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1. Book Riot's Favorite Sentences

Note: This post originally appeared on Book Riot on May 19, 2014.

For some reason, whenever I hear that someone writes “great sentences,” my ears always perk up. Which is funny because, if pressed I couldn’t really tell you what exactly makes a great sentence. For me it’s kind of like the Supreme Court and pornography: I know it when I see it.
Or at least I think I do.
Rather than trying to come up with a definition of a great sentence, I thought it’d be more productive to just showcase some. So I asked my fellow Book Riot contributors for some of their favorite sentences. Lucky for me, they were more than up to the challenge.
And as always, we want to hear from you too. So please enjoy and then let us know what some of your favorite sentences are in the comments section.
So, without further ado, I present to you (drumroll please)… Book Riot’s Favorite Sentences:
Click here to read all the full post with all these wonderful sentences.  But while you're here, here are my three choices:
“And who shall say–whatever disenchantment follows–that we ever forget magic; or that we can ever betray, on this leaden earth, the apple-tree, the singing, and the gold?” – Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel
“In a hallway I saw a sign with an arrow pointing the way, and I was struck by the thought that that inoffensive symbol had once been a thing of iron, an inexorable, mortal projectile that had penetrated the flesh of men and lions and clouded the sun of Thermopylae and bequeathed to Harald Sigurdson, for all time, six feet of English earth.” – Jorge Luis Borges, “Mutations” from Dreamtigers
Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Luis Borges
“Sam said her mother was a mermaid, when everyone knew she was dead.” – Evaline Ness, Sam, Bangs & Moonshine

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2. 15 First Picture-Book Gift Ideas for Children’s Book Week

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to write a guest post for Reading Rainbow... and if my elementary school self knew that he'd get to recommend books for Reading Rainbow, he would totally pee his pants.

So, here are 15 First Picture Book Gift Ideas for anyone with a new baby on the way.  But you don't have to take my word for it... Read the rest of this post

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3. #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Here's my humble contribution to the fantastic and much needed #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign:

Check them out on tumblr for all the great content (and of course, support the cause by buying some of the great recommended books): weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com

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4. My Dream Kidlit Panel (BookCon Edition)

Note: This was originally posted at Book Riot on April 24, 2014

Book Expo America, particularly BookCon, has been getting a lot of heat recently for its selection of speakers. It started a few weeks ago when they announced their all-star kidlit panel, Blockbuster Reads: Meet the Kids’ Authors That Dazzle, which featured exclusively white men. (I won’t go into too much detail here because fellow Rioter Kelly Jensen already provided a great rundown of the whole situation. Seriously, do yourself a favor and go read it now).
After some backtracking and promises to do better, BookCon found themselves under fire again yesterday when people looked more closely at their full slate of speakers and found no diversity whatsoever.
BookCon2014This prompted our editor, Rebecca Joines Schinsky, to take them to task, calling the whole fiasco inexcusable and embarrassing. To be clear, this isn’t to say that the individual authors that were chosen to speak aren’t worthy. This is about the fundamental flaws of the skewed selection process, which did everyone a disservice by not taking into account the diverse reality of the writing and reading community.
As Rebecca says, “It is not hard to do better than this.” Given the wealth of talented writers out there, she’s absolutely right.
So, let’s do better.
The other day, someone asked me: If you were to start from scratch and assemble your own all-star panel of children’s literature luminaries, who would you choose?
Which is an exciting, if daunting, challenge. Keeping in mind that it’s impossible to represent the full richness and diversity of the children’s literature community with only four panelists (though you couldn’t be any less diverse than BookCon’s original panel), the question really boils down to simply: Who would I be psyched to hear speak?
So, without further ado (though after much hand-wringing), here is my own personal Dream Kidlit Panel:

Sherman AlexieSherman Alexie: Nothing against James Patterson (one of the original BookCon panelists), but I just don’t think of him as a children’s author. I imagine that his inclusion was driven in part by the desire to have a big name who could draw a crowd from the non-children’s literature world. Well, if you’re looking for a cross-genre literary superstar, you can’t do much better than Sherman Alexie.  He has true children’s literature bona fides with his National Book Award winning Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian(which is also a stalwart on the annual Most Banned and Challenged Books list) and is one of the most well-known and respected voices in literature today. Plus, like Patterson (who famously donated $1 million to independent bookstores) Alexie is a big supporter of independent bookstores as the driving force behind Indies First, which gets authors to volunteer as booksellers for a day.  An easy choice for any dream panel.

Kate DiCamilloKate DiCamillo: Any conversation about the royalty of children’s literature has to start with the only one with an official title: the current Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Kate DiCamillo. Her latest book, Flora and Ulysses, just won the coveted Newbery Award and it’s not her first time taking home the prize. If she keeps this up, there’s a good chance they’ll just rename it theDiCamillo some day. Also, in case you missed it when I said it the first time, she’s our AMBASSADOR. Obviously, she’s a no-brainer for the panel. The only problem will be allowing enough time for her Secret Service detail to secure the perimeter before starting.
(Note: DiCamillo, with Alexie’s blessing, has recently taken up the Indie First cause as well–which I take as a sign from the universe that this panel was meant to be. Thanks, Universe.)

Kadir NelsonKadir Nelson: Not only is Nelson one of the finest artists in the field today, his influence extends well beyond the world of children’s books. Kidlit scholar Phil Nel recently wrote about that here, pointing out that “Nelson’s art also appears on U.S. postage stamps, magazine covers, album covers — including the latest Drake album. Indeed, he also may be the only children’s author to count Drake, Spike Lee, Will Smith and the late Michael Jackson among his fans. Indeed, his art not only hangs in galleries, but is in the private collections of Shaquille O’Neal, Venus Williams, Sharon Stone, and Stephen Spielberg.” Given his stature in the broader artistic community, it was no surprise when this past year, following the passing of Nelson Mandela, it was Kadir Nelson’s artwork that graced the cover of the New Yorker’s commemorative edition. All that is in addition to his breathtaking books and his growing treasure trove of awards. Clearly, any all-star kidlit panel without Nelson is really just kidding itself.

Lemony Snicket Daniel HandlerLemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler): One of the original BookCon panelists, the prolific and funny Snicket gets a spot on my dream panel too. His groundbreaking Series of Unfortunate Events injected the field with a much-needed dose of the macabre and he continues to challenge the conventions of children’s literature with works like The Dark, a strangely beautiful picture book about, well, the dark. Also, anyone who goes out of his way to establish a special ALA Prize for Noble Librarians Facing Adversity gets an automatic spot on my dais.

So, there it is. After much deliberation, those are my final four choices. And as you can see, this is definitely not a matter of choosing diversity over quality. Not only is it not hard to do better, I’d say it’s infinitely harder (if not impossible) to look at the full pool of worthy authors and not end up with a diverse panel.
Okay. Now that I’ve had my say, I’m curious: Who would you put on your Dream Kidlit Panel?

Since I had such a hard time narrowing it down from the many outstanding names out there, here is a (still not exhaustive) list of other worthy names to choose from… you know, in case there are scheduling problems with my hypothetical dream panel:
Mac Barnett, Betsy Bird, Judy Blume, Peter Brown, Eric Carle, Bryan Collier, Christopher Paul Curtis, Louise Erdrich, Nikki Giovanni, John Green, Oliver Jeffers, A.S. King, Jon Klassen, Jarrett Krosoczka, David Levithan, Rush Limbaugh (kidding, just wanted to make sure you were paying attention), Lois Lowry, Meg Medina, Yuyi Morales, Christopher Myers, Walter Dean Myers, R.J. Palacio, Jerry Pinkney, Rick Riordan (who, as an original BookCon panelist, gets major props for taking it upon himself to point out the lack of diversity), Rainbow Rowell, Veronica Roth, Rachel Renee Russell, Alex Sanchez, Marjane Satrapi, Jon Sczieska, Peter Sis, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Phil & Erin Stead, Shaun Tan, Mo Willems, Gene Luen Yang…

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5. Doing the Unimaginable: An Interview with BEEKLE's Dan Santat

Note: This interview was originally posted on Book Riot on April 9, 2014.SHARE

7688b94a8d586e714b5d25ac20183616Yesterday, a curious little character namedBeekle introduced himself to readers all over the world. And in my humble opinion, this marshmallowy figure with a scotch-taped crown stands head and shoulders above the rest of this year’s picture book offerings.
(Note: It’s unclear whether or not he actually has shoulders, but that’s beside the point.)
The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend byDan Santat (which hit shelves on April 8, 2014), starts on an island where imaginary friends are born. There they wait for a child to imagine them into being, at which point they are whisked away to the real world. One character (the aforementioned marshmallowy fellow), grows tired of waiting and decides to take matters into his own hands… setting off for the real world in search of a friend.  
It’s a book about bravery, friendship, the power of storytelling… and to top it all off, it’s pretty as all get out. Santat’s bold visual style provides the perfect balance to this very tender tale. As I mentioned before, this is my favorite book of the year so far and it would take quite a lot for another book to surpass Santat’s masterful blend of artistry, humor, and heart.
“So rather than waiting… he did the unimaginable.”

