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Back 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!
The post Update: Francisco and Robert Jiménez School appeared first on The Horn Book.
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 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.
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!
The post Shh! We have an author event! appeared first on The Horn Book.
April 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?
NG: 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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(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!
The post Synthia Saint James at Simmons appeared first on The Horn Book.
By: Marissa Wasseluk,
Blog: First Book
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We recently had the opportunity to talk with author Kwame Alexander about how poetry can draw a reluctant reader into a lifelong love of books and the creative process behind his book, “The Crossover,” awarded the 2015 Newbery Medal for Most Distinguished Contribution to American Literature for Children.
Author Kwame Alexander
Photo Credit: Pilar Vergara
The first thing we noticed about The Crossover: its rhythm. Why did you choose to have Josh’s voice rhythmic in that way?
When I decided the book was going to have a frame of basketball, I knew that I wanted the language to mirror the sport’s high energy and rhythm,
I thought that basketball was poetry in motion – so I created a story on the page that reflected the action on the court. I’ve been a poet most of my life, so it seemed like a good marriage.
How would you describe kids’ reaction to the book?
You want to impact young people. That’s the goal. That’s the only goal. You want to get them reading. The response initially came from librarians and teachers – they were loving it.
I thought, “Wow, how cool is that?”?
Then teachers started getting it to their students. My, my, my – the reaction from the students blew me away. There were quite a few boys who had never showed much interest in reading before. Their teachers and librarians contacted me and said, “They couldn’t put your book down.”
That’s pretty remarkable right there. That’s why I’m doing this.
Have you ever seen anyone perform a page from the book?
Yes! There was a school in Illinois – Granger Middle School – and the entire school read the book. They brought me in for the day to see some presentations, and the kids all memorized the poems. It was so awesome. Each kid – girl, boy, black, white – they all felt like they were the characters.
That’s all you really hope for from a book – that it’s going to resonate with young people and empower them in some way. I believe poetry can get kids reading.
Why is it so important to get kids reading?
Inside of a book, between the lines, is a world of possibility. The book opens it up.
Why is it important for kids to open books? Because they can see themselves and they can see what they can become… Open a book and find your possible.
Click here to browse First Book’s collection of ALA Award-winning books.
The post Kwame Alexander Q&A: Poetry Provides Possibilities appeared first on First Book Blog.
From the March/April 2015 cover by Tomie dePaola.
Andy Manley, a Scottish theater artist, travels the world putting on shows for children. In 2014, he was in New York doing My House, a “mostly wordless solo piece co-starring a cardboard box and a wayward melon,” according to the New York Times. That one was designed for youngsters eighteen months to three years old.
“Do you have kids?” the Times reporter asked. “No,” Manley replied, “I’m gay.”
Two thoughts occur. First, being gay is less and less a barrier to fatherhood. But in any case it’s a rare father who, qua father, has Manley’s playful imagination, his creative reach: in sum, his ability to think big on a small child’s level.
That’s what a number of gay picture-book creators — distinctively, perhaps — have been doing for the past sixty years or so. Maurice Sendak, Arnold Lobel, James Marshall, Remy Charlip, and Tomie dePaola differ in just about every outward way, from the look and content of their books to the course of their lives and careers. But open the covers of those books and you’ll find tenderness, wit, and imagination as a common bond — qualities that they have in common with the unfettered young.
Maurice Sendak (1928–2012)
Sendak drew feelings — first and last, the feelings of small children. Over the years his subjects ranged from nursery-rhyme characters to life in a Polish shtetl to heroic nudes and portrait heads, but his work is grounded in
the life force of the young, girls and boys alike.
Unisexism, or gender equivalence, showed its face — maybe for the first time on record — in A Hole Is to Dig (1952), where Sendak’s drawings illustrate Ruth Krauss’s collection of kids’ off-the-cuff definitions. Along with “A hole is to dig,” in multiple embodiments, we find the indelible “Eyebrows are to go over your eyes” and “The world is to have something to stand on.”
Think of that! On his first try, Sendak had girls and boys doing what each was “supposed” to do. Krauss, a progressive thinker, pointed out that young kids didn’t behave that way and, according to Sendak, he made a few changes to eliminate the stereotypes. Altogether, he did more than that: there are no sex roles whatever in the pair-ups or group scenes, and no pat tableaux as a consequence. In an independent jacket drawing, moreover, one little boy holds a bouquet of flowers for another to sniff.
A Hole Is to Dig, small but mighty, liberated little girls from dolls-and-doilies more than ten years before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique touched off the second wave of American feminism — and, along the way, freed little boys from being he-men.
Now, a small boy could be desolate, feel rejected. In Very Far Away (1957), the second book Sendak himself wrote, Martin heads away from home, in an outsize cowboy hat, when his mother is too busy with the baby to answer his questions. His encounters with an old horse, an English sparrow, and a cat are fanciful, whimsical — and unrewarding. Martin heads home: maybe now Mama has time for him. Or he’ll count cars, and wait.
Martin, a timorous tyke depicted in a scratchy line and a light, almost neutral wash, is the first of the M-named Sendak surrogates.
His successor, the fierce and unrepentant Max of Where the Wild Things Are (1963), returns home after working his will over the Wild Things and finds his supper awaiting him, reassuringly, “still hot.” The illustration is at once vintage Neverland and, in the play of emotions across Max’s face, high cartoon drama.
Coming next: cartoons as an extension of child life.
Mickey, the dream-traveler of In the Night Kitchen (1970), flies off, out of his nightclothes, into a graphic panorama of Sendak’s 1930s New York City childhood. Oliver Hardy triplets appear as the Sunshine Bakers and mix Mickey into the cake they’re baking; he pops out, molds the dough into a plane, plunges to the bottom of the milk bottle…and rises to the top where (in homage to King Kong atop the Empire State), he cries “COCK-A-DOODLE DOO,” his own little penis proudly on display. Time to return to bed, more than satisfied: sated.
Power trip, wet dream, whatever: Sendak had something to crow about, however he chose. By that time, he had illustrated the endearing Little Bear books and created the larky Nutshell Library. He’d become a world celebrity and won just about every possible award. On the domestic front, he was settled in with Eugene Glynn, a psychoanalyst, who would be his life partner.
The AIDS epidemic, in the early 1980s, was painful for Sendak, as it was for other gay men, and like many of them, he became more open about his sexuality. Those agonizing times, emotional and political, had creative issue in We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993), a virtual mural of social protest, panel by panel. An echo of Dickens in the backwash of Ronald Reagan.
No age range is indicated on the jacket, nor should there be. Sendak was no longer making the “kiddie books” that, he often grumbled, got no respect. But early childhood was still home ground. In a late press photo, the grizzled Sendak is seen snuggling up to a Wild Thing, his protector now.
Arnold Lobel (1933–1987)
With Lobel, less and less became more and more.
His first assignment, as an aspiring illustrator, was to draw a salmon for a Science I Can Read Book — the editor had spotted a realistic drawing of a cricket in his art-school portfolio.
That salmon swam, and Lobel’s career was launched. Science and history easy readers came to his hand; he took on stories of everyday childhood rigors by Charlotte Zolotow and Judith Viorst. But factual or fancy-free, his work had an identity of its own.
Books of his own came almost perforce. First, cartoonish stories: happy-go-lucky blends of the lovable and the ridiculous. Giant John (1964) sets out into the world to earn some money after he and his mother eat their last two potato chips. At a friendly castle, he’s a BIG help…until fairy music sets him a-dancing and the castle walls come tumbling down. Never fear: John rebuilds, after his fashion, and departs with gold and glory. He “promised to visit often and kissed the king and queen and princess and dog good-bye.” A GIANT display of affection, indeed.
With the success of his work, Lobel had less need to illustrate books by others, and more time to spend on books of his own, which quickly became more diverse and substantial, even traditional, in nature. Cartooning wouldn’t do: the illustration had to have the resonance of art.
You’d think Lobel would have taken to folklore, in high demand at the time, but he didn’t — with one exception, Hansel and Gretel (1971). In the galaxy of H & Gs, Lobel’s stands as the modest, intimate one: more the tale of two babes abandoned in the woods than the story of a brother and sister victimized by an evil stepmother.
It’s a motif that turns up repeatedly in Lobel’s work. A pair of children appears, for example, in many of his illustrations for Jack Prelutsky’s collection of monitory verses, Nightmares (1976) — a pair of small, imperiled children, helplessness incarnate, the nonsexist embodiment of Hansel and Gretel. Sometimes the boy is larger and leading, sometimes the roles are reversed.
Frog and Toad Are Friends (1970): is there a more satisfying, more puzzling title in children’s lit? Friends pal around, have misunderstandings, make up; but a frog and a toad — strange. Lobel had watched frogs and toads and noticed their differences. He’d also learned that toads will overwinter in the city without ill effects; but you can’t coop up a frog. So we have energetic, adventurous Frog and his best friend and opposite number Toad, something of a sluggard and a bumbler. All told, an odd, appealing couple.
At a later, savvier time, a gay couple. Through a wide lens, the designation fits: Frog and Toad jousting, in what are essentially two-character skits, could be two old loving, teasing, mutually indulgent mates. Or they could simply be humanized animals in the tradition of Beatrix Potter et al., mimicking human behavior. Lobel may have thought of them as gay, or they may have developed as they did because he was gay.
Does it matter? Besides four additional Frog and Toad books, Lobel produced five other I Can Reads during the same years — individual books with no less individuality, perhaps more. The character studies Owl at Home (1975), Grasshopper on the Road (1978), and Uncle Elephant (1981) also reflect Lobel’s sensitivity to animal ways, and are also aptly titled. Those three idiosyncratic bachelors might well be gay, too.
One thing we know for certain: the more identities — ethnic, religious, racial, sexual — the richer life is for all.
James Marshall (1942–1992) & Remy Charlip (1929–2012)
No two author-illustrators could be more different than James Marshall and Remy Charlip. That’s just the point.
Marshall was an accidental illustrator. Texas born and bred, he was on track to be a professional violist, then injured his hand, took up teaching…and, as the origin story goes, lucked into picture books. Lying in a hammock one summer day, sketchpad in hand, he overheard the battling George and Martha, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on his sister’s TV, and — voilà! — conjured up the fondly parrying hippo couple of that name.
The seven George and Martha books owe their acclaim to many factors. The spare illustration is flat-out brilliant, as the delicate line delineating the hippos’ bulk, a funny thing in itself, morphs into one sharp-witted, space-teasing composition after another. Take “Split Pea Soup,” the very first story. Martha keeps serving it to George, George keeps eating it reluctantly…until he doesn’t, and pours the remains of his bowl into his loafers under the dining table. The scene is tricky to picture, and a hoot as done: wit distilled to a pea-green pour.
Overleaf, George and Martha are sitting together at the table, close together, over a plate of chocolate chip cookies. Martha has caught him out: why didn’t he tell her he hated the split pea soup? “I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.” Back and forth, that’s the theme of the stories as a whole. The delicacy of the hippos’ feelings accords with the delicacy of the line, and it, too, contrasts with their bulk. Just any old animals, conventionally drawn, wouldn’t have done at all.
Once started, Marshall cultivated his talents and spread wicked glee in one high-colored, high-energy series after another. Top grades go, though, to the kindly camp of Miss Nelson and class.
Remy Charlip, on the other hand, was a serial initiator; an adventurer.
The son of immigrant New Yorkers, he studied art at Cooper Union, helped found the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and — before filling his resume with performing, choreographing, and teaching stints — produced a picture book, Dress Up and Let’s Have a Party (1956), that’s also a performance, an improvisation.
Decked out in his mother’s pots and pans while she bakes a cake, John is inspired to ask his friends to come to his party in costume — and we wait with him to see what they’ll be wearing when, at the turn of the page, they come through the door. No dullards here: a carton on the street turns Hans into a special delivery package; a ball of string makes Vera a meatball covered with spaghetti. The final surprise comes when John carries in the cake, with the single word happy visible. In Charlip territory, nothing is all spelled out.
With Dress Up in his pocket, he got deeply into theater for young children — and for the rest of his life picture books and children’s theater figured in his career as corresponding “narrative forms.”
Every picture book was different from the others, its style chosen —
conceived — to suit the subject matter. For The Dead Bird (1958), a brief text Charlip had plucked from a Margaret Wise Brown collection, he painted deep-toned primitivist tableaux.
Fortunately (1964), the exuberant
tale that seesaws between good and bad fortune, joggles accordingly between hot carnival colors and stark black-and-white. Each turn of the page — theater, to Charlip — brings a startling new composition, a new storytelling move.
Arm in Arm (1969) brought Charlip’s genius for verbal play and pictorial invention to a peak. Verbal play and pictorial invention conjoined: “Two octopuses got married and walked down the aisle arm in arm in arm in arm in arm…” is exemplified by a fluorescent couple, long tentacles entwined, who could have come out of the Beatles flick Yellow Submarine.
Among the equivocal cartoons, visual puns, and other antic embodiments of the endless tales and other echolalia is many a rainbow — this, more than ten years before the AIDS epidemic and the gay community’s adoption of the rainbow flag as its emblem. Was Charlip a prophet, a visionary, a herald? When Arm in Arm was reissued in 1997, in a partially re-designed edition, it was out-and-proud: the white cover and endpapers became rainbow-hued all over, and Charlip himself appears on the last page in a rainbow-striped sweater.
Tomie dePaola (b. 1934)
Tomie dePaola, that most mild-
mannered of creative personalities, took the bull by the horns — gently, of course.
First, there was lots of freelance illustration; dePaola was a thoroughgoing pro. And there’d always be, along with the imperishable Strega Nona (1975), many other books of a folkish or religious nature. But dePaola was not long in addressing childhood joys and woes — foremost, the joys and woes of his own childhood.
Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs (1973), about his feeble great-grandmother and his bustling grandmother, came out at a time when the decline and death of a grandparent was a going topic in picture books, and endures when others have long vanished. For one, it’s not a demonstration model, it’s life — you couldn’t make this stuff up.
For Tommy, at four, Nana Upstairs, largely confined to her bed, is a fine companion, even a playmate and co-conspirator. On his visits they share candy mints from her sewing box and talk away about the Little People in the room’s shadowy recesses — sitting side-by-side, Nana Upstairs tied for safety into a big Morris chair, Tommy tied in his chair, too, at his own insistence. How, then, will he cope with her death? In a still, echoing picture, Tommy, who’s been told, rushes upstairs to Nana Upstairs’s room: “The bed was empty.” You may cry, too.
Oliver Button Is a Sissy (1979) is a spunky book about a spunky little boy with gay signifiers, Tommy/Tomie by another name. Oliver, in short, likes to do things that boys aren’t supposed to do — like reading and drawing pictures, even playing with paper dolls and dressing up, singing and dancing. No baseball for him, no kind of ball. So he’s sent to dancing school “for exercise,” and he thrives. Even when he’s tormented by the other boys for his tap shoes (and has to be rescued by the girls), he persists — and at the local talent show, he’s a star.
Not long before, kids might have gotten a very different message from another reputable book. In William’s Doll (1972), written by Charlotte Zolotow and illustrated by William Pène du Bois, William is taunted by the other boys for wanting a baby doll to take care of. His father, like Oliver’s, is ready with a basketball, and William, unlike Oliver, has nothing against playing ball; he just wants a baby doll too. Leave it to grandmother: he needs the doll, which she gets him, “so that he can practice being a father.”
Not, in 1972, a gay father.
DePaola was a brand, and beloved, before he returned to the story of that budding song-and-dance man, in 26 Fairmount Avenue (1999), and, in Tomie’s childhood voice, carried it forward. The ensuing series is partly a documentary, taking in the 1939 World’s Fair, the March of Dimes, Pearl Harbor…It’s partly a family sitcom, with cameos for a host of Irish and Italian relatives. But in its naive, confiding way, it’s also an object lesson: Tomie, a born performer and artistic wunderkind, is encouraged at home and at school; on holidays and other occasions, he dresses as Mae West and the Farmer’s Wife; at five, he puts on his mother’s makeup. Never does a child tease him or an adult look askance. It’s OK.
He’s OK. You are, too.
But all is not hunky-dory. In the last book of the series, For the Duration (2009), dePaola revisits Oliver Button Is a Sissy, with a less sanguine, more realistic outcome. A group of older boys, his brother Buddy’s friends, call him a sissy and seize his beloved tap shoes — and Buddy does nothing to help him. It may even be Buddy, Tommy/Tomie comes to realize, who has egged them on. (Resentment? Envy?) The sympathetic principal will tackle the problem (discreetly), but, she suggests to Tommy, it would be better if he brought the tap shoes to school “in a paper bag or something…”
Complexity: addressed by dePaola with tenderness, wit, and imagination — as Sendak, Lobel, Marshall, and Charlip themselves did time and again. They were gay, talented, and gifted also with insight.
From the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
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If you know any little girls named Maisy (or Tallulah; or, for that matter, any little boys named Cyril), chances are good that it’s because of Lucy Cousins. Her indomitable little-girl-mouse is beloved by toddlers and their grownups the world over, making Cousins one proud mama.
1. Your latest Maisy book — Count with Maisy, Cheep, Cheep, Cheep! (Candlewick, 2–5 years) — is a large-format, lift-the-flap book. You’ve also done Maisy board books, hardcovers, cloth books, Maisy First Science and Arts-and-Crafts books, books with stickers, etc., etc. How do you decide? Does form follow content?
LC: I like to try out any new ideas for Maisy that I can think of. Maybe it’s because she is quite a graphic character, she seems to work well in many different formats. Because the age range for Maisy is so wide, from a young baby who is just grasping things and looking intently to a child who enjoys stories and details, it means there is such a variety of book styles to create. A chunky book is great for a tiny child who might put the book in the mouth and drop it on the floor, whereas an older child will enjoy sitting quietly and studying the pictures and following a story. Whatever the age, I like there to be a choice of Maisy books, some just for fun, some for learning, some for stories. So I aim to create pictures and ideas or stories that are relevant to the format of the book.
2. You’ve introduced American children to some unusual-to-them names (Maisy, for one; also Tallulah, which is very cute to hear toddlers try to say!). How do you name your characters?
LC: I find naming characters a very difficult thing. I have a few dictionaries of names, which are usually for naming babies, and initially go through all the names starting with the same letter as the animal I’m trying to name. Or I think of names that sound nice phonetically. When I named Maisy, the name was familiar, but only really used by people of my grandparents’ generation. I just loved the sound of it, a soft and friendly name. Now it has become quite a popular name, and I sometimes meet children called Maisy and Tallulah when I am signing books. I was quite excited when my son came home after his first term at university and told us that his new girlfriend’s name is… Tallulah!
3. You’re well known for your work in those bright, bold colors. Have you done work in other styles, or using different media?
LC: I developed my style of illustration using bright blocks of color and a bold black outline while I was studying at art college. It feels very comfortable and natural to paint like that, so I enjoy mostly working in that style. Occasionally I have tried a slightly different approach. For example, my book I’m the Best (Candlewick, 2–5 years) was created with colored inks and a chunky graphite pencil. In the early days of Maisy, I had quite a lot of creative input into the developing of the TV series and merchandising, and I enjoyed working in those different mediums. I love doing creative things for fun, almost anything, from pottery to photography to knitting. But life has been so busy bringing up my four children and creating my books, that I haven’t had much time for experimenting.
4. Maisy is a toddler icon. Do you hear much from nostalgic ten-year-olds?
LC: Yes, it’s always lovely to hear memories of people enjoying Maisy. Especially from six-foot-tall teenage friends of my children. Parents sometimes tell me heartwarming stories about how a Maisy book has been very special to their child during a difficult time, like a hospital visit, or starting a new nursery school. I work in a solitary way, for weeks and months on my books, and sometimes it can be quite a struggle, so it means a lot when I hear about a child who loves Maisy.
5. Following Hello Kitty-gate, do you think of your character as a girl-sized mouse? Or a mouse-shaped girl? Or neither?
LC: I have to say that it is not something I think about, or am inclined to try and understand. For me, she is just Maisy, in Maisy’s world, and it’s completely separate from our world. When I did the very first drawing of Maisy about twenty-five years ago, I could picture her character and her world, and it’s always seemed to me that it’s best not to question that vision. If I start to think about why she is a mouse who behaves like a child, has no parents or family, can do things only adults can do, and is completely independent, it all seems rather confusing. Even her sex is rather ambiguous to me. She is officially a female, but that is a very unimportant part of who she is. She likes wearing trousers and mucking out pigs as much as dancing and baking. So, Maisy is just Maisy. Simple.
From the February 2015 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.
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In the January/February 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine, editor Martha Parravano talked to Sharon M. Draper about her new intermediate novel Stella by Starlight. Read the full review here.
Martha V. Parravano: Have you ever tried to write by starlight?
Sharon M. Draper: I’ve marveled at the moon — the phases intrigue me — but I’ve never written anything while outside on a starry night. But I’m sure that those images eventually evolved into words in a story. All natural events inspire me — freshly fallen snow and thunderstorms and the changing of leaves in the fall — but the starlight and the moon I left to Stella. They belong to her.
From the January/February 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
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Does one of the salient works of the black children’s lit breakthrough still hold its own? Is it still the knockout that I pronounced it, at Kirkus, in 1971?
The Planet of Junior Brown was Virginia Hamilton’s fourth book — each of them different from the others, and from anything else around.
Hamilton, an emerging black children’s writer, was finding her way in turbulent times. Civil rights clashes in the South and civil rights demonstrations in the North dominated the public discourse. Children’s books about black life, most of them by white writers, were overwhelmingly stories of prejudice countered and discrimination overcome.
Hamilton had another outlook. She’d grown up on the family farm in Yellow Springs, Ohio, with a storytelling grandmother and an Underground Railroad legacy. As a student at Antioch College, close by, she’d been privy to the progressive educational views and abolitionist idealism of Horace Mann, the school’s first president. Although her immediate world wasn’t free of unfairness, she had other things to write about besides racial conflict.
It also helped that Zeely (1966), her striking debut novel, originated as a short story for a college writing class, not as a children’s book. No presuppositions were in play. Young Geeder (née Elizabeth), awestruck by her statuesque neighbor Zeely, a keeper of pigs, imagines her a Watutsi queen like the one in an old magazine. Ridiculous? Not to Zeely, who had once told herself just such stories, and not to readers newly exposed to the range of African cultures in the daily news and the media at large.
The House of Dies Drear (1968) qualifies as a mystery: a present-day family moves into a house in Ohio that was once a station on the Underground Railroad…where nothing is quite as it seems.
In Time-Ago Tales of Jahdu (1969), the first of Hamilton’s folk-infused writings, young Lee Edward takes inspiration from the four linked hero tales that end in “a fine, good place called Harlem.”
Hamilton had meanwhile moved to New York, married aspiring poet Arnold Adoff, and become the mother of two children. On the national scene, new words and phrases — black, Afro-American — had entered everyday speech; new images of black beauty and black power were permeating the lives of children. For black children, the changes could be monumental.
The Planet of Junior Brown (1971), set firmly in Manhattan, is a mixture of social realism, psychodrama, and utopian fantasy. An original. What it isn’t is time-bound or topical. Big things happen here. “Strong substance in a juvenile novel,” I wrote in 1971.
Big characters appear, too — outliers, most of them.
Hidden away in the basement of a New York school is a model of the solar system with a new, tenth planet, the planet of Junior Brown — constructed by Mr. Pool the janitor, a lapsed math-and-science teacher, and his accomplice, renegade eighth-grader Buddy Clark, for the benefit of Buddy’s troubled classmate Junior Brown: hugely talented, monstrously fat, riven. A “sad, fat boy.”
Yes, the story revolves around Junior Brown — how to free him from the delusions of his manic music teacher, how to loosen the strictures of his smothering, asthmatic mother.
But it’s Buddy Clark, a homeless boy at home in the world at twelve or thirteen, who turns the wheels, this way and that. At Mrs. Brown’s groaning dinner table, Buddy coolly opts for a meatless meal. With his college-grad boss at the newsstand, he discusses magazine covers and the meaning of irony. In the office of the sympathetic assistant principal, he embeds his and Junior’s truancy in a web of hard-luck stories.
He is most fully engaged, though, on his own planet — one of a network of underground refuges for homeless boys, in basements and backrooms, maintained by somewhat older boys, veterans of the streets, like Buddy.
The logistics of concealing and supplying the hideaway, of keeping the younger boys fed and clothed, of seeing them off to school and to honest work, make a taut urban survival story. The psycho-dynamics of steering them away from a life of escalating crime is of another order of involvement: moral and ethical.
In a quiet, powerful scene, two boys wait for Buddy at his planet: savvy “Franklin Moore” and a smaller, younger boy, fearful of the dark, who has yet to choose his homeless name. (“Just having a last name the same as the mama or daddy you once knew reminds you of them,” Buddy tells him. “And remembering is going to make you feel pretty bad sometimes…”) Loosened up and warmed up by a spartan banquet, the boy firmly announces he’ll be “Nightman.” Nightman who? “Nightman Black.”
Franklin, suspicious and hostile, is the real problem. In his pockets, his shirt, his socks, Buddy finds expensive watches, rings, and other valuables, plus a leather wallet. “You ain’t nothing but a thief,…a wet-bottomed little hustler.” Taking twenty-five dollars from the wallet (which he’ll mail to the owner), he gives Franklin five dollars to keep Nightman and himself for a few days, “until Monday when I get paid.” The other twenty will be for other homeless kids.
Nightman demurs. “I want you to put back the five dollars you give to Franklin.” He’ll get by with an apple or an orange and a roll, things he can cadge, until Buddy provides dinner. Reluctantly, Franklin complies. What about the other twenty dollars? “I think,” says Nightman, “you better keep it for the others.” Sitting with his legs folded in front of him, a hand on each knee, Nightman lacks only a throne to look “like a king.”
For Buddy Clark, Junior Brown is a special case, a special person. He has food, clothing, and shelter in abundance, even overabundance. But what he wants most — his music — is denied him. The grand piano of his teacher, Miss Peebles, is off-limits due to a malevolent (imaginary) relative. Worse, his own upright has been emasculated to spare his mother the sound. The wires have been removed, Buddy sees, though the felt hammers are in place. “But the hammers struck against nothing. As Junior played on and on, the hammers rose and fell soundlessly.”
Taking away his music. “How could she do that to her own son?” Buddy thinks.
In the upshot, Mr. Pool is forced to take down the solar system and vacate the basement hideaway; Junior Brown runs away from home to lure away Miss Peeble’s malevolent relative; and all concerned take refuge in Buddy Clark’s planet-of-the-homeless, which will henceforth be known as the Planet of Junior Brown. A piano may even be hoisted in.
All told, a bit much. Preposterous, even. “This is not a story to be judged on grounds of probability,” I wrote in the original review, “but one which makes its own insistent reality.”
* * *
Regardless, today’s kids aren’t buying it. The Planet of Junior Brown was a 1972 Newbery Honor Book, which keeps a certain number of copies on library shelves. But that’s apparently where most of them remain. Of twelve copies in the New York Public Library system in late September 2014, ten were available. Brooklyn had thirty-five of thirty-nine copies on hand; Boston could produce seventeen of nineteen. In some cities with very small holdings, every copy was in. New York City school libraries, too, report meager circulation for years.
