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Ten (or so) Great 2014 Kid Books for Gift-giving

I have read and loved a ton of books this year; among my many favorites are the following suggestions for great gifts this holiday season.

1, For a book that will be fun for a wide range of middle-grade readers and is also a great book to read aloud as a family, check out Jennifer L. Holm’s The Fourteenth GoldfishThis deceptively spare book (comes in at just under 200 pages) packs quite a punch. It offers a clever take on a trope that is not unfamiliar in children’s books — that of an older person suddenly contending with being young again. In this case it is the protagonist’s scientist grandfather who gets to try teen life once again and his grumpy response is spot on hilarious. But mixed-in are warm and sensitive considerations of growing old-growing up, new-old friendships, familial love, the passion-pleasure of scientific research, and relationships overall. For more read my New York Times review.

2. A book that absolutely demands to be read aloud is B. J. Novak’s The Book with No Pictures.  The title says it true — there are no pictures at all. What there is is lots of silliness that is all designed to push the poor adult reading the book aloud into more and more awkwardness. And what kid doesn’t like seeing an adult put him or herself into the silliest position possible? While my 4th graders got a kick out of this one, I would guess it would be especially beloved (and demanded over and over) by younger kids. Novak plays with the whole methodology of reading aloud in a very entertaining and clever way.

3. A picture book that may begin as a book to read aloud, but will send young readers back to it to examine over and over on their own is Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Sam & Dave Dig a Hole. Be forewarned, grown-ups, the ending of this one has a Twilight Zone, The Sixth Sense, Cabin in the Woods vibe where things-turn-out-not-to-be-quite-what-you-thought. After I read it to them, my 4th grade students went wild coming up with theories for this; my blog post featuring them is here.

4. Another favorite picture book of mine is one on the guy who invented the thesaurus, Jen Bryan and Melissa Sweet’s The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus. For kids who love words and book with illustrations full of words, look no further. This one is absolutely gorgeous and fascinating. For the end papers, illustrator Sweet replicated all of Roget’s original set of words! My blog review here.

5. One of the most lyrical and moving books of the year is Jacqueline Woodson’s National Book Award winning memoir Brown Girl Dreaming. Intertwining stories of her childhood in the South and Brooklyn, Woodson manages to bring a lens to race and racism, friendship, and what it is to grow into a writer and poet. One to give to an introspective young reader and emerging writer as well as one to read and discuss as a family.

6. Another memoir that probably would be great as an individual read is Cece Bell’s graphic novel  El Deafo, a moving and at times quite funny memoir of her youth. I’m planning to have my 4th grade class read it later this school year and am confident that they are going to love it. While Bell doesn’t shy away from issues dealing with her hearing loss, doing so with wit and a refreshing lack of self-pity, it is the search for a good friend that will resonate most with young readers.

7. The Crossover by Kwame Alexander is a powerful verse novel involving twelve-year-old African-American twins, both of whom are gifted basketball players. A student of mine last year who was serious about basketball and writing absolutely adored this one and I was thrilled to be able to get a copy signed for him by the author. The poetry is energetic and the story compelling — a sure-fire hit for a wide range of readers.

8. I was completely charmed by Dana Alison Levy’s The Misadventures of the Family FletcherThis episodic novel of a family of two dads and four adopted boys of various races is a delight. The boys are so real and their experiences funny, tender, and relatable. I’ve had it at school debating when to read it aloud to my class and am confident that it will be a success when I do. Here’s a quote from my Horn Book review: ”Levy provides a compelling, compassionate, and frequently hilarious look at their daily concerns. By book’s end readers will want to be part of (or at least friends with) this delightful family.”

9. For older children with a predilection for history, look no further than Candace Fleming’s The Family Romanov. Balancing the over-the-top lifestyle of the last Russian royals with firsthand accounts of the rest of the populace, Fleming provides a fascinating and highly readable version of this tragic story. Handsomely designed and full of photographs, this volume seems uncomfortably timely when considering today’s 1 percent, those who currently have the bulk of the world’s wealth.

