Author Crush Part 2 – Keeping Your Gidwitz About You

Book Nerd Truth
Book Nerd Truth
The only thing better than a long-awaited new book is a long-awaited new book by one of your favorite authors. Adam Gidwitz is the author. The book is Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back – So You Want to Be a Jedi? It’s part of a trilogy by three terrific authors (Gidwitz, Alexandra Bracken, and Tom Angleberger). I just finished the book yesterday (yes, I read it out of sequence). I read the book not as a Star Wars fan (I like the original Star Wars trilogy just fine, but I’m not an aficionado), but as an Adam Gidwitz fan. Now I want to read the other two books. The book was that good and the author is that talented.

I was introduced to Gidwitz’s debut novel, A Tale Dark & Grimm, in March 2011 when I read it for a freelance job I had writing teacher’s guides for audiobooks. Over about 18 years, I probably read somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 books for that job. This was one of my all-time favorites. It was as if I’d discovered gold. I told my then-seventh graders about it. They asked me to read it to them, which I did when they were in eighth grade. It was a hit, always in circulation, and had excellent word-of-mouth reviews by middle schoolers. There aren’t a lot of books that enjoy that kind of widespread popularity across that 11-14 age group.

If you aren’t familiar with it, A Tale Dark & Grimm features Hansel and Gretel wending their way through some of the Brothers Grimm lesser-known tales. And Gidwitz tells it like it was, with all the grim gore these stories originally possessed. Jacob and Wilhelm would be pleased. No one in these stories is whistling while they work. This book is gruesome and frightening, which kids kind of like (whether their parents like it or not). But you know what else it is? It’s funny. Something that sets this book (and Gidwitz’s subsequent novels, In a Glass Grimmly and The Grimm Conclusion) apart from scare-me books that kids enjoy is humor. Gidwitz’s narration interjects witty warnings and asides throughout the chapters, just when they’re needed to ease the tension.

Gidwitz has a quality that all children’s book authors need, but not all of them have. He understands kids. He knows what entertains and interests them. He can get them to think about right and wrong without being Mr. GrownUpPreachy. He speaks to them, not at them. He’s a traditional storyteller with a modern-day twist.

Gidwitz, working his story-telling magic on an audience of about 100 middle schoolers.
Gidwitz, working his story-telling magic on an audience of approximately 100 students.
We were fortunate enough to have Gidwitz visit our students not once, but twice. Both visits were successful beyond my expectations.There aren’t a lot of people who can hold 100 students in grades 5 through 8 in rapt attention for an hour, but he can and did. As part of his second visit, we were able to have 25 students attend an after-school writing workshop with him. It was an amazing opportunity and I still have parents and students asking when we’re going to do it again.

Gidwitz took the time to work one-on-one with our aspiring writers during an after-school writing workshop.
Gidwitz took the time to work one-on-one with our aspiring writers during an after-school writing workshop.
It’s hard to pinpoint the best things to come out of those visits and the popularity of the Tale Dark & Grimm series among our students. The best I can do is narrow it down to two. The new interest in/appreciation for the fairy tale genre and the number of students who expressed an interest in someday being authors were possibly the greatest outcomes. A strictly personal third fantastic outcome was a job for my eldest daughter, but that’s a long story for a different type of blog.

In July 2014 I happened upon this YouTube video from Disney Publishing WorldWide announcing the upcoming Star Wars books. It was great to see Gidwitz included among a cadre of accomplished children’s book authors who would take on the project (note: the slate of authors changed from the time this video was produced). While, as stated earlier, I’m not a Star Wars mega-fan, the original Star Wars trilogy is iconic for my generation. I remember my workaholic dad taking the day off to take all five of us kids (ages 14 to 5) to see the first film, now known as Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, during the week that it opened. We kids knew it was a big deal. Not only did Dad take a day off, but he was taking us to the movies – he almost never went to the movies – and without Mom along to help him. So I eagerly awaited the publication of this new book. While the Star Wars franchise has many fairy tale elements, I was very interested in how Gidwitz would interpret Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.

My dilemma is do I put them out for the students now or make them wait until I've read them?
My dilemma is do I put them out for the students now or make them wait until I’ve read them? P.S. I love the cover art!
It’s terrific. In this novel, Adam Gidwitz does what he does best. He gets the reader immersed in the story. You are Luke Skywalker. You are training to be a Jedi. You have to save your dearest friends and battle your greatest foe. I thoroughly enjoyed it. What is really unique, really gives it an inimitable twist, are the 24 Jedi lessons interspersed throughout the book. As I read each one, I thought how much fun they would be as class activities and how much excitement they would add to the read aloud experience. Now I really want Gidwitz to come back to our school and teach our students how to be Jedi.