Why? There are structural impediments, certainly. The opening chapter, where Buddy and Mr. Pool put the finishing touches on the solar system, is something of an astronomy tutorial. The chapters are long from the outset, moreover, and grow still longer — from twenty or so pages to forty or so — without distinct narrative breaks. By today’s standards, it’s a demanding book to read.
But Hamilton, a librarian colleague reminds me, was always a “hard sell.”
What’s different is the spirit of the time, the zeitgeist. The book’s core values — individual responsibility and mutual assistance — have no expiration date. But in The Planet of Junior Brown they are in service of a greater good: the transformation of society as a whole.
We thought big, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and children’s books, too, had their sights on the stars. Mr. Pool’s belief that “the human race [was] yet to come” and that his boys were “forerunners” did not strike me as outlandish when I wrote the original review. Rereading the book recently, the visionary element faded in the stronger, clearer light of the boys’ actual bonding.
At a guess, the human drama will prevail and Junior Brown will continue to find susceptible readers, here and there, to whom it will mean a great deal. If you care about the story, and the kids in it, you also understand why Mr. Pool endowed them with heroic powers. The aftereffect, in any period, is inspirational.
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A few years ago I was researching a book on the making of the atomic bomb, and my brother-in-law Eric, who loves wacky conspiracy theories, as I do, hit me with a great one.
“You know when the first atomic bomb was tested, right?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, falling into his trap. “New Mexico desert, summer of 1945.”
“That’s what they want you to think!”
And he told me the theory: the first test was actually in a place called Port Chicago, California, in July 1944. Sounded crazy, but I’d never heard of Port Chicago. I couldn’t offer any kind of refutation. But later that night I typed “Port Chicago” into Google, and I’ve been hooked on the story ever since — the true story of what happened there during World War II.
Step one for me was reading Dr. Robert Allen’s remarkable book The Port Chicago Mutiny. I then contacted Robert (he said I could call him that) and asked how I could find out more about this little-known chapter of civil rights history. After directing me to the scant supply of written sources, he suggested that if I really wanted to explore this story I should come to the memorial event held each year at the site of the disaster. A few Port Chicago veterans still attend, he explained, though at this point it’s mostly younger generations of family members and friends.
I flew to Oakland in July 2011. Not only did Robert drive me to the memorial event, he spent three days taking me around the Bay Area and introducing me to the amazing community of people who are working to keep the Port Chicago story alive. At the end of my visit, he allowed me to make photocopies of the transcripts of the oral-history interviews he had conducted, decades earlier, with many of the Port Chicago sailors. This priceless material makes up the heart of my book. My deepest thanks to Robert for his generosity, encouragement, and helpful suggestions along the way.
And as an additional tribute, I want to use the rest of this speech to tell the story of Robert’s own Port Chicago journey — a classic old-school detective tale.
“This was the mid-1970s,” Robert remembers. “I was a grad student at Berkeley, and also working as a journalist, working on a story about some racial incidents that had happened on ships in the U.S. Navy. In an archive, I came across this pamphlet entitled ‘Mutiny?’ It had a picture of some black sailors on the front. I picked it up and thought, ‘What’s this about?’ The first sentence in there was, ‘Remember Port Chicago?’
“I thought, ‘Port Chicago?’ Do they mean the port of Chicago? What is this?’ And I read it, and it told the story of a terrible disaster at Port Chicago, which is in California, near San Francisco, a small port town, where they had built a Navy base, an ammunition loading facility. And it turned out that all the ammunition loaders were black, all the officers, white.”
The pamphlet, printed by the NAACP in 1945, told the Port Chicago story: the strict segregation in the Navy, the lack of training and unsafe working conditions for black sailors at Port Chicago, the disastrous explosion that killed more than three hundred, and the “mutiny” — the refusal of fifty of the men to return to work under unfair and unsafe conditions.
“I was just amazed as I read this,” Robert says. He asked the archivist if he could make a photocopy, and was told he could just take one of the pamphlets; they had several. “So I took a copy, which I still have, and came home, read through it again, and went to the library right away. I wanted to check out a book about it. But there was nothing. I looked in the standard black history references, and it’s briefly mentioned in John Hope Franklin, one sentence, that’s it. But all of this had intrigued me, because clearly this was a huge story and nothing had been written about it. So I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to have to find some way to find out about this story,’ because by now I was really hooked. The explosion and this so-called mutiny, and then the whole thing just disappears from history.”
Robert read through the newspaper archives at UC Berkeley and found many stories about the Port Chicago explosion, and a few about the subsequent mutiny trial. “But just as quickly, the story disappeared. It’s the middle of a war, 1944, so there’s some dramatic news happening every day.”
Other work pushed Port Chicago aside for a while — but the story wouldn’t let Robert go. “This is really just a fantastic story,” he thought again and again. “How can I begin to learn more about it? What I need is something to start with.” He had the newspaper accounts, but they were brief and often contradictory. “Then I thought, ‘There’s a trial. There’s a mutiny trial, and there must be a mutiny trial transcript. If I could get hold of that, I might have access to the whole story.’”
So he contacted the Navy the old-fashioned way — he looked up the number and called them. He was lucky; the records had been declassified in 1972. No one had ever asked to see them.
“Yes, we have them here,” a young clerk told him.
“Do I have to come there to see them, or can I get a copy sent?”
“We can make you a copy if you know exactly what you want.”
“I want exactly the full transcript.”
The man was momentarily speechless. “It’s 1,400 pages!”
“Well,” Robert said, “I want it all.”
He agreed to pay ten cents a page for copies, no small sum for a broke student. “And that,” he says, “was the first big break.”
He got the transcript and started reading, taking notes. But the more he read, the more questions he had. “Because I now had the details of the events that happened, that the men had refused to go back to work. But nothing about what was going on at Port Chicago before that. The trial record was silent on that. And I realized this court had decided that any testimony about events prior to the date of the work-stoppage was irrelevant. The only question was, ‘Did you, or did you not, on August 9th, refuse to return to work loading ammunition?’ The court basically ruled out any testimony about the conditions existing at the base before the explosion. The discrimination, the lack of training, the fact that white officers were betting each other about which division could load the fastest — all of this, which contributed to the men’s anger and outrage, they weren’t allowed to tell any of it in court.”
As Robert read, he tried to see the story from the point of view of the accused mutineers, many of whom were teenagers. “What was it that motivated the men?” he wondered. “It’s never brought out in the trial. This is only half the story. Where’s the other half?”
The answer was that it didn’t exist. Not in any written record, anyway. “And I realized,” he says, “the only way to get it was to find some of the survivors and interview them, especially the fifty, the ones who were involved in the mutiny. And that struck me as a daunting task.” He looked for the names of the defendants in Bay Area phone books and made a few calls. No luck.
“How am I going to find these guys? Well, who would have information about them? The Navy’s personnel department.” So he wrote to the Navy asking for addresses.
The reply: “We cannot release these addresses to you. These records are confidential.”
Robert’s hopes sank. Without the slightest clue as to where the men lived, how he could he begin to find them? But at the bottom of the letter was something surprising. Whoever wrote it had clearly broken from form letter–speak to make a suggestion: Robert could write letters to the men and send them to the Navy, along with self-addressed stamped envelopes. The Navy would forward the letters, and if the men felt like responding to Robert, they would.
This was the turning point. “I got these packets together and sent them out,” he remembers.
There was a long silence after that, and Robert began to doubt he would get any responses. “I’ll never know if the Navy mailed the letters or not,” he thought. “They could have all been thrown in the trash.”
But finally, a response came. Then a few more. Robert was thrilled. He talked to several of the men on the phone, including Joe Small, the man the Navy accused of being the ringleader of the Port Chicago mutiny. It wasn’t easy. “Because for these men, who was I? What was my motive? That’s on everybody’s mind, whether they say it or not, so you have to speak to that.”
He explained what he was trying to do. “Your perspective is missing from the written record,” he told the men. “The story of you and the other sailors, and what was happening in the years, weeks, days before the explosion, that’s not in the written history of Port Chicago. And I want to get your story out.”
Many of the men agreed to talk, and Robert was determined to do it in person. “I learned as a journalist, face-to-face contact is always better,” he says. “You get much more from somebody if you talk to them face to face.”
But that raised a new problem. “I looked at the list of addresses, and every single one of them was along the East Coast and on down into the South. I thought, ‘How in the world am I going to do this?’ I was in graduate school, and graduate students, by definition, are poor. So I really didn’t have the money to make a big trip, but then, reading the newspaper, I saw a Greyhound Bus ad, and they had what they called a ‘See America’ fare. You paid $100 and you could ride any Greyhound Bus anywhere they went in the United States for a month. And I realized, that was my ticket.”
Robert flew the red-eye to New York City. He had a list of men to interview. The first lived in Harlem.
It was nearly the last.
“The very first interview practically stopped me in my tracks,” he says. “I went to the man’s building in Harlem, and he opens the door and says, ‘We can do the interview, but let’s go down the street to my friend’s house.’”
Sure, Robert said, thinking, “This is his interview, and if I want to get it, I have to do it on his terms.” They walked to a neighbor’s apartment and went in. There was no one home. They sat and talked for over an hour. Robert could sense the man relaxing as the interview went on. “But what had happened at his front door was still hanging over me,” he says. When they were done, Robert decided to ask about it.
“I hope I didn’t create a problem for you,” Robert said.
“No, you didn’t create a problem,” the man said, “but my son was home today, my grown son. And if you had come in, I would have had to introduce you, and I didn’t want to do that. Because I’ve never told him what happened to me at Port Chicago. And I’m still not sure I want him to know.”
Robert was stunned. “I hadn’t really thought about how the families might be affected by what had happened, and how that might create pain all these years later.”
He walked to a YMCA and got a room. It was a rough night. “If he hasn’t told his son, what does that mean about how he feels about it?” Robert wondered. “If the men haven’t told their families, what right do I have to be asking these questions? Am I not re-traumatizing them by even asking the questions? I should just get on the bus and go home. Even if the men agree to be interviewed by me, can I really do it? Do I have a right to do it?”
One sleepless night later, he still hadn’t made up his mind. His conscience was telling him to get on a plane and fly home. But he had already bought the bus ticket. And the next person was nearby, in northern Jersey.
“I should do the next interview,” he decided. “I should at least do one more.”
And the next interview was Joe Small. “Thank goodness!” Robert says, laughing. “If it had been a couple of others who came later, I would have said, ‘No, I shouldn’t be doing this.’ Joe Small was ready to talk. His attitude was, ‘I want to get the story out.’”
And the rest is history. History that literally would not exist — not in any form accessible to us today — without Robert Allen’s amazing detective work. All fifty of the men convicted of mutiny at Port Chicago are gone. But their voices live in Robert’s interviews. Their story is very much alive.
For more on the 2014 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB14. Read Steve Sheinkin’s .
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Greetings to Roger Sutton, the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award judges, and everyone at the awards ceremony, from Elizabeth Wein in Warsaw, Poland. Between you and me today stretches a distance of over four thousand miles, and I do “mind the gap.”
I am both grateful and utterly stunned that Rose Under Fire has been named one of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Books this year. I can’t tell you how sorry I am not to be there in person, to celebrate with you and meet the other award recipients, to eat and drink and talk and talk and talk with all of you. Because, in the words of Antoine de Saint Exupéry, “Nous demandons à boire, mais nous demandons aussi à communiquer.” We need to drink, but also we need to communicate.
When I began writing Rose Under Fire, I was fascinated by the flying bombs — the Vergeltungswaffen — that the Third Reich launched at southern England in the summer of 1944 immediately following the invasion of Normandy. These were, essentially, the first cruise missiles. I wanted my story to move from the receiving end of these weapons to the production line, at some point, which is one of the reasons I planned to set the second part of the book in the Nazi women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück, where there was a German munitions factory. I felt that the plight of the prisoners there was one of the lesser-known events of the Holocaust — a gap, as it were.
It wasn’t until I began the research for this second part of the novel that I discovered the story of the “Rabbits,” the Polish women who were subjected to Nazi experimentation at Ravensbrück. I’d never even heard of them — another gap. And it wasn’t until I’d already read three survivor accounts and a nonfiction history of the camp that I discovered the story of the Rabbits’ rebellion against the camp authorities in the winter of 1945. Here, buried in the rubble of well-known history, was an amazing tale few people were aware of.
The irony is that during their internment the women known as Rabbits were desperate to make their own story public. They stole a camera and took photographs of their scars, which were later used in the Nuremberg trials; a fellow prisoner kept the single roll of film hidden for them for six months until her own release. While still imprisoned, the Rabbits smuggled a message to the Pope and received a blessing from him over the radio. They sent messages in invisible ink made of urine. They managed to get all their names read aloud over the radio by the BBC. Imprisoned, under sentence of death, even as they were starving, their driving purpose was to get their story out.
In Rose Under Fire, the need to communicate is as strong as the need for sustenance. “Nous demandons à boire, mais nous demandons aussi à communiquer.” The mission of the survivors of Ravensbrück in particular, and of the Holocaust in general, is to “tell the world.” I will say exactly what I said two years ago when I thanked you for giving Code Name Verity this honor as well: thank you for helping to bring this message of horror and hope to a wider audience. And thank you for helping to fill in the gaps.
For more on the 2014 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB14.
The post Rose Under Fire: Author Elizabeth Wein’s 2014 BGHB Fiction Honor Speech appeared first on The Horn Book.
I feel very connected being here tonight.
I suppose my books — Grasshopper Jungle in particular — are all about connections.
I have a cousin who lived with my family of four boys when I was very young. Her name is Renata, she has gentle Italian hands, and she lives near Phoenix now. I’ve never known any other Renatas, although the name is fairly common in Italy, which is where my family comes from.
The American writer Renata Adler was born in Italy, too. In the novel Slapstick, or Lonesome No More!, Kurt Vonnegut quotes Adler as having said that a writer is someone who hates writing.
Let me tell you how strongly I empathize with that statement.
