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The Horn Book editor's rants and raves. Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996
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1. Selfie Sweepstakes Reviews: Bandits Peak

[As an experiment last fall, I invited self-publishers to submit their best new titles for review. About a dozen heeded the call, and I am reviewing their books in this space.]

bandits_peak_500x800-210Bandits Peak; by Chris Eboch. Pig River Press, 2015. 173pp. ISBN 0-978-0692346006. Paper ed. $9.99

Jesse is out for a wander in the wilderness he loves near his small Washington State town when he comes across some strangers, two men and a pretty young woman. Fifteen-year-old Jesse’s insta-crush on the slightly-older Maria is believable and touching, and gives the subsequent boy-detective plot some emotional resonance. That the strangers are Up to No Good will be instantly apparent to readers, but an unrealistic degree of naivete on Jesse’s part, and the unrealistic lengths the story goes to in reinforcing that cluelessness, make the novel less credible than it needs to be. But what keeps it grounded–so to speak–are the wilderness-survival details (tracking, fire-making, fishing) that are Jesse’s best weapons for getting these varmints behind bars where they belong.   R.S.

 

[This review may be distributed freely and excerpted fairly; credit to “Read Roger, The Horn Book Inc., www.hbook.com.]

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2. Pam Muñoz Ryan Talks with Roger

pam munoz ryan talks with roger

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.


pam munoz ryanWhere to start? Echo begins in fairy-tale Germany but swiftly moves to the twentieth century, hopping from the German countryside to Philadelphia to Southern California, all settings tied together by…a harmonica? I called Pam Muñoz Ryan to find out the origin of this unlikely story.

Roger Sutton: Echo is such an ambitious book. What was your point of entry? Where did you start?

Pam Muñoz Ryan: Like with many of my books, I set out to start one book, and along the way I get diverted. I was doing research on the nation’s first successful desegregation case, in 1931. It’s a little-known case, Roberto Alvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District; people don’t know much about it because he won in a lower court, so precedent wasn’t set. I was at the historical society in Lemon Grove, which is east of San Diego, with this wonderful docent who was helping me go through all these yearbooks. I came across a picture of a country school from the early 1930s. On the steps are integrated classes of children, and each one of them is holding a harmonica. The docent tried to kind of flip past it, saying, “No, no, that was before the segregation issues,” and I said, “Wait, wait, wait, what is that, exactly?” And she said, “Oh, you know, that was our elementary school harmonica band. Everybody had one in the twenties and thirties. You know, during the big harmonica band movement.”

RS: Absolutely.

PMR: Of course. Why not? Well, that was just dangling a carrot. I asked her more about it, and she said, “Oh, yeah, if we flip forward, you’ll find my brother.” I went home and couldn’t stop thinking about it. I started doing research and found out that there were over 2500 elementary school harmonica bands in the United States during that time, including Albert N. Hoxie’s then-famous Philadelphia Harmonica Band of Wizards. They played for Charles Lindbergh’s parade, and for three presidents, and at FDR’s inauguration.

I love historical fiction. I don’t always write it, but I have a huge affection for it, and when I find some little nugget that’s a different angle, or something people don’t really know about — especially something as endearing and quirky as a harmonica — I’m really taken with it. Two characters started coming to the fore: a girl in this little country school band, maybe in a school that was integrated and then segregated; and a boy in Hoxie’s band — through my research I had discovered that the band was full of orphans. So these two characters, Mike and Ivy, started taking shape, and then I started wondering if the same harmonica could have traveled from one character to the other. And then I wondered who had it before them. In the meantime, I was doing all this research on a particular model of harmonica, the Hohner Marine Band, because it was in both photographs — the picture of Hoxie’s band that I found and the one of all the kids in the country school (they’re all holding that same model). So then I contacted Hohner in the U.S., and they put me in touch with people in Trossingen, Germany, who run a harmonica museum, and they were just wonderful and gracious. I flew to Germany, and the museum was remarkable. Hohner was a master of marketing, and for every world event, there’s a commemorative harmonica.

RS: After reading your book I went to the Hohner website to look at the history of some of their models, and there are some really beautiful pieces.

PMR: It’s amazing. The museum was very complete. They have models of what the factory looked like at the time of my book. That’s where I learned about the young apprentices who worked there, and about the demise of the six-pointed star engraving. And so the character of Friedrich started taking shape. Now I had these three characters, but I didn’t want the book to just be episodic, having a harmonica that just travels from person to person to person. I wanted a richer thread to hold it all together, so that’s how I started imagining the harmonica’s backstory. These three characters are living through some of the darkest and most challenging times in history. Friedrich is in Nazi Germany, for Mike it’s the Great Depression, and Ivy is living through the era of segregation. There was something in me that wanted to give them some beauty and light that would give them the impetus to carry on. Something that lifted their self-esteem, or gave them some sort of strength and confidence.

ryan_echoRS: And then how did you get those three sisters in, in the fairy tale that opens the novel?

PMR: I have always been intrigued by fairy tales. I was one of those obsessive readers as a young girl, very much able to suspend disbelief in whatever I was reading, so I really loved fairy tales. I’d always wanted to write one, but I didn’t want to write one just for the sake of it. I wanted it to be organic to whatever it was that I was doing, so I set out to write an original fairy tale where magic became imbued into the harmonica. I studied the genre, and I reread a lot of fairy tales. I also reread Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm. I love all of his analysis. I think what I love most about fairy tales is that the genre is very different from a novel. In a fairy tale, you tell instead of show. In a novel, you show instead of tell. I had to really adjust my way of thinking, but it was also freeing on some level. I created the fairy tale element so that the harmonica could have the magic it needed, so that each character could feel this euphoric sense of well-being.

RS: Did you write from page one to page six hundred, or were you concentrating on different parts at different times?

PMR: I had started working on it, on some level, before I even went to Trossingen, before I had that third character, so I didn’t work on it chronologically. But I did understand the chronology that I wanted in the end.

RS: So you knew you were going to bring two characters together, you just didn’t know about the third?

PMR: I knew I needed a third story arc, and I found it when I went to Germany. Once I knew the framework, that it would be three stories framed by a fairy tale, then I was able to begin each story. You have to remember this is six years in the making, so it’s hard for me to remember precisely the order. I did work on it in chunks, and of course went back and forth with my editor, but there was so much weaving and reweaving that it’s hard to distinguish, especially in the last few years. I am sort of a recursive writer anyway, always going back to the beginning and pulling that thread. I bought a huge seven-foot-long, four-foot-high whiteboard and put it in my office. I wrote the months for each year in which the characters’ stories took place, and I had all the leitmotifs—the recurring themes, people, places, and things—in long lists of words and phrases that echoed in each story. Some of them I think the reader will be able to pick out, but many of them I just wanted more on a subconscious level. And then there are these threads of warehousing: in the fairy tale the warehousing of women, in Friedrich’s story the warehousing of the Jews, and the warehousing of children in Mike’s story, the warehousing of the Japanese and the Mexican Americans in Ivy’s story. There were these odd little threads that were woven through the whole book, so it helped me to have this big diagram on the whiteboard, and it helped me to have this visual.

RS: Did I make up the shout-out to Holes?

PMR: You know, you are not the first person to see that. But if I did, it was completely — you mean Louis Sachar’s Holes?

RS: Yup. There are peaches.

PMR: What?

RS: You have a jar of peaches in there.

PMR: Oh my god. That is really interesting. I guess as a writer there are so many things you do subconsciously.

RS: Well, I thought of it because you have the same kind of mythic base, and then these braiding stories coming together.

PMR: And I do have that jar of peaches. I didn’t do it consciously, though, to be honest.

RS: I think of a book of yours I love, The Dreamer, which is really beautifully contained, kind of gemlike. And now with Echo we have this huge canvas. How was it different to work on?

PMR: Number one, it takes a lot longer. The Dreamer was about one person’s life, Pablo Neruda, and it was more linear. This one was just bigger. It’s three stories and they needed to have some threads that held them together. Also, because The Dreamer is illustrated, I knew in the back of my mind that Peter Sís was going to say things in his art that I didn’t need to say in the book.

RS: It’s funny, you keep saying three stories, and I’m thinking about the three stories in the book, but I’m also thinking about the three stories of a house, because they’re really built on top of each other.

PMR: Oh, interesting!

RS: The three stories aren’t working at the same time. Each one depends upon the one before.

PMR: Right. That’s very true. I love that. Whether I ever accomplish it or not, as a writer I want all of that to happen, but I want it to feel organic and integrated. At the end, more than anything, I think my most ardent goal is I want the reader to turn the page.

RS: I remember when Lizette Serrano [from Scholastic] handed the book to me at ALA, and I thought, “Oh, it looks so long.” And I started on my diatribe about long books, and Lizette said, “Don’t worry. It goes really quickly.”

