Tuesday, October 09, 2007


ARTIST TO ARTIST: 23 MAJOR ILLUSTRATORS TALK TO CHILDREN ABOUT THEIR ART, to benefit the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art (Philomel)
"Dear Young Artist," the book begins. Three words against a blank white background. What follows makes for one of the most useful and most inspiring books of the year; a series of letters by twenty three illustrators directly addresses aspiring artists young and old with true pearls of wisdom. The letters express a variety of views, some suggesting that artistic talent is a gift you are born into while others believing it is hard won and still others believe it is in all of us. Some artists encourage academic study while others recall a more autodidactic path. Some voices feel academic while others are more colloquial. The contradictions do well to serve the idea that there is no one way to skin a cat or make a beautiful picture. Each letter is followed by an illustrated self-portrait by the artist, and then a fold-out double-page spread which displays a variety of samples of early work, sketchbook pages and studio photos. A small sampling of some of the wisdom and insight contained in the text:

"Leo would quote a book that he read years ago--'when a painter paints a tree, he becomes a tree.' Whatever we create, he believed, we fill with our own thoughts and feelings...but when Leo said he became a tree, he also thought the tree became him. 'Of course, I am Frederick,' he said...and he was Swimmny when he became the eye of the giant fish. All of his characters were part of his own self, and he thought that was probably true of every children's book author." --Annie Lionni (Leo Lionni's granddaughter)

"If you dare to dream of becoming an artist, you will dare to be different. This will take courage, and your family and friends may not always understand, but to be an artist is to have the gift of seeing the world in a unique way; a gift you can share with the world for the rest of your life. " --Wendell Minor

"You must never illustrate exactly what is written. You must find a space in the text so that the pictures can do the work. Then you must let the words take over where words do it best. It's a funny kind of juggling act."
--Maurice Sendak

"Young children make marvelous pictures. There is nothing they can't draw. They paint and draw from their imaginations and the world around them. And they are not afraid to draw anything." --Alice Provenson

Sometimes esoteric, sometimes direct, each letter is filled with real, usable advice given in a palpable spirit of generosity, an outpouring that suggests this was a letter each artist had been waiting to write. The all-star casting reads like a literary red-carpet walk: Quentin Blake (most famous for his illustrations for Roald Dahl). Steven Kellogg. Mordicai Gerstein. Tomie dePaola. Robert Sabuda. Rosemary Wells. On and on, this book is like getting to hear the secrets from some of the true greats of the past quarter century, and is full of surprises (do you know why THE POLAR EXPRESS is illustrated in pencil?). But beyond these pragmatic offerings, this book goes far to connect children to the idea that there are real people trying to share something behind every book they read, and is a marvel of contemplative appreciation of process. Readers will come away with the understanding that art is a lifelong endeavor with room to change and grow and improve, and children in particular will recognize their own location on the timeline of creativity like a big red dot that reads, "you are here." These letters are a road map to artistic enlightenment in the world of children's literature, and makes for the most instructive book about the illustrative process I have read since Molly Bang's PICTURE THIS: HOW PICTURES WORK. I shared it with a teacher friend in pre-publication form, and she said she literally had dreams about it and had its pub date on her calendar, but the wait is over. Every single member of SCBWI, every art educator, every children' book lover and certainly every child deserves to have this extraordinary book to pore over for years to come. And an added bonus: royalties benefot the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. You just can't beat this book with a stick...or a paintbrush, pen, pencil or marker, for that matter.

Also of interest:
THE DOT by Peter H. Reynolds (Candlewick)
Aggghhh, the empty paper, every artist's bane! What to draw, what to draw? "Just make a mark and see where it takes you," Vashti's teacher advises. When the dot gets kudos in class, Vashti ups her own antie and makes quite a splash at the art show. When another student asks her advice, Vashti knows just what to say. Simple lines of pen and ink, and simple lines of text, but don't be fooled. This unassuming little book is really a splendid tribute to the daring of art, and how much chutzpah it takes for any artist to make his or her mark. An inspiring must-have for any school with an arts program, and a double-must-have for any child who attends a school without one! (6 and up)
Check out more great books for aspiring young authors and illustrators at http://planetesme.com/creative.html! I especially like TALKING WITH ARTISTS series edited by Pat Cummings and Aliki's HOW A BOOK IS MADE, pages of which I just showed on an overhead to the whole second and third grade. Good, solid, informative stuff!

