Monday, January 16, 2017

Place Your Bets!

It's the most wonderful time of the year for children's literature fans, the time when we eagerly await the announcements of the winners of the prestigious Caldecott Medal and Newbery Medal. Those winners (and the winners of a host of other children's and teen book awards) will be announced on Monday, Jan. 23 at an early morning press event at the American Library Association's Midwinter conference in Atlanta. The event will be attended in-person by hundreds of librarians but it also will be live-streamed so folks everywhere can enjoy the excitement.

While the discussions of the "real" 2017 Caldecott and Newbery committees will remain forever secret, children's book fans around the country have been discussing and voting on their own choices for these top awards. These gatherings, called "mocks," are a wonderful way to connect with other children's book lovers who share a great enthusiasm for trying to predict the Caldecott and Newbery winners. Young readers themselves, of course, also have been participating in mocks in their classrooms and at local libraries, trying to see how close they can come to the "real" winners.

At my library, we held two mock events. In December, we hosted our third annual Mock Caldecott for Adults. In three hours, we read together our 20 finalists (which I had chosen with my co-host, Alison Morris) and discussed them according to the Caldecott criteria. Our mock Caldecott winner was They All Saw a Cat, written and illustrated by Brendan Wenzel. We had two mock Honor books: Du Iz Tak?, written and illustrated by Carson Ellis, and Daniel Finds a Poem, written and illustrated by Micha Archer.

Our second event was the culmination of a year of monthly Caldecott Club programs for kids and adults. At each program, we read four books, discuss them according to our "kid-friendly" Caldecott criteria, and then vote on our favorite of the evening. That book then becomes one of our finalists. Earlier this month, at our January Caldecott Club we re-read all of our nine finalists as well as a ringer that I tossed in -- They All Saw a Cat. I was interested to see if our Caldecott Club members, who range in age from 3 up, would like the book as much as those who attended our Mock Caldecott for Adults. It turns out they did: They All Saw a Cat easily won our Caldecott Cub mock election. We also chose one mock Honor book, School's First Day of School, written by Adam Rex and illustrated by Christian Robinson.

Looking at the results of mock Caldecott programs held around the country, it's clear that They All Saw a Cat is a favorite. But that doesn't necessarily mean it will win the 2017 Caldecott Medal. Having served on the 2016 Caldecott Medal committee, I can tell you that we read both more widely and more deeply than others would be able to do. Even more importantly, we spent two days in intense discussion of our nominated books. Predicting a winner beforehand would have been truly impossible.

Still, it's fun for those not serving on the awards committees to try to predict the winners! This year, for the second time, the Association for Library Service to Children has dedicated a space on its blog for reports of the mock winners across the country. While the most popular mocks focus on the Caldecott Medal and the Newbery Medal, some libraries also hold mocks focused on the Geisel Award (given to the best book for beginning readers), the Sibert Medal (given to the best non-fiction book for kids), the Printz Award (given to the best book for teens), and more.

And, for those who can't get enough of trying to predict the winners, there are discussion blogs focused on various awards. These include Heavy Medal (focused on the Newbery Medal), Calling Caldecott, Someday My Printz Come, and the newest blog, Guessing Geisel. But there's nothing like hearing the awards announced in real time. So mark your calendars for January 23 at 8 a.m. and join the excitement via the live webcast!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Winnie-the-Pooh and Me

A year ago today, children's book illustrator Sophie Blackall won the 2016 Caldecott Medal for her illustrations for Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear.

Sophie gets "the call"

 It was a huge day for Sophie, and a big day for me too, as I was a member of the 2016 Caldecott Committee that chose Finding Winnie as the "most distinguished American picture book for children."

Here I am with some of my fellow "Caldecrew;" our wonderful chair, Rachel Payne, is second from right in back. 

A quick recap of the story recounted in Finding Winnie: In the book, author Lindsay Mattick tells of the impetuous decision by her grandfather, a Canadian veterinarian by the name of Harry Colebourn, to purchase a bear cub for $20 as he was heading off to serve in World War 1. Harry brought the cub, which he named Winnie for his native Winnipeg, across the Atlantic with him and she was a mascot at his training camp in England. Before Harry and his unit left to fight in France, however, he realized that it would be best to leave Winnie behind at the London Zoo. It was there that a young boy named Christopher Robin Milne met Winnie and decided to name his favorite stuffed bear after her; his father, novelist A.A. Milne, immortalized the name in a book of stories about his son's bear, a book called Winnie-the-Pooh.

