Jul 18, 2019

A Treasury of Letters About Reading

Excuses, excuses, excuses!
It's been ten days since I shared some of the many wonderful picture books I've been reading. How could I not have shared them here before now?
There are plenty of REASONS, not excuses. But seriously? If you must know...

It's summer!
I've been reading!
Dealing with urgent business matters!
I've been reading!
It's summer!

So what have I been reading? 
Naturally, picture books.
Also adult novels, adult nonfiction, young adult, and middle grade books.
Loads of lovely books, stacks of terrific titles, pages and pages of perfection.

My odometer has ticked over mile after mile making runs to the library. (The only time in my life that I've lived near a library is on a university campus, but I always get there!)

Enchanted Lion Books 2018
On my latest trip, I brought home a book that has the size and weight and title of a rather serious adult tome: A VELOCITY OF BEING: Letters to a Young Reader. It is a collection that was  imagined and organized by Maria Popova and Claudia Zoe Bedrick. The individual creators for this anthology are each accomplished in their fields (many of them are authors, but not all) and each individual letter is interpreted/illustrated by an artist (most of them illustrators you'll recognize by their style if not by name). 

Before delving into the amazing contents, let me mention how impressive this hefty book is. With a substantial hard case and dramatic trim size, this could easily be mistaken for a university text book or a volume of an encyclopedia. The pages are also substantial and smooth to the touch, a heavyweight cream paper stock. Pages like these turn and open easily to allow steady and thoughtful consideration of the contents of each entry. With 260+ pages this "picture book" will impress any child, any age. It has the gravitas to be a tabletop book or even hold a place of honor on an unabridged  dictionary pedestal.

The adage is (nearly) true, we should not judge a book by its cover or physicality, but a book design of this magnitude merits our appreciation. 
What, exactly, is inside such an impressive book?  
Exactly what that subtitle says: page after page of letters to young readers, paired with art that was inspired by the writers' messages. 
Each letter is direct and engaging, sometimes with humor and sometimes with nostalgia and often with reflections that inspire. 
They are not designed to impress by fancy fonts or clever curlicues. In fact, these are best read TO and WITH younger children, even older children, sparking conversations between the readers. 
Some letters fill an entire page and others are brief. 
Here's the letter from Judy Blume: (Pages 76-77, illustrated by Decur)

"Dear Ones, 
      Reading changed my life. Writing saved it.
      I can't promise you writing will save your life, though learning to express yourself can go a long way. But I can promise reading will change your life for the better. You'll be smarter, savvier, you'll have a way to connect with people , and you'll never be bored. What could be better?           Love, Judy"

There's a letter from Emily Spivack, a writer for New York Times and other publications,  asking WHERE you can read. Her suggestions range from the beach, to the bathtub, to the dentist's office, to homemade forts, in a library or on the toilet, just to name a few. You'll LOVE the illustrations for this letter!

Steven Heller, a designer, writer, and educator said this:
"Dear Kids,
Books are weapons in the battle against ignorance." 
He continues with a short discussion of censorship, of the need to protect books from being taken prisoner by ignorant and controlling people. He ends with this charge to kids:
"So kids, don't let them (books) down. Read them. Savor them. Protect them."

And the letters continue, more than a hundred of them. messages from Jon Scieszka,  Ann Martin, Jacqueline Woodson, and on and on, each as interesting and powerful as the next.

Finally, I'll include just the opening of a short, powerful message from Anne Lamott: 
"Hi You,
     I really want you to hear what I am going to say, because I think it is the truth, okay? I'll make it fast.
If you love to read, or learn to love reading, you will have an amazing life. Period." ...
The rest of her short message is a straight-talk challenge to kids readers to discover and engage in the world of reading, ending with a deal with each reader. 
The facing illustration is a black and white silhouette-style interpretation of that amazing life that Lamott promises.

Thea added incentive to purchase this book for your collection is that the proceeds are entirely directed to the local New york City public library. 

Let's  consider this post you're reading as my own challenge to get your hands on this book. To read it, share it, consider it, and use the messages within its covers. And I'll be back here soon with posts about some of the powerful picture books I've been reading this summer. 

