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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.
The list of now iconic characters created by Rosemary Wells is long — Morris, Yoko, Benjamin and Tulip, Shy Charles — and baby brother Max and big sister Ruby are at the top of any children’s-book A-list. Max & Ruby’s Bedtime Book (3–5 years) is Wells’s latest book about the pair of rabbit siblings, first introduced in the board book Max’s First Word in 1979. I emailed Rosemary to see where thirty years has brought them and their creator.
1. You began a boom of high-quality board-book publishing in the early eighties. How did those first Max and Ruby books come about?
Well, Max and Ruby are really my own children. I listened to their conversations when they didn’t know I could hear them. (This is a very important point. People always ask, Where are Max and Ruby’s parents? The answer is the parents are listening in the next room.) Victoria, who was five, decided to teach Meg, who was about a year old, how to speak and dress and eat neatly. Victoria was very bossy and at the same time, a wonderful help to me. She dragged her little sister around the house like a flour sack, saying to her: “Chair, Meg! Say it CHAIR! CHAIR CHAIR!” But all Meg would say was “Bang.”
This interchange became Max’s First Word. It was a story sixteen pages long. I dummied it up. Too short for a picture book. No real plot. Only funny.
I didn’t know what to do with it so I brought it in to my editor, Phyllis Fogelman. Phyllis took one look at this little sixteen-page book and said, “Rosemary, I am going off to the Bologna Book Fair. I will be back in a week. If you have three more stories on my desk Monday morning, each twelve pages long and young young young, we can make the fall list with something that has never been done before!“
At the time there were no storybooks or funny books for babies. There were just very simple and boring texts. “Boat, Ball, Apple,” etc. In those days I used to read my kids National Geographic and Gourmet magazines for lack of anything in their age range.
Phyllis Fogelman and Regina Hayes at Dial Press became the first to publish board books with story, and those books were Max and Ruby. The concept was Phyllis’s, and Regina promptly named them Very First Books.
2. You’re also famous for your campaign to get parents to read aloud daily with their children. What do you think of the Freakonomics position that liking to read is genetic and that readers-for-pleasure are born, not made?
I really liked the authors’ first book. I found the second to have that tone of self-congratulation (gee whiz, we can’t be wrong!) that immediately sets the doubt wheels going. No one could possibly prove that reading for pleasure is genetic. It’s not like red hair.
I believe talents and attributes are gifts, but whether they are inherited is another matter. Mozart proves that musical talent is inherited, as his father was a great composer. Beethoven proves this is untrue since his forebears probably couldn’t hold a note!
Activities like reading have a lot to do with family culture and parental modeling. Nurture, not so much nature.
3. We’re hearing a lot now about digital “apps” that allow a preschooler to read Cat in the Hat, say, on Mom’s iPhone. Do you have an opinion on this?
All for it and going to join in soon! Real children’s literature is rare enough on any screen. If Mom is in the supermarket line the kids will benefit from Cat in the Hat instead of some violent or mind-numbing video game.
I would actually liked to have been a police detective or worked for the CIA or FBI. That’s not going to happen. So I am happy with the generous gifts I have been given. There is plenty of room for me to improve within the genres I have chosen.
5. Max and Ruby are pushing thirty. If they ever were to grow up, what do you think they would be doing?
Rosemary Wells’s Max and Ruby are joined by some other beloved characters in picture book series by Peter Sís, Anita Lobel, and Mo Willems.
