21 October 2011

Cybils Review: Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore from the Americas

This striking book takes a very interesting approach to the subject of hummingbirds (which, incidentally, make up the second-largest group of birds in the Americas.) It combines factual information with folktales. And quilts! When I first held this book in my hand, I felt like I was looking at one of those trick pictures with two images. When you look at the picture above, what do you see first: the subject of the book or the fantastically crafted cover? Personal prerspective might dictate how a reader is initially drawn to this book, but in the end, the merger of fact and craft is an attractive one.

At the heart of this book, as the title suggests, is the mighty hummingbird. This tiny bird, which seems to defy logic, holds a fascination not just for author Jeanette Larson, but clearly intrigued and inspired several North and South American native cultures as well. Larson starts by presenting the scientific data. Size and physical characteristics, plumage, habitat, courtship--these are some of the subjects which introduce the hummingbird to the reader. Each factual chapter is followed by a pourquoi tale--a "why" tale--which is relevant to the initial discussion. "Vocalization" is followed by Why the Hummingbird Has No Song, a Navajo tale; "Migration" is followed by the Aztec Legend Why the Hummingbird Migrates to Mexico. The hummingbird is not always a hero, such as in Why the Hummingbird Drinks Nectar, a Hitchiti Tale from the southeastern United States that bears a resemblance to The Tortoise and the Hare. But whether hero or rogue, the diversity of folktales across the length and breadth of North and South America is a testament to the ubiquity of the bird.

How the Hummingbird Got Its Colors

Special mention needs to be made of the quilts created for the book by Adrienne Yorinks. Using a combination of spot illustrations--or should I say, 'spot quilts'--to break up the scientific text, and then double page spreads, like the one above, to provide a background to the folktales, she has crafted a unique-looking book. Even the quilts themselves, which incorporate acrylic paint, collage, and photo transfers look unlike any quilts I have ever seen. They are vibrant, and at times unexpected, much like the hummingbird itself. I love the fact, mentioned in Yorinks' Art Notes, that hummingbirds can "breed with other species of hummingbirds, creating one-of-a-kind hybrids." All part of the hummingbird mystique which writers and scientists have been trying to capture since the Nazca civilization.

Nazca Lines, in Peru, created as a quilt in this book

In her introduction, Larsen says, "To fully understand any subject, it's useful to gather knowledge about it through every discipline, whether factual resources or stories." By taking this approach she has written a book which will have appeal for researchers as well as readers of tales and hopefully cross pollinate interest between the two.

08 October 2011

Why do adults read children's books?

You know, sometimes a hat is just a hat.

This recent article from The Independent references Cambridge University academic Dr. Louise Joy, who puts forth the theory that adults read childrens literature to escape the stress and demands of adult living; that they yearn for a simpler way of life, like you would find in a childrens book. Must be because being a kid is so easy, right? Her forthcoming book, Literature's Children, focuses on The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, and the works of Tolkein, Carroll and Dahl. Uhm....21st century anyone? By that sampling I think it would be fair to surmise that adults must read childrens books out of a yearning for anytime before 1950.

I think I'll overthrow self-consciousness and have a straightforward relationship now
I'm pretty sure the millions of adults (and I don't have an exact figure on hand, so humor me on this one) who have read The Hunger Games are not hankering after anything in that book. This is my theory: grown-ups read kids book because (wait for it......) they are good! They are enjoyable. They make you think, whether it is about home cooked meals (which according to this article is a staple of The Hobbit, yet not really what I remember the book for) or the morality of twenty-six teenagers slugging it out to the death. The best childrens books do what the best adult books do--they touch readers. No age requirement--or justification--required.

07 October 2011

Cybils Nominee: Can I See Your ID: True Stories of False Identities

It's that time of year again--Cybils time! I'm a little late getting this plug in (you know--life and stuff interfering with my writing) but I wanted to mention it all the same. This will be my fourth year with the Cybils. After a year as a Round Two judge, I am back as a Round One panelist, which means a whole lot of reading and hopefully lots of great recommendations for this blog. I am serving on the Non-Fiction: Middle Grade & Young Adult panel (or NFMGYA for short.) You can see the rather impressive list of nominations here. Nominations will be accepted until the 15th of October, so there is still time to nominate your favorite NFMGYA title, or any title in ten different categories--including apps, for the first time.

I've started off with Can I See Your I.D.? True Stories of False Identities, by Chris Barton and illustrated by Paul Hoppe. Chris Barton was a Cybils winner in 2009 in the Non-Fiction Picture Book category for The Day-Glo Brothers and a 2010 Picture Book finalist with Shark vs Train. His latest book introduces ten individuals--mainly teenagers--who for one reason or another pretended to be someone else. In some cases the motivation was chutzpah, in others career advancement, and in at least two survival. Each story is told in the second person, a narrative choice I really liked because it puts the reader directly into the text. It felt like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure story, where each turn of the page might have dire consequences. It's hard not to feel a little anxious when you read the line, "There's nobody you can tell the truth to--nobody you feel you can trust." I was familiar with a few of the individuals in this book: Solomon Perel (whose amazing deception was the subject of the film "Europa, Europa") John Howard Griffin (author of Black Like Me, which I had to read in high school,) Forrest Carter (whose The Education of Little Tree caused a furor with Oprah,) and Frank W. Abagnale Jr ("Catch Me If You Can.") But the rest were a revelation.

