Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Beautiful Book #3

If the world keeps insisting on being this ugly, ugly place, I am going to keep posting these.

blues journey by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Christopher Myers. Holiday House, 2003.

An explanation and history of blues music brackets this book, but the contents comprise a series stunningly illustrated call and response blues lyrics. The book makes my list on the power of its blue, black and earth-tone illustrations. I am not as impressed with overall book design, particularly the placement of words on the page, but still, Christopher Myers' illustrations here and elsewhere are in a class of their own. 

His father and the book's author, the great Walter Dean Myers, passed away last month, but you can read one of the last things he wrote here, an opinion piece for the NYT on the paucity of children's books by people of colour and the societal implications that are borne from it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Beautiful Book #2

FArTHER written and illustrated by Grahame Baker-Smith. Templar Publishing, 2010. Winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal for excellence in illustration, 2011.

The death of Robin Williams brought this book to the forefront of my memory for it is a tale of artistry, genius, depression and loss. The text of the book is metaphorical and lovely but it is the illustrations that stay with you always.

Now, if someone would like to buy for me The Folio Society edition of his illustrated Pinocchio, introduced by David Almond, that would be swell.

Monday, August 18, 2014

50 Beautiful Books by Christmas

I'm not sure I can pull this off, but after talking with a friend about King Arthur and Robin Hood this morning, I've decided to showcase some of my favourite, beautifully illustrated children's books. These books won't necessarily be easy to come by. Most won't be in print, but I am hoping that seeing them here will bring you joy and make you more tenacious at used book stores and more inquisitive at public libraries. 

First up: The Song of Robin Hood, selected and edited by Anne Malcomson, music arranged by Grace Castagnetta, designed and illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton Mifflin, 1947. Caldecott Honor Book, 1948.

This book is gorgeous in design and illustration and when you have a copy in your hands you just want to touch its pages and then run 10 feet back to see its lines, shapes and flow from a distance. It's stunning right down to its end papers and sheet music.
You can learn a bit about the book here:
And more about illustrator, Burton, here:

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Born to Read

During June 2014, I am participating in a series of workshops in New Brunswick to support the province's Born to Read program. Born to Read puts quality books into the hands of Anglo-New Brunswick families by presenting a small bag of age-appropriate books to babies on the day they are born. Born to Read and the Early Childhood Education Centre at UNB also sponsor a roughly semi-annual manuscript competition that leads to the publication of a New Brunswick authored and illustrated picturebook to be included in the Born to Read book bag.

The workshop series, held in 4 public library locations across the province, offers guidance to writers who wish to submit manuscripts to this contest. The workshop features a wide-ranging display of books for babies available on the market. It also discusses the history and mandate of Born to Read and its  manuscript contest, as well as a discussion of best practices and publishing tips and tricks for working within the parameters of writing for the 0-2 age range. My portion of the agenda revolves around a series of do's and don'ts when writing for babies. My notes, along with a book list of sample titles, is included below.

Writing for Babies

Books for babies are a publishing category of their own and differ from picturebooks for older children. Please keep the following in mind when working on a manuscript for this age range.


Write a book that is already widely available
  • look at the books on the booklist below before developing your idea
  • if your concept has been done before, move on to a new idea

Overtly try to teach the parents or child
  • gentle guidance is one thing but manuscripts that read as if they begin with AN IMPORTANT LESSON in mind will never get off the ground.
  • babies cannot be taught lessons; they lack the physical, emotional and intellectual development for it
  • adults will resist the lessons of didactic books

Write for adults or older children
  • think about the developmental stages from 0-2. If possible, try to write a manuscript that covers this entire range and this range only
  • this means, no potty training, day care, social interactions with friends, manners, fears & worries
  • avoid specific developmental milestones
  • pay attention to tone and audience: books that focus on adult emotions toward the baby are far too often written for adults rather than children

Write for a narrow subset of babies
  • not all babies have 2 parents
  • not all babies have 4 grandparents
  • not all babies have siblings
  • not all babies live in the country
  • not all babies live in the city
  • not all babies breastfeed
  • not all babies bottlefeed
  • not all babies look alike
  • elements such as these can be present but they should not be prescriptive or deterministic

Presume a single faith community as your audience
  • New Brunswick has a diverse population; any book given to all Anglophone babies must respect the province's diversity of religious belief and non-belief

Use concepts that are too sophisticated
  • themes of aging, life cycle, and the passing of time signal that the book is written for a much older audience
  • babies do not experience nostalgia for place, people, time, or things
  • babies do not understand social themes (e.g. environmentalism; social justice)

Use diction that is too sophisticated or inappropriate
  • this includes jocular and colloquial language
  • multi-syllable or high-level vocabulary words
  • vague or conceptual wording

Dictate how illustrations should work
  • the task of selecting an illustrator falls to the publisher
  • the task of interpreting and illustrating the manuscript falls to the illustrator

