Start at the Beginning

Notes from the Writing Life

Sleeping Peacefully

My article on Arlene Blum's fight against the use of flame retardants in furniture continues to get lots of attention -- and to raise lots of questions. The first batch of queries was all about couches and whether it's possible to find one that is free of chemical flame retardants. I have some answers for people here.

The next batch of questions was about mattresses -- and most particularly about memory foam. My mother emailed me after the piece came out to tell me that she was sending her memory foam mattress to the dump. I quickly assured her -- as I will assure you -- that she can sleep peacefully. The federal mattress standard requires that mattresses meet a different open flame ignition and combustion test from the one used for furniture in California. Contrary to what you may read elsewhere on the Internet, manufacturers typically meet this very demanding standard using barrier materials -- either fiber batting that is inherently combustion-resistant or cotton fiber that has been treated with boric acid (a low-toxicity mineral.) Using flame retardants to meet the standard would not only be expensive, it would also make the foam very stiff and uncomfortable. So while you may have other reasons for wanting an "organic" or chemical-free mattress, you don't need to worry about flame retardants.




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Virtual Visits

One of my favorite parts of being a children's book writer is going into schools to talk about what I do. Not only is it an opportunity for me to get to get away from the computer and hang out with real people, it's also a chance to unleash my Inner Hambone. My school presentations are usually exceedingly silly, with costumes and props and puppets and goofy jokes and group poetry-writing and as much audience participation as I can muster without causing a stampede. But they also include wonderful conversations with kids about books and writing -- conversations that invariably send me home in a giddy, delighted mood because I'm reminded how much children love books, and what fine, perceptive, and enthusiastic readers they are and how privileged I am to have them as my intended audience. 

Sadly, in these lean times, schools have less and less money to bring in authors and illustrators to do school-wide assemblies or classroom workshops. That's too bad for everyone. But I recently started working with a booking agent who specializes in setting up Virtual Visits, which are online conversations between authors or illustrators and school classrooms. Virtual Visits are a low-cost way for teachers to introduce children to the people who create books, and while they don't get me away from my computer, or allow me to make full use of my Inner Hambone, they do allow me to do the most important thing of all -- talk with kids and answer their questions about writing. I still do in-person visits through my regular booking agent, Susan Katz, but I'm pretty excited but these Virtual Visits too, which is why I made a little video spot, explaining what they are. I learned a lot while I was making it -- both about where I need to put the microphone and the importance of looking at the webcam rather than the computer screen, but also that doing anything with cats requires endless amounts of patience. Still, the creature was in my lap -- how could I not include him?

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Jan. 14th, 2011

The other night a friend invited me to a dance performance at ODC in San Francisco – a competition in which audience members decide which choreographers will receive a $10,000 grant to develop new work. I went in knowing nothing about the choreographers or the pieces and left feeling electric with inspiration -- nothing feeds the artistic impulse more than art itself. (“Her response to any performance, any work of art, was the desire to make another, to make her own,” A.S. Byatt says in The Children's Book, describing the “relentlessly busy inventiveness” of Olive, a writer of children’s books. That’s it, exactly.)

What struck me at this particular performance was that choreographers and writers share a certain way of thinking about the creative process. We both make art that unfolds sequentially, over time, and we both use a vocabulary of words or movements that we manipulate in similar ways – repeating and reversing them, placing them in conversations (duets) or interior monologues (solos), seeking to build tension and then resolve it. In a discussion with the audience after the performance two of the four choreographers whose works were performed said that their pieces were inspired by poetry – albeit in very different ways. Liss Fain (“Speak of Familiar Things”) was inspired by a poem by Wallace Stevens called Debris of Life and Mind” from which the title of her piece was taken. Choreographer Katie Faulkner, whose piece “Until We Know For Sure” was both the evening’s winner and my personal favorite, came to poetry from a different angle. She was aiming, she said, for a “poetic economy.” 

As a poet and picture book writer I knew just what she meant – both forms are like a tincture of narrative, requiring the writer to distill paragraphs into a single potent line. It was this distillation that Faulkner was aiming for. “I kept throwing stuff out because I wanted to stay interested,” she said, adding that she had been feeling bored by her own “movement palette” – her artistic habits of mind.

All of us, when we’re cutting things out, worry that we’re cutting out the good stuf. But Faulkner’s piece felt neither minimalist nor abstract. In fact, it was the warmest, funniest, and most human of the four we saw that night. An exploration of a relationship between a man and a woman, it left me feeling as if I had just read an entire novel about the two people and their time together. By cutting out everything extraneous, she had allowed what remained to breathe, blossom, and expand, to achieve its full power. 

I scribbled down Faulkner’s comments about throwing stuff out because I’m in the midst of a series of picture book revisions right now and so I’ve been contemplating the alchemy of addition by subtraction. Creativity, for me, begins in a rush of generation – words, ideas, plots, jokes, descriptions, images, phrases – that “busy inventiveness” Byatt describes. To try to constrain or direct the flow would stanch it completely – I have to let it all spill on the page. But then, the process of subtraction begins. At first, I don’t want to cut. Sure a few things can go, but so much of it feels essential. But as I begin to subtract, I find that something happens to the words I’ve left behind. The pure lines of the story emerge from the unwieldy blob of words. The unencumbered sentences seem truer, more potent.

It’s hard to do – heartbreaking sometimes. All the same, scissors can be the most useful implement in the writer’s toolbox.

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Free Books, Free Writing Workshops, and Other Cool Things

I just finished recording a new video spot, promoting my school visits. Recording the spot reminded me how much I love doing school visits, and how hard it is for schools to pay for them these days. So I’m offering some amazing discounts to schools and libraries that book events for the 2010-2011 school year:

  • Book two or more same-day assemblies and I’ll throw in A FREE WRITING WORKSHOP for up to 35 students -- a $350 value!
  • Book at least two same-day assemblies or workshops and I’ll send you25 FREE AUTOGRAPHED COPIES of my picture book Firefighters in the Dark to distribute to students or sell as a fund-raiser – a $400 value!
  • Book a one-hour Virtual Visit or a single Assembly and I’ll DISCOUNT THE PRICE BY $50 and send you AUTOGRAPHED COPIES of both Firefighters in the Dark and The Sea Serpent and Me for your school library -- an $88 value!

You can learn more about my school visits here. Or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for more information: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Odd and Creepy Children's Classics

I was looking forward to the Independent’s round-up of bloodiest children’s bedtime stories but it turned out to be a disappointment. Nine of the ten are fairytales, but really, the observation that fairytales are bloody is hardly newsworthy. Kind of like noticing that football players get injured a lot.

