Thought I’d share a few reviews for my middle grade novel (grades 3-5), Justin Fisher Declares War!
Thanks to anyone who picks up this book and gives it a try. When I first wrote it, I thought of Justin as a light-hearted, character-centered book that might appeal to reluctant readers. It’s extremely easy to read. Though the characters are in 5th grade, I see this as a book that’s best for 3rd graders and up. Sigh, I’ll never understand the thinking behind the cover, but there’s nothing to be done abut that.
The first review is from Jaci Miller at Young Adult Books Central. To read it in full, go here:
James Preller’s likable book about class clowns and their inner workings will strike a chord with readers. Everyone wants to be liked and Preller intuitively taps this through Justin Fisher, a young man who tries just a bit too hard.
In a satisfying, but age-appropriate way, characters grow and change, including the antagonist, Mr. Tripp. Readers will root for Justin and, at the same time, shake their heads at his antics. Both student and teacher have been crafted with solid character motivations.
The short chapters also make Justin Fisher Declares War! a friendly read for more reluctant readers. A delightful addition to the world of humorous middle grade fiction.
This book could be considered a loose sequel to Along Came Spider, but only because both books take place in the same setting and there are a few crossover characters. It is not necessary to read one to understand he other. James Preller’s writing style is breezy and fun. Having spent some time in elementary school classrooms myself, I found his dialogue and classroom antics very authentic. At some points I found myself thinking of Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine books. This is high praise, as Clementine is one of my all-time favourite early chapter book heroines. I think boys will relate to Justin and enjoy laughing along with his misadventures. Coming in under 150 pages, with short chapters and a fast-paced story, Justin Fisher Declares War is a great transitional book for boys.
I really enjoyed Justin Fisher Declares War. Preller’s has a created a character in Justin, that isn’t all good or bad. The author previous novel Along Came Spider, is also set at Spiro Agew Elementary School. Anyone who has read it, will like being able to see how best friends Trey and Spider are doing. I don’t know if the author plans to set anymore novels at this school. But I hope so. Justin Fisher Declares War is a great suggestion for fans of Andrew Clements or Dan Gutman.
Lastly, I probably shouldn’t say this, but here goes: I have to grin when I see Justin on various Mock Newbery lists. The thoroughness of some of these folks is impressive and commendable. But let me tell you, just so you don’t fly to Vegas to lay down money on a longshot, this book is nowhere close to a Newbery. It does not belong in the conversation, and aspires only to be an easy, entertaining read with, hopefully, a few glimmers of hard-won insight thrown into the soup. I’d be happy with a review of, “Good fun!” I fully realize that a book like Justin, school-based fiction aimed at quasi-reluctant readers, isn’t going to make me rich. Honestly, it’s possibly too quiet for widespread boy appeal, but it was the story I needed to tell. I do hope this book picks up some readers along the way . . .
Speaking of the Newbery, last year it was obvious that When You Reach Me was the hands-down favorite. The year before that, I had read The Graveyard and wasn’t surprised by the selection. This year? I just don’t know.
“I have a problem and I hope you’ll understand and bear with me. One of the finest men we have ever met, and a great broadcaster — he’s in the Hall of Fame — Ernie Harwell, the voice of the Tigers for so many years, who started with the Dodgers broadcasting in 1948, passed away today. The strike two pitch is outside, ball one. But there’s a great story about Ernie . . .” — Vin Scully.
In a recent series of interview questions with various children’s book authors who had written baseball-themed books, Doret Canton (The Happy Nappy Bookseller) asked about our favorite baseball announcers. It was an impossible question, really, because we couldn’t possibly make a fair and informed judgment. Most guys we never hear, or only rarely. The voices we love tend to talk about the team we love; we grow attached to those voices.
In this clip below, the great Vin Scully tells a terrific story about another legendary announcer, Ernie Harwell, who recently passed away at the age of 92. It’s worth a listen. And worth noting, too, how effortlessly Scully tells his story without missing a beat on the play-by-play. A true master.
These days, for my money the most consistently excellent, insightful, and entertaining baseball writer is Joe Posnanski. He wrote one of my favorite baseball books, The Soul of Baseball, about Buck O’Neil, which I discussed here in a list of “My Ten All-Time Favorite Baseball Books.” If you’ve got a minute, check out Joe’s lovely tribute to Ernie Harwell. Here’s one little sliver from that wonderful essay:
Of course, everyone who ever listened to Ernie Harwell called him a friend. “It isn’t me that people love,” he said to me once, “It’s baseball.” But, of course, it wasn’t true. People loved him.
