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- Welcome to the second installment of my “5 Questions” series. On a weekly or bi-weekly or completely random basis, I will interview an author or illustrator and focus on a specific book. In the coming weeks, we’ll spend time with Matthew Cordell, Jessica Olien, Matthew McElligott, Lizzy Rockwell and more. Why? I like these people and I love their books. Sue me. Today we get to hang out with Hazel Mitchell, who is as glorious as a glass of champagne at a good wedding. Drink deeply, my friends . . .
JP: Greetings, Hazel. Thanks for stopping by my swanky blog. I hope you don’t find the vibe too intimidating. I put up the tapestry just for you. The lava lamps have been here for a while. Because nothing says “classy” quite like a lava lamp. Sit anywhere you like, but the milk crates are most comfortable.
Hazel: Thanks, JP. This is certainly an eclectic place you’ve got here. Wow, is that a glitter ball? Next you will be wearing a white suit. Excuse me while I remove this stuffed meerkat from the milk crate . . .
Careful with that meerkat, it’s expensive. Hey, do I detect an accent? Wait, let me guess! You are from . . . Kentucky?
No getting anything past you! Kentucky, Yorkshire, England. OK, just Yorkshire, England. I’m a late pilgrim.
We recently sat side-by-side at the Warwick Children’s Book Festival, where I got the chance to read your wonderful new picture book, Toby, and eavesdrop on your lively interactions with young readers. At times, alarmingly, you spoke in the voice of a hand puppet. So let me see if I’ve got this straight: Toby is a real dog, but not a true story, exactly? How does that work?
Yes, we did sit next to each other and it was a lot of fun to see you in action! I didn’t know you were eavesdropping, I’d have dropped in some of those Shakespearean ‘asides’ just for you. And I must watch that hand puppet voice, I even do it without the hand puppet . . .
OK, to the question: Yes, Toby is a real dog. I rescued him from a puppy mill situation back in 2013. He was so endearing and his journey from frozen dog to bossy boots captured my heart. I began drawing him, because that’s what illustrators do, and before I knew it I was weaving a story round him. But I didn’t want to feature myself as the owner in Toby’s story, that was kind of boring and I figured Toby needed a younger owner, one who children could relate to. So I gave Toby a boy who adopts him and a Dad who is struggling with moving house, looking after his son AND now a new dog. The fictionalized setting gave me lots of ideas and emotions to play with, but the stuff Toby gets up to in the book is taken from things he did in real life.
I can see it’s a work that comes from your heart. And by “see” I mean: I could feel it. A heartwarming story for young children living in a cynical age. The book is beautifully designed. I especially admire the pacing of it, the way you vary the number and size of the many illustrations. Please tell me a little about that decision-making process.
Thank you. I love that you say ‘feel.’ I wanted this book to be about emotions and feelings and bring the reader into the internal dialogue of the boy and dog’s fears and frustrations. Just small things you know, but life is full of small things that make up the big things. And again, thank you for your kind words on the design, working with Candlewick, my editor (Liz Bicknell) and art director (Ann Stott), was a joy. We did a lot of drafts at rough sketch stage and as the layout of the book evolved a lot of graphic novel style panels crept in and then the wide double-spreads to open out the story. I like how it flows. The choice of colors really adds to the story I think, moody blues and beiges that reflect the emotions and then brighter colours when things are going well. The boy and dog are connected by the colour red –- Toby’s collar and the boy’s sneakers.
Oh, thank you, Hazel, for sharing those behind-the-scenes details. I appreciate seeing the black-and-white sketches, too. I think even when readers don’t consciously notice those subtle details, they still manage to seep into our unconsciousness. It’s fascinating how much thought goes into the work that most readers probably don’t think they see.
I like that your book doesn’t gloss over the challenges of owning a dog. It’s not always cuddles and sunshine. Why did you feel it was important to include the downside of dog ownership?
Because that is the reality of life and children are very capable of dealing with realities and working through problems. Sometimes it’s adults who want everything to be cuddles and sunshine, and try to save youngsters from the real world. Well we can’t do that, because it comes at us fast. I never get tired of seeing or hearing about a child responding to a book and saying, “Yeah, that happened to me,” or “I know that feeling.” It’s like you’ve been given a gift.
I see that you live in Maine. You must get this question a lot, but why isn’t Toby a moose? Do you see many moose up there? Can we please just talk about moose for a little while? And what goes on in Maine? Do you eat lobster all the time? While reading Stephen King? Or do I have some misconceptions? How did you end up there?
Toby channels his inner moose at times, which is scary in a poodle. There aren’t so many moose around our way, but drive a little North and there is moose-a-plenty (that could be a good name for a snack?).
I once drove home from a school visit in the FAR NORTH at twilight (that was my first mistake), it was misty and I was driving down a road where I swear there was a moose every 5 yards. I drove 30 miles at 5 MPH. I got home after six months. These moose were SO darn big and SO close to the car I could literally see up their nostrils. Man, moose need help with superfluous hair.
Wow, you really did see up their nostrils. You are scaring me a little bit, Hazel. Eyes on the road. Speaking of scary . . .
Stephen King lives in the next town over, but you know, he’s a recluse. I eat lobster with lobster on top. Delish. When I moved to the US of A from over the pond I landed in the South. Then moved to Maine. I like the cold much better! (And the lobster).
Do you have ideas for any more Toby stories? I think readers will want more.
I do have more ideas about stories for Toby. But we will have to wait and see. Readers! Write to my publisher!
I’m so glad you visited, Hazel. It’s nice spending time with you. I hope Toby enjoys a long and mischievous life in children’s books.
It’s been fun. Best five questions anyone asked me all morning. Thanks for having me drop by … oops … there goes a lava lamp!
Six bucks down the drain. We’re done here.
In addition to Toby, Hazel Mitchell has illustrated several books for children including Imani’s Moon, One Word Pearl,Animally and Where Do Fairies Go When It Snows? Originally from England, where she attended art college and served in the Royal Navy, she now lives in Maine with her poodles Toby and Lucy and a cat called Sleep. You may learn more about Hazel at www.hazelmitchell.com.
