Friday, December 21, 2012

Comfort Books

In times of grief and sorrow, we turn to comfort food. Chicken soup, hot chocolate, chamomile tea, ice cream. But how do we feed our souls? With comfort books.

Now is the time to pull out your family's favorite books: Charlotte's Web, The Little Prince, Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows. Their association with happier days comforts us during this time of distress. These are books the entire family--including teenagers--can gather together to read and reread.

Remember that your children's responses will vary, depending on their age and how much they are able to process of the events in Newtown last Friday. The school psychologist at the Bank Street School for Children, Dr. Anne Santa, encourages parents and teachers to reassure children that home and school are two of the safest places they can be. Hold your youngest on your lap and sit close together on the couch: make new memories with good books. 

A few recent favorites include Masterpiece by Elise Broach, which features a friendship that approaches Wilbur and Charlotte's. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and Starry River of the Sky, both by Grace Lin, weave together a quest tale with Chinese folklore, lushly illustrated. Callie's close friendship with a grandfather no one else seems to understand lies at the core of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly; the author also wrote Return to the Willows, a "sequel" to The Wind in the Willows.

Don't be surprised if your child asks for The Tale of Despereaux and Bridge to Terabithia--two novels that help combat fear and process loss from a safe distance. A mouse who bravely entered the dungeon and emerged triumphant, and a boy who honors his friend who has died give us hope. Let your children choose what they wish to read, and then be there to listen, to answer their questions and to hold them close.

This article first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Friday, December 14, 2012

One Stitch at a Time

Gennifer Albin

Gennifer Albin wrote Crewel on a dare from her mother-in-law.

Okay, not a dare maybe, but rather a gentle urging on a regular basis. When Gennifer Albin's daughter was eight weeks old, her mother-in-law called. She said, "I was thinking, you always talk about writing books, and I'm going to ask you every time I see you how your book is coming." Albin met her "ridiculously supportive" husband in high school, so she's known her mother-in-law a very long time. "She knew I'd take it as a challenge," Albin told me in an interview. So Albin went to the library every day and in 70-minute intervals (that’s how long she was allowed to use the computer before getting booted off for other patrons), she wrote Crewel.

Embroidering the Earth's Mantle
The inspiration for her story is an image from an alterpiece, Embroidering the Earth's Mantle by Remedios Varo, in which women embroider in a tower removed from the rest of society. This idea that the fabric of a world, the elements of a tapestry, the phases of a story may be stitched together, one strand at a time, 70 minutes per session, is a powerful one to take into the New Year. 

Albin also used the tools of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, which is November). But don't wait until November to start! Use the tools today. 

Friday, December 7, 2012

Anthem to Uniqueness

Michael Hearst 
By his own admission, Michael Hearst, author of Unusual Creatures, is attracted to the uncommon. He collects unique instruments and plays them. He collects unusual creatures and composes for them. No words, just melodies. (And by "collects," I mean collects and researches information about them, not that he collects the actual animals; though Hearst does collect the actual musical instruments.) 

The format of his book invites kids to dip in and out or read straight through. When I got a chance to interview him, he said the design was inspired by Safari Cards, which he collected as a kid. All of his interests inform his book.

Hearst said that hearing Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saens was one of the reasons he went to music school. "That gave me the idea of writing pieces of music inspired by the animals, and even by their sounds," he said. He heard Carnival performed by the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, with poems by Ogden Nash to go with the songs. When he performs the 14 songs from the CD Songs for Unusual Creatures* (which preceded the book), he also reads the poems he wrote, inspired by the animals.

If you listen to "Blobfish," for instance, you can hear its blobbiness in the music. He used two unusual instruments for the song: the contrabasson, which he said is a very deep oboe--"the lowest you can get, from the reed family"--and the tubbax. He explained, "I wanted it to sound like two blobfish talking to each other." Michael Hearst is also passionate about saving these creatures, many of whom are endangered (but he saves his gentle proselytizing for the endnotes). A Renaissance man, Hearst smoothly integrates art and science through his music, his writing and his research. 

*Note: All 14 creatures featured on the CD are also included in the book; although the CD is not included with the book, you can hear a preview (and order it) on the author's Web site.

Photo credit: Chris Smith Photography

Friday, November 30, 2012

Unconditional Love

When it comes to unconditional love, there is no better teacher than a pet--both for giving and for receiving love. In Charley's First Night, when Charley the pup wants Henry the boy to take him home, a lifelong lesson begins.

"This is home, Charley," the boy tells his new pup after a tour. Helen Oxenbury's image of Henry staring into his pup's face, and Charley's vulnerable four-legged body language make clear that each is the only one for the other. In a pitch-perfect scene that blends humor and poignancy, Henry prepares Charley's bed for the night. His parents have been "pretty clear" that Charley must sleep in the kitchen. So Henry places a big comfy pillow under the table, along with his Teddy bear Bobo next to Charley--stuffed bear and dog's bellies bared irresistibly--and a clock between them: "tick-tock-tick-tock--like another little heartbeat in the night."

Even youngest readers will predict that neither boy nor dog can make it through the night alone. "The crying started in the middle of the night and you knew right away it was Charley," Henry says. His feet do not even touch the ground as he runs to his dog, just the way a parent would with a crying newborn. Youngsters will feel that palpable pull. 

Henry breaks the "pretty clear" rule, but who can deny his sense of responsibility? His indisputable, irrefutable love for this dog?  A closing image shows the reflection of an understanding mom in the mirror on Henry's bureau.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Modeling Friendship

Is it possible to model friendship for toddlers, to show examples of how to be a good friend? Jane Cowen-Fletcher's Baby Be Kind suggests the answer is, "Yes." 

Through a series of interconnected scenes between two toddlers, the author-artist depicts a strong friendship (and also how to treat one's pup well). The concept of sharing can be hard for littlest ones. They've just gained a sense of what it's like to have and to hold a toy, a Teddy bear, a graham cracker, and now they're being asked to let someone else play with their toys and share their snack.

