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For a list of books mentioned in this issue, see link below.
Masthead art © by William Steig, used with permission of Pippin Properties, Inc.

Five questions for Franny Billingsley

Franny Billingsley’s newest novel, Chime, has received no fewer than six starred reviews, including one from The Horn Book. In 2008, her picture book, Big Bad Bunny, illustrated by G. Brian Karas, received glowing reviews, and a previous novel, The Folk Keeper, won the 2000 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for fiction. She graciously agreed to answer some questions we had about picture books, Scottish ballads, humor, fantasy, and one-handed men.

1. You spent about twelve years writing Chime, but it was well worth the wait — and we’re very excited to hear there will be two companion books coming. While you’re spending the next couple of decades writing those (just kidding!), will you throw another great picture book our way? Maybe a companion to Big Bad Bunny?

Franny Billingsley: I’ve never thought about a companion to Big Bad Bunny — hmm, that’s worth contemplating. I do have drafts of other picture books, which are, I hope, germinating in some crevice of my brain. I find picture books tricky. I can’t write my way into understanding the plot — maybe there aren’t enough words to write. Or maybe it’s that “my” kind of picture book is based on an idea, a secret, say (mouse in bunny costume), and until that idea comes to me, I can’t keep on with the draft. And so I look at my drafts every so often: perhaps this time, the idea will pop out at me.

A decade per book? Well, maybe that’s about right.

2. In Chime, we’re told that Briony and Rose’s father sang to them when they were younger. As a child, your father sang to you and your siblings every night, and you’ve said that the Scottish ballads he sang have inspired your writing. What did you sing to your son and daughter?

FB: I sang them the same songs, nursery rhymes and children’s songs (e.g., “Over in the Meadow”) when they were very young, then I sang the American folk songs and Scottish ballads my father sang to me (there are also plenty of Scottish drinking songs and bawdy songs in the mix).

But my daughter might tell you I didn’t do a very good job.

When my dad turned eighty, I wanted to give him a book (well, a three-ring binder) containing lyrics to all the family songs. I got as far as compiling an index and the lyrics to songs that start with the letters A through D. (My dad’s now eighty-five). But my failure wasn’t that I stopped at D. My failure lay in the fact that there were songs in the index my daughter, Miranda, didn’t recognize, songs I hadn’t passed along. But this is the way I think about it: just as song lyrics shift and change (as I saw to my horror when I began to pore through song books, trying to re-create the “Billingsley” version), the Billingsley-Pettengill kids know a slightly different bunch of songs than I did as a kid; it’s not that they know fewer. I suppose I’ll have to make a binder of the Billingsley-Pettengill songs, but I’d better finish Dad’s first.

3. In an interview a while back you said that you don’t think you have a humorous bone in your body when it comes to writing. Nevertheless, Chime’s protagonist Briony has an incredibly sardonic sense of humor, and handsome stranger Eldric is pretty witty himself. Were they always so clever, or did their humor evolve as you worked on the book?

FB: When I begin writing, my characters are bits of protoplasm that I move about the narrative board. But as I write, and write and write, I begin to understand them: I understand what makes them tick, understand their perceptions of themselves, their childhood wounds, their deep-down desires — the desires they hide even from themselves (this last mostly true of Briony). And once I come to understand these things, understand them in a deep-down way myself, the character’s voice begins to emerge in surprising ways. I’ll find Briony, for example, speaking through the lens of her perception that she’s wicked. I’ve come to understand it pretty well myself, but she’ll say it in a way I’d never have thought of (“I might eat a baby for breakfast . . .”). So yes, once the voices of Briony and Eldric were . . . were liberated, let’s say, they’d start to speak in their own ways, in ways I never would, or could, have imagined. It’s they, the characters, who are funny or witty; it’s not I, the author, who’s funny.

4. You’ve been a fantasy reader since childhood. Do you read any fantasy novels for adults, or are you mostly a fan of children’s and YA fantasy?

