Monday, January 27, 2014

The Winners!

Today’s announcements of rhe American Library Association’s children’s and teen literature awards can be summed up in two words: happy surprise.

While many children’s book experts had tagged “Locomotive,” written and illustrated by Brian Floca, as a potential winner for the 2014 Caldecott Medal, most seemed to agree that “Journey,” written and illustrated by Aaron Becker would be the likely pick. Instead, “Journey” was one of three 2014 Caldecott Honor books. The other 2014 Caldecott Honor books were “Flora and the Flamingo,” written and illustrated by Molly Idle, and “Mr. Wuffles,” written and illustrated by David Wiesner, which was another popular pick for the actual medal.

The crowd of hundreds of librarians gathered at the awards announcements this morning in Philadelphia went wild when “Locomotive” was announced as the winner of the 2014 Caldecott Medal. In a nice touch, the Caldecott committee members who selected the book as the winner stood and blew on train whistles when they were recognized for their work.

In “Locomotive,” Floca combines impeccable research with beautifully detailed illustrations to show how the locomotive helped bring the country together. Train buffs of all ages, in particular, will delight in the many facts that Floca packs into his book. But you don’t have to be a fan of trains to appreciate the mastery of Floca’s art in “Locomotive.”

The 2014 Newbery Medal winner, “Flora & Ulysses,” written by Kate DiCamillo, was another happy surprise. Again, many children’s book experts loved the book and had touted it as a potential winner. But it wasn’t a sure bet because the Newbery Medal is given for text, and “Flora & Ulysses” has a number of comic panel illustrations that are part of the story.

In “Flora & Ulysses,” DiCamillo tells the story of a lonely girl named Flora whose life is transformed by a squirrel that is sucked into a neighbor’s vacuum cleaner and emerges with superhero powers. The book is, by turns, quirky, hilarious, compelling and wholly enjoyable. It’s already a word-of-mouth bestseller among young patrons in my library; we’ll definitely be adding a couple more copies.

In fact, it’s been a year of happy surprises for DiCamillo, who was selected earlier this month as the new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. DiCamillo is the fourth children’s book creator to hold the two-year post, which was created by the Library of Congress to highlight the importance of children's books.

Four 2014 Newbery Honor books also were selected. Three of them were on many people’s shortlist of contenders: “Doll Bones” by Holly Black; “The Year of Billy Miller” by Kevin Henkes; and “One Came Home” by Amy Timberlake. But the final choice – “Paperboy” by Vince Vawter – was a true dark horse.

All in all 18 different children’s and teen literature awards were announced today, so there will be plenty of fodder for upcoming blog posts! 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Live From Midwinter

It’s blustery in Philadelphia but that hasn’t deterred thousands of librarians from attending the American Library Association’s Midwinter conference, which started Friday and ends tomorrow.

For a number of lucky children’s librarians, the conference has been the time when they have gathered in closed committee sessions to discuss possible contenders for various children’s literature prizes, including the most famous: the Newbery and Caldecott medals. The winners will be announced tomorrow – stay tuned!

Other librarians, like myself, are here to attend previews by publishers of their forthcoming books. Most publishers have some sort of preview at Midwinter, and I’ve gotten sneak peeks at spring and summer titles to be published by Crown, HarperCollins, Scholastic, Sourcebooks, Egmont, Macmillan, Candlewick, Boyds Mill Press and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I’ll share some thoughts on some of the books I found most interesting in another post.
Authors and illustrators also are on hand to sign books and talk to fans. Among the authors and illustrators here are Tom Angleberger, who was promoting “Princess Labelmaker to the Rescue!,” the latest book in his “Origami Yoda” series, Matt Phelan, illustrator of the forthcoming “Miss Emily," a novel written about Emily Dickinson, Newbery Honor author Cynthia Lord, whose new novel, “Half a Chance” will be published in February, and Caldecott Honor author/illustrator Jon J. Muth, whose newest book --  “Hi, Koo: A Year of Seasons" -- also will be published in February.

