Friday, July 18, 2014

Kate (the Great) DiCamillo Is Coming!

Yes, the current National Ambassador for Young People's Literature AND the current Newbery Medalist is coming to my library! If you're in the Washington, D.C. area, mark your calendars for Friday, August 29 at 7 p.m., when Kate will speak in the auditorium of the Takoma Park (Maryland) Community Center, which connects to our library. I'll be moderating (whoo-hoo!) the program; I've been told that Kate likes to do a Q & A format at her programs. Then she'll sign books afterwards.

How did my library, which is, after all, tiny -- as well as the only small, city-run library in Maryland -- get the honor of hosting the great Kate DiCamillo? Well, chalk it up to our partnership with Politics & Prose Bookstore, the independent bookstore in DC.

A couple of years ago, the P&P folks asked if we'd like to partner with them on author events; we provide the space for the events, and they provide the authors. Talk about a deal for us  See, P&P has more authors for events than they have space and time on their store calendar, which is why they reached out to us and to several other libraries in the area to see if we could form a partnership. The benefits for my library are immense because we get to host authors we never could afford to pay to come. P&P sells books at the events for people who'd like to have the visiting author personally sign their volume, but no purchase is required to attend any of the programs.
Ben Hatke

Recent authors whom we have hosted with P&P include graphic novelist Ben Hatke, of Zita the Spacegirl fame, Llama Llama picture book creator Anna Dewdney, and internationally-acclaimed author/illustrator Maira Kalman.

And now Kate DiCamillo! She's actually coming to DC for the National Book Festival, which will be held indoors for the first time on Saturday, August 30 at the Washington Convention Center. It was Kerri Poore, energetic coordinator of children's & teen events at Politics & Prose, who had the brilliant idea to ask Kate's publisher, Candlewick Press, if she might be willing to tack on an extra event the night before the festival. Lo and behold, she was!

I've interviewed Kate several times and so know how amazingly nice she is. Still I have to admit that I'm a tad nervous about moderating the program.
But I know that Kate will put me, and the audience, right at ease, as we talk about her ambassadorial platform -- "Stories connect us" -- her latest Newbery-winning book, the utterly delightful Flora & Ulysses, her newest book, LeRoy Ninker Saddles Up, and more. It's sure to be a wonderful night, so watch this space for a wrap-up right after it happens.

Kate's not the only author we're co-hosting this fall with P&P at the Takoma Park Maryland Library. Our partnership with P&P has produced a great line-up of children's (and adult) authors who will be speaking in our library's Children's Room (that's where we generally host authors and illustrators; hosting Kate in the auditorium is an exception).

For example, at 7 p.m. on August 28 -- just the night before Kate speaks -- Caldecott Honor author/artist Peter Brown will be talking about his newest picture book, My Teacher Is a Monster! (No I Am Not). It's great timing because that's the first week of school around here, so Brown's pitch-perfect, comic send-up of teacher-student dynamics should draw a good crowd of preschoolers and early elementary-age students.

Other upcoming events include: graphic novelist Eleanor Davis, who will talk about her new adult short story collection, How to Be Happy, on Monday, Sept. 15 at 7:30 p.m.; a trio of middle-grade authors -- Annie Barrows, E.D. Baker and Jessica Day George -- who will talk about their latest books on Thursday, Oct. 9 at 7:30 p.m.; and author Shannon Hale, talking about The Princess in Black, the launch of a new early chapter series, on Tuesday, Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m. I'll be blogging about each event as they occur, so stay tuned for more!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Going Wild with Children's Literature

If you especially love the stories behind the stories of children's literature, you're in for a treat later this summer. That's because August 5 will mark the publication of Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature (Candlewick Press, $22.99), written in tandem by Peter Sieruta, Betsy Bird, and Julie Danielson.

It's a truly awesome line-up of experts. Peter, who died in 2012, was beloved in the children's literature field and had a deep knowledge of children's book collecting. Betsy is the youth materials specialist at the New York Public Library and widely known for her blog A Fuse # 8 Production, which can be found here on School Library Journal's website. And Julie, or Jules as she is known, is the creator of another wonderful, must-read blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Alas, I didn't know Peter, although I read his highly-respected blog, Collecting Children's Books.. But I am a devoted follower of the blogs of Betsy and Jules -- I recommend them highly to folks who love children's literature.

