Thursday, March 31, 2011

Waxing Nostalgic

A recent post by Read-Aoud Dad about his difficulty talking to his twins when they were babies resonated with me. As a writer and bit of an introvert (okay, as a lot of an introvert), I spend hours wrapped up in my thoughts. Back then I often had to make a conscious effort to remember to speak to my young daughter. Don't be alarmed; she grew up just fine.

My taciturnity didn't extend to reading, thank goodness. I read to her frequently, and starting when she was a baby. Thinking back to those days, I remember some of the books that she especially enjoyed and that I read to her again and again and again. Luckily, she had good taste, so I didn't mind. (The exception was The Little Engine that Could, which one of her doting aunts gave her. Was that book long! The illustrations were fun, but I never bought into its moral. Sometimes, frankly, it's just better to call it a day and give up. But that's me. When my daughter handed me the book, my solution was to "read" a heavily abridged version of it.)

But that's jumping ahead. As a toddler she had three or four favorite books. Two were board books by Rosemary Wells, Max's Bedtime and Max's Birthday, a special favorite. Max receives a wind-up dragon for a present and is scared of it. Until it stops. Then he wants it wound up again. Hilarious stuff to an 18-month-old.

The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit was a gift from my mother, who presented all her young grandchildren with a copy of Beatrix Potter's tale. Unlike many of Potter's more famous works, A Fierce Bad Rabbit is short, with just one or two lines per spread. Its simple, direct story is what makes it so perfect for toddlers.

It begins "This is a fierce bad Rabbit; look at his savage whiskers, and his claws and his turned-up tail." The illustration reveals an ordinary bunny, nothing fierce or savage about it. Turn the page. "This is a nice gentle Rabbit. His mother has given him a carrot." The good rabbit is the mirror image of the first.

The bad rabbit proceeds to take the good rabbit's carrot, hurting the rabbit "very badly." A man with a gun mistakes the bad rabbit, now eating the carrot, for a bird, and shoots it (yes, shoots it). Off the bad rabbit streaks, unharmed except that it's missing its tail and whiskers.

The bad rabbit in the act of stealing the carrot.

This simplistic tale of good versus bad (which resides in us all, hence the brilliance of the two rabbits looking alike) enthralled my daughter. And, let's face it, keeping your hands off other people's carrots is a lesson worth knowing. Think of all the world leaders who would have benefited by having Potter's tale read to them when young.

I'll save my toddler daughter's other favorite book for another post. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Ten Authors Who Deserve More Recognition

It's Tuesday again. Time for another Top Ten list. This week topic at The Broke and the Bookish is Ten Authors Who Deserve More Recognition. Doesn't every bibliophile think that her favorite authors deserve more play time, no matter how famous they already are? I know I do. Still, I tried my best to be impartial. Here are ten writers that I wish were better known or more well regarded. Some you may know; others not. No matter. Look them up. Check them out. You won't be sorry.

1. Diana Wynne Jones. Sadly, Wynne Jones died just this past week at the age of 76. A magnificent fantasy writer for children, she penned the Chrestomanci series, as well as Howl's Moving Castle, which was made into an animated film that is great in its own right. My personal favorites are Witch Week, Black Maria, and The Ogre Downstairs. She is nowhere near as well-known as England's current reigning fantasy writer, J. K. Rowling. But she should be. She's the better writer with a much wider range. (Sorry, Harry Potter fans.)

2. Peter Cameron. Have you heard of Peter Cameron? My guess is probably not. Yet he's a great short story writer; try his collection The Half You Don't Know (1983). He writes especially well of sensitive, aimless young men, as in his recent YA novel Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, listed in ALA's 2008 Best Books for Young Adults.

3. Joyce Porter. It was a happy day when I discovered Porter, an English mystery writer, and her mystery novels about Wilfred Dover, the most lazy, greedy, and unhygienic detective ever to flash a badge. Dover and the Unkindest Cut of All (1967) had me in stitches.

4. Jane Gardam. Gardam has been writing for many, many years, but I've only just discovered her. When I recommend her to writer friends and other bookish people, I'm often greeted with a polite, blank stare, which leads me to believe she's not as well known as she should be. She is a wonderful, wonderful writer of dazzling ability. Old Filth (2004) and its companion book The Man in the Wooden Hat (2009) alone safeguard her place in the literary canon. God on the Rocks (1978) and The Queen of the Tambourine (1991) are superb as well. Read them. Now.

5. Roddy Doyle. An Irish writer, Roddy Doyle won the Booker Prize in 1993 and several of his novels have been made into movies. So why is making an appearance on my list? Doyle is underrated as a novelist, in my opinion. Because his novels flow so effortlessly, he makes it look easy. But read--or reread--Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha (1993) or The Woman Who Walked into Doors (1996) or its sequel (and my favorite) Paula Spenser (2006). Each one is so well-crafted and observed. Doyle is an incredible writer. Get to know him.

