24 August 2010

Is there no justice?! Jon Agee's Terrific

I love working the afternoon shift. You know the sort--the kind where I come in to a desk piled high with issues (hint: file under "sarcasm".) Today I found a pile of payment forms for lost materials. I give these the once over to see if there's anything I need to replace. Sure enough, I notice that Jon Agee's Terrific has been lost (sob!) So, as I'm debating whether to order 1 copy or 2, I stumble upon an inconvenient truth: it's no longer available. Surely B&N are pulling my leg. I check Baker and Taylor: Permanently out of Stock. Amazon: available from these sellers (a.k.a. Not Us.) I grab my head and do my best Edvard Munch Scream impression. How can this BE?!?! Terrific is only one of my all-time favorite story time books (and not just because it allows me ample opportunity to do my parrot impression.) Terrific is necessary to children's books in the same way that Oscar the Grouch is vital to Sesame Street--so that kids know its okay to have bad days and foul moods and they will still be lovable. Terrific was written by the sublime Jon Agee, who keeps finding new ways to have fun with language and make it accessible to young readers. So why is this book no longer available? I mean, look at all the awards it has won:

ALA Notable Book
The Horn Book, Fanfare 2005
New York Times Notable Children's Book of 2005
Publishers Weekly, Best Children's Books 2005
Bank Street, Best Children's Books 2005
Child Magazine, Best Children's Books 2005
Chicago Public Library, Best of the Best 2005
Parent's Choice Award Winner for Picture Book
Book Sense, Top Ten Best Children's Books 2005
California Commonwealth Club, Best Juvenile Fiction, 2005
Junior Library Guild Selection
The book is only 5 years old. Is the publishing world operating in dog years, where a 5 year old book is actually 35 and consequently ancient? Couldn't it at least qualify as a classic under those conditions? I can only hope that there is a shiny new release on the horizon. Heck, I'd take a paperback edition.

22 August 2010

An American Girl mentally stimulating diversion. Sort of.

Any other Sporcle players out there? I love it when I can stimulate my mind, which Sporcle claims their games do, and test my kiddielit knowledge at the same time.

So, how many American Girls, and their best friends, can you name? I got them all.

Can you name the American Girl Historical Characters? - sporcle

20 August 2010

Bamboo People Book Launch Party

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the book launch party for Mitali Perkins' latest YA novel, Bamboo People. It was held at the Porter Square Bookstore in Cambridge, MA, which is quite the comfy indie and easily accessible for suburbanites like myself, (despite my GPS' devious scheme to send me via the most circuitous route possible.) I have met Mitali a few times before at tweet-ups (and was even fortunate enough to snag a signed copy of the Bamboo People arc at ALA,) and I am a loyal follower of all her super-helpful and informative tweets. But this was the first opportunity I had to hear her talk about her writing process and influences. She described how it was a 12 year journey for her novel, which actually started life as a picture book (I immediately thought of Sid Fleischman and The Whipping Boy, which underwent a similar transformation.) She shared a moving personal story about her grandfather, which put into perspective the relationship of the two central protagonists. And she paid due homage to the influence of video games on the novel. Yes, video games. She also talked a lot about the country of Burma, where the story takes place. Before I read this book, my own knowledge of the situation in Burma--also known as Myanmar--was limited, although not completely lacking (I am an Economist reader, after all!) For anyone who is unaware of what is happening in Burma, the book will be a thought-provoking eye opener.

After a brief talk, we were treated to Mitali reading an excerpt from the book. Then it was Q&A time. I always wish I could think of good questions in these situations. Fortunately other people had more of a clue then me, and asked great questions. When asked how her faith influences her writing, Mitali talked about how she tries to reconcile her personal wish to put others before herself, to pursue and be ever mindful about issues pertaining to justice and compassion, while working in a profession which basically requires self-promotion if she hopes to succeed. She likes writing about young teens, because she thinks it's a fantastic age to be. (I had to throw myself in the way-back machine when thinking about that one. In general, I think she's correct!) And she shared her ambition to write a funny book. She also reiterated at many points during the evening, the importance--the power even--of stories. It's a timeless truth which cannot be repeated often enough (as any librarian will tell you!) Stories can influence and mobilize whole populaces, as well as provide comfort on an individual level.  

At the end of the evening I snagged myself a signed copy of Monsoon Summer (which I plan to read on vacation next week.) I was highly amused and flattered when Mitali told me that she uses my Red Sox tweets to prepare for the mood of her husband, who watches the games on time-delay (I think a 'LOL' is appropriate here!) I'll have to remember that the next time I am trying to justify my obsessive tweeting to my husband--I provide a public service!

All in all, it was a great evening. You just can't beat sitting in a bookstore with like-minded enthusiasts, listening to an author proudly present their latest book. And since I had been following the progress of Bamboo People on-line through Mitali's numerous tweets and updates, I felt a real vested interest in the book myself.  If you are in Dedham next week, and would like to meet the personable Mitali Perkins yourself, stop by the Blue Bunny Thursday August 26th.

17 August 2010

Picture Book Review: Benno and the Night of Broken Glass

I've refrained from using my usual title "Rave Review" because this is not a book that one can rave about: it is a story about Kristallnacht. But as an example of how a picture book can break free of the perceptions of the format and be an intelligent, compelling, and sensitive way to tell a story to readers from ages 5 to 105, this book is an excellent example.

