Archive for Current Events

On the Passing of Norman Bridwell, Creator of Clifford the Big Red Dog

ins_artsbeat1

-

I was hired by Scholastic as a junior copywriter back in 1985 for the princely sum of $11,500. To get the initial interview, I mailed in my near-empty resume and a writing sample, which addressed the hot topic of the day, Bernie Goetz, New York’s “subway shooter.”

After the first set of interviews with Willie Ross and Carol Skolnick, I was given a bunch of children’s books and asked to write about them in two voices. First, for young children, and secondly, for teachers. Writing about Curious George to students, I wrote something like, “Yikes! That silly monkey is in trouble again!” For teachers, the idea was to take a different tone, such as, “In this classic tale, award-winning author H.A. Rey conveys the hilarious antics of Curious George, one of the most enduring and beloved characters in all of children’s literature.”

I got the job writing the SeeSaw Book Club.

One of the first assignments I was asked to perform was to write brief promotional brochures on three authors: Ann McGovern, Johanna Hurwitz, and Norman Bridwell. I was given their phone numbers, told to call them, set up an interview.

“Call them?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“On the phone?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Um, me?”

“Yes, you.”

I stared at that phone for a few minutes, mustered up my courage, and pushed the numbers.

That’s the first time I spoke with Norman Bridwell. He was then, as he would forever remain, a humble, soft-spoken, generous man. The first Clifford book, published in 1963, came out in two-color, in an inexpensive, horizontal format. It looked cheap, because it was. But in the early 80s somebody at Scholastic had the bright idea of repackaging those books in a mass market, 8″ x 8″ format — and in vibrant full color. The books took off and the Big Red Dog became one of the great success stories in children’s literature. In fact, one can accurately imagine the Scholastic corporation as a great sled with Clifford the Big Red Dog hauling it through the snow. That benign character helped propel a company to greatness.

Through it all, Norman remained the same kind, gentle man. No one ever spoke badly of him. No one, not ever.

He was always courteous, generous, kind. Even grateful, I think. Norman always seemed to consider himself lucky. And the truth is, he was fortunate. I don’t think anyone makes it really big in this business without a little luck shining down on you. Norman understood that.

NETFLIX, INC. SCHOLASTIC INC. CLIFFORD THE BIG RED DOG

-

He deserved his success, for he had created something pure and genuine that touched hearts, and through it all he remained faithful to the essential core of what those books were all about. The love between a child and her dog, with a bunch of jokes and gags thrown in to get you to that final hug.

One other quick story about Clifford. It was sometime later, let’s call it the early 1990s, and I was in Ed Monagle’s office, chatting away. At that time, I’d moved upstate, gone freelance, and was trying to survive as a writer. (True story: I’m still trying to survive as a writer.) Ed was a terrific guy, but also a numbers guy. A financial analyst, chief bean counter at Scholastic. Ed cared about the books, and believed in the central mission of the company, but he was also impressed by profit-and-loss statements. He admired Clifford’s sales numbers, and respected the size of Norman’s royalty checks.

So on this day, Ed gave me some friendly advice. He said, “Jimmy, this is what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to invent a character that everyone loves. Look at Clifford the Big Red Dog. Do you have any idea how many of those books we sell? You could do that!” he continued. “I mean, think about Clifford. He’s a dog. He’s big. He’s red. How hard could it be?!

That’s the thing with magic, I guess. It never looks difficult.

Ed was right, of course, the idea was laughably simple. He was also completely wrong. Clifford the Big Red Dog was an exceptional idea, marvelous in its simplicity, executed to perfection.

Not so easy after all.

Norman Bridwell passed away this week. And I’m here to say, very quietly, that he was a really good guy. I’m sorry to see him go.

 

PREACHING TO THE CHOIR ABOUT SCHOOL LIBRARIANS: So We Can All Sing Together, One Voice, Loud & Strong

 

PHOTO: Tom Gralish.

PHOTO: Tom Gralish.

-

I’m primarily writing to pass on a link about school libraries. Maybe the article states the obvious. Essential stuff we already know, or certainly sense.  I realize that I’m preaching to the choir here. But what I’ve come to believe in life, and politics, is that it’s important to preach to the choir. That’s how we can all open the hymnal to the same page, how we all sing out together, loud and clear. Not a bunch of scattered voices, but a powerful choir.

choir-singing-300x166


Here’s the link to a terrific article by Carol Heinsdorf and Debra Kachel, “School Libraries Are Essential to Learning,” along with a copy of the first few paragraphs. Their immediate focus is on Philadelphia public schools, but this represents a national trend:

In 1991, there were 176 certified librarians in Philadelphia public schools. This year there are 11 and only five are known to be actually doing what they were trained to do. Five librarians for the nation’s eighth-largest school district.

