Thursday, August 23, 2012

Book Bok! Busy Chickens, by John Schindel and Steven Holt

Given my well established chickenophile status, it is no surprise that I have fallen hard for a board book called Busy Chickens. I am entirely smitten. Author John Schindel describes these "busy, busy chickens" in rhyming couplets that use evocative action words like "grooming" and "zooming," "peaking" and "sneaking," and "sniffing" and "squishing." These fun descriptions give the chickens in the book character and agency without anthropomorphizing them and taking away their chicken-ness.

The text is paired with some of the most beautiful, effective chicken photography I've seen. Steven Holt's subjects are magnificent and incredibly varied. From multi-colored fluffy chicks, to exquisite traditional-looking hens and roosters, to birds with such outlandish plumage you can hardly believe they were not conceived of by Jim Henson. Holt photographs them doing the things chicken do, often capturing them in motion. And these chickens are remarkably in motion! No over-crowded coops in this book.

The book design is also very strong. The gorgeous, close-up photos bleed off each page. The minimal text is printed in a thick, strong font with playful angles and dots over the i's that look like chicken beaks! The font changes color to complement the background and keep the words easy to read, and occasional visual elements in the typography reflect the action described on the page - a slightly larger "w" in "squawking," the word "leaping" placed higher on the page than the preceding word "chicken."

Busy Chickens is one of a series called Busy Books from Tricycle Press, all by John Schindel. Busy Penguins is next on my list. While I'm confident that the other titles in the series are also excellent, something tells me none of them will capture my heart quite like Busy Chickens.  

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Book Bok! The Missing Chick, by Valeri Gorbachev

I was catching up on my Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast reading earlier this week, and came across an interview Jules did with author/illustrator Valeri Gorbachev at the end of March. The interview features abundant illustrations from quite a few of Gorbachev's picturebooks, including one I hadn't seen before, The Missing Chick. I had been searching for a way to return to Chicken Lit after a momentum-depleting absence, and I knew right away that The Missing Chick was my fluffy, yellow ticket back to my blog.

Mother Hen is happily hanging out the laundry with her brood when Mrs. Duck comes along and notices that one of Mother Hen's seven chicks in nowhere to be seen. A frantic, extensive search begins. Just as everyone is beginning to despair of ever finding the little lost chick, Mrs. Duck spots him nestled in the laundry basket, having just woken up from a nap. There is much jubilation and relief all around, and Mother Hen basks in the pleasure of things being back to normal. But... the last page of the story lets the reader know that this mama shouldn't get too relaxed, because that little chick just can't resist napping in hidden places.

There are so many irresistible things about this book, and I don't mean just its many adorable chickens. The first irresistible thing is the way the illustrations and text work together to invite young readers to count those cute little chicks. It's like a siren song for preschool children. Next on the irresistible list is the priceless image of the six non-missing chicks perched on their mother's ample backside as she looks under the table for their lost sibling. The clustered chicks are illustrated so perfectly that you can practically hear the chorus of their chirping. Perhaps at the top of the list, though, is the arrival of the community helpers, which is so clearly written expressly to delight and excite Gorbachev's young readers. When the police arrive there are a whole pack of uniformed officers, a tiny detective dressed like Columbo, cars with lots of flashing orange lights, and plenty of walkie talkies. When the firefighters arrive they come in "their big red truckwhich fills virtually the whole two page spread with its bigness and its redness. And then, as if that weren't enough to send preschoolers over the moon, a police helicopter shows up, just for good measure.

The Missing Chick is a lovingly and skillfully created crowd-pleaser. Its story is simple and satisfying, and its pictures are awash with sunlight and humor. I am thankful to this picturebook for its excellence as a book for 3 to 5-year-olds, and for its help getting me blogging again.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Book Bok! My Name Is Elizabeth! by Annika Dunklee and Matthew Forsythe

As soon as this new picturebook title arrived at our branch, Joyce, our Library Assistant 3 who processes the children's books and generally makes my life as a librarian possible, put it face-out on the processing shelves so that its cover would call out to me as I passed by. Not only is it entitled, My Name Is Elizabeth, but it also has a picture of a little girl peaking out from under a crown the size of the St. Peter's Basilica dome, with a wee, crown-sporting chicken perched on top. I kid you not. Well, ok, it turns out the chicken is really a duck, but at first glance I was thunderstruck.

My Name is Elizabeth is a debut picturebook for both author Annika Dunklee and illustrator Matthew Forsythe. It was named a NY Times Notable Book of the Year in 2011, and the word "perfect" seems to have been thrown around a lot in its reviews. I would agree that this story of a child standing up for her right to be called by her proper name is pretty near flawless. 

