Kelly Jones’ Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer

Kelly Jones’ terrific Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer is described by its publisher as quirky a word that, for me, doesn’t really get across the warm-heartedness of this eccentric epistolary story. Twelve-year-old Sophie Brown has, along with her parents,  just moved from LA to a seemingly animal-free farm they have inherited from her Great-Uncle Jim. The lonely Sophie, seeing a flyer for the Redwood Farm Supply company in the barn and being unable to find them on the Internet, takes her mother’s suggestion, and writes them an old-fashioned letter requesting a catalog. After all, “…if I have to live on a farm, I think it ought to be an interesting one, with chickens and ducks and some peacocks or something.” Frustrated not to receive an answer she writes again irritatedly and then, as things started getting more complicated, more urgently.

Mixed in with these letters are others. Say the wistful diary-like letters Sophie writes to her beloved deceased abuelita. “I know you’re dead, and I don’t believe in zombies, so you don’t need to write back or anything. I just wanted to write someone.” Or the lighter ones she writes to her late Great-Uncle Jim as things get…er….even…more….complicated.

For the farm isn’t animal-free for very long. One of Sophia’s Great-Uncle’s chickens shows up followed by several more and Sophie quickly learns that they have just slightly special qualities that makes them very much the unusual chickens of the book’s title. Now Sophia has to learn how to take care of them — finding some new local friends who help– as well as protect them from someone else who seems to have her eye on them and not in a good way.

Sophie’s voice is delightful. She eagerly explores the place, finds that first chicken, and is off taking care of her (and the others that follow). I loved that she read them The Hoboken Chicken Emergency and found other books about chickens, helped by the local librarian, Ms. O’Malley.This isn’t a girl who mopes about, but one who gets to work, whether cleaning up the barn, tracking down missing chickens, or writing letters. That said, in those letters to her grandmother, scattered among her descriptions of her practical rolling-up-sleeves activities, are the occasional acknowledgements of much she misses her. Refreshing, as well, are her occasional mentions of how someone or another in the small rural town perceives the bi-racial Sophia and/or her Latina mother within some very limited racial stereotypes.

In addition to the letters there are other documents: a test, a correspondence course about chickens, newspaper articles, posters for the annual poultry show, and so forth. And mixed throughout are Katie Kath’s lively illustrations.

This is definitely a favorite of mine this year — enough for me to want to look at it again in terms of Newbery. I think it is that good.

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Susanna Clarke visits the set of the BBC adaptation of her book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell.

But nothing, I find, has prepared me for the sight of my own characters walking about. A playwright or screenwriter must expect it; a novelist doesn’t and naturally concludes that she has gone mad. (What do they need so many umbrellas for? Don’t they realise that they are imaginary?)

Susanna Clarke visits the set of the BBC adaptation of her book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell.

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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: Launch Trailer – BBC One

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Two Exciting Fall Books To Look Forward To

This week I received some especially lovely mailings of two forthcoming books. First of all, there was Laura Amy Schlitz’s The Hired Girl (which I have read and wrote enthusiastically about here). The ARC came most appropriately with a small notebook and a dainty white handkerchief. How perfect for a book written as a journal from the perspective of an aspirational farm girl.

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And then there was a book I’ve known was in the works for some time. I’m thrilled that it is coming out this fall and can’t wait to read it. This is M. T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead. What a gorgeous cover!

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Kids and Ironic Humor

Years ago I wrote an article, “Pets and Other Fishy Books” in which I took a look at kids’ reactions to subversive books. Among others I wrote about my class’s response to Chris Raschka’s Arlene Sardine:

Most unexpected to me was their reaction to Chris Raschka’s Arlene Sardine. Assuming it was another piscatorial preschool book along the lines of Swimmy or Rainbow Fish, I quickly touched upon and then skipped right past it at the bookstore. It was only when I heard that it was something quite different, ironic perhaps, that I returned for a proper look. Any book whose protagonist dies midway through would be considered unusual; a children’s book where the dead protagonist’s journey continues for fifteen more pages until she achieves her heart’s desire is unique. At first glance Arlene Sardine seems similar to other books in the subversive species. “Easy-open book” and “NET WT. 12 OZ.” are printed right there on the cover, a quick reference to every can a sardine-eater has ever opened. While child readers may be unfamiliar with sardines, the story evokes for child and adult alike many a tale of fortitude. Just like The Little Engine That Could (or Ulysses, for that matter) the little fish Arlene single-mindedly (inasmuch as a fish, and a dead one at that, would have a mind) achieves her ultimate goal. To be a sardine.

I loved Arlene Sardine. What could be more subversive than taking on death, after all? I showed it to adult friends who also liked it, but we all wondered whether it was a book for children. Did they know enough about sardines, about personal growth books, or about death to get it? How developed was their sense of irony? I heard testimonials of successful readings with children. Some found it hilarious, others were saddened by Arlene’s death, and one group of fifteen-year-olds decided it was a book about suicide. Yet I was reluctant to use it with my own students. I knew them well, after all; I had watched them react to all kinds of books, many that were unusual, subtle, that demanded more of them than did the average children’s book. Yet Arlene Sardine seemed so deadpan, so dry; much more so than Squids Will Be Squids. I was afraid; I liked Arlene Sardine too much to have it flop with them. For some time the book sat on my desk at school while I tried to decide whether or not to read it to my class. Finally, my curiosity won out, and I convened a Chris Raschka week, ending with Arlene Sardine.

