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Rush for the Gold: Mystery at the Olympics
by John Feinstein
Middle School, High School Knopf 314 pp.
5/12 978-0-375-86963-1 $16.99
Library ed. 978-0-375-96963-8 $19.99
e-book ed. 978-0-375-98455-6 $10.99
Timed to coincide with the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Feinstein’s sixth sports mystery novel again features teen reporters Stevie Thomas and Susan Carol Anderson—except that this time Susan Carol is a world-class swimmer in the 200- meter butterfly and Stevie is now her boyfriend. Speedo, Nike, Under Armour, and the Disney Channel are all interested in her, and Susan Carol only has to win a gold medal or two to gain lucrative contracts. She didn’t train to be a celebrity or a “show pony for corporations,” but thanks to her father, who falls prey to the agents’ offers, Susan Carol does indeed become a “human billboard” and America’s latest athlete/sex symbol. She is only important to the agents as long as she wins, and Stevie wonders just how far a corporation would go to ensure victory for its client. It turns out that the answer is “too far”; hence the mystery for Stevie to solve—a little too quickly and neatly, perhaps, but Feinstein’s legions of fans will revel in the intrigue at the Olympics and the excitement of Susan Carol’s races.
The Letter Q: Queer Writers’ Notes to Their Younger Selves
edited by Sarah Moon, with contributing editor James Lecesne
Middle School, High School Levine/Scholastic 282 pp.
5/12 978-0-545-39932-6 $17.99
Inspired by mentors in her own childhood, editor Sarah Moon asked sixty-four gay, lesbian, and bisexual writers, illustrators, and publishing professionals to write letters to themselves at a younger age — names such as Marion Dane Bauer, Jacqueline Woodson, Gregory Maguire, Brian Selznick, and a host of others. The resulting letters combine advice, reminiscence, funny stories, and encouragement for readers struggling with their sexuality. As with any collection with such a narrow focus, repetition is a problem, but panels from graphic novel creators help to break up the text and vary the pace, and a few of the writers arouse interest with truly surprising revelations (David Levithan, for instance, writes about bullying, but from the perspective of being the bully; Martin Moran writes about the sexual abuse that led to his award-winning book The Tricky Part). A mostly secular exploration of growing up gay, the book has regrettably little advice for gay and questioning teens grappling with religious dilemmas. Still, with its repeated exhortations to relax more and worry less, this book might be a life-saver for some — and could function as an author list, as well, for teens wanting to read more about People Like Us.
Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses
by Ron Koertge; illus. by Andrea Dezsö
High School Candlewick 88 pp.
7/12 978-0-7636-4406-2 $19.99
A much-honored poet and novelist retells, in free verse and from various points of view, twenty-three familiar tales (mostly Grimm, Andersen, and Perrault). With a contemporary sensibility and voice, Koertge pitches directly to teenagers. Beauty’s Beast, though allowing that “her love…transformed me,” is still nostalgic for the time when his teeth were fangs and Beauty “almost wanted / me to break her neck and open her / up like a purse.” For the Ugly Duckling, “Grief is a street he skates down”; the swans, surrogate parents, beg, “Please don’t go away like / that again. We were worried sick.” There are several eager risk takers here, like the queen who outwits Rumpelstiltskin, then exits in a red cape, seeking a wolf. A few stories later, Red Riding Hood’s condescending account to her mother is a perfect parody: “I’m into danger, / okay? What? You said to tell you the truth and be, like, frank.” It’s also a swell mix of the comical, concrete, and macabre: “Anyway, it’s weird / inside a wolf, all hot and moist but no worse than flying / coach to Newark.” Dezsö’s choice of cut-paper illustrations is brilliant, a nod to Hans C. Andersen’s skill in that medium despite the radically different tone. Her stark silhouettes are peculiarly appropriate to such gruesome scenes as “The Robber Bridegroom” dismembering a bride, though the lurid gore is in a comfortably distancing black and white. Need to grab a restive class’s attention? Seek no further. And take note: “Wolf ” has the last word: “This is our forest…Perfect again when all your kind is dead.”
Summer is the season for recreational reading, outdoor activities, fun, sports, and, this year, the Summer Olympics. In The Horn Book Guide, there’s never a shortage of sports-themed books, from high-interest bait for reluctant readers to entertaining diversions for voracious ones. The following sports-books-done-right for upper-elementary and middle-grade readers are all recommended in recent or forthcoming issues of the Guide.