Anyway, Wild Things looks like truly wild fun, as it takes us "behind the scenes" of some of the best-known children's books. I've just gotten a review copy and plan to spend the next few days immersed in it, as I'll be hosting Betsy and Jules here on Children's Corner as they wend their way through a "blog tour" in late August.

 But you don't have to wait until August 5 to read some of the amazing and incredible things that Betsy, Jules and Peter learned as they worked on the book over the last several years. That's because a lot of the original manuscript ended up on the cutting room floor, so to speak, so that the book could remain a manageable size. Betsy and Jules have taken some of those unpublished gems and created a website built around them. The first few posts have been just wonderfully fun to read. My favorite so far is titled "Play Misty for Me," and tells the story of what the Wild Things authors contend is one of the best ALA Conference photos of all time:

You'll have to read the post to figure out why a horse is sitting in the midst of a bunch of be-hatted librarians, who seem to be remarkably unfazed by it all.

It seems like Wild Things -- both the published and unpublished parts of it -- will be a great addition to other classic "behind the scenes" books about children's literature. Several of my favorites were written and/or edited by children's literature expert Anita Silvey, whose books include 100 Best Books for Children, 500 Great Books for Teens, and that indispensable volume Children's Books and Their Creators and its shorter version, The Essential Guide to Children's Books and Their Creators.

I was fortunate enough to contribute an essay to Anita's Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Children's Book. Anita also is a blogger, and anyone who loves children's literature should have her Children's Book-A-Day Almanac on their list of favorites. It's "must" daily reading for me.

Children's lit historian Leonard Marcus also has authored numerous books that give readers a peek behind the curtain at famous children's books. Leonard's many books include the seminal Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs and the Shaping of American Children's Literature.

And any children's lit lover looking for an irresistible combination of insights and humor about kids's books would do well to read a long-time favorite of mine, Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, which Leonard edited.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Tales from the Library: Happy New Year, Caldecott Club!

Way back in January, I posted about my library's Caldecott Club, calling it a "mock mock Caldecott" because we have patrons ranging from ages three to adult voting for the book they consider the best-illustrated of the selection we choose each month. (More background on our "mock-mock" Caldecott can be found here).

Because it's been so popular with our patrons, we decided earlier this year to expand the Caldecott Club from just a few months of the year to year-round. The Caldecott Club "year" would start in March, and culminate with a final vote in January -- just before the actual Caldecott Medal winner is announced at the American Library Association's Midwinter conference. We'd then discuss the actual winners in February and start the cycle over again in March.

2014 Caldecott Medalist Brian Floca
What with one thing or the other, including the end of the school year and the start of our summer reading program, we actually kicked off the "year" with our July Caldecott Club. No matter -- everyone was happy to be there, the "regulars" as well as some new folks. I started off by sharing a bit about the Newbery-Caldecott Awards banquet, which I had just attended at the ALA's Annual Conference (in Las Vegas, of all places). Mostly, I wanted to share the wonderful banquet program designed, as always by the Caldecott Medalist: in this case, Brian Floca, author/illustrator of Locomotive. The program, fitting the motif in Locomotive, looked like an Old West handbill and featuring just the best pop-up of -- you guessed it -- a locomotive. You can read Brian's speech here. 
(Another fun part of the evening were the short videos of this year's winners of Caldecott and Newbery Medal and Honor Books. My favorite video featured Mr. Wuffles, star of the 2014 Caldecott Honor book, Mr. Wuffles, written and illustrated by David Wiesner.)

Then our real fun of our Caldecott Club began, as we read, discussed and voted on the four books I had selected for the evening. We also looked, briefly, at a few illustrations of another book, Firefly July (Candlewick Press, $16.99), featuring very short poems chosen by Paul Janeczyko and illustrations by Melissa Sweet. While everyone agreed that Sweet's illustrations, done in collage and watercolor, were Caldecott quality, the poems -- while short -- were a bit too sophisticated for our group that night. In choosing books for our Caldecott Club, I generally keep in mind that our group skews towards preschoolers and early elementary kids (and their parents). So even though Caldecott criteria calls for the consideration of books for ages birth through 14, the ones we read tend to be aimed at kids 3-8 or so.

