V O L U M E I , N U M B E R 4 • J U N E 2 0 0 8
In this issue
Masthead art © by William Steig, used with permission of Pippin Properties, Inc.
Possibly the most beloved literary childcare provider since Mary Poppins, Rottweiler Carl, first introduced in Good Dog, Carl in 1985, is back for his latest picture book. In Carl’s Summer Vacation, he and Madeleine (who’s grown from baby to toddler in the course of the books) slip away for a little summer fun. In addition, six of their previous adventures have recently been compiled in a handsome omnibus volume, You’re a Good Dog, Carl. We decided it was a good time to catch up with Carl’s amanuensis, author and illustrator Alexandra Day.
1. How's Carl doing?
Carl is alive and well, in both of his manifestations. In his literary form, he is about to share his recent summer adventures with readers in Carl’s Summer Vacation. In his flesh-and-blood form, he is an important and much-loved member of our family who has the job of meeting children, visiting hospitals, and, this year, accompanying me to Book Expo to help sign books and generally socialize — a job at which he excels. Currently he has the job of posing for the next Carl book, which I am working on at the moment.
2. What particular challenges does (almost) wordless storytelling involve?
Because I am primarily a painter, I tend to think visually, so telling a story with pictures is natural to me. However, it does mean that the book must be carefully planned. I think of it cinematically — how the action moves from page to page, where to use “close-ups” and “long shots,” consistent lighting, etc. Since pictures don’t really have motion, however, I need to work out which still moments will communicate the action I wish to convey. I also feel it is both my pleasure and my duty to make every page as good a painting as I can.
3. Your pictures demand (and reward) careful looking. How do you keep a child's attention?
The children and I are not so different in that respect. I like to be entertained while I am painting, so I put in lots of details (and sometimes little jokes) for my benefit as well as for my readers’. I also feel that the more complete the picture is, the more convincing is the reality of Carl’s sometimes amazingly cogent actions.
4. As a parent, what did you look for in a babysitter?
Much the same thing that Carl exhibits: guardianship, responsibility, a sense of play, and inventiveness. I did, however, find that human babysitters had considerable advantages — like hands. Food preparation, for example, really needs some manual dexterity, to say nothing of hygiene. And for children past the age of two, language is really useful.
5. Which are you: the dog or the baby?
I’m neither; I’m the person to whom the adventures were related, and whose responsibility it is to turn them into books. I do always try to be true to my narrator by keeping my point of view low, at the level of dogs and children. This involves a certain amount of study at a somewhat back-breaking angle, but I believe that it makes children feel part of the action and even helps adults remember what it was like to be two or three feet high.
Another dog that knows his own mind is Bingo, in Laura McGee Kvasnosky’s Really Truly Bingo. With her mother too busy to play, young Bea is at loose ends and is more than delighted when a talking dog shows up to conspire in all kinds of mischief: forbidden digging in the garden, between-meal snacks, romping in the sprinkler. Despite evidence to the contrary, Bea’s mother is far too wise to call Bingo an imaginary friend. (3–6 years)
Owney, a stray terrier mix who was adopted by the Albany, New York, post office in 1888, was indisputably real — in fact, his taxidermied remains are on display at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. In Owney, the Mail-Pouch Pooch, writer Mona Kerby and illustrator Lynne Barasch retell the saga of Owney, who had an indefatigable liking for travel, hopping into a mail pouch and going along for whatever ride might be in store — ultimately going around the world. (4–8 years)
Matthew J. Baek’s Be Gentle with the Dog, Dear! is not only great fun for younger children, it’s a perfect baby shower present for the dog-owner in your life expecting a new arrival of the human persuasion. Elisa is a “precious baby,” at least to her parents, but on-the-scene-first Tag is not so sure. When the baby squeezes him and pulls his tail, he knows it’s because she loves him, “but the truth is . . . he’s miserable.” A well-placed growl (and subsequent wail) do the trick, leading Tag and Elisa to a new mutual understanding in this book that is both instructive and funny. (3–6 years)
If it’s ponies rather than pups that light up your life, try Susan Jeffers’s My Chincoteague Pony, a sumptuously pink picture book that answers the prayers of the young horse- and pony-crazed. Julie has been assiduously earning and saving money to buy her own pony at Chincoteague Island’s annual auction. Once there, she sets her heart on a little black-and-white filly, but the price is bid too high. Not to worry, Julie’s dream comes true. Considering the expectations this book is going to raise among girls all over, it ought to be labeled with a parental advisory! (4–8 years)
Ted and Betsy Lewin’s Horse Song: The Naadam of Mongolia is a more robust affair, recounting in words and pictures the Lewins’ joining the festivities at an annual Mongolian celebration — the Naadam — in which horse-racing plays a great part. They focus their account on Tamir, a nine-year-old (fictionalized) boy who jockeys a stallion in a big race. He wins, an outcome that will satisfy anyone whose heart pounds at the thought of a race. (6–9 years)
Three new books address a few of today’s most compelling subjects: the war in Iraq, the conflict between civil liberties and national security, and climate change. Walter Dean Myers, the prolific and highly acclaimed young-adult author, has written a companion volume to his 1988 Vietnam War novel Fallen Angels. In Sunrise over Fallujah, Robin Perry (nephew of Fallen Angels’s hero Richie) joins the army “to stand up for my country” and is deployed to Iraq in February 2003. During his tour of duty, he struggles to understand the hard truths of war and to make sense of his life in an unimaginable context. The tone is personal rather than political, making the hard-hitting story both accessible and universal. (12 years and up)
