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1. Barry Deutsch on Hereville

deutsch_hereville how mirka caught a fishIn our November/December issue, reviewer Shoshana Flax asked Barry Deutsch about the third entry in his graphic novel series about “11-year-old time-traveling Jewish Orthodox babysitter” Mirka. Read the full starred review of Hereville: How Mirka Caught a Fish here.

Shoshana Flax: We hear more about the modern world in this third installment. What do you think the neighbors think of Hereville?

Barry Deutsch: I can honestly say no one’s ever asked me that before! The people in the next town over are pretty suspicious of Hereville. There are a lot of weird rumors flying around, as you’d expect. (The Hereville folks tend to be pretty insular.) But in real life, one of my neighbors has become a big Hereville fan! We sometimes talk about it on the bus.

From the November/December 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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2. Vaunda Micheaux Nelson on The Book Itch

Vaunda Micheaux NelsonIn our November/December issue, our editors asked Vaunda Micheaux Nelson about revisiting the source material of her BGHB Award–winning No Crystal Stair in new picture book The Book Itch. Read the full review of The Book Itch here.

Horn Book Editors: What compelled you to revisit the material from No Crystal Stair to create your picture book The Book Itch?

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson: I was writing in Lewis Jr.’s voice in No Crystal Stair when I realized that his perspective might entice younger readers into Lewis Sr.’s world. Moved by Lewis Jr.’s story, I wanted to explore how his father and the bookstore influenced him in particular. You could say Lewis Jr. cut in line and stepped onto the speaker’s platform, making me pause the longer work.

From the November/December 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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3. Five questions for Tim Wynne-Jones

Tim_Wynne-JonesAt the start of Tim Wynne-Jones’s The Emperor of Any Place (Candlewick, 14 years and up), Evan, reeling from the death of his single father, has no choice but to contact his paternal grandfather, Griff — whom Evan’s dad called a murderer. A gripping story-within-the-story unfolds about a WWII Japanese soldier stranded on a haunted island. How Wynne-Jones weaves these strands together is elegant, surprising, and exhilarating.

1. How much did you know about WWII Japan and Japanese folklore before writing this book?

TWJ: Very little! I’ve had the good fortune to travel in Japan, and loved it, but I cannot claim any particular prior knowledge of Japanese culture or folklore. For years I had wanted to write a World War II book to honor my father, whose experience of the war in Europe scarred him. What we would call PTSD now, but which he did not acknowledge as more than “shell shock,” haunted him and had an effect on us, his children. War does that: spirals down the years and decades, affecting generations. Whenever I tried to write myself into the war, so to speak, I found it impossible, and only after a great deal of time did I come to the realization that the European war was my father’s war. Which left me with the “Other War,” in the Pacific Theater, the one I knew next to nothing about. That gave me the freedom to research deeply, to dig and imagine and finally find a corner of the war that I could inhabit, fictionally.

As I was getting to know Isamu Oshiro, I realized he would have grown up with the folklore of his people just as I have grown up with the folklore of mine. And as soon as I started reading up on that, I knew it would be an integral part of Kokoro-Jima. I have played with the idea of the jikininki, giving them a unique back-story. This is what Bram Stoker did with Dracula: take an existing folktale and breathe new life into it. It has happened down the ages and was one of my favorite parts of writing this book.

2. Did you write the different threads of the story one at a time or were you working on them all at once?

TWJ: Oh, the threads. The threads were a complete schmozzle! There were so many threads — far more than made the final cut. At one point I had thirteen point-of-view characters all clamoring to tell their stories. “Me, me!,” they shouted until my head hurt. What really came first was the story-within-the-story, that of Isamu’s adventures on the island of ghosts and monsters. Then there was the very lengthy task of finding out who else was going to make their way to that mysterious place and how it would all play out and how those people were related to the contemporary characters. I drew a whole lot of family trees!

wynne-jones_emperor of any place3. Did you make Griff up? Or is he based on someone you know?

TWJ: Griff grew out of my research and wide reading about the war, but with aspects of various people I’ve met, including my father. War shapes a man, whether he wants it to or not. A lifetime of fighting wars has shaped Griff. There was a whole novella-length part of the book that I eventually took out, about when Griff was a young man, Evan’s age, stationed in Iceland, before he was shipped over to the Pacific after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It was, among other things, a love story. He alludes to that in the novel, but originally I had the whole story as part of this book. That was when the novel was over six hundred pages long and…well, something had to go. But I’m so glad I wrote his story. It really helped me to get to know him and see that he wasn’t always like he is now. Once he was young and in love, with his whole life before him.

4. This book is: realistic family story; fantasy; mystery; ghost story; historical fiction; war story; contemporary fiction; story-within-a-story; and more. How’d you make that all work?

TWJ: Phew! Put that way, I’m not sure! It took a long time, I’ll say that much. I usually spend a year or so writing a novel. This one took more than three and a half years. There were so many parts of the story I wanted to tell, and I juggled all that in such a way that there were many, many versions. Gradually, the stories that needed to be there stayed and the other parts fell away. Along with the Griff novella, there was another whole novella telling us Hisako’s story as she lived through the invasion of Sampei. I think it was only when Evan rose to the top as my central character that I knew what I could include and what had to go, no matter how interesting it was to me in and of itself. This is, in the end, Isamu’s and Evan’s book, and there is nothing in it now that doesn’t shore up their stories and, hopefully, weave them together: the Emperor of Kokoro-Jima and the Emperor of Any Place.

5. Do you believe in the afterlife? (Or the beforelife, in this case?)

TWJ: Do you want the long answer, the short answer, or the truth? The afterlife has been a part of human culture — the Human Mind — for so many millennia it’s not something one can simply dismiss. I don’t believe in heaven as a place, per se, so much as a deeply rooted concept, but I do believe that the idea operates on us and through us while we are alive. So in a way it does exist as we live in a world with this unanswered and persuasive question hanging over our heads. It was only after a long time of writing this novel that I came up with the idea of preincarnation, and I loved the poetry of it. I quickly learned that there are other definitions of this word out there, but my own definition and its appearance on Kokoko-Jima captivated my imagination. I love the idea that there was — is — this magical island in the largest of our oceans where the future waits in ethereal form and recognizes us for who we are, if we happen to wash up on the shore there. I suppose that even if heaven is only a metaphor, it’s a particularly powerful one. And I take metaphors very seriously. A metaphor is how we describe something we have no description for. Sounds like heaven to me!

From the November 2015 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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4. An Interview with Kate DiCamillo

Kate DiCamillo served as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature from January 2014 to December 2015 and was this year’s National Summer Reading Champion. This past spring, Horn Book editors Elissa Gershowitz and Martha V. Parravano shared breakfast with the two-time Newbery Medalist (for Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures and The Tale of Despereaux) and Jennifer Roberts, VP of publicity and executive director of marketing campaigns for Candlewick Press. Once we’d sorted who ordered the mixed-berry plate and who had the seasonal berries, we got down to business.

Elissa Gershowitz: The Ambassadorship. How has it gone?

Kate DiCamillo: My term is almost up. It has taken me a long time not to be afraid of it, because it’s all so official. I never want to be a role model, and so that intimidates me, but I don’t think that’s necessarily what it is. What I finally figured out, after about six months, was that I’m just doing what I’ve done my whole life, which is talking to people about books and making them read. It’s what I do in my friendships. “Here, you have to read this, you have to read this.” There’s so much talk about what kids need to do and what parents need to do, and I keep wanting to push the conversation back to “this is a privilege to get to do this.” That you can go anywhere in this country and get a book from a library is just the most amazing thing in the world. It’s not a duty; it’s a privilege and it’s a joy. That joy is doubled and tripled and quadrupled if you read with other people.

EG: As ambassador are you mostly talking to kids, or to grownups, or a combination?


Photos courtesy of Jennifer Roberts.

KD: A lot of it has been school groups, but when it’s the general public, I’d say half-and-half. Sometimes it’s all adults, and I’ll say to a roomful of adults: Go home and read to your adult. We forget how much we love to be read to. And as long as your kid is receptive to it, and almost all of them are, even the really gnarly ones when they get to be twelve and thirteen, that time to sit down and read together gives you as parents as much as it gives the kids. It deepens the relationship.

EG: How did the Summer Reading Championship come about?

KD: [Candlewick publicist] Tracy Miracle was talking to the Collaborative Summer Library people and found out the theme was “Every Hero Has a Story.” Tracy thought, what if I got behind that, because I’ve got some furry heroes. The fear and trepidation I had around the ambassadorship — maybe I’d finally gotten my sea legs, I don’t know. But by the time the summer reading opportunity came along, it was just like, yes. Let me. I’m a kid who grew up going to the summer reading program every year at the public library. I love talking to kids about that. It’s just been the most natural thing in the world for me to do while I’m out doing the ambassador stuff. In Seattle, in front of an auditorium full of kids, I asked, “How many of y’all know where your public library is?” And this incredible number of hands came up. It must have been eighty percent of them. I’m like, “Really? That is so great. Do you know that your local library has a summer reading program?”

EG: So you’ve been traveling a lot. Do you enjoy traveling?

KD: Well, let’s talk about bedbugs.

EG: Erm, we just got our food.

KD: No, I actually do like traveling. Here, Jennifer [Roberts] always wants me to modify my language.

EG: Not for us, you don’t need to.

KD: If I am just home and writing, I become very strange. So there’s this balance. I am really an introvert, and I need that time alone for a variety of reasons. I need to write, and I can’t write when I’m on the road. But going out and not only meeting the kids, but meeting the teachers and the librarians and seeing the world, fills me up. There have been a couple of times when we’ve gotten the balance wrong, and I’ve been out to the point where it takes me too long to get back in, but it has generally been good. Now I can’t remember what the question was…

EG: “Do you like traveling?”

KD: I started off with bedbugs, and then I politely veered off.

EG: Have there been any especially memorable places you’ve been, or people you’ve met?

KD: There have been a ton of memorable places. About six months ago Jennifer and I went to South Dakota, which is not that far away from where I am in Minneapolis, but I had never done an event there. It was for their book festival, and they managed to get every third grader in the state, at the end of the year, a copy of [The Miraculous Journey of] Edward Tulane. And then I went there in the fall and saw them as fourth graders. They bused in something like two thousand kids, and I talked to them in groups of a thousand. I thought, “This will never work, because I’m going to physically be too far away from them.” But they have this state-of-the-art theater with an incredible sound system. I was able to move, and get down right in the middle of those kids. It was massive, and yet it was really, really intimate. What made that happen despite the size of the theater was that the kids were responding. It was the stories connecting us, and it was deeply powerful. Jennifer cried. I cried. Librarians cried. Organizers cried.

Jennifer Roberts: Didn’t you feel, Kate, that this was one of those moments where the connection was between not just your books and you as a writer, but also you as a person? Because the kids were comfortable asking you such personal questions.

KD_Seattle_fullhouseKD: Yes. And because I’m short and loud — I’ve watched this happen with Jon Sciezska when I’ve seen him present. It’s miraculous. The kids know right away that they can trust him, that they can say anything. I’m not Jon. But I think because I’m short, and because I’m in jeans, which a lot of the kids noticed — she wears jeans, you know? — and right, they’re not skinny jeans…

JR: Once someone asked, “How old are you?” Because they’ll ask these questions.

KD: That was one of my favorite exchanges. I said, “I’m fifty.” And the girl said, “But how did that happen?” Same thing I keep wondering.

EG: I’m looking at you and wondering that too. Do they ask any questions you just don’t want to answer, or you sort of deflect?

KD: No, because I feel like that’s part of the reason that I’m there, to tell them the truth. I was just at the Library of Congress, and a couple of eight-year-old girls wanted to give me the business about Opal’s mother [in Because of Winn-Dixie], and how I really needed to write another book. They either knew what happened, or Opal knew what happened, or something had to give. I said, “I genuinely don’t know, and I would be lying if I made her come back.” And then we talked about how sad that was, and then I talked about the end of the book, where Opal is in that room with all of those people, and don’t they seem like family? And it’s that same kind of thing with talking to them about me and my life. It’s like, has it been ideal? No, but it has worked out in ways that have been incredible. Because I talk about being sick a lot as a kid, and I talk about my dad leaving. Those kids in South Dakota, it was electrifying that they put it all together, because the first big question was, “Do you think that you would have been a writer if you hadn’t been sick?” Yeah, no, so this bad thing that happened to me, this thing that seemed bad, actually gave me something. And then we moved to the next question: “What about your dad? If he had stayed, then maybe you wouldn’t have been a writer.” Yup.

EG: Many of your books are serious, but some of them are just kind of silly and fun.

KD: They are. Nobody ever learns anything.

dicamillo_francine poulet meets the ghost raccoonEG: I was just laughing out loud at your latest — that raccoon catcher [Francine Poulet Meets the Ghost Raccoon, Tales from Deckawoo Drive series]. Do you think of those as a break from the heavier pieces?

KD: I was talking to Tobin [M. T. Anderson] about this one, and he said it’s like sorbet in between courses.

EG: Cleansing your palate.

KD: Yes. And it is like that. But it’s also necessary. I feel like I need it, so it’s not just taking a break.

JR: Wait, can I ask you a question?

KD: I love it when you ask me questions.

JR: It’s not like you wrote Flora & Ulysses, which is very funny but more serious, and then completely go to the sillier chapter books. You’re juggling a little bit.

KD: I’m always juggling. I’ve got four Deckawoos done now, and I’ll hold steady at that for a while. But I’ve got a novel that I’m working on. I just finished a draft of that, and when I put it aside, then I’ve got a shorter thing that could be silly. And so I work on that, and I’ve got that in a first draft now. And then I’ll go to the second or third draft of a novel, and then after I’m done with that, then I’ll go back to the short thing and take that up for another draft.

JR: You see why we have to stop traveling her! She’ll never get any writing done.

EG: But it never feels like you’re churning your books out. Each one is fresh and interesting. Nothing feels like you are just phoning it in.

KD: God help me if I’m phoning it in. That would be terrible.

EG: Are you getting ideas on the road, so you’re really working at the same time?

KD: Yes, that’s the great thing about the road. Because no matter how hard you try to be present at home, you’re always doing the things that you have to do. It’s hard to see with fresh eyes, but you come out here and wham, wham, wham.

JR: Well, it’s like what you say to kids when they ask, “Where do you get your ideas?”

KD: I eavesdrop. And this is like riding a city bus all over the country.

EG: Do you get recognized on the street? And if you do, are you recognized differently by children than by adults? There aren’t that many actual celebrities in this field, really, but you are one. How does that play into your life?

floraulyssesKD: I’ve been recognized in airports lots of places, but mostly getting recognized is at home. Minnesota has been so good to me and so pleased that I love Minnesota. This is the great thing about writing for kids. Adults might not do anything if they recognized me. But if they do see me, and they’re with a kid, they’ll tell the kid who I am. They think they should give that to the kid. So generally that sends the kid over. It happens at restaurants quite a bit. I don’t think about being a celebrity. I think, oh my god, kids are reading, and they care about a book enough to come over and talk to me about a book that they care about. If I think about it as being a celebrity, it would freak me out. But I just think, lucky me, that I get to be a part of this whole thing. Even when we go out on the road, and we do always go into areas where the kids are not seeing writers and they’re not getting books, and then we go to the other end where they have everything in the world. I still feel like it’s probably a rarefied chunk that I’m seeing, but what I see are kids who are totally engaged with books. It makes me so much a Pollyanna. Do you guys want to argue about that? What do you think? Do you think I’m just being hopeful?

