Sunday, February 7, 2016

Kwame Alexander: Inspiration Incarnate

When Kwame Alexander won the 2015 Newbery Medal for The Crossover,  he got phone calls from several other Newbery Medalists: Katherine Paterson, Katherine Applegate, and Linda Sue Park, among others. All of them had the same advice: "Do not plan on writing any book during your 'Newbery Year.'"

Kwame in "beach wear" (All photos by Bruce Guthrie)
Kwame, however, is seemingly inexhaustible, and he was undeterred by this advice. Far from writing nothing, Kwame actually wrote three -- yes, count 'em, THREE -- books! And so it was that he came to my library recently to launch one of those three, a gem of a picture book titled Surf's Up!, illustrated by Daniel Miyares. Although it was a cold February evening Kwame was resplendent in a denim jacket, t-shirt, light pants and a cool pair of orange sneakers. He said his young daughter told him that he needed to dress in clothing appropriate for the beach, "since your book is about the beach."

In Surf's Up!, Kwame tells the story of two frogs named Bro and Dude who have a difference of opinion. Bro is desperate to head out on a nice day and catch some waves on his surfboard, while Dude wants to finish the exciting book he is reading before hitting the surf. As Dude gets deeper into his book, Bro gets swept up in the story, which adult readers may recognize as a riff on Moby Dick.  By the end, the two frogs have switched places, with Dude -- who has finished the book -- heading off with his surfboard and Bro curled up and reading.

Kwame wrote the text of Surf's Up! during a plane ride. "I thought it was perfect," he laughed, "and then I spent the next year re-writing it." Miyares is actually the third illustrator for the book. "The first two just couldn't get it right," Kwame said. "It is a tough book to illustrate because it's all dialogue." Miyares, however, really understood the ideas behind the text, Kwame said, and "he took all that and did something unique with the illustrations."

Kwame gets ready to read Surf's Up!

Surf's Up! has gotten several starred reviews, with Kirkus calling it "a warm-hearted tribute to reading," and Publisher's Weekly noting that the book is "a wild ride on the sea of imagination and a rousing high-five to the power of reading." But Kwame was dumbfounded by a question recently asked by a librarian about the book, which she had only heard about: "What color are the frogs?" It was the same question Kwame had been asked about the twin brothers who are the protagonists of The Crossover. In the case of the question about the frogs of Surf's Up!, Kwame said he responded that "your question is more intriguing than any answer I could ever give."

After telling this story, Kwame noted: "The problem is us, the adults -- not the kids. We're the ones who compartmentalize and treat people as 'the Other.'... I believe that we children's book authors, teachers, parents -- we need to help children imagine a better world, to plant the seeds of ideas in the minds of our children." If you've ever met or seen Kwame in action, you can envision his passion as he said those words. He's a truly dynamic speaker who feels it is his mission to inspire and empower children and teens through his books and appearances at schools and other organizations.

Kwame himself is one of four children who were raised by parents who were passionate readers. As he puts it: "Our house was a library and my Dad and Mom were verbal maniacs." Kwame recalled that he got in trouble at the age of two at preschool when, upset by a child who had knocked over his block tower, he spouted several lines of Fox In Socks. The teacher called Kwame's mother and told her: "Your son is arrogant -- he intimidates other children with his words." Kwame's mother responded by asking what book he had quoted.

Despite such a bookish upbringing -- or perhaps because of it -- Kwame fell out of love with reading for some time. But his literary love affair blossomed anew when he discovered poetry, specifically the poetry of Nikki Giovanni, who has said she taught him one thing: "The Answer is Yes." Kwame also found poetry a perfect way to woo the woman who became his wife, saying: "I ended up writing her a poem a day for a year so she would marry me. She did."

Kwame continued to write poetry and other types of creative writing over the years, even as he did other jobs, including teaching high school, producing jazz and book festivals, owning several publishing companies, and hosting a weekly radio. He's published nearly 20 books, including another picture book, Accoustic Rooster and His Barnyard Band. But it was The Crossover that has made him a star in the children's book world, and has given Kwame an international platform from which he can spread his special brand of dynamic inspiration. Written in free verse, The Crossover tells the story of twin middle school boys who are superb basketball players, thanks in large part to their basketball-obsessed father. The boys' close bond is tested when one of them falls in love, but the real worry is over their father's increasingly poor health. As Publishers Weekly noted: "This verse novel delivers a real emotional punch before the final buzzer."

