Friday, November 28, 2014

A Wonderful Visit from Jon Klassen

For a picture book superstar, Jon Klassen is a remarkably low-key kind of guy. After all, this is someone who has won the top national and international children's book illustration awards -- the Caldecott Medal here, the Kate Greenaway Medal in Great Britain. He's the first person to win both of those awards, and only the second person to win both a Caldecott Medal and a Caldecott Honor in the same year. Clearly he's superstar, and yet he is an easy-going superstar who really enjoys interacting with his young fans.

Jon giving his 2013 Caldecott acceptance speech.
Jon's down-to-earth persona recently was on display at my library, where he gave a presentation on his work, including his newest book, Sam & Dave Dig a Hole (Candlewick Press, $16.99, ages 4-7). Unfazed by making a presentation to dozens of kids and adults crammed into our Children's Room, Jon -- wearing his trademark sports cap -- read calmly from several of his books as he showed the illustrations up on the big screen. First up: I Want My Hat Back.

To mix things up, Jon also offered an amusing drawing demonstration midway through the program.Using Photoshop to draw a picture of a turtle, Jon then showed how to create a number of emotions in the turtle, merely by changing just the position and size of the turtle's eyes. It was a great reminder of how the eyes of the big fish are so important in Jon's 2013 Caldecott Medal-winning book, This Is Not My Hat.

Jon finished up his presentation by reading from one of his own favorite books as a kid, In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, retold by Alvin Schwartz. For fans of Jon's work, it was especially interesting to see in those stories the same kind of dry, slightly dark humor that marks Jon's own books.

At our event, Jon just read one story -- "The Green Ribbon" (a classic tale about how the ribbon allows a woman to keep her severed head attached to her body) --and his audience was rapt. And, despite Jon's reminder that he didn't write that story and so couldn't answer questions about it, several young fans kept circling back to it in the Q&A, much to the amusement of both Jon and the audience.

While Jon is relaxed with fans, however, he's a perfectionist when it comes to his work. When I interviewed him in October 2013, for example, he talked about staying awake all night, worrying about the hand-lettering he did for This Is Not My Hat. At the library program, he spoke of his frustration in trying to get the right look for the all-important yarn in the illustrations for Caldecott Honor-winning Extra Yarn, which was written by Mac Barnett. Finally, Jon said, he went out and purchased an inexpensive sweater, scanned it, and then used those scans to create the illustrations.

Jon's newest book, Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, also was written by Mac Barnett. It features Jon's trademark subtle palette, yet he has managed to create an amazing number of different shades and variations on the all-important brown of the dirt dug up by Sam and Dave. In reading the book at the library program, Jon began by urging the audience to notice the title page. Although he noted that title pages are typically "sad" pages because no one pays attention to them, the title page of Sam & Dave Dig a Hole plays a crucial role in the story.

As Jon read the book, the kids in the audience became more and more voluble as Sam and Dave continued to just miss unearthing bigger and bigger gems hidden in the earth's depths. Just as the audience did in our library's recent Caldecott Club reading of Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, these young fans at Klassen's program were audibly disbelieving of how clueless the two boys seemed to be, unlike their dog. Asked later about the fact that Sam and Dave come so close to finding gems, yet never find them, Jon said: "They always miss them because it's funny."

But the biggest surprise of the book comes at the end, when Sam and Dave (and their dog) fall through the hole and then end up in a place that looks like the place they started -- as shown on the title page! -- but clearly isn't exactly the same. Kids notice this fact right away, while it takes most adults longer to see what's happened. As to where Sam and Dave are at the end of the book, Jon left it to his fans to come up with their own ideas. The kids at the library program clearly were intrigued by this challenge, and came up with various suggestions about what had happened.

