Kara Springer’s new piece at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. (image: http://streetsdept.com)

This morning I read a post over at Writers’ Rumpus focussing on what role non-marginalized writers can and should have in the diverse books movement. I’m a white woman writing picture books, and it is a question that I think about a lot.

My first picture book, BAT COUNT, is due out in spring of 2017, and a funny thing happened on the way to publication…

After the publisher bought it, they sent me an author questionnaire. It included a question asking for ideas about the book’s design. My first thought had to do with space — I really wanted there to be space on the pages: the story involves bats, and is set at dusk, and so space and sky felt important.

My second thought was: is there any reason that the characters have to be white?

Posing that question felt both obvious and a little uncomfortable, but it also felt worth asking. Really: just because I — like the majority of the kid lit world — am white, does that mean the characters have to be too? What I wrote, exactly, was:

Also: it would be interesting if the characters weren’t necessarily white. Environmental science fields are disproportionately populated by Caucasians, and it could be a good thing for kids of color to see kids who look like them getting involved in scientific inquiry.

The book is “ficinformational”: it is a reassuring bedtime story and also introduces kids to bats, White Nose Syndrome, and the practice of citizen science. What I wrote in my notes was what I believed, though looking back at those words now, I’m struck by their hesitation. “Interesting”, “weren’t necessarily” and “could be” – there’s serious discomfort there, right? And “Caucasian”?! How about “white”!

There was some white guilt at play, for sure. And some newbie anxiety: are authors allowed to offer this sort of input? And, too, the uncomfortable business of raising questions about race to publishers who I have never met and ultimately know very little about.

Fast forward to this April: I received the first sketches. When I opened the pdf my stomach did a huge flip-flop – not only from the thrill of seeing the story made visual, or because illustrator Susan Detwiler — also a white woman — had done SUCH beautiful drawings, but also because the publisher and she had run with that cautious suggestion: the book’s characters were black.

I panicked. Then I hit the phones and queried all my friends who think a lot about race and social justice – black, white and other – to share my doubts. Was the suggestion patronizing in the first place? Is it not my place to try to right the ship in this one small way?

Everyone was reassuring — but they all also know me. And they’re my friends.

The book goes to the printer in a month. Questions linger though, and new ones crop up. Does it make it more ok that I’m white since the book doesn’t address race or any culturally specific themes? Or: did I just slot black characters into a white world, in some sort of contorted version of black-face?

BAT COUNT, when it is out, will speak for itself in some measure. By some assessments it will seem like a good thing that the book features black characters. By others, it won’t. And still others won’t give it second thought. When I start spinning again on these issues — like I did this morning after reading that post — I sometimes find myself wishing I was in that latter camp and could feel less angst. But hard as these questions are, they are so important. And it’s great that so many people in the kid lit world are jumping in to embrace them.

#pb10for10 – HEART


I just discovered #pb10for10 today, via TwoWritingTeachers. Out here in Central PA, I can’t peruse my own bookshelves for reminders, but I have been close-reading various picture books as a break from working on a middle grade project, so I’m in the groove and will happily jump in with 10 picture books I can’t live without. I’m shooting from the hip for this go-round, and my reasons are all over the place…

