105 Ways to Give a Book

Poetry Friday: Doonesbury

I’m all discombobulated today. I blame the date. Leap Day. You just know adding an extra day to February is going to muck something up. All week, though, I’ve been looking forward to putting something different out for Poetry Friday. It’s a “Doonesbury” cartoon.

Then you can go over to the Slate website and see how the week of strips progresses. (“‘The Prose of Hillary Clinton.’ I don’t want to talk about it.” Ha. Ha.)

The Poetry Friday round-up is over at Kelly Fineman’s place today.

An article, “Finding Political Strength in the Power of Words: Oratory Has Helped Drive Obama’s Career — and Critics’ Questions” is over at The Washington Post. Does anyone else find it strange that Obama is being attacked for being too good as a speaker? I find it interesting as an Obama fan, certainly, but I also find it intriguing as a lover of words. How is it unfair in campaigning that he can string words together in a powerful way? The article doesn’t answer that question exactly, but it does break down his speeches, also mentioning that a big section in the middle of each speech is about policy plans, contrary to public perception.

Leap Day also brings us February’s Carnival of Children’s Literature, over at Anastasia Suen’s place.

Edited to add: Leap Day ends February and thus my guest blogging spot over at ForeWord. I've ended with one simple way to raise readers in your family. Go take a look at I Am a Mother Reader for my favorite kid story ever.

There’s Nothing to Do on Mars

There's Nothing to Do on MarsCount on Chris Gall to give me a WAPB Award contender for 2008. Two years ago his Dear Fish knocked my socks off with its intrinsic weirdness. There’s Nothing to Do on Mars is also strange, but because it is a whole other planet, it’s supposed to be strange. So actually, that makes Gall the perfect person to write and illustrate this book.

A boy and his family move to Mars, and he’s bored. There’s nothing to do and nobody to do it with, except his space dog, Polaris. They can’t go swimming because of the whole no-water thing, and the Martians might be cool, but they stink because they can’t shower because of the whole no-water thing. And sure, you can build a fort out of huge rocks because of Mars’s low gravity, but that gets so blah after a short time. What to do, what to do? Maybe explore a volcano-like formation, the consequences of which will change the whole planet? Yeah, that sounds good.

It’s a clever book, funny, and speaks to any kid who’s complained that there’s nothing to do. The (good) weirdness that Gall brings to his work reaches its full potential in this book.

I am reminded that I didn’t announce the WAPB Awards for 2007. Let’s aim for Monday on that, shall we? Groovy.

Oh, and submissions for the Carnival of Children’s Literature are due today. The February theme — in honor of Leap Year — is Leap Into a Book!

I Am Magic (And So Can You!)*

I am magic. I can make books disappear.

My magic isn’t always strong. It ebbs and flows with the seasons and even the days of the week. My magic isn’t all-powerful. There are books that continually resist my charms. My magic isn’t reliable. It sometimes works or fails when I least expect it.

But I am magic, and I am not alone.

My skills can be taught, and I am breaking the great vow of the magician to share my secret. It’s astonishingly simple, yet I can make books disappear from shelves and reappear in the hands of readers...

The rest of the article is over at ForeWord, where I’m guest blogging this month. It has useful information for librarians, booksellers, authors, publishers, and reviewers. Yes indeedy.

* Did you get the Colbert reference?
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Poetry Friday: Carver: A Life in Poems

I am surrounded by junk. I can’t clear it out. A lack of time and energy does play a huge part in the steady accumulation of stuff. But the process of cleaning up takes so long and takes so much energy because it’s really hard for me to get rid of things. I see so much potential in everything.

And I am right on the potential a decent percentage of the time, which is enough to validate my reluctance to toss things out. An Ikea box becomes a big fish for a play prop. The box of leftover crayons will be given out at a Girl Scout activity night. When my workplace was done with handcrafted centerpieces for a party, I took five of them. They were then centerpieces for a Girl Scout dance and a drama club party. Much later they were torn apart for their components and became the decoration on a third grader’s Chinese dragon.

Carver: A Life in PoemsI know that I’m justifying, and not even that well. But I take some comfort from today’s poem from Carver: A Life in Poems, by Marilyn Nelson.
Chemistry 101

A canvas apron over his street clothes,
Carver leads his chemistry class into
the college dump. The students follow, a claque
of ducklings hatched by hens. Where he
sees a retort, a Bunsen burner,
a mortar, zinc sulfate, they see
a broken bowl, a broken lantern,
a rusty old flatiron, a fruit jar top.
Their tangle of twine, his lace.
He turns, a six-inch length of copper tubing
in one hand. “Now, what can we do with this?”
Two by two, little lights go on.
One by hesitant one, dark hands are raised.
The waters of imagining, their element.
Winner of both Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Honor Awards in 2002, Carver: A Life in Poems explains the life of an extraordinary man in an equally extraordinary way. The poems often include a footnote with the exact biographical information — the names, dates, and places — leaving the poems free to be more descriptive and lyrical. The poems follow Carver’s life span from the time he was recovered from a kidnapper as a baby to the last days of his life watching the Tuskegee Airmen take to the sky. Some poems are written from the point of view of different people along his path, including teachers, students, and friends. The result is a deeper view of the the man and of the times in which he lived. It’s an excellent book, and is especially perfect for Black History Month — showing one man’s achievements, but not in the arena of slavery or civil rights.

Today, school was cancelled on account of ice, so maybe I can tackle some of my own junk. But if I am unsuccessful, I can claim the spirit of Carver, “the waters of imagining” clearly being me in my element. Poetry Friday round-up is over at Big A, little a, and it looks like lots of weekend reading for all.

