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.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Mac and Matt Rule the House

Mac and Matt recently visited my library and, to no one's surprise, they ruled the house.

Mac, of course, is the inimitable Mac Barnett, superstar picture book author of such Caldecott Honor-winning gems as Sam & Dave Dig a Hole and Extra Yarn. Matt is Matt Myers, illustrator of such books as the What James Said, one of the favorites of my library's mock Caldecott programs last year.

Author Mac Barnett and illustrator Matt Myers (Photo credits: Bruce Guthrie)
A few years ago, Mac and Matt worked together -- along with the great Jon Scieszka - on a wonderful, quirky book called Battle Bunny. If you've never seen it, go check it out. It is a brilliant send-up of the kind of sentimental picture books often beloved by well-meaning adults and loathed by young readers.

Now, the two of them have teamed up again on Rules of the House, the kind of subversive book that kids love. And, as part of my library's partnership with Politics & Prose bookstore, both Mac and Matt recently came to read and discuss Rules of the House to an enthusiastic crowd of kids and adults.

Mac Barnett
In Barnett's text, chronic rule-breaker Jenny scoffs at her younger brother Ian, who believes that rules are made to be followed. When Jenny and Ian's family heads to a cabin in the woods for a get-away, Jenny naturally opens the cabin's red door after reading it should never be opened. The consequences? A bearskin rug, oven and bathtub that want to eat her. Ian at first is inclined to let Jenny just suffer the consequences of her rule-breaking, but then decides that he will come to her rescue -- breaking a few rules himself. Myers's oil-painted illustrations wonderfully exaggerate the emotions in Barnett's text -- both the tension between Jenny and Ian, and the scariness of the creatures who want to devour Jenny. And Myers's depiction of the cabin -- both its natural darkness and its isolation-- is spot on.

Matt Myers
In its review, Publishers Weekly noted that, in Rules of the House, "Barnett focuses his inimitable blend of energy and fiendish imagination on children's fascination with the rules." PW added: "Myers's acrylics revel in horror-movie parody, like the hellish light emitted by the red door and the bearskin rug stalking the siblings in their bunk beds." Overall, said the PW reviewer, in Rules of the House, there's "no solemn moralizing, just a rib-tickling, slightly subversion readaloud."

Matt and Mac with a young fan.

At our event, Mac read the book, then Matt talked about how the illustrations had changed over time. Then it was time for questions. A young boy raised his hand. "Yes?" Mac asked. "What's your question?" "I loved your book!" the little boy said, echoing the opinion of the audience.

Book signing time.

Mac and Matt signed books after that, but then had to dash for a train to Philadelphia. No worries -- it was clear that everyone had a good time while Mac and Matt ruled the house. In fact, a Rule of the House should be: Make sure to ask Mac and Matt to present at your library -- it's a guaranteed good time for all ages.

Mac with 2016 debut picture book author Minh Le, his wife Aimee & their boys.

End Notes: Thanks to Mary Ann Zissimos of Disney for sending Mac and Matt on tour A huge, heartfelt thanks to Kerri Poor of Politics & Prose for doing such a wonderful time as the kids/teen author events coordinator there. This was Kerri's last event before she moves on to a new job-- I will miss her! Thanks to Bruce Guthrie for his fabulous photos, and the permission to use them. And a huge thanks to Mac and Matt -- you're welcome back anytime to the Takoma Park Maryland Library.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Talking About Wordless Picture Books

It may have been a panel about wordless picture books, but the participants -- including three-time Caldecott Medalist David Wiesner and Caldecott Honor illustrator Marla Frazee -- had plenty to say about the topic.

The venue was the annual picture book panel organized by Mary Alice Garber, the chief children's book buyer at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.  This year's topic was "No Words Needed: The Value and Many Uses of Wordless Picture Books," and the panelists, in addition to Wiesner and Frazee, included Henry Cole, Raul Colon, and Stephen Savage. The moderator was Allyn Johnston, publisher of Beach Lane Books, a Simon & Schuster imprint.

L-R: David Wiesner, Henry Cole, Marla Frazee, Raul Colon & Stephen Savage. (Photos by Bruce Guthrie)

Johnston started things off with a friendly, yet pointed broadside, candidly noting that "I'm intimidated by wordless picture books. And maybe I don't even like them -- they make me work too hard to figure out what's going on."

