Friday, January 16, 2015

Our 2015 Caldecott Club Winners!

We have a winner! My library's Caldecott Club voted earlier this week for their 2015 Caldecott Medal pick. And -- drumroll, please! -- the 2015 Caldecott Club winner is Quest, written and illustrated by Aaron Becker.

We also chose two Caldecott Club Honor Books: Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by 2013 Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen (This Is Not My Hat) , and Blizzard, written and illustrated by John Rocco, who won a 2012 Caldecott Honor for Blackout.

These winners were chosen from our six finalists, which also included: The Iridescence of Birds, written by Newbery Medalist Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Hadley Hooper; Froodle, written and illustrated by Antoinette Portis; and Bad Bye, Good Bye, written by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Jonathan Bean.

Now, the thing to remember about our monthly Caldecott Club is that it attracts a mix of kids and adults. In fact, we've taken to calling it our "family book club." The kids range in age from 3 through 12, and the adults are generally their parents. Every once in a while we get an adult who isn't a parent but just enjoys children's literature.

Because we have such a mix of ages and stages, our Caldecott Club doesn't operate formally like a Mock Caldecott. Instead, it's a rather free-form program where we read together four or five picture books -- using our ELMO overhead projector and screen so everyone can see them -- and then discuss their merits. We use a set of "kid-friendly" Caldecott criteria developed by my colleague Dave Burbank, who also is a master of running the ELMO while reading aloud the books. It's not an easy thing to master -- it's a bit like walking and chewing gum at the same time -- but Dave makes it look easy.

While I try to remind everyone that we really are focusing on illustrations, not the text, it's often hard for Caldecott Club participants -- both kids and adults -- to keep that in mind. That's especially true when Dave, an acting major in college, does such a great job of narrating a wordless book like Quest, or hamming it up with a comic text such as the one in Froodle. Because the Caldecott Club is just meant to be fun and an opportunity to share great new illustrated books, however, we don't strictly enforce the idea of sticking with the criteria. We frequently mention the criteria and point out ways that a book's illustrations do, or don't, meet the criteria, but then let the discussion go where it will.

What really interesting is how kids really LOOK at the illustrations, while many adults focus much more on the text. So it's an opportunity for kids to learn more about how illustrations work to create a story, and for adults to sharpen their visual learning skills. And frankly, it's just a blast to have a roomful of folks of all ages talking together about some of the best new kids' books!

I'll admit that, while I acknowledge and admire Becker's artistic talent, Quest wouldn't have been my first choice; I was pulling for The Iridescence of Birds, or maybe Bad Bye, Good Bye. But Quest was the club's clear favorite, while Sam & Dave Dig a Hole and Blizzard ran neck and neck as second choices.

We'll soon see how the club's selection match up to the actual 2015 Caldecott Medal winner, which will be announced on the morning of Feb. 2 at the American Library Association's Midwinter meeting in Chicago. In the two years of our Caldecott Club's existence, we've never voted for the actual winner, but the actual winner has always been on our list of finalists. So, we'll see...

Before the Feb. 2 announcement, however, my library is holding an adults-only Mock Caldecott, at which we will formally follow the Caldecott criteria as we choose a winner. If you're in the DC area, please join us for this Mock Caldecott, which will take place on Jan. 24 from 1-4 p.m. at the Takoma Park Maryland Library. Our list of 15 finalists can be found on my previous blog post, and it's also posted on the library's Children's Room blog.

Meanwhile, even after the 2015 Caldecott Medal winner is announced, our Caldecott Club will continue to meet each month. Next month, on Feb. 9 at 7 p.m., we'll gather to read and discuss the actual winner and any 2015 Caldecott Honor books. On March 9, we'll look at some of the great 2014 books that couldn't be considered for the Caldecott Medal because the illustrator isn't American or doesn't live here -- folks like Frenchman Herve Tullet of Press Here fame. Then in April, we'll start delving into the crop of 2015 books that are contenders for the 2016 Caldecott Medal. As always, it promises to be a lot of fun!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Mock Caldecott Time!

For the first time, we've decided to have a Mock Caldecott at my library. To make it happen, I've joined forces with the energetic Alison Morris, whose knowledge of children's literature I greatly admire. Alison works at First Book and is married to graphic novelist Gareth Hinds.

