Happy Multicultural Children’s Book Day! #readyourworld Book Reviews

Happy Multicultural Children’s Book Day!

Children’s reading and play advocates Valarie Budayr from Jump Into a Book and Mia Wenjen from Pragmatic Mom teamed up in late 2013 to create an ambitious (and much needed) national event. Today, January 27th, 2015, they are hosting yet another Multicultural Children’s Book Day as a way of celebrating diversity in children’s books.

While #weneeddiversebooks focusses on changing the face of children’s literature by encouraging writers and illustrators from a variety of backgrounds to submit their work and urging changes in the publishing industry, #readyourworld seeks to get multicultural books into classrooms and libraries.

Despite census data that shows 37% of the US population consists of people of color, only 10% of children’s books published have diversity content. Using the Multicultural Children’s Book Day, Mia and Valarie are on a mission to change all of that. Their mission is to not only raise awareness for the kid’s books that celebrate diversity, but to get more of these types of books into classrooms and libraries. Another goal of this exciting event is create a compilation of books and favorite reads that will provide not only a new reading list for the winter, but also a way to expose brilliant books to families, teachers, and libraries.

Here are some ways you can celebrate Multicultural Children’s Book Day:

  • Visit The Multicultural Children’s Book Day website and view the booklists, reading resources and other useful multicultural information.
  • Visit the Multicultural Books for Kids Pinterest Board for more reading ideas.
  • Have children bring in their favorite multicultural book to school on this day and all this week and share it with the class.
  • Watch for the #ReadYourWorld hashtag on social media and share.
  • Visit MCCBD sponsors Wisdom Tales Press, Satya House Publications, DARIA (World Music with DARIA, Rainbow Books and others to discover new books to read.
  • Create a Multicultural Children’s Book Day display around the classroom or library.
  • Visit The Multicultural Children’s Book Day website on January 27th to view and participate in our huge blogger link-up, multicultural book reviews, giveaways and more!

MCCBD team hopes to spread the word and raise awareness about the importance of diversity in children’s literature. Our young readers need to see themselves within the pages of a book and experience other cultures, languages, traditions and religions within the pages of a book. We encourage readers, parents, teachers, caregivers and librarians to follow along the fun book reviews, author visits, event details, a multicultural children’s book linky and via our hashtag (#ReadYourWorld) on Twitter and other social media.

Today, I’m happy to share with you three of my favorite multicultural picture books to read and share.

First up, the Ezra Jack Keats Award winning, YESTERDAY I HAD THE BLUES by Jeron Ashford Frame, illustrations by R. Gregory Christie (Tricycle Press, 2003). A boy starts by exploring his “deep down in my shoes blues, the go away, Mr. Sun, quit smilin’ at me blues,” and goes on to explore other feelings as they relate to colors. His Daddy has the grays, his friend Sasha has the pinks, Talia has the Indigos, Gram the yellows and Mama the red. The author uses a jazzy string of strong and active nouns and verbs to describe each feeling and color. “Sasha says she got the pinks. The shiny tights, ballet after school, glitter on her cheeks pinks.” Jeron Ashford Frame’s poetry is toe tapping and R. Gregory Christie’s illustrations, while uniquely his, reminds me of Romare Bearden and William H. Johnson.

Next, OUT OF THE WAY! OUT OF THE WAY (Tulika Publishers, 2010, Groundwood Books, 2012), words by Uma Krishnaswami and pictures by Uma Krishnaswamy. One day, a boy finds a baby tree on a well worn path. He protects it with rocks and the path and people curve to avoid it: the bullock-cart man, the bicycles, people and animal feet. As the tree grows and spreads wider above creating a home for birds and small animals, the traffic and the town below it grows too. Krishnaswami captures the constant movement of people, carts, tires with the phrase “here to there and back again.” Soon the path is a lane and then a paved road. Krishnaswami is a master of refrain with her “Out of the way!” phrase.  The illustrator, Krishnaswamy, gives us a glimpse into the bustle of Indian culture with a lovely combination of line work and bright color.

