A mix of titles currently on my shelves.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Wild About Wild Things!

What -- other than fame and fortune -- do Chelsea Clinton, Jerry Seinfeld, Madonna and Peyton Manning have in common? If you’ve read Wild Things!, my latest favorite book about children’s literature, you know the answer: they are four of the numerous celebrities who have penned children’s books.

The authors of Wild Things!, Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson and Peter D. Sieruta, devote an entire chapter to “The Celebrity Children’s Book Craze,” a fact which endears them to me even without the other six chapters (more on those later). No longer must I fume alone!

Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature
by Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson and Peter D. Sieruta
Why the fuming? Allow me to digress and count the ways:
  • Non-famous writers for children spend years, decades, lifetimes at their craft with no assurance of publication and, usually, little financial reward. Celebrity authors get to by-pass all the pain and go straight to the gain (big time) in a field they generally know nothing about.
  • This would be tolerable, sort of, if the books were good. To the contrary. Most celebrity books (with a few exceptions) are insipid, poorly written, preachy, and/or of little interest to their supposed audience (children).
  • Children forced to read bad books often come to the logical conclusion that reading is boring. This not only hurts kids, it negates the efforts of writers for children, librarians, and teachers to supply vibrant, engaging books for kids.
  • The phenomenon of celebrity children’s books reinforces the common view that anyone can write a book for kids. They’re short and have pictures so it must be easy, right? This false and patronizing attitude leads to more bad books (see #3 above). It also implies that children don't deserve the best literature we are capable of creating.
  • The trees. Think of all the trees, sacrificed to big print runs on the altars of celebrity ego and profit!
Fortunately for readers, the authors of Wild Things! rise above fuming like mine to treat the celebrity issue (and others) with thoughtfulness, finesse and panache.

The rest of the book is summed up in its subtitle: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature. Mischief, you ask? Good grief, yes! Children’s books have been a battleground for adults' attitudes toward children and childhood from the start. Subversive stories for children pop up regularly in response to cultural norms and issues (think The Story of Ferdinand coming out during World War II). The authors give a tidy history of children’s publishing along with their examples, books ranging from Struwwelpeter in 1858 to Charlotte’s Web, The Stinky Cheese Man and, more recently, I Want My Hat Back

Illustration from Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffman
Further chapters discuss GLBT concerns in books for youth, censorship (there’s plenty of it), and the publishing industry itself, with a look at books that critics love but kids don’t, and vice versa. The book concludes with an overview of the current “post-Potter,” digitally-infused children’s book scene.

Besides all the above good stuff, Wild Things! is peppered with fascinating and sometimes naughty tidbits about authors, editors, and famous books. Example: go find an old edition of the classic Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. On the back cover flap you’ll see a photo of the illustrator, Clement Hurd, cheerfully smoking a cigarette. This was, after all, 1947, when smoking was glamorous rather than cancerous. Fast forward to the 2005 revised edition. Through digital magic, Hurd’s fingers are oddly empty. Or this one: In 1974, as the Watergate scandal was disgracing the presidency of the United States, Dr. Seuss modified his popular Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now! to read Richard M. Nixon…! Chapter “Interludes” cover subjects like “Sex and Death” with details that will forever alter your images of certain famous authors for children.

The authors are a knowledgable trio of children's book experts. Betsy Bird is a collections specialist for youth materials at the New York Public Library, as well as a writer for children, blogger at A Fuse #8 Production, and contributor to The Horn Book magazine. Julie Danielson critiques books for Kirkus Reviews and blogs at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Peter D. Sieruta, who passed away during the writing of this book, was a reviewer for The Horn Book, author, and creator of the blog, Collecting Children's Books.

If you love children’s books, you’ll love this book. And if you read the chapter on celebrity authors and their books, you’ll even find recommendations for a few good ones.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

In Praise of Early Chapter Books

Early chapter books are the overlooked middle children of the kid lit world. While picture books get ooohs and aaahs for their beauty and cleverness, and young adult books get attention for their edginess and quirky characters, beginning chapter books sit quietly on the shelf, ignored — until you need them.

And we do need them. Early chapter books give young readers a story long enough to sink their literary teeth into without overwhelming. They build confidence and a feeling of satisfaction at having read an entire book — a real book, with chapters. One that doesn’t say “beginning reader” on its cover.

