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

SignCatFolks, one of the things I love about this job is the fact that I get to watch authors’ careers bloom and blossom.  I see authors starting out or at the beginning of their careers and watch as they garner praise and flourishes throughout the years.  Today’s example is author Lynne Jonell.  Back in 2007 I very much enjoyed her book Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat.  She’s written so much since then, but her latest is the one that caught my eye.  Recently Kirkus said of The Sign of the Cat in a starred review that, “Intriguing, well-drawn characters, evocatively described settings, plenty of action, and touches of humor combine to create an utterly satisfying adventure.”  The book follows the adventures of a boy who can communicate with cats.  So, right there.  You’ve got me.  Add in Lynne’s amazing answers to my questions (come for the interview, stay for the reference to a “squishing machine”) and you’ve got yourself a blog post, my friend.

Betsy Bird: Hello, Lynne!  So let’s just start with the basics from the get go.  Where did this book come from?  I mean to say, what was the impetus that made you want to write it?

Lynne Jonell: Hi, Betsy! The first and shallowest impetus for the book was that, back in 2006, I had sent a book off to my publisher but was still in full-steam-ahead writing mode. I wasn’t up for starting a whole new novel just yet, but I thought I could manage a chapter book.

Secondly, as a child, I had always wished I could speak the secret language of animals. Very quickly, a concept took shape—there would be a boy (I had never written about a boy, and it seemed like a new challenge), he could speak Cat (I love cats, plus it seemed that they would be privy to a lot of information—cats go everywhere, and no one worries about whether or not a cat is going to repeat what it hears), and he didn’t know what had happened to his father (every story needs a problem, right? I knew that much.)

Concepts won’t sustain a book for very long, though. For me, there has to be something underneath, some deeper thing that drives me to write a particular story. I usually have no idea what this thing is, or where it is rooted, but I can tell when it is there because I will have an image in my mind—something that haunts me.

EmmyIncredibleWhen I have a vivid picture—no matter that it makes no sense yet—I know there is power somewhere, there is energy enough for an entire book. Then I will begin to write toward that image. For example, Emmy & the Incredible Shrinking Rat started with a dream of a piece of green paper with a curved line, and later an image of a cane carved with the faces of little girls.

When I was beginning to toy around with The Sign of the Cat, I saw a boy and a kitten in the sea, struggling to stay afloat as the ship they’d been on sailed away into the night. There was a man on deck of the ship, too. He watched the boy without expression, and he did not give the alarm.

Soon more images began to come—a tiger, a squishing machine, Duncan hiding in a closet and watching with horror as a man dug into a pie—and I couldn’t fit them all into a chapter book. I picked up the story from time to time, playing around with it, but it wasn’t until 2010 that some of the pieces came together and I began to work seriously on the book. Now, of course, I know what the book means to me—and it’s full of personal references—but at the beginning, I didn’t have the faintest idea where it was going.

BB: You’re no stranger to the world of fantasy, but sometimes I feel like you tend to keep one foot rooted in the real world as well.  You’re not quite a magical realism writer, but when fantastical elements appear in your books they seem to happen in a world very much like our own.  Is there any particular reason for that, do you think?

lynnejonell-2011LJ: Yes, absolutely. My favorite books, as a child, were ones in which magical things happened to ordinary children, going about their ordinary business. Then suddenly—wham! The chemistry set made them invisible, the strange coin they picked up off the street gave them wishes, the nursery carpet turned out to contain the egg of a phoenix, the toy ship purchased in a dark and dusty shop could grow to carry four children, and fly… I loved the idea that maybe, just maybe, it might someday happen to me.

Children today may seem more sophisticated than we were, but that’s superficial… deep down, they are developmentally the same, and they believe in the possibility of magic a lot longer than you might think. I have had ten year olds ask me, very shyly, if the magic in my books was real.

That’s why I love to make the world of the book close to the child reader’s world. It seems as if the magic could happen to them, too, someday. And rather than magical realism, perhaps you could call my books “magical science”, because I always base the magic on some scientific concept, to make things even more plausible. For instance, in The Sign of the Cat, I was fascinated with the concept of critical periods of brain development.

There’s a famous study where normal kittens had their eyes covered for a few months after birth. When the covering was removed, the kittens were blind. Their eyes were normal, and there was nothing wrong with the optic nerve, but the connections between the brain and the optic nerve hadn’t been made during a crucial period. There are critical periods with hearing, too, and attachment (think imprinting, with baby ducks), and the acquisition of language.

I thought, what if there’s a critical period where humans had the ability to learn Cat? We wouldn’t know it, because cats can’t be bothered to teach anyone anything, and the chance would go by forever!

BB: What kinds of books did you read when you were a kid?  I’m crossing my fingers for the name “Edward Eager” to appear, just so’s you know.

PhoenixCarpetJL: Oh, sure, Edward Eager, of course—but his inspiration was E. Nesbit, and I loved her books even more. The Phoenix and the Carpet, and Five Children and It—masterpieces. I also adored Eleanor Cameron, anything by Ruth Chew (I loved The Wednesday Witch), Hilda Lewis (The Ship That Flew), Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the Narnia books of course, The Hobbit, anything by Elizabeth Enright, Eleanor Estes, Rudyard Kipling; I could go on and on…

I also had an abiding fascination with fiction about Native Americans—the different tribes, how they lived, the various cultures. I had a deep and secret longing to go back in time, before European settlers arrived, and be a Dakota boy. I wanted to be a boy because, in the books, they always had the adventures—and I also decided I would have to have perfect vision, because I was terribly nearsighted and I knew I couldn’t steal horses and count coup when I couldn’t see past my nose. I think this period was at its height when I was in fourth grade, and I remember many summer mornings where I’d grab my favorite stick and go off to some vacant lot or field where I would become that Dakota boy for hours on end.

BB: I once ran a children’s bookgroup and held up a new fantasy for them to peruse. One of them groaned audibly when they saw the number on the spine. “No more series!” she cried.  I don’t know that that kid was exactly the norm, but she did at least prove to me that there are kids out there that prefer standalone novels to series books.  Is The Sign of the Cat a standalone or the first in a series?  How did you come to make that decision?

 JL: The Sign of the Cat is a stand-alone. I don’t know how that decision was made, actually—it seems that the book made the decision for me. A reviewer said that Cat was a good “series starter” and I wondered where that came from! But I suppose that everyone, when a book ends, likes to wonder what happens next.

BB: Would you call yourself a “cat person”?  If so, do you think a non-cat person could ever write a book of this sort?

JL: I’m more a cat person than a dog person. I like the way cats are a little aloof, and don’t slobber all over you with their affection, and aren’t very needy—but they are capable of deep attachment once you get to know them. I like their independence.

rat-cookieBut I don’t own a cat, and I don’t think I needed to be a cat person to write this book. I am most definitely not a rat person, yet I wrote three books about rats!

BB: If you could speak the language of any kind of animal besides cats, what would it be?

JL: Birds. I would so love to fly… I think they might speak very poetically about flight, and they could come to my windowsill and tell me all about it.

BB: And finally, what are you working on next?

Castle_MenziesJL: I’m working on a time-travel book based in Scotland. And yes—there was an image with this book, too. The first was a postcard of Castle Menzies. My grandfather, whose clan it was, showed me the picture when I was a child, and I never forgot it.

The second image came 45 years later; I had a vivid mental picture of an acorn rolling out from a stone wall. I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew that the stone wall was part of the castle, and I also knew that it was time to get to work on that particular book.

BB:  Well, many thanks to Ms. Jonell for joining us today.  Now about that “squishing machine” . . .

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2. International Migratory Bird Day or Bye Bye, Birdie

MigratoryBirdDayThose canny readers amongst you will notice immediately that the date of this post is all wrong.  What am I trying to pull here?  After all, International Migratory Bird Day (as every good schoolchild knows) is always held on the second Saturday in May.  Yet here I am on June 29th, saying unto you that it is nigh.  And, in a way, it is.

Folks, what is the state bird of Illinois?

Me.

Actually, it’s the plucky little Northern cardinal (plucky, because it’s apparently the state bird for seven states), but if we’re talking the state Bird (capital B) then it’s me.

Cardinal

Is it just me, or does this cardinal look seriously displeased with the state of the world today?

On Friday, July 31st I will start my new job as the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system.  Which is to say, I am leaving New York Public Library and I will no longer be your roving reporter in NYC.

For the record, that costume is enormously warm.

For the record, that costume is enormously warm.

This may come as a bit of a shock, but for those of you who know me (or who have brushed against me in the past five years) you’ll know that it’s a long time coming.  Over the last few years I think I’ve mentioned to friends and acquaintances an “imminent” move to L.A., Minneapolis, Vermont, Connecticut, and Amherst (and I know there are a few additional places I’m forgetting as well).  But extricating myself from NYC has been difficult.  The only way I can describe it is to the say that it’s been like a big stone lion has been sitting on my back and I’ve had to pluck out its claws one by one before being able to move on (any artist that wants to bring that image to life, I encourage you to do so).  Which is NOT to say that I don’t still love NYPL with all the beatings of my blackened little heart.  If I could pick up my current job and carry it with me out of NYC I would do so.  This city has given me opportunities I could never have found anywhere, and New York Public Library in particular allowed me to attain what I really do believe was my dream job.  I owe New York City everything.  That said, I am a mother with two small children and I’m a city employee.  I may have a lovely life in Harlem but it’s not the kind of thing one can maintain for a long period of time.  And so, I go.

I assure you that in terms of this blog, nothing much will change.  Thanks to the appearance of Bird #2 my librarian previews pretty much trickled away to nothingness anyway.  Plus, Chicago offers a LOT of good possibilities.  ALA is centered there.  Book Expo is slated to go there next year (which I think is awfully kind of its managers to think of me like that).  I could finally attend ChLA for the first time in my life.  Add in the LOADS of children’s book names centered in that town and I have big plans.  Big big big plans!  Watch out, Windy City.  We’re about to have a whole lotta fun.

And, of course, my departure from NYC can only mean one thing.

Kidlit Drink Night Returns!!

sljcover

Visual approximation.

Awwwwww, yeah, baby.  You didn’t think I’d bow out of the New York scene without a bash?  A bash to which you and all your kin are invited?  Heck no!  I want to say bye bye to you in style so for one night only I’ll be holding court at the Houndstooth Pub later in the month (details to come).

And you may, in the midst of the move, see a small gap on the blog postings.  Then again, I managed to blog continually when my two kiddos were born, so maybe not.  I really have no idea.  This blog has never known me to live anywhere else.

Windy City, HO!

 

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3. Press Release Fun: Balloons Over Broadway

When Lisa Von Drasek does a program, you bloody well publicize that program. Here she just let me know about these multiple, awesome programs. Well worth noting, folks.

People often ask me how could I give up being at Bank Street College of Education to live in Minnesota. The answer is the Kerlan Collection. This is one of the largest  repositories of Children’s Book manuscripts, art and first editions.  We hold the papers of all of the Ambassador’s for Your Peoples Literature (if you are counting in your head that is Scieszka, Patterson, Myers, and DiCamillo) Yet not everyone has the funds to visit the University of Minnesota.  It is my goal to bring the collection out of the Cavern and share with librarians and teachers. This is just the beginning. Enjoy.

Today is the launch of Balloons Over Broadway, Melissa Sweet, and the Engineering of a Picture. This is a digital exhibit examining the author/ illustrator research and creative process using the materials in the Kerlan Collection in Children’s Literature Research Collections at University of Minnesota Libraries . 

If you are going to ALA, don’t miss the opportunity too hear Melissa Sweet at the ALSC President’s program. Monday, 6/29 1:00 to 2:30

 Charlemae Rollins President’s Program — More to the Core: From the Craft of Nonfiction to the Expertise in the Stacks – MCC-2001 (W)

Awarding-winning author and illustrator Melissa Sweet and literacy advocate Judy Cheatham, VP of Literacy Services at Reading Is Fundamental, share the stage to present an informational and inspirational look at the creation of excellent nonfiction and the matchmaking of great books and kids who need them. Libraries’ role in innovative implementation of programs and services to support the Common Core Standards is a central skill and an important contribution to the communities we serve.  Even if CCS isn’t a part of your educational landscape, great nonfiction books – how they are created and ways to connect them to children and families is central to our craft and critical to our ability to collaborate with our communities. Let’s be inspired together!

http://gallery.lib.umn.edu/exhibits/show/balloons-over-broadway

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4. Of Ponies and Princesses: An Interview with Kate Beaton

PrincessPonyWell, I’m just about as pleased as I can be.  For years I’ve adored and promoted and generally yammered endlessly about webcomic artist Kate Beaton and her Hark, A Vagrant strips.  Whether it was her Nancy Drew covers or her psychedelic take on The Secret Garden (to say nothing of her history strips) she’s one of my heroes.  This year, she’s gone a step further and created her very first picture book.  Called The Princess and the Pony, it’s edited by Cheryl Klein and published by Scholastic.  As you can see from the cover here, the book contains a fat little pony character that Beaton created for the Hark, A Vagrant strip years ago.  On June 30th it’ll hit shelves everywhere.  Before that happens, though, I was given the chance to chat a bit with Ms. Beaton about her work.

Betsy Bird: Let’s talk about the impetus for the character of Princess Pinecone here. I get a bit of an Adventure Time vibe off of her, but that might just be because kickass princesses are in the air these days. From whence did she spring?

Kate Beaton: There are a lot of kickass princesses on Adventure Time! Funny you should mention it, because one time years ago, the Pony itself was featured on an episode. Only it was purple. And turned out to be the Ice King in a costume. But they asked my permission, which was cool! Of course I said yes!

fatpony

Princess Pinecone came to mind almost immediately for me. I’m one of four girls, our house growing up was full of Girl Stuff and princesses are a part of that. I loved princesses myself, I drew them all the time. I don’t think anyone had to tell me to like them, they were my jam. But kids do get lobbed a crazy amount of princess stuff these days, and some of it is a little too much, so if I was going to make a story about one, who she was and what she wanted would be pretty important. Pinecone deliberately sort of looks the princess part with the blonde hair and ribbons, but she’s also small and tough and she’s named for a bristly little plant thing. And really she is only a princess because I tell you she is, it’s not like her status carries the story, because no one else cares that she is a Princess. What’s important is her goals and how she wants to work to achieve them, and her family that supports her.

BB: With your comic background you haven’t had much need to dive into the wide and wonderful world of watercolors before. How was the switchover?

KB: I’m super flattered that you think it is watercolor but it’s digital colors. And that was new to me for sure. I chose digital because it was my first picture book and I was ready to make 2000 mistakes that would need to be fixed. And that happened so god bless photoshop! I picked a color palette and tried my best to make things look ok, but I’m still new to the whole thing. Go to art school, kids.

BB: If you had to choose your top historical real world princesses, which ones would you select?

Rani Lakshmibai is a good one, so is Boudicca, if you are talking warrior types! Or Tamar of Georgia, and of course Eleanor of Acquitaine and Elizabeth I. Or Anna Nzinga. There are a lot you know!

tumblr_lqfqanybZq1qgz0zlo1_500

BB: Any plans for future picture book princessing?

KB: I do enjoy this world, so yes! I hope there will be more adventures. Outside of this book, I have sketched out a bigger family and world, so you never know. But first hopefully people like this story.

BB: Awesome.

So many thanks indeed to Ms. Beaton for her patient responses.  And no discussion of princess would be complete without a nod to this.

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 10.43.30 PM Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 10.45.06 PM

 

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5. Newbery / Caldecott 2016: Summer Prediction Edition

The Summer Prediction edition of my Caldecott/Newbery ponderings is always a tricky beast.  If the spring edition is looking primarily at books coming out in the spring, summer, and early fall, then the summer edition is looking at almost the entire year. However, at this point I’m still relying more on buzz than the considered opinions of colleagues and friends.  Once we get to the fall edition I’ll have heard a lot of debates surrounding the books up for consideration and I’ll have a better sense of what folks feel about them.  Until then, here’s what I’ve seen this year that I think deserves a closer look.

2016 Caldecott Predictions:

Boats for Papa by Jessixa Bagley

boatsforpapaSo this is a bit of a strange inclusion on my part, but you’ll get a hint of the background on this book from this recent Seven Impossible Things profile of the book and Ms. Bagley.

