Book Page is an independent self-proclaimed “discovery tool” for readers, highlighting the best new books across all genres, featuring only books that are “highly recommended.”
So it was a proud moment — in a discouraging year — to see my new picture book, All Welcome Here, featured among three other titles for “books that capture the excitement, trepidation and curiosity of the first day of school.”
Linda M. Castellitto wrote the piece, and said this of All Welcome Here:
With spot-on snippets of poetry and illustrations steeped in primary colors, All Welcome Here captures the swirling, frenetic energy of the first day of school. Author James Preller’s linked haiku lead readers through the maze of an exciting, chaotic and often humorous new adventure. A diverse group of children clamors for fresh school supplies (“All the bright new things / Smell like sunrise, like glitter”) and the release of recess (“Can we? Is it true? / Yes, recess. Run, RUN!”). They also consider the scariness of stepping onto a giant yellow school bus for the first time (“It’s dark and noisy / and what if they aren’t nice?”). The effect is sometimes impressionistic and always empathetic.
Fans of illustrator Mary GrandPré, Caldecott Honoree for The Noisy Paintbox, will be pleased to see her work here. Her collages and paintings, which make clever use of color and pattern, capture both the big splash of a water fountain prank and the engrossed calm of bookworms enjoying library time. Preller dedicates the book to “public school teachers everywhere” and GrandPré to “all young artists,” fitting tributes to those who inspired this spirited whirlwind of first-day jitters and delight.
Linda included three other titles in her roundup: Pearl Goes to Preschool by my pal Julie Fortenberry (Yeah, Julie!); Our Favorite Day of the Year by A.E. Ali, illustrated by Rahele Jomepour Bell; and Danbi Leads the School Parade by debut author-illustrator Anna Kim.
Congratulations, my fellow travelers, and welcome to the club, Anna! I look forward to checking out your books.
Welcome, readers, to the second installment of “One Question” — the interview series where I do as little work as possible. Personally, I always enjoy hearing authors talk about books they love — particularly those books that made a difference early in their reading lives. The books that helped light the fuse.
In those years that astronauts were still wandering around on the moon, I discovered The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary. The book featured Keith and Ralph, a couple boys about my age (at the time) in an off-the-beaten-track world that seemed a lot like my own. Keith and Ralph had families and rules and squabbles and accidents. They wanted adventures and they made mistakes. They were just like the cousins and friends and classmates that surrounded me. It’s true that Ralph is a mouse who rides an awesome red motorcycle, but that’s not really the point. Rather, The Mouse and the Motorcycle made it clear to me that real-life adventures were possible. And if Beverly Cleary is right (spoiler alert: she is) adding friends to the mix makes real-life adventures almost inevitable. When I grew up, I did indeed get my very own awesome red motorcycle just like Ralph’s. I don’t have the motorcycle anymore, but I still have the friends which means I’m still having the kind of real-life adventures that books are made of.
One book I really loved as a kid was Blubber, by Judy Blume. I remember wondering as I read: how did she KNOW? Not just about the overt, senseless, casual cruelty of some kids, but also about MY complicity in the cruelty: the rotten, rotting feeling of seeing somebody be mean to a less powerful kid, and deciding to do nothing. Choosing just to go along, because otherwise I’d be putting myself in danger. And it felt like that, no exaggeration: like danger. Judy Blume captured the complex ethical calculus of being a kid, making choices — the truth of it, the power and the cost of it. Humor and relatable details made the story feel real, but the empathy I felt for every character is what made it feel TRUE. I was particularly moved by the respect Judy Blume was showing to me as a kid, as a reader, as a person. (I felt she was writing for me, in particular, of course. Her writing is that intimate.) She was telling it to me straight, and trusting me to think through what it all meant. There were no tidy resolutions, no morals to print on a poster. It was just, here’s how we sometimes treat one another, and how it really feels. What do you think?
