V O L U M E   I ,   N U M B E R  2  •    A P R I L   2 0 0 8





In this issue

Masthead art © by William Steig, used with permission of Pippin Properties, Inc.

Baseball books

Just in time for Opening Day, we pitch some books for fans.

Linda Sue Park won the 2002 Newbery Medal for A Single Shard; her latest historical novel is Keeping Score (Clarion Books), set in early-1950s Brooklyn. Ten-year-old Maggie is a diehard Dodgers fan whose devotion becomes even more intense when she learns the system of scoring baseball games from a new friend, a firefighter at her father’s station. Then Jim is drafted and sent to Korea. When he returns, physically uninjured but psychically scarred, Maggie tries desperately — through baseball and their shared passion for keeping score — to help him. It’s a novel that will tug on kids’ heartstrings while also gently challenging them to ponder the nature of friendship, the costs of war, and the power and necessity of hope. (9–12 years)

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball (Jump at the Sun/Hyperion) is by hugely talented illustrator Kadir Nelson. “Negro baseball was fast! Flashy! Daring! . . . always very exciting to watch.” In nine “innings,” an unnamed narrator settles in to tell us, as intimately as if we were sitting beside him in the bleachers, the story of the Negro Leagues — the stars, the glories and hardships, the way it changed the game. Nelson’s sumptuously illustrated, oversized picture book gives these giants of early baseball their (over)due. (9 years and up)

As a character in Keeping Score says, “[Baseball is] like a — a country or somethin’ . . . A place where everybody’s crazy about the same thing,” and baseball books for children reflect the diversity of that country. Ken Mochizuki and Dom Lee’s haunting picture book Baseball Saved Us (Lee & Low, 6–9 years) is the story of young Japanese American Shorty, imprisoned in a desert internment camp during WWII, who channels his anger and frustration into playing baseball. Another historical picture book, Baseball Bats for Christmas (Annick Press, 6–9 years) by Michael Kusugak, takes place in an Inuit community on the (treeless) Arctic Circle. When a well-intentioned pilot makes an unexplained drop of Christmas trees, Arvaarluk and his friends decide that, with a little trimming, the perplexing “stand ups” would make excellent baseball bats.

For just plain fun, there’s Ken Roberts’s chapter book Thumb on a Diamond (Groundwood, 7–10 years), in which contemporary kids who have never played baseball in their lives (their tiny town is perched between mountain and sea, with no open space) enter a major tournament — and almost win. Fans twelve and up might enjoy Will Weaver’s absorbing trilogy about Billy Baggs (Striking Out, Farm Team, and Hard Ball, all HarperCollins), a Minnesota farm kid who plays despite the complications of school, work, and family. Finally, for a solid, nuts-and-bolts overview of the history, mechanics, and lore of our national pastime, check out Lawrence S. Ritter’s classic The Story of Baseball (HarperCollins, 8–12 years).  

—Martha V. Parravano

Family reading

Some books are meant to be read alone, but some are made for sharing. Here are three new books great for parents and children to read together.

Kids may not like going to the doctor, but they sure like pretending to be one. In Doctor Ted (McElderry), written by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by Pascal Lemaitre, a young bear makes the rounds in the school cafeteria, medical bag at the ready. He takes temperatures, checks blood pressure, and dispenses “fine medical advice” involving the prescribed intake of cookies — until Principal Bigham shuts down the practice. The next day a playground accident sends Bigham into a tizzy (“call an ambulance . . . call the library! JUST CALL SOMEBODY!”), but Doctor Ted saves the day. Lemaitre’s cheerful, Easter-egg-colored art is a healthy match for Beaty’s upbeat tale. Read this one aloud, then get out the Band-Aids and plastic stethoscopes — and don’t forget the cookies. (3–6 years)

Rachel Isadora gives a familiar tale an African setting in her retelling of The Fisherman and His Wife (Putnam). When a man throws back a flounder who claims to be a prince, his wife insists the fish grant them a wish. Her increasing greed takes them from hut to castle, from kingdom to popedom. Kids will revel in the wife’s delightfully appalling wickedness, and both art and text raise the tension with each page turn, making this an attention-getting, attention-keeping read-aloud. Fill a box with colorful paper and fabric scraps, because Isadora’s collage art will have kids itching to get their hands on scissors and glue. (4–8 years)