The first step for us was creating a list of semi-finalists; that list contained 33 titles. We then narrowed it down to 15 finalists, which we will discuss at our Mock Caldecott event on Saturday, January 24, from 1-4 p.m. at the Takoma Park Maryland Library, located at 101 Philadelphia Ave. in Takoma Park, Md. We hope you'll join us! We only ask that you register, so we have an idea of how many folks to expect (and how many cookies to purchase!). The library owns copies of all the finalists, and we ask Mock Caldecott participants to read as many as they can ahead of time. Because some of the finalists may be checked out, however, we also plan to have a second "reference" copy of each book; these books can be read at the library, but not checked out. We plan to have this "reference set" available by this weekend. Other local library systems also likely will have copies of the books.

This Mock Caldecott is an "adults-only" event, aimed at adults who love children's literature. We have another forum where kids can make their voices heard -- our monthly Caldecott Club, which has become a family book club connecting kids, parents and books. Our next meeting is Monday, Jan 12 at 7 p.m., where we'll choose our 2015 Caldecott winner. We'll vote on the finalists from each of our club meetings from July through December after looking briefly again at each one.We'll also decide whether to have any honor books. There's no registration required for this event, and we will be serving lemonade and cookies.

So, without further ado, here are our finalists, for both the Mock Caldecott and the Caldecott Club. I'm listing the Caldecott Club finalists first, since that event happens first, and then the Mock Caldecott finalists; you'll see that, not surprisingly, there is some overlap.

(presented in the order of the months they were chosen):

Bad Bye, Good Bye, written by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Jonathan Bean


Froodle, written and illustrated by Antoinette Portis


Quest, written and illustrated by Aaron Becker


The Iridescence of Birds, written by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Hadley Hooper


Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen


Blizzard, written and illustrated by John Rocco

(presented in alphabetical order by authors' last names)

Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen

The Baby Tree, written and illustrated by Sophie Blackall

The Right Word, written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Nana in the City, written and illustrated by Lauren Castillo

Draw!, written and illustrated by Raul Colon

Firebird, written by Misty Copeland and illustrated by Christopher Myers

A Dance Like Starlight, written by Kristy Dempsey and illustrated by Floyd Cooper

The Farmer and the Clown, written and illustrated by Marla Frazee

Extraordinary Jane, written and illustrated by Hannah E. Harrison

Firefly July, edited by Paul Janeczko and illustrated by Melissa Sweet

The Iridescence of Birds, written by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Hadley Hooper

Viva Frida, written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales

A Boy & a Jaguar, written by Alan Rabinowitz and illustrated by Ca’Tia Chien

The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art, written by Barb Rosenstock and illustrated by Mary GrandPre

Bad Bye, Good Bye, written by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Jonathan Bean

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Confessions of a First-Year Blogger

After earning my living as a writer for more than 35 years, I figured that becoming a blogger wouldn't be such a big deal. It turns out that I was partly right -- and partly very wrong.

First, a bit of backstory: while I've been an avid blog reader for a number of years, I never thought that I would end up starting my own blog. The reason was simple: the weekly column that I wrote on children's and teen books for Scripps Howard News Service from 1990 through 2013 was behind a "pay wall," ensuring that it could only be accessed by newspapers who were paying clients of the news service. Once those newspapers published my column, of course, then it could more readily be accessed by anyone, but the pay wall meant that I couldn't blog about it in any other forum.

That all changed -- suddenly -- in November 2013, when Scripps announced that, after 96 years, it was closing down the wire service and thus ending my 23-year tenure as the children's and teen book reviewer. But I wasn't ready to give up my writing about children's and teen literature, and decided I could now jump into the world of blogs. With some technical help from my library colleague, Patti Mallin, I created this blog (Scripps had given me the "rights" to the name "The Children's Corner;" since that was the name by which publishers, librarians, authors, illustrators and others knew me, I decided to stick with it).

While Patti focused on the technical aspects of creating the blog, I worked like crazy, writing several pieces so that I could have lots of blog posts ready to go. Besides wanting the blog to start with a bang, I had another very good reason: Diane Roback from Publishers Weekly had contacted me when she heard that Scripps Howard News Service was closing and asked if I would do a piece for PW about the changes that I've witnessed in the world of children's and teen literature over 23 years as a reviewer. I knew that when the PW piece ran that it would be a golden opportunity to promote my new blog, and I wanted my blog to be as "content rich" as possible.

And so I started my new career as a blogger. Over the past year, I've learned quite a bit, which I'll distill here:

1. Blogging is NOT the same as journalism. This may be obvious to everyone but me, but I haven't found it easy to just blog instead of trying to be a journalist. This isn't surprising; in addition to being a columnist on children's & teen books for 23 years, I also was a newspaper reporter, on all kinds of different subjects, from 1978-2006 before earning my master's in library science and becoming a children's librarian. Old habits definitely die hard. Here is an example of one of my earliest blog posts -- it reads just like the kind of column I wrote for Scripps for so many years. Writing the column required a specific kind of style, one in which my own "voice" was not supposed to really play much part. I was highly discouraged by my editors from using first-person, even as a columnist. This rule may seem odd to the "here's what I think " world in which we now live, but it was a rule that was exceptionally important -- at the time -- to my editors (as well as the editors of many newspapers who ran my column).

