Saturday, November 26, 2011

Picture Book Month: Good Night Gorilla

Today's Picture Book Month theme is "zoo," and how can I not talk about Good Night Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann?

Image courtesy of Putnam

This book has 38 words. And most of them are either "good" or "night." Like good comic strips, it tells the story primarily through pictures of a gorilla who gets out of his cage at night and sets other animals free unbeknownst to the zookeeper.

While I liked this book as a kid, I'm highlighting it here today because this is one of my niece's favorite books. She's almost two, and she knows how to say most of the animals' names now ("gorilla" was a tough one, but she got it). I think her favorite page, however, is the blacked-out room where you see all the eyes. She shouts, "EYE!" whenever we get to that part.

This is also my last post for Picture Book Month, because I'm Colorado hitting the slopes and spending time with the family. Thanks for joining me in celebrating some of my favorite books of all time!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Picture Book Month: Corduroy

Today's Picture Book Month theme is "friendship," and one of my favorite books on the subject is Corduroy by Don Freeman.

Image courtesy of Viking

I love this story. Not because it's about a cute toy bear looking for a button, but because it's about a cute bear looking for a home. He's sort of like an orphan child hoping to get adopted. But there's nothing he can really do to make himself  more appealing. It's beyond his capability. What I like is that it's not his efforts that finally fulfill his hopes in the end, but it was the little girl who found him in the beginning and liked him just as he was, enough to come back, spend all the money she had, and take him home.

Best line in my opinion? "'You must be a friend,' said Corduroy. 'I've always wanted a friend.'"

Sometimes, the place we long to be most is not somewhere we can get to on our own, but is only  possible because someone, with the means and compassion, wants to bring us there.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Picture Book Month: Amelia Bedelia

For today's Picture Book Month theme on "cooking/food," I'm serving up some Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish and illustrated by Fritz Siebel.

Image courtesy of HarperCollins
I work in communications, and there's a joke that goes that the people who are the worse communicators are the ones who work in communications. This book is certainly a classic example of how we can misinterpret meanings and intentions.

But the thing I remember most about this book, and the reason why I chose it for today's theme, is Amelia's lemon meringue pie. People didn't make pie in my family, when I was growing up. In fact, when I was a kid, my first exposure to "pie" was the little rectangle ones from McDonald's. When someone told me that pies were actually round, I didn't believe it. I really thought pies were rectangle and came in a box.

Well, I guess you can argue now that frozen pies at the grocery story come in boxes, too. And I actually don't like lemon meringue pie. It just happens to be what I remembered most from this book, I guess, because it was the one thing that Amelia got right.

I won't post tomorrow, since I'm going home to spend Thanksgiving with my family. So, I'll take this moment now to wish everyone a wonderful Thanksgiving Day!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Picture Book Month: Madeline

The theme for Picture Book Month today is "travel/world," so I'm looking at Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans.

Image courtesy of Viking
With my family being from Vietnam and one of my uncles actually living in Paris, French stuff is not really unfamiliar to me, even though I have yet to visit France (but I will!). I actually used to have a set of old comic books my uncle had given to my brother (before they ended up with me) that were in French. Sadly, I don't have them anymore.

But I did enjoy listening to my teacher read about Madeline and her adventures. It's one of the few rhyming picture books not written by Dr. Seuss that I like. And it was fun to get to learn about the different Parisian landmarks through Bemelmans drawings. I imagine that the real city is much noisier and dirtier, but at least in the book, it's whimsical and nice.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Picture Book Month: Caps for Sale

Today's Picture Book Month theme is on "monkeys," so I'm looking at Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina.

Image courtesy of HarperCollins

It's a fun little story about a peddler selling caps. When he decides to take a nap, all his caps are taken by a bunch of monkeys in a tree. I like how the artwork is rather flat and simple, which fits the simplistic style of the words. So, it was almost no surprise when I later learned that Slobodkina was an abstract artist.

I realize now that monkeys in the sort of European countryside setting doesn't make much sense, but when my teacher read it to us in elementary school, it made perfect sense. Just like the alligator who ate homework.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Picture Book Month: The Legend of the Blue Bonnet

Next up for Picture Book Month is The Legend of the Bluebonnet by Tomie DePaolo.

