Monday, December 18, 2006

Children's Films in the Days of Yore Yore Yore Yore Yore

Grumble, grumble. Last week on NPR's program Day to Day, Mike Pesca gave a piece about the recent increase in animated children's films. Here's the intro:

Happy Feet is just one of a string of successful feature films aimed at children. Why are so many movies being made for young audiences? Is quality declining as a result?
Basically, Pesca describes how, in the good old days, a Disney full-length animated feature would only be released every one or two years, and it would be a Major Event in the lives of kids everywhere -- something worth "two weeks of good behavior for your parents to take you to it" -- and how every one of the Disney films were of high quality. Nowadays, there's a new CGI children's film in the theatres every month, and most of them are pretty lousy. Kids get taken to all of them, and is this one more way that Childhood is Being Destroyed?

What Pesca has created here is a kind of dangerous sense of nostalgia. I don't know how much he read about the history of children's film for this article, but when Snow White was relased in 1937, it was just one of many, many children's films produced that year. It was a time period when many kids (in fact, the U.S. popluation in general) would frequent movie houses on a weekly, or sometimes daily, basis. For every Dumbo and Pinocchio there was a bevy of Shirley Temple, Tarzan, Buck Rodgers, and what-have-you flicks created at the same time. Plus, one must also take into account that the bulk of animated films made during the "golden years" of Disney were shorts, many of which were also of dubious quality. There was a lot of dreck; I imagine the good-stuff-to-dreck ratio was just about the same then as it is now.

As Lore Sjöberg would say, those who do not study the past are doomed to listen to a dance re-mix of it.

And for those of you who think that every child in America was completely enchanted by Snow White, go out and read Tomie de Paola's 26 Fairmount Avenue. The first-person account of the film's premiere -- and the author's reaction -- is absolutely delicious.

Thank you to A Fuse #8 Production for the link.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Rapunzel á la Lego

Grrr. . . for some reason, I can't post clips from You Tube here using Blogger Beta. Anyone have any hints? But anyhow, here is a darling little version of the folktale we all know and love . . . done entirely with Lego bricks.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Frickin'. Awesome. Children's. Library.

It's called The Trove, and it's the children's department of the White Plains Public Library. It features not one, but two different programming spaces, a pirate ship for lounging, a tiny dome with a flat-screen TV for film presentations, a puppet theater that doubles as a playhouse . . . wowzers.

It also has the Alice Collection -- a non-circulating special collection for the adult research of children's literature.

And if that weren't sweet enough, their web site is profoundly well-organized and easy to navigate. Look and learn, my people. Look and learn.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Red-Hot Ruby in the Smoke

The BBC film version of this fabulous book is in post production. If you haven't read this fabulous victorian thriller, get thee to a library and read away! (And be prepared to stay up all night doing so as well.)

The Ruby in the Smoke is on my list of ten children's books that oughtta be movies. Only nine more to go . . .

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Kolbert Report

The December 4th issue of The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert surveys several picture books published in 2006. Within it, I found the single most cynical statement about children's literature I've seen this year:

If, as Joan Didion famously put it, "we tell ourselves stories in order to live," why do we tell stories to our children? In my experience, mostly it is to get them to shut up. A book read to a toddler who, after running around the house all day, has had to be stuffed, quite literally, into his pajamas, may traffic in imaginative freedom and wonder, but it is still an instrument of control. I will read this to you, and you will go to sleep. End of story.
Whugh! The last thing I need is a heapin' helpin' of guilt loaded onto my family's bedtime reading, but there it is: the whiny little devil on my shoulder during our evening read, whispering, "innnnnstrument of controlllll, innnnstrument of controlllll!" in my ear.

I disagree with her almost reflexively, and yet I can't come up with an argument that counters her strongly enough to satisfy me. What parent, after a particularly trying evening with L'Enfant, can't wait to get those darn stories over and done with to have a little peace? But then again, what parent doens't want to pass along the best moments from his or her own childhood for their kids -- which frequently includes sharing favorite children's books?

The idea of children's literature as an opiate doesn't sit well with me.

Kolbert also describes Good Night, Gorilla thusly:

On the last page, the animals are uncaged and -- I assume -- like more and more kids across America, still fooling around after the adults have conked out.

Whoops. Read it again, Liz.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Reason #45 Why I Wish I Lived Closer to Boston

They've got the Eric Carle Museum.
They've got the Make Way for Ducklings statue.
They've got the Horn Book.

And now they've got this.

Sure, the Remus Lupins were in Pittsburgh this past Tuesday, but it wasn't a full-blown Yule Ball.

Sigh . . .

Thursday, December 07, 2006

O Holy Moly Night

Over at The Sneeze a few days ago, there was a delicious posting that involves possibly the worst recording of "O Holy Night," ever. Bad to the point of reducing its listeners to fits of gut-busting laughter. So bad, that I'm kind of surprised that it wasn't part of the 365 Days Project. But I digress. If you want to hear the song, click here.

Oh, this song brings back a lot of memories of Christmas Concerts Past, mostly involving disastrous performances. Such as the one when my favorite music teacher, Mrs. Benko, performed the song in a cathedral lit by only two candles right in front of her. When she hit the high note in the song, she accidentally blew the candles out.

Or the last Christmas party I attended at my parents' church, which had a musical program that wasn't very well organized, and three different people all performed "O Holy Night"; one of them on the clarinet. Poor people! Poor third performer, who began her piece only to hear a toddler in the audience yell out, "not again!"

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Forgotten Bookshelf: A Necklace of Raindrops

A Necklace of Raindrops by Joan Aiken. Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. Knopf. $5.50.