PMR: Did you find that it went quickly?

RS: I did.

PMR: Oh, good. I was happy when I saw the book, because the leading is easy on the eyes, too. There’s enough space. It doesn’t feel really burdensome.

RS: We old folks bless you.

PMR: Do you want to ask me if I play the harmonica?

RS: Do you play the harmonica?

PMR: I kind of learned how to play some of the songs in the book. It’s very easy to do, but I’m not really a musician. I will tell you something interesting that has happened after writing this book. Everywhere I go, I am almost always asked if I still play the cello. It took a long time to figure out why people were asking me that. I think they thought because of how I wrote about the cello music in Friedrich’s story that I play the cello.

RS: You’re a very accomplished woman. Harmonica, cello, writing.

PMR: Maybe I should say, “Oh, no, I gave that up years ago.”

RS: “I gave it up for the harmonica.”

PMR: Yes. But I will say this: the wonderful thing about music is you don’t have to be a musician to love music, and you don’t have to be a writer to love and appreciate books, and you don’t have to be an artist to love and dedicate your life to art. That’s what I wanted for the story. I wanted that beauty to illuminate my characters’ tasks.

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3. Review of In Mary’s Garden

kugler_in mary's gardenIn Mary’s Garden
by Tina Kügler and Carson Kügler; illus. by the authors
Primary   Houghton   32 pp.
3/15   978-0-544-27220-0   $16.99

As a girl, Mary “was happiest when her hands were busy making, building, creating things.” As she grew up and traveled around the world, those early interests developed into a love for art. She returns to the Wisconsin lake house she’d helped her father build and begins a lifelong art project there, gathering found items from the beach, assembling scraps, building frames, mixing concrete, and erecting a menagerie of larger-than-life sculptures inspired by her travels. The authors embellish their picture-book biography of artist Mary Nohl (1914–2001) with touches of whimsy — her dogs Sassafras and Basil assist beyond the bounds of ordinary canine capacity, for example — reflecting their subject’s own outsized imagination. The illustrations — digital collages of scratchy, affectionate paintings on an assortment of papers — mirror this sense of wonder; careful readers will see a variety of friendly creatures swirling amid the clouds and hiding in tree trunks. An afterword, including two photographs and source notes, offers a more detailed account of Kohl’s life and work, notes about her detractors (“Some people didn’t understand Mary’s unusual creations, and called her a witch”), and a hope for her legacy to endure.

From the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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4. Review of You Nest Here with Me

yolen_you nest here with meYou Nest Here with Me
by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple; illus. by Melissa Sweet
Preschool   Boyds Mills   32 pp.
3/15   978-1-59078-923-0   $16.95   g

Yolen and Stemple gracefully incorporate natural science into a comforting picture book comparing various nesting birds with a “nesting” child (“My little nestling, time for bed…”). Some birds, such as pigeons, which “nest on concrete ledges,” will be familiar to many children, while others may be less so: “Grackles nest in high fir trees / Terns all nest in colonies.” Almost always, the verse ends with the soothing refrain, “But you nest here with me.” Sweet’s watercolor, gouache, and mixed-media illustrations use rich colors and delicate lines. The pictures are both accurate and arresting, page after page. Many details are included for children to pick out, such as a frog mother and child sitting on a log near a coot’s nest, or a fox gazing interestedly at a killdeer performing a “broken-wing charade” to protect her babies. A closing spread includes additional facts about each bird, along with a picture of its shape, feather, and egg. Science meets wonder in this deeply satisfying collaboration between poets and artist.

From the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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5. A Lovely Night

CINDERELLAWe saw the new Cinderella last night and you should see it too. What I loved most was that it was genuinely a children’s movie. While Cate Blanchette as the stepmother and Helena Bonham-Carter as the fairy godmother were on hand to provide some camp (and there was a PG-pushing plethora of men in tights), neither they nor the movie ever winked over the head of the intended audience. Cinderella herself was given just enough spirit (or “agency,” as our reviewers keep trying to say) to rescue her from stereotype without tipping into anachronism, and plot complications to the tale’s essentials were mercifully few. Rightfully, the high point of the movie was The Dress, first as HBC enchants it around Ella and then again when it whirls about the dance floor at the ball. Look for it on October trick-or-treaters–and maybe some June brides?

P.S. Stick around for the credits to hear Lily James (Cinderella) and HBC sing two of the classics from the original Disney film.

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6. Snow White app review

snow white menuThe latest in Nosy Crow’s series of fairy-tale adaptation apps (which includes The Three Little Pigs, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack and the Beanstalk) is Snow White, released last week. Snow White employs the same winning formula of the other series entries: cheerful illustrations and animation; witty humor; well-integrated interactivity; straightforward navigation; charming narration by an all-child cast; and pop-up dialogue balloons extending the text.

This more-silly-than-scary retelling sticks to the traditional story but ages it down for its preschool and primary audience. Snow White is sent away by the queen’s huntsman with no real threat of his actually harming her, and there’s no mention of eating a heart, human or otherwise. Though Snow White is afraid during her wanderings through the forest, she is accompanied by a friendly fox. Her warm welcome at the dwarves’ home is never really in question. The evil queen attempts to kill Snow White with a poisoned piece of stinky cheese (“It’s kind of you to offer, but I don’t really like stinky cheese,” Snow White politely declines) and a poisoned cupcake before landing on the mostly-successful apple. Rather than the prince’s kiss, Snow White is awakened by the (traditional but now less-common) dislodging of the apple piece from her throat. The queen is imprisoned rather than killed.

snow white dwarves

snow white and the queen

In many scenes, the user is invited to assist Snow White, the dwarves, or the evil queen with tasks such as picking flowers, washing dishes, mining gems, or mixing up a poisonous brew. The characters encourage the user through each tasks (although their prompting can get a bit old — I’m matching socks as fast as I can, okay?!); sound effects indicate when the task is completed. A few of these activities subtly reinforce concepts of counting, colors, etc. The interactive moments smartly take advantage of the device’s capabilities, e.g., rocking the device rocks baby Snow White to sleep (be careful: the microphone may pick up sounds that wake her), the magic mirror reflects the user’s own face using the camera.

As in the series’ other apps, Snow White cleverly blends a contemporary sensibility into the fairy tale. The dwarves’ names are Bernard, Bob, Bill, Basil, Boris, Brian, and Barbara; music options at Snow White and the prince’s wedding feast include calypso and Bollywood. A few references to brushing teeth and choosing healthy snacks seem both very current and a little weirdly didactic.

“Read and play” and “Read by myself” options, plus a map of scene thumbnails, allow the user to progress through the app at her or his own pace and revisit favorite sections of the story.

Available for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch (requires iOS 7.0 or later); $4.99. Recommended for preschool and primary users.

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7. Synthia Saint James at Simmons

(Say *that* three times fast!)

Next week, visual artist, author, and illustrator Dr. Synthia Saint James will be on the Simmons College campus as the Eileen Friars Leader-in-Residence. Right now some of her art is being installed along the hallway outside the Horn Book office. It’s lovely and thought-provoking — lucky us!

stjamesart2

stjamesart1

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8. Review of I, Fly

heos_i flyI, Fly: The Buzz About Flies and How Awesome They Are
by Bridget Heos; illus. by Jennifer Plecas
Primary   Holt   40 pp.
3/15   978-0-8050-9469-5   $17.99   g

An adorable fly — googly-eyed, fuzzy-bodied, and with a winning smile, as portrayed in Plecas’s funny but informative cartoon illustrations — makes a compelling argument for why he should be the science-class representative for insect life cycles instead of the overexposed, annoyingly perfect butterfly. He pleads his case in front of a skeptical classroom audience, who grill the fly about his more unsavory habits (garbage-eating, disease-spreading). Eventually convinced that “Flies rule!” the students capture the fly for scientific study, and he quickly changes his tune, pleading for his release. Heos cleverly skewers the classic elements of the typical animal book — the insect life cycle is told through a sappy reminiscence, and the point-by-point comparisons to butterflies and mosquitoes highlight just what makes an insect an insect. Those educators also weary of the primary-science butterfly bias will find this take on insects refreshing, amusing, and scientifically accurate. Appended with a glossary, select bibliography, and list of experts (presumably consulted).

From the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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9. Song of the Sea movie review

song of the sea posterI’m a sucker for fairy-tale and folklore retellings, and a major sucker for selkie lore…so I had very high hopes for animated film Song of the Sea (Cartoon Saloon, December 2014), directed by Tomm Moore (whose The Secret of Kells was a 2009 Best Animated Feature Academy Award nominee) and cowritten by Moore and William Collins. I wasn’t disappointed — in fact, my expectations were far surpassed. And I’m not alone in my enthusiasm: Song of the Sea has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 98% and was nominated for this year’s Best Animated Feature Award.

