30 December 2010

The Best of 2010

As the year draws to a close, it's time to list my 5 star books for 2010. I should preface this by saying that this list chronicles only chapter books and graphic novels (of which I read 71 this year,) and does not include the numerous excellent picture books which I read (a situation I really should rectify for 2011.) Books with a * next to them indicate titles published in the United States in 2010. Some of the books are re-reads, revisited either for book club or for fun. There are even a few adult titles included. They are listed chronologically as I read them.

Drum roll please...........

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell
Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee
Living Hell by Catherine Jenks *
Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman *
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Gareth Stein
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia *
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins *
Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce *
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness *
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
Smile by Raina Telgemeier *

You know, the list of 4 star books is pretty good, too. They are:

Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller by Sarah Miller
The Cay by Theodore Taylor
The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger *
Boom! by Mark Haddon *
11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass
Yours Truly, Lucy B. Parker: Girl vs. Superstar by Robin Palmer *
The Case of the Gypsy Goodbye by Nancy Springer *
Doctor Who: The Forgotten by Tony Lee, Pia Guerra and Nick Roche
The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins *
Paranormalcy by Kiersten White *
The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness
When you Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
The Secret Life of Ms. Finkelman by Ben Winters *
The Homework Machine by Dan Gutman
Alvin Ho: Allergic to birthday parties, science projects and other man-made catastrophes by Lenore Look *
The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert O'Brien
Numbers by Rachel Ward *

And there you have it--the best reading that 365 days had to offer. May 2011 be filled with just as many--if not more (a girl can be greedy)--great books. Happy New Year, folks!

22 December 2010

Fenway Park--Still America's Favorite Ballpark!

Perhaps it's petty of me, but I cannot deny that I took great pleasure in discovering that the first title in the new "Ballpark Mysteries" easy chapter series is The Fenway Foul-up. The book based at Yankee Stadium--book number 2. Looks like the American League East is already shaping up with the Red Sox on top, at least in terms of chapter books. The book pubs in February 2011--just in time for spring training.

12 December 2010

Favorite Christmas Picture Books

Okay--so I meant to get this posted right after Thanksgiving. But there is still plenty of time to share a Christmas picture book. While shiny copies of Dewey's, Marley's and Fancy Nancy's holiday escapades are being showcased at your local bookstores, these older classic are not too be missed, so be sure to check those library shelves. They might be the dog-eared leftovers on the display table, but like Charlie Brown's twig of a tree, they have much to offer.

So, in no particular order, I present my favorite Christmas picture books:

Wombat Divine by Mem Fox; illus. by Kerry Argent

Wombat has waited a long time to be in the annual Nativity play, and now he's finally old enough. The problem is that he is ill-suited for every part: he's too heavy to be the Archangel Gabriel, too clumsy to be the innkeeper, and too short to be one of the Wise Men. With all the parts allocated to more suitable animals (and I do mean emus, koalas, and bilbys,) it looks as if Wombat will be sitting out this year's play, too. Until....inspiration strikes. This is a sweet tale from one of Australia's greatest contributors to children's literature.

We Were There by Eve Bunting; illus. by Wendell Minor
Let me clarify--there aren't just illustrations featured in this unorthodox Nativity story. There are paintings. There aren't many Christmas books which can boast a scorpion on the front cover (I can't think of any others) made sacred by the inclusion of the Christmas Star glowing beneath the tip of the scorpion's stinger. If Wendell Minor's stunning paintings of rats, tarantulas, and warty toads aren't enough to distinguish this Christmas book (you can see some of the other paintings here,) then have a read of Bunting's text, told in verse and from the point of view of each creature, making their way to the stable to worship the Christ child. This unique perspective on a familiar story makes a poignant statement about the relevance of Jesus' arrival, not just for the good and the easily lovable (i.e. the ox and lamb,) but the lowly inhabitants of the dark, as well.

Harvey Slumfenburger's Christmas Present by John Burningham

Santa's had a long night, and he's knackered. He no sooner finished his rounds, gets his reindeer in bed, and dons his pajamas, before he realizes that he's missed delivering a gift. And of course, the gift is for Harvey Slumfenburger, who is poor and will get no other gifts but the one from Santa. And he lives in a hut. At the top of the Roly Poly Mountain. Which is far, far, away. So there's nothing else for it but for Santa to deliver that gift. Not wanting to wake the reindeer, he tosses his red coat over his jammies and sets off by foot for Harvey Slumfenberger's hut. It's a long and arduous journey requiring many modes of transportation, but Santa will not be deterred. And with the final five words of the book, John Burningham shows why he is a master at writing for children.

Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs

While Burningham's Santa is a dogged and dutiful man, Brigg's St. Nick is no jolly old elf. From the moment his alarm goes off on Christmas Eve, to his final grumbly blessing, Father Christmas looks as if he'd rather be anywhere than delivering presents on a cold and snowy night. As he preps his thermos, feeds the cat, and locks his front door, he could be heading off for a shift at the local factory.  The humor in this books is generated by the rather working class perspective to Santa's story, told in graphic blocks like a comic book. Father Christmas has to work around restrictive chimneys (or none at all--I particularly like the image of him trying to squeeze out of the top of a cooker,) try to avoid roof-top aerials (remember them?!) and tripping over cats, and in true British fashion spends most of the book complaining about the weather. And when he gets home, he still has to make his own Christmas dinner! Evidently this Santa is a bachelor. And, without a doubt, the hardest working man in the world.