I love this book as a multicultural substitute for that other tree book. (You know the one with the tree who tells the boy to go ahead and cut it down for his own purposes.) This one respects the interaction and connection between tree and human. It suggests that while humans grow and need, they can give space and respect to each other and to nature.

Set in old Peking, THE ELEPHANT’S PILLOW (Frances Lincoln, 2003) by Diana R. Roome and illustrator Jude Daly, tells the story of a spoiled merchant’s son named Sing Lo. Never satisfied with what he has, Sing Lo asks his rickshaw man, “What is the greatest sight of all?” Thus begins Sing Lo’s quest to see the Emperor’s elephant and to cheer him up. In the process, Sing Lo must rise to various challenges (through three tries) and transforms into the hero we knew he could be. The illustrations find their roots in the triptychs of Asian scrolls with saturated reds, blues, and oranges offset by pale yellows. It is a wonderful read aloud that is sweet and relatable. In the end, the elephant behaves much like a content puppy when it wants to be rubbed behind the ear.

You can bring books like these to children who need them by donating to First Book! 

Through First Book, MCCBD is having a virtual book drive.

A special thank you to the Children’s Book Council (CBC) for their support with Multicultural Children’s Book Day (MCCBD)!

Platinum Sponsors: Wisdom Tales Press, Daybreak Press Global Bookshop, Gold SponsorsSatya House,  MulticulturalKids.com,   Author Stephen Hodges and the Magic Poof, Silver Sponsors: Junior Library GuildCapstone Publishing, Lee and Low Books,  The Omnibus Publishing. Bronze Sponsors:Double Dutch Dolls, Bliss Group Books, Snuggle with Picture Books Publishing,  Rainbow Books,   Author FeliciaCapers,   Chronicle Books   Muslim Writers Publishing ,East West Discovery Press.

Our CoHosts: We have NINE amazing Co-Hosts. You can view them here.


This time of year I get a lot of requests for great gift suggestions for children’s and Young Adult books. The thing is, this year has been incredibly busy. My reading has included more nonfiction, personal, and adult titles (read: self-help) and my reviewing ground to a sad halt around Valentine’s Day of 2014. However, there is no need to despair. Below please find a round up of some of the best lists for children’s book in the #kidlitosphere and beyond! (If you have a favorite list that I don’t mention here, please note it in the comments.)

#weneeddiversebooks: Find a plethora of postings about books with diverse characters from characters of color, to those facing disabilities, to characters who are questioning or identify as part of the GLBTQ community.

The Brown Bookshelf: is always my go-to website when I’m looking for books with characters of color. Thanks to Don Tate and others for keeping this blog current and relevant!

Pragmatic Mom: Mia Wenjen is another amazing blogger with incredible multicultural lists. Don’t miss her list for children’s books that feature Asian Americans. She also has nonfiction, biography, and age specific lists.

Sporty Girl Books: Well of course I’m going to mention my group blog. This year, we are soliciting best sporty girl books of the year so add your own suggestions in the comments of yesterday’s post. We always have tabs on the blog menu for books that are age specific.

At Brain Pickings: Maria Popova has gathered a Best Children’s Books of 2014 that focuses on “Intelligent and imaginative tales of love, loneliness, loyalty, loss, friendship, and everything in between.” She has a very extensive post that shows interior illustrations and thoughtful commentary.

The National Book Award for Young People’s Literature: Gave us a long list, a short list, and a fabulous and lovely winner, Jacqueline Woodson for BROWN GIRL DREAMING. Take a look.

Stuff for the Teen Age: The New York Public Library has lists upon lists for teen readers and if you don’t trust the lions in Manhattan, who can you trust?

Bank Street College of Education: Also in New York, this well-known and trusted program posts a link to their BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR PDF. They also sort the books by age.

The New York Time’s Best Illustrated Books: Also and again from New York…read: maybe I should move to Brooklyn… School Library Journal is reblogging this list on their own site.

Buy Books for Black Friday: Ingrid Sundberg has a great post at INGRID’S NOTES that features a number of my good friends and fellow alumni from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fabulously written books. Enough said.

