Monday, October 20, 2014

Mixing It Up With Hervé Tullet!

Take 270 excited fidgety kids, sit them down in a rather small gym in front of large sheets of paper, pots of colorful poster paint, and paint brushes. Add an internationally-popular children's author/illustrator famous for his creative energy. Mix well -- very well.

The result? Another successful hands-on art lesson by Hervé Tullet, the French children's author/illustrator who broke into the American children's book market a couple of years ago with his best-selling picture book, Press Here.

Now Hervé has just released a new children's book, Mix It Up!, published by Chronicle Books, and, as part of a  U.S. tour, he spent a recent morning at the Rollingwood campus of the Lycée Rochambeau, a French school in Washington, D.C., giving a gym-full of children ages 3-8 an energetic lesson in creatively combining colors, all based on Mix It Up!
The result of the art lesson
Using the same playful tone as in Press Here, Hervé's new book invites young readers to "paint" with the book.
On one two-page spread, for example, we see three big blobs of paint: one red, one yellow and one blue on the left-hand side of the page, and a bigger blob of the yellow paint by itself on the right-hand side of the page. The text reads: "With one finger take a little bit of the blue.... and just touch the yellow. Rub it... gently...." Readers then turn page to see the same three blobs of paint (red, yellow, blue) on the left-hand side of the spread, but a big green blob on the right-hand side of the page,  the result of mixing the blue with the yellow.

Another example: further into the book, there's a two-page spread with a big white blob on the left-hand page and a big black blob on the right page. The text reads: "So if you smoosh these two pages together.... (Just close the book quickly!)" Readers then turn the page and-- voila! -- there are two gray dots, one on the left page and one on the right, as the text reads: "... This is what will happen!"

It's a totally ingenious idea to the book itself become an object to play with -- all without any electronics -- and Hervé seems to have infinite ideas of ways to do this. Among his books translated into English are The Game of Light, a book that has holes that readers can shine a flashlight through to create shadows, The Game of Finger Worms, a book with holes that readers can put their fingers through to create characters, and I Am Blop!, a book that uses one simple shape to demonstrate a variety of ideas including up and down, single and plural, etc. (I interviewed Hervé about I Am Blop! a year ago.)

Hervé himself is a ball of energy, and was undaunted by facing a couple of hundred young children in the gym (and an adjacent area outside where some students were moved to make a bit more space). Wearing paint-splattered jeans and a white t-shirt, and walking barefoot through the rows of children, Hervé used a megaphone to call out directions to the young painters, telling them in French (and sometimes French-accented English) to make a circle or to switch paint pots with their neighbors to try a different color, etc. The chaos and din of exuberant and noisy children didn't faze Hervé, who clearly was in his element as he led the large-scale art lesson.

Later, Hervé and the students trooped up some outside steps to a macadam court, where the students sat cross-legged and listened to Hervé read several of his books in his native French. But Hervé doesn't just read his books -- he performs them, moving like a dancer this way and that way, to add yet another layer of fun. Hervé concluded with Press Here, inviting a shy preschooler to "press" the various "buttons" (actually just illustrations) to make things happen within the pages.

It was a perfect way to end an exhausting morning of creativity, and yet another bravura performance from the great Hervé Tullet. I can't wait to see what he gets up to next! Meanwhile, I hope to get to this new exhibit of his work at the Brooklyn Public Library; thanks to Betsy Bird of A Fuse #8 Production for the link.)

End Notes: Thanks to Lara Starr of Chronicle Books for the review copy of Mix It Up!, for inviting me to be part of the Lycée Rochambeau's "paint-in" with Hervé, and for figuring out how to get a photo of me and Hervé with my recalcitrant camera phone. (And high marks to Lara for maintaining her cool in the midst of bad directions and a dead car battery!). Thanks also to Kerri Poore of Politics & Prose for working with me on the event. And, of course, thanks to Hervé himself for the endless creativity and joy that he brings to children's books.



Thursday, October 16, 2014

Nobel Prize Winner AND Kids' Author!

If you're a literature lover, you've probably seen the recent news that French novelist Patrick Modiano was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature. Many English-speakers outside of France have no idea who he is, given that only a handful of his books have been translated into English (although a number of his books have been translated into Spanish, German and other languages). Even Modiano, a retiring man who generally shuns interviews, was genuinely surprised by the Nobel news.



Although I count myself as a fervent Francophile and regularly read children's books in French, I have to admit that Modiano's name didn't ring any major bells -- at first. But then I read that Modiano also has written books for children. Maybe that's why I kept having a feeling that I had read something by him.

So I checked our library's catalog and there it was! Catherine Certitude, a slim children's novel written by Patrick Modiano, shelved in our small but growing collection of French books for children. In fact, in looking at the catalogs of the big library systems that surround us, my little library is the only one with a copy of the book, thanks to a chance purchase I made at Politics & Prose several years ago for our library's French children's book collection.


