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).  Nanowrimo.org 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.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Treats of Friendship

Laura Vaccaro Seeger

A deep and abiding friendship between two very different personalities forms the core of Dog and Bear: Tricks and Treats (and all the Dog and Bear books) by Laura Vaccaro Seeger. Their latest adventure plays up those contrasts using some time-honored Halloween traditions.

Dog takes risks; Bear is more prudent. Dog inspires Bear to try new things; Bear encourages Dog to slow down, think things through. Seeger's stories grow out of the friends' personalities and how they resolve their dilemmas. And they do solve their problems themselves, without any help from grown-ups. So how do they react to Halloween rituals? What if Dog were to misunderstand how trick-or-treating works? Instead of giving out candy, he confiscates it (not meaning any harm, of course). Children are in on the joke, and Dog doesn't recognize his faux pas. Costume hunting and prank playing (much more benign than egging or TP-ing, of course) make up the themes of the other two stories.

With just a sentence per page, these adventures feel complete and make the ideal books for beginning readers as well as picture book lovers. We can't wait to see what Dog and Bear will do next.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Kindness

Dav Pilkey with his Hallo-Wiener
Photo credit: Karyn Carpenter

Oscar, the Dachshund hero of The Hallo-Wiener by Dav Pilkey, is a mascot for kindness, and how it reaps its own rewards.

The other dogs are not very kind to Oscar (calling him "Wiener Dog" and laughing at him), but that does not keep him from wearing the bun costume that his mother gives him for Halloween (even though that only ramps up the name-calling and laughter). Oscar wears the costume to be kind; he doesn't want to hurt his mother's feelings.

And despite how the other dogs treat Oscar, he comes to their rescue when they're in trouble. At this age, when toddlers and preschoolers are just beginning to leave the unconditional love and protection of their parents and caregivers to enter daycare and preschool, Oscar sends a strong example of being kind no matter what.

Although the other dogs are rude to Oscar, he does not have to return their rudeness. He chooses to be kind, and to come to their aid when a scary "monster" (two cats in disguise) chases them. His act of kindness opens the other dogs' eyes to look beyond Oscar's appearance and recognize an act of true friendship. For toddlers, pair this with Baby Be Kind.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Testing Boundaries

Una LaMarche

In Like No Other, Una LaMarche lets readers inside the traditionally private Chabad-Lubavitch community for a rare view of its traditions. Readers enter through the experience of 16-year-old Devorah Blum, whose chance encounter with Jaxon, an African-American young man her age, prompts her to question some of those traditions. Brooklyn's Eastern Parkway marks the boundary between their two communities, but they meet in the hospital that serves them both when the elevator breaks down.

Devorah would never, under normal circumstances, be with a boy her age unchaperoned, let alone a boy outside of her community. They talk about their families, music, and through their alternating first-person narratives, readers watch their mutual attraction develop.

LaMarche reveals the complexity of the mores behind the Chabad-Lubavitch way of life. Devorah jokes that yichud (the rule against two members of the opposite sex alone together) stems from the belief, "Plop two teenagers in a confined space, let them get to talking, and sooner or later the conversation will go to a sinful place..." Yet their attraction bears this out. These rules are rooted in life experience. 

But when does Devorah get to test these boundaries for herself and gain her own life experiences? She's smart and curious and willing to take responsibility for her actions. The author, without didacticism, explores the territory between faith and doubt, fate and free will. Can one's faith strengthen without doubt? Can one respect boundaries without testing them? These are all questions that teens innately raise for themselves, and LaMarche's romance about two 16-year-olds curious about and attracted to each other, gives teens an apparatus for examining these questions for themselves.

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

Play


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

Exuberance

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!

Friday, August 1, 2014

A Trailblazing Story


Gene Luen Yang
In The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang (Boxers & Saints), illustrated by Sonny Liew, Yang has created an origin story for the Green Turtle, likely the first superhero created by an Asian American comics artist, Chu Hing, during the Golden Age of American Comics. In the Green Turtle's adventures, the superhero always has his back to readers, often casting his shadow large and menacingly.

Why did the Green Turtle always have his back to his audience? Yang suggests, in an author's note, that at that time comics publishers weren't ready for an Asian American hero. In the book, Yang creates situations for young Hank (who transforms into the Green Turtle) that explain, for instance, the superhero's hyperpink skin (a darkly funny scene involving a chemical spill), and in the backmatter, the author includes reproductions of scenes from the original comics to demonstrate just how pink the superhero's skin appeared in the comic book pages.

Yang makes the case that Chu Hing preserves his integrity by remaining true to his vision of an Asian American hero, while also adhering to his employers' wishes by not revealing his character's ethnicity.