The concept is a hard one to teach: You share your toy and then you get another turn. But they only know the here and now. The concept of "soon" is alien. But in these 18 pages, this terrific board book models what it's like to share, to take turns and other ways to be a good friend: how to help a friend up when he falls, to thank her, how to "say you're sorry when you are." 

At a time when toddlers are learning so much, here's a book of gentle humor and life lessons that could well serve them throughout their lives. 

Friday, November 16, 2012


How well do we really know another person? And in adolescence, when everybody is changing--from their physical looks to their aspirations of belonging--it can seem as if the ground is shifting beneath teens who are navigating home life, school life and the world at large. Colin Fischer by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz captures this feeling of "outsiderdom" and "'turns [it] up to 11,' to use a Spinal Tap phrase," as Zack Stentz put it when I got to interview the co-authors recently.

Zack Stentz (l.) and Ashley Edward Miller
Through notebook entries and footnotes we get to know the inner workings of Colin Fischer's mind. He looks at the world a bit differently, as a brilliant kid who also has Asperger's. We walk with him through his days. His need to decode his world, to get to the truth of his experience and the events around him, border on obsessive. So much so that when the kid who has bullied Colin all his life and is wrongly accused of bringing a gun to school, Colin cannot rest until he finds the true culprit.

In this way, the authors tap into the universal adolescent experience, with humor and insight. Either we fearlessly go in search of the truth or try to run from it, which can often lead to drug or alcohol use and other delinquent behavior. Colin would rather team up with wrongly-accused Wayne to discover the real villain than to let Wayne take the rap for something he did not do. Colin is fascinating to watch, and thanks to the authors, we get an intimate view of his internal logic and the way he unravels the mystery of not only the true gun owner but also the mystery of his life.

Kids can't help but gain appreciation for Colin and, through Colin, for other outsider kids whom they may have misjudged or overlooked. It's an invitation to understand someone else, who may seem to be unlike you on the surface, but whose passions and pursuits are just as (or perhaps more so, in Colin's case) involving and inspiring.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Emotional Honesty

Liu and Martinez with their daughter
Wife-and-husband team Na Liu and Andrés Vera Martínez reveal remarkable emotional honesty in Little White Duck. Because young Na, called Da Qin (or "Big Piano") by her family, is so young and unguarded, her expressions are raw.

When Chairman Mao dies, she cries in response to her parents' sorrow rather than because of any attachment she herself felt to China's famous leader. Yet through Martinez's illustrations, readers who know nothing of Mao's impact on China can see what an influence Mao had by the banners, the murals, and Da Qin's recounting of how Mao's policies helped her working-class mother get the surgeries she needed to recover from paralysis caused by polio.

Da Qin's youth ensures that there's no political slant here. We see through her eyes the poverty in her grandmother's rural town; we hear from her mother about times when there was literally nothing to eat. It's a portrayal of a people ravaged by poverty, even though Da Qin's family makes enough to feed and house them comfortably. We also see how content Da Qin is in her family life, how close she is to her parents and her sister. She thinks it's perfectly normal to brush your teeth with an outdoor spigot.

Da Qin's mother tells the girls how difficult life can be for many people, but Da Qin sees this for herself when she goes with her father to visit his mother in a rural area. The children have never felt anything as soft as the little white velvet duck sewn onto Da Qin's coat. She wants to be generous even as she sees that they are soiling her white patch.

A mural of Chairman Mao in Little White Duck

It's an instinctive act of kindness. Of her childhood home, Na Liu explained in an interview with me that she was part of a “transitional generation—a generation caught in between one way of life and another, between the old and the new.”

Friday, November 2, 2012

Infinite Doodles

Barney with his dog Arlo
Barney Saltzberg has a wonderful message for children of all ages as his through line: There are no mistakes, and there are no limits to the imagination. Andrew, the hero of his latest book, Andrew Drew and Drew, might say that there are infinite doodles.

Andrew knows there will be times when he's not inspired, and the key is to doodle through them. Suddenly something new emerges from his pencil onto the page. To the child who says, "I can't draw" or "I don't know what to draw," Barney Saltzberg says, "Of course you can draw," and "Just begin." In Beautiful Oops! Saltzberg demonstrates how a spill or a rip can become part of the composition. In Andrew Drew and Drew, the half-pages that unfold mimic the artist's sense of discovery as he follows the doodling pencil to its destination--as an alligator, a rabbit or a fantastical night creature.

All that's needed is a paper and a pencil. No fancy dancy supplies required. The main thing is to have fun, and not to sweat it if your pencil needs a rest. The doodles will return, Andrew's example shows us, more plentiful for their dormant period. Barney Saltzberg believes, and also instills in us the faith that there's a limitless supply of doodles.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Shoring Up Confidence

The mice in Boo to You! by Lois Ehlert build their confidence for fending off a threatening black cat by constructing a creature out of the harvest vegetables and other items at hand. They take action. They don't sit idly by, quaking in fear of the feline lying in wait.

Lois Ehlert shows us exactly how they do it. With gourds, seeds, cranberries and strawflowers, she models how children can create their own camouflage with found objects from their yards, nearby parks or kitchens. Even the enemy cat's outline looks like black fabric cut with pinking shears. He's not scary so much as prickly and goosepimply. We believe that the villain would be scared off by the cleverly inventive creature the mice have assembled.

As we head into the Halloween festivities, this board book is an ideal selection to focus on the creativity of fashioning a costume and also to show toddlers that no matter how small they are, they need not be frightened.

Friday, October 19, 2012

A Fable's Finale

When I got to talk to Lois Lowry recently about her book Son, the conclusion to the Giver Quartet, we discussed the fact that we both had read 1984 and Brave New World in college, and we both believed that The Giver was the first novel for young people set in a dystopia. "I think I created a monster," she said. "I hope some new fad will emerge."

What sets Lowry's Giver Quartet apart is the books' lack of violence in a current crop of dystopic literature mired in graphic images of death and destruction. The world of The Giver was already ravaged by war. The dystopia we discover there is a reaction to war and a preventative measure against what the Elders perceived to be the causes of war. Colors. Music. Love. Emotion of any kind. We enter a world devoid of passion. The violence has been done, but its vestiges remain. This gives the book a fable-like quality we don't see in the bumper crop of dystopian fiction.

