Two grandparents offer their views

Posted April 17th, 2013

First I want to get out of my head and off my chest an issue that plagues me. I have a theory that the use of the English language is becoming less literate. So many young people have avoided increasing their vocabulary that when they are stumped at finding words or phrases we hear them say “ya know” or “whatever” or “like.” Finding descriptive modifiers seems to be eluding many young minds, and they resort to the “f” word to add significance and “mf-er” to identify persons of ill repute.

Your emphasis is on what’s GOOD about children’s literature.  If a person feels good about certain books, then they must feel bad about other books. The readers of your column might benefit from knowing some of both sides of the story. Say we choose to ask the question: what is the difference between literary books and popular books? I feel that popular books continue to push the envelope of good taste over the cliff of what sells! As a grandparent, I would buy the picture books that tell an uplifting story, explain nature, tell about history, etc. Or, the just-for-fun books like the Olivia series or Paul Brett Johnson’s The Cow Who Wouldn’t Come Down.

Teens seem really to grab onto vampire and other supernatural stories which I think Harry Potter spawned. As long as the zombies avoid four letter words that seem to be rampant within the halls of middle schools and high schools, then the genre may evolve to where it can be identified as having literary merit.

My generation remembers listening to our elders tell stories, and, by doing so, we picked up a language and colloquialisms packed with metaphors and similes. Now the heavy use of foul language by the adults passes right on to their children. So we’ve spawned a culture lacking in the ability to discover poetic language. Fortunately most of the books which have received awards manage to evade the lowest common denominator. 

Here are two examples of nonfiction challenging the reader in magnificent prose and imaginative pictures.

One Night in the Coral SeaNon-fiction picture books still show rather than tell as the story unfolds. That’s a good thing. Sneed Collard’s reviewer says in Children’s Bookwatch: “Superbly pictured in marvelous and colorful detail by Robin Brickman’s cut-paper illustrations, One Night in the Coral Sea by science writer Sneed B. Collard III brings Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to life for young readers ages 6 to 11.”

Penguin ChickBetty Tatham wrote Penguin Chicks, and, from Children’s Literature, we hear: “In informative and simple prose, Tatham tells how these penguins nest, incubate the single egg, take turns . . . caring for the egg and chick and exhibit typical penguin behavior such as tobogganing and huddling in crèches.”

I hope the salvation of young minds rests in being read to at an early age. Exposure to powerful writing can even help the parent, grandparent, or baby sitter expand their own understanding and appreciation of vocabulary. Often I read about the loss of decency in our culture. If the next generation hears mind-expanding words at an early age, perhaps they will be willing to stretch their minds as they grow older, despite peer pressure. The hope of good literature for children and young adults begins with the picture book, flows on to the early chapter books, and makes the leap to young adults. One editor told my  author-wife not  to  use the word  “confusion”  in  How the Stars Fell Into the Sky because the children would not know what it  means. Jerrie’s response was, “Yes they will, because they cause enough of it.”

This is Jerrie, chiming in! I reminded Paul of one of my favorite stories just to center his thoughts. He runs so deep, I really didn’t have to. When I was signing Stars at the Kentucky Book Fair, along with the Governor and other really big authors, a young boy, about three, walked into the separate room in which they had placed the children’s authors.

He looked around, broke away from his mom and strode straight to where I sat with that very colorful first book of mine. Placing a pudgy finger on my book, he looked up at his mom and said, “This one!”

“All right, Daniel,” she said, “but let’s look at all the books first. They did. And then back they came, certain of the one he wanted. Of course I loved it and wrote, To Daniel, my first fan.

About an hour later, I looked across the room and there on the ledge of the giant window wall separating us from the adult writers, there sat Daniel. He was holding my book in his arms and rocking it back and forth. Oh! I remember thinking at that moment, “Yes, Daniel. When it comes time for you to put pen to paper, you will already have under your belt extraordinary paintings and metaphors and similes.” “… as she crafted her careful mosaic on the blackberry cloth of night.” He rocked that book like a daddy bonding with his baby.