I’m sure my close friends, and especially Michael Bourret, my agent, and Julie Strauss-Gabel, my editor, know all too well that from time to time I have a propensity to melt down about this thing I can’t stop doing even when it feels like I’m tearing chunks of stuffing from my soul. I think all of us who write feel the same way on occasion. At least, I sure hope so.
I wouldn’t want to be the only one, after all.
So Vonnegut wrote about a note he’d received from his agent after Vonnegut’s own writing-related meltdown. The note said this: “Dear Kurt — I never knew a blacksmith who was in love with his anvil.”
I wrote Grasshopper Jungle after I decided to quit writing, which happened in the summer of 2011. I realize that’s a strange thing to say: I wrote after I quit writing. A lot of bad things made me feel really terrible about being a writer, which is a different thing altogether than simply writing. Being a writer was making me sick, and I was losing sleep over it.
So I quit.
The thing is, I couldn’t really stop myself from putting new words on empty pages, but I could escape from all the rest of the being-a-writer stuff that was dragging me down. So I wrote this story about some kids who are all in love with each other and who accidentally trigger the end of the world from the economically downturned heart of Iowa. I had no intention of ever allowing anyone to read it, because the book was, at its core, about loving something that also destroys your world, which was awfully close to how I felt about being a writer in the summer of 2011.
Because here’s the thing: I didn’t really want people looking into my head after writing a novel about pizza, genetically modified corn, medieval saints, christened (and sometimes dissolving) balls, Paleolithic cave painters, urinal factories, cigarettes, barkless dogs, war, sexual confusion, and how all those things made seamless connections according to my thinking.
After all, I am certain that everything really is connected in some way. So I tried to write a book that was about everything.
That summer of 2011, when I wrote Grasshopper Jungle, was a rough time for me. I had just dropped my son off for his first year away at university and I couldn’t stand the thought of our being separated — disconnected — by such great distance. I wasn’t ready to let him go. And I filled that book up with all my confused frustrations, firing shots at every just-like-it’s-always-been thing I thought was stupid and pointless and unfair.
And I guess my son missed me, too, because in September he asked if I had anything of mine that he could read. He didn’t care what it was I sent him; he just wanted to see some of my words again. So, I was scared, but I asked him if he wanted to read this insane thing I’d just finished working on, called Grasshopper Jungle.
He said yes, but I made him promise to tell me after he finished reading it whether or not he thought I ought to go see a therapist. My son read the book the same day I sent it to him. I’ll reserve the content of his follow-up call for some future speech. It was a real humdinger.
People in Iowa say things like humdinger.
My books are things that connect me to my family, many of whom come from Iowa. Well, my in-laws do, at least. And I don’t even ask them to read my books; they just do.
And I’ll admit that a lot of the time I don’t really want people to read my books.
I sure got my wish for the first half-dozen or so of them I put out!
But the reason I frequently don’t want people to read what I write is because I can’t help but slip in things that are intensely personal. I try to disguise those parts. Whether or not this strategy works is debatable.
A boy in Iowa sent me a photo of himself, standing in a cornfield and holding up his copy of Grasshopper Jungle.
A same-sex married couple in Iowa asked if I would be willing to be named godfather to their son, who is going to be born this month.
An adult man in Iowa sent me a letter thanking me for writing a book about who he was when he was a teenager. He told me his life would have been much easier if there had been books like Grasshopper Jungle when he was a kid.
These are all true stories from people I have never met.
This is part of my history.
Sometimes I can’t help but see all the connections that keep crossing right in front of me.
Among my closest friends are other people who work over the same anvil I do, especially Amy Sarig King, who has powerful German hands and comes from Pennsylvania. And, like Vonnegut, I feel a sense of kinship toward all writers — in particular those who are fortunate enough to work in the young adult and children’s literature community.
To you all, I will end with another line from Vonnegut’s Slapstick, or Lonesome No More!, which goes like this:
“I am a brother to writers everywhere…It is lucky, too, for human beings need all the relatives they can get—as possible donors or receivers not necessarily of love, but of common decency.”
You are, for the most part, a very decent lot.
This is an incredible honor.
For more on the 2014 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB14.
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In the November/December 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine, editor Martha Parravano asked Argentinian cartoonist Liniers about the inspiration for his “deeply unsettling” but “bravely existential” new picture book, What There Is Before There Is Anything There: A Scary Story. Read the full review here.
Martha V. Parravano: What made you decide to make such a realistic — and thus dark — picture book on this topic for children?
Liniers: I don’t like children’s books that treat them as tiny ignorant human beings.
They are smart, and as Mr. Sendak used to say, you can “tell them anything you want.”
I remember enjoying being scared by movies and books when I was a child. Witches and vampires! Also, the story I decided to tell actually used to happen to me. I must have been three or four because I have a very vague memory of this. When my parents would turn out the lights I thought the ceiling disappeared, and I recall imagining — almost seeing — a tiger coming down in a spiral downfall. A very weird kid I was. Or not.
From the November/December 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
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By: Roger Sutton
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Tea time! Photo: Elissa Gershowitz
Gail Carriger introduced readers to her alternate Victorian London — chock-full of steampunk technology and supernatural characters — in 2009 with Soulless, the first volume of her five-book adult series The Parasol Protectorate. The Finishing School series, a YA prequel series set in the same world, soon followed, beginning with Curtsies & Conspiracies. Espionage lessons, a dirigible boarding school, a girl inventor, vampires and werewolves, witty banter: what more could a steampunk fantasy fan ask for? Gail is currently working on another companion YA series, The Custard Protocol, which will kick off with Prudence in spring 2015.
You’re invited… Photo: Elissa Gershowitz
My beloved local Brookline Public Library (hi Robin!) hosted Gail on November 10th for a lovely evening tea party — cucumber sandwiches and all! — and Q&A event to celebrate the release of Waistcoats & Weaponry, the third book in the Finishing School series. I spoke with her over tea just before the event. In addition to being a prolific and (ahem) fantastic author, Gail is also an archaeologist by training, Elissa’s college roomie (Oberlin represent!), and a very stylish lady — she told me she had a different Waistcoats & Weaponry–cover coordinated ensemble for each stop on the book tour.
The Parasol Protectorate books are adult books and The Finishing School series is YA — although there’s been a lot of crossover, with the YA books being read by adults and the adult books being read by teens. Have you found that there are things you can do in adult books that you can’t do in YA, or vice versa?
For me, YA has to be — and this is what I like about it — it has to be very clean and sharp. As a writer, it requires me to do a lot more editing because it needs to be very sparse. You don’t sacrifice details, but you sacrifice a certain amount of waffling. In adult books you’re allowed to put in extra little bits and distract the readers with pretty description for a while. In young adult, you just can’t do that. You have to be very structured and paced. Pacing is always really important to me, but I think in YA it’s even more important. That’s one of the biggest differences. And I allow myself to be a little more racy when I’m writing the adult stuff.
Your Finishing School protagonist Sophoronia Temminnick has quite the name. Do you have other favorite Victorian-era names that you’ve come across in your research (or that you’ve come up with yourself)?
I tend to use them if I come across them. I love the name “Euphrenia”; I don’t know if I’ve leaked it into the books yet, but it’s one of my favorite ultra-Victorian names. I really like first names that are traditionally Victorian but are not used anymore. That’s one of the reasons I chose “Sophronia.” It’s still a pretty name, and sort of like “Sophia,” but just old-fashioned enough for you to know immediately, the minute that you read her name, that she’s not of our time. “Dimity” was another actual name from the time period. Alexia [from the Parasol Protectorate books] only got named “Alexia” because she was one of those characters that announced herself as being named that. Sometimes characters just enter your head and they’re like, “This is my name!” “Soap” is one of those as well. “Pillover” is another one — it’s not a real name; I just made that one up completely. But “Sophronia” and “Dimity” I picked.
Is there a mythological creature that you’ve been wanting to introduce into this world that you haven’t gotten to yet?
I’m pretty strict with myself with world-building. I’m sticking to motifs of vampires, shape-shifters, and ghosts, probably because almost every ancient culture has some version of them, like the kitsune in Japan. But I excavated in Peru for a while and there is a legend in the Peruvian highlands of a creature called a pishtaco (which is fantastically ridiculous-sounding, first of all). It’s essentially a fat-sucking vampire rather than a blood-sucking vampire — which is comedy gold. I’m dying to get [Custard Protocol protagonist] Prudence to the New World at some point so that she can meet one of these creatures and I can write all about them.
Ensemble #1 at the Brookline Public Library. Photo: Elissa Gershowitz
Are we going to see more mechanimals like Bumbersnoot in the Finishing School books? (Or do you say “mech-animals”?)
I say “mechanimals,” like “mechanicals” but with an “animal” at the end. You will see more of them, but you’re not going to see a named little friend like Bumbersnoot. There’s quite a few in the last book but that’s all I’m going to say.
If you were going to have a mechanimal pet yourself, what kind of animal would you pick?
Probably something like a hedgehog. I would like a round, roly-poly, friendly sort of critter. I have a very demanding cat who’s svelte and overdramatic, so I think I’d like a calm, rodentia-style, chubby little creature. Something in the porcupine, hedgehog arena. The cat would probably be very upset with it.
What would your dream teatime guest list and menu look like?
Oh, goodness. Do I get to pick fantastic characters? Or historical people?
Sure. Living, dead, fictional — anyone you want.
There’s part of me that has to be true to my archaeological roots and pick Nefertiti, Hatshepsut, Boadicea… I’m attracted to super-powerful female historical figures, the queens and mistresses, so I’d probably concoct a party that was all these fantastic women from history. The problem, of course, would be interpretation, but it’s my fantasy so everyone would speak English. I’m an adventurous eater, and I’d like to cater to the guests, so I’d have foods from all of the different places and times they came from. One of my favorite things is cooking ancient food, sourcing the ingredients and re-creating it myself. I think if you can taste the flavor of the past, you can get a better impression of it. I’d try to do that so everybody got to try everybody else’s dishes.
What’s your specialty, your pet era as an archaeologist?
I’m not an area specialist; I’m a materials specialist. My focus was on ceramics. To this day I have a propensity to pick up a piece of pottery and flip it over to look at the back side — which can be terribly embarrassing if I’ve forgotten that there’s food on the front side — to look for the maker’s mark.
Are there other historical eras that you’d like to write about?
The series I’m writing now [The Custard Protocol] is set in the 1890s, which is basically the dawn of female emancipation. Mostly because of trousers — women gained a great deal of autonomy due to education and to the bicycle. The two combined started the New Woman movement, these educated young ladies with self-motivation and autonomy. I’m excited to move closer to the turn of the twentieth century and to have a bit more realism behind my super-strong female characters, because they’re not quite realistic to their time. There’s certainly other time periods I’d love to write in. I’d love to set an ancient story in some of the places I’ve visited.
What would be the most useful gadget for a Finishing School student to have on her person in the case of an espionage emergency? (This is a very difficultly worded question!)
It sounds like something I’ve written! The voice-acting talent [for my audiobooks] is always calling and complaining because I love tongue-twisters. I don’t even realize I’ve written them until somebody’s like, “Why did you write that?!” “I didn’t think about you guys reading it out loud.”
“Handiest gadget?” is the short version!
I love Sophronia’s fan, but I think it’s really handy for her. She becomes comfortable with it and adapts to it, but it’s not necessarily something that would be useful for everybody. In the final book, the chatelaine really comes to the fore. The girls keep going to balls, and they keep having to have chatelaines on them. A chatelaine is like the base for a Swiss Army Knife; it hangs off your belt and there’s a bunch of little chains and clips so you can hang multiple little things off it. Customarily you’d have a bit of perfume and a dance card, maybe keys or a little sewing kit. But of course Geraldine’s girls have a whole different set of things dangling! I love the idea that you could just attach something that has everything useful hanging off of it. Why can’t we still do that?
More fabulous photos at the Brookline Public Library Teen Room Tumblr.
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Photo: Richard Kelly
Is Mr. Davenport a vampire, as Octobia May insists? The answer is not so cut-and-dried in Sharon G. Flake’s Unstoppable Octobia May, a historical-fiction-cum-mystery-novel with more than a dash of social commentary (Scholastic, 9–12 years). From the 1950s boarding house setting to the vivid characters — some plucky, some humorous, some downright sinister — the story is thoroughly, enthrallingly unique.
1. Were you a mystery reader as a kid?
SGF: Oh my goodness, no. When I was young, I was afraid of my own shadow. I preferred stories with few surprises, where nothing out of the ordinary happened. Since childhood, however, I’ve become more emboldened. I like to tour graveyards, for instance, something my protagonist Octobia May also enjoys. I imagine who the people buried there were, how they may have lived, and what might have caused their deaths. It’s a hobby that gives some people the creeps, I know.
2. Why did you decide to set the book in 1953?
SGF: I’ve always wanted to write a book set in the fifties. It was, I think, the best of times and, simultaneously, the worst of times for many African Americans. As a nation we were feeling optimistic about a lot of things, and our music, dances, modes of dress, and outlooks often reflected that. Blacks were no different from whites in that respect. Yet so much injustice still plagued the nation — much of it around race, gender, equity, and access to power.
I wanted to capture both the optimism of the times as well as the complex nature of race relations in our country — along with the promise, and challenge, America still held for both African Americans and women. A tall order, but one I believe I’ve accomplished.
3. What kind of historical research did you do?
SGF: I spent months at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh (where I live) poring through newspapers, the Courier especially. The black press played a critical role in dismantling Jim Crow; galvanizing the black vote; exposing the inequity of segregated schools; reporting on the valiant role black soldiers played during War World II; and pushing America to end segregation in the military. Because of the black press, America is a better nation — I never understood that more fully than I did while researching this book.
