Monthly Archives: November 2012

Bookish Gift Giving: Peter Sis’ The Conference of the Birds

Wondering what to give that dreamy child you know or an adult relative with a taste for beautiful books?  Might I make a suggestion? Consider one of Peter Sis’ unique and beautiful books, say his latest, The Conference of the Birds.

An artist who works far and wide, the Czech Sís has received many honors including multiple Caldecott Honors, a Macarthur Fellowship and most recently the Hans Christian Andersen Medal (you can see his acceptance speech here). He is well-known for drawing on his personal history in books like The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain and Tibet Through the Red Box while also taking on extraordinary people such as Galileo in  Starry Messenger and Darwin in The Tree of Life.

The Conference of the Birds is Sis’s gorgeous adaptation of the 12th century epic poem written by Farid Ud-Din Attar from Persia, the story of a flight of birds in search of their true king. Led by a hoopoe, the birds’ journey is a treacherous, soul-wrenching allegory. Their road through the world is filled with doubt, death, and destruction, but ends with a final moving epiphany. Those who appreciate allegorical works like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s  The Little Prince are likely to feel the same way about this one. Particularly since, as with de Saint-Exupéry”s work, it is the art that takes this story to whole new levels of meaning and consideration.

Originally published and promoted as a picture book for adultsThe Conference of the Birds is a moving and spectacularly beautiful book for all ages that would make an excellent holiday gift this season.

On December 9th at Prague’s international airport, a large tapestry based on one of the illustrations from this gorgeous book, sponsored and donated by Art for Amnesty, woven by master weavers in Aubusson, France, and honoring the memory and legacy of Václav Havel is to be unveiled. It is certain to be as spectacular as the book itself.


Also at Huffington Post including a slideshow with some illustrations from the book.


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Coming Soon: Jerry Spinelli’s Hokey Pokey

The border year for me was 6th grade. The idea of adulthood was anathema, but it was coming. Ten going on eleven, I veered back and forth, sometimes playing longstanding fantasy games with my younger sister and other times meanly and harshly dismissing them and her. One day I was happily playing with dolls and the next I couldn’t imagine ever doing so again and was out chasing and being chased by boys. Whether I liked it or not I was growing up.

It is this complicated time in life that Jerry Spinelli has captured brilliantly in his forthcoming Hokey Pokey. This isn’t the Spinelli of Stargirl or Wringer; it harkens back to the storytelling style, lush language, and powerful voices of Maniac Magee and Milkweed. That said, Hokey Pokey is its own original and unique thing, one wild and crazy book and I loved it.

It is a fable set in an alternate place, somewhere called Hokey Pokey, a world of children. Toddlers, little ones on trikes, slightly older ones chasing around on bikes, and some of those really big kids that all the others look up to inhabit this land. One of these is Jack and Hokey Pokey is both his story and that of everykid. It is a work of nostalgia, but one as much for a young person just leaving childhood as it is for Spinelli or any other adult reader. That is, while he has set the tale in a childhood that is sprinkled with elements from his own 1950s youth it is so piercingly authentic that I am certain that it will resonate with many looking back regardless of when they were a child.

Written in the breathless NOW of the present tense, full of richly crafted prose with a poetic sensibility, the book pushes the reader relentlessly along. Jack is confused. Things are changing for him and he doesn’t like it. He tries various tactics from ignoring what is happening to him to being mean to those around him to vainly grabbing at things as they slip away. He tries to stop it in every way he can, but there are tinges of what might be good about this movement to somewhere else and by the end of the book Jack, as everykid and everyadult will and does, embraces it. I see this as a book that will be just perfect for a certain sort of child-becoming-a-teen who is as confused and bothered as I was, as Jack is in this book. Someone who absolutely doesn’t want to grow-up, but is.

I can’t wait to see what those kids grappling with the border time will think of this original and remarkable book.


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Accurate History— Who Decides?

There is a fascinating article in today’s New York Times that really gets to the heart of one of the struggles we, who are not trained historians, deal with when evaluating historical books for children. The article addresses the controversy going on regarding Henry Wieneck’s new book, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves.  According to the article, the book is getting rave reviews from “nonspecialists.”

