Friday, December 23, 2011

A Fresh Start

In Bluefish by Pat Schmatz, Travis has a complicated relationship with his grandfather, his sole guardian. He’s not excited about the fact that they had to move away from the creek where Travis found some peace of mind, and he misses his hound, Rosco. But it is a chance to start fresh. And to leave behind the nickname his peers had given him: “bluefish.”

The book opens with a good Samaritan act. Travis sees a stray shoe come flying past him while he’s at his locker. Shortly thereafter, a kid ambles by who’s missing one. Travis returns the shoe to the kid without a word and continues on his way. This earns him the respect of Bradley (the one-shoed kid) and also Velveeta, a silent witness. A friendship tenuously takes hold among the three. It’s sealed by a teacher, Mr. McQueen, with a knack for matching the right kid with the right book, and for offering the right comment at the right time. Travis has never known an adult like that, and Velveeta is sorely missing the one adult who had served that role in her life.

With the aid of this friendship and adult guide, both Travis and Velveeta find the courage to confide in one another. There’s a hint of attraction between them, but Schmatz keeps their connection platonic, exploring the full extent of what it means to be a true friend and confidante. Through their friendship, each transforms his and her self-image, and they begin to see in themselves the sense of possibility that they bring out in one another. Schmatz packs an emotional wallop in this brief novel.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Need to Understand

The Greek gods have fascinated me for as long as I can remember. I loved their power and beauty, but also their weaknesses and petty jealousies, which made them seem more like us. Donna Jo Napoli, in her introduction to her Treasury of Greek Mythology: Classic Stories of Gods, Goddesses, Heroes and Monsters, illustrated by Christina Balit, puts it beautifully: “In reading the myths, we begin to understand that the ancient Greeks must have wanted more than just the big answers from their gods,” she writes. “They must have also wanted their gods to be a reflection that could help them understand themselves.”

Napoli went back to the oldest Greek sources for her myths, Hesiod and Homer. I got to interview her about her research recently, and she set me thinking about just how ancient these myths are. In fact, they’re so much a part of Western civilization that we make certain assumptions—Napoli was not exempt! She and artist Christina Balit had a point of disagreement about the half-bull, half-man Minotaur. Napoli believed that the Minotaur had a human torso on a bull’s body, but when Balit’s illustration of him arrived, she’d portrayed the Minotaur with a human body and a bull’s head. After Napoli went back to substantiate her view, she discovered that the oldest representations in art and sculpture convey the Minotaur as Balit had (you can see Balit's image of the Minotaur here).

It’s such a great example of how important that component is for us as readers, to be able to envision something in our own minds and “make it ours.” It’s why I’m so often disappointed in the movie version of events and characters from books, for which I’d already created my own images. Napoli could find no written reference about which way the Minotaur’s anatomy leans (only descriptions of a “half man, half bull”). The artists who made their ancient paintings and sculptures were the more readily available, with their bull’s head, man’s body depictions. With words alone, we can picture what makes sense to each of us individually as readers, but the job of painters and sculptors is to construct a physical representation of their vision.

For all of us, the seeds of that impulse come from a desire to understand the things we read about or experience in our everyday dealings. Very much like those ancient Greeks, trying to make sense of the events in their lives.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Finding the Fireworks

One of things I love most about Marla Frazee’s projects is the way she chooses them. “When I read a book to consider illustrating I don't want to fully understand it. I want to puzzle it out,” says Frazee. “I almost want to be afraid of it.” You can see just what she means when you look at her artwork for Stars by Mary Lyn Ray. The text is poetic and lyrical and closely observed, yet it does not include a set group of characters. Frazee found ways to connect the images and build relationships among characters so that you feel an emotional connection to them.

Frazee spoke at the Society of Illustrators in the same presentation as Stephen Savage (which I mentioned last week). She said the text of Stars reminded her of Ruth Krauss’s A Hole Is to Dig, illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Krauss, a former teacher, once said something along the lines of she hoped her students didn’t sue her for lifting their conversations verbatim and recording them in the book. Stars has that same loose, free-associative quality as Krauss’s book.

If you look at Frazee’s illustrations for All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, and Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers, the same is true there, too. Frazee creates the narrative through line with her images. We recognize her characters from certain details—pigtails, a slouchy posture, striped onesies, overalls. Although they go unnamed, we feel as if we know them.

Marla Frazee’s Web site, in addition to showing a picture of her studio under an avocado tree (she's sitting on the porch of her studio with Rocket, above), gives all sorts of insights into her work. At the Society of Illustrators, she talked about how she starts with a series of single images. “Sometimes the way into a book is just that--just a way to get started. Like you tend to have polite conversation and then you click,” she said, adding that you have to give yourself permission to make mistakes.

She talked about painting with a tiny brush. It made me look anew at the spread of the yellow sky with its hundreds of dandelion seeds, and the winter scene veiled by snowflakes (“Of course each one had to be unique,” Frazee said with a laugh). Cecilia Yung, art director at Penguin Books for Young Readers, who helped organize the presentation, made this wonderful observation: “The starring character is the sky.” Going back through Stars after that, I thought about the sky’s many moods, and how it envelops the stars in all its incarnations—as celestial body, as the blossom shape that precedes the pumpkin, and as the shiny kind a child keeps in his pocket or gives to a friend to lift her spirits. And that fireworks finale merges the human- and nature-made creative forces into one. Brava!

Friday, December 2, 2011

The AHA Moment

When you are looking at a book with a child who is just starting to grasp the cover of a book in his or her tiny fingers, there is nothing like that “AHA” moment on his or her face. The moment when he or she recognizes the character, or how to turn the page, or skips ahead to see if things will turn out the way he or she thinks it will. That is what happens with Where’s Walrus? by Stephen Savage. There are no words in his book, and babies and toddlers use only their eyes to identify Walrus.

Stephen Savage recently gave a presentation at the Society of Illustrators in New York City, and he talked about how babies pick out Walrus instantly on the cover. After that connection, it makes sense that they would go through each image, searching for Walrus just as the zookeeper searches for his runaway charge. But the author-artist also gives them a hint in the first scene after Walrus’s escape: Walrus is hiding in a fountain across from a mermaid. In this instance, their tails are the same, and also the leafy crowns they wear. Walrus’s tusks differentiate him from the mermaid. In the next scene, the fellow’s tail gives him away. With these first two puzzles, Savage “informs” children that these are the two characteristics that will help them discover Walrus in each image.

In his presentation, Savage talked about the importance of stripping down the images or “essentializing” them. He began with the cover. “Things that are well designed touch the heart and emotion,” he said, “like the Wonder Bread logo. That makes me hungry.” But he also packs in plenty for adult observers, too. The cover is a reference to Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.” The zookeeper is a nod to Buster Keaton’s silent films. And can you find the Monopoly man in these pages?

This is a book where your baby or toddler may actually beat your older child (and you) to the punch—finding Walrus before anyone else. Their minds are so attuned to visual cues that this book is tailor-made for them, but the entire family will pore over it.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Crazy Love

Remember what it was like to fall in love as a teen? The obsession? The inability to think about anything else? Interpreting every word, gesture and pause?

Well 14-year-old David Gershwin embodies those feelings. He just happens to be in love with Zelda, one of his psychiatrist father’s patients, in How I Stole Johnny Depp’s Alien Girlfriend by Gary Ghislain. “She’s pretty in a scary sort of way,” according to David. “Like something you’d really like to touch but that will probably bite.” Zelda insists she’s from the planet Vahalal, and she’s on a mission to find her “chosen one” and bring him back with her. When she points him out on the Internet it’s… Johnny Depp.