Oh, is there anything more succulent than a collection of Joan Aiken short stories? I don't think so. This collection, originally published in 1968, is one of the best examples of that most gossamer of genres, the bedside tale. Here Aiken has strung together eight little gems of stories, and each one shines with just the perfect combination of whimsy, humor, and wonder that is the hallmark of the best children's literature. One of the many reasons I became a children's librarian was so I could find out about all the good books I had missed reading as a child, and pass them on to my kids. For me, A Necklace of Raindrops is exactly that kind of book.

Aiken's stories have a timeless, folkloric quality tinged with contemporary motifs. "The Cat Sat on the Mat" concerns a schoolbus-dwelling family who recieve kindness from a fairy; "There's Some Sky in This Pie" is a silly story about people and animals riding a flying pie all over the world, searching for a parking spot. Characters from books spring from their pages to play with lonely children in "The Elves in the Shelves" (a great name for a children's bookstore if ever there was one), and lonely train engineers find happiness where they least expect it in "The Three Travelers." My favorite of the bunch is the title story, which concerns a magical necklace that can control water and rain -- it's just the kind of tale I would have feasted on as a child.

Many of the stories contain bits of poetry or songs that are repeated over and over, in the grand tradition of oral storytelling. This volume would be perfect for reading aloud, although the language is simple and lyrical enough for readers new to the world of chapter books. A shimmering little treat for anyone who wants a good mind-ride at bedtime, breakfast time, anytime.

Knopf brought this book back into print back in 2001, and is still available in paperback (although it's easy to pick up a used hardback online).

Friday, December 01, 2006


Clocking in at 74,855 words . . . my novel-of-a-month! Actually, it's going to be something more like a novel-of-six-weeks. That's right: it's not finished yet. But I did reach the 50,000 mark, and then some. The whole experience is a little anitclimactic.

The Question on Your Mind: does this mean that I'll be posting on the Brookeshelf, or not? Well, that remains to be seen. I was going to post a book review, but my husband had to do homework, and monolpolized the computer all evening.

(Love you, honey.)

And tomorrow I work all day at the library. So, hopefully things will be back in Full Swing soon. Thanks for all of your support during the last month, it's been quite a ride.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Okay, okay . . . I give!

So, those of you who may still actually be reading this thing are probably wondering why I've suddenly disappeared into the void. I truly do aplologize . . . there are only so many times a person can load up a blog and be presented with hypnotic snowmen. Am I traveling? Sick? Alas, no . . . I'm writing a novel.

Yes -- I'm cringing as I admit this -- I am madly participating in the seasonal spectacle known as National Novel Writing Month. See? I even have the icon to prove it:

Wah-woo. The goal is to write 50,000 words by Nov. 30, and truthfully, I'm definitely going to hit that goal (I'm at 40,089 words right now), but whether or not my novel will be finished by the end of the month is another question. Egads, people -- the story's only about 65% done! Arrrgh! I spent too much time doing character development and describing puffy clouds!

(Nooooo! Not puffy clouds!)

So, while I have a pile of delicious Forgotten Books to tell you about -- not to mention a run-in with John Scies . . . Sciezsk . . .Sciehuzzz . . . you know, the Stinky Cheese Guy) -- it may all have to wait until Dec. 1. I know! The horror! Curse you, puffy clouds!!! But I know (er, hope) that you will all be happy to wait until then for more interesting tidbits from the Brookeshelf.

Wait until December, my dearies . . . and I'll be back!

Friday, November 10, 2006

Pretty Darn Relaxin'

Here's a lovely little book trailer for Scott E. Franson's "Un-Brella," a picture book due to be published by Roaring Brook next spring. It involves perky little snowmen parading through a pastel seasonal landscape. Ahhh, almost as good as a massage.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Look at Them Young'uns Go!

For those of you not aware of the phenomenon known as National Novel Writing Month, let me fill you in: it's a wild literary spree whose participants make a goal of writing a 50,000 word novel from November 1-30. People all over the world are already typing like the wind in this year's "NaNoWriMo," but what's interesting is that this year the program has expanded to include writers under the age of twelve. Yup, there's scads of elementary and middle school students everywhere, madly whizzing out plotlines and character sketches, all striving to meet that lofty 50K goal.

On the "Young Writer's Program" section of the NaNoWriMo website, you'll not only be able to read downloaded excerpts from kids' budding novels, but you can also find a feature called "Stump the Librarian," in which Karlyn Pratt, the program's resident reference grunt, answers questions that kids ask when they need help figuring out particular details from their story.

Past questions have covered the making of ostrich jerky, the likelihood of head injury leading to amnesia, and queries about the possible ethnicity of a character named "Kriznakh." (Karlyn's answer: "Russian male. Maybe.")

Take a look-see to get a glimpse of the ambitious young writers of tomorrow. 'Tis amusing, my friend.

Forgotten Bookshelf: Thistle and Thyme

Ghosts. Fairies. Bewitched Hares. Have a hankering for some gorgeous folk tales? Look no further than Sorche Nic Leodhas' Thistle and Thyme, a sweet little sampling of tales and legends from Scotland.

You may recognize the author's name from the Caldecott-winning picture book, Always Room for One More. And just for kicks, let me inform you that this author's real name is Leclaire Alger. Yup. I would have picked up a nom de plume if I had been settled with that sucker, too.