Sturdy Books

After my call for help for Reading is Fundamental’s funding came a tidy email in my box, perfect for forwarding to five of my friends. Or fifty, but who’s counting? I still hope you — yes, YOU — will take a few minutes to let Congress know that reading is... well, fundamental.

As part of my email extravaganza, I got a reply from a good friend who had responded to my original call to action on my blog. She bounced the favor right back to me. She has a young baby and requested some board book suggestions. As it so happens, I had just seen some interesting almost-board books that came into my library. They don’t have the true density of board books, but are certainly sturdy enough for the occasional baby grab.

Fish, Swish! Splash, Dash!Fish, Swish! Splash, Dash! Counting Round and Round, by Suse MacDonald
Now that I type this title, I think I’ve heard this book mentioned before. Not surprising given that it is a step above your usual beginning thick-paged books. Fish, Swish! uses those thick pages to full advantage by filling them with cutouts that show through to the next page. So the lines we see on the two fish page — where the fish shape is cut out — become three eels at the turn of the page. At the turn of the next, the dots on the eels become the bubbles surrounding four fish. At the end of the book, you can turn it over and count back down again. The colors are bright and lively, and the book is lots of fun.

Gallop!Gallop! by Rufus Butler Seder
It’s a scanimation picture book. Don’t know what that is? I’m not sure that I can explain it well enough, except to say that as you turn the pages the tabs connecting the pages make the picture in the page move. The horse gallops, the bird flies, the cat runs. It’s pretty freakin’ cool. I can see where these books — and I can only assume that there will be more — will be a big hit with babies. I didn’t actively try to tear it, but it looks fairly sturdy — certainly more so than pop-up books — because everything is well contained. You’d really have to work at it to pull these puppies apart. I’m sold and will be buying one for my 20-month-old niece, but I think they’d be even better for the under-18-month set, when it’s harder to get them to focus on a book at all. They won’t take their eyes of this one. Neither will you.

Global BabiesGlobal Babies, by the Global Fund for Children
I can only attribute my prior failure to review this board book to my own laziness, and I’m so sorry. It should be a required baby gift tucked among the tiny onesies and too-cute outfits. Global Babies shows pictures of babies around the world, each naming the country featured. The text is slight, but sweet, basically saying that babies everywhere are special, beautiful, and loved. The photographs are wonderful and the sentiment is important. And at the most basic level, babies love looking at pictures of other babies, so this book is bound to be a hit with the under-two set. If that weren’t enough, part of the proceeds from the sale of the book are donated to The Global Fund for Children.

There are lots of board books that are simply sturdier versions of the original book. These work best when the original story is a simple one. I particularly like the Eric Carle, Martin Waddell, and Jan Brett ones. All of the Sandra Boynton board books are funny and fantastic. I’m also a big fan of the Animal Babies series by Kingfisher (I’ve linked to the book with animals of towns and cities as a nod to NYC). Of course, Mo Willems has a set of Pigeon books that are unique to the board book format. How can I not recommend those?

Avoid any book that asks you to count with a consumer product like Cheerios, any book with the current hot cartoon character (and don’t blame yourself too much if some slip in, since it happens to the best of us), and any book large enough to be used as a bludgeon. (I hold out hope that publishers will stop making these huge board books that defeat the purpose of being easy to read to a lap baby.) Know that you’ll end up with a few loser books by accident, read them, and move on to find a favorite to add to your collection. Even if some of them are embarrassing to admit are favorites.

Favors for MotherReader

I don’t think I ask a lot of my readers. I mean, other than the MotherReader allegiance blood oath. But today, I do have a favor to ask of you. Well, maybe two.

If you work in a public library or school library, please take a look at my article in ForeWord and comment about your own public or school library situation. Basically, I’m talking about centralized control of libraries and its effects on the library and staff. I’d love to get some other opinions on the topic, especially as it would give the post more weight. So if you can, please go by the article, which I was going to title “Sub Libraries” but ended up giving it a title from my first sentence: “A Man Goes Into a Sub Shop...”

Also, I learned about the elimination of RIF funding through A Wrung Sponge. Seems that Reading Is Fundamental is less than fundamental to the current administration. RIF has made it very easy to register your opinion on this issue with your members of Congress and President Bush, and I’d encourage you to do so. (One tip: Know the four-digit addition to your zip code if you live in a very populated area.)

We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog, already in progress.

Those Poor Penguins

Really? We have to go through this again? And in my own state, my own Northern Virginia even. I’m so disappointed.

Yes, And Tango Makes Three is in the center of another challenge, as reported in the Washington Post. Man, let’s give those poor penguins some peace. I love this book, and I’ll contend now and forever that it’s not harmful to children. It’s. Not. Harmful. Even if you’re worried about children learning the concept that two males can raise a child — and wake up to America if you are — it’s not a book about the so-called “gay agenda.” The book is based on a true story of two penguins. Penguins. I don’t know about you, but the last I heard, the penguins walked out of talks about the gay agenda after their constant tuxedo-wearing was mocked as very “establishment.”

Yes, you could certainly use this book to open discussion about different kinds of families. But ten will get you twenty that most young kids reading this book will not pick up on the topic in an uncomfortable way for parent or child. Certainly, nothing that couldn’t be resolved by a casual, “Yes, two boy penguins. That is interesting.”

