Monday, November 26, 2012

Review #119: Frog and Toad Together

It's that time of year again... The 2nd Annual 90-Second Newbery Festival is right around the corner!  Each year kids across the land are invited to make short video versions of their favorite Newbery winners, and this year the Z-Kids were eager to have another go at it.

You might know that one of Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad books won a Caldecott Honor for illustration.  But did you know that a different one received the Newbery Honor for story?

We're excited to present our Frog and Toad Fan Film, performed by Isaac (14), Gracie (12), Lily (9), Elijah (7), and Evie (4)...

To watch it larger, you can click here...

If you'd like to see a behind-the-scenes "Making Of" video, click here...

If you'd like to hear Isaac's original free-styling harmonica score, click here...

If you'd like to watch all of our 90-Second Newbery entries, click here...

Author/Illustrator: Arnold Lobel
Published, 1979: HarperCollins
Like it?  Here it is

Monday, October 1, 2012

Interview #17: Grace Lin

We had the extreme privilege of calling up author Grace Lin for a conversation about her life, her art, and her newest book "Starry River of the Sky."  (Official release date, tomorrow!)  This new novel is a companion to her Newberry Honor winning book "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon."  You may remember our review of that title: a special shadow puppet video review.  

Congratulations to Grace Lin for another wonderful tale, and many thanks for the great conversation!  (portrait of Grace Lin by Gracie)

***First a review....

Dad:  Okay guys, tell me your impressions of Starry River of the Sky...
Gracie (age 12):  It was magical!  And interesting.  And exciting!
Lily (age 9):  It's like a mystery story too.
Gracie:  The moon goes missing.
Isaac (age 14):  And the sky is crying.
Gracie:  So the characters have to find out where the moon went.
Isaac:  But the main character can't leave the city.  He can't get away.
Gracie:  And there are lots of little stories within the one main story.  Like, one of the characters will say, "Did you ever hear the story of... the Giant Frog that Ate the Moon?"  And they'll go, "No! Tell it! Tell it!"  Then later that story will tie into their adventure.  All the awesome little stories add up and connect to the main story at the end.
Dad:  You said 'awesome'...  Why are the little stories awesome?
Gracie:  They are crazy!  Like, there used to be six suns in the sky and this guy starts shooting them down with his bow and arrow.  So cool.  And there's this glorious lady who lives on the moon.  But her husband lives on the sun.  So once every month this celestial rooster flies him across the sky from the sun to the moon, and he gets to be with his wife.
Dad:  Tell me about some of the transformations that take place in the book.  Creatures are changing all over the place...
Gracie:  A tadpole turned into a rabbit.  The rabbit turned into a toad.  A different toad turned into a lady.
Lily:  A man turned into a toad.  A white tiger turned into a man.  The mountain spirit turned into a man.
Isaac:  The angry kid turned into a happy kid.
Dad:  So it wasn't just external changes...  There were internal changes too.
Lily:  People changed their hearts. 
Isaac:  Rendi, the main kid, was really angry and he wanted to leave the city.  At the beginning he only cared about himself.
Lily:  But he changed.  By the end he even saved a lot of people from danger by grabbing this girl's bracelet to make everyone chase him, drawing them away from danger.
Gracie:  But we can't say what the danger is...
Lily:  ...or else it will give the story away!
***And now for our chat with Grace Lin!

