May 27, 2012


On May 8 of this year Maurice Sendak died. His contributions to children's literature were acclaimed during his lifetime and have been recounted and regaled in the days following his passing. Rightly so.

The title most often mentioned as generating a seismic shift in the publishing landscape is Where the Wild Things Are. Decades before that was published, though, Sendak was making an even more substantial mark on children's illustrations in his collaborations with his mentor, Ruth Krauss.

In 1952 they published A HOLE IS TO DIG: A First Book of First Definitions. Look carefully at the characters in this tiny classic and you'll see Max in the early days, peeking out at us in line drawings, minus his white wolf suit. You can hear the story behind the changing vision of what a book could and should be, what children in books would look like, would have to say, in this interview with Sendak on NPR. This title was not met with rave reviews upon its release, but has since been recognized as timeless and inspired, a true game-changer.

Sendak's family emmigrated to the USA before World War II, but all relatives who did not leave Poland were destroyed in the Holocaust. The reality of that, of the suffering his parents felt as the magnitude of their loss became known to them, shaped him painfully for much of his life.
But some few people, young and old, did survive the concentration camps. Let the Celebrations Begin by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Julie Vivas (1991) is a surprisingly tender and upbeat story based on a most unexpected celebration. In the waning days of WWII, women and children in a concentration camp heard rumors of the impending arrival of American forces. Scrounging scraps from their own tattered clothing the women secretly constructed makeshift toys for the few children who remained, to be presented when they were finally released. Some of these very toys have been preserved in holocaust museums and inspired this telling.

Yet another child's-eye-view of the Holocaust can be found in Star of Fear, Star of Hope, by Jo Hoestlandt, illustrated by Johanna Kang, translated from French by Mark Polizzotti (1993). The mandatory yellow star Lydia's mother stitched on their clothing was seen by her friend, the narrator, as "pretty". All too soon these childhood friends were separated, never to meet again. This story is particularly effective in portraying the sheltered, unsuspecting world of the girls prior to the events of one tragic night.

For those who share powerful picture book titles such as these with older readers, Somebody, Please Tell Me Who I Am, by Harry Mazer and Peter Lerangis is a YA title you shouldn't miss. It moves the conversation into current times, in which soldiers who would have died in past conflicts are being saved, but changed in ways we are only beginning to understand.

Memorial Day is a much-loved holiday in the USA, the unofficial start of summer. Originating in the era of the Civil War, traditions call for the honoring of fallen soldiers with prayer, flags, parades.

It is said that wars are started by old men who send young men (and women) to die. But it is the children who have the most to lose: safety, security, the love of those who are lost or changed forever by war.

When Shakespeare provided Mark Antony's eulogy for Emperor Caesar he said:
"The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones."

We would do well to remember that message this Memorial Day. The evils of war, and the pains inflicted by war, are impossible to forget. But good men and good women have stood strong to protect freedom and dignity, to put an end to evil, not only for their own country, but for the innocents of the world. And other good men and women have used their talents to speak the truth to children in picture books and beyond, to present reality in ways that they can understand- and learn from.

I choose to remember and honor all those whose efforts shape the world in which children grow to become tomorrow's society. Perhaps even one without wars.

That effort, that courage, should not be interred with their bones.

Here is a link to a Holocaust Educational Bibliography, one of many available.

May 20, 2012

Baseball Strikes Again!

Baseball is a long season, almost a prototype for the classic Survivor slogan: Outwit, Outplay, Outlast. As excited as I was on opening day, I'm sad to report that my home team BREWERS have faced a trifecta of season-ending injuries and several others that range from from "nagging" to serious. Our impressive first day line-up has been shaken and stirred, but not yet consumed by this stroke of lousy luck.

In fact, the team continues to adjust, adapt, and endure. Sometimes winning, even if not as often as they would with a healthy team. Why? Of course, because they represent a wealth of talented players who are well-paid to do so. One reason I love this team, though, is the character and heart they display, trumping the miserable hand of fate with energy and oomph just when it is needed most.

I didn't grow up loving baseball, but the Brewers wooed me and won my devotion. There's just something about baseball... and I don't seem to be alone in that opinion. Several nonfiction picture books explore the love story that is baseball.