FB: I do read some adult fantasy, but I find it often lacks the intimacy I crave from any novel. Either the cast of characters is too large, or the landscape is too big, or the stakes are too broad (I’d rather read about saving the character’s soul than saving the character’s kingdom), or the protagonist feels somehow distant. This last is probably a function of one or more of the foregoing, all of which add up to a kind of psychic distance from the character that in turn, distances me from the story. So while I enjoy The Blue Sword, I adore Beauty. I love The Hobbit but can’t connect to the rest of the Lord of the Rings books (heresy, I know). And if I’m ever without a fantasy (or any book) that draws me into the emotional world of the protagonist, I’m always happy to re-read I Capture the Castle.

5. If Chime’s Eldric has any competition at all in the hunky one-handed YA fantasy hero category, it’s Megan Whalen Turner’s Eugenides (from The Thief et al.). Tell us, if Eldric and Gen were to arm-wrestle, who would win?

FB: What a great question! I think that one of Eldric’s great gifts is that he’s pretty connected to his childhood self, which means that he doesn’t wear much of a mask. Which means that bit by bit, he’s able to tease Briony to the surface, the real Briony, the Briony who’s suffocating under her mask. Gen, however, is dead opposite to Eldric. When I think about Gen’s character in The King of Attolia, for example, I think about the way he kept Costis so unbalanced. The reader sees him mostly through Costis’s eyes and it is only toward the end that Costis sees bits of the real Gen. Most of us wear masks to make ourselves look better, but Gen is a trickster. In The King of Attolia, for his own complex reasons, he hides his skill at swordplay, taking Costis by surprise toward the end. So if Eldric, who hasn’t much of a mask, were pitted against Gen, who turns his own mask inside out — if they were to arm-wrestle, I don’t think Eldric stands a chance.

It’s funny that I never thought about the parallel between Gen’s hand and Eldric’s hand. Perhaps it’s because of the many, many drafts in which it was Briony who lost the hand. Or perhaps it’s because Gen and Eldric are so different, that hand or no, I don’t put them in the same mental box.  

—Jennifer M. Brabander

More fantasy for older readers

With the publication of fantasy novels having increased three-fold since the success of Harry Potter, it’s not hard to find new ones, but here are a few that deserve to stand out from the crowded shelves.

As the mystic Taisin and diplomat’s daughter Kaede make an important and perilous journey for the King, their feelings for each other — and the obstacles to their love — become clear. With Huntress, Malinda Lo provides a (several-hundred-years earlier) prequel to her popular Ash, once more situating a passionate romance between two young women against a background of magic and intrigue. (14 years and up)

Three boys are at the center of Orson Scott Card’s Pathfinder, the invitingly fat (six hundred-plus pages) first volume in a new series. As Rigg and Umbo travel to their empire’s capitol in search of Rigg’s family, the boys discover they have complementary psychic talents; meanwhile another boy, Ram, is leading a spaceship headed — where? The two stories come together in ways that will please fans of Card’s mind-bending marriage of fantasy and science fiction. (12 years and up)

Confirmed fans and fantasy novices alike will enjoy John Stephen’s eventful The Emerald Atlas, in which three young sibling orphans (. . . or are they?) are sent to a most peculiar institution, and then back in time. While there’s a great villain, this is fantasy of the rollicking sort, with plenty of humor and action as Kate, Michael, and Emma find themselves involved in an epic struggle. For those who like it, two more in the series are to come. (10–14 years)  

Readers who prefer their magic in smaller doses might like Tortall and Other Lands, a collection of eleven short stories by Tamora Pierce. Some feature familiar settings and characters while others are new; all display this author’s way with a sturdy heroine. And Jonathan Strahan’s short-story collection, Life on Mars: Tales from the New Frontier asks twelve notable science fiction writers to imagine that “humanity gained a permanent foothold on a new world” and what it might be like to journey to or live on the Red Planet. (12 years and up)  

—Roger Sutton

Animal antics

With their springtime palettes and lively stories, these four new picture books will encourage preschool imaginations to sprout and grow.

In Will Hillenbrand’s Spring Is Here, Mole wakes up one morning to a new season. But how to rouse friend Bear from his winter’s rest? Hillenbrand’s humor is gentle yet emphatic, perfect for young children. He imbues Bear with personality even when asleep, and Mole’s devotion makes him a sympathetic character; the role reversal at the end adds a preschool-perfect twist. With its short, snappy sentences, the use of happily predictable repetition, and the engaging, tightly focused mixed-media illustrations, this would make a surefire read-aloud. (2–5 years)

The lonely main character in Emily Gravett’s Blue Chameleon mimics the appearance of various potential friends, looking yellow and curved like a banana, spotty and round like a polka-dotted ball, or scaly and orange like a goldfish. He’s about to give up and fade into the white page, when he meets another chameleon who can happily match him pattern for colorful pattern. Gravett’s moody and expressive colored pencil illustrations encourage thoughtful exploration of the simple concepts. (2–5 years)    

Kevin Henkes’s Little White Rabbit features a bunny who changes his appearance — in his imagination — when he “wonder[s] what it would be like to be” all sorts of things.  Square-bordered pictures of the energetic bunny hopping through idyllic fields and forest are located opposite clean white pages with a simple line or two. Alternating full-spread illustrations depict his rich inner life, where he is green as the high grass, tall as the fir trees, or still as a rock. Bold lines, expressive movement, and the colored-pencil and acrylic illustrations delight the eye. (2–5 years)  

Renata Liwska’s Red Wagon follows little fox Lucy as she and three friends take Lucy’s new wagon to the market on an errand for her mother. This is no ordinary trip: the wagon allows Lucy and her friends — a rabbit, a raccoon, and a hedgehog — to imagine themselves on great adventures such as sailing the high seas or flying in spaceships. Liwska’s soft-hued pencil illustrations provide an alternative narrative that enhances the straightforward text. A gentle yet adventurous tale. (2–5 years)

 —Cynthia K. Ritter

Nonfiction picture books

Kids can see the world in nonfiction picture books — traveling through both space and time. The books below take readers from mid-nineteenth-century Gold Rush California to modern-day London, with worthwhile stops along the way.

For Gold! Gold from the American River! author-illustrator Don Brown adopts an appropriately earthy palette and larger-than-life tone to tell the story of the 1849 California Gold Rush. Watercolor illustrations convey both action and emotion, and the concise yet comprehensive text is engaging, combining pathos with humor. (7–10 years)

Alan Schroeder’s unusual alphabet book, Ben Franklin: His Wit and Wisdom from A–Z, makes a welcome supplement to more straightforward biographies. Each spread features a letter or two to initialize significant places (Boston), characteristics (frugal), inventions (lightning rod), and more. Dozens of familiar details of Franklin’s life are dramatized in boxes, banners, and balloons arrayed over broader scenes, all rendered in John O’Brien’s old-timey pen and ink and brightened with a humor appropriate for Franklin’s own irrepressible spirit. (8–12 years)

Meadowlands: A Wetlands Survival Story is a fascinating look at an estuary trapped in a dense industrial area of northern New Jersey. Thomas F. Yezerski’s marvelous ecological history captures the fragile relationship between humans and this environment, declining from the tenure of the Lenape Indians downward through the centuries until 1969, when state intervention initiated a comeback. Tiny images in the borders of the expansive watercolors provide a wealth of additional information (and some sly humor) about the diverse flora and fauna of the Meadowlands. (8–12 years)

In Night Flight: Amelia Earhart Crosses the Atlantic by Robert Burleigh, readers accompany Earhart on her 1932 flight from Newfoundland to Northern Ireland, the first-ever solo transatlantic flight by a woman. The vivid free-verse account settles into the cockpit and describes what the legendary pilot might have seen and felt during that long, tense trip. Wendell Minor’s paintings heighten the immediacy, depicting Earhart’s blazing red Vega in both long shots and close-ups. (6–10 years)

