Friday, December 11, 2015

Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear

This beautiful picture book, illustrated by Sophie Blackall and written by Lindsay Mattick, tells the miraculous journey of a man and his bear that crossed the Atlantic from Canada to England; and this is the very bear that would become the inspiration for Winnie-the-Poohwhen A.A. Milne and his son visited the London Zoo.

On August 24, 1914, Captain Harry Colebourn bought a baby bear for $20 on a train station platform.

Harry stopped. It’s not every day that you see a bear cub at a train station. 'That Bear has lost its mother,' he thought, 'and that man must be the trapper who got her.'”

On his way overseas to fight in World War I, Colebourn, a veterinarian from Winnipeg, decided to name the bear Winnie after his hometown.

When Colebourn showed Winnie to the Colonel, he was originally met with disapproval.

Captain Colebourn!” said the Colonel on the train, as the little Bear sniffed at his knees. “We are on a journey of a thousand miles, heading into the thick of battle, and you propose to bring this Most Dangerous Creature?” Bear stood straight up on her hind legs as if to salute the Colonel. The Colonel stopped speaking at once—and then, in quite a different voice, he said, 'Oh, hallo.'”

Soon, Winnie was one of their own.

Finding Winnie is narrated by Lindsay Mattick, the great-grandaughter of Harry Colebourn, as a family story passed down from generation to generation. When Lindsay's son asks her for a story, she asks, “What kind of story?” to which the reply is;“You know. A true story. One about a Bear.”

After crossing the Atlantic with Winnie, Harry knew that she was growing larger and could not be taken into battle, so he took her to the London Zoo.

Winnie’s head bowed. Harry’s hands were warm as sunshine, as usual. 'There is something you must always remember,” Harry said. 'It’s the most important thing, really. Even if we’re apart, I’ll always love you. You’ll always be my Bear.'”

Interior spread from Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear

Harry and Winnie's parting seem's like the end of the story, but as Lindsay points out, “Sometimes, you have to let one story begin so the next one can begin.”

The beautiful and heartfelt illustrations by Sophie Blackall bring this story to life in ink and watercolor. Her illustrations depict Harry Colebourn’s excitement of finding the bear, the heartache of leaving Winnie behind in the zoo, and the joy of a new friendship with Christopher Robin.

To find out more about Sophie Blackall's fascinating illustration process in Finding Winnie, visit her blog!

Finding Winnie, will bring you and your child joy and delight at discovering the true story behind one of the most famous characters in literature, and show that sometimes, one story's ending is just another story's beginning.
Captain Colebourn and Winnie

Friday, December 4, 2015



I am thrilled to announce that Jenny has kindly entrusted me with her mission of reviewing the best books for children, and I will be taking the reins at and on this blog. 

As with most people who love children’s literature, I grew up, but never stopped reading children’s books, for they are the best kind of books, in my opinion. I graduated from Vanderbilt University with a B.A. in both English and Art History. I currently work as the Children’s Books buyer in Oz at the wonderful Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi. For the past year-and-a-half, I have written a weekly newspaper column on children’s books.

I hope to help you discover the best books for you and your child, at any age.

Please join me as I embark on Chapter One at Twenty by Jenny.

Happy Reading!


Welcome, Clara Martin!

It gives me great pleasure to announce that Clara Martin--gifted writer, reviewer and bookseller extraordinaire--will be taking over the reins at Twenty by Jenny.

As a bookseller at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, Clara is passionate about books for children and young adults. Ever since my return to the publishing side, I have been seeking the right person to carry on the mission of Twenty by Jenny, and I believe that Clara is exactly the right person to keep you current in the best of what's being published for young people.

It has been a joy to build the community at Twenty by Jenny, and it is thrilling to have someone as talented as Clara to carry the torch.

Please help me welcome her.

With all my best,

Friday, August 7, 2015

Thank you!

Photo credit: Michael Lionstar

It is with mixed emotions that I write to tell you I will be suspending my newsletters for the time being.

I am greatly honored to have accepted the position of publisher of Knopf Books for Young Readers, and I do not feel I can continue to keep the Twenty by Jenny newsletter and reviews going given those new responsibilities.

It has been a dream of mine to build the community that has grown around Twenty by Jenny, and I want to thank you for your part in that. I'm not willing or able to take down the site, so I will leave it here in hopes that I can find a new guardian for it.

Please feel free to be in touch with me here on the blog.

Thank you for your support and your kind attention over the years.

With all my best,

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Great Outdoors

William Low

Books that prompt children to explore the world around them are rare treasures, and Daytime Nighttime by William Low is one for youngest nature lovers.

With just one word per page (on most pages) and a close-up of the creature named, children begin to make the connection between the picture they see and the living things they find in their own backyards, parks and schoolyards. William Low focuses on one child, so youngsters may follow along with her, as if seeing the butterfly, rabbit or owl through her eyes. And the final scene at bedtime, with the young heroine holding her Teddy bear as the moonlight shines through her window, provides a soothing image before going to sleep.

William Low self-portrait
At this time of year, when the days are less structured, this durable board book acts as a kind of field guide for youngest explorers.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Female Graphic Novelists on the Rise

Cherie Priest

With the explosion of illustrated books in general, and graphic novels in particular, I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest, illustrated by Kali Ciesemier, demonstrates even more innovation with this melding of prose and comics.