On a personal note:
This past weekend was the awesome booklover blowout, the First hopefully Annual Kidlitosphere conference which by some very happy accident ended up being held in Rosemont, Illinois, right outside of my-kind-of-town, Chicago-is! Initiated by Robin Brande (author of the funny and brave teen fiction EVOLUTION, ME AND OTHER FREAKS OF NATURE), it was supposed to be a dinner party for a few on-line friends but blossomed into a pow-wow of over 60 cyberspace superstars to determine the best ways to disseminate information, to hone the fine art of book-sharing, and to put real friendly faces together with cyberspace personas. Sessions about the business side of blogging, promotion, the many reasons authors blog, how to hone our on-line voices and the ethics of writing reviews were just a few of the many hot topics shared in tight, rapid-fire sessions done largely in a round-table forum that allowed for so much participation. A few highlights for me:
- Podcasting 101, led by the very knowledgable Mark Blevis. He also compiled an amazing photo album of the conference, with a slide show that allows me to keep enjoying the day that I wished would never end, and through which you can attend the conference vicariously. My favorite part of his presentation, though, was learning that I could subscribe to his children's literature podcast...and so can you!
- The author signing at the end of Saturday, in which attendees each got a limited edition linoleum block print poster done by my husband Jim Pollock. The poster featured John "Appleseed" Chapman who planted a seed every day and changed the landscape of our nation. Reading aloud every day and sharing a book every day can change the landscape of our nation, too! Woo-hoo! Attendees then visited with over 20 local and national authors who signed the poster and talked about their books, and shared some of them as juicy door prizes, ooooo, including a great surprisr gift bag from Three Silly Chicks that included a chicken gun (!) and a copy of Andrea Beaty's latest picture book, IGGY PECK, ARCHITECT. I was excited to learn about Micol Ostow's work in progress, THE GITTLEMAN STAR, a hilarious graphic novel for intermediate readers that will knock your socks off! It was also a thrill to meet P.J. Haarsma, author of THE SOFTWIRE: VIRUS ON ORBUS I who I have long admired; hey, it's plenty hard to find a good science-fiction pick for kids 9-12 and this one does the trick! I was crazy psyched that illustrator Matthew Cordell (THE MOON IS LA LUNA: SILLY RHYMES IN ENGLISH AND SPANISH) and Julie Halpern, author of the young adult novel GET WELL SOON made it, because their books are so brand-spanking new and their talent is so sparkling, it made me feel very cutting-edge that they were there...I also loved Julie's frowny-face cookies to match her book cover. And goody, I scored a copy of Sara Lewis Holmes' LETTERS FROM RAPUNZEL, a book of fairy-tale correspondence that I can't wait to climb into my tower and read. It was also so great so to see so many of my Illinois SCBWI brethren, including ; we do have the most amazing chapter, just check out our newsletter, The Prairie Wind, and see for yourself. Special thanks to Ruth Spiro for her list of Illinois authors with upcoming books which was so helpful in organizing this event.
- Laini Taylor's hair, which was the most gorgeous shade of pink, I could totally not stop staring at it and even made her hold it against my head in the bathroom so I could see what it would look like on me (alas, a far cry). She attended with her lovely husband Jim, the illustrator of her wildly popular young adult fantasy, THE FAERIES OF DREAMDARK. Her description of the conference on her really beautiful blog also captured the spirit of the thing and gives a pretty good description of what the "kidlitosphere" is all about.

See, isn't it the best hair ever?
Her book is every bit as wonderful.

- The thrill of meeting bloggers in person, like Kelly Herold of Big A Little A and the real live MotherReader, whose blogs I frequent. I also learned about the importance of community (I am more of a lurker than a commenter and that is naughty), chatting with the very friendly Jenny Schwartzberg of the Newbery library in Chicago (who knew they had a collection of thousands of rare children's books?) and was newly inspired to try to figure out how to create a blogroll of links to the kidlit universe on this blog (coming soon)! It was also great to get to know the very kind school librarian Camille Powell, a Texas soul-sister, and the extraordinarily inventive bookseller Faith Hochhalter from Changing Hands Bookstore in Arizona. Not everyone there was a blogger, but everyone there sure was a booklover!
poster given to conference attendees as a PlanetEsme.com present

- Lunch at Steak and Shake, and while that double cheeeburger was pretty delicious it not as good as sitting across the table from premier writing coach Esther Hershenhorn, whose skills are often imitated in the industry but never ever duplicated.
- The ride home with Laura Montenegro, author of A BIRD ABOUT TO SING, a really sensitive story about a girl who is shy to present in front of people that has encouraged many of my early childhood students. The car seemed to float instead of drive as we relegated our everyday to-do lists to the back seat and shared dreams of exploding the world of book-loving like a beautiful pinata, dreams that I'm afraid we will have to make come true sooner rather than later...
- And finally, the off-site blogger's brunch at the PlanetEsme Gingerbread apartment. I was actually very nervous about this as it was the first unveiling of the new space since moving from the Bookroom, and I had three separate nightmares the night before about various surreal ways I was being kept from preparing a decent breakfast for my guests, but luckily the sun rose and none of them were true. And so after a long hot summer of unpacking 12,000 books and trying to undo some of the decorating heinousness of the prior owners (do closets really need green carpeting?), it was with a sigh of relief that people seemed to enjoy the new space and filled it with the good spirit that makes a place special more than any paint or bookshelves or Halloween decorations ever could. I am so grateful to have the space graced by such esteemed guests. Thanks to all who attended!

Thanks to Mark Blevis for the photo.
Thanks to my husband and son for my special gift from

One of the things that was brought up was compiling a list of teacher-friendly blogs for sharing, and on my lunch break today I compiled a few faves for the grade-school set, so you educators out there can cut and paste for your parent newsletters:

Mother Reader
Big A Little A
Just One More Book
Jen Robinson’s Book Page
What Adrienne Thinks About That
A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy
Book Buds
Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Wizards Wireless
A Year of Reading
The Edge of the Forest
The Miss Rumphius Effect
A Fuse #8 Production
Jacket Flap
Three Silly Chicks
Chicken Spaghetti
Purled Pouches and Things Unstrung
The PlanetEsme Plan

As a school librarian I am going to send my list home with teachers and parents with a packet of instant hot chocolate or maybe some ginger-peach tea attached, to remind grown-ups to take their time and really explore the resources out there, not to rush through, relax and seek out a reviewer and a resource you can really trust and will suit the tastes of the young readers you know and the collection you are trying to build. Keep in mind, my list reflects my k-6 leanings but there are tons of great young adult resources to be discovered as well; check out Cynthia Smith's Cynsations for a springboard into that world, and feel free to post your own faves in the comments section. It's fine and dandy when folks ask the librarian what their children to read, but I've said it before (wait! wait! Let me drag the soapbox out of the closet), in order to become true supporting characters in our children's reading life stories, we've got to be active participants and do all we can to widen our own girth of knowledge so we can individualize instruction using children's lit.