 Published in France in 1988, Catherine Certitude is a little gem of a novel about the close bond between a father and daughter who live in an apartment in Paris, in the 10th arrondisement. Catherine's mother, an American dancer, has gone back to New York for reasons that are mysterious to Catherine, but Catherine's father tells her they will rejoin her mother once he gets his business affairs in order. Meanwhile, father and daughter have some memorable adventures, as recounted in Modiano's spare but lyrical prose. If you read French, Slate.fr has a brief article about the poetry of Modiano's storytelling in Catherine Certitude.

While I loved the story of Catherine Certitude, as well as Modiano's writing style, I have to admit that what made the book really stand out for me were the illustrations. They're by the great Jean-Jacques Sempé, who has become well-known -- and well-loved -- to many Americans because of the many remarkable covers he's created for The New Yorker. (Young readers in my library also know Sempé for the drawings he did for the Nicholas books, which finally were translated into English a few years ago.)



 Two years ago, I was fortunate to be in France when there was a huge -- and free -- Sempé exhibit at the Hotel de Ville, Paris' city hall. There were hundreds of Sempé drawings and cartoons, including the cover and some of the drawings for Catherine Certitude. Seeing the original artwork brought the story of Catherine Certitude rushing back, and I realized how much emotion Modiano (and Sempé) had packed into that 96-page illustrated novel.

For those who don't read French, Catherine Certitude was published in English in 2001 and is available from David Godine publishers. I just bought a copy of the English translation, which is, interestingly, published in a picture book format, at Politics & Prose for our library. Meanwhile, you can enjoy an extract in English from the book. Whether you read it in English or French, this is one book from a Nobel Prize winner that you shouldn't miss.

PS. My French friend Nadia tells me that Modiano wrote two other children's books, Une fiancée pour Choura and Une aventure de Choura; both were published by Gallimard Jeunesse. Merci, Nadia, for the information!



Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Girl Power: The Princess in Black

It was one of those "AHA!" moments. Shannon Hale was talking with her oldest daughter one day and her daughter told her that, while princesses wear pink and purple, they do NOT wear black. Inspired by her own negative reaction (and wanting her daughter to know that princesses can wear all colors), Shannon came up with the idea for her newest book, The Princess Wears Black, the first in a new series of early chapter books for ages 4-8.

Let me tell you right now: if you have an early chapter book reader, run, do not walk, to your closest bookstore or library to get a copy of this book to share with your young reader. It's that good, plus it features gorgeous and energetic illustrations by LeUyen Pham on every page. Further plus? Boys as well as girls will enjoy this book, despite the fact that it is about princesses.

Shannon visited my library tonight, courtesy of our relationship with Politics & Prose, and she totally wowed me, as well as the crowd. But I shouldn't have been surprised; after all, Shannon lists both acting and doing improv comedy as jobs she did prior to becoming a full-time writer. As her talk started (after our minor technical difficulties -- technology is great when it works.....), Shannon (now a mother of four herself)  talked a bit about her childhood and becoming a writer and the books she's written, including the 2006 Newbery Honor novel, Princess Academy.
 
Then she began talking about The Princess in Black. Co-written by her husband Dean (Shannon says he knows more about monsters than she does), the book tells the story of Princess Magnolia, who at first seems to be the epitome of frilly pink princesses. When trouble strikes and help is needed, however, Princess Magnolia morphs into The Princess in Black, a feisty, monster-fighting superhero worshiped by the local goatherd, a boy named Duff.

And, just as Princess Magnolia morphs into The Princess in Black, Shannon transformed herself at the program into her newest character, wrapping a special flower belt around her waist, whipping out a black cape to tie around her neck, donning a black eye mask and-- the perfect touch -- adding a tiara to her hair. Voila! The Princess in Black was in our library's Children's Room!

Shannon is a clearly a pro at working the crowd. She called for young volunteers and ended up with five girls who were asked to name who would make a good superhero, as The Princess in Black is the superhero persona of Princess Magnolia. The answers included a hamster who would be named "Wheel Wonder" and a teacher named "Ruler Girl." Perhaps the best moment was when Shannon taught the audience the word "nemesis" -- we all had to say it aloud -- because, of course, each superhero has to have one. And it's a great exercise for anyone: who/what do you think would make a great superhero, and who would be their nemesis?

As I prepared for the evening, I had read info about Shannon on her website (yes, it's an odd name for a website, and yes, it's her husband's fault). I was familiar with Shannon's children's novels, as well as her new book for teens titled Dangerous. And I'm a big fan of her graphic novels Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack, also written with her husband Dean,  which are hugely popular in our library. (I loved the fact that Shannon said she decided to write Rapunzel's Revenge because she believes the story is "the stupidest fairy tale ever" and really wanted to make it better).

