Jun 25, 2017

A Timeless Title, and Magical Truth

In case you haven't guessed by now, I'm a regular at my public library. Depending on current projects and needs, my "hold" list varies from a few titles to the maximum seventy-five, from adult titles to board books. I visit the library several times each week, generally dropping off books and scanning the hold shelf before a quick pivot takes me to self-checkout and a speedy exit. 
Picture Book Studio, 1989

When a Friends of the Library fundraiser presents a craft sale or culled book sale, I'll pause for a quick glance. I want to support the library with more than my attendance, but I've reached a stage in life when I'll hand over a ten-spot as a direct donation instead. 
For some reason, though, perhaps it was a magical impulse, I paused today at the culled-books-for-sale shelf and browsed for a few moments. Waiting there for me, in pristine condition, was MAGICAL HANDS. 

I fall in love with many books, many times, and rarely fall out of love with those books. But I have a big enough heart to love more books without feeling compelled to rank them or name favorites. I have a  deep-seated belief that the best book for one reader may not be the best for another. And what might be best for me at any given time can be quite different from one I'd choose under other circumstances. 
I dread the thought that something negative I might have to say about a particular book could discourage someone from reading it, perhaps someone who needs that exact book at that exact time. I'm not so full of myself as to imagine that a discouraging word from me could exert such power. Yet, as a lifelong teacher, I know that it actually can be. There are young readers who devour print obsessively, including backs of packages. But there are others who resist reading, even with promises of prizes or pizzas (not my go-to approach, but sometimes it's a start-up system).  A single,  overheard, discouraging word could be the feather-light nudge that bumps a reader away from the very book that might hold a key to his or her reading heart. 
I write all of that as my disclaimer: I RARELY have a negative word to say about a book, opting instead for the adage: If you can't say something nice, say nothing at all.
And so, the reverse is equally true: I RARELY claim a book as a favorite, even if sorting into tightly defined categories.
But still, some books are just so magically special.
MAGICAL HANDS, written by Marjorie Barker and illustrated by Yoshi, is just such a book. This book was one of the first introduced and shared in each of my classrooms since I first read it in 1990. It falls short of many "rules" for current picture books- text is far too lengthy, characters are all adults, and color tones are subdued, ominously dark. Even so, when I open the cover I flash back to the faces of kids on a carpet, leaning forward, tilting an ear toward the dialogue, sensing the drama unfolding. This was the reaction whether the listeners were seven or eleven. Year after year.
On the surface, it's an appealing story of four village businessmen in a historical setting who lunch together daily. The heart, the friendships, the magic of the story go deep below that surface, and the listeners faces light up as they recognize the magic of kindness and friendship. 
In days that followed we'd reference the story as an example of the value of excellence and dependability in workmanship, of friendship, and of generosity. All are revealed with a subtle touch of secrecy and gentle humor. The illustrations expand understanding of the story, characters, setting, and emotions, as well as providing context for some unfamiliar vocabulary. There are more than enough reasons to love this book, but other books have similar advantages. So why would I eagerly name this as a favorite?
Magical Hands has a magic to it. It is far more than the sum of its parts. 
After sharing a thousand or more titles in any given school year, when I asked kids to list the books they thought they'd remember years later, Magical Hands made its way to the majority of those lists.
And now I have an extra copy, which will be re-homed soon to another classroom or young reader. 

It's out of print but is readily available  through secondary markets, so I feel free to recommend it in this post. 

Jun 17, 2017

Jabari Jumps... With Dad's Help

Candlewick Press. June, 2017

With Fathers' Day barely a blink away, the June release of JABARI JUMPS arrives on bookstore shelves just in time. Author/illustrator Gaia Cornwall has produced a perfect picture book, with natural appeal on the surface, and plenty to discover when you dive below the surface. Mirroring Jabari's exuberant attitude after (spoiler alert) mastering the high dive, readers will want to return to this book again and again to revel in the story, the warmly supportive relationship, and to discover even greater thrills within its pages. 

The generous trim size allows for expansive, sunny, watery, double-page spreads, turn after turn featuring expressive characters with just enough detail to connect with urban readers (skylines) and swimmers, divers, and families everywhere.