But the Jefferson scholars who have weighed in have subjected “Master of the Mountain” (published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux) to a fierce barrage of criticism, blasting away at Mr. Wiencek’s evidence, interpretations and claims to originality. Reviewing the book in Slate, Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of history and law at Harvard and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning study “The Hemingses of Monticello,” declared that it “fails as a work of scholarship,” recklessly misreading documents and dismissing other scholars in pursuit of a “journalistic obsession with ‘the scoop.’ ” Jan Ellen Lewis, a historian at Rutgers University, writing in The Daily Beast, was even blunter, denouncing the book as a “train wreck,” written by a man “so blinded by his loathing of Thomas Jefferson that he can’t see” contrary evidence “right in front of his eyes.”

I recommend reading the whole article as well as the reviews it links to.  Hard to know what to think because there is a lot of fury going on.  Wow.


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Happy First Birthday, Nerdy Book Club!

I have found a happy place in the children’s book world where I’m often misidentified as a librarian. But I am very much a classroom teacher and have been delighted to discover others online who are equally involved with children and their books. Say 5th and 4th grade teachers Mary Lee Hahn and Franki Sibberson who write the blog A Year of Reading and Donalyn Miller the highly lauded author of The Book Whisperer and also a 4th grade teacher like myself. And now she, 4th grade teacher (what is it with us 4th grade teachers, I tell you?) Colby Sharp, and high school English teacher Cindy Minnich are finishing out the first year of The Nerdy Book Club.

I have to admit that when they began I was wary, wondering if they really could make it the welcoming-to-all-comers-club they had in mind. But they have won me over this past year, maintaining their populist intent by inviting and then publishing posts from a variety of folks including teachers, writers, librarians, illustrators, and other book-lovers. I’ve been repeatedly impressed with the care that they are taking to do this right. In fact, I’ve been in touch about doing a post myself on a topic that I think may be of interest to their audience which, I suspect, may not read this blog or others like it.

Currently they’ve a call out for nominations for their second annual Nerdy Book Club Awards.

In a sea of end-of-year book lists and awards, our little award seeks to honor the 2012 children’s and young adults’ titles that teachers, librarians, authors, booksellers, parents, and most of all, young people, have loved reading this year.

The Nerdy Book Club feels like a true labor of love by a group of enthusiastic and committed teachers who sincerely and completely and utterly adore books. Congratulations on your first birthday, Nerdy!

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Philip Pullman’s Twice-Told Tales: “Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm”

Pullman’s investment in fairy tales is both intellectual and moral. From fiction, he tells us, we learn about good and evil, cruelty and kindness, but in ways that are always elliptical, as the text works on us in its own silent, secret way. “ ‘Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart,” he once observed. Fairy tales began as adult entertainment—stories told just for the fun of it. But with their exacting distribution of rewards and punishments, they also increasingly tapped into the human urge to derive morals from stories, In his own fiction, as well as in these retellings of the Grimms’ fairy tales, Pullman tells stories so compelling that he is sure to produce in the reader the connection—both passionate and compassionate—that Nabokov called a little “sob in the spine.

From Maria Tatar’s superb New Yorker review: Philip Pullman’s Twice-Told Tales: “Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm”

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Interview: Philip Pullman on his Retelling the Grimm Fairy Tales

Philip Pullman is one of the most thoughtful and creative writers of our day. Best know for the brilliant trilogy His Dark Materials, the former middle school teacher is also a longtime reteller and creator of fairy tales. While I’m partial to his lively online version of “Mossycoat” (first published as a picture book) and the original story I Was a Rat! because of my work with Cinderella, I’ve found all his fairy tales whether retellings or original to be utterly delightful. And so when he told me a few years ago that he was working on a new collection of Grimm fairy tales I was not surprised. Over several magical meals (I’m honored to call him a friend) we talked intensively about his research for this project and I couldn’t wait to read the final version. Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm is now out and it is as excellent as I had hoped. Happily others feel as I do and it is being enthusiastically received by adult and children’s book reviewers alike.

There are a number of terrific interviews with Philip about this project, but I thought that one focusing more on young readers and those who work with them might be of interest. Philip was game so here are my questions and his answers.

To start, I’m intrigued that the UK title is Grimm Tales for Young and Old while the US is Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm. Why the change? 

Publishers like to put their stamp on titles. I have never fathomed why. Arthur Levine (I assume it was him) even changed the title of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which made sense, into HP and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which made no sense at all. I can’t actually remember being consulted about Grimm. I have to say I prefer the UK title, but I tend to shrug about these things.

You have always been such an advocate of storytelling. I can remember you urging teachers like myself to learn stories to tell to our students, something I know you did a lot of.  And I also recall feeling guilty as I never did this, preferring to read aloud. I could absolutely sense your pleasure in selecting, retelling, and tweaking these stories. How do you think your background as a teacher and teacher of teachers came into this work?  If you were teaching today would you read or tell some of these tales? Or how about to your grandchildren? Any in particular?  Do you see any limitations due to age or anything else?