A Pussycat's Christmas by Margaret Wise Brown; illus. by Anne Mortimer

This book was originally published in 1949, and then re released in 1994 with illustrations by the incomparable Anne Mortimer. She is, for my money, the best illustrator of cats. From cheeky, to contemplative, to serene--her ability to capture their essence is amazing. Brown's understated yet precise description of the sounds and smells of a Christmas Eve in preparation, makes for a quiet, almost reverent, reading experience.

The Church Mice at Christmas by Graham Oakley

The Church Mice would like to plan a slam-dunk Christmas party at the church, but they are having trouble procuring funds. Raffling off Sampson doesn't raise much--particularly when he returns to the church and the mice have to refund the money. And caroling is fraught with danger on a busy high street crowded with shoppers. Raiding the choirboys' stalls for abandoned sweeties produces no dividends either. When Arthur and Humphrey make the rather rash declaration that Father Christmas will be visiting the vestry, things almost take a turn for the riotous as antsy church mice find their holiday disappointment difficult to contain. But all ends well--and humorously--for the church mice. As ever, this book is filled with detailed illustrations which are as much of a joy to inspect as the story itself.

26 November 2010

Pet Shop Boys + David Almond = SQUEE!

Talk about serendipitous. Just yesterday I was blogging about To Be Read piles. In one of those piles I photographed yesterday is a copy of this book:
So imagine my surprise and thrill when  this morning, I open my daily Google Alert for the Pet Shop Boys--only my all-time favorite pop group--and I see a link to an article about this:

 Note who wrote the score?

I have blogged before about links between the Pet Shop Boys and children's literature. As they prepare for the debut of their ballet based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, it seems they had the time to fit in another kiddielit project.

Truly, the Pet Shop Boys are never being boring.

25 November 2010

Today I am thankful for......

.....To Be Read (TBR) piles! Much like piles of laundry, they never go away. But unlike piles of laundry, they are so much more rewarding! it's frustrating to know that I will never get to read all the great books that are out there and that interest me. But the alternative--no great books at all!--is so much more dire.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
TBR's in office

TBR's on coffee table (and Richie!)

18 November 2010

Cybils Nominee: Summer Birds

This review comes to you from an avowed Lepidopterphobe (also known as someone who has a fear of butterflies.) But personal irrational fear aside, I could not read this stunning book and let it go without comment.

Summer Birds tells the true story of Maria Sibylla Merian, who was a groundbreaking entomologist in 17th century Germany. The understanding that butterflies and moths are hatched from eggs and undergo metamorphosis from caterpillars to winged insects seems like basic scientific knowledge now (not to mention a great literary device. Imagine how blah The Very Hungry Caterpillar would be if he was formed from mud instead of that promising egg on a leaf. Although watching him evilly munch his way through a week might be fun.) But at one point the idea would have been construed as the work of the Devil. Conventional wisdom said that insects were evil and formed from mud. Maria proved otherwise, through simple observation and meticulous record keeping. That a young girl had the enthusiasm and patience to devote her life to studying insects and other small animals such as frogs and lizards, makes for a rich subject in this well told and exquisitely illustrated book.

Maria Merian was fortunate in the fact that she possessed not only the talent to document her observations, but was encouraged to do so by the adults in her life. The book starts with Merian as a thirteen year old, precocious and thoughtful and highly driven. When she is not catching and observing insects, she is imagining what the world holds for her, and all the marvels that she will see and paint when she is grown-up. An author's note (which for once is not written way above the comprehension of the child who might be reading the book) indicates that Merian did indeed travel the world and publish her findings. Some of her paintings have even graced postage stamps in the United States.

Much like the story of child archaeologist Mary Anning, part of this book's appeal for a young reader is in the fact that the protagonist is so young herself when she begins to grow into her passion.

Another source of appeal is the artwork. Giant portraits of butterflies aside, the illustrations by Julie Paschkis have an ethereal quality about them which suggests the flow of metamorphosis. The illustrations alternate between the accurate detail of Maria's scientific drawings, and the superstitions surrounding the mystery of the natural world. They are fanciful, colorful, and exquisite.
Books about girls who like science are always a plus, and in this instance we get a girl who is not only enthusiastic, but ahead of her time. Summer Birds is a great introduction to the fascinating and fulfilling life of an amazing woman who paid attention to Nature's secrets and then shared them with the world.

08 November 2010

30 Second Review: Dragon Puncher by James Kochalka

What do you get when you mix James Kochalka's cat, Spandy, with giant robot Gaiking? You get Dragon Puncher, and she is totally made of awesome! Dragon Puncher is on the look-out for sneaky, evil dragons, but what she initially finds is a nondescript, yet cute, baby creature who is armed with a very powerful spoon. While Dragon Puncher prefers to work alone, she is soon lumbered with a fearless and enthusiastic side kick.And a good thing, too, because the dragon is indeed fearsome. And drooly. Using nothing more than cropped facial features and simple line cartoon bodies, mounted against a scenic Burlington, VT background, Kochalka has created a comic masterpiece for the Easy Reader crowd. For fans of Elephant and Piggie and Dav Pilkey. And goofballs in general.

04 November 2010

No more dead mothers

So. Here's a question: in children's literature, is it preferable to be an orphan than motherless?

Let's consider the options.

If a child is orphaned by the death of both their parents, it is usually a device which frees up the child to have an adventure--the sort which could never have been enjoyed if constrained by the banalities of family life. There may be some shuffling about among disgruntled relatives, but for the most part orphaned children in books tend to reach the end of their adventures having either created or joined the best family for themselves. While their struggles as orphans are evident, their triumphs are just as prevalent. As examples I present Anne Shirley, Harry Potter, and the Baudelaire siblings.

