Friday, November 30, 2007

The Great Red Fox Calls Upon a Sausage and other kids' stories of questionable worth

If you're interested in the evolution of picture books from The Doings of the Alphabet to Where the Wild Things Are, you might want to mosey on over to Slate, and take a gander at the slide show that accompanies the article Where the Wild Things Came From: How Children's Books Evolved from Morals to Madcap Fun. My particular favourite ... the The Great Red Fox Calls Upon a Sausage (?).

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Writing History - John Wilson, GG's Award Finalist

I've been holding off on posting about John Wilson and his books until the results of the Governor General's awards were announced. John was short-listed with his book The Alchemist's Dream, but lost out to Iain Lawrence's Gemini Summer. (At least we kept it in BC - John lives in Lantzville and Iain down the road, and across the water, on Gabriola.)

I'm a big fan of John's historical fiction and most recently I've read Where Soldiers Lie. This book was short-listed for the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction. Where Soldiers Lie tells the story of 16-year-old Jack O'Hara around the time of the 1857 seige of Cawnpore by mutineers from the Indian Army. Jack originated from Canada West, but was farmed out to his aunt and uncle in India after his parents die of smallpox. As the story opens, Jack finds five chapattis on the verandah. He thinks this was a careless act of the servants, but, in fact, as he learns from his friend Hari, the chapattis are a declaration of war. What follows is a whirlwind of action as Jack, Hari, Alice (daughter of a general) and Tommy, a friend from the British army, are thrown into the trauma of the mutiny.

In many ways, this is a coming-of-age story with the seige of Cawnpore being the transformative event in young Jack's life. This "adventure" is short, but traumatic. Jack will never be the same after it ends. The story is violent and gory at times, but such is war. I feel that John strikes a great balance -- no doubt he had to water-down the actual reality of the tragic and bloody events, yet he still provides us with a realistic account of the chaos. It is as time very graphic and I think that's a good thing -- teen readers should be able to "take it." We are there with Jack and his friends, rooting for them all and hoping for their safety and the well-being of their loved ones.

Of particular interest is the connection between this story and the history of John's family. I won't spoil it -- read the book and you'll find out. Check out John's blog, too, there's lots of information on his books and a great essay on boys and reading, Eviscerating Noddy.

Ode to the Fact Checker

This is just too funny. It's the end of the day, take a 10 minute break and watch it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Chanda's Secrets

I saw Allan Stratton speak at at writer's event a few years ago, but it's taken me until recently to read Chanda's Secrets.

Chanda’s Secrets is set in a fictional country in sub-Saharan Africa. The book opens with our protagonist, 16-year-old Chanda, negotiating with the undertaker to prepare a burial and funeral for her 1 ½ -year old half-sister. Mama is despondent, leaving Chanda to make arrangements and care for her other half-siblings, a brother and a sister.

The family lives in the shantytown, but they haven’t always. They originally lived in the country, where life was pretty good. Then Chanda’s father and brothers were killed in a diamond mine accident and things got decidedly tougher. Chanda’s mother eventually re-marries three times. Chanda’s first step-father number one abused Chanda; #2 was kind, but died of a stroke; and #3, the current one, is an alcoholic philanderer. But…what the book is really about is HIV/AIDS in Africa and how, while the illness is startlingly common, it is unmentionable. Individuals and families are shunned if people in their family have the disease, yet everyone knows that almost every family is affected. HIV/AIDS is the big, white unmentionable elephant in the room that is Africa (or at least this fictional country in Africa, but we know this is the case in reality, too).

This story is narrated by Chanda, a bright, educated girl. She is fiercely devoted to and protective of her family and friends. We’re with her as she navigates through this misery, and ultimately — when HIV/AIDS hits close to home more than once — takes the prejudice surrounding the disease head on.

My 14-year-old daughter read this book as well. When asked, she said she didn't like it, but that was primarily because it was so sad. She did stay up all night to finish it though – she wanted to see how it ended and she did acknowledge she learned a lot and that the writing drew her in. She just wasn't ready for sad at that point in her reading life. Yes, it was sad, but, to Stratton’s credit, I didn’t walk away from it feeling despondent. I was angry at the injustice for many reasons, but I knew that our bright Chanda, and likely the family that remains in her care, is moving forward and that, one day, things are going to be better. To that end, we will soon find out as a sequel, Chanda's Wars, awaits.

