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Results 1 - 25 of 220
1. Review of In Mary’s Garden

kugler_in mary's gardenIn Mary’s Garden
by Tina Kügler and Carson Kügler; illus. by the authors
Primary   Houghton   32 pp.
3/15   978-0-544-27220-0   $16.99

As a girl, Mary “was happiest when her hands were busy making, building, creating things.” As she grew up and traveled around the world, those early interests developed into a love for art. She returns to the Wisconsin lake house she’d helped her father build and begins a lifelong art project there, gathering found items from the beach, assembling scraps, building frames, mixing concrete, and erecting a menagerie of larger-than-life sculptures inspired by her travels. The authors embellish their picture-book biography of artist Mary Nohl (1914–2001) with touches of whimsy — her dogs Sassafras and Basil assist beyond the bounds of ordinary canine capacity, for example — reflecting their subject’s own outsized imagination. The illustrations — digital collages of scratchy, affectionate paintings on an assortment of papers — mirror this sense of wonder; careful readers will see a variety of friendly creatures swirling amid the clouds and hiding in tree trunks. An afterword, including two photographs and source notes, offers a more detailed account of Kohl’s life and work, notes about her detractors (“Some people didn’t understand Mary’s unusual creations, and called her a witch”), and a hope for her legacy to endure.

From the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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2. Review of You Nest Here with Me

yolen_you nest here with meYou Nest Here with Me
by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple; illus. by Melissa Sweet
Preschool   Boyds Mills   32 pp.
3/15   978-1-59078-923-0   $16.95   g

Yolen and Stemple gracefully incorporate natural science into a comforting picture book comparing various nesting birds with a “nesting” child (“My little nestling, time for bed…”). Some birds, such as pigeons, which “nest on concrete ledges,” will be familiar to many children, while others may be less so: “Grackles nest in high fir trees / Terns all nest in colonies.” Almost always, the verse ends with the soothing refrain, “But you nest here with me.” Sweet’s watercolor, gouache, and mixed-media illustrations use rich colors and delicate lines. The pictures are both accurate and arresting, page after page. Many details are included for children to pick out, such as a frog mother and child sitting on a log near a coot’s nest, or a fox gazing interestedly at a killdeer performing a “broken-wing charade” to protect her babies. A closing spread includes additional facts about each bird, along with a picture of its shape, feather, and egg. Science meets wonder in this deeply satisfying collaboration between poets and artist.

From the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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3. Review of I, Fly

heos_i flyI, Fly: The Buzz About Flies and How Awesome They Are
by Bridget Heos; illus. by Jennifer Plecas
Primary   Holt   40 pp.
3/15   978-0-8050-9469-5   $17.99   g

An adorable fly — googly-eyed, fuzzy-bodied, and with a winning smile, as portrayed in Plecas’s funny but informative cartoon illustrations — makes a compelling argument for why he should be the science-class representative for insect life cycles instead of the overexposed, annoyingly perfect butterfly. He pleads his case in front of a skeptical classroom audience, who grill the fly about his more unsavory habits (garbage-eating, disease-spreading). Eventually convinced that “Flies rule!” the students capture the fly for scientific study, and he quickly changes his tune, pleading for his release. Heos cleverly skewers the classic elements of the typical animal book — the insect life cycle is told through a sappy reminiscence, and the point-by-point comparisons to butterflies and mosquitoes highlight just what makes an insect an insect. Those educators also weary of the primary-science butterfly bias will find this take on insects refreshing, amusing, and scientifically accurate. Appended with a glossary, select bibliography, and list of experts (presumably consulted).

From the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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4. Review of Listen, Slowly

lai_listen slowlyListen, Slowly
by Thanhhà Lại
Intermediate, Middle School   Harper/HarperCollins   260 pp.
2/15   978-0-06-222918-2   $16.99

This second novel from National Book Award winner Lại (Inside Out and Back Again, rev. 3/11) grabs readers from the start. California girl Mai is on a plane, accompanying Ba, her grandmother, on a trip to Vietnam. Mai, who planned to spend her summer at the beach flirting with “HIM,” the boy she has a crush on, is furious. Her dad says Ba needs her support — a detective has claimed he has news about Ong, Ba’s husband, who went missing during the Vietnam War — but the self-absorbed tween is still outraged. Lại convincingly shows Mai’s slow transformation from spoiled child to someone who can look beyond herself with compassion. Mai’s change of heart is believable, moving in fits and starts and taking its own sweet time; she retains her sarcastic sense of humor, but her snark gradually loses its bite, and she begins laughing at herself more than others. The heartbreaking sorrow of Ba’s, and Vietnam’s, past is eased some by the novel’s comical elements (a Vietnamese teen who learned English in the U.S. — and drawls like a Texan; a cousin who carries her enormous pet bullfrog with her everywhere). The detailed descriptions of Mai’s culture shock and acclimation bring the hot and humid Vietnamese setting, rural and urban, to life. Her strong-willed personality makes her an entertaining narrator; readers will happily travel anywhere with Mai.

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

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5. Review of Last Stop on Market Street

de la pena_last stop on market streetstar2 Last Stop on Market Street
by Matt de la Peña; illus. by Christian Robinson
Primary     Putnam     32 pp.
1/15     978-0-399-25774-2     $16.99

CJ, a young black boy, has a flurry of questions for his grandmother one rainy day: “How come we gotta wait for the bus in all this wet?” “How come we don’t got a car?” “How come we always gotta go here after church?” Only at book’s end do readers learn that “here” is a soup kitchen in a hardscrabble part of town (“How come it’s always so dirty over here?”) where CJ and Nana work every Sunday. Nana has a bottomless supply of look-on-the-sunny-side answers (“Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful”), but she isn’t dispensing bromides; the economical, exquisitely composed collage illustrations showing the pair in a glamour-free urban setting forbid a glib reading. CJ and Nana develop a fellowship with the bus driver, Mr. Dennis, and with the other passengers (a blind man and his dog; an old woman holding a jar of butterflies; a man playing the guitar), and it takes just a gentle nudge from Nana for CJ to unhesitatingly drop the coin Mr. Dennis gave him into the musician’s hat. De la Peña and Robinson here are carrying on for Ezra Jack Keats in spirit and visual style. This quietly remarkable book will likely inspire questions of a sort less practical-minded than CJ’s; it will also have some adult readers reaching for a tissue.

