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Saying “Yes!”

Try­ing new things makes me uncom­fort­able. I don’t like to take risks; I like the famil­iar. That’s why when I was asked to give sev­er­al author pre­sen­ta­tions at inter­na­tion­al schools in Bei­jing, my gut reac­tion was to shout, “Not on your life!” Sure, I knew oth­er authors who had trav­eled over­seas and had won­der­ful expe­ri­ences vis­it­ing schools in India and Sau­di Ara­bia, but I’m not as brave or as com­pe­tent as these friends.

Still, some­thing inside me whis­pered that I would regret say­ing no to this oppor­tu­ni­ty. The whis­per con­tin­ued to nag until final­ly I told the inquir­ing school a hes­i­tant “yes.”

It didn’t take me long to imag­ine all the things that could go wrong. I could miss my flight. The East­ern food could dis­agree with my Mid­west­ern stom­ach. My dri­ver in Bei­jing might not show up.

My brave friends assured me that all of these wor­ries were unfound­ed.

And you know what?

They were wrong.

All of these wor­ries came true.

My depart­ing flight was delayed mul­ti­ple times until I was sent home and told to come back tomor­row and try again. When I even­tu­al­ly made it to Bei­jing a day late, two bites of an inno­cent look­ing “pan­cake” from the hotel’s break­fast buf­fet left me with instan­ta­neous “diges­tive issues” (aka explo­sive diar­rhea). And mid­way into my trip as I wait­ed (and wait­ed and wait­ed) one morn­ing for my dri­ver to arrive, it became clear that he was nev­er going to show, leav­ing me (with­out a cell phone) to fran­ti­cal­ly find a way to con­tact the school.

David LaRochelle AbroadWith all these set­backs, the trip should have been a dis­as­ter for a wor­ry­wart like me. But it was noth­ing of the sort. I brought back incred­i­ble mem­o­ries that I wouldn’t trade for any­thing: stand­ing on the Great Wall, vis­it­ing with preschool­ers who had baked a giant cake shaped like one of the char­ac­ters from my pic­ture books, learn­ing how to make Chi­nese dumplings from one of the teach­ers. None of these things would have hap­pened if I had stayed at home.

Version 2

And all those mini-dis­as­ters? They turned out to be bless­ings in dis­guise. When my worst wor­ries mate­ri­al­ized and I found a way to work around them, I dis­cov­ered that I was braver and more com­pe­tent than I thought.

Though I’m reluc­tant to admit it, some of the most reward­ing moments of my career have come when I’ve stepped out of my com­fort zone and attempt­ed things I didn’t think I could do: write for teenagers, illus­trate a book with tricky paper engi­neer­ing, tack­le non­fic­tion. I’ll nev­er be an enthu­si­as­tic risk-tak­er like some of my friends, but I’ve learned that being a lit­tle uncom­fort­able is worth the ben­e­fits I reap when I stretch myself.

Recent­ly I was asked to vis­it schools in Moscow and St. Peters­burg. As I remem­bered my time in Bei­jing, I visu­al­ized all the things that could go wrong on a trip to Rus­sia. Then I swal­lowed my fears, took a deep breath, and said, “Sure, I’d love to go!”

David LaRochelle in Moscow


Bookstorm: The Shadow Hero


In this Bookstorm™:

Shadow HeroShadow Hero

writ­ten by Gene Luen Yang
illus­trat­ed by Son­ny Liew
First Sec­ond, 2014

As we become a cul­ture adapt­ed to screens, visu­als, and mov­ing pic­tures, we grow more accus­tomed to the sto­ry­telling form of the graph­ic nov­el. For some, their com­fort with this com­bi­na­tion of visu­als and text telling a sto­ry sat­is­fies a crav­ing to “see” the sto­ry while they’re read­ing. For oth­ers, the lack of descrip­tive detail and mea­sured, lin­ear momen­tum through the sto­ry feels like a bar­ri­er to under­stand­ing. With the vari­ety of graph­ic nov­els avail­able and the inven­tive ways in which they’re assem­bled, we encour­age you to keep try­ing. Find a sto­ry that intrigues you and per­se­vere … we believe you’ll grow accus­tomed to this form. In time, you’ll add graph­ic nov­els to the depth of offer­ings you eager­ly rec­om­mend to stu­dents, patrons, and friends.