It surely made up for the next “customers” who were sisters, twins, Megan and Maggie. They were about five. “Yes,” Mom said. “Sign this for Megan and Maggie.” The way in which she ordered me to do her bidding led to no surprise when Maggie suddenly screamed and flung herself on the cement floor. “I don’t want MY name in that book!” Well, neither did I, but I wrote it anyway!!! Thank goodness for Daniel.

Paul, back again: When the parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle make the decision which picture books and early chapter books to buy (with or without the intended reader tagging along), the process runs rather smoothly. It’s a few years later, when the teen peers shop for books in wads of their own making that the edge of decency is often stretched to new-found limits.

I think it’s incumbent upon the parent to know about the books on the school’s required reading lists … to make the effort to discuss that list with the child, in the hope of providing some input on the selection.

As a grandparent, I might find it useful to buy as gifts titles that would replace the front porch gathering of old folks sharing metaphors and similes in the stories they told. (Another thought for teachers to invoke appreciation in their students is to assign them the task of interviewing elders and neighbors and to gather stories of bygone times. Sort of modern-day myths.)

Perfect FamilyFor instance, of the YA novel Perfect Family, by my wife Jerrie Oughton that Children’s Literature reviewer said, “Oughton’s strong storytelling skills call to mind the writing of southern novelist Reynolds Price—another author who knows that life is full of painful tradeoffs, but that our pain also reminds us that we are truly alive.”

Ok. I am biased, but I also know when the author gave a book talk to high school of all pregnant or new mother students, the girls gave Jerrie a beautiful glass heart. Thanks for asking, Tom.

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Paul Oughton is the owner of www.author-illustr-source.com, a website that connects published professionals with schools looking for presenters of school visits. Jerrie Oughton is the author of many picture books and young adult novels.

It’s Easier for Kid-Books to Be Book-Books

Posted April 4th, 2013

Better Nate Than NeverTim Federle is more than an author. He’s a friend.

In Better Nate Than Ever, he shares the story of a runaway boy who sneaks off to New York City to audition for a Broadway musical. While main-character Nate recounts his adventure, he provides snarky, even searing, asides. Maybe just a few extra words when you least expect them, all set off with parentheses. It’s like a passed note or whispered inside joke. It’s a reader bonus. Or a special gift.

This debut novelist is a special gift himself. Like Nate, Federle will deserve a curtain call soon.

What’s right with children’s books right now?

So much is so right!

When I was little, kids read kids’ books (Matilda and anything-Shel-Silverstein were my staples) and adults read adults’ books (my dad always had the latest Tom Wolfe tome gently denting his lap).

But now? Thanks to Harry Potter and The Hunger Games and, more recently, genre-defining new classics like Wonder, it’s cooler than ever to sit on the subway and bawl your eyes out at a story “intended” for 9 to 12 year olds. In fact, when I wrote Better Nate Than Ever, I set out to make my ideal reader’s parents LOL, too—you know, if they happened to give it a skim before passing it along to junior. Our open-access culture is blurring the lines in the best way, making it easier for kid-books to just be book-books, no matter the audience’s age.

What could make that good even better?

A public service announcement starring celebrity adults admitting—no, celebrating—their current love of YA, MG, and picture books.

And until that happens, I plan on taking my copy of Rebecca Stead’s Liar & Spy with me wherever I go, and holding it up high, and laughing and crying as hard as I did the first time I read it. It’s not that much of a stretch; most dudes never really grow out of their middle school selves to begin with.

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Tim FederleTim Federle danced in five Broadway shows over ten years before writing his debut novel, Better Nate Than Ever (Simon & Schuster), about a small-town teen who runs away from home to crash an audition for E.T.: The Musical. Say hi at TimFederle.com and on Twitter @TimFederle.

Good writing will never go out of style

Posted March 20th, 2013

The Marble QueenStephanie J. Blake is a time traveler. Or a tour guide. Her first novel, The Marble Queen (Amazon Children’s Publishing) is just the ticket. Most impressively, this debut novelist reminds readers that the “good old days” weren’t always good.

