Please join us to discuss everything literary (especially kid literary): good books, the writing life, the people and businesses who create books, controversies in book world, what's good to snack on while reading and writing, and anything else bookish. We welcome your thoughts.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Rainy Day Play

It's the last day of April and it's still raining! I'm walking around singing, "Rain, rain go away, come again another day." It’s no wonder grown-ups dread rainy days when they’re stuck indoors with young children who complain that they're bored and there’s nothing to do. So here’s a list of ten indoor activities (some new and a few tried and true) to keep the little ones busy and their caregivers from going bonkers on a rainy day.

1. Cut out pictures from old magazines or catalogues and glue them onto folded paper for a book. Write a story to go along with the pictures.

2.  Have an indoor picnic. Spread a blanket on the floor then press raisins into cream cheese or peanut butter spread into a stalk of celery for an “ants on a log” picnic snack.

3. Make shadow animals on the wall using a flashlight.

4. See who can tell the funniest joke, the scariest story, or the silliest rhyme.

5. Draw faces on Popsicle sticks for stick puppets. Glue on cotton balls for hair or beards.

6. Make up silly dances then hold a “Dancing With The Stars” dance contest.

7. Wear costumes from old clothes, hats, jewelry, and gloves then act out a story.

8. Perform a puppet show behind an old sheet hanging between two chairs.

9. Learn to say, “I love you” in American Sign Language (you can find it on the web.)

10. Glue a drawing or large photograph onto cardboard, then cut out the pieces to make a puzzle.

Here are a few suggested picture books to read together on a rainy day: 
RAIN by Robert Kalan
RAIN by Manya Stojic
THE WIND BLEW by Pat Hutchins
THE RAIN CAME DOWNby David Shannon

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Turning the "Blahs" into Ideas

Carol Herder

You can’t expect good weather in Pittsburgh in April. Just doesn’t happen. We’ve had some awesome downpours this month, probably necessary. Still, I can’t help hoping it’ll soon end. With all the rain I’ve been unable to prepare my herb beds for planting. The plus side is I’ve had more time for writing.

A lot of people are affected by dreary weather. As a writer with a big bay window in her study I had to push through that, and quick. At first it was too gloomy for, well, words. But then I noticed the grass getting greener. And greener. Finally, tiny blossoms appeared on the apple tree outside my window.

One day I noticed the chives on the porch had sprouted in a plush green bunch. Things were looking up.

Last week I had a great idea for the rewrite I’d been working on. A few days later my son helped me with a plot conundrum.

I spent a day at WQED answering pledge telephones for Chris Fennimore’s cooking show, and promoting Sisters in Crime, a writing organization for women. Have you ever found that one breakthrough idea leads to another? As well, just getting out and meeting with other writers generates creativity. Suddenly ideas were pouring!

As I sit finishing this blog I can see the sky darkening at only 4:30pm. Gray clouds are once again gathering for another “Pittsburgh Downpour”. But I’m happy. I’ve been nudged out of my gloomy winter cycle into a productive spring cycle. Now, if only mother nature would get with the program!

At WQED I promised to find my pistachio bread recipe. To promote warmer weather maybe we should all bake a loaf?

Summery Pistachio Tea Bread

1 ½ cups flour ½ cup vegetable oil
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda 1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon ½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup sugar 1 ½ cups grated zucchini, squeezed dry
2 large eggs 1 ½ cups toasted shelled pistachio nuts

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
2. In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda and cinnamon.
3. In another bowl, whisk tighter the sugar, eggs, vegetable oil,
vanilla, and salt. Add to the dry ingredients and stir until
4. Fold in the zucchini and nuts
5. Transfer the batter to a well-buttered 5 x 9-inch loaf pan and
bake for 50 to 60 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the
center comes out clean.
6. Let cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Invert onto the
rack and cool completely.

To make frosting:

1 large egg white 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
¾ cup sugar ¾ teaspoon light corn syrup
2 ½ tablespoons cold water ½ teaspoon vanilla

1. In a double boiler set over simmering water, combine all the
ingredients except the vanilla. Using a hand mixer, beat the
mixture for 7 min or until thick and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla.
2. Frost top of cake and allow frosting to set before serving.

