Notes from the Horn Book

V O L U M E   4 ,   N U M B E R   7   •   J U L Y   2 0 1 1
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.

Five questions for Sophie Blackall

Sophie BlackallIllustrator Sophie Blackall’s new picture book is called Are You Awake? — a question the story’s preschool protagonist asks his mom sometime around four in the morning. Though it very well could be, the mother’s reply is not Go the F*** to Sleep, and the result is a book that is both amusing for parents and appealing to kids. (Be sure to play with the clever flipbook feature showing a stuffed elephant tumbling through the air, then falling asleep.)

1. The title page of Are You Awake? shows the young boy prying open his sleeping mother’s eye — one of my favorite pictures in the book, because I’ve been there. Were you consciously trying to create a story that would ring true — and entertain — both adults and children, or was that just plain luck?

Sophie Blackall: Having my sleeping eye pried open was a frequent occurrence in our household when my son was about three. Not to mention being sat upon, and having liberties taken with my nose. Lots of things with small children are universal. Have you seen that film, Babies? It follows four babies in four different countries for the first year of their life. For all their cultural differences there are as many common gestures and responses. 

I think the best stories usually begin in some truth and depart from there. In real life, Edward's father is not a pilot!

2. No one but a parent could have written such a spot-on nighttime conversation between a mother and child. How did your son inspire this book?

Are You Awake?SB: We had just returned to Brooklyn from a trip to Europe, and Edward's toddler internal clock was turned upside-down and back to front. For nights on end he tried valiantly to get us all out of bed. He was old enough to climb out of his crib and would wander the apartment in the wee hours. We found him one morning fast asleep in his highchair! There's something about those nighttime conversations with a small child; you are almost desperate with fatigue and the desire to cling to sleep, and yet children are so impossibly endearing, it's hard to resist their persistent efforts to engage you.

3. You’ve illustrated plenty of books — among them the Ivy & Bean chapter books by Annie Barrows, Wombat Walkabout by Carol Diggory Shields, and Lisa Wheeler’s Spinster Goose: Twisted Rhymes for Naughty Children — but this is the first book you’ve written. Do you have plans to write more?

SB: I have written two more children's books, which will come out in a couple of years, with Putnam. I also have an adult book of illustrated “Missed Connections” from Craigslist (among other places) coming out in the fall, called Missed Connections: Love, Lost and Found, published by Workman.

4. Congratulations on winning a Boston Globe–Horn Book honor award for Pecan Pie Baby, written by Jacqueline Woodson. Like Are You Awake? that book makes effective use of speech bubbles, sometimes for dialogue, sometimes for pictures. How do you decide when to use those?

SB: It's a thrill and an honor and an excellent excuse for my first-ever trip to Boston! It's funny about speech balloons; I had an almost pathological resistance to them until I saw one used to illustrate the dream of a monk in an early Chinese painting. It was very beautiful, with a long winding tail to the bubble. I was slow to realize that there were other possibilities for speech bubbles than the squat cartoony versions. In Pecan Pie Baby, the main character, Gia, a reluctant older-sister-to-be, has a spectacular outburst during Thanksgiving dinner. I really love incorporating type in illustrations, and this was an example where it was downright essential. Children reading along can yell with Gia, "I’m so sick of that DING-DANG BABY!"

5. You’ve said elsewhere that you’d love to illustrate Moby-Dick. Are there any children’s classics you’d be interested in illustrating?

SB: I just illustrated Aldous Huxley's The Crows of Pearblossom, which felt very much like being given the opportunity to illustrate a classic, albeit a forgotten one. Most of my favorite classic stories are inextricably linked with their original illustrations, which makes it daunting to consider redoing them. I did a cover illustration for The Wind in the Willows a few years ago, (high up there on my list), but I kept apologizing to Shepard and Rackham, two of my heroes. I wouldn't mind taking a shot at Aesop’s fables!  

—Jennifer M. Brabander

Sophie Blackall, illustrator

Working in Chinese ink and watercolor, Sophie Blackall is a frequently sought-after picture book artist these days. Here’s a look at some more of her recent work. 

Pecan Pie BabyAs mentioned above, Pecan Pie Baby, written by Jacqueline Woodson, recently received a 2011 Boston Globe–Horn Book honor for Picture Book. Pecan Pie Baby serves up a familiar but comforting message with unusual warmth and grace. Gia’s not happy about the impending arrival of the “ding-dang baby,” so evident in Mama’s beautifully rounded belly. Blackall’s gentle pictures show the little family of two thriving in their simple, cozy home, and the art clarifies and dramatizes the truth that change may feel threatening even in the most loving environment. (4–8 years)

Edwin Speaks Up“Figbutton noo noo POCKY BOOKY froppin ROOF.” Awww, isn’t baby Edwin’s babbling cute? Well, it’s too bad no one listens to him in Edwin Speaks Up by April Stevens, as he’s the only one who notices where his distracted mother’s keys are (in his brother’s shoe) or where her purse is (on top of the car). Together with the straight-faced text, Blackall’s delicately lined illustrations, featuring a family of elegantly garbed ferrets, convey the controlled chaos of an eventful trip to the supermarket. (5–8 years)

