Thursday, September 25, 2008


THIS IS YOUR LIFE CYCLE WITH SPECIAL GUEST DAHLIA THE DRAGONFLY by Heather Lynn Miller, illustrated by Michael Chesworth (Clarion)
While this generation may not be familiar with the Ralph Edwards program, the format that follows the arc from egg to nymph is effective in conveying the drama of a dragonyfly's life. From the tear-jerking (but understandable) demise of her mother after laying eight-hundred eggs to nail-biting escapes from predators to the tender coming of-age story that is molting, and, of course, a word from the sponsor ("Bird-B-Gone"), the efforts of the chronology are not wasted on Dahlia ("I'm so excited, I popped my exoskeleton!") or on readers. The illustrations are as busy and manic as live televsion, and the story is written in such a back-and-forth dialogue that read-aloud is a challenge (pair and compare with Kingfisher's crazy excellent Backyard Books series by Judy Allen, like ARE YOU A DRAGONFLY? for a more demure treatment); but if you manage to convey the format, it's a content-rich book that begs for more scripted episodes based on the lives of other creatures in the animal kingdom, which the children can write and then act out on YouTube for all of our entertainment. Salmon: this is your life! Elephant: this is your life! Apple: this is your life! Paramecium: this is your life! Beats a dry old oral report any day. (8 and up)

Also of interest:
Round and round we go with more life cycle fun!

TROUT ARE MADE OF TREES by April Pulley Sayre, illustrated by Kate Endle (Charlesbridge) You think you know what you're made of? You think you can handle the truth? Well, the truth is, trees are made of trout, and trout are made of trees, and this simple little book of few words and huge ideas does a deliciously unsentimental job of laying out life cycles and our interconnectedness. Reminicent of sitting with a pot-head having an epiphany, and almost as enlightening and provocative a children's book as Mordicai Gerstein's MOUNTAINS OF TIBET, even the youngest readers will see the world in a new and thoughtful way. (4 and up)

HOUDINI THE MAGIC CATERPILLAR by Janet Pedersen (Clarion) "You will do amazing and magical things, Houdini," whispered Houdini's mother when he was just a tiny egg, nestled on a bright green leaf. Watch carefully as a little class pet who loves the spotlight performs a magic trick that has all eyes on him. Inspired by some classroom posters, Houdini does an impressive disappearing act that ends with quite the "ta-da!" Funny, sweet, and sincere, Houdini's fetching eyebrows are worth the price of the book alone, and scenes are painted with colorful, wet strokes on large pages, easy for sharing with a group. Almost every kindergarten class studies metamorphosis, and this really perfect combination of story and science offers up a very hungry caterpillar with a fresh personality. Grab a butterfly garden and watch the show live! (4 and up)

On a personal note:
I first met Leonard Marcus in New York City, where he gave
me and some friends a grand tour of Grand Central Station.

Thanks to all who attended the Matzo Balls with Leonard Marcus event at the PlanetEsme Bookroom, we really did have matzo balls and we really did have the celebrated scholar Leonard Marcus, and best of all, we had some very lively conversation! I felt very proud of the community of booklovers that gathered and had such intelligent commentary and questions, many strong and outspoken women persisting in trying to find out the best way to serve children through literature through the exchange. Wow, my cup runnethed over, being in the room. I also was very excited to see some new faces, including author Emily Ecton, who was just so lovely and sweet as a cookie, you'd never know just by looking at her that she'd give R.L. Stine some goosebumps of his own with her own grisly brand of older-kiddie-horror (try THE CURSE OF CUDDLES MCGEE , about an angry hamster who has come back from the grave).