The prose portion describes a friendship between two girls who invent a comics character, Princess X, at recess one day and who become inseparable--until the day one of them disappears. The comics featuring Princess X provide the clues to the missing collaborator's whereabouts. The innovation here is the book's hybrid aspect. Like Brian Selznick's work in The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck, readers must immerse themselves in the visual narrative as well as the prose narrative in order to get the full story.

I Am Princess X--a story bout a strong female character, invented by two fictional female friends, and brought to life by a female writer and female graphic artist--is a kind of microcosm of what's happening in graphic novels overall right now. On Tuesday, I got to be part of a panel hosted by the Children's Book Council called "The Rise of Illustrated Books," and Gina Gagliano, associate marketing & publicity manager at First Second Books (an imprint dedicated to graphic novels), had just returned from San Diego Comic Con, where the 2015 Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards were announced. Gina pointed out that, for the first time, women were beginning to infiltrate the awards.
Kali Ciesemier

Best Writer/Artist went to Raina Telgemeier for Sisters (Graphix/Scholastic); Best Publication for Kids (ages 8-12) was awarded to El Deafo by Cece Bell (Amulet/Abrams); and the top award, for Best Graphic Album–New, went to This One Summer by cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki (published by First Second).

It's worth pointing out that El Deafo also received a 2015 Newbery Honor (the first graphic novel to do so), and This One Summer was named both a 2015 Caldecott Honor (the first graphic novel to do so) and a 2015 Printz Award. Graphic novels are on the rise, women creators of graphic novels are on the rise, and graphic novels have earned their well-deserved accolades in the literary establishment.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Gamers Are Readers

Jennifer Chambliss Bertman
Photo: Joseph Jestes Photography

Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman is a book lover's book. It's also a book about gamers.

Twelve-year-old Emily Crane, who loves reading and solving puzzles, moves to San Francisco with her older brother, and two parents whose goal is to live in all 50 states. Her new neighbor, James, is not as into reading, but he is into games. So when Emily stumbles upon a book that she believes is part of a new game by Mr. Griswold (the Willy Wonka of the reading world, and a San Francisco native), she becomes determined to figure out the rules. James helps her navigate San Francisco. There's a bit of geography, and a lot of logic and detective work (in the solving of the mystery of whether or not Emily's discovered a new game by Mr. Griswold).

At the Nielsen Children's Book Summit last December (which studied the reading and leisure habits of children from preschool through teenage), Nicole Pike shared her analysis of the data collected about gaming for Nielsen Games. Pike said kids who game also read: "92% of kids and teens claim to game on a weekly basis; 68% say they read for pleasure on a weekly basis," she said. That's a significant overlap in a Venn diagram. What do they have in common? Gamers and readers are both thinkers. They like to guess, to anticipate, to figure things out. So it's no surprise that readers like to game, and gamers like to read.

At the ALSC Institute a few years back, Eric Nylund, then head writer at Microsoft Game Studios, said that kids wrote to him to tell him they "hate reading" but enjoyed Nylund's books based on games (such as HALO) and asked if he had any other book suggestions. He said he pointed them first to Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. "They'll come back a week later," he said, asking for another suggestion. "Try Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld," Nylund told them; he called this "breadcrumbing." If they come back a third time, it's Tolkien, "and then I know they're hooked," he said. Book Scavenger has plenty to offer both dedicated readers and gamers who read.

Friday, July 10, 2015

An Undervalued Gift

In a world where games beep and TVs blare, the wordless picture book Float by Daniel Miyares emulates the silence of being alone in nature with one's own thoughts.

Interior from Float by Daniel Miyares

Readers get a sense of what the boy is thinking through his actions. He creates a boat from a sheet of newspaper, jumps in puddles and follows his boat along its path. We see the scope of his world in the reflection of a large puddle created by the rainstorm on which his boat sails. The boy's yellow slicker, hat and matching boots result in splashes of yoke-colored action across the otherwise variegated grays of the pages, acting as a golden spotlight on the young hero's progression.

Interior from Float by Daniel Miyares

When his boat goes down a drain and gets waterlogged, we watch the boy start over with another newspaper page and a new improvised mode of transport. He's completely content keeping his own company.

Summer camp, swimming lessons and art classes are wonderful organized activities. But the freedom to explore the world and be content in solitude is an undervalued gift.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Limitless Play

Yusuke Yonezu

 Moving Blocks by Yusuke Yonezu models for youngest children how creative they can be with basic block shapes: squares, circles, triangles, and rectangles. With minimal text, the pages show rather than tell examples of how children can construct the familiar things in their world and let their imaginations soar.

Yonezu uses predominantly primary colors (with the occasional touch of secondary color green) and bold black outlines to reveal the modes of transport children uses every day: a car, a bus, a train, ship, plane and rocket. Each page appears like a giant mosaic, a puzzle to be unlocked with the turn of a page. For each two-page spread of small blocks neatly fitted together into a giant rectangle, a die-cut hole reveals the hidden vehicle on the next page, and a telltale sound provides another clue ("Sssssh, big doors opening... It's a bus"). The stark-white background helps young eyes easily distinguish the colorful bus on the page.
Interior from Moving Blocks

These are blocks that move, and the answers children discover from page to page move people from place to place. Yonezu proves that the simpler he keeps the ideas, the more possibilities they open up in the imagination of a child.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Whose Justice?

Sabaa Tahir

Neither all brains nor all brawn is enough to conquer the society depicted in An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. It's the classic story told throughout human history. But Tahir takes a fresh look through the eyes of two teens--one a Scholar, the other a Martial--at the center of the conflict.

