Feb 23, 2013


Chronicle Books, February, 2013

When a new release garners lots of attention I try to let others shine the spotlight and instead offer up titles that may have been overlooked in the shadows. OPEN THIS LITTLE BOOK, by Jesse Klausmeier, illustrated by Suzy Lee has hit the shelves with a splash. Recent reviews and interviews can be found at Publishers Weekly for Children, Mr. Schu's blog, School Library Journal's Hundred Scope Notes, a starred Kirkus review, Read, Write, Repeat, and Chronicles interview with Jesse and Suzy.

The book trailer makes it clear that this book(s) speaks for itself.

So why shouldn't I pass on this title with such other noteworthy commentators already offering their thoughtful insights and accolades?
That's easy- because Jesse is a member of our Wisconsin Regional SCBWI and agreed to answer some questions about her debut picture book when I asked. How could I pass that up?
Welcome, Jesse! Here we go...

You've said you loved books as a child, so which ones do you remember most?
Three that stick out are:
  • ·      The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone illustrated by Michael Smollin
  • ·      The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
  • ·      Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik and Maurice Sendak
Back page copy
Has anything about those influenced the way you write for kids today?


The Monster at the End of This Book was the first book I experienced where the narrator spoke directly to the reader. Because Grover spoke directly to me, I became one of the main characters. In Open This Little Book, the reader is the character that kicks off the story. The directive to open this little book instantly engages the reader and demonstrates that she or he plays an active role in the book.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar stands out for its innovative design. As a child, I found the collages and the die-cut pages captivating. I had never seen anything like it and that novelty is something I hoped to achieve with Open This Little Book.

Little Bear was the first “big kid book” I read on my own. The feeling of accomplishment when graduating to solo reading is unforgettable. In my writing, especially for the youngest crowd, I do my best to put as few words on the page as possible so that they can memorize the text and confidently share it with others.
Photo credit: Julia Moberg

When you first held a copy in your hands, what were your first thoughts, or what surprised you most about this book?
I guess the biggest surprise was that my book was genuinely real. Until I physically held a copy, I couldn’t fully comprehend that I was actually being published. The editing and design process passed in a haze of excitement and anticipation. I’m still getting used to seeing my book in bookstore windows. My friend Julia sent me these pictures of the French version of the book in the window of a Parisian bookstore! 

Have you been able to share your book directly with kids yet? Can you tell us about that?
Yes! This is truly my favorite part of being an author. I love watching kids get drawn into the story by physically leaning closer and closer in towards the book as they open the smaller and smaller books within. 
CeCe, 11 & Neela, 9
I had the pleasure of having a four-year-old read the story to me. She prompted me to guess what character would be found within each little book based on the clues in the covers.
But I think the most memorable moment was when my 11-year-old niece Gwyn read the book and really studied each page. She flipped back and forth to compare how each character’s world changed throughout the book, commented that it was important that Giant was blue and a girl, and savored all the delicious details in the last illustration. Having the book appeal to such a wide age-range is truly heartwarming.

Jesse Klausmeier
Photo credit Alicia Bozewicz.

Any advice for someone with a desire to write for kids?
Sure! My two biggest pieces of advice are:
  • ·      Join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (www.scbwi.org). I met my agent and editor through the SCBWI and I can't recommend it enough. You'll have access to their amazing resources, conferences, local chapters, and supportive community.
  • ·      Read! Become an expert in your genre and read as much as you can within it. Read and study the books that have won awards, are on the best-sellers list, are recommended by your librarians, and re-read the books that you loved as a child.
Thanks, Jesse, for sharing your thoughts, reactions, and advice here, and for the creation of an amazing new book. Next week I'll take a closer look at it, along with a few other books that explore the very nature of books. OPEN THIS LITTLE BOOK and some select others demonstrate that a physical book has a unique and important place in our lives, and always will. The fact that it is receiving such a warm and enthusiastic welcome assures me that I'm not alone in my conviction. Take a look at your earliest opportunity and see if you agree.

