Category Archives: Children’s Literature

Nimble Artistes

I was one of the fortunate 100 who recently received a brown paper package tied up with string and was completely charmed by both the handmade nature of the mailing and the enclosed book, Matthew Olshan and Sophie Blackall‘s The Mighty Lalouche.  A longtime fan of Blackall (going all the way back to her  hilarious collaboration with Meg Rosoff, Meet Wild Boars) I was delighted with this elegant Cinderella story of a mild mailman who became a celebrated boxer.

Yesterday I read it aloud to my 4th grade class and was pleased that they enjoyed it too. So first of all, to those who wonder if it is a book with a too adult sensibility, I can say that these ten-year-olds were captivated by the story and the art. But sometime else occurred to us as we enjoyed the story — something no doubt very particular to us.  And that is how much the images and verbal descriptions of the small and speedy boxer Lalouche reminded us of Charlie Chaplin (with whom, for those who don’t know, I’m a bit…er.. obsessed). Chaplin was incredibly capable on his feet too. He could dodge, feint, and dance around his opponents with an elegance and speed that seems not unlike that of the Lalouche of Blackall and Olshan. Not only did he do that in just about every one of his silent comedies, but he actually ended up in a few boxing rings. Perhaps most famously in City Lights, but also in an earlier short, The Champion.  Take a look below (start at 2:58 for his ring performance) and see if you can see any similarities between the Little Tramp and the Little Lalouche.

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Joydeb Chitrakar and Gita Wolf’s The Enduring Ark from Tara Books

After seeing many tantalizing mentions of Tara Books over the last few years, I was delighted to receive Joydeb Chitrakar and Gita Wolf’s The Enduring Ark and get a firsthand look at one of their creations.

It is said from time to time, the world is re-made. Ancient stories talk of an age when a huge flood destroyed the earth, leaving nothing behind. … You may have heard it before, but great tales must be retold – and so I will tell it now in my way, as I have heard it said.

So begins Gita Wolf in her version of that old story in The Enduring Ark, but even before we read this text we’ve seen a huge eye seemingly merging into water signaling to us that this will be a retelling like no other. That is because of the unique accordian-style book making and Joydeb Chitrakar’s vivid illustrations done in the West Bengali Patua style of scroll painting. Readers can immerse themselves in Wolf and Chitrakar’s intertwined words and art by conventionally turning the pages or by opening the book to view them all at once. Water flows through the book from that first enormous eye of warning, tinkling through the gentle stream at Noah’s home, on as he collects his creatures, rising with the flood, and ending with the water merging with a rainbow of hope. The Enduring Ark is a spectacularly gorgeous book, one well worth reading again and again.

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And Tara Books is a remarkable publisher, a co-operative founded by writers and designers and committed to feminist and egalitarian principles and gorgeous visual bookmaking. Based in Chennai, South India, many of their books are completely handmade and they are focused on celebrating the range of Indian art. For a fascinating look at how their books are made and more I recommend taking a look at their blog.

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Coming Soon from Jon Scieszka, Mac Barnett, and Matthew Myers: Battle Bunny

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I am a big fan of subversive books, say the “recommended inappropriate books for kids” featured in Lane Smith’s Curious Pages.  That said, I also have observed that kids respond better to some of these more than others, an issue I explored years ago in a Horn Book article “Pets and Other Fishy Books.” So when I ran into Jon Scieszka a few months ago and he excitedly told me about the forthcoming Battle Bunny, I was intrigued but also wary — was this a book kids would get or would it be something more amusing for adults? Then an advanced copy of the book showed up in the mail and I took it to school to see what my students thought.

First of all, let me try to explain just what it is (and how tricky it was to read aloud). If you look at the cover above you can perhaps see that it appears to be a sweet book of the Golden Book sort, originally titled Birthday Bunny, that has been erased, scribbled on, and reworked by…someone. I began by showing the cover to the kids and we discussed what that original book was; some of them knew Golden Books, but all of them appreciated that it was meant to be one of those sweet little journey books they’d all read when very small. Next we explored the scribbles — evidently someone named Alex had received the book from his grandmother for his birthday (there is an inscription on the inside front cover), wasn’t too happy, and decided to make it into a completely new story. And so he thoroughly erased the original title and put his own in instead. As for the interior, he crossed-out text, added new words and art, and turns the story into something completely different.  

