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In honor of his soon-to-be-completed run as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, the wonderful children’s lit blog A Year of Reading is hosting a celebration for Jon Scieszka. Click here to partake in the festivities. Our new Ambassador will be named tomorrow, January 5, 2010.

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Author visits: a wonderful perk of working in a school library. With all due respect to my bookseller friends (shout out to McLean & Eakin!), the author visit is like a booksigning that tosses the table aside and has a party. This year, we were excited to host Laurie Keller, author/illustrator of six picture books including, “The Scrambled States of America” and “Arnie the Doughnut” (both are entries in the “100 Scope Notes Required Reading” list (which has yet to be created, but just know those two will be included)). It was a good day.

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The bonus of an author/illustrator visit? You get the authorial vibe along with the artistic element. Ms. Keller shared some behind-the-scenes notes and sketches from her books, photos from her home and studio, and gave the assembled students a sneak preview of the next book she’s illustrating, Me and My Animal Friends.

For the second act, students got to play along (hint: clipboards were involved. Hint #2: pencils as well). Ms. Keller taught students how to create some of the characters from her books, as well as a lesson on drawing different expressions. Here are some of the results:

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A kindergarteners’ take on an otter from “Do Unto Otters“: not too shabby. Engaging, funny and entertaining all around, Laurie Keller’s visit was by all measures a success.

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Author/Illustrator Laurie Keller has been making standout picture books since her debut, The Scrambled States of America, hit shelves a decade ago. With a sequel in stores and new projects in the works, Laurie stopped by to take part in 5 Questions.

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Scope Notes: The Scrambled States of America: Talent Show hit shelves last August (100 Scope Notes review). Were you always planning on writing a sequel to the original Scrambled States of America, or did the right idea happen to come along?

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Laurie Keller: I never planned to write a sequel but kids have asked me for years if I would write another book about the states.  The thought intrigued me so I played around with different scenarios in my head but I didn’t want to do it unless I could come up with a strong enough story to complement the original.  Kids have been fascinated with the love story between Nevada and Mississippi so the idea of having a wedding between the 2 lovebirds seemed like a likely sequel.  But I decided to keep their courtship going for awhile (I don’t want to have to do a sequel where they end up in divorce court after having gotten married too soon).  SO, I started thinking of other scenarios that would work well with a big cast of characters and two ideas topped my list — one of which was a talent show.  I figured most kids have been in or been to a talent show and could relate to that.

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It was a lot of work pulling it all together but I really enjoyed working with the states again.  So much so that I’m planning on one more sequel using the OTHER idea that topped my list — having the states go to summer camp.  I’m not going to do it right away but I definitely won’t wait another 10 years!

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SN: At one of the schools where I work, we recently added a few Scholastic Video Collection DVDs, including Arnie the Doughnut and Scrambled States.

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How has it been to see some of your books adapted to video (and in the case of Scrambled States, puzzles and games)?

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LK: I’ve been blown away at how Weston Woods/Scholastic and Ceaco/Gamewright have taken my stories and expanded on them and done such fun things with them.  Both companies have been a blast to work with.  Weston Woods is in the process now of animating The Scrambled States of America Talent Show and the animator they’re using is HILARIOUS and so talented!

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SN: Of the books you have written and illustrated, which was the most difficult to create? Why was that the case?

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LK: Most of them have had their “challenges” but I’d have to say that Do Unto Otters was probably the most difficult.

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I tried to write a book about manners on and off for years and kept putting it aside because everything sounded too boring or preachy (the last thing I wanted!).  After deciding to attempt it one last time, I focused more on The Golden Rule rather than etiquette and I came up with the pun Do Unto Otters.  I researched otters and found that they were very social, playful animals and I knew that they’d be perfect for a book on manners and social skills.  Things finally started to come together after so many years of trying!

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SN: How much attention do you pay to the latest picture books? Or maybe I should say it this way: You enter a bookstore. Which section do you hit first and why?