Now let's look at motherless children. There is no sense of adventure for these unhappy souls. They are usually stuck working through their grief while also trying to contend with the ill-equipped parent who is still around. Books in which the mother has died seem to require an awful lot of growth on the part of their young protagonists. In fact, that usually seems to be the point of the book--showing the reader how the child grows, managing to survive the dark pit into which they have been figuratively thrown.  Surviving a dead mother is an adventure of sorts, but not a particularly fun one. Katherine Marsh's The Night Tourist, K.L. Going's The Garden of Eve, and Sally Nicholls' Season of Secrets all feature children who have recently lost their mother and are trying to somehow reach or retrieve their deceased parent.  A notable exception would be a character like Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice, who is several years removed from the death of her mother by the start of the series. Even though she still misses her mother--particularly the impact of her feminine influence in her life--her grieving and subsequent transformation has happened off-screen.

So where does this leave us? I would say it's better to be rid of both parents and just get on with facing the world. Being motherless is simply too angsty. Do you have any examples to present for either argument?

22 October 2010

Cybils Nominee: Busing Brewster

There are many things I like about this picture book by Richard Michelson and illustrated by R.G. Roth, which I will detail shortly. But first, a personal commentary. As many of my readers know, I am a proud Bostonian (despite the fact that I've spent far too much time in the suburbs.) The issue of busing children to desegregate white and black schools was a hugely contentious issue in Boston--one of the cities less impressive legacies--when it was implemented in the 1970's. I was growing up in Hyde Park at the time, a neighborhood Wikipedia called "an urban location with suburban details." That's not a bad way of describing the place, although driving through the area now it seems much more ethnically diverse than any suburban town I can think of. After I read Busing Brewster,  I had a thought. I rang up my mom and asked her, "You know when you and Dad sent me to parochial school? Were you trying to keep me from being bused?" And indeed they were.

So there you have it--my life story intersecting with history, although I was never aware of it. Perhaps if I'd been forced to take an hour's ride back and forth on a bus each day, it might have made more of an impact on me. As it was, I just went along to school unaware of the bigger picture.

Brewster is initially like that. He doesn't understand the political implication of what is happening to him, but does see the biggest picture of all. The one with him in the center of it. Point number one that I love about this book: the front cover. Brewster strides across the front with bold steps, USA lunchbox swinging by his side. That bus is a big ole opportunity for Brewster, and he can't wait. Even though his older brother, Bryan, scares him a little with his anger at the situation; even though he has to get up at 5:30 a.m. for the long bus ride; even when the bus is greeted by angry white picketers at his new school--Brewster is aware that something special could happen for him. Brewster and his brother aren't at the school a full day before they manage to attract trouble, but even that turns outs to be a lucky break for Brewster, because detention is in the library.

Which brings us to point number two that I love about this book: the power of a school librarian! Miss O'Grady's the best sort of librarian, too, because she doesn't judge. Brewster can't read, but he knows he needs to because he might be president of the United States. Miss O'Grady doesn't laugh when Brewster tells her this, despite the odds stacked so high against him that even he recognizes them. She simply sets to work teaching him how to read. She solicits a promise from Brewster to come and see her everyday, which guarantees the young boy--and all the children--a safe and equal place to go, even when the difficulties of his school situation seem dark. And judging from the rocks that rain on the bus as it approaches the school, and the parents of white students who speak hatefully in front of him, and the sense at the end of the book that he doesn't want to worry his mother--Brewster is becoming aware that his great new opportunity will come with a struggle.

Point number three: the artwork of R.G. Roth. I am not familiar with any of his other works (though of course I should be!) so I can't say if this is indicative of his style. But the illustrations immediately draw to mind the work of Ezra Jack Keats, who left a remarkable legacy of picture books depicting urban children in day to day situations which resonated with joy and promise. Roth's use of collage in particular emphasizes the way this social experiment was pieced together. It is certainly hoped that the pieces come together with joy and promise for Brewster.

As a final point, Michelson's Author's Note tells a story of its own. After briefly outlining the controversy surrounding forced busing, he discuses how Busing Brewster was written in 2003, when the idea of an African American president still seemed like a pipe dream. He writes, "My words have taken on a greater resonance than I intended, which is what authors hope for." While this particular dream has become a reality in the time between writing the book and publishing it, what will constantly be a goal for which to strive, and is the overriding message of this book, is that when a child is given the opportunity to reach his or her potential, the influence of good people--rather than good intentions--can never be underestimated.

18 October 2010

My new pet peeve: books with instructions

So. I sit down at lunch with a couple of picture books I have been sent to review.  I open book number one, and the first thing I see is a Parent's Introduction. 'Introduction' is a euphamistic way of saying 'instructions.' Yes, this book came with instructions on several different ways to utilize it. Because simply opening it up and reading it is clearly too difficult a concept to grasp. With scattered bold type to indicate that a child might like to try reading that word themselves, to a list of "fun" review questions in the back, we now have the picture book as text book.


I will go so far as to accept that reading out loud does not come naturally to everyone. Many was the time that my husband tried to get out of bedtime story duty by pleading, "But Mummy reads better." He was right, of course. But when push came to shove, he was fully capable of opening the book and reading it, much to the delight of our daughter. It wasn't because he inflected his voice a certain way when he read specially highlighted words, or prompted her to read with him, or broke up the story with relevant facts about the book's topic. She was delighted because he was reading to her.

