V O L U M E I , N U M B E R 3 • M A Y 2 0 0 8
In this issue
Masthead art © by William Steig, used with permission of Pippin Properties, Inc.
The simple addition of a sibling to the nest is a boon to a plot as well as a family. Just as Beezus needs Ramona and Hansel needs Gretel, Rosemary Wells’s Ruby would be nowhere without her baby brother Max. It’s an equitable arrangement: Ruby needs someone to push around, Max needs someone to subvert. In their latest outing, Max’s Bunny Business (3–5 years), Ruby won’t let Max help with her lemonade stand, so he goes into business for himself. Who’s the boss now?
Big sisters (and brothers) maintain the upper hand in Lynn Reiser’s and Penny Gentieu’s My Baby & Me, in which a series of older siblings tell Baby what’s what: “You have a bottle! I have a cup! I pour juice in. I drink it up.” Illustrated with lively and adept photographs by Gentieu, the book is perfect for those just exiting babyhood themselves (18 months–3 years).
Moving beyond humans (and bunnies), Steve Jenkins’s and Robin Page’s Sisters & Brothers: Sibling Relationships in the Animal World (6–9 years) informs readers that “nine-banded armadillos are always born as identical quadruplets”; peregrine falcons practice their hunting dives on their siblings; and Nile crocodile babies cry in unison to make sure their mother pays attention. Steve Jenkins (writing here with his wife Robin Page) is consistently a first-rate explainer of the natural world, and his bold collage pictures have both accurate detail and high drama.
Older kids (and adults) will enjoy the boost siblinghood gives to solving a disappearance in Siobhan Dowd’s The London Eye Mystery (10 years and up). When Ted and Kat’s cousin Salim comes to visit the sibs’ family in London, they treat him to a whirl on the famed London Eye. They watch him go up . . . but he doesn’t come down. Where is he? Ted’s narration, limited but also extended by his Asperger’s, is persuasive, and the unique insights enabled by his disability are well partnered by the daring (and deviousness) of his older sister.
Jazz might seem an unlikely subject for a picture book, but lately it’s been flourishing. Why? It may have something to do with the freedom an artist can have while evoking the improvisational nature of the music.
In Robert Andrew Parker’s Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum (5–8 years), we first meet Art when he’s a toddler barely able to reach the keys on his family’s piano. Nearly blind from birth, Art has a phenomenal memory for tunes and an ability to improvise music that matches his mood. Parker’s watercolors are lush and evocative, depicting Art’s playful music with color and loose, feathery brushwork.
Carole Boston Weatherford’s short, alliterative text for Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane (5–8 years) explores the young John’s ability to listen to his surroundings. Sean Qualls’s painterly mixed-media art surrounds John with abstract shapes that provide a visual representation of his lively, angular music.
If your child enjoys these books, check out Chris Raschka’s trio of jazz picture books: John Coltrane’s Giant Steps (5–8 years), Mysterious Thelonious (5–8 years), and Charlie Parker Played Be Bop (3–6 years). Raschka was a pioneer in attempting the visual depiction of jazz in picture books, using line and color to translate Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso,” for example, into visual form. This might sound brainy and intimidating, but all five books have a common goal: the promotion of stress-free enjoyment of jazz. Sit back, open your ears, eyes, and mind, and let the words, pictures, and sounds wash over you.
And there’s no rule that says you can’t read aloud to music. For Charlie Parker Played Be Bop, turn up Parker’s and Dizzy Gillespie’s rendition of “A Night in Tunisia” to hear just what be bop can be.
Mary Downing Hahn is the author of more than twenty novels for young readers. Winner of numerous “children’s choice” awards, she works in a variety of genres including contemporary realistic fiction, historical fiction (her World War II novel Stepping on the Cracks won the Scott O’Dell Award), and supernatural suspense. Her latest novel, All the Lovely Bad Ones (10–14 years), is a spooky tale about two kids (yet another brother-sister pair) whose mischief inadvertently wakens the dead. Brrr!
