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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Kevin Henkes

The Sameness of Sheep

Once, when I discussed my work-in-progress, middle-grade novel with my agent, I told her the character was eleven. “Make her twelve,” she said. “But eleven-year-olds aren’t the same as twelve-year-olds,” I protested. “Those are different ages.” “Make her twelve,” she insisted. “The editor will ask you to change it anyway.”

I didn’t finish the book (don’t have that agent anymore, either). The age argument took the wind out of my sails. I understood the reasoning—create older characters to get the most bang for the middle-grade buck by snaring younger readers. Better yet, stick the character in middle school.

The true middle-grade novel is for readers eight to twelve with some overlap. Chapter books for seven- to ten-year-olds bisect the lower end of middle grade. “Tween” books, aimed at twelve- to fourteen-year-olds, straddle the gap between MG and YA. If my characters are twelve, I hit the middle grade and tween target and everybody wins. Maybe not.

At our public library, I pulled more than a dozen new MG novels off the shelves. Opened each book, checked the age of the main character. Twelve. Twelve. Eleven! No, wait, turning twelve in the next chapter. While the characters and stories were all different, there was a sheeplike sameness reading about twelve-year-olds.

It worries me. Publishers contribute to pushing elementary school children as quickly as possible into middle school. Where are the middle-grade books about a ten-year-old character? An eight-year-old character? Ah, now we’ve backed into chapter book territory.

Charlotte's WebSupposedly, kids prefer to “read up” in age. This assumes that, say, fifth graders want to know what to expect when they’re in eighth grade. (Lord help them.) Reading about a character who is two or three years older might generate anxiety in some readers. And they may disdain shorter, simpler chapter books.

In the past, before publisher and bookstore classifications, age wasn’t much of an issue. Wilbur is the main character in Charlotte’s Web, although the book opens with Fern saving him. Fern is eight, a fact mentioned on the first page. Does anyone care what grade Fern is in once he lands in Zuckerman’s richly-depicted barnyard?

The Year of Billy MillerMore recently, Kevin Henkes broke the “age” barrier with his terrific middle grade novel, The Year of Billy Miller (2013). Fuse 8’s Betsy Bird compared it to Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books. Billy is seven and starting second grade, a character normally found in a briskly-written, lower-end chapter book. Yet Billy Miller clocks in at a grand 240 pages. Bird praises Henkes, “[He] could have … upped his hero’s age to nine or ten or even eleven. He didn’t. He made Billy a second grader because that’s what Billy is. His mind is that of a second grader … To falsely age him would be to make a huge mistake.”

Tru and NelleAuthor G. Neri took on a bigger challenge. In Tru & Nelle (2016), the characters are seven and six. This hefty MG explores the childhood friendship between Truman Capote and Harper Lee. Neri chose fiction rather than biography because, as he states in his author’s note, “[This] story was born from real life.” He didn’t shy away from writing a lengthy, layered book about a first and second grader.

We need more books featuring eight-, nine-, ten-year-old characters that are true middle grade novels and not chapter books. Children grow up too fast. Let them linger in the “middle” stage, find themselves in books with characters their own age.

Let them enjoy the cycle of seasons, “the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep.” Soon enough, they’ll race away from the barnyard and into middle school.

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A Kindle* of Cats

Phyllis: 

Luna

Phyllis Root’s cat, Luna

*Even though kindle means cats born in the same litter, the alliteration was hard to resist.

“All my work is done in the company of cats,” writes Nicola Bayley, wonderful picture book artist and writer, in her book The Necessary Cat.

I know what she means. Right now my cat Luna is sitting on the open copy of The Kittens’ ABC, clearly a cat of discerning literary taste.

Cats and writers seem to have a particular relationship. Cats wander in and out of our picture books, take naps on our keyboards, and curl up in our hearts. This month we looked at a few of the many picture books where cats play a role.

The Kittens' ABCI was introduced to Claire Turlay Newberry when I found a used copy of The Kittens’ ABC and was enchanted by her drawings of cats in which she captures them with a few lines in charcoal, pencil, and pastels. (Of her seventeen picture books, all but three are about cats.) The rhymes with each letter of this ABC are simple, but I could linger over those wise, playful, cozy pictures for hours. And if Luna has her way, curled up now on N is for Nap, I will.

Kittens like to take their naps
In boxes, bureau drawers, and laps;
Or else, along the sofa pillows,
In rows, like little pussywillows.

