Friday, March 6, 2015

Preschool Preoccupations

Kevin Henkes

Kevin Henkes has tackled such early childhood preoccupations as a new sibling (Julius, the Baby of the World), a new school (Chrysanthemum) and anxieties large and small (Wemberly Worried). In Little White Rabbit, Henkes focuses on a child's curiosity and imagination.

His pastel palette of green and blue, with touches of pink and the occasional browns for a tree trunk or log (plus the gray of a menacing cat), allows little white rabbit to stand out against his surroundings. As he hops along, he imagines himself a part of everything he sees. In the high grass, he wonders what it would be like to be green. Then in a wordless spread, Henkes gives readers a window into little white rabbit's imagination. He is as green as the grasshopper perched on a bending blade of grass. All of the animals are shown in profile, so preschoolers only see one wide eye of each creature. When little white rabbit imagines himself tall, like the fir trees, Henkes depicts the rabbit's pink nose high in the air like the pink birds in flight just above his head; his feet are firmly planted beneath the fir tree, with a host of rabbits near, contrasting actual size with the hero, giant-size.

When little white rabbit hops over a rock and "wondered what it would be like not to be able to move," we can imagine preschoolers imitating the hero and staying stone-still, as little white rabbit imagines himself doing through sun, rain and darkness. One of the most glorious transitions occurs as the rabbit hero imagines "what it would be like to flutter through the air," as butterflies do. Henkes creates markings on the butterflies' wings that echo the pink inside the rabbit's white ears, so when he imagines himself in flight, his ears act as wings, and he appears to be migrating with them.

A moment of tension (the appearance of a cat) causes the hero to hop home "as fast as he could," where a loving mother awaits him ("[H]e didn't wonder who loved him"). How well Henkes knows that as much as little ones want to test their independence, they also want to know that their family is near. With only one line of text per spread (except for the wordless ones), this is a deceptively simple story that will launch a flight of fancy for youngest book lovers.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Who Was Malcolm X?

Sunny Hostin, Ilyasah Shabazz, and Kekla Magoon (l. to r.)

Last month at New York's 92nd Street Y, co-authors Ilyasah Shabazz (the third daughter of Malcolm X) and Kekla Magoon joined Sunny Hostin, a legal analyst and host on CNN, for a conversation about the legendary civil rights leader and their book, X: A Novel. They explained why they felt it was important to write about Malcolm X's youth.

Shabazz told Hostin that this book is important because "many people had the wrong impression of Malcolm." She said people think her father went to prison and "miraculously" became Malcolm X.

X: A Novel focuses on Malcolm Little growing up in Lansing, Mich. His parents were Marcus Garvey followers and suspected targets of the Black Legion (an offshoot of the KKK). Malcolm's father was killed on the streetcar tracks and his mother shipped off to a state hospital.

While The Autobiography of Malcolm X was written when Malcolm X was an adult who knew how his story turned out, Magoon explained, "putting it in the context of a novel allows teens to connect to it." Malcolm tried to run away from his parents' legacy, she added, "As a teen, he rediscovered his potential." Magoon felt that this story needed to be told in the present. "He was living each day like this is the only day," she said. "Teens can see themselves in that story."

Hostin asked the authors about their decision to use "the n word" in the book, a word she chooses not to use herself. Magoon pointed out that Malcolm X used the word in his own writings, and that the use of "the n word" by his history teacher, Mr. Ostrowski, was a turning point in Malcolm's life. When the teacher asked Malcolm Little, who got the best marks in Mr. Ostrowski's overwhelmingly white classroom, what he wanted to be, Malcolm answered, "A lawyer." The man responded, "This is the real world, boy.... Be as good as you want in the classroom, but out there, you're just a n-----." The scene appears nearly verbatim in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. "That was a throwaway moment for Mr. Ostrowski," Magoon pointed out. "That says a lot about how much power there is in words like that. Malcolm internalized it. He had to fight against that to rise back up. For Malcolm, it was years of making bad choices."

At various points in the conversation, Hostin, Shabazz and Magoon referred to recent protests in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York. One member of the audience asked how they could "channel that activism into a change in policy." He  wondered how we could keep this energy going. There were no easy answers. "The kids protesting today could read Malcolm's speeches and feel resonance with them now," said Magoon.

When Hostin asked Magoon what she'd like readers to take from X: A Novel, she hoped most of all that they'd enjoy it. Then Magoon added, "You can be anyone you want to be. Look how bad Malcolm's life was at certain moments, and look what he did. We all have that potential--that's something Malcolm X repeated over and over in his own ministry."

This is excerpted from a longer article that first ran in Shelf Awareness.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Rhythms and Layers


Kwame Alexander wrote his 2015 Newbery-winning novel The Crossover in poems that slip off the tongue effortlessly. The emphasis of the all caps and the line breaks assure even those who hesitate to read passages aloud that they will read (and sometimes shout) the lines properly from the start.

