Friday, September 28, 2007

Jon Scieszka Fan Club

I'm a big fan of Stinky Cheese Club, Time Warp Trio, etc. creator Jon Scieszka. (This pic is of him in Grade 5. Yup, it's from your web site Mr. Scieszka, but I'm not saying anything nasty, so I hope you don't sue me.) Honestly, I don't know that kids always get his wacky humour, but that's okay, I love his work (and, of course, Lane Smith's equally wacky illustrations alongside) and he keeps cranking them out. Check out the You Tube "trailer" for his upcoming Cowboy & Octopus posted above. But Jon's on my mind for other things. He's a great promoter of boys and reading and trying to figure out how the two can successfully come together. To this end, he's created the fab Guys Read. There's an interesting interview with him in the September/October issue of The Horn Book. (You can access to some of the content in this issue here.) Here's an bit of what he had to say:

Roger Sutton: Why do we need Guys Read? What's wrong? What are you trying to fix?

Jon Scieszka: I'm trying to fix that boys never give reading a change. They're so impulsive and so into instant gratificaion, or else they turn off reading because of an experience like having to read a particular book for school. Whihc is what happened to my son in third grade: Little House on the Praire was the one required summer reading book. To his credit, he read the whole thing, but he just kept syaing, "Nothing's happening!" Finally he decided, "All right, that's reading, then. That's not for me. I'll play hockey instead." It killed me to see him give up on before he had the chance to find something he really liked.

Of course, not everybody has to read really well, because I think we also tyrannize kids by saying everybody has to love reading; reading is magic. And it's not magic for those guy, it's really hard work.

RS: Or even if we do say reading is fun, we sometimes give them books that we think are fun but kids don't.

JS: Yeah. I think a lot of boys get the impression that reading equals school. And they see school as a bunch of adults telling them what to do. Reading gets tangled up with that. It's interesting: in a lot of studies, boys will say they're not readers, but when the studies actually tracked what boys did read, they read a ton of stuff! Nonfiction, magazines, newspapers, computer manuals. Those are the storytelling styles that boys prefer, humor or non-fiction or graphic novels.
Later...'re always speaking to that audience. [When I was a teacher] I was trying to reach those kids in the back of my classroom, who were back tehre dicking around and doing nothing. So now, if the guy in the back of the rooms hears his teacher reading Stinky Cheese Man, I hope it makes him sit up and say, "What? You can say that?" I want to shock him into realizing that reading, books, can belong to him, too.

Go, Jon, Go. So... But, I wonder, if boys aren't reading all that much how come we still manage to have a world where the majority of adult novelists are men? Are men reading their books? I would say, yes, but I would wager that women still read far more.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

For the Birds

When I was studying biology at university our ornithology instructors always referred to the great horned owl as the "Hollywood Owl" -- it's the owl that always "hoots" on those dark, stormy and spooky nights in movies, regardless of whether the great horned owl lives within hooting range of the setting. This article, Movies Don't Give a Hoot, gives us a few more specifics. When I was having the illustrations for my book, Owls, checked over by an expert (who also happened to be an artist) he went on and on about "Harry Potter owls" and how they movie-made owls -- Hedwig and friends -- didn't fly quite right.

Here's another cool bird story -- a 15-year-old Malkolm Boothroyd and his parents head off for a birder's Big Year, which, traditionally, sees crazed birders flying around the world (several times often) to see who can get the largest number of species in one calendar year. (On that note, check out the book The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession, to get at the inner workings of some of these characters.) But this big year has a twist -- Malkolm and his parents are doing their Big Year on bikes, and are doing a truncated version, riding from Alaska to Calfornia. He's quite the artist, too. Check out their site, The Bird Year.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Audio and Visual Voyeurs

For your listening and viewing pleasure... First, a very interesting podcast, sponsored by PEN, with children's writers Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Robert Lipsyte, Vera B. Williams, and Susan Kuklin (moderator). Lots of interesting discussion -- "lies" in children's literature, full-frontal nudity, gay protagonists, and more. Particularly useful if you're a writer of children's fiction or non-fiction. Elizabeth Bird at Fuse #8 has a good overview on her blog post from September 25 (Mighty PEN).

And, for some viewing fun, check out these writer's rooms. My office is something like A. S. Byatt's, with the "tunnels and towers of books all over the floor," but her office is still about ten times neater than mine. A pile for every project I say.

Gorgeous fall day here -- check out the local webcam.