Fitzmaurice, Kathryn A Diamond in the Desert
258 pp. Viking 2012. ISBN 978-0-670-01292-3
Gr. 4–6 In 1942, Japanese American boy Tetsu attempts to find dignity and purpose while living within the humiliating confines of the Gila River Relocation Center. Helping build a baseball field in the inhospitable desert provides some emotional relief; playing the game well further eases his anger. Informed by real-life memories of Gila River’s baseball team members, this novel delves deeply and affectingly into the human condition. Reading list, websites.
Florian, Douglas Poem Runs: Baseball Poems and Paintings
32 pp. Harcourt 2012. ISBN 978-0-547-68838-1
Gr. K–3 Fifteen poems (sixteen if you count the back cover) center on a baseball team’s season. Each entry features Florian’s signature wit and brevity: “With greatest greed / I take my lead. / My greatest need / Is speed” (from “Base Stealer”). The poems are set against double-page spreads with summery mixed-media illustrations featuring rubber-limbed baseball players—both male and female.
Freitas, Donna Gold Medal Summer
232 pp. Scholastic/Levine 2012. ISBN 978-0-545-32788-6
Gr. 4–6 Top gymnast Joey loves her sport and can’t understand why her best friend would quit just to have a social life—or why Joey’s older sister quit after winning Nationals, or why their parents find competitions too stressful to watch. A former competitive gymnast, Freitas provides an absorbing look at the challenging but rewarding life of a thirteen-year-old athlete.
Gutman, Dan The Day Roy Riegels Ran the Wrong Way
32 pp. Bloomsbury 2011. ISBN 978-1-59990-494-8
Gr. K–3 Illustrated by Kerry Talbott. A grandfather narrates the true story of Roy Riegels, the football player who ran the wrong way and cost his team the 1929 Rose Bowl championship. Digitally enhanced illustrations reflect the juxtaposition of past and present as Grandpa’s story alternates with an old-time radio announcer’s call of the game. An author’s note reveals how “Wrong-Way Riegels” moved on from his famous mistake.
Lang, Heather Queen of the Track: Alice Coachman, Olympic High-Jump Champion
40 pp. Boyds 2012. ISBN 978-1-59078-850-9
Gr. 4–6 Illustrated by Floyd Cooper. From the hardships of her Georgia childhood through the 1948 London Olympics at which she won gold and became a legend, this biography stands out for the lesser-known details it includes (e.g., Coachman’s dance performance aboard the London-bound ship). Cooper’s grainy sepia-hued pastels are striking; endnotes with more about Coachman and the historic 1948 Olympics support the thorough text. Websites. Bib.
Lupica, Mike Game Changers
207 pp. Scholastic 2012. ISBN 978-0-545-44315-9
Gr. 4–6 Talented, tough eleven-year-old Pop Warner football player Ben dreams of being quarterback of his team—but he’s short. As the season wears on and quarterback Shawn (the coach’s son) flounders, Ben proves he’s ultimately the right guy for the position. This story of football, friendship, and learning to be true to oneself is full of satisfying sport
I want to thank you for publishing the piece by Hilary Rappaport (“On the Rights of Reading and Girls and Boys”). I really appreciated seeing some of my concerns about the gender divide in reading articulated so well. I have examined my biases related to literature and preferences, and have made adjustments in the way I think about them, as a result of the Guys Read movement. I’m glad for that. But I, too, am troubled by the push to further compartmentalize our young people by dividing the world of books into those for boys and those for girls.
I’m a huge fan of Jon Scieszka, but after hearing him speak at ALA in 2005, I was distressed to the point of writing him a letter, excerpted here:
I was troubled by your speech, especially considering that you spoke after a teenage boy who was gutsy enough to talk about how much he loves being in a book club and reading a huge variety of things. Not all boys (or girls, for that matter) fit the very specific gender roles you outlined. Not all boys like hockey, even if your son does. Not all boys are going to be satisfied with books that are pulled into a separate section for guys, and many girls will be less likely to pick up books if they are labeled as “guy” books.
It seems like there must be ways to validate and highlight a variety of reading while not pigeonholing people into behaving a certain way. Libraries have traditionally been a haven for boys who are not your typical “guy guys” (as James Howe puts it), and it makes me cringe to hear someone as charming and well-respected as you are implying that there is only one type of boy.
Please pass on my thanks to Hilary Rappaport for her column!
Here’s a sneak peak at the new, beautiful July/August 2012 special awards issue of The Horn Book Magazine! If you’re going to ALA, you can pick up your free copy at The Horn Book/School Library Journal/Library Journal Booth #2234. Supplies are limited, so stop by anytime for a ticket; the Magazines will be available for pick-up on Monday. We’ll also have posters!