The Scholars may be the group that's oppressed now, but they were the oppressors until 500 years ago, when the Martials took control by force. Laia, a Scholar, must live with the fact that her parents chose the Resistance over their children. The only family member she has left is her brother, held prisoner by the Martials. In her quest to enlist the Resistance members' help to free her brother, she learns that someone within the movement betrayed her parents. She also learns how the Scholars played a role in their own demise.

As her life becomes entangled with that of Elias, an elite member of the Martials called a Mask and a favorite to become the next Emperor, Laia must decide for herself who is on the side of justice--so must Elias. Sahir portrays a fictional society with realistic conflicts. Must justice for one group come about at the expense of another? What do you, as an individual, do to stay true to your ideals when others around you are corrupting them for selfish ends? How do you know when you yourself have crossed a line? If you gain power and prestige, is it because of your leadership qualities, or through force and fear? How can you be sure?

History is littered with examples of those who used an ideology or force (often both) to achieve goals they felt were good, but whose means resulted in imprisonment and death for many. Tahir demonstrates that it's harder to recognize an ideal gone wrong when it's unfolding in the present. Laia and Elias observe the corruption going on around them, but can they stop it, or at least stand up to it? And the implicit question to readers is: What would you do?

Friday, June 12, 2015

Standing at the Crossroads

Mitali Perkins

Mitali Perkins gives readers a journey to an exotic land in flux in her novel Tiger Boy. The village itself mirrors young Neel's predicament. A developer, Mr. Gupta, has arrived in the Sunderbans of West Bengal, who wishes to exploit its resources, using its sundari trees for his buildings, and pressing the villagers to take the wood from reserves where the trees should be protected.

Then a Bengali tiger cub escapes. Mr. Gupta wants to sell it on the black market, and Neel becomes determined to find it first and return the cub to the rangers. It's a crisis of conscience for Neel because his father has begun working for Mr. Gupta to pay for Neel's mother's medical bills and a tutor so that Neel can win a scholarship to go to Kolkata and study--a path Neel does not wish for himself.

Change is in the air, and Neel is resisting it. His country is at a new stage, just as he is. Perkins exposes the differences accorded to the genders in West Bengal without judgment--it's a way of life that requires a girl to drop out of school to tend to the cooking and washing if her mother becomes ill. Yet the focus remains on Neel's choice to remain in the village he loves or go out into the world and try to bring back his knowledge and experience. The author also exposes the moral crossroads of the villagers--namely Neel's father.

As with her Bamboo People, Perkins smoothly conveys the all-too-brief childhood of young people forced to grow up quickly because of the changing nature of their way of life. She transports readers to faraway places yet endows her characters with problems that feel immediate and universal: the importance of safety, food, clean water, family and community--and standing up for the ideals you hold dear.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Last of Its Kind

Jean Craighead George
In Galápagos George, Jean Craighead George wrote about the last of the great Pinta Island tortoises of the Galápagos Islands, Lonesome George, who lived for 100 years. Her longtime collaborator, Wendell Minor, in realistic watercolors, illustrates this awe-inspiring creature in a way that makes children empathize deeply with him. Lonesome George was the last of his kind.

Galápagos George won the 2015 Cook Prize, for the best read-aloud STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) title for third- and fourth-graders, voted on by children. Yesterday, at the Irma Simonton Black Award and Cook Prize ceremony at Bank Street College of Education (televised live and archived on KidLit TV), Twig George, the author's daughter, described what it was like growing up with Jean Craighead George. The author did not live to see the book published, but she lived nearly as long as her tortoise hero. She was 92 when she died, three years ago today.
Wendell Minor
Photo: Charlie Craighead

Jean Craighead George wrote more than 120 books. Twig George described her mother as "a force of nature" who "brought the animals she wrote about into the house. Literally into the house." George added, "So we had crows knocking on the window in the morning to come in and have breakfast, and owls sitting on your shoulder in the shower." Twig George said that her mother wanted to put as much information in her books as she could. "She wanted to put kids there, their feet in the sand and their toes in the mud,"Twig George recalled.

At 80 years old, Jean Craighead George traveled to the Galápagos Islands. She was working on her writing until about 4 days before she died, according to Twig George. She was a trailblazer, writing about the environment and nature for children long before anyone else. As Twig George put it in her beautiful afterword to Galápagos George, "Jean Craighead George and Lonesome George passed away within weeks of each other in 2012. They were both one of a kind."

Friday, May 8, 2015

Deceptively Simple

The most outstanding board books look simple, and reveal layers of meaning as toddlers spend more time with them. Rhymoceros by Janik Coat uses the tusks of a rhinoceros, its most identifiable features, to represent the animal in its simplest form.

An interior double-page spread from Rhymoceros
She then varies a detail or two to teach youngest children simple concepts that, with repeated readings, take on more complexity. The minimalist way that Coat represents each scene allows youngest children to notice the differences in the rhino from page to page. At first, they might only fully understand "moon/balloon" as something akin to the moon comes out at night, and a balloon means a festive daytime activity, such as a birthday or circus or parade. In later viewings and with a bit more worldly experience, they might think about a crescent as a phase of the "moon," and a "balloon" as akin to the circle of a full moon.

Similarly, they might not be aware yet of the seasons, but after they've experienced a few cycles of seasonal changes, they'll connect the word "shade" with seeking protection from the summer sun and "lemonade" with a cool refreshment that offers relief from the summer heat. They might then connect with the idea that the lemons on the tree that lends the hero shade yields the lemonade the hero sips.