The Shadow Hero seamlessly threads together Chinese history, immigration to America after the fall of the Ch'ing Dynasty, and the Golden Age of American Comics into a heartpounding adventure. Yang creates an origin story for a trailblazing hero--who's also very human.

Friday, July 25, 2014

A Comical Con

Varian Johnson
It's refreshing to see a diverse group of friends with a range of talents working together to "fix" any bully--but especially an entitled bully. That is the central plot of The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson.

It's Jackson Greene's first outing without his big brother, and he's doing a smashing job. The kids keep referring to a previous effort, one that got Jackson in trouble with his former crush, Gabi, even though he got back at wealthy, bullying Keith Sinclair. Now Keith is obsessed with winning the student council presidency against Gabi, even if it means stealing the election. Jackson plans to fix Keith's wagon once and for all.

This is the Hardy Boys ratcheted up a notch. Jackson and his pals are determined to intercede and take justice into their own hands. The adults are none too helpful. The principal's secretary is prejudiced, and the principal is on the take from the wealthy parents of the bully in question. What recourse do Jackson and his friends have, other than to mete out justice themselves?

One of the many fun features of this comical con game--in addition to the diverse cast--is Jackson's ability to judge characters. So when things seem to go haywire on his team, well, it was all part of the plan. Readers will hope for more from this resourceful group of friends.

Varian Johnson's book has become an independent bookseller favorite: two indies in Massachusetts--Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, and Eight Cousins in Falmouth--competed in a "Great Greene Challenge" to see which booksellers could hand-sell the most copies of the title. It became a national selloff, and readers had the most to gain.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Visual Grammar


Alison Jay has always created a visual story line in her books, and her beachside adventure Out of the Blue follows that established pattern. Her alphabet book (A B C) and counting book (1 2 3) teach youngest children these early concepts, and they also give them a plot line to follow that unfolds entirely through the illustrations. Out of the Blue, with no words, tells a complete story--two children make friends, take shelter from a storm, and rescue a giant octopus. It's liberating for children who are just learning to read because they can make up their own story.

Jay helps youngest children build confidence, as she reinforces all that they know: pages move from left to right, children can point out the heroes in the book who appear repeatedly (the boy and the girl) and they can follow the secondary characters down the beach. They do not need to decode words to "read" the story.

This spring at the Bank Street College of Education, Stephen Savage spoke about “visual grammar” using his book Where’s Walrus? to explain his idea. He spoke of the text and illustrations as “the harmony and melody of the song” and pointed to silent movies as “the original wordless books.” He explained the four components he believes are essential to books without words:

1)  The close-up
2)  Color/contrast
3)  Design/branding
4)  Pattern/repetition

You can see these elements most clearly in Where's Walrus?, but they also come into play in Alison Jay's work.

Children take in everything around them. They are sponges, absorbing how the world works long before they have words to explain what they're seeing. These elements, of which Savage spoke so eloquently, and which Jay also employs in her books, help children unlock the story within the book and also to use those strategies to make sense of the events in their own experiences.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Cooking Up a Celebration

Jan Thomas

Jan Thomas takes true toddler scenarios and finds the humor and fun in them, as she does in A Birthday for Cow!

Pig and Mouse do a perfectly normal good deed: They make a cake for Cow--"the best birthday cake EVER," in fact. Duck keeps trying to tell them something in his gently (and later, not so gently) insistent way. As Pig and Mouse combine the flour, sugar and eggs, Duck says, "And a TURNIP?" They mix it all together with... "A TURNIP!" Duck repeats. It may seem as though Duck is just being silly, but what toddlers learn at the end is this: Cow loves turnips.

Jan Thomas hints at the outcome with Duck's close attention to the calendar as Cow's birthday draws near. The blue X's indicate Duck's count down to a special day--not Duck's birthday, but Cow's birthday. Duck keeps trying to tell his friends what the perfect present would be for Cow, but they are intent on making a cake -- perfectly reasonable (Pig and Mouse certainly enjoy it), but not what Cow would wish to eat.

It's a subtle lesson delivered with heaping helpings of humor, that sometimes what we would want for ourselves is not what someone else would want. Duck thought about what Cow really loves, and that was the gift Duck gave to Cow. Or, maybe it's because Duck loves turnips, too...

