Monthly Archives: November 2013

GIVING THANKS FOR VERA B. WILLIAMS’ BOOKS

Can you point to the book that made you want to be a children’s writer?

For me it is Vera B. Williams’ Three Days on a River in a Red Canoe.

3Dayscover

My kids and I checked it out of the library shortly after it was published in 1981. Night after night we revisited the story of the narrator, her brother Sam, Aunt Rosie and Mom as they bought a red canoe at a yard sale and took their first overnight trip down a river. Highlights include portage over a waterfall, wildlife, fishing, changeable weather, lots of paddling and the return home to Sixtoes, their cat.

The book is set up as the narrator’s journal, a first-person account illustrated in colored pencil. It has heart and quiet humor and a recipe for fruit stew. The voice is pitch perfect.

Three Days on a River in a Red Canoe was my gateway to Vera B. Williams’ work, including A Chair for My Mother; Amber was Strong, Essie was Brave, and the Caldecott-award winning More, More, More Said the Baby. All brilliant.

I waited until my kids grew up to start making my own books. But I returned to those Vera Williams books as models of what a picture book can be. When my first book was published, I sent it to Ms. Williams, thanking her for her wonderful work and inspiration. I received a nice note in return.

So it goes, the circle of creation and inspiration.

For which I am so thankful on this foggy Seattle Thanksgiving morning.

And I wonder: what book made you want to create children’s books?

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Picture Book(s) on the Subway

            A few weeks ago, Ken and I were all dressed up and heading to a party in the middle of Manhattan.  The occasion was my agent’s fifteenth anniversary party and I had in tow a picture book, Mitchell Goes Bowling, by Hallie Durand, illustrated by Tony Fucile, that I wanted to get signed by the author. 

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I knew she would be at the party, and I had every intention of getting her to sign it.  (Confession:  I will haul a book thousands of miles in order to get a signature).

            At any rate, our stop was a ways off, so I decided to show the book to Ken while we rolled along the tracks. 

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            Our car was crowded and noisy, but that was okay.  I was only sharing it with Ken, who sat right next to me.  That is, I thought I was only sharing it with Ken.  At one point I stopped to show him a particular illustration that just made me laugh, but while we were pausing on that page, the young man on the other side of Ken said, “Hey, keep reading!” 

            Then another person chimed in with, “Don’t stop!”  I looked up, and all of the people in our end of the car were staring at me and smiling.  Without even knowing it, the book had drawn in at least a dozen people.  I didn’t need any more prompting.  I held the book up and read the last few pages. 

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          As I closed the book, everyone started clapping. Of course they did!  It’s a book that merits applause. 

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            I have had so many happy reading experiences in my life, and many of them have occurred while traveling, from all the books I read to my kids as we drove down the road, to the many books that I’ve read on airplanes, but that one on the subway made my heart sing. 

            Here we were, strangers, each of us wrapped up in our own worlds, each of us going our own ways, and each of us in the presence of that most wondrous of all literary accomplishments, a picture book, and in this case, a book that calls for a “steaming hot potato dance.”

            As we rolled to our stop, Ken and I waved to our fellow readers.  We had shared such a small moment, but also such a happy moment.  There are many glories in a picture book.  There is the wonderful economy of text.  There is the highly satisfying experience of the perfect match of text to art. There is the art itself.  But most important is the glory that comes from sharing it. Voice, as it turns out, is a most essential ingredient, turning a book into that fundamentally human enterprise–story.

            The members of our small subway cadre will likely never meet again in our lifetimes, but we will always be part of each others’ lives now because we did something together that people have been doing since the dawn of time—we took a story, we took the art of it, we put it all together, we went along for the ride.

            And that, my brothers and sisters, is what it’s all about.     

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                     Have any of you ever had an unusual picture book reading experience?  Tell us about it, why don’t you!

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Going for the Gold: very long post

caldecottmedal

Question: is there anything that’s more fun than talking about picture books?

Answer: No. For the purposes of this blog, the correct answer is no. In general, though, the answer is this: dogs.

On December 6th, Grace Greene (Children’s Consultant, Vermont Department of Libraries) and I will be at VCFA hosting/presenting our 16th Mock Caldecott. We first did this many years ago, before most of you were born, my children, but I don’t remember when. Okay, it was 1989. The pattern we set up then still holds, and while I was working at the Vermont Department of Education (17 years) it became my favorite professional event.

Why? Because of the close examination and fervent discussion. Really, try it. And no better time than this year, the 75th anniversary of the Caldecott Award.

