Oct 18, 2020

Memories and Transitions: THE BLUE HOUSE

 Covid19 Anchor in Time:

The world is nearly a year into the unspecified date on which "patient one" unknowingly contracted the earliest case of Covid 19. Soon after, the spread began, the questions eventually arose, and specialists in contagious diseases began the long and puzzling journey that brings us to our "current" global count of nearly forty million positive diagnoses and more than a million deaths due to Covid. The ever-changing reports can be checked HERE. 

I mention this because, despite these tragic numbers, and even some gradually developing treatment and vaccine news, people continue to be evicted, to seek new dwellings, to put homes up for sale and buy new ones, to pack belongings and move possessions into the spaces previously occupied by others, by people who considered it their home. Especially in these uncertain times, how long does it take to make that new dwelling feel like YOUR home? And what, precisely, helps you turn the page to that new reality?

Homes are so much more than the structures in which we live. The final stanza of a poem I wrote when my parents moved from their longtime home makes this point:

"A house is just an empty stage

where families live and love and age.

The script is stored, each detailed page,

in the memories of the cast."  

(Sandy Brehl)

Alfred A. Knopf

THE BLUE HOUSE, written and illustrated by Phoebe Wahl, explores this question with incredibly tender insight and details. The front and back covers effectively lift this very specific blue house and this very special father-son pair (Leo and his dad) into a liminal white space that could represent any place, any time. The art there and throughout the book utilizes Wahl's characteristic and intentionally primitive style, infused with earthy colors and a very relatable charm. 

The polar opposite of this universality is revealed at the opening endpapers, which absorbed my attention for an extended time. The "blue house" is recognizable from the cover, but it lives on a very specific street corner of a very specific neighborhood, one in which every square foot is dense with quirky characteristics and personality, in which each seems to have countless stories to tell. There is a warmth and welcoming spirit to this opening, one that continues with every turn of the page.

The story is simple, and infused with emotions ranging from joy to pain to peace, and everything in between. With  hand-lettered, limited text and page after page of intriguingly detailed images, readers learn that the blue house is both dilapidated and a personal palace. Indoors and out, it is the stage on which Leo and his dad celebrate their love and the luxury of lives well-lived, deeply experienced in each moment. When harsh reality forces them to move, they experience "all the feels" together, emptying that old blue house of their lives. No spoiler here, except to praise expert storytelling that offers a departure scene that effectively foreshadows the eventual resolution scene. 

Ultimately, we all move on. That is true of physical circumstances, in our emotional lives, and in our relationships. Transitions take time. This simple story is a warmhearted reminder that we will survive change. We can and will, in fact, grow from transitions. What matters most is how we face change. The final endpapers offer a look at that opening neighborhood with some changes underway. There is enough continuity of familiar and comforting anchors to promise that change, over time, can lead us forward in life to something better, while retaining the best of what has gone before. 

As with the best picture books, this one entertains and appeals on its face. The underlying and powerful themes offer meat for discussion, but that isn't necessary. Even the youngest children will be adding it to their "read it again" stack, absorbing the themes with each repetition. The boy in the story is clearly an oder child but what entices and appeals is the core of the  story- the lively and loving and accepting daily life of this family.

This is one of the growing number of CYBILS AWARDS nominees in the fiction picture book category. Links to reviews of  more of the 100+ titles (so far), by me and the other panelists, can be found HERE. This is NOT going to be an easy decision, folks!

Oct 12, 2020

Care For Some Tea? The Choices Are Amazing!

 I'm a product of a coffee-drinking family, as most families were in the mid-twentieth-century. Summer included iced tea, usually loaded with sugar, but other than that the little box of Lipton Tea Bags could last a year or more. It was used mainly when someone had a cold or an upset stomach with a squirt of honey or lemon added. Even so, I didn't like coffee or begin drinking it until pulling college all-nighters. That, naturally, set me on a course for many years of serious coffee drinking (black, thank you, and even instant would do in a pinch). Reminder, this was long before gourmet coffee shop concoctions became ubiquitous.

GREYSTONE KIDS, October, 2020

There came a time, though, somewhere back in my mid-adulthood, that drinking coffee  began to feel like pouring acid into my already burning stomach. Cola beverages did the same thing. Somehow, though, tea was tolerated well, tasted "okay", and provided that caffeine boost I often needed. In the years since, it's been tea-and-only-tea for me. I've tasted countless kinds of tea, never looking back at that coffee habit. 