Lowry retains that fable-like quality for all four books. The stories of Jonas, Kira, Matty and Gabe are not tied to any particular city or technology. Each community Lowry explores has its own rules and rituals. The young people coming of age question the construct of their society; they begin to wonder if there is another way, begin to chip at the foundation of the Elders' ideas to discover something else truer beneath. They must uncover the morals of their own stories.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Facing Challenges

In his autobiography for children, Chuck Close: Face Book, Chuck Close does two things extremely well. First, he allows readers to take a deeper look at his paintings—thanks to the ingenious flip book at its center, which allows us to look at overlays of dozens of his self-portraits. Second, he also invites us inside his way of thinking and seeing, so we come to understand how Close looks out at the world. It’s a philosophical book, presented in a Q&A format that children can easily pick up and put down, think about and return to again and again.

Recently I got to attend the Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium (at Simmons College in Boston), where the theme was “Look Out!” – these two threads to Chuck Close’s book (winner of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award in the Nonfiction category) felt even more pronounced as we viewed footage from interviews of Close conducted by 12 fifth-graders from P.S. 8 in Brooklyn. He answers the questions that children wonder about and underscores the idea that we never stop being curious, we never stop looking out and wondering about the things for which we have a passion.

In his book, Chuck Close explains that even as a child, he was aware of how others saw him. His family did not have much money. He struggled in school. There was no term for dyslexia yet, but he had trouble learning to read and solving math problems. He could not recognize faces (a phenomenon called prosopagnosia, or face blindness). His love of drawing and artwork, which his parents encouraged, helped him demonstrate to his teachers that he cared about what he was learning. He made a 10-foot-long illustrated map of Lewis and Clark's expedition for history class; he found memorizing dates and names challenging, and the map proved he was paying attention.

His book shows how his approach to learning led directly to the portraiture for which he is now famous. His artwork helped him recognize the people he loved. “If I can flatten someone's face, I have a much better sense of what he or she looks like," he explains. He takes dozens of photographs and places the face of his subject on a grid of tiny squares. Each square is a tiny painting which, combined with the others, adds up to the representation of a unique human face. A means of coping with his world became an expression of creativity. Chuck Close figured out a way to navigate his world, and in his book, he shares those strategies with his readers. Ultimately, it’s about breaking down the large tasks into manageable steps. His life models the idea that if Chuck Close can overcome all the challenges he faced, then what’s stopping you?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Thought #156

Bear Has a Story to Tell by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin E. Stead, is a story of patience. It is also a story of paying it forward. And it is a story of creativity and friendship. All of this is true of the picture book itself. But it is also true of the creative process behind the picture book. Here’s why.

“The more I tried to write, the less I wrote,” Julie Fogliano confessed during her acceptance speech at the 2012 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards last Friday night, September 28, 2012. It was the kickoff to a two-day celebration of speeches and a colloquium, held at Simmons College in Boston. Fogliano and Erin E. Stead received an honor citation in the Picture Book category for their book And Then It’s Spring.
From And Then It's Spring

Fogliano had been trying to write since 1988. The breakthrough came with a request from her friend George O’Connor, fellow bookseller alum from New York City’s Books of Wonder, and an accomplished writer and artist in his own right (The Olympians series). O’Connor asked Fogliano if, for his birthday, she would email him one thought per day. Most thoughts had to do with legos on the kitchen floor and pancakes for breakfast, according to Fogliano. But Thought #156, she says, “about waiting and the color brown,” was different. She liked it enough to also send it to her friend Erin Stead, another Books of Wonder alum.

Erin Stead, whose husband, Philip Stead, had secretly shown one of Erin’s drawings to his editor, Neal Porter (which resulted in their first collaboration, A Sick Day for Amos McGee), now paid the favor forward. Erin sent Thought #156 to Porter and said she would like to illustrate it. And the seeds of And Then It’s Spring (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook/Macmillan), illustrated by Erin E. Stead, were planted.

But what does that have to do with Bear Has a Story to Tell, you might ask. I shall tell you. Philip and Erin share a studio. “Philip did much of the designing” of And Then It’s Spring, Erin Stead says. When Philip saw this drawing of the bears for Fogliano’s book (above), he scurried off to write Erin a bear book. Bear Has a Story to Tell.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Interactive Reading

Apple Print from
When we read with toddlers, it’s always an interactive experience. Trucks by Debbie Powell offers all sorts of possibilities for playful reading activities.

With its onomatopoeic sounds (“Brrm Brrm… Puff Puff… Crash Bang”), the text invites children to join in to make the juicy noises of the large vehicles as you read it aloud together. Take the book along as a guide on a visit to a construction site to see the trucks in person, and your child can identify each one by the sounds it makes.

And for a fun art project, your child can make apple prints that emulate the look of Debbie Powell’s artwork, which has the appearance of woodblock prints. Just cut an apple in half, set it in nontoxic paint, and press the apple half on paper or fabric to make a fun design. Lemon halves also work well.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Accumulating Wisdom

David Levithan
The narrator of Every Day by David Levithan, neither male nor female, simply called “A,” has literally lived the idea of “walking two moons in someone else’s moccasins.” Well, maybe not two moons, but 24 hours. And in those 24-hour snippets of someone else’s life—5,994 of them, by the time we meet A—the narrator has accumulated a great deal of knowledge about what makes us human.

A is also in the unique position of altering the host’s life. A essentially tries to live the Hippocratic Oath, “First do no harm.” A tries, for that day, to live the host’s life as the host himself or herself would. A keeps an e-mail account that serves as a journal, and seems to have acceptance around this experience of 24-hour immersions in someone else’s life—until Rhiannon comes along. For the first time, A wants to make the effort—and it requires a great deal of effort, since A changes bodies every midnight—to form a lasting relationship with someone.

A’s musings range from wondering about the nature of dreams—as when A dreams of Rhiannon: “I wonder: If I started dreaming when I was in Justin’s body, did he continue the dream?”—to thoughts of what would happen if A’s host died while A occupied it (would A have died, too?). But the narrator also thinks about what the experiences of thousands of days have taught A about the human condition.

