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Results 1 - 25 of 46
1. She’ll be swell, she’ll be great!

Carla Hayden

Carla Hayden

I am over the moon about President Obama’s nomination of Carla D. Hayden to the position of Librarian of Congress. Carla and I were buddies back in Chicago–we met when she was YA coordinator at CPL and I interviewed her for a paper I was writing for library school, and later I worked for her as a storyteller when she ran the library at the Museum of Science and Industry. (I remember both of us being extremely annoyed that the Museum required children to pay extra to come to story hour.) And we are both proudly Zena’s kids.

There’s a lot of celebration about the facts that Carla will be the first female, first African American, and first actual librarian to become appointed to the post. But, aside from the most important point that she has been a smart, tested, and proven library advocate and leader for the past forty years, HOW GREAT IS IT that a YOUTH SERVICES LIBRARIAN will be running the place?

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2. Jacqueline Woodson, why are you so poet?

woodsonWhen the Cambridge Public Library announced that Brown Girl Dreaming would be this year’s Cambridge Reads book I was beyond thrilled. Now Jacqueline Woodson and I would be best friends! I’d say, Jacqueline, you are my hero, thank you for your perspective, your advocacy and for creating windows and mirrors for my students! Then she would say, Liz, I love your outfit and I would be like, I love your shoes! And together we would join forces to bring children representative literature and diversity to publishing practices and live happily ever after librarian and author best friends. The end.

While this particular fantasy did not come to fruition, she did in other ways fulfill my dreams for myself and my students who I brought with me. I don’t know if you have seen Jacqueline Woodson in person or heard her speak, but do yourself a favor and try to do just that. She is not only a dynamic author and speaker but also quite relatable, adding another layer to her already great capacity as a social commentator and leader in the field.

woodson_brown girl dreaming_170x258The audience was immediately endeared by her “Just Like Us” struggle to find the right outfit for that night (OMG you guys — I never know what to wear!). And just as you might think, she brought a deeper meaning to that seeming mundanity — recounting to the audience the advice passed down through the women in her family, now including Jacqueline’s thirteen-year-old daughter, about always looking smart. It’s a reminder that when you enter a room, your arms enter, your legs, your butt, your body…so wrap them up presentably. Jacqueline told us that’s why she usually wraps herself up in black.

The evening continued like this, bringing meaning and enlightenment to the audience. Adults were clearly moved. But it was the children in the audience — they added the poignancy and importance to the night. I felt immense pride as I looked over to see my students leaning forward not to miss a word, how they dutifully looked through the copies of their books to find the passages she was reading from, how when they asked questions, there were forethought, curiosity, and eagerness in their words.

The question-and-answer line went on for miles — all children! and all great questions (people were really interested in Jacqueline’s little brother, Roman). Close to the end, one girl in the audience asked  earnestly, “Why are you so poet?”I am not sure, little girl, but thank god she is.

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3. Rural juror

The Morning News started its tournament of books yesterday with a match between Louise Erdrich’s The Round House and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. I thought the critic, Edan Lepucki, did a great job of assessing each book’s strengths and shortcomings and coming up with a winner. Today, the match between Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son and Maria’ Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette is judged by a more milquetoasted Elliot Holt, but I found a useful link in the commentary. I seem to have missed Jacob Silverman’s “Against Enthusiasm” when it appeared in Slate last August, but I hope every member of the kidlitosphere reads it.

 

Our sis School Library Journal begins its Battle of the Books on Monday Tuesday and I’ll be over here critiquing the judges in brackets of two and allowing one to “move forward,” where, eventually (and if I’ve done the math right) one shall face the BoB’s Big Kahuna judge, Frank Cottrell Boyce. I’m not doing this to be mean–unless somebody drives me to it–but to test my frequent assertion that there’s too much diplomacy in children’s book discussion (again, see the Silverman essay linked above). I am also interested in exploring what kind of criticism these non-professionals will employ: will they argue from personal taste, moral significance, reader appeal, aesthetic value? Each or all of these can work; what matters most in this contest is that the judge is able to express a clear preference for one book over another and say why. The prize is two one-year subscriptions to the Horn Book Magazine, one to the winning judge and another to the library of his or her choice.I’ll be judge and jury (shades of SLJ’s Lillian Gerhardt: raise your hand if you’re old enough to remember her infamous Billy Budd Button and Huck Finn Pin!)

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4. Rural juror

The Morning News started its tournament of books yesterday with a match between Louise Erdrich’s The Round House and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. I thought the critic, Edan Lepucki, did a great job of assessing each book’s strengths and shortcomings and coming up with a winner. Today, the match between Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son and Maria’ Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette is judged by a more milquetoasted Elliot Holt, but I found a useful link in the commentary. I seem to have missed Jacob Silverman’s “Against Enthusiasm” when it appeared in Slate last August, but I hope every member of the kidlitosphere reads it.

 

Our sis School Library Journal begins its Battle of the Books on Monday Tuesday and I’ll be over here critiquing the judges in brackets of two and allowing one to “move forward,” where, eventually (and if I’ve done the math right) one shall face the BoB’s Big Kahuna judge, Frank Cottrell Boyce. I’m not doing this to be mean–unless somebody drives me to it–but to test my frequent assertion that there’s too much diplomacy in children’s book discussion (again, see the Silverman essay linked above). I am also interested in exploring what kind of criticism these non-professionals will employ: will they argue from personal taste, moral significance, reader appeal, aesthetic value? Each or all of these can work; what matters most in this contest is that the judge is able to express a clear preference for one book over another and say why. The prize is two one-year subscriptions to the Horn Book Magazine, one to the winning judge and another to the library of his or her choice.I’ll be judge and jury (shades of SLJ’s Lillian Gerhardt: raise your hand if you’re old enough to remember her infamous Billy Budd Button and Huck Finn Pin!)

