Final Installment–Q&A with Jim Arnosky

In this last chapter of our conversation with Jim Arnosky, we talk about the author’s favorite animals, Frozen Wild, climate change, and giving nature a chance. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this series. It was a great pleasure to speak with Arnosky, and I hope his words provide value to budding artists everywhere. 

Basbanes: Your most recent book, Frozen Wild, explores what winter is throughout the globe. Did you travel into the winter landscapes? 

image

Arnosky: Well, I couldn’t get to the Antarctic and couldn’t get to the Arctic. My concern wasn’t that yet another writer would go to the Arctic and see it and then turn around and tell us what’s there. My concern was, do children even know what this place is, or where it is? The biggest, most important thing I could tell children was that the Arctic is an ocean for the most part, with the North Pole is in the frozen center of it, and that Antarctic is a continent.

B: And that there are animals at either end.

A: That ‘s right. In the Antarctic you have the shoreline of this massive frozen continent, and in the Arctic you have this beautiful, incredible north country, all the way around the ocean up there. You also have the ocean in the Arctic, which has lots of animals in it. Whereas the heart of Antarctica is desolate. It’s so cold and it’s so uninhabitable—it’s an entirely different place, not just upside down Arctic.

I think children have to understand why we have winter–because of the tilt of our axis. What makes winter where you live? What makes winter where somebody in Argentina lives? When winter happens, what survives it? What’s under that ice? So you have all these different layers of one subject that I wanted to try and get in the book. I started at my home, and went out as far as I could go, and then came right back to my farm, my home, and my winter. I wanted to explain winter and cold weather to children, and how remarkable it is that animals can survive in these changes—you know, without having the benefit of heated homes or clothing like we have.

B: Well, some do, like the beaver, I had no idea they stay warm by building lodges.

image

An active beaver lodge in winter. Public domain image 

A: Yes, they have a chimney in the thing because they don’t put mud around the top, so it’s just wood piled on wood from the center, but the beavers pack mud around the wood so that the air can’t get out. However, the air can go straight up. And when the temperature dips to ten below, which we get a lot of back here in northern Vermont, you can actually see the steam, the body heat coming out of the top of the beaver lodges.

When I wanted to sketch a beaver lodge in winter, I had to snowshoe down to it. Perhaps this was foolish, but when I got to the pond, I expected that the ice would be thick. As I snowshoed across the pond, the ice broke, and I fell in. I was lucky in the sense that I had always used this certain kind of a hitch—it’s a figure-eight hitch on my snowshoes rather than buckles. If those shoes had been buckled to my feet I would have drowned, but with mine, a circular turn of the foot releases you from the shoe. So I lived. This is all part of the experience of creating a story, and in my field as a naturalist, it’s doubly important to go out into nature and observe it firsthand.

B: You don’t mention climate change or global warming in the text, but you do cite quite a few books about it in your notes. Is that a conversation you think  children should be having? You don’t want to scare kids, but is a topic children should at least be aware of?

A: Well, unfortunately I think that global warming is a subject that remains misunderstood because a lot of people respond to it by things they see on television.

B: And it gets very political.

A: And politics boggles it all up in people’s minds. I’ve been asked twice to write a book about global warming, and in both cases I said no. You have to write about global warming properly. You have to write about what happens to our northern oceans and southern oceans when freshwater mixes with salt water in too large a quantity. You have to talk about whether or not people or animals are in danger in by it, because in some cases, the animals just simply migrate someplace else. You have to talk about whether or not we think animals like polar bears might move a little further south eventually, at least those that survive. We don’t know a lot about it. And I thought that’s an awful lot for me to squeeze into thirty-two pages of a picture book, when I’m just trying to tell children what winter is. This is a book about what we already know about, and that was my goal—to write a book about what makes it cold outside, and how the animals survive in that cold. So I thought talking about climate change in the middle of the book would throw the whole thrust off, which I explained to my editor. And she suggested I write about it in an author’s note at the end.

B: Do you have a favorite animal? 

image

Wood duck image source: Wikimedia Commons.

A: I’ll always love wood ducks. I’ve painted them, and I’ve drawn them, but it’s never as beautiful as the actual wood duck. I can’t duplicate what nature has done. They have a plume behind their head, they have a multi-colored bill. There’s an iridescence to them. They can look black, green, very much like a mallard in that case, then they’re almost like the harlequin duck. Yet, when you see them in their habitat, they blend perfectly! The wood duck was on the verge of extinction because of its beauty. It made a wonderful mount for duck hunters. It came back because people kept private flocks of them on their property.  Their wings were clipped so they couldn’t fly away. And yet, some must not have been clipped right, because some of the wood ducks flew away, and they ended up repopulating their entire range.

There are lots of animal stories like that–crocodiles, beavers, deer. Anytime you give an animal a chance to rebound, they will, and in a big way.