The ALSC List: The Association of Library Services to Children division of the American Library Association creates a list of Notable Titles each year. Award winners are in this list as well. Don’t miss the YALSA (young adult) titles or the Graphic Novels appropriate for teens either. Just be aware that these are chosen at the 2014 Midwinter (January) conference so they focus on books pubbed in 2013.

Whadya think? Enough? I’d love to see more graphic novel lists. If you have or love a “best of children’s and YA books of 2014” let me know.

Muslim Author’s Book Named Among ‘100 Greatest Children’s Books’ of the Last 100 Years by New York Public Library

I was so happy to see this wonderful news that I want to share it with all of you. Rukhsana Khan’s book BIG RED LOLLIPOP  is on the New York Public Library’s Children’s Books 2012: 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing list. She is the first Muslim author of Pakistani origin to be named on the list. Quoting directly from their press release, NYPL stated that all books on the list have “withstood the test of time at the New York Public Library or are on their way to becoming new classics.”

Ms. Khan receiving the Golden Kite Award. Photo from her website.

Rukhsana Khan is originally Pakistani and learned English as a second language. Her prolific writing and huge success has seen BIG RED LOLLIPOP scoop up a string of coveted awards. The book has been voted America’s ‘best picture book’ twice (The Charlotte Zolotow and the Golden Kite) – now, the New York Public Library has named it as one of the ‘100 greatest children’s books’ in the last 100 years. 


In BIG RED LOLLIPOP, Rubina has been invited to her first birthday party, and her mother, Ami, insists that she bring her little sister along. Rubina is mortified, but she can’t convince Ami that you just don’t bring your younger sister to your friend’s party. So both girls go, and not only does Sana demand to win every game, but after the party she steals Rubina’s prized party favor, a red lollipop. What’s a fed-up big sister to do?
Rukhsana Khan’s clever story and Sophie Blackall’s irresistible illustrations make for a powerful combination in this fresh and surprising picture book.

“…It’s an ending worthy of a novella, and once again signals that Khan is one of the most original voices working in picture books today.”
-Publisher’s Weekly Starred review of BIG RED LOLLIPOP

Learning English as a second language has been no bar to Rukhsana Khan’s success. Khan arrived in North America as a child from Pakistan and now, her writing career sees her visit over eighty schools a year across North America, make countless presentations and shatter cultural barriers through a string of awards.

As the author explains, her book is already beloved by many families around the world.

“It’s wonderful to see it listed alongside other classics such as ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ and ‘Charlotte’s Web’.” says Khan. “At a time when the world is becoming increasingly polarized, stories like ‘Big Red Lollipop’ tap into universal themes and are crucial to forging a smooth path toward the growing diversity of the North American landscape. As a practicing Muslim, the road hasn’t been easy. I have done my best to battle xenophobia and terrorist stereotypes with wit and humor. I have also worked diligently to create inroads to cross cultural dialogue and understanding.”

While this particular children’s book has helped Khan further build her name, she frequently tours the world to discuss her other works ranging from gritty teen novels on suicide, Afghanistan and issues of parental abandonment. 

“It’s not just about writing – but about sharing my work with others and using the stories to open up a series of vital dialogues. I’ve also recently launched a free literary resource for educators as part of my popular YouTube channel,” she adds.

With such a unique bibliography and passion for her work, interested readers are invited to visit Khan’s official website for more information: http://www.rukhsanakhan.com

I was lucky to see Rukhsana Khan accept her SCBWI 2011 Golden Kite Award at the New York SCBWI Conference for her book BIG RED LOLLIPOP. I’ve never seen an author as ebullient as Ms. Khan.  She told us the true story that inspired the book. Her love and joy were contagious. Congratulations to Ms. Khan and the others on the New York Public Library’s Children’s Books 2012: 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing list.


Member Monday: So others may read

Book worship is inherent in all of the posts here at Creative Chaos. The art and craft of the book as object is certainly part of this but more– it is about the unlimited possibilities and pleasure of reading. As many of my blog readers know, I’ve posted before about the  many children and adults around the world who struggle with illiteracy. However, we need not travel far from home to find people who are learning to read.

