Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2011 SB&F Prize Winners

CLCD President Marilyn Courtot once again served on the SB&F Prize committee. The following winners were recently announced.

Children's Science Picture Book
Magic School Bus and the Climate Challenge
Oh, that all students could have an imaginative science teacher like Ms. Frizzle! The Friz loads her students into a magical bus-plane which takes them on a tour of the world. They see first-hand the causes and results of global warming. Student notebook pages are interspersed throughout the text to show their understanding of these concepts. Whimsical illustrations throughout the book show the elements of global warming and the students’ reaction to these events on this tour. Questions and answers in the back of the book address what children have read. The text is age appropriate and the humor combined with scientific facts make reading this book fun and informative. Young readers and their parents will learn how to make actionable changes that will make a difference in global warming. Although this is a stand-alone topic, it is part of the “Magic School Bus” series. 2010, Scholastic Press, $16.99. Ages 7 to 10. Reviewer: Annie Laura Smith (Children's Literature).

Middle Grades Science Book
The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe
In 2006, a commercial beekeeper lost all the bees in 400 hundred of his hives for a total of 20 million bees. To unravel the mystery, four respected scientists began an investigation to seek the cause of the bees’ disappearance. What follows for readers is the unraveling of a mystery to match any fictional whodunit. One by one, leads are followed and discarded, but despite many theories, this mystery has yet to be solved. The book also includes the work of amateur beekeeper Mary Duane and follows her to her hives to watch her care for her bees and learn the fascinating process of extracting honey from the hive, which the author calls “liquid gold.” Along the way, readers pick up information on the social structure of the hive, physical description and division of labor of its inhabitants, and the vital role of bees in the agricultural world. Faux notebook-style pages introduce each scientist as well as provide some hive and bee information. The accompany photos, in addition to being well composed, are dramatic and colorful. An extended appendix and comprehensive glossary and index round out this highly readable and worthy science book. 2010, Houghton, $18.00. Ages 10 to 14. Reviewer: Beverley Fahey (Children's Literature).

Young Adult Science Book
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Science journalist Skloot makes a remarkable debut with this multilayered story about “faith, science, journalism, and grace.” It is also a tale of medical wonders and medical arrogance, racism, poverty and the bond that grows, sometimes painfully, between two very different women—Skloot and Deborah Lacks—sharing an obsession to learn about Deborah’s mother, Henrietta, and her magical, immortal cells. Henrietta Lacks was a 31-year-old black mother of five in Baltimore when she died of cervical cancer in 1951. Without her knowledge, doctors treating her at Johns Hopkins took tissue samples from her cervix for research. They spawned the first viable, indeed miraculously productive, cell line—known as HeLa. These cells have aided in medical discoveries from the polio vaccine to AIDS treatments. What Skloot so poignantly portrays is the devastating impact Henrietta’s death and the eventual importance of her cells had on her husband and children. Skloot’s portraits of Deborah, her father and brothers are so vibrant and immediate they recall Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family. Writing in plain, clear prose, Skloot avoids melodrama and makes no judgments. Letting people and events speak for themselves, Skloot tells a rich, resonant tale of modern science, the wonders it can perform and how easily it can exploit society’s most vulnerable people. Review from Publishers Weekly

Hands-On Science Book
The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science
Connolly starts at the beginning of human experimentation in the Stone Age and discusses the great discovery of weapons. Moving forward in history, the book explores the discovery of fire, the creation of arrows, and the wheel. Spending a chapter on each momentous change for Earth, we march past many scenes in history including the discovery that the earth is not flat; the invention of gunpowder, and nuclear explosions. The breadth of this book is amazing. Through it all, Connolly maintains a casual tone of a tour guide who assumes the reader is up to the (sometimes) complex topic. The projects, which are manageable for fairly young readers, include folding a paper helicopter, boiling water in a paper cup, and creating a chain reaction using marbles or toy cars. Each chapter is made up of a description of a particularly discovery or earth-changing experiment, an explanation of the scientific principles involved, and a short project. While the projects will be fun, they will not stand on their own as science fair projects; readers would need to come up with further questions to answer in their experiments. 2010, Workman Publishing, $13.95. Ages 9 up. Reviewer: Amy S. Hansen (Children's Literature).

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Secrets of Stonehenge & Searching with CLCD

Last month PBS aired a new feature, Secrets of Stonehenge, about new archeological finds around Stonehenge. You can watch the full program online at

This educational program is a great example to show how teachers, librarians, parents, and caregivers can incorporate The Children's Literature Comprehensive Database (CLCD) with other media to present truly comprehensive information to children and young adults.

By using simple search parameters, you can find a great list of appropriate books to tie-in to the Secrets of Stonehenge TV program. I searched for "stonehenge" and changed the pubdate to "2008" on. That's it. Other suggestions for more specific searches would be to select nonfiction and change the age ranges or grade levels under "additional search qualifiers," and also to select subject headings under "search specific fields." For more on search procedures go to

From 2 million MARC records this search narrowed down the results to 24 titles. By reading the different reviews you can determine what books fit your needs best. Because CLCD has full-text searching, a simple search on Stonehenge can lead you to books that include Stonehenge but focus on a different topic. This is one of my favorite parts of using CLCD -- that it can lead you in directions that you might not have originally thought of.
Here are a few selected reviews from that search:

Astronomy and Culture
Edith W. Hetherington and Norriss S. Hetherington
It’s the twentieth anniversary of the Hubble telescope launching--what better time to look at astronomy books? The Greenwood Guides to the Universe seven-volume series includes The Sun, The Inner Planets, Stars and Galaxies, Asteroids, Comets, Dwarf Planets, and The Outer Planets. The writing is accessible to most high school students, and the content is interesting for the browser but includes enough depth and breadth for more serious researchers. The information is as current as possible. In addition to the standard volumes on the components of the universe, the series contains two unique volumes: Cosmology and the Evolution of the Universe and Astronomy and Culture. Astronomy and Culture examines the history of astronomy from Stonehenge to recent discoveries. There are unique and interesting chapters on mythology and astronomy, calendars, extraterrestrial life and science fiction, and astronomy and religion. This set will be used for reports and for those interested in astronomy. It is a great choice for updating your collection in this changing scientific area. (Greenwood Guides to the Universe) VOYA CODES: 5Q 2P S (Hard to imagine it being any better written; For the YA with a special interest in the subject; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2009, Greenwood, 231p.; Glossary. Index. Illustrations. Photos. Charts. Biblio. Further Reading., $65. Ages 15 to 18. Reviewer: Susan Allen (VOYA, August 2010 (Vol. 33, No. 3)).