6. Margaret Drabbler. Drabbler is certainly well-known, in England, if not here. However, in most literary circles she's placed below her older sister, the writer and critic A.S. Byatt, winner of numerous awards. That has to rankle. Having read both authors, I prefer Drabbler. Her novels resonate with me, especially The Witch of Exmore (1996) and The Seven Sisters (2002).

7. W. Somerset Maugham. Although very highly regarded--and popular--in his day, Maugham has fallen out of favor with modern-day readers. I'm not sure why. He's an excellent writer and his short stories are well-crafted and absorbing. Consider how many of his work have been made into movies (and excellent ones at that): Of Human Bondage, The Painted Veil, The Letter, Rain, The Razor's Edge, Being Julia, and many, many more. Will Maugham's reputation rebound? Time will tell, but I hope so.

8. Alison Bechdel. I love Alison Bechdel. A talented cartoonist, she illustrates and writes the long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, now published as a book. I'm also of big fan of her graphic memoir, Fun Home, which tells the story of her complex relationship with her emotionally-distant and--as she discovers--gay dad.

9. Elizabeth Gaskell. You might have heard of Gaskell from the Masterpiece Theater program Cranford, a serialization about life in a sleepy English town in the 1840s. Gaskell, a contemporary of Dickens (who published some of her work in his magazine), is little known today. I read her novel Wives and Daughters years ago, and found it well-plotted with strong women characters.

10. Sylvia Townsend Warner. If you read nothing else of hers, treat yourself to Lolly Willowes, Townsend Warner's first novel, published in 1926. Not only is it a hoot--a middle-class spinster takes up witchcraft after breaking free of her family--the novel frequently appears on authors' best novels lists.

Now it's your turn. Which writers do you feel need more respect. Or, better yet, which ones already have more than their fair share? Let us know!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sign Language for Kids

For the past several months I've been writing a book on American Sign Language (ASL) for beginners. Am I qualified? Absolutely--I'm a complete beginner. When I started this project I didn't know one single sign. That's what I like about being a freelance writer. It introduces you to subjects you know nothing about, and before long, you're a semi-expert in the field. In my quest to learn ASL, I've enrolled in a class and, naturally, I've done a ton of research. Since my book will be geared to adults, I've focused on adult sources. However, one day in the children's section of my local library, I browsed the 400 section and found Lora Heller's Sign Language for Kids: A Fun & Easy Guide to American Sign language. It was published by Sterling in 2004, and it is, without a doubt, one of the best introductions to sign language that I've found. Why learn ASL? Even if they don't know someone who is deaf or hearing-impaired, many kids enjoy learning new languages, which ASL most definitely is. In fact, ASL has become so popular that it is now the fourth language studied in the U.S. Pretty impressive!

Sign Language for Kids features six engaging child models demonstrating the signs. The close-up photographs are sharp and clear, making them easy to follow (which is more than I can say for some of the adult books). The text begins by teaching kids how to form the manual alphabet and numbers up to one hundred.  The following chapters are organized according to a child's interests, such as home, family, pets, school, favorite foods, sports and hobbies. When applicable, Heller explains the reasoning behind a sign and offers hints to help remember it. For instance, to form the the sign for "learn" you mimic picking something up from your open palm and touching your fingers to your forehead. This symbolizes taking knowledge from a book and putting it into your brain. To help remember the sign for "summer" (you draw your index finger across your forehead), Heller advises pretending you're wiping sweat off your brow. The book concludes with a section on linking words and instruction on how to form sentences. By the time a child has reached the final page, he or she will be able to express simple thoughts in ASL, quite an accomplishment.

This week's Nonfiction Monday is at Practically Paradise.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Quote of the Week

"Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen."
~ John Steinbeck

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Horrid Henry the Movie

Bad boys have always been popular, in books and on the screen. The poet John Milton recognized this. After all, it's the devil who steals the show in his epic Paradise Lost. Children are no exception to liking characters who misbehave. Think of Rotten Ralph, Bad Kitty, and Bart Simpson to name a few. Across the pond, the Horrid Henry books by Francesca Simon sell like hot cakes and have been doing so since the first book came out in 1994. Fifteen years later, the books were finally published stateside for the first time. I've read a few, and I can certainly see their appeal.

Now a movie based on the series is about to be released. Judging by the trailer, it looks like a kiddie version of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, a movie I didn't particularly care for. On the other hand, Anjelica Huston with her posh British accent appears to be having a ball playing the teacher. Take a look for yourselves:

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Top Ten Bookish Pet Peeves

Who doesn't like to complain? Not me. This week's topic over at The Broke and the Bookish is pet peeves of the bookish variety. Here are my top ten.

1. Marginalia
Marginalia is hot these days. I've read several articles singing its praises, such as this New York Times article. Sorry, I disagree. Except for textbooks, I don't mark up my books and I don't appreciate when other people do. I don't want to check out a library book and find some unknown reader's scribblings. If you're Alice Munro or J. M. Coetzee, go ahead and write in my books. Everyone else, hands off!

2. Teeny-tiny text
Okay, the eyes are going, but I do wear progressive lens. And I'm nowhere near ready for large-print books. In most books the font size and leading are just fine. But for others you need a magnifying glass.