Very close to my heart and home, at my own Shepherd Elementary school in Northwest Washington, DC, my Mom and a group of volunteers are working with ESL and other early reading students three times a week to bring them one on one and small group read aloud experiences.

Bicentennial Anna. As a proficient reader, I was skipped to 1st grade when I turned six years old.

Because of ubiquitous budget cuts the Shepherd School library is no longer staffed and the books are outdated.  Today I’m calling on all authors and readers out there for book donations. Students in the program are African-American, Asian, Latino, and African and the organizers are especially interested in books that mirror this diversity.

If you have written a picture book or early reader and you are wondering what to do with your author copies, consider donating them to the Early Readers Program. If you are an MFA student at VCFA, Hamlin, Lesley, Simmons, or any other Children’s and Young Adult Writing/Literature programs, I know you have a shelves of books. Yes, some of them you will love and cherish forever, but some you could pass along to others. If you are just a reader. Just a reader? A wonderful, amazing reader… Please consider donating a book to:

Early Readers Program
1220 East West Highway, Apt 504
Silver Spring, MD 20910

Thanks to all and happy summer reading!

Book Review Wednesday: She Loved Baseball

Shop Indie Bookstores

The picture book biography is a great way to get kids interested in history. (Previous reviews of PB Biographies here and here.) A good PB biography author needs a hook– a place for a young reader to access the story. This entry point is often hard to find. Audrey Vernick found a great hook, a sister’s desire to play baseball with her brothers, in SHE LOVED BASEBALL: THE EFFA MANLEY STORY.

Effa’s principal discourages her from playing with her own brothers because their skin is dark and hers is light. This scene sets the reader up for the story of Effa’s tenacious resistance to the segregation and bigotry of 1930’s and 1940’s and her love of baseball.

Effa Manley became one of the great business women in the Negro League. She cared for her players in the Newark Eagles and was eventually respected by other owners in the league. Especially interesting to me was the fact that Negro League owners were not always paid for their contracted ball players when the players were finally accepted/hired by white teams. Effa changed that with a press campaign. Later, her letter writing campaign in the 1970’s to the National Baseball Hall of Fame started the induction of Negro League players. She was posthumously honored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame for her civil rights work and her work with the Negro Leagues.

Audrey Vernick’s text is well-suited to the picture book format. It is perfect for older elementary students researching on their own or for an adult read-aloud. The text and images are well-matched by illustrator Don Tate. Tate’s gestural figures and expressive faces pull in the reader into the historical period and the narrative.

Neither women’s history (March) or black history (February) need to be relegated to their  honorary months. SHE LOVED BASEBALL can be enjoyed year round.

Book Review Wednesday: Duck Sock Hop

There’s nothing I like better than getting a new book in the mail. Yesterday, I found this…

Shop Indie Bookstores

Dial Books For Young Readers (2012)
By: Jane Kohuth
Illu: Jane Porter

I loved it so much I had to write about it right away.

Jane Kohuth engages readers and listeners alike on a variety of levels. First we get the  rhythmic text about ducks who like to wear socks and dance, with playful, spot-on, finger- snapping, toe-tapping rhyme. On second look, the parent reader can point out a variety of concepts: shapes, colors, opposites (right/left, high/low) numbers “three ducks boogie, one duck rocks. Two ducks stop and trade their socks.”

The wonderful thing about this book is that it is a perfect example of how a picture books can include a plot arc with a conflict. (This is something that I often have to mention in editorial situations.) After the ducks boogie and rock, they dance holes in their socks. Kohuth gives enough fun-loving time at the beginning of the story for the readers to fall in love with, and really care for the ducks, so we really feel sad when the dancing is interrupted. The change of mood also adds much needed change-up to the rhyme and rhythm. The adult-reader gets a chance to involve the child listener, “What are the ducks going to do?” The solution– Band-Aids and snacks, make ducks infinitely relatable to the toddler set.