The wide-open ending of Sam & Dave Dig a Hole also has been a source of much speculation in the children's literature world since the book was published. In a recent post on his 100 Scope Notes blog, for example, Travis Jonker wrote about several different theories about the ending of the book; the theories range from "The Epic Dream Theory" to "It Was All a Dream, Man Theory" and are fascinating to read. Don't forget to also read the comments that follow the post, which offer even more theories, with one commenter pointing folks to a fascinating interview with Jon and Mac about the book on the "Cynsations" blog.

The book clearly is already popular with fans, and many people believe it could earn Klassen yet another Caldecott Medal or Caldecott Honor. The "Calling Caldecott" blog, which focuses on potential Caldecott winners, recently had an interesting discussion about the book.

Jon finished our library event by spending more than an hour with fans, signing their books, and answering questions. Chief among the questions: what are you working on now? Jon said that he was doing illustrations for another picture book written by Mac Barnett, and also was struggling to write and illustrate the last book in his "hat" trilogy (after I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat). But Jon acknowledged that it's "terrifying" for him to both write and illustrate a book now that he's won the Caldecott Medal.

All too soon, it was time for Jon to head off at the airport. As he went back into our staff area to claim his jacket and backpack, he noticed an unusual "window" there and asked if he could take a photograph. The "window" used to be a real window, but now looks out onto a brick wall. Some time ago, one of our library staffers used construction paper to create a beach scene on the window's bottom half, but the top half still shows the brick wall. It's not something that attracts any attention from most visitors.  It takes someone with a special eye, a keen sense of a detail, and a darkly witty sense of humor -- someone, in fact, just like Jon Klassen.

Me, Jon & my daughter Sally, a Klassen fan.

END NOTES: Thanks so much to Kerri Poore, children's & teen events coordinator at Politics & Prose Bookstore and Rachel Johnstone of Candlewick Press for bringing Jon to my library. Thanks also to Jon for his memorable presentation. It's not often that you meet such a down-to-earth superstar!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Hilariously "Stooky" Event

Take five superstar authors, bring them together on a stage, add in 200-plus kids and adults and you've got the makings of an amazing event. If the authors include funnyman Jon Scieszka, the first-ever National Ambassador of Young People's Literature, "Origami Yoda" creator Tom Angleberger, comic authors Mac Barnett and Jory John, and "El Deafo" author/illustrator Cece Bell, you've got a seriously raucous event that just veers on getting out of hand -- in a very fun way.

That was the case recently at my library when those five authors took the stage in our Community Center auditorium and totally rocked the place. As the characters in Angleberger's "Origami Yoda" books would say, it was "stooky" -- i.e. seriously cool. The kids asked amazing questions; perhaps my favorite was the young fan who asked Jon Scieszka if he had "an embarrassing life," apparently keying off Jon's crazy stories in his autobiography for kids about growing up with six brothers. The air was electric with hilarity and excitement as the authors competed with each other to be fastest and funniest with a quip -- especially in the "lightning round" of the Q&A when the authors, to allow all the kids lined up to ask questions to have a turn, allowed themselves only three-word answers. Just incredible! But the main highlight of the evening was seeing so many kids so excited about books and reading.

Tom Angleberger started things off on a comic note when he tried to teach his fellow four authors how to use a "kendama" -- a challenging wooden ball catch game -- as they waited backstage for the event to begin. Here's Tom trying to teach Jory John:

It was certainly a happy group of authors who gathered themselves backstage before the program:

After Tom warmed up his fellow authors, he headed out to warm up the audience. Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and blue cap, Tom walked up and down the aisles asking folks how they were doing, asking their names, and asking if they were happy to be there. Then Tom told the audience he would juggle three fat "Sharpies" and begged folks to clap as he juggled. As you might guess, juggling pens isn't easy, even for a veteran juggler like Tom. But the audience really got into the spirit of it, and it turned out to be a wonderful warm-up for the evening.

Tom then headed backstage so I could do the formal introductions. As I introduced each author, they emerged from behind the curtain at the back of the stage until all 5 were seated at a table onstage. Then the serious fun began. The five authors had decided to moderate themselves, using a timer and a horn that sounded a bit like an ailing cow. They limited themselves to three minutes each, a schedule  that wasn't easy for any of them to keep, which meant that the horn was sounded frequently, to the audience's delight.