Winter Sparks

©2015 Deirdre Gill

Outside, by Deirdre Gill; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99, 40 pages, ages 2-5.

What’s a boy to do when his older brother won’t join him in wintery fun outdoors? In author-illustrator Deirdre Gill’s charming picture book debut, the child ventures out alone, and builds a grand, icy fantasy world. After constructing a castle, a gentle snowman and a fire-breathing dragon, he embarks on wondrous imaginary adventures. Gill’s large oils on paper are inviting and, despite large swaths of snow covering most pages, warm. The text is minimal, but sonorous and spare enough for young readers to follow along with ease, and adult readers may notice the subtle homage to Ezra Jack Keats 1962 Caldecott winner The Snowy Day. The plucky protagonist’s imagination will likely provide inspiration to readers who find themselves staring out their own windows this winter, wondering what happens when they take that first step.

image©2011 Karina Schaapman, photo by Ton Bouwer. Reproduced with permission from Dial Books.

The Mouse Mansion, written and created by Karina Schaapman, photographed by Ton Bouwer; Dial Books, $18.99, 60 pages ages 5-8.

Usually when there’s a mouse in the house, the human inhabitants run for the hills. Here, debut children’s book author Karina Schaapman created a home just for those furry creatures. Her six foot wide, ten feet tall, hundred-room mouse mansion is made of cardboard boxes and paper mâché, and each room is filled with to the brim with all the trappings one would expect in a home – diapers and formula in the nursery, armoires overflowing with tiny undergarments, bookshelves bursting with miniature versions of Charlotte’s Web and Winnie the Pooh. The carefully shot photographs are by Ton Bouwer, and the folio-size pages allow for careful examination of each object.

This mansion isn’t for ritzy city murines; it gives off a warm, nubby, cozy feel, and the accoutrements appear pulled from a romp through an attic that hasn’t been touched since 1970. Families of gray and white cloth mice live here, and two young friends, Sam and Julia, scamper from room to room in search of adventure and fun.  There’s laundry to sort, a bakery to visit, and even a Friday night Sabbath to attend, complete with a tiny table covered by challah, candles and wine.  Schaapman’s detailed artwork is accompanied by thoughtful and informative text, and though the book clocks in at 60 pages, each chapter can easily be read as a unique tale. Pouring over the abundant detail on each page will captivate readers of all ages, and makes an excellent reading choice for snuggling up and spending a wintry afternoon with little readers.

Cat’s Meow

Banish the dog days of summer with these titles by two British author-illustrators that are just puurr-fect for summer road trips, bedtime, and anytime.

“Matilda’s Cat,” by Emily Gravett; Simon & Schuster, $16.99, 32 pages, ages 3-5. (June 2014)

Matilda’s cat doesn’t like tea parties, ghost stories, climbing trees, or drawing. Find out what the adorable creature does enjoy in this latest offering from our perennially favorite author and illustrator, Emily Gravett. (Previous titles include Again! and The Odd Egg.) Charming illustrations of an exuberant, cherubic little girl and her faithful feline are rendered in Gravett’s trademark pen and watercolor style.  Children will relish in the playful mischief to be discovered on each page. If you’re not sure which books to pack for summer traveling, do include this lighthearted, lovely ode to unrequited love– it’s a snappy read, and will not lose its charm after being in heavy rotation.

“Naughty Kitty,” by Adam Stower; Orchard Books, $16.99, 32 pages, ages 4-6. (May 2014)

Adam Stower follows up his popular Silly Doggy! with a case of mistaken identity. If somehow you miss the cover image of a skulking tiger, be sure to read the newspaper-styled endpapers which relate the critical backstory of a large cat  missing from the local zoo.

Meanwhile, little Lily desperately wants a dog, but receives a cat  instead. While the girl adores her wide-eyed kitty, she can’t understand how such a small creature manages to make major messes, some right under her nose. Lily blames the silently suffering kitty, while its larger, striped doppelganger runs amok on the property. Stower portrays all the characters – including the escaped predator – with wide eyes and humorous facial expressions, all done in watercolors.  Tongue in cheek humor and a happy ending will keep the whole family returning to   this book.

Non-Fiction Female Leaders! Miss Emily and Pure Grit, 5-4-2014.m4v

Non-Fiction Female Leaders! Miss Emily and Pure Grit, 5-4-2014.m4v

2014 Newbery and Caldecott Winners

The American Library Association announced the winners of the 2014 Newbery and Caldecott medals on Monday.   A panel of fifteen librarians from across the country gathered to honor the very best children’s books.  What distinguishes the two awards? The Newbery Medal goes to the author of “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”   The Caldecott recognizes an artist’s excellence in picture book illustration.  Here they are:

 “Flora and Ulysses: The Illustrated Series,by Kate DeCamillo, illustrated by K.G. Campbell; Candlewick Press, $17.99, 240 pages, ages 9-12.