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Only Summer Slides Are at the Pool


With school dismissed, it's time for pure pleasure reading. Emily's Blue Period by Cathleen Day, illustrated by Lisa Brown, will send youngsters scurrying for scraps of wrapping paper, crayons and paintbrushes to make their creations. For additional inspiration, dip into Lois Ehlert's The Scraps Book.
Children will start toe-tapping and beat-bopping with I Got the Rhythm by husband-and-wife team Frank and Connie Schofield-Morrison. You can't dance without music, so pick up The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra by Chris Raschka. Haven't heard of Sun Ra? Many of his recordings are now available on YouTube, and Raschka's illustrations sway to Sun Ra's sounds.

Gather the family around The Pilot and the Little Prince by Peter Sís, the picture-book biography of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, then reread The Little Prince and note how many of the facts about the pilot's life made their way into the classic. If you have a child who loved to get lost in Harry Potter, give him or her The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove. The maps, time warps and parallel worlds will keep the pages of this thick book flying. Do you have a reader who's not so committed? The Cabinet of Curiosities by Stefan Bachmann lets readers dip in and out of 36 spine-tingling tales.

For kids on the cusp of adolescence, This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki speaks to precisely where they are. The smart, funny narrator of Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McMahon addresses love between sisters, friends and, yes, potential romance. Did you miss The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau? Summer is the time to start this dystopian trilogy. And finally, a book for you and your teen: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. Three cousins, one best friend, a grandfather worthy of Lear with an island off Massachusetts as his kingdom. Let me know what you think.

This article first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Family Intact

Erin McCahan in Grand Haven, MI
It is rare in young adult fiction to find a family that gets along well, in which an author portrays teens with parents who respect them and allow them autonomy. Erin McCahan paints such a family portrait in Love and Other Foreign Words.

Josie Sheridan likes routine, predictability, consistency, and she dislikes surprises. Yet everything is changing. Her sister Kate is getting married, and Josie does not approve. Josie must work hard to do the things that come naturally to others. She practices the signature hug for her volleyball team (at home, in private) so that she can belong, but then everyone wants a "Josie hug," which was not the goal she sought.

Josie's father really "gets" her, and provides some much-needed compassion for his youngest daughter. But he also knows when to draw the line, when to point out that she's in the wrong. And he does it in such a way that she must do some soul-searching. He does not make anything easy for her, because he knows she likes to--even needs to--puzzle things out.

So often novels aimed at teens explore the rift between parent and child once he or she enters adolescence. Here's a novel in which the parents give their teen space to become the person she's yearning to become. They trust her and have faith in her, even when she's acting badly. Maybe it's because she's the third of three children. Maybe they've learned with their first two that their children have to figure it out for themselves, but this mother and father have an approach that works.

Josie's mother and father know that along with their daughter's genius come some social challenges, and they are there to guide her, but they also know she must learn from her own missteps. Yes, the friendship, the portrayal of sister relationships, and the awakening of romance are terrific, but the strong, loving relationship between Josie and her parents may be most memorable of all.

Friday, June 20, 2014

A Map of Time


"To her infinite mortification, Sophia had no internal clock," thinks 13-year-old Sophia Tims, the heroine of S.E. Grove's debut novel, The Glass Sentence. The author examines the nature of time and memory in terms that an 8- and 9-year-old can understand. Children know how chores seem to last forever, and a great hours-long neighborhood game of stickball flashes by. Sophia's way of coping may well inspire readers' own methods of time trekking.

Sophia finds her lack of internal clock mortifying because her uncle is the world's finest cartologist, able to make and read maps from all eras. Ever since the Great Disruption, time has settled differently in different parts of the world. Her parents (who disappeared 10 years ago on an expedition) also possess a keen sense of time. But for Sophia, hours can go by undetected, and she also has trouble gauging the time that's lapsed between events.

She copes by creating elaborate accordion-style calendars. She marks all of the important things that happen on that date. At a glance, she can see when something of significance to her occurred, and how much time has gone by since then.

Think of the applications for a child reader. What fun to browse a variety of calendars and for a child to experiment with the tracking method that works best for him or her. They can use the traditional month-at-a-glance calendar, a week-long track, or a daily calendar; tape them together vertically or horizontally; enlarge it on a photocopier or shrink it down. They can draw pictures on each day to indicate someone new they've met, a family reunion, a baby-sitting job or a work shift. It can be as simple or as sophisticated as they want it to be.

If they already use a journal, Sophia's tracking system might spark other ideas of what to include--drawings, collage, scraps of paper. Sophia's way of coping with her "mortification" is not so different from Chuck Close's 10-foot-long illustrated map of Lewis and Clark's expedition in Chuck Close: Face Book, his strategy for learning history in school. Readers may be inspired by Sophia to create a timeline of their own lives that (literally) unfolds, a map of time and events of significance chiefly to its maker.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Keeping Track

Byron Barton

In My Bus by Byron Barton, Joe the driver keeps track of which passengers--a mix of cats and dogs--board and depart from his bus. Children can follow along and see exactly how many cats and dogs are traveling at any given time.