  1. PLAY WITH ME, Marie Hall Ets (1955/1976, Picture Puffins). This was my book as a kid. I was the youngest in a big, loud family, and this one never got passed down through the ranks: it was mine and only mine, and in its perfect, quiet way, it totally spoke to me – an introverted kid who loved the outdoors.
  2. CAPS FOR SALE, Esphyr Slobodkina (1940, W.R. Scott). Caps for Sale was the first book that clued me in – as an adult — to the amazing things that could happen between pages and to the magic of the page-turn. And what a page-turn that one, single page turn is!
  3. THIS IS NOT MY HAT, Jan Klassen (2012, Candlewick). LOTS of good page-turns here, and Klassen manages to communicate unimaginable depth with tiny adjustments to his fish’s eyes. Plus, that unreliable, self-rationalizing fish-narrator taps into behavior that’s both kid-like and totally human — and way under-appreciated for its hilarity.
  4. ANDREW HENRY’S MEADOW, Doris Burn (1965, Coward-McCann). An old-school picture book for sure, but I am obsessed with all types of kids’ play – especially what play geeks call ‘constructive play’. I love the world-making that Burn’s kids do in this book, and the dialed-in details of the kids’ obsessive creations. To my eye, Burns’ gorgeous ink work and brilliant use of white space rival Robert McCloskey’s in Blueberries for Sal. (Just ignore the dated gender-roles and stereotypes; it is worth the effort.)
  5. And for what they do with ‘imaginative play’, a couple of more recent favorites: THIS IS SADIE, Sara O’Leary and Julie Morstad (2015, Tundra Books). What a great collaboration — and what a voice. And also Joseph Kuefler’s BEYOND THE POND (2015, Balzer + Bray). Kuefler includes some perfect true-kid details and really fun turns of phrase, along with beautiful illustrations.
  6. CHARLIE PARKER PLAYED BE BOP, Chris Raschka (2004, Orchard – a board book; I think the original came out full-sized in 1997 with Scholastic). I have read the board book version of this book aloud hundreds of times.  The meanings of the words are not the point (though they do matter – hugely); their mouth-feel and rhythm and poetry — and, the way the page turns play in too — make reading this book like singing and listening to and helping make a rocking piece of music all at once. And kids just GET it. Raschka captures the feel of be bop perfectly.
  7. WAITING, Kevin Henkes (2015, Greenwillow). I love the life that Henkes imagines for these toys, and the invisible/implied any-child who is responsible for and loves them. And I love the way that the toys take in the simplest joys of being alive – in much the way their child might. Henkes’ illustrations and layouts are so quiet and so powerful.
  8. ELSIE PIDDOCK SKIPS IN HER SLEEP, Eleanor Farjeon, with illustrations by Charlotte Voake (2000, Candlewick – not sure where/how the text was originally published). This is another old-school, longer-format picture book, and a fantastic read-aloud. Again: incredible rhythm and great, lyrical story — with a sweet little dollop of communitarian politics on top.
  9. OWL MOON, Jane Yolen (1987, Philomel). For its lyrical language, for being about a beautiful quest and elemental relationship, and for capturing so many real emotions in the web of its pages.
  10. GRANDPA GREEN, by Lane Smith (2011, Roaring Brook Press). I lost my dad — an avid gardener — this year, so this one has a particular hold on me right now. It took repeat readings to get a handle on all that Smith has going on in this book as it paints it’s lovely portrait of a particular, imagined life — nearing its end — understood through the eyes and actions of a small child.

All these picture books so clearly GET and are relatable to kids in ways that – for one reason and another – resonate. And they are all loaded with HEART.

HUMOR and HEART were the themes of this summer’s Kidlit Summer School, so maybe this list can also serve as one more big shout out to the kidlit folk who put that great, motivating month together. Thanks Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, Kami Kinard, Marcie Coleen, Dawn Young, and Leeza Hernandez!


This winter I helped put together a list of picture books organized around the four seasons. The books will live at an organization I’m involved with, Smith Memorial Playhouse & Playground — one of those quirky, only-in-Philly, historic institutions that Philadelphia boosters love to tout as an example of what makes Philadelphia so great (which it does).

When Smith came into existence in 1899, it was a radical proposition. A mansion-sized playhouse? (16,000 s.f.) Set in a sprawling, wooded, urban park?! With a 6.5 acre playground!?! Open to ALL KIDS !?!? For free!?!?!

SmithFront hopamerica.com

Smith Playhouse (hopamerica.com)

At the turn of the last century, massive urbanization and child labor sparked new ideas about childhood and the importance of play, and the Playground Movement found great supporters in Richard and Sarah Smith, who built the place in memoriam to their late son, Stanfield.

Smith playground www.northstarmuseums.com Smith Slide mapofplay.kaboom.org

Smith remains a radical proposition today. Visitors still play there at no charge, and you find an amazing degree of socio-economic and racial diversity. Like the city’s public library system – which came into being in roughly the same period – Smith persists as a uniquely Democratic and public mixing-ground. The playhouse and playground serve children from every zip code in this city — plus lots of kids from outside Philly too.

SmithLibrary from www.run-hike-play.com

Smith Playhouse Library (photo: www.run-hike-play.com)

Inside the playhouse a small library occupies a sunny, corner room, offering adults and their charges respite from the hubbub and hosting regular story hours. The library has traditionally been stocked with donated, hand-me-down books. Those donated books are full of animals and able bodied, English-speaking white people. Thoughtful and generous though they are, the books don’t reflect the world that we live in, nor the diversity of families Smith serves: Philadelphia’s 1.5 million residents are 43% black, 41% white, 12% latino, and 6% asian; 26% of our population lives below the poverty line (24K/year for a family of 4). When kids play at Smith, they rub elbows with children from all walks.

(For a super-eloquent argument as to why this state of affairs simply isn’t ok, check out the late Walter Dean Myers’ 2014 NY Times Opinion piece.)