Until next time, keep reading!

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Picture This: 5 Classic Picture Books Every Child Needs to Know

One of life’s greatest pleasures is a beautiful picture book. That’s especially true when it’s the kind that can be enjoyed by children and grownups alike. Novels are great for losing yourself in words and ideas. But there’s something about combining words and ideas with gorgeous or unique illustrations that makes the picture book experience extra special.

Of all the things I love about my job as an elementary/middle school librarian, a particular favorite is that I have the opportunity to share new picture books with my young students, along with discovering new authors and illustrators. With so many wonderful books to choose from, it’s easy for the older ones to get pushed aside and forgotten. That is a mistake. It’s our duty as parents and teachers to make sure those classics don’t end up on the ash heap of picture book history.

In this post, I’m going to share with you some of those classic picture books that should stay in our read-aloud rotations and find a place on our family bookshelves. There are so many of them, one post won’t do it (I feel another continuing topic coming on). The five covered here have publication dates spanning from 1932-1963, which means all of them are older than me. This bit of information, by the way, usually causes gasps of amazement among my little story time friends.

  1. Ask Mr. Bear by Marjorie Flack (1932). This is not the book for which Marjorie Flack is best known (think The Story About Ping or any of the Angus books featuring a playful little terrier). In this story, a little boy named Danny is looking for a birthday gift for his mother, a very wholesome picture book theme.
    The wonderfully bright Ask Mr. Bear.
    The wonderfully bright Ask Mr. Bear.

    His search takes him from one talking animal to another until he gets to Mr. Bear, who gives him the best idea of all. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that Danny ends up with the simplest and best gift. It’s a sweet and very relatable story, with a subtle anti-materialism message. The book’s illustrations really stand out because of the bright colors. Many of the picture books from this era contain illustrations in more muted tones. This one uses bright pinks, greens, and yellows that really catch the eye.

  2. The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illustrations by Robert Lawson (1936). Probably one of the best stories ever written that basically tells children “just do you.”
    Ferdinand, being Ferdinand. Perfect.
    Ferdinand, being Ferdinand. Perfect.

    Big, strong Ferdinand the bull had no desire to be like all his peers and head butt his way to the great bull fighting rings of the big city. He’s the original stop-and-smell-the-flowers character. There’s a lot of political analysis that’s been done regarding this story that I won’t get into here. Just suffice to say that if Adolf Hitler hated it and Mahatma Gandhi loved it, it must be awesome. Leaf’s clever words and Lawson’s beautiful pen-and-ink illustrations combine for a charming tale.

  3. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrations by Clement Hurd (1947). I probably don’t have to convince anyone that children need to know Goodnight Moon. This is the quintessential picture book.
    “In the great green room there was a telephone and a red balloon…”

    Whether in paperback, board book, or hardcover, you’ve probably owned a copy at some point in your life. The sweet illustrations, the depiction of a bedtime routine, and the soothing rhythm of the words make it a perfect bedtime story for the very young. This is one that you’ve probably read so many times you know it by heart and you secretly find that it soothes you as much as it does most children. Like most enduring books, there’s so much more to this one than meets the eye.

  4. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (1962). What child doesn’t love a snowy day? All that bright, white frozen fluff to run and tumble in, sled on, and roll into a snowman, along with the promise of an unexpected holiday from school! The cover itself is suitable for framing.
    Children love to wake up in Peter's world.
    Children love to wake up in Peter’s world.

    The brightly colored illustrations bring to life every child’s exuberance that bubbles up when they look out the window and see a fresh, clean, snow-covered world. They want to put on snow boots and join Peter, the imaginative little boy whose feet go through the snow with “…his toes pointing out, like this…pointing in, like that.” This picture book is more than a delightful story with brilliant illustrations. More than 50 years later, it’s hard to imagine for those who didn’t live through the heart of the Civil Rights Era that The Snowy Day was also a picture book torchbearer, being “the very first full-color picture book to feature a small black hero” (amazon.com). Peter is an every-child who most children can relate to. God bless Ezra Jack Keats for bringing us Peter in this and subsequent books, and for finally opening a door to children’s literature that is hard to believe was previously closed.

