Picture This! An informal discussion with Hervé Tullet and Mo Willems

 MANHATTAN (April 8, 2013) –

On Monday night, a mixed crowd of children, teachers, authors and illustrators attended an event organized by the French Embassy and held at the Books of Wonder children’s bookstore. The evening’s French representative was author-illustrator and Sorcières Prize winner Hervé Tullet, while America’s artist ambassador was three-time Caldecott winner Mo Willems. The men discussed how reading should be an interactive and fun experience for children.

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Mo Willems and Hervé Tullet spin yarns at Books of Wonder while Jennifer Brown moderates. (Photo courtesy of Judith Walker at the French Embassy)

This discussion is the first of the Embassy’s Picture This! series. The goal of these events is to bring French and American illustrators together to talk about their work.  Events will take place from April 9th through May 13th throughout Manhattan.(http://frenchculture.org/books/festivals/picture-this) 

Jennifer M. Brown, director of the Center for Children’s Literature at the Bank Street College of Education, moderated the discussion, which touched on topics such as reading as an interactive activity and the role of humor in children’s literature.  The illustrators’ responses were lively and informative. 

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Mr. Tullet said that he views his role as a social artist. He envisions children as his audience, but aspires to create an experience for two readers to share. The Game of Light illustrates interaction between reader and book. One participant holds a flashlight to illuminate the cutout images on a wall, while another reads the text, which acts as a catalyst for parents to create their own stories to accompany the shadows.

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Mr. Willems compared the experience of reader interaction to the inner workings of a symphony; the book is the score, the adult is the orchestra, and the child is the audience.  The author writes knowing that his books may a child’s best, or sometimes only, friend. To make his books accessible to children, Mr. Willems said he purposefully illustrates in such a way so that a five year old might be inspired to copy his work with success.

The evening concluded with an audience Q & A, then Mr. Tullet inscribed books for people who waited patiently on a line that snaked through the store.  

Great new board books for babies

More often that we’d like, books for babies have moveable parts that don’t stay attached. Sometimes they are so beautiful that you wouldn’t want to share them with tiny, nimble hands. Or perhaps the book is sturdy, but the content is flimsy. The following list meets the demanding criteria for the youngest readers, and the price points permit generous parents to purchase every one.

“Bizzy Bear Pirate Adventure,” by Benji Davies; Nosy Crow Press, $6.99, 10 pages, ages 0-3.

In this pirate adventure Bizzy Bear sails the seas in search of treasure and adventure. The sliders that move Bizzy and his friends are easy for little hands to manipulate, and the rhyming tale keeps a quick pace throughout. 

“Quick, Duck!” by Mary Murphy; Candlewick Press, $6.99, 10 pages, ages 0-3.

Welcome spring with this fun board book. In it, we meet an adorable duckling who scampers over rocks, around flowers, and through the mud to reach his family waiting in a nearby pond. Large, hand-lettered text accompanies bright and engaging ink and watercolor illustrations.

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“Little Bunny,” by Lauren Thompson, illustrated by John Butler; Simon & Schuster, $5.99, 30 pages, ages 0-3.  (Also available as an E-Book)

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“What will you do today?” asks Mama rabbit to her baby bunny. “Everything!” he replies and scampers off into the meadow in search of adventure and fun. Previously published as Wee Little Bunny, this sturdy board book will enchant readers with Butler’s cuddly and cute renderings of birds, butterflies, and of course, bunnies.


“Away We Go! A Shape-and-Seek Book,” by Chiêu Anh Urban; Scholastic Press, $6.99, 20 pages, ages 0-3. (Available June 2013)  

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The innovative die-cut images present shapes hidden inside brightly illustrated planes, submarines and hot-air balloons.  Children will adore tracing and identifying the cutout shapes. Author-illustrator Urban’s background as a graphic illustrator is put to excellent use in this boldly crafted and illustrated book. 

The Matchbox Diary

“The Matchbox Diary,” by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline; Candlewick Press, $16.99, 40 pages, ages 5-9. 

