Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Apothecary and Little Women and Me

Unlike my daughter, Lucinda,  science fiction and fantasy is not my favorite genre.  In order for books of this genre to capture my attention and imagination, they must have a little something extra.  I look for interesting characters, plots which have just enough realism to make me believe in the fantasy, symbolism which makes the story work of multiple levels, and skillful writing which has enough suspense to keep me turning the pages.  Some of my favorites are the Narnia books, the Harry Potter books, everything by Madeleine L’Engle, Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and Peter Rabbit.  I took The Apothecary by Maile Meloy, illustrations by Ian Schoenherr (Putnam/Penguin,  2011) with me on vacation and couldn’t put it down.

It is 1952 and fourteen-year-old Janie Scott has moved with her family from Los Angeles to London.  One of her first acquaintances is Benjamin Burrows, the son of the local apothecary.  When the apothecary disappears, Janie and Benjamin are drawn into a dangerous journey to find Mr. Burrows and prevent an impending nuclear disaster.  The historical setting of Cold War era London, supporting characters which leap off the page, and a breathtaking rescue operation – all seasoned with a touch of magic – make a wonderful reading experience for ages 10 and up.

Lucinda says that Christmas always makes her think of Little Women.  For all of you Alcott fans, I suggest Little Women and Me by Lauren Baratz-Logsted (Bloomsbury, 2011).  When Emily March is given the school assignment of describing one thing she’d change about a classic novel, her choice is Little Women.  Just like most readers, Emily has always wanted Jo, rather than Amy, to end up with Laurie, and she really did not want Beth to die.  As she gets into her assignment, Emily is transported into the 1860s world of the Concord March family.  She thinks she might be able to actually alter the events of the story, but discovers things are not always as they seem.  The reader is treated to a time travel fantasy and is also able to revisit an old favorite--Wilma Snyder.  

Lucinda Whitehurst and Wilma Snyder wish all of our readers a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and wonderful New Year!  Please join us in 2012!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Gifts from the Gods

Lise Lunge-Larsen is a professional storyteller and folklorist.  She earned a master’s degree in applied linguistics and wrote her thesis on  using storytelling to teach the English language.  She combines her academic training, her interest in folklore, and her skill in storytelling to create Gifts from the Gods, a fascinating presentation on the derivation of English words which draw their spelling and meaning from Greek and Roman mythology. 

Limiting her scope to words that have their origin in character names, Lunge-Larsen has more than enough material for this illustrated informational book designed for middle grades.  If she had broadened her search to include objects and places, she would have found many more examples.  The Greeks and the Romans sometimes had different names for the gods and goddesses and both came into the English language.  Lunge-Larsen has chosen those whose stories so captured the imaginations that their meanings have endured for centuries.

Lunge-Larsen provides this interesting example:  “The Greek goddess of cleanliness and good health, Hygeia, has given us the word hygiene, which we use to describe good, healthful behaviors.  The Romans called this goddess Salus, and her name, too, survives in English.  As they greeted one another, the Romans called out, ‘Salus!’ meaning ‘How is your health?’  Today we call a greeting a salute, and thus remember the goddess of good health without even realizing it.”

The word fortune means destiny, good or bad luck, or wealth and riches.  Fortuna was the goddess of luck.  She sometimes appeared carrying a “horn of plenty,” meaning that she would bless those she visited with abundance and riches.  A never-ending supply of the most delicious food and drink dripped from this magical horn.  The Romans called the horn of plenty a cornucopia.  Both terms have come into our modern language carrying the very same meaning, a cone-shaped basket overflowing with delectable foods.

Why is a point of weakness called an Achilles heel?  Why do we think of grace as seemingly effortless beauty?  Put this amazing book into the hands of those children who are fascinated by words.  This book is a treasure for any age--Wilma Snyder.  Illustrated by Gareth Hinds; Houghton Mifflin, 2011.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Jeff Kinney's Cabin Fever tour stop in Richmond, Virginia

Lucinda Whitehurst
Brenda and Lucinda in our official Cabin Fever tour shirts.