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5. Vera B. Williams (1927–2015)

chair for my motherWe were saddened to hear about the death last week of legendary children’s book author and illustrator Vera B. Williams. It’s a loss to our field; she was, truly, unique. Her groundbreaking picture books celebrated children and family and communities — all kinds of children, all kinds of families, and all kinds of communities. Both A Chair for My Mother and “More More More,” Said the Baby were Caldecott honor books (in 1983 and 1991, respectively), and they stand out among their fellows for their contemporary, unglossy settings, their sense of inclusiveness, and the forefronting of the loving relationships they portray.

cherries-and-cherry-pitsWilliams was also a two-time Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winner — for A Chair for My Mother in 1983 and Scooter in 1994 — and was a three-time BGHB Honor Award recipient (for Cherries and Cherry Pits in 1987; Stringbean’s Trip to the Shining Sea, written by Williams and co-illustrated with daughter Jennifer Williams in 1988; and Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart in 2002). Again — who can forget Bidemmi’s face shining out of the exuberantly colorful pages of Cherries and Cherry Pits; or the unforgettable sisters (unforgettable in both the poetry and the pictures) in Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart, one of the first children’s books to portray a family coping with the absence of a parent in prison.

williams_moremoremoreIn 2001 she wrote about “Childhood, Stories, and Politics” for The Horn Book Magazine. Here are a few salient quotes from that brief but important contribution: “I began to create my books just at a period when children’s books were becoming somewhat more open and more accurate about the range of family life in America, about color and class and ethnicity, about what girl characters could do and be.” And, “it is of solemn import to tell stories that involve us in the energies, talents, and great-heartedness of children and other not-so-powerful people.”

williams_coverIn 1992 she did a series of lovely covers for us. As with so much of her work it’s an image that looks reality right in the eye, messy laundry basket and breast-fed baby and all, and filled with love, closeness, and “not-so-powerful people.” Click here to read Horn Book Magazine reviews of select books by Williams.

And when it came time for Horn Bookers to talk about their favorites, Ms. Williams got even more love:

My favorite BGHB winner, reviewer edition: Robin Smith’s choice

The ones that got away: Leonard and I choose Vera B.

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6. Reviews of select books by Vera B. Williams

williams_amberwasbravestar2Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart
by Vera B. Williams; illus. by the author
Primary, Intermediate    Greenwillow    72 pp.
9/01    0-06-029460-4    15.95    g
Library ed.    0-06-029461-2    15.89

For sisters Essie and Amber, a “Best Sandwich” means snuggling together with their teddy bear between them, breathing “each other’s breath / in and out and in and out / till they heard at last their mother’s key in the big front door.” Vera B. Williams has put together a different kind of “Best Sandwich”—a series of interconnected poems flanked by colored-pencil portraits in the beginning and the end—to tenderly convey the girls’ resilience and vulnerability in the face of parental absence. The story emerges bit by bit through sometimes heartbreaking vignettes. We learn in the poem “Essie Shook Amber to Make Her Memory Work” that Essie and Amber’s father is serving time for forgery (“Remember we were right in the kitchen / when the cops came, / Essie insisted”). Their mother must work long hours for minimal pay, leaving them with a complex daycare schedule or, all too often, with no daycare at all. But Williams deftly balances these disturbing images with scenes that show the sisters are still able to find refuge in simple childhood pleasures. In “Whoops,” the girls jump on their bed until the frame breaks, and even then they “can’t stop laughing / Look how far away the ceiling / We’re in a field / and that’s the sky.” Black-and-white pencil sketches interspersed with the poems enhance the emotion in them without causing a distraction, culminating in a joyous wordless three-page sequence when Amber and Essie’s father returns home. The decision to feature color only briefly at the book’s beginning and in “An Album” at the end turns out to be an inspired one. Before the main text starts, we see four portraits—a front and back view of each sister, standing expectantly, as if waiting to get to know us. By the end, we welcome the chance to savor a few snapshots of our new friends.

chair for my motherA Chair for My Mother
by Vera B. Williams; illus. by the author
Primary    Greenwillow   32 pp.
1982    0-688-00914-x    9.00    g
Library ed.    0-688-00915-8    8.59

Color-splashed watercolors recalling the patterns of Matisse and the primitive quality of Gauguin evoke the love and warmth among a child, her mother, and her grandmother. Sitting in their kitchen, with its mottled linoleum and old-fashioned white appliances, they count the tips the mother earned as a waitress at the Blue Tile Diner. The money — like all their spare change — is put into a large glass jar; when they “can’t get a single other coin into the jar,” they will take the money and buy “a wonderful, beautiful, fat, soft armchair” to replace the chairs and sofa the family lost in a fire. At last, the jar is full, and the three set out to shop for the chair, stopping only when they find one that lives up to their dreams — a gloriously overstuffed armchair covered in red upholstery splashed with large pink roses. The cheerful paintings take up the full left-hand pages and face, in most cases, a small chunk of text set against a modulated wash of a complementing color; a border containing a pertinent motif surrounds the two pages, further unifying the design. The result is a superbly conceived picture book expressing the joyful spirit of a loving family.

cherries-and-cherry-pits

star2Cherries and Cherry Pits
by Vera B. Williams; illus. by the author
Primary    Greenwillow   40 pp.
1986    0-688-05145-6    11.55    g
Library ed.    0-688-05146-4    11.88

