Wednesday, May 31, 2006

I touched Kevin's.

Sue Corbett has just posted to Childlit that Kate Thompson has won Ireland's CBI Bisto Book of the Year Award. Again--the award for The New Policeman marks the fourth time Thompson has taken this prize, with its 6000 euro check and a "perpetual trophy" that gets passed from winner to winner. But apparently the sponsors, overwhelmed by Thompson's winningness, have decided to "retire the trophy" to her, and make a new one for next year's winner.

Can you imagine if we tried that perpetual thing here? "Okay, Kadohata. Hand it over. What, you got a problem? Well, this baby is headed for Michigan, so take it up with Perkins." Although I imagine that neither one would turn down the cash prize!

Yes, Kevin Henkes's. I touched his Caldecott Medal. Held it, even.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

After all, the man did write "A Simple Song."

It warmed the cockles of my show-queen heart (and made my holiday weekend) when a gift arrived in the mail from Elizabeth: an advance (and autographed) copy of I Could Have Sung All Night: My Story, by Marni Nixon with Stephen Cole (Billboard Books, September). Nixon most famously dubbed the leading ladies of the movies "The King and I," "My Fair Lady," and "West Side Story," the last of which also had her dubbing Rita Moreno's voice in the "Tonight" quintet, because Rita's dubber was out sick!

But along with this not-as-lucrative-as-you-might-think specialty, Nixon also maintained a steady career in opera and art music. It was in this context that she first worked with Leonard Bernstein:

Two weeks after the Glenn Gould concert, I was back in Carnegie Hall with Bernstein, singing in one of his fabled "Young People's Concerts." Lenny had the innovative and wonderful notion (to which I wholly subscribe) that if we exposed children to the best that music had to offer it would enrich their lives.

Forget about "Mozart for your baby" getting the kids into Harvard. Just "enrich their lives." I wonder if we will ever again learn to treat reading for children with the same simplicity.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

BEA/ALA, booksellers, librarians

While I have a grip on the ins, outs, and constants of the ALA annual conference, I've been to BEA just twice, the first time ten years ago when it was called something else. So forgive me if I infer too much from limited observation. When I was perusing the offerings at ABC's silent auction of picture book art and assorted ancillaria, I noticed that some of the heavy bidding was for art from illustrators whose place in the bookstore landscape is more prominent than their position in libraryland. Jon Muth was the big-bidee I noticed; others would include Janell Cannon or even Eric Carle. A couple of years ago I was at dinner with Alison Morris of the Wellesley Booksmith, and she was all excited about a new book by someone I had not heard of. (I had to call Alison for the name of the artist: Shaun Tan.) When selecting books for review here at the Horn Book, Martha or I will sometimes say, "that looks like a bookstore book," if not exactly a disparagement then pretty close. (But not as close as "that's the kind of thing you find in a bookstore next to the cash register," an increasingly frequent observation, spoken in horrified Bostonian tones.)

I'm guessing that the greatest divide between bookstores and libraries is found in their picture book and nonfiction purchases, and that pretty much the same fiction is found in both venues. Even from library eyes, the differences are not characterized as us=quality, them=dreck, but I wonder if trying to pin the differences down might be helpful for both parties.

But now I'm off to write a picture book biography of my childhood heroine, Fraulein Maria. I'm going to call it Grandma Trapp and make a million.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Scary Salmon, Saucy Swede

Although I've written here or elsewhere that I don't like to have children's-book art hanging in my house (because it reminds me of work and because I don't think much sequential-style illustration works on the wall) I was very pleased to acquire, at the ABC silent auction at BEA, a drawing by Jules Feiffer, of either a lion or a dog. It's not that I can't tell what the picture is; it's that there were two drawings (both sketches Feiffer had done for a bookstore presentation) in the lot and I went in with Hyperion's Brenda Bowen for the killer bid. Now we just have to decide who gets which.

The auction was fun, the dinner following was edible (barely--scary salmon), the speakers--Jerry Pinkney, Eoin Colfer--were bearable. Adding glamour to the evening was a tribute to Katherine Paterson on the occasion of her Astrid Lindgren award, positioned as a Nobel Prize for children's literature by the Swede (I'm sorry, I don't know his name) who introduced Paterson. I was a little taken aback by this gentleman's gratuitous bragging--that's how it sounded to me--of Sweden's abstinence from armed conflict since the the Napoleonic Wars, but it played to the crowd. John McPhee's La Place de la Concorde Suisse opened my eyes to the whole armed neutrality thing, and it isn't pretty. Either.