Jul 7, 2019

Too Much Rain? Noah Buillds an Ark

Candlewick Press 2019

Our recent astonishing spring rains, nearly Biblical in duration and volume, merit serious treatment. Flooding is generally disastrous. 
Even so, a picture book can bring a degree of comfort, or at least diversion. With hurricane season building fast, here's a story to warm your heart and offer a sunny respite from the worst of storms.
NOAH BUILDS AN ARK is written by Kate Banks and illustrated by John Rocco. In this layered story the young boy Noah is a devoted naturalist who appreciates the various wildlife in his urban backyard. Banks writes a direct but appealing narrative, interspersed with lyrical word choice, strong verbs, and delightful figurative language:

"It started with a cloud peeping over the hill like a curious ghost."
"The sun snapped off its light. A curtain of darkness drew across the sky."
"The rain splashed down like silver swords thrown from heaven."

The text provides parallels between Noah and his parents: using tools, stocking up food, preparing for the worst. Once the storm sets in, Noah's indoor story reveals both the worry and the comfort of a family surviving a multi-day storm, depicted in charming spot illustrations.  That clears the stage for expansive illustrations to reveal the parallels of outdoor survivors to indoor residents. The story is realistic and practical in many regards, although some kids will raise questions about the likelihood of these particular animals sharing close quarters for several days: Won't the toads each the insects? 
These observations and questions open doors to discussions of intentionally stretching realism, extending and comparing readings and research in other genre, and determining themes for picture books. 
Rocco's illustrations are luminous and nuanced, precise enough to verge on photographic, at times. The yard-dwelling creatures are not anthropomorphized, although alert and attentive. Young Noah and his family convey expressive features to suit the changing conditions throughout the story. Explorations of empathy and trust will spontaneously arise from these rich images and the engaging story.

The central character, Noah, wasn't the only thing that reminded me of a classic picture book.
THE SALMANDER ROOM is written by Anne Mazer and illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. This book resembles NOAH BUILDS AN ARK in its illustration mastery of nature's plants and animals, of luminous focus and contrasting shadows, of shifting perspectives, angles, and distances, and of enhancing the text with layers of visual meaning. Originally published in 1994, it has been reissued in paperback, featured on Reading Rainbow, and read/discussed on You Tube, often.

There are so many ways to compare these two titles. Elements of the concrete story similarities and differences are only the first step. Explore the sensitive and attentive natures of the boys, their individual good intentions, and the surprising appeal of what are often considered yucky critters. The illustration techniques, effects, and page designs invite comparisons, too. 
The books also abound in contrasts. Note closely the use of dialogue for parent-child interactions, including use/lack of dialogue tags. Overall these books, taken together, offer prime material for a variety of graphic organizing tools: from simple Venn diagrams to T-charts, to pro-con lists delineating personal preferences and offering supporting evidence for opinions.

Despite those opportunities for developing analytic skills, please do the creators of both books the justice they deserve. Each is a work of art and craft, worthy of a fluent, mindful reading without disruption by commentary. Only then, following some moments for reflection, should the stories and books themselves be discussed as literary works. 
Finally, perhaps even days or weeks later, those analytic approaches are well-suited. But I urge you to keep the books readily available for readers to simply choose and repeat, examining and delighting in the remarkable power of well-crafted picture books.

Whether you are still recovering from Spring floods or anticipating hurricanes during summer months, or just looking for a great pair of picture books, I urge you to give these a try. 

Jul 1, 2019

1, 2, 3, JUMP! Author Interview with Lisl H. Detlefsen

Here in the Midwest, we've struggled to string together two days in a row that have the vaguest resemblance to summer. The gray skies, cool temps, and general malaise surrounding this persistent weather pattern felt more like autumn than summer solstice.
But now that July has arrived, summer heat is moving in and kids are plunging into pools, ponds, and lakes. Every child deserves to feel confident and safe around water, making it  a perfect time to celebrate a favorite new picture book from 2019.
Roaring Book Press, 2019

