Aug 31, 2013

FLORA and FLAMINGO: Meet Molly Idle

Molly Idle, Author and Illustrator
Walker Children's, 2013

I’m so excited to share this blog-stop “virtual interview” with readers. I’ve been a fan of Molly Idle’s work for several years. This year she hit the trifecta of publishing with simultaneous releases of three remarkable picture books: ZOMBELINA, (written by Kristyn Crow), TEA REX, and FLORA AND FLAMINGO.

Viking Juvenile, 2013
2013 is quite a year for remarkable picture books, proving once again that this format has (and will continue to have) a vigorous and relevant role in the world of publishing, and in our literary lives. Earlier this spring I interviewed Jesse Klausmeier about her own release of OPEN THIS LITTLE BOOK, after which she introduced me to Molly Idle (again, virtually). 
Jesse's title and Molly's FLORA AND FLAMINGO share the distinction of receiving mentions among  reviewers eyeing contenders for the 2013 Caldecott Award. (I've been assured that these mentions in no way carry a jinx-factor, which allows me to repeat them here.) Each of Molly’s 2013 releases has been met with acclaim, but none more so than the innovative wordless book, Flora and FlamingoShe was kind enough to answer some questions about creating this book to share with you here.

Without further ado, welcome Molly! Congratulations on your amazing year. 
*Extended pause for applause.*

Molly: Thank you so much for your kind words about Flora, and for featuring this interview on your blog.
Chronicle Books, 2013

Who came to you first, Flamingo or Flora?

Ah, which came first- the flamingo or the egg? The answer (in this case) is the flamingo. My knack for nomenclature misinterpretation was a running gag when I was growing up. For years, I thought Lee Iacocca and The Ayatollah were the same person (their names sounded exactly the same to me!) I was 10 before I realized that A.A. Milne’s characters, Kanga and Roo, when put together, made "kangaroo". To me, that was just who they were, and it never occurred to me that it was also what they were... (sigh)
And, for years, I thought "flamenco dancing" was "flamingo dancing". So, the idea of a dancing flamingo had been playing about in my mind for a long time. It was only when I started thinking about a dancing flamingo as a character for a picture book that I began looking for his partner.

I can envision you researching and investigating the movements of a flamingo, but how did you settle on this particularly shaped and sized child? Did you have a model or are you a trained dancer? 

Oh. my goodness no- I am not a dancer.  I do love to watch dancers though. Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor* are two of my favorites. Two more of my favorites are my nieces, Sarah and Katie. When they were about 8 and 10 they came to visit my husband and I for summer vacation. In the evenings they would choreograph dance routines which they would perform for us on the front porch. At the time they were both in that round tummied, growing-out-before-growing-up stage. They were also completely, blissfully, oblivious to all of the body image insecurities that plague young women. They thought that they were fully awesome just the way they were...  and they were right. And to my mind, they were the perfect models on which to base the dance partner for a flamingo.

About Flora’s flippers and swim cap (which are not only charming, but genius, in my opinion), were they the end result of a variety of hair/foot design trials, or did Flora arrive in your imagination fully geared up?

Both the swim cap and flippers were there from the very first sketch. In fact, neither character changed from my initial sketch (which is a first for me ). But the detail of the flowers on Flora's cap came after I had finished coloring in the pair for the first time. As I stood back and surveyed them, I just thought she needed a little something extra... And in thinking about the rubbery surface of her swim-cap, I remembered these rubbery non-slip stickers that had been on my bathtub growing up. They were shaped like daisies, and I thought- "That's it!"

When you settle in to your incredible workspace, sip your java, and gaze out the window, is music playing? Click here for an extensive Chronicle Books interview with Molly to find out more about her work habits and spaces. And take a few minutes to watch BOTH videos embedded in this link.

Most always... When I'm working on final art, I have different mixes for different projects, and they help get to me in the groove, and to switch grooves when needs be. I love the company of background noise in the studio. But when I'm working out initial sketches, or when I'm writing, then I have to turn everything off.  It sounds melodramatic, but, to really get deep down inside a story or a compositional problem, I want (like Greta Garbo) " to be left alone."

In other interviews I’ve read, you mention the fantastic art and design teams at your various publishers. Can you tell us a bit about those collaborations as compared to your animation collaborations?

In animation, the artists I worked with had an incredible sense of imagination and play, but the production environment itself was extremely regimented. It has to be when you have an enormous team, creating thousands upon thousands of images. Even after having been a part of it, it never ceases to amaze me how the hands and minds of so many individuals can collaborate to create such a unified vision. It’s awesome! But, as a small cog in the works, it can also mean subjugating your individual style for the sake of consistency. 