 But I didn't realize that she had also written books for adults, including Austenland, which had been made into a movie. And, while I had heard of her books Ever After High, I had no idea that they were such a big deal and part of a Mattel franchise. Clearly, she's a multi-talented author. with a great future in front of her -- she says she wrote six books this past year! Fortunately, Shannon's future includes writing more books in the The Princess in Black series, which is a great thing for young readers ready to read some action-packed adventures about a take-no-prisoners princess.

 End Notes: Thanks to Kerri Poore at Politics & Prose for booking the event for us, and to Rachel Johnstone and the other folks at Candlewick Press for bringing Shannon to my library, as well as providing a review copy of The Princess in Black, plus a couple of give-away Princess in Black t-shirts. And thanks to Alison Morris for this great photo of Shannon and me!













Friday, October 10, 2014

Three Times the Magic

What happens when you get three popular fantasy authors for kids together in the same place? We found out last night at my library when authors E.D. (short for Elizabeth Dawson) Baker, Annie Barrows and Jessica Day George gathered to discuss their just-published books at a program we co-sponsored with Politics & Prose Bookstore.
From left: Annie Barrows, Jessica Day George & E.D. Baker
 Although the program wasn't scheduled to begin until 7:30 p.m., excited young fans -- pretty much all girls ages 7-12 and their assorted grown-ups -- started gathering in our library's Children's Room around 6:30 p.m.
Costumed fans
 Some of these fans had driven an hour or more to get to the program, while others even went to the trouble of making their own costumes, based on characters created by one or other of the trio of authors. By the time the program began, our Children's Room was packed, we had run out of places to add chairs, and the excitement in the room was truly palpable.

Well, the fans certainly weren't disappointed. There was a real synergy with this trio of authors, each of whom spoke about how they started writing and why they particularly love magic and fantasy. There are many common threads, including the fact that all three are big on writing books about princesses who are strong females. They all also love to leaven their books with humor.

E.D. Baker (Photo by Kimmy Bender)
 But each author has her own interesting back story. E.D. Baker, for example, lives on a horse farm, where she raises Appaloosas and spends lots of time every day "doing horsey things." Although E.D. has been a writer most of her life, she was a psychology major in college and then worked in business and as a teacher before taking the plunge into full-time writing.  She published her first book, The Frog Princess, in 2002; some years later, it was made into a Disney movie, The Princess and the Frog, although -- as is often the case -- the book and movie don't much resemble each other.

The just-published The Fairy-Tale Matchmaker is E.D.'s 15th book, and launches a new series. The book stars a tooth fairy who ditches her job and discovers some marvelous new magical talents. E.D. already has completed a sequel, which will be published next year.

Last night, E.D. told the audience that she's always enjoyed fairy tales "but I never liked the way young women were portrayed in them." That's exactly why none of E.D.'s protagonists are damsels in distress -- she wants to show her young readers that princesses definitely don't have to wait to be rescued but can go ahead and rescue themselves, and others too!

Annie Barrows, meanwhile, has written books for both kids and adults. Her adult book, written with her late aunt Mary Ann Shaffer, is the best-selling novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which has been published in 37 countries and in 32 languages. Annie also has struck gold with her first children's series, the Ivy + Bean books.

Annie Barrows
Annie came late to the job of full-time author, however.  After studying medieval history in college (her online bio notes that Annie "knows more than the average person about 3rd century saints"), Annie worked for a publisher, Chronicle Books, rising through the ranks to become senior editor there.

But Annie really wanted to write, and so left publishing to try to write full-time. The first Ivy + Bean book was published in 2006, and the 10 books in the series have become best-sellers and favorites of kids at the early chapter stage. While the Ivy + Bean books are realistic fiction, Annie longed to try writing a fantasy novel and so, in 2008, she published The Magic Half. Her newest book, Magic in the Mix, is the much-awaited sequel.

Jessica Day George says her life has revolved around the phrase "it's all about the books." She's serious; as she writes on her website: "My criteria for choosing a purse is that it must be able to fit a paperback book inside. I took books on my honeymoon, and bought more while we were there."
Jessica Day George

Jessica collects books about dragons and studied Old Norse in college so she could read the Viking sagas in the original language. Her first book, Dragon Slippers, was published in 2007, and immediately hooked readers with its humor and strong-willed protagonist. Since then Jessica has published nine more books, despite the fact that she has to fit her writing time in around caring for her three young children.

 Jessica's latest book is Thursdays with the Crown, the latest in the Castle Glower series featuring Princess Celie and a moving castle. At our event, Jessica stressed that she writes "the kind of book I would have liked to read when I was younger."

After their presentations, the authors took questions from the audience. One of my favorites was asked by a little girl, tagging along with an older sister but still clearly spellbound. She asked the authors why they were holding up books. After getting over their initial laughter,  the three explained that "this is what we do for work" and the books are the product of that work.
Tired but happy young fans.

 Then it was time for the book signing, with many young fans moving from author to author to have their books signed. And then, sadly, it was time for the program to come to an end, but it was -- fortunately -- a happy ending, with young readers leaving with their noses already buried in their new books.