Coat's choices allow for multiple entry points. At age one, youngsters might only relate to the pages with fur or bumps, but they will recognize the welcoming blue creature on every page. Gradually, they will take in more of the visual details about the rhino from scene to scene, while also enjoying the rhyme of the word pairings.

This makes an ideal baby gift because it has the (nearly) indestructible format of a board book and concepts that relate directly to a child's experience of the world. The playful language keeps them engaged as they accrue the experiences to understand more fully the meaning behind each rhyming pair.

Friday, May 1, 2015

A Focus on the "T" in LGBTQ

Susan Kuklin

When Susan Kuklin gave her acceptance speech at Bank Street College of Education for the 2015 Flora Stieglitz Straus Award for Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, she spoke of realizing, six years ago, that the "T" in LGBTQ was "underreported and undervalued." She thought it was time to give them a voice.

Kuklin approached New York's Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, and their team put out a call for anyone willing to speak with Kuklin for her book project.

Kuklin said she believes, as the law professor and humanitarian Brian Stevenson believes, that, "Society needs to pay attention to the marginalized, to the bullied, to poverty, to suffering, to exclusion, to unfairness and to injustice." This part of identity is more challenging, Kuklin added. Transgender youth were bullied, and their suicide rate was high for so small a group. As she interviewed the six youth in her book, she says, "I saw that 'them' was 'us.'"

Her half-dozen subjects tell their stories with humor and poignancy; they tell of their challenges and their triumphs. They discuss their transitions with candor and compassion. Jessy spoke of noticing the difference in other people's responses toward him as a man versus when he had been perceived as a woman. He could take up more room on the subway without dirty looks--it's accepted for men, it's not for women. Christina describes attending her all-boy Catholic School as Matthew, dressed like a woman. At a panel at Bank Street College of Education's BookFest last fall, Christina said, "If I could survive that, I could survive anything."

Susan Kuklin serves as a conduit for extraordinary people whose voices might not otherwise be heard. She speaks of capturing their words, photographing their progress, and her fascinating process of making Beyond Magenta on KidLit TV.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Keeping Family Secrets

Alice Hoffman
When Alice Hoffman spoke with us about Nightbird recently in an interview for SLJ's Curriculum Connections, she talked about its origins as a story about the isolation that comes from secrets. For Twig Fowler, that secret involves a family curse that has rendered her older brother half-human, half-bird.

Q: Nightbird shares a melding of magic and realism that’s present in your books for young adults, Green Angel and Aquamarine, and your adult novels. What is it about that combination that compels you as a writer?

Alice Hoffman: My childhood reading was fairy tales, and even though they were magical, they felt the most real. In terms of what was happening emotionally and psychologically, even if the story was about a beast or a rose that wouldn’t die, there were truths there. That the magical and the real exist side by side makes sense to me. I always think of myself as a 12-year-old reader…[and] write the book that I want to read.

Q: Where did the idea of Nightbird come from?
AH: This story is about the isolation that comes from secrets. I think many kids know about family secrets, and they know they’re not supposed to discuss them.

Q: What was the inspiration of James’s curse? I thought of the Minotaur—because of his birthright, he’s confined to this half-man, half-creature body. It’s that idea of the sins of the father visited upon the son, isn’t it?
AH: The idea of a family curse, especially one that isn’t talked about, is ancient, whether from father to son or mother to daughter. It’s like the secret of the nursery: you know it even when you don’t know it.

Also, the monster in the family is a common mythological situation. Nightbird came to me as the story of a “monster’s” sister—one who knows that her sibling is not a monster. How you appear on the outside isn’t necessarily how you are inside. Kids at this age intrinsically know that.

Q: It appears that Twig’s mother moved to New York to escape the fact that everyone knows everyone’s business.
AH: Yes, but you carry your legacy with you. That’s what happened to her. I thought of this as a mother-daughter book…. It’s about understanding your parent a little bit [better]. You can never know your mother when she was younger. Twig’s mother, too, doesn’t really know Twig.

This is an excerpt from a longer interview first published in SLJ's Curriculum Connections.

Friday, April 17, 2015

An Attitude of Gratitude

Matt de la Pena at BookFest @ Bank Street 2014
Photo: Cheryl Simon
In Last Stop on Market Street, Matt de la Peña transforms the differences a child perceives as negatives and turns them into positives -- with a little help from his grandmother. 

Where CJ sees the lack of a car, his Nana sees the riches of the bus ride. While he desires an iPod, his Nana enjoys the guitar playing of a fellow passenger. At last Nana's attitude of gratitude washes over her grandson. De la Peña portrays a woman who leads by example. She allows CJ his feelings while also showing him an alternate perspective.
Christian Robinson

Christian Robinson's cityscape with its bright, solid colors and patterns will capture the interest of his audience. Even on this rainy Sunday morning on Market Street, the surroundings look cheery, as if Nana herself had painted the scenery. She seems to know and greet everyone she meets.

When readers discover the duo's destination (a homeless shelter where Nana volunteers), they--like Nana--will feel the promise of a community coming together and may even be inspired to help.  This uplifting picture book is a guaranteed attitude adjustment.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Inner Workings

Stanley the hamster is just the right hero to guide toddlers through the inner workings of their world. Stanley's Garage by William Bee is a familiar place--the service station--where Mom gets her tires changed, Dad gets his engine repaired, and the entire family fills up on gas.

Youngest children may not know all the different ways that the team at the garage helps them get where they need to be. William Bee uses different examples of characters with their cars to demonstrate a garage's many resources. He creates a small-town atmosphere where everyone knows everyone else, and builds a feeling of community and trust. People know that when they go to Stanley with a car problem, he will solve it.