Here is my thinking on the matter.  When we hand a book a Caldecott, we say we’re doing it to celebrate the art.  I understand that.  I get that.  But if we’re being honest, the books that win are the ones that really reached into our chests, grabbed our hearts, and had the gall to make them pump a little harder.  Boats for Papa has the 2015 distinction of being The Official Weeper of the Year.  Which is to say, it makes folks cry.  A lot.  And YET it is not a Love You Forever situation where the writing is clearly for adults rather than kids.  So Ms. Bagley is to be commended for the text.  The artistic style, I admit here and now, is not for me.  But when you are a children’s librarian you must let go of your own personal prejudices towards one style of art or another (if I had my way every Caldecott would go to Sebastian Meschmenmoser, regardless of citizenship or whether or not he has a book out in a given year).  And while the style of Ms. Bagley is not to my own taste, I believe that in terms of conveying the storyline, the characters, and the heart of the writing, it does a stellar job.  Still, I’d be interested to hear how other feel about it all.

Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle. Illustrated by Rafael Lopez

DrumDreamGirl

This is the book I most regretted not mentioning the last time I did a prediction post.  I’ve admired Mr. Lopez’s work for years (and honestly feel that The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred deserved far more attention than it ever received).  This book is one of those tricky little amalgamations of fact and fiction that will end up in the picture book section of the library while still managing to be CCSS aligned, to some degree.  I read it to my three-year-old and she was astonished at the idea that girls could ever be told they couldn’t do anything.  Plus it’s just so beautiful.  The art is the man’s best work.  I’d love to see this get a little attention.

Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick. Illustrated by Sophie Blackall

FindingWinnie

A straighter nonfiction title.  Sometimes I wonder if the amount of background a Caldecott committee hears about a book affects their thinking come award time.  Perhaps not.  After all, I once attended a pre-ALA Youth Media Award lunch that feted some Caldecott committee members and was showing off books like Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, The Dark, and Pinkney’s The Grasshopper and the Ants.  None of whom won a thing.  Now if you knew the background behind Ms. Blackall’s art for Finding Winnie, you’d see how meticulous her work is on the book.  Yet even without that knowledge the book is a beauty.  The endpapers.  The red sunrise with the ships sailing to England.  The shot of a man, his bear, and Stonehenge itself.  Oh, it’s a contender.

In a Village By the Sea by Muon Van. Illustrated by April Chu

InaVillage1

Periodically debut illustrators receive Honors (and, once in a great while, awards proper).  I know I keep harping on this book but I just think what the illustrator did to complement the text is just so darn brilliant.  It rewards multiple readings.  Sure, it may be a dark horse contender, but it’s a strong one just the same.

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena. Illustrated by Christian Robinson

LastStopMarket

It was a little surprising to me how many marketing dollars were placed behind this particular book.  Robinson has traipsed mighty close to award territory in the past.  With this book he may not be paying a direct homage to Ezra Jack Keats but that was certainly the flavor I detected emanating from the pages.  Even after all these months of seeing it I’m still having difficulty piecing my thoughts about it together.  All I know is that it’s worthy of discussion.

The Marvels written & illustrated by Brian Selznick

Marvels

This could just as easily fit on the Newbery Prediction category but since Hugo Cabret won a Caldecott lo these many years ago, this could walk a similar line.  Separating itself into a wordless series of pictures in its first half and a text only novel in the second, it may be an even harder sell to the committee than Cabret was.  Particularly since the text both within and outside of the pictures is sometimes the only thing that gives them form and function and meaning.  But it’s rather remarkable, and committees have a way of rewarding books for that very quality.

The Moon Is Going to Addy’s House by Ida Pearle

MoonGoingAddy

Cut paper is a difficult art.  Again, we’ve a debut on our hands, and in judging the book one must determine how much credit to hand to the quality of the paper being used (which, as you can see, is rather luminous) and how much to the actual cuttings.  To my mind, this book is pretty much without parallel.  Just amazing.

Night World by Mordecai Gerstein

nightworld

Much of the reception to this book is going to hinge on how well people react to the ways in which Gerstein has painted pre-dawn light.  One point in its favor: It contains a true moment of awe.  When the dawn arrives it’s a jaw dropper of a moment.  That’s what you want in an award winner.

Water Is Water by Miranda Paul. Illustrated by Jason Chin

WaterIsWater

One might rightly ask, why this Chin of all Chins?  After all, it’s not as though Jason hasn’t been making similarly stunning books for years.  The fact that he’s never gotten award love (at least in the Caldecott area of things) is a problem.  I find that sometimes award committees have difficulty rewarding realism that isn’t surrealism (Wiesner wins awards but James Ransome, for example, does not).  Here, Chin brings to life this infinitely simple, but incredibly clever, explanation for very young children of the water cycle in its different forms.  And he does so with his customary beauty and skill.  It’s worth considering at the very least.

The Whisper by Pamela Zagarenski

whisper

I’ve mentioned this one before with the note that I’m not usually a fan of Zagarenski’s work.  And though I’ve seen that some folks don’t enjoy the storyline quite as much as I do, I’m going to keep this one the list.  Of Zagarenski’s work (she is quite fond of floating crowns, you know), I do think this is her best.  And if her previous books have won Caldecotts then ipso facto . . .

2016 Newbery Predictions:

Caldecott predictions are generally much easier to include on lists of this sort than Newbery predictions because reading a picture book takes all of 5 minutes, max (unless we’re discussing the aforementioned The Marvels, and then God help your soul).  This year I’ve found a lot of books to love but few to seriously consider in this category.  However, there were a few exceptions:

Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley

CircusMirandus

Let it be known that hype makes me wary.  Exceedingly wary.  So when I walked into a Penguin preview earlier this year and found they’d decked themselves all out in a circus-themed hullabaloo my warning signals lit right up.  And sure, author Cassie Beasley was charming with her Georgian ways.  Yet she read a passage from this book that would have had a lot more impact if I’d read the book already.  So I put it off, and put it off, and all the while my fellow librarians were reading it and telling me in no uncertain terms that it was remarkable.  I finally picked it up to read it.  The verdict?  It really is lovely!  See my interview piece on Ms. Beasley about the difficulty in writing a non-creepy circus for more info.  I also recommended it at Redbook, so win a copy here if you’re curious.

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan

echo

I’m still pondering this one, months and months after I read it.  I think the supernatural element didn’t really need to be there since the three stories stand perfectly well on their own together.  But I can also tell you that every detail of this book has been etched into my memory.  And if you’ve any acquaintance with said memory, you’d understand why this must be a remarkable book.

Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia

GoneCrazy

I had to do some research with my fellow librarians on this one before I could include it here.  Not because it isn’t good.  There is a vibrant undercurrent of truth running so strongly beneath this narrative that it almost hurts to read.  The relationships between the three sisters is one-of-a-kind and powerful.  In fact, if you’ve some free time in NYC on Saturday, August 1st we’re going to have a Children’s Literary Salon discussion between Jeanne Birdsall and Rita Williams-Garcia on their series and how it is to write about sisters.

At any rate, I had to determine whether or not the book stood on its own.  I’ve read the first two books, so I was in no place to judge.  So I handed it to some children’s librarians that had never read One Crazy Summer or P.S. Be Eleven.  Their verdict?  It works very well without prior knowledge of the previous books.  Which means, it’s a true literary contender.

Goodbye, Stranger by Rebecca Stead

goodbyestranger

I’m just looking forward to the Newbery/Caldecott Banquet where all they serve (once this wins the award) is cinnamon toast and vanilla milkshakes.  We’ve hashed the middle school vs. YA elements of this book before, so I’ve no particular desire to do it again here.  I will say, however, that if Stead wins it may be the first time in the history of the award that the Newbery goes to a literary agent.

Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower by Greg Pizzoli

TrickyVicActually, I debated placing this in the Caldecott category.  After all, Pizzoli did a rather remarkable job of finding a way to keep his subject anonymous but still visible from page one onward.  Yet it is the writing I think about when I consider the book.  Synthesizing a single man’s life and turning it into a child-friendly narrative is no mean feat.  Pizzoli did it with great cheer and fervor.  A nonfiction title that deserves some Newbery love.

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

WarThatSavedMyLife

My continuing to include this book in the ranking may be due in part to affection more than anything else.  Still, I can’t help but think this has all the right elements in place.  If kids can get past the cover (a detriment to getting even my staunchest librarians to read it) they’ll be amply rewarded.

Honorable Ineligible Mentions

Every year I read a couple books that I think should win Newbery or Caldecott awards.  Yet, for one reason or another, they are ineligible.  Here are my favorite ineligible books I’ve read in 2015 thus far.

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel. Illustrated by Jon Klassen

Nest

How have I not reviewed this book yet?  To my mind it’s the strangest, most wonderful, creeeeeeeeeepy book of 2015.  If Oppel wasn’t so inconveniently Canadian we’d be having a very serious debate about this book.  By the way – apparently Canadians can serve on the Newbery committee but cannot win the award.  How is that fair?  I demand new standards, doggone it!

Pax by Sara Pennypacker. Illustrated by Jon Klassen

Pax

The bad news is that this book is ineligible for a Newbery in 2015.  The good news is that this book is eligible for a Newbery in 2016.  Once you read it you’ll be convinced of its worthiness.  That said, how is it that Jon Klassen keeps getting to illustrate all the best novels?  Did he sacrifice a cow to the book jacket gods?  Or is it just that the man has exquisite taste?  Hmm.

This Is Sadie by Sara O’Leary. Illustrated by Julie Morstad

ThisIsSadie

Canadian.  Again.  Morstad has also illustrated Laurel Snyder’s Swan, which could also have been up for consideration.  I’m very pleased that folks are finally discovering Julie Morstad, by the way.  I still think her board book The Swing is just one of the best out there.

That’s all she wrote, folks!  I read most of your suggestions last time so if I missed something it may not have been accidental.  That said, I know I’ve not read everything out there.  What are your favorites thus far?

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6. We Are the Book Champions, My Friends

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Image credit: Travis Jonker

Here’s how I blog. I sit around, twiddling my thumbs, waiting waiting waiting for someone else to write something on a topic that has been bubbling and percolating in my noggin.  Then, when they go that extra mile, I STRIKE!  Today’s example: Travis Jonker’s piece Where Do You Fall On The Book Critic/Book Champion Continuum?  A hotsy totsy topic if ever I saw one.

Here’s the long and short of it.  Travis distinguishes between people who evaluate books and people who “champion” them on a continuum.  By doing so, he acknowledges that they are part and parcel with one another.  Two sides of the same coin.  Yet some folks refuse to write critical reviews of books, and prefer instead to simply promote the books they think are great.  That is a conscious choice.  Others would identify entirely with book criticism and find the notion of “championing” an inherently questionable activity.  It is this conflict that I’ve thought long and hard about over the last few years.

For my part, reviewing is the lifeblood of this site.  I recently gave a talk in D.C. to the Children’s Book Guild (an organization worthy of a blog post in and of itself) where I discussed many of the ins and outs of reviewership and responsibility.  The members had amazing questions about what I do when I’m reviewing a bilingual book and I don’t speak the second language, or what I do when I’m reviewing a piece of historical fiction and I haven’t studied the history in any depth myself.  Over and over again it was clear to me that responsibility is the name of the game in reviewing.  You are setting yourself up as some kind of expert, telling people why a book is worth their children’s time and energy (let alone their own). As a result, you can’t do it without any forethought.

Then there is the issue of championship.  I think it is vitally important to champion books, and not just in reviews.  There are a LOT of very good children’s books published in a given year.  There are also a ton of mediocre books and a couple outright bad ones.  Separating the wheat from the chaff is a large part of championship.

But championship is not without its own responsibilities.  I’ve spoken out in the past against that kind of blogging that feels more like an extension of the marketing wing of big publishers than any kind of advocating for the child readers.  I’m not separating myself from this.  If I get a red beehive wig promoting a book, I’m going to remember that book better than its fellows.  Heck, there’s a wooden spoon I got once alongside a copy of Toni Morrison’s Peeny Butter Fudge that makes me think of that book every single time I use it.  But when we talk about books on our blogs we have to be careful about what we do.  For example, there are folks who are perfectly happy to only promote books from the big five (Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Scholastic, & Little Brown).  They make no efforts to seek out and promote books from the smaller houses as well.  When you promote only the things that are sent to you for free in the mail, your content is compromised. I say this knowing perfectly well that most of my reviews say that the books I’m reviewing were sent to me by their publishers.  What those statements do not make clear is how many of those books I requested from the smaller publishers personally.  Of course we don’t all get books from smaller publishers and if every small publisher was inundated with requests from bloggers it would probably cost them a great deal of money.  But that’s what your local library is for.  That’s what attending conferences like BEA and ALA is all about.  That’s what reading Kirkus (the #1 professional review journal of the small press) leads to.  You can’t allow yourself to be told what to review by a publisher.  No matter how many red beehive wigs they send.

Like I say, championship is important. Without enthusiasm we have no way of getting our kids interested in books.  But at the same time we have to examine what we’re promoting.  How often do you champion diverse characters?  How often diverse authors and illustrators?  How often do you talk about a book that was originally published in another country?  When people trust your opinions you have sway and power.  And with great power . . . well, you get the idea.

So I’m looking at the line that Travis has made.  I am a critic first and a champion second, but one cannot exist without the other.  If I never wrote a critical review once in a while I’d feel like a fraud.  And every critical review I write comes with a price.  I like authors and illustrators.  I hate conflict.  I want everyone to be my friend.  But when I have problems with books I want to talk about it with other folks and that sometimes leads to strife with the book creators.  I’m no cheerleader.  I’m not even a champion.  I’m a reviewer.  And that’s pretty darn exciting too.

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7. Review of the Day: Return to Augie Hobble by Lane Smith

9781626720541Return to Augie Hobble
By Lane Smith
Roaring Brook (an imprint of Macmillan)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-1-62672-54-1
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

Here is what we can say about Lane Smith – he does not go for the easy emotional pass. There are countless author/illustrators out there for whom risk is an unknown concept. The idea of writing a book, to say nothing of your first middle grade novel, and making something new and strange of it, would put them off entirely. For Smith, it’s all in a day’s work. Indeed he’s made a name for himself in waltzing merrily into the children’s literary unknown. Had he debuted his first novel and it had been some earnest and meaningful tale of a slightly bullied boy who is dealing with a death and befriends the local pixie dream girl who teaches him to love again (currently the most popular plot in 2015 as long as you occasionally switch up the genders) then his fans would have felt a deep sense of betrayal. That said, to avoid the falsely “meaningful” by creating a book devoid of meaning is a step too far in the opposite direction. A little meaning is the glue that holds even the silliest and most esoteric work for kids together. In Return to Augie Hobble Lane Smith embraces that which makes him Lane Smith. Yet while he is clearly unafraid to take risks and try new things, he seems oddly reticent to give his creation a true and beating heart. Does it need one? That’s a question best answered by each individual reader.

Augie Hobble hasn’t the worst life you’ve ever heard of, but on a scale of sucks to ten it scores fairly low. It’s one thing to have to go to summer school because you can’t seem to finish one crummy school project. It’s another thing entirely to be convinced that you’re turning into a werewolf. Working in his dad’s run down fairy tale theme park (called, appropriately enough, “Fairy Tale Place”) Augie at least has his best friend Britt and their mutual intention of building a tree house to distract him. But things are not always what they seem. Pets are disappearing, there are some weird government agents flitting about, and then mysterious writing appears in Augie’s notebook from an unknown hand. Mysteries of this sort can be hard to come by. And when the true story behind the mysteries comes to light, the truth is clearly stranger than any fiction Augie could have imagined.

This is Smith’s first foray into the middle grade world but it’s hardly his first time playing with expectations and forms. His work on Jon Scieszka’s The True Story of the Three Little Pigs and The Stinky Cheese Man remain to this day original, eclectic, and odd. But watching Smith pen his own books been interesting. It’s little wonder that he was at least partially behind the blog Curious Pages “recommended inappropriate books for kids” with a big old picture of Struwwelpeter standing at the top. His picture books have ranged from a diatribe against the electronic world (ending with a word that gave a certain sort of parents apoplexy) to American history gone goofy to a meditative consideration of a life well spend (topiary in abundance). The aberration amongst these books, if it could be called that, was the last book I mentioned, Grandpa Green. In that book Smith slowed his rapid rate, and took stock of life and living. It seems that with “Return to Augie Hobbie” he is now returning to his fast paced existence with a vengeance.