End notes: Thanks so much to Kerri Poore in the Children's Department of Politics & Prose for organizing the event, and to Lizzy Mason, associate director of publicity at Bloomsbury Children's, for offering us a program with such a great trio of authors. Thanks also to Lizzy for providing review copies to me of The Fairy-Tale Matchmaker, Magic in the Mix, and Thursdays with the Crown.



Sunday, October 5, 2014

Can You Say 'Dork'?

Here's a little something I learned the other night when my library, in conjunction with Politics & Prose Bookstore, hosted the authors and illustrator of the best-selling Dork Diaries series: you don't have to worry about attracting a crowd.

 Even on a school night, we just about filled the Takoma Park Community Center auditorium, which seats more than 100 people. And the excitement was palpable -- a perfect reflection of the OMG!!! and SQUEE!!!! glittery fervor found in the books, written by Rachel Renee Russell, with help from her daughter, Erin, and illustrated by her other daughter, Nikki. Everyone in the audience -- even the adults -- were clearly thrilled to be part of the launch of Dork Diaries Book No. 8: Tales of a Not-So-Happily Ever After.

The crowd was definitely girl-heavy, with just a smattering of boys (who looked like they were just tagging along with their sisters). Yet, here's the interesting thing: it was a wonderfully diverse crowd in terms of race. I mention this because Rachel Russell has been criticized for making her main character, Nikki, white. With the whole "We Need Diverse Books" push these days, lots of people are looking for main characters of color, and here is Rachel Russell -- herself an African-American -- choosing to make her main character white. In an interview with The New York Times last year, Russell defended her decision, saying that she saw Nikki as an “Everygirl, all hues mixed together,” and noted that Nikki's best friends are African-American and Latino, although it's hard to tell because of the stylized, anime-type, black-and-white illustrations. In response to a question from the audience at our event, Rachel Russell reiterated that "I am committed to diversity."

Nikki, Erin & Rachel Russell wearing tiaras for their latest book.
Young Dork Diaries fans certainly don't seem to have any diversity issues with the books. All of the young fans who came to our event the other night readily identified with the middle school challenges faced by Nikki, which include dealing with her bratty younger sister Brianna, her nemesis MacKenzie, and her crush, a boy named Brandon.

 Meanwhile, at our event, the Russell family (Rachel's sister Kim and brother Don were part of the entourage) pulled out all the stops to please their fans. For example, during the Q & A section, Nikki Russell spent most of her time behind an easel doing "dorkifications" -- i.e. portraits in the Dork Diaries style -- of a few lucky questioners. The girls were thrilled when they received their large-scale portraits.

 Nikki Russell also agreed to do a small-scale "dorkification" in one book for each fan when the book signing began. This slowed down the line considerably, but that was no issue with all of the young fans, who were happy to wait for such personalization. (Their parents, however, were a teeny bit less patient as they worried about late bedtimes).

Rachel, Erin and Nikki Russel were gracious with each fan, really taking time to talk with them and personalize each book. Of particular note was their willingness to stop and pose for photographs with a fan; each time they did this, the Russells would say in unison: "On the count of three, say "dork:" 1, 2, 3 -- DORK!"

Fans also were delighted by two pieces of news. The first item is that Rachel and Erin Russell are working on a spin-off series, titled Locker Boy. The main character is, of course, a boy, although Rachel Russell said there's also a strong girl character. The second piece of news is that Lionsgate Summit Entertainment will be making a Dork Diaries movie, set to be released in 2016.

One mother of a young fan provided a nice wrap on the night, saying "Thank you for writing these books!" and telling the Russells that the Dork Diaries had renewed her daughter's interest in reading. There's no higher compliment for an author than that.
 





Wednesday, October 1, 2014

"Wild Things:" The Real World of Children's Literature

When I first heard about Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature last spring, I immediately made a note of the publication date. I'm one of those folks who is fascinated by the "behind-the-scenes" stuff, especially if it involves children's literature, and this book by three well-known bloggers looked just spectacular.

 Let me just say right now that I wasn't disappointed. Not even one little bit. And that's certainly not surprising, given the kit lit chops of the three authors: Betsy Bird, who blogs at A Fuse # 8 Production, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blogger Julie Danielson, and the late, great Peter D. Sieruta, whose Collecting Children's Books blog remains a gold standard of the kid lit blogosphere. These three did prodigious research to uncover the secrets behind children's literature classics and their authors and illustrators; in fact, they ended up with so much wonderful information that their editor told them they couldn't put it all in the book.

 Fortunately, Betsy and Julie had the terrific idea of creating a separate Wild Things website, where -- in the weeks before publication -- they shared intriguing snippets of the book that ended up on the cutting room floor. (The site continues as a place where we can catch "Sneaky Peek Videos" of new books as a way of celebrating the publication of Wild Things).