Debut illustrator Jane Porter places the brightly colored ducks on fields of white. In the following video she describes her process. She draws using india ink and often uses a stick as her drawing tool.  Readers of DUCK SOCK HOP can feel the dance-y movement in the gestural quality of her drawing. Next, she layers on color and texture digital. In this book, the duck feathers and the sock details both have a wonderful print feel.

Jane Porter Interview

If your kiddo liked…

Shop Indie Bookstores


Shop Indie Bookstores

They’ll love DUCK SOCK HOP!

Book Review Wednesday: At the bookfair.

Well friends, Creative Chaos finally broke the 100 views mark on Monday’s post, The Children’s Book Industry, a gendered affair.  Feel free to keep commenting there about your thoughts and ideas regarding the issue. It is obviously on the minds of many and also obvious that while valuing ourselves and our work is important, we can only go so far when limited by societal structures, budgetary constraints, and national policy that doesn’t support women, children, and families. Vote your interests.

TODAY… The Bookfair!

This week the Scholastic Bookfair visited my child’s elementary school and I volunteered. Yes, I know– therefore taking four hours away from my writing. However, I was able to watch kids and books and that is an eye-opening experience.

What they wanted:
It is true that many of them had five dollars or less and were gung ho to skip the books all together for a chance to purchase a pencil with the animal toppers that bug out their eyes when you squeeze. (huge hit) Diaries with locks for boys and girls also got a lot of touch time.

The money limit meant that they had to skip new releases. The big winners were mass market titles such as tie-in books Star Wars and anything lego was big with guys. Selina Gomez and iCarly, and Bad Kitty with girls. Ellen Miles has a series called Puppy Place that 2nd and 3rd grade girls tended to gravitate towards. The covers are super cute as was the book Little Pink Puppy about a piglet raised by a dachshund.

Shop Indie Bookstores

The Titanic was represented at the Fair but I didn’t see a lot of kids gravitate towards it.

I did get asked for the Hunger Games more than a handful of times but since this was an elementary fair it wasn’t present. Sort of surprised since Allie Condie’s, Matched series, Legend, and the Patterson Witch & Wizard books were all on hand. 

Overall, the kids were asking for adventure, and animals. Can’t be more succinct than that.

My favorites from the fair:

Shop Indie Bookstores

From Indiebound: Caroline lives on Meadowview Street. But where’s the meadow? Where’s the view? There’s nothing growing in her front yard except grass. Then she spots a flower and a butterfly and a bird and Caroline realizes that with her help, maybe Meadowview Street can have a meadow after all.

My take: On Meadowview Street, by Henry Cole, is a quiet picture book about the beauty around us when we appreciate nature and don’t try to control it. This PB was a bargain at $2.50 at the fair.

Shop Indie Bookstores

From Indiebound: Ivan is an easygoing gorilla. Living at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, he has grown accustomed to humans watching him through the glass walls of his domain. He rarely misses his life in the jungle. In fact, he hardly ever thinks about it at all.

Instead, Ivan thinks about TV shows he’s seen and about his friends Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog. But mostly Ivan thinks about art and how to capture the taste of a mango or the sound of leaves with color and a well-placed line.

Then he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from her family, and she makes Ivan see their home—and his own art—through new eyes. When Ruby arrives, change comes with her, and it’s up to Ivan to make it a change for the better.

Katherine Applegate blends humor and poignancy to create Ivan’s unforgettable first-person narration in a story of friendship, art, and hope.

My Take: The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate (yes the Animorphs author) is told from the point of view of Ivan, a silver back gorilla. This makes for a visually interesting book with short sentences and paragraphs. Readable and well-designed.

Shop Indie Bookstores

From Indiebound: A reality-bending adventure from a Newbery Honor-winning author. Siblings India, Finn, and Mouse are stunned when their mom tells them they are flying that night–without her–to their Uncle Red’s home in Colorado. But things take an even more dramatic turn when their plane lands in a very unusual place. A mysterious driver meets them at the airport; when he drops them off at their “destination,” each kid suddenly has a clock with a different amount of time left. If the time runs out, they have to become permanent citizens in a place they don’t recognize or understand. Only if they work together can they call the driver back to help get them where they really belong. Suspenseful, funny, dramatic, and thought-provoking, this is a book that will stay with you long after you read the incredible ending.

