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.

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