1, 2, 3, JUMP! is written by Lisl H. Detlefsen and is illustrated by Madeline Valentine. Together they've produced a delightful book that blends heartfelt emotions with giggle-inducing charm. 
I'm a fan of second person voice (directly addressing the reader) and Detlefsen displays finesse and mastery with that point of view. 
In this spring release, she approaches a common and legitimate fear with gentle humor while remaining supportive and fun. The illustrations play a critical role in building and resolving this story with the same empathetic and lighthearted touch. In fact, this is the kind of picture book text that feels like it could only work if the author is also the illustrator. Otherwise it  would involve pages and pages of art notes. 
To test that theory, I tried typing only the text and realized that it does NOT require excessive notes, since the voice is so perfectly tuned to the would-be swimmer (reader) in such a way as to invite the illustrator to join in the fun, which Valentine did with zeal!

There's alchemy in the way text, illustration, and book design interact to achieve the miracle of communication that we call picture books. I'm lucky enough to know this author, so I was able to ask her a few questions about that creative magic behind her terrific book. 
When I searched for other interviews to avoid wasting Lisl's time, I found a delightful discussion (here) between Lisl and talented author Jill Esbaum on a blog you should follow, Picture Book Builders. 
Together, Lisl and Jill answered my initial questions and more, including the "story-behind-the-story", exploring Lisl's writing process and progress, and describing what's coming next. It's a fun and informative interview, so I urge you to click and read their exchange. Jill does a great job of introducing Lisl and sharing her personal backstory, too.
Even so, as I reread the book and began making notes I found I still had questions. Lisl was kind enough to answer them so you can learn more about her and this winning book along with me.
Sandy: Lisl, congratulations on this latest picture book. I adore it, and  thank you so much for taking time to share your thoughts about it with my readers. Let's get started.
The “how-to” format and second person voice in this is perfection!  You've successfully written in this voice before, but this story has a sort of omniscient “announcer-y” kind of tone. Were you envisioning someone in particular as the speaker? It doesn’t seem to be coming from the patiently encouraging instructor. I had lots of fun imagining what it would actually sound like and just who it might be. Do you use a particular voice when reading aloud to groups? Do kids ever ask about who is speaking when you are at school visits?

Lisl: Thank you for your kind words about the voice! I love writing in second person POV, and have in several of my picture books now. For this particular story, I approached it as if I were writing a rather tongue-in-cheek “how to” book for kids learning to swim. I especially like reading second person books at school and library visits because it feels so immediate and interactive with the audience. I use a very matter-of-fact, authoritative voice when I read it, then occasionally break from that to ask kids in the audience questions, such as “Are those the right goggles for swimming? No? What are those type of goggles actually for?” It’s been a fun one to share!

Sandy: The humor and word play are an open invitation to the illustrator to have fun, and Madeline Valentine did a brilliant job in elevating a worrisome situation to a giggle-icious delight. Did you include any art notes at all, or rely on your editor Kate to make suggestions to the illustrator, or just take the brave plunge and let it go without suggestions?

Lisl: I’m so glad you agree Madeline’s art is brilliant and adds extra humor to the story! The manuscript was submitted with art notes, particularly in the beginning to make it clear the main character is NOT wearing what the text would indicate and later on to make it clear she is consistently refusing to get into the pool. I often use a lot of art notes while writing for my own benefit. Sometimes that helps me assess if the text is leaving enough room for the art to tell half of the story and double-check for things like the dreaded “talking head syndrome.” 
Then as I revise with an eye toward submission, I pare them down as much as possible, leaving only the ones that help make the plot or action clear for an editor reading without the benefit of the art. I often phrase the ones left in as ideas or suggestions as I know illustrators often have better or more unexpected ideas of their own. Writers are often cautioned not to use art notes—usually for good reason—but my texts tend to be so art-dependent that submitting them without art notes was occasionally causing confusion or not conveying the intended humor. It was my agent who first gave me “permission” to use them when they’re necessary to making the story clear, such as when the art subverts the text for added humor.

Sandy: Speaking of humor, did you try out any of the word-play lines on your own kids? How do they like the finished book?

