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1. Calling Caldecott 2015 second ballot is open

Here it is: Monday. In exactly a week, all of our Mock Caldecott awards will be a memory, and children’s book chatter will turn to the Real Committee’s books. So, while each real committee member is organizing notes, putting together last-minute arguments, and imagining that the books she or he nominated will wear medals for the rest of their lives, we continue to find out what YOU like. So, whether the books you voted for last week are still on the list or not, we hope you will vote your heart and got back to the voting booth one more time. Will you vote for The Farmer and the Clown and other front runners, or will you boost a book with less support? Check back on Tuesday around noon to see when happens!

For now, I am returning to the discussions with my second graders, who are full of love for their favorites…until someone points out a dreaded concern.


Here’s a link to the second ballot


and here, again, is the list of books under discussion:


The Adventures of Beekle (Dan Santat)
Blizzard (John Rocco)
Draw! (Raúl Colón)
The Farmer and the Clown (Marla Frazee)
Gaston (Christian Robinson)
The Iridescence of Birds (Hadley Hooper)
Josephine (Christian Robinson)
A Letter for Leo (Sergio Ruzzier)
The Right Word (Melissa Sweet)
Sam & Dave Dig a Hole (Jon Klassen)
Viva Frida (Yuyi Morales)



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2. Books and stuff

It’s that time of year again. Book fair time.

“Miss Hewes! Look at the figurines I bought! Aren’t the polar bear and the penguin so cute?”

I’ll be honest – yes, little rubberized figurines in the likenesses of polar bears are cute. I understand the appeal of such items to young children. However, I am less sure that these proclamations should follow a trip to our school’s book fair.

Without fail, however, my students bound into my room following their trip to the library (home base of our commercial book fair) eager to show off their novelty erasers, pencils, figurines, and posters.

“Those are nice,” I always reply. “But what books did you see that excited you? What book did you choose to take home with you?”

Then, my students usually get quiet. “Well, I couldn’t get this eraser shaped like a cell phone and a book. I ran out of money.”

And there’s the rub. At the school where I teach, the bi-annual book fair is a big deal. My students get all jazzed up when they see the rolling metal carts and book boxes start to accumulate in our hallway prior to one of the sales. Their parents, many of whom feel a financial crunch, work hard to ensure that their children have a small amount of money to spend at the book fair. And yet, despite this excitement and noble intentions, too many students are leaving my school’s book fair with nothing but cell phone erasers and penguin figurines.

Despite the potential arguments that could be raised about school-sanctioned consumerism and the stress that this event may cause for already cash-strapped families, I am generally in favor of the book fair. I teach in a very rural area and the book fair is one of the only affordable alternatives to purchasing books at Walmart or the grocery store — and the titles available there are likely not the ones receiving rave reviews from The Horn Book.

This is not to say, however, that the offerings at the book fair are necessarily any better than those at Walmart. Publishers like Scholastic do publish extraordinarily rich, engaging, and substantial titles. But often, at our school’s book fair, even if kids look beyond the staggering assortment of novelties, their eyes land on a book about the latest pre-teen celebrity icon or the latest series that has more to do with the economics of churning out multiple volumes than about substance or quality.

I don’t think it has to be this way. Yes, commercial book fairs do raise money for schools, and yes, molded plastic does sell. But I think kids would still nag their parents to buy them things even if the book fair didn’t have the novelty items spilling over near the register. As educators, parents, and community members, we should demand more — particularly in communities where the budget for and access to books can restrict the quality of reading materials that kids have to explore.

I optimistically imagine a day when the engrossing and constructive books aren’t lurking in the shadows of a book fair and when the opportunities these events could provide are more fully leveraged to benefit children and their positive reading development.



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3. Stormy Night, by Salina Yoon | Book Review

Salina Yoon knocks this one out of the park with Stormy Night! This book features her most recent character, Bear, as he experiences the terror of a thunderstorm.

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4. The year in review

What a difference a year makes. Last year’s picture book crop included such a strong group of front runners that it was possible to…no, not predict, but at least anticipate some of the Caldecott choices. This year, it seems to me, the field is WIDE OPEN. And this year’s committee has quite a job in front of them.

What are some of the challenges they’re facing? (Obviously this is not a comprehensive list. Not even close. Tip of the iceberg. Hang in there, actual Caldecott committee.) Let’s review.