From the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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6. Review of Count with Maisy, Cheep, Cheep, Cheep!

cousins_count with maisy cheep cheep cheepCount with Maisy, Cheep, Cheep, Cheep!
by Lucy Cousins; illus. by the author
Preschool   Candlewick   32 pp.
2/15   978-0-7636-7643-8   $15.99   g

Maisy helps Mommy Hen track down her ten little chicks in time for bed. Starting at the stable, they make their way around the farm (“Are there any chicks in the trailer? Or in the tractor? Are there any chicks in the apple tree?”), picking up the little ones as they go. The last chick proves somewhat elusive (spoiler alert: it’s not behind the flour sack, in the wheelbarrow, behind the beehive, or in the watering can), but by book’s end, everyone is accounted for, and the chickens all snuggle into their coop for some zzzs. It’s the simplest of concept books, but well executed. Large pages, friendly illustrations, old friends (Cyril, Charlie, Eddie, etc.), lots of white space, engaging flaps, cute hiding places, clearly labeled numerals, and a very simple story line — but there is one — all play very nicely together.

From the January/February 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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7. Review of Welcome to the Family

hoffman_welcome to familyWelcome to the Family
by Mary Hoffman; illus. by Ros Asquith
Primary   Frances Lincoln   28 pp.
12/14   978-1-84780-592-8   $17.99

This chatty, informative book covers all the bases — and then some — in its survey of how families are made. Friendly cartoon illustrations highlight various permutations, from families formed by birth and adoption to foster and blended families. Same-sex and single parents are represented in the art and text; mixed-race families are depicted in the illustrations. After a very brief and age-appropriate explanation of reproduction (“You need two cells to make a baby — one from a man and one from a woman”), the discussion touches on in vitro fertilization and — somewhat misleadingly — sperm donation (“when there are two mommies”) and surrogacy (“when there are two daddies”). This catalog-like approach means some information is given short shrift, which may be confusing. The tone throughout is light and straightforward, though Hoffman acknowledges that things don’t always “go smoothly” in families. A little teddy bear appears on most spreads, adding its own commentary (“Two moms. I never had one”) or clarifying information. The final page offers this discussion starter: “How did you come into YOUR family?” Nine kids (and one teddy) chime in with speech-bubble answers: “I’ve got two daddies”; “My foster dad was adopted”; “Me and my brothers ALL started in a glass dish.” With more detail than Parr’s The Family Book if less depth than Harris and Emberley’s It’s NOT the Stork! (rev. 9/06), this is a useful and accessible treatment.

From the January/February 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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8. Review of I Was Here

forman_i was hereI Was Here
by Gayle Forman
High School    Viking    272 pp.
1/15    978-0-451-47147-5    $18.99    g

Meg Garcia is brilliant and passionate — a standout in her dead-end Washington State hometown and a constant in best friend Cody’s unstable life. But just months after escaping to college on a prestigious scholarship, Meg checks into a motel and drinks a bottle of industrial cleaner. Cody is blindsided and guilt-ridden; when she finds an encrypted document on Meg’s laptop containing explicit suicide instructions, Cody slips down an investigative rabbit-hole that leads her deep into Meg’s hidden personal life. Cody reaches out to Meg’s college friends, and most agree that Meg was troubled. But when scouring Meg’s remaining digital footprint turns up correspondence with a disturbing pro-suicide web forum, Cody pursues this lead with reckless desperation. Capable and tough, Cody is a relentless but self-destructive detective bent on untangling a grim and dangerous mystery that offers no possible redeeming solution. A volatile but tenderly drawn romance with Meg’s tormented musician ex–love interest offers moments of tentative hopefulness for Cody, but her struggle with grief and complicity is intense and affecting up until an emotional gut-punch of a conclusion. Once this compelling case is closed, what remains is a haunting, elegiac tale about enduring and understanding loss.

From the January/February 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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9. Review of Smick!

cronin_smickSmick!
by Doreen Cronin; illus. by Juana Medina
Preschool, Primary   Viking   32 pp.
2/15   978-0-670-78578-0   $16.99   g

With minimal text, a clever use of sight words and word families, and a bounty of playfulness, Cronin introduces preschoolers (and early readers) to their new best friend: good-natured, tail-wagging, droopy-eared dog Smick. A game of fetch between dog and offstage narrator (“Stick?”) gives way to the discovery of a new friend when Smick is distracted by a “Cluck!” in the distance. Smick, stick, and the newly introduced chick, who is now comfortably situated on Smick’s head, attempt to resume the game, with mixed results (“Slow, Smick, slow!”). All ends in joyful doggy friendship: “Sidekick… / Sidechick. / Side lick! ick.” Digitally rendered art incorporates photo images of a flower petal (transformed into the chick by the addition of a few added black lines for wings, legs, eyes, and beak) and a wooden stick. However, it mostly consists of simple black lines, stark against the expansive white space, that communicate Smick’s constant motion and boundless energy with economy, verve, and apt detail (i.e., one ear lifted in the direction of a new sound). The handful of words per page play with meaning via order and context à la Gravett’s Apple Pear Orange Bear (rev. 7/07), allowing readers to flesh out the story themselves and encouraging independent reading. “Go, Smick, go!” cheers the narrator, in homage to the classic Eastman easy reader. Readers will cheer along.

From the January/February 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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10. Review of Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny

himmelman_tales of bunjitsu bunnystar2Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny
by John Himmelman; illus. by the author
Primary   Holt   128 pp.
10/14   978-0-8050-9970-6   $13.99
e-book ed. 978-0-8050-9972-0   $9.49

Young rabbit Isabel is known as Bunjitsu Bunny for her proficiency in martial arts class. Himmelman’s thirteen short, generously illustrated chapters relate Isabel’s adventures as she demonstrates that “bunjitsu is not just about kicking, hitting, and throwing…It is about finding ways NOT to kick, hit, and throw.” Each droll tale contains a lesson — about avoiding fights (with tough jackrabbits), outsmarting bullies (especially fox pirates), dealing with nightmares (of scary monsters), never giving up (when being “bearjitsu”-ed), and more. Cleverly wrapped in an entertaining package, the zen-type morals are edifying but not preachy and serve to genuinely enrich the stories. Solid brush-like strokes in black give the drawings the clean look of block prints, the only added tint a soft red used mainly to set Isabel apart from her classmates, her flame-colored martial-arts uniform aptly matching her zippy personality.

From the January/February 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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11. Editorial: The Difference That Made Them

Inadvertently or not, ALA heeded the call of the zeitgeist when it honored six books (out of ten in toto) by people of color in the 2015 Newbery and Caldecott medals and honors, announced last month at the Midwinter conference in Chicago. The winners were Kwame Alexander (African American) for Newbery and Dan Santat (Asian American) for Caldecott; the honor recipients included women of color Jacqueline Woodson for the Newbery and Yuyi Morales, Jillian Tamaki, and Lauren Castillo for the Caldecott. This is all wonderful news.

