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 ).


__ 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.


__ 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.


__ 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.


__ 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.


Saturday, July 29, 2017

Brotherly Love

It's been six hours since I finished reading Vincent and Theo, and I still feel immersed in the story of the Van Gogh brothers, masterfully told by award-winning non-fiction author Deborah Heiligman. Simply put, Heiligman's book is a tour de force of narrative non-fiction, a page-turner based on years of painstaking research.

The story of the brothers' devotion to each other through a lifetime of challenges is fascinating -- and also often maddening, incredible, and sometimes even inexplicable. It makes great reading, no doubt about it. But it is Heiligman's delivery that has allowed Vincent and Theo to penetrate my heart and mind. As Heiligman describes it in an author's note at the book's conclusion: "In these pages, you meet Vincent and Theo as if you are walking through a museum show of their lives -- a collection of paintings, drawings, and sketches. Because Vincent van Gogh drew as much as he painted, and because his style evolved and changed over the years, I wrote in different styles, changing as it fit the topic, the time of Vincent's life, or the amount of knowledge we have.

"There are traditional pieces, sketches, impressions, scenes filled with great emotion, pictures where the emotion is in the white spaces, or in the details, pieces where it's all in the black line, others where the passion is in the color and the light."

It's no wonder that Vincent and Theo is one of only two children's or teen books published so far this year (out of hundreds) that have received the highest accolades from reviewers -- six stars. Here's how that works: there are six professional review journals that cover children's and teen books, and Vincent and Theo has earned a starred review from each of them. The only other book to capture six stars at this point in 2017 is The Hate U Give, a stunning debut novel for teens by Angie Thomas. While their books couldn't be more different, both Thomas and Heiligman know how to make a story come alive for readers, whether it is a novel about police brutality or a non-fiction book about an unusual brotherly bond.

In June, Vincent and Theo won the 2017 Boston Globe-Horn Book Non-Fiction Award winner. And Heiligman has won a number of awards for her previous books. Charles and Emma, her book about Charles Darwin and his wife Emma, was a 2010 National Book Award finalist.

Author Deborah Heiligman

Before reading Vincent and Theo, I knew little about Vincent van Gogh as a person, and what I knew -- that he cut off his ear, apparently went mad, and ended up killing himself -- was negative. And yet -- oh, those paintings! The way he used color and line and paint to create art that just begs to be touched! (And, in fact, Heiligman writes at the end of the book that at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, "guards have to watch closely so visitors don't touch the paintings, so drawn are people to them. To the color, to the paint, to the raw emotion.")

What I didn't know until I read Vincent and Theo was that it's unlikely we would ever have had those paintings without Theo van Gogh. It was Theo's money, love and -- above all, his belief, over years and years, in his brother's talent -- that helped create Vincent van Gogh, the artist. It was Theo, the younger brother, who held a steady job and paid for his brother's paints and canvases. It was Theo who endured Vincent's moods and, eventually, dealt with his madness. And it was Theo who refused to give up his two-fold mission of offering advice to make Vincent the best artist he could be, while also working to persuade others to recognize his brother's genius. (And, at the book's conclusion, we learn of one other person -- Theo's wife Jo -- whose efforts ensured that Vincent's art gained lasting world-wide fame).

From the back cover of Vincent and Theo.

In Vincent and Theo, Heiligman details how the remarkable partnership between brothers was born in their early family life together and exemplified by a prayer that their minister father wrote and had his children memorize: "O Lord, join us intimately to one another and let our love for Thee make that bond ever stronger." Later, when the brothers were in their teens, there also was a seminal moment when they walked together in the rain and made a vow to always be there for each other. As Heiligman relates it, the brothers promised "always to be close, to keep the bond between them strong and intimate. They always will walk together. They will be more than brothers, more than friends. They will be companions in the search for meaning in life and meaning in art. Together they will achieve lives filled with a purpose. And they will, when needed, carry each other's parcels."

How keeping that promise to each other, through times of anger, financial anxiety, sorrow, sickness, and -- yes -- joy constitutes the crux of Heiligman's book. While she tells us about the world in which Vincent and Theo lived, especially the seismic changes that were shaking the art establishment as the Impressionist movement took hold, Heiligman keeps bringing us back to the brothers' extraordinary relationship.

My one issue with Vincent and Theo is that it is being marketed as a book for teens. Yes, it is a book for teens, who will be attracted to the riveting emotion of the brothers' story as well as Vincent's years-long effort to find his life's passion. Vincent was the very definition of a late bloomer. But Vincent and Theo also deserves to be read by adults, who will find this book well worth their time -- if only they can get over the idea that it is written just for teens. As a librarian, I often have to really work to convince adults that great teen non-fiction is every bit as carefully-researched and well-written as any adult non-fiction book.

