Category Archives: picture books

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Why I love picture books

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As I’m sure you heard, there was a massive fire here in New York yesterday afternoon, and it happened just seven blocks away from our office. From our windows, we could see the huge cloud of smoke it produced–it looked something like this:

<> on March 26, 2015 in New York City.

And when I walked out the door of our office at 5, the hallway by the elevator had the telltale chemical aroma of a building fire. I have to say it freaked me out a little—the smell immediately brought me back to 9/11, when I lived downtown and woke up to that smell for a couple weeks.

But when I got home and told my 3-year-old son George about the fire, the first thing he asked was to read one of his favorite picture books, MY FIRE ENGINE by Michael Rex. And that, in essence, is one of the reasons I love picture books. There’s something amazing about a toddler’s ability to relate to the real world and make sense of it through the pictures and story of a book, and through them that view of the world becomes remarkable positive. While we adults worry about the safety of the victims and firefighters, or how a gas main might blow up our own building, a toddler sees only the bravery and camaraderie of the fire squad. Not to mention all the cool gear they get and the awesome trucks they ride…

It’s thanks to books like MY FIRE ENGINE and FIREFIGHTER FRANK that George tells us he wants to be a fireman when he grows up—and I’d be willing to bet that plenty of actual firefighters were inspired to some degree by the books they read as kids. While not every picture book is blatantly inspirational, it’s rare to find a picture book that doesn’t have some positive takeaway. They’re healthy for grown-ups, too—while I wallow in the darkness of my musical tastes (thanks, Uncle Lou) and fret over death and taxes, a picture book read with George always brings me back into the light.

Music in the air

Maybe it’s due to the long-awaited thaw here in NYC, but everywhere I turn this week it feels like music is in the air. And books about music are demanding to be heard…

First, the other night, my son Henry brought home PLAY, MOZART, PLAY by Peter Sis from school for his assigned reading. I adore Peter’s Sis’ MADLENKA and some of his other titles, but I didn’t know this one. It’s a very sweet (and bittersweet) depiction of Mozart the child prodigy, who spent his early years playing for kings and queens but missed out on being a kid. Not only did Henry ask to read it together, but since his class recently started writing book reviews, he asked me to write a blog post about it this week.

Since I obviously can’t refuse a request like that, I’ll just say that if you can find a copy, it’s worth a look as a fine example of how to write about music for kids. So many picture books with musical themes simply present song lyrics, and while there are some successful titles (THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND, for example), too often they fall flat without the musical accompaniment (sadly, Bob Marley’s ONE LOVE comes to mind immediately). With PLAY, MOZART, PLAY, Sis sidesteps any direct citation, instead letting Mozart’s imagination reflect the mood and themes of his music. It’s a much more successful technique, and one that I think registers strongly with readers, even if they don’t know Mozart’s music at all.

Then, on Wednesday night, I had the honor of attending the National Jewish Book Awards to support my client James A. Grymes, whose VIOLINS OF HOPE had won the award in the Holocaust category. VIOLINS OF HOPE chronicles the stories behind several violins that were played by Jewish musicians during WWII, mostly in concentration camps, and how these instruments eventually made their way to Amnon Weinstein, a violin restorer in Israel, who fixed them up for a travelling exhibition. A sobering subject, no doubt, so it was all the more enjoyable to toast Jay’s success last night.

Now, one of the many things I love about this book is that it a great example of using physical objects to tell a much larger story—throughout, the violins are used as a jumping-off point to discuss bigger themes, such as the treatment of musicians in concentration camps, the partisan movement, emigration to Israel, and so on. Taking a small element or story to tell a larger one is a narrative style that I personally love, and it can make for very successful popular nonfiction—Michael Lewis, anyone? So if anyone out there is working in that vein, especially with a musical connection, I’d love to see your work…

Finally, what were two of the big publishing stories this week? The sale of Chrissie Hynde’s memoir and Kim Gordon’s GIRL IN A BAND hitting #2 on the NY Times bestseller list. Seems like the musician memoir is still a hot commodity, and it’s especially exciting to see Gordon’s success, given how non-commercial so much of Sonic Youth’s output was. And it’s got an awesome jacket, too!

So, to paraphrase the Bard, “If music be the food of books, write on.” Let’s see what you can do!

