William Wegman board books

321circus early rider3…2…1…Circus and Early Rider

by William Wegman

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2014

When I was in Library School (that’s what we called it back then) fine-art photographer William Wegman began exploring the world of picture books as a medium for sharing his doctored photographs of his weimaraner dogs. He staged fantabulous vignettes with his dogs acting out famous fairy tales (like Red Riding Hood, pictured, from his book Little Red Riding Hood) or engaged in everyday activities (like harvesting, also pictured, from his book Farm Days). The results were weird and fascinating and beautifully child-centered; while some adults found them creepy, kids were captivated.

red riding hoodwegman tractorWegman’s children’s literature output has been spottier of late, though experiments with a new style, inserting digital images of the dogs into scribbly, painterly paintings, have produced some recent charmers, including two board books out this month. 3…2…1…Circus! sees the dogs in all manner of circus scenarios, beginning with ten and counting down to a literal, lone puppy blast-off. Early Rider sets the puppies to get about in all manner of transportation, from pogo stick to hot-air balloon, described in rhyming couplets. The production values here are pleasantly rough, with sketchy objects on even sketchier backgrounds, offering a pronounced contrast to the digital clarity of the puppy pics. And Wegman’s ability to interpret the puppies’ playful positions, painting them into cockpits and clown suits, adds lots of dynamic energy.

A successful board book speaks to its infant audience with color, content, and imagery. All too often we see popular picture books reformatted on board pages, to take advantage of some sort of classic status, forgetting that babies have special (literary) appetites. This pair does a great job combining raucous color, meaningful concepts, and adorable puppies into a chewable package just right for babies to devour.

Here are a few book trailers from Wegman’s YouTube channel, because puppies.




the paperboyPaperboy

by Vince Vawter

Delacorte, 2013

audiobook by Listening Library, narrated by Lincoln Hoppe and Vince Vawter

As 2014 ALA Annual approaches I find myself, as ever, catching up with the award-winning books of the year, in anticipation of the upcoming conference’s many festivities. I just finished listening to the affecting recording of Newbery Honor-winning Paperboy by Vince Vawter, a semi-autobiographical story of a boy with a stutter coming of age in Memphis, TN in 1959.

The entire novel takes place over the course of a few weeks in the summer before 7th grade. Our protagonist, whom we come to know as Vince at the end of the book, takes over his friend Rat’s paper route and though his interactions with the people he meets as a consequence learns about himself and his place in the world. I will leave the details to you (if you’ve read the book you already know them, and if you haven’t, I don’t want to spoil them) but I do want to look at a pivotal scene where Vince and his guardian find themselves in grave peril, due, to some degree, to Vince’s disobedience. There is risk of real bodily harm, death even, and yet in the moment of danger there is no guilt and no reproach, only devotion and commitment. I credit the author for his keen characterization and careful plotting. He telegraphs none of these feelings, focusing instead on the circumstances and allowing the emotions to course underneath, organically. It’s a beautiful piece of writing, successful for its simple clarity and for the well-crafted build-up before it.

The scene has been much with me of late. Beyond its own literary resonance, it speaks to my understanding of the news of the day, specifically the aggressive scrutiny of prisoner of war Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl negotiated release. There are some who proclaim Sgt. Bergdahl a deserter who besmirched his homeland’s good name. They see his exchange for five Guantanamo-detained members of the Taliban as an abominable expense of geopolitical capital. They call him a traitor and thereby invalidate any claim he might have for American support. But my recent experience with Paperboy reminds me that our relationships have value expressly because they are not dependent upon our perfect behavior. We are allowed mistakes. Those who love us and assume responsibility for us take care of us. No matter what. I would hope that a soldier putting himself or herself in harm’s way could expect no less of his or her government, regardless of whether or not that soldier had stepped afoul of the line. I imagine that the circumstances surrounding Sgt. Berghadl’s initial disappearance will be investigated, and that strikes me as wholly appropriate. But I’m thankful and proud that the United States Government negotiated his release based upon his citizenship, not his conduct.

We all make mistakes, and none of us would want to be defined by our worst ones. Life is so very complicated, and how lucky we are that we have fine books like Paperboy to help us make sense of it.