Leodhas posesses the rare talent of being able to write in a dialect without it overpowering the text. There's just enough of the Celtic idiom in the stories to create the essence of the time and place without it becoming artificial. Plus, it makes it darn fun to read aloud: just try this sample out from the first story in the book, "The Laird's Lass and the Gobha's Son":

An old laird had a young daughter once and she was the pawkiest piece in all the world. Her father petted her and her mother cosseted her till the wonder of it was that she wasn't so spoiled that she couldn't be borne. What saved her from it was that she was so sunny and sweet by nature, and she had a naughty merry way about her that won all hearts. The only thing wrong with her was that when she set her heart on something she'd not give up till she got what it was she wanted.
Lawks, what a beginning! It makes me want to pull my best Groundskeeper Willy impersonation out of the closet and just go with it. A pawky piece, indeed!

As for the content of the stories, they've got everything: evil wizards, knights, tricksters, changelings, mermaids, and even a demon or two thrown in for kicks. It just makes you wish for a particularly dark and stormy night in which to curl up under a rug with a few good listeners. Just turn a few pages, and you can transport them away to a land of adventure and grand romantic gesture.

Leodhas' has written scads of other Scottish folklore anthologies, but this one shines out from the throng. One thing to note if you're looking for a used copy online: this book was published in two different editions, one with more stories than the first. Either one promises lots of fun.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Forgotten Bookshelf

Here's a big list of all the "forgotten" books I've reviewed on this site, for your joyous perusal (and also for some light housekeeping on my part). This is the feature of my blog that I think people enjoy the most, so it's worth organizing a bit. You'll notice that there's a link to it at the top of my sidebar. The list may be small for now, but it's growing. The books are listed by year, and sublisted in alphabetical order.

Forgotten Books for 2006

City Poems by Lois Lenski (09.30.06)
The Church Mice by Grahame Oakley (09.21.06)
The Dollhouse Caper by Jean S. O'Connell (09.30.06)
Hobberdy Dick by Katherine Briggs (08.08.06)
The Little Book Room by Eleanor Farjeon (09.10.06)
The Loner by Ester Wier (10.16.06)
Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm by Alice and Martin Provensen (11.05.06)
Piping Down the Valleys Wild, edited by Nancy Larrick (10.05.06)
Sleepy Time (and other works) by Gyo Fujikawa (09.14.06)
The Story Vine, by Anne Pellowski (10.10.06)

Thistle and Thyme by Sorche Nic Leodhas (11.08.06)

It Pretty Much Kicks the Tail off of Halloween Here
Or, the Off-Topic Topic of the Day

Good. Gravy. This. Blog. Is. Deliciously. Awesome.

Are You a Celebrity Interested in Writing Children's Books?

Here are a few hints from a delightful article in the Australian periodical The Age for you:

Rule one: why use simple names for characters when you can invent fanciful and, frankly, ridiculous ones? The celeb authors probably think they are being Dickensian, but they just come across like Salman Rushdie on one of his flowery days. Madonna stands out in this regard. Meet the English Roses' new teacher, Miss Fluffernutter. If that doesn't convince you of the author's creative prowess, eight pages later we are introduced to Candy Darling (yes, we know, Andy Warhol's chum) and Bunny Love.

Rule two: make sure you have a moral point to make, and ram it home to your young readers. Madonna leads the pack here yet again: "The next time you start to feel jealous of someone, try to feel happy for them instead. Good things will come your way, too." And: "You can't just love your friends when they are nice to you. That's when it's easy. You have to love them when they are being complete dorks, too."

Rule three: if you can't think of a suitable moral to the story, anything eco will do. Estefan has her animal characters saving the lives of endangered baby sea turtles. Jamie Lee Curtis, whose writing otherwise shines out from the rest of the pack, also succumbs to this weakness. "Make friends and love well," she exhorts us. "Bring art to this place. And make the world better for the whole human race."

Ohhhhh, nuts. So much for that draft of "Mary Ate a Little Panda" that's been lying at the bottom of my desk, waiting patiently for my fifteen minutes of fame.

Thanks to Chicken Spaghetti for the link.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Something Definitely Worth Checking Out

Down at the University of Florida is a little something called the Center for Children's Literature and Culture, which produces a spiffy little radio program called Recess. Every weekday, the program gives a lovely three-minute spiel on a topic relevant to child life and history around the world. This month will feature a piece about the anniversary of the publication of Where the Wild Things Are, another about Children's Book Week, and an interview with Tomie DePaola

Interspersed with all of this kidlit grooviness are children's CD reviews, information about astronomy, and Korean holidays.

Transcripts and audio files of all the programs (dating back to 2001) are available on the Recess! website. Fine, fine work, my people. Keep it up.

Thanks to CCBC for the link.

Forgotten Bookshelf: Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm by Alice and Martin Provensen

What is it about the autumn that makes me want to go out and visit a farm? There’s something about the crisp air and fragrant earth that makes me want to go out and enjoy it more, I suppose. However, dropping the day’s already-made plans and hoofing it out to the countryside isn’t an option for everybody. In lieu of that, may I proudly present this lovely picture book as a possible substitute?

This volume is more closely related to a sketchbook than a conventional picture book – it contains a wealth of large and small watercolor illustrations of all the animals that inhabit your run-of-the-mill small family farm, from the horses, sheep, and pigs down to the woodpeckers and moths that are occasionally seen flitting around the farmhouse. The Provensen’s illustrations show the same folk-art style that is exhibited in their well-known books The Glorious Flight and A Visit to William Blake’s Inn, but are more casual here – the animals and human figures sport a heavier line and rounded, almost cartoonish bodies, but this gives the book an authentic, intimate feel, as if they had been penned this morning just for you on the front porch.

What is really remarkable here is the Provensen’s ability to give a real sense of the animal’s personalities and behavior. Each one is allotted just a paragraph or a few sentences, but it manages to capture the essence of each creature in a clear, straightforward way, such as in these samples:

Ichabod and Comanche [two horses] are very sure-footed and the love to gallop . . . they are afraid of silly little things like unexpected pieces of paper.

