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1. 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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2. (Very Eventually) The Zena Sutherland Lecture

Gantos_tools53

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.

norveltandjackslide

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
Stop-Time—Conroy
The Bell Jar—Plath
Ultramarine—Lowry
A Clockwork Orange—Burgess
Brave New World—Huxley
In Youth Is Pleasure—Welch
1984—Orwell
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.

Gantos_tools43

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.

JackGantos8thGrade

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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3. 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.

Shoshana:

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.

Elissa:

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.

Martha:

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.)

Katie:

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.”
Oh.
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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4. 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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5. 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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6. 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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7. 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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8. Book & Me | Comic #20

bm20

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9. Book & Me | Comic #19

bm19

Previous | Next (June 2)

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10. 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

 

 

 

lat2a lat2b

 

 

 

 

 

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

jb3a jb3b

 

 

 

lat3a

lat3b

 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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11. Monthly Book List: Our Five Favorite Books for May

Our May book list includes fun, magical books featuring adventures with an adorable elephant, funny stories about sisters for young readers, the story of strong man Charles Atlas, a laugh-out-loud tale about pranksters and one of the best teen romances ever written.

Pre-K – K (Ages 3-6):

elliotLittle Elliot, Big City By: Mike Curato

Elliot loves the adventure of living in the city but his size often gets in his way. Readers’ hearts will melt when Elliot meets an unlikely friend at just the right moment and the two take on the town together. A sweet, beautifully illustrated book!

 

For  1st & 2nd grade (Ages 6-8):

ling_ting_not_sameLing & Ting: Not Exactly the Same! By: Grace Lin

Young readers will be utterly charmed by these funny stories about a delightful pair of sisters and their everyday adventures. Clever and funny, this series is great for kids who are ready for beginning books with chapters.

 

For 3rd & 4th grade (Ages 8-10):

strong_man_atlasStrong Man: The Story of Charles Atlas By: Meghan McCarthy

Who knew that Charles Atlas, the so-called “Strong Man” who once pulled a 145,000 pound train with his bare hands, was bullied as a kid? This inspirational picture book biography with playful cartoon illustrations is a great starting point for conversations about kindness, healthy eating, and healthy living.

5th & 6th grade (Ages 10-12):

terrible_twoThe Terrible Two By: Marc Barnett

It’s prankster vs. prankster in this hugely appealing story, great for reluctant and eager readers alike. Get ready to laugh your pants off, read the funniest bits aloud to your friends, and even learn some very interesting facts about cows!

7th & up (Ages 13+):

eleanor_and_parkEleanor & Park By: Rainbow Rowell
Every so often a young adult novel comes along that is so remarkable you want to press it into the hands of everyone you meet. THIS IS ONE OF THOSE BOOKS! Pure magic, it might just be the best teen love story ever written.

 

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12. Carol Weston Talks with Roger

carol weston talks with roger

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


carol westonIn Ava and Taco Cat, Carol Weston’s second book about sisters Ava and Pip, fifth-grader Ava negotiates some of tweendom’s most essential relationships: with your sister, your best friend, and your parents. Put a much-longed-for cat into the mix and you’ve got middle-grade drama at its most appealing.

Roger Sutton: How are you, Carol?

Carol Weston: I’m well, thank you. How are you?

RS: Just fine.

CW: I’m glad you’re calling me on pub day.

RS: What’s that like, pub day?

CW: This is not the first time I’ve had a book come out, but I think for first-time authors, you expect it to be Christmas morning or something, and sometimes it’s quiet. The book is in the stores, but it doesn’t mean that everybody has just finished reading it.

RS: Did you ever read Anne Lamott’s essay in Bird by Bird about book publication day? Where she talks about getting up in the morning and thinking it’s going to be great, and how she practices aw-shucks stubbing her toe in the dirt, preparing to receive all the compliments, and of course no one pays any attention whatsoever.

CW: I loved Bird by Bird. I’ve actually had forty letters published in the New York Times. It’s always exciting, and people do see them, but it’s not as though your phone rings in the morning. A week later people will say, “Oh, I saw you had a letter in the Times.” So I guess it’s good that I planned today to wake up, read the paper, go to the gym.

RS: I think it can be hard these days, with social media, because there can be such quick response to things, and when you don’t get it…

CW: Oh, it is such a noisy world. It’s amazing any of us gets any attention. I’m probably better taking it in stride and having realistic expectations. That said, if I’m having a book event I work pretty hard to let people know. I don’t just hope that the bookstore will fill up all by itself. Bookstores appreciate it when authors know that they have to do their part. If you have a book event in your hometown, or a place where you have friends, and you let your friends know, then you’re probably good to go. But if you have a book event in Indianapolis and you don’t know anybody, then even famous authors have to hope for the best.

RS: What do you find are the special challenges, both artistically and in terms of promoting the second book in a series?

CW: You know, it’s funny. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky and I, together, have decided that we’re not necessarily calling this a series, maybe because of those challenges. For instance, the New York Times gave the first book, Ava and Pip, a lovely review, but they may or may not mention a second book in a series.

RS: Right.

CW: Unless it’s Harry Potter. On the other hand, as we were just saying, it’s hard to get noticed at all, so if you can get your first book in the series to be noticed, to land, then it’s nice. Kids love series books. If they like the first one, they’ll gobble them up. Child and parent are both happy to see another one in the bookstore. I’m already very far along in the third book, which will be called Ava XOX. Each book needs to work as a standalone, but I love that I created this whole world, Ava’s town of Misty Oaks. I hope to keep writing brand-new books, but I also like finding my way back into the same characters, the same family.