The first day I tried reading the book aloud on my own— alternating between the original text and Alex’s. The next day I invited one child to join me, reading Alex’s story and then had the kids take over completely — one reading Birthday Bunny and the other reading Battle Bunny. They had a great time!  It may well be that the best way to take in the book is solo or with one other child, but I still think it was a blast to read this way. The group reacted, pointed out small things to one another, and just had a lot of fun. Jon tells me they are planning on providing a copy of The Birthday Bunny online for kids to print out and rework just as Alex did.  Great idea!

So for those like me who go for this sort of thing (and not everyone does, I know),  Battle Bunny is an excellent addition to the world of subversive books for children.

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Filed under Children's Literature, Classic, Picture Books, Reading Aloud, Review

Posting the Old-Fashioned Way

Betsy Bird has a charming contest inspired by Sophie Blackall’s remarkable mailing, of hers and Matthew Olshan’s book The Mighty Laloucheto a bunch of folks in the old-fashioned way — wrapped in brown paper with string accompanied with a letter sealed with wax. Having received one of these lovely, lovely packages I’m not going to participate in Betsy’s contest, but urge others to do so. And even if you don’t wish to do so, I highly recommend reading the contributions there already. They are varied and all so moving!

My own memories of packages are many. First of all, as a child living in East Lansing, Michigan where my father was a young professor, I recall the periodic packages that would come from my grandfather in New York City, filled with food that my parents loved and could not find in the Midwest — largely German as that is what they were.  And then there were the packages my parents sent to me when I was in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone in the 1970s. I think there was also food in those, but most of all I remember toothpaste, the brand I liked which was unavailable in Freetown.

I need to ask my 4th grade students about their experiences with packages. Maybe at camp?  Certainly, they aren’t receiving letters the way I did as a child.

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2013 Notable Children’s Books in the Language Arts

This wonderful list of thirty titles is selected by a committee of NCTE’s Children’s Literature Assembly. Congratulations to all the honored book creators and to the members of this year’s committee for their fine work: Tracy Smiles, Chair; Donalyn Miller, Patricia Bandre, Yoo Kyung Sung, Barbara Ward, Shanetia Clark, and Jean Schroeder.

43 Cemetery Road: the Phantom of the Post Office, by Kate Klise, illustrated by Sarah Klise, published by Houghton Mifflin.
A Leaf Can Be, by Laura Purdie Salas, illustrated by Violeta Dabija, published by Lerner.
and then it’s spring, by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Erin Stead, published by Macmillan.
Bear has a Story to Tell, by Philip Stead, illustrated by Erin Stead, published by Macmillan.
Book of Animal Poetry, edited by J. Patrick Lewis, published by National Geographic.
Cat Tale, by Michael Hall, published by HarperCollins.
Chopsticks, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Scott Magoon, published by Disney/Hyperion.
Each Kindness, by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis, published by Penguin.
Encyclopedia of Me, by Karen Rivers, published by Scholastic.
Endangered, by Eliot Schrefer, published by Scholastic.
Forgive Me, I Meant To Do It: False Apology Poems, by Gail Carson Levine, illustrated by Matthew Cordellpublished by HarperCollins. 
Hades, Lord of the Dead, by George O’Connor, published by Macmillan.
His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg, by Louise Borden, published by Houghton Mifflin.
House Held Up by Trees, by Ted Kooser, illustrated by Jon Klassen, published by Candlewick. 
I Have the Right to be a Child, by Alain Serres, illustrated by Aurelia Fronty, published by Groundwood.
I Lay My Stitches Down, by Cynthia Grady, illustrated by Michele Wood, published by Eerdmans.
Lions of Little Rock, by Kristin Levine, published by Penguin.
Moonbird, by Phillip Hoose, published by Macmillan.
No Crystal Stair, by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, published by Lerner.
Obstinate Pen, by Frank Dormer, published by Macmillan.
Sadie and Ratz, by Sonya Hartnett, illustrated by Ann James, published by Candlewick.
See You at Harry’s, by Jo Knowles, published by Candlewick.
Snakes, by Nic Bishop, published by Scholastic.
The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate, published by HarperCollins.
Unbeelievables, by Douglas Florian, published by Simon & Schuster.
Unspoken, by Henry Cole, published by Scholastic.
Walking on Earth & Touching the Sky, by Lakota Youth at Red Cloud Indian School, illustrated by S.D. Nelson, published by Abrams.
Water Sings Blue, by Kate Coombs, illustrated by Meilo So, published by Chronicle.
Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, published by Random House.
Z is for Moose, by Kelly Bingham, illustrated by Paul Zelinsky, published by HarperCollins.

