Friday, November 26, 2010

Fireside Stories

Those of you who have been following along for awhile know how often I trumpet the virtues of reading aloud. That’s why I can’t resist recommending Tomie dePaola’s version of The Night Before Christmas, for youngest book lovers.

To me, the holidays are an opportunity for celebrating not only the pilgrims’ landing, Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa but also for gathering around the fire with a great book and reading aloud as a family. After all, at the heart of each holiday we celebrate there are great stories of courage and commitment, of people through the centuries who followed their hearts and maintained a sense of integrity. Reading aloud is a long held tradition in my family, and one I’ve carried with me into the classroom and continue to this day. I read passages aloud to friends and family, and welcome every chance I can to start off my nephews, nieces, and any young reader in my life, with a great book by reading aloud the first chapter.

If this is not already a tradition in your family, the holidays are a great time to start a new one!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Ahoy, Comics Fans!

The best graphic format books entice young people—even those who would not describe themselves as readers—because they’re caught up in the scene before they're even conscious of becoming engaged. They want to understand what’s going on, so they begin reading the dialogue balloons. Before they know it, they’re hooked. The Unsinkable Walker Bean by Aaron Renier, colored by Alec Longstreth, adds to that winning formula a delectable pirate adventure, a kidnapping and an evil pair of gargantuan merwitches. Who could resist?

There’s also a budding friendship between Walker Bean and Shiv, a teen on the ship’s crew who looks out for him, and an unexpected ally (we won’t say who). Renier has a knack for creating cavernous interiors (such as the pirate ship’s hull) and claustrophobic street scenes, and his pacing is superb. Kids who are true comics aficionados will also appreciate the color by Aaron Reiner. I hadn’t realized how essential the colorist was to successful comics until I spoke with Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim about their collaboration, The Eternal Smile. Like music in a film, color sets the mood; it also indicates a change in location and, in the case of Walker Bean, the decision to make him the sole blond means he can easily be spotted even in a crowded street or a pirates’ brawl.

If your teen enjoys making his or her own comics, be sure to recommend Adventures in Cartooning. Even though it’s in our ages 8-12 section, it’s funny and sophisticated enough to appeal to teens, too. And its tips for making comics are some of the easiest to follow and to immediately put to use.

Friday, November 12, 2010

(Nearly) Happily Ever After

Do you remember telling scary stories around the campfire or at sleepover parties? The best scary stories were always funny, too. I know I’ve talked about that thin line between scary and funny in the past, but there’s something about that moment when you can release all the terrifying tension with laughter that creates a great sense of relief. I think that’s the secret to the success of A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz.

He has a way of saying, “Here comes the best part,” but with a sense of irony. At the end of the “Brother and Sister” section, he says, “I will tell you, as I always tell myself, that things will get better. Much, much better. I promise. Just not quite yet.” He tantalizes and taunts in the best possible way. It’s as if he’s saying, “Cover your eyes for this part,” knowing you will peer through your fingertips.

The other aspect of his writing that’s surprising (aside from the here-comes-the-scary-part-close-your-eyes aspect, which makes you laugh instead of tremble), at least for me, was the way he threaded together the well-known tales to make something completely new. With a slight adjustment, he makes “Brother and Sister” into an environmental story: the punishment comes to Hansel because he’s taking more from Lebenwald, the Wood of Life, than he needs. In a retelling of “Robber Bridegroom” (called “A Smile as Red as Blood”), Gretel is not all innocence: she ventures where her kind guardian warns her not to go. But each of the siblings learns something from those experiences that they apply in a later chapter of the book.

Even if the young person (or people) in your life is the most dedicated of Brothers Grimm fans, he or she cannot help but be impressed by how Adam Gidwitz reinvents their stories here. This is the ideal book for these long winter nights… Meh heh heh heh (think Vincent Price laughter…).

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Power of Persuasion

Last weekend, I had the privilege of leading a discussion of five humorous picture books at Book Fest at the Bank Street College of Education in New York. A Pig Parade Is a Terrible Idea by Michael Ian Black, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes, was one of them. The discussion group included teachers, public librarians, school librarians, college instructors of children’s literature, and reviewers. My favorite comment came from a school librarian.

At first, she did not love the book. But because it was on our discussion list, she read it and reread it. She began to change her mind about the book. Then she thought, “This would be a great example of persuasive writing for the fourth grade teachers to use with their students.” When she told this to the group, you could see the idea spread like a virus through the room, indicated by the “aha” expression that lit up everybody’s faces. A sixth-grade teacher had said as we introduced ourselves that she was using picture books to teach examples of good writing to her students. She looked particularly pleased.

I’ve thought a lot about that librarian’s insight. It reminded me of Avi’s observation at an NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) conference that humor books rarely win the awards, but humorous writing is very hard to do well. (Avi went on to win a Newbery Honor, but not for his humor books—it was for a historical novel The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.) Why not cite A Pig Parade Is a Terrible Idea as an example of persuasive writing? After all, one of the greatest examples of using humor to make a persuasive argument is, as far as I know, still taught in higher institutions of learning, and it dates back to the 18th century: Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” (And even at the pigs’ most piggish they could never achieve the kind of repulsive reaction that Swift’s proposal might from its more literal-minded listeners.) With Pig Parade, we can get children started at a far younger age to think about creative ways to make their arguments, and the kind of comical examples they could employ in service to their causes.