10. Finally, I’m going to cheat and give you some more favorites without commentary that I’ve reviewed elsewhere:

Also at the Huffington Post.





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Laurie Halse Anderson on Her New Book, The Impossible Knife of Memory

Laurie Halse Anderson is a familiar name in the world of children’s and young adult literature with a prodigious output ranging from picture books (e.g. The Hair of Zoe Fleefenbacher Goes to Schoolto historical fiction (e.g. Chains the first title in her Seeds of America series) and young adult works (e.g. Speak). In her latest, The Impossible Knife of Memory, we meet 17 year-old Hayley Kincaid whose mother died when she was small and who has spent the past five years homeschooling herself while traveling with her trucker father, a veteran of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recognizing Haley’s need for a real school and home, they have now settled into her father’s hometown where he struggles with post traumatic stress disorder. Having been away from others her own age for so long, school is a mixed bag for Haley; however, one major plus is her appealing classmate Finn. Deftly balancing Haley’s worry and care of her father with her own needs and evolving romance, Anderson offers readers a powerful exploration into the impact of PTSD on parents and young people today.

Interested to know more about the background for the book I was pleased when the author graciously agreed to answer a few of my questions:

What was your inspiration for The Impossible Knife of Memory?

When my father was 18 years old, his Army unit was sent to Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp which had just been liberated. What he experienced there (burying the dead and trying to help the living) changed his life forever. He tried to lock away the memories, but they haunted him.

His PTSD worsened as I grew up. When I entered middle school, his drinking took over and our lives imploded. Dad lost his job and was deeply suicidal. I remember coming home from school and stopping just inside the front door to listen, afraid he’d be dead and just as afraid that he’d be alive and angry. Bills went unpaid; the electricity was turned off. My parents borrowed money from friends and relatives, and then cut off contact with them because they were ashamed they couldn’t repay the loans.

The most confusing thing was that we didn’t talk about any of this. I think silence was the only way my parents could cope. I bumbled my way through school feeling lost and alone. My memories of a happy childhood hurt so much, I tried to forget them.

It wasn’t until our soldiers began to return home from Afghanistan and Iraq that I had the perspective to see my dad’s suffering as a legacy of the war. Knowing how PTSD affects the children of soldiers, I began to ponder how to write this book.

What sort of research and preparation did you do to write the book?

Because the main character’s issues with her father came from my emotional truth, I didn’t need to research this book as much as I had for others. However, two sources proved enormously helpful. Dr. Jonathan Shay’s Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming gave me important insight into the challenges faced by returning vets. I also benefitted from corresponding with a dozen homeschooled and unschooled students who shared their world with me. Understanding how they felt when they entered a traditional school setting was very helpful.

Hayley is a wonderful protagonist, especially in her incredible, but realistic caring and worry about her father. How did she come into being?

Like all the best characters, she showed up one day and started whispering in my ear. I wanted her to be strong and brave and smart, but also unsure of how to get by in the social world of high school and definitely not ready to fall in love. While all of her worries focused on her father, she needed to learn about her own trauma. Hayley was just as wounded by the past as her father. Until she came to terms with that, she’d couldn’t start planning for the future.

The title The Impossible Knife of Memory is incredibly powerful. How did you arrive at it?

The working title was KNIFE because I knew this was going to be a story that had pain in it. However, I wanted to move beyond my traditional one-word title. Change is good! The final title dropped in my head once I understood that if the good memories of Hayley and her father had become painful, and that until they started dealing with their past, it wouldn’t let them go.

Your books capture adolescent issues in a timely and pitch perfect way. This is especially evident from the moving stories you have shared in person and online of young people communicating with you after reading one of your books. With some advanced copies of this one out before the book was published, has it already made its way to young readers and, if so, what are they saying to you about it?