This lunchtime brow-raiser, which comes fresh off the heels of the by now infamous New York Times article about the death of the picture book, confirms something I have long suspected: that all the fun is being sapped out of childhood. Kids are no longer allowed to simply experience something for experience's sake. There has to be a larger agenda on the horizon--probably Harvard or some other grandiose destiny. Learning to read can't be an organic process that develops from sharing books with a loved one; it has to follow a road map, and comes complete with instructions so that the grown-up doesn't do it "wrong." The real tragedy, is that there are adults who do feel like they need those instructions--that reading aloud is such a mystery that it's possible to screw it up. Let it go, folks. So long as you--to steal a much overused phrase--just do it, reading works.

11 October 2010

Fact or fiction--Old Abe, Eagle Hero

I originally intended to write a straight-out review of Old Abe, Eagle Hero but was stymied by the nagging conviction that I could not give it a rave review. And since I have a policy of only reviewing books if I can do so positively, I nearly bailed on this assignment. And yet, I quite liked this book and wanted to write about it. So what's the problem?

The problem is that the book represents itself as a factual account of an actual bird's life, yet it is poorly researched and full of inaccuracies. Or maybe it was meticulously researched and the reader just doesn't know this because there are no references. And maybe the inaccuracies aren't inaccurate at all, but again--no documented sources to back anything up. Do you see my problem?

I was originally intrigued by this book because of its historical context. I also like eagles and am always interested in the stories behind symbols. This book tells the story of Old Abe (who according to Wikipedia was actually a female, although I have not found confirmation of this anywhere else) an eaglet who was found (captured? let's not be euphemistic) by a Native American chief in the Northwoods of Wisconsin in 1861. The eaglet is traded to a man named Dan McCann who eventually sends the eagle off to war in his place. An explanation is offered as to why he does this (he cannot fight himself, and the bird has shown remarkable intelligence,) but that is really immaterial to the heart of the book--Old Abe's heroic exploits with the 8th Regiment of Wisconsin. Old Abe is involved in several major Civil War battles and serves not only as a mascot, but as a spy and is even credited with dragging a wounded soldier to safety. After the war Old Abe goes to live in the Wisconsin State Building as a war hero. A two room apartment is built specially for the bird, where he resides, when he isn't making guest appearances at special events such as the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1876 and a fund raiser to preserve the Old South Church in Boston.
Old Abe him/herself

At which point the book abruptly ends. Which is extremely unfortunate! Because this abrupt ending makes the reader aware of several flaws with the book. The most glaring is the aforementioned lack of source material used to research and write the book. Secondly, an author's note at the end, while providing much commentary about the plight of bald eagles in the United States, fails to provide any further information about Old Abe or help to clarify what part of the story is bona fide fact and what is poetic license.

101st Airborne Division
And yet, as I said, I liked this book. I thought it was written with a sense of drama (at least up to its abrupt ending.) I loved the water color illustrations that managed to portray Old Abe with playfulness when fraternizing with the men of the company, and ferocity when leading them into battle. I liked knowing that Old Abe was well taken care of after the war. I even liked the scavenger hunt the book sent me on. But how much of it was actually real? The Internet is chock full of pictures of Old Abe, who seems to have been a well-documented bird (which makes the lack of references in this book so baffling.) The bird left an incredible visual legacy, immortalized in stone on monuments, illustrated on postcards, and sewn on patches. This book has near-well inspired Old Abe mania in me, and might very well do so for another reader. But is it fair to expect someone to scour for other sources to ensure that what they read in the book is accurate? Well, no.....of course not. So while this book sets out to tell an exciting and inspirational story, it's likely to raise more questions than it will answer. And yet, and yet, and yet.......I thought it was worth reading.

Thank you to Kane/Miller for providing me a copy of the book to review.

07 October 2010

Rave Review: The Last Train

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to make a confession: I am a former railway conductor. I worked for Midland Mainline, a railway operating company in England, for four years, working my way up from trolley dolly to guard. There was a time when I knew every bump in the line from Sheffield to London. Whenever I stand on a station platform, and watch a train leave, I am sorry for the adventure I am not having. In brief, as far as trains are concerned, I am soooooo biased.

The Last Train is based on a song by musician Gordon Titcomb, a song which he admits was heavily influenced by the railroad songs that came before. It is an extremely personal book. It isn't about the diesel-spouting High Speed Trains (HST's) that I used to work on. Rather, it is a nostalgic look at an age of shoveling coal and lonely whistles in the night; of an industry which shrank in this country so as to be almost unrecognizable. The title page shows a young boy, through whose eyes we follow the story, standing in front of a steam engine. On either side of him is a conductor and an engineer. We eventually discover that this is in fact his father and grandfather. Illustrations of the boy standing in front of a derelict station or walking beside a line overrun with weeds and wildflowers serve to show us how the last train to roll through his town spelled not just the end of an industry, but the loss of his legacy as well.

Lest the book sink into melancholy, the story is buoyed by the memories of the glory days of steam. The text is quite poetic. I particularly liked, "A ticket punch that clicked a million snowflakes every year." What a lyrical way to describe a rather routine job for a conductor. The text is complemented by the grand paintings of Wendell Minor. He makes full use of double page spreads to present a panorama worthy of the far-reaching power of a steam train, whether showing an approaching engine or zooming in on a detail of pennies flattened on the line ("little metal tears/That a railroad cries before it disappears.") Significantly, when Minor is representing individuals--a brakeman, a porter, a fireman--he forgoes the double-spread paintings for smaller, compact portraits. By focusing on the individuals with more intimacy, he reiterates the personal nature of the book. His paintings are literal to the text, which is an especially effective technique in a story where holding on to memories is vital.