Grace Lin:  Thank-you guys for the great movie you made for "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon."  That was amazing!  Everyone who has seen it is so impressed.
Gracie:  It was hard.
Grace Lin:  I thought it was amazing.  You could tell how much work you put into it.  I really loved the shadow puppets.  Isaac designed all of them?
Gracie:  Well, Lily and I helped to design the characters, but Isaac built all the puppets himself.  He has them all hanging up in his room now.
Grace Lin:  I should get the publisher to hire you for new trailers.  It was so good.  So thank-you very much!
Dad:  I think we have a special bond with that book now - since we delved into it for so long, crafting puppets and retelling your story.  And after taking such a close look at your work, it seemed like we knew you a little bit too, even though we'd never met.
Grace Lin:  So what did you guys think about the new book?
Gracie:  It was sooo good!
Isaac:  It was awesome.
Lily:  Yeah!
Gracie:  We enjoyed it so much.
Grace Lin:  Oh good, I'm glad.
Dad:  Who's got an interview question ready?
Isaac:  Since you write your books and you illustrate them... what do you like best about each of those things?  What are their ups and downs?
Grace Lin:  The part I dislike most about both of those things is the same.  I really, really don't like writing a first draft.  And I really, really don't like making the first sketches either.  That first "getting it all out" is the hardest part for me.  The part I like best in both is the revising.  Fixing the story is always fun to me.  And after the drawings are done, painting them and adding the color is fun for me. 
Gracie:  Personally, I love to paint.  And I love the way you paint.
Grace Lin:  Oh thanks!
Gracie:  How do you paint like that?  It's so detailed and so pretty...
Grace Lin:  Aw, thanks!  That's a nice thing to say.
Lily:  Yeah, how do you do that?
Grace Lin:  It's just... "Time."  It's just sitting there and painting one pattern over another pattern.  And I think the way I paint is a little bit like how I write too.  If you notice, there are stories within stories.  Layers on layers.  Pattern over pattern.
Gracie:  I got your books "The Year of the Dog" and "The Year of the Rat" for my birthday.  I was wondering, are those books about you?
Grace Lin:  Yes, they are very, very autobiographical. 
Gracie:  So you are from Taiwan?
Grace Lin:  My parents were born in Taiwan, but I was born here in the United States.  All the things that happen in those books, happened in real life.  But a lot of things that might have taken place over the course of two years, I squished into one year in the book.  Or a lot of the stories that my mother tells me in the books were really told to me by my aunt or my cousin.  But I just said my mom told the stories because I didn't want to add too many new characters.
Dad:  Keeps it simpler.
Grace Lin:  Yeah.  So it's not 100% true.  But they are actually all things that really happened.
Gracie:  What about the stories the characters tell in Starry River of the Sky?  Did you make those up, or did you have to do a lot of research to find them?
Grace Lin:  Those stories are inspired by Chinese folktales.  I added a lot of details to them, and sometimes I made changes or switched things around.
Gracie:  Why did you do that?
Grace Lin:  Many of the folktales don't have a lot of details.  So I saw the story in my head, and I added the details to make it more interesting to myself.  And also to tie the individual stories in better with the rest of the book.
Lily:  Why do you choose to use folktales?
Grace Lin:  I enjoy researching Chinese folklore for my own personal reasons.  And I guess I think, "Well since I'm researching, why don't I just use it in my books!"
Gracie:  Cool.
Grace Lin:  Since you've read "The Year of the Dog," you'll know that I grew up here in the United States.  And I didn't know that much about my Chinese heritage.  In fact I really didn't want to know too much.  Nobody around me looked like me.  Nobody else was Chinese.  But when I grew older, I felt really sad that I knew so little, and I wanted to learn more.  Since I'm a children's book author, I like reading stories.  So one of the ways of learning about my heritage that was interesting to me was reading Chinese folktales and fairytales.
Isaac:  We did notice that your stories have a lot of Asian culture to them.
Grace Lin:  I guess writing all these books now is my way of trying to get back the things I missed out on when I was younger.
Isaac:  In Starry River, one of the characters says, "When people tell stories, they share things about themselves."  So we were wondering what this book tells about you?
Grace Lin:  The first thing is one that you noticed -- all my stories are about Asian culture.  So all my stories share how I'm interested in my heritage now.  But specifically in Starry River of the Sky... I guess a lot of that book has to do with finding peace and letting go of your anger.  There were parts of my life when I felt really angry about things.  But there is a Chinese proverb that says, "Holding onto anger is like holding onto a hot coal - it only hurts yourself."  That is something I learned, and that is something I want to share.
Dad:  And since she's shared that lesson through her story, we readers can have a chance to learn it too.
Grace Lin:  You guys might know...  my first husband Robert unfortunately died of cancer.  He was sick for a very, very long time.  When he first got sick, I was really, really angry.  "Why is he sick?"  And then after a while I realized that... me, being angry that he's sick, is just wasting energy.  It's just making my life very, very unhappy.  So I should let go of that anger and find peace, and that's how things can be happier.  I guess that's what I was trying to share.  That's kind of what this book is about.
Lily:  Are there going to be any more sequels to these two books? 
Grace Lin:  I think one more...
Dad:  Gracie got a big smile when you said that!
Grace Lin:  Ha ha...  Although I'm not exactly sure about it!
Lily:  When you made the first book, did you know you were going to make a more?
Grace Lin:  When I finished the first book, there were all these folktales left over that I didn't get to use.  And I had the beginnings of a new story forming in my head, so I wanted to do a second book.  There was supposed to be a third one, but all my ideas for the third book got squished into the second one... Ha ha... So I'm kind of out of ideas now!
Dad:  Uh oh.
Grace Lin:  But I do know for the third one, I want it to deal with water.  Where the Mountain Meets the Moon deals with the sky... the heavens.  Starry River of the Sky deals with the earth... the mountain.  And I wanted the last one to deal with the oceans or the seas.  That was the idea for doing a third one... although I still have to work on what it's exactly going to be about.
Gracie:  How did you feel when you got a Newbery Honor for Mountain Meets the Moon?  Did you jump up and down and do a happy dance?
Grace Lin:  I did actually!  It's every author's dream to win one of these big awards.  But you don't even want to think about it ahead of time because it's such a big deal and you don't want to jinx yourself.  So the night before they announced the awards, all these people started saying, "I heard a lot of buzz that your book might win something tomorrow."  And I said, "Don't tell me! I don't want to hear anymore!"
Gracie:  Ha ha ha!
Grace Lin:  My editor said, "I have to get up super early, like five in the morning, for award day tomorrow."  And I said, "Don't tell me! Don't tell me!"  But of course I got it in my mind that the awards would be announced at five in the morning.  So the next morning at 5:00, I woke up.  No one is calling.  And I thought, "Oh I didn't win."  Then 6:00.  Nobody calls.  "Oh, I didn't win...  That's so sad...  Who cares...  It doesn't matter...  Newbery Schmubery..."
Kids:  Ha ha ha ha...
Grace Lin:  Then at 10:00 I got a phone call: "You got a Newbery Honor!"  I had already gone into a whole circle of -- who cares, it's not a big deal.  Then I had to go back -- Oh, I guess it is a big deal!  It was a really exciting morning.
Dad:  One final question...
Lily:  What's the best thing about making chapter books versus the best thing about making picture books?
Grace Lin:  One of the reasons I love writing chapter books is because of things like this -- getting to talk to you, the actual readers of the book.  With picture books I do sometimes get to talk to the readers, but usually they are very, very small - very young - and they don't say as much.  Whereas the readers of chapter books have so much they want to talk about and so many things they want to ask... I really, really enjoy that.   I really like the readers' feedback for chapter books.  That's why I love doing them.
Gracie: (sweetly)  Awwww... We're the best thing about chapter books?
All: Laughter
Grace Lin:  Yes, you are!  Definitely!
Gracie:  That's so sweet, thank-you!
Dad:  Well thank-you for the conversation, Grace Lin!
Lily:  It was nice meeting your voice!
Grace Lin:  It was nice meeting you!  I'm glad you like the book.
Gracie:  Oh, we loved it.

chasing after Rendi, by Lily

WangYi visiting the Moon Lady, by Gracie

white tiger changing into a man, by Isaac

Author/Illustrator: Grace Lin
Published - October 2, 2012: Little Brown
Like it?  Here it is...

