Category Archives: Other

A Book Chat with the One and Only Patrick McDonnell

Doing an ABC book was me trying to bring my childhood drawings back.

I’m quite the Patrick McDonnell fan so was delighted when invited to highlight the book chat video he did for Little Brown Books for Young Readers. Below he speaks with Victoria Stapleton about his latest, the charming and witty The Little Red Cat Who Ran Away and Learned His ABC’s (the Hard Way). Patrick talks about the challenge off telling a story with minimal text, the pleasure of indicating movement in just a few images, and way more. Enjoy!

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La Belle Sauvage Swag

One fun aspect of being a so-called “Big Mouth” in this teeny tiny world of children’s books is the occasional swag that comes my way. Yesterday I received a small package that was meant to have arrived a few weeks ago, but got a bit lost. Here’s what was inside. You will need to read Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage to appreciate it. So go do so — the book is propulsive, gorgeous, and unique.

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Bank Street College’s Book Fest 2017

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I had a great time Saturday at Bank Street’s Book Fest, a day-long conference. My small part was to lead a discussion on the following inventive informational books:

Giant Squid by Candace Fleming and illustrated by Eric Rohmann
The Hello Atlas by Ben Handicott and illustrated by Kenard Pak
How to Build a Museum: Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture by Tonya Bolden
Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Eric Velasquez
Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White by Melissa Sweet
Strong as Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became the Strongest Man on Earth by Don Tate

All the presentations and panels were terrific, but I have to say Carmen Agra Deedy, with her closing keynote, knocked it out of the park.

Happily KidLitTV livestreamed the whole day and it is archived here.

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Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust Vol. 1: La Belle Sauvage

There will be many paths into this book. Some will come to it cold having not read His Dark Materials, curious about what the fuss is all about. Others will come to it having read His Dark Materials long ago and so with a vague sense of the world they are re-entering. Some may read it because of an encounter with The Golden Compass movie. Others may have had the early books read to them when young.  And some will come to it with a deep love and appreciation of the previous books, having read and reread them many times.

I’m definitely one of the latter. I came across The Golden Compass shortly after publication and fell madly in love with it, a feeling that only solidified when I read The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Since then I’ve read the books and listened to the full-cast audio recordings many, many times. It is a comfort experience, one of solace, one that has me admiring the trilogy more and more with each encounter. When the play was put on at London’s National Theater I went. With heart in my throat I followed the controversies around the movie and finally went to see it — yes, reader, I was disappointed. And now I wait eagerly for the forthcoming BBC series.

All this is to say that I entered La Belle Sauvage with high hopes, with high fears, and with a deep knowledge and appreciation of the previous books and their world, characters, and themes. And so my response to the book is predicated on all of this. Someone on a different path will likely have a different response.

I began with some anxiety — it had been seventeen years after all–but it was like dropping into a scented warm bath surrounded by flickering candles — in other words, a delight. The world was that of His Dark Materials, the characters multi-faceted whether major or secondary. the pacing tense and urgent, the ideas demanding and true. Best of all is the writing — Pullman is a wordsmith like few others. Again and again I just stopped to reread a gorgeous sentence, to admire a word or phrase, a clever construction, or the elegant weaving of information. Just look at this very first sentence:

Three miles up the river Thames from the center of Oxford, some distance from where the great colleges of Jordan, Gabriel, Balliol, and two dozen others contended for mastery in the boat races, out where the city was only a collection of towers and spires in the distance over the misty levels of Port Meadow, there stood the Priory of Godstow, where the gentle nuns went about their holy business; and on the opposite bank from the priory there was an inn called the Trout.

Taking us from the great colleges to mastery of boat races to  misty levels to gentle nuns he lands us at the unadorned (no adjectives for it) Trout. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. As a writer I aspire to create anything even remotely close to that opening.

Moving into the story proper we meet eleven-year-old Malcolm (and his daemon Asta) whose parents run the inn and so he works there too. As good in his own way as Lyra and Will, but a person distinctly all his own, this is a boy who is inquisitive, loves to make things, supremely sensible while also able to dream, honest (but able, in dire circumstances to lie effectively),  solid (with adults and peers), and with a heart that is as big as the flood that comes midway in the story.

In the first half, Pullman chillingly evokes a time when the country is still nominally free, but the various ecclesiastical dark forces that figure so prominently in His Dark Materials (set around a decade later) are rearing their ugly heads. Familiar characters appear or are referred to, notably Mrs. Colter and Lord Asriel. But most of all there is Lyra, a beautifully realized baby of six months old. Pullman’s development of her character at this age is masterful — I mean, it isn’t easy to show personality with a child who doesn’t have words yet. I suspect it is his remarkable invention of daemons that makes this possible as he describes wondrous moments throughout the book of baby Lyra and baby Pantalaimon.  At one point there is a description of the tiny daemon trying to change into another creature, but unable to because he doesn’t know it yet. At another point an adult points out that their babbling to each other (made me think of the private language that sometimes exists between twins) is a way of learning how to speak.