[The geese] bully the dogs, complain to the cats, and pinch the sheep’s ears. That’s the trouble with geese, who are otherwise nearly perfect.

Whiney [the sheep] is never sure where her own lambs are. This confuses her and makes her cry. She faints when her wool is being shorn. But Whiney has a good friend who likes her and looks after her – a billy goat named Sam.

With its large size and gentle text, this is a perfect outing for animal lovers of all kinds. Like the family at Maple Hill Farm, “the animals that were, the animals that are, and the animals that will be bring joy, laughter, and life.”

Friday, November 03, 2006

Another Belated Belater Thing

So, once again, I have managed to confuse the dates of Teen Read Week
(Oct. 15-21) with Children's Book Week (Nov. 13-19). Rats! I missed celebrating Teen Read Week in the best way I know how, with Tina the Troubled Teen. So here she is anyway, in all her surly glory. In theory, she'll have a new piece of snarkiness for you every couple of days. Enjoy, folks!

Tina the Troubled Teen

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Special Report: Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen

Ahhh, the eternal grooviness that is the Magic School Bus. I'm tellin' ya, other quasi-psychedelic nonfiction book series come and go, but the Bus is here to stay, man. Would you believe that it's been 20 years since the first book came out? Anyhow, the co-creators of Ms. Frizzle and her class of kids came to town last weekend, and I hopped on down to the Carnegie Lecture Hall to see 'em.

Okay, before I get started on the report, I really need to share this memory:

When I was in high school, a lady who I knew from church was in charge of her local elementary school's book fair, and needed some people to dress up in the picture book character costumes that Scholastic had sent along with the rest of the promotional material. Because she knew that I was (a) a drama dork at my school, and (b) skint, she offered me a good $30 to spend an afternoon dressed as Ms. Frizzle. So, off I went to spend a few hours in a polyester octopus-print dress and a big red wig, and it would have been pretty uneventful, except that the guy who had been hired to wear the Curious George costume kept hitting on me the entire time. This included coming up from behind and grabbing my waist, frequently when I was in the middle of talking to a bunch of kids, and asking me sly, suggestive questions that I couldn't quite understand, owing to the fact that he was wearing a giant monkey mask. At the end of the afternoon, I discovered that the Man Behind the George was a kinda-cute German exchange student with an eyebrow ring (something that was considered a bit more risque in 1994 than it is now). Needless to say, I haven't been able to look at Curious George in quite the same way ever since.

But I digress. On with the lecture report!

Truth be told, this was not the most interesting lecture in the world. But here's the run-down:

  1. Degen and Cole work very closely on their projects, which is something unique in the childlit world. (This is something that, alas, few people know.)
  2. Degen likes to hide characatures of himself and Cole in the books -- making me want to go check them all out and go hunting.
  3. The next Magic School Bus book will be about global warming -- an announcement that caused the entire audience to break into applause. Yay, doomsday!
  4. They read their latest book, The Magic School Bus and the Science Fair Expedition, and the most interesting thing I found out from it was that Marie Curie's notebooks are so highly radioactive that they have to be kept in a special radium-proof case. (Wow, I'd love to see the archivist in charge of that.)
  5. At the end of the lecture, Degen drew silly dinosaurs on a big sketchpad using suggestions from the kids in the audience. Such as a Bananasaurus Rex, a TriCerealBox, and a Divasaurus. It was definitely the best part of the lecture -- and gave me some very nice flashbacks to The Mickey Mouse Show reruns I used to watch. Good job, guys!
And dare I mention what a cute guy Bruce Degen is? You know, in that Burl Ives kind of way. Sweet!

The Nearest Book

Via Fuse#8, Chicken Spaghetti, Book Moot and a buncha other people:

Do this...
1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the next four sentences on your blog along with these instructions.
5. Don't you dare dig around for that "cool" or "intellectual" book on your shelves. (I know you were thinking about it.) Just pick up whatever is closest.

Here's mine:

Should've kept my big mouth shut, thought Paris. But at least she was outdoors. And she was looking forward to seeing the garden in full bloom. It wouldn't kill her to help the garden get that way, now would it?

This is from The Road to Paris, the latest by Nikki Grimes. Hmmm, this is not exactly the most exciting group of sentences in the world, but the book is good, trust me. Kind of a more meditative Great Gilly Hopkins. So, let's try it again, shall we?

*Brooke is running at a random bookshelf in her house*

Okay, here's the Second Go Round:

"It was on the grimoire making the page greasy." He handed Lydda a pasty on a piece of paper. Lydda rose up on her haunches and took the pasty. She sniffed it. She sliced delicately into the crust with the tip of her beak.
Oh, now that's just so much more satisfying, wouldn't you say? And in case you couldn't guess, it's from Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones.

Ooooh, a Freebie

Apparently, they have this lovely poster over at Walker Books touting "The Rights of a Reader" with lovely little drawings by Quentin Blake, and you can download a PDF of it for free.
Yummy. It's already found a cushy spot on my hard drive, tucked in with a nice wooly JPEG.

(Thanks to Read Roger for the link.)

And for further refreshment, check out Shannon Hale's Reading Pledge over at her blog (whoo, quoting her a lot lately). This is something that she makes classrooms of children do whenever she visits a school.