Peter Sís’s Madlenka, Madlenka’s Dog, and now Madlenka Soccer Star all connect a young girl’s daily life on one New York City block with goings-on in the larger world. Our protagonist dribbles a ball, imagining a field of nontraditional opponents, outplaying a mailbox, a dog, a parking meter — “Nothing can stop her.” The muted gray-blue cityscape, infused with pops of color, conjures a dream-like atmosphere, where Sís cleverly fuses the ethnically diverse Manhattan neighborhood with a fanciful scene of Madlenka and her best friend playing soccer with children from around the world. (3–7 years)
In Anita Lobel’s Nini Lost and Found, someone has left the door open, and Nini the cat (from Nini Here and There) goes out to explore. The woods beyond the garden offer the exotic pleasures of leaves, mosses, and tree trunks as well as little creatures to find (kids can play along here) and stalk. But then the sky darkens and the creatures get bigger and more predatory; can Nini find her way safely home? There is just enough tension for preschoolers here, but the pictures, even the nighttime spreads, are too bountifully warm to leave anything but a happy ending in doubt. (3–7 years)
Trixie — and her fans — bid a fond farewell to Knuffle Bunny in Mo Willems’s Knuffle Bunny Free: An Unexpected Diversion. On a trip to visit Trixie’s grandparents in the Netherlands, K.B. is accidentally left behind on the plane. Trixie finds comfort and resolution in her subconscious, sleeping and dreaming of Knuffle Bunny flying around the globe and befriending other children. On the way home, the two are reunited, but it’s time for both of them to move on; their parting is bittersweet but right, and amply supported by what’s gone before. (3–7 years)
—Jennifer M. Brabander
Chapter book readers are especially attracted to series books, allowing them to use previous knowledge about characters to help with still-developing reading skills. Here are three established series and one stand-alone chapter book.
In Ivy + Bean What’s the Big Idea?, second-grade friends Ivy and Bean need to come up with a science fair idea to fight global warming. A few false starts involve hurling ice cubes into the sky while jumping on a trampoline (a low-tech attempt to cool the air); tying their wrists together (to make humans weaker and let animals take over); and smashing rice grains with a hammer (could rice be a new source of clean energy?). The girls eventually devise a simple but brilliant project in this fresh and funny seventh entry in the series by Annie Barrows and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. (6–10 years)
Third-grader Dyamonde wants new high-tops and tells her mother, “I need red ones, and you have to get them for me.” Oh, really? To teach her the difference between want and need, Dyamonde’s mother takes away almost all her clothes. The family and friend dynamics are pitch perfect in this honest yet funny look at life in families where money is an ongoing issue. Almost Zero, Nikki Grimes’s third chapter book about Dyamonde Daniel, features dynamic black-and-white drawings by R. Gregory Christie. (6–10 years)
Sophie wants a special present for her tenth birthday, something she’s longed for all her life: a pet. A baby gorilla, in fact. Things get a little out of hand when Sophie’s rash announcement to her best friends that her parents have actually consented spreads throughout her whole fourth-grade class. In Happy Birthday, Sophie Hartley, the third book about Sophie, Stephanie Greene explores themes of identity, ambivalence about growing up, and friendship with an unusual naturalness and depth, yet the themes never trump story or character. (6–10 years)
Fantasy readers will enjoy Thomas and the Dragon Queen, Shutta Crum’s chapter book about tiny Thomas, who dreams of knighthood, despite his scrawny frame and low birth. A little guy with a big heart (he’s the oldest of ten and used to tending the needs of babies and toddlers), Thomas impresses a visiting knight, Sir Gerald, who offers him a variety of challenges, each of which Thomas attacks with gusto. Amusing drawings by Lee Wildish jibe well with the rollicking tone, making this a sure-fire hit as a read-aloud. (6–10 years)
—Jennifer M. Brabander
What do bats, giant squid, skyscrapers, and medieval architecture have in common? They’re all subjects of some great new high-interest nonfiction books for eight- to twelve-year-old readers.