Winning the Newbery also led directly to the second book that Kwame wrote last year. After winning the Newbery, Kwame had a meeting with Dick Robinson, the president of Scholastic, who asked Kwame: "What can we do for you?" Kwame, who had been trying for some time to make the materials he uses in his popular "Book-in-a-Day" programs at schools more readily available, realized that here was his opportunity. The result is Kwame Alexander's Page-to-Stage Writing Workshop: Awakening the Writer, Publisher and Presenter in Every K-8 Student, which will be published in March.  

Kwame shows a copy of Page-to-Stage

The third and final book that Kwame wrote during his Newbery year will be published in April. Titled Booked, it is, like The Crossover, a novel written in verse, and tells the story of a star soccer player named Nick whose father has written a dictionary and pushes reading on his son. But Nick is a daydreamer who is averse to reading until an injury sidelines him. In a starred review, Kirkus praised Booked for its "likable protagonist, great wordplay, solid teen and adult secondary characters and ... clear picture of the challenges young people face when self-identity clashes with parental expectations."

Kwame and fans with The Crossover and an advanced copy of Booked

Now that he's set a new standard for what can be done during a "Newbery Year," it's going to be interesting to see what Kwame will do next. But one thing is sure: Kwame will continue to work his magic to inspire young readers. As he put it at a recent appearance in Denver: "I'm the 'Say Yes Guy', the inspiration guy." And I say yes to that!

Kwame and I, with two of the books He wrote during his Newbery year.

End Notes: Thanks to Kwame for a truly inspiring evening! Thanks also to Heather Lennon of NorthSouth Books for the review copy of Surf's Up!. Thanks to Bruce Guthrie for taking such wonderful photos. And thanks, as always, to Kerri Poore and the other folks at Politics & Prose, Washington's great independent bookstore, for "booking" Kwame's event at my library.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Ryan Higgins, "Mother Bruce," and Imprinting

In his new picture book, Mother Bruce, author/illustrator Ryan Higgins offers a twist on the traditional tale of Mother Goose, complete with a comical new way of teaching the concept of "imprinting," or the near-instant attachment of an infant to the one caring for it. Ryan came to my library recently to read Mother Bruce, and when he came to the page where four, just-hatched goslings eagerly shout "Mama" at a cantankerous bear named Bruce, he noted with a grin: "That's called imprinting."

Ryan Higgins gets ready to read! (All photo credits: Bruce Guthrie)

And it's imprinting that gives Mother Bruce its laugh-out-loud  quality. No matter that Bruce is a bear, who actually wanted to eat the goslings when they were still in egg form. And no matter that Bruce does everything that he can to discourage the goslings' view of him as their mother. Their attachment to Bruce continues to deepen (even as surly, headphones-wearing teen geese), and eventually Bruce must make his peace with the situation. Kirkus gave Mother Bruce a starred review, calling it the book "visually beautiful, clever, edgy and very funny." Booklist noted that "this case of mistaken identity will lend itself to a fun-filled storytime," while Publishers Weekly concluded that Mother Bruce is, "in its way a book about unconventional families."

At our library event, Ryan, who lives in southern Maine with his wife and two young children, said he first creates a good amount of his illustrations in the traditional way, then uses a computer to do the final art. This way, Ryan said he can create the distinctive textures that make the illustrations in Mother Bruce really stand out, while still being able to "hit the undo button," as he put it, when he needs to make changes. Although Ryan has created several other picture books, most notably Wilfred, it is Mother Bruce that has become his break-out book. He's already written a sequel, Hotel Bruce, and is preparing to write a third book starring the grumpy bear.

Ryan and a young fan decide what to draw next.

Meanwhile, while Ryan is doing fewer school visits these days as he focuses full-time on creating picture books, I can attest to how great he is with an audience. Because of bad weather, we had a tiny -- but appreciative --audience the night he came to my library. Ryan didn't miss a beat, opting to sit close to the audience to read his book, and then offering to do some live drawing after taking questions. All in all, everyone had a great time, and now we all can't wait to see the next adventures of the perpetually-scowling Bruce!