Smith’s setting in a wooded, urban park has long been part of its draw and, in keeping with the ideas of the Nature Play Movement, Smith has lately been doing great work expanding its offerings of nature based play (see here and here).

Staff decided to begin stocking the library more intentionally in conjunction with these initiatives, focussing, for starters, on the seasons. Purchasing new books also presented the opportunity to diversify the collection, and including more African American authors and characters became a logical, first focus.

Smith New Nature Play Area

Smith’s new Nature Explore nature play area (photo courtesy of Smith/Zoe Hillengas)

But finding a range of books that are seasonal in some way or another, and also feature African American characters, has been an uphill battle. I have found some wonderful titles, but not enough.

For WINTER, Ezra Jack Keats’ iconic Peter loomed large – a historic figure in the diversification of children’s books. But beyond that, I only found a few cold-season titles.


51m2i3WyFRL._SY462_BO1,204,203,200_ snow-6-cover1-340x350

SUMMER offered the greatest bounty.

ChickenChasinQueenbeachtail ComeOnRain hotdayonabbott Juneteenth for Mazie MyBestFriend OneHotSummerDay Shortcut SummerSunRisin Summertime TarBeach TwentyYawns

For SPRING, a handful of African American book-kids (or African American authors) plant street trees, grow gardens and splash in the rain. But again, not enough.

IfYouPlantASeed RainFeet TheRainStomper

WePlantedATree Eve Bunting Flower Garden

And FALL seemed to be the season where black folks are most scarce (though you’d think more people would be hanging out on stoops and in yards and in parks, enjoying the cool fall air after the brutal heat of the summer that is recounted in so many of the SUMMER books featuring African Americans.). FALL truly, nearly broke me.

51SVW44CMJL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_A Leaf

Books about the seasons are just one sliver of what’s out there, but seasons are a popular theme in the early childhood world. And in any case, I’m pretty sure that my struggle would repeat with any other thematically organized list as well — unless that list focussed on Africa, discrimination, civil rights, or slavery.

Having so few books to choose from means that a narrow, limited story is being told. During my search, I became hyper-aware of the boundary between books that are culturally sensitive and books that – in the absence of a broader selection of titles and range of stories — reinforce misguided or stereotyped ideas about what it might mean to be African American.

I hope that someone will comment, telling me I’ve missed a huge trove — that I need to know about this or that author or publisher who I’ve completely overlooked. Or, will at least offer up a few more titles. Meanwhile: let’s keep working to write, publish, buy and share with children MORE DIVERSE BOOKS. And, of course, support #weneeddiversebooks.


The list is now in the hands of the generous and wonderful Children’s Book World, where books will be sitting at the check-out counter with a sign asking willing patrons to add the purchase price of one or two to their order on Smith’s behalf. If you shop there, please indulge (or call in a purchase!). And if you’re local and you don’t know CBW: check it out. The Philadelphia region is so lucky to have a great indie bookstore devoted specifically to children’s books!


Sounds like flat-out plagiarism, right? And it would be, if you were trying to pass the words off as your own. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

Somewhere along the journey of thinking and reading and writing about children’s books, I discovered this practice that I find oddly instructive: I copy other people’s books. I don’t do it all the time — it’s an activity I save for picture books that grab me for one reason or another, or that raise some particular question or quandary. But I do do it regularly, and I highly recommend it. (With today’s diminishing word counts in picture books, it’s never a massive undertaking.)

ThisIsSadie waterISwater

... a few of my recent quarries...

(… a few of my recent quarries…)

Once I decide I’m going to copy a book, this is what I do.

First, I get to know the book better: I read it a few more times, a little more slowly and attentively than before. Then, I sit down in front of my computer or my notebook (either is good), go page by page, and re-type or re-write the whole text.

I number the spreads as I go, and break the lines up where the author/illustrator/book-designer breaks them. I use symbols to show where text chunks are separated on the page, and where they are split across the two pages. If the author uses bubble text or plays with the text graphically, I communicate that too. And: I write my own illustration notes.

Pretty simple.

Studying ‘mentor texts’ or ‘precedent books’ or just plain old ‘books you love’ is a great learning tool. Adding in ‘copying’ or ‘rewriting’ can take that pursuit to a whole new level, revealing all sorts of subtleties you otherwise might not see. There’s something about the process of having to write everything down and spell it out for myself that makes me look closer and see more. Sometimes when I’m finished I look back at what I’ve typed up, but often I don’t. Its one of those process things, where just doing it is usually more valuable than the product.

