Peeps, Cream Puffs, and Mollusks: Authors on the Web

If you've ever seen a children's author speak to an audience of kids, you know that kids always want to know what in a book is "true", especially if it's based on the author's life. When you make a connection with the stories someone tells or writes, it makes you want to hear their own stories as well. And it's not just kids who are fascinated by true personal stories. Last week I hosted a storytelling party for librarians. One of the attendees gave us a choice: he could tell a folktale, or the story of how he learned to ride a bicycle when he was seven. Everyone there wanted to hear the bicycle story (it was good, too!).

Way back when I was a student librarian working at the central branch of a big city library, I used to browse through the "Something About the Author" series in our reference area. I loved reading the real stories behind the stories of authors I'd come to know and love through their work.

These days, researching authors' lives is much easier. "Something About the Author" is still around, but hundreds (maybe thousands) of children's authors also maintain Web pages that list their published books and usually include autobiographical information too.  And then there are some that have that little something extra:

  • Sarah Ellis, author of books such as Odd Man Out and The Several Lives of Orphan Jack, has a great "Then and Now" chart on her site about things she liked (picnics, bicycles, getting the giggles) and didn't like (raisin pie, arguments, cold water) as a kid and as an adult, as well as some things she didn't like as a kid but likes now (opera, Jane Austen, bedtime) and vice versa. Highly entertaining!
  • While writing my last blog post, I came across Nancy Farmer's website. Wow! What a treasure trove of information and memoir. As I mentioned, most author websites include a biography page, but hers is truly extensive, painting such a vivid picture of her emotional and family life during childhood as well as the later experiences that informed her fiction. I was fascinated to read her Q & A section, in which she includes long bits of personal background, especially about her dystopian novel The House of the Scorpion, which she considers her most important book as well as, astonishingly, the most closely based on her childhood. She writes:

"Matt is based on my son Daniel and on my own childhood.  No, I wasn’t thrown into a room full of sawdust, but it felt like that sometimes.  I was an unexpected, and probably unwanted, child born when my parents were too old.  El Patrón has some resemblance to my mother."

  • The biography section of Shannon Hale's website features short, medium-length, and "ridiculously long" (her phrase!) versions of her life story, but the best parts have got to be her husband's and toddler son's versions of her bio. (Excerpt from the latter: "She is a dedicated writer, a loving mother, and a passable dance instructor. She also brews a mean oatmeal-and-applesauce gruel.") I've read Hale's books Princess Academy and The Goose Girl, and though I loved them, they didn't strike me as especially funny, so her wicked sense of humor as evidenced on this site is a welcome surprise.
  • Grace Lin's site includes a "fun facts" section where she explores some other career paths she might have taken if she hadn't become a children's illustrator and author of The Year of the Dog and many other wonderful books. As she writes, Grace "has come to the conclusion that she's very glad that she IS a children's book illustrator. After you read about her other career possibilities, you will be too!" My favorite is probably the one about why she is not a chef. Hint: you will be very glad you never had to eat those cream puffs.
  • Jon Scieska's Answers to Frequently Asked Questions page is just that: the answers. As befits the creator of such smart and tricky books as Math Curse, he leaves it up to you to figure out what the questions are. He also lists several "Not All That Frequently, But Really Asked Questions," like "Have you ever been to America?" "What is your favorite mollusk?" and "We had to write to our favorite author, but Roald Dahl is dead so I'm writing to you."

Hungry for more kid author info? Check out the Authors and Illustrators section of "The Stacks," Scholastic's site for kids.

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Thankful for Wonderful Sequels

Sometimes starting to read an unfamiliar book is like walking into a party full of people you don't know. You have to keep track of a confusing swirl of names and faces, try to suss out the vibe, wander around looking for a place to hang your coat. Not to mention the anxiety-- what if everyone there is boring, or irritating, or cliquish? What if you don't like the food? What if you can't find the bathroom? It can be overwhelming.

By contrast, when you open the second or third or tenth book in a series, it's like spending the evening hanging out with good friends. You don't get lost finding the house, you're familiar with everyone's quirks, you get the jokes, and even if there are a few new friends-of-friends at the gathering, it's easy to remember who they are and feel at ease with them. No wonder kids like series books-- I like series books, too! Especially when the weather waxes cold and dark and miserable, it's so comforting to return to a world I've been to, and liked, before.