Yet another honoree represents diversity of a different kind: Cece Bell, who won a Newbery Honor for the graphic-novel memoir El Deafo, is deaf. At that same ALA conference, ALSC held a day-long institute about diversity in books for young people. While speakers were careful to note that diversity included identifiers beyond ethnic group, more than one opined that what we were “really” talking about on this day was the depiction of people of color in children’s and YA literature. While that topic is more than enough for a day’s work, is it, “really,” all we are talking about?

Cece Bell presents one valuable exception; the five men whose work is profiled by Barbara Bader beginning on page 24 present another. No one would claim that these men were invisible; among them, they have fifteen Caldecott or Newbery citations and three Laura Ingalls Wilder medals. (Sendak takes the lion’s share while Remy Charlip, always ahead of the curve, has none.) And coming of artistic age at a time when such things were secret — or at least private — they all were gay. Tomie dePaola, God bless him, alone among them is still alive and flourishing: witness his glorious cover portrait of himself among brothers, convened in a party by noted hostess and self-proclaimed genius Gertrude Stein. (Who wouldn’t pay to see Jim Marshall try to make Gertrude Stein laugh? I bet he could and she would.)

Jokes about Frog and Toad being more than friends aside, none of these men ever wrote explicitly about being gay — first, one assumes, because of the strictures of the times and, second, because they created books for very young children. What enabled them to do so with such heart and intelligence? Only Arnold Lobel had children, but they all could, as Bader writes, “think big on a small child’s level.” Does their being gay have anything to do with this? I think yes.

Much is made by diversity advocates of the need to have cultural insiders create books that convey a culture with empathy, authenticity, and respect. True enough. But don’t outsiders have something to offer as well? The five artists Bader profiles grew up in an era in which gays and lesbians could not even look to their own families, never mind the wider community, for affirmation. Gay kids grew up alone, attentive to all the ways in which they did not belong. It tends to make one an extremely good observer, the first step in becoming an artist. Never underestimate the payoff of a lonely childhood.

I am certainly glad times are different now. Out gay artists, along with all those represented in the alphabet soup that is queer identity today, create picture books and novels and nonfiction for young people that forthrightly address a spectrum of sexuality and gender identity, and fewer people blink every day. But may these same artists also remember their rich legacy and continue to create wild things and clowns of God, friendly frogs and hippos, arm in arm in arm in arm to touch the imaginations of our children all.

From the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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12. Review of BirdCatDog

BirdCatDogBirdCatDog [Three-Story Books]
by Lee Nordling; illus. by Meritxell Bosch
Primary    Graphic Universe/Lerner    32 pp.
11/14    Library ed.  978-1-4677-4522-2    $25.26
Paper ed.  978-1-4677-4523-9    $6.95
e-book ed.  978-1-4677-4524-6    $25.32

In this innovative wordless picture book told entirely through cartoon panels, three pets escape the ennui of domestication for brief, interconnected adventures in the wild. An introduction explains that readers may read across the six-by-three distribution of rectangular panels for the protagonists’ parallel plot lines — the Tweety-like yellow bird in the blue-saturated top row of panels; the orange tabby in the green-toned middle row; and the bluish-gray guard dog in the yellow-hued bottom row—or read from top to bottom to “get the whole story.” Expressive, accessible art wordlessly follows the pets’ adventures, during which each animal not only interacts (badly) with the other two pets but also comes snout-to-snout (or beak-to-beak) with a wild version of itself: a hawk, a lynx, a wolf. While the consistent panel grid sacrifices the more dynamic layout and pacing afforded by a variety of panel sizes and shapes, this structure (with its protagonist-color-complementing rows) unobtrusively guides readers along. And it’s that much more effective when that structure breaks into a dizzying and hilarious double-page spread of all six creatures in a high-speed chase through the pets’ backyard, a bemused squirrel looking on. Once they have chased off the interlopers, the triumphant pets settle down for well-deserved naps on their well-defended home turf.

From the January/February 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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13. Review of The Walls Around Us

suma_walls around usstar2 The Walls Around Us
by Nova Ren Suma
High School   Algonquin   321 pp.
3/15   978-1-61620-372-6   $17.95   g
e-book ed. 978-1-61620-486-0   $17.95

Orianna Speerling — the so-called “Bloody Ballerina” — is just fifteen when she is convicted of murdering two rival dancers. A month after her sentence begins, all forty-two girls interned at the Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center are dead — victims of an unexplained mass killing. Ori’s story is gradually revealed through the eyes of two unreliable narrators. Violet is Ori’s affluent best friend, a fellow dancer who knows more about Ori’s crime than she’ll ever admit — especially if the truth might jeopardize her future at Juilliard. Amber is an inmate at Aurora Hills who pushes the library cart from cell to cell — quietly waiting out a long sentence and keeping secrets of her own, such as having visions of girls she’s never met. In lyrical, authoritative prose, Suma weaves the disparate lives of these three girls into a single, spellbinding narrative that explores guilt, privilege, and complicity with fearless acuity. Amber’s voice is particularly affecting — she narrates from an eerily omniscient first-person plural perspective that speaks powerfully to the dehumanizing realities of teen imprisonment. The twisting, ghostly tale of Ori’s life, death, and redemption is unsettling and entirely engrossing.

From the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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14. Review of Won Ton and Chopstick

wardlaw_won ton and chopstickWon Ton and Chopstick:
A Cat and Dog Tale Told in Haiku

by Lee Wardlaw; illus. by Eugene Yelchin
Primary   Holt   40 pp.
3/15   978-0-8050-9987-4   $17.99   g

In this sequel to Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku (rev. 3/11), the cautious kitty has another reason to be worried: an adorable new puppy. Won Ton is not happy when he catches his first glimpse: “Ears perk. Fur prickles. / Belly low, I creep…peek…FREEZE! / My eyes full of Doom.” He scoffs at the ideas the people suggest for names, and ferociously warns the new pup: “Trespassers bitten.” Yelchin’s graphite and gouache illustrations depict with sensitivity and humor the sleek gray cat’s initial fear and horror alongside the roly-poly brown puppy. Pastel backgrounds cleverly incorporating shadow and light allow the funny poses and expressions of the pair to shine. Each haiku is complete in itself, capturing the essence of cat with images such as the banished and lonesome Won Ton “Q-curled tight,” and together the poems create a whole tale of displacement and eventual mutual understanding. At the end, both cat and puppy snuggle in bed with the boy, meeting nose-to-nose as friends.

From the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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15. Five Gay Picture-Book Prodigies and the Difference They’ve Made

depaola cover art

From the March/April 2015 cover by Tomie dePaola.

Andy Manley, a Scottish theater artist, travels the world putting on shows for children. In 2014, he was in New York doing My House, a “mostly wordless solo piece co-starring a cardboard box and a wayward melon,” according to the New York Times. That one was designed for youngsters eighteen months to three years old.