Haven’t we all felt that the object of our obsession is from another planet? Or is Zelda schizophrenic (though the hero’s father insists, “No one is ever crazy, David”)? But then how do you explain her superhuman strength to slip out of unbreakable handcuffs and her talent for Space Splashing (“the ability to be at two points in space at the same time”)? David’s in love, and he sees what he wants to see, so as readers, we do, too.

The strength of Ghislain’s story is that he defines David’s psyche well, and because we never leave David’s head, we’re as invested in his mission to win over Zelda as David is. Zelda’s superhero attributes and David’s funny and obsessive viewpoint will hold the attention of even teens who don't think of themselves as readers.

This original take on an all-consuming crush will appeal to guys for its comics-humor quotient, and to girls because of Zelda’s feminist stance (and superhuman strength). Will the nerdy boy win over the otherworldly beauty? Read on and find out.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

An Unlikely Friendship

To thoroughly enjoy The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright, illustrated by Barry Moser, you must first accept that a cat (Skilley) could prefer cheese to a mouse

Once you accept that, you are in for a treat. There is in today’s London an inn called Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, and although it was rebuilt after a fire, it stands in the same spot where Charles Dickens often dined and wrote. Dickens is the first to notice strange doings in one of his favorite taverns, and that Skilley seems to be catching and releasing the same mouse (Pip) over and over again. But he is not the last.

Various tensions emanate from the situation, and much of the fun of the novel is the discovery of who’s rooting for the mice and who wants them gone. One of my favorite parts of the book is when Adele, the mouse-hating barmaid, brings Skilley’s nemesis, Pinch, to “help” with the mousecatching. Skilley, attempting to hide from Pinch his friendship with Pip, accidentally hurts Pip. Skilley confides in Maldwyn the raven, and their illuminating discussion about how to repair the friendship could serve as a model for children experiencing similar circumstances.

As Charles Dickens’s 200th birthday approaches (on February 7, 2012), this book makes a terrific introduction to the Victorian writer, his humor (his writer’s blocks) and one of his favorite haunts.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Kindred Spirits

Melissa Sweet found a kindred spirit when she discovered the work of Tony Sarg. He stars in her picture-book biography, Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade. They both design toys, for one thing. And they both need to play in order to do their work.

Melissa Sweet learned about Tony Sarg from her colleague at eeBoo Toys, where she works as a designer. She has often used collage in her artwork, as she did with her Caldecott Honor book A River of Words. But this is the first book in which she uses three-dimensional collage—actually incorporating the materials that Sarg himself would have used, such as dolls, yarn and spools of thread.

One of Melissa Sweet’s three-dimensional collages is currently at the Society of Illustrators (128 East 63rd Street, New York, NY 10065). It’s part of an exhibition of original children’s book artwork (150 pieces in all, from books published in 2011) and will be on display until December 29, 2011. The collages look terrific in the book, but they’re even more impressive in person, where you can see the level of detail, and the care Sweet took in assembling the components.

The other extraordinary coincidence is that the Society of Illustrators recently purchased an original illustration by Tony Sarg himself. It’s reprinted here courtesy of the Society of Illustrators, called “Busy intersection in small town,” c. 1928, created in India ink and watercolor. If you want to see just how much Melissa Sweet has in common with Tony Sarg, you can find out more in this interview (and also see some photos of her studio).

If you have a family tradition of watching the Macy’s Parade together, this book will make the experience all the more meaningful.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Long Winter’s Nap

There are many reasons to read and reread Very Hairy Bear by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Matt Phelan.

True, it conveys the concept of hibernation for very youngest children, as the bear prepares for his long winter’s rest by eating well and then settling into a cozy spot. That also makes this an ideal nap or bedtime book, because the bear is winding down his activities.

But the best part is the wordplay. In the summer, “He eats the berries and the bushes, too. He’s a very full berryfull bear.” Matt Phelan shows a blueberry stuck to the end of each ursine toenail. As squirrels tuck acorns under oak trees, “a no-hair nose knows where to find them.” Long vowel sounds slow the pace, mirroring the bear’s transition to inactivity: soft white snowflakes “cling to bear hair (if there’s a bear there),” the text reads, as the bear becomes camouflaged by snow. The silver salmon the bear pursued in spring now “sleep deep” on the pond’s floor.

One last gasp of humor before the close as the furry fellow “scratches his big brown bear behind,” then settles down to sleep. This brief book accomplishes a lot in a short span, and your youngsters will want it close at hand.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Before the Monster

This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel is scary, which makes it timely as Halloween nears. But it’s scary all year round. As a precursor to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the novel’s fear factor arises from the tensions between the characters.

Oppel’s twist on the classic story is the invention of a twin for Victor Frankenstein, Konrad, and they are both in love with Elizabeth Lavenza. That’s one source of tension. Victor wants to be better than Konrad, even though he loves Konrad. That’s another tension. When the twin brothers together with Elizabeth discover a secret passage that leads far beneath the Chateau Frankenstein, and a recipe for an Elixir of Life—that leads to further tensions with Victor and Konrad’s father, who forbids them from returning to the cellar and from reading the books stored there. And then there’s the tension between Victor, the siblings’ friend, Henry, and Elizabeth when they seek help from a troubled, reclusive alchemist.

More classic scary scenes emerge during their search for the Elixir’s ingredients: white-knuckle encounters with the vulture-like Lammergeier, which has a 10-foot wing span, and also a prehistoric coelacanth (their pursuit of the fish through tiny tunnels will make even hearty readers feel claustrophobic). But the true terror arises from Victor and his unpredictability. We watch his inner struggle as he wrestles between his jealousy of and loyalty to his brother, his desire to attract and even possess Elizabeth’s affections, and finally his hunger for power.

At the same time, the world is changing around the 15-year-old twins. The author probes the societal shifts in thinking in late 18th-century Switzerland. Konrad yearns to visit America, the French people have fomented a revolution, and scientific breakthroughs have begun to overshadow Roman Catholicism. When Victor, an atheist, worries that he could lose his brother to illness, he almost envies Elizabeth her devout beliefs. His thoughts as he observes her in the church expose the tug-of-war between fact and faith, in both religion and science: “Wine to blood. Lead to gold. Medicine dripped into my brother’s veins. The transmutation of matter. Was it magic or science? Fantasy or truth?”

Frankenstein still holds our attention, centuries later, for good reason. And Kenneth Oppel’s perfectly sets the stage for the man and the monster to come.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Fireside Stories

As the nights grow longer, there’s nothing better than sitting by the fire or gathering by lamplight to read aloud a spellbinding story. You and your children will find it hard to break away from Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby.

As you know, I’m a big believer in reading aloud as a family, well past the time your children can read independently. In the same way that we gravitate to book clubs, to talk about books we’re interested in reading, a book read aloud together as a family allows everyone in the family to participate in a shared experience and discussion, no matter what their reading ability. On top of that, the power of a great story read aloud is hypnotic. You lose all sense of time in the present as you become fully swept up in the world of the story. That is what will happen to you and your listeners when you read Icefall.

Suddenly you find yourselves in an icelocked land where the children of a king must hide out under the protection of berserkers—barely civilized men who wear animal skins and literally go berserk when they begin to fight. The world of young Solveig, who narrates, her older sister, Asa, and her younger brother Harald, heir to the throne, has contracted dramatically. The waterways are freezing over and their food supplies are dwindling. All they have for entertainment are the fireside stories of Alric the skald—the king’s storyteller.