JR: No, I think it’s books and stories. You talk about stories so much because stories come in so many different formats. They just love the stories. They want to know, like you said, Opal’s mom — what happened to her? You created her; it’s what you did. She exists somewhere, and you must know where.

winndixieKD: It’s real in their engagement, and it matters to them. There was a twenty-one-year-old guy at the Boston Public Library event the other day. He raised his hand and said, “I grew up in Boston, in an urban setting. I read Winn-Dixie when I was a kid, and that’s about a girl in a rural Southern town, and yet I really connected to that story. Do you have any other stories about unlikely connections like that?” And then he came through the signing line afterwards, he was at the very end. I asked, “So are you done with college?” He said, “I just finished.” I asked, “What’s your degree in?” and he said, “Psychology with a minor in art. Don’t ask me what I’m going to do. I’m hoping it will just come to me.” And then — I keep on thinking about this — he quoted verbatim the passage at the start of chapter seventeen, about Littmus W. Block coming home from the war and having seen so much sadness in the world, he wanted something sweet so he built the town a candy factory. This grownup quoting from the book!

EG: Do you think every kid is a reader, even if they don’t think that they are? And/or if they don’t think that they are, how do you reach them?

KD: I know people in the industry who are big, big readers, who are just nervous as all get-out about their kids. “He doesn’t like to read. She doesn’t like to read. What am I going to do?” Reading is my passion. I always think — and I don’t know that this makes me a lot of fans — I don’t think it’s going to be the thing for everybody. But I think for everybody it can be a solace, illumination, education. It might not be the way that the child engages with the world, but it should be something that they all learn how to do, and that they get to have for themselves, as opposed to somebody telling them what to do and how to do it. They’re not easy questions.

EG: In terms of this connection and what’s happening in people’s minds — every time I see the girl who played Opal in the Winn-Dixie movie [AnnaSophia Robb] acting in something else, I think, “I’m so glad that Opal’s doing okay for herself.”

KD: That’s hysterical. I like it.

EG: Do you think of the movie versions of your books [Because of Winn-Dixie in 2005 and The Tale of Despereaux in 2008] as yours? Or do you think of them as something different?

KD: I was saying this the other day at the library. The only control you have over a movie is whether or not you decide to sell the rights. It seems very small and mean to say, “This book is so precious and perfect that you can’t turn it into a movie.” To me the book is like having a kid. I have to let it go out in the world, and great things will happen. Maybe they won’t, but it has to keep on moving. So yes, I see that as part of mine, or something that I’m part of a cycle of.

Martha V. Parravano: I wanted to ask about the illustrations in your books. You’re so devoted to visuals. In almost all of your books there’s some visual element. Is that you? Is that the publisher?

KD: That’s a happy synergy between us. With Despereaux I said to Kara [LaReau, former Candlewick editor], “I can’t imagine this book not being illustrated, can you?” and she said, “Oh, no, it has to be.”

MVP: You were so ahead of your time. Now it’s going to be all about the synergy between words and pictures.

The Miraculous Journey of Edward TulaneKD: Right. I remember when I had, like, eight pages of Despereaux, and I was struggling with it. But I gave it to one of my good friends, who read it and said, “It makes me feel like a kid. It makes me feel like I’m reading a book that I read when I was a kid.” Everything when I was a kid was illustrated. Those color plates. And they weren’t always — sometimes they were in the wrong place. And why was her hair dark, you know? That kind of thing. But they were an integral part of it. Kara and I hadn’t really talked about it that much. We just knew that it had to be. And then enter Chris Paul [Candlewick creative director and associate publisher].

I’ve been so lucky. I wouldn’t have the career that I have if I had not been at Candlewick. No one has ever said to me, “What are you doing?” Instead they always say, “We’ll figure out a way to make this work.” If I go from turning in The Tiger Rising to turning in Despereaux, Kara would say, “More, please,” as opposed to, “What are you doing?” Or: “Don’t put that word in a book.” Like [author and reviewer] Sue Corbett listing out all the words in Flora & Ulysses and saying, “What are you trying to do? Prep them for the SAT?” I think if I’d been someplace else, I’m such a pleaser that if somebody had said “Take it out,” I would have. And I think if I’d been at another place I might have been pushed into a Winn-Dixie sequel.

It goes back to that thing about phoning it in, and what’s the point of doing it if I’m just going to phone it in, right? Or like with Mercy Watson. My agent, Holly [McGhee], said, “I don’t know what it is. But I like it.” And she sent it to Candlewick. And they’re like, “We have no idea what this is. But we love it.” And then they found a way to make it work.

JR: Booksellers and librarians at first didn’t know where to shelve it. A not-yet-tried genre, really.

MVP: And now there are so many imitators.

EG: And speaking of imitators — how many books are there now with introspective girls with pets? Thanks for that, lady.

KD: My obituary: her books about introspective girls with pets.

EG: Do you read your own reviews?

KD: I read whatever the publisher sends me. I don’t look for anything. I have been clean and sober for eight years. I have not Googled myself. I have not looked at myself on Amazon. It could drive you wild. What other questions are on your list?

EG: Mostly dumb ones, like how many pairs of rainbow socks have people given you?

dicamillo_bink & gollieKD: It’s funny, I’ve gotten many more toast socks than rainbow socks. Yeah, there are socks out there with toast on them. Yesterday I got a loaf of bread. That was a new one. It looked really good. It was from the cutest kid. He was maybe four, and his mom said, “Sometimes when he goes to sleep at night he’s saying something over and over to himself. It took me a while to figure out what it is. It’s from Bink & Gollie: ‘I long for speed. I long for speed.’”

EG: So are you straight-up Bink, or are there Gollie pieces in there too?

KD: I’m straight-up Bink. There’s that scene in the first Bink & Gollie book where Bink is on the bench trying to get her roller skates on. Tony [Fucile, illustrator] had never met me at that point, but that picture captured me to a T. That feeling of “Oh my god, I’m so frustrated, I just want to get these on and go.” (I said to him once, at the Geisel lunch, “How did you—?” And he’s like, “Well, there’s the internet.” And he didn’t say it like an asshole at all.)

EG: Did he know that the character was you when he was working on the project?

KD: Well, I didn’t really know that the character was me until he did the art. I mean, I knew that Alison [McGhee, co-author] is tall, I’m short, but it wasn’t that clear what was going on until Tony turned in the art. For a long time I would comfort myself by saying I need to summon my inner Bink. I always feel like that’s the best part of me, that kind of irrepressible person. And Tony gave that to me through that art.

JR: You’re not officially in the book, but it is pretty much what I think of as you.

EG: But it’s not forced, vanity, self-conscious.

KD: No, because I wasn’t really, truly aware of it.

JR: Also, vanity — Bink’s a bit of a mess.

KD: Verisimilitude, you know?

EG: Oh, I did have one last question: Do you have any words of wisdom for the next ambassador?

KD: I don’t know that I have any words of wisdom except that you’re going in as somebody who is supposed to give a message and instead you get paid back in ways that you do not anticipate. So you think, “Oh, I’m going to go out and do this,” but instead everybody gives to you. You know what I mean? You don’t realize what you’re going to get, and you can’t prepare yourself for it. It’s a gift.

From the November/December 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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5. Don Brown on Drowned City

brown_drowned cityIn our September/October issue, reviewer Betty Carter asked Don Brown, author/illustrator of nonfiction graphic novel Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans, about what we can learn from the events of Hurricane Katrina. Read the full starred review of Drowned City here.

Betty Carter: So many of your books cover a pivotal moment in American history. What do you believe is the most important takeaway from Hurricane Katrina for our country as a whole?

Don Brown: Hurricane Katrina presented America with two questions that have not yet been fully answered: Why did all levels of government fail the most vulnerable citizens of New Orleans, and what part did class and race play in that failure?

From the September/October 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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6. Vera B. Williams (1927–2015)

chair for my motherWe were saddened to hear about the death last week of legendary children’s book author and illustrator Vera B. Williams. It’s a loss to our field; she was, truly, unique. Her groundbreaking picture books celebrated children and family and communities — all kinds of children, all kinds of families, and all kinds of communities. Both A Chair for My Mother and “More More More,” Said the Baby were Caldecott honor books (in 1983 and 1991, respectively), and they stand out among their fellows for their contemporary, unglossy settings, their sense of inclusiveness, and the forefronting of the loving relationships they portray.

cherries-and-cherry-pitsWilliams was also a two-time Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winner — for A Chair for My Mother in 1983 and Scooter in 1994 — and was a three-time BGHB Honor Award recipient (for Cherries and Cherry Pits in 1987; Stringbean’s Trip to the Shining Sea, written by Williams and co-illustrated with daughter Jennifer Williams in 1988; and Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart in 2002). Again — who can forget Bidemmi’s face shining out of the exuberantly colorful pages of Cherries and Cherry Pits; or the unforgettable sisters (unforgettable in both the poetry and the pictures) in Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart, one of the first children’s books to portray a family coping with the absence of a parent in prison.

williams_moremoremoreIn 2001 she wrote about “Childhood, Stories, and Politics” for The Horn Book Magazine. Here are a few salient quotes from that brief but important contribution: “I began to create my books just at a period when children’s books were becoming somewhat more open and more accurate about the range of family life in America, about color and class and ethnicity, about what girl characters could do and be.” And, “it is of solemn import to tell stories that involve us in the energies, talents, and great-heartedness of children and other not-so-powerful people.”

williams_coverIn 1992 she did a series of lovely covers for us. As with so much of her work it’s an image that looks reality right in the eye, messy laundry basket and breast-fed baby and all, and filled with love, closeness, and “not-so-powerful people.” Click here to read Horn Book Magazine reviews of select books by Williams.

And when it came time for Horn Bookers to talk about their favorites, Ms. Williams got even more love:

My favorite BGHB winner, reviewer edition: Robin Smith’s choice

The ones that got away: Leonard and I choose Vera B.

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7. Siân Has the Best Weekend Ever!

As many of you know, the Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium: “Transformations” was this past Saturday. It was interesting, engaging, educational, and fun (it was also exhausting for those of us working it, and even more so for the amazing Katrina Hedeen, who planned the whole durn thing).

But what you don’t know is the most important thing that happened over our BGHB/HBAS weekend.

Was it the Shuster-men speaking eloquently about Challenger Deep and mental illness?

Was it the informative and funny editor panel?

How about getting to see Marla Frazee’s pre-book sketches (including the illustrated thank-you note that became A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever!)?


What was it?

Susan Cooper took a picture of my Dark Is Rising tattoo.


tattoo  Cooper autograph
For more on the 2015 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards and the following day’s HBAS Colloquium: “Transformations,” click on the tag BGHB15.

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8. 2015 Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium timeline

Roger Sutton and the Horn Book at Simmons editors panel. Photo: Shoshana Flax.

Roger Sutton and the Horn Book at Simmons editors panel. Photo: Shoshana Flax.

On Saturday, October 3rd, we held our fifth annual Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium, with the theme “Transformations.” Miss the fun? We’ve compiled a timeline of the day’s highlights based on tweets by our staff and other attendees. See Friday’s ceremony timeline here.

9:07 am: Good morning! We’re ready for a full day of great discussion about good children’s books!

9:10 am: Cathie Mercier: It’s easy to read what we know and like, but how do we push ourselves to read outside ourselves, read “otherways”?

9:14 am: @jescaron: @RogerReads and Cathie Mercier open #HBAS15 with words of wisdom and “grounding”

9:15 am: @RogerReads introducing keynote speaker Susan Cooper

9:19 am: Susan: Transformation in nature is generally cyclical. What about change in our minds? Imagination doesn’t follow any rules

9:20 am: @jescaron: Susan: “Change is an integral part of stories — it is called plot.”

9:21 am: Susan: Can words spark an unpredictable change in the mind?

9:22 am: @ShoshanaFlax: SC clearly read the May @HornBook carefully #swoon

9:24 am: Susan discussing different types of book transformations: retellings, adaptations from other media, making books more accessible

9:26 am: Susan: Fantasy is metaphor… It takes you through the imagination to truth

9:27 am: @jescaron: “People who write fantasy have chosen transformation…finding the magic from the real”

9:30 am: A tumultuous year in Susan’s personal life had profound effects on her writing. “As with writers, so with readers” — we seek escape in words

9:31 am: Susan: When reading, your imagination lives in the book. Reading is creating experience from imagination

9:32 am: Susan: This experience of living in a book can change you

9:33 am: Susan: Letters from readers say, “I read your book, and my world changed a little,” even if readers can’t articulate exactly how

9:35 am: Susan: “The imagination of a reader instinctively takes what it needs from a book and creates a kind of life belt”

9:38 am: Susan: You realize which books had a profound effect on your childhood imagination only by looking back

9:40 am: Susan: An imagination that delights in books as a child grows up and is able to nurture a hunger for books in the next generation

9:43 am: Which books were transformative for Susan in childhood? The Box of Delights and The Midnight Folk by John Masefield

9:44 am: Susan: Nonfiction can be transformative too: “a story is a story”

10:02 am: Nonfiction winner Candace Fleming and editor Anne Schwartz on “Bringing History to the Page”

10:03 am: Candace echoing Jacqueline Woodson’s metaphor of writing as childbirth: you forget how miserable it is and then you’re ready to do it again

10:04 am: Candace writes in longhand on loose-leaf paper — the smell of the ink is reassuring, reminds her of what she’s accomplishing

10:05 am: @jescaron: The Family Romanov went from a light and fluffy book to its final state — transformation!

10:06 am: Anne: As an editor it’s very difficult to ask an author to start over; both author and editor have already invested a lot of work

10:08 am: Fascinating to see original drafts, notes, and editorial letters for what became The Family Romanov

10:11 am: Anne liked the format of text snippets and sidebars, creating a narrative like a tapestry

10:15 am: Anne asked questions Candace “never saw coming,” which made her think about her research and narrative in different ways

10:18 am: Candace: “Anne is the best editor because she questions everything–and that makes me a much better writer”

10:21 am: Going to Russia helped Candace really understand the disparity between the Romanovs and the peasants whose “backs the palaces were built on”

10:23 am: Candace: Stories of peasant lives in Imperial Russia and the Russian Revolution are extremely difficult to find

10:28 am: Candace: Writing good nonfiction requires finding the “vital idea” you want to communicate, not just the facts

10:51 am: An Amazon reviewer called Candace a “vile socialist” for her portrayal of the Romanovs. She’s proud :)

11:06 am: Judge Maeve Visser Knoth in conversation with #bghb15 honoree Jon Agee about It’s Only Stanley in “How Do I Make You Laugh, Too?”