“Do you have kids?” the Times reporter asked. “No,” Manley replied, “I’m gay.”

Two thoughts occur. First, being gay is less and less a barrier to fatherhood. But in any case it’s a rare father who, qua father, has Manley’s playful imagination, his creative reach: in sum, his ability to think big on a small child’s level.

That’s what a number of gay picture-book creators — distinctively, perhaps — have been doing for the past sixty years or so. Maurice Sendak, Arnold Lobel, James Marshall, Remy Charlip, and Tomie dePaola differ in just about every outward way, from the look and content of their books to the course of their lives and careers. But open the covers of those books and you’ll find tenderness, wit, and imagination as a common bond — qualities that they have in common with the unfettered young.

 

Maurice Sendak (1928–2012)

Sendak drew feelings — first and last, the feelings of small children. Over the years his subjects ranged from nursery-rhyme characters to life in a Polish shtetl to heroic nudes and portrait heads, but his work is grounded in 
the life force of the young, girls and boys alike.

AHoleIsToDig_straightenedUnisexism, or gender equivalence, showed its face — maybe for the first time on record — in A Hole Is to Dig (1952), where Sendak’s drawings illustrate Ruth Krauss’s collection of kids’ off-the-cuff definitions. Along with “A hole is to dig,” in multiple embodiments, we find the indelible “Eyebrows are to go over your eyes” and “The world is to have something to stand on.”

Think of that! On his first try, Sendak had girls and boys doing what each was “supposed” to do. Krauss, a progressive thinker, pointed out that young kids didn’t behave that way and, according to Sendak, he made a few changes to eliminate the stereotypes. Altogether, he did more than that: there are no sex roles whatever in the pair-ups or group scenes, and no pat tableaux as a consequence. In an independent jacket drawing, moreover, one little boy holds a bouquet of flowers for another to sniff.

A Hole Is to Dig, small but mighty, liberated little girls from dolls-and-doilies more than ten years before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique touched off the second wave of American feminism — and, along the way, freed little boys from being he-men.

very far awayNow, a small boy could be desolate, feel rejected. In Very Far Away (1957), the second book Sendak himself wrote, Martin heads away from home, in an outsize cowboy hat, when his mother is too busy with the baby to answer his questions. His encounters with an old horse, an English sparrow, and a cat are fanciful, whimsical — and unrewarding. Martin heads home: maybe now Mama has time for him. Or he’ll count cars, and wait.

Martin, a timorous tyke depicted in a scratchy line and a light, almost neutral wash, is the first of the M-named Sendak surrogates.

His successor, the fierce and unrepentant Max of Where the Wild Things Are (1963), returns home after working his will over the Wild Things and finds his supper awaiting him, reassuringly, “still hot.” The illustration is at once vintage Neverland and, in the play of emotions across Max’s face, high cartoon drama.

Coming next: cartoons as an extension of child life.

in-the-night-kitchenMickey, the dream-traveler of In the Night Kitchen (1970), flies off, out of his nightclothes, into a graphic panorama of Sendak’s 1930s New York City childhood. Oliver Hardy triplets appear as the Sunshine Bakers and mix Mickey into the cake they’re baking; he pops out, molds the dough into a plane, plunges to the bottom of the milk bottle…and rises to the top where (in homage to King Kong atop the Empire State), he cries “COCK-A-DOODLE DOO,” his own little penis proudly on display. Time to return to bed, more than satisfied: sated.

Power trip, wet dream, whatever: Sendak had something to crow about, however he chose. By that time, he had illustrated the endearing Little Bear books and created the larky Nutshell Library. He’d become a world celebrity and won just about every possible award. On the domestic front, he was settled in with Eugene Glynn, a psychoanalyst, who would be his life partner.

The AIDS epidemic, in the early 1980s, was painful for Sendak, as it was for other gay men, and like many of them, he became more open about his sexuality. Those agonizing times, emotional and political, had creative issue in We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993), a virtual mural of social protest, panel by panel. An echo of Dickens in the backwash of Ronald Reagan.

No age range is indicated on the jacket, nor should there be. Sendak was no longer making the “kiddie books” that, he often grumbled, got no respect. But early childhood was still home ground. In a late press photo, the grizzled Sendak is seen snuggling up to a Wild Thing, his protector now.

 

Arnold Lobel (1933–1987)

With Lobel, less and less became more and more.

His first assignment, as an aspiring illustrator, was to draw a salmon for a Science I Can Read Book — the editor had spotted a realistic drawing of a cricket in his art-school portfolio.

That salmon swam, and Lobel’s career was launched. Science and history easy readers came to his hand; he took on stories of everyday childhood rigors by Charlotte Zolotow and Judith Viorst. But factual or fancy-free, his work had an identity of its own.

giant john photoBooks of his own came almost perforce. First, cartoonish stories: happy-go-lucky blends of the lovable and the ridiculous. Giant John (1964) sets out into the world to earn some money after he and his mother eat their last two potato chips. At a friendly castle, he’s a BIG help…until fairy music sets him a-dancing and the castle walls come tumbling down. Never fear: John rebuilds, after his fashion, and departs with gold and glory. He “promised to visit often and kissed the king and queen and princess and dog good-bye.” A GIANT display of affection, indeed.

With the success of his work, Lobel had less need to illustrate books by others, and more time to spend on books of his own, which quickly became more diverse and substantial, even traditional, in nature. Cartooning wouldn’t do: the illustration had to have the resonance of art.

You’d think Lobel would have taken to folklore, in high demand at the time, but he didn’t — with one exception, Hansel and Gretel (1971). In the galaxy of H & Gs, Lobel’s stands as the modest, intimate one: more the tale of two babes abandoned in the woods than the story of a brother and sister victimized by an evil stepmother.

It’s a motif that turns up repeatedly in Lobel’s work. A pair of children appears, for example, in many of his illustrations for Jack Prelutsky’s collection of monitory verses, Nightmares (1976) — a pair of small, imperiled children, helplessness incarnate, the nonsexist embodiment of Hansel and Gretel. Sometimes the boy is larger and leading, sometimes the roles are reversed.

frogandtoad1Frog and Toad Are Friends (1970): is there a more satisfying, more puzzling title in children’s lit? Friends pal around, have misunderstandings, make up; but a frog and a toad — strange. Lobel had watched frogs and toads and noticed their differences. He’d also learned that toads will overwinter in the city without ill effects; but you can’t coop up a frog. So we have energetic, adventurous Frog and his best friend and opposite number Toad, something of a sluggard and a bumbler. All told, an odd, appealing couple.