With his stories, Alric lifts their spirits and imparts wisdom—and sometimes warnings. After some of the berserkers are poisoned, and nearly everyone becomes suspect, only the stories give them a semblance of order. Solveig believes that, unlike her siblings, she has nothing to offer. Asa has her beauty, which can help her father to build an alliance with another kingdom by her marriage, and Harald will succeed their father as king. But Alric recognizes in Solveig the key gifts for a great storyteller: memory and sight. He helps her to see that she possesses an intuitive sense of people and a keen perception of situations. He plants a seed in her that she, too, could make a great skald, and is bent on helping her prove it to herself.

The book works on many levels: as an adventure and a window into another time and place, as a mystery, and in a subtler way, as a guide to what makes a good story. And finally, what are the attributes of a great storyteller? We discover these along with Solveig. Not every book makes a superior story to be read aloud; this one does. As Alric and Solveig weave their tales to entertain, teach, and cheer their audience, we see what power story has over others—ourselves included. Matthew Kirby lets us into the secrets of a storyteller’s bag of tricks, even as he uses them himself to enchant us.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Got it!

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen is truly a book for all ages.

The author-artist’s background as an animator informs his pacing and the subtle adjustments in the expressions of his animal characters. As the story progresses, Klassen demonstrates what the slightest shift of the shape of the eyes or a change in posture can do to convey his character's mood. When the bear realizes, “I HAVE SEEN MY HAT,” he literally sees red. He appears on a tomato-colored page that infuses his fur. His anger emanates from the pages.

Rereading the book helps youngest readers to pick out the early clues as to the culprit that took the bear’s hat. Older readers will appreciate the minimalist approach Klassen brings to the pictures—a tuft of grass here, a rock there—that keep the focus on the bear’s internal life. If youngest children are not ready to imagine a worst-case scenario, Klassen allows them room to think the thief simply got away.

Here the spare scenery serves Klassen’s story well—children can see what they’re ready to see and “get" what they’re ready to get. The important thing, in the end, is Bear gets his hat back. Right?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Welcome the Dark

Many children go through a phase in which they’re afraid of the dark. The Game of Light by Hervé Tullet may be just the ticket to shed that fear.

Read it first all the way through with the lights on so your child can see the themes the author-artist explores, such as sunlight (“In the daytime, everything is bright”), flowers in bloom, and fish in the sea. Tullet also mentions, “Everything flies around,” and when you shine a light through that page, your child can make out a stick figure hidden among the rectangles (arms and legs) and circle (head), and on the next page, four faces “light up the room.”

So when your youngsters think they see a monster hiding in the shadows, the shining faces and the “everything” that flies around in Tullet’s book can replace those menacing images. If you hold the book up by its front and back covers, they combine to create a continuous panorama of moon and stars.

This book will help your child welcome the dark, replacing shadowy figures that may have frightened them with fish and stars lit by flashlight. With these uplifting images as the last ones they see before they drift off to sleep, they’re nearly guaranteed to have sweet dreams.

Friday, September 23, 2011

An Obsession with Antiquities

Cleopatra’s Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter plunged me right back into my childhood obsession with all things Egyptian. Where I grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, part of the public library building also served as a museum. In it, there was an adult mummy and a baby mummy, and you had to go through a secret passageway to get to them. Every time I went to the library, I visited this exhibit. Nothing ever changed about it, but I had to see it every chance I got. It was like stepping back in time and imagining what the ancient Egyptians’ lives were like, what they saw and wore and did as part of their daily routine.

When I was a teenager, the contents of King Tutankhamun’s tomb went on tour, and our family traveled to Chicago to see it. That cemented my obsession with Egypt. I could get a sense of how King Tut lived from the things he was buried with in death. But Shecter’s research for Cleopatra’s Moon goes further; it brings alive the smells, tastes and textures of the time. She includes the spices they used in cooking and the perfumes and fabrics they wore, the games the royal children played, and Queen Cleopatra’s attitudes of acceptance and tolerance toward people of all classes and faiths. As a ruler, she earned the respect of her people, and Shecter gives us a strong sense of why she deserved it.

And then, with that full and lively setting, Shecter weaves her tale of intrigue anchored entirely in fact—the fight for Egypt among the Roman elite—Marc Antony, Cleopatra’s husband after Julius Caesar, and Octavianus, whom Caesar had named as his successor.

When most of us think of Queen Cleopatra, we likely picture a woman resembling Elizabeth Taylor in all her beauty and sensuality. We rarely (if ever) think of Queen Cleopatra as the mother of four children. But only one of her children survived to adulthood, and that was Cleopatra Selene, forced to leave her beloved Egypt after her mother’s death (by suicide) and go to the home of her enemy, Octavianus, in Rome. How will she keep her brothers safe? Should she pursue an alliance based on love or power? How will she reclaim her homeland? What would her mother have done? These universal questions of adolescence (well maybe not the reclaiming her homeland part) bring Cleopatra Selene’s experiences home to us as readers, even though her circumstances are extraordinary.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Passion for Collecting

So many wonderful themes come together in Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick, that it’s impossible to touch on them all. Perhaps the theme that speaks most to children, however, is the idea of collecting things. We all did it (and likely still do). Stamps, rocks, shells, dolls, Matchbox cars. Ben Wilson, whose story Selznick tells in words, has a box with a wolf on it, in which he keeps the things he collects. Rose Kincaid, whose story unfolds in images, looks out of the window of her house in Hoboken and creates and arranges miniature models of the buildings across the Hudson River. They are both collectors. Their paths lead them both to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, one of the greatest collections in the world.

I got to hear Brian Selznick talk about his work on Wonderstruck earlier this week, and he said that several books for children had influenced him. One is Pam Conrad’s My Daniel, about a brother and sister who discover dinosaur fossils near their farm in Nebraska, and their dinosaur makes it to the American Museum of Natural History. Another is Conrad’s book Call Me Ahnighito, told from the point of view of the meteorite that’s discovered on the North Pole in 1897 and now resides in that same museum—and Ahnighito figures prominently in Ben and Rose’s story in Wonderstruck.

And of course, Selznick said, you can’t write a book set in a museum without paying homage to From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by Elaine (E.L.) Konigsburg. He does that several times in his book, including the fact that he named Ben Wilson’s mother Elaine.

One of Selznick’s favorite books as a child was The Borrowers. The Clock family—Pod, Homily, and their daughter Arrietty—“collected” things from “human beans” and repurposed everyday household objects into clothes and furniture. As a child, Brian also loved to collect tiny things, he says. One of the best moments, early in Selznick's novel, is when Ben finds a book called “Wonderstruck” that gives him a name for what he loves to do: curator. “In a way, anyone who collects things in the privacy of his own home is a curator,” the book says.

There’s a picture book I adore that also captures this passion for collecting. In Ben’s story there’s a “cabinet of wonders.” In Sergio Ruzzier’s picture book, it’s The Room of Wonders. “Pius Pelosi was a pack rat, and he collected things,” the story begins. Pius finds a pebble he loves and his collection expands from there. He creates a compartment for each of the objects he selects, and visitors travel from everywhere to see his room of wonders and hear his stories.

