Mar 20, 2016

A Celebration of Spring: Sharing Powerful Posts

Due to rigorous revison commitments with deadlines, I must either neglect this blog for a few weeks, offer slap-dash efforts, or encourage readers to check out some of my archived spring/baseball/warm weather posts. 
None of these options is adequate, so I will, instead, direct you to several recent posts offering wonderful suggestions from bloggers whose posts I do take time to read, even when time is a precious commodity. I hope you'll take the time to read them and explore the remarkable books they recommend.

Start here with suggestions from Leslie Colin Tribble on a group blog, aptly named GROGGORG, on Friday, March 18. If the four picture books featured here don't enhance your SPRING mood, you're hopeless.  It's Spring! Let's Get Outside!

Many years ago I attended a picture book workshop offered by the inimitable and prolific JILL ESBAUM. In the midst of her very busy life she manages to regularly contribute to another group blog about all things picture book, PICTURE BOOK BUILDERS. Her March 1 post (here) introduces her TEENY TINY TOADY along with an interview with her illustrator on this project, Keika Yamaguchi.

Next up is a New York Times piece by none other than Paul O. ZelinskyHis reviews always offer insights. When he selects titles to recommend and praise, no deadlines or distractions delay my heads-up attention. His March 11 review, 'THE NIGHT GARDENER', "TOKYO DIGS A GARDEN', and 'STORIES FROM BUG GARDEN' is no exception. 

I'll end with that, confident that I'm doing my own small part to celebrate spring, nature, and picture book writing and illustrating by linking to these reviews. Do yourself a favor and check them out. If you've read others to recommend, pop into comments and share them with us, please. 

Meanwhile, my shopping and library hold lists have grown, and I'll return to revisions on other work with a jolt of renewed energy of the season. 

Thank you to JILL ESBAUM, LESLIE COLIN TRIBBLE, and PAUL O. ZELINSKY for your wise words and wonderful recommendations.

Mar 8, 2016

Navigating Tough Turf: Fiction/Nonfiction

At a recent school visit I worked with sixth graders on the craft of writing historical fiction. In that genre a writer's goal is to know and share facts through storytelling that SEEMS as real as history. Only then can a story achieve its goals of entertaining, educating, and stimulating curiosity while not misleading or confusing readers. Most historical fiction books offer back matter resources to verify sources, indicate points of accuracy/divergence from facts, and suggest further explorations. 
That requires research. 
Extensive research.
Chronicle Books, 2016

This challenge is even important in picture books. 
Perhaps especially important. 
The youngest readers have limited background knowledge and are, developmentally, less able to sort out reality from imagination. Both the author and the illustrator must apply their best talents in order to bring to life the time, place, and social forces of history within a powerful and appealing story. 
This challenge was well-met in the recent picture book written by Pat Zietlow Miller and illustrated by Frank Morrison, THE QUICKEST KID IN CLARKSVILLE.  
In a recent interview with TIME FOR KIDS, Pat indicated she did extensive research on her subject  even though the only direct text references to Wilma Rudolph involved just a couple of lines in the book.

I encourage young readers to "reverse engineer" the writing process by reading this recent book, then other nonfiction titles on the subject. Insights can be found into comparing sources, sorting details, and decision making about what is the "just-right" amount of factual content within historical storytelling to enrich but not overwhelm.

Harcourt Children's Books, 1996
On this subject, the book I'd recommend above all others is WILMA UNLIMITED: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World's fastest Woman, by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by David Diaz. During the 2012 summer Olympics I wrote about this book (and others, here) and will undoubtedly do so again at some point. 
The 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin have been the focus of literary and film attention in recent years. In 1936 the Olympics were politicized and orchestrated by Hitler in an attempt to prove his theories of white supremacy. The talent and dedication of Jesse Owens and others denied Hitler his national sweep and false claims. The movie trailer for Jesse Owens's story, RACE, is here.

Wilma's story in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome played out in high drama, too. Even so, her first-time-ever triple GOLD MEDAL for a woman can't outshine the drama of the personal story revealing how she reached that international stage. WILMA UNLIMITED captures that perfectly. This narrative and  fully illustrated picture book makes Wilma's story seem as if it could be entirely fiction, a tall tale, or a superhero story. That's why comparison to more traditional sources allow young readers to verify and answer questions.

Teacher Created Materials, 2010

 WILMA RUDOLPH: Against All Odds, by Stephanie E. Macceca is, is an excellent example in traditional nonfiction-information text format. This easy-to-read biography sets Wilma's life in context of the times, incorporating information about polio and politics. Its design includes the expected elements of photography, archival images, picture captions, simple illustrations, table of contents, index, and direct-to-reader back matter.
Readers could easily compare the books point-for-point with very kid-friendly text.