There's so much good stuff in Wild Things that I've read the book twice and still feel that I've only scratched the surface. Some of things they include are well-known, such as how Robert McCloskey brought home ducklings to the Greenwich Village apartment he shared with fellow children's book artist Marc Simont so he could really capture their movements in his drawings. And I knew from Anita Silvey's 100 Best Books for Children that McCloskey had plied the ducklings with wine to slow them down so he could better draw them But what I learned from Wild Things took things further, as you'll learn from the interview below.

Then there's an "interlude" titled "Some Hidden Delights of Children's Literature" in which the Wild Things authors take a peek at things like Caldecott Medalist Trina Schart Hyman's "dirty tricks" in two particular books; read on for the specifics, found in the interview below. Such vivid details are the stuff from which Wild Things is constructed. But there's so much more here, including a well-informed look at the key role that GLBT authors and illustrators have played in children's literature and the provocatively-titled chapter on subversive children's literature, "There Should Not Be Any 'Should' in Art."

WILD THINGS!. Illustrations copyright © 2014 by David Roberts. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
 

Ok, you can tell that I feel you should run out and get your hands on this book ASAP, either at your local bookstore or library. Meanwhile, I was honored to be part of a blog tour with Betsy and Julie, and I'm now going to turn things over to them in the form of an interview that we did by email. Before I do that, however, I extend apologies to Betsy and Julie for taking so long to get my part of the show on the road; sometimes real life presents gets in the way of my best blogging efforts. With that out of the way, here we go!

Betsy Bird
Me: First, let me tell you how much I enjoyed your book! I’ve read it twice already; the first time I raced through it, delighting in
Julie Danielson
the stories that you told. Then I read it again, taking my time to enjoy the engaging writing. Bravo! Now for the questions….

We are so glad you enjoyed it!

  1. Can you talk a bit about how the book came about? Others before you, including Anita Silvey and Leonard Marcus, have told some of the stories behind children’s stories, but you have managed to come up with a book that really takes a fresh look at children’s literature. Was your initial focus on “acts of mischief” or did that focus develop as you began pulling together threads for the book?

Jules: It really all started with a desire to debunk the romanticized view of children’s literature that is so prevalent, as well as the condescension that sometimes occurs. We initially had a different book in mind, honestly – one that was mostly the wilder stories that go to show that authors and illustrators are grown-ups and don’t live sweet and adorable lives. But we quickly came to realize, in large part thanks to our editor, that we needed more context and analysis – and that the book needed more shaping. So then those wilder, more fun stories became the stuff of the “interlude” chapters, and the chapters that tackle some of the weightier issues (censorship, gatekeeping, etc.) became more of the focus.

As for “acts of mischief” (the very phrase itself), I teach a graduate course on picture books, and I ask my students to read Patricia Lee Gauch’s wonderful lecture on picture books as acts of mischief (http://www.hbook.com/2012/11/using-books/the-picture-book-as-an-act-of-mischief/http://www.hbook.com/2012/11/using-books/the-picture-book-as-an-act-of-mischief/), and it was then I realized that phrase was a perfect fit for our book. We then secured her permission (and the Eric Carle Museum’s permission) to use that wording.


  1. I know that your editor (Liz Bicknell) required you to cut huge swaths of copy, some of which – thankfully – you’ve still been able to share via the Wild Things website. Can each of you tell me which story or section was the hardest for you to part with? Did you ever put your foot down, a la Maurice Sendak and the word “hot” in Where the Wild Things Are, and have a stare-down with your editor?

Betsy: No, I don’t think we ever really disagreed with our editor in that way.  All she told us was the page count to shoot for.  The decision of what to cut then fell entirely onto our little shoulders which, in a way, was much worse.  We didn’t have an editor to blame when our favorites fell by the wayside now! 

I think the hardest cut for me was the Misty of Chincoteague. We’d used that picture of Misty at an ALA meeting in our initial proposal so it felt wrong to lose her.  But lose her we did.  For the greater good, yes?

Jules: It was hard to say goodbye to the tender James Marshall story about his burial site, but we shared it at our site. I’m a big Marshall fan.

  1. I love the illustrations by David Roberts, and the way that they play on one of your central themes: how so many adults are enamored of “fluffy bunny” stories while kids are looking for subversive reads. It really seems that all too many adults have totally forgotten what it’s like to be a kid, “small, courageous people who deal every day with a multitude of problems,” to quote Maurice Sendak.  What do you make of this dichotomy, and, in particular, the idea that so many adults see children as “blank tablets” and thus feel compelled to oversee their reading choices?


Jules: To me, it all boils down to respect for children. I love to see those authors and illustrators who create stories that acknowledge that children are not only, as Sendak said, courageous, but they are also resilient and capable of handling more than many adults assume. It’s hard, because yes, you want to extend the innocence of children. (I think it was Maya Angelou who once used that phrase – to give credit where credit is due.) But I think they can also handle way more than most grown-ups assume. And it’s good for them to face down ogres in the comfy confines of a story, while sitting on mama’s or papa’s lap, because the world is full of ogres of all stripes. And mama’s or papa’s lap is a really safe place to wander through the dark and scary forest.