Perhaps the best example of playing for the love of the game can be found in BROTHERS AT BAT:The True Story of An Amazing All Brother Baseball Team by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Steven Salerno. In the 1930's many families had lots of kids, and the Acerra family of New Jersey was no exception. All twelve brothers played baseball, but the four sisters didn't. In those days "sports were just for boys", although Salerno's period pictures clearly show that these sisters didn't agree with that presumption.
Each brother developed his own distinctive and impressive talent. In one game brother Alfred was blinded in one eye by a bunt gone wrong, but his brothers worked with him until he became "a pretty good one-eyed catcher". Four of the brothers went off to war, but each eventually returned to rejoin the team. It wasn't until 1997 that their unique family team was honored in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Don't miss the author's and illustrator's notes at the back for even more inspiring background information about this remarkable family of baseball fanatics.

Baseball is a truly American sport. As the author's note indicates, in 1845, the year Lipman was born, the first official set of rules were drawn up to change a child's game into a sport played by adults. LIPMAN PIKE: America's First Home Run King, by Richard Michelson and illustrated by Zachary Pullen, is the story of speedy young "Lip" and his love of the game called "Base". He eventually battled his father's resistance, anti-semitism, and government corruption to apply his unequaled speed and hitting power to the game he loved.
We've all become convinced that superior sports talent will translate to big paychecks, life-changing paychecks. It wasn't until 1871 that the first all-professional (paid) league was formed. Lipman's earliest payments were "unofficial" and just $20 a week. One inflation calculator shows that Lipman, the leading player of the day, was paid the equivalent of about $280 per week. Professional players like Pike worked full time jobs in "real" life to allow them to live out their baseball dreams, playing with the best.

Yet another look back in time can be found in PLAYERS IN PIGTAILS by Shana Corey, illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon. The lead character, Katie, is a fictional composite of the very real young women who seized the opportunity to play professional baseball when history took most of the professional players off to fight World War II. No less than President Roosevelt himself mandated that baseball remain viable for the sake of the nation's morale. Just as women moved into factories they also took on the world of sports.
Katie's story is timeless- a girl whose talent and interests focused on sports, but the world judged her on traditional expectations- cooking, dancing, knitting. Until fate offered up the opportunity to live out her own baseball dreams.
The author's note reveals a surprise about the familiar "Casey at the Bat" and adds even more intriguing details about the way the AAGPBL came to be at that time. (All American Girls' Professional Baseball League).

Now for a nod to a title set in present day that partners well with these picture books,
This story in verse speaks in the voice of Kevin, a fourteen year old boy, confined at home "resting" until given the "all clear" from mono, his tall, lean, baseball body losing its strength and instincts. The down time with his writer father involves a journal, a book on poetry forms, and plenty of time to reflect on baseball, girls, and his deceased mother, among other topics. Once he is back on the team he warms the bench, still writing, and sees people (including himself and girls) through new eyes.

Writing will do that to you.

Baseball's beauty is in offering a season long enough for overcoming adversity, gaining insights, and leading with your heart.

Not unlike the characters and story in a good book.

Cliche` or not, baseball (Life?) is a marathon, not a sprint. Reading and writing (and injuries) point out lessons along the way.

May 13, 2012

This One's For You, Mom!

When I launched this blog in January I intended to discuss picture books old and new, exploring outstanding titles aimed at many ages, topics, and interests. In recent weeks that included MORE, by I. C. Springman and Brian Lies followed by Z IS FOR MOOSE, by Kelly Binghamn and Paul O. Zelinsky.

As excited as I am to learn about and share these latest releases, this week I have something else on my mind. Nerdy Book Club posted accolades to outstanding moms in literature, while The Book Chook listed some life lessons embedded in the mom-isms we hear throughout childhood. This post is coming out a day early to honor my own Mom.

Pancreatic cancer took her from us more than a decade ago, but she's with me daily, especially on Mother's Day. The "Just for Mom" clothing sales filling newspapers and media ads never fail to bring her to mind. Mom was the first to admit she loved her clothes.

Mom grew up in Appalachia, wearing hand-me-downs, sleeping under quilts that were scrapped and patched from worn clothing, stuffed with raw cotton or other scraps too small to piece. Now we call that recycling. She was fed from the kitchen garden, warmed by a poorly vented coal stove, and walked to school barefoot, carrying her shoes to make them last longer. Now we call that reducing a carbon footprint.