3. Super-realistic book covers
I'm not a fan of illustrated book covers that look like photographs. Especially when they replace a perfectly wonderful original jacket. Case in point, Harriet the Spy. The original, which I read as a child, showed a pen-and-ink illustration by its author, Louise Fitzhugh. Cut to the late 1990s, when I bought the novel for my daughter to read. The super-realistic cover showed a modern girl who looked absolutely nothing like Harriet! Ugh. Today, I'm happy to say, Harriet the Spy has been reissued with its original cover, albeit in blue not orange.

4. Spoilers
Ever read a review, blurb, or back cover that gave away too much of the plot? I sure have.

5. Typos
I've worked as a copyeditor, so I know, none better, that it is impossible to catch every typo. Errors slip in and, slippery as fish, they are hard to catch. Still, when I'm reading a published book I don't expect to find more than a couple. Otherwise I begin to think that the book wasn't properly edited, that it's an orphan no one cared about. So why should I?

6. Magazine articles turned into full-length books
We've all read them. The author had a great idea and wrote a magazine article about it. Much applause followed, as well as a book deal. Turns out, though, that the author doesn't have much more to say than he did in the original article. So you read a book that's crammed with filler. This often happens with blogs. A great blog does not necessarily make a great book. 

7. Novels with "huh?" endings
Don't you hate getting to the end of a good novel and you're left with all these loose ends, or, worse, an ending that comes out of nowhere? I sure do. I read a lot of mysteries and this genre is especially guilty.

8. Celebrity-written children's books 
Madonna. Billy Crystal. John Lithgow. Sarah Ferguson. Kate Couric. The list goes on and on. It seems than anyone who's anyone can pen a children's book. They make it seem so easy. Except it's not. Most children's book authors will tell you how many years of hard work it took before an agent or editor looked at their manuscript, never mind signing them to a contract. To add insult to injury, most celebrity authors books are not very good. 

9. Chain bookstores with children's sections crammed with more toys than books
I'm seeing this more and more. My local Borders has a children's section that is packed with toys. And I mean actual toys, not toys packaged with toys (although they have plenty of those as well). The books are shoved against the back walls, almost apologetically. And of course the kids gravitate straight to the plush animals and gizmos and doodads, not the books.

10. Martin Amis and others who disrespect children's literature
In a recent interview the British novelist Martin Amis said only brain injury could make him write for children, adding "I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I could write." Well! A lot of ink has been spilled commenting on his remarks. I'll add that this belief, that children's literature can never be as serious, as important, as worthy, as adult literature is prevalent in our culture. Yes, there are plenty of children's novels that are middling or even not very good. Guess what? The same can be said for adult novels. But the best children's novels certainly deserve the name of literature. I wonder, what books did Amis read to his kids?

Whew! It felt good getting all that off my chest. What about you? What ticks you off?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Spring Has Sprung!

Awake, thou wintry earth -
Fling off thy sadness!
Fair vernal flowers, laugh forth
Your ancient gladness!
~ Thomas Blackburn, "An Easter Hymn"

Sunday was the Spring Equinox. As if on cue, a robin made its first appearance in our backyard in eastern Pennsylvania. To celebrate the longer days of light, here are five books about Spring to share with young readers.

Spring: An Alphabet Acrostic
By Steven Schnur
Illustrated by Leslie Evans
Clarion, 1999

This book is out of print but well worth searching for. Starting with A for April (After days of/Pouring/Rain, the last/Ice and snow/Leave the earth.), each letter of the alphabet gets its own acrostic poem celebrating Spring. Vibrant linoleum-cut illustrations showcase Spring in all its glory.
A New Beginning: Celebrating the Spring Equinox
By Wendy Pfeffer
Illustrated by Linda Bleck
Dutton, 2008

This book explains in lyrical prose the science behind the Spring Equinox and shows how different cultures celebrate its arrival. Hands-on activities, such as growing a pot of wheat or barley as Iranian families do when celebrating the growing season, round out this informative book.

The Spring Equinox: Celebrating the Greening of the Earth
By Ellen Jackson
Illustrated by Jan Davey Ellis
Millbrook Press, 2003

Beginning with the Mayans of ancient Mexico, Jackson examines how different cultures throughout history have welcomed Spring.  Included are the familiar holidays of Easter and Passover, as well as lesser-known ones, such as No Ruz (Iranian) and Holi (Indian). And of course there is our brand new celebration of Spring: Earth Day.  

It's Spring!
By Samantha Berger and Pamela Chanko
Illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Cartwheel Books, 2001

Spring has arrived and all the animals are spreading the joyful news. Beginning readers can share in their excitement for the season.
Spring Is Here
By Lois Lenski
Random House Books for Young Readers, 2005

First published way back in 1945, this delightful pocket-size book was reissued in 2005. The rhyming text and charming illustrations show young children delighting in Spring.