Don’t forget, you can see Roger’s Live Five interviews of some of your — and our! — favorite authors and illustrators throughout the day on Saturday and Sunday. We’ll post video on our website after the show.
Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls
by Mary Downing Hahn
Middle School, High School Clarion 330 pp.
A quintessential writer of supernatural stories, Hahn here gives readers a glimpse at real ghosts from her past, a 1955 murder of two teenage girls near her home. She takes that situation, retains the original setting, provides immediacy through a present-tense narration, and produces a top-notch coming-of-age mystery. Nora, just finishing her junior year of high school, has three friends (Ellie, Cheryl, and Bobbi Jo) and two dreams (to be popular and have some boy love her and thus give her value). When an unknown gunman kills Cheryl and Bobbi Jo on the last morning of school, the townspeople assume that bad-boy Buddy, Cheryl’s ex-boyfriend, is guilty. As Nora works through her grief, she remembers seeing Buddy immediately after the murder and comes to believe he’s innocent. Setting creates the story here as much as plot or characters do. Like girls of today, those of the 1950s gossiped, read magazines (but True Confessions rather than People), and listened to music (Little Richard instead of Justin Bieber). But, in a gutsy authorial move, Hahn shows greater differences. For example, there are Nora’s limited options past high school; the casual smoking; and language, from harelip to moron jokes, that was standard for that time rather than this one. By grounding the circumstances so specifically and convincingly, Hahn emphasizes the universality of growing up and facing death.
The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall
by Mary Downing Hahn
Intermediate Clarion 153 pp.
Florence is happy to leave the orphanage for the home of a newly found great-uncle, but she isn’t long inside Crutchfield Hall when she senses that Something Is Not Right. Hahn, the author of ghost stories as well as rousing historical fiction, here combines the genres for a truly scary period tale. The setting is a country estate in late Victorian England, the weather distinctly Brontëan, and the ghost is classic Hahn: a mean little girl made only meaner by her accidental death. When said ghost, Sophia, says through her grave-stained teeth to Florence, “I need a friend, and so do you. We could be like sisters, sharing secrets,” readers will want to run—but Florence is the kind of vulnerable, relatable heroine who will make them stick around to be sure things turn out all right for her. They do, if only just, in an ending that is satisfying but touched with uncertainty: is Sophia truly at peace? Brrr!
All the Lovely Bad Ones
by Mary Downing Hahn
Intermediate, Middle School Clarion 182 pp.
Travis and his sister Corey love to make mischief, so a summer’s stay at their grandmother’s reputedly haunted Vermont inn holds much promise. A flashlight, makeup, a filmy white scarf, and some well-timed screams allow the kids to freak out the other visitors, but soon enough the game isn’t funny: “You and your sister may have begun this as a game,” says one of the guests, “but the ghosts are awake now. Putting them back to sleep will not be easy.” Hahn expertly combines the comedy of spectral hijinks and bumbling ghost-busters with a dark backstory of abused children and the malevolent guardian who torments them even in death. Here’s an author who really understands how to put a scary story together, unafraid even to use an appearance by Old Nick himself for an extremely satisfying finale.
Wait Till Helen Comes
by Mary Downing Hahn
The author has written a gripping and scary ghost story that develops hauntingly from a rather slow beginning. When Molly’s mother and new stepfather announce that the family will be moving to an old church in rural Maryland, Molly and her brother Michael are
Just as the proof of the pudding is in the eating, real appreciation of a picture book depends on more than a first taste, or a first look; truer evaluation becomes possible only after savoring every nuance. At first glance, illustrations may delight us with their beauty — their drafting, palette, forms, composition; with how they embody emotion, or childhood itself. One artist charms with humor, well-paced action, or visual harmony. Another captures the imagination with a beloved character or a story distilled to its irreducible essence.
But to seek a year’s “most distinguished” illustrations — to choose a Caldecott winner — is to look again: to tune in to rhythms, consider trajectories, discover details and connections; and to hope that such particulars will offer the kind of epiphany E. E. Cummings called “everything / which is natural which is infinite which is yes.” A detailed study of some of 2011’s best picture books, medaled and not, made me both more critical and more appreciative. It revealed limitations, missed on first reading, of some appealing titles; contrariwise, in the best ones, I now perceived finer crafting, richer meaning.
