A mix of titles currently on my shelves.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Real Money for Children's Book Writers!

Once again, I have to hand it to those Scandinavians. They put their money where their mouths are when it comes to children's books.

When I read last week that J.K. Rowling was awarded the first Hans Christian Andersen Literature Prize in Denmark, which comes with 500,000 Danish kronor (about $93,352), I was both impressed by the amount of the award and a bit confused. I knew that the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) has been honoring children's book authors and illustrators for decades (since 1956, it turns out) with the Hans Christiansen Award.

Though close in name, these are two different awards. The Hans Christian Andersen Literature Prize is brand new, given to authors whose work is comparable to Andersen's. The prize money is garnered from private donors. Rowling traveled across the water to Andersen's home town in Odense, Denmark to receive it. She also received a bronze statue of the Ugly Duckling -- an appropriate metaphor for struggling authors!

The Hans Christian Andersen Award is also an international prize, given every other year "to a living author and illustrator whose complete works have made a lasting contribution to children's literature." The Danes are involved in this award, as well; Her Majesty Queen Margrethe II of Denmark is its patron. It comes with a gold medal and a diploma, as well as international prestiege and, one assumes, increased book sales.

The top U.S. awards for children's books, the Caldecott and Newbery, are awarded annually by a division of the American Library Association. The Caldecott honors an American picture book artist, while the Newbery recognizes an American author. The prizes involve no cash, but wide acclaim and a much-coveted medal that virtually guarantees continuing book sales.

The biggest monetary award for children's literature comes from the Swedes: the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. It may go to multiple recipients, who can be authors from any country, as well as illustrators, oral storytellers, or people involved in the work of promoting reading. The government funds the award and the Swedish Arts Council administers it.

This is a serious prize: 5 million Swedish kronor, which is comparable to between 700,000 and 800,000 U.S. dollars. Why so large? Because the Swedish people and their government wanted to honor their beloved author, Astrid Lindgren, by making a statement about the importance of reading for children and teens. They also wanted to inspire children's book writers.

I'm inspired! Isn't it great to know that somebody thinks children's literature is important enough to put real money on it?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Congratulations to Debby Dahl Edwardson on Blessings Bead!

I’ve intended to write in praise of Debby Dahl Edwardson’s Blessing’s Bead ever since I started this blog (not so long ago). Now I’m kicking myself for procrastination because I’ve missed my chance to say, “I told you it was good!” Blessing’s Bead was just selected by Booklist as one of the Top 10 First Novels for Youth. Booklist is published by the American Library Association and is one of the leading review journals in the country, so this is a *big* deal!

I’m very pleased for Debby because I love the book. Debby writes from way up north – Barrow is on the Arctic Ocean -- where she has lived for thirty years and raised a family. Her first novel takes place in two parts. In the first, a young Iñupiaq woman named Nutaaq loses her sister, who leaves to marry a Siberian, and within two years, the remainder of Nutaaq’s family is dead from the influenza that ravaged so many in 1917-1918. In the second part of the book, Nutaaq’s descendant, Blessing, must adjust to moving from a dysfunctional situation in Anchorage to living with her Iñupiaq grandmother in Barrow. It’s a beautiful story set within a specific culture, dealing with themes of loss, survival, and healing that resonate with people of any time and place. I’d say it’s both a coming-of-age and a coming-of-culture story. Well done, Debby!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Letters About Literature -- Deadline December 10

Alaska Center for the Book, in partnership with the Library of Congress Center for the Book and Target stores, sponsors an interesting and worthwhile contest every year for students in grades 4 through 12 called Letters About Literature. It's a writing contest with a challenging construct: students are asked to write a letter to an author, alive or dead, about how that writer's work changed the student's understanding of self or others.

I served as a judge one year and was impressed by the depth of some responses. They are further proof that students are still reading and thinking deeply, and that the work of writing is valuable and necessary.

Another very cool thing about the contest is the prizes. At the state level, winners receive $100, a $50 Target gift card and are entered into the national competition. At the national level, top prizes include $500 Target cards and $10,000 grants to promote reading for the student's library of choice! I love the concept of rewarding both the student and the community.

This is no small prize and one for which Alaskan students can compete as effectively as anyone else. Indeed, last year Alaskan Anna Wichorek, at that time a junior at West High in Anchorage, won the national competition for her letter to Velma Wallis, author of Two Old Women. Wichorek's $10,000 went to Mountain View Elementary School library. What a great way to make a difference!