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MATCHBOX DIARYText copyright © 2013 by Paul Fleischman. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Bagram Ibatoulline. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Newbery Medal winner Paul Fleischman (Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices) and acclaimed illustrator Bagram Ibatoulline (Thumbelina; The Nightengale) have crafted a tale about an Italian immigrant’s journey to America that also incorporates a love of collecting.

The book begins with an elderly gentleman meeting his great-grand daughter. As a way to get to know each other, the man tells the girl to choose a book, antiques or other collectible, and he will share the story behind that item’s existence. Tucked away in the midst of these beloved curios, the child chooses a weathered cigar-box.  Much like  a Russian matryoshka, the box opens to reveal dozens of matchboxes.  They, in turn, hold a small souvenir – an olive pit, a fishbone, pieces of lead type – that recall pivotal moments in the man’s life.  This diary is full of tangible objects that recall memories from long ago, while also encouraging the two characters to get to know each other. 

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MATCHBOX DIARYText copyright © 2013 by Paul Fleischman. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Bagram Ibatoulline. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Using acrylic gouache, Ibatoulline creates an impeccable portrait of a collector’s controlled chaos, with old books, artwork, antique clocks and other bric-a-brac filling every shelf, corner and wall.  The images of the past are skillfully  rendered in black and white.

Told entirely through dialogue, The Matchbox Diary is an ode to collectors and diarists of all ages, and certainly stokes the flame of bibliomania. As the story concludes, the worldly grandfather offers this reflection, one that will no doubt resonate with the readers of this blog: “Books are like newspapers. They show you where you’ve been.” 

Alphabets, Pigs, and Irish Rabbits

This week we’re looking at a technical workbook from Princeton Architectural Press, persistent piglets who won’t go to sleep, and an Irish translation of a classic children’s book. 

“Draw Your Own Alphabets: Thirty Fonts to Scribble, Sketch, & Make your Own,” by Tony Seddon; Princeton Architectural Press, $19.95, 160 pages, ages 12-up.

(Available April 9, 2013)

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Draw Your Own Alphabets: Thirty Fonts to Scribble, Sketch, & Make your Own Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Princeton Architectural Press, NY.

This book takes the art of custom-drawn fonts, – lively, hand-drawn letters often perfected by middle school adepts – to an extraordinary level of sophistication. British graphic designer Tony Seddon opens the manual with a primer on the history of hand-lettering, including tips for perfecting one’s craft, the pros and cons of tracing, and understanding the basic structure of letterforms. Seddon teaches the proper techniques to create funky, personalized fonts in this very hands-on workbook.

The thirty alphabet fonts all are custom drawn by a team of young designers and illustrators who each reveal a little about themselves and the inspiration for their fonts. For example, artist Michelle Tilly discovered the origins for her “Spotty Fairground” font by observing antique signs on a Bristol pier.

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Draw Your Own Alphabets: Thirty Fonts to Scribble, Sketch, & Make your Own  Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Princeton Architectural Press, NY. 

There is a style here to suit any mood and personality, ranging from the Pacman-inspired “Butterman,” to “Topiary” where the letters resemble leafy bushes. My favorite font is the “Octobet.” This intricately detailed font is influenced by the Norse legend of the fearsome sea-monster, the Kraken.  

Seddon concludes with a useful section on how to use one’s fonts by digitizing them.  A glossary of terms as well as an anatomy of principal font features rounds out the book. This isn’t necessarily a book geared towards children, but placed in the right hands it would no doubt be lovingly received and perhaps nurture grains of artistic creativity.  A perceptive child might also enjoy reading the included designers’ biographies.

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Draw Your Own Alphabets: Thirty Fonts to Scribble, Sketch, & Make your Own  Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Princeton Architectural Press, NY. 


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Piggies in Pajamas, Reproducedby permission of the publisher, Simon & Schuster, NY.

“Piggies in Pajamas,” by Michelle Meadows, illustrated by Ard Hoyt; Simon & Schuster, $15.99, 32 pages, ages 3-5.