Here, then, are some books that seemed to merit serious consideration for the award, or that helped illuminate issues involved in a final choice. Several of these arrest the eye with their extraordinary simplicity. One such, I Want My Hat Back, was frequently mentioned as a Caldecott contender. In Jon Klassen’s neatly balanced compositions, a bear — still as a statue through much of the book — meets other near-immobile creatures in minimal settings. Only the animals’ alert, stylized eyes suggest the drama that will finally erupt on a revelatory solid-red page and set up the story’s sly conclusion. Klassen’s digitally created illustrations are austere. It’s those eyes that focus attention on what’s seen (and unseen) until memory triggers the bear’s retrospective vision — a clever scenario, elegantly rendered.
Patricia Intriago’s Dot, composed as it is of simple shapes and lines, is even more spare. Yet this able graphic designer telegraphs a lot with her graphic forms, using small additions and alterations in size, conformation, or color to convey motion and emotion, sound, taste, and more, including the night sky. Another virtuoso performance is Michael Hall’s exploration of the transformative possibilities of collages improvised, like tangrams, from squares. Like Dot, Hall’s Perfect Square is an exercise in graphic possibility, but Hall brings more ingenuity and a sense of story to the process. He tears, snips, or otherwise divides each square, then reassembles it in a simple scene, with a new color each weekday. On Sunday, the square — cleverly escaping its shape’s constraints — becomes a window through which the earlier scenes are recapped in a rainbow finale.
Lois Ehlert’s art, too, is rooted in graphic design. In RRRalph, she composes a dog from amusingly recognizable objects like buttons, a pop-top, and a zipper. Ralph, a character of buoyant, spread-dominating energy,enacts such pun-ready sounds as wolf, rough, and bark. Printed in handsome boldface, Ralph’s “words” and the large-type commentary by his unseen human are as intrinsic to the striking design as Ralph himself. These minimalist titles may not have the singular quality that evokes that rare sense of Cummings’s “Yes”; still, they’re entirely worthy, fine just as they are.
Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol Bone Dog by Eric Rohmann
Better luck next time
Good Luck, Anna Hibiscus! by Atinuke,
illustrated by Lauren Tobia
Tragic and tragically overlooked
America Is Under Attack: September 11, 2001: The Day the Towers Fell by Don Brown Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance
of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic by Allan Wolf
Best Cold War book left out in the cold
Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet
Best year-round Christmas book
(think of the money you’ll save!)
The Money We’ll Save by Brock Cole
Science made simple (youngest)
Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Beth Krommes
Science made simple (oldest)
Feynman by Jim Ottaviani, illustrated by Leland Myrick
Best animal survival stories
Can We Save the Tiger? by Martin Jenkins, illustrated by Vicky White Naamah and the Ark at Night by Susan
Campbell Bartoletti, illustrated by Holly Meade
Best human survival stories
Bluefish by Pat Schmatz Blink & Caution by Tim Wynne-Jones
Best swamp survival stories
Meadowlands: A Wetlands Survival Story
by Thomas F. Yezerski Chime by Franny Billingsley
From the May/June 2012 issue of The Horn Book Magazine:
Reviewer Christine Hepperman asks Traction Man and the Beach Odyssey author/illustrator Mini Grey about a new favorite character. Read the full review of Traction Man and the Beach Odysseyhere.
Christine M. Hepperman: Will Beach-Time Brenda reappear in future books, maybe headline a series of her own?
Mini Grey: Oooh—there’s an idea. Poor Brenda might have to wrestle with some undignified situations in the ordinary world, but perhaps save the day through the power of cocktail snacks, canapés, and optimism. I can see her battling household appliances and all sorts of other horrors and having to get very very dirty. But she’d need a sidekick—or could she share Scrubbing Brush?
Traction Man and the Beach Odyssey
by Mini Grey; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary Knopf 32 pp.
5/12 978-0-375-86952-5 $16.99
Library ed. 978-0-375-96952-2 $19.99
The adventuresome duo from Traction Man Is Here! (rev. 3/05) and Traction Man Meets Turbodog (rev. 9/08) hits the beach for a manly day of scuba diving, picnic security duty, and…makeovers? Once again Grey’s action-figure hero and his sidekick Scrubbing Brush inhabit the fanciful world-within-a-world of creative play. Though the boy who totes the pair along in his beach bag is nominally in control of their actions, once they’re underwater exploring a tide pool, or left alone together on the picnic blanket, they take on lives of their own. Traction Man’s valiant campaign to keep Grandma’s dog Truffles away from lunch while the family swims comes to naught when Truffles carries him off and buries him in the sand. Scrubbing Brush digs Traction Man out, but then a wave whisks them both away, landing them in the clutches of another young beachgoer, who has her own ideas of how to play. Grey takes obvious delight in poking fun at Traction Man’s machismo by dressing him in a pink sarong and plunking him into an ice-cream party with some Beach- Time Brenda dolls. As usual, the wry cartoon art is teeming with animate characters—even the picnic quiche has a face. In the end, there’s a refreshingly gender-neutral pooling of resources as Beach-Time Brenda and her pal help the boys dig an “exploration hole to the Center of the Earth,” after which the whole crew floats happily on a “pinkly paisley inflatable dinghy.” Relaxation accomplished!