At a later, savvier time, a gay couple. Through a wide lens, the designation fits: Frog and Toad jousting, in what are essentially two-character skits, could be two old loving, teasing, mutually indulgent mates. Or they could simply be humanized animals in the tradition of Beatrix Potter et al., mimicking human behavior. Lobel may have thought of them as gay, or they may have developed as they did because he was gay.

Does it matter? Besides four additional Frog and Toad books, Lobel produced five other I Can Reads during the same years — individual books with no less individuality, perhaps more. The character studies Owl at Home (1975), Grasshopper on the Road (1978), and Uncle Elephant (1981) also reflect Lobel’s sensitivity to animal ways, and are also aptly titled. Those three idiosyncratic bachelors might well be gay, too.

One thing we know for certain: the more identities — ethnic, religious, racial, sexual — the richer life is for all.

 

James Marshall (1942–1992) & Remy Charlip (1929–2012)

No two author-illustrators could be more different than James Marshall and Remy Charlip. That’s just the point.

Marshall was an accidental illustrator. Texas born and bred, he was on track to be a professional violist, then injured his hand, took up teaching…and, as the origin story goes, lucked into picture books. Lying in a hammock one summer day, sketchpad in hand, he overheard the battling George and Martha, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on his sister’s TV, and — voilà! — conjured up the fondly parrying hippo couple of that name.

georgemartha_larger_colorfixedThe seven George and Martha books owe their acclaim to many factors. The spare illustration is flat-out brilliant, as the delicate line delineating the hippos’ bulk, a funny thing in itself, morphs into one sharp-witted, space-teasing composition after another. Take “Split Pea Soup,” the very first story. Martha keeps serving it to George, George keeps eating it reluctantly…until he doesn’t, and pours the remains of his bowl into his loafers under the dining table. The scene is tricky to picture, and a hoot as done: wit distilled to a pea-green pour.

Overleaf, George and Martha are sitting together at the table, close together, over a plate of chocolate chip cookies. Martha has caught him out: why didn’t he tell her he hated the split pea soup? “I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.” Back and forth, that’s the theme of the stories as a whole. The delicacy of the hippos’ feelings accords with the delicacy of the line, and it, too, contrasts with their bulk. Just any old animals, conventionally drawn, wouldn’t have done at all.

Once started, Marshall cultivated his talents and spread wicked glee in one high-colored, high-energy series after another. Top grades go, though, to the kindly camp of Miss Nelson and class.

Remy Charlip, on the other hand, was a serial initiator; an adventurer.

The son of immigrant New Yorkers, he studied art at Cooper Union, helped found the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and — before filling his resume with performing, choreographing, and teaching stints — produced a picture book, Dress Up and Let’s Have a Party (1956), that’s also a performance, an improvisation.

Decked out in his mother’s pots and pans while she bakes a cake, John is inspired to ask his friends to come to his party in costume — and we wait with him to see what they’ll be wearing when, at the turn of the page, they come through the door. No dullards here: a carton on the street turns Hans into a special delivery package; a ball of string makes Vera a meatball covered with spaghetti. The final surprise comes when John carries in the cake, with the single word happy visible. In Charlip territory, nothing is all spelled out.

With Dress Up in his pocket, he got deeply into theater for young children — and for the rest of his life picture books and children’s theater figured in his career as corresponding “narrative forms.”

Every picture book was different from the others, its style chosen — 
conceived — to suit the subject matter. For The Dead Bird (1958), a brief text Charlip had plucked from a Margaret Wise Brown collection, he painted deep-toned primitivist tableaux. 
Fortunately (1964), the exuberant 
tale that seesaws between good and bad fortune, joggles accordingly between hot carnival colors and stark black-and-white. Each turn of the page — theater, to Charlip — brings a startling new composition, a new storytelling move.

charlip_arm in armArm in Arm (1969) brought Charlip’s genius for verbal play and pictorial invention to a peak. Verbal play and pictorial invention conjoined: “Two octopuses got married and walked down the aisle arm in arm in arm in arm in arm…” is exemplified by a fluorescent couple, long tentacles entwined, who could have come out of the Beatles flick Yellow Submarine.

Among the equivocal cartoons, visual puns, and other antic embodiments of the endless tales and other echolalia is many a rainbow — this, more than ten years before the AIDS epidemic and the gay community’s adoption of the rainbow flag as its emblem. Was Charlip a prophet, a visionary, a herald? When Arm in Arm was reissued in 1997, in a partially re-designed edition, it was out-and-proud: the white cover and endpapers became rainbow-hued all over, and Charlip himself appears on the last page in a rainbow-striped sweater.

 

Tomie dePaola (b. 1934)

Tomie dePaola, that most mild-
mannered of creative personalities, took the bull by the horns — gently, of course.

nana upstairs first ed_fixed2First, there was lots of freelance illustration; dePaola was a thoroughgoing pro. And there’d always be, along with the imperishable Strega Nona (1975), many other books of a folkish or religious nature. But dePaola was not long in addressing childhood joys and woes — foremost, the joys and woes of his own childhood.

Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs (1973), about his feeble great-grandmother and his bustling grandmother, came out at a time when the decline and death of a grandparent was a going topic in picture books, and endures when others have long vanished. For one, it’s not a demonstration model, it’s life — you couldn’t make this stuff up.

For Tommy, at four, Nana Upstairs, largely confined to her bed, is a fine companion, even a playmate and co-conspirator. On his visits they share candy mints from her sewing box and talk away about the Little People in the room’s shadowy recesses — sitting side-by-side, Nana Upstairs tied for safety into a big Morris chair, Tommy tied in his chair, too, at his own insistence. How, then, will he cope with her death? In a still, echoing picture, Tommy, who’s been told, rushes upstairs to Nana Upstairs’s room: “The bed was empty.” You may cry, too.

Oliver Button Is a Sissy (1979) is a spunky book about a spunky little boy with gay signifiers, Tommy/Tomie by another name. Oliver, in short, likes to do things that boys aren’t supposed to do — like reading and drawing pictures, even playing with paper dolls and dressing up, singing and dancing. No baseball for him, no kind of ball. So he’s sent to dancing school “for exercise,” and he thrives. Even when he’s tormented by the other boys for his tap shoes (and has to be rescued by the girls), he persists — and at the local talent show, he’s a star.

Not long before, kids might have gotten a very different message from another reputable book. In William’s Doll (1972), written by Charlotte Zolotow and illustrated by William Pène du Bois, William is taunted by the other boys for wanting a baby doll to take care of. His father, like Oliver’s, is ready with a basketball, and William, unlike Oliver, has nothing against playing ball; he just wants a baby doll too. Leave it to grandmother: he needs the doll, which she gets him, “so that he can practice being a father.”

Not, in 1972, a gay father.

