Friday, September 26, 2014

Road Trip

Raina Telgemeir (r.) at SLJ's Day of Dialog with
(l.-r.) Lois Ehlert, Chris Raschka and Peter Sís
Raina Telgemeier's new graphic novel Sisters is the road trip from Smile that "only gets a passing mention," the author told the audience at School Library Journal's Day of Dialog this past spring.

Telgemeier joked that only after publishing her first book, Smile, did she learn that "you're not supposed to write [an autobiography] unless you've done something." But her books--Sisters and Smile, and also Drama, aimed at slightly older readers--serve as excellent examples for kids who either think they have nothing to write about or are asked to write their autobiography for school. Telgemeier finds the humor and vulnerability in seemingly everyday experiences: a wish for a baby sister that (when finally fulfilled) can have its drawbacks, a parent losing his or her job, and a family vacation.

Her approach, a mix of visual and verbal storytelling, clearly indicates what's fantasy or flashback--or even wishful thinking (when her father loses his job and she would really like a hug). Telgemeier zeroes in on a road trip and also takes that experience as a way to magnify the family dynamics--as traveling and staying in confined spaces will--using it as the jumping off place for flashbacks that add complexity to present events, and fantasy sequences to reflect her characters' changing emotional states.

Her books also let readers know that the more details they can add to their writing, the more universal their experiences feel to readers of their own writing. Telgemeier says, "I tell very personal specific stories, thinking this doesn't happen to anyone else, and then the letters come." 

Friday, September 19, 2014


Hervé Tullet turned the world on its ear with Press Here. It was executed with such genius simplicity, that we all wondered why it had never been done before. With Mix It Up!, he holds to that simplicity and does for color what Press Here did for gravity.

Mo Willems (l.) and Herve Tullet in Bryant Park
Photo: Meg Parsont/Phaidon Press
The way Tullet plays with cause and effect is eye-opening for any child--from 1 to 92. And "play" is the key word. "Play is the work of childhood," wrote Jean Piaget in his Dreams, and Imitation in Childhood (W. W. Norton, 1962). Through play, a child learns how to resolve conflict, how to negotiate, when to lead and when to step back.

Tullet teaches, through play, what happens when you mix two colors (a new hue emerges), turn a book on its side (the paint runs down the page), and when the child places a hand on the page (you leave an impression). When Tullet and Mo Willems spoke together at New York's Books of Wonder in April 2013, they talked about the importance of play in their own work. "I want my books to be played, not to be read," said Willems, best known for his Pigeon picture books and his Elephant and Piggie beginning readers. 

Both author-artists said they draw in order to free themselves. Isn't that play? Neither author admitted to getting stuck ever, nor are they afraid of getting stuck. Tullet quoted a jazz musician who once said that improvisation feels like falling, but you never actually fall. Willems said that each evening, he and his family and any dinner guests on hand all gather around the dining room table where they stretch a giant piece of paper and draw. His dining room walls have a chalkboard surface so they can draw there, too. 

Tullet and Willems prove that the best work comes out of play. It's true for children; why shouldn't it be true for adults?

Friday, September 12, 2014


Mary Murphy

When we think of Mary Murphy's books, the word exuberance leaps to mind. Say Hello Like This!, her most recent book for toddlers, emits joy.

As with her I Kissed the Baby!, readers want to follow in line with her characters. She makes you want to kiss a baby and to say hello to every living creature. In Hello Like This!, the animals' joy and playfulness are infectious, from the "licky and loud" dogs ("bow-wow-wow-wow!") to the "silly and happy" hello of the straw-hatted donkeys ("Hee-haw! Hee-haw!"). Delicious sounds teach toddlers new words. They will soon be saying "flappy and clucky" to describe a chicken and "jumpy and croaky" when they spot a frog.

Half-page flaps--thick and durable enough for little hands to hold and turn again and again--chart the creatures' transitions from still and stationary to bursting with excitement and movement. Frogs sitting and gazing at each other from their respective lily pads, with a turn of the page, leap into the air while exclaiming, "croakety croak"! A pair of cats greet each other with a more refined paw-to-paw "purrrrrr... meow."