11:07 am: Stanley, like all of Jon’s books, started as a doodle in a notebook. If one of Jon’s doodles makes him laugh, he tries to follow that idea and flesh it out

11:10 am: Jon: Writing a picture book is “like fishing” — you start with an idea and “see if you can bring this fish in”

11:13 am: Jon says developing the plot of his picture books comes from a series of “what if” questions

11:14 am: Jon discussing how page-turns work with punchlines

11:18 am: Jon: “Sometimes when you’re working on a picture book, it’s like the story is already there” and you’re excavating it

11:27 am: Lear’s limericks made a big impression on Jon. They were about grown-ups, but grown-ups who were doing ridiculous things

1:08 pm: Great breakout sessions all around! Now @RogerReads is going to moderate editor panel “It’s a Manuscript Until I Say It’s a Book” #HBAS15

1:13 pm: Each editor is sharing a story of the “editorial magic” that helped turn the author’s manuscript into a #BGHB15-winning book

1:19 pm: Editor Liz Bicknell: “Editing is a backstage job. I wear black and sit in the curtains.”

1:20 pm: @maryj59: Liz: “Every writer demands different things of an editor.”

1:25 pm: Rosemary Brosnan: As an editor, “I like to feel that if I’ve done my job well, no one knows I exist”

1:39 pm: Nancy Paulsen: Editing is about “finding the writing that sings to you” as an individual reader — it might not be for everybody

1:34 pm: @jescaron: Editors muse on advice to younger selves — Don’t be so rash

1:36 pm: @jescaron: Editors muse on advice to younger selves — Try to get a good picture of the marketplace

1:38 pm: @jescaron: Editors muse on advice to younger selves — Have confidence that you will eventually figure it out

1:39 pm: @jescaron: Editors muse on advice to younger selves — Don’t stay out so late 😉

1:40 pm: @ShoshanaFlax: @nancyrosep & @lizbicknell1 both cite editor’s role to stand in for readers

1:52 pm: Nancy: “We all have the same goal…to make the best book possible.” Rosemary: “Sometimes we have to remind the author of that!”

1:44 pm: @maryj59: Rosemary: “An idea is just an idea. It’s the execution that matters.”

2:06 pm: Gregory Maguire in conversation with #BGHB15 judge Jessica Tackett MacDonald about Egg & Spoon in “Bringing Baba Yaga Home”

2:10 pm: Gregory: A story can have any number of inspirations. It’s not a one-to-one ratio

2:16 pm: Gregory discovered different roles for Baba Yaga in Russian folktales: the scary witch, the kindly crone… “That made her human”

2:17 pm: Gregory: “I had to get out of Baba Yaga’s way… It sometimes felt like channeling the devil”

2:20 pm: A theme of Egg & Spoon is “What can we little ones do” in the face of problems? What we older ones can do is give little ones courage

2:21 pm: Gregory: “I don’t write [specifically] for adults or for kids. I write for people who like to read Gregory Maguire books”

2:23 pm: Gregory quoting Katherine Paterson: “The consolation of the imagination is not imaginary consolation”

2:17 pm: @deirdrea: Gregory on why he loves Baba Yaga: “What we look like and what people think we are is NOT who we are.”

2:26 pm: Gregory showing us inspirational objects — including a tiny Baba Yaga house — he kept on his desk while writing Egg & Spoon

2:30 pm: @RogerReads asks, Are today’s readers well-versed enough in fairy tales & folklore to know the references Gregory is asking them to engage with?

2:32 pm: Gregory Maguire: Maybe Egg & Spoon is a reader’s first introduction to Baba Yaga, but he hopes it won’t be their last introduction

2:37 pm: @RogerReads has nothing to do with the BGHB judges’ choices, but “the happiest news I got this year was the announcement that The Farmer and the Clown won BGHB Picture Book Award”

2:40 pm: Marla Frazee & editor Allyn Johnston discussing The Farmer and the Clown in “Do I Need Words with That?”

2:41 pm: Love seeing Marla and Allyn’s work spaces — and the real-life boys (their sons!) — from A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever!

2:46 pm: A Couple of Boys… started as an illustrated thank-you note from Marla, James, and Eamon to Allyn’s parents for the boys’ nature camp trip

2:54 pm: Original title: “A Couple of Boys Go to Nature Camp (Sort Of)”

3:02 pm: Whoa, neither Marla nor Allyn had done a wordless book before The Farmer and the Clown!

3:07 pm: Marla: Part of The Farmer and the Clown illustration process was soaking the art in the bathtub between pencil and color!

3:19 pm: Really interesting backstory for Marla’s upcoming book with Victoria Chang, Is Mommy?

3:26 pm: #BGHB15 committee chair Barbara Scotto speaking with Neal and Brendan Shusterman about Challenger Deep in “When Life Provides the Story”

3:30 pm: Barbara: Did writing Challenger Deep change the meaning of the experience of facing mental illness for Neal and Brendan?

3:32 pm: Neal’s own tumultuous emotions — deep depression followed by euphoria — during a hospitalization for a blood disorder contributed to the novel as well

3:34 pm: Brendan: Mental illness is something we need to talk about. It’s easy to feel that you’re alone

3:37 pm: It was important to Neal to show Caden’s strength in facing and managing his illness, despite fact that it will never go away entirely

3:38 pm: Brendan’s original art is all in color; helped him to express what he was feeling during an episode. There’s a huge volume not included in Challenger Deep

3:39 pm: Much of the narrative of Challenger Deep was inspired by Neal’s interpretations of Brendan’s art

3:42 pm: Neal: the changes made to the manuscript in the editing process were small but extremely precise

3:46 pm: Neal: “When I submitted this manuscript, I was terrified…I had no idea if it even worked…As a writer you always need to be on that edge”

3:50 pm:@RogerReads asks, What was it was like for Neal when his fictional story started to diverge from Brendan’s real experience?

3:51 pm: Neal: it was easiest to write the pieces that did diverge, challenging to dovetail the 2 so readers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference

3:56 pm: Neal: “I look back at my body of work, and I feel that I everything I have written helped me to write this book”

4:01 pm: Cathie Mercier of @SimmonsCollege wisely and wittily recapping our day. How does she do that?!

4:03 pm: Cathie: “The writer lives two lives: the life lived, and the life unfolding on the page. The reader lives those dual lives too”

4:13 pm: Cathie: Who are the readers we leave behind? What are the topics we avoid due to discomfort? How can we transform literature itself?

4:14 pm: Cathie: Will we be able to transform ourselves to join young readers in the reading future?

4:15 pm: Thanks so much for a fantastic weekend at #BGHB15 and #HBAS15! See you next year!


More on the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards and the following day’s Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium, “Mind the Gaps: Books for All Young Readers,” is coming soon! Follow us on Twitter for updates on all things Horn Book.

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9. 2015 BGHB ceremony timeline

The winners and honorees. Photo: Aram Boghosian.

The winners and honorees. Photo: Aram Boghosian.

Did you miss the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards on Friday, October 2nd? Just want to relive the excitement of the ceremony? We’ve compiled a timeline of the evening’s highlights based on tweets by our staff and other attendees. See Saturday’s Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium timeline here.


5:43 pm: @jescaron: The crowd is gathering! Everyone ready for the ’15 @HornBook and @BostonGlobe Awards!

5:45 pm @Reflectlibrary: #HBAS15…I’m all a twitter!!

5:47 pm: Here we go… Cathie Mercier opening the #BGHB15 Awards ceremony!

5:51 pm: More opening remarks from the @BostonGlobe’s Linda Pizzuti Henry and @RogerReads of @HornBook. So much history with these three Boston institutions!

5:54 pm: @RogerReads: The BGHB Awards have only one central criterion: to honor excellence in books for children

5:56 pm: Chair Barbara Scotto will present the awards for fiction

5:58 pm: Gregory Maguire now accepting for Fiction Honor Book Egg & Spoon

6:00 pm: Gregory Maguire: “Baba Yaga c’est moi” — he most identifies with this madcap character

6:01 pm: @lauragmullen: Gregory Maguire accepts Boston Globe Horn Book Honor for Egg & Spoon and has room in stitches

6:02 pm: Gregory Maguire: We inherit a world of great beauty and great sorrow… We share both

6:03 pm: @SussingOutBooks: Gregory Maguire: “There are some things that are not diminished in being shared, but increased”

6:04 pm: Neal and Brendan Shusterman now accepting for Fiction Honor Book Challenger Deep

6:05 pm: Neal Shusterman: Challenger Deep began as just a title… What would “the deepest place on earth” mean in fiction?

6:06 pm: @ShoshanaFlax: Love that #BGHB15 award presentations include editors’ names #creditwhereit’sdue

6:07 pm: @lauragmullen: @NealShusterman “My editors taught me to write.” Delighted to learn from him at #BGHB15

6:08 pm: The Shusterman family’s experience with schizo-affective disorder provided a glimpse into that emotional “deepest place on earth”

6:09 pm: @jescaron: Challenger Deep — the story of a young adult struggling with mental illness and emerging from the deep

6:10 pm: @SussingOutBooks: “When I first turned in Challenger Deep, I had no idea how it would be received.” @NealShusterman, we are so glad you told THIS story

6:11 pm: Katherine Rundell’s editor David Gale accepting on her behalf for #BGHB15 Fiction Winner Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms

6:12 pm: Katherine Rundell is often asked, “Why children’s books? Why not ‘proper’ adult books?” Because children are extraordinary readers

6:13 pm: @MrsVanDusen223: Katherine Rundell: When you write you build a house. When kids read they build a castle

6:14 pm: Katherine Rundell: “I come back to children’s books because children’s books were there for me when I needed them most”

6:16 pm: Katherine Rundell: Books “helped me up and led me home” when lost. Children’s books say, “hope counts…love will matter”

6:18 pm: Katherine Rundell: “I asked [ed.] David Gale to read this out. I am making him thank himself. Which is a particular pleasure because he is so brilliant and modest”

6:20 pm: @jescaron: “Children’s books are not an way back out but a way in… they were not a crutch, they were wings”

6:21 pm: Judge Jessica Tackett MacDonald presenting Nonfiction Awards

6:23 pm: Editor Wesley Adams accepting on behalf of Phillip Hoose for Nonfiction Honor Book The Boys Who Challenged Hitler

6:25 pm: Phillip Hoose: Knud Petersen knew this book was his last chance to tell the story of The Churchill Club right

6:28 pm: Editor Nancy Paulsen accepting on Jacqueline Woodson’s behalf for Nonfiction Honor Book Brown Girl Dreaming

6:29 pm: @lauragmullen: @nancyrosep accepts #BGHB15 award on behalf of @JackieWoodson. What a team!!

6:30 pm: “Brown Girl Dreaming was not an easy book to write. I am glad to have that book in print — and out of me. Imagine a very long labor with no drugs”

6:31 pm: @SussingOutBooks: There were 32 drafts of Brown Girl Dreaming… @JackieWoodson @nancyrosep SO WORTH IT. Thank you for sharing your world with us

6:32 pm: Jacqueline Woodson: The post-labor euphoria of writing is having the book in print with a life of its own

6:33 pm: Candace Fleming accepting for #BGHB15 Nonfiction Award winner The Family Romanov

6:34 pm: @lauragmullen: She makes history have a heartbeat. The amazing @candacemfleming accepts her award for The Family Romanov

6:35 pm: Candace Fleming: The adult book Nicholas & Alexandra was (unwanted) book club selection of her mother’s, Candace’s first introduction to the Romanovs

6:36 pm: @jescaron: The Romanovs “were all roses and sweet kisses,” at least in Fleming’s memory

6:37 pm: Candace Fleming: The first drafts focused on Anastasia’s glamorous life with few hints of the sweeping events overtaking Russia

6:38 pm: Initially Candace Fleming avoided any mention of the Romanovs’ tragic end. The draft was factual, but not the truth

6:41 pm: Candace Fleming realized “I had work to do” when looking at her copious notes on the Romanovs’ riches but few on the lives of peasants

6:42 pm: Candace Fleming: “There is a difference between fact and truth, and to write a credible story—a compelling story—you need both”

6:43 pm: Judge Maeve Visser Knoth presenting award and honors for Picture Books

6:44 pm: Jon Agee accepting #BGHB15 Picture Book Honor for It’s Only Stanley

6:45 pm: Jon Agee: “It’s Only Stanley is a love story. There’s a lot of love in this book” although much of it is delusional, irrational love

6:46 pm: Jon Agee: there’s the canine love and then there’s the Wimbledon family’s love and trust for Stanley

6:47 pm: @jescaron: A book with a pink lunar poodle? Count me in! #ItsOnlyStanley

6:49 pm: Carmela Iaria accepting on behalf of Oliver Jeffers for #BGHB15 Picture Book Honor for Once Upon an Alphabet

6:51 pm: Oliver Jeffers: It was a risk to publish this weird, 112-page alphabet book, but worth it. Thank you to those who came on this strange journey

6:53 pm: Marla Frazee accepting #BGHB15 PB Award for The Farmer and the Clown. She’s glad to be in company of two of her favorite PB creators, Jon Agee and Oliver Jeffers

6:55 pm: Marla Frazee was baffled and troubled by conversations on social media around The Farmer and the Clown

6:56 pm: Marla Frazee: “Making sure words and pictures don’t stomp all over each other is maybe harder than focusing on one or the other”

6:57 pm: @jescaron: “Words and pictures can be equally misinterpreted”

6:58 pm: Marla Frazee: Saying that wordless books cede control to the reader is saying that the visual narrative provides a less powerful story

6:59 pm: Marla Frazee: Children are better at reading visual narratives than grown-ups are

7:01 pm: Because young children can’t yet read or read well, they rely on the visual narrative to guide them from emotion to emotion in a picture book

7:02 pm: Marla Frazee: The @HornBook has been a master’s class in children’s books for her since she graduated art school… 33 years! ♥

7:04 pm: Marla Frazee has taken heart in readers’ responses to The Farmer and the Clown — particularly very small children’s responses

7:05 pm: Marla Frazee: wordless books speak directly, secretly to children — no adult mediator necessary

7:06 pm: @RogerReads turning us loose to mingle, get books signed, and ooh and ahh over the winners

7:07 pm: See you tomorrow for #HBAS15 — lots more to come!

7:11 pm: @EmilyProcknal: Congratulations to all the 2015 @BostonGlobe – @HornBook Award honorees and winners. What an incredible evening at @SimmonsCollege 📚

11:59 pm: @Wozleigh: Worth long drive for #HBAS15 tomorrow with @RogerReads, @NealShusterman, @candacemfleming, @nancyrosep, Liz Bicknell, Gregory Maguire, and SUSAN COOPER!

More coverage of the 2015 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards and the following day’s Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium, “Transformations,” is on the way! In the meantime, follow us on Twitter for updates on all things Horn Book.

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10. Camp Sendak

Scotch Hill Farm. Map by Doug Salati.

Scotch Hill Farm. Map by Doug Salati.

When I was fourteen years old, I went away to Camp Tamarack near Hinckley, Minnesota. It was a beautiful place, set along the wooded banks of the St. Croix River. I loved it there.