RS: Do you find you have to do any particular kind of extra work, because there are going to be some readers who read the first book and some who haven’t? How do you balance the expectations of those two groups?

CW: Pretty carefully. I will have a few lines that are there to amuse the fans, but I have to be sure never to confuse the new readers. So I’ll say something like “My big sister Pip, who used to be so, so shy…” To somebody who’s read the first book, that’s practically the entire plot of it. You know, I met Sue Grafton before she became Sue Grafton.

RS: What letter is she up to?

CW: I think she’s up to — X has not come out. W Is for Wasted I definitely read, and I think X has not come out. We became friends back in Columbus, Ohio, and we’re still very good friends. I read A Is for Alibi in manuscript form, and now she’s up to W, so I have watched her deftly reintroduce Kinsey Millhone in each book. I’ve been able to learn at the hands of a master.

RS: She has it tough, too, because she’s got to finish the alphabet. She must have realized by about F or G that she was in it for the long haul, whereas you can keep going with Ava or not.

CW: That’s true. And even my editor — I love my editor; his name is Steve Geck — he and I both are thinking, well, maybe we’ll keep going, or maybe not, but I love that he’s given me the open invitation. I am under contract to write one more Ava book, and also one non-Ava book, but I said to him, “I love hanging out in Misty Oaks.” I love that he wants me to be taken seriously as a literary writer, so he doesn’t want me to get pigeonholed, but neither of us is going to leave Ava and Pip hanging if we’re both still enjoying working with them. I appreciate that it’s not set in stone.

weston_ava and pipRS: I think it’s very interesting the way you have these very standard, child-appealing motifs, like getting a new pet, dealing with your sister, and what happens when your best friend gets a new best friend. But those are all complicated in interesting ways in this book. Like the fact that the sisters are only two years apart. Often you’ll see more of an age difference in that kind of a story, so that one is clearly a teenager and one is clearly not. Here we see the way the sisters’ interests blend and diverge throughout the book. It goes back and forth. I thought that was neat.

CW: Thank you. Well, as you may know, I’m also the Dear Carol advice columnist for Girls’ Life magazine. I’ve been doing that for twenty-one years. And I’m the mother of two daughters (now grown up), so I happen to be acutely aware of what it means to be an eleven-year-old girl versus a thirteen-year-old girl versus a fifteen-year-old girl. If I were writing about boys, I’d probably struggle with that a little bit more. But with girls, I know every little step along the way. I like the idea of the girls who are in between, who aren’t kids, but they’re not teens. Ava’s sister Pip is still pretty darn young, but, yeah, she’s got herself a boyfriend. It’s pretty innocent, but it’s important.

RS: About the pet adoption — I wanted to thank you for showing how difficult the period of adjustment is. We got a dog a couple years ago — rescue dog — and he was very shy and scared in the shelter, and they said, “Oh, you get him home and he’ll warm right up.” Well, it took two years.

CW: Wow.

RS: Six months living in the closet. We’d go for walks and then come in and he’d march to his little closet and sit there and look at us. So I love that you show that it’s not going to be this wonderful bonding as soon as you get them in the door, which I think some kids expect.

CW: It does take a while. Everything’s gradual. Everything’s baby steps.

RS: The other thing I wanted to ask you, both in terms of this book and your position as an advice columnist for girls, is why do you think we see so many middle-grade dramas for girls mining these stories of three-way friendships? I’m a guy. It didn’t really work for us like that as boys. But for girls, it’s huge.

CW: Do you mean why in real life, or why there are so many books about that?

RS: I guess both.

CW: It is so hard for girls. That first friendship: “We’re best friends.” It’s almost like being a couple. So when all of a sudden there’s somebody else, you’re kind of like, “Huh?” Most adults know how to navigate friendships, and if our friend makes another friend, well, that’s certainly fine. But when you’re a child, and your best friend makes another friend at camp or school, it feels like an earthquake. It shouldn’t be devastating, and eventually kids learn that you don’t have to like all of your friend’s friends. You and your friend just have to like each other. But that’s a lesson you have to learn. I get so many letters about it. When I write my fiction I don’t want it to be all laden with takeaway messages, but I know what kids think about because of the advice column, and I can’t help wanting to help them.

RS: So how do you keep on this side of the line, so that you’re not preaching or being didactic about how a person should be with her friends?

CW: You create realistic characters and add humor. In my advice column, I really can’t be very funny. I think adult advice columnists can be, but eleven-year-olds do not want humor about bras or boyfriends or anything like that. I’ve learned to just make it very sincere and earnest. But in fiction I can be funny, and that’s helpful.

RS: Why do you think that is? I think you’re right, but why do you think that kids can accept it in fiction, whereas they couldn’t in straight-on advice?

CW: With an advice person, they want somebody very safe, where they can say, “My right breast is smaller than my left breast” or “I like my best friend’s boyfriend. I’m a terrible person.” They don’t want to know whether the advice columnist has a sense of humor. It’s just too important. A kid finally admitting something — they just want you to give them the equivalent of a big hug and a bunch of wisdom, to tell them that it’s okay, and they’re not the only one, and here are some ideas.

With fiction, kids want to laugh. They want to learn, but they also want to laugh. They want to just turn the pages and have fun. It’s a different animal. As far as not preaching, I’m also lucky—and it’s a luck that I’ve worked for—in that I have a group of friends of all ages, kids and grownups, who read my work. If I’m getting a little heavy-handed about anything, they’ll say so. And this includes my husband and my kids. They will give me very honest feedback

RS: Do you find that these readers have pointed out something consistently to you so that you think, “Oh, yeah, I really need to work on this?”

