V O L U M E 3 , N U M B E R 5 • M A 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.
Laura Vaccaro Seeger has written and illustrated some of the most innovative — and beautiful — concept books around, giving new spins to the alphabet book (The Hidden Alphabet), counting book (One Boy), and book of opposites (Black? White! Day? Night!) among others. She is also the creator of Dog and Bear, the heroes of three easy readers that speak volumes about friendship. Her latest book observes two, no, three seals at the beach and the beach ball they encounter.
1. I can’t decide if What If? is a book about friendship or arithmetic or futures trading. What do you think?
Hmm . . . At first, I wasn’t quite sure how to answer this question, but now that you mention it I suppose it’s about all three. What If? is certainly a book about friendship and the value of considering the feelings of others. And it is about arithmetic — the age-old problem of “two’s company, three’s a crowd.” It’s most certainly about cause and effect, as well. That’s the concept that first inspired me to write What If? I find it fascinating that people can affect the outcome of any given situation based on their decisions and actions. What if the boy on the cover of the book hadn’t stopped to contemplate the ball in the first place? Or what if he kicked it in the opposite direction? Or what if it had never bounced out of the water when the two seals were playing? What if the seagull on the last page decided that it was his turn to play with the ball? I just love the concept of endless possibilities.
2. The book continually brings us back to — what do you call it, a triptych? Layer cake? — of earth, sea, and sky. Which do you feel is your natural element?
Ah, now that’s an easy question to answer. My natural element is most definitely the sea. I find it difficult to let a single day go by without spending at least some time by the ocean. The inspiration for just about every book I’ve made has been found at the sea, and certainly problems related to each book have been solved there, as well. During the winter and early spring months, I often see seals at the beach. In fact just last week, I took this photograph of an adorable sleepy seal resting in the very spot where I walk every day. Just after I snapped the picture, he lifted his head, yawned a very big yawn, and fell back to sleep.
3. While I think of “concept books” as being rather definite and hard-edged (like Tana Hoban’s books) What If? and First the Egg are very painterly and organic-y. How does a book start with you — with the images or the ideas?
It’s funny because I consider all my books to be conceptual and at the same time to be story-driven, even if they contain the simplest of stories. Most of them begin with what I consider to be an interesting idea or concept. I then work to build a book around that idea. Usually something like the alphabet, colors, numbers, or transformation is just an excuse to make the book about what I am really interested in: negative space, the concept of “not,” words within words, or creativity. Even the Dog and Bear books are conceptual to me as they are about the concept of friendship. I would have to say that because I am an artist, the ideas and images come simultaneously. I am a very visual thinker, so as soon as I hear the words, I also see the pictures. Usually the first drafts of a book contain rather lengthy narratives (for me, anyway), and being a “less is more” writer and artist, I tend to discard words on a regular basis as I decide to tell parts of the story with pictures instead. What If? started out with lots of words, and I quickly realized that I had far more than I needed. Before I knew it I was left with only six different words, all used in varying combinations. And the pictures tell the rest.
4. Making friends can be hard for kids and adults alike. Any advice?
I know what it feels like to be caught between two friends who are each competing for attention, and having to choose between them is never pleasant. As a child, I was always taught to imagine being in someone else’s place and feeling what he or she might be feeling. That’s basically what’s happening in What If? It’s about thoughtfulness and empathy and understanding. I’ve always found that making friends is far easier when you consider the feelings of those around you.
5. Any word from Dog and Bear?
Ah, speaking of friendship . . . :-)
I’ve had ongoing discussions with Neal Porter, my brilliant editor and dear friend, about possible new adventures for Dog and Bear, but we’ve been so busy with other projects that we’ve not made any definite plans as of yet. I will say, however, that Dog and Bear are as frisky as ever and they have been getting themselves into quite a few funny situations, so there’s no shortage of story ideas!
It’s not just Laura Vaccaro Seeger who sees concept books as more than tools to learn. Here are four of the best in a new crop of books for information-seekers.
For the preschool set, Whose Shoes?: A Shoe for Every Job by Stephen R. Swinburne introduces footwear for various occasions (winter boots, summer flip-flops) and then for different jobs (construction worker, ballerina) from the ground up. Photos of appropriately-shod feet with just enough visual clues ask the question “Whose shoes?” while the following page widens the view and gives the answer. (3–6 years)
Intended as a guide for young artists, Mark Gonyea’s A Book About Color: A Clear and Simple Guide for Young Artists starts off with the basics: primary colors mixing to form secondary colors. Using a breezy text and lots of white space surrounding his illustrations, he builds ever so gradually to more complex concepts including warm and cool colors, shades and tints, and the emotional impact of certain colors. (5–8 years)
Moving to a more advanced set of concepts, Ken Robbins’s For Good Measure: The Ways We Say How Much, How Far, How Heavy, How Big, How Old explores all kinds of measurements — distance, weight, volume (liquid and dry), and even time. The author’s cleanly presented, highly saturated photos reinforce his multilayered information, which includes the origins and definitions of archaic as well as commonly used measurements. It’s easy to imagine this book inspiring children to measure their homes and classrooms, either by the foot or by the cubit. (5–8 years)
Speaking of exploring your surroundings with an aim to quantify, Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature by Sarah C. Campbell illuminates the connection between the Fibonacci number sequence and certain plants and animals. Just why this sequence (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 . . . ) is found so often in nature is a bit of a mystery, but the colorful photos (by the author and Richard P. Campbell) and clever book design serve to break down the math in a way that will be especially appealing to visual thinkers. (5–8 years)
. . . new books by two beloved authors and three new series that will leave readers eager for the promised next installments — which we’ll be sure to tell you about here.