  • They may be considering a whole slew of sequels (or at least second, similar books) by some of the big names of 2013: Molly Idle’s Flora and the Penguin; Aaron Becker’s Quest; Lizi Boyd’s Flashlight; Paul O. Zelinsky’s Circle Square Moose. How will the committee handle the temptation not to compare these with their predecessors?
  • In good news for the field, we’ve seen several excellent science nonfiction picture books, including: Katherine Roy’s Neighborhood Sharks; Molly Bang’s Buried Sunlight; Jason Chin’s Gravity. These must all be considered long shots for the Caldecott, since there is not much precedence for nonfiction winning the Caldecott, let along SCIENCE nonfiction. But we all know that just because picture books look like Sibert contenders doesn’t rule them out for the Caldecott, right?
  • The rise in popularity and prevalence of picture-book biographies means that quite a few biographies (or picture books based on real people or events) may make an appearance on the Caldecott table this year: perhaps Melissa Sweet’s The Right Word; Christian Robinson’s Josephine; Yuyi Morales’s Viva Frida; Hadley Hooper’s The Iridescence of Birds; Peter Sis’s Pilot and the Little Prince; E.B. Lewis’s All Different Now… Such different treatments for such a variety of subjects: how will the committee navigate amongst them?
  • And after last year’s wordless-book Caldecott triumph (all three Honor books were virtually wordless, you remember: Flora and the Flamingo, Mr. Wuffles!, and Journey), the committee will surely be paying attention to the wordless 2014 picture books, which are numerous, and include: Raul Colon’s Draw!; Marla Frazee’s The Farmer and the Clown; Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash’s Bow-wow’s Nightmare Neighbors; Mark Pett’s The Girl and the Bicycle; and the previously mentioned Flashlight, Flora and the Penguin; and Quest. A herculean task, indeed, to decide how these compare to one another, let alone to all the other picture books with texts. 
  • There’s also the conundrum of “picture book” versus “illustrated book.” How will the committee categorize the poetry books that might be under consideration — Sweet’s Firefly July; or Rick Allen’s Winter Bees and Other Poems of the Cold; or Gary Kelley’s Harlem Hellfighters? Because each poem, and thus each page or spread, is complete unto itself, is there an implied page turn in these books? Is there enough cohesion in the pictures and enough tension in the trajectory to consider each a picture book?
  • Once again, there are a number of artists with multiple “entries”: Melissa Sweet, Christian Robinson, Barbara McClintock, Sergio Ruzzier, Sophie Blackall, and Lauren Castillo, to name a few. How does that affect the committee? Do they feel they need to choose between an artist’s books? Or does each book stand alone?

And speaking of standing alone: in fact, of course, the Real Committee’s job is to NOT pigeonhole books the way I’ve done here — instead, to look at each book individually and to judge each one on its own merits. But I can’t imagine it will be easy. (Is that the understatement of the year?) Our own mock ballot goes up this Thursday; Robin will introduce it tomorrow. So you will need to face some of these same challenges as you make your own choices and vote for your top three picture books of the year. Good luck, one and all.



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5. 2015 Sydney Taylor Book Awards

The winners of the 2015 Sydney Taylor Book Awards are:

My Grandfather’s Coat by Jim Aylesworth; illus. by Barbara McClintock (younger); *wipes away a happy tear*

Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust by Loïc Dauvillier; illus. by Marc Lizano; color by Greg Salsedo (older)

Storm by Donna Jo Napoli (teen)

In each category two Honor Books were named, along with a handful of Notables. Find the complete list here, on the Association of Jewish Libraries blog.

This was my first year on the committee (of a four-year term), and what a great experience. Thoughtful discussion, vigorous debate… and lots of fun. Thanks again to Horn Book Magazine editorial assistant Shoshana Flax for her invaluable help with our Buzzfeed quiz: Which All-of-a-Kind Family Sibling Are You? (Haven’t taken it yet? By all means do, then tell us who you are. I’m Ella!)

aylesworth_my grandfather's coatDauvillier_Hiddennapoli_storm


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6. Metacognitive books: How early should they be introduced?

During the last few months I’ve encountered a number of children’s picture books with a self-reflective or metacognitive approach. The texts encourage readers not just to reflect or think (cognitive) but to think about their thinking (metacognitive). Since the books’ illustrations were eye-catching and the topics were relatable, I read them to some three-year old children. Some really enjoyed them while others got lost and disengaged easily.

Ernest, the Moose Who Doesn't FitAll of these books are creative. In Ernest, the Moose Who Doesn’t Fit by Catherine Rayner, the reader follows a moose who doesn’t fit onto the page as he tries to squeeze different body parts into view, leaving others out. Finally, his nameless squirrel friend has an idea. Take masking tape and extra sheets of paper and build out a page so the reader can fold out the final sheet, quadrupling its size to show all of Ernest. The children, silent, seemed mesmerized by Ernest on every page.