CW: Yes. In the old days, because I’m an advice columnist, I would get my characters in trouble and then quickly help them out. By now I’ve learned that when I’m writing fiction, you get your characters in trouble, and you keep them in trouble for a long time. You throw more obstacles at them, and make them suffer. I hate making an eleven-year-old girl suffer. I try to help her out as much as I can. I surround her with lifesavers.

RS: That’s interesting, because that’s almost the same thing as what you’re saying about humor. That in real life, of course you want to help a child as quickly as you can, but in fiction, kids want to see other kids get in trouble, just as they want to be able to laugh at the characters they read about. Because there’s a distance between them and the character in the book. It’s not them.

Do you see a lot of yourself in Ava?

CW: I really wasn’t a big reader in fifth grade. I admired kids who were, and my best friend was a bookworm, but I was just a kid with a diary for the longest time. I would read the schoolbooks, but pleasure reading wasn’t something that I really did. I did read Aesop’s Fables, but they’re really short. There is a lot of me in Ava. I’m certainly a cat person. It’s funny: it’s my fourteenth book, but this is the first time I’ve written about a fifth-grade girl with a diary and a cat. You’d think I would have written that one already.

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13. Book & Me | Comic #7

Book & Me #7 by Charise Mericle Harper

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14. Marcia Brown

by Janet A. Loranger

Thirty-seven years ago, Marcia Brown published her first picture book for children: The Little Carousel.* On June 28, 1983, she received her third Caldecott Medal for Shadow. Those years from 1946 to 1983 have encompassed one of the most distinguished careers in American children’s books. That her latest book has received such a signal honor and that she is the first illustrator to be awarded the medal three times are evidences of the undiminished vitality and richness of her contribution to the field. It is an uncommon achievement.

The nourishment of such a gift and such an achievement comes from many sources. Marcia grew up in several small towns in upstate New York, one of three daughters in a minister’s family. Everyone in the household loved music and reading, and her father also passed along to her, especially, his joy in using his hands. From childhood Marcia was allowed to use his tools and learned to respect and care for them. And from her own workbench and tools, in later years, have come the wood blocks and linoleum cuts that illustrate such handsome books as Once a Mouse… (1961), How, Hippo! (1969), All Butterflies (1974), and Backbone of the King (1966). Marcia feels that the most important legacy her parents gave her was a deep pleasure in using her eyes — for seeing, rather than merely for looking. Her keen delight in the details of nature and her acute observation of them are evident in all her books — most dramatically, perhaps, in the beautiful photographic nature books Walk with Your Eyes, Listen to a Shape, and Touch Will Tell (all Watts, 1979).

As a college student, Marcia was interested in botany, biology, art, and literature. During summer vacations she worked in Woodstock, New York, at a resort hotel and studied painting with Judson Smith, whose criticism and inspiration have remained an important influence in her life and art. After graduation she taught high school English, directed dramatic productions for a few years, and worked in summer stock. Some years later, she became a puppeteer in New York City and also taught puppetry for the extra-mural department of the University of the West Indies.

When Marcia moved to New York City, her interest in children’s book illustration drew her to work in the Central Children’s Room of The New York Public Library, where she gained invaluable experience in storytelling and an exposure to the library’s large international and historical collections. Here, too, she received encouragement from such outstanding children’s librarians as Anne Carroll Moore, Helen A. Masten, and Maria Cimino.

Marcia’s particular interest in folklore and fairy tales is apparent to anyone familiar with her books. Marcia believes strongly that the classic tales give children images and insights that will stay with them all their lives. To each of these stories she has brought her own special vision, her integrity, and a vitality that speaks powerfully and directly to children.

A very important influence in her life and in her books has been the stimulus of travel — that mind- and eye-stretching jolt out of the usual. Marcia has traveled widely in Europe, Great Britain, Russia, East Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East, including China. If she has a “home away from home,” it is Italy, the country with which she has felt most profoundly in tune. She lived in Italy, off and on, for four years, spending much of her time painting. Felice (1958) and Tamarindo! (1960) are books that grew out of her love for that country and her friendships with Italians. Marcia still writes to friends there, in Italian, and is able to converse with them in the language when she calls them on special occasions. France, too, has a special place in her life, and she spent over a year there; while living in Paris, she studied the flute with a member of the Paris Conservatory Orchestra. On a speaking trip to Hawaii she was so overwhelmed by the incredible beauty of the islands that she returned to spend many months and to do the research that was the basis for one of her most powerful books, Backbone of the King, a retelling of a great Hawaiian hero legend.

In the late 1960s Marcia gave up her long-time residence in New York City and moved to a small town in southeastern Connecticut. For the first time she was able to design and build a studio to fit her needs. It is a large room with a balcony at one end, a high ceiling with two skylights, and areas for doing painting, woodcuts, drawing, photography, sewing, and flute playing. The house is surrounded by hemlocks, and the woods nearby are filled with possums, raccoons, deer, squirrels, and birds. Not far from her property is the small river that provided the inspiration and the evocative winter photographs for her only filmstrip, The Crystal Cavern, published by Lyceum Productions in 1974. The plants, trees, wildflowers, and animals — and the changing seasons — are a constant source of stimulus and delight. Her greatest problem is finding time for all the interests she wants to pursue at home and also for going to New York to attend operas, ballets, concerts, and museums — and for traveling.

