Monday, December 27, 2010

Nice and Mean by Jessica Leader

In looking over the running bibliography I keep on my computer desktop, so that its memory can support my own unreliable one, I find notes like these about books in which Indian or Indian-American characters play secondary roles (I've stripped the identities because I don't intend to review those books here). I'm also aware that in the world of American children's and YA literature I'm almost always in the minority with these particular knee-jerk reactions:
  • "A dreadfully stereotyped Indian character, X, speaking without a contraction in sight, appears as healer and resident Gandhian in Story Y."
  • "...the dialogue is written in an annoying and slightly off-kilter Indian lilt, reminiscent of the Simpsons' Apu."
  • "...stereotypically nerdy Indian kid as sidekick."
So while I was interested in Nice and Mean by Jessica Leader, I was also worried. It's so easy to resort to stock types and then fall headlong into stereotyping, and goodness knows that for color, spice, flamboyance, and bias, we desis present tons of stock types. How, I wondered, had Jessica handled her Sachi character?

It turns out, with considerable care. In Nice and Mean, middle schoolers Marina Glass and Sachi Parikh are paired up to work on a video project and run headlong into trouble almost at once. They seem to be locked into a kind of symbiotic conflict, which seems impossible to get around. Their worldviews seem far too divergent to offer any hope for this project or for communication between them. The story plays out in alternating first person voices, and inches surely toward catastrophe and then just as surely toward a connection that raises interesting questions of judgment and opinion, and what really matters, especially in the peer-driven world of middle school. But common ground? The answer would appear to be, well, no.

The book has been dicussed in several places including Mitali's Fire Escape, where the interview covers some of the same terrain I like to tramp around in, here on WWBT. Here's my e-mail interview with Jessica Leader:

[UK] On your web site you have written that the character of Sachi came in part from a girl in a class you observed during your teacher training program. From that early inspiration, how did you go about deepening Sachi's character? What layers did you choose to add and why? What changed as she grew?

[JL] When I first created Sachi, she was a supporting character in a manuscript about one of the other girls in Nice and Mean. That manuscript never saw the light of publication, thank goodness, but it left me with the desire to focus a story around Sachi, since the way I portrayed her had raised many questions that, to be honest, I had never addressed.  She was always supportive, always cheerful and calm, always competent, but what would that be like for her? What would she do if she felt selfish and grumpy? And what would happen if she wanted to pursue something that other people wanted her to avoid? 

To answer these questions, I had to push past my own preconceptions of Sachi’s character.  I had to figure out when she would be charitable and when she would be judgmental, and if she did pass a judgment, how that would manifest itself? (Certainly not at all like the other narrator in the story, Marina, who never met a quip she didn’t like!) When Sachi faced others’ opposition, as she does when her parents don’t want her to take a video class, I had to give Sachi enough gumption to push past it, which was sometimes hard to manage, since I had envisioned her as such a pleaser. It was all a far cry from the nice, sweet Sachi in the first manuscript, but she was so much more real and interesting this way that I knew it had to be right. In fact, I think that Sachi’s friends and I went on a similar journey in this book: we both learned about another side of someone we thought we knew.  

[UK] In among the awkward truths of middle school, you've managed to create two characters, Marina and Sachi, who are in instant opposition. The tensions of that opposition drive the story. You say you're a plotter--talk about how you built the two girls' stories and made them intertwine without dropping a thread!

[JL] Goodness, I don’t know!  I think that at first, actually, there was too much resonance between Marina and Sachi.  Would you believe that even in a very late-stage draft, they both had one older sister and one younger?  Too much similarity, and too many characters.  Plus there was also this one chapter where Sachi thought Marina was stealing her video, and her friends were acting silly about a crush they had….  Margaret Bechard, the advisor at Vermont College who worked with me on this, was generally pretty positive about the draft I sent her, but when it got to that particular chapter (I think it was number eight), she wrote something to the effect of, “As you can see, I am starting to get a little bit testy here.”  Even late in the game, the story was bogged down with excess, and it wasn’t until I went into heavy revision, both with my advisor and my editor, that the current version began to emerge. 

To answer your question, then, I think my process of building’ the girls’ stories was less about spinning this wonderful symmetry and more about paring away things that were just too ridiculous and did not belong.

And that paring away leaves this interesting oppositional symmetry. Moving on... Of the Indian-American readers who read your work while it was in progress, you say they "showed me my characters in a new light." What do you mean by that? What did you learn in the process of receiving and using this sort of insider help?

[JL] The feedback I remember the most from the draft that I shared with my Indian-American readers was that the relationship between Sachi and her older sister, Priyanka, was too parental.  They said that in East Asian countries, the older sister might feel responsible for the well-being and reputation of the younger one, but in Indian culture, that just wasn’t so.  This was actually a great opportunity for me.  It spurred me to look more closely at the reason Priyanka was so disapproving of Sachi’s video aspirations and enabled me to endow her character with more nuance.  And isn’t that what you always want to do with your characters—push past the obvious and into the personal? 

I have to admit that for much of the process of writing Nice and Mean, I was nervous about seeking feedback from Indian-American readers.  I was afraid that that they would find my story full of assumptions and resent the fact that I had taken a story from their experience of the world and used it to create a story of my own. 

As I grew more serious about writing, though, and got closer and closer to that publication date, two things liberated me from this fear: first, I met writers who assured me that stories belong to everybody, as long as you approach them with respect and care. The second liberator, which was possibly more like an inoculation, was my realization that I’d much rather have a few acquaintances laugh at my assumptions than read a scathing review saying the same! I would say that the major learning here was: always consult insiders! If they don’t want to help you, they won’t. If they do—and I’ve found this with all types of experts, from video-makers to National Parks workers to conservative Christians—they will invariably help you deepen your story. 

[UK] Thanks Jess! All best for a great year ahead in 2011.

[JL] Thanks for inviting me to your blog!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Returning to Hedgebrook, in My Mind

In the fall of 2006, I spent three weeks here, thanks to the Hedgebrook Foundation:
It was a meditative experience, being in that cottage in the woods, immersed in solitude, with that whispery silence all around me. It made me realize that I could live happily in such a place, being taken care of and doing nothing at all. So I grew slightly frantic, and wrote a very rough, patchy, uncertain, oh, let's just call it a plain bad novel draft in three weeks flat. Set it aside and couldn't bear to look at it for the next four years.

Since then I have occasionally felt overcome by guilt. I should have finished that novel by now. It should be out and in print by now. Oh, why did they throw that residency away on me?

But now I remember what Hedgebrook's Executive Director Amy Wheeler said to me when I was going through my moments of panic during those three weeks. She said, "Don't be too hard on yourself. Sometimes this place evokes writing that can only come together after you've left."