Because I love watching kids learn to read — and especially, learn to love to read — I have a soft spot for these slim little books, usually illustrated in black-and-white. The best are simple and yet compelling, with memorable characters, an interesting setting, and enough action to hold their readers’ attention.

Series are popular with young readers. They help children identify a new book they can feel confident they’ll like, based on past experience. The characters are familiar and the format consistent, which adds to that important feeling of mastery — I can do this! Series stories also make it easier to slip into an imagined world, like revisiting a place you enjoy and discovering new delights each time.

The Seldovia Sam books by Susan Woodward Springer stand out as Alaska’s best offering in the early chapter book realm. Oddly enough — or maybe not — also illustrated by Amy Meissner!


Published by Alaska Northwest Books.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Saving Sammy

What child hasn’t wanted to bring home an abandoned or injured animal? In my family, it was squirrels and baby birds. In Saving Sammy, an early chapter book by Canadian Eric Walters, illustrated by Alaskan artist Amy Meissner, the young heroine rescues something more unlikely — a baby beaver!

According to the Author’s Note, Saving Sammy is based on a true story about a family who found a stranded young beaver following a flood. The tale is straightforward and uncomplicated, with one main character (Morgan), her parents, two family dogs, and of course, their unexpected guest. The situation — what to do with a lost baby beaver? — is interesting enough on its own to keep reading. But Meissner’s fourteen black-and-white illustrations over eight chapters add elements of richness and momentum to this otherwise quiet story — as well as an irresistible dose of animal cuteness.

Feelings of movement and fluidity permeate her drawings, which focus primarily on interactions between characters. Details give the viewer an impression of moments captured within a context of larger scenes. Each illustration is well-chosen to further the plot and reenforce the overall theme of caring.

Saving Sammy also highlights the work of the Northern Lights Wildlife Society, a real-life animal rescue charity operating in Smithers, British Columbia. The story honors the heart of a child, or any animal lover, determined to save a wounded wild creature. Parental warning: after reading Saving Sammy, your kids may be combing the woods in search of animals in need! But rest assured that the story also drives home the importance of caring for wild creatures in an appropriate setting.

Saving Sammy was published in 2014 by Orca Book Publishers, a Canadian company based in Victoria, British Columbia. It’s the fifth and most recent title to be illustrated by Meissner in their Orca Echoes series of 64-page early chapter books for younger readers.

The book was recently shortlisted for the Green Earth Book Award. Congratulations! It's always a joy to see well-executed books that connect kids with nature in positive and realistic ways.

For an interesting comparison of the artist's earlier and final drawings for the cover of Saving Sammy, visit Amy's blog

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Pup & Pokey

Seth Kantner’s new book (and his first for children) is a tender but unsentimental story about the friendship between a wolf and, of all unlikely creatures, a porcupine. Possibly based on an old trapper’s tale — the author isn’t clear on this point, perhaps by design — the story is set in the far-north wilderness Kantner knows so well. With parallels to that ancient Aesop’s fable, The Lion and the Mouse, the story plays out as the two main characters grow up, mature, and help one another, each according to their natural abilities.

Illustrated in rich, earth-toned oil paintings by first-time children’s book artist Beth Hill and published by Snowy Owl Books (an imprint of University of Alaska Press), Pup & Pokey reminds me that stories from Alaska don’t always fit neatly into mainstream publishing paradigms. The book is unusual in two ways.

First, 48-page color-illustrated children’s books are seldom produced these days, unless as a beginning reader or a graphic novel. As librarians and teachers know, that leaves a gap in reading material for children who’ve outgrown “baby books” (picture books) and beginning readers but aren’t quite ready for full-fledged chapter books.
Pup & Pokey is told in six chapters, like a beginning reader or early chapter book. But with one to three full-page, color illustrations per chapter, plus an illustrated border for each chapter beginning, it looks and feels like a picture book — albeit one with a lot of words. It’s vocabulary and syntax, while not complex, are not beginning-reader easy. In short, Pup & Pokey doesn’t fit the typical format categories for children’s books these days: picture book, beginning reader, chapter book, graphic novel.

Is this a problem? Only for librarians trying to decide where to shelve the book!

Pup & Pokey is also unusual among contemporary children books because its main characters are wild animals portrayed fictionally but accurately in their natural setting. Do these animals talk? Yes, to other animals. But these are not fantasy animals or stereotyped creatures doing fanciful things. Chewing on a moose hoof, for instance, is not your standard animal-story fare for children.

