Monday, September 28, 2009
Happily, this tapestry will be housed in a museum, at least for the next few months. I love the way humanity dreams up new art forms, especially ones as out there as this is...
Sunday, September 27, 2009
I'm not so cynical as to call it "dumbing down" when publishers create books that are faster paced and have less sophisticated vocabulary; instead, I think these books accurately reflect our culture, specifically trends in language influenced by journalism (and figures like Hemingway), as well as by other media, beginning with MTV and continuing on to social networking. When all problems can be solved in 30 minutes, not counting commercials, and political issues are summarized in sound bites, yeah, we're living in a different world. Of course, Twitter is a recent and obvious example, in which dibs and dabs take on a strangely surreal importance.
But even if the shift is merely stylistic, one result is that the story book is getting squeezed out.
Pretty much everybody knows about the genre in children's literature called picture books, but what are story books? These are written for slightly older readers, say, second and third graders as opposed to kindergartners and first graders. The language is often more difficult, and the books are generally meant to be read aloud. You'll find that there are a lot more sentences on a page and even a smaller font; in fact, one approach to the story book is to isolate the text on one side of the spread and place the illustration on the other. (Cover above left is Trina Schart Hyman's Sleeping Beauty.)
Most often, books set up this way are fairy tales. The classic examples are those illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, although Kinuko Craft appears to have taken her place as the queen of the illustrated fairy tale. Texts for stories like "Cinderella," "Sleeping Beauty," "The Twelve Dancing Princesse," and "Little Red Riding Hood" are lightly adapted from Grimm or Perrault for such books. The language reflects the grandeur of oral storytelling, where phrasing could afford to be rich and rolling and was as important or more important than any Johnny-come-lately artwork.
In some cases, the fairy tales are new stories which simply sound like they come from the Brothers Grimm or other collections based on the oral tradition—such as Jacqueline K. Ogburn and Laurel Long's The Magic Nesting Doll (see cover art below right). Or they may be stories combining a couple of traditional tales.
But the story book is losing ground fast, with publishers pushing them to reinvent themselves as picture books. My own experience in this regard is as a writer of original fairy tales. In fact, the first book I sold, The Secret-Keeper, was selected from an unpublished collection of such stories by my editor at Atheneum. It took awhile to come out, and although I'm told it's a lovely book and it garnered a Parents' Choice Recommended award, it hasn't exactly sold like hotcakes. In the aftermath of that experience, I spoke to my editor a year or so ago and told her, "I've noticed there's a need in the market for what I call 'rowdy boy books,' so I've been writing some of those."
She heaved a sigh of relief, and we proceeded to have a conversation in which she admitted that while she likes my fairy tales, she feels that the market doesn't really support them at this time. Not long after, I sold her one of my new "rowdy boy books."
The story doesn't end there. I had already signed on to do a retelling of a Grimms' fairy tale, Hans-My-Hedgehog, illustrated by John Nickle. This project was the illustrator's idea, and when I began working on the text, I produced a somewhat fast-paced version because my head was full of his pictures for The Ant Bully. But my editor wrote back, asking for the "lush fairy tale style" I'd used in my first book. I rewrote the manuscript, pleased, since I actually prefer the traditional fairy tale voice.
The wheels of publishing turn slowly, however, and the project made its way through more than one changing of the guards, for a grand total of four editors. This fall the last editor, some three years after that "lush" request, told me that they really wanted a tighter text because today's picture books are quite spare. Kicking myself for losing the earliest version I'd produced, I rewrote the story, paring out most of the lush language. So that's Exhibit B.
Insufficient evidence? Perhaps. But watch for this particular trend to continue, and I think you'll see what I mean.
One implication is that there's little room in today's picture book market for true storytelling. The small gap between the picture book, in which text is entirely secondary to artwork, and the chapter book with its single piece of cover art is closing. Those doors I mentioned again, marking the proverbial end of an era. I suspect even well-known folktale retellers such as Robert San Souci and Aaron Shepard are feeling this particular pinch. Because right now, publishers would rather see a Fancy Nancy or a "rowdy boy book" than good old-fashioned storytelling. (Cover art at right is from Paul O. Zelinsky's Rapunzel.)
Should we mourn the loss of this subgenre? Or is it, like the extinction of certain species in nature, an inevitable evolution? I will point out that a spot remains for this type of rich, roll-off-your-tongue, read-aloud storytelling in collections for older readers with few or no illustrations, although again, it's not considered a strong commercial segment of the market. And yet, Kinuko Craft seems to be holding her own, arm firmly thrust through those closing doors and waving a masterful paintbrush.
The emphasis is clearly on illustration in today's picture book market. Sounds like sour grapes, I know, since I come from the writing side of things. But trends are trends, and I think this one is worth mentioning. I do know that even in the haiku-like format of the true picture book, when the storytelling is as breathtaking as the artwork, you've got one of those books that will stay in print forever and ever. (E.g., Where the Wild Things Are and Millions of Cats.)
And so, in honor of today's post and those ominous doors I keep talking about, I give you a smorgasbord of Cinderellas from my own library (which is cheerfully attempting to take over the house). Many of these books are out of print, but you can always visit your local library to find them.
Cinderella, by Max Eilenberg and Niamh Sharkey
This is the newer book that got me thinking about this topic. Aside from its symbolic value as described above, I really do like it! Here is the first page:
Once upon a time there lived a girl whose mother—the kindest mother in all the world—had died and whose father had married again.
