Friday, May 15, 2015

The Last of Its Kind

Jean Craighead George
In Galápagos George, Jean Craighead George wrote about the last of the great Pinta Island tortoises of the Galápagos Islands, Lonesome George, who lived for 100 years. Her longtime collaborator, Wendell Minor, in realistic watercolors, illustrates this awe-inspiring creature in a way that makes children empathize deeply with him. Lonesome George was the last of his kind.

Galápagos George won the 2015 Cook Prize, for the best read-aloud STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) title for third- and fourth-graders, voted on by children. Yesterday, at the Irma Simonton Black Award and Cook Prize ceremony at Bank Street College of Education (televised live and archived on KidLit TV), Twig George, the author's daughter, described what it was like growing up with Jean Craighead George. The author did not live to see the book published, but she lived nearly as long as her tortoise hero. She was 92 when she died, three years ago today.
Wendell Minor
Photo: Charlie Craighead

Jean Craighead George wrote more than 120 books. Twig George described her mother as "a force of nature" who "brought the animals she wrote about into the house. Literally into the house." George added, "So we had crows knocking on the window in the morning to come in and have breakfast, and owls sitting on your shoulder in the shower." Twig George said that her mother wanted to put as much information in her books as she could. "She wanted to put kids there, their feet in the sand and their toes in the mud,"Twig George recalled.

At 80 years old, Jean Craighead George traveled to the Galápagos Islands. She was working on her writing until about 4 days before she died, according to Twig George. She was a trailblazer, writing about the environment and nature for children long before anyone else. As Twig George put it in her beautiful afterword to Galápagos George, "Jean Craighead George and Lonesome George passed away within weeks of each other in 2012. They were both one of a kind."

Friday, May 8, 2015

Deceptively Simple

The most outstanding board books look simple, and reveal layers of meaning as toddlers spend more time with them. Rhymoceros by Janik Coat uses the tusks of a rhinoceros, its most identifiable features, to represent the animal in its simplest form.

An interior double-page spread from Rhymoceros
She then varies a detail or two to teach youngest children simple concepts that, with repeated readings, take on more complexity. The minimalist way that Coat represents each scene allows youngest children to notice the differences in the rhino from page to page. At first, they might only fully understand "moon/balloon" as something akin to the moon comes out at night, and a balloon means a festive daytime activity, such as a birthday or circus or parade. In later viewings and with a bit more worldly experience, they might think about a crescent as a phase of the "moon," and a "balloon" as akin to the circle of a full moon.

Similarly, they might not be aware yet of the seasons, but after they've experienced a few cycles of seasonal changes, they'll connect the word "shade" with seeking protection from the summer sun and "lemonade" with a cool refreshment that offers relief from the summer heat. They might then connect with the idea that the lemons on the tree that lends the hero shade yields the lemonade the hero sips.

Coat's choices allow for multiple entry points. At age one, youngsters might only relate to the pages with fur or bumps, but they will recognize the welcoming blue creature on every page. Gradually, they will take in more of the visual details about the rhino from scene to scene, while also enjoying the rhyme of the word pairings.

This makes an ideal baby gift because it has the (nearly) indestructible format of a board book and concepts that relate directly to a child's experience of the world. The playful language keeps them engaged as they accrue the experiences to understand more fully the meaning behind each rhyming pair.

Friday, May 1, 2015

A Focus on the "T" in LGBTQ

Susan Kuklin

When Susan Kuklin gave her acceptance speech at Bank Street College of Education for the 2015 Flora Stieglitz Straus Award for Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, she spoke of realizing, six years ago, that the "T" in LGBTQ was "underreported and undervalued." She thought it was time to give them a voice.

Kuklin approached New York's Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, and their team put out a call for anyone willing to speak with Kuklin for her book project.

Kuklin said she believes, as the law professor and humanitarian Brian Stevenson believes, that, "Society needs to pay attention to the marginalized, to the bullied, to poverty, to suffering, to exclusion, to unfairness and to injustice." This part of identity is more challenging, Kuklin added. Transgender youth were bullied, and their suicide rate was high for so small a group. As she interviewed the six youth in her book, she says, "I saw that 'them' was 'us.'"

Her half-dozen subjects tell their stories with humor and poignancy; they tell of their challenges and their triumphs. They discuss their transitions with candor and compassion. Jessy spoke of noticing the difference in other people's responses toward him as a man versus when he had been perceived as a woman. He could take up more room on the subway without dirty looks--it's accepted for men, it's not for women. Christina describes attending her all-boy Catholic School as Matthew, dressed like a woman. At a panel at Bank Street College of Education's BookFest last fall, Christina said, "If I could survive that, I could survive anything."

