Mar 17, 2018

A Brief History of Time- and Stephen Hawking

Anyone reading this must be aware that the incredible life-force named Stephen Hawking ended recently. My reason for calling him a "life force" could be undeniably based on nothing more than the fact that he survived to the age of seventy-six, living fifty-five years with a diagnosis of ALS (at age twenty-one) that predicted his death within two years. Beyond that physical survival, though, what astonishes me (and everyone) is the boundless capacity of his mind to transcend the limitations of his body. Check out the profile picture on his website, here, capturing him mid-flight in a grin-inducing gravity-free adventure. 
His scientific insights, theories, and writings have transformed the field of astrophysics and will continue to do so for generations to come. It's no exaggeration to say that Stephen Hawking deserves accolades for a level of genius comparable to that of Einstein. If reading his long-time best-selling A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME feels too daunting, try reading any of the GEORGE titles in the series co-written by Lucy and Stephen Hawking for younger readers. The titles feel, to me, like a literary equivalent of the "Big Bang" in the sense that they will be launching a universe of future physicists. Stephen and his daughter Lucy, a theoretical physicist and educator, have made enigmatic and mind-boggling theories not only fathomable but exciting and inspiring.

Charlesbridge, 2010
Which leads me to a picture book that manages to transform Hawking's BIG BANG truths into a delightful cumulative rhyming text. Well-written sidebars clarify and uncomplicate (but not simplify) the forces of the universe for the youngest readers. OLDER THAN THE STARS is written by Karen C. Fox and illustrated by Nancy Davis. Before using the familiar 
"This is the..." refrain, Fox begins with five simple but profound declarative sentences, building to the startling conclusion:
"You are as old as the universe itself."

How in the world (no, in the universe!) is that possible? At the risk of overusing the word, I'd call Fox's text genius. Using words that are the ultimate in kid-friendly, she takes readers through the birth of the universe from bangs to bits, to blocks, giant puffs and red-hot stuff. At that point readers are thoroughly hooked, so that the formation of atoms strong and tough, blasts intense enough, dust old and new lead quite naturally to the sun, our daily view! 
But we haven 't yet reached the ultimate YOU, made of the stuff of that original BANG! Before that happens we'll read about our planet green and blue, plants, and animals. NOW you can see what a simple step it is to "people just like you."

The lyrics and the logic of this remarkable book, including those accessible side bars, present Stephen Hawking's insights and sense of wonder about our (understatement alert...) remarkable universe in ways that feel self-evident and natural. The glossary and time line (not to scale) in the back matter are valuable additions.The charm and appeal of the rhymed, cumulative text will have the youngest begging for rereads. So much so that by the time readers are ready for the "fine print" in the side bars and back matter they will have a firmly rooted sense of the truth of the BIG BANG THEORY on which to hang these more refined scientific details. 

Add this one to your STEM title list, but don't assume it's a book exclusively for older readers. Get this colorful, comprehensive picture book into the hands and ears of kids everywhere.
Special thanks to friend, poet, and author JoAnn Early Macken for mentioning this title, which is nearly a decade old but is entirely new to me! I'm sharing the favor with readers here and hoping you'll find and enjoy it yourselves.

Feb 21, 2018

BLACK BOYS: THREE Fresh Looks to Celebrate

When I began working on today's post, I was excited to notice for the first time that the total page views since I began posting six years ago have topped 150,000! That's hardly a tsunami of readers but it is more than I could have imagined back at the start of this journey.
And that landmark was passed during the week I shared thoughts on BALDERDASH and the ALA Awards, which you can watch on video if you missed it live last week. I was excited, of course, but not nearly as thrilled as I've been to see the wide success of three recent releases celebrating black culture: two picture books and one film. 
Agate Bolden, 2017

One of the books that garnered MANY awards and honors during the ALA awards last week was also a finalist in my CYBILS category for poetry: CROWN: An Ode to the FRESH CUT, deftly written by Derrick Barnes and gloriously illustrated by Gordon C. James. A series of short poems unfold in a cumulative homage to the power of a skilled barber to shape a life:
"You came in as a lump of clay
a blank canvas, a slab of marble.
But when my man is done with you,
they'll want to post you up in a museum!
That's my word!"

The flow of each phrase, image, and page-turn draws readers on to a flourishing conclusion, providing for some a pure revelation of the culture of a barbershop focused on maximizing the unique qualities of African American hair. For others this will be a mirror of their own lives, revealing every angle and sheen with each turn of phrase and shift of perspective. The density of color and tone, the finesse of positioning and perspective, and the subtle depth and humor in this picture book make the individuals spring to life and claim their place in the world, far beyond the world of a barbershop. They are both specific and universal, entirely complex and appealing, and unforgettable.

Penny Candy Books, 2018
This second picture book may garner similar awards for the coming year. THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A BLACK BOY, is written by Tony Medina in tanka poetry form, with each spread illustrated by a noted, often award-winning, black illustrator. Each spread reveals a specific facet of young black boys'/men's experience. As with CROWN (above), these poems and images will reflect or reveal to readers aspects of black lives that resonate, surprise, inspire, and excite. Even more so, they will individualize and personalize lives that matter, erasing assumptions and stereotypes. Read just one sample, here, and see how perfectly these two picture books will serve to compare, contrast, and consider:
Brothers Gonna Work It Out

We righteous Black men
Patrol the should of this 'hood
Raise young bloods proper
To be the kings they are
Crowned glory of our future

Even though the poems and images are compelling, even captivating, but pull yourself away from those spreads long enough to read the introduction, the brief artist biographies in the back, and the thank you note from the author.