I heard that the speakers at the children's book breakfast the next day were, um, interesting, but I wasn't there. Were you? Do tell.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Up, up in the air

We're editing the book review section of the July/August issue this week, and I'm astounded and consternated (a word I learned in said editing) by the number of reviews that end with some variation of "readers will look forward to/have to wait for/be left hanging until the third/fourth/fifth book of this series." Here are my questions for publishers: how risky is publishing the first book in what will necessarily be a series? What do you do if volume one gets an underwhelming response, or if volume three, say, bites? Are series ever quietly dropped and left dangling?

My questions are perhaps only in part prompted by the review haul--the truth is I am worried about just how they are going to tie up the many, many loose ends on what used to be my favorite show, Alias, tomorrow night. But I'll be missing it!--I'm at BEA tomorrow and Friday. I hope to see some of you there and to bring back some good dirt for the rest.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Transitional reading

And by that, I don't mean books that bridge between readers and chapter books, I mean books that move readers from one genre to another. Case in point is Mary Downing Hahn's Witch Catcher, which I'm reviewing in the July/August Horn Book. I've enjoyed Hahn's books, both gothics and historical fiction, for years, but publisher Clarion is calling this one her "first fantasy novel." While technically inaccurate (since ghost stories--of which Hahn is a master--are fantasy), I think what they mean is that this is her first book with magical beings, witches and fairies, in it. Does this kind of fantasy have a name? Domestic fantasy?

What I'm admiring about it is the way Hahn begins with motifs and themes that her impressive fan club will enjoy (a bookish heroine, a mysterious old house) and only then introducing the fairies and witches, thus giving fans what they want and then taking them someplace new. I could see suggesting this to a kid for whom Harry Potter is too noisy and Susan Cooper too intimidating: too much magic.

Friday, May 12, 2006

When "opportunity, opportunity, is knockin' at your door . . .

. . . Opportunity knocks but once--
And don't come back no more."
(from "Snatch and Grab It," sung by Julia Lee)

The SRA/McGraw Hill folks have responded to Patricia Polacco's charges; their full statement can be found in the comments on yesterday's post, but I'll repost it here:

SRA/McGraw-Hill welcomes the opportunity to present the facts about Patricia Polacco's scheduled appearances in SRA's exhibit booth at IRA on May 2 and 3, 2006.

SRA/McGraw-Hill and Ms. Polacco signed a very clear contract, which can be viewed at

In the contract, signed by SRA on Jan. 10, 2006, and by Ms. Polacco on Feb. 8, 2006, Ms. Polacco agreed to be an SRA/McGraw-Hill exhibit booth speaker at four 30-minute presentations on two very specific topics: heroes who made a difference in her life and the real stories that inspired several of her books. In the two-page contract, SRA/McGraw-Hill was identified by name 14 times. She further agreed that her appearances at the SRA exhibit booth would be limited solely to these four presentations.

Ms. Polacco chose not to honor her commitment to SRA/McGraw-Hill. Shortly before the event, she began insisting that she wanted to use her appearances as a platform for expressing her personal views on public education policy. We respect her right to express her ideas; however, since the SRA educational presentations were focused on writing and children's books, SRA did not believe that its exhibit booth was an appropriate forum for a public policy speech. Ms. Polacco's statements about this event are inaccurate and unreasonable.

SRA's intention was to have Ms. Polacco deliver four presentations that would inspire the people who have the greatest impact on educating our children's classroom teachers.

1:23 PM, May 12, 2006

According to the SRA web page, Polacco was asked to speak about "the heroes of [her] life" and "the real life stories that inspired the books Meteor!, The Keeping Quilt, and Thank You, Mr. Falker." I suggest (with 20-20 hindsight, of course) that Ms. Polacco could easily have spun both topics in such a way that made a discussion of NCLB fitting, nay, inevitable. There is nothing in the contract linked above that would have prevented her from doing so. Too bad Polacco showed her cards too soon.

I discussed a similar failure of nerve or imagination in an editorial about Laura Bush and the antiwar poets. It reminds me of something Deborah Stevenson wrote for us years ago in "Rewriting the Rules: Girls and Books" (Horn Book, Nov/Dec '97): "Caddie Woodlawn syndrome, where girls' energy is really an adorable and completely safe sauciness, seems to be alive and well. Feisty and spunky are two words that, unfortunately, also seem to apply with great frequency--unfortunately because they are adjectives reserved for the nonthreatening and the totally unserious, who have the nerve to attempt to be fierce in a world that understands they can be nothing of the kind."

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Oprah again confirmed as cultural bellwether

The New York Times Book Review has named, based on a poll of 125 notable authors and critics (although really: what the hell is Curtis Sittenfeld doing on that list?), Toni Morrison's Beloved as the best American work of fiction published in the last twenty-five years. Beloved received fifteen votes, which, as Times critic A.O. Scott points out, doesn't sound like much until you consider the thousands of eligible titles. (Upon reflection, it still doesn't sound like much.)

