Monthly Archives: September 2011

Happy 50th Anniversary, Peace Corps

Last week-end, in D.C., there were all sorts of celebrations for Peace Corps‘ 50th anniversary. Yes, it was 50 years ago that this organization began. As one of thousands who served, I can attest to its continuing importance. Especially today when so many are able to travel to remote parts of the world and also engage virtually, I feel Peace Corps more than ever affirms the importance of long-term engagement and commitment to a people and a place.

Sierra Leone was one of the first countries Peace Corps went to and I’ve gotten to know several who were in those early groups. It was sad, but understandable when they had to pull out for safety’s sake in the early 90s and all the more heartening that they are now back.

My return Sierra Leone last summer was incredible for many reasons, one of them the opportunity to visit with the current PCVs in country — there are two groups now, those who came in 2010 (the first group in fifteen years some of whom are in the panel above) and a second cohort that started this summer. I’d already been following some of the first group’s blogs (love this one especially) and it was great to meet them in person. Their enthusiasm, commitment, and tenacity was exhilarating to observe.  It was impossible for us returnees not to see ourselves in these young people, 35 years before.

Three fantastic Salone PCVs (one, er, from a long time ago)

Happy Birthday, Peace Corps. May you have many, many more!


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Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls: It’s What Makes Us Human

A Monster Calls is a magnificent work — folkloric, allegorical, atmospheric —- a book each reader enters privately and differently.  Invited to take-off on an idea by Siobhan Dowd who died before she could do anything with it herself, Patrick Ness has produced a work of magical realism that takes the reader deep into the world of a boy whose mother is dying.  Officially publishing in the U. S. tomorrow and beautifully produced with illustrations by Jim Kay, it is an extraordinarily moving reading experience. While Ness lives in the U.K., he is an American citizen and since the book was edited and published in both countries this year, I hope it is eligible for the 2012 Newbery Award. Yes, I think it is that good.

For two teacher friends of mine now in their early thirties, the book had a special resonance.  Tyner Gordon lost her mother to breast cancer when she was seven and moved from New Orleans to New York City where she was raised by her aunt.  Charlie Felix, a native New Yorker, lost his mother to lupus when he was in the fifth grade.  After they read it, they were very eager to discuss the book with me.  Afterwards I organized their comments and sent them to Patrick Ness who responded with his own thoughts.  And so here is a very profound conversation about a very profound book.  My great thanks to all for their contributions to this.


Tyner:  I found it an enormously compelling piece of work, partly because these situations were so familiar to me.  Stomach-churning familiar, almost “Why am I doing this?” again familiar.  The anxiety that Ness wrote about is one I knew so well when this happened to me. And so I wanted to see how Conor would deal with the same thing I dealt with.

Patrick:  Familiarity is a fascinating idea and one that was really, really important to me in the book.  Because, to some degree, we’ve all suffered loss, but we’ve all really suffered FEAR of loss.  And so everyone has some idea of what it feels like, but it has that horrible trick of making you feel like you’re the only one.  For someone like Conor, at 13, that’s incredibly isolating.  And just to know that someone else hears him and knows what he’s going through, well, that’s half the battle, isn’t it?


Charlie:  The school sections of the book really resonated, especially the looks from Conor’s peers.  When I came back to school after my mother’s death I got a lot of cards,  big eyes,  and little mouths all day.  No one wanted to talk to me and I didn’t want to talk to any of them.  Teachers too; they wouldn’t call on me and I stayed as quiet as a piece of paper.  Then, a few months after my mother died, this one person who’d been bothering me said something about my mother and I flipped out — picked up a desk and threw it at her.  I’d been a quiet kid with no friends and never had done anything like that.  So could totally buy into Conor’s explosion.  When my fourth teacher from the year before heard what happened she took me to her classroom and let me help. After that she kept sending someone to pick me up and I’d help in her classroom. She didn’t talk about it, just understood I needed space, but someone to be around.

Patrick:  School is such an entirely different (and often un-supervised in a very important way) world for a young person.  All the rules are different and your role in it is completely different.  It was was important to me to get Conor in school and to really try and see, truthfully, what it would be like for him there.  It’s hard enough to be different, but what if your difference is something no one wants to talk about?  So they don’t talk to you at all?  Every young teenager feels invisible at some point, but for Conor it’s like he’s almost completely vanished.