This week's Nonfiction Monday is being held at The Children's War.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Top Ten Characters I'd Want as Family Members

This week's meme over at The Broke and the Bookish concerns families in literature. At first I thought about picking the individual characters I'd want, but that didn't feel right. Which March sister would I select? The reason why so many people love Little Women is because it's the family unit that works. You can't separate Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. They belong together. Better by far to simply insert yourself into their happy mix. So that's what I've done.

1. The March Family (Louisa May Alcott). This choice is especially appropriate for me because I am one of four sisters. Since childhood my sisters and I have compared ourselves to the March girls in Little Women. Since I'm the eldest I get to be Meg. I don't think I'm particularly like her, but there you go. That's part of being in a family.  You have to compromise, And at least I'm not the one who dies.

2. The Melendy Family (Elizabeth Enright). Another family much beloved by my sisters and me. The premise of their first book, The Saturdays, is that the four Melendy offspring--Mona, Rush, Randy, and Oliver--form the Independent Saturday Afternoon Adventure Club. Each week they pool their allowance money into one pile and one of the siblings uses it to have an adventure on his or her own. Great fun.

3. The Moffat Family (Eleanor Estes). It's been many years since I last read The Moffats and its subsequent spinoffs, but I remember loving the working-class family of Slyvie, Joey, Janie, and of course Rufus. Time to reread them all.

4. The Bagthorpe Family (Helen Cresswell). I didn't read the Bagthorpe Saga, a series of ten books, until I was a grown-up. No matter. I want to be adopted into this extremely dysfunctional British family. Dad, a grumpy television writer for the BBC, works from home and is constantly annoyed by his pesky brood. Mom writes an Agony column for a newspaper and is a part-time magistrate. The four kids have numerous Strings to their Bows (except for Jack the hero of the first story, Ordinary Jack). Add in the wacky extended family members and mayhem is the result. Hilarious.

5. The Blossom Family (Betsy Byars). Another wacky, yet lovable group of eccentrics, the Blossoms have all sorts of adventures. In the first book, The Not-Just-Anybody Family, Junior tries to fly with a pair of homemade wings and ends up in the hospital. Meanwhile his brother and sister try to get Grandpa out of jail for breaking the peace.  A very, very funny series.

6. The Darling Family (J. M. Barrie). When I was five, I wanted nothing more than for Peter Pan to fly through my bedroom window (I kept it open just in case) and take me away to Neverland. Nowadays, staying put with the Darlings seems much more appealing. Sure, the father can be a drag at times, but all in all the family was a happy one. Plus I'd have Nana as my dog!

7. The Morland Family (Jane Austen). With all the families to choose from Austen's novels, the Morlands from Northanger Abbey might appear an unusual choice. Yet I think I would prefer them to the Bennet household.  True, it is a large family and they don't have much money and time for their brood, but Mr. and Mrs. Morland are both sensible, caring people. Catherine, the heroine, has deep affection for them and her siblings and they for her. When she comes back home in disgrace, it is her family's love that comforts and soothes her wounded pride. Can't ask for more than that.

8. The Ramsay Family (Virginia Woolf). Okay, maybe not the happiest of families, still ever since first reading To the Lighthouse I wanted to crawl inside its pages and take my place among the Ramsays.

9. The Brangwen Family (D. H. Lawrence). This novel follows three generations of the Bragwen family, who reside in the Midlands of England. I was most taken by the relationship between the sister Ursula and Gudrun, which is continued in Women in Love.

10. The Addams Family by Charles Addams. Okay, this last one is cheating somewhat, except Charles Addams did create an amazing cast of characters in The Addams Family and some were published as books. In my heart of hearts, I have to admit that if I had to choose one family to live with it would be these crazy kooks. They do their own thing and don't care what others think of them. They may not always be forgiving of outsiders (there was that unfortunate incident with Christmas carolers), yet they love and are tolerant of each other.

Now it's your turn. What characters would you most like to share a home with?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Manners Mash-Up: A Goofy Guide to Good Behavior

Confession: Once while playing a board game--and losing badly--I overturned the board, sending the tiles scattering in all directions. Sad to say, this happened when I was in my twenties. So clearly I could have used this book as a child and as an adult. Within its pages, fourteen illustrators tackle the tricky problem of showing kids how to behave in a given setting, such as the school bus, playground, doctor's office, etc. One setting not covered, I was disappointed to see, was the airplane. Not too long ago, on a seven-hour flight to Italy, I and other passengers aboard the plane were entertained by two tiny twin terrors in desperate need of this book's advice.

Note the word "goofy" in the title. The illustrators took it and ran with it. With a few exceptions, most of the illustrations delight in showing kids, animals, space aliens, and monsters acting up and completely disregarding the rules for good behavior. Sophie Blackall, for instance, illustrates proper behavior at the doctor's office. The rules are listed on a wall in the office. For "Don't Gawk" there's a little boy staring at a woman holding her head in her lap. "No Gurney Surfing" shows just that. "Prosthetic Legs Aren't Toys." Need I say more? The last spread, Tao Nyeu's "Please Don't Pick in Public" is a delicate embroidery of an indelicate subject. Various animals are shown, well, picking in public. Who knew there were so many body parts to pick at? A hippo picks its nose, a beaver its teeth, an alligator its scabs, and a bird in a tree its toenails.

