Friday, October 29, 2010

Quotation of the Week

"It is not enough to simply teach a child to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations--something that will help them make sense of their own lives and encourage them to reach out toward people whose lives are quite different from their own."

--Katherine Patterson

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Review: Dick and Jane and Vampires

A mashup early reader featuring those suburban siblings Dick and Jane and vampires? Bite me. Seriously, though, this is not a joke. Author Laura Marchesani reworked stories from the original Dick and Jane books to include a new character--a vampire who flits in and out of the short chapters. Sometimes he appears as a bat and sometimes as a vampire.

At first, Vampire is someone to flee, and in the first half of this 144-page early reader, Dick, Jane, and toddler Sally do just that. By the the second half, they have gotten used to Vampire and he becomes a kind of playmate. He jumps rope with Dick and Jane, plays dress up, and even does somersaults on the lawn. Needless to say, Vampire doesn't bite anyone's neck and seems to have no need of human blood. (Unless he does his dining discretely at night; the book doesn't say.) In the final chapters, Vampire has found a soulmate, a female vampire, and everyone is happy for the couple.

So what's the verdict? Is the addition of the vampire enough to make this an engaging book for beginning readers or is it a gimmick? My feeling is that this is a book more for the parents--make that the grandparents--of these kids. Children today, not brought up on these books, won't get the humor. And bottom line, even with a spooky vampire to heighten interest, the stories remain boring. For a behind-the-scenes look at how Dick and Jane and Vampires was put together click here.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Why Getting an Early Reader Published Is an Uphill Battle

Kidlit recently posted an excellent critique about the early reader and chapter book market. After providing a detailed description of each, the blog goes on to discuss why it's so hard for writers of these books to get published. The short answer? Series prevail in early readers and chapter books, and so writers with an unproven track record are unlikely to be given the go-ahead to pen one. Another impediment is that so many of these series are written as work-for-hire, usually by packagers.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Review: Ant and Honeybee: A Pair of Friends at Halloween

Written by Megan McDonald and illustrated by G. Brian Karas, Ant and Honeybee: A Pair of Friends at Halloween features two engaging insect friends who are preparing for trick-or-treating. Honeybee is content for them to dress up once again as pilgrims, but Ant is ready for something different. After much discussion, the two decide to go as a washing machine and a dryer. After fashioning the costumes out of cardboard boxes, the pair are ready. The trouble is everyone they meet while trick-or-treating misjudges what they are supposed to be. Beetle thinks they are a pair of dice. Butterfly is convinced they are chunks of Swiss cheese. Mrs. Snail mistakes them for a couple of ice cubes. A stove and a dishwasher is Old Man Spider's guess until Mrs. Spider sets him straight. The duo are really dancing computers. To make matters worse the two friends get caught in a downpour. By the time they reach Cricket's house they are soaked and their costumes are soggy blobs of cardboard. When Cricket opens the door, he asks them what they are supposed to be. The two friends quickly come up with an answer. Ant is an anthill and Honeybee is a beehive. And together they make a perfect pair!

This is a charming story, well told and sprinkled with puns that are perfect for this age group. Megan McDonald, creator of the Judy Moody and Stink series, writes from experience. As the youngest of four, she wore her siblings' hand-me-down pilgrim costumes for many a Halloween. Karas's cartoon-like illustrations compliment the text, as when he shows Ant thinking up costume ideas. All in all, a delightful early reader for Halloween.

Pencil and Eraser

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Challenges of Writing Nonfiction for Beginning Readers

As a children's book author, I write nonfiction mostly. Quite a few of those books are for beginning readers. The challenges of writing for this group are considerable. With a limited word count you have to write simply and clearly, while keeping your reader's attention. This is also true for those who write fiction, of course. With nonfiction, though, the writer has the added onus of having to distill complex ideas so that a six-year-old can understand them. Take biography. Imagine you are writing a bio of a United States president, say, Abraham Lincoln. You don't know what your young reader already knows about Abe, so you have to start from scratch. How do you cover Lincoln's beginnings, his early years as a lawyer, his presidency, slavery, the Civil War, and his death in under 2,000 words?