I'll end this review by quoting Heiligman's conclusion to her author's note; it's a fitting way to wrap up this look at Vincent and Theo: "Vincent van Gogh referred to many of his works as studies, not finished, not final...(Yet) Vincent's art draws you to him, whether or not he himself thought it was finished.

"Vincent's life was not finished when it ended, either. But it was a work of art. So was Theo's. And their relationship was a masterpiece."

End it

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

KidLit Diversity: Two Approaches

It's taken decades, but it seems that there is finally a consensus -- and an urgency -- about creating more diverse books for children and teens. There are still mountains to move, of course: just look at the latest statistics from the Cooperative Children's Book Center, which show that only 12 percent of children's books published in 2016 were created by authors and illustrators of color.

But there are definite signs of real change. The creation of We Need Diverse Books, is one key sign of change. Other signs include the fact that Simon & Schuster has established the first imprint for Muslim children's books, Salaam Reads. And now Kirkus, a professional review journal, routinely notes the race of characters in books that it reviews as a way of "unmaking the white default" in the world of children's books.

At a recent program hosted by the Children's Book Guild of Washington, D.C., two other approaches to diversifying children's literature were put in the spotlight. Both approaches are 25 years old. One approach, Africa Access, was founded by Brenda Randolph as a way of highlighting accurate, well-written books about Africa for children. The other approach, First Book, was established by Kyle Zimmer as a way of using market power to push publishers towards offering more diverse kids' books.

Brenda Randolph

Randolph opened her talk by giving a bit of personal background. She grew up in Richmond, Va., at a time when the public libraries were segregated. Later she encountered a different form of discrimination as a young librarian at a mostly white private school in a wealthy Boston suburb. When Randolph tried to convince the head librarian to jettison some racist and inaccurate books about Africa from the school's collection, she was consistently rebuffed.

"Things have changed since then," Randolph said. "Some of the earliest stereotypes have disappeared, but we still see stereotypes in other way."

To ensure more accuracy in children's books about Africa, Randolph founded Africa Access in 1989. Her idea was to assemble a team of experts who are scholars in African studies and have them review children's and teen books that focus on Africa. With that effort successfully up and running, Randolph then had an "epiphany" one day in 21992. "Instead of talking about what's wrong with books about Africa, how about flipping it around and celebrating books getting it right."

Thus was born the Children's Africana Book Awards, given annually to the best books about Africa for kids and teens. "We try to recognize as many books as we can," Randolph said. In recent years, Randolph's organization has become part of the Center for African Studies at Howard University. Africa Access also now celebrates Read Africa week by spotlighting a particular African country and offering resources about it to kids, families and teachers; this year's country is Ghana.

"One of the questions I get a lot from kids is 'Do you speak African?'" Randolph noted. "That's one of the reasons that we decided to focus on a country at a time."

While Randolph has focused her efforts at diversifying children's literature at the micro level, Zimmer has worked at it from the macro level. Zimmer said she decided to create First Book when she read a statistic that show that 79 percent of 4th graders from low-income families don't read proficiently.

Kyle Zimmer

"It's not surprising, but I'll never get over it," Zimmer said. Knowing that low-income kids generally have much less access to book, Zimmer realized that just getting books into the hands of those children would be a good start. And to do that, Zimmer created a system for tracking publishers' left-over inventory. The publishing industry is built on a consignment model, meaning that publishers take back from bookstores whatever books don't sell. With First Book's National Book Bank, Zimmer offered publishers a way to both store and manage that left-over inventory; in return, First Book is able to ensure that the books are sent to Title 1 schools and other places where they are most needed.

"While I love the First Book National Book Bank, it doesn't really fix the problem -- it's an end-of-the-pipeline solution," Zimmer said. To diversify children's literature, "we really need to change publishing," she added.

So ten years ago, Zimmer created the First Book Marketplace. The idea is simple but effective: First Book agrees to buy lots of copies of particular books on a non-refundable basis -- not on the consignment model. As she said: "When you say that to publishers in New York, choirs of angels sing." As a result of the Marketplace, First Book now has become "one of the specialty book buyers in the U.S.," and tries to use its market powers to push publishers towards offering more diverse books, Zimmer said.

For example, it was First Book's request that led to the first-ever bilingual (Spanish-English) edition of Goodnight Moon, the classic bedtime tale by Margaret Wise Brown, Zimmer noted. So far, First Book has bought and given out 100,000 copies of the book. "It's all about how to use the various levers and knobs in the marketplace to elevate the demand for diverse books," she said, adding that reducing their financial risks allows publishers to take chances on more diverse books, including those by first-time authors and illustrators of color. "We leave it to the experts as to what the content should be. Our job is to make sure that the buying tracks that."