Set in contemporary Ireland, the film begins on a craggy island with a lighthouse. The lighthouse-keeper Conor’s wife Bronagh (Lisa Hannigan) is expecting a baby, and their young son Ben is excited to meet his new sibling. Bronagh assures Ben that he will be “the best brother ever” and tells him a bedtime story about the god Mac Lir — myth and legend are clearly a comfortable part of their everyday lives. That night, Bronagh’s labor begins, and in distress, she runs into the sea and does not return. Conor discovers the baby girl, wrapped in a white selkie skin, on the beach.

On Saoirse’s (pronounced “Seer-sha”) sixth birthday, she sneaks out of bed and discovers the child-sized selkie’s coat. She dons her coat and — now with the ability to assume a seal’s form — goes for a joyful midnight swim, scaring the wits out of her family in the process. The children’s overbearing Granny insists that the island is not safe for Saoirse, and dad Conor regretfully agrees; Granny takes them to her home in the city.

Ben (David Rawle) is determined to get back to the island and to his endearingly goofy sheepdog Cú; Saoirse longs to return to the sea. The siblings set out for home, soon encountering some (also endearingly goofy) fairies who tell them that the goddess Macha is turning supernatural beings into stone, and only Saoirse can undo Macha’s magic with her selkie’s song. But since Saoirse is growing weak far from the ocean — not to mention that she doesn’t talk yet, let alone sing — this is a tall order. Now with added urgency, Ben and Saoirse (eventually reunited with Cú) continue their quest. They come across many figures from Celtic mythology, including the not-so-bad-after-all Macha, along the way.

In both story line and its execution, the movie does a remarkable job of intertwining specific threads of Celtic mythology and folklore with universal human themes. The relationship between dad Conor — still very much mourning the loss of Brongah and afraid he will lose Saoirse to the sea as well — and Granny, for instance, parallels that between the grieving god Mac Lir and his mother Macha; the similarities of their dynamics are echoed in the characters’ appearances, personality traits, and voices (Conor and Mac Lir are both voiced by Brendan Gleeson, Granny/Macha by Fionnula Flanagan).

And the film is just gorgeous. The animation is lush, inviting, and masterful — fans of Miyazaki’s work will find plenty to love here — with many traditional Celtic visual motifs subtly worked in. Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell) does not speak for the majority of the film, but she doesn’t need to: her small face and big eyes are incredibly expressive. Rounding out the lovely presentation is an original score by composer Bruno Coulais and Irish folk band Kíla.

Song of the Sea has a very limited theatrical release, so it may be difficult to find at a theater near you (although I highly recommend seeing it on the big screen if you can). Happily, it’s out on DVD and iTunes today! And if you’re lucky enough to be close to The Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, you can check out the exhibit “Songs and Secrets” — featuring concept art from Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells — through June 21.

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10. Review of Listen, Slowly

lai_listen slowlyListen, Slowly
by Thanhhà Lại
Intermediate, Middle School   Harper/HarperCollins   260 pp.
2/15   978-0-06-222918-2   $16.99

This second novel from National Book Award winner Lại (Inside Out and Back Again, rev. 3/11) grabs readers from the start. California girl Mai is on a plane, accompanying Ba, her grandmother, on a trip to Vietnam. Mai, who planned to spend her summer at the beach flirting with “HIM,” the boy she has a crush on, is furious. Her dad says Ba needs her support — a detective has claimed he has news about Ong, Ba’s husband, who went missing during the Vietnam War — but the self-absorbed tween is still outraged. Lại convincingly shows Mai’s slow transformation from spoiled child to someone who can look beyond herself with compassion. Mai’s change of heart is believable, moving in fits and starts and taking its own sweet time; she retains her sarcastic sense of humor, but her snark gradually loses its bite, and she begins laughing at herself more than others. The heartbreaking sorrow of Ba’s, and Vietnam’s, past is eased some by the novel’s comical elements (a Vietnamese teen who learned English in the U.S. — and drawls like a Texan; a cousin who carries her enormous pet bullfrog with her everywhere). The detailed descriptions of Mai’s culture shock and acclimation bring the hot and humid Vietnamese setting, rural and urban, to life. Her strong-willed personality makes her an entertaining narrator; readers will happily travel anywhere with Mai.

From the March/April issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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11. JonArno Lawson Talks with Roger

jonarno lawson twr

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.


jonarno lawsonJust prior to calling JonArno in Toronto, I posted to Facebook: “Interviewing poet JonArno Lawson in a few minutes about his new book Sidewalk Flowers. Which is wordless. A wordless book by a poet. My job is not easy here.” But it was.

Roger Sutton: Tell me about this wordless book you wrote. What does it mean to write a wordless book?

JonArno Lawson: That’s a good question. What I did sort of disappears into what Sydney [Smith, the book’s illustrator] did. Basically, I was walking with my daughter down an ugly street, Bathurst Street, in Toronto, not paying very close attention, when I noticed she was collecting little flowers along the way. When we got home, she decorated my wife’s hair with the flowers, and put some on the baby’s hat, and gave some to her other little brother, and then went off and did something else. What struck me was how unconscious the whole thing was. She wasn’t doing it for praise, she was just doing it. I thought that would make a beautiful little book, and it would be great without words. The person reading it would see things the way I had seen them, without any commentary.

RS: How did it occur to you to turn this into a book? Because normally for you, I would imagine, turning something into a book involves, you know, writing something down.

Lawson_Sketchbook cover300JL: I’d never thought about writing a wordless book before. I’m really not a very good artist. So I jotted the idea down and then I started sketching it out as a little dummy, just to see what it would look like. My editor, Sheila Barry, was intrigued. She liked the idea, and she had some very good editorial suggestions. She said it was too family-focused; there had to be some interaction with the world. She suggested having the little girl give a flower to someone outside the family, so that’s where that little sequence comes from — giving the flower to the dog, putting one on the dead bird—

RS: And the man on the bench.

JL: Yes. And Sheila was absolutely right. The story needed that. She also said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if she kept a flower for herself at the end?” I hadn’t thought of that, and it seemed perfect — that you should keep a little of whatever it is for yourself, too.

RS: I would think the initial impulse with a poet would be, “Okay, what are my words for this?”

LawsonSketches1_300JL: Usually when I write I’m driven by sound. Someone will say something, I’ll hear a few words together, and if I can work it into something sensible, great. (Most of the time I can’t.) Most of what I write doesn’t turn out well, but often enough it does. But this time there was absolutely nothing sound-oriented. The whole thing seemed very visual. Even the idea that you would have just a little bit of color at the start — the first part of our walk was a very gray street — and then as we got closer to home there was more color. It seemed symbolic. So the whole thing came to me in a visual way. It felt like to provide any words would take away, instead of add.

RS: What kind of work did you do with the illustrator? How did you find him?

JL: Sheila had seen Sydney’s work and thought he would be perfect. I didn’t know his work, really, but I was quite open to anything. When I saw the first pictures he did, I couldn’t believe it. They were just beautiful, beyond anything I could have thought of or hoped for. He had my storyboard, the little dummy I had made, and I gave him notes: “I’d like for there to be a little bit of color and then for it to build,” that sort of thing. But Sydney had so much freedom to pace the story, visually, and I don’t think he’d ever worked that way before. The little panel sections — they were his idea. Once Sheila and Michael Solomon, the art director, saw what he was doing, they just said to him, “Keep going. Whatever you do is going to be brilliant.” So that’s how his part evolved. It was almost as if I wrote a melody, and then he wrote his own melody that harmonized with it perfectly.

RS: Whose idea was it to put her into a little red riding hood?

JL: That was Sydney. I had said I wanted the color to start with the flowers, but it was Sydney’s idea to put the color also into her coat, which I think was brilliant.

RS: We’ve been having this discussion on Calling Caldecott about Marla Frazee’s The Farmer and the Clown. With a wordless book, there are so many different ways you can interpret what’s going on; the author has less control over what the viewer-reader is going to make of the story. In your book I kept seeing these “Little Red Riding Hood” allusions: “Oh, here she is, wandering off the path. Oh, the dad’s not paying attention.” And I thought of the Gunniwolf story, where she’s wandering through the woods and keeps seeing flowers and picking them, and the wolf comes out of the woods and surprises her. So it had all kinds of folkloric resonance for me. But is that me, or is that in the story?

JL: It actually didn’t hit me until a friend said, “Look, it’s like ‘Little Red Riding Hood,'” and I thought, “Wow, it’s so true. It really works.” Someone else said they thought of the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List, which also wouldn’t have occurred to me.