It's a rather incredible-but-true tale, and one that had been little known in the United States before the publication of Finding Winnie. But the story, made even more memorable with Sophie's stunning artwork, now has found a wide audience, thanks to the Caldecott Medal.

Six months after our committee chose Finding Winnie for the 2016 Caldecott Medal, Sophie formally accepted the award with a heart-tugging speech in which she noted that Winnie-the Pooh was the first book she bought with her own money: "It was an old, worn edition. A prop in my mother's antique shop. I read it in my secret spot under a table. I used to hide the book so no one would buy it. Eventually, my mother sold it to me for a dollar, and I polished the steps to earn the money.

"I had never known a book like it. A book with interjections and digressions and ponderings. One that meandered and backtracked, that bounced and hummed, that drew you in so close that you felt you were in the very forest itself, and at the same time allowed you to step back and see the actual form of a book. With characters so endearing you hated to leave them behind. So you didn't."

Sophie's cover for the July-August Horn Book.
As Sophie spoke those words at the Newbery-Caldecott banquet on the night of June 26, 2016, I had a flashback to my own introduction to Winnie-the-Pooh (and The House At Pooh Corner) years ago. Since then, I have discovered -- or, rather, rediscovered -- a number of ways that my life has been connected to Winnie-the-Pooh, years before I served on the 2016 Caldecott Committee.

Some of these connections are tangential, such as the fact that some of my first children's books were given to me by my mother's cousin, whom I called Aunt Priscilla. She worked for a Boston-based publisher named Little, Brown. Guess who published Finding Winnie? Yep that's right --Little, Brown, now based in New York.

Here's another, more direct connection. I had somehow never read Winnie-the-Pooh as a child, yet because my sister, seven years younger than I, was passionately attached to the Disney version of the Milne books, I certainly knew of the character.

But it wasn't until I was in my late 20's that I first read the "real" Winnie-the-Pooh. My husband and I were spending the day in Savannah, Ga. and stopped in at a bookstore called The Book Lady. There my husband spotted used hardback copies of Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, books that he had loved as a child. Astounded that I had never read them, my husband bought them on the spot and we read them aloud, a chapter at a time, when we returned home. They became instant favorites of mine, and I've re-read them numerous times since then.

Today, in yet another rather amazing connection, our son now is a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design and he lives just a block from The Book Lady.  My husband and I love to visit Savannah, and The Book Lady is a must-do destination each time. (And I still have wonderful memories of reading Winnie-the-Pooh aloud to my son who was both charmed and calmed by the stories.)

One final -- and very direct -- connection to Winnie-the-Pooh: in the early 1980's, I was working as a Washington correspondent for The Albuquerque Tribune, a paper owned by Scripps Howard. The main company had just formed the DC-based Scripps Howard News Service and was scrambling for copy to put out on its wire. While I enjoyed covering politics for the Trib, I really wanted to write national features for the news service. First, however, I had to convince the editors to create that beat.

Elliott Graham and the original Winnie-the-Pooh

To persuade them, I decided to write a few features in my own time, and one of them relates directly to Winnie-the-Pooh. I had read about the fact the real Winnie-the-Pooh and his stuffed companions resided (at that time) in a New York publishing house and so, the next time I visited New York, I set up an appointment to see them. I also got to meet their human companion, a lovely man named Elliott Graham who actually chaperoned Winnie-the-Pooh on visits around the country.

My article on Pooh and Elliott went out on the Scripps wire and got picked up by newspapers across the country. While I never did convince my bosses to start a national features beat, the Pooh article inspired me to create a weekly children's book review column for Scripps Howard News Service. I wrote that column for 23 year until the news service was ended in 2013. This blog is the successor to that column, and now here I am, once again writing about Winnie-the-Pooh -- only this time in my second-career persona as a children's librarian, and incredibly proud member of the 2016 Caldecott Committee!

One final note: a mega "Thank You" to my fellow "Caldec-crew" members and our incredible chair, Rachel Payne. I've definitely gained 14 wonderful new friends through our work together as a committee. And, of course, a big "Hurrah!" to Sophie for creating such extraordinary illustrations in Finding Winnie. As Sophie put it so beautifully in her Caldecott acceptance speech: "To the 2016 Caldecott committee: we are forever connected, you and I. You are my committee and I am your medalist." Indeed.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Surprised By the New Harry Potter

When I recently sat down to read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I felt a range of emotions: happiness at being back in Harry's world again; worry that both the script format and the story itself might be disappointing; and fascination with the idea that the "boy who lived" was now a middle-aged wizard.