You know what? I don’t even want to keep talking about it today. It’s almost seventy degrees outside, and I’m not spending any more time online. I wrote about it before, and I’ll probably be writing about it again before this blog life is through. Carry on Tango, carry on.

(Thanks to Bookshelves of Doom for the tip.)

Poetry Friday: Speak To Me (Again)

Speak To Me (And I Will LIsten Between The Lines)I posted this poem a year ago, but it’s time to mention it again. I don’t know that I can verify that it captures the feel of an urban school, but I do know that it really captures the feeling of third graders. Feeling pride in an eighth birthday. Worrying about losing a best friend to another girl in the class. Daydreaming. Saving a seat at lunch. Each poem is told from the point of the view of one of the kids in the class, most of whom are African American. Oh, and the illustrations are also perfect.

So here’s a poem from Karen English’s book, Speak To Me (And I Will Listen Between The Lines).
The Reading Boy [Malcolm]

Omar came on Monday
We liked him quick because he can read
As good as the teacher

Tyrell looked at him long and hard
As the river of words flowed out of his mouth
On one breath
The reading boy

Lamont asked to change his seat
To the one by the reading boy
Who sang the words off the page

Teacher asked him a question
And everyone listened
He is the one who reads.
Last year I noted how this particular poem felt even more relevant after seeing an article in the Washington Post Magazine about a third-grade teacher who started at a D.C. school, and realized that none of her students could read yet. In my suburban community, we obsess (it seems) about our kids reading the “right books.” It seems even more ridiculous when you look across the river at a community that needs to read, period.

Poetry Friday round-up is over at HipWriterMama.

Cybils Awards Announced

Today the Cybils are announced and I couldn’t be happier. My role was completed a while ago, when I worked with my fellow judges to narrow down more than a hundred nominated picture books into seven worthy contenders. Then we — maybe a bit reluctantly — turned over our suggestions to the next panel of judges for their consideration. And a similar scenario played out over the other nine categories of books. The Cybils were originated by bloggers and are judged by bloggers, but hopefully represent the best for an ever-larger audience, with the goal of balancing the literary and artistic merit of the book with its kid appeal. But let me give you the words of Anne Levy, one of the Cybils founders, from today’s post:
Cybils is a comfort zone... where no one has to apologize for preferring the manga version of Shakespeare, and it’s always okay to just look at the pictures. Even those who don’t have kids — or who don’t work with them — can curl up with a trashy teen romance or a goofy science fiction spoof. It’s all good.

We had our fun reading and judging, and now it’s your turn. The winners below are a gift from our hearts to you and the kids you love, even if you’re just indulging an inner child.
Take a look at the wonderful list of books. No, don’t just look — buy something through the Cybils site. Your purchase supports these awards with referral fees from Amazon and validates the award for the publishing community when they see a change in sales based on the award. Well, you’ve waited long enough for the link — go.

Oh, one more thing. Happy Valentine’s Day, with a video suggested by my New York buddy Tim.

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The Life and Crimes of Bernetta Wallflower

When I was about ten years old, I stole a roll of ribbon from a fabric store. The roll had maybe two feet left on it and for some reason I can’t explain now, I had to have it. That night I felt so guilty, and I confessed my transgression to my mother in tears. Knowing she couldn’t punish me more than I was punishing myself, she scolded me briefly and sent me to bed.

The Life and Crimes of Bernetta WallflowerSo my question in reading The Life and Crimes of Bernetta Wallflower was whether I could relate to and believe in a character who could plan to steal $9,000. As it turns out, I could and I did.

When Bernetta is framed for a crime at her exclusive private school, she isn’t expelled, but loses her scholarship — and loses the “best friend” who set her up. Bernetta is grounded for the summer and faces the scary thought of attending the local public school. The only solution that she can see is to come up with the tuition and go back to the only school she’s ever known. So when a boy comes into her life with a chance to turn her quick magician hands into easy money, she decides to give it a try. But the life of a con artist isn’t simple, and trust is hard to come by.

The Life and Crimes of Bernetta Wallflower would be great for a book club because there is so much left open for discussion in the character and the plot. But don’t take my word for it — let’s talk to the author, Lisa Graff. (And then we’ll find out how you can win a FREE AUTOGRAPHED BOOK.)

When did you start pulling together the concepts for The Life and Crimes of Bernetta Wallflower?

I guess it all started back in 2004, during my first year in graduate school (at the New School, where I studied Writing for Children). I had this crazy idea to see if I could write a con artist novel for kids, and everything sort of came out of that. At first I thought my protagonist would be a boy, because the main characters in these sorts of capers always seem to be boys, but I was having trouble coming up with a character who could do all these awful things — namely, steal $9,000 from innocent bystanders — and still somehow come off as sympathetic. But when I stumbled upon the idea that the protagonist should be a girl, that’s when it really came together. From there I created my unlikely con artist — a frizzy-haired girl named Bernetta who liked to chew on the pages of her books as she read them. That’s all I really knew about her. That, and the fact that for some reason she needed to pull together $9,000. So then my job was to figure out her back story — why did she need the money? How did she come up with her con artist plan? And what made her so good at thievery, if she’d never attempted it before? Thus was born Bernetta’s loss of her private school scholarship, the mysteriously adorable Gabe with his incredible knowledge of movies, and Bernetta’s background in magic.

Where did you get your ideas for the unusual aspects of the character — a magician’s assistant? A con artist? A prime number counter?