RS: Did you ever see Don’t Look Now? That Julie Christie-Donald Sutherland movie where they’re in Venice, and they see this little creature in a red coat constantly just around the corner from them?

JL: No.

RS: Don’t watch it at night.

JL: [Children’s literature scholar] Philip Nel said he saw a lot of Ezra Jack Keats, The Snowy Day, in Sidewalk Flowers.

RS: Yes, particularly in that beautiful picture of the girl embracing her mother, where she becomes almost abstract, held against the mother’s chest. You really see Peter’s hood from The Snowy Day, sure enough.

JL: Yes.

RS: How do you share wordless books with your children? Or any children? I never knew quite how to do it as a librarian.

LawsonSketches2_300JL: I have a son in grade one, and he really wanted me to come in and show the book to his class. I was quite nervous about it because I’ve always relied on words. So I just showed them the pages and I asked them what they made of it. That seemed to work well. They had a chance to tell the story, to give their own interpretation. A lot of them were quite fascinated by the dead bird. That really drew out a lot of comments and memories.

RS: How do you know when to turn the page with a wordless book?

JL: I tend to get nervous, so I probably turn the pages too quickly. There’s so much detail, so much to look at. Every time I’ve looked at the book I’ve seen something new.

RS: It’s an interesting view of city life in that it’s neither idealized nor is it completely spooky, but there are elements, I think, of both in the pictures. It’s a very real place.

JL: Sydney had just moved here, to Toronto, from Halifax, and I had wanted him to capture that part of the city [Bathurst Street]. There’s a railway underpass in the book that is exactly like the railway underpass my daughter and I walked through. There’s a scene with a bus stop, and the little girl is going up the embankment, and they’re about to turn a corner. Sydney has actually taken two places along our route and put them together. Up till then you’re really seeing something of Toronto, and a bit of its Chinatown. After that, I think it’s more Sydney’s imagination. The landscape, the background.

RS: How did you feel about his portrayal — or maybe this is your portrayal — of the dad, who is basically pretty inattentive through a lot of this?

JL: My wife said to me, “This being your story, you don’t come across very well. But on the other hand, the fact that you did notice what was going on, the fact that you were able to get it down, means that you must have been paying a bit of attention.” I kind of like how on the page where he gets home, the mother’s looking out back, the dad is just shown in shadow. He looks sort of like a failure, his head pointed downwards. It’s a bit dreary for the dad, I guess. I thought it was well done.

RS: But he’s always waiting for her. She dawdles over this flower or that flower, and it’s not like he moves on without her, forgetting that she’s there.

Lawson_bookpanels3_300JL: I love the scene where he turns back with his hand held out, right after the bird. He never goes too far. He’s aware of where she is.

RS: Do you find that your kids make you more aware of things in situations like this, while walking?

JL: Oh, yes. I couldn’t write for children until I had kids, and then they completely redirected me. Especially the way they use language. A kid learning language is using it for the first time, so they use it in such idiosyncratic ways, which has been very useful for me.

RS: It must really change your perspective.

JL: I don’t know what I would have done without my kids. Not just as a person, but also as a writer.

RS: What changed about your writing from before having kids to after (aside from it being for children)?

JL: I think it became more playful, seeing everything new through them and hearing language differently. And they ask really difficult questions from early on.

lawson_sidewalk flowersRS: Has your daughter asked you any difficult questions about this book?

JL: No, she was delighted. The book was rejected many times, and she would say, “Don’t worry. It’s such a beautiful story, I’m sure it will get picked up.”

RS: Such an old pro.

JL: She’s now thirteen, and she was seven in the story. But she’s delighted that it’s getting good attention.


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12. Information books | Class #4, 2015

informationbooks_2015

In next week’s class, we’ll be talking about four information books:

Things sure have changed since I was in elementary school. Instead of providing every fact known — or at least everything needed to write a report — information books nowadays aim to be as engaging as possible in order to get children interested in their subject. The idea is that it’s better to leave them wanting more and then provide a bibliography at the end of the book. I think this is a big improvement.

The other new development is that many new information books provide information on several levels, often using different typefaces. Every year, some of my ed students are frustrated by this kind of delivery, finding it draining or overwhelming, and they fear their students will dislike it, too. Others, particularly visual learners and those who know kids with attention issues, love it. I think the key is to let children explore these books rather making them “accountable for” reading and retaining every word. If the subject grabs a kid, then he or she might go through the book a second, third, and even fourth time, reading and noticing more and more.

Please join us in discussing these books at the links above. We’re also reading three articles related to Dave the Potter‘s Coretta Scott King award. You can find the articles at the links below, but we’ll discuss them here.

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13. Review of Last Stop on Market Street

de la pena_last stop on market streetstar2 Last Stop on Market Street
by Matt de la Peña; illus. by Christian Robinson
Primary     Putnam     32 pp.
1/15     978-0-399-25774-2     $16.99

CJ, a young black boy, has a flurry of questions for his grandmother one rainy day: “How come we gotta wait for the bus in all this wet?” “How come we don’t got a car?” “How come we always gotta go here after church?” Only at book’s end do readers learn that “here” is a soup kitchen in a hardscrabble part of town (“How come it’s always so dirty over here?”) where CJ and Nana work every Sunday. Nana has a bottomless supply of look-on-the-sunny-side answers (“Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful”), but she isn’t dispensing bromides; the economical, exquisitely composed collage illustrations showing the pair in a glamour-free urban setting forbid a glib reading. CJ and Nana develop a fellowship with the bus driver, Mr. Dennis, and with the other passengers (a blind man and his dog; an old woman holding a jar of butterflies; a man playing the guitar), and it takes just a gentle nudge from Nana for CJ to unhesitatingly drop the coin Mr. Dennis gave him into the musician’s hat. De la Peña and Robinson here are carrying on for Ezra Jack Keats in spirit and visual style. This quietly remarkable book will likely inspire questions of a sort less practical-minded than CJ’s; it will also have some adult readers reaching for a tissue.

From the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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14. Week in Review, March 2nd-6th

Week in Review

This week on hbook.com…

From the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: “Five Gay Picture-Book Prodigies and the Difference They’ve Made” by Barbara Bader

Floyd Cooper Talks with Roger

Reviews of the Week:

Read Roger:

Out of the Box:

Lolly’s Classroom:

Events calendar

See overviews of previous weeks by clicking the tag week in review. Follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook to keep up-to-date on our articles!

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15. I’ll show you WINTER.

minnie2,jpg

by Watie White, http://watiewhite.com

Seasonally enough, last night I attended Blizzard of Voices, an oratorio by Paul Moravec (husband to your friend and mine Wendy Lamb). While you might have thought the warm and woody Jordan Hall would have been an oasis in Boston’s horrible weather, Moravec’s commemoration of the 1888 Schoolhouse Blizzard was terrible–in the exactest sense–in its evocation of the wind and cold and terror and death that swept over the Great Plains and killed more than two hundred people.

Taken from Ted Kooser‘s book of the same name, the work’s texts were beautifully shared shared among a chorus and six soloists:

We finally had to dig
Down into a drift, wrapping
the blanket around us. Billy
died in the night. I thought he
was only asleep. At dawn,
I dug out, finding that we
Were in the sight of the homeplace.

And with the orchestra thundering–and more ominously, insinuating–away, it really felt like voices from a storm, meteorological and otherwise.

Am I the only person who thought this was, historically, the same storm the Ingalls family endured in The Long Winter? Nope–Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book covers events of eight years earlier. Debbie Reese and I got into it a bit  a couple of weeks ago about that book, and while I take her point about the objectionable stereotyping of American Indians therein, I’m not ready to give The Long Winter up. The way it turns winter-wonderland fantasy into nightmare is unparalleled and as keenly evoked as what I heard last night.

After the concert was over, I discovered that my bus, which is supposed to show up every ten minutes, wasn’t due to arrive for at least half an hour. I started to think that the Boston winter of 2015 was Just Like Back Then, but then I slapped myself hard.

 

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16. Chapter books | Class #3, 2015

julian_joey_omakayas

This week we are reading three chapter books — The Stories Julian Tells by Ann Cameron, Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos, and The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich. Each is the first book in a series and each has a strong central character, an element that I think is essential in early chapter books.

We’re also reading two articles to go along with these books. One is Robin Smith’s “Teaching New Readers to Love Books,” where, among other things, she describes reading The Birchbark House aloud to her second graders every year. The other article is an interview with Jack Gantos from the Embracing the Child website. I find that teachers tend to have a lot of questions about Gantos’s credentials for writing about ADHD, and he addresses them especially well here.

I hope you will join our discussions of these readings in the comments to the individual posts linked above.