  5. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (1963). If I’d have written this post more than four months ago, I would have put Where the Wild Things Are in the same category as Goodnight Moon – a book everyone knows and loves. However, while doing a classroom activity with my seventh-graders I was dismayed to find out that this Maurice Sendak classic may not be as widely known as it should be anymore. Many of those 12- and 13-year-old students were only familiar with Spike Jonze’s 2009 film version. I wanted to cry. But like any librarian in this predicament, I stopped the activity, got our copy of this timeless treasure, and read it to them. I did the appropriate voices and shared the beautifully bizarre illustrations. Such a wonderful story of reassurance can’t be allowed to go by the wayside.
    All children need to know they're loved, even after a wild rumpus.
    All children need to know they’re loved, even after a wild rumpus.

    All children need to know that no matter how “wild” they may be, they will always have a place where they are loved. And that supper will be waiting for them, and it will still be hot. And if that previous sentence doesn’t make sense to you, then you need to stop what you’re doing and read Where the Wild Things Are.

I hope this list gives you some titles to look for the next time you’re browsing your local bookstore or perusing the stacks at your public library. If you have special memories of any of these titles, please share them in the comments section.

Until next time, keep reading!

Summer Love

new books
Most of our new library books, ready to go!

Here it is, the end of summer. While I’ve enjoyed these mostly schedule-free days, I am looking forward to seeing my students again. One of the things I enjoy most about being an elementary/middle school librarian is introducing our students to new books every year. As of this writing, there are 145 brand new, never-before-checked-out books ready to go from shelves and spinners to the hands of (hopefully) eager readers. Of course we still love our old books just as much. As I tell my kids, an old book is new to someone who hasn’t read it yet. But that’s a post for another day. Today it’s about the shiny, new volumes.

Specifically, it’s about what I read this summer. More specifically, it’s about my five favorites. For the purposes of this post, I’m only referencing middle-grade and YA books. We have some awesome new stuff for the younger students, but they’re easier to persuade. My toughest customers are my upstairs kids.

In our school, grades 4 through 8 are in classrooms on the second floor of the building. Something about going up one flight of stairs changes some of my sweet, compliant(ish) primary-grade patrons. Yes, many remain dedicated readers who can’t wait to get downstairs to the library for their next book. However, with each succeeding grade, there are those who may range from picky to aloof to downright disdainful when it comes to reading.

I’ve been at this long enough to know not to take it personally. It’s the natural order of things. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to give up without a fight. And if I’m going to win any of them over, I have to be prepared.  So I read. And read. And read some more. So far this summer, I’ve read 11 of our new middle-grade/YA books (I have two left in my pile, so we’ll see how that goes). There’s not a single one I didn’t like, but I didn’t love all of them. I loved five of them, roughly 45%. Not bad. So here they are, in no particular order, except for my absolute favorite which I’ve saved for last.

El Deafo by Cece Bell

I wasn’t sure what to expect from El Deafo, a graphic novel memoir, but was intrigued by the title and the cover illustration (yes, I’m a book-cover-judger). My interest was also piqued by the fact that author/illustrator Cece Bell was awarded a prestigious 2015 Newbery Honor by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC). This is a big deal. This is the first graphic novel to earn this distinction. Newbery books get a lot of attention and a lot of readers. This honor can only help the format. If you aren’t familiar with graphic novels, you can read more about them in my previous post, “I Was Wrong”.

madman el deafo pic
The Madman of Piney Woods and El Deafo, two of my favorite summer reads.

I read El Deafo in one evening. Yes, graphic novels are generally quick reads, but I couldn’t put it down. Bell tells the story of how, as a small child, she lost her hearing and gained a superhero alter-ego. It’s fantastic. If you’ve been unsure about graphic novels, this one is a great introduction. It’s quirky and relatable at the same time. It shows that differences are nothing to fear, but it’s not heavy handed about it. The illustrations are perfect for the story. Cece and the other characters are portrayed as rabbits. This may sound odd but once you start reading it, you won’t give it a second thought. You’ll be too focused on Cece’s story and themes familiar to anyone who’s ever been a child, like friendship and identity. Bell is deserving of the Newbery honor, as El Deafo really is a “…most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” (“Welcome to the Newbery Medal Home Page!” http://www.ala.org). You can learn more about author/illustrator Cece Bell here.