Salvatore Rubbino takes readers on A Walk in London (a companion book to his equally captivating A Walk in New York). Here a mother and daughter tour all the famous landmarks of London, from St. Paul’s Cathedral to Covent Garden — beginning and ending their day with a ride on a bright red double-decker bus. The mixed-media illustrations are playful yet realistic enough to give readers a real sense of what it’s like to visit the city. Informative, attractive, and jam-packed with details to pore over. (6–10 years)  

—Martha V. Parravano

Truthiness in middle-grade fiction

The kids in these books are doggedly concerned with the truth: seeking it, unmasking it, or even stretching it. Readers will be thoroughly entertained by these plucky characters’ explorations of veracity in all its slippery forms.

The eponymous star of Eleanor Updale’s Johnny Swanson is an eleven-year-old scam artist. His prime target: gullible newspaper readers. Johnny’s motives are good, but his lies and trickery inevitably lead to trouble; for example, getting his war-widow mum charged with murder. The quick-moving story, while rooted firmly in 1929 Britain, easily incorporates themes that confront today’s youngsters (e.g., bullying, respect, and civility). (8–12 years)

Twelve-year-old Tugs Button, tomboy protagonist of Anne Ylvisaker’s The Luck of the Buttons, thinks there’s something fishy about the new fellow in town. The guy talks a good line about starting a newspaper, but his story doesn’t add up. Set in a small Midwestern town in 1929, Ylvisaker’s tale spotlights a clever and determined main character who braves the skepticism of adults to unmask a crook. (8–12 years)

Another dogged truth-seeker is the inimitable Felicity Bathburn Budwig, eleven-year-old star of Phoebe Stone’s The Romeo and Juliet Code. To escape the Blitz, Flissy’s parents deposit her in coastal Maine, with no word about when they’ll return. Where they’ve gone — and why — are just two of the story’s many tantalizing secrets. As Flissy, herself no stranger to little-white-lie-telling, puzzles through events, the intrigue-filled story’s strands satisfyingly come together. (8–12 years)

In Small Persons with Wings, a lighthearted, contemporary-set fantasy by Ellen Booraem, thirteen-year-old narrator Mellie’s family possesses a ring that enables its owner to see the truth. Too bad no one knows where it is. Mellie’s wry, snarky voice will draw readers in as the tale’s events escalate. Gratifyingly spotlighting the titular magical creatures (don’t call them “fairies”), Booraem’s story is surprising and inventive. (8–12 years)

Kevin, star of Gary Paulsen’s Liar, Liar: The Theory, Practice and Destructive Properties of Deception, is a confirmed truth-stretcher. He lies to expose hypocrisy, to be loyal to his friends, and . . .  to get out of doing homework. After falling in love, he discovers that lying doesn’t always work. Paulsen maintains a light, quippy touch in this book that will appeal to the short-chapter-book crowd. (8–12 years) 

—Elissa Gershowitz

From the Editor

Join Horn Book Magazine executive editor Martha V. Parravano — along with Katherine Paterson, Rita Williams-Garcia, Donald Crews, and Malinda Lo, among others — for School Library Journal’s annual Day of Dialog on May 23rd in New York City. This is a great event, a full day of discussion among authors, illustrators, editors, librarians, and teachers about what’s going on in publishing for children and young adults right now. Martha will be leading a panel discussion of picture book biographies (see our “What Makes a Good . . . ?” feature on these in the upcoming May/June issue of the Magazine), and other panels will be devoted to diversity in YA literature, children’s book apps, and an introduction to some first-time novelists. Daniel Handler will entertain you at lunch!  For more information and to register for this event, go to our little sister’s website.  


Roger Sutton
Editor in Chief

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