If you are author Martha Brenner, you don't. Instead of attempting a traditional biography, Brenner chose the conceit of Lincoln's stovepipe hat to frame her early reader of our sixteenth president's life.  I tip my hat to Martha Brenner and her wonderful biography Abe Lincoln's Hat. Although published in 1994, it still stands as a remarkable biography for beginning readers. Using anecdotes from Lincoln's life, such as turning his hat into a file cabinet where he kept important papers, Brenner leaves readers with an deeper understanding of Lincoln's character. The book focuses on his life as a young lawyer and politician before he became president. Children learn how at one trial he determined the true owner of a colt by setting it loose and allowing it to run to its mother. In another famous case, he freed a man accused of murder by proving that an eyewitness could not have seen the crime since there was no moon in the sky that night. The book ends with Lincoln becoming president. The last few lines state what he accomplished in that office and the final page features photographs of Lincoln and other characters mentioned in the biography. Readers are left with an excellent introduction to Lincoln, and, hopefully, the urge to learn more about him.

Plenty of other early-reader biographers focus on one unique aspect of their subjects' lives rather than trying to cram a whole life into 48 pages. George Washington and the General's Dog by Frank Murphy describes a little-known story about how our nation's first president rescued a British general's lost dog on the battlefield and had to make a difficult decision: Return the dog to the enemy or keep it? Eat My Dust! Henry Ford's First Race by Monica Kulling takes readers on an exciting 1901 car race between Ford and Alexander Winton. Ford took his winnings and used them to start his car manufacturing company.

Nonfiction Monday is hosted today by Sherrie at Write About Now 

Friday, October 22, 2010

Quotation of the Week

"To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark."
---Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

Thursday, October 21, 2010

School Scarecrows

Just two blocks from my house is the local elementary school. Students made scarecrows and staked them outside the building for all to admire. I smile each time I pass by. Thought I'd share their labor of love.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Halloween Costumes for Beginning Readers

I echo Mad for Reading's excellent suggestion to dress up trick-or-treaters as characters from their favorite books. Kids just learning to read have a greater selection to choose from than you might think.

Of course, there's always everybody's favorite, The Cat in the Hat. But what about dressing up two BFFs as Thing One and Thing Two? This works even better with twins.

Encourage boys to take on the identity of Captain Underpants, a truly one-of-a-kind superhero from the series by Dav Pilkey. Girls who like a bit of glam might appreciate the chance to become Fancy Nancy from the popular series by Jane O'Connor. And don't forget the one-handed horse picker-upper Pippi Longstocking.

Clifford the Big Red Dog makes a great costume for pint-sized dog lovers. If you're artistically inclined, face make-up can really make a costume pop. Use red face paint and a red sweatsuit to transform any basic cat costume costume into that dastardly feline Rotten Ralph.

With so many eye-popping costumes to choose from, trick-or-treaters will be bringing home the loot. Just make sure they share!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Forgotten Manuscript by Seuss

Forty-odd years ago, Dr. Seuss started an early reader with the working title All Sorts of Sports. He and an assistant helping with the project completed 19 pages, with the first seven written exclusively by Seuss. He also did some rough sketches to go with the text. The project was ultimately shelved. Until 1983, that is, when the assistant brought it again to the Doctor's attention, asking if he remembered it.

Seuss did. He replied in a letter that the manuscript was flawed because the main character, an athlete named Pete, presented a negative image, his inability to catch a ball making him a "schook." Seuss went on to add: "This is not entirely apparent in the text, but when you picture these negative scenes in illustrations, you will find that negatives are always more memorable than positives."

It is to Seuss's credit that he recognized the defects of the story and choose not to publish it. If only more named authors would do the same, instead of putting out ill-conceived stories just because they can.

To read more about the manuscript and to see some sample pages, click here.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Goodnight Moon, Goodnight Picture Books

The New York Times has started a tempest in a teapot with its October 7th article "Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children." To summarize, picture books aren't selling well and consequently publishers are producing fewer of them. The reason? The current economic climate doesn't help, of course, nor does the growing number of digital playthings at a child's disposal. But another major component, according to the article, is that parents (by which they middle-class parents) don't see picture books as relevant and are pressuring their offspring into ditching them to read chapter books. The thinking being: Why bother with Little Miss Spider when you can go straight to Charlotte's Web and from there it's a hop, skip, and a jump into Harvard?

To back up its claim, the article quotes bookstore owners and managers, book buyers, publishing executives, and children's publishers. One parent, a mother of three boys and writer of the book blog Zen Leaf, said of her six year old son, a reluctant reader, "He would still read picture books if we let him, because he doesn't want to work to read." (She has since written a post saying her comment was taken out of context.)