My favorite illustration has to be the ghoulish "Table Manners" by Adam Rex, a perfect meshing of art and text. Click picture to view larger.

The book ends with the fourteen illustrators answering the question: "What was your goofiest manners mishap?" From throwing chicken bones at fellow diners to unzipped flies to dissing Santa, the illustrators  demonstrate why just about everyone could learn a thing or two about manners from this book. And, yes, "Always play by the rules" is covered in "Good Sports" by Tedd Arnold. So no more flinging Scrabble boards for me.

For other reviews, see A Fuse #8 Production and Book Aunt.

Manners Mash-Up: A Goofy Guide to Good Behavior
Illustrations by: Tedd Arnold, Joe Berger, Sophie Blackall, Henry Cole, Frank Morrison, Lynn Munsinger, Tao Nyeu, LeUyen Pham, Adam Rex, Peter H. Reynolds, Dan Santat, Judy Schachner, Bob Shea, Kevin Sherry
Dial Books for Young Readers, 32 pages
Published: February 2011

This week's Nonfiction Monday is at Chapter Book of the Day.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Quote of the Week

"You must write for children the same way you write for adults, only better."
~ Maxim Gorky

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

An Interview with CYBILS Winner Jacqueline Jules

Today I'd like to welcome to The Cath in the Hat Jacqueline Jules, the 2010 winner of a CYBILS Award in the Short Chapter Books category. Jacqueline is an accomplished children's book author who has published picture books as well as the chapter book series Zapato Power featuring Freddie Ramos, a Hispanic eight-year-old with the superpower of speed. Book three in the series, Freddie Ramos Zooms to the Rescue, was just released. In it, Freddie tackles strange goings-on involving a mysterious purple squirrel running loose through his school and causing mischief. Then the squirrel inadvertently sets a real disaster in motion. Zoom! It's Freddie Ramos to the rescue!

First off, congratulations on winning a CYBILS for Zapato Power: Freddie Ramos Takes Off. What was your reaction upon hearing the news?

Tears! Joyful shouting! Happy dancing! I was very surprised and enormously honored. This award is for literary merit AND kid appeal. That is very important to me. And it was chosen by bloggers who are teachers, librarians, and parents—people I admire and who are just as dedicated to children and children’s literature as I am. In addition to being an author, I am a teacher and a librarian. When I read a book, I consider my own reading pleasure and a child’s reaction. I’ve read many award-winning children’s books that I personally enjoyed but wasn’t sure I would widely recommend to my students or fellow teachers to use in the classroom. The CYBILS judges recognize the preferences and tastes of young readers. They also elicit responses from children. That makes being recognized by the CYBILS awards a huge honor I am deeply grateful for.

When did you first decide you wanted to write? How many years between that decision and your first published work?

I decided I wanted to be a writer in elementary school but it was only something I went around telling people. In high school, I dabbled with stories and poetry and continued telling people I planned to be a writer, but I can’t say I worked too hard at it. When I went to college, I flirted with one major after another, taking as many creative writing classes as I could. My decision to major in creative writing was entirely practical. My counselor showed me that the quickest route to graduation was to use all my creative writing credits toward a major, so I did. Looking back, I see that I did a lot more dreaming than writing early in my career. Publishing is hard work. You have to research markets. You have to polish your work and write cover letters. It takes time and determination. In the late 1980’s, after publishing a few poems and stories, I became more serious. I joined critique groups and learned that sometimes you have to start a story over from scratch to make it right. My first book for children was not published until 1995, almost thirty years after I first declared my intention to become a published author.

Freddie Ramos is such a believable, true-to-life boy. How did he come to be?

Freddie is a composite of the students I taught when I worked as a school librarian. The community he lives in and the school he attends mirror the school and community I served. When I began writing the Zapato Power stories, I imagined the little boys I taught and how they would feel if they suddenly acquired super-powered purple shoes. Since then, Freddie has became a real person to me. I can hear his voice in my head when I write about him. Sometimes, I read a line of dialogue or text and I say to myself, “That is the way Freddie would say it.” Sometimes I think of plot twists or actions I could include in the story and nix them because they don’t fit Freddie’s personality. It’s a magical thing for a writer when an imagined character becomes a person in his or her own right. When that happens, the writer continues writing to find out what will happen to the character, just like a reader reading on to find out how the story will end.   

Kids are sure to love the purple squirrel in your latest book, Freddie Ramos Zooms to the Rescue. The little critter certainly keeps Freddie on his toes as he races around trying to uncover the mystery behind the squirrel's unusual color. What gave you the idea?

