Tag Archive for Feiwel and Friends

2009 Notable Children’s Books: The Official List

The official list is out — and I’m still on it!

Whew.

There are a lot of people to thank, and many of them signed this ball. Jean, Liz, Rich, Elizabeth F., Dave, Christine, Elizabeth U., Nicole, and Jessica: Thanks. Jean Feiwel came along and believed in me at a time when I needed exactly, precisely that. A cliche, but absolutely a dream come true: “Here’s a contract, now go write the best book you can.” Forever in her debt for that opportunity.

It’s Good to Be Neil Gaiman: Newbery Medal Winner

Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard was just announced as the Newbery Medal Winner. Amazingly, it’s about the only book on the long list of potential titles that I actually read. I often thought about blogging on it over the past month — it was an interesting book, and I wanted to talk about it — but I decided that I didn’t really want to review children’s books on this site, especially when Six Innings was mentioned by a (very) few as a potential far-flung dark horse candidate. For the record, I never thought so and didn’t even hope, but I felt very glad to be read and considered. After many years of writing the Jigsaw Jones mystery series, I began to get the idea that no adult or librarian or even (most troubling) the editors in my own publishing company read them critically. So I felt truly honored just to somehow squeeze into that Great Conversation with my first hardcover novel, published by Jean Feiwel at Feiwel and Friends. I’ll forever be grateful to Jean for that leap of faith and the great opportunity she gave me to write the best book I possibly could at the time.

I’m happy for my fourth-grade son, Gavin, who is just now in the middle of reading The Graveyard at my urgent, badgering request. They make a big deal out of the Newbery in school, and I’m sure he’ll be proud to say that he’s currently reading it. Cool factor ten. Gavin started it a couple of weeks ago, and interrupted that twice for the latest Wimpy Kid and Knuckleheads. My oldest son, Nick, age 15, also read it on my recommendation. I also urged Liz Szabla to read The Graveyard, and emailed my friend Greg Ruth with the same recommendation.

Should it have won? I have no idea, given my pathetic reading record, though I’m not at all surprised. As much as I thoroughly enjoyed The Graveyard, I did see it as episodic, with a couple of chapters that didn’t work (for me), in that they seemed kind of stand-alone pieces that were wedged into the larger narrative. I also felt that the Harry Potter echoes were at times too strong. We never really learned why Bod’s family was murdered, and I felt it odd that Bod never seemed to really desire to unravel that huge mystery. He never seemed to ask: Why? But I guess we’ll get that in the sequel.

In the end, congratulations Mr. Gaiman, a writer I truly respect and admire, whose blog is an inspiration. I’m quite sure that young readers (4th grade and up, I’m guessing) will very much enjoy this book. It’s fast, exciting, singular in mood, creative, heartfelt, utterly contemporary, and very well-written. And it has a great first sentence: “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”

Congratulations also to Honor Winners: Kathi Appelt (The Underneath), Margarita Engle (The Surrender Tree), Ingrid Law (Savvy), and Jacqueline Woodson (After Tupac and D. Foster).

Writing Mighty Casey

Everybody is familiar with the classic poem by Ernest Lawrence Thayer, “Casey at the Bat,” first published in 1888 in the San Francisco Examiner. That’s 120 years ago. According to Wikipedia, Thayer was “so embarrassed by what he considered to be a doggeral that he kept his identity secret for years.” It was originally published under a pen name.

As a reminder, the poem begins:

“The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to the hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, “If only Casey could but get a whack at that–
We’d put up even money now, with Casey at the bat.”

The poem has certainly endured. Each spring, like mushrooms after a rain, new picture book versions of Thayer’s classic poem seem to arrive in our libraries, each more fabulously illustrated than the next. And no offense to these talented illustrators, but Casey grows increasingly steroidal. For example:

Yet as much as I liked the original poem, it never seemed to hold a lot of kid appeal. So the idea struck me that I could do my own version of the poem, keeping the baseball flavor and dramatic setup, but transposing it to a Little League field at the youngest, most inept, most playful level.

Thus, Mighty Casey (Feiwel & Friends, March, 2009), a decidedly different take.

I got the idea for this translocation directly from my years of Little League coaching. I’ve spent a lot of time with those kids. Here’s a recent snap from last September. That’s my Maggie, at age seven. Maggie’s state of readiness is impressive, particularly when compared to her teammate in centerfield.

I wrestled with the text for several months, going down various dead ends. In fact, the poem was saved when my editor, Liz Szabla, performed an intervention. Really, some of those early drafts were awful; a textbook case of a book being salvaged by a few, select, insightful comments from an editor. Fortunately, all anyone reads is the final result. In the end, my re-imagined version retained Thayer’s basic rhyme scheme, but broke the long lines in half. It begins:

“The outlook wasn’t brilliant

for the Delmar Dogs that day.

All summer long, the Dogs

lost every game they played.


Yes, it’s true, the Dogs had guts,

and the Dogs had heart;

but catching the baseball, well,

that was the hardest part.”

Once approved by Jean and Liz at Feiwel & Friends, it was time for the artwork. The name they came up with was a new one to me, some fellow named Matthew Cordell. I looked him up and immediately liked his style. I saw that his illustrative approach was light and accessible. I thought that he could really bring out the humor in the piece. But I was wrong about that. Matthew made it funnier, better. I’ve been lucky. While Matthew’s artwork may not be the most technically rendered, he has a feeling for children’s books, a warmth, and his work connects with young readers. Whatever it is, that special quality, Matthew has it. Here’s one sample of his artwork from the book:

Ashanti fell fast asleep;

Tommy Maney climbed a tree.

And, okay, twist my arm, here’s another few lines from the book:

Bloopers, flubs, drops, and blunders —

the Dogs could do nothing right.

Still Casey declared, “We won’t

surrender without a fight!”

When Jinn Lee clubbed a homer,

the fans stood and cheered.

The Dogs scored at last.

Said Lee, “That’s, like, sooo weird.”

Don’t you love that rhyme, cheered and weird? Thank you, thank you very much. Anyway, it’s freezing outside. Eight degrees, last I looked. But pitchers and Molinas report to Spring Training in less than a month. Breathe deep. Can’t you feel it? Baseball is around the corner. And Mighty Casey is due to arrive in bookstores March 3rd. Play ball. We’re swinging for the fences!

Books for Boys?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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