End Notes: Thanks to the folks as Disney/Hyperion for a review copy of Mother Bruce, and for sending Ryan out on the book tour. Thanks to Kerri Poore of Politics & Prose for "booking" Ryan's event at my library. And thanks to Bruce Guthrie for the photos!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Back to the Blog -- After a "Bucket List" Experience

Serving on the 2016 Caldecott Committee was truly a "bucket list" experience. But it also meant that I haven't been able to post on this blog for months because of the rule against posting on social media anything remotely connected to books eligible for the 2016 Caldecott Medal. In the last six months. I've been immersed in Caldecott-eligible books and had little time for anything else. Hence, no blog posts in the last six months! Now, finally, I can get back to regular blogging, and my first post is -- naturally -- a look back at my Caldecott experience.

For some reason, it feels right to begin towards the end of this once-in-a-lifetime experience. The process culminated two weeks ago, when my committee met in Boston for two long (into the evening) days of the most invigorating book discussions in which I have ever participated. It was truly "the book discussion of a lifetime," as we had been told to expect. Sarah Bean Thompson, one of my committee colleagues, perfectly captured the experience in a recent post on the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) blog.

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

(Note: the video works even though the picture doesn't show up!)

Then came the fun of calling the winners, early on the morning on Monday, Jan. 11. Making "The Call" is a time of high emotion -- both for the winners, and for we committee members. Our winning illustrator, Sophie Blackall, burst into sobs when our chair, Rachel Payne of the Brooklyn Public Library, told her the good news. Sophie had to promise to keep the news secret (except from her spouse and editor) until it was announced at the Youth Media Awards (YMAs) a couple of hours later. Interestingly, Sophie and the children's book illustrators with whom she shares studio space have an annual tradition of watching the YMAs together. Sophie somehow managed to keep her secret from her studiomates -- including 2014 Caldecott Medalist Brian Floca -- until it was announced. Brian then captured Sophie's emotions in a photo, and put it on Twitter:

But we committee members weren't done quite yet. After calling Sophie and our other winners, we took our seats at the Youth Media Awards (YMA) program. (If you missed it, check out this archived version). It was a truly electric moment for my committee when the hundreds of librarians packed into the Boston Convention Center room for the YMA program erupted in cheers as ALSC President Andrew Medlar, the program emcee, said: “And the winner of the 2016 Randolph Caldecott Medal for most distinguished American picture book for children is….. Sophie Blackall for Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear.

2016 Caldecott Committee Chair Rachel Payne places the medal on Finding Winnie at the Little, Brown booth.
As the crowd applauded, my fellow 2016 Caldecott Committee members and I turned to each other with huge smiles. We had done it! After a year of reading, and re-reading (and re-reading…..) hundreds of eligible books, and after two days of intense and deeply meaningful discussions, our work was finally completed.

Throughout the process of choosing the 2016 Caldecott Medal winner, we had been humbled and awed by the fact that we were charged with choosing a book that would be bought by hundreds of libraries and thousands of parents. We knew that the winning illustrator would garner both fame and fortune, as books chosen for the Caldecott Medal virtually never go out of print. There’s a good reason why the Caldecott Medal (and the Newbery Medal, given annually to the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children”) are often called “the Oscars of the children’s book world.”

My involvement with the Caldecott process actually began in 2013, when I was asked to run for the 2016 Caldecott Committee. There are 15 members of the committee; seven are elected and eight, including the chairperson, are appointed by the leaders of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association.

The elections were held in the spring of 2014, and I won a spot on the committee. But it wasn’t until January 2015 that our real work began. Over the course of 2015, each committee member received hundreds of books from publishers. Contrary to popular understanding of the Caldecott Medal as an award for picture books written for preschoolers, books for children ages birth through 14 are eligible. That wide age meant we received – and read --board books, illustrated non-fiction books, graphic novels and – yes – picture books for both young children and elementary-age kids.

Our job was to evaluate these books according to the Caldecott Medal criteria. Each month, we sent Rachel, our chair, a list of suggested books, ones that we found interesting and thought our colleagues should read.Then, in October, things got really serious. Each committee member has seven nominations – three made in October, and two each in November and December. With so many great books published in 2015, it was excruciating for us to narrow our choices, but we had to. These nominated books then became our “finalists” – the only ones we could discuss when we gathered in Boston to choose our winner. All other books were off the table.