Tyner:  My grandmother was with us too (although not in a pantsuit!) when my mother died and so I connected very much to Conor’s reactions to his.  And so the scene with the clock really resonated with me.  When Conor turned the hand I wanted him to do it, perhaps because I’d been too chicken when I was in that situation.  Now I can appreciate how my grandmother, like his, was not only dealing with a defiant grandchild, but with the death of her daughter….It is still coming for me, especially this past year with the deaths of my grandmother and great-aunt.  I was definitely was reacting more to my grandmother’s passing. Grandmother was family — holding it all together. She had the memories of my mother, the house, and so forth. Also a loss of another big piece of New Orleans even after all we lost from Katrina. This monster is still very pertinent for me.

Patrick:  Because of the folkloric feeling that runs as a current through the book, it was really important to me to have an utterly non-fairytale-like grandmother.  All business, a professional woman, brisk and smart and full of energy, and who I always imagined has been secretly exasperated (in a loving way) by her much more relaxed daughter.  And so to Conor, she’s practically an alien and not sympathetic at all.  But I think – and hope – that we see more than Conor does.  That this threat of loss is hers as well, and she’s dealing with it the only way she knows.  Plus, she’s funny.  She makes me laugh, in a way that Conor won’t get until he’s much older.


Tyner: I was disgusted with the father, especially when he would discuss his wife.  Some of this may be compared to my father who was a slave not to a woman, but to drugs.  He left when my mother was diagnosed and wasn’t able to come back when she died.  I found out later that he had no intention of taking me and, in fact, signed over custody days after my mother died.  Not knowing that, like Conor, I begged to go live with him and got the same reaction Conor got.  My father, like his, was a weak man who could have been such a help and was a dead-end.

Charlie:  My father, having another family, had no intention of taking care of me.  So my response to Conor’s situation was “Why doesn’t this father love him enough to take him?”

Patrick:  My take on Conor’s father is that he’s not a bad man at all, he’s just weak, right at the moment that Conor needs him to be strong.  It was important to me to, again, try to tell the truth about this.  Life doesn’t always give you the storybook ending.  In fact, hardly ever.  But that doesn’t mean that happiness and hope and love aren’t also possible.


Tyner:  I felt a little jealous of Conor. That is, he was able to get clarity at the end.  I got it all, but much later.

Charlie:  You are taught when you go into hospital you get better.  I never thought my mother was going to pass away.  She passed in the hospital.  So reading about Conor’s mother getting treatment felt it wasn’t fair. So I ended up angry at Conor. My mom’s passing, going to a dark place, going to the street, and then this is how you don’t die even with people dying around.  Wouldn’t have gone to the street if my mom hadn’t died.

Patrick:  It’s that paradox, isn’t it?  In order for a story to be universal, it has to be as specific as you can make it.  A Monster Calls, to me, is only secondarily a book about the issues of loss and grief and hope.  It’s primarily a story about Conor and his very specific experiences.  I couldn’t begin to describe the experiences of every child who’s gone through this – and what an awful, shallow book that would have been – I can only talk about Conor.  He’s lucky in some respects, because the monster comes, after all, but all that is swept away by the possibility of losing his mother.  I really think we leave him hopefully, but he does have a long, long way to go.  In my heart, I hope he’s out there somewhere, doing brilliantly, I really do.


Charlie: My fourth grade teacher had appeared to be a monster the year before.  If you had a behavioral problem she fixed it by smacking you on the back of your head (she had rings she’d first turned to the back).  She also smoked in the classroom.   She wore a house dress (the sort of thing women used to wear around the house), red shirt underneath, and slippers so you couldn’t hear her coming; all you’d hear was wind and then she’d be right on top of you.  I was scared to death of her, but it turned out she was the one who knew me.  When that thing happened, my mom’s death, she became a person.  The monster teacher became a person just as Conor’s monster was a person preparing him for something really difficult, letting his mother go in that way.

Tyner: While reading I was thinking, what does this monster represent?  I went through the same emotions that Conor did as he heard the stories.  Yet each story opened up new ways of thinking for me.  I remember having new emotions and new things to think about all the time– double mastectomy, chemo, stitches, and then, after her death, a new city.  My New Orleans 2nd grade teacher stayed very close.  She gave me a set of Beatrix Potter books before I left and I read all those books over and over and they comforted me. My NYC 3rd grade teacher gave everyone a composition book and it was the first time someone had done this and told me I could write whatever I wanted.  I wrote furiously in class. When I filled it up, without saying anything she gave me a new one three times as big, knowing it was my catharsis. Then there was Ms. Gumbs in 5th grade who was no joke and had you quivering.  I look at these three ladies as giving me what the monster gave Conor.

