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1. Review of Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War

sheinkin_most dangerousstar2Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret 
History of the Vietnam War
by Steve Sheinkin
Middle School, High School   Roaring Brook   361 pp.
9/15   978-1-59643-952-8   $19.99   g

Without a wasted word or scene, and with the timing and prowess of a writer of thrillers, Sheinkin takes on a spectacularly complex story—and makes it comprehensible to teen readers: how Daniel Ellsberg evolved from a committed “cold warrior” to an antiwar activist, and why and how he leaked the Pentagon Papers—“seven thousand pages of documentary evidence of lying, by four presidents and their administrations over twenty-three years”—which led to the Watergate Scandal, the fall of the Nixon administration, and, finally, the end of the Vietnam War. From the very beginning of his account, Sheinkin demonstrates the human drama unfolding behind the scenes; the secrecy surrounding White House and Pentagon decisions; the disconnect between the public and private statements of our nation’s leaders. Throughout, readers will find themselves confronted by large, timely questions, all of which emerge organically from the book’s events: Can we trust our government? How do we know? How much secrecy is too much? The enormous amount of incorporated primary-source documentation (from interviews with Daniel Ellsberg himself to White House recordings) means not only that readers know much more than ordinary U.S. citizens did at the time but that every conversation and re-enacted scene feels immediate and compelling. Sheinkin (Bomb, rev. 11/12; The Port Chicago 50, rev. 3/14) has an unparalleled gift for synthesizing story and bringing American history to life; here, he’s outdone even himself. Meticulous scholarship includes a full thirty-
six pages of bibliography and source notes; judiciously placed archival photographs add to the sense of time and place.

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

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2. Review of Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon

Bomb by Steve Sheinkin Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin (Flash Point/Roaring Brook)
While comprehensive in his synthesis of the political, historical, and scientific aspects of the creation of the first nuclear weapon, Sheinkin focuses his account with an extremely alluring angle: the spies. The book opens in 1950 with the confession of Harry Gold — but to what? And thus we flash back to Robert Oppenheimer in the dark 1930s, as he and readers are handed another question by the author: “But how was a theoretical physicist supposed to save the world?” Oppenheimer’s realization that an atomic bomb could be created to use against Nazi Germany is coupled with the knowledge that the Germans must be working from the same premise, and the Soviets are close behind. We periodically return to Gold’s ever-deepening betrayals as well as other acts of espionage, most excitingly the two stealth attacks on occupied Norway’s Vemork power plant, where the Germans were manufacturing heavy water to use in their own nuclear program. As he did in the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winner The Notorious Benedict Arnold (rev. 1/11), Sheinkin here maintains the pace of a thriller without betraying history (source notes and an annotated bibliography are exemplary) or skipping over the science; photo galleries introducing each section help readers organize the events and players. Writing with journalistic immediacy, the author eschews editorializing up through the chilling last lines: “It’s a story with no end in sight. And, like it or not, you’re in it.” Index.

From the November/December 2012 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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3. Review of The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the 
Fight for Civil Rights

Port ChicagoThe Port Chicago 50:
Disaster, Mutiny, and the
Fight for Civil Rights

by Steve Sheinkin
Middle School    Roaring Brook    190 pp.
1/14    978-1-59643-796-8    $19.99    g
e-book ed.  978-1-59643-983-2    $9.99

Sheinkin follows Bomb (rev. 11/12) with an account of another aspect of the Second World War, stemming from an incident that seems small in scope but whose ramifications would go on to profoundly change the armed forces and the freedom of African Americans to serve their country. The Port Chicago 50 was a group of navy recruits at Port Chicago in California doing one of the few service jobs available to black sailors at the beginning of the war: loading bombs and ammunition onto battleships. “All the officers standing on the pier and giving orders were white. All the sailors handling explosives were black.” When, as seems inevitable given the shoddy safety practices, there was an explosion that left more than three hundred dead, fifty men refused to go back to work, occasioning a trial for mutiny. Sheinkin focuses the events through the experience of Joe Small, who led the protest against the dangerous and unequal working conditions, but the narrative loses momentum as it tries to move between Small’s experience and its larger causes and effects. Still, this is an unusual entry point for the study of World War II and the nascent civil rights movement. Photographs are helpful, and documentation is thorough. Picture credits and index not seen.

From the March/April 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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Fight for Civil Rights appeared first on The Horn Book.

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4. (Very Eventually) The Zena Sutherland Lecture

Gantos_tools53

Dear Readers,

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

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

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

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

norveltandjackslide

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

“Yes,” I swiftly replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Give my man a beer,” he ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Everyone has their own list.)

Fahrenheit 451—Bradbury
The Catcher in the Rye—Salinger
Half a Life—Ciment
Stop-Time—Conroy
The Bell Jar—Plath
Ultramarine—Lowry
A Clockwork Orange—Burgess
Brave New World—Huxley
In Youth Is Pleasure—Welch
1984—Orwell
This Boy’s Life—Wolff
The Car Thief—Weesner
Sex and Death to the Age 14—Gray
Borrowed Finery and Desperate Characters—Fox
To Kill a Mockingbird—Lee
And, the bowsprit of American Literature, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale—Melville

And the list travels well beyond this very small sample.

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

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

Gantos_tools43

Jack’s actual “black book.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have yet to write a twin to Love Curse.

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

JackGantos8thGrade

gantos_mugshotFrom The Trouble in Me to Hole in My Life.

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

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

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

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

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5. Review of Boom Snot Twitty: This Way That Way

cronin_boom snot twittyBoom Snot Twitty: This Way That Way
by Doreen Cronin; 
illus. by Renata Liwska
Preschool   Viking   40 pp.
6/15   978-0-670-78577-3   $16.99   g

On the opening endpapers of this gentle story, the unfortunately named Snot (a snail) is happily gathering blueberries and putting them in a basket. The title page shows Boom (a bear) and Twitty (a robin) each preparing for…something; Boom is packing a beach bag while Twitty readies her hiking boots. By the first page they are all set to go, but Boom wants to go one way, and Twitty the opposite direction. “‘Hmmm,’ said Snot.” Boom had his heart set on the beach, and Liwska softens the edges of her delicate-colored illustrations to show that Boom is imagining the sand and sun, just as on the next pages Twitty is imagining hiking up a hill. Each is determined to get his or her own way; Snot, meanwhile, sets off to find someplace that will satisfy all of them. Liwska’s drawings give each creature and object a fuzzy quality that adds to the feeling of coziness. Cronin’s usual rollicking humor is less in evidence here than is her way with spare, child-friendly text. This story of friends disagreeing but finding compromise, through the zen-like wisdom of Snot, will satisfy and perhaps enlighten readers, too.

