Monday, November 27, 2006


Well, I'm back after visiting the International Schools in Tokyo, in honor of two consecutive years of Sakura Award nominations, one for SAHARA SPECIAL and one for DIARY OF A FAIRY GODMOTHER. The Sakura, being a children's choice award, meant that the nominations were made by my intended audience, and was therefore an especially touching honor. Here are a few cool things about Japan:

The International Schools, which I knew very little about until I accepted this invitation. I thought they were military schools, but in fact they were a network of private schools for children whose parents are primarily in business or otherwise work abroad. There are no Japanese children in attendance, as they must go to the national schools so that they can learn enough Kanji to succeed in the culture at large. The schools I visited were progressive, diverse and full of happy children (why not? They get to bang on drums at school! How rock and roll is that!) and OUTSTANDING are some cuties who are all carried away by the adventures of Jenni Holm's BABYMOUSE series. Good taste, girls!

The librarians, teachers and administrators were warm and knowledgable at every stop. My family for the most part stayed with Wouter, a Belgian librarian and all-around fun guy, and his lovely, welcoming wife and perfect baby son. Wouter's library was like an idea factory, with different funny hats hanging everywhere. Wouter explained that these were his "thinking caps," and children helped choose just the right hat he should wear before storytime, so he would be able to translate from Finnish into English. I put one on, but I still could not speak Finnish.

Everywhere, people treated us so generously, and were so thoughtful. One school had a royal tempura lunch biked in, another librarian had five different pastries to choose from for breakfast. One headmistress I stayed with had two little girls, and invited a boy to sleep over so my son would have someone to play with. Another librarian and her young daughter took us out to a supper that was so beautiful, my husband and I were up late into the night, replaying each dish over in our minds...and we have been replaying the jokes at the table over long after that! At every school, I met with children I will not soon forget, and educators in environments where achievement is a top priority, but were fiercely committed to giving children a wide variety of material to read for enjoyment so that they might create lifelong readers, not just test-takers. I am not naming names here for internet safety reasons, but I'll tell you, I've got a lot of thank-you notes to write!

The food.
I love good, beautiful food so much (maybe second to books!) and the Japanese cuisine was definitely a highlight of my trip. In the basements of the department stores are prepared food counters that go on for a city block. The most beautiful pastries are nestled into little boxes with foil tissue, and individual freezer packets to keep the cakes the right temperature while in transit.

This care is strangely countered with an excess of mayonnaise on pretty much everything else, and tuna, shrimp and egg salad sandwiches for sale almost everywhere you go. They cannot possibly ALL be properly refrigerated, can they? Still, I took my chances and they were delicious. But deep-fried dough balls with a little dead octopus inside? No no no no no. I waited for the dark day of food poisoning, but was apparently looked after by my Guardian Foodie Angel. Perhaps the friendliest meal of all were the pancakes that actually smiled back at us at a local café. Talk about a good morning!

Also great were the plastic food samples on display in windows everywhere, helpful for pointing at when you don't have the right words (though the nasty brown plastic gravy is enough to make you lose your more than your power of speech). Here is a picture of me and author David Schwartz, who was touring the schools in honor of HOW MUCH IS A MILLION among his many, many other celebrated titles. David shared my passion for plates both palatable and plastic, the latter pictured behind us. Also had the pleasure of riding the train with him while he was shlepping a bag of ten thousand pieces of popcorn to his school visits. What a guy! What a presenter! I would have loved more time to visit, but there were more friends to see...

SCBWI Japan. The fledgling Tokyo chapter of the Society of Children's Writers and Illustrators very kindly rolled out the welcome mat to me, and we enjoyed charming company and one of the best meals of our whole stay in the marvelous restaurant owned by the family of Naomi Kojima. She is the author of the great new book hot off of the presses, SINGING SHIJIMI CLAMS, which brings to mind a kinder, gentler version of Lewis Carroll's "Walrus and the Carpenter," featuring a not-wicked-witch who befriends her supper; a strong addition to multicultural collections. Also pictured with me are young adult novelist Holly Thompson, illustrator John Shelley (who has a pretty wonderful book coming out next year, he showed me advance proofs) and not pictured is the multi-talented Gerri Sorrells, who, along with her husband, took the time to get us on the right track, literally, in the subway. To find out more about these and other international children's literature talents, check out SCBWI Japan. I must say, I love being a part of this professional organization; it's like having a caring, enthusiastic family away from home, wherever I go.