Here's Cece at the mike, talking about El Deafo, her poignant and funny new graphic novel memoir for kids that details her struggles growing up with a severe hearing loss and trying to fit in with her peers.

Cece even brought the original Phonic Ear she used as a child to hear her teacher at school, and strapped it on to show the audience how it worked. Later, one child went up to the mike during Q&A time and told Cece that he, too, suffers from a severe hearing loss and told Cece "that to make you feel even better" that he, too, has a device to better hear his teachers.

Then the young fan asked Cece if she really ever made up a superhero named El Deafo in her head, and she responded "Yes!" Cece later was asked if she's better now at dealing with being different because of her hearing loss, and she said that she was, even turning to Tom -- her husband -- and asking him if he would agree. "Definitely," he said. Cece added that she was grateful to feel more confident about herself, but noted that it took many years for that to happen.

The presentations by the other authors were more raucous, not surprisingly, given their personalities. Mac & Jory, for example, have just teamed up on a new series, The Terrible Two, which stars two first-class pranksters. Noting that they've been friends for many years, Mac & Jory said they got the idea for a series about pranksters because they happen to be long-time pranksters themselves, and especially enjoy pranking each other. One prank involved Mac gift-wrapping Jory's car and also filling it with packing peanuts. Turned out that it was Jory's girlfriend's car; fortunately she's obviously a good sport because she and Jory are engaged to be married.

Mac & Jory then led the audience in "The Prankster's Oath" from The Terrible Two. Mac & Jory touched hands, then asked a young fan to touch one of their hands, and then have someone touch her etc. until the audience was joined as one. Of course, this caused a minor melee as fans pushed together but it was all in great fun.

Things got a bit more serious when a young reader asked why Mac decided to use a "pointless subject" for the focus of his book, President Taft Is Stuck In the Bath. Mac replied that he always was interested in the idea of a president stuck in a bathtub. But that wasn't good enough for the young questioner who persisted in asking, but why President Taft, who didn't seem to do much of anything? Mac then gave a brilliant answer, saying that he loved the way that a president like Taft was so human, the way that Taft's body was limiting to what he may have wanted to achieve. Mac said he could readily identify with such a humanized president, especially as his own body -- like Taft's -- doesn't always allow him to do what he wants to do. It was an answer that was totally candid, and totally on target -- brilliant.

When it was his turn, Tom did a bit of drawing during his three-minute segment, and then asked the audience why they thought he writes books about the weirdest kid in the school. His answer: "Because I WAS the weirdest kid in the school!" Later, Tom answered numerous questions from fans about the Origami Yoda books, including the just-published Emperor Pickletine Rides the Bus. That book is the sixth and final book in the series, Tom said, eliciting groans from young fans in the audience. Tom and Cece now are working on a new series together and are excited about that.

Jon Scieszka, of course, is an old hand at writing funny books like the Caldecott Honor classic The Stinky Cheese Man, The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by A.Wolf, the Time Warp Trio books, and many more. In fact, it was Jon who realized that kids were craving more funny books, and so Jon created such pioneering websites as Guys Read and Guys Listen. Jon has just published the first in a new series about a young scientist named Frank Einstein (the first book is titled Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor). Later, one young fan asked Scieszka if the antimatter stuff in his book is real "because your book doesn't really explain that." Another young reader asked if Frank Einstein book would help her brother with his I.B. (International Baccalaureate) physics. Scieszka, clearly punting, said: "Of course!" But he also noted that, in answer to another questioner, he had worked closely with scientists in putting together the series.

