Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Three Books, Six Stars -- Stellar!

In the world of children's and teen literature, there are six major professional journals (Booklist, The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, The Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal) that regularly publish reviews. These journals "star" books they consider particularly distinguished. Winning a star from one or even two of these journals is a big deal; winning a star from EACH of these journals is an astounding accomplishment.

Each year, however, there are a handful of children's and teen books that actually do earn six stars. Thanks to the herculean efforts of Elizabeth Bluemle, who blogs at ShelfTalker, we know that in 2014, just three books won six stars. (Bluemle tracks these things in regular updates called "The Stars So Far;" the latest installment was published in late September). Given the fact that there are several thousand books published each year for children & teens, these three books truly are the best of the best, at least as far as these top review journals are concerned.

This top-rated trio consists of -- Drumroll, please! Now add some trumpets! -- The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia, by Candace Fleming; This One Summer, a graphic novel written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by her cousin, Jillian Tamaki; and Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir by Jacqueline Woodson. In addition to earning six stars, Brown Girl Dreaming won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

Each of these books is, obviously, outstanding. They also are amazingly different. Two are non-fiction -- The Family Romanov and Brown Girl Dreaming -- but they take starkly different approaches. In The Family Romanov (Schwartz & Wade/Random House, $18.99, ages 10 up),  Fleming has woven a massive amount of research into a gripping tale spotlighting the stark contrast between the sumptuous lives of Russia's last imperial family and the people they ruled, who lived in abject poverty. Fleming's text is firmly based in history, but it reads like a thriller, as we follow the Romanovs towards their doom and the rest of Russia towards chaos. Real-life characters, led by the mystic Rasputin, keep readers turning the pages; you can get a good taste of the book from this book trailer. Numerous black and white photographs further help set the scene, as do the first-person narratives that Fleming includes in each chapter.

Brown Girl Dreaming (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin, $16.99, ages 8 up) also is non-fiction, but in this case, author Woodson is writing about her own life. It's an unusual autobiography, however, as she tells her story of growing up as a black American in the 196's in a series of prose poems. It's a bold -- and risky -- choice, as books told in prose poems are notoriously hard to "sell" to readers, kids or adults; just ask any children's librarian. Yet Woodson's book is so engagingly written, and her story is so powerfully told, that numerous young readers who have reluctantly picked up Brown Girl Dreaming on my recommendation have returned to the library raving about it. Slowly, it is building the audience it deserves at my library as more young readers realize what a story Woodson has to tell. Here's Woodson herself reading from the book; she also is the reader for the audiobook, which we've just ordered for my library.

Unfortunately, Woodson's triumph in winning the National Book Award for Brown Girl Dreaming was marred by racism when author Daniel Handler, who hosted the awards program, joked about the fact that Woodson is allergic to watermelon. Handler's racist joke, even more hurtful to Woodson because of a friendship between them, sparked a firestorm of protest. Handler was forced to apologize, and he donated a large sum of money to the We Need Diverse Books effort as a way to atone for his comments. Meanwhile Woodson, a class act, took the high road in a piece she published in The New York Times titled "The Pain of the Watermelon Joke." Woodson may have the last word in any case, as Brown Girl Dreaming is widely regarded as a top contender for the 2015 Newbery Medal. If Woodson's book does win, it will be an especially sweet moment because so few non-fiction books have ever won the Newbery.

For something totally different, take a look at the third book to win six stars this year, This One Summer (First Second/Macmillan, $17.99, ages 12 up). Featuring gorgeously evocative artwork by Jillian Tamaki, the book written by Mariko Tamaki focuses on a pivotal summer for a girl named Rose. On the cusp of adolescence, Rose finds herself restless and unhappy in the beach town she's traveled to each summer with her parents. It's always been a refuge for the family; now her parents are fighting with each other over her mother's inability to bear another child. Rose, meanwhile, finds herself changing as well. While still best friends with her beach buddy Windy, there's sometimes a new strangeness between them, as Rose finds herself with a crush on an older teen boy and struggles to cope with the tension in her own family.

In a spare text, Mariko Tamaki perfectly captures the way the world shifts as kids enter adolescence, while "stunning" is truly to only word for Jillian Tamaki's artwork, which conveys so much in just a few lines, and while using an extremely limited violet-toned palette. This page from Macmillan, the publisher, gives you a sense of the book.

So there you have it -- three books, six stars -- stellar!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

2014 Favorites

Each December, I’m asked by kids and parents for a list of my favorite books published in that year. Putting together such a list is both fun and challenging. I read so many good books for kids and teens that it can be hard to keep the list a manageable size! But here are my final choices for this year’s list. Enjoy!


Leslie Patricelli is the go-to author/illustrator these days when it comes to the youngest readers. This year, she published two more gems: Tickle and Toot.


Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, illustrated by 2013 Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen and written by Mac Barnett, who wrote Klassen’s 2013 Caldecott Honor book, Extra Yarn (ages 3-7)
Watch the book trailer.

The Baby Tree, written and illustrated by Sophie Blackall, noted for her work with the Measles-Rubella Initiative (ages 3-6)

My Teacher Is a Monster, written and illustrated by Peter Brown (ages 4-7)
Watch Peter Brown at the National Book Festival.

Where’s Mommy?, written by Beverly Donofrio and illustrated by Barbara McClintock (ages 3-6)

The Farmer and the Clown, written and illustrated by Marla Frazee (ages 4-7)

Time for Bed, Fred, written and illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail (ages 3-6); it was selected as one of the New York Times Best Illustrated books this year.
A young fan.

Once Upon the Alphabet, written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers (ages 4-8)
A peek inside.

The Iridescence of Birds, a book about artist Henri Matisse written by Newbery Medalist Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Hadley Hooper (ages 4-7)

Mix It Up!, written and illustrated by Hervé Tullet, of Press Here fame (ages 3-7)
Tullet talks about his book.

Bad Bye, Good Bye, written by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Jonathan Bean (ages 4-7)


LeRoy Ninker Saddles Up, written by Newbery Medalist Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by Chris Van Dusen
DiCamillo at the National Book Festival.
Visiting Takoma Park.

Digby O’Day in the Fast Lane, written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes and Clara Vuillamy

Dory Fantasmagory, written by Abby Hanlon


The Madman of Piney Woods, written by Newbery Medalist Christopher Paul Curtis

Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff

Rain Reign by Ann Martin

The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel
The book trailer.

Nuts To You, written and illustrated by Newbery Medalist Lynne Rae Perkins


We Were Liars, written by E. Lockhart

Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern


El Deafo, written and illustrated by Cece Bell (ages 8-12)
Bell and Telgemeier together.

The Dumbest Idea Ever, written and illustrated by Jimmy Gownley (ages 8-12)
The book trailer.

The Return of Zita the Space Girl, written and illustrated by Ben Hatke
The book trailer.

Benny and Penny in Lost and Found, written and illustrated by Geoffrey Hayes (comics-style beginning reader, ages 4-7)
Hayes reads from another Benny Penny book.

Aphrodite, written and illustrated by George O’Connor
A visit to the author's studio.

This One Summer, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki (ages 12 up)
The illustrator discusses the book.

Sisters, written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier (ages 8-12)
The author discusses the book.


Ashley Bryan’s Puppets, written by Ashley Bryan (ages 7 up)
The puppets in Ashley Bryan's home.

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet (ages 7-10)
Book trailer.

Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines, written by Newbery Medalist Paul Fleischman (ages 10 up)
An interview with the author.

The Family Romanov, written by Candace Fleming (ages 10 up)
Book trailer.

Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, written by Susan Kuklin (ages 12 up)
A noisy interview with the author.

Chasing Cheetahs, written by Sibert Medalist Sy Montgomery, with photographs by Nic Bishop
The author at home.

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, written by Patricia Hruby Powell and illustrated by Christian Robinson
Book trailer.

Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation, written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh
(ages 7-10)
Sylvia Mendez herself.


Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems, selected by Paul Janeczko and illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Hi, Koo!: A Year of Seasons, written and illustrated by Jon Muth

END NOTES:  A HUGE Thank you to my fellow librarian Rebecca, who found and posted all of the book cover images here, as well as the links. She did an amazing amount of work, and I literally wouldn't have been able to do this post without her help. Thanks also to the publishers who provide review copies, and to the folks in the Children's & Teen department at Politics & Prose Bookstore, who always steer me towards the best books. A final disclosure note: this favorites list has appeared in two other places, the December edition of the City of Takoma Park Maryland newsletter, and my library's Children's Room blog.

Friday, November 28, 2014

A Wonderful Visit from Jon Klassen

For a picture book superstar, Jon Klassen is a remarkably low-key kind of guy. After all, this is someone who has won the top national and international children's book illustration awards -- the Caldecott Medal here, the Kate Greenaway Medal in Great Britain. He's the first person to win both of those awards, and only the second person to win both a Caldecott Medal and a Caldecott Honor in the same year. Clearly he's superstar, and yet he is an easy-going superstar who really enjoys interacting with his young fans.

Jon giving his 2013 Caldecott acceptance speech.
Jon's down-to-earth persona recently was on display at my library, where he gave a presentation on his work, including his newest book, Sam & Dave Dig a Hole (Candlewick Press, $16.99, ages 4-7). Unfazed by making a presentation to dozens of kids and adults crammed into our Children's Room, Jon -- wearing his trademark sports cap -- read calmly from several of his books as he showed the illustrations up on the big screen. First up: I Want My Hat Back.