Open Very CarefullyAnother favorite is Open Very Carefully: A Book with Bite by Nick Bromley and illustrated by Nicola O’Byrne. The story begins as that of the Ugly Duckling and is narrated by one of the ducklings. The expected story is quickly interrupted by a crocodile who climbs into the book and eats letters and words. Later, the narrator asks the reader to shake the book and rock it from side to side so the crocodile will leave the pages. The rocking just puts the crocodile to sleep, but this allows the duckling to draw on him. Waking suddenly, the crocodile tries to run out of the page and hits his head. Finally, he chews a hole — literally — in the back cover and climbs out.

monster end of bookOther examples include David Wiesner’s The Three Pigs, the Sesame Street book The Monster at the End of this Book, and the new social media sensation by B. J. Novak, The Book with No Pictures.

These texts demand more active thinking from readers while they listen to the stories. I was a bit hesitant to read these books to small children, but after doing so have come to the conclusion that they in fact help to “wire” their reading habits and other skills such as problem solving and perspective thinking.

What do you think?



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7. Bad Bye, Good Bye

badbyegoodbyecoveruseYou know that feeling that you’ve missed something? Well, I had that feeling last week when I pulled out the titles for my class’s mock Caldecott. I blithely grabbed Bad Bye, Good Bye and thought, “Uh-oh. I never wrote about this one, did I?” In true Robin Smith fashion (ask any of my editors what a procrastinator I am), here I am, just under the wire, to chat about this fine book.

I first read about this book months and months ago when Jules Danielson interviewed the illustrator, Jonathan Bean, here on her blog. Go and read the link, because his explanation of color separation (old school!) is interesting and clear. In the comments are technical questions about brayers and Prismacolors and friskets. I got lost there for a little bit.

Here’s the skinny:

  1. I love the emotional intensity of the illustrations — even the endpapers start with a very dark blue-black and end with a sunny yellow. The title page shows one angry boy glaring at the moving man. Even his dog is furious. The stripes on the boy’s shirt are parallel with the spine of the dog, leaving no question about how these two are feeling about their family’s move to a new town and new house. The background shows the movers moving at full speed, rendered only in pencil. The title is placed on the page a little wonky, implying movement. The page turn shows the boy redder even than before—all the way to his scarlet scalp! We all know that feeling.
  2. That anger has to abate, of course, and the long nap in the car and dip in the motel pool seem to be a turning point for everyone. By the time the family arrives in the new town, after mom and dad take turns behind the wheel, everyone seems ready for the new house. Even the movers seem to have happy energy.
  3. The illustrations deftly extend the spare, rhyming couplets. I especially appreciate the “Road games /We’re here” page. It’s a brilliant interpretation of the alphabet game we always played in the car to pass the time. Bean draws a variety of signs with just about every letter of the alphabet shown, including q in antique. Another spread (“New house/New wall/New room/New wall”) shows that creepy feeling when you walk into an empty house or apartment for the first time. Everything is still in boxes and the illustrations are layered with the details that add to that strange feeling: the lone light hanging from the ceiling in the hall, other people’s wallpaper, stacks of chairs and boxes marked “pots” and “sheets.” Seeing the boy cautiously opening all the doors, one at a time, brings me right back to all my Army brat moves.
  4. The happy resolution is just right, too: this is a book for the very young reader, and it needs to be comforting. It is — right down to the fireflies, a neighbor boy who will clearly be a friend, and a climbing tree.

There is a lot going on in these illustrations, inviting the reader to slow down and explore every inch of the page. That also allows committee members lots to talk about: artistic technique, satisfying page-turns, and emotional punch. It would also make a dandy book for new readers. Geisel and Caldecott committees, pay attention to this one!



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8. Which All-of-a-Kind Family sibling are YOU?

AllofaKindAre you the type to gobble up your penny candy or savor it in tiny bites?

Can you imagine a world where candy costs a penny?

These and other important questions have been on our minds lately at The Horn Book, the Association of Jewish Libraries, and Lizzie Skurnick Books.

It all started when Elissa asked Lizzie Skurnick, who recently released new editions of the out-of-print books in Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family series, which sister from the series was most like her. The question— “which All-of-a-Kind Family sibling are you?” — drew excitement from Elissa’s fellow Sydney Taylor Book Award committee members, who are pumped to announce their choices for the best kids’ and YA books portraying the Jewish experience later in January. Before we knew it, a half-joking idea had turned into a full-fledged quiz.

allofakindfamilyFor those wondering, All-of-a-Who Family?, the books were originally published between 1951 and 1978 and chronicled the author’s childhood in a Jewish family with five sisters and eventually a brother. (By the time the last book ends, a second brother is on the way.) Middle child Sarah, who changed her name to Sydney in high school, wrote five episodic novels recalling her family’s adventures. Some of the incidents truly are adventures: Henny gets lost at Coney Island, Henny stands up for a boy accused of stealing. (Henny, as you can probably tell, is the adventurous and often mischievous one.) But many of the stories rest on the family’s ability to create fun with the very little they have. Mama turns dusting into a game by hiding buttons. Charlotte and Gertie put so much thought into how they’ll stretch their pennies that the planning is more fun than the spending. Oh, and the family observes the Sabbath and cleans for Passover (in the midst of scarlet fever!). When you’re in elementary school, it’s a heady feeling to read explanations of traditions you already know about. You mean, I thought, people who aren’t Jewish might be interested in what we do?