There’s a lot to enjoy about the book, starting with the setting itself. For a time I decided to gather together all the information I could about all the children’s literature related statues in America. Little did I expect that this search would plunge me into an unexpected exploration of fairy tale and nursery rhyme themed parks for kids that preceded and existed in tandem with early Disneyland, only on a much smaller, creepier, scale. So many of them continue to operate today, and so they were pretty much tailor made for an eerie, unnerving book of this sort. If you were to create a book that was essentially “The X-Files” for kids, I can think of no better setting.

It will surprise few to learn that Smith is at his strongest when he’s at his creepiest. And in terms of creepy thrills, there’s an early mystery in the novel that taps into something fearful and primal at our core. Augie keeps a journal with him most of the time. After he experiences a shocking loss he finds to his consternation that someone is scribbling in his beloved book. Suspects abound but the writing itself turned out to be my favorite part of the story. There is true horror in misspelled childlike crawls. If it doesn’t make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up on end then you are made of sterner stuff than I.

Interestingly, it was Smith’s exploration of death that took me out of the book the most. A couple spoilers are going to start cropping up in this review so if you haven’t already signed off and you want to be surprised then I suggest you do so now. When Augie’s best friend Britt dies of an allergic reaction to peanuts, he becomes convinced that he himself is the accidental murderer. Augie is plunged into guilt and when it looks as though his friend’s ghost is somewhere near I wondered where Smith was going. Could the ghost just be an extension of Augie’s guilt? Nope. And all of a sudden Britt’s appearance wipes away what had all the promise of an interesting look at guilt and grief and coping. Not that I wanted this to turn into some introspective Newbery-esque treatise on the healing powers of family or anything. I mean there are friggin’ werewolves in them thar hills. But by the same token I was uncomfortable with how something that was so serious for a second became altogether too light too quickly. All I really wanted was a single moment between the two boys that felt real. Like they understood what their new roles were and had decided to take them on. Even the silliest book has room enough for a little heart, however brief. To excise it from the storyline does the title a disservice.

The other difficulty I had with the book involved the ways in which the central mysteries are solved. And it happened anytime the fantastical moved out of the possible into the real. Now I’ll be the first to admit that you cannot create a work of fiction built entirely on mysteries and mysterious occurrences without eventually saying what’s going on. A book that’s all mystery and no answer is simply a cheat. On the other hand, it takes an enormous amount of talent to reveal a mystery without inspiring in your audience that feeling of deflation that comes whenever a magician explains how he did a trick. The fact of the matter is that while Smith is exceedingly talented at setting up his mysteries, once they crossover from mystery to reality, they lose something. The first time this happens is when a character turns into a werewolf before our very eyes. Until that moment, we’ve had no absolute proof that there’s anything more than wishful thinking on the part of the hero going on in terms of the story’s mysteries. In fact, the revelation is so unexpected that I was left wondering if maybe Smith changed his mind in the course of writing the book and decided to go whole hog on the fantasy elements. When he commits to the bit he commits to the bit, and after the werewolfing of a character everything is pretty much up for grabs. Examples.

I think what Smith may be going for in this book is an intellectual play on fantasy akin to Daniel Pinkwater and his books. The difference between the two lies in how Smith straddles the form. On the one hand he has moments that could break into genuine emotional beats if he’d let them. On the other, if he wanted to really let go and embrace his love of the absurd, there’s room for that as well. Instead, he commits to neither. Moments that should engage the reader’s heart are left feeling empty while the absurdities have a caged in, closed feel. To be frank, I either wanted this book to let Smith’s freak flag fly or to give my heart something to care about. In the end, I have neither.

By the end of the story I had to come to the conclusion that the only way this book makes any sense is if it’s the first in a series. If Fairy Tale Place is meant to be the backdrop to a wide range of freaky happenings, then this is just setting up the premise. Three kids, one of whom is dead, solving supernatural mysteries is interesting. Would that we could just jump to those books and skip this one in the interim. It’s by no means a bad book, but with its fuzzy focus and off-kilter sense of its own audience, I question how many kids are going to engage. A noble, if ultimately unbalance, attempt.

On shelves now.

Source:
Galley sent from publisher for review.

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8. Let’s Put On a Show! The Introvert’s Dilemma

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Keep it classy, Bird.

The other day Monica Edinger writes to me, ” I hate performing in public and am far more comfortable shmoozing at dinners and lunches. You seem to be just the opposite.”  An interesting statement, to be sure.  For while I love me a good lunch and dinner shmooze, I certainly won’t pass up an opportunity to grab a spotlight and milk it for all it’s worth (I also believe a healthy mixed metaphor early in a blog post is good for the constitution, but that’s neither here nor there).  Case in point, my recent hijinks alongside Jon Scieszka, hosting the Children’s Book Choice Awards Gala.  But Monica wasn’t writing me to merely comment upon my inclinations to dance to Uptown Funk in a purple tux.  Recently she wrote a blog post that takes on a problem that I would argue has existed since authors first started to hawk their own books to the public.  In Should I Take Up the Banjo? or The Question of Charisma, Monica addresses Paula Willey’s recent statement in a really remarkable BEA round-up post that it’s unfair that the children’s book creator occupation calls upon its denizens to be more of the camp counselor types than of the “cave-dwelling cheeseeater” variety.  Monica disagrees to some extent, saying that it wouldn’t be fair to say that everyone is called upon to act this way since we always have introvert role models like Suzanne Collins to consider.

All this reminds me, to a certain degree, of a blog that existed from 2007-2012 that addressed this very issue.  Shrinking Violet Promotions was begun by a core group of around seven children’s and YA authors, but was run primarily by authors Robin LaFevers and Mary Hershey.  The site included everything from an Introvert’s Bill of Rights and a section dedicated to those that want to quit when their sales tank, to Jung Typology Tests, interviews with introverts, and thoughts on marketing.  It was a good supportive site but like many on the web it couldn’t sustain itself beyond the five year mark.  In its time it was really the only place I’d ever found that addressed this issue of the writing persona vs. the public persona.

Wild Things McNally Jackson from Yvonne Brooks 25 Oct 2014 YVB_1692  copy 2

When in doubt, mug. Photo by Yvonne Brooks.

Because the fact of the matter is that you don’t have to be a song and dance man (woman/small inanimate object/etc.) to be a successful children’s author.  That is not to say, though, that knowing how to pluck a banjo, use a yo-yo, or sing “Hello” in front of a bunch of juggling children’s book creators won’t be a huge asset to you.  Without naming names, I can think of a couple authors and illustrators who are merely okay book creators but do such wonderful live performances that you almost forget that the quality of their books is only so-so.  I agree with Paula that to sell yourself is to sell your book.  And I agree with Monica that it’s not something publishers should assume that their authors and illustrators are comfortable doing.  That said, I sympathize the most with the librarians in this case.  How so?  Well, many is the librarian or bookseller who has hosted an author or illustrator to a packed house only to find that the person has no ability to keep or hold the attention of their intended audience (i.e. small fry).  I once hosted a picture book author of a truly fine, engaging, rhythmic book.  It was only when the person started to speak that I realized that (A) They had the world’s quietest voice and I didn’t have a microphone and (B) They had no sense of rhythm when reading their book aloud.  They could write it, sure.  But read it?  That takes an entirely different set of muscles.

Yet it behooves us to remember that that author didn’t get into the business to become a performer. They like, and are very good at, writing for children.  But in our current era of self-promotion, publishers often don’t have the money and/or the time to spend on every one of their creators.  As a result, you start trying to figure out what your special skills are.  I won’t lie to you. I’ve honestly tried to figure out how I could work spinning on a spinning wheel into my talks (it’s my one craft-related skill).  Also, Monica’s a teacher and I’m a librarian and I feel those occupations really do give you a leg up when you start in the book creation business.  You know the material that’s already out there and you know how to engage the attention of kids.  It’s those folks who come into it cold and do it for the love of the books alone that sometimes find themselves out to sea.  Fair?  Not a jot.  But as Shrinking Violet and Monica’s post proved, you’re hardly alone.

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9. Fuse #8 TV: Steve Sheinkin

Allo, folks!

Hosting Steve Sheinkin on Fuse #8 TV this month does have a bit of the old bringing coals to Newcastle feel to it.  After all, Steve’s been generous in sharing his Walking and Talking comic series with us on this site regularly.  So regularly, in fact, that it would be easy to forget that he’s one of our premiere YA nonfiction authors working today.  Now his most ambitious book to date is coming out.  Called MOST DANGEROUS: DANIEL ELLSBERG AND THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE VIETNAM WAR, it allowed me to commiserate with Steve over everything from our childhood schools’ failure to teach anything about the Vietnam War to the state of YA nonfiction today.  Oh!  And I also continue my “Reading (Too Much Into) Picture Books” series with a Dallas-like interpretation of Kathi Appelt’s BUBBA AND BEAU MEET THE RELATIVES.  There is also a baby cameo.  Yes indeed, I will hock my baby to get you to watch my video.  I’m just that cunning.

In case you’re interested, all the other Fuse #8 TV episodes are archived here.

Once more, thanks to Macmillan for being my sponsor and helping to put this together.

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10. Press Release Fun: Salt wins the New York Historical Society Children’s History Book Prize

THE NEW-YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY ANNOUNCES 2015 CHILDREN’S HISTORY BOOK PRIZE RECIPIENT: HELEN FROST FOR SALT

Award to be presented by Chancellor Fariña June 18; Families invited to meet the author June 20

NEW YORK, NY (June 16, 2015)—Dr. Louise Mirrer, President and CEO of the New-York Historical Society, announced today that author Helen Frost will receive New-York Historical’s 2015 Children’s History Book Prize for Salt (Macmillan, 2013), which tells the story of two 12-year-old boys growing up in the Indiana Territory in the midst of the War of 1812. The $10,000 prize is awarded annually to the best American history book, fiction or non-fiction, for middle readers ages 9–12. This year’s award will be presented by New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña on Thursday, June 18 at 12:30 pm in the New-York Historical Society’s Robert H. Smith Auditorium.

“We are pleased to present our 2015 Children’s History Book Prize to Helen Frost,” said Dr. Mirrer. “Salt is a moving book that reflects our mission to make history accessible to children through compelling narratives that allow them to develop personal connections to historical subjects.”

Frost’s Salt skillfully captures the similarities and differences between its two protagonists’ daily lives—Anikwa, a member of the Miami tribe; and James, the son of white settlers. Each page of the book, written entirely in verse, alternates between the boys’ stories. As the natural scarcity of supplies—especially salt—intensifies, the impending war causes the white settlers to threaten and ultimately drive out the Miami tribe. Consequently, the boys’ friendship and trust sours.

“Our educators and historians praise Helen Frost for her deep historical research and extensive consultations with Myaamia individuals living today in the Fort Wayne area to develop the book’s Native American protagonist,” said Alice Stevenson, Director of the DiMenna Children’s History Museum at the New-York Historical Society. “The jury also felt it provided a great entry point for younger readers to begin to understand the American Indian experience within the context of the War of 1812.”

The New-York Historical Society annually celebrates the work of an outstanding American history children’s book writer and publisher with the Children’s History Book Prize. The recipient is selected by a jury comprised of librarians, educators, historians, and families of middle schoolers.

At the New-York Historical Society and its DiMenna Children’s History Museum, visitors are encouraged to explore history through characters and narrative. The Children’s History Book Prize is part of New-York Historical’s larger efforts on behalf of children and families, which include creative, multigenerational programs that champion a lifelong appreciation of history and literature. At the DiMenna Children’s History Museum’s popular monthly book club Reading into History, families discuss a historical fiction or non-fiction book they previously read at home, share their reactions, experience related artifacts and documents, and meet prominent historians and authors.  Families are invited to join the next book wrap on Saturday, June 20 at 3 pm, which will feature a special Q&A with Helen Frost and fascinating artifacts from the War of 1812 pulled from New-York Historical’s collections.

About the Author

Printz Honor author Helen Frost was born in 1949 in Brookings, South Dakota, the fifth of ten children. She graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in Elementary Education and a concentration in English, and received her Master’s degree in English from Indiana University in 1994. Throughout her career, writing and teaching have been interwoven threads. Frost has published poetry, children’s books, anthologies, and a play, as well as a book about teaching writing; and has taught writing at all levels, from pre-school through university. She is the recipient of a 2009 National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship.

About the New-York Historical Society

The New-York Historical Society, one of America’s pre-eminent cultural institutions, is dedicated to fostering research and presenting history and art exhibitions and public programs that reveal the dynamism of history and its influence on the world of today. Founded in 1804, New-York Historical has a mission to explore the richly layered history of New York City and State and the country, and to serve as a national forum for the discussion of issues surrounding the making and meaning of history.

About the DiMenna Children’s History Museum

The DiMenna Children’s History Museum at the New-York Historical Society presents 350 years of New York and American history through character-based pavilions, interactive exhibits and digital games, and the Barbara K. Lipman Children’s History Library. The DiMenna Children’s History Museum encourages families to explore history together through permanent installations and a wide range of family learning programs for toddlers, children, and preteens.

Press Contacts

Timothy Wroten

twroten@nyhistory.org

212-485-3400 x326

 

Ines Aslan

ines.aslan@nyhistory.org

212-485-9263

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11. Press Release: Children’s Artists for Gun Safety

Politics and children’s literature are, to a certain extent, inextricable.  The education of our children is so closely tied into our understanding of what education could and should entail (and for whom) that it is innately political.  But there are other issues that are affected by politics too.  Children’s author/musician/performer Bill Harley is familiar to many for his good work over the years. Now he’s sent out the following call for better gun laws in our country.  For those like-minded authors and illustrators amongst you, this may be of interest.

What can artists do to speak out for a better world? Artists for Safe Kids (ASK) is asking artists who write, illustrate, sing, and perform for children to sign the accompanying statement, hoping to make a difference. We are thinking about other activities and projects to develop, but for now, we’re asking as many artists as possible to sign on to this statement.  If you sign, we’ll let you know what we’re up to, and you can decide for yourself what level of participation you’re comfortable supporting. As it is now, the only thing that will happen is that your name will appear when we make a public statement. If you’re  interested in doing more, let me know (billharley1@gmail.com), and please consider passing it on to others you think might be interested.

Bill Harley

Children’s Writers, Artists and Performers  for Gun Sanity

As artists, writers and performers who work with and for children, we have witnessed with growing concern and despair the tragic effect of gun violence on children. We call out for a saner, more rational gun policy in our country, states and communities.  We join with other voices calling for comprehensive universal background checks for gun purchasers, better screening for mental health problems, better gun safety regulations for gun owners to keep children safe from accidental firings, and a limit on semi-automatic weapons and large magazines. We ask you to join us in this call for a safer world.

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12. Review of the Day: In a Village by the Sea by Muon Van

InaVillage1In a Village by the Sea
By Muon Van
Illustrated by April Chu
Creston Books
$16.95
ISBN: 978-1-939547-156
Ages 4-6
On shelves now

We talk a lot about wanting a diverse selection of picture books on our library, bookstore, and home shelves, but it seems to me that the key to giving kids a broad view of the wider world (which is the ultimate effect of reading literature about people outside your immediate social, economic, and racial circle) is finding books that go into formerly familiar territory and then give the final product an original spin. For example, I was just telling a colleague the other day that true diverse literature for kids will never come to pass until we’ve a wide variety of gross out books about kids of different races, abilities, genders, etc. That’s one way of reaching parity. Another way would be to tackle that age old form so familiar to kids of centuries past; nursery rhymes. Now we’ve already seen the greatest nursery rhyme collection of the 21st century hit our shelves earlier this year (Over the Hills and Far Away, edited by Elizabeth Hammill) and that’s great. That’s swell. That’s super. But one single book does not a nursery rhyme collection make. Now I admit freely that Muon Van and April Chu’s In a Village by the Sea is not technically a nursery rhyme in the classic sense of the term. However, Merriam-Webster defines the form as “a short rhyme for children that often tells a story.” If that broad definition is allowed then I submit “In a Village by the Sea” as a true, remarkable, wonderful, evocative, modern, diverse, ultimately beautiful nursery rhyme for the new Millennium. Lord knows we could always use more. Lord knows this book deserves all the attention it can get.