As a dedicated tea drinker (and occasionally a grumpy one when it was not available at public events), I felt reasonably knowledgeable about tea types, flavors, and even a variety of cultural customs. I read THREE CUPS OF TEA, I invited Japanese guests to my classroom to explain the tea rituals, and I sometimes received gifts of delicious and unusual teas from around the world.

When the publishers sent me a copy of TEATIME AROUND THE WORLD, written by Denise Waissbluth and illustrated by Chelsea O'Byrne, I was delighted. Don't you love that enormous orange teapot on the book jacket, featuring culturally and ethnically diverse characters enjoying tea in distinctly differenct ways? Under that cover, on the hard case, is a simpler image of a cup of tea, a spoon and some sugar cubes. The end papers provide a variety images related to tea-drinking, including among them a familiar honey-bear  dispenser, cups, tea bags, and less familiar bowls, preparation utensils, milk, honey, and plant  leaves, berries, and other botanicals. Altogether the images, hints, and color tones are inviting and suggest the surprises inside. 

I was not disappointed from the first page to the last. Limited and lyrical text sprinkles phrases and lines across the tops of each page, enriched by illustrations that reflect friendships, cultures, customs, global settings, and various preparation and serving practices. On many of those pages related explanatory text appears near the bottom of the page. These provide information about types of tea, history of uses, varieties of sources, and revelations that will surprise. 

I finished this book, including the helpful (and accessible) author notes, graphic illustations then turned back to the beginning to read it again. The illustrations in a graphic style are perfectly balanced with these parallel texts, since the simplicity of crisp edges and bold colors will delight the youngest audiences while encouraging pauses. Examining any page will reveal depth of detail and nuances of cultural patterns and visual references. This effect, too, reflects the ways that tea wraps itself around our lives with layers of taste, connections, and appreciations. 

Before reading this I imagined myself to be somewhat  informed about tea and its place in the world, including practices related to its preparation and consumption. I was delighted to learn so many new things, and it made me certain I'll seek opportunities to expand my tea-life. Kids will undoubtedly feel the same way. After all, in Iran they serve tea with rocks (rock candy), some teas are more like soup, and Thailand serves iced tea in bags. I've never met a kid who wouldn't love to try those out. Some are medicinal, and sometimes tea is strained through a device that looks like a sock, so it is called silk stocking tea. Those may cause a nose or two to wrinkle, but read about it before making a decision.

Whether you are a longtime tea-drinker, a die-hard coffee sipper, or a kid who begs for carbonated beverages, this is book that will pique your interest. It is beautiful in all the ways picture books can be, but it is also an invitation to lift our gaze to the little things in life that are similar around the world, that enrich the world with local customs. Pour yourself a hot cup of tea and settle down with this delightful book.

Oct 6, 2020

BETH ANDERSON Interview: Bringing History to Life!

During the past year I've become a fan of author Beth Anderson, one picture book at a time. If you follow this blog regularly, you have probably become her fan, too. I had loads of fun with her first picture book, AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET: Ben Franklin and Noah Webster's Spelling Revolution, reviewed HERE, which was  followed by LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT!: Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights, reviewed HERE, and "SMELLY" KELLY AND HIS SUPER SENSES: How James Kelly's Nose Saved the New York City Subway, reviewed HERE I “met” Beth Anderson through her books, so if you don’t (yet) know them, I hope you'll read the interview below. Then i invite you to click to read my reviews, all of which praise the appeal and impressive research and detail woven throughout her well-told, lesser-known, kid-friendly profiles. 
Then, of course, get your hands on those books to read them and watch history come to life in your lap.

I learned quite a bit about Beth using prior interviews and her website, which is loaded with useful resources and links to blog posts. Some favorites are linked at the end of this post to make it easy for you to follow her example and dig deep, mining for valuable information. 
This quote is highlighted on Beth’s website: 

"Writing is mining. It’s digging deep inside for special memories, emotions, and meaning. It’s burrowing into history for inspiring characters and moments that change the course of events." 
~ Beth Anderson 

Author Beth Anderson
Those prior interviews are why I’m exploring a new vein with my questions here, focusing on some things I wondered about the creation of her October release
“Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses, and her recent release, Lizzie Demands a Seat. 
My questions are in BLUE.
BETH's responses are in RED.

SB: Beth, thank you for taking time to join us here to share back story secrets about your remarkable nonfiction books.
BETH: Thank you so much for inviting me to your blog, Sandy! 

SB:I learned that you’ve traveled a great deal and lived many places, but I was surprised to see that you aren’t a New York City gal, so to speak. These two titles both reveal the history and heart of that city, and each conveys a real sense of place and time. Did your research for one or the other first draw you or provide hints to the other story along the way? Will you share a bit about how New York City and these two figures from “hidden” history found a place in your heart and on our bookshelves? 