The wedding had barely ended before the new wife began to reveal her true nature. She was snobbish, mean, and foul-tempered. Ooh, she was horrid!
And she was especially cruel to the girl, whose beauty made her own two daughters look positively hideous. The stepmother couldn't stand this.
I think you'll find that this is a very good retelling for 5- to 7-year-olds. And you as a parent or teacher will catch the Britishisms from the London-based writer (e.g., "In fact, they looked frightful."). I particularly like the way the author uses sounds, which are presented in a larger font in the middle of the page. For example, listen to the fairy godmother's wand in action: "Tap tap WHOOSH!" My only disappointment about this Cinderella is that the art is sometimes bland.
Cinderella, by Ruth Sanderson
Sanderson has it all, combining elements from the "Cinderella" most children know with pieces of a less well-known version, the German "Ashenputtel." Sanderson includes the hazel tree with its white birds that help Cinderella, leaving out the mother's grave. Instead she adds a white rose tree nearby to symbolize the mother's love. But the author also brings in an actual fairy godmother. For those who know the two stories, this results in a considerable muddle, but young readers probably won't notice. The birds do punish the stepmother and stepsisters at the end, though less violently than in "Ashenputtel." Sanderson's illustrations, which she paints from live models, are a nice blend of romanticism and realism.
Cinderella, by Susan Jeffers
The text occasionally lapses into summary, but is basically accessible and well told. Jeffers' colored pen-and-ink illustrations are the best thing about this version, although none of the interior paintings come close to the beauty of the portrait of Cinderella on the front cover. Then again, the spread showing Cinderella on her way to the ball is quite striking!
Cinderella, by Charles Perrault and Loek Koopmans, translated from the Swiss by Anthea Bell
I'm not sure whether Bell translated from Perrault's French or a Swiss rendering of Perrault's tale, but the illustrations are a little unexpected and very likable. I particularly enjoyed one that shows Cinderella holding a pumpkin aloft in a daylit garden, and another of her sleeping by the fire. Watch as well for the surprising way in which the prince takes Cinderella away from her home.
Cinderella, by Barbara McClintock
Right now McClintock is best known for her Adele and Simon books, but her faintly theatrical rendering of Cinderella is worth owning. As the back flap copy explains, the illustrations "were inspired by a trip to Paris. The prince's palace is based on Versailles and the Paris Opera, and all the costumes and hairdos reflect France in the time of Louis XIV. [McClintock] was also influenced by the work of Watteau, Fragonard, the films of Jean Cocteau, and the Tintin comic books."
Cinderella, by K.Y. (Kinuko) Craft
Craft's paintings are unabashedly luxurious and traditional, evoking the old masters and the decorative arts from various European courts a few hundred years ago. Her heroines and even her heroes tend to have curling blonde hair and blue eyes, not to mention those cupid's-bow lips you mostly see in royal portraits hanging in museums rather than on actual faces. It's all beautifully done as well as delightfully decadent, and 8-year-old girls will eat it up. Fancy Nancy's got nothing on these illustrations!
Cinderella, by David Delamare
I treasure this unusual book, which gives us a Cinderella who lives in a slightly magical version of Venice. Think powdered wigs, and you've got the right era. The palette is dark and mysterious. Cinderella's face is a bit too modern with its Angelina Jolie lips, and the fairy godmother really doesn't work for me. But the rest of the artwork is marvelous, and a nice change from the traditional look of this particular story. The text is less striking, though pleasant.
Cinderella or The Little Glass Slipper, by Charles Perrault and Errol Le Cain
If you haven't seen Errol Le Cain's illustrations, you really should. His style is closer to the work of Erté than just about anything else I might mention, but with a liveliness that non-illustrators in the art deco movement never even attempted to capture. Take a look at Le Cain's rendering of a mouse turning into a horse, for example, tinted blue and green and even a little red in the moonlight. Or details such as the profiles of the stepmother and stepsisters appearing at the edge of an illustration of Cinderella in the kitchen, where they watch her malevolently. There's nothing else like this out there.
James Marshall's Cinderella, by Barbara Karlin and James Marshall
Despite all the gorgeous artwork I've been talking about, if I had to choose only one Cinderella, this would be it. The facial expressions alone are worth the price of admission. For example, when Cinderella brings in two lizards from the garden, she holds them out at arm's length on either side of herself and makes a face like, "Oh, yuck, I can't believe I'm doing this!" Meanwhile, the fairy godmother and the rat sit there, kind of laughing. Very, very fun. This story is far more entertaining when it isn't taken so seriously, but only James Marshall could make such a humorous retelling work so well.
Some of the Cinderellas out there are versions from around the world.
Shirley Climo's retellings: The Egyptian Cinderella and The Korean Cinderella, both illustrated by Ruth Heller; The Persian Cinderella, illustrated by Robert Florczak; and The Irish Cinderlad, illustrated by Loretta Krupinski
In case you didn't know, state educational standards often include a requirement to compare different versions of the same folktale from around the world, usually in second or third grade. That only partly explains the market for books like Shirley Climo's, which are excellent stories in their own right. I think The Persian Cinderella is my favorite. You'll find that the women go to the "ball" but don't interact with the men since the women's and men's parties are held separately. Here the glass slipper is a lost ankle bracelet.