Title: The Knowing Book
Author: Rebecca Kai Dotlich
Illustrator: Matthew Cordell
Publisher: Boyds Mills Press, 2016
Themes: Enjoying the journey, discovery, what we can know, what we don’t know
Before you forget
Inspiring and wise, this story begins and ends with the sky that is always above you. In … Continue reading →
I was reading Matthew’s latest book, WISH, a few weeks back and remembering how much I had also loved his mini technology-bash in HELLO! HELLO! and it dawned on me I should invite him on the blog. It is such … Continue reading →
Title: family begins with a… Wish Written and illustrated by: Matthew Cordell Published by: Disney Hyperion, 2015 Themes/Topics: parents, elephants, waiting a long time for a baby Suitable for ages: 4-7 Opening: At first there is us. There is only us. But even before … Continue reading →
I’m not exactly sure when Audrey Glassman Vernick became a blip on my radar, but suddenly she was blipping everywhere. I felt like one of those guys in the mission control tower, trying to determine if this green blip was a “friendly” or an incoming missile. Ultimately, I decided that Audrey was a rising star.
I had the chance to meet Audrey personally, as opposed to through her books, at the 2015 Princeton Children’s Book Festival (thank you, Alison Santos!). We were at a backyard gathering, tired and happy after a long day. I bravely introduced myself, and we enjoyed a brief, easy conversation. I liked her immediately.
Anyway, I invited Audrey over to my swanky blog for today’s conversation. Here she comes now . . .
AGV: Why, it is swanky!
JP: I know, thanks. It’s the Picasso poster, isn’t it? I saved it from college.
But that’s the definition of class. It’s not just a hand or flowers. It’s both! And thanks for having me.
Glad to have you. About a month ago I read a bunch of your books. I was especially taken by Edgar’s Second Word, illustrated by Priscilla Burris. I even wrote to tell you how much I loved it, calling it “a small masterpiece.” Do you remember your reply?
I hope my first response was thank you. And I suspect my quick follow up was that you were one of approximately six people who read that book.
Yes, you were gracious. But you also mentioned that I was one of the few people to have actually read it. Which just goes to show that this is a crazy business. Your book has so much heart. It’s expertly constructed, like a well-built cabinet. We learn Edgar’s first word, “NO!” early on, so there’s a built-in tension: What will his second word be? That curiosity keeps us turning the pages. I was worried that the second word might be a letdown, but you totally delivered.
Thank you! Tension (and the building up thereof) is my very least developed writer skill, so extra thank you!
I interviewed James Marshall back in the early 90s, and he maintained that a strong ending for a book was essential. I’ll always remember what he told me: “The ending is what people remember. If the book fizzles at the end, they remember the whole thing as a fizzled book. It’s important to have a very satisfying ending for the reader. They’ve entered a world and now they are leaving it.” Wise words, and again, I think you nailed it with Edgar’s Second Word.
Let’s stop right here so I can faint. James Marshall!
I know, I was bragging to impress you. He’s one of my children’s book heroes. I can vividly remember our conversation. Heck, I can remember picking up the phone. James was friendly, funny, genuine, completely unpretentious.
George and Martha are the two main loves of my life. They are quoted with solemnity in the Vernick home.
Do you have a favorite line?
A truth about me (which does not go over well with kids at school visits): I am unable to pick a favorite anything except sports team (Yankees). Unable. So I could write some great lines here but then, minutes later, I’d erase and replace. (It is not easy being me.) Also, you sort of have to be looking at George and Martha along with reading their words to get the full picture. All that said, an oft-repeated line that comes to mind (you won’t even believe how lame this is) is:
“Boo!” cried George.
“Have mercy!” screamed Martha.
Nice, subtle. His humor is always natural, never seems forced. You never get the feeling that Marshall is trying too hard.
The blog I had and still kind of have was in large part an homage to those two, about literary friendships.
Oh, nice idea. There’s Frog and Toad, of course. Do you know the book Patrick and Ted by Geoffrey Hayes? It’s pretty perfect.
I do not. But I shall seek it out. Pronto!
I blogged an appreciation of it a while back. Let me see, it’s around here somewhere. Here you go, click on the link.
A scan from PATRICK AND TED by Geoffrey Hayes.
Back to your question.
Wait, there was actually a question?
The ending! You asked about the ending! It was the first, and only, thing I knew about the book when I started writing it. I received an email from a college friend whose young not-book-loving son (Edgar!) sat through his mother’s read-aloud of Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? and, at the end, said, “Again.” I shared that with my wise agent, Erin Murphy, who said, “Well obviously you’re going to use that in a book, right?”
I don’t know if this happens to you, but when a book fails to sell, fails to reach an audience, I tend to slowly, inexorably begin to think of it as a failed book. And by extension, I begin to see myself as a failed writer. Intellectually, I know that’s wrong, but that’s my reality. So that’s why I’m dwelling on Edgar a little bit here. I want to be sure that you know it’s a great blipping book!
That’s a very George-to-Martha thing to say (maybe not the blipping part). Thank you! I have my dysfunctions when it comes to this publishing business. I suffer some jealousies. I focus on benchmarks I have not achieved. But I am pleased to say that in this one particular case, I still really love this book. Priscilla Burris’ illustrations are unspeakably sweet and perfect.
Yes, she did a terrific job. The right tone.
And the people who read it respond so well to it. It just didn’t find its people. That happens. It wasn’t the first time it happened to me. A nice side note is that it was named a highly commended title by the Charlotte Zolotow Award for Outstanding Writing in a Picture Book.
First Grade Dropout, illustrated by my pal Matthew Cordell, turns on a lovely mistake. A boy absent-mindedly calls his teacher, “Mommy.” Where did that idea come from?
Some years I take part in Tara Lazar’s Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo), in which you try to come up with a picture book idea each day of the month. One day I wrote “kid calls teacher mommy,” something I know happens in my sister’s second-grade classroom with some frequency. (I’ve since learned it happens in nearly every classroom.)
Yes, it rings true. That’s probably why it’s funny.
It sat on that list for years because it wasn’t a story yet, just an incident. One day I decided to give it a try. In my experience, you sometimes have to start writing a picture book to find the story. And that voice just came out. It happened again a few months ago, when I was looking for a follow-up to that book. I brainstormed ideas with my editor, but while we had fun and shared lots of embarrassing elementary-school memories, we didn’t hit upon anything usable for a book. Once I started writing, though, I found the idea for Second Grade Holdout, which is coming out next year (because Matt is F-A-S-T as well as fantastic).