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17. The Stories Julian Tells | Class #3, 2015

The Stories Julian TellsThe Stories Julian Tells is the first book in an ongoing series about brothers Julian and Hughie, and their neighbor Gloria. This is an early chapter book for readers who have acquired some fluency but aren’t ready to tackle longer books yet. The chapters are fairly short, there’s lots of conversation, the plot is easy to follow, and there is a clear central character.

What do you think of Ann Cameron’s writing? Is the story engaging enough for children who are still struggling a bit with reading?

How do you feel about a white author writing a book in which all the characters are African American?

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18. The Birchbark House | Class #3, 2015

The Birchbark HouseLouise Erdrich’s historical novel The Birchbark House is the first in a series, each book following a child from a different generation in an Ojibwa community.

Often, books for children contain a central character who is about the same age as the book’s readers. The Birchbark House would be a tough read for most children who are Omakayas’s age. There are beautiful descriptive passages that young readers tend to gloss over, and difficult vocabulary including some Ojibwe words. For these reasons, it works best when read aloud to those younger grades — as Robin Smith discusses in her article.

What did you think of this book? And what about reading aloud in school? For those of you who are teachers, do you? And what books have you found that work best?

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19. Floyd Cooper Talks with Roger

floyd cooper twr

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.


floyd cooper

In the midst of a classic Boston snowpocalypse, it was pure pleasure to talk to Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award winner Floyd Cooper [in 2009 for The Blacker the Berry, written by Joyce Carol Thomas; Amistad/HarperCollins] about his new picture book celebrating a jubilant summer’s day: Juneteenth for Mazie, published this month by Capstone.

Roger Sutton: You grew up in Oklahoma, right?

Floyd Cooper: Yes, born and raised. Around Tulsa, Oklahoma. Spent summers in Muskogee, Oklahoma. And Bixby, Mounds, Oklahoma, where my paternal grandfather had some land. He’s one-hundred-percent Creek Indian, and he had this allotment of land that was given to some of the Indians there. We would go and work some of the farms my folks had, to supply produce to the markets and things like that. It was a typical Midwestern kind of a lifestyle.

RS: Do you find that childhood making its way into your books?

FC: Yes. I’m trying to get more and more of it in there. I was just back there last week, actually, and I got to see some sights that awoke in me things I had forgotten about.

RS: Was Juneteenth something you celebrated as a kid?

FC: Well, we didn’t really celebrate it per se, but it was talked about by my older relatives. I never really understood it fully until much later.

RS: But you’d go to a barbecue and enjoy it even if you didn’t completely know what it was for, just like in Juneteenth for Mazie. Her grandfather tells her about the barbecue and that there are going to be treats and soda there, because that’s how kids connect with traditions.

FC: That’s right. They’re just there for the goodies. But those are the ways into their memory bank. Everything is attached to those fun parts. If we’re lucky we have older folks who talk to us and make sure we at least know some of the traditions. There was a lot of that with my family. I knew my great-grandparents.

RS: Wow.

FC: They still lived on the farm they built. They moved up from Texas in a covered wagon, and they built this house of stone there in Haskell, Oklahoma. They were quite old, and they’d share stories. In fact, Uncle Mose, the character in Juneteenth, is my great-great-grandfather. He was from a plantation in Georgia. He was an ex-slave. There was a photograph of him hanging in one of the rooms at the farm that we weren’t allowed to go into. As kids we had our limits. I couldn’t quite make out the features, so it’s always been a mystery to me what he actually looked like. I’m on a search for that picture now. Maybe it’s something that will turn up in one of my books. Those things, they really do come into fine focus as you get older. There’s always that regret that you didn’t know then what you know now.

RS: Right.

FC: As a child, I would have quizzed my great-grandparents a lot more, gotten even more stories.

RS: How do you connect your own children to those stories?

cooper_juneteenth for mazieFC: Telling the stories helps keep them in my memory. It’s funny how that works. The act of giving can also, in a sense, be a gift to you. You gain more insight and awareness as you pass the stories on. One of the beauties of the oral tradition is that it helps both the giver and the listener.

RS: Today if the slaves were freed, the news would be instantaneous. There’s no way the people of Texas wouldn’t hear it.

FC: That’s right. It would be all over Twitter. And that’s probably why it took two years for the news to actually reach Galveston. It traveled slowly, but it was deliberate, as much was in those days. With the culture of the black community, even before social media, there has always been this sort of a connection. It spanned geographic regions. It crossed social borders. I don’t know if you remember, in the days when they actually named dances, like you had the Twist? This was before your time.

RS: Do the Hustle!

FC: The Hustle and those dances. They were known instantaneously across the country by everybody. I don’t know how word got around. That’s just an example. Different things — the way of speaking, the slang, the verbiage, all of that was passed on. I can’t put my finger on how that happened. How would someone in Cincinnati, Ohio, know how someone in Oakland, California, would talk and act and walk, you know? It’s just amazing, that connection. I’m sure it’s like that with all cultures, there’s a sort of thread or a link that runs through, and it persists even with acclimation, with the sort of melting pot in which we all exist. Those ties — those cultural ties — remain true to that particular culture.

RS: To take the example of dances — you’d have DJs on the radio playing songs and saying, “Here’s the new Twist record.” And the DJ would listen to other DJs, so the record spreads, and of course the record company’s going around selling the record to the DJs, but then that doesn’t work unless the kids get into it. So Sally in Philly calls her cousin Sadie in Oklahoma —

FC: That’s right. It’s like a smoke signal, or like a drumbeat. Something very primordial. We find a way. And now we have social media.

RS: How do you think that will change things in terms of helping cultures to flourish?

FC: I think we’ll evolve into the medium, if we aren’t there already. It came on pretty quickly and caught us off-guard. I still know people who do not use Facebook. But I think we will evolve and take better advantage of it, and it will evolve along with us. Hopefully the internet will still be there, cleaned up and with the vision that we want it to be, as opposed to —

RS: The cesspool that it is today?

FC: Yes. I believe it’s going to get to where it’s supposed to be, but that’s just how I am, I guess. I’m a hopeful guy.

RS: And how do you see books surviving?

FC: It was put best by Stephen Roxburgh, an editor friend of mine. He was giving a talk about media, and he said books are just a bucket for words and thoughts and stories. The bucket can change, but the stories and the words, the expressions, the things that are in the bucket — that won’t change. You’ll always need that. So you have an electronic device that supplants a book, it’s just a bucket for these things. In that sense, it’s not that important as far as affecting the actual things that are in the bucket. We still need people to create for the bucket, whatever form it is. If it’s paper, or a bright light and a little flat tablet, we’ll still need content. That need that we have, as humans, to tell our stories and to hear stories will remain a constant through whatever technological change happens. We’ll carry that deep into the universe with us as we expand out further.

RS: Do you find yourself using digital tools more, as an illustrator?

FC: No, I still work traditionally for the most part. I have done some things just to experiment, but I still prefer the light in front of the painting, as opposed to coming from behind.

RS: It’s a big difference, isn’t it?

FC: Oh, it’s huge. Tremendously.

RS: I remember watching you demonstrate how you created a picture many years ago, in Hattiesburg.

FC: Oh, yes. So you saw that?

RS: Uh-huh.

FC: Okay. All right. Are you painting that way now?

RS: Who, me?

FC: Yes, did you go home and try it?

RS: No, I did not.

FC: Are you artistic?

RS: Hell, no.

FC: You’re very convinced. No hesitation there. That’s absolute, huh? Okay.

RS: But I love to look at pictures. You need people like me.

FC: Absolutely. You’re the linchpin of the whole thing. Without you, it’ll all fall apart.

RS: Gotta have readers.

FC: That’s right. And viewers, absolutely.

RS: You’ve had a remarkably consistent style over the years. Ever want to bust out and try something else?

FC: I do, and I have attempted to do that a number of times, but there are constructs in place that help to hold you in place. People who buy the art — they want the comfort, I guess, of knowing what they’re going to get, so they tend to want what they’ve seen you do, as opposed to taking a chance and trying something new. But I am expanding on my own. I’ve been experimenting with a lot of different media. Hopefully I’ll be in the position to just be able to produce that someday, and not have any other issues at hand like paying bills.

RS: Right.

FC: Social media, that will help me to have a platform, to just post something and see what happens. It may be something out of left field. I use melted chalks and some other mediums and a different palette. It’s a lot of fun, to balance what I do for books with what I play with in my down time.

RS: You know, one way you broke out years ago has always struck me — do you remember Laura Charlotte? [written by Kathryn O. Galbraith; Philomel, 1990] A book about a white child, illustrated by an African American illustrator.

FC: Yes, and I remember your statement about that. In fact, I still use it.

RS: What did I say?

