Friday, May 23, 2014

"Zita the Spacegirl" Author/Artist Ben Hatke Wows the Crowd

Graphic novelist Ben Hatke is a sprite of a man, and sprightly too, constantly in motion as he talks and shares his love of comics with young fans. He certainly wowed the crowd of 75-plus kids and adults who came to my library the other night to hear him talk about the latest book in his best-selling Zita the Spacegirl series. (We're lucky to have a partnership with Politics & Prose, the well-known Washington, D.C. independent bookstore; the partnership allows us to host well-known authors and artists like Hatke a our library, while P&P gets to sell books at the events to anyone who wishes to purchase them).

Hatke clearly revels in speaking to kids about comics and drawing and making stories. He began by giving the excited crowd a short, dynamic lesson in the mechanics of comics, and why he loves them. It was a bit like taking Scott McLeod's masterful teen/adult book Understanding Comics, pulling out the key tenets, and then presenting them in a way that was both entertaining and educational for school-age kids. Kids listened intently as Hatke drew and talked about things like the way comics "play on things our brain likes to do, like making connections" as we move from one panel to the next.  Everyone laughed as Hatke illustrated the way comics show time; he drew three panels, the first showing a bunny whistling as she sets out at sunrise one day, the second showing her sweating in the heat of the noonday sun beating down on her, and the third showing her totally spent under the light of the moon.
Hatke draws for the crowd.

Kids also got a real kick out of the way Hatke detailed his love for using body language to carry parts of his stories. To show what he meant, Hatke drew a character who looked mildly grumpy and who had a thought bubble over his head that read "I am angry!" Then Hatke drew a second character who entire body was contorted with rage and whose thought bubble read "Who stepped on my cheeseburger?!" As Hatke noted: "I use the idea of body language to show as much as I can of how the characters feel. It's a way to make the words and the pictures really work together."

Hatke said he's always been drawing, and always been interested in stories, "all kinds of stories -- chapter books, picture books and, of course, comics." Interestingly, Hatke said it was his wife who had the initial idea for the Zita books: Zita the Spacegirl, Legends of Zita the Spacegirl, and the just-published The Return of Zita the Spacegirl (First Second, $17.99 hardback, $12.99 paperback, ages 5-12). "When I was in college, I met a really cute girl" who had created the character of Zita the spacegirl, Hatke said. "I thought I'd try to impress her by developing the character. It worked -- she married me!"

Some young fans at my library pose with Zita the Spacegirl.

Asked by a young audience member why he chose to make the main character a girl, Hatke said that while "I don't really think a lot about that, I do have four daughters and I grew up with two sisters. So I've been around girls having adventures." Of course, audience members wanted to know whether Hatke plans more Zita books. "Probably. But right now I'm working on some other books." Hatke added that "Zita will be older when we next see her," noting that he's thinking of have her "age in real time," so that if the next Zita book comes out five years from now, she'll be five years older. The final sketch in The Return of Zita the Spacegirl gives a hint of that, contrasting a teen-age Zita with the familiar younger version.

Meanwhile, Hatke is having fun trying out something new -- a picture book. Using our library's ELMO (a type of overhead projector), Hatke gave the crowd an early look at Julia's House for Lost Creatures (ages 4-8), which will be published by First Second in early September. Hatke's whimsy works well in the picture book form, as he tells the story of a girl who lives in a "walking house" and welcomes all kinds of creatures who need a home. As more and more creatures pile into the house, however, things get chaotic until Julia figures out a solution that works for everyone. Hatke also previewed the book he's working on now ("Maybe the best thing I've ever done") about a "little girl and a robot and a friendship that develops over the summer").


Monday, May 19, 2014

News Round-Up: The Kids' Lit World Is Hopping!

Children's Book Week has just wrapped up, but there's still lots happening in the world of children's & teen literature. Here's a quick round-up of the latest happenings:

There's been quite a kerfluffle -- no, make that outrage -- over the fact that conservative talk host Rush Limbaugh won the Children's Choice Book Award for Author of the Year for his book, Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims. How was the choice made? Well, it's an online voting process created by the Children's Book Council. The council, which is a national, non-profit trade association of children's book publishers, is the same organization that sponsors Children's Book Week. As part of the celebration, the council created the Children's Choice Book Awards; the finalists generally are the authors and illustrators who have sold the most books. So, in this year's author category, in addition to Limbaugh, other finalists included Diary of a Wimpy Kid author/illustrator Jeff Kinney, Heroes of Olympus author Rick Riordan, Allegiant author Veronica Roth, and Dork Diaries author Rachel Renee Russell.