Last week I unexpectedly became a roadie for a day during Jeff Kinney's Cabin Fever book launch tour!  The Diary of a Wimpy Kid author asked his publisher Amulet/Abrams to send his tour to independent bookstores.  My St. Christopher's colleague, Brenda Snead, and I offered to help our friends at bbgb Tales for Kids.  We thought we might be handing out hot chocolate or directing traffic.  Imagine our surprise when we found ourselves up close and personal on the Jeff Kinney autograph line!  From my vantage point of one foot away from Kinney, I had a chance to witness the power of his books.  
3000 people attended the Richmond Cabin Fever event!  Some of the fans waited two, three, even four hours to meet their hero, but since I was their last stop, I only saw their smiles of anticipation.  My favorite was the 9 or 10 year boy who proclaimed, "This is the MOST exciting night of my life!"  A woman who attended middle school with Jeff came through, yearbook in hand.  The publishers' representatives gleefully took pictures of the middle school-aged Kinney, no doubt to abuse him with later.  A teacher brought an entire busload of students and patiently photographed each happy child with Jeff.  Parents rushed to shake Jeff's hand.  Several thanked him for getting their children interested in reading. Jeff Kinney's brother stopped by. Children brought Kinney stories and drawings.  They proudly displayed Wimpy Kid shirts and toys.  One girl handed over a slice of cheese in a plastic bag, spreading the dreaded cheese touch!   Kinney happily greeted every fan.  "Thank you--that means so much to me,"  he said several times, but I think he truly did appreciate each gesture of devotion.  As my own students came through the line, they were surprised to see me so close to the famous visitor.  One asked, "Mrs. Whitehurst, why didn't you tell us you knew Jeff Kinney?!"  
Surveying all the hoopla, one mother said, "You'd think it was Aerosmith or something!"  Her bewildered child gave us a puzzled look (thinking "who's Aerosmith?" I'm sure) but I was on her same wavelength.  I may never go on the road with a rock band, but briefly being on tour with Jeff Kinney has to come close!--Lucinda Whitehurst

One of my students with his sister, me, and Jeff Kinney

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Balloons Over Broadway

 On Thanksgiving morning, many of us will be watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  For more than eighty years, the giant balloons have wobbled and swayed down Broadway.  Has it occurred to you to wonder how the tradition of the balloons began and who invented those balloons anyway?  I have enjoyed a most delightful picture book about that very subject – Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet.

From the time he was a little boy, Tony Sarg loved to figure out how to make things move.  As young as six years old, Tony was inventing gadgets which would help him do his chores.  When Tony grew up, his only job aspiration was to become a puppeteer.  He soon became famous for his marionettes, so he moved to New York City and began performing on Broadway.

R. H. Macy’s Department Store was located on Herald Square.  Tony was hired to decorate Macy’s holiday windows with moving puppets.  The mechanical puppets drew excited lookers and shoppers to the department store.  Many of  the Macy’s employees were immigrants who missed the street celebrations of their native countries.  They influenced their employer to plan a parade and Tony was drafted to help with the planning.  The first Macy’s parade wound its way from Harlem to Herald Square on Thanksgiving Day, 1924.  It was such a success they decided to have a parade every Thanksgiving Day.

The story of how Tony Sarg adapted stick puppets to the huge balloons we see today is told beautifully in Balloons Over Broadway.  Every child who reads this book will look at the parade with new eyes and with greater enjoyment.  Caldecott Honor artist Melissa Sweet has created a picture  book which will delight all ages.  An interesting tidbit I learned is that Bil Baird, the creator of the “Lonely Goatherd” marionette show which was featured in the movie The Sound of Music was an apprentice of Tony Sarg.  In turn, one of Baird’s apprentices was Jim Henson, who invented the Muppets--Wilma Snyder.  (Houghton Mifflin, 2011)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Secret Life of Boys in The Fourth Stall

Reading Chris Rylander's  The Fourth Stall, I felt like I entered a secret “boy world” that adults seldom access.  Christian “Mac” Barrett keeps his family and his business separate.  He loves his parents, but feels they must be protected from his actual everyday life.  Mac’s nickname comes from the television show MacGyver.  Like that fabled character, Mac is a fixer.  He solves problems for kids and gets them things they need.  He and his best friend Vince have been so successful that these sixth graders have cleared almost $6000 in profits.  Another screen character Mac calls to mind is Michael Corleone.  The book is full of Godfather references, which may be over the heads of its readers but will certainly entertain adults.
Problems are not solved without a cost, however, and Mac faces a fearsome foe in an older boy named Staples.  Staples is encroaching on Mac’s elementary school turf by having his young representatives act as bookies in the school yard.  Everything is translated to the kid world (they’re betting on the JV football game) but the stakes are still high.  Parents may pause over some violence.  The kids’ fear is real and so are a few of the “roughing up” scenes.  Certainly Mac’s encounters are nothing compared to Alex Rider fighting it out with international terrorists, but the realistic contemporary setting makes this plot element a little more scary.

