Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Science Fun With Maris Wicks

Anyone who thinks science is boring has never met Maris Wicks. A self-described "gigantic nerd," Maris combines science and comics in a way that makes things like marine science just irresistible reading, even for those who think they aren't interested in science. Maris also is a fabulous presenter, which is not surprising given her years putting on programs for kids as an educator with the New England Aquarium.

Maris recently visited my library during a book tour for her newest science comic, Coral Reefs: Cities of the Ocean. In the book, Maris uses a gobie fish narrator to engagingly teach readers things like that fact that a coral actually is an animal, not a plant. The bright colors, clean lines, and cartoon style of Maris' illustrations, plus the text's ever-present humor, make it incredibly fun to learn all the information she presents. Maris herself is full of energetic high spirits, as she demonstrated as she taught us a dance about the water cycle. Her enthusiasm for science is both inspiring and contagious.

In our library program, Maris also talked her first two books, Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas, and Human Body Theater. In giving us a glimpse into the basic biology highlighted in Human Body Theater, Maris taught us another dance and song, which had these words: "Eating up the Co2222222, and farting out the oxy...gen....." Of course, the kids loved it.

Maris then did a bit of live drawing, asking kids for some of their favorite denizens of the deep and then drawing them on the spot. Things got wild as she drew a narwhal -- which has at least one and sometimes two horns that are actually teeth-- coming face-to-face with a unicorn.

The kids got so excited by it all that they also wanted to do some drawing, and we quickly supplied them with pencils and paper.

The program concluded with Maris not just signing books but drawing a personalized illustration in each one. This took time, but kids were more than willing to wait, and in fact, they really loved watching her draw.

Creating science comics and making presentations about them seems to be a perfect mix for Maris, who majored in illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design before embarking on her career as a science educator. Over the years that she worked in education, Maris continued to draw and create comics, both for the Aquarium, and for places like Spongebob Comics, Marvel Comics, and DC Comics. Her work caught the eye of the folks at First Second Books, the renowned graphic novel imprint of Macmillan, who chose her to illustrate Primates, which was written by Jim Ottaviani. That launched her career in a big way, as Ottaviani is well-known for his graphic novels on science and scientists. These days, Maris focuses full-time on creating science comics -- and giving wonderfully fun and inspiring presentations.

Maris drew Jane Goodall riding a whale shark for Alison Morris.

END NOTES: Thanks to Maris Wicks for opening my eyes to how fun science can be! Thanks to publicist extraordinaire Gina Gagliano of First Second Books/Macmillan, for working out all the program details and sending a review copy of Coral Reefs. Thanks also to Politics & Prose for booking Maris at my library. Thanks to Maurice Belanger for taking such great photos, and to Alison Morris for her great tweets about the event.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Blackall & Marciano Stir Up a Great "Witches" Brew

It's a truth universally acknowledged that having a Caldecott Medalist visit your library is a dream come true for a children's librarian. So I was expecting to be thrilled when 2016 Caldecott Medalist Sophie Blackall recently came to do a program at my library; it was particularly thrilling because I was a member of the 2016 Caldecott Committee that awarded Sophie the medal for her illustrations in Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear.

But I admit that I was unprepared for the delights of the program that Sophie and author John Bemelmans Marciano recently presented to the appreciative audience of kids and adults gathered in my library's Children's Room. You see, the reason that Sophie has been visiting lots of libraries and schools is because she is on a book tour with John (or "Johnny," as Sophie affectionately calls him) for a new chapter book series, The Witches of Benevento. John wrote the books, while Sophie created the illustrations that grace nearly every page. The beautifully designed books are a smaller-than-usual size than most hardcover kids' fiction, but are, as John noted, just the right size to fit comfortably in a child's hand.

The series, aimed at ages 7-10, focuses on five cousins and the way they outwit the many witches who live in their hometown of Benevento, Italy.  Sophie and John have been working on the books for several years, and clearly are having loads of fun creating them. School Library Journal noted of the first book, Mischief Season: "Magical spells and amusing characters with distinctive personalities, coupled with an engaging story with a twist, will captivate readers and leave them clamoring for future stories...."

Sophie and John demonstrate how the books literally fit together.

Not only are the books (the second book, The All-Powerful Ring, was co-published with Mischief Season) captivating, but Sophie and John also have developed a presentation that is fast-paced and funny. It certainly was a hit with our audience, who loved learning all about the different kinds of witches that supposedly hang out in droves in Benevento. My husband, who attended the program, said he wondered at first whether kids would be confused by all the details about the different witches and ways to ward them off. But the kids aced the witches quiz at the program's conclusion, proving once again that we adults too often underestimate kids.

It was marvelous to see the way that Sophie and John would so easily toss the program reins, so to speak, back and forth to each other, as well as their easy camaraderie. That's not surprising given that they share a studio in Brooklyn, along with three other children's book authors and illustrators: 2014 Caldecott Medalist Brian Floca, Sergio Ruzzier, and Eddie Hemingway. (Interestingly, two of the five studio mates have famous grandfathers: John's grandfather was Ludwig Bemelmans, who created the Madeline books, while Eddie is the youngest grandson of Ernest Hemingway).