NOTE: MLB took down the video link of Scully on Harwell, so here’s a nice tribute to Harwell instead.
My friend, Doret Canton, of The Happy Nappy Bookseller blog, goes around the horn with nine authors of children’s baseball books. It’s a pretty cool lineup with some heavy hitters, sure to score runs in bunches.
Doret’s come up with a fun, inventive way of sharing her passion for baseball and baseball books, with each author answering interview questions over a series of days.
Here’s the lineup:
1. Gene Fehler, Change-up: Baseball Poems
2. Linda Sue Park, Keeping Score
3. Kurtis Scaletta, Mudville
4. Alan Gratz, Brooklyn Nine
5. Julianna Baggott, The Prince of Fenway Park
6. James Preller, Six Innings
7. Jennifer E. Smith, The Comeback Season
8. Carl Deuker, Painting the Black
9. Mick Cochrane, The Girl Who Threw Butterflies
Alongside this company, I’m like that kid at second base, murmuring to himself, “Don’t screw it up, don’t screw it up, please God don’t let me screw it up.”
By the way, I interviewed Doret back about a year ago. She’s a passionate, voracious reader and I love her attitude. You wanna get real? Go talk to Doret. But don’t believe my word for it, decide for yourself.
After spending time with Doret, you’ll definitely want to put on a squeeze play.
Sorry, you’re going to have to wait a minute. I know you’re in a big hurry and everything. People nowadays expect their blog entertainment to run like clockwork, click, click, click on that mouse. Well, go grab a seat. There’s some old Field & Stream magazines on the table.
It shouldn’t be too much longer. Please have your co-pay ready.
I’m waiting for author Kurtis Scaletta, who agreed to come here all the way from his home in Minneapolis for an interview. But you know how that goes, bad weather, costly delays: snow, ice, Vikings . . .
Seriously: Kurtis is an original new voice in children’s literature. His first book, Mudville, earned him wide acclaim, including being named one of the Top 10 Sports Books for Youth in 2009 by Booklist. His next book, Mamba Point, is due out in July, 2010. Even better, Kurtis claims to be writing a completely crazy book, hopefully for 2011. The truth is, I’m rooting for Kurtis Scaletta — and I know that after meeting him, you will be, too.
Hey, Kurtis. Finally, you’re here! Thanks for coming all the way from Minneapolis. Take off your wet things. Yes, the snow pants, socks, and mittens, too. I’ll throw them in the dryer while we talk. Here’s a terry cloth bathrobe and some bunny slippers.
Thanks. It’s great to be here in balmy Albany. Your orange tree is doing great. Um, do you mind turning on the A/C?
Not a problem. Are you bothered by the noise from the steel drum band in my backyard? I could ask them to stop, but like most of my neighbors in upstate NY, I could listen to “Shake, Shake Senora” all day long — and frequently do.
I actually listened to a lot of Caribbean music while writing the last one, but more Marley and less Belafonte.
Now that you mention Harry Belafonte, I remember that song gets featured nicely in Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice.” But don’t try to sidetrack me, Kurtis. I’m onto your tricks. We’re primarily here to talk about me. I mean, Mudville. The book turns on what strikes me as just a wonderful, imaginative leap –- a rain delay that lasts 22 years. Do you remember the circumstances of getting that idea? Was it a lightning bolt moment?
It’s kinda predictable, but I was watching a baseball game that went into a rain delay and one thing led to another. I did already have some of the characters in mind and I was trying to figure out what to do with them.
But that was a fantastic idea, literally, and introduced an element of magic realism into the story. Have I got that right? Is it something you resisted at first? Or do you have an interest in speculative fiction?
I like to tread a fine line between the improbable and impossible. All of my books do it. I call them “tall tales” myself. Sounds less pretentious. I mean, I ain’t Marquez or Borges. I read a lot of speculative fiction when I was younger, especially Harlan Ellison, but I don’t really see myself in that arena.
Are you excited about Mudville coming out in paperback?
Definitely. Something about the Yearling logo makes it especially neat. I remember a lot of great books having that horsey from when I was a kid.
