Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Visit from "Masterminds" Author Gordon Korman

Gordon Korman -- a.k.a "the G-Man" or "Special K" -- says he's been writing for more than three-quarters of his life. It's not that he's that old, it's just that he wrote his first book when he was 12 years old and in the 7th grade. It was published when he was 14 and a freshman in high school; by the time he graduated from high school, he had written and published five books.

Photo by Owen Kassimir

Now 51 years old, Gordon has published an astounding 85 books. More than 25 million copies of those books have been sold, and the books have been translated into nearly 30 languages. Gordon's trademarks as an author include writing fast-paced plots and creating believable characters with whom any young reader can identify. His books include: "Ungifted;" the "Swindle" series; the "Dive," "Everest," "Island" and "Titanic" trilogies, and books in the best-selling "39 Clues" series. (One of Gordon's early books also has my vote for one of the catchiest kid's book titles ever:  Nose Pickers From Outer Space.)

Gordon recently visited my library as part of our partnership with Politics & Prose, the premier Washington, D.C. independent bookstore. He was in town promoting his newest novel, Masterminds (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, $16.99, ages 8-12).  It's a page-turner of the first order in which five kids discover that their seemingly perfect town hides some disturbing secrets, some of which shake them to their emotional core. Gordon lets each character take a turn telling parts of the story, a device that adds both interest and suspense. I got an advance review copy of the book, and once I started reading it, I couldn't put the book down, and ended up reading it straight through -- something I rarely do. It's clear that this will be one of our most popular new books at the library, perfect for both kids who enjoy complex thrillers and for reluctant readers who will find themselves pulled into the story from the first page.

Booklist agrees, giving Masterminds a starred review and noting : "The compelling, twisty mystery has a truly gratifying payoff, and the emotional depth of the characters, not to mention the steadily building pace, will keep readers engaged to the final page, which happily lays the groundwork for a sequel." Kirkus, meanwhile, said of Masterminds: “A fresh premise, good pacing, surprising twists and engaging characters all combine to make this a series worth following."

 Gordon himself is an engaging speaker, and his presentation at the library drew a good number of both new and longtime fans. One adult fan brought her copy of one of the first books Gordon ever published, saying it still was one of her all-time favorites and asking him to sign it for her. Audience members were fascinated by the fact the Gordon published his first book at such a young age. He explained that owed it to the fact that his English teacher in the 7th grade was the school's track coach. The coach had never taught English before and, for a creative writing assignment, told his students: "Just work on whatever you want for the rest of the year."

The result was Gordon's first novel, This Can't Be Happening at Macdonald Hall!. Gordon just happened to be the class representative for the Scholastic Arrow Book Club "and so I thought I was practically an employee." Once he finished his manuscript (typed by his mother), Gordon mailed it to the same address where he sent the book order forms. Somehow, his manuscript found its way to the right person at Scholastic and "a few days after my 13th birthday, I signed a contract for my first book." The book was published a year later, and Gordon's career path was set, although he did take time to earn a degree in dramatic visual writing from New York University.

At the library presentation, Gordon spent time answering questions from the audience. As always, someone wanted to know where he gets his ideas. Gordon responded that one way he gets ideas is by "observing things." For example, Gordon said he observed that "a book with an award sticker and a dog on the cover means that dog is a goner." So he decided to write No More Dead Dogs, in which a student whose school essay pans a classic book in which a dog dies is punished by being forced to be part of the school play -- based on that classic book. In Gordon's usual style, however, the student has the final word and all turns out well, even for the dog.

Research also is important in developing ideas for his books, Gordon added. For example, he had the idea of writing a series about kids who were vying to be the youngest-ever climber on Mount Everest. Gordon was able to add even more drama when he learned through research that there's not enough oxygen at the highest reaches of Everest to allow a rescue helicopter if a climber gets into trouble. As he put it: "Writing adventure stories is the art of coming up with cool stuff that goes wrong."

 Finally, the question "What if?" provides many great book ideas, Gordon said, adding that's how he got the idea of Masterminds. Gordon started thinking about "whether people are good or evil as part of their nature or whether it's by experience." So he though, "what if there was an experiment that cloned exact copies of some of the worst people ever?" The clones would then be raised in a "perfect place," where they would be raised as regular kids by people they would think were their natural parents. For the experiment to work, however the cloned kids couldn't ever know about it. Of course, that's exactly what does happen in Masterminds, as the five main characters come to the realization that their town -- and the only life they've known -- is a sham.

