Monthly Archives: May 2014

A Few BEA Moments

While I did not make it to the Javits itself this year to participate in the heady event that is  BookExpo (nor will I get there today for the associated Book Con), I did make it to some related events. (Warning: lots of name dropping and gushing follows.)

On Tuesday I went to Candlewick’s preview and got very excited with their enthusiastic presentation of their fall books. One faux pas on my part: when some Toon Books books were passed out for us to look at while Françoise Mouly spoke about them, I tweeted the following before I understood I couldn’t KEEP the one I had and then felt a little silly when I got a particular response to it. Ah well, I’ll get the book soon enough!

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Wednesday was SLJ’s Day of Dialog.  The programming, as always, was fabulous.  Kudos to SLJ for keeping the numbers down. While this may frustrate those who are shut-out of going it makes for a relatively intimate event unlike BEA.  More about this year’s event here, here, and here.  And here are a few of my tweets and photos:

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On Thursday I went to the Random House party where I had an interesting celebrity moment.  Now there were some awesomely famous writers at the event. It was fun, for instance, to catch up with Raquel (R. J. Palacio) and chat about the incredibly fun project she is doing with Tom Angleberger and Adam Gidwitz — the retelling the first three Star Wars movies. But first I made a bee line for the latest actress-turned-children’s-book-author, Jane Lynch.  Just because I watched the first few seasons of Glee mainly because of her wonderful portrayal of Sue Sylvester.  And so when I saw her iconic face I couldn’t resist talking to her and getting a photo (with my friend Roxanne Feldman).  She was, not unexpectedly, lovely. I hope her book is too!

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After that I went to a very special dinner with Peachtree Publishers where I met Carmen Agra Deedy who, along with Randall Wright, wrote one of my absolute favorite books of 2011, The Cheshire Cheese Cat and the book’s illustrator, the incredible illustrator, Barry Moser.  Being able to talk at length  with these two and Peachtree’s fabulous publisher, Margaret Quinlin, (an Alice-phile, I discovered) was a complete thrill.

And last night, Friday, I went to a party for Candlewick staff, authors, and illustrators of which I’m now one (which I still can’t always believe!) at the very-appropriately-chosen Library Hotel. Had a great time chatting with various wonderful Candlewick folk. I have to admit being especially touched when Kate DiCamillo asked me how school was as she remembered our conversation at the same party last year when I was very glum about some tough social stuff that had been happening with my class. She has a remarkable memory in addition to being just incredibly empathetic in person as well as in her books.

So that is BEA for me this year. (It was unfortunately the same set of days as my 40th college reunion so I had to miss a cocktail party with Anna Quinlan — one of my classmates — on Thursday and a gala dinner last night. So today I’m catching up with an old friend in town for it.)

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Coming Soon: Gregory Maguire’s Egg & Spoon

Gregory Maguire’s Egg & Spoon is a rich and layered story, full of gorgeous images and sentences, a matryoshka doll sort of tale. That is, like those nested dolls that show up themselves in the story, this book involves bits and pieces of stories, one inside the other and then coming out again. We begin meeting Elena Rudina, a peasant girl starving in a village with a dead father, a dying mother, a brother taken off to serve the Tsar, and the other as a servant for the local landowner. One day, out of nowhere, a train appears containing the wealthy Ekaterina, another young girl, on  her way to visit the Tsar in St. Petersburg.  Things take off from this point — journeys, mistaken identities, magical eggs, magical beings, mysterious monks, a prince, a magical festival, the Tsar, and — most wonderful of all, Baba Yaga and her house on chicken feet. This fabulous witch of Russian folklore is a fabulously written character,  funny, scary, wry, and just about everything possible in Maguire’s capable hands. At moments she reminded me of some of Diane Wynne Jones’ similarly gorgeously cranky and wonderful characters.

The plot is unique and complex, swirling around in highly unusual directions. It is staying with me and the more I mull it over the more I love it. Kids who are able and flexible readers, those with a predilection for older books of complexity and rich language and the ability to go with it wherever it goes will love it too I think. The child characters are delightful, brave and smart and complicated. And those magical characters — wow. This made me think of so many classical books I have loved over the years. Fairy tales galore, Russian and Scandinavian, especially, but other tales too — at one moment I thought of a favorite of my childhood, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. A unique and wonderful read.