A young artist adds a bit more to the drawing, at Sophie's request.

Our program concluded with Sophie gamely drawing ideas shouted out by audience members as to what a Janara, a type of witch found in Benevento, might look like. No one has ever seen a Janara -- that's part of their magic -- so the sky was the limit when it came to kids' suggestions. But Sophie was more than capable of keeping up with them! The resulting illustration was both charming and comic.

Overall, it was a memorable evening, both a rare chance to host the "reigning" Caldecott Medalist ,as well as an opportunity to see two talented children's book creators work together to create some literary magic for a roomful of kids and adults.

Sophie, me & Finding Winnie!

Sophie, John, Me & Library Assistant Dave Burbank

END NOTES: Thanks to Sophie Blackall and John Bemelmans Mariano for stirring up such a wonderful "witches" brew of a program. Thanks also to Politics & Prose and Penguin Kids for making the program possible. And thanks to photographers Maurice Belanger and Bruce Guthrie for capturing the fun.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Mac and Matt Rule the House

Mac and Matt recently visited my library and, to no one's surprise, they ruled the house.

Mac, of course, is the inimitable Mac Barnett, superstar picture book author of such Caldecott Honor-winning gems as Sam & Dave Dig a Hole and Extra Yarn. Matt is Matt Myers, illustrator of such books as the What James Said, one of the favorites of my library's mock Caldecott programs last year.

Author Mac Barnett and illustrator Matt Myers (Photo credits: Bruce Guthrie)
A few years ago, Mac and Matt worked together -- along with the great Jon Scieszka - on a wonderful, quirky book called Battle Bunny. If you've never seen it, go check it out. It is a brilliant send-up of the kind of sentimental picture books often beloved by well-meaning adults and loathed by young readers.

Now, the two of them have teamed up again on Rules of the House, the kind of subversive book that kids love. And, as part of my library's partnership with Politics & Prose bookstore, both Mac and Matt recently came to read and discuss Rules of the House to an enthusiastic crowd of kids and adults.

Mac Barnett
In Barnett's text, chronic rule-breaker Jenny scoffs at her younger brother Ian, who believes that rules are made to be followed. When Jenny and Ian's family heads to a cabin in the woods for a get-away, Jenny naturally opens the cabin's red door after reading it should never be opened. The consequences? A bearskin rug, oven and bathtub that want to eat her. Ian at first is inclined to let Jenny just suffer the consequences of her rule-breaking, but then decides that he will come to her rescue -- breaking a few rules himself. Myers's oil-painted illustrations wonderfully exaggerate the emotions in Barnett's text -- both the tension between Jenny and Ian, and the scariness of the creatures who want to devour Jenny. And Myers's depiction of the cabin -- both its natural darkness and its isolation-- is spot on.

Matt Myers
In its review, Publishers Weekly noted that, in Rules of the House, "Barnett focuses his inimitable blend of energy and fiendish imagination on children's fascination with the rules." PW added: "Myers's acrylics revel in horror-movie parody, like the hellish light emitted by the red door and the bearskin rug stalking the siblings in their bunk beds." Overall, said the PW reviewer, in Rules of the House, there's "no solemn moralizing, just a rib-tickling, slightly subversion readaloud."

Matt and Mac with a young fan.

At our event, Mac read the book, then Matt talked about how the illustrations had changed over time. Then it was time for questions. A young boy raised his hand. "Yes?" Mac asked. "What's your question?" "I loved your book!" the little boy said, echoing the opinion of the audience.

Book signing time.

Mac and Matt signed books after that, but then had to dash for a train to Philadelphia. No worries -- it was clear that everyone had a good time while Mac and Matt ruled the house. In fact, a Rule of the House should be: Make sure to ask Mac and Matt to present at your library -- it's a guaranteed good time for all ages.

Mac with 2016 debut picture book author Minh Le, his wife Aimee & their boys.

End Notes: Thanks to Mary Ann Zissimos of Disney for sending Mac and Matt on tour A huge, heartfelt thanks to Kerri Poor of Politics & Prose for doing such a wonderful time as the kids/teen author events coordinator there. This was Kerri's last event before she moves on to a new job-- I will miss her! Thanks to Bruce Guthrie for his fabulous photos, and the permission to use them. And a huge thanks to Mac and Matt -- you're welcome back anytime to the Takoma Park Maryland Library.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Talking About Wordless Picture Books

It may have been a panel about wordless picture books, but the participants -- including three-time Caldecott Medalist David Wiesner and Caldecott Honor illustrator Marla Frazee -- had plenty to say about the topic.

