V O L U M E 2 , N U M B E R 9 • S E P T E M B E R 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.
A Season of Gifts is Richard Peck’s third novel about Grandma Dowdel; she appeared first in A Long Way from Chicago, a Newbery Honor Book in 1999, and again in A Year Down Yonder, which won the 2001 Newbery Medal. Peck’s numerous other honors include the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, the Margaret A. Edwards Award, and the National Humanities Medal. Raised in downstate Illinois but a longtime resident of Manhattan, Peck, an inveterate traveler, was packing for the Riviera when I caught up with him on a recent Monday morning.
1. Grandma Dowdel is only the most recent of your great ladies. Who was your great lady?
Grandma Dowdel is my humble homage to all my long-vanished great-aunts: Midwestern farmwomen in Lane Bryant dresses who ruled the universe from black-iron stoves in kitchens hot enough to steam the calendars off the walls. They left the small boy I was in no doubt about who ruled. And now I want to bring them back in the looming person of Grandma Dowdel for a young generation who may barely know one adult from another.
2. After many years of writing contemporary teen fiction, you turned back (with Long Way from Chicago) to books for younger readers. Why?
In writing, as in teaching, you end up playing ball with the people who play ball with you. And certainly writing is a dialogue with readers. I began to write in response to the young people who were writing back to me. And they were middle-schoolers and grade-schoolers. And invitations matter, too. Middle schools and grade schools seem to do far more author programs.
3. Long Way and Year Down Yonder have been called “family books,” of interest to adults as well as young people. Might we hope for a resurgence of this genre?
Writing “younger” gave me ideas I hadn’t had, about books meaningful to the whole family. Particularly as we entered the audiobook era, letters came from families listening to Grandma Dowdel and The Teacher’s Funeral on car trips. In fact, now I send little coded messages in my novels to parents and grandparents. In a forthcoming book of mine, there’s a (nonhuman) character named Lamont Cranston. It will take a specialist child to recognize that reference, but it will make grandfathers laugh. Surely the book that all the family can read together is our last defense against the blog.
4. You talk a lot with young readers. What are they telling you?
Things they didn’t mean to. Over and over they’re telling me that the books I wrote for them to read are being read to them by their teachers. And hearing a story read doesn’t seem to expand their vocabularies. If a teacher is going to take limited classroom time in reading aloud (and even giving away the ending), the least she could do is hand out a list of vocabulary from the reading to be looked up and learned.
5. How does a big-city guy like you keep in touch with your small-town roots?
Aging solves very little, but the older you get, the clearer your memories of your beginnings. A Season of Gifts finds Grandma Dowdel in the 1950s. I remember that time well; still, I had to research the era as carefully as if I hadn’t been there — including all the records Elvis had cut and all the movies he’d made before he was shipped overseas in September of 1958.
Next year’s novel is a radical departure: contemporary, non-rural, teen-with-a-vengeance, and so terrifying I finally couldn’t write it in an empty room. Wait for it.
Grandma Dowdel is just one of many beloved characters making reappearances this fall. Here are a few more novels middle-grade readers have been patiently waiting for from some of their favorite authors.