This book has, most deservedly IMHO, won a whack of awards and honours. Stratton has prepared a teacher's guide for the book and you can listen to a podcast from NPR here.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Dealing with Rejection

I'm off to Campbell River today to be part of a panel with Melanie Jeffs of Orca Books on Editors and Editing. One of the most challenging things I've had to come to terms with in my role as an editor is writing rejection letters. I know, I know, it's much harder to read them, but it's hard to write them too. With this in mind, and in the spirit of our panel tomorrow, here's check out The 8 Rules of Rejection from Editorial Anonymous. My favourite rule: #6 Most rejection letters mean nothing. Nothing. (Except that you can cross the publisher/agent off your list.)

Stop What You're Doing...And Read a Book

As I mentioned the other day, there's been quite a discussion on The Writers' Union of Canada's listserv on the NEA report on falling literacy. Lots of interesting debate. Here's what one school is doing to keep kids reading books. This was posted by writer and teacher, Barbara Pelman, who is a teacher at Reynolds Secondary School in Victoria. (Quoted with permission):

My school, Reynolds, reads for 20 minutes every day, across the board, not just in English classes. The whole school shuts down to read. The vp's are "reading police" to herd kids on spares into the library. Our library take outs have increased over 200% since we began the program three years ago. When we tested the kids after two years, their grade point average went up a grade (yes it was a little test, with a little sampling, but it is something, and it is positive). We have authors in the schools 5 or 6 times a year, and poetry readings in the evenings. More of this is needed.

I've heard of similar programs -- everyone in the school, including the custodian, secretary, administration, support staff etc. stops to read. Other ideas?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Finally, a new book

In my experience, writers tend to be a curious mix of ego (or perhaps I should say self-confidence) and insecurity. This may explain why it's taken me months to post something about my latest book. Well, okay maybe it's not exactly MY book, but if you look between the large DAVID and SUZUKI on the cover of this book you'll see my name along with Amanda McConnell. Amanda worked on the first editions of this book with the good doctor and I assisted with this version, the third. I love the book -- a holistic look at our place on this planet -- there is lots of food for thought. It was a whirlwind experience, but a very good one.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Still more wishes...and more writers

There's been quite a bit of discussion on a few listservs about the new report I blogged about a few days ago. Some people feel we're focussing too much on books when we discuss reading -- there's a lot of other reading going on -- while others say that maybe we need to rejig the material we're presenting to kids, making things more relevant rather than relying on older "classics." (I have to say, I know that The Outsiders and The Giver are fine, fine books, but sheesh, how many fabulous books have been written since - and by Canadian writers, too? For novel study this year my daughter's grade 9 class read an Agatha Cristie novel. No excuse for that.

But, there are lots of ideas for action circulating too. Here's one that I love: Work with your local elementary school to have a small bookshelf full of books that kids can take home...forever if they want. So many kids have no, or very few, books of their own. Suggest that the books are donated by local people culling their children's bookshelves, or by cruising thrift shops where many the bargain can be snapped up. Of course, new books are welcome, too.

Here's another thing we do at home. We don't say grace as a matter of course in our family, but we did start to read a poem before dinner instead. Consequently, our shelf of poetry has grown to three shelves, and my kids hear the occasional (okay, we don't do it every night) poem outside of school (or my poorly realized attempts). And speaking of poems, check back here soon for an interview of the fabulous Tiffany Stone, "poetess extraordinaire" and author of two of our favourite silly poems books, Baaaad Animals and Floyd the Flamingo and his Flock of Friends.

In response to my list of wishes, I heard from Liam O'Donnell last week. Liam is the prolific author of many books including the Wild Ride graphic novels, the Max Finder series (OWL readers will recognize Max), and books in a very cool looking series of graphic non-fiction books by educational publisher Capstone Press. (I'll have to get my mitts on those titles for a peek. Knowing the world actually has a graphic "novel-style" book on photosynthesis warms my heart.) Liam is currently on a Book Week tour in Nunavut. Lucky duck. (And lucky kids, too.)