One of the best Scieszka moments came when a young fan asked Jon to sign the Guys Read  story written by Kate DiCamillo, the current National Ambassador of Young People's Literature. This fan had gotten Kate to sign the story when she spoke at the library in August, and Jon clearly got a kick out what Kate had written:

The surprise of the night was the fact that Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen came to the event directly from the airport and just hung out in the back of the auditorium until the authors onstage invited him to come up and join the book-signing line. Amazing!

Jon Klassen is second guy wearing a cap.

 So Jon Klassen sat next to Mac Barnett, who wrote "Extra Yarn," the book whose illustrations -- by Klassen -- won a 2013 Caldecott Honor. More importantly, Klassen and Barnett have teamed up again on a new picture book, Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, and Klassen is scheduled to come back to my library on Sunday November 23 at 1 p.m. to talk about it. Barnett, unfortunately, can't return; we tried, and he tried, but his schedule just doesn't allow it. Still, one young fan asked a great question of Barnett (before we all knew that Klassen was in the audience). The questioner asked what happens to all the dirt dug up by Sam and Dave. Mac's answer: 'This book is not based on strict science, so don't worry about the dirt!"

At the end of the presentation, the signing line was long but the authors took time to talk with each fan. It was clearly Tom Angleberger's night; a feature earlier in the week in the Washington Post had fanned the flames, but Tom's Origami Yoda books are very popular with kids, for good reason. But the fans were patient, and some of them are really passionate, as witnessed by this photo of the "Swagger Muffins" with Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett. The "Swagger Muffins" are fans of Scieszka's "Guys Read" effort, of which Barnett is a contributor.

All in all, it was a totally memorable event. As Alison Morris of First Book noted in a tweet: "Wish the whole world was at this .... event because it is HILARIOUS!. "  And it was! A good time was definitely had by all, including the organizers, as this "Final Bow" photo clearly shows:

End Notes: Thanks to Abrams Kids, esp. Susan Van Metre and Nicole Russo, for suggesting the event. Thanks a LOT to Kerri Poore, children's events co-ordinator at Politics & Prose Bookstore, for asking us to host the event. And mega-thanks to the authors, who all are so enthusiastic about both their work and meeting their young fans. They are truly touching the future.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Our Caldecott Club Winners So Far....

We've been holding monthly meetings of our 2015 Caldecott Club, which I dub our "family book club," at my library since July. Since July, we've read and discussed 20 or so books that are eligible for the 2015 Caldecott Medal and -- in my opinion -- good possibilities for winning the top award or a Caldecott Honor.

Each month, we vote for our top winner out of the 4-5 books we read, and now we have a list of 5 finalists: Froodle, written and illustrated by Antoinette Portis; Bad Bye, Good Bye, written by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Jonathan Bean; Quest, written and illustrated by Aaron Becker; The Iridescence of Birds, written by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Hadley Hooper; and Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen. After we choose our December and January winners, then we'll take the finalists from each month, July through January, and vote for our Caldecott Club Medal winner, and any Honor books.

Of course, our Caldecott Club isn't really a true Mock Caldecott (now there's a funny turn of phrase -- a "true mock"...). We've developed simplified "kid-friendly" Caldecott criteria, and we have kids as young as three years old discussing the books and then voting on them.

Because we have such young children participating, we also can't discuss some of the longer and/or meatier possibilities, although I have tried to at least briefly mention books like Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, written by Patricia Hruby Powell and illustrated by Christian Robinson and Grandfather Gandhi, written by Bethany Hegedus and illustrated by Evan Turk.

Which books win as our finalists also depend on what books they're "competing" against, of course. For example, The Iridescence of Birds won over Viva Frida, written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales, Draw!, written and illustrated by Raul Colon, and Josephine. (To be fair, we just breezed through the illustrations in Josephine, which was for an older age group than most of the young participants in our Caldecott Club that night.)

This month, Sam & Dave Dig a Hole was a clear winner, besting Where's Mommy?, written by Beverly Donofrio and illustrated by Barbara McClintock, The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade, written by Justin Roberts and illustrated by Christian Robinson, and The Troublemaker, written and illustrated by Lauren Castillo.