And, of course, Midwinter is a wonderful time to connect with librarians from all over the country and learn about new programs and ideas. I always feel energized and inspired after attending an ALA conference, and this one is no exception. And it’s just a whole lot of fun sharing ideas for new Circle Time fingerplays and rhymes with a group of other children’s librarians!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Caldecott & Newbery Best Bets

 Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets!
Like so many other children’s literature lovers, I enjoy the annual game of trying to predict the winners of the Caldecott Medal (given to artist of “the most distinguished picture book”) and the Newbery Medal (given to the author of “the most distinguished contribution to American literature to children”).

In my last 10 or so years as the Scripps Howard children’s book reviewer, I did an annual column looking at some of the best possibilities. It's such a lot of fun that I've decided to continue the tradition. My guesses are based on two main ingredients:
 __ the results of the various mock Caldecott and Newbery discussions around the country; and
__ the opinions of a duo of hugely-knowledgeable children’s literature experts: Amy Kellman, a Pittsburgh children’s literature consultant, and Anita Silvey, children’s book publisher, editor and author of several books, including the book & website, "Children's Book-a-Day Almanac."

I also try to keep up with the blogs – Calling Caldecott and Heavy Medal that spend months discussing the merits of possible winners. 

Stirring this stew of information, here’s a list of a few good bets for each medal:

Caldecott Medal top possibilities:

“Journey,” written and illustrated by Aaron Becker

“Mr. Tiger Goes Wild,” written and illustrated by Peter Brown

“Locomotive,” written and illustrated by Brian Floca

“Mr. Wuffles,” written and illustrated by David Wiesner

Other possibilities include: “The Mighty LaLouche,” illustrated by Sophie Blackall and written by Matthew Olshan; “Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me,” illustrated by Bryan Collier and written by Daniel Beaty; “The Dark,” illustrated by 2013 Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen and written by Lemony Snicket; and “Nelson Mandela,” written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson.

Newbery Medal top possibilities:

“The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp” by Kathi Appelt

 “Zebra Forest” by Adine Gewirtz

“The Year of Billy Miller” by Kevin Henkes

“The Thing About Luck” by Cynthia Kadohata

Other possibilities include: “Doll Bones” by Holly Black; “Ghost Hawk” by Susan Cooper; “Flora & Ulysses” by Kate DiCamillo; “Counting By Sevens” by Holly Goldberg Sloan; “The Real Boy” by Anne Ursu; and “P.S. Be Eleven” by Rita Williams-Garcia.

If you forced me to pick, I’d lay my bets on “Journey” for the Caldecott Medal and “The Thing About Luck” for the Newbery Medal. But who really knows? It could be something totally out of blue! It’s just fun to discuss the possibilities and anticipate the actual award announcements, which will be broadcast on Monday, January 27 at 8 a.m. For even more fun, tune into School Library Journal’s first-ever “Youth Media Awards Pre-Game and Post-Game Show."

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Tales From the Library: Our Library’s “Mock-Mock” Caldecott

As the time grows near for the January 27th announcement  of the 2014 Caldecott Medal winner, libraries all over the country are choosing their own “mock” Caldecott winners. There are even blogs like Calling Caldecott and A Fuse # 8 Production  that are tracking the mock winners as a way of trying to predict just what might actually win.
My library certainly isn’t immune to this “mock fever” and we recently chose our own “mock-mock” 2014 Caldecott Medal winner for 2014. (Read on for why it’s a “mock-mock”). Our choice was “Mr. Wuffles,” written and illustrated by David Wiesner. (His brief video on the making of the book is well worth watching). Meanwhile, we had three “mock-mock” 2014 Caldecott Honor books: “Little Santa,” written and illustrated by Jon Agee; “Big Snow,” written and illustrated by Jonathan Bean; and “The Day the Crayons Quit,” written by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers.