When a conductor sees a train away from the platform (at least in England,) they are required, for various safety reasons, to look out a window (preferably from the last coach) and watch until the train has left the platform completely. There were many times, late night shifts in particular, when I would look out, and as the train curved along the bend of the track, the only light I could see was from the train itself. That lonely light in a dark night is, for me, evocative of the romance of trains and the railway life in general. Trains are powerful, magnificent, revolutionary machines. Yet even they gave way in the face of advancing technology. There is a painting towards the end of the book which visualizes this truth perfectly: a train (not even a steamie, but a diesel) rides along the rail while an airplane flies above it in the opposite direction. The plane's contrails leave a cloudy, imitation rail of its own in the sky.

Fortunately, trains--like dinosaurs--have immense kid appeal. The sort of appeal that is not generally outgrown (case in point--me!) The last train might have rolled through a lost America, but with books like this one, it can always roll through one more time.


Folk fans take note: Arlo Guthrie, who recorded one of the most famous railroad songs ever, wrote the forward. Also, a list of Railroad Museum websites is provided to promote trainspotting delight. Thank you to Florence and Wendell Minor for providing me with a copy of the book to review.

05 October 2010

It's been the kind of day.....

.....where I really needed a laugh. I can't comment on the books, but the covers are hilarious.

01 October 2010

Cybils nominations are open!

It's October 1st, and that means one thing--nominations for the 2010 Cybils awards are now open! A hefty list of nominees is evolving as we speak (and you can see what they are, by category, here) but there is always room for more. Do you have a favorite childrens or young adult book from 2010 that you think should be recognized? The beauty of the Cybils is that anyone who reads a book has a voice. The rules and regulations for nominating can be read here. Once you are all caught up and ready to make your  selections, the nomination form is here. Have fun!

28 September 2010

Subversive Favorites: It's a Book by Lane Smith

This post was originally prompted by an on-line discussion I've been following--and contributed to--about whether or not this picture book should be shelved as a picture book, fiction or in the children's room at all. You might have heard about It's a Book on NPR,  or read a review of it (there are many, and they are favorable.) You might have even read it yourself (please do!) What prompted the discussion was the use of a single word--and here I am going to give away the punchline of the book, so if you don't want the wicked wit revealed.....SPOILER!

The conversation was prompted by Lane Smith's use of the word, "jackass." He uses the word twice: at the very beginning, when he is introducing the characters in the book, one of which is, indeed, a jackass. He uses it again, with much more dramatic effect at the very end, when Jackass is addressed by name. However, by the end of the book the reader has realized that Jackass is not just a donkey, but a fool as well, hence the comedic brilliance of that utterance.

So first and foremost, thank you Lane Smith for reclaiming the word for legitimate use in children's literature! After all, 'jackass' is not an intrinsically bad word, one which has simply been commandeered for nefarious purposes (can anyone say, 'bitch'?) Actually, to be more accurate, I think it suffers from its association with a certain part of the human body (can anyone say, 'Uranus'?) But I digress. Children may snicker at the word. Or, perhaps if we give them a little credit, they might actually get the point. Adults reading this book certainly should. And if, after tucking their kids into bed for the night, they pick up their Kindles and iPads with a twinge of guilt, well....that's not such a bad thing. Books work precisely because the technology is simple. The only interface necessary involves picking it up and giving in to its pull. Talk about subversive!

To be honest, the books of Lane Smith beg the question--is sarcasm wasted on young readers? Perhaps 'sarcasm' is the wrong word for what I am trying to describe, which is closer to sophisticated, sly, sharp humor. If you revisit The Happy Hocky Family Moves to the Country (a personal favorite) or Glasses, Who Needs 'em? or even the much lauded John, Paul, George and Ben, there is a bite to these stories which rises above situational humor or visual jokes. Do young readers, 'get it'? Of course, as with any book, it depends on the reader. But in my opinion, why not test a child's wit? I've witnessed my own daughter, who at nine still laughs at burps, fling a zinger out every now and then. It's like she's using humor to test deeper intellectual waters. And in the end, isn't that what all great books do--challenge us intellectually?

26 September 2010

Think for Yourself--Banned Books Week

I love the catchphrase for this years' Banned Books Week (25 September - 2 October, 2010.) Think for yourself. Because that's really what book banning is all about, isn't it--the desire to influence how people think. Advocates of removing books from libraries have convinced themselves, and then try to convince everyone else, that they are somehow serving the common good by recognizing a threat and removing it before it falls into the wrong hands. Wow. Thanks. But you know what? I'll figure it out on my own, ta. There's only one way to decide what you agree with, which values you value, and that's by coming face-to-face with those you don't. If someone else has already made that determination, then what has really been learned? That they know best. For you, for your children, for the whole wide world.

My one experience with a book challenge was pretty benign compared to irate parents, brimstone fueled editorials, or waffling school boards. But it was indicative of the cowardice which I think is at the heart of  book challenges. Yes, I said 'cowardice'. If a person is so afraid of the written word that they would rather eliminate it than think about it--that is cowardly.

One day a book was returned with a sticky note attached to the front cover which said: "Bad word in this book." That sticky note was damning. To me, sensitive professional that I am, it implied that I had erred in my duties, and the patron was taking it upon themselves to gently point that out before calamity crashed down upon me. It also implied an expectation that I would efficiently yet quietly take care of the problem, just as I had been efficiently yet quietly made aware of its existence.