From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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6. 2015 Mind the Gap Awards: The books that didn’t win at ALA

mindthegap2015__237x203

Mad, man! The Madman of Piney Woods
by Christopher Paul Curtis
No Printz for the princes The Children of the King
by Sonya Hartnett
#WWBYD
(What Would Baba Yaga Do?)
Egg & Spoon
by Gregory Maguire
Slow and steady didn’t win the race The Turtle of Oman
by Naomi Shihab Nye,
illustrated by Betsy Peterschmidt
Locked out The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza
by Jack Gantos
Eclipsed West of the Moon by Margi Preus
Not its day in the sun Buried Sunlight
by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm,
illustrated by Molly Bang
Stalled My Bus by Byron Barton
Drat! Draw! by Raúl Colón
There. Are. No. Words. The Farmer and the Clown
by Marla Frazee

 

From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ala 2015.

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7. From the Guide: YA Memoirs

andrews_some assembly requiredAdolescence is a time of transition that for many teens is characterized by hurdles big and small. These new memoirs, written by and/or for young adults, and all recommended by The Horn Book Guide, offer teenage readers real-life stories of hardship and hard-won triumph.

—Katrina Hedeen
Associate Editor, The Horn Book Guide

Andrews, Arin  Some Assembly Required: The Not-So-Secret Life of a Transgender Teen
248 pp.     Simon     2014     ISBN 978-1-4814-1675-7
ebook isbn 978-1-4814-1677-1

YA With Joshua Lyon. The author, born female, suffered profound body dysmorphia until transitioning to male at age fourteen. Now seventeen, Andrews frankly discusses the physical and emotional challenges of his transition, activism, and very visible relationship with another transgender teen (Katie Rain Hill, author of Rethinking Normal, reviewed below). A “How to Talk to Your New  Transgender Friend” guide is appended. Reading list, websites.

Burcaw, Shane  Laughing at My Nightmare
250 pp.     Roaring Brook     2014     ISBN 978-1-62672-007-7

YA With brutal honesty, snarky humor, and a profound sense of absurdity, twenty-one-year-old wise-guy blogger Burcaw recounts the trials and tribulations of growing up with spinal muscular atrophy, with which he was diagnosed at age two. The conversational tone mixes information and personal anecdotes, putting a human face on a rare disability. An engaging, life-affirming memoir for teens.

DePrince, Michaela Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina
249 pp.     Knopf     2014     ISBN 978-0-385-75511-5
ebook ISBN 978-0-385-75513-9

YA With Elaine DePrince. This inspirational memoir traces Michaela’s journey from an orphanage in war-ravaged Sierra Leone through her adoption by an American couple to her rising ballet stardom (appearing in the documentary First Position; joining the Dutch National Ballet). Throughout, the daughter-and-mother writing team emphasizes how important optimism, love, and perseverance were to Michaela’s success. Striking textual imagery heightens the immediacy of Michaela’s experiences, whether tragic or triumphant.

Earl, Esther  This Star Won’t Go Out: The Life & Words of Esther Grace Earl
240 pp.     Dutton     2014     ISBN 978-0-525-42636-3

YA With Lori and Wayne Earl. John Green dedicated The Fault in Our Stars to Esther Earl, who, in her own words, “went through a life changing experience known as Thyroid Cancer.” This posthumous collection (with a moving introduction by Green) gathers her musings and drawings, which span her illness. Reflections by family and friends written both before and after her death at sixteen are also included. An ultimately hopeful offering.

Hill, Katie Rain  Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition
264 pp.     Simon     2014     ISBN 978-1-4814-1823-2
ebook ISBN 978-1-4814-1825-6

YA With Ariel Schrag. The author lived as a male — suicidally depressed due to body dysmorphia — until transitioning to female at age fifteen. This candid, touching memoir relates her transition, activism, public relationship with another transgender teen (Arin Andrews, Some Assembly Required, reviewed above) and hopes for the future. “Tips for Talking to Transgender People” are appended. Reading list, websites.

Rawl, Paige  Positive: Surviving My Bullies, Finding Hope, and Living to Change the World
272 pp.     HarperCollins/Harper     2014     ISBN 978-0-06-234251-5

YA With Ali Benjamin. HIV-positive teen Rawl recounts her journey through discovery, bullying, suicidal despair, and activism, tying her story into larger messages about difference, acceptance, healing, and courage, with additional focus on her anti-bullying platform. Rawl is frank and likable; her memoir’s strong narrative arc and relatable emotional reference points make it a highly readable conduit to multiple timely issues. Abundant resources are appended.

Rose, Mary  Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose
329 pp.     Sourcebooks/Fire     2014     ISBN 978-1-4022-8758-9

YA Edited by Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil. A posthumously published diary (supplemented by occasional letters and drawings) chronicles a troubled teen’s experiments with sex, drugs, and alcohol in the late 1990s; her conflicted relationship with her single mother; and her eventual decline and death from cystic fibrosis. A series of impressions rather than a shaped narrative, the book’s rawness and angst will nevertheless resonate with many teens.

Sundquist, Josh  We Should Hang Out Sometime: Embarrassingly, a True Story
290 pp.     Little, Brown     2015     ISBN 978-0-316-25102-0
ebook isbn 978-0-316-25101-3

YA Paralympian skier, motivational speaker, and video blogger Sundquist’s funny and endearing memoir chronicles his attempt to examine his romantic encounters after he realizes, at age twenty-five, that he’s never actually had a girlfriend. The resulting investigation — presented in a report-like format with footnotes, charts, and graphs — covers ten years of would-be relationships cut short by uncertainty, awkwardness, and misunderstandings.