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Hooray for picture books

I represent very few picture books, but in my personal life I’m deeply indebted to them.  As I’ve mentioned countless times, my nephews are my favorite people on this planet, and at 6 and 3, their primary bond with me these days is over reading bedtime stories.  The older one started associating me with reading pretty early on in life, and through an aggressive campaign of reading fun things loudly in his vicinity (often while lying on the floor so he’d be tempted to come over and torment me by climbing onto my back), I’ve gotten the little one on Team Aunts Read Books as well.  Now thanks to a couple strategic buys by my mother in advance of our gathering at her house this past weekend for her birthday, the kiddos are begging for some videos I’ve promised to send of me reading their two favorites from the bunch.  As they were leaving to head back home on Monday, they were devastated to cut our last reading session short at only two books, so I promised to combine their two favorite things about me: reading fun books and watching videos on my phone.

But while I was very excited to discover This Book Just Ate My Dog! this weekend, which very cleverly uses the physical book and encourages interaction, one thing I did find myself wanting was some more children’s nonfiction.  When Martin Luther King came up with my older nephew, he was sort of familiar with him from some things he learned in kindergarten last week, but pretty confused about the role of water fountains in history.  As we discussed, I realized I was struggling to explain Dr. King’s legacy to a child who doesn’t understand race much less racism, or to get him interested in anything beyond the fact that he won the Nobel Peace Prize (which both children were very excited to learn they could watch a video of on my phone.  Injustice and civil rights fly above their head, but they know all about prizes and medals from the absurd number of sports the 6 year old plays).

Fortunately, I realize that there are experts out there who know how to talk about historical figures to children without getting caught up in attempting to explain what a dream is metaphorically.  Next time I see them, I’m determined to be better prepared.  So I turn to you: does anyone have any favorite nonfiction books for young children?  I’d love to be able to teach them more about not only Dr. King, but other important figures and historical moments.  Any pointers?

Girl power!

Having four daughters and working in book publishing presents both opportunities and challenges as far as finding appropriate books for the girls to read. They are all at different levels, and they all have different interests so it’s not as simple as passing on a sweater or pair of pants from one to the next. What I find happens is that if a kid isn’t interested in the book that’s up for discussion, it sits on a shelf or next to the bed or worse!

I recently came up on this really great website, amightygirl.com, that aims to empower girls by offering a range of resources that relate to books for girls. Its tagline is “The world’s largest collection of books, toys and movies for smart, confident, and courageous girls”. It’s fun to play around and see what they’ve come up with, like a list of best female book characters, which includes the likes of Madeline, Hermione Granger, Nancy Drew and Ladybug Girl (impressive to find a way to fit all of those lovely girls into one sentence). I was also pleased to see a book listed on the same subject as an upcoming book on my own list about the inspiring Irena Sendler who saved 2,500 Jewish children in Poland during WWII, which means they must have great taste!

I wonder if any of you have thoughts on wonderful book ideas for girls? There was this book I read over and over as a kid that so resonated with me called Somebody Else’s Kids by Torey L. Hayden, a psychologist who writes nonfiction accounts of her work with children. It’s about four kids of varying ages with serious and very different issues and how their remarkable teacher goes to great lengths to help them. I suppose my love of narrative nonfiction started when I was young. I just ordered it for my oldest to read and look forward to finding many more books with strong, female protagonists that will empower my girls and help them reach their highest potential.

What I’m looking for now (2014 edition)

The mornings are getting chilly, the leaves are changing, and we just stocked up on pumpkin chai mix at Trader Joe’s—fall must be here! And with the autumn, it’s time for my somwhat annual wish list. If anyone’s writing and/or illustrating in the following categories, I’d love to see your work. And please note a few small but significant changes from the last time I put my wish list out there:

PICTURE BOOK AUTHOR/ILLUSTRATORS: Our list of author/illustrators has continued to grow by leaps and bounds here at DLGM. (please revel in our illustration samples if you haven’t seen them yet!) But I’m still very much on the hunt for artists and illustrators who can write. So if you’ve got a great story, a cool concept, or a fantastic character paired with spectacular, professional-level artwork, I’d LOVE to see it.  And if you’re submitting art, a PDF that’s 5MB or less would be ideal.

MIDDLE GRADE FICTION: Last year, I noted that editors seem hungry for MG in all forms, and a year later that hunger has only grown. I hear more requests now for MG, even from longtime YA editors, than I ever have before. That said, I think editors still aren’t quite sure what they want out of MG, but whether it’s realistic or genre, loud or quiet, funny or serious—whatever it is, I’d love to see what you’ve got.

YOUNG ADULT FICTION: Similar to MG, the call for realistic YA, which started to be heard last year, has only grown louder in 2014. And that’s always been my sweet-spot for YA, too, though I’m always a fan of an original genre piece (“original” being the key word), be it historical, fantasy, or sci-fi. But mostly, I’d love to see realistic stories, and I’d love to see stories with both male and female protagonists. I know I’m the self-declared “boy book” guy here, but in looking at my list, about half my YA authors write female main characters, so please think of me for “girl” books, too!

