Archive for November 20, 2018

Frank Hodge, Remembered

When I learned that Frank Hodge had died, I immediately thought of all the people whose lives he had touched. Frank had that indelible knack. We quickly became entangled in his fiendish web of book people. Writers, teachers, readers, librarians: Hodge-Podgers, all. Somehow we were all mixed up in this beautiful community together. And it was fun. Full of laughter. Impromptu read-alouds. Mischievous zingers. Kindness. Frank made us feel not only validated, but gloriously celebrated, as if our work really, really mattered. You don’t see that much these days. But for Frank, it was like air. It was breathing. He represented something that feels nearly lost today, the way we hear stories about editor Ursula Nordstrom and think, oh gosh, that must have been something. 

I decided to reach out to different folks who knew Frank, to see if they would like to share a few words, a memory, a photo, something. The response was overwhelming but not surprising. Please forgive me if I failed to connect with you. Feel free to leave a comment. 

 

Cynthia DeFelice

When I was a young, aspiring author who didn’t believe in herself (that could still describe me, except for the “young” part), I came home to see my answering machine blinking. It was a long, effusive, incredibly affirming message from Frank Hodge — Frank Hodge! — telling me how much he loved my third book Weasel. I listened to it over and over again, and couldn’t bring myself to erase it. Eventually I had to replace that machine. But Frank’s words made all the difference in my brain and in my career. Those were heady days; Frank’s conferences were so full of joy and enthusiasm and positivity about ideas and books and the power of literature. I miss that, and I will miss him.

 

Mem Fox

Frank changed my American life and brought me to the attention of thousands of readers who would never have otherwise known me. I’ve been feeling lost and miserable since he died. I’m all by myself, as it were, down here in Australia, with a massive lump in my throat and no one to hug, i.e. no one who knew Frank.

I adored Frank. He was one of the world’s extraordinary people: outrageous, brilliant, and incredibly generous, occasionally difficult, with a wicked sense of humour and a love of salacious gossip—and a distaste for vegetables of any colour, much to my endless horror. Our conversations went far into the night but I never had to take my make-up off afterwards because I’d already cried it off, with laughter.

 

Bruce Coville

Reader’s Digest used to run a regular feature called “My Most Unforgettable Character.” For me, that would be Frank Hodge, who was a great force for good and joy in the world of children’s books. As anyone who ever attended one can testify, Frank’s conferences were one-of-a-kind events. An image that I still carry with me –- something I saw on numerous occasions –- is that of coming into the book area after Frank had done one of his presentations and not being able to see the sales tables at all because the throng of teachers and librarians trying to get at them was four deep. That was how good he was at getting people excited about books.

His conferences were always themed, and there is one that will always remain my favorite. I had been hanging around with him in the store on Lark Street, chatting about one thing and another, when we got to talking about how much kids loved scary stories. Frank promptly decided that he should focus a conference around that, and thus was “BOO!” born. An entire conference devoted to scary stories. How delicious! Without informing him of what I had in mind, prior to my presentation I dressed up as my “half mad twin brother, Igor.” When he introduced me this shambling, long-bearded, fur-coated hunchback came down the center aisle. He reacted perfectly, and I was never sure whether I had actually fooled him or he was going along with the fun. When I got up beside him I pulled aside my fake beard and said, “It’s me, Bruce!” We were still laughing about it years later.

Frank showed me innumerable kindnesses when I was just getting started, as I know he did to countless other writers and illustrators. His conferences were one of a kind –- and so was he. We will not see his like again.

 

Matthew McElligott

The field of children’s literature is filled with brilliant, generous people, none more so than Frank Hodge. He helped countless readers to find the perfect book, and countless authors (including me) to find their way in the world of publishing. He was warm, witty, and a raconteur of the highest order.

Frank had a big heart, although his love didn’t extend to technology. For years I was his tech support guy, and he always seemed to need an awful lot of support. It took me years to finally understand why; Frank preferred it when his computer was broken.

