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)


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.


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.


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


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.  


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.


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 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.


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!” 

Reading through Nemo

February may be a short month, but it’s full of celebrations, and our selections aim to recognize those themes through vibrant illustrations, witty stories, and tales of strength and valor. No books about blizzards though – we’ve set our sights squarely on spring. 

“The Black Rabbit,” by Phillipa Leathers; Candlewick Press, $12.99, 40 pages ages 3-5.


In this debut picture book by author-illustrator Philippa Leathers, an endearing white rabbit is perplexed by the looming presence of a fearsome black rabbit.  Over the hills and through the river runs this plucky little bunny, hoping to lose his unwelcome visitor. Eventually our fluffy hero manages to outmaneuver the bothersome, unresponsive creature, only to be visited by a more sinister threat to his existence.  This tale is adventurous and at one point, slightly upsetting (towards the climax it appears the rabbit is in jeopardy of becoming lunch). It bounds to life through Leathers’ bright watercolor and ink illustrations.  Rabbit’s large eyes and cherry-red cheeks evoke a beloved stuffed animal in this tale of shadows, friends and foes.  Young readers will delight in knowing that the Black Rabbit is not what Rabbit believes it to be, and will relish discovering if Rabbit actually outwits his shadow.


THE BLACK RABBIT. Copyright © 2013 by Philippa Leathers. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

The Very Fairy Princess Follows Her Heart,” by Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton; Little, Brown and Company, $16.99, 32 pages, ages 4-6.


The bestselling mother-daughter duo of Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton are back with another exciting Gerry adventure. This time Gerry celebrates Valentine’s Day in a very special way, one that will no doubt captivate readers both young and old. The charming tiara-wearing heroine has spent the weeks leading up to the holiday personalizing cards for her friends and family, but a last-minute mix-up threatens to put her celebration in jeopardy.  Gerry leaps off the page in bright and cheerful ink and color pencil illustrations by critically acclaimed Paris-based illustrator Christine Davenier. 

“Courage Has No Color, The Story of the Triple Nickles: America’s First Black Paratroopers,” by Tayna Lee Stone, $24.99, 147 pages, ages 10 and up.


The author of Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream spent seven years painstakingly exploring this unfamiliar account of the first Black paratroopers in America.  Her dedication is evident through these incredible stories that make this book a must-have for any World War II aficionado. The narrative explores segregation within the military, then and illustrates the creation and implementation of the 555th Parachute Infantry Division, nicknamed the Triple Nickels Unit. No detail is too small for Stone, who explains the origin of that nickname. It comes from the 92nd Infantry Division, an African-American unit dating back to the Civil War and also known as the Buffalo Soldiers. Many of the paratroopers originated with the 92nd and took up the name “Triple Nickles”  since, at that time, nickels still bore an image of a buffalo.  More such stories – plus many previously unpublished photographs of black units – document and honor those men whose contribution went largely unrecognized until now.


COURAGE HAS NO COLORText copyright © 2013 by Tanya Lee Stone. Photos Courtesy of the 82nd Airborne Division Museum, Ft. Bragg, North Carolina and © Bettmann/Corbis. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Julia Pimsleur-Levine

Interview with Julia Pimsleur-Levine, CEO of Little Pim

            Julia Pimsleur-Levine, founder and CEO of the Little Pim language program, spoke to me from her Manhattan office about her business, love of languages, and being a ‘mompreneur.’ 


photo credit: Jean-Luc Mege


          Pimsleur-Levine considers herself part of a growing group of female CEOs and business-owners who actively and successfully balance work and home commitments.  She considers ‘mompreneurs’ essential innovators in the marketplace.  “It’s a fabulous term. There’s a growing group of women who look out into the marketplace and see there’s something lacking for their own children and then they go out and create it.” The realization came quickly that she would have to create her own language program after searching for an effective and entertaining way to teach her firstborn son French. The search was fruitless – there was nothing on the market that catered to the youngest demographic. “I created Little Pim for my oldest child. I think – like many women – I sat there for a few months and said, ‘Gee someone should really make something for parents who want their children to learn a foreign language.’ Then I realized that someone should be me.”    

           Pimsleur-Levine began developing the Little Pim program in 2007 while her son was a toddler. She recalled how the harshest critics are often those still in diapers.  “Toddlers are your most unforgiving audience because if they don’t like something they just stand up and walk away.” This proved to be constructive feedback for her. Pimsleur-Levine worked with award-winning animators, language advisors and neuroscientists to create the language-learning program. “We made sure that we created something that was as engaging and entertaining as it was as educationally sound,” said Pimsleur-Levine.  “Both those pieces were really important to me.” The Little Pim franchise is now in its fourth year of sales and offers twelve languages ranging from French to Arabic to Chinese. 

