Jun 18, 2016

Little Books with Big Ideas: What We Can Learn from Pigeon

The magnitude of recent tragedies reminded me that picture books, sometimes the smallest, can have really big ideas. Those ideas often make more sense than those of all the pundits and scholars and religious leaders put together. 
At least it seems that way to me. 

Here's an example I often use, and it feels more relevant and "bigger" now than ever before:
Hyperion Books, 2003

words and pictures by 
Since Pigeon's debut to the world of books in 2003 he's become a potent figure in the minds and hearts of kids and adults alike. His titles number at a dozen or more, in multiple languages, with his own interactive website and plush toys. Few kid-lit characters have reached such a level of popularity, and I don't begrudge him his success.

I'm writing this post to address the power this little bird has to offer high level wisdom for anyone of any age. He's such a confident little fellow that I'm counting on him to shoulder a symbolic role for all the other picture book characters with wisdom to offer. 

 I had the privilege of hearing Mo Willems speak about Pigeon shortly after it had been awarded the Caldecott Honor. Among his many engaging and entertaining remarks, Willems reported that some glowing reviews drew contradictory conclusions about what Pigeon was "teaching" kids. I'll paraphrase here: 

One reviewer praised the book because kids need to hear the message: NO MEANS NO.  Another's praise included this: Kids need to hear DON'T TAKE NO FOR AN ANSWER.
Pictures: Mo Willems
When the laughter subsided, Willems remarked that interviewers seemed eager to ask him which message was "right". His reply (again, paraphrasing) was a shoulder shrug. This was followed by a general comment that his purpose was to entertain, and it was in the hands and hearts of the readers to decide what any message might be. 

Pictures: Mo Willems:

When tragic events unfold, whether on our screens or in our neighborhoods, our world seems to have gone mad. It takes only a glance around us to connect extreme actions in the news with issues like impulse-control, resistance to regulation, and demands for "we-want-what-we-want-when-we-want-it". 
Pigeon is an example of these patterns and uses every ploy to achieve his dream. The page image on the right only scratches the surface of his tactics. In fact, his tantrum page is a favorite among initial and repeat readers, including me.

Pictures by Mo Willems:
This tantrum page is best delivered in full voice while channeling every rant you've ever delivered or witnessed: 


In his initial book, and in subsequent titles, Pigeon's personality is unmistakable. Even so, defining that personality generates a debate as lively as the reviewers' "message" statements reveal. 

One one hand: Pigeon is a spoiled, demanding, defiant, stubborn character. He disrupts and disturbs the peace a reader should reasonably expect in a book.
On the other hand: Pigeon is a dreamer, out-of-the-box, an innovator, persistent, with a generous dollop of grit and he energizes the book and the reader.

Can we agree that both descriptions fit? In fact,  the descriptors from one point of view might well appear in thesaurous entries as synonyms for descriptors from the opposite position. The difference is connotation or value judgements.

Let me take a moment to add third view of Pigeon. He's a cunning, observant, creative, problem-solving bird with a dream. He's a bird who respects the rule of law and doesn't fail to seek and wait for permission. He recognizes the right of others to control their own property. He doesn't try to sneak onto the bus, distract the reader from vigilance, or lie about having permission. He is, at his core, honest and respectful of social standards, even while imaging himself in a role outside the norm. 
Even while his dream is being denied.

How many characters are in this book?

Another debate ensues when I ask this question of readers of any age.  
Should the answer be ONE? After all, Pigeon conducts the entire story other than the introductory and concluding lines by the Bus Driver.
But shouldn't the answer be TWO? After all, without those opening and closing lines, there is no problem to solve, no story for Pigeon to portray!

My additional view of the story is that there are THREE characters. Both Pigeon and Driver are essential to the story, but without the Reader playing a role-  actively upholding the Driver's directive throughout, resisting Pigeon's winsome and willful requests- there is no story. 

One could say that every book requires the reader to play a part, and yet I can easily imagine many tales lying inside a closed book like actors in a play, prepared to pop out and reveal the story in its entirety whether the reader is attentive or not. Just picture a video playing in an empty room. The entire story unfolds even without an audience.

In the case of Pigeon and the Driver, though, the Reader's unscripted role is a debate in itself: Was the Driver's trust well-placed? And, if not, if the Reader dares to say "YES" instead of "NO", the story ends. 

Circling back, now, to my introductory reference to tragic events. You may note that I didn't link or label the one closest to the date of this post. I began with that step, but removed it. I am sadly realistic enough to predict that other tragic, traumatic events will continue to occur and we'll need to continue to find ways to make sense of the world's horrors for young readers. The links and reflections here may continue to be useful if that happens.

Books can serve to develop empathy and care-taking, as are the examples in a post by fourth-grade teacher Laura Weakland for Nerdy Book Club Blog (Here).  Then there's this post from A YEAR OF READING. It dates back to 2014 and yet its featured picture book titles continue to be excellent resources for exploring topics of fairness and justice. I share both these posts and encourage you to search for others because kids (in homes, classrooms, libraries) need to have many opportunities to explore books on big topics, to engage fully as readers rather than as bystanders, and to recognize that open and peaceful debates allow us to become a stronger community rather than a divided one. 

In this election year more than any before.