If Stones Could Speak: Unlocking the Secrets of Stonehenge
Marc Aronson
Working with chief archaeologist of the Riverside Project, Mike Parker Pearson, the author discusses the often-serendipitous nature of scientific discovery. This book does not deal with questions about how Stonehenge was built, but rather with understanding why it was built. The conventional wisdom--that it served as a temple--was turned on its head when an archaeologist from Madagascar was brought in to look at the site, and he suggested that it was a place to honor and assist the transit of the dead. Having studied a similar culture on Madagascar where the people built magnificent edifices of stone for the dead while living in humble wooden structures, Ramilisonina caused archaeologists to look at Stonehenge--and its surroundings--in a totally new way, leading to monumental discoveries of adjacent sites that fit with this new theory. The science of archaeology has advanced greatly in the last couple of decades and some of the earlier data that had been puzzling those studying Stonehenge turned out to be miscalculations by earlier scientists. Wonderful photographs of people as well as places, and abundant supplementary information in the form of chronologies, brief biographies of relevant archaeologists, and suggestions for further reading and research are plusses here. But perhaps the book’s most unique contribution are these ideas: science often advances by stops and starts; new knowledge is often as much the result of imagination and inspiration as hard detailed fact gathering; and there is always something new to learn. 2010, National Geographic Society, $17.95. Ages 7 to 14. Reviewer: Paula McMillen, Ph.D. (Children's Literature).

Kate Riggs
This brief book about Stonehenge gives information about the famous circle of enormous stones located on England’s Salisbury Plain. Color photographs illustrate the area, the stones and their layout pictured at different times of day, visitors to the site, and contemporary Druid worshippers. The text points out that since the installation was completed around 3,500 years ago, the stones do not look exactly as they originally did. All have been worn down by centuries of weather, some have fallen over, and some have been taken away for use in other structures. The eighty bluestones that originally made up the inner circle were brought from the Welsh mountains, and the much larger sarcen rocks were arranged around them later. The reasons for building Stonehenge remain a mystery, though many people believe it was a place of worship. A very popular landmark, Stonehenge attracts nearly a million visitors every year. The text is followed by a four-word glossary, two suggestions for further reading, and a brief index. The book is part of the “Places of Old” series. 2009, Creative Education/The Creative Company, $24.25. Ages 6 to 9. Reviewer: Judy DaPolito (Children's Literature).
Emily Griffin

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Interview with Jim Gownley

Children's Literature reviewer Kathie Josephs interviewed Jimmy Gownley, author of the popular Amelia Rules! series. Below are excerpts from that interview. For the full feature visit

Kathie Josephs: When I was growing up I lived at the library. Did you go there much?
Jimmy Gownley: No, we didn't have one and we didn't have a bookstore either. There was a library in Ashlyn and that's about 3 ½ miles from Girardville. You couldn't even ride a bike to it because it was too dangerous a route. So I never went to the library. Sometime I could go to a bookstore that was even further away, but that was in the mall. In Girardville there was a very small convenience store. When I was really little, there were some candy stores and a newsstand, but essentially when I was growing up we had only the one store and that is where I bought all the comic books, but my parents were always hugely interested in getting me to read and to read early. When I was only 3 years old, my Mom was teaching me to read. And one of the first things she read to me was Charles Schultz's, "Peanuts." My whole life I remember those things. Another way she would teach me to read was by making flash cards. It was hilarious because that was in the 1970's which I know sounds like a million years ago. She could have gone to the store to purchase them, but she made her own for some reason. She can't draw, but she made little stick figures and stuff like that. One day when I couldn't have even been four, because I know we were still living in the apartment that we moved out of when I was four, I started taping the flash cards to the door of the apartment. I was making a story out of it. Boy got in his car – drove to his house. You know, I was just a little kid and I made my first comic strip by using my Mom's flash cards. What's nice about that is whenever people ask me, "How did you ever become a cartoonist," I can say, "I blame my Mother."

KJ: There you go, a perfect answer.
JG: Our school had a library and I could take books out. I remember that I was obsessed with one called Harriet the Spy.

KJ: That is a great book! You know kids still read Harriet.
JG: Yeah! Yeah! They have made a few attempts at sequels but they are sort of sad. The original Harriet the Spy was absolutely mind blowing; I just took it out again and again. For all I knew, this was a lost, forgotten book, because I had never heard anyone mention it... ever. I couldn't find a copy to buy, so I took my notebook and I was trying to copy it so I could have a copy to read. Of course I gave that up after the first charter. There was a Scholastic Book Fair at my school and that was where I was able to buy my own copy. You know, I still have that copy today.

KJ: My next question you have already answered, because I was going to ask when you realized you wanted to be a writer. I am going to assume it was when you put the flashcards on the door.
JG: It wasn't just writing; it was being a cartoonist. That was what I wanted to be from as early as Kindergarten. There was a brief time when I thought I wanted to be Jedi Knight, but it turned out when I would stare at items across the room and try to will to come into my hand nothing happened. I went back to cartooning. In fifth grade I had a teacher named Miss Klinger, and she was the first person that said that I had writing ability. I remember very clearly. She was a very good teacher. We would read stories from our readers and there were a couple of instances when we were assigned to write sequels. And I wrote one for a story called The House of Dies Drear, but I can't remember what it was about now. It was some kind of ghost story, and when I wrote my sequel, I can remember my teacher saying, "You could be a writer someday." And she actually gave me some extra assignments to foster that talent. It was fun, and kind of weird because it was fun, but didn't count toward my grade. I was thrilled that somebody thought that I could possibly write stories.

KJ: How did you decide to have Amelia face real things in her life? Your books give good messages to young people.
JG: I think it goes back to that conversation I had with my friend Tony back in high school. My initial intention when I started writing "Amelia"...the first thing I did was write a really, really short story called "Freeze Tag". It's in the first chapter of The Whole World's Crazy. It was to be unbelievably light-hearted and nothing serious, but it just didn't feel like that was my voice and what I was best at doing. I had written a number of stories and it was more humorous than having anything serious in them.

Then the September 11th attack happened in 2001. I was having dinner with a friend named John Trogner and he said, " What are you going to do about this? In the book, how are you going to address this?" I told him I wasn't going to address it. And he said, "You have to." I wanted to know what he meant by I had to. He said, "Your audience is kids and kids will read this; they relate to Amelia and they are going to be thinking about this and it is your responsibility to write about this." And I thought, "Wow, that's farther that I ever thought I'd go."

But I wrote the Christmas story called, Amelia and the Other Side of Yuletide. Mostly it's about Amelia's trying to scam her parents. Using their divorce guilt to give her more presents. At the end of the story Amelia gives a monologue. If you read them now, it seems like she is talking about people who have difficulties and then there are people who have great difficulties and we should be grateful. At the time it was very obviously a reference of what happened because she is from New York and her dad still lived in New York. Once I did that, then all bets were off and it became a real world. Amelia had always felt like a real character to me, a real little girl.

KJ: What is the most interesting activity that you do other than writing?
JG: You know what I like to do? I like to play the guitar. I've been playing since I was in 4th grade and I don't think I have gotten any better, but I like doing it.

KJ: What is your favorite food?
JG: That's easy. Cake! I wish I could say something more sophisticated like I have developed this great pallet. Oh, escargot is wonderful, but I like cake...most any kind of cake.

KJ: What's the best movie you have ever seen?
JG: You know, when I was very little, I would have thought the best movie was the Muppet Movie, and then Star Wars, and then it would have been Annie Hall, and then Pulp Fiction and now it is the Muppet Movie again.

(photo via

Monday, November 29, 2010

Hanukkah Read-Alouds

Children's Literature reviewer Lois Gross shares some of her favorite read-aloud titles, appropriate for ages 4 to 7, for Hanukkah this year.