And speaking of widening our girth. Here is the much requested recipe from the brunch at the PlanetEsme Gingerbread Apartment:

Blintz Souffle Recipe (adapted from the King Kold website)

2 packs frozen blintzes (any flavor)
1/4 lb. butter
5 eggs, well beaten
1 1/2 cups sour cream
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon Orange Juice (optional)

Melt butter in 2 quart casserole and place blintzes over butter in one layer. Blend other ingredients with well beaten eggs and pour over blintzes. Bake for 45 minutes in 350 degree oven or until the tops start to brown. Serve with powdered sugar, jam or sour cream.

Serving Suggestion: use both cheese blintzes and fruit filled blintzes. When placing the blintzes in the casserole, alternate the cheese blintzes with the fruit blintzes for a unique variety!

Enjoy! And hope to see you next year at the blogger's jubilee in Portland, Oregon!

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

Sunday, August 19, 2007


WHERE I LIVE by Eileen Spinelli, illustrated by Matt Phelan (Dial)
The good news: Diana won a contest with her poem about the sun and is going to get to go to a workshop with a real, live author; her best friend Diana lets her borrow her fetching purple flopple (sometimes); and mom is coming home soon after taking care of Grandpa Joe, who broke his arm. The bad news: all the whispering Diana has overheard has been about the job Dad has lost, and now the family is going to have to move in with Grandpa Joe. How can Diana ever leave her beloved yellow house, or find a friend as fun and loyal as Rose? Will she still get to meet the author? A middle-class American child's common dilemmas get a sympathetic treatment here, and are given gravity and immediacy. With no shortage of issues, the author manages to bring it around believably and naturally, lest we forget that from a child's POV ups and downs really do seem to happen at a rapid-fire pace. First person prose is given a line-by-line poetic format and adds to its readability. I appreciated the illustrator's depiction of Diana's best friend Rose as an African-American, a refreshing inclusion in the suburban setting. This book is an excellent choice for kids who are looking for a book about "a kid like me." (7 and up)

And "moving" right along...
HALF A WORLD AWAY by Libby Gleeson, illustrated by Freya Blackwood (Scholastic) Exceptionally beautiful watercolors grace of this story of two great friends separated half a world away by a move. "If I call Amy really loudly, she'll hear me, won't she?" "Maybe," says grandma. "You can only try." The boy's call covers wordless double-page spreads across the country and into the distant city in the form of clouds, a dream that is felt and recognized by his dear friend so far away. This book so gracefully acknowledges both the real pain children experience when a friend moves away as well as affirms the power children have to continue to love. Moving and beautiful, when I read it to a group of early childhood teachers, there was a lot of damp eyes and a choke in my own throat. As far as books that deal with childhood issues, this sensitive, hopeful and powerful title deserves to be a classic about moving the way Judith Viorst's THE TENTH GOOD THING ABOUT BARNEY marks the passing of a pet. (4 and up)

Also of interest:
Putting down prose in a lineated form is also employed by the popular young adult author Sonya Sones in many of her titles, including ONE OF THOSE HIDEOUS BOOKS WHERE THE MOTHER DIES (that is the actual title, not an editorial comment). But this stylistic choice is not the sole property of the teenage set. WHERE I LIVE immediately brought to mind my yellowing copy of Vivan L. Thompson and Lilian Obligado's SAD DAY GLAD DAY, also about a girl who has to move (in 1970, I'd say Thompson was way ahead of her time). The increasingly popular form also begs mentioning a couple of other poignant picks for point-of-view:
LOVE THAT DOG by Sharon Creech (Harper Trophy) Jack's opinion of poetry changes after connecting with author Walter Dean Myers. Is poetry just for girls, or does it spill out with the depth of Jack's feelings? Love that book. (8 and up)
AMBER WAS BRAVE, ESSIE WAS SMART by Vera Williams (HarperTrophy) Two savvy sisters navigate their urban setting and find fun under trying circumstances in this honest but hopeful portrait that every city kid will recognize and every suburban kid should know about. (7 and up).
SKETCHES FROM A SPY TREE by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, illustrated by Andrew Glass (Clarion) This very rich collection allows the reader to spend a season looking out from the boughs of a tree with a reflective friend. This volume will inspire journaling as well as poetry writing! (7 and up) This author is also a name to know when looking for fresh lineated prose; she used it in her latest novel, REACHING FOR SUN, which has already received many accolades for its masterful meshing of poetry and prose to get inside the head of the likable narrator Josie, who has cerebral palsy connects her own experience to her love of plants and things that grow. (12 and up).

On a personal note:

We are involved in a big move and change here...will you indulge me in a little goodbye (and maybe a hello, too?)