Most days, Marcia gets up early and spends some time reading while she has her breakfast. Just now, she is interested in the recently published book about a journey through the byways of America, Blue Highways, by William Least Heat Moon (Atlantic-Little). She finds many of the conversations the author had with residents of small, out-of-the-way villages the stuff of living folklore. Later, she might go to her studio and practice Chinese brush painting, a technique which first interested her in 1977 and which she began to study seriously, with a teacher, two years ago. Her paintings of lotuses, bamboo, plum blossoms, birds, and dramatic landscapes fill the walls of her living room and studio. She has begun to exhibit, along with other artists practicing the technique, and has sold several paintings.

If she has a sewing project, as she often does, Marcia will spend time on the studio balcony, where she has set up a sewing area. And each day, she faithfully practices her flute. She feels very fortunate to be studying with John Solum, a much-esteemed concert flutist, who lives in a nearby town. When she sews or paints, or works on illustrations, there is always music — as necessary to her as food. Her love of music and the dance and her deep understanding of them perhaps account, in part, for the grace, rhythm, and strength of her writing and illustration. Most certainly they are profound influences. Because her work requires solitude and long stretches of concentration, she often does not see as much of her friends as she would like to, but she accepts this fact as a price that must be paid.

Marcia Brown’s books have unquestionably stood the test of time. Nearly all of them are still in print — a certain proof of their enduring hold on generations of children. Never has Marcia been interested in passing fashions in children’s book illustration. She has worked in many media but not for the sake of variety; rather, she has always let the story and her feeling for it determine the medium and the style. Her particular vision and her uncompromising integrity have been rewarded in the past: two Caldecott Medals (for Cinderella in 1955 and for Once a Mouse… in 1962), six Caldecott Honor books, two nominations for the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the University of Southern Mississippi Medallion for Distinguished Service to Children’s Literature, and the Regina Medal. Now, after so many years of creating memorable children’s books, Marcia stands in a unique position — one abundantly deserved. It is gratifying that the children’s librarians of America, the dedicated people who bring children and books together, have honored her in so special a way.


 

*Except where another publisher is indicated, all books mentioned are published by Scribner.

From the August 1983 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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15. Book & Me | Comic #4

Book & Me #4 by Charise Mericle Harper

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16. Marcia Brown, 1918-2015

brown_stonesoupWe were saddened to hear about the death of author-illustrator Marcia Brown this week at the age of ninety-six. The winner of three Caldecott Medals — for Cinderella in 1955, Once a Mouse in 1962, and Shadow in 1983 — she was also recognized with a whopping six Caldecott Honors (including her indelible Stone Soup in 1948). She was awarded the Regina Medal in 1977 and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal in 1992.

Writings by and about Brown frequently appeared in The Horn Book Magazine. Here is a sampling:

“Distinction in Picture Books” by Marcia Brown (1949)

1955 Caldecott Medal Acceptance by Marcia Brown

“My Goals as an Illustrator” by Marcia Brown (1967)

Letter, with illustration, from Marcia Brown to Bertha Mahony Miller (undated)

“Marcia Brown and Her Books” by Alice Dalgliesh (1955 Caldecott Medal profile)

“From Caldecott to Caldecott” by Helen Adams Masten (1962 Caldecott Medal profile)

“Marcia Brown” by Janet A. Loranger (1983 Caldecott Medal profile)

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17. Book & Me | Comic #3

bm3

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18. Book & Me | Comic #2

Book & Me #2 by Charise Mericle Harper

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19. Synthia Saint James at Simmons

(Say *that* three times fast!)

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

stjamesart2

stjamesart1

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20. Five questions for Nikki Grimes

nikki grimesApril is National Poetry Month, and what better way to celebrate than by talking with acclaimed poet Nikki Grimes? Her many books include narratives in verse, prose fiction, poetry collections, and nonfiction, frequently featuring African American characters and culture. In Grimes’s latest picture book, Poems in the Attic (illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon; Lee & Low, 5–8 years), a girl describes, in free verse, an exciting discovery: a box of poems her mother wrote during her own youth. Like a diary, the poems offer the daughter an intimate first-person perspective of her mother’s world travels as the child of an Air Force captain.

1. Your author’s note for Poems in the Attic says that you moved around a lot as a child. Did you have adventures similar to your characters’? What were some of your favorite places?

NG: My life was very different my characters’, I’m afraid. My frequent moving had to do with being in the foster-care system, and my adventures primarily took place between the pages of books! However, the challenges that result from a child frequently being uprooted, no matter the cause, are challenges I can relate to. As for favorite places of my childhood, I would have to say the public library, the planetarium, and Central Park. All three were magical.

2. How did you come up with the idea of having the mother write in a different poetic form than her daughter?

grimes_poems in the atticNG: I’d been wanting to do a collection of tanka poems for young readers for some time. I’d originally considered creating a collection of paired poems similar to A Pocketful of Poems (illus. by Javaka Steptoe; Clarion, 5–8 years), in which the character introduced haiku poetry, but using the tanka form. However, I came up with the idea for this story and realized it provided me a perfect opportunity to use two different forms to capture the voices of mother and daughter. I had tanka on the brain at that point, so it was an easy choice for me.

3. The daughter reflects, “My mama glued her memories with words / so they would last forever.” How does poetry help to glue down memories?