 The Madman of Piney Woods by Christopher Paul Curtis

Beautiful words from Christopher Paul Curtis.

I’m a longtime fan of Christopher Paul Curtis. He is a gifted storyteller and a master of historical fiction. What he can do with words is practically magic, as you can see from this picture, which is page 119 of The Madman of Piney Woods. This story is a companion to his 2008 Newbery Honor winner Elijah of Buxton, but you can enjoy Madman without having read Elijah.

Although it’s historical fiction (set in Canada in 1901), themes of friendship, family, loyalty, and prejudice make it something with which many middle-grade readers may identify. Madman’s two protagonists, Benji and Red, tell their stories in alternating chapters. Some young readers don’t like this method of storytelling, but it’s brilliantly done here. Though Benji and Red’s stories intertwine, they each have separate points of view which are best expressed in each boy’s first-person voice. It’s the best way to gain an appreciation for each boy’s different experiences and how they lead them to the same place. It’s a suspenseful story, as well. I don’t want to say too much and spoil the outcome for potential readers, so I’ll just leave you with this plea to read it. Curtis really is a word magician. Here’s a terrific interview with him from earlier this year that gives great insight into the man and the author.

brown girl dreaming
The beautifully-told story of author Jacqueline Woodson’s childhood.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

I love a story written entirely in free verse poetry and authors who convey the beauty of words so naturally that their readers are enveloped by it. And I love a memoir. Brown Girl Dreaming has all of that, and more. In Woodson’s own words, it’s the story of “what it was like to grow up an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and my growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement.” (www.jacquelinewoodson.com)

A big part of this story’s appeal is that, although set in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it is relevant to children of the 21st century. In addition to the societal themes, this story is very much about family, friendship, and realizing one’s gifts. The free verse writing also makes for a quick read, so a middle-grade reader who may be put off by 319 pages need not be. Get to know Jacqueline Woodson here.

.The Dumbest Idea Ever by Jimmy Gownley

dumbest idea
The Dumbest Idea Ever! is actually brilliant.

The Dumbest Idea Ever, as it turns out, wasn’t. This is another memoir in graphic novel form (see El Deafo, above). It’s an engaging story about how high school student Jimmy Gownley became graphic-novelist Jimmy Gownley. It’s a great story for kids who dream of a career as an author and/or illustrator, but also for anyone who simply has a future goal that seems unattainable in his or her young mind. Gownley went on to become the author/illustrator of the popular Amelia Rules series and founder of Kids Love Comics, which uses graphic novels to promote literacy.

On a big-picture level, The Dumbest Idea Ever is a realistic look at the transition from middle to high school. Jimmy assumed this was going to be an easy transition but circumstances worked against him. He had to struggle to find his place. The graphic novel format makes it accessible to students of all abilities, and is a great way for readers to make self-to-story connections about goals, disappointments, and perseverance. Gownley doesn’t preach, he just tells (and shows) what he experienced, and what generations of kids have experienced at that time in their lives. It’s a charming story with a bittersweet epilogue that many students will enjoy.

EchoEcho by Pam Muñoz Ryan

My favorite book of the summer is about a harmonica. Okay, that’s an oversimplification. But even though I don’t know much about the instrument and have no talent for music, after reading Echo, I wanted to learn to play the harmonica (your ears are safe; I never actually attempted it). It’s practically the protagonist of the story. Practically. Actually, three children from different places and slightly different times and very different circumstances are the protagonists. The harmonica, though, is the tie that binds their stories together. It seems enchanted to the point that it literally and figuratively saves lives.

Ryan’s Echo is part fairy tale, part historical fiction, and completely mesmerizing. It may be a little intimidating for middle-grade readers at 592 pages, but it’s a magnificent story and worth the time and effort. For kids who would scoff at independently reading something this long (and even those who wouldn’t), it is a wonderful family read aloud. It has male and female protagonists. It has adventure, hope, despair, triumph, tragedy, music, magic, and relatable themes. If you can be brought to tears by a beautifully-told story (stop looking at me!), keep a box of tissues handy. Perhaps the biggest draw for me (though it’s hard to choose just one) was that I cared about Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy, the main characters of the three stories-within-the-story. Ryan portrays them in a way that makes them seem like flesh-and-blood people. I wanted things to turn out right for them, for them to no longer experience hurt or loss. I won’t tell you if I got my wish, but I will implore you to read this book so you can find out for yourself. I would also suggest that you consider other works by this award-winning author.