In Stanley the Builder, the hamster hero similarly walks youngest book lovers through the process of constructing Myrtle the mouse's house, using his bulldozer, yellow digger and green crane, plus a little help from his friends.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Getting at the Truth

The heroine of David Arnold's Mosquitoland, 16-year-old Mary Iris Malone, gives readers a limited amount of information. She is an unreliable narrator. Yet she is smart and charming, and we want to believe her as she sets out to save her mother.

We learn that Mim's father married on the rebound, that Mim has not spoken with her mother in months, where she once spoke with her daily, that Mim has been prescribed a drug used to treat psychosis, and that there's a history of it in her family. Readers must piece together the truth between Mim's narrative of her journey, and flashbacks to the past.

Another recent and unforgettable unreliable narrator is Cadence in We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, and a classic is Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. Usually it's because there are things the narrator doesn't want to see, other times it's because the narrator needs to construct his or her reality in order to survive.

We as readers must rely upon the author's skill to toggle between the objective truth and the narrator's truth to make the constructed world of the novel hang together. We need to believe that both could be plausible, so that when they come together at the book's end (the narrator's version and the objective truth), we are satisfied. Mosquitoland does that. Quite a feat for a first novel.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Three Tales in One

Pam Muñoz Ryan
Photo: Ryan Publicity

Pam Muñoz Ryan's epic novel Echo began as a way to write about a little-known court case, Roberto Alvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District. Her research led her to a school yearbook photo in which half the students were barefoot and each kid was holding a Hohner Marine Band harmonica. 

That discovery took her on a journey involving three children's stories, all with a Hohner Marine Band harmonica at the center: 12-year-old Friedrich Schmidt in 1933 Germany, as the Nazi Party gains momentum; orphaned 11-year-old Mike Flannery in 1935 Philadelphia during the Depression; and Ivy Maria Lopez living in Southern California in 1942 as World War II rages. I got to interview Ryan for School Library Journal's Curriculum Connections. Here are a few highlights.

One of my favorite lines in Friedrich’s story is when he anticipates his audition for the conservatory: “How could he want something and fear it so much at the same time?”

Friedrich’s story is so much about the disillusionment of dreams. In his mind, he thought that he could have maybe gone to the conservatory, but he would still have stayed there in his town. His biggest worry was the audition, but there’s something larger [Hitler] that jeopardizes his entire existence.

In Mike’s story, [the adoptive mother] is the one who’s completely disillusioned  about the circumstances of her life—there’s another subtle theme about women being repressed. A lot of societal issues [were addressed in the book], and I had to present them matter-of-factly.

There’s the wonderful quote in Mike’s story as the boy goes through the music store that seems to reverberate with the harmonica’s journey: “Isn’t it wonderful! Music is just waiting to escape from all these instruments.”

There was the idea, as far back as my book The Dreamer (Scholastic, 2010) about Pablo Neruda. His premise was that your tangible essence travels with your tools, with anything that you’ve used with your hands. I love the idea that the harmonica carried something positive and self-affirming with it from [person to person]…that sense of euphoric well-being. It sounded so beautiful. I wanted that idea to carry that through the book.

Tell us about the fairy tale as a frame for the three stories.

From the moment they learn about Otto, the three sisters, and the witch’s curse, I wanted readers to suspend disbelief. By couching the three stories within a traditional fairy tale, I was saying to readers, “Come with me and believe…there’s some scary, hard stuff coming. The book is a dark forest, but we’ll make it to the end….”

Friday, March 13, 2015

Blended Families

Kathi Appelt

Few books handle blended families from a young child's point of view with such honest feeling as When Otis Courted Mama by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Jill McElmurry. Because the main character is a coyote pup, children can experience his emotions from a safe distance.

The desert setting allows for sizzling vocabulary words such as jalapeño flapjacks, prickly pear pudding, and playing "Zig-the-Zag" across the sand. Even though Cardell's parents are divorced, we see that he maintains a close relationship with each of them, including his father's new wife and their pup.

Yet Cardell is protective of his mother (with good reason, by his recollections of her former dates). Readers see right away that Cardell's new neighbor, Otis, is different from his mother's former callers. Otis is kind and gentle, courting both Mama and Cardell in his way, and he gives Cardell time and space to warm up to the idea of Mama and Otis dating. The picture book offers hope to children attempting to make sense of unfamiliar family arrangements and also to the idea of "sharing" a parent with someone else.

Two other recent titles about separated parents include Monday, Wednesday, and Every Other Weekend, written and illustrated by Karen Stanton, and for slightly older readers, Emily's Blue Period by Cathleen Daly, illustrated by Lisa Brown, offers a more complex emotional response to parents separating.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Preschool Preoccupations

Kevin Henkes

Kevin Henkes has tackled such early childhood preoccupations as a new sibling (Julius, the Baby of the World), a new school (Chrysanthemum) and anxieties large and small (Wemberly Worried). In Little White Rabbit, Henkes focuses on a child's curiosity and imagination.

His pastel palette of green and blue, with touches of pink and the occasional browns for a tree trunk or log (plus the gray of a menacing cat), allows little white rabbit to stand out against his surroundings. As he hops along, he imagines himself a part of everything he sees. In the high grass, he wonders what it would be like to be green. Then in a wordless spread, Henkes gives readers a window into little white rabbit's imagination. He is as green as the grasshopper perched on a bending blade of grass. All of the animals are shown in profile, so preschoolers only see one wide eye of each creature. When little white rabbit imagines himself tall, like the fir trees, Henkes depicts the rabbit's pink nose high in the air like the pink birds in flight just above his head; his feet are firmly planted beneath the fir tree, with a host of rabbits near, contrasting actual size with the hero, giant-size.