I’d been mulling over the idea of putting a professional magician into one of my novels for a long time. But then I realized how perfect it would be for Bernetta’s father to be a magician, because by performing as his assistant Bernetta could develop the necessary sleight-of-hand skills that would later serve her as a con artist. Plus, it gave her a stepping stone into the world of the con man — after all, what is being a magician, if not tricking people for money? It was an interesting relationship to explore.

The con artist idea itself arose out of my infatuation with con artist movies. I guess I just wanted to try my hand at telling a story in that genre. Bernetta’s awesome math skills came out of the realization that magic and mathematics often go hand in hand — so many people who are passionate about one are also fascinated with the other. And I gave her the particular quirk of counting by prime numbers when she’s stressed as a sort of mini-nod to my little brother Robert (who is now 12 and a bit of a numbers genius himself).

Whose books do you read to keep your creative juices flowing?

I feel that I have a very fluid voice as an author, by which I mean that I don’t always write in the same style. This can be a lot of fun, because it allows me to experiment with different genres and voices, and I don’t feel like I’m tied down, always telling the same sorts of stories. But it can also be a bit cumbersome, in that it can feel like I’m reinventing the wheel when I begin a new book. So I like to read books that are similar in style to the ones I’m trying to write. For my first book, The Thing About Georgie, I read novels by authors who wrote that sort of classic “school story” middle-grade, like Louis Sachar and Andrew Clements. When I was working on Bernetta I read more of the twisty-turny sorts of books, like The Westing Game. And for the book I’m working on now, which has a rather nostalgic, down-homey type feel, I’ve been reading books like A Corner of the Universe and Because of Winn-Dixie.

And lately I’ve been trying to read more books for grown-ups, just for fun. I recently finished Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which was absolutely amazing (even if it did take me six months to plow through it).

Why did you feel the need to write this book, especially given that you’re making the protagonist a con artist?

I don’t think I realized when I set out how challenging it was going to be to write a book about a child con artist. Part of the joy of watching heist movies, I think, is getting the chance to root for the bad guy. We don’t watch Ocean’s Eleven and think, “Now, seriously, George Clooney, do you really need to steal all those millions? Mightn’t there be a better way to solve your problems?” and then get all worried about the guy and just wish he’d stop his criminal ways and go get some counseling already. No. We just let it go and have fun with it. But when it’s a kid doing all that bad stuff, we do worry — and rightfully so. No twelve-year-old should be out and about stealing thousands of dollars (neither should George Clooney, but we’ll let that slide). So my challenge was to find a character who you could watch do these terrible deeds and understand that she wasn’t maybe doing the wisest thing, but you’d want to stick around long enough to see what happens anyway. And hopefully you’d have a lot of fun along the way.

How does this book reflect your own life experiences?

Well, aside from that $9,000 I scammed off the... oh no, wait, my parole officer told me I wasn’t supposed to mention that...

Honestly? I’ve never so much as stolen a pack of gum. I am a straight-up, boring-as-a-blank-piece-of-paper, Goody Two Shoes. I didn’t go to private school, my father is not a professional magician (I think my dad knows, like, one card trick), and I’ve certainly never been framed by my ex-best friend. (That I know of. Hmmmm...) The only thing in the book that resembles any aspect of my life at all is Colin, Bernetta’s six-year-old brother, who is based almost entirely on my little brother David. David was six when I began writing the book, and he is as goofy and hilarious as they come. And he did, in fact, use to run around with oven mitts on his hands shouting “Give me two!” It was rather adorable.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently finishing up revisions for my third novel, which I would gladly tell you the title of, except for the fact that it yet doesn’t have one. (Anyone want to name my novel? At this point I’ll take anything that sounds good; it doesn’t have to make sense at all. Ferrets Come Home is sounding pretty appealing, actually...) The book is about a girl who has become a bit of a hypochondriac after her older brother dies. It’s a fairly weighty theme but it is, I think, really a very funny one too.

For those of you who’d like to read more, Lisa visited Miss Erin yesterday, and tomorrow she’s dropping in at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

And if you’d like a free, autographed copy of The Life and Crimes of Bernetta Wallflower, be one of the first three people to email HarperCollins (at Jill.Santopolo@harpercollins.com) today. Mention the interview at MotherReader, and don’t forget to include your address. If you don’t win that way, then head over to Lisa’s Blog for a super fun prize that includes a copy of the book. You just have to share your own shady story — and my ribbon-stealing tale is off-limits.

A Personal (and Political) Message

Dear John,

Stop calling. I’m tired of getting messages on my answering machine reminding me that today’s the primary and to get out and vote for you. It’s over between us, Mr. McCain. It has been for a long time. In fact, I take that back. It never really even started for us, which only makes your continual calling all the more pathetic.

Okay, there was that brief flirtation years ago. But c’mon, the Democrats were putting up Kerry. In comparison, you looked so strong. But nothing happened with us. You have to admit it. I didn’t even give you my digits, which also makes your calls pretty disturbing.

You know this is hard enough for me already. Yes, I’m talking about Clinton and Obama. We need to talk about that. I’ve always been a fan of the Clintons and stuck through the tough times with them. I did. I like Hillary, and I love the idea of a woman president. But for years the country has been acting like an married couple hashing over the same old arguments and not getting anywhere. For the love of Pete, the last election had a huge focus on Vietnam. VIETNAM! Do you realize how long ago that was? Shouldn’t our attention be somewhere else by now? You were no help with your whole Prisoner of War thing going on. Not that I don’t appreciate what you did. Honestly. It’s just time to move on.