In A Chair for My Mother (Greenwillow) and the other two books about the child Rosa, Vera Williams abundantly demonstrated both her flair for exuberant color and design and her faith in the love and caring that unites human beings. Now in a wholly original picture book she plunges into memory and transmutes the recollected events and emotions of her childhood into vibrant experiences. With utter ingenuousness a young narrator talks about her friend, the girl Bidemmi, who “loves to draw” with many-colored magic markers, picturing the inventive tales she tells. Bidemmi’s first three accounts begin with someone leaving a subway train, carrying a small bag of cherries, and, as with most imaginative young raconteurs, the words come tumbling out. First, a big, strong black man arrives home and, gathering his children to him, lovingly feeds them his “really red cherries.” Then Bidemmi changes her characters: this time “a tiny, white woman,” wearing a “black hat with a pink flower” and “old, old shoes,” goes home to her single room and shares her cherries — “light red and sour” — with her pet parrot. Next, a tall, lithe black boy, who “looks a lot like my brother,” brings dark red cherries as a gift to his little sister. Finally, quietly exultant, Bidemmi herself becomes the central figure. Emerging from a subway staircase, she buys cherries from a vendor, plants the pits in her “junky, old yard,” nurtures a little sprout, and coaxes a young tree into bloom and leaf. At last, constantly depicting the miraculous process, Bidemmi finds glorious ripe cherries hanging from the branches, enough for all her neighbors and “even for their friends from Nairobi and Brooklyn, Toronto and St. Paul.” The four unconnected episodes are unified by the underlying motif and by the ingeniously designed illustrations, which feature both the youthful artist and her art: while sensitive watercolor paintings show Bidemmi engrossed in her work, her own pictures are unaffectedly naive, energetic magic-marker drawings. Profound as well as enchanting, the book implicitly deals with a philosophical concept, presenting in a young child’s terms an image of the ecstasy of creation — of the human mind totally engaged in creative imagination.

williams_moremoremorestar2“More More More,” Said the Baby: Three Love Stories
by Vera B. Williams; illus. by the author
Preschool    Greenwillow   32 pp.
10/90    0-688-09173-3    12.95
Library ed.    0-688-09174-1    12.88

A book for parents, grandparents, and other significant adults to enjoy with their littlest ones. This trio of gentle vignettes shows three toddlers gathered up and cuddled by grownups. Little Guy’s daddy throws him up high, swings him around, and then “gives that little guy’s belly a kiss right in the middle of the belly button.” Little Pumpkin’s grandma has to “run like anything just to catch that baby up” and then nibbles on the toes of her “best little grandbaby.” Both children respond with laughter and with a plea for “More. More. More.” Little Bird’s mother tenderly prepares her sleeping child for bed, kissing each of the baby’s eyes as a final good-night. “‘Mmm,’ breathes Little Bird. ‘Mmm. Mmmm. Mmmm.'” The variety of family members depicted, as well as the several ethnic groups identified — even within an individual family — presents an opportunity for much discussion with very young children about what constitutes a family. The pages reverberate with bright colors and vigorous forms. The text, which is painted onto the pages, with each letter bearing its own rainbow of hues, is visually integrated into the design of the book in uniquely successful fashion. The rhythmic language begs to be read aloud, and young listeners are sure to wriggle with delight at all the many ways their favorite grownups have of saying “I love you.”

williams_scooterstar2Scooter
by Vera B. Williams; illus. by the author
Intermediate    Greenwillow/Morrow   150 pp.
10/93    0-688-09376-0    15.00
Library ed.    0-688-09377-9    14.93

When Elana Rose Rosen, her prized scooter with the silver and blue stripes on the wheels, and her mom move to the Melon Hill Houses, a complex of high-rise apartment buildings in New York City, Elana is overwhelmed by the thought of so many apartments with so many people she doesn’t know. Thanks to a rather dramatic accident on her scooter and her own irrepressible personality, Lanny soon has a wonderfully varied group of friends and is busily organizing the Melon Hill kids to compete in their Borough-Wide Field Day. Through Petey, a trusting, silent little boy who never speaks but follows Lanny around like a shadow, she meets Mrs. Grenier, Petey’s babysitter. In spite of Mrs. Grenier’s never-ending litany of complaints, which prompt Lanny to name her “Mrs. Grenier the Whiner,” Lanny “really loves her,” and she and Petey become a kind of extended family to her. Lanny is a delightful character who lives every moment and feels every emotion more intensely than most people. Whether she’s having a raging temper tantrum, showing loyalty and affection, or competing on her beloved scooter, Lanny remains completely genuine and natural while giving more than one hundred per cent to every experience. Williams’s graphics and drawings that somersault and zoom across and around the pages add to the exuberance of the story. Lanny and her scooter will win readers’ hearts as well as two blue ribbons.

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7. Moving moment No. 12

BMM 225x300 Moving moment No. 12Elf on the shelf. Her nephew told me I was making Bertha laugh in Heaven, so that’s something.