At each Caldecott Club, I'm joined by my library colleague Dave Burbank, who uses the skills he learned as a theater major in college to bring alive the books he reads. Besides, Dave is a real whiz with the ELMO, a special "document camera" that connects with our projector to show the book's pages on a big screen. It works great for a large group because everyone can really see the book as Dave reads it.

On this latest evening, we began with Three Bears in a Boat (Dial, $17.99), written and illustrated by David Soman, who is best known for the best-selling Ladybug Girl books he creates with his wife, Jacky Davis. Three Bears in s Boat was the longest book we would read that night, and I wanted to start off with it first, while energy was fresh. Dave read the book, then we asked everyone to give rate the illustrations, from 1 (worst) to 5 (best). Three Bears in a Boat was a crowd-pleaser, gathering an overall rating of 4; kids liked the way Soman drew the bears, while some of the adults loved his watercolor scenes of the bears in the ocean.

Next up was My Bus (Greenwillow, $16.99), written and illustrated by Byron Barton, a master of picture books for the very youngest readers. My Bus is a follow-up to My Car, which Barton published 13 years ago, and which remains popular with new generations of babies and toddlers at my library. My Bus was our youngest book of the evening, and so predictably drew raves from the toddlers and three-year-olds. While older kids and adults could appreciate Barton's use of color and shape, they were less enthralled with the book, which ended with an overall rating of 3.

 Bad Bye, Good Bye (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99) was third on our list. I have to admit that it was definitely my favorite of the night; in fact, it's one of my choices for the 2015 Caldecott.  The simple yet emotion-laden rhyming text by Deborah Underwood is matched perfectly by Jonathan Bean's illustrations. Done in ink and Prismacolor tone, Bean's illustrations are multi-layered. In one layer -- the first layer that readers will focus on because it is done in full color -- shows a family's upheaval at moving to a new home.

 In the background of those illustrations, however, Bean presents other scenes, done in more monochromatic colors, which both move the story along and deepen its heart. For example, there's an entire background set of scenes behind the book's opening sequences. As readers see the family's two hugely upset children trying to prevent the movers from doing their work, the background illustrations depict the movers' relentless pace. Like me, it turned out that our crowd that night also loved the book, which garnered a number of 5s from folks of all ages.

Our final book was Number One Sam (Disney, $16.99, written and illustrated by Greg Pizzoli. I loved Greg's book, The Watermelon Seed, which won the 2013 Geisel Award for Best Beginning Reader, and I figured this new book, highlighting Greg's zany humor and cartoon-like illustrations, would be a crowd-pleaser and great way to end the night. (Check out this book trailer to get a sense of the book). The kids really liked Number One Sam and especially the twist at the end. A round of 4s for this one.

Then it was time to vote on our top book of the evening. People can vote for only one book and I was thrilled to see Bad Bye, Good Bye come out as our clear winner. It will now become one of our finalists when we vote on our Caldecott "winner" in January. You can learn more about the book, as well as the author and illustrator here. Meanwhile, stay tuned for more Caldecott Club fun next month!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

"Reading Is Not Optional"

With the death of Walter Dean Myers earlier this week, we lost a beloved and hugely influential author for children and teens. Walter, who wrote the books he wish he could have read as a child and teen, was one of the earliest and most powerful voices calling for more diversity in children's literature. With more than 100 books to his credit (and sales of 15 million copies), Walter used his remarkable writing talent to create some of that needed diversity, and he profoundly influenced several generations of young readers and writers. His books included: Monster, a look at a teen charged with murder that won the first Michael Printz Award (given to the best-written teen book of the year) in 2000; Fallen Angels, a novel of the Vietnam War, which is often challenged for its language and realism; Amiri & Odette, a hip-hop version of Swan Lake; The Cruisers series; and Bad Boy, his memoir of growing up in Harlem.

More about Walter and his impact on the world of children's and teen literature can be gleaned from these obituaries in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and School Library Journal, among many others. These articles all capture Walter's essence, including his insistence that "reading is not optional," which was a theme of his just-concluded two-year term as the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature.
And Walter continued to fight for more diversity in children's books -- an issue that has proved stubbornly resistant to change. Walter published an essay about the ongoing challenge earlier this year in The New York Times; the headline for his essay asked: "Where Are the People of Color in Children's Literature?"

 Walter's son, Christopher Myers,  joined him in the effort, publishing a companion essay in the Times with the even-more-hard-hitting title, "The Apartheid of Children's Literature." In fact, Christopher and his dad worked quite a bit together, with Walter as the writer and Christopher as the artist on such beautiful books as Harlem, Blues Journey, and Jazz.