Brian Selznick says that the impulse to collect and organize things is part of being human. To curate is to organize, and that helps us make sense of our world. He believes that is why we love museums, because they allow us to see where and how we fit into the world. And that feeling of knowing we are part of something much larger fills us with wonder.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Difficult Anniversary

As the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001, approaches, our thoughts turn to how we may prepare children for the images they'll be seeing. Many children were either too young to process what was happening at the time or were not yet born. Pictures and accounts from that day may be confusing to them. America Is Under Attack: September 11, 2001: The Day the Towers Fell by Don Brown does a terrific job of reporting the day's larger events and also telling the stories of several individuals, to put human faces on the staggering number of people affected.

These four picture books allow children to enter the story where they can make sense of it, and leave behind the details they cannot or do not wish to process.

14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez (Peachtree). Accompanied by glorious images of the Kenyan landscape, Deedy tells the true story of a Maasai tribe member who was attending medical school in the U.S. when the planes hit on 9/11. He returns to his village to ask his tribal elders if he can dedicate his sacred cow to America, to heal them from their great sorrow. The tribe is so moved by his story that they dedicate 13 additional cows for America. The book is ideal for youngest children because the storyteller must help his fellow villagers understand the magnitude of the event ("Smoke and dust so thick they can block out the sun," he tells them), and also because of its healing message.

Ladder to the Moon by Maya Soetoro-Ng (sister of President Obama), illustrated by Yuyi Morales (Candlewick) also takes more of a symbolic approach to 9/11, as a girl and her grandmother reach down to children on earth who are in peril and invite them up to safety with them on the moon. Author and artist together create abstract images of a tsunami, 9/11 and war, and focus on themes of love and security.

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (Roaring Brook Press) is Mordicai Gerstein's 2004 Caldecott Medal-winning picture book about Philippe Petit's amazing tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. Gerstein pays tribute to the architectural feat of the towers as well as Petit's accomplishment.

Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey (Penguin/Puffin) by Maira Kalman pays tribute to the John J. Harvey, a fireboat that came out of retirement to aid New Yorkers on September 11, 2001. The fireboat’s story begins at its launch in 1931, during Manhattan's glory days, when the Empire State Building and George Washington Bridge were going up and Babe Ruth hit his 611th home run. But as the piers start to close, the fireboat's days dwindle, until a group of friends rescue the boat, and the John J. Harvey in turn proves itself the little fireboat that could for New Yorkers in need on their darkest day.

This piece originally appeared in Shelf Awareness.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Eye of the Beholder

Is it the apple that catches the bear’s eye in Orange Pear Apple Bear by Emily Gravett? I’m not telling. At least… not yet. What I really admire about the way that Emily Gravett presents the four elements of the book—the orange, the pear, the apple and the bear—is that she paints them almost like still life portraits. At least, with the fruit. The bear is true-to-life, too, except that he (or she) has so much personality.

But then Emily Gravett plays with all of the elements by bending the rules. She paints the bear orange, wearing a human expression, as if contemplating a decision. Later, she gives him an apple shape and a pear shape. But when the bear licks its lips, that’s our first clue that it may have other ideas in mind. That bear may have designs on those fruits.

Youngest children may or may not pick up on all of that right away, but they will immediately notice the way Emily Gravett plays with colors and shapes. The way she approaches perception here, with such simplicity yet such wit, reminded me of another of my very favorite books, It Looked Like Spilt Milk by Charles G. Shaw. He uses the shapes clouds make; Gravett uses fruits. But the way both of them make unusual images out of everyday objects encourage children to use their imaginations. “It looked like a rabbit. But it wasn’t a rabbit,” writes Shaw of a rabbit-shaped cloud. Gravett uses even fewer words. “Pear bear.” It looks like a pear, but it’s a bear.

Books like these change a morning walk or an afternoon stroll through the supermarket. Children begin to compare things that are new to them to other things that are familiar. And that not only encourages the imagination, but if we encourage them to make these connections, they begin to feel at home wherever they are.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Time of Transition

When you look back on your childhood, doesn’t it seem as if summer was always a time of momentous changes? Your first time away from home? Winning a tennis tournament? A first romance?

Drew Robin Sole is 13 years old during the pivotal summer when she begins to think of herself and her world differently. The Summer I Learned to Fly by Dana Reinhardt unfolds like a poem, from Drew’s no-nonsense point of view. Except that she begins to indulge in a bit of nonsense—like riding a bike without a helmet and sneaking out of the house when she’s grounded. She also finds herself arguing with her mother, and she can’t figure out quite how it happens. She loves her mother. Yet Drew also needs to test out her own ideas about how things work.

And then there's Emmett Crane, who eats the cheese she leaves on the dumpster behind her mother's Cheese Shop, and shows her things and people in her community she never knew existed. This is not a romance, though maybe there are feelings stirring there. Mostly it’s the story of a boy and girl building a tenuous trust that blossoms into friendship—with a few missteps along the way.

Almost everyone in the book is in transition in some way—Drew’s mother; Nick, a handsome employee in her mother’s cheese shop; Emmett and the friends to whom he introduces Drew. And each touches Drew in ways large and small that ripple through her. By summer’s end, she emerges as a bigger person with richer life experiences for having tested her wings.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Rewards of Perseverance

The hero of Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier has an indefatigable spirit. Practically from his birth, he has encountered obstacles at every turn. Still, he perseveres.

He does not know who his parents are. He has a dim recollection of birds pecking out his eyes; his blindness forced him to develop and pay attention to his other senses beyond the norm of sighted people. He survives on the streets through his keen awareness of what’s happening around him and by stealing food and other valuables for the exploitative Mr. Seamus. Yet Peter has not become hard-hearted. In fact he comes to the aid of another in distress, Sir Tode, a human-kitten-horse hybrid under a hag’s spell, and brings out the best in him. Sir Tode rises to bravery that he had hitherto run from in his human knight form.

This terrific book for boys and girls (a significant girl character comes along a bit later in the book) brims with action, magic, far-off lands, kings and queens. But it also deals with real-life challenges, such as blindness, hunger and poverty. The author treats those obstacles realistically but also shows readers that there’s a way out if, like Peter, you have an unflagging will to rise above your circumstances and seize the chance for a better life when it arrives.

Peter shares much in common with Harry Potter in that respect. Sometimes, when you persevere and the moment of opportunity presents itself, it can feel like magic.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Learning the Hard Way

The title hero of Substitute Creacher by Chris Gall learned his lesson the hard way. But we don’t know that at first. Have you ever heard of someone learning the easy way? When it comes to life lessons, most of us learn as a result of going through a tough experience, and wanting to avoid going through that again.

We may try to spare others headed down that same slippery slope with a word of warning, but the listener only truly hears it if he or she wants to hear it. Or if he’s going through something similar himself and seeks advice from someone who’s been in their shoes. That’s the terrific twist at the end of Substitute Creacher. After all the examples Mr. Creacher gives of students gone wrong, it turns out that he is one of them. That gives him insight into the children’s characters and credibility with his young audience (both students and readers).

The teacher may have learned the hard way, but he has a gentle delivery with the children in his classroom. He dispenses his anecdotes with humor and rhyme (framed in green slime). By the time the students realize that their sub is more like them than they’d realized, he has won them over. That’s also when it dawns on them that he’s merely trying to spare them the experience he had to go through to learn his lesson.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


The game of peek-a-boo allows a baby to explore one of the most important concepts in his early experience of the world: object permanence. The book Peek-a-Who? by Nina Laden, builds on this idea by incorporating a guessing game into the peek-a-boo exchange.

According to psychologist Jean Piaget, the concept of object permanence is the beginning of a child’s understanding that objects continue to exist even if the child cannot see, hear or touch them. The game of peek-a-boo plays with this idea because a person hides his or her face from the baby, but the baby can still hear the person’s voice and see that they’re still there.