In my case, long after. Four years later, this novel is pouring itself out onto the page.  I still don't know how it all ends, but the mists of the island have apparently been right here in my mind all along.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Holler Loudly by Cynthia Leitich Smith and Barry Gott

As a rule, Cynthia Leitich Smith doesn't holler loudly. Far from it. She speaks in a civil, knowledgeable, and informed voice. Her blog is probably the single most visited children's and YA literature resource on the internet. But those who know Cyn can tell you that she has an amazing, contagious, ricocheting sort of laugh. You can practically hear that laugh in her wildly funny new picture book, Holler Loudly, illustrated by the wonderful Barry Gott.

How can you not fall in love with a book in which Mama and Daddy Loudly name their baby Holler because he cries so loud?

Rollicking humor and wordplay mark this funny, original tall tale. Here's a picture book as big-hearted as a southwestern sky. And for those who like that little extra layer to a story, there's a kid-size aha! moment that reveals itself with a chortle, leaving us aware that every talent has its time and place. Please join me in hollering loudly about the release of this rib-tickling new offering from a beloved writer.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Yasmin's Hammer, Rickshaw Girl, and Amadi's Snowman

Yasmin's Hammer by Ann Malaspina could in many ways be a picture book companion to Rickshaw Girl, the simply and beautifully written chapter book story by Mitali Perkins in which a girl struggles between her love for a traditional art form and her family's needs, all the time seeing her own education about to be held hostage.

What is so refreshing about both books is that neither features the culture as the source of conflict. One of the most touching spreads in Yasmin's Hammer is the one with the family poring over the book she has just purchased with her hard-earned taka. Before the father stands up, before he makes his announcement, we are poised with this family, on the edge of that story turn. It's quite remarkable.

I also really appreciated that while there is the obligatory glossary, words like taka and the glorious, mythic Bangla word for the water buffalo, mohish, are allowed to be understood contextually on the page without pulling the reader out of the story for the purposes of translation.

And I'm happily reminded yet again of Katia Novet Saint-Lot's lovely book,  Amadi's Snowman. It also deals with the power of books and reading but it does something else I absolutely love. It  takes a sly jab at the notion of what it means to be "exotic."

Friday, November 05, 2010

Updates and Downloads: R.A. Nelson on the Writing Itch, Nel on metafiction, Luka at last, Grand Plan galleys

Lighting a virtual lamp for Diwali this year (image from Many Windows).

R.A. Nelson writes about Charlotte Brontë and the itch to write. Watch this new blog, YA Outside the Lines.

And speaking of writing outside the lines, Luka and the Fire of Life releases November 16th. Here's a Shelf Awareness interview with Salman Rushdie himself. I like what he says about "that borderland when children can seem extraordinarily wise and confident and at other times are still little children. That particular moment is fascinating. It's a magical time." Rushdie himself is speaking of this book in terms of crossing the border between children's literature and literature, a gentler rhetoric than he employed before the release of Haroun and the Sea of Stories. While I'm waiting for my copy of Luka, I'm rereading Judith Plotz's very insightful article, "Haroun and the Politics of Children's Literature" (Children's Literature Association Quarterly).

Philip Nel uses a few nifty metafictional techniques in his video commentary on metafiction in picture books.

And finally, just yesterday, the galleys arrived for The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. After nearly a couple of decades in this business, I still can't get over the thrill of seeing a book take shape.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Tyger Tyger: Kersten Hamilton on Character Viewpoint, Aristotelian memes and Multiple Story Arcs

Kersten Hamilton's new YA novel, Tyger Tyger has been praised by Kirkus Reviews as "Laced with humor, packed with surprises and driven by suspense." Here's an interview with Kersten on her main character, on viewpoint, memes we may owe to Aristotle, and more. Here's a 2008 interview on Cynsations.

[Uma] From ape poop to baby hedgehogs, it's clear from the start that Teagan is an eccentric character in her own right and therefore highly likely to attract improbable happenings. Tell me how you went about constructing the layers of your protagonist's character.

[Kersten] I stepped outside the Western tradition in creating Teagan’s character. I wanted Tea to be different, to feel a little alien to my readers. To accomplish this, I tried to strip myself of the influence of Aristotle, specifically these (paraphrased) ideas:
1. The male is better and more divine (godlike) than the female.
2. A female is a deformed male.
3. Since the male is by nature superior, he must rule and the woman be ruled.

It isn’t easy to get away from these memes in Western culture, even when we think we have. For instance, many of our ‘kick-butt’ female characters in YA literature and movies are simply reactions to Aristotle’s concept that women are deformed males—we truly believe the male form is better, and so we write Rambo with breasts.

But fighting skills and the ability to kill are not the only way to be strong, or even the best way. I love female characters like Hayao Miyazaki’s Chihiro in Spirited Away who succeeds not because she is like a boy, but because she is a strong, courageous girl.

[Uma] You have chosen to write Tyger Tyger in a writerly third person voice rather than the more common (and sometimes stereotypically angst-ridden) teen first person. Can you talk about this choice and what effect it has on the story?

[Kersten] You can tell a brilliant story in first person, but you do lose the subtlety of inference and empathy, and the ability to play off of more than one character at a time. Third person is more difficult to write – you must ‘show’ what the characters feel, rather than ‘telling’ through internal dialog. But it’s fun because it has so many sub categories to pick and choose from, to mix and match.

I chose third person limited with a quarter twist toward third person subjective. Teagan’s feelings about situations and characters definitely play a role in the story, and occasionally we even know her thoughts—because I actually find it more transparent—I as the writer can disappear completely, allowing a skilled reader to experience the story in a much more intimate way.

[Uma] What a great way to say it, the viewpoint with a quarter twist! It's true that many people think of viewpoint as an immutable construct and in reality it's so much more complex than just defining whose head we're in! It's a malleable part of the narrative and I loved being able to feel that.

Moving onto setting: I also loved the positioning of St. Drogo's as the counterpoint to the goblin world, and Abby's role in making sure that we're reminded of this. Why did you choose to overlap layers of geography and myth in this way, so that the stories swirl out from freegans foraging in trash dumpsters in Chicago to the ancient Ireland of the Finnian cycle and back again? And how did that melding of geographies play out in the process of writing this novel?

[Kersten] I overlapped geography and myth in this way because it reflects real life. Everyone I know has a slightly different and wonderful mythology that influences their actions. All of my friends hold hands across those differences. I love listening to them talk worldviews.

 All of us are spreading nets, trying to figure out the important questions of life – and the geography behind us has a great deal to do with how our nets are woven, and what we catch.

 [Uma] As I understand it there will be a follow-up to this Goblin Wars book. A trilogy? How much of the events of this larger story do you know at this time? Talk about how you are approaching the writing of a sequel.

[Kersten] It is going to be at least a trilogy. I always know the first scene and the last, and have to plunge into the maelstrom of creation to find out what happens in between. It is wonderful and scary and painful and exciting. I enjoy the chaos of writing much more than I enjoy the rest of having written. That’s why multiple book story arcs are so wonderful to me. They are so huge, and so impossible! I approach each new book in fear and trembling—and with great joy.

[Uma] Thank you Kersten. I'm cheering at your comment about the chaos of writing! Thanks for talking to me, and best wishes for those books to come.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A Conversation of Pictures: Uma Krishnaswamy and Rumana Husain, Part 3

Rumana Husain was in Korea recently, at Nambook-010, the 5th Nami Island International Children's Book Festival, where she was among a select group of contributors to a peace story anthology.

In answer to my question, she writes:

It goes back to my student days. I had entered my third year as a graphic design student here in Karachi when we were introduced to a new faculty member who had recently graduated from the famous National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore, where I had aspired to study, but in those days (late sixties, early seventies) my mother would not hear of sending me 'far' away to Lahore even though my grandfather had sent my aunt from Jabalpur (MP) to Lucknow, to the Isabella Thoburn College, and later on to Vellore in the south as it had the best women's college of medicine...and all this in the 1940s! Anyway, so Mr Khalil, our new teacher, frowned at our work and said, "It is heavily in the Western mode." He was right, as something was amiss in our training and we were not looking inwards and around. Also, in those computerless years, we were taught to do our own (English) lettering (Roman, Gothic, serif, sanserif, etc.) and Mr Khalil had reason to frown some more! "No Urdu captions for your posters?" he said. "You know you are not going to be working only for a handful of English-speaking people of our country. Think in Urdu!" He taught us a stylised version of Urdu calligraphy. Then he pointed out the difference between our West-inspired drawings and graphics and drawings from traditional (read subcontinental) folk culture. He also made us aware of the fact that as Pakistanis we are traditionally drawn to a lot of ornamentation (our truck art, our mehndi designs, bridalware, jewellery, carved furniture, etc.). I would therefore attribute this 'awakening' to his teachings. I started illustrating my work with such birds, trees, etc. using motifs from all those things that he said we should be studying for inspiration.

The Moghul school of miniature paintings was another tremendous inspiration. During our fourth and final year my close friend Seema (who now runs/owns Interflow Communications - an advertising agency - as well as TV One, a television channel and a radio channel, etc) and I went away to Lahore (rather 'ran away' from school as we did not inform the head about our one-month long adventure during the school year). This bold step was taken at the behest of two women, Meher Nigar Masroor and Naheed Jafri / Azfar, who used to head the children's book division of the National Book Foundation (NBF) set up by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Once when Seema and I visited them, looking to make some money by free-lancing as children's book illustrators, they asked us to go spend some days at the historical Lahore Museum (it is located next door to the NCA) and copy the artefacts there so that they could then be used for a history book that they were planning to bring out. We pleaded with our parents to let us go there and Seema's mother made arrangements for us to stay with her aunt and so we went off to Lahore where for us, two Karachi girls, it was freezing cold in December. Although at the end of our sojourn there we did not end up with a book contract with the NBF,  what we gained from that memorable first hand experience was much more. Tucking our sketch pads and pencils under our arms, we used to go to the Museum every morning, drawing away relentlessly.

The final year at the art school was dedicated for what was known as the 'final year thesis' whereby we had to build an advertising or awareness raising campaign around a product or a service. Initially I had wanted to do it for a children's toy company, but soon decided in favour of my other My design 'campaign' was for EMI, and I used folklore and historical references such as the legends of Heer Ranjha, Sassi Pannu, Sohni Mahewal, the great Tansen and so on.

I would say that my love for our subcontinental traditions has its roots in my childhood, which included yearly visits to Bombay and Jabalpur to meet part of our family across the border, as well as my training in art. My work has this mix of Indo-Pak cultural influence.

Thank you Rumana and Uma! I'd like to round out this post  with a link to Katia Novet Saint-Lot's blog, where she's posted pictures of the Bangladeshi artists who painted a wall in her house.

Look at that wall. Now go back and look at these pictures. When art travels and is expressed in different media and forms, it can make connections where before there were only walls.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Conversation of Pictures: Uma Krishnaswamy and Rumana Husain, Part 2

Question to Uma Krishnaswamy and Rumana Husain: Where did these pictures come from, for you?

Here's Uma Krishnaswamy's reply:

I must confess I was somewhat taken aback when I saw Rumana’s picture that you’d sent.  That someone thinks along the same lines is not unusual, but to actually put it down in a similar fashion appears to be more than mere coincidence.  

Our art school backgrounds are similarly based on western norms and traditions, as are most schools in the subcontinent.  But we also have this complex and diverse mix of traditions that is so much part of our daily lives. My childhood was filled with English books from the UK, especially, and also our marvellous CBT and NBT efforts, where an Indian style, so to speak, was evident.  But a lot of ideas and notions were connected to a culture that one was largely divorced from, but yet a part of.

Anyway, it was after college that I became aware of the very effective and bold folk traditions. Exuberant in tone and colour. Only when I experimented with some degree of seriousness, did I realise that at last I had found my true voice. Previously I had done work based on the practical training I had received, and believed it to be effective.  But an opportunity to work on A.K. Ramanujan’s folktales, and unflagging encouragement of the editor, gave me the courage to cross new boundaries. At that time, while folk styles were active, they were not always preferred for books.

The Mithila tradition of dominant line and limited though strong colours, has since then been an ever present source of inspiration. The flexible narration that folk art encourages somehow appears to suit our storytelling, even if the situation is contemporary, as in the case of Out of the Way! Out of the Way! To capture silence with a single tall tree or ensure the cacophony that pervades our daily life, with busy little figures, each doing their own thing. Here is where I think my exposure and learning of another tradition has been so useful. The classic western tradition of isolating a moment and thereby giving it the space to be seen and heard works beautifully to highlight certain telling aspects of the story. The hustle and bustle that other parts of the story reflects, is best captured, in my view, by our obsession with detail, be it in painting – classical or folk, or embroidery, or for that matter any associated craft.

I looked at the book as a series of double spreads, with the chant, "Out of the way! Out of the way!" as the vital link between the two pages. The story kicks off with a quiet village scene, before it picks up speed to end in a mad rush. It's how bigger towns and cities grow in this part of the world. So an island of white space, here and there, gives the breathing space that is required for both eye and ear! And many times colour paths were literally used to set the rhythm. The chant, in fact was varied, to echo the strength or gentleness of the voice demanding it.  So like all picture books, this was a conscious working of text and image to flow seamlessly as one.

It also of course works well when the page break up is given a lot of thought. Each spread in a way is unto itself but at the same time keeps up the suspense of what could happen, as one turns the pages. As I maintain, a simple text in appearance actually involves more work for the artist, as he/she has not only to complement it, but also add the right amount to balance it!

I wonder what Rumana’s reasons were for using the black and white + colour for that particular text?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Conversation of Pictures: Uma Krishnaswamy and Rumana Husain

Look at these two images. One is a page from my picture book, Out of the Way! Out of the Way! with art by Uma Krishnaswamy. The other is the jacket image from Hara Samandar (Green Ocean), a picture book written (originally in Urdu) and illustrated by Rumana Husain, and published in Pakistan. The cover shown here is of the Sindhi edition. 

I was blown away by how these images seem stylistically to be speaking to each other: Look at their orientation on the page, the wavy horizon line, the use of white space, the embroidered appearance of trees in Uma's picture and the sun in Rumana's, and much, much more. So I thought it might be fun to get both artists to talk to me and to each other, and that maybe these images could be a starting point.
I invited Uma and Rumana to consider these images side by side, and in that context, to answer the question: Where did these pictures come from, for you? 

I was curious to see what influences might have exerted a tug on these two artists and picture book creators, working 1100 miles (1900 km) apart, when they each crafted these paintings. There's clearly a common folk idiom being employed here, and more, a similar way of looking at the pictorial world of a story.

While those posts are still under construction, enjoy the pictures, used here by permission of the artists.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Monika Schröder on Saraswati's Way

A little background. Back in the last century,  when I first contemplated writing for young readers, I began to look for middle grade novels with Indian settings, published in the US. I found--well, three, and I had to look a bit to find two of them. There was Shirley Arora's What Then, Raman?  The 1928 Newbery winner, Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Mukerji, obscure and all but forgotten except by children's literature scholars. And of course The Jungle Book. A classic, an insider narrative by an expat Indian writer, and an outsider narrative. I use the words "insider" and "outsider" loosely to indicate the writer's background and worldview within or outside the setting of the book, not suggesting that one is necessarily any better than the other.

As Chimamanda Adichie says in the TED talk that has become part of my thinking on this subject, we need many stories of a place and people if we are to look at that place and people in any but the most reductive way. In 2010, we're just starting to see those multiple views, from writers like Kashmira Sheth, Mitali Perkins, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Anjali Banerjee, Padma Venkatraman, and others. My own Naming Maya, set in Chennai, was published in 2003. Next year will see the publication of my middle-grade romp through a fictitious town in south India, The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. And those are all just books set in India, not those concerned with the diaspora.

I don't think we need worry any more that the outsider narrative is defining India for young American readers.

But what of that old chestnut in children's literature, the tale of a place thought of as exotic, told from the outside looking in? Does it still have a place? And if it does, how has it grown and changed? If Monika Schröder's carefully researched and heartfelt novel, Saraswati's Way, is anything to judge by, the outsider narrative too has come of age. It assumes a context more complex than that of ruler and ruled. It attends to detail and nuance in setting. It steps more warily, considers the question of "getting it right" from the viewpoint of people who live in the place.

I've been corresponding with Monika, and here are her responses to a few of my questions:

[UK] Monika, congratulations on the publication of Saraswati's Way. What were the questions in your own mind that drove you to write this story?

[MS] I started the book right after I had finished my first novel, The Dog in the Wood, whose main character, Fritz, is for most of the story a pawn in the turmoil of historical events, almost paralyzed by fear and the terrible things that happen to him. Only at the end of the story does Fritz learn to become self-reliant. By creating Akash I wanted to write about a boy who was very determined right from the start. I also had learned a lot about shaping a book from the long and arduous process of writing my first novel and was hoping that a character with a very strong desire that has to overcome many obstacles would provide a good trajectory along which I could develop the arc.

By the time I started SARASWATI I had already lived in New Delhi for six years and knew that my next book would take place in India. Most contemporary fiction for children set in India has female protagonists, but I wanted to write about a boy. To learn more about the boys who end up in the New Delhi train station I went to the Salaam Baalak Trust, an NGO that works with these kids. Here I listened to some of the children’s stories and tried to imagine the circumstances that forced them to leave their families and to embark on an often dangerous journey to New Delhi. I wanted to explore how a young Indian boy could find the strength to overcome his fear in pursuit of something he wants desperately. 

[UK] What were the challenges you faced in writing of a character whose circumstances are so vastly different from your own? How did you bridge the cultural divide?

[MS] I grew up in Germany, a predominantly protestant country, where in school I learned bible stories and went to protestant confirmation at the age of 15. Writing about a Hindu boy was the biggest challenge while working on Saraswati's Way. By the time I started the book I had traveled to Rajasthan several times so I knew the setting. Though I never became fluent I had also taken Hindi classes for four years and my Hindi teacher, whom the book is dedicated to, taught me a lot about religious customs and festivals. While writing the book, I frequently asked her and other Indian friends if my depictions of a particular event were correct. One of the most challenging scenes to write was the funeral for Akash’s father. I have never attended a Hindu funeral and relied completely on the description given by Indian friends and colleagues. Trying to bridge this cultural divide was a challenge, but I also learned a lot about my host country while researching and fact checking the details for the story.

[UK] Talk about your writing process with this novel. How long did the successive drafts take you? Any thoughts on the way the story grew and changed over the time it took to write and revise? What were the pitfalls, the triumphs? Any moments of clarity or epiphany?

[MS] I began writing the book in May of 2008 and submitted it in January 2009. From the start I had a good sense of who Akash was and what he wanted. I could relate to his math talent because I have a slight math obsession myself; whenever I see numbers I form equations and play with them in my head just like Akash does. 

My process is more intuitive than planned. When I write a book I do not outline or plan a story draft on paper but start after I have an idea for the arc and “can hear the character talk to me.” I begin every writing day on page one, re-read and revise what I have completed before I continue the next chapter. Then, about 2/3 into the draft, just as I have to decide how to get to the end, I experience a crisis of sorts. This sequence of events seems to repeat itself with each book I write.

Initially, I had planned for Akash to embark on a kind of pilgrimage to clear his karma. In previous drafts he went to the holy city of Pushkar and met the sadhu there. I struggled with the ending and for about a month I felt like I wouldn’t be able to finish the book. But then, and this is a mysterious process that I cannot rationally explain, I suddenly knew how it had to end and the chapters fell into place.

[UK] We writers often need readers along the way who help us with questions and comments. Did you have readers who helped this book along on its journey? 

[MS] My first reader is always my husband. I am very fortunate that he has the patience to read and edit my drafts. He is a high school English teacher and I can trust his judgment. After all, he teaches reading and writing for a living. His comments were especially helpful in the description of settings. It seems to be harder for me to paint a picture of a place with words than to describe people. For example, I have probably re-written the beginning of chapter 11 when Akash arrives at the stone quarry more times than any other part because my husband kept saying, “I can’t see it yet.” I also process a lot by talking to him about a story. For the nine months that I was writing the book he listened to me ruminate about Akash and live with this imaginary character. 

The other very important person in shaping the story was my wonderful editor, Frances Foster, who asked just the right questions to help me improve the manuscript. She put her finger at exactly the sections that needed more work. Frances has a brilliant sense for shaping endings and I re-wrote the last chapter several times with her guidance.

[UK] What do you want young readers to take away from Akash’s story?

[MS] The book shows young American readers what life is like for poor children in India. It also gives them a glimpse into another culture's religion, customs, and beliefs. Even though they might be unfamiliar with India, I hope readers can identify with Akash and his tenacity in the pursuit of his dream. But the novel also reaches out to the growing number of American readers of Indian descent for whom neither the place nor the religion are entirely unfamiliar and who will, hopefully, embrace Akash's story as a genuine depiction of one aspect of Indian reality.

[UK] Thank you Monika! Congratulations again.

[MS] Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about my book.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Children's Book Press Turns 35, Part 2

In a follow-up to my e-mail interview with Children's Book Press director Lorraine Garcia-Nakata, here is a conversation with Executive Editor Dana Goldberg and Sales and Marketing Manager Janet del Mundo. Here's a 2008 interview with Dana at Cynsations.

[Uma] Congratulations! Thirty-five years seems like a telescoped history of modern-day children's publishing. Can you talk about the history of the press and its founding by legendary writer, activist, visionary Harriet Rohmer? What does that beginning mean to you all today?

[Dana] Children's Book Press (CBP) was founded by Harriet in 1975 with a government grant. Her original project was to use the grant money to produce 12 paperback bilingual books (all stories taken from the oral folk traditions of various Latin American cultures) which were to be given away to Head Start programs. It was a beautiful concept, and after the grant was over Harriet knew that the need for those kinds of books like that was still there, so she decided to continue the work she had begun that initial grant. When I think about CBP’s earliest beginnings, I’m amazed at both how far the publishing industry has come, in some ways, and how far it has to go to ensure that all children regularly see themselves reflected in the pages of the books they read. Only a very small percentage of children’s books published every year feature protagonists of color, and only a very small percentage of those books are written or illustrated by people of color, so there is still a lot of work to be done. The industry’s output still does not (not by a long shot!), represent or reflect the real demographics of our nation, and that has to change.

[Janet] I am so proud to be part of the important work of Children’s Book Press. CBP was the first nonprofit press in the country established to focus solely on multicultural and bilingual literature. Harriet Rohmer, our founder, was really a pioneer in that regard. She recognized the shifting demographics in our country and saw the need to represent children of color in literature. Many other presses have come along since with a similar mission, but I think Harriet and CBP deserve credit for being the first, for paving the way. I think CBP and our work continues to be significant, 35 years later. We’re still publishing books that push boundaries, books that fill an important need. The country has changed a lot since 1975. How people talk about race has changed, and certainly how children of color see themselves has changed. I think our books have always been and will continue to be part of that conversation.

[Uma] CBP books have won awards, been turned into plays, and found their way into many classrooms and homes. Talk about projects, past or current, that were particularly delightful to work on.

[Dana] Every book is a challenge, every book is a learning experience, and every book is a delight. A few projects in recent years that come to mind, though: On My Block, an anthology that brought together a wonderfully diverse group of 15 artists, all writing about and illustrating different places that hold particular meaning for them; My Papa Diego and Me, which allowed us very special access to Diego Rivera’s work and legacy via his daughter (the author), Guadalupe Rivera Marín, and her stories about her remarkable childhood; and From North to South, about a boy whose mother is deported back to Mexico because she doesn’t have the proper papers – it’s an issue that is so very topical right now, and the author, René Colato Laínez, has done an amazing job gently and tenderly expressing a child’s perspective on the trauma of family separation due to a parent’s immigration status.

[Uma] Lovely, and special congratulations to René Colato Laínez (one of VCFA's talented alums, and a wonderful picture book writer, capable of both droll wit and touching humanity!) Here's the trailer for From North to South:

Janet, how about you?

[Janet] There are so many things I find rewarding about working here, but I think one thing I’ve really enjoyed is seeing how our books can achieve another life beyond the page. For example, Uma, when your book, Chachaji’s Cup was turned into a musical and I actually got to see the production, I was blown away! (I’m not just saying this because I’m writing for your blog!) To see one of our own books brought to life on stage, with actors, musicians, dancers, it was really breathtaking, and I almost cried. Or when a number of our books were produced into bilingual audio books by It was great to be able to listen to our stories in multiple languages and to know that children all over the world could enjoy the stories in this way.

[Uma] Thank you. Now you're making me sniffly. Tea With Chachaji was an incredibly moving experience for me as well, on so many levels. Is there anything else either of you would like to add?

[Dana] Thirty-five years is a significant milestone for any nonprofit, and I’m so humbled and thrilled to participate in the work we do. I have to express my deepest gratitude to the authors, artists, designers, librarians, teachers, parents and kids who have been part of the CBP family for the past 35 years. Their talents, energy, passion, creativity, and commitment to children are boundless and amazing, and make what we do possible!

[Janet] Children’s Book Press would not be where it is today without its community of supporters. If you are moved by our mission, if you think underrepresented stories need to be heard, we ask you to please get involved. Donations in any amount and book purchases are always welcome, but there are many other ways you can show your support. You can volunteer, or tell a friend about us, blog about us, or even follow us on Facebook or Twitter. It all helps!

Thanks to Dana and Janet and congratulations all over again to Children's Book Press. For those in San Francisco and the Bay Area, tickets are still on sale for the October 7 fundraiser.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Picture Books From Australia (Thank You, Christopher Cheng)

Returning to my cluttered office from my Autodidactics retreat in Jemez, I found this box waiting for me, all covered with glorious southern hemisphere floral stamps:

The cats aren't interested: this isn't the time of day when they want to pay attention to "this writing business. Pencils and whatnot."
But look! What a treasure trove Chris has sent, of picture books from Australia.  Here are the titles, more or less in the order in which I pulled them out of the box:

Libby Gleeson. The Great Bear. Illus. Armin Greder. Walker, 1999 Notable for the collaboration of author and illustrator so unusual in our field, and for the act of trust that led to the dramatic wordless second half of the book.

Christopher Cheng. One Child.  Illus. Steven Woolman. Era Publications, 1997. An unnamed protagonist takes small steps to save the planet. Repetition and rhythm drive the simple text, which pulls back for the illustrations in the latter half of the book. The colors change and become more luminous as the pages turn.

Colin Thompson. Fearless. Illus. Sarah Davis. ABC Books, 2009. Amusing story of a dog with a "tiny, nervous brain" and a big heart. Humorous narrative voice.

Gregory Rogers. The Hero of Little Street. Allen & Unwin, 2009. Wordless, in exquisitely detailed frames. A journey into the world of a famous Vermeer painting. Book 3 in the Boy Bear series.

Phil Cumming. All Together Now. Illus. Cassandra Allen. Scholastic, 2010. A family story, harried Dad rounds up his family for a camping trip. Lovely circular structure. Australian landscape and nicely recurring rhythms make this stand out from the shelves of family picnic stories.

Sally Murphy. Snowy's Christmas. Illus. David Murphy. Random House Australia, 2009. White roos and a traveling Santa turn the reindeer legend appropriately upside down.

Norma Spaulding. Molly's Memory Jar. Illus. Jacqui Grantford. New Frontier Publishing, 2010. Daddy helps Molly create a memory jar for a beloved canine friend who has died. The palette shifts from grays to jeweled colors. The protagonist is a child of color in a story that commendably chooses not to highlight that fact.

Margaret Wild. Kiss, Kiss! Illus. Bridget Strevens-Marzo. Little Hare, 2003. Sweet story with a gentle arc and a nicely predictable ending.

Sue Machin. I Went Walking. Illus. Julie Vivas. Scholastic 2010 (orig. 1989). With the same rhythms as Brown Bear, Brown Bear, but with quite a different through-line, a story in which brief text leads cumulative narrative that shows up only in the pictures.

Annie White. Mum and Me. Hachette Australia, 2010. Rhyming text, charming mother-daughter story rich in Australian flavor, starting right off the top with vegemite!

Deborah Niland. Annie to the Rescue. Penguin 2010 (orig. 2007). Nice twisty turning point in a treed cat story.

Sally Morgan and Ezekiel Kwaymullina. Sam's Bush Journey. Illus. Bronwyn Bancroft. Little Hare, 2010 (orig. 2009). Gloriously vibrant illustrations in a gentle dream sequence story in the context of a relationship between the young child and his grandmother. Notable too for being written and illustrated by indigenous picture book creators.

Thanks again, Chris. Beautiful books, and a terrific window into picture books Down Under.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Bad News For Outlaws Audiobook

In beautiful Jemez, NM, I got a chance to talk to 2010 Coretta Scott King Author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson about the audiobook version of Bad News For Outlaws.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Children's Book Press Turns 35

Congratulations to Children's Book Press on their 35th birthday! Here's an interview by e-mail with director Lorraine Garcia-Nakata.

[Uma] Welcome Lorraine, and congratulations on this major milestone for Children's Book Press.

As I understand it, Children's Book Press began with a commitment to authentic retold tales from communities of color. How has that vision guided the organization, and how has it been expanded over the years?

[Lorraine] Founded by Harriet Rohmer in 1975, Children’s Book Press entered a stubborn U.S. social landscape. On the heels of the 1950s, when individuals in the U.S. were expected to set aside their ethnic and cultural identity, the 1960s and 70s were nudged forward by cultural movements offering a platform of self-discovery, recognition of cultural history, and a fundamental redefinition of community. In the field of education, literary tools hadn’t yet begun to reflect the cultural spectrum of the students they were charged to serve.

It was a very different environment when Harriet Rohmer began stirring the children’s literary soup. During a conversation, Harriet shared those beginnings:

“My children were young and I told them stories. It was a natural thing to do because there weren’t books at that time that were relevant to their experience or to the other children in their lives. Once our first books were printed, teachers and librarians liked them because the kids responded so well to them. Those that were having a hard time with our books said they were ‘nice, but they are not children’s literature’ ––at least children’s literature as they knew it. These new publications were not in the ‘tradition.’ Children’s books at that time used subdued colors, pastels for kids.  Bright colors were considered peasant or unsophisticated. Of course that changed. Kids love colors. What a surprise.”

Intent on changing the landscape of children’s literature, Children’s Book Press became the first U.S. nonprofit independent press focused on publishing first voice multicultural and bilingual books for children. Through their own stories, art, and home languages, underrepresented African American, Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Native American communities could finally speak for themselves, in first voice. While some US publishers now offer bilingual books for children, countless educators, parents, childcare providers, and librarians keep coming back to Children’s Book Press.  And why is that? It is because most of our books are authored and illustrated from within the communities represented in our books. It makes a difference in the stories’ content, who is telling them, and what is depicted in the illustrations.

Children’s Book Press continues to inspire kids to read while also changing the publishing landscape.  Currently, a growing number of literacy initiatives are exploring not only how children acquire language, but also how learning styles are unique to various cultures. Superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District Carlos A. García shared that a young child’s “enthusiasm to read and parent participation in the support process, is increased when they can see themselves reflected in books they are provided.” This is how Children’s Book Press moves to the front of the line. When you see yourself reflected in the reading experience, you feel you are a part of that experience.

[Uma] What do you see as the next frontier in multicultural publishing?

[Lorraine] Children’s Book Press continues to explore the dynamic cultural terrain unique to the United States and this will continue to be key in “multicultural” publishing. Now rounding midway toward its fourth decade, our small but influential press is gaining steam because the message of “culture as asset” is once again important given the mercurial nature of current national commentary and public exchanges on race and identity. While everyone is still standing and blinking or worse yet injecting ill-founded assertions about cultural populations, home languages, and outright deletions of history, Children’s Book Press keeps moving forward publishing yet another book that will make a difference. As the push and pull over the American cultural identity continues, it becomes more evident that our many cultures are in fact the foundation of the American identity. This is an avenue that multicultural publishing in this country is yet to fully grasp. Interestingly enough, the rest of the world recognizes the pluralism of the American face. However, as a country, we are still coming to terms with who we really are. But, I have faith it will be recognized and we will continue to work with that in mind. To think otherwise stunts the vision and the potential of this country and our relationships here and abroad.

[Uma] Anything else you want to add?

[Lorraine] Children’s Book Press is in the business of illuminating ideas, cultures, and interrelationships that were formerly unrecognized or considered. Over three decades, this award-winning press has illuminated diverse cultural perspectives and experiences so that young children, their families and community, can explore their own cultures and those of other cultures of our nation.

So, from one day to the next, from year one to the celebration of our 35th anniversary, Children’s Book Press will continue its forward momentum. It is a miracle that such a small Press can influence the national arena to the extent that it has and also survive for so long, during tough economic times, while remaining on the “A list.” With all the bad news we are hearing and the good sense that is so easily traded away for anxiety and just getting mad, we need to hear about what is working. So, take a deep breath, a really deep one. Then, clear a spot, a great big area, to sit, share, and enjoy the children’s books that continue to read wise and change the world through words and pictures.

Thank you, Lorraine! I'll be there in spirit. It's a privilege to join in the virtual cheering for this 35th birthday bash.

Lorraine Garcia-Nakata in a 2009 video on the role of CBP in contemporary children's publishing.

More to follow: conversations with Dana Goldberg, Executive Editor at Children's Book Press, and Janet del Mundo, Sales and Marketing Manager.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Daniel Powers on Picture Books: Part 4, Pictures Leading the Narrative

Today, a final post about image and text in picture books from illustrator and teacher Daniel Powers.

In picture books that aren’t inherently narrative (concept books, and some nonfiction) story is often worked in solely through the use of imagery.

In Joyce Sidman’s Red Sings from Treetops, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, poetry introduces young readers to concepts of seasons, colors and cyclical rhythms in day-to-day life. The text itself is not narrative. But Zagarenski’s images imply a narrative based on the personification of color who, throughout the book, is accompanied by Pup; the two travel the pages of this title together, left to right, taking us through a year that starts with spring, moves into summer, then fall then winter, and back to spring again. We’ve gone on a journey because of the pictures. The rich, lyrical verse provides the conceptual structure upon which the illustrator paints a narrative.

David Macaulay’s Rome Antics is a book about architecture and public spaces in Rome, not exactly a hot topic for a picture book. Really, you can do anything with a picture book as long as you craft it carefully.

Macaulay uses words to do what words to best, and pictures to do what pictures do best. It's a wonderful example of how images and texts relate to create a very complex book that works on many, many levels.

[Uma] Daniel sent me this link as well, and it seems to me that there's no better way to end this conversation than Macaulay’s TED talk. In speaking about how he shaped this book, Macaulay demonstrates the combination of approaches that seem wildly at odds but are both essential to the form of the picture book: thinking in a large, lavish way, with lashings of whimsy, while all the time looking very, very closely at your subject. Anyone who has ever written a story into a corner and felt trapped by it will understand exactly what he's talking about!

Thank you Daniel Powers! All best to you in your teaching and art.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Daniel Powers on Picture Books: Part 3, Conceptual Relationship Between Text and Image

The interrelationship of image and text can free up writers. Our texts don’t have to single-handedly do all of the work because the illustration can do a lot of the work for us. Good picture book texts are solid yet open enough to allow illustrators to ply their craft of supporting or augmenting the narrative visually. Here, Daniel Powers discusses the conceptual relationships between image and text.

The way a narrative is developed throughout a picture book depends on the conceptual relationship of image and text. 

As Perry Nodelman points out in his Words about Pictures, image and text can carry the narrative through a picture book in at least three different ways (or in a combination of these):

  1. parallel structure in which the image and text essentially do the same thing, narratively mirroring one another (see Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans)
  2. pas-de-deux structure that allows the narrative to be tossed back and forth between the text and the images, so that at times the text does the work of carrying the narrative and at other times the images do that work (see Barbara Helen Berger’s Grandfather Twilight
  3. the text describes one particular narrative, while the images depict a different sort of narrative (something that might even be contrary to the text). The resulting combination creates an alchemical narrative that would be otherwise impossible to achieve (see Sendak’s We’re All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy). If you’re not familiar with this Sendak title, before even looking at the cover or cracking the book, have a friend read the text to you so you cannot see the illustrations. Try to imagine the narrative that this text describes. Afterwards, read the book yourself and see whether the narrative you had imagined in your mind matches the narrative Sendak describes on the printed page.
Berger’s Grandfather Twilight is a good example of this economy of word and image where words do what words do best:
Leaves begin to whisper. Little birds hush…
Gently, he gives the pearl to the silence above the sea…

…and images do what images do best.
Another wonderful example of this alchemical structure, one in which the author and illustrator are two individuals is Betsy James’s My Chair, illustrated by Mary Newell DePalma. James’s clever, sensitive text is a conceptual list of what a chair can be, while DePalma’s illustrations introduce and develop a narrative that the text ignores.

 It’s important to note, I think, that writers and illustrators have different tools by which to develop narrative. Writers’ tools are verbal and illustrators’ tools are visual.

[Uma] And they each have a place in the whole, they each contribute to the advancement of something that is greater than its parts. Thanks Daniel.

The last part of this series of posts will be about the narrative role of pictures in books where text does not inherently carry a story (concept books, poetry collections and some nonfiction titles).

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Daniel Powers on Picture Books: Part 2, Physical Relationship Between Text and Image

[Uma] Daniel talk about how elastic the physical relationship has become between text and image in picture books and where that came from historically.

[Daniel] Traditionally, image and text did not appear on the same page; text was neatly contained within a block (usually) on the left side of a spread, and a comparably contained image was situated across the gutter (usually) on the right side of the spread. The gutter prevented image and text from interacting.

Then came Wanda Gág with her Millions of Cats. She broke the mold when it came to traditional page layout. In her timeless title, images cross the gutter and wrap around organically shaped bodies of text, while on another page text flows across the gutter and wraps around organic contours of illustrations. She creates rhythms throughout the book based on the physical relationship of image and text and the way they interact with one another.  As an author she works with the audible rhythms of the language. As an illustrator she works with the visual pattern and rhythms of her images, and as a designer she has works with both image and text to create movement and repetition in the page layout. Pretty cool stuff! No wonder Millions of Cats is still in print after nearly ninety years!

I like to cite Millions of Cats as a contrast to traditional page layout. Even today I marvel at Gág’s cutting edge design. But there are equally remarkable titles where the physical relationship of image and text contributes to the viewer/reader’s response to the narrative, including (but not limited to) Jon Scieszka’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, illustrated by Lane Smith.  This title perhaps touches on the metafictional, since it parodies not only folk tales, but the picture-book form as well; it brilliantly demonstrates the formal organization of picture books.  

The way in which text and image physically relate to one another brings with it a particular aesthetic that ultimately contributes to the overall sensibility of the book. Millions of Cats and The Stinky Cheese Man are clearly nontraditional in regard to layout and the resulting aesthetic; in contrast, titles like Diane Stanley’s Charles Dickens: The Man Who Had Great Expectations or Chris Van Allsburg’s The Wretched Stone reflect very traditional page layouts or image/texts relationships, whose formal, conservative aesthetics are entirely appropriate for these works.

[Uma] Thanks, Daniel. Next, the conceptual relationship between text and image.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Daniel Powers on Picture Books: Part 1 cont.

In the West we read text left-to-right; so too with images. Consequently the directional movement of illustration is worth considering when it comes to narrative structure, which (especially in picture books) is linear by nature: left to right, beginning to end. Formal elements within an illustration need to help move the viewers’ eyes through the visual narrative, left to right, beginning to end. Characters walk, gesture, or glance, from left to right, into the narrative.

But what happens when they don’t? What happens when a character on the right side of a spread faces left, not right? What happens is that we don’t turn the page immediately. While the text may compel us to turn the page, when a character causes the reading direction to change from left-to-right, we pause on our visual wandering and look back into the page. We follow the character’s contrary movement back into the image, ignoring what the text is coaxing us to do, and spend more time pondering the narrative content of that particular image before moving on.
This sort of visual device is often used at pivotal points in a narrative.

Jerry Pinkney does this in The Lion and the Mouse. Beginning with the title page, a curious gray mouse leads us left-to-right, through the first three spreads, until an owl swoops toward him. Up to this point the visual movement, as well as the movement of the mouse through the setting, has been left to right. But on the following spread Pinkney changes the directionality to read right-to-left; suddenly the mouse is facing the left.

Why? What is this change of movement signaling? Pinkney is playing with scale relationships in this spread. Relative to the size of the little mouse, the lion is so enormous that we cannot see him. The lion so easy to miss that Pinkney slows us down here, causing us to pause, to catch our breath (along with the pursued mouse), and when we slow down, we wonder, “What is this dark brown texture among all of this grass? Is it fur?”

When we turn the page to find out what this is, the initial visual movement is a quick one, left-to-right; like the mouse, we try to escape from the lion as quickly as possible, but to prevent us from leaving this page too quickly, Pinkney raises the lion’s paw, creating a stark vertical visual that blocks us from moving farther to the right, preventing us (as well as the mouse) from escaping the page immediately. While The Lion and the Mouse is a wordless text (and our discussion is, after all, about the relationship of image and text), this title illustrates the importance of movement and countermovement, and how the two can be manipulated to move a narrative along or to slow it. Writers do the same thing with sounds, with sentence length, and with the words themselves.

Writers and illustrators both need to be keenly aware of the page-turn and how to use it to build suspense, add humor, or to catch the reader unaware. In cinematic terms, the black-and-white scene of Dorothy Gale crashing into Munchkin Land is akin to the effective use of a page-turn; do you remember what happens when Dorothy crosses the living room and opens the front door to step outside? Do you remember what is revealed to us as viewers? That opening-of-the-door is an effective page-turn. What follows it is entirely unexpected.

A wonderful example of this can be found in Kathryn Lasky’s Marven of the Great North Woods (Kevin Hawkes, illustrator), when young, nervous Marven meekly tries waking a grizzly, snoring lumberjack by yelling “Lève-toi, Jean-Louis! Lève-toi!” into his ear. What follows demonstrates an effective page-turn.

And finally, the gutter. It's the physical separation of two pages that comprise a spread, and this tangible feature can be used as a narrative element. In Maurice Sendak’s We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, the two protagonists remain on opposite sides of the gutter from the Gandhi-esque character after he is kidnapped by the rats; the gutter reinforces the disconnect of  Jack and Guy from the kidnapped character, visually adding to the sense of the narrative.

Thanks, Daniel! Tomorrow the physical relationship of image and text.

Daniel Powers on Picture Books: Part 1, the Physicality of the Picture Book

Since I'm teaching the picture book semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts right now, I decided to talk to my friend Daniel Powers, who is an artist, illustrator, and teacher of illustration at SCAD.

Picture book text and illustrations interact in a variety of ways, from traditional forms where images exactly duplicate selected portions of a larger text, to present-day humorous or even metafictional relationships. Can you speak about what makes the picture book such a magical form?

Daniel's answer, which is wonderfully detailed, embracing the nuances and ambiguities of the form itself, will post in several sections in this blog over the next few days.

Here's Part I, on the Physicality of the Picture book.

The physicality of a book is an important consideration when crafting picture books. While books are commonplace to adults, to young readers they are structures to be wondered about. They fit nicely onto little laps; they are moveable — covers open, pages turn, they can be rotated or made to flap like a bird (which is a little weird from an adult standpoint, but for a kid, why not?); in other words, they are forms that children explore. Kids find new worlds between the covers of books. Their formats are typically vertical, horizontal or square; their sizes vary; and their binding comprises the spine on the outside of the book and the gutter on the inside of the book.

Our industry’s nomenclature of a vertical or horizontal format isn’t very informative, but the British terminology of portrait or landscape format is.

Landscape formats are particularly good at accommodating a lot of descriptive imagery. We perceive the world around us based on the earth’s horizon, and everything we see and interact with has a physical relationship to this line, making the landscape format perfect for illustrations packed with detailed settings.

Portrait formats are particularly good at creating images laden with emotional content. Using portrait formats, we can create close-ups of our characters, carefully articulating their emotions. Viewers’ eyes don’t typically sweep through portrait formats the way they do through landscape formats. As a result, the reader spends more time poring over portrait-oriented illustrations than landscape formats.

The reason it’s important to consider form is that the form or shape of a book lends itself to particular sorts of content (which may also imply genre), and the form can speed or slow a reader through a book. Form has to be considered before deciding how image and text will relate to each other physically or conceptually on the page.

Next, the directional movement of illustration, page turns, and gutters.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Floods in Pakistan

Because children are always the worst affected in any time of crisis...

Phone donation campaign
and Pakistani groups accepting charitable contributions including  the Zindagi Trust a non-profit 501(c)3 philanthropic organization that aims to provide quality education to underprivileged children  in Pakistan.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Updates and Downloads: Disinviting Ellen, and tangled webs

Gretchen Kolderup blogs on Librarified about the recent kerfuffle with Ellen Hopkins being first invited to speak in Humble, Texas, then disinvited. More on the story here. Lots of hairplitting going on, but YA writers Pete Hautman and Melissa de la Cruz are pulling out in protest as well. Katie Davis talks to Pete Hautman, Todd Strasser, and Ellen herself.

Here's a site dedicated to the life and work of someone who scandalized plenty of people in his time, Sir Richard Francis Burton. known among other things for translating The Arabian Nights Entertainments and Vikram and the Vampire: Tales of Hindu Devilry, of which facsimiles are downloadable on the Burtoniana site. The site defines him as an "explorer, ethnographer, and man of letters. Pilgrim to Mecca and Harar; discoverer of Lake Tanganyika; translator of the Arabian Nights; controversialist and iconoclast." Controversialist--now there's a word. "Discoverer" and "pilgrim" seem a little less credible in these postcolonial times. After his death Burton's wife Isabel, a religious woman, destroyed all his papers. After all these years, we're left with an exhaustive collection of memoir, travelogue, and translated work, and with several biographies containing various degrees of scholarship and scandal.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Updates and Downloads: CSK author speech, first lines, writing reflections

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson's Coretta Scott King Author Award acceptance speech in The Horn Book.

Kimberley Griffiths Little writes about first lines on a new blog dedicated to writing for the middle grades, From the Mixed-Up Files…of Middle Grade Authors

Carolee Dean at the end of her blog tour for Take me There, makes a most interesting comment on the ancient nature of the verse novel.

The Story Sleuths interview Karen Cushman about her captivating historical novel set in pre-Shakespearian England, Alchemy and Meggy Swann.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Rereading Saffy's Angel by Hilary McKay

Some books just demand to be reread and revisited. Saffy's Angel, the first of Hilary McKay's five novels featuring the eccentric and lovable Casson children, is that sort of book. (The others in the series are Indigo's Star, Caddy Ever After, Permanent Rose, and Forever Rose.) McKay's writing is the kind that feels effortless enough on the page that you figure it probably wasn't. The color chart pinned up on the kitchen wall is a brilliant extended metaphor, a single image mined for meaning in many ways starting of course with the children being named for paint colors: Cadmium, Indigo, and Rose. The fact that Sarah's wheelchair is just part of her, and we need waste no time feeling sorry on its account. Oh, there is so much to love!

The humor delights me, every single time I return to this wonderful middle grade novel. The driving lesson scenes in Saffy's Angel remain among the finest in these books. They punctuate Saffron's own journey with moments of pure delight, and let the reader slyly in on jokes that fly right past the distraught Caddy. Nor do the successive books let up on this blend of funny and real, crazy and imaginative and lovingly drawn. It's tough to write humor and sustain it through an entire novel. And then through several companion books featuring the same characters, with the later variations in viewpoint and voice. All of which you'd think could dampen the funny factor but it doesn't.

Perhaps, speaking of rereading books, it's no coincidence that McKay notes a hefty list of childhood favorites among her own:
Q: Are there any that you still go back to as an adult?
A: I go back to them all.
Hear an excerpt (Chapter 1 of Saffy's Angel) on NPR.

Oh, and Rose now maintains a blog.