One of their most recent efforts was We Are America. I was fortunate to interview both Walter and Christopher (separately, in phone interviews) about that book; in the article, I was able to give a glimpse into their working relationship, and the close bond between them. Walter's death is a loss for us all, but especially for his family. RIP, Walter Dean Myers.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Librarians in Las Vegas

I'm just back from the American Library Association's annual conference, which was held in Las Vegas this year. The last time the ALA conference took place in Las Vegas was 1973, and from the grumbling I heard (and added to myself), it may be another 40 years before the librarians return to Vegas. The conference itself was great, and I came back inspired and educated about new ideas for children's programs. But the problem with Las Vegas was how challenging, and expensive, it was to get to all of the different meeting venues (plus the smoke-filled and hugely noisy casinos at many of these hotels were no bonus for a number of us). An added negative was the heat: it got up to 111 one day, and dipped down to a "low" of 86 at 6 a.m. yesterday morning.

 But there were still lots of pluses from the conference. Among those pluses were two programs I attended. One program, sponsored by the ALA's children's division (the Association for Library Service to Children), focused on how children's librarians in public libraries can help support students, parents and even teachers get the most out of the new Common Core standards. The other program, sponsored by the ALA's Public Library Association division, spotlighted the pluses and minuses of using apps in early literacy, with a special focus on how children's librarians can educate parents about "best practices" for using apps with their children. (I plan to write more about each of these programs in future blogposts).

It wasn't all work, however. I did take time to attend the program headlined by the writer I'd most like to interview in the world: Alexander McCall Smith. I've been a long-time -- and huge -- fan of his books, beginning with his first, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, and continuing to his other series: the Scotland Street books, the Sunday Philosophy Club (Isabel Dalhousie) books, the Corduroy Mansion books. Then there's his "one-off" books, like his newest, The Forever Girl, plus his children's books. The man is filled with stories: in little more than a decade, he's written or contributed to 100 books!

 And this is after a lengthy career as a profession of medical law and ethics. I'd heard that McCall Smith was totally charming -- a genuinely nice person -- and he certainly came across that way in his ALA talk. Although there were hundreds of people in the audience, McCall Smith spoke to us as if we were just a few gathered in a drawing room in his native Edinburgh. He also was very, very funny, and would even delightedly crack up at his own humor at points. All in all, a wonderful way to spend an hour learning about an author and his books.

Other highlights included:

__ seeing John Mason, who is retiring after 28 years as the educational marketing director at Scholastic, head out on a high note with a hilarious Elvis impression. Mason took the folks gathered at the Scholastic author brunch on Sunday morning by storm, as he swiveled and sang in introducing the six top-notch authors who were previewing their new books.

__ hearing, at that same brunch, authors like Newbery Medalist Christopher Paul Curtis, Newbery Honor author Holly Black, and award-winning graphic novelist Raina Telgemeier talk about their new books. Curtis' newest, is The Madman of Piney Woods, a sequel to his Newbery Honor book, Elijah of Buxton. Black, who sported bright blue hair, has teamed up with best-selling fantasy author Cassandra Clare, to create a new series titled The Magisterium; the first book is The Iron Trial. And Telgemeier is set to release, in late August, a sequel to her mega-popular graphic novel memoir Smile. The new book is titled Sisters and details Telgemeier's challenging relationship with her younger sister, Amara.

__ watching author Mac Barnett and Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator Jon Klassen -- both wearing baseball caps -- preview their newest book at a Candlewick Press gathering. Titled Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, this new picture book collaboration between Barnett and Klassen (who won won a 2013 Caldecott Honor for Extra Yarn, written by Barnett), is comically deadpan in both text and illustrations.

 __ attending the annual Newbery-Caldecott banquet, honoring the authors and illustrators who have won the top children's literature awards. This year, author/illustrator Brian Floca won the Caldecott Medal for his astonishing Locomotive, and author Kate DiCamillo picked up a second Newbery Medal (her first was for The Tale of Desperaux) for her book, Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures. As always, one of the highlights for attendees is receiving a keepsake in the form of a program designed by the Caldecott Medalist.

