Sunday, June 3, 2018

Books and Music: The Intensely Creative Mary Amato

In the world of children's fiction, there are some superstars, folks like Newbery Medalists Kate DiCamillo and Kwame Alexander, Captain Underpants creator Dav Pilkey, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, and Jacqueline Woodson, the current National Ambassador for Young People's Literature.

But there are many more authors -- a whole host of them -- who don't get to be in the big-time spotlight, but whose books are well-written, well-reviewed by critics, and -- most important -- popular with young readers. One of these authors is Mary Amato. If you're a children's librarian or teacher, you're likely familiar with at least one of Mary's more than 15 novels, which include books in the Good Crooks and Riot Brothers series, stand-alone books like Invisible Lines and Please Write In This Book, and a trio of novels for teens.



Since Mary's first book, The Word Eater, was published in 2000, her novels have won a number of awards, including Children's Choice awards in Ohio, Minnesota, Utah and Arizona. Her books also have been translated into foreign languages, optioned for TV and produced onstage. Along the way, Mary has also been a dancer and choreographer, a songwriter, a serious player and teacher of the ukulele, a writing coach, and the co-founder of the Firefly Shadow Theater. In addition, Mary created her own website, which is filled with resources for teachers and parents and also connects to the separate website for her teen books.

In the midst of all this activity, Mary also keeps writing books for kids and teens. This year, Mary will publish two new books: News From Me, Lucy McGee, the first in a new series for ages 7-10, and Open Mic At Westminster Cemetery, a darkly comic book for teens. Recently, Mary and I -- who have known each other for years, as our sons attended the same high school -- met for lunch where I got the chance to hear about these new books, as well as her other writing and musical projects.



In writing News From Me, Lucy McGee, Mary says she wanted to "explore the idea of a little girl who is emotionally vulnerable, especially to being swayed by her peers and letting the popular group steer her.... She makes a pretty big mistake because of that." Fortunately, "Lucy has a strong moral compass because she has a great family," Mary adds.

As News From Me, Lucy McGee opens, Lucy is a fourth-grader and she is thrilled when the most popular girl in her class invites her to help fix up her clubhouse. But that means she has to skip the after-school meeting of the Songwriting Club established by another friend, and Lucy discovers how complicated friendships can be.

While friendship stories are perennially popular with kids, the Lucy McGee series features a extra added attraction. As part of the each book in the series, several songs written by Lucy and her friends in the Songwriting Club are embedded in the text.


Kids in the Carpe Diem Arts program where Mary volunteers.



The series also will offer a special webpage with extras for fans, including sheet music, mp3s of kids singing the songs, as well as karaoke versions. Mary's had a lot of fun writing the songs for the books, and is recording them with kids who work with Carpe Diem Arts, a Maryland nonprofit that coordinates arts outreach programs.


"I think of the Lucy McGee books as 'mini-musicals,'" Mary says. As for the mp3 versions available on the series' website, Mary says she'll be very much in the background as "I want kids to hear other kids singing the songs." That way, Mary hopes young readers may be empowered to try their own skill at songwriting. The books are aimed at ages 7-10, but Mary is hoping that they will appeal to even broader age range, given the musical "hook" and the fact that the characters are fourth graders whose friendship dilemmas will ring true to young readers."They are funny books with a serious side to them," Mary says.

Mary test-drives some of her songs with the Carpe Diem kids.


So far, Mary has completed the first two books in the Lucy McGee series, and is working on Book 3.  The first book will be published in October, and the others will follow every six months. Mary says she and her editors at Holiday House "are all hoping that the series will be very well-loved." If so, that could allow Mary to write more books in the series, a task she would welcome.

Meanwhile, Mary's teen novel, Open Mic at Westminster Cemetery, will be published on September 1 by Carolroda Lab, an imprint of Lerner Publishing Group. In the book -- which Mary calls "my edgiest yet" --  the main character, 16-year-old slam-poet Lacy Brink, wakes up dead in Westminster Cemetery, the historic cemetery where writer Edgar Allan Poe is buried. Lacy is understandably confused by her situation and wants to leave the cemetery to find out the details of her death, but learns that every soul there must complete a job. Lacy is given the task of providing entertainment, and proposes an Open Mic night, which offers the other cemetery residents a chance to express some long-buried, difficult truths.