On the title page a single brown cricket grabs a rolled piece of parchment, an array of watercolor paints and paintbrushes spread below her (to say nothing of two soon-to-be-necessary screws). Turn the page and there a fisherman loads his boat in the predawn hour of the day, his dog attentive but not following. As he pushes off, surrounded by other fishermen, and looks behind him to view his receding seaside home we read, “In a fishing village by the sea there is a small house.” We zoom in. “In that house high above the waves is a kitchen.” The dog is now walking into the house, bold as brass, and as the story continues we meet the woman and child inside. We also meet that same industrious cricket from the title page, painting a scene in which a fisherman combats the elements, comforted by the picture of his family he keeps beside him. And in another picture is his village, and his house, and in that house is his family, waiting to greet him safely home. Set in Vietnam, the book has all the rhythms and cadence of the most classic rhyme.

InaVillage2When it comes to rhymes, I feel that folks tend to be fairly familiar with the cumulative form. Best highlighted in nursery rhymes likes “The House That Jack Built” it’s the kind of storytelling that builds and builds, always repeating the elements that came before. Less celebrated, perhaps, is the nesting rhyme. Described in Using Poetry Across the Curriculum: A Whole Language Approach by Barbara Chatton, the author explains that children love patterns. “The simplest pattern is a series in which objects are placed in some kind of order. This order might be from smallest to largest, like the Russian nesting dolls, or a range of height, length, or width . . . A nursery rhyme using the ‘nesting’ pattern is ‘This Is the Key to My Kingdom’.” Indeed, it was that very poem I thought of first when I read In a Village by the Sea. In the story you keep going deeper and deeper into the narrative, an act that inevitably raises questions.

Part of what I like so much about the storytelling in this book is not just its nesting nature, but also the questions it inspires in the child reader. At first we’re working entirely in the realm of reality with a village, a fisherman, his wife, and their child. But then when we dive down into the cricket’s realm we see that it is painting a magnificent storm with vast waves that appear to be a kind of ode to that famous Japanese print, “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa”. When we get into that painting and find that our fisherman is there and in dire straits we begin to wonder what is and isn’t real. Artist April Chu runs with that uncertainty well. Notice that as the fisherman sits in his boat with the storm overhead, possibly worrying for his own safety, in his hands he holds a box. In that box is a photo of his wife and child, his village, and what appears to be a small wooden carving of a little cricket. The image of the village contains a house and (this isn’t mentioned in the text) we appear to zoom into that picture and that house where the sky is blue and the sea is calm. So what is going on precisely? Is it all a clever cricket’s imaginings or are each of these images true in some way? I love the conversation starter nature of this book. Younger kids might take the events at face value. Older kids might begin to enmesh themselves into the layered M.C. Escher-ness of the enterprise. Whatever draws them in, Van and Chu have created a melodic visual stunner. No mean feat.

For the record, the final image in this book is seemingly not of the cricket’s original painting but of the fisherman heading home on a calm sea to a distant home. What’s so interesting about the painting is that if you compare it to the cricket’s previous one (of the storm) you can see that the curls and folds of the paper are identical. This is the same canvass the cricket was working on before. Only the image has changed. How is this possible? The answer lies in what the cricket is signing on the painting’s lower right-hand corner. “AC”. April Chu. Artist as small brown cricket. I love it.

InaVillage3So who precisely is April Chu? Read her biography at the back and you see that she began her career as an architect, a fact that in part explains the sheer level of detail at work in tandem with this simple text. Let us be clear that while the writing in this book is engaging on a couple different levels, with the wrong artist it wouldn’t have worked half as well as it now does. Chu knows how to take a single story from a blue skied mellow to a wrath of the gods storm center and then back again to a sweet peach colored sunset. She also does a good dog. I’ll say it. The yellow lab in this book is practically the book’s hero as we follow it in and out of the house. He’s even in his master’s family photograph.

One question that occurred to me as I read the book was why I immediately thought of it as contemporary. No date accompanies the text. No elements that plant it firmly in one time or another. The text is lilting and lovely but doesn’t have anything so jarring as a 21st century iPhone or ear bud lurking in the corners. In Van’s Author’s Note at the end she mentions that much of the inspiration for the tale was based on both her family’s ancestral village in Central Vietnam and her father’s work, and mother’s experiences, after they immigrated to American shores. By logic, then, the book should have a bit of a historical bent to it. Yet people still fish in villages. Families still wait for the fisherman to return to shore. And when I looked at April Chu’s meticulous art I took in the clothing more than anything else. The mom’s rubber band in her hair. The cut of the neck of her shirt. The other fishermen and their shirts and the colors of the father’s. Then there was the way the dishes stack up next to the stove. I dunno. It sure looks like it’s set in a village today. But these things can be hard to judge.

There’s this real feeling that meta picture books that play with their format and turn the fourth wall into rubble are relatively new. But if we look at rhymes like “This Is the Key to the Kingdom”, we can see how they were toying with our notion of how to tell a story in a new way long long before old Stinky Cheese Man. I guess what I like most about “In a Village by the Sea” is how to deals with this duality. It manages to feel old and new all at the same time. It reads like something classic but it looks and feels like something entirely original. A great read aloud, beautifully illustrated, destined to become beloved of parents, librarians, and kids themselves for years to come. This is a book worth discovering.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent by publisher for review.

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13. Fusenews: Sweet Uncanny Valley High

  • chla-27-1Of all the most deserving, least lauded children’s book awards out there, my favorite might be The Phoenix Awards.  “The award, given to a book originally published in the English language, is intended to recognize books of high literary merit. The Phoenix Award is named after the fabled bird who rose from its ashes with renewed life and beauty. Phoenix books also rise from the ashes of neglect and obscurity and once again touch the imaginations and enrich the lives of those who read them.”  They’ve just announced the 2015 winner and I admit that I never read it (One Bird by Kyoko Mori).  There was a time, when I was young, when I tried to read as many Phoenix books as possible.  Someday, maybe, I’ll try again.
  • Heck, while we’re at it let’s also mention once more the Mathical Award which is given to books that “inspire young people to engage with mathematics in the world around them.”  The submission info is here.  Marc Aronson’s thoughts on the matter are here.
  • For those of you in the market for ideas for your next middle grade novel, I suggest checking out this Dunmore, PA housing advertisement.  Have at it. Thanks to Kate for the link.
  • New Podcast Alert: You know I’m just goofy for new children’s literary podcasts.  Heck, I once did an entire Literary Salon on the topic.  Well, Ms. Julie Sternberg has just started Play, Memory.  As she describes it: “I interview authors and others about the ways in which themes that recur in children’s literature–themes like the secrets we keep in childhood; the times we disappoint our parents; and the times our parents disappoint us–have played out in their lives.”
  • And in other podcast news, there’s an interview with Fuse #8 favorite Frances Hardinge over at Tor.com.  Because anything that has to do with Ms. Hardinge is awesome.  I recently found myself having lunch at the same table as Patrick Ness and, at a loss of anything else to say to him, I realized we both belonged to the Mutual Admiration Society of Frances Hardinge.  So to speak. Thanks to Sarah Hagge for the link.
  • There’s a nice big post on endpapers up and running at Nancy Vo’s Illustration blog.

105958-fullThis one’s rather interesting to me.  Folks in my family often send me links that have to do with libraries or librarians in some way.  I find some more useful than others.  Still, I was very intrigued by the recent piece called The Archivist Files: Why the woman who started LA’s branch libraries was fired. Wowzah.  Them’s good reading.

Speaking of librarians, did you know there’s an entire site out there dedicated to them dressing up and posting pictures of themselves?  Yup. Librarian Wardrobe. The more you know.

“But there’s a third set of children’s books: those that fall into an uncanny valley between enjoyable literature and ignorable junk. These are books that exert an irresistible pull on adult consciousness but don’t reward it. They are malign presences on the bookshelf. They hurt. One of them may be the best-selling children’s picture book of all time.”  That’s a hard sentence to beat and, as it happens, I agree with author Gabriel Roth every which way from Sunday.  He discusses what may be one of the worst “canonical” picture books of all time.

  • This doesn’t actually have any connection to children’s literature really (though you might be able to make a case for it) but did you know that there’s a site created by NYPL where you can look at old photos of pretty much every single block in the city?  It’s called OldNYC and I’ve just handed you a website that will eat away at your spare time for the rest of the day.  You’re welcome.
  • I was discussing this with buddy Gregory K the other day.  Can you think of a single instance where a Newbery Award winner went out, after winning said award, and became an agent?  Because that’s what Ms. Rebecca Stead has just done and I think it’s safe to say that it’s an unprecedented move.
  • Daily Image:

So there’s this artist out there by the name of James Hance.  And this, my friends, is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the content he has available.  Here’s a taste:

big-a-most-bold-adventureforever-far-away-BIG

never-tell-them-the-odds-BIGnot-a-bad-bit-of-rescuing-BIGtil-luke-said-BIG

Thanks to Stephanie Whelan for the link.

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14. The Circus Mirandus Blog Tour: How Hard Is It to Write a Circus That Isn’t Creepy?

CircusMirandusWhen I was asked to participate in the current Circus Mirandus Blog Tour, I was intrigued.  You know how sometimes a publisher will fall in love with a debut novel and then promote the whozitz out of it, hither, thither, and yon?  Well, that’s what Penguin has done with this title from first time author Cassie Beasley.  And whenever that sort of thing happens, I get very skeptical.  So I approached the book expecting to find it overwritten or cloying or to have something wrong with it.  What I found instead was fresh and fascinating.  The kind of book I’d recommend left and right to any kid.  And one thing about it struck me as very interesting indeed.  You see, most of the circus middle grade books I see are creepy in some way, so I feel like making a book about a circus that a kid might actually want to go to (heck, live in!) is enormously difficult. 

For this blog tour I asked Ms. Beasley one very simple question: How do you manage to write a non-creepy circus?  Here is her answer:

“When I say that my novel is about a boy trying to find a magic circus, most people respond with enthusiasm. Maybe it’s just that they don’t want to puncture my cheerful debut author bubble, but I like to think they’re genuinely excited by the idea of a circus story. For me, the mention of circuses calls to mind a fantasy world of sequined costumes and cotton candy, and I think it does the same for many others.

Sometimes, though, I meet potential readers who have a different reaction. They want to know if Circus Mirandus is a “creepy” book. They want to know if I’ve written a horror story.

CircusMirandus4I was surprised the first time someone asked. I initially thought the questioner must be concerned about the fact that my main character, Micah, is trying to save his terminally ill grandfather.

“No,” she said, when I started to explain my thoughts on character death in children’s literature. “I mean the circus. Is it scary?” She paused. “Are there clowns?”

The question actually makes a lot of sense when you consider the role of the circus in fiction. Real-life circuses are meant to delight, but fictional circuses often seem to be designed to do the opposite. An entire page at the (infinitely distracting) TV tropes site is dedicated to the “Circus of Fear,” and the number and variety of evil circuses listed is impressive.

Circuses, traveling fairs, and carnivals are, in some ways, a natural choice for the author in need of a disquieting setting. For one thing, they are supposed to be cheerful places, and transforming something lovely and innocent into something sinister is the basic stuff of horror. A T. rex chasing you is only frightening. A clown chasing you is frightening and also wrong.

And even when we exclude the murderous clowns, a circus still contains so much potential creepiness. It can be a transient and turbulent beast that arrives in an otherwise stagnant environment and starts to change things around. People alter their daily routine. Children sneak out of their houses to see the show. The town is suddenly a temporary home to masked strangers who will perform peculiar feats for a few nights and then depart.

CircusMirandus3And the performances themselves, the glitz and the mystery, create an otherworldly environment that is magical but fraying at the edges. A carnival is a pretty lie. Regular, imperfect people hide under the face paint, and electric cables power the rides, and sometimes if you look at just the wrong moment you see the magician sneaking around the edge of the curtain instead of vanishing into thin air.

Some people find this incongruity disturbing. Others relish it. It can be fun, after all, to be creeped out.

Having said all of that, my own circus is not menacing. Circus Mirandus is meant to be a place of joy and wonder. It’s where Micah thinks he will find the help he needs to save his grandfather. Most of the darkness in the story comes from Grandpa Ephraim’s illness, which is the sort of everyday horror that many children face. I don’t think it would have been right to distract from that with a terrifying fantasy world.

So, the magic is real, and it is (mostly) used benevolently. At Circus Mirandus, the aerial artists fly without the aid of wires, and there is no risk that any of the children in the audience, even Micah’s analytical friend Jenny, will see through the Lightbender’s illusions.

To the surprise of no one who has met me, Circus Mirandus is the world child-me would have created for herself if she had been given unlimited power.

This doesn’t mean the circus is perfect, as Micah will discover, but it is a force for good in the world. What conflict the circus creates is not the result of something sweet turned rotten, but that of something longed for that is almost out of reach.

CircusMirandus2I think Micah might tell anyone curious enough to ask how extraordinarily difficult it is to believe in something like Circus Mirandus in this world, especially when the people around you are telling you that your situation is hopeless. I think he might say that you need great reserves of courage to find it. I think he might tell you how hard it can be, once you’ve finally made it, to hold on to the magic.

So, though creepy circus stories abound, mine is not one of them. My circus is a dream world, one that I have tried to fill with the kind of magic that every young person searches for at some point.

For Micah, that search is rewarded in ways he doesn’t expect. But I believe that his decision to make the journey to the circus is ultimately more important than the fact that he reaches it. If there is one idea I want readers to take away from Circus Mirandus, I think perhaps it is this: that at the limits of magic (and even magic has its limits), in that place where we face the darkness, there is only the choice that Micah has to make.

Despair? Or hope?”

Many thanks to Ms. Beasley for her in-depth and fascinating answer and to the good folks at Penguin for inviting her here in the first place.

About Cassie Beasley: website/twitter/goodreads

CASSIE BEASLEY is from rural Georgia, where, when she’s not writing, she helps out on the family pecan farm. She earned her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. CIRCUS MIRANDUS is her first novel.

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15. Cover Reveal: Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin

Folks sometimes ask me if I’ll ever do cover reveals of debuts.  It’s an interesting question.  Often the books that I’m doing cover reveals of are by authors or illustrators that I admire.  If I’m doing a review of someone new, how do I know they’re any great shakes?  I don’t, of course, but sometimes you appreciate a book for reasons above and beyond your familiarity with its creator.  Take the case of today’s reveal.  Called “Rules by Cynthia Lord meets Counting by 7s“, it’s set in Manhattan.  That’s nice but if I’m going to be honest I was probably also attracted to the fact that the name “Thyme” is in the title and it reminds me of the old Edgar Eager title Time Garden.

CountingThyme

Here’s the publisher description:

When eleven-year-old Thyme Owen’s little brother, Val, is accepted into a new cancer drug trial, it’s just the second chance that he needs. But it also means the Owens family has to move to New York, thousands of miles away from Thyme’s best friend and everything she knows and loves. The island of Manhattan doesn’t exactly inspire new beginnings, but Thyme tries to embrace the change for what it is: temporary.

After Val’s treatment shows real promise and Mr. Owens accepts a full-time position in the city, Thyme has to face the frightening possibility that the move to New York is permanent. Thyme loves her brother, and knows the trial could save his life—she’d give anything for him to be well—but she still wants to go home, although the guilt of not wanting to stay is agonizing. She finds herself even more mixed up when her heart feels the tug of new friends, a first crush and even a crotchety neighbor and his sweet whistling bird. All Thyme can do is count the minutes, the hours and the days, and hope time can bring both a miracle for Val and a way back home.

You can also follow its author, Melanie Conklin, on Twitter at @MLConklin.  Many thanks to

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16. Buttocks — Fiction

Full credit (or blame, depending on how you look at it) goes to MK Eagle and Gretchen Kolderup on this one.  It’s a pretty simple post.  Hardly worth mentioning . . . except that at heart I think we’re all 10-year-olds.  And it’s completely librarian related, so I don’t even know if you’ll be as amused as we were but . . .