Monday, July 23, 2012

Review #118: Mal and Chad

Dad:  What book are we reviewing today?
Evangeline (age 4):  Mal and Chad.
Lily (age 9):  It's by Stephen McCranie.  He sure can draw.  He's good.
Dad:  What kind of book is this?
Lily:  It's a comic book.  A graphic novel.  And there is a sequel.
Elijah (age 6):  I like these kind of longer books best.  The longer they get, the better they are.  There is more exciting stuff.
Lily:  This is an adventure story.  It's interesting - very interesting and fun.
Dad:  Who is the star of the story?
Lily:  There's this kid named Mal.  His real name is Malison.
Dad:  Malison?
Lily:  Malcoe.
Dad:  Malcoe??
Lily:  I don't know!
Dad:  Malcolm.
Lily:  Yeah!  Malcolm!  And he has a dog named Chad.
Evangeline:  Chad talks - which most dogs can't do. 
Elijah:  Having a talking dog would be awesome!  Then I would be able to know what dogs are actually saying.
Evangeline:  The dog eats person-food because he doesn't like dog food.  It's yucky.  If I ate dog food, I would try to throw it up in a bucket.
Elijah:  If Evie ate dog food, she would have to get her belly pumped.
Dad:  Tell me more about Mal.  Was he a normal boy?
Lily:  No.  He's a genius.  But he doesn't want anyone to know that he's a genius who could go to college -- he wants to stay in his class with Megan, the prettiest girl in the world.
Evangeline:  The girl in the book is my favorite.  That one.  And I like those two girls too.
Dad:  What kinds of things could Mal do?
Lily:  Build a whole bunch of inventions.
Dad:  Big brother Isaac is the inventor in our house.
Lily:  Yeah but Isaac is not as smart as Mal.  Isaac builds little models of robots that don't work.
Evangeline:  But Mal made a backpack that could fly.  And he made a rocket ship.  I would love to ride in it.
Lily:  And he made a Yum-Sauce.  Which I want!  It makes any yucky food taste like your favorite food.  Actually, before I even read this book, I always wished I had a superpower where I could think of food tasting like something else and it would taste like that thing.  That would be awesome.
Dad:  So Mal invented the superpower you always wanted.
Lily:  Yeah.  He also has this rubber ducky -- a modified rubber ducky.  He squeezes it, and it turns into a giant duck boat.
Evangeline:  And Mal made this thing that sucked him up, and he shrinked. 
Lily:  They shrank themselves with an old vacuum cleaner that Mal modified.  They wanted to try out scuba diving, so they shrank and went into the sink. 
Evangeline:  There's a straw they slide down like a waterslide into the sink.
Lily:  They licked some suckers that are very special -- suckers that he modified.
Dad:  I think "Modified" is the word of the day.
Lily:  They lick the modified suckers, and then they can hold their breath underwater for a whole entire hour.
Dad:  When I was a kid, I used to imagine that I could shrink down little and run around the house.  I would take my Star Wars figures and crouch down so I could see things from their size and pretend I was climbing up bookshelves and chairs and swinging around on curtains.  Do you guys ever imagine things like that?
Lily:  Yeah, I always pretend that I can turn Polly Pocket sized, and then I can wear all their clothes and run around in their clothes.
Elijah:  But Pollys don't have underwear!  You wouldn't have underwear on!
Dad:  What would you do if you could shrink, Elijah?
Elijah:  I would take my stuffed animals and pretend there is a giant animal that is going to eat me.  Then I would take another animal and kill that animal.  And then another animal to kill that animal.  I would keep going until there was only one left, then I would eat that animal.
Dad:  Lovely.
Elijah:  Ha ha hah!
Dad:  What's one other major thing that Mal invented?
Evangeline:  He made an elevator that could hop away.
Dad:  Did the elevator go up and down?
Evangeline:  No, it did something weird.  It hops around in different places.  Not like the elevator at our library - that one goes up and down.  Mal's elevator went to places.  It went way far away.  To dinosaurs!
Lily:  It's an elevator time machine.  A MODIFIED elevator.  So they go back in time to dinosaur times.  When they get there they see weird lumpies in the water, but it's just the noses of longneck dinosaurs underwater.
Evangeline:  Then there was a dinosaur egg that was cracking.  But just a little one came out. 
Elijah:  He was a cute little squeaky one!
Lily:  They named him Charlie.
Evangeline:  Then there was a dinosaur behind them.  A big one.  And it chased them away!  Then it crashed all of them. 
Elijah:  A killer dinosaur adventure!
Dad:  If you had genius inventing powers, what would you make?
Elijah:  I would invent a robotic bed.  It could turn into a house.  And it can turn into a robot pizza that spies on people when it shrinks.  It could throw off pepperonis at people to kill bad guys.
Dad:  Lovely.  What if you could have any of Mal's inventions, which one of those would you pick?

Lily:  I want the duck boat.
Elijah:  Yeah - that duck boat was awesome!  But I would want the time machine.  I would go to Viking days.  Actually, first I would get a dinosaur.  Then I would take him to the Viking place so he could eat all the Vikings.
Dad:  Lovely.  So if Elijah was a genius, apparently he would be an evil genius.
Elijah:  Hee hee hee ha hah!
Dad:  His plans would involve attacking different things throughout history.
Elijah:  Mal only used his powers to keep people safe.

Mal, Chad, and Megan, by Evangeline

running from a pterodactyl toward the time machine
by Elijah

Mal, Charlie, and Chad riding their duckie past a longneck
by Lily
Author/Illustrator:  Stephen McCranie
Published, 2011: Philomel
Like it?  Here it is

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Interview #16: Lane Smith

Out of literally hundreds of newly released picture books that I read in 2011, my favorite of the year was "Grandpa Green" by Lane Smith.  Clearly it was a favorite for many because it received a Caldecott Honor, announced in January and presented in ceremony just last week.  The kids and I are delighted that Lane Smith set aside some time to have a conversation with us about his latest achievement!  Author and illustrator of many books, Mr. Smith is probably best known for "The Stinky Cheese Man" (also a Caldecott recipient) which he made with Jon Scieszka.  Another family favorite is "The Happy Hocky Family" which the kiddos reviewed a couple years ago.  Thanks so much to Mr. Smith for the fun conversation!  
(Portrait provided by Gracie)

We'll start with a Bookie Woogie review of Grandpa Green: 