It’s cool because Six Innings is coming out in paperback around the same time. Come to think of it, we should be bitter rivals. Where’s my trident?
Yeah, I guess other kids baseball writers are in competition. Unfortunately, they’ve also proved to be decent dudes. I’ve met John H. Ritter, Mick Cockrane, and John Coy, and in all three cases had to pocket my shiv.
Ah, disappointing. Nothing quite beats a brawl between children’s authors. After Mudville, was there an expectation that you were going to follow with another sports book?
I did worry for a while that I would be expected to deliver a series of sports books. I figured I could write one or two, but I’m not Mike Lupica and I have a lot more interests besides sports. I remember my wife saying, “In seven years when you’re writing the lacrosse book, you’ll wonder what the heck you’re doing.” But when I started talking to my editor about ideas for a second book, she was more taken with the Africa book than other suggestions, which included sports books. So I chalk that up to landing at a great house with a great editor.
I had a similar experience after Six Innings. I remember when your lovely wife said to me . . .
She encouraged you to write the Africa book, right?
Exactly! She’s been helpful in so many, many ways. I was wondering, how do you deal with reviews? You received such wonderful notices for Mudville. Are you thick-skinned, or more of a whimpering baby like me?
I really appreciated the good reviews, and the non-mention in one major outlet actually hurt more than the slam in another. I mostly just want people to know I exist, I think.
Are you hungry? I’ve got a Yodel, a Ho-Ho, or a Devil Dog. Which one do you want? Orange soda or root beer? And yes, Kurtis, it’s raining gum drops. That’s the way we roll here at jamespreller.com.
Yeah, and I guess the definitive word is “roll,” with that kind of diet. I’ll have the Yodel and the Orange pop, thanks.
Sorry, all out. Here’s a can of tuna fish and a hammer.
I’ll bring the tuna home. My five cats will appreciate it.
Five cats? I’m not going there. You went to school for writing, didn’t you? So is it safe to assume that you believe writing can be taught?
Well, the truth is that it was 17 years ago and I mainly had to figure out what to do with myself. But I do think I benefited from working with my advisor Elaine Ford, who is a terrific writer and was very frank and helpful with her feedback on my works in progress.
I can’t deal with “frank and helpful.” I’m more of a looking-for-false-praise kind of guy.
I’ve read that a lot of sensitive geniuses are like that. Anyway, it was a long time before I actually got published, but that had to do with me and not the University of Maine. Still, I think creative writing is in a weird position where there is both an abundance of non-academic “how to” manuals and workshops but very little serious scholarship on teaching and learning and very little about best practices or pedagogy that is based on evidence. My day job in higher ed is showing here I think.
Kurtis, you have a pretty active blog and I enjoy reading it. Do you think it’s helped you professionally? And if so, in what ways?
Now I use my blog as a way to connect to readers, librarians and teachers, but the biggest help it’s given me was before I got published. Before I had my professional authorial blog I had a book review blog, now defunct, and a personal/chatty blog, also defunct. Blogging was a turning point for me as a writer because I started writing every day and I met and started talking to other writers and people who care about kids books. My day job is not in writing or literature and I was way out of the loop, so I’m glad I got connected to a community and started writing again.
You have a new book coming out, Mamba Point, inspired in part by your experiences living in Monrovia, Liberia. That’s not near my old haunts on Long Island, is it?
Well, they’re on the same ocean, so sure. Just a skip across the pond.
So the story involves . . . dancing?
You’re just trying to get me worked up, aren’t you? One of my missions now is to get people to learn the difference between a mamba, which is a deadly snake, and a mambo, which is a risque latin dance.
A confusion that has led to many senseless deaths, I might add.
Seriously, because those mambo dances are tougher than they look!
Do not confuse the Mamba with the Mambo. Kurtis Scaletta is here to help.
Please, Kurtis, continue about your book.
Mamba Point is about a kid who moves from a small midwestern air force town to Montrovia, Liberia, in 1982. He’s worried about making new friends, just starting to get curious about those creatures called girls, and mostly wants to read comic books and play games. So far, that’s pretty autobiographical. But this kid is harassed by a black mamba… at first he’s scared out of his wits, but ends up kind of befriending it. They have a kind of connection. Then there’s a little adventure story thrown in, for good measure. Needless to say, that gets pretty far away from my own experiences. But there’s a lot of stuff that’s straight from my own life, and a lot about what it’s like for an American kid to move to Africa.