Now, a note about confidentiality: all of our monthly suggestions, all of our nominated books – including how many books were nominated, since people could end up nominating the same book – and all of our discussions in Boston, will forever remain secret. Even our discussion room was designated as “secured,” meaning only committee members could enter. In addition, we never discussed the nominated books, even in email or on the phone, until our deliberations began at 8 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 8. As you can imagine, we were all quite eager to finally discuss books that had consumed so many of our waking hours for a year.

Now the entire world knows our choices. In addition to awarding the 2016 Caldecott Medal to Sophie Blackall for Finding Winnie, (which was written by Lindsay Mattick), our committee chose four Caldecott Honor books. They are (in order by illustrator’s last name): Trombone Shorty, illustrated by Bryan Collier and written by Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews; Waiting, written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes; Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, illustrated by Ekua Holmes and written by Carole Boston Weatherford; and Last Stop on Market Street, illustrated by Christian Robinson and written by Matt de la Pena.

In terms of Caldecott history, the 2016 Caldecott Medal was the 25th won by a woman (some women have won multiple times) since the award was first given in 1938; 47 medals have been won by men, while three Caldecott Medals have been won by husband and wife teams (Diane and Leo Dillon won twice, and Alice and Martin Provensen won once). (Note: I did these calculations based on the information available on the ALSC Caldecott Medal page.) I have to say that it's been particularly fun to read Sophie's reactions to winning the Caldecott Medal. Publishers Weekly talked up her "champagne and donuts" celebration, while NPR noted that Sophie's favorite book as a child was Winnie-the-Pooh, and so she was particularly delighted to have been asked to illustrated Finding Winnie. And the inimitable John Schumacher, better known as Mr. Schu, perfectly captured the joy and drama of winning a Caldecott Medal in his interview with Sophie on his Watch.Connect.Read blog.

Our group of Caldecott Honor books is quite diverse. Our Honor illustrators include three African-American artists (Collier, Holmes and Robinson), a debut illustrator (Holmes), a Caldecott Medalist (Henkes, who won the Medal in 2005 for Kitten’s First Full Moon.), and a previous Caldecott Honor winner (Collier,  who has won three Caldecott Honors for Martin's Big Words, Rosa, and Dave the Potter). And, in a bonus for us, most of our books received awards from other awards committees, underlining their excellence. Perhaps the biggest and best surprise was the fact that one of our Caldecott Honor books,  Last Stop on Market Street, also was awarded the 2016 Newbery Medal for the lyrical and poignant text by author Matt de la Pena. It is only the second time that a picture book has won the Newbery Medal.

Meanwhile, some folks have loved our choices, while others debate them. That goes with the territory. Since we committee members can't discuss our decision-making process, we can't respond very specifically. But I can tell you that we did our very best, and that our decisions were based -- as they must be -- on the Caldecott criteria (which are now burned in my brain forever!). Susan Kusel, who served on the 2015 Caldecott Committee, wrote about the experience in this thoughtful blog post. And Susan references another well-written piece about the issue, written a couple of years ago by my Caldecott colleague Sarah Bean Thompson after she served on the Michael Printz Award committee. 

While our committee’s official work is now done, we now are charged with promoting our winners, using them in programs and talking them up with kids, parents and teachers. Rachel, our chair, started the process with her deftly written guest post for the Calling Caldecott blog on The Horn Book website, in which she describes some of the reasons we chose our award winners. I particularly love Rachel's call to action at the conclusion. Noting that some folks wish we had chosen other books, Rachel concludes: "It was a magical experience for our committee to put gold and silver award seals on these books. Work some magic for the books you love."

Our committee will gather one last time at the American Library Association’s conference in June to hear the acceptance speeches by the winners. And, as a usable souvenir of our extraordinary experience, we’ll always have our committee t-shirt  (created in homage to the beloved Boston-based, 1942 Caldecott Medal winning book Make Way For Ducklings):  “Make Way for Caldecott 2016!”

Tuesday, July 28, 2015


Looking over the books I've read in the past few weeks, I find they have three key things in common:

__ They're all middle grade novels, for kids ages 8-12;

__ They all feature strong girl protagonists.

__ They're all sequels of popular, award-winning books;

Oh, and they have one more thing in common: they're all well-written, engrossing books that I will recommend without reservation to young readers at my library.