My Take: Gennifer Choldenko brought us AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS and its sequel AL CAPONE SHINES MY SHOES. My boys and I were riveted by her storytelling in those books. NO PASSENGERS BEYOND THIS POINT was on the Spring 2011 Indiebound NEXT list.

Enjoy your reading!

Book Review Wednesday: Mooshka, A Quilt Story


Say it aloud. 


In that one word Julie Paschkis has captured a hug, and a kiss, and the comfort of a sibling’s love. Mooshka is the name of the unusual quilt who belongs to Karla, a young girl and the main character in the vibrant and cozy book, Mooshka, A Quilt Story. 

Mooshka is infused with the stories Karla’s grandmother told while she sewed the quilt from scraps of cloth called “schnitz.” Mooshka tells these loving family stories to Karla. 

Pachkis surrounds her gentle story with boarders of “schnitz.” Decorative, geometric and organic patterns in saturated, true, primary hues, hug the text of the story just as Mooshka hugs Karla. Each hue: yellow, blue, red… tells Karla the story of its origin on a spread in the book revealing a bit of Karla’s family’s history. 

Images © Julie Paschkis, Peachtree Publishers

The text of this picture book holds its cozy feel until about two-thirds of the way in when Paschkis introduces Hannah, Karla’s baby sister. The author does not elaborate on how long the new baby has been around, instead she gets right to the point.

“One day a little white crib was moved into Karla’s room. Hannah was in the crib.”

The new crib and the crying baby sister silence Mooshka. It is up to Karla to solve this problem on her own. Paschkis shows Karla’s resentment and growth in simple language and spare text. The illustrations mirror this as they loose their decoration and become flat fields of deep blue. 

Images © Julie Paschkis, Peachtree Publishers

Mooshka, A Quilt Story, is part quiet tale for young children, part family history, part color concept book, and part sibling story- but it is all beautifully crafted. Coming to a bed-time near you on March 1st from Peachtree Publishers. 

Book Review Wednesday: One Cool Friend- One Cool Contest

Shop Indie Bookstores

One Cool Friend by Toni Buzzeo, Illustrations by David Small

Last August, I was privileged to attend the LA SCBWI conference. Privileged because I was in the company of my idols: Judy Blume, Donna Jo Napoli, Bruce Colville, Laurie Halse-Anderson, Denise Fleming, Richard Jesse Watson, and David Small to name a few. 

David Small is, of course, the acclaimed author/illustrator of the graphic memoir Stitches, and he is also one part of the brilliant team (with his wife Sarah Stewart) who brought children The Money Tree, The Gardner and The Library. In his breakout workshop, David was in the front of the room telling us about this amazing manuscript that fell into his lap written by a Maine author (my ears perked up) Toni Buzzeo (I gave a little scream). All heads swiveled my way. “Sorry,” I said. “She’s a friend of mine.” 

She is. And I was thrilled that I got a sneak peak at her wonderful new picture book, One Cool Friend.

One Cool Friend is about a very proper boy named Elliot whose eccentric, academic father takes him to the aquarium one day. Elliot falls in love with the penguins and tells his father he’d like to take one home. The odd father agrees, assuming the penguin Elliot wants is plush and stuffed. But it isn’t. That is- as they say- when hilarity ensues. 

To read this quick description of the book one might say, “This seems like a slight story line for a picture book. Where is the hook, that repeat readability that I always hear editors talk about.” If I told you that, I’d spoil the book. Suffice it to say, David’s illustrations work so seamlessly with the text and add so much to the story that the book is not only a serious “read it again-Mommy” candidate but also packed with humor and mystery. 

So as not to spoil the book, but to give you more information, I’ve invited Toni to answer a few questions about writing this book and writing in general:

Welcome Toni! I loved seeing David’s retro, limited color, illustrations in August. Now that I’ve read your book I can’t imagine the illustrations being conceived any other way. He told us that he hates illustrator notes but in your book there’s quite a lot of visual storytelling and humor through the illustrations that adds to the narrative. How do you trust and leave space for the illustrator but still get your story across with so few words?