I was delighted by Jabari's gusto, bravado, and attention to his cautionary inner voice. Even more so, I was touched by his dad's sensitive awareness and deft responses to affirm, reassure, and encourage independent choice. From the title spread onward, Jabari, his dad, and his toddler sister are portrayed tenderly, energetically, recognizably, and humorously. The images and color choices had me smelling chlorine and hearing the splashing laughter of a summer community pool. 

I'm not the only one to celebrate this new release. School Library Journal's starred review summarizes the storyline and concludes: "VERDICT Jabari’s story will help assuage the fears kids experience when faced with a new and daunting adventure. A terrific seasonal storytime read-aloud that’s perfect for one-on-one sharing."–Mindy Hiatt, Salt Lake County Library Services

A review in The Washington Post featured JABARI JUMPS for young readers in an article focused on books that inspire bravery in readers. I've also read  and recommend the two titles for older readers, GIRL RISING: CHANGING THE WORLD ONE GIRL AT A TIME, by Tanya Lee Stone, and THE HATE U GIVE, by Angie Thomas. But I'm writing here about picture book readers. For Fathers Day bonding and months beyond, read this excerpt from Kathie Meizner's review to see why this is a must-have title:
 "   full of the light blue of summer sky and water and attuned to the perspective of a small boy whose ambition is just a little bit bigger than he is."

Back to that perspective, and the quiet confidence Jabari finds through his dad's acceptance and reassurance. During the summer of 1945, thousands upon thousands of American and other soldiers were in Europe, winding down from their successful effort to defeat Hitler's forces. Most, like Dad, barely made it home for Christmas. 
My dad was among them, waiting  through the months-long process involved in returning home to his wife and baby girl, my sister. That's him in the picture. Those who don't know him might see in this picture a confidant, steady young man. I see my dad wearing a wool uniform on a steamy beach because he would never set foot in the water. I see my dad who was desperately seasick on his  voyage to and from Europe, a man who never lost his fear of water, but never transferred that to the four little waterbugs he raised. 
It didn't hurt that Mom loved the water and taught us each how to swim. Despite his lack of enthusiasm for the water, Dad willingly scraped together his limited funds, patched our old station wagon with duct tape if necessary, and hauled us to our annual vacation in a rented cottage on Lake Erie. There, day after day, he donned his swim trunks, waded out with us into water that he feared, for us as much as for him, while never once allowing that fear to pass from his hand to ours as we bounced, splashed, and reveled in what felt like an ocean. 

Dad  came to my mind as I read JABARI JUMPS, the first time and each time since. Jabari's dad isn't in the water until the later spreads, even then only up to his waist. He never takes his eyes off of his son and is ever-attentive to his water-winged baby girl. What mattered to me won't matter to everyone, and kids will certainly identify with Jabari, not his dad. Yet I'm thinking there will be plenty of kids who could read this and find in the dad's gentle messages the comfort, confidence, and support they may lack in their own relationships. 
And they will be brave.
As Dad was.

Jun 9, 2017

Miranda Paul's BLOBFISH Throws a Party: Plus Interview!

Who's up for a party?
Who doesn't like delicious candy treats?
Who doesn't like full-blown, giggle-inducing silliness?
And who doesn't LOVE a blobfish story?

What's a blobfish, you ask? It's a recently discovered, gelatinous inhabitant of the deepest waters off Australia, and it was voted (in an online poll) the world's ugliest animal! Check out the video on Miranda Paul's website to learn more about it, scientifically, here.

Despite that pathetically sad face, the central character in BLOBFISH THROWS A PARTY is one clever fellow. He's not happy with his circumstances:

Opening end papers- pretty lonely place, right?

"Blobfish lived at the bottom of the ocean.
The dark, lonely bottom of the ocean.
With no lights.
No friends.

And no delicious treats."