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An Interstitial Moment: Pig not Fig

I am a lousy speller even in the best of times, but on a small Iphone with autocorrect my poor spelling and poor typing results in many errors. It is particularly vexing with twitter because tweets are so ephemeral and not easily corrected.  Yesterday I made one that gave me, a Lewis Carroll fan, some amusement. I was tweeting away at Candlewick’s fall preview when I did this one:

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The correct title is Sam and David Dig a Hole and so first of all, my apologies to Candlewick, Mac Barnett, and Jon Klassen.  It is Dig not Fig and Dave not Dace. But I have to say this error for once made me smile as it made me think of this passage from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

 

`Did you say pig, or fig?’ said the Cat.

`I said pig,’ replied Alice; `and I wish you wouldn’t keep appearing and vanishing so suddenly: you make one quite giddy.’

`All right,’ said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.

 

 

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Children’s Literature New England’s Fall Symposium

Some of the most transformational learning experiences I have ever had occurred at the summer institutes held for years by CLNE (Children’s Literature New England).  I started going in 1999 and didn’t miss a single one until they ended in 2006. I was blown away by them. First of all, the speakers! Not only were they some of the biggest names in the field, but their speeches were amazing. All of them. This was because the organizers saw to it that those speaking knew their audience and prepared accordingly.  But then there were the discussion groups, focusing on a set of books we’d been required to read, field trips, informal times, and more. It was during those summers that I made some important and life-long friendships. CLNE took hold of me and never let go.  And so I can’t recommend enough their forthcoming symposium, “Writing the Past: Yesterday was Once Today” to be held at Vermont College of Fine Arts, November 14-16, 2014. It is bound to be amazing. Here’s the overview:

In the myriad ways the past is presented to young readers, including history, fiction, biography, memoir, poetry and historical fantasy, what questions are raised? For audiences with short personal histories, programmed to look forward, what is the point of looking back? How trapped are readers, young and old, in their own times? Can a novel be more authentic than an historian’s account of the same period? What are the demands of writing, illustrating and reading about our own past or a time before our own? At Writing the Past, we will explore such concerns as authenticity, intention, credibility and narrative voice. In recreating yesterday as today, how does the writer avoid the slippery wisdom of hindsight? Most importantly, by reaching into the past what do we reveal, deliberately or inadvertently, about ourselves?

Presenters at the Symposium will include: M. T. Anderson, Susan Cooper, Sarah Ellis, Shane Evans, Jack Gantos, Katherine Paterson, Elizabeth Partridge, Neal Porter, Leda Schubert, Barbara Scotto, Brian Selznick, Robin Smith, Suzanne Fisher Staples, and Deborah Taylor.

For more details and to register go here.

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Three New Picture Books

Chris Raschka’s The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra: The Sound of Joy is Enlightening.  I’m a Raschka fan from way back. The range and variety of his work is astounding. Among my favorites are three featuring jazz musicians: Charlie Parker Played Be Bop,  John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, and Mysterious Thelonious.  Now along comes Raschka’s appreciation of Sun Ra and it is as marvelous as the others. Sun Ra was one wild dude and Raschka captures his originality in words and images. Not just his life, but the sense and feeling of his music. Gorgeous.

Jose Manual Mateo’s Migrant.  This is a remarkable book providing a highly original look at those migrating across our southern border.  This story of a young Mexican migrant is told in English and Spanish and spectacularly illustrated in the style of a Mayan codex, folding out in a frieze so that young readers can explore the story in a wide variety of ways. Spectacular.

Barbara Kerley and Edwin Fotheringham’s A Home for Mr. Emerson is a gentle and profound portrayal of a remarkable man. Kerley has managed to write in spare and poetic text a lovely view of Emerson in a way that is perfect for a young audience. Fortheringham’s illustrations provide a lighthearted and fond view that perfectly compliment the text.