CHILDREN’S NONFICTION: Here’s a new one for me. About a year ago, I started hearing from children’s editors that they were looking for nonfiction, and not just at the picture book level.  Partly, that’s due to Common Core reading standards, but I also think that ALA has been more interested in nonfiction recently, and as we know, awards stickers sell books. So if you’ve got a good nonfiction idea for any children’s category, please send it my way—and that includes picture book MSS, which I typically don’t take unless they’re from artists.

ADULT NARRATIVE NON-FICTION:   I’ve used this line for a few years now, but it’s a good one, so I’m sticking to it: “If there’s an amazing book-length true story out there, I want to hear it. History, memoir, sports, music, immersion journalism, popular science, health, animals, military history, politics—whatever the subject, if you’ve got the credentials to write about it, send it my way.” In particular, though, I’d love to do some more sports and music—I think there are holes in both marketplaces here.

ADULT FICTION: I’ve been thinking about this one a lot over the past year. As with YA, while I’ve often declared myself the “boy book” guy, I’ve realized that my tastes aren’t really exclusive to boy books. And in fact, some of the books I’ve loved most this year were clearly targeted to a female readership. So I’d like to take a step back from the manly side of things and just say that I’m looking for fiction that tells a good story. More than anything, I’ve realized that regardless of the audience, good plotting and momentum are what really get me going—to take an obvious example, I’ve finally gotten around to GONE GIRL, and I am totally sleep-deprived this week from staying up to see what happens next. So with that, I’ll repeat a little of what I said last year: I’m looking for “high-concept, character-driven narratives, be they literary, commercial, thrillers, suspense, horror, what have you.” And to that I’ll add strong plotting with male or female characters as well.

Thanks so much for taking a look, and I can’t wait to see what you’ve got!

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The Blog Post with No Pictures*

Flipping through the internet today, I came across a Vanity Fair interview accompanied by a book trailer for B.J. Novak’s The Book with No Pictures, his children’s book with, well, no pictures. The video itself is completely adorable and the conceit of the book—emphasized in this interview—touches on something that though it should be obvious, gave me a bit of an “aha” moment.

Why do children’s books exist? Of course the first and most obvious answer is as a form of entertainment, as yet another vehicle to occupy a child, give them a venue for using their imagination. They are learning tools and foster creative thinking. However, children’s books are rarely without pictures—in fact you’re far more likely to come across completely wordless picture books than you are to come across anything geared toward a young child that has no illustrations at all.

Yet. That doesn’t mean that the words can’t be visual themselves. The words in Novack’s book are all different colors, sizes, fonts. Though that’s certainly an added bonus, that’s still not even the point I’m trying to get at here—and I think the point the author has as well. Reading for a young kid is about more than everything I’ve mentioned above. Reading as a child serves to foster a literary attraction that can exist and survive long into adulthood. By giving the words printed in a book an interactive agenda (and I really just mean the words—there are tons and tons of interactive Pat the Bunny style books that have their place, too), does this help to create a space where kids feel compelled at an early age to respond and discuss what they’ve read? Without the help of pictures or texture? Making adults say silly things is really fun (as the video clearly demonstrates), so does a book like this not then make the words themselves the funny part of the book, a book which in and of itself is having a conversation?

Of course, I don’t have a child and when I was little enough for picture books to be my sole literary companions, I would never have stopped to think about these things, but the idea will at least be one I’m thinking about for a little while. What say you?

 

* genius title credit to Sharon Pelletier

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Tiny readers

As the absurdly proud aunt of exceptionally wonderful nephews—who we’ll call Fidge and Gus, because that is what I call them—I’ve actively made it my mission to get them to associate me with books.  Fidge once told his “Aunt” Gabby that “Aunts read books” and made her read him bedtime stories.  A few weeks after that, he unceremoniously announced his desire to go to bed by walking up to me and saying “You always read to me.”  Why yes, Fidge, yes I do.  Gus is a bit of a tougher sell—he’s rambunctious and not so fond of sitting still.  But if he can interact with a book or laugh hysterically while “At” Lauren makes faces or yells or roars, he’s game.  His biggest obsession is with Bill Cotter’s Don’t Push the Button, in which illicit button pushes lead to a whole host of multi-colored monsters named Larry.  He now “reads” that one to himself, turning each page to intone “Don’t push a button!” and then…pushing that button anyway.