Just to get a sense of historical perspective, when I last spoke at this festival, there was no euro, no iPods, no Wikipedia, no Facebook; Pluto was still a planet; and I was still drinking. More to the point—today’s point—is that Harry Potter had yet to appear on our side of the pond. That would happen in the fall of 1998.
Harry Potter revealed a lot about children’s reading and changed how children’s books were published. I’d like to examine just how the world of books for children and young adults has changed since the last time I was here.
People throw around plenty of notions about what kids like to read. Or if kids like to read. Boys won’t read about girls, for example, a maxim of our profession to which British publisher Bloomsbury kowtowed (as did Viking almost fifty years ago with The Outsiders) by persuading Joanne Rowling to forgo the use of her first name on the cover, substituting her first initial and that of a pretended middle name. (She didn’t have one, so she took the initial of her grandmother Kathleen.) Would it have made a difference if the author of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone—more about that title in a minute—had been known from the start as Joanne Rowling, a lady? I propose that the biggest difference, if there was one, would be that adults would be the ones automatically thinking “girl book” and thus tailoring their recommendation of the book with that in mind.
And Harry Potter turned another piece of conventional wisdom on its head—that kids don’t like to read long books. Or books that have hard words like philosopher in the title, which had prompted Scholastic’s change to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Oh, do let’s keep going: kids don’t like hardcovers, kids don’t like books set in foreign countries, and to combine the two, kids won’t spend their own money on hardcover books set in foreign countries. Now let’s subtract. Take away the foreign countries; kids won’t spend their own money on hardcover books. Take away the hardcover; kids won’t spend their own money on books unless they are popular paperbacks.
And let’s take away the question of money altogether to reveal the conventional wisdom that unfortunately provides the basis of much of our work as teachers and librarians: kids don’t like to read. Kids must be forced to read, tricked into reading, bargained into reading. Like the terms disgruntled employee and scantily clad, reluctant reader is a compound cliché, one that slips far too easily from our professional tongues.
I could go on a long rant about this but will instead just give you a few points to consider:
Point one: Reluctant to read what? If you put down that novel and look around, you will see that lots of so-called reluctant readers are reading plenty; they just aren’t reading fiction, which in this age constitutes “real reading” as defined by “real readers”—mainly teachers and librarians. It wasn’t always thus; think of the first book to win the Newbery Medal, Hendrik Willem Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind.
Point two: If reluctance to read is considered the default, how do we feel about kids who already like to read? Do they get less attention by virtue of the fact that they don’t seem to need us as much? They do need us; in fact they are us, so let’s give them more respect.
Point three: Car commercials aren’t there to convince us to take up driving. Why do so many books, especially for younger children, belabor the point that reading is fun? A good book should be its own argument.
Let’s look at some more arithmetic, brought to you courtesy of The Horn Book Guide
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Like you (I’m guessing), I felt my soul give a little lurch at the news that Encyclopaedia Britannica was getting out of the book business to go online, all the time. Part of my reaction was nostalgia—when I was a child we owned the first four or five volumes of some encyclopedia that my parents had picked up as a supermarket premium, and I would browse them endlessly. As any devotee of the Guinness World Records or the Farmers’ Almanac can tell you, it’s fun to pinball around within the structure a reference book gives you: it has rules so you don’t have to.
But as a librarian, I understand that digital reference sources, done right, have it all over print. The online Britannica is no less authoritative, arguably more so because it is more quickly updated than print. It’s still browsable and inspiring of serendipity: having secured a trial subscription for the purposes of writing this editorial, I’m having trouble keeping myself on task. Wikipedia without shame! Less expensive (given you have the means to access it, which is a big given) than print and more compact—what’s not to like?
Here is the question for children’s book people, though. Does the thought of a kid whizzing his or her way around an electronic reference source give us as much satisfaction as the picture of a kid doing the same thing with a printed book? I thought not. Whether librarian, teacher, publisher, or writer, when we say that at least part of our shared goal is to promote the “love of reading,” what we have always meant is the “love of books.” (Some books.) What will our goal be once books no longer provide our common core?