The article made me thirst for something more startling -- a list of beloved children’s books that turn out to be downright creepy when you read them as an adult. (While I didn’t find one, I did find this wonderful list of odd contemporary picture books.) I’m not talking about books like The Hunger Games, which is in many ways less creepy than one might expect, but the old chestnuts you settle down to read with your small ones and then discover, with increasing discomfort, are unexpectedly sadistic or disturbing or just plain weird. Here are four that come to mind.

1. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein 

Sometimes called “the co-dependent’s handbook,” this is a story about a loving, mother-like tree who gets hacked to pieces by the boy she loves. In the end, the boy – now an old man – rests on her lifeless stump. Kind of like Boxing Helena for preschoolers.

2. Thomas the Tank Engine by the Reverend W. Awdry

Maybe you’ve read the modern version, which had some of its more disturbing parts removed by marketing genius Britt Allcroft. But if you read the original you’ll discover that the Island of Sodor, where Thomas and the other train engines live, is a brutal and hierarchical place reminiscent of a turn-of-the-century English boarding school. The engines taunt and play tricks on one another and suck up to the Fat Controller (called Sir Topham Hatt in later versions) by roughing up the lowest members of the pecking order, the ill-natured freight cars. In a typical story, Henry, Gordon and James, the three top-tier engines, refuse to fetch their coaches which they say is “beneath them.” The Fat Controller responds by locking them in the engine shed, where they remain for the duration of the story.

"Henry, Gordon and James stayed shut in the Shed, and were cold, lonely and miserable," the story concludes. "They wished now they hadn't been so silly."

Goodnight children, pleasant dreams! 

3. Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban

I love the Frances books with their wonderful Lillian Hoban illustrations and their homey, childlike mood, but this is one of those books that feels pretty weird to a modern reader. Frances keeps getting out of bed because she’s creeped out by nighttime noises like the wind blowing the curtains. Finally, her irritated father tells her to stick a sock in it or she’ll get a spanking.

Father said, “I have not finished. If the wind does not blow the curtains, he will be out of a job. If I do not go to the office, I will be out of a job. And if you do not go to sleep now, do you know what will happen to you?” 

“I will be out of a job?” said Frances. 

“No,” said Father. 

“I will get a spanking?” said Frances. 

“Right!” said Father.

Once Father’s gone back to bed, Frances hears a moth knocking against the window.


His wings smacked the glass.

Whack and smack!

Whack and smack made Frances think of a spanking.

And all of a sudden she was tired.

Nothing like fear of a beating to put your worries about moths in perspective, I guess. 

4. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig

Here’s the plot. Sylvester finds a magic rock that grants wishes. One day he gets menaced by a lion and wishes he was a rock. Poof, he’s a rock, and the magic pebble is now on the ground beside him. He can’t reach it because he’s a rock. He can’t call for help, because he’s a rock. His parents conclude he’s dead. "They were miserable. Life had no meaning for them any more.” 
Years go by. Eventually Sylvester’s mother and father picnic right by the rock that was Sylvester and talk about how much they miss him. 

How he wanted to shout, ‘Mother! Father! It’s me, Sylvester, I’m right here!’ But he couldn’t talk. He had no voice.

The fact that all ends happily does little to blunt the extreme creepiness of this scenario, which is the stuff childhood nightmares are made of. 

What are your nominations for surprisingly creepy kids books?

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Getting Meta With Children's Books

Phillip Nel of Kansas State University tells us that "people who don't know any better call it post-modern" and after you watch this fun little video you'll never be one of those people again. What's nice about this piece is that it ties together a lot of seemingly disparate strands in children's literature and makes you see how so much of what seems contemporary in literature -- and therefore either refreshing or frightening -- is as old as the urge to tell stories. It also illuminates how playful metafiction is -- and thus, how much it belongs in children's literature. Kids love to explore the boundaries of things, test what makes it what it is and how it is you make one yourself. Metafiction says that stories are something you make.

Nel leaves out my favorite metafictioneer in kidlit, Emily Gravett, whose books Wolves amd Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears are both classics of the genre. But he includes pop-up books in the metafiction category, which I'd never have thought of on my own. There's been some recent discussion about pop-up books being less educational than their conventional cousins, which is the kind of thing that book purists like myself tend to crow about. But in this case the crowing -- and I saw plenty of it among bibliophiles -- seems misguided at best.

The discussion was triggered by a pair of studies led by University of Virginia psychologist Medha Tare and published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology found that children who were given the same information in books with conventional and pop-up illustrations learned more from the two-dimensional illustrations than the three dimensional ones. To quote from the Miller McCune article on the experiments:

A second experiment featured 48 children ages 27 to 32 months. Like their younger counterparts, they looked through one of the three books. As they did so, the experimenter pointed out certain facts, such as “chicks like to eat worms” and “monkeys like to eat bananas.” They were later asked to recall this information, answering such questions as “Which one likes to eat worms?”

The results mirrored those of the first experiment. The kids who looked at the photo-illustration book did the best, while those exposed to the pop-up book did the worst.

I tend not to be impressed by the reader comments on news stories, but in this case readers spotted the flaws with the studies immediately – faster, apparently, than the editors of the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. First off, two year olds aren’t really the target audience for pop-up books – they’re too young to be able to manipulate the paper constructions without breaking them. But more importantly, what’s your definition of “learning?” As one savvy commenter observed:

“I love the obtuseness of the researchers. OK, so the child didn't pick up the specific information he's to spit out like a machine in order to become a good corporate drone someday. Instead, he entered a three-dimensional world, played with spatial relations, and probably had some fascinating discoveries and thoughts going on in that little brain of his.”

By including pop-ups in his definition of metafiction, Nel allows us to see pop-ups for what they are – a way of inviting children to play with the bookness of a book, to break the two-dimensional barrier and shorten the literal distance between reader and reading material. While I’d agree that pop-ups don’t bring you into the story in the way that a conventional picture book does, it doesn’t need to. It’s doing something else. 

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At Least My Books Aren't Driving People to Suicide...

Ever since I wrote about the Rainforest Action Network report linking children's books with rainforest destruction, I've been having interesting conversations with children's book writers and children's booksellers about what to make of it. The collective feeling has simply been, "Oh no." 

Children's Book Author and Editor Amy Novesky commented on my Facebook page:

"Oh, this makes me sad, but not surprised. one of the questions I often ask writers of their stories/future books is: Is it worth cutting down trees? Everyone thinks *their* book is worth it of course. But is it ever? Only, perhaps, if printed in a truly sustainable way, which, it sounds like, is far from the norm.