Did you know that there’s a subject heading that’s “Buttocks — Fiction” for children’s literature?

That’s right.  A whole subject heading list.  When Eagle and Kolderup discovered it they realized that you could easily create a “Buttbook buttlist”.  Or you could play a rousing game of “Guess the book!”.  Here are some of the headings for the titles we were looking at:

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 9.26.05 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-05 at 9.26.27 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-05 at 9.26.41 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-05 at 9.27.16 PMThat last one there has a lot of hints in it.  Pretty easy to guess, when it comes right down to it.

By the way, by writing this post I am undoubtedly guaranteeing that I’m going to meet my untimely end before I have a chance to write another one.  People will be trying to say supportive things about me and my life and when they turn in somber thought to my blog THIS will be the post that greets them.

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17. Review of the Day: Hilo by Judd Winick

HiloHilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth
By Judd Winick
Random House Children’s Books
$13.99
ISBN: 978-0-385-38617-3
Ages 9-12
On shelves September 1st

Relentless cheer. You can use it for good. You can use it for evil. You can use it in the name of humor too, but that’s a trickier game to play. I’m not saying it can’t be done. It just takes a certain level of finesse. Now I read a lot of graphic novels for kids in a given year that sell themselves as “funny”. And while I know that humor is subjective, I tell you plain that most of them aren’t of the laugh-out-loud variety. So when someone tries to sell me on the “funny” line with a comic I don’t actually expect that it’s gonna make me guffaw on the subway and embarrass me in front of the other riders. I guess I should be pretty peeved at you, Hilo for doing just exactly that, but how can I be mad at you? Your crazy positive outlook on life combined with your funny funny lines just makes you the most enjoyable hero to hit the library shelves in years. We get a lot of heroes around here but hardly any of them make us laugh. This guy, I like. This guy, your kids will like. This guy’s a keeper.

What if the one thing you were good at up and moved away and left you all alone? D.J. hasn’t the talents of the other people in his family and the way he figures it the only thing he was ever good at was being friends with his next door neighbor Gina. So when Gina moved away, so did the one thing that made him feel important. Three years pass, D.J.’s alone, and that’s when he spots something falling out of the sky. It’s small. It’s blond. And it’s wearing sparkly silver underpants. By all appearances the visitor is a small boy who calls himself Hilo. He doesn’t remember who he is or why he’s there or even what he is, but what he DOES love is discovering everything, and I mean everything, about the world. It looks like Hilo may be from another dimension, which is great. Except it looks like he’s not the only one. And it looks like he’d better remember who he is and fast because someone, or some THING, is after him.

We hear a lot of talk about “likability” and whether or not you relate to a story’s hero. In terms of D.J., I think that even the most accomplished children out there can relate to a kid who feels like he isn’t good at anything at all. Hilo’s a little different. He has more than a smidgen of The Greatest American Hero in his make-up, alongside a bit of Mork from Mork and Mindy and Avatar (the Nickelodeon cartoon). First, you get someone with powers they don’t completely understand. Next, you get a otherworldly funny being with superpowers figuring out day-to-day life. And finally, he’s a kid who ran from his frightening responsibilities and is now trying to undo a great wrong. I really love that last trope a lot because it’s something we all suspect we’d do ourselves when under serious pressure. Plus, like Avatar, Hilo delivers its message with a diverse cast and more than a smidgen of the funny.

In his bio at the back of the book Winick mentions that amongst his various influences he grew up reading the comic strip Bloom County. He’s not the first children’s book author/cartoonist to cite Berkeley Breathed as an inspiration (by the way, I love that Winick’s characters live in “Berke County”), but unlike the Bloom County imitators I’ve seen out there, Winick has managed to take the flavor and humor of the original strips and give them his own distinctive twist. Granted, the tighty whities and method of drawing toes look awfully similar to the feet and underwear of Milo Bloom, but there the direct correlations quit.

Actually, Winick’s artistic style is kind of fascinating. Particularly when it comes to characters’ eyes. A lot of the time he uses the old L’il Orphan Annie technique of keeping the pupils white and blank. But periodically, and for emphasis, small black pupils will appear. Then, in particularly emotional moments, full-color irises as well. Watching when precisely Winick chooses to use one kind of eye or another is a kind of mini lesson in comic drawing techniques in and of itself. Now Hilo is rendered in full-color glory, a fact that Winick uses to his advantage whenever he wants to create something like a portal to the Earth. But what I really liked watching, and the opening sequence is a brilliant example of this, is how he uses panels. The beginning of the book, which is a kind of flash forward into the future events to come, is a mix of action and visual humor. Even though you don’t know who these characters are, you are instantly on their side. Running from gigantic killer robots sort of cuts the “empathy” timeline in half, after all.

Now if I’ve learned anything from my time on this hallowed globe it’s that kids aren’t fans of true cliffhangers. The books where the hero is literally at the end of some screaming precipice or staring down certain death? It bugs them. They won’t stand for it. This isn’t to say that don’t like it when there’s the promise of another volume of their favorite series. But you’ve gotta ease into that, right? Leave them wanting more but solve the problem at hand. I won’t lie to you. Hilo ends on a cliffhanger. Fortunately, it’s the kind that isn’t going to make you mad when you get to it. Unless you can’t get the next book in the series. Then you’ll be furious.

I was trying to find equivalent kid comics to Hilo that know how to ratchet up the funny alongside the fast-paced. There’s a Jeff Smith blurb on this book so obviously Bone comes to mind. But I’d also be sure to mention Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado’s Giants Beware in the same breath. Any maybe Jeffrey Brown’s Star Wars: Jedi Academy just to be safe. All these books understand that while kids will follow an exciting, well-drawn comic to the ends of the earth, throw in a little humor there and they’ll go from merely enjoying it to loving it with some deep, buried part of their little comic-loving souls. That’s the fandom Hilo is poised to create. Good clean laser-beams-coming-outta-your-hands fun for the whole family. Now hand me #2, please. I have some more reading to do.

On shelves September 1st.

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18. Gary Soto, the Art of Not Writing for Children, and the Public Shame Theater

I was flipping through my most recent copy of Horn Book feeling pretty special since I’ve an article in there (“Apples to Elephants: Artists in Animation”) and when I get to the back I see a mention of a book I’ve never heard of before: Why I Don’t Write Children’s Literature by Gary Soto.

WhyIDontWrite

If I missed the book it’s not too terribly surprising.  The publisher is a university press (University Press of New England, no less).  Not my usual bag.  And I’m not going to necessarily debate the relative merits or lack thereof of Soto’s point of view.  If you want to do that, Roger did a post back in 2013 (long before this book came out) about a Huffington Post piece Soto wrote on the same topic. Roger’s post was called Now You’re Telling Us? and it contains the world’s greatest accompanying photograph (seriously, I wish I could steal it with impunity but he knows where I live).  There’s a more recent review of this book specifically over at Bookshots.

What interested me so much about the piece was what it had to say about those children’s and YA authors and illustrators that find themselves subjected to a rousing bit of public shaming.  Because, quite frankly, in 2015 that topic is particularly pertinent.

In case you’re not familiar with the case of Gary Soto and why he’s saying he’ll never ever ever write for kids again, no sir, don’t ask him, nuh-uh, *fingers in ears going lalalalalalala!!!!*, here’s a recap.  In 2005 Gary was our most prominent Latino guy writer for kids.  You’ve heard of Chato’s Kitchen?  No?  Go out, read it, and come back to me.  Okay?  Good stuff.  He did middle grade as well, though his day job (so to speak) was as a poet.  And since he was so incredibly prominent and popular, who should come ah-knocking at his door but Mattel.  Yes, the toy company.  The toy company that a couple years earlier had purchased the American Girl dolls and was now in charge of publishing some accompanying books.  There was a new doll in town by the name of Marisol, and she was in need of a good author.  So the deal was pretty straightforward.  Gary would write some early chapter books, they’d pay him, happy times all around.

Gary was told he could set the books in either Chicago or New York so he selected Chicago.  Specifically, the Pilsen neighborhood.  For a while.  You see, in the first book Marisol’s mother explains to her daughter that they’ll be moving away from their neighborhood because the parents think it’s too dangerous.  The editor okays the book.  It goes to press.  It’s being read left and right.  And then all hell breaks loose.

Here’s how Gary described the incident:

“The first of nearly hundreds of calls began, calls from the mayor of Des Plaines, aldermen, Chicano activists, an art director, Time, BBC, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, NBC’s “Today Show,” ABC’s “World News Tonight,” a journalist from Spain, students, professors–all because I had written a controversial piece of dialogue uttered by Marisol’s mother. She, in her motherly reasoning, argues that they had to move out of Pilsen. The mother spouts, “Dad and I think it’s time that we move out of this neighborhood.” The mother follows up in the same paragraph saying that it was dangerous and there was no place for their daughter (Marisol) to play. This was caught by Andrew Herman of The Chicago Sun-Times, who brought this apparent slight to the public’s attention. Mr. Herman was among the first and last callers. I didn’t pick up. “

As I read this I got the profoundest sense of deja vu.  We’ve seen this before.  This mass outrage.  The piling on.  The anger outsized to the supposed crime.  What if, then, what if Gary had written Marisol not in 2005 but in 2015?

The interesting thing about Gary’s case is that his book was a very rare case of corporate diversity.  Mattel was working to promote a book that was specifically about a girl from a too little lauded minority.  We didn’t exactly have tons of early chapter books about Latino girls in 2005 (and we’re not exactly swimming in them today either).  I can think of no equivalent to Marisol.  Which is to say, a case where a huge company went out and found an author to help promote a product and the product was a girl of a race other than white.  Then this happened and we got set back once again.

According to Soto, when you zero in on the moment of outrage, the instigator was Andrew Herman, a reporter from Chicago.  But many times when people get angry it can be hard to pinpoint precisely what sets them off.  So I got to thinking about the various controversies that might compare to Gary’s over the years with connections to children’s and YA literature (some tenuous) and how they were handled.  And if we can learn anything from them, it’s that memory is a short thing and Twitter a mighty weapon.  Some examples:

Alice Hoffman and the Twitter scandal – This year folks are talking about Alice Hoffman’s latest title for kids, Nightbird.  Not many remember back in 2009 the unfortunate incident that occurred when Ms. Hoffman tweeted the phone number and email address of a professional reviewer.  Twitter was only three years old when this incident occurred and Hoffman’s response launched many a think piece about writers and the current state of a kind of social media where there is very little to stop someone from reacting instantaneously without the benefit of time to slow down their responses.  But as I say, few remember the incident today, which indicates to me that our memories of these various brouhahas fade faster than we might initially have thought.

James Frey turned Pittacus Lore – There is a longstanding tradition of people blackballed from one profession turning to books for youth.  A lot of Hollywood writers went that route.  Langston Hughes did too.  So when Oprah called out James Frey on whether or not his memoir A Million Little Pieces was factual or not, it seems logical that after the furor that followed he would turn to YA literature.  He would go on to seemingly pen the Pittacus Lore books, the first of which was I Am Number Four.  That said, even his work on those books was not without its own kind of controversy.  Not that many folks were aware of it at the time.

Kaavya Viswanathan and How Opal Mehta Got Kissed – Perhaps no controversy here is quite as famous as that of Ms. Viswanathan.  The story of this YA author, fresh out of high school, attending Harvard, and writing YA novels of her own was marred by the discovery that whole swaths of her final book were plagiarized.  Folks like Megan McCafferty and Meg Cabot as well as others were cited.  Unlike Hoffman and Frey, Ms. Viswanathan has not returned to the world of YA literature, though she graduated with Honors.  I was intrigued by a statement from Ms. McCafferty regarding the fact that this was an Alloy Entertainment title and they might have played their own role. “Was it the book packagers who really wrote the book and plagiarized my books or was it her?” Other folks equated her actions with the times we live in today.

Daniel Handler and Andrew Smith – And here we come to the most recent controversies in the children’s and YA realm.  In one case, an author spoke at a large book award gala, made a statement that pretty much exploded the internet, and then turned around and apologized and offered compensation for his actions.  When Mr. Soto cites in Why I Don’t Write Children’s Literature a writer who said that “in a rare moment of corporate courage [Mattel] didn’t simply give in to the extortion of demands (15 scholarships, plus jobs programs, plus more – I’m surprised they didn’t ask for ponies, too) but stood by its author and its book” I think of the Daniel Handler incident.  The “extortion of demands”.  Would it have been so awful if Mattel had made a scholarship?  What would have been lost?  What gained?  Seems to me that Mr. Handler made good and went the classy route with his case.

The case of Andrew Smith is where Twitter turns from the place where mistakes are made, as with Ms. Hoffman, to where the fires of outrage are stoked.  While Mr. Handler made a statement in front of a very large crowd, Mr. Smith made a statement in VICE that made a bunch of people unhappy.  I won’t get into the where or the whys, except perhaps to say that this is an incident that filled my head with thoughts of this nature.  More interesting to me is how Smith, like Handler, found his head on a pike with a speed hitherto unimaginable.  I was reading up on the Justine Sacco incident the other day, where a single offensive tweet led to a witch hunt of unimaginable size and scope.

So imagine, if you will, that the Gary Soto incident occurred this year.  Imagine the tweets.  The headlines.  Would Mattel have offered a scholarship in 2015 even if they hadn’t in 2005?  I think it’s safe to say that Soto would still be deciding not to write for children when all was said and done.  I just wonder if in our current state of public shaming whether or not more folks will follow in his footsteps or if we’re getting to the point where there’s a script to follow (it’s no secret that I’ve placed Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed on hold with my library system).  And will folks even remember five years later?  We don’t have any answers, but at least Soto’s story carries with it some food for thought.

 

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19. Fuse 8 TV: Geoff Rodkey and Reading (Too Much) Into Karen Katz

And a happy Thursday to you all.  It’s May 21st and that means another episode of Fuse #8 TV is up and running.  As per usual I kick the whole kerschmozzle off with a new edition of “Reading (Too Much) Into Picture Books”.  Though I had a recent request to tackle The Giving Tree, I couldn’t find an adequate hook.  Until I do, I find that the board book Subway by Anastasia Suen (illustrated by Karen Katz) has a spy thriller vibe going on just below its seemingly innocuous surface.  Doubt me?  Check it out.

As for our special guest, I was pleased as punch to speak to Geoff Rodkey.  For years I’ve been a fan of his Chronicles of Egg series.  Now he has a whole new bunch of books out, this time with Little, Brown.  Beginning with The Tapper Twins Go to War (With Each Other), Geoff speaks frankly and honestly about his screenwriting life, publishers he’s dealt with, and the true nature of his work on the Carmen Sandiego video games.

 

All other Fuse #8 TV episodes are archived here.

Once more, thanks to Little, Brown for being my sponsor and helping to put this together.

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20. Press Release Fun: The 2015 Anne Izard Storytellers’ Choice Awards

The Anne Izard Storytellers’ Choice Awards Committee is pleased to announce the recipients of the 12th biennial Awards.  The awards will be presented in a ceremony on Tuesday, June 16, 2015, at the White Plains (New York) Public Library. The program is open to the public.

The Anne Izard Storytellers’ Choice Award was established in 1990 by librarians, storytellers and educators in Westchester County, New York, to honor Anne Izard, an extraordinary librarian, storyteller, and Children’s Services Consultant in the Westchester County Library System. The Award seeks to bring the riches of storytelling to greater public awareness by highlighting and promoting distinguished books on storytelling published for children and adults. Folklore, fiction, biography and historical stories must be entirely successful without consideration of graphic elements. Books which enrich a storyteller’s understanding of story, folk traditions, aesthetics, and methods of storytelling are also eligible. Books considered for the Twelfth Award were original material, reprints, or new English translations published in the United States between January 1, 2013 and December 31, 2014.