That is why I find making books so freeing. For while it is still very much a collaborative process, I'm never asked to make my work like that of anyone else. The editors and art directors I get to work with instead push me to create the best work I can make... Whatever it may be. They are like magic mirrors up to which I hold my work, and when they reflect it back to me I see what is working and what can be made better. (And it can always be made better.) That kind of collaboration is really exciting!

In a mini-interview with Jeremy Holmes on your blog, you said the design of his book THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO SWALLOWED A FLY opened your mind to alternative interactive picture book design. Can you tell us more about your choice for fold-down flaps for FLORA AND FLAMINGO?

Yes, yes I can! 

I pitched the idea for the book to my agent, as a straightforward wordless picture book, and while she liked it, she asked me to think of of some element that would necessitate it being a book rather than, say... a short animated film. Could the story, she asked, have some element of interactivity?

And it was like a lightbulb popped on over my head! I knew right then that the interactivity needed to be that of the reader determining the poses  in which the characters would relate to each other. And I knew the way to achieve that was to have the characters appearing in opposing flaps.

I didn’t know if it was possible to print something like it in a cost effective way, nor did I know how to construct it. But I knew it was the way I needed to tell the story, and I set to work. Once I had muddled through the paper engineering, and about 4 rolls of double stick tape, I had the assembled first draft of the dummy, and we sent it off to Chronicle!

This spring you released Flora and the Flamingo from Chronicle Books, Zombelina from Walker Childrens,  and Tea Rex from Viking Press within weeks of each other. That must have been exciting, but were the deadlines and other development processes simultaneous? How do you handle projects when that happens?

I learned a lot about time management in working through the books I had published this year! Yes, FLORA, TEA REX and ZOMBELINA were all in the works simultaneously. It was like a year long  game of round robin in my studio!  Rather than try and spend a bit of time each day on every project, I  finished each book in stages. I dove into the sketches for Flora, and when they were finished, I sent them off for notes and then started in on sketches for Rex. When they were finished, I jumped into character design for ZOMBELINA. By the time I had finished that, I had revision notes back on the sketches for Flora... And round and round it went. 

Are you free to tell us about any of the projects you are working on currently?
I'm working on another round robin schedule right now. I've just wrapped up work on CAMP REX (Viking, April 2014), and now I'm working on  FLORA AND THE PENGUIN (Chronicle, Winter 2014), RODEO RED, written by Maripat Mohr (Peachtree, 2015), and the third REX book!

In the mini-interviews on your blog (which I recommend to my readers here) you ask the same questions for each illustrator. Which of those questions were you hoping someone would ask you?

Yes, Juana Martinez Neal, Mikela Prevost, Laura Jacobsen and I have asked the same questions of all of our interviewees for the past few years during National Picture Book Month. But this year, we are changing up our format, and the question I would most like to be asked, is the  new final question I’ll be asking in this November’s round of Mini Interviews. But I don’t want to give it away. So... I'll just say...Check back in with me in November!

Thank you, Molly, I really enjoyed this virtual conversation and hold out hopes of meeting you in person someday.

Cheers, Sandy- the feeling is mutual! :)

So there you have it. readers. If this doesn't send you racing for a copy and exploring Molly's other books and online links, you're either in a summer snooze or early hibernation. Don't miss this one! 
*If you have ten minutes to spare, I beg you to watch this YouTube video of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. In particular notice the interaction, facial expressions, and body language between the two of them starting at about 6:50 minutes into the video. Am I the only one who sees the roots of Flora and Flamingo’s friendship here? Brilliant!
I just loved Molly’s references to classic cultural icons- makes me practically giddy to see current generations giving appreciative nods to timeless talents.

Aug 24, 2013

Where Were You When...?

Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.        JFK was assassinated.     
The Twin Towers came down in New York City. 

There are iconic events, sometimes even slivers of time, which impress themselves indelibly on the minds of everyone who was alive to experience them. Even when that experience is indirect, filtered through media (especially Moon landings), it's easy to recall where you were and what you were doing at the time. 
Photo from archives: 
For anyone alive in August, 1963, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was such an event.

Throughout the past fifty years (and long before that memorable day in Washington, D.C.) Martin Luther King, Jr. was in the spotlight in this country and around the world. The Time Magazine archives of cover articles demonstrates that fact. I've shared some stories of civil rights leaders in a previous post  of some of Kadir Nelson's biography titles. There are many picture books depicting specific events and full biographies about the history and struggles of civil rights
Martin often finds his way into my thoughts when leadership and inspiration are the theme of a post.