Back From the Dead

Oh, the horror! Were you all aware that I had to spend the last two weeks with NO internet access at my house?!? The last posting I made was at the library, erlack. So: the internet's working again, the E-Mail Gods have been appease, and here I am again to regale you all with all the children's literature stuff that manages to pop in my head. But um . . . not right now. I haven't time to write all that I want right now, but I will this evening. Probably. Just . . . check back tomorrow, okay? I promise there will be something interesting. Or at least something for you to read.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

"You Should Never Take a Class That Requires You to Read Beowulf"

I've been noticing an increasingly relevant debate going on regarding what kids are assigned to read in schools -- whether required books are too difficult, to stale, or just misunderstood. Whaddya know -- there's been some pretty good thoughts posted on both sides of the argument. Here's a brief rundown:

Author Shannon Hale (Princess Academy) has frequently written and spoken about the lack of contemporary or genre literature that has been accepted as part of the high school canon.

Hale also quotes Laurie Halse Anderson (author of Speak) on this topic:

"Read this from a report of the National Institute
of Literacy: 'The ability to read and understand complicated information is
important to success in college and, increasingly, in the workplace. An analysis
of the NAEP long-term trend reading assessments reveals that only half of all
White 17 year olds, less than one-quarter of Latino 17 year olds, and less than
one-fifth of African American 17 year olds can read at this level.
By age 17,
only about 1 in 17 seventeen year olds can read and gain information from
specialized text, for example the science section in the local newspaper. This
1 in 12 White 17 year olds,1 in 50 Latino 17 year olds, and1 in 100
African American 17 year olds.'
I wish we had all of our 17 year olds to the
point where we could have them enjoy Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Thoreau, and, yes,
Hawthorne. But to get them to that point, THEY MUST LEARN HOW TO READ. Their
chances of developing into literate adults are greatly enhanced if we hand them
books that are interesting, engaging, and written in the vernacular. Most of the
Classics do not fit that definition.

(Sorry for the long quote; I couldn't quite find the link for this.)

Finally, Monica Edinger has posted a well-thought out, well written defense of required reading lists from an educator's perspective. Can I say how bedazzled I am by her?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

New Book Roundup

The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen by M. T. Anderson

As a rule, it’s a good sign when I enjoy a book so much that I can’t wait to finish. It’s an even better sign when I can’t wait to tell everyone I know about a book. M. T. Anderson scores on both counts. Is it possible for a book to be so funny and poignant at the same time?

Here’s the jist: Lily Gefelty’s two best friends happen to be characters from children’s serial novels: there’s Katie Mulligan, star of the Horror Hollow series (think Goosebumps) and Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut (think Danny Dunn). The three of them have decided that they need a break from solving mysteries and fending off the undead, so they head off to the Moose Tongue Lodge, where numerous other characters from popular series are staying (like the Manley Boys, the Cutesy Dell Twins, and Eddie Wax, star of the obscure “Newbery Honor” book, Stumpy Rides to Glory). Alas, soon after they arrive, they find that the famous Hooper Quints (think Bobbsey Twins) have been kidnapped, and a precious diamond necklace purloined. As Katie, Lily, and Jasper go about trying to solve the mystery, Anderson spends ample amounts of time parodying, satirizing, and down right pulling the underpants off of various clichés of children’s adventure novels. It’s precariously over-the-top at times; Anderson has nutty authorial asides, characters who are ludicrously stupid (the Manley Boys mistake a pepper grinder for a flashlight), and others who are downright bizarre (for example, a black-caped professor who studies bats, and spends time screaming every few seconds to mimic bats’ natural sonar capabilities). It’s a style that may come off as harried to some, but I enjoyed it immensely – Anderson’s ability to pull jokes out of left field and make them work reminds me of Douglas Adams. Here’s one of my favorite passages from the beginning of the book, and you’ll see why it’s so close to my heart:

Often, if you go down to a town library and under Keyword Search type “Jasper Dash,” you’ll come up with a list of his books – and beside each one, it says: “Withdrawn. Withdrawn. Withdrawn. Withdrawn.” This means that they are no longer in circulation. Some librarian has taken them off the shelf, wiping away a tear, and has opened the book to the back, where there’s a pouch for a card dating back to the time of the Second World War, and she’ll crumple up the card, and then she and her fellow librarians will take special knives and slice away at the book and will eat the pages in big mouthfuls until the book is all gone, the whole time weeping, because they hate this duty – it is the worst part of the job – for here was a boot that was once someone’s favorite, but which now is dead and empty. And the little cheerful face of Jasper Dash, heading off to fight a cattle-rustling ring in his biplane, will still be smiling pluckily as they take their Withdrawl Knives and scratch his book to pieces.

(My husband, after reading this passage, said, “Wow. I had no idea that’s what you librarians did in the back office.”)

For all the funny jokes, though, there’s an emotional side to the novel that is almost lyrical – Anderson uses the different series characters not only as a set-up for jokes, but also to elucidate the way that we tend to label and pigeonhole one another. Amazingly, Anderson manages to pull off a few elegiac passages at the end, and they manage to fit in with the rest of the zaniness seamlessly. It’s been a long time since I’ve met a book that made me laugh quite so hard, that made me smile so wistfully, and makes me eager to head over to the library to talk it up to the kids there. M. T. Anderson: I salute you.

Whoo. Long review on that one. Can you tell that I’m excited? Let’s make the others right quick, eh?