The Cybils are Coming

It's the time of year for The Cybils, best kid's lit books of the year (2006) awards as decided by bloggers and blog readers. I put my name forward (thanks to the nudge from Kirsti) and am on the final judging panel for non-fiction picture books.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Take This Book to Paris!

Here's a little gem that satisfies my love for sweet, impish children, I Spy books, cheeky/intelligent writers, and Paris: Adele and Simon by Barbara McClintock (no, not the geneticist Barbara McClintock — although it would be cool to see what kind of kid's book she could have come up with! — but the illustrator Barbara McClintock).

Set in the early 20th century Paris, Adele meets her brother at the end of his school day and the pair head for home. But theirs is a circuitous route -- luckily for the reader. We visit a street market, the Jardin du Luxembourg, the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle, the patisserie Maison Cador and more Parisian sites. Along the way, Simon loses something at every turn (thus the I Spy or Where's Waldo part of the book). McClintock adds in lots of great touches for those who pore over the pictures. One example is Miss Clavell, Madeline and the gals traipsing through the Jardin des Plantes. Her end notes on each spread also reveal some surprising gems -- she's hidden several references to art and artists, such as the "groupings of people based on famous pictures by the nineteenth-century artists Honore Daumier and the early-twentieth-century photograph Eugene Atget" scattered in the street market image. Yikes! Daumier and Atget — nothing like a good kids book to send you on a Google search! In the Louvre we see the artists Edouard Vuillard, Odilion Redon, Edgar Degas, and Mary Cassatt helping Simon search for his lost crayons. (Well, okay, I didn't recognize them, but they're there.)

Adele and Simon is a lovely story on its own, but the addition of these details adds another dimension for a parent, teacher or librarian who's willing to take the time to search out more details on these artists. The text is simple, yet satisfying for a read-aloud:

Adele picked up her little brother, Simon, at school.
Simon was waiting by the door.
He had his hat and gloves and scarf and sweater,
his coat and knapsack and books and crayons,
and a drawing of a cat he'd made that morning.
"Simon, please try not to lose anything today," said Adele.
Simon said, "I'll try."

Now ... if I could just think of a writing project that requires a trip to Paris to complete.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Second Hand Score: Zin! Zin! Zin!

I'm a sucker for cruising the book section in second-hand stores. Walked away from one of my favourites the other day with a bag full 'o books, including some great kid's books I hadn't heard of or seen before. A little version of Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin by Lloyd Moss and illustrated by Marjorie Priceman caught my eye. This little gem was a Caldecott Honor Book from Simon & Schuster published in 1995. Teacher's must love this book, with it's cross-curricular links to music and math. Oh, look, there just happens to be Teacher's Guides on said subjects, music and math! Here's a taste of what's inside:

With mournful moan and silken tone,
Itself alone comes ONE TROMBONE
Gliding, sliding, high notes go low;

Next, a TRUMPET comes along,
And sings and stings its swinging song.
It joints TROMBONE, no more alone,
And ONE and TWO-O, they're a DUO.

Fine FRENCH HORN, its valves all oiled,
Bright and brassy, loops all coiled,
Golden yellow; joins its fellows.
TWO, now THREE-O, what a TRIO!

Yup, they get up to nine (a NONET) and ten (A Chamber Group of Ten)!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

New Graphica

My 10-year-old daughter has still not quite latched onto reading like the rest of the family. I'm sure it will come -- she certainly loves to be read to -- but one thing she will sit down and devour is a graphic novel. In an attempt to broaden her interests beyond Bone, I'm on the prowl for new titles. Last week's Globe and Mail listed a new crop for the season, and some certainly piqued my interest.

Robot Dreams by Sara Varon is wordless, but the illustrations are charming. And I love the idea of Dog and Robot being best friends. (I've just finished a book on robots, so I'm particularly cued to anything robotic!) You can have a sneak-peek of 10 pages here. Here's a bit of what Nathalie Atkinson had to say in They Grow up so Quickly (Globe and Mail, September 8, 2007): "During a summer trip to the seaside, Dog's sidekick Robot rusts stiff after playing in the surf and is left behind. The immobile Robot and the Dog, while apart, cannot help thinking of one another, although Dog soon moves through successive replacement friendships with a family of migrating ducks, a penguin and a melting snowman. It's charming, delicate and heartbreaking." I'm on the prowl for this one.

