Friday, June 26, 2015

Limitless Play

Yusuke Yonezu

 Moving Blocks by Yusuke Yonezu models for youngest children how creative they can be with basic block shapes: squares, circles, triangles, and rectangles. With minimal text, the pages show rather than tell examples of how children can construct the familiar things in their world and let their imaginations soar.

Yonezu uses predominantly primary colors (with the occasional touch of secondary color green) and bold black outlines to reveal the modes of transport children uses every day: a car, a bus, a train, ship, plane and rocket. Each page appears like a giant mosaic, a puzzle to be unlocked with the turn of a page. For each two-page spread of small blocks neatly fitted together into a giant rectangle, a die-cut hole reveals the hidden vehicle on the next page, and a telltale sound provides another clue ("Sssssh, big doors opening... It's a bus"). The stark-white background helps young eyes easily distinguish the colorful bus on the page.
Interior from Moving Blocks

These are blocks that move, and the answers children discover from page to page move people from place to place. Yonezu proves that the simpler he keeps the ideas, the more possibilities they open up in the imagination of a child.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Whose Justice?

Sabaa Tahir

Neither all brains nor all brawn is enough to conquer the society depicted in An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. It's the classic story told throughout human history. But Tahir takes a fresh look through the eyes of two teens--one a Scholar, the other a Martial--at the center of the conflict.

The Scholars may be the group that's oppressed now, but they were the oppressors until 500 years ago, when the Martials took control by force. Laia, a Scholar, must live with the fact that her parents chose the Resistance over their children. The only family member she has left is her brother, held prisoner by the Martials. In her quest to enlist the Resistance members' help to free her brother, she learns that someone within the movement betrayed her parents. She also learns how the Scholars played a role in their own demise.

As her life becomes entangled with that of Elias, an elite member of the Martials called a Mask and a favorite to become the next Emperor, Laia must decide for herself who is on the side of justice--so must Elias. Sahir portrays a fictional society with realistic conflicts. Must justice for one group come about at the expense of another? What do you, as an individual, do to stay true to your ideals when others around you are corrupting them for selfish ends? How do you know when you yourself have crossed a line? If you gain power and prestige, is it because of your leadership qualities, or through force and fear? How can you be sure?

History is littered with examples of those who used an ideology or force (often both) to achieve goals they felt were good, but whose means resulted in imprisonment and death for many. Tahir demonstrates that it's harder to recognize an ideal gone wrong when it's unfolding in the present. Laia and Elias observe the corruption going on around them, but can they stop it, or at least stand up to it? And the implicit question to readers is: What would you do?

Friday, June 12, 2015

Standing at the Crossroads

Mitali Perkins

Mitali Perkins gives readers a journey to an exotic land in flux in her novel Tiger Boy. The village itself mirrors young Neel's predicament. A developer, Mr. Gupta, has arrived in the Sunderbans of West Bengal, who wishes to exploit its resources, using its sundari trees for his buildings, and pressing the villagers to take the wood from reserves where the trees should be protected.

Then a Bengali tiger cub escapes. Mr. Gupta wants to sell it on the black market, and Neel becomes determined to find it first and return the cub to the rangers. It's a crisis of conscience for Neel because his father has begun working for Mr. Gupta to pay for Neel's mother's medical bills and a tutor so that Neel can win a scholarship to go to Kolkata and study--a path Neel does not wish for himself.

Change is in the air, and Neel is resisting it. His country is at a new stage, just as he is. Perkins exposes the differences accorded to the genders in West Bengal without judgment--it's a way of life that requires a girl to drop out of school to tend to the cooking and washing if her mother becomes ill. Yet the focus remains on Neel's choice to remain in the village he loves or go out into the world and try to bring back his knowledge and experience. The author also exposes the moral crossroads of the villagers--namely Neel's father.

As with her Bamboo People, Perkins smoothly conveys the all-too-brief childhood of young people forced to grow up quickly because of the changing nature of their way of life. She transports readers to faraway places yet endows her characters with problems that feel immediate and universal: the importance of safety, food, clean water, family and community--and standing up for the ideals you hold dear.

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.