With yesterday’s arrival, Beekle has officially made it to the real world. To mark the occasion, I asked Dan Santat to take a few minutes out of his (unimaginably) busy schedule for a few questions about his latest book.

Minh: I’ve heard that Beekle is somewhat autobiographical…  is that true?  If yes, how so?
Dan: Beekle embodies a lot of metaphors relating to my life. In one respect, it’s a metaphor about the birth of my first son. I think every new parent imagines what their child to be will be like before they are born. You wonder what their personality will be like, what unique habits they’ll have and so forth. Then when you finally witness the birth of your child you meet this person whom you instantly love unconditionally and it just feels right and it’s at that same moment you give that child his/her name. In the story, Beekle is born on this magical island. There’s a gathering around him like when family gathers at a hospital when a birth is happening.
“In the story… There’s a gathering around him like when family gathers at a hospital when a birth is happening.” (Early Sketch)

He then goes on a journey, a transformation in a sense, to discover who he truly is and during the entire time he’s nervous and excited at the same time, much like a first time parent. Then when Beekle meets his child all that fear suddenly disappears and he instantly loves this person he has just met and it feels just right.
The book is also a metaphor about the worry a child has about going out into the real world and making their first friend and wondering if there’s someone out in the world for them. Beekle is like my son at his first day of school worrying about whether or not he will fit in with the other kids in school, or if he can even make friends. In the end it takes is just one person to understand who he is and everything feels right.
Lastly, it’s the metaphor about how two people can collaborate to make a story together. Beekle is the writer, the girl is the illustrator, and they meet under a tree. Paper. Life. A book.
“…wondering if there’s someone out in the world for them.”

M: As an artist, do you relate more to Beekle or to the child who imagines him into being?
D: As an artist I embody both characters equally. The child imagines this entire story and draws the entire adventure which is fully inspired by her surroundings and life experiences. For example, the stars in the sky bring imaginary friends to their child, which is inspired by the star shaped leaves in the tree she is sitting under.
Beekle’s journey is much like my transition from science into a career in art. There was a lot of uncertainty going through my mind about whether or not I was making the right decision for my life, but I pressed on in hopes of realizing what I truly wanted in my life.  It wasn’t until years later after art school and working professionally that I changed into someone who I was happy to be and fully understood my purpose.
“…I pressed on in hopes of realizing what I truly wanted in my life.”

M: At the end of the book, you attribute the name “Beekle” to a boy named Alek.  Can you tell us the story behind that?
D: Alek is my oldest son who is eight years old. Years before he was born, the idea of an imaginary friend who couldn’t be imagined was something I was tinkering with for years. There was never any real substantial ideas because I was always too busy with other projects to tackle the project and so it basically just sat as a one line concept. I didn’t even have a name or a look for the main character. Even the original working title for the book was “Unimaginable”.
When Alek was born, and when he could finally speak, his first word was Beekle, which was his word for bicycle. At the time, my wife mentioned that it would be a great name for a children’s book character and I immediately realized that I had a name for my new character. Once I named the character the rest of the story flowed right out of me naturally and because of that the scene where Beekle learns his name is especially precious to me.
M: Did you have imaginary friends as a child? Or, for that matter, do you have any imaginary friends now?
D: It’s funny you mention that because I never had an imaginary friend that I made up on my own while growing up.  I was an only child so one would probably think that it was natural to make up a friend but when I played make believe with myself I would often pretend the imaginary friends I was surrounded by were things I had seen on TV. Smurfs and Bugs Bunny were a particularly popular play dates for me at the time. I couldn’t get enough of them. As an adult you’d be surprised. I don’t even have dreams, or on the rare occasion that I do they’re really plain dreams. I’ll have dreams about eating cereal and that’s the whole dream. Real creative, Santat. Real creative…. sigh.
“…the idea of an imaginary friend who couldn’t be imagined was something I was tinkering with for years.”

M: You were the author and illustrator of this book, but in the past you’ve often illustrated other people’s stories.  How does the process of working on your own story compare with illustrating someone else’s text?
D: The most obvious thing that I notice is that I stress out a lot more about all the decisions I make when I’m serving as both author and illustrator of a book. When my primary task is to just illustrate a book then I know that I’m only shouldering half the responsibility. Lately I’ve had the luxury of being able to accept only those projects that I’ve read and I’m truly in love with and so the task is much easier., but if I’m doing both tasks then whatever reviews come out then it’s like a full reflection on me.  I find myself second guessing a lot when I try to illustrate my own text because I think it’s my need for everything to be perfect.
M: Which authors/artists (not limited to children’s lit) do you consider as influences?
D: William Joyce for his skill in composition and lighting, Saul Bass for his graphic simplicity in symbology, Chipp Kidd for his brilliant thinking for covers, David Sedaris for his sense of humor, NC Wyeth for his narrative abilities in illustratin, JC Leyendecker for his energy in dynamic posing, Dean Cornewell for his form, and Masamune Shirow for being so darn skilled with pen and ink
M: What are you working on now?
Illustrator Photo_Dan Santat
Dan Santat, filling James Brown’s shoes as the hardest working man in show business.

D: I just completed re-illustrating the first four books to Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot by Dav Pilkey and I’m in the process of re-illustrating the next three and then moving on to illustrating two new Ricky Ricotta adventures after that. I’m illustrating the sequel to Crankenstein called A Crankenstein Valentine by Samantha Berger as well as books five and six of the Imaginary Veterinary series by Suzanne Selfors and, at some point this year, starting on art for Invasion of the Fluffy Bunnies (the sequel to Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies) by Andrea Beaty. As for my personal projects, I’m working on my next picture book entitled, Are We There Yet with Little, Brown and my next graphic novel with Scholastic called, The Aquanaut. All in a day’s work.

See, I wasn’t kidding when I said his schedule was unimaginably busy.
As you can tell from his responses, Beekle is a true labor of love and it shows on every intricately illustrated page. Now, having finally arrived, the first leg of Beekle’s journey is complete… but I’m pretty sure that his adventure is just beginning. I recommend that you venture out and introduce yourself.
I hear he’s looking for a friend.
“Thinking about his friend gave him the courage to journey on… until he reached the real world.”

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6. Together Toward Ourselves: 30 Bookish Wedding Readings

Note: This post originally appeared on Book Riot on April 2, 2014.
We’re heading into another wedding season, which means a lot of you are in the thick of planning for the big day. Which also means that soon you’re going to have to make the all-important decision about what (if anything) will be read during the ceremony.
In addition to my own wedding, I’ve had the honor of reading for several dear friends, so I understand the exciting and daunting challenge that comes with finding just the right words to mark the occasion.
While there are some bookish lists floating around out there already (including a 2012 Book Riot post), I figured it wouldn’t hurt to put together another resource for those of you on the hunt for something with a literary bent.
So, here are thirty readings (in no particular order) that could add a little bookish flair to that special day. Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg, so if you have other suggestions, please join the conversation and leave them in the comments.

“This is where I have always been coming to. Since my time began. And when I go away from here, this will be the mid-point, to which everything ran, before, and from which everything will run. But now, my love, we are here, we are now, and those other times are running elsewhere.”
― A.S. Byatt, Possession

“No one knows very much about the life of another. This ignorance becomes vivid, if you love another. Love sets the imagination on fire, and, also, eventually, chars the imagination into a harder element: imagination cannot match love, cannot plunge so deep, or range so wide.”
 ― James Baldwin, Just Above My Head

“It has made me better loving you… it has made me wiser, and easier, and brighter. I used to want a great many things before, and to be angry that I did not have them. Theoretically, I was satisfied. I flattered myself that I had limited my wants. But I was subject to irritation; I used to have morbid sterile hateful fits of hunger, of desire. Now I really am satisfied, because I can’t think of anything better. It’s just as when one has been trying to spell out a book in the twilight, and suddenly the lamp comes in. I had been putting out my eyes over the book of life, and finding nothing to reward me for my pains; but now that I can read it properly I see that it’s a delightful story.”
― Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

“Here’s a profundity, the best I can do: sometimes you just know… You just know when two people belong together. I had never really experienced that odd happenstance before, but this time, with her, I did. Before, I was always trying to make my relationships work by means of willpower and forced affability. This time I didn’t have to strive for anything. A quality of ease spread over us. Whatever I was, well, that was apparently what she wanted… To this day I don’t know exactly what she loves about me and that’s because I don’t have to know. She just does. It was the entire menu of myself. She ordered all of it.”
― Charles Baxter, Feast of Love

“Love is tricky. It is never mundane or daily. You can never get used to it. You have to walk with it, then let it walk with you. You can never balk. It moves you like the tide. It takes you out to sea, then lays you on the beach again. Today’s struggling pain is the foundation for a certain stride through the heavens. You can run from it but you can never say no.”