From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. These reviews are from The Horn Book Guide and The Horn Book Guide Online. For information about subscribing to the Guide and the Guide Online, please click here.

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8. Review of Salsa

argueta_salsaSalsa: Un poema para cocinar / A Cooking Poem
by Jorge Argueta; illus. by Duncan Tonatiuh; trans. from the Spanish by Elisa Amado
Primary     Groundwood     32 pp.
3/15     978-1-55498-442-8     $18.95
e-book ed. 978-1-55498-443-5     $16.95

In this latest addition to his series of bilingual cooking poems (Arroz con leche / Rice Pudding; Guacamole), Argueta plays on the multiple meanings of salsa to create a mouth-watering musical recipe. The poem begins with a young boy telling the history of the molcajete and tejolote, the mortar and pestle traditionally made from the volcanic rock that forms from cooled lava and used to grind vegetables and spices. As the boy and his family prepare their weekly salsa roja, the child’s imagination runs wild. Ingredients become instruments — an onion is a maraca, tomatoes are bongos and kettledrums. Argueta’s use of onomatopoeia (prac-presh-rrick-rrick is the sound of the ingredients being ground in the molcajete) and detailed description of ingredients play on the various senses to convey the sounds, flavors, and feelings coming together as the boy’s family dances, sings, and cooks. Tonatiuh’s illustrations, rendered primarily in greens and reds, complement the two types of salsa mentioned in the poem. The earthy tones and Mesoamerican-inspired drawings suit the poem’s combination of the traditional elements of salsa-making with the modern scenes of a family cooking and celebrating. The lack of measurements may leave some readers perplexed (exactly how many tomatoes are needed?), but the more important message of love and family gathering to create something special shines through.

From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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9. Review of The Skunk

barnett_skunkstar2 The Skunk
by Mac Barnett; illus. by Patrick McDonnell
Primary     Roaring Brook     32 pp.
4/15     978-1-59643-966-5     $17.99

A skunk shows up on the narrator’s doorstep and begins to tail him. Try as he might, our narrator just can’t seem to shake the skunk — “When I sped up, the skunk sped up. When I slowed, the skunk slowed” — despite dodging in and out of an opera house, a graveyard, and a carnival. Ultimately, however, our narrator does lose his unwelcome shadow, crawling down a manhole in an alley and establishing a new life in a new house in a new part of the city (the heretofore low-toned palette now bursting with blue and yellow). It’s not long, though, before he realizes everything’s not what it’s cracked up to be, and he leaves his own party to go off in search of the skunk, vowing to keep an eye on him to “make sure he does not follow me again.” McDonnell’s graceful and simple cartoonlike illustrations mitigate the notes of paranoia and obsession in Barnett’s deadpan text, particularly in their rendering of the posture, gestures, and expressions of the main characters. Barnett has had the good fortune to collaborate with illustrators — Rex, Santat, Klassen — who share his oftentimes offbeat sense of humor; his pairing with McDonnell seems as natural as any of them.

From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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10. Review of Playful Pigs from A to Z

lobel_playful pigsstar2 Playful Pigs from A to Z
by Anita Lobel; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary     Knopf     40 pp.
7/15     978-0-553-50832-1     $16.99
Library ed. 978-0-553-50833-8     $19.99
e-book ed. 978-0-553-50834-5     $10.99

Twenty-six pigs wake up in their pen and decide to explore the countryside, running down the road and finding a field of “magical surprises”: brightly colored, freestanding letters of the alphabet. Lobel’s soft early-morning watercolors give way to bolder pages on which each pig is now clothed and standing upright. The entire alphabet, set in a distinctive condensed typeface, runs along the top and bottom borders while each pig interacts happily with a single tall, thin letterform (all are upper-case but i). Lobel uses a name-verb-letter structure (“Amanda Pig admired an A. Billy Pig balanced on a B”), with rolling hills below and plenty of white space behind the pig and letter. Repeat readers will spot an extra object beginning with the letter in question tucked into a lower corner. Gender roles are satisfyingly relaxed: Greta, a female soldier, guards the G, while on the  opposite page Hugo tenderly hugs an H. By the time Yolanda yawns and Zeke zzzs, evening has arrived and the pigs return to their pen in a mirror image of the opening spreads, once again unclothed and running on all fours. Dinner is followed by bedtime, with all twenty-six snuggled together cozily. This playful treatment creates a humorous, easygoing book that should relieve any anxiety about learning the alphabet.

From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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11. Review of Firefly Hollow

mcghee_firefly hollowFirefly Hollow
by Alison McGhee; illus. by Christopher Denise
Intermediate   Atheneum   292 pp.
8/15   978-1-4424-2336-7   $16.99   g
e-book ed. 978-1-4424-9812-9   $10.99

A kindred spirit “understands the deepest dream of your heart,” Vole says to Firefly and Cricket. This trio of friends has big dreams: Vole dreams of sailing down the river to rejoin family and friends lost in a flood years before; Firefly dreams of flying to the moon; and baseball-loving Cricket yearns to be the best catcher since Yogi Berra. Vole has no community, and Firefly and Cricket feel like outsiders in theirs. The affectionate third-person narration follows each friend’s preparations for his or her quest, and when the time comes, Firefly does indeed shoot for the stars, Cricket makes the big catch, and Vole realizes he has not lost everything after all. McGhee has so ably created a believable world where dreams can come true that the entwined fates of a firefly, a cricket, and a vole (and their “miniature giant” friend Peter, a human boy) will move readers with its rightness. Where once they had sung “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with abandon, Firefly now says, upon returning from her aerial adventure, “It’s not true, you know…That part in the song that says you don’t care if you never get back…I cared.” Fifteen full-color plates (only three seen) will embellish the finished edition.