Rather than mope around, Blobfish makes a plan. 
Two plans, in fact. 
1) He can throw a party.
If that fails...
2) He can save the world, because heroes always get  what they want.

little bee books, 2016
 But when a fish shouts its invitation from the depths of the ocean, a wildly wacky version of the "telephone game" ensues. His message reaches mermaids, who distort it before their version is heard by  shorebirds, whose twisted take is heard by monkeys. The various comical  chants wind their way to sheep and farmers, on to dancers, and then to kids playing soccer. In each case, though, the word "PARTY" remains intact. Because, of course, who doesn't love a party? 
The resulting planet-wide party has everyone smiling, except BLOBFISH, who is still all alone in that dark depths of the ocean. 
Final spread- don't you love it when a plan comes together?

But when alien invaders on a mission to steal delicious Earth treats encounter the convoluted consequences of those shouted invitations, Blobfish's "Plan B" is surprisingly successful.
Illustrator Maggie Caton's vibrant colors and energized figures combine with Miranda Paul's cleverly wacky word play, laughably layering and entertaining as the story unfolds. 

I'm a fan of all of Miranda's books, and I'm proud to be able to call her a personal friend. Miranda has major talent, boundless energy, and is overflowing with generosity. So, I'll say right away that this review is an objective response based on a library copy, not a favor to a friend. 
But our friendship made me feel perfectly free to ask a favor with no promises about the nature of my review. And, no surprise to me, Miranda responded to my interview questions so that I could share them with you here:

SB: First, Miranda, I had loads of fun reading (and rereading) your latest book. Thank you for taking time out of your very busy and productive life to answer a few questions.

 The back cover of your book says you’ve been a marine-life fan since childhood. I didn't know that about you! I wonder if any BLOBFISH were among your posters, figures, or fantasies? Do you remember how you first learned about these quirky pink deep sea creatures?

MP: Little to nothing was publicly known about the Blobfish during my childhood. Scientific research and public awareness about the blobfish have been more robust in the past two decades. If I’d known about them earlier, they would have been next to my posters of moray eels, Tursiops Truncatus and other cetaceans.

SB: How did you decide to feature blobfish in a book, and how did you imagine the kind of story he had to tell?

MP: I set out to write a book which involved the telephone game—a game I loved to play as a child and still play with my children. The game is all about laughing at your mistakes and miscommunication. What animal is more misunderstood than one that got voted the World’s Ugliest Animal in 2013? The story needed a creature who would have to rely on calling out an invitation rather than passing out invites because they didn’t have friends nearby. Blobfish was the animal who fit the bill: misunderstood, alone, and perhaps a bit naive.

SB: Your published work includes biographical/informational text (One Plastic Bag, Whose Hands Are These?), science (Water Is Water), and humor (Trainbots, 10 Little Ninjas and now, the charmingly funny BLOBFISH THROWS A PARTY). They are illustrated in very different styles, as you would expect. What do you hope for from an illustrator when a book moves out of your hands and into theirs?

MP: My hope is that readers enjoy reading, and that requires me to let go of my adult sensibilities sometimes. That means I leave room so that an illustrator can insert their vision and style, too—making a book that kids will want to read again and again. I also always let my agent and editor know that I’m available if they or the illustrator have questions - especially if it’s a spare text or a nonfiction book and I have research material for reference.

SB: What was your reaction when you first saw the illustrations for BLOBFISH?

MP: It’s hard to describe my first reaction, but a reviewer later went on to compare Maggie Caton’s bright and busy artwork with the stylings of Lisa Frank. I think that sums up a little of what I felt. (Not a bad comparison for a debut, either!) Her art is much brighter than I originally imagined a book set partially at the bottom of the sea, but since it’s a fictional account with a lot of chaos going on, I think that the final look of the book is more than fitting. That’s the beauty of collaboration—a good illustrator adds life to your book beyond your vision. Based on questions I get from aspiring writers, I think that the letting go must be hard for some writers. But picture books, to me, really are a collaboration and I embrace the letting go parts. Besides, the editor and your agent always loop you in and ask for your advice—and you get to have a say! I mentioned that I wanted the delicious treats to all be the kind not wrapped in plastic packaging, and that was one change that got made. I try not to be controlling, but I also speak up if there’s something important that I think must be changed. It’s a partnership.

SB: BLOBFISH Throws a Party uses a combination of narrative and rhyming text. The text of all of your picture books is lyrical, but not always in rhyme.  How do you decide which approach works best for the intended subject?