In this adorable ode to superheroes, comic-book aficionado Flora sets on a series of adventures with a witty squirrel appropriately named Ulysses. DeCamillo’s humor (and wonderfully rich vocabulary) is perfectly matched by comic book artist’s K.G. Campbell’s black and white illustrations.  Readers will adore that this quirky action-packed novel matches a sensitive, sophisticated story.

 

Honor Books:

“Doll Bones,” by Holly Black; Margaret K. McElderry Books, $16.99, 256 pages, ages 10-14.

“The Year of Billy Miller,” by Kevin Henkes; Greenwillow Books, $16.99, 240 pages, ages 8-13.

“One Came Home,by Amy Timberlake; Alfred A. Knopf, $16.99, 272 pages, ages 9-13.

“Paperboy,by Vince Vawter; Delacorte Press, $16.99, 240 pages, ages 10-14.

Caldecott Medal Winner:

“Locomotive,” by Brian Floca; Atheneum Books for Young Readers, $17.99, 64 pages, ages 4-10. 

This year’s Caldecott winner is a picture book rich with sensory details about America’s first trans-continental railroad.  The rolling text mimics the turning of the wheels and the rumbling of the train down the track.  Sumptuous images will easily captivate young readers, despite the book’s length. 

 

Honor Books:

Journey,” by Aaron Becker; Candlewick Press, $15.99, 40 pages, ages 4-8.

“Flora and the Flamingo,” by Molly Idle; Chronicle Books, $16.99. 44 pages, ages 4-8.

“Mr. Wuffles!”  by David Wiesner; Clarion Books, $17.99, 32 pages, all ages.

Book Chat Part One with Leonard Marcus

Last week I had the opportunity to speak with Leonard Marcus, considered by many to be the leading authority on the history of children’s books in America. He has written dozens of books, from biographies to histories to collections of interviews with authors and illustrators. 

2013 has been busy for Mr. Marcus -he wrote an article about Maurice Sendak for the current issue of Fine Books & Collections Magazine , curated the current exhibit at the New York Public Library that’s dedicated to children’s books, and has a biography on Randolph Caldecott slated for publication next month. During our hour-long conversation we discussed these and other topics circulating in the children’s book world. Below is part one of our conversation.  

image

photo credit: Elena Seibert


What prompted you to put together this exhibit at the NYPL at this point in time?

The Library contacted me. They decided to do a show on children’s books because the last one they had done was in the 1980’s. A generation of children had come and gone, and the library felt that another exhibit was past due. 

I think the library has changed in many ways – and so have many other cultural institutions. There is a greater interest in making rare materials accessible to the public, not just in the literal sense of putting them on display, but presenting them in a way that’s less intimidating than in the past. 

I think of the Metropolitan Museum and the first time I went there as a teenager. There was this atmosphere of reverence, and that has since changed. All cultural institutions, as a matter of survival, I think, are making the public feel more welcome and relaxed in the presence of their treasures. So the hope for us was to put together an exhibit that gives people ways of connecting with the books in a meaningful way.

Have you noticed this trend of accessibility in other institutions where you’ve put on exhibits? 

Well, I’m very involved with the Eric Carle Museum- I’m on the board of trustees – and I think that having a museum dedicated to children’s books is a sign in itself of a break with tradition. In the past, museums would not have considered children’s book art worthy of exhibition. Certainly not anything contemporary – perhaps old Victorian books that had acquired a certain patina. The Carle is dedicated to contemporary art that, to some extent, presents itself as museum for people of all ages. It makes provisions for the very young who might want to sit on a bench and be read to, or go into a room and create their own art. That is indicative of a shift of how museums view themselves and their role in society. 

Does this also reflect a shift in the way parents read and share books with children?  

I think that parents today belong to the best-educated generation in the history of the world, so I think they are very book-conscious. They’re also more aware of how books are made and perhaps their children are as well. Now artists and writers and can be encountered at story hours, museums, bookstores. 

image

Some parents, I think, are eager to expose their children to a wide range of books, it’s a way of encouraging children in their own creativity. One of the hallmarks of Eric Carle, who works primarily in collage, is that he creates the kind of art children do when they are in preschool. One of the unspoken messages of Eric Carle’s art is that, his work is not too different from art that children might create on their own. 

That approach reminds me of what Mo Willems and Hervé Tullet spoke about during a recent talk at Books of Wonder in Manhattan

Mo Willems is all about making art that children can do themselves. It’s about demystification. I think that’s a really big theme in the museum world right now, and especially with my exhibit at the NYPL, the goal is to take things off the pedestal and to make people feel that, when we’re talking about culture, we’re talking about ownership, and that everyone can partake in it. 

image

Some books on display at the NYPL were quite scary – the Grimm books, for example – and some contemporary parents might say ‘I’m not going to read that to my child.’ Yet on the flip side, there exists a genre of violent vampire and zombie books that many parents share freely with their middle-years children. Do you notice any sort of disconnect, or are we watering down children’s literature? 