Peek-a-Who? uses die-cut pages so the baby can see the parent or caregiver through the opening in the page. As they get familiar with the riddles in the book, they see that the black-and-white background belongs to the cow (“Peek a… MOO!”) and the railroad tracks belong to the train (“Peek a… CHOO-CHOO!”). As they begin to sound out the words, they can chant along with the parent or reader. Until such time as they can chime in verbally, they can grasp the thick board book pages with their fingers; the die-cut pages help even the earliest-developing motor skills along.

This is not a new book (it was published in 2000), but it was new to me. A colleague at Chronicle Books pointed out that it was their top-selling board book, so I had to have a look. Now I see why it’s been a success with so many families. It taps into a baby’s every developmental stage—eye contact, motor skills, and, eventually, rhyming sounds and predictability.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Unlikely Heroes

Very few things please me as a reader more than an unlikely hero who can win me over.

There’s nothing much to like about Saba, the narrator of Blood Red Road by Moira Young. Not at first. She’s possessive of her twin brother, Lugh. She’s mean to her nine-year-old sister, Emmi. She blames Emmi for the death of their mother and for the light that’s gone out in their father’s eyes. And she doesn’t hide that from Emmi either. You wouldn’t want to have to fight Saba for the last loaf of bread. She’d probably kill you for it.

Yet the fact that she’s so direct, scrappy and winner-take-all makes her a survivor. She can’t read or write, but she remains teachable, as we discover when she meets Mercy, her mother’s friend. Mercy shows her a different point of view, and Saba considers it. She’s not close-minded. And her reluctance to trust serves her well as she moves into the larger world of this post-apocalyptic novel where people are mostly takers.

Saba got me thinking about other characters who’ve won me over, or at least, won my sympathies over the course of their stories. Katherine Paterson’s Great Gilly Hopkins is the one that leaps to mind. But books for teens teem with them, too--the best friends and narrators of The Pigman by Paul Zindel; 16-year-old Steve Harmon, the Monster of Walter Dean Myers’s title; the misfit stars of Stoner & Spaz by Ron Koertge; Brent Bishop, protagonist of Paul Fleischman’s Whirligig; and, of course, Katniss from Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. You wouldn’t want to fight her for the last loaf of bread either.

Most of these young people have to experience something dire in order to develop a feeling for others—and, sometimes, compassion for themselves. That foray into testing adulthood, trying out ideas that are contrary to the ones that have been handed down by parents, teachers, and other adult guides, is essential to growing up. Some enter that wider world by choice, others by necessity—like Saba and Katniss. These books allow teens to try on other personas without having to live through their experiences.

Who are some of your favorite unlikely heroes? Which unlikable protagonists wound up winning you over?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Growing Pains

It’s hard to think of any author-artist who captures the pains of growing up at the various stages in a child’s life as well as Kevin Henkes does.

We meet Alice Rice in Henkes’s Junonia on her way to her family’s annual winter vacation to Sanibel Island. She is about to turn 10. That is a big deal. She wants it to be special. She wants to share it with the “family” she has formed in Florida, as she has each February through years of winter retreats. But things are not going according to plan.

Some of the “family” members can’t get there due to weather, others due to conflicts. And Alice’s favorite, Kate, her mother’s college classmate who usually stays with them in their house, is bringing her boyfriend and his 6-year-old child, and they’re staying in their own cottage. It’s as if she’s throwing a birthday party and half the people can’t come, and then her best friend asks if she can bring a friend she’s never met!

Henkes knows how to get inside the skin of a child as he or she experiences deep emotional pain and joy. Think of the anxious hero of Wemberly Worried or Lilly’s fit of jealousy when Julius, the Baby of the World moves into her house. And then there are the joys of acquiring a purple plastic purse and the horrors of the teacher kidnapping it for the schoolday in Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse.

The emotional journeys of Henkes’s characters get subtler as they grow older. Kids feel like they have to be mature about these changes as their birthdays add up, or they feel that their parents expect them to be more mature about worries and new babies and a teacher’s confiscation of your prize possession because you’ve flaunted it a bit too much and a bit too long. “You’re a big boy/girl now.” “Set an example.” “You should know better.” These are the phrases a child hears as he or she gains experience. The expectations others have for them have changed, but the children still feel like children. And they are. Henkes conveys all of those complexities over the course of one spring break as Alice Rice goes from nine to 10 years old.

For a child, sometimes the small shifts can feel like tectonic plates realigning their world. That’s certainly the case for Alice. And with Alice as a companion, children know that if she can survive all these changes, they can, too.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Keeping an Open Mind

At its core, Say Hello to Zorro! by Carter Goodrich is a heartwarming and funny story about staying open-minded. It stars a dog, but that just makes it easier for a child to laugh (in recognition) from a safe distance. Mister Bud, the hero of Goodrich’s picture book, has been the master of his house. We can tell by the way he meets his owner at the door, and by the way she shapes her day around his needs and his rigid schedule that he rules the roost. So on the day his owner brings home Zorro to meet Mister Bud, he is not pleased—at least, not initially.

Carter Goodrich comes out of a film background. He designs characters (for Finding Nemo and Despicable Me, just to name two). When we had a chance to talk about his work on this book, he said it was important to stay true to a dog’s nature: “They can’t lie. It’s all out there. I think that’s why people like [dogs] so much. It’s not all rosy, but Mister Bud and Zorro accept each other and learn how to cohabitate.” They look different and seem different in every way, except that Mister Bud and Zorro both love schedules! As soon as they embrace this commonality, they make peace.

And isn’t that what siblings do? They unite over the shared experience of living in their family and abiding by or railing against the household rules. Kids at school are attracted to others with common views or interests. This book is very funny because it capitalizes on the quirks of a canine pair that lives to eat and sleep. But in truth, a child adjusting to a new baby in the house, a new kid horning in on his or her best friend, or a new school, is, at the root of it, simply trying to get used to a disruption to his or her routine--a new set of rules, a “new normal.” By showing us how Mister Bud and Zorro make the best of their situation (and even improve upon it), Carter Goodrich shows young people that they can, too. They just have to keep an open mind.

Friday, July 1, 2011

On Alert!

Summer is a time of planned outings with friends, and family vacations. Young children get more out of your excursions if you can prepare them for what they may encounter on their hike in the woods, camping trip or a visit to the zoo. With gorgeous photos and simple fun facts, Baby Animals: In the Jungle by the editors of Kingfisher and the other books in the Baby Animals series can be a great resource. If you can expose children to what they will be seeing, it does two things: 1) It relieves their worries, at least in part, if they know what to expect and 2) they get more out of the experience—before and after.

Once you and your child have been through the book a few times, you can play a game: What’s this animal? What sound does it make? Where would you find them? These kinds of questions help them realize how much they already know, and to get more out of an encounter with the animals they’re about to see. When they get to the zoo, they know to look in the trees for the baby gorilla or orangutan. They know that the orange-hued monkey swinging from the branches is the orangutan, while the burly black primate with the “thick, woolly coat” is a gorilla. The black fur on and around the face of the baby gorilla in the photo will also help your child distinguish between a chimpanzee and a gorilla.