Feb 17, 2013

The Power Within-- Young People

In spite of my previously stated concerns about designating "theme months", I can't let February and Black History Month pass without shining a light on three picture books worth sharing any time of year. We have been hearing it from every source- that children need to have "tools" for tomorrow's society. In the process are we over-stressing the tools and ignoring the child who will be using them?
Sleeping Bear Press, 2009

These titles are from Sleeping Bear Press, and the first two are by award-winning author Gloria Whelan.  Of the many stories told about slave life, this first title shares a slice of history that children will especially appreciate. THE LISTENERS, illustrated by Mike Benny, depicts a seldom described role of the youngest slaves. In the evenings they were sent to "play" quietly under the open windows of the parlor of the master's house, listening for news and plans that would affect their lives. They might overhear gossip or music, but they were most attuned to word of slave sales and changes in plantation supervision. Of all the hardships children suffered as slaves, this heavy responsibility served the needs of their families rather than those of the master.

Sleeping Bear Press, 200
Another outstanding historical fiction title is FRIEND ON FREEDOM RIVER, also by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen. This story finds a slave family trying to complete the final leg of the Underground Railway. When they arrive at the northernmost crossing point into Canada's safety at the "Gateway to Freedom", the Detroit River, the "conductor" is away. Young Louis steps up to play his part even though his grandfather has tried to isolate and protect him from involvement. He not only delivers the family safely but returns alone across the icy river to reassure his mother that he wasn't drowned or captured. Excellent documentation notes about the significance of this location is included in back matter.

Sleeping Bear Press, 2005

Moving black history in America forward into the twentieth century is LET THEM PLAY, by Margot Theis Raven, illustrated by Chris Ellison. A team of African America boys defied the odds and rode the support of their community to become the best Little League team in South Carolina in the summer of 1955. The Canon Street boys could not be declared the South Carolina State Champions or even compete in the finals because every other team refused to play them. In an exhibition game they overwhelmed the other team, but went home without a trophy or an opportunity to prove themselves on a level playing field. The epilogue includes a report of  the team reuniting in 2002 at the World Championship Little League Opening Ceremonies to be presented with the 1955 State Championship banner.

What I love about these stories, fictionalized or actual, is the dignity and resourcefulness of the children depicted. In times when kids are getting the message more and more often that their worth is determined by correct responses on a bubble sheet or their ability to get hits on a YouTube video, the young people in these books offer a view of real strength and character. Share them, and suggest other titles that do the same.

Feb 16, 2013

The Wide, Wide World of Books/Remix!

Well, one year into my blogging career and I've lost a post for the first time. 
This is my best effort at recreating it, with sincere apologies to guest blogger, Richa Jha, and to any readers who've been inconvenienced by this error.

JoAnn Macken, Janet Halfmann,
 and Kathryn Heling

Imagine two days immersed in the best possible company- those who create, produce, sell, circulate, read, teach, share, and love books. Books for the youngest, books for teens, books for professionals, fiction and non-fiction, and countless resources to support their use. 
On February 7 and 8 I did just that with other members of SCBWI at the annual WSRA (Wisconsin State Reading Association) convention in Milwaukee.

Shelia Llanas and
Stephanie Golightly Lowden

Surrounded as I was by an abundance of books I found myself reflecting on thoughts shared by my virtual/social media friend Richa. Lagos-based writer Richa Jha is a self-procalimed picture book fanatic and believes in a good picture book’s power to unleash imagination and wonder in a child’s mind. She shares her thoughts and features books at http://snugglewithpicturebooks.com/ and http://www.facebook.com/snugglewithpicturebooks
She's been experiencing some website gremlins of her own, so if you try the links and find anything other than an informative world-view of picture books, please be patient and return to try back later. I assure you it will be worthwhile. Welcome, Richa!

