V O L U M E 3 , N U M B E R 1 1 • N O V E M B E R 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.
On the cover of Big Nate Strikes Again, the second book about sixth-grader Nate Wright, there’s a plug from Jeff Kinney, author of the Wimpy Kid books. It’s an apt endorsement — kids who enjoy Kinney’s books will love Peirce’s, which, for our money, are funnier and bigger-hearted. Nate already has a flourishing career as the star of his own syndicated comic strip, and he looks set to become a fixture in the firmament of middle-grade antiheroes — a third book is already promised. (8–12 years)
1. What have been the challenges of turning a comic-strip hero into a protagonist of middle-grade fiction?
Since it was syndicated almost twenty years ago, Big Nate has become known as a kids’ strip in the comics industry. I don’t mind that designation at all, because it signals to me that the character was resonating with young readers long before I ever thought of writing books for them. But I’ve never considered Big Nate a kids’ comic strip. When I’m writing a gag, the litmus test for me is not whether a nine- or ten-year-old reader will find it funny; it’s whether I find it funny.
Writing middle-grade fiction is very different. I’m writing with a specific readership in mind, and that means taking a lot of different factors into consideration, with dialogue at the head of that list. In the strip, I try to make certain Nate and his classmates seem like reasonably authentic sixth graders, but it isn’t unusual for them to sound older than they are. In the books, I feel a responsibility to be far more vigilant about writing eleven-year-old dialogue for eleven-year-old characters. I find it challenging because I’ve been writing the comic strip for so long that I sometimes lapse into a more familiar gag-writing style while working on the books.
2. How do you know where to bring a cartoon into the text?
Sometimes it’s very obvious, because the text will indicate very clearly that a drawing, or series of drawings, is needed in a certain spot. I always try to err on the side of providing more rather than fewer visuals. I try to put myself in a ten-year-old reader’s shoes: would I rather read about Nate hitting someone in the face with a pie, or see a picture of it? In a lot of cases, I know exactly where I want to place the drawings from the moment I write the text.
But in other cases, the decision process is a little more mysterious. I’ve always been a rhythm writer, by which I mean I’m a bit obsessive about the way my text sounds when I read it back to myself. I have to like the way it sounds. And on a page where text and comics are coexisting, there’s sort of a rhythmic interplay between the two. There are plenty of times when I’ll write a line of dialogue for Nate; and then, when I read the whole page (or the whole chapter) back to myself, I’ll realize: oh, that dialogue really doesn’t sound good as a line of text. It would sound much better as hand-lettered dialogue in a speech bubble.
3. How do you think Charlie Brown would fare at Nate’s school, P.S. 38?
You found my sweet spot with this question. I love talking about Peanuts. Sparky (Charles Schulz) once said that, as a child, he felt so plain and nondescript that he was genuinely surprised whenever someone recognized him on the street; and Charlie Brown’s persona mirrors that childhood experience. Charlie Brown is the classic “slip through the cracks” kid. He’s not remarkable enough to be noticed for anything, and he’s too competent to be labeled an underachiever or troublemaker. As readers, of course, we pay very close attention to Charlie Brown, and live and die with each of his inevitable failures. But to his peers and his teachers, he’s quite anonymous. If Charlie Brown were plunked down in the middle of P.S. 38, I think he would find allies in a couple of the characters who are most like himself. He’d like Mr. Rosa, who’s a combination kindhearted art teacher/exhausted burnout case. And I think he’d like Francis, who has a little bit of Linus Van Pelt in him: sensitive, tolerant, intellectual. He’d probably recognize Gina, the obnoxious overachiever, who might remind him just a bit of Lucy. But others at P.S. 38 have no real counterparts in Charlie Brown’s world. I’m not sure he’d know what to make of some of the more extreme characters, like Mrs. Godfrey, Coach John, or the bullying Randy Betancourt. I was fortunate enough to speak with Sparky several times over the years, and although we got along wonderfully, we did disagree on a couple of things. He didn’t think comic strips featuring children needed to have bully characters. He thought Mrs. Godfrey was a bully; he found her too over-the-top. He’d say to me, “You don’t have to make her so mean!” But he never said it in a critical way. He was an incredibly kindhearted and generous person.
4. What was the hardest thing about sixth grade for you?
Easy answer. I was part of what I refer to now as a “friendship triangle.” Two other boys and I were close friends. And yet the three of us seemed virtually incapable of getting along as a group. Two would inevitably team up and exclude the third. If you were the one on the outs, it was an awful feeling. But when the dynamic shifted and you suddenly found yourself allied with Friend A against Friend B, you’d immediately forget how lousy it had felt to be the third wheel. It’s easy, with the gift of hindsight, to say that friendships as fickle and volatile as these weren’t worth having; but that’s ignoring how desperate you are at that age to fit in somewhere and be part of something.
