V O L U M E 3 , N U M B E R 1 • J A N U A R Y 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.
It is with great pleasure that I can finally tell you that Katherine Paterson has been named the new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, succeeding Jon Scieszka. I was on the committee that nominated Katherine for the position, and honestly: who else?
It is not an easy position to fill. The Ambassador must not only have attained distinction for his or her own books but must be able and willing to speak convincingly and authoritatively to a national audience about the importance of books and reading for children and young adults. Many authors are distinguished; many others are charismatic speakers; few combine the two virtues with the dedication Katherine Paterson has given children’s literature for more than thirty years. As the first Ambassador, Jon Scieszka will be a hard act to follow, but I have no doubts Katherine will make the position her own — to the benefit of us all.
Here’s another thing about our newly anointed Ambassador: when I went up to Vermont to interview Katherine in the fall, she served Richard and me the best scones I have ever tasted and gave us a whole bunch to take home. In between mouthfuls, I asked a few questions.
1. So, Madam Ambassador, what does your reign have in store for us?
I woke up one morning and realized that what I wanted to say to everyone — children, young people, adults — was: Read for your Life. We book people are always preaching about reading aloud to children, but unless you do, you can’t realize how it enriches family life. Teachers have almost stopped reading aloud to their classes because of the pressure of testing and tight curricula, but it is the books we read and talk about together that bring us closer together.
2. What does being part of the children’s book community mean to you?
My children never knew me before I became a writer. They knew me before I was a successfully published writer, but starting in 1978 they became not just book lovers but a part of the children’s book community. When John, Jr., joined the working world and saw how it operated, he said to me: “I guess you know, Mom, that you work with the best people in the world.” And I do know it. The children’s book world has given me wonderful friendships and an unbelievably rich life.
3. How does a writer balance the need for community (and, in the case of the ambassadorship, public service) and the need for solitude?
Balance? Who balances? But I do know that I need solitude, not only to write, but to nourish myself (being, like most writers, an introvert) so I do keep trying to write. You may have noticed that the space between books has gotten longer and longer the last few years.
4. What changes — whether cause for celebration or worry — in publishing are closest to your heart?
Since my first novel was rescued from a slush pile, it makes me sad that most publishing houses can no longer read unsolicited manuscripts, nor are many willing to take chances on novels that are not deemed immediately “marketable.” My first novel was set in twelfth-century Japan. If I were trying to start out as a writer today, who would be willing to take it on?
5. Do you ever want to go crazy and write a vampire novel or bodice ripper?
I don’t think I am capable of writing either of those. They take special skills I don’t possess. What I really want to do is to write a hilarious farce. The closest I’ve come to that is my couple of chapters in The Exquisite Corpse Adventure for the Library of Congress. That was great fun.
Yes, it was hard to pick just five titles from a distinguished career spanning more than thirty-five years, but the books listed below demonstrate that Katherine Paterson is equally adept in many genres. I left off Bridge to Terabithia on the assumption that you’ve already read it (and p.s.: it’s better than the movie).
Winner of a Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Paterson and illustrators Leo and Diane Dillon, The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks, a retelling of a Japanese folktale, makes for a perfect picture book, its themes of honor and devotion woven tightly into the satisfying story. (4 years and up)
First in a series of three (thus far) easy readers and illustrated by Jane Clark Brown, The Smallest Cow in the World introduces Marvin, a quintessential Paterson hero (stubborn and imaginative) and his contemporary farm family. (4–8 years)
Winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and something of a sequel to Paterson’s Lyddie, Jip is a classic story of an orphan in search of his roots, set in pre-Civil War Vermont. Surprises abound. (10 years and up)
Perhaps the most uncharacteristic of Paterson’s novels, Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom is a dramatic and bloody panorama of a mid-nineteenth century rebellion in China, complete with a secret society (Christians) and women warriors. (12 years and up)
In the Newbery Medal–winning Jacob Have I Loved, Louise is terribly jealous of her minutes-younger twin Caroline, who seems favored by fortune and the family over Louise. The 1940s Chesapeake Bay setting is practically another character in this intense young adult novel. (12 years and up)
Though the holidays are over, the weather outside is still frightful here in New England. The following books feature significant weather events upon whose dramatic presence the stories hinge.
In Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants, twelve-year-old Odd learns that a bear, fox, and eagle are really the Norse gods Thor, Loki, and Odin. A Frost Giant has done them this mischief — and blocked spring besides. Brett Helquist’s drawings, distinguished by sturdy characterizations and angular drafting, deftly display Gaiman’s wintry Norse world. (8–12 years)
The Great Death by John Smelcer is a gripping and poignant story about two sisters, the sole survivors of a 1917 smallpox epidemic that decimates their Alaskan Native village. The girls face many perils, culminating in a terrible blizzard. Smelcer’s prose is clean yet rich, original yet unpretentious, and he provides more than enough detail (for example, how to keep warm when it’s fifty below) to satisfy die-hard survival-story junkies. (10–13 years)
At the other end of the weather spectrum, the graphic novel The Storm in the Barn brings 1937 drought-wracked Kansas to life, adding a supernatural twist. Matt Phelan’s stunning palette of sepias, dusty browns, and charcoal grays perfectly evokes the Dust Bowl’s desolate landscapes. (8–12 years) For a nonfiction look at the subject, Martin W. Sandler’s The Dust Bowl Through the Lens: How Photography Revealed and Helped Remedy a National Disaster details the storms’ conditions and consequences. Archival photographs illustrate each section with breathtaking impact. (11–14 years)
From the famous to the more obscure, this collection of picture book biographies celebrates six people who each contributed something unique to the world.