Next I came across an exhibit at the National Museum of American Jewish History (in Philadelphia) about Jewish professors who taught at historically black colleges during and after WWII. I created the character of Mrs. Loewenthal’s husband, who fled Germany and became a professor at Lincoln University. An expert in the field of Jewish studies helped ensure the accuracy of what I’d written — from Mrs. Loewenthal’s name, to what she ate, to her experiences in Germany.
Finally there was my family. My parents often recalled the fifties with both fondness and frustration. From what people wore, to the jobs African Americans could and couldn’t get, they remembered it all and shared eagerly. My mom has since passed, and the time I spent talking to her, my sister, and my dad about this era means even more to me.
4. Aunt Shuma is such a great character. Is she based on someone you know?
SGF: No, she isn’t. But as I was writing Unstoppable Octobia May, what became clear to me was how determined Aunt Shuma was to be her own woman, and to raise a girl with similar values. It’s the fifties, so women were expected to be polite, have children, obey their husbands, and take care of the home. Aunt Shuma makes it clear that this sort of life is not for her. When she tells her entrepreneurial dreams to women who hold more traditional values, she is met with opposition and dismay. Nonetheless, she is bent on changing the face of acceptable womanhood by enhancing the opportunities for her niece, Octobia May. It was a radical idea for many women in 1953.
5. Just how unstoppable is Octobia May? Will there more be books about her?
SGF: I am already hearing from readers who love Octobia and are very excited about reading more of her adventures. I have also come up with Aunt Shuma’s rules for raising unstoppable girls (of any age) and will share them with folks who message me at my website, sharongflake.com.
From the November 2014 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.
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Madeline L’Engle’s novel Camilla (titled Camilla Dickinson when first published in 1951 and recently reissued) features a bright and passionate fifteen-year-old who presents us with the essential question of the YA genre — how will this girl survive the emotional chaos of adolescence? In fairy tales, this same question is more logistical — how will the princess escape supervision long enough to exit the tower, descend into the forest, and head for the village?
Camilla is narrated by just such a princess, one who lives with her parents in a New York City penthouse. The novel was published long before there was a young adult genre as we know it today, but it contains all the elements of the classic YAs of the late twentieth century — a journey out of childhood, a hypersensitive girl, a pace providing ample time for deep reflection. The reader participates in a clean, well-documented metamorphosis, wisely told by a girl who embodies the most cherished aspects of twentieth-century female adolescence — at least in literature: hope, compassion, and a fearless, unflinching honesty.
These qualities were true of the protagonists in many of the forbears of the genre — Frankie in Carson McCuller’s Member of the Wedding, Molly in Jean Stafford’s The Mountain Lion, Cecil in Rumer Godden’s Greengage Summer — but there is a profound difference between these early coming-of-age novels and Camilla, and I believe that it stems from L’Engle’s technique of tracking Camilla day-by-day, hour-by-hour, as she struggles to understand what is happening to her. Her journey is both epic and microscopic. The novel covers just a few weeks in Camilla’s interior life and is intensely focused on the minutiae of her days — a concentrated, claustrophobic time of adolescent upheaval. This original technique prefigured the YA genre that would begin to flourish in the next decade.
Another element that connects Camilla to the modern YA genre is L’Engle’s obvious love for her protagonist. Camilla narrates as someone relaying the events in her life to a listener with deep affection for her. This makes her exquisitely reliable. She is both admittedly vulnerable and unapologetically passionate, sometimes on the very same page. She is also a girl scientist! Her fascination with the heavens creates a wonderful juxtaposition — the discipline of astronomy; the importance of identifying and naming things as a way of feeling part of the universe — coupled with her more spiritual quest for a guiding star. With both perspectives in full operation, she searches for the deeper meaning of her life. She wants to be around people who are more fully alive than her parents — boys her own age who talk passionately about war and death and what it means to have a soul. She purposefully connects herself to new events and situations. She wants to feel everything, even — what is surely coming soon — the heartbreak and disappointment of first love. She is fearless about being hurt. She wears her heart on her sleeve. She is fully alive in her emotions.
* * *
Such a bittersweet read! As I reread the book, Camilla’s voice took me back to some of my own girl narrators, young sages who decades ago responded to their parents’ ineptitude with more sadness than anger, more compassion than contempt. And much like Camilla, these fictional girls still believed that a proper romance could soften the cruelties of adolescence; they trusted that the right boy would come along if they were patient and careful. They were hopeful. Camilla is open to the possibility of becoming a finer, more self-aware person, now that she is no longer a child. She believes in her inner beauty. She values her own transcendent girl-ness, trusting its power. I remember that perspective. I believed in it and rode it like a wave after the publication of my first YA novel, The Bigger Book of Lydia (1983). It fueled my writer’s voice for two decades.
But the world of teenagers has changed. Thirty years after the publication of The Bigger Book of Lydia, the girls have come out of their towers. They may still be the smartest and the most forthright people in the village, but they are not happy. They often hide their disappointment and anger. If they are unusually sensitive, or especially perceptive, if they feel too keenly the messages of the culture, they will find relief in all manner of self-abuse, including cutting and starving themselves. These girls are skeptical of romance as an antidote, or a way to become more whole. They are wary, as they should be. They are confused, as they must be. They will not be overprotected or restricted. But the forest is a dangerous place, and the village beyond is not much better, not if a girl is complicated, opinionated, unconventional. Not if she has a chip on her shoulder. Not if she has a few tattoos or visible piercings. Not if she is loud. Not if her hair is blue.
* * *
In Camilla, the author describes the blossoming of Camilla’s sexuality, her intense longing for something deeper than friendship, and her curiosity about both romantic love and physical attachment. In this state, she falls in love with Frank, the brother of her best friend, a complicated boy, deeply philosophical and equally searching—just the sort of boy a girl like Camilla would be drawn to. Her feelings are returned, and the resulting relationship is very intense and sensual without ever becoming sexual. Not that Camilla doesn’t know about sex or understand its power; her own family has been torn apart by an affair her mother has had with a younger man. Despite this, Camilla savors the preliminaries of a real romance. She loves Frank’s voice, his seriousness; she is thrilled to hold hands with him. Their conversation is electric, full of mystery. Why did he say that? What did he mean? When will I see him again? What does he think of me? L’Engle captures the way time stands still between two young people who are kindred spirits, equally attracted to each other.
Camilla’s attraction to Frank leads to a more radical movement away from her parents, and this movement echoes the fairy tale motif — the girl who must leave a place of safety and isolation (tower, cellar, locked room), sometimes boldly, sometimes in stealth, in order to become a woman. This element in Camilla is not surprising given L’Engle’s deep appreciation for fairy tales and her extended use of their patterns in her eventual books for children, but it is especially strong and apropos in this novel of the 1950s. The reader can quietly cheer for Camilla in escape mode, wearing her red beret (a symbol of sexual adventure) and leaving her ineffective parents behind.
There is no sense, no underlying message, that the author feels that sex between these two young people would be morally wrong. Rather, like many writers of the 1940s and 1950s, L’Engle is more interested in the challenges to identity that leaving a sheltered state bring. The novel moves in and out of the realm of myth and fairy tale, where explicit sex is unnecessary. In fact, Frank disappears without ever having kissed Camilla. Yet they have shared a remarkably powerful connection—Camilla as the star gazer; Frank as her brooding, wandering prince.
* * *
I remember a long-ago conversation with my sister while we were still young women, and before I had written a novel of adolescence. We swore that we would not forget, if and when we had our own daughters, the power of first love. And I did not so much forget it as I was uneasy writing about it — the mother in me perhaps. I did not want to encourage my readers to enter that place of obsession and treachery and, yes, sometimes ecstasy, without having a clear way out. And I did not know yet, as a writer and an adult woman, how to faithfully re-create the misery and confusion of my own early sexual experiences. For these reasons, I was very well-suited for the phase of young adult literature that I came up in, an era of sensitive and articulate girl narrators who wanted romantic connection without the complications of having sexual intercourse. In love with love, yes. Sexually curious, perhaps. But sexually active, never.
Such a sensible approach! In my novels of yore, I could comfortably celebrate the innocence of these trysts. I could create girls, and also boys, who were longing for a partner, something beyond friendship, certainly, but also with the understanding that they were not ready for sex and did not need it.
Imagine. Young women who are strong in their innocence and unwaveringly hopeful about what is coming — their unfolding sexual lives.
In the final page of Camilla, our star gazer is back in her New York bedroom, studying Betelgeuse, a star in the constellation of Orion. Frank is gone, and she has turned to astronomy in her grief. She has learned many things. She has endured many disappointments. She is back in the tower, but no longer a child. She is looking up at the stars, intact and unharmed. It is a good place for her. She will stay there a little while longer, preparing for whatever comes next without regret or shame. Then she will resume the journey out.
I wish her well. I miss her.
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By: Roger Sutton
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When we look to the astonishing growth of children’s books — especially YA books — in the last twenty years, we like to credit individuals — J. K. Rowling, for instance. But while it’s a kind of national obligation in the United States to praise individuals over collectives, I want to argue tonight that making good books for teenagers is dependent upon a vast and fragile interconnected network that collectively functions as what I am going to call the YA genre. All of this is offered, by the way, with the caveat that I might be wrong. I am wrong all the time.
My colleagues at Booklist, where I worked from 2000–2005, will tell you two things about me: first, that I was just about the worst publishing assistant in the 110-year history of the magazine; and second, that I am a bit of a worrier. Like Wemberly in Kevin Henkes’s wonderful picture book Wemberly Worried, I worry about big things (like whether there is any meaning to human life), and I worry about little things (like which suit I should wear to the Zena Sutherland Lecture). More or less, any time people ask me, “How are you?” the true answer is not “fine” or “good” or “sad”; the true answer is: worried.
This suits me well as a writer, since a big part of the job is to think about all the things that might happen and try to choose the best one, which is very often the most worrisome one. It suits me somewhat less well as, like, a person living in the world, because there is so much to worry about that if you are going to be a seriously anxious person, you have to devote all your time to it. You have to become like Bodhidharma, the Buddhist monk whose legs atrophied while he sat staring at a wall for nine years, except instead of meditating you have to worry. So tonight I’m going to share with you some of my worry, but I’m going to wait until toward the end in the hope that you’ll now have to spend the next thirty minutes worrying about why I’m so worried about the future of YA fiction.
Before that, I want to talk about what I think fiction does so well, and why I think it remains so relevant to the lives of children and teens.
When I was a kid, I was a big fan of Ann Martin’s Baby-Sitters Club, a series of novels about enterprising girls who built a small business and also dealt with the everyday problems of being a kid and taking care of kids and dealing with adults and occasionally having boyfriends. I loved these books. I also loved Lois Lowry’s Anastasia Krupnik books and many other books that were called “girl books,” and I think I loved them both because I saw myself in them — I worried like Anastasia; I felt socially uncomfortable like Ann Martin’s Claudia — but also because I could escape myself. This was the first big thing that fiction did for me as a kid: it allowed me to see myself but also to escape myself. For me, one of the big problems of being a person is that I am the only me I will ever get to be. I am not like the main character “A” in David Levithan’s Every Day; I wake up every day in this body, seeing the world out of these eyes, and because my consciousness is the only one whose reality and complexity I can directly attest to, the rest of you seem — pardon the unkindness here — sort of not real. Even the people I love the most I see in the context of me: my wife, my children. But Claudia in the Baby-Sitters Club is not my anything; she is Claudia, through whose eyes I can, in an admittedly limited way, see the world.
This phenomenon is often credited with leading to empathy: through escaping the prison of the self and being able to live inside fictional characters, we learn to imagine others more complexly. Through story, we can understand that others feel their own grief and joy and longing as intensely as we feel ours. And I think that’s probably true, but I also think it’s just nice to be outside yourself at times, so that you can pay attention to the world outside of you, which in the end is even more vast than the world inside of you.
Here’s the other thing: I think there is an omnipresent pain inside us, a constant and gnawing pain that we ceaselessly try to distract ourselves from feeling, a pain way down deep in what Robert Penn Warren called “the dark which is you.” For most people, almost all the time, we don’t even have to think about this pain, but then sometimes you’ll be sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room or riding on the train or eating a chicken caesar salad at your desk at work and the pain will come crawling out of the cave darkness inside of you and you’ll feel an awful echo of all the pain that has ever befallen you and glimpse all the horrors that might still befall you.
Maybe you don’t actually know this pain, but I do, and for me it is the pain of meaninglessness. I fear that our selves are without value, that our vast interior lives will die with us, and that our brief miraculous decades of consciousness will not have been for anything. For me there is a terrifying depravity to meaninglessness, because it calls into question not only why I should read or write or love but also why I should do anything, in fact whether I should do anything, and so grappling with that way-down-deep-in-the-darkness-which-is-you pain is not like some abstract philosophical exercise or whatever but a matter of actual existential importance.
The obvious thing to do about this deep-down pain is to try very hard to ignore it, because at least in my life, I find that it comes on mostly in undistracted and quiet moments. And, look, if you can distract yourself from pain, great. I don’t want to minimize the importance of pleasurable distraction, of what’s sometimes called “mere entertainment,” be it Flappy Bird or CSI. But we have plenty of it. To quote David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King,
Surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airports’ gates, SUVs’ backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called “information society” is just about information.
It’s also, of course, about distraction. For some readers, books can still be read purely for distraction, but for contemporary children and teenagers, there are far more effective distractions. My four-year-old son does not ask for a book to relieve himself of the terror way down deep in the darkness. He asks for the iPad, so he can play Angry Birds.
For contemporary kids, who can find sufficient distractions in gaming and video, I think books must do something more than just divert attention in order to be successful. And this brings us to morality.