The choice of Limbaugh as Author of the Year kicked up a lot of dust in the children's book world. 100 Scope Notes Blogger Travis Jonker did a good round-up of links about the discussion going on. I'd add this School Library Journal article to the mix. And here's one more from Roger Sutton, editor of The Horn Book, who notes that lest we all think that the Children's Book Council "is just a big bunch of dittoheads," here's a look at one of the council's efforts to promote more diversity in children's and teen books.

The bottom line for my library is that we're not purchasing Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims, given the poor reviews in professional journals, which point to numerous inaccuracies. And the bottom line for me, as a reviewer and librarian, is that there's a good reason that the criteria for the Caldecott and Newbery Medals specifically note that the awards are not for popularity. Basing an award on how many books have been sold -- as the Children's Choice Book Awards do -- leads to exactly what happened last week when Limbaugh was chosen as the Author of the Year, and Grace Lee won Illustrator of the Year for illustrations that she did for a Disney program spin-off book, "Sophia the First: The Floating Palace."

Whew! On a more positive note, the Twitter campaign #WeNeedDiverseBooks already has produced some results. First Book, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit focused on children's literacy, has created the "The Stories for All Project" and pledged to do bulk purchasing of children's books that reflect the nation's diversity.

In the initial phase of the First Book initiative, the organization has chosen two publishers -- HarperCollins and Lee & Low Books --and will purchase $500,000 worth of books highlighting diversity from each of them. The books then will be given or sold at a low cost to educators working with children in need; all the educators have to do is first sign up at In a nutshell, First Book is stepping up to provide the market that publishers contend they need to publish more diverse books for kids.

In an interview with NPR, First Book CEO Kyle Zimmer explained why it was important for young readers to have books that reflect diverse cultures and communities. Zimmer notes that educators have long understood that "when kids see themselves in books, they are far more likely to become enthusiastic readers. "But we also know that this isn't just about kids seeing themselves in books, this is also about kids seeing other kids in books, and other cultures in books," Zimmer said.

Some of the first books purchased by First Book to distribute to kids in need include: Shooter by Walter Dean Myers (HarperCollins); The Storyteller's Candle: La Velita de los Cuentos by Lucia Gonzalez (Lee & Low); and Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story by Ken Mochizuki (Lee & Low).

One more quick note of news about kids' books -- no, make that teen books! Scholastic is sponsoring a Twitter campaign called #IReadYA this week. It's a great way to focus on the importance -- and fun -- of reading for teens. Check out the details here. And check out School Library Journal's great summer reading list of cool -- and recent -- books for teens.
  • Shooter", Walter Dean Myers (HarperCollins)
  • "Tofu Quilt", Ching Yueng (Lee & Low Books)
  • "In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson", Bette Bao Lord (HarperCollins)
  • "The Storyteller’s Candle: La Velita de Los Cuentos", Lucia Gonzalez (Lee & Low Books)
  • "El Bronx Remembered: A Novella and Stories", Nicholasa Mohr (HarperCollins)
  • "Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story", Ken Mochizuki (Lee & Low Books)
  • - See more at:

  • "Shooter", Walter Dean Myers (HarperCollins)
  • "Tofu Quilt", Ching Yueng (Lee & Low Books)
  • "In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson", Bette Bao Lord (HarperCollins)
  • "The Storyteller’s Candle: La Velita de Los Cuentos", Lucia Gonzalez (Lee & Low Books)
  • "El Bronx Remembered: A Novella and Stories", Nicholasa Mohr (HarperCollins)
  • "Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story", Ken Mochizuki (Lee & Low Books)
  • - See more at:

    Thursday, May 15, 2014

    Children's Book Week 2014

    What a Children's Book Week this has been! And it's not over yet. For me, it's been a celebration involving an amazing mix of talented authors, including best-selling Llama, Llama author/illustrator Anna Dewdney, the quirky genius Maira Kalman, and two-time Newbery Medalist Lois Lowry. A crazy-quilt of styles, right? But a great way to highlight the breadth of children's literature, especially when two of the authors -- Dewdney and Kalman -- made their appearances at *my* library!