In my environmental blog, I spent some time trying to figure out if e-readers, particularly the I-Pad, might be a more sustainable option. The answer isn't clear, but I was beginning to feel that I should at least allow for the possibility that electronic readers may eventually be a better choice, despite my own preference for the printed page.

Then, today, I read an astonishing article from Bloomberg News about a wave of suicides at a Chinese factory that makes I-Pads. Apparently, there have been sixteen suicide attempts this year at the factory in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, twelve of them successful. Suicide among the factory's 300,000 workers is so rampant that the parent company, Foxconn Technology Group, has begun covering the outside stairwells with nets to keep people from jumping off. So why is this happening? Because life on the electronics production line is, in the words of one worker, "meaningless."

“Life is meaningless,” said Ah Wei, his fingernails stained black with the dust from the hundreds of mobile phones he has burnished over the course of a 12-hour overnight shift. “Everyday, I repeat the same thing I did yesterday. We get yelled at all the time. It’s very tough around here.”

Conversation on the production line is forbidden, bathroom breaks are kept to 10 minutes every two hours and constant noise from the factory washes past his ear plugs, damaging his hearing, Ah Wei said. The company has rejected three requests for a transfer and his monthly salary of 900 yuan ($132) is too meager to send money home to his family, said the 21-year-old, who asked that his real name not be used because he is afraid of his managers.

The factory complex is apparently tree-lined and boasts a swimming pool and a hospital. But, to everyone's astonishment, that's not enough to compensate for having been reduced to a cog in the vast machine that feeds the global appetite for electronic toys.

The workers, 86 percent of whom are under 25 years old, live in white dormitories with eight to ten people sleeping in a room. . . Inside the compound, at a factory devoted to computer motherboards, rows of young men and women stand at assembly lines, their feet shod in blue slippers and white caps on their heads. The smell of solvent hangs in the air. About 80 percent of the front-line production employees work standing up, some for 12 hours a day for six days a week, according to Liu Bin, a 24-year-old employee.

What's particularly creepy about the entire creepy story, is the confusion Foxconn Technology Group chairman Terry Gou claims to feel about why his workers are offing themselves.

“From a logical, scientific standpoint, I don’t have a grasp on that. No matter how you force me, I don’t know.”

So are I-Pads and e-readers a more sustainable alternative to books? Not if their production requires people to say, as one worker does, "I've become a machine."


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Are My Books Destroying the Rain Forest?

I write for a living. I write about the environment and I write books for children, and I’ve always figured I worked in a pretty green industry. I don’t drill for oil or mine for coal, and since I work at home I barely even drive a car.

But yesterday I got a copy of a new report by the Rainforest Action Network called Turning the Page on Rainforest Destruction: Children’s books and the destruction of Indonesia’s rainforests. Turns out, my industry isn’t as green as I thought.

RAN chose three children’s books that were printed in China from each of the top ten children’s book publishers and had their pages tested by an independent laboratory for fiber associated with deforestation in Indonesia. The result: sixty percent of the books (18 out of 30) contained fiber linked to Indonesian rainforest destruction. Books with rainforest paper came from nine of the ten publishers -- despite the fact that half of those publishers have policies committing them to the use of sustainable paper sources.

AS RAN explains:

Unchecked by government or industry, pulp and paper companies are razing natural rainforests on the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra and replacing them with acacia pulp wood plantations. This expansion of the pulp sector directly threatens endangered species like tigers, elephants and orangutans with extinction in Sumatra. It is causing ongoing conflicts with local communities whose lands, livelihoods and rights are being usurped, and it is causing massive greenhouse gas emissions from rainforest loss and drainage of carbon-rich peatlands. Driven by global demand for pulp and paper that favors “low-cost” producers, the enormous emissions from the destruction of Indonesia’s rainforests and peatlands have vaulted the country into the rank of the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the U.S. Moreover, at least half of the logging in Indonesia takes place illegally.

It turns out that half of the American children’s picture books printed on coated paper are printed to China and China is the top importer of Indonesian pulp and paper.

With the rapid growth of book printing and manufacturing being outsourced to China, the U.S. book industry has become increasingly vulnerable to controversial paper sources entering its supply chain. . . . .From 2000-2008, Chinese sales of children’s picture books to the U.S. ballooned by more than 290 percent, averaging an increase of more than 35 percent per year.


At this point in my reading of the report, I nervously walked over to the shelf where I keep copies of my own books. Firefighters in the Dark? Printed in China. Baby Shoes? Printed in China. The Sea Serpent and Me? Printed in Singapore. Phew. Or at least I hope so. The truth is, I really don’t know whether Singapore is any better, although I just called RAN to ask.

So what am I to make of all this? The first thing that struck me was how little most of us know about where the objects in our lives come from. I doubt any children’s book writer would be happy to learn that her books were contributing to the destruction of Indonesia’s rainforest, but how many of us would have thought to ask?

And, now that I know, what’s the responsible thing to do with this knowledge? The first thing I did was to sign RAN’s “I Love Books and Rainforests” petition. But I also have new books coming out, and it will be up to me to raise these concerns with my publishers and see what they can tell me about paper sourcing. In fact, all of us who love children’s literature should be asking questions and demanding answers. Chinese printing is cheap, as is Indonesian paper, and the current crisis in publishing has meant that publishers are looking to save money anywhere they can. But while I am a staunch defender of the printed page, I still want that page to come from sustainable sources – even if that means my books cost a little more.

Which brings me to the final piece of this puzzle. When we as consumers demand that everything be cheap, we do so at a high price for artists, small business owners, and the environment Readers – that’s you and me -- must be willing to pay full price for books. Paying full price means buying them at independent bookstores, which – unlike Amazon and the chains -- don’t force publishers to sell books at unsustainable discounts. After all, publishers who outsource to China are responding to market forces. And market forces? That would be us.


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Yoga and Writing: Together Again

Back in February, The Guardian ran a piece on “Rules for Writing Fiction” that featured sage advice from famous writers on what to do and what not to do. In general, I hate that type of article, which always makes me feel like I’m doing it all wrong, but always read them anyway on the off chance of discovering something useful. In the article, some writers said to Always Do things I never do, and others said to Never Do things that I sometimes do, and a few suggested Sometimes Doing things that I always do, and in the end I didn’t end up any wiser about the process of writing than I was before, which is pretty much a chronic condition for anyone who takes the business of writing seriously.

But there was one piece of advice that I thought was very good. It came from Margaret Atwood and it went like this:

Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.