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8. Books in Remembrance of Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

We were saddened to hear of the passing of Maya Angelou. Here are some books by which to help remember the great author and poet.

adoff I am the Darker Brother Books in Remembrance of Maya Angelou (1928 2014)Adoff, Arnold and Andrews, Benny, Editors I Am the Darker Brother: An Anthology of Modern Poems by African Americans
208 pp. Simon 1997. ISBN 0-689-81241-8 PE ISBN 0-689-80869-0
YA (New ed., 1968, Macmillan). Introductory comments by poet Nikki Giovanni and literary critic Rudine Sims Bishop reinforce the continued timeliness of this volume, updated and reissued after nearly thirty years. Expanded with pieces from twenty-one additional poets including Maya Angelou and poet laureate Rita Dove, the collection constitutes a part of the song of America, which, as Bishop states, ‘requires a multi-voiced chorus.’ Ind.

angelou amazing peace Books in Remembrance of Maya Angelou (1928 2014)Angelou, Maya Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem
40 pp. Random/Schwartz & Wade 2008. ISBN 978-0-375-84150-7 LE ISBN 978-0-375-94327-0
Gr. K-3 Illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. Angelou’s poem (first read at the 2005 White House tree-lighting ceremony) is about the promise of peace brought on by the Christmas season, urging listeners to “look beyond complexion and see community.” The luminous oil, acrylic, and fabric illustrations on canvas, depicting a snow-covered town, add concreteness to Angelou’s words. A CD of Angelou reading the poem is included.

angelou my painted house Books in Remembrance of Maya Angelou (1928 2014)Angelou, Maya My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken, and Me
40 pp. C. Potter 1994. ISBN 0-517-59667-9
Gr. K-3 Photographs by Margaret Courtney-Clarke. Thandi, an eight-year-old Ndebele girl of South Africa, tells about her family, the fine art of house painting carried out mainly by the women in the village, and the contrast between village and city life. Courtney-Clarke’s abundant, brightly colored photographs accompany Angelou’s refreshingly warm introduction to the art, culture, and social life of the Ndebele people.

clinton I too sing Books in Remembrance of Maya Angelou (1928 2014)Clinton, Catherine, Editor I, Too, Sing America: Three Centuries of African American Poetry
128 pp. Houghton 1998. ISBN 0-395-89599-5
YA Illustrated by Stephen Alcorn. This chronological collection includes work by such poets as Phillis Wheatley, W. E. B. Du Bois, Arna Bontemps, Maya Angelou, Rita Dove, along with twenty others. The verses, introduced with biographical information, reflect the African-American struggle for equality from the early 1800s to the present. The textured illustrations, done in muted tones, capture the drama and strength of each poem.

cox maya angelou Books in Remembrance of Maya Angelou (1928 2014)Cox, Vicki Maya Angelou: Poet
122 pp. Chelsea 2006. LE ISBN 0-7910-9224-0
YA Black Americans of Achievement, Legacy Edition series. (New ed., 1994.) This biography details Angelou’s rise from adversity to international recognition. The book goes beyond the typical personal information to provide some social history relevant to the subject’s time. Captioned photographs and boxed inserts enhance the conversational text, most of which has been completely revised. Reading list, timeline, websites. Ind.

racism in I know why Books in Remembrance of Maya Angelou (1928 2014)Johnson, Claudia, Editor Racism in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
150 pp. Greenhaven 2008. LE ISBN 978-0-7377-3901-5
YA Social Issues in Literature series. This volume presents brief, thoughtful essay reprints (primarily written by literary critics and academics) arranged into three sections that explore the author’s life, identify relevant social issues, and discuss current cultural applications. Although the pieces are sometimes awkwardly truncated, they usually present ideas that go well beyond superficial critique, inviting readers to consider fiction as a vehicle for analyzing American identity. Reading list, timeline, Bib., ind.

blount african american poetry Books in Remembrance of Maya Angelou (1928 2014)Rampersad, Arnold and Blount, Marcellus, Editors African American Poetry: Poetry for Young People
48 pp. Sterling 2013. ISBN 978-1-4027-1689-8
Gr. 4-6 Illustrated by Karen Barbour. This representative poetry anthology of African American literary masters spans the sixteenth through twentieth centuries and includes renowned poets such as Phillis Wheatley, Lucille Clifton, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, and Nikki Giovanni; brief contextual notes accompany each poem. The selections, along with the watercolor, ink, and collage illustrations, reflect not only the black experience but also the evolution of free expression. Ind.

graves maya Books in Remembrance of Maya Angelou (1928 2014)Wilson, Edwin Graves, Editor Maya Angelou
48 pp. Sterling 2007. ISBN 978-1-4027-2023-9
Gr. 4-6 Illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue. Poetry for Young People series. After a four-page introduction about Angelou’s life and work, twenty-five of her poems are presented, each with a few explanatory sentences preceding them. Some selections are heavy, resonating with the penetrating philosophical stance from which Angelou views the world; others show a lighter side of the world-renowned wordsmith. Dark abstract paintings create mood and atmosphere. Ind.

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9. Thanks for Annie, Nancy.

AnnieOnMyMind 198x300 Thanks for <i />Annie</p>, Nancy.I was very sorry to read that Nancy Garden died on Monday. While she wrote in just about every children’s-book genre there is, it’s Annie on My Mind that made her immortal, and led to her parallel, equally admirable, career as a defender of intellectual freedom in libraries and communities across the nation.

The first starred review I ever wrote was for Annie, for SLJ back in 1982. I revisited the book twenty-five years later for the Horn Book.

share save 171 16 Thanks for <i />Annie</a></p>, Nancy.

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10. Do you read your reviews?

statlerwaldorf Do you read your reviews?I’ve been reading soprano Barbara Hendricks‘s memoir, Lifting My Voice, and it’s led me not only to a rewarding reacquaintance with her singing but to some thinking about the relationship between the artist and the critic. Hendricks spills a suspicious amount of ink over how she doesn’t pay any attention to critics (whose opinions of her highly distinctive voice have long been divided), but even if the lady doth protest too much for me to exactly believe her, her essential argument–that critics aren’t helpful to artists–is a good one:

“A review of my performance is totally useless in teaching me about myself. Reviews reveal so much more about the reviewer than they do about the artists. Until her death Miss Tourel [Hendricks's teacher, Jennie Tourel] was my most demanding critic, and since then I have had to assume that task myself. I learned during my first year as a professional singer that a review was not the right criteria to determine how well I had done my work, whether I had done what I had set out to do. I know my repertoire and I know when I have done my best work.”