The PlanetEsme Bookroom started in 2004 as a physical manifestation of my website. It was a private, non-circulating library and literary salon geared toward parents and elementary school teachers, dedicated to the principles found in my book,HOW TO GET YOUR CHILD TO LOVE READING: FOR RAVENOUS AND RELUCTANT READERS ALIKE. Among them: Reading is more than a skill; it's a lifestyle. You can be your child's best teacher using children's literature. And no child is a lost cause when it comes to books any more than someone is a lost cause when it comes to falling in love; it's all about making the right connections. I was inspired by a visit to a Christian Science Reading Room that was at a bus stop where I often waited, but I had never ventured inside because it was not my faith. One day it occured to me that reading children's books and making sure people knew about the literature were a huge part of my faith, at least in humanity and the future of my country, so I went in and asked the very obliging librarian about the model and framework of the place, which was very simple, straightforward and welcoming. My husband, son and I then moved my collection of 12,000 children's books garnered over 18 years into a vacant appliance reconditioning shop, and transformed the place into Chicago's literary living room.

My husband built shelves as fast as I could fill them, and friends came bearing gifts: a hand-painted chair, a garbage can, light bulbs, a new lock for the door, a poem, a painting of a mermaid, golden promises by authors and illustrators to star in events. My uncle christened the joint with a noisy but handsome pipe organ, our famous "glonkenshponkel" which doubled as a burglar alarm. Besides special family events open to the community (like the Johnny Appleseed Anniversary party, magical convention, spring cleaning storytime, Hans Christian Andersen unbirthday party, Anansi shadow puppet show, Curious George camp, presidential picks complete with stump speeches by kids, literary love-in celebrating the best authors/illustrators you never heard of, Hannukah hoedown, holiday cookie swap), the space was used by many groups, including homeschoolers, college professors who brought their classes and my local chapter of SCBWI. I loved our monthly public "Wish List Wednesdays" in which I threw down the best of the best to consumers hungry for quality; I was so happy to talk to teachers-in-training about how children's trade literature can free them up to be the educators they wanted to be, and veterans who were invigorated by the possibilities that the titles brought to the planbook. I was excited to see parents write down recommendations for new books, and to read aloud to children every day.

A great reader makes her audience laugh!

We had an embarassment of riches when it came to visiting authors and illustrators. The events were free, with the expectation that everyone who attended bought a book in support of our guest artists. Some guests drew crowds that filled the room from wall-to-wall, though one of my very favorites was the cozy and mesmerizing show given by W. Nikola Lisa, telling his stories and the stories of others one rainy afternoon, making an hour pass like a few minutes. Or maybe it was watching a room full of folks illustrate on their own drawing boards while Matthew Cordell and Julie Halpern led the way. Or Caroline Crimi leading a monster mash in a green witchy wig, or Tom Lichtenheld in pirate regalia teaching children to say "aaaargh." Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer sharing childhood sketchbooks, Michael Buckley fielding hard questions from the audience about the difference between wonder tales and fairy tales. Mordicai Gerstein crumpling paper and imagining what the first drawing might look like. Bobbi Katz sharing poetry over melted brie and strawberry jam. Mem Fox down on the floor reading aloud to preschoolers, Cheryl Coon at the podium, talking about bibliotherapy with a room full of rapt parents and educators. Brian Selznick cracking up a standing-room only crowd, and Laura Ruby, Carmela Martino, and Brenda Ferber on a panel representing some of the Great Women of Fiction. All of these folks did wonders to empower the people who visited the Bookroom with the sense of possibility that comes with literacy, and the amazing revelation that there are real, vibrant people behind the books that we love.

Sugar gliders welcome at the Bookroom

The Bookroom did not recieve federal funding and I did not apply for not-for-profit status. I charged no membership fees and all of our events were free. I think people often stop themselves from doing things because they are daunted by a percieved lack of resources and preponderance of paperwork...I know this sometimes feels like a roadblock to me, too. I wanted to practice what I preached, "potato pedagogy," in How to Get Your Child to Love Reading and see what could be done with what I had. I used the advance I got for that book to start the space, and I did regular keynotes and speaking engagements every month to keep it afloat. People close (and not so close) suggested I might be a little bit crazy, and that I should save the money I was making for my own family or charge a fee, but I did not want to charge a fee because when people pay money they often feel entitled, and because of my speaking and writing schedule I could not acommodate those feelings. Besides, Albert Camus said:
"Insane generosity is the generosity of rebellion, which unhesitatingly gives the strength of its love and without a moment's delay refutes injustice. Its merit lies in making no calculations, distributing everything it possesses to life and to living men. It is thus that it is prodigal in its gifts to men to come. Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present."

Thanks to Andy Laties for introducing me to this quote. I think this is a very important value and a necessary paradigm shift for our country (if I may say so).

In the freezing Chicago February of this year, a pipe burst and flooded into the Bookroom. Thanks to a conscientious neighbor who noticed through a window that the floor looked "shiny," the water was stopped before serious damage to the collection could be done. It was a miracle! But the carpet and basement was badly damaged, and there was concern about mold. With the building going up for sale and my lease about to end, coupled with difficulties I had juggling my new full-time responsibilities as a school librarian, it was clear that the time had come to think about closing that location. I looked into buying the property, but the investment would have taken half a million dollars. I really didn't know if I had the heart to start again, but then as I was packing I came across a pamphlet I had written, "How to Start a Bookroom": "if you want a Bookroom, the equation is books + room + people + enthusiasm. You don’t need a lot to begin...the more you do with what you have, the more you will make people feel like they can do it, too, and that what they have to contribute is enough." (Incidentally, if you want a copy of the pamphlet, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to PlanetEsme.com, P.O. Box 6225, Evanston, IL 60204).

