Jul 13, 2018

Defeating the Divides: DRAW THE LINE, by Kathryn Otashi

Roaring Book Press, 2018
I'd like to say that author/illustrator Kathryn Otashi's latest picture book, DRAW THE LINE,  is especially suited to current events and social climates. Sadly, my sense is that the polarization within society has become a sustained condition, amplified and glorified by trolls, tropes, and terrible news, gushing at us from a firehose of social media and cable networks. 
That suggests that this book, with timeless truth and universally recognizable emotions, should become an 
immediate and endless must-have. 
Creator Otashi has utilized her talent to convey the simplest of concepts through expressive inanimate objects while revealing simple-but-not-simplistic human relationships and reactions. Her subtle approach to deep but resonant human values make her books as appealing to toddlers as they are to teens. (See covers and link below.)

This also means that descriptions of her stories, particularly this one, sound obvious or uninteresting when described, at least by me. Because of my own inability to do the book justice with words, I'll rely on photos of a few interior spreads to demonstrate specific points. First, a summary:
Two boys, each unaware of the other, are drawing lines when they bump butts. Their spontaneous reactions include surprise, engagement, and the joining of their lines. In only a page turn or two one boy accidentally hurts the other, laughs, and their battle begins, severing their joined line. Their sustained angry, even vengeful expressions create a crack-that-becomes-a-crevasse between them. Only when one of the two seeks out a space in which the divide is narrowest does a potential solution emerge. 

Otashi's concept books offer a master class in the use of white space, selective use of color and blending, and the emotional impact generated by color tones, color depth, shadow, and minimal lines.

The endpapers are solid color, a mid-tone purple. I wondered about that choice, since the battle and resolution throughout are conveyed as much by the purple/yellow shifts and blends as they are by the actions and expressions of the boys. Those endpapers are a pleasant, gentle shade of purple, not suggesting the blackened, threatening tones of the pages with the deepest conflict. Even so, I wondered, "Why not yellow?" Why not at least some aspect of yellow used in the the final endpaper. Then I did what I urge everyone to do, with every good picture book. 
Look again. 
Think again. 
That's when I recognized more clearly how Otashi achieved her final twist, indicating that the closing of the story is actually a beginning. But only a beginning. I'm not sharing that spread here because you really MUST get this book and examine it closely. (The third spread above suggests what develops.) Without a word of text, without any rose-colored glasses, her final spread offers hope while retaining an awareness of the polarity and conflict that surround the boys (us), a reminder that cooperation and collaboration are choices, not magical solutions. 
I wish I could provide this book to every classroom across the country. But why stop there? It's wordless, and other than the generic "western" characters, it provides fully universal appeal AND food for thought and discussion for any culture or geographic location. 
Why would I stop there with my recommendation?
It would also be a wonderful gift book for adults, particularly those who find themselves firmly locked into one set of opinions.
In fact, Otashi's other books (here) would make a terrific gift pack for those same adults.








Jul 7, 2018

Ready to Roll on the First Day of School: Jody Jensen Shaffer

There are plenty of "First Day of School" picture books, ranging from recent ones (SCHOOL'S FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL, written by Adam Rex and illustrated by Christian Robinson) to classics (THE BERENSTAIN BEARS GO TO SCHOOL, by Stan and Jan Berenstain).   
Considering how quickly the "first day"comes and goes, what could possibly be done with the topic that hasn't been done before? 
There are plenty of answers to that question, but the best answer, for this post, is that the very creative and talented JODY JENSEN SHAFFER had not yet written one. 
Until now!
Beach Lane Books. July, 2018



IT'S YOUR FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL, BUSY BUS!  is written by Jody and illustrated by Claire Messer. And it's  delightful. It was worth waiting for, and I urge you to buy early, and share widely. The book design itself is absolutely a winner: oversized and perfectly square, showcasing the expressive eyes of BUSY BUS. His eyes and smile are aimed at the back cover where eager first-day-kids await his arrival.


From those front and back covers, the title page, and the opening double-page spread (below), it's obvious that the design is an ideal fit for the personality of this appealing bus. The story of how safety-conscious Ben the bus driver prepares "newby", Busy Bus also fits perfectly in that enormous "bus barn"
With only a few brush strokes or strategically placed lines, each bus is as distinct and unique as the newcomer, that chunky little character on the far right. His enthusiastic  "HONK!" reflects his eagerness to get underway, meet the kids, and find out if they like him. 