Elizabeth narrates this story emphatically, speaking loudly to the reader from her place at the center of the universe. This universe includes her Granddad, who seems to be her primary caretaker, a baby brother, and a pet duck. Elizabeth is very fond of her regal, nine-letter name, and sighs and cringes each time the well-intentioned people around her shorten it to “Lizzy” or “Liz” or (heaven forbid) “Betsy”. Only her steadfast duck companion seems to understand. In fact, when she finally reaches her limit and decides to harness her impressive powers of self-determination in defense of her name, she begins by taking her duck’s leash off, setting him free to stand side-by-side with her as she asserts her own freedom to be “Elizabeth”. It’s an exceedingly nice touch in a book filled with nice touches. Like the spread that shows “all the neat things” her mouth does when she says her own name. These six images include an illustration of her sitting in the sink while brushing her teeth, and one of her placing a crown on her duck’s head with her tongue between her teeth during the final “th” sound. This particular nice touch is also a funny, engaging way to invite a conversation with a child about the sounds letters make.

In the end, Elizabeth is rewarded for her assertiveness and moves happily through the world unfettered by constant cringing. She has made herself heard, and that’s what matters. Perfect diction, as it turns out, she can live without.

I love this book. Not surprisingly, I completely sympathize with Elizabeth, as will a multitude of readers who have had their names regularly dismantled and bungled up in one way or another. The illustrations are full of humor and nuanced characterization, and they are simply a pleasure to behold. For more of Forsythe’s work, look for his graphic novels, Ojingogo and Jinchalo.

My Name Is Elizabeth will be on the New Children’s Book shelves at the Charles Santore Library on Saturday, April 7th

Monday, April 2, 2012

Conversation with Mônica Carnesi

Elizabeth getting her copy of 
Little Dog Lost signed by Mônica 
at the Penguin Group booth at PLA 2012
Mônica Carnesi is one of my heroes. Her job as the children’s materials selector at the Free Library of Philadelphia makes me green with envy and boggles my mind. She is tasked with selecting children’s materials in ever-expanding formats with ever-shrinking resources for the 54 branches in our city’s library system, and I can attest to the fact that she accomplishes this task brilliantly. She is also a children’s book author/illustrator whose 2012 debut picturebook, Little Dog Lost (Nancy Paulsen Books | Penguin Group for Young Readers) is one of the most riveting, touching, curiosity-inspiring nonfiction books for very young children I have ever encountered. Reading it aloud to a child or group of children is so much fun, it’s addictive. I read it aloud a lot.

As if all that weren’t enough to make Mônica one of my heroes, she is also an incredibly warm, kind, generous co-worker and human who made time in her very busy author-with-a-new-book-out-and-a-full-time-job schedule to answer some questions for Chicken Lit.

Chicken Lit: What role has the library played in your development as a children’s book author/illustrator?

Playful cat
Mônica Carnesi: A very important role!  Libraries are critical for anyone interested in writing or illustrating children’s books.  The old advice that to become a writer or illustrator one must read, read, read is absolutely true, and libraries are amazing resources for the development of any writer/illustrator.  I’m constantly borrowing new children’s books, reading classics, and learning more and more about children’s literature thanks to my local library.

CL: Was the library a big part of your life growing up in Rio de Janeiro?

MC: Public libraries are not as widespread and well funded in Brazil as they are in the United States.  Still, I was fortunate to live close to one, Biblioteca – Bairro Botafogo, which I visited frequently to borrow books.  I also used the National Library (Biblioteca Nacional) located in downtown Rio in a beautiful neoclassical building.  Because the collection is non-circulating, I would read entire books in the reading room, returning repeatedly to finish them.  That’s how I first read White Fang by Jack London – right there at the library!

CL: I had the pleasure of being at the launch party for Little Dog Lost at Parkway Central Library on January 25th. There were a lot of young children there that day, and their exuberant reaction to the book left no doubt in my mind that it was going to be a major sensation (as it has been). Who were the children in the audience? What was the experience of that event like for you?

MC: Thank you so much for coming to the book launch, Elizabeth!  The children in the audience were kindergarten students at Russell Byers Charter School, and they were delightful.  There are moments in the book when I like to invite kids to read along with me, and the kids were so enthusiastic.  Afterwards, during the Q&A time, they had some wonderful and insightful questions.  That was my first time reading the book aloud to a large audience, and the experience was unforgettable.

