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Ten (or so) Great 2014 Kid Books for Gift-giving

I have read and loved a ton of books this year; among my many favorites are the following suggestions for great gifts this holiday season.

1, For a book that will be fun for a wide range of middle-grade readers and is also a great book to read aloud as a family, check out Jennifer L. Holm’s The Fourteenth GoldfishThis deceptively spare book (comes in at just under 200 pages) packs quite a punch. It offers a clever take on a trope that is not unfamiliar in children’s books — that of an older person suddenly contending with being young again. In this case it is the protagonist’s scientist grandfather who gets to try teen life once again and his grumpy response is spot on hilarious. But mixed-in are warm and sensitive considerations of growing old-growing up, new-old friendships, familial love, the passion-pleasure of scientific research, and relationships overall. For more read my New York Times review.

2. A book that absolutely demands to be read aloud is B. J. Novak’s The Book with No Pictures.  The title says it true — there are no pictures at all. What there is is lots of silliness that is all designed to push the poor adult reading the book aloud into more and more awkwardness. And what kid doesn’t like seeing an adult put him or herself into the silliest position possible? While my 4th graders got a kick out of this one, I would guess it would be especially beloved (and demanded over and over) by younger kids. Novak plays with the whole methodology of reading aloud in a very entertaining and clever way.

3. A picture book that may begin as a book to read aloud, but will send young readers back to it to examine over and over on their own is Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Sam & Dave Dig a Hole. Be forewarned, grown-ups, the ending of this one has a Twilight Zone, The Sixth Sense, Cabin in the Woods vibe where things-turn-out-not-to-be-quite-what-you-thought. After I read it to them, my 4th grade students went wild coming up with theories for this; my blog post featuring them is here.

4. Another favorite picture book of mine is one on the guy who invented the thesaurus, Jen Bryan and Melissa Sweet’s The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus. For kids who love words and book with illustrations full of words, look no further. This one is absolutely gorgeous and fascinating. For the end papers, illustrator Sweet replicated all of Roget’s original set of words! My blog review here.

5. One of the most lyrical and moving books of the year is Jacqueline Woodson’s National Book Award winning memoir Brown Girl Dreaming. Intertwining stories of her childhood in the South and Brooklyn, Woodson manages to bring a lens to race and racism, friendship, and what it is to grow into a writer and poet. One to give to an introspective young reader and emerging writer as well as one to read and discuss as a family.

6. Another memoir that probably would be great as an individual read is Cece Bell’s graphic novel  El Deafo, a moving and at times quite funny memoir of her youth. I’m planning to have my 4th grade class read it later this school year and am confident that they are going to love it. While Bell doesn’t shy away from issues dealing with her hearing loss, doing so with wit and a refreshing lack of self-pity, it is the search for a good friend that will resonate most with young readers.

7. The Crossover by Kwame Alexander is a powerful verse novel involving twelve-year-old African-American twins, both of whom are gifted basketball players. A student of mine last year who was serious about basketball and writing absolutely adored this one and I was thrilled to be able to get a copy signed for him by the author. The poetry is energetic and the story compelling — a sure-fire hit for a wide range of readers.

8. I was completely charmed by Dana Alison Levy’s The Misadventures of the Family FletcherThis episodic novel of a family of two dads and four adopted boys of various races is a delight. The boys are so real and their experiences funny, tender, and relatable. I’ve had it at school debating when to read it aloud to my class and am confident that it will be a success when I do. Here’s a quote from my Horn Book review: ”Levy provides a compelling, compassionate, and frequently hilarious look at their daily concerns. By book’s end readers will want to be part of (or at least friends with) this delightful family.”

9. For older children with a predilection for history, look no further than Candace Fleming’s The Family Romanov. Balancing the over-the-top lifestyle of the last Russian royals with firsthand accounts of the rest of the populace, Fleming provides a fascinating and highly readable version of this tragic story. Handsomely designed and full of photographs, this volume seems uncomfortably timely when considering today’s 1 percent, those who currently have the bulk of the world’s wealth.

10. Finally, I’m going to cheat and give you some more favorites without commentary that I’ve reviewed elsewhere:

Also at the Huffington Post.

