Sep 28, 2013

Sonia Sotomayor- You Be the Judge

(Geezer alert here- sounding even older than I am at the start of this post!)

I remember a time when kids were asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" and the answers ranged from cowboy to cook, from astronaut to paleontologist. The ubiquitous media dominance of sports stars, musical performers,  and reality personalities, (no matter how dysfunctional), make other answers more likely these days. Sadly, more and more little ones skip the career designation and just say, "Rich!" or "Famous!" or "On TV!"

Even more pathetic is the current insistence that students as young as preschoolers be made "college and career ready", as determined by some arbitrarily designed and inappropriately administered standardized test. It's not that I'm opposed to career awareness. Quite the contrary, picture books offer outstanding options for exploring careers in general, or  specifically through biographies of successful individuals. 

Charlesbridge, 2012

I've been touting one title that does an outstanding job of that, CLOTHESLINE CLUES TO JOBS PEOPLE DO, written by Kathryn Heling and Deborah Hembrook, illustrated by Andy Robert Davies.
The Heling & Hembrook team offers riddles in their characteristically tightly-rhymed and tumbling text while Davies portrays a visual subplot that kids love. (I do, too!)

As for encouraging kids to dream big, to start early with ambitious plans, I'm all-aboard on that train, too. I was one of those kids, as noted in one of my earliest posts. Children are best served when encouraged to imagine and aspire without limits based on arbitrary scores on trivia-oriented bubble sheets or mouse clicks.

With testing and scores overshadowing a five year old's school day, how often do you think you'll hear that child say she wants to grow up to be a judge?
Each year the term of our United States Supreme Court begins on the first Monday of October. Even though the current term continues until that day, (this year, 2013, that falls on October 7), no active arguments or decisions occur after late June. Anticipating this important day in our government seems the best possible time for me to share a remarkable picture book, the bilingual biography SONIA SOTOMAYOR: A Judge Grows in the Bronx. Written by Jonah Winter and illustrated by Edel Rodriguez, this 2009 release was timely then, but is timeless now. 
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2009

My appreciation for this book began when I heard the title, a powerful and appropriate riff on  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. In that novel a fictional young girl is raised primarily by her tirelessly laboring mother. Her dreams defy the reality of her neighborhood, society's expectations,  and her poverty. 
The same is true generations later for one real life young girl in the Bronx, as presented with accessible and effective bilingual passages in the well-researched and factual biography of US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

I grew up at a time when career choices were limited by your birthright and circumstances (for minorities, for those with disabilities, or for those of us who happened to be female). I love that Sonia's grand plan not only allowed for the possibility of a female becoming a judge, but that she actually had a role model in Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. The fact that this book is bilingual is not just a bonus, it plays an essential role in acknowledging the additional limitations her ethnicity imposed on her as a child. I can read a bit of Spanish but do not have enough grasp of the language to judge the quality or lyricism of that part of the text. If it measures up to the accessibility and fluidity of the English text, it's a dual gift to teachers as mentor text. (Anyone fluent in Spanish who can offer an opinion on this is invited to do so.)

Many recent blog posts have addressed the fact that US children's literature greatly under-represents our diverse culture. BBC News Magazine has a short feature that points this out quite well. This picture book shines a light on an inspiring ethnic-American leader, but also offers an appealing story and images of an American child. All non-fiction should aspire to such heights.

Sep 23, 2013

Lifetime- The Amazing Numbers in Animal Lives

Chronicle Books, 2013
In the previous post author Lola M. Schaefer was kind enough to share her thoughts on the making of her newest picture book, LIFETIME- The Amazing Numbers in Animal Lives. I'm a fan of all of her titles, but I'm especially excited about her non-fiction books. They offer accessible, lyrical text and her varied illustrators produce extraordinary images to enhance and extend the content. Well-written back matter  allow her seemingly simple books to engage and intrigue readers of all ages.