That advice is one of many reasons that I will be co-teaching a day-long Yoga and Writing Retreat with Julie Rappaport on June 20 at beautiful Green Gulch Farm in Mill Valley, California. This will be the third time the two of us have taught the workshop, which we dreamed up while sitting next to a waterfall one day at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers where we had struck up a friendship. Julie’s a yoga teacher who writes; I’m a writer who does yoga, and we both found that yoga, long walks, and bike rides were critical antidotes to the atmosphere of anxious striving one typically finds at a writing conferences.

In the years since, I’ve found that some writers (usually those who already do yoga) know immediately why we would put yoga and writing together, and others are completely mystified. So here are a few of my reasons:

  1. Because, as the writer Margaret Atwood says, “pain is distracting” and if you’re going to torment your body by spending hours sitting at the computer, the least you can do is nourish it with stretches and movement.
  2. Because, as the choreographer Twyla Tharp says, “When you stimulate your body, your brain comes alive in ways you can't simulate in a sedentary position.”
  3. Because both yoga and writing are, ideally, daily practices that are best approached with humble curiosity. The writer Isak Dinesen said, “I write a little every day, without hope and without despair.” This is the attitude that yoga teaches – to simply do the best work you can do that day, without being attached to the outcome.
  4. Because, as the writer Barbara Kingsolver has said, “There’s no perfect time to write. There’s only now.” Yoga teaches us to cultivate the present moment.
  5. Because the body remembers what the mind forgets.
  6. Because both yoga and writing require you to lose interest in the distractions of the world, and yoga can help you learn how to do it.

I could go on, but I won’t, at least not now. At the retreat, Julie and I will talk more about the connection we see between the two disciplines, and how writers can use yoga to free the mind of its old habits and the body of its aches and pains. If you’re interested in joining us call Julie at 510-273-2417 or email her: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. The daylong workshop is $165 including a delicious organic lunch and snacks, or $140 if you pay in full by May 1st.

Here’s what people have said about previous workshops:

  • "I had a thoroughly enjoyable time and left feeling refreshed and like I'd learned some new things about yoga and writing -- and about myself.”
  • “Thank you for a wonderfully enlightening day that I continue to think about! This was one of those significant events in life made even more special by the personalities, the creativity and the quest of finding your core through yoga.”
  • “It was encouraging to find that the thoughts just flowed – suddenly writing was easy! It was a great experience!”
  • “Both the yoga and writing were so fulfilling and nurturing. Thank you both for creating a safe, non-judgmental atmosphere -- heaven!”
  • “My body thanked me profusely for taking it to the workshop. I had a wonderful day and you both inspired me.”

Come join us!

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Writing for the children of 2014

This week I read that 2010 may be the tipping point year in which more U.S. children are born to families of color than to white. That means that in the very near future, the majority of American children’s book readers will fall into the category we now call “minority.” Are the majority of the characters in children’s books going to be non-white four years from now, when those children reach the target age for picture books? 

I doubt it. But it seems to me that those of us who write for children are going to have to start thinking much more carefully about the world we portray in our fiction. Today, most children’s book writers are white, and many of us feel uncomfortable writing about other races and cultures. (“I thought you were supposed to write about what you know,” one of my students observed when I raised this topic recently.) Yet I think we have to get over that discomfort if we’re going to write books that speak to the reality of American life, which is increasingly multicultural. 

My thinking on this subject is highly influenced by the film-maker Loni Ding, whose obituary I happened to read this week just as her views on race and gender portrayals in the media were uppermost in my mind. Ding was one of my professors at UC Berkeley and she argued that film-makers – and by extension writers – are constantly making statements about race and gender by the way they cast both minor and major characters, whether or not such statements are intentional. In a TV show, when all the characters in a law office are white, it conveys a message about who practices law. In a children’s book, when the person baking cupcakes is female and the person reading the newspaper on the couch is male, it conveys a message about who does the work in the household. That doesn’t mean every TV law office should be multi-racial, or that every picture book father should do the baking. But it does mean that writers should be thinking about the world we’re portraying in our books and making conscious decisions rather than unconscious ones. Too often our “casting” choices reflect the world we grew up in rather than the world our readers know. 

The example I just cited – mom baking cupcakes, dad reading the paper – comes from a story one of my students recently submitted to the class I teach on children’s picture book writing. These were incidental details in an otherwise marvelous story but they stood out to me because they felt like the one thing in the story that didn’t ring true. In the ensuing discussion, I pointed out that such arrangements see anachronistic in a world in which both parents typically work, and I argued that these incidental details are an opportunity for writers to both reflect the world as it is, and to encourage the world to progress in its thinking about the “proper” household duties for men and women. 

Some of my students disagreed. “What if you like baking cupcakes?” one asked. Several felt that reversing the arrangement – Dad baking, Mom reading the paper – would seem heavy-handed or unrealistic. A better solution might have been to have both parents working in the kitchen together, or both relaxing with the Sunday paper. Or having them do something else entirely that achieved the aims of the story (which were to show the family engaged in its weekend activities) while not seeming to embrace outdated ideas about gender roles.

To me, the important thing about this discussion was that it reminded me of the importance of thinking through your casting calls. Social considerations always have to be balanced with personal and creative ones, and there’s no single one-size-fits-all method for assigning race or gender to characters, or for assigning attributes to characters of a particular gender or race. But what I learned from Loni Ding was that decisions that may feel meaningless to us are not necessarily meaningless to our readers, particularly picture book readers who are learning about the world from the books we write.

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Will Boys Read Books About Girls?

A few minutes ago I received a rant by email from my friend Sharon Levin. She was infuriated because she'd just come back from a children's literature conference at which people kept talking about how boys wouldn't be interested in books with girl protagonists or even with a girl on the cover. One presenter even held up a copy ofThe Evolution of Calpurnia Tate -- a Newbery winner -- and said, "Would a boy like this book? No.”

To quote from Sharon's email:

What do I find most disturbing about this? Well, that it’s mainly women who keep this ‘boys can’t possibly like books about girls’ train of thought on the track. It’s the female teachers and librarians at conferences I hear asking about ‘male appeal’ of books. It’s the moms I’m selling to at the bookstore who will not buy books about girls for their sons

What I find interesting is that when I do booktalks in classrooms or am handselling at the bookstore, boys do not run away from Kiki Strike or Heir Apparent or Red Scarf Girl

Do we truly think so little of ourselves that we believe that adventures featuring our gender cannot possibly be of interest to the opposite gender? What is it about women that we instill the value in boys (and girls by extension) that reading about girls is for girls and reading about boys is for everyone? Where does this self loathing come from? It breaks my heart.

