Thursday, May 15, 2014

Story within the Story

E. Lockhart

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart is right there with Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein and the film The Usual Suspects, in that you think you have your bearings, and then suddenly you don't. But the author's sure hand steering the story keeps your complete faith nonetheless. And her dexterity with language is a marvel.

Lockhart's novel stars three wealthy cousins: narrator Candace, Mirren and Johnny--and Johnny's socially conscious best friend, Gat. Together, they form the Liars of the title. Gat questions the things the cousins take for granted, and slowly chips away at their once unshakeable faith that their privilege can secure their happiness. This transition from inheriting values from one's parents to questioning them and then forging one's own values lies at the core of this coming-of-age novel.

We believe the conversation between these 15-year-olds. Candace falls in love with Gat, then has an accident and is left with no recollection of it. Lockhart weaves in Shakespeare plots and fairy tales, Cadence's constructions to puzzle out what occurred and why she has no memory of it: Granddad Sinclair as Lear; Beauty sees the glory in the Beast, but her father "sees a jungle animal." Did the overwhelming loss of her father's abandonment and her grandmother's death, together with her forbidden love for Gat lead to Cadence's accident and amnesia?

Adults will appreciate Lockhart's consummate storytelling, but teens will relate to the unfamiliar and unwanted role of parenting one's parent, and trying to become who they truly are, which is not necessarily who the adults want them to be.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Scientific Adventures

"Science Bob" Plugfelder

"Science Bob" Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith collaborated in a unique way for Nick and Tesla's Robot Army Rampage, illustrated by Scott Garrett. The series centers on two 11-year-old science-minded twins who are staying with their scientist uncle while their parents are out of the country on a work assignment. Pflugfelder, an elementary school science teacher, designs science experiments key to solving the mystery in each book. Hockensmith plots and writes the mystery, integrating the science experiments.

For Nick and Tesla's Robot Army Rampage, their second book together, Hockensmith had a plot he liked but was struggling to incorporate the robot army without taking Nick and Tesla out of their uncle's neighborhood. According to Hockensmith, Plugfelder suggested a solution that would keep them in the neighborhood, and also stick with the reality they'd established in the first book, Nick and Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab. "I think that's what defines a series when you're getting it started," Plugfelder said. "We wanted readers to buy into the reality but at the same time to take them on adventures they couldn’t maybe go on on their own."

And the best part is that the twins are normal kids, just like readers. "Nick and Tesla are not geniuses; they're problem-solving kids," Pflugfelder said. "A situation comes up and they say, can we build something that can help us with that? They're resourceful kids with fourth-grade knowledge." For the five science projects in this book (and also for the previous book), the materials are either household items or available at a place like Radio Shack.
Steve Hockensmith

The Hardy Boys series and Jean Craighead George's My Side of the Mountain were Pflugfelder's favorite books as a child, he said last year on a middle-grade book panel at Book Expo America. He liked the idea of contributing to a series that had both mystery and science elements. "I'm one of those kids who would have flipped through and seen the instructions for the projects in this book and picked it up," he said. "I'm the kid who read the Hardy Boys and then would go and make the projects." Hockensmith, on the other hand, said, "I would have been the kind of kid who'd read the story and enjoy it, and my eyes would glaze over when the projects came along." Together, Hockensmith and Plugfelder make ideal collaborators for these scientific adventures.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Living and Creating

Interior from The Scraps Book
One of the things children will appreciate most about Lois Ehlert's The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life is the way she draws a correlation between her life and her art. Her ideas come from everywhere (asparagus hunting, a cat, a change of seasons) and her materials can be anything (paints, crayons, seeds, crabapples, fabric swatches). 

Even Ehlert's picture of the work table her father set up for her in her childhood home shares a striking resemblance to the workspace she uses today. Children will see that their own photos, paintings, and fabric scraps can contribute to a collage about family, home and pets. 

Study for Chicka Chicka Boom Boom
The author-artist also shows children precisely which book included which collage or composition, leading to an organic scavenger hunt of sorts, to check out her many picture books and to witness the varied approaches and styles she's used to illustrate her stories (and the stories of others, such as Chicka Chicka Boom Boom). 

Her collections of model fish and words and art supplies reveal a passion for what she does and may well inspire children to build their own. Lois Ehlert shows that a childhood passion can become a lifelong joy.