Here's a challenge for you, one I feel confident in issuing. My confidence is rooted in knowing the degree of energy Lola invests when researching her topics. (If you haven't read the interview linked above, this might be a good time. It's okay, we'll be here when you pop back to us!) So, go ahead and try to find the numbers she provides here. Scroll through web searches, check text books, try any other ready source. Until Lola did her due diligence on this project, the "AMAZING NUMBERS" revealed in the pages of LIFETIME were not available. Not without duplicating the complex search, verification, and computation processes she completed to assure reliability of her facts.

"Fills a clever niche for both animal science and mathematics."-Booklist

LIFETIME: interior spread (Chronicle Books)
The illustrator, Christopher Silas Neal, rose to the occasion with the accuracy and appeal of each double page spread. Challenge number two: try to catch him in an error, in number or in the accuracy of the flora and fauna he depicts for each scene. You can bet your 'gator that kids will be doing this, convinced that he slipped up somewhere. Who could be that meticulous? 
Neal could, and is.

LIFETIME: interior spread (Chronicle Books)
That might not sound impressive when it comes to showing twenty alpaca fleeces. But just imagine illustrating exactly 900 flowers visited by a swallowtail butterfly's lifetime, or the ONE THOUSAND baby seahorses a male seahorse will carry and birth in a lifetime. I'm admitting right here that my own compulsion to verify the counts on each page did not extend to these illustrations, but you can bet there will be kids who commit to the task.

And don't be fooled thinking he used computer image flips to accomplish this. The giraffe pages are proof of that. Go ahead, look at the reverse images carefully. How many ways can you find to prove to yourself that these reveal opposite side views of a particular giraffe, not just a mirror image.

Don't take my word for it that older kids will be engrossed in this book. Check out what eleven-year-old Erik on THIS KID REVIEWS BOOKS blog has to say about it. It's worth reading in full (as his reviews always are) but I love his conclusion:
"I would love to see more nonfiction PB done as well as this one.
I give this book 5 out of 5 bookworms!"
Another review with a hearty endorsement of LIFETIME can be found on WAKING BRAIN CELLS blog (well worth following!). Again, read the full and detailed review. My favorite line from it is this: 
"One of the most visually stimulating and smart concepts for a nonfiction picture book, 
this one is sure to beat the averages and be read more than once."
Lola M. Schaefer

 LIFETIME: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Lives offers the timeless power of snuggles and smiles, of counting and curiosity, of nature and numbers. Lola Schaefer and Christopher Silas Neal paired with the editors and designers at Chronicle Books to produce a "keeper", one of those books that will last a lifetime and will be shared with generations to come. So, happy book birthday to you, Lola, and here's to many years of happy readers ahead!

And by the way, readers, if you take me up on one one of the challenges. let me know what you find!
My thanks to Chronicle books for an advance copy which allowed me to issue this review on the launch date, September 24, 2013.

Sep 20, 2013

Countdown to Lifetime with Author Lola Schaefer

Author Lola M. Schaefer

I’m delighted to have this opportunity to interview Lola Schaefer about her very-soon-to-be-released picture book, LIFETIME: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Lives. I’ll admit I loved the concept as soon as I heard it described. Having a copy to read and examine cemented that feeling and I can’t wait to post my review of it on launch day, September 24.

Chronicle Books, 2013
I’m a fan of Lola’s books on many levels- as a reader, teacher, gift-giver, mentor, blogger, and workshop leader. Her titles offer something for everyone, ranging from picture books with stories that reflect many ages, to I Can Read titles, to titles that explore non-fiction topics for all ages, in partnership with some of the most incredible illustrators in the publishing world. When I featured AN ISLAND GROWS in a recent post we began some email conversations and she graciously agreed to answer a few questions about this latest release.

So, without further ado, welcome, Lola, and thank you for being here, virtually. (Lola's comments below are in blue.)

I always read every word of picture books, including author notes (which this one has) and every bit of the back matter. In the back matter for this title you mentioned that you were curious about animals’ lives and wanted answers not directly available, so you found a way to get your answers with math. How/when did these particular “wonderings” about animals first occur to you?