I also heard from Diane Haynes last week. Diane is the author of the Jane Ray Wildlife Rescue Series. Titles thus far include Flight or Flight and Crow Medicine. (A third is on it's way I believe -- watch for Gaia Wild sometime in the near future.) Diane is passionate about animals and her commitment comes through in these well-researched novels. I read Crow Medicine last year and remember clearly the passion of our heroine Jane Ray as she naviagates the tricky territory of crows (and their bad reputation; I love 'em though -- we even did an issue of KNOW on crows and ravens), West Nile virus, and fighting for the rights of animals and the survival of her beloved wildlife rehabilitation centre. Young readers looking for adventure stories with strong girls (who love animals) as central characters should give these books a read.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Even More Wishes and Endangered Books

Here's an idea from Cheryl: "The wish that I would add would be that people post a blurb, review, or interview about a Canadian children's author or illustrator or one of their books that they love. Help get the word out about good Canadian children's fiction. And it doesn't have to be this week. It can be any time throughout the year."

On that note, it's a happy day around here because I received the Fall issue of the Canadian Children's Book News and in it I found this little gem: "Friends and colleagues of the late Marion Seary have established a new award -- the Marion Seary Endangered Book Award. Marion Seary -- reader, bookseller, librarian and bestower of books on the young -- was a fierce advocate of excellent writing, beautiful illustrations and deep imagination in books for children. The Endangered Book Award will name wonderful books that are in danger of no longer receiving the readership they deserve."

Wouldn't you love to be remembered as a "bestower of books on the young?" Wonderful. The award "will recognize and honour five important children's books (for infants to age 12) that the committee feels should never go out of print, but which are not recognized as classics."

And speaking of The Canadian Children's Book News', its editor, Gillian O'Reilly, sent along kudos for my wish list. And kudos back to you m'dear for all you do. I have huge admiration for anyone who tackles a book on math like Gillian and Cora Lee just did with their The Great Number Rumble. (The book was reviewed in the most recent issue of YES Mag and received a score of 10 out of 10 from a young reviewer. The review also said: "This book is for two kinds of people: those who love math and those who don't.") And then there was her Slangalicious: Where We Got That Crazy Lingo, which I've yet to read, but I'll add it to the stack.

Monday, November 19, 2007

More Wishes

Thanks to the creative folk who responded to my "wishes" post the other day. Here are the words of wisdom from two Canadian creators. More tomorrow.

Author Nikki Tate suggested we "purchase a children's book by a Canadian author and donate it to a women's shelter in your community." Great idea, Nikki. If you live in BC or the Yukon, you might look for a transition house near you here. Nikki is currently on tour for Book Week in Saskatchewan. Check out Nikki's blog or website, with recent news and info. on her books, which include the Stablemates, Estorian Chronicles, and Tarragon Island series. Nikki has been in the news a little more than usual lately because of the controversy over one word in her book, Trouble on Tarragon Island. (And, no, the word wasn't scrotum, it was ... bazoongas!) Besides being a prolific writer and presenter, Nikki is also a bookseller at Bolen's Books, one of my favourite bookstores.

Illustrator Patricia Storms, with her characteristic wit and humour, suggests that in light of the dearth of good television at the moment (strike and all), we "post signs that read "Celebrate Canadian Children's Book Week!" on all the TV sets of all the people you know." Yes, I say, (although I think I might squeeze in Corner Gas) Or, you could check out Patricia's blog, Booklust, or one of her books, such as Good Granny/Bad Granny or 13 Ghosts of Halloween, all of which are also full of said characteristic wit and humour. Funny gal; great artist. Make sure you check out the description of the fabulous library that Patricia grew up with, or the one she has now. I covet both! And make sure you check out the hilarious promo by the author of Good Granny, Bad Granny, Mary McHugh.

Another Reason To Fill Your House With Books

No doubt by now you've heard the scuttlebutt about the lasted study correlating reading for pleasure and school performance to come out of the National Endowment for the Arts. The key findings are summarized at the blog The Monkey Speaks and at the NEA site, but this is the paragraph that really caught my eye, as reported by Motoko Rich at the New York Times:

In seeking to detail the consequences of a decline in reading, the study showed that reading appeared to correlate with other academic achievement. In examining the average 2005 math scores of 12th graders who lived in homes with fewer than 10 books, an analysis of federal Education Department statistics found that those students scored much lower than those who lived in homes with more than 100 books. Although some of those results could be attributed to income gaps, Mr. Iyengar noted that students who lived in homes with more than 100 books but whose parents only completed high school scored higher on math tests than those students whose parents held college degrees (and were therefore likely to earn higher incomes) but who lived in homes with fewer than 10 books.