When I finished reading there was silence; not a giggle broke the total quiet. But looking around, I realized the silence was not one of sorrow. My students looked blank, confused. I waited in vain for a raised hand, a blurted-out comment, anything. They’d had plenty to say about Raschka’s other books: sympathetically murmuring during my reading of Yo? Yes!, swaying to the sounds ofCharlie Parker Played Be Bop, intently scrutinizing the structure of Mysterious Thelonious, and singing along with Simple Gifts. But now, nothing. Finally, as the silence stretched out and the children became restless, I asked if they had anything to say. No. Evidently they did not. When two boys began rolling around the floor completely uninterested, I gave up; these were usually very opinionated children and I saw no point in forcing them to speak about Arlene Sardine if they didn’t want to.

Looking back, I have to wonder if this was a mismatch between book and age level. While others seemed to get something out of Arlene Sardine, my nine-and ten-year-old students were just confused. They had no idea how to react. Were they supposed to laugh? Somehow that didn’t seem right for a book where the main character dies. Were they supposed to cry? Yet the book seemed so bright, so happy, that somehow that didn’t seem right either. Caught between two competing responses, this group of children opted for none. Arlene Sardine was a club that they didn’t want to join.

Fast forward to 2013 when I revisited the book and then to this week. My 4th grade class had gotten such a kick out the ending to Cece Bell’s I Yam a Donkey that I thought they might appreciate the dark humor of Arlene Sardine. It turns out I was right. To a child the class burst out laughing when — spoiler! — Arlene expired midway through the book. And so today I went on with one more such book, Tadpole’s Promise. Again — guffaws and laughter — it was another hit.

I am actually so curious about this. Is it just this group of kids (as I thought years ago when first trying Arlene Sardine out on various groups)? Or are they already far more familiar with this sort of humor in their books?  I have no clue other than to suggest all three of these as subversive and extremely fun read-alouds for the right group of kids.

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International Children’s Books Considered

Yesterday I attended “Where the Wild Books Are” at the New School here in NYC. Organizers Etienne Delessert and Steven Guarnaccia (who have both created some of my favorite books of all time) put together a very worthwhile Saturday afternoon (important because we were all in a dark auditorium on a spectacularly beautiful spring day).

Things opened with children’s literature expert Leonard S. Marcus giving an historical overview of international children’s books in the American publishing world. He was followed by Betsy Bird who spoke of her experience at the Bologna Book fair and then, to give a feel for the challenge of bringing more international books into the US, provided some comments made by librarians in her work in response to a series of such books.

Next came several academics reading papers on the books of different European countries. I enjoyed Denise von Stockar’s overview of Swiss and German books, no doubt because I’m German and thus much was familiar to me, but also because it was full of captivating material. Christine Pu gave an informative overview of French illustrators followed by the University of Bologna’s Georgia Grilli who did an outstanding presentation on Italian illustrators. I loved the way she situated her talk in the way so many have taken on Pinocchio, a classic that holds the same place in Italy that Alice in Wonderland does in England. But she also showed us other topics too, say a fascinating glimpse at children’s books under WWII fascism. I came away from these talks with a list of books I want to track down.

After a break we saw a lovely movie by the unique Indian publishing venture, Tara Books. I’ve written about their books before here — they are gorgeous, highly original, handcrafted works, often featuring the art of local people in Chennai, where they are located. This was followed by a terrific video presentation on the Asian publishing world by Junko Yokota (she is currently on a Fullbright in Poland and there wasn’t, sadly, the funding for her to come in person), a renowned specialist in international books. Later several people spoke with surprise at the huge range of Asian publishing, that they hadn’t realized how large it was. (Speaks to our tremendous isolation from the rest of the world, publishing-wise, doesn’t it?)

Lastly was a panel moderated by Steven Guarnaccia and featuring Claudia Bedrick of Enchanted Lion (a fabulous independent publisher here in NYC known for her international perspective), David Macaulay (one of the coolest book creators around –he even did a TED Talk), and Etienne Delessert.

I got so much out of the day, but do have two suggestions if it happens again. First of all, I would love to see an even greater variety of speakers from all parts of the world, ideally in person. And then, the only time the audience was invited to participate was at the end with the panel. Providing that opportunity with each of the speakers would have been most interesting too. But otherwise I’m glad I was there (and given that it was a spectacularly beautiful day outside it wasn’t easy to be inside!).

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Brian Floca going for some wine (and perhaps the chocolate and bread as well) at the reception.

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During the reception Sophie Blackall pulled out some unique Guinness potato chips out of her Mary Poppins-ish bag  — they were surprisingly tasty, far better than Sophie’s face suggest, not too heavily lagerish, that is.  (Sophie, I hope you will forgive me, but I did just love you sharing them with us:)

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And then two great men (I’m between them) — Neal Porter and David Macaulay (and is that perchance a complete loaf of crusty bread  in your jacket, Mr. Macaulay?) .

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2015 Children’s Africana Book Award Winner is…

Andrea Pinkney’s The Red Pencil!  I reviewed this fine book for the New York Times and am delighted to see this. Congratulations, Andrea and Little Brown Books for Young Readers!

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