From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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12. Starred reviews, September/October Horn Book

FireEngineThe following books will receive starred reviews in the September/October issue of The Horn Book Magazine:

Fire Engine No. 9; written and illustrated by Mike Austin (Random)

The Nonsense Show; written and illustrated by Eric Carle (Philomel)

Waiting; written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes (Greenwillow)

Two Mice; written and illustrated by Sergio Ruzzier (Clarion)

Crenshaw; by Katherine Applegate (Feiwel)

Sunny Side Up; by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm; illus. by Matthew Holm; color by Lark Pien (Graphix/Scholastic)

I Crawl Through It; by A. S. King (Little, Brown)

The Nest; by Kenneth Oppel; illus. by Jon Klassen (Simon)

The Hired Girl; by Laura Amy Schlitz (Candlewick)

Out of the Woods: A True Story of an Unforgettable Event; written and illustrated by Rebecca Bond; illus. by the author (Ferguson/Farrar)

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans; written and illustrated by Don Brown (Houghton)

Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear; by Lindsay Mattick; illus. by Sophie Blackall (Little, Brown)

Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War; by Steve Sheinkin (Roaring Brook)

Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement; by Carole Boston Weatherford; illus. by Ekua Holmes (Candlewick)

 

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13. Review of My Cousin Momo

ohora_my cousin momoMy Cousin Momo
by Zachariah OHora; illus. by the author
Primary     Dial     32 pp.
6/15     978-0-8037-4011-2     $16.99

Two squirrel siblings excitedly await a visit from their cousin Momo. Unlike them, he’s a flying squirrel — and once he arrives, they learn that the differences don’t stop there. Everything about Momo is foreign to the squirrel pups, from his perspective on superheroes (his costume: “Muffin Man!”) to the way he plays hide-and-seek and spoils their game of Acorn-Pong by eating the equipment. When the children make it known that they think Momo is no fun, Momo lets loose the waterworks. Feeling guilty, the kids apologize and learn the benefits of trying things “Momostyle” (even if they still like their way better sometimes). Once all is right in the world of cousinhood, Momo soars home, and the three squirrels can’t wait to see one another again soon. With thick lines, bold colors, pitch-perfect sound effects (“PUNT!”), and generous white space, OHora’s illustrations are vibrantly kid-centric. For example, the children’s conversations appear in speech bubbles, while the parents’ dialogue is only in the printed text. The squirrels’ tree-house décor, along with Momo’s striped sneakers and his tritoned athletic bands, emit a retro vibe, and OHora’s talent for capturing emotional facial expressions through seemingly simple brushstrokes is evident, loud and clear. Young readers will enjoy the silly culture clash; librarians and parents will delight in the lightly played theme of approaching the unfamiliar with an open mind.

From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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14. Review of First Grade Dropout

vernick_first grade dropoutFirst Grade Dropout
by Audrey Vernick; 
illus. by Matthew Cordell
Primary   Clarion   32 pp.
7/15   978-0-544-12985-6   $16.99

“I can’t stop thinking about it. How everyone laughed and slapped their desks and stomped their feet. And pointed. At me.” The narrator’s social infraction? “I. Called. My. Teacher. MOMMY!!!” It’s a typical-enough blunder among kids new to school (“Don’t worry. It happens every year,” tosses off the boy’s teacher), but what kid in any new situation feels typical? Having suffered what he perceives as landmark mortification, the narrator concludes that dropping out of school is his only option. At soccer practice, where he assumes a calculatedly laid-back persona (“I put my hand on my hip, like someone who doesn’t care if other people laugh”), he tests the waters, telling his best friend, Tyler, that he’s quitting school. Tyler has no idea why — so minor was the narrator’s transgression in everyone else’s eyes. An even more teachable moment comes later, when Tyler laughs at his own derision-worthy slipup. Tyler’s grace is a revelation for the narrator, who leaves the story finally capable of the same. The book is a riot as well as an analgesic: Vernick’s tightly wound, age-appropriately self-absorbed narrator is hugely relatable, but young readers will also get that he’s overdoing it. Cordell’s frugally tinted pen-and-ink and watercolor drawings have a Jules Feiffer–like looseness that captures the narrator’s downward thought-spiral, epitomized by a spread of an imagined all-classmate marching band chanting “Ha! Ha!” and wearing hats that read “Mommy.”

From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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15. Review of Daylight Starlight Wildlife

minor_daylight starlight wildlifeDaylight Starlight Wildlife
by Wendell Minor; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary   Paulsen/Penguin   32 pp.
5/15   978-0-399-24662-3   $17.99

In his signature representational artistic style — detailed, luminous, and pristine — Minor compares and contrasts diurnal and nocturnal animals. The opening double-page spread establishes the pattern. The creatures introduced are shown in a meadow, with half of them appearing in the daytime on the verso and the others bathed in soft moonlight on the recto. On the following pages, Minor depicts an animal (a butterfly, for example) or group of animals (such as woodchucks) active during the daytime hours; a corresponding illustration, most often on the facing page, shows a related animal or animals (such as a lunar moth or skunks) active at night. Minimal text echoes the movements in each of the gouache illustrations: “Chubby mother woodchuck and her cubs waddle out to munch in the meadow,” while in the nighttime counterpart, “Fearless mother skunk leads her litter through the field to find a midnight snack.” Diurnal animals are depicted first, then their nocturnal counterparts, except on the final double-page spread. Here, a horizontal illustration of nocturnal raccoons faces right to close the book, while below, daytime turkeys travel in the opposite direction. Readers have two options: either follow the raccoons and cut off the lights for bedtime, or follow the turkeys back to the beginning of the book and read it again. A list of “Fun Facts” about the featured creatures is appended.

From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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16. Book & Me | Comic #20

bm20

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17. Preview July/August 2015 Horn Book Magazine

July/August 2015 Horn Book MagazineSpecial Issue: Awards

Original cover art by 2015 Caldecott Medal winner Dan Santat.

Deborah Taylor, 2015 recipient of the Coretta Scott King/Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement, examines the winners and honorees of this year’s CSK Awards.

Jacqueline Woodson’s CSK Author Award acceptance speech.

Editor Nancy Paulsen’s profile of Jacqueline Woodson.

Christopher Myers’s CSK Illustrator Award acceptance speech.

Author Jason Reynolds’s profile of Christopher Myers.

Thom Barthelmess notices trends within the 2015 Newbery and Caldecott winners and honorees.

Dan Santat’s Caldecott Medal acceptance speech.