Recipients of the 12th Anne Izard Storytellers’ Choice Awards are:

Beyond the Briar Patch : Affrilachian Folktales, Food and Folklore by Lyn Ford [Parkhurst Brothers 2014]

The Boy Who Loved Math by Deborah Heiligman [Roaring Brook Press 2013]

Every Day a Holiday: A Storyteller’s Memoir by Elizabeth Ellis [Parkhurst Brothers 2014]

The Golden Age of Folk & Fairy Tales: From the Brothers Grimm to Andrew Lang by Jack Zipes [Hackett Publishing 2013]

The Grudge Keeper by Mara Rockliff  [Peachtree Publishers 2014]

The King of Little Things by Bil Lepp [Peachtree Publishers  2013]

Mysterious Traveler by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham [Candlewick Press 2013]

Ol’ Clip Clop: A Ghost Story by Patricia C. McKissack [Holiday House 2013]

Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner [Oxford University Press 2014]

Story by Story: Creating a Student Storytelling Troupe… by Karen Chace [Parkhurst Brothers 2014]

Teaching with Story by Margaret Read MacDonald, Jennifer MacDonald Whitman and Nathaniel Forest Whitman [August House 2014]

Whiskers, Tails & Wings: Animal Folktales from Mexico by Judy Goldman [Charlesbridge 2013]

You Never Heard of Willie Mays?! by Jonah Winter [Schwartz & Wade Books 2013]

For more information, please contact Tata Canuelas, Chair, at tcanuelas@whiteplainsny.gov,  or  Ellen Tannenbaum, Co-Chair, at storyteller29@gmail.com .

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21. Video Sunday: The Lord of the Jello

Morning, folks.  What’s that?  Why, yes. Yes, I would like to watch this video about Nathan Hale’s newest GN The Underground Abductor. Thank you! Seems to me the man has lucked out in terms of timing too. With people rallying to put Ms. Tubman on the $20 bill, it is now vastly important to learn more about her. Plus, you cannot read this book and not become an instantaneous Tubman fan.

So here in NYC we’ve a little something called the NYC Neighborhood Library Awards. Patrons nominate their local branches and the finalists have these cool videos. The first branch I ever worked in was my beloved Jefferson Market. Look at this and tell me it’s not the most gorgeous place you’ve ever seen.

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Jefferson Market Library from Well Exposed on Vimeo.

My castle.

Now lots of successful children’s authors use their money for good causes.  But really, opening an independent bookstore is just a great idea all around.  Jeff Kinney talks about his newly opened store here.  I love his reasoning behind not making it just a children’s store (though, frankly, that would have been a-okay with me too).

Screen Shot 2015-05-23 at 5.30.10 PM

For you Betsy Bird completists out there (hi, mom), here’s a chance to see me talk twice about digital stuff. Once around 6:36 and once around 24:20. This livestream video was done in celebration of a Kickstarter Campaign called Time Traveler Tours & Tales which seeks to meld interactive history with honest-to-goodness books. I was asked to speak about story and electronic media and libraries, so I did just that:

Doggone it. The Scholastic preview just went up and the books look fantastic.  And me not going to ALA either.  Oh, Book Expo . . . .

Screen Shot 2015-05-23 at 8.44.40 PM

And for our off-topic video today, this is sorta kinda on topic. If you want to stretch your definition of “children’s literature”.  Recently there’s been a lot of talk about what the 10 best pre-recorded sketches of Saturday Night Live this season were. My heart lies with The Middle Earth Office.  For fans of the British office, this is just gravy. Pure gravy.

 

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22. What Makes a Picture Book Mega-Hit?

It’s not that it’s impossible to predict the “next big thing” in children’s literature, but it’s also not exactly a hard science.  Indeed, whenever a publisher starts spending beaucoup de bucks on a given title (hardcover f&gs, a serious marketing campaign for a debut author, etc.) I cringe a bit.  They’ve made their bets and they’re willing to bank on them.  I, on the other hand, make my own kinds of bets.  As a Materials Specialist it’s my job to figure out how many copies of any given title should be added to my library system.  Sometimes it’s a no brainer.  And sometimes I’m far off the mark.

Now picture book blockbuster hits, for whatever the reason, are where I fall down the hardest.  It’s not just that I can’t see them coming.  It’s often that I’m blind to whatever esoteric elements are in play, making those books big time hits.  With that in mind, today I’m going to talk about some of the top picture book blockbusters to come out in the last ten years.  Please note that I’m avoiding picture books with TV or other media tie-ins.  These are the folks who got where they are on their own merits.

BookWithNoPictures

The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak – It’s not the first time someone did this idea (the Elephant and Piggie title We Are In a Book does something very similar to what Novak does here) but I’ll admit that I haven’t ever seen anything exactly, precisely like this. With that in mind I bought a reasonable number of copies for my library system.  Then it took off like gangbusters.  Folks who’ve never even heard of Novak were pulling it from the shelves.  I’m not going to say it’s the most successful celebrity picture book of all time, but it sure comes close.  Wowzah.

DayCrayonsQuit

The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers – Though it’s by no means as pro-union as Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, one does wonder what the anti-union folks out there think about Daywalt’s smash success.  Definitely didn’t see this one coming.  I figured it was a bit wordy and long for total and complete New York Times bestseller domination but about the time it was on the list for 4+ months I knew we had a genuine blockbuster on our hands.

FancyNancy

Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glaser – You know, it’s very cool in some circles to disparage FN, but as crazy huge hits go, I’m a fan.  It’s a lot smarter than folks give it credit for.  You can trace its initial popularity to its sheer untold gobs of pink fanciness, but it sustains its hold on the marketplace in large part because of the writing.

GoodnightGoodnight

Good Night, Good Night, Construction Site by Sherri Duskey Rinker, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld – No idea.  None.  We see fun construction equipment picture books all the time.  And we see popular subjects mixed with the bedtime book genre all the time too.  Robots go to bed.  Dinosaurs.  But for whatever reason, this hit all the right buttons.  I can’t account for it.  Consider me broadsided by its success.

LittleBlueTruck

Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Jill McElmurry – I don’t think I realized, until this very moment, that the illustrator of the book is the same woman behind Kathi Appelt’s lovely 2015 title When Otis Courted Mama.  Huh!  In any case, this is a case of a book that’s a huge hit everywhere in the country except NYC.  I only know about it because it’s always on the Publishers Weekly bestseller list.

PeteCat1

Pete the Cat by Eric Litwin, illustrated by James Dean – This is one picture book that can credit its massive success to its creators’ self-promotion.  It’s also one of the rare self-published books to go mainstream and then blockbuster success.  Doesn’t hurt matters any that there’s a catchy little YouTube song that goes with it.  Other books have tried to replicate its success.  So far, no takers.

Pinkalicious

Pinkalicious by Victoria & Elizabeth Kann – According to legend, this book came about when an editor heard the song “Fergilicious” and thought it would make sense (post-Fancy Nancy‘s success) to do a book called “Pinkalicious”.  So the Kanns were hired and that was that.  Like Pete the Cat, subsequent sequels have only been credited to one of the original creators.  So there’s that.

PressHere

Press Here by Herve Tullet – Rarer than the self-published picture book that becomes a massive success?  The imported picture book.  Translations don’t usually yield the kind of crazy popularity enjoyed by Tullet’s best known title.  Still, the King of Preschool Books managed to make his sense of humor, style, and originality work here in the States.  No small feat.

Now what did I miss?

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23. Day of Dialog 2015: Putting the Chaotic Past Into Some Kind of Order

DayofDialog15

Book Expo’s a funny beastie. For years it existed for the booksellers of America.  Librarians?  Sure, they could go but we weren’t exactly encouraged to attend.  We had our ALA Conferences and that was nice and well and good.

But times, they change.  The internet appeared. The bloggers congealed (I’m trying to find a better term to describe this and honestly this is the best I’ve got). And suddenly librarians weren’t just attending Book Expo. They were being encouraged to attend.  Books is books is books.  Maybe you understand why I tend to break into near hysterical laughter when I read the whole “print is dead” argument.  Tell that to the Javits Center in May.

But before Book Expo really kicks up its heels and gets going, School Library Journal hosts a l’il sumthin’ sumthin’ called Day of Dialog.  In terms of sheer concentrated moderation and discussion and smart talking, there’s really no comparison.  For one day, the top authors with their amazing new books, many of which aren’t even out yet, do the talky talk thing.  And we get to listen in.

In writing this up I’m skipping the YA section (as is my wont) and the publisher preview portion.  The talks are always the most interesting part of any Day of Dialog (it’s not called Day of Promotion, after all) so that’s what I’ll report on.  Accordingly.

On this day in question Rebecca Miller, our illustrious Editor-in-Chief, stepped up to do the customary intro.  She was followed by Luann Toth.  And then it was time for our Keynote Speaker to start us off for the day. Whom could it be?  Well, his latest book is The Marvels, a title that I have only seen the smallest of glimpses of.  My hope was to see it officially somewhere in the course of the week. You can’t hide it from me forever, Scholastic!!  Luann, as she introduced him, also mentioned that he had a heckuva amazing exhibit at the D.C. Library’s Great Hall of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library from March 22-June 21. More details are here.

SelznickSpeaksI am talking, of course, about Brian Selznick.  To begin the day he started off with a pretty excellent intro, joking that he was going to cover all the topics that, by complete coincidence, were already being covered by the other panels today.  And here’s what a stand up and cheer dude he is.  He went out of his way to mention every single author and illustrator speaking that day.  With that in mind, he said, all he could seem to speak about at this point were cat food, marshmallows and . . . oh, yes.  Librarians.  Reading slowly: “I . . . like . . . librarians.”

Boy howdy, does he.  Because what Brian can do so amazingly is that he can name drop librarians.  Even the very first ones who loved him at the start.  Case in point,the first shout out was to the East Brunswick library, where he did his research for The Houdini Box.  The title came out while he worked at Eeyore’s Bookstore (remove your hats in remembrance, folks) and while there Brian was tracked down by a librarian who proceeded to inform him that he would be coming to her school, she would throw him a dinner party, and he’d stay at her house.  Those of us who remember Barbara Gross will believe easily that this conversation took place.  Now around this time the great (and funny) author Paula Danzinger said she’d take Brian under her wing, would mentor him, and show him the ways of the world.  So when she heard that he had already agreed to stay with Barbara she responded in horror, “You NEVER stay at a librarian’s house.”

But as Brian says, “I think it was clear that everyone in town just did what Barbara Gross told them too.”  For example, he found himself in her presence alongside Eileen and Jerry Spinelli who subsequently turned to Brian and asked, “Excuse me, why are we here?”

Brian deftly transitioned this into his first literary “win”.  Nancy Westlake in Iowa City, IA was the librarian who got in contact with him then.  The award had a name like “The Lemmie Award” or something to that effect.  In Nancy’s school, all the kids would vote on their favorite book and get deeply involved in the process.  “I don’t like to brag but I went on to win FOUR Lemmie Awards.  I’m the most winningest Lemmie Award winner in history.”  And so Brian even made a point to fly out when Nancy retired.

SelznickSpeaks2I suppose you could say that it’s easy to delight librarians by mentioning librarians and saying how awesome they are.  That’s fairly true of any profession.  The difference comes in whether or not the speaker actually believes in what they are saying.  And in the case of Mr. Selznick, his sincerity shines through.

The talk the turned to how Brian works.  As a general rule, Brian refuses to never repeat himself.  Instead, his method is to take what he’s learned from his previous books, and then build off of them in some manner.  After Walt Whitman he felt he had gone as far as he could in that format (the nonfiction picture book biography).  Hence the switchover to Hugo and its new style.

When Brian Selznick writes a book he doesn’t think about themes or big ideas.  He thinks about plot.  Cool ideas that can be incorporated into a story.  In The Marvels, his latest work, the starting impetus was a love of the theater. For him, the emotional motivation is the last thing to go into a story.  But when you’re actually reading the books the emotions are the most important part.  If you don’t care about them, the plot won’t matter.  And readers read what they want into the stories. When he was on tour for Hugo, for example, Brian was told by a reader how much they loved how it was a tale of a person creating their own family.  And really, until that moment Brian had no idea that that was what his book was about.  It is, to a large part, the readers’ job to figure out what a book is about.

Now let’s talk about book trilogies.  Trilogies of any sort are so tricky.  If it’s a movie trilogy the second film is always the weakest, unless of course it’s a superhero trilogy, and then the last film is the one to skip.  Children’s book trilogies are different.  Sometimes they don’t have to have any direct links whatsoever.  The Marvels, in a matter of speaking, is the third in Brian’s trilogy.  He cited Maurice Sendak and how he thought of his own best known picture books as a kind of trilogy (Where the Wild Things Are, Outside Over There, and In the Night Kitchen).  So too does Brian of his own books, though he acknowledges it to be, “A very heavy trilogy”.

TheMarvelsIn The Marvels there are two stories.  One story is entirely in pictures.  400 pages of it or so and it starts off the book.  Then that story ends and the rest of the book is in text, 90 years later (coming in at about 200 pages or so).  There are five generations of actors involved and theater and all sorts of stuff (I’m being vague not on purpose but because I’m not entirely certain what the plot is).  The main character lives in 1990 and pieces together the first, older story which may or may not have a connection to his own tale.

The story was inspired in large part by an old London theater.  In researching it he met one David Milne, who encouraged Brian and his husband to go off “mudlarking” with him.  Brian, naturally, didn’t know what that meant.  Down the crew walked to the Thames, finding that what at first looked like stones and rocks were not, in fact, stones and rocks.  They were little pieces of London history.  “I was haunted by this image of the detritus of history spread out upon the beach”.  In that washed up detrius there was, for him, a connection to the vast power of storytelling.  Stories make sense of the past, particularly when the past feels messy and uncontrollable.  And the ability to transform life into a story is the triumph of order over chaos, and power over powerlessness.  That is what The Marvels is about.

Brian then read a selection from the book, and in it we heard of two characters contemplating not just treasures washed beneath their feet but what in life is memorable, and forgettable, and permanent and impermanent.

In closing he urged us, each and every one, to continue putting the chaotic past into some kind of order.

Then it was time for the panels.

Panel 1:

Second Nature:

Celebrating the Natural World and Raising Awareness About How to Protect It

Moderated by Julie Roach of Cambridge Public Library.

So here we have a panel consisting of Anita Silvey (Untamed: The Wild Life of Jane Goodall), Louis Sachar (Fuzzy Mud), Paul Fleischman (Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines) (also my first time seeing him), Wendell Minor (Trapped! A Whale’s Rescue), and April Pulley Sayre (Raindrops Roll).  The books, as Julie pointed out, ranged from preschool to high school.  It was an interesting collection of folks.  Sachar was almost the odd man out since his was the only purely fictional book (speculative fiction at that) in the bunch but he worked in the context of the talks.

NonfictionFirst off, there was some talk about kids and engaging them in literature. Sayre spoke about how kids these days can really get involved in macro photography, so her latest book (Raindrops Roll) engages kids not only on a gee-this-is-pretty level but also because it’s an art that some of them (with the right equipment, of course) could do.  This transitioned gently into how each speaker was engaged by the subject matter of their books.  Silvey, for example, said that Jane Goodall begins each talk with a chimpanzee pant hoot.  “She had me at the hello pant hoot”.  As the answers went down the line, the answers morphed into how the authors became interested in environmental concerns themselves.  Paul Fleischman spoke on his picture book training as well, “In picture books Every. Word. Counts.  Nothing can be extraneous.”  He then quoted Eudora Welty saying that each book teaches you to write it and not the next one (a statement that stood almost in direct opposition to what Brian had been saying earlier about using each book to build onto the next).

Julie tied Sachar back into the conversation by pointing out the loads of science and math in his book.  When asked what he hoped kids would get out of it, he said he hoped first and foremost that they’d enjoy it.  This has always been his point about his own books.  I remember well his desire when Holes came out for it not to be forcibly assigned to kids in school.  So I was happy to see that he mentioned in his discussion of his latest novel Fuzzy Mud the whole subplot on “virtue” and how his main character is actually trying to be virtuous.  It is, to be fair, one of the most interesting elements of the book and something I hadn’t really noticed until Monica Edinger pointed it out to me.  He also said that the book says something about out of control population growth, but I’ll admit that I didn’t pick up on that element at all.