"It was a challenge to write about these kids who are exact copies of some of the worst bank robbers and gangsters, but who are also real kids," Gordon said. But he wouldn't answer the question of exactly who the kids are cloned from, saying that revelation "comes late  in the series."

Soon enough it was time for the evening's last question, so Gordon would have enough time to sign everyone's books. "What author would you most like to meet?" asked a young audience member. Gordon was quick with his answer: Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. Why? Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (the first book in the series) is a book that Gordon re-reads almost every year. "It is like an instruction manual for writing a great kid's book. It's got everything in it. So she is the one author I absolutely would love to meet."

END NOTES: Thanks to Kerri Poore of Politics & Prose for setting up the event with us, and to Caroline Sun of HarperCollins for sending me an advance copy of Masterminds, and all of the jpgs and info I needed to publicize the event and make it a success.

And thanks to Gordon himself for such a great presentation, and especially for signing my 24-year-old daughter's copies of the Everest trilogy -- a series that inspired her to become a rock climber.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Surprise & Delight at the Youth Media Awards

Today's Youth Media Awards were filled with high emotion, with the crowd of several hundred alternately gasping in surprise and/or roaring with delight. The awards also were history-making as, for the first time ever, graphic novels won a Newbery Honor (El Deafo, written and illustrated by Cece Bell) and a Caldecott Honor (This One Summer, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki and written by Mariko Tamaki). And the Caldecott Medal winner, The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend), was written and illustrated by Dan Santat who also is well known for his popular graphic novels.

Winner of the 2015 Caldecott Medal

This One Summer also won a Printz Honor (the Printz Award is given for books for readers ages 12-18 and is sometimes called the Newbery Medal for teens). But a graphic novel, American Born Chinese, written and illustrated by Gene Luen Yang, won the top Printz Award way back in 2007, so today wasn't a history-making moment for the Printz. Meanwhile, the 2008 Caldecott Medal winner, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is considered a hybrid book, not a graphic novel, but it did feature a heavily-woven combination of illustrations and text.

Winner of the 2015 Newbery Medal

The current push for more diversity in children's and teen books, sparked by the We Need Diverse Books movement, also was reflected in today's winners. The Crossover, a novel in verse by Kwame Alexander, is the 2015 Newbery Medal winner. Alexander is the fourth African-American author to win the award, established in 1922. The three previous African-American winners were: Virginia Hamilton, for the 1975 Newbery Medal winning M.C. Higgins, the Great; Mildred Taylor, for the 1977 Newbery Medal book, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; and Christopher Paul Curtis for the 2000 Newbery Medal winner, Bud, Not Buddy.

Brown Girl Dreaming, author Jacqueline Woodson's memoir in verse about growing up in the midst of the civil rights movement, won a 2015 Newbery Honor, as well as this year's  Coretta Scott King Author Award and a 2015 Robert Sibert Honor (the Sibert Medal and Honor books are focused on the best non-fiction books for kids). Brown Girl Dreaming also won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature back in November.

As Nina Lindsay points out in her Heavy Medablog today, poetry also was a big winner in today's awards. Both The Crossover and Brown Girl Dreaming are written in verse, while author Marilyn Nelson uses 50 unrhymed sonnets to tell her story in How I Discovered Poetry. Two other books of poetry won awards: Josphine, a biography of entertainer Josephine Baker written by Patricia Hruby Powell and illustrated by Christian Robinson won both a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor and a Sibert Honor, while books by two poets were honored by the Pura Belpre Award committee. I Lived on Butterfly Hill, written by Marjorie Agosin won the Pura Belpre Author Award, while Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes by Juan Felipe Herrara was the lone Pura Belpre Author Honor book.

Woodson's book captured three awards today.

Several committees selected a large number of Honor books (each committee decides how many Honor books, if any, will be named). There were five Sibert Honor books: in addition to Brown Girl Dreaming and Josephine, Sibert Honor books included The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming; Neighborhood Sharks, written and illustrated by Katherine Roy, and Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family's Fight for Desegregation, written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh.

But it was the six Caldecott Honor books that really produced a gasp, then a roar of approval, from the audience. Apparently there may have been other years where six Honor books were named (I'm still checking!), but it certainly isn't usual. Yet, 2014 was a banner year for picture books, and the crowd was clearly delighted that the committee's decision reflected this fact.

The first graphic novel to win a Caldecott Honor.