When little white rabbit hops over a rock and "wondered what it would be like not to be able to move," we can imagine preschoolers imitating the hero and staying stone-still, as little white rabbit imagines himself doing through sun, rain and darkness. One of the most glorious transitions occurs as the rabbit hero imagines "what it would be like to flutter through the air," as butterflies do. Henkes creates markings on the butterflies' wings that echo the pink inside the rabbit's white ears, so when he imagines himself in flight, his ears act as wings, and he appears to be migrating with them.

A moment of tension (the appearance of a cat) causes the hero to hop home "as fast as he could," where a loving mother awaits him ("[H]e didn't wonder who loved him"). How well Henkes knows that as much as little ones want to test their independence, they also want to know that their family is near. With only one line of text per spread (except for the wordless ones), this is a deceptively simple story that will launch a flight of fancy for youngest book lovers.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Who Was Malcolm X?

Sunny Hostin, Ilyasah Shabazz, and Kekla Magoon (l. to r.)

Last month at New York's 92nd Street Y, co-authors Ilyasah Shabazz (the third daughter of Malcolm X) and Kekla Magoon joined Sunny Hostin, a legal analyst and host on CNN, for a conversation about the legendary civil rights leader and their book, X: A Novel. They explained why they felt it was important to write about Malcolm X's youth.

Shabazz told Hostin that this book is important because "many people had the wrong impression of Malcolm." She said people think her father went to prison and "miraculously" became Malcolm X.

X: A Novel focuses on Malcolm Little growing up in Lansing, Mich. His parents were Marcus Garvey followers and suspected targets of the Black Legion (an offshoot of the KKK). Malcolm's father was killed on the streetcar tracks and his mother shipped off to a state hospital.

While The Autobiography of Malcolm X was written when Malcolm X was an adult who knew how his story turned out, Magoon explained, "putting it in the context of a novel allows teens to connect to it." Malcolm tried to run away from his parents' legacy, she added, "As a teen, he rediscovered his potential." Magoon felt that this story needed to be told in the present. "He was living each day like this is the only day," she said. "Teens can see themselves in that story."

Hostin asked the authors about their decision to use "the n word" in the book, a word she chooses not to use herself. Magoon pointed out that Malcolm X used the word in his own writings, and that the use of "the n word" by his history teacher, Mr. Ostrowski, was a turning point in Malcolm's life. When the teacher asked Malcolm Little, who got the best marks in Mr. Ostrowski's overwhelmingly white classroom, what he wanted to be, Malcolm answered, "A lawyer." The man responded, "This is the real world, boy.... Be as good as you want in the classroom, but out there, you're just a n-----." The scene appears nearly verbatim in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. "That was a throwaway moment for Mr. Ostrowski," Magoon pointed out. "That says a lot about how much power there is in words like that. Malcolm internalized it. He had to fight against that to rise back up. For Malcolm, it was years of making bad choices."

At various points in the conversation, Hostin, Shabazz and Magoon referred to recent protests in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York. One member of the audience asked how they could "channel that activism into a change in policy." He  wondered how we could keep this energy going. There were no easy answers. "The kids protesting today could read Malcolm's speeches and feel resonance with them now," said Magoon.

When Hostin asked Magoon what she'd like readers to take from X: A Novel, she hoped most of all that they'd enjoy it. Then Magoon added, "You can be anyone you want to be. Look how bad Malcolm's life was at certain moments, and look what he did. We all have that potential--that's something Malcolm X repeated over and over in his own ministry."

This is excerpted from a longer article that first ran in Shelf Awareness.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Rhythms and Layers

Kwame Alexander wrote his 2015 Newbery-winning novel The Crossover in poems that slip off the tongue effortlessly. The emphasis of the all caps and the line breaks assure even those who hesitate to read passages aloud that they will read (and sometimes shout) the lines properly from the start.

2015 Newbery winner Kwame Alexander
Photo: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
As with any great long poem, the novel's multiple meanings begin to emerge as the story progresses. The crossover move ("in which a player dribbles/ the ball quickly/ from one hand/ to the other./ As in: When done right,/ a crossover can break/ an opponent's ankles"), narrator Josh's signature play, takes on diverse aspects of crossing a threshold (from childhood to adulthood, life and death) over the course of the novel. The 10 rules of basketball that twins Josh and JB's father reinforce in them apply as much to life as they do to the game. The dreadlock incident (in which JB bets Josh that if JB can score the last basket of the game, he can cut off Josh's dreads--Josh agrees to one, JB cuts five, then their mother makes Josh slash the rest) hits Josh nearly as hard as it did Samson. The incident begins an escalation of his sense of loss and betrayal.

As Josh's rift widens with JB, who's not just his identical twin, but also his best friend, Josh is in danger of a spiral downward, and his parents won't allow it. Kwame Alexander told Karin Snelson in an interview for Shelf Awareness that he almost didn't keep the parents in the book. "In a lot of middle-grade and YA fiction the parents are done away with so that you can focus on the kids," he said. "My familial bonds were always extremely important, so that was my frame of mind at first. But as I wrote the book, I got caught up in this notion that the parents can't be that instrumental. And so the parents were introduced in the book, but they were just sort of there. I told myself, you have a loaded gun, but you haven't fired it. What's the point of introducing these strong parents if you aren't going to utilize that strength to make the story even more powerful? And once I decided that, I thought, well, that's the kind of house you grew up in, you can draw on your own relationship with your family."