Where Diversity Lives

This week Mental Floss produced a video titled “47 Charming Facts About Children’s Books” hosted by one John Green, wherein the celebrated teen author shares interesting bits of trivia about a selection of iconic books for children and teens. And the video is undeniably charming. The facts themselves, an amalgam of sort of effervescent curiosities, delight with their bubbly humor. And John Green is himself the very embodiment of charm; his simultaneously off-hand and ingenuous relation of this bevy of “facts” is positively infectious. You can watch the video here.

corduroyAs charming as it is, though, this video is also white. Really white. Of the 47 books considered, exactly none of them is written or illustrated by a person of color. We do have Corduroy, by Don Freeman, which features an African American family (though the fact in question is about the stuffed bear). We have a translated book, in Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren. But that’s about it. Perhaps there was a person of color among the stable of authors writing the Nancy Drew series under the Carolyn Keene pen name.

I find this lack of diversity troubling.

I hasten to say that John Green is one of the good guys. One of the best guys. He is warm and generous and an unfailing defender of broad, diverse reading. He is a brilliant writer and thinker. And he is single-handedly responsible for turning lots (and lots) of young people into young readers (I can’t point to a study that says this, but good luck convincing anybody in the know otherwise). Having been named one of the 100 most influential people by Time Magazine it is no stretch to suggest that his voice is particularly resonant, and in my experience he employs that influence, overwhelmingly, speaking out for justice.

But perhaps that’s what gives me pause. There is a missed opportunity here. Most of these books are undeniably iconic, and I imagine that many of them resonate deeply with the video’s audience. The caption beneath the video proclaims “In this week’s episode of mental_floss on YouTube, John Green looks at the fascinating stories behind the books from your childhood.” I suppose one could make the argument that the list, being  a collection of historical titles, simply reflects the historical lack of diversity in publishing for children. But I’m not buying it.

For, whether or not the video intends to represent a broader swath of children’s literature, it does. Some among us see it, we chuckle and grin, we glow in the nostalgia of our childhoods, and our memories are troublingly homogeneous. Whenever a group of books stands as a sampling of the canon, that collection needs to represent the breadth therein. This video uses its own irresistible charms to reflect the profound charms of the books it considers. It reminds us how deeply the roots of our earliest reading experiences extend. Should not everyone be able to share in that kind of recollection?

Yes, we need diversity on the shelves in libraries and bookstores and in children’s bedrooms. But if we want to find diversity there, we need to sow it, wherever books are told.



by Jenny Offill, illustrated by Chris Appelhans

Schwartz & Wade, 2014

Girl wants pet. Mother agrees, so long as pet is low maintenance. Sloth arrives via express post. The premise is simple enough, but Offill and Appelhans veer off script just enough to take what might have been simply charming and make it particularly funny, in an irresistibly peculiar way.

The story’s initial progression follows tropes as we might expect. The girl makes lots of plucky attempts to make Sparky into a perfect pet (or at least believe him to be), playing all manner of games at which she can beat him. But her smart, bespectacled frenemy isn’t having it. So our protagonist casts Sparky as the star of his very own talent show, and, on the day, he fails. Miserably. Frenemy departs in a fit of superiority, and all seems lost. Here’s where the script flips. What’s supposed to happen is the girl discovers some secret, sloth-specific talent Sparky has that rescues the day from some convenient cataclysm, shining on him a new and heroic light. Instead, he just sleeps in his tree and the girl engages him in a game of tag. “‘You’re it, Sparky’ I said. And for a long, long time, he was.”

Beyond the achingly sweet double meaning of that final phrase, the situation’s refusal to conform to our expectations adds a lovely meta-humor to the tale. The funny comes from dodging our expectations, as funny often does. But in this case those expectations are not part of the situation itself but come from the literary tradition surrounding it.

But funny is just the beginning. The earnest perspective of Offill’s first person narrative is enchanting. The girl is trying so hard to believe in Sparky’s wonders herself that she convinces us in the bargain. Appelhans’ muted watercolor sketches wring buckets of charm from the characters and circumstances in open, expansive compositions with plenty of laughing room. Even the typeface, based on Appelhans’ hand lettering, adds to the story’s soft and tender heart.

This is the sort of book that makes one long for a regular group of preschoolers to read it to, at least if that someone is me.