That’s a difficult question to answer, Sandy. I’ve always been fascinated with the natural world, so I assume that some of these questions have been simmering in the back of my brain for many years. The entire concept of LIFETIME came from my editor. It was her mindstorm, not mine. As soon as she told me about her idea and asked if I would like to write it, I began listing animals and behaviors that intrigued me. And like all research, one question about one animal leads to another and another and another.
Interior spread, LIFETIME, Chronicle Books, 2013
 I admire the language patterns and word choices you used for each double spread display. Each page begins with “In one lifetime…then states the fact simply. Yet the small additions of comments and animal sounds emphasize how distinct each species is. Was the writing as challenging as the research?

Oh, for this book the research was definitely more challenging. It nearly took eighteen months to find animals with features/behaviors that might work. The writing of the actual text was fun. Most of the comments either add a detail or a little humor. It’s playful writing, and I hope the reader enjoys it.

This reader certainly did!
Interior spread, LIFETIME, Chronicle Books, 2013
 The back matter makes it clear that your research included many more animals than those in the final publication. How did you go about choosing these specific animals, and then which to include and which to leave out?

The editor and I knew from the beginning that we wanted a series of spreads that would showcase features or behaviors ranging from 1 to 1,000. Initially, most of the creatures that I explored had numbers that were all too low or astronomically high. It definitely was a treasure hunt. The added challenge came from the fact that many of the statistics found online are inaccurate. So, I needed to get a general idea from those kinds of sources, but continually contact experts in the field to verify. Sometimes I would be excited about an animal and my editor would point out that the behavior would be too difficult for an illustrator to show. Other times we would agree that a chosen animal would be too blah, or boring for the book. In the end, after months of work, I chose fifteen animals. Of those, we agreed on the ten that are in the book. I have to admit that I was quite giddy when I found out that the female reticulated giraffe is 200 inches tall and has 200 spots. That double whammy really tickled me.

I’ll admit that the giraffe information was my favorite, and I especially admired the illustrations on that spread, which I’ll describe further in the upcoming review. I love that this book will appeal to every age and can be integrated in conceptual activities from the youngest to advanced readers. Was the additional back matter (further examples, demonstrations of your calculations, and a few simple word problems with data from other species) your idea, or your editor’s?

Many of the literary or narrative nonfiction titles that are published for children today include back matter. Both the editor and I knew that we wanted to offer more details than could be effectively used in the main text. We also knew that the different levels of information could reach a varied audience.

So far I've shared the book with a few student audiences - giving lots of behind-the-scenes explanation, of course - and they have been enthralled. The text has sparked lots of thoughtful questions. That's what I love – a book that stimulates critical thinking.
Interior spread, LIFETIME, Chronicle Books, 2013
Your illustrator, Christopher Silas Neal, also illustrated Kate Messner’s UNDER AND OVER THE SNOW. Both books have subdued tones on matte paper, both show simple figures with surprisingly accurate details, maintaining very natural images. Did you have any voice in the selection of your illustrator or the design of the book?

Each publisher works with authors a tad bit differently when it comes to signing an illustrator. What I like about Chronicle Books is that my editor will usually share a few names with samples of their work and ask me what I think. It’s not that my comments make or break the selection of an illustrator, but my opinion is taken into consideration. It’s a courtesy that I appreciate.
Your published books include both fiction and non-fiction. Can you tell us something about how you choose your projects and decide which to work on at a given time?

I typically have 3-4 picture book scripts underway at any given time. Each of those projects is at a different place. When one of them screams at me, I listen and devote the next few weeks to bringing it closer to a marketable manuscript. It’s always surprising and pretty stimulating to let my subconscious drive the process. Course, there are other times when an editor is requesting a second or third book, or asking for revisions. But even that is inspiring and motivational.

I can’t resist asking for a sneak preview of books you have in the works, what we can look forward to finding on the shelves in the next few years?

In 2014 I have three more books coming out. One is entitled SWAMP CHOMP and is a playful narrative of the food chain in the wetlands. Holiday House is the publisher. Disney/Hyperion will publish a second book about Spencer, the protagonist in ONE SPECIAL DAY. In this next book his younger sister Mia is trying desperately to get Spencer’s attention, but he is just too busy. That title is ONE BUSY DAY. And . . . I’m working on a completely different kind of fictional story with Blue Apple Books about a young girl named Maple who is delightfully naïve, honest, and resourceful. 