Dictate how graphic design should work
  • what the final book looks like is in the hands of the publisher in conversation with author and illustrator


Remember your audience
  • babies, 0-2 in age
  • ALL babies born to anglophone families in New Brunswick
  • the adults/siblings who will read the book aloud

Think beyond the white, middle-class, nuclear family structure
  • think in terms of ethnic and racial diversity
  • think in terms of economic diversity
  • think in terms of the diversity of family composition
  • think beyond humans as subject matter

Establish the idea that reading is for pleasure

  • this doesn't have to be a direct theme of the book, just a consequence of reading it
 Bring the pleasure of language to your manuscript
  • think about how nursery rhymes used to make you feel
  • think about the aesthetics involved in your own experience of reading
  • think of words as butterscotch or chocolate on the tongue; the burst of a ripe strawberry in the mouth; the crunch of a garden carrot or a potato chip
  • connect the words on the page to the senses involved in saying and interpreting them

Use plain, accessible language; but also

Use literary language
  • good children’s books are about more than just galloping rhyme
  • rhyme is good but it is also optional
  • good cadence is vital (read the children's books of Margaret Wise Brown; she offers a master-class)
  • assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia are some of the many devices at your fingertips (read the poetry of Mary Ann Hoberman; she offers a master-class)
  • think about what different letters and letter combinations convey? Do they work with the meaning of the words or against them? In what contexts do you want to use words that have “p’s” “k’s” and long “o’s” in them? In what context do you want to use words with “s’s” “n’s” and “ah” sounds?

Employ nonsense
  • nonsense occurs when the sense must be derived solely from the sound of the language rather than its meaning (read “Jabberwocky” to remind yourself how effective nonsense can be)

Write anticipating illustration
  • can your words hold back so that the illustrations can take the narrative oar in tandem?
  • can you provide sufficient detail when necessary to signal key information to the illustrator
  • think about how easy would it be to illustrate what you’ve just written? Is it imagistic? Is it in good taste?
  • is there enough diversity in your subject matter to allow creative scope in the illustrations? (or will the illustrator have to draw 20 babies or the bits of 20 babies?)
  • can you allow the illustrator the scope to be an equal partner in the creation of the book

Anticipate the layout of the words on the page
  • the actual layout of your words will be in the hands of your publisher, but that doesn’t mean you can’t write with intent toward graphic layout
  • can you use page turns to effect?
  • can you imagine the effect of fonts or word placement

  • edit, edit, edit some more. Kill your darlings. Hone and polish. Think about words on the syllable level
  • read aloud
  • read aloud to an audience
  • get readers of all ages to read your manuscript back to you
  • edit some more

Break the above rules but only if it is done with purpose and to literary effect.


Many of the above notes were enhanced and updated following our productive Moncton workshop on June 4rth, featuring Jennifer Aikman-Smith, the author of A Lullaby for New Brunswick. If you want to add to the list or continue the conversation about writing for babies, please leave a comment.


Booklist of Books Published for Babies

--please note that not all these books are exemplars, but they do point to the kind of material that has recently been on the market. Knowing your market will help you make decisions about what to write and what not to write.

Baby’s World

Ahlberg, Janet and Allan. The Baby’s Catalogue.
*Aikman-Smith, Jennifer. A Lullaby for New Brunswick. Illustrated by Chris Browne.
Brown, Margaret Wise. Goodnight Moon. Illustrated by Clement Hurd.
Fox, Mem. 10 Little Fingers and 10 Little Toes. Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury.
*Homer, Lynda. Baby and Mommy Go Walking. Illustrated by Cheryl Bogart.
*Hunt, Anne. Singing and Dancing. Illustrated by Kathy Hooper.
Jam, Teddy. Night Cars. Illustrated by Eric Beddows.
Lester, J. D. Daddy Calls Me Doodlebug. Illustrated by Hiroe Nakata.
            Grandma Calls Me Gigglepie. Illustrated by Hiroe Nakata.
            Mommy Calls Me Monkeypants. Illustrated by Hiroe Nakata.
Oxenbury, Helen. Clap, Clap.
I Can.
I Hear.
I See.
I Touch.
Reid, Barbara. Welcome Baby.
Schwartz, Roslyn. Yo, Baby!

Bedtime Books

*Aikman-Smith, Jennifer. A Lullaby for New Brunswick. Illustrated by Chris Browne.
Brown, Margaret Wise. Goodnight Moon. Illustrated by Clement Hurd.
Fox, Mem. Time for Bed. Illustrated by Jane Dyer.
Rathmann , Peggy. Goodnight Gorilla.
Tillman, Nancy. It’s Time to Sleep, My Love.
Titherington, Jeanne. Baby’s Boat.

