Monday, December 30, 2013

Caldecotts and Caldenotts

People who love children’s literature often enjoy trying to guess who will win the winners of the biggest awards given annually to the best children’s books: the Caldecott Medal, given to the best-illustrated children’s book, and the Newbery Medal, given to the best-written children’s book. The winners of the medals are announced in January at the American Library Association’s Midwinter conference and it’s a Big Deal since the medals are considered the Academy Awards of the kid lit world. Hundreds of librarians – including me -- will be on hand early on the morning of January 27 in a conference hall in Philadelphia to watch the award announcements in person, and thousands of others will watch via the Internet. While the Caldecott and Newbery medals are the big kahuna awards, there also are lots of other great children’s literature awards, including the Sibert Medal, given to the best non-fiction book for kids, the Printz Award, given to the best book for teens, the Geisel Award for the best beginning reader, etc.

Before the award announcements, however, there’s always a lot of buzz in librarian circles about the possible Caldecott and Newbery winners. I’m gathering up some of the possibilities now and will post on them in a couple of weeks. It’s important to note, however, that the awards process is top-secret. The choices are made by  committees of librarians – one committee for each award – and the committees meet literally behind closed doors.  In fact, members of the awards committees are forbidden from ever – I mean, ever! – revealing what goes on behind those doors.

But that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t have a lot of fun guessing about what some of the medal-worthy possibilities might be. In fact, many libraries hold their own “mock” Caldecott and Newbery medal discussions (look for an upcoming Tales from the Library on my library’s Caldecott Club, a kind of “mock-mock” Caldecott discussion group). And there are some great blogs out there in which people have serious yet entertaining discussions about the literary and artistic merits of books that might be Caldecott or Newbery possibilities. Two of my favorites are Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog  and Calling Caldecott. They’re both worth peeking at; if nothing else, you’ll learn about what librarians and other children’s literature experts consider some of the top kids’ books that were published this year. Heavy Medal’s discussion shortlist for their mock 2014 Newbery has a great mix of books, as does the Calling Caldecott list.

One more thing to add to the mix: to win the Newbery or Caldecott medal, the author or illustrator has to either be American or live here, and the books also must be published in the United States. So there’s always a whole bunch of books that are fabulous, but are ineligible for either award because they weren’t published here or weren’t written by an American or U.S. resident. One of my favorite picture books from last year, for example, was “Press Here,” written and illustrated by Herve Tullet; he’s French, and lives in Paris, so the book wasn’t eligible for the Caldecott Medal. In a recent Calling Caldecott blog post titled “Ineligible Internationals,” school librarian Robin Smith discussed this issue, and also pointed to an effort designed to highlight some of the ineligible picture books. It’s called a “Mock Caldenott” and it is a truly creative idea. We might try it at our library next year!

Friday, December 27, 2013

Tales from the Library: Greek Gods

Some years ago, an Austin, Texas middle school teacher named Rick Riordan began writing novels based on Greek mythology as a way to inspire his students to read more about mythological gods and goddesses. Riordan also wanted to create a book that featured a main character with ADD, just like one of his own sons.

The result was “The Lightning Thief,” the first in the quintet of books about a boy named Percy Jackson whose mother is human and whose father is the Greek god Poseidon. Set in modern times, “The Lightning Thief” and the four other novels featuring Percy Jackson have become huge best-sellers with kids, who love Riordan’s action-packed stories. Kids also loved idea that the Greek gods are still alive and well and wreaking havoc in our world, and they quickly began looking for more information about Greek mythology so they could learn more about the stories behind the gods.

When Riordan next published a trilogy, “The Kane Chronicles,” based on Egyptian mythology, young readers also became interested in Egyptian gods. In his latest series, “The Heroes of Olympus,” Riordan combines Greek mythology and Roman mythology, setting off a new fascination with Roman gods among his fans.

Riordan’s books have sold millions of copies and his fans are legion. Because of that, we librarians have become adept at answering young readers’ requests for books about mythology. So I was ready when a patron recently asked me for suggestions for her son who wanted to read more about mythology.
The go-to book for young readers looking for a treasury of Greek mythology is “D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths” by Edgar and Ingri D’Aulaire. There are many other good treasuries as well, but this one is the classic volume, and remains quite popular with kids.

Kids interested in the connections between Greek and Roman mythology also will enjoy a newer book, “Gifts From the Gods: Ancient Words & Wisdom From Greek and Roman Mythology” written by Lise Lunge-Larsen and illustrated by Gareth Hinds.

There have been surprisingly few books published on Egyptian mythology for kids. Fortunately, author Donna Jo Napoli recently filled the void with the spectacular “Treasury of Egyptian Mythology: Classic Stories of Gods, Goddesses, Monsters & Mortals,” illustrated by Christina Balit.