The Egyptian Cinderella is a Greek slave in Egypt named Rhodopis. Then a falcon steals her red-gold slipper and brings it to Pharoah... whereupon the search for the shoe's owner begins. The Korean Cinderella, Pear Blossom, is helped by a frog, sparrows, and an ox before her sandal is found by a handsome young magistrate.
The Irish Cinderlad features a boy who befriends a magic bull. The bull helps him slay a dragon and rescue a princess. She then tracks him down using one of his large boots—Becan's family had always teased him for his oversized feet.
Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China, by Ai-Ling Louie and Ed Young
Famed illustrator Ed Young illuminates Louie's retelling of the Chinese Cinderella, in which the part of the fairy godmother is played by a magic fish. After her stepmother kills the fish, Cinderella gathers the bones, which continue to help her. Young's soft illustrations add to the magical mood of the story.
The Rough-Face Girl, by Rafe Martin and David Shannon
In this Algonquin version, village girls vie for the attention of a supernatural warrior called the Invisible Being. The Rough-Face Girl is scarred from working by the fire, but her pure heart allows her to see what others cannot in a challenge conducted by the warrior's sister.
Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters, by John Steptoe
This highly regarded book is a Caldecott Honor winner and gives us a Cinderella set in historic Zimbabwe, from a story collected in Africa by a man named G.M. Theal and published in 1895 in his Kafir Folktales. Kind Nyasha and selfish Manyara get their appropriate rewards, and we learn that the fairy godmother, a small green snake, is also the prince—or rather, the king.
Domitila: A Cinderella Tale from the Mexican Tradition, by Jewell Reinhart Coburn and Connie McLennan
Adelita: A Mexican Cinderella Story, by Tomie de Paola
I'm not too crazy about Reinhart Coburn's variation. It seems a little long winded. I prefer Adelita, Tomie de Paola's Mexican Cinderella, which I recently checked out from the library to read to a student. In going on Amazon to order a used copy of Adelita, I noticed that Reinhart Coburn has also written Hmong and Cambodian versions of the story. Visit them at the library and see what you think.
Then we have some colorful contemporary variations:
Cinder Edna by Ellen Jackson and Kevin O'Malley
There aren't very many didactic books that I like, but this one's a doozy. In a blatantly feminist take on the world's best-loved fairy tale, Jackson gives us two Cinderellas—the one you think you know and a girl who lives next door, Cinder Edna. Jackson has a wonderful time making the traditional Cinderella out to be a complete wimp and creating a sensible, proactive counterpoint in the form of her title character. There's even a nod to recycling here. Fortunately, Jackson's message takes a backseat to the humor of her storytelling, which is all the more delightful thanks to O'Malley's lively illustrations. My favorite page shows the fairy godmother practically rolling her eyes at Cinderella's lack of initiative:
Meanwhile, Cinderella's big, bright eyes brimmed with tears. "But, Fairy Godmother, how will I get to the ball?"
The fairy godmother was surprised that her goddaughter couldn't seem to figure anything out for herself. However, with another wave of the wand, she changed a pumpkin into a carriage, six white mice into horses, and a stray rat into a coachman.
"Be sure to leave before midnight," she warned Cinderella as she helped her into the elegant carriage.
Cinder Edna took the bus.
Smoky Mountain Rose: An Appalachian Cinderella, by Alan Schroeder and Brad Sneed
This story is written partly in a backwoods dialect, but it's not too hard to follow. Sneed is a terrific illustrator, and I love the fact that the fairy godmother is a large hog.
Cinderella Skeleton, by Robert D. San Souci and David Catrow
I hope you recognize both these names. San Souci is a highly regarded reteller of folktales, and David Catrow is known for his amazingly nutty and cartoonish illustrations (e.g., in I Ain't Gonna Paint No More by Karen Beaumont). This skeletal Cinderella would be perfectly happy in Tim Burton's movies, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. San Souci's rhymed text is a little overwhelming at times, but it's certainly ambitious and often funny.
Prince Cinders, by Babette Cole
If you've never read any of British author-illustrator Cole's other books, you've been missing out. We're talking tongue-in-cheek contemporary stuff with a unique flair. In this book, Prince Cinders does all the work while his three big hairy brothers go out partying at the disco. Of course, it's dangerous to wish to be big and hairy when your fairy godmother is a little ditzy. And then there's the pair of lost jeans, dropped by a guy who's less of a hero than a sweet mix-up... Track this one down!
Cinderhazel: The Cinderella of Halloween, by Deborah Nourse Lattimore
Hazel doesn't mind a bit when her witchy stepmother and stepsisters accuse her of being grimy:
"You are disgusting! Absolutely yucky!" said her stepmother. "All you think about is dirt. For all the time you spend in that fireplace, we ought to call you Cinderhazel."This witch can't fly right, but she loves dirt. Could it be that she and the prince have something in common? A little-known but entertaining read-aloud, especially at Halloween. Really, though, it works any time of the year.
"Ooooh, would you?" asked Hazel.