Image courtesy of Paperstar

One thing I love about my home state is that we aren't short on legends and tales. Before my teacher had read this book to my class, I didn't even know there were such things as state flowers, or that ours was the beautiful bluebonnet.

I love this story because it's about the bravery of one girl willing to sacrifice something very dear to her for the good of her people. As a I kid, I recall being rather selfish with just about everything (I'm the youngest). So, the story of what this girl did really got my attention. I don't think I necessarily changed my selfish ways immediately, but that was the part of the story that stuck with me for ages.

I still see the bluebonnets bloom in the spring, and they are not any less beautiful. But I would be lying if I said I didn't think of this book whenever I see them.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Picture Book Month: Henny Penny

Today's theme for Picture Book Month is "farm," so I'm looking at Henny Penny by Paul Galdone.

Image courtesy of Sandpiper
This was a book that I recall asking my mom read to me before bed several times. I had liked (and still do!) all the animals' rhyming names, like "Ducky Lucky," "Turkey Lurkey," etc. "Henny Penny" also made more sense than "Chicken Little" because, you know, it doesn't rhyme. Which is why I was really glad when Scieska used "Chicken Licken" in The Stinky Cheese Man. But I digress.

In the spirit of the old school folktales, I liked this story because it didn't have a happy ending, but it had a good one. Of course I love happy endings, but I don't always appreciate them if the ending doesn't fit with the story. And the lesson I learned from my mom reading this book to me was not to jump to conclusions so quickly, because you never know what trouble it will get you and your friends into.

Also, don't trust "foxes." Ever.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Picture Book Month: Miss Nelson Is Missing!

Next up for Picture Book Month is Miss Nelson Is Missing! by Harry Allard and illustrated James Marshall.

Image courtesy of Houghton Mifflin

I'm pretty sure that my teacher read this book to my class so that we would appreciate her more. I don't think it worked. At least not for me. I mean, I wasn't a bad kid, so it's not like I ever gave my teacher trouble.

Anyway, I love the cleverness of how this book was put together. It never explicitly says that Miss Nelson and Viola Swamp are the same person, but the hint of the black dress and other costuming things in Miss Nelson's closet at the end told the whole story, giving that "Aha!" moment. And there's nothing like that moment of realization that really makes a reader (or viewer of a television show, movie, or play) a part of the story itself.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Picture Book Month: Paul Bunyan

Onward with Picture Book Month! Next up is Paul Bunyan by Steven Kellogg.

Image courtesy of HarperCollins

Today's theme is about the jungle, but I figured North America was a pretty wild place before settlers came through and tried to tame the land. The story goes that a giant of a man named Paul Bunyan cleared out the Midwest, made the Great Lakes, and carved out the Grand Canyon pretty much on his own. My teacher explained to us what a "tall tale" was, and when I later learned about Greek mythology, I thought of them as Greek tall tales. She also read this story to us with more of her Texas accent coming through, and that was rather fitting.

I love the detail of Steven Kellogg's illustrations in this book. There's so much activity, and the expressions on some of the characters' faces are rather priceless. Oh, and of course Babe is about the most adorably large blue ox in the world.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Picture Book Month: Knots in a Counting Rope

For Picture Book Month today, I'm highlighting the book Knots in a Counting Rope by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault and illustrated by Ted Rand.

Image courtesy of Henry Holt

It's the story of a grandfather telling a story to his grandson, who is blind. And to be honest, I'm not very moved by the story of how the boy was born or how he was named and such. I'm not even that interested in the artwork.

The one thing that I love in this book is how the grandfather explains the color "blue," how it is felt just as much as it is seen. I like a similar instance in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where the children hear of Aslan (without meeting him) and his name feels "like the first signs of spring, like good news." Storytelling like this is taking something ordinary (or in Aslan's case, unknown) and making it more than just words or pictures on a page.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Picture Book Month: Perfect the Pig

Next up for Picture Book Month is Perfect the Pig by Susan Jeschke.

Image courtesy of Scholastic

I ain't gonna lie. I wanted a cute flying pig after my teacher read this story to my class. And I was sad when I learned that flying pigs weren't real. And that the neither were Care Bears. Also, I liked this book because Olive looks like one of my aunts.