Dad:  At first glance, what does this book appear to be about?
Gracie (age 11):  A little boy and a bunch of trees.
Dad:  But what do you find if you look closer?
Isaac (age 13):  The grandpa's life story.
Dad:  And if you look even closer, what do you discover?
Gracie:  Symbolism.  I think the book is about time passing and about memories.
Isaac:  It's a deep story.  Very deep.
Gracie:  And it's gorgeous.  It has really amazing artwork.
Isaac:  The art tells more of the story than the words do.  The words alone might be boring without the pictures.  But the art turns the story into something awesome.
Gracie:  The book is about this nice old guy who keeps forgetting things.  But he starts telling his life story through his garden.
Lily (age 9):  He had a big life.  The grandpa put his story into all the bushes that he carved.
Gracie:  And the little boy gets to run through the garden and figure the story out.
Lily:  He shows his life through leaves...  A lovely life through leaves.
Isaac:  That's why there is an elephant on the cover.  Because an elephant never forgets.
Gracie:  And the garden doesn't forget either.
Dad:  How did the story make you feel?
Gracie:  Like old people are freaking awesome.
Isaac:  The art in "Grandpa Green" is very different than in Lane Smith's other books.  I didn't even know this book was by the same dude at first.  His older books look bold and solid with lots of shading.  This book is more open and spaced out with lots of spots left white.
Gracie: (flipping through the book)  I LOVE this picture.  I love that tree.
Lily:  It's the best climbing tree ever.
Gracie:  No two trees in this book are alike.
Lily:  Some are loose and hangy. 
Gracie:  But I love this tree.  It's all old and you can see the roots sticking up out of the ground.  It's so detailed.  The branches are all twisty. 
Lily:  They go every-which-way.
Gracie:  It makes me want to jump into the book and make a tree house.  It's the perfect tree for a tree house!  It's the world's best climbing tree, freaking-ever!

And now a Bookie Woogie conversation with Lane Smith:

Lily:  Hi!!!
Lane Smith:  Well hey! 
Gracie:  Congratulations on winning your Caldecott Honor!
Lane Smith:  Yeah, that was cool!  They gave me one 20 years ago for "The Stinky Cheese Man," so I figure if they just give me one every 20 years I'll be happy.
Kids:  Ha ha ha hee ha!
Gracie:  Were you really excited when you got the phone call and found out you'd won?
Lane Smith:  Actually when they called I wasn't there.  I was outside playing with my two cats, Noodle and Pretzel.
Gracie:  Noodle and Pretzel!
Lane Smith:  Then I remembered it was announcement day, so I went into my office and found the voicemail saying that I'd won and had missed their call.  So I had to call them back and admit that I wasn't waiting breathlessly by the phone.
Dad:  And you attended the Caldecott award ceremony just last week, right?
Lane Smith:  Yeah.  This year it was held in Anaheim, and 35 years ago I used to work in Anaheim - I was a janitor at Disneyland.
Isaac:  Cool!
Lane Smith:  I used to walk around with my pan and broom and sweep up popcorn outside It's a Small World.  I remember seeing those topiaries in front of the ride, studying how they were made and how they grew.  Who would think that 35 years later I'd do a book called "Grandpa Green" about topiaries and that when they gave me the award, I'd be back in Disneyland Country picking it up.  That was kind of fun.
Gracie:  When you win a Caldecott, do they give you an actual medal?  Or a certificate?  Or do they just give you stickers on your book?
Lane Smith:  You get a sticker on your book, which is very cool.  But also, on award night the gold medal winner gets a big gold medal.  Then the Honor winners get a shiny plaque with a silver sticker on it.  But the plaque is pretty cool.  And you also get free cake and free chicken and all kinds of good stuff.  Ha ha...
Isaac:  Where are you going to keep your plaque?
Lane Smith:  The first plaque I won for "The Stinky Cheese Man" I gave to my mom.  And the new one I got for "Grandpa Green" I gave to my wife Molly who does all the typography on my books with me.  She has a separate office near mine, so I gave her the plaque.
Lily:  How do you work on the books with your wife...  Do you sit right next to each other, or do you send each other stuff?
Lane Smith:  When we lived in New York City, we had our little desks side by side.  But I think my music was driving her crazy.  So when we bought a new house in Connecticut, she made sure I had a whole separate building to work in.  Ha ha ha... 
Dad:  She likes it quiet?
Lane Smith:  No...  She doesn't like it quiet...  She just doesn't like my music!
Kids:  Ha ha ha hah...
Lane Smith:  If I'm working on a book about sailors, I like to play old sea chanteys.  And if I'm working on a book about the West, I like to play old cowboy music.  It drives her a little nuts.  But in her office she has a t.v. with the Food Network playing all day long, and that drives me crazy.
Dad:  That might be good accompaniment for Stinky Cheese Man paintings.
Lane Smith:  Right, programs about cheese and olives and bacon.  Well, I now work in a 100 year old schoolhouse...
Isaac:  That's pretty cool.
Lane Smith:  And she works in another building a field away.  Each day we email our work back and forth.  Then at some point I call her up and say, "Hey, let's go to lunch."  Ha ha... That's when we get together.
Isaac:  When you were working on "Grandpa Green," did it feel different -- were you thinking it could win an award?
Lane Smith:  No, I really didn't.  You never know which books will catch on and which ones won't.  You just have to keep on doing them.  I got lucky with one.  Woo hoo! 
Dad:  Hopefully with many more to come!
Lane Smith:  It was a nice surprise to win an award.  Those committees have 15 different judges that have to agree on your book.  My work is always so weird, I just figure it's never going to win anything.  I love the Caldecotts, and I love the books that get picked every year, but I just figure those aren't the kind of books that I do.
Gracie:  We noticed that Grandpa Green is different from your other books.  It is deeper and more serious.
Lane Smith:  Yeah, it was more serious than my other goofy books.  So I suppose it had that in it's favor.
Gracie:  What inspired that change?  Why did you decide to do a book like this?
Lane Smith:  Hmmm, I don't really know where that came from.  I'm getting older now... so maybe I was thinking more seriously about life.  About one life.  About putting a whole life into one book.  How could I do that symbolically?  Instead of literally showing a picture of a little boy and then a picture of a teenager and then a man, I thought it would be interesting to show it all through trees and plants.  Visually it's more interesting. 
Isaac:  So the grandpa's life was the starting point for the book and not the trees?
Lane Smith:  Well, it was probably a combination.  From the visual standpoint, I've always wanted to do something with topiaries.  And I've always wanted to try a book with one color throughout, so I wanted to keep the palette all green.
Gracie:  We loved that.
Lane Smith:  It was an interesting challenge.  Because I also wanted to keep the boy in simple, uncolored outlines.  But in order to achieve that, I could never put him in front of a bush or he would look like a white ghost.  I always had to figure out a way to leave a white space open on the page for the boy so I could draw him in an outline.
Isaac:  That's cool...
Dad:  We'll look for that when we read it now!
Lily:  If you could trim your own real hedge, what shape would you make it?