Well some are for it, some abhor it. One good thing about the present is that there is such a range of books available. On the one hand we have a deeper awareness of child psychology than was reflected in the books published for children one hundred years ago. Fifty years ago there was still a desire to shield children from the darker parts of life. Then there are people like Maurice Sendak who really brought a new and frank insight into the equation, which had an impact on books of all kinds.

On the other hand there are intense commercial pressures brought about by the fact that publishers have consolidated, as well as booksellers. There is a rush for the lowest common denominator – the least offensive book that will appeal to the greatest number of people.  So those pressures work against each other. Sometimes one wins out, sometimes the other does. I think that defines the current situation. I see a lot of very safe books, certainly when you look beyond the book world into the film world, such as with Disney, where the financial stakes are so much greater, to come up with something that’s palatable rather than emotionally satisfying. 


Parents must fit in here somewhere. 

I think parents need to know that it’s their responsibility and it can also be a great pleasure for parents to be involved in their children’s reading. There’s been some tendency to leave book choices to the experts, or alternatively to leave the child with a handheld device and then leave the room let the child to fend for himself or herself. That’s perhaps the worst of all choices, because, in my opinion, the book you choose matters, the experience you have of the book matters even more. And for a young child, that experience needs to include an adult who can mediate the story, and assessing it with a loving attachment.

You don’t sound like you are against the use of technology, rather in favor of its judicious employment.

I’m not against technology, but it’s no substitute for a parent. And in certain respects, paper books function more effectively than e-books do. I think that these are two art forms that are going to both develop and each will put pressure on the other to do better at what it can do best. A Kindle, for example, can’t change its format. Every picture book has to be exactly the same size to fit in the screen, and that is a real problem for creator of picture books, whereas the trim size and other physical aspects of the book have always been considered expressive elements. But that’s not to say that some brilliant person couldn’t take an e-book – which is really a form of animation – and do something on an aesthetic level that someone working in a picture book format could only dream of doing. 

 

I’d like to talk a little about your writing. You are a historian and a critic of children’s literature.. You wrote reviews for Parenting magazine for twenty-one years and write the “Sight Reading” column for Horn Book. Which came first, the historian or the critic? How and when did the two fields meet?

When I was a senior at Yale, I wrote my thesis on the history of American children’s books, but no one at Yale was studying this. The first two history professors I approached to be my advisors both said no because they saw no value in writing the history of children’s books.

But the third professor I approached said yes. It was David Brion Davis, a historian of slavery and western civilization. He told me that the South had, in part, justified slavery by speaking about the slaves as if they were a child-like people. The image of a child was used to manipulate as well as rationalize the public perception of slavery. 

I was also writing about images of childhood as they played out in books for children. In other words, what philosophies or religious ideas were being expressed in books for children; What assumptions were being made about childhood by the authors who were writing about children, and how these assumptions were being transferred to another generation. So Davis saw at least one thread connecting his work with what I wanted to do. He was wonderful to work with.

I was also interested in writing poetry, so I went to the Poetry Writer’s workshop in Iowa for two years. Soon enough I realized that I wouldn’t be able to make a career out of being a poet, so I came back to New York and did the next respectable thing, which was to get a job in publishing. By coincidence I landed at Dover publishing, which is a publishing house dedicated to reprints. One of their lines was a list of facsimile reprints of 18th and 19th century children’s books, often these books in original form were sought after by collectors. If someone couldn’t afford the original, they could purchase a facsimile from Dover.  Each book would include a historical essay about the book and where it fit into the history of things. My boss personally oversaw that list. I had landed in the office of someone who shared my interest in children’s books. When I left he gave me the position to write the historical essay for the next book due to come out. So that’s how I began to publish about the history of children’s books. 

Then, having always wanting to be a writer, I felt there was still a lot left to be said about the subject. When I discovered Goodnight Moon in a bookstore and I was the only one there who had heard of it, I decided it might be interesting to write a biography of the author of that book.  I felt that this was a work of poetry, so writing about Margaret Wise Brown combined my interests in poetry, biographies as a genre, and poetry in one fell swoop.  It took me ten years to write that book, and in the process I learned about writing biographies and met writers, illustrators, editors, publishers who had been around during the golden age of children’s book publishing in the 1930’s and 40’s, when Brown published Goodnight Moon.

So I started with that book.  Then, Brown’s editor at Harper allowed me to go through her files, and while there I also saw what a great letter-writer Brown was, which led me to publish a volume of her letters called Dear Genius

image


Check back soon for Part Two!