V O L U M E 2 , N U M B E R 7 • J U L Y 2 0 0 9
In this issue
For a list of books mentioned in this issue, see link below.
Masthead art © by William Steig, used with permission of Pippin Properties, Inc.
Rebecca Stead’s second middle-grade novel, When You Reach Me, is in many ways what we used to call an “everyday life” story, where the doings of school, family, and friends advance a low-key plot. But there’s another crucial element about which I propose to tell nothing at all lest I spoil any of the author’s well-planned revelations. Nevertheless, there are a few clues to be found in the following interview.
1. Miranda’s Upper West Side neighborhood almost seems like another character. Could you have set the story anywhere else?
I doubt it. Miranda’s neighborhood is the place I grew up. Although her story is certainly not my story, it was fed by my memory. When I began to think about this book, I knew only that I wanted to write a certain kind of mysterious story about a certain kind of mysterious person. Then I remembered that I had actually known such a mysterious person, by sight anyway, when I was a kid. “He’s perfect!” I thought to myself. Little did I know he would bring the whole neighborhood with him. But that’s what happened.
It was like finding an old suitcase in the back of my closet and thinking, “Wow, look at all this stuff. I should do something with this.” Which is not to say that the novel was just sitting there waiting for me — not at all. But a lot of the material was there.
2. I don’t want to give too much away, but how did you keep the, er, physics of the story straight?
I kept lists of notes and questions as I was writing, things like “track the key,” or “make sure that piece of paper can be in her pocket in December.” Wendy [Lamb] and I also relied on other people a lot — we tried to distribute every draft of the book to fresh readers, to make sure we weren’t opening holes we couldn’t see.
At one point pretty late in the game, I had a mini-crisis where I felt the logic of the story crumbling into dust. I called my dad in a panic, because he loves these sorts of puzzles. What he showed me was that, without realizing it, I was trying to use two inconsistent “theories” of — well, sure, let’s call it physics. If the story was going to hold up, I needed to pick one, which I did. And after that, things were much clearer to me.
3. Have you ever seen what you thought was a ghost?
No. Even if I did someday see a ghost, I would come up with some other explanation for it. Fatigue-induced hallucination, maybe. But I love the idea of ghosts. I love their story potential.
4. If you could propel yourself to the perfect time and place, where and when would it be?
I like the here and now. Imperfect as the world is, I do think we’re at least kind of groping in the right direction. I would go to the future, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t know how to operate the doors and elevators.
5. Fantasy? Science fiction? — What do you call what you write?
Years ago, at a conference, I heard an editor explain that she published fantasy, but not science fiction. When I asked her what the difference was, she kind of sighed impatiently and said, “Oh, I don’t know.” I’m not sure of the difference either. I think those labels mean different things to different people. For some reason, I seem to fantasize about science. Where does that leave me? Sometimes I call my books “contemporary fantasy/sci fi,” but that probably just confuses people. I think they’re mostly books about real life, with a twist.
When You Reach Me joins such classics as From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Harriet the Spy in finding adventure in New York City. Here are three recent books surveying the city’s possibilities.
The Bronx in 1963 is the setting for Mary Ann McGuigan’s Morning in a Different Place, a perceptive story of the friendship between Fiona, the daughter of Irish immigrants, and Yolanda, who is “colored.” The two girls and their community provide a compelling lens for the momentous events of that year. (10–14 years)
In Manhattan at the same time, architectural critic Jane Jacobs was enthusiastically helping to kick to the curb the worst excesses of “urban renewal,” just one campaign of a long and active life. Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch provide a good look at this innovative thinker and activist in Genius of Common Sense: Jane Jacobs and the Story of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. (12 years and up)
In A Walk in New York, a peripatetic father and son escort readers on a busy tour of Manhattan, providing picture-book author and illustrator Salvatore Rubbino the opportunity for many bustling double-page spreads (and one fold-up picture of the Empire State Building). With jaunty lines and urbane pastels, the book is a great introduction to (or souvenir of) the Big Apple. (All ages)
For a guide to all of New York’s children’s literature landmarks and a bibliography of more than two hundred children’s books about the city, hunt down Leonard S. Marcus’s 2003 guidebook Storied City: A Children’s Book Walking-Tour Guide to New York City. (Adult)
As summer settles in, may we recommend a few books to bring some virtual sunshine to those (hopefully rare) rainy days? For our list of recommended summer reading for all ages, click on the <more online> link below.
Brent Hartinger’s Project Sweet Life follows three friends who decide to make the most of their summer by only pretending to take the jobs their fathers insisted on while enjoying on the sly the “absolute freedom” their summer should, by their calculations, rightfully entail. The boys’ friendship, lightly and expertly depicted, drives the book, while their smartly plotted moneymaking schemes are creative, highjinks-filled, and hilariously almost effective. (12–16 years)
In The Big Game of Everything by Chris Lynch, good brother Jock spends his summer working at his grandfather’s golf course while bad brother Egon stirs up trouble. Their grandfather’s growing senility adds depth to the plot, but the farcical story is mostly concerned with the brothers’ love-torture relationship, the comically eccentric cast of characters, and an abundance of physical comedy that includes mad, elderly golf-cart drivers and a (literal) wild goose chase around a water hazard. (12–16 years)
In Wendy Mass’s Every Soul a Star, three middle schoolers’ lives intersect at a campground where “eclipse chasers” have gathered to witness a total eclipse of the sun. Each kid faces a big change in his or her future, and their transformations culminate in the truly moving scenes of the eclipse. (11–15 years)
With Operation Redwood, S. Terrell French brings readers a realistic, relevant eco-mystery. Julian joins Robin, a fellow pre-teen, on a quest to protect a redwood forest near Robin’s family’s ranch from the voracious investment company owned by Julian’s uncaring guardian uncle. With plenty of information about redwoods but an unwavering focus on the characters, French builds to a satisfying but believable conclusion. (9–12 years)
—Claire E. Gross
A picky eater, a picnic thwarter, a big bad lobo, and, well, gravity attempt to foil the main characters’ fun in these deliciously silly books starring food.