For me, that concern is far outweighed by the clever writing, superb plot development, and sheer fun of The Fourth Stall.  Mac and Vince share a friendship based on personal history and common interests, a relationship which is not often depicted in books for boys.  My favorite supporting character might be Kitten, the bully who fools all the teachers with his excellent manners and neat attire.  I think I've met a few Kittens during my elementary school years, but none were quite this entertaining.  The Fourth Stall would make an excellent family read aloud for children 4th grade and up--Lucinda Whitehurst. (Walden Pond Press, 2011)

Monday, October 24, 2011

Halloween and Pumpkins

 Halloween is here again.  Many kids say it is their favorite holiday, and why not?  Jack-o-Lanterns, costumes, Trick or Treating, and at the end of the evening, lots of candy!  Here are some wonderful books for this time of year--Wilma Snyder.

In Corinne Demas’ Halloween Surprise, Lily wants to choose the perfect Halloween costume for Trick-or-Treat and to surprise her father.  She tries out several traditional costumes and none is just right.  Her final solution will offer a fun surprise for every young reader.  Artist R. W. Alley makes any picture book more fun. (Walker & Company,  2011)

The youngest readers will enjoy What Am I?  Halloween by Anne Margaret Lewis.  Every page is interactive as the suspense builds.  Big bright pictures and sturdy covers make this perfect for toddlers.  This book is a part of the “My Look and See Holiday Book” series. (Illustrated by Tom Mills.  Albert Whitman,  2011)

Elizabeth Spurr says that she is very fond of monsters, having raised five of them.  She knows the kind of story that appeals to many children and uses her knowledge in Monsters, Mind Your Manners!  These ill-mannered monsters are so rude and rowdy that young readers will feel deliciously superior.  Good for lots of giggles.  (Illustrations by Simon Scales.  Albert Whitman,  2011)

Cat and his friend Mouse work together in the garden.  Mouse shows Cat how to grow pumpkins – from planting the seeds, giving water and sunlight, planting the seedlings outside to watching them grow, protecting them and building a scarecrow to frighten away the crows.  Then when it is time to pick the pumpkin, Mouse has a big surprise for Cat.  Anne Mortimer’s gorgeous art makes this charmer a sure winner.  Look for Pumpkin Cat. (HarperCollins, 2011)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Vivid Nonfiction

Young children are endlessly fascinated by pictures of the natural wonders of the plant and animal worlds.  Many kids will choose brightly illustrated nonfiction books over fanciful picture books.  Here are some new books which will be wonderful additions to home and classroom libraries--Wilma SnyderCaterpillars by Marilyn Singer is a sure favorite.  Kids will listen with rapt attention to the fact-filled text, but the main attraction will be the amazing photographs.  There are more than 100,000 kinds of moths and butterflies which lay eggs. All of their eggs hatch into larvae – popularly known as caterpillars.  Poet and teacher Singer explores the world of caterpillars,  explaining morphology and behavior, choosing mysterious facts, and accompanying all of this information with beautiful photographs.  Includes quiz, glossary, matching game, references and index.

Seymour Simon focuses on monarch butterflies and their migration patterns in Butterflies.  In classic Simon fashion, he connects facts about butterflies with scientific research, history, poetry and a great respect for nature.  Kids ages 5 to 9 will enjoy Simon’s accessible text, beautiful photography, and directions for planting a butterfly garden.  Includes glossary, index and list of resources.

Catherine Ham comes up with an original idea in Animal Naps.  This book is chock-full of photographs showing how various animals sleep.  Rhyming text provides information about every pictured animal making this one perfect for sharing with a group.   
Animal Naps

Monday, October 3, 2011

Troy Howell and The Dragon of Cripple Creek

Troy Howell will be signing books at bbgb Tales for Kids on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011, from 3:30 to 5:30 pm.  Troy will be in town to appear at the James River Writers Conference which runs Oct. 6-8, 2011.

Troy kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his work in an interview with Lucinda Whitehurst.

LW:  When you started The Dragon of Cripple Creek, did you have any idea how topical your story would be with the economy stalling and gold prices skyrocketing?
TH:  Actually, yes.  I started writing the book six years ago and kind of projected what I thought might happen with the economy.  Silver prices had been going up;  I thought gold prices would be next.

LW:  I wish I had your forethought!  Now so many children are facing a situation similar to Kat's, where the loss of a job means possibly losing their house, school, friends—essentially their way of life.
TH:  Yes, I have seen this happening to so many people, including friends and family members.  It's been a terrible time to try to make a living.  My first inspiration for Dragon of Cripple Creek, though, was that there should be a dragon in North America.  Then I thought of putting him in a gold mine in the American West.  I wanted to break dragon stereotypes; to not follow reader expectations based on other dragon stories and legends.