One Voice, Please: Favorite Read-Aloud Stories (Candlewick) is Sam McBratney’s collection of fifty-six short tales meant for sharing aloud. Russell Ayto’s spare drawings reflect the humor and wit of this diverse selection of fables, cautionary tales, and stories where the good guys win. Succinct and cleverly retold, these short stories can be shared with a wide range of ages. My seven-year-old needed occasional help to get the joke or clever ending, but once she did, she was hooked and insisted on hearing it again. If you open the book at bedtime, as I did, just be sure to set a time limit — both grownups and kids will find it hard to stop reading these surprising and entertaining tales. (7 years and up)  

—Jennifer M. Brabander

Five questions for Françoise Mouly

Françoise Mouly, co-founder (with Art Spiegelman) of RAW magazine and art editor of The New Yorker since 1993, has a new venture. TOON Books debuts this spring with three books: Benny and Penny in Just Pretend by Geoffrey Hayes, Silly Lilly and the Four Seasons by Agnès Rosenstiehl, and Otto’s Orange Day by Frank Cammuso and Jay Lynch. But are they picture books? Comic books? Easy readers? Françoise explains below.

1. What’s the difference between TOON books and a) regular comic books and b) regular easy-to-read books?

The artistic and literary qualities that we hope are at the core of the TOON Books are often lacking in standard easy-to-read books, which tend to be made with good intentions but little creative impulse. How is a child going to learn to read if she is presented with books that offer none of the pleasures of reading?

I’m not sure exactly what a “regular” comic book is, but, since the phrase can seem pejorative to the uninitiated, I’d point out that TOON Books are more durably bound in the hope of being re-read often. They came from the realization that — as my husband, Art Spiegelman, puts it — comics are a gateway drug to literacy.

2. What’s the difference between a comic book and a picture book?

Both have pictures, but the similarities end there. Comic books offer a visual narrative, with words as only one of the elements intertwined with the pictures. The visual narrative in a comic book helps kids crack the code of literacy, teaching them how to read from left to right, from top to bottom. Speech balloons facilitate a child’s understanding of written dialogue as a transcription of spoken language. In a sense, comics are similar to face-to-face interaction. Comics blend words, images, and facial expressions with panel-to-panel progression, sound effects, and even shifts in type size to engage readers and propel the story. Many of the issues that emerging readers have traditionally struggled with are instantly clarified by comics’ simple and inviting format.

3. Do you think children need to learn how to read a comic book?

A child entering school encounters an enormous shift in how to learn. Up to that point, he has been able to grasp and make sense of the world in an intuitive way, but when he is learning to read, he has to proceed in a non-intuitive, narrower, more linear fashion, in a way that doesn’t reward trial and error. A five- or six-year-old child is, visually, very literate. No parent or teacher has ever had to teach him or her how to find Waldo (which is a blessing!). While we are all decrying the loss of reading ability, maybe we should also be celebrating the advent of a new kind of visual literacy, where our kids are way ahead of us in computer skills and video games, learning new skills every day at an amazing pace. Yet for me, there’s one essential difference between a child downloading a video from YouTube and a child reading a book: when a child reads a book, he has control over the medium. He gets to turn the pages, reread parts that he likes, and he is making the story happen in his head. He experiences the firsthand pleasures of reading.

I took our books to schools and read them with first and second graders. The kids recognized the visual style as akin to Saturday morning animations and immediately felt that the books were for them. Young boys were especially thrilled, because they perceive comics as a “big boy” medium.

4. Do you worry that the child-centered nature of comics is being lost, that they are one more over-commodified thing targeted at young consumers?

Roger, you are teasing me here. You know I have spent my whole adult life arguing that comics as a medium can produce works of art and literature just like any other medium. But, all kidding aside, it seems true that, as the medium grew up, kids got left behind. So that’s precisely why, after saying for decades: “Comics, they are not just for kids anymore,” Art and I are now saying, “Comics, they are not just for adults anymore.”

5. What do you hope TOON books will do?

TOON books should convince any skeptics left in the house that comics can open a child’s eyes to reading’s wonders. My husband and I both developed our love of literature through comics. So did our kids. Now we want to share that pleasure with a new generation.  