Green EyesAnother used book find is Green Eyes by A. Birnbaum, winner of a 1953 Caldecott honor. The story follows the first year of a springtime-born kitten’s life, from scrambling out of a large box to exploring the farm life around him—chickens, cows, pigs, goats. By the time leaves fall, followed by snow, the now almost grown cat fits more snugly in his box. The art is superb, strong black lines and bright colors. This is the only picture book Birnbaum both wrote and also illustrated, but his work appeared on The New Yorker covers over more than forty years. Scrolling through images of those covers, I found myself wishing he had illustrated a whole stack of picture books (two of my favorite images:  the woodpecker rattling away after a bug to feed the nest of little woodpeckers and the exuberant crocus in a pot).  

It’s hard for YouTube to do justice to the art, but you can see and hear Green Eyes, now reissued.

Millions of CatsMillions of Cats, written and illustrated by Wanda Gag, with double page spreads, black and white lithograph prints, and hand lettered text has been called the first true American picture book. Millions of Cats won a Newbery honor in 1929 (the Caldecott did not yet exist) and has been in print ever since. The text and art roll rhythmically through the story, and the smallest cat, who didn’t consider herself pretty enough to argue with the other cats about who was prettiest, is the only one left after the hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats fight so much they eat each other up. The littlest kitten, adopted  and loved by the little old lady and the little old man (cat owners might say the people were adopted by the kitten) becomes the prettiest cat of all.

Cats in Krasinski SquareCats are the heroes in The Cats in Krasnski Square by Karen Hesse, a fictional story based on a true story of cats helping outwit the Gestapo and smuggle food into the Warsaw ghetto during World War II.

The cats
come
from the cracks in the Wall,
the dark corners,
the openings in the rubble

With her older sister (all that is left of her family) the narrator, who escaped the Polish ghetto and now lives outside its walls, is part of the resistance smuggling food to Jews still imprisoned inside the ghetto, including her friend Michael.  When the resistance learns that the Gestapo is coming with dogs on leashes to sniff out the food arriving by train to be smuggled behind the walls, the narrator knows what to do:  round up as many cats as possible and take them to the station.  As the train arrives, the narrator and her friends  release the cats, which drives the dogs wild; during the distraction the food vanishes  from the station

through the Wall, over the Wall,  under the Wall,
into the Ghetto.

Wendy Watson, one of my favorite artists, illustrated the books in somber tones reflecting the gravity of the story, where acts of great courage can resist great darkness.

So many more cat books to love!  Here are a few to check out:

Cat books

All Archie says to the stray cat on the city sidewalk is, “Hi, Cat!” in Hi, Cat! by Ezra Jack Keats, but the cat follows him and manages to ruin every act of the show Archie and his friend Peter are putting on. Still, Archie decides that the cat “just kinda liked me!”

Cats aren’t mentioned in This is Our House by Hyewon Yum, but generations of cats and kittens weave in and out of the art of this deceptively simple story of immigration, family, and home.

Ginger written and illustrated by Charlotte Voake, is a tale of “sibling” rivalry when the cat of the house must deal with a new kitten.

Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes tells of a kitten who thinks the first full moon of her life is a bowl of milk in the sky, but all her efforts to drink that milk end in disaster.  Luckily, when she returns home, a bowl of milk is waiting just for her.

Lola and the Rent-a-Cat, written and illustrated by Ceseli Josephus Jitta, tells how Lola, whose husband of many years has died, finds a cat to belong to (and keep) through the Internet. Lola chooses number 313 Tim:

  • Homely, slightly older cat
  • Loves attention and care
  • Fond of diet food

Lola and Tim are together all the time, and she is able to recall the good memories as she and Tim sit on a bench in the evenings, and Tim purrs as she strokes him. 

October 29 is National Cat Day, but any day is a good day to curl up with a cat book (and a cat, if one is handy).

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That Lovely Ornament, the Moon

by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Phyllis Root

Jackie: We’ve passed the Solstice but we still have more night than day. We can watch the moon with our breakfast and with our dinner. We thought we’d celebrate this season of the moon by sharing some stories featuring that lovely ornament.

Phyllis: And Christmas Eve we saw an almost full moon casting shadows on the snow before the clouds blew in. Moonlight really is magical.

Papa Please Get the Moon For MeJackie: There’s lovely magic in Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me by Eric Carle. This book has been a favorite of mine since my days as a preschool teacher. It never fails to please the sit-on-the-rug crowd. What’s not to love? There’s Eric Carle’s wonderful moon, and a father so dedicated that he finds a “very long ladder” and takes it to “a very high mountain.” Then he climbs to the moon and waits until it’s just the right size. He brings it back and gives it to his daughter. She hugs it, jumps and dances with it—until it disappears.

The combination of fantasy and real-moon, family affection and joy is just timeless. This thirty year old story could have been written yesterday.