I Have a Little Dreidel
Maxie Baum
Illustrated by Julie Paschkis
(Scholastic, 2006)
Great illustrations highlight the traditional song with added lyrics. Kids can help with the chorus.

Our Eight Nights of Hanukkah
Michael Rosen
Illustrated by Anne DiSalovo-Ryan
(Holiday House, 2000)
A child describes the night-by-night events of his family's holiday.

Hanukkah Haiku
Harriet Ziefert
Illustrated by Karla Gudeon
(Blue Apple Books, 2008)
Interesting, different approach to telling the holiday story in Haiku form. Pages open to reveal a different lit candle for each night.

Lots of Latkes: A Hanukkah Story
Sandy Lanton
Illustrated by Vicki Jo Redenbaugh
(Kar Ben, 2003)
This has a nice old tale feel to it. A shtetl community comes together to celebrate the holiday. Everyone is supposed to bring one item for the holiday meal, but they all end up bringing latkes.

In the Month of Kislev: A Story for Hanukkah
Nina Jaffe
Illustrated by Louis August
This is the traditional story of paying the miserly baker for the smells of his cakes with the sound of coins. It's a little wordy, but it's a really good story.

The Hanukkah Mice
Steven Kroll
Illustrated by Michelle Shapiro
(Marshall Kavendish, 2008)
A little girl's celebration is duplicated by the mouse family living in her doll house.

Mrs. Greenberg's Messy Hanukkah
Linda Glazer
Illustrated by Nancy Cole
(Albert Whitman, 2004)
When Rachel makes latkes with her neighbor, Mrs. Greenberg, the cooking experience becomes messy fun.

My Two Holidays
Danielle Novack
Illustrated by Phyllis Harris
(Scholastic, 2010)
This really is a nice attempt to deal with the situation of dual holidays that so many families now have.

Just Enough is Plenty
Barbara Goldin
This is an Elijah tale for Hanukkah. Actually, I'd recommend anything by Barbara Goldin. She is a storyteller and has a storyteller's ear for how the story should flow.

The Best Hanukkah Ever
Barbara Goldin
Illustrated by Avi Katz
A story about how the gift itself doesn't matter; it's getting the right gift for the right person that counts.

Trees of the Dancing Goats
Patricia Palocco
(Simon and Schuster, 1996)
A Jewish family in Michigan helps to make Christmas special for sick neighbors creating their own Christmas miracle.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Themed Reviews: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one week away. Browse through our Thanksgiving feature and those from previous years for selections to share with your students, family, and friends.

The First Thanksgiving: A Lift-the-Flap Book
Nancy Davis
Thanksgiving sometimes is a challenge when planning story time for little ones. Either you find books on the imminent death of the turkey (who then, humorously, becomes the guest of honor), or newly illustrated versions of Over the River and Through the Woods. This sweetly done board books with lift-the-flaps is a nice addition to a Thanksgiving holiday collection. Told in the manner of The House that Jack Built, the rhyme and pictures follow the round-faced pilgrims from England to the New Land where they are befriended and educated by the natives, set about planting crops, and celebrate with a banquet to which they invite their new friends. The pilgrims are all rosy cheeked and blonde. The native people are rosy-cheeked and brown-skinned. The pictures are easily talked about as the flaps reveal enterprising Pilgrims companionably fishing with the Indians, spinning, planting, and eating. The Thanksgiving dinner shows both groups of people share a celebratory meal. In addition to the obvious lesson about the Pilgrims settlement of the Massachusetts colony, this book can be expanded to lessons on cooperation, sharing, and helping our neighbors. Kids will ask for repeat readings so that they can manipulate the pages. 2010, Simon and Schuster Children’s Division, Ages 1 to 4, $5.99. Reviewer: Lois Rubin Gross (Children’s Literature).
ISBN: 978-1-4424-0807-4

Why Did the Pilgrims Come to the New World?
Laura Hamilton Waxman
In the 1600s Puritans and Separatists broke with the Anglican Church and sought relief from persecution first in Holland and then in the New World. After a perilous voyage on the Mayflower, they arrived at what is now called Plymouth on Cape Cod. Before settling in they drew up and signed the Mayflower Compact on the ship. The signers were not a homogeneous group, nor were they all members of religious sects.. All agreed to stay, work together, and treat each other fairly. Many died that first winter. Samoset and Squanto, Native Americans who spoke English, helped them. The first harvest in 1621 led to a feast which became Thanksgiving. A question at the end of each chapter leads into the next chapter. Unusual words appear in boxes with a line leading to the margin where the word is defined. Sidebars pictured on notebook paper answer further questions with information such as “The word pilgrim refers to a person who travels to a sacred place for a religious purpose.” Colored photographs, maps, and reproductions of famous paintings enhance the text. This is one of the “Six Questions of American History” series. There is a timeline, source notes, bibliography, list for further reading and web sites, and an index. This interesting account for young people explains the various controversies surrounding the Mayflower voyage and explains how they were overcome. 2011, Lerner Publications Company/Lerner Publishing Group, Ages 12 to 18, $29.27. Reviewer: Carlee Hallman (Children’s Literature).
ISBN: 978-1-5801-3665-5

Monday, November 8, 2010

Themed Reviews: Veterans Day

On November 11, 1918 an armistice between Allied Forces and Germany was signed, ending World War I after four years of fighting. The armistice ended hostilities at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. The following year U.S. President Woodrow Wilson issued the first Armistice Day proclamation:

To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country's service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.

On Armistice Day in 1921, an unidentified American soldier killed in WWI was buried in a special tomb in Arlington National Cemetery; now know as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by members of The Old Guard and located near the center of the cemetery.

Armistice Day was declared a Federal holiday in 1938. Celebrations honoring WWI veterans continued to include parades, public gatherings, and moments of silence.

After World War II and the Korean War, veteran service organizations lobbied congress to amend the 1938 act—changing the word “Armistice” to “Veterans.” This new legislation was signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on June 1, 1954. Since November 11, 1954 the U.S. has honored American veterans, living or dead, of all wars on Veterans Day.

The following recently published books are about Veterans Day, wars involving American soldiers, or the impact veterans have on their friends and family. Browse through this feature and those from previous years to discover more.

The War to End All Wars: World War I
Russell Freedman
The clearest and most comprehensible book about World War I also delivers a strong anti-war message. Freedman presents the political and social temperaments of 1914 and the naiveté of European leaders and ordinary citizens that led to the war frenzy. He then takes the reader through all aspects of this war that was presumed at the very beginning to be short-lived. Well-selected photographs personalize the events. Along with the text they show life in the trenches and the death and destruction caused by the use of the new military technologies. The futility of war resonates as Freedman recounts the famous battles of Verdun and the Somme. The changing climate of the war is seen through the sinking of the Lusitania, the war at sea, the Russian Revolution, and the entry of the United States. The last chapter, titled “Losing the Peace” recounts stunning human losses. Freedman correlates the poorly-drawn peace agreement to discord in the Middle East and resentments in Germany, which led to World War II and to today’s wars and unrest. Freedman has a singular ability to get to the core of the issue and present it with compelling storytelling. Through his careful and exhaustive research, Freedman selects just the right quotes, and weaves them seamlessly into the text. For a wide range of reasons, this is a book every young person needs to read. Source notes, bibliography, picture credits and an index complete the book. 2010, Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Ages 10 to 14, $22.00. Reviewer: Sharon Salluzzo (Children’s Literature).
ISBN: 978-0-547-02686-2

Monday, November 1, 2010

In time for the holidays...