I always cringe when I see those adults who talk to children as if they are little morons. (It happens. A lot.) It always seems to be accompanied by a raised voice, too (as if the child can’t hear you?) and rampant use of the word “precious.”

  1. Continuing a bit on that theme, you lay out quite nicely how kids tend to love subversive books. Years ago, it was series books that kids flocked to and thus attracting the ire of adults and librarians like Anne Carroll Moore (and forced me to buy my own Nancy Drew books as a kid, since libraries refused to purchase them). Today, as a librarian, I see the same dynamic in play, only the battle is over kids’ love of comics and hybrid books like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Seems like a case of “the more things change, the more they remain the same”! Are we destined, in your opinion, to forever see a literary gulf between kids and adults?

Jules: That’s a good (and tough) question. We definitely see overlap---those books, that is, that both children and gatekeepers love---but even when we don’t … well, it goes back to what I just said about respect for the child reader. We have to let them read what gets them fired up. Sometimes I hear teachers and librarians dismissing a book that is, say, below the reading level of the child (as usually determined by some random test) or maybe they’re dismissing a graphic novel or book on CD as “not reading.” That’s unfortunate. I read this (http://parnassusmusing.net/2014/08/17/jon-scieszka-on-how-to-get-kids-to-read-tip-stopping-telling-them-how-important-reading-is/http://parnassusmusing.net/2014/08/17/jon-scieszka-on-how-to-get-kids-to-read-tip-stopping-telling-them-how-important-reading-is/) from Jon Scieszka recently, and I wish every teacher and librarian in the country could read it. Let them read what they like!

Now, I’m the mother of a fifth-grader who tends to only read fantasy. But we read aloud together a lot, so what do I do? I make sure I sneak in some realism for her, because sure, I want her to be exposed to different things. But I’d never tell her or her sister that they weren’t allowed to read something they found tremendously fun. As Scieszka always says, we need to relax when it comes to children and reading.

Betsy: And if I might raise a flag in defense of librarians, I’d say that there’s a big difference these days between how gatekeepers view comics and comic hybrids today versus even ten years ago.  We’re beginning to see adults really grasping the myriad of forms out there more than ever before.  It’s not universal, but it’s increasing.

In defense of Anne Carroll Moore (a phrase not heard often enough as she tends to be the bogeyman uptight librarian stand-in these days) series were crap back then.  Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys (and Oz books) were the exception to the rule.  90% of the stuff out there was just awful and there were just SO MANY of them that it was really easy to justify not buying them by saying the libraries didn’t buy series.  It was as much a budget decision as a qualitative one.  Nancy just happened to suffer as a result.  


  1. I’m fascinated by your idea that children’s books may evolve more than any other literary genre, especially the ideas that “rather than accompany social change, children’s books have a way of preceding it.” This is another major theme of your book, and I’d love to have you expand on it a bit.

Betsy:  Well, folks have always used children’s literature as a way of promoting their own agendas.  That’s pretty well known.  But other folks have turned to children’s literature as a place of freedom when denied the right to write elsewhere.  That’s a little less well known.  Take the blacklist era during the Red Scare.  Writers left and right were told they couldn’t write books or screenplays anymore so what did some of them do?  They turned to children’s literature and wrote in that field for a while. 

Yet ironically, just because someone’s a great adult author, that doesn’t mean they’re a great children’s author as well.  So society’s mores get challenged in children’s books because the authors are both great writers and, in a sense, ahead of their time.

  1. Given the importance of children’s books, it’s perturbing that those who create them often get so little respect, a problem that you spotlight in your book. As a children’s librarian and children’s book reviewer, it maddens me when people say that a children’s book would be “fun” and “easy” to write, and that any celebrity thinks he or she can do it. In fact, Lois Lowry once told me that, even after winning two Newbery Medals, some people still ask her when she’s going to write a “real” book, i.e. one for adults. Can you talk a bit more about this lack of respect for children’s book creators?

Jules: Well, it’s something I hear about a lot. I don’t understand why it happens. We write in our book that, for whatever reason, it seems that if people work with children in any way in this country, their profession is often condescended to (daycare teachers, children’s librarians, teachers, authors, illustrators). It’s baffling, and I think an entire book could be written about this phenomenon. In fact, Beverly Lyon Clark explores the marginalization and frequent diminishment of children’s literature in her book, Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America, which was published in 2003, so one thing I can do is recommend people read that.

  1. Who do you see as the audience for your book? And what do you hope readers take away from this book?

Betsy: The audience was always a question right from the start.  As we saw it, the book could have gone one of two ways.  Either we were writing for people already in the know (children’s librarians, booksellers, academics, teachers, and maybe the odd parent) or we were writing for the cultural mainstream.  Eventually we realized that we would shoot for the latter while doing everything in our power to make the former happy. 