We select­ed Shad­ow Hero for our fea­tured book this month because the super­hero has been present in comics since the ear­ly 1900s and cur­rent films and tele­vi­sion have reawak­ened an inter­est among chil­dren that we believe can eas­i­ly trans­port them into read­ing. Yang and Liew have giv­en a back sto­ry to a super­hero, The Green Tur­tle, orig­i­nal­ly cre­at­ed by tal­ent­ed com­ic book artist (and fine artist) Chu Fook Hing in the 1940s. There’s plen­ty of action, humor, mys­tery, and sus­pense in this new book … all the right ingre­di­ents for the best read­ing.

In each Book­storm™, we offer a bib­li­og­ra­phy of books that have close ties to the the fea­tured book. For Shad­ow Hero, you’ll find books for a vari­ety of tastes, inter­ests, and read­ing abil­i­ties. Shad­ow Hero will be com­fort­ably read by ages 10 through adult. We’ve includ­ed pic­ture books, nov­els, and non­fic­tion for the pletho­ra of pur­pos­es you might have.

Graph­ic Nov­els About Super­heroes. With the pop­u­lar­i­ty of The Avengers and X-Men, Iron Man and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., there are a num­ber of graph­ic nov­els about super­heroes avail­able for dif­fer­ent ages. Some have mature con­tent. Many are acces­si­ble for younger read­ers. Whether or not they’re wear­ing capes, super­heroes are appeal­ing because of the pos­si­bil­i­ties.

Graph­ic Nov­els About Mythol­o­gy. The Green Tur­tle is a part of Chi­nese mythol­o­gy. We hear a lot about Greek and Roman mythol­o­gy, but there are com­pelling myths around the world. Graph­ic nov­els make those tra­di­tions and sto­ries avail­able to read­ers who might have trou­ble with straight text.

Fic­tion about Super­heroes. Longer texts, with­out illus­tra­tions, often hold as much attrac­tion for com­ic book read­ers if the sto­ries are engag­ing. And there are pic­ture books that are just right for the read­ers who are too young for graph­ic nov­els but have the inter­est.

Com­ic Books, Non­fic­tion. Whether it’s learn­ing how two boys came to invent Super­man, the super­hero from Kryp­ton, or exam­in­ing info­graph­ics and sta­tis­tics, or lis­ten­ing to a pod­cast with Gene Luen Yang on pub­lic radio about his inspi­ra­tion, The Green Tur­tle, there’s a lot of research and learn­ing to be done with super­heroes.

Draw­ing. For those kinet­ic and visu­al learn­ers, telling a sto­ry through draw­ing, pop­u­lat­ing a page with char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and set­ting and voice is a way to use com­ic book art for devel­op­ing writ­ing skills.

Chi­nese His­to­ry. There are many, many books, some of them quite schol­ar­ly, about Chi­nese his­to­ry. We’ve select­ed just two, both of which are also visu­al his­to­ries.

Chi­nese Art. Chi­na is such a large coun­try, with a civ­i­liza­tion that is thou­sands of years old, that these books orga­nize the infor­ma­tion in order to present the diver­si­ty of arts in a way that makes sense.

Chi­nese Immi­gra­tion. There are fine books about the immi­gra­tion of Chi­nese and Asian Pacif­ic peo­ple to Amer­i­ca, the Gold­en Moun­tain. We’ve select­ed a few, from pic­ture books to nov­els to mem­oir. 

Chi­nese Food. Read­ers learn a great deal about dif­fer­ent cul­tures from the food they eat, their tra­di­tions for prepar­ing food, and the ways they share it with their com­mu­ni­ty. We’ve found cook­books for both learn­ing and eat­ing, for adults and for chil­dren.

Chi­nese Geog­ra­phy. It always helps to have a good map to rein­force the visu­al knowl­edge of a coun­try. You’ll find sug­ges­tions for maps, down­loads, pho­tos, and facts about this large coun­try in Asia.