Flash forward to this past July. I’m a man of fifty and I find myself on Scotch Hill Farm near Cambridge, New York, along with Richard Egielski, Marc McChesney, and Doug Salati, as part of the Sendak Fellowship. “What was it like?” you ask. Well, like Camp Tamarack.

Now, before my editors, my agent, and my wife throw a fit…let me explain. I didn’t spend the entire Fellowship month sack-racing, singing campfire songs, and weaving God’s Eyes. I was there as a serious artist. I stood outside for hours on end painting the verdant countryside in the tradition of Monet and Cézanne (though unfortunately without their results). I discussed books and art with illustrious guests (writer Gregory Maguire and author/illustrators Tomie dePaola and Barbara McClintock) over locally sourced gourmet dinners. And I researched the work of the Old Master himself, combing through piles of Sendak’s drafts and sketches.

About halfway into the fellowship, however, I started taking “studio breaks”: swimming in Battenkill Creek, hiking the hills of Merck Forest, picking blueberries at a nearby farm stand. It felt great to walk around in my bare feet, eat a sandwich with dirty hands, and just stare at puffy clouds in the sky. I felt like I was back at Camp Tamarack. And, yes, I did sing campfire songs. Camp counselors Lynn Caponera [President, Maurice Sendak Foundation] and Dona Ann MacAdams [Director, Sendak Fellowship] led the fellows in a sixties singalong one night after a cookout. (Who knew Egielski could play a mean mandolin?)

But it was the nights on Scotch Hill Farm that felt the most like camp. Around 11 p.m., I’d walk an old dirt road, heading home from the studios. The road was straight out of Maurice’s book Outside Over There — narrow and rutted with a row of old trees on either side of it. The first night of the Fellowship, the moon was barely a sliver in the sky and the road was pitch black. Doug Salati and I whipped out our iPhones and fumbled for the flashlight setting as we timidly ambled down the path. “What’s that?” Doug shrieked as he grabbed my arm. Ha! It was only a reflective road marker. We laughed the rest of the way home. As the month progressed, the moon got brighter and brighter (it was phasing into full-mode). By week 2, we didn’t need our phones. The walk had become a comforting nighttime ritual.

So, you see, folks, I did perform my fellowship duties admirably. But I also got the chance to roam free though the woods like a Wild Thing, like I did back at Camp Tamarack. And that’s something every picture book artist needs to do every once in a blue moon.

Slideshow photo captions:

1. L-R: Doug Salati, Richard Egielski, Dona Ann McAdams, Marc McChesney, Lynn Caponera, and Stephen Savage.
2. L-R: Lynn shows Maurice’s work to Doug, Richard, and Gregory Maguire.
3. L-R: Doug Salati, Lynn Caponera, Tomie dePaola, Richard Egielski, Dona Ann McAdams, Marc McChesney.
4. Barbara McClintock catches a rainbow.
5. Gregory Maguire holds court at the head of the table.
6. Men in hats. L-R: Marc, Doug, Richard, Stephen.
7. Richard Egielski takes a ride.
8. Things got a little wild.
9. Quieter times.
10. A group effort created “over burgers and beer” and using “the crayons they usually give to kids to keep them quiet until the food comes.”
11. Farm life.
12. Scotch Hill Farm. Map by Doug Salati.

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11. YA Meets the Real: Fiction and Nonfiction That Take On the World

It began with hot summer nights.

It was on hot summer nights — when it was far too hot to go outside, when all I wanted to do was sit under the throttle of a noisy air conditioner — that I got my best reading done as a teenager.

There were two kinds of books I was most addicted to: young adult novels such as Paul Zindel’s My Darling, My Hamburger, and those slightly racy, edgy dog-eared adult paperbacks that sat on the shelf in the dining room: Up the Down Staircase, Down These Mean Streets, Black Boy, anything by James Baldwin. I was looking for books that felt urgent, because I was growing up in urgent times — the Vietnam War, school integration battles, assassinations.

These conflicts did not feel far away. They felt as if they were right in my home. And they were. Not just through the TV and Life magazine but through books and the nighttime conversations in our living rooms, out on the concrete porches in our garden apartment complex in Queens. The war, for me, was my older brother’s friends marching or getting arrested at a protest or getting in trouble at school for being too radical. Assassination threats breathed right through our nylon curtains, where I could see the windows of my neighbor, Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP, whose own life was threatened by radical black separatists. During the balmy days of autumn 1968 I went to school at a neighbor’s apartment since the NYC teachers’ strike, sparked by racial tensions, had shut down the schools.

The world was in tumult, with problems, particularly urban problems, festering and boiling over. My feed was the TV news and weekly newsmagazines but also the private space of reading and novels. This fluctuation — between journalism and imagination, nonfiction and fiction — would become my pulse, my muse as a writer.

Thus, even when I was writing and publishing in the adult world, there was a moment when I knew I wanted to try my hand at young adult literature. I wanted to recapture that earlier, purer reading experience. I wanted to shed some of the “adultisms” I’d picked up studying in my MFA program, which had made my style a touch too self-conscious and mannered. I wanted to reach back to the love of story, along with an urgent sense of what matters, out there. I was just waiting for the right YA story to come to me.

budhos_remix2Not surprisingly, that story came to me through journalism. My first foray into writing for young adults was a nonfiction book called Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers, a series of profiles. Even then I knew I was interested in melding this intimate sense of teenagers themselves with the bigger story of which they were a part — in this case, immigration. How did coming of age feel to those who were coming to a brand-new country? What were the echoes across stories, between, for instance, a teenager from the Dominican Republic and one from the former Soviet Union? It was both variety and similarity that interested me. It was the first step, in my mind, of mixing it up in the YA world, showing the vast range of experience that young people can — and do — face. Like a lot of people who start to write YA, I wanted to write the books I did not see on shelves, to show characters and young lives that were not yet portrayed.

The idea for my first young adult novel, Ask Me No Questions, came out of a similar instinct. When 9/11 happened, I began to think about some of the young people I’d interviewed for Remix, especially Muslim girls who had been so affected by the Gulf War. So I began to track stories about the impact of 9/11 on Muslim communities — the Patriot Act, the panic as undocumented families began to flee to the border. My first idea was to do a magazine profile of an undocumented teenager at this moment in time. Yet the more I spoke to people, and poked around, the more I knew I didn’t want to do a journalism piece. I wanted to tell this story from the inside, to explore what such a quandary might be like for a young teenager. I wanted to fuse that external world situation with the internal dynamics of a family, with all of its own private dramas. That fusion between the outside and the inside is what most animates me as a YA writer. It harks back to my own growing up, stretched out with newspapers and Life and my paperbacks, trying to make sense of the tumult around me, both within my family and out there, in chaotic and angry times.

I’ve come to trust this dual instinct in myself, the confluence of nonfiction and fiction, journalism and imagination. It’s a hunch, a gut feeling, using a journalist’s eyes and ears to notice the stories of teenagers who are often not seen; young people confronted by something bigger than what they might be able to comprehend.

budhos_ask me no questionsFor me, what’s so interesting about writing this type of fiction is that it’s a kind of helix you’re turning back and forth in order to reveal the private and the public — and where those two overlap. In the case of Ask Me No Questions, I had the chance to illuminate the circumstances of those who live in secret, undocumented. At the same time, I would turn the helix and dwell on a dynamic that is not culturally specific, that of two sisters who don’t actually like each other. In doing so, I’m hoping to strike an emotional chord with readers on a personal level, then widen their perspective to strike an emotional chord on a more global level.

One of the characteristics of YA is that these are vulnerable young characters, getting buffeted with emotions and experiences, perhaps for the first time. The impact of politics, or an endangering situation, or the discomfort of class, hits these characters with a kind of raw and unfiltered punch. That doesn’t necessarily mean the writing itself should be raw and unfiltered, but it does allow for a kind of directness that is more often muted in an adult novel.

There’s another aspect of YA that I find exciting: the cleanness of the form, the clarity with which you need to see and speak of the world. Writing YA is often about pace, about moving forward through the use of voice and story, perhaps a bit more quickly and straightforwardly than one might do in adult books. It’s almost cinematic for me. Voice brings you into the interiority of the character, while the more visual, cinematic part propels you forward with a rhythm that is true to a teenager’s experience.

And yet here’s the dilemma when writing about “the world” for YA: unlike an adult reader, a teen reader does not necessarily come to a book — fiction or nonfiction — wanting to know about that book’s specific subject. How, then, to excite them, pull them in? Again, I believe it comes down to crafting a clean and pure voice, one that is naturally saturated with those details that start to fill in the world.

budhos_tell us we're homeWhen I was writing my second YA novel, Tell Us We’re Home, about three daughters of maids and nannies in a contemporary suburban town, I wanted to move away from the first person, even though I knew the “go-to” voice in YA is usually first-person or limited third-person. I wanted to do a touch of omniscience since, for me, the town is a character in the novel; a place these girls ache to feel as their home. But how to do omniscience that is also true to YA?

So I tried to employ a narrative voice that hovers, lightly, around my characters, affecting their mood, their acute sense of outsider-ness. To bring it back to the movies, the voice functioned as a kind of pan shot — nannies trundling up the hill with their Dunkin’ Donuts coffees, day-laborers lining up in a parking lot and other people grumbling about them. Then I would zoom in on the things that a teenager would pick up on, such as what my character Maria notices when she steps into an upper-middle-class home for the first time. It’s the small details — the posed, pseudo-moody black-and-white photographs of a boy, placed staggered up a wall, symbolized the feeling that their son was so important that his parents had given him a narrative of himself, his childhood, through these pictures. That was true entitlement—far more powerful than an expensive knapsack or other conventional symbols of affluence.

There again I found the fluctuation between the reader and the story: what I wanted to show the teenage reader, expanding his or her view and sense of the world, while also paying close attention to how a teenage character might experience those very same tensions. Whether I succeeded or not, I’m proud of my impulse to try — to open up some of the more limiting narrative methods that are commonly used in young adult literature; to suggest that teenagers are imbedded in a social context that goes beyond and outside the voice and frame of what they’d normally find in a YA novel. It’s this challenge that excites me — pushing the edges of YA and our expectations of the teen reader.

There are real hazards, of course, in writing fiction that is topic-based. For one thing, there’s nothing more boring than an inert fictional narrative that’s torn from today’s headlines. We will sense its hastiness, its impermanence on the page. One way to caution against this, for any writer, is to strip away the dilemma and headline moment and see if the characters still exist in your mind as vividly as they did before. Can you imagine these characters not in this crisis or situation? If you can, if you are as interested in them as you had been, then you know you may have a real seed; the world does not define your characters, but rather the world and its events are organic parts of who they are.

Another hazard is the imposition of the adult agenda, which, while well-meaning, might stifle the teenage character, how he or she sees events. Teenagers love nothing better than to poke fun at the piety of adult concerns about them. That’s what I try to keep in mind as I craft my forthcoming young adult novel, Watched, a follow-up to Ask Me No Questions, about a Muslim boy who becomes an informant on his community. My character is anything but a victim or an angel — he’s a slacker, a liar, a yearning wannabe, and he has few articulated thoughts about Islam or politics or terrorism. Yet he’s smack in the middle of those issues, like it or not.

Real-life teenagers are notoriously solipsistic. And in some ways, I would fault the YA world for too long dwelling on characters that were defined by what we think of as “typical” problems for a teenager. For one teenager — such as my own son, for instance — that life experience consists of being ferried to and from his activities and sports. For another teenager it might mean translating for her mother when she interviews for a cleaning job, or coming home and doing the housework for all her relatives. It’s thrilling to expand the notion of what makes up a teenager’s experiences, or to try and give teens a wider context for their own lives.

Teenagers can be subversive, rash, unformed, unpredictable. They can be dreamy and spacey. In one moment they’re screaming like four-year-olds, and in the next they have all the wisdom of a grandparent. They’re pointy and rough. That’s what makes them so interesting as protagonists. Don’t shave that away or sand them down in the interest of a larger point you’re trying to make. Teenage characters are not wish fulfillments of our adult concerns; they’re not there to correct the crimes and misdemeanors of a prior generation.

What we’re talking about is a mutability of perspective. The world, its events, may be unnamed, inarticulate, half understood by your characters. Whatever it is you wish to communicate, make sure it is in tune with the character. Don’t put words in her mouth; don’t make him more composed and formed than he could ever be.

The world — its urgencies — are being worked out by teenagers. Allow that working out to be part of the story. Allow them to discover what they make of the world, and your reader — young and adult — will come along for the ride.

From the September/October 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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12. Reviews of selected books by Jonathan Stroud

stroud_amulet of samarkandThe Amulet of Samarkand: The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Book One
by Jonathan Stroud
Middle School      Miramax/Hyperion     462 pp.
9/03     0-7868-1859-X      $17.95

The magicians ruling the British empire in this anachronistic modern fantasy derive their powers from demons — marids, afrits, djinn, imps — who, though summoned to work the magicians’ wills, are always looking for a loophole through which to destroy them. Bartimaeus, a smart-mouthed bruiser of a djinni, called by a stripling magician to steal the Amulet of Samarkand, finds just such a loophole when he learns his master’s secret birth-name. Nathaniel, however, manages to regain the upper hand with a time-delayed spell: Bartimaeus must protect the apprentice magician long enough to get the spell removed or spend eternity in a tobacco tin. Through guile, teamwork, and dumb luck the ambitious but green kid and the “Spenser for Hire”-type djinni uncover and foil a coup attempt masterminded by  Simon Lovelace, the powerful and ruthless magician who is after them for stealing the Amulet. The pace never slows in this wisecracking adventure; chapters in Bartimaeus’s lively first person (with indulgent explanatory footnotes) alternate with third-person chapters on Nathaniel’s adolescent insecurities and desires. Stroud has created a compelling fantasy story in a well-realized world, but it is the  complementary characters of Bartimaeus and Nathaniel that will keep readers coming back for the rest of the projected trilogy. ANITA L. BURKAM

stroud_golem's eyeThe Golem’s Eye: The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Book Two
by Jonathan Stroud
Intermediate, Middle School     Miramax/Hyperion     556 pp.
9/04     0-7868-1860-3     17.95      g

This second book in the Bartimaeus Trilogy focuses more on the politics and society of the corrupt, magician-ruled London posited here and less on the personal stories of the orphan Nathaniel and the  djinni Bartimaeus, with a noticeable drop in the entertainment quotient. Oh, there’s action and intrigue aplenty — the now-adolescent Nathaniel, with Bartimaeus’s reluctant help, must overcome two seemingly unstoppable villains: a golem activated by an unknown traitor in the government and an insane, murderous afrit encased in Gladstone’s skeleton. As if that weren’t enough, Stroud adds a new major character to the mix — Kitty Jones, commoner and Resistance member. Kitty’s story as oppressed, brave rebel is compelling, and readers will find her admirable, balancing out the increasingly unlikable Nathaniel, who, as “John Mandrake,” power-hungry junior minister, is amoral and self-important. But pages spent with Kitty and Nathaniel/Mandrake mean fewer spent with Bartimaeus, and that’s a loss: the djinni’s dryly humorous, supercilious, often rude persona is one of the books’ strengths; also, it’s his voice that gives readers that insider’s view of the book’s highly inventive magical world. With most — but not all? — of the villains vanquished, Stroud brings Kitty and Bartimaeus together and spells out the similarity of their lots: both commoners and magical beings suffer at the hands of the all-powerful magicians. The potential for a Bartimaeus-Kitty partnership, plus one or two loose ends left untied, will leave readers eager for book three. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

stroud_ptolemy's gatestar2 Ptolemy’s Gate: The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Book Three
by Jonathan Stroud
Middle School, High School     Miramax/Hyperion     503 pp.
1/06     ISBN 0-7868-1861-1     $17.95