Lane Smith:  When we moved to the country and got a big backyard, I always thought I was going to make a giant Stinky Cheese Man topiary.  But I never got around to it.
Isaac:  That would be awesome!
Gracie:  Hee hee hee!
Isaac:  Does the Stinky Cheese Man stalk you everywhere you go?  Do you enjoy that he's still so popular, or does it start getting annoying that he always keeps coming up?
Lane Smith:  You can't get away from stinky cheese...  it stinks too bad.  No, it's really an honor to have done a book that is over 20 years old, is still in print, and people still know about it.  I'm happy. 
Isaac:  That's good.
Lane Smith:  When you meet people for the first time, they'll say, "Well, what do you do."  And - you probably get this, Aaron - you say, "I do kids books."  And they'll say, "Do I know any of them? Name some!"  And I'll start naming them...  "Never heard of it.  Never heard of it.  Never heard of it."  But if I say "Stinky Cheese Man," most of them will say, "Oh, I know that one!"
Gracie:  That happens to Daddy with "The Hiccupotamus."
Dad:  Ha ha, Oh, I wish...
Lane Smith:  Yeah!  Everyone knows that book, come on!
Dad:  Yesterday when we were preparing for this interview, I gathered up all your books that we have in the house.  The kids and I were about to go over "The Stinky Cheese Man" again, and my wife came over from the other side of the room.  She knows about the book, but had never read it.  She said, in sort of a challenge, "Okay, I'm going to listen to this one and see if it's worthy of all the hype it gets."
Gracie:  She started cracking up when we were reading "The Stinky Cheese Man."  My Mom was laughing her head off.
Lane Smith:  Oh, that's good that it still holds up!
Dad:  So she's a fan of that one now too.
Gracie:  My Mom also says she has a great amount of respect for anyone who can think up something as awesome as "The Happy Hocky Family."
Lane Smith:  Excellent!  That's one of my favorites!
Gracie:  We love "The Happy Hocky Family!"
Lane Smith:  When I do a book signing, if there are 100 people in the line then maybe one out of that hundred will be a Happy Hocky fan.  But it's always the weirdest person in the line.  Which I like!
Dad:  Ha ha ha --We're in good company then.  That's definitely our "family favorite."
Gracie:  We have 14 of your books, and we noticed that 7 of them you made with Jon Scieszka, and 7 you made by yourself.  Half and Half.  What is the best part about working on books with other authors, and what is the best part about working on books by yourself?
Lane Smith:  When you read another author's manuscript for the first time, it's already a fully formed story.  So you can already start thinking about what style and shapes and colors you'd use.  It's fun to illustrate someone else's words... but you are interpreting their vision.  When you write your own work, it's 100% yourself.  The themes are more personal.  And it's more exciting because you are the writer, the director, the set designer, the actor, the producer.  That's the most rewarding.  When I work with other writers, I like the ones that have the same sense of humor as I do.  Jon definitely has that. 
Gracie:  Speaking of Jon Scieszka and collaborations... we thought of some other partnerships we know.  For each pair, we want you to tell us which one is you and which one is Jon Scieszka.
Lane Smith:  Okay...
Isaac:  Rocky and Bullwinkle.
Lane Smith:  Ah, ha ha!  Jon would be Bullwinkle.  I would be Rocky -- I think he was a little smarter than Bullwinkle even though he was shorter.
Gracie:  Peanut Butter and Jelly.
Lane Smith:  Oh, that's a good one.  I would be peanut butter.  I don't even think Jon likes peanut butter.  But I have to have it every day.  I would be peanut butter.  And I would be smooth...  Jif...  peanut butter.
Dad:  Absolutely!  That's the only real peanut butter there is, right?
Lane Smith:  You don't want that chunky Peter Pan!  No way.
Gracie:  Next one...  Legolas and Gimli.
Lane Smith:  Who???
Gracie:  From Lord of the Rings?
Lane Smith:  I never read those books!  In highschool, all the nerdy guys were reading Lord of the Rings and I thought I was too cool for that.  Of course they thought I was a nerd because I was reading Spiderman.  I'll have to pass on that one...
Isaac:  Calvin and Hobbes.
Lane Smith:  That's a tough one too.  I was always more of a Peanuts fan.
Gracie:  Gasp -- I LOVE PEANUTS!!!
Lane Smith:  Excellent!  They were a big influence on my work.
Gracie:  So I'm going to change the pair: Snoopy and Woodstock.
Lane Smith:  Excellent.  I want to be Snoopy.  He had the best imagination, pretending to be the Red Barron...  Jon can be Woodstock with the word balloon over his head full of "dit dit dit dit dit..."
Lily:  Are you Lucy or Ricky?
Lane Smith:  Ha ha!  Lucy or Ricky?  Is that what you asked?  I would be Ricky Ricardo.  But Jon wouldn't be Lucy, he'd be Fred Mertz. 
Dad:  And your reason....  Is it hairlines?
Lane Smith:  Ha ha ha hah ha...  No, he's the obnoxious neighbor coming over to bug me.  Ha ha ha...
Gracie:  Here's the last one...
Lily:  Pooh and Tigger.
Lane Smith:  Ha ha hah!  I'm going to say I would be Tigger.  And Jon would be Poo' - for obvious reasons.
Kids:  HAH ha ha hah ha haaa ha haaa!
Dad:  Well, thanks so much for talking with us!  And again, congratulations on your win.
Gracie:  You totally deserved it.  I love your "Grandpa Green" book.
Lane Smith:  Well thank-you.  I'll be looking for all of your books when you kids start publishing your own.  It was great talking with you guys.  Hey, where are you guys calling from?
Dad:  We're in Michigan.
Lane Smith:  Excellent.  That's the land of Scieszka. 
Dad:  Yep...  He grew up here.
Gracie:  I didn't know that.
Lane Smith:  And Laurie Keller is there, right?
Dad:  Yes.  Not far from us.  We run into her every once in a while.
Lane Smith:  She does good work.  The next time you see her, give her a doughnut from me.
Dad:  We actually went to her house once and she served us doughnuts.  It was the coolest thing ever.
Lane Smith:  Ha!  I think she has a doughnut factory hidden on her property.
Gracie:  If we visit you, will you give us stinky cheese?
Lane Smith:  Yeah, if you guys come visit me, I will personally give each of you a big chunk of stinky cheese and make sure you eat it.
Gracie:  Awww....
Dad:  Afterward we'll trim your hedges for you.

