Monthly Archives: September 2012

KidLitCon12 in the Big Apple

After months of planning and prepping by Betsy Bird, Liz Burns, and myself,  KidLitCon 2012 happened this past Friday and Saturday here in New York City.  Prone to fret, I am thrilled beyond all measure that it went off, as far as I can tell, with nary a hitch. Many, many, many helped to make that so and I thank them all profusely, but most of all I have to simply sit back in awe of superwoman hostess Betsy Bird.  I truly don’t know how she does it all.  Maybe, for those who know the television show Fringe, there are some Alt-Bets out there or perhaps Hermione lent her the time turner.

With the event being in New York City where so many publishers make their home we were thrilled that Random House, Simon & Schuster, Harper Collins, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Little Brown, Penguin, and Holiday House hosted special KidLitCon previews on Friday.  The informal feedback I’ve gotten was that these were all terrific! As this was my baby I am SO glad it seemed to have been a win-win for bloggers and publishers. Thanks a million to the publishers for doing this.

The Friday night dinner was at IchiUmi which had one of the biggest buffets I’ve ever seen.  Standing at one end of it you could barely see the other!  Little Brown hosted the dinner speaker, Grace Lin, who was wonderful.  The Bank Street Bookstore had her new book on hand and many purchased it to be signed by Grace.

Early Saturday morning I stopped by my favorite local bagel place to pick up lunch for Betsy and me (figured we’d just need a bit of downtime by then), made a brief stop at Staples to get name labels, before dashing over to the loading dock entrance to the library where I shared an elevator with a bunch of caterers setting up for a wedding.  Throughout the day we saw them setting up for what must have been a ginormous wedding judging by the couches lining the halls, the food we saw them preparing, and — as we left — the elegant young folk in black getting ready.

And then we were off!  Betsy made her opening remarks in a beautiful auditorium with only one flaw — no internet connection so only those with particularly robust phones were able to tweet. And tweet they did! Check them out at #kidlitcon12 and #kidlitcon.  Folks then headed off to the parallel sessions all of which, judging by the tweets, were fantastic.  I can’t wait to see the blog posts about these.  Thank you to all our presenters!

After lunch Betsy, Liz, reviewer Marjorie Ingall, Groundwood Book’s co-publisher Sheila Barry, author Maureen Johnson, and I participated in the session “How Nice is Too Nice? Critical Book Reviewing in the Age of Twitter” moderated by Jennifer Hubert Swan.  The tweets, comments and questions during and after gave me the impression that we did good. Certainly we all had plenty to say.   They even got me to blush when Betsy asked me if I could review a Philip Pullman book critically (the blush was when she or another panelist — can’t recall who because I was flustered — said he’d kissed me which he has, but just politely you know!). For the record, my answer about reviewing his books critically was no. I admire him too much, he is a friend; there is just no way I could. But I did talk about other situations when I have done critical reviews as did the other reviewers on the panel. We talked about audience (who we are writing for), author response (some very inappropriate), ARCs, and tons more.  It was a lot of fun and I hope as informative for the audience as it was for us.

The day at the library ended with a delightful and unique keynote by Maureen Johnson who brought along Robin Wasserman for a very entertaining and interesting final session. Many then went on to a special Kidlit drink night, myself included.  I enjoyed enormously having a chance to chat with so many I mainly know online.

It was a fantastic couple of days!



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Favorite Nonfiction Titles from Childhood

The Guardian is asking its readers “What are your favourite non-fiction books from childhood?”  The answers, I notice, seem slanted more toward books of facts and information rather than the more narrative sort.  It got me thinking about what sort of nonfiction I enjoyed as a child (in the 1960s).

First of all, I too was a fan of fact books, especially the field guides listing all sorts of rocks, birds, or butterflies. They covered so much, were colorful, and spoke to my collecting instincts.  The size also mattered as I loved that they were so small and compact.