It was easy to drop by the store. I worked nearby, and told Frank to call whenever he had an issue, but he stubbornly refused to pick up the phone. Whenever something would go wrong—say, he forgot the icon to get back into his email inbox—he would sit down and write me a letter, then shut down his computer. Days would pass.

To make sure I couldn’t reply too quickly, Frank made the letters difficult to read. One letter was typed on the back of a paper napkin from Price Chopper. Another was typed in random chunks, scattered at odd angles across the page. His masterpiece was a long strip of paper tape with sentences that started and ended halfway through. It took the better part of an afternoon to figure that one out.

There was nothing quite like a Frank Hodge letter, just as there was nothing like a Frank Hodge bookstore, conference, or conversation. I’m blessed I could experience them all.

 

Joe Bruchac

Frank was such a wonderful, unquenchable spirit. It’s hard to think of him without a smile coming to my face. All those decades that he ran Hodge-Podge
Books, his teaching, the festivals he put together. For so many years it seemed as if his energy was everywhere in the world of children’s literature.

One story that I remember about Frank is an incident he told me about when he had to have surgery some years back.

Shortly after his surgery a nurse came into his room and said “It’s time for you to get up.”

“No,” Frank replied, “it is most definitely NOT time for me to get up. If I try to get out of bed now I will fall flat on my face.”

But the nurse was insistent, not realizing she was reading the wrong chart.

“All right,” Frank said he told the nurse. “If you insist!”

At that point in the story, Frank started laughing.

“What happened next?” I asked him.

“Well, what do you think happened?” he replied. “I got out of bed and fell flat on my face.”

And then he laughed even harder!

 

 

Loren C. Green

I first met Frank when I was waiting tables at his favorite spot. When Frank learned I was studying to be an English teacher, he invited me to Hodge-Podge to enjoy some of the new books. I was so intimidated that it took me almost two years to gather the gumption to take him up on his offer. I was terrified that Frank might wonder what I thought of a book and I had no confidence in my ability to recognize or articulate my thoughts.

On that first visit, Frank offered me a pile of books and ordered us lunch. We sat in his backyard sanctuary and by the time I left six hours later, I had a second stack of books to read and a new job helping to ship books all over creation.

Almost thirty years later, my friendship with Frank remains one of the singular defining ingredients of my life. Visits with Frank always morphed into adventures and his endless trove of stories was, reliably, equal parts mirth and tutorial. Like the books and the authors Frank championed, he was a master at imparting insight and emoting compassion while disarming with humor. He never did overcome his fear that his own writing might not measure up, but I was blessed with countless chapters of his story and their lessons have helped shape me.

These last two years, I struggled to visit Frank as often as I should have but when I could muster the courage, Frank would do his best to ask after the goings on in my world and he never missed an opportunity to tease me mercilessly, somehow stealing a narrow path through the closing fog to reprise his role, for another moment, as the perennial rascal prince.

 

Gail Denisoff

One quick story — Frank came to speak at my school (I was a school librarian in Schenectady and teaching at Woodlawn school at the time) and of course that required picking him up at the bookstore in Albany since he didn’t drive. We were talking in the car on the way to school and he was surprisingly unsure about how effective he would be working with the kids, especially at the middle school level. I assured him that they would love him.

He spent the day sharing books with classes and had the kids, grades K-8, enthralled as only he could do. A few weeks later, a mother stopped by the library to tell me that she had never been able to get her 7th grade son to read but after that day with Frank, he wanted her to get him several of the books Frank shared. She did and said he hadn’t stopped reading ever since — she even caught him reading with a flashlight under the covers when he should have been sleeping! She was almost in tears telling me this and Frank was so pleased when I shared that story with him.