Editor Connie Hsu’s profile of Dan Santat.

Sight Reading: Leonard Marcus on This One Summer, honored by both the Caldecott and Printz committees.

Kwame Alexander’s Newbery Medal acceptance speech.

Poet Nikki Giovanni’s profile of Kwame Alexander.

A Second Look: Kathleen T. Horning rereads 1964 Newbery winner It’s Like This, Cat.

Donald Crews’s Wilder Medal Acceptance speech.

Nina Crews’s profile of her dad, Donald Crews.

Books in the Home by Megan Lambert: #WeGotDiverseAwardBooks.

2015 Mind the Gap Awards.

From The Guide: Young Adult Memoirs.

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18. Transformers: Reimagining the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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19. Review of Unusual Chickens for the 
Exceptional Poultry Farmer

jones_unusual chickens for the exceptional poultry farmerUnusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer
by Kelly Jones; illus. by Katie Kath
Intermediate   Knopf   213 pp.
5/15   978-0-385-75552-8   $16.99
Library ed. 978-0-385-75553-5   $19.99   g
e-book ed. 978-0-385-75554-2   $10.99

Moving to a farm inherited from her great-uncle may not be city-girl Sophie’s first choice for improving her family’s financial situation, but she’s determined to make the best of it. Chickens would make the farm more interesting, so when she finds a flier in the barn advertising the titular fowl, she writes in. Responses from “Agnes” at Redwood Farm come in the form of an extensive correspondence course in chicken-raising, and in the meantime decidedly unusual chickens find their way to the farm: Henrietta has telekinetic powers, and Chameleon is aptly named. Sophie quickly becomes devoted to her flock, but so does Ms. Griegson, a neighbor with her own interest in chickens with superpowers. It’s new-girl Sophie’s word against Ms. Griegson’s in a town unused to new people, especially new families with one white and one Mexican American parent; to the townspeople’s credit, they ultimately give Sophie the benefit of the doubt. The epistolary format consists mostly of letters in Sophie’s earnest voice; often the addressee is either her late abuelita or her great-uncle Jim in various iterations of the afterlife (“Mictlan”; “Heaven’s Dance Party”; “Valhalla, maybe?”). Sophie’s unique way of figuring life out on her own makes her easy to root for and provides entertainment beyond the inherent humor of chickens. Black-and-white illustrations match the mostly light feel of the text.

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

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20. Transformers: Ready or Not…

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

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

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

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

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

–H. Chuku Lee

* * *

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

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

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

–Pat Cummings

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

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21. Review of Tad and Dad

stein_tad and dadTad and Dad
by David Ezra Stein; 
illus. by the author
Preschool   Paulsen/Penguin   40 pp.
4/15   978-0-399-25671-4   $16.99   g

Poor Dad. Poor Tad. Neither frog is getting any sleep in his (lily)pad. Tad loves his dad so much that he can hardly bear to be away from him, even at night. Whether Tad is a wiggling tadpole, swimming everywhere with his dad, or a jumping frog with legs, he doesn’t want to sleep alone. “‘Why are you in my bed?’ said Dad. ‘So you won’t miss me,’ I said.” Parents everywhere, especially those with night-wandering, bed-sharing toddlers, will laugh with grim identification when Tad starts to swim and grow and jump and catch his own breakfast, just like Dad, but still crowds onto Dad’s lilypad at bedtime. And, when night comes and the growing froglet dreams and practices his new skills in his sleep (“So that’s what was kicking me…”), little ones will chuckle at Tad’s enthusiasm and Dad’s growing exhaustion. Relaxed circular and rectangular frames signal Dad’s more mature bearing, while Tad’s energy is uncontained, often filling the whole spread. Stein uses color to great effect to show the lap-listener that this little gem is both a celebration of the father-child relationship and a good-night book. See Tad and Dad snoring together on the last page? The world is blue and black, lit only by the moon. ’Night, Tad. ’Night, Dad. Like every good go-to-sleep book, this one will hold up to many repeat readings.

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

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22. Horn Book Magazine – July/August 2015

July/August 2015 Horn Book Magazine

Table of Contents


Features

“Coretta Scott King Awards 2015″ by Deborah Taylor
“A group of established creators and some very intriguing newcomers.”

“Coretta Scott King Author Award Acceptance” by Jacqueline Woodson

“A profile of Jacqueline Woodson” by Nancy Paulsen

“Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award Acceptance” by Christopher Myers

“A profile of Christopher Myers” by Jason Reynolds

“Caldecott and Newbery 2015″ by Thom Barthelmess
“Some meaningful, curious, and thought-provoking juxtapositions.”

“Caldecott Medal Acceptance” by Dan Santat

“A profile of Dan Santat” by Connie Hsu

“Newbery Medal Acceptance” by Kwame Alexander

“A profile of Kwame Alexander” by Nikki Giovanni

“Wilder Medal Acceptance” by Donald Crews

“A profile of Donald Crews” by Nina Crews

“2015 Mind the Gap Awards”
The books that didn’t win.


Columns

Editorial
“What the Survey Doesn’t Say” by Roger Sutton
Diversity by the numbers.

Sight Reading
“Some Vacation: This One Summer” by Leonard S. Marcus
Thoughts on this one book, honored by both the Caldecott and Printz committees.

A Second Look
It’s Like This, Cat” by Kathleen T. Horning
“The 1964 Newbery winner was difficult to select” — ah, do tell!

Books in the Home
“#WeGotDiverseAwardBooks” by Megan Dowd Lambert
Reflections on awards and allies.

From The Guide
“YA Memoirs”
A selection of reviews from The Horn Book Guide.


Reviews

Book Reviews


Departments

On the Web
July/August Starred Books
Impromptu
Index to Advertisers
Index to Books Reviewed


Cover © 2015 by Dan Santat. Page 2 art from Firebird. Illustration © 2014 by Christopher Myers.