The action of the story takes place on Rosenstrasse in Berlin, and is told from the point of view of a ginger cat named Benno. He is a stray who makes his home where he leaves his hat, so to speak, and his transient lifestyle gives him the opportunity to spend time with the residents of Rosenstrasse. He shares Shabat with the Adler family, sleeps in the window of Mitzi Stein's dress shop, visits Frau Gerber for daily ear scratches, and watches Inge Schmidt and her Jewish friend, Sophie, walk to school each day. He is a non-judgemental observer of the comings and goings of a busy street--all is told in perspective to his own feline needs. Consequently, when the Nazis arrive, his non-judgemental perspective creates a stark contrast to the fear of the residents. He seems to be aware that something is wrong, but as he is a completely non-anthropomorphized character, his non-emotional observance of the terror and destruction wrought by Kristallnacht is unembellished. The evil speaks for itself. Afterwards, he tries to find some of his friends, but they are gone. He cannot know that they are gone because they are Jewish, but he notices that everything has changed on Rosenstrasse and that nothing will be the same.

Using the eyes of a cat to tell this story is a remarkably efficient technique for taking the emotional charge out of the events and presenting them to children in a way that they can absorb and understand what has happened. The heartbreaking images of the demolished shops and homes fill in the dramatic gaps in the text, and the historical note at the end, which in non-fiction picture books has become the bridge between young readers and the wider contextual details of a book's subject, provide the starting point for discussion. The thought of having to tell young children about Kristallnacht at all is pervasively tragic. Yet here is a book that is more than up to the task.

13 August 2010

Blog Tour: Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein

Ah.....the joys of bedtime stories. The snuggling. The sharing. The interrupting. The interrupting? That's right folks. In David Ezra Stein's new picture book gem, Interrupting Chicken, interrupting is both a plot device and a reassurance, as a little girl shares the time-honored tradition of reading before bed with her Papa. In fact, reading a story is vital--she simply can't fall asleep without one. Yet despite her good intentions to let the words lull her to sleep, the little chicken is continually wound-up by the crisis presented in each tale her Papa tells. Instead of relaxing, she is fretting. And fretting leads to action as, with a well placed, comical interruption, she takes control of each story and finds a short-cut to "happily ever after." After three failed story-telling attempts, the book takes another humorous turn when the daughter tries to read a story to her Papa. All's well that ends well, for this night at least.

Like a self-referential film, this is a story about reading aloud which is quite a good read-aloud itself. The text is snappy, and the visual humor never lets up, from Little Chicken's over-sized wattle, to her thoroughly interactive reading experience. Stein lays out each story as it looks to Papa when he reads, and consequently we get the full effect of the little chicken's interruption when she literally bursts into every story, giving a new, visual meaning to the term "fractured fairytale." The chaos between the pages establishes a nice counterpoint to the quieter action in the house, where we watch the father become ever-more frustrated with his daughter, who clearly shows no signs of falling asleep.

INTERRUPTING CHICKEN. Copyright © 2010 by David Ezra Stein. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Looking back at the Stein canon so far, Interrupting Chicken touches upon themes we have seen before; the "I've got your back" sentiments of The Nice Book; the parent/child relationship and all the safety it promises in Pouch; the unique way that the young view the world in the award-winning Leaves. But this book raises a rather intelligent point about the power of stories and the investment readers make to the written word. Little Chicken cares so deeply about the characters in her storybook that she simply can't bear the thought of them facing danger. She rewrites the stories to her liking, so that the only casualty is her own bedtime. It's not quite fan fiction, but it gets the job done.

As part of this blog tour I was given the opportunity to put five questions to David Ezra Stein, which he kindly took the time to answer.

NJFK: It has to be asked: were you an interrupting chicken yourself?

DES: Yes I believe I was. My mother tells me that she never completed a conversation (like with an adult) till I was in school. I was kind of like Roo from Winnie-the-Pooh, always wanting her to "look at me jumping." Now I have a much bigger audience, but being an artist is still, in a way, about saying to the world, "look what I can do!"

NJFK: What are some of your own favorite read-aloud stories?

DES: There is a short story by Chekov called "The Siren" that my wife and I like to read aloud once in a while. It is full of delicious descriptions of food. On a younger note, I have always loved to read aloud James Marshall's "George and Martha" books. I also love "Little Bear" and "Frog and Toad". And Dr. Seuss and Madeline! since they rhyme in such a successful way. They are all stories that were read to me as a child and still delight me now.

NJFK: What comes to you first--the story or the images?

DES: Neither! The idea usually comes first, usually as a feeling, or a particular relationship between characters that I want to explore further. It's a poetic way of writing, I suppose. Then the words and the art help to crystallize that feeling and make it real and understandable to others.

NJFK: Are there any writers for whom you would love to illustrate, or favorite stories you would like to interpret yourself?

DES: I would love to illustrate a classic adventure story like Treasure Island, or an ancient legend. Something with battles! Testosterone is hard to come by in the 0–5 market. Interrupting Chicken did let me explore illustrating some fairy tales and I'd like to go further. I am always looking for a new challenge.

NJFKCan we look forward to more Cowboy Ned and Andy--I have to confess that they are a personal favorite with me :)

DES:  I do love Cowboy Ned and Andy, and kids ask about them from time to time. If they had a new story they really wanted to tell they might indeed ride again! Someday.

A big thank you to David Ezra Stein for the interview, and to Candlewick Press for providing me with a copy of the book. Be sure to visit the other stops on the tour and check out other reviewers' take on this entertaining and engaging picture book.

I can't finish, though, without giving the little chicken the final word.

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