Fairest by Gail Carson Levine

Fans of Ella Enchanted will be raring to pick up this book. Quite frankly, I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t want to pick it up – look at that cover! It got hit with the Pretty Stick. Anyhow, Fairest is set in the same world as EE, but in the next kingdom over – in Ayortha, whose inhabitants are intensely musical. Aza is our protagonist, and while her voice is miraculous, she’s as plain as day. Enter pretty but tone-deaf Queen Ivi, and suddenly Aza is “Singin’ in the Rain”-ing it for her. As the Queen’s lady-in-waiting (and vocal stand-in), she notices a magical mirror on Queen Ivi’s dressing table, and wonders if it could help make her pretty. But will the Queen be jealous of Aza if she becomes beautiful? And what would Aza’s new best friend Prince Ijori think? Yep, you guessed it -- it’s a retelling of “Snow White.” However, Levine’s world is so finely fleshed out -- you can just tell how much she enjoyed describing things like gnome caverns and magical libraries for us – that the story feels new again. It’s missing a lot of the humor that peppered EE so nicely, but this fits the story’s tone just fine (Snow White is a more melancholy tale than Cinderella, anyway). There’s a smattering of court intrigue and talk of politics, but the real focus is on Aza’s journey to accepting her body image – a message that can always be repeated in this day and age. There’s just one thing that bothered me – Queen Ivi is such a transparent clotheshorse bimbo that I can’t imagine why the King Oscaro -- who, we are told over and over again, is so wise and good-hearted – managed to fall in love and marry her. What in the world did they have in common?!? Sheesh. Men.

Hmm. That was long-ish, too. On to Round Three!

Adele & Simon by Barbara McClintock

McClintock is my favorite under-appreciated illustrator right now. Her ink-and-watercolor pictures abound in fine detail and wit, and manage to be frothy without being fluffy. In this sweet book, Adele is charged with escorting her little brother home through turn-of-the-century Paris. He manages to lose his possessions one by one as they traipse through the Louvre, pastry shops, the natural history museum, and a plethora of other picturesque places in the city. Each page spread shows a lovely scene of the journey, just bursting with detail – people, animals, and objets d’art are vividly portrayed against a ochre-colored backgrounds. In each picture, the reader is invited to find the object that Simon has most recently lost, in a “Where’s Waldo?” style. The journey ends at the children’s home – and the lost possessions make their way back, too, in a manner that is immensely satisfying. Fun for anyone who’s ever had to herd little brothers home – or who is harboring a secret desire for Paris.

Ah . . . the third one was juuuuust right. And now off to bed!

But What About "Fake Tan Orange"?

As a children's librarian and a parent of two, I spend a lot of time around sweet little colorful things. You know, crayons. Lots. And. Lots. Of. Crayons. Just when I thought that I couldn't stand digging red-and-blue wax out from under my fingernails one more time, this cartoon came along. Ah, salvation. Before you watch it, just make sure you're in a place that tolerates sound -- from both the computer, and from you, guffawing away.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Special Report: Fall Festival of Children's Books

Let me do a little explaining for those of you not from Pittsburgh: once a year for the past 45 years or so, various city institutions (universities, literacy groups, museums, etc.) pool their resources to have a little one-day children’s literature conference. They usually round up three fabulous authors or illustrators, bring ‘em in, and we all get to hear them talk whilst munching on free bagels. Due to such things as childbirth and vacations, I’ve missed the last couple of Fall Festivals, so I was very happy indeed that the stars aligned and I could attend this year. Especially since the conference featured Lynn Rae Perkins, who I am in intense awe of, Bryan Collier, who makes gorgeous pictures, and John Manders, who I didn’t know that much about before the conference, but whom I highly admire now. So: let’s cut to the chase. I know that nobody out there is probably all that interested in reading a minutely detailed play-by-play of the three lectures given by each speaker. Let’s just go with the Top Facts of Interest for each one, eh?

Lynne Rae Perkins

  1. Is a local girl – she grew up just down the river from Pittsburgh
  2. Is just as elegantly beautiful and whimsical as her novels and paintings
  3. Spent time as a child coloring the mortar in her parents’ brick house with crayons to make it look prettier (and whoa, got in trouble for it)
  4. Is the only children’s book author I know who can make a reference to The Talking Heads AND Blade Runner in the same speech, and have it tie in seamlessly
  5. As a child, she attempted to teach her best friend how to play the piano using a cardboard replica of a keyboard. When her friend wasn’t satisfied with this, she realized that “if you want to bring someone close to beauty, you can’t forget the beauty part.”
  6. Talked about what parts of her books were inspired by real-life events: the trailer in Home Lovely is based on a real building; on a school visit Perkins met the grandson of the trailer owner, with pleasant results.

Bryan Collier

  1. Has deep reverence for the subjects of his books
  2. Traveled to Montgomery, Alabama to do research on Rosa Parks for Rosa; actually walked from the bus stop to Parks’ house to see how difficult it was for her to do such a thing
  3. The illustration of the boy in Uptown was modeled by Collier’s nephew. The nephew is now a college freshman and uses Uptown as a way of getting dates
  4. Rambled a bit too much during his speech; it went overtime by a good half hour, leaving poor John Manders with only ten minutes of speaking time. Blah!

John Manders

  1. Spent the bulk of his (alas, hurried) presentation describing the craft of painting and illustration
  2. Is incredibly friendly and a pretty dynamic speaker
  3. He passed around lots of thumbnail sketches, color samples, and storyboards for several of his books (very cool)
  4. Has a pet parrot that likes to sit on the lower rungs of his desk while he works
  5. Likes to use real-life locations as inspiration for his illustrations – the illustrations of the library in Clarence the Copy Cat are based on the architectural details of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, where I work in the children’s department. Yes – that’s our cast-iron hanging globe lamp! Our built-in honey colored bookshelves! Our little red-and-yellow storytime chairs! Our copy machine with the big green button! Ours, ours, OURS, mwah ha ha ha!!! Because of this, some of the original art from Clarence hangs in our director’s office. Rah-rah, team.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

You Oughtta Be On Stickers

Hungry to know about the best books for kids? Tired of seeing lame books win the big awards? Then step right up to see the Cybil Awards! That's right -- a brand-spankin' new youth literature award that is headed up by the childlit blogging community. And guess who gets to be on one of the awards committees? Me! Woo-hoo! I get to be on the judging committee for Middle Grade Fiction. ("Cybil Awards" is taken from what happens if you say "
Children's and YA Bloggers' Literary Awards" fast. Really, really fast. And maybe drunk. I likes it.)