Finally, I can't personally recommend the recently released  movie, BLACK PANTHER, because I haven't seen it yet. Nevertheless, I plan to see it as soon as possible and  recommend it for the same reason as the two picture books featured here. Until I do, there is a graphic novel/comic book update of the original Marvel Comics by none other than Ta-Nehisi Coates: BLACK PANTHER: A Nation Under Our Feet. Of course this is not aimed at the typical picture book audience. Still, I've developed that surprising number of page views over the past years in part because of the premise of this blog: picture books (and comic books, and graphic novels) have a particular power that can reach readers of any age. I'm convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that these are just precursors to a wave of books and other media that will invite new and open-minded views of "Black lives", not only for non-black readers but for readers of every ethnicity.

Do yourselves a favor and read all three!

Feb 8, 2018


The clock is ticking away the few remaining days until the annual AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION Midwinter Conference.  (February 9-13, Denver, CO). I've been looking forward to sharing a 2017 picture book about JOHN NEWBERY but held back until this very moment. If you're at all involved with books for kids and teens you'll recognize the name of the man for whom the annual NEWBERY AWARD is named. You may also have heard of (or even led) a mock Newbery contest among your learners. Whatever level of  awareness you have of this prestigious award, I urge you to read this book and share it with others in your family, at a library, or in a school. 
Hold on to that earlier reference to mock contests, because I'll circle back to it after sharing more about the book below.
Chronicle Books, 2017

BALDERDASH: John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children's Books is written by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Nancy Carpenter. (Click on Carpenter's name to see sample finished art pages from the book and a short clip of the accumulating layers of color that turned her line drawings into full color spreads.)
Author Markel works in similar ways with the unfolding text in this nonfiction/biography of a man who changed the world, literally (pun intended.) Newbery's emerging impact on the literary world is revealed in stages and layers. On the opening spread this book speaks directly to young readers, happily announcing that their bookish young lives are NOTHING like the literate lives of young folks before John Newbery came on the scene. Adults will find the history impressive and may even learn a bit about a savvy and innovative business person. 
Take a look for yourself. Read the shrewdly selected words and enjoy the clever page-turning invitation to learn more about what life was like before Newbery made his mark on the world. Author Markel wisely launches this Newbery biography when John was a book-loving boy, despite his minimal book options. He turned his back on farm life to pursue a career in printing, book-making, and bookselling. His eager pursuit of book-lovers, book readers, and book buyers INCLUDED children, to the shock and dismay of adults in London. 

What was wrong with that Newbery fella from the country? Didn't he know that reading books by choice would turn perfectly polite youngsters into wild beasts? Hadn't he been schooled using the same miserable, preachy, painful texts that had raised generations of British children for centuries? 

But John did not agree with the many complaining adults. He wrote books with those essential school lessons, incorporating accepted learning content into entertaining and lively stories, ones filled with lively characters familiar to children.  
And he found that readers (kids and their families) adored his books, devoured his books, celebrated his books. He placed kids' books prominently in colorful window displays at his shop, pairing them with toys in his promotions, and putting smiles on young faces. In fact, John Newbery has long been considered the FATHER of Children's Literature! Why? Because he shared his love of books with young readers and knew that the old ways were nothing but:

Don't neglect the engaging backmatter when you get your hands on this book. Really, you'll adore this very timely title and want to share it with kids. 

Nothing attracts kids to books more than shiny silver or gold stickers on the cover. Which brings me back to those mock Newbery (and Caldecott) contests that engage and excite young readers. Kids wait anxiously for announcements of winners and honors on Monday morning. (Click the link to watch the announcements on live stream on 2/12, 8 AM MT, or catch it on video later and share with kids.) It's an amazing celebration of authors, illustrators, and literature. Among a generation of kids who respond to "What do you want to be when you grow up?" with "FAMOUS!", this is a rare opportunity to see book-world-creators being honored and celebrated like rock stars.
The downside to the mock contests, though, is that kids too easily invest in the process as a "win-lose" activity. If their choices win, they fist-pump and cheer. They are celebrating their favorite books, and what's wrong with that? 
Oh, but what about those who selected other titles? They not only feel rejected, like "losers",  but they even second-guess their choices, forsaking their valuable persuasive arguments in support of their personal favorites, conceding that they were wrong.
These are very NORMAL human reactions, but should not pass without comment. That's why I hope you will share this book, with some additional discussion. I have no doubt that Newbery would be honored to see the way his name has  inspired book creators to aspire to excellence. Even so, I'm firmly convinced that he would NEVER want to pit excellent books against each other, dismissing non-awarded titles or undermining an individual child's opinions about a beloved book. 
I rarely offer specific classroom activity suggestions, but in this case I can't resist. Why not make each reader a designated award-selector, like this, using imaginary student Mika Sanchez:

  1. Establish 3-5 criteria for the Sanchez Award of Excellence.
  2. Narrow finalists to five-ten titles.
  3. Read carefully and evaluate each, using the stated criteria. 
  4. Design a medal, front and back, for the Sanchez Award (see Newbery sample above)
  5. Plan an event at which each participant names his/her winner and honor(s) titles in a grand and glorious celebration, complete with bright new stickers on the covers!
Now THAT, I think, would make John Newbery smile!

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.