"There are a lot of funny parts," Mary says. "But the book is ultimately about telling the truth, and how hard that is to do." Mary admits to be being a "little nervous" about the book, which is written in a hybrid style combining the novel format and stage script. 

Overall, Mary is grateful to spend her time writing for teens and younger readers, and has plenty of ideas for future projects. "I just have to write," she says. "To wake up every day and write is a dream come true."

ENDNOTES: A big thanks to Mary Amato for inviting me to write about her newest books. And thanks to Holiday House and Carolrhoda Labs for the book cover images.















Thursday, March 22, 2018

Snapshots from the 2018 Walter Awards

Electric energy permeated the room at the recent 2018 Walter Awards as the always-amazing Jason Reynolds accepted the 2018 Walter Teen Award for Long Way Down and author Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrator Eric Velasquez accepted the first-ever Walter Younger Readers Award for Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library.

2018 Walter winners and judges


It was an amazing event, filled with thought-provoking comments by the winners, plus an opening symposium. Focused on "The Power of Books," the symposium was moderated by Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park and featured the three authors who won Walter Honors: Margarita Engle (Walter Younger Reader Honor for Forest World); Mitali Perkins (Walter Teen Honor for You Bring the Distant Near); and Francisco X. Stork (Walter Teen Honor for Disappeared).


Jason Reynolds

Reynolds brought down the house when, in his acceptance speech, he made a brilliant, impassioned comparison between a tree falling in a forest with no one around to a child falling without adult intervention. "From a scientific standpoint, if the child falls and no one is there to hear it, does that disqualify the life of said child?," he asked. "Where are the people? The question is: WHY is no one around?... Do your work to save our babies." As my friend Alison Morris of First Book put it in a tweet: "There's not a dry eye in this room NOR SHOULD THERE BE. We have an obligation to do better."

Walter Dean Myers


Named for the late children's and teen author Water Dean Myers, the Walter Award was established by We Need Diverse Books (WNDB), a non-profit created less than five years ago as a Twitter hashtag by a handful of people that now is an influential children's literature organization with a global reach. The Walter Award was first given in 2016 and is aimed specifically at honoring outstanding books for teens (and now also younger readers) that celebrate diversity. As WNDB president and founder Ellen Oh puts it: "To change the landscape of children's literature, WNDB believes we must highlight and promote books that broaden our notions of diversity."



Each year, the winners and honor authors are feted at a ceremony co-sponsored by WNDB and the Library of Congress. It's always a gala occasion, and a chance for local teachers, librarians and students to meet some of the best authors and illustrators writing today. This year's event was hosted by Jacqueline Woodson, the current National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, and began with the symposium at which Park posed a series of questions -- including a fun lightning round --  to the three Walter Honor authors. After that, Reynolds, Weatherford and Velasquez got a chance to speak.

Here are a few snapshots from the event:

__ Responding to Park's question, "When was the first time you felt seen or heard in a book?," the three panelists had very different answers. Stork noted that he "grew up with the identity of being Mexican" (he didn't become an American citizen until he was 26) and so mostly read Latin American authors in his youth.

Perkins, who is of Bengali descent and was the only person of color and the only immigrant in her elementary school, noted that she "didn't like being seen. I read books as a way to see and hear other lives....I was learning to become fluent in imagining other lives, and that's served me well."

Mitali Perkins


Engle, meanwhile, said hers was the only Cuban family in a Mexican neighborhood and said it wasn't until she was in her 50's that she truly saw herself in a book.

__ Asked to name an author whose work was influential in their lives, Perkins cited Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Perkins said she re-reads it annually because, among other things, it showed her that she could make money and be independent as a writer. That was particularly important, Perkins quipped, because to her parents, there were only three acceptable occupations: "Engineer, doctor, and engineer!"