 

Karen Hesse

Frank had the chutzpah to dig up my home phone number back in 1992 and call me after reading my second book, Letters from Rifka. I remember sitting on the stairs in my tiny old house listening to this complete stranger lavishly praise my writing while my children clamored in the background, longing for dinner. He flattered me for over an hour during that first phone call! When he was not complimenting my work we were discussing literature and writing and favorite books and authors. How could I help but fall in love with Frank. He championed not only my work, but the work of so many. He was funny and wry and sly and ironic and sensitive and bright and brave and a beloved friend to writers and artists everywhere. I will always be grateful to Frank and his early support of my work. But also his support of so many others struggling to find an audience for their unique and compelling voices. Frank made a difference in the world. He will be missed.

 

Daniel J. Mahoney

Frank was a wonderful guy. He heard of me when I published my first book. He said that he “wanted to meet a local boy who made it in the children’s book business.” He invited to his store, and to his famous “Let the Reading Begin” conference, where I met a lot of great people. I’m sad to hear of his passing.

 

 

Jerry & Eileen Spinelli

Eileen and I have long been happy and proud to count ourselves among the first of Frank’s anointed “Hodge-Podgers.” We have little pins to prove it. Personally, Frank was there at the birth of my first novel. I remember getting a call at work (somehow he’d  tracked me down) and hearing him say nice things and wondering, Who is this guy? Next thing I knew we were having dinner in Albany and Lark St. had already begun to sound magical.

Frank’s “Newbery Corner,” a photo taken at one of his conferences: Kate DiCamillo, Linda Sue Park, Karen Hesse, and Jerry Spinelli.

 

Linda Sue Park

Frank Hodge’s conference was the very first one I was ever invited to. It must have been 2001; I had two books published with a third coming out…. That ‘third book’ was A Single Shard, which won the Newbery Medal in 2002. Frank invited me back again that year, which is when the photo was taken.

I don’t seem to have a photo of Frank and me together, which I sorely regret. It meant so much to me to be invited to speak at that conference so early in my career, and I will always be grateful to Frank for that boost.

Eric Luper

Of the 28 books I’ve written, two of them are dedicated to Frank Hodge. The first time we met, I was an aspiring writer. A friend suggested I introduce myself to a local kidlit luminary she described as a mix between Garrick Ollivander and Winnie the Pooh.

I printed my manuscript and headed to Hodge Podge Books, his tiny shop huddled beneath a brownstone on Lark Street.

Frank seemed delighted to meet me until he asked his first question: “What are your favorite children’s books?”

I knew this question carried weight. After all, this man literally ensconced himself with books. Unfortunately, the only characters that popped to mind were Garrick Ollivander and Winnie the Pooh.

“Right now, I’m reading Harry Potter.”

He flipped through my manuscript. “And you’d like me to read this?”

“If you have time.”

Frank tossed my pages into the trash. “Talk to me after you’ve read some good books and revised.”

Then, this curious, little man shuffled around his store gathering books from the shelves–books by Coville, Sachar, Anderson, DeFelice, Lubar, Gardiner, DiCamillo and Spinelli. “Talk to me after you’ve read these.”

The weeks that followed were the greatest writing lessons of my life, and the beginning of a great relationship with a brilliant mentor and friend.

 

Franki Sibberson

It is always a treat to visit independent bookstores when I visit new cities. I was fortunate enough to visit Hodge-Podge Books when I visited Albany many years ago.  I quickly understood that Hodge-Podge Books was a special place because of Frank Hodge.  He not only knew books but he came to know people and make him part of his book community quickly. He was committed to everyone in the book world. His love of books brought people together and those of us who visited his bookstore that day felt lucky to be a small part of all that he created at Hodge-Podge Books.

 

 

 

Suzanne Bloom

If only I could find it. That single-spaced two sided letter from Frank; densely woven with appreciation and well-considered comments. Something I could wear like a warm winter scarf.