So, why do I call our program a “mock-mock” Caldecott? Unlike most libraries where it’s mostly adults who spend hours seriously discussing potential winners in a mock Caldecott program, the voters at my library are as young as three years old. Crazy? Yes, but it’s also hugely entertaining, and the program has been such a big draw among library patrons of all ages that we’ve started subtitling it “a family book club.”  Young participants, and their parents, tell me they learned how to really look – and analyze – the illustrations in a picture book, a key skill in our highly visual world. And the program also has been a great way to focus on books in an entertaining way for various ages. As one parent told me, “It’s so wonderful to do something literary with my kids.”
This is the third year our library has done its own version of a mock Caldecott program. When I decided to start the program, I had fond visions of arguing amicably for hours with other adults or older kids over details in an illustration and discussing whether a particular book met a key Caldecott criterion. It just sounded like a heck of a lot of fun for anyone who loves children’s books (yes, we can be a weirdly-focused bunch).
But the participants at our first meeting of what I termed the “Caldecott Club” turned my carefully-laid plans upside down. Instead of lots of adults eager to nitpick over Caldecott criteria, our Caldecott Club participants were parents and their children, including many preschoolers. These patrons all were fascinated by the idea of reading and discussing together some of the best new picture books being published.
Who was I to argue with success? So I decided to call our group a “mock-mock” Caldecott, and just go with the flow. To help our youngest participants understand what we were trying to do, I asked my talented library colleague Dave Burbank to develop a list of “kid-friendly” Caldecott criteria. Dave broke down the key points into language that even preschoolers could potentially grasp, and which certainly could be understood by elementary students on up. We have used that criteria as the framework for our monthly discussions since then although, truth be told, it still can be quite challenging to keep a preschooler on track to discuss illustrations in a book when they really want to talk about the story! But that’s all part of the fun.
For the first year, we offered our Caldecott Club once a month from October through February. Each month, from October through January, we read several books (using our “ELMO” overhead projector and a big screen so everyone could really see the illustrations). At each of those meetings, we chose a winner and then in January, we took those four monthly winners (including the January pick) and voted on our choice for the mock Caldecott Medal. The other three books were our mock Caldecott Honors. Then, in February, we gathered once more to read the actual Caldecott Medal and Caldecott Honor books.
Last year, we added another dimension to celebrate the 75th birthday of the Caldecott Medal. Instead of just meeting for five months, we went almost year-round and, in addition to potential new Caldecott Medal winners, we read some classic Caldecott winners from each decade.
This year, we went back to the initial format and will conclude our current Caldecott Club in February, when we read the actual 2014 winners. From October through our early January meeting, we read and discussed 16 picture books, all chosen from the booklist developed by the Calling Caldecott blog. Of course, we couldn’t read everything on the list and, in choosing what we did read, I tried to think of our audience, which obviously skews pretty young. That means we didn’t read some terrific, but longer, potential 2014 Caldecott Medal winners like “Locomotive” by Brian Floca. But every family at our meetings got a copy of the “Calling Caldecott” list, and many parents used it as a guide for reading the books we didn’t get to discuss in our get-togethers.
Now it’s the time that we all get to wait until the actual 2014 Caldecott Committee members make their choices behind closed and locked doors. (Although one committee member recently gave Calling Caldecott a peek into what it’s like in the weeks leading up to the panel’s final discussions; it’s definitely worth a read.) Meanwhile, all of our library’s “mock-mock” Caldecott participants are full of questions. Will “Mr. Wuffles” really win and make David Wiesner the first person to win four Caldecott Medals? Or will the winner be “Journey,” written and illustrated by Aaron Becker or “Mr. Tiger Goes Wild,” written and illustrated by Peter Brown – two of the top choices of many library “mock” groups.? Or will the winning book be something completely out of the blue? Check in on January 27th for the answer!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Go, Ambassadors, Go!

Left to right: John Scieszka ("the first ambassador"),
newly-named ambassador Kate DiCamillo,
and past ambassador Katherine Paterson
If there’s one thing you can count on when you see “Stinky Cheese Man” author Jon Scieszka, it’s a good laugh. And Scieszka delivered that and more for the dozens of people who piled into Washington D.C.’s Politics & Prose Bookstore yesterday to celebrate the inauguration of Newbery Medalist Kate DiCamillo as the fourth National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

