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!