at the end of the book are a boy and a girl. If you haven’t seen this, as well as its companion piece Whose Tools? then you are missing out, my friend.
Diggers Go by Steve Light
My son doesn’t have many words but one word he does have is “man”. “Man? Man?” he asks as he points to the construction equipment in this book. He’s not wrong. You might argue that since the faces are in silhouette there’s no way to really tell if the drivers are men or women, and you’d be right. Still and all they look like dudes. When Light puts women in these positions, they tend to have ponytails. The sole ding in what is otherwise a magnificent series.
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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Next to You: A Book of Adorableness
By Lori Haskins Houran
Illustrated by Sydney Hanson
Albert Whitman & Co.
On shelves now
Years ago I saw a very interesting sketch produced during the early years of Disney animated filmmaking. The drawing was an explanation to animators on the precise proportions it takes to make a drawn character “cute”. The size of the eyes, the proportions between a large head and small hands, the slant of the gaze, all this contributes to the final cute form. At its worst, the word “cute” conjures up creations like those Precious Moments figurines and their insipid equals. At its best, it touches on our maternal and paternal instincts, even if we’re the kinds of folks who prefer furry animals to actual human babies. If you are a children’s librarian working with picture books, you get a nice and steady influx of cute into your location. Some of it is good, but most of it is fairly intolerable. An Anne Geddes / Nancy Tillman-like excess. I can be forgiven then for putting aside Next to You: A Book of Adorableness when first it came to my desk. I read every picture book I’m sent, but some I read a little faster than others, and this didn’t strike me as something to rush over and devour. It took a fellow co-worker to break the news to me that author Lori Haskins Houran’s title has a very sharp tongue lodged firmly in its cheek. With a canniness uncommon in cutesy picture book fair, Next to You manages to reach a dual readership: People who will take it seriously and people who will get the joke. Sweet.
A narrator addressing a child sets the tone at the start. That tiny border collie puppy with the bow around its next and a little lamb toy (nice touch)? It’s only “kind of cute”. The yawning tiger cub or round-tailed bunny? “Whatever”. Honestly, the person being addressed wipes the floor with the competition. Those animals used to be really cute. “Until you came along. Now? Sorta so-so”. The narrator’s casual attitude is swiftly called into question, however, when they see a newborn giraffe for the first time. Seeing the giraffe chasing a butterfly, they’re almost persuaded that the giraffe is cuter but, “No! NO WAY! They are NOT as adorable as you. Not NEARLY.” Whew! A final shot of some of the animals in a cuddly pile ends with the narrator saying that none of them are as cute as you, “And you know what? I’m happy to be . . . next to you.” Aw.
Okay. So let’s talk audience here. When a picture book is talking about how cute someone is, that’s usually a tip-off that kids aren’t actually the focus. Instead, this is probably a book written with the hopes of becoming a baby shower staple. Picture books for expectant mothers are big business (how else to explain the inexplicable yet continual sales of Love You Forever?) so each season we see a couple titles make a play for the hearts and minds of incipient parents everywhere. Few succeed in the long run. What distinguishes Next to You from the pack is that it manages to not merely be a new baby book. Houran has somehow or other managed to write something that has appeal to a certain brand of snarky new parent (a common animal too often ignored by the picture book market) AND to actual children as well. This book is self-aware. A saving grace.
The text gets you pretty much from the first sentence onward. “Next to you, the softest puppy in the world is only kind of cute.” As a librarian I was intrigued but I wasn’t sold. Not until we got to the squirrel. That was the moment when I felt like Houran was making a distinct comment about those of us that waste countless hours watching cute animal videos on YouTube. “A squirrel eating a doughnut with his tiny hands? Adorable, sure. But next to you? Meh. Just OK.” The mix of “tiny hands” and “meh” is noteworthy. I know this sounds a little odd, but that two-page spread is the first true indication that you’re dealing with a picture book is a slick sense of humor. After all, that opening line might just be a fluke. But there is no denying how funny squirrels with itty-bitty widdle hands are, particularly when combined with the all-encompassing and supremely uninterested, “meh”. When the book stops for a moment to goggle at the shockingly cute giraffe, that pause is fascinating. I mean, how do you get a plot out of a book where all the narrator is saying is how cute various animals are? Houran must have also had a blast trying to conjure up all the different forms of cuteness out there? At the same time, take some care to notice that these animals are never in compromising positions. A pig may occasionally wear a sweater but nothing here is considered cute because it’s having its dignity taken away.
It’s a lucky editor that gets a manuscript like this one. Imagine knowing that the artist you acquired would have to excel in the art of “cute”. This editor undoubtedly had to consider a wide swath of artists adept at big eyes and tiny bodies. In the end, the selection fell to first time picture book illustrator Sydney Hanson. Trained in animation and character design, Hanson’s Tumblr page is awash in a sea of sweetness. More details and intricate than the characters found in this book, Hanson is adept at not simply rendering cute the horrible (the big-eyed tarantula is my favorite) but making it clear that these characters have personalities too. The book doesn’t give away Hanson’s medium, so this might all be done on a computer for all I know. That said, it looks like colored pencils. For the art to be effective there has to be a certain level of fuzziness to it. Colored pencils provide that virtual fuzz. My two-year-old son has taken to hugging cute characters in books when he sees them. Next to You, thanks to Hanson’s techniques, is now infinitely huggable.
I never thought I’d say this, but I think this book would actually make a good readaloud to a large group. It would take some practice. You’d really have to get your cadences down. But with the right inflection this could actually work for a bunch of kids. It might even work particularly well for those of the jaded variety. The same kinds of kids that get hornswaggled by Guess Again! by Mac Barnett and Adam Rex would find themselves flummoxed by this book. Few can turn pages without thinking, “Where is this going?” An oddity of a book, but a good one to know about. Don’t let the big blue kitten eyes on the cover fool you. There’s a lot to love between these pages. It’s a book that upsets expectations for adults but still manages to be fun for kids. And if you happen to want to give it to a new parent, I’m not gonna stop you. Not one little bit.
On shelves now.
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