This is partially a question about e-books. Yes, e-books are books, and libraries want to buy them and enthusiastically promote their circulation to library patrons, who demonstrably want to read them. But publishers complain that they need “friction” to ensure that library borrowing doesn’t take too much of a bite from consumer purchases, and libraries are put into the position of licensing rather than acquiring e-books, just another borrower in the chain. However, this economic tussle is only an early warning sign of the real problem that librarians and (as Stephen Roxburgh argued in the March/April 2012 Horn Book) publishers face: thanks to the leveling power of the internet, electronic literature doesn’t need either one of us, at least as we currently understand our respective missions.
But this is also a question about the independence of readers. In libraries, even those kids who wouldn’t talk to a librarian if their lives depended on it rely far more than they know on the professional expertise provided by the library’s staff, systems, and policies. Readers’ advisory is found as much in the shelving as it is in a friendly chat. When we are reading online, however, we are far more on our own, for good (we can read what we want when we want it) or ill (finding what we want to read can be an adventure beset by false leads, commercial interests, and invasions of privacy).
What can children’s book people become? I reveal my fantasy of what we could make of the future on page 16 of this issue, but in reality what we need to do is to redefine our gatekeeping role. Along with giving up any notion that the only real reading is book reading, like the online Britannica we have to believe in our own expertise and convince others that our knowledge is worth attending to. We’ve spent more than a century dedicated to the idea that some reading is better than other reading, an elitist position we can defend by pointing to decades of excellence in books for youth. Publishers and librarians together, we made that happen. Let us continue to do so.
When I was a child, growing up in the various parts of India to which my father’s job took us, books were my friends, and I liked them funny. I discovered my grandfather’s P. G. Wodehouse collection at the age of eleven and was at once enchanted by the amiable lunacy of fictional worlds like the Drones Club and Blandings Castle. Lovable and ludicrous, they allowed me to claim an understanding of characters very different from me. I was at that age when laughter comes easily and convoluted story lines feel newly accessible. Plum’s immortal farces were a gift.
But funny isn’t something we’re taught to respect. That could be why, when writers embark on the serious business of crossing cultural boundaries in their work, they don’t often start out with humor. In 2004, Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith spoke at the Reading the World conference about the dearth of funny books with cultural resonance. Why, they asked, are multicultural books so very serious?
It was a valid question then. What’s surprising is the degree to which it remains valid today, especially in books for middle-grade readers. Books set in foreign countries are still largely about oppression, while those in hyphenated-American communities are about the challenges of finding oneself and becoming American. While many have humorous moments, they are not, by and large, funny books.
It seems especially necessary that children’s books, in the balance, convey more than a one-dimensional image of “the other,” yet the identity tale of oppressed people continues to dominate those books dubbed “multicultural.” Perhaps the problem is that the very notion of a culturally grounded story is perceived as worthy and important, not concepts we associate with laughter. But the truth is that you can’t see people as fully human if all you can feel for them is pity. Funny books with cultural contexts are capable of subverting and questioning issues of identity and belonging. By upsetting worthy apple carts, they offer new and necessary views of characters with cultural connections beyond the mainstream.
The pioneer in mixing humor with matters of race, culture, and, yes, oppression is undoubtedly Christopher Paul Curtis. The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 was published in 1995. The scene in which Byron’s lips get stuck to the family car’s side-view mirror is the one most readers call to mind, but there are others, many of them much more pointed than that one, as when the boys are faced with the prospect of going to the bathroom in the woods. Byron says, sardonically, “Snakes? I ain’t scared of no damn snake, it’s the people I’m worried about.” He means white people, of course, on the family’s journey south. The humor slams the reader with the grimness of the circumstances, even while it gives the characters a means of coping.
Humor in The Watsons is a mechanism Curtis uses to lead readers to an understanding of the insidiousness of racism and discrimination. It allows us to align clearly with one group of people and against another, in a deliberate stance that counters the prejudices of the period. If you’re with Kenny and his family, you can’t condone the racism they have to endure. Inequity, discrimination, and injustice give thematic impetus to the characters’ journeys. Because we can laugh, we can bear to navigate those obstacles along with them.
Since 1995, other writers of multicultural books have ventured into humorous terrain. In Julia Alvarez’s How Tía Lola Came to Visit Stay, the unorthodox use of a strikeout in the title places a tongue-in-cheek tonal stamp on the work before the reader has turned a single page. It’s plain that this relative is about to change young Miguel’s life forever. He can’t hold out against this woman who is practically a force of nature, and neither can the reader. Her character, larger than life and twice as real, creates a playfulness that runs through the book and it
Code Name Verity
by Elizabeth Wein
High School Hyperion 337 pp.