This year, Floca played with the themes of Locomotive, producing a program booklet with an Old West flavor; open up the program and a pop-up locomotive appears. The program is both beautiful and playful, as is Floca's illustration for the cover of The Horn Book magazine; the Caldecott Medalist also is always asked to create the cover illustration for the July/August edition of The Horn Book. 

The banquet speeches also were wonderful, as always. Floca began with a reference sure to please Dewey Decimal lovers: "I'd like to begin tonight with some numbers. Illustration and commercial art: 741.6. Public speaking and oratory: 808.51. I think you see what I'm getting at here. I don't want to question anyone's intentions, but when illustrators are asked to give banquet-hall speeches, someone is showing a real willingness to misshelve."

 DiCamillo, who also is the current National Ambassador for Children's Literature, left few eyes dry with her talk, which was, in large part, a tribute to her late mother around the theme of the word "capacious." Her speech also was an elegantly-written and heart-felt look at the importance of books: "We have been given the sacred task of making hearts large through story. We are working to make hearts that are capable of containing much joy and much sorrow, hearts capacious enough to contain the complexities of ourselves and of each other. We are working to make hearts that know how to love this world."

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Interview: Chris Raschka on Sun Ra & More

When the folks at Candlewick Press recently offered me an interview with Caldecott Medalist Chris Raschka, of course I said "Yes!" I've long admired Chris' picture books, especially the way that he's always pushing the boundaries of the form. And his 2012 Caldecott Medal winner, A Ball for Daisy, is one of my all-time favorite Caldecott winners.

 As it got closer to the day of the interview, however, I started having second thoughts. Many people, myself included, consider Chris Raschka to be a genius, and I wondered if he would be one of those brainy folks who can be (sometimes unknowingly) painfully brusque to those less gifted in the intelligence department.  I started getting cold feet, especially now that the interview had morphed into lunch; Chris would be doing a program for several dozen kids gathered at Politics & Prose Bookstore in DC, and then head across the street for a luncheon interview with me.

I shouldn't have worried. After an initial mix-up about where we were meeting, Chris, who is 55, bounded into the restaurant with a grin and a porkpie hat perched on his head. He had just been using it as a prop at the Politics & Prose event, where he led an interactive program designed to introduce elementary school students to the unique music and life of musician Sun Ra, the subject of Chris' newest book. Much to my relief, it turned out Chris is an incredibly nice person and quite easy to talk with, so I could relax and actually enjoy the interview.

 Over lunch, we talked about how Chris got into the world of children's literature, his love for jazz, how he works, and, of course, about his new picture book, The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra (Candlewick Press, $15.99, ages 6-9). Born in the United States, Chris spent some of his childhood in Austria, his mother's homeland. Chris enjoyed drawing and playing the viola as a child, but he also loved nature, especially animals. Chris graduated from St. Olaf's College with a biology degree, fully intending to become a zoologist. Before attending graduate school, however, he took time off and worked as an aide for physically handicapped children in St. Croix and in Europe. It was an intense experience that made Chris begin to consider going to medical school. So he applied and was accepted at the University of Michigan Medical School; he also got married. Chris put off the start of medical school for two years ("I think I got their first and last two-year deferment") so he and his wife could do Peace Corps work.
Credit: Catherine Wink

Over the years, meanwhile, Chris had begun more seriously doing art, first inspired by a "wonderful art professor" at St. Olaf's. It became more and more clear to Chris that being an artist was what he wanted to do, but it seemed totally impractical. Still, the day he was to finally start classes at the University of Michigan, he called up the school and told them he'd decided against a medical career. "I jumped off the cliff," he laughed. His wife got a teaching job and Chris started looking for a job that would help pay the bills while he built up his career as an artist. "I opened the paper and looking for the first job that seemed reasonable," he recalled. He found one doing administrative work in a law firm for 25 hours a week. "I learned a great deal about the law," Chris said. He also learned of a journal, published by the Michigan Bar Association, that needed an illustrator. Chris got the job.

During his time living in Ann Arbor, Chris went into the original Borders Bookstore one day and happened upon a children's picture, "The Pup Grew Up!," which featured illustrations by Vladimir Radunsky. "I thought, 'This is fantastic! This is what I want to do,'" Chris said. So he began reading as many picture books and began getting work as an illustrator for books written by others. Then he got the idea for a picture book that he would both write and illustrate, a book about a jazz giant named Charlie Parker. Published in 1992, Charlie Parker Played Be-Bop received good reviews, with Publishers Weekly noting: "Regardless of whether they've heard of jazz or Charlie Parker, young readers will bop to the pulsating beat of this sassy picture book." Chris had indeed found his metier.