Now, one camp of children's literature enthusiasts is probably going to carp that no children's books are among the twenty or so (Updike's Rabbit books and McCarthy's Border Trilogy are counted as single titles) that received more than one vote (again, this exercise gets limper and limper the more one thinks about it). Not me. I certainly haven't done enough reading of adult books of the last twenty-five years to fairly judge the field, but I have read the children's books of that timespan, and I would be hard put to think of a title that belongs on that top-twenty list. Maybe one: Holes.

P.S. Blogger spellchecker weighs in: it wants me to replace Morrison with moroseness.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Chicago postscript

Patricia Polacco has re-uploaded her statement about her IRA non-appearance on her website, but now prefaces it with a note urging her supporters to take aim at No Child Left Behind, not SRA/McGraw-Hill. Which kind of makes her statement a non-issue, but if it makes more people understand what NCLB does and does not do, then I'm all for it.

But despite the discussions I've seen on listservs and the net, I can't agree that this is a case of censorship. Speech you get paid for rarely is.

In other Chicago news, a fine time was had by all at the 24th annual Zena Sutherland lecture, delivered by Jacqueline Woodson. Jackie is a marvelous speaker and storyteller, and her theme of being a Writer and being a writer contained much insight about the value of creative expression and its political effects. I will let you know when it's scheduled for publication in the Horn Book. Next year's lecture, on May 4, 2007, will be given by Richard Peck.

We learned something interesting in the questions-and-answers that followed Woodson's lecture; Jackie revealed that she had always envisioned her picture book The Other Side, about a white girl and a black girl becoming friends, as a contemporary story, but the editor and illustrator chose to set it in the pre-Civil Rights past. Because it was safer?

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Waves from the Windy City

From my mail, it seems that the big children's book story from Chicago last week was SRA/McGraw Hill's cancellation of an appearance by Patricia Polacco at the International Reading Association convention there. Apparently, SRA/McGraw Hill wanted Polacco's speech to refrain from comment on the No Child Left Behind Act, a law that Polacco publicly abhors and one from which McGraw Hill makes money. Although her side of the story no longer appears on Polacco's website it can be found on Susan Ohanian's site; also appearing there is an amusingly lame attempt by IRA's executive director Alan E. Farstrup to disassociate the organization from the controversy.

Farstrup is right in that the dispute is a contractual one between Polacco and McGraw Hill, and to me it seems a case of someone not reading the fine print closely enough. But really: whose side is the IRA on? Shame on Farstrup for writing, twice, that Polacco was being paid for her appearance--just how much did McGraw Hill pay for its "Platinum Level" sponsorship of the convention?

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Sweet Valley Lowdown

Semi-juicy stuff here on book packager Alloy, link courtesy of Gawker. But you'll want to slap Francine Pascal, honestly.

Both Sides Now. Really?

Just below the online Boston Globe's latest story on Kaavya-gate is another on the removal of an art show at Brandeis University. Curated by student Lior Halperin, the exhibition displays paintings solicited from young people living in a Palestinian refugee camp, and was pulled by the university administration after complaints that the show was "one-sided."

One (this one, anyway) thinks, of course it was, and then, and thank God for that. Art--whether graphic, narrative, etc.--isn't about balance, or even fairness, taken either one work at a time or as collected into a compilation or exhibition. (Do all the anthologies we've been seeing of "stories for boys" need to have "stories for girls," too?) Give me a point of view anytime.

A more interesting question is one about the political uses of children's art. It kind of bugs me that such exhibitions rely on the artist's youth and lack of talent and/or training for their impact. Isn't this exploitative? Not of the child artists, who probably enjoy the attention (although I wonder if they were paid for their work), but of our myth of childhood's innocence: the more awkward, unskilled, and unsubtle these pictures are, the more "authentic" and thereby "truthful" we take them to be. It's the everything-you-learn-in-kindergarten-is-enough school of thought, which lacks respect for both grownups and kids.

I'm reminded of a comment Horn Book reviewer Susan Dove Lempke made to me years ago, when we were both working at BCCB. We were looking at a picture book that employed a faux-childlike style for the pictures, where the sun is a yellow circle and the sky a blue line. Susan said, "you know, kids wish they didn't draw this way."

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

A cat story I can like

In real life, I get along with cats just fine, but for some reason I can't stand reading about them--I think it's because they're always made out to be so smug. (My friend Ruth, who has had cats for years, says that the enigmatic look they're always giving you is simply a display of their stupidity.)

But I did enjoy learning, in Leonard Marcus's new The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy (to be reviewed in our July/August issue), that as a child Nancy Farmer once had eighteen of the little beasts and "named them all after volcanoes."

Tungurahua, scat!