Archive for Interviews & Appreciations

Poor Dead Sunflower: A Line from a Beatnik Poem

 

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“Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a flower?”

— Allan Ginsberg, “Sunflower Sutra.”

 

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I’ve been reading The Nix by Nathan Hill, very much impressed by it. There’s a central character who reads and identifies with Ginsberg’s poem, “Sunflower Sutra,” particularly that line above. It resonated with me, too. This idea that we can forget who we are, lose touch with our natural beauty, strength, passion, goodness. How many of us have forgotten that we are flowers, born to bloom under the sun?

For the full poem, stomp on this link.

Geoffrey Hayes: An Appreciation Upon His Passing

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A week ago, last Monday, I received this note from author/illustrator Geoffrey Hayes:

Dear James, I just came across your wonderful review of my book PATRICK AND TED while going through my files. So nice to read your kind words again. I think it may be time to bring this one back!

I replied:

It’s such a great book. I’m glad my appreciation gave you some pleasure.

Five days later, I learned that Geoffrey Hayes had suddenly passed away on June 2, 2017 He was 69 years old.

I never met the man. And only recently did we connect via Facebook. Now he’s gone; may his fine work and gentle spirit remain in our hearts for years to come.

Geoffrey Hayes was given the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award some years back. Today it seems only fitting to share again the tribute I wrote in late 2009 about the small, quiet, tender book I so deeply admire.

 

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I’ve been dwelling lately on the concept of “books for boys.” It’s a huge topic, one that I can’t possibly address in a single blog entry. I mean, yes, we’re all aware of the gender gap in reading, that many teachers and parents struggle to inspire in their boys a love for reading. There’s been progress made, an awareness that boys are different from girls, and that their tastes in books often reflect those differences. Enlightened teachers are allowing boys to self-select more of their own reading material; graphic novels are gaining popularity and respect; and so on.

Bu when I encounter lists of “books for boys,” I’m often left deeply dissatisfied — even troubled. Because these well-intentioned lists are often guided by limited stereotypes: boys like action, boys like trucks, bodily humor, adventure, violence, etc. Okay, true enough. But these lists led us to an extremely narrow view of what a boy is, and what a boy could be. What about friendship stories? What about sensitivity to others? Gentleness? Don’t boys love their mothers, don’t they struggle with relationships, don’t they ever feel lonely or afraid?

I’ve been thinking about an old favorite book, Patrick and Ted by Geoffrey Hayes. It is out of print. I first encountered this quiet little picture book back in the 80’s, when I wrote copy for the SeeSaw Book Club, edited by Craig Walker. Yet it has lingered in my memory ever since. I think it’s a perfect story, one of the few books I wish I’d written. So I finally got around to purchasing a used copy. Let’s take a look at it:

Whoops. Because the image is not available on the internet for screen capture, we’ll have to go to my cheap scanner. My apologies to Mr. Hayes — and to you, Dear Reader — for the darkness, the low resolution. The actual book looks a lot better.

It is the story of two boys, best friends. They did everything together, even quarrel sometimes. But those brief spats did not matter . . . “because Ted was Patrick’s best friend, and Patrick was Ted’s.”

Then, one summer things changed . . .

A quick aside: This is such a classic story format, and a great model for new (and veteran!) writers. So many stories begin by establishing a timeless permanence. The well-ordered past, where time is frozen and things are always true. We meet the character, or the place, find out what he or she or it is like. And somewhere along the line we turn the page to find a phrase like this: “And then one day . . .” The story leaps into the present moment (if not literally the present tense). Now the real story begins. I think of these as “and then one day” stories. You’ll find that  structure everywhere.

Back to those best friends, Patrick and Ted. One summer, Ted goes to stay with his aunt and uncle at their farm. He even advises Patrick, “Don’t let anyone else use our hideout.

Patrick is sad and lonely.

But as the days pass, he makes new friends, has new experiences. He joins in with others, he goes to the movies with Mama Bear, he plays alone.

A hideout of his own. Patrick is learning something valuable here, something vitally important.

Then, happy day, Ted returns — with two pet geese!

I love that sentence: “They were loud and quick, and Patrick did not like them.”

The boys argue, get angry with each other — Patrick pushes Ted against their hideout! — but they resolve the conflict to play happily together once again.

And yet there’s been a fundamental shift. Their world has changed . . . inside and out.

“. . . because Ted was still Patrick’s best friend, and Patrick was Ted’s.”

End of story. And by the way, isn’t that great, when you look back at the book, those two illustrations of the swing? First we see Patrick in solitude, seated on the swing, motionless. On the last page of the book we see the swing again: Patrick is smiling, swinging high, pushed by his friend. Again: just right.

