The Horn Book http://www.hbook.com Publications about books for children and young adults Tue, 30 Sep 2014 18:11:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.4 Marla Frazee Talks with Roger http://www.hbook.com/2014/09/talks-with-roger/marla-frazee-talks-roger/ http://www.hbook.com/2014/09/talks-with-roger/marla-frazee-talks-roger/#respond Tue, 30 Sep 2014 16:54:32 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=41383 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. Two-time Caldecott Honor recipient (for A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever and All the World) Marla Frazee’s newest picture book The Farmer and the Clown is already garnering talk […]

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marla frazee twr header Marla Frazee Talks with Roger

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.


marla frazee by james bradley 2 Marla Frazee Talks with RogerTwo-time Caldecott Honor recipient (for A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever and All the World) Marla Frazee’s newest picture book The Farmer and the Clown is already garnering talk of award recognition. Wordless, but rich with narrative and emotional resonance, The Farmer and the Clown portrays an unlikely friendship in which one party seems to rescue the other — but maybe that’s exactly backwards.

Roger Sutton: This is a really amazing book.

Marla Frazee: Thank you so much.

RS: The emotional quality of the story is incredibly powerful. So many of the pictures choke me up — they would probably have me sobbing right now if I didn’t have a reputation to maintain.

On your website you ask yourself a bunch of questions that you say people always ask you, and one of them is, “What is more important, style or concept?” Your answer: “I think the most important thing is emotional engagement.” How does an artist create that? As you’ve certainly done in this book.

MF: For me, I think it’s through time. If I’m sort of hooked into an idea, I try to play it out in my mind to see whether there’s something there to follow — what I would call the beating heart of that idea. If I can’t find it, I won’t be that engaged in the idea anymore. Even if I do find it, I often don’t know until many years later why it was compelling to me. As an example, when I started working on the Santa book [Santa Claus: The World's Number One Toy Expert], in the beginning I just thought it was really funny that Santa would be a toy tester. That was how the book started in my mind, and I played with the idea for years. It wasn’t until maybe seven years down the road, when I was on a long drive, that I realized he would have to know children really well, and know toys really well, in order to match the child and the toy, and that it was about gift-giving. It was about something we all aspire to know how to do — to give the right gift at the right time. Once I had that, the book started to make sense to me. Before that, it was just…

RS: This idea.

MF: Yes.

RS: What was the genesis of The Farmer and the Clown, emotionally?

MF: This one was very interesting, because I don’t know if you like clowns, but I don’t like clowns.

RS: Me neither.

MF: Most people don’t like clowns. But for whatever reason, I went to this clown show performance at my kids’ high school. The performers had worked on their clown personas for weeks, at least, and then acted in skits. It was set to music (there was no speaking), and it was really compelling and evocative and sublime. I loved it. I couldn’t get clowns out of my head afterward. So I thought maybe I should do a book about a clown town. Everybody’s a clown. They shop, they go to school. But somebody moves in who isn’t, who’s a serious person — what would happen? And then I reversed it out. Maybe it should be a serious town and funny neighbors who move in. There’s something funny about the new neighbors, and it’s a clown family.

RS: The clown comes to town.

MF: Yes. But then I was watching a Modern Family episode where Cam is a clown, and all his clown friends cram themselves into a Mini Cooper after a funeral. And I thought, “Well, there goes that idea.” Then I was playing with the idea of a little clown who was teaching a yoga class, but there was no story. And there wasn’t a story for a really long time. Then I thought of two characters — a serious, Amish-like farmer holding the hand of a very smiley baby clown, and they were walking together. It just hit me, that image. That’s where it started. And I thought, “There they are. Those are my characters.” Then it was a question of why are they together? What is the story that brought them together? It came from the fact that they both had such different personas, really, from what they truly were. We think: the clown has a big smile so that means he’s happy, and we maybe think the farmer’s a grump, but there’s more to him than that.

9781442497443 f3568 Marla Frazee Talks with RogerRS: We have that amazing scene of revelation where on the left-hand side of the spread, you see them getting to know each other. They’re talking. And then they’re eating. And then they’re washing up for the night, and the makeup comes off the clown’s face. And to the old man, at least the way I’m reading it — and of course, it being wordless, we can read it however we want to — it’s like a completely different person he’s now encountering. That he finally sees the clown as a baby, or a little child.

MF: I am so glad that’s how it struck you. Because to me that spread was the pivotal moment in the book.

RS: It’s huge. Completely unexpected.

MF: The thing that freaks me out about clowns is that they look a certain way, and they maybe act a certain way, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily feel a certain way. Underneath it all there might be something else going on. That’s true about everybody at times in our lives, and I wanted it to be a revelation about the farmer as well. This obviously isn’t what he expected his evening to be like.

RS: Right, and the farmer transforms from being dutiful to actually having an emotional stake in this child.

MF: I was originally thinking maybe it would take a few days for the circus train to come back, so there would be more time for their relationship to deepen and change. But there were issues about that, because I wanted it to be a real child who’s lost and scared. Once the child and the farmer got too comfortable with each other, a couple days in and we’d have a different relationship, and that wouldn’t work.