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LK: I always go to the children’s section first!  I became a collector of children’s books years ago when I worked as an illustrator at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, MO.  I started looking at children’s books for visual inspiration but I became so hooked on them and knew that’s what I really wanted to do some day.  I have a large collection that I love pouring over when I need a bit of inspiration.  I still buy them because it’s fun to see what other author/illustrators are creating.  It helps push me in new directions and it’s always inspiring.

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SN: You are illustrating an upcoming book Me and My Animal Friends. What should readers expect from this release? Any other projects in the works?

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LK: Me and My Animal Friends is a song by Ralph Covert of Ralph’s World.  I’ve been a big fan of his music for years and was so excited to have gotten the opportunity to illustrate his song.  This book is different from any that I’ve worked on before because I created it mostly on the computer by scanning in lots of textures and patterns that I drew and doing a sort of “cut paper” technique in Photoshop.

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Also the layouts are a little simpler with very few of my usual “asides” because it’s for a younger audience than the 4-8 year olds my books are typically geared for.  It was a good challenge for me and so much fun to work on.  Right now I’m finishing the writing for my next book which will be published in Fall of 2010.  I don’t have a title yet but it’s about smiling.

Many thanks to Laurie Keller!

Visit Laurie Keller’s website.

Visit Laurie Keller’s blog.

Read the outstanding Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast interview w/ Laurie Keller.

Bee-Wigged” is at the top of my wonderfully crazy picture books of the year list. About a bee who wears a toupee and is mistaken for a boy, “Bee-Wigged” is a funny, well executed tale about first impressions and being yourself. Author/Illustrator Cece Bell was kind enough to stop by and take part in the 100 Scope Notes “5 Questions With…” series.

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Scope Notes: On the flap for “Bee-Wigged”, you explain that the story owes much to your childhood. Did you set out to write about “seeing beyond the weirdness” of others, or did the idea of a bee who’s mistaken for a boy come first and remind you of those past experiences?

Cece Bell: Actually, the idea came first, and it wasn’t until I showed the proofs to a good friend of mine, that I realized that the story was a bit autobiographical. My friend (Kelli, the one to whom the book is dedicated) read it and said, “Jerry Bee is YOU!” And when I re-read it, I realized she was more than right. But really, I like to think that everybody has some Jerry Bee in them, though, because just about everybody has some element of weirdness to them (a good thing), but still yearns to belong.

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SN: I recently heard an interview with Lauren Child where she explains that writing a kid’s book is akin to writing haiku. Do you find the restrictions of writing picture books (short sentences, few words, limited vocabulary) difficult?
CB: First let me say that Lauren Child is A+ in my book. I love her writing and her pictures. My kids love her books, and so do I.
Sometimes I find the restrictions of picture book writing difficult. In my earlier drafts of any given book, I tend to go off a bit on wordy tangents, and use words or expressions that are a bit too adult. Luckily my husband, Tom Angleberger (you know him as Sam Riddleburger, author of The QwikPick Adventure Society) is a terrific editor and helps me streamline and fine-tune some things. However, when faced with the task of writing something longer, like a novel, I cringe. I really enjoy the the economy of the picture book. The limitations really free up the creativity.

SN: You are also the author and illustrator of the “Sock Monkey” books. What are the pros and cons of writing/illustrating a series?

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CB: Well, one of the main pros for me is that your color palette stays the same throughout a series. And I really struggle with color, with finding the right colors for a book. I really pull my hair out over color, it baffles me so much. I really wish I understood it better! (Coincidentally, the Sock Monkey palette is closely based on the deck of cards from the Milles Bornes French card game. Awesome!) Another pro is I enjoy trying to get each book to fit a bit of a pattern, story-telling wise.

The main con is that it is sometimes difficult to keep the stories fresh. Hopefully I’ve done that.