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The YA/MG Turf Wars

Some may recall my rant “Stop Calling Books for Kids ‘Young Adult‘” and the place I created to document the most egregious errors,”It’s a Children’s Book (Not Young Adult!).”  Some time after that the New York Times recognized the difference by creating distinctive children’s middle grade and young adult best seller lists. And now we’ve got Penderwick author Jeanne Birdsall taking up the gauntlet in  “Middle Grade Saved My Life” (with a quote from me, no less).  Perhaps we can start a mini-Occupy movement?  

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Bunnies and Butties

The IBBY Congress offered several pre and post tours and I was delighted to see one for the Lake District, long a place I’d wanted to visit for all its literary sites.  The group was also an attraction as it was full of children’s literature enthusiasts from all over the world: US, UK, Australia, Thailand, Japan, Russia, and Finland.

On the first day we headed up to Windermere and took a boat ride across to Ambleside, a pleasant little village.  The next day we went to Coniston and visited the eccentric and fascinating Ruskin Museum. In addition to a very edited version of his life (nothing on his sad marriage to Effie Gray for instance nor even a label for his children’s book, King of the Golden River) there were exhibits on Arthur Ransome (of Swallows and Amazons fame as it is set in the Lake District), mining, and a water speed racer who died in his final attempt also in the area.

From there we went on to Grasmere where I had a lovely time in William Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage.  At the top of the garden was a lovely little spot to sit and look over the village and bucolic landscape.  There was a book where visitors were encouraged to write or draw their responses.  The one below was amusingly unimpressed.

And then there was this lovely little four year old who chose to draw a dinosaur.

We took Wordsworth’s favorite footpath along the River Rothey to Rydall where there is Dora’s Field of “I wandered lonely as a cloud” fame.  I couldn’t stop thinking of Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair where the protagonist Thursday Next gets stuck in the poem and, adding insult to injury, is hit on by its creator.

On our final day we headed to Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top Farm which was predictably charming (with the obligatory collection of bunnies) and I took a pleasant walk in the area. Hearing a clarinet rendition of “Climb Every Mountain” I turned the corner to see this shrewd young busker.

We finished up at Bowness-on-Windermere that has a very British holiday feel to it.

And then we headed back to London, stopping on our way (as we had on our way up) at a place that had a Starbucks with these.

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The Care and Feeding of Middle Grade Readers

Currently the ccbc-net discussion group is considering the following topic:

Rebirth of Middle Grade Fiction:  Yes, young adult literature continues to outpace middle grade in terms of numbers, but we’ve noticed lately that tucked between the seemingly endless volumes of y.a. angst, dystopias and romance (supernatural and otherwise) is a growing number of solid middle grade novels. During the first half of July, we’ll talk about middle grade fiction on CCBC-Net: inviting you to share how do you define it, what makes a great middle grade read, and some of your recent favorites.

Since I have been an elementary classroom teacher for decades now, I figured I’d weigh in on this beginning with the question of definition. Already some have suggested (go here to subscribe if you are interested in following or participating in the conversation) that these readers include early teens while others suggest those just moving into chapter books should also be considered. That is too broad for me. I see middle grade readers as those in grades 4-6, so approximately ages 9-12. These are kids who have the nuts and bolts of reading under their belts and are now able to focus more exclusively on content; kids who are working out the sort of readers they are, exploring different genres, seeing the pleasure of reading; kids who are heading we hope toward a lifetime of reading.