The plot involves saving the baby Lyra from the various nefarious people and organizations who are after her. Among them is an absolutely chilling villain (or malefactor as Malcolm might well call him), George Bonneville, who proves in horrific ways to be completely mad. Pullman sets things up in the first half of the book —- showing Malcolm’s cosy home life with his sensible parents, his enjoyment in helping out the nuns at the priory across the street (where he meets baby Lyra), his stolid firmness with friends and at school (where a creepy Hitler-Youth-like organization takes hold), and his handiness, especially with his beloved canoe, the eponymous La Belle Sauvage. And then things take off literally — there is flood of Biblical proportions and Malcolm along with Alice, a somewhat older and sulky worker in his parents’ inn, are off in the canoe to save Lyra. They are chased, they have narrow escapes, harrowing experiences, and otherworldly encounters.

I enjoyed every moment of the book which I both listened to and read on my Kindle (so as to avail myself of the highlighting option). I attempted to savor it, but it was impossible to slow down during the second half any more than could the children in the canoe as it was born away in the raging flood. Now I’m planning to go back and listen to it again. (I am such a speedy readers that I love listening, especially when the writing is gorgeous, as it is much slower.) And again — in preparation for the next in The Book of Dust, set evidently some twenty years later. I waited seventeen years for this one so I think I can wait a bit longer for the next one.

Thank you, Philip Pullman, for giving all of us, so completely and wonderfully, this chance to be lost again in your remarkable literary world.

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The Book of Dust “…will be devoured.”

In it, Lyra is 6 months old and being hunted by henchmen of the Magisterium. The action unfolds in Oxford, but an Oxford unrecognizable from its spire-crowded postcard form — the city is a damp and threatening place of inns and drunks and amiable nuns. For half the book they are all submerged in a catastrophic flood. Malcolm navigates the waters in his canoe and becomes Lyra’s chief protector. After a gentle start, the novel accelerates into an action thriller, with cameos from fairies and river gods. There are boat chases, hints at romance. It will be devoured.

From Sophie Elmhirst’s lovely profile of Philip Pullman in the New York Times.

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Museums and Their Presentation of Uncomfortable Truths

I have been really struck by the contrast between the Dr. Seuss Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture when it comes to the difficulty realities of the people they are highlighting.

When visiting the latter in July I was so impressed with their handling of Bill Crosby. They included him in several places, but didn’t shy away from anything about him.

 

Contrast this with the lack of commentary by the Seuss Museum on their creator’s racism which has been criticized by many since it opened earlier this year. Repeatedly they had argued that it wasn’t their responsibility to inform their visitors. Their response to Mike Curato, Lisa Yee, and  Mo Willems’s  public letter explaining their withdrawal from a festival at the museum because of racist imagery in a mural was initially no different. In their letter the three describe a ““jarring racial stereotype of a Chinese man who is depicted with chopsticks, a pointed hat and slanted slit eyes.” You can see it for yourself in the lower left of this photo of the mural I found in this article:

The museum’s initial response? From the Washington Post’s article:

In a letter sent to the authors, Kay Simpson, president of the Springfield Museums and Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden, wrote that the museum “contains unedited material by Dr. Seuss during his lifetime” and that “we do not alter or edit an artist’s work.”

“Dr. Seuss’s books taught life lessons, from being a faithful friend, to not discriminating based upon appearances, to keeping your promises,” Simpson wrote. “Dr. Seuss was a product of his era and his attitudes evolved over time.

“It is our hope that parents and teachers can use the evolution of Dr. Seuss, including the mural of Mulberry Street in Springfield from Dr. Seuss’s first book published in 1937, as a teachable moment for children in their charge.”

The museum has finally in the eleventh hour said they will remove the mural, but clearly they are only doing it after enormous pressure and not because they think they have any responsibility to teach their visitors. This, I find, horribly wrong, wrong, wrong. Staying silent is, to my mind, a complete dereliction of duty. Not an option in this day and age. Kudos to the many institutions (such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture) for doing the work.

 

 

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The Complexities of Virtual Platforms When it Comes to the Newbery

Heavy Medal has a thoughtful post, debating the recent ouster of a Newbery Committee member for breaking rules related to social media. Here’s my comment:

This is such a dilemma. I started my blog in 2007 thinking naively that I’d feature a series on my Newbery reading (being on the 2008 Committee). Roger Sutton, on Caldecott, similarly had just started his blog. I remember vividly sitting with a bunch nascent bloggers at Midwinter that year where the Board was contemplating a rule that we could not blog at all. Happily they saw reason and we were allowed to blog non-award stuff. Since then I’ve watched the rules be strengthened and have puzzled about them. Why, I have wondered, can we talk in person about our preferences, but not online?

Sorting out what happened in this instance has helped me to understand. At first I was outraged, but then better understood how she had broken clearly delineated rules. And these conversations about what happened also makes it clear to me that for those with major social media following it is problematic to think of the platform in the same way as talking to a group of colleagues in RL. It is all that amplifying that is the problem. Your words go out to hundreds and thousands. So now sadly (because I too felt horrible for Angie) I better understand the need for this in some form. I look forward to seeing what the task force [established by ALSC president Nina Lindsay to revisit the guidelines] comes up with. Back in Roger’s and my day my sense was the Board was very vague on the nature of blogging, but now I assume there will be task force members who understand the situation thoroughly and thus trust their recommendations.

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