Thursday, December 18, 2014

Awareness into Action

Paul Fleischman

Paul Fleischman gives young people a different set of tools for improving their world in Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines. He suggests that we first need to be aware of the world around us and how it's changing, evaluate it and, if we have concerns, figure out how to be proactive.

As a poet (and Newbery winner for Joyful Noise), Fleischman has always been a close observer of the world around him and, like many other poets, found inspiration in nature. So when he begins to find dead bees in his driveway with somewhat alarming frequency, he begins to investigate. What was the cause, and what, if anything, could he do to help?

He points interested readers to further resources, organizations and most importantly tools for evaluating information--what is the source of these statistics? Does the writer have an agenda (lobbying group, public relations firm)? These ideas are valuable in any context, but especially if students feel passionately enough to get involved. After they observe a situation and decide they want to help, where can their talents and efforts best be used?

The ideas here apply not just to causes near and dear to readers, but also to how they live their lives.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Critical Thinking

Rick Riordan

Once a teacher, always a teacher. That is certainly true of Rick Riordan, who taught English and history to middle-school students and clearly takes great pleasure in sharing all that he knows about Greek mythology. Percy Jackson's Greek Gods adopts a tone any child could love, and imparts juicy information in tantalizing retellings. Percy states up front that there are other ways to tell the tales of these often adolescent-acting characters.

This elegantly designed oversize volume shows off some of the best artwork from Caldecott Honor artist John Rocco. Especially that quintet of illustrations charting the five rivers that flow into the Underworld.

Some of us grew up with d'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. It's a fabulous introduction to the pantheon created to explain the phenomena we observe in our world (the changing of the seasons, the sun rising and setting). But Riordan takes a child's perspective, pointing out the contradictions among the myths--or more specifically, the gods' behavior--as Percy offers his own take on the quirks of these immortals (and half-bloods).

At a time when educators discuss at length how to teach critical thinking, Percy Jackson models it by his words and deeds, questioning, probing and investigating. Children will laugh and learn at the same time.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Way to Heal

Raúl Colón

 Draw! is Raúl Colón's most autobiographical work. He suffered from asthma as a child, and often spent hours alone in his bedroom drawing while the other children played outside. We had a chance to speak with him recently for School Library Journal about the making of Draw! Here is an excerpt.

You’ve mentioned that you begin your books with text and pictures. How did you arrive at a wordless story for Draw!?
I created a mock-up for the book that included text. But I couldn’t quite finish it, so I showed it to my editor, Paula Wiseman. She asked, “What do you think about telling the story just in pictures?” So that’s what I did. I added some illustrations, a few sketches, and reworked it.

In the book, your palette changes when the child drawing in bed imagines himself on safari.
Yes. I thought about The Wizard of Oz [the black-and-white and the color sequences] and chose a muted palette for this boy’s life at home and then moved to full color when his imagination transports him to a different world. Although muted, I wanted the pictures to be colorful enough so children didn’t think that those scenes were unreal. But I still needed to transition to Africa. Did the boy go by boat? By plane? I wanted to show that he transported himself to Africa so readers see the pictures come out of his head.

From Draw!
Tell us about the sequence of four images of the rhinoceros charging the boy, each one showing the animal getting closer and closer.
The idea, taken from comics, shows the passage of time. We’re fascinated with the illustrations and snapshots and paintings we see in museums, because the artists are freezing time. We can look at them over and over again. We see things moving all the time, but seeing something frozen--where we can study it--is fascinating. With the rhino, I wanted to show movement. How large, or how close he gets--the viewer has to figure that one out.

Let’s talk about the closing scene, when the boy gets out of bed and shares his artwork with his peers.
In my experience visiting schools, that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m showing the work that I do to other people. The reason artists draw and musicians play, is that we want to communicate, to share what comes through us with other people.

Read the full interview.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Benefits of Reading Aloud

At the Bank Street College of Education lately, we've been talking a lot about what we hope a parent and young child will gain from the experience of reading aloud together. Bears in Beds by Shirley Parenteau, illustrated by David Walker, provides a strong launch point for a positive experience.

from Bears in Beds 

Here are three main ways to connect with the toddler in your life through sharing a book (and this one in particular):

  1. Closeness. Sit close together with the child either on your lap or with your arm around him or her, so the child both feels secure and also keeps the focus on the book.
  2. Prediction. Read the title, author's and artist's names on the cover. You might start by asking, "What do you think the book will be about?" Or my favorite, "What do you see?" There are no wrong answers. Your response to whatever the child answers might be, "Let's see!" 
  3. Interaction. In this book, there are different elements you can ask your toddler to focus on. There are five bears; you might count them together. Size and color are two other elements that come into play (Big Brown Bear, Yellow Bear, etc.). The bears read a story together. "Do you know what it is?" you might ask your child. And finally, some of the sounds in the night frighten the bears. You could ask, "What can you do if you get scared?"

Reading together is an opportunity for closeness and conversation, to send your child to sleep with a sense of comfort and safety.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

NaNoWriMo with Scott Westerfeld

Scott Westerfeld
Photo: Niki Bern

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). has set up all sorts of tools to aid writers who want to take the challenge of writing a novel in one month. Scott Westerfeld is writing a companion for his novel Afterworlds on his Web site called How to Write YA

This week, Westerfeld posted about point of view ("POV failure is one of the most common reasons why agents and publishers cast aside submissions half read," he writes). He talks about his process generously and clearly. To give you a flavor of how thoughtfully he approaches each of his novels, here are a few highlights from a conversation I had with him for School Library Journal about Darcy, the teen novelist in his book, Darcy's love interest Imogen, and Lizzie, Darcy's heroine in the book Darcy's writing called Afterworlds.

