Archive for October, 2007

I can’t help it — I love the way that Pixie Stix Kids Pix showcases her booklists. How can I resist following up with my own version of this idea?

People who are already fully initiated in the kidlit world will not be surprised or intrigued by what they find here (eh, maybe not with the Steve Almond). But my readers who aren’t (and I think most of them fall in that category) will probably enjoy the list immensely. Mostly, this is my mental checklist — what do I like the best, again?

Without further ado, I present a list of my personal thirteen favorite books for Halloween — these are books I turn to again and again, and make for great reading aloud.


  1. The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything by Linda Williams — Ooooh, the ultimate big-group storytime read-aloud. Not too scary, but not wimpy, either; a perfect autumn confection of a downhome lady who knows how to outwit a troublesome visitor.
  2. Los Gatos Black on Halloween by Marisa Montes, illus. Yuni Morales — A Spanish/English romp. It’s hard to find bilingual books that aren’t . . um . . . lame, so most librarians I know were kissing this book when it came out. Yuni Morales’ luminous illustrations are perfectly eerie.
  3. Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich by Adam RexThe best book of monster poems, period. And you can take that to the bank.
  4. The Halloween Play by Felicia Bond — You may love or hate her If You Give a ___ a ___ books, but this lil’ number stands out for capturing the excitement of a school holiday celebration.
  5. The Widow’s Broom by Chris Van Allsburg — Yes, yes, another author with a love/hate relationship in the kidlitosphere. Hey, you may pooh-pooh The Polar Express or ho-hum The Wreck of the Zephyr, but I LOVE The Widow’s Broom. The tale of the wiley widow and the magical broom that lands on her doorsteep is perfect for reading to older elementary school kids, and the illustrations are big, simple, and glorious in black-and-white.
  6. Humbug Witch by Lorna Balian — I don’t know why, but a lot of librarians really love Lorna Balian, and I’m one of ’em. Humbug Witch concerns a witch removing her cackly clothes to reveal the girl hidden underneath: an outcome that will surprise nobody, but manages to be refreshingly adorable nonetheless.
  7. Scary, Scary Halloween Eve Bunting, illus. Jan Brett — Look! It’s a book illustrated by Jan Brett that doesn’t involve Scandinavian culture in some way! Okay, okay — sarcasm aside, this is a wonderful book for getting little kids over a fear of Halloween bumps-in-the-night and other general spooky stuff. And there’s cute kitties in it. Can’t go wrong with cute kitties.
  8. A Tiger Named Thomas Charlotte Zolotow, illus Diana Cain Bluthenthal — Zolotow is a master of the picture book story, and this book shows off her mad skills. The story of how Thomas uses his Halloween costume to find new friends incognito is pure genius.
  9. Halloween Countdown Jack Prelutsky, illus. Dan Yaccarino — This fun little poem is extracted from Prelutsky’s It’s Halloween, and I think it’s improved in the board book format. Yaccarino’s minimalist images show sprightly little ghosts making mischief in the most satisfyingly ordinary way. A great seasonal treat for toddlers.
  10. Moonlight the Halloween Cat Cynthia Rylant, illus. Melissa Sweet — This story, like a lot of Rylant’s books, is a bit slower-paced and dreamy than the others. Written from the cat’s perspective, it portrays classic Halloween scenes in a pastoral setting. Lovely for lap-reading.
  11. Revenge of the Witch: The Last Apprentice, Book One by Joseph Delaney — Oooooo, this story is PERFECT for reading out loud to middle schoolers — especially the part with the ghost in the Spook’s house — or wait, there’s the part with the witch in the pit — no! No, the part with the girl talking to the mirror is the creepiest! Oh, I can’t decide — go read it yourself and see why this is a soon-to-be-classic spooky book.
  12. Coraline by Neil Gaiman — Meanwhile, this book is pretty much already a classic spooky book. I’m not going to describe it to you, because doing so will make me have bad dreams. Seriously. And I don’t want that. Take that as you will.
  13. Candyfreak: a Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America by Steve Almond — I know, I know, it isn’t a children’s book, it’s adult non-fiction. But to me, this is what Halloween is really all about: the candy, the candy, the candy. Almond’s tales of his sweet-obsession are both hilarious and mouthwatering. I call it “candy porn.” Mmmmm. Candy porn. Mmmmm.

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Off-Topic Request

red57chevy.gifGood news: Brian, the kids, and I are leaving on a road trip this Saturday. Woot! Road trip of the East Coast! Five states in fifteen days! BOO-YAAAAH!

And as you may or may not know, road trips need — nay, require — two things:

1. An inside joke that develops during the road trip and which the people who went on the road trip repeat endlessly afterwards, making all of their friends who didn’t go on the road trip want to . . . kill . . . their, um, legs.

2. A killer mix of jammin’ tunes.

So, what I’m asking is: what should I put on the mix? What ONE song would you say is the best road trip song ever? The one song that epitomizes the open highway and endless skyway?

And keep in mind that I’m already putting “Born to Be Wild” on there.

And that I really hate “King of the Road.”

Don’t think — just do it, and I’ll post the results when I’m done creating the playlist.


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Good Sunday morning to you!  It’s time to sit back, relax, and feast your ol’ eyes on a few tidbits I have for you:

First off, here’s a video showing the making of Sandra Boynton’s latest book & music extravaganza, Blue Moo.  You know what’s funny?  Sandra Boynton looks EXACTLY as I’ve always imagined she does.

Next up, I’ve got another number from the Flight of the Conchords, that folk/funk/a capella/comedy duo from New Zealand that everyone enjoyed so much last week.  This clip is a Lord of the Rings parody, which seems so worn out at this point, but hey — if anybody has the right to mock Lord of the Rings, it’s New Zealanders, right?

Lastly, I have to confess that I really love looking at children’s video book reports on YouTube.  It’s the low-budget homemadeness that makes them charming.  This one looks like it had a bit of parental involvement, owing to its higher quality — they used a BLUESCREEN — but if there’s any book that deserves a classy video book report, it’s Captain Underpants, right?

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This is what came in for me at the library today.


Help me out, folks — which one do I read first?

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It’s late October. You know what that means? Time for a creepy poem. But first, some background:

It begins with a Dark Secret: when I was in high school, I was on the board of the school literary magazine, Out of the Blue. My junior year, we — miraculously — sold every single copy of our annual issue for two reasons, and two reason

s alone. First, my friend Brian Wagner — a talented artist and Dragonlance fanatic — drew all of these very cool pictures of knights and maidens and dragons and stuff that everybody loved. Secondly, my other friend William Aulson wrote the following poem, which was quoted so often and so frequently that I am going to just write it down from memory:


“Fluffy Bunny.”

Fluffy bunny, fluffy bunny

How I love my fluffy bunny!

His fuzzy ears, his cute little nose,

When I hug him, I laugh and glow!

Oh, joy! Oh, glee!

My fluffy bunny loves me!

Oh how sad, how terrible!

My little brother, that spawn of Satan

Just took my fluffy bunny and ate him!

Just like the frog he roasted tender

And the gerbil he chucked in the blender!

Oh depression, oh gloom!

Will I get another animal soon?

Cute puppy, cute puppy.

How I love my cute puppy!

Wow. I still love it as much now as I did then. Thanks, Bill.

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itskindofafunnystory.jpgHey, Ned Vizzini dropped by my library last night!  For an author visit!  And he has one of the best ways of presenting his novels of any YA author I’ve seen!

To wit: he holds one in each hand, then shoves them in front of the audience like a pair of pistols.  “Here are my books — BAM, son!”  Apparently, this is the way to go when spending time talking to inner-city high school groups.  It makes me want to create some sort of book-bandolier.

Anyway, Vizzini spoke before a very intimate group of teens and librarians and gave us the basic run-down on life, writing, et al.  For those of you who aren’t hip with Vizzini’s novels, go here.  As for the author talk, here’s the rundown:

  • How autobiographical is It’s Kind of a Funny Story?  Very — Vizzini suffered severe depression when faced with the pressure of writing his second novel.  Hospitalization for mental health is what he called our society’s “last taboo.”  But is it wrong to write about clinical depression with such humor?  Certainly not.  “We always gain power over things when we laugh at them.”
  • Regarding Teen Angst?  Naaah . . . “The world in which you can sell books of little vignettes doesn’t exist anymore because of blogs.”  Huh.  This made me feel guilty, even though I don’t write slice-‘o-life vignettes.
  • Will he write any more YA?  No — his current project is a novel for adults.  He feels it’s a “little disingenuous to write about high school when I’m so far removed from it.”  Huh.  He should talk to Aidan Chambers.
  • Where does he find the books he reads?  Book Mooch.  I had never heard of this, but now I see that it is awesome.  Go.  Go now.  New books for old!  Or rather, old books for old!  Sweet.
  • The last question of the session was from a teenage girl who asked what music Vizzini listens to.  The question seemed to exasperate him, since he doesn’t keep up with contemporary music, but he says that one band he likes to listen to is a punk group called Wanted Dead.  He says he bought their CD “from some guy wandering around the WARP Tour.”  After looking them up myself, I have concluded that Wanted Dead is a band begging — nay, destined — to have a kitch-cult following.

That’s all, folks!

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everyoneknowswhatadragon.jpgby Jay Williams, illustrated by Mercer Mayer. Four Winds Press, 1976.

There are no unsung heroes like the authors of picture books. Yeah, yeah, I know that there have been efforts in recent years to honor the work of people who can do the much-harder-than-it-looks 32-page story , but let’s face it: in our world, it’s the people who make the pretty pictures that usually get the glory. So whenever I run across an accomplished picture book author who never quite made it big-time, I always like to make an effort to show off their books a bit.

Jay Williams is one of those authors. He authored a dozen or so picture books in the ’60s and ’70s, and not one of them won any major awards, so nearly all of them are out of print. But if you have the time to scour library and used bookstore shelves for Williams’ books, you’re going to be rewarded with little gems that you find yourself turning to again and again.

Take, for example, the forgotten book Everyone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like. It’s a “literary folktale” — a story that has all the earthy trappings of a folktale without actually coming from, ah, Folk. Set in Wu, an imaginary village in the mountains of Asia, it concerns Han the peasant boy, whose job it is to greet visitors to the city. When Wu is under threat of invasion by wild horsemen, its citizens pray for help from the Great Cloud Dragon. Answering these pleas comes a small, bearded, fat old man who claims that the dragon is himself.  “You don’t look like one,” replies Han.  “How do you know?” replies the old man.  “Have you ever seen one?”  When the Mandarin and his advisers reject this logic, it is only the kindness and humility of Han that allows the old man to save Wu from invasion.

It may seem like a familiar story, but what makes it special is Williams’ luscious words and characters.  Han isn’t just your regular poor-but-cheerful peasant, but “everyone who went in or out of the city had a merry word from him, for that was all he had to give.”  A dragon is described as “rich and splendid . . . as comfortable as a pocketful of money.”  Best of all, the dialogue between the city Mandarin and his staff begs to be read aloud — it’s a bout of bickering that is beyond chuckle-worthy.  You’ll be guessing the end of the story before it’s halfway done, but like all good journeys, it’s the getting there that’s the most fun.  I’ve read few picture books that end as gracefully and satisfyingly as this one.

Although I really want to highlight William’s work in this review, it really wouldn’t be fair to finish without lavishing praise on Mercer Mayer’s gorgeous watercolor-and-ink illustrations.  Mayer is probably best known for his “Little Critter” series of picture books and for his work for John Fitzgerald’s Great Brain series.  His work here is brimming with rich detail — Mayer is a master at drawing knobby faces and pudgy cheeks, coaxing out the comic natures of the characters without making them look too silly.  The backgrounds spill over with jewels, tiles, flowered carpets and knickknacks, and it’s wonderful to just sit and gaze at the pictures for long periods of time, looking for details you missed before.

Williams was writing “fractured” fairy tales long before it was fashionable to do so; his other books include Petronella and The Practical Princess, both of which turn up occasionally in folktale anthologies.  If you’ve gone so far as to find these books, I’d also recommend The Silver Whistle and Stupid Marco.  All of them are delightful trips into whimsy — a fairy tale world that is comfortingly familiar, but unpredictable enough to keep you on your toes.

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Can you guess what this is supposed to be?


It’s sooo cute, eh?  The slightly insane part of my mind really wants one.  Go here to find the answer.

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Yes, yes — I’m lifting this idea directly from Betsy Bird’s A Fuse #8 Production, but it’s such a good idea, and I’m always up for a blog posting that doesn’t require me to come up with original content in any way. Besides, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? Right?

First up is a beautiful children’s puppet show from Lotte Reiniger. Never heard of her? She was a shadow puppet artist and pioneering animator back in the 20s and 30s. Even though Disney would have you believe otherwise, her lovely Adventures of Prince Achmed was truly the first full-length animated feature (and it’s recently been released on DVD, so go check it out). When I was in college, I found her books on shadow puppetry and read them cover to cover — they were fascinating. Almost all of her films were adaptations of folktales — this one’s from 18th-century England.