The feedback has been quite lovely. A few readers have already written saying the book gave them new insight into their parents. On the lighter side, a number said they’re smitten with Finn and really enjoyed his relationship with Hayley. My favorite comments say that the book made them laugh and cry. I don’t think there is any greater praise than that.

Is there anything else you would like to say about this book, young people today, the issues surrounding them that you explore in this book and others, or something else?  

Having to parent your mother or father is a challenge that way too many teens have to deal with. Teens whose parents are dealing with substance abuse, financial hardship, job loss, mental illness and divorce deserve our love, support, and compassion. I wish America would stop judging and criticizing teens and instead, try to understand the battles they have to fight every day.

Thank you, Laurie!

Also at Huffington Post

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One Way Children’s Book Creators Cope With Bad Online Reviews

A bad review can equal a good laugh.

Thinking about this last fall, author Marc Nobleman came up with the idea of “… a variation on a poetry slam at which kidlit/YA authors read aloud their most critical or absurd user reviews (from Amazon or Good Reads) for comic relief/catharsis.” Further inspired by Jimmy Kimmel’s recurring segment of celebrities reading not-so-nice tweets about themselves, Nobleman put out a call for short videos of children’s book creators reading some similarly not-so-nice online reviews. The response was so massive that, not wanting any one video to be too long, he made three. The names of all 53 contributors are on Nobleman’s website here and the three videos are below. (A warning — Nobleman notes: “We lurve kids, of course, but this is for teens and adults only.”)

Also at the Huffington Post.


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Kate DiCamillo is the new Ambassador of Young People’s Literature

The latest Ambassador of Young People’s Literature is Kate DiCamillo, a much lauded and beloved writer of books for children. And by children, I mean young people who are definitely and certainly NOT young adults.  Given the at-times overwhelming focus on books for young adults it is refreshing to see this appointment, one that validates the bulk of young readers in this country, especially those in the middle as they have been the prime audience for DiCamillo’s books.

The Ambassador is a collaborative venture of The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, the Children’s Book Council, and Every Child a Reader  “…to raise national awareness of the importance of young people’s literature as it relates to lifelong literacy, education and the development and betterment of the lives of young people.” Previous holders of the prestigious position have been Jon Scieszka, Katherine Paterson, and  Walter Dean Myers.

DiCamillo burst on the children’s book scene in 2000 with Because of Winn-Dixie, a winning book about a community, a girl, and a dog that continues to resonate with its intended audience almost fifteen years later. With her second book, Tiger Rising (a National Book Award nominee), she ventured a bit further into magical realism and then jumped wholeheartedly into the world of fantasy and fairy tale with The Tale of Despereaux, the winner of the 2004 Newbery Medal. Her latest title is Flora & Ulysses –another work that resonates beautifully for children right in the middle — say ages 6 to 9. I know from firsthand experience, having read it aloud to my 4th grade class last spring with great success.  In my experience, her books work beautifully both for children to read on their own and to be read aloud by teachers, parents, or others.

Bravo to the selection committee for their commitment to these truly young readers and congratulations to Kate DiCamillo. May her term be a great one!

Also at the Huffington Post.


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Rewind: A Great Kids’ Book on the Creation of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Balloons

Melissa’s Sweet is on a glorious roll this year getting a lot of well deserved attention for her illustrations for  A Splash of Red,  Brave Girl, and Little Red Writing.  So I thought I’d republish this interview from a couple of years back about her delightful book about Tony Sarg and the Macy’s Parade balloons.

Just in time for the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade comes Melissa Sweet‘s picture book biography, Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade. That puppeteer is none other than Tony Sarg, a remarkable man indeed. Author/Illustrator Melissa Sweet has done a bang-up job focusing in on the man, directing young readers toward the activities that led him to his epiphany — why not float creature balloons over the parade? Why not indeed?