Tech­niques for using each book:



The World in Birdy’s Time, 1290 AD

The year of Birdy’s sto­ry in Cather­ine, Called Birdy is more than 700 years ago. It might be hard for us to imag­ine what it was like to live then, before tech­nol­o­gy and planes and even the print­ing press! Read­ing the book gives us an oppor­tu­ni­ty to put our­selves into that world and time. Here’s what was going on through­out Birdy’s world to help us place the book with­in its ref­er­ence points. We know you’ll enjoy the book … and learn­ing more about his­to­ry.

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The Curious Child: writing and books

Catherine, Called Birdy

by Vic­ki Palmquist

After read­ing Cather­ine, Called Birdy, read­ers will won­der about Edward, Birdy’s broth­er, and the books he was scrib­ing at the monastery. In what type of book did Birdy keep her jour­nal? Who taught her to write? Did she write in the same fan­cy script that her broth­er did at the monastery?

Birdy gives the read­er clues about her jour­nal: “The skins are my father’s, left over from the house­hold accounts, and the ink also. The writ­ing I learned of my broth­er Edward, but the words are my own.”

The author, Karen Cush­man, describes the scrip­to­ri­um in the monastery for us, “Edward works in Par­adise. Beyond the gar­den, near the chapel, is a room as large as our barn and near as cold. Shelves lin­ing the wall hold books and scrolls, some chained down as if they were pre­cious relics or wild beasts. In three rows sit fif­teen desks, fee­bly lit by can­dles, and fif­teen monks sit curled over them, their noses pressed almost to the desk­tops. Each monk holds in one hand his pen and in the oth­er a sharp knife for scratch­ing out mis­takes. On the desks are pens and quills of all sizes, pots of ink black or col­ored, pow­der for dry­ing, and knives for sharp­en­ing.”

Cather­ine, Called Birdy is set in 1290–91 AD, a time when writ­ing meth­ods and scripts were chang­ing a great deal. Life was mov­ing from the medieval peri­od to the Renais­sance, although no one alive then would have known that or giv­en those names to their lives. In the Author’s Note, Ms. Cush­man writes, “Most peo­ple did not know what cen­tu­ry it was, much less what year.”

It’s hard for us to think of the effort it took to cre­ate one book, the hours and hours of painstak­ing draw­ing of let­ters, which not only had to be read­able but had to sat­is­fy the fash­ions of the day, the stan­dards for art and beau­ty that defined pen­man­ship in that era.

This was approx­i­mate­ly 200 years before the first book would be mechan­i­cal­ly print­ed in Eng­land.

In the year in which Cather­ine, Called Birdy is set, the fash­ion­able cal­lig­ra­ph­er used the pen­strokes of Tex­tu­ra Quadra­ta, so called because its rhyth­mic ver­ti­cal strokes cre­at­ed a tex­ture on the paper … and was very dif­fi­cult to read. There are many mod­ern sam­ples of this style on The Pen­sive Pen, a blog about cal­lig­ra­phy by Jamin Brown.

gothic textura quadrata

The Goth­ic man­u­scripts … used the same pen stroke for many let­ters, and thus a word like “min­i­mum,” with its unre­lieved parade of ver­ti­cal strokes, was almost impos­si­ble to read.” The Smith­son­ian Book of Books by Michael Olmert, Smith­son­ian Books, 1992, pg 75.


Here is an excel­lent video of a scribe, with a quill pen, cre­at­ing let­ters in the Tex­tu­ra Quadra­ta or Black­let­ter style. Here are more sam­ples.

In the class­room, you might talk about the dif­fer­ences between the way we write today and the time and care it is tak­ing for the scribe in the video to write the alpha­bet.

Enjoy this sam­ple page of cal­lig­ra­phy from John Stevens Design, a mas­ter cal­lig­ra­ph­er whose doc­u­ments are cre­at­ed for spe­cial occa­sions as works of art.