So the final layer is art imitating life. There's no doubt of the emotional truth that informs this novel in verse.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Imaginary Friends

Dan Santat

Not every child invents an imaginary friend like the star of The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat, winner of the 2015 Caldecott Medal. And the ones who do, says author-artist Santat, don't "pick imaginary friends based on anything in particular."

Santat himself didn't have an imaginary friend, he told us when we interviewed him for Shelf Awareness after his Caldecott Medal was announced. "If I played make-believe, it was referenced by something I knew. I was going on an adventure with a Ghostbuster or Pac Man," he explained. "Talking with kids, not a lot of their imaginary friends reflected their interests or anything in particular about them." The imaginary friends in Beekle, however, share a great deal with the children who created them.

Q: You characterize both Beekle and his child, Alice, as relatively friendless--or at least incomplete--before they meet. 

Dan Santat: For the message of making a friend, I found it to be important to find two halves to a whole. To have Alice find--not because she's an introvert or shy--to find a friend in a world created by her, fills that void. It's like having that "a-ha" moment when all the pieces are coming together. I didn't want the imaginary friend to sound clichéd--hairy monsters with horns and stripes that didn't reflect anything. I wanted them to reflect these children and their interests. You can tell a lot about these children without any dialogue in the book.

Q: How did you come up with that setting--a kind of island of misfit toys with imaginary friends in limbo until they meet their child?

DS: It's funny that you call it limbo, because for a while the island's name was Limbo. The imaginary friends serve a function, but they don't know what it is yet. If you look on the endpapers, there's a monster that plays the drums for a child who loves music [and other examples]; they're not aware of the other half that completes them. With Beekle, my struggle was to make him in such a way that he didn't give away his purpose. He's the only pure white character in the entire book; he represents a blank canvas.

Q: Your Beekle-eye view of the subway is so spot on. Did you think of the sailing ship and the subway as a kind of journey to transition from his island of imaginary friends to the world of humans?

DS: The spread that really communicates the journey well is when he's lost in a sea of commuters walking, and you don't see their faces, just a sea of legs. I was trying to portray a child's experience. It's not as intimidating to meet people eye to eye as it is when you see these giants. If you're little and you're sitting on a couch, your legs are dangling off the edge of the chair. That's evident in the scene in the subway. Every year I go to New York to meet with my publisher, and people on the subway have their faces in books or they're sleeping. They don't really make contact or look around or reach out to anyone. There's a sense of a loss of magic when you're an adult. Things don't seem spectacular because you've gotten a bit cynical with the world.

You see that in the cake and the strawberries, the music notes of the accordion; those are the bright colors. It was important to me to separate these two worlds--the childlike innocence from the reality of how the world is to an adult.

This excerpt is taken from an interview that first appeared in Shelf Awareness.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Bilingual Board Books

Keith Baker
Photo credit: L. Cunningham

A great board book presents an idea or concept in simple terms, with artwork or photographs that support it. In Big Fat Hen / La gallina grande by Keith Baker, the author-artist counts from one to 10 using a well-known rhyme ("One, two, buckle my shoe") to do just that.

Translater Carlos E. Calvo chooses Spanish words that rhyme and that also add a touch of humor. For instance, when a blue hen lays four eggs and examines three worms ("three, four/ tres, cuatro"), the newly hatched four chicks, together, "shut the door/ cerramos la puerta un rato." Calvo indicates that it takes them awhile with the addition of the phrase "un rato," which also rhymes with "cuatro."

Creating a strong board book is not easy. The amount of text needs to be minimal, so youngest children who are just learning to identify letters, and perhaps sight words, can follow along. The illustrations need to support the text, rather than confuse toddlers who are just learning to name the people and objects in their world.

Bilingual board books add another layer of challenge because the words need to closely correlate to the words in English yet still be words that would be used in everyday conversations. Big Fat Hen accomplishes all of that -- simple, lively text with illustrations to support the counting concept, and a Spanish translation that's equally lively and allows both native Spanish speakers and native English speakers to experience the other language as naturally as possible.

Here are a few more bilingual board books or early picture books that several of my colleagues at the Bank Street College of Education found to be especially strong: Las fresas son rojas by Petr Horácek; My School / mi escuela by Rebecca Emberley; My Colors, My World / Mis Colores, Mi Mundo by Maya Christina Gonzalez; My Skeleton Family by Cynthia Weill, illus. by Jesús Canseco Zárate.

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Germ of an Idea

Jennifer Niven

Jennifer Niven's character Violet Markey, who had written a successful blog with her sister, Eleanor, summons the courage to start an online magazine of her own called Germ. Niven decided to start an actual magazine by the same name. We talked with her about the relationship between life and art in All the Bright Places.

That opening scene with Theodore Finch and Violet both contemplating suicide from the roof of their high school is both funny and also a nail-biter. How did you decide to start there?

The book is inspired by real-life events. It's a story I've carried around for a long time. I'd just come off a series of books for adults, and I'd just lost my agent. I wanted to write something that really mattered. When I got the idea for the story, I sat down and wrote the first chapter just to see what would happen. I thought, "What would it be like to write from a boy's point of view?" Originally, Violet was not on the ledge; Finch was up there by himself. The first line just came out, and it just kept going.