We both felt the death of J.D. Salinger, in my case more than expected. You mentioned “The Laughing Man” as your favorite Salinger story. What’s so great about it?
There’s lots to love about that story. The outer story is the typical spare, haunting modern story we all read in lit classes, but then there’s a completely ridiculous, endless, laugh-out-loud adventure story that’s narrated throughout. And there’s a pretty sweet baseball scene, too.
You’ve also written elsewhere about your admiration for the books of Betsy Byars.
You identify with the misfit, don’t you?
That was definitely what attracted me to her books. In the late 70s/early 80s when I reading her books, there was often a quirky misfit kid at the center. I really connected with them. I think she’s one of by biggest influences; I think I learned a lot of what I know about creating characters from Betsy. I really became aware of it in the middle of writing Mamba Point.
Do you read a lot of children’s books?
Yep. More than I read grown-up books. You kind of have to know what’s going on in the industry, so I read a lot so I know how to position my own books in a crowded marketplace. I do try to work in a couple of grown-up books but it’s hard to keep up as it is. Right now I’m in the middle of several books including The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and Marchello in the Real World. They are both great.
Okay, tell me about this new “work-in-progress.” But it has to be in 139 characters or less; I’m tougher than Twitter and I think it’s time people knew it.
Wake, ME is about a small town in Maine that’s taken over by a giant fungus and couple of kids who believe it portends the town’s doom.
I want that book right now! Lightning Round: I know you’re into music, Kurtis. Give us ten songs on your imaginary mixed tape.
This one goes to eleven: “Train Whistle Blues” by Merle Haggard; “Driver 8” by R.E.M., “Play a Train Song,” by Todd Snider, “Waiting for a Train” by Jimmie Rodgers, “The Train Carrying Jimmy Rodgers Home” by Greg Brown, “Trains” by Ryan Adams, “Let the Train Blow the Whistle” by the Old 97s, “Freight Train Blues,” by The Weary Boys, “King of the Road” by Roger Miller, “Downbound Train” by Bruce Springsteen, and “Downtown Train” by Tom Waits (not Rod Stewart). Sorry, I have a one track mind.
Got any Oscar favorites? Best Picture of the Year?
I seriously love “Up.” It’s probably the only nominated movie I saw, and I don’t think it’ll win best picture (just best feature-length animated film), but the first 15 minutes of that movie are beautiful. It’s a really wonderful and imaginative story after that, and the dog was great, but it’s that long prologue that gets to me. Sniff. That being said, the smart money is on “Avatar.”
I thought the opening minutes of “Up” were extraordinary, compressed storytelling. Beautiful. After that, I didn’t care so much. I’m going to go with “The Hurt Locker.” Five favorite blogs?
Oh, I loved bat-girl! “Less stats, more sass.” She also did those incredible Lego recreations of great (and not-so-great) moments in Twins baseball history.
I’m glad she’s appreciated even outside of Twins’ territory. You might also know her alter ego, Anne Ursu, who’s written a terrific fantasy series for kids. My wife says her grown up books are good, too, but I don’t really read grown up books.
I’m your reverse in that way; I read mostly adult.
Besides the time issue, I’m like an open pitcher of milk in the refrigerator. It’ll take on the taste of whatever’s around it. So when I read something, especially something really stylized, it affects my own voice. So I have to avoid getting deeply immersed in a novel when I’m writing. And these days I’m almost always writing. Kids books, I can usually read in a day, and shake it off.
Interesting, and again, that’s the exact reason why I don’t read them — especially when I’m deep into my own writing, when it’s an absolute no-go for me. We’re like two peas living in completely different apartments.
I worry about having too much consciousness about the marketplace. You start to hear about what sells and what doesn’t, and become too familiar (I think) with the conventions of the business — a business that’s often predicated on ripping off ideas from the bestseller list. Follow that to the end and you’re writing about a boy wizard with a sassy friend who falls in love with a smoldering vampire who’s really a geek who . . . and on and on. It seems like too much information can get in the way of originality. Thoughts?
It’s more about voice than subject matter. I’ll read a collection of essays by David Sedaris and start writing like David Sedaris, even though I’m still writing my own completely original work about the boy wizard who falls in love with a fairy, but to win her love he has to battle the vampires in dystopia with his werewolf buddies and his pet dragon. Or I’ll read Cormac McCarthy and start writing like Cormac McCarthy, even though I’m working on a tween romance.