To mix things up, Jon also offered an amusing drawing demonstration midway through the program.Using Photoshop to draw a picture of a turtle, Jon then showed how to create a number of emotions in the turtle, merely by changing just the position and size of the turtle's eyes. It was a great reminder of how the eyes of the big fish are so important in Jon's 2013 Caldecott Medal-winning book, This Is Not My Hat.

Jon finished up his presentation by reading from one of his own favorite books as a kid, In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, retold by Alvin Schwartz. For fans of Jon's work, it was especially interesting to see in those stories the same kind of dry, slightly dark humor that marks Jon's own books.

At our event, Jon just read one story -- "The Green Ribbon" (a classic tale about how the ribbon allows a woman to keep her severed head attached to her body) --and his audience was rapt. And, despite Jon's reminder that he didn't write that story and so couldn't answer questions about it, several young fans kept circling back to it in the Q&A, much to the amusement of both Jon and the audience.

While Jon is relaxed with fans, however, he's a perfectionist when it comes to his work. When I interviewed him in October 2013, for example, he talked about staying awake all night, worrying about the hand-lettering he did for This Is Not My Hat. At the library program, he spoke of his frustration in trying to get the right look for the all-important yarn in the illustrations for Caldecott Honor-winning Extra Yarn, which was written by Mac Barnett. Finally, Jon said, he went out and purchased an inexpensive sweater, scanned it, and then used those scans to create the illustrations.

Jon's newest book, Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, also was written by Mac Barnett. It features Jon's trademark subtle palette, yet he has managed to create an amazing number of different shades and variations on the all-important brown of the dirt dug up by Sam and Dave. In reading the book at the library program, Jon began by urging the audience to notice the title page. Although he noted that title pages are typically "sad" pages because no one pays attention to them, the title page of Sam & Dave Dig a Hole plays a crucial role in the story.

As Jon read the book, the kids in the audience became more and more voluble as Sam and Dave continued to just miss unearthing bigger and bigger gems hidden in the earth's depths. Just as the audience did in our library's recent Caldecott Club reading of Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, these young fans at Klassen's program were audibly disbelieving of how clueless the two boys seemed to be, unlike their dog. Asked later about the fact that Sam and Dave come so close to finding gems, yet never find them, Jon said: "They always miss them because it's funny."

But the biggest surprise of the book comes at the end, when Sam and Dave (and their dog) fall through the hole and then end up in a place that looks like the place they started -- as shown on the title page! -- but clearly isn't exactly the same. Kids notice this fact right away, while it takes most adults longer to see what's happened. As to where Sam and Dave are at the end of the book, Jon left it to his fans to come up with their own ideas. The kids at the library program clearly were intrigued by this challenge, and came up with various suggestions about what had happened.

The wide-open ending of Sam & Dave Dig a Hole also has been a source of much speculation in the children's literature world since the book was published. In a recent post on his 100 Scope Notes blog, for example, Travis Jonker wrote about several different theories about the ending of the book; the theories range from "The Epic Dream Theory" to "It Was All a Dream, Man Theory" and are fascinating to read. Don't forget to also read the comments that follow the post, which offer even more theories, with one commenter pointing folks to a fascinating interview with Jon and Mac about the book on the "Cynsations" blog.

The book clearly is already popular with fans, and many people believe it could earn Klassen yet another Caldecott Medal or Caldecott Honor. The "Calling Caldecott" blog, which focuses on potential Caldecott winners, recently had an interesting discussion about the book.

Jon finished our library event by spending more than an hour with fans, signing their books, and answering questions. Chief among the questions: what are you working on now? Jon said that he was doing illustrations for another picture book written by Mac Barnett, and also was struggling to write and illustrate the last book in his "hat" trilogy (after I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat). But Jon acknowledged that it's "terrifying" for him to both write and illustrate a book now that he's won the Caldecott Medal.

All too soon, it was time for Jon to head off at the airport. As he went back into our staff area to claim his jacket and backpack, he noticed an unusual "window" there and asked if he could take a photograph. The "window" used to be a real window, but now looks out onto a brick wall. Some time ago, one of our library staffers used construction paper to create a beach scene on the window's bottom half, but the top half still shows the brick wall. It's not something that attracts any attention from most visitors.  It takes someone with a special eye, a keen sense of a detail, and a darkly witty sense of humor -- someone, in fact, just like Jon Klassen.

Me, Jon & my daughter Sally, a Klassen fan.

END NOTES: Thanks so much to Kerri Poore, children's & teen events coordinator at Politics & Prose Bookstore and Rachel Johnstone of Candlewick Press for bringing Jon to my library. Thanks also to Jon for his memorable presentation. It's not often that you meet such a down-to-earth superstar!