RS: It seems like you need to have either a 32-page picture book or a 148-page novel.

MF: Yes.

RS: I think you chose wisely.

MF: Thank you.

RS: You talked about the emotional engagement that brings you into a book, but then how do you create that emotional engagement for the reader? Or do you just cross your fingers and trust they’re going to have the same feelings you do?

MF: I don’t just cross my fingers. But I feel like that’s the big question when it comes to illustration — how do you convey emotion in a picture? Not only over the span of the book, but in each individual image, each spread. What are you trying to say emotionally, and how do you show that emotion? An incredible book that has inspired me on that topic is Molly Bang’s perception and composition book Picture This.

RS: That’s a great book.

MF: I also think of Trina Schart Hyman’s image on the back of the jacket of her Little Red Riding Hood, where she’s leaving the forest. It’s an incredible example of how the emotion of a scene can hit before the content does. We feel relief that this character — who we may not even see at first as Little Red Riding Hood — is leaving a dark and oppressive place. And then we start to see the elements. Oh, it’s Little Red Riding Hood. Oh, it’s the woods. Oh, it’s the village. I think she was trying to build the image so the emotion hits first. You feel either the loneliness or the joy first, and then you start reading the picture — ah! The emotion kind of smacks us, the viewer, before our brain engages. That’s something I aspire to. I don’t always get there, but I’m always trying to get there.

RS: Well, you certainly do here. Your ending is a killer. You pull us in with a warmth that keeps increasing as the book goes, but when we get to the end we realize, “Oh my god, these two are going to part.” It’s horrible!

MF: I know. In an early dummy, I had the farmer on page 32 walking toward us with the clown hat on, kicking up his heels, but that was not a true moment. This is not how he would feel. So I started to draw how I thought he would really feel, which was devastated, and I thought, “This is just a real downer.” It took a while to get to the idea of that monkey. I hope it feels somewhat inevitable, but it really did take a lot of soul-searching to figure out the feeling I wanted to leave this farmer with. I didn’t want it to be a devastating story.

RS: And it would be, without that monkey. The way the monkey is looking out at us and telling us, “Don’t tell the farmer I’m behind him,” pulls us into the story, so we feel like we’re part of something.

MF: That’s really important to me, because I wanted the reader to be part of the understanding of these two characters. It’s one of the reasons the book is wordless. I wanted us to perceive the characters a certain way, and to realize over time, after reading the book, that our perception was skewed as well, as maybe the farmer’s initially was toward the clown. We don’t know exactly how the clown perceives the farmer, but that was an element too.

RS: With the clown — you’re really honest about how a child would be when he realizes his family’s coming back. The long spread with the two of them and the approaching train, toot-toot, up there in the corner, where the clown is jumping up and down, and he’s all excited, and the farmer is protectively holding his hand, and watching out for him, making sure he doesn’t run onto the tracks, but the emotion of the kid, who’s so — you know, they don’t think about other people’s feelings, really.

MF: Right.

RS: And he’s just excited: “My parents are back!” But in the farmer’s posture, and in his little dot eye, you can see the sadness of the impending separation. Then the clown gives him a gift. He races back to say goodbye to the old man. And there’s that beautiful hug. And then they kiss. And I’m going to start crying.

When I look at wordless books today, they seem to mostly be becoming more and more elaborate. And this book is really stripped-down.

MF: I didn’t set out to do a wordless book. I set out to tell a particular story, and as I was telling it I realized it would be more powerful without words. It’s about impressions and misunderstandings of appearances. You get a slow understanding of who these characters are based on their behavior. I don’t necessarily think there was a whole exchange of language between these two. It was more about how they were acting with each other, and for me that was somewhat of a wordless exchange. This paring-down was how I arrived at doing the book in a wordless way.

RS: Did you create any kind of a text at all?

MF: In the very beginning I wondered if there should be one, but no, not really. That’s not unusual for me. When I did the book Roller Coaster I drew it out in thumbnails without words, and then the words came at a later point in the process. I think I was expecting that to happen with this book, and then I realized it wasn’t going to. I truly didn’t set out to do a wordless book, although I love them, sometimes.

RS: Sometimes they feel too much like a puzzle, on purpose. The challenge is to figure out what’s going on. Whereas this, to me, is more immediate: you don’t have to work at deciphering the action, which allows you to just become invested in these characters and their situation. There’s no plot puzzle to solve here.

MF: I first came up with these two characters then wondered: How did they end up being in the same place, holding hands like this? As I was thinking about it, it almost offered a little film to me. The beginning pages of the book were very clear, to the point where the farmer walks across the field and sees that clown.

RS: The farmer kind of looks like the long arm of the law as he’s approaching.

MF: And I thought, “I have to get this down on paper. I don’t want to lose it. But I don’t know what’s going to happen after this moment.” So I worked on thumbnails and little dummies, trying to nail down the story so it didn’t disappear. There’s something about it operating like a film but then having to freeze. I love animation, and I’m very inspired by it. Sometimes I think certain ideas that I’m playing with would be better done as animation than in a picture book, where you have to choose that exact moment to portray. And you have the page turn, which is unique to the picture book — it’s such an incredible tool, but it can sometimes get in your way. I always spend a lot of time in those initial explorations trying to figure out: is this form the right form for this story to be in, and if so, how do I tell it? I feel like those initial explorations are really the architecture. I think that’s why I said in the beginning it takes time. I can’t imagine doing it any faster. Because some of those realizations just take so long to come to me. It’s not immediate.