I then really enjoyed biographies and autobiographies.  Probably the most important for me was The Diary of Anne Frank, but I also was fascinated by Helen Keller and read a number of her autobiographical works (of which the most well known is The Story of My Life).   Albert Schweitzer was the Mother Teresa of my day and so I read about him (can’t recall if it was a biography or autobiography) with great interest.  Then there were animal books, say Joy Adamson’s Born Free about raising a lion and putting her back into the wild.

Lastly, while we now do not consider them nonfiction, since I did way back then I will mention The Childhood of Famous Americans books.  Can’t say I remember much about them other than their orange covers and being into reading as many as I could.

What about you? What were some of your childhood nonfiction favorites?


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Thoughts on Newbery: Focus on the Book…

…not the creator.  Having been on one of the Newberry committees I can say with complete certainty that this is what happens.  Committee members are looking intently at the books through the lens of the official criteria. They absolutely DO NOT consider the authors, illustrators, editors, or anything else of that nature.  They are looking full-on at the work and nothing else.

However, those of us outside the committee room are aware of those creators and it can be hard to not think about the love and thought and care they put into their books when considering them in terms of awards.  But I believe it is important to understand that this cannot be considered, not just for Newbery but other awards like the National Book Award too, I would guess.

This came to mind as I read Ian Parker’s New Yorker profile of J. K. Rowling, “Mugglemarch,” some of the responses to it (say this one), and now the first reviews of The Casual Vacancy.  While it is pretty impossible for any competent reviewer (and here we could get into the whole debate about reviewing but I won’t) to consider this title without considering Rowling and Harry Potter, those on a committee that works as does the Newbery would absolutely have to do just that.


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Frank Tashlin’s The Bear That Wasn’t

“You are not a bear–you’re just a silly man, who needs a shave, and wears a fur coat.”

I was just reminded of one of the quirkier books that I love (I do love quirky!), Frank Tashlin’s The Bear That Wasn’t.  I first came across it a few years ago thanks to the New York Children’s Collection’s reprint and now just found the animated version done by Chuck Jones and Frank Tashlin. Love it too.

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Philip Pullman on Retelling Grimm

The fairy tale is in a perpetual state of becoming and alteration. To keep to one version or one translation alone is to put a robin redbreast in a cage. A fairy tale is not a text.

From Philip Pullman’s brilliant essay “The Challenge of Retelling Grimms’ Fairy Tales.”  Highly recommended.

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Update on Doing It for Free

Amanda Palmer’s idea of using volunteers in her stage shows inspired my post on writing for free along with some very thoughtful comments on the issue. Now I’m so glad to see that Palmer has  listened, thought hard, and come to a decision to pay everyone who plays at her shows. So no more doing it for free on her stage. I had hoped she would come to this decision because some of the responses I read as the situation escalated were making a lot of sense to me as well as uncomfortable at the idea of a show where some were to be paid and some not (a bit different from this blog where there is only me not being paid:). Rather than my giving you the details I urge you read her blog post in its entirety as to what and how and more about what she is doing.

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Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon

Yesterday I had a chunk of free time and so sat down with Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Dangerous Weapon.  And wow…wow…wow.  I was blown away by it.  This is nonfiction thriller writing of the very, very best.  Sheinkin weaves together the stories of the race to build the atom bomb, the developments in the war that made things more and more urgent, the efforts to steal it, and the efforts to stop others from creating their own.

First of all is the research. Sheinkin provides superb source material and a few comments in the back matter and makes it evident that he did the hard work of reading and reading and reading and then sifting through the massive amount of material to find some of the best stuff possible.  Yes, he has the history there, but what makes this so wonderful is that he also finds and uses the greatest bits of information — the weather, the look of a person (say a tan Einstein after a day of sailing), and absolutely wonderful quotes.  My favorite is on page 79:

“There was back-slapping,” Haukelid said of the happy moment, “and much strong hearty cursing.”