Kitten's First Full MoonPhyllis: In Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes, Kitten, too, yearns for the moon, mistaking it for a bowl of milk. “And she wanted it.” Closing her eyes and licking toward the moon only gives her a bug on her tongue, jumping at the moon ends in a tumble, and chasing the moon ends with Kitten up a tree and the moon no closer. After each attempt, the text reminds us of Kitten’s yearning: “Still, there was the little bowl of milk, just waiting.” When Kitten sees the moon’s reflection in the pond and leaps for it, she ends up tired, sad, and wet. Poor kitten! She returns home… to find a big bowl of milk on the porch, just waiting for her to lap it up.

Thirteen Moons on Turtle's BackJackie: Kittens and children and all of us are fascinated by the moon. Thirteen Moons on Turtle’s Back: a Native American Year of Moons (Penguin, 1992) by Joseph Bruchac and Jonathan London is a collection of thirteen poems about the seasons of the moon from “each of the thirteen Native American tribal nations in different regions of the continent [chosen] to give a wider sense of the many things Native American people have been taught to notice in this beautiful world around us.” The noticing is one thing I love about this book. Reading these poems makes me want to walk in the woods and see something in a new way.

Moon of Popping TreesIt feels as if we are in the season of the “Moon of Popping Trees.”

Outside the lodge
the night air is bitter cold.
Now the Frost giant walks
with his club in his hand.
When he strikes the trunks
of the cottonwood trees
we hear them crack
beneath the blow.
The people hide inside
when they hear that sound….

And that is much better than saying, “it’s cold.”

Phyllis: In “Baby Bear Moon” we learn how a small child lost in the snow was saved by sleeping all through the winter with a mother bear and her cubs. The poem concludes:

“when we walk by on our snowshoes
we will not bother a bear
or her babies. Instead
we think how those small bears
are like our children.
We let them dream together.”

Who wouldn’t want to sleep the winter away sharing dreams with bears?

Jackie: I love the poetry of this book—

“…Earth Elder
made the first tree,
a great oak with twelve branches
arching over the land.
Then, sitting down beneath it,
the sun shining bright,
Earth Elder thought
of food for the people,
and acorns began to form.”

Perhaps the best is that Bruchac and London encourage us to see more than trees and grass, to imagine a landscape, a thrumming with history, community, and the spirits of sharing.

MoonlightJackie: Moonlight by Helen V. Griffith (Greenwillow, 2012) is also a poetic text—and spare:

Rabbit hides in shadow
under cloudy skies
waiting for the moonlight
blinking sleepy eyes.

But he goes into his burrow and doesn’t see “Moonlight slides like butter/skims through outer space/skids past stars and comets/leaves a butter trace.”

What a wonderful image! “Moonlight slides like butter.” Who can look at moonlight the same again?

Phyllis: I love the spare language of this book, and I love Laura Dronzek’s luminous art as well, where moonlight really does butter every tree and slips into Rabbit’s dreams, awaking him to dance in the moonlight. So few words, but so well chosen—verbs such as skims and skids and skips and skitters. A wonderful pairing of words and art that makes me want to dance in the moonlight, too.

Owl MoonJane Yolen’s Owl Moon, which won a Caldecott for its evocative wintry art, is a story of an owl, patience, hope, and love. On a snowy night the narrator sets out to go on a long-awaited outing owling with Pa. She knows, because Pa says, that when you go owling you have to be quiet, you have to make your own heat, and you have to have hope. Their hope is finally rewarded when they spot an owl and stare into the owl’s eyes as it stare back before it flies away. The last image shows the small narrator being carried toward the lights of home by her pa. The book concludes:

When you go owling
you don’t need words
or warm
or anything but hope.
That’s what Pa says.
The kind of hope
that flies
on silent wings
under a shining
Owl Moon.

Jackie: “When you go owling/you don’t need words/or warm/ or anything but hope.” The shining moon, a light in the night, a lamp of hope that we turn into a friend in the sky. These books make me grateful for long nights.

Phyllis: And for moonlight and dreams and dancing.

 

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Bookstorm™: Bulldozer’s Big Day

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written by Candace Fleming  illustrated by Eric Rohmann  Atheneum, 2015

written by Candace Fleming 
illustrated by Eric Rohmann 
Atheneum, 2015

It’s Bulldozer’s big day—his birthday! But around the construction site, it seems like everyone is too busy to remember. Bulldozer wheels around asking his truck friends if they know what day it is, but they each only say it’s a work day. They go on scooping, sifting, stirring, filling, and lifting, and little Bulldozer grows more and more glum. But when the whistle blows at the end of the busy day, Bulldozer discovers a construction site surprise, especially for him!