5/12 978-1-4231-5219-4 $16.99 g
e-book ed. 978-1-4231-5325-2 $16.99
Wein’s exceptional—downright sizzling—abilities as a writer of historical adventure fiction are spectacularly evident in this taut, captivating story of two young women, spy and pilot, during World War II. Wein gives us the story in two consecutive parts—the first an account by Queenie (a.k.a. Lady Julia Beaufort-Stuart), a spy captured by the SS during a mission in Nazi-occupied France. Queenie has bargained with Hauptsturmführer von Linden to write what she knows about the British war effort in order to postpone her inevitable execution. Sounding like a cross between Swallows and Amazons’s Nancy Blackett and Mata Hari, she alternately succumbs to, cheeks, and charms her captors (and readers) as she duly writes her report and, mostly, tells the story of her best friend Maddie, the pilot who dropped her over France, then crashed. Spoiler: unbeknownst to Queenie, Maddie survived the crash; part two is Maddie’s “accident report” and account of her efforts to save Queenie. Wein gives us multiple doubletakes and surprises as she ratchets up the tension in Maddie’s story, revealing Queenie’s joyously clever duplicity and the indefatigable courage of both women. This novel positively soars, in part no doubt because the descriptions of flying derive from Wein’s own experience as a pilot. But it’s outstanding in all its features—its warm, ebullient characterization; its engagement with historical facts; its ingenious plot and dramatic suspense; and its intelligent, vivid writing.
A Confusion of Princes
by Garth Nix
Middle School, High School Harper/HarperCollins 337 pp.
5/12 978-0-06-009694-6 $17.99
Library ed. 978-0-06-009695-3 $18.89 g
Nix’s gaming-inspired, sci-fi fantasy is a pleasing mix of high-adventure space drama, total bunkum (e.g.,“it’s functioning on the tertiary backup level, without a holo…”), and wry, boyish charm. Khemri’s coming-of-age story begins with his emergence from years of genetic and technical “remaking” to take up his title of Prince. But he’s only one of millions of Princes in the Empire, and immediately finds that Princely life isn’t the easy, glamorous ride he’d imagined. Instead he has to join the Navy, suffer manifold humiliations, and, if he wants to live, heed his personal Master of Assassins. But Khemri’s telepathic intelligence is above average, and eventually he moves into a new sort of training that involves him becoming an almost normal human. That experience and his native intelligence cause him to reinterpret everything he’s been taught about the Empire. Nix’s fantasy has enough gadgets, escapes, battles, duels, deaths, and near-death experiences to keep die-hard adventure story readers enthralled. Happily, Khemri is also a thoughtful, winsome, and somewhat complex character, and his cheerfully self-deprecating tone and unpredictable choices make this romp entertaining on multiple levels.
That’s a hard one. I know the leading candidates—The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, A Wrinkle in Time, The High King, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. All books I loved as a child, and read, and re-read. I think it has to be A Wrinkle in Time (1963), because it did weird things to the inside of my head. I do not think I saw the universe in the same way after reading it.
winner of the 2009 Newbery Medal for The Graveyard Book
Randolph Caldecott was The Horn Book Magazine’s first — and for decades only — cover artist. Then in 1985 another picture book master, Maurice Sendak, took over the task for a few issues, leading the way for a whole new crop of talented contributors. Much of their work is on view below in our electronic gallery of magazine covers from recent years.
Ocean Sunlight: How Tiny Plants Feed the Seas
by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm; illus. by Molly Bang
Primary Blue Sky/Scholastic 48 pp.
5/12 978-0-545-27322-0 $18.99 g
Although it stands alone well, this book is a companion to Bang’s My Light (rev. 5/04) and Bang and Chisholm’s Living Sunlight (rev. 5/09). The authors bring a fresh perspective to the topic of food chains, focusing here on the critical and voluminous ocean-based plant life—plankton—and the transfer of energy and nutrients from the sun to these microscopic plants to ocean animals and back. After a brief overview of food chains and photosynthesis using a more-familiar land-based example, the narrative moves to the ocean. At the surface of the water, sunlight is absorbed by microscopic phytoplankton and eventually transferred to ocean animals through consumption of plankton by those in the shallower layers; for those where light cannot reach, energy is transferred through consumption of the animal and plant remains that drift downward. Energy-filled illustrations use glowing, brilliant colors—pulsing yellow sunlight hitting an electric blue sea; the delicate green skeletal spikiness of the microscopic plankton—and also contrast the “marine snow” (the remains of animals and plankton that sink down) with the inky depths where intriguing, transparent red and blue animals reside. These are sophisticated concepts for the target audience, but the authors employ clear and age-appropriate explanations, well-chosen text and visual analogies, and a series of rhetorical questions to excellent effect. Several pages of notes will be included in the final book.
