PCP Ace of Spades: The Disenchantments

11699055The Disenchantments

by Nina LaCour

Dutton, 2012

Colby and Bev have been saving for years (and years) for their year-long-backpack-around-Europe-before-college-trip. It’s going to be the best. They’re best friends, after all, and, well, Colby is pretty much in love with Bev. Except Bev isn’t going. She’s going to college instead. She applied ages ago. Sorry.

To make matters worse (or not quite so bad), Colby will be spending the summer before he’s not going to college traveling around with Bev and Meg and Alexa, The Disenchantments, managing their Pacific Northwest tour from his Uncle Pete’s VW van. There is some road-trip revelry here, and a goodly amount of deep adolescent angst, that keep things moving and give us plenty to think about along the way. But the novel’s real genius comes from profound clarity and resonance with which LaCour paints Colby’s circumstances. To be sure, not many of us have experienced this particular turn of events, but she makes something universal of the skittish confusion and achy disorientation that come when the dependability of high school gives way to the unknown of what comes next. It’s no easy path to tread, and Colby’s way through is thrilling and sad and powerfully affecting. By getting the trauma just right, LaCour makes the resultant growth immediately recognizable and especially gratifying.

PCP Ace of Hearts: When the Beat was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop

when the beat was bornWhen the Beat was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop

by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Theodore Taylor III

Roaring Brook, 2013

“Clive loved music.” So begins this spirited, affirmative biography of the inventor of Hip Hop, and right from the start we are primed for an exposition of how that love would manifest itself, on Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, and around the world. The story offers a straightforward, linear account of DJ Kool Herc’s childhood in Jamaica, move to NYC, and self-propelled rise to prominence as DJ and legend, noting such innovations as inviting rapper friends to “MC” his parties, using dual turntables to extend the “break” between songs, and encouraging break dancing, calling out the b-boys and doing play-by-play of their acrobatic moves. The color quality of the illustrations is decidedly dark, with a predominance of murky grays,greens and browns, and strong, definitive shadows. Yet the book itself is remarkably positive and bright. On court, in line, and around the park, smiles abound. Indeed, everything we learn about DJ Kool Herc, from his devotion to his little sister and party partner, to the way his friendships played such a central role in his music, gives us a picture of an artist excited to share his world, replacing fighting with dancing, and loneliness with community. Ultimately, this is an affectionate portrait of an affectionate man, someone who loves his music and loves his people, all at once.

CaldeNott Results!

Yesterday evening twelve dutiful children’s book discussers met to consider a selection of picture books of international provenance, applying the Caldecott Medal terms and criteria to picture books ineligible for the actual award, in hopes of learning about some wonderful books, and the Caldecott Medal itself, in the process. We began with 18 very different books (you can find our complete discussion list here) and ended up with one winner and three honor books.

Our honor books are:

tiny creaturesTiny Creatures: The World of Microbes

illustrated by Emily Sutton (England)

written by Nicola Davies (Wales),

Candlewick Press, 2014

A scientific exploration of microbes explains their natural existence and celebrates the intricacies of their ecological function. Our committee appreciated Sutton’s use of scale, visually explaining the size and amount of the microbes around us; the friendly, approachable tone of her watercolor paintings, reinforcing the book’s even, almost enthusiastic approach to its subject; and the repeated presence of two children, not mentioned in the text, who, in their constant dress and curious attitude, serve as a ready point of access for the young reader.

at the same moment around the worldAt the Same Moment Around the World

illustrated and written by Clotilde Perrin (France)

Chronicle, 2014

This magical book circles the globe, exploring different children’s experiences at a single moment in time. We begin at 6:00am in Senegal, and travel east across time zones, to France, to Bulgaria, to Iraq, as kids of all stripes work, play, eat and dream. Each spread moves from one country to the next, connecting otherwise disparate locales and delivering a powerful message of human continuity. We appreciated the tall trim size, reflecting the longitudinal time zones; the attention to detail, with watery endpapers suggesting the surrounding oceans; and the indelible warmth of the culturally specific depictions. The final, fold-out map, that names the children and fixes them on the globe, adds concrete understanding to the sensitive expression of community.

rules of summerRules of Summer

illustrated and written by Shaun Tan (Australia)

Scholastic, 2014.

