Thursday, July 29, 2010

One More Sheep

One More Sheep
My daughter is scared of the coyote in this book.
Only there is no coyote. There is only a wolf.
Funny what kids dream up and latch on to.

So, while she's hiding when I get to the pages with a coyote - oops, I mean a wolf - in sheep's clothing, I'm relishing the delightful rhyme that tells the story of a silly shepherd who can't stay awake to count his sheep.

In One More Sheep by Mij Kelly and illustrated by Russell Ayto, the sheep think that the shepherd is a bit of a dolt because he falls asleep whenever he begins to count them at nighttime. He protests that counting sheep just naturally leads one to snoozeland. The sheep considers this an affront: are they boring? How rude!

An excerpt:
Out on the moor,
the wind whistled and wuthered,
while the sheep safe indoors
snuggled under the covers,
drifting through dreams ...

It's a very fun and funny story and I adore the little nightcaps that adorn each sheep's head. The writing is clever enough for adults, but not over the heads of children, and conjures up wonderful images. The illustrations are modern - I want to like them, but I find the outsized bodies of the sheep distracting - but my 3 year-old takes them in stride. Perfect for bedtime, One More Sheep will have you and your counting your way down to ZZZs.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

If I Stay

If I Stay

I was looking for a book that I'd heard a lot about. It had something to do with a girl dying and then covered her decision whether to stay alive. Come to find out, the book that was being recommended was called Before I Fall. In a happy accident, instead I picked up If I Stay by Gayle Forman. (You can understand how I ended up with the wrong book based on the titles.)

If I Stay is the marvelous story of a teenage cello prodigy and her last memories before she must choose whether to stay among the living. In a break from traditional young adult novels, Mia is not a disturbed, or unloved, or unliked girl. Instead, her father is a recovering punk musician who has turned to teaching, her mother is a fiesty ex-hippie type now working in an office, and Mia also has an accidental brother several years her junior. She both loves and likes her family and the car accident that affects them all forces her to heart-wrenchingly recollect all of their good points.

Mia happens to also have a devoted boyfriend, a year older than her, who is a rock musician - the lead singer in a band that is on the rise. She has a best friend, named Kim; together they share the same dark sense of humor. She has her grandparents, no-nonsense, reserved types. And her parent's friends - musicians, a nurse, friends of friends .... The tragedy has her considering the definition of family.

The story is told using a timeline format and over the course of the night, each chapter is a memory about her life, her family, and her extended family. Each chapter could be a short story: so precise and complete, with prose that is both strong and and taut like the fabric on a trampoline.  Here's an excerpt:

"That was thirty years ago," Adam said. "And even if I wanted to move to New York, there's no way the rest of the band would." He stared mournfully at his shoes and I recognized that the joking part of the conversation had ended. My stomach lurched, an appetizer before the full portion of heartache I had a feeling was going to be served at some point soon.

Will Mia stay? I don't want to give anything away because the suspense that lasts until the very end of the book is deliciously on-edge, and exquisitely written.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Interview with Ted Michael, Author of Crash Test Love and The Diamonds

The Diamonds Crash Test Love

Crash Test Love, just released in June, is Ted Michael's follow-up to his wickedly enjoyable and popular young adult novel, The Diamonds, (see my book review here).  

Through the graces and goodwill of Nancy Sondel, Founding Director of the Pacific Coast Children's Writers Workshop (Ted will be presenting and I will be attending this year's workshop in August), I was able to secure an e-mail interview with him.  Below Ted shares his thoughts on crafting realistic dialogue, sifting through ideas and the writing process.

Fans rave about the realistic characters you create in both The Diamonds and Crash Test Love. In particular, the dialogue seems as if it was lifted straight from the hallways of High School, USA.  How do you research your characters and especially capture teen lingo so deftly?

Thank you—what a great compliment! Having dialogue that rings true is very important to me. This kind of stuff is hard to research; a lot of it is culled from what I remember of being in high school myself, or moves and television shows. Interestingly, a large portion of both these novels were written in a Panera Bread on Long Island that was highly populated with teens. Sometimes, I would just listen to all of their conversations and try to absorb as much as possible. I also have a younger sister who helps keep me “hip.”