This being a time when children are often dealing with the complications of friendship, cliques, mean peers, and other relationship situations, these young readers often gravitate to stories involving these issues. Some of these can be quiet and interior-focused while others can be loud and very much out in the world. For some kids, contemporary stories, often school-centered, are what appeal while for others it is those set in other worlds, say a fantasy one or one set in the past, that are the attraction. Most prefer strong pacing and plots, be they about kids dealing with a bully in school, a sad family situation, or saving the world from something highly evil. Humorous books, graphic novels, and even picture books for older readers are all highly successful ways of engaging this age group.

As for the next question, what makes a great middle grade read? —- for me it is great writing. Unique and engaging plots, well-developed characters that encourage empathetic responses, and well-crafted sentences all figure into what I admire most in works of fiction for this age group. And the best of the best for me is that iconic American children’s book E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (#1 on Betsy Bird’s latest chapter book poll). I’ve written realms about this book so won’t go on about it here other than to say that years of rereading and teaching it has me considering it one of the most perfect children’s books ever written. What it and other great middle grade readers offer are not only great plotting, characterization, and writing, but themes that are compelling, moving, and age-appropriate. That is, kids of this age are contemplating death, the circle of life, friendship, changes, growing older, and the other ideas so beautifully considered in this wonderful book. In fact, White features some of these in his other two books for children, Stuart Little and Trumpet of the Swan, along with another important topic for this age group, family.

And then there is the final question –what are some of my recent fictional favorites?  (To see some of my 4th grade students’ recent favorites please check out this post filled with them.) Here are ten of many more.

Five from last year:

The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright. This was a great hit when I read it aloud to my fourth graders last year. Writers often reference people, ideas, and such as Easter eggs for adult readers and indeed this book is full of clever Dickensian bon motes, but they stand alone as clever bits of writing all by themselves. Take the opening, introducing the cat hero, “He was the best of toms. He was the worst of toms.”  You don’t need to know the reference to enjoy it and my students certainly did.  A grand romp with a heart and delightful writing.

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos. I never wrote a proper review of this one (although I did suggest it as a possible Newbery winner), but after reading it aloud to my class this past year many of them included it in their summer reading suggestions. One wrote that it “…is an fantastic book for kids that are interested in adventures, laugh-out-loud, exciting books. Jack Gantos puts himself in a child character, who goes on throughout a classic plot story, including gripping chapters, amazing twists, and possibly murder? It also gives your imagination a boost, and makes you want to relate to it after.”

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai. I tend to be wary of verse novels, but was taken in immediately when reading this powerful story of immigration based on the author’s own childhood. From the first page set in 1975 Vietnam to the last in Alabama, I was utterly engaged throughout as were my students.  It was one of several books they chose from for a unit on immigrant historical fiction and it ended up being so popular I did not have enough. Several children were so eager to read it they bought their own copies rather than selecting one of the other available books. One child was so inspired by the form that she used it when writing her own work of historical fiction.

The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami. I was charmed by this Bollywood-inspired tale. In a review I wrote “Young readers will delight in this upbeat and entertaining tale, identifying with Dini as she meets new friends, gets to know her new town, and solve a mystery as well. Along the way they will get a taste of life in one small part of India, complete with monkeys, movie lore, and some absolutely scrumptious-sounding curry pastries.”

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick. In a blog review I wrote, “As  he did with the Caldecott winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret … 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.”

Five from this year:

Deadweather and Sunrise by Geoff Rodkey.In this post I wrote that “Egg [main character] tells his own story with humor and a  likable lack of self-pity. There is adventure galore as he goes from one cliffhanger (one is literally a cliffhanger) to the next and wit as well. For it is Rodkey’s writing that made this rise for me above the others of its type — a dry sense of humor, the sort of throw-away lines Dickens does so well, great pacing, and excellent world building.”  The first in a series (something this age group loves).

Fake Mustache by Tom Angleberger. From my blog review: “So wacky this is (as another beloved Angleberger character might say) in the best way which is no easy feat. For funny is incredibly hard to pull off; what has me guffawing can just as easily leave another reader cold and vice versa. As someone who too often has been left cold by silliness I was wary when I started this one, but within pages I was completely won over.”  My students fought over the copies of this one.

