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.