CL: Before creating Little Dog Lost, had you long thought about writing a children’s picturebook? Do you have a long list of picturebook ideas that you’ve been collecting over the years?  

MC: Writing, illustrating and publishing a picture book has been a dream of mine for a very long time.  I tend to think visually, so I have a number of different stories, in different stages of development, sketched in loose papers and pads all over my home!

CL: What was it about Baltic’s story that made you want to turn it into a picturebook?

MC: Baltic's story is so exceptional. It's a tale of courage, resilience, compassion, and kindness.  And, it's an amazing survival story with all the elements of a great book: danger, drama, courage and a happy ending. I felt children would enjoy learning about Baltic and the incredible crew that saved him.

CL: Do you have another book in the works? (Oh, how I hope so!)

MC: I do!  It’s still in the very early stages, but I’m working on a second book, also to be published by Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin.   It will be great to work with the same amazing team of Little Dog Lost: my editor Nancy Paulsen, art director Cecilia Yung, and book designer Marikka Tamura.

CL: You’ve been a guest at the Reading to Dogs program at the Blackwell Regional Library in West Philadelphia, and I see that you and the therapy dogs will be there again on April 14th (National Library Week!). I have always thought that sounded like an incredible program. Can you tell us more about it and what it’s been like to be a part of?

Nap time in the park
MC: It’s a fantastic program!  The purpose of Reading to Dogs is to provide children with a relaxed and fun atmosphere to practice reading skills.  Dogs are the perfect partners for a child with difficulty reading – they listen in a totally nonjudgmental manner.  I’m a big fan of initiatives that bring animals and people together, and Reading to Dogs programs are becoming more and more popular, deservedly so.

Gus and Dandie, the dogs that participate in the program at the Blackwell Regional Library have been approved by Therapy Dogs International and were recently featured in great article by Philadelphia Neighborhoods. 

CL: You have been sharing artwork, book news, book recommendations, and great art/book links on your much-beloved blog since 2007. It seems as though you’ve made a lot of wonderful connections with other artists (and readers) through your blog. Is it true that blogging has been a powerful relationship-building medium for you?

MC: Absolutely!  Blogging is still my favorite form of social networking.  Through blogging I was able to meet artists and illustrators from all over the world.  It’s been a positive experience in many levels: artistically, socially and professionally.  Blogging is particularly useful for illustrators, who can use it to share and promote their work.  I haven’t been updating my blog as much as I used to, but I hope to get back to a more regular schedule in the near future.

CL: When did you start participating in Illustration Friday? Can you tell us about that project and the role it plays in your life as an illustrator and blogger?

Bouncing bunnies
MC: I began blogging in 2007 in order to start participating in Illustration Friday.  On its website, IF describes itself as “a weekly creative outlet/participatory art exhibit for illustrators and artists of all skill levels.”  It’s open to anyone interested in illustration, and it’s informal and very welcoming.  A different theme is proposed every week and it’s up to you to come up with an interpretation.  This seemed just what I needed to practice and challenge myself.  I started creating small pieces, experimental pieces, and even portfolio pieces.  I could see my artwork improving and evolving.  In fact, it is thanks to a blog post for IF that I published my first picture book.  A few weeks after I heard the story of Baltic, Illustration Friday proposed the theme “Adrift.”  I knew just what I wanted to draw: a little dog on an ice floe.  My agent, Teresa Kietlinski from Prospect Agency, saw the post and immediately encouraged me to write and illustrate a picture book based on Baltic’s tale. 

CL: Are chickens a thing you enjoy drawing? Do you have a chicken illustration you could share with Chicken Lit? Do you have a favorite chicken in children’s literature?

Chicken and little chicks sketch 
MC: I don’t normally draw chickens, but that’s certainly about to change:  I’d be happy to share a chicken illustration with Chicken Lit.  My favorite chicken in children’s literature is without question Minerva Louise.  What first attracted me to the character is the simplicity of the design – I love Janet Morgan Stoeke’s style!  But there’s also an innocence to Minerva Louise that is both endearing and funny.  What a wonderful book!

CL: Your chickens are pretty wonderful, too!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Here's a Little Chicken: Tilly and Friends, by Polly Dunbar

One of my favorite books on the planet is Here's a Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry, compiled by Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters, and illustrated by Polly Dunbar. I turn to this book again and again for preschool storytime selections and poems for very young children on Poem in Your Pocket Day (Thursday, April 26th, 2012) or, for that matter, any old day. While the poems are brilliantly selected by Yolen and Peters, it's the illustrations in this satisfyingly big, square, lush book that make me grin with glee and shake my head in awe. It's those Polly Dunbar illustrations that turn each poem into a perfect, delightful treasure for a young child.