Let’s get the guilt out of the way. I didn’t call or drop a line. I thought there would always be next week. A quick visit to Frank’s store might only last 2 hours. And I made too few trips. But each one was a master class in the art of picture book making, plus some gossipy asides. Don’t ask me what the gossipy asides were; long forgotten now. The book-lined walls brought the space in closer with just enough room to open a large volume or two. You could explore or, better yet, let Frank find a work, just for you; then Frank-splain the beauty of it. He gathered, curated and matched books to readers. It was like a book/dating site.

He built bridges between writers and readers, and grew a community of devotees. I daresay we all made new friends because of Frank.

I’ll find it. It made me feel like I might be a real writer and exhorted, encouraged and expected me to carry on. Perhaps you too, earned his approbation. Even if you didn’t get a letter, in the spirit of Frank and his love of the world of children’s literature, carry on!

 

Simon James 

Making books can be a lonesome experience, locked away in a room somewhere, wrestling with projects for months on end, but Frank always knew how to let the sunshine in. A phone call or a letter from Frank was a moment when the pressure lifted off and the very reason why you were struggling with those projects immediately came into sharp focus. His love for what you created always broke through your own moments of despondency or doubt. Often, we talked for several hours on transatlantic calls, joking at each other’s expense. We both enjoyed a deprecating humour that led us to insult each other with as much good nature as humanly possible.

Despite his gift for reaching out to others through books, Frank was a very private man. Perhaps there was a price to pay for his selfless enthusiasm and running the bookshop below his home. I stayed with him many times on my visits to schools around Albany. His personal living quarters above the shop were modest and unpretentious. His bedroom back door led outside to a wooden stairway above the backyard. Frank kept a long piece of string tied to that door, it ran to a safety pin attached to his pillow. This was for Crisis, his beloved cat, to be able to go outside in the night. When sufficiently cold, Frank would wake up and pull the string to swing the door back to be almost shut, until Crisis wandered back in again. This went on all through the year whatever the weather. I can remember trying to sleep in his spare room in the loft wondering why it was so utterly freezing at night. One Winter, I ended up with bronchitis. I could hardly speak. Naturally, I wanted to cancel some school visits, but Frank would hear nothing of it!

Frank was a superb presenter of books. He knew how to bring out the best from a text he loved. His warm, inquisitive voice and exquisite timing instantly held audiences spellbound. He held the book in one hand whilst gesturing with the other, like some high priest. He was a master at this, yet completely self-effacing at the same time. He was also openly opinionated; as vocal about the books he didn’t like, as he was about the books he loved. He made every book he read aloud urgent and desirable, one that you simply had to add to your collection.

Yet another talent of Frank’s was his gift for the lost art of letter writing. I am very glad I still have the many letters he wrote to me. When I read them they make me laugh, principally because of the way we mercilessly took the mickey out of each other. Nothing was too serious, except our friendship. I will miss him.

 

Cheryl Harness

Boy oh boy, how I hope that, in the blue beyond, somewhere off in the Afterlife, that ultimate hodgepodge, the joyful souls of book lovers and writers are gathered ’round their newly-arrived soul mate, their oh-so-kindred spirit, that of Francis Hodge.
At least, I’m trying hard to envision the scene, as well as the time way back in the early 1990s when I first visited Albany, New York’s swellegant little bookstore on Lark Street and met Frank Hodge, its greathearted proprietor. How did I, a shy, newbie author-illustrator from Colorado, come to be there? Because Frank had taken an interest in my first historical picture book, Three Young Pilgrims — talk about Thanksgiving! Little did I know then that the charming, soft-spoken gent with whom I’d shaken hands was one of the truly great champions of books for young readers. What did you want to know and/or need to learn? He could tell you. What lies beyond that ultimate veil? Now, if he could, he’d tell us that too. So we mortals are left to speculate. And read, thank goodness. And imagine — trying to envision, for instance, all of those word lovers who’ve gone on ahead, saved a place for Frank, now taking him by the hand.