Sarg being a unique man, Sweet’s story is a fascinating one. But it is really with her illustrations that she, an already much lauded illustrator, has truly outdone herself. Mixing primary sources, toys she made herself for the book, collages, assemblages, comics, drawings, paintings, and more, she has created a picture book biography like no other. Through her text and art the brilliant Sarg bounds to life in this book as do his ideas, his creations, and his stories. Balloons over Broadway is a book that will be enjoyed by everyone in the family — be sure to have your copy on hand when watching this year’s parade!

Thinking that many would enjoy knowing more about how this book came to be I asked Melissa if she’d be willing to answer a few questions and provide a few images. She did all that and more as you will see.

So everyone in America it seems spends Thanksgiving morning watching the Macy’s parade and those incredible balloons. But I have to say it never really crossed my mind to consider how they came into being so your book was quite a revelation. What inspired you to do it? Was it the balloons first or Tony Sarg?

It was Tony Sarg that intrigued me first and I had the same response–how did this brilliant illustrator and puppeteer invent the character balloons? I knew there was a story there. The Macy’s parade and Tony’s life are so intertwined that parade was the perfect vehicle to tell his story.

Tony Sarg seems like such a larger-than-life figure. Did that make it a bit hard at times to write the book? I mean, did you have to pick and chose stories, winnow the text down a lot to get to the essence of his life in terms of the balloons? Was there anything you found especially hard to put in or leave out?

It’s true, with a character like Tony Sarg, every story seems worth telling. In this case, the essence also had to be something that children could relate to. There were many stories I wanted to tell–how he sat in a theatre watching a puppet troupe perform for 50 nights in a row to learn their trade. And how at the end of the Macy’s parade he released the balloons into the sky with a reward for their return.

But my favorite story is when a “sea monster” was sighted off the coast of Nantucket, (where Tony had a house). Luckily, Tony and some friends “captured” it and brought it onto the beach as everyone Nantucket watched. He had a great humor and was a bit of prankster. (The image of this event below is courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.)

I’m curious about your research which was clearly extensive. You seem to have traveled, interviewed, made things, and read and read. Any especially memorable moments along this journey?

A few years into the research I was in touch with a man in his nineties who worked for Sarg at the 1939 World’s Fair. It was remarkable to hear his stories of that time. Another was when I was visiting Nantucket for the first time (where there is a great collection of Sarg’s work at the Nantucket Historical Association), I went to the public library which is in a gorgeous old building on a cobblestone street. It started to snow as I was looking through old newspaper clippings about Sarg and it was dawning on me what a legend he was. The whole place seemed magical.

Tell us a bit about creating the art. You mention it at the end of the book, but HuffPo readers might enjoy learning a bit about how you went about making it. Just a little bit, perhaps?

My studio is full of old toys, fabric and found objects I’ve collected. I started making quirky toys and paper-mache puppets using the materials I had on hand. People often ask which comes first, words or pictures, and in this case making these objects taught me about Tony’s creative process and helped me figure out an angle to tell the story. I knew I wanted a 3-dimensional aspect to the art to give the feel of what Tony’s studio might’ve been like. I recently made some fun Christmas ornaments based on the book for the Martha Stewart show with instructions on her website. They’re miniature parade balloons.

What are you working on now?

I have a wonderful mix of non-fiction and picture books I’m working on and next year I have a picture book biography coming out: Mrs. Harkness and the Panda By Alicia Potter and Spike: The Mixed Up Monster by Susan Hood, about an axolotl which is as funny as its name.

Melissa, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions and providing the following movie of Sarg in action as a puppeteer.

Also at the Huffington Post  (along with a slide show with more images of Sarg and some interior art from the book).