I'm embarrassed that I don't have the classic Marcia Brown Cinderella, which won the Caldecott Medal in 1955, but here are a few of the others I've come across, whether in the library, in the bookstore, or while surfing Amazon:
Cendrillon: A Caribbean Cinderella, by Robert San Souci and Brian Pinkney
Cindy Ellen, A Wild Western Cinderella, by Susan Lowell and Jane Manning
The Gospel Cinderella, by Joyce Carol Thomas and David Diaz
Cinderella's Rat, by Susan Meddaugh
Bigfoot Cinderrrrrella, by Tony Johnston and James Warhola
Cinderella Penguin, or The Little Glass Flipper, by Janet Perlman
And even Sumorella: A Hawaii Cinderella, by Sandi Takayama and Esther Szegedy
With all these Cinderellas, it may seem odd that I'm worrying that the literary fairy tale is on its way out. But consider how many—or how few—fairy tales are being published at present. And think of one more thing: the way Disney has commandeered the genre. Besides all the books based directly on the movie art, have you seen the recent Disney version with text by Newbery medallist Cynthia Rylant? Which should be a good thing, but I was put off by the concept, let alone the vague artwork by Mary Blair, who was apparently told to create a more painterly rendering of the animated version. [Update: Read Becky's contribution in the comments to find out exactly how I misjudged Mary Blair—very interesting!]
So keep an eye on your fairy tales, folks. Because the story book has developed a nasty cough, and that corner of the children's literary canon inspired by the Brothers Grimm just isn't what it used to be.
Update (1-24-10): See this striking discussion of the demise of the folktale picture book (really the same thing I'm talking about here) at author Bobbi Miller's site. She also provides other great links.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Sunday, September 20, 2009
D.J. is a tall, big-boned girl and a gifted athlete from a family of gifted athletes, but her family is not known for its communication skills. They aren't stupid, they're just not talkers. Her two older brothers are talented college football players. Her younger brother is athletic, too, though he talks so little that his teachers worry about him. In Dairy Queen, the coach of a rival high school sends his spoiled rich-boy quarterback to help out on the Schwenk farm, where D.J. is doing all of the work alone because her father has broken his hip. D.J. ends up coaching Brian Nelson in football, while he coaches her on the advantages of talking more. Being around someone who communicates encourages D.J. to question the fact that her older brothers aren't speaking to her father. D.J. is changing in other ways, too. She misses playing basketball, but eventually decides to try out for the football team, which stuns Brian, who will have to play against her. Of course, it stuns a lot of people for more obvious reasons.
In The Off Season, D.J. plays high school football, and she and Brian begin to get closer. But things start to go wrong—the farm's finances are in trouble, D.J.'s gay friend Amber gets bullied, Brian acts like he's ashamed to be seen in public with D.J., and then D.J. gets injured. It doesn't help that D.J. and Brian are featured in a People magazine article, which outs their relationship to the whole world. All of this becomes irrelevant, however, when D.J.'s older brother Win suffers a very serious injury on the sports field. She drops everything to stand by him, coaching and cajoling him through rehab.
In the third book, Front and Center, we find that although D.J. has learned to open up more thanks to her now-defunct relationship with Brian, she is still not the type to take center stage. As she returns to playing high school basketball, she realizes that's exactly what her coach expects her to do: become a leader for the team. Heavily recruited by college basketball coaches, D.J. finds that everyone around her is pushing her to verbally commit to playing Big Ten college ball. But she pulls back, afraid she can't take the pressure. Meanwhile, she is dating her buddy Beaner, although she still finds herself thinking about Brian Nelson. Even as D.J. leans toward playing for a smaller college team, life and the people who care about her conspire to convince her that she's got too much going for her to settle for less—whether in dating or in basketball.
I cannot emphasize enough how authentic D.J.'s narrative voice is. Sometimes in YA, we meet an endless parade of main characters who seem to be channeling terribly clever urban 30-somethings with their banter and sarcasm. In contrast, D.J. is such a fresh combination of ordinary and extraordinary, the way real girls are, the ones you walk past every day. Listen to her frank and slightly funny voice at the beginning of Front and Center, when she mistakenly thinks she's going to able to stay out of the limelight and avoid trouble, including boys:
But most of all—and this is what I was looking forward to the very, very most—I was done with all that boyfriend crap. Finished with the 24/7 Brian Nelson cable station that had been running nonstop inside my skull since July. No more feeling like I was some fluttery girl who doesn't have anything better to do all day long than think about her boyfriend. Because I did have better things to think about, thank you very much, because I am not the kind of girl who has boyfriends; I'm the kind who's just friends with boys, which is totally different and which I'm actually kind of good at. I'd pulled the plug on that Brian Nelson cable station for good.It's a real gift to be able to watch D.J. struggle to grow into herself in Dairy Queen, The Off Season, and now Front and Center. Catherine Murdock is so adept that she even manages to let us know that D.J. will probably end up being an incredible basketball coach in ten or fifteen years. But this and other messages, such as the cow metaphor used so well in Dairy Queen, never call unnecessary attention to themselves. Which reminds me of D.J.'s own self-effacing style. Even so, D.J., the messages, and these three books still manage to shine. Read them, please. You will be very glad you got to know D.J. Schwenk.
That's why it felt so nice to be getting back to school. Because after five months I was back to being plain old background D.J. That's how I thought about it, anyway. In photographs of course I'm always in the background—it's a family joke, actually, that us Schwenk kids could go to school naked on picture day because we're all so crazy tall. But I mean that I was returning to the background of life. Where no one would really notice me or talk about me or even talk to me much except to say "Nice shot," and I could just hang out without too many worries at all.