There’s one other reason I felt in-the-know: in a prime example of the small-world phenomenon known as “Jewish geography,” my New York-based family knew some of the real-life siblings. My cousin Rena Mills remembers “Aunt Syd” as a drama and Israeli dance instructor at Cejwin Camps. Rena says, “We eagerly and excitedly got ready for bed, so that she would come in our bunks to tell us stories. You can imagine how thrilled we were!” How All-of-a-Kind Family is that?

Well, Aunt Syd and her sibs probably couldn’t have imagined a Buzzfeed quiz, but creating one was more fun than market day! Are you an Ella, a Henny, a Sarah, a Charlotte, a Gertie, or a Charlie? Take the quiz and find out!


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9. Telephone, by Mac Barnett | Book Trailer

It's time to fly home for dinner! In this witty picture book from award-winning and bestselling author Mac Barnett, a mother bird gives the bird next to her a message for little Peter.

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10. Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads

KidSheriff-500x389As I sit here typing, I am staring at a poster for last year’s Caldecott winner, Brian Floca’s Locomotive. Would the committee that honored that wonderful book have given the time of day to the utter silliness that is Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads?

Of course, I have no idea. Anyway: new year, new committee. (That’s one of the best things about these book committees — they are new each year.) January will be filled with reading and rereading; making notes and formulating arguments; looking over the list of nominated books and reading over the written support for each book. When they see Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads on the list (for I cannot imagine a Caldecott world that does not include this book on its list), some members will scratch their heads and utter the words I often uttered when I served on the committee: “What the heck? Who nominated this? Now I have to read it again???” Yes, you do, fellow members! Bwahahaha.

And here is why someone (or maybe several someones) will nominate this book.

1. It’s so dang funny. COME ON! Look at that cover. Here we have a little white-clad hombre named Ryan. His foot rests on a tortoise. Ryan seems to be pondering hard about something. Look closer at him. His belt buckle sports a dinosaur. And, to the left, we see three dudes (the Toad brothers) staring at him, evil intent in their eyes. Well, most of their eyes. The middle guy, whose teeth are loosely sprinkled across his gums, has an eye patch. And — ewwwww — his ear is half-bitten off. The bottom dude has a gunshot hole through his hat, and the top guy has a righteous scar on his nose.

2. Use of color. Have you ever seen so much brown in your whole life? The end pages and every illustration is chockablock full of brown. Because of All That Brown, the eye easily notices the occasional guy in white riding a tortoise or the whitish cow being kissed by outlaws or the red tongue of an outlaw insulting Mayor McMuffin.

(COME ON — I just typed that a cow was being kissed by outlaws and someone was riding a tortoise! And the mayor is named McMuffin?! You know you want this book! Right now.)

3. Use of line. With all that brown going on, Lane Smith is going to have some artistic magic up his sleeve. He does. You know he does. First the town is awash in vertical lines. The mayor’s pants are decorated with straight lines; even his round ample belly is made up of straight vertical lines. The most dramatic scene, where the sheriff is measuring for the jail, uses shape and line to extend the story. The legs of the Toad brothers menace the page with their size and sharp angles while our hero measures the jail door.

It’s not until the varmints have been tricked into entering the jail that those vertical lines disappear as we see hats being thrown into the air and townspeople dancing. Oh, and some lady in a ginormous pink bonnet has her fist raised.

4. The humor. Nuff said. Having the sheriff come into town on a tortoise taking two full page-turns is genius. (“Give him a minute.”) Making the boy’s only area of expertise dinosaurs will make any kid laugh. Out loud. For real. Every single spread has funny stuff going on. Slow down. Look.

Will this be enough to catch the eye of the committee? Yes. Will that translate into votes for the book? That is a whole ‘nother thang. Will the committee love talking about this? What do you think?



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11. Author Dean Kootz Interviews His Dog Anna, Star of Ask Anna

Anna Koontz is Dean’s remarkable dog, who is poised to follow in her dad’s footsteps with her first advice book for canines. She will soon become the advice columnist for the canine world!

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12. Children’s Book Trends on The Children’s Book Review | January 2015

We continue to have a winter wonderland of books and articles appearing in The Children's Book Review's book trends this month; including our list "Kids Winter Books: Snow, Mittens, Polar Bears and Other Arctic Animals."