I’m with Obama now. He’s strong too, but he’s a fresh start. We need a fresh start badly, so badly. I can’t work out the old issues anymore. Red state, blue state. Clinton, Bush. Back and forth. It’s draining. With Obama I feel needed, wanted, excited. It’s good. It’s really good.

So John, the calls have got to stop. I’ll always treasure the good in you, but I can’t be yours. I can’t. I’m an Obama Girl now.

Pam (Pookie)

Obama Rally

Barack ObamaThere’s good timing, there’s bad timing, and then there’s annoying timing. The first two are well understood. The last might best be explained by this situation.

The family and I were in Virginia Beach to visit my mom, brother, and niece. It had to be a quick trip, driving down on Saturday morning at leaving at dinnertime on Sunday because we had to be back Monday morning. All well and good. Until I found out that Barack Obama was speaking at the nearby convention center at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday. We should be almost back to Northern Virginia by that time, but it’s Obama, like three miles from my mom’s house. And it’s Obama.

See, that’s annoying timing. Two hours earlier, and we’d certainly go. Two hours later, we couldn’t possibly go. If we left after the speech, we’d get home after midnight. If we left without going to the speech, I’d beat myself up about it. The kids would have to go, they might get tired, the wait would be long, the center might be crowded, we’d have to drive late at night, the kids had school the next day, Bill had work. What to do?

We went.

We didn’t know what to expect, given that Virginia Beach is not Democrat land. We figured that it might not be all that crowded and decided to get there about 6:30 instead of 5:30 when the doors opened. I wouldn’t call that choice a mistake exactly, but I will say by the time we got there the huge convention center parking lot was filled. No matter — we parked in a nearby lot. We approached the venue from the side and then saw the line. No worries — that’s to be expected. But as we walked and walked and walked to get to the end of a line that had to be about a half-mile long, we began to wonder how crazy it was to do this. Even though we thought that we wouldn’t be able to get in, we decided to wait until the official speech start at 7:30 p.m. to see how it was going.

As it turns out, the line started moving quickly right before our determined decision time, so we stayed the course and made it inside. The process was disorganized, the crowd was huge, the kids got tired, Barack started late, and we had to leave early. But we were there. Just us and about 18,000 other supporters. Holy cow.

The funniest thing: Our third grader is in charge of the class stuffed animal, Tracker, and we told her how cool it would be to write in Tracker’s journal that he saw Barack Obama speak. We had to throw the dog in the air a couple of times so he could see over the crowd, but it convinced her to go. Hey, you do what you gotta do.

Wish you could have been there too? Here’s the video.

Poetry Friday: Langston’s Train Ride and ForeWord

I have an article over at ForeWord today, part two of my suggested Black History Month Picture Books. There’s some great stuff on the list, so be sure to take a look. Please.

Langston's Train RideOne of the books I included and totally love is Langston’s Train Ride, by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Leonard Jenkins. The fantastic illustrations make this book a complete pleasure to peruse, no doubt about that. But the reader will also enjoy being taken along on a journey with Langston Hughes as a young man. As he rides on a train across the country, he is moved by the crossing over the Mississippi River. Words and phrases rush into his head, especially the phrase, “I’ve known rivers,” which he jots down on an envelope.
My thoughts roam. Suddenly, I feel the history of my people flowing right up to this moment — to ME. Yes, I feel I’ve lived other lives on those muddy riverbanks. Somehow, somewhere, I’ve heard the dusky waters of all those rivers lapping and singing. It’s true, it’s true. I’ve known rivers.

I keep the envelope flat on my lap. I’m madly scribbling words down now, rapidly one after another. (Poems are like rainbows, don’t you think? They escape if you’re not quick!) I turn my head to get one last look at the sun-tinged Mississippi. Going, going, gone. I scrawl the last line:

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

And the poem is done.
Read and listen to the poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” at Poets.org. The Poetry Friday round-up is hosted by AmoXcalli. And don’t forget to check out my two-part piece on picture books for Black History Month over at ForeWord and comment with other picture book suggestions for the month.

The Year Of The Rat

Today the third graders at my daughters’ school celebrate Chinese New Year, bringing in with style the Year of the Rat. They all made Chinese dragons that they will proudly parade around the halls of the school, leaving a trail behind them, I’m sure, of cardboard pieces, tissue paper, gold glitter, and the occasional Froot Loop. I wish I had thought to take a picture of my daughter’s work of art before she took it to school yesterday. Imagine a four-foot-long yellow snake made out of cardboard, but standing up on the curves with the help of oversized dragon feet. Add a folded shield head at the end of the snake, and for the real oomph, a row of yellow and orange tissue paper tufts and gold... sticking-out things with coiled wire and stars. It’s a beauty.

The third graders will make crafts of red envelopes and Chinese lanterns. They’ll have the opportunity to taste dumplings and other foods. It’s an exciting day for them. But it brings to mind something I read on the blogs a long time ago, maybe even Chinese New Year last year. Is it good for kids to expose them to these stylized traditions of a culture, leaving them, perhaps, with one technicolored image of the county instead of a fuller understanding?

I see the point in this discussion topic. China isn’t all parades and pandas. Mexico isn’t the hat dance and tacos. And ideally schools would be able to go into more detail on any topic they introduce so that they can provide a deeper understanding of the culture and nation. But I think that it’s better to present some aspect of other countries and other cultures, because it plants the seed of curiosity in their young minds. At the very least, all the kids learn that other people have other ways of doing things. At best some of the kids will be inspired to learn more.

The Year of the RatAnd there’s a book ready for those kids, Grace Lin’s sequel book, The Year of the Rat.