A ranting adherence to black/white, right/wrong, good/evil beliefs is often at the heart of tragic news events. Our superhero culture may leave kids feeling that without superpowers they have no ability to affect their world. Books like these encourage them to see that each individual, as a thinker, a dreamer, and a member of a community, has a voice but also an obligation to listen respectfully, honestly. Talking about big ideas in little books provides valuable practice in growing safer citizens for the future.
Pigeon's ultimate respect for his place in society, even when that affects his dreams, is a good place to begin.
I hope even Pigeon would agree with that. 

Jun 7, 2016

Notable Social Studies Tradebooks- 2016

Each spring I'm eager to get a look at the annual CBC (Children's Book Council) publication: Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People. The 2016 edition did not disappoint.
In fact, it featured some of my favorite books from 2016, including fiction and nonfiction, novels and picture books, even some I had read and praised in the course of serving as a round one Cybils judge for fiction picture books last fall. 
One I particularly praised is Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spriti of New Orleans, by Phil Bildner. Here's just one sentence among the many I  used to praise the book in a prior blog post:

"This book bounces and  sings, capturing a city and culture as if they are characters. Scenes shift throughout, from the earliest pages where the grittiness is transformed to sparkling and appealing by the spirit (and hard work) of Cornelius."

This is only one of the many outstanding titles designated as notable biographies, and they represent a diverse array of historic figures. 
In the Environmental and Energy/Ecology category, I was equally excited to see the debut picture books written by two fellow-Wisconsin authors, Lisl H. Detlefsen and Miranda Paul.
Roaring Book Press
 Lisa's book, A TIME FOR CRANBERRIES, takes readers through the cranberry harvesting process as told by a young boy in the farming family. It's a story that incorporates family, rural/agri-business in a modern setting, and market economies.

You may be familiar with the iconic cheeseheads worn by sports fans and Wisconsin supporters in general, but you may want to start a petition drive to make cranberry hats the official state headwear after reading this thorough and thoroughly appealing book about one of the most important crops in our state. 

Millbrook Press

ONE PLASTIC BAG: Isatou Ceesay  and the Recycling Women of the Gambia by Miranda Paul is another winner, but with an entirely different story to share. The power of a single woman on a mission to clean up and lift up her village is portrayed, celebrating the possibility for small individual acts to accumulate and accelerate change in communities. 

This only scratches the surface of outstanding titles honored for their outstanding contributions to young readers' literary world in categories as diverse as CONTEMPORARY CONCERNS, FOLKTALES, GEOGRAPHY/PEOPLE/PLACES,  HISTORY/LIFE/CULTURE, REFERENCE, RELIGION, RELATIONSHIPS, and WROLD CULTURE & HISTORY. I'm excited to find books by actual and virtual friends among them, to find so many titles I've read and reviewed this year, and to get an extra nudge to read titles that slipped under the radar of my "to-be-read" list. 

It's always thrilling for an author to receive an award or other public recognition. It acknowledges the many hours of research, revision, and reflection represented by a published book. It's equally thrilling for me, or for anyone who shares books with young people, because it means high quality books of enduring value will remain ON the radar for years to come. These annual lists remain available and are often used as starting points when making measured and meaningful selections for young readers, and often means titles will stay in print longer. 

All are reasons beyond the original ones to cheer for the best in picture books (and books for older readers, too).  

May 24, 2016

THE SEVEN PRINCESSES: Sibling Struggles and Solutions

An adage in the world of publishing for kids says that there's always room for one more dog book, cow book, princess book, bear book or other familiar iconic characters if... and only if... something about the story makes it stand out from the pack.

A search of book titles including the word "princess" resulted in more than a hundred PAGES of links. What possible hook could an author imagine to make a story stand out in such a crowded field? 
How about one with SEVEN princesses? 

That's certainly a start, but it would need something else pretty special to hold an audience. Author/illustrator Smiljana Coh wasn't intimidated by that challenge. This new release isn't her first princess book. PRINCESSES ON THE RUN had a warm reception from Publishers' Weekly. It's no surprise that she had the confidence to have-a-go at another!

Running Press Kids. May, 2016
The spring release of THE SEVEN PRINCESSES, written and illustrated by Smiljana Coh, brings us a  princess book that is memorable on several counts and for several audiences.
The energetic and independent princesses will appeal to girls and boys, too. From the harlequin-patterned endpapers to the classic village and castle to the updated clothing and conventions, stereotypes are flipped for a contemporary treatment. These seven independent and self-sufficient sisters are recognizable and familiar despite their obviously privileged life. 
The palette shifts from comforting pastels to somber sepia-grays as the "kind-hearted, quick-witted, highly skilled" sisters slip into sibling spats. Anyone who has ever used tape to divide a shared bedroom or labeled special items "hands off" will identify with their squabbles and revel in their eventual solutions.
The visually diverse family is equally diverse in interests, including plenty of science, nature, arts, and athletics. The illustrations enhance the reality of a loving and complex family navigating the ups and downs of daily life. 
The story these sisters tell would be similar if they lived in one of the village homes at the base of the castle. But being "princess" sisters  provides initial appeal, allows elaborate execution of their decisions, and elevates their struggles and problem-solving with colorful detail and humor. 
This is a princess book that will be pulled from the shelves again and again: by educators, parents, and families seeking books dealing with conflict resolution, diversity, and family dynamics. More importantly, young readers will return to it once they recognize themselves in any one of the princess sisters, their varied interests, and the ambivalence of sibling relationships. 
If you want to read what others have had to say about THE SEVEN PRINCESSES, check other posts on the blog tour:
5/21 Mom Read It  

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.