RS: You just have to let them wander around in your head for a while.

MF: I do. This book was very dreamy. Once I had the picture story in place and it was just a matter of executing it, it was also a really dreamy experience for me to sink into the actual time of making the pictures. The world was so spare.

RS: It’s a very dreamy landscape as well.

MF: Thank you. I really wanted it to feel like that. That’s how I was feeling about it. There’s just something about those two characters being so by themselves, in their own world for that short time

RS: It’s kind of amazing when you think about what we can get away with in picture books. If you just described this situation — a child gets tossed off a train, in the middle of the desert, and there’s this old man, and he comes and takes the child to his house.

MF: Trust me, I know. Those closest to me will ask, “What are you working on?” and I’ll say something like what you just said, and they’ll say, “Oh my god. Are you serious?”


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Garth Nix on Clariel http://www.hbook.com/2014/09/authors-illustrators/garth-nix-clariel/ http://www.hbook.com/2014/09/authors-illustrators/garth-nix-clariel/#respond Tue, 30 Sep 2014 15:25:38 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=41353 In the September/October 2014 Horn Book Magazine, reviewer Katie Bircher asked Garth Nix about Clariel, the long-awaited prequel to his high fantasy trilogy Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen. Read the review here. Katie Bircher: Do you think the walker chooses the path, or the path the walker? Which is it in Clariel’s case? Garth Nix: This […]

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nix clariel Garth Nix on ClarielIn the September/October 2014 Horn Book Magazine, reviewer Katie Bircher asked Garth Nix about Clariel, the long-awaited prequel to his high fantasy trilogy Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen. Read the review here.

Katie Bircher: Do you think the walker chooses the path, or the path the walker? Which is it in Clariel’s case?

Garth Nix: This is one of those questions that doesn’t have an answer, or the answer changes all the time. In Clariel’s case, she chooses her own path, but there are definitely forces at work that both influence her choice and limit her selection of paths. Neither predestination nor entirely free will, but a mixture of both…

From the September/October 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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Review of Clariel http://www.hbook.com/2014/09/choosing-books/review-of-the-week/review-clariel/ http://www.hbook.com/2014/09/choosing-books/review-of-the-week/review-clariel/#respond Tue, 30 Sep 2014 15:00:07 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=41350 Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen by Garth Nix Middle School, High School    Harper/HarperCollins    383 pp. 10/14    978-0-06-156155-9    $18.99    g e-book ed.  978-0-06-221680-9    $10.99 Six centuries before the events of Sabriel (rev. 1/97), Lirael (rev. 7/01), and Abhorsen (rev. 3/03), circumstances in the Old Kingdom are vastly different: the addled king refuses to rule; the Abhorsen neglects […]

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nix clariel Review of ClarielClariel:
The Lost Abhorsen

by Garth Nix
Middle School, High School    Harper/HarperCollins    383 pp.
10/14    978-0-06-156155-9    $18.99    g
e-book ed.  978-0-06-221680-9    $10.99

Six centuries before the events of Sabriel (rev. 1/97), Lirael (rev. 7/01), and Abhorsen (rev. 3/03), circumstances in the Old Kingdom are vastly different: the addled king refuses to rule; the Abhorsen neglects his duty to fight the resurrected dead; and treacherous Governor Kilp presides over capitol city Belisaere. Seventeen-year-old Clariel (who is related to both the royal and Abhorsen families, and thus a distant ancestor of Sabriel and Lirael), feeling claustrophobic in the bustling capitol, wants nothing more than to live in the Great Forest — until Kilp murders her parents and abducts Clariel to establish her as a puppet queen. Clariel’s grief and fury get the best of her, leading her into a devil’s deal for revenge with manipulative cat-creature Mogget (a mainstay character of the other novels) and two sinister Free Magic beings. This prequel is a tonal departure; Clariel is both less likable and less noble-minded than her heroic kinswomen, and this is not a story of selflessly protecting the kingdom but rather of the protagonist’s unwitting, gradual corruption. Series fans anticipating answers about Clariel’s transformation from duped young woman into powerful necromancer Chlorr of the Mask (or about Mogget’s own story) will not get them here: Nix writes in his author’s note, “As to what [Clariel] did in the intervening years…who can say?” But those same fans will treasure this long-awaited opportunity to return to a much-loved world, built with as much originality and richness as ever.

From the September/October 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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El Deafo http://www.hbook.com/2014/09/blogs/lollys-classroom/el-deafo/ http://www.hbook.com/2014/09/blogs/lollys-classroom/el-deafo/#comments Tue, 30 Sep 2014 10:01:21 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=41089 This week, I was lucky enough to have a thirty-minute window when I could pop into my favorite independent bookstore in Los Angeles. They have a large children’s section on the second floor that I love perusing because they do an excellent job at getting new books. On one of their displays sat El Deafo […]

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eldeafo El DeafoThis week, I was lucky enough to have a thirty-minute window when I could pop into my favorite independent bookstore in Los Angeles. They have a large children’s section on the second floor that I love perusing because they do an excellent job at getting new books.