Children's Literature provides support for book sales at numerous author events, school book fairs and the like. Often we have one or two copies of a book left that we do not bother to return to the publisher. Our stock has grown and we would like to make some very good, never used books available on a first come first serve basis at a very attractive price: 50% off list with FREE SHIPPING until December 24th.

We have four brand new forms for you to browse:
Board Book Titles
Picture Book Titles
Middle Grade Titles
Young Adult Titles

How to Place Your Order:
Print a copy of the order form and mark it up with your choices. Then fax the completed order form to (301) 469-2071 or put it in an envelope and send it to Children's Literature at the following address:
Children's Literature
7513 Shadywood Rd
Bethesda MD 20817

Orders will be filled as they are received. For credit card purchases, we will confirm your total before processing your card. If you want to use a personal or business check for a purchase, circle check as as the payment option and we will get back to you with the amount due. We will ship the books when your check arrives. If you are an institution using a purchase order, we will fill your order and send an invoice with the books.

For further information visit:

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Themed Reviews: Johnny Appleseed

Perhaps even more intriguing than the mighty imaginary figures of American folklore are the ones based on real people, who have a true life behind the stories. Johnny Appleseed's tale begs the questions: "Did he truly walk all about America, tossing apple seeds freely about the land?" and perhaps more curiously, "Did he really wear a pot on his head?"

But the reality does not disappoint. Appleseed, born John Chapman, did wear a pot on his head, and though he didn't gratuitously cast seeds onto anyone's land, he created nurseries of apple trees around the country and did not mind when customers couldn't pay for trees they bought on credit. He was probably too busy to collect, wandering the land more than any other businesspeople of his time, giving to charity, promoting the virtue of apples, and extolling peace between all things human and animal.

So when you're driving by an apple orchard in the Midwest of America, be glad to know that it is the heir of a tree planted by a genuine and stirring figure. These books introduce an important symbolic story to children. They variously tell the truth and the fiction of Johnny Appleseed.

Browse through this feature and those from previous years to discover more.

Johnny Appleseed: Select Good Seeds and Plant Them in Good Ground
Richard Worth
Part of the “Americans: The Spirit of a Nation” series, this is a very informative and useful reference for the middle grades to learn about legendary John Chapman. Born at the time of the American Revolution, John Chapman literally grew with the nation and became part of the westward movement. He was not the only nurseryman in this movement, but he was unique in his style and outlook. He preferred old, comfortable clothing and bare feet even in the winter, liked to sleep on the floor in front of the stove, and believed in gentleness with all living things. This gentleness extended to wasps, mosquitoes, and rattlesnakes and meant that he would rather plant seeds than use grafting, a process he considered to be violence against the tree. Add a little self-promotion and preaching and the reader can understand how the Johnny Appleseed legend developed. Included are numerous illustrations and sidebars, a table of contents, facts about apples, a chronology, footnotes, a glossary, book and Internet references, and an index. 2010, Enslow Publishers, $31.93. Ages 9 to 12. Reviewer: Sue Poduska (Children's Literature).
ISBN: 9780766033528

Thursday, October 14, 2010

National Book Award Young People's Literature Finalists

Reviews of the 2010 National Book Award Young People's Literature Finalists

                 Dark Water
                   Laura Mcneal

Since Pearl’s father left the family, fifteen-year-old Pearl and her mother have been living in a guesthouse on Pearl’s uncle’s avocado ranch. Soon she has a new focus, finding herself completely smitten with Amiel, a young field worker, whose impaired voice leads him to communicate mostly through gesture and mime and who lives, illegally, in a self-made shelter by the river. A wary Amiel begins to return Pearl’s interest, allowing her in to some—but clearly not all—of his secrets as they become closer. When California fire season brings a conflagration that threatens the area, Pearl fears that Amiel, in his isolation, won’t have heard the order to evacuate, and her determination to save him sets in motion a series of events that will change the lives of Pearl and her family forever. McNeal is skilled at creating a vivid world and multidimensional characters while keeping her writing fluid and unlabored. Pearl’s fall for Amiel is a believable reaction from a girl who’s been abandoned by her father and whose best friend seems to be drifting away, but it’s also sultry and intense, with their leaving of messages and secret rendezvous bringing a romantic poetry to the relationship. The romance is more significant, however, for being the contact point between two stories, that of the extent of Amiel’s marginalization as an undocumented worker (with immigration checking the evacuation points, he can’t flee the fire) and that of Pearl’s family’s shifting dynamics, which get smashed violently into a new phase after her uncle’s death—a consequence of her actions—in the fire. Overall, it’s involving and thought-provoking, it’s got contemporary resonance, and it’s got a conclusion that readers will find hard to forget Review Code: R -- Recommended. (c) Copyright 2006, The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. 2010, Knopf, 304p.; Reviewed from galleys, $19.99 and $16.99 and E-book ed. $16.99. Grades 7-12. Reviewer: Deborah Stevenson (The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, October 2010 (Vol. 64, No. 2)).
ISBN: 9780375849732

Walter Dean Myers

Reese Anderson is serving time in a juvenile detention center for something he most definitely did. He is serving his time with appropriate behavior and is now doing a work release program in preparation for an attempt at early release. But another young detainee is being bullied and Reese is not willing to let that happen. The center is a tough, gritty place with guards who look the other way and a code that does not allow Reese to tell them the truth. While on work release at a nursing home, Reese becomes an assistant to Mr. Hooft, an elderly Dutch immigrant who had been held in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. Through that relationship, Reese is able to better understand imprisonment, the kind someone does to you, and the kind that you do to yourself. When NYC detectives drag Reese down to the police station, he realizes that he is now being accused of doing something he did not do and the decision he has to make has serious consequences for his future. Reese is caught in a seemingly impossible situation where it is the thought of his kid sister that keeps him going, gives him a new purpose, and helps him see a possible life stretching before him. This novel tells the hard story of getting caught and what it takes to get out of the grim cycle of recidivism. Reese is a smart kid with a tough life but a moral center; readers cannot help but cheer him on. There is adult language and realistic violence. 2010, Amistead/HarperCollins, $16.99. Ages 14 up. Reviewer: Janis Flint-Ferguson (Children's Literature).
ISBN: 9780061214806
ISBN: 9780061214813

              Kathryn Erskine

Caitlin marks time by The Day Our Life Fell Apart, that is, the day her beloved older brother, Devon, was killed in a school shooting. Since then, Caitlin has turned even more inward than usual, and her Asperger’s syndrome exacerbates that withdrawal. In working through Devon’s death, Caitlin must make peace with fellow schoolmate Josh, whose cousin was the shooter, and find closure. Because of her Asperger’s, she struggles with even the most basic social skills during her healing process and is genuinely confused when the school counselor tries to explain how people generally interact. To set off these concepts, Caitlin refers to them in capital letters, such as Look At The Person, Talk About It, Closure, and Personal Space. This device underscores both the foreignness and the importance of these ideas to her. At one point, Caitlin describes her terror during recess, when she shrinks from children’s “pointy and dangerous” elbows and sharp screaming. She also draws the reader into her technique of “stuffed animaling,” which is how she stares at something until it becomes soft and fluffy and therefore less upsetting to her. The plot is more about Caitlin’s emotional growth than any external story line, although her growing relationship with a smaller child becomes a catalyst for the closure she seeks. This book is a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of someone with Asperger’s and takes the reader into a journey of understanding. 2010, Philomel Books/Penguin Young Readers Group, Ages 10 up, $15.99. Reviewer: Michele C. Hughes (Children's Literature).
ISBN: 9780399252648