The venue was the annual picture book panel organized by Mary Alice Garber, the chief children's book buyer at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.  This year's topic was "No Words Needed: The Value and Many Uses of Wordless Picture Books," and the panelists, in addition to Wiesner and Frazee, included Henry Cole, Raul Colon, and Stephen Savage. The moderator was Allyn Johnston, publisher of Beach Lane Books, a Simon & Schuster imprint.

L-R: David Wiesner, Henry Cole, Marla Frazee, Raul Colon & Stephen Savage. (Photos by Bruce Guthrie)

Johnston started things off with a friendly, yet pointed broadside, candidly noting that "I'm intimidated by wordless picture books. And maybe I don't even like them -- they make me work too hard to figure out what's going on."

Beach Lane publisher Allyn Johnston
This drew a laugh from the audience, but Johnston's comments were ones that many librarians frequently hear from parents and teachers who wonder about the value of wordless picture books. After all, aren't words much more important than pictures? And why do kids need pictures after they learn to read?

 "For me, the pictures -- I read them like I read words," responded Wiesner, who has won two Caldecott Medals with wordless (or mostly wordless) books, Tuesday and Flotsam. (His third Caldecott Medal was for The Three Pigs). "I have the same reaction to reading words that you have to reading pictures," he told Johnston.

David Wiesner

Frazee, who eschewed words in her brilliant picture book The Farmer and the Clown, added that "it's such an honor to draw pictures for children because they are such expert readers of pictures. Whether it's a wordless picture book or not, children are going to look at the pictures in a way that surpasses what grown-ups can do."

Marla Frazee

Any librarian can tell you that's true, particularly since pre-readers are especially attuned at looking at the pictures as their parent, teacher or other grown-up reads the words to them. And being able to "read" pictures -- being "visually literate" -- actually is now a hugely important skill in today's screen-filled world where it is demonstrated daily that "a picture is worth 1,000 words."

Librarians also can tell you that kids have rebelled, in a big way, against adult efforts to take away the pictures once kids learn to read. Just look at the astounding popularity of author/illustrator Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid books and other "hybrid" books, which feature an illustration on each page along with text. Or how about the skyrocketing popularity of graphic novels for kids? While both hybrid books and many graphic novels have both words and pictures, the illustrations are definitely as important as the text in these books, and that's clearly how young readers like it.

Yet most adults still don't seem to place much emphasis on pictures. The result? "I find it astonishing and disturbing that visual literacy just dissipates as kids grow up," Wiesner lamented. "When kids learn to read, they lose the ability to look at pictures," Frazee agreed.

Raul Colon
So how does an author/illustrator know when it's best to leave out the words? Sometimes, it's the editor who makes the suggestion, as Colon noted about his one wordless picture book, Draw!. "In my case, I had words in the book, and my editor took them out.... After we decided on that, I had to be sure that the pictures told more than one story." So Colon put in lots of details that aren't immediately apparent. "If you look at the pictures and go through the book really fast, you'll see the story, but you won't see all of the other things," he said.

Henry Cole
Cole, a former teacher, says he believes that wordless books are a great way to spark kids' own storytelling skills. For example, in Unspoken, his wordless book about the Underground Railroad, "kids can actually imagine for themselves what words could be there." And in his newest book, the wordless Spot, the Cat, readers can follow the main story as they look for the cat and his owner, and then go back and find all kinds of other stories by carefully looking at -- reading! -- the many details that Cole has included in his book.

Stephen Savage
Savage, meanwhile, noted that when he published Where's Walrus?, "I wasn't thinking of it being a teaching tool at all. What I liked about the fact that it was wordless was that it broke down the wall. Wordless picture books throw it back at the audience," and make it a more interactive experience. Savage said that he also loves the way that wordless books work with both kids and adults. "When I read my books.... I feel that a variety of ages can laugh at the same joke."

Still, it remains a challenge to convince many adults about the value of wordless picture books, the panelists agreed. Wiesner noted that he's been in bookstores where adults will page through one of his wordless books, remark on the lack of text, and move on to a more word-heavy book. Even worse, some adults will bring their own odd interpretations to wordless books, as was the case with The Farmer and Clown, where some adults felt the book showed the elderly farmer potentially abusing the young clown.

Johnston, who edited the book, clearly is still rankled by such "stranger danger" interpretations, which she called "ridiculous." Frazee agreed that these were "offensive" ideas, adding: "I thought a lot about the differences that adults bring to picture books. And I think that adults read into pictures while kids read pictures."

Then Frazee offered a lovely example of the power of wordless picture books, noting that she had received an email from a grandmother who had read The Farmer and the Clown with her three-year-old granddaughter, who had suffered the loss of several family members. In seeing how the farmer and the clown give each other their distinctive hats at the end, the little girl said: "Now they will remember each other forever." In her email to Frazee, the grandmother noted that The Farmer and the Clown "gave us an opportunity to talk about what it means to lose people and how we can remember them."

End Notes: Thanks to Mary Alice Garber and other Politics & Prose staff for putting together yet another thought-provoking panel on picture books. And thanks to Bruce Guthrie for taking such great photos.