I am glad about the Bookroom because it really did exist in the real world exactly, exactly as I imagined it inside my mind, and every time I walked into it, it was like walking into the best and most cheerful part of my brain. It was so wonderful to imagine building something and then working hard to have it manifest itself in the real world that I can only recommend you do the same, whatever it is that you dream. I am so happy that my son could see it happen, so he knows it can be done; that knowledge, to me, is beyond anything he could have been promised in college (though I still hope he goes someday). I guess Camus was right, even if he was a little crazy. I learned a lot about how to grow the concept in the next round, and indeed, it is a concept that can blossom into something much bigger. I am glad for the social experiment aspect of it and for beginning that way, it was incredibly valuable. I am also very proud because a wonderful person named Julia Martin came to the Bookroom and reinvented the concept for her own not-for-profit, Bread for the Head, which has set up numerous Bookrooms in projects and economically challenged areas in and around Chicago, and I am delighted to serve on her board.

I write this like an obituary, but in fact there is plenty of reason to celebrate, as The PlanetEsme Gingerbread Apartment will be the new manifestation of PlanetEsme outside of cyberspace. The first gathering there will be a breakfast for the first annual Kidlitosphere blogger's convention, and then I look forward to having more people bring the best of themselves into the space as we create fresh and happy magic. Though the new space will dictate some new purpose, I am as excited as anyone else to discover what that will be, and meanwhile I continue to plan based on what I have learned. It was, as they say, a dream come true, and the only terrible side effect was that it has lured me into dreaming bigger, and feeling impatient about it.

Here is a poorly compressed video tour of the old Bookroom!
What do you think the new one should be like?

I am so grateful to so many, but here are just a few special thanks from the Bookroom:
THANK YOU to the rockin' reading people at the Patterson Pageturner Awards for their amazing prize! What an honor!
THANK YOU to Thomas Cray for his help with logos and wepage design!
THANK YOU to Liza Tursky for our garden, our candy mosaic, and your always outstretched helping hand!
THANK YOU to Karen Tipp for her very fairy-godmother-like donation of a copy machine to the PlanetEsme Bookroom!
THANK YOU to the Evanston Homeschooling Network for their continuing support through napkins, utensils and home-baked goodies!
THANK YOU to Alice Revelski for the various garden delights that continually decorated the room!
THANK YOU to Liz Moore at The Bookstall for the invaluable business partnership!
THANK YOU to Betty Sitbon and Maureen Breen for paintings and poetry!
THANK YOU to Sandra Soss for volunteering as my assistant!
THANK YOU to Veronica DiCapria for her loyalty and dedication to publicity!
THANK YOU to Pamela Dell, Diane Wood, Jesse Semeyn and The Foos for their special help and moral support during the move!
THANK YOU to Uncle Dave Newman for always being the fix-it-go-to-guy and for the loan of the glonkenshponkel, and all-around amazingness!
THANK YOU to my husband Jim for building the shelves and my dreams!
THANK YOU to my son for not wrestling in the space!
THANK YOU to Illinois SCBWI for continual cheerleading and participation in my programming!
THANK YOU to everyone who has offered their kind and generous support in so many ways!
THANK YOU to everyone who came and read and shared and taught and laughed and ate and gave the place an energy that will be hard to recreate or outdo...but it'll be fun to try!

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

Sunday, July 29, 2007


KEEKER series by Hadley Higginson, illustrated by Maja Andersen (Chronicle)

They say a horseshoe is good luck, and it certainly is a lucky day for second grade booklovers who have ever dreamed of having their own pony (this encompasses quite a few little girls, by the way). The dream is vicariously realized in this truly charming series featuring Keeker, a little girl clip-clopping in and out of adventures in the Vermont countryside with the help of her trusty four-legged sidekick, Plum. Straightforward stories use some old plot chestnuts (is the neighbor lady a witch? Is mom having a baby?) but always underscore familiar feelings, independence and the making and keeping of friendships, all fodder for future Girl Power. Every page has illustration, drawn with such clear, round lines that the artwork looks like stylized versions of drawings girls actually do make, with long-eyelashed girls and curlicue hair. Each book is short enough for emergent readers to find confidence, a picture-book amount of text in a chapter book format, so slightly older kids who still need skills won't feel stigmatized. I don't bandy the word "delightful" around lightly, but the retro flavor with contemporary appeal wins the Delightful Derby, and I am so happy to be able to recommend a romp down a reading trail that little girls will really enjoy. A few faves: KEEKER AND THE PONY CAMP CATASTROPHE, KEEKER AND THE SUGAR SHACK, KEEKER AND THE SNEAKY PONY, and KEEKER AND THE HORSE SHOW SHOW-OFF. (6 and up)

