Welcoming Vaunda, Remembering Sylvester

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson recently launched her new blog, The Book Itch, with a tribute to William Steig.

SylvesterHere’s a snippet:

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig. Winner of the 1970 Caldecott Medal, it was and remains truly deserving. In my 27 years as a children’s librarian, I shared it with thousands of story-time kids.

Oh, Sylvester! How many ways do I love that book? When my son was in pre-school, we borrowed a copy from the library, and then we borrowed it again, and yet again. On the fourth borrowing, it was clearly time to buy the book. Magic, coincidence, the dangers lurking in the world, the nature of happiness, the endurance of love–you could talk for hours about what this book means, all the possible things it could mean.

And now Sylvester is 50 years old! Thank you, Vaunda Nelson, for becoming an unlikely blogger and for reminding me of this jewel of a book.

More: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble was banned in 1977 because of the policemen (and others, but never mind that) being depicted as pigs.

steig-sylvesterStill more: Julie Paschkis remembers the beautiful picnic scene in Sylvester in her Books Around the Table post on summertime picnics. Look at those loving hooves resting on Sylvester’s back, and could anyone bring more purely loving parents to life in strokes of a brush and pen?

Guest Post: Michelle Knudsen on the Evil Librarian series

Michelle Knudsen says:

People sometimes give me the side eye when they learn about my Evil Librarian trilogy. “You wrote Library Lion,” they say. “You love libraries! Why would you write  a book about evil librarians?”

IMG_1387.jpgLibrary Lion occupies a comfortable spot on my bookshelf. My copy is well-thumbed. It’s a book I reach for when I teach, offering nice examples of an outsider protagonist and a matter-of-fact adult ally, raising interesting and important questions about rules and contingencies. So I was curious about the path from this beloved and loving depiction of libraries to…her YA Evil Librarian series. Here’s what Mikki has to say on the subject:

First, just to set the record straight: It’s only one evil librarian, and technically (this isn’t a spoiler; you find out pretty quickly) he’s not an actual human librarian, but a demon posing as a librarian. It’s an important distinction. And when he’s in his librarian disguise, he takes his library duties very seriously. So really he’s a good fake-librarian; he’s just also an evil demon planning to do terrible things in main character Cyn’s high school—including stealing away her best friend and forcing her to live with him in the demon world forever. (The one thing that’s safe is the school musical, because it turns out that demons really love Sweeney Todd.)

Libraries have always been safe and beloved places for me. My mom would take me regularly when I was a kid growing up in Staten Island, NY, and I still remember the moment I discovered the shelf of dragon stories that it’s probably fair to say changed my life. I was a library monitor in junior high school and worked in the Cornell University Library as a college student and later as an adult. I wrote Library Lion while working at CUL, and it was inspired by the amazing people I knew there as well as the feelings of wonder and welcome of that library especially but also of all the libraries I have ever known.

I suspect the reason the idea of an “evil librarian” appealed to me was because it’s so hard for me to imagine anything negative about libraries at all. Placing something evil in such a sacred space seemed to magnify the danger in the story and underscore the wrongness of the villain that Cyn and her friends have to find a way to vanquish. I loved writing this series, but now that the trilogy is complete, perhaps the next library that shows up in one of my stories will be the regular kind—safe and magical and demon-free (except for the ones tucked securely inside the books).

Curse of the Evil Librarian (Book 3 in the YA Evil Librarian series) comes out on August 13, 2019! Congratulations, Michelle Knudsen. Wishing you a safe and joyful passage from demon-gripped libraries to whatever setting lies ahead.

“Young girl, you were not born only to cook…”

LetHerFly.jpgWho has not heard of Malala Yousafzai? Her courage, her clarity, her vision so startling for someone so young?

Here is a book by the father who has stood at her side all along. Excerpt from a poem by Malala’s father that serves as an epigraph:

Young girl, you were not born only to cook.
Your youth is not to be ruined.
You were not born a victim, were not born
as an instrument for a man’s enjoyment.

And this from the opening chapter…

I was going to be a father who believed in equality, and believes in a girl as she grows into a woman, and who raises her so that she believes in herself, so that in her life she can be free as a bird.

MalalasMagicPencil.jpgMalala herself, the world’s youngest Nobel laureate, continues to speak eloquently of her journey and her vision for the world’s girl children. Her father’s book is worth reading in tandem with Malala’s own picture book, Malala’s Magic Pencil, illustrated with a suitably delicate touch by Kerascoët, the husband-and-wife illustrator team Sébastien Cosset and Marie Pommepuy.

The Greening of an Old Tale

In 1841, John Ruskin, eminent English art critic and social thinker, wrote a children’s book for a twelve year old girl, Euphemia (Effie) Gray, who would later become his wife, staying married to him for some six years and disrupting his life considerably in the process. From such unpropitious beginnings, remarkably, Ruskin’s only children’s story has survived.