What’s right right now with children’s literature?

There are some amazing talents in children’s literature, and the so-called “gatekeepers” (parents, teachers, librarians, and book people) are starting to realize that printed books are not the only way to engage a child with a good story. It seems that almost every day we hear about the closure of another bookstore and the impending death of the printed word. To me, there is nothing better than curling up with a good old-fashioned hardcover book. The key word in the previous sentence is “old-fashioned.” Ten years from now, I’ll bet most children will be doing their homework assignments on an Android tablet or iPad or other device. Kindergarten writing lessons will have evolved into keyboarding classes and printed books will be a rarity. Attention spans have gotten shorter, children have so many entertainment options thrown at them, and books are taking a back seat to these other distractions. A book has to compete with video games, movies, internet, and iPad or Android applications. Authors can and should look at these electronic devices as a huge new playing field for our creativity. We are no longer stuck with writing a 50,000-word manuscript or a 500-word picture book. We can now reach children through non-traditional content. We can create a game, a well-loved character, a story, etc., that a child can access over and over at the touch of a button. It’s kind of exciting!

What could make that “good” better?

Instead of moaning and groaning about the the end of publishing, we authors should embrace these changes and get ready with interesting, innovative content. No matter what device a child will be reading on, there will always be a need for content. Good writing will never go out of style.

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Stephanie J. BlakeWhen she’s not in front of the computer, Stephanie Blake can be found in her backyard in Colorado with her husband, their three boys, and a cocker spaniel named Rocky. For more information, visit www.stephaniejblake.com or TheMarbleQueen.com.

Taking more time

Posted March 14th, 2013

B is for BrooklynNearly everyone knows the old writing adage: “Write what you know.”

To that, I’d add: “Write where you know.”

Selina Alko has a where-based recipe for success. Check out her picture books like B is for Brooklyn or My Subway Ride. She captures an authenticity and love for her surroundings.

Selina, what’s right right now about children’s literature?

The art in children’s book is more inventive, more exciting, and stronger than ever. I see stories reflecting the changing times (such as new technology in, It’s a Book and Hello! Hello!) as well as more classic story ideas made with fresh new techniques (like Lauren’s stories and all the books by the Steads), as well as non-fiction made fun for little ones (Shana Corey’s, Here Come the Girl Scouts! and others). It really seems to me that there is a good quality mix for parents/teachers/librarians to choose from.

What could make that “good” better?

I guess I feel if there was just a little more time spent in the editorial stage to make the writing stronger, and more time for the artists to meet deadlines(!), and more time for the designers to take care with each book on their list… then every book would be just a little bit better.

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Selina AlkoAuthor-illustrator Selina Alko lives in Brooklyn. Her other 2012 title was Daddy Christmas and Hannukah Mama (Knopf). To learn more, check out www.selinaalko.com.

Ignite a world of imaginative interaction

Posted February 12th, 2013

ArchieDomenica More Gordon’s dazzling picture book debut entitled Archie is an autobiography of sorts.

What started out as an urge to make something handmade for a Christmas charity sale in Scotland has given More Gordon international acclaim as a felted dog sculptor. Coincidentally, Archie (star of the picture book) began only wanting to make a coat for his beloved dog.

While the author-illustrator creates the unforgettable story with practically no words, she shares some inspiring thoughts and details with CLN readers.

Domenica, what’s right, right now with children’s literature? 

Everything !

The new possibilities technology has opened up are very exciting.

We now have more choice. We can look at  different ways to create a book or story. Access to other countries and influences are made vastly easier.

I find the cross fertilisation of technology and art very inspiring it does that great thing of making me look at things in a new way.

It is an exciting time to be involved with publishing and especially in children’s literature, which has the potential to be so imaginative and creative.

We can make the paper versions of books more beautiful and varied thanks to all the advances in digital printing techniques, and we can embrace the world of enhanced eBooks and Apps. We can make learning to read and write a joy, and ignite a world of imaginative interaction.