FC: You said — I’m paraphrasing here — Ezra Jack Keats had done Snowy Day with Peter, and Floyd Cooper has sort of turned that around with Laura Charlotte.

RS: It really was something that was rare. Do you feel boxed in?

FC: Sometimes you do. Basically what we try to do, as artists and writers, we seek humanity first. That has no pigeonhole.

RS: Right.

FC: Publishers tend to hesitate when it comes to experimentation. But there are people who do allow it to happen. I’ve done some interesting books with Stephen Roxburgh. He’s quite a visionary. He told us maybe seven, eight years ago that the cell phone was going to be the center of the electronic universe. Everything was coming down to the cell phone and a cloud. And we didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. But it certainly has come to pass.

RS: I just walked by someone in the hall who was asking a security guard if he’d seen her wallet, and I thought, “Which would bother me more, to lose my wallet, or to lose my cell phone?” You’d think wallet, but I don’t know.

FC: I misplaced my cell phone in Nebraska once, and I couldn’t sleep a wink. I found it later, but it scared me to death, and I began to realize just how connected we are to that device. It’s like another hand. It’s scary, at the same time, to be so dependent on something.

RS: Do you read books on yours?

FC: I don’t read entire books. I’ll read the blurbs, and then I’ll get the book. I still like the book. I’d rather have the actual book and a little lamp.

RS: You know, your publisher wanted to make sure I saw the latest edition of Juneteenth for Mazie, because I only had the ARC and there were changes made to the finished book.

FC: They should ban ARCs. I’m setting a bonfire to my copies. Have you written any books yourself? I’m going to turn the interview on you.

RS: I wrote a nonfiction book for teenagers a long time ago. And then I’ve written mostly books for adults about children’s books.

FC: Is that first book still out? I’d like to see it.

RS: It’s out of print. It’s called Hearing Us Out: Voices from the Gay and Lesbian Community, and it was published by Little, Brown.

FC: What year was that?

RS: It was 1994, before I worked at The Horn Book.

FC: Wow. That’s ahead of the curve. Everything is so different now in the gay and lesbian community.

RS: Yes. The book would be completely dated. A kid would read it today and think I was talking about Martians. Because the world for gay people is completely different. Do you think that our latest diversity push — #WeNeedDiverseBooks — is going to open things up for you?

FC: I am not sure. I think there will definitely be ancillary benefits from anything in that arena, because it’s just coming down to having an impact, even secondhand, on what I do. But as far as affecting me personally, I’ll just continue to do what I do. I try to get involved in some of those things — We Need Diverse Books. But I haven’t had time to be as attentive to it as I should. I probably need to get a little bit more involved, pushing for that.

RS: Isn’t that more my job than your job, though?

FC: There you go. That’s it.

RS: Your job is to make the books.


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20. Review of Won Ton and Chopstick

wardlaw_won ton and chopstickWon Ton and Chopstick:
A Cat and Dog Tale Told in Haiku

by Lee Wardlaw; illus. by Eugene Yelchin
Primary   Holt   40 pp.
3/15   978-0-8050-9987-4   $17.99   g

In this sequel to Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku (rev. 3/11), the cautious kitty has another reason to be worried: an adorable new puppy. Won Ton is not happy when he catches his first glimpse: “Ears perk. Fur prickles. / Belly low, I creep…peek…FREEZE! / My eyes full of Doom.” He scoffs at the ideas the people suggest for names, and ferociously warns the new pup: “Trespassers bitten.” Yelchin’s graphite and gouache illustrations depict with sensitivity and humor the sleek gray cat’s initial fear and horror alongside the roly-poly brown puppy. Pastel backgrounds cleverly incorporating shadow and light allow the funny poses and expressions of the pair to shine. Each haiku is complete in itself, capturing the essence of cat with images such as the banished and lonesome Won Ton “Q-curled tight,” and together the poems create a whole tale of displacement and eventual mutual understanding. At the end, both cat and puppy snuggle in bed with the boy, meeting nose-to-nose as friends.

From the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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21. From Page to Screen panel

When my favorite books get made into movies, I’m there. But I’m usually wearing a t-shirt with this logo (courtesy of Unshelved):

the book was better t-shirt

So when Children’s Books Boston announced its latest event, “From Page to Screen: An Inside Look at Children’s Book Adaptations,” I was intrigued. I was even more intrigued when I saw the range of perspectives represented. Moderator and panel participant Deborah Kovacs, senior vice president at Walden Media and publisher at Walden Pond Press, has been involved with many book-to-film collaborations, including The Giver (a feature film in 2014) and The Watsons Go to Birmingham (which aired on the Hallmark Channel in 2013). Panelist Ammi-Joan Paquette, senior agent with Erin Murphy Literary Agency and an author herself, has seen the work of several of her author clients begin the transition from book to film. Panelist Carol Greenwald, senior executive producer of children’s programs at WGBH Boston, helped create the television adaptations of Arthur, Curious George, and Martha Speaks. And Randy Testa, vice president of education and professional development at Walden Media, contributed to the discussion with in-depth reports of his involvement with The Watsons Go to Birmingham.

page to screen panel

L.-R.: Debbie Kovacs, Carol Greenwald, and Ammi-Joan Paquette

Almost immediately, Kovacs invoked The Giver author Lois Lowry, whose novel went through about two decades of attempts to bring it to the screen. According to Kovacs, Lowry has said that she considers a film faithful if it’s “true to the spirit of the book.” Lowry participated closely in the 2014 Giver film’s development, helping to write voiceover narration to clarify scenes that test audiences had trouble following. Kovacs and the other panelists agreed that adapters should consider the most important factors of a story’s appeal. She pointed out that when a movie has a long list of end credits, “about half of those people…have opinions” that can alter the way a film is adapted. “In their defense,” she added, “they’re putting up a whole lot of money.”

Paquette also emphasized the number of people and steps involved in the adaptation process; she warns authors not to expect that their books will be adapted for the screen. Even when books are optioned for adaptation, much in the adaptation process is beyond authors’ control. She did cite a success story, though: her client Jennifer A. Nielsen met with a scriptwriter working on the movie adaptation of her intermediate novel The False Prince. Nielsen had the opportunity to share what would happen later in the book series with the screenwriter so he could write with future events in mind.

For WGBH executive producer Greenwald, “the television series is not the book,” but part of the purpose of an educational book-to-television adaptation is to encourage kids’ continued reading about the characters. Converting brief picture books to long television series means fleshing out characters, giving them backstories, and specifying their parents’ jobs, for instance, but it’s important to preserve the spirit of the source material. The TV show’s Curious George might go on new adventures that aren’t in the book series, but (for example) the animals in his TV world can’t — and shouldn’t — talk, since they can’t in the books.

Testa spoke passionately about the Watsons film, which coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. Although the film kept many of the episodes from the book, the bombing and issues of segregation became a more continuous part of the movie’s narrative arc. Later Testa declared, “we have to, have to, have to” depict more people of color on screen, naming Esperanza Rising and Monster as books that are waiting to be made into movies.

As you can see, book-to-film adaptations aren’t as simple as my t-shirt might have you believe, and there was a lot to talk about. Luckily, the conversation doesn’t have to end! Visit Children’s Books Boston for information on future events. Next up: a trivia rematch (date TBA)!

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22. Fiona & the Fog e-book review

fiona and the fog menu“One foggy morning, Fiona sat on her front stoop, wondering what to do with the day. ‘I’m bored. I wish something exciting would happen…'” With that, the fog snatches up Fiona’s scarf and leads her on a chase around a city’s environs (it’s unnamed but the skyline is San Francisco’s; makes sense given the fog).

Author William Poor wisely keeps the text of original e-book Fiona & the Fog (2014) fairly spare, leaving his stunning illustrations to tell most of the story. From his article on Medium.com: “A couple years ago, a design fad called ‘cinemagraphs’ swept the internet – these were still photographs in which portions of the image subtly moved. Imagine a still landscape photo with actual moving, drifting clouds, or a photo of a woman whose hair is waving slightly in the breeze.”

A design fad, maybe, but one that’s used to great effect here. The background photographs ground the story in real life (cartoonlike Fiona is sitting on a real stoop, standing on a real beach, exploring a real forest), while the moving images create an intriguing air of mystery — trees sway in the breeze, waves lap, a sea lion bobs in and out of the water, fog slowly fills the screen then lifts — that’s heightened by unexpected, almost surrealistic imagery: high in a tree, for example, a bicycle tire turns, and closer to the story’s climax a rope ladder reaches down from the sky.

fiona and the fog city

fiona and the fog rocks

Atmospheric background music by Ted Poor contributes to the zenlike mood, with gentle chord progressions and soothing nature sounds. It all works beautifully as an original e-book — that rare case where conventional picture book meets technology and the result is something fresh and harmonious.