“To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth–
–Whereon the pillars of this earth are founded, towards which the conscience of the world is tending — a wind is rising, and the rivers flow.”
― Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again
(Note: I love this passage, but full disclosure, it actually refers to death… so it might not the greatest choice if your guests are familiar with Wolfe.)

“What most people call loving consists of picking out a woman and marrying her. They pick her out, I swear, I’ve seen them. As if you could pick in love, as if it were not a lightning bolt that splits your bones and leaves you staked out in the middle of the courtyard. They probably say that they pick her out because-they-love-her, I think it’s just the opposite. Beatrice wasn’t picked out, Juliet wasn’t picked out. You don’t pick out the rain that soaks you to a skin when you come out of a concert.”
― Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch

Marriage is not
a house or even a tent
it is before that, and colder:
The edge of the forest, the edge
of the desert
the unpainted stairs
at the back where we squat
outside, eating popcorn
where painfully and with wonder
at having survived even
this far
we are learning to make fire
― Margaret Atwood, Habitation

“His face contained for me all possibilities of fierceness and sweetness, pride and submissiveness, violence, self-containment. I never saw more in it than I had when I saw it first, because I saw everything then. The whole thing in him that I was going to love, and never catch or explain.”
― Alice Munro, Lives of Girls and Women

I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way
than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.
― Pablo Neruda, Sonnet XVII
“For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation. Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person—it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another person; it is a great, demanding claim on him, something that chooses him and calls him to vast distance…
Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distance exists, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of seeing each other as a whole before an immense sky.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

“All anyone can hope for is just a tiny bit of love, like a drop in a cup if you can get it, or a waterfall, a flood, if you can get that too.”
― Edwidge Danticat, Krik? Krak!

Conjunction, assemblage, congress, union:
Life isn’t meant to be lived alone.
A life apart is a desperate fiction.
Life is an intermediate business:
a field of light bordered by love
a sea of desire stretched between shores.
Marriage is the strength of union.
Marriage is the harmonic blend.
Marriage is the elegant dialectic of counterpoint.
Marriage is the faultless, fragile logic of ecology:
A reasonable process of give and take
unfolding through cyclical and linear time.
A wedding is the conjoining of systems in which
Neither loses its single splendor and both are completely
transformed. As, for example,
The dawn is the wedding of the Night and the Day,
and is neither, and both,
and is, in itself, the most beautiful time,
abundant artless beauty,
free and careless magnificence.
― Tony Kushner, Vows/Epithalamion

“If there is no love in the world, we will make a new world, and we will give it walls, and we will furnish it with soft, red interiors, from the inside out, and give it a knocker that resonates like a diamond falling to a jeweller’s felt so that we should never hear it. Love me, because love doesn’t exist, and I have tried everything that does.”
― Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated

“The moon looks wonderful in this warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning. Light within light. It seems like a metaphor for something. So much does. Ralph Waldo Emerson is excellent on this point.
It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence. Or it seems like poetry within language. Perhaps wisdom within experience. Or marriage within friendship and love.”
― Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

“Love is the ultimate outlaw. It just won’t adhere to any rules. The most any of us can do is to sign on as its accomplice. Instead of vowing to honor and obey, maybe we should swear to aid and abet. That would mean that security is out of the question. The words “make” and “stay” become inappropriate. My love for you has no strings attached. I love you for free.”
― Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker

“What greater thing is there for two human souls, than to feel that they are joined for life–to strengthen each other in all labor, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of the last parting?”
― George Eliot, Adam Bede

The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single,
All things by a law divine
In one another’s being mingle—
Why not I with thine?
See the mountains kiss high heaven,
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdain’d its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea
What are all these kissings worth,
If thou kiss not me?
― Percy Bysshe Shelley, Love’s Philosophy

“Love is like a wind stirring the grass beneath trees on a black night,’ he had said. ‘You must not try to make love definite. It is the divine accident of life. If you try to be definite and sure about it and to live beneath the trees, where soft night winds blow, the long hot day of disappointment comes swiftly and the gritty dust from passing wagons gathers upon lips inflamed and made tender by kisses.”
― Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio

“Love is by definition an unmerited gift; being loved without meriting it is the very proof of real love. If a woman tells me: I love you because you’re intelligent, because you’re decent, because you buy me gifts, because you don’t chase women, because you do the dishes, then I’m disappointed; such love seems a rather self-interested business. How much finer it is to hear: I’m crazy about you even though you’re neither intelligent nor decent, even though you’re a liar, an egotist, a bastard.”
― Milan Kundera, Slowness
wedding dinner
“To love another human in all of her splendor and imperfect perfection, it is a magnificent task… tremendous and foolish and human.”

“This was love at first sight, love everlasting: a feeling unknown, unhoped for, unexpected–in so far as it could be a matter of conscious awareness; it took entire possession of him, and he understood, with joyous amazement, that this was for life.”
― Thomas Mann, Disorder and Early Sorrow

I wanted to take
your hand and run with you
together toward
ourselves down the street to your street
i wanted to laugh aloud
and skip the notes past
the marquee advertising “women
in love” past the record
shop with “The Spirit
In The Dark” past the smoke shop
past the park and no
parking today signs
past the people watching me in
my blue velvet and i don’t remember
what you wore but only that i didn’t want
anything to be wearing you
i wanted to give
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7. Never Stopped Doodling: An Interview with the Brothers Behind CRABTREE

Note: This interview originally appeared on Book Riot on February 13, 2014.

This past year was the 15th anniversary of McSweeney’s, the publishing force that Slate called “the first bona fide literary movement in decades.”  To mark the occasion, they released The Best of McSweeney’s, a collection of highlights from their fifteen year run.
However, another book they released this past year, Crabtree (through their fledgling children’s arm McMullens), is perhaps an even better tribute to the iconic McSweeney’s style.

 (Photos courtesy of Pat Castaldo, buyolympia.com)
The book jacket, which folds out into a full-sized poster.

Having lost his false teeth, Alfred Crabtree starts to unpack and catalog his many possessions (whether he is a collector or a hoarder is up to interpretation). Starting with this very simple premise, Crabtree reveals itself to be a light-hearted meditation on how we are defined by our possessions.
It’s a good stand-in for the complete McSweeney’s oeuvre because like most McSweeney’s offerings, Crabtree trains a keenly observant eye on the unexamined life, uncovering quirky yet meaningful details that might otherwise escape notice.  And of course, it is delivered with McSweeney’s trademark stylistic flair (as evidenced by the book jacket which unfolds into a full sized poster).
I recently had a chance to catch up with authors/illustrators/brothers Jon and Tucker Nichols and discussed (among other things) their process behind Crabtree, methods of delivering French cheese, and of course: glittery ponies.
(Note: All photos courtesy of Pat Castaldo, buyolympia.com)
Minh: This is your first children’s book. What is your professional background and what made you want to write a picture book?
Tucker: We really have no business writing kids’ books. But now that I say that I’m not really sure who does. There are probably degrees to be earned, maybe licenses even, but we have neither. We are brothers who draw whenever we’re near pen and paper. We really never stopped doodling since we were kids.
Jon: We are also now fathers who read books to our daughters.
T: Right. You can try to wriggle your way out of it, but if you have kids you will no doubt be forced to read a lot of really bad kids’ books to your children, so there’s a lot of motivation right there. We were lucky enough to be invited in by McSweeney’s McMullens to try our hand at making a book for kids. Prior to that, we really didn’t have a plan to make a book for kids. We would have probably just kept trying to hide the glittery pony books and reaching for the classics. That said, I’m so glad we did this. It’s been really fun.
M: How did the process of writing/illustrating a book differ from the other creative work you’ve done?
T: Jon is a musician so he’s a bit more used to collaboration. I’m a fine artist, and collaboration doesn’t come as naturally to me, at least with other artists. But Jon and I have been collaborating all our lives in one way or another, so this was different. We found our natural roles pretty quickly: Jon drew all the people and wrote most of the words. I draw all of the objects.
J: There are a lot of objects. I got off easy.

There are a lot of objects." (Photos courtesy of Pat Castaldo, buyolympia.com)
“There are a lot of objects.”