​Kate, dressed in jeans and with her trademark wildish blonde hair, was there, of course. So was Katherine Paterson, the second children’s author to hold the ambassador’s post.  which was created in 2008 by the Library of Congress and the Children’s Book Council. Walter Dean Myers, the third ambassador, couldn’t make it, but,of course, Jon was there; he is, as he pointedly noted (with his trademark humorous, sly smile), “the first ambassador.”
​True enough, and it’s always wonderful to see the way Jon can work the crowd, which at Thursday’s packed event was composed of equal amounts of kids and grown-ups. Each of the ambassadors got to say a few words, and although all of them seemed a bit surprised by the fact that they had to “make a brief speech,” all of them handled the assignment with aplomb.
​Jon began by reading from the hilarious new book “Battle Bunny,” which he co-wrote with Mac Barnett. The book, which features pages on which it looks like a child scribbled and created his own story, is incredibly creative and quite subversive. (Kids can try doing this on their own with a template created by Jon and Mac).
​From reading about Battle Bunny’s fight for dominance over a pastoral landscape, Jon turned to reminiscing about his days as “the first ambassador,” with all its attendant – and often hyped, by Jon of course -- powers.
​“I’ve handed over (to Kate) the keys to the ambassadorial limousine and helicopter. But the jetpack? I’m keeping it!” Jon said.
​The best thing, Jon argued, is the fact that, as ambassador, “you get to do whatever you want.” He then turned to Kate and said: “What do you think about that?”
​“That’s alarming,” Kate replied.
​For Kate, the request that she become the new national ambassador was both a shock and an invitation. In talking about how it feels to take on the job, Kate alluded to her latest children’s novel, “Flora & Ulysses,” which stars a squirrel that is sucked up by a vacuum cleaner and miraculously emerges with super-hero powers.
​“Basically, I feel like I have been vacuumed up and turned into something much more interesting that I actually am,” Kate said. Then she jokingly added: “Every time I get intimidated about the job, I think to myself, ‘Well, Jon did it!’”
​And Jon – as is his wont – talked about the fun things that come with being the ambassador, including the time that another children’s author, David Shannon, talked a couple of hundred kindergarten students into bowing when Jon – the ambassador! – walked into the room.
​Jon also coyly refused to deny a rumor that, as ambassador, he was sometimes carried around when he visited classrooms in schools. So, when a kid asked Kate why she wanted to be the new ambassador, she was ready.
​“I want to be the ambassador because in a strange, but important way, stories changed my life. That’s the serious answer. The non-serious answer is that I would like to be carried around the room like Jon Scieszka!”
​When another child asked the ambassadors to pick their favorite books, Kate answered: “Oh, I can’t pick a favorite. I love them all.” She then compared her books to children and said that one child would be crushed if she, as a parent, loved another one more.
​Predictably, Jon had no such qualms when choosing his favorites among the books he has authored. “I would say either ‘The Stinky Cheese Man’ or ‘Battle Bunny’ or ‘The True Story of the Three Pigs.’ The rest of them can just cry their eyes out,” he laughed.
​Finally, the ambassadors were asked which authors or books have inspired them. Katherine, 81, responded that “you can tell my age immediately when I say that it was ‘The Secret Garden’ (written by Frances Hodgson Burnett) and ‘The Yearling’ (by Marjorie Rawlings).” In fact, Katherine said that she re-read “The Yearling” years later “and I realized how much echoes I recognized in my own writing.’
​For Kate, a self-described late bloomer, the books that have inspired her include Katherine’s Newbery Medal-winning “Bridge to Terebithia” and “The Watsons Go to Biringham 1963” by Christopher Paul Curtis.
​“Those books opened up something inside of me and I thought, ‘I want to do that,’” Kate said.
​As usual, Jon had the last word(s). “Well, as a child, I was very into zen philosophy,” he deadpanned. “And I loved ‘Go, Dog, Go’ (by P.D. Eastman). Remember the way the yellow dog goes up and the blue dog goes down. Very zen! You can’t argue with it. But my very favorite part was when they had a giant party up in a tree. That’s just so cool!”

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

NYPL Exhibit: “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter”

If you’re a children’s literature lover, there’s something really magical about seeing the original stuffed animals that inspired “Winnie-the-Pooh” or hearing E.B. White read his masterpiece, “Charlotte’s Web,” or finding out just why the now-classic “Goodnight Moon” was so revolutionary in its day.