    I'm cheating a little on the parameters of Children's Book Week, which technically runs from May 12-18 this year. Llama, Llama star Dewdney actually spoke at my library on Thursday, May 8. So it wasn't really Children's Book Week yet. But that certainly didn't matter a whit to the nearly 70 excited kids and their grown-ups that Dewdney delighted at her early-evening program, which was designed to showcase her newest book, Nelly Gnu and Daddy Too (Viking, $17.99, ages 3-6). Dewdney's appearance in our library's Children's Room was thanks to our partnership with Politics & Prose, an independent bookstore in Washington, D.C. The P&P folks are in the lucky position of having too many authors who want to visit, and so P&P uses libraries like ours as alternate venues. It's a win-win situation: we get to host authors whom we could never afford, while P&P can say yes to an author (and, of course, sell some books).

    Dewdney clearly knows her audience, some of whom came clutching love-worn stuffed Llama Llamas. She started by drawing Llama, Llama on easel paper, to "invite" him to join the event. The kids loved watching Llama, Llama take shape as Dewdney drew him, and my library loved that she later signed the portrait "Llama, Llama loves the Takoma Park Maryland Library." A signed piece of original artwork from an author who has sold millions of books -- it made our night! Of course, we'll frame it and put it up in the library for all to enjoy.

    Then Dewdney launched right into an energetic reading of what is probably her most popular book, Llama, Llama, Red Pajama. It was a great way to warm up the crowd for her new book, which puts Nelly Gnu, a friend of Llama, Llama, in the spotlight. While the kids still clearly are partial to the Llama, Llama books, they also enjoyed hearing Dewdney read about how Nelly Gnu's dad helped her create a special playhouse using a box, some simple tools, and lots of creativity. As usual, Dewdney uses a lilting rhyme to tell her story, and her illustrations are bright and cheerful. Best of all, Nelly Gnu and Daddy Too might just inspire even more parents to spend time on hands-on creative projects with their kids.

    In a mega-change of pace two days later, our library hosted Maira Kalman -- she of The New Yorker covers, The New York Times blogs, and such books as And the Pursuit of Happiness (for adults) and Fireboat for kids. (And yes, this was also before the official beginning of Children's Book Week, but we can be flexible....)
    Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan
    The multi-talented Kalman actually came to town to talk about her non-fiction books for kids, which -- in addition to Fireboat -- includes Looking at Lincoln and her newest book, Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything (Penguin, $17.99, ages 7-10). I plan to write specifically about Kalman's talk in another blog post, but suffice to say that she brought down the house with her wry, self-deprecating humor, witty observations about life, love and history, and her brilliantly-hued gouache illustrations. My talented neighbor Jeffrey MacMillan, a professional news photographer, attended the event and took this great photo of Kalman in action.

    I wish I could say that Lois Lowry, winner of the Newbery Medal for not one, but two books -- Number the Stars and The Giver -- also was a guest at my library. But Lowry actually was the feature attraction at the Library of Congress' Children's Book Week celebration. On Monday morning, Lowry and Nikki Silver, producer of the forthcoming film adaptation of The Giver, spoke to a rapt audience of a couple of hundred school kids (and a smattering of adults like me). In addition to their discussion, we were treated to a fast-paced sneak peek of the film, which will be released this August and which stars Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep, with a cameo appearance by Taylor Swift. Lowry herself has been involved with the making of the film. Here's one of the official movie trailers -- it's pretty stunning:

    Lowry was her typical articulate, thoughtful self as Silver queried her about how she became an author for kids. The kids were fascinated to learn that Lowry,  now 77, dropped out of college to get married, had four kids by the time she was 25, and didn't publish her first book until she was 40.  Yet, Lowry said she wanted to be a writer from an early age; she told the audience that, in a letter she wrote at age 10, and which was published in a magazine, she said "I am writing a novel. It's called A Dog Named Lucky. I'm on Chapter 13."

    Many years later, it was a magazine editor who convinced Lowry that she was actually a natural writer for kids and teens. At first, she resisted the notion, but then she realized several things: "I enjoyed it, I was pretty good at it, and when I began to get a response from kids, I began to perceive what a difference books can make in kids' lives. That makes me take what I do very seriously. I never think that it is a lesser thing to write for kids."