As for what we hope readers take away from our book, it’s all about R-E-S-P-E-C-T, baby.  Respect for the people writing these books your kids read.  Respect for the book themselves and what they are capable of doing.  And a healthy understanding that books for kids aren’t written by little angels on fluffy clouds.  These people have adult problems and attitudes.  They just also happen to be geniuses at talking to the young. 

  1. I’m blown away by the amount of research you folks did for this book. For each of you: what was the thing you learned from your research that most surprised you?

Betsy: That would be the fate of the Robert McCloskey ducklings.  There were certain facts about their case that I already knew.  I knew that Mr. McCloskey bought a bunch of ducks and put them in his Greenwich Village apartment so that he could draw them and get them just right for Make Way for Ducklings.  I knew that he gave them red wine to slow them down.  And I may even have known that he had a devil of a time getting rid of those ducks once he was finished capturing their ducky waddles on paper.  But what happened to them after that?  That is where our research got interesting.  And tragic!

Jules: It was fun to stumble upon the story of the witch’s table in King Stork, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. I read about it (a very brief mention) in her 1985 Caldecott acceptance speech for St. George and the Dragon. None of us knew that story, so it was neat to track down. I can’t say it was terribly surprising, though, since she was fearless. 


  1. You have a fascinating discussion in the book about GLBT authors and illustrators, especially your statement that “it should come as no surprise that the greatest stories written for children are those produced by people who have felt outside of the mainstream in some manner.” Can you please talk more about this?

Betsy:  Absolutely. One of the big shocks I discovered while researching for this chapter was that there has never been a book about GLBT children’s authors and illustrators.  None!  Individual biographies, perhaps, but nothing all-encompassing.  So as I culled from the past and looked through the names of great authors, it became crazy clear that when you put them all together they make up the top names in the business.  Maurice Sendak, Arnold Lobel, Louise Fitzhugh, Margaret Wise Brown (arguably), James Marshall . . . the list goes on and on!  These are people who had private lives at odds with the times in which they lived.  And outsiders, to be perfectly frank, often make the best works for children because kids themselves often feel like outsiders as well.  It’s a match made in heaven.

  1. Finally, you conclude with a look at the future of children’s literature. Can you talk a bit about what you see in your crystal balls?

Jules: I certainly can’t predict the future, but I do hope that we see strides when it comes to tolerance for topics that are now considered taboo, depending on what part of the country you live in. There are still so many people who take issue with characters in children’s lit who fall on the GLBT spectrum. I hope we see less and less of those books challenged. I also hope that diversity in children’s literature becomes commonplace; the stats right now are depressing, as this link makes clear: http://blog.leeandlow.com/2013/06/17/why-hasnt-the-number-of-multicultural-books-increased-in-eighteen-years/.


I think I can safely say that Betsy would agree with me on those points, too.

Betsy: Couldn’t have put it better myself.


Thanks so much, Betsy and Julie, for taking the time to answer these questions!!

Thank you so much, Karen!







Saturday, September 20, 2014

Marla Frazee, Picture Book Creator Extraordinaire

Marla Frazee put it right out there as she began her recent presentation to a group of kids and adults at my library, saying: "I love going to work every day and drawing pictures all day long." And, in a nutshell, that's exactly why Frazee's books are so wonderful: she draws from the heart.


Photos of Marla Frazee by Jeffrey MacMillan

 Her newest picture book, The Farmer and the Clown, is just the latest demonstration of the way that Frazee pours her heart and soul into her work. The Farmer and the Clown focuses on the unlikely bond between an elderly farmer and the young clown he briefly befriends when the clown accidentally falls off his circus train and lands on the farmer's property. The book is wordless, but Frazee's illustrations convey a world of emotions. She shows how the rather monochrome world of the farmer is brightened by the red-and-yellow-suited clown, just as he finds joy in in this new and unexpected friendship. The illustrations are stunning in their power to touch the reader, whether child or adult, and The Farmer and the Clown already has garnered boatloads of critical acclaim and is being touted by children's book experts as a top possibility for the 2015 Caldecott Medal.



I've long been a Frazee fan, attracted by her keen drawing skill as well as by the way her illustrations reference past illustrators yet still seem so fresh. Her illustrations for the Clementine books by Sara Pennypacker, for example, bring to mind -- as Frazee hopes -- the classic drawings by Louis Darling for the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary. Perhaps most importantly, Frazee, a two-time Caldecott Honor winner, is a visual storyteller. She creates illustrations that engage both her emotions and, she hopes, the emotions of her readers. As she tells Roger Sutton, editor of The Horn Book in a recent interview: "... I feel like that's the big question when it comes to illustration -- how do you convey emotion in a picture? Not only over the span of the book, but in each individual image, each spread. What are you trying to say emotionally, and how do you show that emotion?"