 If a Caldecott winner can be judged by the amount of audience participation and reaction as it's being read, then Sam & Dave Dig a Hole could be a shoo-in. The kids at our Caldecott Club were practically shouting at Sam and Dave to change digging directions as we read the book together via our ELMO document camera and the big screen (great for groups like this, as everyone can really see the illustrations).

Best of all, we're all going to get to see Jon Klassen in person on Sunday, Nov. 23, at 1 p.m. My library, the Takoma Park Maryland Library, serves as an alternate venue for Politics & Prose Bookstore, which allows us to host top name children's authors like Jon Klassen. On Nov. 23, Jon will actually be reading and discussing Sam & Dave Dig a Hole in our library's Children's Room -- we can't wait! If you live near the Washington, D.C. area, please join us for this extra-special event. Politics & Prose Bookstore will be selling Jon's books, but no purchase is required for this free program.

End Notes: Thanks to Dave Burbank, my library colleague who runs the Caldecott Club with me, and does an amazing job both reading our books aloud and managing the ELMO so we can really appreciate the details in the illustrations. And thanks to all the great Caldecott Club members who make it so fun!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Talking With David Ezra Stein

If you ask me what's on my shortlist of favorite recent Caldecott Medal and Honor books, Interrupting Chicken, would be close to the top of the list. Written and illustrated by David Ezra Stein, Interrupting Chicken is a sure-fire crowd pleaser at my library, and I often use it when doing outreach programs at preschools and elementary schools. Adult also get a hoot out of it, which is always a good thing, given that they'll likely be reading it repeatedly for their eager offspring.

Since then, David has created several other picture books, including Because Amelia SmiledDinosaur Kisses, and Ol' Mama Squirrel. Two years ago, I interviewed David during the ALA Annual conference in Anaheim, and greatly enjoyed getting to know this author/artist who really loves creating picture books.

David has just released his newest picture book, I'm My Own Dog, and it's a doozy. Kids will readily identify with the dog's idea of taking control of his own life, and they'll love the energy and humor  in David's expressive watercolor illustrations.

Just look at the cover illustration, showing a dog literally standing two of his own feet and leaning confidently against a fire hydrant. He's in charge, all right, and don't you forget it! Any parent of a stubbornly independent preschooler (and isn't it their job to be stubbornly independent?) will draw some instant parallels -- and laughs -- from that cover pose

In an "author's note" sent to reviewers, David notes that he was inspired to write the book because of a drawing he did some time ago. You can definitely see the seed for the book in this drawing, which is shown at the left. David believes that, because dogs are such an integral part of so many people's lives "they make an excellent metaphor for a story about independence and love.... Like many of my stories, this story seems to deal with the compromises and follies of love and friendship."

I recently was offered the opportunity to participate in a blog tour with David as part of the launch of I'm My Own Dog, and -- in imitation of the hero of the book -- I leapt at the chance. Here's the resulting interview:

What kind of dog is the dog who stars in I'm My Own Dog?

He is sort of a bulldog mixed with a Boston Terrier. I love the shape of a bulldog and the coloring of a Boston, so I blended them together in the laboratory… of my brain!

You say that you first got the idea for the book because of a drawing you once did of a dog walking himself, with the caption that “The true master is master of himself.” Can you tell us how you took that beginning and then created a book from it? (For example, how long ago did you do that drawing, and how hard was it to turn that one idea into a picture book?).

I did the drawing many moons ago, like about 3 or 4 years ago. I stuck it on the bulletin board. I moved apartments. I did other books. I had another kid. Then, bam! One day I was on the road promoting another book, and I began to hear the voice of this dog speak to me. I jotted down what he had to say. I often meet new characters this way. I worked very hard to flesh out the dog’s world, his life and relationships. I finessed the story with my editor and revised it many times, to take out anything that would get in the way of the flow. Then I spent a couple of months drawing dogs and working on the technique for the final art. Finally, I was able to illustrate the story as you can see it in the book.

