Jun 29, 2013

Tammi Sauer's Picture Book Success

In my last post I mentioned some popular picture book trends and some timeless topics. In addition, franchise potential and multimedia characters are likely to generate success in this highly competitive publishing field. Examples spring to mind, many of which are high quality,  although some tilt more toward pop culture than toward timeless treasures.

It's particularly noteworthy, then, when a picture book author can achieve the degree of success demonstrated by TAMMI SAUERin recent years. (Check out her lively website here.) Notice the variety of publishers and illustrators listed with each cover photo. Tammi's success has not been assured by a predictable illustrator pairing, a single dedicated editor, an ongoing character, or even a specialty topic. The books featured in this post range from a grumpy duck, to a cowboy and a princess each at training camp, a stone-age boy, some wacky chipmunks, unlikely friends (shark and fish), and two titles with rockin'n'rolling chickens. How's that for variety?

Let's take a quick look at a partial list of her titles, in chronological order:

Sterling Publishing, 2005

(2005) COWBOY CAMP is illustrated by Mike Reed.

Kids love stories in which a character's bumbling difficulties somehow save the day. This little cowboy wannabe surprises the villainous interloper enough to make him give up and pursue his nefarious ways elsewhere.

Sterling Publishing, 2009

(2009)  CHICKEN DANCE, illustrated by Dan Santat.

Talent shows and dance competitions are the current rage on reality television programing, but contests of this type have been around for centuries. But, in the barn? Featuring Elvis Poultry and the dancing chickens? Why not?

Simon & Schuster/
Paula Wiseman Books, 2011

(2011)  MR. DUCK MEANS BUSINESS, illustrated by Jeff Mack.

Sometimes, as in the lyrics to the song, "You don't know what you've got till it's gone." Duck's isolated way of life felt perfect, until unexpected visitors intruded. Only after restoring his "peace" did he decide it would be better still with a bit of a compromise.

(2012) BAWK & ROLL, illustrated b y Dan Santat.

This sequel to Chicken Dance is fun in much the same way- a wacky premise with a pair of "chicken" chickens who suffer stage fright without the support of their friends. Fun and frantic.

Paula Wiseman Books, 2012

(2012) ME WANT PET!  illustrated by Bob Shea.

This cave boy twist on the familiar boy-wants-pet story involves a wooly mammoth, saber-toothed tiger, and do-do chick. Despite the unusual circumstances and language, kids recognize the familiar parental objections to his requests and root for him all the way to the end.

Harcourt Children's Books, 2012

(2012) PRINCESS IN TRAINING, illustrated by Joe Berger

What do you do with a princess who doesn't act like a princess? Send her to Princess Camp, natch, then count yourself extremely lucky when her natural tendencies shine through to save the day.

Bloomsbury USA Children's, 2012

(2012) OH, NUTS!  illustrated by Dan Krall.

A fun story, with plenty of exaggeration in characterization. Cartoonish antics lead to the eventual conclusion that the spotlight may not be all that it is cracked up to be.

Harcourt Children's Books, 2013

(2013) NUGGET AND FANG, illustrated by Michael Slack.

This hits the sweet spot for its target age when spontaneous and utterly sincere friendships can be threatened by peer input as young children move into social settings and learn about stereotyping and expectations.
The humor and loyalty of Fang will appeal. I love the subtle humor of naming shark's bite-sized minnow friend  "Nugget".

So what do these diverse titles have in common? How do we account for Tammi's remarkable success with picture books, minus any gimmicks or shortcuts?  

  • Her language is well-paced and lively, even without  rhymed or repetitive text. 
  • Each of her stories involves animals. 
  • Humor (in words, image, and concept) have appeal for the young reader/listener and the adult who shares the book.
  • Each features exaggerations and unexpected twists.
  • Most of all, she displays a genuine understanding of her target audience. 
This is a winning combination, to be sure, and accounts for her success across several publishing houses and illustration pairings. 

For those unfamiliar with the business side of things, the string of recent publication dates does not suggest that she wrote them all in a year or two. It's highly likely that these titles represent a decade or more of dedicated effort, including revision and rejection, ending in the refinement necessary to produce winning stories.

For anyone looking to choose powerful picture books, or to write them, Tammi Sauer's work is worth a very close look.

Tammi just tweeted that four of her upcoming picture book releases DO NOT have animals! Can't wait to see them, can you? 

Jun 22, 2013

Pets: We Love 'Em, They Love Their Toys

Just when you think all the picture books arriving on shelves feature princesses, trucks, or robots of one sort or another, we're reminded that animal books preceded the royalty trend and continue to find a home on our shelves. The appeal of animals is undeniable. Bunnies, llamas, even dragons and dinosaurs will always have their day, but it's the dog and cat books that are dearest to my heart. In fact, if push comes to shove, dogs win the day.