People-watching. The women in Japan seem, for the most part, very slim and gorgeous, and probably the most fashionable I've seen anywhere in the world. Their style is really stunning and imaginative, with faboo three inch heels, plaids and flowers and fearless uses of color, like artists; feathers, Chanel bags, haircuts like women in shampoo commercials. Some of the more splashy young people dress like super-ultra-hip crazy rave DJ's who scream out a la Kurt Cobain (kids hold band practice on the sidewalk, amps and all) and spiky-haired goth girls whose witchy-poo look make them seem as if they just stepped off of the pages of DIARY OF A FAIRY GODMOTHER, except their gracious bowing belies their true natures. Apart from these uber-mod tesselations, the men in suits, women in skirts, children in Prussian-influenced school uniforms (where can I get one of those sailor suits?) and general use of hats make everything seem like another time period altogether.

Which means, shopping's off. The clothes are cut for size-2 fashion models, not for nice midwestern "I'll have a cheeseburger-with-thousand-island-dressing" gals like me. Though how do the women fit these clothes, when there are potato salad sandwiches for sale everywhere, and if the food stops moving long enough, it will be breaded and fried (and covered with mayonnaise)? The thinness is very mysterious. Also, lots of soft-spoken women. Voices oh so very gentle and low, like a breeze through the maples. Huh? Wha? Excuse me? I started to go a little crazy, like I was living the "puffy shirt" episode of Seinfeld. Ooo, when those gorgeous girls decide to speak up, watch out, world!

Sight-seeing. This was mostly a working trip for me, visiting schools almost every day, but what better sight can there be than smiling children? All the same, I was excited to have a little time to make two memorable visits: one, to the statue of Hachiko, the faithful dog who walked his master to and from the train station every day, and when the owner died at work, the dog continued to come for years and years. Also took the Shinkansen, or bullet train, to the Peace Museum in Hiroshima, where I was able to see the real paper cranes of Sadako, who folded them by the thousands in an act of hope that she would survive the radiation poisoning that ravaged her body after the dropping of the Atomic Bomb. I had read about the cranes, but had no idea how tiny they really were, some of them folded with the tips of needles. In the photo below, they are lit from beneath. The museum was memorable and stirring; I wished that everyone could see it, especially those in military training, as it gives a resonating understanding of the causes and effects of war. I liked what conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein wrote in the guest book: "Fewer words! More actions!"

On the way back to Tokyo, we stopped at an amazing handicraft store in Kyoto, where we saw breathtaking modern and antique woodcut poster art (a special delight for my husband, who is an artist in a similar medium) and plenty of dolls. Hours slipped away, staring at the beautiful work and choosing souvenirs (I couldn't resist a couple of bells to use as a call to storytime!). On another Sunday, I was very psyched to be at a local shrine for Shichi-go-san, a holiday in which gratitude for children's health at the ages of 3, 5 and 7 is commemorated. Little children were really decked out in full traditional costume to celebrate their special day , and got colorful goody bags as souvenirs. Parents and grandparents were bursting with pride, and puppet shows and dramatic performances abounded along the path. What a merry time!

People said it would be very different in Japan, and while I was for the most part comfortable, truth be told, there were a couple of culture shocks at least as hard to swallow as ball-o-octopus:

The endless faux pas. Like the main character in my new book I try to be a polite person, and like the character in the book, I often fail. In Tokyo, it is impolite to eat while you walk or to put one's hands in one's pockets or cross one's arms. Three things I didn't realize I do all the time until I couldn't do them anymore.