With Al Capone Shines My Shoes, Gennifer Choldenko delivers a crowd-pleasing sequel to her Newbery Honor–winning Al Capone Does My Shirts. Twelve-year-old Moose negotiates the constantly shifting friendships, crushes, and grudges among his friends at school and on the island of Alcatraz, where his family lives. The plot thickens when the kids try to foil a dangerous prison escape plan. Moose’s narration keeps the story firmly grounded in a child’s viewpoint, and the historical details of life on Alcatraz in 1935 remain as interesting as ever. (9–12 years)
Friends Jasper, Katie, and Lily (Whales on Stilts!, The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen) go about their usual business of saving the world in M. T. Anderson’s Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware, illustrated by Kurt Cyrus. A contest between high school “competitive staring” teams sets off a chain of events that ends with the intrepid heroes helping monks retrieve stolen artifacts. Anderson stuffs every scene with exotic details — dark cobblestone alleys, six-armed acrobats, etc; the fact that the “mystical” locale is Delaware gives the pulpy tale an added layer of absurdity. (8–12 years)
Princess Meg of Greeve (The Runaway Princess) may have foiled her parents’ plot to marry her off, but she’s not out of the woods yet. In Kate Coombs’s The Runaway Dragon, the princess embarks on a quest to find her wayward fire-breathing pet. Along the way, Meg outwits a giant, saves a princess named Spinach, and challenges a petulant sorceress. This warm, witty story will leave readers clamoring for the next installment. (9–12 years)
In Ann M. Martin’s A Dog’s Life: The Autobiography of a Stray, readers met Squirrel, a stray pup who was separated from her family. Now, in Everything for a Dog, the spotlight is on Squirrel’s brother, Bone. The narrative perspective alternates among three characters: Bone, shuffled from owner to owner; Charlie, who must mourn first the death of his brother then that of their beloved dog; and Henry, lonely for a friend after his best pal moves away. The stories come together in ways that are surprising, satisfying, and heartwarming. (9–12 years)
A circus showman, an artist, an inventor, and a scientist who studies frogs show how little ideas can become big dreams and an individual’s success can have significance for many.
P. T. Barnum is best known as a founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, but Candace Fleming’s newest biography, The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P. T. Barnum, shows how, from a young age, he was an entertainer and entrepreneur. Full of ink drawings by Ray Fenwick, sidebars, and archival photographs, this book is as enjoyable to browse as it is to read. Fleming manages to be honest about Barnum’s shortcomings while capturing his vitality and lasting contributions. (8–12 years)
Like Barnum’s, the legacy of twentieth-century artist Josef Albers endures. Natasha Wing’s An Eye for Color: The Story of Josef Albers focuses on the German-born Albers’s fascination with color. Illustrations by Julia Breckenreid echo the artist’s own paintings and showcase his bright, layered squares of color, helping readers understand that “with each painting he proved that colors don’t stand alone — they interact.” End matter includes more biographical information, an author’s note, and activities. (6–9 years)
Even as a child, Philo Farnsworth asked a lot of questions and was interested in all things mechanical. Kathleen Krull’s The Boy Who Invented TV: The Story of Philo Farnsworth explains how Farnsworth’s childhood fascination with science became an adult passion for invention. Krull’s friendly narration and Greg Couch’s illustrations capture Farnsworth’s ambitions. Dreamers and aspiring inventors alike will find much to inspire them here. (5–8 years)
In Pamela S. Turner’s The Frog Scientist, Dr. Tyrone Hayes comes across as a dedicated scientist whose interest in amphibians began when he was a boy wading in the swamp near his South Carolina home. Today he does groundbreaking research on the effects of pesticides on frogs. Andy Comins’s vivid photographs alternate images of Hayes at work with dramatic close-up shots of frogs. A glossary, information on featured animals, a list of websites, and a bibliography add to the book’s appeal. (9–12 years)
These picture books, all of which received starred reviews in the Horn Book Magazine, display the work of some of the most talented illustrators working today.
In All the World, Marla Frazee’s fresh illustrations build a satisfying narrative around Liz Garton Scanlon’s soothing, child-friendly text: “Rock, stone, pebble, sand / Body, shoulder, arm, hand / A moat to dig, a shell to keep / All the world is wide and deep.” The art has a “family-of-humankind” vibe, encompassing interracial and same-sex couples, old folks and babies — a statement of affirmation but also a natural choice for a book about “all the world.” Frazee’s skyscapes glow with color; her strong horizontal lines lend a sense of both movement and endless connections. (4–8 years)
For more stunning views of the sky, turn to Sky Magic, a book of poems selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Mariusz Stawarski’s mesmerizing illustrations are full of enchantment — the perfect accompaniment to verse about the cosmos. Depicting the sky in all its phases, from bright sunrise to glowing nighttime constellations, Stawarski’s paintings are bold, stylized, and fantastical. Recurring images such as a crescent moon (in the sky, tucked under the arm of a passerby, and used as a raft on the sea) give the illustrations a magical, surreal quality. (5–8 years)
Hook, written and illustrated by Ed Young, features handsome spreads that eloquently depict the fortunes of an eaglet, born from an abandoned egg (found by a boy and hatched by a puzzled hen), who eventually takes triumphant flight: “he wasn’t meant for earth.” The text is extremely minimal; it’s the quiet, muted pastel drawings that tell the story with strong lines and the occasional, unexpected pop of bold color. The palette is dark — a somber sandstone background, enlivened by flecks of subdued reds and traces of sky blues. (4–8 years)
Who better to bring us back down from the firmament than Aesop? Jerry Pinkney’s nearly wordless retelling of The Lion & the Mouse is a visual tour de force. Rendered in incredible detail and an earth-toned palette, the African wilderness and its creatures seem completely alive in Pinkney’s pencil and watercolor illustrations. Each page is so strong and descriptive that the minimal text is nearly superfluous; Pinkney sets a new standard for this classic tale through illustration alone. (4–8 years)
The graphic novel format continues to carve out a niche in the children’s literature world. Recent months saw the release of four notable graphic novels for middle-schoolers and beyond.