T: We both talked about who this guy Crabtree is, and how he thought about all of his things. And because so many of his things happen to be things we grew up with, the book ended up being surprisingly autobiographical. And then Brian McMullen somehow stitched it all together into a real book. Without him these would still be just a pile of seemingly unrelated drawings in my studio.
M: Is this your first official collaboration as brothers? And are you still on speaking terms?
T: Tell Jon he is welcome to answer this one first.
M: Tucker says you—
J: —I heard him. Yes, we work pretty well together. In terms of the actual work, we’re very much on the same page. I think the hardest part of collaborating is synching up schedules. There was a lot to hash out in this book, a lot to revise and rethink and decide about. And because we didn’t make the thing with the kind of absolute separation of author and illustrator that is more traditional in the making of kid’s books, we were kind of at the mercy of each others’ availability throughout the process.
M: There is a lot to dig into with these illustrations–what is one small detail that you would want to make sure readers don’t miss?
J: We’re currently in the process of translating Crabtree into French and one of the details we’ll have to lose in the French edition is a pair of rectangular plastic “Cheese Spreaders” on the Tools and Utensils page. Apparently, the French have ideas about cheese that don’t center around Kraft Handisnacks.

Apparently, the French have ideas about cheese that don't center around Kraft Handisnacks."
“Apparently, the French have ideas about cheese that don’t center around Kraft Handisnacks.”

T: I’m super fond of the character “Nut” who appears in the family portraits, and then as a mayoral candidate in the front endpapers, and as a wanted man on the back endpapers. I’m hoping we haven’t seen the last of him.
M: You are both parents of young children and in another interview you mention the particular challenge of reading the same book over and over again (something we have all run into at some point). How did this guide your work on Crabtree and what makes this book different?
T: Most of it is just answering a simple question: can I picture reading this book out loud a thousand times without wanting to throw the lamp out the window? With Crabtree we are taking the path of trying to make a book that has so many different connective pathways that each time you open it you might have a slightly different experience with your child. It has a story, there are lots of things to look at, there are things to talk about with your kid, and some of it is just unexplainable. We also wanted to include the parents in the audience. So we’re casting a very wide net in the interest of keeping the lamp on the table.
J: Lamps are costly.  But seriously, there are a whole bunch of ways to make a book that isn’t depleted after a reading or two.  The hardest is keeping it simple and elemental. Poetic. I am a Bunny or Frog and Toad. Arnold Lobel’s books will always be on my shelves because they manage to tap into something that is the very essence of friendship, and friendship is at the heart of our humanity. Those stories are distillations. Crabtree takes a different tack and throws a lot of stuff at the reader. It’s more of a cornucopia, like Cars and Trucks and Things That Go.
T: And The Muppet Show, plus Gilligan’s Island, and a volume of some obscure encyclopedia from 1977. It’s not exactly spare.

It’s not exactly spare." (Photos courtesy of Pat Castaldo, buyolympia.com)
“It’s not exactly spare.”

J: That’s important though. My daughter’s six now, and she likes to go through random catalogs from our recycling bin and circle the things that interest her. It turns out, almost everything interests her when she turns her attention to it.
M: In the book, Alfred is searching for his missing false teeth. As an amateur psychologist (and avid-googler), I’ve read that dreams about losing one’s teeth are tied to anxiety around times of change or upheaval… which seems somehow fitting for Alfred Crabtree. Was this intentional or am I overthinking things?
J: I have those dreams! In fact the writing of this book, not coincidentally, corresponded with a lot of real-life periodontal nastiness for me. To the point where the dentistry tools we have in the book always make me a little uneasy. Yes, there is something profoundly elemental about teeth. I think we settled on the idea because there was an aspect to it that was a little bit vaudeville — denture gags not being quite as prevalent as they once were. But the losing of teeth is one of the things that late-middle-aged folks like Alfred and his young fans have in common. Teeth are bizarre and fascinating things. Imagine if we had other body parts like them — a set of adult eyes hanging out behind our kid eyes that would emerge when we turned five!
T: I’m ready for my adult eyes—that sounds great.
J: I just got mine. I’m afraid they’re called “progressive lenses.”
M: Who are some of your influences? (Not just limited to children’s authors.)
T: OK, here’s a list of decidedly NOT kids’ authors, truly off the top of my head: Michael Ondaatje, Lynda Barry, Cormac McCarthy, Lee Friedlander, William Eggelston, Alexander Calder, Billie Holiday, Tom Sachs, Denis Johnson, Jan Johannson, Etta James…wait I think I’m just listing things I like. Actual influences for me are probably closer to our mom, California, Saul Steinberg, Edward Gorey, our friends.
J: Tucker, you just put Cormac McCarthy in a list of your influences for a kids’ book. That’s perverse. I’ll mention Valeri Gorbachev, who is neck-and-neck for me with Richard Scarry for beautifully rendered anthropomorphic animals. I also love Rodney Alan Greenblat’s Aunt Ippy and Uncle Wizmo books , anything at all by William Steig, Roald Dahl, Richard Hefter, and the Oulipo writers, who wrote kids’ books for grown ups.
T: Way to take the higher ground. You’re making me look bad.
M: Do you guys have future book plans?
T: Yes.
J: Yup.
M: Let me guess… Crabtree and the Glittery Pony
T: You never know with that guy.
J: Ha! As long as it has a tie-in to a major fast food franchise, we’re happy.

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8. New Author Website

Photo by Danielle Lurie

Even though Let Me Finish! won't be published for a while now (scheduled for Summer 2016), I thought it would be good to have a simple and clean landing site in addition to this blog. 

So here is a first stab at an author website: minhlebooks.com.  (Note: I'm still hesitant to use the term "author" since nothing is up on the shelves yet... but I'm slowly getting over it.)  Please keep in mind that this is very much a work in progress... afterall, I have until 2016 to get it right.

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9. Announcement in Publisher's Weekly

This is my first time here, so it's fun to see the news about the book deal roll out... here is the announcement in Publisher's Weekly.

(Big thanks to Danielle Lurie for managing to extract a good author photo out of this extremely self-conscious subject.)

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10. Hot Off the Presses!

So excited to share this news about my very first picture book deal... and I can't think of a more fitting way for word to break than through Betsy Bird of A Fuse #8 Production.  She for all intents and purposes discovered me when I first started blogging way back in the day.

Minh Lê, the popular Kidlit blogger and opinionator (he has written for the Atlantic and Huffington Post, and is the voice behind such widely-shared features as “Put James Franco on All the Book Covers”) has sold his debut picture book. In collaboration with acclaimed illustrator Isabel Roxas, LET ME FINISH! is fittingly bookish in theme: it’s the first-ever picture book about spoilers, wherein one boy wants to be left alone to read in peace till the end of his book, but is continuously interrupted by animals who can’t resist sharing that infectious feeling we get when we love a story. Rotem Moscovich at Disney Hyperion won North American rights to the book, at auction, from Lê’s agent, Stephen Barbara at Foundry Literary + Media, and Elena Giovinazzo at Pippin Properties, who represented Isabel Roxas in the deal.
So excited to be working with the super-talented illustrator Isabel Roxas and Rotem Moscovich, the amazing editor who was willing to take a chance on this debut author.  And all the thanks in the world to our agents Stephen Barbara and Elena Giovinazzo for making this all happen.

And of course, thanks to my family for always being there and especially Aimee for... well, everything.

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11. 2014 Spring/Summer Picture Book Preview (via @HuffPostBooks)