 

 

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Laurie Halse Anderson on Her New Book, The Impossible Knife of Memory

Laurie Halse Anderson is a familiar name in the world of children’s and young adult literature with a prodigious output ranging from picture books (e.g. The Hair of Zoe Fleefenbacher Goes to Schoolto historical fiction (e.g. Chains the first title in her Seeds of America series) and young adult works (e.g. Speak). In her latest, The Impossible Knife of Memory, we meet 17 year-old Hayley Kincaid whose mother died when she was small and who has spent the past five years homeschooling herself while traveling with her trucker father, a veteran of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recognizing Haley’s need for a real school and home, they have now settled into her father’s hometown where he struggles with post traumatic stress disorder. Having been away from others her own age for so long, school is a mixed bag for Haley; however, one major plus is her appealing classmate Finn. Deftly balancing Haley’s worry and care of her father with her own needs and evolving romance, Anderson offers readers a powerful exploration into the impact of PTSD on parents and young people today.

Interested to know more about the background for the book I was pleased when the author graciously agreed to answer a few of my questions:

What was your inspiration for The Impossible Knife of Memory?

When my father was 18 years old, his Army unit was sent to Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp which had just been liberated. What he experienced there (burying the dead and trying to help the living) changed his life forever. He tried to lock away the memories, but they haunted him.

His PTSD worsened as I grew up. When I entered middle school, his drinking took over and our lives imploded. Dad lost his job and was deeply suicidal. I remember coming home from school and stopping just inside the front door to listen, afraid he’d be dead and just as afraid that he’d be alive and angry. Bills went unpaid; the electricity was turned off. My parents borrowed money from friends and relatives, and then cut off contact with them because they were ashamed they couldn’t repay the loans.

The most confusing thing was that we didn’t talk about any of this. I think silence was the only way my parents could cope. I bumbled my way through school feeling lost and alone. My memories of a happy childhood hurt so much, I tried to forget them.

It wasn’t until our soldiers began to return home from Afghanistan and Iraq that I had the perspective to see my dad’s suffering as a legacy of the war. Knowing how PTSD affects the children of soldiers, I began to ponder how to write this book.

What sort of research and preparation did you do to write the book?

Because the main character’s issues with her father came from my emotional truth, I didn’t need to research this book as much as I had for others. However, two sources proved enormously helpful. Dr. Jonathan Shay’s Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming gave me important insight into the challenges faced by returning vets. I also benefitted from corresponding with a dozen homeschooled and unschooled students who shared their world with me. Understanding how they felt when they entered a traditional school setting was very helpful.

Hayley is a wonderful protagonist, especially in her incredible, but realistic caring and worry about her father. How did she come into being?

Like all the best characters, she showed up one day and started whispering in my ear. I wanted her to be strong and brave and smart, but also unsure of how to get by in the social world of high school and definitely not ready to fall in love. While all of her worries focused on her father, she needed to learn about her own trauma. Hayley was just as wounded by the past as her father. Until she came to terms with that, she’d couldn’t start planning for the future.

The title The Impossible Knife of Memory is incredibly powerful. How did you arrive at it?

The working title was KNIFE because I knew this was going to be a story that had pain in it. However, I wanted to move beyond my traditional one-word title. Change is good! The final title dropped in my head once I understood that if the good memories of Hayley and her father had become painful, and that until they started dealing with their past, it wouldn’t let them go.

Your books capture adolescent issues in a timely and pitch perfect way. This is especially evident from the moving stories you have shared in person and online of young people communicating with you after reading one of your books. With some advanced copies of this one out before the book was published, has it already made its way to young readers and, if so, what are they saying to you about it?

The feedback has been quite lovely. A few readers have already written saying the book gave them new insight into their parents. On the lighter side, a number said they’re smitten with Finn and really enjoyed his relationship with Hayley. My favorite comments say that the book made them laugh and cry. I don’t think there is any greater praise than that.

Is there anything else you would like to say about this book, young people today, the issues surrounding them that you explore in this book and others, or something else?  

Having to parent your mother or father is a challenge that way too many teens have to deal with. Teens whose parents are dealing with substance abuse, financial hardship, job loss, mental illness and divorce deserve our love, support, and compassion. I wish America would stop judging and criticizing teens and instead, try to understand the battles they have to fight every day.

Thank you, Laurie!

Also at Huffington Post

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One Way Children’s Book Creators Cope With Bad Online Reviews

A bad review can equal a good laugh.

Thinking about this last fall, author Marc Nobleman came up with the idea of “… a variation on a poetry slam at which kidlit/YA authors read aloud their most critical or absurd user reviews (from Amazon or Good Reads) for comic relief/catharsis.” Further inspired by Jimmy Kimmel’s recurring segment of celebrities reading not-so-nice tweets about themselves, Nobleman put out a call for short videos of children’s book creators reading some similarly not-so-nice online reviews. The response was so massive that, not wanting any one video to be too long, he made three. The names of all 53 contributors are on Nobleman’s website here and the three videos are below. (A warning — Nobleman notes: “We lurve kids, of course, but this is for teens and adults only.”)