I suppose the next step would be to dummy the books too — although making a dummy of a book that you already have in your hands somehow seems even weirder than rewriting that book. Re-dummying could prove to be just as revealing — or maybe not. It might just make you feel like a human copy-machine, since it doesn’t entail the same kind of dissection.

But still: it might be worth a try.


I started a story a while back that was inspired by this wall decal in my sea-creature-loving daughter’s bedroom:

(From the Etsy shop, MyWallDecals)

(My daughter does NOT have a fancy, white, leather Barcelona chair  — this image is from the Etsy shop where I must’ve gotten the decal, MyWallDecals.)

The first draft focused on a whale with the bad habit of swallowing every interesting thing she encountered. It somehow ended up being more about the whale’s mother and her struggles with having a whale-kid who wanted everythingall the time, and while it was not so much a story for kids, it was certainly one I could relate to. I returned to the manuscript more recently with the goal of making it truly become the little whale’s story; I ditched the mom and introduced a stray cat. It still wasn’t working, and I realized that I’d come to like the cat as much as the whale. It dawned on me that what had begun as a moralistic tale about wanting and acquisitiveness and the gimmes was morphing into a friendship book.

Which led to a recent spate of reading and thinking about friendship books.

Every story is supposed to have a main character (MC): a person or creature or maybe even an animated inanimate object who readers can bob alongside in the currents of hope, despair, triumph and joy. Friendship books have not one but two main characters. Unforgettable classics like Amos & Boris (William Steig), Frog & Toad (Arnold Lobel) and George & Martha (James Marshall) — and more recent favorites, too, like Kate Di Camillo’s Bink & Gollie books and Mo Willems’ Elephant & Piggie series — all fit this mold.

GeorgeMartha Frog_and_toad_cover amos-boris

Bink & Gollie Elephant and Piggie FLY

These books all feature a pair of characters and their interactions, struggles and adventures – their relationships. (Not surprisingly, many have titles that follow the “Friend-A & Friend-B” format.) You might be partial to one of the characters over the other, but both are generally relatable. And young children, who are busily sorting out what it means to have and be a friend, can totally relate to these stories too: in offering up models for this new, non-familial relationship, friendship books provide great templates.

The books are great models for children’s book writers, too, and I’ve gleaned a few things about the workings of friendship books from studying a bunch of them. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  1. The more distinct and quirky — and real and relatable — each friend is, the more readers are going to like them and want to keep reading their adventures. (My ten year old and I — both well past the age of the books’ target audience — still get fired up whenever we come across new Elephant & Piggie titles.) This is basic character stuff, right? And of course easier said than done.
  2. The two friends have character traits that are different — but not exactly opposite. Opposites are the stuff of concept books, and opposites aren’t nuanced enough to define characters that are full-bodied and real. Amos and Boris, Frog and Toad, George and Martha: there’s not a true opposite in the bunch. But there are lots of differences.
  3. The friends have big feelings and behaviors that children can recognize and relate to: fear, mischievousness, impulsiveness, short-temper, resistance. Fear, for one, shows up all over the place: Toad is afraid to be seen in his swimsuit, Elephant is afraid to dance in front of people, Piggie is afraid of the big guy who takes his ball, and Martha is afraid of scary movies (as is George, it turns out — and both turn out to be afraid of the attic as well).
  4. At the end of the day, the two friends have some pretty fundamental, key things in common too: enthusiasm, strong feelings, frustrations, and — of course — a genuine love and appreciation for each other. The Bink & Gollie books have this sweet three-part structure that drives home this idea: in each book one story features Bink’s challenge/struggle, a second features Gollie’s, and in the third the two have a unifying adventure that underscores their commitment and friendship.
  5. The set-ups and themes — like the feelings and behaviors — are also the typical stuff of childhood: trying something new, collecting things, going to a fair, eating sweets, celebrating birthdays, playing hopscotch, jumping off the diving board, having clubs, going to the dentist, etc. (all from George and Martha)

Not surprisingly, most of these observations revolve around character — which is most definitely my ‘growing edge’.

But here’s the cool thing I also realized: while my stray-cat/acquisitive-whale story may or may not remain a friendship book in its next incarnation, when you write about friendship and put a character into relationship with another character — even just temporarily — you learn a ton about both of them, which can only be a good thing for wherever your story goes next. Because like us, our characters exist “in relationship”. Characters — real and fictional — need other people to draw them out, let them act and react, and bring them into some version of three dimensions. Maybe any story would benefit by being a friendship story — if only for a little while.