 

 

 

 

 

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Learning about Africa: Ghosts of Amistad

I’m always on the look-out for new information and new takes on the Amistad story. One recent one is Marcus Rediker’s The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom in which the focus and viewpoint is on  the captives. And now there is a  film based on the book coming from filmmaker Tony Buba. The following description and preview has me very intrigued.

This film, made by Tony Buba, is based on Marcus Rediker’s book about the famous slave revolt of 1839, The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom (Penguin, 2012) and is about a trip made by historians and a film crew to Sierra Leone in May 2013. All of the Amistad rebels were from southern and eastern Sierra Leone, so the filmmakers went to their villages of origin to interview elders about surviving local memory of the case. They also searched for the long lost ruins of Lomboko, the slave trading factory where the Amistad Africans were loaded onto a slave ship bound for the New World. This hour-long documentary chronicles a quest for a lost history from below.

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In the Classroom: Rush Limbaugh’s Rush Revere and Other Books About the Pilgrims

My 4th graders culminate a year of immigration studies with a close look at the story of the Mayflower passengers, aka the Pilgrims. I began teaching the unit years ago and  have enjoyed finding new material for the children every year. We have a great time reading primary sources like Mourt’s Relation  and end with a visit to the wonderful recreation of both the ship and settlement, Plimoth Plantation.  So I was curious when one of my students brought in Rush Limbaugh’s Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims for me to see. After all, I had heard that the author was a finalist for the Children’s Book Week Author of the Year Award due to the book’s high status on the best seller list (and this week was dubbed the winner).  And so I wondered — was the book any good?

Sadly, I have to concur with both the Kirkus review and editor Vicky Smith’s closer look at it (and its sequel);  the book is not good. The history offered is a fictional form of the Pilgrim story, the one most of us of a certain age grew up with and not unexpected given the author’s known conservative stance.  But it is the writing itself that really makes it such a dreadful book;  it is incredibly poor, cringe-inducing in spots.  Unfortunately, it isn’t helped by the digital illustrations which are cartoony in the worst way. There are a few older-looking images scattered throughout with citations at the end; unfortunately, these are muddled without proper identification. The whole package simply looks  and reads as something very unprofessional. The bottom line is that it would not be something I’d want to add to my curriculum, that is for sure.

And so, for those who may want to know of some alternatives here are some of the books I use in my teaching of this topic:

Connie and Peter Roop’s Pilgrim Voices: Our First Year in the New World. This is my favorite book to use with my class. The Roops have carefully combined the two main primary sources about the Pilgrims (Bradford’s journal and Mourt) to create an accessible and highly engaging book that is almost a primary source as they use only the original language. Add to that outstanding, carefully researched illustrations, and excellent back matter and you have a winning book. Please bring it back in print!

Kate Water’s Sarah Morton’s Day, Samuel Eaton’s Day, Tapenum’s Day, and others about the settlement are useful for my students who create imaginary characters who may have traveled on the Mayflower and write their stories. These books help them imagine their characters’ lives.

Lucille Recht Penner’s Eating the Plates: A Pilgrim Book of Food and Manners nicely weaves in elements of both social and political history and ends with some yummy-looking recipes!

Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Mayflower and the Pilgrim’s New World which is a reworking of his adult title.  This is really for older children than my 4th graders and is not flawless  (there have been criticisms of the Native American aspects), but definitely is heads and tails above Limbaugh’s book for those looking for something for young people on this time in American history.  If I were teaching older children and using this I’d be sure to have them read and discuss the criticism and the author’s response to them.

Kenneth C. Davis’s Don’t Know Much About the Pilgrims.  Light, but nicely presented for a young audience.

Penny Colman’s Thanksgiving: The True Story focuses on the history behind our national holiday.

Cheryl Harness’s The Adventurous Life of Myles Standish and the Amazing-but-True Story of Plymouth Colony is a very nicely presented version of the Pilgrim story through the vantage point of the settlement’s militia leader.

Catherine O’Neil Grace’s 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving is a National Geographic title that provides a more nuanced view of this history than does Limbaugh.