garden, by Isaac

Lily hedge, by Lily

tree, by Gracie

Author/Illustrator: Lane Smith
Published, 2011: Roaring Brook Press
Like it?  Here it is

Monday, April 30, 2012

Review #117: The Order of Odd-Fish

Gracie (age 11):  We are reviewing The Order of Odd-Fish, and it is SO weird. 
Isaac (age 13):  It is crazy.  You will never read anything else like this. 
Lily (age 9):  It's very odd.  And you don't know what's going to happen next... so it's also kind of fishy. 
Isaac:  Silly.  And sometimes it's nerve-racking and suspenseful.
Dad:  From the very fist page we could tell this book was a little different.  But when did we know this book was totally off the rails?  When did we know that we were in for a very strange experience?
Gracie:  The flying head.  The first weird thing that happens is Mr. Cavendish's head flies off...
Dad:  Well, that's not the FIRST weird thing.
Gracie:  Oh yeah... before that, there's this giant talking cockroach...
Dad:  That's not even the first weird thing.
Gracie:  There's a guy with this weird digestion...
Dad:  THAT's not even the first weird thing!
Lily:  HA ha ha ha!
Gracie:  Colonel Korsakov comes along and he's got this magic digestion that tells him what to do.  So it's like... 'okay, that's weird.'  But by the time you get to the 3rd chapter in the book, talking digestions don't seem weird at all because Mr. Cavendish's head flies off and starts buzzing all over the room!
Lily:  It was very crazy.
Gracie:  The main character is Jo, and she works at a diner.  The only people in the whole town are old senior citizens.  Her Aunt Lily, who is kind of nutso, finds this black box, and she says, "I'm going to do a magic show!"  She stuck the box on Mr. Cavendish's head and cranked it, and Mr. Cavendish's head popped out of the box and started flying around!  And there was this crazy lady who started throwing waffles everywhere trying to hit the head.  All the old ladies were like, "Catch him! Bring him back!" And all the old men were like, "Go, Mr. Cavendish! Be freeeee!"  That's when we first thought, "What the heck is up with this book?"  I was laughing so hard.
Dad:  Okay, let's back up.  Tell me more about our main character Jo.
Gracie:  Jo is all mysterious.
Lily:  When she showed up as a baby, a note came with her.  "This is Jo.  Beware... she is a dangerous baby."  Bum-bum-BUM!
Isaac:  There was a really bad prophecy about her that said she was a monster called the Ichthala. 
Gracie:  It's going to destroy the world.
Isaac:  But Jo doesn't want to become a monster.  Everybody wants to kill the Ichthala.  But they don't know that it is Jo -- only she knows.
Gracie:  She feels like a living lie.
Isaac:  She doesn't know what to do.  She wants to tell somebody, but everyone will freak out and hate her.
Dad:  So that's something you don't always see... The main character of our story is the hero AND the villain.
Isaac:  There were lots of villains.  Ken Kiang is a millionaire who is attempting to be evil.
Gracie:  He wants to be the most evil person ever, but he can't because the Belgian Prankster is the worst.
Lily:  The Belgian Prankster can pluck his nose off and grow a stinger.  He also is really good at making balloon animals.
Gracie:  And he filled the Grand Canyon with tapioca pudding.
Dad:  Tsk tsk... how evil of him.  And tell us, what exactly is the Order of Odd-Fish from the title?
Gracie:  The Odd-Fish live on this island.  Jo and her friends get there after being swallowed and spit out of a big fish.  Colonel Korsakov was like, "Halleluiah! I'm in a giant digestion!"  The Order of Odd-Fish is an organization made up of all these knights that study ludicrous things.  Like... the leader is Sir Oliver, and he studies "Dithering."  Sir Festus studies insane weaponry.  Sir Alasdair and Dame Isabel study weird musical instruments and interesting smells.
Lily:  All the knights get a flying ostrich, and they ride all around on them.
Isaac:  The book has very weird creatures. 
Gracie:  Flying ostriches, talking cockroaches, Nangnangs, the Schwenk...
Isaac:  The Schwenk is a creature with four wings and it's very colorful.  It likes to be hunted.  Colonel Korsakov has a quest...
Gracie:  He's the "digestion" guy.
Isaac:  He has to capture the Schwenk.  That was his life's goal.  But the Schwenk always gets away before he catches it.
Lily:  There are also howling squids.  Jo and her friends go over to a big pit and get swallowed up into water. Then they ride around on squids in the diamond-walled tunnels and get chased by evil underground monkeys.
Gracie:  It's not something you see everyday.
Lily:  It's freaking awesome.
Gracie:  This is nothing like any other book.  It's so weird. This guy has an awesome imagination.  I love whoever wrote this book.  James Kennedy rocks. 
Dad:  The book is packed full of crazy.  So much more.  We haven't even begun to scratch the surface.
Gracie:  Kids will love this book... Unless you are some abnormal kid that likes broccoli and is all serious about the world.

underground squid riding, by Lily

Mr. Cavendish's flying head, by Gracie

Ken Kiang rides the schwenk, by Isaac

Author: James Kennedy
Published, 2008: Random House
Like it?  Here it is

Monday, April 23, 2012

Linkin' blogs

I visit lots and lots of blogs in my own personal efforts to keep tabs on the world of children's literature.  Out of hundreds of sites, there are four that rise to the tip of the top, and I have permanent links to them at the bottom of that column to the right.  The links have been there for years, but I've never called attention to them before... so I thought I'd do so now!  And I had fun making  a little piece of art to accompany each one.  These are the 4 sites that I consider to be the very Best of the Kidlitosphere...