If you’re inspired to do more mentor text research, here are some other titles offered up by the generous crew over at the 12 x 12 Challenge:

SAM & DAVE DIG A HOLE, Mac Barnett & Jon Klassen
OLLIE & CLAIRE, Tiffany Strelitz Haber & Matthew Cordell
MAX AND RUBY, Rosemary Wells
DILL & BIZZY, Nora Ericson & Lisa Ericson
STELLA & SAM books, Marie-Louise Gay
CHARLIE & LOLA books, Lauren Child
NUGGET & FANG, Tammi Sauer & Michael Slack
BOOT & SHOE, Marla Frazee
PUG & DOUG, Steve Breen

In the beginning reader section of my library, alongside FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS, I also found:

OINK AND PEARL, Kay Sproat Chorao
CORK & FUZZ, Dori Chaconas & Lisa McCue
THUMP AND PLUNK, Janice May Udry & Geoffrey Hayes
PINCH AND DASH, Michael J. Daley & Thomas F. Yezerski
IVY & BEAN, Annie Barrows and Sophie Blackall
BIRD & SQUIRREL, James Burks
AGGIE AND BEN, Lori Ries & Frank W. Dormer
ANNIE AND SNOWBALL, Cynthia Rylant & Sucie Stevenson
HENRY AND MUDGE, Cynthia Rylant & Sucie Stevenson
(These last three are more “kid + pet” stories, where both titular characters don’t quite get equal treatment, but that’s a conversation for another day…)


There’s been a good bit of chatter about being an OLD writer over at Writer Unboxed this past week — first Juliet Marillier’s post, and then another by Keith Cronin. Age is something I have trouble not thinking about.

I married when I was in the second half of my 30’s. We wanted kids, and at that point I had been steeped in articles about the troubles of getting pregnant after 35, so we got to work posthaste.

Miraculously, or so it seemed, I got pregnant about 20 minutes after our wedding. But when I went to the OBGyn for confirmation, I learned that my pregnancy was not just a pregnancy — it was AN AMA PREGNANCY. AMA stands for Advanced Maternal Age, and the label overshadowed the subsequent 7 or 8 months in ways that repeatedly drove home the fact that I was old. Nevermind that up until that point in my life, I had never really been ready to become a mom.


And I thought “AMA” was bad — the current label is “Geriatric Pregnancy”. Ow. (from grownupsmag.com)

My first daughter arrived and, in my new role as “mother”, I developed the unfortunate habit of doing mental math whenever I met or read women who were — or were writing about — mothering. Finding other “old” moms always elicited a satisfied, little, internal sigh. And coming across women who’d done it even later than me became cause for a secret, private party in the less-moored parts of my psyche.

In my mid 40’s, I shifted my work-focus away from landscape architecture and over to writing children’s books, in the process gaining a whole new outlet for my age-comparing habit: I could now apply my math skills to the book-birthing age of authors as well.

I’ve thought about this age thing a lot (not that I’ve stopped doing the math, of course). The thing is: I tried my hand at writing children’s books in my (childless) 20’s too. But back then the business of ‘embracing fear’ was relegated to physical activities like white water kayaking, or bike commuting in the then-less-bike-friendly City of New York. I didn’t have the emotional or psychological wherewithal to commit and struggle and fail in more personal ways.

My writing practice, now, seems to have an openness — and also a level of self-awareness and self-critique — that I really don’t think I could’ve mustered up back then. Physical challenges were doable, but jumping in and writing every day over the long haul, with no promise of recognition or success, was beyond me.

Related to this, too, I don’t think I would have approached character in a way that would’ve gotten me very far. I was more prone to judging and criticizing myself and others, and less inclined to empathize. If you’re going to try to write relatable, full-bodied characters you need some understanding and compassion — for others and for yourself. Some of this has come with age and living, and some evolves simply by writing.

I’m nearing 50 now, and I sold my first picture book last year. More importantly, though, I write every day. My writing practice and the interactions I have within my various real-time and on-line writing communities help me grow and bring me joy that I’m pretty sure I couldn’t’ve found and wouldn’t’ve been open to when I was younger. I may be older than some — or even most — people newly trying to write for kids, but at least I am ready. And despite all my mental math, I’m thinking that readiness probably trumps youth.


I am a junk shopper. A user of used things. An enthusiast of thrift. Like most people, I’ll never argue with a bargain, but my inner-Scot is really not the main driver when it comes to shopping used.