What else can  say? It's a perfect little book, and that's why I have it in my personal library.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Picture Book Month: Gregory the Terrible Eater

Onward with Picture Book Month. So, I don't have a favorite picture book that features dragons. Lots of books I like have dragons, but not picture ones. So, diverting from today's theme on dragons, I'm going to highlight another animal that probably eats like a dragon: Gregory the Terrible Eater.

Image courtesy of Simon & Schuster
I really related to this book as a kid because I was a picky eater. I still sorta am, but not nearly as much as I was when I was young.

Also, I didn't know what a goat was. I knew what cows and chickens and dogs and cats were in kindergarten, but goats were totally new to me. And imagine my surprise when I learned later that they really do eat just about anything.

So, when my teacher read this story to my class, I didn't get it at first, because I thought goats ate normal things. So, I actually thought Gregory's parents were messed up, since they were eating things like coats and newspapers and such. But then, I think it was my brother who set me straight on the dietary habits of goats.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Picture Book Month: The Rough-Face Girl

I know. The theme for today is pirates. But since I don't have any favorite picture books with pirates, I'm going to look at something different. Next up for Picture Book Month is The Rough-Face Girl by Rafe Martin and David Shannon.

Image courtesy of Putnam

Basically, this is Cinderella's story but with a Native American flare. But unlike Cinderella, the Rough-Face Girl was accepted by the Invisible Being while she was still ugly, not while she was masquerading as something else. Only when she had passed the test did her appearance match the beauty that was already in her soul. And that's what I liked about this book. After all, being a girl growing up in a culture like ours where strangers place such value on appearance, it was cool to be reminded that the people who matter will see us for who we really are, not just what we look like.

I also love David Shannon's artwork, especially how he made the Invisible Being "look."  The style in the book is almost reminiscent of Chris Van Allsburg's, whose The Polar Express is among my favorites.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Picture Book Month: Sam, Bangs & Moonshine

Next up for Picture Book Month is Sam, Bangs & Moonshine by Evaline Ness.

Image courtesy of Henry Holt

I have to admit that I was irritated with Sam when my teacher first read this book to us. What an incessant little liar! I told myself that I would never tell a lie. Which was a lie. But in my defense, I had never lied about anything serious enough to get a naive little boy like Thomas into trouble.

I like the "messiness" of Ness' illustrations, and the fact that she told a story using only about three to four colors of varying shades. It works with the flavor of the story. I've seen other books try to pull this same sort of style off, but it just doesn't work quite the same way.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Picture Book Month: The Stinky Cheese Man

Next up for Picture Book Month is The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Lane Smith.

Image courtesy of Viking

This sorta goes along with today's theme, which is chickens. I mean, it's not strictly about chickens, but at least it has the story of Chicken Licken in it.

I actually didn't learn about this book until a couple years ago. It came out in 1992, and by then I was in third grade and we were already reading chapter books. No more story time in the library--which sucked--and in a couple short years, no more recess--which majorly sucked.

Anyway, I was already familiar with Scieska and Smith from The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! That book was brilliant and I couldn't imagine anything topping that until my co-worker introduced me to Stinky Cheese Man.

I adore all the fairly stupid tales in this book. But this is really a great example of how the art works with the words to tell the story. And having Jack as the narrator and the red hen as recurring characters throughout the tales gave an already humorous book a nice added touch of silliness.

Plus, I got to meet Jon Scieska at the 2010 SCBWI conference in Los Angeles, and he signed my copy of Stinky Cheese Man. That was a very happy moment.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Picture Book Month: There's a Nightmare in My Closet

Image courtesy of Puffin

For those of you following Picture Book Month, you may have noticed that I'm not necessarily going along with the themes on the calendar. Yesterday was sort of a pleasant coincidence, with the theme being gardens/gardening and the book I highlighted was The Tale of Peter Rabbit. I'm just going by some of my favorite picture books in general.

With that said, even though the theme for today is mice, I've decided to look at There's a Nightmare in My Closet by Mercer Mayer today.

I had a pretty active imagination as a kid, and I can't really say that it's subsided now that I'm an adult. Which is probably why I write books for children.

Naturally, I thought monsters lived in my closet. And under my bed. And pretty much everywhere, and I was convinced that they would attack me if I let any extremity lay uncovered while I was trying to fall asleep. Sort of like letting your bleeding leg hang off the boat in shark infested waters.