Is this not a book for boys? My guess is you won’t find it on many lists. So when we try to serve boy readers, let’s not be so quick to put them in a box labeled, “What Boys Like.” Let’s remember that they have feelings, and struggle with friendships — that they experience confusing emotions — just like everybody else.

One of my favorite comments about my book, Along Came Spider, came in a blog review by Karen at Literate Lives. It was the first time anyone had reviewed the book:

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 in Along Came Spider, by James Preller (due out September 2008).

Interesting, isn’t it? It came as a surprise to the reviewer, a fifth-grade teacher, to find a book that dealt with content typically found in a book for girls. Things like friendship, discovery of self, fitting in. Does that mean Spider, like Patrick and Ted, is destined for obscurity, the furnace where “out-of-print” books go to die? Perhaps so. Perhaps it’s not a book that most boys will naturally pick up. I mean: I realize that it isn’t. Just as I know that a book titled “Patrick and Ted” isn’t going to bring boys clamoring. But I can’t believe that when they read it, they won’t see themselves reflected in those pages.

It is, after all, a book for children.

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To learn more about Geoffrey Hayes, click here to read an interview.

He is also featured at everyone’s favorite blog, the always great Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, just click like crazy right here.

And thank you, Geoffrey Hayes, for writing and illustrating that wonderful book.

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POSTSCRIPT: The above piece first posted in October 26, 2009. In February of 2010 Geoffrey Hayes found it and wrote this to me.

Dear James,

I just happened upon your site and was surprised to find my book “PATRICK AND TED” mentioned so warmly. It seems like I wrote this story so long ago, but you reminded me that I’ve always written from feelings and emotions first. I never thought of this as specifically a “Boys Book”, maybe because it doesn’t focus on those things that one traditionally finds in books for boys. In my opinion there is a narrow view in today’s publishing world about just what boys will and won’t read — stories with a female protagonist for one. For every generality you can apply to boys (and girls) we tend to forget that each child is an individual and therefore multifaceted. Thanks again for your kind words and fond memories.

Sincerely,
Geoffrey Hayes

5 QUESTIONS with LIZZY ROCKWELL, author/illustrator of “Plants Feed Me.”

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There’s not a person in all of children’s literature whom I respect more than Lizzy Rockwell. She’s the real deal, the genuine article. We haven’t been friends for long, but every time I get a chance to speak with Lizzy — when we’re invited to the same book festivals, fortuitously — I am struck by her kindness and intelligence. I find myself wishing I was that nice, or that smart. Oh well! The truth is, children’s literature is in Lizzy’s DNA. And so she quietly puts good work into the world, day by day, book by book. I know you’re going to like her.

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Lizzy, thanks for coming. In honor of your visit, I’ve set out a delicious array of snacks. Let’s see, here’s some tinned corned beef; a bowl of cheese puffs; a plate of tilefish –- rich with mercury; microwaveable popcorn with bags lined with perflourooctanoic acid (you don’t want to know), and some Chef Boyardee Beef Ravioli! Pretty sure that’s every food group. What’s the matter, Lizzy, not hungry?

Oh Jimmy, you shouldn’t have. No, I mean it, you really shouldn’t have.

Okay, fine, more perflourooctanoic acid for me! Lizzy, you know I’m a big fan. I have so much respect and admiration for your work. Your books are always clear, concise, and uncluttered. You strip away the superfluous, anything that might confuse or complicate. I think that’s your great, under-rated gift — your unique ability to hone in on the essence of a book. You make it look easy.

I don’t always share this with adults, but do readily with kids, I struggle a lot to get to that simplicity. My first writing project, edited by Phoebe Yeh at Harper, was Good Enough to Eat: A Kid’s Guide to Food and Nutrition. We worked on it for about four years. I did three entirely different book dummies, different texts, different illustrations. Getting a book to the point where it rings true and clear is not easy. But it should look easy.

Plants Feed Me also went through a major overhaul. Shortly before I was to start on finishes, my editor at Holiday House, Grace Maccarone, decided that it would be an even stronger book as a level D easy reader. Simple sentences, phonetic words, and 24 pages instead of 32. This affected nearly every sentence and picture in the dummy. After I wiped away my tears, I set to work, and was able to enjoy the challenge and learn from it.


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Wow, you are killing me with these names. I worked with both Phoebe and Grace at Scholastic, back in the 80’s. I named a character in Jigsaw Jones after Phoebe — Jigsaw’s partner, Mila Yeh. And Grace edited two Hello Readers of mine, quite popular for a time, both now out of print: Wake Me In Spring and Hiccups for Elephant.

I’m sorry, I interrupted. I think you were wiping away tears . . .

Explaining science in as few words as possible brings you to essential truths. It reveals a poetic simplicity to the universe. Science books, and all good children’s books, give readers a way to find clarity, pattern, and some predictability in their world, which can often feel chaotic.

The calm reassurance of the picture book.

