Friday, March 29, 2013

A Game Born of Necessity

John Coy

The subtitle of Hoop Genius by John Coy, illustrated by Joe Morse, succinctly describes the reason the game exists today: "How a Desperate Teacher and a Rowdy Gym Class Invented Basketball." The young men at the YMCA had already run off two teachers by the time James Naismith arrived in December 1891. Naismith wanted to keep the guys from having excessive physical contact while also giving them maximum exercise.

Naismith combined a popular game from his Canadian childhood ("Duck on a Rock"), which rewarded skills in accuracy, with a requirement for speed, as the players ran up and down the court, defending their own basket and attempting to shoot into the basket of their opponents. The simple requirements of the game--two peach baskets and a ball--accounted for the speed with which the game's popularity spread. The game's 13 rules fit neatly on two double-spaced typed pages (reproduced on the book's endpapers).

Joe Morse's artwork connects past and present. He begins with stylized artwork in a muted palette of burgundy and cornflower blue, which includes period details but also conveys the immediacy and fast pace of the game. The contemporary images of the game at the close of the picture book connect back to that raw energy of those early unruly boys back in 1891.

As we draw down to the Final Four, we have a better appreciation for how James Naismith helped channel the energy of those young men (and a few young women, too) to bring us to the March Madness of today.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Safe and Curious

It is harder than one might think to accomplish what Jerry Pallotta and Shennen Bersani do in Butterfly Colors and Counting. They take a very simple concept--counting and butterflies--and help toddlers feel both safe and curious.

They start with a narrow topic that youngest children can identify readily and feel comfortable with immediately--butterflies. They show colors that children know and actual butterflies that exist in nature, but of an exotic variety that they likely won't have been exposed to yet. (A list of the butterflies' names appears on the back cover, to encourage further inquiry.) The number of butterflies on the page correlates to both the numeral and the number spelled out: "4 four purple" (the butterflies pictured are amethyst hairstreak). By pairing the familiar with the unfamiliar, author and artist invite the child to feel both safe (among butterflies) and curious (What kind of butterfly is that? Where do they live? Why haven't I seen these before?). 

It's a very hard balance to strike and one not often accomplished in books for children this young. Busy Birdies by John Schindel, photos by Steven Holt, and the other board books by Schindel in that series also springs to mind. These are information books that build on what a child knows already and that stretch them to want to learn more.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

"Research Rapture"

Ruta Sepetys

New Orleans, as Ruta Sepetys characterizes it in Out of the Easy, is aligned with other American towns and cities in 1950, placing limitations on women, and classifying people in terms of race and economic status. It is difficult, if not impossible to break down those barriers, yet narrator Jo Morraine tries.

A gift of antique opera glasses led Ruta Sepetys to New Orleans, and a jeweler who'd been poisoned. Next, she stumbled upon a biography of a New Orleans madam named Norma Wallace, and Sepetys was on her way to "research rapture," as she calls it. She got lost in the details. These details ground the novel, and the author's themes stretch across decades. As the daughter of a prostitute, Jo believes she has few options. New Orleans is an economically striated world into which it's difficult to break. Still, a bookseller/mystery writer offers Jo a job and a place to stay. 

While working the cash register in the bookstore, Jo meets a Smith student. She becomes determined to apply to Smith College and to escape a world in which she feels imprisoned. The life Jo was born into is not easy; but it also won't be easy to break away. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Blind Spot

Stephan Pastis at the Bank Street School for Children in NY.
We got to talk to Stephan Pastis about his inspiration for Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made. He calls Timmy a boy with a "blind spot." 

You are a comics artist. What have comics taught you about pacing a scene and character development?
Comics is all about pacing. I literally control the shutter of a camera. I give you four panels and each operates as a beat. You have to strip away everything that's extraneous. Comics teach you to be very direct. You have to be able to describe each of your characters in one word. Mean. Dumb. Smart.

Describe Timmy Failure in one word.
I see Timmy as an example of a blind spot. I need two words: arrogant and dumb. He was built entirely around the notion that a blind spot is what makes a character compelling. He sees himself one way, and the rest of the world sees him another way. Confederacy of Dunces was my model: Ignatius Reilly.

But Timmy is also very sympathetic.
In at least one aspect of our lives, we see ourselves in one way and the rest of the world sees us as another. We all lie to ourselves to some extent. In that way, Timmy is relatable. If you see Total [his polar bear sidekick] as a figment of his imagination, that's a measure of how alone he is. I think people respond to that. Despite his arrogance and pomposity, he is sort of sympathetic.

How did Total evolve?
I knew Timmy needed a partner, and I wanted it to be an animal because animals are fun for me. Timmy doesn't have a dad, and the polar bear is large and therefore subliminally protective; soft, so subliminally comforting. Then I thought it would be fun to have an animal who's just a polar bear, as opposed to the anthropomorphic animals in my strip. Timmy takes Total as much more, as a partner, as secretary, as filer, and he's terrible because he's just a bear. Without Total, there's no Timmy. The question I've heard the most is whether he's real, and I think that's a fascinating question. I like people to see it if they want to see it.

How did you come up with Timmy's voice?
His voice is really just mine. Timmy has a lot of me in him. A little bit arrogant, a big dreamer, but not that great at anything. A little bit oblivious. He shares a lot with the characters in the strip. I probably only have one voice, and that's it. Someone who's dumb but thought himself smart. I just write and what comes out, comes out. I have to figure out logically what I created instinctively.

Tell us how you met Charles Schulz.
I was a lawyer in San Francisco, and I was burned out. I read in a weekly newspaper that Charles Schulz had breakfast every day in the same place. I got in my car and drove for an hour to Santa Rosa to this diner, near an ice rink, and watched the skaters. I just waited and waited, and about an hour later, I see a man with white hair walk in, and I knew it was him. This was huge for me. I watched him eat his breakfast. He finally finishes, and I get up my courage and kneel down at the side of the table. I said, "I'm Stephan Pastis and I'm an attorney." I saw him withdraw immediately. I caught myself and told him I was a cartoonist, and that changed everything.

He talked to me for an hour. He asked if I had my drawings with me. They were in the car, and I showed them to him. He said nice things. He gave me some tips about changing the pen I used. How often do you get to meet your hero? The last 60 years of cartooning stems directly from Peanuts. He was to cartooning what Brando was to acting. Brando had a new style of acting, the Method. It changed acting forever. That's what Schulz did in cartooning--the timing, the dryness, the melancholy--that all comes from Peanuts.

This interview was adapted from a longer article in Shelf Awareness for Readers.