Stork named Flannery O'Connor, saying that "the ability to see things differently is the power she gave me."

Francisco X. Stork


Engle, meanwhile, said Carver: A Life in Poems, Marilyn Nelson's Newbery Honor-winning biography of George Washington Carver, showed her how poetry could help spotlight "someone who has been neglected by history. It's what I have strived to do -- to write about those who have been left out of history."

__ Park asked each panelist to talk about how they organize their writing day. Perkins said frankly that "I am motivated by shame" and needs a deadline. She likes to work in coffee shops "because I like that buzz;" she drew laughter from the crowd when she noted that she has just discovered an app that mimics the sound of a busy coffee shop.

Stork is more methodical. "I sit in front of the computer and see what happens in two hours. Sometimes I write a few sentences, and sometimes I write more."

As for Engle, she told the crowd to "take everything that Mitali (Perkins) has just said and reverse it. I need peace and quiet. I write in long-hand, and day-dreaming is the essence of my process."

Margarita Engle


__ As she asked about key moments they have experienced as authors with their readers, Park started things off with a laugh by talking about a letter she once got from a student who wrote: "I was absent the day we picked an author to write to and you were the only one left. So my question is: Do you know Gary Paulsen?"

Linda Sue Park


Engle responded that, for her, "the most powerful moments are when students stand up and read their own poems to me."

Perkins, meanwhile, talked about doing a school visit shortly after the death of her father. "I was trying hard to hide my grief," but she lost her composure when a student asked her why a particular character in You Bring the Distant Near had to die. "I started crying in front of all those 14-year-olds," Perkins said.

For Stork, he's particularly touched by the emails he gets from students about The Memory of Light, which addresses teen suicide.

__ Park then asked the panelists what their next book is/will be. Stork is working on a sequel to Disappeared, Engle's next book, Jazz Owls, comes out in May, Perkins is working on a picture book "about a wall," and Park is writing a picture book about "a little mixed-race dragon."

__ In accepting the Walter Young Readers Award for Schomburg, Weatherford noted that she feels like she's "come full circle." When she was an aspiring author, Weatherford said she was motivated by the work of the man for whom the award is named, especially his books Brown Angels and Harlem.

Carole Boston Weatherford and Eric Velasquez
 


__ Velasquez, who pushed Weatherford to write Schomburg, said he first learned about Arturo Schomburg from a poster of African-American heroes that his third grade teacher hung on the classroom wall. "Thirty seven years later, while at the Schomburg Center (of the New York Public Library) attending an event, a friend noted that no children's books had been written to honor Schomburg. Suddenly I realized that this was the same person I looked at every day in third grade."



ENDNOTES: Thanks to mentor, friend and Walter co-chair Maria Salvadore for the invitation to the Walter Award event. Plus a big shout-out to another mentor and friend, Deborah Taylor, who was one of the judges, plus Kathie Weinberg, who works as the co-director of the Walter Award and a Library of Congress consultant. Thanks to the We Need Diverse Books folks for some of the photos I used for this post. (My own photos were terrible!). Thanks to the Library of Congress for hosting the event in such a great space. And huge thanks to all of the honored authors for the incredible work they put in to create truly memorable -- and diverse -- books for kids and teens.




Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Midwinter Conference Highlights

The American Library Association's annual Midwinter conference is billed as a business meeting, and that's true. In fact, I was there -- it was held in Denver this year -- mainly because of my position on the Board of Directors for the Association for Library Service to Children. But's it's also a great conference for learning what books publishers are spotlighting for the spring (with a few sneak peeks at fall) and doing lots of networking with friends in the children's library world. Plus there's the biggest deal of all -- the annual Youth Media Awards announcements!

