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.

Mock CaldeNott – January 15, 2015

memory of an elephantJoin us for our second annual Mock CaldeNott discussion on Thursday, January 15, 2015! Once again we’ll investigate a collection of extraordinary picture books from the previous year, using the Caldecott terms and criteria as our guide to illustrative excellence. The special component of our experience is that we’re looking at books that are ineligible for the actual Caldecott Medal due to their international provenance. It’s extra-informative and super-fun. You should really come.

Beginning at 5:00pm we’ll have an opportunity to review the picture books in contention (with light refreshments). Indeed, all of the books are currently available for preview in the Butler Center at any time (any time we’re open, anyway).

Our formal deliberations will begin at 7:00pm. Woohoo.

Here are the books we’re looking at:

Two Tough Crocs by David Bedford, illustrated by Tom Jellett, Holiday House, 2014

Fox’s Garden by Princesse Camcam, Enchanted Lion, 2014

Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Emily Sutton, Candlewick, 2014

Shh! We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton, Candlewick, 2014

Anna’s Heaven by Stian Hole, Eerdmans, 2014

Fall Leaves by Loretta Holland, illustrated by Elly MacKay, HMH, 2014

The Dinner that Cooked Itself by J.C. Hsyu and Kenard Pak, Flying Eye Books, 2014

Mr. Brown’s Fantastic Hat by Ayano Imai, minedition, 2014

Midnight Library by Kazuno Kahara, Roaring Brook Press, 2014

Moví la mano / I Moved My Hand by Jorge Luján, illustrated by Mandana Sadat, Groundwood Books, 2014

Children Growing Up in War by Jenny Matthews, Candlewick, 2014

At the Same Moment Around the World by Clotilde Perrin, Chronicle, 2014

Jim Curious by Matthias Picard, Abrams, 2014

The Mouse Mansion by Karina Schaapman, Dial, 2014

The Memory of an Elephant by Sophie Strady, illustrated by Jean-François Martin, Chronicle, 2014

Rules of Summer by Sean Tan, Scholastic, 2015

Goal! by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Caio Vilela, Henry Holt, 2014

The Big Book of Slumber by Giovanna Zoboli, illustrated by Simona Mulazzani, Eerdmans, 2014

children growing up with warRSVP/Questions in the form below!

Mock Newbery Results

I spent this past weekend immersed in deep, insightful book discussion with fourteen other astute, committed individuals, in search of “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” published in 2014. This was the culmination of a semester’s worth of reading, nominating, and more reading. By dedicating the time and energy of an entire course to the endeavor we were able to really dig into the Newbery process, replicating not just the book discussion, but the nominations, introductions, and balloting. In the end we spent 15 hours over two days discussing and voting on a list of 29 titles, arriving at a winner and two honor books. I’ll talk a bit more about our lists in a bit, but let me now get to our results:

The committee chose two honor books:

the art of secretsThe Art of Secrets by James Klise, published by Algonquin Young Readers, 2014

When arsonists torch Saba Khan’s apartment, tensions are high. Is this a hate crime, targeting Saba’s Pakistani immigrant family? Was is staged? Who is responsible? The community at her independent school steps up, raising funds to help the family, but when one of the items collected for auction turns out to be the work of Chicago outsider artist Henry Darger, valued at half a million dollars, things get bona fide complicated. Klise exposes the truths, and misdirections, through a series of blindered e-mails, texts, journal entries, phone conversations, and other exchanges between a diverse cast of players, threading the compelling mystery with obfuscation and intrigue. Taut plotting, masterful characterization, and nuanced exposition combine in a satisfying, surprising novel.

bad bye good bye

Bad Bye, Good Bye by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Jonathan Bean, published by HMH Books for Young Readers, 2014

A little boy travels with his family from their old home to their new one, lamenting their losses, considering their transitions, and hoping for their future. Underwood composes 57 discrete single-syllable words into forty rhyming couplets, with every couplet being an adjective/noun pairing (with the exception of one critical turning point). Within this structured framework she achieves a staggering range of emotion and experience, equally resonant to the lap-based toddler, the emerging reader, or budding poet. Simple words take on layers of meaning that shift and grow in their careful sequence, drawing the reader or listener along the journey’s immediate, indelible arc. While Bean’s energetic, substantial images add atmosphere to the outing, establishing meaningful context and reinforcing the emotional tug, Underwood’s spare, rhythmic, verse has its own unmistakable, dramatic power.