Little, Brown Books for Young readers, 2013
This week that's more true than ever. MARTIN AND MAHALIA- His Words, Her Song, by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney is a perfect book for this week, and forever. With a release timed to celebrate this 50th Anniversary year, the Pinkneys reveal ways in which the leadership and inspiration of Martin and Mahalia were intertwined throughout their lives. This was never more true than on that remarkable day on the Washington mall fifty years ago, August 28, 1963. With so much at stake, each scheduled speaker prepared text well in advance, then vetted it and filtered it through numerous advisors. Martin did the same, despite his infamous capacity for extemporaneous speaking. As the final speaker that day, Martin's prepared speech was nearing its end when Mahalia, sitting nearby, exhorted him to "Tell them about your dream, Martin." That call, like a call to prayer, led him away from his script and deep into his heart to finish with the words that are now as much a part of the fiber of America as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Top Shelf Productions, 2013

One of those speakers was the very young John Lewis. As the last surviving speaker from that day, now-Congressman John Lewis partnered with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell at Top Shelf Productions to produce MARCH: BOOK ONE. It's a graphic history of the past and recent present, a story within a story, tracing Lewis's personal history, on to the point at which he stood on that stage fifty years ago to speak, and into the near-present when he sat in the audience in 2009 as a congressman,  witnessing the inauguration of Barach Obama. There he was within sight of the original gathering. (Click here for a School Library Journal review.)

For those who lived at the time, regardless of their politics or perspective, images and memories of that day in Washington and many other Civil Rights protest moments are indelible. For those who came later, as is true for any other momentous event, the visceral impact of history is lost. 

In a recent syndicated column Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald discussed the unusual audience he observed at a viewing of the movie, THE BUTLER. He noted the multi-generational nature of the audience, young children and teens in tow with grandparents who had lived through times now changed, at least to a degree. A movie has the capacity to bring history to life, to simulate experiences in ways that transmit some of the emotional and empathetic reactions of those who lived it.

Not unlike movies, and in some ways better, these titles offer readers a portal to the past. They also serve as a vivid reminder to those who experienced history to share our own stories, to extend our experiences into future generations.

Archives are readily available, but has a wealth of photos, videos, and other documentation.

Aug 17, 2013

Another Not-So-Easy List

In the last post I lamented the challenge of naming favorite anythings, but especially favorite picture book titles. My mental qualifiers regarding the intent, audience, and situations in which books are read or shared make it nearly impossible for me to zero in on a single title or even short list of favorites. That why I declined participating in the Picture Book 10 for 10 blog challenge, instead relying on others more decisive than I am to share their choices. 
I did feature two examples of favorites titles for specific purposes.

This post takes on another challenge, one that was issued by blogger Colby Sharp on the Nerdy Book Club Blog last August. He put out a call for classroom teachers to consider a book they planned to read aloud within the first two weeks of school, the one they felt the most excited about sharing with their students. If you think that's another challenge I declined, you're right.

In workshops for teachers I share the advice of Pat Cunningham that an elementary teacher for any grade level should, ideally, have at least five read-alouds each and every day. YIKES! FIVE?

  1. An excellent picture book (Demonstrates that little books have big ideas, validity, for readers of all ages.)
  2. A poetry selection (Provides wide experiences with language, forms, authors, sources, and topics of poetry in only a few minutes a day.)
  3. A chapter of a longer selection (Provides shared experiences with text of high quality, builds a common frame of reference, and allows modeling discussions and sustaining meaning over time.)
  4. Two or more non-fiction passages related to content area topics (Introduces quality authors and titles for research and exploration of current studies.)
With that in mind, the first two weeks in my classroom often involve 40-50 or more titles, all of the highest quality, and each of which I'm excited to share.
HARPER (Harper Collins Imprint), 2013

And yet, despite my reluctance to name favorites among them, I feel compelled to feature a marvelous back-to-school title here that might be especially suited to your child or classroom situation. Mike Boldt wrote and illustrated 123 VERSUS ABC. On the title page "1" and "A" introduce themselves and their conflicting intents for this book- to create a book about numbers/a book about letters.
Using lively expressive features and stick figure body language along with speech bubbles and loads of personality, each  claims the turf of this book with reason, volume, and increasing assertiveness. 
When the rest of the cast gradually appears the arguments continue:
3-Cars... and so on.
As the numbers and creatures and their various activities continue, near hysteria develops before "1" and "A" agree that it is a book about both, letters AND numbers. 
Until, on the  last page turn, a blob of red appears asking for the book about colors.