5. People worry a lot about whether boys are reading, or reading enough, or reading the right things. Do you?
Well, I certainly think that almost all young people, not just boys, should be reading more. This will make me sound hopelessly out of touch with the world I’m living in, but I think the staggering amount of screen time that an average child logs each day undermines the growth and development of some very important skills. And first and foremost among them is the ability to empathize, whether with another human being or with a character in a book. I’ve written before about particular books — Banner in the Sky, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Great Brain, A Confederacy of Dunces — and the profound impact they had on me when I was young. I don’t know if books occupy the same lofty spot in the spectrum of childhood experiences as they did in years past; and even if they do, they have an awful lot more to compete with.
I used to teach in an all-boys high school, and what struck me right away was how completely and ruthlessly the academic achievers — the readers — were marginalized socially by their peers. Scholarship was not celebrated. Social currency took the form of athletic prowess and/or social savvy. So despite what their teachers were trying to tell them, these boys were experiencing a powerful incentive not to read on a daily basis.
So yes, I certainly worry about whether boys are reading enough. But I don’t worry about whether they’re reading the right things. I’m unqualified to make those judgments, as are all the well-meaning school boards and citizen action groups who work so hard to ban books from our libraries. I’m fond of the adage “Live and Let Live,” but maybe in this case we should tweak it slightly. How does “Read and Let Read” sound?
A huge part of the fun in the Big Nate books is the interplay between the cartoons and text. Here are three more books for upper-elementary kids that manage the same adroit counterpoint.
In Barry Deutsch and Jake Richmond’s graphic novel Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, eleven-year-old Mirka Herschberg is not your average dragon-slaying heroine. She’s a Hasidic Jew who not only must face the dragon but also a talking pig (“I will rip the chupa at your wedding!”), a troll, and a stepmother who can argue with rabbinical zest. The story is certainly unique, laugh-out-loud funny, and thoroughly engrossing. (9–14 years)
Kids who enjoy the Big Nate and Wimpy Kid books will also like Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze, by Alan Silberberg, another story punctuated with wry cartoons. Milo has the typical problems of a kid entering seventh grade — lunch seating, weird smells, the hell of gym — but the tragicomedy of school life is in his case edged with real sorrow, for his mother, who died a few years earlier. Told through Milo’s distinct and believable voice, the novel is a rich and real story of grief and growing up. (9–12 years)
Robert “Yummy” Sandifer’s mug shot was all over the news in 1994, when the eleven-year-old boy from Chicago, aiming at a rival gang member, instead shot and killed a teenaged girl sitting nearby. In Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty, G. Neri vividly re-creates Yummy’s story as it might have been seen by a (fictional) classmate, Roger, whose innocent but empathetic perspective allows readers a way to connect with the harrowing events. Randy DuBurke illustrates the graphic novel with noirish intensity. (10–14 years)
Ear-tickling verses plus eye-pleasing illustrations: young readers, listeners, and viewers, welcome! In these four books of poetry, words and pictures work wonderfully together.
Pocketful of Posies: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes presents sixty-five mostly familiar nursery rhymes, organized loosely from morning to night. Salley Mavor’s accompanying illustrations are remarkable hand-sewn tapestries of wool, felt, embroidery, beads, and needlework. All families deserve an excellent collection of nursery rhymes, and this special volume is one of the best. (3–6 years)
The moon, dreams, lullabies, bathtime, toothbrushes — these things all make appearances in Switching on the Moon: A Very First Book of Bedtime Poems. Compilers Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters do a fine job of varying the subjects and moods in this cozy themed anthology that includes poets both well known and up-and-coming. G. Brian Karas’s paintings, many featuring a gorgeous midnight blue, are peopled with cloud-sleepers, bed-bouncers, dream-wonderers, and night-singers, a safe world with an edge of mystery. (3–6 years)
Fourteen animals from around the world share the stage in David Elliott and Holly Meade’s In the Wild. Elliott’s verses are deftly composed, including both paradoxes (elephant: “Big, yet moves / with grace. / Powerful, yet delicate / as lace…”) and wry humor (“I wish we had, / for Zebra’s sake, / a different alphabet”). Meade’s handsome full-spread woodcut and watercolor art captures each creature’s essence, from a jaguar prowling the jungle floor, to a kangaroo leaping into the distance, to an evanescent polar bear immersed in a blue-green sea. (4–8 years)
Guyku: A Year of Haiku for Boys by Bob Raczka renders with amazing economy the specific moments of a boy’s life throughout the seasons. Illustrator Peter H. Reynolds depicts the glee and energy of the characters, in addition to the natural elements, with just a few strokes. The pages are clean white, the book’s shape small and square, and each poem is handwritten, accompanied by a delicate and funny two-color illustration. The book may inspire readers to try turning their own experiences into seventeen-syllable poems. (4–8 years)
For those who love history, there’s a wealth of new offerings, including the four featured here: a profile of a Revolutionary War hero, an account of exploration before airplanes, a look at the formative first decade of the twenty-first century, and, on a more lighthearted note, an examination of Barbie’s cultural influence.