Murphy's artwork, with its bold outlines and colors, pull young eyes into the pages, searching for hidden details, such as a pair of birds or mice that observe the action. Children will soak up every detail and exclaim, "Again! Again!"

Friday, September 5, 2014

Carry On

Miranda Kenneally
Photo: Ars Nova Images

The narrator of Breathe, Annie Breathe! by Miranda Kenneally, is in pain over the recent death of her boyfriend, Kyle, and decides to complete the marathon he'd set out to run. Annie feels guilty because she wants to go to college. How does one grieve and also move forward without feeling like she's somehow wronging the one she loved?

Through flashbacks, we learn that Kyle had wanted to marry Annie. Annie loved Kyle but wanted to complete college first. Then he dies (in a car accident) right after their reconciliation. Annie, who hates running, decides to train for and complete Nashville's Country Music Marathon in his honor. When Coach Woods sees Annie running on a Saturday morning, she offers to put Annie in touch with a friend who prepares runners for marathons. Matt Brown, Annie's running coach, sets down a plan for her so detailed that readers themselves could train for a marathon. Annie tackles her goal in a way that lets readers see why she excels in whatever she sets out to do.

In this way, Miranda Kenneally bears a strong resemblance to her heroine. In an interview, she said that, from the age of eight, Kenneally knew she wanted to be a writer. "I spent my recesses writing really bad stories about poodles that wanted to join the circus," she said. "I worked hard, figured out what I needed to know, and went after it." The author herself trained to run the Marine Corps Marathan in 2005. She writes from experience, as someone who did not think of herself as an athlete, to someone who now can run a marathon (and has also published five YA novels).

In pursuit of her goal, Annie meets other like-minded people, working to complete a marathon for all sorts of reasons. She also meets her coach's brother, a womanizer who develops true feelings for Annie, her perseverance and her dedication. She calls him on his recklessness and--as with her running--opens up to the possibility of life after Kyle.

Somewhere along the way, Kyle's mission becomes Annie's. She wants to complete the marathon as much for herself as for him. Kenneally wisely shows, as Annie works through her complex emotions, that it's possible to hold grief and hope at the same time. One does not negate the other.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Re-imagining Classics

Karen Foxlee
Photo by Sonya Coe
Karen Foxlee is part of a grand tradition of authors who reimagine classic tales. With Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy, she recasts Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" in which both the boy and girl of his original tale emerge as heroes.

Here are some highlights from a longer interview with Karen Foxlee about what Andersen's story meant to her as a child and why she wanted to retell it.

Your novel uses the themes from Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen in such original ways. Is this a favorite fairy tale of yours?

My mother read to us from Andersen's Fairy Tales when I was a child. It was a large white book, with illustrations by Jiří Trnka. My favorite was always "The Snow Queen," first read by my mum and later, again and again, by myself. I think the thing that attracted me most was the theme of love and friendship. [Andersen's] Gerda is just a little girl, yet she embarks on this treacherous journey to rescue Kai. She never gives up on him, even though he is so changed by that splinter of mirror in his eye.

And I think the Snow Queen was my first-ever true villain. I was so fascinated by her as a character--she's a woman, and she's riding around stealing kids! I can remember just being left breathless by the horror of that. But there was always something so sad and lonely about the Snow Queen--why was she all alone in that icy palace?

In many ways too, that fairy tale played to something much deeper in my heart. My grandparents came from Finland to Australia in the 1920s, and each time I read The Snow Queen, especially as Gerda draws closer to Lapland, I was imagining where part of me came from.

You've kept elements of the original Snow Queen. For instance, it appears that Ophelia's sister, Alice, in some ways, takes the place of the boy Kai in the original tale. And the rescue scene is very similar. But many other elements are uniquely your own--such as the wizards. How did that storyline develop?