On day 6000, when A goes to church as Roger Wilson, A shares a powerful insight that begins with religion but extends to the experience of what it means to be mortal: “Religions have much, much more in common than they like to admit…. Everybody wants to belong to something bigger than themselves, and everybody wants company in doing that…. They want to touch the enormity….” A suggests that no matter what religion or gender or race or geographic background, “we all have about 98 percent in common with each other” and we humans like to focus on “the 2 percent that’s different, and most of the conflict in the world comes from that.” For A, “The only way I can navigate through my life is because of the 98 percent that every life has in common.”

A makes us, as readers, the beneficiaries of the wisdom A has accumulated, day by day. We get to walk in other people’s moccasins together. We come away from Levithan's extraordinary novel asking ourselves what makes life meaningful, and how to be more active participants in our own lives. A reminds us that love "isn't the question... but it's not the answer either.... Love can't conquer anything. It can't do anything on its own. It relies on us to do the conquering on its behalf."

Friday, September 14, 2012


Charles Dickens
Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz felt like such a departure for the Newbery Medalist. When I got to interview her recently, I asked her how she arrived at this Gothic tale of puppetry, magic, mystery and obsession.

“Whenever I finish a book, I’m sure I’ll never write another,” Schlitz said. “So, I thought, ‘I should write from my obsessions. What do I love?’ The answer was Charles Dickens, and marionettes.” The author followed her obsessions, and she also created characters with obsessions of their own. Cassandra the witch can’t live with her fire opal, and can’t seem to live without it. Magician and puppeteer Grisini’s relationship with money and magic is much the same.

Schlitz’s obsession with Dickens comes through in more overt ways—the orphans Lizzie Rose and Parsefall (under Grisini’s guardianship), the London setting and the establishment of several characters’ plot lines that lead to a climactic intersection. But there are also more subtle connections to the Victorian writer. Schlitz visited Dickens’s house. She could picture him in his red waistcoat dashing up and down the stairs. “It’s an old staircase, so they have a decline in the middle of the tread,” she recalled. “People thought him vulgar because he wore a red waistcoat.”

Stairs factor into Splendors and Glooms when Grisini falls down the staircase of his boarding house, when Clara Wintermute’s father ascends the stairs of Grisini’s boarding house in search of his kidnapped daughter and meets Lizzie Rose, and the stairs in Cassandra’s house also play a key role for conversations overheard and narrow escapes. The scenes on the stairs often serve as transitions in the novel, resulting in a change of heart or luck (both good and bad, depending on which character you are) or a moment of insight.

The sense of obsession permeates the novel: Cassandra at her mirror, surrounded by images of former owners of the fire opal engulfed in flames, Mrs. Wintermute so consumed by grief at her other children’s death from cholera that she neglects Clara, and Grisini’s obsession with power gained through magic and money. And of course, the puppets. Cassandra, a puppet to her fire opal, Clara a puppet to her parents in a home filled with death masks and devoid of laughter, and Parsefall’s obsession with the marionettes, practicing and practicing in his desire to be as facile with the puppets as Grisini is.

Most importantly, Laura Amy Schlitz’s obsessions led to this compulsively readable novel. Which only goes to prove that following one’s obsession, or--perhaps more accurately--passion can lead to positive ends.

Friday, September 7, 2012


Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen, is a story about abundance. It’s about one person, Annabelle, a child living in a dreary city, who tries to cheer up a jeering peer by making him a sweater. That leads to another sweater and another sweater, all rainbow-colored, each brightening the gray, wintry city and lightening the mood of her neighbors.

It is a story of believing that one bright sweater given to someone else brings warmth, cheer and connection. In Jon Klassen’s illustrations, yarn connects one sweater wearer to the next—to people and dogs and even trees, whose trunks are now hugged by the heroine’s knitted yarn. Annabelle, in essence, knits together her community. An archduke tries to buy Annabelle’s limitless spool of yarn, but she won’t sell it. So he steals it. But her yarn comes back to her.

Marianne Challis
Last week, my voice teacher, Marianne Challis, died. It was sudden. She was 58. I worked with her for more than a decade. A truly great teacher, she taught us so much more than how to sing; she taught her students how to live, by her example. She was a gifted singer and performer, and she wanted that for her students, too. She believed in abundance. She shared not only her knowledge of the voice and the body and how they worked together to create sound, she also shared her wisdom around her life experiences. At her service, her dear friend and director, Scott Barnes, said something that we could take with us: “Right now, we are raw and in shock, but as the days go by, we’ll remember the joy she brought us.”

Extra Yarn came to mind. It’s about creating and giving something to someone else with no expectation of a reward, and how the world gets a little brighter because of it. It’s about taking an action when it seems like no action will make a difference. It’s about believing that we won’t run out of yarn if we make one more sweater. As we go into fall and the days grow a little shorter and a little colder, we can warm our world with that belief in abundance and a small act of kindness.

Friday, August 31, 2012


Sandra Boynton did what seems to be the impossible: She moved fluidly from greeting cards to board books for youngest children. The Going to Bed Book turns 30 this month, and it’s just as fresh and pleasingly surprising to toddlers today as it was when she first published it in 1982. Another of my favorites of hers, Moo, Baa, La La La! is like a song. Children come in on the title refrain and lose themselves to the music of the animal (and human) sounds.

This week I’ve been rereading Awakened by the Moon, Leonard Marcus’s biography of Margaret Wise Brown, well known for her book Goodnight Moon, illustrated by Clement Hurd. But she is perhaps little known for her innovative work with Lucy Sprague Mitchell at Bank Street, the progressive school that came to be known by its street address, at that time, in Greenwich Village. (The Bank Street College of Education is now located uptown on West 112th Street in New York City.) Together they founded the Writers' Lab where Mitchell, Brown and other writers began to share their observations of youngest children. They watched how youngsters began to play with and acquire language, more attracted to sound and rhythm than to actual words, which didn’t yet hold meaning for many of them.