Note: This post first appeared on the Huffington Post.
With the American Library Association announcing its choice for this year's Caldecott Medal (the very deserving Brian Floca for Locomotive), it's time to turn the page on 2013 and take a look ahead to some of the great titles heading our way in 2014.
It's early, but there is already one short and curious character that, in my opinion, stands head and shoulders above the rest.
The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat (Little Brown; April)
Dan Santat is one of the hardest working people in the industry today. And while his immense talent was always evident, Beekle takes his artistry to a new level. The story (which is just bursting at the seams with charm) begins on an island of colorful creatures, each waiting to be imagined by a special child and thus transported to the real world. Our hero, a marshmallowy fellow with a scotch-taped crown waits and waits... and waits before deciding to take matters into his own hands. He does the unimaginable and sets out to find a friend for himself.
As with all great books, Beekle has an air of inevitability about it. As if somewhere out there is an island of perfect stories just waiting for the right person to come along and imagine it into being. We should all be grateful that Santat, with his brilliant use of color and humor, was here to bring Beekle to life.
Now here are some of the best of the rest (in alphabetical order):
Bluebird by Lindsey Yankey (Simply Read; January)
Take Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings", only remove all traces of Bette Midler, and you've got the lovingly illustrated Bluebird.
Don't Play with Your Food! by Bob Shea (Disney/Hyperion; January)
Shea has established himself as the rainbow suspenders of the kid's lit world... and I mean that in the most flattering way possible. With a distinct style that is slightly manic yet charming, totally wacky yet surprisingly touching, his books demand your attention.
Josephine by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Christian Robinson (Chronicle; January)
This is the story of a true American original, which to its great credit does not shy away from Baker's complicated relationship with America and racism. Her life is best summed up by the opening quote from Josephine Baker herself: "I shall dance all my life... I would like to die, breathless, spent, at the end of a dance."
Hannah's Night by Komako Sakai (Gecko Press; March)
No one, and I mean no one, captures the subtle curiosity of little children better than Sakai.
Have You Seen My Dragon? by Steve Light (Candlewick; April)
Inspired by the steam coming out of New York's manhole covers (which the young author's father said was dragon's breath), Light offers up a winding story of a young boy wandering through a bustling cityscape in search of his dragon. The book does a great job of contrasting intricate black and white line drawings with a bold use of color that will draw kids in, not just to look for the dragon, but to explore the curiosities of the city itself.
Here I Am by Patti Kim and Sonia Sánchez (Capstone, January)
A beautiful story about the challenges of moving to a new country, Sánchez's hectic style effectively captures the sometimes overwhelming nature of the immigrant experience. The book also deftly shows the young boy acclimating to his new surroundings, while also recognizing that his culture has something beautiful to offer this new home.
Hooray for Hat! by Brian Won (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; June)
The illustrations in this book that makes you want to have a baby just so you can decorate the nursery and parade around in silly hats.
Lindbergh: The Tale of a Flying Mouse by Torben Kuhlmann (NorthSouth; May)
Perhaps the most visually stunning book of the year, Elizabeth Bird of the School Library Journal is not kidding when she says that "the sheer beauty of this book is likely to overwhelm the senses." And while the story of a mouse with big dreams doesn't feel particularly new, Kuhlmann's talent takes it to new heights. His illustrations show that along with the exciting spirit of adventure there is also an accompanying darkness--whether it be mousetraps, the threat of failure, or jealous owls. The breathtaking illustrations have the realistic feel of archival footage, a quality which lends the story a pseudo-historical heft.
Little Mouse by Alison Murrary (Disney/Hyperion; June 2013)
Not wanting to be pigeon-holed as her mother's "little mouse", a young girl shows off the full range of her animalistic tendencies. Of course, at the end of the day, she realizes that there's a time an place for everything, even a little mouse.
The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky's Abstract Artby Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mary GrandPré (Random House/Knopf; February)
I'll admit that I have a soft spot for artist biographies... and this is one of the best around. The book begins with young Kandinsky discovering that he has a synesthetic ability to hear colors and then follows his journey to becoming a pioneer of abstract art. It must be a daunting task to illustrate a book about a master painter, but GrandPré is more than up to the challenge. Together, she and Rosenstock deliver a hauntingly beautiful portrait that feels like an early contender for the next Caldecott.
None the Number by Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins; July)
For children's book aficionados, any Oliver Jeffers release is cause for celebration. This stylish take on the counting book (part of his Hueys series) is no exception.
The Pilot and the Prince: The Life of Antoine De Saint-Exupéry by Peter Sís (Macmillan/FSG; May)
The Little Prince is one of the bestselling books of all time, but the author's life is perhaps the even better story. Sís, with his inimitably meticulous style, gives you a lot to explore and it is worth every second.
The River by Alessandro Sanna (Enchanted Lion; February)
The most mysterious book I've seen so far this year, it feels as if it were dug up along the banks of a muddy river, containing some kind of elemental wisdom within.
Tea with Grandpa by Barney Saltzberg (Macmillan/Roaring Brook; April)
A timely little book with a cute twist at the end, Saltzberg's story will resonate with families doing their best to keep in touch with loved ones from afar.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post suggested that Little Mouse by Alison Murray will be published in 2014. Little Mouse was published in 2013. The post has been updated to clarify this.

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12. Biggest Snubs from This Year's Caldecott Awards (via @BookRiot)

Note: This post first appeared on Book Riot.
First of all, I want to make one thing clear: this is NOT a criticism of the Caldecott committee. Narrowing down the year’s picture books to determine “the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children” is an absolutely Herculean task.  Their selection of Brian Floca’s Locomotive (announced on Monday) is a fantastic and worthy choice.
As for the Caldecott Honors, Aaron Becker’s Journey was my prediction for the top prize.  And while Molly Idle’sFlora and the Flamingo and David Wiesner’s Mr. Wuffles wouldn’t have been my personal picks, they were both very deserving.
However, while I don’t have any bones to pick with the Caldecott committee, no award season, be it the Oscars, the Grammys, or the NBA All-Star team would be complete without a quick look at some of the names that were left off.
So, without further ado, here are five of the books that could have taken home a highly coveted Caldecott… and perhaps more importantly, a magical sales-generating, sticker.
Mr. Tiger Goes Wild
Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown: An honor winner last year for Creepy Carrots, a lot of people thought that Brown’s free spirited tiger would earn him this year’s top prize. Too bad, because Mr. Tiger already has the right wardrobe for the celebration (including the afterparty).

Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me by Daniel Beaty, illustrated by Bryan Collier: Thankfully, Collier (who already has a 2011 Caldecott honor to his name) did not go home empty handed, as his exquisite collages earned him his fifth Coretta Scott King Award. In addition to the book, you should definitely check out the powerful spoken word piece on which it is based.

if you want to see a whale
If You Want to See a Whale by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Erin Stead: 2011′s big winner, it seems like every one of Erin Stead’s books is worthy of a Caldecott… and maybe that’s the problem. When you’re this consistently great, it’s easy to be taken for granted, particularly when you’ve got such an peaceful and understated style.

nelson mandela
Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson: Deserving, not just because his topic would have made this a timely choice, but because Kadir Nelson is one of the most talented names in the game. He already has a Caldecott honor under his belt, but he is destined for the gold. And while he didn’t get it this year, he did have the unique honor of illustrating the commemorative cover of the New Yorkerfollowing Mandela’s death.

nino wrestles the world
Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales: Winner of the Pura Belpré Illustrator award for children’s books that “best portray, affirm and celebrate the Latino cultural experience,” Morales’ underwear-clad dynamo could have taken home the Caldecott since his infectious energy speaks to little children (and formerly little children) everywhere, regardless of race or ethnicity.

Of course, this list itself excludes plenty of other worthy names: Jon Klassen, Oliver Jeffers, Sophie Blackall, Matthew Myers, LeUyen Pham, Zachariah OHora… like I said, narrowing down the field is a Herculean task. In fact, if someone wants to make a Biggest Snubs from the Book Riot Caldecott Snub Post, I certainly won’t take offense.

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13. Locomotive Wins the Caldecott

On Monday, the ALA announced its choices for the Caldecott with the coveted gold medal going to the very deserving Brian Floca for Locomotive.  Here is my take on the newly-crowned book, via the Huffington Post.
Locomotive by Brian Floca (Simon & Schuster)

It's not often that a picture book can be described as "magisterial", but such is scope of Floca's achievement here. Starting with the breathtaking cover which has you staring down an oncoming locomotive, the book takes the reader on a cross-country trip during the early days of the steam train. The text is bolstered by exhaustive research, as evidenced by one of the most impressive bibliographies you'll ever see in a picture book. And yet, it is anything but dry due to its rhythmic tone (at times calling to mind the propulsive chug-a-chug-a-chug-a of a train) and illustrations so engaging you practically have to shake the sepia-toned dust out of your hair at the end of the ride.