I've heard about a similar study, which I can't put my finger on, and it somehow correlated lots of books in the home to better performance in school even if the kids weren't reading the books. If you know of that study/report please remind me of the source.

When I told my husband about the study this morning he wondered aloud what the results would be for a house with over a thousand books... I'll let you know the results of our informal test of that study in about 5 years or so.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Canadian Children's Book Week

Huzzah, huzzah, it's almost Book Week! In celebration of all things Canadian and bookish, I have a wish list. Pretty, pretty please, choose one of these things (or five!) to do in celebration.

[This is this year's fabulous Book Week poster, illustrated by Martin Springett. Used with permission.]

Wish #1: Go to your bookshelf (or your kids') and dust off a Canadian classic you've been wanting to re-read. You know, Jacob Two-Two, Jelly Belly, even Anne of Green Gables would make me happy. (I know, I know, "classic" is subjective. Make your own criteria and go for it.)

Wish #2: Send book from Wish #1 to a child you love. Or even one you don't love, or even one you don't know. Tell them, "Hey, a Canadian wrote this book, ya know? And I think you might just like it."

Wish #3: Find a Canadian author or illustrator you have never heard of and check out their bio and their books. The Canadian Children's Book Centre, The Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators and Performers (CANSCAIP), and, in BC, the Children's Writers and Illustrators of BC (CWILL-BC), have wonderful links to Canadian authors and illustrators.

Wish #4: Git yer tootsies over to your nearest bookstore and buy a brand spanking new book (or five) by a Canadian author and/or illustrator.

Wish #5: If you have a bookstore in your community or neighborhood with a great selection of Canadian books, take the owner a coffee or a cookie, wish them a happy Canadian Children's Book Week and give them a big hug or smooch or just shake their hand and say thanks.

Wish #6: If your local school actually has a librarian, give them a cookie too. Then write a letter to the provincial government, cc'd to the local School District, principal and newspaper explaining why oh why it's so very important to have librarians in each and every school who love children's books and want to share them with children and teachers and parents.

Wish #7: If you are a publsihed writer or illustrator, sit yourself down with a friend or relative who loves you, but just really doesn't get it, and explain how royalties mean that you are only getting 10 or 7 or 5 percent (or maybe less?) of the list price of a book and that authors actually have to buy their own books and that it's really not a great idea to be demanding books for less and less because, ya know, it hurts the author, the illustrator and the publisher too. And then ask them, pretty please, to tell two friends and ask them to tell two friends and so on and so on and so on. (Oh, and while I'm at it, tell them that photocopying your book and sharing it with all of their friends is NOT a good idea — yup, it happened to me — do it with a smile and give them a cookie.)

Wish #8: If, like me, you fritter away a good part of your early morning writing on your blog or reading other peoples' blogs or surfing the Internet when you could be doing something more virtuous like Ashtanga yoga or going for a long jog, do something useful and post a blurb that celebrates Canadian Children's Book Week.

Wish #9: As a gift for your favourite young person, start your own version of a Book of the Month club where, each month, you send them a book or two off your shelf, or from a second-hand (or, ideally of course, first hand) bookstore!

Wish #10: Repeat any of the above at any time -- make this year Canadian Children's Book Year.

(Okay, just one more. Tell me what you wish for Canadian Children's Book Week and send it to me here. I'll post it and link to your website or blog, too.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Sardines in Space

My lovely daughter, P, is somewhat of a reluctant reader. She's an enthusiastic listener, so I am not worried, but it warms my heart to see her sit on the couch and, on her own volition, become immersed in a book. My book antennae are on constant alert for new graphic novels to fire her way -- something other than BONE, please. So I was delighted to come across the Sardine in Outer Space series. There are four books in the series by French artists Emmanuel Guibert and Joann Sfar. I love these guys already for their quirky sense of humour and fun, fun books, and, um, they live in Paris and I wanna go. (Apparently they shared a studio space in Paris for many years and would alternate tasks in particular project -- one would write the other would illustrate on one project; on the next one, they'd switch. A talented duo for sure.)