When you come home, read through the book again. This allows your child to review his or her visit to the zoo or hike in the woods (in the case of Baby Animals: In the Forest) and to retain the information he or she has gained through first-hand experience.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Student Body

Have you ever considered that it’s often the changes in a student’s body that determine his or her place within The Student Body? Stupid Fast by Geoff Herbach puts that reality at the center of Felton Reinstein’s story. For his entire 15 years, Felton has been the butt of the jocks’ jokes (they call him “squirrel nuts”). But during a spring gym class, he sprints the entire 600-yard dash, outrunning the best runners. That summer, as Felton continues to get taller and meatier, the jocks claim him as one of their own. Felton’s physique earns him a place with the popular crowd.

The same holds true for young women. The ones who get curvy first draw the attention of their male peers (whether they want it or not) and win the loyalty (or envy) of most girls. They become the popular girls. These changes arrive seemingly overnight, often during the summer, and change everything for those individuals.

Herbach probes the complex feelings of being thrust into a world that was previously off-limits and, in Felton’s case, completely unsought. There are advantages and disadvantages. As his mother falls apart, Felton has another place to go. On the other hand, immersing himself in this alternate refuge can feel like a betrayal to his family. His crush, Aleah, also has a calling and a discipline as a pianist. While he lifts weights, she practices scales. For those of us who were late bloomers, this can be a confounding time, just waiting for your body to “catch up.” You have no control over when the changes will take place or if they will happen in the way that you would like. The book describes the emotional purgatory of not quite belonging where you once did and not quite fitting into a new realm, but moving forward anyway. Sometimes Felton jumps to wrong conclusions, sometimes he’s right. But he has to keep going. And that’s not a bad message either. Felton grapples with the balance between friends and family and his newfound athleticism, and sometimes that kind of mindful grappling is the best we can do.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Call to Action

It’s difficult to hear messages so frequently about the bleak outlook for our planet. Young people can start to feel saddled with—and even guilty about—problems they did not create. Mark Kurlansky’s World Without Fish, illustrated by Frank Stockton, arms kids with facts, and then the author tells them what they can do to change things for the better.

He provides them with Web sites that list sustainable fisheries (and rates those sites for their effectiveness); they can eat fish responsibly, knowing that these fish populations will continue to thrive. He gives young people concrete steps they can take in their own communities to effect change. He teaches them respectful ways to begin a conversation with the person in charge of the fish department at the grocery store or a waiter in a local restaurant. In the same way that Kurlansky presents the points of view of most everyone involved in trying to address the environment, he also instills respect for all parties involved.

The book does not shy away from worst-case scenarios, but Kurlansky also offers plenty of reasons for hope. He wrote it, in part, for his 10-year-old daughter, Talia. (When you read the book, you’ll notice that the characters in the running comics-style story are Kram and Ailat, Mark and Talia [at right] spelled backwards.) In a recent interview, I got to ask him what he believes is the most important thing we can do to help the planet. He answered, “Participate. The thing I find encouraging about kids is that they keep offering solutions… The most important message in the book for children is… that over the next 40 years more change [will occur] than was witnessed during the 120 years of the Industrial Revolution. They'll get to participate in these changes; I hope they view this as a tremendous opportunity.” What a great way to head into summer, thinking about ways to create positive change.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Who’s in Charge?

One of the things I love most about Mitchell’s License by Hallie Durand, illustrated by Tony Fucile, is that the boy hero believes he is truly in the driver’s seat. The car (Dad) lets him pretty much steer their course. He plays along, and improvises a little (Dad makes the “VROOM!” noise when they “go fast,” and “BONK!” when they literally hit the wall). But when Mitchell tries to get away with something he knows he shouldn’t, Dad puts on the brakes.

In an interview with Hallie Durand and Tony Fucile, they both said they played similar games in their own households. Durand expanded on the “Remote-Control Dad” activity in their home, and Fucile often makes sound effects while bumping into walls (for effect only, no worries). The book joins the ranks of the few other father-child interactive games such as Pete’s a Pizza by William Steig and Jules Feiffer’s The Daddy Mountain. Durand said she was inspired by the “pizza” breaking into laughter in Steig’s book (“Pizzas are not supposed to laugh!” says the pizza-maker father) to have the “car” speak in Mitchell’s License. Now this book can be a jumping off point for you and your child to riff on the game yourselves.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Fathers Know Best

March of the Penguins (2005) is the first film I can think of that informed mass numbers of children about the important role fathers often play in the natural world. They learned that male emperor penguins care for their young while the mothers go out in search of food. Eric Carle’s Mister Seahorse came out before that film (2004), and now it’s newly available in a board book edition. The author-artist is a master of distilling information into its simplest form. Here he exposes an entire undersea community in which fathers care for their unborn offspring.

Mrs. Seahorse lays her eggs in Mr. Seahorse’s pouch, then disappears from the pages. Ever after, it’s Mr. Seahorse protecting his offspring in his pouch while communing with other caretaking fathers in his travels. Mr. Stickleback, a fish, guards the nest he built, where Mrs. Stickleback laid her eggs. Toddlers can see the eggs that Mr. Tilapia keeps in his mouth (therefore he cannot speak but Mr. Seahorse tells us what's happening). Eggs are clearly visible on the belly of the pipefish, Mr. Pipe, and (my favorite), on Mr. Kurtus’s forehead. Transparent “windows” in a few of the board book pages fill in the reeds, coral reefs and seaweed that offer camouflage to other sea creatures. (Eric Carle described how he creates his collage artwork in a recent interview.)

Mister Seahorse is a great way for toddlers to learn about another approach to “child-rearing” in nature, and curious older siblings will scamper off to read more about fascinating creatures such as the Kurtus nurseryfish. It’s a great conversation-starter about the important role both parents play in child-rearing.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Breaking Free

“The inspiration for the novel and the factions were based on my views about human nature, and that virtue as an end in itself may not really be a good thing,” said Veronica Roth of her debut novel, Divergent, in a recent interview.

Virtue as an end in itself may not really be a good thing. The author suggests that by trying to be “good,” whatever “good” may mean to one group or another, we lose something of ourselves. Does “doing the right thing”--if it’s defined by someone else or society at large--mean that we deny who we are? Beatrice Prior, the narrator of Divergent, feels torn when she must choose between the five factions of her society. She knows that if she does not choose her family’s faction, the selfless Abnegation, she will have to leave them behind, possibly forever. But from the very first, Veronica Roth shows us how drawn her heroine is to Dauntless, the faction that houses the soldiers that guard the borders of their society. They are daring, gutsy, even reckless at times.

One of my favorite moments in the book is when Tris realizes that bravery and selflessness are “often… the same thing.” It’s a great way to get teens thinking about what constitutes selflessness and bravery, and how we decide which actions are true to us, and which ones betray our sense of who we are. But she also taps into the idea that there are shades of gray. In that same interview, Roth talked about how we often single out cliques in high school as being damaging to kids, but what about in adulthood? Do we ever really graduate from labeling people? Is there really such a thing as a “good girl” and a “bad girl”? A “stoner” or “jock” or “geek”? Doesn’t everyone have more to him or her than one overriding quality?

Roth also invites readers to look more deeply at their families, friends and classmates. To see that there’s more to them. None of us fits easily into boxes. Most of us are, in fact, divergent. Does that make us “dangerous”? Perhaps only to the people who prefer neat categories.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Power of Suggestion

As he emulates the artwork of John James Audubon, Doug Swieteck discovers that he cannot paint every feather on the Arctic Tern. Instead, he paints enough lines to suggest countless feathers. He learns that less is more. And his careful attention to detail keeps him firmly planted in the present. He is, as Gary Schmidt’s title suggests, Okay for Now.