1. What did being a children’s librarian teach you about writing for children?
First of all, I must confess I was not a real librarian — merely an associate librarian, which means I was a college grad with a special knowledge of books — ideal qualifications for impractical people with degrees in English.
Back in the seventies and eighties, we reviewed every fiction purchase and sometimes I was asked to serve on the selection committee. My voluminous reading convinced me to write a book of my own. I knew I’d never come close to the writers I’d admired most, but I was positive I could write a better book than some of the ones I read. I suppose you could say I was inspired by badly written books.
At any rate, the library was a great setting for a beginning writer. Even my hours helped — I was scheduled to work two evening shifts a week and every other Saturday. With two kids in school, I wrote on my mornings off, and when I worked Saturday, I had Friday off — a whole day to write!
2. Why do you think people like to scare themselves?
Speaking for myself, I love to read scary stories in the safety of my own cozy house, preferably near the fireplace with a cat or two in my lap. I think most of us are haunted by fears and anxieties. When a character in a book defeats a malevolent spirit, we feel empowered to face our own demons. Or maybe it’s Aristotle’s idea of catharsis kind of watered down — a scary story arouses fear in the reader, but, in the end, the fear is purged and the reader sits back and says, “Ahhh, what a great ending.”
3. What do you read when you want a good scary story?
I love subtle stories — James’s “The Turn of the Screw” (my all-time favorite) and a host of others by Edith Wharton, Oliver Onions (especially “The Beckoning Fair One,” guaranteed to haunt you forever), M. R. James, and many more. Among children’s writers, I love Josephine Poole. I read Moon Eyes in a book discussion group and found it truly frightening. Helen Cresswell has a nice touch with ghost stories. I find writers like Stephen King over the top — except for one excellent ghost story I read years ago in the New Yorker. “The Man in the Black Suit” is proof King can write literary prose.
4. What do you say to people who feel that reading about ghosts or the supernatural is dangerous or otherwise bad for children?
Actually, I try to avoid those people. So far, I’ve succeeded. A psychology professor at the University of Kansas once branded Wait till Helen Comes as a book advocating suicide when things go wrong. He raised a huge fuss — even got on TV — because the school refused to ban the book. I saw his picture in the newspaper and kept an eye out — ready to run and hide if I saw him. Wimp that I am, I really don’t know what I would have said to him. But I can tell you that Wait till Helen Comes sold very well while I was in Lawrence.
5. Have you ever seen a ghost?
I might have. Several years ago, I was the only guest in a large Victorian bed-and-breakfast in Kansas. On my last night there, I woke up and saw a man wearing nineteenth-century clothing standing with his back to me, emptying his pockets and placing the contents on a bureau — typical behavior of a man getting ready for bed. When I tried to speak, he turned, saw me, and ran from the room, obviously more frightened of me than I was of him. Yes, I could have been dreaming, but I later learned from the B&B owner that she had long believed the house was haunted by its original owners. She’d never seen them, but she sensed their presence. That ghost’s fear gave me the idea for one of “the rules” in my book The Old Willis Place: a ghost should not be seen by the living.
Summer is almost around the corner . . . so make sure your tween or teen packs a few page-turners in that beach bag. In recent months, we’ve seen several excellent ghost stories, thrillers, and adventures, in addition to Mary Downing Hahn’s All the Lovely Bad Ones. The prolific and popular author Avi’s latest is The Seer of Shadows (10–14 years), a post–Civil War tale of unscrupulous spiritualists. Fourteen-year-old Horace, apprentice to a society photographer, unwittingly releases a ghost (and not a friendly one) when he helps his employer manipulate an image of a client’s dead daughter into a photograph.
For contemporary, and even scarier, fare, check out The Missing Girl (12 years and up) by Norma Fox Mazer, in which a man obsessed with five sisters eventually abducts one. In alternating chapters, eleven-year-old Autumn struggles for sanity and escape as her family reacts to the trauma of her disappearance. Short chapters and the ripped-from-the-headlines plot will hold readers’ interest, and impeccably composed interludes from the man's perspective up the creepiness factor.
