Monthly Archives: December 2015

For 2016 I want…

a better world for children now;

forgiveness instead of vengeance;

trust, lots and lots of trust;



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Britain’s Favourite Children’s Books….

…at least according to someone or someones, I’m not quite sure who.

I happened to notice some tweets about this yesterday so went looking. The 100 titles were announced by Nicolette Jones on a major television show featuring celebrities in and outside the British children’s literature world.  Evidently there is more about it in Jones’ Sunday Times article today, but since it is behind a paywall, I haven’t access so haven’t been able to find out who made the selections, criteria, etc. Was it Jones, a panel, who and how? If anyone can tell me how to find out, I’d appreciate it.

It is the usual eclectic mix that any such list always is with quite a few old chestnuts including my beloved Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at #12 (out of 100). But one big, shocking missing item was Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (in the US it is known as The Golden Compass). Here are some of the tweets about that:

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This seems a very strange decision to me given some of the others on the final list that seem equivalent to the Pullman as far as age range goes. In addition to Patrick Ness’s and Siobhan Dowd’s A Monster Calls there are Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engine titles, the latter Harry Potter titles, and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books to name some I am familiar with (there are others I wonder about too, but haven’t read). Most puzzling and why I’d like to know more about the selection process.

Britain’s Book Trust did something similar — that is, create a list of 100 favorite children’s books —  resulting in a very different list, one that does include His Dark Materials. They also provide information about how they came up with their titles, something I’ve been unable to discover about the one revealed yesterday.



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The 2016 Book I’m Most Excited to See is…

Melissa Sweet‘s picture book biography Some Writer: The Story of E. B. White. (Look around here if you don’t know why. To say I’m a fan of Charlotte’s Web is to put it mildly.)  And I have to wait until October?  The little I’ve seen (Melissa shared a smidgen at an ALA presentation last summer) is mouthwatering. Here’s the current blurb (no cover image yet) from the publisher:

In this stunning, first-ever fully-illustrated biography of legendary author E.B. White, Sibert medalist and Caldecott Honor winner Melissa Sweet uses White’s letters, photos, and mementos, as well as her original collaged art, to tell the true story of one of the most beloved authors of all time.



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Diverse Cast for J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Harry Potter Play - The play starts 19 years after the last H Potter story ended. Photo caption -  L-R Paul Thornley (Ron Weasley), Noma Dumezweni (Hermione Granger) and Jamie Parker (Harry Potter) at the Palace Theatre. Photo by Simon Annand Photo from

The play revolves around the middle-aged Ron, Hermione, and Harry.  More about it and, especially, the response to the casting of a black actress as Hermione here, here, and here.

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Book Fan Art

Providing a visual interpretation of a story is a tried and true way of responding to a book. I did it as a kid and so do kids today. Now when I was a kid in the 1960s there was no Internet and so no easy way to publish my art. And so I did it pretty much for myself alone. But now there are so many places to publish your art — now better described, I suppose, as book fan art. I’ve just come across this one at the Guardian via Jonathan Stroud’s terrific article on why he likes the art so much.  He notes:

Written reviews give you some idea about whether you’ve succeeded, naturally, but it’s not healthy to pay too much attention to reviews, either good or bad. And even if they’re brilliantly written (which they often are), they are intrinsically anecho of the writer’s reaction to the text. Yes, you get a good idea of what they liked or didn’t like, but you don’t experience their response first-hand – as something fresh, vibrant and living. Fan art provides precisely this effect. As its name implies, it’s both an enthusiastic reaction to your book, and an independent creative act in its own right. For the author, that makes it doubly thrilling.

And the art is indeed fabulous!

And for anyone interested in my fan art (though I’d probably have bristled at that term as I aspired to be a professional illustrator), here’s a drawing of Meg from A Wrinkle in Time I did at age eleven.  As an adult I also did illustrations for Alice in Wonderland — you can see them here and Kipling’s The Elephant’s Child — you can see some of those here.



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In the Works: SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books 2016 Edition

So we’ve got the contenders and we’ve got the judges — all are incredibly awesome. The contender announcement will be in a few weeks and I just can’t wait!

