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. http://www.childrenslit.com/childrenslit/th_appleseed.html

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: http://www.childrenslit.com/bookingservice/bardhanquallen-sudipta.html and http://www.sudipta.com/

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