You know what I like about you, Kurtis? Even though you strike me as having this heightened awareness of the business, you went out and wrote Mamba Point, a personal, deeply-felt story that has NOTHING to do with the trends of the marketplace. Last I looked, kids were not clamoring for more books set in Liberia. Yet you wrote from the heart. And that sound you hear is cheering, my wishing you success with this story.
Okay, whew. I hate it when Jamespreller.com gets all soggy. It seems like we’ve drifted a fair distance from our original list of bloggy goodness. By my count, you’ve only listed four.
Well, you know, I know a billion writers with blogs, but yours stands out. A newby writer like me learns stuff about the profession of writing. I also like the reader mail, which I’d love to do myself but I don’t get enough of to do. I think your blog is a good example of what writer/bloggers should do, connecting with teachers and readers. So much of it ends up being us writers just talking to each other.
That’s very kind of you to say, thanks. But I can tell from the buzz of my Kenmore dryer that your clothes are dry and it’s time for you to depart balmy Albany — alas, before you had time to visit nearby Cohoes, just ten miles north on 787, alleged home of Kilgore Trout — to brave the Minneapolis winter. As a parting gift, please accept this rare, 1988 VHS edition of “Beetlejuice.” It may look like it’s just a crummy old tape found in the bottom of my closet, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
Um. So, thanks for the interview . . . yeah. Are you sure you don’t have an extra Yodel?
Oh, fine. Knock yourself out.
FOR MORE INTERVIEWS . . .
If you enjoyed this interview with Kurtis Scaletta, you might not like the others. They aren’t very good.
It doesn’t take long for a book-loving blog-hopper to discover Betsy Bird’s A Fuse #8 Production. It is so consistently good — full of personality and life and enthusiasm for children’s books — that many of us return on a regular basis. Heck, she’s practically a Cult Figure, though without the flowing robes or talk of alien spaceships riding behind Comet Hale-Bopp.
I thought it might be fun to hang out with Betsy for a little bit. Hopefully you’ll think so, too. Hey, here she comes now . . .
Betsy, thanks for stopping by. Can I get you anything? A drink, some Ritz crackers, a cheese log?
A cheese log? Seriously? Man, I haven’t seen a good cheese log since the Blizzard of ’08. I will have some M & M’s if you have them, though.
Sorry, I’ve only got the brown M & M’s, which I save for emergencies. My cheese log memories are not blizzard-related like yours. Mine are associated with my mother’s famous Monday Bowling Nights. With seven kids, she deserved one night out, and that’s all she got. She’d return home with her bowling partner and neighbor, Mrs. Kleinberg, and they’d drink Gallo wine, smoke cigarettes, and chat. I’d crawl under the coffee table, eavesdrop, and ponder the mysterious appeal of a nutty port wine cheese log.
For me, cheese logs are entirely mythical. The kinds of things that “other people’s families” ate. A log o’ cheese seemed so weird to me as a kid. But enough about cylindrical cow by-products! Let’s get this interview ah-goin’.
Betsy, you are a librarian, blogger, bon vivant, and soon-to-be-published author. So let’s start with that last part first. I understand that you recently sold two manuscripts. Congratulations, that’s really exciting. Have you been dreaming of this for a long time?
Many, many thanks! I have indeed been dreaming of this, but sort of in a lazy “that’s something I should do when I’m a grown-up” way. Then this illustrator comes along, asks if I’ll write a book if he illustrates it, and voila! I become the luckiest librarian in the Western Hemisphere. I cannot account for the Eastern Hemisphere at this time.
I loved your “happy dance.” Understated, dignified, professional.
I try. You should see my slightly more complicated “Dance of Joy”. It involves ferrets.
The mind reels. So, tell us a little bit about the stories.
Ah. Well, when said illustrator (I’m waiting for his name to be officially released before I “out him”, so to speak) contacted me he only had one idea. To wit: “Giants leaping.” Awesome. So book #1 is Giant Dance Party. A small girl teaches a troop of gigantic, gangly, clumsy giants to dance. Hilarity ensues. Book #2 is still in the works, but it involves giants in New York. I can say that much.
Come on, don’t make me beg. Tell us the name of the illustrator. Or at least give us a hint. Does it rhyme with “Maurice Sendak?”