 

 

A page from Jigsaw Jones: The Case of the Ghostwriter, featuring Hedgehog Books and an owner named Frank. It even includes his cat, Crisis. I dedicated the @ 2000 book to Frank — but then again, it seems like we all eventually got around to dedicating something to him. Just that kind of guy, I guess. — JP.

 

A Few Frank Facts . . .

Frank’s famous store may have been only 240 square feet –- yet it’s impact was enormous. The business hummed along, built around Frank’s close connection with hundreds of teachers and librarians. He enjoyed a lively and jocular relationship with the UPS drivers that daily sprinted in and out the door, burdened with boxes of books. The first “Let the Reading Begin” conference began in 1985 and ran for 17 years. These were always insanely elaborate and over-the-top events. Frank believed authors and illustrators were royalty, and treated them lavishly. Expenses be hanged! After a pause for double-bypass surgery, Frank briefly revived a downsized version of the old conference, but it became too much, even for indefatigable Frank Hodge. The store logo was created by Mark Teague.

 


 

Climate Change Fiction: How I wrote a “cli-fi” book before I realized it was a thing

I recently came across a term for a literary subgenre that was new to me, cli-fi. As in “climate change fiction.”

This is an expansive category of fiction that includes climate change themes. Within that loose genre, the stories can be utopian or dystopian, literary or satire. It’s a wide open, burgeoning field.

Jules Verne is credited with writing the first books in this genre — long before the term “sci-fi” was coined — with the novel 1883 novel, Paris in the 20th Century, where he imagined Paris hit by a sudden drop in temperature that lasts a number of years. In 1964, JG Ballard wrote The Burning World, a novel predicated on a man-made climate disaster.

Neither of these men realized they were writing cli-fi. And neither did I when I wrote Better Off Undead. But now I understand how my book falls into that category.

I began Better Off Undead with a vision of a 7th-grade zombie, Adrian Lazares, the ultimate misfit. And that idea sat in a drawer for a few years — it seemed a little trendy, frankly — until in 2014 I went to the spectacular “People’s Climate March” in NYC, attended by more than 400,000 citizens of the globe.

 

I traveled down alone -- but not alone -- by bus. So this is me on that great day, seeking attention to a cause that matters. In many ways, this march affected and inspired the book I wrote.

I traveled down alone — but not alone — from Delmar, NY, by bus. So this photo is me, taken by a stranger on that great day, seeking attention for a cause that matters. In many ways, this experience affected and inspired the book I wrote.

People's Climate March, 092114Some of hundreds of thousands take part in the People's Climate March through Midtown, New Yorkscreenshot-2014-09-10-131902_550x322climate-march-9_3000019b10_medium140921_climate_change_rally_nyc_ice_cream_earth_msm_605_60520140921-dsc_0050imagesA protester carries a sign during the "People's Climate March" in the Manhattan borough of New Yorkslide_389314_4706504_freeslide_370038_4261286_free140921_pol_peoplesclimate_11-jpg-crop-original-originalimagemarch-for-climate-changeimrspeoples-march-newam-crew-537x366

Why was Adrian a zombie? I needed an answer for that. At that March, it all connected for me. The book would be set in the not-so-distant future. And suddenly, it was obvious: the world was out-of-whack, like Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” I was writing a world-gone-wrong story. Cli-fi, in other words.

In Better Off Undead, Adrian and his friends live in a future environment imperiled by climate change. Weird things are happening to their world, but in the story it’s mostly unremarked upon, the new normal.

Some examples:

  • Adrian’s father is a mercenary soldier working for Corporate, fighting in the “water wars” somewhere in Africa.
  • Dane warns Adrian not to run away to California because “it’s on fire.” Adrian replies, “Not all of it.”
  • References to “super storms” and “superflus” and dengue fever, melting ice caps and rising seas, killer wasps and strangled lakes.
  • A subplot about honeybees and colony collapse disorder, references to bats dying of white nose disease.
  • “EarthFirst gas masks” are advertised on television.
  • By the way, this is a COMEDY. Booklist gave it a starred review and described the book as “Hilarious!” Just so you don’t get the wrong idea!