Do you like dogs? Do you own a dog? What’s your favorite kind of dog? Why?

To this date, I have not had any major dogs in my life. I find that since I wrote I’M MY OWN DOG, I have become closer in my affinity for dogs. They are everywhere, and play such an important role in people’s lives. Their relationship to us is a curious one. They are not quite human but not quite just a pet, either. I like friendly dogs of all sorts. I do think Akitas are a handsome breed. Also, they are described as: Alert, Docile, Friendly, Responsive, Courageous, Dignified. So how can you argue with that?

You’ve dabbled in different types of art media for different books. Why did you choose to do the illustrations for “I’m My Own Dog” in watercolor?

The tone of the book is breezy and matter of fact. The dog is confident and uncompromising. The broad strokes of watercolor I used work nicely with the attitude of the dog.

What are you working on now?

I just finished TAD AND DAD, which will come out summer 2015 from Nancy Paulsen Books. It’s about a little tadpole who jumps into his dad’s lily pad every night to keep Dad company. Dad can’t sleep, and Tad keeps on getting bigger. Finally, Dad cracks. Or is that, croaks. Basically, it’s a saga many of us parents can relate to. It’s dedicated to all the dads out there who are sleeping on the couch because the bed is like Grand Central Station.

END NOTES: Thanks to David Ezra Stein for taking the time to answer my questions, and for writing and illustrating such wonderful books! Thanks also to the folks at Candlewick Press, especially Rachel Johnstone, for providing a review copy of I'm My Own Dog and getting me the images I needed to illustrate this blogpost. Finally, here's the necessary permission that made it all possible: I'M MY OWN DOGCopyright © 2014 by David Ezra Stein. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Another "Wimpy Kid" winner

It's easy to understand why kids love the mega-selling Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, written and illustrated by Jeff Kinney: the books really are hilarious. Sure, many kids also enjoy the "hybrid" format of the series, with an illustration on each page. But it's Kinney's intuitive understanding of middle schoolers, as well as his dead-pan humor and simple but expressive illustrations, that attract young readers by the millions, all over the world.

Jeff Kinney with Wimpy Kid Greg Heffley
 Today marks the release of Kinney's ninth and latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, titled The Long Haul. I'm happy to report that the new book lives up to the comic antics of the previous ones. In fact, Kinney may actually have upped the humor quotient in this book, which details a comically-disastrous family vacation. Any kid who has ever gone on a family road trip will identity with the trials and tribulations of protagonist Greg Heffley, who not only has to spend much of the vacation squashed in the back of the family van amid suitcases, but also ends up sleeping one night in a smelly motel room closet. The next morning, Greg discovers, to his horror, that he was sleeping next to his brother Roderick's stinky shoes.

Things get even worse when Greg yells at a couple of kids making a ruckus in the motel's hot tub and incurs the wrath of their hulking father. Fortunately, Greg is able to race back into his room without the father noticing which room it is. But, as is the way in real life sometimes, the Heffleys and the hulking father's family keep bumping into each other along the road, something that strikes terror into Greg's heart. His parents, of course, don't have a clue, since Greg didn't tell them anything about the situation.

The Heffley family packs for vacation.
 In fact, the well-meaning but clueless parents are a huge part of the humor in the series. For parents who want a comic window into the world of middle schoolers, the Wimpy Kid books are a great place to start. While Kinney vastly exaggerates things for humorous effect and while Greg Heffley is definitely not a person to emulate (note to overly-worried adults: young readers get that Greg isn't a role model!), parents with any sense of humor will get a laugh out of the way Greg and his friends see the adults in their life.

