Monday, September 26, 2011

Movie Review: Dolphin Tale

This weekend I went and saw the new family movie, Dolphin Tale, inspired by the true story of a dolphin named Winter. From Warner Brothers, the film features big name actors like Harry Connick Jr, Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, and Kris Kristofferson. Not to mention, Winter, who plays herself.

I was familiar with Winter's story from the 2009 picture book Winter's Tail by Juliana, Isabella, and Craig Hatkoff. The basic premise is in 2006, 3 month old Winter was found caught in a crap trap off the coast of Florida. She was rescued and brought to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium; in critical condition her tail had to be amputated. She was not expected to survive any of this, but did and learned to swim in a side-to-side motion. But doctors were concerned for her spine, as her body was not designed to swim that way. A team of prosthetic specialists spent nearly two years developing and testing a prosthetic tail for Winter. With it, she learned to swim in the proper up-and-down motion and has become a hugely popular attraction at the aquarium. The gel sleeve developed for Winter's tale has since been used with human prosthetics.

The film follows this story, showing the struggles that Winter and those trying to help her faced. It also adds several plot lines to give a different narrative arc to the film. There is Sawyer (played by Nathan Gamble, who's had a few small roles prior to this film), a quiet kid who prefers to tinker with toy helicopters to school work or socializing. He develops a special relationship with Winter after finding her washed up on shore. The aquarium's director, Clay (Harry Connick Jr) and his daughter, Hazel (newcomer Cozi Zuehlsdorff) welcome shy Sawyer into the group where he becomes the force that brings together the different stories. Sawyer's cousin, a local swimming hero, joins the army but returns home from his deployment with injuries and must learn to wear a leg brace. It is when visiting his cousin in the VA hospital that Sawyer meets Dr. McCarthy (Morgan Freeman) who he recruits to create a tail to save Winter. As if Winter didn't have enough problems, the aquarium is feeling the effects of the recession and must sell to a developer. Sawyer and Hazel's grit and determination end up saving Winter and the aquarium--they use a webcam to show Winter online and to hold a big fundraiser.

While these characters and story lines are fictional, and yes, somewhat cliche, the film does capture the heart of Winter's tale. Many people did come together and work tirelessly to help Winter, who has become a true inspiration for countless children and adults. Clearwater Marine Aquarium was a low-profile aquarium until their CEO David Yates promoted Winter's story. The webcam is real, you can log on anytime to see Winter at Stick around at the end of the movie to see footage that documents the real rescue and rehab of Winter as well as scenes of actual kids and adults with medical conditions or disabilities who have made the trip down to Florida to visit Winter.

I saw the movie on a Saturday afternoon and it was packed with families. I didn't spot any crying kids but every adult near me was wiping away tears--including me! While there were younger kids in the theater, kids 8 and up would get the most out of it; it is a family drama so with the humor (Winter is a playful dolphin and there is a mischievous pelican who hangs around) it involves heavy issues and is not just a lighthearted animal movie. There are lots of options to further explore the themes in the movie. For starters, the Hatkoff family has several other picture books that tell stories of hope and friendship including Owen & Mzee; Leo the Snow Leopard, Knut, the Baby Polar Bear; and Lola & Tiva. I truly enjoyed watching this new take on Winter's remarkable story.

Contributor: Emily Griffin

Monday, September 12, 2011

CL President Marilyn Courtot Interviewed in The Atlantic

Dr. Seuss vs. Madonna: Can Celebrities Write Good Children's Books?

SEP 12, 2011

On the last Saturday before the first day of school in New York City, a children's bookstore on 18thStreet called Books of Wonder had the expectant stillness of a classroom before the bell rings. Looking out from the brightly-colored covers that lined the shelves were cats, ducks, an elephant named Babar, and—tucked into the corner of a section marked "Modern Picture Books"—the name Molly Shannon.

Shannon's picture book, Tilly the Trickster was released this month, marking the former SNL cast member's entry into an ever-expanding group of celebrities who write children's books. This fall, supermodel Tyra Banks and The Decemberists' lead singer Colin Meloy also have books for young readers coming out.