Partly an homage to Orwell’s 1984, Cory Doctorow’s hip, edgy Little Brother has that classic’s nightmarish sense of immediacy and envelope-pushing relevance, and it adds its own modern-day twists and horrors. Marcus, a rule-bending but generally benign teenage hacker living in San Francisco, is detained and interrogated by the Department of Homeland Security after a terrorist attack leaves him under (unwarranted) suspicion. Released to find that his beloved San Francisco has become a virtual police state of surveillance and paranoia, he makes it his mission to render the new privacy-invading laws useless — until he is re-arrested and, finally, tortured. Doctorow has a thorough grasp of hacker counterculture (jargon, challenges, amusements), and his book radiates authenticity — and urgency. (14 years and up)
And for a younger crowd (and with a far more optimistic tone), there’s Lynne Cherry and Gary Braasch’s How We Know What We Know about Our Changing Climate. Cherry and Braasch walk readers through the scientific method, explaining how observation and experimentation can illuminate the world around us. The fascinating case studies of manifest climate change include bird and butterfly migration, cloud forest amphibians, and the tundra food chain. Focusing on the science — and not the politics or the peril — lessens the worry inherent in the subject. The authors smartly play up the wondrous diversity of a world worth saving — and convince readers that science has the power to do so. (9–12 years)
—Claire E. Gross
Jeanne Birdsall won the 2005 National Book Award for The Penderwicks, an old-fashioned but slyly modern story about four sisters and their widowed father. It’s a great summer read, as is the new sequel, The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, in which the sisters ally to stop a disaster: Dad dating. (9–12 years)
Percy Jackson and his fellow half-bloods are back for The Battle of the Labyrinth, fourth in Rick Riordan’s action-packed series that brings classical mythology to contemporary life. In this round, Percy (whose father is Poseidon) survives an attack from vampiric empousai disguised as cheerleaders before undertaking a perilous journey into the Labyrinth. (10–14 years)
For her 2007 novel The New Policeman, Kate Thompson reached deep into the mythology — and music — of Ireland for her motifs, but the story was completely fresh, as is the sequel, The Last of the High Kings. The intersection of the human and mythological worlds is a far more serious business here than in the Percy Jackson books: although Thompson can be plenty funny, she pays close attention to the consequences of magic and immortality. (10–14 years)
Want some prep for those parades and fireworks? Self-proclaimed recovering textbook author Steve Sheinkin shakes off curriculum restrictions in his entertaining new book, King George: What Was His Problem?, an engaging account of the people and events surrounding America's war for independence. This user-friendly introduction eases readers into the subject with a step-by-step “How to Start a Revolution” list (“Step 1: Kick Out the French”), lots of black-and-white cartoon drawings and maps, and a lively, irreverent tone that’s hard to resist. (10–14 years)
What a difference 100 years makes in Franco-American relations! (See above.) Chronicling the events surrounding the construction of the Statue of Liberty, a centennial gift from France to the United States, Lady Liberty: A Biography is an inspiring homage to some of the individuals who helped make a French law professor’s dream a reality. Author Doreen Rappaport views the monument from a variety of perspectives in fictional first-person vignettes that introduce key players as well as unsung heroes. Matt Tavares’s stirring illustrations are both intimate and expansive, including a surprise vertical foldout of the completed Lady. Together, text and art celebrate this iconic symbol of American ideals. (7–12 years)
You can bet that this Fourth of July the 2008 presidential candidates will be out making speeches and kissing babies. Those politicians could learn a thing or two from the dogs at Barkadelphia School. In Rosemary Wells’s Otto Runs for President, kindhearted pup Otto runs a successful underdog campaign against popular Tiffany (a poodle) and star athlete Charles (a bulldog). The campaign coverage is thorough — from money and smear tactics to what the people, or pups, really want. (4–8 years)
Q: Birthday parties are the bane of my existence, especially when I know nothing about the birthday boy. Are there any surefire gift books (under $15, please!) for eight- to ten-year-old boys? —Gay P., Teaneck, New Jersey
A: In an ideal world, you’ve got a good bookstore nearby with an attentive staff who can tell you what the next big thing among boys is going to be. Failing that, and assuming you have an eight-to-ten-year-old of your own who’ll be attending said party, ask him or her for tips. And, nobody ever turned down a smartly presented gift certificate, perhaps packaged with a novelty reading light or rubber stamp, from your favorite bookstore. —R.S.
Q: When I go to the public library with my mother, she often chides me for looking in the children's section. I correct her, saying I'm looking for young adult fiction, not children's books. I'm only eighteen — do you think my mother is right to suggest I'm too old for the likes of Eoin Colfer and Caroline Cooney? —Sarah H., Florissant, Missouri
A: No, I don't, says he who has been faithfully keeping up with the misadventures of Alice McKinley since Phyllis Reynolds Naylor published The Agony of Alice in 1985 when I was twenty-nine. At eighteen — at eight, for that matter — you’re old enough to read whatever you want to. The line between adult books and young adult books has always been blurry: what’s adult in one era becomes YA in another (The Catcher in the Rye, for example), what’s published as adult in one country becomes YA in another (The Book Thief). I bet your mother could find books she liked in the children’s or YA section, too — why not invite her along to browse? —R.S.
Send your questions to email@example.com.
I hope the demands of the ever more prevalent summer required-reading list don’t put a crimp on participation in the summer reading clubs and games sponsored by public libraries nationwide. These programs, generally free of charge and blissfully unstructured, offer a combination of recreation, socialization, and reading for pleasure that will do far more good for a child than anything he or she reads “because I have to.” For bookish kids, these clubs offer an easy and too-rare way to shine among their peers; and nonreaders who are in the game strictly for the prizes and refreshments will at least learn their way around a library. Many libraries offer variations on the club to allow participation online or on vacation. See what’s going on in your town.
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