The competition is broken into three levels: grades 4-6, 7-8, and 9-12. For more information and official entry forms, visit the Alaska Center for the Book website.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

George Rogers

George Rogers, a man I admired greatly, died this past week in Juneau at the age of 93.

What does George have to do with children’s books in the North? George was one half of a 69-year partnership in marriage with Jean Rogers, the author of several Alaskan classics for children, including King Island Christmas; Goodbye, My Island; Runaway Mittens; and The Secret Moose. I met George through Jean, with whom I became friends back when I first started writing children’s books.

Jean and George invited me to stay with them several times while I was visiting Juneau for various reasons. Though his accomplishments were many, the George I knew was one of the kindest, most unassuming people I’ve met. He was also one of the most interesting.

As others have said, George was a Renaissance man. He designed their homes (two, because the first one burned down), wrote books, sketched, sang, acted in community theater, served on the Juneau assembly, and raised six children with Jean. Just being in their home, filled with books and art, color and design and architectural surprises, was a pleasure.

A Harvard-trained economist. These days, that phrase conjures up connections to elite Wall Street consultants, think-tank schemers, and billionaire CEOs. Though George was indeed a Harvard-trained economist for the state of Alaska, none of those images fit George. He put his talents to work designing some of Alaska’s basic institutions, both before and after statehood. For him, economics wasn’t an abstract theory, or a tool for personal profit, but a system of exchange that existed for the well-being of people within society.

During one of our first conversations (probably in the mid-nineties), I asked him about the Great Depression. All my life I’d heard stories from my mother about growing up during the Depression but I never quite understood why it happened. Recently I’d read that an underlying cause had been the disparity between rich and poor. George explained that any time there is a concentration of wealth in too few hands, social and economic chaos eventually follows. In a healthy economic system money flows throughout society relatively freely, like blood throughout a body, carrying oxygen to all its cells. I’ve thought about that conversation many times over the years, as wealth and power have concentrated more and more to record levels in the U.S.

George was right.

In a time when self-promotion is considered not just desirable, but essential, we seldom see the words “modest” and “accomplished” together. But that was George. I am blessed to have known him.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Our Three Bears

When you share a state with three types of bears – black, brown, and polar – "the three bears" is not a new theme in children’s books. However, it is one that is always ripe for fresh treatment and that’s what we have in a new book, The Three Bears: With Real Photographs! by John Schwieder and Cindy Kumle.
The title says it all: this book tells a story in photographs, taken by Schwieder in Katmai National Park. Many are simply wonderful, such as the cover photo of the three sibling bears standing together, curious and alert.

Photo copyright John Schwieder
The story is slight – basically, we follow the three cubs and sometimes their mother through the activities of a long summer day. But that’s okay because the pictures and information are so interesting. The text is a mix of narration and, in asides set off by smaller text, basic facts about browns bears and their habitat. Kumle does a good job of concisely explaining what is happening in the photos and pointing out details that might be missed -- like the fish that got away while three adult bears argue over it.

I do have one quibble with the book: talking bears. Now, I have no problem with talking animals in fiction. I’ve written a number of talking animal stories myself. But the art in this book is clearly documentary nonfiction and the text should reflect that. Nonetheless, this is a book that will delight children and capture the interest of their parents, as well. These intimate views into the daily lives of some of nature's most awe-inspiring creatures are fascinating. And the cubs -- well, they are as endearing on the page as a real-life passel of puppies. Children will love the scenes of the cubs at play or snuggling up for a nap.

Photo copyright John Schwieder
Although Schwieder, the photographer, has also produced a previous book (ALASKA, America's Wildest State) he didn’t go to Katmai with the intention of writing The Three Bears. He says, “The cover picture...makes people smile and they know there's a story behind it. I originally titled that photograph "Grizzly Triplets" but everyone else called it "the three bears" so that's where the title of the book came from.” His website is

Earlier books on a similar theme include Alaska’s Three Bears by Shelley Gill, illustrated by Shannon Cartwright, published in 1990 by PAWS IV Publishing. This fictional story about a polar bear, brown bear, and black bear finding their home territory in the wilderness is interspersed with factual information about the three species of bears.

The Grizzly Bear Family Book by Michio Hoshino uses photography to follow a mother and two cubs through a year’s cycle of activities. Hoshino, a renowned nature photographer, died in 1996 from a bear attack while filming a documentary about brown bears on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. Japanese by birth, he made Fairbanks, Alaska his home. His book was published in 1994 by North-South Books.