All of this – and much, much more – can be found in a delightfully thought-provoking exhibit now at the New York Public Library. Titled “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter,” this exhibit of 250 artifacts was curated by Leonard Marcus, a children’s book historian and author of numerous books on children’s authors and illustrators. (I detailed Leonard’s unique career in an article published several months ago – one of my last columns for the now defunct Scripps Howard News Service).

Recently, Leonard was kind enough to host a tour for me, my husband and a couple of friends through the exhibit, which is setting attendance records for the NYPL and hopefully will be extended past its original closing date of March 23. The exhibit has sparked national attention, including a review by Edward Rothstein in The New York Times; the review also included a slideshow of exhibit highlights.

As we set out through the exhibit, located in the 4,500-square-foot central gallery, Leonard talked about taking on the curator’s job, and sifting through some of the million-plus books and other artifacts owned by the NYPL.

 “It was like being in a toy shop in the best possible way – when the owner of the toy shop wants you to touch everything,” he said.

While it was a wonderfully fun task, curating the exhibit also was an intellectual challenge, as Leonard pondered what he wanted the show to accomplish. As he wrote in an essay about the exhibit for The Horn Book magazine: “A great many people form strong, even passionate personal associations with children’s books… but without seeing those books in broader cultural terms, as literature and art.

 “My goal would be to present children’s books in that larger context, to connect the dots by highlighting the place of children’s literature, broadly defined, in the arts, popular culture, and social history.”

So, exhibit goers can see the original Winnie-the-Pooh animals are here, as well as the parrot-head umbrella owned by “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers and a copy of “The Secret Garden” owned by its author Frances Hodgson Burnett. But they aren’t the main focus of the exhibit.

Instead, the show uses these artifacts, and many others, to explore several serious themes about children’s literature. The exhibit opens, for example, with a fascinating look at the way children’s books have reflected the changing ideas of childhood, from the Puritans to the Romantics to the Progressives.

Two other major themes in the exhibit delve into the artistry that lies behind the deceptively simple form of the picture book, and examine how children’s books have had an impact on the larger culture.

Once he had these themes in mind as he planned the exhibit, Leonard then began to search for books and artifacts that could bring them to life.

“The thing about curating is that it is storytelling in three dimensions,” Leonard told us on the tour. “What story does something tell?”

An example: Leonard used a 1727 edition of “The New England Primer” – which he says is the oldest known copy of the most influential American children’s book of the 18th and early 19th centuries -- to show the kind of stern, moral-laden reading that the Puritans considered appropriate for children.

Walk past the “Primer,” and there is a selection of poems from William Blake’s Song of Innocence,” illustrated in watercolor by Blake himself. The contrast between the way Blake and the Puritans each viewed childhood couldn’t be clearer, and it sets the tone for the rest of this section.

Leonard also takes exhibit-goers off on intriguing tangents, giving us a view, for example, of “Scarlet Letter” author Nathaniel Hawthorne as a “family man” who rejected the ideas behind the “Primer,” on which he was raised. In looking through the NYPL’s collection, Leonard found the Hawthorne family’s Mother Goose collection; we could see where Hawthorne’s wife marked certain rhymes “not to be read to Uma,” their young daughter, presumably because they would scare her.

Further on, there’s a look at how children’s books have been used as tools to build “national identity.” Here you’ll find a children’s book published by the Confederacy during the Civil War and another published during China’s Cultural Revolution.

Kids love playing in the model of the “Great Green Room” from Margaret Wise Brown’s iconic “Goodnight Moon.” But it serves to make a larger point for adults about the progressive view of childhood that rose to popularity in the 1940’s, and which saw children as collaborators in the construction of their world.

 As Leonard told us, the “Great Green Room” model “epitomizes what I wanted to
do in this exhibition. Everyone knows ‘Goodnight Moon’ but nobody knows where it came from.”