Pacy is celebrating Chinese New Year with her family and cousins and learning about the Year of the Rat, a year of great changes. Unfortunately for Pacy, one of these changes will involve the loss of her best friend when Melody moves away. Pacy is distraught, and sees the new Chinese family that takes over Melody’s house as the enemy. It doesn’t help when the new boy, Dun-Wei, is instantly linked to her at school as the only other Asian kid there. She doesn’t want to like him and resents being thought of as friends just because they are both Chinese. Pacy also finds it hard to fall back into sync with her old friends, now that Melody is gone. How will she make it through this year of changes?

The Year of the Rat is as wonderful as Lin’s first book in this series, The Year of the Dog. The reader can identify with the childhood crisis of a best friend moving and can root for Pacy and Melody to keep up their friendship long distance. Lin weaves in elements of Taiwanese-American culture, including Pacy’s questions of identity as Chinese, Taiwanese, or American. For kids who want to learn more about customs — maybe after coming off a school-sponsored, Chinese New Year extravaganza — this book will take them far while being a pleasant journey all the way.

Fans of Grace Lin may also check out the entry at Blue Rose Girls about two of her books making the Washington Post! I was also moved by Grace’s personal feelings about the Year of the Rat, both the book and the year itself. She’s also talking about her other new book over at Seven Impossible Things today. Happy Grace Day!

Blog Tour: Robie Harris

An esteemed children’s writer, Robie H. Harris has been making her way around the blogs this week and apparently took a virtual wrong turn and ended up here. I’m thrilled to have her stop by after her intelligent discussions at Fuse#8 and Book Buds where they ask actual, in-depth questions. So if they were say, Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Spago, then I’m like Denny’s — serving up basic, WhoWhatWhenWhereWhy&How questions, and you end up with a filling interview. Let’s get right to it.

As an adult, how are you able to maintain your writing from the child’s-eye view?

I grew up in a family with a mother and father who valued children first, and thought that the children in their lives — myself and older brother and cousins, and my friends — mattered more than anything and anyone else. Our house from as far back as I can remember was always filled with children, from the time I was very little and through my college years. So observing and being fascinated with and loving to be with children of all ages is in my genes. Then when I was a graduate student at The Bank Street College of Education, I took a course called “Observing and Recording The Behaviors of Young Children.” In that course, each week we spent about seventy percent of our time observing a different child, or a small group of children, writing down the words they said and the reactions/emotions they had. Then we would go back to our seminar and with teacher Dorothy Cohen and the other students discuss what we had recorded. Then we would talk about how what we observed and recorded could help us better understand that child and what was going on with that child at that moment — the same kind of thinking I do when I’m thinking about or writing a book. I still find myself wherever I am, in the park, on a bus, in the supermarket, doing what I learned in that graduate school course — observing and recording the words and actions of young children. When a child says something or does something that sparks my interest, I write down the words that child is saying and/or what the child is doing. And sometimes what I have written down leads to a book idea — an idea or story that I always hope is written from a “child’s-eye view.”

Mail Harry to the Moon!Let me tell you about how a forthcoming picture book of mine, Mail Harry to the Moon! began. A couple of summers ago, while visiting with family to meet their new baby Harry, one of their friends stood up to say goodbye. That’s when Harry’s four-year-old sibling asked the family friend, “Where are you going?”

“Chicago,” she answered. “I’m taking a plane to Chicago.”

“Is Chicago ver-rrrry far away from New York? Rrr-really far, far away from me, and my mommy and my daddy?”

“Yes,” the friend answered. “And Chicago is so windy that sometimes things — little things — blow away.”

Then without skipping a beat, the four-year-old said, “Oh then — take baby Harry to Chicago with you. He’ll like it there. Okay?” Needless to say, there was a look of great disappointment on the four-year-old’s face when the family friend did not walk out the door with baby Harry.

That story is now a picture book I have written. But in my picture book, I send baby Harry much further away than Chicago. I send baby Harry all the way to the moon — thus the title of the book: Mail Harry to the Moon! In the book, Harry’s older sibling makes all kinds of angry threats about baby Harry, such as, “Throw Harry in the trash!” “Stick Harry in the zoo!” “Put Harry back inside Mommy!” And finally, “Mail Harry to the moon!” And then remorse sets in. What if Mommy and Daddy really did send Harry to the moon? And alas, the big brother comes to the rescue and tells us, “Soon I was on the moon! And Harry was there. He was so excited to see me, he burped!”

The way in which this book began, a chance get-together with my great nephew, is what provided me with a child’s-eye view of how a young child feels about his new adorable/adored baby brother, and that experience allowed me to move forward and create the story for Mail Harry to the Moon!

Who do you see as your audience and how does it affect your writing?

The audience I write for is always children and I always hope the words and stories I write will resonate with children. If the books I write also appeal to adults, then it goes without saying, I’m also pleased. But when I write a book, I don’t worry about adults and what they will think about what I write, whether they will approve or disapprove of what I write. In fact, I always try to “put on blinders” when I write and not think at all about the adults, even though they are the ones who buy and/or choose books for children — be they parents, teachers, or librarians.

Goodbye MousieFor example, I did not worry about what any adult would think when the child in my picture book Goodbye Mousie, whose beloved pet mouse has just died, says, “I hate all this dying stuff!” This book was beautifully illustrated by Jan Ormerod. Nor did I worry when in Mail Harry to the Moon! baby Harry’s older brother says, “Put Harry back inside Mommy!” or “Flush Harry down the toilet!” These are things children say and/or think.

