V O L U M E 3 , N U M B E R 8 • A U G U S T 2 0 1 0
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.
Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan have been pioneers in the presentation of books about modern and contemporary art for children. Their subjects have included architect Frank Gehry, sculptor Louise Bourgeoise, and painter Jackson Pollock; their book Chuck Close, Up Close was a Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor winner in 1998. In their latest collaboration, Ballet for Martha, Greenberg and Jordan examine a work that was itself an inspired collaboration, Appalachian Spring, composed by Aaron Copland for a ballet by Martha Graham. Although the book is truly a three-way partnership, with Brian Floca contributing on point and pitch-perfect watercolor illustrations, I simply could not do the math for five questions for three people. As it is, neither I nor Jan nor Sandra could tell you exactly who answered what below!
1. Martha Graham was, as Ballet for Martha points out, famously collaborative. As are you two. What do you think has allowed the two of you to work so successfully together?
The key to our working happily together for twenty years is chatting. Chatting and laughing. We begin with a messy idea; everything goes into the pot, no critics allowed. If it’s a large, complicated project, like the one we are starting now, we might divide the research. But for most books, including Ballet for Martha, both of us chat, read, and interview. We look at art and chat some more. We each write our own versions, then exchange our work and start revising. (For the text of Ballet, the computer files show twenty-seven drafts and that doesn’t include the back matter.) Once we have a complete first draft, we get tough with each other. We are both very, some might even say fanatically, picky. It probably helps that we often are in different cities when the conversation gets tense. However, our experience proves that when one of us says, “Eh, I don’t know about that word/paragraph/chapter,” she’s probably right. Changes are made, followed by more changes. Sometimes Jan takes the lead, sometimes Sandra, but we never tell who found the subject/shape/voice, who wrote a great line — or who wrote a lame one. Good or bad, it’s our book.
2. You write about subjects — Graham, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Chuck Close — that don’t immediately cry out for a children’s book, but you make such seem almost inevitable. What do you look for in the subjects you write about?
We respond to all kinds of art but admit to a particular interest in contemporary painting, sculpture, and architecture. Considering that very young people seem to intuitively understand the computer, the iPhone, and the TV remote (all of which perplex their parents), why not trust them to “get” art that reflects the gestalt of their time? We search for artists with interesting stories and enjoy introducing readers to the process of creating artwork. That said, our biggest challenge is finding a way to translate any artist’s work from one kind of visual experience into another, i.e., a book. “How can we make it look exciting on the page?” becomes the first practical question when we find an artist we both admire. Insofar as we have succeeded, we’d like to give two thumbs up to Neal Porter, the editor of all three books you mentioned in your question. He gets very involved in what we do, and his own love for art and his bold editorial commitment to design are responsible for the overall look of our books.
3. When children are taught art or music history (which is probably less frequently than you would like), the main topics tend to be drawn from the nineteenth century and before. Why do you think that is?
Historical perspective offers a general agreement on what deserves to be called “great,” and that can be reassuring to parents and teachers alike. After all, most people want nothing but the best for their children. We think part of that “best” should be art and music, as important to kids’ daily lives as math, science, English, and foreign languages. Early in her career Georgia O’Keeffe taught art to teachers. She believed studying art had an impact on even the small aesthetic decisions we make. “Where you have the windows and doors on a house. How you address a letter and put on a stamp. What shoes you choose and how you comb your hair.” But it’s true that music with a melody and art with a recognizable image are easier to talk about than an abstract painting or atonal music. That’s our mission: to help both teachers and students begin a conversation with new art through clear and, hopefully, stimulating cues. In Ballet for Martha, we use certain sensory words to describe the music, movement, and music. In Copland’s music, “[Martha] hears the rollicking echo of a Virginia reel, the galloping energy of a rodeo, the lilting melody of the Shaker hymn.” “Isamu’s set is spare and angular, like Martha’s way of dancing.” The commonalities between the arts in terms of descriptive language and modes of analysis always intrigue us.
There is no contest. Writing about dance, especially the technique developed by Martha Graham, is difficult. Brian Floca’s watercolors, created from many afternoons photographing rehearsals and watching the tape of the first performance of Appalachian Spring in 1944, were the key to explaining the moves Martha taught her dancers. We wrote some excruciatingly dull sentences explaining Martha’s technique of “contraction” and “release” and cut all of them. Only an illustration could show how a dancer crouches down and, with her stomach muscles, leaps up. Martha designed her technique to express emotion. In every art form from the visual arts to music to dance, the final step in understanding the artwork is asking, “What is the feeling expressed by the artist’s use of such elements as color, line, texture, or form?”