It's easy to imagine why, as an adult, she so enjoyed the luxury of having multiple pairs of shoes to choose from, outfits to coordinate, accessories to vary. Her frugal attention to discounts, coupons, and close-outs did not diminish the image of style and class she always projected.

But that's not to say she was ashamed of her roots. To the contrary, she was raised with love and security, with music and story, with laughter and adventure. And with reading. Mom loved to read, shared that joy with us, and (we learned after her death) wrote often. Her taste in reading was far-reaching, as long as the content somehow touched her heart and life.

Which brings me to this week's featured titles. When she was well into her seventies I gave her two picture books I felt certain she'd enjoy. The first was ELIZABETI'S DOLL, by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen, illustrated by Christy Hale (1998). After reading young Elizabeti's story of finding a rock to use as her baby doll, Eva, Mom told me she had done the same as a child. The youngest (by far) of siblings busy with school or work, Mom created a family of rocks with names and personalities to share her days. Without this book to trigger her memory I'd have never heard this story.

I'm a huge fan of Byrd Baylor's books, recommending them often. When I read THE TABLE WHERE RICH PEOPLE SIT, with luminous pictures by Peter Parnall (1998) I knew Mom would love it. From the first line it is clear that the young narrator seeks the reader's support of her premise: "If you could see us/ sitting here/ at our old/ scratched-up/ homemade/ kitchen table/ you'd know that/ we aren't rich. But my father/ is trying to tell us/ we are."

Baylor captures the voice of a young girl perfectly, one who is smart enough to compare her own life with that of a richer community. She allows the girl to explore those differences in the light of her parents' values and finds she shares their sense of what it means to live a rich life.

As I was sure she would, Mom loved this book, too. I have many memories of Mom (and Dad) reading to and with us as children. Enjoying these books with Mom as an adult, learning more about her childhood, these are memories I cherish, too, especially on this Mother's Day.

You never outgrow your need for picture books.

May 6, 2012


Alert- this post is longer than usual. Rather than split it into two posts, just decide for yourself if you want to read it in two sittings. Betcha you'll want to read it straight through!

In last week's post I reviewed Z Is For Moose (Greenwillow Books 2012). Yes, Moose, with a considerable amount of help from you. This week I'm excited to have author Kelly Bingham and illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky join us with some thoughts about an alphabet book that deserves every positive adjective from awesome to zany.

Kelly and Paul, it’s wonderful to have you share your thoughts about the creation of Z IS FOR MOOSE. Its remarkable combination of humor, tension, and personalities will undoubtedly make it a classic. Kelly, your YA novel, Shark Girl, has won many awards and was on the Oprah booklist for kids. Paul, your titles are consistently award winners and included on all-time-best lists. I feel confident Z Is For Moose will be as long-lived and well-loved as your previous titles.

Paul: I hope so. 85% of the credit would go to Kelly Bingham. I’ll accept the other 15.

Kelly, dedications are often selected near the end of the process, but Moose insisted I begin by asking about yours:

“For Sam, who asked for a funny book, and for Benny, because I love you, too.”

So who are these people, and why isn’t Moose included? He insists there would be no story without him!

Kelly: Well, Moose has a point. Which I'm sure he knows. However, there would be no Moose if there were no Sam. Sam is my son, and when he was four, he began to learn the alphabet. I would go to the library and get a few ABC books out for him each week, and we'd read them over and over at night. One or two were funny, but most were pretty straightforward. Like--they'd be all names of flowers, or all names of animals or something. After we had exhausted every last book in the library, Sam asked me if I could please find more funny ones. "I want a funny book," he told me. Sam loved funny books. I looked and looked but to my surprise, there were hardly any funny ABC books to be found. (Keep in mind this was way back when, nine years ago.)

So what does a mom do? I thought, if there are no funny ABC books, then I will write him one. And I did. And I drew the pictures to go with it, and made a little book, and we looked at it together. And Sam liked it!

So, the book is dedicated to Sam, because without him asking for the book, it absolutely would have never been written. I was not a "picture book writer" at the time-- I was working on a novel. It never occurred to me to even try to write a picture book. But I tried for Sam.