So, when our elementary school library read this to my class one day, I was like, "OMG! This is so for me!" I think after hearing her read this, I wasn't so afraid of monsters in my closet anymore.

Under the bed, however, was another story.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Picture Book Month: The Tale of Peter Rabbit

Image courtesy of F. Warne & Co.

And we continue with Picture Book Month.

When I was very young, one of the first little books I owned was The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter. And it really was "little," about a three or four inches square. It came in a set of other little board books that included The Tale of Benjamin Bunny and a few others I can't recall. I don't remember what happened to that little set of books, so I forgot about them until I saw the movie Miss Potter, which starred Rene Zellweger and Obi-Wan Kenobi. I went out and bought the whole set after wards.

I went through some kind of bunny phase when I was little, so much so that my parents actually bought my brother and me a real bunny. She was really cute, but she pooped everywhere, and we didn't know that you could housebreak a rabbit, so she had to stay in her cage a lot. Then, not long after my parents split and we moved, she was stolen. I was really sad about that.

Anyway, I really liked this book because, well, it was about a bunny. And bunnies were awesome. But I did really love Beatrix Potter's artwork. Even in her later books, where the story gets convoluted at times, her animals are so adorable that it doesn't really matter to me. The bunnies are still cute.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Picture Book Month: The Little Engine that Could

Image courtesy of Grosset and Dunlap

Next up on for Picture Book Month is The Little Engine that Could. The story appeared early in the 1900s, but the book was published by Watty Piper, which was a pen name for Arnold Munk. I think one of my elementary school teachers read this book with us in class. And I recall she had us all say with her "I think I can, I think I can" whenever she got to the parts where the Little Engine said that line.

I also recall resenting the Shiny New Engine and the Big Strong Engine when they refused to take the toys over the hill because they deemed that the children receiving them were not important enough to help. (I let the Rusty Old Engine off the hook, because he really was quite pitiful.) Clearly, these guys had their priorities all jacked up.

So naturally, I cheered, with the rest of the my class, for the kind Little Engine that had the guts to take on the task AND got the job done. (Of course, I always did wonder what happened to the little red engine that originally was hauling the toys.) I think I really did also learn from this to try my best at things, even if the results weren't always in my favor.

I didn't own this book as a kid, but I bought it later when I became an adult. I didn't appreciate the vintage artwork then as I do now. And every time I look at this book on my shelf, I still hear my class and my teacher saying in unison, "I think I can, I think I can..."

Monday, November 7, 2011

Picture Book Month: The Polar Express

In honor of November being Picture Book Month, I'm posting about different stories that I really liked when I was a kid. First up is The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg.

Image Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
This is, sadly, one of only a handful of picture books from my childhood that I still have. I had more growing up, but they either fell apart and had to be thrown away, were given away, or were sold at a garage sale.

Like most of my picture books, I learned first about The Polar Express because our elementary school librarian read it to us. I begged my mom to buy it for me. (I had actually begged her to buy me lots of books when I was little, but being a single mother with a meager disposable income, she couldn't always do it. For all the books I didn't get, however, I'm glad she got me this one.)

I love this book for so many reasons. Van Allsburg's artwork is undeniably beautiful, and each picture in the book could be its own poster, I think. The writing is also rich and lovely, with great lines like, "We drank hot cocoa as thick and rich as melted chocolate bars."

What I love most, however, is the fact that the nameless narrator chose to believe in Santa, despite what his friend said, and he was rewarded for his faithfulness with an amazing experience that then became an unforgettable memory.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

On Writing: The First Line

I attended a children's book conference for writers and artists in early October. I had a great time seeing some of my bookish friends again and meeting some lovely new people, plus I was able to sell five copies of Seranfyll. (I know that's not much, but hey, I'm celebrating.)

During one of the talks, an editor from a Big 6 publisher read the first lines from some books she'd edited over the years. She said that in some cases, a book's first line is a big deal because it's the book's "first impression." Granted, the cover may actually be the first thing that readers see, and that first impression is massively important. However, the first line is the reader's first exposure to the writing itself. And it's the writing, not the cover, that keeps the reader reading.

After the conference was over, I browsed through my home library and tried to see what it was about the first lines of certain books that worked for me. Since I read mostly fiction books for young readers and I write fiction books for young readers, I'm obviously going to focus on fiction books for young readers. Writers for the adult market, however, may be able to glean something useful as well.