Laika by Nick Abadzis also caught my interest since I'd read up on this space puppy while working on a space issue for KNOW. Not a happy story, but it will be interesting to see how they handle this tale in graphic form. Here's a peak from New York mag and from First Second's website.

Any graphic novels to recommend?

Adrienne the Furtive

Silly Saturday morning stuff. A browse through the BookLust blog led me to this hilarious website where you too can get your own eccentric British aristocratic title. Mine? "Viscountess Adrienne the Furtive of Chalmondley St. Peasoup."

Friday, September 14, 2007

Adverbiage Ad naseum

I recently finished Susan Cooper's Over Sea, Under Stone, which a friend had recommended to me years ago. She's a dear friend, and she taught children's literature and this was a classic, so I was ready to dive in. (It's a good thing, too, because a movie based on The Dark Is Rising sequence, is about to be released on October 5.) While I was not disappointed by the story -- although it did feel a bit dated (it's almost as old as me, afterall) and it was too long -- I was distracted by the crazy use of adverbs. I might not have twigged on it so much if I hadn't read this great essay by Carrie Mac not so long ago about the overuse of adverbs in the Harry Potter books (thus, adverbiage ad nauseaum). Here's my favourite from Over Sea, Under Stone:

"Boiled," said Barney sepulchrally. "In a great big pot." Uh, sepulchrally? What does that mean anyhow? [My COD says: suggestive of the tomb, funereal, gloomy, dismal]

Since it's Friday afternoon, I've finished work for the week, it's still a bit early for a cocktail, I thought I'd procrastinate by choosing a spread from Over Sea, Under Stone and one from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to see who wins the highly coveted Tough City Writer Overuse of Adverbs (TCWOA) prize.

Page 16-17, Over Sea, Under Stone
"Cannibals!" said Barney with scorn...
"Well, that's not very interesting," said Jane, disappointed.
"Now I know what this room reminds me of," Jane said suddenly.
"I mean," said Jane hastily,..."
"Oh all right." Simon put the case down reluctantly.
"Boiled," said Barney sepulchrally. (I couldn't resist.)

Okay, Cooper wins the prize hands down -- averaging 3-4/page. Rowling uses them, but she's showing considerable restraint in comparison to Cooper.

"Oh, poop," said JK sepulchrally, "I didn't win the prize." (She's got enough of them, I say!)

Tackling Tragedy - World's Afire

I'm continuously searching for children's/YA stories told in verse -- it's a form I love. I've been enjoying Paul Janeczko's poetry, most recently A Kick in the Head, so was delighted to find he'd written a verse novel -- World's Afire. The subject of the novel was an interesting choice though -- the 1944 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus disastrous fire in Hartford. I wonder if a lesser-known writer would have even been considered if they'd suggested writing about such a tragedy? I find that my younger daughter is particularly afraid of fire, so I wouldn't suggest she read this, but, perhaps, for kids who need something a little edge to draw them into a story -- and to poetry -- it would be a good choice.

Of course it was wonderfully crafted. Told in three parts, through the eyes of 29 characters (e.g., Willard Owens, Circus Buff; Dixie Levine, Circus Attendant; Eddie "Freak Man" Carlyle, Sideshow Fan, etc.), each of whom is given a poem. Here's an excerpt:

Ralph Nesbitt
Eighteen-Year-Old Animal Trainer

I was working with the elephants
near the main ten
when the fire started --
a lick of flame
in the top of the tent.
My first thought was,
How're those people going to get out of there?
Then somebody yelled,
"Get the elephants out!"
Nobody wanted 'em to charge the crowd.
I started shouting,
"Tails! Tails!"
and the herd lined up
just like they'd been taught.

I was too scared to be proud of them.
We marched them out,
prodding them with bull hooks
when they dawdled.
I kept one eye on the herd
one on the tent,
black smoke pouring out
like from a hundred locomotives
and wondered again
about those poor people:
How're they ever going to get out of there?
When the herd was safe,
I cried.