Richa Jha

A Disconnected Connect

My family’s love for picture books has become a bit of a joke among our friends. We’ve been known to have missed phone calls and door bells and play dates and lunch invites and other pressing demands when snuggled with picture books! And they are easy to spot in my house - in door-nooks, next to the cookies jar, under the dining table, behind the curtains, in the car seat pocket; any place which is large enough for us to curl up with one. 

But, and here’s the big but, your chances of finding more than a few Indian picture books in those piles is slim. Not because we don’t have picture books in India, but because my kids and I find it difficult to connect with most. For my children, more often than not, it’s not finding themselves on the pages that creates the dissonance. A big number of books are about trees and leaves and birds and monkeys and clouds and mountains that want to stand in for children, but fall short of being overly simplistic (and badly executed) tales of only the trees and birds and monkeys and clouds and mountains. Just that and no more. With most other books, it’s rare for my kids to see characters who are like them. This needs qualifying; time to stir up a hornest’s nest back home!

Let me begin at the beginning: the diversity of India. Which gives rise to the realities of hundreds of multicultural sub agendas at various levels: socio-economic, regional, cultural, linguistic, and more. What’s true of one end of India may not necessarily be true of the other. The largest chunk of our picture books comes from south India, and naturally, carries a strong regional flavour. Which percolates to every single bit about how the children endearingly address their parents to the foods they eat to the names they carry to the way they tie their hair to the way they dress up (at least, most certainly in the way they are depicted in these books). Should I be bold enough and say this – what’s missing from the bulk of our picture books is the young north or east or north east Indian child.

For my children, therefore, a grandmother being lovingly called ‘Pati’ by a little one in a book is as alien as ‘Nokomi’ is for an American child. The book has lost its very first chance of connecting with my child right there. Of course, I play the politically-correct mom and render a little homily to my kids on the virtues of multiculturalism within our country, and therefore the need to appreciate that in books. I show them some academic pieces on the web that do the same, and I feel happy that I have done my bit as a responsible mom raising informed sensitive global kids. ‘Ah, so we do feel a bit like those Latino kids feel in the US!’ Ok, something like that!

And that’s not all. Each time I see them grumble at the sight of yet another folk tale retelling or a folk art illustration, I quickly look around to make sure the walls didn’t hear that. ‘You two will make sure I get ostracized within my own picture book community, you little rascals,’ I mutter under my breath, but proceed with remarkable poise with another impromptu homily on our great storytelling and folkart traditions and the need to know and preserve them. But deep within, I see over-dependence on these as a shortcoming (I often end up with a feeling that it’s more for the Western eyes than it is for our own kids).
But, if the unfamiliarity with the main characters in the books is one factor that leads to the disconnect, why is it that picture books from the West resonate well with my kids? That’s because even though the faces and the names are different, the settings are familiar. A typical urban Indian child today has far more in common with an American child in LA, or one in London or in Sydney than she has with a child in rural India (which is where most of our folk tales and folk art stories, or even our newer stories are based). They read the same books, speak the same language, watch the same channels, wear the same brands, gorge on the same junk and play the same games on the Tabs. Against this backdrop, throw in an equally familiar and universal world of a child’s – a world full of questions, big little fears, facing those fears, anxieties, courage, friendships, camaraderie, loyalties, betrayals, joys, sorrows, heart-aches, desires, expectations, dilemmas or choices – and you have a perfect recipe for instant deep bonding with the book! Doesn’t matter that it got created thousands of miles away!

The lack of these last ingredients mentioned above, coupled with paper-thin, situational, or fluffy and bizarre fantasy-led plots in most of our books is what leaves and my children and me with a lukewarm feeling by the time I reach the last pages. I feel cheated at being denied the privilege of having been a part of a real character’s real life, real crisis and a genuinely real resolution of the problem, or of any layered reading.