Beach Lane publisher Allyn Johnston
This drew a laugh from the audience, but Johnston's comments were ones that many librarians frequently hear from parents and teachers who wonder about the value of wordless picture books. After all, aren't words much more important than pictures? And why do kids need pictures after they learn to read?

 "For me, the pictures -- I read them like I read words," responded Wiesner, who has won two Caldecott Medals with wordless (or mostly wordless) books, Tuesday and Flotsam. (His third Caldecott Medal was for The Three Pigs). "I have the same reaction to reading words that you have to reading pictures," he told Johnston.

David Wiesner

Frazee, who eschewed words in her brilliant picture book The Farmer and the Clown, added that "it's such an honor to draw pictures for children because they are such expert readers of pictures. Whether it's a wordless picture book or not, children are going to look at the pictures in a way that surpasses what grown-ups can do."

Marla Frazee

Any librarian can tell you that's true, particularly since pre-readers are especially attuned at looking at the pictures as their parent, teacher or other grown-up reads the words to them. And being able to "read" pictures -- being "visually literate" -- actually is now a hugely important skill in today's screen-filled world where it is demonstrated daily that "a picture is worth 1,000 words."

Librarians also can tell you that kids have rebelled, in a big way, against adult efforts to take away the pictures once kids learn to read. Just look at the astounding popularity of author/illustrator Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid books and other "hybrid" books, which feature an illustration on each page along with text. Or how about the skyrocketing popularity of graphic novels for kids? While both hybrid books and many graphic novels have both words and pictures, the illustrations are definitely as important as the text in these books, and that's clearly how young readers like it.

Yet most adults still don't seem to place much emphasis on pictures. The result? "I find it astonishing and disturbing that visual literacy just dissipates as kids grow up," Wiesner lamented. "When kids learn to read, they lose the ability to look at pictures," Frazee agreed.

Raul Colon
So how does an author/illustrator know when it's best to leave out the words? Sometimes, it's the editor who makes the suggestion, as Colon noted about his one wordless picture book, Draw!. "In my case, I had words in the book, and my editor took them out.... After we decided on that, I had to be sure that the pictures told more than one story." So Colon put in lots of details that aren't immediately apparent. "If you look at the pictures and go through the book really fast, you'll see the story, but you won't see all of the other things," he said.

Henry Cole
Cole, a former teacher, says he believes that wordless books are a great way to spark kids' own storytelling skills. For example, in Unspoken, his wordless book about the Underground Railroad, "kids can actually imagine for themselves what words could be there." And in his newest book, the wordless Spot, the Cat, readers can follow the main story as they look for the cat and his owner, and then go back and find all kinds of other stories by carefully looking at -- reading! -- the many details that Cole has included in his book.

Stephen Savage
Savage, meanwhile, noted that when he published Where's Walrus?, "I wasn't thinking of it being a teaching tool at all. What I liked about the fact that it was wordless was that it broke down the wall. Wordless picture books throw it back at the audience," and make it a more interactive experience. Savage said that he also loves the way that wordless books work with both kids and adults. "When I read my books.... I feel that a variety of ages can laugh at the same joke."

Still, it remains a challenge to convince many adults about the value of wordless picture books, the panelists agreed. Wiesner noted that he's been in bookstores where adults will page through one of his wordless books, remark on the lack of text, and move on to a more word-heavy book. Even worse, some adults will bring their own odd interpretations to wordless books, as was the case with The Farmer and Clown, where some adults felt the book showed the elderly farmer potentially abusing the young clown.

Johnston, who edited the book, clearly is still rankled by such "stranger danger" interpretations, which she called "ridiculous." Frazee agreed that these were "offensive" ideas, adding: "I thought a lot about the differences that adults bring to picture books. And I think that adults read into pictures while kids read pictures."

Then Frazee offered a lovely example of the power of wordless picture books, noting that she had received an email from a grandmother who had read The Farmer and the Clown with her three-year-old granddaughter, who had suffered the loss of several family members. In seeing how the farmer and the clown give each other their distinctive hats at the end, the little girl said: "Now they will remember each other forever." In her email to Frazee, the grandmother noted that The Farmer and the Clown "gave us an opportunity to talk about what it means to lose people and how we can remember them."

End Notes: Thanks to Mary Alice Garber and other Politics & Prose staff for putting together yet another thought-provoking panel on picture books. And thanks to Bruce Guthrie for taking such great photos.