What I didn't expect, however, was the gut-wrenching emotions I felt watching Harry and his younger son Albus try to deal with their already-complicated relationship as Albus becomes a teenager and really feels the weight of being the son of the world's most famous wizard. That's not a spoiler -- pretty much everything that has been written about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has referred to the fraught Harry-Albus relationship as a major part of the story.

Yet while I knew about it, I wasn't prepared for the way the emotional force of their parent-teen divide would hit me. Perhaps it's because I've recently experienced the ups and downs of parenting adolescents myself (and come out the other side with two wonderful young adults). Or perhaps it is the way the story brings out the nuances and complexities of the awkward/strained Harry-Albus relationship. Harry may be the world's most famous wizard, but that doesn't meant he's having an easy time dealing with a teen who really doesn't want much to do with him. And, of course, Harry didn't have any real parent role models in his own growing-up years, which just makes it harder. In her recent review, New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani further explores the Harry-Albus dynamic as a key emotional element Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

This was definitely the biggest surprise in the book for me, but there were others, most of which I won't discuss as I believe it's best to come to any Harry Potter story as fresh as possible. I will say, however, that I found the story irresistible, the script itself well-written, and I especially loved the way that bits and pieces from the Harry Potter books were woven into the play. There is one further surprise I can discuss, however, which is how easily I became accustomed to the script format. Like many others, I had originally found it somewhat irritating that what had been billed as the "new Harry Potter book," was actually the "special rehearsal edition script" of the play that opened recently in London. It seemed a bit like cheating! And I wondered -- a little -- about how accessible young readers would find the format, although as I told a New York Times interviewer: "Any true Harry Potter fan will leap over any obstacle to keep up with his story." (Unfortunately I wasn't quoted in the Times story -- a hazard of which I'm well aware as a former newspaper reporter, but it was fun to marshall my thoughts about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in preparation for the interview).

Actually the interviewer was most interested in whether the fact that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was published as a script would lead more kids to read plays. As I told the reviewer, I have my doubts about that, but I do harbor a hope that the script format will lead more kids towards what is known as "Reader's Theater."

Librarian Elizabeth Poe's book is a great resource for doing Reader's Theater.

To do Reader's Theater, you take a story -- say The Three Pigs -- and re-write it as a script. Then make copies of the script, one for each character, and then choose a child for each character. Hand them a script, have them take a bow, and the show starts! Reader's Theater not only is fun, but research also has shown that it a wonderful way for kids to gain fluency in reading aloud. We've done Reader's Theater in my library, and everyone has a blast. So, if the script format of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child helps inspire more libraries and schools to do Reader's Theater, that's a great thing!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A Tale of Two Potters

It's the best of times when you get two -- yes, two! -- big children's literary birthday celebrations in one week. Interestingly, they both involve Potters.

One of the birthday celebrations is all over the news. That would be the upcoming July 31st birthday of Harry Potter, which is being celebrated with the 12:01 a.m. release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It's not a typical novel, however; it's the rehearsal script of a play now running in London and based on an idea by Harry Potter author J.K Rowling. Hearkening back to the worldwide excitement generated by the last release of a Harry Potter book (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) in 2007, bookstores around the country have planned midnight release parties, complete with trivia matches, costume contests and more.

The milestone birthday of another famous Potter -- Beatrix -- has gotten much less publicity. This week marks the 150th birthday of Beatrix Potter, who was born on July 28, 1866. Beatrix Potter, as most folks know, wrote and illustrated The Tale of Peter Rabbit and others in her now-classic "little books" series. Fewer people, however, may be aware of Beatrix Potter's fascination and talent for science, especially mycology, the study of fungi. Beatrix Potter also is well-known in the United Kingdom for her efforts at land conservation.

While Beatrix Potter's life may have lacked the excitement of the fictional Harry Potter's life, she was a ground-breaker in her own right, both in creating some of the earliest best-selling children's books and also as one of the first to begin licensing products related to her work, including a stuffed Peter Rabbit. In 2002, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, I wrote an article about Beatrix Potter in which children's book expert Anita Silvey noted: "Potter's characters are not human beings in animal clothing, They are animals who can walk and talk. Peter Rabbit is an anatomically correct rabbit. She really combined her knowledge of nature with a touch of fantasy and whimsy."

