Wednesday, February 04, 2009


Oooh boy, booklovers, the 2009 list is off to a running start.

GERTRUDE IS GERTRUDE IS GERTRUDE IS GERTRUDE by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Calef Brown (Atheneum)
to greet her magesty, Queen Gertrude.
Artists and artists and writers and artists.
Artists are artists and artists will be artists.
What will writers be we do not know.
Just writers probably. Everybody talks.
Talk talk talk talk. Laugh laugh. More talk.
Laugh. Okay. Enough.
This book is an invitation to an avant-garde party, peopled by the likes of Picasso and Hemingway and Matisse, a popular poodle, and a chance to join in the joyful passing of days with Gertrude Stein and her best girl Alice B. Toklas (not serving up any of her infamous brownies in this children's book). Filled with all the artistic temperaments of guests and hosts told in the marvelous, repetitive, lulling style of its subject, this book is a playful toast that offers lots of question marks in an exclamation point world. We see why Gertrude loved modern art ("Those crazy pictures sure are crazy. Who cares? A picture is a picture. It can be whatever it wants to be") and why she loved her friend and companion Alice ("But tonight Miss Gertrude is just so so so happy as a baby, so happy. And Alice is happy, happy as a mother, so so happy"). Brown is at the top of his game, with matte acrylic illustrations that are at once accessibly folksy and as angular as any modernist, in a brave palette that calls to mind the work of Maira Kalman. Why would we give such a sophisticated book to a child? While young children may certainly not clue into all the cultural references, at its heart, this book is about freedom, and children get that. Children also undrestand periwinkle people and bears in chairs and roses and cows and loving our friends very much and going somewhere. "Often mocked in her lifetime, Stein is now praised for being among the most original and influential voices of the twentieth century," says the author's note, and the author also writes, "Thank you for laughing. Thank you for writing. Thank you for having fun when you write." This unusual book will make readers say thank you, too. (5 and up)

Also of interest:
More artistic temperaments, in honor of the writing achievements of my "peeps" in the SCBWI Illinois "New Year, New Novel" (NYNNies!) group. The goal was to write 50,000 words in a month; I managed little over 30,000, and salute the many who hit the high mark. Congratulations, super writers!

BELLA & BEAN by Rebecca Kai Dotlich, illustrated by Aileen Leijten (Atheneum) Writing does not come easily to Bella, a poet whose efforts are perpetually interrupted by her well-intentioned friend Bean. Besides needing to get a second copy simply so I can rip out and frame the first page depicting a mouse writing in the window of her little treehouse, this is far and away the most realistic depiction of the writing process ever to have been penned in a children's book, definitely underscoring that writing is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. Patient Bean is not thwarted by Bella's grouchiness:
"I've been told I have the cutest toes," said Bean, turning her foot this way and that.
"Who told you that?" asked Bella.
"Secret," said Bean. And she swung her leg back down to the ground.
"Well, here's a secret for you," said Bella. "Poets need peace and quiet."
Bella secretly, almost desperately, longs to join Bean in her excursions and chit-chat, but her concentration and commitment pay off, and she ultimately composes a fine ode to their friendship. This book has a sweetness to it, a delicate loveliness in the lines both written and drawn, but underlying both is a brave honesty about love being where love might not always seem to be, and the tolerance required to bring out the best in the people we care about. (6 and up)

HOUNDSLEY AND CATINA by James Howe, illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay (Candlewick)
Catina is an aspiring author. Houndsley is a talented cook. Both have aspirations of fame and recognition, but they may ultimately have to settle for the audience of one good friend. Just the opening is worth the price of the book: "Catina wanted to be a writer. Every evening after dinner, she would make herself a cup of ginger tea and sit down to write another chapter in her book. So far she had written severty-three chapters." (I guess she could give Bella some pointers aboutwriter's block, huh!) An early reader in chapter book form, the droll and heartfelt writing makes this little gem glow. (5 and up)

THE DOT by Peter Reynolds (Candlewick) The teacher of a frustrated young artist suggests, "just make a mark and see where it takes you." This reassuring tale that will bring out the artist in every child. Check out the companion title, ISH, about a creative boy whose abstract interpretations may not look exactly like a vase or a tree, but definitely appears vase-ish and tree-ish.(4 and up)

STRANGE MR. SATIE by M.T. Anderson, illustrated by Petra Mathers (Viking)
I asked my husband, an artist, what he thought of this book, and he said, "If I had read this book as a kid, it would have changed the way I thought life could be." Composer Erik Satie did indeed put the en garde in the avant-garde, hanging out with Picasso (he sure got around, didn't he?), tossing his girlfriend out of a window (luckily, she was a circus performer and landed safely), wearing seven identical grey velvet suits, playing jazz on typewriters, producing ballets that required live camels and cannons firing, and fathering the movement known as surrealism. This is a man who, instead of writing instructions in his music like fast, loud or slowly, gave directions like "from the end of the eyes" and "I want a hat of solid mahogany." I don't know if everyone would want Mr. Satie as a friend after reading this book, but he sure was a colorful character, and this comes through very clearly thanks to the affectionate and sympathetic treatment by both author and illustrator. This is a very accessible children's book about a complicated eccentric, in part because of the understated, imaginative artwork that arranges the chaos (look at the drawing of Satie's ideas playing out, quite literally, across stanzas of music) and gorgeous, succinct writing that reads like musical notes; the last page of this book may be the best I have ever read in children's biography. (6 and up)

On a personal note:
I'm looking forward to meeting with friends old and new at the Wisconsin State Reading Association conference later this week, and talking about the great books of 2008 and the backstory behind my most recent novel, VIVE LA PARIS. To any attendees visiting this site: a special welcome!

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Anonymous said...

I am so glad to have found your site! I also adore children's literature and will most definitely be following your blog.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mrs. Codell,
I am a Middle School teacher in Pocatello, Idaho. I read your wonderful book. Sahara Special, last might and instantly fell in love with it and your style of writing. I look forward to reading Vive La Paris today. I use children's literature in my social studies classes and look forward to getting more book ideas from your blog. I also teach a course on the Holocaust. Do you have any book recommendations or suggestions for this topic?
Thank you,
Mary Anne Hansen
Irving Middle School
Pocatello, Idaho

Aileen Leijten said...

I am so happy you enjoyed Bella & Bean.
That is just great!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for visiting Our Scented Cottage and for your lovely comment! I love your blog and your cause. Thank you for being there for the children! Have a wonderful week.


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