- Paul Janeczko, World's Afire

Here's a summary:
Janeczko focuses on a twentieth-century tragedy that has been the subject of several prose works in his original 2004 work Worlds Afire. On July 6, 1944, a tragic fire erupted in the main tent of the Barnum & Bailey Circus as the greatest show on earth performed in Hartford, Connecticut. In its wake, the fire left 167 men, women, and children dead and over 500 others injured, in one of the greatest New England tragedies of the twentieth century. In twenty-nine poems that recount, first, the circus opening, then the fire and, finally, the tragic aftermath, Janeczko gives voice to the survivors, as well as those destined to die. Even the arsonist is allowed to express himself through the poet's free verse in a "verse novel" that a Kirkus Reviews writer described as a "rich, challenging poetry experience" that "creates an overview of a community in tragedy." Although his verses capture the human tragedy rather than the graphic horror of the event, as Booklist reviewer Hazel Rochman noted, "the combination of a thrilling circus and true catastrophe will grab middle-schoolers" cautious about investing in reading poetry.

While I'm glad I read this, and enjoyed each of the "stories in miniature" that each poem provided, I just can't imagine the children I would recommend or read this to. I'm sure a skillful teacher or librarian could craft a way of introducing this book to children. Your thoughts?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Laugh for Tuesday Morning

Good for a belly laugh I think. My kids watched it over and over with a group of friends on Sunday -- much hilarity.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Junie B. Jones, Move Over!

Worlds away from The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs is the delightful Clementine. I loved this character -- a quirky, mischeivous young gal who just wants to be helpful and loved. We spend a week -- a bad week -- with Clementine, which she begins by cutting off her friend Margaret's hair. What I loved most about this book is the distinct voice that the author, Sara Pennypacker, created for Clementine. Here's the first page:

I have had not so good of a week.
Well, Monday was a pretty good day, if you don't count Hamburger Surprise at lunch and Margaret's mother coming to get her. Or the stuff that happened in the principal's office when I got sent there to explain that Margaret's hair was not my fault and besides she looks okay without it, but I couldn't because Principal Rice was gone, trying to calm down Margaret's mother.
Someone should tell you not to answer the phone in the principal's office if that's a rule.
Okay, fine, Monday was not so good of a day.

Apparently a sequel was out this year. Shall have to track it down. This book gets my vote everyday over the irritating Junie B. Jones. Bring it on, Clementine!

Friday, September 07, 2007

Taking Mother Love to New Heights

I have to take this book back to the library, so a quick post while it's still in my hot little hands. The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs by Jack Gantos is not for the feint-hearted and definitely for older readers in the YA range (I'd say grade 8 and up). No spoiler here, but think a book that is gothic, slighty (very, at times) creepy, disconcerting too. It'll make ya squirm, but it will be hard to put down too. If you read it, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Here's the opening paragraph:

"I expect you might think the story I am about to tell you is untrue or perversely gothic in some unhealthy way. You might even think I've exaggerated the facts in order to twist this book into a modern-day metaphor on the exploitation of human creation, as did Mary Shelley with Frankenstein. Maybe you'll think I'm trying to spook you with a psychological tale of a murderous double as Edgar Allan Poe wrote in 'William Wilson,' or to stir up family shame as Hawthorne did in The House of the Seven Gables. But my story is entirely different."

We Survived the West Coast Trail!

Earlier this week, we arrived home from hiking the famous (infamous to some? -- "ah, the mud, the mud, the mud (and the ladders!)) West Coast Trail. It was a family affair, with our family, my siblings, brother-in-law and nephew along for the slog. Patrice and I just did parts of it, but it was enough to keep her still eager to come back for more. Highlights for me were: the slow wander/hike with Patrice from Pachena Lighthouse to Pachena Bay. She was interested in a lot of the plants and mushrooms we saw, so our hike became a wander with lots of naturalizing along the way, and many snack stops. The massive blowdowns through this area from this winter's storms were impressive -- over 2000 trees came down!; exploring the sandstone shelves below Carmanah Light, with the sea urchin "condos," complete with bright pink paint on the walls (that would be encrusting coralline algae); watching my lovely, strong 14-year-old daughter waltz through the entire journey with a positive attitude, a smile for all, and not one complaint; spending time away from work with all of my family; and, of course, walking the labyrinth in front of Carmanah Lighthouse. Love it. Will try to post a photo soon. This photo is of Patrice walking through the green tunnel up from one of our favourites beaches. Our friend Janet, from Carmanah Light, snapped it.

From Idea to Finished Art

If you've ever wondered about the process an illustrator goes through once they receive a manuscript from their publisher, check out Kirsti Wakelin's great link on her website that goes step-by-step through the creation of a spread for When They Are Up. I had no idea there would be so many steps. Kirsti is the brainchild behind the wonderful blog created for BC writers, the CWILL-BC blog. It's a great place to keep up on children's lit. events in British Columbia.