I am crazy about Matt. I once slept in his guest room. He even drove me to the airport. Strangely, Matt insisted on dropping me off sixteen hours early, which was confusing.
You are wise to be crazy about Matt. He’s kind and funny and so talented. Immensely likable.
Well, let’s not get carried away, Audrey. He’s okay. But I’ll be hog-tied if I let Cordell hijack this interview! So, yes, you discovered the idea for Holdout . . . through the act of writing. Jane Yolen’s famous “butt in chair” advice. How do you actually get work done, Audrey? Do you have a time clock where you punch in each morning? Or do you wait for inspiration?
Somewhere in the middle. I am not disciplined. With picture books, I write when inspiration strikes, but with novels I need to force myself to sit and write. And I have to come up with sad little bargains to keep myself in the chair, writing.
I’m only allowed to sit in the comfy chair with the heated blanket when I’m working on a novel. And once I’m there, it’s still a whole bargaining thing. If you finish the chapter, you can shower. Or eat breakfast. Or walk the dog.
Oh, that poor dog. Getting back to James Marshall, you share a great trait with him. You’re funny. And even better, you are able to write funny, which is a distinct and rare talent. There’s never enough of that in children’s books. Children’s publishing went through a biblio-theraputic period where every picture book had to be about something important. Laughter lagged behind.
I nearly fainted from the first sentence here.
And I agree that there’s never enough funny. But there are so many more now than there used to be. The books that were considered funny when I was a kid and, for the most part, when my kids were little, were more amusing than genuinely funny. Lots of modern picture books are flat-out hilarious. It’s a really fun time to be writing them.
Can you name a few of your favorites?
See previous explanation of ever-changing favorites. That said, I believe the Pigeon books kind of burst the door open to a new kind of funny. Bob Shea’s books often crack me up and I have serious title-envy about his Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great. Like debilitating jealousy.
Deborah Underwood’s Cat is a brilliant new character.
I really liked Ryan T. Higgins’ Mother Bruce and Julia Sarcone-Roach’s The Bear Ate Your Sandwich.
Good to know. I understand that 2016 is going to be a big year for you.
I have four books coming out.
Wow. Girl is on fire. You realize I kind of hate you now? A little.
I can both understand and accept that and will just quickly add that it’s possible I have four books coming out in six months -— the pub date for the last release of the year has not been set.
Shoot me now. I mean: I’m sooooo happy for you!!!!!
I’m curious, how do you do it? I find that writing picture books can be so difficult. I’ve been seriously trying for the past year and everything comes out half-baked, half-finished, half-awful. There are times it feels like throwing darts in a darkened room. It’s so easy to go down the wrong path. I wonder if you can talk about your process a little bit. Do you begin with a character?
I write both fiction and nonfiction picture books, and for the nonfiction ones, I look for a subject, get obsessed, research and write.
Do you first clear the topic with an editor?
I float it more than clear it. Or maybe those are the same. I am not writing with a contract, to be clear.
And for your fiction titles?
Just about every one has been different. Sometimes, the title comes first and leads the way to the story. Teach Your Buffalo to Play Drums was the first of those for me. Once a whole first page came to me, unbidden:
“Zander was a monster. This wasn’t strange as his father was a monster. His mother too. Oddly, his sister was a fairy. And his dog was a skunk.”
That last sentence just killed me. (And then, as with many lines I love, I had to fight to keep it.) That’s from Unlike Other Monsters, coming out in June.
And his dog was a skunk. That’s a funny line. Comedy gold! Sometimes with the right sentence, even just a few words, or the right rhythm, a door seems to open. You can suddenly find your way in.
I don’t think any of my picture books has started with a character, which I didn’t realize until you asked. With novels, it’s always character. But it’s usually title/concept or incident that gets me started with picture books.
Getting back to what you said about going down the wrong path -— to me, that’s what is so great about picture books! If you do it in a picture book, you erase the last 100 words and go back to the fork. With a novel, hacking out 50 pages feels like pulling out a minor organ.
I maybe once cried when cutting 10,000 words from my book, Six Innings.
The first novel I wrote, Water Balloon, I wrote these extra 50 pages before the story really got going. I so wanted credit for those pages.
Even so, picture books have to be “just so.” You know? I feel like there’s more forgiveness in a longer work. More room to wander. With a picture book, basically 30 pages, there’s not a lot of space to get lost. That’s why I’ve concentrated on longer works, because I felt it gave me more control over my (and the book’s) fate.
I adore picture books. I love writing them. I love the very fact of them. I enjoy every step of picture book writing and revising. But getting a first draft of a novel done -— the avoidance I have to fight is embarrassing. I’m in that place now. At least ninety percent through a novel I’ve been working on for years. I am looking forward to being done but not to what I have to do to be done.
That’s how I feel about exercise.
I could be wrong here, but it seems there are not many folks that are exclusively writers who have built a reputation in picture books. There’s Tony Johnston, Eve Bunting, Ruth Krauss, Mem Fox, Charlotte Zolotow. It’s not a long list. Mac Barnett, of course, is doing great work now. Though it was only last week when I first realized that he wrote Sam and Dave Dig a Hole. I had previously thought of it strictly as a Jon Klassen title.
Well, crap. I guess I knew that but I never knew it in words. Thanks.
You’re welcome! I like that you’re a big baseball fan. Where’d that come from?
When kids ask this at school visits I always give the super-articulate answer that goes something like, “It’s hard to say why you like what you like. For example, I love pizza. Why? Because it tastes good.” Note to self: Work on that response.
I was on a panel recently with a bunch of seasoned writers –- Todd Strasser, David Levithan, others –- and they all had such great, pithy answers to audience questions. I was like, “Damn, I have to raise my game.” The whole staring and stammering thing won’t cut it.
I don’t think anyone will ever say that about me. You know what impressed me about that Vernick? Pithy answers.
Pithy can feel too slick on some folks. I like your stammering authenticity.
My love of baseball -— sunny days (I will always take a day game over a night game); the fact that it’s a sport without a clock, with a lot of time for a mind to wander, to wonder, to draw connections; and it’s a sport with an immensely rich history (albeit one with very few women in it).