When I was an aspiring picture book author, I learned, as most of us do, that it’s best to keep illustrator notes to a minimum, and I’ve generally heeded that advice.  After all, a professional illustrator will be bringing his or her own vision to the project and needs to have free rein for his or her creativity. If you take a look at my 15 published picture books, you’ll see that this has worked well for me. I’ve been wonderfully blessed with amazing illustrators!

Regarding illustrator notes, One Cool Friend was a slightly different case, however. As you note, the text is enormously spare and the humor and much of the plot is delivered through illustration, so I needed to provide many more illustration notes than the three or four I might usually supply. I did so with two thoughts in mind: 1) the notes should only provide “set-up” or stage directions, such as location or action and 2) the notes could be disregarded if my illustrator had a better vision! My text includes thirteen illustration notes, all of which give the illustrator a clue as to the set-up.

For example:

  • [Illustration note: Poster on the wall with a very formal portrait of Ferdinand Magellan, discoverer of the Magellanic penguin, and information about the penguins.]
  • [Illustration note: Dad still sitting on the bench]
  • [Illustration note: Elliot’s father glances at the gift shop display]
  • [Illustration note: Icicles forming across the room]

David used some and provided his own vision in other cases (each time, in a much funnier manner than my idea).

When I saw the initial sketches, I expected to be delighted—and I was. In fact, I was astonished at the over-the-top humor David brought to my story with his graphic style and spare use of color. And those speech bubbles embedded in the text! A stroke of pure genious.

Many picture books use a pattern where the main character tries three times to achieve a goal and fails, then succeeds in the end. In your book, Elliot doesn’t really try to hide his penguin from his father. Elliot’s goal seems to be to make his penguin comfortable which he does in multiple ways. Still, the reader gets a sense of mystery through the vague and disjointed interactions between father and son. Can you tell us a little about the initial seed for this type of structure?

As a former writing teacher and elementary school librarian, I love to analyze structure and pattern in picture books and I DO think about structure choice as I write my own books. I keep a list of common patterns in mind, including:

  • Pattern of three (both try-fail, try-fail, try-succeed, and try-fail, try-fail, try-fail, succeed)
  • Circle story
  • Frame story
  • Cumulative story
  • Chronological (including day–>night, seasonal, etc) story
  • Concept (including alphabetical, counting, etc.) book
  • Flip book

But this story was different. It’s based on an urban legend about a boy stealing a penguin from the New England Aquarium in Boston. I heard the story first in a teacher’s room.

So I had the bones of the story right there. The challenge was to discover the way to make the surprise ending work (I’m being circumspect here so as not to spoil the book for those who haven’t read it). The story takes place over the course of 24 hours and as such, its structure is chronological, but rising tension is the driving force. The best method was to build suspense in the reader with an unanswered question—does Elliot’s dad know about Magellan all along? In fact, if you finish reading the book and still don’t know the answer to that question for certain, I’ve succeeded in my mission.

In the book, Elliot brings his penguin to the library. I loved how the librarian is unflinching as she faces the penguin and Elliot’s passion. As a librarian yourself, what was the oddest thing a child brought you? Or the most passionate researcher you’ve helped?

One of my teachers at Margaret Chase Smith School in Sanford, Maine set me up to be the unflinching recipient of an hysterical research question from one of her transitional-first grade students. The kids were doing rain forest research and one little girl, a real favorite of mine, came down to the library with this question. “Mrs. Buzzeo, you know that sloths live up in trees, right? And they stay up in trees all of the time, right? Well, my question is, do they even stay up there to poop?”

I had to keep an absolutely straight, unblinking face, and then set out to help her to answer the question. Because this was in the days before ready online connections in school libraries, we had to read every article about sloths in our reference collection. (Nowadays, it would be as simple as heading over to the San Diego Zoo website.). Once the student was on her way back to class, I was finally able to burst into laughter, and I was still laughing when Colleen, the teacher, stuck her head in the door to see my reaction. I can just imagine Ms. Stanbridge in my story doing the very same thing.