BETH: It was pure coincidence that I wrote two stories about inspiring characters involved with transportation history in New York City. Though the two weren’t connected at the start, they ended up connecting later. I learned about Elizabeth Jennings in 2015 and was immediately in awe of her fortitude. But in addition to the woman, I wanted to understand the time and place, a huge gap in our civil rights history, to better understand where we are today. 
I also wanted to share the larger social landscape and the responsibility of all of us to participate in working for social justice. 
 I didn’t stumble upon James Kelly’s story until 2017, as Lizzie went under contract. I was attracted to Kelly’s story because of the quirky situations he encountered, the mysterious world of the subway, and, let’s face it, an extraordinary nose is irresistible! Research yielded a small collection of anecdotes with humor and heroism. Though it was very different than Lizzie’s story, there were connecting threads, and knowing a little about New York City and the importance of transportation helped. 
So while Lizzie’s story required that I dig deep into myself and social context to nail down the “heart,” Kelly’s story was more difficult structurally and needed a “heart” that would shape random pieces into an arc. 
I had done so much pondering on heroes with Lizzie’s story that I think it led me to explore a different kind of hero in Kelly—an everyday hero who often goes unnoticed. I am definitely not a city gal. NYC has always been intimidating to me. I’d been there a few times, but had never ridden the subway. I pored over maps and photos for both books. For Lizzie, I researched widely into the social aspects, and for Kelly, I went after more physical/ structural information on the city—including sensory. 
One lesson from both is the immense importance of varied aspects of setting and the impact on characters. I’m drawn to characters first, but when you start to understand the setting, stories intensify. Both books ended up linked by the New York Transit Museum which I had consulted in my research for “Smelly” Kelly, and later on details for Lizzie. 
The museum did a program on Elizabeth Jennings, featuring Lizzie Demands a Seat, and I am thrilled to be working with them again, this time for a virtual program on James “Smelly” Kelly. 
(Stay tuned for details!) 
When I visited NYC in February for Lizzie Demands a Seat events, it was powerful to walk up the same courthouse steps that Elizabeth Jennings did, and to find the street sign honoring her; and so fascinating to experience the subway after learning about “Smelly” Kelly. Knowing the history and how these two people had changed a city brought even more meaning to their stories. Both characters grabbed me at the emotional level because they dug deep within themselves and gave their best for the greater good, affecting hearts, minds, and lives. I hope kids will see the power of possibility, of thinking past “what is,” and how each person’s actions make a difference. 
 SB: Wow, digging deep may provide the richly detailed material for your stories, but uncovering those unexpected characters involves staying alert to new leads.
Picture book biographies are having great success in recent years. You’ve pointed out that your books about Kelly and Lizzie are not strictly biographies, since you incorporated dialogue and event descriptions that are not literally documented in research. I’m interested in the ways you managed to portray adult individuals with minimal content about their childhoods while keeping kid-readers intrigued by their actions and accomplishments. Was there a point at which you unearthed key personality traits or other qualities that made you feel Lizzie's and Kelly's lives would hook kids? 
Interior from Smelly Kelly, Page 3
BETH: For James Kelly, his nickname, his incredible sense of smell and all that entails, and the hilarious situations he encountered instantly connected with the kid in me. His heroic actions led me to consider different kinds of heroes. I saw so many parallels with superheroes in Kelly’s story, and it takes place when superheroes emerged in our culture—Batman, Phantom, Captain Marvel, and so many more. 
So…I created a superhero thread and had all kinds of fun with that. Kids may not catch all the references, but hopefully adults will get a chuckle as familiar words and phrases appear. Beyond the fun connections, I honed the emotional hook, the heart of the story, tapping into the childhood wish for a “superpower,” a specialness to be valued in the world. 
 And to add to all that, Jenn Harney’s amazingly fun illustrations draw a child into the story from the start. [Kirkus Reviews noted “Shades of Spider-Man” and also gave a nod to “Hamilton” in their review: “Another immigrant gets the job done.”] 

Interior: Lizzie Demands a Ride
 Lizzie’s story was more difficult in this regard, but the importance of her story as civil rights history was undeniable. I looked for kid connections. 
Kids ride buses. Kids are attuned to “fairness.” Many kids have probably watched silently as someone endured taunts from a bully. And many have suffered taunts themselves while others did nothing. I tried to incorporate those emotional links and gut-wrenching feelings. 