I associate baseball with my mom, who is still a huge fan at age 89. She taught me how to throw, how to catch. So there’s a lot of transference there: by loving baseball, I’m expressing love for my mother. Also, I loved playing, and still do. Now that I’m finished coaching (had a 15u travel team last season), I’ll probably return to a Senior Men’s Hardball team next spring. Read that as: Old guys clutching their hamstrings. We’re all still boys at heart. Did you ever get to play?
First I have to say I just love that, your connection to your mom there. Organized sports for girls didn’t exist when I was younger. I played softball at camp and was sometimes good. In my neighborhood, it was mostly punchball in the street. A neighborhood of girls. Seriously, I think there was only one boy and we were terrified of him because he once threw a firecracker at my sister.
He was probably terrified, too. Don’t we all throw firecrackers when we’re afraid? I know you are a Jersey Girl, and a mother, but outside of that, I don’t know much about your background.
Okay, first of all, no. I grew up in New York City -— in Queens. I’ve lived in NJ 19 years. Wow. That’s a long time. But I definitely do not identify as Jersey Girl. Strike that from the record!
Done. Both my parents were from Queens, so I like this better, anyway.
I live near the ocean. When I lived on eastern Long Island —- my home before this one, and Boston before that -— my house was a block from the Long Island Sound. I hope to always live near a big body of water. My present and future dogs probably hope so too.
Have you written a dog-and-ocean book yet?
I cannot sell a dog book. It kills me.
I hear hedgehogs are trending. Or was that five years ago? It’s hard to keep up.
I wrote literary short fiction for adults before writing for kids. It’s a very good way to learn to accept rejection.
So how did you get into children’s books?
It’s a sad story. You’ve been warned.
When I was in my early twenties, my mother was taking a children’s writing class at the New School in NYC and she sent the first novel she wrote to one publisher (Dutton) and it was accepted. She died two months later, a pedestrian on the sidewalk, hit by a car around the block from my childhood home.
My family was reeling for years. And in that time, we had to work with my mother’s very patient editor. My mother hadn’t even received her editorial letter at the time of her death, so all the revision fell to us. As you might imagine, we didn’t want to change a single one of her words. So that was my first step, as the literary executor of her estate. (The book, The Morning Glory War, was published in 1990 and received a really nice review in the Sunday Times.)
Wow. You must have taken a deep breath before typing that out. Like, “Okay, here goes, you asked.” I know that feeling, Audrey, since my oldest is a two-time cancer survivor. I’ve lost two brothers. These are not happy stories to tell at parties. Oftentimes, it’s easier not to get into it. And you’re right, it is sad, but it’s also an incredible story.
Yeah, as I wrote that out, I could see clearly that my family led me here.
Years later, I fell in love with the art of an outsider artist named Tim Brown, showed his art to one of my sisters, and she said that it belonged in a children’s book. Together, we wrote that book.
Which book is that?
Bark and Tim: A True Story of Friendship.
Hey, um, Audrey, this is nice and everything but . . . are you going to leave? I mean, ever? Or am I supposed to feed you now? I guess I have a pull-out couch . . .
Yeah, maybe tomorrow I’ll start pulling my stuff together. I could walk your dog. Do you have a dog?
Daisy. And two cats. And three kids. And four . . . well, it all stops at four. I don’t have four of anything.
I’m sure you have four readers of your blog!
Oh, dozens more. Dozens! We’re basically talking to ourselves here. It’s like the Cone of Silence in “Get Smart.” But before you go, is there anything you can share about your upcoming books?
Okay, since you asked:
The Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton, illustrated by Steven Salerno, nonfiction about a Philadelphia girl playing professional baseball from age 10.
The real Edith Houghton.
I Won A What?, illustrated by Robert Neubecker, about a boy who hopes to win a goldfish and ends up with something a wee bit bigger. And better.
Unlike Other Monsters, illustrated by Colin Jack, with the opening page mentioned above. And a novel, Two Naomis, written with my dear friend Olugbemisola Rhuday Perkovich.
How did you co-author a book? It’s seems difficult, fraught with peril. How did you handle it?
I have co-authored four books. Two Naomis was the first novel. We each wrote from the point of view of our own Naomi. So my chapters were the even-numbered ones — individual writing of separate chapters. When I co-wrote picture books, first with my sister and most recently with Liz Garton Scanlon, we just back-and-forthed a lot. Both experiences were really freeing and so much easier than doing it alone.
So what’s for dinner?
But before you go, by way of thank you, please accept this set of steak knives as a parting gift. I wish you all the luck in the world, Audrey. Keep up the great work.
Blogs are dead, everybody knows it, the tweet spread the news long ago. Nobody reads blogs anymore. These days it’s all Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and short, short, short.
I get it, I do. We’re all feeling the time squeeze.
But because I’m childishly oppositional, I refuse to give up my blog. And I’m keeping my 8-Tracks, too. I started this blog back in 2008, so we’ve become attached. I like to have readers, but I’m not sure I really need them. It wouldn’t stop me from writing. There’s something about the open-ended blog format that offers room to spread out and say things, however long it takes. Whether anyone listens or not.
My pal, illustrator Matthew Cordell, used to blog with enthusiasm. One of his recurring features was his monthly-ish “Top Ten” lists, where Matt randomly listed some of his recent enthusiasms. It could be a song, a book, a movie, or a type of eraser (Matt was weird about erasers). It was always fun to read.
So I’m stealing it.
Here are ten things I’ve recently loved:
THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME AND MUSEUM
I visited Cleveland with my son, Gavin, to check out Case Western Reserve University. The following day, we headed over to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was spectacular in every way. (Except for: The Red Hot Chili Peppers? Really?) I’m a huge music fan, so it was perfect for me. I found the museum strangely moving in parts, my heart touched. I could see that rock music was big enough, and diverse enough, to offer a home to people from every walk of life.
CARRY ME HOME by Diane McWhorter
Amazing, fascinating, and at times brutal Pulitzer Prize-winning book that’s stayed with me long after the last page. It provides a dense, detailed account of the civil rights struggle centered in Birmingham, Alabama. Martin Luther King, the Klu Klux Klan, Fred Shuttlesworth, George Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover, Bobby Kennedy, Bull Conner, and more. One of those books that helps you understand America.
FAN MAIL . . . WITH ILLUSTRATIONS!