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13. Novels to supplement history | Part 1

This year, I started a new role as the 8th grade Humanities teacher. I began the school year with an ambitious “Novels of the World” plan that would flawlessly integrate every Common Core standard in Reading, Writing, Listening, and Speaking along with the world history.

Then reality hit me in the throat.

I realized that even though I’m technically teaching “English Language Arts,” the colorful demographics of my class means I am also unofficially teaching a lot of English Language Development. I started noticing that in the mushy realm of “middle school humanities,” history ends up getting the shorter end of the stick — probably because English is more heavily tested than history. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have to choose which area to skimp, but this is reality.

So, to make sure that some history gets into each ELA lesson (and to provide yet another lens for students to learn history), I correlate the novels I teach with the history unit. There are also times when I can’t devote that much time or depth to the history unit. In those cases, I give book talks to let my students know about different leveled books available for their enjoyment.

Below are books in bold that I’ve personally used either in whole-class or small group instruction.* There are also books that I’ve included that I plan to use in the future. Also, as I compiled the list, I realized this post was getting too long, so I’ll have the second half up next month!

Anna of ByzantiumByzantine Empire

Anna of Byzantium by Tracy Barrett
To be honest, this book was difficult. I had to explain much context and there were not too many exciting plot jumps. My students were still curious, but I would say that this would be a more advanced reading level and probably not the best way to start the year. It was great, however, for teaching figurative language, point of view, and character development. Anna is also a great female protagonist, and there are many teachable moments throughout the book.


One Thousand and One Arabian NightsRise of Islam

One Thousand and One Arabian Nights by Geraldine McCaughrean
This is one of my favorite books. Although the reading level is a bit lower, the text is complex especially for students who do not have an understanding of the Arabian peninsula. This is a frame-tale narrative so students are able to practice looking at plot structure, setting, character development, theme, and figurative language. This book is full of similes and personification. I differentiated by reading some stories together as a class and expecting extra stories from more advanced readers. I have actually started 7th grade with this book twice now.

SundiataWest Africa

Sundiata: Lion King of Mali by David Wisniewski
So yes, according to the Horn Book Guide, this is meant for K-3. But this book is gorgeous, and I hope to use this and a few other Sundiata narratives to help my students grasp an understanding of the African narrative style and create their own historically accurate play.


The Ghost In the Tokaido InnMedieval Japan

The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler
This is a fun mystery that takes place in 18th century Japan. Students clearly enjoyed seeing what they learned about samurai, dishonorable samurai, and the Code of Bushido coming alive in this fast-paced chapter book. I focused on mainly covering suspense, setting, and characterization here.


The Samurai's TaleThe Samurai’s Tale by Erik Christian Haugaard
I have only read an excerpt and it seems a bit more high level. I could see this book being very engaging, however, as it starts with quite a lot of action, betrayal, and suspense in the first chapter.


•   •   •

In my next post, I will list the books I’ve used for China, South America, Feudal Europe, Renaissance, and the Age of Exploration. Have you used any of these books before? Am I missing some must-have gems? Let me know by commenting below!

*In California, middle school spends one year learning about medieval to modern world history. It usually consists of the fall of Rome, the Byzantine Empire’s rise, the Arabian Peninsula and Islam, West Africa, Medieval Japan and China, South America, and then Europe, Europe, and lots more Europe.


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14. 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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15. Neighborhood Sharks

roy_neigborhood sharks

I didn’t look very carefully at Neighborhood Sharks when it first came in to the office, mostly because I’ve got such a soft spot for harbor seals (close relatives to elephant seals, the preferred prey for the great white sharks in this book). Also, I was kind of turned off by the limp dead seal and bloody red water on the cover.

Now that I’ve spent some quality time with this book, I still feel sad about the dead seal, but now I also admire the shark’s surprising configurations that allow it to be the perfect predator. And as much as I now admire sharks, I admire Katherine Roy’s artistry even more.

In the impressive and extensive back matter, Roy thanks David Macaulay for being her mentor. You can see his influence in several whimsical diagrams. Some of these provide visual analogies, like the one that explains the shark’s aerodynamic propulsion system and depicts a shark with wings and windows like an airplane. Another spread shows the food chain with a Macaulay-esque mix of scales: an enormous wooden spoon reaches into the ocean to stir a plankton “soup” while several gulls — each one smaller than the individual phytoplanktons and zooplanktons — perch on the handle and bowl of the spoon, eager for a taste.

So I have no doubt that Neighborhood Sharks is an exemplary information book and a good bet for a Sibert nod. But what about the Caldecott? Is this also an exemplary picture book with a narrative and forward momentum? I think it is, thanks especially to two elements.

