Archive for December 31, 2008

One Little Word

A simple concept: Pick a word, any word, and let it be your word for 2009. That’s the idea behind “One Little Word.”

My thanks to Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers — a great site — for first mentioning it here.

Today I’m just a conduit, passing along the good stuff. I hope you like it.

The above comes to you (and me) from Wordle, an online toy for generating “word clouds” from text. Check it out, a great place for a little creative fun (though, rats & snails, I can’t figure out how to get a larger Wordle image in my post — I made a few awesome ones yesterday using full paragraphs from favorite books, stanzas from Dylan songs, and such).

And now, excuse me, but it’s time to round up the kids and start bringing in the New Year.

ADDENDUM: I forgot to note that I discovered Wordle at the happy blog, A Year In Reading. The post was titled, “I Should Be Working,” and I know the feeling!

To Music, To Seven Things

I’m writing to direct you to a wonderful post I just discovered at Seven Impossible Things. It’s dated 12/12, written by Jules, and titled, “Poetry Friday: To Music.

I often wonder what this blog should be — this creature — or even IF it should be. And then I read a post like that and am awed and encouraged.

Obviously, there are all sorts of ways to blog. Quick and breezy, snarky and sharp, link-laden or thoughtful and slow. I guess I try to find some balance. And, really, mostly just try to please myself, try to reflect what’s going on at the moment, especially as it touches my working life.

Anyway, all I’m trying to do now is say, hey, look at that. Isn’t that great? Isn’t that cool? Don’t you love it?

Happy New Year!


Welcome to the world, Tripp Easton Mitchell Johnston, son of Levi and Bristol, and grandson of Sarah Palin.

Only one question: Was Misstep already taken?

Books for Boys?!

School Library Journal recently ran a review for Along Came Spider. Written by Elizabeth Swistock, you can read it in full by clicking wildly right here and scrolling insanely downwards.

I think Ms. Swistock gives an accurate, sympathetic review, while noting that “several of the traits that Preller describes could be associated with autism spectrum disorder, but Trey’s condition is never stated outright.”

Not naming Trey’s condition was a conscious choice. Maybe that was a mistake on my part, I don’t know. But for the record, I saw Trey as a boy with high-functioning Asperger Syndrome. What I felt at the time, correctly or not, was that most kids wouldn’t perceive things that way — they’d be dealing with the near reality of a quirky boy, not an abstract label, so I tried to hug close to that perspective. In today’s inclusive classrooms, these are daily encounters for most children.

By the way, here’s one of the many great books I found on the subject, Perfect Targets: Asperger Syndrome and Bullying, by Rebekah Heinrichs.

For the purposes of Along Came Spider, I didn’t see the behaviors exhibited in the book as “bullying” per say, since I hate to see every incident of like or dislike — or even one-time acts of physical violence — thrown under the notorious bullying umbrella. Vast topic, too big for this entry. I’ll have a lot more to say on that later, when we get closer to the publication of Bystander (Feiwel & Friends, Fall, 2009), a dramatic novel that takes a closer look at bullying in a middle school environment

The interesting part of the review comes at the end (doesn’t it always?). Ms. Swistock concludes:

The fact that Trey and Ava are extremely self-aware and kindhearted is a redeeming quality, but the book could prove too uneventful for its intended audience. That’s too bad because Trey is a sweet character and Preller’s message is a good one.

I want to repeat the key phrase there: too uneventful for its intended audience.

Let’s be clear: I have no argument with the reviewer. She very well may be correct. It’s not been a huge seller. Though it is a book about boys — that also features strong female characters — it might not fit into the category of The Type of Books That Boys Like. There’s not a lot of action. It’s a friendship story. Maybe it would be boring for typical boys, whomever or whatever that might be. I loved the observation made by Karen Terlecky at Literate Lives in the very first review of Spider:

I’ve read a lot of books recently about girls trying to make sense of friendships and themselves, so it was a delightful surprise to find and read an advance review copy of a book that deals with boys trying to find where they belong . . . .

I wonder: Did I accidentally write a girlie book about boys? And is such a thing possible? Or unwelcome? Or needed? Can it be that a He-Man such as myself is, deep down, just a wuss?

I am genuinely interested in this topic and invite your comments. It’s something I’ve been puzzling over for a while now. I haven’t reached any wise conclusions. But maybe that’s what blogging should be: that it’s okay, maybe even preferable, to open things up for discussion, rather than attempt to neatly wrap things up, tie down all the loose ends.