Available for iPad (requires iOS 7.0 or later); $1.99. Recommended for primary and intermediate users.

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23. Five Gay Picture-Book Prodigies and the Difference They’ve Made

depaola cover art

From the March/April 2015 cover by Tomie dePaola.

Andy Manley, a Scottish theater artist, travels the world putting on shows for children. In 2014, he was in New York doing My House, a “mostly wordless solo piece co-starring a cardboard box and a wayward melon,” according to the New York Times. That one was designed for youngsters eighteen months to three years old.

“Do you have kids?” the Times reporter asked. “No,” Manley replied, “I’m gay.”

Two thoughts occur. First, being gay is less and less a barrier to fatherhood. But in any case it’s a rare father who, qua father, has Manley’s playful imagination, his creative reach: in sum, his ability to think big on a small child’s level.

That’s what a number of gay picture-book creators — distinctively, perhaps — have been doing for the past sixty years or so. Maurice Sendak, Arnold Lobel, James Marshall, Remy Charlip, and Tomie dePaola differ in just about every outward way, from the look and content of their books to the course of their lives and careers. But open the covers of those books and you’ll find tenderness, wit, and imagination as a common bond — qualities that they have in common with the unfettered young.

 

Maurice Sendak (1928–2012)

Sendak drew feelings — first and last, the feelings of small children. Over the years his subjects ranged from nursery-rhyme characters to life in a Polish shtetl to heroic nudes and portrait heads, but his work is grounded in 
the life force of the young, girls and boys alike.

AHoleIsToDig_straightenedUnisexism, or gender equivalence, showed its face — maybe for the first time on record — in A Hole Is to Dig (1952), where Sendak’s drawings illustrate Ruth Krauss’s collection of kids’ off-the-cuff definitions. Along with “A hole is to dig,” in multiple embodiments, we find the indelible “Eyebrows are to go over your eyes” and “The world is to have something to stand on.”

Think of that! On his first try, Sendak had girls and boys doing what each was “supposed” to do. Krauss, a progressive thinker, pointed out that young kids didn’t behave that way and, according to Sendak, he made a few changes to eliminate the stereotypes. Altogether, he did more than that: there are no sex roles whatever in the pair-ups or group scenes, and no pat tableaux as a consequence. In an independent jacket drawing, moreover, one little boy holds a bouquet of flowers for another to sniff.

A Hole Is to Dig, small but mighty, liberated little girls from dolls-and-doilies more than ten years before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique touched off the second wave of American feminism — and, along the way, freed little boys from being he-men.

very far awayNow, a small boy could be desolate, feel rejected. In Very Far Away (1957), the second book Sendak himself wrote, Martin heads away from home, in an outsize cowboy hat, when his mother is too busy with the baby to answer his questions. His encounters with an old horse, an English sparrow, and a cat are fanciful, whimsical — and unrewarding. Martin heads home: maybe now Mama has time for him. Or he’ll count cars, and wait.

Martin, a timorous tyke depicted in a scratchy line and a light, almost neutral wash, is the first of the M-named Sendak surrogates.

His successor, the fierce and unrepentant Max of Where the Wild Things Are (1963), returns home after working his will over the Wild Things and finds his supper awaiting him, reassuringly, “still hot.” The illustration is at once vintage Neverland and, in the play of emotions across Max’s face, high cartoon drama.

Coming next: cartoons as an extension of child life.

in-the-night-kitchenMickey, the dream-traveler of In the Night Kitchen (1970), flies off, out of his nightclothes, into a graphic panorama of Sendak’s 1930s New York City childhood. Oliver Hardy triplets appear as the Sunshine Bakers and mix Mickey into the cake they’re baking; he pops out, molds the dough into a plane, plunges to the bottom of the milk bottle…and rises to the top where (in homage to King Kong atop the Empire State), he cries “COCK-A-DOODLE DOO,” his own little penis proudly on display. Time to return to bed, more than satisfied: sated.

Power trip, wet dream, whatever: Sendak had something to crow about, however he chose. By that time, he had illustrated the endearing Little Bear books and created the larky Nutshell Library. He’d become a world celebrity and won just about every possible award. On the domestic front, he was settled in with Eugene Glynn, a psychoanalyst, who would be his life partner.

The AIDS epidemic, in the early 1980s, was painful for Sendak, as it was for other gay men, and like many of them, he became more open about his sexuality. Those agonizing times, emotional and political, had creative issue in We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993), a virtual mural of social protest, panel by panel. An echo of Dickens in the backwash of Ronald Reagan.

No age range is indicated on the jacket, nor should there be. Sendak was no longer making the “kiddie books” that, he often grumbled, got no respect. But early childhood was still home ground. In a late press photo, the grizzled Sendak is seen snuggling up to a Wild Thing, his protector now.

 

Arnold Lobel (1933–1987)

With Lobel, less and less became more and more.

His first assignment, as an aspiring illustrator, was to draw a salmon for a Science I Can Read Book — the editor had spotted a realistic drawing of a cricket in his art-school portfolio.

That salmon swam, and Lobel’s career was launched. Science and history easy readers came to his hand; he took on stories of everyday childhood rigors by Charlotte Zolotow and Judith Viorst. But factual or fancy-free, his work had an identity of its own.

giant john photoBooks of his own came almost perforce. First, cartoonish stories: happy-go-lucky blends of the lovable and the ridiculous. Giant John (1964) sets out into the world to earn some money after he and his mother eat their last two potato chips. At a friendly castle, he’s a BIG help…until fairy music sets him a-dancing and the castle walls come tumbling down. Never fear: John rebuilds, after his fashion, and departs with gold and glory. He “promised to visit often and kissed the king and queen and princess and dog good-bye.” A GIANT display of affection, indeed.

With the success of his work, Lobel had less need to illustrate books by others, and more time to spend on books of his own, which quickly became more diverse and substantial, even traditional, in nature. Cartooning wouldn’t do: the illustration had to have the resonance of art.

You’d think Lobel would have taken to folklore, in high demand at the time, but he didn’t — with one exception, Hansel and Gretel (1971). In the galaxy of H & Gs, Lobel’s stands as the modest, intimate one: more the tale of two babes abandoned in the woods than the story of a brother and sister victimized by an evil stepmother.

It’s a motif that turns up repeatedly in Lobel’s work. A pair of children appears, for example, in many of his illustrations for Jack Prelutsky’s collection of monitory verses, Nightmares (1976) — a pair of small, imperiled children, helplessness incarnate, the nonsexist embodiment of Hansel and Gretel. Sometimes the boy is larger and leading, sometimes the roles are reversed.

frogandtoad1Frog and Toad Are Friends (1970): is there a more satisfying, more puzzling title in children’s lit? Friends pal around, have misunderstandings, make up; but a frog and a toad — strange. Lobel had watched frogs and toads and noticed their differences. He’d also learned that toads will overwinter in the city without ill effects; but you can’t coop up a frog. So we have energetic, adventurous Frog and his best friend and opposite number Toad, something of a sluggard and a bumbler. All told, an odd, appealing couple.

At a later, savvier time, a gay couple. Through a wide lens, the designation fits: Frog and Toad jousting, in what are essentially two-character skits, could be two old loving, teasing, mutually indulgent mates. Or they could simply be humanized animals in the tradition of Beatrix Potter et al., mimicking human behavior. Lobel may have thought of them as gay, or they may have developed as they did because he was gay.

Does it matter? Besides four additional Frog and Toad books, Lobel produced five other I Can Reads during the same years — individual books with no less individuality, perhaps more. The character studies Owl at Home (1975), Grasshopper on the Road (1978), and Uncle Elephant (1981) also reflect Lobel’s sensitivity to animal ways, and are also aptly titled. Those three idiosyncratic bachelors might well be gay, too.

One thing we know for certain: the more identities — ethnic, religious, racial, sexual — the richer life is for all.

 

James Marshall (1942–1992) & Remy Charlip (1929–2012)

No two author-illustrators could be more different than James Marshall and Remy Charlip. That’s just the point.

Marshall was an accidental illustrator. Texas born and bred, he was on track to be a professional violist, then injured his hand, took up teaching…and, as the origin story goes, lucked into picture books. Lying in a hammock one summer day, sketchpad in hand, he overheard the battling George and Martha, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on his sister’s TV, and — voilà! — conjured up the fondly parrying hippo couple of that name.

georgemartha_larger_colorfixedThe seven George and Martha books owe their acclaim to many factors. The spare illustration is flat-out brilliant, as the delicate line delineating the hippos’ bulk, a funny thing in itself, morphs into one sharp-witted, space-teasing composition after another. Take “Split Pea Soup,” the very first story. Martha keeps serving it to George, George keeps eating it reluctantly…until he doesn’t, and pours the remains of his bowl into his loafers under the dining table. The scene is tricky to picture, and a hoot as done: wit distilled to a pea-green pour.