I just loved that he found that quote to use among all the other remarkable stuff going on in that particular story line (which is movie-ready, by the way).  I can only imagine Sheinkin sitting there and just pulling every humanizing moment or quote to possibly use. I think it may be these quotes and moments that really send this one to the tippy top of greatness for me.

For related to the quotes and imagery is that Sheinkin develops his characters, real people, and makes them as vivid and complicated, as sad and happy, as any fictionalized ones.  And he does it honestly and fairly using his research.  From Oppenheimer to Gold to Truman he has us know them as players and characters in a remarkable story.

And plotting. Wow oh wow.  Sheinkin manages to keep several story lines in the air, weaving back and forth among them to great effect.  As others have pointed out this is better than any thriller. Sheinkin is a remarkable storyteller.

Something that is more of a taste thing is that I personally like very much that Sheinkin keeps himself out of things, keeping the facts, the characters, the story front and center.  Even at the very end when he points out the current state of affairs with the bomb he simply points out the truth to his young readers — that it is in their hands now. He doesn’t overplay things, lecture young readers on what they need to do. No, he just puts the situation out there, notes that they will have to deal with it now, and leaves it at that. His final two sentences say it all: “It’s a story with no end in sight. And, like it or not, you’re in it.”

An absolutely outstanding work of nonfiction for young people.


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Chaplin the Musical

Chaplin the Musical is a labor of love by those who clearly appreciate, know, and get Charlie Chaplin in his complexity.  As someone who has been a fan for most of her life and for some years now has been working on a children’s book about his character the Little Tramp, it was delightful to see how they managed to include so many little elements in this musical biography of his life.

The black and white setting, lighting, costumes, and make-up for the bulk of the show was very apt and made the vibrant red and colors of the final scene when Chaplin returned to receive a special Academy Award in the 1970s moving indeed.

The performers were uniformly excellent, but it was Rob McClure who was outstanding. I’d read about his preparations for this role, but was still skeptical until he came on and began. His movements were absolutely spot-on like Chaplin’s.  His voice was remarkably close too. I appreciated most of all the subtle movements that anyone who had watched Chaplin in action many times as I have would appreciate.  The little shrugs, smirks, kicks, and the like. He was so good when in the Little Tramp character that I wanted more!

Collapsing a life like Chaplin’s into a two and a half hour theatrical event is challenging indeed, but Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan pulled it off. I’m glad though that I read the small note in the program beforehand that ” The authors with the blessings of the Chaplin family, wish it to be known that a certain amount of dramatic license was taken in the course of turning the long and enormously complicated life of Charles Chaplin into a musical play. However, the spirit and true essence of the great man’s remarkable career has been scrupulously retained.”

For there were changes that those of us who know his story well would have noticed, say a slight alteration in the way he was first invited by Mack Sennett to come to work in the movies or the scene in which he first tried out his Little Tramp character. It is a highly sympathetic and respectful rendering of Chaplin’s life.  My companion was unfamiliar with his life and found it fascinating.  I was, of course, a bit skeptical of song and dance for a silent film star, but by and large it worked although I have to admit that none of the songs stood out to me in the way aspects of the staging did.

A few favorite touches of mine:

  • Pretty much every time McClure played the Tramp. He was fantastic at this!
  • The early scene where Young Charlie (played beautifully by Zachary Unger) sings when his mother can’t.
  • The movie making scene at the Sennett Studio (even though it isn’t at all the way it actually happened but is a sort of compression of various aspects of that studio so worked well for this picky Chaplin know-it-all).
  • The roll dance (from The Gold Rush) in a chorus line in “The Look-a-Like Contest.”
  • Charlie watching Hitler and then mimicking him as he prepares to do “The Great Dictator.”
  • The various moments with the beautifully replicated scenes from his movies.
  • The final one when we see Charlie going INTO the movie to walk off down the road as he did so often. A beautifully done effect.