HOW TO HOLD A MOCK CALDECOTT: ONE WAY (and there are many)

PREPARATION

  1. Think of someone to invite to be your presenter, or use yourself if you know a whole lot. Choose someone who brings some kind of fresh, unique, amusing, or knowledgeable perspective to the art of the picture book. Reviewers, illustrators, educators, editors, writers, etc. all are possible.
  2. Meet with a friend with whom you agree about the most important things, such as dogs and what makes a good picture book. Get a mammoth pile of eligible books (eligibility requirements for Caldecott are here:  (http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/caldecottmedal/caldecottterms/caldecottterms  ) Visit your local Indie bookstore.
  3. Go through books, generally avoiding text (see criterion 3. I know, it’s a killer.) Discuss in reasonable and friendly fashion. Seek books that have gotten lots of starred reviews, buzz, and are by previous Caldecott winners. Try for a balance of technique (everything from handmade paper to digital art) and style. Make three piles: yes, no, maybe.
  4. Be on good behavior. Do not throw books on the floor while screeching about annoying things. Laugh as much as possible while making selection of about 15 books. Too many=impossible event. Too few=not so much fun.
  5. Develop list. Send out flyer, email, or whatever to potential registrants for event. Always select snow date if meeting in Vermont. (Sample registration form here: http://libraries.vermont.gov/libraries/cbec/mockcaldecott)
  6. Before sending out news of event, find venue and make sure it has bathrooms, room for small breakout groups, tables for book examination, and possibilities for lunch.
  7. Begin to get excited. Wait for registrations to pour in. Look at books.

THE EVENT: WHAT WE DO

  1. Welcome people as they arrive. Have coffee/tea and something yummy but not too sweet.
  2. Have handouts of Caldecott policies and previous winners/honor books. Also useful: a handout on book discussion. For example: http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/discguide.asp  Encourage participants to stay away from “my child liked this” comments, etc.
  3. With all assembled, go over ground rules and schedule.
  4. Introduce presenter. Listen to presenter. Smile, nod head in acknowledgement of brilliance, gain insight. Thank presenter.
  5. Provide time to examine books before and during lunch. Books are laid out on tables in the back of the room. Encourage participants to bring extra copies of any titles they have. Provide stickies so books can be matched with owners.
  6. Have entire crew count off for small groups. Good number for groups is somewhere between 6 and 10.
  7. Break into groups, assigning space for each one. We schedule an hour and a half for small group discussion.
  8. Wander about to make sure everything is going well. If someone is dominating, deal with it. Someone not speaking? Deal with it. Make sure everybody has what they need. Eavesdrop to see how your favorite book is doing.
  9. Give ten minute warning. Each group must choose (consensus) ONE TITLE to present to the larger group. Small groups should choose their most persuasive speaker; someone who can be specific and articulate about illustration.
  10. Reassemble large group. Have each small group present choice, write on board or paper. Use common sense to narrow field and vote for winner. Decide whether there should be honor books based on spread of voting.

CLOSING:

Remind everyone that THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS ONE BEST BOOK.

Congratulate participants on a job well done. Send them home all aglow.

Since 1989, Grace and I have done fifteen of these events, with presenters such as Anita Silvey, Mary Azarian, Ethel Heins, Mary M. Burns, Megan Lambert, Gratia Banta, Tracey Campbell Pearson, John Stadler and Wendy Watson, so this will be our sixteenth! (I am married to a mathematician.)


I’ve learned so much, and not just from the stellar presenters. I’ve learned a lot about group dynamics, about how some people can squash productive conversations while others consistently encourage it. I’ve learned how important it is to be able to articulate what it is that makes a book outstanding—or not. Love all by itself isn’t enough: opinions must be well-defended and based on the art. I’ve watched people listen well to others and even change their minds. I’ve studied how crucial body language can be among people with strong opinions. I’ve watched alliances form and dissolve as a book comes under careful consideration.  I’ve watched animosity flare and –mostly–dissolve.

In 1998, I had the honor of serving on the real (1999) Caldecott committee, and I tried to bring everything I’d learned with me. In turn, I learned even more. The people on that committee were an extraordinary bunch full of insight, passion, and wisdom. I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to spend time in a locked hotel room with all of them.

This year, Grace and I will co-present. We plan to go off-record, as it were, in expressing our rather strong opinions (strong opinions are GOOD) about this and that.  Books that should have won or shouldn’t (I have one); books that caused controversy, etc. For example, there are a lot of wordless books to consider. I admit to finding this a bit disconcerting. The reason should be obvious: I’m a writer, not an illustrator. Where are the unforgettable stories, the words that remain imprinted forever in the mind? And why are so many of the wordless books created by men? Or are they? There’s something to ponder.