And the committee chose, as winner of our 2015 Mock Newbery:

RevolutionRevolution by Deborah Wiles, published by Scholastic Press, 2014.

The town of Greenwood, Mississippi becomes the battleground for a nation in turmoil during the freedom summer of 1964. “Agitators” from the north descend to establish and protect black voters’ rights while the local communities erupt at the challenge to the status quo. Wiles tells the story in two first-person narratives, of twelve-year-old Sunny, whose eyes are opening to habituated racism she couldn’t see, and fourteen-year-old Raymond, who experiences that racism first-hand. Wiles embellishes and interrupts those two distinct voices with a jarring battery of primary documents, submerging the reader in a cultural context that includes everything from frothy invocations of pop-culture to noxious expressions of hatred, all of them documented and real. The resulting combination makes for a piercing, illuminating, and especially human exploration of a tumultuous episode in our country’s history.

A note about our lists:

We began our reading with a list of 15 titles selected by me (as instructor for the course) in July, which included both published and anticipated books. Unlike the “real” committee, that short list was curated to represent a wide range of style, tone, format, and reading level, as well as a balance of cultural diversity. In addition to those titles we all read widely from an ever-growing list of suggested titles from which each student nominated one. And in the end we arrived at our final 29. We can never know how well our final list might compare to the books the “real” committee is looking at this year. Indeed, in many ways our purposes are different. But we have great confidence in the depth and precision of the investigation we undertook, and great pride in the results.

mock newbery committee

The results are in

As part of the fifth annual Dominican University Caritas Veritas Symposium the Butler Center staged a Book Identity Project through which we solicited from members of the university community a book (or six) from childhood that contributed to their identity. Participants were given an old-school check-out card asking for the book and we lined the front door and window of the center with old-school check-out card pockets to receive them. We had a tremendous response, with 101 books listed on 86 different cards.

identity cardsThe submissions are fascinating, with a surprising variety. To be sure, the collection includes some well-loved, to be expected titles. Where the Wild Things Are gets three mentions, and Dr. Seuss shows up six times, twice for The Cat in the Hat, twice for Green Eggs and Ham, and once each for Oh, the Places You’ll Go! and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. I’m not surprised to see Louisa May Alcott or A.A. Milne, C.S. Lewis or Lewis Carroll (or Robert Louis Stevenson) in the mix. The single most-cited title is Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, with four mentions, which is something of a surprise, not because it’s a book I don’t care for (indeed, I don’t care for it) but because it seems to have the sort of nostalgic perspective that I never thought spoke strongly to children. Consider me schooled. I was somewhat surprised, too, to find books outside the children’s canon, by the likes of Hemingway and Steinbeck and Dwight D. Eisenhower. We didn’t specify that the book needed to be a book written expressly for children, just that it resonated in the participant’s childhood, so it makes perfect sense that books like these would show up. It’s a great reminder of my own myopia, that I automatically understand young people’s reading through my deep engagement with the body of literature I study. Schooled again!

Quite a few series made the cut, including Nancy Drew, The Boxcar Children, The Chronicles of Narnia, and, of course, Harry Potter (I was 32 when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published, and it’s just a little sobering to realize how many of our students read it as children). Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day got two mentions (I wonder if those folks saw the movie) as did The Runaway Bunny. Andrew Clements’ Things Not Seen, published in 2004, is the youngest book mentioned, and the oldest is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, first published in 1855.

Here’s the complete list. Check it out. Are you surprised by what you see? And while you’re at it, let us know if you can identify the authors of any of the first few books listed, unfamiliar to us.

stephan and karaHere are Butler Center Student Assistant Kara Pauley and LISSA President Stephan Licitra collecting entires (and passing out candy). It sure is great to have such friendly, diligent assistance.