On one of their displays sat El Deafo by Cece Bell. Intrigued first by the illustration of a superhero bunny and second by the title, my immediate thought was “What is this book about and who is this written for?” As if by fate, a children’s book worker looked up from her task of stocking new books and said “Oh that’s a really cute story. I highly recommend it.” I inquired about the reading level and she said it could be from fourth grade to middle school. Opening it, I was stoked to find out it was a graphic novel. Sold. It may be one of the best impulsive $20 I’ve spent of late.

I read this book in two days. It follows the author’s childhood experiences of being deaf, and specifically highlights her experiences in school. What captured me was the depiction of how people treated her and, since it’s from Cece’s point of view, how she felt. Her emotions come through strongly in the text and illustrations, and made me stop and think about how I treat people even if my intention is good. I connected with Cece’s superhero persona, “El Deafo.” Cece uses El Deafo to imagine the ideal way to handle tough situations, even if that doesn’t play out in real life (something I did as a kid too). What I really loved about this book was how the author depicted her friendships with the other kids (the good and the bad). It reminded me that children can sometimes do really mean things but that most of the time they mean well and can be really amazing friends to each other. It’s a lesson I need to carry for the school year.

Cece’s journey starts at the age of four and ends in fifth grade, so as a fifth grade teacher, I’m very excited to bring this graphic novel to my classroom. I think the students will enjoy this book and learn a lot from it. I believe that it will carry lessons of tolerance and respect for those who are hearing impaired, and prepare my students with tools (Don’t cover your mouth while someone is lip reading! Don’t assume all deaf people can sign!) to create meaningful and comfortable experiences with someone who can’t hear well.

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Make way for goslings http://www.hbook.com/2014/09/blogs/out-of-the-box/make-way-goslings-2/ http://www.hbook.com/2014/09/blogs/out-of-the-box/make-way-goslings-2/#respond Mon, 29 Sep 2014 16:14:40 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=41329 On my way to work this morning, I saw a modern-day Officer Michael helping a gaggle of adolescent goslings across the Fenway. When I got to work, I found out that Kitty was about a minute ahead of me and had hit the Walk button for them.

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On my way to work this morning, I saw a modern-day Officer Michael helping a gaggle of adolescent goslings across the Fenway. When I got to work, I found out that Kitty was about a minute ahead of me and had hit the Walk button for them.

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What *about* those Caldecott criteria? http://www.hbook.com/2014/09/blogs/calling-caldecott/important-caldecott-criteria/ http://www.hbook.com/2014/09/blogs/calling-caldecott/important-caldecott-criteria/#comments Mon, 29 Sep 2014 16:00:39 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=41283 Last week, Robin reminded us how crucial it is to keep the Caldecott criteria in mind as we examine this year’s picture books. We all know that the Caldecott rules and criteria are paramount and inviolable, and for decades committees have obsessively wrestled with the meanings and nuances of “excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed”; […]

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Last week, Robin reminded us how crucial it is to keep the Caldecott criteria in mind as we examine this year’s picture books. We all know that the Caldecott rules and criteria are paramount and inviolable, and for decades committees have obsessively wrestled with the meanings and nuances of “excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed”; “excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept”; “appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept”; etc.

Aside from a few amendments to the rules added in later years, the Caldecott rules and criteria were written in 1937 (or earlier — sometime before the first Medal was awarded in 1938. I’m sure KT Horning could give us the exact date). That’s almost EIGHTY years ago. Wow.

To my mind, the Caldecott criteria are open-ended enough and yet specific enough to allow committees to home in on excellence and also permit some more envelope-stretching interpretation (The Invention of Hugo Cabret, anyone?). And it’s a testament to their timelessness that much of the criteria and rules have been picked up when newer awards have been established, such as the Sibert and the Geisel.

And yet…. the world has changed a lot in eighty years; the way books are published has changed; the format they are published in is changing; who is creating books is changing. Do the criteria still work? Are there some parts of the criteria that do not feel particularly timeless? i.e., that feel outdated in today’s world? Is there enough room in the Caldecott criteria to accommodate graphic novels, for instance?

One of the criteria that to me feels like it raises some questions is the “appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept” one. In theory, it is valuable, and I particularly appreciate that it encourages the committee to look at the picture book as a whole (as opposed to just the illustrations). But what about the cases where the style of illustrations might be outside the mainstream culture, and the majority of the committee may have little or no knowledge of that culture? What happens then? And is it the criterion that needs to be addressed, or the makeup of the committees?

Sorry: lots of questions; not many answers. Those of you who have served on the Caldecott committee — did you find the criteria limiting, or freeing, or challenging, or all of the above? Everyone — are the criteria still allowing the “most distinguished American picture books for children” to be chosen each year?