Minor was the only illustrator on board so Julie asked him about his art.  Wendell mentioned that generally speaking, when it comes to picture book publishing there’s an understanding that authors and illustrators don’t tend to talk but he and Robert Burleigh do.  Frequently.  He insists upon it.  He mentioned too that Trapped was based on an incident when a whale seemingly thanked the human divers that saved her.  I heard the story first on RadioLab myself, and if you ever have a chance to listen I recommend it.  They spend a lot of time trying to figure out what exactly the whale was doing since it wasn’t necessarily saying thank you (though that’s what we humans wish it was doing).

SilveySacharSayreAnita did a very funny recap of the difficulties of researching a subject for kids, where she mentioned the first stage (your publisher thinks you know something about the subject of your book and honestly, you don’t), the second stage (you do loads of research and now know everything – too much for a kids’ book), and the third stage (you pare it down).  During the course of her talk I was able to ascertain just how smart a speaker Anita is.  Her particular talent comes in how deftly she alternates between the serious subject matter and jokes.  Meaning and humor.  The keys to any good talk.

Julie wondered if there was a common thread that connects each individual author’s books to one another.  Their answers were:
April – The hope of getting kids to feel connected to the material.
Paul – The presence of the past.  When he was a young adult, Paul lived in a house build in 1770 and it gave him that connection to history that he’s always trying to instill in his young readers.
Wendell – A sense of place and a sense of time. “History is nothing more than stories about very interesting people.”  Also, “History is not old.  It is now.” That would be the theme of the day, it seems.
Anita – The personality of a true believer.  She feels particularly connected to those people who give their life, life’s work, and life’s blood for what they do.  “I understand that personality.”  She pointed out that she has dedicated her own life to children’s books, after all.  So there’s a connection there.
Louis – A sense of optimism.  That for each of his characters (even in his oldest books) the world is open to them.  They can do anything and become anybody.  Once they find themselves and persevere through their problems, of course.  That was the hardest thing about Fuzzy Mud.  It was written with a foreboding sense of impeding catastrophe.

Julie asked if there was a book in any of their childhoods that was a catalyst for them.  That made them what they are today.
April: Petersen’s Field Guide to Birds.  She just loves a good field guide.
Paul: Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols.
Anita: Her teacher kept saying a swear word. “F.D.R. In my house that was a swear word.” So instead of saying something, she decided to learn more about the subject. That was a turning point for her.
Wendell: His mother would read Beatrix Potter and he fell in love with the animals. He also mentioned how many scientists he’s met that went on to do what they did because of My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George.
Louis: In Our Town by Damon Runyon.

The talk closed up and I got briefly distracted by the #KidPit hastag trending at that time.  Apparently it’s a way of pitching unsolicited manuscripts on Twitter.  Huh.  Who knew?

Focus, Betsy, focus!  Next up:

Panel 2:

Middle School Confidential:

The Tough and Tender Trials of Today’s Young Teens

And we’re off!  After a quick break it was time to spend some time with Tim Federle (Five, Six, Seven, Nate!), Lisa Graff (Lost in the Sun), Luke Reynolds (The Looney Experiment), Rebecca Stead (Goodbye Stranger), and Rita Williams-Garcia (Gone Crazy in Alabama).  Essentially, the world’s greatest cocktail party, but on a stage.  Moderated by Stacy Dillon I was impressed by the fact that they were able to incorporate an author from a smaller publisher (Reynolds is with Blink) with the big boys.

I was also very excited for this panel because I, for one, have noticed a huge uptick in literature for middle schoolers.  Such books are the devil to catalog, of course.  Generally speaking there is no middle school section in public libraries so you’re stuck trying to figure out whether or not to place a book in the juvenile section or YA.  Neither is quite right.  And in a year where I’d argue that two of the three recent Newbery winners were clear cut middle school books (Brown Girl Dreaming and The Crossover), this is a conversation I want to hear people talking about.

First off, Stacy Dillon said that she was going to ask the panelists about “your middle school selves”.  But to get them off to an easy start she lobbed them a softball question of what they liked to read when they were in middle school.
31BrothersSistersRita: Thirty-One Brothers and Sisters by Reba Paeff Mirsky. Insofar as I can tell, this book is out of print so if any enterprising publisher wants to bring it back, I think I know someone who might be willing to give it a blurb.  And Love Story.  Of course.
Rebecca: Rebecca was able to come up with the most books in her answer.  She loved the James Herriott books. Clan of the Cave Bear. She loved Stranger in a Strange Land and books by Ray Bradbury. And on the younger side, there was Norma Klein’s Mom, the Wolfman, and Me.  And I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  She even gave a shout out to Daddy Was a Number Runner, which is a book that constantly appears on NYC summer reading lists and is bloody impossible to order for my branches sometimes.
Tim: He said his family moved from San Francisco to Pittsburgh. “We were the first family to ever do that. Ever.” Books he enjoyed included Matilda and stories by Shel Silverstein (like Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back “It’s so pro-gun!”). He also said he tried to read The Shining thinking it would be something about (insert jazz hands) Shining!
Luke: Like a lot of kids, Luke had a challenge going on with a friend to read the longest book.  He checked out Crime and Punishment, got to the end, and realized he’d hardly understood a word.  Luck also recounted a somewhat surreal moment in his life when he remembered listening to The Autobiography of Malcolm X on audiobook in his suburban neighborhood while delivering papers with his toy poodle in tow.
Lisa: Like Luke she tried to read the longest books, so attempts were made on Moby Dick, The Bible, etc. So she went back to reading books by Roald Dahl, Louis Sachar, and she was obsessed with The Baby-Sitters Club.  In the end she had about sixty of them and though they were eventually donated to a school library, she likes to think that they’re still there, along with her own books today.

“Share a secret about your middle school selves”, asks Stacy and Rita lets off a sound like a full balloon emitting air painfully.
Rita: Well, when Rita was young she bonded with her best friend over their professed hatred of boys.  She would watch the local gophers with her friend and she’d name them after boys in her classroom. “So . . . we had rocks.  And we had slingshots.  It was an acceptable thing back then.  We didn’t even make them, we bought them at the corner store.  They expected us to use them on SOMETHING!”  Then they’d wait for one in particular, their main target, to poke his head out.  They’d named him after the book Chiefie.  They never got him, though.  So at school they figured they’d freak out their mortal enemies by  staring at them during reading time.  Chant: “I have laser eyes, I have laser eyes.”  At this point Rita paused and addressed the audience directly. “How many of you have figured out I had a crush on Chiefie?”
MiddleSchool1Tim: All the way up until he was 14, Tim would sneak into his parents bedroom and sleep on the floor because he was so afraid.  This is honestly why he’s so drawn to middle schoolers.  He finds the tightrope of “I know everything and I know nothing” so appealing. Around 7th grade, Tim knew he was gay and fortunately he was in a very accepting community so he didn’t feel bad or guilty about it.  Just the same, it was a secret because he knew the minute he told somebody it would no longer be his own.  He didn’t need to act on it yet.  After all, “Not all secrets are bad.”
Luke: He shoplifted quite a bit.  In a way, the revenge for this is that when he tells his kids this fact, they say, “Can you teach us?”  Really, doing it was how he processed his own fear.
Lisa: “I will tell you but promise not to tweet it.” Note that she didn’t say I couldn’t blog it.  Haha!  Back in the day Lisa was The Narrator for Joseph and the Amazing Technocolor Dreamcoat (one of six Narrators, actually).  The boy she had a crush on played the part of Joseph and, fun fact, he’s now mildly famous on Friday Night Lights now.  Anyway, Lisa peeled his name off his cubby and put the sticker on the inside of her vest so she could wear it close to her heart.  Awwwww.  And THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is why I want her for Funny Girl.

Stacy directed the next question directly to Rebecca.  With Goodbye, Stranger in mind she wanted to know about those moments when you say goodbye to someone who has changed or to an old version of yourself.  Rebecca for her part said her books were about sensitizing kids to their own lives in a deeper way.  There’s this moment when you cross a line into a new kind of awareness, and there’s no going back.  For her part, Rebecca has always been genuinely moved by the fact that we change and leave versions of ourselves behind us.  The end of childhood (“which is really many ends”) is like a series of deaths (I said something similar to this in my review of her book, by the way).  That’s why there’s so much to say about those moments and that’s why we think so much about those moments.  Rita chimed in, saying she was blessed in having a character like Delphine who is a child (though she doesn’t know it) and who is often playing the role of a stoic adult.  “The death of girlhood” is a plague in general, said Rita, but certainly in the black community.  These are girls who don’t truly know what it is to have a childhood.  Rita recounted a moment when she once saw a four-year-old feeding her baby brother mashed potatoes, and there was something in the way in which was attending to her brother that showed that she’d done this very often.  This is a girl, said Rita, who will never have her childhood or that feeling of complete silliness, giddiness, wonder, and fear.  She is being set up for that cycle of being a very young mother.  For this and many other reasons, the joy of childhood is something important to Rita in her work.

After this, Luke mentioned that there was a Toni Morrison quote about what kids really want to know is whether or not your eyes light up when you look at them.  That’s what writing for middle school is really about.  Kids want someone to see not the 10% on top but the 90% below.  Lisa said that in her own book, Lost in the Sun, her character Trent is at a crossroads.  He can either become the person people think he is or he can bust out of that, which is the harder thing to do.  It’s hard for kids to figure out where the truth is and what truth you want to hear.

MiddleSchool2Stacy then turned the conversation to a popular topic.  She pointed out that different themes of bullying appear in each of these author’s books.  She asked if bullying was the impetus of the writings or if it just naturally is a part of the middle school experience.  Rita, “Well, it helps to have an older brother and sister.”  As she pointed out, we never think that we’re the bully, especially if we’re the older sibling.  After all, “We’re keeping them in line.”  You don’t think you’re the one tormenting someone since you have a different opinion of the situation.  She hoped that we see a lot more characterizations of the person who holds the power, in complex ways.  She really spoke to the complexity of bullying that is often just NOT in evidence (in books of this sort).  I’m with her on this. We gain very little from the one-sided depictions that are so popular in our fiction right now.  After Rita spoke, Tim said that when he wrote his first book (Better Nate Than Ever) he was still working with the boys of the musical Billy Elliot.  As he watched, he could see that they would bully each other.  As a result he wanted to write a kid who was teased for many reasons and then, in time, to write a sequel where even on Broadway he’s still “The last kid chosen for dodgeball”.  So when he talks to kids about the experience of being bullied he makes sure to say, “Everything that got me picked on in middle school is what gets me paid now.”  And he tells kids that bullying doesn’t stop after middle school which, rather than scaring kids, he think is really important for them to hear and offers a strange kind of comfort.  Rebecca, for her part, didn’t consider bullying at all when writing her book but after people started to read it she could see what they were talking about.  A particularly interesting point made by Rebecca was the fact that it’s not just kids who bully one another.  It’s how a school reacts to a given situation (like, in the case of her book, a sexy selfie).  Schools and administrators can BE bullies themselves.  Had she focused on bullying as an issue from the start when she was writing, she would have concentrated more on how the kids treat one another.

Stacy asked at this point, “How do you keep something for the middle school rather than YA crowd?”  It at this point in the day that I noticed that Tim is not a passive panelist.  In point of fact, he is very good at directing the questions on a panel, thereby avoiding the awkward pause that sometimes can come when people don’t want to answer the moderator.  Watch him and you’ll see that he keeps everything oiled and running smoothly.  As for this question Lisa (who has done both MG and YA novels), said that middle grade books are where kids are feeling out where their place is in the world is and YA titles contain characters figuring out who they are and what makes them unique.  With that in mind, tween is where you’re trying to figure out EVERYTHING (it covers both sides). Rita spoke at this point with a, “So, okay, I don’t MEAN to make you squirm”.  Then she brought up No Laughter Here.  Now this is the rare book that was actually challenged in the NYPL system by a patron who believed that it should be moved from the children’s section to the YA.  It was such a brave friggin’ book too.  If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s about the topic of female circumcision. Said Rita, these particular characters were her best teachers about stepping aside and remembering whose story it is.  Of all the books mentioned today, this is probably the quintessential middle school book.  Said Rita, you must filter everything you know through your characters perspective and limitations to “as far as they care to know”.  Then she knows she has to pull back and even let her characters be wrong about things.  Know everything you can possibly know and then know your character and trust your character even more.

MiddleGrade3Rebecca said that to her mind it’s very hard to distinguish middle grade from YA because it’s so impossible to draw a strict line.  Everyone reads different things (just look at what the panelists said they read when they were middle schoolers, after all).  So she’d never tell a kid what to read at any given moment.  By the same token, she does think that middle grade fiction should include really truthful, honest stories about kids who are 12 and 13-years-old.  Maybe kids are reading lots of YA because they are experiencing many of the feelings that are fleshed out in YA books and not found in the middle grade stuff.  This ties in quite nicely to the selfie question in her own Goodbye, Stranger, of course.

And what are they working on next?
Lisa: “I’m working on a sequel to A Tangle of Knots.” *clapping comes from audience* “Don’t clap because it’s terrible.” (She’s still in the early draft phase)
Luke: “I’m working on a book that was originally called The Crossover.”
Tim: “I have my first YA novel for next spring The Great American Whatever.  And a new cocktail recipe book. It’s called Gone With the Gin.”
Rebecca: Not writing a book at the moment.
Rita: Yesterday she tweeted that she was falling in love with her latest book Clayton Bird Goes Underground (?).  Not sure about the spelling on Bird on that one.  Hope it’s my last name.  Cause that would be awesome.

Now I’m not going to write up the A.S. King luncheon speech, and this is a shame. I didn’t write it down at the time because she’s YA and I don’t cover that topic.  Still, she had many wonderful things to say about feminism and inclusion that I dearly hope that someone somewhere wrote this stuff down or, better yet, recorded it. If I hear that anyone has, I’ll link to it here.  It was a killer speech.

Panel 3:

Nonfiction Goes Graphic (In Format)

Love the parenthetical at work here. Don’t want folks worried that we have Alan Moore here to talk about Lost Girls, or something.

So here we come to our last panel.  And, to my mind, it’s a good one to end on because it closes things out with a bang.  Jesse Karp was moderating a panel consisting of Don Brown (Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans), Claudia Davila (Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War), Nathan Hale (The Underground Abductor), Maggie Thrash (Honor Girl), and Maris Wicks (Human Body Theater).

Jesse turned out to be a dude.  A loquacious dude.  So we went a bit over time, but he clearly knew the subject matter and was able to place the books on display in a great deal of context.  Right at the start he began by tying in today’s speakers to folks like Spiegelman, Satrapi, McCloud and a lot of the other greats who work in the nonfiction medium.  These people, said Jessie, exemplify the breadth and scope of this topic.  After introducing them he mentioned that he initially had been a bit worried about doing five panelists since surely one of the books he had to introduce would be a dud.  Not the case (and I believe him on this matter).

In an interesting switcheroo, Karp encouraged each person to show a page from their work as they talked about their books.  First up, Don Brown.  He’s not a strict graphic novelist in the traditional sense but his work is unique and visual.  Don mentioned that he’d been making books for kids for more than 20 years, the bulk of which were biographical picture books.  So why the switch to graphic novels?  To a large extent he was inspired by Maus, which when it came out it answered the question forever as to whether or not historical truth could be done in a graphic format.  Brown’s Great American Dust Bowl title was the first book that he tried in this format.  Come to think of it, I believe I reviewed it in the Times alongside fellow panelist Nathan Hale’s Donner Dinner Party.  With his newest book he selected a more recent tragedy: Katrina.  Brown explained with an image how the visual medium is perfect for showing moments like a couple climbing away from the water, having to claw their way out of their own roof.  “In a graphic novel you can have action across the page that will emphasize the points you’re trying to make.”  He also juxtaposed Bush’s “Heckuva job, Brownie” alongside the images of dead bodies after the flooding.  Said he, “All historians have a point of view. If they say they don’t, they’re lying.”

Jesse pointed out that one argument often leveled against comics is that they’re forcing you to see things in a specific, singular way.  But as Brown pointed out, doesn’t prose do the same thing?  After all, every book has a point of view, even if it’s not immediately apparent.  That’s just reality.  Imagery is always very dicey and Brown understands why people have a problem with it, particularly when it comes to graphic novels.  Similarly, people have the mistaken belief that if it isn’t a photograph there’s something inauthentic about it.  But don’t be fooled.  There’s no such thing as photorealism.  All the elements that make a photo up tell a story apart and beyond words.  And Don accepts that and embraces it, so he has no problem with forcing people to witness his own point of view of a historical moment.