Here’s “Jack and the Beanstalk” — in TECHNICOLOR!

And go here if you’d like to learn more about this fascinating artist.

Next, up an animated version of Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies. The animation is crude, but silly enough that it works. Thanks to A Blog of Bosh for the link.

And this has nothing to do with children’s literature, but I think this happens to be the best song about office supplies and world peace ever written:

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fallfestival3.jpgOnce a year, a conglomerate of children’s literacy-type people (librarians, teachers, museum workers, etc.) from the Pittsburgh area put together a lovely one-day conference featuring a bevy of children’s authors and illustrators. This year’s get-together featured Sharon Flake, Brian Pinkney, and Katherine Ayers. Not bad, eh? I took notes throughout the day’s lectures and workshops. Here are the highlights:

sflake.jpgSharon Flake

  • What a classy lady! I don’t know if I’ve seen another author who manages to radiate warmth and humility the way Ms. Flake does. Even though she’s been a big author in the kidlit world for quite a few years now, she kept saying over and over again in her lectures how amazed she is that she is successful at what she does. It’s a “dream come true,” she said, but not from the success so much as the many opportunities she has to talk, laugh and hug children wherever she goes. Lucky lady.
  • As a child, Flake didn’t particularly enjoy reading or writing — she was a “reluctant reader,” a category she hadn’t ever heard of until she became popular. How fitting it is that her books are frequently used to entice reluctant readers to the joys of the written word, eh?skinimin.jpg
  • Last little bit: although I came to truly love Flake by the end of the day, the writing exercise she gave in her writing workshop is one of the most bizarre I’ve ever heard of. She broke the class into groups, then had each group imagine and list what they would do for children if they had $90,000 to spend. Then each group had to write a rap song about their list, and sing it for the whole class. Yeah, it was fun, but . . . whoo.

katherineayers.jpgKatherine Ayers

  • Ah, our Pittsburgh native! (Yeah, yeah — Sharon Flake is a Pittsburgher, too, but she isn’t from here, she’s from Philly, a fact that we forgave her for some time ago.) Ayers is most beloved ’round these parts for her historical novel Macaroni Boy, which is set in the Strip District of Pittsburgh. (Ahem. The Strip is not the town red-light district. It’s a group of warehouses and international import shops that run in a strip along the Allegheny River.)
  • What’s interesting is that the idea for Macaroni Boy was suggested to Ayers by her editor after watching a Rick Sebak documentary about the Strip District. (Sebak has produced many documentaries about Pittsburgh, hot dog stands, farmer’s markets, and the like for PBS). Ayers later met up with Sebak at a party while in the middle of writing the novel, and he immediately let her know about the Strip District’s Great Banana Explosion of 1936.macaroniboy.jpg
  • You heard me. Banana Explosion. Yes, it really happened. It was caused by gas in the ripening room of a fruit warehouse. It blew out all of the windows of an entire city block? And who could pass that kind of a story up? Lo, and behold — it’s in Macaroni Boy! (Haven’t read the book? Go put it on your to-be-read list, ASAP. It’s fun.)

bpinkney.jpgBrian Pinkney

  • What’s it like growing up with Jerry Pinkney for a dad? Full of self-confidence, apparently. Brian says that he never had any doubts that he wouldn’t be a successful artist, since he saw his dad painting every day, and it looked easy. Huh.
  • Pinkney had the guts to show us his first self-portrait, made when he was thirteen. Here it is (although the picture I took of it is darn grainy):


  • Ain’t it just groovy? I don’t know what I like better, the rhinestones on the jeans, or the “slow motion” lines around the left hand.
  • Speaking of kung fu, Pinkney’s a pretty accomplished tae kwon do enthusiast. Ever read Jo Jo’s Flying Side Kick? Well, Pinkney does a pretty mean flying side kick, himself. He showed us a picture of it, and I wasn’t able to capture it, but dude. It was hot. Pinkney hasn’t made the pantheon of Hot Men of Children’s Literature, but he certainly, certainly should.jojosflying.jpg
  • Oh yeah, and there was something in his talk about illustration, the scratchboard process, and working with his wife, Andrea Davis Pinkney. But I can’t seem to remember what it was after the blinding coolness of the flying sidekick.

That’s all for tonight, folks!  Thanks for staying tuned!

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