Cheerful, bespectacled hound Max displays great gusto as The King’s Taster. However, even though Max’s stomach is satisfied by the hardworking cook’s various delicacies, there’s no pleasing the bratty new young king. The story’s humor is milked to full comic effect in both Kenneth Oppel’s lively text and Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher’s illustrations, with their many patterns — including scraps of recipes — and rich colors. (5–8 years)
In T. T. Khing’s wordless Where Is the Cake Now? a couple of dozen expertly sketched animals set out for a picnic with two cakes. As fans of 2007’s Where Is the Cake? can guess, there are many mishaps before the baked goods are consumed — and the animals get their just desserts. Even alert observers who spot what happens to the cakes early on will greedily leaf back and forth to figure out how all the illustrations’ details relate to the whole. (5-8 years)
Three anthropomorphized tamales are terrorized by Señor Lobo in Eric A. Kimmel’s “Three Little Pigs” takeoff, The Three Little Tamales. These tamales have got chutzpah, as shown in Valeria Docampo's motion-filled oil illustrations. The hapless wolf is hilarious, especially as he tries to penetrate the third little tamale's secure cactus fortress: “Ay! Ay! Ay!” (5–8 years)
If you find Humpty Dumpty’s fate disturbing, don’t get too attached to the main character in Mini Grey’s Egg Drop — an egg with its head in the clouds and an insatiable urge to fly. Though the protagonist finishes the story sunny-side up, about to be eaten for breakfast, its huge grin shows that the most satisfying way to live life is with relish. The story is gleefully absurd, with Grey’s dynamic mixed-media illustrations as bold as Egg’s lofty ambitions. (5–8 years)
Presented annually by the American Library Association, the Coretta Scott King Book Awards are celebrating forty years of honoring African American authors and illustrators of outstanding books for children and young adults. ALA’s list of previous CSK winners includes such luminaries as Mildred Taylor, Walter Dean Myers, Virginia Hamilton, Jerry Pinkney, Ashley Bryan, Tom Feelings, and Leo and Diane Dillon, to name just a few.
This year’s CSK Author Award went to Kadir Nelson for We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, which he also illustrated. Nelson’s easygoing, conversational storytelling is pitch-perfect for this history of the Negro Leagues. His extensive research yields loads of attention-grabbing details, and his oil paintings elevate the players into heroes. (9 years and up)
Floyd Cooper received the 2009 CSK Illustrator Award for The Blacker the Berry by Joyce Carol Thomas. Cooper’s dark-grained, luminous illustrations accompany Thomas’s twelve poems on the varying skin tones of African Americans; together they encourage African American kids — and children of all races — to celebrate the skin they’re in. (5–8 years)
The 2009 John Steptoe New Talent Award, also given by the CSK committee, recognized illustrator Shadra Strickland for her free-flowing mixed-media illustrations in Bird, a verse picture book for intermediate readers written by Zetta Elliott. After the death of his drug-addict brother, Bird, who dreams of becoming an artist, finds solace in his uncle’s comparison between a bird’s broken wing, which can be fixed, and a “broken soul,” which cannot. (9–12 years)
For new books by some previous CSK winners, check out E. B. Lewis’s illustrations for Langston Hughes’s lyrical The Negro Speaks of Rivers (5–8 years), Jacqueline Woodson’s Peace, Locomotion, the continuation of Lonnie Collins Motion’s story that began with Locomotion (9–12 years), and, for older readers (14 years and up), Walter Dean Myers’s Dope Sick, which powerfully communicates the effects of drugs, violence, poverty, and despair, driving home the message that it takes a conscious and vigilant effort to overcome relentless adversity.
Finally, Kadir Nelson (who’s twice been honored with the CSK Illustrator Award) contributed the art for Coretta Scott, a new picture book biography of the Awards’ namesake written by Ntozake Shange (For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf). The spare, poetic text sketches Mrs. King’s life from her childhood in Alabama to her leadership role in the civil rights movement. Nelson’s gorgeous oil paintings capture the essence of the woman and her times. (5–8 years)
If you enjoy our “Five Questions for . . . ” feature in Notes from the Horn Book and you’ll be attending the American Library Association conference in Chicago this month, come see it live and up close! From July 10th through the 13th, at the Horn Book/Junior Library Guild booth in the exhibits hall, I’ll be interviewing Laurie Halse Anderson, Wilder medalist Ashley Bryan, Candace Fleming, Newbery medalist Neil Gaiman, Caldecott medalist Beth Krommes, and Brian Selznick. I will have five questions for each and am soliciting suggestions for suitable queries on the Horn Book blog. If you can’t make it to Chicago, watch the blog for news and gossip and see the July/August issue of the Magazine for Ashley, Neil, and Beth’s award acceptance speeches — and the glorious cover art Beth created for us.
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