I wasn’t a big reader when I was a kid. It is embarrassing to admit — especially to kids! I had trouble with comprehension and retaining what I’d read. So I tended towards the visual. My favorite book was our Better Homes and Gardens Illustrated Medical Encyclopedia. I loved it because of the cool illustrations. I also loved our Funk and Wagnalls Young Students Encyclopedias. They were heavily illustrated. Inside, I learned about all kinds of things, but I was drawn most to the diversity inside. I learned about people from all over the world, I saw people who looked like me. In high school English literature classes, I pretty much refused to read what was presented to me as classics. The Grapes of Wrath, Greek and Roman Myths, Poe, I just couldn’t get into those. I sketched my way through those classes. I didn’t become a reader (for enjoyment) until I was in my early 20s, when I discovered the book Black Boy by Richard Wright. It was a memoir about his life. In Richard Wright, I saw myself. After that, I became a lover of reading. I read all of Richard Wright’s books, and especially loved Native Son.
I was a voracious reader as a child, in part because I lacked the kind of friends I read about in books. I had friends, but our relationships never seemed to measure up to the epic friendships in the books I loved most.
The book that hit me right in the center of this spot was The Secret Language, written by the legendary children’s editor Ursula Nordstrom.
Victoria was only eight years old when shipped off to boarding school. What?! Boarding school? My brain had to grow and shift to entertain this new-to-me reality. Vicky was shy and miserable and hated boarding school (this reader, who faked sickness to get out of day camp, could relate to that). And then, impossibly, a strange and funny girl, Martha, befriended Vicky. And shared with her secret words — leebossa, ick-en-spick, ankendosh.
When I think about this, I’m almost inclined to feel sad for young-me, but the truth is I found literary friendships very satisfying. They fed me something I needed — in a way that actual eight-year-old friends could not.
Unexpected friendships. That’s still a pretty sweet spot in my reading — and writing — life.
The Little Golden Picture Dictionary (the original 1959 edition) left a lasting impression on me. I still have my copy. Each page has eight words with descriptions like, “alligator—The Alligator has sharp teeth,” and “kitchen—Mother cooks in the kitchen.” (Later editions have been updated to correct a few unenlightened words and descriptions.)
I’m still fascinated by the little Tibor Gergely illustrations. (Gergely was mostly self-taught, but studied briefly in Vienna. In 1939 he emigrated to New York where he illustrated several New Yorker covers.) It’s so obvious that he loved his job. The pictures are detailed but uncomplicated. And like a lot of Golden Book illustrators, Gergely’s style is both realistic and cartoony. His illustrations of people and animals are great, but even his illustrations of mundane objects (glove, iron, pie) are still intriguing to me.
I don’t remember anyone reading this book to me, so I guess I was able to decipher most of it on my own. I think it was the first time I saw the world arranged in an orderly way. The whole book is very tidy and sunny, like the best kind of kindergarten.
Thanks for the links: Stiles White via Greg Ruth, Bill Prosser, Dennis Cass, Betsy Bird, Julie Fortenberry, and, yup, my dear friend AOL.
Lastly, as this is Music Video Friday, from a band I am dying to see, “Wake Up,” by Arcade Fire. NOTE: I just realized this song is featured in the “Where the Wild Things Are” trailer, which somehow makes this portion of the post topical, rather than merely self-indulgent.
Look out below!
Somethin’ filled up
my heart with nothin’,
someone told me not to cry.
But now that I’m older,
my heart’s colder,
and I can see that it’s a lie.
Children wake up,
hold your mistake up,
before they turn the summer into dust.
If the children don’t grow up,
our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.
We’re just a million little gods causin’ rain storms turnin’ every good thing to
I guess we’ll just have to adjust.
With my lightnin’ bolts a glowin’
I can see where I am goin’ to be
when the reaper he reaches and touches my hand.
With my lightnin’ bolts a glowin’
I can see where I am goin’
With my lightnin’ bolts a glowin’
I can see where I am, go-go, where I am
And I thought, I wonder if that’s my Karen Roosa? My Karen was an old stall buddy from Scholastic, back in the mid-to-late 1980s. We were copywriters together, working on book clubs and catalogs. Neighbors, we shared a cubicle wall, but had lost touch twenty years ago. So I contacted Julie, who kindly passed along Karen’s email, and here we are: She’s a big-shot famous author and I knew her when!