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23. Dream Keepers: 2015 Coretta Scott King Author Award Acceptance

woodson_brown girl dreamingIt is Friday afternoon and I’m sitting in a restaurant in Vancouver, B.C. In an hour, I will give my final talk of a two-day visit. In these two days, I’ve visited a number of schools in Vancouver — both independent and public. As I stood in front of each crowd, I was astonished by a thing I’ve not encountered for many years now — being the only African American in an otherwise incredibly diverse room. I kept thinking to myself — “We are all almost here.”

Almost.

At the Hudson Children’s Book Festival in May, a young white reporter asked me, How has the award changed your life? I looked at her a moment, then said, Which award? She fell silent, looking confused. I was not inclined to fill the silence. In Brown Girl Dreaming I write, “Even the silence has a story to tell you. Just listen. Listen.” So I listened to the space grow between us — knowing the answer she would give was not the answer I wanted to hear. I knew her answer was going to come from her own sense of what is important in the world as she knew it. I held up the book and pointed to the CSK seal on it, letting more silence sit between us before I began in (as my partner likes to refer to it) my Joho Manner, to calmly and quietly break things down for her.

The Coretta Scott King Honor Award was given to me for the first time in 1995 for my book I Hadn’t Meant To Tell You This, a story of two girls growing up in Chauncey, Ohio — one wealthy and black, the other poor and white. Both being raised by their fathers. Because the book dealt with issues of, among other things, a deeply flawed health care system, friendship across lines of economic class, and sexual abuse, I was stunned and so pleased that the committee had awarded this book. But in 1996, when my novel From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun was given an Honor, while I was still young and nervous and new to the world of young people’s literature, I just thought, “Wow!” I had never dreamed that a book with a gay mom would even get published, let alone win a CSK Honor Award. I realized then that there were some people in this world who had my back — some people letting me know: “We got you.” Both of these moments changed my life.

And again my life was changed when the CSK committee gave the Author Award to my book Miracle’s Boys in 2001. That year, we learned that employees at the hotel where the awards ceremony was to be held were picketing. When the CSK members refused to cross the picket lines and, instead, canceled the ceremony, I knew I had found my people. In the way of our people always finding a way to make a way out of no way, my publisher and other publishers came together and organized the CSK Tea that Bryan Collier, the CSK Award winner for illustration, and I spoke at. The morning before that tea, I learned I was pregnant with our daughter, Toshi. To stand in that room and be among new family and old family, a generation coming, kindred spirits and people who deeply, deeply believed in me, was life-altering. And the years after these awards, when the CSK committee chose Locomotion and Each Kindness as Honor Books — launching those books into the world with their blessing, believing deeply…in me — these events have forever changed my life.

The first time I read Rudine Sims Bishop’s writing and understood the work I was brought here to do, my life was changed forever. The first time Deb Taylor brought me to the Enoch Pratt Free Library, my life was changed forever. The first time I hugged Walter Dean Myers, sat beside Virginia Hamilton and basked in the warmth of her smile, snapped a photo with Tom Feelings, read Stevie by John Steptoe — my life was changed forever. Every time I get to be in a room with Dr. Henrietta Smith, my life is changed.

So while there are some who will try to find ways to erase the magnitude of this award, the amazingness of us and our work — there are many more who know the importance of our stories in the world. So to the Coretta Scott King committee who chose Brown Girl Dreaming as this year’s award winner, I say Thank You — you have, once again, changed my life. To my editor, Nancy Paulsen, who dug so deeply into the pages of this story and helped me to believe that there was some sense to this journey, and a purpose,  I say Thank You — you continue to change my life. And to my Penguin Random House family, whose passion comes through with every email and phone call and visit to the office and dinner and champagne toast — I say Thank You. To my past editor, Wendy Lamb, who said “Write what you want,” and my past agent, Charlotte Sheedy, who said “We need to find you a home” and found me Nancy Paulsen — I say Thank You. To my present agent, Kathleen Nishimoto, whose energy and dedication and joy just…just makes me smile — I say Thank You. To my single mom, who, during the Great Migration, somehow got four kids from Greenville to Brooklyn and made sure we were all educated — in memory, I say Thank You. To the Woodsons and the Irbys who are still on this planet and the ones who have moved to the next place, I say Thank You. And to my family — my amazing partner, my glorious children, the aunts and uncles (two of whom are on this stage with me—Chris and Jason!—and Kwame, when you come to Brooklyn, we’re gonna rope you in, too!), and to the rest of our village who change our lives by being here to help us through every single day — I say Thank You!

manyauthors_adjusted_550x550

From left to right: Christopher Myers, Kwame Alexander, Jason Reynolds, Jacqueline Woodson, and Rita Williams-Garcia. Photo courtesy of Jason Reynolds.

I am deeply honored. We are here because of our ancestors and elders and the people who hold us up every day — thanks for helping all of us never forget them or the way each of us finds a way to make a way out of no way — every single day. Thank you so much, all of you who believe in Diverse Books, who believe in keeping young brown children — and all children — dreaming.

Jacqueline Woodson is the 2015 Coretta Scott King Author Award winner for Brown Girl Dreaming (Paulsen/Penguin). Her acceptance speech was delivered at the annual American Library Association Conference in San Francisco on June 28, 2015. From the July/August 2015 Special Awards issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Read editor Nancy Paulsen’s profile of Jacqueline Woodson. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ala 2015

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24. Profile of 2015 CSK Author winner Jacqueline Woodson

Photo: Marty Umans

Photo: Marty Umans

One of the greatest joys of my career has been seeing Brown Girl Dreaming come to life and reverberate as it has been handed from reader to reader.

I have been lucky enough to work with Jacqueline Woodson for almost twenty years. She was the very first author I signed up when I became the publisher of G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Her lyrical writing sang to me. Her voice was so strong and clear and evocative. I also loved her spare style, how she could make magic happen with an economy of words. Since then I’ve edited six of her amazing picture books; Brown Girl Dreaming is the tenth novel we’ve worked on together.

I never know what I am going to get next from Jacqueline, and I am always happily surprised. The muse strikes her, and then she sends her stories to me at various stages in the creative process. Some of the picture books, such as Show Way and Each Kindness, were practically perfect and complete when I received them. The main challenge for those titles was finding the right illustrator. The early drafts of the novels usually come in with much of the story in place, but lots of holes to fill in. So I start by asking questions. I love every character and always want to know more. With Brown Girl Dreaming — a memoir in verse — boy, did I want to know more about a character I loved!