Sardine is a little red-headed girl in a tall blue hat and matching blue gown. (Her black cat lives on the top of her hat, making it look as if the cat is the peak of a witchs'-type hat.) Sardine lives on the spaceship Huckleberry, which is piloted by her swashbuckling space pirate Uncle Yellow Shoulder. The trio is rounded out by Little Louie. In each book, there are 12 short stories, most of which involve battling the tyrant Supermuscleman and his evil sidekick, Doc Kroc. In the first story in volume 2 for instance, Uncle Yellow, Sardine and Louie are off to break into Supermuscleman's orphanage and free all of the kids the evil SMM is putting through his "obedience training," complete with a gigantic brainwashing machine. The kids who are dropped into the brainwashing machine don't go willingly of course, and shout out things such as "Supermusclman, you're a dirty bedpan" (to which SMM and Doc Kroc respond - DK: Ew....that one was particularly filthy. SMM: I'll press VERY DIRTY!) or "Kroc, you old schmuck!!" much to the hilarity of the reader. And so we go on.

The stories are short, funny and witty, with enough "in jokes" for adults and just the right amount of potty humour IMHO. In The Cha-Cha Fly, for instance, children bitten by the cha-cha fly "get stupid dance tunes stuck in [their] head and just can't get them out." One victim is now "skipping" and keeps repeating the same line over and over again. Too boot, "Cha-cha flies live in cocoa trees. They use their delicious chocolate turds to lure their victims to them." Yes, gross but somehow charming in a warped kind of way. So, my vote for a great graphic novel series for pre-teens definitely goes to Sardine and friends. The series is published by First Second Books (who also have some great-looking graphic novels for adults). You can read some other reviews here.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Remembrance Day Reading - 3

I saved my favourite for last - Sadako. There are a few versions of this story out there, but I like the version by Eleanor Coerr best. Rivetting cover, too. The story chokes me up every time and is well worth a read with children who are a bit older, I believe. Having just had my 10-year-old speechless with fear about global warming (she had to write me notes) I'm sensitive at the moment about how much angst and fear of the world we should put on the shoulders of our kids. Still, it is a lovely story about the strength of spirit and the humanity that can appear in the darkest times. For more on Sadako's story go here.

A very emotional Remembrance Day at our school. The vice-principal was in tears reading an essay written by the grade 7 girl and the principal who took over from her just barely held it together. The kids sang sweetly -- I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing, Lean on Me and others. And then there was the video with a song by Terry Kelly. We see it every year, but man it gets to me. Despite what you think of wars, past or present, it is worth stopping for a moment to consider how blessed we are to live in a peaceful, fabulous country.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Remembrance Day Reading - 2

In Canada, when you think of writers who write fabulous books on history, Linda Grandfield immediately leaps to mind. She's written a lot of my favourites and many which I read and say "Gee, I wish I'd written/thought of that!". Granfield has written several books about war and, for Remembrance Day, you'd be wise to get yourself to the local bookstore or library to check out In Flanders Field: The Story of a Poem by John McCrae (Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1995) and Where Poppies Grow: A World War I Companion (Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2001).

In Flanders Field weaves John McCrae's famous poem of the same name with historical facts about World War I. Paintings by Janet Wilson interpret the poem line-by-line and sketches, photographs, and memorabilia are included throughout.

Where Poppies Grow uses a scrapbook style to illustrate the the tradgedy and reality of World War I. Vintage postcards (written by soldiers to their loved ones), black & white and colour photographs, and memorabilia such as posters, training manuals, propaganda support Granfield's text.

Check out Granfield's website. There are short blurbs about the books mentioned here, along with the kudos they've received and info. about her other titles, including these related to war: I Remember Korea: Veterans Tell Their Stories of the Korean War, 1950-53, High Flight: A Story of World War II, and Brass Buttons and Silver Horseshoes: Stories from Canada's British War Brides. She reports she's currently writing a biography of John McCrae and also a book on The Unknown Soldier. I look forward to those titles.

Remembrance Day Reading - 1

With Remembrance Day on the horizon, I thought a post on a few great Canadian titles to share with kids. For younger readers, ages 5 to 9 or so, there is Heather Patterson's A Poppy is to Remember (North Winds Press, 2004). This picture book, with lovely images by the fabulous Ron Lightburn, explains the symbolism of the poppy and how this flower became the symbol of remembrance. You can hear a podcast review on Just One More Book.