I’ve been ridiculously fortunate in my career, in that I’ve received a lot of fan mail across the past twenty years. But I have to admit, I especially like it when those letters include a drawing. There’s just something about children’s artwork that slays me, every time. This drawing is by Rida in Brooklyn.
BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME by Ta-Nehisi Coates
This book has been on my list almost since the day it came out — the buzz was instantaneous, and huge — but on a tip from a friend, I waited for the audiobook to become available through my library. Here, Ta-Nehisi Coates gives a powerful reading. It’s poignant to listen to an author reading his own words, particularly since this book is essentially a letter to his son.
We’re not here to bash Jack Prelutsky. Because, after all, Jack Prelutsky is hilarious. But, but, but. There are times when I worry that too many people think children’s poetry begins and ends with Mr. Prelutsky. That a poem for kids always has to be bouncy and fast and slight and funny, i.e., Prelutsky-ish. Well, here’s a poem I came across while reading Oh, No! Where Are My Pants? and Other Disasters: Poems, unerringly edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. I admire the heartfelt, beautiful sorrow of Comora’s poem. “I thought of his last night alone/huddled in a wire home./I did not cry. I held him close,/smoothed his fur blown by the wind./For a winter’s moment, I stayed with him.” The illustration is by Wolf Erlbruch. Click on the poem if your eyes, like mine, need larger type.
EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT
I’m so grateful that I live near a cool, little movie theater that makes room for small foreign films such as this, a mind-blowing look at life on the Amazon, spectacularly filmed in black-and-white. Click here for more details.
My wife Lisa and I don’t watch hours of TV together, but we do like to have a show we can share. We’ve been a loss for a few months, but recently discovered season one of “The Americans” on Amazon Prime. We’re hooked.
DAVID BROMBERG: “SAMMY’S SONG”
We have tickets to see Bromberg this coming weekend. He’s an old favorite of mine, first saw him in 1980 on Long Island. I’ve just rediscovered “Sammy’s Song,” which I haven’t heard in decades. What a chilling coming-of-age story, brilliantly performed. Oh, about that harmonica part? That’s Dave’s pal, Bob Dylan, with an uncredited guest turn.
I just finished writing my first Jigsaw Jones book after a long time away. For many years, Scholastic had allowed the series to die on the vine, with book after book slowly going out of print. It’s been a crushing thing for me to stand by helplessly and watch. But with the help of my agent, I got back the rights, and now Macmillan has plans to relaunch the series. I am thrilled. There are more than 10 million copies of those books out there in world, and it seems like every second-grade classroom in America has a ragged copy or three. Writing the new book, The Case from Outer Space, was such a pleasure. It felt like being home again.
THE DAY THE ARCS ARRIVE
For an author, it’s a special day, always, always. That book you’ve been toiling over for months, years, finally arrives in book form. Uncorrected, unfinished, but for the first time you can hold it in your hands — a book! — and think, “I did that!” Note: Arc = Advanced Reader’s Copy. The Courage Test, a middle grade novel, will be out for real in September.
BONUS SELECTION . . .
THE BARKLEY MARATHONS
I love documentaries of almost any nature, but I can’t recommend this one highly enough. A pure joy, with twinkling mischievous wit and surprising heart, too. If you like running at all — or not! — see this movie. About the toughest, wildest, and weirdest race in the world. Catch it on Netflix Instant!
In celebration of National Poetry Month, we’ve hand-picked ten many-splendored new books. Children are born loving poetry from the moment they form their first babbling words to when they begin to tackle more complex rhythms and tongue twisters. As they acquire language and enjoy how it rolls off their tongues, they also gain an appreciation for the beauty of creative expression. Nothing quite tops that moment when they learn to recite their first nursery rhyme. So leave a poem in your child’s pocket and help him discover the appeal of modern poetry.
If you’re like most of us, you may have grown up with Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, or The Giving Tree on your childhood bookshelf. Master wordsmith and doodler Shel Silverstein invented laugh-out-loud silly rhymes for us to endlessly ponder. Every Thing On It has been posthumously published as a new collection of his irreverent poems and characters drawn with his trademark squiggly offhand style. It’s a great joy to share his nonsense poems with a new generation to puzzle over and love for years to come.
Ages 8-11 | Publisher: HarperCollins | September 20, 2011
What a winning combination Pham’s playful illustrations and Singer’s amusing verse make in this lovely poetry collection. Bouncing rhyme and pictures of active children at play ensure even the most poetry-adverse child will warm to its magical delights. As Singer’s light-handed verse concludes, “A stick is an excellent thing if you find the perfect one.” We’ve certainly found the perfect book of poetry in this one. For more on LeUyen Pham, check out our interview with her.
Sometimes I read a picture book and there is an immediate desire to find EVERY book the illustrator has ever worked on. I think that's how I felt when I read Another Brother by Matthew Cordell. Lucky for me, he is one prolific dude.
The book is hilarious, fun to read, and full of heart. Here's a spread from my next pick to scope out - Trouble Gum
Go on. I know you want to go run out and find these books. Or tell me how I've been living under a rock and I should've already known his work. Then read his artist bio. Because one of my secret pet peeves (shhhh!) is a poorly written bio - and I thought his was just fabulous. As is the illustration on his home page.
I love the title of this book. The mental image of a pickle juice soaked cookie turns my stomach and puckers my lips. Yuck!
Eleanor is eight years old and her beloved babysitter Bibi is moving away to Florida. Bibi is having a horrible day! She can't believe Bibi is moving away. What will she do? Everything reminds her of Bibi. Her parents try and console Eleanor, but the fact is Bibi is gone.
This is a coming of age story. Eleanor is only eight years old, but this is a pivotal moment in her life. The person she's counted on the most has moved away and Eleanor must learn and new way, a new life without Bibi.
I loved this story. I want to be Eleanor's friend, and bake cookies with her.....without pickle juice.
It is an endearing story. It is a story a child can relate to (because we all have to say goodbye to someone.) She is a normal kid, not over the top in any way, just a normal kid (like most of us.)
Published by Abrams Books 2011 128 pages For ages 8-10 A Texas Bluebonnet Book 2012/2013
June shrugged off school’s schedule—the drop offs and pick-ups and the packing of lunch. Summer seemed to stretch out like a wide open lawn. But the acreage quickly filled with the schedule of camps—with drop offs and pick-ups and the packing of lunch.