All kinds of things come into play when we think about reading versus telling. Maybe reading has a greater sense of ‘authority’ – it comes out of a book! It’s been published! But maybe telling has a greater sense of intimacy and immediacy. If I were still a teacher I’d make a point of learning a dozen of these stories well enough to be able to tell them without the book – probably not the most gruesome ones: for that you probably need a mixed audience so the younger children can hide their faces in a parent’s shoulder. But facing a class I would, as I say, make a point of knowing them well enough after many private rehearsals to do without the book and then begin to make little inventions here and there to bring it even more vividly to life.

What really struck me reading these is how playful you are in your alterations and embellishments. Say the hilarious commentary of the three little men of “The Three Little Men in the Woods” or having the wife in “The Fisherman and his Wife” call her husband a defeatist. I especially enjoyed how you upped the ante in “Hans-My-Hedgehog.”

The Grimms:
The king had ordered that if anyone should approach who was carrying bagpipes and riding on a rooster, that he should be shot at, struck down, and stabbed, to prevent him from entering the castle.

The king had given strict orders that if anyone approached the palace playing the bagpipes and riding on a cockerel, they should be shot, stabbed, bombed, knocked down, blown up, strangled, anything to prevent them from entering.

Any thing you’d like to say about these delightful touches? Where you place them and why, perhaps? Or anything else you’d like to tell us?

I’m glad you like them! Another one I enjoyed was having the giant say “Respect!” to the little tailor, and the frightened soldiers protest that they couldn’t fight him because having killed seven at a blow he was a weapon of mass destruction. And so on. I thought that if a story was light-hearted enough to start with, it could bear a bit more fooling around. The story I call “Farmerkin’, which is normally rendered as ‘Farmer Little’, is another example. But I wouldn’t have thought it right to play about with ‘The Juniper Tree’, for example, or ‘Hansel and Gretel’. Wrong tone altogether.

I don’t think I did any of that stuff with deliberate forethought, though. It just leapt into my fingers as I wrote. If the story-sprite laughs, then I laugh too.

How did you select the tales?  I can certainly see that some are personal favorites, but some are quite odd, not always likable, and you even say that in your notes. Yet you included them. Why?

The only one I actively dislike is “The Girl Without Hands’, but I put it in because there were some things I wanted to say about it. I had a completely free hand when it came to choosing the stories, and I was very glad of it. I felt I had to put in all the famous ones – though actually there are fewer than we think of those – because people would expect them to be there, and it would be silly to leave them out. I would have put them in anyway, in fact, because they are so good – they’re famous for good reasons. As for the others, they were there because I found them interesting to talk about, such as ‘The Goose Girl at the Spring’, or because I found them powerful and strange, like ‘Hans-my-Hedgehog’, or because I was just fond of them, like ‘Lazy Heinz’ or ‘The Moon’.

Your notes are simply wonderful. As I told you before, I think nothing beats your suggestion of what to do with Thousand Furs’ father, but you’ve got others too. Say your consideration of Disney’s Snow White film, how it is such a pull on any new telling of the original tale, and most delightfully that his dwarfs are “toddlers with beards.”  Or how you resolved the dilemma of how many pieces to cut the snake in “The Three Snake Leaves.” Given the clear depth of your background reading, how did you decide what to put into these notes? Is there anything you reluctantly left out that you might want to tell us now?

Thank you. I’m always glad when people praise my notes, because I think they do say things that I think are worth saying. I was certain from the beginning that I wanted to follow each story with a few paragraphs (or less, or more) of commentary, and I wanted it to come immediately after the story and not tucked away at the back. The editors were happy to let me do it – in fact they were remarkably non-interfering throughout the whole process. I didn’t want to overburden the notes with scholarly stuff, because others – Jack Zipes, Maria Tatar – have done it already better than I ever could, and because my emphasis was always on how the story worked. I don’t think there’s anything important that I left out, but as I continue to think and talk about the stories I might think of a few more things to put in.

For those in particular who work with children and/or their books is there anything in particular you would want to say to them about these tales, about the Grimms, or about storytelling in general?