Lisl: I don’t remember specifically trying out lines on them, but I have to believe I did—they are often my best and most hard to please critics, so I always feel more confident if they laugh at my attempts to be funny! It’s always a lot of fun to share the finished product with them and ooh and aah over the art together. 
An eager and fearless swimmer
who is well-known to Lisl.

Brave plunger #2 among Lisl's
swimming buddies.
Sandy: You’ve mentioned in the past how often your boys provided inspiration in your work. Did either of them ever hesitate before taking a swimming leap (or some other bold step)? Did you?

Lisl: I vividly remember my youngest resisting his first jump into the pool with a swim teacher and—I still cringe every time I remember this!—how she told him she would catch him… and then didn’t! I think in her mind, she showed him how he didn’t need to be caught—which was true, as the water wasn’t deep and he came back up without any trouble—but it broke his trust with her and set him wayyyy back in the learning-to-swim process. I thought of that experience while writing the story and knew the narrator and teacher had to earn—and keep— the main character’s trust throughout to have her (and the readers) feel safe and successful in that final spread.

Sandy: The teacher in me is furious with your son's swim teacher, and delighted with the way you developed the teacher's encouraging and empowering role in this book. Safety and trust are at the center of all learning, in my experience. Not avoiding failure, but providing assurance that someone has your back. That comes through so clearly in this story.

I wonder, did you rely on any of your own experiences with swimming lessons or consult a manual or other teaching tips to enhance your story with such excellent details and sport-specific vocabulary? I can imagine kids having great fun with word play in other direction/how-to steps once they share this book.

Lisl: I relied on my own experience learning to swim way-back-when and my experience as a mom helping to teach my kids, but I also talked to a few swim lesson experts. One of my good friends taught swimming lessons for many years and helped me by giving suggestions for how to have the main character participate in the lesson even while she refuses to get into the water. I also shared it with my niece and nephew’s swim coach at that time, who gave me helpful feedback as well. Even though the book is certainly not a swimming lesson manual, my editor and I wanted the book to be accurate and realistic. It felt especially important for me to have the main character’s victory feel plausible, rather than showing her go from a reluctant swimmer to a gold medal Olympian in the course of one lesson!

Sandy: That comes across very effectively. You’ve been out and about, sharing this with kids this spring. Is there an activity you recommend to enhance the fun?

Lisl: The amazing staff at my local library planned a wonderful launch party for the book, and in addition to the typical reading and book signing, they had a craft station where kids got to make flippers ad goggles out of sheets of fun foam and elastic straps. It went swimmingly! (Sorry, I couldn't resist!)

Sandy: What a clever approach, and I'm betting those lucky kiddos couldn't wait for a chance to get to a pool themselves. 
Thank you, Lisl, for another wonderful book and for sharing your development process with us here. After reading through your replies a couple of times I realized you just condensed your process into a master class on writing picture books!
Notice how Dad stays on the beach?

It feels only fair that I should make a confession right about now. Those who know me, from childhood right up to my current wrinkled status (wrinkles that can't be blamed on too much time in the water), would undoubtedly describe me as independent, confident, perhaps even pushy. Despite that impression, I've been aware of my inner coward ever since my earliest memories. In real life I may have charged ahead and plunged right into that pool, but smack in the pit of my gut I often experienced the same anxious feelings of the little girl in this story.  My siblings and I became water babies thanks to Mom, who loved the water, and Dad, who skillfully disguised his own dislike of water deeper than a bathtub. 
I love the way Lisl's progression of humor and introduction of small steps allowed her  character and her readers to enter into the water play with agency and success. 

I hope you're convinced to make this a summer must-read, must-share book, and while you're at it check out Lisl's other amazing picture books.

And now that books about courage and water adventures are on your radar, be sure to also check out LOTTIE AND WALTER, written and illustrated by Anna Walker

While you're at it, check out my notes about JABARI JUMPS, written and illustrated by Gaia Cornwall.  I've written about it several times now, and one post is HERE.

Meanwhile, just because summer heat and swim time have finally arrived, it's no excuse to put reading on hold. There's still bedtime, stay-out-of-the-water-after-meals-time, and frequent library trips to bask in air-conditioned bliss.  Enjoy!

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.