NG: Poetry is the language of essence. Through the use of metaphor, simile, and the rest, the poet paints a picture, catches the essence of a subject, and plumbs all of the senses connected with that subject. What better genre is there for capturing a memory?

4. As you travel and engage with children, how do you inspire in them an interest in reading and writing poetry?

NG: That interest is already in them. Poetry is a huge part of their childhood, from the ABC song to jump-rope rhymes to “Ring Around the Rosie.” Stoking that interest only requires sharing poems with them to which they can relate. One whiff of poetry about the stuff of their own childhood, their own lives, and they are off and running. Once they’ve gotten a good taste of poetry, just try and stop them from reading and writing it!

5. Which poets inspire you?

NG: Oh, my! That list is long. My library includes Lucille Clifton, Naomi Shihab Nye, Wendell Berry, W. B. Yeats, William Stafford, Jane Yolen, Pablo Neruda, Natasha Trethewey, Gary Soto, Helen Frost, Mary Oliver, Marilyn Nelson, Shakespeare (sonnets, anyone?), Langston Hughes, Mari Evans. Yikes! Okay, I’ll stop.

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

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21. Shh! We have an author event!

The other night, Martha Parravano and I attended an “Ink and Drink” at Candlewick Press for visiting author Chris Haughton. Boston was a stopover for Haughton, an Irishman who lives in London, on his way to Mississippi to accept the Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Award for Shh! We Have a Plan, which received a starred review in the November/December 2014 Horn Book Magazine. His other books include Little Owl Lost and Oh No, George! and he developed a snazzy-looking app called Hat Monkey.

Haughton_bks

Haughton started as a graphic designer, then got hooked in to People Tree, a fair trade organization specializing in fashion/textiles and gifties. He talked about his time in Nepal, including co-founding a free-trade carpet and knitwear organization called Node that works with an adult education and support center to train and employ women, many of whom are domestic violence survivors or otherwise victims of oppression. This little guy — a George hand puppet (from Oh No, George!) — is one of the projects.

george

Just when you thought he couldn’t get any more big-hearted, he also created the artwork for a hospital children’s ward. And he read Shh! We Have a Plan aloud to us. And all with an Irish accent. The evening was lots of fun. Thanks for hosting, Candlewick!

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22. Update: Francisco and Robert Jiménez School

jimenez_the circuitBack in February I interviewed my mom Gretchen, who’s an instructional aide in Southern California’s Santa Maria–Bonita School District, about her campaign to name the district’s newest elementary school in honor of Dr. Francisco Jiménez. Dr. Jiménez is an author, recipient of a 1998 BGHB Award, and an alum of the area’s schools. And, as he has poignantly chronicled in his book The Circuit and its sequels, he was a migrant farmworker child, like many of the district’s current students.

Who better, my mother asks, to recognize as a champion for these children than someone who has walked in their shoes?

Last night the school board’s naming committee met to hear spoken arguments for the three names on the short list of proposals, narrowed down from about eighty. The nomination for Dr. Jimenéz was combined with that for his late brother, Robert Jiménez — who also attended SMBSD schools and was a beloved employee of the district for decades. Bill Libbon worked with the Santa Maria Boys and Girls Club for forty years and recently retired from his position as its executive director. Santa Maria police officer Mark Riddering, who died of ALS in 2008, was instrumental in bringing the D.A.R.E. drug prevention program to Santa Maria schools. Choosing which of these influential community members to honor must have been difficult, but ultimately the committee unanimously voted to christen the new elementary school “Francisco and Robert Jiménez School.” The school will open in August.

Given that the school will have a dual immersion English/Spanish program, it seems especially fitting to name it after the Jiménez brothers. As Spanish speakers in English-only schools, and with their education spotty due to their many moves, their English bilingualism was hard-won.

It’s also good timing to celebrate both brothers, honoring the memory of Robert Jiménez (who passed away in December) and the literary accomplishments of Francisco Jiménez (whose fourth memoir series entry, Taking Hold, pubbed last week.)

Congratulations to the Jiménez family!

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23. Apples to Elephants: Artists in Animation

dicamillo_bink & gollieChildren’s book geekery comes in many forms. My own most recent example came while watching Disney’s The Little Mermaid with my daughter for the first time. After skipping all the scary sea-witch scenes (which incidentally makes for a remarkably short film), we were watching the credit sequence roll when suddenly I started jumping up and down and pointing. “Tony Fucile! I just saw Tony Fucile’s name! Tony Fucile!” That’s the price any kid has 
to pay when Mama is a children’s 
librarian — having to deal with intemperate enthusiasm about anything and everything related to children’s books.

It is safe to say that never before have so many artists from the world of animation made the pilgrimage to books. In an era when pundits predict the death of print, it seems ironic that people who often have a background in computer-generated effects are seeing a future in this supposedly dead, paper-based medium. Publishing has seen its fair share of changes, but animation studios have undergone some major changes as well. (For example, today’s feature films are more often computer animated than hand drawn.) Artists who have worked in animation bring to their books experience that affects every element of their works’ look, style, and pacing, leading to illustrations that can incorporate the best of both worlds.

flora and the flamingoThe first thing one learns when talking with artists with animation backgrounds is that just because someone worked in animation in some capacity, it’s not to say that they have all have performed the same jobs. In the filmmaking process, different departments fulfill different tasks. First there are animators who create the key drawings, alongside the character designers who create the look and feel of animated characters. Then there are concept or visual development artists, who do everything from designing characters and environments to illustrating moments from the script, and background or layout artists, who often break down 2D storyboards into 3D shots. The job of the “inbetweener” (in the words of Caldecott honoree Molly Idle, who started out as one) is to “create the drawings that go in between the key drawings in a scene.” And just to confuse matters further, there is a fair amount of overlap among these departments. Still, due to the myriad responsibilities, the best way to refer to these people might just be to call them artists in animation. The umbrella term animator does not actually apply.