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Review of When Aunt Mattie Got Her Wings http://www.hbook.com/2014/09/choosing-books/review-of-the-week/review-aunt-mattie-got-wings/ http://www.hbook.com/2014/09/choosing-books/review-of-the-week/review-aunt-mattie-got-wings/#respond Mon, 29 Sep 2014 15:57:25 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=41331 When Aunt Mattie 
Got Her Wings by Petra Mathers; illus. by the author Primary    Beach Lane/Simon    32 pp. 9/14    978-1-4814-1044-1    $17.99 e-book ed.  978-1-4814-1045-8    $10.99 Best (bird) friends Lottie and Herbie (Lottie’s New Beach Towel, rev. 5/98; A Cake for Herbie, rev. 5/00) help each other cope when Lottie’s beloved (and intrepid and fun-loving) aunt […]

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mathers when aunt mattie got her wings Review of When Aunt Mattie Got Her WingsWhen Aunt Mattie Got Her Wings
by Petra Mathers; illus. by the author
Primary    Beach Lane/Simon    32 pp.
9/14    978-1-4814-1044-1    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-4814-1045-8    $10.99

Best (bird) friends Lottie and Herbie (Lottie’s New Beach Towel, rev. 5/98; A Cake for Herbie, rev. 5/00) help each other cope when Lottie’s beloved (and intrepid and fun-loving) aunt Mattie dies. “I miss Aunt Mattie. It hurts right here.” “Me too. It’s heartache, Herbie. Come sit by me. I am so glad you are here.” After a few days in the city, the friends pick up Aunt Mattie’s ashes and return home to their seaside community, to scatter the ashes — per Aunt Mattie’s request — in the sea near their favorite picnic location, Pudding Rock, where she’ll always be close by, “mixed in with sand and sea.” Because Mathers portrays death as a welcome next step for ninety-nine-year-old Aunt Mattie — she is last seen floating up from her hospital bed toward the adventure of her (after)life — the book focuses on those left behind, with Lottie and Herbie grieving, sharing memories, and counting on each other’s friendship to get them through. Mathers’s trademark jewel-toned panels use a warm palette to capture scenes of happy memories with Aunt Mattie and a cooler palette to depict sad scenes — but the bright golden-yellow of the flashlight beam that welcomes Aunt Mattie to her flight aboard Out of This World Airlines cuts through them all.

From the September/October 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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Grand and Important: Books for Beginning Readers http://www.hbook.com/2014/09/authors-illustrators/grand-important-books-beginning-readers/ http://www.hbook.com/2014/09/authors-illustrators/grand-important-books-beginning-readers/#respond Mon, 29 Sep 2014 15:50:35 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=41310 I’m not a teacher, a day-care provider, a doctor, or an educational administrator. I have neither statistics nor formulas to deliver. I’m a parent. I’m a writer and illustrator. And I’m a reader. I have instinct and intuition — that’s it. Today, I’m going to try to answer a couple of questions. How does a […]

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I’m not a teacher, a day-care provider, a doctor, or an educational administrator. I have neither statistics nor formulas to deliver.

I’m a parent. I’m a writer and illustrator. And I’m a reader. I have instinct and intuition — that’s it. Today, I’m going to try to answer a couple of questions. How does a writer and illustrator work? And, what happens when you do read to a child all his/her young life? What comes next?

I’ve written and illustrated many books for preschoolers: Kitten’s First Full Moon, A Good Day, Old Bear, and Little White Rabbit, to name a few. And I’ve talked many times about the importance of early experiences with books. I believe that early and regular exposure to books opens the door to many things: to reading, of course, and to appreciating visual art, too. The physical book, itself, can open doors as well and offers much to talk about. Think of all the questions one could ask a child: is this book small or big? Why? Is it long or tall? How come? How does it feel? The possibilities for discussion with a child are endless, before you even lift the cover.

Early and regular exposure to books allows one to recognize the familiar, and to be curious about the unfamiliar. Early and regular exposure to books leads to understanding relationships, to having a substantial vocabulary, to learning to think in a complex way. And, maybe, most important is the personal bond — the human connection — that takes place when sharing a picture book one-on-one with a child. It is invaluable.

I think we all know these things on some deep level. It makes sense. We’re planting seeds. We’re growing readers. We’re making preparations for the eventual next step: learning to read on one’s own.

If one grows up with books, if one has books in his/her life from the very beginning, which is what we all advocate, then reading is the natural progression; the lovely, extraordinary movement forward.

•   •   •

Charlotte Rainsford, one of the characters in Penelope Lively’s newest novel, How It All Began, is a lover of books. She needs them. Lively describes beautifully the importance of books in Charlotte’s life:

Forever, reading has been central, the necessary fix, the support system. Her life has been informed by reading. She has read not just for distraction, sustenance, to pass the time, but she has read in a state of primal innocence, reading for enlightenment, for instruction, even…She has read to find out if things are the same for others as they are for her—then, discovering that frequently they are not, she has read to find out what it is that other people experience that she is missing…She read to discover how not to be Charlotte, how to escape the prison of her own mind, how to expand, and experience. She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without them.

“Built by books.”