    Asked by Silver how she got the idea for The Giver, Lowry said that it came out of her visits years ago with her elderly father. During one visit, "I perceived, for the first time, that memories were beginning to disappear for him. I realized that he had forgotten my sister" even though her death at an early age "was surely the worst thing that had happened to my parents." As Lowry was driving home from the visit, she began wondering "what would it be like if we forgot all our sad memories?" As she mulled over the idea, however, she also decided that "we need all those memories (sad and happy) because they make up who we are."

     And thus was born The Giver, in which Lowry tells of a world that is seemingly perfect, in which no one has sadness or cares, and also no real emotional life. But there is one person, "The Giver," who holds all of the society's memories, in case they ever are needed in the future. When a 12-year-old boy, Jonas, is chosen to become the next Giver, he realizes there is a cost to the placid society in which he lives, and he eventually has to choose whether to stay there or flee in a bid to restore his own humanity.

    Although Lowry had no idea that she was creating a new genre of fiction, she generally is created with creating the first "dystopian" novel for teens. Since then dystopian fiction has become all the rage, as shown by the success of The Hunger Games, Divergent, and others. Those books have become successful films in recent years, but Silver noted that she had optioned The Giver years before that in hopes that she could produce a film version of it. Turning the interviewer tables, Lowry then asked Silver why she wanted to create a film from The Giver. "It's smart and there are great characters," Silver responded. "The idea of visually creating this world was very exciting."

    Still it has taken years for the film to actually happen, Silver said,"noting that there were "many screenplays written." Lowry, meanwhile, noted that while she "cringes" at previous efforts to adapt her work into film, she is hopeful about The Giver movie. "I also happen to be a great lover of movies, so I don't automatically think 'Book good, movie bad.' But a movie can't ever be the same thin as a book." She noted that, while reading a book, "you form pictures in your mind about it, and those pictures are different for everyone. With a movie, everyone has the same pictures." Lowry also noted that in the book version of The Giver, "I could have an ambiguous ending, but in the film, there has to be more of an ending."

     As the event with Lowry and Silver wrapped up, one student asked Lowry what she thought was the message of The Giver. "I don't like the idea of messages in books," Lowry said, noting that "you ruin a book" by beginning with a message. "Yet once the book is finished.... messages will arise for readers." In the case of The Giver, Lowry said she believes the story is a cautionary tale demonstrating that "we should be very, very careful in the choices we make in this life... and the compromises too."

    Monday, May 5, 2014

    Fact or Fiction?

    Picture book non-fiction was in the spotlight at a recent panel moderated by children's literature expert extraordinaire Leonard Marcus. Organized by the folks at Politics & Prose Bookstore, the panel included such non-fiction luminaries as author/artist Brian Floca, winner of the 2014 Caldecott Medal for his book Locomotive (Atheneum, $17.99, ages 7-10),  Richard "Dick" Jackson, the legendary editor who brought us such authors as Judy Blume and such books as Hatchet by Gary Paulsen (as well as Flocca and his "Locomotive"), and artist Susan Roth, who won the 2014 Sibert Medal for her book, Parrots Over Puerto Rico (Lee & Low, $19.95, ages 8-12).

     Marcus, who is both a facile and knowledgeable moderator, kicked things off by noting that "non-fiction is the kind of book I always read growing up." He added: "I think that the kind of stories that appeal to us are reflective of our temperature. Some ask 'What If?' Others are more intersted in 'Is it true?'"

    Children's non-fiction "has had its ups and downs," noted Marcus, who is renowned for his knowledge of children's book history and is the author of such books as Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs and the Shaping of Children's Literature. In the 1950's, worried that the Russians were beating us in the science, technology and space war, non-fiction was "a very hot thing," Marcus said.

    The interest in non-fiction for kids, however, waned in the 1960's and 1970's. Fiction was king in children's literature, and that was reflected in the children's books which won the top literary awards. Milton Meltzer, a critically-acclaimed author of non-fiction for kids, decried the trend in the 1970's  in an article titled "Where Do All the Prizes Go? The Case for Non-Fiction."

    Now the pendulum has swung back to non-fiction, Marcus said, pointing to the "mania" that seems to have developed around the Common Core. Meanwhile, non-fiction has become more of a "literary form," he said, adding: "It's not 'Just the facts, m'am.'" Instead, authors and illustrators are "actually shaping the facts into a story."