Hmm . . . when I see it in writing, "committee member of obscure cyber-award" doesn't sound so hot. But it feels hot. I'm very excited, even if it means that I'll actually have to get around to reading The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Who wants to read about a bunny named after a university? But I digress.

The real question, I suppose, is what kind of shiny gold-foil sticker we would create, if we had the money and/or general clout and public interest to do so. The problem is that I can't envision one that doesn't feature the giant embossed head of Cybil Shepherd. Errrgh! Stupid, lame Moonlighting -- ruining my imagination forever!

Anyhow, if any of you guys out there in L'Internet Land have any brilliant ideas for a Cybil Sticker (oooh, say that ten times fast), write it up in the comments. I'll take the idea I like the best and draw it, then post it here for all to see. Then everybody can rejoice in mocking my drawing skills forevermore.

Go ahead and think about it: what would best represent the children's book award of the 21st century?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Will jumping on top of it get you 100 points? Or, the Off-Topic Topic of the Day

Okay . . . this has nothing to do with children's literature, but this Mario themed wedding cake has to be the cutest, coolest thing I've seen in a long time (not counting my kids). The question is, if you were six, which part would you beg for? The pirhana plant? The gold coins? The turtle shells? So many questions . . .

Monday, October 16, 2006

Forgotten Bookshelf: The Loner by Ester Wier

He is so alone that he does not even have a name. Traveling from place to place with migrant crop pickers, ignored and neglected, he has ceased to care for others, and watches out only for himself. However, one day he finds a friend – a young girl among the crop pickers who is just his age – who shows an interest and affection for him that nobody has before. But just as the two become close, there is a horrible accident, and the boy is left to wander by himself. During his journey he meets someone else, who does not seem very loving, but bit by bit gives him the first chance he has at finding a home.

This was something like the book talk that my advisor in library school gave for The Loner to me and my classmates, and it had nearly everybody in tears. Wier’s story of the homeless, nameless boy’s journey is told in spare, solemn prose, but with an insight and introspection that makes it touchingly beautiful.

The homeless boy, after leaving the migrant workers, is found on the Montana prairie by a sheep rancher who is known only as Boss – a tall, gruff woman who keeps mainly to herself.

I think we all know what happens next: there are scads of homeless orphans in children’s literature who run into gruff adults, and they always manage to work their way into the affections of the gruff adults, and get adopted by the end of the book. (See A Single Shard or The Midwife’s Apprentice.)

The boy takes the name of David (a Biblical shepherd) and the rest of the book focuses on the careful relationship that blossoms between him and Boss as they herd sheep together over the winter. Because of this, The Loner is a bit of a slow-moving book, although there are a few scenes involving an abandoned mine, coyotes, and a bear to spice things up. However, the heartbreaking journey of David from drifter to loyal shepherd is one that shouldn’t be missed – it’s one of those simple, earthy books that makes you want to smell the earth, run through the snow, and relish the pleasures of hard work. The Loner was awarded a Newbery Honor back in its day, so it’s easy to find a copy, but like many of the runner-ups, it has fallen by the wayside. Go ahead and seek it out -- like a sunrise on the Montana plains, it’s worth the wait.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

New Book Roundup

Aggie and Ben: Three Stories by Lori Ries; illus. Frank W. Dormer

Fans of Cynthia Rylant’s beloved Henry and Mudge easy-reader books will jump for joy over these adventures of Aggie the pup and her owner, a sweet boy named Ben. Anyone who has owned a dog (or has wished for one) will resonate with these stories as they perfectly capture new-pet ownership: carefully choosing the best dog at the store (“A dog would sleep on my bed and be my best friend,” says the thoughtful Ben); gleefully rolling around the living room floor with a furry new friend (“I am just like Aggie,”); being grossed out by the dog’s fondness for the toilet (“I am done being a dog”), and the satisfaction of feeling a tail wagging next to you as you curl up for the night. Ries’ text is well-tailored in its simplicity; it keeps the plot interesting and funny with a minimum of detail. Dormer’s chunky stylized watercolor paintings perfectly evoke the graceful chubbiness of both Aggie and Ben; they manage to be cute without being cutesy. A lovely addition to any new reader’s bookshelf.

Museum Trip by Barbara Lehman

A young boy boards the school bus for a run-of-the-mill field trip to the city art museum that turns out to be anything but ordinary in this cryptic wordless picture book. Stopping to tie his shoe, the boy loses his way in the museum, and happens upon a secret door. Inside is a tiny room with a display case showing old etchings of mazes. Gazing upon them, the boy suddenly finds himself inside the mazes himself – leading to a quiet yet exciting adventure that will capture the imagination of anyone who likes puzzles, art, and a bit of mystery. Like in her Caldecott Honor-winning The Red Book, Lehman again relies on thick lines and bright jewel tones to describe the boy’s journey through sepia-toned mazes. An abundant use of white space is given to each page’s design to guide the reader’s eye through the story without distractions. Readers who have enjoyed the works of David Wiesner, Anthony Browne, and Chris Van Allsburg will find something exciting and intriguing here. This is a great book for a child who is always looking for something magical in the everyday – a place to let your mind travel a bit without straying too far from your own front yard.