Hendricks goes on to recall contradictory reviews, mean reviews, and seeing a reviewer who had really gone after her: “He was slight, had thinning hair, wore very thick glasses, and did not look like a happy person.” But all this is to miss the point. It’s not a reviewer’s job to make a singer–or a writer–a better one. We aren’t here to help you; we’re here to help inform audiences and potential audiences. (Even Hendricks graciously if barely allows that she “imagines critics serve some purpose and I do not want to do away with them.” Big of you, thanks.)

If I were a novelist I hope I wouldn’t go near reviews of my own work. What have I to gain? Stars and pans, Kipling’s impostors alike. (I guess I would hope that my agent or editor were paying attention, though, so as to strain anything that might be useful to me through a filter of helpfulness.) Must be hard to resist, though, especially in an age when reviews go flying about through social media and a “we’re all in this together” ethos pervades the field.

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11. Marla Frazee, wipe that smile off your face!

The story below is one reason we love Marla Frazee. Find out many more by reading her Talks with Roger interview.

I was once a clown, in high school. A bunch of us were nominated to be on the homecoming court — twenty-five or thirty people — and I did not want to be one of those. Not interested in that at all. There was this assembly — we were supposed to appear before the entire student body — so I wore this head-to-toe clown costume. Full-on, with the ruffle and the big shoes and the red nose. I worked on the makeup for a really long time. I drove to school in my ’67 Mustang, smoking a cigarette, and then I had to hide before the assembly because we weren’t allowed to wear costumes to school. So the curtains opened and we were all there, introduced to the students, and then as I was walking off the stage in the dark, I felt this hand grip my upper arm. It was the girls’ vice principal, who hauled me outside, walking me to her office. I’m slapping in my clown shoes, you know. She’s saying to me, as we’re walking side by side, “How dare you disrespect the school this way? How dare you disrespect” the whole homecoming-whatever-it-was. And then she wheels me around and stares at me and goes, “Wipe that smile off your face.” I’m laughing behind this smile. It took me about forty years — I don’t know if there’s something in this book [The Farmer and the Clown] about that, the “Wipe that smile off your face” line, but it definitely has stayed with me my whole life.

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

talkswithroger header Marla Frazee, wipe that smile off your face!

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12. Girls in Towers

lengle camilla Girls in TowersMadeline L’Engle’s novel Camilla (titled Camilla Dickinson when first published in 1951 and recently reissued) features a bright and passionate fifteen-year-old who presents us with the essential question of the YA genre — how will this girl survive the emotional chaos of adolescence? In fairy tales, this same question is more logistical — how will the princess escape supervision long enough to exit the tower, descend into the forest, and head for the village?

Camilla is narrated by just such a princess, one who lives with her parents in a New York City penthouse. The novel was published long before there was a young adult genre as we know it today, but it contains all the elements of the classic YAs of the late twentieth century — a journey out of childhood, a hypersensitive girl, a pace providing ample time for deep reflection. The reader participates in a clean, well-documented metamorphosis, wisely told by a girl who embodies the most cherished aspects of twentieth-century female adolescence — at least in literature: hope, compassion, and a fearless, unflinching honesty.

These qualities were true of the protagonists in many of the forbears of the genre — Frankie in Carson McCuller’s Member of the Wedding, Molly in Jean Stafford’s The Mountain Lion, Cecil in Rumer Godden’s Greengage Summer — but there is a profound difference between these early coming-of-age novels and Camilla, and I believe that it stems from L’Engle’s technique of tracking Camilla day-by-day, hour-by-hour, as she struggles to understand what is happening to her. Her journey is both epic and microscopic. The novel covers just a few weeks in Camilla’s interior life and is intensely focused on the minutiae of her days — a concentrated, claustrophobic time of adolescent upheaval. This original technique prefigured the YA genre that would begin to flourish in the next decade.

Another element that connects Camilla to the modern YA genre is L’Engle’s obvious love for her protagonist. Camilla narrates as someone relaying the events in her life to a listener with deep affection for her. This makes her exquisitely reliable. She is both admittedly vulnerable and unapologetically passionate, sometimes on the very same page. She is also a girl scientist! Her fascination with the heavens creates a wonderful juxtaposition — the discipline of astronomy; the importance of identifying and naming things as a way of feeling part of the universe — coupled with her more spiritual quest for a guiding star. With both perspectives in full operation, she searches for the deeper meaning of her life. She wants to be around people who are more fully alive than her parents — boys her own age who talk passionately about war and death and what it means to have a soul. She purposefully connects herself to new events and situations. She wants to feel everything, even — what is surely coming soon — the heartbreak and disappointment of first love. She is fearless about being hurt. She wears her heart on her sleeve. She is fully alive in her emotions.

*    *    *

Such a bittersweet read! As I reread the book, Camilla’s voice took me back to some of my own girl narrators, young sages who decades ago responded to their parents’ ineptitude with more sadness than anger, more compassion than contempt. And much like Camilla, these fictional girls still believed that a proper romance could soften the cruelties of adolescence; they trusted that the right boy would come along if they were patient and careful. They were hopeful. Camilla is open to the possibility of becoming a finer, more self-aware person, now that she is no longer a child. She believes in her inner beauty. She values her own transcendent girl-ness, trusting its power. I remember that perspective. I believed in it and rode it like a wave after the publication of my first YA novel, The Bigger Book of Lydia (1983). It fueled my writer’s voice for two decades.