You’ve done lots of these interviews, but are there any questions you’ve wanted to be asked or something you’d like to add?

I’d like to say how much I enjoy speaking with my readers. When I am invited to a school as a visiting author or an author in residence, I come away with an even higher respect for their intellect and thoughtfulness. Kids ask the best questions. They are constantly reading between the lines, predicting, inferring, and making connections. There is no doubt that we have conscientious teachers to thank for this. Years ago, only some children were critical readers. But today with the use of reading workshop in so many classrooms, young readers are studying text in much deeper ways. It’s thrilling to watch their minds at work and to have conversations with them on intent, meaning, and the process of writing. For me, it’s the best part of my career!

Thank you, Lola, for sharing your time and thoughts with us here. I have no doubt this book will be a success. I’m excited about posting a review of it on launch day, September 24. As a library user I’ll urge everyone to use the few days until then to become acquainted with your other titles. Some personal favorites include  JUST ONE BITE, AN ISLAND GROWS, and WHAT’S UP, WHAT’S DOWN? Then snatch up LIFETIME as soon as it is available. This is a great choice to add to personal and classroom libraries as well, so keep it in mind for holiday gifting.

Thank you, Sandy, for reaching out to me and for showcasing LIFETIME in this interview. On a larger note, thank you for researching children’s literature and keeping your readers updated on what’s new. It’s a big job!

I’m very appreciative to Lara Starr at Chronicle Books for providing an advance copy to make this a timely interview and post. 

Sep 14, 2013

Best "HOW-TO" Book Ever? This Is It!

In the last post I featured two outstanding titles on how Mother Nature, in her symbiotic and gorgeous way, makes volcanic islands and chocolate. The authors and illustrators of those books harnessed their talents to make complex scientific information accessible and appealing to young readers, sparking curiosity in the process. I pointed out the importance of sharing these books with kids in school, using high quality visual literature to open minds to the wonder of science.
Simple Read Books, 2013

In the case of Julie Morstad, author and illustrator of HOW TO, the inspiration comes not from Mother Nature but from Human Child. On Goodreads I said,

"This nearly wordless book uses minimal text, wide white spaces, and children of diverse ages and ethnicities in every combination to suggest just a few of the many ways children can make themselves happy. It's light, bright, and enlightening. As the final page dares to state "the end",  a glimpse of a departing child's foot and back exiting to the right of the page suggests children will continue to figure out "HOW TO"... live. This is one book that should be shared with children of every age, if nothing else but to remind them of the power that lies within themselves."

The starred review in Kirkus included this note:

"...the characters’ delicate features exhibit an absorption in their activities that simultaneously signals the seriousness and satisfaction of concentration. The “be happy” conclusion portrays unself-conscious movement—including that initial runner, leaving the book."

Further, ForeWord Magazine had this to say:

"Another stunner from the gifted Julie Morstad. "How To" relays visual instructions on such events as washing your socks (stand in a puddle), watching the wind (fly kids), disappearing (hide behind a curtain), and watching where you're going (track your shadow). A perfect way to elevate familiar children's activities to capture their everyday magic. Innovative cropping of delicate drawings makes them even more precious."
Simply Read Books, 2011

Morstad's previous illustration work has received strong praise, too, including illustrating "The Swing", Robert Louis Stevenson's classic poem. Her work with Caroline Woodward's text in SINGING AWAY THE DARK generated a picture book ranked as  finalist in four Canadian Book Award competitions.

Julie resides with her family in Vancouver, BC, and her work spans some of the most impressive companies and media, including Chronicle Books, Harper Collins, Random House, Penguin, Simply Read Books, and Warner Bros. Music.

There has been a strenuous focus on Common Core, STEM, and other non-fiction titles, including picture books.  This has has extended the use of picture books into upper  elementary and middle school classrooms. *Yippee!*  Non-fiction "how-to" titles fit into that scenario beautifully, for reading and as mentor text for writing. *Again, yippee!*

My worry is that the various demands for measurable, testable, data-bubbled responses as decisive factors in measuring the lives of students, teachers, and even entire schools will nudge (or elbow or stampede) more reflective, open-ended titles such as these out the door.