Monday, April 25, 2011

April Poetry Showers

 posted by Andrea Perry

Not only does April bring showers, it brings National Poetry Month as well. And the best combination of them both is Joan Bransfield Graham's wonderful shape poetry book, Splish SplashSplish Splash was my introduction into the wonderful world of shape poetry, and Graham's book is a delightful look at all of the shapes that water takes, from ice cubes, to waves, to rain showers, to rivers and babbling brooks.  The perfect marriage of poetry and art, shape poetry is a great way to have fun with the placement of words on a page to enhance the poetry experience.  Graham has the same fun with Flicker Flash, a collection of poems in the many shapes of light.  From a candle, to a flashlight, to a lighthouse, to a match, to a light bulb, the brightly colored full page illustrated poems are a de-"light."
Two other shape poetry collections that I am fond of are Doodle Dandies by J. Patrick Lewis, and Meow Ruff, A Story in Concrete Poetry, by Joyce Sidman.  As if poetry isn't enough fun, the added bonus of twisting, turning, blooming and exploding words is the icing on the cake. In a few of his poetry collections, author/illustrator Douglas Florian has also included a shape poem or two to accent the shape, movement, or habitat of his selected insect or creature.  If you have not yet been exposed to any shape poetry, make sure to check out these books at your local library, or take a poem out for a spin yourself.  It's a poetry party on the page!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

It's Raining Religion

Quick: what subject do you think is the most taboo in children’s and young adult literature? For my money, it’s not money, it’s not sex, it’s not even race, though that’s arguable.


Would you give your readers no sense of how old your character is, or what part of the country they live in, or how they feel about any of their relationships? Then why aren’t you giving any clue about their relationship with God (even if that relationship is nonbelief)? Or with their aunt who’s a nun? Or their next-door neighbor who is an observant Jew? Why are we not exploring religious questions? Or if we are, why in a diffuse May-The-Force-Be-With-You way that’s unconnected to practicing religion?

I think as writers we neglect religion because we’re afraid. Okay, being honest here, I’ll revise that to say that I’m afraid, so I’m wondering if other people are too. I’m mostly afraid I’ll do it wrong, or be cliché, or take shortcuts, or offend somebody, or be labeled, or have the religion be gratuitous. (Anybody else notice that you could easily substitute the word “sex” for religion here? Not a coincidence methinks.)

But I think we lose something when we make an end-run around religion. And that goes for whether you’re writing something with high stakes or issues, or a fun read. If we want characters with some depth and complexity, we might think about exploring just about the most complex subject there is.

Two quick hurrahs: Fellow Rt. 19 blogger Judy Press has a work-in-progress about an elementary-aged kid, Pinky, who is a detective. Pinky is hilarious with dead-on boy humor. He’s also Jewish, and that’s a big part of what makes him hilarious—not because the book is about being Jewish, but because it makes Pinky so real-life and specific. You feel like you really know Pinky. You’ll have to wait to read about Pinky’s exploits until a brilliant editor acquires it, but it will be worth the wait.

Another book you can read right now is Tyger, Tyger by Kersten Hamilton. The story is a fast-paced urban fantasy using Irish mythology and the Christian faith with a nice dose of romance. And great, quirky characters. The main characters are practicing Catholics, and not only does their faith make the characters more interesting, it is key to certain turning points. Given Irish history, it often astounds me when writers have Irish-based stories that completely ignore Catholicism. Tyger, Tyger is so much richer because the author embraced religion. A couple of interviews with the author: Uma Krishnaswami's blog and Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations Blog.

Have a Blessed Passover.

Have a Blessed Triduum.

Have a Joyous Easter.

Friday, April 15, 2011

This April, Series Reign

by Susan Chapek

NOTE. Still finding it impossible to edit images into my post. So I'm posting at text-only version. Just so I don't have this hanging over my head.

Margaret, in the Kidlit department at my local bookstore, tells me it didn't start with Harry Potter. "That series was like a spatter of raindrops. Hopeful, but you wonder whether you'll actually need the windshield wipers," she says. "It was Rick Riordan who really opened the floodgates."

She waves at the shelves labeled "Favorite Series, Ages 9 to 12." --216 linear feet of books, not counting end caps and islands. I see the familiar medal winners, scattered single volumes. But right now, Rick Riordan's three "mythological" series—and a host of imitators—reign supreme.

With series luring them on, are kids reading more? Margaret swears they are.

I have mixed feelings about series. As I kid, they often frustrated me. Loved them--but could never get enough, literally. Family economics meant never, absolutely never, browsing bookstores. I depended entirely on occasional gifts and the Cleveland Public Library.