One Crazy Summer
Rita Williams-Garcia

Readers will quickly come to adore Delphine, the eleven-year-old protagonist. Abandoned by her mother and raised by her grandparents, she has developed a naturally protective attitude toward her two younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern. Now, for the first time, they are sent from Brooklyn to Oakland, California to visit their birth mother, Cecile. It happens to be the height of the Black Panther revolution. Although set in summer during the late 1960s, this is a story that today’s teen girls are likely to relate to on several different levels: the confusion of beginning to like boys, the complicated relationships with parents and siblings, and the innate responsibility that girls easily take for their younger brothers and sisters. On a broader level, it gives a unique perspective of a part of history not often seen in youth literature. The Black Panther aspect is thought-provoking, adding depth to the theme of Delphine’s family situation. Aside from the plot, the natural writing makes this a smooth read from start to finish, and the characters and situations are realistic. It is a “must” for library collections. 2010, HarperCollins Publishers, $15.99. Ages 11 to 14. Reviewer: Cherie Ilg Haas (Children's Literature).
ISBN: 9780060760885
ISBN: 9780060760892

Ship Breaker
Paolo Bacigalupi

When fate intertwines with desperation and luck, the outcome can be both a curse and a blessing. In an advanced world, where huge cities have been sunken to the depths of the oceans, humanity thrives on luck and self preservation. In this twisted new world, Nailer has suffered tremendously since the death of his mother, watching his father become a dangerous, reckless alcoholic. Faced with no other choice but to follow in the footsteps of the one man with the strength to kill him, Nailer dedicates his survival to breaking down and stripping rotting oil tankers. Constantly overwhelmed by making quota, Nailer crawls into the deepest bowels of the decrepit ships to scavenge for wire for ungrateful bosses. Fate carries him through a near-death experience thwarted by a coworker, but refuses to leave his side as he narrowly escapes his menacing father and a massive hurricane that hits the Gulf Coast. Upon searching the beach after the destruction of the hurricane, Nailer finds a washed-up clipper ship full of enough silver to seriously change his luck for good. However, the ship holds one survivor, a lone girl who claims to be the heiress to a major shipping company. Desperate to forgo the life his father has doomed him for, he resolves to save the girl and help her find her father’s alliances up the coast. The sincere hope for a better life fuels his dedication to help the heiress, despite the incessant bad luck that follows him at every turn. 2009, Little Brown and Company/Hachette, Ages 14 to 18, $17.99. Reviewer: Patrice Russo Belotte (Children’s Literature).
ISBN: 978-0-316-05621-2

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Writing What You Know by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

Authors always say that we write what we know, and it is completely true – you cannot tell an authentic story if it doesn’t come from a place of truth. The trouble, though, is when you write picture books for kids, how do you define what it is that you know?

I write books about talking pigs and lonely ducks, and I can assure you I am neither a pig (verbose or otherwise) nor a duck nor any other kind of animal featured in any of my books. And yet I feel very strongly that I only write about the things that I know and that almost every one of my picture books draws heavily from my own life.

Take QUACKENSTEIN HATCHES A FAMILY, for example, my newest book published by Abrams. In this story, poor, lonely Quackenstein looks on in envy as all the other animals in the zoo settle in with their families. So he hatches a plan to solve his problem – upon spying a sign for “orphaned eggs,” Quackenstein decides to adopt an egg to start a family of his own.

The previously cantankerous duck becomes a devoted father-to-be, even cooing to his “ducky-poo” that he will never be neglected. But when the egg finally does hatch, it is more than the eggshell that cracks – Quackenstein takes one look at his hatchling and runs off in terror.

Without giving away the whole book, suffice it to say that the hatchling eventually catches up to his father and a few choice words serve to melt Quackenstein’s heart and open his eyes to the fact that families can be different or strange but always find a way to work. Despite his fears, Quackenstein learns to be the father he wanted to be – and that his son deserves.

I wrote this story when I was pregnant with my son, Sawyer, who is my third child. I’d already had two girls, Isabella and Brooklyn, and I was convinced that baby number three was going to be daughter number three. So when the doctor told me that I was having a boy, my first response was, “No, I’m not, and you can’t make me.”

Turns out, I really was going to have a boy and nothing was going to change that.

I will freely admit being terrified at the prospect of having a son. After all, I knew lots and lots about how to be a good mother to girls, but knew absolutely nothing about mothering a boy. (Since then, I’ve learned that boys and girls truly are as similar as, well, ducks and platypi – they might as well be two different species.)

I honestly didn’t sit down to write a book about a parent who was both excited and terrified about having a baby. But looking back, I realize I did exactly that.

Had I written QUACKENSTEIN five years earlier, I am convinced it would have been a different story, because there were different things important in my life then. If I’d never written the book and started fresh on it now, it would definitely be a different story (and probably far scarier!).

As much as authors write what they know, the real test of a good story is whether the author has not only found his or her own truth, but also illuminated some truth for the readers. So I’ll leave you with this hope: that you can find a little Quackenstein in your own heart.

For more information on Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen visit: and

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Mo Willems Author Talk

Mo Willems often begins talks with a story about 3,472 little pigs. He explained to the Children's Book Guild of Washington DC that he does this for two reasons. The first is that it takes a couple of minutes, and the second is that it will never work as a picture book. He told us that because we can already see the wolf, the pigs, and the houses we do not need pictures. For Mo to write a picture book it has to be incomprehensible: "My job is to write incomprehensible books for illiterates." A literary rock star, Mo has published over thirty children's books receiving critical and commercial success. He spoke to the Children's Book Guild of Washington DC about his creative process, his views on writing and illustrating, and the importance of emotional truth in books. The audience punctuated his remarks with laughter throughout the event -- the humor of his books translating into his presentation.

His process of creating manuscripts is reductive, if he can read the words alone and know what is going on then it has too many words. If he can look at just his storyboard and see what is going on then it has too many pictures. So he takes out lines and takes out pictures. What is left is a story that leaves room for his audience. He believes that it is not up to him to decide what his books are about, it is up to his audience to give his books meaning.

Not understanding what his books are about is key for Mo. If he really understands the message of the story then it becomes didactic and that "is the death of all stories." His view is that the worst thing you can do to a child or adult is force them to read something they should read. An example of leaving room for his audience that he shared with us was from Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus (his debut children's picture book and winner of a Caldecott Honor in 2004). He quoted two early reviews, one saying they loved the book because it taught children never to give up, the other loved the book because it taught the value of the word no. What Mo thought was great about these two contrasting reviews was that they were both right. That was exactly what the book is about. For them.