As a result, I've spent much of this year trying to unleash my "voice," and while I've definitely made progress, I still have a ways to go. I aspire to the standards of "voice" set by bloggers I particularly admire, including Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson, Travis Jonker, John Schumacher, and Roger Sutton, among others.

I do miss my editors, however, especially the indefatigable Bob Jones, who would go over my Scripps column each week to fix grammatical mistakes, query me about anything that seemed unclear, smooth out my transitions, and just generally make my work the best that it could be. I miss him personally, and I miss having an editor bring out the best in my writing. 

One thing I do love about blogging, however,  is the fact that I don't have to *know* everything before writing a blog post. As a reporter, and even as a columnist, I would spend hours and days tracking down facts, talking to sources, and generally trying to make sure that I knew everything that could be known about an author, illustrator, subject, etc. My editors expected me to become an instant expert on whatever I was writing about, whether it was how to motivate reluctant readers, or why Dr. Seuss' books hit such a nerve, or what was the backstory for classics like Make Way for Ducklings or Harriet the Spy.

As a blogger, however, I can just dive in and tackle a piece of a subject, and not worry about being an overall expert. It's an amazing feeling of freedom, and one that's really taken me time to enjoy. In fact, I still feel guilty about not knowing everything there is to know about a particular subject before writing a blog post. But I'm getting better at just realizing that I can write about something without knowing every last thing about it. I'm not a reporter or columnist anymore, I'm a blogger.  Most importantly, I'm getting better -- slowly - at learning to keep it short and snappy.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that blogging takes less time than traditional journalism. That's because....

2. Blogging is all about linking -- to book trailers, publishers' websites, Facebook Twitter, etc.. Again, here is Captain Obvious speaking. But this whole new world of social media, at least as far as it concerns my writing, has taken me a while to learn since it wasn't part of my Scripps column. Through trial and error, I've learned to link whenever I can link -- to a book trailer, the website of an author or illustrator, a publisher's Facebook page, etc. And all of this linking can take a tremendous amount of time. My blogging software, like most, makes it as easy as possible to do all this, and it is so wonderful to be able to post a piece filled with interactive links that readers can enjoy, and know that I've helped make some real connections between books and readers.

Still, it does take a whole lot of time, and that leads to the fact that...

3. Blogging can take over your life -- if you let it. As someone who has written a column just as an adjunct to my "real" jobs (first newspaper reporter, now children's librarian), I thought that I knew how hard it could be to fit in all the reading and writing that's needed to produce regular pieces on children's and teen literature. But blogging can be even more demanding. While I had a weekly deadline to meet at Scripps, for example, I now set my own deadlines. This isn't necessarily a good thing ; I need an external deadline! Over this first year, I've gotten better at setting my own deadlines, mainly because I love writing this blog. I really want to regularly post on this blog-- it's both fun and fulfilling.

Even more demanding than posting regularly is the fact that I could spend hours every day trying to boost the stats of my blog posts. I could be using Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and who knows what else to really ensure that ever more people read what I've written. I do put out an initial tweet about each blogpost (find me @MacHardin on Twitter) and I also post it on my Facebook page (Karen MacPherson), but that's about it. I know I'm missing opportunities to "get my name out there" and "do some branding," as some friends have scoldingly told me. But I'm just not willing to spend so much of my time on the computer (or phone or iPad or whatever). I'd rather be reading, so I can write more blog posts!

Overall, I'm thrilled to be a blogger because....

4. Blogging is a lot of fun. It's a way of being an interactive connection between children's & teen books and their readers, an interactive connection that I never could make in all those years of writing a syndicated column for Scripps because of then-staid nature of the newspaper business.

I'm also a lucky blogger; not only do I regularly get review copies from publishers who have gotten to know me over the years, but I also get to meet some of the best authors and illustrators in the business because of my library's amazing partnership with Politics & Prose Bookstore. I work with Kerri Poore, the P&P Children's Department staffer who books children's authors and illustrators for programs at Politics & Prose, and it's been a great connection for my library. In the last year, for example, I've gotten to introduce -- and then write about-- programs at my library starring major authors and illustrators. Here, for example, are links to my blog posts about programs with Kate DiCamillo, Jon Klassen, Jon Scieszka, Tom Angleberger, Mac Barnett, Cece Bell, Maira Kalman, Peter Brown, Marla Frazee, Shannon Hale, George O'Connor, Ben Hatke. Already in this new year, we'll be hosting, in partnership with Politics & Prose, Bad Kitty author/illustrator Nick Bruel, graphic novelists Gareth Hinds and George O'Connor, and best-selling middle-grade author Gordon Korman.

