Monday, December 14, 2009

Complementary Cultural Holidays by Laura Krauss Melmed

As a child growing up in a household where both reading and tolerance were highly valued, I was exposed to a panoply of folk tales, myths, legends, and other traditional tales from around the world. I found wisdom, wonder, adventure, humor and the whole range of human emotions waiting to be mined from these stories. In addition, my extended family on both sides is ethnically, racially and religiously mixed. Growing up in such a milieu fed my fascination with cultural differences while helping me to understand how alike we really all are. Now as a writer, like other writers I draw on what I have lived, learned and am still exploring to create my stories.

In writing my original tale, Moishe’s Miracle, A Hanukkah Story (Chronicle), I called upon my own traditions and background. Set in a long-ago Eastern European landscape glowingly depicted by illustrator David Slonim, it tells of Moishe, a poor but generous milkman. When Moishe finds a magic frying pan that brings potato latkes by the dozens and even hundreds to his hungry neighbors, it causes unexpected problems and some big changes for him, his wife Baila and the whole village of Wishniak. This story was meant to be a rousing holiday read, but also to emphasize the importance of compassion and sharing during the winter holidays as well as in our busy everyday lives.

A more recent holiday title of mine, Hurry! Hurry! Have You Heard? (HarperCollins) had a different inspiration. Tenderly illustrated by Jane Dyer, it tells in verse of how a little bird flies out over the wintry countryside, inviting a variety of small animals to come celebrate a newborn baby. While the text contains no overt religious references, it is based on the Christmas story, with its theme of the hope that a new birth brings to an imperfect world. That is the point of Hurry! Hurry! along with the idea that even the smallest animal, bug or bumblebee holds importance in a grand scheme that we can only try to understand.

Both Hurry! Hurry! and Moishe’s Miracle are meant to describe the faith and optimism we draw upon to mark, with celebration, this darkest time of the year. Our various traditions, in some ways similar, in others gloriously different, serve to light the winter season with candles and song, food and drink, the closeness of family, and the joy of story. May your winter holidays be filled with warmth and cheer!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

What Makes a Good Book (Part 1) by Marilyn Courtot

The following is the first in a six part series written by CLCD President Marilyn Courtot. Aimed at reviewers and writers, we will be running a new part every month.

Basic Construction and Illustrations

When evaluating a book for a child, there are a lot of characteristics to keep in mind. But lest you feel overwhelmed, remember that if you have been reading books, especially children’s books, you have probably developed an innate ability to select the good ones. You just may not realize what influences you and why. This, first in a series of columns, will address the features of a good book.

Let’s look at the basic construction of a book. Consider the quality of the fabrication—will it hold up to repeated handling and reading? Look in particular at the binding and cover construction. If the slip jacket is removed, will the cover still have appeal? Is the paper of good quality, or does it tear easily? Look at the book’s size and shape. If the book is for toddlers then keep it small for little hands. Oversized books are usually not appropriate for those under nine—they are just too big and too heavy.

Next, look at the illustrations. Are they clearly reproduced? Are the color registration and clarity acceptable? Although black-and-white helps babies clearly distinguish objects, color is very important for older kids. Colors do not need to be vibrant or garish to appeal to children; studies have shown that pastels are soothing and can encourage learning.

Also, are the illustrations appropriate to the story or text? Do they enhance and exemplify the text, or do they head off in an entirely new direction. Author/illustrator Chris Manson commented that “the children’s book market is really the best place in the publishing industry for full color art. Sometimes it blows away the story.” He believes that illustrations need to be in balance with the story. Illustrations should make the story bigger, but not different.

Marilyn Courtot
Publisher and Editor

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Connected! An Author Reflects on Her First "Virtual Visit" over Skype

"Well," I thought, the day before my first virtual author visit over Skype, "at least I won't get lost."

Not that I've ever been late for one of my regular author visits (though I did once park at the wrong school and discover my mistake when I noticed that all of the students were boys). But I've done plenty of worrying about being late—and about traffic and lunch and whether I'd get home before the babysitter needed to leave. There were always so many logistical concerns beyond the actual substance of preparing for the visit.

But this visit would be different. Using free Skype technology over the Internet, I would sit at home and talk with a group of kids at the Plattekill Public Library, 289 miles away in Plattekill, New York. I'd see and hear them over my computer, they'd see and hear me. We'd talk about Ethan, Suspended, which they'd read as part of their summer reading program, and about the process of writing, just as with other visits. I'd show them drafts, page proofs, and other materials I use in a traditional visit, by holding them up to my computer's camera. And we could address each other, answer questions, and form the kind of connection that brings books alive for kids and makes authors remember why we started writing kids' books in the first place.

Because the kids had read my book for an out-of-school, non-graded program, I wasn't sure how deeply they would have thought about the book, how many questions they'd have, or even how many participants we'd have. But I didn't need to worry: I was thoroughly impressed with the level (and number!) of their questions, and the small turnout actually worked to our advantage, as we created an intimate, book club-like exchange despite being almost 300 miles apart.

The only technical challenge I faced was remembering to direct my "eye contact" toward the camera—in my case, at the top of my monitor—rather than toward the images of the kids that I saw in the middle of my screen. My computer turned out to have a camera and microphone built in, as I discovered in preparation for the visit. On the library's end, I believe at least one of these components was hooked up externally by an IT person, using equipment the library already had.

More challenging than the technology has been the task of persuading schools and other libraries to give virtual visits a try. Maybe they're wondering whether the technology will be "hard"—but hopefully this concern may be waning, as a recent School Library Journal article( suggests that school librarians now "lead the social networking pack among educators." Maybe others wonder about the degree of engagement that's possible over the Internet—but for a generation that's used to socializing, studying, and connecting with people and information over the Internet, I think kids might actually open up more to an author they're meeting online, avoiding the shyness that can accompany meeting an adult in person. At the very least, I can attest that a high level of engagement is possible in a virtual visit.

And it's almost guaranteed that no one will get lost.

Pamela Ehrenberg is the author of Ethan, Suspended (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2007) and Tillmon County Fire (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2009). In addition to her Children's Literature profile, more information on her visits, virtual and otherwise, can be found at and She would enjoy hearing from other authors as well as schools and libraries about how others have experienced virtual author visits; she can be reached at And she is happy to offer a 10 percent discount on virtual visits booked for the current school year through Children's Literature—making virtual visits even more recession-friendly.