Here are just a few highlights from my time at ALA Midwinter 18:



__ First, I'm especially proud of some actions we took as ALSC Board members. First, we voted to establish a task force to explore the ALSC Awards program to, as ALSC President Nina Lindsay put it, "within the context of our core values and our strategic plan." The task force will begin with the Wilder Award, named for Little House author Laura Ingalls Wilder and given annually to an author or illustrator whose books have made a substantial and lasting contribution to children's literature. But it's time to take a second look at the name of the award, given the racism found in Wilder's books and how it reads in today's world and affects the children we serve. Here's Nina's initial ALSC Blog post about why we were considering this step; the comments to that post are particularly interesting. Here's Nina's follow-up post explaining why we voted unanimously to establish the task force to consider this issue. And here's a link to a post by Dr. Debbie Reese on her American Indians in Children's Literature blog as to why she and others see Wilder's legacy as so problematic. I look forward to hearing the task force's report, which is expected to be done in time for the announcement of the 2019 Wilder Award winner early next year.



__ On a related note, the 2018 Wilder Award recipient is author Jacqueline Woodson, the current National Ambassador for Young People's Literature and the winner of numerous awards, including the National Book Award and a Newbery Honor for her memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming. Woodson is truly a fabulous choice for this award, and I very much look forward to hearing her acceptance speech at ALA's Annual conference in New Orleans this June.

__ In the past few weeks, the issue of sexual harassment in the children's book industry has exploded as another #MeToo moment, and I'm proud of the ALSC Board's quick action to do what we can to keep our members safe. Publishers Weekly has the backstory here. A fellow ALSC Board member, Amy Koester, noted at our Monday meeting that she was approached by a couple of ALSC members wondering what is our policy for appropriate behavior at conferences. We follow the ALA's codes and conduct of ethics, but apparently that fact hasn't been made specific at the upcoming ALSC Institute in September. So Amy offered a motion to ensure that the Institute is covered by ALA's codes; we passed it unanimously. You can read more about it in Amy's ALSC blog post on the issue. I'm proud that we could be so nimble in our response to an issue of this magnitude.

__ I attended several publisher's events and heard about some amazing kids and teen books coming out this spring. I'll note just a few. First, there's Rescue and Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship, which was written by Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes. They were severely injured in the Boston Marathon bombing; she lost both legs, he lost one. Writing this book (which doesn't mention the bombing, but instead focuses on the relationship between Jessica and her service dog Rescue) was cathartic for them. It's also a great way for kids to see how people cope with disabilities.


 Another stand-out book is Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes, in which she tackles the issue of police brutality against black males. Rhodes' book, which will be published in April, is aimed at kids ages 9-12, an important fact, since most books on this subject have been geared towards teens.




Finally, there's Americanized: Rebel Without a Green Card, a memoir by debut author Sara Saedi. In this book, Saedi details her view of her family's struggle to become American citizens, even as they lived and worked here, paid taxes and participated in everyday American life.


__ A final highlight is, of course, the announcement of the Youth Media Awards. While the most famous are the Caldecott and Newbery Medals, there are many other awards focusing on difference aspects of children's & teen literature. This year, the theme of the books winning awards was -- more clearly than ever -- diversity and inclusion. Big winners included African-American wunderkind author Jason Reynolds, debut African-American author Angie Thomas, and author Derrick Barnes and illustrator Gordon James, whose picture book, Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, won both a Caldecott Honor for its art and a Newbery Honor for its text. Check out the winners here.https://www.slj.com/2018/02/industry-news/slj-reviews-yma-winners-ala-midwinter-2018/ And here's a great Publishers Weekly article on the reactions that Newbery Medalist Erin Entrada Kelly and Caldecott Medalist Matthew Cordell had to the news that they had won the most prestigious awards in children's literature.



Saturday, January 20, 2018

Adult Interruption: Peter Mayle & the Art of the Escape Novel

In my mind, authors who write genre fiction -- at least in the adult world -- don't get enough respect. They may write best-selling books and make piles of money, but these authors are generally regarded as inferior to those who write literary fiction. Sometimes that designation is merited, but sometimes it most definitely isn't.

Today's case-in-point is author Peter Mayle, who died on Jan, 18 at the age of 78. Mayle, an Englishman who first wrote sex-ed books for kids, was working as an advertising executive years ago when he decided to quit, move to France, and become a full-time novelist.