LW:  Greed as a concept is not often discussed in children's books, but it is such an important issue for children to confront.
TH:  I think materialism is the cause of evil in society.  I'm working on a YA book about that topic right now.

LW:  You include references to other works throughout The Dragon in Cripple Creek.
TH:  Yes, it's a way for me to be more creative.  You start with a reference point that others may recognize, then go beyond that original source.

LW:  I thought about the Alice in Wonderland references, but I did not come up with the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour until reading your author notes.  Kat certainly goes on a Magical Mystery Tour of her own, veering off track, meeting unusual people and of course Ye.  When I looked at the title list, I could see that "All You Need is Love," "Penny Lane," "Hello Goodbye," "Flying," and "Baby You’re a Rich Man" definitely could relate to your story.  Did you listen to the album as you wrote?
TH:  No, actually I listened to Western music!  I've always been a Beatles fan, and Kat's mother is a Beatles fan, so the songs just came into the story that way.

Howell first became famous in the children's book world through his cover illustrations for Brian Jacques' Redwall series.  His dramatically posed warrior-animals caught the imagination of a generation of young readers.  Since Mr. Jacques recently died, I asked Troy if he would miss the series.
TH:  Actually, I've been ready to move on from those books for some time now.  I always read the manuscripts and came up with ideas for the covers, but as time went on, I was allowed less and less creative expression.  As an artist, it's difficult to have someone else control what elements should be included in a painting.  {For more information about Troy's work with the Redwall series, check out this excellent interview}

LW:  You've had success as an artist.  Are you going to continue to illustrate or turn more to writing now?
TH:  I'm still doing some picture books and illustrated books, such as a new version of The Grey Fairy Book by Andrew Lang, but I'm moving more into writing.  I have several projects going right now, including a middle grade book about a boy who meets Hans Christian Andersen's ghost in Copenhagen.  My hope for my work is that I will touch people with what I do and do my best.

LW:  Are you going to talk about anything particular at the James River Writers Conference?
TH:  I'm going to tell people that we're all in this together.  I'll never stop learning, but I'm glad to share what I have learned with others.

Many thanks to Troy Howell for a wonderful conversation!


Monday, September 26, 2011

William Joyce's Guardians of Childhood series

William Joyce entered the picture book scene in the mid-1980s with George Shrinks and Dinosaur Bob and His Adventures with the Family Lazardo.  Although all of his books are inventive and entertaining, two more of my favorites came in the 1990s, Bently & Egg and Santa Calls.  The 2000s saw Joyce spending a lot of time in Hollywood, working on his TV series Rolie Polie Olie (based on his books), designing for major studios, and producing feature films.  I feared that Joyce would never return to original picture books.  Thankfully, I was wrong!

Beginning this fall, Joyce is releasing a major new series that combines picture books and novels.  The Guardians of Childhood develops "origin stories" for beloved figures such as Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and more.  The first book in the series, a picture book called The Man in the Moon, is gloriously beautiful.

Joyce does not write for idealized carefree children living what adults view as an idyllic existence.  Joyce knows that even happy children have fears and concerns about their world.  Joyce creates fantasy worlds where scary or sad things happen, but children (or their animal counterparts) are strong enough to find ways to cope.  In Bently & Egg, Bently the frog loses his duck friend's egg, the equivalent of a human babysitter forgetting where she put the baby.  This potentially frightening concept is leavened by the caring nature of all the characters Bently encounters in his quest to regain the egg and in the unwavering affection Kack-Kack the duck shows Bently.  The premise of Santa Calls is that a little girl whose parents have died writes to Santa to ask that her older brother pay attention to her; in essence, to love her.

The theme of loss is present in The Man in the Moon as well.  The Man in the Moon started life with loving parents and a dear friend Nightlight, who watched over him.  A terrible attack on the family's space ship by Pitch, the King of Nightmares, leaves MiM without human companions.  Moonbots, Moonmice, and Glowworms love and protect the baby as he grows.

Joyce's artwork is simply stunning.  Drawing on the visual style of early films and classic cartoons, Joyce arrives at images that are familiar enough to seem comforting, yet are uniquely his own.

The novel, Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King, incorporates the story of the Man in the Moon into a much larger narrative.  I am looking forward to seeing how Joyce has imagined the series as a whole and how each part will relate to the others.

For a special family gift this holiday season, look no further than The Guardians of Childhood series.

The Man in the Moon is available now; Nicholas St. North is coming Oct. 4, 2011; both are published by Atheneum/Simon & Schuster--Lucinda Whitehurst.