As the mom of a boy, I both agree and don't. I have learned, reluctantly, that there are, in fact, books that I loved as a kid that my son doesn't, and that most boys will like less than most girls. For all I know, Calpurnia Tate might be one of them. Certainly my son isn't particularly keen on realistic fiction, particularly books that are all about a character's feelings. He likes action, humor, magic, adventure, anything with animals, and -- most importantly -- interesting characters. Would Calpurnia's character win him over, despite the fact that the book is realistic fiction in which the adventures are internal rather than external? I don't know. But I do know that there are many books with female protagonists among his favorites. Right now we're jointly immersed in Garth Nix's Abhorsen Trilogywhich features female protagonists all the way through. His favorite book of all time is The Princess and the Goblin, which -- well the title says it all, doesn't it? 

I've had this debate many times in different contexts. When I got the sketch dummy for my picture bookFirefighters in the Dark, I saw that the illustrator, Nicoletta Ceccoli, had made the protagonist a girl (I'd written it imagining a boy, but since it's in the first person, it could be either.) My editor at Houghton Mifflin and I talked at length about what the impact of this choice might be on sales -- would firefighter-loving boys be turned off by a girl narrator as we'd always been told? We decided to risk it. As it turned out, the very first customer review I got on Amazon was headlined "Finally, A Firefighter Book for Girls." But of course the book was never intended to be "for girls" or "for boys" -- it was meant to be for kids who love firefighters.

Are there boys who love firefighters who spurned that book because it's got a girl in it? Probably. Even so, I think it's important to encourage kids to cross the race or gender divide when choosing books -- even if it means encountering resistance. Most kids are ego-centric enough to assume that people like them are the most interesting people on earth, and kids who aren't omnivorous readers are always going to tend to the familiar. But the push is worth making, particularly because as kids find books they like with opposite-gender protagonists (or protagonists of other races), they learn that those books are "for" them too.

In the end, the true determinant of what books kids like is what interests them, not the gender (or race) of the narrator. My son likes Lirael and its precursor, Sabriel, because both books are filled with swords and magic and zombie-like dead people and wonderful characters, including a very irritable cat. Along the way he gets exposed to a little bit of the female psyche as the heroine of the second book, Lirael, obsessively considers her place in the world. I have to think that exposure to girl heroines and girl thoughts in books might make it easier for him to understand girls in real life. And I know that the habit of mind that says "I'm not interested in people who aren't like me" is one that we should confront at every turn, as readers, as writers, as teachers, and as parents.

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Beware the Terrible Trivium

It's December, the month when my list of "Things to Do" begins to divide into long trailing tentacles of "Things to Make" and "Things to Buy" and "Things to Mail" and "Things to Cook" and, somewhere stuffed in-between them all, somewhat shrunken and tentative next to all the others, is "Things to Write." And it's right around now that I take The Phantom Tollboth down from the shelf and reread Chapter 17.

It is in Chapter 17 that Milo meets the Terrible Trivium, a faceless man who introduces himself as the "demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit." Milo encounters him in the Mountains of Ignorance, on his way to rescue the Princesses Rhyme and Reason. The Terrible Trivium asks for help moving a pile of sand using a pair of tiny tweezers and soon Milo is busy at the task, working hour after hour after hour after hour...

"Why do only unimportant things?" Milo asks, when he begins to get wise to the fact that the sand-moving may be getting in the way of the princess-rescuing.

"Think of all the trouble it saves," the Trivium replies. "If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you'll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won't have the time. For there's always something to keep you from what you really should be doing...There are things to fill and things to empty, things to take away and things to bring back, things to pick up and things to put down, and besides all that we have pencils to sharpen, holes to dig, nails to straighten, stamps to lick, and ever so much more. Why if you stay here, you'll never have to think again --and with a little practice, you can become a monster of habit, too."

Norton Juster, the book's brilliant author, knew from experience that there is always something else that a writer can be doing, in fact, should be doing. Not just the December tasks and projects, but errands, childcare, household chores -- the list of Other Things To Do is as endless as Milo's pile of sand. But while the reasons for not writing will always be much longer than the reasons for writing, a writer has to remind herself every day to put down the tweezers and continue the search for Rhyme and Reason. Who will rescue them, if not you?

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The Act of Writing

Therese Walsh just interviewed me for her blog, Writer Unboxed, about the process of writing my novel The Wishing Box. The first half of the interview is up now; the second half of the interview will be posted on Friday and will cover children's books and other genres. I've published three books since that first novel, with a fourth on the way, and so it was interesting to go back and think about how my writing process has changed since then. As I told Therese: 

"I keep hoping I’ll find a more efficient way to work, but so far I’ve found no good substitute for generating a whole lot of words and deciding later which of them I want to keep."

One thing that occurred to me as I read over the interview was that writing never gets easier exactly, but it does get easier to tolerate how difficult it is. Now that I have five books behind me, along with hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles (not to mention a large cache of unpublished work), I have a lot more confidence that if I keep writing, I'll eventually find a way out of whatever thicket I've managed to get myself into. I've also learned that subtraction is a wonderful thing. While I'm always tempted to add more material to whatever I'm working on, at some point I'm forced to start cutting. And when I do, I am struck with wonder at how much clarity and beauty emerges simply by removing the clutter of extra words, ideas, sentences, and digressions. 

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Why We Do This Stuff... A Reminder


It's a grim time in publishing -- every day I seem to hear about another threat to the very existence of books, magazines, newspapers and writers. And as if the news weren’t awful enough, on Sunday, I read an article in the New York Times business section about how e-readers are leading to the proliferation of book piracy, which, in case you haven’t thought it through, means we writers don't get paid. The statistic that got my palms sweating: 

"A report earlier this year by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, based on multiple studies in 16 countries covering three years, estimated that 95 percent of music downloads 'are unauthorized, with no payment to artists and producers.'"

Ninety-five percent? Could that happen to books? The article goes on to talk about, which has become the go-to spot for ripped-off e-books. When asked about the impact of such theft on writers, the site's spokeswoman, one Katharina Scheid, suggested that we learn from the bandNine Inch Nails, which marketed itself “by giving away most of their content for free.” 