Hampton Green's voice gives a whole new meaning to that overused expression, "pitch-perfect." I was wondering this morning if I had been a little too harsh in a couple of recent reviews, and then I read this book and felt justified by the difference in quality! Talk about a dimensional character—teenage football player Hampton is such a real and unique person, his voice colored by a regional tone that simply adds to the storytelling.
This is how the book begins:
I done it. I stopped time.Hampton plays football on a virtually unbeatable high school team because his best friend Blaine and Blaine's father have taught him to play hard and well. Over the years, Hampton has relied heavily on those relationships, with his own father gone and his mother largely unavailable. But during Hampton's senior year, he finds himself becoming aware of a disconnect between his vision of the world and Blaine's outlook on life. Hampton thinks of himself as slow, but he's starting to realize that it's not because he's stupid; instead, he mulls things over. Unlike Blaine, Hampton has trouble putting his thoughts into words on the spot.
Every single player on that football field locked up stiff as them wax figures they got over in the Pawtuska Wild West Wax Museum. Made quite a picture, the stadium lights blazing overhead like fractured stars and the football froze slick and hard as a rocket against the night sky, our outside linebacker's fingers stretching just an inch too short to do a thing but let it fly over. I had to admit it was a thing of pure beauty, that pass, even if it was the enemy quarterback that thrown it. Tight spiral. Perfect arc. That boy had talent. But, sorry to say, it wasn't going to be enough. Not with me freezing time like I could.
Course, time didn't really stop. I didn't wave no magic wand or poof out a cloud of fairy dust or crank up some science-fiction machine with spinning gears and flashing lights on it. Thing was, I'd focus so hard that I'd squinch everything down so it seemed like time froze just long enough for me to look and see what I'd have to do next. That was my talent, the one and only thing I knew how to do better than anyone else around.
Hampton gradually becomes disillusioned with being a follower, particularly Blaine's follower. The fact that Hampton has turned out to be a very good football player, while Blaine is held back by an untreated knee injury, is one reason for the conflict—a frustrated and envious Blaine puts a strain on Hampton's straightforward loyalty with his increasingly irrational demands. Among other things, Blaine tries to put a stop to Hampton's interest in a girl Blaine feels isn't sufficiently popular and good-looking. But Hampton's relationship with Sara helps him think in new ways and break Blaine's hold over him. Hampton wisely realizes that he can love football and play to win without neglecting other possibilities and joys in life.
All of this growth is shown in the context of Hampton and Blaine's activities at school, on dates, and especially during football games. The sports scenes are especially well written, given greater meaning by Hampton's take on the game. (I like how Hampton ruefully contrasts his ability to make exactly the right moves in football with his inability to say the right things in social settings.)
The book's pivotal moment shows Hampton, moved by his deep loyalty to his friend, doing something that infuriates Blaine even as it saves him from himself. In a very satisfying evolution, seemingly passive Hampton becomes the action-taker—and we realize that his integrity has given his "still waters" choices increasing power, in contrast to Blaine's frenetically petty mistakes. I highly recommend Knights of the Hill Country. When I updated my program's library, I didn't find very many excellent sports-centered YA novels, but this one definitely earned a place on that shelf.
Today, I'm spotlighting Knights of the Hill Country only partly because it makes the perfect companion piece to Catherine Murdock's Front and Center. This book is one of those overlooked gems, and I want to bring it to your attention. Hampton Green isn't as flashy as an Alex Rider or an Edward Cullen, but spending time with him leaves you feeling a new respect for the quiet kid who in another book might have been a secondary character. In the right hands, like Catherine Murdock's and Tim Tharp's, these subtler characters leave you thoroughly entranced, rooting with everything you've got for them to win the game of life.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
In this mousely epic, we learn of a little mouse named Jam who is bold and curious and full of mischief. The elders of his tribe notice his antics and warn him, white beards quivering, that his approach to life isn't nearly cautious enough and will get him into big trouble. Heedless Jam skitters off along the lake's edge and—gets into big trouble.
I'm not fond of cautionary tales, but this one is told with great glee. The tone verges on tongue-in-cheek, which I think redeems it. Best of all is Doyen's use of rhythm and rhyme, especially some well-chosen made-up words with a distinctly mouse-ish feel. Here's a sample, the beginning of the story:
Once upon a twice,Children will relate to "riskarascal" Jam, who thinks the grown-ups are no fun and are overreacting with their numerous "preycautions." For their part, parents and teachers will enjoy reading Once Upon a Twice out loud; it rolls off the tongue much like Margaret Mahy's recent book, Bubble Trouble.
In the middle of the nice,
The moon was on the rice
And the Mice were scoutaprowl...
They runtunnel through the riddle—
Secret ruts hid inbetwiddle—
But one mousling jams the middle!
Whilst he goofiddles, others howl:
"Who's the holdup? What's the matter?"
Night's qui-etiquette is shattered!
Barry Moser's art tends to be dark and ponderous, but here he turns his darkness to good use, telling a mouse story set entirely in the night beside a lake, with a great moon shining overhead. Young readers will see threats, along with midnight beauty, that Jam and his relations are too small to observe. Secondary characters such as frogs and turtles act as witnesses to Jam's foolishness and adventures.