But it's hard to read a sequential series when you're competing for a handful of library copies. To this day, I favor series (or collections) that can be read in random order.

In theory, a sequential series compressed into fewer, longer volumes should help solve that problem. But many of the new thick-volume series (especially the fantasy/quest variety) strike me as rambling, repetitive, rushed into print, carelessly crafted. Or the first book is great, and the rest—not so much. (I won't name names.)

So which longer fantasies quench my thirst for something both juicy and well-written? Megan Whalen Turner's ATTOLIA stories and Shannon Hale's BOOKS OF BAYERN (you don't have to read the latter in order, either).

But historical series are my passion. And my newest favorites sit face out on the shelf: Laurie Halse Anderson's thrilling CHAINS and FORGE.

Now let's talk quick reads. Many series offer a multitude of short-short variations on some admittedly interesting hook. I did, and still do, gobble such "shorties" down. But some of them are so ... style-free. I'd love to see more shorter series books that are also "literary"--like Gary Blackwood's SHAKESPEARE books (SCRIBE, SPY, and STEALER) and Nancy Springer's ENOLA HOLMES mysteries. I didn't see any of those on the shelves this month. They're in libraries, of course, and it looks like you can get them in e-editions. But how do you find out about them? (While I'm thinking about terrific short historicals, here's a note to Scholastic: please publish e-versions of Ann Rinaldi's wonderful QUILT TRILOGY.)

To its credit, Scholastic hired several "literary" authors to write the short, clever books in the 39 CLUES series. But readers who can't afford to buy all the books and clue cards can't fully participate in the puzzles and competitions. (Computer code numbers make sharing the books, even among siblings, impossible. Bah, humbug.)

Nestled among the glazed, holographed, and gilded new series are a precious few of my favorite old ones—timeless, elegant, nourishing as a long spring rain. Madeleine L'Engle's TIME stories; the AVONLEA books; Lloyd Alexander's PRYDAIN saga. You can usually find multiple copies in the library, too. So you can check out two or three consecutive volumes at a time, and read straight through.

The kid in me loves that.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

April Showers Us with Memories

by Marcy Collier

The beginning of spring always reminds me of spring cleaning. I am a pack rat. I come from a family of pack rats. My dad has started cleaning out his attic. It is raining and pouring – stuff! It's not unusual for me to come to work and find childhood toys scattered on the floor of my office or boxes left in my basement with all of my grade school papers. Does anyone else out there still have their 1970s Barbie corvette or camper, maybe your old Nancy Drew books? Maybe. Maybe not. But these items flood back childhood memories. Memories that I can use in future stories.

Recently, I was having a hard time writing a scene in my novel. I did everything from sketch the physical scene to write down sensory elements, but I couldn’t get it quite right. I paged through my old high school memory box and diary. I downloaded songs to my Ipod from when I was 17-years-old, the age of my character. I read through a top 100 list compiled at my summer job working at a water park. Then something clicked. I remembered the awkwardness of this age and reconstructed feelings from my character’s point of view, based on the memories and experiences of my 17-year-old self.
All writers love books. We like to touch the spine and hear the pages turn. With the demise of Borders and other small book stores in the Pittsburgh area like Joseph Beth Booksellers, local writers are worried. This has been a hot topic, especially on our blog. Will paper books disappear, replaced by only e-books? Will all the agents turn into publicists? I don’t know. But take a look at the transformation of music over the last 30 years. We listened to records, then cassette tapes, CDs, now downloads. In the 1980s people insisted kids would stop buying music and tape their favorite songs from the radio. The same happened in the 1990s with Napster and other music sharing sites. But people still buy music. The device has changed.
I envision future books to include integrated music, sound effects and maybe even sensory overloads, like those old scratch-n-sniff stickers, only more intense. Wouldn’t it be cool to hear the storm, smell the rain and feel the hair on the back of your neck stand on end as the villain corners your character into an old, rickety shed? Or, you could mute the sensors and sounds and simply imagine those details.