Before Mo was a published children's book author/illustrator he worked in TV, most notably on Sesame Street, where he won six Emmy Awards, but also on a show called Sheep in the Big City. When Sheep was cancelled Mo went looking for answers, searching for them "where all true answers lie: the internet." A turning point for Mo was reading a comment from a ten-year-old who said that what he did not like about the show Sheep was it looked like the writer was trying too hard. This shook Mo up. He tried to think of any other profession where trying too hard was a negative.

However, it is the case with writing. The reader does not want a relationship with the author. They are looking for a relationship with the characters. If they feel that Mo exists in any way then he becomes the third wheel at the party. Since his writing on Sheep looked like it took effort it was interfering with the pleasure the audience was getting from watching. Another example Mo discussed with us took place during his time on Sesame Street. He was in his twenties and living in Brooklyn, and when he would explain to friends that he wrote for Sesame Street they would be excited -- "Elmo! I love Elmo!"-- but also confused. What exactly did that mean, writing for Elmo? They could not figure out that Elmo was written. They thought he was just Elmo and the camera just happened to be there. That Mo told us, is the sign of good writing. When nobody wants to know there is a writer -- you have to be invisible.

One way Mo makes himself invisible is by manipulating his audience. His belief is you have to show the emotional truth and the best way to show the emotional truth is by "lying." He gave the example of Where the Wild Things Are: the illustrations begin very small, then they get very big, then they take over, and then they get very small again, as Max goes from reality to fantasy and back to reality again. But if the child actually notices this then the writer has failed. He shared a few examples of audience manipulation from his own work that he hoped they did not notice.

In the Pigeon books Mo manipulates his audience with colors. The backgrounds are not places but solid colors that are like a giant mood ring explaining what the Pigeon is feeling. As he becomes more and more excited the colors get brighter and brighter. When he freaks out the colors are extremely bright but then, as his soul is crushed, everything is grey. The background serves as a color chart and rhythm to the story.

In Leonardo the Terrible Monster Mo used format, text size, and sentence structure to manipulate the audience. The book is the largest size he was allowed to make and the boy Leonardo is incredibly small, though is never referred to as small. There would be no point. Mo explained that he does not like to define a character for the audience. He also controlled how the book is read aloud: at first all the sentences are the same, getting you into a rhythm. Then the amount of words on a page increases. It reads a little bit faster. The words increase some more. It reads even faster. Then comes the page that just says "Sam" and automatically, it reads slower than any other word in the book. Mo pointed out that Sam is "sad" spelled wrong.

The illustrations in Knuffle Bunny are often described as cartoons on top of photographs. Not so Mo tells us. Those photographs of romantic Park Slope, Brooklyn are still illustrations -- he has manipulated them to better represent the emotional truth. The eye erases the "grey of ugliness." A camera does not do that, so in photoshop Mo fixes signs or gets rid of items like trashcans and air conditioning units that detract from the emotional truth of Trixie's neighborhood. The illustrations are more of a collage; but when people describe them as photos with cartoons on them, Mo takes it as a sign of success.

His pet peeve is when people come up to him and say "I've written a funny book about blah blah blah." He finds this rude as you are essentially telling him that he does not know what funny is. Something he would never presume to do to you. He never says "I wrote a funny book about a pigeon." Instead saying, "I wrote a book about a pigeon who wanted to drive a bus." If you laugh, great. If you do not, well, "maybe it is a tragedy. I don't know. It is for the pigeon." He believes writers can not describe how they want their audience to react.
As an author/illustrator Mo tries not to be didactic or have rules but one rule he does have is a "port-of-entry rule." He wants every character that he designs to be able to be reasonably drawn by a five-year-old. He strongly believes that books should not just be read but should also encourage play. That drawing, or any act of creation, is an act of empathy. When you draw a character, even a villain, you have to slow down and empathize with that character. "Ah, he has horns. I wonder what those are like?" He thinks the idea that reading is important should be the beginning of a deeper line of thought.

If he has a skill, Mo said, it is for really bad ideas: writing a book about a naked Mole Rat, having a rat with wings as a lovable star character, teaching potty training with an infestation of rodents. All terrible ideas. "But so horrible that you have to do it, right?"

Hopefully Mo will continue to have bad ideas for many years to come. His recent and upcoming titles include Knuffle Bunny Free: An Unexpected Diversion; City Dog, Country Frog; We Are in a Book! (the "Elephant and Piggie" series); and Time to Sleep, Sheep the Sheep (the "Cat the Cat" series).

Emily Griffin

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Fire Prevention Week

This year’s official Fire Prevention Week (October 3rd - 9th) theme is Smoke Alarms: A Sound You Can Live With. Designed to educate people about the importance of smoke alarms and encourage everyone to take the necessary steps to update and maintain their home smoke alarms.

President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation in 1920 declaring the first National Fire Prevention Day and Fire Prevention Week has been observed annually since 1922. This awareness week was established to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 that killed more than 250 people, left 100,000 homeless, destroyed over 17,400 structures, and burned more than 2,000 acres. The fire started on October 8th and did not stop until the following day.

Sparky the Fire Dog has been the official mascot of Fire Prevention Week since 1951. His job is to teach children about fire safety. He even has his own website: and

Visit for further information regarding fire safety.

Browse through these titles and those from previous years for some selections to share with your family or students.

Mark Teague
Edward and Judy visit a firehouse because Edwards wants to become a firefighter. It is not all fun and games--the first thing the Fire Chief wants them to do is help wash the fire truck. They go up to the crew’s quarters and the game of cards that he and Judy were playing is interrupted by a fire alarm bell. Everyone gets into their gear and slides down to the truck. Edward is literally hanging on to the back of the truck by his fingers. There is a bit of a mishap at the fire hydrant when the stream of water knocks Edward over. It takes teamwork to handle the hoses and climb up the ladder. This was a drill, but no sooner do they return to the firehouse when the alarm goes off again and this time it is a real emergency. (Although I am not sure that firefighters still will come and rescue cats caught up in trees). Teague’s collection of canines are amusing and expressive and kids will have fun looking for the little mice dressed as firefighters in nearly every scene, including the closing one where a tucked out Edward is fast asleep with the kitten he rescued sitting on his bed. 2010, Orchard Books/Scholastic, $16.99. Ages 3 to 5. Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot (Children's Literature).
ISBN: 9780439915007

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Children’s Literature Author & Illustrator Booking Service

Are you thinking of having an author/illustrator event at your school this year?

Enhance Your Next Author/Illustrator Event:
You can select from our list of over 100 authors and illustrators, many of whom have received accolades such as Caldecott Honor Awards, Coretta Scott King Awards, and Pura Belpré Honor Awards.

Our hassle free booking service takes care of everything so you don’t have to. Not only is this service free of charge, but when you order books directly from Children’s Literature you earn 20% off list price with the option to double that amount in brand new books. We are committed to working with you to make your author/illustrator events run smoothly.

“Children’s Literature takes the stress out of ordering books to coincide with author visits. Staff help select appropriate titles, create the order form including book reviews and deliver books promptly. Children’s Literature saves me so much time, and I really appreciate the extensive expertise lent to the whole process.” Joy A. McIntyre - Belmont Elementary, Montgomery County, MD.