The book in question was Piggy by Mireille Geus, a 2008 import from the Netherlands about an autistic girl who is bullied and manipulated by a new girl at school. Since a gauntlet disguised as a sticky-note was flung at me, what else could I do but take a closer look at the book? The first thing I did was to check if I had ordered the book for the Young Adult collection and it had inadvertently been cataloged in Children's. Nope. Target audience is grades 5-8. Next, I checked the professional reviews, on the basis of which I had purchased the book. No mention of offending language in any of them, which made me think that it was not gratuitous and probably not worth mentioning. There was nothing really left to do but sit down and read it.

Indeed, right around page five, there is a very bad word. It is uttered by the bully Piggy herself, who is so transparent in her usage of the word. She wants to shock. And she does. The protagonist doesn't know what to make of her. But the reader does, by the efficient use of one, well-placed curse. A point which was clearly missed by the writer of the sticky note, as was the book's redeeming, timely message about bullies and the children who learn to stand up to them. I don't like swearing, but I do like the efficient use of language. The book went back on the shelf.

I'd be lying if I said I'm sorry that was the end of the matter. I don't look for fights. I alerted my director to the situation, in case a more formal protest followed. But nothing did. To be honest, a challenge might have done Piggy some good. Circulation records indicate that the book last went out over a year ago. It has only circulated 6 times in two years. Only three other libraries in our network own the book: two put it in YA, one other in Juvenile, like I did. It hasn't circulated much anywhere. But it's on the shelf waiting, and when it next ends up in the hands of a reader, I hope it leaves an impression beyond a single four letter word. It should, in the hands of a perceptive reader, who has been allowed to think for his or herself.

So, in honor of Banned Books Week, I would like to remind everyone that we are free to read whatever we want in this country. And if you take a look at some of the most frequently challenged and banned books in recent years, you might be surprised to see what made the list and why. If any of those books mean anything to you, think what you would have missed if some know-it-all censor got to it before you did. What if you never got to read To Kill a Mockingbird because someone objected to racist language? Or Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl because she writes about puberty? Talk about missing the point!

I, for one, like to think for myself. This week, and every week.

23 September 2010

Spiderwick Chronicles--the Pumpkin

Today NMD had to turn in the first big project of the school year--a pumpkin decorated like a character from a book she read over the summer. It is 100% her work, and I'm pretty proud of the effort she put into it. So without further ado, I present Mallory, from the Spiderwick Chronicles Book 3: The Ironwood Tree!
Here's an up close shot of Mallory (sans sword). The pumpkins will be on display in the school library, just in time for all the parents to see and admire when we attend Back to School Night.

20 September 2010

Lets have some non-fiction picture book (NFPB) love!

In preparation for October 1st, when nominations open for the current crop of awards, The Childrens and Young Adult Bloggers Literary Awards (CYBILS) are starting to announce the panels which will be reviewing and judging in each category. Because today is affectionately known as non-fiction Monday in the kidlitosphere, they have announced the panels for both categories of non-fiction: the Middle Grade/Young Adult (MG/YA) panel, and the non-fiction picture book (NFPB) panel. It is my great pleasure and honor to be participating for the second year on the NFPB panel. After reading more books last year than I could possibly imagine in the first round, this year I get to try my hand at judging, working in the second round with a panel of five bloggers, under the guidance of group organizer Jone MacCulloch, to select the finest non fiction picture book of the year.

Here are your 2010 Non-Fiction Picture Book Panels, Rounds I and II:

Panel Organizer: Jone MacCulloch, Check It Out

Panelists (Round I Judges):
Doret Canton, Happy Nappy Bookseller
Shirley Duke, Simply Science
Amanda Goldfuss, ACPL Mock Sibert
Abby Johnson, Abby (the) Librarian
Jone MacCulloch (see category organizer)
Karen Terlecky, Literate Lives
Carol Wilcox, Carol's Corner

Judges (Round II):
Kara Dean, Not Just for Kids
Roberta Gibson, Wrapped in Foil
Deb Nance, Readerbuzz
Carol Rasco, Rasco from RIF
Franki Sibberson, A Year of Reading

Other panels will be announced in the following days. Start thinking about your favorite childrens and YA books from this year and get ready to nominate them all, starting October 1st.

19 September 2010

Rave Review: Big Red Lollipop

Big Red Lollipop is a heartfelt, and heartbreaking, picture book about a girl named Rubina who is invited to her first birthday party. It is also a book about sibling relationships. It is also a book about the immigrant experience. It is also, in my opinion, a story about parental failure--a big, fat reminder of how much we forget about being children once we grow-up, and how parents demand wisdom from their children when we clearly don't have any ourselves.

When Rubina comes home from school one day, breathless from excitement about her first ever birthday party invitation, she is delivered a ghastly ultimatum by her mother, who has never even heard of birthday parties: she must take her little sister, Sana, with her or forfeit the party herself. The mother, dressed in the traditional garb of her home country, is lost in translation as Rubina tries to explain that that's not the way things are done. But the mother is adamant, and Rubina secures an invite for her bratty sister, despite the realization that her own social life is doomed. Rubina's one consolation for the day, a beautiful red lollipop received in her goodie bag, which she saves to enjoy later, is also lost to her when her sister eats it herself. 

Soon Sana is old enough to receive her own birthday party invitation. Rubina watches a familiar scene unfold as Sana's initial joy is squashed when her mother informs her that she must take both Rubina and the youngest sister, Maryam, with her. Rubina wants nothing to do with this scenario, despite the mother's insistence that it is fair. Sana, who has clearly forgotten her own role in the previous party events, is beside herself and pleads that she simply cannot bring the youngest sister with her.