The trains. I was hopeless when it came to taking the trains and busses. The splayed, colored, interweaving lines of the subway system reminded me of certain illustrations of the nervous system in my high school biology textbooks. Yes, some of the words are in English, but when the words are the likes of Kichijoji and Shibuya, territory for Auntie Esme, folks. Wouter was especially patient about drawing maps and arranging liasons.

There was a picture in Richard Scarry's now out-of-print BUSY, BUSY WORLD, in which a beetle goes into a Japanese subway train with a big fat round sausage and comes out with a long thin noodle-like sausage. When I was a kid, I thought that was hilarious. But Richard Scarry was not kidding. Imagine the most crowded subway car you possibly can. Then add thirty people. "Pushmen" come with big flat paddles shove in the people who are still hanging out, grappling at the edges of the doors. Sweet Mother. Once inside, no talking, please, and no looking at each other. Just sleeping, playing games on cell phones and checking out the nudie cuties in a manga digest.

Overall, though, a toast to Tokyo, using any of the fine beverages in the numerous dispensers all over the city (green tea, anyone?)! Sayonara is such sweet sorrow, but I'm glad to be back in the states and look forward to beating this jet lag and being your holiday shopping helper, recommending the best new books and old favorites in the days to come.

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to
support your local bookseller.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


Hello all! Today I hope you will indulge me in a personal note, because I have big news to share: I am leaving tomorrow for Tokyo, Japan! SAHARA SPECIAL was a recent nominee for the Sakura Medal, a wonderful honor, and it will be an even greater honor to speak with children and meet with parents and educators at a number of International Schools in and around this exciting city. During the coming weeks, I will not be blogging because I do not travel with my computer, and also, because I will be too busy eating sushi, trying to get on the right Shinkansen and hopefully picking up some of the fabuloso fashion style of the Japanese teenagers. Though I would love to put you all in my suitcase and take you along, given recent airport security measures I don't think we could pull it off. So instead, I'll catch you all up on the adventure when I get back, and in the meantime you can travel vicariously by checking out these three Japanese-influenced picture books:

CAT AND MOUSE by Jiwon Oh (HarperCollins)
Cat and mouse are roomates and best friends…until mischievious monkey drops down and offers cat, of all things, a cookbook. Suddenly, Cat's goombah is looking especially gourmet. Cat can't stop envisioning the different delicious ways he might be prepared, and a slightly gruesome double-page spread suggests mouse in a variety of poses, including taco, potsticker, and even in an ice cream cone. The illustrations clearly have a Japanese aesthetic, with a setting of pagodas, mountains and cherry blossoms, and cat takes a decidedly Eastern tack to tackle his snack attack: he climbs a mountain and meditates on his contemplated misdeed till he goes a bit kooky and is rescued by her forgiving friend. The humor in this book is definitely dark, but the dramatic "Tom and Jerry" quality of the plot with a twist is sure to turn on kids who need to turn off Cartoon Network . The graphically sumptuous computer-generated artwork is so crisp and smooth, you will probably find yourself running your hands over the pages. Ultimately, this quirky book is very refreshing, with many elements that are completely original and will catch you off guard. Though not as "cutesy" as it may seem at first glance, the ending sums up what the dedication of this book suggests: "for friendship." (5 and up)

TASTY BABY BELLY BUTTONS by Judy Sierra, illustrated by Meilo So (Knopf) Moms and Dads all know how delicious baby belly buttons are. Unfortunately, the terrible Onis have also discovered this scrumptious delicacy, and steal all the babies away! Uriko-hime, or "melon princess," is born inside a watermelon (notice her pink and black kimono!) and grows up to rescue the toddlers in trouble. Featuring a strong female lead, this Japanese folktale-adventure is paced just right for a lively storytime with lots of good chanting (like the Onis' "Belly buttons/Belly buttons/Tasty Baby Belly Buttons!"). Serve butterscotch candies or some other small round treat at the end and call them belly buttons! Or, crack open a watermelon and see what's inside (probably seeds, but you never know)! (5 and up)