For more on Beatrix Potter, check out the official website dedicated to her life and work, as well as this article which details "six things you may not know" about her.

Meanwhile, the main focus this week remains trained on the Potter with the lightning scar on his forehead. The play of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has gotten nearly unanimously rave reviews, but very little is known about the story as playgoers (including reviewers) have mostly abided by the injunction that they not reveal its secrets.

This secrecy has made things a little dicey for children's librarians like myself who are wondering exactly what is the age range for readers of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Since it's published by Scholastic, a children's and teen books publisher, I'm assuming that it's appropriate at least for ages 10 up, but I'm certainly expecting that teens and adults will want to read it -- especially those young adults in their early 20s who grew up with the midnight release parties. And then there's the issue of whether readers -- kids or adults -- will find it hard to read the script format. Personally, I'm thinking that any true Harry Potter fan will leap over any obstacle to read more about their fictional hero.

At my library, we're skipping any midnight parties, and instead we've planned a "listening session" of the first chapters of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone from 1:30-4:30 p.m. this Saturday afternoon (July 30). In my mind, the combination of narrator Jim Dale and a Harry Potter book equals pure magic, and I'm looking forward to sharing that magic with our patrons. We'll have birthday cake, snacks and lemonade, plus Harry Potter artwork for folks to color as they listen. And we're encouraging everyone to bring blankets and pillows and just settle down to enjoy some great listening.

 But we also haven't forgotten about the birthday of the other Potter. We've put up a little display of Beatrix Potter's books, including some biographies, and hope to encourage patrons to rediscover the magic of the "other" Potter this week as well.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Making Memories with My Calde-crew

The last time the members of the 2016 Caldecott Committee gathered, it was January and we were in snowy Boston where we spent hours in a locked room trying to determine which book would win the 2016 Caldecott Medal. On the morning of January 11th, our choice was announced to the world: Finding Winnie, illustrated by Sophie Blackall. We also chose four Caldecott Honor books (in order by title): Last Stop on Market Street, illustrated by Christian Robinson; Trombone Shorty, illustrated by Bryan Collier; Voice of Freedom, illustrated by Ekua Holmes; and Waiting, illustrated by Kevin Henkes.

It's no secret that being on an awards committee is a real honor, but it's also hard work. There are hundreds of books to read and evaluate followed by a herculean effort to winnow that mountain of books down to a list of finalists, and then the final push to choose a winner. We finished the hard part in January, and then last month, at the American Library Association's Annual conference in hot and muggy Orlando, it was time to celebrate the winners, and be feted for our work on the 2016 Caldecott Committee. And it was also a time to be inspired and energized by talking with some of the best authors and illustrators working in the children's book world today.

First up was a mini-reunion of our Calde-crew at a Thursday night dinner. Not all 15 of us could be there that night, but we had enough of a majority that we decided to present our wonderful chairperson, Rachel Payne of the Brooklyn Public Library, with a memento of the experience: a bracelet specially made by an artist on Etsy featuring tiny images of our Caldecott Medal winner and Caldecott Honor books. In fact, we liked the idea so much that many of us decided to order our own bracelet.

Friday night was devoted to a dinner with the four Caldecott Honor illustrators: Christian Robinson (Last Stop on Market Street); Bryan Collier (Trombone Shorty); Ekua Holmes (Voice of Freedom); and Kevin Henkes (Waiting). Carole Boston Weatherford, author of Voice of Freedom, also attended. The event was hosted by the indefatiguable Jason Welles of Abrams, publisher of Trombone Shorty. Abrams had created special table decorations from illustrations in each of the Caldecott Honor books, and we committee members each got to take one home. Even more importantly, we were given a copy of each of the four Honor books, and were able to spent time with each illustrator as he or she personally signed our copies.

Close-up photos of the table decorations are by my fellow committee member, Elise Katz.

There weren't any formal remarks by the Honor illustrators, so Kevin Henkes later sent us copies of what he had planned to say if there had been a time for speaking. Henkes wrote: "The brilliant publisher, William R. Scott, once said, the picture book is 'the simplest, subtlest, most communicative, most elusive, most challenging book form of them all.' I couldn't agree more. In my book, three gifts appear on the windowsill: a marble, an acorn, and a tiny seashell. Your gift to me is far grander. And, I thank you, Caldecott Committee, for honoring my picture book in such a lovely way."