Rubina's intervention is graceful, generous, and born of a wisdom which comes from stigma. The mother may or may not have noticed the lack of further party invites for her eldest daughter, but they are fresh in Rubina's mind. Sana proves herself to be grateful in the end, and the strengthened bond with her sister is a beautiful way to finish the book. But for me it is simply silver lining, because the central lesson revolves around the behavior of the mother. You can call it a cultural difference, an angle which is certainly emphasized in the story. But truthfully, I think the problem is in the process of growing-up. As adults we forget about the things which are important to children, such as the desire to not stick out. Compared to our weighty concerns, what's the big deal to bring a little sister--a child--to a child's party? How often do we tell children that life's not fair, and then force adult concepts of "fair" on them (such as being told to share a lollipop with a sibling who has already taken the lollipop for herself.) Or maybe it's just me. Perhaps this book struck a chord because I know how often I have failed my daughter with my own lapses of memory. Perhaps Big Red Lollipop simply speaks to my guilty conscience, that of a mother who has fallen back on the annoying get-out clauses my mom used ("Because I said so!") rather than remember my own nine year old cares and concerns.

Before finishing, I must take a moment to comment on the illustrations of Sophie Blackall. As the illustrator of the Ivy and Bean books, I always associate her work with the mischievous, slightly subversive behavior of those two girls. Here she has used her talent for expressiveness to eloquently compliment the text. The exchange over the purloined lollipop is a masterpiece of scowls, indignation, and contempt for the plain, awful unfairness of it all. And the cover, with the striking visual of the dominant lollipop, conveys the import of that controversial sweet without revealing the magnitude of the life lesson learned inside the book.

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.

26 July 2010

Guys Read: Funny Business--Book Trailer

I have a confession to make: I didn't get the joke. But I love this book trailer! I loved seeing some of my favorite authors in the flesh...er...video, as it were. And I bet young readers will to. Color me pre-ordering.

21 July 2010

Subversive favorites: Imogene's Antlers by David Small

I've decided to start a new, periodic feature on this blog that highlights some of my favorite picture books (possibly branching out into Easy Readers and Chapter Books if inspiration strikes) which I think are....well.....subversive. And we'll start with Imogene's Antlers, written and illustrated by David Small. This gem of a book, which was featured on Reading Rainbow, tells the simple story of a little girl, named Imogene, who wakes up one morning and, as the title suggests, discovers that she has sprouted a pair of antlers. Clearly a happy-go-lucky sort of kid, Imogene takes to her new appendages without so much as a tear. In fact, she discovers that antlers are handy--she sits in the kitchen with the maid, who uses the antlers as a towel rack; she go out to feed the birds with antlers full of doughnuts, as placed there by the cook; when she practices the piano she fills her antlers with candles, Liberache style. Imogene adapts and has a good time doing it.

Her mother, on the other hand, swoons. She calls the doctor--nothing to be done. She calls the school principal--he can only stare menacingly at the unperturbed Imogene. She calls the milliner in an attempt to disguise the antlers with a custom-made hat. You'll have to read the book to see how that turns out. The next morning when Imogene comes down to the breakfast table, sans antlers, the mother greets her with open arms, so glad to "see her back to normal........" That pregnant pause is part of the text, by the way, because Imogene has another surprise in store for her family, tucked behind her and out of sight.

No explanation is ever given as to why Imogene wakes up with antlers. However, we know something very important about her family by the fact that in her household there is a kitchen maid, a cook, and a milliner on speed-dial--they are old money! And what does old money hate? A scandal! And what has Imogene brought upon the family, just by being herself--scandal! A scandal so bad, they've resorted to a ridiculous hat in the attempt to keep it under wraps.

So here comes the subversion: Imogene doesn't care. It's clear from following the story that Imogene is quite enjoying her antlers, and has even found ways to utilize them. At the end of the day, when she's tucked away in bed, she sighs, "remembering the long, eventful day." The illustration shows that it was no tired sigh which escaped her lips, but one of satisfaction, in which ''long, eventful" translates to "an awful lot of fun". And when she comes downstairs to show her family what she's got in store for them now, there is no denying the impish delight on her face. Imogene will never be the same again, and she's embraced the change, scandal be damned.

That's my kind of girl!

05 July 2010

30 Second Review: Prime Baby by Gene Luen Yang

Not at all what I expected: hilarious, sweet and subversive all at the same time. Spot-on characterization and comic timing drive this story of sibling resentment and inter dimensional alien missionaries. Previously serialized in the New York Times Magazine, now handily packaged as a complete graphic unit. I give it a 5 out of 5!

30 June 2010

Top 10 British Children's Authors and Books--MY version of the list

I came across a blog post this afternoon (thank you Mitali Perkins) on the site Anglotopia.net (my kind of blog!) listing the Top 10 British Children's Authors and Books. The article, which was posted by a guest blogger, lists "the most popular British children’s authors and their books which have captured the hearts of children (and adults) the world over." I couldn't find fault with the list; every author is indeed beloved, every book a classic--this list is Canon with a capital 'C'. And yet, I found the list to be predictable to the extreme. I guess that's to be expected with something which lists the most popular of its kind. But there was something in its predictability which lacked creativity. Without data to back up the list--such as book sales, or library borrowing statistics--it just seemed to be a catalog of the best-known English writers (and I say English, because Britain is not well represented by this list; Roald Dahl was born in Wales, and C.S. Lewis in Belfast, but that's it. And Francesca Simon, the author of the Horrid Henry series, is in fact American.)

But what bothered me the most with the list was the complete lack of picture book authors. But have no fear--I have remedied that! England (sorry--but my list will also be guilty of an English bias) has produced some of the most innovative, prolific and--according to the borrowing habits of at least the library where I work--popular writers for children.