Barton keeps the dogs on one side of the bus and the cats on the other, for easy tallying. He never explicitly states "1 dog + 4 dogs = 5 dogs," but mentally children take note of how many are on the bus. It's a brilliant way to make young readers aware that they sort out and sum up the things in their world all the time.

There are four people in a child's family, let's say. Two have arrived at the dinner table; we're waiting for two more. One clears the dishes after the meal; three are still seated at the table. There's no fancy addition or subtraction; it's a simple way to be mindful of what's going on around them.

Byron gives children other things to look at, too--a boat, a plane, a train. And at the end of My Bus, the first dog passenger that boarded the bus leaves with Joe the driver: "I drive one dog home. My dog! Bow wow." (And for cat lovers, one cat ends the book: "Meow.") Satisfying in every way.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Wishing to Be Found

From Hide and Seek Harry: Around the House

The hippo star of Hide and Seek Harry: Around the House by Kenny Harrison does not know that he can be seen. His girth permits him few true hiding places. Harry's approach is much like the child who plays peek-a-boo: Because the toddler covers his eyes and cannot see you, he believes that you cannot see him.

But the other question is, does Harry know that he can be seen? "Harry likes to hide... but he loves to be found!" says the text. Like Harry, the child playing hide-and-seek wants most to be found. Peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek at this age are about being safe, separating momentarily (with no real risk of getting "lost") and then being reunited with the parent, grandparent, older sibling, or caregiver. It's the first dipping of toes into the ocean of independence.

Through Harry, Kenny Harrison taps into this complex mix of feelings in the simplest of ways. Does the hippo choose a hiding place because he thinks he's truly hidden? Or does Harry want to be found? Does it matter? In the end, Harry comes home to his best friends, the boy and girl narrators.


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Story within the Story

E. Lockhart

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart is right there with Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein and the film The Usual Suspects, in that you think you have your bearings, and then suddenly you don't. But the author's sure hand steering the story keeps your complete faith nonetheless. And her dexterity with language is a marvel.

Lockhart's novel stars three wealthy cousins: narrator Candace, Mirren and Johnny--and Johnny's socially conscious best friend, Gat. Together, they form the Liars of the title. Gat questions the things the cousins take for granted, and slowly chips away at their once unshakeable faith that their privilege can secure their happiness. This transition from inheriting values from one's parents to questioning them and then forging one's own values lies at the core of this coming-of-age novel.

We believe the conversation between these 15-year-olds. Candace falls in love with Gat, then has an accident and is left with no recollection of it. Lockhart weaves in Shakespeare plots and fairy tales, Cadence's constructions to puzzle out what occurred and why she has no memory of it: Granddad Sinclair as Lear; Beauty sees the glory in the Beast, but her father "sees a jungle animal." Did the overwhelming loss of her father's abandonment and her grandmother's death, together with her forbidden love for Gat lead to Cadence's accident and amnesia?

Adults will appreciate Lockhart's consummate storytelling, but teens will relate to the unfamiliar and unwanted role of parenting one's parent, and trying to become who they truly are, which is not necessarily who the adults want them to be.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Scientific Adventures

"Science Bob" Plugfelder

"Science Bob" Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith collaborated in a unique way for Nick and Tesla's Robot Army Rampage, illustrated by Scott Garrett. The series centers on two 11-year-old science-minded twins who are staying with their scientist uncle while their parents are out of the country on a work assignment. Pflugfelder, an elementary school science teacher, designs science experiments key to solving the mystery in each book. Hockensmith plots and writes the mystery, integrating the science experiments.

For Nick and Tesla's Robot Army Rampage, their second book together, Hockensmith had a plot he liked but was struggling to incorporate the robot army without taking Nick and Tesla out of their uncle's neighborhood. According to Hockensmith, Plugfelder suggested a solution that would keep them in the neighborhood, and also stick with the reality they'd established in the first book, Nick and Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab. "I think that's what defines a series when you're getting it started," Plugfelder said. "We wanted readers to buy into the reality but at the same time to take them on adventures they couldn’t maybe go on on their own."