On a diagnostic level, we can all agree that boys don’t read as much as girls. We can see the divides in our educational system. But it becomes far trickier when we encounter it on a prescriptive level, when we read that we need more . . . books for boys.

Because, of course, what IS a book for boys? Following the standard clichés, we’ll see well-intentioned publishers roll out a bunch of sports titles and a series of picture books about trucks and dinosaurs. Boys love that stuff! Oh yeah, and gross stuff, too — boys love disgusting things. Farts and vomit! Bodily functions! Smashing things! Underwear! And on and on.

And you can see where that kind of reductionistic thinking leads us. Exactly nowhere. Where Boy becomes Caricature, effectively ignoring the vast number of outliers, the sensitive ones, the insecure boys, ignoring the notion that boys may be All That and So Much More.

What is a book for a boy? What do boys like? To answer that, we have to address the idea of what is a boy? I guess what worries me is when those answers get too restrictive, too limited, when publishing for boys does a disservice to what boyness is all about, in all its sprawling, messy glory.

“Oh, here comes a boy. Do I have a book for you!


As my ex-brother-in-law would say, “Rats and snails!”

I just accidentally deleted a bunch of comments from the past few weeks. Sorry about that, people like Deb and Matthew; the comments are one of my favorite parts of this whole endeavor, snide or otherwise.

Christmas Cheer from Sleeveface

Another pointlessly creative site that I’ll bop over to every once in a while is Sleeeveface. Described as: “one of more persons obscuring or augmenting any part of their body or bodies with record sleeve(s) causing an illusion.”

I’ve just got to do one of these photos some day. Anyway: Ho, ho, ho.

Star of Stars, Wonder of Wonders

Feeling small.

It’s a good thing, right. Just to be reminded of that fact. Our smallness.

A sense of awe, full of awe, the awfulness of being.

This site does that for me. A good place to visit every now and then. A reminder of our smallness, yes, but also our connection to the deepest, greatest mysteries.

Merry Christmas, folks. Or happy holidays. Or however you wish to express your wonder, your joy, your sense of beauty, your love.

These images of our world come to us via the Hubble Space Telescope. The link is on the blogroll, under Random Pleasures.

Some Photos from NYC

I just downloaded some photos from our recent trip to NYC, where my friends at Feiwel & Friends gratiously put us up in a fancy hotel for the night. I attended a New York Public Library function with Liz Szabla at the Schomburg Center on Malcolm X Blvd to celebrate their 2008 list of “100 Books for Reading and Sharing.” (Ironically, though I’d love to share that list with you, it’s not available on the net!) As an added bonus, we heard the remarkable Uri Shulevitz speak — while Lisa, Gavin, and Maggie took huge bites of the Big Apple. Always a treat to be back on familiar concrete, after moving to more pastoral environs in 1990.

As a busy high schooler, Nick couldn’t miss two days of school to make the trip. We ached for him terribly and cried ourselves to sleep each night (that’s our story and we’re sticking to it!).

After checking into the hotel, we began our madcap Manhattan spree with a personal tour of the historic Flatiron Building . . .

. . . home of Feiwel & Friends. That’s Jean Feiwel and Liz Szabla, hard at work.

Then we walked Fifth Avenue to see the Christmas windows . . .

. . . and go skating at Rockefeller Center. (Gavin recently acquired an orange Under Armour baseball cap. We cannot get it off his head.)

We visited the tippy-top of the Empire State Building . . . ate dinner in Greenwich Village . . . and called it a night.

Next morning we split up. I went uptown with Liz, while Lisa and the kids ran around New York.

They walked the Brooklyn Bridge . . .

. . . enjoyed dim sum in Chinatown. Then it was time to head back home.

All in all, I think we had a good time. Regrettably, Daisy could not make the trip . . .

. . . as she is currently rehearsing for her role in the Nutcracker.


Assuming that everybody has at least 4:16 to kill during the holidays, I thought I’d share this song with you. Written by one of my musical heroes — the amazing Richard Thompson — this video features a duet with his son, Teddy Thompson, who inherited his mother Linda’s clear, evocative, bell-like voice. I realize this song is quiet, but it’s just a beautiful tune, and the father-and-son performance puts it over the top for me. An influential, pioneering songwriter over the past 40 years, Richard Thompson is also regarded as one of the finest guitarists of our time. Enjoy

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

Oh yeah, you might know Teddy from his work on the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack, “I Don’t Want to Say Goodbye.” And if you don’t, you might want to! Cheers.