It's a nice theory, but, sorry, I'm not buying it. Picture books have been a hard sell (ask any picture book author) for years now. And while no doubt there are some parents who would rather their kids peruse the Wall Street Journal rather than The Wolves in the Wall, these types of parents have always existed. No. The reason for the picture book's decline is--hold on to your hats--they cost too much! A hardcover picture book is priced around $18. You can buy a paperback chapter book for under $10. It's a no-brainer. And when picture books are purchased, they are usually bought as gifts, and the choice is likely to be a classic, such as The Runaway Bunny or Where the Wild Things Are. It's too expensive to take a chance with an unknown book that the child might glance at once and never again.

When my daughter was young, we used to visit the library for picture books and buy others when they came out in paperback or in book clubs. (Though nothing beats a hardcover edition, I admit.) Nowadays, libraries are seeing their budgets slashed and can't afford to buy as many picture books, or indeed, any type of book. I'm not sure what the answer is, but my guess is that once the economy rebounds (or if) so will picture books. Fingers crossed.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Boy and His Fly

What is more beautiful than the relationship between a boy and his pet, especially when the pet is a common, or not-so-common, housefly? Written and illustrated by Tedd Arnold, Hi! Fly Guy is the first in a series of early readers about the friendship between Buzz, a boy, and Fly Guy, his pet fly. A Theodore Seuss Geisel Honor Book, the story relates how Buzz and Fly Guy come to meet: "A fly went flying. He was looking for something to eat--something tasty, something slimy. A boy went walking. He was looking for something to catch--something smart, something for The Amazing Pet Show." At first Fly Guy doesn't qualify for the show because the judges insist he is a pest, not a pet. Fly Guy prevails, performing amazing aerial tricks, and, most amazing of all, saying his owner's name: "Buzz."

The cartoony illustrations are hilarious and sure to appeal--to little boys in particular. The one of Fly Guy having just consumed most of a hot dog is priceless.

There are currently nine books in the series. Keep 'em coming, Fly Guy!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

50 Years, 50 Words, 50 Bucks

The year 2010 is the 50th anniversary of yet another early-reader classic, Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss (aka Theodor Geisel). First published on August 12, 1960, the early reader has gone on to become one of the top-selling children's books of all time. Green Eggs and Ham came about because of a challenge issued by publisher Bennett Cerf, who bet Seuss that he wouldn't be able to write a book using only 50 words. (The Cat in the Hat, written in 1955, has 223 words.) The rest, as they say, is history. Not only did Seuss spin a fantastical 50-word tale about a reluctant eater who refuses to sample a dish of green eggs and ham pushed on him by the persistent Sam-I-Am, he did so using 49 monosyllabic words. (The exception is "anywhere.") Cerf paid Seuss $50, but the real winners are the thousands of children (and I include myself here) who cut their reading teeth on this delightful book.

Happy anniversary, Green Eggs and Ham!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Frances is Fifty!

Frances the badger made her first appearance 50 years ago in Bedtime for Frances. Russell Hoban, the book's author, got the idea from the daughter of his next-door neighbors, who was always finding inventive ways to put off bedtime. But it was illustrator Garth Williams who determined that Frances would be portrayed as a badger. Today it's hard to imagine her being anything else! Frances went on to star in five more stories (all illustrated by the late Lillian Hoban, the author's then wife): A Bargain for Frances, A Baby Sister for Frances, Best Friends for Frances, A Birthday for Frances, and Bread and Jam for Frances.

To honor this publishing milestone, HarperCollins is issuing Frances 50th Anniversary Collection, a boxed set of paperback I Can Read! editions of Bread and Jam for FrancesBest Friends for Frances, and A Bargain for Frances. Read more about this Anniversary Collection at Publishers Weekly.   

My favorite of the Frances books has always been Bread and Jam for Frances. A picky eater, Frances prefers bread and jam above all other foods. This changes when her mother starts giving her bread and jam for every meal. Frances soon tires of her sticky treat and has a meltdown when she's not served spaghetti and meatballs with the rest of her family. 

I was not a picky eater as a child (in fact anything but), however I did have a similar experience as a teenager when for some reason I became fixated on hamburgers. I demanded them so often that my grandmother bought five pounds of ground meat from the butcher and fed me hamburgers for dinner every night. Guess what? it worked. By the time the meat was gone so was my desire for hamburgers. Like Frances, I learned that you can have too much of a good thing.