Lafayette, a nobleman in the French court, risked everything — his reputation, his wealth, and his life — to aid the American cause of liberty. Elegantly illustrated with color reproductions, Lafayette and the American Revolution is written with author Russell Freedman’s characteristic grace and clarity. As the narrative brings Lafayette to life, it also illuminates the American Revolution’s connection to the revolutions that would happen all over the world. (10–14 years)
From 1783 until the advent of the airplane in the early twentieth century, the skies belonged exclusively to balloonists (and birds). In Sky Sailors: True Stories of the Balloon Era, David L. Bristow has collected nine of the more interesting stories about this topic: children who inadvertently went aloft (recalling the recent Balloon Boy hoax), a female daredevil, and men who flew too high, to name a few. The stories are written in an anecdotal fashion with lots of dialogue and an emphasis on the strange, the dangerous, and the exciting. (10–14 years)
In The Ten-Year Century: Explaining the First Decade of the New Millennium, James Sutherland asserts that events of the past decade represent what in other times would be considered a century of change. Eleven chronological chapters, beginning with the year 2000 (2001 receives two chapters), discuss transformations in politics, the media, international relations, and the economy. This quick look backward is a helpful tool for understanding many aspects of contemporary society. (11 years and up)
Is Barbie a blond Chucky slashing away at little girls’ self-esteem? Or is she My First Feminist, with her lab coats, astronaut helmets, and high-fashion gowns, encouraging girls to imagine themselves in whatever roles they choose? Tanya Lee Stone’s evenhanded, eye-opening cultural history, The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll’s History and Her Impact on Us, examines this split personality, quoting a myriad of sources to reveal both the devotion and loathing generated by the iconic doll. (11 years and up)
—Martha V. Parravano
It’s beginning to look a lot like that most wonderful time of the year. Here are a few recommendations for new Christmas books from the Horn Book elves.
David Shannon’s eponymous character (No, David!) is back to his old tricks in It’s Christmas, David! This time his antics include peeking at presents; running down the street wearing only a hat, mittens, and boots; breaking a window with a snowball. Has David gone too far? Is this troublemaker destined to get coal in his stocking? A happy ending isn’t in doubt, and Shannon’s wildly humorous illustrations help ratchet up the energy and fill in the gaps of the minimal text. (3–6 years)
In La Noche Buena: A Christmas Story by Antonio Sacre, a little girl spends Christmas with her father’s side of the family in Miami’s Little Havana. Her abuela and uncles and cousins include her in their Cuban holiday traditions, especially preparations for La Noche Buena, or Christmas Eve. Angela Dominguez’s upbeat acrylic illustrations in tropical colors capture the warmth of family togetherness and the joyous celebration of “the best night of the year.” (4–8 years)
The Twenty-four Days Before Christmas: An Austin Family Story is a new edition of this Madeleine L’Engle story first published in 1984. Vicky Austin, teenage star of L’Engle’s Austin Family Chronicles, narrates this tale set in her childhood. While seven-year-old Vicky nervously rehearses for the Christmas pageant, the entire family prepares for the arrival of a new baby. Jill Weber’s spot illustrations are rendered in an inviting folk-art style; readers will feel as though they’re glimpsing the Austins’ very own well-loved ornaments and other holiday memorabilia. (5–8 years)
With text from the King James Bible (“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field”) and child-friendly illustrations, Lauren Castillo’s Christmas Is Here celebrates the long-ago miracle of the Nativity while evoking the real meaning of the contemporary holiday. A young child walks with his family through their neighborhood to take in a live Nativity scene. As the biblical story begins, the boy and readers are transported to the setting of the first Christmas. Castillo’s welcoming compositions make the formal text accessible to a young audience. (4–8 years)
Jacqueline Farmer addresses the question, “How did the Christmas tree custom begin?” in O Christmas Tree: Its History and Holiday Traditions. From the evergreen boughs used by ancient Egyptians to celebrate the winter solstice to modern LED lights and pink aluminum trees, Farmer provides a wealth of information about the social history of the Christmas tree. Illustrated with Joanne Friar’s warm gouache pictures filled with cheer, the book is well-organized and perfect for browsing. (6–9 years)
While the Horn Book Magazine and the Horn Book Guide together review almost five thousand new children’s books a year, there are plenty more where those come from. Our new blog, Out of the Box, is our attempt to provide some coverage of books and book-like things that will most probably prove ephemeral but nevertheless are a significant source of pleasure in any reading diet: paperback series, board books, tie-ins, novelty books, and digital books-cum-toys. Everybody needs fad reading: the point of such series as Vampire Angels in Love (yes, I did make that up) is not just the fun to be had in sheer escapism, but also the social connection that these books offer both eager and reluctant readers in a common cultural landscape, however superficial. As I wrote in A Family of Readers, “series books have the virtue of being everywhere, providing common sustenance, if not nourishment. They’re popular because they’re popular, serving the social function of being something to like that other people like too.” So proudly retrieve your Twilight lunchbox from its hiding place and pull up a chair.
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