Today, we open up our word pro­cess­ing pro­gram and scroll through the choice of fonts, mak­ing selec­tions based on our mood or the mes­sage we’re hop­ing to con­vey. We may choose Fritz Quadra­ta or Caslon or Brush Script, most like­ly being unaware of the deep his­to­ry behind each of these fonts. Today, Goth­ic Tex­tu­ra Quadra­ta is a font one can pur­chase for $12 online. Com­pare this to the art and care and skill of the scribe cre­at­ing a page (with­out ben­e­fit of spellcheck or the delete key) to sat­is­fy a rich patron who want­ed a book in their house and paid for it to be hand­writ­ten.

 “In the ear­ly mid­dle ages lit­er­a­cy was viewed with some sus­pi­cion; actions def­i­nite­ly spoke loud­er than words, espe­cial­ly writ­ten words. These atti­tudes changed as the mid­dle ages pro­gressed; gov­ern­ment became more depen­dent on records, and cor­re­spond­ing­ly the rest of soci­ety became increas­ing­ly aware that mem­o­ries were not enough. It became impor­tant to have writ­ten proof of own­er­ship or events. Latin was the lan­guage of gov­ern­ment and offi­cial busi­ness, but by the four­teenth cen­tu­ry an increas­ing amount of writ­ing was being con­duct­ed in the ver­nac­u­lar.” A Medieval Book of Sea­sons, by Marie Collins and Vir­ginia Davis, Harper­Collins, 1992, pgs 25–26.

textura quadrata

From about 1150, how­ev­er, all this began to change. Pro­fes­sion­al sec­u­lar scribes and illu­mi­na­tors start­ed to take over the book busi­ness. There is tan­ta­liz­ing evi­dence from the mid-12th cen­tu­ry of trav­el­ing crafts­man who must have hired them­selves out to those who want­ed man­u­scripts made.” The Smith­son­ian Book of Books by Michael Olmert, Smith­son­ian Books, 1992, pg 10.

If a copy­ist made a mis­take he put a series of fine dots under the offend­ing word and then con­tin­ued with his text. This avoid­ed the cre­ation of a hor­rif­ic black cross-out, which would spoil the nor­mal den­si­ty of the let­ters on the page. Mis­takes com­mon­ly occurred when the scribe was inter­rupt­ed and then cast his eye for­ward or back­ward to a word sim­i­lar to the one he had just fin­ished. Christo­pher de Hamel, an expert in medieval man­u­scripts, says this usu­al­ly hap­pened when the scribe lift­ed his pen from the page for more ink (scribes tried to do a sin­gle sen­tence with each refill.) The Smith­son­ian Book of Books by Michael Olmert, Smith­son­ian Books, 1992, pg 74.

 “Monas­tic scribes engaged in a vari­ety of jobs. They pre­pared offi­cial doc­u­ments, copied or recopied ancient or con­tem­po­rary texts, pro­duced missales for use in church or books of hours for rich patrons. Such lengthy, metic­u­lous work was obvi­ous­ly a strain on the eyes, o it is not sur­pris­ing that the first glass­es were worn by monks. Man­u­scripts could be con­sult­ed in the library, but to pre­vent their being pur­loined by too indi­vid­u­al­is­tic monks they were some­times changed to the shelves, as at Her­ford. This explains why in some monas­ter­ies copy­ists either worked in the library or in a scrip­to­ri­um pro­vid­ed for com­pil­ing and copy­ing texts.” Life in the Mid­dle Ages, by Robert Delort, Edi­ta Lau­sanne, 1972.

Mov­able type is cred­it­ed to Bi Sheng, who lived in Bian­i­lang dur­ing the North­ern Song Dynasty. Some­where between 1045 and 1058, he fash­ioned “3000 of the most com­mon let­ters” out of clay, baked them in a kiln, and used them to print pages of type.

In 1234, Kore­an print­ers invent­ed met­al move­able type, which was more durable, and they print­ed the “old­est extant met­al print­ed book” in 1377.” Be sure to take a look at the UNESCO Mem­o­ry of the World for more details about this mile­stone that changed the world for­ev­er.

Here’s a fact that many of us learned in school: Johannes Guten­berg pub­lished the 42-line Chris­t­ian Bible in 1455. His accom­plish­ment was to invent a screw-type press that could use mov­able type to print pages quick­ly.