OK, I will spare you the stream of invective that came out of my mouth when I read those words. Let me just say that I began having fantasies of planting fake pirated copies of my books on RapidShare which, when downloaded, would launch a video of me taking a sledgehammer to the reader's Kindle (Although my thinking on this just changed a bit -- see update below). Why is it that only writers and musicians are expected to work for free? Why not, say, spokeswomen for piracy purveyors like

And so, like most writers, I’m spending a lot of time worrying about what the future holds. Will books even exist in twenty years? Is writing going to turn into a quaint profession of the past, like farrier or iceman – a colorful job to give to a verbose fictional character, if only fiction still existed?

But then I happened across a video of a second grader who had done a retelling of my book The Sea Serpent and Me, with his own illustrations. And it was so beautiful and touching that I thought: "OK, the pay isn’t great, and it may disappear entirely, but writing for children is still the very best job in the world."


I also found out, belatedly it seems, that The Sea Serpent and Me was nominated for a 2009-2010 Chickadee Award, for which I belatedly thank the kind folks at the Maine Children's Choice Picture Book Project. 


Writer Christopher Meeks took issue with my Kindle-smashing fantasy, in a spirited and very well-informed defense of the device. His argument is that the Kindle's anti-piracy controls make it a friend to writers in these trying times. Here's what he says: 


I love books and have beautiful shelves loaded with books. I'm not going to stop reading real books. Nonetheless, while I do not own a Kindle, I have to defend it because you are misinformed on the very notion that the Kindle helps create or encourage piracy. In fact, it's the opposite. Each author should celebrate the device for copyright reasons alone.

First, each Kindle is registered. Kindle versions of books are purchased from, and your e-book arrives on your Kindle via cell phone techology. Thus, you could be under a tree and bring up a menu of available e-books on Amazon, and with a click, your credit card is charged and your book arrives within a minute on your device. Kindle books are far cheaper than print versions because there isn't the cost of printing.

All you can do is read the book on your Kindle. If you haven't tried it, it mimicks the book experience well. The screen is paperback book size, and it's not like a computer monitor. Rather, the screen looks like ink on a page.

You cannot send a copy of a book to other Kindle users. You cannot print it. When you are done reading it, you can't sell the book to a used book store. One book, one machine. That's it. You're leasing more than owning.

I know a number of writers, by the way, who hate that used books are so easy to get now because that's cut into sales. Kindle books cannot be traded.

There was an uproar in the Kindle community recently after Amazon had discovered that someone had uploaded a version of George Orwell's "1984" and was selling it without holding the copyright. Amazon "sucked up" every copy of the book from people's Kindles and refunded people their money. Until then, Kindle users did not know that was possible to do. Amazon felt the copyright had been compromised and so no one should have it.

Alas, a student who had put electronic notes on his "1984" lost all the context for the notes, and so he sued Amazon. Amazon ended up paying the student $150,000. (You can read about it here:

This all isn't to say your other points aren't accurate. If someone decides to type up your book or a Harry Potter book and put it on the Internet, it's there to find. Many people now expect to get all their music for free, so they'll likely expect the same for e-books.

I'm a fan of the Kindle, though. I made Kindle versions of my two collections of short fiction, "The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea" and "Months and Seasons," and they're selling extremely well--just behind Jumpa Lahiri's "Unaccustomed Earth" the other day on the short story collections list. I sell far more Kindle versions than the print versions. Kindle users tend to be voracious readers. They're open to trying new authors.

I happened to write about this phenomenon more at length here: Writers should cheer the Kindle.



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Everything I Know About Writing, I Learned From A Children's Book, Part 1

The title of this post is literally true. Children’s books are what taught me to love writing and reading, and I began my career as a writer somewhere around age 6 by imitating them as closely as I could. Children’s book writers are some of the wisest, most thoughtful people around, and all the best books for children contain marvelous bits of wisdom, some of which has been collected in Anita Silvey's new book, Everything I Know, I Learned From A Children’s Book. And because children’s book writers are themselves masters of the craft, they often can’t help slipping in tiny lessons on the craft of writing, particularly on writing for children.

For today’s lesson, I turn to Lewis Carroll, whose books are the source in many ways of everything I’ve ever written (astute readers might be able to find the “Pig and Pepper” homage in my novel for adults, The Wishing Box.) Yesterday, one of my students asked me whether picture books have to contain a lesson. Her question reminded me of the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland, who told Alice:

“Everything’s got a moral, if you can only find it.”

Whether everything does or not, I can’t tell you, but I can tell you that every picture book does, if you look closely enough (and sometimes you have to look very closely). But that doesn’t mean that you need to insert a moral into every story – on the contrary! Children dislike being preached to as much as anyone else – perhaps more than anyone else since so many adults feel compelled to preach to them. As one of my students observed when we were discussing this issue, “I remember being a kid and just searching for the messages [in books], and once I had 'caught' the message I would tune out.”

The best children’s books say what they have to say through story. The trick is to let the lesson, or the moral, or what editors like to call the “takeaway,” seep into the pockets of the story, never calling attention to itself but simply allowing the reader to absorb it almost by osmosis. Perhaps you can amuse yourself by trying to determine what the moral of The Night Kitchen is, or what lesson is imparted by Make Way for Ducklings, or The Cat in the Hat. In the meantime, I leave you with Alice and the Duchess:

"I quite agree with you"' said the Duchess; "and the moral of that is--'Be what you would seem to be'--or if you'd like it put more simply--'Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise."'"

"I think I should understand that better," Alice said very politely, "if I had it written down: but I can't quite follow it as you say it."

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What Makes A Book Multicultural?

A year or so ago, I was staffing a booth at a book festival in Stockton along with a dozen other children's book writers and illustrators and a woman came up and asked if we carried any multicultural children's books. "What do you mean by multicultural?" I asked, looking down the table at the fifty or so titles we had on display. "We have books about different cultures. We have bilingual books. We have books with main characters of different ethnicities..." 

The woman looked at me as if I was being obtuse on purpose. "You know," she said,  "multicultural."

So what are multicultural books? I think all of the kinds of books I mentioned qualify, but others may disagree. But all of us should be wrapping our brains around the subject because whether or not we consider ourselves multicultural, our readers definitely are. 

Today I came across a lovely little video series called The Multicultural Minute, produced by Shen's Books,. It's a great way to start thinking about what multicultural means. I particularly like this one, about Interculturalism.

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The Problem with Parents

I was reading an interview with Rebecca Stead the other day in which she talked about why she had set her new novel, When You Reach Me, in 1979.

“I wanted to show a world of kids with a great deal of autonomy,” she explains, “and I wasn’t sure that it would ring true in a modern New York setting. For better or for worse, life is different now.”