Illustrated stories about wild animals these days tend to be nonfiction, or for young children, imaginative fiction with little focus on natural history. Pup & Pokey follows in the tradition of realistic wild animal stories by telling the story from the animal characters’ points of view and providing plenty of details about landscape, habitat, and life cycle within the telling of the story.

Children love stories and they enjoy learning about wild animals. So why don’t we have more realistic wild animal stories? I’ll save that discussion for another post. In the meantime, we can be thankful to small presses such as Snowy Owl for publishing interesting Alaska children’s books that — like many Alaskans — aren't afraid to stray from the norm.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Writing What She Knew

This year I've been preparing for Alaska Book Week by reacquainting myself with the works of Elsa Pedersen, an Alaska writer, now passed on, who still inspires me when I begin to think this whole writing business is just too hard and I ought to spend my time on something more productive, like Facebook.

Long before the phrase "young adult literature" materialized, Elsa Pedersen was writing for young people. Her career began in 1948 with a magazine article for “Alaska Life.” She soon moved into writing stories for youth, and eventually books. Victory at  Bear Cove was the first of eleven historical and contemporary novels, all but one set in Alaska. Several sold quite well nationally. Fisherman's Choice and House Upon a Rock were Junior Literary Guild selections, and the New York Times listed Cook Inlet Decision among its best 100 books for young people in 1963. She also wrote nonfiction: a book about Alaska for school children, dozens of articles for adults, a memoir, and co-authored two local histories.

Elsa Pedersen's first novel for young adults,
published in 1958, was followed
by ten more over the next decade.
Her writing focused, per the old adage, on what she knew: homesteading and fishing on Kachemak Bay. When she wasn't writing, she was working at homesteading chores, such as helping her first husband, Ted, to clear acres of old-growth spruce by hand with cross-cut saws and axes at their stake in Bear Cove, and later, hiring on as a bookkeeper at canneries in Seldovia in an often desperate attempt to stay afloat financially. When working for the canneries, she arose at 4:30 or 5 to get in two hours of writing before her work day. (Ouch! So what's my excuse?)

As someone who has been writing since before the Internet, I can fully imagine the solitary commitment to her craft that writing from her homestead at Bear Cove required. All correspondence with editors and other writers took place by snail mail, of course — in this case, very snail, as mail arrived by boat or plane only sporadically at best. Manuscripts were produced without the benefit of spell-check or cut-and-paste. Critique group? Forget it. There was no one to critique with even if she’d wanted to. (She didn’t.)

Published in 1969, Petticoat Fisherman
features a young woman coming of age
as she navigates a fishing boat on Kachemak 
as well as social expectations of the time.
Pedersen’s approach to writing sounds distinctly old-school today. She makes it clear in her memoir that she was opposed to discussing her work-in-progress, stating “Writing is an extremely personal affair and as far as I’m concerned is not a debatable subject.” She did not believe in writing workshops and critique groups, which she characterizes as “the blind leading the blind” and warns may foster “a subtle atmosphere of ‘You praise my work, I’ll praise yours’” or even “jealousy and malice.” Point taken!

Written after the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964,
House Upon a Rock tells the story of a young man,
his family, and community dealing with the event
and its aftermath in a fictional coastal village.

Finding balance between the focused solitude of writing and participation in society (face-to-face or virtual) seems to be part of every writer’s journey over time. Although writing was clearly not a social activity for Pedersen, she eventually left the isolation of Bear Cove for the relative civilization of a rural community on the road system. If she were alive today, I can't help wondering if she'd embrace the connectivity of the Internet, with all its access to the world, or if the onslaught of blogging, tweeting, blurbing, and “liking" might drive her to reconsider the merits of isolation.

My take-away from a brief look at Elsa Pedersen’s life and career is perseverance: she wrote to publish and she wrote because she was driven to write. Sometimes, with luck, the two coincided.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Alaska's Dog Heroes

Who doesn’t love a good dog story – especially when it’s true? Alaska’s Dog Heroes: True Stories of Remarkable Canines, a new picture book by Shelley Gill, gives readers glimpses into the lives of nineteen memorable dogs from Alaska.

Each of the fourteen brief profiles, beautifully illustrated by Robin James, shows the featured dog (or dogs) on one full page, with a facing page of text. With just one exception the scenes are snowscapes; all but five of the heroes are sled dogs. Both art and text convey the important role dogs have played in Alaska’s history as a means of transportation and the role they continue to play in winter recreation, the sport of sled dog racing, and search and rescue.