You got me. It’s Four Piece Svensack, the great Swedish performance artist of 33rd and Broadway. Okay, here’s a real hint though. My illustrator is blond. Ha! Didn’t see that coming, did you?
That narrows it down, thanks. So that was the trigger for you, just two words, giants leaping? Did s/he show you an illustration? Did you talk about it? Or did the ideas just instantly flow?
The illustrator did send a sketch or two, now that you mention it. But only after I said something equivalent to, “That’s a frickin’ AWESOME idea!” Then I wept. We talked a lot about it, sometimes over email and sometimes over the phone. It was nice. I hear that in most cases an author doesn’t get to interact with their illustrator like this, but it’s much more fun if it’s a joint effort, I think.
That’s correct, writers and illustrators rarely have much contact. And I suspect something may be lost in that great divide. I don’t think it’s an accident that so many great books come from one person, the multi-talented writer/illustrator. At least in those cases, there’s back-and-forth (even if it’s only inside one mind), rather than the publishing standard of writer finishes, illustrator takes over, and never the twain shall meet. Anyway, I can’t wait to see your book. When should I start camping out in front of my local independent bookstore?
No idea. I mean, some idea. It’s won’t be 2010, I’m pretty sure. Being a cynical sally I assume 2013. My illustrator is a happy, sweet, wonderfully optimistic sort and says 2010. Probably 2011 or 2012.
Soon you’ll be joining the fraternal organization of children’s authors and illustrators. We’re a semi-secret society, loosely modeled after the Freemasons. I’m sorry, but I can’t show you the secret handshake until the first book hits stores. Homeland security, you understand.
Understood. We librarians have our own super secret handshake anyway. It involves being double jointed (which all real librarians are anyway). And now I can be a part of the super secret children’s-librarians-turned-authors club. As it happens, my children’s room here at NYPL has had two authors before me. Marcia Brown wrote Stone Soup while working in my room, and Claire Huchet Bishop wrote The Five Chinese Brothers. So, y’know. There’s a precedent.
It makes sense that a dedicated children’s librarian would become a talented author. What’s next, “Dancing with the Stars?”
Absolutely! I mean, the first book’s all about dancing giants, right? I’m envisioning a Giant Dance Party song, a dance craze (that would involve a lot of galumphing), a music video, the works.
Where did you grow up? What brought you to the Big Apple?
I grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where the tourist board’s slogan is “Yes, there really is a Kalamazoo!”
There is, really? I thought it was like a gag.
Nuh-uh. No gag. I’ve since made friends from Eureka and Kokomo. If I can get a pal from Walla Walla I have it made. Anywho, I was raised there, went to college in Richmond, Indiana (“Fight, fight, inner light, kill, Quakers, kill!”), lived in Portland, Oregon for a time, moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota and then my husband got into Columbia University’s screenwriting program. We’ve been here ever since, but we’re probably headed for L.A. next.
You seem to have one of the busiest, most popular blogs in the kidlitosphere. How did that all begin for you?
Ironically, with a School Library Journal article (ironic, I mean, since they now host my blog). I can’t remember what it was called, but the piece discussed children’s literary blogs, and it sounded fun. I’d already been writing reviews on Amazon.com for a lark. It wasn’t much more of a step to just start writing them on my blog as well. Then I added news. Then I started reporting on publisher events here in NYC. And then SLJ decided to buy me up so I sold out to the man and have been very happy ever since.
It’s clear from Fuse #8 that you a voracious reader, print and new media. What makes a good blog, do you think?
Personality, for one.
Personality?! Oh, rats!
Regular updates for another. If a blog can give me something I’ll find nowhere else, that’s a lure. Plus, I’m a sucker for a catchy name.
Like, um, James Preller’s Blog? How’s that for catchy?
It’s got a beat and I can dance to it. Gold, kid! Authorial blogs are sort of exempt from the whole “Catchy Name” requirement, y’know. If you start calling your site “Tin Can Phone” or something, how’s anyone going to know it’s you?
You recently published the results of a reader’s poll, asking folks to name their top ten picture books of all time. You compiled those lists to create a master list of “Top 100 Picture Books.” In what way did the results surprise you?