Michelle Meadows has brought back her adorably boisterous pig family, this time for a nocturnal escapade. In 2011’s Piggies in the Kitchen, the piglets took over the kitchen and surprised Mama with a birthday cake. In this latest installment, bedtime takes a back seat to navigating an ocean adventure, riding a train, and playing dress-up.  Each imaginative pursuit is a precarious one – they are supposed to be counting sheep, after all – and when they suspect Mama’s heading up the stairs, they dash to bed to avoid detection.  As with the Kitchen book, Meadows employs the same lively, catchy quatrain a-b-a-b pattern that younger readers will adore repeating.  “Piggies in pajamas/Scoot across the floor,/ Going for a train ride,/speeding past the door.” Ard Hoyt renders the plucky piglets in light watercolors that fully capture the spirit and excitement of the tale.  The high-octane energy level in this book may make it a difficult bedtime choice, but will be thoroughly enjoyed no matter when it’s read.  

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Piggies in Pajamas, Reproducedby permission of the publisher, Simon & Schuster, NY.



“Tomhais Méid Mo Ghrá Duit” (Guess How Much I Love You in Irish), by Sam McBratney, illustrated by Anita Jeram; Candlewick Press, $9.99, 32 pages, ages 3-7.

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While the classic tale of Little Nutbrown Hare and Big Nutbrown Hare is close to two decades old, this brand-new edition is just in time for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.  Both author Sam McBratney and illustrator Anita Jeram call Ireland home and pay tribute to their land and language with this Gaelic translation of their beloved story.  There’s no Irish-English glossary, nor is there a pronunciation guide, so intrepid readers may want to have the English version on hand, or visit one of the many Gaelic pronunciation guides available online.  (I found standingstones.com/gaelpron.html to be quite informative and straightforward.) 

The Olive Fairy Book

“The Olive Fairy Book,” by Andrew Lang, illustrated by Kate Baylay; The Folio Society, $84.95, 296 pages. 

 In late January, author Jane Yolen – considered by many to be the ‘Hans Christian Andersen’ of her generation  – spoke with me about the introduction she wrote to the Folio Society’s The Olive Fairy Book, a new edition of fairy tales originally published in 1907 by Scottish author Andrew Lang. We also talked about heroes, magic, and discovering hope through storytelling.image

THE OLIVE FAIRY BOOK Reproduced by permission of the publisher, The Folio Society, London. 

The Folio Society & Andrew Lang

There are twelve Fairy books, and the Olive Fairy is the eleventh in the series. As a child Yolen read many, if not all, of the Rainbow Fairy series. In the introduction to the Folio Society’s edition she highlights three of her favorite stories– ‘Jackal or Tiger,’ ‘Samba the Coward,’ and ‘Kupti and Imani.’

“I’m pretty sure I read them all as a child. I was one of those childhood readers who, once I found something that I loved, I would seek out everything that was related to it.”  The Olive Fairy Book includes all the elements necessary for riveting reading – heroic princes, wise fairies, talking animals, evil trolls, and witches. While being a prolific writer of children’s novels and poetry, Lang was recognized as a leading authority on world folklore and mythology.

Bound elegantly in olive green cloth, this edition of The Olive Fairy is itself a work of art, featuring an Art Deco frontispiece and bright gold illustrations by British artist Kate Baylay. Inside, readers will find more visual feasts– twelve full-color illustrations and thirteen black and white drawings.

Yolen discussed the era that inspired the artwork, and why it is wholly appropriate for this edition. “This book was published originally in 1907, which is when arts and crafts, art nouveau and art deco all come together.” 

Yet as beautiful as these pictures are, this edition is perhaps most appropriate for older readers.  “I think the pictures in this book are exquisite. But they’re also not for children. They’re very sexy, very dark; some are quite violent. It’s exquisite bookmaking and of course the Folio Society is known for that. And the price reflects that; it’s for collectors. You can get the edition in paperback for very little money, but the point of this kind of book is that it’s an art object.” If a collector wishes to acquire the entire Rainbow Fairy series, The Folio Society is issuing all twelve of the books, each similarly designed and illustrated by a contemporary artist. The Olive Fairy Book is the tenth to be published.