26 fairmount 1DePaola was a brand, and beloved, before he returned to the story of that budding song-and-dance man, in 26 Fairmount Avenue (1999), and, in Tomie’s childhood voice, carried it forward. The ensuing series is partly a documentary, taking in the 1939 World’s Fair, the March of Dimes, Pearl Harbor…It’s partly a family sitcom, with cameos for a host of Irish and Italian relatives. But in its naive, confiding way, it’s also an object lesson: Tomie, a born performer and artistic wunderkind, is encouraged at home and at school; on holidays and other occasions, he dresses as Mae West and the Farmer’s Wife; at five, he puts on his mother’s makeup. Never does a child tease him or an adult look askance. It’s OK.

He’s OK. You are, too.

But all is not hunky-dory. In the last book of the series, For the Duration (2009), dePaola revisits Oliver Button Is a Sissy, with a less sanguine, more realistic outcome. A group of older boys, his brother Buddy’s friends, call him a sissy and seize his beloved tap shoes — and Buddy does nothing to help him. It may even be Buddy, Tommy/Tomie comes to realize, who has egged them on. (Resentment? Envy?) The sympathetic principal will tackle the problem (discreetly), but, she suggests to Tommy, it would be better if he brought the tap shoes to school “in a paper bag or something…”

Complexity: addressed by dePaola with tenderness, wit, and imagination — as Sendak, Lobel, Marshall, and Charlip themselves did time and again. They were gay, talented, and gifted also with insight.

From the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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16. Review of Star Stuff

sisson_star stuff star2Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos
by Stephanie Roth Sisson; illus. by the author
Primary   Roaring Brook   32 pp.
10/14   978-1-59643-960-3   $17.99

Beginning with the first page, Sisson showcases the magnitude of the universe, visually presenting the Milky Way and our sun’s place in it. Turn the page, and readers move from our sun “in a neighborhood of stars,” to our planet, to one place: Brooklyn, New York. There readers meet young Carl, curious about the world around him. As he grows, that general inquisitiveness settles into a passion and an adult craving to know more about stars and solar systems. “It gave Carl goose bumps to think about what he learned about the stars, planets, and the beginnings of life”; that “the Earth and every living thing are made of star stuff.” His repeated, geeky boyhood interjection of “Wowie!” exuberantly captures that continuing wonder and passion. Illustrations with shifting perspectives portray Carl standing on a sidewalk that mimics the Earth’s curvature or lying on the floor surrounded by space creatures from his imagination. A vertical foldout initially depicts Carl studying in a library; as the page opens (and Carl’s knowledge increases), the universe above him expands. Sisson takes her time introducing Sagan, but as he learns more and more and his questions increase in complexity, the pace of the narrative accelerates as readers accompany him on his intellectual journey. An author’s note, clarification and source notes, and a bibliography complete this out-of-this-world picture-book biography.

From the January/February 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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17. A Second Look: The Planet of Junior Brown

Does one of the salient works of the black children’s lit breakthrough still hold its own? Is it still the knockout that I pronounced it, at Kirkus, in 1971?

The Planet of Junior BrownThe Planet of Junior Brown was Virginia Hamilton’s fourth book — each of them different from the others, and from anything else around.

Hamilton, an emerging black children’s writer, was finding her way in turbulent times. Civil rights clashes in the South and civil rights demonstrations in the North dominated the public discourse. Children’s books about black life, most of them by white writers, were overwhelmingly stories of prejudice countered and discrimination overcome.

Hamilton had another outlook. She’d grown up on the family farm in Yellow Springs, Ohio, with a storytelling grandmother and an Underground Railroad legacy. As a student at Antioch College, close by, she’d been privy to the progressive educational views and abolitionist idealism of Horace Mann, the school’s first president. Although her immediate world wasn’t free of unfairness, she had other things to write about besides racial conflict.

It also helped that Zeely (1966), her striking debut novel, originated as a short story for a college writing class, not as a children’s book. No presuppositions were in play. Young Geeder (née Elizabeth), awestruck by her statuesque neighbor Zeely, a keeper of pigs, imagines her a Watutsi queen like the one in an old magazine. Ridiculous? Not to Zeely, who had once told herself just such stories, and not to readers newly exposed to the range of African cultures in the daily news and the media at large.

The House of Dies Drear (1968) qualifies as a mystery: a present-day family moves into a house in Ohio that was once a station on the Underground Railroad…where nothing is quite as it seems.

In Time-Ago Tales of Jahdu (1969), the first of Hamilton’s folk-infused writings, young Lee Edward takes inspiration from the four linked hero tales that end in “a fine, good place called Harlem.”

Hamilton had meanwhile moved to New York, married aspiring poet Arnold Adoff, and become the mother of two children. On the national scene, new words and phrases — black, Afro-American — had entered everyday speech; new images of black beauty and black power were permeating the lives of children. For black children, the changes could be monumental.

The Planet of Junior BrownThe Planet of Junior Brown (1971), set firmly in Manhattan, is a mixture of social realism, psychodrama, and utopian fantasy. An original. What it isn’t is time-bound or topical. Big things happen here. “Strong substance in a juvenile novel,” I wrote in 1971.

Big characters appear, too — outliers, most of them.

Hidden away in the basement of a New York school is a model of the solar system with a new, tenth planet, the planet of Junior Brown — constructed by Mr. Pool the janitor, a lapsed math-and-science teacher, and his accomplice, renegade eighth-grader Buddy Clark, for the benefit of Buddy’s troubled classmate Junior Brown: hugely talented, monstrously fat, riven. A “sad, fat boy.”

Yes, the story revolves around Junior Brown — how to free him from the delusions of his manic music teacher, how to loosen the strictures of his smothering, asthmatic mother.

But it’s Buddy Clark, a homeless boy at home in the world at twelve or thirteen, who turns the wheels, this way and that. At Mrs. Brown’s groaning dinner table, Buddy coolly opts for a meatless meal. With his college-grad boss at the newsstand, he discusses magazine covers and the meaning of irony. In the office of the sympathetic assistant principal, he embeds his and Junior’s truancy in a web of hard-luck stories.

He is most fully engaged, though, on his own planet — one of a network of underground refuges for homeless boys, in basements and backrooms, maintained by somewhat older boys, veterans of the streets, like Buddy.

The logistics of concealing and supplying the hideaway, of keeping the younger boys fed and clothed, of seeing them off to school and to honest work, make a taut urban survival story. The psycho-dynamics of steering them away from a life of escalating crime is of another order of involvement: moral and ethical.