Sometimes favorites among these will jump up and all but lick me in the face, claiming my attention and my affection. That may be due to personal links to the image of a particular breed, the dog's name, or even  the situation depicted.

Image from American Kennel Club

Sleeping Bear Press, 2012

Scottie dogs are certainly adorable, but the closest I ever came to having one is choosing it as my Monopoly marker. The appeal must be widespread, though, since that little fella was in no danger of replacement in the recent poll to create a new Monopoly marker for the game. 

But even more than the breed, I was attracted to the crisp, bright geometric forms on the cover of SCOUT, by Gordon McMillan. The red ball forming the "O" in the title had an even greater appeal. Scout's lost ball leads him from the fifth to the first floor of his apartment building, collecting helpful  friends along the way. He learns what they can do and they learn what a ball can do. Mouse learns the difference between a red-rind cheese and a toy, and they all learn how much fun it can be to meet new friends and share toys. The simple message and colorful abstract forms make this a great choice for many purposes.

Now, back to that red ball.

Any dog who's being treated with an ounce of decency will have a ball, but the four-legged resident in my home has taken that to a whole new level. The red ball on the cover of SCOUT bounced into my visual field and drew me to the book. The same can be said for my furry family member. No matter how many sizes, shapes and colors he has to choose from, the mouth-sized red ball is his go-to favorite.
The stuffed toy collection is a discussion for another day.
On his first Christmas my sheltie received a hard red ball- didn't bounce, wasn't chewy, and could knock a hole in the wall if thrown too hard. (I prefer no questions as to how I know this to be true.) It did, however, flash brightly and make sounds when rolled. It quickly became his favorite (among many choices, as you can see). In future years, as the original red ball lost its high tech hi-jinx  capabilities, he received duplicates. I stopped counting after eight of them and another sometimes turns up behind a couch. To this day he returns to that original gnarly red ball, bringing it to be played with until even he is exhausted.

Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2013
The dog to whom this next book is dedicated is also called Scout but is certainly not a Scottie, or a sheltie. BALL, written and illustrated by Mary Sullivan, portrays a single-minded focus that I recognized at a glance. Even for those who never had (or have even known) a dog, this nearly wordless book is a winner. One word of text (ball) is repeated forty-four times in various sizes, upper and lower case, with varying punctuation and by different speakers with equally varied visual interpretation. Every nuance contributes intensity and heart to the story. From front to back endpapers and every turn in between, this is a tour de force of characterization, story, and relationships. 

My dog's physical body looks nothing like "Scout" (to whom the book BALL is lovingly dedicated), but he has displayed every one of Scout's expressions, actions, poses, emotions, devotions, hopes, fears, and even dreams. His favorite red ball looks identical to Scout's. 
This book captures the epitome of a dog's nature- 100% open, out there, devoted, and eager for companionship. 
I'd love to see what Sullivan would do with a comparable CAT book.

Schwartz and Wade, 2011
Not surprisingly, It was a red ball that nearly broke the heart of little Daisy in Chris Raschka's Caldecott winning A BALL FOR DAISY in 2011. You can see from the array pictured above that balls for dogs come in approximately 42.7 kazillion colors, shapes, sizes, and textures. Dogs purportedly are colorblind, but I strongly disagree. My anecdotal experience with several dogs over my lifetime is that they most assuredly can see colors, at least to a degree necessary to distinguish "red ball" from "blue ball", even when the balls otherwise appear to be identical. Based on the frequent appearance of red balls in picture books, as a featured presence or even incidentally, I'm confident we can say red balls are the favorite color for dogs throughout the world. 

If you choose to disagree, discuss it with my little friend here.

Any opinions of your own (or your pet's) on the ideal toy?

Jun 15, 2013

A song of Praise for Frogs... and Fathers

Harper Collins, 2009

I suspect you'd be hard-pressed to find any parent, child, or teacher who is not familiar with Arnold Lobel's lovable FROG AND TOAD books. I also suspect only a  few are aware of a book of songs and poems he created nearly a decade before these iconic titles appeared. That's because the collection was not rediscovered until after his death. It's a genuine treasure to read THE FROGS AND TOADS ALL SANG, originally written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel, later found, colored, and published by his daughter, Adrianne Lobel. You can hear her discuss her coloring choices (and the original versions of the book) on this YouTube video.