KAMISHIBAI MAN by Ed Young (Houghton Mifflin)
Kamishibai, or "paper theater," is an art form popularized during an economic depression in Japan during the 1930's. The kamishibai storyteller would be surrounded by children, eager to hear his tales and see the hand-painted illustrations, and buy the candies from his cart. But with the advent of the television, the unique form of street performance loses its audience. What's an old kamishibai man to do? This touching story chronicles what happens when an artist once celebrated ventures out into a modern, urban world, filled with traffic and television, for a final performance. Will he find his audience once more? Sophisticated ideas of aging and cultural change make this ideal for discussion with older children, and young artists may also enjoy trying to create their own kamishibai. Warning: you may need two copies of this book, because you'll want to cut out the pictures and frame them. (7 and up)

Other personal news:
An audio interview about my new book, VIVE LA PARIS, can be heard at the Book of Life website, at You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy! This is a podcast that I listen to regularly, full of great bookloving information and real voices behind the books we love, so I was delighted to be asked to be interviewed by Heidi Estrin, who earlier in the season wrote the following review for the Association of Jewish Libraries:

Paris is a black fifth-grade girl with a large, loving family, a creative schoolteacher, and a funny-and-wise elderly Jewish piano teacher. While the protagonist of the book is not Jewish, this is a book that Jewish readers should take time for. A mix of lyrical prose and real “kid-speak” reveals Paris’s inner thoughts on family, on getting along with others, and on the girl who bullies Paris’s peace-loving brother. Paris’s piano teacher gives her the yellow star she has kept since the Holocaust, and Paris, in ignorance, wears it to school believing it is a gang badge. As a consequence, she is assigned to learn about World War II and temporarily loses her own faith in humankind. Her struggle with the burden of knowledge, and her steps back toward embracing life, are handled with sensitivity and even joy. This is a beautifully-written and universal story that goes beyond “never forget” and shows a girl coming into her own as a mensch to help heal the world. This book belongs in Jewish libraries, Christian libraries, Muslim libraries, and every other kind of library serving youth.

Well, I think this is about the best review I could ever hope for, and I must extend my deepest thanks to Ms. Estrin for her most generous remarks...I only wish every author who puts a best effort forward could enjoy such amazing kindness as I was privileged to receive here. In my latest novel, I was indeed very interested in trying to write a secular book about what it means to be your brother’s keeper, and how hard is it, really, to love your enemy. In that vein, I would also love to introduce you to author Jean Marzollo. Originally of I SPY series fame, she went on to teach herself illustration, coming up with a lovely, free-flowing line, a computer-meets-Chagall-like style and using her new talent to create highly accessible retellings of Old Testament stories such as DAVID AND GOLIATH, DANIEL IN THE LIONS' DEN, JONAH AND THE WHALE (AND THE WORM),MIRIAM AND HER BROTHER MOSES, and RUTH AND NAOMI. Whatever your faith, you will appreciate the storytelling style just right for introducing these tales to the very young, stories that are alluded to throughout literature and life, with lively running commentary delivered in the lower margins by creatures great and small. Together, they make a wonderful holiday gift, and a wonderful collection

Speaking of holiday gifts, while I am away, please check in the Blog-a-Day archives where hundreds of recommendations are posted, and more will be waiting for you right here, in time for holiday shopping after Thanksgiving. (You will be reading Laurie Halse Anderson's eye-opening THANK YOU, SARAH: THE WOMAN WHO SAVED THANKSGIVING and Lisa Wheeler's hilarious TURK AND RUNT around Turkey Day, won't you?) For now, though, sayonara!