Ooh. Excellent question. I think I was very surprised that people didn’t send in the books they solely loved when they themselves were small children. It was a nice mix of books from the canon, books people liked now (and that their kids like right now), and books from their youth. And who could have predicted two top slots for Mo Willems? Surprising to say the least. I was also surprised that Dr. Seuss didn’t do better than he did. The man was clearly too prolific. His books split the vote over and over again.
Split the vote? You are bringing up bad memories of Ralph Nader and the 2000 election. For me, when Go, Dog. Go! wasn’t included, that pretty much made the whole list meaningless in my eyes. But still fun!
Go, Dog. Go! will have it’s day. I didn’t allow Easy Readers on my Picture Book Poll. At some point I’ll do an Easy Reader poll as well. Then you can see how the book stacks up against the likes of Frog and Toad and The Cat in the Hat.
I don’t really get the need for that distinction — but it’s your poll! Reading the results, I was happy to be reminded of old classics (never expected Millions of Cats to rank so high), or discover recent titles that I’d missed. Were you disappointed that any specific titles that didn’t make it?
Oh sure. The list is totally lacking in diversity. I think we figured out that only two of the creators were people of color. A little weird, actually. And there were certainly titles I would have considered shoo-ins. The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss for one.The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordecai Gerstein for another. There’s no predicting what showed up. Except for the Top 10, of course. Those were a little easier to predict.
There’s also that critical difference between “favorite” books and “important” books. Charlotte Zolotow’s William’s Doll was a landmark book, I think, as was, in a different way, something like Emily Arnold McCully’s Mirette on the High Wire. Top 100? No idea. But among the Top 100 most influential books, I’d think so. These lists get complicated.
Well, there will always be beloved books that are considered “important”, and titles that are “important” but people don’t gravitate naturally towards. As a reader poll, my list is limited to the individual preferences of my readers. It’s completely subjective. Which is fine, but it’s not the be all and end all of lists.
You did a lot of research on each book. I think that’s a big part of Fuse #8’s success –- you put a ton of effort into it. How many hours a week do you put into the blog?
Hours a week? Oo-de-lally. Hmm. Well, we’re going to pretend that the poll was the exception rather than the rule. On average, though, I’d say I spend a good 14 hours a week on the blog. Two hours a night or so. That’s just a rough estimate.
You’ve met a lot of authors over the years. What have been some of the highlights?
Having tea with Ursula LeGuin was quite the thrill. And getting to speak at The Eric Carle Museum where I later had dinner with Jane Yolen, Jeanne Birdsall, and others. My contact with Mo Willems and Jon Scieszka is flattering. And getting to sit at the Newbery Award winning table two years in a row (first for Susan Patron who mentioned me in her speech, and the second time for Laura Amy Schlitz). Those are some of them, certainly.
Is it true that one of the items on your Bucket List is to sing Karaoke with Ed Young?
Absolutely. If by “Bucket List” you mean “Thing That Will Never Occur in This or Any Other Lifetime”.
Who are you still dying to meet?
The Golden Fleece is, and shall evermore be the aforementioned Sendak. Of course if I met him I’d just flap my gums for a while and be destroyed by his single withering glance. But it might still be worth it.
Blogs are a growing force in children’s literature: influential, timely, free. Is that a good thing –- and why?
I see it as a good thing on the whole. With the decline of newspaper book review sections and the shift to online resources, blogs are becoming a new voice in the marketplace. They will never replace professional reviews, of course, but if a purchasing librarian or parent trusts a blogger’s voice and title selection then they’re going to be more inclined to get their book suggestions from that source. And as long as the bloggers keep their opinions sharp and their heads on straight, the relationship will be beneficial for all.
Your answer suggests there might be a downside.
Well, there’s always the danger of getting too darn cozy with the publishing types. Or reviewing stuff just to make people happy, and not because it’s actually any good. Like I say, you have to trust your blogger. If you suspect they might be compromised (I suddenly have a flash from a movie where someone yells over a phone, “The librarian blogger is compromised! I repeat…!”) then find another. There are plenty of fish in the sea.
With great power comes great responsibility. How do you choose what to review?