Yes. My style of illustration is very direct and literal. I like lines around things, simple backgrounds and white space wherever possible, minute legible details when needed, and clear expressions on faces and in body language. I love early renaissance paintings and children’s art. Both teach me about getting to the essence of a thing.

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How do you even begin, when the topic is something as vast as plants? What’s that process for you? I’d think you’d be in danger of drowning in all that information.

Yes, the research phase of writing and/or illustrating a nonfiction book is delightfully distracting and open-ended. I would happily spend my whole life doing this part, if I could afford to. You read and look at fascinating books, you go fun places like farms, and zoos and museums, you sketch, you let your mind expand.

So deadlines are a good thing. And so are the perimeters of the picture book format: trim size, number of pages, limited word count. Unlike a lot of artists, I’m my most creative when I have limitations.

In this book, you both wrote and illustrated. Are you seeing it first? Or writing it?

With Plants Feed Me, I wanted to write a younger nutrition book recommending an unprocessed, plant-based diet. So I started with this message, but I also knew the botanical art would be fun to paint. When the words came to me, the pictures were implicit.

fe140b_daa93be0b256405991e8f41bddef5082-jpg_srz_493_608_85_22_0-50_1-20_0A Bird Is a Bird started with a desire to make pictures of beautiful birds. But it wasn’t a book, till the line, “A bird is a bird, because a bird has a beak,” floated into my head while I slept. Then I realized it would be a book about animal classification. All these birds look different, but they have these certain traits in common, most definitively, feathers. Noticing alike and different, is an essential skill in early science learning. A book is a fun way to make pretty pictures, but unless it has a point, that is an indulgence.

You seem to have a sense of how the mind of a child works when he or she encounters a book. Or is that an intuitive sense? I mean, okay, let me try to approach this question a different way. It’s become a cliché for many writers to say that they don’t think about audience. They only serve the story and blah, blah, blah. I’ve personally never felt that way. And in your case, you also strike me as an artist who is exceptionally aware of your intended audience.

I think exclusively about my audience. I don’t think that’s a compromise or hindrance to my creativity. I was a child once. That part of me gets to live on through this work. And it’s a profoundly interesting way to continue to look at the world. Childhood is when our brains are at their most agile and expansive. Language emerges, we start to give names to things and feelings, we begin to remember and predict, we start to notice others, we develop theory of mind.

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Your work is marked by sensitivity and inclusiveness. You have always included children of different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. On a personal level, why is that important to you?

Because I do think a lot about my readers, I know that they like to find themselves in a book. And this is the most diverse country in the world. The “school-days” series (Career Day, Presidents’ Day, 100 School Days, etc) I did with my mom, Anne Rockwell, at HarperCollins has a multicultural classroom of kids. There are hints about cultural heritage, but mostly they are just friends at school, where they have shared experiences and a shared culture. This kind of natural diversity is important in books. Books that are about culture and heritage are important, but so are books that simply model the diverse and inclusive world that was Dr. King’s dream. It’s mine too.

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My husband, Ken Alcorn, and I have raised our family (two grown sons, now 24 and 27) in diverse communities. For 11 years we lived in Norwalk, CT. one of the most diverse cities in the country. The schools are filled with kids from all levels of economic status, and a multitude of ethnic backgrounds. Even though I now live in Bridgeport, CT, I am still involved in after-school arts programming in Norwalk, working with kids (mostly young teens) from low income households. Doing this work made the abstractions of injustice and poverty, especially as they manifest along ethnic lines, very real to me and activated me politically. I hope you wouldn’t know it to look at my work, but I am keenly aware of the responsibility I have creating media that may affect how people make assumptions, and behave towards one another.

In a world where the gritty, innovative, and “cutting edge” gets most of the attention, I think you possibly create the least edgy books in children’s publishing. There’s a refreshing innocence to your books.

I am going to take that as a compliment!

Please do. It’s totally a compliment.

fe140b_8e4b7616f5420c93d7ec569d9e084241-png_srz_153_145_85_22_0-50_1-20_0My eyes are wide open about the ills of the world. But I think for the age reader I am reaching, there is a need for books that model social ideals, and books that make knowledge as accessible and inspiring as possible. For a young child facing great hardships in the real world, a book can be the respite that is deeply needed. Books for older children, like you write so well, can and should present a more complex world view.

I believe we first met in a hotel lobby a few years back. And I might have exclaimed something like, “Is Anne Rockwell your mother? I love her books!”

Yes, I get that a lot! I love her books too! Another thing we have in common. And my father, Harlow Rockwell. illustrated many of the books she wrote. Their small studio was off the dining room.

So you are in the family business. Do you ever wake up relieved by the fact your parents weren’t, say, morticians? Or claims adjusters?

Well, it was certainly more fun to look over their shoulder and see what was in the works.

