Guest Post: Meera Sriram on A Gift for Amma

A Gift for Amma: Market Day in India, by Meera Sriram, illustrated by Mariona Cabassa, is out just this month from Barefoot Books. Just when I found myself getting used to staying put in one place, this book arrived to tug at my memories of India. Cabassa’s art conjures the deep, vivid palette of the region and the convoluted silhouettes of a south Indian cityscape. And then there’s the progression of colors in the concept-grounded text–all designed to evoke that visceral feeling of a vibrant, living city.

I asked Meera to tell me more about how she’d grown this book. Here’s what she said:

Just to offer context, in this story, a little girl explores many colorful items at a bustling street market in India while trying to pick a special gift for her mother. It is illustrated by Barcelona-based artist Mariona Cabassa and the setting is inspired by the vibrant street life in Chennai, the city in southern India where I grew up.

A book on colors set in India is almost like a low hanging fruit. So, I knew I had to push myself to make it fresh. Since it’s a colors concept book at its core, my target audience sort of fell in place. And considering their age group (around 3-8 years), I had two important aspects in mind: read-aloud and re-readability.

Lyrical and rhythmic text with fun sounds, rich vocabulary, and active verbs helped upgrade the read-aloud factor of the narrative. I “sang” every couplet (to a beat) as I wrote, to make sure it followed the rhythm. And I read the full manuscript aloud countless times! Introducing onomatopoeic words (achoo, ding-a-ling, clink ) paved way for a sensory experience and prompted me to include smells, taste words and textures. For richness, it was a light bulb moment that elevated the manuscript – I was using culturally iconic items to show color when it occurred to me that many of them were also color descriptors. Like saffron, vermillion, terracotta, and indigo – they do double duty as color shades and culturally relevant items. This gave the colors concept a fresh makeover. Lastly, I tried to “pull” readers into the chaos on the streets by including action on every spread – goats shoving past, rickshaw pedaling, peppers spilling, drums beating, birds pecking, buffalo stomping, and so much more. In the end, it was all about word choice – fun, strong, rich, active vocabulary – for sparse text to be able to grab attention, engage senses, and move the story forward.

At some point, I also introduced a traditional story arc celebrating a child’s love for her mother. This allowed for hook, tension, and a surprise ending in the narrative, all of which helped make it a story that young kids would hopefully want to go back to. Back matter for deeper understanding also boosts re-readability. More than anything, Mariona’s dynamic illustrations definitely give children enough reason to keep going back to the book.

It might seem like I knew exactly how to go about the narrative, however, that’s not true at all. The narrative only grew richer with many, many revisions, plenty of mistakes, lots of guidance from critique partners, and several insightful rejections. Picture book writing is fascinating because it really does take a village, and a very long time, to tell half of a story in a few hundred words. Every word counts they say, and they don’t say it for nothing.

Thanks, Meera! May we move ahead someday to a new tomorrow when cities can bustle once more.

Reindeer, Red Riding Hood and the Nature of Decomposition

When lightning killed 323 reindeer in a remote region of Norway, the park left them in place where they’d fallen, allowed decomposition to set in, so scientists could study it and see how it might change the arctic tundra ecosystem. One element of the Guardian article surprised me, and that was the use of the term, “landscape of fear.” The researchers talked about how solemn it felt to approach a place where so many lives had been snuffed out all at once. 

Excerpt: 

Over the years scientists observed the bloated, fly-infested bodies turn into dry skeletons. The latest paper, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science in June, looked at the creation of a “landscape of fear”, as top predators such as wolverines, golden eagles and arctic foxes took advantage of the carrion.

But then, another surprise. Fear opened up to opportunity for other lives: first scavenger birds, then rodents, then insect-eaters–meadow pipit, northern wheatear, common reed bunting, bluethroat and lapland bunting.

And I loved the term they used for the insects, such as blowfly, that came to life on the carrion. A “bloom” of arthropods.

We don’t like to see rotting carcasses, do we? And yet, there are questions to be pondered in this event. What’s to be gained from letting nature take its course? What have we lost in a couple of centuries of hiding death away, refusing to see what we might learn from it?

In a way, this picture book about rewilding raises similar questions. It reverses the roles of humans and wild animals in a humorous fracturing of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale. As in the field of dead reindeer, there’s a very real moment of fear, and it’s equally well earned.

The delightful resolution lies, as it should, in human hands. Wouldn’t it be great if we humans could step up as the child in this story does? If we could only do what’s necessary? Too me, it’s particularly gratifying that the joy of Grey’s book lies in her deliberately “de-composing” an old fairy tale trope, and then re-composing it to create newly possible realities. Slender ones, but still, blooms of possibility.

There may be no new stories, but it’s past time to begin decomposing the old ones.

What a Book Can Hold: Kyo Maclear’s Picture Book Biography of Gyo Fujikawa

A couple of months ago, I posted about Gyo Fujikawa’s work and how her bright, inclusive books, created all the way back in 1963, contained a subtle call to the world to become kinder and better, to treat all children alike.

Now Kyo Maclear‘s beautiful picture book biography of Gyo Fujikawa offers another loving tribute to an artist who was far ahead of her own time.

Consider the title. It Began With a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way.

It began with a page. That is how the book opens as well:

Look to the right and the eye falls on little Gyo, five years old in 1913 and sketching away as her mother writes a poem, rendered in sweet bare-toed concentration by illustrator Julie Morstad.

It’s a dual kind of looking–back in time to the story’s chronology, yet capturing the  immediacy of the child’s reaction to the events of her life. Yet somehow, in the space between image and word, the book manages to leap forward as well, showing by example how art can heal and illuminate. At the same time, it recognizes the family’s aspirations and disappointments and the enormous tragedy of the prison camps that incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II.

And then it shows us who that child grew into, and what imagination looks like:

At the library and bookshop, it was the same old stories–mothers in aprons and fathers with pipes and a world of only white children.

Gyo knew a book could hold more and do more.

It Began With a Page is a rich evocation of a life that offers direction in our own challenging present and reminds us that equality remains an urgent cause. As Maclear puts it:

…babies cannot wait.

Going Forward: What Else is There?

From Lahore, Pakistan, Mohsin Hamid writes on behalf of hope for humankind.

None of us is a native of the place we call home. And none of us is a native to this moment in time. We are not native to the instant, already gone, when this sentence began to be written, nor to the instant, also gone, when it began to be read, nor even to this moment, now, which we enter for the first time and which slips away, has slipped away, is irrevocably lost, except from memory.

Humans have always moved, Hamid writes, so why are we now divided into natives and migrants, and why must there always be a struggle for supremacy? Why do we have to accept a world of walls and barriers? Why must we buy the false notion that we can and should return to a better past?

Hamid’s eloquent essay reminds me for some reason of the E.E.Cummings poem, pity this busy monster, manunkind. Only I’m fairly certain the good universe next door is really our own “world of made.”

Of course, you know there’s a picture book for every existential dilemma known to humankind (or humanindifferent, for that matter) so here’s one particularly suited to our own precious, fleeting instant.

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The great forest is on fire. Everyone is terrified, panicked, fleeing. All but hummingbird, who flies back and forth to the stream, bringing a drop of water back in her beak with every trip.

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This is simple enough for a child to understand, so what’s wrong with us?

Clear, sparse text with bold illustrations in black, white, and red, by Haida artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas. An afterword from Wangari Maathai underscores the message. Do what you can. What else is there?

From Greystone Books.

 

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.

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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.