When this book was newly released a few years ago I heard an interview with his daughter, Adrienne, on NPR, where it is transcribed and archived. I urge you to read the interview in total, but this part I'll report here in which she shares this touching memory of her father: 
(Portion of an interview with Melissa Block, NPR, June 8, 2009)

BLOCK: How did your father start writing about and drawing frogs and toads in the first place?
Ms. LOBEL: I have always credited myself with the person who instructed my father as to the difference between frogs and toads.
BLOCK: Oh, really?
Ms. LOBEL: And now, I realize he was just humoring me. I gave him this whole lecture when I was in Vermont one summer. We used to rent houses, and I came in with a toad in my hand, and he said, what a nice frog you have there. And I said, no, no, no, no, no. This is not a frog, this is a toad. And this is why. And then, a year later, the first Frog and Toad book came out.
But what's interesting about this book is that it serves to prove me wrong and that frogs and toads were very much already in his mind almost 10 years earlier and that he did know the difference, and I think he was just humoring me.

Henry Holt and Company (BYR), 2013
Another outstanding book featuring musically-inclined and poetic amphibians is FROG SONG, written by Brenda Z. Guiberson, illustrated by Gennady Spirin. As delighted as I was with the poems, the illustrations are spellbinding in composition, detail, color, and character. Both text and images evoke individuality in the various frogs, their habits,  and their habitats without a trace of anthropomorphism. Representing every corner of the globe and described with their onomatopoetic "songs", the frogs return in the back pages for some additional taxonomic detail and fun "quick facts". The back cover summarizes the beauty and intent of this remarkable book:
"A frog song is a celebration of clean water, plants, and insects to eat."

NorthSouth, 2011

NorthSouth, 2013
999 TADPOLES, and 999 FROGS WAKE Up are both written by Ken Kimura and illustrated by Yasunari Murakami. Equally appealing in both text and images, these will be "read it again" choices for many young ones. The ability to convey intense emotion with the placement of a dot in the eye (times 999!) is evident throughout and reminds me of Mo Willems's use of Pigeon's "eyeball" (size, placement, direction) to tell so much of a story.

Charlesbridge, 2010
HIP POCKET PAPA, written by Sandra Markle and illustrated by Alan Marks, offers a more scientifically accurate view of a tiny but noble species of frog. Both the text and the images manage to be lyrical, fascinating, and rich with detail while  faithfully depicting information about the diet, habitat, predators, and survival strategies for these diminutive creatures. In the dry December summers of Australia the males of this species are adapted in an odd twist on the furry pouched marsupials for which the continent is famous. A dozen newly hatched tadpoles wiggle up his back and climb into hidden pockets on his back where they will continue to develop using their attached yolk sacs. With his tadpoles tucked away safely for more than thirty days, the Papa frog scrounges for food, avoids predators, and seeks a moist habitat. By that time the twelve tiny froglets have developed enough to leave his pockets and make their way in the moist creek bank he has discovered.The back matter provides additional details about the predators he has encountered along the way.

Dad, with grandson Joey,
who now has a nearly identical
son of his own.

I'm offering this lively array of frog titles in part because here in the northern hemisphere summer weather and school vacation have finally arrived. This convergence of the mating/breeding phase in the life cycle of frogs and toads with the freedom cycle of children generates a chorus of happy songs from every corner of the outdoors.
It also leads up to the annual Fathers' Day celebration in which dads are treated to aftershave, ties, and recognition for the many things we take for granted throughout the year. In my case Dad was more the humoring, humorous type than the pond-exploring type, but he was there in our lives. Dependably. Reciting silly rhymes, keeping us safe from harm, reading aloud, and singing along (off-key) at Sunday services. 

For the safety of your hip-pocket protection and your awareness of 
our interests, growth, and issues, thank you, Dad. Still miss you.

Jun 9, 2013

Two Books About the Night

I had another post prepared for this week. 
Fate intervened. 
I arrived home yesterday after attending a full day workshop on picture book storyboarding and found these two titles in my mailbox. I'd been hearing and reading about each of them separately, only to have them sent to me by a friend who was unable to put them to use in his own blog. 

Like a deer in the headlights I was stopped in my tracks, compelled to read, examine, compare, and share these extraordinary recent releases.

Orchard Books, an imprint of Scholastic, 2013
The first is NIGHT LIGHT, created by illustrator, designer, and art director Nicholas Blechman. It works beautifully as a concept book that is anything but simple. Double page spreads alternate from full-bleed black to full-bleed vibrant colors. Black spreads present a simple left-page number riddle and a corresponding right-page cut-out revealing a punch (or punches) of pure color, progressing from one to ten. These black spreads turn the page to double page spreads revealing left-pages providing the correct word and a "re-application" of the punchout(s) suited to the response. Right-pages reveal visuals of the correct response within a double-page scene rendered in bold, crisp-edged abstract forms. 

This is a concept book that just keeps on giving, depicting many forms of transportation, offering opportunities to count not just lights and punchouts but other geometric forms and the figures they comprise, and inviting discussions using words related to color, position, size, and shape. Each response page suggests a story of its own, including the endpapers. 