Young readers who want a bit of a different twist on classic mythology will enjoy two series written by Joan Holub: “Goddess Girls” and “Heroes in Training.” In these books, Holub casts the gods and goddesses as characters to whom kids can readily relate. Books in the “Goddess Girls” series include “Athena the Wise,” “Pandora the Curious,” and “Artemis the Loyal;” “Heroes in Training” titles include “Poseidon and the Sea of Fury,” “Hades and the Helm of Darkness” and “Hyperion and the Great Balls of Fire.”

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Review: The Animal Book

Looking for a book that the whole family can enjoy? Try “The Animal Book” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $21.99, ages 6 up), written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins. 
Known for his masterful collage illustrations (he won a 2004 Caldecott Honor for “What Do You Do With a Tail Like This?”), Jenkins often focuses on the animal world in his books. Here he’s brought all of his knowledge and artistic talent together to produce a treasury of intriguing animal facts and figures. 
Subtitled “A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest – and Most Surprising – Animals on Earth,” Jenkins’ newest book is great for dipping into, or for reading a chapter at a time.  Anyone from elementary school-age up who’s interested in animals – and that’s just about everyone! – will find something to like in “The Animal Book;” even adults will find themselves marveling over what they see and learn. The book is packed with intriguing facts, and Jenkins writes smoothly and well about everything from the way animals blend into their environment to which animals are deadliest to humans. And then there are the colorful collage illustrations that beautifully bring hundreds of animals to life on the page. 
For those wondering how he creates his illustrations, Jenkins has put together a short video explaining his process, and he also explains how he works in an October  interview about “The Animal Book” with Roger Sutton, editor-in-chief of The Horn Book, the highly-respected journal of children’s literature.  “The Animal Book” also has been discussed on the Heavy Medal blog, which focuses on books that could be possibilities for the Newbery Medal (although no one really knows, of course, as the process is top secret).
(Note: My write-up of “The Animal Book” is based on a review copy I received from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Review: “The Little Mermaid” pop-up book by Robert Sabuda

Take a classic and tragic tale of unrequited love, and combine it with the talents of the man known as “the Prince of Pop-Ups.” And – voila! – you’ve got a beautiful, unique holiday gift: “The Little Mermaid: A Pop-Up Adaptation of the Classic Fairy Tale,” created by Robert Sabuda.

Now this isn’t the kind of book you’d present to a young child, given the complex paper engineering that makes it come to life and the story’s rather bitter ending – not to mention the $29.99 price tag. But “The Little Mermaid” is, without question, a stunner of a pop-up book, and it makes a great gift for kids old enough to be careful with it, and maybe even interested in how Sabuda makes his magic happen.

As usual, Sabuda includes a large pop-up on each two-page spread, and then smaller pop-ups set into small booklets set into a corner on the spread. The final large pop-up, a scene of the prince’s marriage, is particularly memorable. Throughout the book, the strong black lines and jewel-tone watercolors of Sabuda’s artwork really bring alive the world of the story, which was, of course, originally written by that fairy tale master, Hans Christian Andersen.

To get a better sense of the pop-up mastery shown by Sabuda in “The Little Mermaid,” check out this video created by his publisher, Simon & Schuster.

Sabuda also has a great website. Here he shares directions for making pop-ups, like this seasonally appropriate snowman, as well as a link to the Movable Book Society  and recommendations for those looking for paper engineers. And for even more inspiration, take a look at this time-lapse video showing Sabuda creating a pop-up flower.

(Note: my review is based on a copy of “The Little Mermaid: A Pop-Up Adaptation of the Classic Fairy Tale” that was provided by Simon & Schuster for review purposes).

Author Spotlight: Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Her “Alice” books are among the most challenged in the country, criticized by parents as being too frank about sexual feelings and other issues. They’re also among the most beloved books by young readers, especially pre-teen and teen-aged girls, who say that Alice is a girl “just like me.”

Recently, “Alice” author Phyllis Reynolds Naylor wrapped up her popular series by publishing a 28th – and final – volume called “Now I’ll Tell You Everything.” Naylor also embarked on a nationwide tour to talk to “Alice” fans, and her first stop was at my library. 

In her visit, co-sponsored by Politics & Prose bookstore, Naylor entranced the audience with tales from her own life as well as a behind-the-scenes look at how she came up with the character of “Alice” and how the series grew.

John Pitt, a videographer with the City of Takoma Park’s Communications Department, filmed Naylor’s talk as well as interviews with audience members, me and Naylor herself. The result is a fascinating look at this Newbery Medal-winning author and the world of the “Alice” books.