Do I sound over-critical?! Let me admit that there is a visible change in the way our picture book shelves look at the book stores of late; some of our newer releases are delightful! And each time I come across a gem, it renews my belief that our picture books will only get better with time.

Richa Jha

Thanks for joining me here, Richa, and for reminding us that quality picture books, like kids themselves, transcend cultural boundaries and enrich us all.

Feb 3, 2013

A Bevy of Biographies

Last week the annual American Library Association Youth Media Awards took place. By now you've probably heard that Jon Klassen won the 2013 Caldecott for THIS IS NOT MY HAT, and Katherine Applegate won the 2013 Newbery for THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. Many other awards were announced, including winners and honors and lifetime achievement awards. Watching the live webcast was the next best thing to being there, hearing authors and illustrators being cheered like rock stars.

Now that awards season has ended, the litany of monthly "themes" begins: Black History, Women's History, Hispanic Heritage, Poetry, just to name a few. I've stated my case in the past about the mixed benefits of theme months, so this post is in praise of ignoring the calendar and celebrating excellence whenever and wherever we find it. Back in November there was a National Non-Fiction Day and the next will come November 3, 2013. One day in a whole year? For books that share the truth about our world and those who live in it? Really?

Life stories and inspirational life events lend themselves to the power of picture books, and I won't wait until next November to celebrate these with you.

Little Brown Books for Young Readers, 2012
A worthy place to start is FIFTY CENTS AND A DREAM: YOUNG BOOKER T. WASHINGTON, by Jabari Asim, illustrated by Bryan Collier. (Collier won the Coretta Scott King Illustrator award for I TOO AM AMERICA.) 
Washington's drive to read, to learn, to succeed, and to share those opportunities with others is portrayed effectively. The concluding pages point out that he was dismissed for years as too accommodating but has more recently been recognized as a fearless and tireless advocate for equality and justice.
Read more in this Kirkus review.

Scholastic Press, 2012

I recently saw some photos of my grandma with her girlfriends, circa 1910-1914. The images made it perfectly clear that they were a spunky, fun-loving, and adventurous group. A penciled note on the back of one indicated they called themselves the gym-daisies. Reading HERE COME THE GIRL SCOUTS: THE AMAZING ALL TRUE STORY OF JULIETTE "DAISY"GORDON LOW AND HER GREAT ADVENTURE, by Shana Corey, illustrated by Hadley Hooper called those photos to mind. Lively text and muted illustrations describe sweeping passages of time and provide a revealing look at gender stereotyping and social expectations. Everyone should read this.

Eerdmans Books for young Readers, 2012
What a shame it would be to wait for the annual April focus to share poetry and the people who write it.
A RIVER OF WORDS: THE STORY OF WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS, by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet makes it clear that poetry ran through his life on a daily basis, as it should in ours.
The poetry collection on the endpapers is a bonus to this biography of a poet whose work touches nature, emotions, and the funny bone. I loved that the triple timelines in the back matter span his life and the history/works of that time awhile continuing the incredible collage illustration.
Read what Kirkus says in this starred review.

Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2005

The previous titles were all 2012 releases, but will continue to find and engage readers in years to come. This has been true for MUSIC FOR THE END OF TIME, by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Beth PeckThis story of the years French composer Olivier Messiaean spent in a German prisoner-of-war camp inspires on many levels- the drive to create, the potential for humane treatment in the worst of situations, the power of inspiration, and the capacity for music (art) to nourish the soul.

A Kirkus review provides even more detail.

Just one glance at the cover art for these titles reveals the range of styles, moods, techniques and approaches used by the various illustrators. The same is true for the text of each. In my opinion (and that's what a blog is for, right?) they are equally excellent, outstanding, distinguished, and worthy of our time and attention. This demonstrates my mixed reaction to awards announcements. So many fine books deserve accolades, and for each one named there are so many others waiting to be discovered and shared. Speak up if you want to share some recommendations of your own.

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.