Such artists are hardly new to the children’s book scene. Since the dawn of Disney (and possibly before, if you consider Winsor McCay, creator of “Gertie the Dinosaur,” a children’s illustrator thanks to his Little Nemo comic strip), there have always been artists with animation backgrounds working in the field of children’s literature. Mary Blair, illustrator of the Ruth Krauss Little Golden Book I Can Fly, was a longtime Disney art supervisor. Bill Peet, author-illustrator of more than thirty books including The Whingdingdilly, was a story writer for Disney Studios. Even Swedish illustrator Gustaf Tenggren’s The Poky Little Puppy was influenced, according to Leonard S. Marcus’s Golden Legacy: How Golden Books Won Children’s Hearts, Changed Publishing Forever, and Became an American Icon Along the Way, less by “the guileful elves and trolls of Swedish folklore than [by] the uniformly endearing Disney Seven Dwarfs, in whose creation Tenggren himself was deeply involved.”

They have always been with us. Still and all, have there always been so many animation experts in publishing, or are their numbers greater today? “I’ve seen it grow and grow over the past ten years,” confirms Laurent Linn, art director for Simon & Schuster. Why? A combination of elements has contributed to the uptick. Significant among them has been the animation studios’ move from 2D animation to 3D. Former layout artist LeUyen Pham (illustrator of the Alvin Ho, Princess in Black, and Bo at Ballard Creek books, along with Freckleface Strawberry and many others) spent some time “helping to shepherd in the transition to 3D from traditional layout. It’s complicated to explain, but I was basically a bridge between the old way of animating and the 3D world that was coming through.” As traditional animation jobs have changed (and grown scarcer), the focus of former animation artists has widened. Linn speculates, “As more of them see others in the animation world doing books, it’s become an option that most of them hadn’t considered before.” Additionally, the opportunity to work on your own characters can be alluring. Says artist Kelly Light (Louise Loves Art), “I came home from [a] book tour drunk on the experience of being with kids who like my characters. Not Bugs Bunny or Mickey or Snoopy or SpongeBob (they did ask me to draw SpongeBob)…but I got to share my own artwork and got to talk to kids about making their own art.”

santat_adventures of beekle“I actually find the craft of animation extremely time-consuming to tell a story, though I greatly admire anyone with the diligence to create frame by frame of film,” says 2015 Caldecott Award winner Dan Santat, author-illustrator of The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend. The creator of the Disney animated television series The Replacements, Santat knows all too well why so many people have made the shift to picture books. “Working creatively with a large corporation and numerous executives was rather frustrating because there was a feeling that there was a process of homogenization to try to appeal to as many kids as possible.” The result is a subsuming of personal style. As Bink & Gollie’s illustrator Tony Fucile, a man who has worked on everything from Disney’s Aladdin to the 2015 Pixar film Inside Out, says, “On large features animators work toward a goal together; it’s a team sport…You need to row that giant boat as one.” That can make working on your own books a freeing, almost frightening process. “Editors don’t want you to draw like someone else. They want you to be you. We’re not used to that.” Santat agrees. “[Book] publishing is you, an editor, and an art director all working together to bring your ideas to life in their purest form.”

Historically, publishers as well as teachers and librarians might have written off picture book art with a “cartoonlike” style. After all, cartoons were seen as lowbrow and literature, high. Yet with the proliferation of high-quality graphic-novel and comic-book elements in children’s books comes a wider acceptance of similar forms in picture books. Says Laurent Linn, “I think more animation/cartoon styles are accepted and wanted in trade picture books. A lot of parents/librarians/
editors/art directors/etc. now (like us) were raised in a time when animation wasn’t seen as…the opposite of fine illustration, but as an art form.”

Whether they’re winning Caldecott recognition or simply producing top-quality bestsellers, artists in animation have attained a level of critical acclaim little known to their predecessors. One might think that, having worked in studios where individual creativity was subsumed for the greater good of the whole, these artists’ styles might look too similar to one another. Yet it is their range that sets them apart. True, some illustrators look like they have an animation background right off the bat. Pick up Bink & Gollie and note how elastic Tony Fucile’s characters’ facial expressions are. Flip through Caldecott Honor Book Flora and the Flamingo and see how Molly Idle imbues the characters’ motions with an enviable fluidity.

Yet other former animation artists are harder to spot. In I Want My Hat Back Jon Klassen’s hatless bear stands with a stalwart steadiness that belies his creator’s motion-picture background. Aaron Becker’s books Journey and 
Quest construct intricate worlds that have more in common with David Macaulay’s painstaking attention to detail than with Becker’s own animation work on the Cars spinoff, and yet that is a part of his background experience. What then is the connective thread among former animation artists?

GreenWhen asked how their background has influenced their art, most illustrators with animation backgrounds speak to the way in which their storytelling techniques have been honed. “I think that my background in animation is absolutely invaluable,” says two-time Caldecott Honor winner Laura Vaccaro Seeger (Green, First the Egg). “It taught me about timing and pacing and the importance of identifying the ‘key frames’ in storytelling. To make a 
storyboard — which is the very important first step in the animation process — is to make a picture book, basically.” Fellow Caldecott Honor winner Molly Idle agrees. “Both are sequential, visual, storytelling mediums.” In her case, the language of filmmaking informs her every decision. “A page turn is like a scene change. A series of spot illustrations can function as a montage. A double-page spread can be used like a pan (the camera move, not the crockery). As I’m thumbnailing sketches I’ll ask myself…should this illustration be an establishing shot or a close-up?”