In your recent interview on the blog, you talk about where you find inspiration for your books. What is your process for transforming those ideas into books, and what has been the time frame for each of the two books you've written? You're an agent, too--when do you find the time to write?

I tend to have more ideas than I know what to do with. The hardest part is siphoning through them and determining which would actually make good novels. I have started a lot of books and then decided that, really, there was not enough “meat” to the plot to justify an entire novel.

With both The Diamonds and Crash Test Love, once I had the initial ideas, I spent some time plotting out the core of each novel. The Diamonds took me nearly a year to write, and another year to revise with my editor (which involved cutting nearly half the novel and rewriting a ton of new material). Crash Test Lovewas a much swifter process—it took me about three months to complete the draft, and another month or two to revise.

I write in my spare time (of which there is admittedly very little). Luckily, working in children’s book publishing is closely related to my writing, so both of these jobs inform each other.

What has been the biggest surprise about having your books published?

The biggest surprise has been that people actually read the book! Writing is so solitary that it can be easy to forget that eventually, your words will be read by other people. Hearing from people who have read my work is, I think, one of the great thrills of having a book published.

Ted Michael is the author of Crash Test Love (2010) and The Diamonds (2009), both by Delacorte Press, and he is also the agent Ted Malawer with Upstart Crow Literary.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A is for Art

I did not want to get this book. My daughter picked out A is for Art by Stephen T. Johnson at the library, and I tried to dissuade her. "See? There are no animals in here." But she persisted, and all I could think was: what am I going to make up to say about this one?

A Is for Art: An Abstract Alphabet

And the book has sat toward the bottom of the pile, with me subtly directing her to other options at reading time. Last night she used my own words on me: "Let's just read it once, and if we don't like it, we never have to read it again." How could I refuse?

A is for Art is a delightful book, it turns out. Each letter is accompanied by a painting, or a picture of a sculpture, and then is artfully described using almost exclusively words that start with the letter in question.  For example:

"Cc Camouflage
Countless colorful candies consciously collected, crammed, crushed, and confined crowd a clear circular container filled to capacity."

The words are beyond my 3 year old, but she enjoys hearing them and searching the text for the letter that is being highlighted. The art accompanying the text is also a 'find the hidden object' game wherein a child can look for the letter and other items mentioned in the description of the art.

The art featured in the book is, naturally, age appropriate and beautifully photographed.

Not only is this a great book for reinforcing the letters of the alphabet, but it is a fun book for talking about art and would make a fantastic primer before a trip to a museum or sculpture garden.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Classic Goodnight Book: Big Red Barn

My writing group was talking about classic children's books the other night, and Lisa (you can find her blog here) began to recite from the Big Red Barn by Margaret Wise Brown.

Big Red Barn (rpkg) Goodnight Moon The Runaway Bunny

Now, we know all about Margaret Wise Brown at our house - or thought we did - because I can recite Goodnight, Moon and the Runaway Bunny by heart. But it's been over a year since we had read either. How had we missed Big Red Barn? So we picked it up at the library, but it was a board book, and my 3 year-old immediately snubbed it. I checked it out anyway (I always feel guilty requesting something that has to be transferred from another branch and then not at least taking it home for a couple of days.)

Last night I insisted we give it a try. What a delight! The rhythm is pitch-perfect and each line delightfully illustrates the character of one of the farm animals pictured. The book begins with the dawning of the day - the rooster calling - and then the other farm animals are introduced and begin to play (the kids are away). Then the day fades and we witness the most of the animals slowly retiring to the barn as the bats fly off for their nightly escapades.

Without even realizing it, my voice turned down a notch and my reading slowed, and both my daughter and I were captivated by the simplicity of the words. As she folded the last page over, she said, "Can we read that again in the morning?"

And we did.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak is a phenomenal book. It's the kind of book that you can't put down. One friend told me today that she was brushing her teeth and reading it. Another that she was making dinner and reading it. A third said she devoured it and will need to re-read it. All were surprised when they were directed to the children's section of the local bookstore to pick up a copy. Luckily, they were not deterred.