 

 

 

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Talking Diversity With Young Children

Betsy Bird has a fascinating post up, “We Need Diverse Books…But Are We Willing To Discuss Them With Our Kids.”  Having recently read Po Branson and  Ashley Merryman’s Nurture Shock, Betsy considers in particular their chapter  “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race: Does teaching children about race and skin color make them better of or worse?” and what books are available to help with this conversation for very young children.  

First of all, my general feeling about introducing difficult topics with very young children is uneasiness.  I’ve been on record as not being a fan of Holocaust stories for the very young as I think the topic requires an ability to grapple with history and information in a way they are not ready for developmentally. More recently I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about it in terms of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  I wrote my book,  Africa is My Home, for many reasons, but one was to provide a way for children the age of my students, 9 and 10, to begin to consider this horrific time.  In addition to thinking about this for the book I’ve thought about it for years as I plan and teach a unit about this to my 4th graders.  How much information do they need, I wonder? How do I navigate one child’s readiness to know more and another child’s lack of readiness for the same?  I use a lot of picture books for the unit, poetry, and my own material. I ask children and parents to let me know if anyone is upset. So far, the children seem to know just how far they are ready to go. It seems a bit like sex — they know there is more to know, but they are not ready. Of course, each class responses differently as does each child. And Betsy is talking about parents taking these topics on, not classroom teachers. Yet we classroom teachers do take them on so her post spoke to me and made me wonder.

And a particular teacher came to mind as I thought about this, former kindergarten teacher, Vivian Paley, who often addresses race in her books. One in particular seems relevant to this topic, The Girl with the Brown Crayon, in which the books of Leo Lionni  become a springboard for the consideration of many important topics including race.  While I can’t say how much conversation my white students have with their parents about race, I can say they do come to my classroom having discussed it in school in previous years.  Of course they live (as does Betsy’s daughter) in a city where they see people of different races all the time and go to a school where they see it too. I wonder about this with very young white children in communities that are less diverse — if they aren’t seeing it in real life how do they consider it when they are seeing it just in the books Betsy suggests?

As a teacher, my interest is providing historical context for particularly difficult topics.  I think it is very difficult for all of us to understand the horrors of human behavior, but by learning the history that leads to it, we are helped I think. For one thing, it takes away the tendency to demonize and brings us to a place to think about how we can avoid more horror to happen. No doubt because of my personal history with the Holocaust and Sierra Leone, I feel it is very important to consider not just the facts of racism and other such horrors of human behavior, but to try to see what causes it and how we move past it. When children are ready to begin to do this, I’m not completely sure. I’m working my way through it and appreciate every opportunity to learn more on how to do it better.

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On Dog

Lovely reverie on life with dog by singer Nat Johnson (via Brain Pickings).

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The Machine to Be Another Project

I just was listening to the BBC this early, early morning and they caught my attention by introducing a segment with a bit from one of the Freaky Friday movies. (For those who don’t know them, these are movies based on the Mary Roger’s book, Freaky Friday, where a girl and her mother swap bodies with somewhat predictable, but amusing results. The two movies reflect their time periods — might be interesting to do it again and see how it might look today. But I digress.)

The feature was about the BeAnotherLab in which a group of Spanish artists are trying to have people experience something of the body/mind swap that the mother and daughter in the Freaky Friday movies and books experience.  Using low tech equipment they have been doing this with as an art project rather than a science one.  Their goals being the laudable ones of encouraging empathy and the sense of literally being in someone else’s shoes.  On the site they describe it as:

an interdisciplinary art collective dedicated to investigate embodied and telepresence experiments. We believe that the understanding of the “self” is related to the understanding of the “Other” and that more than individuals, we are part of a broader system called humanity. Under this perspective, we search for innovative possibilities on the concepts of embodied interaction, extended body and extended mind by mixing low-budget digital technology with social relations, Web and also neuroscientist methodologies.

We develop Creative Commons tools based on OpenKnowledge and are collaborating with experimental psychologists and neurologists to develop usage procedures to ‘the machine’ as a low-budget rehabilitation system, and also as an immersive role playing system.

Intriguing. Here’s a video they made about it:

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