The celebrities-who-write-children's-books boom began about three decades ago, according to Wendy Lukehart, Youth Collections Coordinator at the D.C. Public Library system. Prince Charles of Wales came out with The Old Man of Lochnagar in 1980, and Jimmy Buffet and his daughter wrote The Jolly Mon in 1993. But the trend stretches back even further. In 1955, an entertainer who was a vocal coach and friend of Judy Garland published a book about Eloise, a little girl who lives at the Plaza Hotel (as the author did, apparently rent-free). For years before Eloise was published, Kay Thompson's voice had been heard on the radio, and later she had a featured role in Funny Face.Eloise has become a classic, of course, so much so that its fame has surpassed that of its celebrity creator.

It's not hard to guess why the genre has taken off.

"I mean, obviously the publishers are out to make a little money," says Marilyn Courtot, a trained librarian and founder of Children's Literature, a service that provides book reviews librarians and teachers consult when they're stocking their shelves. Celebrities snag coveted interviews on major networks, and of course, they can always count on their fan-base for support. Jamie Lee Curtis, John Lithgow, and Whoopi Goldberg have all made it onto the New York Times bestseller list for their children's books. As Nicole Deming of the Children's Book Council, a nonprofit trade association for children's publishers, put it, "They're natural publicity machines."

The success of these books inspires mixed feelings from those within the children's literature industry.

"It's more for the parents. The kids don't know who these celebrities are," said Kayla, one of the Books of Wonder employees. She walked over to the counter and to ask a colleague what he thinks of celebrity children's books. He's partial to Freckleface Strawberry, by Julianne Moore.

"Well, the illustrator is great," Kayla said.

"That's my favorite illustrator!"

"Yeah, the illustrator helps a lot."

The artwork for Moore's series was done by LeUyen Pham, who has illustrated dozens of books. The figures are lively, like the hastily drawn sketches of a child. "I think it gives an opportunity for an illustrator to rise, if an unknown illustrator is paired with a celebrity author," says Deming. For an early reader scanning the shelves, pictures would be more likely to catch the eye than Moore's name. Or Gloria Estefan's, or Dolly Parton's, or Madonna's—all among those who got into the children's literature game after having already established themselves as, say, a Latin pop sensation, a country diva, or a sex symbol.

"I mean, how many 4-year-olds know who Madonna is?" wonders Courtot.

For authors who have struggled to make a name for themselves, it can be hard to see shelves stocked with what seem to be the side projects of celebrities.

"We understand that publishers want to make money. But we do strongly believe that the really good books deserve as much attention as possible," says Rosalyn Schanzer, who has been a full-time author and illustrator of children's books since the early '90s.

Rita Williams-Garcia, who was a Newberry honoree this year and won numerous other awards for her young adult fiction, says she views most attempts by celebrities at children's literature as "book products and something less than a book itself."

When the Newberry and Caldecott awards were announced this year, Williams-Garcia expected to cheer on the winners for what had been a customary celebratory appearance on NBC's Today show. But after a decade of annual interviews, NBC turned down publicity requests from the American Library Association—which administers the awards—in favor of a sit-down with Jersey Shore star Snooki , who had come out with a book of her own.

"It's just a big thing for children's books because we don't get the same exposure as the regular market," Williams-Garcia explained. "So it was a huge disappointment and sent a large ripple through the community."

The episode brought back unpleasant memories for another author, Laura Vaccaro Seeger, whose 2007 book First the Egg won a Caldecott honor. After being invited on the Today show to talk about a book she published in 2003, Seeger was bumped for Madonna, who had just come out with The English Roses, a picture book about schoolgirls in London.

"Media and publishers are basically responding to what the public wants. Or what they think the public wants," says Seeger. But she was consoled when, shortly after her ill-fated television experience, Seeger took her kids to a bookstore and watched from a distance as a mother put Madonna's book down and bought hers—at the request of a pleading child.

Kids know what they like, which usually has little to do with what they are supposed to like. "That's why I love writing for kids. Because they're not really persuaded by the hype. They just love a good story," says Maryland-based author Margaret Meacham, who has taught children's literature and writing at Goucher College.