Once upon a time, I gave a speech at the ALA Annual convention in which I said that I believed in the old-fashioned idea that books should be moral. And afterwards, the publisher of Booklist, Bill Ott, a man I’ve always looked up to immensely, took me aside and said, “That was a good speech except for all that bullshit about morality.” Fair enough. It was, in retrospect, bullshit. Books are not in the business of imparting lessons. What I was trying to say, I think, was that books should be honest without being hopeless. It’s easy enough to write a hopeful story, one that proclaims that If you can dream it, you can do it, or that God has a plan, or that Everything happens for a reason. Be grateful for every day. I parodied these ideas a little in The Fault in Our Stars by having one of the characters’ houses plastered with such pithy sentiments: Without pain, how would we know joy, and so on. In the book they call them Encouragements.
But these Encouragements are unconvincing, at least to me. Sure, you can write a novel about how if you can dream it you can do it, but in actual nonfictional fact there are a bunch of things that you can dream that you cannot do. For instance, I recently had a dream in which I was a banana that had escaped the Earth’s orbit and was slowly floating farther and farther away from my home planet.
What we need, and what good stories provide, are better Encouragements. Encouragements that aren’t bullshit. This is not a question of books being moral; it’s a question of books being hopeful without being dishonest. This is what good YA novels do for teens that Angry Birds cannot: they offer light that can burn bright even in the way-down-deep-darkness-which-is-you. I know this is an old-fashioned way of imagining the making of art, but I believe it. I believe that fiction can help, that made-up stories can matter by helping us to feel unalone, by connecting us to others, and by giving shape to the world as we find it — a world that is broken and unjust and horrifying and not without hope.
So that is why I think books matter. Now I want to turn to genre and talk a bit about why I think it matters. Whenever a properly good writer — Michael Chabon, say, or Joyce Carol Oates — writes a mystery or a romance or whatever, reviewers sometimes say that the author is upending the conventions of the genre. I don’t really find that to be the case — I think Chabon just wrote a really good mystery in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Most conventions of the genre turn out to be really useful, I think, which is how they got to be conventions of the genre. At Booklist we used to joke about that old cliché that novels only have two plots: a stranger comes to town, and our hero goes on a journey. But that doesn’t mean we only have two stories; we have countless stories, each of them building upon and relying upon others. We often imagine the best stories as having arisen sui generis from the mind of a great genius. But, really, every good story is dependent upon millions that came before it, that incalculably vast network of influences that stand behind every novel.
In 2006, Malcolm Gladwell made a stir when he argued that Kaavya Viswanathan’s plagiarism of Megan McCafferty’s Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings wasn’t really plagiarism, because, and I’m quoting here, “This is teen-literature. It’s genre fiction. These are novels based on novels based on novels, in which every convention of character and plot has been trotted out a thousand times before.” Now, this was a ridiculous defense of plagiarism, and Gladwell later apologized, but he wasn’t entirely wrong. My novels are novels based on novels based on novels. Almost all novels are. But they change in the retelling. Novels change to stay relevant, so that their hope might be less flimsy, so that they remain honest and relevant. It’s a slow process — millions of writers and readers working together across generations to make stories that can be a light in the way-down-deep-darkness-which-is-you. Writing and reading are not about a singular mind emerging from isolation to create unprecedented art. It’s a massive collaboration spanning millennia.
Let me explain how this works, at least for me. In my first novel, Looking for Alaska — in which, by the way, a stranger comes to town and our hero goes on a journey — I wanted to write a boarding-school novel — you know, like A Separate Peace or The War of Jenkins’ Ear or The Catcher in the Rye — but I was also interested in boarding-school fantasies like Harry Potter and A Great and Terrible Beauty. I liked the pranks, and the freaks at war with the cool kids. I liked the sneaking around campus in the middle of the night and breaking the rules and the omnipresence of one’s peers.
But there were conventions of the genre that were really problematic for me, like the one in which the boy — for the sake of simplicity, let’s call him Holden — flutters around, essentializing women, and the only person who ever gets hurt by his total failure to see women as actual humans is Holden himself, when in fact this habit boys have of imagining the girls they admire as flawless goddesses whose problems cannot possibly be as real or as important as Boy Problems…that habit turns out to be bad for women as well as the Holdens of the world. So, okay. You try to show that in your boarding-school novel. This is not upending a genre. It’s trying to make an honest, human story that isn’t bullshit. But lots of people are making YA boarding-school novels at the same time, and in a way we’re all working together. I think E. Lockhart, for instance, gave the genre its best book in recent years with The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, but she did it by writing a proper boarding-school novel that also happens to be a proper feminist novel and a proper postmodern novel and a proper romance.
Basically, I believe that genre is good. I don’t think there’s anything embarrassing about being a genre writer. Like, you know how they always have those crazy concept cars at auto shows that look futuristic and exciting and entirely new, but then it turns out that this futuristic car seats 1.5 people and gets four miles to the gallon, and by the time the car actually gets to market…it looks like a car. That’s genre to me. It’s the thing that works. So, yeah, cars look different than they did fifty years ago. They’re safer and more efficient and cheaper to build. But we didn’t actually get there through radical change. We got there through incremental change, by drivers and engineers and designers all working together.
I was thinking a lot about genre while writing my most recent novel, The Fault in Our Stars. It’s a cancer book, but one that is very aware of cancer books. There’s a lot I like about cancer books, but here’s what bothers me: there is often a sick person who suffers nobly and bravely and in the process of dying so beautifully teaches the healthy people around him or her important lessons about how to be grateful for every day, or in the case of American literature’s most famous cancer novel, the lesson that “love means never having to say you’re sorry.” This is ridiculous, of course: love means constantly having to say you’re sorry.
Anyway, I’m troubled by this convention because it imagines that sick people exist and suffer so that healthy people can learn lessons. This essentializes the lives of the sick, just as teenage boys essentialize girls when they imagine them as larger-than-life, when in fact the meaning of any life is a complicated and messy business that is about more than learning lessons. I wanted to write a cancer story that was about the sick people, not the lessons the healthy learn from them, about people who are disabled and human, who experience love and sex and longing and hurt and everything that any human does. I didn’t invent this idea, though; it’s the plot of many love stories. A stranger comes to town, and love blossoms, but an obstacle appears. Sometimes the obstacle is a basilisk. Sometimes it’s a jealous ex-husband. Sometimes it’s one’s own body.
And this brings me at last to worry. For genre to work best, I think, you must have basilisk stories and jealous ex-husband stories and cancer stories. Genre is not about individual geniuses; it’s a conversation that benefits from many voices.
The great strength of our children’s and YA genres is that we’re broad — we publish thousands of books a year, whereas Hollywood makes a few dozen movies aimed at kids and teens. Coe Booth, M. T. Anderson, Stephenie Meyer, Sarah Dessen, and Ellen Hopkins share the shelf. We’ve got poetry and sci-fi and romance and so-called literary fiction; we’ve got standalones and series and graphic novels and every subgenre imaginable. This year’s Printz winners included a romance, a futuristic fantasy, a violent fairy tale, a boarding-school novel, and a dystopian thriller. Nothing against the Pulitzer Prize, but it rarely offers such diversity. But I think there’s mounting evidence that our breadth is at risk. Consider the recent study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison saying that of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just ninety-three were about black people. That’s better than Hollywood is doing, but not that much better. Okay, so here’s my worry: we’ll see the breadth and diversity of our literature — at least the stuff that gets read — continue to decline, because there will be less institutional support for non-blockbuster books. There will be fewer review journals, fewer school libraries (and those with ever-shrinking book-buying budgets), and far fewer bookstores.
Imagine a world — and I don’t think this is hard to do — where almost all physical books bought offline are purchased at big box stores like Walmart and Costco and Target, which carry a couple of hundred titles a year. Anything that gets published that doesn’t end up in one of those stores doesn’t really get published, at least not in the sense that we understand the word now, because it won’t be widely available: it will only be available at the vast, flat e-marketplaces of Amazon and iTunes, where readers will choose from among a vast and undifferentiated sea of texts. Ultimately publishers will only be able to “add value” to the two hundred or so books a year that are sold at Walmart and Costco and Target, which will kind of mean that Walmart and Costco and Target will choose — or at least have a lot of say in — what gets published. Every now and again, a book will rise up out of the sea of the Kindle store and become so 50 Shades of Grey–popular that it will transition the author from online distribution to physical distribution, but most books that find readers will be franchises. In short, publishing will split: traditional publishing ends up looking a bit like Hollywood, focusing all its resources on a few stories a year that might make a lot of money. And then everything else will live on Amazon.
Amazon’s position is that in the future everyone will be on a level playing field because all authors will have access to all readers and the publishing business will be entirely disintermediated and books will succeed or fail based on whether actual readers actually like them. But of course that’s not actually what happens, as we’re already seeing.
What actually happens is that the richest and most challenging fiction of any category, particularly if it won’t appeal to a mass readership, struggles to find an audience in a world without critics and institutional support. Toni Morrison’s Beloved became a huge bestseller forty years ago. It’s hard to imagine that happening today, barring Oprah’s endorsement or something, and harder still to imagine it happening in the future.
The problem of discovery is complicated by the terribleness of Amazon’s recommendation engine. It is terrible for bestsellers — right now, it implies that if you enjoyed The Fault in Our Stars you might also enjoy Gone Girl, which is just — I mean, that is not good readers’ advisory. And it’s also terrible for books that aren’t bestsellers. For instance, there is a great nonfiction adult book called Ballad of the Whiskey Robber about an alcoholic Transylvanian semi-professional hockey goalie who becomes a bank robber, and right now if you go to that book’s Amazon page, it will recommend that if you like that book, you might also like A. S. King’s wonderful YA novel Ask the Passengers. These two books have exactly two things in common: they both contain text, and about a year ago, I recommended them both in a vlogbrothers video.
So what will it mean to write YA in a future where your work might be recommended alongside nonfiction books about bank robbers or adult mysteries about a very, very bad marriage? Well, we’ll keep writing and sharing stories for children and teens, of course. And lots of people — including kids themselves but also adult supporters such as other authors and librarians and teachers — will continue to recommend them. The genre will go on. But YA was weaker and less broad before it got its own physical sections in libraries and bookstores, and I worry that we will find it difficult to grow stronger and broader in the future.
These days, my career is often held up as a model for how YA novels will get to the next generation of teen readers: authors will build communities online around their work, and those communities will read and share their books. We won’t need gatekeepers or institutions to help us share books; we have Twitter for that now. But there are some problems with this idea. For one thing, there’s a massive advantage to being white and male on the internet; you experience less harassment and many privileges. And there’s also a massive advantage to speaking English on the internet. Furthermore, many people who are good at writing novels are bad at Twitter. I realize this advantage has long been with us — Twain owed much of his success to his crazy hair and hilarious lectures — but it’s a strange and dangerous business to judge a novel by its author, and stranger and more dangerous still to judge a novel by its author’s tweets.
But most importantly, it just doesn’t work. My books didn’t become successful because I was famous on the internet; at least initially, I became famous on the internet because I’d written successful books. My first novel, Looking for Alaska, sold a couple of thousand copies — many of them to libraries — before it won the Printz, an award chosen by a committee of librarians. When my brother Hank and I began our video blog series in January 2007, the few hundred people who watched us and helped to found the nerdfighter community were almost entirely fans of my books — including many YA librarians. Without institutional support, without librarians and teachers and critics and the rest of the human infrastructure of YA literature, my books would not have an audience. And neither would my video blog.
All of us together are making up what YA means as we go along. We are all creating the genre, by choosing what we read and write and lift up, by pushing ourselves and one another to think more complexly about teenagers as readers and as characters so that we might welcome them in to the great old conversations. This is no small thing. We are not in the widgets business, my friends. We are in the story business, the business of bringing light to the way-down-deep-darkness-which-is-you. And in that sense, at least, business is good, because that darkness ain’t going anywhere. Our need to turn scratches on a page into ideas that can live inside of our minds ain’t going anywhere. We’re not at risk of people losing interest in strangers coming to town or heroes going on journeys, and we will always need ways to escape the prison of consciousness and learn to imagine the Other complexly. And this is why, despite my ceaseless worry, I remain quite hopeful. We need to grow the breadth and diversity of YA literature. We need to get more books to more kids so that publishing doesn’t become a business driven entirely by blockbusters. And we need to preserve the roles — critics, librarians, professors, teachers — that contribute so much to the continual growth and change in our genre. None of this will be easy, of course, and it’s all intensely worrying.
But I also know that story will go on. That’s the great thing about genre, about novels based on novels based on novels. The stories go on. They find a way through budget cuts and new technologies, winding their way through the flawed vessels who write and review and share them, flowing past history and memory, a process that has been going on so long that our stories, and our readings of them, are shaped by ancient stories we will never know. Somehow, improbably, even long after they are forgotten, the stories endure. And through them, so do we.
From the November/December 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Adapted from the author’s 2014 Zena Sutherland Lecture.
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To celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, we had the opportunity to talk with the award-winning author and illustrator Yuyi Morales about why she became an author and illustrator, the role of children’s books in understanding and celebrating cultures and her new book, “Viva Frida.”
Click here to read this blog in Spanish.
What led you to become a children’s book author and illustrator?
Photo Credit: Antonio Turok
Soon after I immigrated to the USA in 1994, I found myself with my newborn at the doorsteps of the public library. I had never before seen a place with the treasures I saw in there. Picture books immediately became my passion.
I didn’t know how, but I knew I wanted to create books like those. I started a journey of learning how to write in English, how to create stories, and how paint and make illustrations – a journey I am still on every day of my life.
In what ways does your personal story and your cultural heritage influence the work that you do?
I was inspired to write my stories and share with my son, then a baby who immigrated with me from Mexico. The only way of living I knew until then were the stories, the customs, the treasures of the land we came from. Learning to live and thrive in the United States reflected in everything I did, including my writing and the art I was trying to learn to create.
My creations became the amalgam of these two worlds: my country of birth and my country of growth and work, my past and my present, the cultures that formed me, both Mexico and the United States.