2015 Newbery winner Kwame Alexander
Photo: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
As with any great long poem, the novel's multiple meanings begin to emerge as the story progresses. The crossover move ("in which a player dribbles/ the ball quickly/ from one hand/ to the other./ As in: When done right,/ a crossover can break/ an opponent's ankles"), narrator Josh's signature play, takes on diverse aspects of crossing a threshold (from childhood to adulthood, life and death) over the course of the novel. The 10 rules of basketball that twins Josh and JB's father reinforce in them apply as much to life as they do to the game. The dreadlock incident (in which JB bets Josh that if JB can score the last basket of the game, he can cut off Josh's dreads--Josh agrees to one, JB cuts five, then their mother makes Josh slash the rest) hits Josh nearly as hard as it did Samson. The incident begins an escalation of his sense of loss and betrayal.

As Josh's rift widens with JB, who's not just his identical twin, but also his best friend, Josh is in danger of a spiral downward, and his parents won't allow it. Kwame Alexander told Karin Snelson in an interview for Shelf Awareness that he almost didn't keep the parents in the book. "In a lot of middle-grade and YA fiction the parents are done away with so that you can focus on the kids," he said. "My familial bonds were always extremely important, so that was my frame of mind at first. But as I wrote the book, I got caught up in this notion that the parents can't be that instrumental. And so the parents were introduced in the book, but they were just sort of there. I told myself, you have a loaded gun, but you haven't fired it. What's the point of introducing these strong parents if you aren't going to utilize that strength to make the story even more powerful? And once I decided that, I thought, well, that's the kind of house you grew up in, you can draw on your own relationship with your family."

So the final layer is art imitating life. There's no doubt of the emotional truth that informs this novel in verse.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Imaginary Friends

Dan Santat

Not every child invents an imaginary friend like the star of The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat, winner of the 2015 Caldecott Medal. And the ones who do, says author-artist Santat, don't "pick imaginary friends based on anything in particular."

Santat himself didn't have an imaginary friend, he told us when we interviewed him for Shelf Awareness after his Caldecott Medal was announced. "If I played make-believe, it was referenced by something I knew. I was going on an adventure with a Ghostbuster or Pac Man," he explained. "Talking with kids, not a lot of their imaginary friends reflected their interests or anything in particular about them." The imaginary friends in Beekle, however, share a great deal with the children who created them.

Q: You characterize both Beekle and his child, Alice, as relatively friendless--or at least incomplete--before they meet. 

Dan Santat: For the message of making a friend, I found it to be important to find two halves to a whole. To have Alice find--not because she's an introvert or shy--to find a friend in a world created by her, fills that void. It's like having that "a-ha" moment when all the pieces are coming together. I didn't want the imaginary friend to sound clichéd--hairy monsters with horns and stripes that didn't reflect anything. I wanted them to reflect these children and their interests. You can tell a lot about these children without any dialogue in the book.

Q: How did you come up with that setting--a kind of island of misfit toys with imaginary friends in limbo until they meet their child?

DS: It's funny that you call it limbo, because for a while the island's name was Limbo. The imaginary friends serve a function, but they don't know what it is yet. If you look on the endpapers, there's a monster that plays the drums for a child who loves music [and other examples]; they're not aware of the other half that completes them. With Beekle, my struggle was to make him in such a way that he didn't give away his purpose. He's the only pure white character in the entire book; he represents a blank canvas.

Q: Your Beekle-eye view of the subway is so spot on. Did you think of the sailing ship and the subway as a kind of journey to transition from his island of imaginary friends to the world of humans?

DS: The spread that really communicates the journey well is when he's lost in a sea of commuters walking, and you don't see their faces, just a sea of legs. I was trying to portray a child's experience. It's not as intimidating to meet people eye to eye as it is when you see these giants. If you're little and you're sitting on a couch, your legs are dangling off the edge of the chair. That's evident in the scene in the subway. Every year I go to New York to meet with my publisher, and people on the subway have their faces in books or they're sleeping. They don't really make contact or look around or reach out to anyone. There's a sense of a loss of magic when you're an adult. Things don't seem spectacular because you've gotten a bit cynical with the world.

You see that in the cake and the strawberries, the music notes of the accordion; those are the bright colors. It was important to me to separate these two worlds--the childlike innocence from the reality of how the world is to an adult.

This excerpt is taken from an interview that first appeared in Shelf Awareness.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Bilingual Board Books

Keith Baker
Photo credit: L. Cunningham

A great board book presents an idea or concept in simple terms, with artwork or photographs that support it. In Big Fat Hen / La gallina grande by Keith Baker, the author-artist counts from one to 10 using a well-known rhyme ("One, two, buckle my shoe") to do just that.

Translater Carlos E. Calvo chooses Spanish words that rhyme and that also add a touch of humor. For instance, when a blue hen lays four eggs and examines three worms ("three, four/ tres, cuatro"), the newly hatched four chicks, together, "shut the door/ cerramos la puerta un rato." Calvo indicates that it takes them awhile with the addition of the phrase "un rato," which also rhymes with "cuatro."