Also at the Huffington Post.

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Kate DiCamillo is the new Ambassador of Young People’s Literature

The latest Ambassador of Young People’s Literature is Kate DiCamillo, a much lauded and beloved writer of books for children. And by children, I mean young people who are definitely and certainly NOT young adults.  Given the at-times overwhelming focus on books for young adults it is refreshing to see this appointment, one that validates the bulk of young readers in this country, especially those in the middle as they have been the prime audience for DiCamillo’s books.

The Ambassador is a collaborative venture of The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, the Children’s Book Council, and Every Child a Reader  “…to raise national awareness of the importance of young people’s literature as it relates to lifelong literacy, education and the development and betterment of the lives of young people.” Previous holders of the prestigious position have been Jon Scieszka, Katherine Paterson, and  Walter Dean Myers.

DiCamillo burst on the children’s book scene in 2000 with Because of Winn-Dixie, a winning book about a community, a girl, and a dog that continues to resonate with its intended audience almost fifteen years later. With her second book, Tiger Rising (a National Book Award nominee), she ventured a bit further into magical realism and then jumped wholeheartedly into the world of fantasy and fairy tale with The Tale of Despereaux, the winner of the 2004 Newbery Medal. Her latest title is Flora & Ulysses –another work that resonates beautifully for children right in the middle — say ages 6 to 9. I know from firsthand experience, having read it aloud to my 4th grade class last spring with great success.  In my experience, her books work beautifully both for children to read on their own and to be read aloud by teachers, parents, or others.

Bravo to the selection committee for their commitment to these truly young readers and congratulations to Kate DiCamillo. May her term be a great one!

Also at the Huffington Post.

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Rewind: A Great Kids’ Book on the Creation of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Balloons

Melissa’s Sweet is on a glorious roll this year getting a lot of well deserved attention for her illustrations for  A Splash of Red,  Brave Girl, and Little Red Writing.  So I thought I’d republish this interview from a couple of years back about her delightful book about Tony Sarg and the Macy’s Parade balloons.

Just in time for the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade comes Melissa Sweet‘s picture book biography, Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade. That puppeteer is none other than Tony Sarg, a remarkable man indeed. Author/Illustrator Melissa Sweet has done a bang-up job focusing in on the man, directing young readers toward the activities that led him to his epiphany — why not float creature balloons over the parade? Why not indeed?

Sarg being a unique man, Sweet’s story is a fascinating one. But it is really with her illustrations that she, an already much lauded illustrator, has truly outdone herself. Mixing primary sources, toys she made herself for the book, collages, assemblages, comics, drawings, paintings, and more, she has created a picture book biography like no other. Through her text and art the brilliant Sarg bounds to life in this book as do his ideas, his creations, and his stories. Balloons over Broadway is a book that will be enjoyed by everyone in the family — be sure to have your copy on hand when watching this year’s parade!

Thinking that many would enjoy knowing more about how this book came to be I asked Melissa if she’d be willing to answer a few questions and provide a few images. She did all that and more as you will see.

So everyone in America it seems spends Thanksgiving morning watching the Macy’s parade and those incredible balloons. But I have to say it never really crossed my mind to consider how they came into being so your book was quite a revelation. What inspired you to do it? Was it the balloons first or Tony Sarg?

It was Tony Sarg that intrigued me first and I had the same response–how did this brilliant illustrator and puppeteer invent the character balloons? I knew there was a story there. The Macy’s parade and Tony’s life are so intertwined that parade was the perfect vehicle to tell his story.


Tony Sarg seems like such a larger-than-life figure. Did that make it a bit hard at times to write the book? I mean, did you have to pick and chose stories, winnow the text down a lot to get to the essence of his life in terms of the balloons? Was there anything you found especially hard to put in or leave out?

It’s true, with a character like Tony Sarg, every story seems worth telling. In this case, the essence also had to be something that children could relate to. There were many stories I wanted to tell–how he sat in a theatre watching a puppet troupe perform for 50 nights in a row to learn their trade. And how at the end of the Macy’s parade he released the balloons into the sky with a reward for their return.

But my favorite story is when a “sea monster” was sighted off the coast of Nantucket, (where Tony had a house). Luckily, Tony and some friends “captured” it and brought it onto the beach as everyone Nantucket watched. He had a great humor and was a bit of prankster. (The image of this event below is courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.)

I’m curious about your research which was clearly extensive. You seem to have traveled, interviewed, made things, and read and read. Any especially memorable moments along this journey?