For more about Naylor and the “Alice” books, also check out this article I wrote in my previous life as a columnist for Scripps Howard.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Tales from the Library: FUN READING FOR NEW READERS

A mother concerned about her child’s lack of interest in learning to read more proficiently recently asked me for suggestions. Her son is bored by the beginning reader books he can read by himself, and so demurs when his parents urge him to read more in his spare time. But the parents know that their son needs to practice his reading if he is to become a better reader.

As a way of making reading seem more fun, I recommended that the mom check out some joke books and riddle books. With my own son, I found that he loved being able to read jokes and riddles to us, and quickly expanded his ability as a reader. The important thing to note, however, is that a child must already have some reading skills, since most of these books (except for the “I Spy” books) aren’t for the very beginning reader. Also, put on your patience cap as you are likely to hear the same corny jokes and riddles multiple times. Just keep telling yourself that it’s all for a good cause: helping your child become a better and more engaged reader.

Here are my recommendations:

The books in the “Riddles” series by Katy Hall and Lisa Eisenberg are perfect for kids looking for entertaining reading. Each of the books offers riddles on a different subject. Look for “Batty Riddles,” “Bunny Riddles,” “Mummy Riddles,” etc. Yes, they’re pretty pun-heavy, but perfect for kids in early elementary school. The illustrations by Nicole Rubel add an appropriately zany note.

In the numerous “I Spy” books, author Jean Marzollo uses a simple rhyming text that tells kids what items they should look for in the detail-full photographs by Walter Wick. Marzollo’s text is fairly easy for most young readers and it’s the game of looking for the items that will keep their attention. Yet this is still a good way to get kids to practice their reading without even knowing they’re doing it.

“Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road and Other Riddles Old and New” is a treasury of jokes and riddles compiled by Joanna Cole and Stephanie Calmenson. Here you’ll find hours’ worth of entertainment for your young reader. Alan Tiegreen’s illustrations add to the fun.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Tales from the Library: GOOD BOOKS WITH BAD COVERS?

A library patron who is the father of two boys asked me the other day for recommendations for “books with bad covers” for his seventh grader. Intrigued, I asked for the genesis of the request. The patron replied that his son recently had checked out several novels with “awesome” covers only to find out the stories told in the books were mediocre at best. It was essentially a life lesson focused on the adage that “you can’t judge a book by its cover.”

But this young patron decided to take it one step further. He figured that, if the books with great covers were poorly written, then perhaps he should instead be looking for “books with bad covers” in hopes they were well written. Now that I got the idea, I was able to recommend a couple of books – thrillers -- whose original, pedestrian covers utterly failed to convey the exciting plots within the covers. The publishers of both books ended up changing the covers to better reflect the page-turning plots, with the result that the books now fairly fly off the shelves of my library.

Here’s what I recommended for the young patron looking for “books with bad covers” (remember, you have to find the versions with the original covers if you want “bad covers”!):

  • Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz. This is the first in the 10-book series about a teenage spy named Alex Rider. Horowitz, a highly-respected adult novelist in Great Britain, clearly had great fun developing the many spycraft gadgets used by Alex, such as a Geiger counter disguised as a Game Boy and a CD player that contains a lethal saw blade. Horowitz, the father of two sons, told me in an interview several years ago that he was quite unhappy with the original cover of “Stormbreaker” and was thrilled when Philomel, the publisher, agreed to commission a snazzier cover for the paperback edition, which now features a silver foil lightning bolt on a dark blue cover. Recently that “lightning bolt” cover has been supplanted by another one branding the book as part of the “Alex Rider” series, yet maintaining the snazzy look. The “Alex Rider” books are great for readers ages 10-14.

  • The Recruit
    by Robert Muchamore. This book is the first in the “Cherub” series about a group of teens who are trained to be spies for Britian’s MI5 spy agency. First discovered by my son when he was a teen, the “Cherub” books remain my go-to books for good but reluctant readers, especially boys. I’ve found that once a young patron tries “The Recruit,” they can’t put it down and are soon back in the library clamoring for the other titles in the series. In fact, I’ve had to order the more recent books from England -- where they are originally published before being re-published in the United States -- so that I could keep up with reader demand.  
    But the original British cover of “The Recruit,” featuring a running teen, is banal and undistinguished. Simon & Schuster, the U.S. publisher of the series, decided to totally re-do the cover, which now is an attention-grabbing scarlet with silver foil letters. The “Cherub” books are geared for a slightly older audience that the “Alex Rider” audience, so work best with ages 12 up.