Instead of writing a novel, however, he found himself writing about what it was like to move to a village in the south of France. The resulting book,  A Year in Provence, was published in 1989;  it became a best-seller and made Mayle famous. It also helped to establish a now-flourishing market for what is often called "travel literature." Today, you'll find dozens of narratives written by people who have decided to move to another country (more often than not that country is France.) Mayle, meanwhile, eventually found himself inundated by curious fans and ended up moving to the United States for a while to get away from the tourists drawn by his tales of southern France.



I love A Year in Provence, and its sequels, Toujours Provence and Encore Provence. Mayle perfectly captures the humor and the challenges in the culture clash of living as an English ex-pat in the south of France. The books are both entertaining and educational, and stand up to repeated re-readings. As an antidote to a gray winter day, these books can't be beat.

But I'm also a huge fan of Mayle's novels, in which he displays his elegant writing and superb sense of pacing. I'm particularly fond of his Caper quartet, which are among the last books he wrote: The Vintage Caper, The Marseille Caper, The Corsican Caper and The Diamond Caper. Perfect escape novels, these books offer interesting characters, witty repartee, and exotic locales,  as well as Mayle's trademark humor and sophisticated writing style. The audio versions, read by Erik Davies, also make fun listening.





Mayle's other novels include Hotel Pastis, Chasing Cezanne, and A Good Year, which was made into a film starring Russell Crowe and Albert Finney. Like the Caper series, these novels are make lively and diverting reading. They take you to places you'd love to visit, introduce you to characters leading lives you'd love to lead, and provide a fast-paced, satisfying story. But it's Mayle's stylish writing that elevates these books and makes them far more than genre fiction, in my opinion.





In fact, Mayle's writing is so facile that I think it's easy to overlook what a craftsman he is. In that way, Mayle reminds me of that master writer, P.G. Wodehouse. As in Wodehouse's novels, the subject of Mayle's fiction is basically pure fluff. Like Wodehouse, he doesn't deal in serious issues or weighty emotions. Yet the books of both Wodehouse and Mayle are just pure pleasure to read because of the exquisite writing.





So it is with sadness that I read the news of Mayle's death. I had hoped that he would write a few more books in the Caper series, plus more stand-alone novels. Alas, that's not to be. But I'll comfort myself by re-reading (or re-listening to) some of my favorite Mayle books. They are, after all, the perfect escape from the political turmoil that surrounds us.




Friday, December 1, 2017

Starstruck at the Library

For several years, my library has had the wonderful honor of partnering with Politics & Prose Bookstore, Washington, D.C.'s nationally-known independent bookstore. As part of that partnership, my library has hosted dozens of noted children's authors and illustrators including Newbery Medalists Kate DiCamillo, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and Katherine Applegate, and Caldecott Medalists Sophie Blackall and Jon Klassen.

This year was another banner year of author and illustrator visits, and a number of the books highlighted at this year's programs have received critical acclaim on "best of the year" lists issued by professional review magazines (Kirkus, School Library Journal, Publisher's Weekly) as well as the New York Public Library and the Chicago Public Library. This year, the Evanston (Ill.) Public Library also has created a "best books" list thanks to the indefatiguable kidlit blogger Betsy Bird, who moved from NYPL to the Evanston Public Library a couple of years ago and some of our visiting authors and illustrators made that list. Several also made the "best books" offered by The Washington Post, as well as The New York Times, which does both a Notable Children's Book list and a 10 Best Illustrated Children's Books list.

So, if you're looking for some great holiday gifts for young readers, start by checking out the books by our visiting authors and illustrators that were chosen as best books of the year! Here's the list, with the books presented by age and then alphabetically by title. (The key to the "best books" lists: CPL is Chicago Public Library; EPL, Evanston Public Library; K is Kirkus; NYPL is New York Public Library; NYT is New York Times; PW is Publisher's Weekly; SLJ is School Library Journal; and WP is Washington Post ).

PICTURE BOOKS:

__ A Greyhound, A Groundhog, written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Chris Applehans. (K)
Emily visited our library in February to present this gracefully-written book with quietly stunning illustrations.