The one thing I’d emphasise to the most important people in this situation, namely students who are going to be teachers (most important because it’s in the early stages that we form all our habits), is this: whenever you can, don’t read stories like this to children: get them firmly into your head and tell them, face to face, without a book in your hands. These tales are not literature, which is written, they’re something else. I know it’s nerve-racking to put the book down and just tell, because the book is a protection in many ways (not least: if the session fails, you can blame the book instead of yourself). But it doesn’t really take much memory-effort to learn a story like The Little Tailor or The Three Little Men in the Woods. I don’t mean learn all the words by heart – far from it. I mean get the events in your head so you can relate them easily and confidently. If every young teacher could take the trouble to get two or three dozen stories in their head so they could tell them at a moment’s notice – and they’re not very big, they pack down very flat, there’s plenty of room for them in your brain – then they would never be at a loss how to fill that odd ten minutes at the end of a day, or how to calm down a class if they’re fractious and over-excited during a day when it’s raining and they can’t get out to run around, or if they want to start off a new project. And what’s more they last like nothing else. When thirty or forty years later you meet by chance one of the kids you used to teach, the one thing they’ll remember is that story you told that Friday afternoon about Orpheus and Eurydice, or The Goose-Girl, or Hades and Persephone, or Hansel and Gretel. They’ll forget Pythoagoras’s theorem or the names of the first five American Presidents or the principal exports of Brazil, but the story will still be there, and they’ll be grateful for it. Nothing is so valuable, so lasting, so deeply loved as stories. Why would anyone not seize at once, with both hands, the immense privilege of telling stories, when it’s so easy to achieve?

Oh, Philip, clearly you won’t let me off the hook and so I will now try to get past my self-consciousness and attempt to learn some tales to tell to my own students. Certainly yours are the perfect source material for that. My great thanks for taking the time to answer these questions.  

To end, this lovely book trailer with a taste of Philip’s storytelling prowess:

also at Huffington Post


Filed under fairy tales, His Dark Materials, Huffington Post, In the Classroom, Philip Pullman

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Balloons

Melissa Sweet’s Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade has happily picked up some well deserved awards since its publication a year ago, say NCTE’s Orbis Pictus award and ALA’s Sibert award. It is a fabulous book and worth checking out as we head into this year’s Thanksgiving celebrations. To learn more about it see my review and interview with Melissa along with video and a slide show here.

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David Nicholls: Adapting Great Expectations for the screen | Books | The Guardian

Outstanding essay on adapting Dickens.  Highly recommended.

David Nicholls: Adapting Great Expectations for the screen | Books | The Guardian.

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Not So Nice Review (Not Mine)

Periodically there is discussion about the state of reviewing and whether critical reviews, particularly negative ones, are still possible in this age of social media. My reviewing is pretty much limited to books and the occasional movie or stage production so I have no idea if this same debate is going on in the world of restaurant reviewing. All I do know is that New York Times restaurant reviewer Pete Wells is out for blood in his latest review. Punch by punch by punch it exudes fury like nothing else I’ve read in a long time. I can only presume he feels the restaurateur in question deserves every smack. But boy oh boy is it harsh!


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Stop Calling Books for Kids YA!

More and more I’m seeing “young adult book” used in popular culture as an umbrella term for a wide assortment of titles only some of which are actually teen books. In articles, favorites lists, and blog posts, books being identified as young adult are in fact books for younger readers, children that is.

For example, The Atlantic‘s post “The Best of the Young Adult B-Sides” includes Gregor the Overlander which is a book for children firstly even if teens read it too. Granted, the post’s writers do acknowledge that “…we have sought out the best ‘B-sides’ of some of your favorite Y.A. and children’s authors” but then why use only “Young Adult” in the title?  Or how about Flavorwire including two Newbery winners — an award for children’s books — Catherine, Called Birdy and The Westing Game in their “10 Best Young Adult Books for Grown-Ups“?

Telling is what happened last summer when NPR did a “Best YA Fiction Poll.” It caused a lot of controversy about many things among them questions about why favorite books didn’t end up on the final list. In a response NPR noted:

It turns out that a lot of the books we remember as YA are actually meant for younger kids. And librarians and educators recognize that those kids have distinct needs and tastes. If you look up many of the missing books, their publishers recommend them for children “8 and up” or “10 and up.” So if there’s a classic from your childhood that didn’t make the list, that’s probably why.

Bingo! Nostalgia is what is going on here and it isn’t fair. That is, it is all well and good that those adults who enjoy reading young adult books today like to reminisce about their favorite teen reads. But when they include children’s books among them and called them YA they are marginalizing the true readership of these books. My 4th grade students are children. They are not young adults. They are not teenagers. They are a separate group as are their books.  And they and their books matter too. So please, consider the children…books, that is.

Also at the Huffington Post.


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