SN: You find the following message in a fortune cookie: “You may pick one children’s book written by someone else to claim as your own.” Which book do you choose?
CB: Oooooh, that’s the hardest question in the world. It’s tempting to pick something that has done outrageously well, like the Mo Willems books (which are also A+). But just for sheer quality and beauty and fantastic writing, I will have to go with my old favorite, Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm by Alice and Martin Provensen. That book is an absolute work of art and is totally transcendent in every way. I wish I had the Provensens’ ability to create something so emotionally affecting, but I guess my mind is genetically wired to be goofy.
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SN: Are you a “create as you go” author, one idea at a time, or do you have a stockpile of ideas that you hammer away at? This is also known as my “what are you working on?” question.
CB: I think I do a bit of both. I keep a big ol’ pile of ideas on slips of paper in my desk, and I go through them often as I’m thinking up new books. But when I’ve finally figured out a story from all the slips of paper, I generally focus on just that one book. Right now I am focusing on just one book — working up the dummy to send out. And I’ve got three other potential books “out there,” waiting for news, hopefully good. We’ll see!

SN: Thanks, I’ll be looking forward to your work in the future.

CB: Thank YOU! And while you’re enjoying Bee-Wigged, start thinking about Itty Bitty, out in June 2009, from Candlewick Press. It’s my attempt to write something a little less goofy, a little more Provensen-style sweet.

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Many thanks to Cece Bell for taking the time to discuss her work. Look for more “5 Questions With…” in the future.
Check out Cece’s other blog tour stops:

Alright, I suppose it was more of a “Late Afternoon With Patricia Polacco”, but that doesn’t have the same ring. ‘Round these parts (the Mitten state) If you ask a elementary school librarian who would be on at the top of their Michigan author visit list, nine times out of ten you would hear the following “Chris Van Allsburg or Patricia Polacco“. And the tenth person would probably say “Patricia Pollacco and Chris Van Allsburg”.

Ms. Polacco, author of numerous well illustrated and heartfelt titles (Thank You Mr. Falker, The Lemonade Club, Mr. Lincoln’s Way, Pink and Say), is a well loved figure of children’s literature. When I saw she was appearing at a local high school last week, I jumped at the chance to see the author/illustrator for the first time.

The only problem was that the event started at 4:00pm. After my school day ended, I hit the road as quickly as I could. I still missed the first few minutes.

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Polacco had already begun her reading of “The Keeping Quilt” as I took my seat. She read through the text and expanded on each page, adding details. The story was appropriate for such a gathering, as it provided a chance for the author to discuss her family and background. She even pulled out the real keeping quilt to show the audience.

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Whether from practice, talent, or a combination of the two, Polacco held the audience’s attention for the duration of her hour and a half on stage. She flowed smoothly from one topic to the next, slipping in and out of family accents seamlessly. From the recent election, to her appreciation of redheads (and how she has “five more books in the works” based on her redheaded brother), to her current killer of a deadline, the subject matter covered was wide. But no story hit home more than her own struggle with reading.

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As Ms. Polacco retold the true events that inspired “Thank You, Mr. Falker”, those in attendance were transfixed. And when she went on to describe her chance meeting with Mr. Falker 30 years later? Cue the water works. A pretty amazing story.

Presentation finished, the author headed out to the hall for a book signing. Only I didn’t remember to bring a book. Good thing there were copies available there. Only I didn’t have much cash. Good thing there were paperbacks available. First rule of attending an author event: bring said author’s book. I gotta remember that.

All in all, a great way to spend an evening. Okay, late afternoon.

(Click the image above to browse through)

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers” – good book, right? Children’s lit Hall of Fame caliber. In fact, they have this award that honors the best picture book of the year, which “The Man Who Walked…” has already won.

As first reported at Wizards Wireless last month, the true story that inspired the book has been turned into a documentary called “Man on Wire“. The trailer is now online. Take a look:

I’m pretty excited about this one. I’m not shy to say that I love a good documentary, and when you throw kids books into the mix – I’m a happy man. Get ‘cha Netflix ready – the film is released August 1.