Jigsaw Jones Cover: Part 5, Jennifer the Art Director

At last, here’s the fifth installment of a series of posts following the creation of a single book cover. As I follow this trail, coming across talented, creative people along the way, I keep thinking of that scene in The Wizard of Oz, — “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

Because that’s exactly what we’re doing, demystifying the process. And maybe taking away some of the magic. But in place of magic, hopefully we’re shining a light on some of the fine folks who make the covers — while the author sits around and does nothing. In Part One, back in October, I interviewed Scholastic editor Matt Ringler, and we talked about the origins of the “cover concept.” For Parts Two and Three, we learned about cover illustrator R.W. Alley’s creative process, concluding with a lively chat with R.W. himself. In Part Four, we got to see the rough sketches. Exciting!

Now the process shifts back in-house, with the sketches on the desk of Scholastic art director Jennifer Rinaldi. We’ve gone from concept to rough sketch. So now let’s meet Jennifer and decide whether we like her or not find out a little bit about who she is and what she does.

Hi, Jennifer. How long have you been an art director? Is that a job you dreamed about as a little girl in pigtails?

I have been book designer and an art director for almost fifteen years, but I have always been crazy about books and reading. As I grew up I realized that a big part of what I loved about reading was not only absorbing a great story, but seeing the way the type and pictures were arranged on a page. It took me a while to figure out that this is what I always wanted to do, I had no idea such a cool job actually existed!

R.W. Alley has handed in several different sketches for the new Jigsaw Jones cover.

Do they go to you first? What now?

Yes, Bob sends me the sketches a couple weeks after getting the cover concepts. He usually sends a couple versions of the cover. I place them in a mechanical, which is a layout that shows all the type and the logos in place with the art. I usually choose the color palette at this point. With other books, I wait until I have final art before deciding the colors for the type, but the Jigsaw covers are so colorful I know I can’t go wrong! Also, we have done so many of them, I need to make sure we don’t repeat the colors, so I try to plan ahead.

Do you get to pick your favorite? Or is this a committee thing?

I will usually give my opinion, but I don’t get the final decision. The Book Club manager decides which sketch she likes best.

If you have selected a favorite, why? What goes into the decision?

As you have seen, Bob’s sketches are always really great, so it’s not an easy task to pick the best. Usually it’s just a matter of selecting which elements they want to highlight the most — and Jigsaw needs to be the focus, of course!

There’s an added complication with this book. This is a so-called “Spy and Solve,” a book that includes some kind of snazzy electronic gadget to (cough, cough) enhance the reading experience. That’s yet another element to stick on an already crowded cover.

I can’t wait to see this thing in person once it is actually produced! I will definitely get my hands on a sample “spy ear,” because I always wanted to be Harriet the Spy as a kid.

As a kid, I wanted to be the one driving the sports car in Go Dogs Go!

That’s a good one, too! Remember Are You My Mother? I just found my old much-loved copy of it in my parent’s basement, and had so much fun re-reading it.

Sure, I remember that book as a child and even moreso as a father who read that book aloud many times. It’s just about perfect. Interesting how one of our most cherished children’s titles is centered on probably our deepest, most horrifying fear — separation from the mother. The people at Disney know this well, because you see it over and over again, though not often with the same comic touch. But back to you!

As far as the cover goes, I still don’t know how we’re handling this; I imagine we will add a starburst to the front cover, with some clever copy written by editor Matt Ringler. Usually the people who design the Book Club newsletters (the pages and order forms that kids get in school) will add something into their copy, plus a picture of the gadget, to let readers know what cool item they will be getting with the book.

When the next step is ready, with all the design elements in place, could you please send me a sample? I’ve promised to keep my Nation of Readers abreast every step of the way. A riot can be an ugly thing.

No problem! I think this is a really fun interview series — if only I had read something like this as a kid, I could have spent many more happy years making books


NOTE: True to her word, Jennifer sent along this “sketch mechanical.” I appreciate everyone’s willingness to reveal unfinished work. It takes a certain kind of confidence to pull back that curtain.

Jennifer added in her note:

“l warn you this is really ugly! I haven’t selected the colors yet, these are just place-holders. An interesting note about this cover: we flopped the sketch, because it fit better in the layout. I haven’t actually heard from Bob if he likes this or not!

The notes from Matt requested that Jigsaw be slightly smaller and the skeleton a little larger. It should really pop in the beam of the flashlight. As you well know, our covers are reproduced really tiny in the Book Club news, so we really want the skeleton to stand out when it’s small.”


NOTE: Here’s some links to the all the posts in this seven-part series: One, Two, Three, FourFive, and Six, and Seven. Read them all and experience the awe and wonder of the creative, collaborative process!