So, I was already hooked on Polly Dunbar's work when library patron and children's book author/illustrator, Matt Phelan (see my recent interview with Matt here), recommended that I look into ordering books from Dunbar's Tilly and Friends series. I just got the first few and I am thrilled to be adding them to our collection. Each book in the 6-volume series begins with, "Tilly and her friends all live together in a little yellow house...," and when the reader turns the page, there is a picture of the yellow house with its multi-colored, multi-shaped windows, its striped front steps and checkerboard roof, and its bright red door with a heart above it. Tilly the girl and her friends Hector the pig, Tumpty the elephant, Tiptoe the bunny, Doodle the crocodile, and Pru the hen, are included in this opening house illustration, providing clues about, and setting the tone for, the story to come.

Each story is pitch-perfect, capturing the joys, interests, and anxieties of very young children and striking just the right balance between comforting sweetness and raucous silliness. In Where's Tumpty, Tilly's elephant friend tries to hide, as so many human 3-year-olds have done, by closing his eyes VERY tightly. When he finds that his friends can still see him he tries hiding under a box that fits him like a hat, behind a scrawny plant that looks like Charlie Brown's Christmas tree, and by turning himself upside down. Still, his friends can see him, and the harder he tries, the harder they laugh at his ridiculously unsuccessful efforts. But when he storms off amidst all that laughter, the friends really can't find him, and a they decide to search the house. Just as they are beginning to despair and consoling themselves with cookies, Tumpty pops up from behind the couch, is greeted with love and praise and joyful relief, and finishes the rest of the cookies surrounded by his true chums.

There is inspired visual humor throughout all the stories. One of my favorite examples is in the final two-page spread of Where's Tumpty when all of the friends have piled on the couch to express their love for Tumpty, and Pru the chicken is smooshed between Tumpty and Doodle, looking right out at the reader with a horrified expression on her heavily made-up face. Extra points 'cause she's a chicken.

    The other two titles I've added to the collection are Hello, Tilly and Happy Hector, both of which are splendid. I'm completely taken with the series, and plan to order the other three as soon as possible. An animated television series based on the books has been commissioned by the BBC's CBeebies, and is being produced as we speak by Ireland's JAM Media for a 2012 release. Check out the lovely trailer here.

Also written and illustrated by Polly Dunbar, and also another one of my favorite books on the planet, is Penguin, discussed beautifully here by Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Conversation with Matt Phelan

Blue chicken by Matt Phelan.
One of the reasons I was inspired to start Chicken Lit is that it creates a platform from which I can invite children’s book authors and illustrators to talk with me about what they do. It also gives me a formal medium for sharing news about these artists’ great work in the field of children’s literature.

From the start, I knew Matt Phelan would be the first author/illustrator I would invite to be interviewed for Chicken Lit. Matt is a patron of the branch where I am the children’s librarian, so I’ve had the good fortune to get to know him and his beautiful family over the last two-and-a-half years. He generously agreed to create the blog’s logo, and to be the subject of its inaugural author interview, so I am doubly (triply – wait until you see the illustrations he sent for inclusion!) grateful to him.

If you come to my library branch you will pretty much always see Matt Phelan’s historical fiction graphic novels on display: The Storm in the Barn (Candlewick Press, 2009) and Around the World (Candlewick Press, 2011). Matt has illustrated many books for children, including The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron (which won the Newbery in 2007) and, most recently, I’ll Be There, by Ann Stott (Candlewick Press, 2011).

Chicken Lit: What role does the public library play in your life as an illustrator, as a parent, as a human?

Matt Phelan: We live a block away from our branch (the Charles Santore branch, which is named after the father of the great illustrator Charles Santore) and I don’t think a week goes by that I don’t stop in at least once. I’m either with my daughter in the wonderful children’s room where I get to check out the latest picture books as well as the classics that I missed or need to revisit or I’m getting research material or just plain old good reading from the other sections. It’s friendly, cheerful and always bustling which is what a great community space should be. Also, the children’s librarian is one of the best in the business. [Thanks for saying so. Does my heart good to hear it.]

CL: Do you use the library specifically for researching your own work – looking at other illustrators’ work and researching the stories you write about?

MP: Absolutely. All the above. It is a vast resource, particularly for picture books both new and old.

CL: Your first graphic novel, The Storm in the Barn, came out in 2010 (and won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, among other honors). How has creating graphic novels changed your work as an illustrator?