You’ve illustrated quite a few books for your mother. It’s always a huge responsibility to illustrate any writer’s books -– but your own mother. What’s that like?

Yes, we’ve collaborated on 17 books, the most recent are with Simon & Schuster, Library Day (2016) and Zoo Day (January 2017). They are about commonplace real world experiences, edited by Karen Nagel.  But library-day-9781481427319_lgwhen a trip to the library or the zoo, is your first trip to those places as a child, there is nothing commonplace about it.  My mom is great at recognizing how epic every new experience can be for a young child.  They are great fun to illustrate. Of course, illustrating my mom’s texts is humbling, and can even be intimidating. She is the only writer I have worked with who is also an illustrator (and one of my favorites to boot) so in the beginning, I could be hindered if I let myself worry if this is how she would have done it, or how my dad would have done it. But when I read a text of hers, I know the point of it, and understand better than usual how to proceed. I grew up with her books as some of my favorite bedtime stories, and I observed and even participated (doing color separations) in the production of them as a young adult. This has been a huge privilege. I don’t take it lightly.  

Thanks for coming by today, Lizzy. Hopefully I’ll see you again in real life!
 

ABOUT THE “5 Questions” Interview Series: It’s a side project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. 

Coming soon: Bruce Coville, London Ladd,  Jeff Mack, Matt Faulkner, and more. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES, and scroll till your heart’s content. Or use the handy SEARCH option. 

Guest so far:

1) Hudson Talbott, “From Wolf to Woof”

2) Hazel Mitchell, “Toby”

3) Susan Hood, “Ada’s Violin

4) Matthew McElligott, “Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster”

5) Jessica Olien, “The Blobfish Book”

6) Nancy Castaldo, “The Story of Seeds”

7) Aaron Becker, “Journey”

8) Matthew Cordell, “Wish”

9) Jeff Newman, “Can One Balloon Make an Elephant Fly?”

10) Matt Phelan, “Snow White”

 

 

 

New Stamps Honor Ezra Jack Keats and “The Snowy Day”

 

I’m going to need these stamps . . .

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Ezra Jack Keats, the creator of the groundbreaking children’s book, The Snowy Day, was born on March 11, 1916, nearly 100 years ago. To commemorate his achievement, the U.S. Postal Service will issue stamps featuring Keats’s artwork.

I think it’s a wonderful idea and a much deserved honor.

To me, the beautiful thing about this book is not that it was about a black boy in the snow in an urban setting, though that was (amazingly) a revolutionary thought at the time, published in 1962. Rather, Keats captured a universal expression of joy and wonder in this book — of a child, any child, every child, playing in the snow.

Transcendent and unifying.

NOTE: As of March 1st, still no stamps. So while many of us hoped the stamps would come out this winter, on the heels of the announcement, that now seems unlikely. I guess it’s better hope for November of 2017. But that’s only a guess. Sorry if I got your hopes up.



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Just an aside, but anybody see the connection in Matthew Cordell’s widely-acclaimed new book, Wolf in the Snow?

I wonder if that’s intentional.

I’ll have to ask him.

EDIT: My pal Matt replied via Facebook, but I’ll post it here.

“The red coat was probably a subconscious hat tip to The Snowy Day, but not overly intentional. Just something about red on white snow that feels very bold and iconic. I used a red coat on my first pic book too (Toby and the Snowflakes, by Julie and me). Worth repeating! Then, of course, there’s the red riding hood throwback… who else did I steal from?”

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POETRY FRIDAY: “Revolutionary Letter #51” by Diane di Prima

The righteously indignant poet Diane Di Prima. Photo by James Oliver Mitchell.

The righteously indignant poet Diane di Prima. Photo by James Oliver Mitchell.

It’s hard to say why we pluck one book from the shelf, a slim volume surrounded by so many others. In this case, for me, it was a book I hadn’t read in at least 20 years. A book I’d purchased new for $3.50, back in my college days, when that’s how I spent my available book-money: poetry, poetry, poetry. Building a collection.

A year ago, I was moved to post Wendell Berry’s fine poem, “The Peace of Wild Things.” Last week my blog blew up because somebody, somewhere, linked to that page on my blog. Berry’s poem expressed something that helps me in troubling times. I go back to it, as a reminder, time and again. And, oh yes, we are in troubling times, with irksome, fearful days ahead.

Cover design by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Cover design by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

During the week of the election, I took Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters off the shelf. Because as much as I needed solace and surcease, I also needed fire and gasoline. I needed the righteous indignation of di Prima’s shambolic, vexed, idealistic voice. While I don’t think of her as a supreme poet, or of this as a perfect poem, her spirit strikes chords in me, resounding and reverberating like a clanged bell. But I’m here today mostly for that good line: “We have the right to make the universe we dream.”

So keep dreaming, dreamers.

We have that right, and that mission. Be strong.

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