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


FLOTSAM by David Wiesner (Clarion)
"Flotsam" is something that floats, in this case, an old-fashioned camera, tossed without harm onto the shore by a wayward wave, and into the hands of a young naturalist, a boy who has his microscope in a zip-lock bag and was beforehand occupied with the obeservation of crabs through a magnifying glass. Lo and behold, there is film in this camera, and, in character, our curious friend has it developed; but neither he or us, the lucky onlookers, will believe our eyes. Clockwork carp, cities built on sea-turtle backs, starfish that dwarf sperm whales, extraterrestrial tourists on a scuba expedition, an octopus holding court in an undersea living-room read-aloud (my favorite, worth the price of the book alone), and one strange picture of another child that goes back-back-back in time, and offers a clue of what our boy should do next. This crazily imaginative candid camera gives new meaning to "a picture is worth a thousand words," and contains so much detail, from the wrinkle of the beach towel to the beachcomber's collection on the title page, one would practically expect sand to trickle out of the seams or to hear the ocean if you held this book up to your ear. I think it takes a certain genius to create a book in which we don't miss the language at all; the book still works as a "look-aloud" with a group, with panels in which actions are easy to describe, and other pictures that thankfully require nothing more of us than a groan of admiration and delight. Despite the two Caldecotts and two Caldecott honors Weisner has garnered in the past, I would have to say this latest effort blows the rest out of the water. (5 and up)

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.

Monday, November 06, 2006


ABBIE IN STITCHES by Cynthia Cotten, illustrated by Beth Peck (Farrar Straus Giroux)
Needlework was an important part of a girl's education in the early 19th century; she would someday need the skill to sew household linens and clothing for her family, or use her ability to help provide support. But this is of little concern to Abbie, whose crooked stitches and blood-spotted linens from pricked fingers are evidence of her frustration at being put to the task, when she would so much rather be reading! When she, along with a gaggle of more gifted girls, is called upon to make a sampler, and she can't decide what the subject should be...but when she decides to put what she really feels into words, her fingers fly. This story misses some visual opportunities; a few examples of the stitches on the endpapers, for example, or a photograph of a finished sampler along with the informative afterword would have been welcome. That said, the expressive figures throughout done in evocative oil pastels go far to capture this girl's true spirit, and a spirit that was surely shared by booklovers both then and now. The resolution and ultimate, if measured, understanding from her family is believable. Overall, a lovely and liberating historical picture book. (7 and up)

Also of interest:
One good reader deserves another! Try this other period piece about a title-seeker who will not be thwarted:
THE HARD-TIMES JAR by by Ethel Footman Smothers, John Holyfield (Farrar Stras Giroux) Emma is one book-hungry little girl. But money is "scarcer than hen's teeth," which means "no extras" for this family of African American migrant workers, and that includes no store-bought books. So Emma makes her own , fastening brown paper pages with safety pins. When Emma starts school, it is with much trepidation, until kind Miss Miller reveals-- wonder of wonders!--a coatroom full of books! The temptation to take one home proves too much for Emma, Will her lapse be the end of her chances to read, or will it be the beginning of her mother recognizing that maybe a book is worth taking money out of the family's "hard times jar"? Beautiful paintings featuring elongated figures against lush backdrops are frame-worthy, a perfect accent to this sensitive story about the allure of literature and it's value. You'll be glad you took money out of your "hard times jar" for this one; it belongs in the collection of anyone whose heart has beaten a little bit faster at the sight of a brand-new book. (6 and up)

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.

Friday, November 03, 2006


CHICKENS TO THE RESCUE by John Himmelman (Holt)
When Farmer Greenstalk drops his watch down the well, it's chickens to the rescue! When Mrs. Greenstalk is too tired to make dinner, guess what? Chickens to the rescue! When the big wind blows a cow into a tree, have no fear! Chickens to the rescue! Whether a dog has eaten the homework, sheep wander off into the woods, or Ernie the duck takes off with the truck, it's chickens saving the day in the most hilarious and cooperative way, every day of the week, or so it seems...come Sunday, when Emily Greenstalk spills her breakfast, will she find our heros come to the rescue, or are they having their day of rest? A surprise ending gives lovely, laugh-out loud closure to a near- perfect picture book, full of page after page of the kind of visual wit that mark the works of Sandra Boynton (MOO, BAA, LA LA LA) and Betsy Lewin (CLICK, CLACK, MOO: COWS THAT TYPE, with Doreen Cronin). With chickens typing on computer keyboards and looking decidedly peeved at reckless duck driving habits, this book rescues us from the picture-book blahs, with a message that manages to create a provocative balance between the need to cooperate to get things done and the need to sometimes come to our own darn rescue. (5 and up)