Here's a brief look at each of these new literary gems:

Like many of my young library patrons, I have greatly enjoyed this series by Jeanne Birdsall since the first book, The Penderwicks, won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature in 2005. Since then, Birdsall has continued the tale of this appealing family in  The Penderwicks on Gardam Street and The Penderwicks at Point Mouette. Through the books, we've watched each of the four Penderwick sisters grow older (and usually wiser) as they've coped with the remarriage of their widowed father, a new stepbrother and baby sister, major changes in the life of their very best friend Jeffrey, and various school crises and romantic entanglements.

In this newest installment, Birdsall particularly focuses on Batty, the youngest of the original Penderwick quartet who has literally found her voice as she discovers that she has a real talent for singing. So she plans a special surprise event for her family on her upcoming birthday when oldest Penderwick sister Rosalind will be home from college. Of course, unexpected things happen and Batty finds herself in the midst of emotional trauma sparked by an overheard conversation.

While the Penderwicks are definitely a middle-class family, the sisters' triumphs and travails are universal in nature. Young readers will readily identify with Batty's continued grief at the death of her beloved dog Hound, her thrill at finding her talent for singing, and her up-and-down relations with her siblings, including stepbrother Ben and new sister Lydia. Birdsall effortlessly combines drama and humor to make this book -- and indeed all of the books in the series -- one that readers likely will want to read and re-read, just so they can be immersed in the world of this far-from-perfect but still wonderful family.

I first discovered the unforgettable Gaither sisters -- Delphine, Vonetta and Fern -- in 2010 when author Rita Williams-Garcia published One Crazy Summer. In their first book, set in summer of 1968, the sisters are sent by their father from their home in Brooklyn to Oakland, California, where their mother Cecile now lives. Cecile abandoned her family after Fern's birth, but the girls' father has decided that the time had come for his daughters to become better acquainted with their mother. Far from a warm and fuzzy figure, Cecile appears more interested in her poetry than her girls, sending them to a Black Panther-run summer camp and otherwise generally leaving them to fend for themselves.

The girls' story continues in P.S. Be Eleven, a title that refers to a phrase repeatedly used by Cecile in letters to Delphine. The girls are now back home in Brooklyn but Delphine continues to feel the burden of being the eldest sister -- hence Cecile's reminder to "be eleven." After the freedom of their summer in Oakland, the Gaither girls, are still spouting Black Panther slogans, but feeling increasingly penned in by Big Ma, their strict grandmother. They're also worried about their father's new-found love life and their troubled Uncle Darnell, who is just back from Vietnam. And they're desperate to attend the Jackson Five's big New York City concert, if they only can save enough money. As in One Crazy Summer, Williams-Garcia effortlessly recreates telling details from the late sixties while offering a story whose themes -- forgiveness, sibling rivalry, etc. -- transcend any particular time period.

Now, Williams-Garcia has published a third book featuring the Gaither sisters. Titled Gone Crazy in Alabama, the book tells what happens when the girls head down South to spend the summer of 1969 with Big Ma, who moved back home to live with her mother, Ma Charles, after her son remarried. The contrast with their summer in Oakland couldn't be stronger; instead of Black Power slogans, they find the Ku Klux Klan. But the real heart of this book focuses on the long-time rift between Ma Charles and her sister Great-Aunt Trotter, who lives just across the creek. As the Gaither girls delve more deeply into the decades-long feud between Ma Charles and Great-Aunt Trotter, they find their own sibling bonds beginning to fray until a near-tragedy underlines what they mean to each other.

Thanks to Williams-Garcia's strong characters and sure hand with a plot, readers don't have to be familiar with One Crazy Summer or P.S. Be Eleven to enjoy Gone Crazy in Alabama. But those readers -- like me -- who have reveled in the first two books will be grateful for this third, and apparently final, glimpse into the lives of the Gaither sisters.

Another of the sequels I recently read, The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate, also is historical fiction. And just as Williams-Garcia masterfully wove the late 1960's into the world of her characters, author Jacqueline Kelly spotlights what it was like to be a girl who loves science at the dawn of the 20th century. First introduced in the Newbery Honor-winning book, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, "Callie Vee," as she is known, finds herself increasingly at odds with her parents' expectations for her. Girls like Callie were expected to learn household arts to prepare themselves for their future role as wives and mothers. Working as a scientist, as 13-year-old Callie hopes to do, was totally outside the realm of possibility.