What impact do you see children’s books having in the lives of children and their families, particularly first generation immigrant families?
Photo Credit: Antonio Turok
I can tell you about my own experience as a first generation immigrant because children’s books made all the difference in my life. It was through children’s books that my son and I created a bond – finding, reading, and delighting in books that I was barely able to understand and that were a great challenge for me to read to my son. In reading to him, I began making sense of the English language and I was able find a purpose and path. Through children’s books, I was also able to create a bond with my new country – the USA.
I believe there are many families who share my experience. Books bring families and communities together. Any family can find a way to grow and strengthen bonds by sharing the experience of books with their children.
What motivated you to tell Frida’s story from her own point of view, and in so few words?
One of the things that surprised me here in the USA was seeing how Frida was such a revered artist. Back in Mexico I had seen very little of her and what I knew of her – her art – was very confusing and sometimes even scary to me. But over the years I became more and more curious about Frida.
I began to learn about her determination to create despite her physical and emotional hardships. I began to connect with the tragedies in her life as well as her great willingness to live, to create, to play, to laugh.
She became to me a symbol of resistance, of growth, of creativity and of life endurance. I wanted to celebrate Frida by honoring her passion to create and to heal herself through art. I wanted to celebrate that, like Frida, we all have what it takes to create.
Your use of both two- and three-dimensional art in the book is truly extraordinary. How did you settle on this style, and did it pose any unique challenges?
To me Frida represents creativity and daring to create things out of the ordinary. I wanted to make the book I dreamed of without being scared of whether I was capable of doing it. So I dreamed big! I thought I could make a book that conveyed how Frida made her own life and identity a work of art.
The combination of two- and three-dimensional art grew from my desire to weave together everyday life and imagination.
If you work with children in need, sign up with First Book by October 21st and you’ll be eligible to receive a free set of 25 copies of “Viva Frida” for the kids in your class or program. For other books and resources of interest, visit the First Book Marketplace.
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Photo: Milton Viorst
Judith Viorst, creator of Alexander (he of the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), writes about another little boy who might just wish he could curl back up in bed. The young protagonist of And Two Boys Booed (Farrar/Ferguson, 4–7 years) is excited to perform in the school talent show… until it’s almost his turn. With equal parts realism, reassurance, gentle humor, and inventive wordplay, Viorst sets up a familiar stage-fright scenario and gives her main character an ingenious way to get himself out of it.
1. What was your inspiration for this multilayered book?
JV: My inspiration was my granddaughter Olivia, daughter of Alexander, who came over to my house one afternoon after a talent show at her summer day camp. When I asked how her portion of the talent show had gone, she replied, “Two boys booed.” To my shame I didn’t immediately offer her a hug and sympathy. Instead, my first response was, “Great book title!” I then had to figure out a story to go with the title.
2. Who thought of those terrific flaps?
JV: I believe it was Sophie Blackall, the amazing illustrator of the book, who came up with the brilliant idea of doing flaps. But her brilliance is evident in all kinds of other ways as well: in the richly detailed double-page spread of our narrator’s many, many varied activities during the course of which he practiced singing his song; in the delicious specificity of every child in the story; and in the depiction of our narrator shrinking deeper and deeper into his shirt as his stage fright mounts.
3. Those two boys: were they jealous? Mean-spirited? Or just acting like boys?
JV: The two boys were being rather unkind, booing a kid because he was too scared to do what he was supposed to do, and then continuing to boo even after he did it. I wish they had been more sympathetic, and I hope their teacher had a little talk with them after the talent show.
4. Would your Alexander be onstage with the narrator? Or in the peanut gallery with the boys? (Maybe it would depend on the day!)
JV: Alexander could be fierce, frustrated, grumpy, but I don’t think he’d be either scared to perform or unkind to those who were.
5. Do you get stage fright?
JV: I had terrible stage fright all the way through college. I remember being told I had to stand in front of one of my history classes and read a paper I had written and offering to write a second paper if I could just please hand them both in and not read them aloud. I now give talks to large audiences without the slightest flicker of stage fright, but don’t ask me how that happened.
From the August 2014 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.
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Over the weekend my family visited the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. It was suggested as a things-to-do-with-kids-in-the-Berkshires activity because of Rockwell’s “accessibility” as an artist. (Be that as it may, the little boys were much more interested in climbing on the outdoor sculptures — allowed! — and running around on the lawn.) Amidst all the small-town folksy scenes and the smiling cheerleaders was Rockwell’s arresting The Problem We All Live With. Large and horizontal, among the mostly vertical and more contained (and restrained) pieces, the image commands attention and reminds viewers that Rockwell, though undoubtedly adept at capturing cozy Americana, had something more to say.
I then read in the news about the flap caused by illustrator Mary Engelbreit, best known for her sweet, cherubic children and bucolic scenes — from her website: “Mary Engelbreit is known throughout the world for her distinctive illustration style, imbued with spirited wit and nostalgic warmth.” The St. Louis native was inspired by events in Ferguson, Missouri. Who knew she had it in her? You go, Mary.
It’s an apt time to re-post last summer’s thoughtful, moving piece by Christopher Myers — “Young Dreamers” — about cultural diversity in children’s media, the state of race in America, and childhood cut short.
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I just spent a week in New Orleans, a place I’ve wanted to visit since first reading Interview with the Vampire as a teen. The week held plenty of sights and experiences I’d been highly anticipating (a ghost tour, the Garden District, blues and jazz clubs, and — of course — beignets) and some I hadn’t expected (Mardi Gras beads hanging in many trees; the informative but emotionally intense National WWII Museum, which Cindy also visited last year; lots and lots and lots of rain).
One pleasant surprise during my trip to NOLA was an encounter with Pete the Cat, star of the series of picture books and early readers written by Eric Litwin and illustrated by James Dean. During a leisurely stroll in the French Quarter, I spotted Pete’s familiar face in the window of Gallery Rinard. My parents are huge Pete fans (and I’m an unrepentant cat lady), so I dragged my boyfriend into the gallery to take a look at Dean’s original art.
While the gallery offered lots of original canvases, prints, and even puppets of the cartoony Pete his picture-book readers will know and love, many of Dean’s paintings are geared towards adults in content and humor (such as this “Most Interesting Man in the World” Dos Equis commercial parody). A series of re-creations of well-known photos and paintings — including The Mona Lisa, Klimt’s The Kiss, and Munch’s The Scream — features cameos by Pete.
And much of Dean’s work portrays his feline friend in a softer, more realistic manner, revealing the artist’s deep affection for the real-life Pete. After quite a bit of deliberation, I eventually chose one of these as a souvenir for my parents:
“Pete the Cat: Weather or Not” by James Dean
Like Cindy encountering a Dahl book at the WWII Museum, I didn’t expect for my kidlit life to come out to play while I was on vacation — but I’m glad it did!
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On Friday Cindy and I went to see actor Jason Segel discuss his new middle-grade novel (cowritten with Kirsten Miller) Nightmares! The sold-out event was sponsored by the Harvard Book Store and the nonprofit writing organization 826 Boston (program coordinator Karen Sama led the conversation with Segel). Cindy loves How I Met Your Mother (even the ending!), I love Freaks & Geeks, and we both love The Muppets. Segel is also the guy you may have seen naked in the very funny Saving Sarah Marshall (which he also wrote), and he was one of the bromantic leads in I Love You, Man.
Photo: Cynthia K. Ritter
Nightmares! is his first children’s book, and he kicked off the event by asking everyone in the audience under age fourteen to raise their hands (there were a few). Later on he asked for kid volunteers to come up and read aloud from the book, instead of reading himself, which could have backfired but was awesome. “I’m like the Pied Piper,” Segel quipped as a girl named Tessa, two boys named Sam, and a cutie little one named Lucas came up onstage to read. Afterward he told them, appreciatively, “You’re so much braver than I would have been at that age.”
Photo: Cynthia K. Ritter
The audience participation didn’t stop there. He asked people to share their nightmares; his as a kid involved a witch nibbling his toes (“because I have delectable toes”) and being chased around Dracula’s castle (“it was more Rococo than I would have thought”) which happened so frequently that he discovered a secret room where he could hang out and play video games. (Side note, and there were a lot of those: as a kid, Segel wore a Superman cape under his clothes “just in case” and carried the MYST game book around with him. Also? He’s been 6’4” since age 12 and the other kids used to jump on his back and chant “Ride the oaf!”)
And then there was the singing. During the Q&A a woman nervously asked: “What’s your favorite show tune?” “It’s gotta be the confrontation from Les Miz. Do you know it?” “Um, yes (giggle giggle).” “Ok, do you want to do it? Which part are you going to sing?” She chose Javert, and Jason sang his heart out as Jean Valjean (here’s how he did it with Neil Patrick Harris). The evening ended on an amazing note for fans with Segel at the piano doing the Dracula song (“‘Die… die… die…’ ‘I cahhn’t'”).
Cindy in the signing line
If this guy isn’t the nicest, most genuine-seeming Everydude in Hollywood, well, he must be a truly great actor (slash-master-manipulator), because he seemed really thrilled (“This is so much fun! Seeing those kids read up there, that’s the coolest thing ever”) and humbled to be there — even after a two-hour-plus signing line that Cindy waited on. Any “grown man” (he was in his late twenties at the time) who “burst into tears” upon seeing Kermit the Frog “in person” and who also cried while sitting in “kind of a rough pub in London” after finishing Winnie-the-Pooh is a-ok in my book. I’ll even forgive his publicist for ignoring my Five Questions request *cough cough.* Jason Segel, we love you, man.
Nightmares! was originally a screenplay I wrote at age 21, after Freaks & Geeks ended and I was unemployed and thinking, “I’m going to have to live with my parents forever.”
When I was a kid, movies like Labyrinth and The Goonies and Roald Dahl’s books made me believe I might find buried treasure. There’s still magic out there. You can catch a kid at the right age to say: don’t forget there’s magic…Kids’ imaginations are so much better than what you can put onscreen.
My mentor Judd Apatow said to me, “You’re kind of a weird dude.” Also [after Segel played him the Dracula song] he said: “Don’t ever play that for anyone else ever again.”
I’m willing to sit through the fear of doing something badly to get to passable. I tell myself: “I’m bad at this… right now”…The only thing I’m afraid of is being unprepared.
Coraline really scared me, and I’m a grown man!
Audience question: Who was your favorite actor growing up? Answer: Kermit. When you’re a kid, Kermit is Tom Hanks, Jimmy Stewart.
I wrote The Muppets when I was in London. With all those double-decker buses and furry hats, it’s a very Muppet-y place…The Muppets are Monty Python to a kid.
I did a Muppets screening at the White House and got to meet Barack Obama. He shook my hand and said, “I love you, man,” and I said, “I love you too, Mr. President!” It gets worse. Then I said, “You should come to the screening. There will be free snacks,” and he said, “Yeah, that’s what I’m missing. Not being able to get free snacks.”
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In the September/October 2014 Horn Book Magazine, reviewer Katie Bircher asked Garth Nix about Clariel, the long-awaited prequel to his high fantasy trilogy Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen. Read the review here.
Katie Bircher: Do you think the walker chooses the path, or the path the walker? Which is it in Clariel’s case?
Garth Nix: This is one of those questions that doesn’t have an answer, or the answer changes all the time. In Clariel’s case, she chooses her own path, but there are definitely forces at work that both influence her choice and limit her selection of paths. Neither predestination nor entirely free will, but a mixture of both…
From the September/October 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
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Photo: Bruce Lucier
Julie Berry’s 2013 book All the Truth That’s In Me (Viking, 14 years and up) is a dark, claustrophobic — and beautiful — novel set seemingly out of time and narrated (in her own head) by a young woman whose tongue was cut out by a captor she escaped. The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place (Roaring Brook, 11–14 years) could not be more different in tone or content. A Victorian-set, girls’-school, murder-mystery farce with seven distinct young-lady main characters (with names such as Dour Elinor, Stout Alice, and Smooth Kitty), the book is light as air (well, except for all that murder).
1. This book is so different from All the Truth That’s In Me. Where did it come from?
JB: In some sense, from a lifelong love of Agatha Christie mysteries and a deep infatuation with farcical plays and films such as The Importance of Being Earnest and Arsenic and Old Lace. The real catalyst, though, was an audio lecture by Professor John Sutherland, who contrasted the regiments of soldiers in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with the large number of unmarried young ladies in the novel. He called them a “regiment of maidens.” It was a light-bulb moment for me. I knew I needed to write about a regiment of innocent maidens who were, perhaps, not so innocent. The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place was the almost immediate result.
2. How did you keep all the voices straight? Did the girls “talk” to you as you were writing?
JB: It is a handful of voices to keep track of, to be sure, but they were very distinct in my mind. I grew up in a family of seven children so, to borrow from the title of Holly Goldberg Sloan’s beautiful book, I was well accustomed to “counting by sevens.” My five sisters and one brother and I are very different people, with lots of practice living, teasing, eating, working, squabbling, and angling for the last molasses cookie, all in one space. It felt natural to me to let my seven pupils talk to one another, and to me. Their conversations took more playful, naughty, and intriguing directions than I could have planned for them if I were in charge.
3. Which came first: the characters’ names or their descriptors? (My favorite is “Disgraceful Mary Jane.”)
JB: Me too! She is always stealing the scene. She was tons of fun to write.
Both the girls’ names and their monikers appeared hand in hand from the very first page of writing. That same day when I had my “regiment of maidens” light-bulb moment, I sat down and wrote the first scene. When Disgraceful Mary Jane first appeared, she was just that: Disgraceful Mary Jane. It was not a device I had ever used before, but it felt right, so I ran with it. As I explored it more, it felt Victorian to me, and fitting for my little farce, since farces are all about exaggerating, and thus challenging, stereotypes.