Spinster GooseMore concise than Ogden Nash and more accessible than Edward Gorey, the cautionary rhymes in Lisa Wheeler’s semi-subversive Spinster Goose: Twisted Rhymes for Naughty Children detail all manner of bad (cheating, bullying) or impolite (“Ring around the rosey / Never pick your nosey”) behavior. Blackall’s illustrations feature prim lines and sober colors displaying the mischief. Kids who received their proper preschool dose of Mother Goose will enjoy this good first lesson in parody. (5–8 years)  

—Kitty Flynn

Fifteen more minutes

These three figures — a mid-twentieth-century artist who flouted classification; a turn-of-the-twentieth-century widow-turned-showwoman who risked life and limb; and a nineteenth-century nurse, soldier, and spy who defied gender roles — have certainly earned their fifteen minutes, and then some. Luckily, they’ve been immortalized in the following four biographies for early elementary-age readers.

Faulous! A Portrait of Andy WarholThough Andy Warhol’s life seemed to be glitzy and unreal, Bonnie Christensen details, in Fabulous! A Portrait of Andy Warhol, the hard work and determination behind his becoming a visionary artist. Streamlined text and highly textured oil and collage illustrations, which incorporate "replicas" of Warhol's art, provide a solid backdrop to the story of the "Prince of Pop Art." (6–9 years)

Queen of the FallsAt the beginning of the twentieth century, Annie Edson Taylor, a sixty-two-year-old widow, performed a feat never before attempted: going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. In Queen of the Falls, Chris Van Allsburg matter-of-factly describes Taylor’s life, her advance planning, and, unfortunately, the public’s anticlimactic reaction to her stunt. Sepia-toned illustrations depict Annie as prim and proper but also convey her grit and determination — and the majesty of the Falls. (6–9 years)  

Nurse, Soldier, SpySarah Edmonds, disguised as a man, became a Union soldier and then a spy during the Civil War. Two complementary biographies track her life. In Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero, Marissa Moss explores Sarah's early work and initial spy mission, concluding before war's end. Illustrator John Hendrix's heavily shaded art emphasizes the Civil War’s horror and drama. In Sarah Emma Edmonds Was a Great Pretender: The True Story of a Civil War Spy, author Carrie Jones continues Sarah’s story throughout the war and her subsequent marriage. Both Jones and illustrator Mark Oldroyd incorporate some humor into the volume, starting with the winking book cover (visual punch line on the back). (Nurse, Soldier, Spy: 8–12 years; Sarah Emma Edmonds: 7–11 years)

—Elissa Gershowitz

New middle-grade fiction

These novels for upper-elementary-age kids are as different as can be, which means plenty of scope for all kinds of readers.

Missing on Superstition MountainKnown for her animal fantasies (Masterpiece), Elise Broach brings readers a realistic adventure-mystery in Missing on Superstition Mountain. When the three Barker brothers disobey warnings and venture up the dangerous Superstition Mountain near their new Arizona home, they come upon three human skulls neatly placed on the edge of a cliff. Aided by their new friend Delilah, the boys spend a few exciting summer days trying to solve the mystery of the skulls. There is lots of appeal in the kids’ secret forays into both the wilderness and the library; readers will be glad that this is the first in a projected series. (8–12 years)  

Invisible InklingIn Invisible Inkling by Emily Jenkins, fourth-grader Hank Wolowitz accidentally rescues an invisible bandapat named Inkling, and now Inkling is obligated to pay Hank back for saving his life. But will his attempts to help Hank with the school bully improve matters, or will they go spectacularly wrong? Children who have had an imaginary friend will find this tale, with its zippy plot and likable characters (all enlivened by Harry Bliss’s droll illustrations), hilarious and heartwarming. And its last line is just what young readers love to hear: “Anything could happen next.” (8–12 years)  

The Lemonade CrimeCourt is now in session for The Lemonade Crime by Jacqueline Davies. In this sequel to The Lemonade War, younger sister Jessie has skipped a grade and joined brother Evan in his fourth-grade class. When the boy who stole $200 from them in the previous book brags about his new Xbox, Jessie comes up with a plan: she assigns each classmate a role to play in an afterschool trial, with her brother as plaintiff and herself as his lawyer. With Davies taking readers step-by-step through the trial, and with extra touches such as the legal definitions that open each chapter, readers will come away with a better understanding of how our justice system works. (8–12 years)

Mother Number Zero“All children come out of a belly and nobody can remember that. What’s the difference — one belly or another?” So Fejzo, in this Dutch import, Mother Number Zero by Marjolijn Hof, expresses the party line of the well-adjusted adopted child. But the situation becomes more complicated when a new friend persuades him to search for his birth mother (whom he calls “Mother Number Zero”). Once the search becomes official and fantasy starts to bump up against reality, Fejzo begins to have his own doubts. This quiet, thoughtful, and nuanced story is an original and touching addition to the literature of adoption. (8–12 years)

—Martha V. Parravano

New takes on tough YA topics

Five new YA titles provide fresh perspectives on heavy issues: secrets, violence, disillusionment, self-reliance. These books confront darkness candidly — while exploring hope just as honestly.