In addition to This One Summer, Caldecott Honor books included: Nana in the City, written and illustrated by Lauren Castillo; The Noisy Paint Box, illustrated by Mary GrandPre and written by Barb Rosenstock; Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, illustrated by 2013 Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen and written by Mac Barnett; Viva Frida, written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales; and The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus, illustrated by Melissa Sweet and written by Jen Bryant. The Right Word also won the 2015 Sibert Medal, the second for Sweet, who won the 2012 Sibert Medal for Balloons Over Broadway, which she both wrote and illustrated. (Personal note: I served on the 2012 Sibert Committee).

The 2015 Caldecott Medal winner, The Adventures of Beekle, had been popular with some mocks, but wasn't widely considered a front runner. When it was announced as the winner, however, the audience cheered in approval as the Caldecott Committee members donned crowns, symbolic of the crown sported by Beekle.

As for how my library's Caldecott Club and Mock Caldecott picks measured up? Well, we got a few things right. Our own Mock Caldecott Honor Books included two of the actual 2015 Caldecott Honor Books, The Noisy Paint Box and The Right Word. But our top pick, The Farmer and the Clown, written and illustrated by Marla Frazee, surprisingly didn't win anything. It was a similar situation for our Caldecott Club. Our winner, Quest, written and illustrated by Aaron Becker, didn't win anything. But one of the Club's two Honor books, Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, won a 2015 Caldecott Honor.

The first graphic novel to win a Newbery Honor.

Meanwhile, the 2015 Newbery Committee, like the 2015 Caldecott Committee, also decided to include a graphic novel, El Deafo, as one of their Honor books. (Author/illustrator Cece Bell came to our library in November along with her husband, author/illustrator Tom Angleberger, and authors Jon Scieszka, Mac Barnett and Jory John). The Newbery Committee, sporting t-shirts that read "Trust the Process," named only two Honor books, to the evident disappointment of the audience, who clearly would have liked to have seen more Newbery Honor books.  Brown Girl Dreaming was the other Newbery Honor book.

And let me close this blog post with a shout-out to a long-time mentor of mine, Deb Taylor, who is the coordinator of School and Student Services at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. Deb was my young adult literature professor when I was working towards my master's in library science at the University of Maryland, and she and I also served on the 2012 Sibert Committee together. (She was chair of the 2015 Sibert Committee). Deb has mentored and inspired countless librarians, kids and parents, and I'm thrilled that she was chosen as this year's winner of the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement. Way to go, Deb!

Deb Taylor and I after she was honored today

PS If you, like me, can't get enough of these awards, check out this wonderful behind the scenes video of today's winners getting "The Call." Thanks to John Schumacher for spotlighting it on his blog, Watch. Connect Read. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Books & a Blizzard

Even a Chicago blizzard can't dim the excitement as librarians eagerly await the big "Youth Media Awards" announcements -- always the highlight of the American Library Association's Midwinter conference.

At 8 a.m. CST tomorrow, several hundred librarians will pack into a room at the McCormick Convention to learn which books will win the "Oscars" of the children's literature world: the Caldecott Medal, given for illustrations, and the Newbery Medal, given for text. Those winners will be the last two announced at the hour-long program, during which a number of other awards also will be bestowed; among them, the Coretta Scott King Award (focused on books by African-American authors and illustrators), the Sibert Medal (given to the best non-fiction book for kids), the Pura Belpre Award (spotlighting books by Latino authors and illustrators), and a number of others.

The program will be broadcast live. There's also a couple of fun pre-announcement and post-announcement shows, hosted by librarians Betsy Bird and Lori Prince. Betsy also has compiled a list of all the Mock Caldecott and Mock Newbery winners she could find; it makes interesting reading.

Last week, we held our first-ever Mock Caldecott at my library, and we made our own choices for the 2015 Caldecott. There were a dozen of us, and our nearly unanimous winner was The Farmer and the Clown, written and illustrated by Marla Frazee. The Farmer and the Clown also has won a number of other Mock Caldecotts around the country, and it was the winner on the Calling Caldecott blog, so we're in good company.

Our Mock Caldecott group also chose four Honor books (listed here in order of title): Bad Bye, Good Bye, written by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Jonathan Bean; The Iridescence of Birds, written by Newbery Medalist Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Hadley Hooper; The Noisy Paint Box, written by Barb Rosenstock and illustrated by Mary GrandPre; and The Right Word, written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet.

Just a few more hours to see how close we came!