MP: One of my high school English teachers drilled into us the need for form/format to match the function of the work. It’s clear to me now. The way I write a particular story must be aligned with the content or the audience. If it’s meant to be a lullaby, a clever play on words, or a poetic celebration, I’ll often use rhyme. In Blobfish Throws a Party, which is written in prose, the rhyming words are functional. The similar-sounding words are due to the fact that each time Blobfish’s message gets passed on, a character mishears the invitation. Instead of “share,” the mermaids hear “wear,” and the shorebirds hear “tweet” instead of “treat.” In the context of the new message the characters’ resulting actions are funny, silly, gross, or even chaotic. Readers can follow exactly how the message gets mixed-up and regard all the bad that happens as an accident—no one is intentionally trying to mess with Blobfish or avoid him (or solicit evil aliens to come steal Earth’s candy). So the ending is a bit more satisfying that we’ve had well-meaning characters who deserve a bit of happiness. (And delicious treats.)

Join me in thanking Miranda for taking time away from her writing, her family, and her travels to share some insights about this latest picture book. And stay tuned for her fall releases: 

THE GREAT PASTA ESCAPE (little bee books, August, 2017) 

Join a ragtag group of pasta as they learn to work together and complete the greatest escape of their lives!


ARE WE PEARS YET?  (Neal Porter Books/Roaring Book Press, September, 2017 

The stage is set! Watch two pear seeds endure the long journey of growing up to bear fruit in this hilarious and informational picture book.

Jun 3, 2017

Molly Idle + Board Books = FLORA as a Chick-Sitter!

I was lucky enough to interview multi-talented author/illustrator MOLLY SCHAAR IDLE when her  initial FLORA picture book released, FLORA and the FLAMINGO. A quick click on her name will link you to her repertoire of picture book creations. When you have the opportunity, I'm sure that meeting her in the interview will charm you as much as the books themselves. 
I know I was charmed by our virtual meeting, by her ensuing Flora titles, and by her latest Flora adventure, a bowlful of fun in a board book, FLORA AND THE CHICKS: A Counting Book. 
Chronicle Books, March, 2017

In FLORA and the CHICKS, Idle has provided her irresistible character, FLORA, with a challenge of constrained but comical proportions. Always a fan of feathered friends (FLORA AND The FLAMINGO, FLORA AND THE PENGUIN, FLORA AND THE PEACOCKS), Flora arrives at the nest, bowl in hand, to collect eggs.  Just then Mama Hen strolls away and the chicks begin breaking out of their shells. With her signature grace and emotive expressions, Flora faces the challenge of corralling freshly-hatching chicks without losing a single one. That is accomplished with significant effort and creativity on Flora's part. 

On soft-white backgrounds, Idle generates elaborate subplots on each page-turn, including foldouts. Flora's balletic poses and problem solving analysis combine with comical chicks to allow little minds to fill as fully as their little hands. The tiniest details (a cracking shell, an unexpected worm, a foot-first egg-zit) provide rising action, suspense, and empathetic reactions. I can imagine little fingers pointing out escaping chicks while worry and amusement fill their faces. The gently-bold-blue numerals encourage returns for re-readings, allowing young ones to absorb and learn organically and joyfully.

Chronicle Books, September 5, 2017

I'm delighted to learn that Flora's foray into the board book audience will continue in September with the release of FLORA AND THE OSTRICH: An Opposites Book. I hope you are as eager as I am to get your hands on it in the fall. 

As a side note, I know just enough about art to know my limits, but I do recognize brilliance and balance of form, figures, color tones, and book  design. Idle's books are so rich in design and image that adults will welcome those re-readings rather than eye-rolling on the hundredth repeat.

There's no lack of board books dealing with basic concepts (colors, counting, alphabet, size, etc.). There's also an abundance of popular picture books that have been reworked for the tiniest hands, sometimes simplifying storylines and text but retaining their entertainment value and appeal. So, why fuss about a new line of board books? 

Because some board books, very special ones like these, will become the ones that are replaced if damaged, become "MY BOOK" when babes begin using words, and are treasured and passed along to the next generation.

If you know anyone with a toddler or someone expecting a baby, add this to your shopping list and start a little one on a love of books.

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.