Doug is up against some big challenges in the summer of 1968. He is new in town, about to start eighth grade at a new school, his oldest brother is fighting in Vietnam, his middle brother is being accused of burglary, and his father is verbally, often physically abusive. Yet a few key people believe in him. His mother, for one. And at least two teachers. But Mr. Powell may be the greatest influence on Doug. He notices Doug’s interest in the Audubon book at the Marysville Free Public Library, and he approaches Doug. They connect through their mutual admiration for Audubon. The librarian encourages Doug’s curiosity.

How does Audubon do it? How does he create the “terrified eye” of The Arctic Tern? The sense of impending doom in The Snowy Heron? Mr. Powell teaches Doug how to look carefully at these images and discover for himself the strategy for creating the mood in these plates as he sketches them. And as he sketches, Doug discovers a strategy for staying in the moment, finding a sense of calm, quieting the rumblings of what may be waiting for him at school or at home with his father. He begins to apply these tools to other areas of his life, and he begins to change.

In a moment of crisis, Doug figures out the right thing to do because of Audubon’s The Yellow Shank. He "step[s] into the middle of the picture, where he should be, with the light behind him and the dark ahead.” The changes Doug makes begin to ripple through his household. As he begins to expect more of himself, those around him subtly begin to expect more of themselves, too. The power of suggestion transforms Doug into a power of example.

Friday, May 13, 2011

¡Buen provecho!

¡Enjoy your meal! That is the underlying message of The Cazuela that the Farm Maiden Stirred by Samantha R. Vamos, illustrated by Rafael López.

Children love a good story with a cumulative text. They love the repetition, and the idea that this is all building up to an exciting surprise. Samantha Vamos takes “The House that Jack Built” formula and adds a brilliant twist: she uses Spanish words in place of key characters and ingredients; each contributes to a delicious meal. Her story of just enough cooks in the kitchen gives children delectable morsels such as mantequilla (butter) and azúcar (sugar), and introduces the pato (duck) who visits the mercado (market) on the back of a burro (donkey).

When I had a chance to interview Samantha Vamos recently about Cazuela, she said that the phrase “the cazuela that the farm maiden stirred” came to her when she was short of ingredients one cold Chicago morning and fantasized that she lived on a farm where everything she needed would be handy. The phrase reminded her of “The House that Jack Built,” and she was on her way from there. But she also wanted to create a bilingual text, and the repetition of this framework allowed her to introduce Spanish words to children and invite them to practice the new vocabulary through the repeated phrases. She also liked the idea of featuring a meal in which everyone played a part and enjoyed the fruits of their joint efforts (unlike the animals in The Little Red Hen, who won’t help and therefore don’t get to eat the results).

The stunning artwork by Rafael López not only helps give visual clues to the Spanish words, but the artist also makes it seem perfectly normal that a cow would coach a goat, who’s stirring the cream into butter in the kitchen. He includes lots of details to be discovered upon return visits to the book, such as the sun’s moods changing from scene to scene, or the burro’s first appearance. A glossary that helps with pronunciation appears at the end, as well as a recipe for… well, I won’t give it away. But it allows children (with a little help) to prepare a classic Mexican dish just the way the farm maiden, farmer and animals do in the book. And Samantha Vamos also prepared an activity guide with word cards featuring Lopez’s divine illustrations.

Can’t you just see a group of friends putting this on as readers’ theater, and popping up with their word card each time the narrative reaches their part? Vamos said that when she visits schools, the kids like to say the repeated part of the text as quickly as possible, like a tongue twister. And that’s the best part of what books give us: new words to adopt as favorites, exotic words that we can exchange with others—like a great meal prepared and shared together. ¡Buen provecho!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Making Waves

Words are power, especially for toddlers.

When they learn to speak, toddlers go from 0 to 60 in one minute flat. Suddenly, they can ask for things by name, make jokes, express their personalities. Liesbet Slegers knows how to connect with this age group, as she proves once again with Bathing. Her simple black outline and her focus on just a few things on a page—a washcloth mitt with a fish on it, a shampoo bottle with a smiley face—help smallest children to focus, too. There’s just enough on a page to keep them interested without feeling overwhelmed.

Also, she’s not afraid to incorporate slightly more challenging words like “faucet.” She uses it in context (“Look, water is rushing out of the faucet! The bathtub is filling up with water”), and she pictures it clearly, with the toddler hero pointing at the faucet. In 12 pages, Slegers moves the child from running the water in the tub to drying off in a towel. She takes everyday activities and makes them feel like adventures. And to youngest children, they ARE adventures. It’s a constant process of discovery, as if to say, “Look what I can do! I’m making little waves in the water.”

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Happy and Safe?

What would you do if you were told you could be “cured” of the emotional roller coaster of life, and that a timeproven “procedure” would keep you forever “happy and safe”? You’d say, “What’s the catch?”

Delirium by Lauren Oliver allows teens to examine the tradeoffs—without undergoing irrevocable surgery. The idea of forbidden love goes back to David and Bathsheba, Romeo and Juliet. Lena’s feelings for Alex are taboo. Even though he has the mark of the “cured,” Alex stirs in Lena symptoms of delirium. She finds herself doing things she’d never done before, forbidden things.

The larger theme of the book is the ability to question, so central to adolescence and becoming an independent adult. We have to create a distance from the rules to decide which of them makes sense for us as individuals. Lauren Oliver paints an extreme case in which no one, not even adults, is allowed outside the boundaries of certain behaviors nor permitted outside of certain physical territories bounded by a fence. Outside the fence are the Wilds. But Lena, haunted by the memory of her mother, wonders if her mother was telling Lena to go her own way. Lena’s best friend breaks the rules, which at first cause Lena to lash out at her, but then prompts her to question why the rules are so stringent. Why does the society want to control them?

Lena is not someone who rebels for rebellion’s sake. She resists the rules that seem to go against human nature, that try to curb curiosity, love, and freedom.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Words to Keep

Perhaps, like me, you might at first resist the idea of the subtitle for Poem in Your Pocket for Young Poets: 100 Poems to Rip Out & Read, edited by Bruno Navasky. Rip the page from a book? I still grapple with whether it’s truly okay to underline favorite phrases in pencil or mark the margins. Of course, you don’t have to rip out the pages.

But that idea of owning the poem, ripping it out, sticking it in your pocket and committing it to memory—or taking it out to share it with someone else—is a valuable idea. It took me a long time to feel as if I “owned” a book, that it was truly mine, to mark up and dog-ear. It’s still easier for me to take a pencil to a set of galleys or a paperback than a hardcover. But part of the fun is revisiting where I’ve been. The notes I made in the margins of my books in college are fun to look back on now. Do the same passages move me today that moved me then?

In his acceptance speech for the Claudia Lewis Award for Poetry for Guyku: A Book of Haiku for Boys, poet Bob Raczka said that he often goes back to the words of Mary Oliver:

“Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

At the risk of sounding a refrain, allow me to repeat: that’s what poetry does best. It teaches us to live in the moment, to see things anew. I’m taken with May Swenson’s “Analysis of Baseball” (in Poem in Your Pocket) because she drills down to the game’s essence, the relationship between bat, ball, and mitt. She invites us to review our own experience of the game and see if her observations match up with ours. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, but during that time of reflection, we relive some great moments in baseball and sharpen our minds.

If you are not already a poetry lover, I’m betting that Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist Connie Schultz can convert you with this week’s piece, “The Familiarity of a Poem.” She admits, “I was in my 40s before I was willing to share my love of poetry.” Now she has a poem delivered to her inbox every Monday. If you’re already a poetry convert, you likely know about Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, which offers a new poem every day. (Today’s poem is by William Wordsworth.)