Saturday evening was another night to remember as our committee dined with Caldecott Medalist Sophie Blackall, her editor Susan Rich and several other folks from the Little, Brown team whose combined efforts made Finding Winnie such a gem. The event was orchestrated by Victoria Stapleton, Little, Brown's publicist extraordinaire, who surprised our committee with specially-saved first edition copies of Finding Winnie for Sophie to personalize for each of us. It was an evening of laughter and happy tears as Sophie described her experience working on the book, beginning with Susan Rich's invitation to illustrate it. Susan then presented Sophie with a one-of-a-kind gift: a hand-embroidered Winnie that Susan had created herself. 

Sophie holds Winnie embroidered by Susan Rich.

The final touch was the amazing poppy corsage/boutoniere -- complete with a tiny watercolor image of Winnie -- that Sophie had hand-crafted for each member of the Calde-crew.

Then came the big event -- the Sunday evening Newbery Caldecott Wilder banquet. It's always a highlight of any ALA Annual conference, as the winners of these most prestigious children's book awards give acceptance speeches that are not only fascinating glimpses into writing and illustrating children's books but also are hugely inspiring. In addition to 2016 Caldecott Medalist Sophie Blackall, the two other speakers were 2016 Newbery Medalist Matt de la Pena, who wrote the text of the Caldecott Honor picture book, Last Stop On Market Street, and 2010 Caldecott Medalist Jerry Pinkney, who won the Wilder Award for his distinguished work over a decades-long career in children's books. (Note: the Caldecott Honor and Newbery Honor recipients are called up to the stage during the program to receive recognition and a plague, but they don't speak at the banquet).

Before the banquet, however, we had one other wonderful chance to mingle with the winners in the pre-banquet "greenroom." 

Sophie  & Kevin Henkes (in back at right) with the Calde-crew.

The banquet head table was quite a picture of diversity. Matt de la Pena is the first Latino man to win the Newbery Medal. Jerry Pinkney was the first African-American man to win the Caldecott Medal (a biracial author/illustrator team, Leo and Diane Dillon, had previously won two Caldecott Medals). And Sophie Blackall added to the number of women who have won the Caldecott Medal, a number that is still significantly smaller than the number of male recipients.

The 2016 Caldecott, Newbery & Wilder honorees

Each of the trio had important and heart-felt things to say about children's literature, and I'm going to link to The Horn Book, which has reprinted their full speeches, each of which is well worth taking the time to read. Also in this link are the profiles of each winner, written by someone close to them. (There are also a few other links, including one to Bryan Collier's speech accepting the 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for Trombone Shorty. )

Meanwhile, I will pull out just a few lines from the banquet speeches:

Sophie Blackall: "Winnie the Pooh was the first book I bought with my own money. It was an old, worn edition. A prop in my mother's antique shop.I read it in my secret spot under a table. I used to hide the book so nobody would buy it. Eventually my mother sold it to me for a dollar, and I polished the steps to earn the money. I had never known a book like it. A book with interjections and digressions and ponderings. One that meandered and backtracked, that bounced and hummed, that drew you in so close that you felt you were in the very forest itself, and at the same time allowed you to step back and see the actual form of a book. With characters so endearing you hated to leave them behind. So you didn't.....

"Everything is connected. If I hadn't been bored out of my brain in my mother's antique shop, I wouldn't have resorted to a dusty book. If I hadn't encountered that book at that time, I would have been a very different child. If my mother hadn't kept me supplied with paper, I wouldn't have traced E. H. Shepard's lines over and over again. If my father, to whom Finding Winnie is dedicated, hadn't devoted his life to books, I wouldn't have known what a good life it could be."

Matt de la Pena: "...'Hey mister,' I've heard time and time again, always from kids at the poorer schools. 'Why would you come here?

The subtext is obvious. 

This school is not worth of your time.

We are not worthy of your time.

When I sat dow to write the text of Last Stop On Market Street, this troubling mindset was rattling around in my brain. Nana, the wise grandma in the book, is urging CJ to see the beauty of his surroundings, yes, but she's also steering him toward something much more fundamental. She's teaching CJ to see himself as beautiful. To see himself as worthy. 'Sometimes when you're surrounded by dirt, CJ, you're a better witness for what's beautiful.'