That difference was the subject of a fascinating article in the New York Times last weekend about letting children walk to school. In 1969, the article reported, 41 percent of children either walked or biked to school, but by 2001, only 13 percent still did. And a study of San Francisco Bay Area parents with children ages 10 to 14 found that half would not allow them to walk without supervision.

As a parent and as an environmentalist, I have all kinds of concern about the long-term effects of driving children to a playdate seven houses away, as was described in the article. But I also have concerns as a children’s book writer. It’s awfully hard to get a plot going when your character’s parents keep barging into the story and fixing everything in the first chapter, or demanding that Lucy and Edmund call as soon as they get to Narnia to let Mom know they’ve arrived safely and aren’t planning to get into any sleds driven by strange White Witches.

I once had a mystery writer tell me that the first order of business when constructing a scene of peril in a contemporary mystery is to figure out how to separate the protagonist from his or her cell phone. For children’s book writers, the task is similar, except that we have to separate our protagonists from their parents.

The easiest solution to the problem of meddlesome parents is to kill them off. There’s a reason why there are so many orphans in children’s literature, from Harry Potter to the Baudelaire children to Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper to the entire crew of The Mysterious Benedict Society. If that doesn’t work, the next best thing is to send your young protagonists off to the country. The Blitz was a wonderful device for shipping children away from their parents but inventive writers have come up with all kinds of devices: the depression (A Year Down Yonder); illness (The Gray King); a tornado (The Wizard of Oz.)

Still, there are times when you want your children to be at home and not stupefied with grief about their newly deceased parents. And for many years you could count on parents to be slightly oblivious to their children’s whereabouts. As long as they showed up for breakfast and dinner, they could spend their days being whisked off on magic carpets or spying on the neighbors or visiting other worlds. Until now.

Now parents are so involved in every breath their children take that writers have to resort to time travel to get rid of them. Gone are the days when fictional children could wander about by themselves with their friends and siblings having adventures. Of course, between soccer practice, homework, and clarinet lessons, children don’t have all that much time to have adventures anyway, but should an adventure be scheduled for the hours between 3:30 and 5:00 pm, it would quickly have all the fun sucked out of it by parental caution. Planning to travel to another dimension, Meg and Charles Wallace? Better make sure they have cell reception there. Thought you might take a walk in the Hundred Acre woods, Christopher Robin? Not without your mommy!

One wonders what would happen to the child protagonists of classic literature if they were written today. Would Max’s mother have to drive him to the place where the wild things are and sit in the car waiting while he tamed them? Would Alice’s parents have accompanied her down the rabbit hole and read the ingredients on the little cake that said Eat Me to make sure it didn’t have too much sugar or trans-fat? Would Harriet the Spy’s mother have allowed her to go wandering around the neighborhood spying on people or would she have insisted Harriet simply watch reality TV instead? Would Milo’s father have insisted on going with him through the Phantom Tollbooth, just to make sure it was safe?

In my book The Sea Serpent and Me, I purposely created a world in which the little girl protagonist can take a bath by herself, raise a sea monster by herself, and even swim in the ocean by herself. But I did so with much trepidation, knowing that some parents (and at least one reviewer) would find such a world quite puzzling. Children, of course, accept the fiction of a parentless world quite easily – their imaginations are blissfully free of all the cosseting and instruction of their daily lives. But those of us who write for them are finding it increasingly difficult to create a fictional space where they might plausibly have a few adventures. That’s bad news for children’s book writers and even worse news for children.

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Into The Wild

There was an interesting article about Spike Jonze and the film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are in this week’s New York Times Magazine. I’d seen a trailer for the film the week before while catching the latest Harry Potter movie, and wondered “What the ???” If any book seemed unsuited for film treatment, it’s that one, as cinematic as it is. For one thing, the book succeeds so perfectly as a picture book, using 10 perfect sentences and 18 mind-blowing illustrations to create an entire world that expanding it into a film seems like the very definition of gilding the lily. For another, WTWTA is essentially a psychological drama about a child’s anger, rebellion, and self-mastery. The conflict is entirely internal, making it an unlikely candidate for a children’s film. Shrek, yes. Night at the Museum, OK. But Where the Wild Things Are?

As I sat in the theater, watching the trailer unfold, I could not have been less receptive to the idea of this movie being made. Where The Wild Things Are is one of the very first books I remember loving, and it is so much a part of my internal landscape that the sight of the cross-hatched palm fronds on the endpapers is enough to provoke a visceral sense of longing and excitement. Reading a book is a private experience, a conversation between book and reader. My conversation with WTWTA has been going on for more than 40 years and I felt irritated that some noisy Hollywood movie had the temerity to horn in on it.

Yet the images I saw in the trailer seemed to have been lifted from some missing pages of the book. And, as if to quiet objections from purists like me, there was the notoriously curmudgeonly Maurice Sendak himself talking about how he loves the film. The Times article explains that it was Sendak who wanted a movie made of the book in the first place, and that he was the one who approached Jonze.

Jonze, it seems, gets that the book is about emotion, not plot, and that the wild things are internal not external. As journalist Saki Knafo observes in the Times profile,

In Hollywood, successful children’s movies operate on rules straight from the Joseph Campbell playbook. Heroes take journeys, they go on quests, they get lost and try to find their way home. Their motivations are precisely stated, their obstacles clearly identified. In “Shrek,” an ogre sets off on a quest to save a swamp and a princess; in “Spy Kids,” a brother and sister set off on a quest to save their parents. In “Where the Wild Things Are,” Max leaves home as well, but not on a quest. He sees his mother kiss a man who is not his father, and in the next scene, he’s standing atop a kitchen table, arms folded across his chest, shouting, “Woman, feed me!” The outburst escalates into a screaming match, Max bursts into tears and then he’s running — running nowhere in particular, just running, face flushed, tears streaking his cheeks. There are no princesses awaiting him, no swamps in need of rescue, only his frustrated, mixed-up emotions driving him onward.”

The trailer was part of a trifecta of children’s book adaptation previews that also included ones forThe Lightning Thief and A Christmas Carol (OK, maybe this last isn’t technically a children’s book, but it is certainly the Dickens novel that is most frequently shared with children.) Coupled with the upcoming release of the movie version of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, along with recent adaptations of Coraline and Inkspell, the trailers gave me the distinct impression that Hollywood, having run out of old sit-coms to remake, has decided to turn all of children’s literature into a movie.