First, all the bits of information about sharks’ anatomy and abilities are provided as digressions from a visual narrative that keeps moving forward in the illustrations even when the text does not refer to it. This progression begins on the title page and continues seamlessly to the end: a young elephant seal pursues and catches a fish; that seal is in turn pursued and caught by a great white shark; finally, that same shark is caught and tagged by a group of scientists in a boat. In my first reading, I was concentrating more on the information and didn’t notice this framing device, but it’s such a great idea. For one thing, it shows that the shark eating the seal is no worse than the seal eating its fish. That’s something I personally need to keep in mind. And by showing the scientists at the end, Roy is able to finish up with a wider view: the history of sharks and their future, including what we still need to learn about them. Besides providing a satisfying ending to the narrative, it also acts as a segue to the backmatter that describes, among other things, the days Roy spent on a boat with those same scientists.

The second aspect of this book that makes it potentially Caldecott-worthy is Roy’s skill as a watercolorist. Clearly these illustrations were done with the aid of photos and video (you can’t paint underwater scenes from life!), but there is a sense of motion and immediacy that one doesn’t often see in paintings based on photos. It’s clear the illustrator has spent plenty of time observing how water and fish move and how light is refracted underwater. Her changing points of view — sometimes below a shark, sometimes above — make us feel as if we are in there swimming alongside them.

But it’s her use of line and mass to show how the water moves that I find most impressive. Her brushwork is so assured, showing broad masses of various blues under the water, then breaking up the space with shorter brushstrokes to show motion and adding light pencil to outline shapes or indicate moving eddies of water. That blood fizzing and billowing out from the seal shows the direction the shark just swam in: not quite straight and probably shaking its head a bit. Roy’s style is realistic, but not slavishly so. Look at what she does when the shark breaches the surface of the water. Her pencil lines become darker and outline the ribbons of water. This is not something that one ever sees in a photo which either stops water in mid-drop (with a quick shutter speed) or blurs it (with a slower shutter). Instead, the ribbons of water are Roy’s method of indicating motion and the path of each splash. Outlining those brushstrokes in pencil makes the water look stylized, almost like a paisley pattern. It’s a bold choice and — to my eye at least — exactly right.

I want to mention two design decisions, one good and one problematic. Of course, the Caldecott committee should concentrate on illustration above design, but I think these are still worth mentioning. First, the lettering on the cover and title page are perfection. “Neighborhood” is in a friendly handlettered-looking typeface, while “Sharks” is sharp and glassy with little shark-tooth-shaped notches in some of the letters. The triangles in the top point of the “A” and the negative space below the “K” are echoed in the shark’s fins and its nose. My design quibble is with the interior typesetting. I kept getting distracted by the relatively small margin between the two columns of type. Since the leading (vertical space between lines of type) was quite generous, the horizontal space between columns seemed proportionally too small. There’s not really a rule about this, but I really really wanted to either nudge those columns farther apart or decrease the leading a little.

There seem to be many more information books to discuss this year than usual. Is this true, or has my perspective been narrowed because nearly all of my posts happen to be on nonfiction books?

Now it’s finally your turn. Do you think this has a chance at a Caldecott? Will it be compared to this year’s other information books, and, if so, how does it stand up to them?



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16. Bellydance Evolution: Alice in Wonderland

alice in wonderland posterYou may be wondering, “What the heck does bellydancing have to do with children’s books?” Having seen Bellydance Evolution’s production of Alice in Wonderland on Wednesday night, I can assure you that the two do play together nicely when brought together in a thoughtful way.

According to the mission statement on their site, dance company Bellydance Evolution “explores, celebrates, and re-imagines Middle Eastern dance for the 21st century. By fusing bellydance with dance forms more specific to the West, Bellydance Evolution takes you on a spectacular journey that will excite both mainstream audiences and bellydance enthusiasts.” The company — led by director Jillina — tours its productions with a small core cast, filling out the ensemble cast by video-auditioning local dancers at each stop. The Boston performance on Wednesday, January 7th included two Boston dancers (one a troupemate and dear friend of mine) and several NYC dancers.

“Evolution,” indeed: Alice in Wonderland was one of the most innovative and truly fusion dance productions I’ve ever seen. The dance forms showcased ranged from traditional Middle Eastern dance to contemporary styles including tribal fusion bellydance, hip-hop, and breakdance. Much of the score was symphonic-plus-electronic music, composed specifically for the show by Paul Dinletir; other pieces were classical Arabic, Arabic pop, or played live by drummer Issam Houshan. (The dancers also contributed drumming for a handful of scenes.)

The story line followed Disney’s animated adaptation more than the original Carroll novel. All the various styles of music and dance were well integrated, both “bellydancey” and serving the narrative with a playfulness appropriate to the source materials. A quarrelsome duet by Tweedledee and Tweedledum paid homage to raqs al assaya, a folkloric cane dance, with the spinning of the dancers’ canes reflecting the that of the propellers on their caps — and, of course, every so often one twin using her cane to wallop the other. The virtuosic, breakdancing White Rabbit almost stole the show. He was pursued through the audience at various points by (bellydancing) Alice and the Queen of Hearts.