I couldn't get enough of that Marcus stuff, so I went to see him speak again a week later at National Louis University's Center for Teaching through Children's Books, where he was our tour guide through a timeline of children's book history a la MINDERS OF MAKE-BELIEVE: IDEALISTS, ENTREPRENEURS AND THE SHAPING OF AMERICAN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE. Though I don't imagine it was his intent, at one point in the lecture I was struck with how much influence New York has had on children's publishing as its American geographical hub, and I wondered 1) what sort of regionalism has been infused into children's publishing as a result, consciously and unconsciously, and 2) with all due respect, from a business standpoint, why the heck is New York, one of the most expensive cities in the world, still the capitol of children's publishing? The only other big success story mentioned was indeed Midwestern: Golden Books originally out of Wisconsin, and one of the most enduring and successful children's publishing enterprises of all time; the more recent Pleasant Company, also located in Wisconsin, is another Midwestern success story. Fast on the heels of these thoughts came the big article in New York Magazine: "Have We Reached the End of Book Publishing As We Know It?" Well, at the risk of alienating my wonderful New York readers, I am going to have to nominate Chicago as the new geographical hub of children's publishing and give you a few reasons why. We have much more elbow room, and the rent is cheaper. We have one of the most active and supportive SCBWI chapters in the nation. We are home to the national headquarters of The American Library Association, hundreds of amazing independent award-winning booksellers in the area, including veterans like The Bookstall, Women and Children First, and Anderson's Bookshop (who hosts behemoth booktalks with teachers from all over the state) and more independents opening all the time. We are geographically central and home to O'Hare International Airport, one of the biggest in the world, making it easy and relatively inexpensive to travel to and fro any where else, plus we have a solid public transportation system throughout the 'hoods. We have a commitment to our environment, with a mayoral plan to keep us on the list of greenest cities. While New York may rightly boast about the inimitable Broadway, Chicago also has great theater traditions (Steppenwolf and Second City are nothing to sneeze at), we have outstanding restaurants (Rick Bayless lives here, we have deep-dish pizza and the world's finest hot dogs!), art and cultural museums (don't miss Coleen Moore's Fairy Castle at the Museum of Science and Industry) and two outstanding zoos (sorry, Central Park and Holden Caufield, you haven't lived until you've ridden the endangered-species-go round at the Lincoln Park). Chicago has a reputation for being cold, but I'm guessing that's just something we say to keep out those who aren't hearty and hale. Though we certainly take some icy gales, it's really not much colder than New York; it just seems that way because we get a chill from running alongside that amazing lake that looks like an ocean, and almost thirty miles of beach. And as far as literacy initiatives go, we have Dave Eggers' Boring Store, NLU's aforementioned initiative, one of the world's leading research libraries (currently exhibiting 700 Years of Children's Books), the ever-expanding Rohner Letterpress , and the entire City of Readers program (which inspired whole subways full of everyone reading To Kill a Mockingbird; what a sight!) and of course, the fabulous PlanetEsme Bookroom. Inventive, always new, and always growing, this was the place to be at the turn of the last century, and I think it's the place to be at the start of this one. Here in Chi-town, we are a city with big shoulders...and that means we can carry a lot of books.

But let's talk about the M.O.'s in NYC publishing that are causing a financial 9-1-1. Smaller lists with more equitable distribution of publicity would probably make more sense than buying the work of authors and then not giving the kind of attention that is necessary for the book to find its audience, as the New York magazine article suggests. Kind of like buying a car and never driving it, but how could they ever get it out of such an overcrowded lot, even if they wanted to? The market is glutted, far exceeding the demand and most publishers know it, though nobody wants to bell that cat by tightening their lists and investing in what (and who) they already have. Would Margaret Wise Brown or Leo Lionni have been published or kept in print given the current model? It's hard to imagine; and I see for myself how many outstanding books fall by the wayside and are out of print in a couple of years. This is a disservice to the children on top of a waste of resources. I know from my "small is beautiful" approach that one of the signs of a business failure is when the resource of the human element is undervalued. When publishers lose money, they also start firing and displacing editors and publicists who require higher salaries by virtue of experience and track records, and bring on undertrained newbies or have staffs continually in flux. So, yes, publishing will fail this way, you bet. But in the interest of life cycles and metamorphosis, I know there in a butterfly-in-progress, and I am excited to see publishing's next incarnation, which will undoubtedly and necessarily be the result of a lot of change.