I'm not sure whether it's a trend or a coincidence, but just in the past month I've read a slew of really excellent follow-up volumes to some of my favorite kids' or  teen novels of recent years:

Al Capone Shines My Shoes, by Gennifer Choldenko. Just as he did in Al Capone Does My Shirts, Moose Flannagan once again finds himself mixed up in an intrigue involving Alcatraz Island's most notorious resident, all for the sake of his autistic sister, Natalie. This time, he's worried Natalie may get kicked out of the Esther P. Marinoff School, or worse, if he doesn't find a way to get yellow roses to Capone's girlfriend when she comes to the island to visit. And that's just the beginning. This sequel actually goes deeper in some ways than the first volume, especially in its exploration of some of the less sympathetic characters, like junior femme fatale Piper and the stick-in-the-mud warden Darby Trixle.

Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins. When I finished The Hunger Games last year--way too late on a work night, because I could not tear myself away--I closed the book in a haze of pleasant exhaustion mingled with anxious anticipation of the sequel. Part of my anxiety was for Katniss, left cliff-hanging in a seemingly impossible situation, and part of it was for myself, the reader: would the next volume, as seemed likely, be all about choosing between two guys? I was desperate to find out what happened, but didn't know if I could handle that. Fortunately, Collins is more subtle than I gave her credit for, and this sequel is much more about survival and loyalty than it is about romance. The bad news is that now I am left waiting anxiously for the third volume. Please hurry, Suzanne Collins!

Islands of the Blessed, by Nancy Farmer. The Sea of Trolls is one of my very, very, very favorite books, so when a sequel, The Land of the Silver Apples, appeared last year, I was dubious; after all, how often do sequels live up to their predecessors? And it's true, I found the second and third volumes to be a bit more sprawling, and less astonishing, than The Sea of Trolls. At the same time, I've come to care so much for these characters, I'd follow them to the ends of the Earth-- which is pretty much where Farmer takes them in Islands of the Blessed. She even brings back that improbably good-humored berserker, Olaf One-Brow, for a final curtain call.

Front and Center, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. I don't want to get all gushy-- she'd hate that-- but D.J. Schwenk, heroine of Dairy Queen, its sequel The Off Season, and now concluding volume Front and Center, is so incredibly funny and unassuming and  (though she'd never admit it) wise and, well, darn it, NICE, that she and her whole story just charm my socks off. Even though I know nothing about farming and care nothing about sports, and farming and sports are D.J.'s whole life. For a character who claims to be so bad at expressing herself with words, she sure gets a lot across;  D.J. is never maudlin or sentimental, yet of all the titles I've written about here, and for all that it's probably the funniest one as well, this is the only book that had me crying at the end.

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Kid Reading Report: Age 9

My kid has been reading to herself a lot in the past couple of months; first she powered through the Percy Jackson series, gobbling the five books down as fast as we could reserve them from the library.  Now she’s renewing her acquaintance with the Ramona books, and dipping back into her old chapter-book favorites, the Rainbow Magic series (I admit I’m relieved she can read these on her own this time around). Her school is running a reading-incentive program where she gets stickers and chances at prizes for reading every day, so she’s been assiduous about making sure we sign her record sheet. She still likes picture books sometimes, too, especially if they’re funny; she borrowed Cordelia Funke’s Pirate Girl from her school library last week.

Then there are the night-time read-alouds, chosen by her kids’-book-besotted parents. Now that she’s nine, we’re breaking out the big guns. A few weeks ago, we read her A Wrinkle in Time. I don’t think she would have liked it so much last year—too weird, too complicated, too scary, especially the part where Charles Wallace is subsumed by IT—but we called the timing right and she was totally entranced, though Madeleine L’Engle’s habit of ending every chapter on a cliff-hanger made it very hard to find a point to stop reading each night.

Then, yesterday, we happened to be looking at a cute, accessible picture book one of her grandparents gave her about Leonardo Da Vinci, and I oh-so-casually mentioned that there was a really good kids’ book that was partly about another famous Italian artist, Michelangelo, and that it was also about two kids who run away and hide out in a huge museum in New York City and discover a mystery about a statue that they think Michelangelo might have carved. She begged to hear the first part of the book, and soon we were deep into From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  I’d tried to interest her in this book as a read-aloud last spring, before our visit to New York, and she’d scorned it. But this year it was just the right time.