This closing installment is the best yet, as the fates of the djinni Bartimaeus, the magician John Mandrake (true name: Nathaniel), and the commoner Kitty Jones grow ever more tightly entwined. The  situation in Stroud’s alternate-universe London has gone from bad to worse, with an unpopular overseas war draining men and resources; the ruling magicians corrupt; and the populace increasingly desperate. Now in hiding, Kitty is secretly learning all she can about Ptolemy, an ancient-Egyptian scholar whom Bartimaeus served — and loved — who aspired to break the cycle of enslavement between spirits and humans. Meanwhile, Bartimaeus, his essence sadly diminished by two years’ continual service in the material world, seeks his release; Nathaniel, now a cynical top minister, needs him to investigate a plot to overthrow the government. When the attempted coup goes horribly wrong and powerful demons ravage the city, Nathaniel, Bartimaeus, and Kitty find themselves fighting on the same side—and, in the case of Bartimaeus and Nathaniel, even in the same body. Stroud is a masterful storyteller, balancing touching sentiment with humor, explosive action scenes with philosophical musings on human nature. He ties up the loose ends from previous installments (the identity of the government traitor, etc.) early on, freeing the book from the usual duties of a wrap-up volume and allowing it considerable momentum and power. Skillfully intertwining the various plot strands, Stroud builds to a thrilling, inventive climax. The final scene manages to take the reader completely by surprise and yet seem, in retrospect, inevitable: a stunning end to a justly acclaimed trilogy. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

stroud_ring of solomonstar2 The Ring of Solomon: A Bartimaeus Novel
by Jonathan Stroud
Intermediate, Middle School     Disney-Hyperion     398 pp.
11/10     978-1-4231-2372-9     $17.99

Bartimaeus, the wisecracking djinni, returns in a prequel to his earlier adventures that began with The Amulet of Samarkand (rev. 11/03). Th is time he is bound into slavery to one of the evil magicians in King Solomon’s court. Meanwhile, the queen of Sheba refuses Solomon’s marriage proposal and, in retribution, the apparent tyrant threatens her kingdom with immediate destruction. Asmira, the queen’s most trusted guard, is sent to Jerusalem on a desperate errand: to assassinate Solomon and capture his legendary ring, the source of his enormous power. As the plot wends its way to the end, Asmira comes to realize that her blind obedience to the queen is just as confining as any form of slavery. Stroud has crafted a worthy companion to the Bartimaeus trilogy, keeping what worked (the snarky first-person voice, the labyrinthine plotting) but adding enough new elements (the world of the ancient Hebrews and the characters that populate it) to keep it as inventive and satisfying as the previous books. So rarely do humor and plot come together in such equally strong measures that we can only hope for more adventures. JONATHAN HUNT

stroud_heroes of the valleystar2 Heroes of the Valley
by Jonathan Stroud
Middle School, High School     Hyperion     483 pp.
1/09     978-1-4231-0966-2     $17.99     g

Will the descendants of the “heroes” — long memorialized in bloodthirsty legend — abandon their peaceable recent traditions to turn their ploughshares into swords? Will protagonist Halli, the short, stumpy younger son of Svein’s House, survive nonstop action to realize his true nature? To Stroud’s credit, he keeps readers guessing — about plot turns, character revelations, and the novel’s philosophical implications — through many a deftly choreographed conflict. Counterpointing the main narrative are legends of progenitor hero Svein, a Beowulfian figure known for harshly subduing his own people as well as the fearsome, feared (but not seen for generations), troll-like Trows. Despite the valley’s long-ago decision to eschew weaponry and abide by the decisions of peace-preaching women, it’s Svein who inspires Halli’s journey to avenge a murdered uncle. Halli’s actions, clever and well-meaning though they are, tend to have unintended consequences, causing commotion all over the valley and propelling the plot. Pursued, he takes refuge at Arne’s House, where Aud — equally intelligent and rebellious — hides him, becomes his valiant friend and bickering partner, and shares her family’s thought-provokingly different versions of the legends. She assumes a key role in a well-earned denouement, first during a siege involving some nicely inventive improvisation and again when the question of the Trows’ existence finally comes into play — with surprising results. Much fun. JOANNA RUDGE LONG

stroud_screaming staircaseThe Screaming Staircase [Lockwood & Co.]
by Jonathan Stroud
Intermediate, Middle School     Disney-Hyperion     374 pp.
9/13     978-1-4231-6491-3     $16.99     g

With a morbidly cheery tone and sure-footed establishment of characters and setting, Stroud (the Bartimaeus trilogy; Heroes of the Valley, rev. 1/09) kicks off a new series that is part procedural and part ghost story, with a healthy dash of caper thrown in for good measure. No one knows how the “Problem” began, but ghosts have become the world’s worst pest infestation, causing rampant property damage and personal injury, even death. Protagonist Lucy’s extreme psychic sensitivity (a talent found only in young people) is rivaled only by her dislike of obeying stupid orders, so she joins Lockwood & Co., a scrappy independent agency run by teenage operatives who scorn the usual requisite adult supervision. After a job goes awry, the agency is forced to take on a high-profile, high-paying haunting from a client who is, of course, not telling them everything. The setup is classic and is executed with panache. Lucy’s wry, practical voice counterpoints the suspenseful supernatural goings-on as she, agency owner Anthony  Lockwood, and dour associate George attempt to stiff-upper-lip their way through the ultimate haunted house. Tightly plotted and striking just the right balance between creepiness and hilarity, this rollicking series opener dashes to a fiery finish but leaves larger questions about the ghost Problem open for future
exploration. CLAIRE E. GROSS

stroud_whispering skullStroud, Jonathan The Whispering Skull
436 pp. Disney/Hyperion 2014. ISBN 978-1-4231-6492-0

(3) 4-6 Lockwood & Co. series. The ragtag juvenile ghost-hunter agency, Lockwood & Co., takes on its second big-ticket case, this one involving sinister artifacts with possible links to the genesis of Britain’s ghost “Problem.” Stroud unfolds an intricate plot that inches readers closer to the central supernatural mystery, offering a cozy, creepy tale that balances ghostly peril with hefty helpings of stiff-upper-lip snark. Glos. CLAIRE E. GROSS

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13. On crossing over: straight from the horses’ mouths

Why do some authors “cross over” from writing adult to children’s books or children’s to adult? To find out, we went straight to the source.

Shopaholic series author Sophie Kinsella (“The Queen of Romantic Comedy”), author of Finding Audrey — her first YA! — graciously submitted to our Five Questions treatment (sad to say she’s not a secret gamer).

We asked Patrick Ness and Ben Mezrich: What has writing adult books taught you about writing YA, or vice versa?

A Monster CallsPatrick Ness: That if you want either to be good, there can’t be any difference in emotional investment, personal investment, time investment, work investment. There’s only one danger in writing both and that’s snobbery to either. If a story needs to be for adults, I’m good with that. If it needs to be for teens, awesome, let’s go for it. And that’s the end of my thinking on the difference, really. After that, I’m just trying to write the best book I can, period.

mezrich_mouseBen Mezrich: After the movies 21 and The Social Network came out, I did a lot of events at high schools, and younger kids would come up to me asking if they could read my stuff. I really wanted to try and write a series for kids interested in the kinds of stories I write for adults. I always loved Encyclopedia Brown, and I want these books — about whiz kids beating the odds — to have that feel.

Also, now that I have kids (little ones, five and three years old), I can’t wait until they are old enough to read my books!

Here’s Gail Carriger‘s take, from an Out of the Box interview last fall.

Alice Hoffman talked about being influenced by Edward Eager, in The Horn Book Magazine.

Meg Wolitzer *hearts* libraries, and tells The Horn Book Magazine why.

Sherman Alexie’s Boston Globe-Horn Book speech for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is about autobiography and not autobiography.

Rainbow Rowell‘s Boston Globe-Horn Book speech for Eleanor & Park describes insecurities and incomplete ideas.

For more on crossovers, click here.


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14. Five questions for Sophie Kinsella: Crossover Week edition

Photo: John Swannell.

Photo: John Swannell.

Sophie Kinsella, author of the Shopaholic series for adults, is known as “The Queen of Romantic Comedy.” Her new book, Finding Audrey, is her first foray into YA territory…and it’s a good one. Kinsella graciously submitted to The Horn Book’s Five Questions treatment during Crossover Week.

1. Your portrayal of anxiety disorders is so vivid and true. How did you do your research?

SK: I have always written what I see around me, and I see more and more young people struggling to deal with the pressures of the world and modern teendom. I particularly looked at CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), which I believe has a great role to play in helping people deal with anxiety issues.

2. We never find out exactly what Tasha, Freya, and Izzy did to Audrey — which, in some ways, makes it all the more terrifying. Did you have in mind what they did as you were writing, or did the specifics not matter?

kinsella_finding audreySK: In my first draft, I actually wrote a section that explained what happened to Audrey — but then I took it out. I feel it diminishes the story if the reader has a full explanation, because it distances the reader from Audrey. They might think, “That wasn’t so bad,” or they could be so traumatized that they’d focus on her experience rather than the recovery. This way, any readers who suffer or who have suffered from bullying or social anxiety can relate to Audrey’s journey.

3. There’s humor in this book, your YA debut, but it’s not nearly as light and frothy as your very entertaining Shopaholic books for adults. How did you strike the right balance, given the serious subject matter (bullying, anxiety, family problems, etc.)?

SK: I didn’t deliberately set out to write a more “serious” book. I find that when I write, the appropriate tone and scenes come to me as I’m planning. I knew that with a character like Audrey, it wouldn’t be right to have a lot of slapstick comedy — although I always like to see the comic relief of life, which is how Audrey’s family came to be as they are! I knew that Audrey would be a wry character who keeps her humor despite all her difficulties, but I also wanted to portray her plight in a realistic tone. She’s in a pretty bad place.

4. Is Land of Conquerors a real game? (And are you a secret gamer?)

SK: No, it isn’t — and no, I’m not a secret gamer, I’m afraid. I’m actually quite rubbish at computer games! But I have seen quite a lot of gameplay of DOTA 2. That’s what comes of having teenagers in the house…

5. What did writing adult novels teach you about writing YA, or vice versa?

SK: I didn’t really set out to write a YA book when I wrote Finding Audrey. The story just came to me, and I saw I had to tell it through Audrey’s eyes. So I haven’t approached YA in a very different way, as far as the writing goes. Having said that, when you’re writing a story about teenagers, you do feel a responsibility to treat their very difficult problems accurately. I consulted my own teens along the way, which I would never normally do. I think they were quite pleased to have me deferring to them!

For more on crossovers, click here.


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15. Six of one, half a dozen of the other

The line between adult literature and YA is definitely bendy and sometimes more a “smudge” than a “line” (and then there’s that whole New Adult thing — remember that?) Not only are there great numbers of books that have been published for one community of readers and then been adopted by the other, there are also books that straddle the border, publishing as one in the U.S., the other internationally. Like, what’s with that, Australia? (Okay, okay; there are some British/UK ones too.)

Some examples:

zusak_book thief australianzusak_book thief usThe Book Thief by Markus Zuzak was originally published as adult, in Australia, but then published as YA in the U.S. Author John Green writes in an NYT review that he suspects the ambitious and emotional novel was actually written with an an adult audience in mind. But regardless of teen or adult reader, Green feels it is “the kind of book that can be life-changing.”

Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels follows Liga’s journey as she escapes horrifying abuse and raises her daughters, Branza and Urdda, in a parallel world. It’s a lyrical, fantastical fairy-tale complete with romance, violence (some graphic), and love. The book won a Printz Honor in the U.S., although it was published as adult in Australia. It was then repackaged and sold as YA in Australia.

connolly_book of lost things usconnolly_book of lost things ukJohn Connolly writes books for children (The Gates and the other Samuel Johnson series books, for instance) and adults (including the Charlie Parker detective series — what’s with all the mystery/crime crossover authors?). But at least one of his books has been marketed to both: The Book of Lost Things was originally published for adults in Ireland, but was given a more kid-appealing cover makeover to accompany The Gates U.S. release.

The Spell Book of Listen Taylor by Boston Globe-Horn Book honoree Jaclyn Moriarty, is about the trials and tribulations of the somewhat-magical Zing family. The book is a sort-of revised version of Moriarty’s Aussie novel I Have a Bed Made of Buttermilk Pancakes, from a different point of view: “I rewrote Pancakes because my American editor was intrigued by the character of Listen Taylor…The result is a different story, and one that is aimed more at young adults…” According to Moriarty, many reviewers went out of their way to say it wasn’t a children’s book (though it was published in the U.S. by children’s publisher Scholastic). The Horn Book Magazine reviewed it. Then put it on our “Mind the Gap” list as: “Best adult book on a children’s list.”

There are also books that have switched affiliation from printing to printing here in the States: Neil Gaiman’s Stardust was originally published as adult but then repackaged as a teen read (The Graveyard Book went the other direction, from middle-grade to adult). Same story for Francisco Jimenez’s Boston Globe-Horn Book-winning memoir The Circuit; it was published by New Mexico Press for adult readers, but repackaged for children when Houghton Mifflin picked it up.

Any others to add to the list?

For more on crossovers, click here.


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16. Five questions for Steve Sheinkin

Steve Sheinkin 2.13Steve Sheinkin’s young adult history books — including Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon (a Newbery Honor Book, a National Book Award finalist, and the winner of both the Sibert Award and the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults) and The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights (a 2014 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winner and also a National Book Award finalist) — are acclaimed for a reason. They are meticulously researched nonfiction books written with the pace, drama, and suspense of fictional thrillers. His latest, Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War (Roaring Brook, 11–14 years), is no exception, as Sheinkin spellbindingly unfolds the entwined stories of the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers — “seven thousand pages of documentary evidence of lying, by four presidents and their administrations over twenty-three years.”  

1. What originally drew you to Daniel Ellsberg’s particular story, within the larger narrative of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal?

SS: The very first thing that grabbed me was that a team of secret operatives, under direct supervision of the Nixon White House, actually broke into Ellsberg’s doctor’s office in search of information they could use to destroy him. I didn’t know the story well at that point, and wondered: what could this guy have possibly done to provoke such an incredible — and incredibly illegal — response from the president and his top advisors? Also, Ellsberg is one of those people who is considered a hero by some and a traitor by others, and that has always fascinated me.