So for anyone who loves and knows Chaplin I recommend this as a very well-done and enjoyable experience.  To end here is a lovely little behind-the-scenes video of their making one of those little movie scene recreations.

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Stefan Bachmann’s THE PECULIAR and Laura Amy Schlitz’s SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS

Here is a richly realized alternate Victorian world of elegant upper-class homes and squalid faerie slums. Filled with healthy doses of suspense and action, this is a story young fantasy buffs are sure to enjoy. And while he is bound to be compared to Christopher Paolini, whose “Eragon” was also published while he was still in his teens, Bachmann has written an accomplished book that deserves to be considered on its own.


Schlitz skillfully manages multiple narratives as the story makes its complex way forward, creating scenes of warmth and humor along with those of drama and horror. Filled with lush language and delightful sensory details like the savored warmth of a velvet cloak, this marvelous story will keep readers absorbed throughout. While the intricate storytelling, captivating characters and evocative setting owe a great deal to Dickens, the book also feels very much in the tradition of such grand 20th-century writers as Joan Aiken and Elizabeth Goudge. Filled with heart-pounding and heart-rending moments, this delicious, glorious novel is the work of a master of children’s literature.

For the rest of my reviews of Stefan Bachmann’s The Peculiar and Laura Amy Schlitz’s Splendors and Glooms in today’s New York Times please go here.

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Doing it for Free

A famous writer friend is always a bit bemused by my blog writing. “You don’t get paid?” he wonders. I squirm when he says this because I do very much like getting paid for my writing. More than the cash, it gives me the good feeling that I am valued, that what I say and how I say it matters enough to pay me for it. But I also like writing this blog and, so far, no one has wanted me to move it somewhere and pay me to do it. So, yeah, I do a lot of writing for free.

A recent kerfuffle involving the musician Amanda Palmer who invited musicians to play for free at some of her concerts has sparked my navel gazing on this topic.  This musician questioned that and here is Amanda’s response.  It is complicated and I don’t see a clear right or wrong to all of it.  Both make points that make sense to me.  I like blogging here because I feel I have things to say that others are interested in, things on a wide variety of topics. I can write here about a book, about teaching, about a visit to an eccentric museum in Oxford, about writing for free, about anything I want that I hope will interest those who read this blog. I have the hubris to think that I can sometimes help — get a book a bit more attention or get readers to think about something they might not have before.

I also like blogging at the Huffington Post. When they merged with AOL some boycotted the Huffington Post, arguing that all who blogged for them should get paid for their content. Makes sense to me and as I said at the top, I’d love to get paid for my blogging. But I also like to write for an audience and feel that the HuffPo one is different from this one and I do want to get the word out about stuff to them.  And so I continue to write for free.

I’ve thought about this a lot over the years as I’ve always done art be it visual or writing.  After majoring in art at college I went off to Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  While there I did art on my own and art for my work.  The latter involved mostly my creating 4-5 illustrations a day for a course in road repair for the Ministry of Works.  I learned that I did not want to do art that way and so when I came back to the States I taught and continued to do my own art on my own.  I did hope to get paid for it — to get a contract as an illustrator. That didn’t happen and after a few years I lost interest in drawing and moved on to other things.  One of those after many years was writing.  Opportunities presented themselves, some paid and some not.  I discovered that I loved to write, needed to write, and would do so whether or not I got paid to do so.

This is rambly, but it is something I’ve thought a lot about. For a long time I couldn’t write at all and once I did start again and discovered that I could do it well I enjoyed it very much.  Hearing from others that they appreciated what I had to say and how I said it meant a lot to me.  It continues to do so.  I did a few books for teachers and now am writing some for kids.  (My first for kids comes out next year.)  I got paid for all of them.  And that was important, a validation that others felt my work was worthy.  That said, here I am writing for free.

It is a messy business indeed.  For what is writing anyway and who is it for in the end?  A business? A situation of self-reflection?  In need of an audience?  There is no one answer for me.


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