Blink and CautionTim Wynne-Jones’s 2011 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winner Blink & Caution finds street kid Blink stumbling upon a (possibly staged) high-profile kidnapping in progress. Blink’s compelling second-person narration intersects with that of another runaway, Caution, who has also opted for life on the streets over trouble at home. Amidst this crime drama’s taut suspense and action, Blink and Caution’s relationship deepens as they help each other confront immediate dangers and the aftereffects of past trauma. (14 years and up)

LarkLike The Lovely Bones, portions of Tracey Porter’s riveting Lark are narrated by a murdered girl, but the mythological quality of her afterlife lends a unique resonance. Lark is abducted, raped, tied to a tree, and left to die as voices of other murdered girls speak to her from inside surrounding trees. Additional chapters voiced by Eve, grappling with her own molestation, and Nyetta, visited by Lark’s ghost, create a nuanced portrayal of girls navigating a dangerous world. (14 years and up)

Paper Covers RockIn Paper Covers Rock by Jenny Hubbard, Alex’s journal relates a classmate’s drowning and Alex’s guilt about his involvement. Weighing on Alex are secrets he and friend Glenn hide from everyone — including the young teacher who knows more than she’s letting on. A mixture of confessional entries, class assignments, poems, and letters makes up Alex’s poignant first-person narration. The buttoned-up boarding school setting provides a perfect backdrop to this exposition of lies, manipulation, and the ambiguity of honor. (14 years and up)

I'll Be ThereI’ll Be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan opens with Sam and Emily locking eyes in church as she (badly) sings the titular Jackson Five song; both feel an instant connection. When Sam’s abusive father discovers Sam’s and his brother’s relationship with Emily’s family, he takes off with the boys. An accident in a national forest abruptly shifts the plot to survival story. A chorus of voices contributes to this excellent exploration of the subtleties of love and compassion. (14 years and up)

Anya's GhostAnya, protagonist of Vera Brosgol’s hilarious (and sometimes spine-tingling) graphic novel Anya’s Ghost, ditches school to fume about her many woes. Distracted, she falls into the abandoned well where Emily has been dead and trapped for ninety years. Emily seizes the opportunity to leave the well for the thrilling world of high school. Having a ghostly best friend seems “awesome” — until Anya realizes that Emily wants her life for herself. Brosgol’s characters are both quirky and relatable. (12 years and up)  

—Katie Bircher

Roger SuttonFrom the Editor

Mysteries abound in this year’s winners of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, announced last month by judges Jennifer Brabander (The Horn Book, Inc.), Robin Brenner (Brookline, Massachusetts, Public Library), and Dean Schneider (The Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee). Tim Wynne-Jones’s Blink & Caution won the award for Fiction; the novel follows a pair of street kids as they try to outrun their shadowy pasts and at the same time pursue clues to a kidnapping that may or may not be real. Steve Sheinkin’s The Notorious Benedict Arnold reads like an action-packed adventure story, but it won the Nonfiction award for the way it encourages readers to consider the mystery of how such a great American soldier and patriot as Arnold found his way to the dark side. And what in our literature is truly more mysterious than Mother Goose, whose rhymes provide the text for Salley Mavor’s Picture Book award winner, Pocketful of Posies. Mavor uses fabric collage to create a world for such rhymes as: “Jerry Hall, he is so small, / A rat could eat him, / Hat and all.”

A complete list of the winners and honor books can be found on the Horn Book website. The awards will be given out in a ceremony on Friday evening, September 30th, at Simmons College. On the following day, Simmons and the Horn Book will host a colloquium featuring workshops, interviews, and discussion with the winners. All participants in the colloquium will receive an invitation to the awards; for more information see our Horn Book at Simmons page. 

Roger Sutton
Editor in Chief

Send questions or comments to

Horn Book website

More recommended booksJust for parentsResources for teachersAwards listingsHornbookguide.comRoger Sutton’s blogCurrent Horn Book Magazine

Newsletter archive

Sign up for Notes from the Horn Book

Notes from the Horn Book, Volume 4, Number 7.
© 2011 by The Horn Book, Inc. A Media Source Company.



The Horn Book Inc.
The Horn Book, Inc. • 56 Roland Street, Suite 200 • Boston MA 02129
800-325-1170 • e-mail:

Magazine | Guide | Newsletter | Awards | Resources | History | About Us | Subscribe | Home   

Media Source Inc.    Junior Library Guild    The Horn Book Inc.    School Library Journal    Library Journal    Library Hotline