In a quiet, powerful scene, two boys wait for Buddy at his planet: savvy “Franklin Moore” and a smaller, younger boy, fearful of the dark, who has yet to choose his homeless name. (“Just having a last name the same as the mama or daddy you once knew reminds you of them,” Buddy tells him. “And remembering is going to make you feel pretty bad sometimes…”) Loosened up and warmed up by a spartan banquet, the boy firmly announces he’ll be “Nightman.” Nightman who? “Nightman Black.”

Franklin, suspicious and hostile, is the real problem. In his pockets, his shirt, his socks, Buddy finds expensive watches, rings, and other valuables, plus a leather wallet. “You ain’t nothing but a thief,…a wet-bottomed little hustler.” Taking twenty-five dollars from the wallet (which he’ll mail to the owner), he gives Franklin five dollars to keep Nightman and himself for a few days, “until Monday when I get paid.” The other twenty will be for other homeless kids.

Nightman demurs. “I want you to put back the five dollars you give to Franklin.” He’ll get by with an apple or an orange and a roll, things he can cadge, until Buddy provides dinner. Reluctantly, Franklin complies. What about the other twenty dollars? “I think,” says Nightman, “you better keep it for the others.” Sitting with his legs folded in front of him, a hand on each knee, Nightman lacks only a throne to look “like a king.”

For Buddy Clark, Junior Brown is a special case, a special person. He has food, clothing, and shelter in abundance, even overabundance. But what he wants most — his music — is denied him. The grand piano of his teacher, Miss Peebles, is off-limits due to a malevolent (imaginary) relative. Worse, his own upright has been emasculated to spare his mother the sound. The wires have been removed, Buddy sees, though the felt hammers are in place. “But the hammers struck against nothing. As Junior played on and on, the hammers rose and fell soundlessly.”

Taking away his music. “How could she do that to her own son?” Buddy thinks.

In the upshot, Mr. Pool is forced to take down the solar system and vacate the basement hideaway; Junior Brown runs away from home to lure away Miss Peeble’s malevolent relative; and all concerned take refuge in Buddy Clark’s planet-of-the-homeless, which will henceforth be known as the Planet of Junior Brown. A piano may even be hoisted in.

All told, a bit much. Preposterous, even. “This is not a story to be judged on grounds of probability,” I wrote in the original review, “but one which makes its own insistent reality.”

*    *    *

Regardless, today’s kids aren’t buying it. The Planet of Junior Brown was a 1972 Newbery Honor Book, which keeps a certain number of copies on library shelves. But that’s apparently where most of them remain. Of twelve copies in the New York Public Library system in late September 2014, ten were available. Brooklyn had thirty-five of thirty-nine copies on hand; Boston could produce seventeen of nineteen. In some cities with very small holdings, every copy was in. New York City school libraries, too, report meager circulation for years.

Why? There are structural impediments, certainly. The opening chapter, where Buddy and Mr. Pool put the finishing touches on the solar system, is something of an astronomy tutorial. The chapters are long from the outset, moreover, and grow still longer — from twenty or so pages to forty or so — without distinct narrative breaks. By today’s standards, it’s a demanding book to read.

But Hamilton, a librarian colleague reminds me, was always a “hard sell.”

What’s different is the spirit of the time, the zeitgeist. The book’s core values — individual responsibility and mutual assistance — have no expiration date. But in The Planet of Junior Brown they are in service of a greater good: the transformation of society as a whole.

We thought big, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and children’s books, too, had their sights on the stars. Mr. Pool’s belief that “the human race [was] yet to come” and that his boys were “forerunners” did not strike me as outlandish when I wrote the original review. Rereading the book recently, the visionary element faded in the stronger, clearer light of the boys’ actual bonding.

At a guess, the human drama will prevail and Junior Brown will continue to find susceptible readers, here and there, to whom it will mean a great deal. If you care about the story, and the kids in it, you also understand why Mr. Pool endowed them with heroic powers. The aftereffect, in any period, is inspirational.

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18. Review of Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom

lowery_turning 15 on the road to freedomTurning 15 on the Road to Freedom:
My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March

by Lynda Blackmon Lowery, as told to Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley; illus. by PJ Loughran
Middle School, High School   Dial   128 pp.
1/15   978-0-8037-4123-2   $19.99   g

Lowery offers a revealing look at a childhood spent in the midst of the civil rights movement. As a teenager, the Selma, Alabama, native was there to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak out for black voting rights; she was tear-gassed and beaten on “Bloody Sunday” (as Lowery writes, in perhaps the understatement of the century, “It was not a good day to be around white people”); and she was among the three hundred people who marched from Selma to the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery in 1965. Lowery’s voice is consistently engaging (“After that first time [in jail], I wasn’t so afraid, because I was with my buddies and we knew we had each other’s back. What we could do with each other’s backs, I don’t know. Those white policemen had billy clubs and guns”) and casual even as she parcels out often-harrowing memories (such as her time spent in the jail’s “sweatbox”: “There was no air…There was no toilet…There was nothing but heat in an iron box”). Period photos are incorporated seamlessly into the book design, and Loughran captures the emotions of the times with boldly colored illustrations. An epilogue of sorts — “Why Voting Rights?” — gives an excellent explanation of the significance of the right to vote for African Americans while making mention of the Supreme Court’s controversial 2013 changes to the Voting Rights Act. A strong addition to the canon of civil rights books for young people.

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19. Review of The Bear Ate Your Sandwich

sarcone-roach_bear ate your sandwichstar2 The Bear Ate Your Sandwich
by Julia Sarcone-Roach; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary   Knopf   40 pp.
1/15   978-0-375-85860-4   $16.99   g
e-book ed. 978-0-307-98242-1   $10.99

“By now I think you know what happened to your sandwich. But you may not know how it happened.” An offstage narrator spins this entertaining tale about the fate of a missing sandwich. The narrator’s creative version of events begins with a hungry bear, a berry-eating binge, a postprandial nap in the back of a pickup truck, and an unexpected road trip to the big city. All the while, we see words at entertaining odds with the pictures: those “high cliffs” the bear notices are the skyscrapers in the big-city landscape to which the truck has inadvertently transported him. Sarcone-Roach uses a vibrant color palette in her impressionistic paintings, gleefully depicting the bear exploring unfamiliar terrain. To her credit, the question of the narrator’s identity — and reliability — may not come up for readers until book’s end. If they do wonder, the diverting story and illustrations help to keep it a surprise. After the bear returns to the forest, the silver-tongued narrator’s subterfuge quickly falls apart, and the truth is unleashed (“Ruff! Ruff! Ruff! Ruff! Ruff!”). The book stands up to repeat readings; the illustrations (and endpapers) beg for more attention.