I got the idea for the squirrel at a staff meeting at the school where I currently work. The assistant principal reminded the teachers to be careful about closing the recess door. “Remember last year,” she warned, “when that squirrel walked right inside after a line of kids.” The anecdote seemed like a perfect way to begin a Freddie story because he would have a reason to run all over the school and show off his Zapato Power. Finding a way to tie the squirrel into the big rescue and creating a mystery was much harder. I spent a long evening on the internet researching squirrels. One of the stories I found was about a purple squirrel on the campus of a private school in England in 2008. Eureka! I had a mystery for Freddie to solve. Freddie owns a guinea pig for a pet, so he would naturally want to save a squirrel who might be in danger. From there, I realized that in chasing the squirrel, Freddie could come across an even bigger opportunity to be a hero. When I finally had all the pieces of the story threaded together, I felt good, but for awhile, it was like having lots of puzzle pieces and no clue how to fit them together.

Although Freddie's superpowers give him an edge in being a hero, I like how ultimately he has to use his brainpower to solve mysteries and do good deeds. Do kids pick up on this, and, if so, how do they respond?

I was happy to hear that several reviewers noticed that Freddie finds brain power just as helpful as his Zapato Power. Since I believe that kids are just as smart as adults, I do think kids have picked up on this, though I have yet to hear a child articulate it exactly. Kids identify with Freddie and I hope that it is because they understand that his greatest abilities come from something they possess, too—good thinking skills and the desire to help others.

As the series progresses, Freddie's feats become more heroic. In Freddie Ramos Zooms to the Rescue, he saves a trainload of passengers. Was upping the stakes in each book a conscious decision on your part or did it evolve?

In book #1: Zapato Power: Freddie Ramos Takes Off, Freddie acquires his powers. In book #2: Zapato Power: Freddie Ramos Springs into Action, Freddie learns how to control his powers and helps out a friend. In book #3, Zapato Power: Freddie Ramos Zooms to the Rescue, I set out to give Freddie the opportunity to become the hero he dreams of being. However, I also wanted him to deal with some of the frustrations of being a superhero, mainly the necessity of being anonymous. So, it was an entirely conscious decision to have the books show a progression in his character and in his abilities.   

Are there any special challengers when writing a series? For instance, basic info about the setup has to be repeated in each book. Do you have any tips for keeping a series fresh?

It’s definitely a challenge to reveal the important information about a series character for the reader who might not be familiar with the first book without spending too many valuable words on explanation. Each book should be about 5,000 words, so economy of language is essential. I purposely started both Zapato Power #2 and Zapato Power #3, with action scenes. This gave me the opportunity to show Freddie’s super speed, rather than tell about it. In each book, I have worked hard to give Freddie different challenges and to divide his time between Starwood Park Apartments and Starwood Elementary. A change of scenery is not only good for the reader, it keeps Freddie busy, too.

In other interviews you mention that you are an extensive reviser. Did you revise Freddie Ramos Zooms to the Rescue as much as the first two books in the series or was it easier--or harder--the third time around?

While the basic storyline stayed the same, the particular arrangement of words for Freddie Ramos Zooms to the Rescue was revised more times that I can count. I exchanged words, condensed them, moved them, and literally cross-examined them, making them prove they belonged at that particular point in the story. For the final revision, I began by highlighting revised sections in red. By the time, I was done, there was not much left that was still in black font. When students ask me what I like the best about writing, I always say revising. It is fun to look at a piece of text and see if you can say the same thing better. It’s like adding color to a black and white drawing. The image is so much more vivid and pleasing.

Any there more adventures in store for Freddie? What are you working on now?

I would love to see more Zapato Power books. I am working on more Freddie stories and keeping my fingers crossed that the series will do well enough that Freddie’s adventures will continue. When I do school visits, I always ask the kids to imagine what they would do if they suddenly acquired super-powered purple shoes. A few weeks ago, I was at a school where students wanted to create new adventures for Freddie. They raised their hands with one idea after another, until their teachers literally pushed them out of the multi-purpose room, so it could be set up for lunch. It was very exciting for me to see  young readers imagining themselves in Freddie’s situation and coming up with new problems for him to solve. With help from students like that, I am sure I won’t run out of ideas for Freddie any time soon.  

Finally, if you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?

That is the question I began with when I started the Zapato Power series. I had to choose one power for Freddie and a means to provide it to him. I chose super speed because it is every little boy’s dream to run fast. I am the mother of two sons, now grown, but I remember how my youngest son in particular enjoyed running fast the first time he put on  brand new sneakers. I remember myself as a child, trying to run fast enough to fly when the wind blew hard. We all want to go fast. But we want other powers, too. As I continued Freddie's story, I also gave him super eyesight, invisibility, and super bounce because he needed those powers to solve mysteries. I couldn’t just choose one power as I had originally intended for Freddie, so asking me to choose one for myself is a hard one. But at this moment in time, I think I would like super vision. I wear glasses with strong lenses. My eyesight has never been very good. So having super vision at this point in my life would be pretty cool.   

For more information about Jacqueline Jules, please visit

And take a peek at the trailer for the series.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Dynamic Duos

Dynamic duos abound in books for beginning readers. Here are my favs, in no particular order.  For more lists of literary dynamic duos, head on over to the Broke and the Bookish.