The Booking Service’s customized approach does the heavy lifting for you by:
• Arranging a mutually agreeable time and date for the event
• Providing a letter of agreement between the school/organization and the author/illustrator that spells out the requirements associated with the visit as well as the fee
• Providing order forms and book selection guidance to the event coordinator to facilitate the purchase and delivery of books should there be an autographing associated with the appearance
• Processing all book sale payments, including credit cards, checks, and cash. Tax and discounts as appropriate.
• Providing the sponsoring organization with assistance in taking care of all details such as directions, parking, meals, set-up needs, etc.

A few author/illustrators from our extensive list include: Vicki Cobb, Henry Cole, Sneed Collard, Lulu Delacre, Pamela Duncan Edwards, Lindsay Barrett George, Alison Hart, Jacqueline Jules, David McLimans, Laura Melmed, Patrick O’Brien, Kevin O’Malley, Valerie Patterson, Audrey Penn, Myles Pinkney, Mary Quattlebaum, Catherine Reef, Susan Roth, Janet Morgan Stoeke, Carole Boston Weatherford, and many more.

Our list is constantly growing and we provide up-to-date information (news, events, book releases) about our participating author/illustrator’s through Twitter, Facebook, and this blog. Visit to plan your next event, or contact Emily Griffin, Publicity and Marketing Director, at 301-469-2070 or

7513 Shadywood Road • Bethesda MD 20817 • 301 469 2070 • 301 469 2071 (Fax)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Themed Reviews: Hispanic Heritage Month

September 15 marks the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month. The website contains a wealth of information on a variety of topics surrounding the culture of Hispanic peoples. September 15 is the anniversary of independence for five Latin American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. In addition, Mexico declared its independence on September 16, and Chile on September 18.

The term Hispanic, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, refers to Spanish-speaking people in the United States of any race. On the 2000 Census form, people of Spanish/Hispanic/Latino origin could identify themselves as Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, or "other Spanish/Hispanic/Latino." More than 35 million people identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino on the 2000 Census.

There are many other features of interest to help parents, teachers, and others interested in teaching/learning about Hispanic Heritage. The link to Spanish Loan Words was particularly interesting. We use so many of these words without being conscious of their origins. As summer comes to a close, we can welcome September with the last of the homegrown tomatoes (derived from the Spanish tomate, a corruption of the Nahuatl word tomatl) and look forward to the last of the mosquitoes (the same in English and Spanish -- annoying in either language!); during September we can focus on all things Hispanic and revel in the richness of the heritage shared (or adopted) by so many people.

The following book reviews offer a variety of interesting aspects of Hispanic Heritage to share with young listeners; the listing also includes books to interest older readers as well.

Once Upon a Time: Traditional Latin American Tales
Rueben Martínez
Translated by David Unger
Illustrated by Raúl Colón

A collection of stories popular among Latin American children is sure to bring back memories as parents read them to their own children. We start with the story of the "Wedding Rooster." The rooster is on his way to his uncle's wedding when he spots a kernel of corn he cannot pass up. The corn soils his beak setting a chain of events into motion that will have children giggling at the interconnectedness of life. The next story is the "Tlacuache and the Coyote," in some parts of the world the tlacuache is known as an opossum or weasel. Weasel fits him well as he tricks the coyote more times than the coyote can count, even when the coyote has decided he will not fall for one more of the tlacuache's tricks, he does, actually, he jumps. We are also treated to "The Mother of the Jungle," a lesson about being good to mother earth; Martina the Cockroach and Pérez the Mouse, a love story; "The Flower of Lirolay," the story of a blind king and his three sons who each want to inherit the throne; "The King and the Riddle," a story of a clever girl that wins the king's heart; and finally, "Pedro Urdemales and the Giant," the story of a mischief maker who outwits a giant in feats of strength. All classic stories, it is appropriate that they are bound together in one book. 2010, HarperCollins, $19.99. Ages 5 to 10. Reviewer: Mandy Cruz (Children's Literature).
ISBN: 9780061468957

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Q&A with author Patricia Newman

Children's Literature reviewer and Booking Service author, Jeanne K. Pettenati (Galileo's Journal, 1609-1610), interviewed Patricia Newman, fellow Booking Service participant and author of two books for children: Nugget on the Flight Deck and Jingle the Brass.

Jeanne Pettenati: What were some of your favorite books as a child? Who were some of your favorite authors?
Patricia Newman: I liked books with strong female characters when I was a kid. Of course I couldn't articulate that at the time, but looking back on my "favorites" list, I can see it was true. Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink; Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh; the Nancy Drew series; the Trixie Belden series; and the Bobbsey Twins series. I also loved Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry (and all the follow-ups) and the Pippi Longstocking books by Astrid Lindgren.

JP: What is a typical day like for you? Do you write every day?
PN: I do not write every day, but when I write, I write in the morning. Writing words on a blank computer screen is the hardest part of writing for me, so I create early in the morning when I'm at my best. My goals for the day depend on the project. Sometimes my goal is to write a certain number of pages. Sometimes I work on getting the character's voice just right. Right now, I'm working on writing a proposal for a new book idea I have, so I need to complete a fair amount of research to understand how to shape this book into something children want to read. (The research phase is dangerous for me—it's easy to put off facing that blank computer screen by reading one more chapter in one more book!) Then I have to write a couple of sample chapters and a marketing proposal for my agent to send to potential editors.

As the day wears on, writing becomes more difficult for me. I leave email and promotion to the afternoon. Some days I post an entry to my blog and work on my next book-related trip (in July I will be in San Diego, CA at the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum and in October, I will be in Washington, D.C. at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museums). I am also the co-Regional Advisor for the California North/Central chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI—see, so event-planning and member-issues are usually handled in the afternoon.

JP: What are your hobbies?
PN: I play tennis and I love to read! I am also an active SCBWI volunteer (see above) and an active volunteer in a local high school band program. I am on a committee (called ecARTS) to build a performing arts center and art gallery on the campus of my children's former high school. (See

I also love to garden. Pulling weeds is therapeutic and a great way to solve story problems. Once I let my mind relax a bit and give the story I'm working on a rest, problems that seem insurmountable fall into place. (The shower is a great place for problem-solving, too!)

JP: When did you start writing books/stories for children?
PN: I began writing when my children were very small (they're in college now—my daughter is a senior and my son is a freshman). We visited the library every few days and checked out a pile of books. As I read to them, I recalled how important books were to me as a child and I knew writing books for children was something I wanted attempt.

JP: I love the way you handled the vocabulary in Nugget. There was a lot to learn, but it was done in a very kid friendly way. Did you plan this format at the outset? Or did the approach evolve as you were writing the book?
PN: Thank you for the nice compliment. One thing I've learned about writing for children is that even though the finished product looks easy, it's not! The approach definitely evolved. The format for Nugget on the Flight Deck is similar to that of Jingle the Brass, so for Nugget I (mostly) knew what I was doing. But for Jingle the Brass, I muddled along first with an idea for an ABC book. After several failed attempts, a kind editor wrote an extremely helpful rejection letter suggesting a "voice" for my story. I knew exactly what she meant because I'd interviewed a retired Southern Pacific railroad engineer as part of my research process and I wanted my engineer character to sound like him! The voice made all the difference and the story flowed out of me in one sitting and eventually sold.