“There is no doubt that my pacing, character design, and technique come directly from the 100+ shorts I animated for TV and for festivals,” says Mo Willems, multiple Caldecott Honor winner. However, more important than those elements, to him, is the fact that the anonymity of that storytelling allowed him to hone his craft. As a result he was able to work on and improve his storytelling ability, “before having to slap my name on the cover of one of my efforts.”

willems_don't let the pigeon drive the busWillems, however, would disagree with the thinking that animation and picture book creation are all that similar. “Comparing animation and books is like comparing apples and elephants. In cartoons you are stuck with a specific aspect ratio, but you control the duration, rhythm, voices, and volume of the piece. In a book you give away a great deal of control to your readers; they determine the voices, the pacing, and the way in which it is consumed, which requires a greater respect for your audience paired with trusting your work enough to let go.”

For former animation artists, it’s a big shift from trying to please everyone as a cog in a larger machine to trying to please an audience as only yourself. Suddenly the spotlight isn’t just shining on the work. It’s shining on you as well. The interesting thing is that so many artists refuse to say which medium they love more. Both forms of storytelling exert a firm hold on the people involved. You can take the artist out of animation, but you’ll never take the animation out of the artist. “That’s the thing about animation, it’s magic you make with a pencil,” says Kelly Light. “I think if you learn it and love it, it has a lifelong hold on your heart.”

A Sampler of Illustrators with Animation Backgrounds

Chris Appelhans (Sparky!, written by Jenny Offill): Worked at LAIKA and DreamWorks

Aaron Becker (Journey, Quest): Worked on the film adaptation of The Polar Express and provided backgrounds for PIXAR’s Cars Toons series

Vera Brosgol (Anya’s Ghost): Designer at LAIKA

Peter Brown (Mr. Tiger Goes Wild): Painted backgrounds for The Venture Bros. on Cartoon Network

Peter de Sève (The Duchess of Whimsy): Designs for Blue Sky

Tony Fucile (Bink & Gollie): Animator for Disney, PIXAR, Warner Bros., and others

Carter Goodrich (Say Hello to Zorro!): Designs for Blue Sky, PIXAR, and others

Molly Idle (Flora and the Flamingo): Worked as an inbetweener and breakdown artist for DreamWorks

William Joyce (Rolie Polie Olie): Various, including conceptual characters for Disney/PIXAR, and co-founder of Moonbot Studios, an animation and visual effects studio

Kazu Kibuishi (Amulet series): Animated for Shadedbox Animations

Jon Klassen (I Want My Hat Back): Concept artist and illustrator on films including Coraline and Kung Fu Panda 2

Dan Krall (The Great Lollipop Caper): Designer at DreamWorks

Kelly Light (Louise Loves Art): Animator with Animotion, Film Roman, and other studios. Character artist

Bill Peet (The Whingdingdilly and many 
others): Story writer for Disney Studios

LeUyen Pham (Freckleface Strawberry, written by Julianne Moore): Worked as a 2D, 3D layout artist and concept designer at DreamWorks

Christian Robinson (Gaston, written by Kelly DiPucchio): Graduated from CalArts’s character animation program

Dan Santat (The Adventures of Beekle): Created the animated television series The Replacements

Julia Sarcone-Roach (Subway Story): Attended RISD and studied animation

Laura Vaccaro Seeger (Green, First the Egg): Animated openings for NBC shows and specials, FOX-TV, ABC’s 20/20, and others. Animated “Pete Seeger’s Family Sing-A-Long”

Divya Srinivasan (Octopus Alone): Animation work with music videos, movies, and book trailers

Bob Staake (Bluebird, this issue’s Horn Book Magazine cover): Animation design for Cartoon Network and Little Golden Books

Doug TenNapel (Cardboard): Created Earthworm Jim, Catscratch, and VeggieTales in the House

Mo Willems (Elephant & Piggie books): Animator for Sesame Street, creator of “The Off-Beats” and Sheep in the Big City

Dan Yaccarino (The Birthday Fish): Worked on Oswald and The Backyardigans

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

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24. The Writer’s Page: In the Time of Daily Magic

eager_halfmagic_coverI have come to believe that the books that influence us most are the ones we read at the impressionable ages of eight to twelve, the time when readers are most open to imagination and possibilities. It’s 
the time, too, when our worldview is being formed, not only by experience but also by our readings. Who you become as a reader deeply affects who you become as a person and, for some, as a writer. My first introduction to literary magic was through the work of Edward Eager, which I was lucky enough to find when my life was falling apart in the real world as my parents divorced. I stumbled upon Half Magic stored on a dusty shelf at the Malverne Public Library one summer day when I still had all the time in the world. Was I looking for a way out of the sorrow that surrounded me? Absolutely. But I was looking for more. I was looking for instructions on how to live one’s life, something that was especially unclear to me at the time. Back then, no one recommended books to a child-reader, at least not to me, and finding a book that spoke to you all on your own, turning those first few pages and entering into another world, was pure magic.