This recent release is a fine example of the POWER of picture books
Compact, Complete, Compelling.
It is appealing, invites close scrutiny, resolves a problem, begs for retelling, and entertains.
It also reveals subtexts in the visuals, and offers various approaches to conflict resolution- an important topic in the early weeks of school.
Greenwillow Books, 2012

This would be a perfect pairing with  Z IS FOR MOOSEthe 2012 alphabet picture book written by Kelly Bingham and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky. In a previous post I examined that title closely and interviewed Paul and Kelly about its creation.
In both cases older students can explore similarities and distinctions between the two titles: the tongue-in-cheek nod to ubiquitous alphabet (and number) books with iconic visual symbols, characters in conflict, the "all about me" attitudes displayed, and the story arcs created in each. 
One step further would include comparisons of art styles and design, facial expressions, and ways that action and movement are portrayed. (See what I meant about little books having big ideas for older readers, too, even alphabet books?)

Here's hoping that as plans are made for the start of another school year both of these titles will find their way into classrooms of every age, generating thoughtful discussion, mindful comparison, and, above all else, a love of books.

As always, your comments about favorites (back-to-school titles, alphabet and number books, or any other topic) are welcome.

Aug 10, 2013

What Makes a Favorite a Favorite?

Quite a few years ago a colleague commented that I was the most divergent thinker he had ever met. Put that together with another critique that I'm an unabashed optimist and idealist and it explains why I took both remarks as compliments. 
I'm also rational enough to know that both may have been backhanded remarks suggesting that I'm an unrealistic scatterbrain. I'll just say that the facial expressions and body language in both circumstances as well as the  the context in which they were stated helped me arrive at my upbeat conclusion. 
The combination of personal experience with verbal and visual cues to arrive at the fullest possible meaning is the essence of my admiration for picture books, and that approach carries over into my everyday life. Making meaning is built on background knowledge and should engage all possible clues and cues. No other literary format does that as well as the category we call picture books, especially if we stretch that a tad to include graphic novels and other visual narrative formats.

That's why I never seriously considered participating in this year's Fourth Annual Picture Book 10 for 10 blog lists. I've followed them each year, bookmarked many, used other bloggers' lists to explore titles new to me, and I'm doing so again this year. 
My issue has to do with that divergent thinking/optimistic idealist gene of mine. It interferes every time I try to make lists of favorite anythings. My personal list of favorite titles is enormous, each one having  qualifiers to it suggesting the age, interests, intent, experience, current circumstances, and other factors affecting their potential audience and use.
My tags on Goodreads titles sometimes (often) run longer than the review itself as I try to attach categories to each title that allow me to cross-reference a particular book for any future use.    
Despite my resistance to making lists, I  appreciate the willingness of others to commit to ten favorites, including Nerdy Book Club's Top Ten Picture Books for Secondary Classrooms, Cathy's Reflect and Refine post, (which offers multiple useful links to more extensive lists), A Year of Reading,  Cathy Mallou Bealey's Bildebok, and even the Twitter hashtag #P10for10. Just skimming the titles featured in these posts leaves me nodding in agreement, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over books I couldn't bear to leave off of a list of my own. This happened with well more than ten titles, and the lists above don't even scratch the surface.
Disney/Hyperion Books, 2010

So I'll share just two titles here, each of which could land on a list if not limited in number. The first is OH, NO! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World, written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Dan Santat. The opening end papers signal a highly meticulous plan for a fifth grade science project: a robot with canine mind control, zero emission power core, and titanium alloy superclaws.  The first page turn provides an English/Japanese glossary scroll and double page spread warning signals, followed by the title page with even more clues to the impending disaster. Each further page turn reveals yet another wide-screen, double-page spread that reads from left to right with  expressive and comical details that advance the plot. I warn you, DO NOT fail to peruse each square inch.
The over-the-top conclusion (and it is over-the-top, literally and figuratively) belies the seriously meticulous final end papers. This is obviously a brilliant and creative young  girl, not unlike the brilliant and creative pairing of Barnett and Santat.
Harcourt Children's Books, 2013
Compare that to recent release LIVES OF THE SCIENTISTS: Experiments, Explosions (and What the Neighbors Thought), by Kathleen Krull and Kathryn Hewitt. This latest edition to their "Lives of the..." series offers anecdotal snippets about twenty scientists across the centuries whose accomplishments changed the world. Although Krull has received countless awards for her biographies for young readers, her emphasis in these vignettes is less on full life stories and more on their personalities, quirks, explorations, habits. These were often patterns that raised some eyebrows, although not to the degree of disturbance in the previous title.
This collection is undeniably non-fiction, with a bibliography, "extra credit" challengers, and well-researched insider stories on iconic names of science.Both, though, are entertaining, visually extend the content, and stimulate an interest in science.