Also of interest:
MANNY'S COWS: THE NIAGARA FALLS TALE by Suzy Becker (HarperCollins) Preposterous story of young Manny who decides it's time to go on vacation, even if it means shlepping his five hundred milk cows along with him. Factual sidelines about the care and feeding of cows mixes like butter with Becker's sketchy cartoons and a story that somehow, crazily, manges to get us to suspend our belief and root for our hard-working hero (though he might need a vacation after this vacation). A barrel of laughs. (5 and up)

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


HORNS AND WRINKLES by Joseph Helgerson (Houghton Mifflin)
Use the word "fantasy," and what comes to mind? Dragons? Hobbits? Time tesselations? How about the Mississippi River? In ths fetching little tome (love the textured lizard-skin endpapers) we have the rare American breed of fantasy, as this quest down our very own legendary waterway leads characters--and readers--into funny and cliffhanging encounters with trolls (wearing bicycle suits and threatening things like" I'll turn you into books. Thick ones with no pictures and tiny print"), fairies (who knew they abounded around Minnesota?) and, um, fortune-telling catfish. The first page even starts with a cliffhanger (or rather, a bridgehanger) of a first sentence: "My cousin Duke's troubles on the river started the day he dangled me off the wagon wheel bridge," and doesn't let up unti the last page. Readers can decide for themselves if cousin Duke deserved the horn that grew on his nose. Funny and original, at last, we are over the rainbow here in the literary Midwest. (9 and up)

Also of interest:
For another fine American fantasy but with an East Coast flair, check out Laura Ruby's WALL IN THE WING, in which readers can decide which wish they would prefer to have granted: to fly, or to be invisible. (11 and up)

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


WHAT ATHLETES ARE MADE OF by Hanoch Piven (Atheneum)

Photographed collage illustrations a la Joan Steiner's LOOK-ALIKES utlizes everyday objects in ingenious ways to create fantastic portraits of twenty three sport superstars representing both genders and a variety of sports and cultural/racial backgrounds. Babe Rith has a hot dog for a mouth (he did eat eight of them at Coney Island one afternoon), David Beckham has pink nail polish bottle for a nose (he painted his nails to match his girlfriend's), and every page has such a thoughtful visual detail to point out and discuss. Though the clever pictures will be pored over again and again, the anecdotes are equally strong: "Once when [Mohammed Ali] was on a plane, the flight attendant told him to fasten his seat belt. 'Superman don't need no seat belt,' he bragged. 'Well, Superman don't need to airplane,' she shot back. Ali fastened his seat belt." Also inspiring is how Pele pressed the pause button on the war between Biafra and Nigeria for two days just by playing his game, and the advice given to children by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: "You should have dreams as students in addition to having dreams as athletes." A "post game recap" at the end of the book contains real photos, stats and career highlights for every game-player named. A strong addition to any biography or sports collection, it's also a fantastic read-aloud.I know, because I had the pleasure of having a sixth grade boy read it to me cover-to-cover, without my asking, because he thought it was that good. Do you need another reason to get your hands on this one? Home run, goal, touchdown! The crowd goes wild for this, the kind of book boys battle to be next in line to read. (7 and up)

Also of interest:
By the same author, in the same artistic style (since this one will leave you wanting more),
WHAT PRESIDENTS ARE MADE OF (Atheneum), just in time for Election Day! And
FACES: 78 PORTRAITS FROM MADONNA TO THE POPE (Pomegranite), decidely more grown-up, but good fun for any fan of pop culture...good for upper-grade social studies discussion as well.

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.


Related Posts with Thumbnails