Capstone Press, 2006
Graphic text provides another approach to nonfiction for young readers. WILMA RUDOLPH: Olympic Track Star (Graphic Biographies) written by Lee Engfer, illustrated by Cynthia Martin is an excellent example. The accessibility of paneled text and illustration format has been proven successful with the youngest readers and with older, established readers. 
Dismissive attitudes toward "comic book" content has been receding among teachers, librarians, and parents as the quality of information and literary prose in this format steadily rises.

Opportunities to read and discuss a variety of research materials like these examples offers readers a digestible version of the process writers use to make history come to life. This exploration might lead to writing a fictional story incorporating  historical characters and events. In the realm of nonfiction, athletes have been the subject of a wide variety of books in various formats. A project like this just might hook some otherwise reluctant writers.
Why not give it a try?

Mar 1, 2016

Previews of Spring: Monarchs, Walking Sticks, and Bugs!

As I sit down to write this post a snowstorm is swirling outside my window. 

Well, it's not quite this bad, but it has been coming down nonstop since the middle of the night and shows no signs of stopping despite the weather forecasts of only a "few inches".

As a longtime Wisconsin resident it's really no surprise to have March roar in like a lion. This winter has actually been milder than the last several, and I'm both aware of and grateful for that blessing. My dismay has to do with two recent weekends that each provided fifty-degree days with loads of sunshine. At least that provided some relief from the cabin fever of other, more relentless, winters. With the calendar page turning to March, I also take comfort in knowing that the official start of spring is just 21 days away, regardless of what my eyes tell me.

Here are three titles to tide us over until the weather cooperates. 
Sleeping Bear Press, 2016

First up, take a look at this lushly-illustrated new picture book written by Wisconsin author Linda Vander Heyden and illustrated by Eileen Ryan Ewen. (Learn more about Linda in this great profile  from ON THE SCENE 2016 blog.) MR. McGINTY'S MONARCHS is one of those rare picture books based on an adult character, Mr. McGinty, and his lovable (but massive) dog, Sophie. 
This is my review on Goodreads:

"It goes without saying that Monarch butterflies are one of the most familiar and beloved insects in the western hemisphere. Grandpa-like Mr. McGinty is  one of their strongest and most dedicated fans. His devotion is fully supported by his almost-larger-than-life dog, Sophie. After a stand of milkweed habitat is cut down, it's up to that determined pair to find a way to rescue the unhatched monarch eggs on their damaged plants.

Author Vander Heyden succeeded in the most difficult of tasks for picture book writers- creating an "old guy" to carry the story on his shoulders while kids play a very minor role. She also blends action with nonfiction, richly enhanced by the illustrator's detail and colorfully appealing spreads, including the endpapers.

Add this one to your TBR pile and share it with kids, soon!"

Sleeping Bear Press, 2016

GOOD TRICK, WALKING STICK, written by Sheri Mabry Bestow and illustrated by Johnny Lambert, is another 2016 release.  It spotlights a different insect that seems to be universally adored. This nonfiction book about well-camouflaged walking sticks combines a seasonal-cycle narrrative with informative passages to expand the science. Smaller-print paragraphs on many pages provide accessibly-detailed  content (including specific vocabulary) to make it a resource for research. it also supports parents and other readers in answering the many questions kids can (and do) ask. Kirkus Review praises both the lyrical language and the inclusion of accurate science information in this review.
Sleeping Bear Press has produced two winning titles to welcome spring. In my opinion they are both destined to become longterm favorites.
Grosset-Dunlap (PenguinRandom House, 2016

Not to be outdone, Grosset-Dunlap (PenguinRandomHouse-Young Readers) has released THE BUG BOOK, written by flawless-rhymer Sue Fliess. I reviewed a trio of her titles in 2013, well in advance of the gender-neutral wave of titles hitting the market since then. They continue to appeal and to offer stereotype-free encouragements to young readers. (CLICK HERE to read about them.)
Her low-word-count text bounces with energy, humor, precision, and appeal while framing photographic images that will make you want to touch the little critters (well, at least some of them). Here's just one example of toe-pleasing rhythm, pitch-perfect rhyme, and sensory engagement:

Itch bugs, 
Head bugs, 
Uh-oh, bedbugs!

Shy bugs, 
bold bugs,
Catch-and-hold bugs!

Several hours have passed since I sat down to prepare this post. The snow stopped. (Hooray!) The wind, however, increased. If anyone else is dragging themselves through the waning (or howling) days of winter, I highly recommend these three titles to transport your thoughts to warmer climes and times. 
Meanwhile, to any little buggies out in the blustery cold, here's some advice from the last pages of THE BUG BOOK:

Bugs in beds of soil deep, 
Dreamy bugs fall fast asleep. 

Reader Anna shared a link in the comments below. Check out this encouraging news about the survival of MONARCHS!
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.