By this time, Chris and wife had moved to New York City. In the mornings, he worked on his children's books, and in the afternoons he created stock illustrations for a company called the Image Bank, from which he received -- and still does -- some royalties, which helped pay the bills. His biggest sellers still are used; one of them shows buildings in New York's Financial District as people, another shows Mona Lisa using a computer mouse. Meanwhile, Chris'  career as a picture book creator really picked up when he won a 1994 Caldecott Honor for Yo! Yes?. By 2000, he was able to focus solely on children's books, and in 2006, he won the first of two Caldecott Medals for his illustrations for The Hello, Goodbye Window, written by Norton Juster (best known as the author of The Phantom Tollbooth).

Over the years, Chris has written and illustrated all kinds of picture books, including Little Black Crow, Hip Hop Dog, Five for a Little One, among many others. He also has illustrated books for others, including A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms, A Poke in the I:A Collection of Concrete Poems, and A Foot in the Mouth: Poems to Speak, Sing and Shout, all edited by Paul Janeczko, and Happy to Be Nappy, written by Bell Hooks. There's been one recurrent theme in Chris' work: American jazz. In addition to Charlie Parker, he's written and illustrated picture books focused on such jazz greats as John Coltrane (John Coltrane's Giant Steps) and Thelonius Monk (Mysterious Thelonius). "Jazz is American classical music, and I think it should be taught that way," Chris says. "In fact, I've thought it should be taught in American elementary schools." Hence, his idea for creating picture books that make jazz music accessible to children.

 So it isn't really surprising that Chris would combine his love for jazz and his own boundary-pushing art to create a book about Sun Ra, a unique American musician whose style is almost impossible to describe. "I love his willingness to walk outside even the mainstream of jazz," Chris says. Creating the book, however, wasn't easy. In his previous jazz books, Chris tried to find ways to bring alive the musical style of Charlie Parker or John Coltrane through his artwork and text. And he tried that approach with Sun Ra, creating a "dummy" (a rough mock-up of a picture book in progress) that folded out, like an accordian, and had a rhyming text. Chris showed it to his longtime editor, Richard Jackson, who, in Chris' words, said "it was a nice object but that not many people had heard of Sun Ra so creating a book about him was not a good business plan." Chris persisted, however, and eventually the dummy ended up in the hands of Elizabeth "Liz"  Bicknell, an editor at Candlewick Press. "Liz told me that she'd be interested in publishing it if we could come up with a different approach," Chris remembers. "I wondered how I could do that and still be true to the way-out-ness of Sun Ra."

Chris continued working on it, and now there was a looming deadline: May 22, 2014 would mark the 100th anniversary of Sun Ra's birth. One day, Bicknell called Chris and said she'd like to meet with him in New York. He agreed, figuring they'd have a morning cup of coffee, talk about the book a bit and then he could get back to work. Bicknell had other plans: "To my horror," Chris says, "she said she didn't have to catch a train (back to Boston) until 4 p.m. and that she'd just sit in my studio while I worked on the Sun Ra book.... The only way to get rid of her was to work on the book .... and so I put together another dummy of the book over the course of the next few hours."

Chris agreed to try Bicknell's idea of writing more of a biography about Sun Ra than offering an impression of his music. So Chris decided to use the musician's own explanation of how he wasn't really someone named Herman Blount, born in Alabama, but a being named Sun Ra who came from Saturn. Once Chris had that device, the rest of the story flowed as he told of Sun Ra's masterful musical ability, his ability to get by on very little sleep, and the creation of his own group, the Arkestra. Chris also decided to try something different for the artwork. He saturated "very delicate" rice paper with paint and it became "crinkly and wrinkly" as it dried. He then glued the illustrations to Bristol board, a type of cardstock; in the process, some of the rice paper ripped, but Raschka decided those small rips worked to his advantage as they added to the impressionistic nature of the artwork.

 The result is a book that tells the story of a unique but complex musician in a way that is both accessible and entertaining for children. Here, for example, are the opening words:

 "Sun Ra always said that he came from Saturn.
Now, you know and I know that this is silly. No one comes from Saturn.