Like Schultz, I, too, bristle at the idea of relegating Black History or Women’s History or Poetry to one month out of an entire year. But if that monthly theme grabs the attention of just one person and opens his or her eyes to a fact or a person or an event or a poem that he hadn’t known about before, then I’m all for it. Then let the newly anointed come along with the converted among us, who celebrate all year long.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Nature Celebration

Poetry is about savoring the moments. Haiku celebrates moments to be savored in nature. Bob Raczka’s Guyku: A Year of Haiku for Boys, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds, captures small events worth celebrating: the discovery of a penny on the train tracks, the decision not to put worms on the fish hook but to use hot dogs instead, the realization that the temperature is warm enough so the snowman won’t hold his form—spring has arrived. Raczka and Reynolds conjure moments so specific that they become universal experiences of childhood. We can all relate to and connect with them. Raczka wrote a stirring acceptance speech when he won the Claudia Lewis Poetry Award at the Bank Street College of Education about preserving the sanctity of childhood play, outside in nature.

I love that Raczka says in the title that this is a book for boys. Love that Dog by Sharon Creech stars a boy who comes to love (and write) poetry. Often a boy’s instinctive response to poetry is “ewww.” But it doesn’t have to be that way. Raczka and Creech make a great case to boys that poetry is written for them, too. (Girls will also enjoy these, but they also tend not to be put off by poetry. By the way, Raczka assures us that he is working on a book of haiku for girls next: Herku? Galku?)

Poems are a way of rediscovering the familiar. What a cool idea—that you can be an explorer in your own backyard or the woods down the street or the pond by the school. Yes. That is the gift of poetry. The best poetry inspires you to see the world differently and to write about it, too. So here’s my advice, via one of my favorite poets, Karla Kuskin:

Write about a radish.
Too many people write about the moon.

The night is black
The stars are small and high
The clock unwinds its ever-ticking tune
Hills gleam dimly
Distant nighthawks cry.
A radish rises in the waiting sky.

(from Moon, Have You Met My Mother? by Karla Kuskin [HarperCollins])

Friday, April 1, 2011

A New Kind of Reader

Reading Press Here by Hervé Tullet approximates the experience one would have with an app. Yet, it is not an app. It’s a book. One of the genius qualities of Press Here is that even though it’s clearly making a case for the great glory of books, it never adopts an attitude. It celebrates the pure joy of page flippings, book turnings, and the ability to grab the two covers in both hands and toss it up and down. I am not one of those people who frets about the future of the book. A great story--or, in this case, a great experience with words and pictures and ideas--will always be in demand, whether it’s a book, an e-book, an enhanced book or an app.

However, I believe that we need to think about how we use books with pages and pictures, and how we use electronic devices with young people. Just the way we would television or radio or any other means of conveying content for educational or entertainment use. One of my favorite anecdotes about the new kind of reader who's emerging today involves a 22-month-old and Freight Train by Donald Crews. A dear friend of mine who runs a library system in Connecticut visited her toddler grandson at Christmastime. She bought him a board book of Freight Train, wrapped it up and put it under the tree. In the days leading up to Christmas, his mother bought the Freight Train app for him to play with on her iPad. He happily pressed the screen for the different parts of the train, and saw and heard different things happening depending upon where he pressed. When he pressed the cattle car, for instance, the cows said, “Moo.” On Christmas morning, when he tore off the wrappings for Freight Train the board book, he instantly recognized it. He went to the page with the cattle car picture, and he pressed it. Nothing happened. He pressed it again and again. Nothing. Next he started pressing and saying, “Moo! Moo!” as if providing the soundtrack himself.

Did he feel like the experience of the board book was missing something? I don’t know. But when we talk about the generation of readers who will change their reading habits because of electronic devices, in my view, this is the generation who will drive the future of reading. The children who are growing up with the option of electronics to aid their fluid experience of content, from pre-reading experiences on to decoding words (learning to recognize letters and simple words by sight) and then to reading for information and entertainment will ultimately set the new standards for reading preferences.

The more kids read, the better, as far as I’m concerned, in whichever way they prefer. My great hope is that they can still have the experience of sustained reading, of getting lost in a book—by page or by screen—for long stretches. As they get older it becomes more challenging to read without interruption by phone calls and text messages, sports practice and play rehearsals. Children can build worlds out of words or blocks or forts in the woods or create plots for their Lego characters or the dolls in their dollhouses. Those long interrupted periods of reading and playtime develop imagination and concentration, and we need to help children honor and defend those opportunities until they can do that for themselves.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


Amelia Earhart was a survivor—except when she didn’t survive. She was charming—except when she wasn’t charming. Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming reveals the person behind the legend. The author essentially states that the pilot may not have fully prepared for her what turned out to be her final flight. Amelia Earhart was willing to wreck a friendship to get a lecture tour and a marriage to get the man she loved and who could ensure her fame.

These are not easy things to know about your hero.

Yet the author takes nothing away from Amelia Earhart’s intelligence, goal-setting and accomplishments. She worked hard and earned every success. As readers we can feel Amelia’s charm and courage coming through the pages. Each chapter makes a strong case for why she became an American hero. I had a chance to interview Candace Fleming recently, and one of the things I found most touching was the reason for the author’s fascination with Earhart. “My mother, who must have been 13 in 1937 [when Earhart disappeared], would tell a story about going outside and looking up, convinced that she'd see [Amelia] fly over her little town in Indiana,” Fleming says. “She couldn't believe her Amelia was lost—not the person she had seen in the newsreels and in the papers!”

The book leaves us with haunting questions: How far would you be willing to go to pursue a dream? Would you risk all that Amelia Earhart risked? Friends, family, safety? If presented with the right opportunity, if we were offered a fully funded chance to fly around the world as the first woman pilot—the Friendship flight that started her on her way—maybe we would have risked it all, too.

Friday, March 18, 2011


One of the things I admire most about Kylie Jean is the way she goes to her friends and family for help. Together, she and her cousin and friends figure out how to cope with the mean new girl without stooping to mean-girl tactics, in Kylie Jean: Drama Queen by Marci Peschke, illus. by Tuesday Mourning. In Kylie Jean: Blueberry Queen, she asks her cousin (a different, older cousin) to help her register for the Blueberry Queen contest, then calls upon her grandparents for assistance—her photographer grandfather for a picture, and her other grandparents for sponsorship. Kylie Jean also asks a neighbor she admires to write a recommendation for her. The heroine models a strategy that can be very helpful to children of this age, who are making fledgling attempts toward independence. She asks for help from people she trusts. Clara Lee also does this in Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream when she seeks out her grandfather as her trusted advisor.

That awkward transition to doing things on their own is easier for both Kylie Jean and Clara Lee because of the roles their families play in helping them achieve their goals. Kylie Jean makes a list of tasks to complete in Blueberry Queen, and enlists her family or friends with specific skills to help with each. In the case of Clara Lee, it’s self-confidence she needs—to believe she, too, deserves to represent her town, not because her family helped to found the town (like her rival’s family did), but because she sees herself as an integral part of its community. And then she must summon the courage to give a speech. But once she overcomes the first crisis of confidence, the second feels easy.

It’s sometimes hard to find strong books for this age group because so few drill down to these essential issues of blossoming independence. But Kylie Jean, Clara Lee, Dessert Schneider from Dessert First, Clementine, and Ivy and Bean can be strong guides through rough waters.