If a story is going to ring true to children, then it has to reflect their stories and words, the way children really are. As a writer I am not afraid to write about children’s strongest and most powerful feelings — feelings that range from love to anger, to jealously, to sadness, to joy. The expression of these kinds of feelings is part of every child’s life. And if those feelings are included in the stories we write for them, our stories can in fact help reassure children and help them to understand that the feelings they have day-in, day-out, are perfectly normal and that they are not alone in having those kinds of feelings.

When did you start writing?

I really started to create stories in book form in kindergarten, when every morning, we would dictate another line of the story we were making up to one of our teachers, who would write down our words. Then we would illustrate those words. I loved doing that and remember it well. But the truth is I never planned to be a children’s book author. It just happened. But I was editor of my high school newspaper and college yearbook. After graduate school, I became an elementary school teacher at the Bank Street School for Children in New York City and taught children, among other subjects, how to write. So all this must have planted the seeds to my becoming a children’s book author. But here’s what really did it.

After being a teacher, I began to work with two veteran and talented children’s book authors, Irma Black and Bill Hooks, at the Bank Street Writer’s Laboratory. Five mornings a week, sitting together with pencil, paper and a toy piano, we wrote a song and the five-minute, five-day-a-week opening segment for a year for ABC’s Captain Kangaroo show. Here I learned to work with others, Irma and Bill, to create something better than anything I could create by myself. Collaboration became a habit, and today I am so lucky to be able to collaborate with extraordinarily talented illustrators — such as Michael Emberley, Nicole Hollander, Jan Ormerod, Harry Bliss, and Molly Bang — so that hopefully my text and their art become seamless. My first picture book was published in 1977.

Where can you do your best thinking?

I am not sure that there is any one place where I do my best thinking. No matter where I am, I am almost always thinking about the book I am currently writing, or about possible new book ideas, or books that are in the process of being illustrated and designed. In fact, it is hard to turn off the “book thinking part” of my brain at all. However, after taking down notes and writing down ideas on a legal pad on what could possibly be a book, when I have a few opening pages and some lines I think work, I start writing on my computer. At that point, which often takes me a long time to get to, most of my thinking goes on when I am writing on my computer, and trying to make a story work and read well and be fun and/or interesting to read. A quick aside: I am totally dependent on, one hundred per cent addicted to my laptop computer, so in reality, I can write almost anywhere. Yes, I still think about what I am writing while peeling an onion or in the bathtub. But I don’t put that thinking in the book until I am back on my computer working on the book.

Maybe a Bear Ate It!Let me play out a scenario with you, as a way to answer your question, and think back to how I wrote my brand-new picture book, Maybe a Bear Ate It!, which is filled with hilarious illustrations by my buddy Michael Emberley. These are the opening words of the book: “It’s gone! It’s nowhere! I can’t find it anywhere! Where is MY BOOK? I need MY BOOK!” These very words cried out by the child-creature in this book mirror the frantic feelings I have whenever my favorite book-of-the moment goes missing. Just recently, a librarian told me how many times not only children, but also adults, run up to the library desk, so distressed that they have lost the book they are in the middle of reading, and declare in a loud and clear voice, “I LOVE MY BOOK! I NEED MY BOOK!” And then, the librarian told me, they ask in a desperate voice, “Do you… does the library… do you have another copy of my book I can read right now?”

Late one night when I could not find the book I was reading, I too became more and more desperate. I looked everywhere for it — under the bed, in the laundry hamper, and even in the most ridiculous and improbable places. Maybe in my haste, I reasoned, when putting away the dinner leftovers, maybe I had put the book in the refrigerator. Or when I went to wipe up a spill on the floor, had I actually thrown the book in the trash? But no, thank goodness I had done neither.

I loved that book. I loved that story. I had to know how it ended. I had to know what happened at that very moment, not the next morning, or next day, or next week! And I had the same worry the child-creature in Maybe a Bear Ate It! shouts out, “I can’t go to sleep without it!” Panic set in at the thought of a sleepless night!

Then I thought back to when my children were young and those nights they couldn’t find their favorite book-of-the-moment, and how sad, worried, and upset they felt. How would they ever fall asleep without their book? Had something horrible happened to their book? Perfectly normal worries for a young child. And then I remembered how relieved and happy they felt when finally they found their beloved book.

The night I lost my book, I felt the same way my children had felt many years ago. A few days later, when I began to write Maybe a Bear Ate It!, the first few lines that popped into my head were those very real worries and very real fantasies young children might have about the book they may have lost. “Maybe a bear ate it! Maybe a stegosaurus stomped on it! Maybe a shark swallowed it!” So my first thinking and perhaps my best thinking for this book happened late one night — in bed!

Why did you need to write this book?

It’s not that I need to write a book. It’s that I want to write a book. In fact, once I have an idea that grabs me, it literally feels as if I have been “grabbed by a book idea,” and then the operative word for me is want. Once that happens, I really, really want to write that particular book and start in by trying to figure out the story for that particular book. And the story, the plot, simple as is it, for Maybe a Bear Ate It! is the story of a young child who loses his or her beloved book of the moment, and imagines that something as terrible as a bear eating or a stegosaurus stomping on it has happened to the book. And the big problem is that this child — and might I add that the same is just coincidentally the same for me — cannot go to sleep without his or her beloved book. So what to do? This child creatures looks for it, and often in unlikely places, like the sink, but finally, well I won’t tell the end… But really this is a story, a picture book about falling in love with a book, which if we are lucky, we all do.