Eager, who was a lyricist and dramatist, is a dry, witty, adult sort of writer who fell into children’s books accidentally (isn’t that how all good magic stories begin?) when he discovered E. Nesbit’s work while searching for books to share with his son, Fritz. His droll, self-effacing essay “Daily Magic,” published in The Horn Book Magazine in October 1958, celebrated both E. Nesbit and Eager’s own delight in finding magic. He wrote for children through his own adult sensibility in the time 
of real-life Mad Men, cocktails and trains home to Connecticut, but he was an adult who remembered what children loved most. At the same time, he never spoke down to his readers, something I very much appreciated and had previously found only in fairy tales. Eager predicted the flowering of magical realism, suggesting that the core of a good magic book was the dailiness of its magic: “So that after you finish reading…you feel it could happen to you, any day now, round any corner.” It’s the very ordinariness of both setting and characters that makes the magic all the more believable. It’s a lesson learned from fairy tales, wherein an ordinary girl can sleep for a hundred years and a perfectly normal brother and sister discover a witch’s house in the woods and beat her at her own game. The best magic, after all, is always woven into the facts of our everyday lives.

Eager insisted that his own books could not have existed without E. Nesbit’s influence. He thought of himself as a more accessible and lesser author, and referred to himself as “second-rate E. Nesbit.” But for American readers his magical worlds may be more relatable than Nesbit’s magical books, which can seem old-fashioned and stuffy to modern children. Eager’s books maintain a timelessness that allows current child readers to be as enchanted as I was when I discovered his books in the sixties. Because Eager is a lover of puns and jokes, his books are both entertaining and adventurous. But behind the fun there is more: the sense that an adult is telling important facts about issues of family loyalty and love, and of course Eager always includes a lesson concerning the love of reading and books. Behind the adventure there is the wise reminder that, even while growing up, it’s still possible to see the world as a place of enchantment and to not lose what we had as children: the power of imagination.

Eager’s theory of magic is that it can and will thwart you whenever possible. For children, well aware that the adult world often thwarts childhood itself, the contrary rules of magic come as no surprise. At last, someone is telling the truth: the world around us often doesn’t make sense, and we have to do our best to figure it out. Magic is playful and unreliable, and that’s half the fun of it, especially when it’s doled out in halves or discovered in a lake on a summer vacation. The participants have to figure out the rules as they go along, as they would a puzzle or a game with rules that may shift and change. They make mistakes — some amusing, some dangerous — and in many instances they have to tame the magic and take control of it lest it take control of them. Is this not the deepest fear and wish of every child? That he or she will manage to take charge of a world that is chaotic and unfathomable? As every child reader knows, especially those with unhappy childhoods, the first exit out of the dreariness and difficulties of one’s real life is through reading. All books make for a good escape route, although novels are always preferable, and, as one of the characters in Edward Eager’s bookish and wonderful Seven-Day Magic asserts, “the best kind of book…is a magic book.”

* * *

Eager’s magic series totaled only seven in number due to his untimely death at the age of fifty-three. Still, seven is the most magical of numbers, just enough books to last through a summer. One of the best summers I remember with my own son was the summer of Edward Eager, a glorious time when we read all of the books in the series aloud, often in a hammock, beside a pond that some people said was enchanted. Half Magic begins the series, with a troublemaking talisman found on the sidewalk that grants only half wishes, including a cat that can half-talk in a hilarious half-language. O, unpredictable magic, wise enough to make certain that the adults in the picture remain unaware of its powers! Children can see what adults cannot, in life and in Eager’s book. The novels that follow — Knight’s Castle, Magic by the Lake, The Time Garden, Magic or Not?, and The Well-Wishers — lead up to the final book, the brilliant Seven-Day Magic, which gets to the heart of Eager’s enchantments. Here, a library book that can be checked out only for seven days creates literary enchantment. When I read it I couldn’t help but think: how does Mr. Edward Eager know this is what happened to me in my library, on my summer vacation, when I first discovered Half Magic on the shelf? And then I understood what the best novels do: they know how you feel before you do.

hoffman_practical magicMy own work for children has been influenced by Eager and his creation of what I call suburban magic, and my aptly titled Practical Magic is a book for adults who can still remember what magic was all about. No enchanted woods, no brothers who turn into swans, no vine-covered cottages, but rather small towns where nothing unusual ever happens — until one day, it suddenly does. The suburbs would seem the least likely place in the world to find magic, and yet such places turn out to be rife with enchantment. Here every bit of enchantment matters, and each firefly counts. My own magical books for children occur in small towns and suburbs, often in the summer, often involving the characters who most need magic in their lives: the lonely, the unloved, the secret-keeper, the fearful, the outsider that most of us were at some point in childhood.

Here is the best thing about magic: you never know if it’s real or imagined. But as Eager suggested, “The next best thing to having it actually happen to you is to read about it…” As a child I found solace in books in a way I couldn’t in the real world. I understood, in some deep, immutable way, that even the powerless have power through imagination. That is the gift of magic and of Edward Eager’s books. All you have to do is walk out the door on a July afternoon and turn the corner, and magic will be waiting for you. All you have to do is read.

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

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25. Not-so-new New Yorkers

I know this is not news, but, boy, there are a lot of New Yorker covers lately that were done by people (men) who are also illustrators. (Because my husband never throws them away, we’ve got a lot lying around.) Here’s an array.

(Top) Kadir Nelson and Harry Bliss; (Bottom) Christoph Niemann and Liniers.

(Top) Kadir Nelson and Harry Bliss; (Bottom) Christoph Niemann and Liniers.

Three covers by Barry Blitt.

Three covers by Barry Blitt.

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