Mary Kay Carson’s The Bat Scientists profiles scientist Merlin Tuttle and his fellow bat-lovers of Bat Conservation International (BCI) as they research these misunderstood creatures. “The single biggest threat to bats is human ignorance about them,” Tuttle explains to Carson and to readers. “Most people are very happy to protect bats if only they understand them.” Debunking “Batty Myths” and highlighting conservation efforts, this impassioned book is rich with fascinating information and photographs. (9–12 years)
Nineteenth-century sailors often reported encounters with squid-like sea monsters, but they were never taken very seriously by scientists. Recently, photos and video of giant squid have enhanced our understanding, but we still know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the mysterious creatures lurking a mile deep in the ocean. In Here There Be Monsters: The Legendary Kraken and the Giant Squid, author HP Newquist’s concise text, complemented by illustrations, photographs, and maps, smoothly segues between history and science. (9–12 years)
In Skywalkers: Mohawk Ironworkers Build the City, David Weitzman combines social and industrial history as he describes the contributions Indian ironworkers made to city skylines in the United States. “The story that led [Mohawks] from the longhouse villages to the urban landscape is part of a tradition stretching back thousands of years.” Ironworker testimony, along with other eyewitness reports and historical photographs, gives the book a documentary, you-are-there feel. (10–14 years)
Three of David Macaulay’s classics — Cathedral, Castle, and Mosque — are substantially revised in Built to Last, an omnibus celebration of the building of historic, monumental structures. Macaulay’s near-perfect books are actually much improved here. Compositions are more animated, some schematic drawings are now three-dimensional scenes, and color lends enchantment to many pages. The reorganization of the texts facilitates understanding of construction processes and how the three different medieval societies functioned. The whole conveys a clearer and more dramatic sense of the magnitude of these undertakings. (10 years and up)
Escape into these five recently released installments of popular dystopian, fantasy, and science fiction series.
Mockingjay, the final book in the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, opens with Katniss in a thriving District 13, once thought to have been destroyed but now spearheading an open rebellion against the Capitol. One last desperate mission takes Katniss and company to the Capitol, where she hopes to deal a mortal blow to President Snow and his oppressive regime. Dark and complex but exciting, Mockingjay brings this saga to a provocative and satisfying conclusion. (12 years and up)
Cinda Williams Chima’s The Exiled Queen, book two in her Seven Realms series, heats up the first book’s complicated social and political situation. Princess Raisa journeys to the military academy at Oden’s Ford to get an education and avoid an arranged marriage and attempted coup. Meanwhile, former gang lord Han Allister also travels to Oden’s Ford, and when princess and gang lord find each other again sparks fly, romantic and otherwise. Chima sets the stakes higher and higher for her earnest and likable characters. (12 years and up)
Gool, the second volume of Maurice Gee’s Salt trilogy, focuses on the children of Hari and Pearl, heroes of Salt. Called upon to eradicate poisonous, jellyfish-like creatures called gools, Xantee and her friend Duro travel to the dystopic City to find the gools’ origin and life source in order to defeat them. Gee’s quick, forceful prose retains all its drive in this installment; his imagined land and the sturdy independence of his characters are fresh and engaging. (12 years and up)
The Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness concludes with Monsters of Men. Through the twists and turns of the plot, the consequences of war, terrorism, and colonialism become horrifyingly apparent. The trilogy stands as a significant achievement in science fiction due to its masterful storytelling and timely examination of human nature, human society, and the terrible costs of violence. (14 years and up)
I Shall Wear Midnight is the fourth and final volume in Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching adventures. Witch Tiffany, along with her tiny red-bearded, blue-skinned allies, the Nac Mac Feegles, must conquer a “horrible creature who can take over somebody else completely” — especially someone open to evil. Pratchett’s dramatic and amusing tale mixes intelligence, humor, and insightful moral seriousness, successfully concluding one of the most entertaining and literarily rich fantasies available for young adults. (12 years and up)
—Cynthia K. Ritter
Series used to be a naughty word among children’s librarians, conjuring endless rows of Stratemeyer Syndicate books (Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys) pushing out higher-quality books. There was always a certain amount of hypocrisy in this assessment, as those same librarians were just as likely to curl up at home with the latest Perry Mason mystery or Harlequin romance.
But we’ve all become more broad-minded (and self-aware), and series book is no longer said with a sneer. As you can see from the books reviewed above, there are all kinds of series, from multibook sagas (Mockingjay) to discrete outings with the same characters (Max & Ruby’s Bedtime Book) to nonfiction series on a unifying theme (The Bat Scientists). Our partner TeachingBooks.net has just put up a free resource about series books, with all kinds of links to author interviews and helpful lists of series titles.
In an era when so much media is coming at kids from so many directions, I suspect that the appeal of series can only grow stronger, providing at least one clear answer to the question, “What should I read next?” Amidst all the noise, it’s nice to know that Max and Ruby, Ramona Quimby, and Harry Potter are there, ready to tell you another story you can hope to love as much as the first.
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