Creating a strong board book is not easy. The amount of text needs to be minimal, so youngest children who are just learning to identify letters, and perhaps sight words, can follow along. The illustrations need to support the text, rather than confuse toddlers who are just learning to name the people and objects in their world.

Bilingual board books add another layer of challenge because the words need to closely correlate to the words in English yet still be words that would be used in everyday conversations. Big Fat Hen accomplishes all of that -- simple, lively text with illustrations to support the counting concept, and a Spanish translation that's equally lively and allows both native Spanish speakers and native English speakers to experience the other language as naturally as possible.

Here are a few more bilingual board books or early picture books that several of my colleagues at the Bank Street College of Education found to be especially strong: Las fresas son rojas by Petr Horácek; My School / mi escuela by Rebecca Emberley; My Colors, My World / Mis Colores, Mi Mundo by Maya Christina Gonzalez; My Skeleton Family by Cynthia Weill, illus. by Jesús Canseco Zárate.

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Germ of an Idea

Jennifer Niven

Jennifer Niven's character Violet Markey, who had written a successful blog with her sister, Eleanor, summons the courage to start an online magazine of her own called Germ. Niven decided to start an actual magazine by the same name. We talked with her about the relationship between life and art in All the Bright Places.

That opening scene with Theodore Finch and Violet both contemplating suicide from the roof of their high school is both funny and also a nail-biter. How did you decide to start there?

The book is inspired by real-life events. It's a story I've carried around for a long time. I'd just come off a series of books for adults, and I'd just lost my agent. I wanted to write something that really mattered. When I got the idea for the story, I sat down and wrote the first chapter just to see what would happen. I thought, "What would it be like to write from a boy's point of view?" Originally, Violet was not on the ledge; Finch was up there by himself. The first line just came out, and it just kept going.

How did you find the voice for Finch?

I think one of the things that really informed the writing is knowing people--one boy in particular who I was close to--who had struggled with the same thing, bipolar disorder primarily. I have done a lot of research for nonfiction and historical novels. If I hadn't known people who were struggling with this, I don't know that I could have written it the way I did because there's only so much you can learn through research.

Tell us about the seeds of Violet's online magazine called "Germ" and the online magazine that you're involved with.

I was into revisions on a manuscript and I was thinking, "Wouldn't it be cool to have a real Germ magazine?" I started sketching it out, and flash-forward to now, and we have an all-volunteer staff. There are 45 of us, the age range is between 14 and 40, but the majority  are 14-25, and they're amazing. We have editors and social media people, and a literary section as well. We're getting wonderful submissions from around the world. We handle some of the harder issues, some great writers have written about their experiences with an eating disorder or being bipolar... and then also decorating your locker.

Of the kinds of books you've worked on--fiction and nonfiction for adults, this novel for teens--is there one area that's proven more challenging?

There are challenges with each book and each genre. I will say that it felt very natural to write YA. I lost my ex-boyfriend to suicide a long time ago, and my dad died of cancer during the same calendar year. I was allowed to grieve about my dad, but I couldn't grieve about the boyfriend. Writing this book was really cathartic.

I went to visit a high school and we asked everyone to think about their bright places--your dog, or your mom, or a movie you love, or a book or word you love. We put their bright places on Facebook, and you can go on Twitter and Instagram to see some of the places others have come up with. I'm so grateful for everything that's happening.

This is an excerpt from a longer interview that first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Opening Doors

Peter Sís
Photo: Palma Fiocco

 The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is Peter Sís' favorite book. "When I got it from my father, he made a point that it's a special book," Sís told me when I got to interview him for Kirkus Reviews about his book The Pilot and the Little Prince. "It was about secrets." At the time, Sís was a child growing up in Prague under a totalitarian regime, and The Little Prince transported him outside of its walls. "This was a door through which I could go myself," he says. "I could go to another place or another planet."

The Pilot and the Little Prince took Sís a long time to write. "The Galileo (Starry Messenger) and Darwin (The Tree of Life) books happened while this project percolated," says Sís. "With Darwin and Galileo, I wanted to show children that people would be against them, and they'd have to face challenges." On the other hand, Sís says, "Saint-Exupéry is about the poetry." But it's also a history of the airplane. Born in 1900, Saint-Exupéry started flying at the dawn of aviation and, as a pilot, saw dramatic changes in the development of the airplane. The Lockheed P-38 Lightning Antoine flies at the end of the book is almost as advanced as the planes today, according to Sís. He simultaneously captures both the possibilities of science and the poetry of the era in which the author/artist and aviator lived. This duality resonated with Sís, who grew up reading Jules Verne and watching the films of Georges Méliès, among other artists, to whom he gives a nod in the opening spread.

Sís has returned to The Little Prince at different stages in his life. "As a child, I thought, 'Of course, he talks about how we children know it's an elephant in a boa constrictor.' " These are the secrets Saint-Exupéry confides—that children understand what adults do not. “I remember coming to this country, it was a book of hope," Sís continues. "Reading it to my children later, it was more melancholy and sad. Being older, you understand both worlds. Unfortunately, I became the adult."

This is an excerpt from a feature that originally appeared in Kirkus Reviews.