It’s tough. I receive boxes of books from publishers, titles from individual authors and illustrators, and additional books from people who want Amazon.com reviews (that’s a whole different market right there). What I tend to do is to put them on my bookshelves in the order of publication date. January books first, February second, etc. I organize them within each month in the order I would like to read them. Then I read through them in this pattern: current month title, past months’ titles, future month title. These I put on the old To Be Reviewed shelf where they wait. Now my reviewing is a different pattern. I prefer to review a picture book, then a novel, then a graphic novel or poetry book or non-fiction title. Because of the sheer amount of non-fiction out there, however, I usually will alternate between a non-fiction book and a graphic novel, then another non-fiction book and a book of poetry. Deciding which book to review next usually depends on how well a book has stayed with me. If I read your book two months ago but can’t remember the plot or the characters, it’s not going to get reviewed. But if it really gripped me in some way (or was memorably awful) it’s getting a review at some point.
If kids like it, is it a good book?
Sometimes. Kids also like eating snot and watching Barney television shows, so I dunno if you should necessarily consider them to be the number one arbitrators of taste. But taking a kid’s opinion on any book is important. Just so long as you remember that there are different kinds of kids with different tastes out there.
Okay, Lightning Round: Five favorite movies?
The Brave Little Toaster
I have “Happy-Go-Lucky” on my Netflix cue. Love Mike Leigh. Okay: Five favorite places in New York City?
Bank Street Bookstore
Books of Wonder
The Jefferson Market Library branch
My library (whoop!)
Five favorite children’s books?
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz
Ultra-Violet Catastrophe by Margaret Mahy
Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge
The Mysterious Tadpole by Steven Kellogg
The Mysterious Tadpole? I’m surprised. Why that title?
Well, I’ve a weakness for it. And I should clarify that I’m talking about the original. Not the subsequent reillustrated monstrosity they’ve started selling recently. The original had everything. Mystery. A friendship between a magical creature and an everyday child. A satisfying conclusion. Plus it has a moment (in the original) when you get to see an American Indian single-handedly taking down an evil pirate ship. Where else are you going to see that in a picture book, I ask you?
You are on a rooftop in the city, peaceful under the stars. There’s a song playing and a drink in your hand. What’s the song? What’s the drink?
Ah. That would be a glass of Pims (the mysterious British summer drink that never lists its ingredients on the bottle) and the song would be “This Is the Life” by Amy MacDonald.
Here’s two girls sweetly covering Amy MacDonald’s tune . . . just for Betsy.
Almost forgot: Where’d you get the name, A Fuse #8 Production?
Fuse #8? Hasn’t a thing in the entire world to do with children’s literature. Here’s the scoop. When I graduated from college I was given my grandmother’s dilapidated 1989 Buick Century. The paint job had long since peeled away thanks to a permanent parking in the lot next to her nursing home, but I didn’t care. It was my first wheels. So I park on the street one day in good old Richmond, Indiana and after I take the key out of the car the automatic locks start leaping up and down and up and down. Convinced that my car is possessed (she was christened Linda Blair from there on in) I eventually discovered that the lock situation was killing my battery.
So I’ve just graduated, I’m broke, and I take it into the shop for repairs. The repair guy takes one look at it, opens the glove compartment, and removes Fuse #8. I am told that if I just take that fuse out, it won’t kill itself and he doesn’t charge me a cent. Mind you, Fuse #8 controls the horn, the radio, and the automatic windows, but it’s not like I care. That man was a saint. Fast forward a couple of years and my husband’s looking for a good name for his new film production company. He really wants to call it A Widow Be Damned Production since he’s having rights-related difficulties with Erskine Caldwell’s widow. I counter with A Fuse #8 Production. It’s got everything! A number. A weird word. My suggestion is summarily rejected but I vowed from there on in that I would name SOMETHING A Fuse #8 Production someday. And so I did. Since then I’ve wanted to name something Tin Can Phone, but nothing appropriate has presented itself yet.
Thanks, Betsy. You’ve been wonderful. Good luck with your writing. And thanks, especially, for the great job you do at Fuse #8 — it’s always an entertaining, informative read. As a parting gift, please accept this John Deere “Select Series X300 Tractor,” featuring Edge Xtra Deck, Twin Touch Pedals, V-Twin Engines, and Cast-Iron Front Axles. It comes with a four-year warranty, or 300 hours, whichever comes first.
Awesome! I’ve had this John Deere Striping Kit that fits 48″ & 54″ Decks for the X300 and X500 kicking around my tiny New York apartment for about a year or so. Finally some way to make use of it! Cheers and thanks so much for having me here on your blog. It’s been a hoot.