Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Best children's books of 2009

It's that time of year. All the review publications and media outlets are publishing their "best of" lists for children's books published in 2009. There are some great books on the lists, too. Books that I recognize as head and shoulders above my own effort. Even so, it's a bit of a pang every time I see a new one and Maggie's Monkeys isn't on it. Ridiculous, I know.

Some of the titles that show up a lot and that warrant attention from parents and book lovers are
If you're interested, here's where you can find some of the lists.
Congratulations to all the authors, illustrators and editors who produced these outstanding books! Thank you for enriching our world.

    Saturday, December 26, 2009

    Categories of Christmas

    I couldn't resist reposting this from Emily Reads because it's just too funny.

    A selection of Library of Congress (LC) subject headings for the holidays

    Shopping malls -- Religious aspects
    Muzak (Trademark) -- Psychological aspects
    Advertising -- Toys
    Advertising -- Confectionery
    Christmas show windows
    Avarice in children
    Temper tantrums in children
    Department store Santas -- Protection
    Christmas on postage stamps
    Camels in art
    Jesus Christ -- Nativity -- Juvenile drama
    Sheep -- Behavior
    Christmas decorations -- Risk assessment
    English holly -- Handling -- Accidents
    Christmas tree ornaments -- Materials -- Brittleness
    Christmas lights -- Defects
    Candles in interior decoration -- Safety aspects
    Christmas trees -- Fires and fire prevention
    Interior decorators -- Wounds and injuries
    Reindeer -- Flight
    Santa Claus -- Career in aviation
    Sleighs -- Handling characteristics
    Near misses (Aeronautics)
    Chimneys -- Design and construction -- Safety aspects
    Chimneys -- Accidents
    Sleep disorders in children -- Risk factors
    Christmas stockings -- Evaluation
    Confectionery -- Materials -- Sampling
    Toys -- Materials -- Impact testing
    Blister packs -- Materials -- Acoustic properties
    Unparliamentary language
    Jealousy in children
    Impulse control disorders in children
    Gift wrapping -- Materials -- War use
    Stress (Psychology) -- Religious aspects
    Behavior disorders in children
    Children in public worship -- Prevention
    Brussels sprouts industry -- Seasonal variations
    Christmas cookery -- Health aspects
    Hanukkah cookery -- Fiction
    Abdominal pain in children -- Risk factors
    Crying in children
    Household animals -- Effects of stress on
    Chocolate -- Effects of high temperatures on
    Norway spruce -- Effects of drought on
    Rug cleaning
    Christmas television programmes -- Psychological aspects
    Hyperactivity in children
    Intergenerational conflict
    Violence in children
    Headache -- Psychosomatic aspects
    Dreidel (Game)
    Child behavior checklist
    Herod I, King of Judea, 73-4 B.C. -- Philosophy
    Alcohol -- Therapeutic use

    Thursday, December 24, 2009

    Happy winter holiday!

    I'm sending out best wishes to everyone, no matter which holidays you celebrate (or, as in my case, suffer through). A little gift, to you from me. This is one of my favorite winter stories, The Tomten, a traditional story adapted by Astrid Lindgren (yes, the Pippi author). It's a quiet little story, so watch the video when you need a few minutes of calm. Winters come and winters go...

    Merry and Happy to all!

    Monday, December 21, 2009

    Head over heels

    The New York Times Book Review brought up what I've been thinking about the picture book Birdie’s Big-Girl Shoes by Sujean Rim. It's the story of a little girl obsessed about high heels. She feels beautiful -- glamorous -- when she wears her mom's stilettos.

    "Will she grow up caring only about looks and equating maturity with the size of her shoe closet, or is this the kind of harmless fun with which only the Politically Correct Police could find fault?"

    Perhaps I'm part of the PC Police, but I wouldn't buy it for little girls I care about. Even though Birdie decides to revert to bare feet in the end, I'm not interested in perpetuating the idea that shoes that can cause bunions, back pain, shortened calf muscles and ankle sprains make women beautiful.

    Wednesday, December 16, 2009

    Invitation to lurkers

    Dear readers:

    Take a peek at the description of Swell Books in the yellow bar above. When I started this blog, I wanted it to be more of a conversation than a monologue. I was hoping for an exchange of ideas and opinions.

    With the exception of a few faithful commenters, most of you who stop by here seem to prefer to remain silent. Maybe that's because you're used to being readers -- with its usual implication that you don't get to talk back to the person doing the writing. But the whole point of social media is that it's two-way! You get to add to or disagree with what the author says. You can suggest topics, like Carri did on the previous post, or just react.

    Now, I've been a lurker lots of times. I've read some discussion boards regularly for years and only rarely left a comment. Because I'm basically a pretty private person. I don't always feel comfortable putting my opinions or ideas in public arenas. So I get it. I get why you may prefer to read without participating. And if you do, I'm still grateful that you're visiting the blog.

    But I'm hoping at least some of you will reconsider whether you have something to add to the discussions here. Can you think of an example of a trend I've noticed? Have you had a similar experience with the publishing industry? Do you have a different take on a book I've mentioned?

    I'm inviting you to join in.

    To make it easier, I've added two features to the blog. One is a poll in the column on the left. This week's question is "What's your favorite Christmas classic?" Click on your answer -- or post another title in the comments.

    You also now have the option to check a reaction to any post. See the boxes just below the post. The options -- they're generated by Blogger, not me -- are funny, interesting or cool. If those don't cover it for you, you can always... you guessed it ... write a comment!