I hope you found something in this personal bibliography that captured your interest. What was your (or your young reader’s) favorite summer read? Let me know in the comments. Until next time, keep reading!

Author Crush Part 1 – Do You Know Mo?

I plan to use this space to periodically extol the virtues of my favorite children’s book authors. It was tough to decide who should be the first author featured, but I decided on author/illustrator Mo Willems. Prior to becoming an award-winning author and illustrator of children’s books, Willems was an Emmy award-winning writer for Sesame Street. As valuable as his contributions to children’s television were, we’re all fortunate that he switched gears and started writing books.

Mo Willems is a star in our school library and his books are always being circulated. I spend a few weeks with our pre-k students reading his humorous stories and talking about his delightful illustrations, beginning with one of the Pigeon  books, moving on to Elephant and Piggie, a Knuffle Bunny story or two, and one of his wonderful stand-alone titles. If there’s time left at the end of the school year, we usually learn how to draw Willems’ celebrated Pigeon.

Who can resist the dreams of the Pigeon?
Who can resist the dreams of the Pigeon?

Willems’ stories are more than merely amusing. They have a wittiness to them that children and parents can enjoy together again and again. These stories are funny, and everyone gets it. But it goes beyond that. They are remarkably relatable stories. I wasn’t sure how 20 four-year-olds would react to the humor in this year’s stand-alone title, That Is Not a Good Idea. It’s a little more subtle than Willems’ other stories. Also, it’s designed in a style reminiscent of silent films, something with which children born in 2010 are completely unfamiliar. But, like everything Mo Willems touches, this was comedy gold!

The Pigeon is the king of Willems’ characters (for sheer volume of works, Elephant and Piggie could make a play for the crown).

Willems' Pigeon takes shape. From the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.
Willems’ Pigeon takes shape. From the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

If you ever read a Pigeon book aloud to a child you’ll know why; the audience gets to be part of the story. And not just a little part. They get to take control of the situation, to tell Pigeon what he can and can’t do. NO, you CAN’T drive the bus! YES, you MUST take a bath! NO, you CAN’T stay up late! Now, that’s power! What little kid wouldn’t enjoy that?

As much as I love Pigeon (and I really, really do), I have a parental soft spot for Knuffle Bunny. The joys and sorrows of a little girl named Trixie and her plush-toy best friend bring back memories (flashbacks?) of our youngest and her baby doll – simply named Baby – being lost, cried over, found, brought on vacations, made part of a wedding, and so on. The bond between a kid and his or her first best friend is strong, and Willems demonstrates that beautifully. His signature cartoon-style illustrations are nicely balanced by the photo backdrops on each page.

Of his 45+ books, perhaps my favorite is a stand-alone, Leonardo the Terrible Monster. Willems’ signature muted colors are especially impactful with the larger-than-normal illustrations, and the old-fashioned lettering is a clever touch. Most of all, the story is brilliant.

From the Mo Willems exhibit at Atlanta's High Museum of Art, Leonardo the Terrible Monster <3
From the Mo Willems exhibit at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, Leonardo the Terrible Monster ❤

It’s the laugh-out-loud funny tale of a monster who can’t seem to scare anyone. But it’s also a touching story of friendship. It’s an awesome read-aloud that I first shared with students many years ago. Those kids are well into high school now, but I still try to fit it in with my kindergarteners every year. I never get tired of sharing this story.

While on a recent visit to Atlanta to see the World’s Cutest Baby Niece (and her lovely parents, my brother and sister-in-law), my husband indulged me in a busman’s holiday by taking me to see Seriously Silly! The art & whimsy of Mo Willems at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. If you find yourself anywhere near Atlanta before January 10, 2016, go see it. It’s fun and charming, even if you don’t have small children with you. If you do, though, it has some cool activities to accompany the exhibit. And, of course, lots of great stuff in the museum gift shop!

Seriously Silly is seriously worth a visit to Atlanta.
Seriously Silly is seriously worth a visit to Atlanta.

Willems’ is branching out into chapter books. He’s teamed up with Tony DiTerlizzi and they’ll be releasing The Story of Diva and Flea on October 13, 2015. It’s great that little-readers-turned-middle-readers will have an opportunity to get mo’ Mo! Our school library’s copy is already on pre-order. I’ll let you know what I think once I’ve finished it.

Until next time, keep reading!