As if that's not enough of a good thing, the font throughout is formed as if by the iconic Hasbro LITE-BRITE toys. The final pages switch back to one light, glowing through the night, with a page turn to a boy in bed reading this book, seated in a car-type bed, with toy-sized versions of each vehicle scattered around his room. In a very real sense this is a bedtime book, too.Constructed on very heavy stock with sewn binding it almost has a board book quality to it, including the flat full opening of each page.

Kids Can Press, 2013
Just so you know, I've never had a tree house. I've been wracking my brain to recall if I've ever even been in one. So far, I'm coming up empty. But I've always thought having a treehouse would be a dream come true. 
As a child, and in various homes since then, I lived in tall houses surrounded by trees, creating one or more rooms whose window views created the effect of being in a tree house. For just one year in college I rented a third floor apartment with a screened-in back porch totally surrounded by leafy green trees. Perhaps that's why  IN THE TREE HOUSE, written by Andrew Larsen and illustrated by Dusan Petricic holds such appeal for me.  Or perhaps having a tree house is a universal craving felt by anyone growing up in a wooded climate.
At any rate, author Larsen seems to agree, since the young boy character's dreamy designs trigger his older brother to join the planning until their dad chimes in that he's always wanted a tree house, too. Together they create that dream, which the text describes as ideal and the images reveal to be quite rudimentary, safe but fun.

That's not the end of the story, though, since it involves a time sequence quite unusual in picture books. It opens with the young boy perched in his treehouse on a stifling summer night, but immediately flashes back to tell how the treehouse came to be. Only then does "real" time return, more than a year later, when older brother seems to have outgrown the tree house, leaving younger brother even more deflated than the oppressive heat.

That's when the magic happens. In contrast to NIGHT LIGHT, these pages are primarily white space, with line-drawn figures and subdued colors. That is until the brutally hot night when there is a power failure. Then the full-bleed black double page spreads provide the drama and intensity of flashlights and starlight, which entice big brother back up that tree house ladder.

This is an unusual picture book on many counts- the time span portrayed, the generationally-shared dreams, the dual stories, and the visual mid-book shift. In very different but equally exciting ways, IN THE TREE HOUSE is as richly layered and appealing as NIGHT LIGHT. They appear to have different target age-ranges, yet both have a reach that extends far beyond a surface reading or a person's age.

And that's what I call the power of high quality picture books.

Jun 1, 2013

Diving into a Powerful Biography- of a Mermaid!

Before I finally took the plunge and dove into the blog-o-sphere about eighteen months ago, I thought long and hard about what I could add to the conversations about books that would be unique. In recent months I find that as I discover new picture books (or new to me), I'm so eager to share the titles and my thoughts about them that I rush to share a review and urge readers to check them out. 
That's not a bad thing, to be sure.

In this case, though, I'm steering myself back toward my original intent, which was to share my reflections on the broader, deeper role of picture books in the world of children's literature. 

There's POWER in picture books, of every type and for every age. So, returning to my first sentence, let's take the plunge and dive into one of the best, most powerful picture books, one especially suited to summer reading.
Scholastic Press, 2009
MERMAID QUEEN: The Spectacular True Story of Annette Kellerman, Who Swam Her Way to Fame is written by Shana Corey and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. On first glance you might think this non-fiction biography about an Australian woman born in 1886 seems an obscure choice even for middle grade readers or for Women's History Month.  
You would be wrong. 
It offers oceans of benefits, beginning with a colorful and history-making character, insights into cultural standards in different countries and different centuries, backmatter to fill in details on Kellerman's life and accomplishments, and documentation of the many quotations so effectively interspersed throughout the narrative. It reflects the finest standards of research.

Yet it has the narrative and illustration quality of a fiction offering with the benefit of truth. It's inspiring that Annette's swimming accomplishments overcame not only her own disability but also the societal restriction and biases toward females, even little girls, of her time. Her determination to push back at the limits she confronted while gaining praise and admiration instead of disdain is captured well. Anyone who has ever suffered an anxiety attack when contemplating swimsuit season will marvel at her spirited defense of the value of swimming in suitable attire in court! I particularly enjoyed the ballet-like timeline of swimsuit design in the back pages.

This was a woman of power, and this is a picture book that transcends its "academic" target audience through the design and execution of its  joyful presentation. From the vivid swirling endpapers through each bold, exuberant double spread, the somewhat comically exaggerated figures will attract readers of any age. The alternating sizes and styles of fonts, action-packed scenes, and shifting perspectives always capture Annette Kellerman's contagious spirit: "Annette Kellerman loved to make waves."

 This amazing woman, who made her waves without the benefit of Title IX or other official support, is in the International Women's Swimming Hall of Fame. She paved the way for women to fully participate in water sports, invented water ballet, challenged endurance records, performed high dives, and appeared in movies.

Now that's power.

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.