Two brothers offer fantastical, superstitious interpretations of a collection of seemingly pedestrian rules, brought to bigger-than-life through Tan’s edgy, immersive, dreamlike paintings. While each of the rules comes to individual life in its own spread, Tan links them together in an emotional arc that traces a bumpy, competitive, and ultimately tender relationship between two brothers who appear together, at the story’s end, surrounded by drawings of their imaginative adventures. We appreciated the painterly precision of the drama; the powerfully depicted relationship; the curious, sometimes impenetrable symbolism of birds and crowns; and the way the sinister undercurrent of the imaginings resolves into dependable comfort.

And our CaldeNott Medal goes to:

foxs gardenFox’s Garden

illustrated by Princess Camcam (Germany)

Enchanted Lion, 2014

A fox seeks shelter for herself and her babies and, when chased from a house on a wintry night, takes refuge in the nearby greenhouse. The house’s boy delivers a basket of sustenance, and the fox repays the kindness, decorating his bedroom with flowers as he sleeps. Princess Camcam creates her illustrations in three dimensions, photographing dioramas of intricately cut and painted paper, carefully arranged and lit. The effect is intimate and tranquil, with hushed colors, soft shadows, and an immediate sense of place. The artist’s careful use of sharp and cloudy focus pulls the viewer into the images, and her supreme command of light conveys the chill of the air, the stillness of the snow, and the arrival of the morning. Simply breathtaking.

It was noted that ours is not a “mock” endeavor but is instead, as the only one of its kind, the CaldeNott. Boom. It was also noted that we have chosen a book about a fox two years in a row. Make of that what you will.

This fall we’ll (re)turn our attention to international picture books, to do this all over again in 2016. Feel free to send any candidate titles my way. In the meantime, I’ll be off to the Bologna International Children’s Book Fair with a group of students in March, in search of our own. We’ll keep you posted.

PCP Ace of Diamonds: Roller Derby Rivals

roller derby rivalsRoller Derby Rivals

by Sue Macy, illustrated by Matt Collins

Holiday House, 2014

I love a book that looks at yesterday and makes me think hard about today. This is one of those books, a rowdy, rock-em-sock-em snapshot of a bygone rivalry that positively hums with contemporary resonance. Macy and Collins set their sights on the roller derby, in its day a hugely popular sport built of speed and spectacle, profiling two incandescent women and their fierce, secretly friendly competition. Gerry Murray is beauty, Midge “Toughie” Brasuhn is brawn, and their fabricated opposition reflected the shifting cultural conventions of post WWII America. Their battle unfolded on television, indeed roller derby itself gets some credit for helping to cement the medium’s popularity, and the orchestration of the conflict makes for an eerie predictor of what we now call reality television. Unlike so much of that contemporary entertainment, however, this was a valiant fight between worthy opponents (despite contrivances to the contrary) and the book follows suit, offering up an account built on respect and honor. Diamonds are our cards of strength, and there is so much of it expressed here, from the physical strength necessary to perform feats of derring-do (while whizzing around a track) to the more spiritual fortitude required to bypass cultural expectation and chart a different course. These were some strong women, and strength like that is just as admirable, and just as crucial, today as it ever was.

Boom.

To learn more about the Playing Card Project (PCP), visit our first entry, here.

NIU Children’s Literature Conference

niu conferenceThe 35th Annual Northern Illinois University Children’s Literature Conference: A Celebration of Picture Books takes place on Friday, March 13, 2015 at the Holmes Student Center on the NIU campus in DeKalb. A truly illustrious group of illustrators, including Peter Brown, Laura Vaccaro Seeger, Melissa Sweet, and Gene Luen Yang will speak about their process and product, Alice McGinty, Barb Rosenstock and Suzanne Slade will talk about ways to incorporate nonfiction picture books into school and library settings, and Laura Montenegro, Patricia Hruby Powell and Ruth Spiro will address using picture books to explore cultural diversity and the arts. Oh, and I’ll be booktalking my list of the best books you don’t want to miss (some of them, no doubt, picture books). This will be my fourth time presenting, and I don’t mind telling you that the energy at this conference is tremendous. I’d sure love to see you there!

For more information and to register, visit the conference website!

Snow Days

Across the country these days folks are busy carping about the weather. It’s a dangerous business, that. In Chicago, at any rate, complaints about snow or temperatures (don’t even MENTION the wind) are met with furious dismissal. Give it a try. The next time a cashier asks you how you are, offer up something like “I’m freezing, thanks, how are you?” Dollars to donuts there’s someone a person or two behind you in line at the ready with “We do live in Chicago, Wimpy McPutyourbootson” or some other upbraiding that’s just as helpful.