5. If you were taking a child to his or her first dance performance, what piece would you most want to be on the program?
We have taken assorted children of all ages to such traditional choices as The Nutcracker or Swan Lake. Both ballets were in huge concert halls and lasted over two hours. Of course, they are riveting and stunning, but we think for a child’s first experience with dance, a shorter, more intimate performance would be better. Plus we find that while girls, especially, are attracted to the glamour of the ballerina, when it comes to their own dancing, they often prefer a more modern approach. (Not just girls, either — one of Jan’s grandsons does African dancing at Alvin Ailey.)
The focus of these other new nonfiction titles range from the ephemeral (bubble gum) to the scientific (skeletons), with a couple of horse books in the mix for good measure.
Chewing gum dates back over nine thousand years, but it wasn’t until 1928 that mild-mannered accountant by day and inventor by night Walter Diemer introduced bubble gum to the American public. Meghan McCarthy’s Pop!: The Invention of Bubble Gum is a light-as-air biography that covers a popular topic and a likable hero. Round-faced characters, with spherical eyes, suggest a number of gumballs playfully rolling across each page. (5–8 years)
Bones: Skeletons and How They Work is handsomely illustrated with author and illustrator Steve Jenkins’s intricate cut-paper art. Bones of all shapes and sizes glow like jewels on richly colored backgrounds, allowing readers to pore over every detail and closely observe the similarities and differences between humans’ and other species’ skeletal structures. (5–8 years)
Wonder Horse: The True Story of the World’s Smartest Horse, by Emily Arnold McCully, tells the story of freed slave and veterinarian Bill “Doc” Key and his astonishingly intelligent horse, Jim. Doc taught Jim the alphabet, numbers, even colors, and a team from Harvard concluded that his ability was not a hoax (though McCully is suitably skeptical). Whatever truths lie behind this tale, it’s a fine portrait of accomplishment by man and beast. McCully’s watercolors show the setting and its rural inhabitants at their bucolic best. (5–8 years)
For horse-loving older-elementary-aged girls, Holly George-Warren’s The Cowgirl Way: Hats Off to America’s Women of the West opens with a description of the lives of women in the Old West and covers the outlaws, show girls, rodeo stars, singers and actresses, and even image makers who designed and made cowgirl clothing and boots. Illustrated with archival images, photographs, posters, and postcards, this book might just spur some readers on to cowgirl careers of their own. (9–12 years)
Playing, reading, and sleeping are celebrated in these new picture books geared to preschoolers.
A rhyming text and cheery illustrations in Aliki’s Push Button follow a busy preschooler as he pushes buttons (not, thankfully, his parents’). Toast pops up, an umbrella opens, a vacuum roars, music starts to play, and eventually his finger is sore. Taking a rest, he picks up a book — whose pictures give him even more ideas for active play, none involving buttons. Young listeners will see themselves in this energizer bunny of a kid. (2–5 years)
In S. J. Fore’s Read to Tiger, a boy keeps trying to read, but interruptions from a playful tiger behind the couch keep distracting him. Again and again, he reprimands the tiger, who sheepishly apologizes and promises to be quiet. Finally, the tiger noses his way between boy and book and, seeing a picture of a tiger, curls up quietly to be read to. R. W. Alley’s boisterous illustrations accompany the amusing text. (2–5 years)
Deborah Ruddell’s Who Said Coo? is sweetly illustrated by Robin Luebs. Settled into bed, pig Lulu hears a “Cooooo.” At her door are Pigeon and Owl, who smile but admit nothing. Soon a “Whooooo” wakes Lulu, who again gets only smiles from that naughty twosome. After she tells them to “SHOO!” she’s woken by a “Boo-hoo” and invites the contrite birds in for cocoa. And, way too soon, there’s a “Cock-a-doodle doo!” (2–5 years)
Denise Fleming’s sumptuous pulp painting illustrations accompany a soothing lullaby-like text in Sleepy, Oh So Sleepy. “Tiny baby panda, / sleepy, oh so sleepy. / Tiny baby ostrich, / sleepy, oh so sleepy.” Double-page spreads show each baby animal sleeping cozily nestled against a parent; at the end, a human baby gets tucked in, with a satisfying yawn that will surely be echoed by drowsy young listeners. (2–5 years)
—Jennifer M. Brabander
Each in its own unique way, these new books address familiar issues, such as friendships beginning and ending or economic woes.