In any case, I’m excited. Talking about picture books in a careful, thoughtful way is infinitely rewarding. Seeing what’s rising to the top of the illustration heap is fascinating. And above all, I get to see once again what a miracle the picture book is. May it live forever.

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Air Kisses

Is it age? Loss of an in-house family? More free time? Whatever the reason, I find I now need, thrive on, cannot do without meditation—twice a day! My evening meditations are often fodder for dreams, and yes, they help me wind down, de-stress, sleep. In the morning, though, things are a different color: I open my eyes from these quiet times, as full of excitement as an untamed puppy. Down girl! I want to tell myself. But still, I can barely restrain the eagerness–the minute the world comes flooding back, each thing I see or touch or hear is kissable! How do you kiss a sound? How do you keep from trying?

Which reminds me of a piece of art I saw last June in a student show at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. I was teaching writing there, but in the spirit of interdisciplinary connection, I took my students to an on-campus show by high school painters. We wandered the exhibit, both inspired and cowed by the versatility, the fresh ideas of these young artists. The work that snagged me from the moment I walked in, and which I tried without success to capture with my cell phone camera, was a clear, single-paned window hanging off to one side of the gallery. It was covered, top to bottom, with lipstick kisses.

I think now of the girl who did this (I found her name on a wall tag, but failed to write it down). I’m sure she’s someone like me, someone who isn’t afraid of “dirty” things—dead birds, squashed squirrels and snakes. Feathers, stranded river stones, turtle shells. No piece of life (or death) seems without its own magic. Each is worthy of examination, attention, what I called in a recent poem, “impertinent curiosity.”

So when my grown kids tell me not to let their children touch these things, it makes me sad. The warm body of a small bird that’s just died on my front steps, flight still whispering in its chest—how is this “dirty?” How can we fail to stoop, to wonder, to bury with thanks?

I see her, then, this child-woman, who was never taught that germs are everywhere, pressing her lips against the old window she’s found. Over and over, making sure the moistness of her mouth finds the glass. Doing what artists do: letting her love shine through.

 

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Serendipity and the Little Free Library

by Tim Wynne-JonesP1040435

It seems a paradox to me that in an age where one can, ostensibly, find any book one can think of – can even download it instantaneously onto an eReader — bookstores are going out of business daily, and libraries have to scrabble for funds and are increasingly regarded as information centers rather than book repositories. Oh, the logic is clear enough: who needs a bookstore or a library when neither of those institutions have all the books. But there is something so insubstantial about this virtual library; something a whole lot less sensual about “browsing” on Amazon as opposed to really browsing. So how wonderful it would be to stumble across a real library right on your own street, where there wasn’t one yesterday!

The Little Free Library movement is all about books that are really there and free for the borrowing. http://littlefreelibrary.org/

Here’s one I ran across on a recent visit to Toronto. Instead of all the books known to humankind this one featured about ten books, when I was there, and I have to think that in some ways, in this regard, less is more – more human, more materially satisfying in the sense of opening a little real door and taking out a real book to hold in your real hands. Yes!

The idea is not new. There are other websites dedicated to this proposal: see, for instance: http://imaginationforpeople.org/en/project/bookcrossing/

Also, The Guardian has their great autumnal book swap. Last year in London, I remember, finding seemingly orphaned books just sitting on train cars and other public places with a little card inside signed by the swapper and with the invitation to the swappee to hand the book along, when you’re done with it. Lovely.

This isn’t about having anything you want, it’s about serendipity.

Books and serendipity have always shared a happy relationship for me. There are any number of reading friends, reviewers and advertisements telling me about books they know I am going to love, but I’m far more inclined to want to read a book that falls in my path. There is this mysterious sense of the gods at work, or maybe just the literary gremlins. My favorite example of this was on a ferry crossing from mainland New Brunswick to Grand Manan Island, several years ago. I was on a school reading tour and of course had brought along books to read in the lonely nights spent in B& Bs or (sometimes) tatty motels. I was in the middle of one – a book I mean, not a tatty motel — when I spied out of the corner of my eye a book lying on a table in the ferry’s cafeteria. There was no one around. It was Josephine Tey’s The Singing Sands. “A young man is found dead on the night train to London.” Say no more! I’m sold. Tey died young and didn’t write many books. I had, in fact, read all of her output except for The Singing Sands. I waited and watched, assuming a passenger would suddenly remember he or she had left the book there and come to retrieve it. It was an old Penguin paperback addition. It was calling to me! But not until everyone was disembarking, did I run back to claim it. I put aside what I was reading, that evening, and launched into my serendipitous find. There are all sorts of ways in which one’s reading habit can be sweetened, but perhaps none so sweet as the book that sits waiting for you to find it.