What could make that “good” better? 

Speed.

The publishing industry’s response to all this is frustratingly slow, especially when you consider how fast children grow and how capable and at home they are in the world of technology.

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Domenica More GordonI was born in London but raised Scotland. Both my parents are artists and all I ever wanted to do was go to Art School.

I emerged dazed and not very stimulated form Central/St Martin’s College of Art  but was lucky enough to get a job as a design assistant on a magazine.

I spent many happy years working for the likes of World of Interiors and Elle Decoration, and ended up  living and working in  Los Angeles, where I met my husband, Charlie Fletcher, a film and TV writer and author of the Stone Heart trilogy. We have two children and two dogs, and now live in Scotland.

I am currently working on a series of books about a dog called “Archie” ( book 2 comes out in August) , a collection of dressed felt dog sculptures for a show in November in Tokyo and a series of textile designs for a company in London.

My idea of bliss is a day in the studio.

For more information, visit www.domenicamoregordon.com.

Our laps should not be empty

Posted February 5th, 2013

Summer of the WolvesBeen there, done that.

Author Polly Carlson-Voiles brings that adage alive with her 2012 novel Summer of the Wolves. Readers will experience the wilds of Minnesota in her words.

Polly, what’s right right now with children’s literature? 

What’s good is the buried gold of children’s literature that can be accessed every day through our libraries, schools, attics, online resources. It is there, and it is wondrous. What could be better is not the literature itself, for there is more than plenty that is heart-racing, mind-stilling, laugh-out-loud, centering. We could easily raise a few generations on what already adorns our shelves. And, what is best will in time rise and take on a life of its own and what is ephemeral will in time disappear. Of course, there is always room for the new sunlit moment of prose or idea or insight, but we have sooo much!

What could make that “good” better?

In my opinion what emerges from the category of “What could be better?” is our attention, perhaps our teaching, our showing children how to slow down for a good book. Our laps should not be empty. Gadgets, regardless of how amazing, cannot replace the lap of reading, the finger-pointing at tiny details on the page. One of my favorite things with our first child was during lap-reading at 18 months and up. She made use of our index fingers to ask her questions. She would hold firmly to an adult index finger with her left hand as we cruised the pages. Favorite things or new things would increase the grasp and then she would direct the finger to a tiny mouse hidden in the illustrations or to a favorite action she wanted to savor. We were a team.

If we do not slow down, if we are not amazed at books, if we hand our child a book and then answer our cell phones, how can we expect our child to find the buried gold? Let’s spend more time attending, to being readers, to teaching others to be readers. The books are there, and they are golden.

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Polly Carlson-VoilesPolly Carlson-Voiles, a retired teacher, is author of Summer of the Wolves and Someone Walks By.

“Given Illumination”

Posted January 29th, 2013

Glory BeDIY. It’s not just a topic for TV home improvement shows. It’s current and former librarians embracing the “do it yourself” philosophy. They take years of inspiration from children’s literature and craft their own novels.

Augusta Scattergood’s Glory Be is a textbook example.

Augusta, what’s right right now with Children’s Literature?

Back in the dark ages of the library world, my library had a big, fat reference book. Fortunately, I don’t recall the title. But you could look up almost any issue a child might be dealing with, from bedwetting to teasing and everything in between. There, listed by readability levels and sub-topics, was an entire canon of books which could enable a teacher, a librarian, or a parent to solve every problem.

What could be so wrong with this, you ask?

Something about that theory of bibliotherapy troubled me. Often the books listed were preachy, didactic, filled with morals and Words To Live By. My own daughter, a voracious reader, once complained that she didn’t want to read another “I” book—where the narrator went on and on, grousing fiercely. She was worn out with Problem Novels, as we called them in the 70s and 80s.

What I liked to share with my students and the parents who asked for help were books like Wonder, that made me laugh and learn. Well-written stories of single-parents who struggled but came out ahead. Books that took a foster child like trumpet-playing Aaron in Touch Blue and gave him a solution, but also made kids want to turn the pages. A board book about Duck and Goose and hugging. Bridge to Terabithia to help a child deal with losing a friend.