A Fuse #8 Production:

Betsy Bird, a New York children's librarian, is hands down Queen of the Kidlitosphere.  Her blog "A Fuse Number 8 Production" was picked up by School Library Journal a number of years ago, and for good reason.  She has an addictive style of writing, comprehensive kitlit content, and an insane posting frequency.  And the list of links she has on her page will take you anywhere that's worthy of going in the children's literature world.  Her blog is a required daily stop for me.  In fact, I discovered her Fuse 8 shortly after she started it around 2005/2006.  I do believe I've visited the site for every entry she has ever posted.

Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast:

7-Imp is the single greatest online resource for lovers of picture book illustration.  Jules Danielson regularly highlights, celebrates, and champions wonderful and diverse illustration art.  She interviews top illustrators working today.  She also features right-out-of-school, up and coming illustrators.  Publishers send her art to showcase from upcoming releases before you can see it anywhere else in the world.  And in my own opinion, her annual year-end recaps are the single greatest thing on the web -- I daresay they justify the existence of the internet.

Just One More Book:

In this podcast, a husband & wife team simply sit at their local coffee shop and carry on casual, honest, insightful conversations about the children's books they love.  Mark Blevis and Andrea Ross are great people, and the amazing website they managed to create was the direct inspiration for our family to start Bookie Woogie.  Although the podcast ended a few years ago, all the content is still on the site, and the vast Archive is an invaluable treasure trove of information.  In addition to all the wonderful books they've highlighted, there are countless hours of interviews they conducted with some of the best storytellers in the world.  It will forever be an amazing resource.

"Creative Spaces" on From the Mixed-Up Files:

Jennifer Bertman invites children's book authors and illustrators to share information about the places where they work - complete with photos!  We get to read about and see those sacred spots where the magic happens.  At last count around 75 (!!!) studio spots have been shared, with more continually being added.  While all the interviews are great, I made the little illustration here in honor of my favorite post.  Have fun perusing the great list of creators - but before you stop, do make sure you check out Dianne deGroat's studio!

And, oh,  golly... I can't just stop there.  I could list dozens upon dozens more...  But I'll give 10 more sites - I'll type up the first 10 that come to mind.  These are also sites that I love and visit on a regular basis:

• 100 Scopes Notes
• Playing by the Book
• Writing for Kids (While Raising Them)
• Brain Burps About Books
• Brimful Curiosities
• Reading to Know
• Books 4 Your Kids
• Adam Rex
• Laura's Life
• Blue Rose Girls

Monday, April 9, 2012

Interview #15: Laura Ripes

I'm happy to announce the release of Laura Ripes' debut children's book: "The Spaghetti-Slurping Sewer Serpent"!  I fell in love with the story the moment I read it, and then was given the extreme privilege of bringing that story to life with illustrations.  To celebrate the book's arrival, the kids and I invited Mrs. Ripes to chat with us over Skype.  It's the first time author and illustrator have actually met, and the kids had some great questions for her.  (Thanks to Gracie for the portrait of Mrs. Ripes!)

First off, a review of "The Spaghetti-Slurping Sewer Serpent" by the kiddos:

Isaac (age 13):  This book is about a kid named Sammy Sanders  He thinks there's a serpent in the sewer slurping all his spaghetti.
Lily (age 9):  So Sammy is trying to solve the mystery.
Elijah (age 6):  He knows there is a serpent because he's got all those clues.
Dad:  Sammy has photographs of all the evidence he's collected.  Meatballs and sauce splatters...
Isaac:  And Dad labeled all the photos with our birthdays!
Evangeline (age 4):  That's mine!  I got a noodle!  I got a noodle for my birthday!
Lily:  I got... mold.
Dad:  It's not "mold."  It's "molt."
Lily:  What is molt?
Dad:  Snakes shed their skin when they grow.
Lily:  Ewww!
Dad:  All their old skin peels off.
Lily:  That's still as gross as mold.
Dad:  What is the really cool thing about this book?
Lily:  It's a super "S" book.  It has tons of S's.  On every page there are at least 10 S's.
Isaac:  Like "Sammy's sister Sally."
Lily:  And his friends "Scott Sullivan and Steve Strauss."
Isaac:  And "salty snacks."
Gracie (age 11):  That's called alliteration.
Lily:  It tricks your tongue sometimes.
Gracie:  It makes your lips slip. It's a lip-slipper.
Isaac:  We should count how many S's are in this book.
Elijah:  100.
Dad:  It's funny...  I'm always very aware of every "S" I say after I'm done reading this book.
Gracie:  Me too.  It's SSSstrange.
Isaac:  Thisss SSSstory is SSSstupendous.
Lily:  SSSsuper SSSsuspenseful.
Isaac:  SSSsuperb.
Gracie:  If you don't like the letter S, you should burn this book alive.
Dad:  Oh dear.
Gracie:  But if you do like the letter S, then you should read it to all your kids and elect it for president.  Or senator.  SSSsammy SSSsanders for SSSsenator!
Isaac:  His glasses are hilarious.
Gracie:  His glasses look like big spotlights coming out of his head.
Isaac:  Sammy has super silly spotlight spectacles.
Gracie:  This book is so fun.
Dad:  When I first saw the manuscript, I thought it was one of the most fun stories I'd ever read.  I thought, "I would LOVE to illustrate this!"
Gracie:  You love drawing dragons.
Dad:  Did you know this is Mrs. Ripes' first book.
Gracie:  She is starting off swell.

  And now for the interview!