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Listening to Landscape

When I went to dinner, I thought the only souvenir I'd bring home was this mask.

When I went to dinner, I thought the only souvenir I’d bring home was this mask.

When you all saw me last, I’d recently moved. Hours before I came to Vermont, I found and packed five skorts (one of them you never saw because its zipper was broken beyond repair but I brought it anyway as a sort of safety skort, I guess) and a few t-shirts and I told you I’d left my new house stuffed with unpacked boxes.

You will be relieved to know that we have settled in, for the most part. I have been on the move most of the time since July. Three out of the four people in my house started school in late August. I think I found some of my clothing (other than skorts) in September. Then, in October, I released a book and traveled and all of that exciting stuff, so it’s still taken a while for me to really look around my new town. For many months, I knew only the back deck (where I would smoke my vile cigarettes), the view of my tiny yard, my garage, and my strange neighbor who recently retired and who has absolutely nothing—I mean nothing—to do all day long.

But since I quit smoking, I no longer go outside. I mean, I go, but not to sit and notice things. Now I notice things from inside. Sounds, mostly. I hear my new landscape.

We live on a quiet street just a block and a half from Main Street USA. Sometimes there are Harley Davidson motorcycles. Sometimes (more often) there are Amish horses and buggies. My neighbors are pleasant. The ones right next door have a baby and I can hear them on the front porch playing with him, making those baby-love-sounds that no adult would make without a baby in the scene. The other neighbor—the retired one—picks up leaves one by one now that autumn is here and his wife yells at him that he’s stupid trying to clean up the yard in the wind.

A year ago, I was living in the middle of fifty acres of secluded woodland. In autumn, there would be rogue hunters, sometimes drunk. One time, a man shot a doe a mere twelve feet from my house where I was feeding my baby and I walked outside in polar bear pajamas and yelled at him even though he was holding a shotgun.

A year ago, my neighbors—ones I couldn’t see, but ones I could hear—would fire their semi-automatic weapons for hours. When they did so, on the morning after the Sandy Hook school massacre, I experienced something profound and startling. I experienced deep, primal fear. Irrational or not, I shook. I fought a strong urge to take my two daughters into the basement and hide there until my husband came home. All from sounds and memories.

It was that day that gave birth to the book I am writing now. It was that landscape that made it possible—neighbors I never saw, but could hear. It is a connection to my own experience with guns—from being good with a rifle at age twelve to being robbed at gunpoint at age twenty four—that informs this book as I write it.

Who knows what will come from hearing horses and buggies all day? Who knows what will come from the bored neighbor? The baby next door? The annoying twit across the road who gets up at 6:30 on Saturday mornings to blow his leaves into a pile before everyone else does?

I started to write a new book today. I didn’t mean to. It was more of an emetic than anything.

Last night I took my family out to dinner. It was the last night of Día de Muertos and we are a family who celebrates. Before the meal arrived, I went to the bathroom with my six-year-old. One stall was out of order and had a sign sloppily taped to the door. The other stall was empty and large, so we went into that one together. As my daughter peed and I waited, we heard the bathroom door open and close and someone enter with what sounded like a slightly unhappy (but not screaming) toddler. Then things went bad.

I stood in the stall, eyes locked with my daughter’s, as we heard the violent scolding and four hard slaps and then heard the little girl, no older than two, go still with fear. They left as soon as they came in. It probably took all of twenty seconds.

I wanted to say something or do something or be something, but it all went so fast and by the time they left, all I could do was sit down to pee, peek out to make sure they weren’t there anymore and then hug my daughter.

My daughter searched for something to say. “Kids in my reading group get spanked sometimes. We talked about it when a kid in a book got spanked.”

I said to her, “I will never, ever hit you.”

She said, “I know.”

Landscape—where we are and what surrounds us, both physical and non-physical—is important to every story. While I noticed and will remember each chipping piece of grout in that bathroom and the flickering fluorescent bulb that seemed to switch from pink to green and to pink again, I will remember the sound of those slaps most vividly. And I will remember how much tighter my daughter squeezed my hand on our walk back to the table compared to when we’d walked away.

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