Patrick:  I get asked quite a lot about what the monster “means”, and I’m very, very much the kind of writer who doesn’t think pinning a single meaning on it is in any way helpful.  That’s kind of the whole thing it tries to get across to Conor, that you’re more than one thing at any given moment, that it’s that complexity that makes you human.  For me, the important thing the monster brings is the stories, because – very much especially so for the young – stories are often the one way that feelings and fears for which there are no other words can be dealt with.  But there’s a paradox in that, too, in that stories end, but life goes on, and so I think the monster is trying to say to Conor that that’s okay.  Monsters are complicated to me, they always have a reason, they always have a story, and they can be helpful and kind while at the same time still scary and monstrous as all hell.  Again, complexity.  It’s what makes us human.


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The Sendak Fellowship

Somehow I either have forgotten or never knew about this lovely thing — the Sendak Fellowship, a gift from that grand man of American children’s books, Maurice Sendak.  From the facebook page I learned:

The Sendak Fellowship is a residency program exclusively for artists who tell stories with illustration. Fellows will participate in weekly conversations and informal talks with Mr. Sendak, as well as a host of visiting artists, editors, publishers, directors, writers, and playwrights. Most of the time, they will be concentrating on their own projects.
There is no application process for the Sendak Fellowship. Fellows are nominated and judged anonymously by a network of artists in the field.

This last reminds me of the Macarthur Fellowships.  (Of which only a handful of children’s book creators have been tapped, Peter Sis and David Macaulay are two I can think of offhand.)  In its second year, Roger Sutton went for a visit with this year’s Sendak Fellows and reports back.


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Wonderstruck in the Panorama: Drawings by Brian Selznick at the Queeens Museum

The Panorama of the City of New York at the Queens Museum of Art is one of the glorious settings used by Brian Selznick in his new novel Wonderstruck (reviewed by me here).  So what could be better than an exhibit of the development of the novel on the walls of the Panorama at the Queens Museum itself?   Just opened this past weekend, the wonderful-sounding exhibit will be running through January 2012.

With Wonderstruck in the Panorama, the museum allows visitors to follow the development of the novel with words and pictures from Selznick’s initial 2009 trips to the Panorama to the final illustrations used for publication. On view are eight 1 ¾” x 2 ¼” maquettes or “dummies”, four illustrated storyboards, four pencil sketch studies, and 19 of the final 4 ⅛” x 5 ½” graphite drawings that appear in the book.   What is revealed is a complex multi-staged process that began with intense research, including hours spent in the Museum’s archives, on, above and below the Panorama, and in and around the museum building in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. With research complete, Selznick commenced with the first of three stages of drawing, each requiring him to work under a magnifying glass on wonderfully crosshatched drawings increasing in both size and intricacy as the process progressed. The first drawings, a series of tiny maquettes, were used by Selznick and editorial staff to plot and storyboard the narrative. With the storylines defined, Selznick then redrew the illustrations in a larger format, first as pencil sketch studies and then drawn in graphite on paper. The graphite drawings are then scanned, enlarged by 400% and converted into the two-page illustrations found in publication.

What’s more, this Sunday there will be a Wonderstruck Family Day at the Museum that sounds equally terrific.  Among other events they will have Brian Selznick standing ON the Panorama itself talking about it and his work.  Read on — it sounds great too.

For the opening reception of Wonderstruck in the Panorama: The Drawings of Brian Selznick we are pleased to have the author and artist Brian Selznick on his only Queens appearance for his book launch. Standing on the Panorama itself, Selznick will talk about the process of creating Wonderstruck, the forthcoming release of Hugo, the Martin Scorsese directed film based on his previous book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and most of all his experiences working on, under, and above the Panorama. ASL interpretation of the talk will be provided for the hearing impaired.

Following the talk, the author will be on hand for book signing and meet and greet with fans.  During the opening, drop in to our Education Studios where there will be free Wonderstruck-themed artmaking workshops suitable for all ages as well as light refreshments, ongoing throughout the afternoon.


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Thoughts on Newbery: Heavy Medal is BACK!

My pals Nina Lindsay and Jonathan Hunt are back stirring things up at their Heavy Medal blog. They’ve already brought up the issue of what is meant in the criteria by text, book obesity, Capital Magic, and weighed in on a number of highly lauded contenders. Their posts and the conversations in the comments by many thoughtful readers have been wonderful so far. That said, I recommend it only for those comfortable seeing favorites, friends’ books, and more being put out and examined in the bright lights of the Internet. It can be unsettling seeing books examined this closely and publicly and so is probably not for everyone. But do be aware that what Nina and Jonathan are doing is what the members of the actual Newbery Committee are doing (Nina was chair of my 2008 committee and Jonathan served on the 2006 one) — looking closely at every aspect of the serious contenders, teasing out flaws and questions, however picky they may appear to be. That is what you do when selecting the most distinguished children’s book of the year.