 

Oh, and for the record, my choice was Spectacles, by Ellen Raskin. It’s a great book. You should check it out.spectacles

Here is the World: A Year of Jewish Holidays

here is the worldHere is the World: A Year of Jewish Holidays

written by Lesléa Newman

illustrated by Susan Gal

Abrams, 2014

Sometimes I love a book on sight. It’s not fair, I know, or smart, really, to offer up my affection before I have really gotten to know the book a little, but sometimes I can’t help it. I had just such a reaction to this book. And I’m happy to report that deeper study and familiarity prove that my instincts were right. It’s splendid. And this, Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish year, seems the perfect day to sing its praises.

My affection began with the images. They are bright and cheerful and immediately arresting, but that basic appeal is just the beginning of their wonder. Susan Gal is a master of composition and shape. Every spread exhibits ordered balance and movement, reinforcing the sense of celebration with steady energy. And her figure work is just exquisite, with impeccable proportion and individual consistency. This seems a small thing, perhaps, but I can think of plenty of illustrators, some of them household names, who don’t approach the skillful grace of this warm, vital portraiture.

The color work enjoys the same sense of energy and balance, with rich, saturated jewel tones humming beside one another, glowing with naturalistic light. Indeed, whether lit by sunlight or stars, every spread elicits a sense of presence, so immediate is the setting.

And Gal employs all of this skill and style to a cumulative visual story that threads the family’s experience through the year. These holidays are not abstract, isolated festivities, but the real and meaningful celebrations of a close family.

For her part, Newman’s rhythmic verse scans beautifully (would that all rhyming text scan this well!), inviting, even imploring to be read aloud. But, just like the pictures, there’s substance behind the style, with family as the central theme.

This wonderful book will find its way to many libraries because of its useful and  accessible treatment of important cultural information, but I sure hope it has a chance to extend beyond its simple utility and has a chance to delight with its profound and handsome charms.

Shanah tovah.

Hug Machine

hug machine

Hug Machine

by Scott Campbell

Atheneum, 2014

I love this book. I love it up. Indeed, here is a place where one is glad one is blogging, and can set aside the more formal trappings of professional writing and just gush with abandon.

Ready? Here is a list of my impromptu enthusiasms:

1) The faces. Campbell does some good faces. His style is particularly loose and sketchy, but boy, howdy, he can capture emotion and attitude in a few watercolor gestures. From the resolute purpose of the hugger, expressed in his firm mouth and closed eyes, to the variety of surprise among those being hugged (catch the look on his dad’s face, and that turtle?! shut up!), the priceless range of emotion adds meaning and depth to what might have been one note mawkish.

2) The composition. Some spreads are open, and some are crowded. But whether it’s the ominous space between the hug machine and his intended porcupine, or the busy, serial hugging along the dotted line (a la Family Circus), the composition is never accidental and always effective.

3) The font. Everything is hand painted, with the same easy watercolors as the pictures, reinforcing the child-perspective and adding to the insouciance.

4) The arc. It’s not uncommon to happen upon a picture book whose words and images match its listeners. But I can’t remember the last time I encountered a book whose story arc was so well calibrated to its audience. The pagination, the pacing, the implicit pauses and inflections. Here is a book that will blossom when read aloud, over and over (and over).

5) The details. They got everything right here. The buff heavy stock feels delicious under your fingertips. The endpapers, with their empty and completed checklists, even the author flap of the dust jacket (with our hero hugging a fire hydrant while a curious dog looks on), all of it contributes to a cohesive, thorough, and endlessly appealing experience.

6) The edge. I’m not exactly allergic to sincerity, but I do like my earnest cut with a healthy dose of dry. This is an undeniably sweet outing, but between the bodacious humor and the appreciable astringency, it is anything but cloying.

7) The timing. Hug Machine did not come out in February (see above).

8) The gender expression. This is a book all about warmth, doused in pink and glowing with ardor, and the bearer of all of that fervent affection is a little boy. Boom.

I leave you with an instructional video on 90-second hugs by the author himself. I suggest you put in some practice, and then go out and get your hug on.

p.s. September 6-14, 2014 appears to be Hug a Book Week, so if you’re looking for a recipient, you might start at your local library.