But the world of teenagers has changed. Thirty years after the publication of The Bigger Book of Lydia, the girls have come out of their towers. They may still be the smartest and the most forthright people in the village, but they are not happy. They often hide their disappointment and anger. If they are unusually sensitive, or especially perceptive, if they feel too keenly the messages of the culture, they will find relief in all manner of self-abuse, including cutting and starving themselves. These girls are skeptical of romance as an antidote, or a way to become more whole. They are wary, as they should be. They are confused, as they must be. They will not be overprotected or restricted. But the forest is a dangerous place, and the village beyond is not much better, not if a girl is complicated, opinionated, unconventional. Not if she has a chip on her shoulder. Not if she has a few tattoos or visible piercings. Not if she is loud. Not if her hair is blue.

*    *    *

In Camilla, the author describes the blossoming of Camilla’s sexuality, her intense longing for something deeper than friendship, and her curiosity about both romantic love and physical attachment. In this state, she falls in love with Frank, the brother of her best friend, a complicated boy, deeply philosophical and equally searching—just the sort of boy a girl like Camilla would be drawn to. Her feelings are returned, and the resulting relationship is very intense and sensual without ever becoming sexual. Not that Camilla doesn’t know about sex or understand its power; her own family has been torn apart by an affair her mother has had with a younger man. Despite this, Camilla savors the preliminaries of a real romance. She loves Frank’s voice, his seriousness; she is thrilled to hold hands with him. Their conversation is electric, full of mystery. Why did he say that? What did he mean? When will I see him again? What does he think of me? L’Engle captures the way time stands still between two young people who are kindred spirits, equally attracted to each other.

Camilla’s attraction to Frank leads to a more radical movement away from her parents, and this movement echoes the fairy tale motif — the girl who must leave a place of safety and isolation (tower, cellar, locked room), sometimes boldly, sometimes in stealth, in order to become a woman. This element in Camilla is not surprising given L’Engle’s deep appreciation for fairy tales and her extended use of their patterns in her eventual books for children, but it is especially strong and apropos in this novel of the 1950s. The reader can quietly cheer for Camilla in escape mode, wearing her red beret (a symbol of sexual adventure) and leaving her ineffective parents behind.

There is no sense, no underlying message, that the author feels that sex between these two young people would be morally wrong. Rather, like many writers of the 1940s and 1950s, L’Engle is more interested in the challenges to identity that leaving a sheltered state bring. The novel moves in and out of the realm of myth and fairy tale, where explicit sex is unnecessary. In fact, Frank disappears without ever having kissed Camilla. Yet they have shared a remarkably powerful connection—Camilla as the star gazer; Frank as her brooding, wandering prince.

*    *    *

I remember a long-ago conversation with my sister while we were still young women, and before I had written a novel of adolescence. We swore that we would not forget, if and when we had our own daughters, the power of first love. And I did not so much forget it as I was uneasy writing about it — the mother in me perhaps. I did not want to encourage my readers to enter that place of obsession and treachery and, yes, sometimes ecstasy, without having a clear way out. And I did not know yet, as a writer and an adult woman, how to faithfully re-create the misery and confusion of my own early sexual experiences. For these reasons, I was very well-suited for the phase of young adult literature that I came up in, an era of sensitive and articulate girl narrators who wanted romantic connection without the complications of having sexual intercourse. In love with love, yes. Sexually curious, perhaps. But sexually active, never.

Such a sensible approach! In my novels of yore, I could comfortably celebrate the innocence of these trysts. I could create girls, and also boys, who were longing for a partner, something beyond friendship, certainly, but also with the understanding that they were not ready for sex and did not need it.

Imagine. Young women who are strong in their innocence and unwaveringly hopeful about what is coming — their unfolding sexual lives.

In the final page of Camilla, our star gazer is back in her New York bedroom, studying Betelgeuse, a star in the constellation of Orion. Frank is gone, and she has turned to astronomy in her grief. She has learned many things. She has endured many disappointments. She is back in the tower, but no longer a child. She is looking up at the stars, intact and unharmed. It is a good place for her. She will stay there a little while longer, preparing for whatever comes next without regret or shame. Then she will resume the journey out.

I wish her well. I miss her.

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13. Jack and Hazel

Jack-the-lad

Jack-the-lad

WHY I have to go to Chicago to see Jack Gantos when he lives only a mile away from my office is a question I’ll happily ignore to hear his Zena Sutherland Lecture at the Chicago Public Library tomorrow night. Join us if you can; otherwise you can read Jack’s speech in the Horn Book this fall. I’m also looking forward to brunch with Hazel Rochman, or, as Milton Meltzer once referred to her, “that damned Hazel Rochman,” the lady having incurred his ire for insisting, in a far-reaching and lastingly influential Booklist editorial, that nonfiction writers for the young cite their sources. Now it’s hard to imagine that they didn’t!

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14. Marcia Brown, 1918-2015

brown_stonesoupWe were saddened to hear about the death of author-illustrator Marcia Brown this week at the age of ninety-six. The winner of three Caldecott Medals — for Cinderella in 1955, Once a Mouse in 1962, and Shadow in 1983 — she was also recognized with a whopping six Caldecott Honors (including her indelible Stone Soup in 1948). She was awarded the Regina Medal in 1977 and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal in 1992.