Also generous with chills is Carol Plum-Ucci in Streams of Babel (14 years and up), a breakneck tale of a bioterrorist attack on a small town’s water supply told through the eyes of the affected young adults. Plum-Ucci includes some timely issues with the action, but it’s the vivid characters and expertly controlled tension that will keep readers’ eyes glued to the page.
The Compound (12 years and up), by first-time novelist S. A. Bodeen, plumbs peril of a more intimate nature. Eli, his two sisters, and their parents have spent the last six years in an underground bunker, having barely escaped a nuclear attack — or did they? With only his autocratic billionaire father’s word on the state of the outside world to go on, now-fifteen-year-old Eli starts to question the very foundations of his strange, isolated life. A claustrophobic atmosphere, gradual accumulation of clues, and truly terrifying villain keep action-seeking readers on their toes.
And for some old-fashioned, larger-than-life entertainment, pick up Will Hobbs’s Go Big or Go Home (10–14 years), about two boys whose summer takes on astronomic proportions when one of them acquires superpowers from a meteorite that crashes through the ceiling of his bedroom. Bullies, beware!
—Claire E. Gross
Q: My fourth grader has become a voracious reader thanks to the Warriors series by Erin Hunter. Other suggestions? — L. Everett, Arlington, MA
A: Two direct corollaries to the Warriors series come to mind (for those of you without pre-teens, the series is a multi-volumed, multi-tiered fantasy drama about sentient, heroic cats). There’s SF Said and Dave McKean’s two Varjak Paw books, about a street cat gifted in martial arts. And in a few years (the target age is a little older), try Clare Bell’s five-volumed Named series (beginning with Ratha’s Creature), about the epic struggles of giant prehistoric cats. Moving beyond the feline subset, though, there’s a rich array of animal fantasy out there. Brian Jacques’s iconic Redwall books are a strong choice, but don’t overlook more recent series such as M. I. McAllister’s Mistmantle Chronicles (beginning with Urchin of the Riding Stars), which follow the exploits of a spunky squirrel page; Kenneth Oppel’s bat quest-adventures (Silverwing, Sunwing, and Firewing); and Clem Martini’s Feather and Bone: The Crow Chronicles (the world-changing journeys of a young outcast crow, beginning with The Mob). If your child is partial to the triumphant underdog theme, you might also try moving into the human realm with Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small Quartet, about the training and trials of a fantasy kingdom’s first legally sanctioned female knight, or Suzanne Collins’s Underland Chronicles, which, starting with Gregor the Overlander, tell the tale of an eleven-year-old boy who fulfills his destiny as the prophesied hero of a nightmarish underworld. All these titles offer plenty of action and intrigue, as well as the chance to return time and again to beloved characters and worlds. —Claire E. Gross
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May 12–18 is Children’s Book Week, a tradition founded in 1919 through the allied enthusiasm of booksellers, librarians, and the Boy Scouts. It is now administered by the Children’s Book Council, a nonprofit association of publishers for children and teens devoted to promoting books and reading. Schools, libraries, and bookstores throughout the country will be sponsoring activities to celebrate the Week, and the CBC’s website offers an assortment of related projects and suggestions to honor Children’s Book Week at home.
Parents may also be interested in several new articles from the latest Horn Book Magazine posted on the Horn Book website. Megan Lambert, an instructor at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, writes about bringing books home to her family: “I’ve yet to find a children’s book that depicts a cast of characters that looks anything like our particular multiracial, foster-adoptive family constellation.” Hewing to the theme of family reading, children’s book editor Ginee Seo and her husband, writer Bruce Brooks, discuss the perils of Elmo; and Newbery Award–winner Christopher Paul Curtis describes the futility of trying to “micromanage” a child’s reading life.
Horn Book website