The first book to be print­ed in Eng­land was William Caxton’s edi­tion of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur in 1484. Cax­ton pub­lished “about 100 books, a num­ber of which will live for­ev­er. The Can­ter­bury Tales (1476−1478) was near­ly a cen­tu­ry old when Cax­ton print­ed them (Chaucer died in 1300). He prob­a­bly print­ed them not because they were “lit­er­a­ture” but because they con­tained pop­u­lar, appeal­ing sto­ries. Cax­ton was a busi­ness­man. Enter­tain­ment was more impor­tant to him than eru­di­tion.” The Smith­son­ian Book of Books by Michael Olmert, Smith­son­ian Books, 1992.

And what hap­pened to those books? Did Birdy’s house have a shelf with books on it, script writ­ten by Edward? Here’s a pub­lic library 400 years lat­er at Wim­borne Min­ster in Eng­land.

Sit­u­at­ed with­in the Min­ster, this was one of Britain’s first pub­lic libraries, estab­lished in 1686 in the room pre­vi­ous­ly the Trea­sury, which housed the wealth of the Min­ster until it was con­fis­cat­ed by Hen­ry VIII.

Among the ear­li­est col­lec­tions of the library, which we see here, were donat­ed by Rev. William Stone on con­di­tion that the books were chained to the shelves—he wished that his items be avail­able not only to the cler­gy but also to ‘the bet­ter class of per­son in Wim­borne.’  He pro­vid­ed mon­ey for the chains and also stip­u­lat­ed that the exist­ing works also be chained, lest they be pil­fered by the less scrupu­lous. 

Wimborne Minster public library


Stone’s col­lec­tion is entire­ly eccle­si­as­ti­cal, but lat­er col­lec­tions have a vari­ety of sub­jects, from archi­tec­ture to wine press­ing and even how to kill an ele­phant.

These are Vic­to­ri­an chains but there are two orig­i­nals remain­ing. Because the chains are attached to the edges of the book cov­ers, rather than the spines which would become eas­i­ly dam­aged, the books face inwards.” From Geo­graph: Wim­borne Min­ster, Dorset, Great Britain.


Art of Calligraphy

Alpha­bet Goth­ique, Tex­tu­ra Quadra­ta. Ger­ard Caye. YouTube video.

Art of Cal­lig­ra­phy: a Prac­ti­cal Guide to the Skills and Tech­niques. David Har­ri­son. DK Books, 1995.

Cather­ine, Called Birdy. Karen Cush­man. Clar­i­on Books, 1994.

Chi­na, “Bi Sheng.”

Friend­ly Korea, my friend’s coun­try. “The Great­est Inven­tion, Mov­able Met­al Type Print­ing and Jikji.”

Geo­graph web­site.

Life in the Mid­dle Ages. Robert Delort. Edi­ta Lau­sanne, 1972.

Mal­o­ry Project. Fac­sim­i­le ver­sion of William Caxton’s 1485 edi­tion of Le Morte d’Arthur.

Medieval Book of Sea­sons. Marie Collins and Vir­ginia Davis. Harper­Collins, 1992.

Mem­o­ry of the World. Unit­ed Nations Edu­ca­tion­al, Sci­en­tif­ic, and Cul­tur­al Orga­ni­za­tion. 

Ore­gon State Uni­ver­si­ty Libraries, Spe­cial Col­lec­tions & Archives Research Cen­ter. “Trea­sures from the McDon­ald Col­lec­tion, the Incun­able Era, the Guten­berg Press.” 

Pen­sive Pen, a blog about cal­lig­ra­phy. Jamin Brown.

Smith­son­ian Book of Books. Michael Olmert. Smith­son­ian Books, 1992.


My New Hero

I am a fan of super­hero comics. After read­ing about talk­ing ducks, pre­co­cious teens at Riverdale High, and an equal­ly pre­co­cious rich kid, I want­ed some­thing with a real sto­ry, not a sit­u­a­tion. I wasn’t allowed to buy com­ic books, so I had to rely on the kind­ness of cousins. What­ev­er I could scrounge up […]