Adrian reflects: “I was a reanimated corpse, alone in the world, but I also sensed that maybe I was part of something larger.

My mom!

In this context, the zombie concept began to make sense.

And on it goes. The world in Better Off Undead is immediately recognizable, but at the same time, slightly off. The problems of today persist: bees and bats dying off . . . the end of privacy . . . data-mining by faceless corporations . . . spy drones . . . evil billionaires . . . and hologram advertising beamed into the night sky.

And, yeah, one lone zombie — maybe more — wandering around, wondering what is to become of this planet.

Somehow it all ends with a note of hope.

Because we can’t give up on that.

One Question, Five Authors #3: “What influence have comic books had on your work?”

Welcome to the third installment of “One Question” — the world’s laziest interview series. Today the focus is on comic books, one of the great wellsprings of inspiration for so many talented writers and illustrators of children’s books.

Much thanks to our five guests below: Eric Velasquez, Bruce Coville, Matt McElligott, Charise Harper, and Alan Silberberg. Click on the “One Question” icon on the right sidebar, under “Categories,” to journey through time and space to visit past editions.

 

Eric Velasquez

As you know comic books played a huge part in life. Comic books basically taught me how to read. I found an interest in the characters and stories that I could not find in the reading material in elementary school. I was also fortunate to have a very smart mother that would direct me to the dictionary if I did not understand a particular word in any of the comics, this would later prove to be a key factor in my development. Today,  I am so happy that schools are  embracing comic books as legitimate reading material for students. This makes a big difference in the lives of reluctant readers.

Now, in terms of my work, as a result of my love of comics I wanted to become a cartoonist. I went to the High School of Art and Design to study cartooning. However, in my senior year I was introduced to painting and the rest is history. Because I still love comics there are many aspects of comic book art in my work today, mostly my use of panels and dramatic angles.

 

Bruce Coville

I was 11, and already an avid reader of comics, when Stan Lee unleashed the first issue of The Fantastic Four and launched what became a revolution in comics. That comic, and the cascade of newly created characters that soon followed, provided a real time example of how an art form (though calling comics an “art form” at that time would have generated howls of derisive laughter) could be reinvented and re-invigorated.

By the time I was in my mid-teens I was a devoted Marvel geek. In fact, my first published words were in Marvel letter columns. And, oh, how I wanted to write for them (much to my mother’s alarm).

Oddly, despite my devotion to Marvel, the very first money I made for something I wrote was the princely sum of ten dollars for a story concept I sold to DC’s The House of Mystery. Small change, yes . . . but as a first sale it helped give me confidence that I could be a writer.

Eventually I found my place writing prose for kids. But there is no doubt that comic books were a significant part of what put me on the path!

 

Matthew McElligott

I can remember trading an action figure for my first stack of comics in second grade, then the excitement of bringing them home and spreading them out on the living room floor. They were a mix of titles, tattered and worn, and out of sequence. Some issues began in the middle of a larger story, and others ended with thrilling cliffhangers. The door was opened to a living, breathing world that was not quite fantasy, not quite reality, and I moved in and never really left.

Now, decades later, I understand that there are specific, formal reasons why that world was so enticing. Reading the works of Will Eisner and Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud really blew my mind, and I began to appreciate the formal structures that allow comics to do things no other medium can. Here’s an example I love to show my class:

 

 

At first glance, this panel by Jack Kirby may not seem particularly noteworthy. In fact, it might seem kind of juvenile. But dig a little deeper and you’ll notice something really remarkable: this panel is showing us the past (the dialog), the present (WHAK), and the future (the recoil from the punch) all at the same time, and our brains don’t explode. How does that work?