One Potato, Two Potato by Cynthia DeFelice; illus. Andrea U’Ren

A familiar folktale is given a delightful new makeover: The O’Grady’s are so poor that they subsist on just one potato per day (“they called it breakfast, lunch, and supper, and considered themselves lucky to have it”) and have so few material possessions that they have to share everything. One day a mysterious pot is unearthed in the garden, which proves to have the magical ability to double whatever is placed inside – put in one potato, pull out two – and all their troubles are over. What really shines here is DeFelice’s text, which is brightened with clever Irish overtones (“Saints have mercy!” is the couple’s favorite exclamation). When the couple discover the pot, they don’t become greedy – they simply replicate as much food, provisions, and money as they think they will need to live comfortably, and then bury the pot “for someone else to find.” Most marvelous are U’Ren’s gently comic illustrations. The O’Grady’s are possibly the skinniest, gangliest picture-book characters I’ve ever seen, with overalls and stockings that seem to be held up by sheer will alone. A palette of earth-tones gives the illustrations a warmth that matches the humorous text. A perfect story for children living in an increasingly materialistic age.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Revised and Updated by Diana Wynne Jones
Can I say how tickled I am that this book has undergone a second edition? Jones takes the premise that all fantasy novels are really travel brochures and for the "PanCeltic Touring Agency," which takes people from our world for trips around "Fantasyland." This book is the essential a-to-z guide for such tourists -- in other words, a perfect platform for Jones to have tounge-in-cheek fun with every kind of cliché of the fantasy genre. Here you will learn everything about Fantasyland horses ("they are a breed unique to Fantasyland . . . they can be used just like bicycles") to princesses ("they come in two main kinds: 1. Wimps. 2. Spirited and wilful. A spirited princess will be detectable by the scattering of freckles across the bridge of her somewhat tiptilted nose") and color-coding ("black hair is Evil, particularly when combined with a corpse-white complexion"). Really, this book should be required reading for anyone who has ever given thought to writing a fantasy novel, and should appeal to fans of Jones' other work as well as for fans of Terry Pratchett. It's just laugh-out-loud funny.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

And Why Not Elect Toad of Toad Hall as Transportation Commissioner?

Tired of the candidates for this year's fall elections? A Seattle man named Matthew Baldwin has gone all pro-active and made campaign posters for various children's book characters. So, so inspiring . . . it's almost dazzling, isn't it?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Pop-Ups A-Plenty

Whoo. Over at Roger Sutton's Blog earlier this week was a discussion regarding lousy survivor memoirs. As part of it, Sutton revealed that Barron's is publishing a pop-up book about the Irish Potato famine. Yoiks. After finding that out, I immediately surpressed my inner gag reflex and went on a mad hunt to find out more. Alas, there really isn't any more to be had (in other words: no pictures of the inside), but I did find this rather interesting digital exhibit featuring artsy pop-up and interactive books of all kinds. Not only did I find a book about the Irish potato famine (pictured at left), but one about the Washington, D.C. sniper shootings, one that features the characters from the Narnia Chronicles philosophizing about the meaning of life, and yet another that's shaped like a box of chocolates. Oh, and a very cute one about a circus that unfortunately was described by the artist thusly:

Warning: What you are about to see and hear may result in life-altering side affects such as awareness, thinking in a new light, wishing you were still oblivious, denial, emotional scarring, and most of all experiencing first hand appearance vs. reality...

Uh-huuuuuh . . .

And of course, if you like pop-ups but haven't visited this site, then you're just silly.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Forgotten Bookshelf: The Story Vine by Anne Pellowski

So: I'm sure some of you are wondering what the heck this picture is about. Okay, fine. So I'm lazy. There's no picture of The Story Vine on Amazon or Powell's, my digital camera's out of batteries and I couldn't take a picture of my own copy, and after doing a Google Image search for "Anne Pellowski," this is the best I could come up with. This. It's a close-up shot from a folk sculpture of a storyteller -- see how the teller's mouth is open, and how there are lots of little people on her shoulders listening? Yeaaaaah, now you get it. I think it's Native American, but don't quote me on that. But enough of this -- on with The Review!

Oooooh, Anne Pellowski – the person I want to be when I grow up. (Erm, and maybe Virginia Hamilton, too.) This woman travels the globe for UNICEF, collecting folklore and teaching early literacy skills in economically-undeveloped countries. Or at least she used to. Pretty darn cool job, if you ask me.

Anyway, Pellowski has published several books of the many folktales she’s collected during all her world travels, and The Story Vine is one of the more stellar volumes. If you want to spend any time telling stories to children, you need this book.

Now, I must warn you – this isn’t like most traditional folklore anthologies. All of the stories contained in this book use some little “extra” to embellish it – whether it be a string-figure, a folk-doll, sand-drawings, or a simple fingerplay. Yeah, yeah, yeah – I know that there are lots of books out there that have stories like this (and which are kind of hokey), and I was skeptical of The Story Vine at first as well – but the amazing thing is that Pellowski manages to preserve an authentic sense of the culture from which she collected each story. She doesn’t just list each story with a title and a little “From Such-and-such Country” – she includes an brief essay explaining the history and significance of each particular type and style of story. You don’t just get a draw-and-tell story; you get anecdotes about Aboriginal Australians giving draw-and-tell stories all night long! You don’t just get a story that uses dolls; you get an essay about the origins of worry dolls and their significance to the indigenous peoples of Central America.

And did I mention that everything in the book is beautifully, concisely written and a pleasure to read? And that every section comes complete with its own bibliography for further exploration? Freakin’ awesome. Go. Go now. Go find this book at the library. What are you doing still drumming your fingers on your mouse? Go!