These two titles perfectly demonstrate my reluctance to list favorites. Each serves its intended audience perfectly, reaches far beyond that to entice other readers, and pairs brilliantly talented authors with the ideal illustrators. Each intrigues and invites deep inspection of the images, rereading of the text, and fosters discussion. Why wouldn't they be favorites?
There was a time when I believed I could at least recognize books that would not "make the cut" for a personal list of favorites of any length. Then I realized that many of those "lesser" choices were inevitably being found, favorited, and treasured by some other readers for whom they were a perfect match. 
There are certainly some objective traits that mark quality picture books, but I've given up on being the arbiter of which are "best". On Goodreads I'm reluctant to note star ratings, and I decline to list, review, or rate anything I might give less than three stars. I'm only one reader. My opinions should "do no harm", since on another given day or in another frame of mind I might feel differently about the book. 
So thank you to all those who bravely share their lists. Anyone who wants to add favorite titles in the comments will be more than welcome. SOME of my many favorites are featured in these blog posts. If you're new here, I hope you'll take a look.
Disney- Hyperion Books, 2012

Here's an update: The books I review are purchased or acquired through the library. One measure of the popularity of the OH, NO! (above) was the wait I experienced on the library hold list for it and for its sequel title. I finally received their follow up book, OH, NO! NOT AGAIN! (or how I built a time machine to save history or at least my history grade). Don't miss it when you are "shopping" for the titles above, whether at a bookstore, online, or at your local library. they're worth the wait.
In this iteration our heroine builds a time machine to travel back and make her single error on a test "correct" by changing history. As you guessed, mayhem ensues. I'm a real fan of this proactive, full-speed-ahead character, and kids are, too!

Aug 3, 2013

Taming the Beast

In recent posts I've featured inspiring titles, biographies of honorable role models, and non-fiction titles of historic events. Each has something to offer for readers and listeners across many ages, but the target audience would be school age readers and older. In part that's due to my mission to move picture books into the hands of established older readers.

It occurred to me that I'm more than a bit overdue to share some titles aimed at a younger audience. What brought this to mind was getting my hands on the recent release from author illustrator Zachariah OHoraNO FITS, NILSON!
Dial Books for Young Readers, 2013
Nilson (the gorilla) and Amelia (his best friend) have super-sized personalities and share everything (except baths-Nilson is afraid of water). Amelia's minimalist features reveal her wide-ranging emotions, and Nilson's bold-lined features combine with his gestures and body language to demonstrate emotions that range even more widely and wildly. In the early pages we witness one of Nilson's impressive fits resulting in their shared time-out. (hint-hint)

From that point on Amelia makes it her mission to help Nilson control his fits, modeling good manners, sharing her favorite things, thanking him for his efforts, and using a gorilla eye lock to help him calm down and delay gratification. When the long-awaited banana twist ice cream runs out, Amelia launches her own fit. Nilson saves the day by offering his cone to her and taking chocolate instead. 

This simple story is loaded with visual subtext and clues, subtle and otherwise. The bold red endpapers create a clear "stop-sign" and/or danger message. The minute details suggest a more complex relationship between the two than the words convey. Amelia redirects and coaches Nilson with an array of strategies that, if spouted by an adult, would come off as preachy. In this case, though, her efforts to keep the gigantic blue, sneaker-and-beanie-wearing gorilla friend in check are both silly and sincere. 

And just in case you haven't guessed that her reminders and warnings to Nilson are a bit more than each-one-teach-one peer coaching, the last page-turn drops Amelia and Nilson back into recognizable perspective as she cuddles in bed with her little stuffed toy gorilla.

This book works on so many levels it should come with an elevator. I'm not an artist (and I don't even play one in the movies) but I know enough about art and picture books to recognize award-winning potential in its design and execution. The white space backgrounds, the shifting in size and proportion, the story-telling power of expressions and details provide discussion points for older readers while parents and young ones will laugh out loud and ask for it again and again. This School LIbrary Journal review provides an extensive analysis and links to several other "tantrum" titles, new and old.

Who knows, sharing NO FITS, NILSON and these others might help some little stuffed friends conquer their own fits, too.
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.