2. President Johnson emerges as a particularly tragic figure, almost Shakespearean in his ego, in the cruel subversion of his ambitions (the War on Poverty, etc.), and in his inability to escape the quagmire that was the Vietnam War. I ended up feeling (conflictedly) sorry for him. Did you?

SS: Yes, very much so. You can really feel his agony as he makes these decisions, and the most unsettling part of all is that he seems to know all along that he’s heading for disaster. There’s a great line in his memoir about the presidency being too big for any one person to handle — there’s just no way to control events the way Americans seem to expect their leader to be able to do. But while I sympathize with him, I always end up getting angry at him, too, because I think, ultimately, his fear of political consequences was the main reason he escalated the war.

3. This story is a study in contrasts. On the one hand it’s loaded with farce. All the wigs and disguises; the botched burglaries (those conscientious employees re-locking doors!). But of course it’s a serious and important story of a defining era in our nation’s history. How did you hit upon the right tone?

SS: This story has a lot of you-can’t-make-this-up situations and characters, which makes for great material to work with in nonfiction. And I think the darkly comedic moments of bungling and farce are really essential to the overall story. It would probably just be too depressing without that stuff. It’s a matter of taste, but to me the best comedy is usually found in very serious stories — Breaking Bad did that brilliantly, to give one example. So I tried to keep the tone even, and hopefully the reader is pleasantly surprised by those comic moments.

sheinkin_most dangerous4. You make the point that Ellsberg’s legacy is as a First Amendment hero, while Edward Snowden, for example, has been lambasted by President Obama and Secretary Kerry. How do you think today’s political climate compares to that of the 1960s and 1970s?

SS: Maybe the most amazing photo I came across in my research was in a 1971 newspaper article showing Daniel Ellsberg shaking hands with a young anti-war veteran named John Kerry! And now, as you say, Kerry calls Snowden a traitor. In Kerry’s case, I think the main change is that he was an outsider then and he’s an insider now. Overall, while our country’s political discourse does seem to have gotten stupider, I’m not sure the political climate has changed that much. When the Pentagon Papers story first broke, the response was mainly along partisan lines — Ellsberg’s leak was praised by one side and blasted by the other, exactly like Snowden’s. I think it’s mainly time and distance that have tipped the scales in Ellsberg’s favor, in terms of public opinion. I suspect the same will eventually happen with Snowden, but we’ll see.

5. What do you hope readers will come away with after reading this book?

SS: I always start with the same goal: to tell a good story. So I hope teen readers are engaged with the drama and action and moral dilemmas in this one. Beyond that, I hope they come away thinking about how alive and current this story is, how much we’re still wrestling with the same kinds of questions. And of course the best result of all is for a reader to finish the book and be unsatisfied — that is, inspired to find out more.

From the August 2015 issue of What Makes a Good…?


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17. (Very Eventually) The Zena Sutherland Lecture


Dear Readers,

This particular version of my Zena Sutherland Lecture is a fabrication or, at best, a fabulation. Either way it is entirely false. Yes, I did give the Zena Sutherland Lecture at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago on May 1, 2015, but it was not as properly cured and marbled as this updated edition. So, for the sake of the great Zena Sutherland, let’s pretend that every word you are reading is exactly every word I spoke on that lovely occasion. Thank you in advance for indulging me in this artifice.

But why this gussied-up version? Well, I am notorious for writing an entire speech on a Post-it note and then never even using that sticky scrap of paper as a guide while I extemporaneously rattle on, believing in some egomaniacal way that I’ll manage to connect the dots-of-thoughts and say something significant on the subject of children’s literature. One final statement: I have great respect for Zena Sutherland and her immense work (for years I taught my graduate students out of her Children and Books), and I do apologize if this effort has failed to properly honor her legacy.

(As you enter this portion of the speech you should brace yourself for some old-fashioned cursing. Very un-Piglet of me. Do forgive.)

Please engage your imagination to begin here, onstage with me in Chicago, where after a charming and generous introduction by Linda Ward-Callaghan, I took to the podium and thanked one and all. I had every intention of standing before the audience and delivering, in a proper professorial tenor, my thousand prepared words, but I got off on the wrong foot. To set the scene from my point of view, the podium surface before me was cluttered with an assortment of extraneous stuff: there was a backup hand-held mic, the jagged metal mount for an outdated stationary mic that had violently been kinked over to one side, a thumbnail volume of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a previous speech on the harmonics of the zither (which I declined to deliver), and a crushed paper cup, along with a tube of lipstick and a tissue with a lip print pressed on it that resembled the animated hand of Señor Wences. I held my mic in my left hand, and as soon as I placed my speech down on that uneven landscape of podium compost my few typed pages began to slide this way and that on the irregular surface. Right away I began fussing with the pages in an effort to stabilize them. From prior talks I knew this sliding speech would cause me to lose my place each time I lifted my eyes to address the audience and then I would look like a dunce as I constantly paused, standing like a bent-over question mark, to track down the next sentence as if I were sorting through a box of mismatched buttons. (I’m one of those who cringe while watching other people mime such an awkward, painfully self-conscious search for their next line — so there was no reason the audience should show me their mercy.) But worse, deep inside I honestly dislike giving a prepared speech because I prefer to look the audience in the eye and feel the crowd and surf their level of interest and their mood and then, like a drum major, I march around the stage while speaking off-the-cuff and riff on my PowerPoint images while trying to remain ever mindful of my theme and do my best to corral my thoughts and tie them all up neatly in the end. In this case my theme was based on “the self as double,” or how I take personal stories and facts and transform them into fictions so that I am both “Jack” the writer and “Jack” the character — the sort of chameleonic duality you might find in the art of Cindy Sherman/Frida Kahlo/Rembrandt van Rijn/Andy Warhol, which is intentionally self-absorbed for very resonant reasons.


Both “Jack” the writer and “Jack” the character.

Anyway, The Horn Book was going to publish my speech so I had dutifully written a short one (to spare them), but the moment I set my speech on the podium it slid off to one side and sailed across the stage floor. Right then I was struck with the gut feeling that I despised my speech. I didn’t trust it one bit—it was neither smart enough nor clever enough, and it represented me poorly. It was an insult to Zena Sutherland. So I stepped on a page of it and said to the audience, “I don’t care to deliver this speech, but I do like speaking to audiences.” Now, having been in the audience plenty of times, I have seen dozens of people who should not venture off of their prepared speeches and go rogue but should just keep their heads down, read at a reasonable rate of speed, take a few questions at the end, and leave the stage with their dignity intact.

But not me. Right away, and without a moment of pre-thought, I launched into a story about Jerry Lewis — so here it is.

* * *

Mr. Lewis was receiving an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Emerson College, and I was a professor at Emerson and chosen by the administration to be his handler for the occasion. I knew he wasn’t going to be easy because he showed evidence that he still had something of the Rat Pack in him: even though he was flying in from Los Angeles at around three in the morning, he had demanded that his hotel room at the Copley Plaza be supplied with eight cases of Heineken — just in case a wild party broke out. So the morning after he flew in I was in the back seat of a white limousine when we picked him up at the hotel. I hopped out and held the limousine door. He emerged from the hotel lobby, and the first thing I noticed was the color of his face — it was the earthy red color of a boiled beat. He looked as if he were going to have a stroke — an angry stroke. A tall man in casual dress got in the limousine as well. I noticed that the man was holding something in his hands that looked like a polished wooden shoebox.

“This is my man,” Jerry said loudly, and pointed toward him. The man nodded at me. I nodded back. I had not been told that Jerry would have a companion.

“See that box?” Jerry shouted. He pointed at it as if his finger were a dueling pistol.

“Yes,” I swiftly replied.

“Open the box!” Jerry snapped at the man. He was loud and impatient, and when his man didn’t move quickly enough, he snapped a second time, “Jerry said open the goddamned box!”

The man coolly removed the top and tilted the box toward me so I could see into it. A portable telephone, the size and heft of a brick, was held in place by a cushion of foam rubber.

“That’s my goddamned phone!” Jerry yelled in my ear. “And that’s my man whose only job is to carry my phone!”

I nodded. The man nodded. “Great,” I remarked in a small voice that I hoped would send Jerry a conversational volume clue.

I must have turned him down too low because he went mute and seemed to doze off for the short drive to the open stage door in the rear of the Wang Theater, where we exited the limousine and entered the green room.

I wasn’t sure how to start up a conversation with Jerry, but thought it was my job to do so. “The French think you are a genius” is all I could think to say, and knew I shouldn’t say. Just then Jerry bailed me out by hollering, “Would you like to see my heart-bypass scars?”

Before I could respond, he ripped his white shirt open like a superhero about to take flight. “Look!” he ordered. “Like fucking train tracks! Right?”

His chest looked as if it had been crudely sewn up after an autopsy.

“Right,” I confirmed in a whisper, then glanced over at Jerry’s man. Maybe he could give me some advice on managing Jerry because I sensed that Jerry was going to spin out and go to a bad place, and if he went bad then I’d be the target. But Jerry’s man showed no expression. He stood there as unmoving and quiet as one of those Easter Island statues — with the box, just in case Jerry got a call from some Rat-Packing party buddy.

Suddenly he shouted directly into my face, “I’m thirsty. Really fucking thirsty!”

“We have water,” I said delicately as I raised my arm like Vanna White and gestured toward the bottles of water on ice in a plastic punch bowl.

“That crap is only good for watering the lawn,” he replied loudly. “I want a beer! I have a fucking kink in my neck and I need a beer to unkink it.” He moved his neck around as if it were a universal joint between his head and his shoulders.

“It’s Sunday,” I meekly informed him. “Liquor stores are closed because of the blue laws.”

Blue balls!” he hollered back and tossed his head left and right while continuing to holler, “I said get Jerry a beer!”

I detected a little bit of the high-pitched, nasally voice from the Nutty Professor in his last demand. “Nothing is open,” I said calmly, wondering how he might respond.

Jerry swiveled to his right. “Man!” he cried out. “Open the door and kick this idiot professor out and only let him back in when he brings me a beer!”

His man opened the door and nodded toward the outside world.

I did as I was instructed and marched outside, where I found myself in a parking lot close to Kneeland Street, which borders Boston’s Chinatown. Right away I started running while putting together a crude plan. I was in a blue Armani suit, white shirt, and some kind of cat-scratch-looking Armani tie. In a moment my shirttail was flopping out and my tie was over my shoulder and my pant cuffs were catching on the toes of my wingtips and I could hear the seams ripping. I pulled my pants up and ran as if I were wading through a stream. I kept running. There was a cheap restaurant I ate at on Beach Street called The Golden Coin and a drunks’ bar across the street. The Golden Coin did not have a liquor license so I would stop at the drunks’ bar — buy a few beers and take them back with me.

But this was Sunday morning in Boston and the Puritan laws were still time-honored: no liquor sales on Sunday. I was panting when I arrived at the drunks’ bar door. It was propped open with a fetid mop head, and by the time I walked into the rank, yeasty darkness of that puke-palace I had my wallet out and cash in hand. The bartender was washing glasses and I yelled out, “I need a six-pack of beer for Mister Jerry Lewis.” I put forty dollars on the bar.

I left with the beer in one hand and reversed course and breezed like animated blue and white laundry across the road and parking lot. I know I was cursing worse than Jerry between gasping breaths. I was not a runner. I was rumpled. When I reached the back of the theater, to my surprise, there were three closed doors. I kicked them all. “Open up!” I shouted. “I’ve got the goods.”

Jerry’s man opened door number one, and looked me up and down as if I were a morals agent. Jerry stood in the back. His shirt was buttoned. His face was still boiled looking.

“I got it,” I said, still panting, and proudly held up the six-pack.

“Give my man a beer,” he ordered.

I did. The man twisted the cap, and the beer gave out its hissing death gasp. He handed it to Jerry. “I hate to drink alone,” Jerry announced. “Man, give him one too.”

“I can’t go onstage with beer on my breath,” I said. I was going up for tenure, and beer-breath was not a quality the tenure committee was searching for.

“Screw them!” he growled back. “I’m your boss now. So drink!” He nodded to his man and the man twisted a beer cap off.

“Cheers,” Jerry said. “To never drinking alone.”

I agreed with that and drank the beer straight down from being so thirsty and nervous. Jerry drank his back too.

“Tell me about yourself,” he asked in a voice that really was an order. “Go on. What do you do in this shit-hole school besides chase coeds?”

“I write books,” I replied. “Picture books.”

“Name one!” he shot back, as if I had been lying. His man handed us two more beers.

Rotten Ralph,” I replied, and before I could say another word, Jerry’s face went demonic, as if he was going to do a Linda Blair three-sixty.

“What kind of fucking shit is that!” he hollered. “Are you shitting me?”

“No,” I said, totally confused by his response. I looked at his man. He was back to his Easter Island pose. I was backed into a corner.

“Don’t you know I’m Ralph Rotten?” he shouted with beer spitting out of his mouth and sprinkling my glasses. “Did you steal my character? I swear if you did…” He swiveled his head as sharply as a hawk and hollered at his man. “Call my lawyer. I’m going to sue this bastard.”

The man opened the box and held the brick-sized phone to his ear.

I honestly didn’t know anything about his Ralph Rotten character. I’d never heard of it. I thought he was just pulling my leg in order to entertain himself and his man. But it was soon evident he was not faking it.

“Excuse me, Mr. Lewis,” his man said. “There is no signal.”

Jerry frowned. Then he stepped forward and poked me hard in the chest. He was like my angry doppelgänger come to life. “I’m Ralph Rotten! You got that?”

“Yeah,” I said, shaken, and stepped back.

“Did you make any money off your phony stolen book?” he questioned.

“No,” I replied. “Not really.” I had made seven hundred and fifty dollars from the advance and spent it all on rooming-house rent and pencils.

“Well, I’m going to crush you!” he said vengefully. He turned toward his man. “Two more beers,” he ordered.

I quickly finished my second and took the third as Jerry glared at me. His eyes pulsed with every beat of his laboring heart. How could I not know that Rotten Ralph was the double of Ralph Rotten? How was it possible that I wrote a book that was the mirror opposite of his character? Was I the Pauper to his Prince? The Jekyll to his Hyde? The saccharine Norman Bates to his evil Norman Bates? This serendipitous doppelgänger bond was all I could think about while Jerry snorted around in anger and I stood before him trapped in the vacuum of my own thoughts.

Then there was a rescuing knock on the door. “It’s show time,” announced the stage manager.

Jerry and I marched up a set of stairs and onto the stage, where we took our assigned seats. He turned to me and with an unexpected wistfulness whispered, “Dean Martin and I did this place decades ago. People were lined up around the block to get in. Those days of barnstorming a theater town are all gone,” he added sadly.

Right then I realized I knew nothing about how hard he had worked, traveling from theater to theater on a circuit as he built his reputation and his career. Even his Ralph Rotten television character must have been hard work, and through my embarrassing ignorance and arrogance I knew nothing about how he had become the growling, hollering, swollen-faced, unhappy Jerry. Maybe it was the beer working on my sympathies, but I now wanted to know him better. I kind of wanted to be his pal, and I figured he’d see the soulmate humor in me being Rotten Ralph to his Ralph Rotten.