1. Frog and Toad (Arnold Lobel). What more is there to say? These two friends, opposites in so many ways, are the Oscar and Felix of beginning readers. Are you a Frog or are you a Toad?

2. George and Martha (James Marshall). Two lovable hippos who get into many a scrape together.

3. The Golly Sisters (Betsy Byars). Two sisters who travel in a covered wagon putting on shows, and who like all sisters, squabble at times, only to make up in the end.

4. Hare and Rabbit: Friends Forever (Julia Noonan). This delightful early reader is out of print, which is a shame. Hare and Rabbit are best friends in the Frog and Toad tradition, only they're female and not amphibians.

5. Elephant and Piggie (Mo Willems). Like many great fictional duos, Elephant and Piggie are polar opposites. Elephant is a solid, plodding sort, while Piggie is more fun-loving. Together, though, the two animal friends compliment each other perfectly.

6. Bink & Gollie (Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee). Bink is a mop-headed imp with a love for outrageous socks and a stubborn nature. Gollie, her taller and more sartorial friend, is equally headstrong. How the two best friends learn to compromise is the theme of this beginning reader. Hopefully, many more will follow.

7. Ivy & Bean (Sophie Blackall). At first glance, Ivy and Bean seem to have nothing in common. To Bean, a girl who is always on the move and often in trouble, Ivy appears to be bookish and dull beyond belief. But underneath her quiet exterior lurks an imagination equal to Bean's, and when the two join forces--watch out!

8. Clementine and Margaret (Sara Pennypacker). Clementine, a third-grader who seems never to be paying attention but always is, and Margaret, her upstairs fourth-grade neighbor, are unlikely allies. Margaret is everything Clementine is not: neat, organized, and a bit bossy.  Clementine, however, more than stands up for herself, and as the series progresses the two find out how much the other one truly cares.

9. Hansel and Gretel (The Brothers Grimm). Okay, not a beginning reader, but what a great pair these two make. Brother and sister, they unite to survive in the forest and to defeat the witch. Not bad for a couple of kids. Anthony Browne's illustrated version of the dark tale is a particular favorite.

10. Harold and the Purple Crayon (Crockett Johnson). Another book that's not a beginning reader and this one has an inanimate object as one of the duo! But, come on, isn't one's imagination always the perfect companion?

So there's my list. Who are your favorite dynamic duos?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Blast From the Past: Elliot's Extraordinary Cookbook

This morning I woke up with a yen for cinnamon rolls. I possess dozens of cookbooks, yet the one I turn to when I bake these rolls is Elliot's Extraordinary Cookbook by Christina Bjork and Lena Anderson. This delightful book is brought to you by the same team that wrote and illustrated the Linnea books.

More than a recipe book, it tells the story of how Elliot meets his upstairs neighbor, Stella, a grandmotherly type who introduces him to the joys of good food and cooking. Interspersed throughout are a trove of information about the food we eat, such as the history of the potato, the nutrients we need, how an egg cooks, and even a discussion of the digestive system. Considering that the book came out in 1990 it is surprising current, with advice to eat more fiber, fruits, and vegetables, and to consume less sugar.

The recipes are simple and kid-centric.  Each section is devoted to a main ingredient, such as potatoes, milk, eggs, and bread. There are recipes for very young children that require no cooking (make a pear porcupine with half a pear and slivered almonds for the quills) to more elaborate ones for advanced chefs (an apple tart with custard sauce). Instructions are also given on how to make butter, cheese, and grow sprouts. Later on, Elliot attempts his first dinner party and there are recipes for a first course (vegetable dip), main course (spaghetti and meat sauce), and dessert (filled pineapple).

The design and illustrations are charming and kid-friendly, as fans of the Linnea books can easily surmise. Each spread is a feast for the eye, with spots of the main characters cooking, tasting, or investigating food in some way. Sadly, the book is out of print, but anyone who is interested in a remarkable cookbook for children can buy used copies from our friends on Amazon.

Now to get started on those cinnamon rolls!

This week's Nonfiction Monday is at Picture Book of the Day.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Quote of the Week

"I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living. It's a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope, which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life's realities."
~ Dr. Seuss

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Goodbye, Flat Jack!

It's time for Flat Jack to go home. He was a pleasure to have around and an ideal guest. He didn't eat much, never made a mess, and was always polite and well-behaved. In fact, he spend most of his time hanging out by the refrigerator. Ok, make that hanging on the refrigerator. We'll miss you Flat Jack! Come back and see us again next year!

Yesterday, as a special treat, I took Flat Jack into Philadelphia to see the sights. Grandma Joan came along to lend a helping hand (literally) and to see her flattened grandson. Here are some of the fun things we saw and did.

While we were in the visitor's center, Flat Jack ran into Flat Julia from California. The two stopped to compare notes and then had their picture taken. It's always nice to make a new friend. 

Flat Jack just had to see the Liberty Bell. He agreed it was all that it was cracked up to be.

Christ Church Burial Ground was established in 1719. It is the final resting place to many famous people from colonial times. 