Writings by and about Brown frequently appeared in The Horn Book Magazine. Here is a sampling:

“Distinction in Picture Books” by Marcia Brown (1949)

1955 Caldecott Medal Acceptance by Marcia Brown

“My Goals as an Illustrator” by Marcia Brown (1967)

Letter, with illustration, from Marcia Brown to Bertha Mahony Miller (undated)

“Marcia Brown and Her Books” by Alice Dalgliesh (1955 Caldecott Medal profile)

“From Caldecott to Caldecott” by Helen Adams Masten (1962 Caldecott Medal profile)

“Marcia Brown” by Janet A. Loranger (1983 Caldecott Medal profile)

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15. Boots on the ground

Location Location Location Boots on the ground

Barbara Bader’s “Cleveland and Pittsburgh Create a Profession” looks at a time when place really mattered and where you worked was far more allied to what you did than it is today. Certainly, you would learn from your distant colleagues via professional associations and journals, but change in librarianship happened building by building. Reading Bader’s account I’m struck by the concreteness of everything–Effie Power moving from Cleveland to Pittsburgh; Frances Olcott’s “Library Day” programs on summer playgrounds; William Howard Brett literally carving out space to make a children’s room. All of this still goes on, of course, but what will the ebook future hold? You can now go to library school from your home and check out books the same way. With public libraries currently so tied to geographically dependent funding, how will they fare as their physical location matters less and less?

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16. Another Belle of Amherst

betsyandcow Another Belle of Amherst

Shaddup, that's Betsy on the right.

This coming Saturday, I’ll be introducing my old friend Betsy Hearne at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, where she will be delivering the Barbara Elleman Research Library Lecture. 25 bucks for lunch with Betsy and me at noon; the BERL lecture (hey Barbara–how’s it feel to be an acronym?) is  at 2:00 PM and free with admission to the museum. Like Anne Carroll Moore, Bertha Mahony Miller, and Ellen Robillard O’Hara before her, Betsy Gould Hearne is a true three-named Great Lady Legend and you shouldn’t miss this chance to hear her speak.

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17. Ellen Levine (1939-2012)

Ellen Levine, award-winning children’s author and tireless advocate for social justice, has passed away. Here are some Horn Book reviews of her most influential works.

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18. Ellen Levine book reviews

Ellen Levine Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad; illus. by Kadir Nelson
40 pp. Scholastic 1/07 ISBN 978-0-439-77733-9 $16.99 g
(Primary, Intermediate)

Watch author Ellen Levine read from the 2008 Caldecott Honor book.

In a true story that is both heartbreaking and joyful, Levine recounts the history of Henry “Box” Brown, born into slavery. Henry works in a tobacco factory, marries another slave, and fathers three children; but then his family is sold, and Henry realizes he will never see them again. With nothing to lose, Henry persuades his friend James and a sympathetic white man to mail him in a wooden box to Philadelphia and freedom. Levine maintains a dignified, measured tone, telling her powerful story through direct, simple language. A note at the end explains the historical basis for the fictionalized story. Accompanying Levine’s fine, controlled telling are pencil, watercolor, and oil paint illustrations by Kadir Nelson that resonate with beauty and sorrow. When Henry’s mother holds him as a child on her lap, they gaze out at bright autumn leaves, and the tenderness is palpable, even as she calls to his attention the leaves that “are torn from the trees like slave children are torn from their families.” There is no sugarcoating here, and Henry is not miraculously reunited with his wife and children; however, the conclusion, as Henry celebrates his new freedom, is moving and satisfying.

Ellen Levine A Fence Away from Freedom: Japanese Americans and World War II
260 pp. Putnam 10/95 ISBN 0-399-22638-9 18.95
(Older)

“After Pearl Harbor, the teachers would never say we were American citizens. Not one of them.” Since the 1988 Civil Liberties Act authorized redress payments for the surviving Japanese Americans evacuated to World War II internment camps, several children’s books have recounted this sorry episode in American history. Ellen Levine adds substantially to our understanding of the human experience of citizens suddenly made outcasts. Her carefully constructed account is based on in-depth interviews with thirty-five individuals who were children or teenagers when the bombing of Pearl Harbor dramatically altered their lives. Their recollections are broken into chronological and topical chunks interspersed with the author’s explanations of wartime events and camp life. These personal stories of displacement form a powerful sense of the pain and injustice rendered. The emotional resonance of the personal histories, along with the detailed information about camp life, politics, and postwar events, makes the book a rich resource. The drabness of the black-and white photographs is the only detraction from this compelling presentation. Appended material includes a glossary, a chronology, acronyms, a map, biographies, a bibliography, and an index.

Ellen Levine Darkness over Denmark: The Danish Resistance and the Rescue of the Jews
164 pp. Holiday 3/00 ISBN 0-8234-1447-7 18.95
(Middle School)

Ellen Levine’s account rescues Denmark’s heroic role in saving its Jewish population during the Holocaust from becoming a cliché. Debunking the romantic myth that everyone in Denmark wore a Star of David when the Germans demanded it of the Jewish population (a story that Levine says never happened), Levine concentrates her energies on the true-life dramas of twenty-one people she interviewed. At the time of the Nazi takeover of Denmark in 1940, several of them were as young as two years old, none older than twenty-eight. Their stories alternate with the history of the war as it affected Denmark and the rest of Europe. In a moving preface that acknowledges Levine’s ultimate inability to answer the question “Why did the Danes act the way they did?” she

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19. Photos from the 2012 BGHB announcement at BEA

For more information about the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, click here.

bghb12 announce3 Photos from the 2012 BGHB announcement at BEA

Roger Sutton and Rebecca Stead prepare to announce the awards. Photo: Mark Tuchman.

bghb12 announce5 Photos from the 2012 BGHB announcement at BEA

Photo: Mark Tuchman.

bghb12 announce7 Photos from the 2012 BGHB announcement at BEA

A large crowd gathered to listen and tweet. Photo: Mark Tuchman.

bghb12 announce10 Photos from the 2012 BGHB announcement at BEA

Photo: Mark Tuchman.