In short, books that don’t feel like therapy, even while solving problems and making children happy.

Yes, books like these have been around for a while. But now so many more amazing, fun-to-read, thoughtful books are recognized, listed, and shared. If a reader grows, understands, learns something while loving a book, all the better.

What could make that better?

Of course, every single book doesn’t have to have a takeaway. Some books are read for no other reason than the pure fun of it. But for those books kids will reread and love because they may have helped them on a sad day or even on their happiest day, I say just keep up the good work, writers and editors. Don’t jump on the popularity bandwagon and try to duplicate what’s been done so well.  Keep the fresh ones coming!

I’ll share a quote that kind of sums up what I think about the truly great books, about being “given illumination,” from one of my favorite children’s writers:

“We don’t want to feel less when we have finished a book; we want to feel that new possibilities of being have been opened to us. We don’t want to close a book with a sense that life is totally unfair and that there is no light in the darkness; we want to feel that we have been given illumination.”

Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water

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Augusta ScattergoodAugusta Scattergood grew up in a small town in Mississippi. She has since lived in North Carolina, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, California, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Florida—twice! Although if anybody asks where she’s from, Mississippi would be the answer.

A former school librarian, Augusta now reviews books for the Christian Science Monitor and Delta Magazine, as well as on her own blog. Glory Be, her debut novel, was recently named one of Amazon’s Top Twenty Middle Grade Novels of 2012. A second middle-grade novel, scheduled for Fall 2014 publication, has just been sold to Scholastic.

Readers are individuals

Posted January 2nd, 2013

Good News Bad NewsJeff Mack is one of the top cartoonish creators in children’s literature today.

This former boy uses the C-word with only the greatest respect. The author/illustrator makes every word and picture count. While a good cartoon delivers an entire entertainment in a six-minute package, any Jeff Mack production is just as pleasingly compact. Quickly-established characters. Fast-moving action. Past, present, and future children will appreciate all things Mackian.

Jeff, what’s right right now about children’s literature?

What’s right about children’s literature right now is that there are exciting books available in every style, genre, and subject to satisfy a huge range of interests. That’s good news for kids who want to be themselves and still find a voice they connect with. My author friends are writing everything from graphic novels to wordless picture books, from classic folk tales to parodies of fairy tales, from edgy comedies to quiet bedtime stories. And that’s only on the fiction side of things. As a writer, I love having the freedom to invent for different ages and interests knowing that there will be plenty of individualistic readers who will share my enthusiasm. It’s a great time to be a writer or a young reader!

What can be done to make that “good” better?

Regardless of how they’re packaged, books compete with a ton of other electronic activities. As a result, many parents struggle to find ways to limit screen time for their kids. So I love hearing about parents who model good reading habits. When adults set aside a block of time to turn off their own computers and read a book, it shows their kids that this is something they do for pleasure. It helps kids recognize reading as more than an assignment for school. When kids see adults enjoying books, it’s more likely they will freely choose the same activity. That’s a good thing made better. Reading makes you think, and thinking adds meaning to your life.
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Jeff MackBorn in Syracuse, New York, Jeff Mack spent his early years building booby traps for his siblings and drawing monster comics on his math homework. He has since written and illustrated a long list of picture books, chapter books, and early readers, including Good News Bad News, Hush Little Polar Bear, Hippo and Rabbit, and Clueless McGee. His upcoming titles for 2013 include The Things I Can Do (Roaring Brook), Clueless McGee and the Inflatable Pants (Philomel), and a new Good News Bad News-style picture book called Ah Ha! (Chronicle). When he’s not writing and painting, he travels to schools to talk with kids and teachers about making books.  He lives in Western Massachusetts, but you can visit him at www.jeffmack.com.

Good News Bad News

Genres are blurring

Posted December 26th, 2012

First MothersMany illustrators depict. Only the best can interpret, or even translate.