An excellent introduction to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A. C. E. Bauer’s Come Fall is a compelling story about friendship and trust. In Shakespeare’s play, fairy queen Titania has sworn to protect a changeling child. Bauer places the changeling, Salman Page, in a modern-day middle school where he befriends a girl named Lu-Ellen and a boy who appears to have Asperger’s. The interweaving of Shakespearean, magical, and realistic elements works surprisingly well. (10 years and up)
In Gina Willner-Pardo’s The Hard Kind of Promise, seventh graders Sarah and Marjorie, who promised in kindergarten to be best friends “forever,” have begun to grow apart. Sarah finds herself wanting Marjorie to be a little less “weird”; she wishes her longtime best friend would “try to be like everyone else, even if it was only in public” and would realize that things change, “whether you wanted it to or not.” A perceptive, poignant novel of identity and friendship. (12 years and up)
Amy Goldman Koss’s timely novel, The Not-So-Great Depression, features ninth-grader Jacki. When a recession hits her town and “for sale” signs start popping up on neighbors’ lawns, Jacki approaches life with a glass-half-full attitude. Her concern for family and friends is endearingly mature and serves her well when her single mom loses her job. Koss manages to tackle difficult topics with sympathy, humor, and a lot of heart. (12 years and up)
In Leslie Connor’s Crunch, the five Marriss children, including fourteen-year-old narrator Dewey, have to hold down the fort when their parents are stranded due to a severe fuel shortage. The family’s now-growing bike business overwhelms Dewey, but a feel-good denouement brings the small community together, with neighbors willing to learn how to help themselves and others, and, finally, the return home of Mom and Dad. (12 years and up)
—Cynthia K. Ritter
A good road trip novel is a careful balance of outward voyage and inner journey and is as much about a quest as about travel. Here we tune up a few favorites and take a new novel out for a test drive.
Cynthia Voigt’s 1981 novel Homecoming is a perfect example of how a road trip doesn’t always involve a car. After their mother abandons them, thirteen-year-old Dicey Tillerman leads her three younger siblings, mostly on foot, from Connecticut to their grandmother’s house in Maryland. Old-for-her-age Dicey draws readers in until they’re right there with her worrying about the next meal, the next place to sleep, and hoping to find a place to call home. (12 years and up)
In Joan Bauer’s Rules of the Road (1998), Jenna gains confidence and self-awareness after she spends a summer driving cranky Mrs. Gladstone from Chicago to Texas. Jenna not only grasps that she and her passenger are more alike than they at first seemed, she also learns to stand up for what she believes and that life, like the highway, is unpredictable. (14 years and up)
John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines (2006) stars Colin (a hilarious blend of self-doubt and oblivious narcissism), who only dates girls named Katherine. Recovering from yet another breakup, he’s dragged out of bed (and to Tennessee) by his overweight, Judge Judy–loving best friend, Hassan. Their friendship forms the heart of this novel — a singular coming-of-age American road trip that both satirizes and pays homage to its many classic predecessors. (14 years and up)
In Andrew Smith’s In the Path of Falling Objects (2009) sixteen-year-old Jonah and his younger brother are alone: their addict father is in jail, their older brother is fighting in Vietnam (it’s 1970), and their unstable mother has left. The two set out for Arizona, hitching a ride with a crazed killer, a beautiful girl, and a nearly life-sized statue named Don for Don Quixote. By the end, the body count is high, but the brothers’ bond is strengthened. (14 years and up)
A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend by Emily Horner is a newly published debut novel with fortuitous stranger encounters, thoroughly teased-out friendship drama, and optimistic romanticism. Devastated by her best friend Julia’s death, seventeen-year-old Cass takes off on a cross-country bike trip in her honor; later, she struggles to mend fences with her nemesis (and love interest), Heather. Horner treats the grieving process with respect while maintaining a positive tone. (14 years and up)
—Chelsey G. H. Philpot
As we prepare to celebrate the forty-fourth occasion of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards on October 1 at Simmons College, I wanted to invite you to something special we have planned to go along with (as we used to say ungrammatically in Chicago). On October 2, the Horn Book and Simmons are offering an all-day colloquium focused upon the BGHB winners and honor books. Our general theme is “collaboration,” and through a day of informal speeches, panel discussions, and small group conversations we will consider how authors and illustrators work together to publish picture books; how book award committees reach the decisions they do; how writers reach readers through both books and online connections; and how teachers and librarians bring young people and books together. Many of our winners, including Rebecca Stead, Elizabeth Partridge, and Laurel Croza and Matt James, will be participating in the day’s events, and a ticket to the Friday night ceremony is included in the $149.00 registration fee. For a complete list of speakers and information about the day, and to register, please visit www.hbook.com/hbas. I hope to see you there.
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