And sometimes when you grow up outside the reach of the American Dream, you're in a better position to record the truth. That we don't all operate under the same set of rules. That our stories aren't all assigned the same value in the eyes of decision makers. "

Jerry Pinkney: "Picture books became a vessel to hold all of the joy and sadness of my growing-up years, all the triumphs and tragedies...... By using my personal history, the work became layered, the drawings more meaningful. Art became the bridge that carried me from the past I wanted to escape into the world I wanted to inhabit. My childhood was limited, but I learned that through my own creativity, the world was limitless....

"I'm saddened that we still have too many children waking up in a world where the odds are stacked against them, where they don't feel safe in their own communities..... Librarians and teachers have the most important job, in a sense: ... they are the keepers of dreams, the dispensers of possibility.

"This was certainly true for me, growing up. So, to all of the people who have supported me through the years, who have opened my books and shared them with others: thank you for your belief in me. It is you whom I have felt nudging me to always stay true to drawing my dream."

It's a tradition for the newly-named Caldecott Medalist to create the program for the banquet, using imagery from their winning book. The program created by Sophie is truly a piece of art, with several die-cut pages at the back, and not-previously-published photographs of the real Winnie on the inside. During the banquet, my fellow committee member Jennifer Ralston and I were lucky enough to sit with Caldecott Honoree Christian Robinson and family, including his beloved Nana. Later, we all got to meet Lindsay Mattick, author of Finding Winnie, which, of course, tells the story of how her great-grandfather purchased a bear cub while on the way to World War 1. 

With the dawn of Monday morning, there was one last thing for the 2016 Calde-crew to do: head to the conference exhibits for a copy of the latest Horn Book, fresh off the presses. Here's why: it's a tradition for the Caldecott medalist to create the cover for the June/July Horn Book, referencing both their own winning book and the winner of the Newbery Medal. We wanted to be among the first to see what Sophie had done with the cover, and we certainly weren't disappointed!

END NOTES: Thanks to all of the publishers who feted our Calde-crew in Orlando: Little, Brown, Abrams, Candlewick Press, Greenwillow/HarperCollins, Putnam/Penguin. Thanks to our Caldecott winner, Sophie Blackall, and our Caldecott Honoroees: Bryan Collier, Kevin Henkes, Ekua Holmes, and Christian Robinson. Thanks to my wonderful Calde-crew for memories that will last a lifetime. As Sophie put it in her speech: "To the 2016 Caldecott committee: we are forever connected, you and I. You are my committee and I am your medalist. To everybody I couldn't thank by name: you know who you are. Publishers, librarians, agents, educators, booksellers, writers, and illustrators, we are all connected by our love of books and the children who read them, and by our profound belief in the power of stories to shape lives. We may never all be in the same room together again, but wherever we go, and whatever happens to us along the way, I will remember you all and this enchanted evening, and be grateful."

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Science Fun With Maris Wicks

Anyone who thinks science is boring has never met Maris Wicks. A self-described "gigantic nerd," Maris combines science and comics in a way that makes things like marine science just irresistible reading, even for those who think they aren't interested in science. Maris also is a fabulous presenter, which is not surprising given her years putting on programs for kids as an educator with the New England Aquarium.

Maris recently visited my library during a book tour for her newest science comic, Coral Reefs: Cities of the Ocean. In the book, Maris uses a gobie fish narrator to engagingly teach readers things like that fact that a coral actually is an animal, not a plant. The bright colors, clean lines, and cartoon style of Maris' illustrations, plus the text's ever-present humor, make it incredibly fun to learn all the information she presents. Maris herself is full of energetic high spirits, as she demonstrated as she taught us a dance about the water cycle. Her enthusiasm for science is both inspiring and contagious.

In our library program, Maris also talked her first two books, Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas, and Human Body Theater. In giving us a glimpse into the basic biology highlighted in Human Body Theater, Maris taught us another dance and song, which had these words: "Eating up the Co2222222, and farting out the oxy...gen....." Of course, the kids loved it.

Maris then did a bit of live drawing, asking kids for some of their favorite denizens of the deep and then drawing them on the spot. Things got wild as she drew a narwhal -- which has at least one and sometimes two horns that are actually teeth-- coming face-to-face with a unicorn.

The kids got so excited by it all that they also wanted to do some drawing, and we quickly supplied them with pencils and paper.

The program concluded with Maris not just signing books but drawing a personalized illustration in each one. This took time, but kids were more than willing to wait, and in fact, they really loved watching her draw.