An ideal book for a read-aloud to that child sitting by you or to a classroom full of children or to a storytime group gathered together, Bulldozer’s Big Day is fun to read because of all the onomatopoeia and the wonderful surprise ending.

In each Bookstorm™, we offer a bibliography of books that have close ties to the the featured book. For Bulldozer’s Big Day, you’ll find books for a variety of tastes and interests. The book will be comfortably read to ages 3 through 7. We’ve included picture books, nonfiction, videos, websites, and destinations that complement the book, all encouraging early literacy.

Building Projects. There have been many fine books published about designing and constructing houses, cities, and dreams. We share a few books to encourage and inspire your young dreamers.

Construction Equipment. Who can resist listening to and watching the large variety of vehicles used on a construction project? You’ll find both books and links to videos.

Birthday Parties. This is the other large theme in Bulldozer’s Big Day and we suggest books such as Xander’s Panda Party that offer other approaches to talking about birthdays.

Dirt, Soil, Earth. STEM discussions can be a part of early literacy, too. Get ready to dish the dirt! 

Loneliness. Much like Bulldozer, children (and adults) can feel let down, ignored, left out … and books are a good way to start the discussion about resiliency and coping with these feelings.

Surprises. If you work with children, or have children of your own, you know how tricky surprises and expectations can be. We’ve included books such as Waiting by Kevin Henkes and Handa’s Surprise by Eileen Browne.

Friendship. An ever-popular theme in children’s books, we’ve selected a few of the very best, including A Sick Day for Amos McGee, by the Steads.

Let us know how you are making use of this Bookstorm™. Share your ideas and any other books you’d add to this Bookstorm™.

Downloadables

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Skinny Dip with Melanie Heuiser Hill

9_30RamonaWhat’s the first book you remember reading?

Ramona the Pest. My elementary school was visited by RIF (Reading is Fundamental) twice a year—the best days of the year. You had to be in second grade to peruse the tables of novels that were set up in the entry-way to our school. It was enormously exciting—so many to choose from! I picked that slim Ramona volume from all the other books piled high on the table and I read it “hidden” in my lap during math class that afternoon. I can’t imagine I fooled my teacher, Mrs. Perkins, but she had commended me on my choice earlier, so perhaps she didn’t mind…even at the expense of math.

What do you wish you could tell your 10-year old self?

That someday I would actually love being tall. I was 5’10” at the age of ten and it was rough. I’m six feet tall now and really enjoy being tall—but it took a long time to get here. I suppose my 10-year old self would have just rolled her eyes—what an adultish thing to say to a kid! But it’s true and I wish I could’ve believed it then.

What 3 children’s book authors or illustrators or editors would you like to invite to dinner?  

Only three?! Well, I’d have to have a series of dinners, I guess. Here are two in that series: If I could invite three who are no longer living, I’d invite L.M. Montgomery, Arthur Ransome, and E. L. Konigsburg. If I had to limit myself to the living (reasonable, I suppose) I’d invite Virginia Euwer Wolff, Kevin Henkes, and Deborah Wiles. Now to plan my additional dinners….

Where’s your favorite place to read?

This week it’s my new bright red Adirondack chair in the garden. SO comfortable, big wide arms for a glass of iced tea and a pile of books, and beauty all around. It is bliss.

9_30SwallowsWhat book do you tell everyone to read?

For the last ten years I tell everyone about Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series—mostly because American readers have almost never read it and it has been A Formative Series for my kids. It’s a series of tremendous adventures with quotidian details—somehow a magic combination. Several of the books feature the Walker kids—four dear siblings who are afforded a tremendous amount of freedom on their summer holidays and know just how to use it. In other books in the series there are frightful pirates and ne’er-do-wells. We have read them almost exclusively on vacations—a big novel each trip, me growing hoarse reading by lantern in the tent, on picnic blankets, and in hotel rooms. The audiobooks done by Gabriel Woolf are tremendous and hours and hours of time in the car have been filled with these books.

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On Flower Girls

A year ago this weekend, I had the honor of officiating at the wedding of dear friends. They’d planned a grand celebration—organ and trumpet, dramatic readings, fantabulous attendants, family and friends, and not one but two flower girls. In my experience, flower girls and ring bearers increase the “chance element” in a wedding ceremony. I’m […]

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Show, Don’t Tell

I am frequently reminded in our Chapter & Verse meetings that people read a book, look at the illustrations, but may not consider the illustrations. Study them. Wonder about them. Unless an illustrator sits at your elbow as you turn the page of a picture book or illustrated book, explaining the motivation and technique behind […]

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