– – – – –
Karen, it’s so nice to catch up with you. You must be excited about your new picture book, Pippa at the Parade. It takes a long time, doesn’t it?
It is great catching up with you too, Jimmy. It really does take a long time to see a picture book published. I had sent a different manuscript to Boyds Mills Press in late 2006, and got a call from the editor saying that story wasn’t quite right for them, but to send others. They were looking for stories that would appeal to very young children.
Actually, I’ve heard that picture books are trending younger these days; publishers seem to be looking for titles that will appeal to the preschool crowd. We’re seeing less of the text-heavy, William Steig-type picture book.
Yes, I think that’s true — picture books for the very young child. So I sent a collection of summer poems and the Pippa manuscript, and he replied about a month later in early 2007 that they’d like to publish Pippa at the Parade. My part was essentially done right then, but an illustrator needed to be chosen, the artwork completed, and the book printed. Two years, or even longer, is fairly common.
Tell us a little bit about the inspiration for the book.
I was trying to write a “musical” story, something rhythmical and fun to read aloud, but nothing seemed to work. Once I started thinking about feeling the rhythm through the sound of the instruments, the idea of a little girl at a parade came to me.
I get the sense that your first love is poetry.
I do love poetry, reading and writing it. Trying to pare language down to its essence.
Did you have any input into the illustrations? How did that relationship with artist Julie Fortenberry work? And be careful, Julie might be reading this.
I didn’t have any input, which is not unusual. My editor fortunately chose Julie Fortenberry, a fine artist and illustrator. I saw her work online and really liked her style. Then I just had to wait to see the finished illustrations.
What was it like when you finally saw the illustrations? It’s an exciting but also a frightening moment.
It was very exciting. The art director at Boyds Mills sent me a PDF last summer to check the text one last time. It was then that I could see the illustrations for the first time and I really loved them, very whimsical and playful. They fit the story perfectly. It was a thrill to receive the finished book in the mail.
I see you already got a great review from KirkusReviews. And I quote in part:
“The marching band booms by and the onomatopoeic text enlivens the rhythm, “Clapping hands! / Clappity-clap. / Band is coming! / Tippity-tap.” As each section of the parade passes by Pippa is enchanted by the many instruments, which include trumpets, trombones and drums. First the gymnasts flip past, then the ten-foot-tall man on stilts . . . Fortenberry’s rippling illustrations, at once serenely indistinct and lovingly detailed, combine misty, milky hues with thick, robust pastels, presenting a celebration of excitement and indulgence that can only be fully appreciated in childhood.”
Pretty nice, Karen — you too, Julia, and thanks for the use of your illustrations. Personally, I’m frightened by reviews.
It is a little scary. But I have to look. And by the way, congratulations on Six Innings being named an ALA Notable Book — very exciting.
Thanks. I’m sorry that I missed your first book when it came out, Beach Day, illustrated by Maggie Smith. You must have been thrilled when it was named a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book of the Year. Now it looks like you are on a roll. What’s next?
I have a couple of picture book manuscripts that I’m sending out, and I’ve always liked the idea of trying a longer story for older children. Plus maybe poetry, short stories . . .
Well, obviously, the big bucks are in poetry.
Yes, of course!
We shared a cubicle wall for at least a few years back in the way back, the late 80’s, when we both worked as copywriters for Scholastic Book Clubs. Was I good neighbor? I tried to keep the music down when I had large parties. You never called the cops.
Those were good days at Scholastic. The 80s!
Let’s pause here for a salute to the decade . . . and yes, I wore a black Members Only jacket. Their tagline: “When you put it on, something happens.”
A touching tribute, Jimmy. That job at Scholastic was one of the best ever. It was great being cubicle neighbors with you. I actually do remember a lot of parties on our floor.
As one of the few heterosexual males in the department, I used to joke with Craig Walker that I felt personally responsible for all the sexual tension in the building. It was pretty much up to me, Greg Holch, and the mail room guys. The pressure on us was enormous. I’d come home from work exhausted.
That’s funny, Jimmy, but you might be exaggerating a little.
Never! Eva Moore was the editor of Lucky Book Club back in those days. Each month, we had to read and describe more than 30 books for both teachers and young readers. It was quite an education, wasn’t it?