As Gus’s birthd9780062247759_p0_v1_s260x420ay is coming up, I headed out of town last weekend to celebrate it with the family.  Naturally, I dragged Sharon to the bookstore with me last week to find some future favorites for him and settled on Press Here by Herve Tullet, I Am Otter by Sam Garton, and his autobiography The Boss Baby by Marla Frazee (which is really more for his parents).  I read the books to both boys separately, and Gus especially loved Press Here, which was no surprise since it’s very similar to Don’t Push the Button.  He’s also a fan of counting, so it suits him.  He did seem to think The Boss Baby was pretty funny, but now I’m worried it might’ve given him ideas.  And I Am Otter was definitely my favorite of the three.

But my favorite reading moment of the weekend was this one: in a crowded house full of family, with Gus trying to go to sleep in the bedroom, Fidge was clearly ready to wind down.  Fortunately, aunts know what to do when you need a moment away from all the bustle.  So I gathered up Gus’s new books and some old favorites and hunkered down in a Super Secret Hiding Spot under the dining room table with Fidge.  We read through the above three plus Madeline and Wild About Books, one of his absolute favorites, since it’s got books AND animals AND ample opportunities for counting and guessing and finding hidden frogs.  Not only did we get quiet time (where, according to Fidge at least, no one even knew where we were!), we also got to revisit old friends and make new ones.

I kind of miss Otter and Teddy, actually.

I wish I grew up reading…

It wasn’t too long ago that I became Uncle Mike. My cousin gave birth to a little baby girl, Eleanor. (I know that technically makes me her second cousin, but Second Cousin Mike doesn’t really roll off the tongue.)

It also wasn’t too long ago that a roommate told me he wished he read more growing up. He can’t remember the last time he read a book cover to cover and attributes this shortcoming to the lack of pages he turned as a kid.

Now I’m not a scientist, but it seems to me that if you develop a love of reading when you’re a child, you’ll be more likely to pick up a book in adulthood. And let’s face it, wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone read more? Numerous studies show positive correlations between reading and intelligence, empathy and emotional health. This is just one of many.

So I’d like little Eleanor to grow up reading. And when she actually is able to read, I’d like to give her a basket full of books similar to the one in my childhood room at my parent’s place—only with fewer books about aliens, wizards, knights, and trains. But until then, I’m in the market for some good board books that her parents can read to her.

So please help! What do you read to your children?

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Illustrators at Dystel.com

In case you haven’t seen it yet, I wanted to use my blog time today to alert readers to a new feature on our website: illustration samples!

Over the past few years, we’ve added a good number of author/illustrators to our list. And so we thought it would be useful to have a single page where readers could see samples of our clients’ work without having to click over to a slew of personal websites. (Though of course we encourage that, too!)

Hence, please check out our DGLM author/illustrators, either from the menu on the right or directly at http://www.dystel.com/illustration-samples/. You’ll find a wonderful breadth of styles and techniques here, not to mention a whole lot of cuteness!

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Long ago favorites

Inspired by this Buzzfeed post from earlier in the week, I thought back on my favorite illustrated books as a kid. They were mostly fairy tales (or close to), as are the illustrations in that post. I know the trends in children’s book illustrations change drastically from generation to generation—even year to year—so when I went hunting, it was no real surprise to me, that it took some more serious digging to find examples of the types of books—both in story and design—that I loved the most.

It wasn’t hard, however, to remember the titles of my top favorites, since they still hold a place on my bookshelf (albeit in my childhood home, but they did withstand all the teenage and college year purges).

I remember reading Melisande by E. Nesbit and illustrated by P.J. Lynch (Harcourt 1989) over and over and over as a girl, fascinated as I was by the artwork (and envious of her lustrous hair) and drawn in by the recognizable elements of both Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty in a story that was an original unto itself.

 

Another favorite about another plucky, independent girl was Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully (Puffin 1992). Mirette has a very French Toulouse-Lautrec poster advertisement look about it and I remember thinking that I would have given anything for her outfits, hair and bravery. Similarly, I loved the Madeleine books as well, but I don’t think I need to post a reference picture for those!

 

In addition to these and the usual Berenstein Bears and Mr. Men picture books that crowded our shelves, I realized I had an odd penchant for inherently sad stories as well. Some of my favorites (when I was in the mood—otherwise I would make my parents skip them when reading to me) were stories like The Velveteen Rabbit, Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant and original versions of Grimm’s fairy tales—most notably The Little Mermaid wherein the Mermaid must kill herself with a dagger in the end. I don’t know what attracted me to these books, but I loved them.