Overleaf, George and Martha are sitting together at the table, close together, over a plate of chocolate chip cookies. Martha has caught him out: why didn’t he tell her he hated the split pea soup? “I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.” Back and forth, that’s the theme of the stories as a whole. The delicacy of the hippos’ feelings accords with the delicacy of the line, and it, too, contrasts with their bulk. Just any old animals, conventionally drawn, wouldn’t have done at all.

Once started, Marshall cultivated his talents and spread wicked glee in one high-colored, high-energy series after another. Top grades go, though, to the kindly camp of Miss Nelson and class.

Remy Charlip, on the other hand, was a serial initiator; an adventurer.

The son of immigrant New Yorkers, he studied art at Cooper Union, helped found the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and — before filling his resume with performing, choreographing, and teaching stints — produced a picture book, Dress Up and Let’s Have a Party (1956), that’s also a performance, an improvisation.

Decked out in his mother’s pots and pans while she bakes a cake, John is inspired to ask his friends to come to his party in costume — and we wait with him to see what they’ll be wearing when, at the turn of the page, they come through the door. No dullards here: a carton on the street turns Hans into a special delivery package; a ball of string makes Vera a meatball covered with spaghetti. The final surprise comes when John carries in the cake, with the single word happy visible. In Charlip territory, nothing is all spelled out.

With Dress Up in his pocket, he got deeply into theater for young children — and for the rest of his life picture books and children’s theater figured in his career as corresponding “narrative forms.”

Every picture book was different from the others, its style chosen — 
conceived — to suit the subject matter. For The Dead Bird (1958), a brief text Charlip had plucked from a Margaret Wise Brown collection, he painted deep-toned primitivist tableaux. 
Fortunately (1964), the exuberant 
tale that seesaws between good and bad fortune, joggles accordingly between hot carnival colors and stark black-and-white. Each turn of the page — theater, to Charlip — brings a startling new composition, a new storytelling move.

charlip_arm in armArm in Arm (1969) brought Charlip’s genius for verbal play and pictorial invention to a peak. Verbal play and pictorial invention conjoined: “Two octopuses got married and walked down the aisle arm in arm in arm in arm in arm…” is exemplified by a fluorescent couple, long tentacles entwined, who could have come out of the Beatles flick Yellow Submarine.

Among the equivocal cartoons, visual puns, and other antic embodiments of the endless tales and other echolalia is many a rainbow — this, more than ten years before the AIDS epidemic and the gay community’s adoption of the rainbow flag as its emblem. Was Charlip a prophet, a visionary, a herald? When Arm in Arm was reissued in 1997, in a partially re-designed edition, it was out-and-proud: the white cover and endpapers became rainbow-hued all over, and Charlip himself appears on the last page in a rainbow-striped sweater.

 

Tomie dePaola (b. 1934)

Tomie dePaola, that most mild-
mannered of creative personalities, took the bull by the horns — gently, of course.

nana upstairs first ed_fixed2First, there was lots of freelance illustration; dePaola was a thoroughgoing pro. And there’d always be, along with the imperishable Strega Nona (1975), many other books of a folkish or religious nature. But dePaola was not long in addressing childhood joys and woes — foremost, the joys and woes of his own childhood.

Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs (1973), about his feeble great-grandmother and his bustling grandmother, came out at a time when the decline and death of a grandparent was a going topic in picture books, and endures when others have long vanished. For one, it’s not a demonstration model, it’s life — you couldn’t make this stuff up.

For Tommy, at four, Nana Upstairs, largely confined to her bed, is a fine companion, even a playmate and co-conspirator. On his visits they share candy mints from her sewing box and talk away about the Little People in the room’s shadowy recesses — sitting side-by-side, Nana Upstairs tied for safety into a big Morris chair, Tommy tied in his chair, too, at his own insistence. How, then, will he cope with her death? In a still, echoing picture, Tommy, who’s been told, rushes upstairs to Nana Upstairs’s room: “The bed was empty.” You may cry, too.

Oliver Button Is a Sissy (1979) is a spunky book about a spunky little boy with gay signifiers, Tommy/Tomie by another name. Oliver, in short, likes to do things that boys aren’t supposed to do — like reading and drawing pictures, even playing with paper dolls and dressing up, singing and dancing. No baseball for him, no kind of ball. So he’s sent to dancing school “for exercise,” and he thrives. Even when he’s tormented by the other boys for his tap shoes (and has to be rescued by the girls), he persists — and at the local talent show, he’s a star.

Not long before, kids might have gotten a very different message from another reputable book. In William’s Doll (1972), written by Charlotte Zolotow and illustrated by William Pène du Bois, William is taunted by the other boys for wanting a baby doll to take care of. His father, like Oliver’s, is ready with a basketball, and William, unlike Oliver, has nothing against playing ball; he just wants a baby doll too. Leave it to grandmother: he needs the doll, which she gets him, “so that he can practice being a father.”

Not, in 1972, a gay father.

26 fairmount 1DePaola was a brand, and beloved, before he returned to the story of that budding song-and-dance man, in 26 Fairmount Avenue (1999), and, in Tomie’s childhood voice, carried it forward. The ensuing series is partly a documentary, taking in the 1939 World’s Fair, the March of Dimes, Pearl Harbor…It’s partly a family sitcom, with cameos for a host of Irish and Italian relatives. But in its naive, confiding way, it’s also an object lesson: Tomie, a born performer and artistic wunderkind, is encouraged at home and at school; on holidays and other occasions, he dresses as Mae West and the Farmer’s Wife; at five, he puts on his mother’s makeup. Never does a child tease him or an adult look askance. It’s OK.

He’s OK. You are, too.

But all is not hunky-dory. In the last book of the series, For the Duration (2009), dePaola revisits Oliver Button Is a Sissy, with a less sanguine, more realistic outcome. A group of older boys, his brother Buddy’s friends, call him a sissy and seize his beloved tap shoes — and Buddy does nothing to help him. It may even be Buddy, Tommy/Tomie comes to realize, who has egged them on. (Resentment? Envy?) The sympathetic principal will tackle the problem (discreetly), but, she suggests to Tommy, it would be better if he brought the tap shoes to school “in a paper bag or something…”

Complexity: addressed by dePaola with tenderness, wit, and imagination — as Sendak, Lobel, Marshall, and Charlip themselves did time and again. They were gay, talented, and gifted also with insight.

From the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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24. Selfie Sweepstakes Reviews: Drawbridges Open and Close

DrawbridgesDrawbridges Open and Close; by Patrick T. McBriarty; illus. by Johanna H. Kim. Curly Press, 2014. 40pp. ISBN 978-1-941216-02-6. $15.95

Gr. K-3. I was glad I had read this book prior to my recent visit to Ft. Lauderdale, where everybody gets around by car, negotiating a host of drawbridges back and forth across the Intracoastal Waterway. Although the book opens (heh) confusingly with “Next to the drawbridge is a bridge house,” it then settles into a clear and nicely-patterned account of the six steps taken (by the Scarryesque Bridge Tender Todd, a fox) to open the bridge for passing boats and then the six to close it so that street traffic may resume. Coloring is vibrant without being over-lavish; the drawing of the all-animal cast is a little awkward but that of the bridge and boats and vehicles is neatly-lined, and the cutaway diagrams that show how the bridge works are excellently informative. One terrific spread shows the open bridge, the passing boats and the impatient cars from an amazing bird’s-eye-view. Perhaps the focus is a bit narrow, and it’s not said how generalizable the information is (do all drawbridges work this way?) but children with an eye for the way things work will be happy with this picture book. R.S.

 

[This review may be distributed freely and excerpted fairly; credit to “Read Roger, The Horn Book Inc., www.hbook.com.]

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25. Two articles about chapter books | Class #3, 2015

Jack Gantos as a child

Jack Gantos as a child

This week in addition to our three chapter books, we are reading two articles.

The first is Robin Smith’s piece about her road to becoming a second grade teacher who loves LOVES books, and how she shares them with her classes: “Teaching New Readers to Love Books” from the September/October 2003 Horn Book Magazine.

The second is an interview with Jack Gantos that sheds some light on how he came to write the Joey Pigza books: “An Interview with Jack Gantos” from Embracing the Child website.

jack gantos at simmons

Jack Gantos in 2013

 

(If you would like to read more by Robin Smith or about Jack Gantos, there’s is plenty on the Horn Book website. Just follow these links.)

Tell us what you think of these articles in the comments below.

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