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Sarah Harrison Smith, the New NYTBR Children’s Book Editor

The new children’s book editor at the New York Times Book Review Sarah Harrison Smith’s first reviews were of two picture books from the Canadian publisher, Simply Read Books. The message was quiet, but clear: recognizing the importance of the youngest readers of all, Sarah is continuing the weekly online picture book reviews begun by her predecessor Pamela Paul, and paying close attention to titles from publishers small and large, near and far. Recently I chatted with Sarah about her background, books (of course!), New York City, and some of her ideas for children’s book coverage at the Book Review.

Sarah grew up among book lovers and creators. Her grandfather co-published the Babar books, she knew Rumer Godden’s editor, and illustrator Pamela Bianco was a family friend. After graduate studies in English literature at Columbia and Oxford she spent several years at The New Yorker as one of its famed fact checkers and later joined the Times in a similar role. The result of her expertise was The Fact Checker’s Bible: A Guide to Getting it Right. After some time as managing editor of the New York Times Magazine Sarah moved to the Metropolitan section where she has enjoyed exploring New York in all its variety. Sarah’s love and appreciation of the city comes through loud and clear when you speak with her. During one of our conversations she spoke with such excitement about the Brooklyn Navy Yard — a place she had recently visited for an article — that I wanted to put down the phone and go there immediately.

Books that she remembers with special fondness from her childhood are those that incorporate art, a favorite illustrator being Edward Ardizzone. Christina Brand’s Nurse Matilda books (on which the recent Nanny McPhee movies are based) were cherished; her children have also relished their naughty sensibilities. Laura Ingall Wilder’s Little House books had a tremendous impact on her; they provided a great view for her on how a family lived with so little. Having noticed a tweet of hers about one of my childhood favorites, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, I asked Sarah about it and she spoke with enthusiasm for author Betty MacDonald’s ability to write for children while including clever touches for the adults reading the books aloud, say naming characters after the colleges Bryn Mawr and Cornell.

Sarah is excited about the potential for more online multimedia features such as podcasts and videos celebrating the artistic process. She is also eager to make more connections with related Times content, for example centralizing all articles about Roald Dahl’s Matilda from those related to the current Broadway show to others about Dahl and the book’s illustrator Quentin Blake. No doubt because of her love for New York City, Sarah is also interested in organizing information about children’s literature set there so that you could easily find material about such iconic literary spots as the pond in Central Park where Stuart Little sailed his boat.

Something that I found especially exciting was Sarah’s interest in looking into ways for children to contribute their own opinions about books on the Book Review site.  Certainly, I know my students would love such an opportunity. Both of us admire the Guardian’s children’s book site where young readers are already writing reviews. I also encouraged Sarah to check out the Carnegie Greenaway Shadowing site, an ambitious program where groups of children read and consider the shortlists for those two prestigious awards (comparable to the US Newbery and Caldecott Awards).

Upon the announcement of her new position, Sarah tweeted “I’m VERY excited to be joining the Times Book Review as children’s book editor! #dreamcometrue”  I think so too and wish her well as she goes forward in this new role.

Also at Huffington Post.


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My Not-So-Happy Response to The Hobbit Movie (You’ve been Warned)

Some of you may recall my earlier rant about the way the term “young adult” is more and more being used to describe books that are for children.  Well, I think there is something of that same sensibility going on with the new Hobbit movie trilogy.  The source material is a children’s book, The Hobbit, written long before The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and with the style and tone of a book for kids.  There is a narrator that makes little comments now and then, a classical fairy tale bumbling hero who turns into something more, moments of cleverness that are typical of fairy tales, plenty of whimsy and humor to mediate the scary moments, and a — yay!– dragon.

I like fairy stories, especially those known as literary fairy tales of which The Hobbit is very much one.  Such books for me are different than those of high, high fantasy — those that seem to follow heroes like Arthur, Beowulf, or Odysseus.  Stories like The Hobbit are smaller, set on smaller stages, with smaller stakes, and smaller protagonists (literally in the case of The Hobbit).  Say trying to get one’s family gold back from a dragon versus saving the world from a ring that will destroy everything.