And I think Lizzie’s actions are just so incredibly courageous, physically and emotionally, that her story can impact any age reader. I worked hard to make her story nonfiction, but due to the incomprehensibility for kids of a few of the words in her recorded statement and also the diluting effect of “reporting,” I opted for clarity and the power of direct speech. I wanted the reader to experience the events as much as possible. And the illustrator, E.B. Lewis, created images that go straight to the heart. 

SB: Well, you certainly achieved impressively kid-friendly storytelling in both cases. 
Something I’m eager to ask about “Smelly” Kelly involves his "fame", or lack of fame.
While learning about Kelly, did you encounter folks/fans who seemed to know everything about him and were thrilled to see you elevate his professional life to public attention- or a sort of Subway Hall of Fame? 
Or did you feel you had dibs on fandom for “Smelly”? 

BETH:  Beyond the author of one book I used, no one I’ve encountered so far has known about James Kelly! I was only able to dig up three sources. Later, well into the publishing process, the historian at the NY Transit Museum came across a newsletter article on him while she was looking for something else. That article provided a little information on his family that confirmed what I had found in 1930 and 1940 census records was really him! (That was nerdly exciting! Suddenly he was even more real.) 
The folks at the Transit Museum were thrilled to learn about him. And…they’re creating family programming on him! Hopefully “Smelly” Kelly’s fan base grows when the book comes out. He certainly deserves some attention! 
Photo of Kelly, courtesy New York Transit Museum 

SB: I agree entirely. We often hear about gourmet chefs being "super tasters", or dogs having "super sniffers", but Kelly's story is a perfect example of a "super" power serving society!
When I'm working on a writing project requiring research, I uncover tons of facts, major or trivial, that just don’t make it onto the page. Was this the case with Kelly?  If so, will you share one or more of the “leftover” details that have stayed with you? 

BETH:  Oh, there are so many fascinating facts that never make it on the page. Many went into back matter or illustrations, but I think they all contributed to the telling by guiding word choice, characterization, emotional connection, setting, and “atmosphere.” There is one laugh-out-loud scene that I plan to share in a blog post, a little long to share here. 
But here are a few extra tidbits… 
  • Kelly used a 1763 map of Manhattan subterranean springs and streams when hunting down water leaks. 
  • The 1940 census shows: the week prior to census taking he worked 48 hours, and he worked 52 weeks a year. (gives a sense of the man) 
  • Investigating clogs as well as leaks, he caught a school of 40 killifish in a subway restroom pipe and a 10” trout in a Bronx water main. 
  • He was zapped by the third rail once and fell unconscious for a moment. 
  • Subway trivia: Blue lights along the tracks in the tunnels mark phones. 
  • And considering leaks, you’ll be pleased to know that sewer mains are located below water mains. ☺

SB: You're right! It's good to know that drinkable water pipes were laid ABOVE the pipes that carried sewage. I love the idea that this logical, common-sense decision WAS made and continues to be the case. An ounce of prevention... as they say.
Finally, I know you have other titles coming out, but have been waiting to announce details. I may as well ask, can you share any news with us yet?

BETH: Recently, announcements appeared for FRANZ’S PHANTASMAGORICAL MACHINE, illustrated by Caroline Hamel (Kids Can Press, spring 2022) and THOMAS JEFFERSON’S BATTLE FOR SCIENCE: BIAS, TRUTH, AND A MIGHTY MOOSE, illustrated by Jeremy Holmes (Calkins Creek, Fall 2022). Only one secret remains…huzzah! 

SB: It's obviously too soon to link to those two upcoming books, but I've made a note of both titles and dates on my calendar to check them out as soon as they are available. I'm excited about both, and have no doubt that kids will be, too. 
Beth, you've been more than generous with your responses here, and I have no doubt that young readers and writers will be fascinated by your research and writing and the lives of these remarkable historical figures. 
That's true for this OLD reader/writer, as well. We're all grateful to you for sharing so much background about your books and your process. Your enthusiasm is contagious.

Beth was kind to share some special offers with our readers:

For signed copies with swag, 
pre-order from Old Firehouse Books HERE or Boulder Book Store HERE 
and let them know if you’d like the book personalized.

Follow up with more about Beth and her books by clicking below:

Extra Activity Packet also available on website

Beth will celebrate this release in some VIRTUAL events: 
  • Oct 17, 11:30-1:30 MDT: outdoor signing for “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses at Old Firehouse Books in Fort Collins
  • Oct. 22, 4 pm EST: New York Transit Museum program on James “Smelly” Kelly Including a reading, costumed interpreter skit, Q&A.
Click on each below so you can follow/connect with Beth on: 

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.