From the January/February 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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20. Review of Stella by Starlight

draper_stella by starlightStella by Starlight
by Sharon M. Draper
Intermediate   Atheneum   324 pp.
1/15   978-1-4424-9497-8   $16.99   g
e-book ed. 978-1-4424-9499-2   $10.99

Eleven-year-old Stella Mills may have trouble getting words on paper for school, but she’s a deep thinker, “a gemstone hiding inside a rock,” her mother tells her. Even on the coldest of nights, she sneaks out of the house and writes under the starlight. Writing helps her makes sense of her world; the novel’s third-person point of view provides readers with a perspective wider than young Stella’s, as much of life in segregated 1932 Bumblebee, North Carolina, is beyond her understanding. There’s plenty of action — cross burnings, house burnings, a snakebite, a near-drowning, and a beating. But at its core this story is one of a supportive African American community facing tough times, a community acting as an “unseen river of communication that forever flows — dark and powerful,” keeping an eye on its children as they walk to school, knowing who is sneaking out at night, bringing cakes and pies when folks are ill, and attending the (unexpectedly hilarious) Christmas pageant at school. If times are bad, the community makes them better, and Stella grows in its warmth and love. Even her writing gets better as she writes about things that matter — Mama, snakes, truth, hate, even the Klan. Readers will close the book knowing that Stella will turn out just fine: “Roosters never look beyond the fence. I doubt if they ever think about flying. But I do.”

From the January/February 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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21. Sharon Draper on Stella by Starlight

sharon m. draper

In the January/February 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine, editor Martha Parravano talked to Sharon M. Draper about her new intermediate novel Stella by Starlight. Read the full review here.

Martha V. Parravano: Have you ever tried to write by starlight?

Sharon M. Draper: I’ve marveled at the moon — the phases intrigue me — but I’ve never written anything while outside on a starry night. But I’m sure that those images eventually evolved into words in a story. All natural events inspire me — freshly fallen snow and thunderstorms and the changing of leaves in the fall — but the starlight and the moon I left to Stella. They belong to her.

From the January/February 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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22. Review of Draw What You See

benson_draw what you seeDraw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews
by Kathleen Benson; illus. with paintings by Benny Andrews
Primary, Intermediate   Clarion   32 pp.
1/15   978-0-544-10487-7   $16.99

Benson opens in New Orleans in 2005, where Benny Andrews traveled after Hurricane Katrina to teach children “to use art to express their feelings about what they had been through…he knew that sometimes it was easier to tell a story with pictures than with words.” And this is an excellent way to begin a biography of an artist dedicated to the craft of narrative- and experience-based art, and also to the ongoing social concerns of African Americans and other minority groups. Then it’s back to 1933 Plainview, Georgia, where three-year-old Benny drew his first picture. In clear prose, Benson moves through the years, during which Andrews defied social expectations by leaving the farm, attending high school, earning a bachelor of fine arts degree, and eventually becoming a renowned painter in an art world that was still unwelcoming to artists of color. The narrative is expertly crafted around original Andrews paintings (identified in the back matter), which are notable for their focus on autobiographical elements and people’s experiences of prejudice as well as for the expressionistic stylization of figures: elongated subjects work in a field, attend church, dance at a jazz club, sell newspapers in Harlem. Appended are an author’s note, sources and resources, and an ultra-detailed timeline that makes clear the breadth and heft of Andrews’s accomplishments.

From the January/February 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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23. Review of A Fine Dessert

jenkins_fine dessertA Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat
by Emily Jenkins; illus. by Sophie Blackall
Primary   Schwartz & Wade/Random   40 pp.
1/15   978-0-375-86832-0   $17.99
Library ed. 978-0-375-96832-7   $20.99   g
e-book ed. 978-0-375-98771-7   $10.99

In four vignettes, set a hundred years apart from each other, parents and children make delicious blackberry fool from blackberries, cream, and sugar: quintessentially simple. Still, the cream must be whipped, with a different tool each time — a laborious twenty minutes with a bunch of twigs in 1710 Lyme, England; just two minutes with an electric mixer in 2010 San Diego. Early cooks pick berries; now, they may come packaged from afar — but the work of sieving them hasn’t changed much. Each setting has its kitchen practices, cooks, and meals: in 1810 Charleston, South Carolina, an enslaved woman and her daughter get only bowl lickings, while the master and his family are served the dessert; the San Diego dad and his son host a potluck for a diverse group of friends. Blackall’s art, as decorative as it is informative, features lovely (if unrealistic) calligraphic berry bush tendrils to counterpoint her cheery, wholesome figures; a subdued palette of historical tans is warmed with spots of green and pink, blossoming into brighter hues in the California present. It all adds up to a thought-provoking sample of how the techniques involved in a simple task have changed over time; and how people, and food, have stayed much the same, making this an effective introduction to the very idea of history. Recipe, sources, and historical notes from both author (pointing up such changes as following recipes and pasteurization) and illustrator (searching questions on the lives of slaves, her careful decisions on dress, and the engaging information that the mottled endpapers were colored with actual blackberry juice) are appended.

From the January/February 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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24. Review of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

kamkwamba_boy who harnessed the windThe Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Young Readers Edition
by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer; illus. by Anna Hymas
Intermediate, Middle School   Dial   294 pp.
2/15   978-0-8037-4080-8   $16.99   g

As a young boy growing up in Malawi, William Kamkwamba believed in — and was fearful of — magic. As he got a bit older, he was drawn to science. He tinkered with toy trucks and “monster wagons” (“chigiriri, that looked like American go-carts”) and began reading old science books and dreaming up inventions. When heavy rains, followed by drought, hit his country and the corrupt government didn’t respond, young William used his scientific ingenuity to help people in need. He began making a windmill out of “bottle-cap washers, rusted tractor parts, and [an] old bicycle frame,” and, to the amazement of family and community, it was a success. Soon he dreamed of conquering darkness, pumping water to the villages, and fighting hunger. This young readers’ edition of the bestselling adult memoir The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope (already adapted as a picture book by the same name) has been simplified for a middle-grade audience, unfortunately losing some of the lyricism of the original. (Chapter one in the adult version opens, “Before I discovered the miracles of science, magic ruled the world.” Chapter one here begins, “My name is William Kamkwamba, and to understand the story I’m about to tell, you must first understand the country that raised me.”) Both versions have a straightforward narrative arc: because of the book’s prologue, readers know that William’s wind machine will be successful and that they, the readers, are to be inspired. And it is inspiring — a well-told true tale of one young man’s passion for science making his world better.

From the January/February 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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25. What Makes a Good Acceptance Speech?

The 2015 ALA Awards were announced on Monday, February 2nd. After that, the winners will bask in the glow…and contemplate what to say in their speeches. Here’s The Horn Book’s (unsolicited) advice for foolproof acceptance-speech writing.

What Makes a Good award acceptance?

 

From the January/February 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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