Benjamin Franklin, a famous scientist, inventor, and signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, is buried there.

Here's a statue of Benjamin Franklin.

Next stop was a visit to the home of Betsy Ross, a flag maker from colonial times.

Flat Jack posed next to a reproduction of a United States flag from 1777. Each star represents a state. How many states were there back then?

Betsy Ross is buried a few yards from her house. 

This pretty cat woke up from its nap long enough to pose for us.

Elfreth's Alley is our nation's oldest residential street. That means people have lived and worked there since the early 1700s. People still live in the houses today.

The streets are made of cobblestone.

Here's Flat Jack on the shoulder of Phillie Phanatic, the mascot of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team. Lookin' good, Flat Jack!

Take Flat Jack to Work Day

On Monday Uncle Karl took Flat Jack to work with him so that FJ could see what office life is all about. Here is Uncle Karl's report--with pictures. Thanks Uncle Karl!

Flat Jack went to work with me. The people there were all very nice to him, and took him to lunch when he got hungry. Flat Jack also got to attend a meeting where they talked about some things that he didn't understand. There were lots of conversations and phone calls, and Flat Jack spent most of the day watching me typing on the computer and sending email messages to people all over the world. But by the end of the day Flat Jack was ready to go home. Being an adult and having to go to work isn't nearly as fun as going to school and playing with his friends. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Happy 107th, Dr. Seuss!

Today, March 2nd, would have been the 107th birthday of Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss). In his honor, the National Education Association has declared March 2nd Read Across America Day.

So much information about Dr. Seuss is scattered on the web. I thought it would be helpful to attempt to gather the best of them here. This is a work in progress. I'll be adding to the list in the months to come, and if you come across a relevant site/blog, please let me know and I'll include it.


From Wikipedia

From Kidzworld

From Amazing Gallery (includes extensive chronology)


From the Quotations Page

From BrainyQuote


The Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden at the Springfield Museums


Random House's Seussville, a fun  website for kids that includes games to play and videos to watch.

A collection of craft, game, and activity links all relating to the good doctor and/or his books.

Five ways to celebrate Seuss's B-day!

Links from Scholastic for setting up an author study on Dr. Seuss.


Check out ObSEUSSed a blog dedicated to all things Seuss.


In this video, Anita Silvey talks about the path that Theodore Geisel took to become Dr. Seuss.

CBS News takes a look back on the Doctor's life in this broadcast.

Watch The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot about That on PBS.


The five best Dr. Seuss books of all time? You decide.


Dr. Seuss analyzed for political and social effect.

The economics of Dr. Seuss from the NY Times.

The political Dr. Seuss

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Top Ten Books I Just Had to Buy...But Are Still Sitting on My Bookshelf

Well, this week's Top Ten Tuesday list by The Broke and the Bookish was ridiculously easy. All I had to do was scoot over to my bookcase and pick up the row of books I've been meaning to read and never have...and if I'm truthful, most likely never will. Sigh.

Here they are, in alphabetical order by author's last name.

1. Herbert Rowbarge by Natalie Babbitt. I bought the paperback edition sometimes in the 80s and it has moved from bookshelf to bookshelf from apartment to house to apartment to house to house. I bought it because I loved Natalie Babbits's outstanding children's novel Tuck Everlasting. But for some reason I have never cracked this one open so I can't even say what it's about. I keep it because I've had it so long. Silly reason, I know.
2. Arthur & George by Julian Barnes. I love detective fiction and I love Victorian settings. After seeing many good reviews, I snatched up a copy, which remains unread.
3. Possession by A. S. Byatt. This one is not actually on my bookshelf. Somehow I ended up with two hardcover copies, and after years of them both sitting reproachfully on my shelf, I finally donated them to a library. I did start the novel and did not like it. The Children's Hour, her latest, has gotten rave reviews. I may give it a try, but a library copy this time.
4. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. Don't remember how I even came to own this one. It's a classic and I really should read it, I know. But there it sits on the shelf.
5. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. Bought the hardcover edition after it won the Newbery Award. Again, right up my alley as I love ghosts, graveyards, etc. This one, though, I swear I will read--and soon.
6. Freddy and Frederick by Mark Helprin. Bought this at a used bookstore for one dollar. According to the jacket flap, it's a funny allegory about fictional members of the British royal family. But it's more than 500 pages long!
7. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Another one I've had for years. I think I started it once, then put it down. Maybe I'll watch the movie.
8. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. I know, I know; it's a classic. But I'm not a fan of Henry James. This novel is supposed to be one of his more accessible ones. I started it, but it was a snore. Sorry, Henry James fans.
9. Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt. Everyone has read this memoir, even people who are not particularly bookish. Except me. I know I would like it, too. So why does it remain unread? I think because when everyone was busy reading it, I wasn't. Now it feels like I missed the bus.
10. Atonement and Saturday by Ian McEwan. Yes, not one, but two of his novels sit on my shelf, unread. Both books have interesting subjects and good reviews. They just didn't click with me.

So there's my shameful list. What untouched books sit on your shelves? Confess!