Personally, I plead guilty to being all too much like Greg's Mom, who is depicted as a dedicated reader of Family Frolic  magazine (clearly a take-off on my favorite parenting periodical, Family Fun). It's Mrs. Heffley who initiates the road trip in The Long Haul, inspired by the cover of the latest Family Frolic magazine, with its bold statement that "Adventure Awaits! Take the Ultimate Road Trip!" As Greg says: "If I had to guess, I'd say that 90 percent of everything we do as a family comes from ideas Mom gets from that magazine. And then I saw the latest issue, I knew it was gonna get Mom's wheels turning."

Other "fun" ideas that Mrs. Heffley gets from Family Frolic magazine include eschewing fast-food meals on the road and preparing, ahead of time, special "Mommy Meals" for Greg and his siblings. Instead of the typical "cheap plastic toys," as Mrs. Heffley calls them, the prizes in her "Mommy Meals" are math flash cards. Mrs. Heffley also insists on having everyone listen to Spanish language CDs during the drive, and she's also brought along a bag of family games to play in the car. Of course, things don't exactly work out the way Family Frolic suggests, and as the Heffley family's vacation veers towards disaster, even Mrs. Heffley agrees that it's time to "switch things up a little." I won't give away the ending, but suffice to say that it involves such disparate elements as Greg forgetting about a crucial key, some important Spanish language help from baby brother Manny, and a pet pig.

A less-than-perfect motel room.
Kids may or may not get Kinney's take-off on Family Fun magazine. But they will get a total hoot out of his lampooning of adults' distaste for the hugely-popular Captain Underpants books by Dav Pilkey. In The Long Haul, Greg talks about his love for a series called Underpants Bandits, written by Mik Davies. As Greg describes the series: "The Underpants Bandits books are about these two kids named Bryce and Brody who go back in time and steal underwear from famous people so they can put the underpants in a museum. I know that sounds kind of ridiculous, but the books are actually pretty funny."

While Greg and his friends devour the Underpants Bandits books, parents protest that the books don't belong in the school library, and the entire series is removed from the shelves. Greg and his friends are not pleased: "I hope these adults are happy when a whole generation of boys grow up not knowing how to read." And he adds: "When the school banned the Underpants Bandits books, it just made them more popular than EVER. Some boys snuck in copies from home and passed them to OTHER kids." The illustration just under that statement further highlights the humor, showing boys surreptitiously passing books to each other in bathroom stalls.

Like the Captain Underpants series, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books aren't beloved by adults, mainly because many grown-ups don't believe that a book with an illustration on every page is proper reading for kids. All too many adults subscribe to the idea that, "Once kids learn to read, they don't need pictures anymore." Kids clearly don't agree with that sentiment and that's why there are currently 150 million copies of Diary of a Wimpy Kid books in print worldwide, and why The Long Haul has a 5.5 million-copy first printing -- the biggest of any book for either kids or adults -- this year. We've got 15 copies of the book at our library, and I expect they'll be all checked out 15 minutes after we put them out on display.

End Notes: Big thanks to Jason Wells and Emily Dowdell of Abrams Books for providing the art for this blog post.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Caldecott Prep: Museum Visits & Reading

Hooray -- our full roster is finally in place for the 2016 Caldecott Committee! So now it's really time for me to speed up my background preparation for our year of deliberations, which starts in January. It's been suggested that we take in art exhibits and read in-depth about art of all kinds. Hardly a burdensome assignment!

So I've taken time to get to one major art exhibit, "Degas/Cassatt," at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Now closed, the exhibit was a fascinating, and rather tantalizing, look at the bond between two artists who clearly were kindred in the way they saw the world.

Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878 oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

Edgas Degas' portrait of Mary Cassatt

After enjoying the Degas/Cassatt exhibit, I took the time to wander around and enjoy the art in some of my favorite galleries at the National Gallery, especially paintings by my-all time favorite artist, Paul Cezanne. I'm far from a Cezanne expert, but I'm fascinated by the way that his work is the bridge between impressionism and modern art -- something that Picasso himself acknowledged.