Susan Kuklin serves as a conduit for extraordinary people whose voices might not otherwise be heard. She speaks of capturing their words, photographing their progress, and her fascinating process of making Beyond Magenta on KidLit TV.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Keeping Family Secrets

Alice Hoffman
When Alice Hoffman spoke with us about Nightbird recently in an interview for SLJ's Curriculum Connections, she talked about its origins as a story about the isolation that comes from secrets. For Twig Fowler, that secret involves a family curse that has rendered her older brother half-human, half-bird.

Q: Nightbird shares a melding of magic and realism that’s present in your books for young adults, Green Angel and Aquamarine, and your adult novels. What is it about that combination that compels you as a writer?

Alice Hoffman: My childhood reading was fairy tales, and even though they were magical, they felt the most real. In terms of what was happening emotionally and psychologically, even if the story was about a beast or a rose that wouldn’t die, there were truths there. That the magical and the real exist side by side makes sense to me. I always think of myself as a 12-year-old reader…[and] write the book that I want to read.

Q: Where did the idea of Nightbird come from?
AH: This story is about the isolation that comes from secrets. I think many kids know about family secrets, and they know they’re not supposed to discuss them.

Q: What was the inspiration of James’s curse? I thought of the Minotaur—because of his birthright, he’s confined to this half-man, half-creature body. It’s that idea of the sins of the father visited upon the son, isn’t it?
AH: The idea of a family curse, especially one that isn’t talked about, is ancient, whether from father to son or mother to daughter. It’s like the secret of the nursery: you know it even when you don’t know it.

Also, the monster in the family is a common mythological situation. Nightbird came to me as the story of a “monster’s” sister—one who knows that her sibling is not a monster. How you appear on the outside isn’t necessarily how you are inside. Kids at this age intrinsically know that.

Q: It appears that Twig’s mother moved to New York to escape the fact that everyone knows everyone’s business.
AH: Yes, but you carry your legacy with you. That’s what happened to her. I thought of this as a mother-daughter book…. It’s about understanding your parent a little bit [better]. You can never know your mother when she was younger. Twig’s mother, too, doesn’t really know Twig.

This is an excerpt from a longer interview first published in SLJ's Curriculum Connections.

Friday, April 17, 2015

An Attitude of Gratitude

Matt de la Pena at BookFest @ Bank Street 2014
Photo: Cheryl Simon
In Last Stop on Market Street, Matt de la Peña transforms the differences a child perceives as negatives and turns them into positives -- with a little help from his grandmother. 

Where CJ sees the lack of a car, his Nana sees the riches of the bus ride. While he desires an iPod, his Nana enjoys the guitar playing of a fellow passenger. At last Nana's attitude of gratitude washes over her grandson. De la Peña portrays a woman who leads by example. She allows CJ his feelings while also showing him an alternate perspective.
Christian Robinson

Christian Robinson's cityscape with its bright, solid colors and patterns will capture the interest of his audience. Even on this rainy Sunday morning on Market Street, the surroundings look cheery, as if Nana herself had painted the scenery. She seems to know and greet everyone she meets.

When readers discover the duo's destination (a homeless shelter where Nana volunteers), they--like Nana--will feel the promise of a community coming together and may even be inspired to help.  This uplifting picture book is a guaranteed attitude adjustment.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Inner Workings

Stanley the hamster is just the right hero to guide toddlers through the inner workings of their world. Stanley's Garage by William Bee is a familiar place--the service station--where Mom gets her tires changed, Dad gets his engine repaired, and the entire family fills up on gas.

Youngest children may not know all the different ways that the team at the garage helps them get where they need to be. William Bee uses different examples of characters with their cars to demonstrate a garage's many resources. He creates a small-town atmosphere where everyone knows everyone else, and builds a feeling of community and trust. People know that when they go to Stanley with a car problem, he will solve it.

In Stanley the Builder, the hamster hero similarly walks youngest book lovers through the process of constructing Myrtle the mouse's house, using his bulldozer, yellow digger and green crane, plus a little help from his friends.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Getting at the Truth

The heroine of David Arnold's Mosquitoland, 16-year-old Mary Iris Malone, gives readers a limited amount of information. She is an unreliable narrator. Yet she is smart and charming, and we want to believe her as she sets out to save her mother.

We learn that Mim's father married on the rebound, that Mim has not spoken with her mother in months, where she once spoke with her daily, that Mim has been prescribed a drug used to treat psychosis, and that there's a history of it in her family. Readers must piece together the truth between Mim's narrative of her journey, and flashbacks to the past.

Another recent and unforgettable unreliable narrator is Cadence in We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, and a classic is Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. Usually it's because there are things the narrator doesn't want to see, other times it's because the narrator needs to construct his or her reality in order to survive.

We as readers must rely upon the author's skill to toggle between the objective truth and the narrator's truth to make the constructed world of the novel hang together. We need to believe that both could be plausible, so that when they come together at the book's end (the narrator's version and the objective truth), we are satisfied. Mosquitoland does that. Quite a feat for a first novel.