As kids (and their families) are sucked back into a ten month pattern of tightly scheduled days and evenings, likely weekends, too, I'm hoping that this book might inspire us all to savor the spontaneous moments, encourage creativity, and keep the calendar "open" for openness of thought and deed. I wrote about this last year when reviewing Liz Garton Scanlon's celebration of passion and performance, THINK BIGIf spontaneity  appeals but you're wondering "how to" make it happen,  HOW TO is a great place to start.

Sep 7, 2013

How Things Come to Be: The Chicken or the Egg?

Melissa Stewart recently posted some notes about creating her book, No Monkeys No Chocolate, including a wonderful link to an interactive timeline showing how the book itself came to be. Don't miss it!

Last week I was lucky enough to interview the incredibly talented Molly Idle to learn about how she creates her amazing picture books, including Flora and Flamingo  and Tea Rex, among many others. If you missed it, I urge you to take a look.

Since school has resumed, sharing interviews with authors and illustrators is more relevant than ever. All those books stacked on shelves, filling personal reading packets, and shared on carpets come from somewhere, from someone(s) who worked long and hard to put them into our hands, homes, and classrooms. Reflecting on the time, energy, revision, analysis, and collaboration each book represents is challenging to us all, but especially so for young children. Their sense of time, shaped as it is by the short span of their lives, struggles to grasp how endlessly long it seems to Christmas or to their birthdays. It's nearly inconceivable to them that someone could spend several years writing, then additional years illustrating, manufacturing, and releasing a book of only 32 pages, in this case without a single word of text!

And yet dinosaurs intrigue young minds and seem to make perfect sense to them.

Greenwillow Books, 2006
That's why I'm convinced that even the youngest children will embrace and enjoy AN ISLAND GROWS, by Lola M. Schaefer and illustrated by Cathie Felstead. They'll be captivated by the spare but vivid rhyming text and illustrations.

"Deep, deep, beneath the sea,
Magma glows.
Volcano blows.
Lava flows
and flows
and flows."
The island's development proceeds through the forces of nature and society to become a home to plant and animal life, people, economies, and cultures. Meanwhile, "deep, deep beneath the sea..."
other islands are forming. Simple but precise back matter describes the process further and points curious readers to additional sources.

Charlesbridge, 2013
Even closer to home, and not just for kids, but for chocolate-lovers of any age, is NO MONKEYS, NO CHOCOLATE, by Melissa Stewart and Allen Young, illustrated by Nicole Wong. It, too, encompasses long spans of time and could easily take place on the island created in the previous  title. From the luscious offerings on a birthday table the reader is led, page by page, to the source of the deliciousness of chocolate. 

From beans to pods to flowers, leaves, ants, and maggots (maggots?! Ant-brain-eating maggots?), through stems, down to the roots, enriched by fungi (fungi, too?), and back to the beginning- the sprouting of a cocoa bean. 
What, no monkeys? What's up with that?
The monkeys finally make an appearance as the heroes who open cocoa pods to suck on the citrus-y pulp surrounding the seeds, traveling through treetops and spitting out seeds to grow in the fertile forest floor to eventually become new cocoa plants, ensuring the circle of life.

A delightful feature, one that will draw even the youngest readers through this labyrinth, is the page-turning presence of a pair of chocolate-munching, commentating bookworms in the lower left corner of each spread. They initiate the page turns (allowing peeks at the coming illustrations) and insert comic remarks. These include puns, word play, and repeated reminders of the notable lack of monkeys.

This collaboration of a highly successful science writer (click the link here to Melissa Stewart's Science Clubhouse) with an expert on chocolate is described in the author's note. She also explains how she came up with the bookworms (inspired by Statler and Waldorf, the old guys in the Muppets balcony). Her note also indicates how many years this book simmered and stewed in her thoughts before it was ready to move on to an editor, illustrator, book designer, and finally into our hands.

I'm filled with an impulse to list another dozen related titles, but I'll resist the urge and encourage you to start with these two. If they lead you to more titles, share them in comments. If you want suggestions of other like this, just ask! 
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.