Love and Acceptance

Fitch, Sheree. Kisses, Kisses Baby-o. Illustrated by HildaRose.
Jam, Teddy. This New Baby. Illustrated by Virginia Johnson.
Lester, J. D. Daddy Calls Me Doodlebug.
Illustrated by Hiroe Nakata.
            Grandma Calls Me Gigglepie. Illustrated by Hiroe Nakata.
            Mommy Calls Me Monkeypants. Illustrated by Hiroe Nakata.
Reid, Barbara. Welcome Baby.
*Ryan, Darlene. Kisses, Kisses, Kisses. Illustrated by Peter Manchester.
Tillman, Nancy. The Crown on Your head
I’d Know You Anywhere, My Love
Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You
VanCamp, Richard. Little You. Illustrated by Julie Flett.
Williams, Vera. More, More, More, Said the Baby.

Poetry and Nursery Rhyme

*Davidson, Karen. Baby’s Garden. Illustrated by Patricia Tingley.
Lee, Dennis. The Dreadful Doings of Jelly Belly. Illustrated by Nora Hilb (board book edition).
Silvery/Good Night, Good Night. Illustrated by Nora Hilb (board book edition).
Opie, Iona and Peter. My Very First Mother Goose. Illustrated by Rosemary Wells.
            Here Comes Mother Goose. Illustrated by Rosemary Wells. 
Reid, Barbara. Singa Song of Mother Goose. (or any good collection of nursery rhymes.)
*Thornton, Glenda. Foggy Cat. Illustrated by Robert Lyon.
VanCamp, Richard. Little You. Illustrated by Julie Flett.
Here's a Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry. Edited by Jane Yolen, Andrew Peters and Polly Dunbar. (or any other anthology of children’s verse pitched to a very young audience.)

Concept Books

Black and white books (e.g. Torres, J and J. Lum. Checkers and Dot on the Farm)
Touch books (e.g. Kunhardt, Dorothy. Pat the Bunny.)
Object books (e.g. Ahlberg, Janet and Allan. The Baby’s Catalogue or the Bright Baby Board books such as Animals, Colors, and First Words.)
Faces books (e.g. Miller Margaret. Baby Faces, What’s on My Head, I Love Colors)

* published by The Early Childhood Centre, University of New Brunswick.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Come join us in the Wallace Collection on November 13th, 2012

The Eileen Wallace Children’s Literature Collection at the University of New Brunswick is pleased to announce its 2012 Fellowship Lecture, “Banning Magic: The Fairy Tale Under Lenin and Stalin” to be presented by Dr. Megan Swift, Associate Professor, University of Victoria. The fairy tale was a highly contested genre under Lenin and Stalin, becoming so embattled over the course of the 1920s and 30s that school children conducted trials of Cinderella, Father Frost (the Russian Santa Claus) and other folk and fairytale figures accused of being ‘anti-Soviet elements.’ This lecture will explore the attempt to ban magical content in children's literature after the Russian Revolution of 1917. A selection of books used in Dr. Swift’s research will be on display outside the collection. Please join us in the Wallace Collection (Room 413, Harriet Irving Library, UNB) on Tuesday November 13th at 1pm. Admission is free. Members of the public are welcome. Dr. Swift is an Associate Professor of Russian Studies at the University of Victoria and the 2012 Wallace Research Fellow. She specializes in modernist literature, art and culture and is currently working on a book called Fairytale Nation: Illustrated Children's Literature Under Lenin and Stalin, 1917-53.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Written by a kid

When I was a very young child, my mother would watch Art Linkletter interview children on his show, House Party. The segment was called "Kids Say the Darndest Things" and my mother thought it was round about the funniest thing going. I didn't. I thought the kids were being made fun of. I was embarrassed that I might one day be one of those kids. Heaven forbid someone should laugh at my pronunciation of "lellow" or at the collision of my naïveté and my rapidly increasing vocabulary. I didn't have the words for it then, but my young self found the show precious and, worst of all, patronizing.

Fast forward 40-some odd years to the age of YouTube. Kids are saying the darndest things all over the place and most of the Internet is laughing along in much the same way they laughed with Art in the 50s and 60s and then again with Bill Cosby in the 90s. The only trouble is now a child who makes a funny gaffe can be laughed at by millions of people around the world in just a matter of days. Most of the time I'm still not laughing along. I am a mother now, though, and I can see the humour in most of these videos. The ones I tend to like, however, are the videos that respect the imaginations and burgeoning intellects of children.

It's a fine line, I will admit, and I'm not always sure that as an adult I can tell exactly where that line is drawn anymore. 

For example, when this video was all over Twitter and Facebook a couple of weeks ago, I wasn't taken in by it even though I found the story told by the children quite imaginative and funny. I even thought the dads were good sports; and yet, there was just something about it that felt a bit off to me.

I'm not keen on Kid History either. It feels as if the adults are simply using the kids as a vehicle for their own mugging kind of humour.