On every spread the illustrator's use of lino-prints, black ink, and primary colors suits the subject and the illustrations are as kid-friendly as can be. Messer's use of bus elements (headlights, grill, and those adorable wiper-eyebrows) and subtle motion-lines combine with Shaffer's onomatopoetic sounds and simple terminology for various bus parts to make an engaging story that invites repeated reading.


Once the eager little bus has been thoroughly checked and prepped for that important first day, his nerves kick in and reflect the ambivalent emotions of many first-timers: 
Will I get homesick? 
Will I make friends?

When Ben installs the yellow-dude's name, Busy Bus's confidence is restored and he's ready to roll.

For some kids the power of that "name plate" may be found in a particular pair of shoes, a favorite cap, or even a reassuring name tag, any of which can reinstate enthusiastic energy and reassure other first-timers that it will, indeed, be a great year!

I featured the imaginative and insightful work of Jody Jensen Shaffer in a previous post about her picture book, PRUDENCE, the PART TIME COW, here. I'm delighted that she was willing to answer a few questions about the "story behind the story" for this latest release. Thank you, Jody, for sharing your process and responses with us.


SB:  I’m always curious about the origins of ideas for picture books, especially ones like this. Certainly, “First day of school” books are nearly a genre of their own, and finding an original take on that is quite an accomplishment. In this case, though, your “Busy Bus” is also facing the “first ever” day of school- a distinctly different experience from resuming school year after year. That shows clearly on the “faces” of the other, more experienced, buses. What can you tell us about the origins of this book idea and some ways it may have transformed throughout your writing journey.

JODY: I began playing with first-day-of-school picture book ideas in October of 2010, a genre that is, as you mention, already packed with great books, when I landed fairly firmly on the idea of a school bus's first day. Vehicles + first-day-of-school jitters = what's not to love? But I knew I had to make my book different than what was already on the market. So I thought back to when I was in elementary school and rode the bus. There were times I wasn't sure I would be safe riding the bus, especially on icy roads or steep hills! So I wrote a book to help kids like me who were pretty sure they'd be safe but who could use some reassurance. I decided the element that would set apart my vehicle + first-day-of-school jitters book was safety, and specifically, the safety checklist that bus drivers use before they pick up children. 

The manuscript went through tons of revisions, thanks to my awesome critique buddies and agent. There was initially a boy in the text. We took him out. There was also a lost puppy. We left him in. Until we took him out. There was an element of telling time. We took it out and never looked back. In the end, Allyn Johnston of Beach Lane, loved the distilled version and made an offer in 2016. I was overjoyed!

 SB: And I'm happy it came about, because the is definitely a wonderful addition to the field of first day titles. You had me going for a moment, though. I asked myself- "WHAT DOG?!?" until I read on and found the dog didn't make the cut.
Do you have other personal experiences with school buses as a form of transportation? Did any of those enter into your creative process for this story?

JODY: My bus driver in elementary school, Taffy, was one of my favorite people in the whole world. He was also my next door neighbor. We not only shared a morning commute; we shared a row of white peonies. He kept us all safe, all those years, despite my worries.
SB: What a delightfully personal story, and what a kid-friendly name for a bus driver, TAFFY! I can picture Ben the bus driver being someone's friendly and helpful neighbor, too.
The book design by Lauren Rill and illustrations by Claire Messer feel absolutely PERFECT for the BUSY BUS personality. Were you consulted during the process? Please share your reactions to the final version.

JODY: I was so thrilled to learn that Claire had signed onto the project! I love her style. I was delighted to see thumbnail sketches early on and subsequent versions of BUSY BUS as time progressed. It's absolutely perfect! Thank goodness no one asked me to "help" with the design or illustrations!
SB:  Anything else you care to share about this book? Or an upcoming book?

JODY: I really hope BUSY BUS strikes  a chord with parents, caregivers, and especially kids. The first day of school can be traumatic. I hope they find Busy Bus's experiences comforting and fun.