There's something literary about this book, which stands out in a crop of newly published picture books that are trying too hard to be commercial. I recommend Once Upon a Twice mostly because of Doyen's lovingly crafted language, but then, the story is also a lot of fun!
Here's the backstory: John Scieska linked the idea of boys not reading with the fact that there aren't a lot of what I call "rowdy boy books" out there. (See his collection for older kids, Guys Write for Guys Read.) He then got together with the aforementioned illustrators to craft a picture book series about trucks.
Great idea, good target audience, so why am I not completely on board this train? Only that after The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf, and The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, I expect to be dazzled by Scieska's imagination. I know I'm holding him to an unfair standard, yet it's one he has set himself. The Trucktown books are delightful, but they're just a little too commercial and even ordinary for me. They remind me of the Thomas the Tank Engine books, only with greater craftsmanship.
The trucks in Trucktown are recurring characters; not surprisingly, most of them resemble small boys (and a few girls). Other key ingredients are lots of action in the form of crashing and bashing, the closely related factor of crashing and bashing words that are fun to shout, and humor along the lines of the Three Stooges. Yep, the guy knows his audience! So, for example, in Truckery Rhymes we get things like this:
Three LOUD trucks.
Three LOUD trucks.
See how they ZOOM.
See how they ZOOM.
They all jumped over the muck and goo.
They skidded and screeched and their mufflers blew.
Did you ever see such a crazy crew?
As three LOUD trucks.
Three LOUD trucks.
As you can see, this particular entry in the series is a set of poems that parody well-known Mother Goose rhymes. One question I have is whether the kids listening to this know the original rhymes and get the connection, or whether that joke is mostly for parent readers. It might be fun to read the two side by side, letting children in on the joke.As is often the case with a series, some of the rhymes are hampered by the inclusion of character names. If you don't know the characters from reading other books in the series, will you be able to relate to the Trucktown nursery rhymes? Another question Scieska seems to face is just how many things can trucks do, especially if your goal is almost always to have them crash?
Ultimately, in connecting the truck rhymes to the originals, I find myself wondering if they can function outside the book, without the pictures. Are they stand-alones, and should they be? I would say a few of them are, but most need the context of the book, the illustrations, and even knowledge of the series to function.
The best of the rhymes, in my opinion, are the ones with ironic twists thrown in, reminding me that what I like most about Scieska's writing is his off-the-wall humor (pun entirely coincidental!):
Wrecker Rosie sat on a wall.The three illustrators involved in this project are highly gifted. Each truck has a face and a personality, which isn't that easy to render, when you think about it. The colorful, slightly cartoonish art suits the good cheer and high action in the Trucktown books.
Wrecker Rosie made it all fall.
All the town's tow trucks
And all the town's rigs...
Did whatever Rosie said after that.
Of course, I might be a little more thrilled about the series if I were a four-year-old boy. When I was fourteen and reading bedtime stories to my little brother, who is ten years younger, I knew that if a book had trucks in it, he would be deliriously happy. And that may be the simple secret of the success of the Trucktown books. Just like those small boys who adore Thomas the Tank Engine, kids who like trucks are going to fall in love with Scieska's series.
When they're a bit older, perhaps they can graduate to the more sophisticated humor of this genius author's classic titles.
Written in beautifully controlled poetry, The Scarecrow's Dance is about a straw man who gets free of his pole and begins to dance away. Then he overhears a farm child's prayer and rethinks his purpose in life.
I was actually a little surprised to come across a prayer in a picture book, but you'll find that the plot calls for it, and no, this isn't just a story for families who pray. It does make you think about faith in a new way, however. For one thing, who besides God might be listening to a prayer, and how might those words of hope affect them?
If Yolen is best known for Owl Moon and How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? then Bagram Ibatoulline is probably best known for illustrating The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo. A fine artist from Russia, Ibatoulline renders Yolen's scarecrow with nighttime mystery and the slightest touch of humor. His cornfield and crows are especially beautiful, stark shapes against a dim sky. The farm child almost looks like he came from a Norman Rockwell painting, but then, that matches the tone of the story, with its emphasis on down-home values such as plain old hard work.
Verse in a picture book can be badly mishandled, but we're talking Jane Yolen here. I'll give you a sample:
He shrugged his shoulders,In a day when "do your own thing" has permeated our culture, it's actually a risk to write a book like this one, with a message about doing your duty. What impact does fulfilling your responsibilities have on the lives of others? Read about Jane Yolen's dancing scarecrow for a new take on a very old question.
And a grin
Just like a corn row,
And as thin,
Broke out along
His painted face.
He gave a leap—
And left his place.
See also Scarecrow by Cynthia Rylant and Lauren Stringer, The Little Scarecrow Boy by Margaret Wise Brown and David Diaz, and, on a related note, Leaf Man by Lois Ehlert.
Oh, nil, nul, nought: that's the poetry of the strangest number of them all. It's neither positive nor negative, and it's accounted as an even number. It's a placeholder, and it's nothing. It's half of the binary code, it's the off switch for a light or just about any other kind of toggle. We think we know what it means and why it matters, but for centuries, no one even had a symbol for it. Over time, mathematicians from China, Greece, and especially India evolved ways of thinking about and denoting zero—first as a placeholder and eventually as a number in its own right.