I’ve retyped your text so that I can see what your manuscript might have looked like. First it is short at less than 600 words. It has a lot of dialogue, no scene description, and no mention of how the characters look. You use time and place markers such as: “Saturday morning, at noontime, in his room, on the way home,” to keep the story moving forward. Is your first draft so lean? Tell us about your revision process. How was your editor involved in your revisions?

The first submitted draft of One Cool Friend was 792 words, so about 200 words longer. Here’s how it started:

On the tenth morning in his new town, Elliot stared up through the skylight at two bald eagles wheeling overhead.  They probably aren’t lonely, Elliot thought.

“How about a family trip to the aquarium?” his mom asked.

Elliot shrugged.  Fish, he thought, wet and boring.  Birds, on the other hand, feathery and exciting.  “How about a trip to Wings ‘N’ Things instead?”
“But Elliot,” his father said, “we were just there yesterday.”
“Besides,” said his mother.  “It’s Family Fun Day at the aquarium.”

Outside, tiny tree sparrows flitted into the feeders Elliot and his dad had mounted in the yard.  But when a Cooper’s hawk dove down, the sparrows scattered.

“I wish they’d all stick around,” Elliot said.  “I sure could use the company.”

“Well then,” his mom said.  “How about the aquarium?  Maybe you’ll make a new friend there.”

“I guess.”  Elliot thumped down the hall to fetch his backpack with his field guide and binoculars for the ride.

His dad patted him on the back.  “We can go to the bird shop another time.”  

Elliot climbed into the backseat of the car for the long, tiresome drive.  He pulled his binocs from his backpack and searched the sky for geese.  He searched the fields for crows. He searched the marsh for snowy egrets.  “What’s so FUN about Family Fun Day at an aquarium anyway?” he wondered.

During the long revision process (I worked on this ms. for 4 years, two rounds with my editor after which time she rejected it, and then with other astute readers until I had something so different that I felt confident in bringing it back to my editor and asking her to have another look), I deleted the mom, and I also eliminated the theme of loneliness (at my editor’s request). Now the text begins:

Elliot was a very proper young man. 
So on Saturday morning when his father said, "Family Fun Day at the aquarium.  Shall we go?” Elliot thought,
Kids, masses of noisy kids. But he only said, "Of course. Thank you for inviting me.”

Then we hop right over to the aquarium. No mom. No lonely boy. No transportation scene. It’s very streamlined.

We hear a lot about the lack of picture book interest from publishers, yet you seem to be doing well. What is your take on the market right now?

Actually, I do find the picture book market to still be sluggish. Everyone is being cautious in contracting new ones. In addition, while One Cool Friend is for a slightly older audience, as was my fall title, Lighthouse Christmas, now editors are looking for much younger picture books with strong and quirky main characters who can become the backbones of picture book series. I’ve got just such a character in development right now, but it hasn’t stopped me from wanting to write picture books for older readers. Selling them, though, is the tough part.

Toni, thank you for sharing with us today. In December, Lighthouse Christmas came out. How is it doing and what else is in the publishing pipeline for you?

A second printing of Lighthouse Christmas is about to pop, as the first one sold out very quickly this holiday season. With a starred review in School Library Journal and a glowing review in the New York Times Book Review , it got lots of attention.

Looking ahead, I have a new picture book due out in March from Hyperion titled Stay Close to Mama, the story of a curious little giraffe and his mama on the African savannah, charmingly illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka, and one from Upstart Books in March as well titled Inside the Books: Readers and Libraries Around the World, with stunning illustrations of libraries on all seven continents by South African illustrator Jude Daly. It’ll be a banner season in picture book publishing for me!

A big cogratulations to Toni for her publishing success AND a contest. If you’d like to win a copy of One Cool Friend please post in the comments here or on Facebook. If you do, I’ll put your name in a hat and let my trusty assistants pick a name. Please comment by Sunday, January 15th at midnight. I’ll post the winner in my “Member Monday” post on the 16th. Good luck!