4. Did you do a lot of research about the time period?
JB: Oh, for a Tardis! What I could do with a time machine.
I did a great deal of research into the Victorian era, and this was one of the chief pleasures of the project. Fortunately, the Victorian era is extremely well documented. We have access to volumes upon volumes of books, journals, magazines, fiction, art, photographs, and moving pictures of this vibrant window of history. The project offered me a delicious cocktail of inquiries: fashion, cosmetics, manners, teacakes, candies, and girls’ schools, alongside poison, murder, police procedure, burial, and grave-robbing. Fun stuff.
Part of my research included a visit to Ely, Cambridgeshire, the setting of the novel. Incidentally, Prickwillow Road is a real place. I did not make it up. I spent a week in the UK, both in Ely, touring the small city and its rambling country roads, and in visits to several marvelous London museums to learn more about travel, banking, schooling, dress, food, crime, and home life during the late nineteenth century. It was great fun, and I can’t wait to go back and do it again.
5. Is a strawberry social a real thing?
JB: Indeed it is. In Jane Austen’s Emma, most of the characters gather on a sunny day to enjoy an outdoor strawberry-picking party and picnic. Closer to home, in my childhood haunts in upstate New York, a church strawberry social is a regular fixture of small-town life. Mounds of biscuits, great tubs of berries, troughs of whipped cream, and plenty of neighborly gossip — I highly recommend them.
From the October 2014 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.
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On October 2, the Harvard Book Store hosted B. J. Novak (from TV’s The Office, Saving Mr. Banks, and many others; also a Harvard University grad, thank you very much) reading his new picture book — The Book with No Pictures — at the Brattle Theatre. He invited kids on to the stage for a rollicking reading of his hilarious book. At least I thought that was rollicking, until I saw him read again the next day in front of about two hundred first-through-third-graders at a nearby elementary school. Pure kid bliss, complete with Q&A at the end (Kid: “Did you write books when you were little?” BJN: “Yes! Spooky books for Halloween, stories about the beach when it was summertime…”) and an invitation to send him story ideas (um… Uncle Shelby, anyone?! If you don’t get that reference, read on). We spoke afterward about standup comedy, childhood rebellion, and metafiction.
(BTW, as @RogerReads asked: “Is @bjnovak ‘s THE BOOK WITH NO PICTURES still technically a picture book? I hope it makes the Caldecott committee squirm.”)
EG: How involved were you in designing The Book with No Pictures?
BJN: I was extremely hands on — I think I drove everyone crazy.
EG: Who were the editor and designer on this project?
BJN: I worked with two designers: Lily Malcom at Penguin and Kate Harmer, an independent designer I’ve worked with before, with Hum Creative in Seattle. The editor was Lauri Hornik. My approach is always to ask a million people for advice.
B.J. Novak at the Brattle Theatre.
EG: Were kids involved in that part?
BJN: Not knowingly, not wittingly. I would observe kids as they were read to, not just by me. I would ask parents to read so I could watch what they would naturally do. My original draft of what we call the “mayhem spread,” with all those crazy syllables, was very intimidating for a parent to read, I found. I mean, kids loved it. I showed my original black-and-white version to a two-year-old, and he started cracking up as soon as he saw the page. It had a lot of Hs in it, a lot of silent letters — I wanted it to look complicated. And while kids were delighted, I thought a parent would give up. So I simplified a lot of those syllables. That was a combined design/editorial decision.
EG: Who reined this book in? Because for all of its wackiness, it is very controlled and subtle. It could have gone crazy…
His head is made of blueberry pizza.
BJN: Yeah, controlled rebellion. That was my approach. I looked at the original copy I made — I bought an 8 ½ x 12 moleskin journal and printed out pages and paper-clipped them in, with the font the size that I pictured and typewriter font. I glue-sticked a cover onto the journal so that a little kid would think it was a real book, so I could get a real reaction. It took like fifteen minutes per book, so you can’t just give them away, but I would carry them around places. And when I looked at that original paper-clipped version recently, it is almost identical to the finished book. So when I first had the idea, the tone of it was part of the idea. It was something that’s very rebellious for a three-year-old but actually not that edgy. “I am a monkey who taught myself to read” is very unedgy. “BooBoo Butt” is about as borderline as we get. A kindergartner once asked if he could whisper something in my ear so the grownups couldn’t hear, and he whispered, “I liked when you said BooBoo Butt.” He thought it was extremely rebellious and transgressive that I had said that. Controlled rebellion is the key to enjoyment because it makes a kid feel safe. And I’ve noticed that since I was a kid, trying to make other kids laugh, which I did, that younger kids — and especially, I’ve found, younger girls — can be scared of a book that is too wild. And a way to combat that is to keep assuring a kid that this is silly. This is ridiculous, what’s going on here. So the book repeats many times, “This is so silly,” which is partly to make a kid feel safe. Nothing too crazy is going to happen.
EG: It’s not Sendak.
The mayhem spread, mid badoongy-face.
BJN: Yeah, who I loved, but whose work can be a little scary — you don’t know where it’s going. So with this book I wanted kids to feel safe in this rebelliously experimental environment.
EG: Was “preposterous” in your original draft?
BJN: No, “preposterous” I added later because I had said “silly” and “ridiculous” too many times. I was working on the movie Saving Mr. Banks, which was about the making of Mary Poppins, and I was enamored of the way kids learned certain words aspirationally. And I thought it’d be nice to have one word in this book that kids don’t recognize, that sounds funny, and it would be nice if they went around saying “preposterous” because they knew it from the book. So that was the one word I added to give a little… aspirational vocabulary.
EG: The Horn Book’s winter company outing last year was to see Saving Mr. Banks.
BJN: Well, I definitely identified with P. L. Travers, because I had written this book that I had intended to cause nothing but easy joy, and here I was being pretty much a monster the way P. L. Travers was. “No, no, that color is all wrong. This font is ridiculous. You can’t have pictures in the book.” I said no picture of me on the flap jacket. I even asked, at one point, if we could take off the little penguin logo on the spine of the book.
EG: They said no?
BJN: Well, I actually changed my mind on that. I think the brand is so wonderful and inviting that I decided technically the jacket isn’t the book, the jacket is the cover. But I was really a monster in the P. L. Travers mold.
EG: Had you read Mary Poppins?
BJN: I hadn’t, but then I read it when we started making the movie. What I was struck by is that the book is so sweet and clever, that I can only imagine how stunned the Sherman brothers must’ve been to meet this sour, negative person. You’d expect it to be a breeze. It’s not like she wrote The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
EG: Or Where the Wild Things Are. Were you a reader as a kid?
BJN: Yes. My very favorite was Matt Christopher who wrote sort of wish-fulfillment sports books. The Kid Who Only Hit Homers I loved. Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen.
EG: Do you know the story about how librarians used to pencil in little diapers on the kid?
BJN: I think they had a point! Reading it again recently I thought, “This is insane.” But at the time I thought it was spooky and exciting. I loved Amelia Bedelia, Harriet the Spy. I was caught under my covers reading Harriet the Spy with a flashlight. My mom was very angry because I had promised I’d go to bed. Danny, the Champion of the World. Roald Dahl in general but especially that. And Shel Silverstein I really liked. As I write both for kids and adults, he’s someone who comes up, for me, as a role model. Even the way he maintained his aesthetic, so deliberately, with black and white and a certain font.
EG: Do you read those books differently now than when you were a kid?
BJN: Actually, I probably read them the same. I flip through the Silverstein poems, I never read them in order. My book for adults, One More Thing, is influenced by that, too, the different lengths and playfulness, the black-and-white cover.
EG: The slightly transgressive nature… or more than slightly.
BJN: The important thing for me about The Book with No Pictures, and Shel Silverstein embodied it well, and Dr. Seuss embodied it extremely well too, is that it does encourage kids who will inevitably be rebellious to think of books as their allies. I was very lucky to grow up thinking that every time I was sort of angry and ambitious and didn’t fit in and wanted to do something cooler, I thought of books as the place where you’d find that. As a teenager it would be Jack Kerouac and Bukowski. And as a little kid it might be Dr. Seuss. Dr. Seuss was never on the side of your parent or the authority. He seemed completely anti-authority. And even though he’s so rightly accoladed for his educational books now, when you’re a kid you think: this is the opposite of learning. You think: this is freedom. And that, to me, is an extremely important decision that gets made in a kid’s mind, whether books are the ally or the enemy when they are feeling certain feelings. And I think that what excites me about something like The Book with No Pictures is making kids feel words are on their side, not their parents’ side. Words are this incredible code that can make people do things that they want them to do.
EG: It’s really a performance, reading this book, in a way that some picture books are not. You really have to, as a grownup, embody all of it.
BJN: On the one hand you do, on the other hand you don’t. Performers really take to this book, and I’ve especially found it to be good as a dad book. Dads often want to be a little more wild and rowdy with sons, and a lot of picture books are very gentle, so this is a rowdy book. But I’ve also found people who are not performers, who are shy about picking it up, get wonderful reactions, too. A shy or more quiet parent saying these things, even in a flat, straightforward voice, can be especially funny to a kid, because they’re not the type of parent who would normally say, “My only friend in the whole wide world is a hippo named BooBoo Butt.”
EG: Is the experience different reading to groups rather than one on one?
BJN: Well, I love groups because of all the years I spent as a standup comedian. You just want an audience. It’s a universal truth that comedy’s better with an audience. When I was growing up watching Seinfeld with my family we would all laugh, and now when people tell me they watch The Office on their laptop or on Netflix it’s a little sad. I think that’s why there’s so much activity on Twitter and Facebook about TV shows because you want to be watching this with everybody.
EG: You’ve really thought about all this.
EG: It seems like many projects you’re involved in have this sort of meta quality to them.
BJN: Yes! Nice observation. What else?
EG: Well, even Punk’d is kind of meta. The Office goes without saying. Saving Mr. Banks — a movie about a book about the making of a movie. It’s just that you’re really smart, right?
BJN: I think it’s taste. My friend Mindy Kaling, equally smart, has no patience for meta.
EG: Some of it is really poorly done.
BJN: There seems to be a really sort of clever-teenage-boy drive toward the meta. I loved Mr. Show because it was meta. I loved early Simpsons. And when I was a teenager I loved Borges for being meta. So, yes, that’s always been my taste. The Book with No Pictures — even that title is meta. It’s commenting on itself, its own existence as a funny idea. So I’m always drawn to that. The conceptual, the meta.
EG: Could you write an article for us on gender and meta?
BJN: Interesting. Well, it’s a very small sample set, but I’ve tended to find that equally smart, equally literate people of opposite genders — meta is a dividing line, often. That and Bob Dylan.
EG: You are not a typical celebrity author.
BJN: I think the crazy thing is that I’m a celebrity, not that I’m an author. I’m an author by nature. My father is an author. I went to Harvard and studied literature. I was an ambitious and successful television writer. And then I started doing stand-up and acting, and for years I think the quiet nudge from my friends was, “Are you sure about this acting thing? You’re so clearly meant to be a writer.” And so now I actually take it as a compliment when people are skeptical about celebrity books. I’m like, “Really? You think I’m a celebrity? Wow! No one ever thought I could do it.” No one ever doubted I could be an author growing up, they doubted that I could be a celebrity.
EG: Do you have both these introvert and extrovert sides to you?
BJN: I’m very much both, in the way that very many comedy performers are, famously. And really this is my ideal career. Most of the time I love being alone, writing, in my own mind, no one bothering me, dreaming up things, like a teenage boy in his basement laboratory. Plotting about how the world is going to crazy with excitement about what he’s writing.
EG: Sounds like your next middle-grade novel.
BJN: And then I want to go out and show it to the world and see people’s faces. So I really feel that what my real goal is, and always has been, is to be a public author. There was an era in which Mark Twain was America’s author. Everyone knew he was a writer. Dickens, too, performed live. All these guys performed their writing live and were public personas as writers. And in Europe there’s still something of a public persona as a writer. But it’s not really the case in America. You’re an author or a celebrity.
EG: Although now with Twitter, John Green and people like that…
BJN: Yes! I think it’s changing somewhat. And I would like to be that. What John Green is for his audience and his genre, I would like to be for mine. Which is meta comedy, I suppose. I would like to be the representative of it. Someone who is a hero of mine that I also want to be like is Rod Serling. He presented his writing, looked like his writing, embodied his writing. He wasn’t an actor, he was a public writer. So that’s what I want to be.
EG: So, picture book is your niche? Or are you going to come out with a YA — what was that toilet zombie book the kid suggested during the Q&A?
BJN: My first book, the short story book, is very personal expression. And this book is an expression of what I want to write for kids. Yeah, I would like to write YA as well, and middle-grade…
EG: See, you know what the words “middle-grade” mean. That’s great.
BJN: Well, again, I’m not a celebrity. That’s our secret.
Liz (the school’s hip librarian; cameo appearance): HA!
EG: He knows “middle-grade.” He used it in conversation! Oh, Shel Silverstein… Liz sending you all the kids’ story ideas… it makes me think of Silverstein’s ABZ book.
BJN: Yes! I loved it as a kid.
EG: As a kid you read it?
BJN: My father gently introduced me to it with the explanation that this is a fake kids’ book. I got the joke, I loved it…
EG: “L is for lye…”
BJN: I remember: “Steal your parents’ money and mail it to Uncle Shelby.”
EG: So there weren’t any books that you weren’t allowed to read as a kid? Was everything up for grabs?
BJN: Everything was up for grabs, in fact probably more than for most kids because my father had a library at home of all the books he would do for research. He had written a book on marijuana use. There were books on heroine in our house. There were books on Iran-Contra. Books on all kinds of things. And he never stopped me from reading any of that. I think he was secretly quite happy. Again, if your rebellion comes… look, rebellion’s going to come, for every kid. And if it comes in the form of literature, you’re much better off than if it comes in opposition to it.
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