So, I present to you, in no particular order, my list of 10 of the Greatest British Children's Authors and Books. You may recognize several of the authors. And those you don't already know, I'm so glad to introduce them to you!

1. Allan Ahlberg

Allan Ahlberg, along with his late wife, illustrator Janet Ahlberg, will probably be best remembered for The Jolly Postman, a whimsical journey through a nursery rhyme landscape, via the letters the famous characters write to each other; letters which the reader can handle for themselves in one of the sweetest interactive books going. But for me, their tour-de-force is The Baby's Catalogue, which perfectly captures all of the joys and agonies of a baby's new life--not to mention the life of a new parent--through a catalog of moments and paraphernalia. The book was later organized by topic and published as a series of board books which were just perfect for the little hands of the youngest readers (this is a case where that over-used phrase is just right!)

2. Raymond Briggs
It has always struck me as odd that The Snowman is such a beloved book despite it's downbeat ending. Unlike Frosty, who scampers off before he can melt, with the promise to "be back again some day." there is no such protection for the eponymous character of this Christmas classic. He melts! The little boy is heartbroken! End of story! And yet, beloved it is. All credit to Raymond Briggs' gentle storytelling and captivating illustrations for putting so much joy into a bummer of a holiday tale. Check out his Father Christmas for a cheerier story, although I use the word "cheery" with a caveat; this is no jolly elf. Brigg's Santa is a working class fellow with plenty to grumble about, not least of which is having to get up at an ungodly hour to complete his Christmas Eve mission. Yet it is wholly original and full of charm.

3. John Burningham
If Roald Dahl wrote picture books, I think they would be a lot like the books of John Burningham. His is a world where the adults don't always "get" the children. It's probably because they are already grown-up and have lost sight of the magic and honesty of a child's world. Burningham's Mr. Gumpy's Outing, a cumulative tale which starts with a warning and ends with a picnic, was listed by children's literature guru Anita Silvey as a must-have book. My personal favorite is John Patrick Norman McHennessy, the Boy Who was Always Late, a book which I was so happy to see return to print in 2008.

Note: I had the chance to meet John Burningham about a month ago, at the 2010 Boston Globe Horn Book Awards Ceremony (and I got myself an autographed copy of JPNHtBWwAL to boot.) What a thrill!He was exactly as I imagined him to be--curmudgeonly and cuddly all in one droll package.

4. Helen Oxenbury
Here's an author who perfectly straddles entry number 3 (her husband) and entry number 4 (an author with whom she created a masterpiece.) Perhaps best known as an illustrator, Oxenbury has written a series of books telling the everyday stories in the life of Tom and Pippo, a little boy and his sock monkey. Their "everychild" adventures are comforting in their familiarity. Oxenbury has repeated the formula of infant and toddler experiences in a series of board books.

5. Michael Rosen
Poet, author, and former UK Children's Laureate (2007--2009)--despite all these accomplishments, Michael Rosen will forever be associated with possibly the greatest story-time read-a-loud out there: We're Going on a Bear Hunt. Sublimely illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, this is the definitive version of the rhyme. 'Nuff said.

6. Graham Oakley
I'm on record rhapsodizing about Oakley's Church Mice series, so I won't go on about it at length; regular readers of this blog are well familiar with my feelings on the subject (new visitors can read it all here, here, and here.) 

7. Julia Donaldson
A quick perusal of the current Amazon.co.uk Children's Bestsellers lists shows no less than 5 Julia Donaldson books in the top 25, tucked in between the Twilight and other vampire novels. Spawning a sequel and a tv series--not to mention numerous tie-in toys--The Gruffalo, published in 1999 has been ensconced in the top 10 since it's publication and shows no sign of waning in popularity. Just like We're Going on a Bear Hunt, it's a fantastic read-aloud. Donaldson's longtime collaboration with illustrator Axel Scheffler looks set to become as long-lasting and indivisible as Dahl/Blake. Check out Room on the Broom, a Halloween treat.

Note: The Gruffalo was recently the subject of a BBC article trying to decipher its enormous appeal.

8. Shirley Hughes
Shirley Hughes' Alfie books are synonymous with childhood experiences; the types grown-ups might take for granted but that are monumental in the life of a child. Even when the experience is unpleasant, such as getting accidentally locked inside the house alone, or trying to comfort a neighbor grieving the loss of a pet, Alfie's world is one of patience and understanding and quiet times spent with his little sister, Annie Rose.

9. Anthony Browne
The current UK Children's Laureate is the writer and illustrator of numerous picture books, a format he defends fiercely. Many of his books feature gorillas; all feature a magical realism that is reminiscent of the works of Chris Van Allsburg. Eye-catching, and sometimes eye-popping, illustrations dominate his books, opening the reader's eyes to the wonder of our world and the power of a picture. Two of my favorites are Gorilla and The Piggy Book.

10. Dick King-Smith
I'm rounding off my list with an author who is not known for his picture books (I think the only one he has written is a non-fiction guide to keeping guinea pigs.) But he is an author who was a glaring oversight from the original list. He is everything that is required from a writer for children--he's written loads of books, he is beloved by children and adults alike, and he respects his readers. A farmer at heart, he has based many of his books in the barnyard. The "animal story"is a classic of children's literature, whether used as allegory or simpel literary device. And Dick King-Smith has written some of the best. He earned international acclaim when his Babe: The Sheep Pig was made into an Oscar-nominated film. But before that there was The Fox Busters and, my personal favorite, Martin's Mice.

So there you have it--my list of the Top 10 Greatest British Children's Authors and Books: Picture Book edition. As always, I'd love to hear recommendations and favorites from you.

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