Said Jesse, perspective is essential.  He then introduced Maris Wicks.

“Maris is great, by the way,” says Don Brown.

“Greetings, human beings”, says Maris.

NFGNsSo Maris began with the statement that she is a big nerd.  She loves the natural world and also loves making narrative nonfiction books.  Turns out, she’s the one who did the Dian Fossey / Jane Goodall / Biruté Galdikas book, Primates!  I had no idea.  The style in her latest book, Human Body Theater, is not precisely the same.  The reason for this was that Maris wanted the book to be something fierce.  “I think self care and self knowledge are really important,” she said.  In terms of the slide she wanted to show, her selected section was on cuts and scabs.  As she explained, part of the awesome language of comics is that she can go inside the skin of a papercut and there’s a narrative to that.  Though, to be honest, there’s a narrative to everything!  Whether it’s mucus in our “crazy large nasal cavities” or the beating of our hearts.  It is text heavy, but she hopes the playfulness of the writing and art will help. The pictures also help you along with the hope that you’ll be able to tap into the flow of it all.  Additional Bonus: There’s a fair amount of anthropomorphism.  Said she, “I make a lot of things that don’t talk, talk.”  A bit ironically, Maris also works as an educator at an aquarium and she and her co-workers take a bit of care to move away from anthropomorphism there.  But in a story like this one, you care more about things if you can relate to them.  It’s sort of what Brian said at the beginning of the day about emotions and empathy.  If you don’t care about the talking skeleton on the page, what’s going to compel you to keep reading.

Jesse following up on her talk, pointing out that the images of anatomy in this book have a kind of power that a photograph never could.  This raw sense of life and animation can’t be found in a photo, so the drawn medium really does contribute to a sense of engagement.  But all of that being true, the imagery must to some extent be accurate.  So how do you work with primary sources on the visual end and turn them into something “uniquely you” and yet remain accurate at the same time?  Maris responded that research is actually her favorite part of any book.  For this title, for example, she engaged the services of a lot of textbooks and picture dictionaries.  DK’s books for kids were useful, and she looked at them to see how the information on this topic had been presented in earlier children’s books.  After all, when information is presented in a different way it creates that all important “ah ha!” moment.  And since a lot of what’s in her book is information that is already being learned, what she hopes is that her book is just going to help child readers remember the facts or give them a little different information or just present it in a new way.

Next up was Claudia who confessed at the start that this was her first trip to NY.  She was also a little different from her fellow panelists because she was the illustrator of her GN and not the author.  This book is a memoir of Michel Chikwanine, a man who, when he was five-years-old, found his free and fun-loving childhood over when he was abducted by rebel soldiers.  Her main goal with this book was to honor Michel’s experience as he visits schools and brings awareness to child soldiers around the world.  A big part of the book examines his relationship to his father, an activist who was in time killed by the soldiers. In terms of the art itself, Claudia utilizes a more painterly style, rather than pen and inks. This was a conscious choice since it calms down the visuals and doesn’t glorify the violence and action.  In many ways, Claudia’s goal with this project was to create the whole book without depicting any violence.  In terms of the story’s audience she said it was for grades 4 and up, though I’m afraid I disagree with that.  I actually have read this one, since it arrived at my desk and I assumed that it was middle grade.  Yet when I read it the content, while not visually graphic, is definitely for middle school readers at the very least.

When Jesse was given a chance to speak he mentioned that he was amazed by the extent to which the art actually controls the reader’s experience.  The subject matter is very heavy and yet the style finds a tone that would make Jesse comfortable handing the book to his students but does not get rid of any of the immediacy and authenticity of the text.  Don Brown had talked earlier about how he placed President Bush’s panel next to one containing dead bodies for effect, but here it’s not just the placement of the panels but the panel borders that tell a tale.  What’s inside of them is still appropriate for kids to read but the borders suggest that what isn’t within these enclosed spaces is far far worse. Claudia responded that she thought it was very important that the book was written in the first person.  That way the reader can connect with the experience.  Almost every panel has Michel in it so it really is about his specific experience.  She went on to say that generally speaking, in a book like this one you never want a duplication of the art and the text or else the art will feel redundant.  The text itself is very graphic with tons of detail, after all.  And because the text was so graphic it gave her an opportunity to illustrate something “adjacent” to Michel’s experiences.

UndergroundAbductorNext up, one of my favorite comic artists, Nathan Hale.  His current book about Harriet Tubman is nothing short of amazing.  Jaw-dropping.  Spectacular.  Nathan said he thought broadly about nonfiction and graphic novels on his way here.  And as he did so, a metaphor popped into his head.  So imagine if in the 40s, 50s, and 60s in America, all sports started dying off and all that was left was pro-wrestling.  That’s what comics in America has been for a very long time.  The last 50 years have been guys in tights punching each other.  So when people ask him if he read comics growing up he’d say no.  But then he realized that he did read newspaper comics.  In fact, he was a die-hard comic page reader.  Even when Nathan speaks to librarians these days, a lot of them instantly zero in on the superhero stuff.  But that’s just not the case around the world.  Nate then proceeded to talk about international graphic novels that spanned a wide range of topics.  Series like King of Tennis, about a kid who just wants to become the best possible tennis player.  There are even comics in other countries that cover OUR history!  One that he mentioned is French, from the 1970s, and about soldiers during the Civil War (my husband says the series is The Bluecoats).

BUT!  There is good news on the horizon.  We’re starting to bring it all back.  Getting back to those newspaper comics, Nathan then talked about Bill the Cat and how Alley Oop was beautiful but neeeever funny.  His favorites, however, were the political comics because the drawings in them were so crazy.  He didn’t know what they were about but he knew they were grown-up stuff and that they were true on some level.  So he started adopting that.  Think about how he used the animals in Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood.  In speaking about his latest book, he said that there was nothing cooler than seeing the country suddenly go Harriet Tubman crazy.  She’s trending on Twitter!  There’s going to be a movie!  Harriet Tubman is one of those names that immediately makes a schoolkid sleepy so Nathan didn’t want to use her name anywhere on the cover.  As a result, she’s Araminta for most of the book and then when she changes her name to Harriet Tubman that’s a kind of gasp aloud moment.

Jesse said that humor is clearly central to what Nathan does and that this heavy subject matter is laced with humor but it works all the way through.  Yet, at the same time, and not unlike political cartoons, there’s information that needs to be conveyed.  There’s real heavy duty information.  Everything Nathan does is more interesting to him if it’s visual.  It just makes it that much more appealing than an information dump. The thing about graphic novel readers is that they can read a GN faster than a novel, but, by the same token, they’ll reread it many many more times.

Maggie was last.  Her book was basically about unrequited summer camp love.  It was also about getting your heart pulverized for the first time and now your childhood is OVER (another theme of the day)!  Unlike a lot of the other folks, she’s entirely self-taught.  Heck, her style changed between the beginning of the book and the end.  And as with most memoirs, you’re very involved in her struggles.  “You get to be with me with my frustration and my ineptitude”.  With comics all the noise of prose is gone.  As a result, what’s on the page is intense and immediate. “I’ll never go back.”  Jesse concurred, saying that Maggie so powerfully evoked her own feelings that the sense of desperation at work here is palpable.  With a memoir, unlike a biography, in some sense you have to punch through the whole idea of perspective and pull the reader into who you are.  And he assumed from having read this, it’s a kind of emotional baring of yourself.

Finally, the panel was done and it was the moment of the hour.  For the very first time, the announcement of the 2015 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards were happening at Day of Dialog.  A VERY smart move (and I’m not just saying that).  Up came Roger Sutton (“My brother-in-arms” as Luann Toth called him).  It was sort of like getting to sit in on the Emmys.  Rebecca Stead was with him as he navigated the PowerPoint.

First awarded in 1967 this particular award is given to excellence in literature for children and young adults.  The award calendar is unusual and sets it apart from the usual end-of-year lists.  Eligible books this year had to be published between June 1st 2014 – May 31st 2015.  In recent years the Globe’s commitment to the award has been considerable, says Roger.  He then pointed out the previous winners in the room.  Folks like Paul Fleischman, Don Brown, Louis Sachar.  Rebecca Stead. He even asked a trivia question: What has won the Boston Horn Book-Globe Award, the Newbery  and The National Book Award? The Answer: M.C. Higgins the Great.

And the winners are . . . .

Fiction

Honors: Egg and Spoon by Gregory Maguire

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Award: Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell

Nonfiction

Honors: The Boys Who Challenged Hitler by Phillip Hoose

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Award: The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming

Picture Book

Honors: It’s Only Stanley by Jon Agee

‘Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers

Award: The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee

Friday, October 2nd the awards will be given out in person.

And that’s all she wrote with very tired, numb fingers, folks!  Many thanks to SLJ for letting me tag along and to all the folks for the great day.  And the cookies.  Seriously, where did the cookies come from?  They were amazing.  Two thumbs up big time for the cookies.

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24. Press Release Fun: The Summer Camp You Deserve (Highlights!)

As I have in the past, I’ll be speaking at the Highlights Foundation roundabout July 16th, and it really is just the nicest place to be.  With that in mind, here’s a cute little infographic the folks made about their summer camp.  Come by, come by!

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0 Comments on Press Release Fun: The Summer Camp You Deserve (Highlights!) as of 5/30/2015 11:23:00 PM
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25. Review of the Day: Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer

UnusualChickensUnusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer
By Kelly Jones
Illustrated by Katie Kath
Alfred A. Knopf (an imprint of Random House Children’s Books)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-385-75552-8
On shelves now

The epistolary novel has a long and storied history. At least when it comes to books written for adults. So too does it exist in novels for children, but in my experience you are far more likely to find epistolary picture books than anything over 32 pages in length. That doesn’t stop teachers, of course. As a children’s librarian I often see the kiddos come in with the assignment to read an epistolary novel and lord love a duck if you can remember one on the spot. I love hard reference questions but if you were to ask me to name five such books in one go I’d be scrambling for my internet double quick time. Of course now that I’ve read Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer I will at long last be able to pull at least one book from my crazy overstuffed attic of a brain instantaneously. Kelly Jones’s book manages with charm and unexpected panache to take the art of chicken farming and turn it into a really compelling narrative. Beware, though. I suspect more than one child will leave this book desirous of a bit of live poultry of their very own. You have been warned.

After her dad lost his job, it really just made a lot of sense for Sophie and her family to move out of L.A. to her deceased great-uncle Jim’s farm. Still, it’s tough on her. Not only are none of her old friends writing her back but she’s having a hard time figuring out what she should do with herself. She spends some of her time writing her dead Abuelita, some of her time writing Jim himself (she doesn’t expect answers), and some of her time writing Agnes of the Redwood Farm Supply. You see, Sophie found a chicken in her back yard one day and there’s something kind of strange about it. Turns out, Uncle Jim used to collect chickens that exhibited different kinds of . . . abilities. Now a local poultry farmer wants Jim’s chickens for her very own and it’s up to Sophie to prove that she’s up to the task of raising chickens of unusual talents.

UnusualChickens2There are two different types of children’s fantasy novels, as I see it. The first kind spends inordinate amounts of time world building. They will never let a single thread drop or question remain unanswered. Then there’s the second kind. These are the children’s novels where you may have some questions left at the story’s end, but you really don’t care. That’s Unusual Chickens for me. I simply couldn’t care two bits about the origins of these unusual chickens or why there was an entire company out there providing them in some capacity. What Ms. Jones does so well is wrap you up in the emotions of the characters and the story itself, so that details of this sort feel kind of superfluous by the end. Granted, that doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be the occasional kid demanding answers to these questions. You can’t help that.

I have a bit of a thing against books that present you with unnecessary twists at their ends. If some Deus Ex Machina ending solves everything with a cute little bow then I am well and truly peeved. And there is a bit of a twist near the end of Unusual Chickens but it’s more of a funny one than something that makes everything turn out all right. The style of writing the entire book in letters of one sort or another works very well when it comes to revealing one of the book’s central mysteries. Throughout the story Sophie engages the help of Agnes of the Redwood Farm Supply (the company that provided her uncle with the chickens in the first place). When she at last discovers why Agnes’s letters have been so intermittent and peculiar the revelation isn’t too distracting, though I doubt many will see it coming.

Now the book concludes with Sophie overcoming her fear of public speaking in order to do the right thing and save her chickens. She puts it this way: “One thing my parents agree on is this: if people are doing something unfair, it’s part of our job to remind them what’s fair, even if sometimes it still doesn’t turn out the way we want it to.” That’s a fair lesson for any story and a good one to drill home. I did find myself wishing a little that Sophie’s fears had been addressed a little more at the beginning of the book rather that simply solved without too much build up at the end, but that’s a minor point. I like the idea of telling kids that doing the right thing doesn’t always give you the outcome you want, but at least you have to try. Seems to have all sorts of applications in real life.

In an age where publishers are being held increasingly accountable for diverse children’s fare, it’s still fair to say that Unusual Chickens is a rare title. I say this because it’s a book where the main character isn’t white, that’s not the point of the story, but it’s also not a fact that’s completely ignored either. Sophie has dark skin and a Latino mom. Since they’ve moved to the country (Gravenstein, CA if you want to be precise) she feels a bit of an outsider. “I miss L.A. There aren’t any people around here- especially no brown people except Gregory, our mailman.” She makes casual reference to the ICE and her mother’s understanding that “you have to be twice as honest and neighborly when everyone assumes you’re an undocumented immigrant…” And there’s the moment when Sophie mentions that the librarian still feels about assuming that Sophie was a child of the help, rather than the grandniece of the Blackbird Farm’s previous owner. A lot of books containing a character like Sophie would just mention her race casually and then fear mentioning it in any real context. I like that as an author, Jones doesn’t dwell on her character’s ethnicity, but neither does she pretend that it doesn’t exist.

UnusualChickens3You know that game you sometimes play with yourself where you think, “If I absolutely had to have a tattoo, I think I’d have one that looked like [blank]”? Well, for years I’ve only had one figure in mind. A little dancing Suzuki Beane, maybe only as large as a dime, on the inner wrist of my right hand. I’ll never get this tattoo but it makes me happy to think that it’s always an option. I am now going to add a second fictional tattoo to my roster. Accompanying Suzuki on my left wrist would be Henrietta. She’s the perpetually peeved, occasionally telekinetic, and she makes me laugh every single time I see her. Henrietta’s creator, in a sense, is the illustrator of this book, Ms. Katie Kath. I was unfamiliar with her work, prior to reading Unusual Chickens and from everything I can tell this is her children’s book debut. You’d never know it from her style, of course. Kath’s drawing style here has all the loose ease and skill of a Quentin Blake or a Jules Feiffer. When she draws Sophie or her family you instantly relate to them, and when she draws chickens she makes it pretty clear that no other illustrator could have brought these strange little chickies to life in quite the same way. These pages just burst with personality and we have her to thank.

Now there are some fairly long sections in this book that discuss the rudimentary day-to-day realities of raising chickens. Everything from the amount of food (yes, the book contains math problems worked seamlessly into the narrative) to different kinds of housing to why gizzards need small stones inside of them. These sections are sort of like the whaling sections in Moby Dick or the bridge sections in The Cardturner. You can skip right over them and lose nothing. Still, I found them oddly compelling. People love process, particularly when that process is so foreign to their experience. I actually heard someone who had always lived in the city say to me the other day that before they read this book they didn’t know that you needed a rooster to get baby chickens. You see? Learning!

I don’t say that this book is going to turn each and every last one of its readers into chicken enthusiasts. I also know that it paints a rather glowing portrait of chicken ownership that is in direct contrast to the farm situation perpetuated on farmers today. But doggone it, it’s charming to its core. We see plenty of magical animal books churned out every year. Magical zoos and magical veterinarians and magical bestiaries. So what’s wrong with extraordinary chickens as well? Best of all, you don’t have to be a fantasy fan to enjoy this book. Heck, you don’t have to like chickens. The writing is top notch, the pictures consistently funny, and the story rather moving. Everything, in fact, a good chapter book for kids should be. Hand it to someone looking for lighthearted fare but that still wants a story with a bit of bite to it. Great stuff.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus

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