Also of interest:
My all-time favorite horse scene in a book is from Beverly Cleary's sleeper ELLEN TEBBITS , in which Ellen talks big in front of a friend about her equestrian knowledge, only to be scared out of her saddle when that friend takes her riding. Ahhh, I'm always a sucker for realistic fiction, but more seasoned fans of animal fare will find what they are looking for in HORSE STORIES edited by June Crebbin, illustrated by Inga Moore (Candlewick). I was never one of those "horsey girls," but even so, I could not resist this handsome volume of fourteen stories divided under such enticing headings as "Difficult Horses," "Dream Horses," "From the Horse's Mouth," "Horses in Danger" and "Horses to the Rescue." It includes selections from such classics as Marguerite Henry's MISTY OF CHINCOTEAGUE and Anna Sewell's BLACK BEAUTY, as well as tales that gallop through history and geography, like the moving Native American legend of the Mud Pony, the Horse of Milk White Jade of fourteenth century Mongolia, the legend of the steed chosen to carry Alexander the Great and the loyal gray palfrey that serves a knight of Medieval times. The equestrian backgrounds of both author and illustrator are evident in the loving care of the selections and the elegant full color plates capturing every flick of tail and toss of mane. Prepare for adventure and romance as you gallop through the pages of this gorgeous gift book. (8 and up)

Though KEEKER is a charmer, maybe you need a series with just a little more testosterone/gender balance? Find the ANDREW LOST SERIES by J.C. Greenberg and illustrated by Debbie Palen, adventures that take place in the harrowing microscopic world with the help of a shrinking machine. Excitement unfolds in a variety of settings (on pets, in the water, in the garden, in the kitchen and bathroom, caves, desert, and ...ugh!...garbage can ) and will open kids' eyes to the diminutive drama unfolding all around them. Imaginative and highly exclamatory, the author really did her homework, and as children learned a lot of history via Mary Pope Osborne's MAGIC TREE HOUSE, so will they learn a lot of science via ANDREW LOST. (7 and up)

On a personal note
When my son was very little and I groaned over Barney, my father, overhearing, gently corrected me by pointing out, "if a child likes something, there must be some good in it." Now I try to look for the good in what children like, and in doing so, I happily find more and more of what's good and likable in children. Affirming children's choices whenever possible really does seem to bring out their best.
I think both KEEKER and ANDREW LOST, like Barbara Park's good old JUNIE B. JONES, are books that adults may deem imperfect, but kids enjoy. (Though I am always wary about getting my news from the newspaper, see recent New York Times article, "Is Junie B. Jones Talking Trash?" for the peek-a-boo at the generational divide. By the way, I didn't fall in love with Junie until I heard the audio version read brilliantly by Lana Quintal, making clear to me the study of voice that is Junie...have you tried it?) What books have you found kids really like that don't float your boat, and vice versa? Please feel free to share in the comments section!

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

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


GINGER BEAR by Mini Grey (Knopf)

"...the cookie-bear was golden-colored and smelled lovely, and Horace wanted to take a bite, but-- 'No Horace," said Horace's Mum, 'it is too hot. You must wait for it to cool down.' An hour later, Horace remembered the cooled gingerbread bear and was about to take a bite, but-- ' No, Horace,' said Horace's Mum, 'you are just about to have dinner. You will spoil your appetite.' Before bedtime, Horace thought of the golden cookie bear and he was just gazing at it, but-- 'No, Horace,' said Horace's Mum, 'you have just cleaned your teeth.' Horace put the bear in a little tin and put it on his pillow."

These narrow escapes set the stage for Ginger Bear's awakening and a night of galavanting in the kitchen, creating a delectable circus of cousins, whose show comes to a crumbly end by the family pet ("Bongo the Dog liked cookies. But not in a way that is necessarily good for the cookies"). Where in the world can a cookie be safe? Though this story has no shortage of sugar icing and sprinkles, it is far from saccharine; fans of Leo Lionni's classic SWIMMY will recognize the high drama and mortality rate that motivates the creative problem-solving of the protagonist. Wry storytelling leads us to an ending is as satisfying as a whole plateful of pastry, but most delicious are the illustrations, with absolutely vibrant watercolors, acrylics and collage, visually kinetic without feeling cluttered, elements combining to make a world as solid and opaque and bright and real and dynamic as any child's imagination. The double-page spread of a cookie-like Guernica is suitably stirring ("no cookies were harmed in the making of this book," the author consoles on the copyright page), and how she could make a cookie with two eyes, a nose and no mouth at all so darn expressive is a mystery to me. I wonder if Mini Grey fretted about how to top the toy story that was TRACTION MAN IS HERE, well, she can sleep like a baby knowing with this latest title she is undeniably the Queen Empress of Anthropomorphism. There is something fearless about this book as there is something fearless about Ginger Bear, unshakable in her own faith that she can create a happy ending. Make sure you have plenty of cookie dough on hand to follow this reading...or heavy brown cardboard in case children prefer to cut out Ginger Bear creations that won't crumble. Mini Grey knows how to write books kids will not only like, but love, and this latest is as necessary in your picture-book pantry as salt and sugar is to the kitchen. (4 and up)

Also of interest:
Still hungry for more reading?
THE GINGERBREAD GIRL by Lisa Campbell Ernst (Dutton) Why should boys have all the fun? In this entertaining parody of the GINGERBREAD BOY, his smarter sister gives the classic ending a licorice twist. Add Jan Brett's THE GINGERBREAD BABY, and it's a family affair; visit the author's website for a printable board game! (5 and up)

THE GINGERBREAD RABBIT by Randall Jarrell, illustrated by Garth Williams (Dutton) I am concerned that you might not know this oldie but great-ie, a charming collaboration of a legendary poet/author and illustrator! Lonely for her daughter while she is at school (know how that goes, pre-school moms?), a doting mother makes a gingerbread cookie in the shape of a rabbit as a surprise for her little girl when she comes home, but alas, the cookie creation makes a getaway into the world that is a little wider than expected. Will the fox nab him, or will a real family of rabbits hop to his rescue? In this book, the good intentions are really good and the bad intentions are really bad, and the chases are squeal-worthy. With all the old-fashioned flavor of Howard Garis' UNCLE WIGGLY'S STORYBOOK and the warmth of a pre-heated oven, this is a perfect chapter book read-aloud for the very young. (4 and up)