I love this phrase. I am “built by books.” I believe in being “built by books.” So does the writer Anne Fadiman — both figuratively and literally. She begins her essay “My Ancestral Castles” like this:

When I was four, I liked to build castles with my father’s pocket-sized, twenty-two-volume set of Trollope. My brother and I had a set of wooden blocks as well, but the Trollopes were superior: midnight blue, proportioned to fit a child’s hand, and, because they were so much thinner than they were tall, perfect, as cards are, for constructing gates and drawbridges. I own them now…I can think of few better ways to introduce a child to books than to let her stack them, upend them, rearrange them, and get her fingerprints all over them.

I read the Fadiman essay when my kids were little (they’re now nineteen and seventeen), and it freed me. It gave me permission to let them use our substantial The Riverside Shakespeare and our two volumes of The Norton Anthology of English Literature as parts of grand constructions with blocks, Tinkertoys, and plastic animals.

I had a fairly large collection of children’s books long before I became a parent. It was something of a struggle to give up my collection when our first child was born. My books were in nearly perfect condition, and I knew that if I moved them from “my bookshelves” to the “family bookshelves,” their condition would take a nosedive.

They did, of course, but it was worth it. I reclaimed the books as they were outgrown. Jackets were often gone. Pages had been ripped. Bindings had been strained and stained. But the books had done what they were meant to do. They’d helped my children to be built by books.

I was one of those parents who read to his kids in utero. Books were a huge part of my family’s daily life from the very start. And I remember with great fondness when both of my kids began to read. To see the process unfold was glorious and mysterious.

•   •   •

Watching them fall in love with books for beginning readers was pure joy for me. And it was different than their continuing love for picture books. This kind of love was new, and their sense of ownership was obvious.

It’s strange, though; it seems as if books for beginning readers are thought of as less — less grand than picture books, less important than novels. This seems wrong to me.

Before I became a parent, I’d long admired books for beginning readers. Sitting on my shelf of favorites were, among others: Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik and Maurice Sendak; Uncle Elephant and Owl at Home by Arnold Lobel; and Cynthia Rylant’s Henry and Mudge. Read these books, and it’s clear that a book for a beginning reader can be an example of artistic excellence and have emotional depth and a lasting influence.

A book for a beginning reader can be just as grand as a picture book, just as important as a novel. Listen to this:

Mother and Father
went for a sail
in their boat.
I could not go with them.
I had a runny trunk
and a sore throat.
I went home to bed.
There was a storm.
The boat did not come back.
Mother and Father
were missing at sea.
I was alone.
I sat in my room
with the curtains closed.

This is the opening passage of Lobel’s Uncle Elephant. I find Uncle Elephant to be one of the most haunting and pleasantly melancholy books that exists. It is also a joyful, playful celebration of family ties that ends with an understated reunion, and then an expert, wistful fillip — the closing of a door. Like life itself, it encompasses a wide range of emotions and moods — and it does so without losing sight of its intended audience, and it never condescends. It is grand and important.

Uncle Elephant became a benchmark for me. I remember thinking, long ago, that if I ever wrote and illustrated a beginning reader, I’d want it to be just as simple and rich and complete. I’d also want it to be as enchanting as Little Bear, with its lovely, masterful repetition that, with multiple readings, becomes a familiar echo. I’d want it to be as deeply felt as Henry and Mudge. Despite the brevity of the text, Henry’s familial relationships are so very real.

The other family I was drawn to was Eve Rice’s Brimbles. I fell in love with Mr. Brimble’s Hobby when my son did. For me, the Brimbles represent the binding power of common, quirky family love. And the book is funny and charming, too.

Each of these books makes me feel human, makes me feel alive.

•   •   •

Even though the thought of trying my hand at books for beginning readers had been on the edges of my mind for many years, it wasn’t until my editor, Virginia Duncan, suggested it that I actually attempted it.

That first attempt was Penny and Her Song. Penny and Her Doll and Penny and Her Marble soon followed.

henkes penny and her song Grand and Important: Books for Beginning Readers     penny and her doll Grand and Important: Books for Beginning Readers     henkes pennymarble 218x300 Grand and Important: Books for Beginning Readers

I wrote the words for all three of the books before I did any of the pictures. I’d never worked this way before. I’d always written a book, illustrated it, and moved on. But this was a different kind of project for me from the start. My publisher wanted at least three books, but I would not sign a multiple-book contract, nor take any money, until I had all three books written to everyone’s satisfaction.

Doing this — working this way — made the books stronger as a group. Each book builds on the one before it, and in different ways. For example, each is longer than its predecessor. The books developed so that the first has two chapters, the second has three, and there are four chapters in the third book.

Penny and Her Song takes place in Penny’s house. Penny and Her Doll takes place in her house and in her yard. And in Penny and Her Marble the setting is stretched even farther — Penny explores the neighborhood a bit.

The first book is about something that is Penny’s: her song. The second is about something given to her: a doll. And the third is about something she takes: a marble.

Penny’s world expands with each book. Her parents and siblings are introduced in the first book. Her grandmother is introduced in the second and plays a role off-camera. And a neighbor is introduced in the third. The doll that appears in the second book is an obvious and important part of Penny’s life in the third.