A new book by Lois Lowry is worth waiting for, and her latest, The Birthday Ball, is no exception. Princess Patricia Priscilla, wanting to dabble in peasant life, switches outfits with her chambermaid and surreptitiously attends the village school. Meanwhile, the castle hums with plans for the princess’s upcoming sixteenth birthday bash, during which she is expected to choose among three outrageously revolting suitors. Lowry’s comic, breezy royalty-in-disguise tale is told with glee that carries over to Jules Feiffer’s animated ink drawings. (9–12 years)
In The Night Fairy by 2008 Newbery Medalist Laura Amy Schlitz, young night fairy Flora vows to become a day fairy after being left flightless and nearly eaten by a bat. Schlitz explores Flora’s moral development, magical spells, and cleverness as she learns to wield a dagger, sting predators with her mind, and make friends with squirrels and hummingbirds. Fans of Dahl’s Minpins and Huygen’s Gnomes will enjoy Flora’s wit and derring-do. Angela Barrett’s delicate illustrations are a graceful melding of fairy and real worlds. (7–10 years)
With We the Children, wildly popular author Andrew Clements inaugurates a mystery series: Benjamin Pratt and the Keepers of the School. An injured school custodian gives Ben a mysterious coin, makes him swear to keep it secret, and dies. The coin leads Ben to reevaluate the plan to tear down his old school to build an amusement park. He works with fellow student Jill to figure out the coin’s secrets and who the sneaky new custodian is. There’s a lot of child appeal in a novel where kids are the appointed rescuers in a quest handed down through time. (9–12 years)
Sue Stauffacher’s Gator on the Loose!, illustrated by Priscilla Lamont, is the first installment in the Animal Rescue Team series. Ten-year-old Keisha Carter has her hands full helping out at Carters’ Urban Rescue and wrangling her younger brothers. When a young alligator is found in the local pool, Keisha and her father are on the job. The richly described characters include Keisha’s Nigerian mother, whose brisk, no-nonsense child-rearing is refreshing. Facts peppered throughout the story add depth and will leave information-hungry animal lovers wanting more. (9–12 years)
Maryrose Wood begins her new series, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, with a fresh take on antiquated conventions. In The Mysterious Howling, Miss Penelope Lumley, an orphaned yet cheerful young lady, accepts a position as governess to three uncivilized (they’ve been raised by wolves) children on a country estate full of secrets. Over-the-top characterizations, ludicrous situations, and tongue-in-cheek humor make for a strong start to a series sure to gain faithful followers. (9–12 years)
In the May/June 2010 issue of The Horn Book Magazine, reviewer and school librarian Jonathan Hunt looks at the increasing interest in themes of war in fiction and nonfiction for older children and teens. Here are a few of the most recent inquiries into that timely and challenging theme.
While fifth-grader Juliet is finding conflict enough in her changing relationship with former best friend Lowell, the stakes become higher when the Cuban Missile Crisis reaches into her small town, home to an Air Force base. In This Means War! Ellen Wittlinger deftly blends an everyday-life story with the milieu and Cold War fears of 1962. (9–12 years)
The Missile Crisis is also the looming offstage element in Deborah Wiles’s Countdown, which innovatively intersperses the Cold War-at-home story of eleven-year-old Franny with journalistically immediate accounts and photographs of the real people, movements, and crises of the early 1960s. Franny’s story alone is fascinating; the nonfiction sections add both context and authenticity. (9–12 years)
In Gary Paulsen’s Woods Runner, war also seems far away to thirteen-year-old Samuel, who lives with his parents in a forest far from the momentous battles of 1776. But the Revolution eventually reaches him, and Samuel must use all he knows about survival in the wilderness to escape the enemy. Hatchet fans, this book has your name on it. (10–14 years)
Moving to the twentieth century, two new novels approach what might be familiar territory in fresh and compelling ways. In Ashes, Kathryn Lasky looks at the life of Gaby, a privileged “Aryan” girl whose conscience comes to life in the dark era of 1930s Germany. Interweaving the personal and political with skill, Lasky creates a sympathetic portrait of a girl and her time. (12–16 years)
Holocaust and fable are not generally words that work well together (witness the ill-conceived Boy in the Striped Pajamas), but Morris Gleitzman’s Once manages this difficult intersection with heartbreaking poise. Felix doesn’t understand — or doesn’t want to understand — why the soldiers are chasing him and the other children, but he becomes crafty, caring, and brave. This is the rare Holocaust book for young readers that doesn’t alleviate its dark themes with a too-comforting ending. (10–14 years)
There’s something for everyone in this roundup of some current YA novels: supernatural doings, philosophical pondering, sci-fi activism, friendship and romance, and a wild summer vacation.