In Zero Is the Leaves on the Tree, Betsy Franco focuses on defining zero as a number indicating the absence of objects or of quantity.
Some might argue that this premise is slight, but I have two responses to that: first, as a math teacher, I find that concepts adults are accustomed to are often baffling to young children; and second, as a poet, I admire the metaphors Franco uses in what is essentially a long poem. Even as she presents what seems to be a definition of a mathematical concept, she and her illustrator evoke thoughts of loneliness, leaving, and emptiness with their depictions of zero.
Arihara is an apt illustrator for this poetic, philosophical book with her gouache paintings of children at school and in nature. (Be sure to compare the lovely front and back endpapers.) Seasons pass in Zero Is the Leaves on the Tree, which speaks of change with lines like the following:
Zero is...the sleds on the hillside when the snow turns to slush....And perhaps my favorite:
Zero is...the blossoms in the garden just before the buds open.
Zero is...the kites in the sky once the wind stops blowing.There are very few great picture books about math, but I'm going to put Franco and Arihara's book right next to Schwartz and Kellogg's How Much Is a Million and Hutchins and Denton's A Second Is a Hiccup on my bookshelf.
1. Publishers vastly prefer author-illustrators, to the point where they will groom good illustrators to be writers, although I've noticed this doesn't always work.
2. Picture books are the only portion of the children's book market that has taken a major hit with the recent wave of economic woes. Middle grade fiction is holding steady. YA is on the upswing, in part due to adult crossover readers and writers, plus the paranormal trend led by Twilight. But publishers are slowing way down in their willingness to commit to a picture book project, especially one without a big name attached.
3. Picture books sound easier to write than they are. The text is usually so spare that the genre has been (accurately) compared to writing a poem. (Which is also harder than it sounds!)
4. Picture books aren't easy money. Agents don't like dealing with them, and one reason is because you have to split the royalties with an illustrator.
5. Quiet books are on the outs, and many aspiring picture book writers do not have highly commercial stories to tell. Unless your concept is so fresh it will completely dominate the slush pile, you're going to get that dreaded rejection letter.
And yet—I write picture books. People do, and some of those books are published. If you're in love with picture books, and that's the genre of your heart, who am I to tell you no?
Which is why I'm so grateful to have acquired Ann Whitford Paul's new book, Writing Picture Books: A Hands-on Guide from Story Creation to Publication. I discovered it at the August Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Conference, where I also found myself sitting next to Paul during one of the keynote speeches. She was doing needlepoint, which reminded me of her quilting alphabet book, Eight Hands Round. In Writing Picture Books, Paul tells of listening to an SCBWI Conference speaker who said, "Write about what you know."
Paul's book is personable and pleasant; it is also a focused guide to the craft of picture book writing. Up until now, the only good book I've found about picture book writing is Uri Shulevitz's Writing with Pictures, and that's really directed at illustrators. The topic is generally addressed as a chapter or two in longer books about writing for children—which isn't enough page time to provide sufficient guidance.
Oh, that's easy for him, I thought. His life is full of exciting adventures. He races motorcycles. He skydives.
I slumped lower into my seat, feeling snail-small....
Where was the drama in my life?
Who would buy a book, I wondered, about the shortest route between home and school, or how to make play dough, or stretch a pound of hamburger into dinner for six, or how to sew?
HOW TO SEW!
Just like in a cartoon, a lightbulb went on in my head.
I don't sew buttons. I don't sew hems or mend rips. I sew patchwork—quilts and pillows, dresses and toys, curtains and Christmas decorations. Once I even covered an entire room in tiny fabric squares. I couldn't wait to get home and start on Eight Hands Round: A Patchwork Alphabet.
Make no mistake, picture books are a specialized genre. Paul, who teaches picture book writing for UCLA Extension, knows her stuff and lays it out in fine detail, with clear examples. Since many aspiring PB writers suffer from "How hard can it be?" syndrome, Writing Picture Books is not only helpful, it is also a friendly dose of reality. Paul begins by telling how she learned that vital lesson:
...I thought my stories were so fabulous that an editor would call me with an offer as soon as she read them. When months later my stories finally returned with form rejection letters, I convinced myself these editors didn't know what they were missing.Fortunately, the now-successful picture book author is willing to share the subsequent results of her study with the rest of us. Paul addresses topics including story concept, plotting and characterization, strong first lines and titles, the minimal language of a picture book, rhythm and rhyme, practicing with a dummy book, researching the market, and many others. I especially like her chapter titled "The Importance of Word Count," in which she provides sixteen strategies for paring picture book text.
After many form rejection letters (I'm a slow learner), it dawned on me—I had serious learning to do.
If you have been secretly—or not-so-secretly—longing to write picture books, this is the book for you. And frankly, even if you have already been writing picture books, I recommend it. The picture book is a difficult and patterned art form, and in this book, Ann Whitford Paul lays out the craft in well-defined pieces, her work as neat and beautiful as a hand-made quilt.