My appreciation of Tolkien’s fairy tales goes all the way back to high school when I fell in love with one of his called “A Leaf By Niggle.” So much so that I made around thirty drawings of it (as I was an aspiring illustrator back then).   Sure, I read Lord of the Rings, but it never did for me what Tolkien’s smaller stories did for me. And so when I began teaching decades ago I also shared The Hobbit with my students.  I had them read it, but more and more I read it to them, with enormous pleasure on all sides.  Recently, in preparation for seeing the movie, I took a quick refresher read of it and enjoyed it once again.  Now I do know that Tolkien, years after first writing the book, after the publication of The Lord of the Rings, was interested in reworking it to be more a prequel to that epic. But for me it still reads as a story along the lines of the Narnia stories, those by George Macdonald, and other literary fairy tales for children.

So I went to see the movie with a fair amount of baggage, but also with an understanding that movies are not books and that there is no need to stick overly closely to the original text when making a movie. Filmmakers do need to be free to make their own art after all.  And I knew that there was a huge LOTR fan base to make happy. So I thought I was prepared and expected to like, if not love the movie.  However, I  ended up highly disappointed, to the point where I have no enthusiasm about seeing the next two movies (well maybe the last one just to see Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug). Perhaps it works for the LOTR fans and those who enjoy epic stuff. Unfortunately, even with my expecting changes, it didn’t work for me, a member of a presumably teeny audience who would like to have seen a film adaptation of what is truly a delightful children’s book for children, not young adults. Oh well.

The original story is that of Bilbo, a very reluctant hero, a lovely stand-in for child readers. And so I did like the brief glimpses of that character in the movie, say in the early scenes with the dwarves barging into his tidy and comfortable hobbit hole, the absolutely splendid “Riddles in the Dark” sequence with Gollum, and a few teeny tiny ones peeping out among all the ponderousness, added exposition, and battles.  Too bad other opportunities were squandered. Say when Bilbo in the book, eager to prove to the dwarves that he can be their burglar, tries to pickpocket one of the trolls with very unfortunate results: the wallet calls out a warning and Bilbo is caught. Equally frustrating for me was how that situation was resolved. In fact, it sort of typifies the way movie is altered from the book. In the book Gandalf throws his voice so that each troll thinks one of the others is insulting him and so they begin to fight, lose track of time, and turn to stone when the night is over. But presumably to accomodate viewers looking for awesome instead  of fairy tale cleverness there is Gandalf magically cracking open a rock that lets the light in.

And, oh, that lovely time they have with the elves at Rivendell, the Last Homely House.  It always sounded so peaceful and fun. But in the movie a tension has been created between the dwarves and the elves so it becomes something very different. Not to mention all the talk about …political…stuff.  And Gadriel and… well it sure ain’t the Last Homely House of the book, a place of pleasant refuge. I mean, just look at that name! Then there are, sigh, the orcs. I admit I hated them in the earlier movie series so more of them was absolutely not for me.  Ugh.  I found the endless battles with them tedious beyond belief. And they also made the other battles that are in the original book — those with the goblins and wargs— also endless for me as they probably wouldn’t have been if I wasn’t so sick of battles after all the orc ones.

I could go on and on, but there is no point.  This Hobbit movie series is simply not for children.  It is yet again another situation of a children’s book being taken and turned into YA.  Sure, there are kids who will love the movie just as there are kids who love LOTR and World of Warcraft. But there are many who will not, who won’t even be taken to this.  And so, indeed, here is yet another case of something that is still very much for children being turned into something else.

A variation of this is also at the Huffington Post.


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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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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

Adam Gidwitz on Spooky Spooky Fairy Tales

Halloween’s just around the corner which means All Hallows Read is too. When Neil Gaiman first proposed this idea of giving books for Halloween I offered some suggestions, among them Adam Gidwitz’s fairy tale debut, A Tale Dark and Grimm.  Now Adam is back with In a Glass Grimmly, as macabre and entertaining as his first book, and I thought it would be fun to see what he had to say about fairy tales, their reputation, and other related topics.