When I received the first draft of Brown Girl Dreaming in 2012, I knew I was holding something special in my hands. Many of the poems from the first section were already there, including the opening one, which begins:

I am born on a Tuesday at University
Hospital
Columbus, Ohio,
USA—
a country caught

between Black and White.

Right from the beginning, we know we are going to get a story that is deeply personal but also one that tells of a shared history—the racial divide that is part of America—and readers will experience it from the eyes of a child who has lived in the North and the South. And because of the book’s title, we know we are in the hands of a dreamer, a young girl who has hope and aspirations. She is an observant student of the world around her. I love how she contemplates who she might become in the future by her admiration of those who have come before her:

I do not know if these hands will become
Malcolm’s—raised and fisted
or Martin’s—open and asking
or James’s—curled around a pen.

Through Jacqueline’s eyes we see, and then feel, the terrible injustice that a dignified black woman, her beloved grandmother, had to live through on a daily basis:

We walk straight past Woolworth’s
without even looking in the windows
because the one time my grandmother
went inside
they made her wait and wait. Acted like
I wasn’t even there. It’s hard not to see the
moment—
my grandmother in her Sunday clothes,
a hat
with a flower pinned to it
neatly on her head, her patent-leather
purse,
perfectly clasped
between her gloved hands—waiting
quietly
long past her turn.

As we witness her grandmother’s ordeal, our hearts are broken by something we cannot fix. But we gain such insight into how families like Jacqueline’s figured out ways to fight back, ways to bring about the change the world so desperately needed:

This is the way brown people have to fight,
my grandfather says.
You can’t just put your fist up. You have to
     insist
on something
gently. Walk toward a thing
slowly.

But be ready to die,
my grandfather says,
for what is right.

woodson_brown girl dreaming_170x258As I read each draft of Brown Girl Dreaming — and, as Jacqueline says, there were so dang many of them! — I wanted more and more answers. I wanted to know about the love she felt for both her Southern and Northern roots and what it felt like to have a special place in her heart for each of them. I wanted to know what it was like when her mother bravely went off alone to search for a place to bring up her four children, a place that would offer them the most freedom and opportunity.

Looking for her next place.
Our next place.
Right now, our mother says,
we’re only halfway home.

And I imagine her standing
in the middle of a road, her arms out
fingers pointing North and South.

I want to ask:
Will there always be a road?
Will there always be a bus?
Will we always have to choose
between home

and home?

The book grew from three parts to five, as it became clear that more ground needed to be covered for the many facets of Jacqueline’s life. Please tell me more about your religion, I asked. What was it like to go door-to-door as a Jehovah’s Witness and have to introduce yourself to strangers? And in the telling, more stories emerged. Jacqueline’s grandfather (called “Daddy”), as it turned out, did not embrace organized religion. Her uncle, while in jail, converted to Islam. And in living through all this, Jacqueline
grew more open and empathetic to other people’s beliefs:

But I want the world where my daddy is
and don’t know why
anybody’s God would make me
have to choose.

One of the best parts of editing this memoir was learning about how storytelling was a part of young Jacqueline’s life. How she could hold her classmates rapt by repeating stories even before she learned to read. How she knew, early on, that there was enormous power in words:

I want to catch words one day. I want to
hold them
then blow gently,
watch them float
right out of my hands.

And so she has. Jacqueline’s words in Brown Girl Dreaming float off the page; they first linger and then stay even longer with the reader. When the thirty drafts were done, and Jacqueline and I both agreed at the same time that the story was complete, we had advance reading copies made. I gave out the first ones to librarians and educators at the Texas Library Association conference in San Antonio in early 2014. John Schumacher and Colby Sharp shared their copies with Paul Hankins and with Donalyn Miller, who wrote in a Nerdy Book Club blog post about reading the galley on her way home from the convention:

As I read, a silver thread flowed out of Brown Girl Dreaming, and twined up my wrist to my chest — connecting Jackie’s family to me and making them part of me. Following Colby’s scribbled brackets around lines and folded page corners like messages for me to find, he was with me in the book, too. That thread connects me to Jackie now, but it also connects me to Colby, Jillian [Heise], and everyone who will ever read Brown Girl Dreaming.

I love that Jacqueline’s writing has the power to connect us. It reminds us of so many universal parts of growing up: competing with siblings, feeling content in the heart of your family, being confused by a million messages coming at you, struggling to make sense of the senseless, and ultimately finding the power of your own voice. Reading a memoir like Brown Girl Dreaming reminds us that each of us has a voice and needs to find it in our own time; that everyone’s story is important; that we become stronger by dreaming our dreams and sharing our stories; and that books have the power to make the world a better place.

And so I thank Jacqueline Woodson, as well as all the librarians and teachers and booksellers who have worked to get this book into the hands of so many readers. You are all changing the world.

Profile of 2015 Coretta Scott King Author Award winner Jacqueline Woodson. From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Read Jacqueline Woodson’s Coretta Scott King Author Award acceptance speech for Brown Girl Dreaming. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ala 2015.

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25. Profile of 2015 Caldecott Medal winner Dan Santat

bigbook

Dan Santat is one of the hardest-working people in publishing. This is widely known among his followers on Twitter and Facebook, who often see him burning the midnight oil, and the editors and art directors at the several publishing houses with which he’s worked.

This is obvious in the number of books that bear his dynamic illustrations, in everything from picture books and chapter books to graphic novels. This is undeniable, because last year he created over five hundred pages of four-color illustrations.

This is unheard of.

bikechickenBut what Dan does isn’t just hard work. It takes a lot of guts too, a blind leap of faith that gave him the drive to sleep for only four hours a night for ten years, so that he could, time and again, turn in consistently great work — all while raising two young sons, Alek and Kyle, with his wife Leah, and taking care of a menagerie of pets.

Like Beekle, Dan Santat has been on a journey.

He was born in Brooklyn in 1975 to Adam and Nancy Santat, a Thai couple who immigrated to the United States in 1968. When he turned three, his parents moved the family to California, where they both eagerly awaited the day their only child would become a doctor.