SB: I'm sure they will, and parents will, too, I suspect. The safety check aspects of the book are such an important story element, mirroring (pardon the bus-mirror pun) the many ways that families work to prepare kids for the oh-so-important first day, including the safety reminders that inevitably convey just a bit of parental anxiety, too. 
Thank you, Jody, for your thoughts here and for creating a VERY comforting and fun new picture book. 

Greenwillow Books,1993
I grew up within walking distance (and sight) of my elementary school, and when the time came to move on to high school I took a city bus. I had few personal experiences with school buses as a child, other than some very rare field trips. As a teacher, though, I was well aware that the yellow school buses loomed large in the lives of kids. I urge those who have a wee one starting a very first day in fall, especially if they'll be riding a school bus, to get your hands and eyes on this book, sooner rather than later. Share it. then rinse and repeat between now and September. And while you're at it, track down an old copy of SCHOOL BUS, by Donald Crews. They will pair perfectly, offering  opportunities to compare and contrast a crisply graphic nonfiction bus with this story-based bus. I'm confident that BUSY BUS will become just as beloved and enduring as this classic bus from the past.















Jun 27, 2018

Celebrating the Unloved: House Sparrows and Starlings

I'm a huge fan of  UBIQUITOUS, the word and the picture book. I expounded on that in a post HERE, back in 2012. The premise of that remarkable collection of themed poems was similar to the theme of this post: just because some things are abundant, common, ubiquitous, be they flora or fauna, animal or mineral, it does not mean they lack merit. In fact, they deserve second looks, closer looks.
At this time of summer solstice it could be said that BIRDS are ubiquitous, regardless of the climate or hemisphere in which you might live or travel. And yet, the cheerful chick-a-dee-dee-dee of a black-capped chickadee brings a smile while the piercing CAW!! of a crow can knit the brow. Bird feeders are lovingly filled and tended, although we know full well that among the hundreds (or thousands) of visitors to those feeders, it will be the cardinals and woodpeckers, the hummingbirds and nuthatches that will be hold our gaze, will make us reach for a camera, will merit mention on social media, while the sparrows and starlings are considered a necessary nuisance.
Groundwood Books, 2018


A careful, thoughtful, well-researched second look at house sparrows is provided in a fascinating picture book by Jan Thornhill: THE TRIUMPHANT TALE of the HOUSE SPARROW.  
Here's what I have to say about it on GOODREADS:
It's about time someone explored and celebrated the durable, adaptable, resilient global house sparrow. Thornill has once again created a non-fiction picture book, one that is able to encompass thousands of years of history and science affecting the ubiquitous and often maligned house sparrow.
There are certainly birds that capture our eyes, ears, and hearts more readily, birds that are less of an annoyance. Yet the individual and flocking sparrows should be appreciated and viewed with admiration for their measurable benefits to humankind, for their capacity to defy scientific explanation, and for their seemingly endless ability to live each day "in the mo
ment". Both the informative narrative and the lush illustrations compel page turn after page turn. Back matter is succinct and worthwhile, accessible and useful to launch further investigation. 


Although this blog is focused on picture books and other formats that feature visual narratives, I can't resist endorsing another book, one intended for an adult audience with only occasional photo inserts. 
MOZART'S STARLINGwritten by ornithologist/author Lyanda Lynn Haupt, provides a remarkably personal perspective on another "invasive" species, the European starling. Her academic research is deep but not dense, ranging from amusing and insightful first person investigations through the arts through scientific journals and on to primary sources and field trips. 
Her credentials are unquestionable even though her hands-on effort to obtain and raise a starling for study will raise some eyebrows, but not because her efforts were illegal. On the contrary, starlings lack legal protection, along with house sparrows, due to the fact that they were early-days imports. These species are also similar in that they are both adaptable and resilient, as well as being prolific breeders who have mulitplied to the point of being considered pests.

Both authors have achieved a remarkably compelling conclusion- that anyone who dismisses these birds or views them simply as "rats with feathers" will miss out on meeting truly remarkable creatures. I'll be the first to admit I'm a huge fan of birds of all types, as prior posts on this subject will reveal HERE, and HERE. I'm convinced, though, that even someone who views birds with a "meh" response will be intrigued and entertained by both of these books. 
And keep your eyes and hearts open to the mundane, ubiquitous lives around you. 


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.