We take their trailblazing efforts for granted now. Goodnight Moon is a nursery necessity. But at that time, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Mitchell and Brown, along with Edith “Posey” Thacher, Esphyr Slobodkina (Caps for Sale) and Ruth Krauss (A Hole Is to Dig, Maurice Sendak’s first picture book), were all influenced by the research they did with the nursery school students at Bank Street and the observations they shared in the Writers' Lab there. According to Marcus, it was Brown who realized that small children “did not place books in a special category of culturally exalted objects,” and therefore needed a more rugged format. William Scott, a parent at Bank Street who published many of the projects that resulted from its Writers' Lab, began printing books on durable cardboard stock “strong enough to withstand the onslaught of toddlers’ bites and tugs,” Marcus reports.

Because Boynton illustrates her own work, she smoothly moves between making a statement, such as “they hang their towels on the wall and find pajamas, big and small,” and creating images of a tall elephant hanging his towel high, and a lion placing his on a low hook, while dog busts out of bunny’s too-tight nightclothes and bunny gets lost in dog’s, to make the contrast and the joke. Margaret Wise Brown observed this is one of the contrasts toddlers enjoyed most—the playful juxtaposition of large and little, in a world where toddlers may be small in stature but stand at the center of their universe. Boynton gets all that and makes it look effortless, as the best authors of board books do. Her books are, in content and form, built to last.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Beth Kephart
Regeneration can mean the process of renewal, rebirth. In biology it can also mean the regrowth of lost parts. Often, it has a moral or spiritual connotation. Small Damages by Beth Kephart takes place in Spain, where 18-year-old Kenzie lives amongst the survivors of the Spanish Civil War. The “lost generation.” Kenzie is pregnant, about to give birth to a new generation. She literally embodies all of these permutations of the word “regeneration.”

Estela, the cook whom Kenzie is assisting, was roughly the same age as Kenzie when the war took hold in Spain and her family lost everything. Worse, Estela lost both her parents. But we don’t learn the extent of her loss right away.

Kenzie has lost her father. The parent to whom she was closest. The one from whom she inherited her creativity. Her father was a photographer; Kenzie is a filmmaker. Through Kenzie’s first-person narrative we learn how observant she is, how closely she inspects her world. Kenzie has lost her compatriot, her father, her confidant. Lonely and alone in the wake of her father’s death, she responded to the kindnesses of her dear friend Kevin, and their intimacy grew into a physical one. Now she charts the life growing inside her by the milestones outlined in her eighth grade health class: a necklace of bones, the presence of fingernails.

When Kenzie’s father died, the pain of his loss was almost physical to her. The pain was so acute because of the joy he brought to Kenzie while he lived. She cannot take any more loss. When she learns of her pregnancy, Kenzie wants her child to live, even if it means going to Spain and giving up her child to friends of her mother’s. Kenzie wants to give her child a chance. 

Beth Kephart exposes what it means for Kenzie to live through this process of regeneration--incubating this life within her--but also what her presence does to bring about Estela’s regeneration. In one scene, after months of building a trust between them, Estela takes Kenzie out to a field. They knock away dust “soft as a baby’s head” from a grindstone. Estela explains it’s where they once crushed the olives for their olive oil. Now they ship the olives away, and the oil comes back in bottles. “Something’s missing,” Estela says. Kenzie connects Estela’s grindstone with her father’s headstone, newly laid, her wound still fresh. Something is missing for her, too.

For both Estela and Kenzie, the life they once knew has vanished. But together, through their friendship and shared pain across a generation, they’ve made something new.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Around the Campfire

A great audiobook makes a car ride go from “Are we there yet?” to “I hope we drive long enough to finish this.” If you have a long drive planned before Labor Day, you will want On the Day I Died by Candace Fleming, read by a full cast, with you to make the hours sail by.

The 10 stories, threaded together by the main character, Mike Kowalski, a high school junior who’s drawn to a cemetery by a mysterious passenger he picks up late one night, will keep the whole family enthralled. The voices create the feeling of sitting around the campfire telling ghost stories (which, actually, they are—though without the campfire).

The mix of boy and girl narrators will hold the attention of both brothers and sisters, and the stories roots in folklore and history make them interesting for Mom and Dad, aunts, uncles and grandparents, too. There’s plenty of humor mixed in with the haunting, too. It’s a nice change from everyone watching his or her individual DVDs, to have a common listening and literature experience.

Listening is an underrated skill. We’re all accustomed to so many distractions—iTunes, cell phone rings, text messages—that it’s nice to sit back and let the words of a spellbinding story wash over you. If you like that one, try Jack Gantos reading his Newbery-winning Dead End in Norvelt. That’s another great one for the entire family, set in the actual town of Norvelt, Penn., created as a model community during the Roosevelt years (and named for Eleanor Roosevelt – Nor-velt) when the coal mines closed during the Great Depression. Young Jack’s caught between a mother who loves the it-takes-a-village motto of the town, and a father who sees it as a dead end.

And of course, perhaps the greatest listening experience in recent history is the Harry Potter audiobooks, read by Jim Dale. You can start at the beginning and go through all seven titles and have enough for a cross-country road trip. So here’s to traveling in style over the miles.

Friday, August 10, 2012

No Gimmicks

Every flap, pull tab or yellow cube that pops up serves a purpose in explaining the pair of opposites on each spread of The Happy Little Yellow Box: A Pop-Up Book of Opposites by David A. Carter. It is a model of simplicity.

“Near and far” stands out in particular, illustrating how the same size object farther down the road appears to be smaller. It’s an abstract concept, but Carter makes it understandable through his use of objects—homes, where the Happy Little Yellow Box appears in the windows—with which children are familiar. They can look up the street at the windows of their neighbors’ houses and test the concept for themselves.

Carter explores the capabilities of the pages— with sturdy cardboard, a limited palette, and double-sided pages with room for die-cuts and shifting panels both inside (such as the “near and far” example) and attached to them (as with the elevator that moves “up and down” with a red ribbon loop). He confines the colors he uses to yellow (most frequently, of course), red and blue—the primary colors—plus black and white.