 





__ All the Way to Havana, written by Margarita Engle and illustrated by Mike Curato. (K, EPL).
Mike came on his own to present the book, after Margarita got sick and had to cancel. No matter, Mike did a great job explaining how he did the research for this book focused on a family's road trip to visit relatives in an old, but trusty blue car.


__ Creepy Pair of Underwear, written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Peter Brown. (K)
Peter paid us a return visit (he first came a year ago) to read this hilarious sequel to the Caldecott Honor-winning Creepy Carrots. (Kids at our program especially loved that Peter signed copies of the book with a silver Sharpie so that his signature would stand out on the black title page.)



__ Lucia the Luchadora, written by Cynthia Lenor Garza and illustrated by Alyssa Bermudez.(CPL, EPL, K)
Who says girls can't be superheroes? Lucia takes her classmates by storm when she dons the disguise of a luchadora; soon everyone wants to be part of the Mexican lucha libre tradition. Cynthia came this spring to read the book and answer questions about luchadoras.


GRAPHIC NOVELS:

__ Castle in the Stars: The Space Race of 1869, written and illustrated by Alex Alice. (K)
Alex, who hails from France, held the crowd spellbound with his tales of how he came to write this dense and lushly illustrated adventure tale, the first in a series. Featuring hot air balloons, a Bavarian castle and dastardly villains, Alex's book will have you quickly turning pages to see what happens next. If you read French, you can read the second book, which was published earlier this year in France. Otherwise you'll have to wait a year or two, when the English version is published, to see what happens next!






__ Good Night, Planet, written and illustrated by Liniers. (CPL, K, NYT)
Liniers, an internationally known Argentinian cartoonist, has turned his talent to creating graphic novels for beginning readers. In this charming book, he depicts the antics of Planet, a stuffed fawn, and real dog named Elliott after their human family has gone to sleep.



__ Pashmina, written and illustrated by Nidhi Chanani. (CPL).
Nidhi mixes fantasy and realism in this debut book about a teen who is frustrated by her mother's refusal to say why she moved, with her baby daughter, from India to California. When Priyanka finally gets to go to India herself, she begins to understand her mother's courage. At our event, Nidhi did some live drawing and talked about her graphic work for Disney and others.



MIDDLE GRADE NOVELS:

__ Amina's Voice, written by Hena Khan. (CPL, K)
Amina is a middle schooler whose main concerns revolve around friends and school until her beloved mosque is vandalized. In her program at the library, Hena talked about how her timely debut novel is the kind of realistic fiction she liked to read as a child.


__ wishtree, written by Katherine Applegate. (CPL, PW, NYT, WP)
Trees can not only talk, they can help make things better, with some help from humans in the world of this lyrically-written novel. Katherine, who won a Newbery Medal for The One and Only Ivan, presented the book at a program where she had kids both laughing and thinking about what's important in their lives.




NON-FICTION:

__ Marti's Song For Freedom/Marti u Sus Versos por La Libertad, written by Emma Otheguy and illustrated by Beatriz Vidal. (K, NYPL, SLJ)
In her program, Emma talked about the importance of Cuban freedom fighter Jose Marti in her life and in the lives of generations of Cuban-Americans. Her beautifully-illustrated book uses Marti's poetry to illuminate the many twists and turns in his inspiring life.





And one more! This event hasn't happened yet, but the book -- Before She Was Harriet -- already has gotten lots of great reviews and is on three "best books" lists: CPL, EPL, SLJ. So mark your calendars for Thursday, Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. when author Lesa Cline-Ransome and her illustrator husband James Ransome will talk about their picture book biography of Harriet Tubman.



END NOTES: Thanks to the P&P folks -- especially Margaret Orto, children's & teen events coordinator -- for making it possible for my library to host these programs with outstanding children's authors and illustrators!