With its wide range of subject and style, The Poison Eaters and Other Stories, shows off author Holly Black’s fertile imagination. Palpable details and shifts in tone carry readers between different times and places: the sticky, boring summer of a girl with a crappy mall job; an icy kingdom surrounded by dark and dangerous forests; the Philippine setting for a trickster tale about a girl who outsmarts the enkanto (elf) who cursed her sister. An entertaining and eclectic mix. (14 years and up)
In The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, tough-guy Pancho Sanchez is convinced his “slow” older sister, Rosa, was murdered, and he lives to take vengeance on the killer. His plan is put on hold when he’s befriended by D.Q., a strange boy with terminal cancer. Francisco X. Stork’s novel, featuring unforgettable characters confronting the big philosophical questions in life, will resonate with readers long after book’s end. (14 years and up)
Author and technology activist Cory Doctorow explores the ambiguous boundaries between virtual reality and the world as we know it in For the Win. The novel follows gamers, gold farmers (who play role-playing games to accumulate virtual money, points, and treasures that can be sold — for real money — to other players), and those who would take advantage of them. (14 years and up)
Two teens with the same name meet in a chance encounter in Will Grayson, Will Grayson. The straight Will Grayson is risk-averse and best friends with the garrulous, very gay Tiny Cooper; the gay Will Grayson is lonely and depressed. When the first Will finds his friendship with Tiny falling apart, the other Will finds his life opening up — scarily, thrillingly — when Tiny enters it. This collaboration by John Green and David Levithan provides an epic spin on personal and interpersonal drama. (14 years and up)
In Lynne Rae Perkins’s As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth, fifteen-year-old Ry opens a letter on his way to summer camp in Montana and discovers that the camp has gone out of business; when he hops off the train to call his grandfather, the train leaves, stranding him in the middle of nowhere. A kind stranger who “marches to the beat of, like, I don’t know, a harmonica or something” offers to help out. Perkins’s narrative is supremely warm, funny, and wise. (10–14 years)
—Jennifer M. Brabander
What makes a good graduation gift? Ask that question of Horn Book staff and reviewers, and there’s one thing we all agree on: a book. Excerpted from the May/June 2010 issue of The Horn Book Magazine, here are some of our suggestions, for a variety of ages and stages of life.
“Marla Frazee’s picture book Walk On!: A Guide for Babies of All Ages is for beginners of any age. The book is full of good advice (“Remember to breathe”; “Go ahead and cry if it helps”) that, coupled with Frazee’s pictures of a determined toddler, wearing a diaper twice the size of its head, will get laughs from both kindergartners and teenagers.”
“Wise, generously spirited, and respectful of readers old and young, any picture book by William Steig would make a great graduation gift. But which one? I think I’ll go with Brave Irene, because it’s about loving your mom so much you will leave home on her behalf, facing down the elements on your own and getting the job done, earning respect and cake in the end.”
“With the world encouraging graduates to be productive, ambitious, effective, and, most of all, very very busy, I like to provide balance with a gift of M. B. Goffstein’s A Writer, which celebrates lying on the couch, and thinking.”
“In Valerie Worth’s All the Small Poems and Fourteen More, illustrated with line drawings by Natalie Babbitt, each of Worth’s poems reminds us to stop looking ahead and focus on the moment — look closely at the ordinary things around you, like a chair, or a rosebush in winter, and notice how interesting they are. There is always time for a small poem, no matter how busy you are achieving your next goal.”
“I’d recommend Terry Pratchett’s masterpiece, Nation — for any occasion, really, but especially for graduation. Why? Because it’s about how to be a human being, and that ought to be what every graduation brings us closer to. Because it embraces possibilities and questions conventions (why not look at “the world turned upside down”?). Because it rejects absolutes such as perfection and happily-ever-after in favor of real life. There aren’t many novels that leave their readers both clear-headed and starry-eyed; not a bad state in which to start any new phase in life.”
—Horn Book staff and reviewers
On our website, you can read our complete recommendations for books that make good graduation gifts, and I wanted to take the opportunity to point out our “Family Reading” page, which includes several other “What Makes a Good . . . ?” guides as well as other articles of particular interest to parents. Martha Parravano’s essay about reading with her preschooler is wise and useful (although it makes me feel very old indeed, as that preschooler graduates from high school next month). For slightly older children, Robin Smith considers what to look for in books for second-graders; similar introductions to fantasy, dinosaur books, and the like are equally helpful, even — dare I say — inspirational. Have a look.
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