As for the stories of stars, "obviously some of them are not worth the paper they're written on. On the other hand, there are some who can write," says Courtot. She cited Jamie Lee Curtis and Marlo Thomas as examples. The staff at Books of Wonder liked Julie Andrews, who has penned some of her books under her married name, perhaps to disguise her celebrity. Williams-Garcia says Curtis Jackson, otherwise known as 50 Cent, has a knack for crafting young-adult literature.
But for the most part, says Schanzer, "It shows. The books are different." She and fellow non-fiction authors of young adult books can spend a year or two working on one book, seven days a week. Schanzer traveled to the Galapagos to research for her book on Charles Darwin's expedition, and consulted scholarly materials as historical references.

Moore, on the other hand, wrote the first draft of Freckleface on a place to London in the margins of her Filofax. While working on her novel, "Modelland," (due out September 13th), Trya Banks "spent so much time in libraries," she said in an interview, "When I was working on America's Next Top Model I'd leave that set and write until four o'clock in the morning. I got carpel tunnel because I type with two fingers."

Her editor at Random House, Wendy Loggia, said Banks initially came to her with an outline for the book, which "was a great jumping off point. And that's where I came in." Banks sent in her manuscript one section at a time over the course of a year and a half, keeping in touch with Loggia by sending text messages from the set of her show. "I think we were both kind of finding our way," says Loggia. "She was learning about publishing and learning about turning in a manuscript, and character development."

Indeed, writing children's literature is more challenging that it might seem. An author must use compelling structure without causing confusion; write in creative language without jumping too far ahead of young readers' vocabulary; express pain without scaring children off. Authors and librarians say that a book is as successful as its story, and where some books fail—particularly those authored by celebrities—is in their didactic attempts to teach simple lessons.

"Some people sell the elementary school kids a little bit short," says Courtot. They can be as discriminating as older readers. When Williams-Garcia writes, she tries to "respect a young person's experience and their thoughts."

"I don't really approve of anything that's dumbed down, that doesn't treat kids with respect," says Courtot, adding, "I mean, if these kids can run around pronouncing dinosaur syllables with ten names then, come on, they can read something with a little more meat to it."

When kids encounter a good book, the response is palpable. "When you share that book with children, the room goes silent, they lean in closer, they want to touch the book," says Lukehart. And, she noted, "I've seen few celebrity books that create that response."

Lukehart has come to realize that, by releasing celebrity books, children's publishers can take risks on unknown authors. It's all part of a business ecosystem that revolves as much around star-savvy parents as what makes a 6 year-old's eyes grow wide over and over again. "I'm almost more frustrated with the people buying them than the people publishing them," says Seeger.
For Williams-Garcia, celebrity books are "a nice supplementary diet. But I would certainly not like a young person to think that is all that reading has in store."

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Rosalyn Schanzer

Booking Service author and illustrator Rosalyn Schanzer recently won the Society of Illustrators Gold Medal for the Best Illustrated Book of 2011. Roz, a frequent contributor and member of the I.N.K blog (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids), wrote a piece about how she was informed she won.

Her winning book, Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem, comes out on September 13th. You can watch the stop-motion animation book trailer here.

To have Roz visit your school or organization email

Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem
Rosalyn Schanzer
For the smart, stunning Witches!: The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem, Rosalyn Schanzer chose a subject that is well suited to her talents as a writer and illustrator: the mass hysteria that erupted in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 and 1693, and led to more than 150 arrests and 20 executions. Schanzer’s appealing storyteller’s style will draw readers into this strangest of episodes in American history and keep them riveted. She deftly manages a large cast of characters and structures her narrative just as she should: straightforwardly and chronologically, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions or make broader comparisons. “The root of all this horror and pandemonium lies buried in a dark and misty past,” Schanzer writes. Her black and white scratchboard illustrations--highlighted with startling touches of red--evoke that past and the spirit of the tale. Their stylized sophistication recalls the wood engravings of Fritz Eichenberg, yet one also sees playful touches that mark this as Schanzer’s work. I love the enormous demonic beast lurking beneath the Atlantic’s waves; the decorated initials that begin each chapter; the imaginative use of patterns. Witches! will appeal to readers seeking an accurate, entertaining account of the Salem witch trials. This fine book will also attract students who have read The Crucible and want the complete story behind the play. 2011, National Geographic, Ages 10 up, $16.95. Reviewer: Catherine Reef (Children’s Literature).
ISBN: 978-1-4263-0869-7