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14. A Silk Road for Literature: Celebrating Multicultural Children's Book Day

There has been a lot of welcome discussion lately about diversity (or lack thereof) in literature.  To draw additional attention to this important issue, Mia Wenjen (Pragmatic Mom) and Valarie Budayr (Jump Into a Book/Audrey Press) took it upon themselves to organize Multicultural Children’s Book Day: Celebrating Diversity in Children's Literature.  Their mission:
Despite census data that shows 37% of the US population consists of people of color, only 10% of children’s books published have diversity content. Using the Multicultural Children’s Book Day, Mia and Valarie are on a mission to change all of that. Their mission is to not only raise awareness for the kid’s books that celebrate diversity, but to get more of these types of books into classrooms and libraries. Another goal of this exciting event is create a compilation of books and favorite reads that will provide not only a new reading list for the winter, but also a way to expose brilliant books to families, teachers, and libraries. 
Main sponsors for this event is Wisdom Tales Press, Lee & Low Books, Chronicle Books, and Susan Daniel Fayad: Author of  My Grandfather’s Masbaha.
As someone who values and strives for diversity in my own reading, I was very excited to learn about this initiative.  It's important for all readers, but especially for young readers, to be exposed to a wide berth of stories and characters. With recent research confirming what we avid readers already knew (that fiction is a key for developing empathy), developing a broad and strong foundation at an early age is all the more valuable.  
To shine a light on the diverse literature already out there, participants in the Multicultural Children's Literature Day were given books to review. I was lucky enough to receive a copy of We're Riding on a Caravan: An Adventure on the Silk Road by Laurie Krebs and Helen Cann (Barefoot Books), and I can't imagine a more appropriate book for the occasion.
A richly-illustrated story about travels along on the legendary Silk Road, the book shows merchants setting off from their homes loaded up with wares, looking to exchange them for goods from afar. The book is an easy read-aloud as it repeats variations on a pleasant chorus ("We're riding on a caravan, a bumpy, humpy caravan, We're riding on a caravan to places far away.") that feels like the kind of thing you would all sing together on a long journey.
The book is a particularly fitting one to mark a Multicultural Children's Book Day because the Silk Road was instrumental in bringing together cultures from all over the world and became the mechanism by which religion, art, and ideas were exchanged.  With technology being what it is today, it may no longer be necessary to load up a wagon full of wool or spices in order to experience other cultures, but the spirit of the Silk Road remains one worth emulating. If you truly want to have a rich experience with a variety of cultures, you have to make the effort and get out there.

Readers (as well as publishers, booksellers, and other book professionals), should commit to our own Silk Road and make sure that we venture beyond the immediate village of our own experience, always searching for new stories.  There are broad social implications at play here, but more fundamentally, this a personal obligation.  
The great myth/misperception is that "multicultural" literature is meant only for readers of the particular culture being portrayed. This narrow mindset is a disservice to everyone and can have devastating implications for the book industry. Multicultural literature is not and should not be confined to specific demographics. The more widely you read, the more quickly you come to realize that while the settings and details may differ, great books have intrinsic value for any and all readers.
So, as we celebrate Multicultural Children's Book Day, I hope you'll take some time to poke around these other sites; fellow vendors along a Silk Road of Reading. More importantly, I hope today's celebration represents just another stop on this long and wonderful (if sometimes bumpy and humpy) road to seeking out and enjoying stories from all corners of the world.

2GirlsLostInaBook · 365 Days of Motherhood · A Bilingual Baby · A Simple Life, Really? · Africa to America · After School Smarty Pants · All Done Monkey · Andi’s Kids Books · Anita Brown Bag  · Austin Gilkeson · Barbara Ann Mojica ·  Books My Kids Read · Bottom Shelf Books · Cats Eat Dogs · Chasing The Donkey · Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac · Children’s Books Heal · Church o Books · CitizenBeta · Crafty Moms Share · Discovering The World Through My Son’s Eyes · Early Words · Flowering Minds · Franticmommy · Gathering Books · GEO Librarian · Gladys Barbieri · Going in Circles · Growing Book by Book · iGame Mom · I’m Not The Nanny · InCulture Parent · Itsy Bitsy Mom · Kid Lit Reviews-Kid World Citizen · Kristi’s Book Nook · Mama Lady Books · Mama Smiles · Mission Read · Mother Daughter Book Reviews · Mrs AOk · MrsTeeLoveLifeLaughter · Ms. Yingling Reads · Multicultural Kids Blog · One Sweet World · Open Wide The World · P is for Preschooler · Rapenzel Dreams · School4Boys · Sharon the Librarian · Spanish Playground · Sprout’s Bookshelf · Squishable Baby · Stanley and Katrina · Teach Mama · The Art of Home Education · The Brain Lair · The Educators’ Spin On It · The Family-Ship Experience · The Yellow Door Paperie · This Kid Reviews Books  · Trishap’s Books · Unconventional Librarian · Vicki Arnold · We3Three · World for Learning · Wrapped in Foil 

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15. Unicorn Thinks He's Pretty Great - Amadeus Mashup

Book Riot asked its contributors to choose some of its Best Books of 2013.  The list is huge and covers an impressive range.  Definitely worth checking out.  
Personally, I couldn't help but throwing in Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great by Bob Shea.
While I wouldn’t necessarily call this the best picture book of the year, it might be the most irresistible.  And if the story of an insecure goat who is jealous of a talented newcomer sounds familiar, it’s probably because it is reminiscent of Milos Forman’s Amadeus. Here, Goat plays Salieri to Unicorn’s Mozart, only instead of conjuring beautiful symphonies from the heavens, Unicorn makes it rain cupcakes. Like I said: Irresistible.

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16. Best Picture Books of 2013 via the Huffington Post

I recently got the chance to post my picks for Best Picture Books of 2013 on the Huffington Post.  Believe it or not, more surprising that what made the list is how many great titles didn't make the cut... but I had to draw the line somewhere.  Of at least that's what my editors tell me.


Posted: 12/04/2013 7:10 pm

With everything from a sweeping biography of Nelson Mandela to a story about a unicorn that can make it rain cupcakes, 2013 was another great year for picture books. This is particularly notable because 2013 was the first full year after the death of the legendary Maurice Sendak and marked the 50th anniversary of his classic Where the Wild Things Are.
While it's impossible to replace an icon like Sendak, this year's offerings reminded us that the field of children's literature is still rich with talented writers and illustrators to carry on the tradition of making great picture books. Here are some of the year's best, starting with my choice for the Best Picture Book of 2013.

Best Overall
No Fits, Nilson! by Zachariah OHora (Penguin/Dial)

You wouldn't think that a story about a girl and her imaginary friend (a giant blue gorilla with a funky fashion sense and anger management issues) would feel like the most honest book of the year, but that's the magic of No Fits, Nilson!. Funny, boldly illustrated, and with a charming twist at the end, Nilson has universal appeal because everyone struggles to control their anger... even us so-called grown-ups. Like it or not, despite our best intentions, we're all just a few mishaps away from losing control of the thumping gorilla within.

Best Escape
Journey by Aaron Becker (Candlewick)
(JOURNEY Copyright © 2013 by Aaron Becker. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.)

Becker's wordless masterpiece is both timely and timeless, drawing inspiration from the classic Harold and the Purple Crayon to draw the reader into an entirely new and beautifully-rendered world. Becker has a background in film and it shows in his dramatic pacing and intricate illustrations, which rival the most elaborate of Hollywood set designs. At turns soaring and haunting, it is no surprise that Journey is the front runner for this year's Caldecott. (It also doesn't hurt to have the press showing the President of the United States buying your book.)
(Honorable Mention: The Nowhere Box by Sam Zuppardi; Please Bring Balloons by Lindsay Ward; Dream Boats by Dan Bar-El, illustrated by Kirsti Anne Wakelin; Emma in Paris by Claire Frossard, illustrated by Christophe Urbain; Rosie's Magic Horse by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Quentin Blake.)

Most Fun
Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales (Macmillan/Roaring Brook)

A rambunctious young boy imagines himself as a champion luchador, taking on challengers from all over the world (and some from beyond). His enthusiasm is infectious as each page bursts with energy and playfully inventive wrestling moves. However, Morales truly flexes her illustrator muscles with the subtle complexity of Niño's expressions: knowingly impish grins that say "Of course, I know this is all make-believe... and I am enjoying every second of it".
(Honorable Mention: Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown; Unicorn Thinks He's Pretty Great by Bob Shea; Fraidyzoo by Thyra Heder; The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers; Giant Dance Party by Betsy Bird, illustrated by Brad Dorman.)

Most Powerful
Knock Knock: My Father's Dream for Me by Daniel Beaty, illustrated by Bryan Collier (Little, Brown)

Based on Beaty's powerful spoken word and poetry, this is a touching story about a young boy struggling to piece together his identity using the fragmented memories of an absent father. This struggle is mirrored perfectly by the fragmented nature of Collier's collages, which are an inspired choice for illustration. Challenging but ultimately uplifting, Knock Knock is a thoughtful meditation on grappling with the sometimes uneasy legacy passed down to us by our parents.
(Honorable Mention: Jemmy Button by Jennifer Uman, illustrated by Valerio Vidali;Bluebird by Bob Staake; One Gorilla by Anthony Browne; The Dark by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen; Year of the Jungle by Suzanne Collins, illustrated by James Proimos.)

Most Heartwarming
Wait! Wait! by Hatsue Nakawaki, illustrated by Sakai Komako (Enchanted Lion)

A child's first steps come with a mix of freedom and frustration (and a blend of joy and terror for the parent). With spare text and stark but lively illustrations, Wait! Wait! does a masterful job of capturing that magical window of time when a toddler first ventures clumsily out into the world.
(Honorable Mention: If You Want to See a Whale by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Erin Stead; Once Upon a Memory by Nina Laden, illustrated by Renata Liwska; How to by Julie Morstad; The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline;Hank Finds and Egg by Rebecca Dudley.)