For those readers unfamiliar with your two books, how about a twitteresque description. Not too much more than 140 characters that is!

Two children travel through the funniest, weirdest, darkest Grimm tales, facing horrible parents, cruel peers, and other monsters. And—most painfully of all—themselves. (147! I’m a champion!)

Since you are a sort of fairy tale nerd (as am I) what is your take on my impression that for the general public fairies and fairy tales continue to have an image problem. Seems to me that for all the urban fantasy out there (in books, movies, and television shows), many still associate fairy tales with sparkly teeny tiny women flitting about with wings, pink, and Disney.  Would you agree? Disagree?  

I agree. And most of these adaptations don’t really help the cause at all. Most of the current adaptations of Grimm fairy tales take details from the original tales and use them as a jumping off point to tell their own story and to do their own thing. They toss the form and the style of the fairy tale out the window. I think this is a great waste. Fairy tales have endured not only because of the stories they tell but also because of how they tell them. Fairy tales are told simply, matter-of-factly; they are brief; they deal with the deepest of emotions–pain, humiliation, betrayal, lostness (if you will)–without any hyperbole or drama. The Grimm fairy tales in crystalize our most essential emotions. These modern adaptations, for the most part, have nothing to do with our deepest human emotions. They miss the point of fairy tales altogether.

Another criticism fairy tales get is that they are violent yet you seem to have embraced that idea and run with it. Why? 

The real fairy tales are indeed quite violent. But the violence is not gratuitous. On the contrary, it is essential to fairy tales’ task. One of fairy tales’ methods of speaking to the readers’ deepest emotions is a technique I like to call “tears into blood.” There is a wonderful Grimm tale called “The Seven Ravens,” in which a father loves his one little daughter so much more than his seven boys that he wishes they would turn into birds and fly away–which they promptly do. When the little girl discovers that her brothers’ disappearance is due to her father loving her more than he loved the boys, she runs away from home to find them. She is given a chicken bone by the stars (yep, you read that right), and told that it will open the Crystal Mountain where the boys are trapped. The little girl journeys to the mountain but, upon arriving, realizes that she has lost the chicken bone. At this moment, any real child’s feelings of guilt would be extraordinary. Not only was it indirectly her fault that her brothers were turned into birds, but in losing the chicken bone she has lost the ability to save them.

Now, do a little thought-experiment with me. Imagine that “The Seven Ravens,” at this critical juncture, abruptly changed genres and became adult realistic fiction. What would the little girl do? She would live out her days trying to come to terms with her guilt, failing in the majority of her relationships and wondering what could have been. Right? Very depressing. Now, let’s imagine that “The Seven Ravens”, at the moment when the girl discovers the loss of the bone, switches from fairy tale to middle grade adventure novel. In this scenario, the girl would remember a little piece of wire that she received in the first chapter, and she would pick the lock on the door to the mountain and free her brothers. Either that or the bad guy would show up and she’d have to fight him.

But “The Seven Ravens” is a fairy tale. So what happens? The little girl cuts off her finger. And then she slides it into the lock on the door to the Crystal Mountain, and, without any further explanation, the door opens, and she sets her brothers free. This solution raises a series of questions (why the heck does her finger open the door? for example). But what this solution does for the reader is that it takes all the guilt the girl was feeling–about the transformation of her brothers, about the lost chicken bone–into blood. It turns emotional pain into physical pain. It turns tears into blood.

But why is this good? Because every child has cut himself. Every child has been bruised or bled. And so every child knows that the blood stops eventually, the wound scabs over, the bruise yellows and fades. Fairy tale violence teaches the child that emotional wounds heal. That salty tears dry. That no matter the pain, victory is possible.

In your first book you stuck pretty closely to several Grimm fairy tales. This time you branch out a bit.  How did you end up with the tales you did retell and what made you move farther into your own original ones?