Here are a few examples (not necessarily in any order) of what I think are great first lines:

"All children, except one, grow up."

From Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

This first line is only six words long, and yet it says so much. For children especially, growing up is a big deal, but what is this? There's one who doesn't? Doesn't that make you want to find out more about this mysterious child who doesn't grow up and, therefore, never dies? Naturally, I have to keep reading to find out more. 


From Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones

This is another short line that says a lot. There's a witch in the class? Who can it be? Actually, I don't even know who's in the class yet, so I guess I need to keep reading to find out what's going on. But I should note that this is not one of my favorite books. While I enjoyed the story and the imagination behind it, there were some things in the writing that I thought could've been done better. Just my opinion, so please don't flog me, DWJ fans.

"Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much."

From Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling

I know it's difficult, but let's suspend for a moment the reality that this is the first line that eventually led to billions of dollars in book sales, movies, and a theme park. In this example, we actually have a name of not just one, but two, characters: Mr. and Mrs. Dursley. And if the book says that they think they're normal, you know straight away that they aren't. And the "thank you very much" bit makes me immediately think, "Oh really? Well, we'll just see about that now, won't we?"

"When my brother Fish turned thirteen, we moved to the deepest part of inland because of the hurricane and, of course, the fact that he'd caused it."

From Savvy by Ingrid Law

A first line like that, I think, is certainly worthy of a Newbery Honor. Like the last example, we have the name of a character, but we also have a motive for the setting and conflict. Fish caused a hurricane, and apparently it was enough to warrant a family to move. Why wouldn't you want to keep reading?

The argument can be made, however, that not all great books have great first lines, which the editor at the conference did say. Luckily, readers of fiction tend to be a patient bunch (the operative words being "tend to be"), and many will read more before putting a book down (I usually will read about a third to the halfway point before I decide whether a book is worth continuing or not). But still, something pretty spectacular needs to happen before then to keep us going to the very end.

Here are examples of not-so-great first lines to, what I think, are otherwise very well-done books:

"Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy."

From The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

This is my favorite book, but this isn't my favorite first line. Yes, we are introduced to four characters, but we don't know anything else about them other than their names. Well, and the fact that they are all children. Unlike in the first line in Peter Pan, we don't know that they don't grow up. Or that one of them once caused a hurricane, like in Savvy. But it didn't make me stop reading, and by the time I got to the line were Peter says, "This is going to be perfectly splendid. That old chap [meaning the professor] will let us do anything we like," I knew I wanted to keep going. After all, four children in a large house in the country are bound to get into some kind of mischief.

"The tired old carriage, pulled by two tired old horses, rumbled onto the wharf, its creaky wheels bumpety-bumping on the uneven planks, waking Peter from his restless slumber."

From Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

This isn't very spectacular. Yes, we know the name of the main character, and yes we know he's going somewhere in a carriage. But I'm just not that interested, or I just don't really care that Peter is going somewhere in a carriage. I do start getting involved, however, in the next paragraph with, "If Peter was nine, and a new boy came to St. Norbert's Home for Wayward Boys who said he was ten, why, then, Peter would declare himself to be eleven. Also, he could spit the farthest. That made him the undisputed leader." These couple of sentences, I think, are reminiscent of the Harry Potter example mentioned previously.

"When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold."

From The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

This is another example of a non-spectacular line. It's a pretty boring line, really. Actually, the first few paragraphs bored me until the line, "My father knew and he taught me [how to hunt] some before he was blown to bits in a mine explosion." But the previous paragraphs were necessary for world-building purposes and to set the somber tone of the book, so in the grand scheme of things, it works.

"Rain collapsed onto the straw mattress, wiping her tear-soaked eyes on her apron."

From Seranfyll by Yours Truly

Sure, it's a shameless plug. But I promise it has relevance in this case. To be honest, I hate this first line. And I wrote it. It will not hurt my feelings if you agree with me on this point. But in my defense, it was the best way I could think of to set up this scene in order to convey a) the name of the main character, b) her emotional state, c) the time period with the straw mattress and apron, and d) the gravity in tone. Believe me when I say that I tried many different first lines, and this was sadly the best of the lot. Whether or not the rest of the book is good enough to justify this first line is a matter that I will leave up to readers.

(Image courtesy of Charles M. Schultz.)