The use of (lots of) props and costumes was especially well considered and creative. In one scene, dancers with parasols milled around the stage, then came together into a phalanx-like formation with the parasols’ tops facing the audience… suddenly creating the gigantic, grinning, floating face of the Cheshire Cat. In the croquet scene, dancers in pale pink, flapper-inspired costumes sported one beaked glove and one feather fan to represent the flamingos-cum-croquet mallets.

These are just a few of Alice in Wonderland‘s many inspired moments; see more in the trailer. I’m familiar with the story, but without a program I still occasionally found it difficult to follow the narrative and to identify minor characters — “Oh, she’s the March Hare!” (It seems programs were available at a merch table downstairs from my ticketed seat.) The caliber of dancing and staging was so high that even when I was a bit confused I was having a blast. I’m an aficionado of both bellydancing and kids’ books, but you needn’t be a super-fan of either to enjoy this immensely entertaining production.

And if you’re intrigued by the idea of bellydancing children’s books, come on down to the Geeky Bellydance Show at Arisia sci-fi and fantasy convention on January 17th! I’ll be performing as Sabriel from Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom Chronicles; other dancers will pay tribute to Tolkien and Gaiman, as well as many other geek-culture icons.


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17. Interview with Sandhya Sameera Pillalamarri About The Name Soup

How did the idea for The Name Soup originate? Sandhya Sameera Pillalamarri: The concept of the book was inspired by my long last name. I was always intrigued about its true meaning and where it came from.

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18. Enjoy Some Picture book Fun with Creepy Carrots

Enjoy Some Picture book Fun with Creepy Carrots | Storytime Standouts

Enjoy Some Picture book Fun with Creepy CarrotsCreepy Carrots written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Peter Brown
Outstanding picture book published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Terrific fun for children aged five years and up, Jasper Rabbit is very fond of carrots and makes a trip to Crackenhopper Field whenever he fancies eating a few delicious treats but one day Jasper has an eerie feeling that Creepy Carrots are following him as he leaves the field. Soon Jasper is seeing Creepy Carrots everywhere: in his house, in the garden shed and on the street. Poor Jasper is petrified! He knows exactly what to do to solve this problem.

Preschool and kindergarten teachers will find all sorts of wonderful (and orange) ways to extend the learning with this delightful book. Whether designing their own carrots or a different solution to Jasper’s problem, this book is sure to inspire fun. Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! would be an excellent companion story.

2013 Randolph Caldecott Medal Honor Book
ALA Notable Book of 2013
2013 Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Crystal Kite Award Winner (Midwest)

Coloring pages (free PDF download) from Peter Brown’s webpage

Flannel Friday: Flannelboard and Template

Creepy Carrots! at Amazon.com

Creepy Carrots! at Amazon.ca

The Creepy Carrots Zone from Peter Brown on Vimeo.

Storytime Standouts - Raising Children Who Love to Read

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19. Candlewick Prize Pack with 6 of TIME Magazine’s Top 100 Young Adult Books

Enter to win a prize pack with 6 of the listed Candlewick titles from TIME Magazine's Top 100 Young Adult Books. Giveaway begins January 15, 2015, at 12:01 A.M. PST and ends January 31, 2015, at 11:59 P.M. PST.

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20. Behind the book

Back on October 10th, I had the privilege of attending the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award ceremony. During the celebration, honorees and winners came to the podium to receive their awards and address the audience. Needless to say, I was star struck to be in the room with the likes of Steve Jenkins, Gene Luen Yang, Peter Brown, and Steve Sheinkin, among others.

Once I managed to regain my composure, I listened carefully to the content of their speeches. Patricia Hruby Powell, spoke to the power of dance in her own life as one of the connections that led her to craft the beautiful Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker. Andrew Smith shocked us all when he told us that Grasshopper Jungle was written the summer he decided to “quit being a writer.” Nevertheless, he completed it because the manuscript helped him strengthen his connection to his son who had recently left for college. Peter Brown made us laugh as he joked about managing to slip nudity into a picture book (see the centerfold page where Mr. Tiger returns to his birthday suit!) in partial protest of the fact that Babar the elephant, a favorite character from childhood, walks naked into a department store only to emerge one page later inexplicably dressed in a suit walking upright!