MP: I’m not sure if it has changed my approach to illustrating, but it definitely has become something I’m known for and is now part of my identity as a book creator. It’s the medium I’m most comfortable using for longer stories, but it hasn’t replaced my interest in the picture book format or spot illustration work for novels. It’s simply another medium for telling a story. A long, complicated medium, but still a medium.

CL: What’s the latest update on the development of The Storm in the Barn as a live action feature film?! There are some amazing movie/TV folks attached to this project. How has the experience of advising on the project been for you? Has it been hard to let go of the book you created and let other people mess about with it?

MP: My involvement so far has just been a few encouraging conversations. The movie is in the very early stages of getting  a studio to sign on to the project. After that, the script gets written, etc, etc. It was not at all difficult for me to let go of the story. My version of The Storm in the Barn is the book. I did that book to the best of my ability at the time and it is the book I set out to write. Whatever happens, the book will always be the book. Also, I admire and trust the creative people behind the movie, so I know they will make the best movie they can make.

CL: Have you booked your trip to Portland, OR yet to catch opening night of the Oregon Children’s Theatre stage production of The Storm in the Barn? Can you tell us more about that amazing project?

MP: I could not be more excited about the play version. And for that, I’ve really not been involved at all except to give them my blessing. Chris Funk, the composer, sent me the demos and then the studio recordings of the score and it is just gorgeous. It is truly incredible to have artists from different fields create something new inspired by my work. I have indeed booked my trip to Portland for the opening. My entire family is coming along, too. It will be great. If you are in Portland, check it out.

CL: You’re doing a panel at PLA in March, Using Graphic Novels for Programming with Teens. Short of collaborating with the guitarist from The Decembrists to develop and stage a theatrical production with original music, what are some ways that your graphic novels have been used by educators to engage young people in learning?

MP: I’ve been very happy to learn from many teachers and librarians that Storm has been used quite a bit in classrooms as a way to talk about the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. It is such a fascinating time period and I think it’s wonderful that my book might be a way to introduce it to readers.

Study of Buster Keaton for the new book.
CL: What’s the next graphic novel about, and when does it come out?

MP: The next book is about summer, vaudeville, friendship, and the young Buster Keaton. This one is the closest to my heart of the three I’ve written. I’m painting the final art now and it’s planned for a fall 2013 release from the good folks at Candlewick Press.

CL: One of your books, Very Hairy Bear, written by Alice Schertle, was recently released as a boardbook, which was your first one, right? Did you end up happy with the way the book translated from picture book to board book format? Did the new format significantly change the feel of the book?

MP: I think the designers at Harcourt did a fantastic job with the boardbook version of Hairy Bear. It looks great. Of course, you lose the beautiful soft paper stock of the original, but on the plus side, you can chew on this one. I’m thrilled with it.

CL: You mentioned that you are currently illustrating a book featuring panda bears and that you and your daughter have been drawing panda bears together. Can we see some of your collaborations?

MP: Yes. I’m working on a picture book called Xander's Panda Party by the great Linda Sue Park. My daughter has been helping. This one was drawn by me, painted by Nora.
Panda collaboration.
CL: Thank you a million times over for creating the logo for Chicken Lit. I noticed a very lovely, very blue chicken hanging out on your May 3, 2010 blog post [see image at the top of this post]. Are chickens a thing you enjoy drawing? Do you have a favorite chicken in children’s literature?
The chickens of Rosa Farm.

MP: I don’t think I can choose a favorite chicken. Chickens are inherently funny. I did get to draw chickens for a novel by Liz Wu called Rosa Farm. It was a blast. I hope there are more chicken books in my future.

CL: Me, too.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Chicken Clips #1: Chicken Soup with Rice

This is the first installment in the Chicken Clips video series that will be an ongoing Chicken Lit project.  The videos will feature young children reading, singing, and interacting with books and the people they love to share them with. This inaugural Chicken Clip is of 3-year-old Harrison, his 1-year-old brother, Ethan, and their spectacular nanny, Shannon. Harrison used to come to story time every Tuesday morning, before starting preschool this year. He would come rolling in, smiling to beat the band, with stories and news and jokes to tell, making everyone around him smile, too. When we sang our closing song, Bell Horses, no one belted it out with as much gusto and enthusiasm as Mr. H. We really do miss his voice in the story time choir. These days, the torch has been passed to Ethan who just turned 1, has a smile that rivals his brother's, gleefully sits right up front with Shannon at baby story time, and is fast becoming the next book lover in the family. Here are the three of them in the Charles Santore Library's children's room performing their rendition of Chicken Soup with Rice (Harrison is the front man)