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THE OLIVE FAIRY BOOK Copyright © 2013 by Kate Baylay. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, The Folio Society, London. 

At least once a summer for the past twenty years Yolen has visited the gravesite of Andrew Lang in St. Andrews, Scotland, partly because his work played a significant role in her development as a writer. “He was one of the most important ones [to me.] And I happen to have a house there. When writers visit, I’ll take them to the grave. Or if I’m on my own I’ll go. It isn’t that I’m genuflecting at his grave, it just happens to be a lovely grave with a beautiful Celtic cross on it.”

In a classic example of serendipity, Yolen was unaware of the writer’s presence in the town before settling there with her late husband, David Stemple. “I didn’t even know about the connection when I first moved there. My husband was a professor of computer science, and took his second sabbatical at St. Andrews.” (Now she spends her summers there, and returns to her home in western Massachusetts each winter.) After some poking around, Yolen found a chapel with a plaque dedicated to Andrew Lang. “I discovered that Lang was buried on the cathedral grounds. It was a hunt.”

In November 2012, Yolen was the 22nd person and the first woman to deliver the annual Andrew Lang Lecture at the university, which was also celebrating the centennial of Lang’s death. “Every academic in Cambridge has lectured here. The month after I was born, in March 1939, an Oxford professor named J.R.R Tolkien gave the lecture, which became the iconic essay on fairy stories – and really changed my life as a writer.  So St. Andrews asked me, and I said, ‘How can I follow in these footsteps?’ As I said to the audience, ‘Here I am, walking in Tolkien’s shoes, who walked in Lang’s shoes – why not give me a ring and point me towards Modor?’”

           

Fairytales and Heroes

In her own work, Yolen crafts heroes – especially female ones – to whom young readers can relate.  She feels that everyone, at every age, searches for role models.  “I think we all look for heroes because we feel ourselves, non-heroic. Especially as a child, we think ‘How could I possibly be a hero?’ But even as an adult, we still think, ‘How could I possibly be a hero?’”

 Yolen eschews the typical hero stereotype for someone who demonstrates a greater definition of heroism.  She points to video game characters as an example of false heroes. “One of the problems I have with the huge emphasis in video games, now, is it’s like a shooting gallery. I look for stories about the quiet heroes, or the hero who said or did the right thing. I’m looking for stories where the hero is smart and learns along the way, and through their wits, skills, kindness and generosity, are the ones that win through. And they are heroes as much as anyone.” 

Yolen has published more than 300 books over the course of her thirty-year career, many of which include the types of heroes she feels are instrumental in developing young minds. These characters are found in works of science fiction, fantasy, children’s literature and poetry.  Yet she didn’t always write fiction; like her late father, Will Hyatt Yolen, Yolen started out as a journalist, but unlike her father, she didn’t quite have the knack for sticking to just the facts.  “It turns out I was a lousy journalist because I made stuff up. That’s when I first understood that I was probably a fiction writer.”

                

Storytelling across genres and cultures

Often, Yolen’s work in one genre influences another.  A speech she recently gave has inspired a new trio of poems. “I’m writing three poems that come from a speech I’m giving on landscapes. I wrote some little pieces to show how one could use landscape, and then out of those pieces I carved out what was essentially a poem. That kind of cross-fertilization is really exciting.”

Yolen brings the idea of cross-pollination back to fairy tales. “You see that influence in fairy tales, where one aspect of a fairy tale crosses over to another, or to another country, and is developed in a slightly different way. I can read a story by Andrew Lang, but I’ve read it in a slightly different version somewhere else. Fairy tales have to attend to the cultures that they are now in.”

Andrew and Leonora Lang discovered the content for their books in faraway cultures and shared these stories with their English-speaking readers, for whom this was likely their first exposure to such exotic stories and locales. For the Langs, presenting these tales to an Anglo audience also meant modifying them by taking out some of the violence and making them more educational. 

In The Olive Fairy Book, the Langs state upfront that they changed quite a bit because many of them were not originally intended for children. Yolen also discusses when changes in storytelling are subtler.