And the best part is that the twins are normal kids, just like readers. "Nick and Tesla are not geniuses; they're problem-solving kids," Pflugfelder said. "A situation comes up and they say, can we build something that can help us with that? They're resourceful kids with fourth-grade knowledge." For the five science projects in this book (and also for the previous book), the materials are either household items or available at a place like Radio Shack.
Steve Hockensmith

The Hardy Boys series and Jean Craighead George's My Side of the Mountain were Pflugfelder's favorite books as a child, he said last year on a middle-grade book panel at Book Expo America. He liked the idea of contributing to a series that had both mystery and science elements. "I'm one of those kids who would have flipped through and seen the instructions for the projects in this book and picked it up," he said. "I'm the kid who read the Hardy Boys and then would go and make the projects." Hockensmith, on the other hand, said, "I would have been the kind of kid who'd read the story and enjoy it, and my eyes would glaze over when the projects came along." Together, Hockensmith and Plugfelder make ideal collaborators for these scientific adventures.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Living and Creating

Interior from The Scraps Book
One of the things children will appreciate most about Lois Ehlert's The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life is the way she draws a correlation between her life and her art. Her ideas come from everywhere (asparagus hunting, a cat, a change of seasons) and her materials can be anything (paints, crayons, seeds, crabapples, fabric swatches). 

Even Ehlert's picture of the work table her father set up for her in her childhood home shares a striking resemblance to the workspace she uses today. Children will see that their own photos, paintings, and fabric scraps can contribute to a collage about family, home and pets. 

Study for Chicka Chicka Boom Boom
The author-artist also shows children precisely which book included which collage or composition, leading to an organic scavenger hunt of sorts, to check out her many picture books and to witness the varied approaches and styles she's used to illustrate her stories (and the stories of others, such as Chicka Chicka Boom Boom). 

Her collections of model fish and words and art supplies reveal a passion for what she does and may well inspire children to build their own. Lois Ehlert shows that a childhood passion can become a lifelong joy.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Connecting to Nature

Interior from You Are My Baby: Garden

When spring arrives, nature's creatures come out. You Are My Baby: Garden by Lorena Siminovich (author and artist of last year's You Are My Baby: Farm) makes an ideal guide for toddlers eager to identify the animals, insects, and arachnids they encounter in the world around them. Naming them forges a connection between a child and the other beings in his or her world.

The thick corrugated pages of this intelligently designed book allow children to leaf through the larger pages featuring the adults or the smaller ones starring their babies nestled in this book-within-a-book, as their matching game expands to include the great outdoors. They begin to connect the creature they see in a tree, a bush, or on a path in the woods to the animals, insects and arachnids they've observed in these pages.

It's a terrific companion for a stroller ride or a drive in the country, to prompt toddlers--even before they can form the words--to point to the page that matches what they see on a branch or a grassy patch.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Second Chances

John Corey Whaley

John Corey Whaley, the author of Noggin, says the outlandish premise of his latest novel--a transplantation of a full cranial structure onto a donor body--began with Kurt Vonnegut.

"What is it about him that I'm able to connect with so much?" Whaley said of Kurt Vonnegut when we got to interview him recently. "He's able to take absurd ideas and scenarios, and you can be laughing hysterically on one page, and he'll bring you to tears on the next."

The idea of scientific advances allowing doctors to cryogenically freeze someone's head and surgically affix it to a healthy donor's body may be something akin to what Vonnegut might create, but, like Vonnegut, Whaley grounds the story in authentic emotional experience. Travis essentially falls asleep and wakes up five years later. But the people he cares about have lived on, gathering life experiences. "That was the most realistic way I could re-create the way people feel their friends and family are growing up a little faster than they are," Whaley said. "A lot of life is people moving faster than we are, and us moving faster than others."

Travis is 16 when he goes to sleep, and his friends are 21 when he wakes up. He has a second chance at life, but does he want it, if he can't be with Cate, who is now engaged to someone else, and his best friend, Kyle, who has retreated back into a life of denial? Whaley gets to the core of growing up through his exploration of Travis's dilemma. Travis wants to win Cate back. But in those five years, Cate had fully grieved and accepted the loss of Travis in her life. Travis and Kyle are able to restore their friendship, but Travis's desire to recreate the romantic relationship he'd had with Cate remains problematic.

Travis must ask himself, how do I go on from here, with this new reality? Is it worth it to get a second chance if I cannot have the people I want in my life the way they were? Travis quickly learns that his return does not come with an automatic reset button. It means working on these relationships--with his parents, with Cate, with Kyle, and with his new friend Hatton. How do you stay true to yourself yet still honor that relationship, either as it is now, or what it once meant to you? Is it possible to do? How much compromise is possible without losing your self?

At a pivotal time, when teens are becoming adults and trying on new personas and/or deepening their beliefs, their relationships are shifting. Whaley captures all of these nuances with humor, compassion and unforgettable characters.