Leaving Philadelphia’s public school libraries without professional staffing is a grave mistake. It will have consequences for the students for the rest of their lives. Study after study shows a clear link between school libraries staffed by certified librarians and student achievement.

In 2012, research showed that students who had school library programs and certified librarians were more likely to have advanced reading and writing scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests. And they were less likely to have “below basic” scores.

The same study found that school library programs have their greatest impact on students who are economically disadvantaged, black, Hispanic, or have disabilities. African American students in schools with certified librarians are twice as likely to earn advanced writing scores as those in schools without librarians.

A Mansfield University paper that looked at studies done in 23 states verified that schools with a trained librarian – someone who teaches students and works with teachers to develop information and research skills – have a consistent positive effect on student achievement regardless of demographic and economic differences among students.

In my professional life, I’ve been fortunate to walk into hundred of schools around the country as a guest author.  Increasingly, I see libraries that are understaffed, and I meet librarians who are tasked to provide full-time services on part-time pay (and hours). On many days, these librarians are simply not in the building. In many schools, the library is increasingly marginalized and treated as non-essential — though, of course, no one on a school board ever admits to that out loud. “We may have cut the job in half,” they will tell anyone who’ll listen, “but it will not effect our children.”

Sorry, folks, but I’m calling bull***t.

This trend is true even in my own supposedly “quality” Bethlehem school district, in a relatively affluent suburb of Albany, NY. Former full-time librarians are now commuting between schools, splitting time and services. It’s a huge problem in New York, since the contract does not mandate a full-time librarian position (as opposed to, say, a P.E. instructor). A library should be the heartbeat of an elementary school. And in great schools, it clearly
serves that central, essential function. The librarian, or Media Specialist (if you prefer),
interacts with every child, in every grade, often across six years of learning. Consider that for a moment, the broad impact of that one person. A librarian works with and supports 640classroom teachers. And in response to this reality, the political leaders in our educational system can only think to fire those people, or force them to split schools, while they increasingly focus on standardized tests, purchasing more technology, saving pennies and wasting dollars.

It’s so maddening, and so wrong-minded, I could scream. And that’s why we preach to the choir. Because maybe if we all scream together, somebody will hear our cry.

Sign in a School Hallway

This photo was snapped by my friend, author Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen, on a recent school visit.

Stephanie is a great talent and an even better person. As S. A. Bodeen, she’s written The Compound, The Raft, and several other “The” titles. These days the book-loving world is buzzed about her new adventure series, Shipwreck Island.

But enough about Stephanie. Today I want you feast your eyes on this lovely sign in a school somewhere. I know that many schools post signs like this, messages of intent, statements of mission, but this one in particular gets all the notes exactly right.

I like it.

 

 

1560422_10204040958159001_3863028300253874237_n

Brilliant: B.J. Novak Reads “The Book With No Pictures”

In this bunny eat bunny world, we’ve seen celebrity authors come and go. Mostly come, in droves, especially after Harry Potter put a spotlight on the profit potential of the children’s book biz. Ca-ching.

Everybody’s making millions!

For many of us non-celebrity authors and illustrators, dressed in our dreary clothes, clutching our cold coffee cups, it’s hard not to be a little, urm, disgusted at times. The crappy book by the “star” that gets a ridiculous amount of undeserved attention.

IMG_0369But that’s life, so we deal with it, and try to keep our petty thoughts to ourselves.

However, I hasten to add: not all celebrity books suck. Jamie Lee Curtis wrote some good ones, as I recall. Fred Gwynne — Herman Munster! — made a sincere  effort to create singular children’s books. By that I mean, my sense is that they actually worked on the books, actually respected the idea of a children’s book, and got into it for the “right reasons,” however we might differ in defining what those reasons are. It wasn’t just a way to cash in on something.

Anyway, this fresh, new effort by B.J. Novak is brilliant. Yes, absolutely, he came up with a clever idea. A great idea. But then he pulled it off over the course of an entire book. That’s not at all easy. And it’s beautifully published, too. Great job, all around.

Kids today, they sure do love the meta.

Enjoy this book with no pictures, folks. Go ahead, stomp on that link, surrender to the video. It makes me wish that I had a room full of kids to read this one too.

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

Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom

I am proud of my friend, Lewis Buzbee, who has written this much-acclaimed book — and it just came out this week. He is a great writer and friend and I can’t wait to read this new one. A book for anyone who has gone to school, or cares about education.

A classic back-to-school book.

 

10524370_10204440422270168_5446714264040880078_n

“Buzbee’s affectionate account [is] a subtle, sharply etched critique of contemporary public education. . . . Deeply affectionate toward teachers, harshly critical of budget cuts, the book offers an eloquent, important reminder (which in a perfect world would inform policy) about the nature of school.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

“A bracing rejoinder to the didactic, data-driven books from policy gurus and social scientists. . . . From the layout of schools to the distinction between ‘middle school’ and ‘junior high school,’ Buzbee spreads engaging prose across the pages, providing both a reminiscence of better days and a considered examination of the assumptions we all make about what does—and does not—constitute a quality education. . . . A welcome book on the importance of education for all.”—Kirkus Book Vault Reviews

2 Snaps from the Hudson Children’s Book Festival

Okay, this would be me, at a table, in front of a dark blue brick wall.

And yes, my eyes are shrinking into my skull.

I’m saying: That’s not me squinting. It’s me . . . eyes wide shut.

That’s how we roll these days.

Next, these four beauties were the first girls to visit my table, right when the doors opened. They had read all three books from my “Scary Tales” series. I had the fourth one on hand — my only copy — and that kind of bummed them out a little bit. The next book, Nightmareland, comes out in early June.

Again, to be filed under: How Lucky Am I.

Hudson Children’s Book Festival: May 3, 2014

Like the song goes . . .

“It’s the most, happiest time of the year!”

Truly a wonderful event, with just a staggering list of talented authors and illustrators, new faces and old faces and — best of all — young faces.

Eager faces. Kids who are excited about books, stoked to meet “real, live” authors, to have a book signed, to have that great literary moment.

If you’ve never gone, it’s time to straighten that out. Come to Hudson. Bring the children, from picture book readers to your outwardly cynical, eye-rolling YA book-lovers.

Celebrate what you value. Reading, books, education, fun.

Then go hang around in Hudson a little bit, eat dinner, chill. You’ll have a great day, promise.

Here’s the link, go experience the awe.

And then come. Stop with the excuses. Everybody is busy. There’s a million reasons why not to go. But this is “make a statement” day. This is “put your house in order” day. This is” show ‘em what you think is important” day. This is “go have a great time, together, as a family” day, centered around books and a lifelong passion for reading.

It’s a beautiful thing. I’m blessed to be a small part of it. You can be, too. Come.

Okay, here’s a partial list: Ellen Jensen Abbott, Nora Raleigh Baskin, Jennifer Berne, Ann E. Burg, Bryan Collier, Bruce Coville, Debbie Dadey, Bruce Degan, Diane deGroat, Chris Grabenstein, Ellen Hopkins, Ty Allan Jackson, Sylvie Kantorovitz, David A. Kelly, David Kirk, Ann Haywood Leal, Jeff Mack, Wendell & Florence Minor, Jane O’Connor, JAMES PRELLER (!), April Jones Prince, Hudson Talbott, Mark Teague, Jane Yolen, Michelle Zink, and many more! And by that I mean, lots more. Seriously, lots.

Pete Seeger: Beacon of Light

Living in New York for almost the entirety of my life — first Long Island, then Brooklyn, then upstate (Albany, then Delmar, near the Hudson River) — I’ve seen Pete Seeger on many occasions.  I’ve even stepped on his boat, the famous Clearwater. Stood and applauded the man. Taken some money out of my pocket to contribute to his latest good cause.

It’s funny, I thought he was an old guy the first time I saw him, at a folk festival 30 years ago. And after that, all he did was persist. He kept keeping on, believing in good things, fighting the fight. Pete Seeger had great integrity of purpose. And soulfulness.

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes when you meet a person, you feel it: “Wow, this is a great man.” An awareness that you are in the presence of a truly evolved individual. He (or she) is elevated somehow. I can name a few dozen folks over the years, men and women, celebrities and neighbors, authors and near-strangers. You recognize something deep and good in that person. A spirit, a kindness, a wisdom. For me, Pete Seeger had that. And each time I’ve experienced the contradictory sensation of feeling both small and strangely ennobled. Small, because I was not there yet, probably never would get there. Too petty, too selfish, too unkind, too Jimmy. And yet lifted up somehow just by the proximity, because here I could see it, sense the possibility: What it means to be a really good person in this world.

We need those beacons, shining that good pure light.

And that’s all I’ve got to say.

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

EDUCATION IS . . .

“Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”

— Nelson Mandela.

Today I came across this remarkable 1994 photograph by Michael S. Williamson, and this powerful quote, and thought I’d bring them together here.

For my own self. And for you to stumble upon.

That is all.

Carry on.

Barbara Park: A Conversation Remembered

“I happen to think that a book is of extraordinary value

if it gives the reader nothing more than a smile or two.

It’s perfectly okay to take a book, read it, have a good time,

giggle and laugh — and turn off the TV. I love that.”