It’s a book that may be used far beyond the teaching of opposites. In art classes, it’s instructive for teaching the use of color, composition and sculpture. For bookmaking projects, it’s an example of how one can use the page, the shifting parts, flaps that reveal the concept Carter’s teaching (“in and out”; “large and small”). The pages are made for investigation, for peering through the openings, for observing how the helicopter lifts off (“high and low”), for collapsing the final yellow cube and opening that spread over and over to see how Carter constructed the cube to lie flat when the page is closed and take form when the spread is open.

Teachers often speak of “mentor texts,” books that model clear exposition or surprising use of language. The Happy Little Yellow Box is a model of invention—what can be done within the construct of a book to break it wide open, to investigate the possibilities of the page. Children will do this intuitively, asking themselves, “How does he do that?” and likely finding an answer as they solve the mystery for themselves. There are no gimmicks. If they look hard enough, they’ll see just how Carter does it—and he does it with such simplicity that they may well have a go themselves.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Rollicking Refrains

Children glom onto the refrain of Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed because it states the obvious—“The doctor said, ‘No more monkeys jumping on the bed!’”—yet the monkeys do it anyway. Eileen Christelow’s approach is lighthearted despite the pretty bad head bumps that occur.

The monkeys see the injuries of their siblings and still take a chance—against the doctor’s orders. The mother also seems to have trouble learning the lesson because she keeps calling the doctor even though she consistently receives the same response. At this stage, toddlers appreciate the repetition; they have time to digest and feel in on the joke. The doctor is the only one who seems to get increasingly frustrated. In Eileen Christelow’s illustrations, he looks patient enough during the mother’s first few calls, but by call numbers four and five, he’s clearly reached his limit. His advice, as repeated by the mother, appears in all capital letters the fifth time.

The design of the book makes it easy for children who are just starting to identify letters and sight words. The key refrain always appears in the same way: Mama holds her injured child on the left, the doctor appears on the right for the phone call, shown as two large vignettes, then the mother sharing the doctor’s advice with her children appears on the next page. Children also learn to count down from five to one through the course of the book and through repeated readings. This is a terrific addition to the backseat library—a great one to have on hand so everyone can join in the recitation and laughter.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Burden of Power

Kristin Cashore
If Graceling was about owning one’s own power, and Fire was about deciding when the use of power is appropriate and when it is not, then Bitterblue is about exploring what it’s like to have power over the fates of others. In this election year, Kristin Cashore (author of all three books in the Graceling series) raises searching questions about leadership—how much autonomy to grant others and when to determine certain decisions on their behalf.

In the case of 18-year-old Queen Bitterblue, her father, King Leck, twisted the truth. He wiped out the memories and experiences of his citizenry after inflicting unspeakable crimes against them as individuals and as a citizenry. Bitterblue feels compelled to confront those truths herself but then must decide how much of that information to release and to whom. Would it be healing or do greater damage to make public some of these facts? And how can she remedy the hurt her father caused to so many of his subjects? It’s a daunting task, and she has few people she can trust, surrounded as she is by her father’s men, who must come to terms with their own guilt, sorrow and grief.

Her only reliable means of gathering the truth is to disguise herself as a male and take to the streets. But that comes with its own perils. As the daughter of a king that wronged a nation, she has few friends and many enemies, but she feels it’s worth the risk to get to the truth. One of the great injustices she discovers is that her father made it a crime to teach others to read. As someone who thrives on education and loves to learn, Bitterblue finds this one of the greatest travesties of her father’s reign.  As she strives to bring about justice, Bitterblue also finds laughter and love, enjoys the friendships of Katsa and Po (from Graceling), and discovers friendly neighbors and possible allies.

Kristin Cashore once again explores the questions at the center of the human experience: the pursuit of truth and justice, and the need for a society that allows people to thrive as individuals.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Cover-Up

When you’re a kid, there comes that time when you’ve covered up something that you thought could have dire consequences, only to discover that it would have saved so much time and energy if you’d just told the truth. Nearly 12-year-old Stella makes this discovery the hard way (is there any other way?) in Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker.

By the end of chapter two, Stella’s great-aunt Louise has died. Stella comes home from school to find Louise dead in front of the television set. Stella and Angel, the other girl Louise has taken in, decide they’d better hide the fact or risk becoming wards of the state. Their plan to dig a hole in the backyard for Louise’s body, and to say that the woman broke her ankle works even better and for longer than they want it to. Much of the book’s humor stems from their nearly 12-year-old thinking and how they pull off assuming Louise’s duties managing the summer rental cottages next door. Self-reliance and resourcefulness are their greatest assets and also their Achilles’ heel.

Both girls have had to grow up more quickly than most their age—Stella because of her mother’s frequent disappearances, and Angel because her parents both passed away. So their matter-of-fact handling of Louise’s death comes across credibly, and the comic moments increase as they get more deeply invested in their cover-up. They also come to appreciate each other’s strengths: Angel’s a better liar (which helps them carry off their masquerade), and Stella is a better cleaner (which helps convince owner George Nickerson that Louise is still following through on her duties).

All the while, Sara Pennypacker envelops us in the warmth of the Cape Cod sun, the smell of the sea, and the rhythms of the renters coming and going. The humor and authentic dialogue contribute to a great read-aloud experience, but Pennypacker also gently raises questions of when is it okay to tackle things on your own, and when is it time to ask for help? Is it ever okay to lie? What is a true friend? Pennypacker never makes the children seem at risk—what the children fear could happen is far worse than what does happen. At the same time, the author creates living, breathing girls whom we care about and whose fates matter to us. Each lives with sadness, but the girls don’t dwell on that. They forge ahead, often with humor and a determination to solve whatever challenge lies ahead.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Transcendent Storytelling

William Joyce
When I first heard the term “transmedia storytelling” at Digital Book World last year, I thought, “what?” It scared me. Writers were talking about stories that began as games and grew into films and books. I worried that books would be sidelined. Since then, I’ve come to believe that there are many ways to experience story, and a great story transcends its medium. William Joyce’s Morris Lessmore is the ideal character to travel through these porous boundaries.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce won an Academy Award, but it began as a book. It makes perfect sense that a book about a lifelong love affair with books would begin as a book. And Morris Lessmore is based on a real man, William Morris, a lover of books if ever there was one. (Bill Morris hired me right out of college, so I got to witness this firsthand.)