“Mouse Guard – Fall 1152″ recently arrived at my 5th & 6th grade library and the graphic novel has been a downright hit with kids. Creator/author/illustrator David Petersen has been having an exciting month, receiving a couple of Eisner Award nominations for his work. Mr. Petersen graciously took the time to be interviewed for the 100 Scope Notes “5 Questions With…” series.

Scope Notes: This month you were nominated for two Eisner Awards for “Mouse Guard” (for Best Publication for Kids and Best Graphic Album – Reprint), what was your reaction upon hearing the news?

David Petersen: I woke up a little early the day I found out. I was tired and thought about going back to bed for a few hours, but first I checked my e-mail. The news that I was nominated was sitting there in my inbox from my publisher. I read it, and then re-read it (making sure I wasn’t misreading). Then I said it aloud, so that I could hear myself say it. I was thrilled! It’s a dream come true. I realize how lucky I am to have a book so young and different be nominated for the honor. I decided not to go back to bed that morning.

SN: For all those aspiring comic creators out there: What is the most difficult part of the process? What is the most rewarding?

DP: Believing in what you do is the hardest part. Just because you have some issues under your belt doesn’t make the next issue that much easier. It’s easy to doubt your work (as either a writer, artist, or both). You just have to work though it. Know that everything you do won’t be perfect, but to put the best book you can out there and always try to make it better.

The most rewarding is having people who are fans of your work. Sometimes all it takes is one of those nice fan e-mails to turn around the doubt I mentioned before.

SN: Which graphic novels do you think should be standard in school and public libraries?

DP: Hmmm, well, I think MAUS is a an obvious choice. The Bone books (or single ‘brick’ compilation) are well liked by young and old, I really enjoy Rick Geary’s Victorian Murder books, so I think at least one of those would showcase historical GN work. Watchmen is such a pinnacle of the medium, I can’t think of a book more well known or respected. And it seems like a Will Eisner book should be in every collection as well.

SN: Your illustrations have been getting a lot of attention. Is the style for “Mouse Guard” something you had in your mind from the beginning, or was there a lot of trial and error?

DP: There certainly was some trial and error. My first mice were blatant copies of the work of a children’s book illustrator named Tom Pohrt. I eventually figured out that I had to draw in a natural way and couldn’t rely on someone else’s style because I had to draw more mice than I would ever have other artist’s reference for. So I think while I knew at the start of Mouse Guard that it was going to focus on a style of ink line illustration I had toyed with, it evolved from issue 1 up until now.

SC: “Mouse Guard Winter 1152” series is currently being published in installments, with a collected edition available in November. What can readers expect from this continuation of the story?

DP: The winter book shows another settlement the Guard visit, it focuses more on the relationships between our heroes. It opens a can of worms about the history of Celanawe, the old Black Axe mouse they met in the fall. It also pits them against one of the toughest trials they can face: the grueling, unyielding, harsh winter weather that no mouse should be out in. On top of all that, a main character will perish.

To read an outstanding review of Mouse Guard Fall 1152 by children’s lit blog A Fuse #8 Production, click here.

To visit the Mouse Guard website, click here.

To head on over to David Petersen’s blog, click here.

I’m sure I’ll get better at this.

I have to admit it – I’m a pretty poor book signee. Friday I had the opportunity to meet three tops children’s book author/illustrators, and I don’t have many good stories to tell. I’m still perplexed with the etiquette at these events. I wasn’t sure if it was okay to have more than one book signed, or if I should ask for pictures, so I just went ahead and did it. Here’s how the day went:

After school, with books in tow, I beelined to the outstanding (and almost local) Pooh’s Corner children’s book store. There I met Jon J. Muth (of “Zen Shorts” fame) and Mordicai Gerstein (“The Man Who Walked Between the Towers“). Both books are regulars in my “picture books for upper elementary” recommendations, so I was about to lose a shoe over seeing them live. Both were nice enough to sign personalized copies of their books for the libraries where I work. Here’s a picture with Mordicai Gerstein and I:

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Is it lame to hold the book up? You gotta help me out on these things.