How did you find the voice for Finch?

I think one of the things that really informed the writing is knowing people--one boy in particular who I was close to--who had struggled with the same thing, bipolar disorder primarily. I have done a lot of research for nonfiction and historical novels. If I hadn't known people who were struggling with this, I don't know that I could have written it the way I did because there's only so much you can learn through research.

Tell us about the seeds of Violet's online magazine called "Germ" and the online magazine that you're involved with.

I was into revisions on a manuscript and I was thinking, "Wouldn't it be cool to have a real Germ magazine?" I started sketching it out, and flash-forward to now, and we have an all-volunteer staff. There are 45 of us, the age range is between 14 and 40, but the majority  are 14-25, and they're amazing. We have editors and social media people, and a literary section as well. We're getting wonderful submissions from around the world. We handle some of the harder issues, some great writers have written about their experiences with an eating disorder or being bipolar... and then also decorating your locker.

Of the kinds of books you've worked on--fiction and nonfiction for adults, this novel for teens--is there one area that's proven more challenging?

There are challenges with each book and each genre. I will say that it felt very natural to write YA. I lost my ex-boyfriend to suicide a long time ago, and my dad died of cancer during the same calendar year. I was allowed to grieve about my dad, but I couldn't grieve about the boyfriend. Writing this book was really cathartic.

I went to visit a high school and we asked everyone to think about their bright places--your dog, or your mom, or a movie you love, or a book or word you love. We put their bright places on Facebook, and you can go on Twitter and Instagram to see some of the places others have come up with. I'm so grateful for everything that's happening.

This is an excerpt from a longer interview that first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Opening Doors

Peter Sís
Photo: Palma Fiocco

 The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is Peter Sís' favorite book. "When I got it from my father, he made a point that it's a special book," Sís told me when I got to interview him for Kirkus Reviews about his book The Pilot and the Little Prince. "It was about secrets." At the time, Sís was a child growing up in Prague under a totalitarian regime, and The Little Prince transported him outside of its walls. "This was a door through which I could go myself," he says. "I could go to another place or another planet."

The Pilot and the Little Prince took Sís a long time to write. "The Galileo (Starry Messenger) and Darwin (The Tree of Life) books happened while this project percolated," says Sís. "With Darwin and Galileo, I wanted to show children that people would be against them, and they'd have to face challenges." On the other hand, Sís says, "Saint-Exupéry is about the poetry." But it's also a history of the airplane. Born in 1900, Saint-Exupéry started flying at the dawn of aviation and, as a pilot, saw dramatic changes in the development of the airplane. The Lockheed P-38 Lightning Antoine flies at the end of the book is almost as advanced as the planes today, according to Sís. He simultaneously captures both the possibilities of science and the poetry of the era in which the author/artist and aviator lived. This duality resonated with Sís, who grew up reading Jules Verne and watching the films of Georges Méliès, among other artists, to whom he gives a nod in the opening spread.

Sís has returned to The Little Prince at different stages in his life. "As a child, I thought, 'Of course, he talks about how we children know it's an elephant in a boa constrictor.' " These are the secrets Saint-Exupéry confides—that children understand what adults do not. “I remember coming to this country, it was a book of hope," Sís continues. "Reading it to my children later, it was more melancholy and sad. Being older, you understand both worlds. Unfortunately, I became the adult."

This is an excerpt from a feature that originally appeared in Kirkus Reviews.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Lasting Color

Marla Frazee is not shy about using colors. Just look at All the World (written by Liz Ganlon) and A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever (which she wrote as well as illustrated), both Caldecott Honor books. But in her latest book, The Farmer and the Clown, the absence of words and her sparing use of color highlight the shift a little clown makes in a farmer's life. The clown introduces not only color, but also a new perspective--even a sense of joy--to the farmer's seemingly ceaseless routine.

Interiors from The Farmer and the Clown
The colors of the train traveling on the tracks at the edge of the farmer's property telegraph "circus": fun, entertainment, escape from the daily grind. The little treasure the train inadvertently leaves behind ripples through the farmer's world, disrupting his daily rhythms in the best possible way. The farmer, usually dressed in a crisp white shirt and earth-colored pants, wears red pajamas, suggesting he only lets go at day's end. And boy, does that toddler clown give him permission to let go--making faces, juggling eggs, packing a picnic basket.

In the parting images, Frazee lets readers know that the clown has made a lasting impact on the farmer--he will carry the joy he shared with the little clown always.

Friday, January 2, 2015

From 1 to 100

The design of Countablock is as enticing as the text by Christopher Franceschelli and the illustrations by Peskimo. Young children can touch each numeral as they count from 1 to 10 (and then by 10s to 100). They can see that 6 and 8 have curves, and that 4 and 7 are angular. They can begin to recognize the numerals on sight, just as they would sight words such as "the" and "and."

From Countablock
At a time when children are learning at their most rapid rate, they can gain a full experience of seeing, touching and sounding out the names of these numbers as well as counting the objects. The book is beautiful to behold, the text stimulates thinking, guessing and problem-solving, and the pages are chunky enough for little hands to grip and turn, over and over again.

Children will appreciate the book's additional layers as their developmental skills widen and deepen. Author and artists (Peskimo is a husband-and-wife illustrator team) pay homage to both the beauty of the natural world (20 caterpillars that transform into 20 butterflies), and humor (with 40 eggs that include 39 of the more common white or beige variety, but also a large green egg that cracks open to reveal a surprise occupant). There is much to savor in these pages.