Sunday, September 6, 2009
When our story begins, 11-year-old Ivy Manx lives with her uncle in an inn called The Hollow Bettle. Cecil Manx is secretly trying to train his niece as an apotheopath, a healer like himself, but she is far more intrigued by the study of poisons. Cecil leaves both the inn and Ivy in the dubious care of a taster named Sorrel Flux to go on a secret mission and then doesn't come back, so Ivy sets out to find him. She takes along the inn's famous bottle of brandywine with the hollow bettle in it, though she has replaced the liquid with a failed experiment of her own. Ivy is accompanied by another failure, a young taster named Rowan Truax. A new Guild taster, Rowan isn't a very good one. He has just overlooked the poison in a kettle of soup, resulting in the deaths of twenty of the king's soldiers. Both the Guild and the dead captain's vengeful family will be on the hunt for him. For her part, Ivy is the target of Flux and his associates, little dreaming of the true reason for their pursuit.
In a literary climate dominated by books like The Graveyard Book and Twilight, Appelbaum's book is a fitting one. Horror is selling well, and so is adventure. Although The Hollow Bettle isn't horror so much as fantasy, it is on the dark end of the fantasy spectrum because of the rampant poisoning. However, this book is surprisingly upbeat, and the darker plot points are handled in a tongue-in-cheek way. For example, the Queen of Caux's poisoning habits prompt her husband to point out that she is making it hard for the royal couple to get the care they deserve from their sadly reduced staff. The king and queen, like some of Appelbaum's other characters, have a Fellini-esque feel to them.
The poisonous tale twists and turns, sometimes more predictably than others. When a prophecy about a Noble Child comes up, every head in the room turns to look at Ivy. Magical tents and bettle boars, royal marks and hobbit-like trestlemen, this book is a mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar.
The Hollow Bettle is so fast-paced that occasional gaps in the narrative logic show, as if the author were bounding across a marsh and missing a step every so often. These are mostly small things; for example, transportation shows up in odd ways on more than one occasion, just in the nick of time. Such coincidences can be distracting.
Appelbaum's book is a fun read, but it's what they call "a little uneven." I look forward to seeing both Ivy and the series grow in future volumes.
Note for Worried Parents: All this blithe poisoning may worry you, as may other violent plot points, such as the fact that when a failed Guild taster is caught, his tongue is cut out.
Now Sylvie's old dog Mr. Jackson can't bark, and she begins noticing that other animals seem to have lost their voices. With Sylvie's help, her father's bizarre instruments sound a terrifying new note. A fox is watching her pass by on the train, the usual people riding the train are peering at Sylvie and making sly remarks, and there are fifteen green-and-red woodpeckers lined up on a telephone wire. When her father disappears, Sylvie goes on the run with her solid, kite-building friend George, who takes some convincing to join her.
In some books, you feel like you're standing at a distance, like the fox watching Sylvie go by on a train. Other books put you on the train, right there in the car with Sylvie, wondering why the woman in the kid gloves has just taken out an egg-shaped drum and is playing it with her knitting needles, why the man with the cane has turned his cane into two drumsticks and is playing a drum, too.
The backyard shed has been robbed. All of the instruments are gone. Overhead, the Woodpecker Man sails by in his balloon drawn by black swans. And the tiger is the only animal in the zoo that hasn't lost its voice.
Tim Binding uses language beautifully. He creates a tone of mythic horror and suspense without trying too hard to be horrific. For example, after Sylvie finds a metal wand in the garden, she and George watch to see if someone will come looking for it. Later that night, someone does, and they realize that the wand is meant to strike a musical instrument, the triangle:
The Woodpecker Man began to sweep the triangle back and forth over the garden, like a water diviner searching for a hidden spring. They could see his face now, drawn and sharp, with sunken cheeks between a long pointed nose and thin, bloodless lips that seemed to be muttering to an invisible companion. Slowly he hopped forward, his fingers curled tightly round the triangle's base, the woodpeckers fluttering in his wake. As he passed the triangle across the back of the house, it began to twitch. The Woodpecker Man froze and slowly raised his head. Holding it at arm's length, he licked a finger and ran it lightly over the three sides. There was a low humming in the air. On the bedside table the wand began to vibrate, as if someone had switched on a little battery inside it. The Woodpecker Man stared up at their window, took off his hat, brushed it with his arm and bowed. George pulled Sylvie back, frightened.A few minutes later:
The kitchen door was scraped open. There was a fluttery whoomph in the air, like the sound of a train plunging into a tunnel, fast and feathery. Something fell onto the kitchen floor—a mug or a plate—then a whole sideboard full seemed to smash to the ground. The air below was filled with beating wings. The wand began to buzz again, as if sending out a signal. Sylvie ran across the room.Another intriguing aspect of the book is that even when a human can understand what animals are saying, the "words" are appropriately alien, an odd kind of poetry. For example, the fox tells Sylvie,
"He know it's here. Quick, George, the trapdoor, before they find their way up."
George scrambled over, and together they began to pull on the rope. Below, they could hear the Woodpecker Man hopping through the room, and the scratch of birds' feet as they followed him down the corridor towards the stairs.
You gloamcubI was not surprised to learn that Tim Binding had written two adult novels before writing this one. Sylvie and the Songman is definitely for children, but it is eerie and thought-provoking and rich, much more literary than some of the newer children's books that read like Saturday morning cartoons. The kid who will curl up in a quiet place with this book and luxuriate in Sylvie's adventures will never feel the same about music—or animal songs—again.
I teeth you I blood the ground
We pad paw we snout the trotting ground
We leg the mufflesongs
Note for Worried Parents: The villain mistreats animals in this book, and at least one animal dies. But these events are completely contextual and poignant, followed by the ultimate defeat of said villain.