NONFICTION
WINNER:
Chuck Close: Face Book
, written and illustrated by Chuck Close (Abrams Books for Young Readers) 

NONFICTION HONOR WINNERS:
• Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O’Keeffe Painted What She Pleased
by Amy Novesky, illustrated by Yuyi Morales (Harcourt Children’s Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt imprint)
• The Elephant Scientist
by Caitlin O’Connell & Donna M. Jackson, photographs by Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt imprint)

bghb12 announce15 Photos from the 2012 BGHB announcement at BEA

Photo: Mark Tuchman.

bghb12 announce17 Photos from the 2012 BGHB announcement at BEA

Photo: Mark Tuchman.


FICTION AWARD WINNER:

No Crystal Stair:
A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Carolrhoda Lab, an imprint of Lerner)

FICTION HONOR WINNERS:
• Life: An Exploded Diagram
by Mal Peet (Candlewick Press)
• Code Name Verity
by Elizabeth Wein (Hyperion Books for Children, a Disney imprint)

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20. Reviews of select books by Mary Downing Hahn

Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls
by Mary Downing Hahn
Middle School, High School Clarion 330 pp.
(4/12) 978-0-547-76062-9
A quintessential writer of supernatural stories, Hahn here gives readers a glimpse at real ghosts from her past, a 1955 murder of two teenage girls near her home. She takes that situation, retains the original setting, provides immediacy through a present-tense narration, and produces a top-notch coming-of-age mystery. Nora, just finishing her junior year of high school, has three friends (Ellie, Cheryl, and Bobbi Jo) and two dreams (to be popular and have some boy love her and thus give her value). When an unknown gunman kills Cheryl and Bobbi Jo on the last morning of school, the townspeople assume that bad-boy Buddy, Cheryl’s ex-boyfriend, is guilty. As Nora works through her grief, she remembers seeing Buddy immediately after the murder and comes to believe he’s innocent. Setting creates the story here as much as plot or characters do. Like girls of today, those of the 1950s gossiped, read magazines (but True Confessions rather than People), and listened to music (Little Richard instead of Justin Bieber). But, in a gutsy authorial move, Hahn shows greater differences. For example, there are Nora’s limited options past high school; the casual smoking; and language, from harelip to moron jokes, that was standard for that time rather than this one. By grounding the circumstances so specifically and convincingly, Hahn emphasizes the universality of growing up and facing death.

The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall
by Mary Downing Hahn
Intermediate Clarion 153 pp.
(9/10) 978-0-547-38560-0
Florence is happy to leave the orphanage for the home of a newly found great-uncle, but she isn’t long inside Crutchfield Hall when she senses that Something Is Not Right. Hahn, the author of ghost stories as well as rousing historical fiction, here combines the genres for a truly scary period tale. The setting is a country estate in late Victorian England, the weather distinctly Brontëan, and the ghost is classic Hahn: a mean little girl made only meaner by her accidental death. When said ghost, Sophia, says through her grave-stained teeth to Florence, “I need a friend, and so do you. We could be like sisters, sharing secrets,” readers will want to run—but Florence is the kind of vulnerable, relatable heroine who will make them stick around to be sure things turn out all right for her. They do, if only just, in an ending that is satisfying but touched with uncertainty: is Sophia truly at peace? Brrr!

All the Lovely Bad Ones
by Mary Downing Hahn
Intermediate, Middle School Clarion 182 pp.
(4/08) 978-0-618-85467-7
Travis and his sister Corey love to make mischief, so a summer’s stay at their grandmother’s reputedly haunted Vermont inn holds much promise. A flashlight, makeup, a filmy white scarf, and some well-timed screams allow the kids to freak out the other visitors, but soon enough the game isn’t funny: “You and your sister may have begun this as a game,” says one of the guests, “but the ghosts are awake now. Putting them back to sleep will not be easy.” Hahn expertly combines the comedy of spectral hijinks and bumbling ghost-busters with a dark backstory of abused children and the malevolent guardian who torments them even in death. Here’s an author who really understands how to put a scary story together, unafraid even to use an appearance by Old Nick himself for an extremely satisfying finale.

Wait Till Helen Comes
by Mary Downing Hahn
Intermediate Clarion/Houghton
(1986) 0-89919-453-2
The author has written a gripping and scary ghost story that develops hauntingly from a rather slow beginning. When Molly’s mother and new stepfather announce that the family will be moving to an old church in rural Maryland, Molly and her brother Michael are

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21. Melissa Sweet: Live Five Questions

Roger interviewed Melissa Sweet on Sunday, June 24, 2012, at the ALA Convention in Anaheim. Melissa Sweet’s book Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade is the 2012 Sibert Award winner, and she created the cover illustration for the July/August issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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22. Moving moments No. 2

TernRock Moving moments No. 2Cindy found this one, The Light at Tern Rock by Julia Sauer, a Newbery Honor Book in 1952–and originally published in the Horn Book Magazine in 1949. This would seem to break the award’s rule about “original work,” that the “text is presented here for the first time and has not been previously published elsewhere in this or any other form.” But maybe the rule was different then? Or perhaps here as so often, he says, drawing his emeralds warmly about him*, the Horn Book was above any such petty restrictions as criteria.

K.T. Horning, do you know?

*Dorothy Parker.

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23. Moving moment No. 5

A good writer and a good friend, taken too soon.

Janet 375x500 Moving moment No. 5

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24. Moving moment No. 7

One of the best friends the Horn Book has.Natalie 500x375 Moving moment No. 7

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25. Moving moment No. 8

Elaine 500x375 Moving moment No. 8A literary genius–I do not use the word lightly–a gifted painter, and she had PERFECT PENMANSHIP.

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