Such a museum visit is something of an encouraged digression by the folks who have served on previous Caldecott committees and who believe it's important to know as much about all kinds of art as possible before digging into the piles of books we'll receive next year. And I can see how this kind of museum visiting can definitely be helpful; just look at one potential 2015 Caldecott Medal book, "The Iridescence of Birds."

That book, written by Newbery Medal winner Patricia McLachlan, illuminates the life of artist Henri Matisse, through the remarkable illustrations of Hadley Hooper. Although I could certainly do Internet research about Matisse, it's definitely a major plus that I can actually see work by Matisse at the National Gallery (which I did during my recent visit).

Open Window, Collioure, 1905, by Henri Matisse (Nat. Gallery of Art DC)

But seeing art is only one part of my Caldecott preparation. I've also been doing LOTS of reading, and I've found two books that are hugely useful. First, there's From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children's Books (HarperCollins), by the eminent K.T. Horning. From Cover to Cover was first published in 1997, and then updated in 2010. The other book, just published a couple of months ago, is Reading the Art in Caldecott Award Books: A Guide to the Illustrations (Rowman & Littlefield), written by Heidi K. Hammond and Gail D. Nordstrom.

Both books offer such an invaluable education on picture books that they should required reading for Caldecott committee members. The books also make a perfect pairing. In From Cover to Cover, Horning devotes a chapter to each major type of children's book (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, etc.).

In the chapter about picture books, she begins with a bit of history about picture books, then proceeds to offer a primer on their visual elements, as well as how the text and illustrations must work together. Horning, the director of the Cooperative Children's Book Center of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, does spotlight some specific picture books as examples, but she mainly concentrates on explaining the picture book form and how it works.

By contrast, Reading the Art in Caldecott Award Books takes the opposite approach. This book, which is obviously solely about picture books, focuses on specific Caldecott Medal and Honor books, using those to offer more general information about how to look at the art in the books. Authors Hammond and Nordstrom, librarians who both served on the 2011 Caldecott committee, do include a valuable glossary in the back in which they define key terms like "negative space" as well as explaining different types of materials and mediums used by artists.

Between these two books, I'm getting quite an in-depth education in how picture books work, as well as how to look at them with the Caldecott criteria in mind. While Horning isn't specifically applying Caldecott criteria as she writes about picture books, her insights are important. Each time I re-read her chapter on picture books, I discover something new. As Horning notes:  "Picture books present a special challenge to the critic because they require evaluation of art, text, and how the two work together to create a unique art form... it is important to remember that nothing ever happens accidentally in a picture book. It is a complex, carefully planned work of art that creates a satisfying interplay between text and pictures to tell a story that a small child can understand."

Meanwhile, I've enjoyed reading chapters at whim in Reading the Art in Caldecott Award Books. Each chapter zeroes in on a specific Caldecott Medal or Honor book. Authors Hammond and Nordstrom begin with an analysis of the illustrations, then follow with a section titled "for further consideration," giving information on how the book came to be, based on published interviews with the illustrator. Each chapter concludes with an "illustrator note," filled with background about the winning artist.

One of my favorite Caldecott Medal winners is The Three Pigs by David Wiesner, and so I decided to start with the chapter in Reading the Art in Caldecott Award Books on that book. Despite the fact that I have read The Three Pigs numerous times, both by myself and with classes of kids, I still found myself learning new things about it. These are the kind of things I need to learn to look at as I start my Caldecott year in January.

For example, Hammond and Nordstrom quote children's book expert Anita Silvey as pointing out that Wiesner designed even the cover and endpapers to "reflect the story," with the brick recpresented by the burgundy spin, the sticks by the gray cover, and the straw "by the ochre endpapers." This is such a good reminder that I need to be looking at, and thinking about, EVERY part of a picture book.

So the Caldecott reading continues! And I'd be remiss if I forgot to mention how much I enjoy -- and learn from -- the Calling Caldecott blog on The Horn Book website. If you love picture books and want to gain insight into some potential Caldecott winners, put this blog on your daily reading list!