Aug 27, 2017

MOST PEOPLE... Are Good People (Plus Author Interview)

How do you feel about that blog title? Do you agree? There's no doubt that our world, our country, our individual communities include some people who SHOULD not, CANNOT be trusted. This post is not meant to suggest that there are "fine people" in every group, an assertion recently (and wrongly) declared about groups that actively espouse hatred, violence, and evil intents.
Tilbury House Publishers, 2017

In his debut picture book release, MOST PEOPLE, author Michael Leannah's reassuring text pairs with J. E. Morris's illustrations to present a strongly positive view of the people of the world. In doing so, they push back against the onslaught of daily news representing threats and violence.  Together they offer much-needed reassurance. 
Leannah's straightforward text and Morris's appealing illustrations showcase a diverse urban community, one presented as safe and welcoming. Individuals and families vary in age, skin color, cultural practices, daily pursuits, and style choices. Each page-turn reveals, and then confirms, that they share more in common than their differences might suggest. In fact, any assumptions "suggested" by their diverse appearances are those stemming from learned biases on the part of the readers.

Reality is inserted directly in brief text snippets about recognizable situations: bad language, lying, stealing, bullying, property damage, etc. Those are balanced by the image of a theoretical line of "people who do good" stretching out for miles while people "in the bad line" would fit in a dark and gloomy room. Proportionally, this is a fairly realistic ratio. I appreciate that in neither case are the people themselves labeled as "good" or "bad". In fact, reassurance is offered that "People who do bad things can change. There is a seed of goodness inside them waiting to sprout."

On first glance this upbeat view of humanity may feel a bit exaggerated, even utopian. That reaction is particularly likely from cynical adults. If your impulse is to dismiss the premise or argue that our world has become far more sinister than safe, perhaps you need this book every bit as much as the young children in your lives. 

Parents and teachers are obligated to inform young ones about our history, current events, real and present dangers, and moral responsibility in the face of great need or oppression. As I indicated in a recent post, here, we do children a disservice if we leave the impression that all "others" are in some way threatening or threatened, are more different than similar to us, are monolithic rather than individuals. Add this title to my earlier recommendations to present a balanced, wholistic, positive view of humans, near or far, familiar or exotic.

The author of MOST PEOPLE, Michael Leannah, agreed to answer a few questions about his debut picture book.

SB: Congratulations, Mike, and thanks for agreeing to share the story behind this story. MOST PEOPLE is very suited to recent national and world events. Can you share the “origin story” about what inspired you to write MOST PEOPLE and how it developed over time?

ML: It goes back fifteen years, at least, sometime after 9-11. I remember walking amidst children on the playground during recess. I had small children at home then, too. I didn’t want them—or myself—to be living in such fear. I wrote a few lines about most people being good and kind, wanting the same things: a good and happy life for their family and friends. Over the years I dabbled with it, but didn’t really put my nose to the grindstone until a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, there were many times when I found myself wishing it were finished, because something happened in the news that made the book’s message pertinent. Now that the book is out, people are telling me this is a good time for it, which is true, I suppose, but, sadly, there will probably always be a need for this message.

SB: I'm afraid that's true, and kids make us all the more aware of it. You have a long history working in  classrooms and libraries. But now that you are devoting more time to writing, do you work with a critique group? If so, how did you find like-minded writing partners and how did they help you shape this book and others.

ML: Over the years, I have belonged to various critique groups, and all have been helpful. I’ve been meeting monthly with my current group for about ten years now. We found each other through SCBWI, went to the same writing workshops, and attended classes together when they were offered. I would be lost without SCBWI. I can’t imagine life without my critique group.

Side note: SCBWI is the international professional organization for creators of books for children: SOCIETY OF CHILDREN'S BOOK WRITERS AND ILLUSTRATORS. I agree entirely with Mike's endorsement of SCBWI for anyone seriously hoping to produce work for readers 0-20 years of age.

 SB: Your text for MOST PEOPLE straddles that fine line between sounding didactic and conversational.  My own writing partners are my best defense against crossing over that line, readily pointing out when my text is “sounding too much like a teacher”. Were you concerned with achieving that balance? If so, how did you deal with that challenge?

ML: Being didactic gets us into trouble primarily when we explain things the reader already knows. Most People is meant to be instructional. Those who welcome its message—be they children or adults—do so because it reaffirms what they feel in their hearts. The book is most meaningful to people who, because of what they have heard on the news and elsewhere, have started to doubt those feelings in their hearts. So, yes, Most People teaches something and what it teaches isn’t anything new, but it works because it provides a bit of push-back against all the negativity out there.