And yet.
If he did come from Saturn, it would explain so much.
Let's say he did come from Saturn."

 The artwork is filled with colors and details and truly does have a musicality of its own. Alternating between larger images and long skinny horizontal images, Chris plays with his artwork as if he is playing music (and, in fact, he is an accomplished viola player). Raschka also has included a brief formal biography of Sun Ra at the back of the book, as well as a list of "Selected Recordings."

The reviews, meanwhile, have been uniformly positive for The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra. My professional colleague, Wendy Lukeheart, a Washington, D.C. librarian, wrote in School Library Journal: "Raschka pulls out all the stops in what may be his finest work yet." Kirkus Reviews called the book "unequivocally stellar." This book trailer gives you a taste of what Raschka has achieved.

 Meanwhile, Raschka has moved on to new projects. His next picture book, Give and Take will be published in August. He's also illustrating a new poetry collection, again edited by Paul Janeczko. And he's working on another wordless picture book, a la A Ball for Daisy, but this time about a cat. That book will be published in 2015.

 By this point, we had finished our lunch, and it was time to go. Chris donned his porkpie hat again and we headed back across the street, where he disappeared back into Politics & Prose. All in all, it was an inspiring, fun lunch. Thanks, Chris Raschka, for joining me! And thanks to Candlewick Press for setting it up.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Book Reviews: Two Stellar Teen Novels

Reading novels written for teens -- what we call "YA" or young adult literature -- isn't easy for me. Don't get me wrong: I think there are some amazing YA books being written, and that YA writers can easily compete with the best adult writers out there. And I'm certainly not just talking about the ultra-popular John Green, but writers like Libba Bray, Walter Dean Myers, Elizabeth Wein, Rainbow Rowell, Meg Medina, David Levithan, Andrew Smith and many, many others.

No, my problem isn't with the writing or the writers of YA lit. My problem is this: YA books can be so compelling and so emotionally fraught that I sometimes just have to work up the courage and energy to dive into them. Once I start a well-written YA book, I know that it's going to take over some of my interior life and most likely leave some traces of itself behind, and I have to be ready --no, steel myself -- for that. I can hear you thinking: 'Well, isn't that the mark of a good book? Aren't good books for any age -- not just teens -- like that as well?" To respond: yes, it's definitely the mark of a good book. It's true that middle grade novels (those books for ages 7-12) and even picture books also can be memorably heart-wrenching. I find it hard, for example, to stay dry-eyed through A Ball for Daisy, the 2012 Caldecott Medal winner written and illustrated by Chris Raschka. But YA books offer a particularly intense reading experience for me, perhaps because the teen years are such an intense time, something the books naturally reflect. Not many adults I know would willingly relive the emotional heartache and confusion of their teen years, yet putting that heartache and confusion in the spotlight and trying to figure out how to deal with them is the core of the best YA novels.

So, this is all to say that it takes me quite a while to get into the groove of reading YA fiction. Once I'm there, however, I remember why I like reading teen books so much. The two teen novels spotlighted in this blogpost are perfect examples. Both authors, John Corey Whaley and e. lockhart, are award-winning writers who explore the deepest corners of the soul in their teen novels, yet also create characters and plots that keep readers turning the pages.

John Corey Whaley
 Let's start with Noggin (Atheneum, $17.99, ages 14 up), John Corey Whaley's second book. Fans of YA lit know that it's a big deal to win the Michael Printz Award, given annually by the American Library Association to the best novel for teens. (In fact, I've heard the Printz referred to as the "Newbery Medal for teens."). Whaley's first novel, Where Things Come Back,  not only won the 2012 Printz but also the William Morris Award, given annually to the best teen debut novel. So Whaley immediately became a writer to watch, and with good reason: "Where Things Come Back" is just a marvelous book.

Because of this, I was predisposed to like Whaley's newest book, Noggin, despite the rather ghoulish (to me, at least) premise. The gist: Teenager Travis Coates, who is dying of cancer, agrees to participate in an experiment in which his head, free from the disease, will be surgically removed, carefully stored in a cryogenics lab,  and -- if all goes well -- attached to another torso sometime in the future. In other words, Travis will be able to come back to life, albeit with his head attached to someone else's torso. Travis, a wise-cracking teen to the end, decides it's worth trying, given that he's dying anyway. Five years later, Travis wakes up to find that the experiment actually has worked and that he's been literally resurrected from the dead. Here's the book's opening paragraph: "Listen -- I was alive once and then I wasn't. Simple as that. Now I'm alive again. The in-between part is still a little fuzzy, but I can tell you that, at some point or another, my head got chopped off and shoved into a freezer in Denver, Colorado."