The Book Thief

The synopsis on the dust jacket does a fine job of hitting the highlights and setting up the plot: Death is narrating the story of a sweet and brave girl named Liesel, living with a foster family, in Molching, Germay during the rise of Hitler. The story is so much more sweet and brave, and complex, than those details, though. And that outline can not prepare you for the wonder of Zusak's writing.

The author's style is uniquely colorful. He deftly manages to pinpoint a color, a moment, a crack in a wall with language that is both surprising and wonderful. Countless times I took up my highlighter, only to set it back down again, in awe of the precision and beauty of the lines.

And all the while, being reeled in by the magic of the horrible story of Liesel's situation.  This is a fantastic story for book groups for teens and older.

P.S. Note - you can see how I've changed my tune in comparison to my first mention of The Book Thief by clicking here.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

If You're Happy and You Know It

If you haven't met Jane Cabrera and her books for toddlers yet, you're missing out. Hands down, she is one of the most talented picture book illustrators (and writers) out there. Often, she paints scenes that accompany traditional children's songs or poems, and those paintings are gorgeous, lush, bright, bold masterpieces. I've often thought that I'd like to own a poster-sized painting from one of her books for a nursery wall.

But barring that expense, I'm grateful for the good fortune that allows all of us to share in her work through her books. It's hard to choose a favorite, but if pressed I'd go with If You're Happy and You Know It because it really gets my child up and moving about. It's fun, engaging and lovingly created with colors deep enough that you could go swimming in them.

If You're Happy and You Know It!: If You Are Happy And You Know It

Other favorites include Mommy Carry Me Please, Ten in the Bed (a good book about counting) and Over in the Meadow; the latter two are helpful when practicing numbers. This is just a small sampling of Cabrera's work.

Mommy, Carry Me Please! Ten in the Bed Over in the Meadow

One note: I have found one (and only one) of Cabrera's stories a bit awkward, although still beautifully illustrated. The Lonesome Polar Bear is magical to view, and the premise works - a polar bear cub looking for a friend - but the ending in which the cloud friend brings a snow bear to life isn't executed very well. As in most cases, when I find a book in which I don't love the text (e.g. Hey, Get Off of Our Train), I just make up words to go along with the pictures.

The Lonesome Polar Bear Hey! Get Off Our Train (Dragonfly Books)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Curious George: Up, Up, and Away!

We love the Curious George series on PBS and now we've stumbled on the complementary books.

They are most definitely a departure for the Curious George books of old. The new soft cover books are extremely colorful - very bold and bright primary colors - with images directly from an episode. The writing is stronger, more action verbs and less repetitiveness about George's curiosity. The books don't open with the standard lines: "This is George. He lived with his friend, the man with the yellow hat. He was a good little monkey ...." Instead , they move right into the plot.

Today, we read Curious George Up, Up, and Away and I was immediately drawn in by the writing which was clear and moved the action along at a pleasing pace. The pictures from the show were well chosen; they accompanied the text perfectly. I loved the bold hues of the images, and how the text was separated at the bottom of the page. I also appreciated the activities at the back of the book.

Curious George Up, Up, and Away (CGTV 8x8)

My daughter was less enthused, however. 

She much prefers some of the Curious George books from over the last couple of decades (not the original books). She likes the standard opening, and will request Curious George's Dinosaur Discovery or Curious George and the Firefighters. She loves to hear about George's antics, and she's not interested in the abbreviated new books where the action is constant. She'd rather linger at the dinosaur dig or at the firehouse.

Curious George and the Firefighters

Just by looking at these two images, you can tell how different the contents are. 

Reading these books is a good reminder that as adults we bring something, perhaps just opinions, but a different perspective to children's picture books. That's why I suspect that some of today's best sellers are a little too sarcastic, a little too sophisticated for kids. But it's the parents doing the buying. In the end, I'm going to go with the books that she constantly requests. And as much as I like the new Curious George books, the preponderance of our Curious George book purchases will be the older books. (I'd like to devote another post later as to the quality of the older set which I find to be of uneven quality.)