So stay tuned for some great new blog posts in 2015, and thanks for reading!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Three Books, Six Stars -- Stellar!

In the world of children's and teen literature, there are six major professional journals (Booklist, The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, The Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal) that regularly publish reviews. These journals "star" books they consider particularly distinguished. Winning a star from one or even two of these journals is a big deal; winning a star from EACH of these journals is an astounding accomplishment.

Each year, however, there are a handful of children's and teen books that actually do earn six stars. Thanks to the herculean efforts of Elizabeth Bluemle, who blogs at ShelfTalker, we know that in 2014, just three books won six stars. (Bluemle tracks these things in regular updates called "The Stars So Far;" the latest installment was published in late September). Given the fact that there are several thousand books published each year for children & teens, these three books truly are the best of the best, at least as far as these top review journals are concerned.

This top-rated trio consists of -- Drumroll, please! Now add some trumpets! -- The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia, by Candace Fleming; This One Summer, a graphic novel written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by her cousin, Jillian Tamaki; and Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir by Jacqueline Woodson. In addition to earning six stars, Brown Girl Dreaming won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

Each of these books is, obviously, outstanding. They also are amazingly different. Two are non-fiction -- The Family Romanov and Brown Girl Dreaming -- but they take starkly different approaches. In The Family Romanov (Schwartz & Wade/Random House, $18.99, ages 10 up),  Fleming has woven a massive amount of research into a gripping tale spotlighting the stark contrast between the sumptuous lives of Russia's last imperial family and the people they ruled, who lived in abject poverty. Fleming's text is firmly based in history, but it reads like a thriller, as we follow the Romanovs towards their doom and the rest of Russia towards chaos. Real-life characters, led by the mystic Rasputin, keep readers turning the pages; you can get a good taste of the book from this book trailer. Numerous black and white photographs further help set the scene, as do the first-person narratives that Fleming includes in each chapter.

Brown Girl Dreaming (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin, $16.99, ages 8 up) also is non-fiction, but in this case, author Woodson is writing about her own life. It's an unusual autobiography, however, as she tells her story of growing up as a black American in the 196's in a series of prose poems. It's a bold -- and risky -- choice, as books told in prose poems are notoriously hard to "sell" to readers, kids or adults; just ask any children's librarian. Yet Woodson's book is so engagingly written, and her story is so powerfully told, that numerous young readers who have reluctantly picked up Brown Girl Dreaming on my recommendation have returned to the library raving about it. Slowly, it is building the audience it deserves at my library as more young readers realize what a story Woodson has to tell. Here's Woodson herself reading from the book; she also is the reader for the audiobook, which we've just ordered for my library.

Unfortunately, Woodson's triumph in winning the National Book Award for Brown Girl Dreaming was marred by racism when author Daniel Handler, who hosted the awards program, joked about the fact that Woodson is allergic to watermelon. Handler's racist joke, even more hurtful to Woodson because of a friendship between them, sparked a firestorm of protest. Handler was forced to apologize, and he donated a large sum of money to the We Need Diverse Books effort as a way to atone for his comments. Meanwhile Woodson, a class act, took the high road in a piece she published in The New York Times titled "The Pain of the Watermelon Joke." Woodson may have the last word in any case, as Brown Girl Dreaming is widely regarded as a top contender for the 2015 Newbery Medal. If Woodson's book does win, it will be an especially sweet moment because so few non-fiction books have ever won the Newbery.

For something totally different, take a look at the third book to win six stars this year, This One Summer (First Second/Macmillan, $17.99, ages 12 up). Featuring gorgeously evocative artwork by Jillian Tamaki, the book written by Mariko Tamaki focuses on a pivotal summer for a girl named Rose. On the cusp of adolescence, Rose finds herself restless and unhappy in the beach town she's traveled to each summer with her parents. It's always been a refuge for the family; now her parents are fighting with each other over her mother's inability to bear another child. Rose, meanwhile, finds herself changing as well. While still best friends with her beach buddy Windy, there's sometimes a new strangeness between them, as Rose finds herself with a crush on an older teen boy and struggles to cope with the tension in her own family.