Newness is a must for certain things (swimsuits, underwear, etc.), and the convenience and predictability of what you find in regular stores is inarguable. By contrast, at an emporium of used stuff you rarely see the same thing twice. You can’t go in looking for anything too specific, and you have to enter the process with an open mind. Merchandise there lacks crisp, packaged anonymity; every item has a history — and in that history there are stories, real and imagined.

In my junk shopping I watch for old photos to use as writing prompts and inspiration. My latest, obsessive craft project involves felting old wool sweaters so they’re a current quarry too. And always, there are books, especially — of course — children’s books.

I regularly find used children’s titles I’ve never seen before, and no matter where a book falls on the overall “greatness” scale, it usually offers inspiration ripe for the repurposing and, as often, delightful glimpses into the history of the field.

I recently came across a trove at Benton Antiques in central PA.

RunawaySquash The Runaway Squash (1976), a Little Golden Book story retold by Gale Wiersum and illustrated by Bunky, gives a new (old) twist to that folksy, pumpkins-run-wild/pumpkin-profusion theme that shows up in various autumn favorites (Too Many Pumpkins, by Linda White, Megan Lloyd ill.; Pumpkin Town!, by Katie McKy, Pablo Bernasconi ill., etc). This was the first time I’d encountered  a member of the squash family growing so fast that the kid who planted it had to hold on for dear life as the thing tore across the land and overtook everything it touched. I’ve had fun mulling the pumpkin-as-bucking-bronco and pumpkin-vine-as-vehicle mashups.


I’ve long loved Harper’s “I Can Read Book”s from the 60’s and 70’s, so Leonard Kessler‘s Last One In Is A Rotten Egg (1969, Harper & Row) jumped out at me. I did a double-take when I saw that the cover features an inter-racial group of kids — in a pool no less — at a time when kids books were just beginning to diversify (not that they ever made it that far).

I found Kessler with the help of the generous folks at Purple House Press, who reissued some of Kessler’s out-of-print books, and connected with him through his daughter, Kim. Kim asked her dad about the book’s inclusiveness and whether it had been an issue. She reported back, “He said his editors simply said, it is your book, you make the call… he just felt strongly that his books should reflect real life, and that meant people of all different colors.” His rationale is perfectly straightforward and sensible — while the editorial climate he describes seems unimaginable.

Alexander SoamesKarla Kuskin‘s Alexander Soames: His Poems (1962, Harper & Row) is written at that same early-reader level. Alexander tells his mother “I prefer to speak the speech I speak in poems,” and his mother balks, trying to get him to STOP speaking in poems (never mind that she rhymes a fair bit herself — and not at all ironically). The book drags in the middle as the mother character repeatedly sets Alexander up to speak short, sweet poems, yet there is something so compelling — and right — about the idea of a child character who speaks this way — playing with words and just speak-loving language as we tend to hope kids will.

LittleBoyWithABigHornAnd, there was this little gem, The Little Boy with the Big Horn, (Jack Bechdolt, Aurelius Battaglia ill.) — which belongs alongside my favorite other Karla Kuskin title, The Philharmonic Gets Dressed (1986, Reading Rainbow Books, with Marc Simont ill.). Mid-century Illustrator Battaglia‘s work in this book blew me away (scroll through this great, graphic-filled tribute to see more). The farmer character’s voice made me laugh out loud too: “Drat. The old muley has fallen into the ditch again.” “You can’t play the horn here. It’s enough to sour their milk.”


Since I’ve landed on a book about a kid with a horn, I’ll end with a musical tribute. Scott Bradlee’s great ragtime cover of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” makes a better (and more apropos!) case for the fertile and generative pastime of “thrifting” than I ever could.










Our favorite Philly graphic novel store. (Photo from http://www.geekadelphia.com)

My kids — now 10 and 12 — LOVE graphic novels. And as the children’s book field explodes with great titles in this format, it is no surprise to see more and more picture books using the graphic conventions of comics as well: serial imagery, speech bubbles and the like. Maurice Sendak is often cited as the first, notable author-illustrator to introduce the low-brow graphic conventions of the comic book into the righteous and upstanding world of children’s picture books — with Hector Protector & As I Went Over The Water (1965, Harper Collins), In The Night Kitchen (1970), etc. Like much of Sendak’s work, this adaptation of comic strip conventions was viewed as bold and transgressive — especially in light of mid-century mores that questioned the morality of comic books (check out the mid 1950’s Senate Subcommittee Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency).