 

Friday, October 27, 2017

Spotlight on Debut Authors

My library is fortunate to have lots of visits from kids authors and illustrators, thanks to our partnership with Politics & Prose bookstore.  Most of our visiting authors and illustrators are well-known, mainly because they are the ones that publishers send on tour. Among those we've hosted in the past few weeks, for example, included Newbery Medalist Katherine Applegate talking about her new novel, wishtree, Caldecott Honor Illustrator Peter Brown introducing his latest picture book, Creepy Pair of Underwear, and two graphic novelists -- Liniers from Argentina and Alex Alice from France -- presenting their new comics.

More recently, we offered programs featuring a trio of debut authors: Emma Otheguy, author of the picture book biography Marti's Song For Freedom/Marti y sus versos por la libertad; Nidhi Chanani, author/illustrator of the graphic novel Pashmina; and Julie Segal-Walters, author of This Is Not a Normal Animal Book, a picture book for ages 4-8. While their books vary widely in topic and genre, all three authors presented lively, interactive programs. (Julie also got an assist from Brian Biggs, the illustrator of her book and a well-known figure in the picture book field). As picture book authors, both Emma and Julie also are part of a group called Picture the Books, which consists of debut authors with books published this year.



First up was Emma Otheguy, whose brother and family live in Takoma Park and are patrons of my library. Usually Politics & Prose, working with a publisher, sets up an author event and we host it in our role as an "alternate venue" for the bookstore. In this case, however, I learned about Emma and her debut book on Cuban freedom fighter Jose Marti from Emma's sister-in-law, and I was the one who asked the P&P folks if they'd like to add the event to their calendar, and send a bookseller that night. It was a fortuitous decision, as Emma, a former teacher and current Ph.d candidate, gave a delightful talk, filled with information about Marti, as well as her own connections to him.



Emma told the audience of kids and adults that she decided to write about Jose Marti because her family is Cuban-American and "Jose Marti is very important to Cubans. He's someone who helped Cuba become independent from Spain and he also wrote beautiful poems." In her book, Emma uses lyrical language and free verse -- in both English and Spanish --  to tell Marti's story, beginning with his childhood when "his father took him to the countryside/where he listened to the crickets chirp/ and the roosters crow."



Throughout Marti's Fight For Freedom, Emma highlights Marti's love of nature and his persistent, courageous efforts to rid Cuba of its Spanish rulers. Even prison couldn't dim Marti's ardor for the cause of Cuban freedom, a cause he continued even when forced to move to New York. As Emma writes: "Wherever he went, Jose was inspired/ to find people who also believed in equality and liberty." After 15 years of living in New York, Marti finally was able to return is beloved Cuba, where he died in battle against the Spanish. Emma writes: "He didn't live to see his dreams come true/ but Jose's friends carried his words in their hearts/ and finished the fight."


Emma's stirring text is matched by the illustrations by Beatriz Vidal. Done in gouache, Vidal's artwork has a folk art quality that works well in telling Marti's story. Reviewing the book, Kirkus noted: "In bringing an important life back into the conversation during divided political times, this book spotlights a steadfast hero and brilliant writer still worth admiring today." 

One young audience member asked Emma what was her favorite poem by Marti. She responded that she especially loves this poem:
I come from every place
And I'm on the road to everywhere:
I am art amid the arts,
And in the mountain chain, a link.
 
Emma concluded her program by giving kids a written prompt that allowed them to try writing a bit of poetry in Marti's style. Everyone enjoyed trying it out -- even the adults!



Nidhi Chanani was the second debut author to visit my library this fall. Born in Calcutta, Nidhi moved to the United States with her parents when she was four months old. As a child, Nidhi loved to read, including comics like Garfield and Calvin & Hobbes. "I also loved drawing," she said. "I kept drawing but as I got older it became a smaller part of my life" -- at least for a time. While Nidhi's family had dreams of her becoming an engineer, she ended up majoring in literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "My family never discouraged my choices but they didn't really understand them," she said.