In the meantime, administrators gave glib speeches. When it was our turn, Jerry and I stood up and solemnly walked to the podium. I said my lines, “By the power vested in me, I bestow this honorary degree upon you…” and I put the cheesy purple and yellow ribbon with the brass foil-over-plastic medal around his neck. We shook hands, then I returned to my seat. His man walked out and handed Jerry’s speech to Jerry, who set it on the podium. All he had to do was read it. But he got about three lines in and paused. He looked up from the page, made a few cracks about being a comedian in the golden age of comedy, and then looked back down at the speech as if it were a box of mismatched buttons he was sorting. He hesitated, and I knew right away he had lost his place on the page, and suddenly the great Jerry Lewis — France’s golden boy, my new friend, and the Ralph Rotten doppelgänger of Rotten Ralph — was adrift without a directorial cue. So he did what he probably always did and used his get-out-of-jail-free card. He threw his head back and popped his arms up into the air and let out that joyful, crazy Nutty Professor laugh. The crowd roared in recognition and approval and they stood and cheered and whistled and clapped, and he laughed some more, and then amidst the applause he waved goodbye and walked across the stage with his new Nutty Professor PhD toward a curtain that his man was holding aside. Then, just before he disappeared, he turned and pointed at me. He smiled and mouthed something. I couldn’t make it out, but I think he said, “I’m going to kick your rotten ass!”

I smiled back and tipped my flat cap to him, and then his curtain dropped. He went with his man out the back door of the stage to the white limousine and was gone. I never again heard from him, his lawyer, or his man, and I’m sorry I have not. As nutty as it sounds, I think I was destined to be his rotten double.

A year later I had James Earl Jones onstage for his honorary degree. He had a speech as thick as a sandwich and he started to give it. Then he lifted his eyes from the page and took off his reading glasses and went rogue. “Oh, no,” I thought as he went way off-road and into the deep woods and told some Hallmark anecdote about life lessons and then he looked down at his speech and there was that box of mismatched buttons before him. But did he panic? Nope. He raised his arms high and wide and sucked in a tremendous bellows of breath and roared with great resonance, “May the Force be with you!”

Everyone stood and cheered and whistled and he waved, walked off stage, and vanished into a white limousine. After the graduation ceremony I went to the podium and got the speech. It was some script his agent had sent him. Clearly, the entire “May the Force be with you” act was preplanned. That was the speech. Very clever, I thought. The Master was teaching me a lesson.

So, dear reader, I stood at the Zena Sutherland lecture telling these twin stories, and because I didn’t have a get-out-of-jail-free phrase I could holler to the rooftops (aside from “Can I get back to you on that?”), I had to get myself enthused to deliver what I knew was a dead fish of a speech.

“Well, let’s endure my prepared speech for a few moments,” I said reluctantly to the audience. I bent to pick it up off the stage floor. As I did so, I spied Roger Sutton in the front row, and he looked back at me with the Easter Island man gaze. I was dead in the water. The air had gone out of the room.

* * *

The (Real) Zena Sutherland Lecture
A Pair of Jacks to Open: Fact and Fiction

I will not talk tonight of what I don’t know, but of what I do know — which is me constantly talking about me, or all-me-all-the-time. As Thoreau said in his essay “Life Without Principle,” he is resolved to give the reader a good dose of himself. I find no argument in Thoreau’s insistence that he simply represent himself, and his own thoughts, and experience, instead of attempting in a lecture to tell people what they already know, and what they want the lecturer to confirm. Apparently, because he spoke his own mind, he was soon unpopular on the lecture circuit and took a handyman job for Ralph Waldo Emerson. Like Thoreau, as I continue to merely lecture on how I write what I’m thinking, and how I come to create books, I too may find myself spending more time weeding the garden.

There comes a time in a young person’s life when they look into a mirror and ask, “Who am I?” The moment that question is asked is when the young person pulls back a curtain and enters the stage where their life is played out…and the first attempt to define one’s character is to put on all the various costumes in your family, and after the family is exhausted, the costume shop radiates outward into infinity.

By this time in a young reader’s life, Pooh and Toad of Toad Hall and other characters that live in charming stories have begun to lose their influence on a young person who is suddenly aware that they are filled with self-inflicted complications and battles for independence that have to be sorted through. If the young person is optimistic, then they think there will be answers to the “who am I?” question. What they don’t realize yet is that the question of “who am I?” is only the reflective background chorus of life whose role is to constantly comment on the classic foibles and conflicts that appear as dramatic action in the foreground of life.

The “who am I?” question itself, confrontational as it may be, will always only be an echo to the dramatic action. Yet “who am I?” can be a solid citizen companion that helps us ponder and sort out our good actions from the bad, the moral from the immoral, and the gold from the lead. Good children’s literature is where a questioning young reader holds a sincere book in their trusting hands and reads with abandon in order to invent and define themselves, and to learn how to discover and reflect upon the infinite truths about themselves that they can trust and refine for the rest of their lives.

That said, the high bar of good literature makes my job as a writer for young, inquisitive readers a very demanding job — a challenge to be well considered — and for me it all begins with me: Jack on Jack. If I don’t read books that tunnel deeply into me to discover what is genuine, commanding, and emotive within myself, then I cannot write books that do the same for the best and most impressionable young readers. I often write about myself, or write invented variations of myself, using portions of myself as core characteristics from which I can then extrapolate. I attempt to write books that transform a piece of paper into some golem that comes to life. But first, I have to be the golem, and the tablet that brings me to life are the books I read. So here is a short list that over the years has contributed to transforming me from being an obdurate, unknowing creature to a human who asks the question, “who am I?”

(Everyone has their own list.)

Fahrenheit 451—Bradbury
The Catcher in the Rye—Salinger
Half a Life—Ciment
The Bell Jar—Plath
A Clockwork Orange—Burgess
Brave New World—Huxley
In Youth Is Pleasure—Welch
This Boy’s Life—Wolff
The Car Thief—Weesner
Sex and Death to the Age 14—Gray
Borrowed Finery and Desperate Characters—Fox
To Kill a Mockingbird—Lee
And, the bowsprit of American Literature, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale—Melville

And the list travels well beyond this very small sample.

It is said that you cannot serve two masters: the past self and the present self. It takes me a full day of reflection to understand an hour from the day before, and thus I fall behind each day, which is why I expect it will take a lifetime of effort to attempt to understand my own youth. It is difficult to live in the moment when so often I am either obsessing on the past, or drifting away on some reverie, or dreaming, or recalling and parsing something of great importance. It seems that life for me is structured in such a way that I only understand the punch line of a joke long after I’ve heard it.

A book is great if it strengthens the articulation of my inner life and is neither a mere accounting of facts nor a fantasy that appears like smoke and disappears like smoke. A great book, a book that adds to self-reflection and understanding, is different from an amusement: an amusement is meant to distract us from ourselves, where a great book is meant to open the honeyed cells of the inner life and freely nourish new thoughts.


Jack’s actual “black book.”

I know that it is politically correct to say that all books exist for a reason, and to that I reply with reason that for me all books are not gratifying, or uplifting, or reverie-inspiring — or even amusing in the most base way. In writing so often about myself it is the “exploration” and “reflection” that result in the greatest knowledge to me. In Dead End in Norvelt there are yards of historical facts larded with details, but these are the crumbs of the story (nutritious as they may be), just as it is crumbs that mark the way for Hansel and Gretel to find their way home. We all know that only when the crumbs are removed does the real story begin, and it is the characters whom we fear for, and not the crumbs. The same with Dead End in Norvelt. The boy, Jack, is taken with a collection of historical facts, which is valuable knowledge, but it is the vast humanity behind the facts, his friendship with Miss Volker, and the heartbeat of his family, and the community values that fill him and float him just as hot air fills a balloon and the wind takes it away.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let us move on to all the Jack-on-Jack books, the double-shots and double-takes and doppelgängers, where I and my characters live as one.

My first pairing of Jacks was with the Jack Henry books. First, I never should have changed my last name to Henry for the five volumes of family short stories: Heads or Tails, Jack’s New Power, Jack on the Tracks, Jack Adrift, and Jack’s Black Book. But I was thinking of my family and friends who populate the books, along with my retooled action and invented dialogue (by this writer) that might offend them. So I shied away from using my own last name, and once Heads or Tails was released I regretted it immediately. What I like about the Jack books is that I can write as if I am the voice of the chorus — the “who am I?” — of the books. I have years of hindsight behind me, so Jack is teeming with articulate insights that I’ve allowed him to discover in the moment but that actually took the real Jack years to discover and refine. But both Jacks are me. Judge and Jury. Accused and Accuser. Captured and Released. The Action and the Reflection. I really enjoy my other Jack and turn to him whenever I feel a little dull. He always says or thinks something with a kind of insightful energy that reignites my own. When I write about my life in my journal, I’m always more interesting when I speak in his voice.

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. I am not Joey Pigza. He is an invented character with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. I’m merely ADD, or attention deficit disorder. I can sit still in a chair all day and sideways-think of nothing but random thoughts. Writing a book, for me, is like trying to decode the Enigma machine as I sort pages of random notes into properly sequenced sentences and paragraphs. If Joey only had ADD there would be no action to reflect upon, so I added the hyperactivity so he can bring action to the surface of the book, and reflection can remain the chorus that comments on the action — enough action for four more Joey volumes, ending with The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza.

The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs. Nature vs. nurture is the theme of this book based on my twin uncles, Abner and Adolph Rumbaugh, who, I was told, preserved (taxidermed) their own mother after her death. I am not a twin to them, but they are the twin stars in this novel. It was my aim in writing this book to write a gothic novel with the purpose of asking the reader to reflect on the question: “What is more frightening: truth or fiction?” The nonfiction center of the book is about the American eugenics movement and basically how white supremacy was taught in schools across America as part of the science curriculum. The eugenics movement introduced laws in this country against immigrants, endorsed the sterilization of women (especially on Native American lands), and spread their corrosive eugenics white supremacist creed with such effectiveness that Hitler was impressed by their ideals. And we know how his belief in a pure white Germany terrified and damaged the world.

So the core canvas of the book is about academic and applied racism in America, and then around that core canvas I built a gilt gothic frame of a story — the story of my uncles taxiderming their mother — and so the question posed to the reader is: Which is more gothic? Which is more inhuman? Taxiderming your mother, or the state-sanctioned suppression and hatred of nonwhite races in America? As it turns out, taxiderming your mother is pretty tame compared to Hitler’s Final Solution.

Imagine my surprise when so many people of all ages come up to me and say, “I really admire how you invented that eugenics movement.” They have the book’s central point all backward, which breaks my heart. The gothic fiction is about the uncles, and the eugenics movement is the horrific history and fact of the matter, and if you don’t know your history you will be destined to repeat it. Time and again. (Later, this lesson is echoed by Miss Volker in Dead End in Norvelt.)

I have yet to write a twin to Love Curse.

Hole in My Life. What can I say about this book, which is just an older me looking into the mirror and reflecting on my both naive and arrogant young self as I spill my guts talking about my drug-smuggler-to-prison-convict past? There is plenty of action on the front stage of this book, but the emotional torque is in the chorus as I recall my weakest moments. This is the epitome of the Jack-on-Jack theme because it is the most unrelenting and honest.


gantos_mugshotFrom The Trouble in Me to Hole in My Life.

The Trouble in Me. This is the most recent memoir-driven look-in-the-mirror book I’ve written about my young self (set in the summer before eighth grade). It has what I’d define as features of a gothic romance in that it is dripping with a primitive fixation on transforming the self by scrubbing away your true character in order to invent yourself afresh as another person — in my case I wanted to become my neighbor, Gary Pagoda, who was older, tougher, more romantic and commanding than I was. He was the model who, in both a comic and dramatically grotesque way, I became.

This story is me pointing a finger at myself and saying, “This is the beginning of the slippery slope that led to Hole in My Life. This is where I began to abandon my core morals, values, and ethics for a cheap thrill.” Only this story does not lead to prison, because it already takes place in a prison — the prison of my own skin — of who I was and who I wasn’t. I was imprisoned by my obsessive self-loathing, and the only escape was to become someone else.

One final remark: Please excuse the waterfront language in the first portion of this speech. It may be offensive to some, but when I rewrote it using more genteel dialogue, the entire incident fell flat without the grit of the curse words. Also, I admire Mister Jerry Lewis and think the French are correct in saying he is a comic genius. Get with it, America. The guy is brilliant!

From the September/October 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Adapted from the author’s 2015 Zena Sutherland Lecture. For more from Jack Gantos click here (if you dare).


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18. 2015 Simmons Summer Institute: Homecoming

What an invigorating weekend here on the Simmons College campus, as current students, alums, authors, illustrators, teachers, librarians, academics, booksellers, book lovers, etc., etc., etc., came together for the 2015 Summer Children’s Literature Institute: Homecoming. Some highlights are below, and in no particular order. We know. We tried to make it brief. But we just couldn’t. Sorry not sorry.


Though Michelle H. Martin, who’d taught the longer Symposium class, was unfortunately unable to attend the weekend Institute, Cathie Mercier, director of the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College, read a brief message from Michelle and then opened the floor to her students, who stepped up and opened the Institute with a glimpse into the work they’d done in her class. We heard astute comparisons between seemingly disparate books, and more about those books’ reflections of home. It was a reminder of the depth of analysis that’s common here at Simmons, and should have been required listening for anyone with any doubts that children’s literature is a serious field of study.

Bright and early on Saturday morning, Vicky Smith, children’s and teen editor at Kirkus Reviews, moderated a panel with illustrators Shadra Strickland, Hyewon Yum, and David Hyde Costello, citing images of home from each panelist’s work and asking about the thoughts behind the images. We learned that Shadra feels it’s important to show children of color in happy, whimsical settings; that Hyewon remembers leaving home to start school but now identifies more with the mother being left at home; and that David thought hardest about a minor character in Little Pig Joins the Band. All three illustrators’ work had enough images of home — some comforting and some unsettling — to drive home (ha!) the importance, especially in childhood, of having a familiar place to return to.

I attended several of the Master Seminars that were offered throughout the weekend. Lauren Rizzuto’s seminar examined the politics of sentiment in children’s literature, and the valuing of emotion both within texts and in response to texts. Amy Pattee borrowed Cathie’s impossible and totally unfair often-difficult exercise of asking those present to divide themselves into those who emphasize books and those who emphasize readers. From those perspectives, we examined some critically successful books and some that were popular in terms of sales, and discussed what each metric values. Jeannine Atkins shared some thoughts about what makes a verse novel work, offering specific, technical advice as well as larger observations. I left Lauren’s seminar feeling a bit more justified in my own feelings of affection toward literary characters; Amy’s with a greater understanding of how my bookselling past informs my thinking; and Jeannine’s with a few ideas of my own.

Joan Tieman, Susan Bloom, and Barbara Harrison.

Joan Tieman, Susan Bloom, and Barbara Harrison at the post-lecture reception.