King_Golden_River_PLC_CC2018.inddSet in a “valley of the most surprising and luxuriant fertility,” The King of the Golden River is the story of 11-year-old Gluck, a kindhearted underdog whose two wily older siblings, Hans and Schwartz, work him to the bone, withhold food, and subject him to incessant cuffs and punches. When Southwest Wind, Esquire, pays Gluck an unexpected and, it must be said, inconvenient visit, Gluck nonetheless feeds him and puts up with him, unwittingly acquiring a powerful ally.

Gold and greed figure in the story, as does a king entrapped by magic, the promise of transformation through three drops of holy water cast into a river, and more.

The twists and turns of story lead to a happy ending for Gluck, with rewards given for kindness and generosity and punishment duly meted out for cruelty and selfishness. At a deeper level, this is a fable about how humans treat the earth. (“They killed everything that did not pay for its eating.”) It links social and environmental justice in quirky and astonishingly modern ways. The one note that rang false to me in today’s social context was the unthinking equation of black with evil in the naming of the ill-fated wicked brothers.

Still, it is just possible that the passage of time, since Ruskin’s penning of this tale, allows us tap some of its essential truths in new and powerful ways.

Dangerous Words: Reflections on Dave the Potter

I was at Kindling Words East earlier this year. KW is that wonderful organization that brings writers and illustrators and editors together to speak in community about the work we love. And I got to listen to Bryan Collier talk about Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave–a book that earned him the Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award. His presentation, weaving his own artist’s journey into the story of how the art for this book came to be, left many in the audience misty-eyed.

9780316107310The genius of the text of Dave the Potter, written by Laban Carrick Hill, lies in its unwavering focus on the clay and the pots and the man who made them. Understandable to children, it nonetheless paints a picture of that most pernicious institution of American history–chattel slavery. Dave’s hands are dry and caked, his fingers chapped, the work unending, with the massive jar threatening to collapse, if not for the attention and skill of the man at the wheel. And yet, more than the massive pots, more than the life of the potter even, was a drive in Dave to add a final touch.

…before the jar
completely hardened,
Dave picked up a stick
and wrote to let us know
that he was here.

I wonder where
is all my relation–
friendship to all
and, every nation

This background from the New York Times review of the book:

Very few slaves could read or write, and those who displayed their knowledge risked punishment. South Carolina took the lead in banning the education of slaves, and in 1834 — the year of Dave’s earliest known poetry in clay — the state severely tightened its antiliteracy statute. Whites who taught slaves to read or write were subject to fines and imprisonment. Slaves caught teaching other slaves were “to be whipped at the discretion of the court, not exceeding 50 lashes.”

The text of the book is clear and simple, while the art is rich, deep, and moody, opening up the history to spiritual dimensions, bringing into the reader’s heart the wide sweep of imagination that led Dave to reflect on his own scattered family and yet settle on friendship, extended far out of his reach, to “every nation.” What a tribute to the triumph of love over hate.

This book is an incredible dance of words and images–the words of a white scholar who has devoted the work of his life to the study of African American history, and the art of an African American illustrator who felt that history in his heart and brought it to the page.

Let ‘Er Buck: Congratulations, Vaunda Nelson!

“Ask any cowpoke…”

It’s always a pleasure and a privilege to be part of a fellowship of readers who get to see a gifted writer’s work in progress.  This cowpoke’ll tell you, boy howdy, did she ever learn from Vaunda Micheaux Nelson! Over several months, Vaun shared versions of Let ‘Er Buck! George Fletcher, the People’s Champion with our writing group, in which I am the long-distance member who Skypes across time-zones and borders.

We read and loved and questioned the text. Over and over. We quibbled over words and sequence, over where the story began, where it should end. We watched in admiration as the story grew stronger, took root, grew into itself as its subject grew into himself.

And in the end, here is that beautiful book. Let ‘Er Buck tells the story of African American cowboy George Fletcher. In brief, voiced text, it reveals layers of history, while raising questions about meanness and generosity, about competition and what it means to win.

Leterbucksamplepage.jpg

Interior page, Let ‘Er Buck. Image source:  http://vaundanelson.com

Look at this sample page. Young George’s playful determination is captured in the rousing illustration by 2018 Caldecott honoree, Gordon C. James.  Here are the words that point to this soaring image: “It was plain as the ears on a mule he was born to ride.”

The facing page, not shown here, picks up the rest of the text in an unpredictable manner, and seems to foreshadow what’s yet to come with the turn of the page. Those illustration choices raise questions of their own–why one action and not another? Grist for a whole discussion on picture book text and how emotional tone can be employed to invite illustration rather than to dictate its specifics.

More about Nelson’s beautiful new picture book on her beautiful new web site.

Illustrator Magic

I will confess it. I have illustrator envy.  As a picture book writer teaching other writers to write picture book text, I am painfully aware of knowing only half the form. So it’s always like seeing magic unpacked when I watch writer-illustrators in action.