    I look forward to hearing from you!

    NOTE: The poll is now closed. There were only 4 votes, including mine, so there really wasn't a result.

    Saturday, December 12, 2009

    Wandering the library

    I'm at a library waiting while Abbie is in Mandarin class, so I took some time to browse the picture books. Some random reactions:

    Will Hillenbrand's illustrations for Sleep, Big Bear, Sleep! are wonderful. There's something really captivating about a childlike bear. I also love Jez Alborough's bear from Where's My Teddy? I wonder what it is: the hope that all big, scary things have a soft side? the desire of a big person to still be a child?

    (Aside: I was somewhat gratified to see that Hillenbrand, who lives in Cincinnati, doesn't keep his website up to date. Because I like knowing that successful people fall down on the job sometimes too.)

    Another book whose illustrations I liked was The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau by Dan Yaccarino. Sort of retro in feel, but nice. Lots of information packed in, too.

    The Clever Stick by John Lechner is well done and has a good moral, but I guess what bothers me is the very fact that I think it has a moral. Perhaps a little too straightforward for my tastes. Interesting to compare it to the recent Not a Stick by Antoinette Porter and think about all the other picture books where a stick plays a major role: The Seeing Stick by Jane Yolen, Anansi and the Magic Stick by Eric Kimmel, The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats.

    A title I've seen mentioned a lot, partly because it was released about the same time as Maggie's Monkeys and both end up on lists of books about zoo animals (!), is Always Lots of Heinies at the Zoo by Ayun Halliday and illustrated by Dan Santat. Great title, great premise but I felt a little uneasy when it got into what various animals fattened their heinies on:
    "The panda's can is fattened on bamboo. The lioness's? On zebra and gnu."
    An unsuspecting parent could get drawn into a conversation he or she wasn't ready for with that one. Love the back cover illustration, though. After a discussion of how humans keep their heinies covered at the zoo, it shows the backside of a joyful-looking toddler in birthday suit.

    Wednesday, December 9, 2009

    Preying on my mind

    The immediacy and connectedness of the internet create some interesting dilemmas for writers. I follow a few editors' blogs and Twitter comments, which is great for helping me stay aware of what it's like on their end of the slush pile. They're also good reads -- it's no surprise that editors are good writers and interesting people.

    But it gets weird when I've actually submitted to one of those editors. Yesterday I got a request for a full manuscript from an editor I'd really love to work with, and later in the day saw a tweet from her about making a decision on a manuscript she thinks would sell but hasn't captured her heart.

    How I wanted to mention that tweet to her -- to encourage her to wait for something she falls in love with, whether it's my story or someone else's. But I think that would feel too weird and stalker-ish. I know editors view writers doing research into the market and publishing houses as a good thing, but how does it feel when we research them? They send blog posts and tweets out there into the world at large, so it's not exactly like pawing through their garbage. Is it?

    I suppose it's also possible that this editor could google me and find my blog -- this post, even -- so it could work both ways. Theoretically. Though an editor who tried to check out blogs for every writer who submitted to her would have no time for anything else.

    I think I'll err on the side of caution and not say anything. But I'm sending a message out into the ether: Please, all you wonderful editors who are deciding which books will end up in children's hands, follow your hearts.

    Monday, December 7, 2009

    The manuscript that came to dinner

    If you're interested in writing or selling picture books, check out the terrific post by Michael Stearns of Upstart Crow Literary. His description of what makes a successful picture book is right on target, though his assessment of why so many agents refuse to handle picture books is rather discouraging. Of what makes a picture book work, he says:
    It is about grace and the right words in the right place—much more akin to poetry than mere storytelling. The picture books I love are “language driven”—that is, are more about sound and rhythm and call-and-response than about, say, the devices of regular fiction—those things familiar from novels, such as extended scene and dialogue exchange and long descriptive passages. Picture book writing must be woefully dependent on the illustrations, else the manuscript is trying to do far too much, is the bore at the table who won’t let anyone else speak, won’t let the conversation come to life, and flattens the spirit of the evening.
    I'm going to use that image of a manuscript that tries too hard as "the bore at the table" to keep myself in check when I'm writing. Nobody wants their writing to sound like Monty Woolley.

    Sunday, December 6, 2009

    Leave the children out of this

    From Fox News:

    "Sarah Palin Stars as Heroine in New Children's Book

    The former vice presidential candidate is the subject of new book ' Help! Mom! Radicals Are Ruining My Country!'"

    I try not to pay too much attention to the radical right. But really.

    Wednesday, December 2, 2009

    Sylvester, put down that magic pebble!

    Nice guest post by author Bonny Becker (A Birthday for Bear, The Christmas Crocodile) at Maw Books on whether we've gone too far in sanitizing children's stories. This is a topic I've wrestled with often (as you may remember from this and that), as have most of the children's authors I know.

    Bonny cites one of my top all-time favorite children's books in her discussion, which is Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig. Could a story in which the child character disappears early on, leaving his parents grieving for much of the book, succeed today?

    One of the keys to many favorite stories is that the child is alone. Children love to explore ideas about what they could do if the limits of home and parents weren't there -- what kid could read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and not imagine living in the closest museum? But the reality that today's children are almost never outside the watchful eyes of some adult closes down a lot of story possibilities.

    Maybe that's why fantasy books have so much appeal right now. In those other worlds, children can be free. Which is easier for adults to take, with the children having magic powers and cloaks of invisibility and all.