I began work on Nugget on the Flight Deck when Jingle the Brass was in production, but had to put it away for awhile. The first editor who read Nugget rejected it because President Bush had just declared war on Iraq, and he thought the book's military theme would not go over well. I put it in my drawer for a year or so. My new agent at the time read it and decided to submit it. It sold relatively quickly.

JP: In writing Nugget, you opened a new world for children—I think readers really get a sense of life on an aircraft carrier and the myriad jobs/workers necessary to support the pilot and his/her mission. What kind of feedback from children have you gotten about the book?
PN: Children love the sound of the lingo and I often see them testing the phrases under their breath. They always laugh at the landing light called the meatball. And they marvel over how fast an aircraft catapults off the carrier. (They LOVE the Navy video I show them during school visits of a real jet catapulting off the carrier.) Part of my intent during school visits is to help children find something they love to learn about so they'll love reading. During school visits I ask students to come "onstage" with me. They learn how to shoot an aircraft down the cat stroke. They play the part of various flight deck personnel. They demonstrate how a pilot uses the number on a clock to refer to position, i.e. "Check your six" means to watch behind you. The aviator's alphabet is also a real favorite—I usually ask kids to spell their names with it.

I also talk to students about how I conducted the research for my books and are surprised when they learn that research doesn't necessarily mean sitting in a library reading a dusty book. They're thrilled when I tell them how I met the pilots I interviewed!

When I talk about Jingle the Brass in an assembly, I have different activities and volunteer opportunities dealing with trains that students get very excited about.

JP: Did you have any input on the illustrations for your books?
PN: The editors for Jingle the Brass and Nugget on the Flight Deck asked me who I would like to illustrate the books—more for style than any real suggestion, I think. I was also lucky enough to see very early sketches and both editors asked for comments. Rather than comment on the artists' styles (which I love for both books), I only commented on factual inaccuracies.

JP: How long did it take Nugget to become a book, from manuscript to publication? How about Jingle the Brass?
PN: They each took about 5 years from manuscript to finished book.

JP: What was the inspiration for Jingle the Brass? Did you have this title at the outset or did it evolve as you were writing the book?
PN: I live in Sacramento, home to the California Railroad Museum. When out-of-town guests visit, we usually make a trip to the museum. During one such trip an exhibit gave me an idea for a novel. Early in my research process I requested an interview with one of the museum docents, who happened to be a retired Southern Pacific engineer. While we walked around the now-defunct railroad yard, my guide used colorful terms like "mudhop" and "ashcat" and "bending the iron." I knew then that I was researching the wrong book, and began Jingle the Brass.

JP: What was your inspiration for the story about two brothers, one who dies from a brain tumor? My family knows several children who have suffered from brain tumors. Sadly, this cancer afflicts too many children. Was this a difficult story to write? How did you research the story?
PN: "My Brother, Josh" (published in Spider) was a difficult story to write because the inspiration came from a young friend of ours afflicted with a tumor wrapped around his brain stem. My children often played with this boy, and when we found out he was ill, I needed to figure out a way to explain his illness to my children; at the time, his prognosis was dim. I started writing. Much of the research came from my friend's experience, but I also spoke with bereavement counselors who worked with children. I am happy to report, though, that my young friend survived and is now in college.

JP: One of the things I really like to do is visit schools with an interactive presentation about Galileo based on my book. Connecting with children and seeing them get excited about Galileo's discoveries is very rewarding for me. What can students/teachers expect with your school visits? Have you had any memorable moments with your students/readers that you would like to share?
PN: My school visits are lively, interactive and use a variety of media—visual references, movies, sound recordings, hand-held visuals, etc. In each meeting with children I try to inspire them to read and write with a variety of anecdotes, examples and writing activities. For instance, I taped all of my rejection letters (there are 16 of them!) for Jingle the Brass end to end and unfurl them in a dramatic flourish during my assembly. I get a lot of "wows" and "awesomes" when I do this! I tell the students I never stopped believing in myself or my story. At one school a teacher tracked me down at lunch to tell me that after my assembly a boy in her class struggled with a writing assignment. The girl sitting next to him patted him on the shoulder and said, "Don't worry. You have 16 tries!" The best school visits allow me to connect with every student in the school on some level—whether it's asking them to volunteer for me, or shaking their hand after the show, or working with them in a writers' workshop.

JP: What projects are you working on now?
PN: I usually feel assaulted by ideas and sometimes have difficulty picking one or two to work on. Currently, I'm working on a nonfiction proposal for a book about zoo animals. I'm also working on a picture book about a unique bond with a dog. In my critique group this week, I discovered a new idea for a novel. The zoo animals book comes first, then we'll see about the rest...

JP: What are some topics you would like to write about in the future?
PN: Terrorism. Friendship. An alternate society. Who knows what form they'll each take or in which order I'll write about them!

JP: How can readers contact you? Find out more about school visits, etc.?
PN: Readers may email me at They can also keep up with my appearances on my blog at My website contains information school visit programs and testimonials from students and teachers. Please visit

For information visit

Monday, August 30, 2010

Themed Reviews: Back to School

Kindergarteners are not the only ones who get nervous about school. As many of the books highlighted below show, back to school jitters can affect anyone. Reading about this experience can calm nerves and help settle anxieties about starting school this fall. It is also a way to empathize with others who may be having different experiences with heading back to school.

Back to school often brings a lot of new: new teachers, new classmates, new buildings, new neighborhoods, even things like new supplies and clothes. Transitions are challenging for most of us and this can be a big one, especially that first week or two of school. Eating healthy and getting plenty of sleep are always important but as summer draws to a close getting into a school schedule is a main focus point for parents. Allowing time to read aloud about the new school year is one way to help ease this transition.

In addition to the new titles below, there are many favorites that work for reading to your family or students as they head back to school. Did they see the new Ramona and Beezus movie this summer? Ramona starts kindergarten in Beverly Cleary’s Ramona the Pest. Other popular characters who experience starting school include: Ella (Ella the Elegant Elephant); the Berenstain Bears; Arthur; Little Critter; Lola (Charlie and Lola); Wemberly (Wemberly Worried); and many more. Browse through this feature and those from previous years to discover more.

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Browse through these titles and those from previous years for some selections to share with your family or students.

Pirate’s Guide to First Grade
James Preller
Illustrated by Greg Ruth
The language made me immediately think of Long John Silver and the font chose for certain words also has a look of the past. There are multiple stories—the text, the reality in the artwork and the fanciful imaginary world in the sepia illustrations that accompany the more realist ones. These shadowy illustrations feature the pirates. It is the first day of school and time to get ready—our young protagonist shines his snappers and after dressing mashes his chompers on grub. “Ahoy, me harties!” he cries as he boards the school bus. Wouldn’t you know his teacher’s name is Silver and is referred to as Captain Silver. The usual rituals are all couched in nautical terms including story time, after which our young lad exclaims “Blimy, it was a whale of a tale!” It ends with a trip to the library where his treasure is reading a copy of Treasure Island. The closing endpapers define the pirate terminology found in the text. If pirates are your thing great, if you are heading off for a first day at school this may be a good choice to alleviate those first day jitters. 2010, Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan, Ages 5 to 7, $16.99. Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot (Children's Literature).
ISBN: 978-0-312-36928-6