For anyone who is new to this, let me explain. Starting in 2009, over at School Library Journal, we’ve been doing a tournament-style book game. We choose 16 fabulous books from the previous year, invite 16 wonderful writers to judge, and then watch it take off.  Every year is new and different. Since we select the contenders before ALA’s Youth Media Awards announcement, we are always curious how many end up among our contenders. And then, if we do have them there, how do they fare? Newbery winners, when they are among them, tend to not do so well — often they are out in the first round. No matter how famous you might be. Say in 2009 when Judge Jon Scieszka picked Sid Fleischman’s The Trouble Begins at Eight over Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. (You can find that decision here.)

We have no criteria –the judges may and do come up with many different ways to come to a decision.  Say Judge Lois Lowry who, handed the The Hunger Games and Octavian Nothing in 2009 wrote:  “How, then, to choose? Maturely, I am basing my decision solely on petulance, vengeance, reverse nepotism, and payola.” (You can read her whole fabulous decision here  — scroll down to find it.)   Or check-out runner-up Octavian‘s creator M. T. Anderson’s smart judging of two Darwinian titles in 2010 here, memorably titled, ” DARWIN VS. TATE: MANO A MANO (with opposable thumbs.)”

Some judges do essays, some do other things. Say Judge Barry Lyga who began his 2010  Pen vs. Brush thus:

I drop two books on the table in the Turf Club. No big surprise. Bobby and I are always bringing things to read. We’re at the races four days a week, but we’re not degenerate gamblers. Sometimes an hour goes by before there’s something worth betting.

 Sammy, another regular, picks the books up. Weighs them. The cover of Mal Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram features a lethal-looking rocket. On Allen’s Say’s Drawing from Memory, a dreamy boy in a blue sweater and blue socks appears to be flying.

“What’s the deal?” Sam asks.

“I have to decide between them,” I tell him. “It’s like a match race.”

We’ve been so fortunate with the writers who take on the judging roles. Some might surprise you. Say, Jeff Kinney who boldly decided between Schmidt and Selznick in 2012 and James Patterson who, in 2013 made a firm decision between Schlitz and Nelson. No Suzanne Collins or J. K. Rowling yet, but we can dream, can’t we?

Winners have been dystopias, graphic novels, fiction, nonfiction, and for many different ages. But it is really the journey, the excitement in seeing what the judges will decide and do that is what makes this so much fun. And, of course, it is a way to continue to appreciate books from the year before even as we become absorbed in those of the current year.

Every year is new and different. I urge you to check out the site, the previous battles, and get a sense of this incredibly wonderful thing I am so honored to be part of, SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books.


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One More Alice Panel

Hope some of you around NYC this Saturday stop by NYPL’s main branch (the one with the lions) to listen to Dana Sheridan of Princeton’s Cotsen Library moderate a conversation all about Alice with me and illustrators Charles Santore and Robert Sabuda.  Should be fun!  All the details are here.

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My Reviews of the Illustrated Harry Potter and More in This Weekend’s New York Times

I had a lot of fun reviewing five terrific oversized books for this weekend’s New York Times, all perfect holiday gift possibilities. A few excerpts below with the complete reviews available for reading here.

Children are sure to return to the book [Oleg Konnecke’s The Big Book of Animals of the World] frequently to pore over and touch its chunky pages, then murmur the names of the different animals.

Starting with the movable gears on the cover, through pages featuring pop-ups and an ingenious variety of interactive experiences, this is as robust and inviting a physical book [David Macaulay’s How Machines Work: Zoo Break!] as you can possibly get.

The large size of the book [Jenny Broom and Kristjana S. Williams’ The Wonder Garden] makes it easy to imagine a group of children sprawled on the floor with it, oohing and aahing over the bright images, pops of electric color and clear, informative descriptions.

Is this, one wonders, the sort of book found at Diagon Alley’s Flourish and Blotts or in the Hogwarts library? … This gorgeous volume [J.K. Rowling and Jim Kay’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone] is sure to please all, from Harry Potter neophytes to longtime fans.

… most young nature lovers, along with those with a yen for serious collecting, will relish this elegantly designed book [Gordon Grice’s Cabinet of Curiosities], with its surfeit of spectacular images.