I wondered whether the Metropolitan Museum has any kind of guide on their website to the art that Jamie and Claudia encounter during their fictional sojourn in the museum, and, lo and behold, they do. Sort of. They also devoted an issue of their kids' newsletter to the book (opens as a PDF file). Sounds like the 16th-century canopy bed that the kids sleep in isn’t there anymore, and neither are the pools where they bathe and gather coins. Today we read the part where Claudia and Jamie have breakfast at the Automat, and I had to explain about the Automat, which I remember visiting as a teenager, and how it was like a whole restaurant full of vending machines. And also how it’s not there anymore either.  

Oh, well; things change. But, fortunately, they don’t change so much that The Mixed-Up Files is less comprehensible or less enjoyable for my daughter than it was when I picked it up some 35 years ago.  Getting to share it with my kid is a treat that was worth waiting for.

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A Word about Service

A couple weeks ago my children's school in Brooklyn participated in their first school-wide community service day. The purpose of this day of service was to give kids some hands-on experience with community service. Students and parents were encouraged to bring in $1 to fund the many wonderful projects they made reality. Students, staff, teachers, administration and parents all pitched in to give back to local organizations.

Over $600 was raised by the program and the service projects included:
  • Baking dog treats for animals at BARC
  • Making "Adopt Me" bandanas for the ASPCA
  • Planting bulbs in front of the school and at the local public library branch
  • Raking leaves in Cooper and McCarren Park
  • Reading to younger students at local day cares
  • Volunteering at local food pantries
As a parent I am thrilled to see our public schools giving back to the community. Today our children are learning about social values at school and (hopefully) at home.

Nice work kids!

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Remembering Esther Hautzig on Remembrance Day

In the United States it's called Veterans' Day; in Canada, it's Remembrance Day; England calls it Armistice Day, recalling the end of World War I. No matter the name, tomorrow is a day when many people think about war and its costs: for those who fight, those caught in the crossfire, and those waiting at home.

Children who live in a war zone, and those whose parents are fighting, have no choice: they know about war, whether anyone wants them to or not. More sheltered kids, who live without first-hand knowledge of war, often encounter the concept through books.

It was like that for me. Even though the United States was at war in Vietnam when I was born and throughout my early childhood, and even though World War II had dominated my parents' childhoods (so much so that my dad remembers thinking that the newspapers would have to close down when the war ended, because there wouldn't be any news), war was much more of a literary concept for me than as a real-life historical one.

And one of the first books I remember reading about war was The Endless Steppe, by Esther Hautzig.

The Endless Steppe, which is based on Hautzig’s own life, starts on a beautiful, sunny morning. The narrator wakes up as usual in her apartment, which is part of a compound where she’s surrounded by loving relatives and material privilege. But her life is about to change forever: the Communists have taken over the city of Vilna, where she lives, and she, her parents, and her grandmother are about to be arrested as capitalists and sent to Siberia.

The rest of the book is the story of the next five years, as Esther and her family adapt to privations, hunger, unbelievably harsh weather, crazy orders from the military which controls their lives, and, maybe worst of all, isolation from the rest of their loved ones and uncertainty about their future.

I read The Endless Steppe before I knew much about World War II, or even about my own family’s history (my grandmother was also from Vilna, but I didn’t make the connection at the time), and , later, lumped the book in my memory with the many Holocaust books that I was to read in the next several years. When I re-read it a few years ago, I realized that it is a Holocaust book mainly by omission, and that in fact the family’s years in exile in Siberia most probably saved their lives: when they return to Vilna at the end of the war, they discover that most of their extended family has been killed by the Nazis.

So many of the small details in this book have stayed with me:  how Esther has to go to the bathroom so badly while they’re lined up waiting for the train to exile; the sweater she’s wearing, which is to become something like a second skin for her during her years in exile;  the vegetables that her flower-loving grandmother plants in her Siberian garden, because food is more important than flowers; the special boots that Esther saves up to buy near the end of the book and insists on wearing for the family’s return to Vilna, only to discover that they are hoplelessly unfashionable outside of Siberia—in five years, she’s become a stranger, an outsider, in her old home.

Esther Hautzig died last week, after a long life of work with children and books: writing, editing, and volunteering for the New York Public Library. So on this Remembrance Day, I’ll be remembering not only the soldiers who fought, and who still fight, but the kids like Esther, whose worlds are turned upside down by war. The Endless Steppe opened my mind to that understanding—that for many kids war is not just a faraway word--and I’ll always be grateful to Esther Hautzig for writing it.

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