Laura Ripes:  Hi!
Kids:  Hi!!!
Gracie:  SSSsalutations, Mrs. Ripes!
Dad:  It's nice to meet you!
Laura Ripes:  It's so nice to meet all of you - to see you in person.  It's exciting!
Gracie:  Congratulations on your first book!
Laura Ripes:  Well thank-you very much.  I'm very excited about it!  Congratulations to you too, Aaron.
Isaac:  We were wondering... how did you get the idea to write this story?  What was the starting point?  Were you wanting to write about S's?  Or did you start with the characters?  Or did the plot come first?
Laura Ripes:  Wanting to write a tongue-twister story came first.  And I think S's are very tricky, so next I said, "I'll do an 'S' one."  The actual story - the serpent in the sewer - came from my childhood.  We used to go to a park by our house, and there was this big, huuuuge sewer opening.  You wouldn't see them nowadays because they don't make them like that anymore.  But it was big... like you could climb in it.  I grew up with all boys -- brothers, cousins -- I was the only girl.  And they used to always tease me and say something lived in the sewer.  And I SO believed them.  There would always be sounds, and I'd be like, "Something's IN there!!!"
Gracie:  Is writing your full-time job?
Laura Ripes:  I do write all the time, so I feel like it's full-time.  My real job is that I do voiceover commercial work.  But I've always loved writing.  I love any kind of story.  Movies.  Books.  I love commercials.  Commercials are fabulous!  They are teeny, tiny, quick stories with a beginning, middle, end, and a solution.  So, commercial voiceovers are my real job, but I would love to write more.  If I sell more manuscripts, maybe I could say it's full-time for me.
Lily:  Since you have been working with S's so much for this book, do you start saying S's more?
Gracie:  Or do you notice "S" words more?  Because whenever we look at this book, we start saying "S" words all the time!
Laura Ripes:  You don't realize how many times you use S's in sentences!  And the letter S can be very difficult.  When I do my voiceover commercial work, they can come out sounding very tricky -- you have to be very careful.  So I thought it would be fun to have a tongue-twister story to practice working on all those S's.
Lily:  How long did it take you to write the book?
Laura Ripes:  That's an excellent question...  I don't really know.  I hop around.  I go from story to story.  I'll start to write a piece, then I'll put that one down and pick up another story I'm working on.  I'll grab my notebook in the middle of the night and jot stuff down.  Things are written upside down.  Initially, I probably got the story figured out on paper in about a week.  But I will rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.  It's a long process for me.
Gracie:  After you were done, how long did it take to get this book published?  Did it get snatched up by the first person you sent it to?  Or did you have to wait for a long time?
Laura Ripes:  I sent it out to 4 places, and didn't hear back from anyone.  Then we moved, and I had to change my email address.  It had been months and months since I'd sent it out, and I didn't think I was going to hear anything.  We were in our new house, and I got a call on my cell phone.  I almost didn't pick up the phone because I didn't recognize the number and it was a weird area code.  But it was the editor saying they wanted to buy the story!  She said they'd been trying to contact me for a while... emailing me and calling my old house.  I had forgotten about the story because it had been so many months.
Gracie:  How did you feel when they called you?
Laura Ripes:  I was very, very, very excited.  It's a good feeling.  She said, "We want to buy your manuscript!"  And I was so embarrassed because I had to say, "Which one?"  I had so many out there.
Isaac:  Did the alliteration make it easier or harder for you to write the story?
Laura Ripes:  It was hard.  I was very limited in what I could say.  I'd want to say a specific word, and there wouldn't be any "S" word that would fit.  That was kind of tough.
Lily:  Did your kids give you any suggestions on the book while you were writing it?
Laura Ripes:  They did give me suggestions.  My kids liked trying to make the tongue-twister harder all the time.
Gracie:  When Daddy read it to us earlier, he slipped on a couple words.
Laura Ripes:  I love that!  As a kid, I loved to hear a teacher make a mistake reading something.
Gracie:  That's the best!  Last night Daddy was really tired, but he was reading us a story anyway.  He kept falling asleep and misreading the words.  There is this character in "Marty McGuire" named Annie, and he kept calling her "Arnie... Arnie... Arnie."  And we were like, "Annie! ...Annie! ...Annie!"
Laura Ripes:  That's fun to me!  And I think it's fun when adults have a hard time with tongue-twisters.  Of course kids can nail them.
Dad:  Absolutely!
Laura Ripes:  When I originally wrote this book, I wanted it to be really, really hard to say.  But in the editing process, it was reined in a lot.  The editor wanted it to be quite a bit easier.  When "S" words were being pulled out, I was like... "Aghh... I'm losing my S's!"  That was hard for me.  But the story is still tricky.  I did have the word "Scrumdiliumptious."  But that got chopped.
Gracie:  Scrumdiliumptious!  That's a fun word!
Laura Ripes:  It didn't make it.  That word was on the chopping block.  But that's alright.  I couldn't believe it... they let me keep the word "spork" in there!
Gracie:  Do you have a favorite picture from the book?
Lily:  *I* have a favorite one.
Laura Ripes:  Which one is that?
Lily:  The slurper on the swing set.
Laura Ripes:  I was just going to say that one was my favorite!  I wasn't going to say it out loud - I was waiting for you to go first.
Gracie:  That's my favorite too.  It's the first full picture where you get to see the serpent.  He's all twisted around the swing set, eating spaghetti.  The moon is behind him, and you can see all the lights and shadows where the moon is hitting him.
Dad:  Even though it's in the middle of the story, that was the very first picture I made for the book.
Gracie:  Who says 'save the best for last'?
Dad:  I had a ball working on this book.  I don't think I've ever turned down a manuscript because... we've got to eat.  But this one was especially great to work on because I loved your story so much!
Laura Ripes:  Of course, the publisher didn't give me any say in illustrators.  But when they told me the artist they had picked, I said "Oh, I love The Hiccupotamus!"  I knew your books - I'd seen them before, and I thought, "Oh good!"
Dad:  That's nice to hear!
Laura Ripes:  And I was excited to see your illustrations for this book.  When I write, I have an idea of what it's going to look like... and you were right on!  I was very excited you were on the same page.
Dad:  Good - I'm glad to hear that.  Well, I think that's all the questions we had...
Isaac:  Thank-you for the interview!
Laura Ripes:  Thank-YOU guys!  It was so nice to meet you!  It's my first interview - I was really nervous.
Gracie:  You did a very good job.

Sammy spies spaghetti, by Isaac
 slurping from a spaghetti stand, by Gracie

Scott Sullivan and Steve Strauss see the serpent, by Lily

Author: Laura Ripes
Illustrator: Aaron Zenz
Published, April 2012: Marshall Cavendish
Like it?  Here it is!

And now it's time for a giveaway!
• The prize: TWO copies of "The Spaghetti-Slurping Sewer Serpent" - one for you and one for you to share with a friend - both copies signed by Laura Ripes and myself.
• Entering is easy!  Simply leave a comment on this post.  For a bonus entry, include at least 7 "S" words tucked away anywhere in your comment - not random words, but relevant to the interview above...
• We'll take entries through April 22 -- Good luck!