Julie Downing shines in her latest artful creation. First Mothers gives a unique look at the moms of many past (and one present) American presidents, offering the perfect backdrop for author Beverly Gherman‘s kid-centric biographies. Downing’s special style lets young readers see these larger-than-life ladies as people, or as characters.

Julie’s what is right right now about children’s books?

It is exciting to see that the lines between genres have blurred. Today,  publishers are creating illustrated Young Adult novels, graphic novels, easy readers in a cartoon format, as well as traditional picture books and board books for the very young. When I started illustrating books there was a big difference between picture books, middle grade novels, and novels for young adults. Ten years ago, publishers would have turned down First Mothers because the format did not fit a specific age group. Now children have a much broader range of books to choose from, with formats that fit a wide range of readers.

What would make that “good” better?

I hope publishers will continue to publish traditional fairytales and folktales. Today,  pictures books are geared for younger readers, but  children of all ages love to read  longer, beautifully illustrated books. New technology such as iPads and eBooks make it possible to tell popular tales in new and creative ways, but whether read on an iPad or as a traditional picture book, newly illustrated versions of familiar stories would bring these classic tales to life.

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Julie DowningJulie Downing has written and or illustrated over 40 books for children. An avid reader, she loves fiction and non- fiction and most recently published First Mothers,  a biography of all of the mothers of the presidents. Publishers Weekly wrote: “Craftily mining the personalities of each woman, Downing contributes watercolor and colored pencil portraits of the mother s on their home turfs, humorously underscoring their many diverse eccentricities.”

This San Francisco artist is known for her jewel-like watercolors and her list of books include; The Night Before Christmas, Lullaby and Goodnight, and The Firekeeper’s Son. She has won many awards for her work, including a Parent’s Choice Award and the New York Public Library Best Books Award.e was selected to appear in Talking with Artists Too, a book about 12 of the nation’s best Children’s’ Book Illustrators.

Downing graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and currently teaches Watercolor and Children’s Book Illustration to both graduate and undergraduate students at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. She is currently working on a book about best  friends, who happen to be a mummy and a vampire. Find out more at www.juliedowning.com.

Being playful with art and the world

Posted December 19th, 2012

The InsomniacsSomewhere, Edward Gorey is smiling.

Look at The Insomniacs and you’ll love the expressive, impish art. What’s even more impressive is the idea of a book being tag-team illustrated.

The two talents (Ben, seen left in photo below and Sean, right) behind the pictures collaborated to share some optimistic insight in this tandem e-interview:

What’s right right now with children’s literature?

There are a lot of new or relatively new talents making books right now that are exciting. They’re not afraid to take chances and do things differently. We really appreciate authors/illustrators who take a unique approach to writing or illustrating a book. Books like Press Here or I Want My Hat Back leave a lot of room for the reader to engage with the book. I think this encouragement to interact with the book and use your imagination to complete the story is important. It shows kids and adults how to be playful with art and with the world.

We also noticed a lot of really beautiful books coming out that pay close attention to small details like how thick the paper is, is the cover matte or semi matte?, Is the typography well designed?, etc. These details really elevate the experience of reading.

Here are a few more we think are examples of the kinds of exciting things that are right with children’s literature today; Laetitia Devernay’s The Composer, Carin Berger’s A Perfect Day, Carson Ellis’s Wildwood and Oliver Jeffers’ upcoming The Moose is Mine.

In your opinions, what could be done to make that “good” better?

Right now the book industry is in turmoil over digital books and Amazon taking over. I think ultimately this is just a time when everyone in the industry has to step up and show their worth. Authors and illustrators need to write great books that will last—not just sell quickly at Christmas. Publishers need to recognize that and grow with with their authors and illustrators. People need to respect their libraries and make sure they are well funded. Parents need to read with their kids, and buy books! The hardcover of the books they like! You are paying for an experience, not just the words and the pictures.

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The Brothers HiltsLearn more about the illustrating siblings and The Insomniacs at www.brothershilts.com.