Most Charming
Herman and Rosie by Gus Gordon (Macmillan/Roaring Brook)

In the tradition of Woody Allen's Manhattan, this is less a love story about two people (or in this case, animals) and more a love song about life in New York City. Presented with a deft mix of illustration and collage, you want to live in Gordon's New York, which is sometimes moody and isolating, but always charming and teeming with possibility.
(Honorable Mention: My Name is Ruby by Philip Stead; Big Snow by Jonathan Bean; The Mighty LaLouche by Matthew Olshan, illustrated by Sophie Blackall; The Line by Paula Bossio; Tea Rex by Molly Idle.)

Best Metafiction
Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett, illustrated by Matthew Meyers (Simon & Schuster)

Battle Bunny is the most talked about book of the year... or maybe it just seems that way because I've been talking about it all year. To create this innovative work, Scieszka, Barnett and Meyers started by producing the most cloyingly sweet book they could think of:Birthday Bunny. They then conjured up a young boy to deface the book, turning it into something he actually wants to read: Battle Bunny. Subversive without being mean-spirited, the book playfully upends the conventions of narrative. Just watch as they introduce a complex concept like authorial intent... and then gleefully give it an atomic wedgie.
(Honorable Mention: Open this Little Book by Jesse Klausmeier, illustrated by Suzy Lee;The Story of Fish and Snail by Deborah Freedman; Ike's Incredible Ink by Brianne Farley;Warning: Do Not Open This Book! by Adam Lehrhaupt, illustrated by Matthew Forsythe;Little Red Writing by Joan Holub, illustrated by Melissa Sweet.)

Best History/Biography
Locomotive by Brian Floca (Simon & Schuster)

It's not often that a picture book can be described as "magisterial", but such is scope of Floca's achievement here. Starting with the breathtaking cover which has you staring down an oncoming locomotive, the book takes the reader on a cross-country trip during the early days of the steam train. The text is bolstered by exhaustive research, as evidenced by one of the most impressive bibliographies you'll ever see in a picture book. And yet, it is anything but dry due to its rhythmic tone (at times calling to mind the propulsive chug-a-chug-a-chug-a of a train) and illustrations so engaging you practically have to shake the sepia-toned dust out of your hair at the end of the ride.
(Honorable Mention: Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson; This is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by James Ransome; The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdős by Deborah Heligman, illustrated by LeUyen Pham; Laika: Astronaut Dog by Owen Davey; On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky.)

Best Bedtime
Rock-a-bye Room by Susan Meyers, illustrated by Amy Bates (Abrams)

A truly effective bedtime book must strike a balance between two seemingly competing objectives: (1) setting a tone that is actually conducive to sleep and doesn't get the kids all riled up, and (2) being engaging and just interesting enough to bear repeated readings without driving the reader absolutely insane. Rock-a-bye Room hits the right notes on both fronts: it is warm but also has a bit of an edge, and it is sweet without giving you a toothache. With Bates' gorgeous illustrations, the book goes down like a warm glass of milk (followed shortly by a smooth glass of bourbon).
(Honorable Mention: Max and the Tag-Along Moon by Floyd Cooper; Steam Train, Dream Train by Sherri Duskey Rinker, illustrated by Tom Lictenheld; Dream Animals by Emily Winfield Martin; Bedtime Monsters by Josh Schneider; Moonday by Adam Rex.)

Best Miscellaneous
Jumping Penguins by Marije Tolman, text by Jesse Goosens (Lemniscaat)

At first glance, you might mistake Jumping Penguins for just another catalog of animal facts, probably no different than a set of flashcards you could pick up at a zoo gift shop. But then you notice Tolman's idiosyncratic illustrations and you realize that there's nothing typical about this book. Surreal, whimsical, and sometimes morbid, Jumping Penguinsdelights in reminding us just how wonderfully weird (or weirdly wonderful) the world can be. For instance, who knew giraffes had no vocal cords and would be so bad at karaoke?
(Honorable Mention: Alphablock by Christopher Franceschelli; Animal Opposites by Petr Horacek; Hello, Mr. Hulot by David Merveille; Crabtree by Tucker and Jon Nichols;Stardines by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Carin Berger.)

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17. Re-Sendakification

A while ago, Betsy Bird (she of the always ingenious ideas), put celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Where the Wild Things Are by putting a call out for people to reimagine Sendak classics in the style of other illustrators.

I jumped on it right away with this Crockett Johnson version of Where the Wild Things Are because (1) I thought it was a really nice fit of two great books, and (2) these were illustrations I could handle.  CLICK HERE for the full post with lots of great art... including another Purple Crayon inspired drawing made by a 7 year old.  (Note: If I were the least bit uncomfortable with having the same idea as a 7 year old, I wouldn't have this blog about children's books.  In fact, I consider it a point of pride.)

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18. Why So Serious? Reimagining the Author Photo (@BookRiot)

Everyone loves a good Serious Author Photo.
Capturing writers in their natural habitat of intense concentration, brows furrowed in pensive fury, these august portraits let us readers know that it is time to set aside petty concerns and pay VERY. CLOSE. ATTENTION.
But you can’t help but feel sorry for the poor soul in the Serious Author Photo. By honing in on one aspect of their personality, the picture airbrushes their very humanity out of the portrait.  So we’ve decided to liberate a few from the dim mood lighting of the Serious Author Photo and shine a light on those traits that may otherwise never make it onto the dust jacket.
Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy, author of Blood Meridian and The Road

Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri, author of The Namesake and The Lowland

Nicholas Sparks
Nicholas Sparks, author of A Walk to Remember and The Notebook

Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections and Freedom

Donna Tartt, author of The Secret History and The Goldfinch
Donna Tartt, author of The Secret History and The Goldfinch

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19. Runaway Bunny starring Liam Neeson (@BookRiot)

[This post originally appeared on Book Riot.]

Credit for this mashup goes to reader Kyle Behymer who left this comment on a previous post:
Whenever I read The Runaway Bunny to my kids I hear Liam Neeson’s voice in my head: “I don’t know why you’re running away. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for junk food I can tell you I don’t have any. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career as a Mama Bunny. Skills that make me a nightmare for runaway bunnies like you. If you come home now, that’ll be the end of it and I will give you a carrot. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will hug you.”
Well done Kyle, well done indeed. Anyone who has seen Taken knows that there are no lengths to which Liam Neeson won’t go for his children. Kyle recognized that the intensity of that parental devotion–which admittedly can be a bit dark at times–is matched only by that of the legendarily persistent Mama Bunny. (Make sure to check outKyle’s blog for a more in-depth look at the Neeson/Mama Bunny comparison.)
With Kyle’s permission, we took his idea and ran with it (pun unfortunately intended). So, without any further ado, here is Runaway Bunny starring Liam Neeson (screenplay by Margaret Wise Brown).

Liam Neeson as Runaway Bunny Title

Liam Neeson as Runaway Bunny 2

Liam Neeson as Runaway Bunny 3

Liam Neeson as Runaway Bunny 4

Liam Neeson as Runaway Bunny 5

Liam Neeson as Runaway Bunny 6

Liam Neeson as Runaway Bunny 7

Liam Neeson as Runaway Bunny 8

Liam Neeson as Runaway Bunny 9

Liam Neeson as Runaway Bunny 10

Liam Neeson as Runaway Bunny 11

Liam Neeson as Runaway Bunny 12

Liam Neeson as Runaway Bunny 13

Liam Neeson as Runaway Bunny 15

Liam Neeson as Runaway Bunny 14

Liam Neeson as Runaway Bunny 16

Liam Neeson as Runaway Bunny 17

Liam Neeson as Runaway Bunny 18
Guest collaborator Kyle is a human factors psychologist by day, and as the father of a two year old and an eight month old, a children’s book reading machine at night.  He has been chronicling the crazy thoughts that pop into his head while reading Goodnight Moon for the 5507th time at writingboutreading.blogspot.com.  When not reading, he enjoys traveling the world with his wife on a quest to find the best bite of food and offsetting this hobby by training for both adventure and endurance races.

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20. A is for Achebe: Who Makes Your Author Alphabet (@BookRiot)

This post originally appeared on Book Riot.