From the May/June 2012 issue of The Horn Book Magazine:
Cynthia Ritter asks A Bus Called Heaven author/illustrator Bob Graham about the idea behind his new picture book. Read the full review of A Bus Called Heavenhere.
Cynthia Ritter: Was your inspiration for the book a real bus?
Bob Graham: I did see such a bus parked in the street, and I learned our granddaughter Rosie had looked inside.
I said, “What did you see, Rose?” A girl of few words, she replied, “Candles.” It was not the vehicle’s contents that inspired my first scribbling, it was the image of a child on tiptoe peering into the windows of an old bus with a package-taped sign reading “Heaven.”
A Bus Called Heaven
by Bob Graham; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary Candlewick 40 pp.
3/12 978-0-7636-5893-9 $16.99
“The bus brought change to Stella’s street…Stella changed, too.” It’s quiet, pale Stella who takes her thumb out of her mouth and steps onto the bus that has been abandoned outside her house, claiming it for the whole neighborhood. “‘It could be…ours,’ she whispered.” And it’s Heaven (according to the sign taped on to the front of the bus) that provides this ethnically diverse, lower-middle-class group of people space to build a community. Everyone pitches in: cleaning the broken-down, trash-filled vehicle; giving it a cheery paint job (designed by Stella, carried out by two of the Street Ratz gang caught tagging the bus); and donating furniture, a goldfish and a dog, Mrs. Stavros’s bus-shaped cake, books, and Stella’s old table soccer game. Tough bikers, a rabbi, little kids, old people, an imam—all co-exist companionably in Heaven. Graham’s inviting ink and watercolor illustrations vary perspectives dynamically. Close-up, detailed panels celebrate difference, while expansive single- and double-page views pull back to place this little urban utopia in a bleak industrial landscape. Heaven is threatened when a tow truck shows up in the midst of the “music and dancing…picnics and laughter” to haul the “obstruction” to the junkyard. But Stella’s passion (and her impressive table soccer skills) helps win over the junkyard boss and win back the bus. Here, when a priest, a rabbi, and an imam step onto a bus called Heaven, it’s not a joke. It’s simply the way life should be.
“If this book doesn’t win the Caldecott Medal I’m going to kill myself.” I heard that from Zena Sutherland, quoting Ursula Nordstrom, while Zena and I were at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum in 1982, viewing an exhibition of the complete original art for the book in question, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.
That book did of course win the 1964 Medal, a very nice cherry on top of Sendak’s five previous Caldecott Honors (which would be joined by two more in later years). For Sendak, the best part of Where the Wild Things Are’s success was the financial security it brought (“It bought me my house,” he told me) and the freedom to do the projects he liked: “I took good advantage of [its] popularity to illustrate books that I passionately wanted to do without having to worry if they were commercial or not.” While the publishing economy of today might have encouraged Where the Wild Things Went and Where the Wild Things Went Next, Sendak mostly left the (considerable) spinning-off to others in order to to do what he wanted in a career that would include big books and small books, color and black-and-white, books by himself and books by others, opera and ballet design. Most Caldecott Medalists can’t afford to rest on their laurels; Sendak could, and didn’t.
When I look through the roster of Caldecott winners (seventy-five as of this year), I see dozens of fine books, but only three classics: Make Way for Ducklings, The Snowy Day, and Where the Wild Things Are. And of those, only the third has made the leap from the children’s bookshelf to become, as well, a touchstone of twentieth-century American art and culture. Maurice would sometimes complain about his other work being overshadowed, but come on, I would say, that’s huge. If sometimes he knew this and sometimes he forgot, what matters most is that it didn’t make one bit of difference either way to his work.
When I was speaking at the Eric Carle Museum recently, someone asked me if I thought Where the Wild Things Are could be published today. It’s an impossible question, because that book gave artists and publishers and librarians and children a new way to read. Its belief in an audience that could compose its own music for three wordless spreads and draw its own picture on the final page was generous. Its messages—that you can imagine without restraint, yell your head off, and still be altogether worthy of love—remain.