As for Benny, well, he is my son, too. Therefore, as any parent knows, I could not leave him out. I mean, really. It would be like leaving Moose out. You just don't do it. And though he was a baby at the time Moose was written, he contributed in his own way by going to sleep early enough at night so that Sam and I could read our ABC books and get tired of them and decide to create our own. So--way to go, Benny! And Sam! I love both of you! EQUALLY.

Paul, Moose wants to thank you for catching his pre-show curtain peek before the title page. It’s clear he can hardly contain himself and he was happy to make an early appearance. In fact, the other alphabet players seemed quite composed. How did you make decisions about so many individual personalities?

Paul: Yes, Moose has to get a quick look at you, the audience, even from behind the endpapers (or sort-of endpapers—I had to put in an extra, simulated, endpaper to make this happen). As to all those characters, there are reasons for the way some appear, and not for others. Basically my attitude is “if you draw them they will come.” But I can be specific about a few. Queen, as some people have noticed, is an homage to Maurice Sendak’s Queen (Victoria) from Hector Protector. Ring has a ruby because it begins with R. The truck, I realized just recently, is based on a toy of my cousins’, which I painted very realistically in watercolor while staying in their house during the summer of 1975. The purplish Ball is a close relative of “Plastic” in Emily Jenkins’ Toys trilogy. It’s not Plastic herself, who is bright red, because Plastic belongs to a different publisher.

Kelly, were Moose and Zebra and their struggle for attention and control inspired by anyone you know?

Well, anyone with a child--particularly more than one child---knows all too well the "what about ME?" syndrome. Maybe even the "Is it MY turn yet?" syndrome. I would say the need for attention and the not-so-subtle undermining of Zebra was inspired by the interaction between my two sons, Sam and Benny. I WOULD say that. But I can't. I would never be forgiven for dragging them into this. They are currently very non-Moose-like and hate to be mentioned. So I guess I'll shrug innocently, and say: "No, I really don't know anyone at all who behaves like Moose. Except Moose, of course. He is one of a kind."
And to even hint that I can relate to Zebra? I would never do that.

Paul, many of the characters were seen in their “everyday” wear, or with personal items, but they assumed more traditional appearance and poses when their turns arrived. How did you decide on their “other lives” when they’re not “working” as alphabet actors?

It’s kind of funny, isn’t it, that they’re wearing clothes until they get onstage? But that’s how it has to be. You wear warm-up clothes in rehearsal. As to the things they’re holding in those lineup scenes, I have to admit to a failure. My plan was to give each character an attribute beginning with its letter. Some letters offered wonderful possibilities, like Ball holding a toy Bear. But others drove me crazy. Queen: Query? Quinine water? Holding a quince wouldn’t do it. I made lists, I searched through a dictionary (much easier with a real, paper dictionary!) and I finally gave up. In the end some of the cast have letter-appropriate items on or with them, some don’t have anything, and some just have whatever came to mind.

Kelly, how close is the final story to the one you started writing? For example, when you wrote your text originally did you include the dialogue bubbles and descriptions of the characters and action, or did that develop later in the process?

Yes, I did!

Actually, the story is pretty much word for word exactly what I wrote on my very first draft. The idea came to me almost fully formed and I could see it plainly in my head. I knew right away what the story would be about, and who the characters were--I knew what Sam would respond to, what he would enjoy reading and looking for. I knew he'd like the idea of a character who broke the boundaries and messed up the entire page and wrecked the text and drew on pictures and spoke freely. Also, I was working in the movie business at the time and had seen more than one scenario where someone got cut from a scene at the last minute because they'd been replaced by someone else. So the Moose and Mouse situation sprang to mind. The rest practically wrote itself!

I wrote the story in one sitting, in dummy form--drawing the pictures, the speech bubbles, etc. And made a small book of it. Later, I decided it might actually make a good "real" book. (When I say "I decided," I mean, my author friends insisted I submit it to a publisher, boosted my confidence in the piece, and basically pushed me into taking that step.) So I transcribed the text, dialogue, and necessary illustration notes into a manuscript, and with the help of my agent, sent it off.