But there's a catch -- a big one -- to Travis' resurrected life; for, while Travis was in the deep freeze for those years, everyone else has moved on. Travis is still 16 and still in high school, but his friends are now in college and of legal drinking age. His girlfriend is engaged to someone else, and his best friend struggles to bridge the age gap. Everything and everyone is somewhat familiar but also somehow changed, especially Travis' parents, who are both thrilled and somewhat puzzled to have their son come back to life. Travis, meanwhile, is despondent at going back to the same high school, but fortunately makes a new friend named Hatton who makes it at least bearable. Overall, the resurrected Travis has one goal: to convince his old girlfriend Cate to ditch her fiance. (This book trailer for Noggin gives you a taste of the story.)

The idea behind Noggin is terrifying and fascinating, as Whaley makes us think about what we would do if faced with Travis' challenge to adjust to an entirely new body while trying to pick up the pieces of his old life. Travis himself is a hugely appealing character, someone who is astonished to be given back his life even as he wonders why. Through it all, Travis somehow maintains his sense of humor and even his snark. In Noggin, Whaley proves himself, once again, to be a heckuva writer as he takes a wild premise and turns it into a book that plumbs the depths of what exactly a life is worth. Overall, I'd put my money on Noggin as a top contender for the 2015 Printz Award. It's definitely one of THE teen novels of the year.

For something completely different, but just as good, try We Were Liars (Delacorte, $17.99, ages 14 up), the newest novel by e. lockhart. I'm a fan of lockhart's novels, particularly The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, which won a 2009 Printz Honor and was a finalist for the National Book Award. In her latest book, lockhart masterfully blends memory and reality to create a gut-wrenching look at love and loss. The narrator is Cadence -- Cady for short -- who is part of the glamorous Sinclair family, famed for their looks and their money. (It's a family that will be reminiscent of the Kennedys for some readers, especially because of the book's Massachusetts setting).

Cady is the only child of Penny, one of three daughters (Carrie and Bess are the others) of Tipper and Harris Sinclair, the family's matriarch and patriarch. Each summer all of the Sinclairs gather on their own island, near Martha's Vineyard, where each family has their own house. For as long as she can remember, Cady has been part of a group of four each summer, including her two cousins, Johnny and Mirren, and Gat Patil, a friend of Johnny's and the nephew, by marriage, of Carrie Sinclair. As children, the quartet -- they call themselves the "Liars" --  revel in the endless days of sun and surf, but everything changes the summer that Cady is 15. That's the summer that she and Gat fall in love, and the summer that tragedy strikes.
e. lockhart

It's difficult to say more about the story without giving away the shocking plot twist by which lockhart creates a story within a story. Suffice to say that her writing is hypnotic as she pulls readers along, along like the waves of the beach, with her into the dark heart of a family. For example, here's some of the opening chapter of We Were Liars:
 "Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family.
      No one is a criminal.
      No one is an addict.
       No one is a failure.
 The Sinclairs are athletic, tall, and handsome. We are old-money Democrats. Our smiles are wide, our chins square, and our tennis serves aggressive.
 It doesn't matter if divorce shreds the muscles of our hearts so that they will hardly beat without a struggle. It doesn't matter if trust-fund money is running out; if credit card bills go unpaid on the kitchen counter. It doesn't matter if there's a cluster of pill bottles on the bedside table.
 It doesn't matter if one of us is desperately, desperately in love.
         So much
         in love
         that equally desperate measures
         must be taken. "

As lockhart pulls us into Cady's story, the ground seems to shift under our feet. We keep reading because it's impossible -- impossible! -- not to keep reading, to follow Cady into what we are sure is some kind of tragedy. lockhart's impeccable pacing, as well as Cady's magnetic presence, compels us to keep moving through the book, to find out what exactly is happening and has happened to Cady. We Were Liars isn't an easy book to read, but it's an important book to read because it really makes readers think deeply about family ties, truth-telling, and the nature of love.

(Review based on copies of Noggin and We Were Liars received from the publishers).