  • Interested in the idea of “good books with bad covers”? Check out these entertaining blog posts about the subject of bad book covers:

    Wednesday, December 4, 2013


    Today, Mark Teague’s quirky, slightly off-kilter artwork is known to millions of young fans of such books as “How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night?,” the “Poppleton” beginning readers, and “Dear: Mrs. LaRue: Lettons from Obedience School.” But Mark became a children’s book creator almost by accident. I recently had a delightful hour-long telephone interview with Mark about the trajectory of his career. Here’s the story that resulted from that interview:

    When Mark Teague graduated in 1985 with a degree in history from the University of California, Santa Cruz, he had no idea what he wanted to do next.

    So he decided to set off across the country to visit one of his brothers in New York City. Teague, who had always loved to create art as a hobby, brought a sketch book with him and filled it with drawings of people and things he saw on his journey.

    It was that sketch book, and his brother’s connections, that helped Teague soon land his first job, as a display assistant at a Barnes & Noble store in the center of Manhattan. Little did Teague know that the job would put him on the path of a career as a best-selling picture book author and illustrator, whose bright and cheerfully off-kilter artwork has become instantly recognizable.

    “That job was sort of my formal art training, and kind of my re-initiation back into the world of children’s books,” Teague said. “It was a golden age of children’s books, with great people like Chris Van Allsburg, William Joyce and Leo and Diane Dillon creating books.”

    Inspired by the picture books that he saw at work, Teague decided to try his hand at creating one himself. As a child, Teague had spent hours writing and illustrating his own picture books, but never thought he could make it his life’s work.

    “It was just something that didn’t seem like a career,” he said with a laugh. “I always assumed that I would grow up and get a real job.”

    With contacts from his Barnes & Noble job, Teague was able to meet in 1987 with Jean Feiwel, then a top editor at Scholastic, and show her the manuscript for a picture book he called “The Trouble With the Johnsons.” Feiwel liked the book and purchased it; it was published in 1989.

    The book received good reviews, with Publishers Weekly stating that "Teague's unique perspective is utilized magnificently both in words and pictures to produce a noteworthy first book."

    Since then, Teague has published more than two dozen books. Some of them he has both written and illustrated, like his best-selling picture book “Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letter’s From Obedience School.”

    The newest book he has both written and illustrated is “The Three Little Pigs and the Somewhat Bad Wolf” (Scholastic, $16.99, ages 4-8), a hilariously fractured version of the original tale published this spring. In writing the book, Teague said he drew from the “goofy things” he said when re-telling the story as a bedtime tale to his two daughters.

    Teague also has illustrated many books written by other writers, such as the “Poppleton” beginning readers written by Newbery Medalist Cynthia Rylant.

    In fact, Teague’s biggest-selling volumes are the books in the “How Do Dinosaurs” series written by Jane Yolen. The books, which show enormous dinosaurs acting like tantrum-prone toddlers in “How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?” and “How Do Dinosuars Clean Their Rooms?,” have sold millions of copies, and spawned a separate line of board books for babies and toddlers.

    “I think dinosaurs are sort of universally appealing to kids. They’re creatures so outlandishly big and powerful – kind of what kids are not at that point and what they may daydream about,” Teague said.

    As he looks over his career, Teague, 50, still can’t believe the relative ease with which he established himself as a picture book creator.

    “It was such a crazy set of circumstances,” he said. “Doors just kept swinging open and I just kept walking through. I was so naïve that I didn’t even realize the breaks I was getting.”

    Of course, there also was a great deal of hard work involved along the way. While Teague says that Scholastic published “The Trouble With the Johnsons” “pretty much how I made it,” he adds that “there was a pretty significant learning process after that.”

    In “The Trouble with the Johnsons,” Teague established the artistic style that has now become his signature, using brilliantly colored acrylics and curved lines to capture the energy and humor of a quirky cast of characters.

    “I always feel that children’s books should be supremely energetic, and to me, a lot of energy drains out of a straight line,” Teague says. “There’s not a lot of empty space in my books – I try to fill up the pages, to crank up the energy as much as possible.”

    The books are particularly beloved by young dinosaur enthusiasts because of Teague’s careful research and meticulous rendering of different types of dinosaurs; the types of dinosaurs and their scientific names are included in little illustrations on the books’ endpapers
    Interestingly, Teague learned to do that kind of research after young readers complained about the dinosaurs he included in his first book “The Trouble With the Johnsons.”

    “These readers told me that ‘Those don’t really look like dinosaurs,’” he laughed. “It was a really good lesson. Kids can be downright scholarly about dinosaurs at an early age and so I try to honor that and do my research.”

    While Teague mostly focuses on picture books, he has written and illustrated a science fiction novel for kids, “The Doom Machine,” which was published in 2009. Now he’s working on a graphic novel for young adults.

    “It’s a little different and darker than what I usually do,” Teague said. “But I’m always trying to keep from falling into ruts or too many familiar grooves.”

     Overall, Teague says, “my whole career has turned out to be a happy surprise for me.”