So. With Chicago making its energetic Olympic bid, I have to get into the spirit and remind the powers that be that, like Horton's Whos, "we are here, we are here, we are here,"in the midst of these changes and challenges. Dear New York, I love a good Judy Holliday movie as much as the next person, and have no qualms with your sensational skyscraping town. But Chicago is a less expensive place to live and to do business, but with many of the same cultural and culinary perks. Please, the next time you consider relocating your office, or for any publishing/agenting/book-promoting/bookloving mavericks out there, please look past the stereotypical corncobbery of the Midwest and into our potential. Imagine a publishing house with less overhead and more money to spend on the talents it takes to create and promote good books, and a standard of living that allows employees to live better (or at least in bigger apartments) at a rate employers can afford. So much depends on the survival of the industry in one form or another, not only in terms of individual jobs, which are certainly important, but also in terms of the education of children and the forward trajectory of critical thinking and democracy, all of which we can ill afford to take for granted. So publishing people, I put this forth: I double-dog-dare dare you to revitalize yourselves. No, I double-Chicago-style-Vienna-beef-hot-dog dare you.

That's my opinion! Decide for yourself what the next best chapter is in the history of children's literature by reading Leonard Marcus's new book, and with that in mind, I offer a giveaway of a free autographed copy to one winner, chosen from comment-posters below in the next week. Good luck!

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Unknown said...

Yes! Yes! Yes! You raise some excellent points, Esme. I'd love for the publishers to move to Chicago. :-)

Thanks also for the matzo ball soup and for bringing Leonard Marcus to The Bookroom. Twas a lovely afternoon, indeed!

Deb M said...

I love your blog and reviews! I'm very interested in the future of children's literature and would love a copy of Marcus' book. I'm a mom of 2 preschoolers and have been astounded at the variations in quality in kid's books. We have had terrific discussions based on great books and I try and help other parents make the most of their read-aloud time with books that will come alive for their families.
Regards Debra

Misrule said...

Don't forget, Esme, that Chicago is also home to the wonderful program "Literature for All of Us", which I visited during my Churchill Fellowship in 2001.

I love both Chicago and NYC. Here in Australia, we have a bit of a Sydney V Melbourne thing so far as publishers, booksellers and literary activity goes. Alas, Melbourne is beating us hands down!


Judith in Sydney

Librarians: Mrs Sutera, Mrs. Fick said...

Esme, you've hit the nail on the head regarding all of the wonderful benefits of naming Chicago the new publishing capitol of the world. Might I add a few others? We have wonderful ethnic neighborhoods for visiting, shopping, and dining (Greektown, Chinatown), we're within a few hours drive of fantastic weekend getaways (Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana), and our Cubs and White Sox can challenge the Mets and Yankees for a baseball rivalry any day. Illinois is already home to a stellar list of authors, both of children's books and those for adults. That's not even including the wonderful illustrators that call the state home. So yes, we'll welcome any publisher looking to relocate or to establish a footing here. They'll find they're right at home here. Thanks, Esme, for being our enthusiastic Chicago spokesperson!

Anonymous said...

I've never understood why we have so few children's publishers in Chicago. I agree wholeheartedly with your comments! Thanks so much.

Anonymous said...

I love your blog! I have been reading for awhile now but haven't commented- nothing like a good contest to get the lurkers out... I am a mom to two pre-school girls. I also hold degrees in speech therapy and reading education but think I really want to be a librarian! Would love to read this book!

Anonymous said...

Esme for President!
How often is good sense so much fun to read?
Thank you.

Alysa Stewart said...

I just moved to IL, and I vote Chicago, too! That book sounds interesting as well.

Anonymous said... kind of town!

Anonymous said...

Dear Esme,

I'm sorry to hear I missed your event :( Hopefully I'll be able to come to your next one - as always, it's wonderful to hear about new innovations in Children's literature and I can't wait to read Minders of Make Believe. I also agree that Chicago does in fact rock. All the best, Eti

Kelley B said...

Though I'm not a publisher (or author) I AM a children's librarian and we're planning on a week in Chicago for our honeymoon (first week of November) and I can't wait! Thanks for the hot dog links and the fairy castle info (we were already planning on the Museum of S and I but I'm glad to know this ahead of time!) Thanks!


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