I’m still trying to figure this stuff out, and it informs everything I do as an illustrator. Good thing I made that trade in second grade.

 

Charise Harper

Words and pictures together makes sense to my brain.  My father is French, and when I was eight years old, my French grandmother started to live with us for six months of the year.  My brother and I could understand French and speak a little, but this was a big change for us.  Our house was instantly one hundred percent French speaking only.  Not only that, but our parents wanted us to read and write in French too.  So what did they do?  They bought us French comic books — lots of them.  This was huge!  At that point, I personally owned maybe six books.  My family did not have a lot of extra money, and now suddenly, we had stacks of Tintin and Asterix comic books.  My brother and I struggled through the books, looking at the pictures, deciphering the words and understanding more and more on each subsequent read.  These comic books changed my life.  They gave me an understanding of French humor, enabled me to interact with my grandmother and imbued me with a love of comics.  Using words and pictures together is my literary comfort food — my happy place.

 

Alan Silberberg

Confession: I was an Archies comic book fan. When the whole Marvel vs DC argument comes up at polite dinner parties  (I know geeky people!) I shrink back into the world of redheads and jugheads. I think reading stories about (unrealistic) high school where bullies and blondes and friendships were the norm gave me an idealized vision of life — that I liked to skewer in my writing. When the underground comics scene became (sort of) mainstream I was drawn to Ralph Bakshi and R.Crumb and other far out cartoonists and their styles. Jules Feifer’s early work and later Lynda Barry’s personal comics gave me a sense that telling my own stories visually was acceptable. In the Publishers Weekly review of Meet the Latkes, my cartooning style is described as “if I drew the book hopped up on chocolate gelt.”  And to me . . . that says it all!

Why We Do It — Thank You, Rochester Children’s Book Festival!

I’d like to share a story with you — a story that gets deeper and more lovely as we go along — and it all comes back to how blessed I feel to play a small role in this incredible world of children’s literature. Authors, readers, teachers, librarians, parents, all of us joined in the same magical dance of literacy and empathy and kindness.

It can be a hard way to earn a living, full of soul-crushing rejections and ever-present financial worries, but it’s also obviously the best job ever.

I visited two K-3 schools in the Rochester area last week, Thursday and Friday, November 1st and 2nd. This tied into the Rochester Children’s Book Festival, which took place on Saturday the 3rd. This is a unique festival, with heart and soul, and I’m grateful to have been invited several times over the years.

Let me tell you about this girl I met. For some reason, maybe because I was her first “real, live” author, Lauren was smitten with me. We connected during my school visit, to the point where she returned home and urged her mother to please, please, please take her to see James Preller (again) at the RCBF. Her mother obliged, gladly.

Let’s pause now for some photos, combined from those two visits, including several which were sent to me by Lauren’s mother, Kara, who granted permission to post them here. She wrote:

You made quite the impression on Lauren. She read the whole way home and drew an amazing picture of one of the Jigsaw Jones books you signed for her.

We’ll get to the heart-melting part of this post in a moment, but first some quick snaps . . .

This guy greeted me in the lobby at one of the schools . . .


Due to time and space restrictions, I gave “big” presentations to grades 1 and 2 combined . . .

. . . and a small one for the kindergartners. Pro tip: While I’m typically energetic for large groups, I always sit for K-only groups. We keep it mellow & super cozy. . .

Then at Saturday’s book festival, Lauren showed up, beaming . . .

We chatted and took a snap together . . .

Who’s cuter? Do I win?

My pal!

The car ride home was quiet . . .

And she drew a picture for me that very night.

The next day, Lauren’s mother and I exchanged some messages.

She wrote:

As I’m sure you saw from our facebook page, Lauren’s younger brother, Owen, died, and it’s given her an astonishing level of empathy and awareness for others. We actually started an entire book donation program in his name at the hospital where he spent his entire life, and she is very involved in the process of selecting the books for the kids at the hospital. It’s our attempt in turning unimaginable heartbreak into something good.

And it’s true: I had gone over to Kara’s page when I received her friendship request, and learned about Owen, Lauren’s brother, an infant who passed not long ago. Kara writes openly and courageously about Owen, and loss — always with warmth and wisdom. This is one recent message I found on her page, which I find profound and beautiful:

If you know someone who has lost a child, and you’re afraid to mention their child because you think you might make them sad by reminding them they died — you’re not reminding them. They didn’t forget they died. What you are reminding them of is that you remembered that they lived, and that is a great gift.

Remembering all of the beautiful gifts and appreciation for life that sweet Owen continues to give us, all the babies who left too soon, and the families they left behind.

 

 

As a parent of a two-time childhood cancer survivor, including five years of chemo, I can relate to Kara’s words. People don’t always know what to do. Whether to say something or, perhaps, not. In my experience, some kind of recognition is always best. And food is always welcome!

If you have something to give to Owen’s book donation program, that’s great. If not, that’s okay, too. Authors and illustrators get asked to do this kind of thing a lot. No matter how you respond, please give a thought to Owen, and remember Kara’s infinitely wise words.

Count your blessings every single day.

Kara credits Lauren with helping their family when they lost Owen. She also credits the kindness of friends, relatives, and perfect strangers. Here’s Kara’s email address if you wish to donate a book or two: Karaconners@gmail.com

Thanks for stopping by.

Oh, and — I see you, Lauren! Terrific drawing. Keep reading!

GREAT NEWS: Terrific Review for “Everybody Needs a Buddy.”

“The book abounds with examples of kindness,
empathy,
friends who listen to one another,
and ways to strike up a friendship
and to make a difference
at your school.”

— School Library Connection

 

How’s that for a review quote?

I’m grateful for the kind words and sympathetic reading by Phyllis Amerikaner. That one sentence really captures what we are trying to do with this series, which I see as a direct response to today’s political climate.

I’ve pretty much given up on the adults.

My hope is with these kids.

Anyway, if you don’t know, “The Big Idea Gang” features a group of students who use their powers of persuasion to make a positive difference in their school community. By working together, they achieve their modest goals: a new school mascot, a buddy bench for the playground, a more “bee-friendly” garden.

Three titles are finished and coming soon: Worst Mascot Ever and Everybody Needs a Buddy (January), and Bee the Change (May). Grades 1-4.  

Thanks in advance, teachers, for giving these books a chance. We need to inspire and support these young kids, their voices and their ideas.

Full review below.

Preller, James

The Big Idea Gang: Everybody Needs a Buddy

Illustrated by Stephen Gilpin. 2019. 96pp. $15.99 hc. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 9781328857194. Grades 1-4

This second book in the Big Idea Gang series opens with a lunchtime debate about the best part of the school day. For friendly, easy-going Deon, it’s recess. No contest. Then at recess that day, Deon notices an unfamiliar boy looking miserable and wants to help him. When the Big Idea Gang meets the next day to discuss news of a surplus of cash in the PTA treasury, Deon suggests a buddy bench, where kids can go when they need a friend. The problem is that the PTA has announced its plan to use the money to buy books for the library. The resolution of the story—Deon’s successful pitch to get not one, but two buddy benches—leaves it unclear if there was room in the PTA budget for books, too. However, the book abounds with examples of kindness, empathy, friends who listen to one another, and ways to strike up a friendship and to make a difference at your school. Other positive plot elements include lessons on how rumors can spread, and, best of all, a librarian explaining her rationale for weeding outdated books. Illustrations break up the simple text of this beginning chapter book, and fans of Preller’s Jigsaw Jones mysteries will welcome the arrival of this new, appealing series. Phyllis Amerikaner, Head Librarian (Retired), Girls Inc. of Greater Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, California

Recommended