These choices are deliberate. This “invisible” part of book making is a part of my job I love deeply.

Although I had the child just starting to read on his/her own in mind while I worked, I did not use a vocabulary list, nor did I follow any rigid rules. I trusted my instincts as a writer and illustrator. I also thought back to the days when my own children were learning to read.

Rather than have several small episodes in each book, I wanted each book to be one story separated into very short chapters. This decision was based in part on my son’s experience as a new reader. If he read a chapter in a book—even if it was just a page or two — he’d shriek: “Mamma! Papa! I read a chapter!” Remembering his joy influenced my decision making, the structure of the books.

Repetition, rhythm, and clarity were important to me as I wrote the Penny books. This is no different than when I work on a picture book, or a novel for that matter. But with these books I paid so much attention to the balance of words and pictures per page, to the placement of the folios, to the line lengths, and to the space between the lines.

I did a lot of fine-tuning, too, throughout the dummy stage, more than usual: moving a phrase or a sentence to the next page or to the previous one, moving a word to the next line.

Some days I felt as if I were working a crossword puzzle. Some days I felt as if I were learning to read all over again.

My mantras were: Less is more and God is in the details.

And I tried to keep in mind the wise words of Verlyn Klinkenborg, the writer and former New York Times editorial board member. He writes, “Say more than you thought you knew how to say / In sentences better than you ever imagined / For the reader who reads between the lines.”

And yes, I do think that even someone just beginning to read can read between the lines.

People often ask about the inspiration behind a book. Where did the story come from? Although I wrote the Penny books “together,” each has its own, very different starting point.

The roots of Penny and Her Song go back nearly thirty years. Susan Hirschman, my first editor, rejected a picture book dummy of mine called Lulu’s Melody in March 1985.

Lulu was an elephant. When she came home from school with a melody, her baby siblings were sleeping. Lulu had to wait to share her melody or the babies would wake up. Sound familiar? The bones were there, but it wasn’t good enough. I was young, learning my craft. Susan thought it was “a bit too cute and that it telescoped its point too quickly and too obviously.”

She was right. But I always thought it might become something else, something better, something worth publishing. And it did.

Fast-forward many years — Lulu became a mouse named Penny.

The song from Penny and Her Song was written in New York City, the place that inspires me more than any other. In the first few drafts I intentionally did not write and include the words to the song. I was torn as to whether to include words or not. I knew that if I did include them, they would have to be very simple and childlike. Exactly right. I didn’t know if I could pull it off.

But then, on a very rainy day in New York, spent with Susan, the song popped into my head like magic. This kind of thing rarely happens to me. I repeated it first in my head and then aloud with Susan until we got back to her apartment, soaked to the skin, and I could quickly write it down. The song goes like this:

One is nice, two is nice,
Three is even better.
Four is nice, five is nice,
Six in rain is wetter.
Seven is nice, eight is nice,
Nine is almost best.
But ten is even bigger,
And is better than the rest.

Now, if I’m with Susan and it’s raining, we look at each other and say, “Six.” Or, if we’re talking on the phone, Susan might ask, “Is it a six in Wisconsin today?”

Penny and Her Doll, oddly enough, came to be because of a kitten. My family was on a long car trip in Oregon. We had many hours to go to get to our destination. The kids were small and restless. We were to be getting a kitten on our return home from this vacation, and so my wife suggested the kids spend some time coming up with a name for the kitten. Of course, our daughter rejected all the names our son suggested, and he did the same for hers. But it did help the time pass, and it did make me think how important naming things is—and wouldn’t that be a good idea for a book? Naming something. Hence, many years later: Penny and Her Doll. In the book, Penny receives a doll in the mail from her grandmother and struggles to find a name that is exactly right.

Speaking of names, the name Penny had been in my name bullpen since about 1987. When I was working on my picture book Chester’s Way, I toyed with the idea of calling Chester’s and Wilson’s new friend Penny. I ended up going with Lilly — and now, frankly, I cannot remember why I chose the way I did.

But Penny, the name, stayed with me over the years and was often a candidate when I was working on a new book, including novels. Alice Rice, the heroine of my novel Junonia had a brief stint as Penny during my prewriting, note-taking stage.

Often it’s a name’s origins that attracts me to it — where it comes from and what it means. But other times, it’s simply the way a name looks and sounds, and the personal connotations it holds, that win me over.

The word Penny, in type, is lovely. I particularly like the way the descender of the lowercase y echoes or mirrors the height of the capital P, forming bookends of a sort. Between them, the rounded tops of the two ns and the curve of the e look like three small hills.

In short, Penny is nice to look at and nice to say — and I think it’s fairly easy to read, to sound out.

An added bonus about the name is that, for me, it evokes a happy feeling. It makes me think: lucky penny, shiny, good. After all these years it was satisfying to find a book-home for one of my favorite names.

Virginia once described Penny and Her Marble as a perfect little novel — and that makes me happy. Penny and Her Marble is the closest to my heart of the three, and yet its roots go back the furthest. (Or maybe that’s why it is the closest to my heart.)