On Friday night Barbara Harrison and Gregory Maguire turned the Mary Nagel Sweetser Lecture into a two-voice, three-act play about a subject dear to many of our hearts: the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College. Harrison, the Center’s founder, and Maguire, its first graduate, performed the story of how they got here and how the Center developed. That story, of course, included quotes from quite a few children’s books, words that many of us at Simmons have heard echoing in our ears. Between that and the photos of some familiar faces in bygone years, it was quite the multimedia presentation, and struck a chord with many in the audience.

On Saturday night Jack Gantos gave the most straightforward presentation I’d ever heard from him. It took us back to his childhood home; climbed stairs and trudged through snow to his writing home at the Boston Athenaeum; and scrawled its way through his writing process, but there were no leaps this time to, say, a hypothetical mausoleum. Instead, he connected his thoughts back to the idea of home so relentlessly, the repetition was almost as big a joke as the other actual jokes peppered throughout the speech. Jack Gantos can home in on one idea…who knew?

On Sunday morning M. T. Anderson recalled his adventurous travels abroad, featuring miscommunications that resulted from his learned-from-opera French and a fight with feral cats over a poorly prepared chicken. He realized it might be easier to instead write about places he’d never seen and extrapolate based on books and maps, an epiphany that resulted in the highly creative version of Delaware that appears in some of his books. We were even treated to his rendition of Delaware’s anthem.


Roger Sutton talks with Bryan Collier.

Roger Sutton talks with Bryan Collier.

Friday morning, Bryan Collier, in conversation with Roger — and both in snappy bow ties! — talked about his Maryland hometown (and the chicken farms that he knew were not a part of his future plans). Growing up he was an athlete but also an artist. He didn’t know any other artists, so he left home to find some. The prolific illustrator talked about the work ethic involved in creating art, and he compared creativity to a body of water: some people dip in a toe, some wade in, and others will “jump off a cliff, backwards.” “What do you do when you feel like you’re drowning?” asked Roger. “Trust it. Surrender,” he said. (And speaking of liquids: later I was sitting next to Bryan, in his slick beige suit, and terrified I’d spill my iced coffee on him. Didn’t happen. Phew!)

Kwame Alexander.

“Tall, dark, and handsome” Newbery winner Kwame Alexander.

Horn Book intern Alex introduced 2015 Newbery Award winner (for The Crossover, like I had to tell you that) Kwame Alexander to the crowd, forgetting the salient point — as the man himself was quick to point out — “Kwame Alexander is tall, dark, and handsome.” He is also an amazing speaker, as everyone who was at this year’s CSK Breakfast and Newbery-Caldecott Banquet already knows, both hypnotizing the audience with his confident flow of words and keeping them on their toes, with brains a-buzzing (there was some audience participation involved).

Rita Williams-Garcia.

Rita Williams-Garcia. And yes she is (see quote above).

And how do you follow a speech that is by turns hilarious, heart-breaking, thought-provoking, swoon-worthy (those ladies at church never had a chance), eye-opening, electric, improvisatory…etc. etc.? First, with a standing ovation. Then with a talk by Rita Williams-Garcia, who talked to…herself. Williams-Garcia played the parts of both present-day Rita and thirty-three-year-old (“the age of Jesus”) Rita, discussing her work, her views, her past, future, and in-between times. She talked about the effect The Horn Book’s words had on her — “Rita Williams-Gracia may well turn out to be among the most prominent African-American literary artists of the next generation” — and her evolving thoughts on book awards, who-can-write-for-whom?, and the n-word. It was moving. And deep. And we don’t even mind that Big Ma wasn’t based on a real person.


Editor Neal Porter and artist Laura Vaccaro Seeger (whose art was on display in Simmons’s Trustman Gallery all weekend) took us, step by step, through her creative process — with the added bonus that we also got an illuminating glimpse into their working relationship. They shared (mostly late-night) emails, the journals in which Laura loosely brainstorms ideas (but retroactively goes back and gives tables of contents — she’s a born organizer, apparently), and how three of her picture books came to be: Green; a new book coming out this September called I Used to Be Afraid; and a work in progress, a companion to Green called Blue. As usual, their affection and respect for each other permeated the presentation, whether Laura was demonstrating the challenges of using die-cuts or Neal was exhorting the value of the printed picture book. To paraphrase: No one has yet come up with a more efficient format for telling a story in words and pictures than a picture book you can hold in your hand. It’s all about the page turns, and swiping through an e-book doesn’t provide that. (And his analogy — something about slapping an iPad with a dead fish in order to “page” through a picture book? — is pretty hard to get out of your mind.)


Molly Idle.

Molly Idle, an artist from age three.

Molly Idle doesn’t write presentation notes, but she doesn’t need to — charming, high-energy, and insightful, she captivated the crowd. (One tweet read, “I think everyone here has a crush on Molly Idle right now. I know I do” to which Molly herself replied, “It’s a mutual admiration society. :)” How great is that?) She talked about her trajectory from animation to illustration, how becoming an illustrator felt like a kind of homecoming, and the logistics of sharing studio space with her family. I was lucky enough to get to pick her brain about how illustration is like dance — “If you could just say it, you wouldn’t need to draw it!” — at dinner afterwards.

Moving from commune to commune during her childhood, Emily Jenkins (a.k.a. E. Lockhart) found home in books and in shared reading experiences that represented stability in her otherwise uprooted life. As a result of her nomadic upbringing, she came to believe that home is not a nostalgic place to return to (i.e., your parents’ house) but rather something you make for yourself every day. She went on to examine some fascinating examples of literary independent children, such as Pippi Longstocking and the Boxcar Children, and how they create home for themselves. Emily closed with a moving passage from her book Toys Come Home:

“Why are we here?” asks Plastic.
“We are here,” says StingRay, “for each other.”
Of course we are.
Of course we are here for each other.

Elaine Dimopoulos, debut author of fashion-meets-dystopian novel Material Girls, is really super smart. (She’s also a grad school classmate and good friend of mine, so I am probably a little bit biased. But even Emily Jenkins says Elaine is “crazy smart.”) Elaine discussed the ways that the traditional narrative structures of home–away–home (for younger kids’ fiction) and home–away (for YA) are no longer realistic, and offered some solutions to help writers get grown-ups out of the picture and allow child/teen characters some breathing room. Elaine also told us the story of how, as a Simmons grad student, she introduced speaker M. T. Anderson at the 2005 Summer Institute (and how it changed her life), as well as a little about being a Writer in Residence at the BPL.

And that was it! You know, just all that. There was a wrap-up by Cathie and Megan Dowd Lambert, and everyone went *home* (or wherever), recharged, refreshed, rejuvenated. For a recap in verse (and in homage), check out Shoshana’s “Good Night, Paresky Room.”

See you in two years…


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19. Jessixa Bagley and Laurie Ann Thompson Chat with First Book

Today’s blog post is part of our Stories For All Project series, focused on sharing the latest announcements and impact stories about our effort to put diverse, inclusive books into the hands of kids.

Jessixa Bagley and Laurie Ann Thompson authored two of our 2015 Stories for All Project title selections. The new picture book authors recently joined us for a Twitter chat to discuss their books “Boats for Papa” and ”Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah” and why diversity and inclusion are important in children’s stories.

Here are some of the highlights. You can see full answers to all seven questions and questions from our audience on the Storify for this chat.

Why do you think it is important that diverse books are available to all children?jb2




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How can books featuring diverse voices and experiences contribute to inclusivity?

jb3a jb3b






 How have you seen your book affect a reader?

jb7 jb7a

lat7 LAT8

Find out more! View the Storify of this Twitter chat.


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20. Book & Me | Comic #19


Previous | Next (June 2)


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21. Book & Me | Comic #20




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22. Book & Me, Week 5

Book & Me by Charise Mericle HarperToday we posted the final entry (*sniff!*) in Charise Harper Mericle’s original comics “Book & Me.” We’re sad to bid farewell to irrepressible Book and his erstwhile creator, but I imagine them walking hand-in-hand into the sunset, ready for their next bookish adventure.

If you’re not ready to say goodbye, why not start over from comic #1? I bet Book is a big believer in rereading.


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23. Transformers: Reimagining the World

lo_ashBack in my late twenties, when I decided to finally, earnestly try to be a novelist, I chose to start with something I thought would be easy: a fairy-tale retelling. I figured that since I already knew the plot, I wouldn’t get stuck. (All seasoned writers who are reading this are probably laughing.) I settled on retelling “Cinderella” and immediately began to reshape some of the key elements. I turned the fairy godmother into a male fairy based on the Sidhe, a race of supernatural people who lived in the hills of Ireland. My fairy was even named Sidhean as a nod to that inspiration.

Initially, I thought that Sidhean was the major twist in my retelling, but I was wrong. It turned out that the main character, Ash, had no interest in Prince Charming; instead, she insisted on falling in love with a woman. This was difficult for me to accept at first. Even though I am a lesbian, the idea of transforming the Cinderella tale so radically seemed impossible. I tried to make Prince Charming more charming, but it was no use: Ash just wasn’t that into him. Eventually, I gave in to the demands of the story, and my novel Ash found its footing.

Part of the reason I had been hesitant to transform Cinderella into a lesbian was because I did not want to write a coming-out story. I wanted to write a fairy tale. Thankfully, during the course of editing out the failed heterosexual romance, I realized that I didn’t need to write a coming-out story. Ash was set in a fantasy world, and there was no need for same-sex love to be taboo there. I made the creative decision to let it be entirely normal, and Ash got to have her happily-ever-after.

The normalization of lesbian and bisexual identities has continued to be a theme in my books since Ash; it is probably the defining theme of my work.

In my fantasy novel Huntress, I took the story structure of the hero’s quest and wrote both within and against its confines. Instead of an orphan boy chosen to save the world, I imagined the daughter of a powerful noble joining forces with the magically gifted daughter of a poor farmer. I also wanted to flip the script on valorizing a lone hero; in Huntress, the world is saved through cooperation. And rather than having love be the reward for the lone hero, love is the reason the two heroines of Huntress are able to succeed. Their love for each other makes them stronger. It does not make them deviant.

In my science-fiction duology Adaptation and Inheritance, the stories I transformed came from contemporary myths about UFOs and conspiracy theories — the folklore of today. I also wanted to push the boundaries of identity and sexual orientation through the metaphor of the love triangle, one of young adult fiction’s most loved and hated tropes. That metaphor allowed me to continue my project of normalizing identities that are often depicted as deviant in mainstream fiction.

Over the last couple of years I’ve come to realize that this is the central project I’m engaged in: transformation of deviance into normalcy. My goal — subconscious at first, increasingly conscious today — has been to take story types that have traditionally excluded lesbians and bisexual women and change them into narratives where being queer is natural, universal. This metamorphosis is about reimagining the world to include people like me. I suspect this is what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life.

From the May/June 2015 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Transformations.


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24. Transformers: Ready or Not…

Lee_beauty and the beastTranslating Madame Villeneuve’s and Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s eighteenth-century French into contemporary American 
English for our picture book Beauty and the Beast was indeed a transformative event. In addition to the dramatic change in language, there were other differences, surprises brought on by time and the filter of many others before me. The process taught me (a former journalist who stumbled into the realm of children’s literature) which themes had survived over the 275-year written history of “La Belle et la Bête” and which had become “refined” or sweetened for easier consumption.

In this tale (in our version, told in the first person by Beauty), three main themes survive: love, magic, and the power of a promise. These were illustrated again and again. Love makes Beauty sacrifice her life for her father (love will make you do right; love will make you do wrong). Magic makes the prince into a beast. And promises make everyone behave.

It has been said many times that the only thing permanent is change. If done with enough imagination and purpose, change can be transformative, even magical. Sometimes it’s physical, beyond the control of ordinary people: what really controls the climate? Other times it’s mental, metaphysical, due to a new perspective or new information. In all cases it seems that change is going to happen, ready or not.

It seems to me that high on the list of things with the power to transform is hope. The belief that things will change for the better if only faith and purposeful acts are applied.

Our version of “Beauty” is an act of hope, the belief that when given a new and different perspective on an accepted story with universal themes of love, magic, and promises made, we can transcend the notion that only some people are equipped for change. That universal feelings like love, fear, and hope are in fact found in all people. And that the story is just as powerful no matter what the cultural setting. Most audiences appreciate and even cheer at the idea that someone would sacrifice her own safety in the hope of protecting someone she loves. And that kindness and love can magically transform a beast into a prince.

–H. Chuku Lee

* * *

Fairy tales, like folktales, are continually transformed by the folks who tell them. So the dicey bits have been cut from “Rapunzel”: thorns don’t gouge out the prince’s eyes, Rapunzel doesn’t get pregnant. And Cinderella’s stepsisters don’t carve up their feet in order to cram them into the glass slipper.

The timeless appeal of “Beauty and the Beast” may stem from our desire to believe that pure goodness can conquer the most terrifying of beasts. After seeing Jean Cocteau’s film La Belle et la Bête, I realized there was more to the story I thought I knew well. In the reference section at the library, I found a dusty version of the tale, written by Madame Leprince de Beaumont in 1756. The text was beyond my translating abilities, but Chuku’s former incarnation as a diplomat in Paris helped him unravel the archaic French.

His version, told from Beauty’s point of view, seemed elegant and contemporary. And I wanted to update Beauty as well, to show her as a young woman of color whose world clearly evokes Africa. The Beast’s scarifications even suggest a particular tribe. But although classics transcend time, trends, and cultures, some elements of the story seemed etched in stone: it had to be a rose, and the Beast had to be part animal. “Beauty and the Beast” has more than its share of classic themes: love conquers all, true beauty lies within, appearances can be misleading, magic can save the day…But Chuku hit upon one I hadn’t considered before, one that resonated with me while illustrating the story. For me, it has become the new timeless theme at the heart of the story: the power of a promise.

–Pat Cummings

From the May/June 2015 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Transformations.


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25. You had us at artisanal pickles.

Urban inferiority complex be damned! We Bostonians enjoy artisanal pickles and ironic facial hair as much as the next folks. That’s why we’re pleased to present author/illustrator Stephen Savage’s article on the people in his Brooklyn neighborhood. Or, as we like to call it, “the new Somerville.”

We’re so psyched, in fact, that we’ve decided to devote an entire week to the Brooklynites. Tomorrow you can read Savage’s article “The People in My Neighborhood: One Author/Illustrator’s Rambles Around Brooklyn.” As the week goes on, you’ll fine more Horn Book material on that mighty borough and the people who call it home. Because there really are a lot of them.* And good at what they do? Fuggedaboudit.


*In fact, there are many, many, MANY more talented Brooklynites than we could possibly highlight in one article. So, please remind us about them in the comments.

For example, this bears repeating:

Christopher Myers, Kwame Alexander, Jason Reynolds, Jacqueline Woodson, and Rita Wiliams-Garcia... in Brooklyn.

Christopher Myers, Kwame Alexander, Jason Reynolds, Jacqueline Woodson, and Rita Williams-Garcia commune in Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of Jason Reynolds.


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