Pim the Panda

            At the core of the program is an adorable panda named Little Pim who acts as the friendly and engaging catalyst for language acquisition.  How did Pimsleur-Levine choose this animal? “Well, I have to credit my mother for that. She came up with the idea for a panda. It was a much less popular animal at the time. Now you see pandas everywhere.  But it was a little more rare then. And we liked that babies see black and white better than color at first. Since pandas are from China, we knew that children would be inquisitive about the origins of the panda. That way they’re already learning about another language and country.”  Each DVD is centered around a theme such as eating, playtime, and sleeping, and each video is broken down into five-minute segments to accommodate the attention span of babies and toddlers.  The program’s success can be measured in the accolades it has received from parents as well as educational organizations – Little Pim has won twenty-five awards over the past four years. Looking to the future, Pimsleur-Levine plans to transition the program to exclusive digital content, creating digital downloads of all the language programs and offering e-books that currently accompany the videos in traditional book format. 

Baptême du feu

            Born in New York, Pimsleur-Levine’s family moved to Paris when she was six. Her father, Dr. Paul Pimsleur, had been invited to the Sorbonne to share his successful audio-based language learning method.  Ms. Pimsleur-Levine and her brother arrived in Paris not knowing how to speak French.  Yet two months after enrolling in the local public school the children were fluent.  Being the only Americans in the school was a culture shock, as Pimsleur-Levine recalled those early days.  “It wasn’t an easy experience. The other schoolchildren had never met Americans before, so we were like objects of curiosity. While I complained bitterly about it at the time, I now feel grateful for the gift that my parents gave me. Now that I’m a parent I see many moments like that.”

            Complete cultural immersion imparted Pimsleur-Levine with a lifelong love of all things Francophone.  She even moved back to Paris after graduating from Yale to pursue a career in filmmaking. Pimsleur-Levine credits fluency in French as a major advantage to this stage in her career. “I love languages – especially French, and as soon as I graduated from Yale I moved to Paris. I lived there for seven years and went to the French National Film school and got my MFA there.  It was a huge advantage to already be bilingual.” As a filmmaker Pimsleur-Levine made documentaries that would eventually be broadcast on HBO and PBS. 

Tricks of the Trade

            Parents who don’t speak another language can help their children learn a second language using the Little Pim language method. Pimsleur-Levine uses Chinese as an example. “I think we’ve hit a cord because there are so many non-Chinese speaking parents who want their children to become familiar with the language. One of our core principles at Little Pim is that we want all of our products to be accessible to parents who don’t speak the language.  And so that’s where we’ve really filled the niche.” Often, learning a second language intimidates parents, and Little Pim’s goal is to allay some of that anxiety.  “Parents often don’t know where to start, and they find our product, which presents the language to their kids with a perfect accent.  We’ve made it very easy and you don’t have to be Chinese to offer this to your children.”

            For parents concerned that their children may not use the language, Pimsleur-Levine offers sage advice.  "You often have a higher degree of receptive comprehension rather than expressive ability. Meaning they understand a lot more than they speak.“ While at first a child may not seem to be learning a language, there is solace in knowing that offering language instruction to young children is a great gift. "The way I see it, we’re giving them a solid foundation, but children don’t yet see all the advantages of speaking a second language.  That comes later when they travel to another country or when they have their first cognitive experience using the language. I think more kids step up speaking when they have that base.”  








Book Launch at Jill Newhouse Gallery

MANHATTAN, Friday January 18 —

Last night, despite the plummeting temperatures, I attended a launch for a book of poetry called The Living and the Dead, written by Mario Luzi. Dana Gioia, himself a poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, translated this edition. The line drawings were rendered by internationally acclaimed artist Fulvio Testa. Both men were there to discuss the book, their inspiration, and even read a poem to the crowd. Also present was Michael Peich, founder of the Aralia Press, which published the book.  Two editions were available for purchase, one regular edition bound in red cloth boards and printed on Zerkall paper, and another deluxe edition on handmade Tovil paper, with hand-colored drawings by Testa and quarter-bound in leather. The Jill Newhouse Gallery was a warm venue, and many thanks to Gallery Director Christa Savino who explained to me the gallery’s display of Master Drawings. Beautiful books, art, and lively company were a wonderful remedy to melt away winter’s icy grip. 

Midweek gem

“Unspoken; A Story from the Underground Railroad,” by Henry Cole, Scholastic Press, 40 pages, $16.99 ages 4 and up.


Sometimes the most profound stories are wordless. Here, author-illustrator (and former schoolteacher) Henry Cole renders a tense and moving tale of the Underground Railroad with full-page graphite on charcoal paper illustrations. The weighty, sepia toned palette indicate that this story will challenge young readers’ understanding of right and wrong.  In a barn on her family farm, a young girl discovers a runaway slave.  Despite the presence of bounty hunters, she chooses to help this person find freedom.  The reader never sees the runaway; rather we see the slave as the girl does – as a wary eye peering out of a bushel of corn.  (There are hints in the images that the stranger may be a child.) In the end notes, we learn that the inspiration for this tale came from family members who told Civil War stories around the dinner table at the Cole dairy farm in Purcellville, Virginia. Unspoken will generate valuable discussion and interest about compassion under pressure while showing that courage is never limited by age, gender or race.