A recent project got me wondering about picture books that interweave straight narration with embedded bubble-dialogue, and so I did a quick survey of the field to see what’s out there and what sorts of issues come into play when authors and illustrators combine the two. Given how dialogue and narration ostensibly set up very different sorts of rhythm, I found myself paying a lot of attention to flow and cadence as I looked at these books.

There is a whole batch of books that stick primarily with narration, inserting occasional, short speech bubble dialogue here and there in the illustrations: Tor Freeman’s Roar (2002, Candlewick), Mo Willem’s Knuffle Bunny books (Hyperion), Colin McNaughtons’ Suddenly (1994, Harcourt) and  Oops (1996, Harcourt). In all of these books, relatively traditional narrative storytelling is punctuated with small bits of bubble text that offer these sort of staccato punches within the overall rhythm of the narrative. (Agee’s Terrific (2005, Scholastic) has just a single word in bubble dialogue (“TERRIFIC!”) — on the book’s final page.)


Picture books written entirely in speech-bubble dialogue without a stitch of narration sit at the other end of the spectrum. One challenge of going with straight dialogue in books for young kids might be to find ways of dynamically illustrating two characters simply talking. Luckily though, young children (and animals who behave like them) don’t speak primarily with their mouths like many of us older sorts: the full-bodied engagement of the characters in Mo Willem’s Elephant & Piggy series (Hyperion), his Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus books (Disney-Hyperion), and Dev Petty’s I Don’t Want to Be A Frog (2015, Doubleday) are all plenty dynamic. These authors do a great job, too, of manipulating the rhythms of the dialogue’s back-and-forth to create tension and energy. Adam Rex’s PSSST! (2007, Harcourt), John Rocco’s Blackout (2001, Disney-Hyperion) and David Weisner’s Mr. Wuffles (2013, Clarion) show clearly how also adding serial imagery to the mix can also replace narration. (For the younger set there are quieter, simpler books too, like Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s Bully (2013, Roaring Brook) and Jez Alborough’s Hug (2009, Candlewick).)


Between the books that use occasional bubble-staccatos and those that use nothing but bubble dialogue are many that alternate or combine the two more evenly — books like Susan Meddaugh’s Martha Speaks (HMH Books For Young Readers) books, and a whole bunch illustrated by Harry Bliss: Doreen Cronin’s Diary of a….. books (HarperCollins), Bliss’s own Bailey books (Scholastic), William Steig’s Which Would You Rather Be? (2005, HarperCollins), and Robie H. Harris’s Don’t Forget to Come Back! (2004, Candlewick).

Chris Barton and Tom Lichtenfeld’s Shark V. Train (2010, Little Brown) is an interesting one in this group for offering sparse narrative text but, at the same time, holding together well even when you ignore the bubble dialogue entirely (try it!) — at least until you get to the last two spreads. The bubble-dialogue, here, mostly elaborates on the conflict and emotion that is already boldly communicated in the book’s illustrations.


Aaron Reynolds and Matt Davies’ new Nerdy Birdy (2015, Roaring Brook Press) doesn’t use actual bubbles for it’s dialogue, instead opting to distinguish dialogue with a hand-written font and quotation marks, though the idea is much the same. Some spreads mix dialogue and narration while other page-series are either all dialogue or all narration. In one spot the dialogue is even given dialogue tags in the narration font — so it’s a bit of a mash-up. In any case:  the two work together to effectively tell a story that is all about social dynamics.


In Peter Brown’s My Teacher Is A Monster (2014, Little, Brown & Co.), Children Make Terrible Pets (2010, Little, Brown & Co.), You Will Be My Friend (2011, Little, Brown & Co.), Mr. Tiger Goes Wild (2013, Little, Brown & Co.), etc., speech bubbles tend to be orthogonal and are well integrated with the narrative text and the illustrations — via font, color and graphics. For the most part, the narrative text and the speech bubble text are evenly weighted — except where Brown uses size for emphasis. All these visual clues have a unifying effect, creating a really strong narrative flow.


A Hornbook Calling Caldecott post in 2013 raised questions about how bubble dialogue and the other graphic conventions of comic books fit into the picture book format and how to talk about them in the awards-making process. It seems clear that the floodgates have opened — and to great effect. It should be fun to see what else swims through in the future.



… and lest we think of bubble dialogue as a completely modern convention, check out this 1506 Bernhard Strigel painting. (Wikipedia, “Speech scrolls”)

Ambiguity in Picture Books & Reaching Adults


Last summer, my nine year old and I – with our new, 7 month-old puppy alternating between laps, my father’s ginormous, 80 year-old, wooden, Penn Yan canoe strapped up top, and a rented U-haul trailer in tow – drove from St. Louis to Philadelphia. We took our time, and for a big stretch of the trip (much of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio) Sandra Boynton’s Philadelphia Chickens ended up in the CD player.