 In the section of the exhibit about the artistry of picture books, the work of Randolph Caldecott (for whom the Caldecott Medal is named) looms large. Viewers also can see the work of fine artists like Faith Ringgold, who have made picture books, and fine art by picture book creators like Wanda Gag.

In the third major section, where the exhibit looks at the cultural impact of children’s books, we track the nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty” as it moves through the world in the hands of such disparate people as Lewis Carroll, James Joyce and Aretha Franklin.

Exhibit-goers also can enjoy a facsimile of Milo’s car from “The Phantom Tollbooth” (kids can actually sit in it and pretend to drive), an imposing – and depressing – tower listing the titles of children’s books that have been challenged, and a “secret readers” exhibit case highlighting the debate over the literary merits of comic books.

And all of this is just a fraction of what you’ll see in this show. The exhibit brochure offers a valuable overview, but it’s worth coming to see it for yourself, if at all possible.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Interview: Kate DiCamillo, new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature

Cue the triumphal march! Bring out the scepter – or the wand! We have a new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature!
In case you haven’t heard, Newbery Medalist Kate DiCamillo, 49, has just been chosen as the fourth person to take over the job first created in 2008 by the Library of Congress.
So how does it feel to take over a job previously held by “Stinky Cheese Man” author Jon Scieszka (he had a triumphal march), Newbery Medalist Katherine Paterson (she had a wand) and multiple-award-winning author Walter Dean Myers (he used a scepter)?
“I’m intimidated but happy,” Kate said in a brief interview this morning from her Minneapolis home.
Kate’s efforts in her two-year tenure as ambassador will be centered on her theme of “Stories Connect Us.”
“I would just love for as many people as possible to understand the power of reading together,” said Kate, who won the 2004 Newbery Medal for “A Tale of Despereaux.” “In this new role, I want to encourage more people to read together and, if that happens, I’ll be thrilled.
“I was a kid who was lucky enough to be read to in a variety of ways,” Kate said. “I really want to show people how stories can help us connect with each other.”
Kate hasn’t yet been officially been inaugurated as the new ambassador. That happens on January 10 at the Library of Congress when the current ambassador, Walter Dean Myers, turns over the keys to the children’s literature kingdom to Kate. The day before that, January 9, Kate will appear with her three predecessors  at a 4 p.m. event at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C. If you’re in the area, it’s worth heading over there for a rare opportunity to meet these stars of the children’s literature world.
Kate was asked to fill the ambassador’s position back in the early fall, and has had to keep the secret until today’s official announcement
“I’m getting very good in my old age at keeping my mouth shut,” she laughed. Kate added that she knows it’s a big job, “but when they asked me, how could I say no?”
Kate’s still not sure exactly how she’ll use her job as ambassador to highlight her theme of “Stories Connect Us.” In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Kate talked about doing “community reads” as one way for people of many ages to connect through stories.
Kate began writing for children when she moved from Florida to Minneapolis at the age of 30 to try to jump-start her ambition to be an author. Her rise in the world of children’s literature has been meteoric. Kate’s first book, “Because of Winn-Dixie” was published in 1999 and won a 2000 Newbery Honor. Her second book, “The Tiger Rising,” was a nominee for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, and she won the Newbery Medal for “The Tale of Despereaux” her  third book.
Kate is also the author of two popular beginning reader series, the “Mercy Watson” books and the “Bink & Gollie” series, which was co-written with Alison McGhee. Kate’s latest novel, “Flora & Ulysses,” has received a huge amount of critical acclaim and also is a word-of-mouth best-seller among the kids at my library. In my own review, I called it “the kind of literary tour de force that someone only as talented as DiCamillo could possibly pull off.”
As she takes over the ambassador’s position, Kate lamented in the Publishers Weekly interview that she’ll likely have to trade her trademark jeans for a dress – which she’ll have to purchase. But she also told me that she relishes the chance to take over the job first held by the hilarious Jon Scieszka, who loved playing a recording of a “triumphal march” created for him by some elementary school students during his ambassadorial tenure.

“Jon’s still in my phone as ‘Mr. Ambassador,’” she said. “Now, I’ll have to change it to ‘Mr. Ex-Ambassador!’”