After college, Nidhi said she "tried out a variety of jobs" -- waitress, grant writer, secretary, grocery story clerk -- over a period of several years. "None of these jobs is bad, but they just weren't right for me.... I thought that maybe it was time for me to go back to what I liked as a kid -- writing and drawing." So Nidhi enrolled in art school, and while she didn't end up graduating, she did find her creative spark. Since then, Nidhi has made a living as a freelance illustrator, cartoonist and writer. She's worked with Disney and ABC, among others, and her Everyday Love Art products -- including magnets and calendars -- are sold in retail shops around the country. In 2012, Nidhi was named a "Champion of Change" by the Obama Administration. "I never find myself short of inspiration," she said.



Then, a few years ago, "I felt ready to do something longer," Nidhi said. Fortunately, Nidhi already had an idea for a graphic novel featuring an Indian-American teen, so she found a literary agent, who helped her sell the concept to FirstSecond, an imprint of Macmillan known for producing first-rate comics. Nidhi said that her graphic novel, Pashmina, "took about a year" to complete. "I was trying out ideas, re-drawing, trying out more ideas." In the book, Nidhi tells the story of a girl named Priyanka, known as Pri, who is desperate to learn why her mother left India and moved to California years ago. But her mother refuses to discuss her flight, stating tersely that it is a "closed subject." Pri keeps pushing, especially after she finds a magic pashmina -- a type of shawl -- that allows her to visit India, in a fantasy way. Pri eventually goes to India for real, but finds that things are quite different than her fantasies.




In its review of the book, School Library Journal stated: "This dazzling blend of realistic fiction and fantasy is perfect for fans of characters who have to overcome obstacles on their way to growing up." Meanwhile, Kirkus noted: "An original graphic novel, the first written and illustrated by an Indian-American creator, this is both a needed contribution and a first-rate adventure tale." And Nidhi said that's exactly why she wrote Pashmina. "I'd never seen a story like this before. I like to think that I'm filling in some of the gaps. We need to have more Indian-American graphic novels."



Our final debut author, Julie Segal-Walters, got lucky when Brian Biggs, the illustrator of her first picture book, This Is Not a Normal Animal Book, was able to join her at our library event. Having the duo present their book together upped the hilarity factor, especially since Julie's presentation was built around showing audiences just how long it takes to get a picture book published. In fact, Julie got the idea for her book in 2013 and now, four years later, she's finally holding a finished copy in her hands. In between, Julie, a lawyer and civic action specialist, spent many hours perfecting the text, and then many months waiting for Brian to create the artwork.



While This Is Not a Normal Animal Book is ostensibly about different kinds of animals, it ends up being a hilarious battle between the author and the illustrator over who's actually in charge of the story. In its review, Publishers Weekly called the book "a knowing and very funny behind-the-scenes look at the art -- and negotiation -- of collaboration." Biggs' art adds color and humor to Julie's spare text; his opening illustration showing all of the animals featured in the book has been juried into the prestigious Society of Illustrators Original Art Exhibit this year.





Biggs noted that he's illustrated, or written and illustrated, 63 books since he began drawing in 1969. He's now working on a book that he's both written and illustrated, and has plenty of other work lined up. Julie, meanwhile, has written three other picture book manuscripts, and is waiting to hear back from publishers. But she's also busy with other projects. In addition to helping create Picture the Books, Julie also recently was part of a group that just launched a new blog, M Is For Movement. Here's how she and the other contributors explain their mission in a note on their website: "We recognize that activism takes many forms, including interpersonal interactions, grassroots organizing, public policy advocacy, political participation, and protest. Through this blog we aim to highlight children’s books that include a wide range of engagement tactics, as well as the history of movements and the stories of remarkable individuals who lead and participate in social justice initiatives."

ENDNOTES: A big thank you, as always, to Politics & Prose Bookstore for the partnership that allows us to host authors and illustrators at my library. Thanks also to Lee & Low, which provided a review copy of Marti's Song For Freedom/Marti y sus versos por la libertad; to FirstSecond for the review copy of Pashmina; and to Simon & Schuster for the review copy of This Is Not a Normal Animal Book. And finally, a big "Merci!" to Maurice Belanger, who took the wonderful photos at the events featuring Emma Otheguy and Nidhi Chanani.














`