Thematic considerations and practical ones. First, the thematic: The emotional journey of A TALE DARK AND GRIMM is the children’s evolving relationship towards parents. The journey of IN A GLASS GRIMMLY is about peers. There were certain tales–“The Emperor’s New Clothes,” for example, and Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”–that dealt with issues of peers and peer-pressure beautifully, that I really wanted to include. The practical consideration was that I had settled on calling the children Jack and Jill, mostly because that was another folkloric pairing (like Hansel and Gretel) that kids would recognize. (I briefly considered the Grimm Jorinda and Joringel, but I just didn’t think those characters have the same instant name recognition, you know?). So, once I settled on Jack and Jill, that suggested the famous Jack stories, such as the gruesome “Jack the Giant Killer” and the popular “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

I’m curious about your research. In addition to presumably reading a ton of fairy tales, what other research have you done? 

I spent most of 2012 living in Europe–mostly in France. My wife was doing her dissertation research in medieval history. I, on the other hand, was eating a ridiculous amount of bread, writing in the mornings, and traveling on the weekends. I explored the Black Forest. I found the Crystal Mountain (well, I think I did). I walked under white cliffs along an endless beach (see the chapter “The Giant Killer” in IN A GLASS GRIMMLY). So I certainly did some geographical and scenic research. I also play with language in my books, particularly regarding characters’ names. So I had some German friends I consulted with on the name of the giant salamander that appears near the end of IN A GLASS GRIMMLY, and I spent a lot of time buried in the Gaelic dictionary developing the names of the giants. Finally, I read a fair amount of secondary material on the fairy tales, to ensure that I was honoring their traditions as well as their content.

Your books are being rightly recommended as fun Halloween-related horror.  Do you have any others that you might want to recommend to go with them?  

I love Laura Amy Schlitz’s SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS –very creepy, very Victorian, and very dark. It’s got a witch, a magic amulet, a murderous puppeteer, and a little girl who has to visit a graveyard every year on her birthday. What’s not to love?

The other day one of my students who loves your books was railing about the oddity of fairy tales. Why, she ranted, does Gretel have to use a bone for a key in the first book? Why can’t she just just a carefully constructed object that doesn’t involve..let’s see how to phrase this so as not to spoil things….nasty personal stuff?  How would you respond to her and others like her?

Fairy tales don’t make any sense. That’s the wonderful thing about them. Their strangeness is their beauty. Also, it’s hilarious.

What’s next? 

One more Grimm book. This one is about a boy named Coal and a girl named Ash. Coal is based on the simpleton character that recurs throughout Grimm’s fairy tales–the boy who everyone thinks is stupid, but turns out to possess a special wisdom. Ash is short for Ashputtle. Also known as Cinderella. If you know the Grimm version of Cinderella, you know this book will be just as strange and dark as the two that preceded it.

And to end, for fun, a few questions that Proust also had to answer (and Vanity Fair has taken-off from for years).

What is your idea of happiness?
Writing in my pajamas in the morning; a huge, rare cheeseburger for lunch; an afternoon with my wife and friends; and an evening with just my wife.

What is your idea of misery?
A world with no introspection. For this reason, I fear for our society. Who needs Big Brother and thoughtcrime, when self-awareness is obliterated by a constant stream of chattering screens?

If not yourself, who would you like to be?
An astronaut.

Where would you like to live?
Most of the year in Brooklyn, and then the month of June in Paris. Or the White House. They have a bowling alley, a basketball court, and a private chef. As long as I didn’t have to do any of that annoying work that the dude who lives there has to do.

What is your favorite food and drink?
My favorite food is a huge, rare cheeseburger. My favorite drink is not for kids, so I’ll leave it out.

What is your present state of mind? 
What did Proust say? Bored because of these questions? No. Hungry, because I keep talking about cheeseburgers.

Also at Huffington Post.

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