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

Thursday, July 12, 2007


I recently was so very fortunate to attend the Association of Jewish Libraries conference in Phoenix, Arizona, for the honor of receiving a Sidney Taylor silver honor award for an outstanding contribution to the field of Jewish Literature for Children for my book, VIVE LA PARIS. It was the first time this award was given for a book featuring an African American protagonist, and I must say it was one of my proudest professional achievements. During the conference, besides making many new friends, laughing with old ones and getting to enjoy a lot of good food, I attended some amazing booktalks and came away with gems. Here are just a bissel of the best that landed in my luggage!

I AM MARC CHAGALL by Bimba Landmann (Eerdmans) 3-D collage scenes populate the pages with cows, chickens donkeys, musicians and angels, the dreamlike populations of Chagall's Russian childhood and artistic imagination that insisted, "painting is as necessary as bread." Based on the artist's autobiography, the story is a great adventure of a poet-artist, a testament to possibility. Chagall speaks about children, "I was delighted to see that they understood that the world inside us is at times more real than the world outside." That line alone is worth the price of the book. (5 and up)

by Stephen Krensky, illustrated by Greg Harlin (Dutton) All right, it's definitely early, but if we can have Christmas in July, why not Hanukkah? I had the great pleasure of hearing both author and illustrator speak about how this book came to fruition. With a great sense of humor, Krensky shared how he once was learning to write under none other than Natalie Babbitt (author of TUCK EVERLASTING), and shared with his audience a critique of his manuscript in which she had made a remark or correction for nearly every line. Instead of being thwarted by the criticism, he was grateful, realizing that in writing, "everything counts." His well-researched prose of a likely event in which George Washington comes upon a Hanukkah celebration during the Revolutionary War is coupled by the graceful and accomplished watercolors by Harlin. Though this very sweet illustrator was shy when faced with the roomful of people, his talent came through loud and clear as he walked around "sketches" worthy of an art museum's walls and oohs and ahhs from everyone in the audience. More than a holiday story, this Sydney Taylor gold-medal winner for picture books is a piece de resistance of author/artist collaboration, and a nice reminder that America has always been a melting pot. (5 and up)

by Ellen Schwartz (Tundra Books) Some bad luck and tragic outcomes leave nine-year-old mixed-race Joey Sexton to live with his aunt, a Jewish woman from the Bronx, and his bigoted grandfather who has trouble getting past the choices of his daughter. Can the support of members of his newfound family and the rise of a baseball star named Jackie Robinson keep Joey from striking out? Though some of the baseball history fact-checking could have been tightened, strong dialogue and characterization make this a grand slam for realistic fiction, and the paperback format and manageable size make it a good warm-up for reluctant readers; the last teacher I gave it to bought a classroom set of thirty. A solid choice for read-aloud, classroom lit circles or book clubs, and fun to compare and contrast with Bette Bao Lord's IN THE YEAR OF THE BOAR AND JACKIE ROBINSON (one of my all-time favorites, incidentally) and Dan Gutman's JACKIE AND ME. (10 and up)

by Dave Horowitz (Putnam) Though I did not encounter this book at the conference, I would like to nominate it for consideration for next year's notable books! Based on the popular preschool fingerplay "Five Little Ducklings," readers follow along as five pieces of gefilte (a bit like a fishy matzoh ball) go out of their jar and far away, taking in plays (next weekon the marquee: "Goldie Lox and the 3 Shmears"), crash a deli buffet ("such chutzpah!" complain the knishes), and shelp around New York's garmet district in a taxi cab. "Oy vey," kvetches Mama Gefilte who is so lonely without them, but she shouldn't worry because she has raised mensches (good people) who don't forget to come back. Full of wit and visual jokes, you don't have to be Jewish to enjoy this very funny multicultural piece of children's lit, especially thanks to the dandy glossary at the back which serves as a JOYS OF YIDDISH for kids. Even if gefilte fish seems less than deelish, so what? You don't have to eat it, you just have to read it! (4 and up)

Also of interest:
If you enjoy these picks, be sure to get a Sydney Taylor Book Award kit, which includes a brochure, 20 bookmarks, a Quest for the Best CD-ROM (a truly amazing resource for booklovers of any faith), and enough gold and silver seals for the most recent year’s winner and honor books!

On a personal note:
An 2007 AJL convention photo album! Thanks to Kathe and Etta for snapping and sending!

Okay, first things first! I had the out-of-body experience of meeting super-glammy Jo Taylor Marshall, the daughter of Sidney Taylor (legendary author of the timeless ALL-OF-A-KIND FAMILY series that celebrated the urban experience of a Jewish family in the early part of the 20th century). I had the infinite honor of sitting at her table along with members of her family during the award ceremony, though I was really too star-struck to strike up a conversation (and for me, that's saying a lot).