While Callie's chafing against her expected future role was a theme of the first book, it becomes the overarching focus in The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate as Callie continues to grow in both her scientific knowledge and her understanding that females were considered second class citizens. Callie had hoped that the documented scientific discovery she had made with her grandfather might have convinced her parents to allow her to follow her dream of being a scientist. But her hopes seem to be in vain as Callie becomes ever more aware that even her own father sees her as less important than her brothers.

Meanwhile, Callie's family has taken in her cousin Agatha after Agatha's home was destroyed by the now-legendary Galveston hurricane. Callie finds it hard to share her room with her older cousin, who is both prickly and secretive, but who is held up as a model young lady by Callie's mother. The Galveston storm has brought another person into Callie's life -- a veterinarian named Dr. Pritzker who allows Callie to first watch, and then assist, at much of his work, unknown to her parents. It is Dr. Pritzker, along with her grandfather, who nurture Callie's affinity for observing and studying the natural world.

As in the first book, Callie's relations with her six brothers, especially her animal-crazed younger brother Travis, are nicely woven into the plot and provide moments of both humor and drama. But it is Callie herself who will set readers to cheering. She's a wonderful blend of impetuous and compassionate, the kind of person who makes life interesting -- in fact, just the kind of person you'd welcome as a friend. I was sad when this book ended (rather hastily, I thought), and I'm hoping that Kelly hasn't yet finished telling the story of Callie Vee -- I want to see what happens in the next chapter of her life. I just have a feeling that Callie might yet fulfill her dream of being a scientist.

Last, but not least, in this look at sequels is Completely Clementine, the seventh and final book in the popular series by Sara Pennypacker. For me, Clementine is made out of the same cloth as author Beverly Clearly's inimitable Ramona Quimby, and that's high praise indeed. Both of these memorable characters are endearingly imperfect, and it's that very imperfection that makes them so attractive to young readers.

In previous volumes of the Clementine series, we've learned that our red-headed heroine lives in Boston with her parents, that she has a younger brother (whose real name we never learn -- Clementine calls him by various vegetable names), and that she has trouble staying OUT of trouble. In this final book, the impulsive Clementine decides that she's just not ready to move on to the next chapter of her life. For example, Clementine, who has become a vegetarian, is just not ready to forgive her father for eating meat, and has stopped talking to him. Instead she draws him pictures of unhappy animals.

Clementine also isn't ready to finish third grade. She adores her third grade teacher, Mr. D'Matz, and basically refuses to acknowledge that she is ready to move onto fourth grade -- and a new teacher. Mr. D'Matz does his best to persuade Clementine that she has learned enough, both educationally and emotionally, to move on but she remains stubbornly unconvinced.

There's an additional complication, which is the "nesting" behavior of Clementine's mother, who is about to have a new baby. Take these strands and connect them with lots of humor, and you've got a slam-dunk end of a great series. And don't forget about the amazing pen-and-ink illustrations by the superbly-talented Marla Frazee. As artist Louis Darling did for Ramona, Frazee highlights Clementine's magnetic personality with humor and humanity, and her art is an integral part of this series.

I'll miss reading new adventures of Clementine, but Completely Clementine is a great way to wrap up a series that I know I will continue recommending to young readers at my library for years to come.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


Meeting 2015 Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat.
Attending the American Library Association's annual conference is truly an inspiring experience, and this year's meeting -- held in beautiful San Francisco -- was no exception.

Meeting authors and illustrators whose books I know, love and use in my work is one source of inspiration. It's wonderful to see how seriously they -- and their editors and publishers -- take their work of making great books for children and teens.

Talking with 2013 Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen.

Another source of inspiration at ALA "Annual" is the wonderful camaraderie among the children's and teen librarians here -- no one is a stranger in our ranks! Like many others, I've made numerous "conference friends" over the years. We may only see each other once a year but our shared experiences allow us to just pick right up where we left off the last time. And each year, I make new "conference friends" as I attend ALA programs, or enjoy the many book-related events put on by publishers.

Then, of course, there are committee friends, like these folks from the 2012 Sibert Medal committee on which I served. Our chairperson was Andrew Medlar, who just began his term as this year's president of the Association for Library Service to Children. Other pictured in this photo below are my fellow librarians April Mazza and Susan Melcher.