When I was about five years old, I took a plastic medallion from my neighbor’s crayon box. My neighbor was a year younger than I. She liked to draw as much as I did. Her name was Karen. She had a shoebox full of crayons.

We were drawing together on her porch on this particular summer day. While searching for the color I needed, I discovered the wondrous coinlike object. It had a K on it. I’d never seen anything with my initial on it before. And I wanted it badly.

I slipped it into my pocket and took it home. I told no one. The guilt nearly killed me. After a fitful night, I returned it secretly. The relief was extraordinary. Forty-some years later, the experience gave me a book.

That’s the way it is with books, in general. Bits and pieces of life mix with other, imagined bits and pieces to form something new. When a book is completed — published and making its way in the world — it’s difficult to remember precisely all the stages that led to the finished product. Sometimes, I’ll look back at a book of mine and think: how did this happen?

I tried today to explain as best I could “how this happened.” Creativity is difficult to understand, much less make clear to someone else.

When a book is finished and I’ve had time to think about it and I’ve begun to talk about it, it might seem as though I’d had a concrete idea of how it all was supposed to be — that there was a straight line from the idea to the printed page. But that’s not the case. Sometimes, I even surprise myself by discovering things — symbols, layers of meaning, references — that I’d forgotten about or that I hadn’t consciously known I’d put into place.

The craft of writing is as mysterious to me now as it was thirty-some years ago when I began my career. And I have a feeling that that will never change.

•   •   •

Late last year, I’d been feeling a bit down about Penny and Her Marble. In November a piece of art from the book was stolen from the Society of Illustrators’ annual children’s book show in New York. I’ve never sold art from any of my books, so the sting of the theft seemed particularly sharp. For a while I hoped that life would imitate art and that whoever had taken the illustration would read the book from whence it came, feel remorse as Penny does, and return it safely. No such luck.

But I reminded myself that, in our business, the real art is the printed product, the bound book that goes out into the world in multiples, not the original art that sits in boxes in my studio. I told myself that thousands of copies of Penny and Her Marble were in libraries and schools and bookstores and homes, and none was missing an illustration.

The more I focused on this fact, the easier it was to let my attachment to the illustration go. It didn’t bring the original art back, but it did lighten my dark mood.

It wasn’t the happy ending I’d hoped for, but it was okay. The endings of my Penny books are much happier. But I was in control of those. And although they’re happy endings, I think they’re earned: Penny learns patience and self-control; she solves a naming problem; and she works through feelings of guilt. She does so all on her own. This was important to me — that she do these things on her own. It seemed particularly fitting in books intended for kids learning to read on their own.

Learning to read by oneself, becoming “built by books” — now that’s a very happy ending. Or rather — a very happy beginning.

And we know how to set it in motion.

Take a child, take a book, and bring them together.

It’s relatively easy, but it’s grand and important.


For more on the 2014 Fostering Lifelong Learners Conference see SLJ’s coverage of the event.

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Week in Review, September 22nd-26th http://www.hbook.com/2014/09/news/week-review-september-22nd-26th/ http://www.hbook.com/2014/09/news/week-review-september-22nd-26th/#respond Fri, 26 Sep 2014 20:42:12 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=41288 This week on hbook.com… The Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards ceremony and Mind the Gaps: Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium are coming up soon — register now to attend both! This week we celebrated our winners and honorees with roundups of web extras: Nonfiction: winner Steve Sheinkin (The Port Chicago 50); honorees Steve Jenkins (The Animal […]

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This week on hbook.com…

The Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards ceremony and Mind the Gaps: Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium are coming up soon — register now to attend both! This week we celebrated our winners and honorees with roundups of web extras:

  • Nonfiction: winner Steve Sheinkin (The Port Chicago 50); honorees Steve Jenkins (The Animal Book) and Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian Robinson (Josephine)
  • Fiction: Andrew Smith (Grasshopper Jungle); honorees Elizabeth Wein (Rose Under Fire) and Gene Luen Yang (Boxer & Saints)
  • Picture Book: winner Peter Brown (Mr. Tiger Goes Wild); honorees Shaun Tan (Rules of Summer) and Daniel Beaty and Bryan Collier (Knock Knock)

September’s Nonfiction Notes: recommended nonfiction about animals, disasters, performing artists, careers and community helpers, and after-school activities

The Maze Runner movie review

Reviews of the Week:

Read Roger:

Out of the Box:

Calling Caldecott:

Lolly’s Classroom:

September children’s literature events

See overviews of previous weeks by clicking the tag week in review. Follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook to keep up-to-date on our articles!

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Early Learning recap http://www.hbook.com/2014/09/blogs/read-roger/early-learning-recap/ http://www.hbook.com/2014/09/blogs/read-roger/early-learning-recap/#comments Fri, 26 Sep 2014 19:57:41 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=41290 SLJ has posted a report of Martha and my presentation in Ohio last week of what makes  for a good preschool book. Look for Kevin Henkes’ excellent speech from that event on our site on Monday.

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photo by Carolyn Sun

SLJ has posted a report of Martha and my presentation in Ohio last week of what makes  for a good preschool book. Look for Kevin Henkes’ excellent speech from that event on our site on Monday.

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