A couple of days ago my friend, Christina, sent me a link to the relatively new Written by a Kid series that's part of the greater Geek and Sundry online video community. With ten episodes under its belt, Written by a Kid is proving itself distinct. The producers audition young children and listen to them tell their stories with minimal interference. The videotaped storytelling session is then assigned to a director who brings his/her own vision to the project. The results are varied, wildly creative, and definitely funny. Most importantly, the notion that the child is a storyteller worthy of respect is never lost.

The first episode, "Scary Smash", brings in a shocking amount of talent (watch the video--I don't want to spoil the surprise), but the series doesn't serve simply as a vehicle for high-profile cameos. Each story and video stands on its own. Celebrity cameos are rare. Here are a few of my favourites. Tell me what you think--about Written by a Kid specifically or about the cute-child-on-YouTube phenomenon in general.

Episode 1: Scary Smash

Episode 3: La Munkya

Episode 10: Ginger Potato

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Circle Game

"The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live long-year, like the highest seat on a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning." --Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting

In my house there are a handful of gold-standard picture books--books that my daughter and I come back to hundreds of times over, books that make us sigh with deep contentment and whose pictures and words we know by heart. Roxaboxen is one, so is The Day the Babies Crawled Away Pumpkin Soup, Gifts, The Seven Silly Eaters, Sheila Rae the Brave, Mirette on the High Wire, and Blueberries for Sal all disappear and resurface with the tides. Sometimes these books even change the language of our daily lives. "How goes the work?", I'll ask at the end of the school day? "Quack" is the inevitable response thanks to Farmer Duck.

Sheree Fitch's Sleeping Dragons All Around is firmly on our list. Fitch's language, it is Pop Rocks on our tongues. "You bold and brutish bursten-bellied beasts!", my daughter will yell at the robins who sometimes nest over our back door. Fortunately for young readers, this book and a couple of Fitch's other classics have been republished by Nimbus and are now once again in print. For the last 8 years, however, it looked as if Fitch had moved on from the picture book genre altogether, choosing to focus on writing for babies, children, young adults and adults instead--anyone but the picture book crowd, it would seem. But hey ho! Fitch is set to release a new picture book, Night Sky Wheel Ride, at the beginning of June and I just happen to have a copy of it to hand.

Night Sky Wheel Ride (Tradewind Books) tells the story of a girl and her brother as they take their first ride on a Ferris wheel. The story itself is based on a memory from Fitch's own childhood and the book serves as a poignant tribute to the sibling bond. The book is also magical in its use of both language and illustration.

"First stop--
cotton candy shop
       round round round
a sugar cloud's spun
melts sticky quick
on the tips of our tongues"

This book is definitely a read-aloud, but make sure you do your mouth warm-ups first. Fitch's wordplay and affinity for onomatopoeia and assonance mean that your lips, teeth and tongue will get a full workout. My 7-year-old daughter was so enamoured with the book's language she insisted I videotape her reading it in full expressive style. She was "fizzy with the dizzy reeling / fuzzy with the Ferris wheel feeling."

But a picture book is not simply about language; it is about the marriage of language with illustration, and it is this marriage which makes Night Sky Wheel Ride soar above the fairgrounds. Fitch has been paired with some very good illustrators over the years but I've never seen one get her in the way that Montreal-based Yayo truly gets her and what she does with words. His illustrations for this book are imaginative, colourful, and associative; they draw in the cosmos through the lens of daily life. In Yayo's hands, a fair can be anything from a laundry basket and dryer to the seasonal cycle of an apple tree. Cotton candy becomes trees and flower seeds float off as balloons.

A favourite word and image pairing for me is this one: 

As mermaids and children descend in a paddle-boat Ferris wheel with bathtub carts, the text reads:

"See out to sea, Sister.
Can you hear the mermaids murmur
beluga whales sing
feel the whirling stir
of every little humming phosphorescent thing?"

This is no ordinary Ferris wheel ride, nor is this an ordinary book. Like so many great children's books, it tells a simple tale well; yet bubbling throughout and beyond is the story of joy, of memory, of life, love and loss, and of imagination and the reaching for all that lies beyond. This book makes me cry when I read it but not in a way that feels manipulative or negatively nostalgic--the tears are those I shed in the presence of fulsome beauty. I know that's high praise for a review, but there it is.

When I first read it, my mind leaped to the opening image of a Ferris wheel in Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting. I pulled out that book, reread the prologue and realized it all fits together--whether one is talking about image and illustration, sky and ground, youth and age, or fate and conscious choice:

"But things can come together in strange ways. The wood was at the center, the hub of the wheel. All wheels must have a hub. A Ferris wheel has one, as the sun is the hub of the wheeling calendar. Fixed points they are, and best left undisturbed, for without them, nothing holds together." -- Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting