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.