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage. On goodreads I wrote, “Completely and utterly charming!” while one of my students wrote that it  “…is about Mo, a girl who loves mysteries. So when a strange detective comes to town, and an old man is murdered, she’s on the case with her friend Dale. This book is great if you adore action. Three Times Lucky is one of those books that has big parts that you know something’s going to happen but you don’t know what.”

Wonder by R. J. Palacio.  On goodreads I wrote, “I went a bit kicking and screaming into the reading of this one because I thought — yet another soppy sad story of a kid with a serious problem. Not to mention realistic school stories too often feel forced to this veteran classroom teacher. But as I read further into it I was completely taken in. This is a truly lovely story and beautifully, beautifully told. The movement between different characters’ points of view is nicely done. The children and adults all seem real as can be, not a one seemed a straw man or someone pontificating a moral. There were moments when I was brought to tears, but they were genuine moments, not a one felt overly sacharine or manipulative. Nothing, in fact, is the slightest bit manipulative in this book.”  Kids and teachers love this one for good reason.

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead. I wanted to stick to books already available, but this one is out in a few weeks and to my mind exemplifies the best of what a middle grade book is so I’m putting it here anyway. The main character is in 7th grade, but in my experience, 4th graders like reading about those a bit older than themselves. The writing here is spare, elegant perfection; the characters well-developed and sympathetic; the plot a fascinating mystery. More when the book is out, but trust me — this is one gorgeous middle grade read.

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Filed under Charlotte's Web, Children's Literature, In the Classroom

NEH Summer Seminars and Institutes for Teachers

Betsy Bird recently posted about a fabulous NEH institute being held at her library this summer reminding me of these wonderful professional development opportunities, several of which I participated in years ago.  The first was a 6 week children’s literature seminar at Princeton University with the brilliant U.C. Knoepflmacher; it did much to change the direction of my life. A couple years later I did a folklore institute at Bank Street College (where I first met Jack Zipes) and then further on I did one more seminar on Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast at Rochester University with Russell Peck. (whose Cinderella bibliography is amazing)  All three were wonderful, intellectually stimulating, and life-changing experiences.

Among this year’s offerings is one I want to do very, very badly:  Golden Compasses as Moral Compasses: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Fairy Tales and Fantasy, a seminar at Harvard with Maria Tatar.  Here’s the overview:

What happens to children when they read and immerse themselves in other worlds? In this seminar, we will investigate how imaginative literature leads children into possible worlds, enabling them to engage in mind reading and explore counterfactuals in ways that are impossible in real life.

They are going to be looking at fairy tales, fantasy literature (Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandPeter Pan, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), and literature across cultures. You can see the schedule in detail here.  It looks amazing and it is going to take all my will power not to apply (because I’m deeply into two book projects and will need every bit of the summer to write).

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Filed under Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Children's Literature, Classic, Fantasy, Harry Potter

New York Times Special Section on Children’s Books

This weekend’s New York Times has a completely glorious collection of children’s book reviews and art. There’s a slide show of the already-announced best illustrated picture books of the year (and may I say — I’m delighted with the choices!). Betsy Bird is on hand with reviews of a couple of intriguing NYC mysteries, fellow-NYC-private-school-faculty-member Jennifer Hubert Swan makes her debut with a smashing review of The Scorpio Races, and yay to Lisa Brown also I believe (correct me if I’m wrong, Lisa) debuting with a look at a couple of unconventional animal stories. Down-the-street-from-me Bank Street librarian and blogger Lisa von Drasek is back with a consideration of Lauren Oliver’s Liesel and Po, just-married-and-back-from-an-amazing-sounding-honeymoon Roger Sutton considers some superheroes, and Susan Gregory Thomas contemplates Lauren Snyder’s Bigger than a Bread Box.

But there is more!  NYC-online-friend Marjorie Ingall (whom I hope to meet in person one day) looks at several biographies, the brilliant Leonard S. Marcus examines a new version of The Chronicles of Harris Burdick (placing it in historical context which I love), Walter Dean Myers reviews Kadir Nelson’s impressive Heart and Soul, and Meg Wolitzer looks at Chris Raschka’s first novel, Seriously, Norman.

And still more, too much to possibly mention here so please go check it out yourself. It is fantastic!

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