    Awards like the Sibert Medal, given annually by the American Library Association to the most distinguished informational book for children, also have helped raise the bar, convincing publishers that kids deserve not only a good and true story but also need such things as source notes, bibliographies, etc.

      I served on the 2012 Sibert Medal committee and got to see what great non-fiction is out there for kids; I'm especially proud of our winner, Balloons Over Broadway, written and illustrated by Melissa Sweet and the first picture book winner of the Sibert Medal, which was established in 2001.

    Writing and illustrating great non-fiction for kids isn't necessarily easy, as the Politics & Prose panelists noted. For example, Floca said that he had planned to construct Locomotive around the journey of one crew and one locomotive along the Transcontinental Railway, and had actually done quite a bit of work based on that idea when he found out that the engines and crew were changed along the way. That meant that Floca's structure for the book was "blown to pieces" and he had to do some major re-writing.

    Roth noted: "You have to tell the truth" as an author and/or illustrator of children's non-fiction. But just how much of the truth to tell is another question that can be vexing for writers of children's non-fiction picture books. Another question is just how much information you can include in the picture book format. Author/artist Duncan Tonatiuh said he had to make some difficult decisions about what facts were most important in his newest book, Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family's Fight for Desegregation (Abrams, $18.94, ages 7-10).

    The beautifully-illustrated book tells the compelling story of a girl whose family challenged segregated schools 10 years before the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case. It's a key moment in American civil rights, yet Tonatiuh noted that he had to decide "how much to cover when I only had 40 pages to work with." He added that he wanted to "give readers enough information without overwhelming them."

    Figuring out how to shape a non-fiction story also is a challenge. Jen Bryant, author of A Splash of Red, a biography about a man named Horace Pippin who persisted in his art despite losing much of the use of his right arm in Word War I, said that each book "is a new adventure." Bryant added that she doesn't really have a method for creating her books except for "sloshing around in a person's life" until "the materials tell you where to focus." (Note: A Splash of Red is illustrated by Melissa Sweet).

    While the facts are crucial to good children's non-fiction books, the illustrations also have an important role to play, Jackson said, adding: "From my point of view, non-fiction is particularly interesting because it inspires terrific art."
    R. Gregory Christie has illustrated a number of children's non-fiction books, including the recently-published Sugar Hill: Harlem's Historic Neighborhood (written by Carole Boston Weatherford) (Whitman, $16.99, ages 7-10). While photographs can be important in giving an artist a "foundation," Christie said during the Politics & Prose panel discussion, "your talent as an artist and your interpretation is what brings that person to life."

    Saturday, May 3, 2014


    We Need Diverse Books. Just four words that are filled with hope, longing and determination to ensure that books for kids and teens truly reflect the rich diversity of our nation. Today marks the end of what I hope is just the initial phase of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, and it's been incredibly inspiring to witness the outpouring of support from around the world for this effort. Blogger Joyce Valenza offers a good wrap-up of what's been happening so far, as does this L.A. Times article.

    There have been some great "next steps" proposed, such as this "white paper" prepared by librarian Jamie Campbell Naidoo for the Association for Library Service to Children, the children's division of the American Library Association. And there's also been a sharing of the resources highlighting what books are currently available that reflect a diversity of characters and setting in children's and teen books.

    More needs to be done, however. All of us need to make it clear to publishers that we DO want them to publish more children's and teen books featuring all kinds of diversity, including characters who are African-Americans, LBGT,  grappling with physical and mental challenges, etc., etc., etc. There are some publishers out there that already are doing this, publishers like Lee & Low, and we need to support them by buying their books for our collection and then USE them in Story Times, booktalks, displays, etc.  And we need to keep pushing awareness of why having diversity in children's and teen books is so important.

    It's a tall order, and it won't be easy. Some people think the problem will once again fade away into the background, just as it has done in years past. But I'm betting that this time is different. This time, with the help of the Internet, we've had such a groundswell of support from all kinds of people from all around the world, that I think the issue CAN'T fade away.

     I'm already inspired to do more, and have begun searching even harder for books that can expand the diversity of our library's collection, and I'm also planning to do more to use these books in programs.

    How about you? What are you doing to keep alive the message that #WeNeedDiverseBooks?