When Dan graduated from the University of California, San Diego in microbiology, he found himself pulled by a calling that he’d had for many years but had never acted on. Rather than going on to dental school, he instead enrolled at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. There he saw something familiar — other students just like him who dreamed of a life filled with art. This is also where he met one of his closest friends, illustrator Peter Brown.

He then sailed through unknown waters and took on many different jobs, from texture artist and 3D modeler to concept art designer for video games, until he reached the children’s book world. In 2002, he met Scholastic editor Arthur Levine at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference, which led to his first book, The Guild of Geniuses. Aside from developing a Disney animated television series, The Replacements, it was all books from there on.

Children’s book publishing is a strange place. The process is slow. It takes a lot of work. And most people don’t get paid very much.

In 2010, Dan was offered what most people would call a dream job. Google approached him, wanting him to become one of their Google Doodlers. Taking that job meant financial stability for his family. It would prove art school wasn’t a mistake. It would change his life.

He turned the job down.

It was not an easy decision, but he loved creating children’s books, and deep down, he knew he would look back and wonder “What if?” He also thought about the example he was setting for his sons and how he wanted them to also follow their dreams no matter how difficult. Determined to have no regrets, Dan became a work machine.

surlyasian2He took on as many projects as he could, always pushing himself to make the next book better. He woke up every morning at 6:30 to help his boys get to school and worked until 2 a.m. He illustrated over sixty books, and in 2014 alone, he had thirteen books published that featured his art. He drank so much coffee that he began roasting his own beans, even creating his own brand he called “Surly Asian Guy,” which he shared with friends, family, and colleagues. The coffee is bold, strong, and a touch bitter, but still quite pleasing — a little like Dan himself.

This grueling routine went on for years, and Dan assumed he could do it for more, but 2014 was rough. Family health emergencies led to hospitalizations, and multiple deadlines for big books left him with as few as twelve hours of sleep in an entire week. He was exhausted, and on his birthday last October he shared the following in a blog post: “I want and expect far too much than what I may be capable of. I’m thirty-nine and I feel tired.”

A few weeks later, The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend began to appear on year-end “best of ” lists. Minh Le at The Huffington Post blog named it the Best Overall picture book of the year, and in his review he wrote, “As with all great books, Beekle has an air of inevitability about it. As if somewhere out there is an island of perfect stories just waiting for the right person to come along and imagine it into being.”

Up until then, Dan was known for his action-packed illustrations, full of humor and high energy, as seen in books such as Oh No!: Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World, The Three Ninja Pigs, and Chicken Dance. Beekle’sstory reflected his softer side and was inspired by Dan’s first child, his son Alek. Like Beekle imagining his real friend, Dan had wondered, before Alek’s birth, what his child would look and be like. A few years later, on Alek’s first day of school, Dan eased his son’s worries about making friends. “All it takes is one,” he’d said, just as when Alice finally meets Beekle and his friendship opens up for her the possibility for more.

santatfamilyThe name “Beekle” itself comes from Alek’s first word, an early attempt at “bicycle.” There’s a video of one-year-old Alek pedaling a tricycle at Christmas, cheerfully exclaiming, “Beekle!” At the time, Dan’s wife Leah said the name would make a great picture book character. Years later, “Beekle” became an unimaginary friend.

The book began as a very short script, a few black-and-white sketches, and one full-color sample. Beekle had one eye, a hat and scarf, and a story that hinted at journey and adventure. Since he’d written only one picture-book text, and that over ten years earlier, writing did not come quickly to Dan. He took an ambitious approach at first. At one point, the story was a metaphor for the creative process, a tale of how
an author and illustrator come together on a picture book. But then he took a step back and adhered to the old adage of “speaking from the heart.” The minute you meet Dan you can tell he’s a captivating storyteller and speaker, and he soon realized that all he had to do was take those words out of his mouth and put them onto paper.

santat_adventures of beekleThroughout the process, Beekle and his story changed. Dan believes that in character design, every single element must serve a purpose. So Beekle got two eyes, because there was no reason for him to have just one. Beekle became even more amorphous, an ambiguous blob, because he was meant to be dreamed up by a shy young girl who thought she didn’t deserve any imaginary friend, much less an awesome one. Like a white sheet of paper, Beekle represented possibility and imagination.

He was also bestowed with a crown; while Beekle was simple and indistinct, he was always a king in Alice’s mind. He got one of the cutest butts in picture books, because creative director Dave Caplan would exclaim, “Look at that tuchus!” every time he saw it, and Dan, ever a professional with publishers, aimed to please.

While Dan took out some of the layers of the story, he added much to the overall design and illustration. The endpapers feature various children with their imaginary friends, each one specifically paired with the child’s interests. In the front endpapers Beekle stands alone, and in the back, there he is with Alice. The case cover reveals a cruder Beekle, as though he were hand-drawn by a child — in this case, we imagine it was done by Alice. On the front cover and in the book we see that while adults never pay attention to Beekle, animals do. The colors embark on a journey too, from the psychedelic rainbow palette of the imaginary world to the dark grays and blues of the real world. As the sun sets, Beekle sits perched atop a bare tree waiting for his friend, the sepia tones in the background matching his melancholy, and when he meets Alice at last, the world blooms with bright color.

Though the story itself took a step away from being about the creative process, the message is still there, on the pages where Alice shares her drawings with Beekle — each one echoing the previous pages in the story. So he got that in there after all. Touché, Dan.

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend is the culmination of hard work and hard-earned experience. With this book Dan felt he had finally reached his destination, which is why, for the first time in his career, he allowed himself a little hope. He thought that if all the stars were aligned, he might be in the running for a Caldecott Honor. That was all he could imagine.

When his cover appeared on that last Caldecott slide at the ALA Youth Media Awards, cheers erupted, and everyone, from the publishers he’s worked with to the large and loving community of authors and illustrators who’ve had his back for years, knew.

Dan Santat had done the unimaginable.

Dan Santat is the winner of the 2015 Caldecott Medal for The Adventures of Beekle: An Unimaginary Friend (Little, Brown). From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ala 2015.

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