Overall that’s probably good for children’s literature – authors and publishers need all the help we can get these days and if movies bring us readers and sales, that’s all for the good. Still, as an old-fashioned and rather cranky bibliophile, I tend to feel annoyed at the presumption that a book ever needs to be anything but a book. The trailer for A Christmas Carol, for example, was one of the most nauseating things I’ve ever seen in a movie theater, which is saying a lot. It intercut images of popping, zooming, thudding, whirling special effects with ponderous interviews with director Robert Zemeckis and actor Jim Carey proclaiming their gratitude at being able to finally, with the aid of performance capture technology, show viewers what Charles Dickens would have shown them, if he’d only had a huge production budget and a lot of computers instead of boring old pen and paper.

Comparing the two movies will be interesting, not just because they are different approaches to film-making, but because they embody different ideas about what children want and need. In 1963, when WTWTA first came out, it was considered too scary and strange for children, and there are many young children (my own included) who still find it too intense. Yet compared to the noise and explosions of a 3-D Disney movie, it’s pretty tame stuff. Have children changed all that much in 46 years? Or have we, in our expectations of what they should like, forgotten how much drama can be found in a simple two-page spread of Max and four monsters having a wild rumpus?

I found my answer reading the comments about the trailer that were posted on YouTube. They pretty much all sound like this one:

"When I was a kid, the teacher of 1st grade read the book to all the class. Since then, it was a direct influence on the amount of imagination I have now that im around 20 something."

A direct impact on the amount of imagination I have. That's all anyone who makes anything could ever hope to hear.

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How Illustrators Think

I ended last week's post by observing that genius finds a way. What makes me so certain? Children's books do. Sure there's plenty out there that's uninspired, or only marginally inspired. But there are also books that take your breath away -- books that make me certain that genius is still doing what it has always done -- making readers gasp, sigh, giggle, and swoon.

Earlier this summer, I attended an exhibit called Once Upon A Book at the San Francisco Center for the Book. Illustrator Thacher Hurd curated the exhibit, which featured the works of six illustrators: Remy Charlip, Maira Kalman, Elisa Kleven, David Macauley, Chris Raschka, and Brian Selznick. Those are six of Hurd’s favorite illustrators, and coincidentally they are six of my favorites as well. (In fact, anyone who has ever seen me present at a school has heard me talk about my fantasy of doing a book with Chris Raschka. Raschka and Dashka – wouldn’t it be perfect?)

Thacher was interested in how other illustrators work, and so the focus of the exhibit was on process – what do illustrators do when they work? What are they thinking about? How do they experiment? As a writer of picture books, I was fascinated by those questions too. 

Thacher read us a quote from Remy Charlip, whose book Arm in Arm absolutely delighted me as a child, on the subject of page turns -- something it behooves both writers and illustrators to think about:

A book is a series of pages held together at one edge, and these pages can be moved on their hinges like a swinging door. They could also be half-doors, doors with windows, double doors, like fold-outs, doors with attachments, pop-ups, textures or moving parts, and shaped doors.

Of course if a door has something completely different behind it, it is much more exciting. The element of delight and surprise is helped by the physical power we feel in our own hands when we move that page or door to reveal a change in everything that has gone before, in time, place, or character.

A thrilling picture book not only makes beautiful single images or sequential images, but also allows us to become aware of a book's unique physical structure, by bringing our attention, once again, to that momentous moment: the turning of the page.

Walking through the exhibit with Thacher and several other children’s book enthusiasts this summer, I saw Kalman's drafts and Selznick's sketches and a three dimensional carousel that Kleven made years before she wrote her latest book, A Carousel Tale.  

I learned that Selznick works in quarter size and then has his illustrations blown up so that he can open up the space between the lines. Macauley does his drafts on cheap tracing paper, with little interest in archival preservation. Raschka does complete, illustrated dummies of his books, some of which have never found a publisher. Below is one such book, about the avant-garde jazz musician Sun Ra.

Check out Thacher's incredible videos to learn more about these artists and how they work. They are some of the most innovative, exciting artists working in any genre, and it's a treat to peer inside their minds.

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A Treasure Trove of Old Books

Yesterday, as I was riding my bicycle in the hills near my house, I came upon a garage sale where a man was selling two cartons of old picture books. By old, I don’t mean the discarded, chewed upon Scholastic paperbacks you find at most garage sales, but worn and lovely books from the forties , fifties, and sixties -- the era of Ruth Krauss, Margaret Wise Brown, Charlotte Zolotow, Maurice Sendak, Robert McCloskey, Virginia Lee Burton, Ed Emberley, and Louis Slobodkin. All were early or first editions, all were dog-eared and worn, and all were marked as discards from the library of a local public school.

“Where did you get these?” I asked, sitting down in the driveway to look through the carton. 

The man whose books they were explained that he had worked at the school, and when the library sorted and discarded books, he took home the ones whose illustrations struck him as particularly marvelous, unable to stand the idea of them being thrown out.

He wasn’t a book collector, or a children’s book aficionado, but simply someone who recognized the wonderful quality of these books, with their simple, graphic styles, their limited palettes, and their exuberant genius.

I bought seven of them – all books I didn’t have. They’re too beaten up to be worth much as collector’s items, but they are worth everything in the world as books! Sitting down to read them, I was struck by the quality that made this era of book publishing so wonderful – and that continues to characterize the best of children’s books today.

It is the quality of pure creativity. These authors and illustrators aren’t catering to a market. They’re not trying to sell anything, or be cute, or develop a franchise. They don’t talk down to children in either words or illustration. They knew that children would respond to the best work, to work that was interesting, true, and finely-wrought.

Look at this page from Helen Borten’s book Do You See What I See? which is about the quality of observation that makes art. Everything about this book is gorgeous, the art, the prose, the direct frankness of the conversation with the reader, a conversation that expects that the child reader is also, in some way, an artist.

You see the same thing in Noise in the Night by Anne Alexander, with illustrations by Abner Graboff. A child is afraid of night noises but discovers she can conquer her fears by collecting the noises and then drawing them. Art conquers all.

I can’t resist showing you the pompous wonder of James Daugherty’s guard in Gillespie and the Guards.

Reading these books, I was reminded of a comment Maurice Sendak makes in an introduction to the 35th anniversary edition of The Phantom Tollbooth:

Tollbooth is the product of a time and place that fills me with fierce nostalgia…There were no temptations except to astonish. There were no seductions because there was not much money, and “kiddie books” were firmly nailed to the bottom of the “literary-career totem pole.” Simply, it was easy to stay clean and fresh, and wildly ourselves – a pod of happy baby whales, flipping our lusty flukes and diving deep for gold.

Some writers and illustrators still approach their work that way, but the book industry is far less innocent – and far less interested in cultivating and supporting pure genius. Still, genius finds a way. Next entry, I’ll show you what I mean.

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