You’d get your box of books from Craig Walker for Seesaw Book Club, I’d get mine for Lucky Book Club, and I remember quite a few conversations about Curious George and Clifford the Big Red Dog.
I remember getting advice from Ed Monagle, the Chief Financial Officer for Scholastic at the time. Ed was a money guy, not necessarily a book guy. So one day he tells me, in his avuncular way, “Jimmy, you should really make up one of these popular characters. Look at Clifford the Big Red Dog. He’s a dog. He’s big. And he’s red. How hard can that be?”
I remember Ed and can hear him saying that. If only it were that easy!
Yeah, I told him I’d get right on it.
It was great working with Eva, and reading all of those books really was a terrific education in children’s literature.
Not to mention posters of cute kittens.
I recall many cute kitten posters in my box . . . and also glow-in-the-dark Halloween stickers.
Do you have any favorite memories from those days? I remember writing the first hardcover catalog, when Jean Feiwel launched the line back in 1986 or so. It had four books, total. Harry Mazur, Norma Fox Mazur, Julian Thompson, and I forget the other book, I think it was some kind of “stay away from strangers” type book. Anyway, we came up with an awful catalog cover that Jean absolutely (and correctly) hated. A simpler time.
I remember meeting Joanna Cole because the Magic School Bus was really big at that time, Ann M. Martin when she came in for the Babysitters Club, and a lunch with Norman Bridwell. I still have the big red plush Clifford from our table that day. It was a lot of fun just being immersed in children’s books all day with others who had the same interests. And the camaraderie was great.
There’s a long gap from after you left children’s publishing to when you published Beach Day. It’s like the missing seventeen-and-a-half minutes of the Watergate Tapes – except it’s like seventeen years. What have you been up to –- and why or how did you decide to get back into it?
I left the city in the early 90’s and moved to Pennsylvania. My children were very young and I wanted to try freelance writing. I’d send out manuscripts, but had no luck for a long time.
Many others have been defeated when faced with the same situation. What kept you going? Any advice?
I think it’s important to not give up. You never know when your story might match an editor’s tastes and needs for their list at that particular moment. I still have a huge stack of rejection letters. Occasionally a publisher would jot, “Send us more,” so I kept at it. One day I received a letter from an editor asking if I’d be willing to make a few changes in a manuscript that I’d sent; after tweaking the text a bit back and forth, Beach Day was published.
Did you celebrate?
I jumped up and down on the kitchen floor.
Okay, Lightning Round. Favorite children’s books?
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and the books of Kevin Henkes, Kate DiCamillo, and Mo Willems.
Kevin Henkes is just spectacular. I really admire his work. Such a talent, almost in an Old School tradition. Mo Willems is great, too. I met Kate a couple of times, I liked her a lot, very down-to-earth. She has a wonderful essay on her website, titled “On Writing.” You have to read it. Go on, I’ll wait.
Okay, I just finished. That is fantastic. It is all about really seeing, then doing the work of writing. Sitting down to write. Rewriting. And then somehow mysteriously having those ordinary moments undergo a magical transformation on the page.
What about favorite adult books?
Atonement by Ian McEwan, The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, the poetry of Mary Oliver, Basho, and William Carlos Williams.
I’m a huge fan all three poets, though moreso Basho and Williams. My favorite Basho line is, “The journey itself is home.”
Last question: Favorite movies?
The Crying Game, Pan’s Labyrinth, Once, The Graduate, The Ice Storm.
Thanks, Karen. I’m really glad to reconnect with you after all these years. I wish you all the success in the world, you deserve it. And as a parting gift, I was going to give you a plush version of Clifford the Big Red Dog, but you already have it. So I guess I just saved eight bucks. Sweet!
As a consolation prize, please enjoy this video of Mr. T’s fashion tips — “Hey, everybody got to wear clothes!” — and be glad we survived the 80’s with (most of) our dignity intact. (The link works, but it might take a double click.)
“As adults we have it backwards. We think that we need to have an experience in order to write about it. And I’ve found from teaching this class that actually it’s the opposite: We’re writing in order to have an experience.”