One thing Barton does particularly well is to throw the reader directly into the deception. Along with the use of the second person narration, each fraud is already in full swing when the reader joins. Keron Thomas, the sixteen year old train spotter who decides that he would like to drive a New York city subway train for a shift, is already standing on the 207th Street station platform waiting for his carriages when the story starts. While the individuals involved might have had plenty of time to plan how they were going to carry out their impersonations, the reader does not and needs to be ready to run with the situation from the get-go. Barton does take a small step back to provide some background information, but then it is back to the business at hand, which is basically, 'will you pull this off?'

Barton's extensive research for the book, which included interviews with some of the individuals still living, shows the seriousness with which he approached this subject. At the end of each story there is a "What Happened Next" explanation where the reader discovers the consequences of the deception. In his afterword, Barton seems to be directly challenging the reader with the opening question "Who do you think you are?" As middle schoolers and young adults, they might be asking themselves that same question. But further reading seems to indicate that Barton is actually questioning himself as a writer, for having the nerve to investigate these stories. Aside from raising the morality of the rights or wrongs of tricking people, Can I See Your I.D. is essentially about having "the nerve"; the nerve to trick people who are ready to be fooled, the nerve to survive when you are condemned to die, the nerve to investigate the truth in the hearts of our neighbors, and the nerve to sell someone your story.

06 October 2011

Blog Tour: The Cheshire Cheese Cat: a Dickens of a Tale

Next year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. This lively novel, in which Dickens plays a supporting role--but his influence is evident throughout--is a good way to get the party started. The Cheshire Cheese Cat is about a cat who loves cheese, a mouse who loves language, a crow who loves Queen and Country, and a novelist with no opening line. The story is set in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, an actual London pub which was frequented by some of the most distinguished writers of the Victorian era. Skilley is a Fleet Street alley cat trying to survive on fish heads and smarts. He manages to install himself as mouser at the Cheese, where he quickly strikes up an unorthodox bargain with the resident mice. The mice, led by the wordsmith Pip, will bring Skilley cheese, and he will pretend to catch them, for the benefit of the humans who are unhappy about sharing the inn with the rodents. This works for a while, until the appearance of rival cat Pinch, a truly Dickensian ruffian, who has always despised Skilley. As Skilley tries to maintain his bargain with the mice, shield them from the ruthless Pinch, protect the secret of his cheese obsession, and uncover the mysteries of the inn itself, the action culminates in several revelations, a finale involving a chaotic visit from a royal--who is not amused--and, at long last, the perfect opener.

There is precedence in childrens literature for the successful partnership of cats and mice: Samson and Arthur the church mouse; Harry Cat and Tucker Mouse in Times Square. But I think this is the first instance of  a triumvirate of cat, mouse, and monumental literary figure. No prior knowledge of Dickens is required to enjoy this book, but familiarity adds to the pleasure. Pip and Skilley talk about "our mutual friend;" Dickens mentions that he has "great expectations" for the resolution of events at the Cheese; the innkeeper's daughter, Nell, bears more than a passing resemblance to the saintly heroine from The Olde Curiosity Shop. And how about this passage? Pinch, renamed 'Oliver' by the barmaid, is deposited before a skeptical Skilley, who thinks:

Well, this was an unwelcome twist."

And for self-referential meta fans (surely there are some in the 8-12 demographic?) there is this literary trivia: Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is alluded to in the text of A Tale of Two Cities, the book over which Dickens is laboring in The Cheshire Cheese Cat. Dickens' inability to write the perfect opening line for his new project is mentioned repeatedly, and some of his rejected attempts are deliciously, and humorously close.

Aside from the book's opening line--"He was the best of toms. He was the worst of toms."--perhaps the greatest tip of the cap to Dickens is Pip himself, who bears the name of the hero in Great Expectations. It is easy to imagine an 'a-ha' moment in the future for any young reader of this book, when they pick up Great Expectations in some high school or college literature class, and make the connection.

While having plenty of fun with Dickens (not to mention Wilkie Collins and William Thackery,) collaborative authors Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright (great name for an author!) make some observations about writing as a craft. As Pip tells Skilley, "There is more to writing than tossing down a few haphazard words; words must have context." In this case, the development of the story at the Cheese is within the context of the friendship between Skilley and Pip. The success of the entire operation depends upon their camaraderie and willingness to stand by the other. There is also the observational friendship between Dickens and the animals; his journal reveals that he has taken an interest in their ways and manners, which seem unlike any he has ever witnessed before. As a fellow known for his philanthropy towards the most vulnerable members of Victorian society, it seems completely plausible that Dickens would have cared about animal welfare as well--even the welfare of one so humble as a mouse or a stray cat with a crooked tail.

While Deedy and Wright have fun with language, composing short chapters which keep the action moving along, artist Barry Moser has graced the book with portraits of the cast of characters, humans and animals alike. They complement the text with grace, humor and sometimes pathos. The Cheshire Cheese Cat is that most wonderful of packages--a clever and entertaining book which respects its audience while at the same time challenging its readers to stretch beyond a given genre (animal story, historical fiction, mystery) to discover the context of a universal story. Or, to be more precise, it is a Dickens of a tale.


The folks at Peachtree Publishing, who kindly sent me a copy of the book to preview, are clearly proud of The Cheshire Cheese Cat and have created a sublime interactive website with teacher resources, games, and further information about Ye Old Cheshire Cheese as well as Victorian London. There is also a blog which collates the stops on this blog tour. You can read all about it here. The book is available now, but I can provide a copy for one lucky reader (huzzah!) All you have to do is leave a comment and some way that I can contact you (email address, blogger id, twitter handle.) Entrants must be US residents.

Be sure to check out the other stops on The Cheshire Cheese Blog Tour:

A Word's Worth
Maestra Amanda's Bookshelf
There's a Book
Through the Looking Glass
Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers  
Peachtree Publishers

It is a far, far better thing to do (with apologies to Dickens!)

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