Q: Without mentioning individual tweets between characters, you do discuss the effects of social media and the influence of the Internet. How much has social media changed the field of YA lit?

Scott Westerfeld: YA novels are a lot about identity. The way people construct and determine an identity these days has a lot to do with the way they are online. I always say the main difference between the Americans represented on television and real Americans is that in real life, Americans watch a lot more television.

In a funny way, one of the things about writing a contemporary YA novel is not getting involved in the amount of time that teens are spending online. What I was trying to do was to acknowledge the amount of time Darcy and her friends spend on it and how that shapes who they are, rather than talk about it.

Q: Tell us about this quote from Darcy: “Maybe that was the price of loving someone: You lost your grasp of where they ended and you began.” Isn’t that true not only of Darcy and Imogen but also Darcy and Lizzie?

SW: By calling the characters Darcy and Lizzie, I’m suggesting there’s a certain amount of tension between the writer and the character--also characters and ghosts. The ghosts that Lizzie sees are on the one hand not real, really; on the other hand, she has a moral responsibility to them. Writers don’t want to betray our characters and make them do things they wouldn’t do, for a plot contrivance. I wanted Lizzie to grapple with the question: Are the ghosts real people? Are they just stories? I wanted to make these same concerns parallel Darcy’s ethical concerns. Should it be a happy ending? Should it not?

Q: There’s a cutting-edge quality to all of your books. How do you manage that time and again?

SW: Probably a lot of it is taking conversations that are happening in the adult world, particularly in adult science fiction, and applying them through a YA genre filter. Most things are more interesting when you look at them through the lens of a teenager.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Case for Retellings

Neil Gaiman
Photo: Kimberly Butler
Why retell a fairy tale? If you have something new to say. And Neil Gaiman retells Hansel & Gretel in a truly haunting, original way. Lorenzo Mattotti's illustrations picture not a house brightly accented with rainbow-colored candy, but rather a dark wood where shadow prevails.

Here, Gaiman focuses on the ravages of war, and turning out the children as a means of survival for the parents. It's as grim as a fairy tale gets. Unless you read Adam Gidwitz's A Tale Dark and Grimm, in which the parents try to decapitate Hansel and Gretel (they get their heads back). Yet Gaiman also conveys the father's conflict--he doesn't want to "lose" his children in the woods, and delights in their return.

Lorenzo Mattotti
Gaiman also characterizes the candy-covered home's owner as an "old woman," never a witch. Having painted these as destitute times, the author gives readers some empathy for the old woman and what drives her to desperate measures. Another of my favorite riffs on Hansel & Gretel is Donna Jo Napoli's novel The Magic Circle, which provides a history for "the Ugly One," as the witch in her retelling is called, and adds a layer of complexity as well.

Mattotti's artwork is stunning in its relentless swirls of dark shadows, which make manifest the darkness of the woods, yes, but also the dark side of the parents, which dominates their psyches enough to turn out their own children. The father here shares much in common with the father in Gaiman's recent adult book The Ocean at the End of the Lane, as if the man, overtaken by his obsession with a woman, is unable to stay true to his role as protector of his children. (Though Gaiman disagrees with my interpretation of the father's motives in Ocean in a very thought-provoking way.)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Chillers & Thrillers

 As Halloween draws near, we have some favorite chillers and thrillers, from board books to YA novels to audiobooks. The Hallo-Wiener by Dav Pilkey, debuting in a board book edition, stars a Dachshund named Oscar, teased by his canine peers for his shape, size and bun costume--until he proves to be the perfect foil to a menacing "monster."

Two beginning readers emphasize the treats of friendship: Dog and Bear: Tricks and Treats by Laura Vaccaro Seeger and Katy Duck's Happy Halloween by Alyssa Satin Capucilli, illustrated by Henry Cole. Don't forget Adam Gidwitz's original spin on the Brothers Grimm, starting with A Tale Dark and Grimm, and closing with The Grimm Conclusion. Another book to keep readers up nights (in the best way) is Guys Read: Thriller, edited by Jon Scieszka. Candace Fleming uses a real cemetery as a backdrop for her collection of spinetingling tales On the Day I Died; the audiobook would make a sensational soundtrack for a haunted houseparty.

The YA short stories in Monstrous Affections, edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, include as many psychological thrillers as situational chillers. Two teenage friends drink down a petrified bat with unnerving results in Glory O'Brien's History of the Future by A.S. King. Hitting close to home in the wake of the Ebola virus, Love Is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson combines spies, intrigue and a deadly pandemic. 

Readers can now enjoy Neil Gaiman's Newbery Award–winning The Graveyard Book three ways: the original novel, the audiobook (read by the author) and the new two-volume graphic novel set (adapted by P. Craig Russell). Check out Kevin Nowlan's rendering of the bloody knife that opens Volume 1, and Scott Hampton's climactic scene in the Frobisher Mausoleum in Volume 2.

This round-up first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.