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Nosy Crow’s Cinderella

Wilson talks about the idea of “the known text” – children learning a story and reciting it from memory, even if they can’t read the actual letters and words on the page. “It’s the building blocks of reading, and at least as important as phonic knowledge,” she says. “They are understanding how stories work and internalising that.”

The above quote (in this Guardian article) is from Kate Wilson, managing director of Nosy Crow a UK company focusing on books and apps.  I got a great kick out of their first app, The Three Little Pigsand was waiting eagerly for their second, Cinderella.  It is now out and I can say that it is as charming as the first. Again, the voices are all by children, there is the same bright look, you can again make the characters flip and jump, and the story has  similar light look appropriate for its intended very young audience.  This one has a bit more too — for example, you get to “help” Cinderella with her chores and do a few other nifty actions as the story goes on.  I’m far from the age of the intended audience, but I enjoyed tremendously exploring and figuring out just what one could do.  (And if I like to poke the characters to hear them speak over and over, I bet little kids do even more!)

In this SLJ interview,  Wilson talked about how they were able to build on what they’d learned creating the first app and has some thoughtful comments to make about this new world of books and apps.

I don’t see [apps and books] as two separate worlds; I see them as a continuum. I see children touching books, pulling tabs, drawing [in] books, and being read to as highly interactive experiences. Children experience stories, words, and images in different media in different places in their homes, at different times during their day, and at different stages during their lives.

I definitely am looking forward to seeing what this company does next.  And if you want a taste of their new app, here’s the trailer:



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Alice Gets a Make-Over

As it is educating alice’s fifth birthday at the end of this month, I thought it was about time for some refurbishing. Hope you like it!


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Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck

Today marks the publication of Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck, a book that lives up to its title. As he did with the Caldecott winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret (coming out as a movie this fall), Selznick uses a unique mix of text and images to create a singular reading experience for children. There are two separate stories here, one told entirely in illustrations and the other in words. Set in different time periods, these tales of a mysterious girl and an unhappy boy twist and twirl around each other in nature, in museums, in New York City, finally coming together in a dramatic, moving, and satisfying ending.

One of the many thoughtful ideas of the book is the one of museums, of collections, of curating, and of the creation and making of these places of fascination and mystery.  This summer, after reading an advanced edition of Wonderstruck, I visited Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum and recently asked Brian Selznick if he’d ever been there. It turned out he’d been there days after me and remarked that it was a “museum about museums.” That it is, as well as a museum that evokes beautifully the magical feeling of museums he communicates so well in his new book.

Museums, the concept of museums and their making, nature, deaf culture, family, relationships, history, literature, and more are woven elegantly together by Selznick in this work of art certain to be embraced by children and adults alike. Highly recommended.


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Interview with Michael Chabon

I first learned of Michael Chabon’s love of comics by way of his Pulitzer Prize winning adult novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.  So I got a total kick out of his new picture book, The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man and was delighted to be given the opportunity to interview the man himself for HarperCollins’ Page Turner blog.  Among other tantalizing tidbits is a teaser about another project.  Check out the interview here.

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is the tenth anniversary of 9/11. And I have to say I’m very glad it is before my first day with my new class. Ten years ago it was the day I began teaching those NYC fourth graders of 2001-2002 and that day and the many after are burned into my memory.

As time goes on more books come out and more discussions occur on how to talk about and teach about this day with and to children who are, more and more, too young or were not even born when it happened. My feeling is that I have to be very careful to keep my still-raw feelings out of the way. I think it must be a bit as it was for my parents and the Holocaust. At fourteen (my father in 1936) and seventeen (my mother in 1939) my parents, their immediate families, and many relatives fled Germany while others stayed (say my grandfather who was killed). For me, growing up in the 50s and 60s, the Holocaust was curious and a bit –to be completely honest — intriguing in an almost titillating way. Somehow I didn’t connect it to me in any scary way. And I think we need to be careful to keep that sort of response in mind with younger kids today with 9/11. That they might respond to it in ways that are not about the sadness and loss that it is for those of us who remember it.

I’ve kept all the stuff that was sent to my school from around the world, my students’ artistic and heartfelt responses, some books, some newspapers, and memories. There will be many memorials on Sunday. Mine will be in my heart.

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