But Bill Joyce told me in an interview that after he’d written the book, and before he’d completed the artwork, his retina detached, and he couldn’t see well enough to finish painting the book. At around that same time, he founded Moonbot studios, and they decided to make a short film based on Morris’s story.

Miniatures from the Movie
So Morris Lessmore’s story is a book and a film and an app. Each medium has its strengths and offers a different experience of the story. In the film, one of my favorite scenes occurs after Humpty Dumpty plays the piano, and Morris does a Gene Kelly–style dance with the many-hued books. In the app, a deep-voiced narrator reads the book beneath the animated pages, and you get to play the piano with Humpty by pressing keys that correspond to the notes. (There’s also a separate $.99 Imag-n-o-tron! app that “augments” the book. A video shows you how to lay your iPad or phone over the book to animate the pages; books fly, Morris dives into a book. It takes a bit of practice, but if you hold the device very still, the pages spring to life. My favorite is the feeling of “entering” the library. The walls seem to extend to the sky.)

But in the book, there’s a beautiful scene in which the books that Morris has cared for surround him, when he's "stooped and crinkly," and read themselves to him. It’s a scene that only appears in the book, and of all the means of experiencing his story, it’s the scene that most moves me.

Thanks to Bill Joyce, I am awakened to the possibilities of transmedia storytelling. Perhaps it should be called “transcendent storytelling.” A story that transcends its medium allows us as readers to transcend the here and now and to experience the story from a number of entry points. However we meet Morris and in whatever way we accompany him on his journey to his calling and his passion for books, each experience of his story deepens our connection to Morris Lessmore and his Fantastic Flying Books.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Water Babies

When summer hits, most of us hit the beach. Boat Works by Tom Slaughter makes an ideal guide to harbor-gazing.

Bold, predominantly primary colors and geometric shapes dominate the pages. Triangles for sails, circles for portholes and life preservers, rectangular docks and cars being ferried offer youngest children plenty to point to and name.

A mystery literally unfolds to the solution. The author-artist reveals one detail at a time as the accordion page extends to complete the giant square image. In this way, he directs our attention to the little things that make each boat unique—the sail on a sailboat, the oars of a rowboat. As children revisit the book, they’ll be able to name the anchor, the rope that ties the tugboat to the ocean liner, and also to understand the tugboat’s job—to pull the larger boats (heartening for any small person who wants to stand up and be counted among the bigger people).

The design of the book makes for an ideal guessing game. Each turn of the page exposes a little more information about the boat in question and also completes a little more of the picture. With repeated readings, children will feel smarter as they guess the right answer sooner. And even if you’re not headed to the beach, Boat Works makes a great pre- or post-bathtime read, to complement your child’s experience sailing his or her own boats through the bubbles in the tub. Here’s to smooth sailing!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

High Society

Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindle is a wonderful, witty farce that could well lead your teen to Jane Austen. If he or she already knows Jane Austen, then they will appreciate Patrice Kindl’s understanding of the issues at stake for young British men and women at that time. The book is funny and smart and offers teens a way of thinking about how society is set up and the values its members place on things like beauty, intelligence, gender, wealth and a family’s position.

Althea Crawley, as the young woman who’s uniquely placed to keep her family’s castle by marrying a wealthy man, has to consider sacrificing her own happiness for the sake of preserving her family’s lifestyle—and indeed their very survival. This is complicated by the fact that she cannot keep herself from saying what she truly thinks. She scares off one suitor after another.

Many British books and films revolve around class. What you’re born into, and how you get around that. The most humorous scenes in the book arise from the angst of trying to serve food for everyone who comes to Crawley Castle to pay a social call. The people who kindly decline sugar for their tea, because they know the family has very little money and can’t afford such luxuries. Then to come across Mr. Fredericks, who has no finesse at all, who critiques Althea’s family holdings--and who brings Althea to a rude awakening when she realizes how long her family has been low on cash. Mr. Fredericks’ observations about the tapestries and portrait frames reveal to Althea that her father was slowly selling off their valuables to keep the castle even while he was alive.

Mr. Fredericks and his mother are the most like Americans. Practical, hardworking folks in a world in which other people coasted on title and inherited wealth. Althea is in her own way hardworking, certainly resourceful, and has much to recommend her. With character names such as Lord Boring, Prudence and Charity, Kindl telegraphs the depth (or lack of depth) of each. One of the great pleasures of the novel for readers will be knowing who the right match is for Althea before she does.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Withholding Information

Jennifer A. Nielsen
A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the idea of “the unreliable narrator” in connection with Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity. When it’s done well, it is one of my favorite reading experiences. It’s even rarer to find an unreliable narrator in books aimed at middle graders (fourth through sixth grade), but The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen is an excellent example. We get the feeling from the beginning that narrator Sage knows more than he’s telling us.

Sage has street smarts and trusts no one, so it’s completely in character for him to keep everything close to the vest. He’s an orphan who’s had to do whatever he could to survive, so Nielsen makes it completely feasible that he would be circumspect.

When I was teaching, one of my favorite books to give to third graders was Bill Britain’s The Wish Giver, a Newbery honor book. The same events unfold through the eyes of three different characters. Students could see for themselves where one character’s version contradicted another’s and also where their accounts corroborated each other’s perception of the facts. We then looked at three different major newspapers, to see what each had emphasized of world and local events. We also looked at how each paper presented those events. What was the writer’s viewpoint? What were the facts in common among the articles? Where were they in conflict? It was a way of getting kids to think critically about what they read and to think about the author’s hand in shaping the events we take in as readers.