I would like to add that I did not include any drawings when I submitted the story, and though some notes were necessary in order for the editor and artist to visualize what I had in mind, (for example, I had to describe the text being stomped on, and words being crossed out), I did not in any way contribute to the art or design of the book. All the credit for that goes to the extremely talented Paul O. Zelinsky.

It really was a remarkable experience to write this book- it came to me so complete all at once, it sold right away, and there were almost no revisions. I did have to wait a long time for it to be four year-old Sam is now 13. (And sadly, has no memory of this all happening way back when.) But it sure was worth the wait!

Paul, I’ve often heard you speak about using models for your pictures. Did Moose have a hard time posing or did you use stand-ins?

My studio is not tiny, but it’s really not big enough to invite a moose in for portrait studies. So I had to go in other directions. Like a certain amount of moose picture research online, a very nice CD of moose videos shot by friends on a nature trip somewhere in the Northeast, and lots of moose doodling. The moose is such a crazy-looking animal! I especially like male’s furry wattle (I learned it’s called a bell) and the large hump on the shoulder. The essence of moose, though, is its wide, weird, down-curving snout. Trying to extract these bizarre qualities and make a character who’s not off-putting wouldn’t have been as hard if it hadn’t been done so many times already. I went to great lengths not to look at any pictures of Bullwinkle, but images percolate through the culture so much that I don’t think it mattered. I finally stopped worrying whether my Moose would look any different from all the other moose in cartoons, books or movies. He came out how he came out.

Moose also noticed that the dust jack of the book is different from the hard cover in several important ways. Moose doesn’t manage to make an appearance on the front of the hard cover. (He mentioned he likes the dust jacket much better.) What’s behind that difference?

Well, this project was Zebra’s brainchild: a nice, gimmick-free alphabet book. His plans didn’t turn out that well, so I thought the least I could do was to give Zebra the cover (it’s called the “case” in bookmaker jargon) he had in mind. We considered having the title there read “Z is for Zebra” but decided to leave it at “Z is for” and let the picture of Zebra speak for itself. That this image gets covered up by a dust jacket featuring Moose’s shenanigans is in keeping with the rest of the book, don’t you think?

Absolutely! Kelly, Moose also noticed that the back cover finally credits Z is for Zebra, but also for zipper, zero, zoo and zombie. Is another book in Moose’s future?

Hmm...I'm not sure. It wouldn’t take any hoof-twisting to get Moose to agree. He would love to do another one-he's made that painfully clear. Zebra is not sure. We may need to let him recover a bit before we can talk to him more seriously about the idea. Until then, I hope everyone enjoys MOOSE. He loves his readers, so thank you to everyone who has read the book!

Paul, Moose wants me to ask about a book trailer. He feels his performance more than deserves to be immortalized on the web.

You’ll be able to see the actual event in which Moose burst in and messed up Zebra’s plans for the book cover if you wait until my Z is for Moose trailer comes out. Normally a trailer is finished before the book is published, but in this case the trailer was my idea, and my handiwork, and I am not an animator. So it was taking a very long time, and may never have happened at all if Greenwillow had not taken pity on me and hooked me up with a real animator to make things work correctly. The finished trailer should be out in a couple of weeks. It’s a behind-the-scenes interview with director and cast members, and it features quite a stellar cast list of voices. Look on my website , on the Greenwillow blog, I suppose on YouTube, and I hope in a lot of other places.

I'll have to wait, but it won't be easy! Moose, calm down or you'll break something!

Kelly and Paul, I really appreciate having you both join me (Sorry, MOOSE, join US). And MOOSE, thank you for your help in preparing questions and in allowing Kelly and Paul to have their moment in the spotlight uninterrupted. (Yes, I will remind readers to add their thoughts about the book AND YOU in the comments.

Disclaimer: I met Paul many years ago, worked with him in school visits, and consider him a friend. None of that influenced me in any way. I purchased this book myself and am utterly infatuated by both the writing and the art.

I've never met Kelly (except through this cyber-interview) but hope to some day. I am in awe of the creativity and execution of her thoroughly original ideas.

Aw-w-w, MOOSE, what have you done?

Sorry, Kelly and Paul, but it's my guess this has happened to you before.

If you missed it, last week's post has a detailed review and links about Z IS FOR MOOSE.
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.