Port ChicagoBut the speech that resonated most profoundly with me was the one given by Steve Sheinkin who talked about his book, The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny and the Fight for Civil Rights. He told us that his brother-in-law (I believe) piqued his interest by mentioning the Port Chicago disaster several years earlier. Once he heard about it, Sheinkin simply could not let it go. His desire to understand what had happened to the 50 African American navy sailors charged with mutiny for refusing to work under extraordinarily dangerous conditions became an exciting mystery he had to unravel. He spoke of the thrill of meeting the only other author who had ever written about the incident and sharing his source material. He described the exhilaration of traveling to interview those sailors who were still living and ready to share their story five decades later. You could not sit in the audience that night and not feel Sheinkin’s excitement. It was clear that the pursuit of this mystery, the unlocking of the clues one by one, moved him deeply.

As I listened to Sheinkin and the other authors speak that night, I was reminded how exciting it can be to consider the writer behind the text. There is no doubt that the texts alone merit attention. But understanding that authors are driven by the same goals, hopes and humor as regular humans is a really powerful lesson for kids.

In my years as a teacher and a coach, I have often spoken of author study — where we read multiple texts by a single author in an effort to understand craft, theme, style, etc. We generally supplement our author study with biographical information about the author. I would never want to give that up as teacher.

But imagine highlighting for our students the writers’ stories behind the stories. What an amazing way to draw kids into their own writing. These authors’ stories went beyond simple topics of interest. They revealed how essential elements of who they were as people drove them into and through their writing — Brown’s humor, Sheinkin’s need to uncover, Smith’s desire for connection. I want all my students to know that who they are can propel their writing.

As an educator, I am eager to explore authentic ways to let my students listen behind the book. But, I’m not sure entirely how. Any thoughts about how to bring writer’s voices regularly into our writing workshops?



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21. Nana in the City

nana in the cityThis is a JUST RIGHT kind of book. Just the right size; just the right tone; just the right scope of experience/adventure for the audience.

How does Lauren Castillo accomplish this just-rightness in the art?

1) Through the use of color. In the beginning she communicates the noise and smells and sheer overwhelming-ness of the big city through dark colors: watercolor washes of browns and black charcoal-like shading. Bright yellow and greens communicate bustle and action. The lack of color (on the page where Nana and the boy first approach Nana’s apartment building) communicates sterility and the intimidating feeling of those tall looming buildings. And of course the use of red throughout the book is absolutely perfect. From the start, touches of red focus our attention: the numeral 1 on the subway; the policeman’s stop sign; the teapot and teacup. Nana knits the boy a red cape to make him brave, but observers will note that Nana is also outfitted in red, from her hatband to her handbag to her boots. There’s a natural and built-in connection forged between adult and child here. And there’s a point of discussion: is there an implication that Nana might need help being brave as well?

2) Through her ability to convey the sense of a large city in a book with quite a small trim size. (Which I love, by the way. The small size and square shape of the book communicates safety, harmony, manageability. The story would have been dwarfed in one of those oversize celebrate-the-city kind of picture books.) Castillo’s story is a small one, but it doesn’t happen in isolation. The presence of the city is always there in the background, in black-and-white sketched-in cityscapes (that look almost like coloring-books pages before they’re colored in) or less-detailed blocked-out buildings; she gives us the whole city without taking our focus off the characters and the main action. (She uses the same technique in other places in the book as well: note Nana sitting on her coach as she begins to knit the boy his red cape. The sofa is only sketched in, like the cityscapes, keeping our attention solely on Nana and her knitting.)

3) Through the tactile quality of the art. The combination of the watercolor and what looks to be some kind of charcoal rubbing (but might be something entirely different; I’m just guessing!) gives the art such texture and immediacy.

I have to admit I’m a leetle disappointed in the endpapers. I thought they might have changed from green (in the beginning) to red (at the end), just like Nana’s two knitting projects. But I am sure the illustrator and publisher gave much thought to it. So please help me with this (admittedly) tiny little quibble.

This book is not a shouter. It’s a small domestic story, with a quiet narrative arc, for very young children. Therefore, given the history of this award, it doesn’t scream Caldecott. What will be its chances on the table at the end of this month?



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22. Best New Kids Stories | January 2015

Popular series, a new addition to the American Girl conglomerate, and a Disney Frozen book make this month's selection of best new kids books totally a kids' choice list!

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23. Best Selling Picture Books | January 2015

Reader's Digest's What I Like About Me is our best selling picture book from our affiliate store this month. As per usual, we've shared our hand selected titles of the most popular picture books from the nationwide best selling picture books.

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24. Best Selling Middle Grade Books | January 2015

This month, A Boy and a Bear in a Boat, by Dave Shelton, is The Children's Book Review's best selling middle grade book. Our selection from the nationwide best selling middle grade books, as they appear on The New York Times, still features books by super-talents R.J. Palacio and Rick Riordan and also includes the powerful story I Am Malala.

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25. Best Selling Kids Series | January 2015

There are no changes this month to our best selling kids series list. The Marvel Heroes of Reading line of early readers remains the best selling series from our affiliate store.

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