I grew up in Cleveland. I get it.

But if all of us are mentioning the weather all of the time, there’s probably a reason. And rather than complaining about the complainers, I’m fixing to join in the fun.

So, here are a few wintry picture books to make something magical, or at least memorable, of all of that brrr.

first snowFirst Snow

by Peter McCarty

HarperCollins, 2015

Pedro has never seen snow before, and he’s not sure he’s interested. His canine cousins assure him it’s the best, and set out to convince him, with all of the best things about snow. They sled and snowball, make angels and catch flakes on their tongues. Who could resist? Not Pedro. He’s a convert, and so, perhaps, am I. McCarty has a magical way with texture. Working in graphite, he manages to create the softest, fuzziest creatures, and contrasts that incredibly tactile fur with flat, solid bundle-wear, producing a cast of characters impossible not to warm to. Time for some hot chocolate.

supertruckSupertruck

by Stephen Savage

Roaring Brook, 2015

The city depends on trucks, to fix power lines, tow stranded school buses, and put out fires. The lowly garbage truck occupies the glamourless place at the bottom of the heap until a seasonal snowfall brings the city to its knees (shoulders?). With a plow affixed to his front (and without his Clark Kent spectacles) Supertruck saves the day. As he did in Little Tug, Savage imbues his transportational characters with extraordinary personality, especially given their simple, iconic colorations and blocky nature, and sets them all against a mid-century-style city brimming with life. Little kids will welcome Supertruck’s arrival. I’d be happy for him to drive past my house, too, right about now, come to think of it.

winter beesWinter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold

by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Rick Allen

HMH, 2014

While there are surprises in this life, so are there predictabilities. When winter arrives in Chicago, it will be cold and snowy. When I go outside to shovel my walks, my dogs will ruin something inside. When Joyce Sidman produces a book of nature poetry, it will be lovely. In Winter Bees she examines the winter activity of various flora and fauna, combining poetry and science in her trademark way. Individually the entries, with their bright language and crisp, polychrome linoleum prints, celebrate the variety of life happening beneath the snow. And together they communicate the delicate ecological symbiosis that sustains us all. It’s all too easy to forget that winter has its purpose and its place, and I’m happy for this elegant reminder.

Playing Card Project (PCP) Ace of Clubs

Welcome to the first post in the Playing Card Project, a year-long series for 2015 through which we’ll build a deck of playing cards, one Tuesday at a time. We’ve established four suit-based themes and will investigate each theme in terms of how it is expressed in 13 different books for children and teens. 52 weeks, 52 cards, 52 books. Get it?

Our suit themes are as follows:

♣ Clubs - stories of belonging

♦ Diamonds - stories of strength

♥ Hearts - stories of affection

♠ Spades - stories of growth

And, yes, we will produce a physical deck of cards at year’s end, to be distributed widely, and free of charge, to anyone who is a friend of the Butler Center (so now would be a good time to start following this blog, btw).

I think things will make sense as we go, so let’s get to it!

For our first entry, the Ace of Clubs, I present

cradle meCradle Me

by Debby Slier

Starbright Books, 2012

This book is so full of charms it is hard to know where to begin, so I’ll begin with the babies. Each board page features a different baby ensconced on a cradle board, with a single word describing the baby’s disposition (peeking, crying, yawning, etc.). Individual babies represent different Native American tribes, with a color-coded key in the back (the background color on the baby page matches a decorative frame on the key page) to identify each nation. We know how much babies like looking at other babies (they LOVE it) and a board book built around that fascination is well-conceived. Add to that the exquisite photography, the easily manipulable trim-size, and the especially appropriate dispositional content, and this makes for a winning baby book.

We consider it here, though, not for its infantile excellence but because of its powerful message of belonging. On the surface, we see each individual baby, with specific dress and cradle board construction, as belonging to his or her nation. But in their universally recognizable circumstances and expressions we see that the babies belong to one another, too. And they belong to us, and we to them. Indeed, this is a book that proclaims our universal belonging, in the simple juxtaposition of eleven beautiful babies whose distinct identities serve, mostly, to demonstrate their community, and invite us right in.

One down, 51 to go. See you next Tuesday.