A is for Achebe
As a newish father, it sometimes feels like the only organizing principle of my world is the alphabet. From books to blocks to magnets to soup, the alphabet has imposed its will and everything around me now automatically categorizes itself, shuffling obediently into its proper place in this efficient 26 character system.
With the alphabet on the brain (seriously, C is for Cookie is playing in my head as I type this) I thought this would be a fun question to throw out to the book-loving community: Who makes it onto your Author Alphabet?
You can use whatever criteria you want. It could be based on first or last name (or with tricky letters like Q and X, just do whatever the heck you need to do). It can have authors you love or ones that you loathe. You can have read their entire works or have never read a single word. You can try to make your alphabet diverse and representative, or you can fill it exclusively with female authors from the Mississippi Delta.
You get the idea. Anything goes.
Now that we’ve established the ground rules (or lack thereof), I’d like to hear from you all: Who makes it onto your Author Alphabet?
Here’s mine:
A: Achebe, Chinua
B: Borges, Jorge Luis
C: Coetzee, J. M.
D: Díaz, Junot
E: Egan, Jennifer
F: Fitzgerald, F. Scott
G: Galeano, Eduardo
H: Hurston, Zora Neale
I: Ishiguro, Kazuo
J: James, E. L. Johnson, Crockett
K: Kincaid, Jamaica
L: Lahiri, Jhumpa
M: Mitchell, David
N: Nabokov, Vladimir
O: O’Connor, Flannery
P: Pamuk, Orhan
Q: Quentin Blake
R: Rowling, J. K.
S: Saunders, George
T: Twain, Mark
U: Updike, John
V: Vonnegut, Kurt
W: Wallace, David Foster
X: Xingjian, Gao
Y: Yoshikawa, Eiji
Z: Zadie Smith

(Warning: Some of the letters force you into really hard decisions whereas others really make you stretch just to come up with a name. The above list is definitely not set in stone and I reserve the right to change my mind often–that’s the beauty of the “anything goes” rule.)

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21. If Famous Authors Read One-Star Reviews of Their Books (@BookRiot)

This post originally appeared on Book Riot.

It seems like every couple months I see a post go around about Amazon one-star reviews of classic books. Recently there was Buzzfeed’s Depressing One Star Reviews of Classic Literature and earlier this year Book Riot’s own Johann Thorsson compiled some doozies in his post on One-Star Reviews of Beloved Books.
Keep ‘em coming, internet. They never disappoint.
Inspired by Jimmy Kimmel’s always funny Celebrities Read Mean Tweets, I thought it’d be fun to imagine these authors reading their own one-star reviews. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but a bad review can really sting, man.
10 Authors Read One Star Reviews James Baldwin
One Star Review of James Baldwin’s GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN


10 Authors Read One Star Reviews Jonathan Franzen
One Star Review of Jonathan Franzen’s FREEDOM

One Star Review of Flannery O'Connor's WISE BLOOD
One Star Review of Flannery O’Connor’s WISE BLOOD

10 Authors Read One Star Reviews Toni Morrison
One Star Review of Toni Morrison’s BELOVED

10 Authors Read One Star Reviews Haruki Murakami
One Star Review of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84

10 Authors Read One Star Reviews Joan Didion
One Star Review of Joan Didion’s THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING

One Star Review of Ernest Hemingway's THE SUN ALSO RISES
One Star Review of Ernest Hemingway’s THE SUN ALSO RISES

10 Authors Read One Star Reviews Junot Diaz

10 Authors Read One Star Reviews JD Salinger
One Star Review of J. D. Salinger’s THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

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22. Not Just Child's Play: A Fall 2013 Picture Book Preview for The Atlantic Wire

from Journey by Aaron Becker (Candlewick)

This week I had the opportunity to write a picture book preview for the Atlantic Wire.  Luckily for me, there is an incredible slate of books coming out in the next couple of months, so the challenge was really narrowing it down to a digestible list.

Please CLICK HERE to read the full article at the Atlantic Wire.  The article was kind of aimed toward a broader audience, many of whom might not normally think about children's books.  Which means I didn't go into too much depth.  Over the next little bit I might dive in a little deeper for the kidlit aficionados out there, but in the meantime, here is a list (in alphabetical order) of the books that I included, all of which are worth your time and then some.

  • Alphablock by Christopher Franceschelli (Abrams, Aug. 6)
  • Animal Opposites by Petr Horacek (Candlewick, Aug. 6)
  • Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett, illus. by Matthew Myers (Simon & Schuster, Oct. 22)
  • Boxers and Saints by Gene Yuen Lang (Macmillan/Roaring Brook/First Second, Sept. 10)
  • Cozy Classics - Emma by Jack Wang and Holman Wang (Simply Read, Oct. 19)
  • Crabtree by Tucker Nichols and Jon Nichols (McSweeneys/McMullens, Aug. 13)
  • Dream Animals: A Bedtime Journey by Emily Winfield Martin (Random House, Oct. 22)
  • Emma in Paris by Claire Frossard, illus. by Christope Urbain (Enchanted Lion, Nov. 19)
  • Fraidyzoo by Thyra Heder (Abrams, Nov. 5)
  • Hello, My Name Is Ruby by Philip C. Stead (Macmillan/Roaring Brook Press, Sept. 3)
  • The Hole by Øyvind Torseter (Enchanted Lion, Sept. 10)
  • Ike's Incredible Ink by Brianne Farley (Candlewick, Aug. 6)
  • Journey by Aaron Becker (Candlewick, Aug. 6)
  • The Line by Paula Bossio (Kids Can Press, Sept. 1)
  • The Nowhere Box by Sam Zuppardi (Candlewick, Nov. 12)
  • Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown (Little Brown, Sept. 3)
  • Mr. Wuffles! by David Wiesner (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Clarion, Oct. 1)
  • My Blue Is Happy by Jessica Young, illus. by Catia Chien Candlewick, Aug. 6)
  • Rock-a-Bye Room by Susan Meyers, illus. by Amy Bates (Abrams, Oct. 1)
  • Tap the Magic Tree by Christie Matheson (HarperCollins/Greenwillow, Aug. 27)

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23. Best Books We Read in August (@BookRiot)

Head over to Book Riot for a full roundup of the best books we collectively read in August.  Some really good stuff there. My choice was:
Turtle Diary Russell Hoban Cover

Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban

If a novel starring a used bookshop clerk and a children’s author doesn’t set off your bookish spidey-sense, I don’t know what will. Hoban (himself the renowned children’s author of Bread and Jam for Frances and others) tells this funny but restrained story about two kindred spirits drawn together by sea turtles in the local zoo. Unable to shake the thought that caged life is keeping the turtles from their greater purpose, the two hatch a plot to return the creatures to their natural habitat.  Perhaps foolishly, the two harbor a secret hope that releasing the turtles will also somehow offer an escape from their own lives of quiet desperation. Originally published in the seventies and recently reissued by the New York Review of Books, the premise may sound a tad hokey, but Hoban is a skillful observer of human nature and draws convincing portraits of two people desperate to find purpose amidst the monotony of modern life.

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24. Mr. Tiger Goes Wild: An Example of Perfect Book Design

One of my favorite things about picture books is there are so many design elements in play, offering tons of potential for fun little wrinkles.  Exhibit A: Mr. Tiger Goes Wild. 

The awesomely illustrated book is about a tiger (Mr. Tiger) who is tired of being proper.  He bucks social convention and sheds his suits to go au naturale.  It's a fun and well-executed story and definitely a Caldecott frontrunner.  If there is one thing that might put it over the top, it is this ingenious book design that perfectly captures the book.

Dust Jacket On
Dust Jacket Off
That might be the most perfect use of the dust jacket I have ever seen.  The physical act of taking off the dust jacket to reveal the tiger's skin perfectly mirrors the story in a brilliant and clever twist that is an example of perfect design. Bravo.

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25. Let's Put James Franco on All the Book Covers

[Note: I originally posted this on Book Riot.]
Last week, when presented with the As I Lay Dying movie tie-in with James Franco on the cover, the internet let out a collective groan. On the one hand, the outrage is understandable. It is a pretty silly cover. On the other hand, is this really worthy of our righteous indignation?
I say, instead of resisting we embrace the ridiculousness and put James Franco on ALL the book covers. Who’s with me?
To help you ease into this brave new world, here are 10 Franco-fied classics for your suddenly smoldering bookshelf:
letters from the earth featuring James Franco

A Room with a View featuring James Franco

Love in the time of cholera featuring James Franco

The Last Temptation of Christ featuring James Franco

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter featuring James Franco

Are You There God? It's Me Margaret featuring James Franco
Some Links:
  • Buzzfeed: 6 Classic Book Covers Featuring James Franco
  • RogerEbert.com: Image of the Day
  • Virginia Quarterly
  • Flavorwire
  • Chris Abraham: James Franco on Every Cover
  • Housingworks
  • The Jane Dough: English 101 with James Franco
  • The Dating Wire: What If All Your Books Had James Franco On The Cover?
  • It's a Book Thing: James Franco Book Covers
  • Kill Your Darlings: Amusements and Distractions
  • New 2000

  • And then there was this from Judy Blume herself (apparently she approves):

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