In The False Prince, it’s almost as if Sage’s distrust of people extends to readers, too. Can he trust us with the information he has? As the book progresses, he parcels out more and more of his past, but it’s almost as if we must earn it. This novel is a great, immersive read that will keep kids turning the pages for the sheer adventure and for the ruse that Bevin Conner (their guardian of sorts) is trying to pull off. He claims he has the kingdom’s best interests in mind. Does he? That’s another piece to the mystery. These questions will get kids thinking about who’s behind the curtain, pulling the strings. This reader can’t wait to see where Nielsen takes her characters next.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Breaking the Rules

Z Is for Moose by Kelly L. Bingham, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky, is such an over-the-top success because it breaks all the rules. Or rather, it breaks just the right rules. The book follows the alphabet, but Moose does not. Zebra tries to keep things going along smoothly, but he cannot—because Moose bucks the system. And when Zebra casts Mouse in the “M” scene, it feels downright mean. But the clever way that Zebra makes it up to Moose teaches us something about both creativity and friendship.

We all know how desperately Moose wants to be a part of the show, and Zelinsky emphasizes this in his brilliant artwork by breaking all the rules of picture book making. Bingham and Zelinsky establish a strict structure, then tear it all down, and play with perspective and the animals' relative sizes. But author and artist also convey an emotional honesty through the breaking of these rules, as Moose invades our space and that of his fellow performers—crossing out words and bursting through the edges of the pages until the stage is utter chaos.

Children, like Moose, are passionate and focused—they just want to participate. And when they are barred from participation, they cannot control their anger and disappointment. It leaks out in all sorts of ways, albeit perhaps not as dramatically as it does for Moose. As a picture book that tests the boundaries of the format while also teaching children their ABCs as well as giving them a way to talk about their feelings, Z Is for Moose is a triumph.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Who’s the Big Bad Wolf?

Here’s the genius behind Huff & Puff by Claudia Rueda: The toddler gets to play the big bad wolf.

Forget the iPad (just for a moment). This is what interactive reading is all about. The child gets to discover, by turning the pages, why those holes in the pages seem to be related to the pile of straw or sticks on the next page. And, as the story continues, readers also realize why the three pigs don’t look frightened that a wolf just blew their houses down. The experience of reading aloud together is itself interactive. But add to that a clever activity that’s intrinsic to the story, and you have a truly rewarding and playful interactive experience.

Certain stories almost seem to be known at birth. The Three Little Pigs is one of them. Goldilocks and the Three Bears is another. But there may be no greater refrain than “I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down.” A die-cut hole in the middle of the page makes it seem as though the child’s strong “blow” travels through the opening and knocks down the house of straw and sticks (and finally blows out the candles on a birthday cake). Like Press Here, the book’s pages seem to anticipate the child’s actions and “react” to them, which delights the child. When I got to interview Claudia Rueda for Kirkus Reviews, she said, "I wanted the reader to be one of the characters."

I must confess that I did not get the conceit until my third reading of the book (and admitted this to the author), but toddlers get it immediately.  They know they’re the ones blowing the houses down. And they’ll want to do it over and over again.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Unreliable Narrator

Elizabeth Wein
If you and your teen, like me, enjoy an unreliable narrator--one who sees things that he or she does not share with us as readers, or maybe does not see things that we do as readers--then you will not be able to put down Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

Right away, we know that Verity is smart, savvy and resourceful. And brave, despite the fact that she begins by telling us, “I am a coward.” We also have the distinct feeling that she has the upper hand, at least intellectually, even though she’s being held prisoner by the Nazis and forced to write a confession of her knowledge of Allied codes, landing strips and the like.

This is a hard book to talk about with someone who has not read it because the greatest pleasures of the book come with its many surprises. So let me just say that the joys of the book come through in the details of Verity’s friendship with her closest comrade, Maddie, who served as the pilot when their plane was shot down over France. Recollections of their friendship serve as the framework for Verity’s written confession. As I read about them, I felt as if I were taking refuge in an air raid shelter, where Verity and Maddie first formed their friendship, biking with them as Maddie attempted to teach Verity how to gain a sense of direction, and visiting Verity’s home in a castle with its Lost Boys (orphaned by the war).

It is an all-consuming book. One that makes you simultaneously want to start it over from the beginning so you can see how Wein paved the way for her many revelations, and also to hand it to a friend and tell him or her to read it quickly, so you can talk about it. It’s a great book for you and your teen to be reading at the same time.

But make sure you check in with each other to see what page you’re on, so you don’t give anything away too soon.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Armchair Travel

Ambassador Walter Dean Myers (l.) and Justin Tuck
New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck received the annual Impact Award for his foundation, Tuck's R.U.S.H. for Literacy, last Monday. The occasion was the Children’s Book Council Gala to kick off Children’s Book Week. Tuck said that growing up in Kellyton, Ala., as one of seven children, he and his family didn't go many places. "If you want to go somewhere, pick up a book," his mother told him. Tua and the Elephant is just the kind of book Mrs. Tuck was talking about.

The book transports you to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Without ever leaving their chairs, readers enter the world of Tua and the Elephant by R.P. Harris , illus. by Taeeun Yoo, and experience a night market, smell its foods, witness its customs, meet its people, and speak its language. The artwork accentuates both the exotic and the universal elements of growing up in a village where everyone looks out for their “little peanut” (the translation of “Tua”).

Tua’s world grows larger as she searches for a safe haven for the elephant she rescues, and our world expands, too. Taeeun Yoo’s artwork help us picture Tua’s world even more clearly, and the honest emotion Tua expresses is something all children can relate to, no matter how close they stay to or how far they wander from home.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Art of Reinvention

Laura Vaccaro Seeger
Let us meditate for a moment on the art of Laura Vaccaro Seeger.  She reinvents the picture book genre, the beginning reader, the alphabet book. She uses die-cut holes to reveal hidden details. In The Hidden Alphabet, in First the Egg, in Green. She makes us take a second look at the things we thought we knew—leaves and trees, sun and moon, snowman and stars. That tree we take for granted was not always there. It took generations to grow. Let us take note of it, she seems to say. Let us stand under its majesty, drink in its shade, rest among its roots.

So let us meditate on the leaves, on the egg, on all the things we miss while going about our daily business. Let us pause and take in the green we take for granted.