Mini-2012 Sibert Committee reunion at the Newbery-Caldecott banquet.
Last, but not least, there's the inspiration gained at the celebrations of the various children's & teen book awards. The biggest celebration, of course, is the Newbery-Caldecott banquet. At this year's dinner, both Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat and Newbery Medalist Kwame Alexander inspired both tears and laughter as they detailed their paths to winning the awards often dubbed "the Oscars" of the children's literature world. It's worth taking the time to read both Santat's speech and Alexander's speech. As is traditional, Santat designed the banquet program, which featured a cardstock version of Beekle -- star of his Caldecott Medal-winning book, The Adventures of Beekle. Santat engineered the program so the cardstock Beekle can be detached and then placed in two holders to create a stand-up character.

Front and back of Newbery-Caldecott banquet program
 designed by Dan Santat.

There are numerous other acceptance speeches worth reading as well, including Donald Crews' speech on winning the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, given for "substantial and lasting contributions to literature for children." I've been a fan of Crews' books since my children, now in their 20's were small, and in fact, I learned the word "trestle" -- and well as the names of various kinds of train cars -- from his iconic book Freight Train.

2015 Wilder Medal chair Karen Nelson Hoyle
shows the medal while winner Donald Crews greets fans.
There were other award celebrations I couldn't attend, unfortunately, because of committee or other commitments. These included the Coretta Scott King Awards breakfast, where my friend and mentor Deb Taylor was given the Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement. Some of the other award acceptance speeches can be found here -- all are worth reading by anyone interested in children's books.

The last award celebration I attended at this year's conference was for the Odyssey Award, given to the best audiobooks for children and teens. This year's winner was Live Oak Media for H.O.R.S.E.,  written by Christopher Myers, and narrated by him and Dion Graham. As usual at the Odyssey celebration, the winners read "live," and since Myers' book is a picture book, he and Graham were able to read the whole thing. It's always a thrill to watch audiobook readers perform in person, and this particular performance was especially dynamic. It was a great way to end another inspiring ALA annual conference!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Fun with Dave Barry

As a children's librarian at a public library, there are some questions I get asked quite frequently. These are questions like "Do you have any dinosaur books?'" or "Where are your graphic novels?" or the ever-practical, "Do I need a key for the restroom?"

Those are questions I can answer pretty easily. But there's one often-asked question that's much harder to answer and that is, "Where are your 'funny' books?" Kids ask me that all the time! We do have some funny books, of course, and there are more funny children's books being published than ever before. Yet there still aren't nearly as many as I -- or our young patrons -- would like.

So, when the good folks at Politics & Prose, our wonderful independent bookstore, asked if our library would like to host Dave Barry as he presented his new book for kids, I immediately and emphatically said "Yes!" For I had read an advanced review copy of the book, The Worst Class Trip Ever (Disney-Hyperion, $13.99, ages 8-12), and knew that it would be a great addition to our "funny books" collection. And I knew that Dave himself would make a hilarious presentation. It was a win-win situation for us.

In The Worst Class Trip Ever,  Dave tells the story of several eighth graders who travel from Florida to Washington, D.C. on a school trip and find themselves both in trouble with their teachers and in danger from some mysterious men who just may be targeting the President of the United States. Dave is a facile writer with a master touch when it comes to pacing, which makes The Worst Class Trip Ever a real page-turner.

And, of course, Dave knows how to make people laugh. For example, in the opening chapter, which Dave read at our program, the first-person narrator, eighth grader Wyatt Palmer, tells what happens when his dad encounters an alligator when going out to get the newspaper early one morning. Disregarding his wife's warning to first put on some clothes, Wyatt's dad is wearing only his threadbare boxers, which have very little elasticity left and are "held up by stains." Naturally, the alligator incident attracts the attention of passers-by as well as the local police, and Wyatt's dad -- holding up his boxers so they don't fall off -- ends up on the local evening news. The capper? After seeing the newscast, Wyatt's mother silently takes the boxers and burns them by the side of the family pool.

The audience loved hearing Dave read that section of his new book. The audience also loved hearing other parts of Dave's presentation, including his comments on the "hard-listening music" he plays with a band in his spare time, and how he managed to stay calm when a bookstore owner placed a huge snake over his shoulders during a book reading with fellow Peter & the Starcatchers author Ridley Pearson.