Barbara Kerley’s latest biography, The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy), exemplifies how a different approach can illuminate a well-covered subject. Written from the perspective of Twain’s daughter Susy, this picture book includes observations about Susy’s famous father from the thirteen-year-old girl’s journal entries: “He is known to the public as a humorist, but he has much more in him that is earnest.” Edwin Fotheringham’s muted illustrations charm and entertain. (7–10 years)
While also staying true to the facts, Andrea Davis Pinkney manages to convey the almost mythical strength and bravery of former slave Sojourner Truth in Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp Stride. The wonderfully folksy text covers Sojourner’s early years when she was known as Belle, but it emphasizes her later work as an abolitionist, preacher, and women’s rights advocate. Brian Pinkney’s illustrations exemplify Sojourner’s determination by making her the focus of each double-page spread. (5–8 years)
Using beautifully rendered watercolor and pen-and-ink illustrations alongside energetic text, Rebecca Bond evokes the spirits of Richard and Cherry Kearton. In the Belly of an Ox: The Unexpected Photographic Adventures of Richard and Cherry Kearton takes readers into the imaginations of two brothers who never lost their childhood appreciation for nature. Though the Kearton brothers’ day jobs were in nineteenth-century London, their rural weekend photography excursions made them celebrated authors of the first nature book ever entirely illustrated with photographs, British Birds’ Nests. (7–10 years)
Even as a boy growing up in Warsaw, Janusz Korczak knew he wanted to help others. Tomek Bogacki’s powerful biography, The Champion of Children: The Story of Janusz Korczak, traces Korczak’s life from a child with a dream of changing the world to the man who became a writer, orphanage director, and staunch advocate for children right through the Nazi occupation. The soft acrylic illustrations that fill each page celebrate Korczak’s gentle heroism. (7–10 years)
“Josef Albers saw art in the simplest things.” So begins Natasha Wing’s simply told biography, An Eye for Color: The Story of Josef Albers. As a child growing up in a German coal-mining town, Albers appreciated color wherever he found it. Later, as an artist, he made color the focus of his life’s work. Illustrator Julia Breckenreid’s paintings illuminate the story with examples of color interaction and scenes from Albers’ life. The extensive back matter contains even more fascinating information. (7–10 years)
There’s never a shortage of animal books for the youngest listeners, and here are a few titles guaranteed to have them smiling.
In Pouch! little kangaroo Joey wants to explore, but once away from Mama he’s not quite as daring. Each time he encounters a new animal he yells “Pouch!” and hops back in; only when he meets another joey and they both yell “pouch!” does fear become funny. David Ezra Stein’s minimal, to-the-point text and breezy mixed-media illustrations convey Joey’s energy and swing of feelings, from bravery to anxiety and back again. (2–5 years)
When a hamster’s squeaky wheel keeps them awake, the other pet shop animals determine to get the little guy to sleep. After a bath (in a dog bowl), teeth brushing, a lullaby, and a story, he’s ready, but it’s morning now, and how can a hamster possibly sleep with all the meowing and barking and squawking? The silly quandary, the sound effect–heavy text, and the sweet, not saccharine, illustrations make Mary Ann Fraser’s Pet Shop Lullaby a great story-hour or bedtime tale. (3–6 years)
Another animal who wants to sleep is Big Bear in Maureen Wright’s Sleep, Big Bear, Sleep! Unfortunately, he keeps mishearing Old Man Winter’s titular directive and dutifully sets out to drive a jeep, sweep, leap, dive deep, and climb a mountain steep. Preschoolers will love being in on the joke and spotting hilarious details in Will Hillenbrand’s illustrations, such as the family peering nervously out their attic window while their downstairs is being swept clean by a very large bear. (4–7 years)
In Marisabina Russo’s A Very Big Bunny, rabbit Amelia hates sticking out because of her height. When Susannah joins the class and is teased for her small size, a friendship between the two is easy to predict--but not so easy to achieve. Russo’s story and gouache paintings capture both the situation and the emotion with her usual panache. (4–7 years)
—Jennifer M. Brabander
If you are planning to attend the American Library Association midwinter conference this weekend in Boston, do drop by our booth, #1564 in the exhibit hall at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center at 415 Summer Street (that’s the new convention center on the South Boston waterfront). On Saturday, I’ll once again be doing a live version of our “Five questions for . . . “ feature at the booth, and here is the lineup:
I hope to see you there!
Send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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