Creating science comics and making presentations about them seems to be a perfect mix for Maris, who majored in illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design before embarking on her career as a science educator. Over the years that she worked in education, Maris continued to draw and create comics, both for the Aquarium, and for places like Spongebob Comics, Marvel Comics, and DC Comics. Her work caught the eye of the folks at First Second Books, the renowned graphic novel imprint of Macmillan, who chose her to illustrate Primates, which was written by Jim Ottaviani. That launched her career in a big way, as Ottaviani is well-known for his graphic novels on science and scientists. These days, Maris focuses full-time on creating science comics -- and giving wonderfully fun and inspiring presentations.

Maris drew Jane Goodall riding a whale shark for Alison Morris.

END NOTES: Thanks to Maris Wicks for opening my eyes to how fun science can be! Thanks to publicist extraordinaire Gina Gagliano of First Second Books/Macmillan, for working out all the program details and sending a review copy of Coral Reefs. Thanks also to Politics & Prose for booking Maris at my library. Thanks to Maurice Belanger for taking such great photos, and to Alison Morris for her great tweets about the event.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Blackall & Marciano Stir Up a Great "Witches" Brew

It's a truth universally acknowledged that having a Caldecott Medalist visit your library is a dream come true for a children's librarian. So I was expecting to be thrilled when 2016 Caldecott Medalist Sophie Blackall recently came to do a program at my library; it was particularly thrilling because I was a member of the 2016 Caldecott Committee that awarded Sophie the medal for her illustrations in Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear.

But I admit that I was unprepared for the delights of the program that Sophie and author John Bemelmans Marciano recently presented to the appreciative audience of kids and adults gathered in my library's Children's Room. You see, the reason that Sophie has been visiting lots of libraries and schools is because she is on a book tour with John (or "Johnny," as Sophie affectionately calls him) for a new chapter book series, The Witches of Benevento. John wrote the books, while Sophie created the illustrations that grace nearly every page. The beautifully designed books are a smaller-than-usual size than most hardcover kids' fiction, but are, as John noted, just the right size to fit comfortably in a child's hand.

The series, aimed at ages 7-10, focuses on five cousins and the way they outwit the many witches who live in their hometown of Benevento, Italy.  Sophie and John have been working on the books for several years, and clearly are having loads of fun creating them. School Library Journal noted of the first book, Mischief Season: "Magical spells and amusing characters with distinctive personalities, coupled with an engaging story with a twist, will captivate readers and leave them clamoring for future stories...."

Sophie and John demonstrate how the books literally fit together.

Not only are the books (the second book, The All-Powerful Ring, was co-published with Mischief Season) captivating, but Sophie and John also have developed a presentation that is fast-paced and funny. It certainly was a hit with our audience, who loved learning all about the different kinds of witches that supposedly hang out in droves in Benevento. My husband, who attended the program, said he wondered at first whether kids would be confused by all the details about the different witches and ways to ward them off. But the kids aced the witches quiz at the program's conclusion, proving once again that we adults too often underestimate kids.

It was marvelous to see the way that Sophie and John would so easily toss the program reins, so to speak, back and forth to each other, as well as their easy camaraderie. That's not surprising given that they share a studio in Brooklyn, along with three other children's book authors and illustrators: 2014 Caldecott Medalist Brian Floca, Sergio Ruzzier, and Eddie Hemingway. (Interestingly, two of the five studio mates have famous grandfathers: John's grandfather was Ludwig Bemelmans, who created the Madeline books, while Eddie is the youngest grandson of Ernest Hemingway).

A young artist adds a bit more to the drawing, at Sophie's request.

Our program concluded with Sophie gamely drawing ideas shouted out by audience members as to what a Janara, a type of witch found in Benevento, might look like. No one has ever seen a Janara -- that's part of their magic -- so the sky was the limit when it came to kids' suggestions. But Sophie was more than capable of keeping up with them! The resulting illustration was both charming and comic.

Overall, it was a memorable evening, both a rare chance to host the "reigning" Caldecott Medalist ,as well as an opportunity to see two talented children's book creators work together to create some literary magic for a roomful of kids and adults.

Sophie, me & Finding Winnie!

Sophie, John, Me & Library Assistant Dave Burbank

END NOTES: Thanks to Sophie Blackall and John Bemelmans Mariano for stirring up such a wonderful "witches" brew of a program. Thanks also to Politics & Prose and Penguin Kids for making the program possible. And thanks to photographers Maurice Belanger and Bruce Guthrie for capturing the fun.