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.