This year the Taylor family generously underwrote a new teen category for the award, which went to Markus Zusak for her masterpiece THE BOOK THIEF, Alice Hoffman's INCANTATION and Dana Reinhardt's A BRIEF CHAPTER IN MY IMPOSSIBLE LIFE. I got to have a lovely informal lunch with Mark and Dana (above) and also attended their very engaging session in which they teamed up to lend considerable insight into their work and the genre, answering the age-old question: what is the real difference between young adult and adult literature? Answer: well, I'm still not sure, but books that feature young adults are a clue, and maybe it doesn't matter in the end, so long as the book is terrific. In the session, women in the audience struggled mightily to ignore Mark's apparent disfigurement, Australian accent, wedding ring and accompanying love-of-wife, and focus instead on his thoughtful comments. Keep fighting the good fight, ladies! And hey Dana, what are you, chopped liver?! You're plenty pretty and smart, too...and the woman can write!!!

Another Mount-Everest high point for me was getting to share a session with Jennifer Roy, who wrote what may very well be the most important children's book of the past year, YELLOW STAR (Marshall Cavendish), real history told in free verse, inspired by interviews with her aunt who was one of a dozen children to survive the Nazi terrors in the Lodz ghettos during WWII. The brilliance of this book is that besides being honest and powerful, it is one that is truly age-appropriate for intermediate readers on the Holocaust, a subject that often seems impossible to broach. I expected to meet someone in her 70's, and was stunned that such a wise and sensitive book was delivered by someone who was so young. It was a pleasure meeting one of her sisters and her mother, and also learning that she also had an identical twin sister, Julia DeVillers, who is the author of HOW MY PERSONAL, PRIVATE JOURNAL BECAME A BESTSELLER, which is airing later this month (July 21!) on the Disney Channel as "Read it and Weep". A lot of talent in one family, and a happy chapter, I think, in the legacy of her family's rich history. The session was deftly facilitated by Kathe Pinchuck. I was very delighted not to have to follow Jennifer as she gave a fantastic presentation incorporating maps and pictures, and had everyone's heart beating faster and more than a few tears flowing. Her experience as both a gifted and talented and special education teacher really shone through, both as a speaker and as the creator of a book that belongs in every classroom of every faith. She would be a dream guest author at any school, that's for sure! Visit her home page at JenniferRoy.com.
See these women? These are heavy hitters here. To the left is former award committee chair Heidi Estrin, who now runs the Book of Life podcast (2007 winner of the Bronze medal for outstanding audio blog...congratulations, Heidi!) , and who at one point was sporting a fabulous t-shirt illustrated by Caldecott winner Simms Taback that we all need to incorporate into our summer wardrobes. Rachel Kamin, on the right, is the current chair and a shockingly dynamic leader, who also was a stellar presence at one of the best sessions I have attended at any conference ever, titled "Adventures in Book Reviewing," which moved along at a well-timed clip that could have been a t.v. show, it was so fun to watch. Over hours that flew by like minutes, attendees were treated to a variety pack of author talks, reviews of the best books of the year by a hard core panel of librarian reviewers (Rachel Kamin, Nancy Austein, Kathy Bloomfield, Susan Berson and Kathe Pinchuck), and a brutal literary pummeling session titled "what's hot, what's not" in which reviewers with opposing views of the same book vehemently stated their cases with the fervor of high-school-debate-team-meets-roller-derby. Believe me, authors in the audience were sweating! Rachel Kamin duked it out over Micol Ostow's EMILY GOLDBERG LEARNS TO SALSA, among others. (Rachel, please get a blog! The whole world needs to hear your sassy, saucy POV!) All of this was followed with an exciting preview of what the Sidney Taylor committee is looking at now, including submissions that did not necessarily fully fit their criteria but were excellent in their own right. It was truly fascinating and enlightening, as someone who approaches books from such a secular perspective, to see each book analyzed from so many different lenses of religious practice: liberal, reform, conservative, and beyond. I really came away even more deeply appreciating what a reader brings to a book and how that impacts the interpretation of the content. I'm sure this is true whether the reader is an adult or a child. It was also impressive how even when the discussion became heated and people were very invested in their opinions, the warmth did not dissipate. This was a showcase of booklovers and people-lovers hard at work, and neither passion was compromised.

The awards ceremony was very touching, with kind and unusual attention and description given to the work of each awardee. Of course I cried when local girl and goombah Brenda Ferber accepted her gold award for her novel JULIA'S KITCHEN, I was so very, very proud of her. Earlier in the day, she gave a wonderful session in which she read extensively from her real-life journal, describing the ebb and flow of emotion and the hard work she put into her manuscript, all leading up to the great news that she had won. You've got to check out her son Sammy's hilarious take on his mom's great victory on her blog! If you want more vicarious conference attendance, check out the AJL blog comprised of entries from many attendees.

Most of all, I was proud of AJL. I've said it before and I'll say it again and again, my own great honor notwithstanding, the Sidney Taylor Award is a hyperion of what a book award should be, and sets an example for other book awards that establish criteria based on the author instead of what's in the binding. Meticulous debate, transparency, and a love of literature were clearly the order of the day, and every day that went into the work of AJL this past year. I would hope in future years the American Library Association would embrace this award as they have The Coretta Scott King Award and Pura Belpre Award, as it would only reflect well on them to do so and there is clearly a large enough body of work to warrant it. Meanwhile, kudos to everyone who worked so hard to create such a phenomenal conference. I look forward to attending the 40th anniversary of the Sydney Taylor Awards at the AJL conference in Cleveland next year, and urge anyone who works with books and children and who is interested in professional development to join me!

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


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