SB: The illustrations have enormous depth and insight into your text, providing a familiar setting and visual narrative while offering a wealth of subtle detail and subplots among the various people portrayed.  What were your reactions when you first saw them?

ML: I loved them! And I’m convinced that ten different illustrators would have taken the story in ten different directions. What you see on the pages is nothing like what I envisioned as I wrote the story. I liked what I saw in my mind’s eye, but what Jennifer came up with is so much better. Some of those pictures could stand alone as pieces of art, in frames on the wall.

 SB: Can you tell us more about your other forthcoming picture books?

ML: Thanks for asking. Goodnight Whispers is similar to Most People in that it features unnamed characters focusing on an element of life to which we can all relate. They both are meant to inspire and motivate. Farmer Huckinshuck’s Wild Ride is very different, a goofball account of a farmer taking his animals for a ride into town. All three stories came to fruition at once. They’re like three children, all different, who you love very much.

SB: I'm guessing readers will love them, too. Thanks for sharing your time and insights with us here, and keep 'em coming!

MOST PEOPLE was featured along with other titles, old and new, that show kids "goodness in the world" via

And let's never lose sight of or stop sharing the wisdom and guidelines offered by much-loved-and-missed Mr. Rogers: "Look for the helpers."
Poster via Reddit

Congratulations to Mike, whose debut picture book is among other titles for developing empathy as featured in the NEW YORK TIMES . 

Aug 12, 2017

Mirrors and Windows: Our Most Amazing World

Much is being made (justifiably) of the need to create and circulate books in which people from all backgrounds can find themselves. Of equal importance is that books depicting varied peoples, places, and points of view offer windows to a wider world for individuals whose world experience is narrow.
If this is in some way news to you, please learn more about the discussion and drive by checking into the WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS website and resources, here. 

It's not as if excellent books serving these purposes haven't available in the past. The tragedy is that the percentage of such books is vanishingly small, and has remained so for far too long. You'll find documentation of those facts and the decades-long publishing patterns in children's literature in this post from the reliable CCBC, as shared in Horn Book recently. 

In this post I'd like to share and recommend two books, one older and one very recent, that allow ALL readers to explore the world and find themselves along their reading journeys.
Candlewick Pres, 2010

Jeannie Baker is the multi-talented author/illustrator of MIRROR, published in 2010. This still feels like a "new" book to me, but it made its way onto store and library shelves nearly eight years ago. That was long before the current movement for more diverse books was underway. 
Ms. Baker's award-winning art wins praise from many quarters for it's technical and interpretive skill. More importantly, it draws young eyes magically and won't let them go until they have scoured every square inch, commenting and comparing,  turning pages forward and back, again and again.
In this case, her power is magnified by an incredible book design.

MIRROR is meant to be laid open to allow it to reveal, front to back, the English/Western life of a family in a modern urban setting. At the same time it can be read, visually, from back to front, following Arabic literacy conventions. That half of the book depicts the  life of a Middle Eastern rug-weaving family, turn by turn, until they meet the Western family at the center fold and their lives intersect. It's an intriguing and simple-but-brilliant look at the interdependence of all lives, of the many ways in which human commonalities define us even more than differences.

Compare Mirror to a very recent release by author/illustrator Matt Lamothe, THIS IS HOW WE DO IT. Rather than explore only two families and cultures, Lamothe selects seven families from around the world to portray and label the intricacies of those similarities and differences through the course of a day-in-the-life. 
He doesn't attempt to weave a storyline throughout their lives. In fact, he chose to shift the positioning of each character/culture instead of locking each in the same orientation on the page. The labeling is still effective and offers an oppportunity for kids to  eagerly challenge themselves, turning back often to remind themselves of who is who and where they live. 
Chronicle Books Canada, 2017
Endpapers do a a great job of showing just how small our world really is. Back matter provides a simple but helpful glossary (in natural, kid-friendly language) to expand on specific terminology from various scenes and cultures. The author's note explains how he was inspired to create the book and describes the complex process he used to assure authenticity for this nonfiction treasure. It's worth a read in and of itself, and the final double spread using photographs of the seven actual families should lead many young readers to explore Lamothe's final notes.

I particularly appreciate these two titles for use in presenting a balanced view of kids and families in far-flung parts of the world. I've shared  some recent  titles here and here that focus on refugees and immigrants.Presenting objective and realistic stories that  share those harsh experiences is essential, but it's all too easy for young readers to develop a false concept: that all "others" are destitute or desperate or seeking to leave their homes. These two titles provide a healthy contradiction to that misperception. They show a variety of daily life patterns in which the children and families are comfortably settled in routines and relationships that feel familiar and safe. In fact, they make the prospect of traveling and meeting people around the world quite appealing. 
We could use more with that attitude at every age, in my opinion.

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.