“We reclothe our stories to suit our audiences. “Once you have audience hanging on your words, you make changes. If you are telling a story to children, you might say, ‘I don’t want them to be up all night, I’ll take that part out.’ Or if you’re talking to your buddies at the pub, you’re going to stick in rougher, sexier elements, boasting elements.

              image©Jason Stemple

Storytelling and a Poem A Day

Part of the creative process involves reading everything aloud, especially work intended for children. “Poetry and picture books absolutely have to be read aloud,” Yolen said,  “because they’re going to be read aloud. I also read novels and speeches aloud.  They’re very musical, so aurality is very important to me.”

In 2010, Yolen started a project called “A Poem a Day,” in which she committed herself to writing one poem every day, in January 2013 she convinced subscribers to sign up for her daily verses. Now she has 150 subscribers who receive a daily poem in their inboxes. “I explain to them that many of these poems are never going to be in books – they’re not good enough – but, the more you write, the better you get.”

Subscribers pledge that at the end of each month they will either purchase or borrow one of Yolen’s books. She felt that the experiment has been successful thus far because the daily deadline forces her to write no matter what. Of course, sometimes life intervenes. “Some days I cheat and write three or four poems in case something comes up. For example, recently I wasn’t supposed to look at a computer screen due to eye surgery, so I had written a few poems ahead of time.”

College Life and Enlightenment

            Yolen graduated from Smith College in 1960 with an English degree and great promise.  (Full disclosure: I graduated from Smith in 2003.) She also received an acceptance letter from Wellesley, but she said the choice for Smith was easy. “I chose Smith mostly because people sang, they seemed to have a joy that was missing at Wellesley.”  Still, her first two years in Northampton were challenging. “I learned that I wasn’t the smartest girl on the block. That’s important to learn. When I got to Smith, I thought, ‘piece of cake,’ and turned out it wasn’t. I was probably, comfortably, in the upper 20 percent of the class, but that was by working really, really hard.” 

A poetry course she took with Pulitzer Prize-winner Anthony Hecht forever changed Yolen’s approach to writing and teaching. “I liked his poetry a lot. But he hated mine, and he absolutely tore apart everything I wrote in front of the class. I almost gave up writing.” Years later, while reading at a bookstore in upstate New York, the proprietor told her that her old poetry teacher had called to say he was sorry he couldn’t attend the reading, but wanted to let Yolen know that she had been the best student in her class. 

“I asked who that was, and the woman said, ‘Why Tony Hecht.’ That was his method – he was harder on the people he thought had promise. That forever changed how I treated people when I taught writing. If there was somebody who was that good, I would take them aside and say, ‘I want you to know that I think you are the best one in the class, so I am going to be rougher on you than anyone else, because you are the one who needs to learn the most. I can teach the others how to write. I am going to teach you how to write at your very best.’ But at least I gave them a heads-up.”

During her senior year, Yolen was wrestling with whether she should write a book of poetry or pursue the cum laude diploma, which would require writing an academic thesis.  Her advisor, professor William Van Voris (who would later become close friends with Yolen and her husband), offered sage advice.

“In those days in order to graduate with Latin honors, you had to write a thesis. Creative work didn’t count. (Now it does.) We were sitting in a coffee shop on Green Street, and he said, ‘Don’t you understand what academics do all the time? We try to understand and teach the sort of thing that you write!’ I said, ‘Ok, I’m going to write the book of poetry.’

In 2003 Yolen was awarded the Smith Medal and an honorary degree. “It all finally came around – because of that choice that Bill van Voris helped me make. I remember being at a dinner party at his house, and David and I were the only non-English department people there, and everybody around the circle was talking about the mystery novel that they were trying to write, and could I give them any points? So it totally validated everything that Bill had said.”

Over a century ago the Langs brought magic to children through The Rainbow Fairy series, and today Jane Yolen continues the tradition of crafting enchanted worlds for readers to enjoy. We part then, with prudent words from Andrew Lang from his preface to The Olive Fairy Book: “It is my wish that children should be allowed to choose their own books.  Let their friends give them money and turn them loose in the book shops!”