It had been a bunch of years since we’d last listened to that music. I couldn’t help hearing Boynton and crew as a sort of Flight of the Conchords Jr.: musically adept and clever – but featuring a little-kid lexicon of farm animals, sweet treats and quotidian routines.

For all that I think about good children’s books, I rarely think about Sandra Boynton. Which is crazy. Because I read my kids’ Boynton favorites literally hundreds of times when they were really little: Belly Button Book, But Not the Hippopotamus, Doggies, Moo,Baa, La La La!, Blue Hat, Green Hat, Birthday Monsters


And I wasn’t like some of my friends who ended up hiding the books or worse, so as not to have to read them one more time. I actually liked them. And enjoyed reading them aloud.

Maybe the books were so ubiquitous for parents like me during that time period that they just sort of became invisible. Though the blank spots in my memory could just as easily have been a bi-product of that period’s sleep deprivation.

In any case, Boynton was well ahead of the trend towards low word counts and high cleverness in books for young children — as if she anticipated parents’ ever-tightening schedules and shrinking attention spans. I’d warrant, though, that concern for accommodating parental impatience had little to do with her creating these tight little books. When you consider the greeting cards she first became known for, her board books feel like a natural extension, formally. Plus she’s a smart adult who doesn’t dumb down to kids or write simply to an idea of what a kid is or needs (you can read her short autobiography here). The incredible rhythm and timing of her spare text and artful page turns (not to mention her humor) — seem clearly rooted in her background in performance and music.

Last week when I sorted through my inbox I came across this appreciation, “The Hidden Depths of Sandra Boynton”, in The New Yorker — written by Ian Bogost. Bogost is a video game designer and researcher — and a contributing editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about technology and pop culture.

His take on Boynton offers a great reminder that children’s books have much to both gain and offer by connecting with the adults who buy and read them aloud. And not just by being short.


Bogost’s interpretations of But Not The Hippopotamus end up being a shout-out to the power of ambiguity, to that end:

It may seem preposterous to read so much into board books. But why? Art becomes great when its potential meanings multiply, breaking free of obvious uses and even creators’ intentions. On the millionth reading, great children’s books can still offer us something new. They become old friends bearing new secrets.

Hear hear!


(And if you make it over to The New Yorker site, check out these other kid lit tidbits that have shown up there recently too: Little Man, by Micheal Cunningham and Re-Reading Children’s Books, a podcast featuring Adam Gopnik, Sarah Larson, Amelia Lester and David Haglund. Oh, and this great piece of kid lit history about Tomi Ungerer, from way back in February.)





Image c. Michael Dyer, with illustrations by Quentin Blake. Taken from FANTASTIC MR. DAHL.

A post about funny books and the termination of the Roald Dahl Funny Prize crossed my digital path today (Picture Book Den: Why we seriously need a new funny prize, by Jonathan Emmett). I never even knew that the Roald Dahl prize for funny books existed. I’m glad to now know that it did — and sorry that it doesn’t anymore: I adored Dahl and his nasty grown ups and most of his books. But the old-school parent in me (and the American Puritan) gets a little nervous over the implication that we should all write funny kids books because kids like funny books best. I think: my kids love sweets more than anything else in the world too, but do I only feed them candy?

Don’t get me wrong: funny is good. Funny is GREAT. Funny is TOTALLY NECESSARY. (My husband and I have a pact that people who don’t have a sense of humor about themselves can’t be our friends. Seriously: they suck. They are NO FUN.)

But at the same time, smart is important. And so is thoughtful. And purposeful. And gritty. And eye-opening. And magical. And reflective. And soulful. And… you get my drift.

In the trade market in particular, funny sells books so it’s helpful to be funny (if you want to sell books). I get it. What’s the point of writing a book if nobody reads it? Or if they only read it because some pickle-faced adult forces them to? But if we only ever ate deserts, everyone would spend their whole lives walking around with horrible stomach aches. Likewise if all we read was silly books I think we’d probably get a bit bored, too.

Books that are funny and smart, or funny and pointed, or funny and heart-wrenching are not quite the same as books that are just plain silly. And they are that much better-received for reaching readers in more than one way too. If some group really does step in to fill the gap in kidlit funny-prize-giving though – as Emmett is rallying for – I vote for the new prizes to be FUNNY AND prizes.

(and check out that gifted robin…)