In a spare text, Mariko Tamaki perfectly captures the way the world shifts as kids enter adolescence, while "stunning" is truly to only word for Jillian Tamaki's artwork, which conveys so much in just a few lines, and while using an extremely limited violet-toned palette. This page from Macmillan, the publisher, gives you a sense of the book.

So there you have it -- three books, six stars -- stellar!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

2014 Favorites

Each December, I’m asked by kids and parents for a list of my favorite books published in that year. Putting together such a list is both fun and challenging. I read so many good books for kids and teens that it can be hard to keep the list a manageable size! But here are my final choices for this year’s list. Enjoy!


Leslie Patricelli is the go-to author/illustrator these days when it comes to the youngest readers. This year, she published two more gems: Tickle and Toot.


Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, illustrated by 2013 Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen and written by Mac Barnett, who wrote Klassen’s 2013 Caldecott Honor book, Extra Yarn (ages 3-7)
Watch the book trailer.

The Baby Tree, written and illustrated by Sophie Blackall, noted for her work with the Measles-Rubella Initiative (ages 3-6)

My Teacher Is a Monster, written and illustrated by Peter Brown (ages 4-7)
Watch Peter Brown at the National Book Festival.

Where’s Mommy?, written by Beverly Donofrio and illustrated by Barbara McClintock (ages 3-6)

The Farmer and the Clown, written and illustrated by Marla Frazee (ages 4-7)

Time for Bed, Fred, written and illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail (ages 3-6); it was selected as one of the New York Times Best Illustrated books this year.
A young fan.

Once Upon the Alphabet, written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers (ages 4-8)
A peek inside.

The Iridescence of Birds, a book about artist Henri Matisse written by Newbery Medalist Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Hadley Hooper (ages 4-7)

Mix It Up!, written and illustrated by HervĂ© Tullet, of Press Here fame (ages 3-7)
Tullet talks about his book.

Bad Bye, Good Bye, written by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Jonathan Bean (ages 4-7)


LeRoy Ninker Saddles Up, written by Newbery Medalist Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by Chris Van Dusen
DiCamillo at the National Book Festival.
Visiting Takoma Park.

Digby O’Day in the Fast Lane, written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes and Clara Vuillamy

Dory Fantasmagory, written by Abby Hanlon


The Madman of Piney Woods, written by Newbery Medalist Christopher Paul Curtis

Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff

Rain Reign by Ann Martin

The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel
The book trailer.

Nuts To You, written and illustrated by Newbery Medalist Lynne Rae Perkins


We Were Liars, written by E. Lockhart

Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern


El Deafo, written and illustrated by Cece Bell (ages 8-12)
Bell and Telgemeier together.

The Dumbest Idea Ever, written and illustrated by Jimmy Gownley (ages 8-12)
The book trailer.

The Return of Zita the Space Girl, written and illustrated by Ben Hatke
The book trailer.

Benny and Penny in Lost and Found, written and illustrated by Geoffrey Hayes (comics-style beginning reader, ages 4-7)
Hayes reads from another Benny Penny book.

Aphrodite, written and illustrated by George O’Connor
A visit to the author's studio.

This One Summer, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki (ages 12 up)
The illustrator discusses the book.

Sisters, written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier (ages 8-12)
The author discusses the book.


Ashley Bryan’s Puppets, written by Ashley Bryan (ages 7 up)
The puppets in Ashley Bryan's home.

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet (ages 7-10)
Book trailer.

Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines, written by Newbery Medalist Paul Fleischman (ages 10 up)
An interview with the author.

The Family Romanov, written by Candace Fleming (ages 10 up)
Book trailer.

Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, written by Susan Kuklin (ages 12 up)
A noisy interview with the author.

Chasing Cheetahs, written by Sibert Medalist Sy Montgomery, with photographs by Nic Bishop
The author at home.

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, written by Patricia Hruby Powell and illustrated by Christian Robinson
Book trailer.

Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation, written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh
(ages 7-10)
Sylvia Mendez herself.


Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems, selected by Paul Janeczko and illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Hi, Koo!: A Year of Seasons, written and illustrated by Jon Muth

END NOTES:  A HUGE Thank you to my fellow librarian Rebecca, who found and posted all of the book cover images here, as well as the links. She did an amazing amount of work, and I literally wouldn't have been able to do this post without her help. Thanks also to the publishers who provide review copies, and to the folks in the Children's & Teen department at Politics & Prose Bookstore, who always steer me towards the best books. A final disclosure note: this favorites list has appeared in two other places, the December edition of the City of Takoma Park Maryland newsletter, and my library's Children's Room blog.