Friday, April 26, 2013

An Unorthodox Collaboration

Most writers and artists who work on picture books together do not meet until after their book is published. Rarely does the author get to pick the artist. But when Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) saw a piece of art by Jon Klassen in which the dark spoke, he was inspired to write a picture book called The Dark.

When I got to speak with them about their unorthodox collaboration for Kirkus Reviews, Handler said, "For a moment, it looked like The Dark was going to be Jon Klassen's first book, and then it looked like it was going to be his lifetime achievement award." 

Interestingly, Handler similarly approached author-artist Maira Kalman about working together on a picture book called 13 Words, which led eventually to the Printz honor–winning novel Why We Broke Up. Both Klassen and Kalman have an uncanny ability to tell stories through visual details. 

Daniel Handler, Neil Gaiman and Jon Klassen (l.-r.)
Photo credit: Cheryl Simon
We got to host the first "performance" of The Dark at the School for Children at the Bank Street College of Education. Their dynamic presentation was a comedy of opposites: Daniel Handler, standing in for Lemony Snicket, as the gregarious jokester, played against Jon Klassen as the nearly silent poker-face partner. Neil Gaiman also made an appearance as the voice for the audiobook (the only book he's recorded that he did not also write, he told us when he visited Bank Street).

Handler and Klassen's real-time banter in many ways played out the way they described collaborating on the book. Their push and pull allows children to be active participants; as readers, they sense young Laszlo's growing confidence as he confronts the dark (after his night light burns out) and uses his flashlight like a beacon to navigate to the darkest, remotest corner of his house.

Handler and Klassen's respect for each other is profound, but they also have a great deal of fun together, as you will discover in this recap of their performance (by Bank Street archivist Lindsey Wyckoff, with many photos), and in the "review" of their stage presentation by Betsy Bird (aka Fuse #8 and the New York Public Library's Youth Materials Collections Specialist.).

Friday, April 19, 2013

Visual Literacy

Mary Murphy's (I Kissed the Baby!) latest board book, Quick Duck!, attests to why her storytelling is ideally suited to this format. She repeats the title phrase, then lets youngest book lovers know--in just a few words and brush strokes--where the duckling is on the path to (as we soon discover) his or her family.

Last weekend, at the Bank Street College of Education, the Center for Children's Literature (where I serve as interim director) hosted its first Writers Lab mini-conference, "Early Childhood Literature: What Do You Need to Know?" Laura Vaccaro Seeger delivered the closing keynote, and focused on visual literacy. "At some point, we stop seeing things the way a young child does," Seeger said. We stop noticing things. Seeger skillfully uses die-cut pages in many of her books to draw the eye to specific details--books such as The Hidden Alphabet, and her two Caldecott Honor books, First the Egg and Green. With a turn of the page, we continue to notice those details within the context of a larger picture. She teaches us how to see, to notice, all over again.

Seeger also talked about a game she played with her boys when they were little: "How little can I show and still convey an expression of surprise?" Is it the eyes, the mouth? This game later became the basis for her book Walter Was Worried.

Like Seeger, Murphy understands the importance of conveying only the essential details. She keeps the pages clean and the focus on her duck, with its thick black outline against a pastel, mostly white background. A thin green line makes a reed; a thick purple stroke transforms it into a cat tail. The path of muddy webbed footprints betray a sense of urgency and also tell us that the feathered hero knows just where to go ("Out of the mud!"; "Under the hedge!"; "Over the stones!") to arrive safely to a waiting mother and siblings.

Friday, April 12, 2013

A Violation of Trust

Robin LaFevers

In this second of the His Fair Assassins series (set in the 15th century as Brittany tries to fend off France) by Robin LaFevers, Dark Triumph, Sybella is sent back by the abbess to her childhood residence. The book stands entirely on its own, but for those who first encountered Sybella in Grave Mercy, readers learn why she seemed so haunted.

Sybella reveals that her brother Julian started out by protecting her from their violent father, but, in exchange, came to expect a physical intimacy from her. LaFevers handles this complex topic respectfully and responsibly. She clearly depicts Sybella's lack of choices in an abusive household. She needed her brother's protection in order to survive her father's ruthless and mindless violence. Then Sybella goes to the convent seeking refuge, and the abbess sends Sybella right back to her abusive family (as a spy), violating any sense of trust Sybella might have begun to form at the convent.

The difference is that this time Sybella knows how to protect herself; she operates from a place of strength and intelligence, and begins to acknowledge that she is as skillful a healer as she is an assassin. As difficult as Sybella's past is, LaFevers shows how these seemingly insurmountable challenges now aid her in her calling to help defend Brittany and the duchess. Sybella is a survivor, and an uncanny judge of character. Now, as a mature teen, she knows almost instantly whom she can trust and whom she cannot. So when she meets Beast, the last of the duchess's soldiers to fall in conflict with her father's men, Sybella immediately recognizes him as a friend and ally.

Her wish to confide in Beast is hindered only by her fear that he will think less of her for all that she has endured in her father's house. This is a redemptive book for its example of how telling one's darkest secrets starts the beginning of the healing process and how one trusted friend can more than compensate for an army of enemies.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Rhyme or Romance

Kathryn Fitzmaurice
Photo credit: Audie England
In Destiny, Rewritten, Karthryn Fitzmaurice writes about a parent wishing for her daughter what her daughter does not wish for herself. 

Eleven-year-old Emily Elizabeth Davis wants to write romance, like her favorite author, Danielle Steele. Her mother wants her to be a poet, like her namesake, Emily Dickinson. Her mother likes to play things by ear; Emily likes to plan. The heroine also wants to find out who her father is. But his identity is hidden in the pages of a poetry book by Dickinson, which the heroine mistakenly put in the donation pile. She searches all over her hometown of Berkeley, Cal., for the book. But sometimes the facts of our circumstances do not tell us as much about ourselves as our hearts do. That's what Emily has to figure out. 

One entertaining part of the book results from an assignment by Mrs. Mendoza, Emily's English teacher, who asks them each to write "a wonderful, elegant haiku," then tells them to turn to someone close by and try talking in syllables of five-seven-five "to get the hang of it." Connor, Emily's crush, turns to Emily. One of his goes like this: "Okay, how about/ Lacrosse is like branches in/ A fierce windstorm." Emily points out that he needs one more syllable in the last line, so Connor comes up with substituting "A violent storm" for "A fierce windstorm."

Their exchanges convey how naturally haiku grows out of conversation, and also how Emily's attention piques when the promise of romance draws near. Poetry and romance. Must Emily choose? Maybe there's enough of both to go around.