I also wanted to write this book because it was a challenge. I was writing it for very young children and so I felt it had to have very short text, even some wordless pages — something I had never done before. I like to talk a lot, write a lot of words and I was not sure I could write something that had few words and still tell a story that young children would respond to and think was fun to listen to. (I knew that Michael’s drawings would be fun to look at.) So the challenge for me was: Could I write a different kind a book? And that was one of the things that made me want to try to write this book.

And yes, once an idea has grabbed me, that’s when I feel compelled to write the book, and at that point, you are correct, I need to write the book.

What’s next for you?

I am thrilled and feel so lucky that I have three new picture books coming out in 2008. Maybe a Bear Ate It! was just published. Mail Harry to the Moon! will be published in June. And The Day Leo Said, “I Hate You!” will be published this coming fall.

But I am also excited about future books in the works. I have written a series of four nonfiction picture books for children age two-and-a-half and up. Michael Emberley is just beginning to illustrate the first book. This series is called All About Us books. Creating these books for very young children and being accurate to the science and making them fun and understandable to younger children presents a challenge. But together with our editor and designer, the first book is beginning to come together in new ways that have not been in previous books of ours before. This first of these books will be published in 2009.

I have a picture book coming out in 2009 called, The Biggest, Baddest Rip! This picture book is being illustrated by Elizabeth Matthews. It is about a young child who “grows up” as his quilt “grows down,” and who finally realizes that he does not have to give up his raggedy old, ripped-up quilt just yet, because he is “not all big” yet. I cannot wait to see Elizabeth’s first set of drawings for this book! And I am currently working on some new picture books that are different from books I have done in the past. Somehow, they seem to be taking a new direction, a new form, a new voice, and that is exciting to me.

Tomorrow Robie H. Harris will be at Kids Lit talking about Freedom to Read and Freedom to Write. Then catch her at Bookshelves of Doom on Friday for a discussion on “Being the Author of Challenged Books.”

Nonfiction vs. Historical Fiction, plus FOREWORD!

Today my first article is posted at ForeWord — or will be any minute now. I wrote about the picture books that should be in every public and school library — and certainly some home libraries — for Black History Month. Some of the books are nonfiction and some are historical fiction. Several I think blur that line, making me — and who knows, maybe you — question the nature of a nonfiction book. It’s certainly easy when your book is titled Bees and it’s all facts about, you know, bees. But it gets trickier when the book’s about a person and some blanks have to be filled in to complete the story.

So Henry’s Freedom Box is historical fiction because it’s based on a true story, but all the details aren’t known. But Only Passing Through is a biography of Sojourner Truth, though there are parts that read like a story. How about last year’s Caldecott Honor Award winner Moses? It is considered a biography in my library, but I dare say that the parts where Harriet Tubman is addressed by God make it more of a fictionalized account by my definition.

Martha Ann's Quilt for Queen VictoriaTake Martha Ann’s Quilt for Queen Victoria, by Kyra E. Hicks. I was certain that the book was historical fiction, mainly because it reads like a story. In 1830, Martha Ann and her family bought their freedom, and with the assistance of the American Colonization Society, moved to Liberia to live. The children could attend school in Liberia, and they were finally free from slavery in America. Even after a deadly fever took away her mother and father, the children decided to stay in the country far from their home. When the queen of England sent ships to patrol the coast of Liberia to keep slave catchers away, Martha Ann made herself a promise to meet Queen Victoria someday. Through years of waiting and some hard times, Martha Ann never forgot her goal, and worked to make it come true. I liked this book because it shows a different perspective on this time in history, and offers a lesson in reaching for our dreams. When I went to the Library of Congress catalog entry, it appears I’ve been reading a straight biography all along. Who knew?

So for Nonfiction Monday at Picture Book of the Day, let me wonder what pushes these books into one category or the other. For more on the perfect picture books for Black History Month — not like I wasn’t offering huge hints on what I’ve included — head over to ForeWord’s blog and put in your own suggestions — but only up to 1899, because I’m covering the period from 1900 onward with Friday’s entry.

Poetry Friday: MLK Jr. Kinda Poetry

At the library yesterday, I put together a display for Black History Month. Imagine, if you will, two large blocks, one smaller and on top of the other. Around the sides of the small block, I taped black paper and a print-out of kente cloth that I found online. I had to print ten copies of it and cut it out and tape it together and then tape it on the black paper, but it looked pretty good when it was done.

On the larger block, I taped up the printed words I HAVE A DREAM TODAY on one side. On the other three sides, I taped up quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous speech. When I saw the words printed out and glued onto black paper to set them off, I was moved all over again by the phrases. And though they are not technically poetry, I’d like to use them for this Poetry Friday, the first one of Black History Month. Indulge me.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up
and live out the true meaning of its creed:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident:
that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia
The sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners
will be able to sit down together
at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that my four little children
will one day live in a nation
where they will not be judged by the color of their skin
but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.
I should mention that I skipped one line about the state of Mississippi — because remember, I only had three sides to work with on the display pyramid. The whole speech, including video, is available at American Rhetoric. The Poetry Friday round-up is with Karen Edmisten.

This month, I’ll be checking in at Twenty-Eight Days Later, a Celebration of Children’s Literature over at The Brown Bookshelf. I urge you to do the same. If you’re looking for poetry books, let me suggest a visit to Wild Rose Reader. Actually two visits. I’ll be writing about my favorite picture books for Black History Month over at Foreword on Monday and Friday next week. Yes, I’m a guest blogger and I couldn’t be prouder.