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Thoughts on Newbery: The Nature of Distinguished

What is meant by distinguished?  How readers with a myriad of different life experiences and realities define this was broken wide open this fall during a discussion that started on the Heavy Medal blog with a consideration of Laura Amy Schlitz’s The Hired Girl. Since then, the conversation has broadened beyond the one book, on various social media platforms, exploring different reading stances, the dominance of white privilege in the world of children’s books and among the adult gatekeepers, the noticing (or not) of micro-aggressions, the circumstances for child readers today, and much more. It has been a difficult one at times, emotionally intense, but one I think folks I know in this world would agree is hugely important. It has made me think hard, to reflect on how I perceive books, to revisit books I admire to see the problems that I missed, to reconsider some I use in my teaching, to rethink curriculum, and to simply keep reading and talking and learning. So I’m grateful and look forward to continuing to learn and do better. And with this all in mind, I’d like to return to The Hired Girl.  Some have pointed out that it is sometimes necessary to hold opposing notions and I think that is the case for me with this book, one I continue to see as distinguished Newbery-wise while recognizing that it may be a problematic read for some readers.

To review, The Hired Girl is presented as the diary of one extremely unreliable narrator, 1911 farm girl Joan Skraggs.  After a brutally isolated life on a Pennsylvania farm, toiling away for her brothers and father, the motherless Joan runs away to Baltimore where she ends up the hired girl of a wealthy German Jewish family. In classic Bildungsroman fashion, the fourteen year-old who successfully passes for eighteen, bangs up again and again with what she doesn’t know, gaining knowledge each time. The issue is that much of what she doesn’t know, what she blurts out, considers, repeats from others (say her father or books), mulls over, and does is often racist, stereotypic, and otherwise problematic. That this is true to her time and place seems not to be in question. That these individual moments might be offensive to certain readers today is.

And so there is the dilemma we’ve been grappling with — if there is something in a book that is offensive to certain members of the reading population does that mean it can no longer be distinguished?  As a member of one of the minority groups represented in the book, I would say it still can be. In our case, that of Jews, the online response has been wide-ranging. All are bringing their own life-experiences to their reading of the book; in some cases this makes it a painful read, but in others it is an affirming, funny, and enjoyable read, one that some of us consider of high literary merit, say Marjorie Ingall who not only named it one of the best Jewish Children’s Books of 2015, but also her favorite novel among them.

While the story revolves around a Jewish family and Joan’s interactions with them, Jews aren’t the only group to receive a stereotypic 1911 presentation. African Americans, Irish Americans, and American Indians also are mentioned. Of these, it is the last that has provoked the greatest amount of discussion. The two references to American Indians in the book are absolutely unquestionably stereotypic; if you are not already familiar with them please visit this post by Debbie Reese for an overview.

For some, that these two moments are in the book is what keeps it from being award-worthy, that is, distinguished. Yet, even after rereading, listening, reading, and mulling it all over, I continue to think they do need to be there and that they are does not compromise the book in terms of its literary merit.  I know that there will be disagreements here, but this is my current thinking. Joan is white and that means that for all her hardships she still is privileged, even in 1911 Baltimore. Not only isn’t she Jewish, but she also isn’t African American, Irish American, or American Indian — all groups that receive varying degrees of stereotypic mentions in the book. These are all folks she has never encountered before in her previous isolated life. What little she knows about them is through books and whatever her beloved teacher passed on to her. And so she, in her at times arrogant white privileged place, repeatedly speaks of these stereotypes, ones that she is unlearning as she encounters reality.  Some of this reality is the result of firsthand experience as in the case of Jews, but some of it is through the broadening lens that all of it is affording her. If she has learned that Jews are real and civilized, she is also presumably beginning to think of others she had only thought of vaguely before, as real and nothing like the stereotypes her older self knew.

Books and reading offer so many different experiences. The learning can be as specific as Joan learning about the religious practices of these Baltimore German Jews or as general as Joan’s learning that the world is bigger and broader than the one she knew on her father’s farm. This is a book that is going to offer so many different experiences for those readers that chose to read it. And that idea of choice is important. For this is certainly not a book for all readers — again, there will be some who will indeed find aspects of it offensive and they should not read it. But there will be some young readers, indeed some among the minority groups of the book (I posted over at Heavy Medal a response by a Jewish 8th grader at my school) who will like it, tremendously. These will be the readers who will identify with Joan’s passion, her desire to learn, to love, to think, to contemplate, to embrace faith, to yearn to do art, to write. They will learn and grown themselves through this — perhaps and hopefully about prejudice, about the limited, stereotypic, and racist world views of 1911 whites, about the details of observant Jewish life — and then about themselves and the world today as well. It is all of this that continues to make this book for me distinguished and worthy of this year’s Newbery award.

I’m still reading, learning, rethinking, and trying. This is one moment on my journey doing so.


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