Right about now, there’s something in the air. Maybe it’s the lighting or a new scent. But you begin to feel that summer is nearing its end. Before the scaffolding of the school schedule is fitted again, there is another attempt to get rid of routine. This, I think, is the real heart of summer. An earnest attempt to be schedule-less, to open up to unpredictability, maybe even to lose the concept of time. How? Travel. People pack their bags and go. Somewhere. Anywhere. Stay-over-night camp, relatives in another state, another city, anywhere other than where you are, it really doesn’t matter, just as long as rhythms and routines are set aside.
In honor of the real heart of summer, here’s a list of books that send their main characters on a journey, a trip, somewhere new. (And if you and your family didn’t pack your bags this summer, here is the beauty of a book—the vicarious experience of travel.)
In Dangerous Waters: An Adventure on the Titanic, by Gregory Mone, twelve-year-old Patrick Waters sneaks onboard the Titanic. Also on the ship are a book collector and a thief who plans to steal one of the collector’s prize editions. And, of course, the ship is going to sink. Mone has written a real page turner, but not at the sacrifice of language. His narrative world is rich with specific details, making it easy for the reader to imagine. “At Queen’s Road he spotted her looming in the distance. She was a mountain! A self-contained city of iron and steel: eight hundred and eighty feet long. Nearly two hundred feet tall. More than four hundred thousand rivets. How could she even float?”
Ages 9-12 | Publisher: Roaring Book Press | March 13, 2012
I’m flying off to the Windy City this afternoon to visit two schools, Thomas Middle School and Northbrook Junior High. This will be my first visits of the new school year, so I’m looking to kick out the cobwebs, blow the rust off my thumb drive, and hopefully make a positive impression. The idea for me is always to try to leave each school a little bit better than when I first arrive.
This is another example of my book, Bystander, opening new doors for me, as it was my first true middle school book, featuring 7th-grade characters. So many books fade away with barely a whimper (even the good ones!), it’s such a blessing that this one seems to have taken hold in schools across the country, places where they are eager to read, explore and perhaps illuminate some of the issues that center on the bully-target-bystander dynamic. But mostly I hope this is a book that keeps readers turning the pages, a book they’ll enjoy. If it inspires students to think, well, amen to that. We can use all the thinking we can get around here.
Tomorrow, my kids, Maggie (6th) and Gavin (8th), go off the Middle School together, so I’m pretty steeped in this age group. My oldest, Nick, is now a sophomore in college. Yikes.
One other really nice aspect of this trip is that I am finally going to meet two of my publishing pals, Julie Halpern and (the insanely prolific) Matthew Cordell. That’s right, I’m spending a night on their couch — and I’m keeping any change I find under the cushions. That money’s mine. And the Cheetos, too. Matthew and I first met, electronically, when we did a picture book together, Mighty Casey (speaking of books that fade away). We bonded over Arnold Lobel and William Steig, Bob Dylan and Townes Van Zandt, and we’ve become true friends entirely through email. Now I guess we’re putting that notion to the test. I also share a publisher with Matt’s wife, Julie, who is a librarian and a terrific writer. She’s deep and funny and I’m a huge fan.
I am really looking forward to hanging out with those guys. They have a young daughter, too, Romy, who keeps asking, “When’s Preller coming?” That cracks me up.
If your young independent reader is looking for a great read with a wonderful girl protagonist, or maybe she's looking for a new series to latch onto, you can't go wrong with either of these two books or their prequels.
Morning, folks. We’re beginning this Sunday morn with stuff that’s good for the soul. How often have you said to yourself, “I’d love to own some original art from illustrator Matthew Cordell but I’m too busy spending all my cash on children’s literacy foundations”? Well, fear not! Now you can do both. In celebration of their book Special Delivery, Messrs. Cordell and Philip Stead are going to hold a raffle for five pieces of awesome art. You win by donating money to good causes. The details are here and the video here:
Next up, the American Hogwarts. I mean, it is if by “Hogwarts” you’re referring to a well-established university setting with a clear cut amazing children’s collection, staff, program schedule, and more. Princeton finally decided to create a little trailer for the Cotsen Children’s Library, and I have to say I’m stunned. First off, there’s my girl Dana Sheridan killing it with the storytimes. Then there’s the just wide range of services they provide. And the furniture, dear GOD the furniture!! I’m fascinated by the Cotsen Critix program too since bookclubs for 9-12 year-olds are my weakness. Wish I lived closer to it! Here’s more background information and here’s the trailer:
Someday I shall teach a course on the art of the book trailer. In it I will show all the different myriad styles and techniques one can utilize when coming up with your very own. And always assuming that I remember, I shall include this simple, lovely trailer for The Mystery Hat by Rune Brandt Bennicke and Jakob Hjort Jensen . Sometimes it’s all in the soundtrack, folks.
There go Scieszka and Biggs. I’ve suspected for years that they were in the pocket of Big Audiobook but never had the proof . . . until now!!
Seriously, though, I’m-a wanting that crazy white wig.
So this year we are seeing not one but TWO different early chapter book series about Latino girls. This is a good thing since the running tally before 2015 was . . . um . . . yeah, it was zero. Zero series in total. The first is the Emma Is On the Air series by Ida Siegal and illustrated by Karla Pena. The second is the Sofia Martinez series by Jacqueline Jules, illustrated by Kim Smith. But only one of these (as of this post) has a book trailer:
It’s not a children’s book. It’s not even a YA novel. It’s (*gasp* *shudder*) an adult book . . . but its book trailer is adorable. I can resist it, not at all.
Thanks to Alison Morris for the link.
I had not yet taken the time to see the trailer for the Lena Dunham/Hilary Knight documentary. Nothing too surprising to see here, but it’s certainly a very clear cut case of a famous person attempting to shine their light on someone they admire who might not be a household name (though Eloise certainly is).
If you missed Part One of the Alan Silberberg Interview, it’s absurd for you to be here. I mean, really. Please follow the link to catch up.
Don’t worry, we’ll wait . . .
Late in the book, Milo gathers together a number of objects that remind him of his mother, that press the memory of her into his consciousness. Where’d you get the idea for that?