After that I rolled over to Calvin College where Kadir Nelson was doing his John Hancock thing. The setting for that was very cool. He was signing in the middle of a gallery where original artwork from his books was being displayed. There were even some works from his latest “We Are the Ship” (which you definitely need to pick up if you haven’t – outstanding). I knew going in that most of the originals for that book were large (click here to listen to Mr. Nelson interviewed on NPR), but they were impressive in person. An amazingly talented guy. While sitting in a gallery showing my art as I was signing copies of my latest critically-acclaimed book would have given me a really big head, Mr. Nelson was a very nice guy and gracious enough to pose for a picture:

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There I go again with the book.

My only regret was not testing out my “Year of Kadir” catch phrase on him to see what he thought. Here’s how I’m guessing that exchange would have gone:

Me: Hey, it’s the “Year of Kadir”!

(suddenly the sound of crickets chirping is noticeable, despite being indoors)

Me: (under my breath) Well, it is.

A great day.

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Ah, the trickiness of working at four schools. Last week, one of the schools that I work at had the pleasure of hosting a visit by Leslie Helakoski, author of the recently released “Big Chickens Fly the Coop” (read the 100 Scope Notes review) and “Woolbur”. The tricky part? I was working with students at another elementary across town on the same day. I did my best to catch Ms. Helakoski’s presentation, and I’m glad I did. She gave it the “best of both worlds” treatment – informative and entertaining. She talked about the inspiration for some of her books, the process of writing a book for children, and had plenty of pictures to show. To round it all out, the very affable Ms. Helakoski read her two new stories and took questions from students. An exciting day to be sure.

Click here to read the recent 100 Scope Notes interview with Leslie Helakoski

helakoskileslie2700.jpgI’m thrilled to have the first 100 Scope Notes author interview with Leslie Helakoski, author of “Big Chickens” and “The Smushy Bus”. It’s been a busy January for Ms. Helakoski, as she will have two new books published this month, “Big Chickens Fly the Coop” and “Woolbur”. I caught up with Ms. Helakoski (before her author visit to my school) to ask her about her career and the warm reception her books have been receiving.

Scope Notes: “Big Chickens” was selected as the 2007 Michigan Reads! Book. It was sent to 5,000 schools and libraries state wide. What was your reaction upon hearing this news?
Leslie Helakoski: I did the chicken dance, of course! It was very good timing
because I had quit my job to write and paint full time and I was kind
of nervous about it.

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SN: Students want to know: when did you decide to become an author?
LH:When I read Jon Scieszka’s book, The Stinky Cheese Man. I was a graphic designer like he was and the book was such fun. I thought, “I want to do this.”

SN: “Big Chickens” has been a hit read-aloud in our libraries. Have you had any memorable reactions from students?
LH: My favorite reaction is laughter. I also love when kids are inspired to write or draw something after hearing the story.

SN: Was “Big Chickens” inspired by any real life events?
LH: Yes! The chickens in the book are me and my three sisters! When we were young, we would often play in the woods and pastures nearby. I was afraid of all the things in the Big Chicken book–leaping across a deep muddy ditch, cows, and falling in the water –although it was a bayou, not a lake. The cave/wolf part is made up but sometimes we
were chased by a large dog.

SN: You have two new books out: “Woolber” and “Big Chickens Fly the Coop”. What should readers expect from these?
LH: In Big Chickens Fly the Coop, the chickens really want to see the farmhouse but each time they set out, they get scared and run back to the coop where it is safe. Woolbur is about a sheep that does things his own way which drives his teachers and parents crazy. Both books are lots of fun and I can’t wait to read them to you. You can also be the first to know, I just finished writing a third chicken book called, Big Chickens Go to Town.

A big thank you to Leslie Helakoski for taking part!

Click here to visit her website

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