Books you’ve been waiting for

Philip Pullman says he is writing “a big, big book” as companion to The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, but until it gets here, fans can tuck in with Once upon a Time in the North (Fickling/Knopf), a hundred-page novella about an incident in the pre-Compass life of “Lee Scoresby, aeronaut for hire.” Those who know Pullman’s versatility will not be surprised it’s a Western — with daemons and armored bears, of course. (12 years and up)

In The Pigeon Wants a Puppy! (Hyperion), Mo Willems’s sixth book starring the impulsive goggle-eyed bird, the Pigeon pleads his case for a pet. Directly addressing his audience (“do you know what I want?”), the Pigeon gives kids an active role and lets them play the grownup: It will be clear even to the youngest that this “puppy-lovin’ pigeon” doesn’t know the first thing about pet care or actual puppies. The interactive story and energetically caricatured illustrations are hard to resist — as is the Pigeon himself. (3–6 years)  

Is your child too mature for Junie B. Jones but already finished with the Ramona books? (Really, though: is one ever finished with the Ramona books?) Then make the acquaintance of Sara Pennypacker and Marla Frazee’s Clementine, now in her third outing, Clementine’s Letter (Hyperion). Clementine’s beloved (and very patient) third-grade teacher Mr. D’Matz has a chance at a fellowship that will take him to Egypt for the remainder of the school year, but the way Clementine sees it, he’s breaking a promise. And Clementine being Clementine, she’ll stop at nothing to blow his chances. She’s no role model, but she is awfully diverting. (6–9 years)

Ask the Horn Book

Q: What are the essential books that children should read?  —Debbie Dogma, Manchester, CT

A: What’s most essential, I think, is that children should read what they love. Or love what they read. But if you’re interested in exposing your children to the classics of children’s literature, have a look at the Horn Book’s “Children’s Classics,” an annotated list of landmarks in children’s literature, from The ABC Bunny to A Wizard of Earthsea, available on our website.  —R.S.  

Q: How does the Horn Book decide which books to review?  —J. Wakefield, Sweet Valley, CA

A: Between The Horn Book Magazine and The Horn Book Guide, we review virtually all new hardcover trade books from established U.S. publishers for children — about 5000 books a year. The Guide provides short reviews of each; the Magazine reviews the cream of that crop, as determined by its editors in consultation with the reviewing staff of writers, teachers, and librarians (many of them also parents). Deciding just what constitutes cream is a fluid process: the editors read a lot and assign books to reviewers for more reading, opinions are exchanged, comparisons made, a book might informally be “tried out” with a child. What the Magazine is looking for are books that are aesthetically unique and satisfying, likely to be a durable contribution to literature for youth, and have an audience — small or large, but rewarded — of young readers.   —R.S.

Q: Our eight-year-old son is required by his teacher to read aloud for twenty minutes each night, and it’s a struggle to find books for him. He doesn’t see much point in anything that has a straight social storyline. It must be either funny or exciting, and not too hard. He loves Captain Underpants. Any suggestions?  —B. Staiger, Hanover, NH

A: Series are good for and popular with new readers because the repeated elements and characters supply reinforcement and thus confidence. Jon Scieszka’s Time Warp Trio series, published by Viking, is goofy and action-packed; Erik P. Kraft’s Lenny and Mel books (Simon & Schuster) have a wise-guy humor many boys enjoy. Suzy Kline’s short novels about Herbie Jones (Putnam) and “Horrible” Harry (Viking) show the humor and drama in classroom and family life. In Jeff Kinney’s popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid and its recent sequel, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (both Amulet/Abrams), boy humor, funny and plentiful pictures, and a diary format make the pages practically turn themselves. Don’t forget nonfiction, either — many boys prefer it but don’t think it counts as “real reading.” It does.  —R.S.

Send your questions to newsletter@hbook.com.

From the Editor

We’ve been very pleased with the reception to Notes from the Horn Book and hope you’ve enjoyed this second issue. Please remember that there is a wealth of further information about children’s books on our website; I’d like particularly to point you to the series of booklists compiled by Assistant Editor Claire Gross. Her briefly annotated lists are wide-ranging, on topics including fantasy, sports books, comics, and pets, should any of this month’s subjects spur you to further inquiry. All titles included are recommended by the Horn Book, and you are welcome to copy these lists for use in your home, school, or library.  

Stay tuned for next month’s issue, where we’ll bring you the latest on old friends and new titles; we also take your questions (do send them in) and pose a few of our own to Mary Downing Hahn, master of the juvenile gothic.

Roger Sutton
Editor in Chief

Horn Book website

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