I think that comes from the fact that I really don’t have anything from my mother. Things did get thrown away or given away and it really was like she died and then she was erased. When I was writing the book I started to think hard about my mom and tried remembering objects that evoked her to me. That became a cartoon called “Memories Lost” which were all real objects from my childhood that connected me to her. After making that cartoon, it struck me that Milo would want to go out and replace those objects somehow and that’s why he and his friends hit up the yard sales.
There is a scene toward the end in one of my books, Six Innings (a book that similarly includes a biographical element of cancer), that I can’t read aloud to a group because I know I’ll start to slobber. It’s just too raw, too personal for me. And I suspect that might be true of you with certain parts of this book. I’m asking: Are there any moments that get to you every time?
I think there are two specific parts of the book that choke me up, though lots of little places make me reach for tissues. The chapter where Milo goes to the yard sale and finds a blanket that reminds him of the one his mom had will always get to me. My mom had that blanket, the “pea patch blanket” in the book — so as Milo wraps himself in it and remembers her getting sick — I am always transported to the image of my mom and her blanket. The second place in the book happens in cartoon form, when Milo remembers the last time he saw his mother, which was when she was already under anesthesia being prepped for surgery and she has had her head shaved and he can see the lines for the surgery drawn on her head like a tic tac toe board. That image is directly from my memory of my last time seeing my mother. It’s pretty heavy stuff.
And so powerfully authentic. Milo describes that period after his mother died as “the fog.” Was that your memory of it?
I think trauma at any age creates a disconnect inside us. I think the fog settled in for me slowly. As the initial shock of my
A very bad August. As bad as pickle juice on a cookie. As bad as a spider web on your leg.
As bad as the black parts on a banana. I hope your August was better. I really do.
When Eleanor's beloved babysitter, Bibi, has to move away to take care of her ailing father, Eleanor must try to bear the summer without Bibi and prepare for the upcoming school year. Her new, less-than-perfect babysitter just isn't up to snuff, and she doesn't take care of things like Bibi used to. But as the school year looms, it's time for new beginnings. Eleanor soon realizes that she will always have Bibi, no matter how far away she is.
Written in a lyrical style with thoughtful and charming illustrations throughout by Matthew Cordell.
Here are a few of Matthew Cordell's first round sketches.
As you might have guessed the title wasn't working for us. It worked for the story but was just to "quiet."
Great title! And an apt one, since it accurately describes the eight-year-old heroine's forlorn summer after her beloved babysitter moves away.
The story, told in free verse, starts with Eleanor hearing the terrible news that Bibi, her first and only babysitter, is moving to Florida to care for her aging father. How Eleanor copes with her grief at losing Bibi and how she comes to accept and like her new babysitter is the crux of this early chapter book.
Natalie, the new babysitter, has big shoes to fill. Bibi was just about perfect. Let Eleanor tell you herself:
"She is the best babysitter in the world. She makes me soup when I am sick. She holds my feet when I do handstands. She knows which of my teeth are loose and which ones I've lost. She rubs my back when I am tired. She takes a needle and thread and sews up my pants to make them fit right. And she knows not to tickle me. Because I hate to be tickled."
Who wouldn't miss someone like this! As the summer progresses, Eleanor slowly comes to terms with her loss. It helps that she has understanding parents and that Natalie doesn't pressure her to accept her. First-time author Sternberg realistically portrays Eleanor's transformation so that by the story's end we can see that she's ready to start third grade and get on with her life. Bibi hasn't been forgotten, though.
"Bibi will always be my first babysitter. My very special babysitter. And she will always be my Bibi. Even if she is waiting for the breeze in Florida, and I am far away."
This special book is for anyone who has had to grapple with loss--and that means just about everyone.
Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie by Julie Sternberg Illustrations by Matthew Cordell Amulet books, 128 pages Published: March 2011
2. Comics contain the same story elements and literary devicesas narrative stories.
3. Comics provide built-in context clues.
4. Reading a comic is a different process of reading using a lot of inference.
5. Readers need variety in their reading diet.
6. We’re a visual culture and the visual sequence makes sense to kids.
7. Reading comics may lead to drawing and writing comics.
8. The selection of graphic novels is bigger, better, and reaches a wider age-range than before.
Yeah, feh, okay. I get that. We have to establish that comics are credible resources, that it’s valid in the classroom, and there’s a perceived need to throw in a lot of pedagogical goobledygook. But I don’t care. Because one thing I know in my bones is that many (many!) professional authors began their childhood love of reading with comic books. Those authors are almost always men (read: ex-boys).
They read what they wanted to. They read what they liked. They read, period.
One of the critically important aspect of this issue of “boys reading junk” is that well-meaning adults — and in particular, women — need to become sensitized to our bias against certain types of reading. We have to become aware of the messages we send to boy readers, the disapproving, dismissive way we view personal choices.
By the way, and seriously, Matt is amazing — and so productive that I want to punch him in the face. (But in the nicest, sweetest way possible.) Just look at this list of titles — the guy doesn’t sleep! It’s especially great that Matt is now writing some of his own books. Here’s an upcoming one (January 2012) I’m particularly excited about.
The children’s picture book is not doing so well. People aren’t buying it like they should. I don’t have all the facts and numbers (I’m not that guy), but I know enough to tell you that. Maybe it’s because of tough economic times. Maybe it’s because of e-bookery or general gadget-y (short attention span) distractions. Maybe it’s because parents aren’t reading to their kids enough. Maybe it’s because education is accelerating young readers at a newer, faster pace, and rushing them over the picture book form. Maybe it’s because it’s been forgotten how important, irreplaceable, and (when stars align) how spiritual the picture book experience is to both children and adults.
A couple of paragraphs later, Matt issued this challenge (which is funny to me, because Matt is such not an in-your-face, “issue a challenge” kind of guy):
This is my challenge to you, dear readers. Go into a book store (not a website, but a store with a roof, walls, people, books you can hold and browse over) and spend some time in the children’s book section. Find something incredible (it ain’t hard). Then, when you’re all filled up, buy just one picture book. And in a week’s time, repeat. Buy one picture book a week for your kid(s), some other kid(s) you love, or for yourself or some other grown-up you love. I can identify th
I tend to run my bookgroup for kids between the ages of 9-12 like a gentle dictatorship. I choose the books, the kids vote on them, and so it goes. Now if the kids had their way we’d be reading fantasy novels day in and day out every single week. With that in mind, I like to try to make them read something a little different once in a while. For example, one week I might try to get them to read a Newbery winner. The next I would try to encourage them to dip into some nonfiction. One type of book I haven’t had the nerve to attempt for years, though, is poetry. Finding a really good, really interesting, really smart book of poetry for kids of that age is tricky stuff. Poetic tastes vary considerably, so it’s best to start with a book with a hook. And by hook or by crook, Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It is basically the answer to my prayers I’ve been seeking all these long and lonely years. It has everything. Humor, engaging illustrations, a clever premise, potential (and very fun) applications, and a passive aggressive streak that’s nearly a mile long.