In person, Frazee is a bundle of energy, and clearly enjoys meeting her fans, particularly young fans. As Frazee told the audience gathered at my library: "Here's a secret -- kids can read pictures better than grown-ups." Frazee then proceeded to lead a demonstration of this statement, briefly showing an illustration of two seemingly identical black-and-white dogs, the stars of her book,  Boot & Shoe, and asking the audience if they saw any difference between the two canines. Adults (including me, I'm afraid) shook their heads, while kids' hands immediately shot into the air. Frazee called on one young participant, who pointed out that one of the dogs had all black legs, while the other dog has white legs, ending in black "socks."

Marla smiles as I introduce her to the library crowd.

 So it's no wonder that, when she was interviewed on the children's literature blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, by blogger Julie Danielson, Frazee said: "... the picture book audience (is) the most discerning, observant, critical, and appreciative group that we illustrators will ever have the privilege of serving." Or, as Frazee and her long-time editor, Allyn Johnston, wrote in a 2011 essay for The Horn Book: "While the words in picture books are meant to be read aloud, children can read the pictures on their own. They don't need to be taught this skill and are, in fact, way better at it than grownups. They study pictures for story, meaning, character, setting, plot, and motivation and for a parallel, counterpoint, or secondary narrative. They notice everything, which obviously includes any mistakes."

Frazee herself was only a child when she knew that she would someday become a children's book illustrator. At her recent presentation, Frazee showed an illustration that she had done when she was little more than a toddler. It was hard to tell exactly what it was supposed to be, but Frazee's mother somehow saw early talent in her daughter and saved numerous drawings like these. Frazee created her first picture book in the third grade, prompted by her somewhat bossy best friend Lisa who said she would write the text and Frazee could illustrate it. Their teacher entered it in a statewide contest and the book won. Two years later, Frazee's fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Holcomb, predicted that Frazee "would illustrate picture books, painting outdoors in a sunlit meadow. So far, no meadow," as Frazee said in an interview with Something About the Author.



Actually becoming a children's book illustrator, however, took a lot longer than Frazee ever expected. After graduating with an illustration degree from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., Frazee was readily able to get work as an illustrator for advertisements, magazines and educational publications. She created team characters for the National Football League that were made into plush toys, designed Happy Meal boxes for McDonald's, and did toy design for Mattel, Milton Bradle, and Parker Brothers. But it was twelve long years -- filled with rejections from publishers, before Frazee illustrated her first book, World Famous Muriel and the Magic Mystery, written by Sue Alexander and published in 1990.



At that point, Frazee thought she was finally on her way to achieving her goal of being a children's book illustrator. But it was actually five more years before she illustrated her second book, That Kookery!, written by Margaret Walden Froehlich. The book was named a "notable book" by the Association for Library Service to Children, and it marked a turning point in Frazee's career. Looking back in an interview with WETA's Reading Rockets, Frazee noted that, until that point, "I wasn't telling stories with my pictures. I was doing something else with illustration, and in other areas of illustration that's appropriate. If you're doing advertising, you might have to communicate a message ... with your pictures. In educational publishing, it's teaching something with your illustrations. In toys and games, it might be a decorative thing that you're trying to do. With children's books, it's storytelling. I didn't have that component really developed."

These days, Frazee is considered a master visual storyteller. She also now writes some of the books she illustrates; the first book that she both wrote and illustrated was Roller Coaster, published in 2003 and a favorite among young readers in my library who love to pore over the riders' faces. In 2009, Frazee won her first Caldecott Honor for the hilarious picture book, A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever, which she also both wrote. A year later, Frazee won her second Caldecott Honor for All the World, written by Liz Garton Scanlon. Other favorite Frazee books of mine include The Seven Silly Eaters, written by Mary Ann Hoberman, Stars, written by Mary Lynn Ray, and The Boss Baby, both written and illustrated by Frazee. That book, Frazee told us, is being made into a full-length feature animation film by DreamWorks. She added: "I'm very interested to see how they take a 32-page picture book and create a full-length film!"



Meanwhile, I'm going to place a bet right now that The Farmer and the Clown wins either a 2015 Caldecott Honor, or the Medal itself. It's just that good. And I'll close this blog with a laugh; in his recent interview with Frazee about the book, Roger Sutton noted that "it's kind of amazing when you think about what we can get away with in picture books. If you just described this situation -- a child gets tossed off a train, in the middle of a desert, and there's this old man, and he comes and takes the child to his house." Frazee responded: "Trust me, I know. Those closest to me will ask, 'What are you working on?' and I'll say something like what you just said, and they'll say, 'Oh my god. Are you serious?'"

End Notes: Thanks to Marla Frazee for a marvelous evening; thanks also to her editor Allyn Johnston for helping things go so smoothly. Thanks to Politics & Prose, especially Kerri Poore, for booking this presentation at my library. Huge thanks to my talented neighbor and friend, professional photographer Jeffrey MacMillan, for taking the photos of Marla that really make this blogpost look great. And finally, thanks to Simon & Schuster for the review copy of The Farmer & the Clown.