Wednesday, November 25, 2009

BEFORE "MOON" by Mary Quattlebaum

Harold and the Purple Crayon scared the bejeezus out of me as a kid.

Let me quickly add that this seems not the usual reaction of children and certainly not of adult critics, who heap laudatory adjectives--“imaginative,” “original,” “ingenious”--upon the trim classic by Crockett Johnson.

But even as the book unnerved me, it drew me in. That was its delicious power. As a child, I’d carefully study the pages and think about Harold. Setting out for a nocturnal stroll, he seemed overly bold for a tyke in footie pajamas. And that purple crayon! It might bring adventure but could it stave off danger? I was skeptical. After all, Harold, feeling hungry, had drawn nine pies. But any four year old worth her P&J knew you couldn’t eat pictures of pies. Sure, the tot had managed to draw a ship when he was drowning and a hot-air balloon when he was falling but what if, in the future, he didn’t draw fast enough or drew the wrong thing?

And the closing pages—ai-yi-yi. Harold is tired but can’t find his bed or the moon and so decides to draw them. Draw them! Well, what would happen, I remember worrying, when he wakes up? He’d still have to find the real ones. And I could barely formulate the next thought: What about his mom? How could Harold draw her? (I’d seen his child-like depiction of the friendly policeman and didn’t put much stock in his ability to render the human form, especially one as important as “mother.”) That poor boy didn’t seem to realize how truly lost he was. Faced with the ending, sometimes I had to shut my eyes. The thought of Harold, smiling and tucked forever in his made-up world made me dizzy.

Even at the remove of many years, Harold and the Purple Crayon exerts a pull. It seems a perfect fable about the potential and pitfalls of the creative process.

Of course, my childhood memory of poring over the book is recounted in the reasoned language of adulthood. It is a language that has learned to temper, qualify and shape experience when, in actuality, a young child’s experience is raw, untutored and unlettered. I don’t remember a time before language, do you? I don’t remember when the circle-in-sky first became “moon” or the small-smelly-good became “flower” or more specifically “daffodil” or “lilac.” It must have been an amazing time.

For me, writing for kids has been about trying to creep ever closer to that time. That time when words were new and potent, ripe with sound and rich with texture. That time before coping mechanisms and caveats, that time when disappointment could crush and joy literally leap. Many children’s authors become so after a long time spent writing for adults—and it’s writing we still do: book reviews, articles, memos, reports, stories and poems. We’ve learned a facility with language, grammar, syntax and form.

But writing for children requires more than that type of facility. Picasso famously said that it took him “a lifetime to paint like a child.” Unlearning the tricks of language can be difficult. Can one’s unadorned sentence convey the explosiveness of a child’s emotions (as Maurice Sendak does so brilliantly in Where the Wild Things Are)? Will one’s rhythmic chant adequately smooth and soothe the way into sleep (as does Margaret Wise Brown’s Good Night, Moon)?

That’s why I’m still learning. Writing for children seems endlessly fascinating and challenging—and humbling. With playful thought, hard work and careful revision, might our writing someday connect with a child? Might it entertain, unnerve, reassure? Like Harold, we might begin by putting crayon to paper, pen to notebook, finger to keyboard. We might start by creating that first important “moon.”

Mary Quattlebaum is the author of seventeen picture books, novels and books of poetry, including the forthcoming Pirate vs. Pirate (Hyperion) and The Hungry Ghost of Rue Orleans (Random House). She regularly reviews children’s books for the Washington Post and Washington Parent presents frequently at schools, and teaches at the Writer’s Center.

This essay first appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of The Carousel, published by The Writer’s Center, Bethesda, Md.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Take to the Skies

If you’ve read this month’s newsletter or been following CLCD on Twitter (@CLCDreviews) you will know that November is Aviation History Month. John Abbott Nez, a member of our Author and Illustrator Booking Service, has a new picture book about a young boy’s dream to build his own flying airship.

John is an illustrator and author of over fifty books of every sort for children. His newest book, published in May by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, is titled Cromwell Dixon's Sky-Cycle. It tells the amazing true story of America's forgotten 'Boy Aeronaut', who actually built and flew his own flying bicycle over the skyscrapers of Columbus, Ohio in 1907.

“1907 was an amazing age. It was a period when an obsession with flying swept the nation. For the first time in history people were flying and even building flying machines in their own backyards,” says John.

A story of adventure, determination, courage and perseverance it is also filled with amazing home-made inventions in Cromwell Dixon's workshop. John hopes his book “might encourage today's children to get out from behind their computers and go build something out in their backyards.” To see images and a book trailer visit

The CLCD feature with suggested book titles and reviews on Aviation History Month:

The Smithsonian Air & Space Museum has several teaching guides on flight available:
Airmail to Airlines:
How Things Fly:
Milestones of Flight:

USA Today article on the “10 great places to let your imagination fly”:

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


My first Thanksgiving as an elementary school librarian in a Title 1 school in Northern Virginia, I came home discouraged. After reading what I thought were the best books on Thanksgiving, depicting happy families eating turkey and stuffing, my students seemed either bored or puzzled. In class after class, no one was interested in my turkey songs. No one could play my call-and-response games about the traditional Thanksgiving menu. Finally, one student politely explained, “We don’t do that at my house.”

My students came from over sixty different countries. Many of them did not speak English at home. But Thanksgiving is a holiday for Americans of all faiths and births. After all, it celebrates the landing of the pilgrims on Plymouth Rock. In many ways, my students were pilgrims—people who came to America for religious freedom or to find a better life. Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate the diversity in America. I felt bad that my students seemed to feel so uncomfortable with Thanksgiving. Did they really not observe the holiday at all?

So when we came back after the holiday, I asked them what they did. At first, they were hesitant to tell me. I asked more questions. Did you have a meal with your families? “Oh yes,” they told me. “But we didn’t have turkey.”

That’s when it dawned on me! It’s not that my students were ignoring Thanksgiving. They just were celebrating it with holiday foods from their birth countries. It reminded me of my own childhood. My father was an immigrant from Switzerland. Turkey and pumpkin were American foods he had never experienced before. Growing up, I often didn’t eat traditional American foods on Thanksgiving day, either! My father preferred duck on Thanksgiving. He thought turkey often tasted too dry. This memory inspired me to write my picture book Duck for Turkey Day, released by Albert Whitman & Co in September 2009.

In Duck for Turkey Day, a little girl named Tuyet is concerned because her family seems to be breaking the “rules” for Thanksgiving. Her Vietnamese-American grandmother explains, “Our family likes duck better.” The book validates the idea of gathering on Thanksgiving Day with ethnic holiday fare, rather than American foods that may not be appealing to immigrant families. And as Tuyet’s teacher says in Duck for Turkey Day, “It doesn’t matter what you eat on Thanksgiving, as long as you have a good time with family and friends.”

Please visit YouTube to see a book trailer for Duck for Turkey Day

Jacqueline Jules

Sunday, November 1, 2009


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