Although Dave came to talk mainly about The Worst Class Trip Ever, it wasn't an event just for kids. In fact, many Dave's adult fans were there, including a couple from Pittsburgh who drove down specifically for the presentation and then were driving the four-plus hours back home after it was over. Many of the adult fans had been regular readers of Dave's Pulitzer Prize-winning humor column, and still enjoy his annual Year in Review articles.

Dave and me (Credit: Bruce Guthrie)

As I noted in my introduction of Dave, his comedic powers were clear from an early age. At his Pleasantville, N.Y. high school, for example, Dave was elected "class clown." After he graduated from Haverford College, Dave got a job as a reporter at a newspaper in West Chester, Pa. In two years, he was promoted to city editor and -- much more importantly -- began writing a humor column for the newspaper. Another funny writer named Gene Weingarten discovered Dave's humor column and hired him to write for The Miami Herald. Dave's Herald column was so popular that it was syndicated nationally in hundreds of newspapers and, in 1988, he won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary. One interesting side note: a column that Dave wrote in 2002 is credited with bringing international attention to a very important annual celebration -- Talk Like a Pirate day -- which will take place this year on Saturday, Sept. 19.

Dave ended his weekly column in 2004 but he has continued writing in other forms. He has published more than two dozen books; among his adult books are Dave Barry's Book of Bad SongsI'll Mature When I'm Dead, and the just-published Live Right and Find Happiness (Although Beer Is Much Faster). One of Dave's books, Big Trouble, was turned into a movie, and two of his books were the basis for the TV show, Dave's World. Dave also has found fame with a stunt he once pulled on national TV -- setting fire to a pair of men's underpants with a Barbie doll. Yes, he actually did that.

At our program, however, Dave also noted how much he enjoys writing for kids, adding that he's currently working on another book for young readers. In talking about writing for kids, Dave said he was particularly delighted when astronaut Catherine Coleman read Science Fair -- written by Dave and Ridley -- during her time on the International Space Station. As Dave put it: "I just started out writing for my little high school paper and I've ended up having a book read in the International Space Station!"

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

March Madness for Book Lovers

While college basketball fans huddle over their brackets, book lovers have their own brand of March Madness. Libraries and bookstores across the country hold tournaments that pit one book against another; some of these literary tournaments are aimed at adults, others at teens or kids. All are designed to offer a literary twist on what has become the annual American event called March Madness.

My favorite of all of these literary book tournaments is The Battle of the Kids' Books,  a contest sponsored by School Library Journal. Now in its seventh year, The Battle of the Kids' Books pits some of the best books of the past year against each other. The judges are well-known children's & teen authors, each of whom must compare two books that are essentially apples and oranges and then pick a winner. A recent example: author Cat Winters had to choose between El Deafo and The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza. 

Talk about a great bracket!

Reading these literary justifications is a daily treat during The Battle of the Kids' Books season, as each of the essays is well-reasoned, beautifully-written and incredibly thought-provoking. The daily responses by the "kid commentators" also are just amazing in their clarity and the scope of the literary knowledge demonstrated by these young people. And don't overlook the witty illustrations of the anthropomorphized books duking it out with each other.

Will this be a Round Two winner?
Or will El Deafo triumph?

Even if you haven't followed it at all yet this year, The Battle of the Kids' Books still offers some great reading. I haven't been able to keep on top of the brackets each day but get great pleasure out of catching up by reading several essays in one day (of course, I work hard to keep myself from learning the winners of each bracket until I read the essays). Meanwhile, there still are some extra thrills and chills yet to come. Round Three begins on Thursday, March 26. So far, there's only one of two brackets filled out: Brown Girl Dream is pitted against El Deafo. The second bracket won't be filled until after I post this; so far it's The Port Chicago 50 battling against either This One Summer or West of the Moon. We'll know for sure tomorrow.

There's still more excitement, due to the unveiling of the "Undead" winner next Monday, March 30. Before the beginning of The Battle of the Kids' Books, anyone interested can vote for the book that they hope will "come back from the dead," if it has been eliminated by the end of Round Three. It's a fun concept, which throws a nice-sized monkey wrench into the works by creating a three-way bracket-- instead of the traditional two-way bracket -- in the final round. Wish good luck to the final round judge, Newbery Medalist Clare Vanderpool -- she'll need it!

So come catch the literary March Madness at The Battle of the Kids' Books. You'll discover some great books, memorable writing and a whole community of fellow lovers of kids' and teen books.