End Notes: Thanks to Brenda Randolph and Kyle Zimmer for sharing their visions, energy and hope for the future! Thanks also to my Children's Book Guild program co-chairs, Maria Salvadore and Alison Morris, for putting together such a thought-provoking, timely event. And thanks to Guild President Kem Sawyer for her great flexibility in securing a new program venue just a few hours after we learned that our original venue would be closed in honor of #DayWithoutImmigrants.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Emily Jenkins & the Fun of Playing with Words

Author Emily Jenkins loves to play with words, so it's not surprising that she's long been a fan of the picture books written by Ruth Krauss. Among Jenkins' favorites are Krauss' A Very Special House and I Want to Paint My Bathroom Blue (both illustrated by Maurice Sendak). One favorite verse, from I Want to Paint My Bathroom Blue, goes like this:

 "I'll make a big white door
with a little pink doorknob --
and a song about the doorknob goes
a doorknob a doorknob
a dear little doorknob
a dearknob a dearknob
a door little dearknob...."

In fact, it was that "dearknob" verse that Jenkins was chanting with her two daughters one day when they were taking a walk. "And then at one point, we saw a greyhound, and I started playing with the rhythm using the word 'greyhound,'" Jenkins told a crowd gathered at my library recently after reading her newest picture book, A Greyhound, A Groundhog. "The book really came from that rhythm and those sounds before it came from any characters."

In A Greyhound, A Groundhog, Jenkins uses just a few words, but plays with them to create a story that is both whimsical and action-packed, and is totally fun to read aloud. Here's an example: “A round hound, a grey dog, a round little hound dog. / A greyhog, a ground dog, a hog little hound dog”. The lively watercolor illustrations by Chris Appelhans perfectly match Jenkins' text, making A Greyhound, A Groundhog "a feast for the eyes and ears," Kirkus put it. The book already has won great critical praise, include five starred reviews.

Jenkins came to my library, as part of our partnership with Politics & Prose Bookstore, to promote A Greyhound, A Groundhog. During the program, Jenkins also read and talked about two other recent picture books she's written: Toys Meet Snow, published in 2015 and illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Paul O. Zelinsky, and another just-published book, Princessland, which features artwork by Yoko Tanaka.

Toys Meet Snow is the first picture book that connects with the popular Toys Go Out chapter book trilogy written by Jenkins and also illustrated by Zelinsky. The books highlight the adventures of an unlikely trio of toys -- StingRay and Lumphy the buffalo, both plush toys, plus Plastic, a red rubber ball. Jenkins said at the library program that that there likely will be another Toys picture book in the next couple of years, although there are no plans for any further chapter books.

Meanwhile, in Princessland, Jenkins said that she was trying to both recognize the princess craze that many young kids, especially girls, go through while also pushing the boundaries a bit. "I like a good princess as much as the next person," Jenkins said with a grin. "...they're just fun! However, when my daughters were in their intense princess phase, I was always looking for what I would call 'feminist' princess books."

So, in Princessland, the main character, a girl named Romy, complains one day of being bored and wanting to be in "Princessland." Romy heads outside, accompanied by her talking cat, who asks her what Princessland is actually like. As Romy explains that, for example, the princesses can look out of their tall castles and see for miles, the cat leads her up a tree where -- yes -- she can see for miles. And so it goes, as Romy comes to understand that all of the things that she likes best about Princessland are actually in her own world, if she chooses to see them. Jenkins' story makes a point, but is never heavy-handed, while Tanako's colorful illustrations have plenty of glitzy details to satisfy young princess fans.

While Jenkins was focused on picture books in the recent program, she is a multi-talented writer who also writes chapter books for kids ages 7-10. In addition, using the nom de plume E. Lockhart, she's the author of several young adult novels. As a child, Jenkins always wanted to be a writer, but that changed in high school and college, when she became enamored of theater. Still, Jenkins ended up majoring in English, and then earned a master's and finally a doctorate in English literature.

It was while she was finishing her doctorate that Jenkins realized that what she really wanted to do was write. Over the years, she has published 44 books, which she characterized to the library audience this way: "Four books are for babies, 19 are picture books, 10 are young middle grade, nine are young adult, and two are for grown-ups. I wrote those two a long time ago, before I realized that I'd much rather write for kids."

For chapter book readers, Jenkins writes the Invisible Inkling series, and is one of three authors of the Upside-Down Magic series. (The other two authors are Sarah Mlynowski and Lauren Myracle. ) And, as young adult author E. Lockhart, Jenkins has won acclaim for such books as We Were Liars and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, which was a National Book Award finalist. Asked at the program if she likes to write for young adults, Jenkins replied that "writing for teenagers is being in an angst place -- a place of humiliation, a place of longing, a place of fury, a place of rejection of your family of origin.

"Even in comedies, it's still a fraught place to be. So I don't want to be there all the time. I don't want to spend all my life in that head-space. Sometimes I just want to be in the Upside-Down Magic headspace!"

END NOTES: Thanks to Emily Jenkins for a wonderful library program. Thanks to Kathy Dunn and the other Penguin Random House folks for sending her to my library. Thanks to Politics & Prose for our great partnership. And thanks to Bruce Guthrie for taking great photos of the event!