Do you know that old William Carlos Williams poem about the plums in the icebox? The one that calls itself “This is Just to Say”? When you think about that poem, I mean really think about it, it’s just the most self-satisfied little number you ever did see. Williams is clearly not sorry, though he included the words “forgive me” in there. With that as her inspiration, Gail Carson Levine has penned forty-five or so false apology poems modeled on Williams’. The rules are simple. “The first stanza states the horrible offense. The second stanza describes the effect of the offense. The last stanza begins with ‘Forgive me’ and continues with the false apology, because the writer is not sorry at all.” Mixing together fairy tales and silly situations, Levine’s poems span the gamut, from the cow in Jack and the Beanstalk taking issue with her monetary worth to a girl’s pets asking pseudo-forgiveness for enjoying her diary’s contents. Saying sorry without meaning it has never been this charming.
On the book’s dedication page read the words “To Susan Campbell Bartoletti, who led me down the poetry path.” I am currently in the process of putting in an order with FTD in the hopes of sending Ms. Bartoletti some flowers of my own. Whether intentionally or not, she has been at least partly responsible for helping to bring to this world a poet of undeniable talent. We all know Ms. Gail Carson Levine for her fantasy novels. Her Newbery Honor winning Ella Enchanted is probably her best known work. But when I saw that she had gone into the poetry business I couldn’t suppress a groan. Great. An author who thinks they can write. Whooptie-doo. Can’t wait to see what recycled trope makes its 100th appearance on the printed page yet again. Imagine my surprise then when I saw not only the idea behind the book (snarky in its mere conception, which is no easy task when you work in the world of juvenile literature) but the poems themselves. Ladies and gentlemen if I blame Ms. Levine for anything it is for denying the world her drop dead gorgeously twisted poin
I first learned of Matthew Cordell when he was hired to illustrate my picture book,MIGHTY CASEY. Despite Matt’s great artwork, the book never really found an audience, and I guess it sort of died on the vine, as they say. But there are two great things that came out of that book. First, my ongoing friendship with Matthew and his amazingly talented wife, Julie Halpern. Someday I hope we’re all in the same room! In my opinion, Matt is a hugely gifted illustrator, and a true artist, and an heir in his approach and dedication to Arnold Lobel, who is one of my all-time heroes. He’s also got a touch of William Steig.
Look, I’ll say it. A lot of children’s book illustration, while technically spectacular, isn’t very appealing to kids. Matt’s work, on the other hand, is loose and inviting and draws readers into the story. Like Lobel, and Steig, and James Marshall, and all the best. I really think Matt is that good, and he’s just scratching the surface.
Secondly, I’m gladdened by the consistent pleasure I experience when on odd times I pull out MIGHTY CASEY and read it aloud to large groups of students. I’m telling you, it works every time. We laugh, we have fun, and by the end these kids are right there, leaning in, eager for the play at the plate. Sales or not, those experiences tell me that Matt and I did good together — we made something, you know, put it out into the world. It’s all we can do.
Anyway, Matt created a homemade trailer for his new picture book, ANOTHER BROTHER. Now on sale on every street corner, car trunk, haberdashery — and independent bookstore, too!
Life for Davy was glorious as long as he had his mother and father to himself. But then he got a brother, Petey. When Davy sang, Petey cried. When Davy created a masterpiece, Petey spat up on it. And then he got another brother, Mike! And another, Stu! And another, Gil! Until he had TWELVE LITTLE BROTHERS! And that was only the beginning!
What's a sheep gotta do to get some time alone?
Another Brother just hit stores and the reviews clearly say you should go buy a copy. And another. And another....
“This is not just another new-baby book: Cordell’s humorous text and mischievously silly, expressive cartoon art will have readers bleating to read it again and again.” --Kirkus, Starred Review
"Cordell emphasizes the humor in the once only child’s whiplash of conflicting emotions. Baby brothers may be a pain, but the havoc they create can be painfully funny." --NYTimes.com
“Funny and touching in equal measure, this is a sheepish look at how imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, even when it is super annoying.” --Booklist
“Cordell’s (Trouble Gum) goofy line drawings of Davy the sheep and his dozen copycat younger brothers provide an entertaining counterpoint to his poker-faced narrative.” --Publishers Weekly
Oh, and have you seen the trailer that Matthew Cordell did? Watch it and marvel at the music coming from Matt's one-man-band :)
Last week my 7-year-old's elementary school held a Scholastic book fair, and I managed to sneak away from work a few times to help out. I've finally come to terms with the fact that I don't have as much time for volunteering at the school as I'd like, but I've also realized that no matter how hard I try, I can't keep myself away from huge piles of fabulous children's books!
So I spent hours restocking shelves, helping kindergartners write wish lists, answering lots of questions, and counting coins to see if first and second graders had enough money to buy their favorite books. And whenever I had a few free minutes, I spent them browsing in my favorite section of the book fair...the picture books. Among the many treasures I discovered there was Leap Back Home to Me by Lauren Thompson (author) and Matthew Cordell (illustrator).
Throughout the book, a young frog explores the world around him by doing what all frogs do best--leaping! He leaps over daisies, over a creek, over a rocky hilltop, and even over some splashing beavers. The illustrations show him leaping enthusiastically (even upside down on one page) with joy and abandon.
Leap frog over the ladybug.
Leap frog over the bee.
Leap frog over the tickly clover,
Then leap back home to me!
Despite how much fun the little frog seems to be having, at the end of each stanza he always ends up leaping back home to his mother. And his mother is always there, ready to shower him with affection. In one spread, she is waiting with a table full of paper and crayons. In another, she is waiting with a book of "frog time stories" to read. And in still another, she is waiting with what looks to be a warm meal and a pitcher of milk. I know I would certainl
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