There are many parallels with the fairy tale. Ophelia sets off to rescue the boy. But in a reverse of the fairy tale, the boy himself sets off on a remarkable journey to rescue the world (and, in many ways, Ophelia's heart). And Alice's coldness mirrors the coldness of Kai as he falls under the Snow Queen's spell (and the King as well). You'd probably think I had that all worked out from the start but I didn't. It's only through lots of writing and understanding my characters and trying all manner of "what ifs" that I get anywhere.

The wizards were there from the beginning, though. In fact, my first drafts were almost entirely about the boy and the wizards, and Ophelia hardly featured at all. I wanted the wizards to be the good to the Snow Queen's bad, and I loved them immediately, so tall and quiet and surviving on biscuits alone. But like all my stories, I began to whittle away, carve and polish, and I was left with only glimpses of these wizards, and the place that the boy comes from. Beautiful, meaningful glimpses, I hope.

Even though Ophelia's father is an absent-minded professor type, unaware of her whereabouts, the spirit of Ophelia's mother is always with her. And of course, she has the boy's friendship. Why was it important for Ophelia to feel that she does not to have to go on this quest alone?

I was thinking so much about my own life and my own child and what would happen if I were ever gone. What would be the most important things for my child to know if I were leaving? Susan Worthington, Ophelia's mother, gives these answers to Ophelia via the wizard's letter: Being kind, extending your hand in friendship, always stopping to help, being patient, never giving up and always knowing there will be people there to help you.

I think in life there are people who will help you; we forget it, but there are. And I'm a strong believer in always helping others. I can remember after my dad died, when I was in my 20s, every so often feeling him with me. He was there, right there with me, and it was such a comforting feeling. I wanted Ophelia to have that as well, this ongoing guidance and conversation with her mother. That Ophelia should never feel alone felt so important to me.

This entry is excerpted from a longer interview that first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Learning the Ropes at School

A child's comfort level at school is directly related to knowing what's expected. Often, it can feel like an alien place, as Sue Ganz-Schmidt's Planet Kindergarten so aptly describes, with illustrations by Shane Prigmore that depict classmates literally as aliens. Edda: A Little Valkyrie's First Day of School by Adam Auerbach likewise depicts young Edda as a visitor from another civilization. Both books give first-time students a window into how to navigate an unfamiliar place.

Other titles more directly introduce what a school day is like, such as Little Lola by Julie Saab, illustrated by David Gothard, in which the feline heroine is pleasantly surprised by what she discovers at school. Similarly, in Dog Days of School by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Brian Biggs, a pooch ends up in class due to a wish by its boy owner; the dog does well enough, until the boy wishes to get back his old life. In Dinosaur vs. School, Bob Shea explains a few preschool guidelines--dinosaur-style. These three add comic touches through the creatures' perspectives.

For first-time bus riders, The Little School Bus by Margery Cuyler, illustrated by Bob Kolar (reviewed below), walks them through what to expect, and some simple safety rules. Back to School Tortoise by Lucy M. George, illustrated by Merel Eyckerman, delivers a twist: even teachers get nervous before the first day of school. Everyone's favorite canine pupil and his little yellow bird teacher inject humor into an al fresco schoolroom in Drop It, Rocket! by Tad Hills.

Two smart middle-grade novels that are also great for year-round entertainment: Al Capone Does My Homework by Gennifer Choldenko, and Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein. And an entertaining alternative to Kate Turabian as an indispensable guide to paper-writing, grammar and punctuation rules: Thrice Told Tales: Three Mice Full of Writing Advice by Catherine Lewis, illustrated by Joost Swarte. Here's hoping these books help ease the transition back to school.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Last Blast of Summer (Reading)

How did we reach August already? It's not too late to discover some great summer reads!

Here's a suggested summer reading list from School Library Journal's Curriculum Connections. Each list includes a baker's dozen selections.

For Kindergarten through 3rd Grade, "Invitations to Imagination" (from yours truly).

For Grades 4-6, "Creep Around Graveyards, Search for Spies," from Elisabeth Gattullo Marrocolla, from Darien Public Library in Darien, Conn.

For Teens, "Classics Are Cool, But..." from Jennifer Hubert Swan, a New York City middle school librarian and reviewer

Happy reading!