But as Carol pointed out in her post on Monday, April 11, 2011, the picture book experience is different. I have young children. I don't read to them from my Nook. I like to snuggle up in our comfy chair and read from a book. Studies have shown, reading to children from a digital device can interfere with their ability to focus on the text and process the information. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081219073049.htm
But as writers, should we embrace the future of electronic books even if we disagree? J.K. Rowling hasn't. At least not yet. The Harry Potter series is not currently available in electronic format, but rumors are she is reconsidering. http://www.tweentribune.com/content/harry-potter-your-ipad

Writers will still be in demand even if the device has changed. No one knows if books in paperback will disappear in 10 years. They certainly won’t in my house. Remember, I’m a pack rat. Books will be displayed on bookshelves and packed in boxes in my attic. I want to be able to sit my future grandchildren on my lap and read hard-covered picture books to them. But the newest reading device will also rest on my nightstand full of electronic literature. How do you see the book industry in 10 years, and will you embrace the change or fight it?      

Monday, April 11, 2011

In the Forecast: A Deluge of e-Picture Books?

Comparison of book version and ipad version of spreads from The Three Little Pigs illustrated by L. Leslie Brooke
Like Kitty in this post, I've been thinking about the flood of technology changes for readers. In particular, I've been amazed at the shift to ebooks: by the middle of 2010, Amazon reported that e-book sales for its Kindle device had surpassed those of hardcovers, and by early 2011, they had surpassed sales of paperbacks. That's a phenomenal shift in the way many people read books.

But like many other children's book people, I've been assuming that picture books are different, that they will persist almost exclusively as physical objects rather than evolve into electronic files to be consumed on a reader. (See, for example, this post by the fabulous author Eric Kimmel.)

For one thing, who wants to hand a young child an expensive electronic device to get dropped, banged, smudged with sticky fingers, and perhaps even drooled and chewed on? For another, reading with a young child is a cozy, physical experience - curling up with a screen just doesn't seem the same from an emotional viewpoint. Finally, there are all the difficulties of picture books that most e-readers aren't well designed to handle, beginning with color, and continuing through full spread illustrations, and the wide variety of sizes and shapes of books that don't translate precisely to the fixed screens of devices.

But I'm starting to realize I was wrong. Picture books are going "e" and I wonder how profound and rapid the shift will be.

Image on Color Nook from Go Dog, Go by P.D. Eastman
 One reason is the introduction of more e-readers that can handle color. The recent debut of the color Nook (the Barnes and Noble reader) and the growing popularity of tablets like the ipad means that more e-readers can provide a visually pleasing reading experience.
Screen shot of the cover of Green Eggs and Ham ipad app

Another is that the proliferation of ipads and other tablets is leading to the development of more and more picture book apps - a medium that's part book, part game, part animation. (See for example this recent NPR article on children's book apps for the ipad.) More "shiny" choices for kids = more people buying this format rather than traditional books.

I think too that I underestimated the comfort of young parents with sharing their electronics with their kids. In the grocery story now, I nearly always see a mom distracting a fussy toddler not with a cookie but with a game or book app on her expensive smart phone. (I'll also wager that there are teams of engineers right now developing readers aimed at hard-using tots.) And as this other NPR article reflects, today's parents don't feel as awkward as I do about snuggling at bedtime with a device and an interactive app that does all the work rather than a paper and board book that I have to read out loud myself.

So what do you think? Are ebooks going to replace traditional picture books? Do you use them? Love them or hate them?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

consider this

Posted by Kitty Griffin

It’s raining It’s pouring

The old man is snoring

Bumped his head

And he went to bed

And he couldn’t

Get up in the morning
Sometimes I read about the next new device coming our way and I want to go to bed and pull the covers up over my head. As my husband and I drove down Polish Hill into Pittsburgh’s Strip District, I couldn’t help but think that when my father-in-law was young he made this same trip—in a horse and wagon. And it really wasn’t that long ago. Our group talks about the digital landscape and we wonder how we’ll navigate. How do people who spend their lives thinking of stories fit in to this new world? Is there an app for that? I downloaded (of course) a new song from a Scottish group called, “We were promised jet packs.” It’s true, isn’t it? I really thought that by the time I’d reached this age I’d have a little jet scooter to get around on. All I have is a computer, Kindle, iPod, cell phone…so the transformation has been not in personal transportation, but in communication transportation, words at the speed of byte...oh George Orwell, you saw it all! What was that drug everyone had to take, Soma/Prozac/Zoloft? oh my.

Here’s my question to you—ten years from now, do you think there will still be books, hard copy, cover, dust jacket books? As writers, let’s consider the future, our future. What will a writer’s life be like in ten years?