Square+-+DebbieOhi-PhotoAnnieTruuvert-201807-flat500.jpgLast month at VCFA’s picture book workshop, Debbie Ridpath Ohi was a joy to behold. She was energetic, funny, honest, passionate about the picture book form, and more than generous in sharing her experience and knowledge with us.

And she was an empath! She managed to get at the heart and soul of what each student was trying to reach in every single manuscript, yet offered clear perspective on what was needed (or not needed) in each work in progress.

The questions flew. Light-bulb moments flared into being. We laughed a lot, talked a lot. It hardly felt like work to be digging this intensely into the form we all loved.

The day after I got home from residency, this arrived in the mail.

debbiesketch2019

What joy! My very own portrait, swirling yarn in the thought department, or maybe ideas, or both? I’ll treasure this gift.

And there will be more. Watch this space for a guest post from Debbie on thinking visually, the form of the picture book, and anything else that strikes her dancing visual and storytelling mind.

A Wordless Dance of a Picture Book

waltz-of-the-snowflakes-cover.jpgIf you’re a fan of wordless picture books, Elly MacKay’s Waltz of the Snowflakes lends itself to conversation with a child reader.

Or to a cozy turning of pages with a grownup page-turner and an attentive child listener, set to the  music of the titular waltz itself.

Layers of story, the gradually shifting emotions and the progression of color in the book give writers a way to access the illustrator mind–an essential kind of thinking if you want to write a picture book.

At Canada’s Edge, Trails of American History

IMG_2422.JPG

Review copy courtesy of Groundwood Books

The Africville of this heartfelt and beautiful picture book no longer exists as it did for 150 years just north of Halifax, Nova Scotia. That community, largely consisting of the descendants of Black Loyalists migrating north after the American Revolutionary War and Black Refugees fleeing American slavery, was torn down in the 1960s and its inhabitants forcibly relocated. Few know that Halifax itself was built with the labor of enslaved people.

Africville’s history is the background and context for Shauntay Grant‘s lovingly crafted picture book, illustrated with Eva Campbell’s lustrous oil and pastels on a textured canvas background. The graininess of the canvas gives the characters shadowy edges, blurring the borders between past and present. Imagining the community as it must have been many years ago, the young narrator leads the reader through details of landscape and sensory experience, from hill to field to pond and to the ocean’s shore. Infused with the tenderness of family and community, conveying the sense of stories kept alive, the book simultaneously embraces today’s child reader.

Africville may no longer be the thriving town it once was, the book suggests, but feel the stubborn love that kept its stories alive. There is much to this history. The residents of the community paid taxes but got no services. A railway extension cut through the village, destroying several homes. But wait. The story also includes an admission of racism, an apology rendered by the Mayor of Halifax in 2010, a replica of the orginal church built to house a museum, part of a compensation deal. Lyrical and healing, this picture book offers a window into a little-known past and suggests it holds deep relevance to the present.

What might America look like, I wonder, if healing from the past’s wounds could ever be made a priority? What would that mean for America’s children of every color? Compensation? Apology? What a concept!

A Textbook for the Study of Picture Books

Salisbury and StylesMore than halfway through 2018, I’m taking stock of my writing and teaching year. A novel draft half-done. A short story taking shape in my mind. Waiting for an editorial letter. Some travel. Some relaxation. It feels like a great balance.

The semester off from teaching stretches ahead, but I know it will rush past, so this is also a good time for a little advance planning.

I’ve agreed to teach the picture book semester when I return to Vermont College in January 2019, which reminds me that I need to decide on a common text, something that offers an overview of the form. I’ve looked at a few options and none of them is entirely satisfactory. Some are too market-driven, others offer formulaic paths to the intricacies of the form. One is brilliant, if dated–more on that in a minute.

And then there’s Children’s Picturebooks: the Art of Visual Storytelling by British academics Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles.

In my mind this book that offers a solid background to the picture book form wins hands down over the how-to manuals. While the historical section is arguably Eurocentric–where, for example, is Buddhist narrative art and Japanese scroll painting?– the account of contemporary books is optimistically international in scope, including American and British classics but also a number of titles that have gained recognition in Europe. My students will gain from thinking about how to extend this reading list by adding books in translation from Asia, South America, and Africa.

A chapter on how children respond to picture books offers an opportunity for questions and discussion. Material on the interplay of text and illustration will help writers find ways to decode the layers of meaning in picture books. Pictorial text, the widening of material deemed “suitable” for children, digital impact on art–these are all good places to begin a semester-long conversation about picture books.

I may still ask students to read the opening chapters of Uri Shulevitz’s Writing With Pictures and just skip the badly dated section on publication and production.  In all, however, Salisbury and Styles offer aspiring picture book writers a common vocabulary, a clear introduction to key concepts, and a contemporary framework for looking at this art form so central to children’s literature.