The Caldecott measuring stick

measuring stickThe Caldecott terms and criteria constitute a particular, prescriptive lens through which to look at picture book illustration. The Caldecott Medal is arguably the most prestigious prize a picture book can win, and as such the specific elements and attributes it recognizes have a particular role to play as we examine and evaluate books in the canon. To be sure, the Caldecott terms and criteria are not the only measure we can apply. Indeed, in our day to day work with children, other things–iconic characterization, accessibility, suitability for a group read aloud–can be much more significant. Still, measuring picture books with the Caldecott measuring stick allows us to delve deeply into the quality of the illustration, and gives us meaningful information about the application and legacy of the Medal itself.

And so, for our final project in my intensive picture book course this semester, we are putting the books we’ve looked at through the Caldecott paces. From the 80 titles we’ve looked at the students have nominated 12 for our Mock Caldecott (stipulating that all are eligible, regardless of date or place of publication, or nationality of creator). It is fascinating too see which titles stand out in a Caldecotty sort of way, and which have announced to us their qualities in that respect. Here they are:

  • Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake, written by Michael Rosen
  • Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, by Peter Brown
  • Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me, illustrated by Bryan Collier, written by Daniel Beaty
  • Locomotive, by Brian Floca
  • The Great Bear, illustrated by Armin Greder, written by Libby Gleeson
  • Wild, by Emily Hughes
  • Flora and the Flamingo, by Molly Idle
  • This Moose Belongs to Me, by Oliver Jeffers
  • Waiting for the Biblioburro, illustrated by John Parra, written by Monica Brown
  • Here Comes the Garbage Barge, by Red Nose Studio
  • John, Paul, George and Ben, by Lane Smith
  • And Then it’s Spring, illustrated by Erin Stead, written by Julie Fogliano

michael rosen's sad bookmr tiger goes wildknock knocklocomotivegreat bearwildflora and the flamingothis moose belongs to mewaiting for the biblioburrohere comes the garbage bargejohn paul george and benand then it's spring

USBBY’s 2014 Outstanding International Books List

Here at the Butler Center we’re proud to host the USBBY Outstanding International Books Committee for their year-end deliberations. And, given our recent trip to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, we’re especially interested in their choices.

Here’s the 2014 list. I see some favorites. How about you? What international books for children and teens are on your radar for next year’s list?




by Jessica Shepherd

Child’s Play, 2014

“I’m Oscar and I have the best Grandma in the whole wide world.” So begins this sweet, fragile story about the finite, particular experience of moving an older person into assisted living, and its impact on a young child. Oscar’s direct story offers a linear account of the situation. Grandma is forgetting things and needs more help than the family can provide, so she’s going to live somewhere where there are lots of people to care for her. We will miss her, it will be different, and you can ask questions. Oscar visits Grandma, learns about her new routine, meets her friend Albert, and decides it’s going to be OK.

This kind of purposeful book rarely gets attention beyond its purpose. It may not attract a large audience beyond families sharing the experience it depicts, and probably won’t find its way into regular storytime rotation (though I would be all over it). But there is real art here, and detail that warrants our notice.

Let’s begin with the style of the artwork, fresh and tender and childlike. The images vibrate with the love of family, and reinforce the child’s perspective. Just looking at the book, one feels the sort of security a child might craft for himself. The handwritteny font further establishes this as something experienced directly by a child, not filtered through the wisdom of adulthood.

And within the art are many wonderful details. Right on the cover we see Oscar and Grandma cuddling in a soft, oversized chair upholstered in a particularly cheery floral fabric. We see that fabric, with its bright red, yellow, blue and pink blossoms, over and over, on the opening and closing pages, on the coverlet on Grandma’s bed, as a handkerchief in Grandma’s memory box. And the original chair comes with Grandma and is present in her room after the move. No mention is made of the fabric’s constancy, but the through-line reminds readers that while some things will be different, some things will stay the same. The imagery is not all about particulars, though. Open backgrounds and copious white space leave plenty of room for children to fit themselves into the story, and fully absorb its comforts.

Also worth noting is the candor of the first person address. Oscar, experiencing things genuinely, tells the truth. “Grandma still tells me lots of stories about her life. I know them all by heart, so that I can remind her if she forgets one day” he says, for example. The sweetness here is pure, and does not come from sugar coating. It would be disingenuous to suggest to children that things will be better than they are. Instead, Oscar gives us his own account, focused on the positive, to be sure, but fully acknowledging the reality.

As practitioners we are aware of the need for books like this to help families through situations of stress and change. How wonderful that we have at our disposal books that support and explain, and do so with consummate artfulness.