Barbara Park (1947-2013)

-

I was surprised and saddened to read that Barbara Park passed away on November 15th at the young age of 66. I never met Barbara in person, but I certainly got a strong sense of Barbara through her books. Every reader knows and feels this experience. When we read the best books, when we feel that electric connection, there is a communion that endures beyond time and space and even death.

In my career, I’ve had the opportunity to interview more than a hundred authors and illustrators. One of them was Barbara Park, who was genuine in every way. We spoke sometime in the late ’90s,  and a bunch of those interviews were later compiled in a Scholastic Professional Book called, rather klunkily: The Big Book of Picture-Book Authors & Illustrators.

Good luck finding it. The book is long out of print (big sigh), but there are treasures within. It’s worth seeking out on eBay or wherever. I seriously wish I could write another someday.

I enjoyed memorable, lively conversations with so many great artists. A few of my favorites were Molly Bang, Aliki Brandenberg, Ashley Bryan, Barbara Cooney, Mem Fox, Kevin Henkes, Karla Kuskin, James Marshall, Bill Martin, Patricia Polacco, Jack Prelutsky, Faith Ringgold, Lane Smith, Peter Spier, Bernard Waber, Vera B. Williams, Charlotte Zolotow . . . and, of course, Barbara Park.

Barbara was warm, and kind, and modest, and funny, and absolutely genuine, just as you’d expect.

Here’s what ended up in the book, which was intended to be shared with students:

Best-selling author Barbara Park did not take the usual path to becoming a writer. “As a kid, I didn’t even read much,” Barbara confesses. “I bought books from the school book club because I liked the smell of them. It was nice to have this pile of new books. But I really had no great desire to read them!”

Barbara was a lively, active child with a motormouth and a sharp sense of humor. She had a great many interests, but writing was not one of them. “To me, writing was an assignment, period. I was no particularly imaginative. I didn’t sit around and make up stories to entertain my friends. But I was always the class clown. In high school I was voted ‘Wittiest,’ which, let’s be honest, is just a nice way of saying ‘Goofy!'”

It wasn’t until after college, marriage, and the birth of two children, that Barbara began to think seriously about writing. “I wanted to see if I could put my sense of humor to work. Because, sad to say, it was the only thing for which I’d ever got any recognition. I thought, Maybe I can write funny.”

Working at home while her two boys were in school, Barbara concentrated on books for middle-grade readers. Barbara lists The Kid in the Red Jacket, My Mother Got Married (and Other Disasters), and Mike Harte Was Here as personal favorites. She considers her best work to be Mike Harte Was Here. Many readers agree. In a stunning achievement, Barbara addresses a boy’s tragic, accidental death with writing that is at once deeply heartfelt and — amazingly — joyously funny.

In all of her books, no matter the seriousness of the theme, Barbara’s humor spontaneously bubbles to the surface. In fact, Barbara has made something of a career out of focusing on funny, irreverent, wisecracking kids who, like her, just can’t walk away from a punch line.

Though Barbara’s books are moral in the truest sense of the word, she steers clear of heavy messages and “life lessons.” Says Barbara, “I happen to think that a book is of extraordinary value if it gives the reader nothing more than a smile or two. It’s perfectly okay to take a book, read it, have a good time, giggle and laugh — and turn off the TV. I love that.”

In the early 1990s, Barbara was approached by Random House with the idea of writing a series for younger readers. It scared her half to death. Barbara admits, “There was some question as to whether or not my dry sense of humor would be picked up by younger kids.”

In the end Barbara decided that she’d have to write to please herself, to be true to her own sensibilities. “I can’t change my sense of humor,” Barbara explains. “If I did, it wouldn’t even be me trying to write this book. It would be me trying to write like somebody who didn’t think like me!”

Barbara soon created the irrepressible character Junie B. Jones. This best-selling children’s character, who often said and did all the wrong things, elbowed her way into the spotlight. Barbara didn’t have to look far for inspiration. “Junie B. is me in an exaggerated form,” Barbara admits. “I think the core of most of my characters is me. I mean, where else is it going to come from? It’s got to be from you.”

Though Junie B. is in kindergarten (with a move to first grade coming soon), Barbara has an uncanny knack for inhabiting her world. She says, “I’ve never had a problem becoming five years old in my head. I really think that you basically stay the same person all your life. I fell the essence of me hasn’t changed.”

Junie B. is by no means perfect. She acts out in class, she’s not always respectful, and she tends to massacre the English language whenever she opens her mouth (which is often). An ideal role model? Forget about it. Junie B. is much more than that — with her foibles and mistakes, she is as genuine as her readers. Junie B. is a pretty terrific kid doing her best to get it right — and happily succeeding most of the time.