A few years into the research I was in touch with a man in his nineties who worked for Sarg at the 1939 World’s Fair. It was remarkable to hear his stories of that time. Another was when I was visiting Nantucket for the first time (where there is a great collection of Sarg’s work at the Nantucket Historical Association), I went to the public library which is in a gorgeous old building on a cobblestone street. It started to snow as I was looking through old newspaper clippings about Sarg and it was dawning on me what a legend he was. The whole place seemed magical.

Tell us a bit about creating the art. You mention it at the end of the book, but HuffPo readers might enjoy learning a bit about how you went about making it. Just a little bit, perhaps?

My studio is full of old toys, fabric and found objects I’ve collected. I started making quirky toys and paper-mache puppets using the materials I had on hand. People often ask which comes first, words or pictures, and in this case making these objects taught me about Tony’s creative process and helped me figure out an angle to tell the story. I knew I wanted a 3-dimensional aspect to the art to give the feel of what Tony’s studio might’ve been like. I recently made some fun Christmas ornaments based on the book for the Martha Stewart show with instructions on her website. They’re miniature parade balloons.

What are you working on now?

I have a wonderful mix of non-fiction and picture books I’m working on and next year I have a picture book biography coming out: Mrs. Harkness and the Panda By Alicia Potter and Spike: The Mixed Up Monster by Susan Hood, about an axolotl which is as funny as its name.

Melissa, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions and providing the following movie of Sarg in action as a puppeteer.

Also at the Huffington Post  (along with a slide show with more images of Sarg and some interior art from the book).

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Sarah Harrison Smith, the New NYTBR Children’s Book Editor

The new children’s book editor at the New York Times Book Review Sarah Harrison Smith’s first reviews were of two picture books from the Canadian publisher, Simply Read Books. The message was quiet, but clear: recognizing the importance of the youngest readers of all, Sarah is continuing the weekly online picture book reviews begun by her predecessor Pamela Paul, and paying close attention to titles from publishers small and large, near and far. Recently I chatted with Sarah about her background, books (of course!), New York City, and some of her ideas for children’s book coverage at the Book Review.

Sarah grew up among book lovers and creators. Her grandfather co-published the Babar books, she knew Rumer Godden’s editor, and illustrator Pamela Bianco was a family friend. After graduate studies in English literature at Columbia and Oxford she spent several years at The New Yorker as one of its famed fact checkers and later joined the Times in a similar role. The result of her expertise was The Fact Checker’s Bible: A Guide to Getting it Right. After some time as managing editor of the New York Times Magazine Sarah moved to the Metropolitan section where she has enjoyed exploring New York in all its variety. Sarah’s love and appreciation of the city comes through loud and clear when you speak with her. During one of our conversations she spoke with such excitement about the Brooklyn Navy Yard — a place she had recently visited for an article — that I wanted to put down the phone and go there immediately.

Books that she remembers with special fondness from her childhood are those that incorporate art, a favorite illustrator being Edward Ardizzone. Christina Brand’s Nurse Matilda books (on which the recent Nanny McPhee movies are based) were cherished; her children have also relished their naughty sensibilities. Laura Ingall Wilder’s Little House books had a tremendous impact on her; they provided a great view for her on how a family lived with so little. Having noticed a tweet of hers about one of my childhood favorites, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, I asked Sarah about it and she spoke with enthusiasm for author Betty MacDonald’s ability to write for children while including clever touches for the adults reading the books aloud, say naming characters after the colleges Bryn Mawr and Cornell.

Sarah is excited about the potential for more online multimedia features such as podcasts and videos celebrating the artistic process. She is also eager to make more connections with related Times content, for example centralizing all articles about Roald Dahl’s Matilda from those related to the current Broadway show to others about Dahl and the book’s illustrator Quentin Blake. No doubt because of her love for New York City, Sarah is also interested in organizing information about children’s literature set there so that you could easily find material about such iconic literary spots as the pond in Central Park where Stuart Little sailed his boat.

Something that I found especially exciting was Sarah’s interest in looking into ways for children to contribute their own opinions about books on the Book Review site.  Certainly, I know my students would love such an opportunity. Both of us admire the Guardian’s children’s book site where young readers are already writing reviews. I also encouraged Sarah to check out the Carnegie Greenaway Shadowing site, an ambitious program where groups of children read and consider the shortlists for those two prestigious awards (comparable to the US Newbery and Caldecott Awards).

Upon the announcement of her new position, Sarah tweeted “I’m VERY excited to be joining the Times Book Review as children’s book editor! #dreamcometrue”  I think so too and wish her well as she goes forward in this new role.

Also at Huffington Post.