Cat Burglar Black, by Richard Sala, is a boisterous crime caper. K., a white-haired teen who was raised to be a cat burglar, believes she’s escaped that life forever when her aunt issues her an invitation to join her at a secluded girls’ school. But all is not as it seems, and soon K. is employing her high-wire larceny skills, hiding from all manner of threats, and taking on the criminal society known as The Obtainers. Sala’s nightscapes are deep-hued and creepy, and his villains are suitably shifty. (10–14 years)
In Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Death and Dementia, artist Gris Grimly adds a graphic touch to four of Poe’s classic horror stories, including “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The original language is intact (though condensed), but Grimly’s caricatured, shadowed illustrations increase its accessibility, and his dynamic page design and innovative use of space heighten the drama of the tales and accentuate their key moments. (10–14 years)
Prolific illustrator Matt Phelan’s graphic novel debut, The Storm in the Barn, is the story of how eleven-year-old Jack Clark survives troubles both ordinary and extraordinary as he comes of age in the Dust Bowl of 1937 Kansas, where he is plagued by bullies, parental issues, dangerous weather, and, not least, a sinister, possibly supernatural figure he encounters in an abandoned barn. Ongoing references to The Wizard of Oz, which Jack reads with his sister, add poignancy to this folklore-infused, beautifully visualized tale. (10–14 years)
Jim Ottaviani’s fictionalized history of the space race is a demonstration of just how much excitement, information, and incident can be packed into a small space. T-Minus: The Race to the Moon, illustrated by Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon, manages to create an engagingly human story of scientific discovery and competition while highlighting the American Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs and their Russian counterparts. An author’s note details how the book departs from history. (10 years and up)
You think your kids are trouble? Have a look at the September/October Horn Book Magazine, a special issue devoted to the rascals who write, publish, and populate books for children and young adults.Books — and children — need trouble. It’s how they keep us interested. I recently spoke at a writer’s conference at which one fledgling author said she wanted to write children’s books because they were “nice.” Hell to the no: while it is certainly true that “nice” books get published regularly, it’s no wonder that they tend to be referred to, brutally but honestly, as “grandma traps.” Such books are designed to look harmless and pretty to nostalgic grown-ups' eyes, but as far as a kid is concerned, they are unlikely to evoke any response beyond a dutiful thank-you-grandma-for-the-nice-book note written under the threat of withheld allowance. In twenty-five years of trying to figure out the key to finding good books for young people, the one precept that has guided me best is that kids read for the same reasons adults do, and high on the list of adult reading pleasures is the allure of vicarious trouble. Whether it’s a detective on the trail of a serial killer, a mountain climber dangling from a precipice, or simply a family who has it worse off than your own, we like to read accounts of things not going well, from disappointments to disasters. In an odd way, it’s because we want to help — that crusading lawyer needs us to turn the pages if she’s going to win her case. Kids are the same way: Max has to growl at his mother, Ramona needs to get into trouble at school, Brian needs to land in the woods with only a hatchet. Not only does conflict provoke plot, it asks us to choose a side — and makes a story matter.
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