As the book notes, Shelley Gill was one of the first women to complete the Iditarod sled dog race. She’s also written many books for children about a wide variety of topics. Her subjects here range in time from 1880 to contemporary working dogs, although the stories are not arranged chronologically. Rescue dogs, as well as a pair of “dog detectives” being trained to sniff out oil spills beneath the sea ice, make it clear that dog heroes are still among us.
Portrait of Tekla.
Readers will likely be attracted to the book first for its illustrations and then drawn into the stories to learn more about the dogs they see. The concise text packs a lot of information into compact entries. It may be shared as a read-aloud for children as young as five or six, but adult explanation will be needed. The book is best suited for seven to ten-year-olds. A Teacher’s Guide in the back includes activities aligned with Common Core Standards for Second and Third Grade, although the reading level appears to be considerably higher than that. Some adult participation may be needed to help kids navigate through vocabulary challenges and unfamiliar references.

While the focus is always on the dogs, references to Alaska’s history, environment, and people will pique readers' interest for more information. Most of the dogs featured have been written about at greater length elsewhere, and in primary sources. A list of references for further reading would be a welcome addition for teachers, librarians, and curious readers.
Dugan in action.
Additional clarification of some terms and phrases would also be helpful. For instance, “native paddlers” in the story about Stikeen and "fastest musher in Alaska" in the entry about Togo would be better understood by the book’s intended audience with a few more details explaining the cultural and historical contexts. 

These suggestions aside, Alaska’s Dog Heroes is a beautifully illustrated introduction to some of Alaska’s best canine friends.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Aesop in the Arctic

One of the things I love about folktales, legends, and fables is how adaptable they are. In Arctic Aesop’s Fables: Twelve Retold Tales, Juneau writer Susi Gregg Fowler and her husband, artist Jim Fowler, have transformed a dozen traditional Aesop’s tales into a beautifully rendered picture book of fables set in Arctic and sub-Arctic landscapes.

A few, such as “The Arctic Fox and the Raven,” require only minor substitutions to replace their classic counterparts. “The Fox and the Crow” -- a story I’ve told at least a hundred times to children using puppets and an intriguing piece of mystery cheese -- in Susi Fowler’s retelling fittingly exchanges Arctic cousins for the traditional critters and a bit of fish (grayling, to be precise) for the cheese.

Similarly, “The Wolf and the Reflection” doesn’t wander far from Aesop’s “The Dog and the Shadow” -- except for the setting, which describes “grassy tussocks” on the tundra and mentions a bear. Jim Fowler’s illustration of the wolf looking at itself in the river sets this story apart. This canine is wilder and more powerful than any dog I’ve seen depicted in the classic tale.

Other stories are more surprising. Guess who stars in the Arctic version of “The Tortoise and the Hare”? A snowshoe hare and a porcupine! Anyone who has ever watched a porcupine waddle across a trail will smile reading this version of the familiar fable.

Some stories, such as “The Bear, the Wolves, and the Musk Oxen,” are adapted from lesser-known Aesop’s fables -– here, “The Lion and the Three Bulls” -– to good effect. Musk oxen protecting their young are a perfect, and unusual, choice to illustrate the moral “United we stand.” Again, Fowler’s illustrations complement the story and visually strengthen understanding of the moral.

Another creative adaptation I particularly enjoy is “The Mosquito and the White-Fronted Goose.” The moral is straight out of “The Lion and the Mouse” but the story that takes you there is original, and uniquely Arctic.

With so much to talk about and explore visually, this book is made for sharing, either one-on-one or with groups of children in a story time or teaching setting. Northern children will recognize familiar animals and landscapes. Children from other environments will be intrigued and interested to learn more about Arctic wildlife. The succinct morals provide an opportunity to discuss values and the consequences of various behaviors. A table of contents links the stories to their source fables, which is not only good scholarship but a perfect invitation for inquiring minds to look up the Aesop versions for comparison. From there it’s a simple segue into telling or writing their own animal fables.

Fables are an ancient and amazingly durable form of teaching story. It’s a pleasure to see them reworked so imaginatively and yet set accurately within the natural world. Nicely done, Fowlers!

Published by Sasquatch Books, 2013. Ages 4-8.