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My Not-So-Happy Response to The Hobbit Movie (You’ve been Warned)

Some of you may recall my earlier rant about the way the term “young adult” is more and more being used to describe books that are for children.  Well, I think there is something of that same sensibility going on with the new Hobbit movie trilogy.  The source material is a children’s book, The Hobbit, written long before The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and with the style and tone of a book for kids.  There is a narrator that makes little comments now and then, a classical fairy tale bumbling hero who turns into something more, moments of cleverness that are typical of fairy tales, plenty of whimsy and humor to mediate the scary moments, and a — yay!– dragon.

I like fairy stories, especially those known as literary fairy tales of which The Hobbit is very much one.  Such books for me are different than those of high, high fantasy — those that seem to follow heroes like Arthur, Beowulf, or Odysseus.  Stories like The Hobbit are smaller, set on smaller stages, with smaller stakes, and smaller protagonists (literally in the case of The Hobbit).  Say trying to get one’s family gold back from a dragon versus saving the world from a ring that will destroy everything.

My appreciation of Tolkien’s fairy tales goes all the way back to high school when I fell in love with one of his called “A Leaf By Niggle.” So much so that I made around thirty drawings of it (as I was an aspiring illustrator back then).   Sure, I read Lord of the Rings, but it never did for me what Tolkien’s smaller stories did for me. And so when I began teaching decades ago I also shared The Hobbit with my students.  I had them read it, but more and more I read it to them, with enormous pleasure on all sides.  Recently, in preparation for seeing the movie, I took a quick refresher read of it and enjoyed it once again.  Now I do know that Tolkien, years after first writing the book, after the publication of The Lord of the Rings, was interested in reworking it to be more a prequel to that epic. But for me it still reads as a story along the lines of the Narnia stories, those by George Macdonald, and other literary fairy tales for children.

So I went to see the movie with a fair amount of baggage, but also with an understanding that movies are not books and that there is no need to stick overly closely to the original text when making a movie. Filmmakers do need to be free to make their own art after all.  And I knew that there was a huge LOTR fan base to make happy. So I thought I was prepared and expected to like, if not love the movie.  However, I  ended up highly disappointed, to the point where I have no enthusiasm about seeing the next two movies (well maybe the last one just to see Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug). Perhaps it works for the LOTR fans and those who enjoy epic stuff. Unfortunately, even with my expecting changes, it didn’t work for me, a member of a presumably teeny audience who would like to have seen a film adaptation of what is truly a delightful children’s book for children, not young adults. Oh well.

The original story is that of Bilbo, a very reluctant hero, a lovely stand-in for child readers. And so I did like the brief glimpses of that character in the movie, say in the early scenes with the dwarves barging into his tidy and comfortable hobbit hole, the absolutely splendid “Riddles in the Dark” sequence with Gollum, and a few teeny tiny ones peeping out among all the ponderousness, added exposition, and battles.  Too bad other opportunities were squandered. Say when Bilbo in the book, eager to prove to the dwarves that he can be their burglar, tries to pickpocket one of the trolls with very unfortunate results: the wallet calls out a warning and Bilbo is caught. Equally frustrating for me was how that situation was resolved. In fact, it sort of typifies the way movie is altered from the book. In the book Gandalf throws his voice so that each troll thinks one of the others is insulting him and so they begin to fight, lose track of time, and turn to stone when the night is over. But presumably to accomodate viewers looking for awesome instead  of fairy tale cleverness there is Gandalf magically cracking open a rock that lets the light in.

And, oh, that lovely time they have with the elves at Rivendell, the Last Homely House.  It always sounded so peaceful and fun. But in the movie a tension has been created between the dwarves and the elves so it becomes something very different. Not to mention all the talk about …political…stuff.  And Gadriel and… well it sure ain’t the Last Homely House of the book, a place of pleasant refuge. I mean, just look at that name! Then there are, sigh, the orcs. I admit I hated them in the earlier movie series so more of them was absolutely not for me.  Ugh.  I found the endless battles with them tedious beyond belief. And they also made the other battles that are in the original book — those with the goblins and wargs— also endless for me as they probably wouldn’t have been if I wasn’t so sick of battles after all the orc ones.

I could go on and on, but there is no point.  This Hobbit movie series is simply not for children.  It is yet again another situation of a children’s book being taken and turned into YA.  Sure, there are kids who will love the movie just as there are kids who love LOTR and World of Warcraft. But there are many who will not, who won’t even be taken to this.  And so, indeed, here is yet another case of something that is still very much for children being turned into something else.

A variation of this is also at the Huffington Post.

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