A reference question on picturebooks about art

A patron emailed me looking for books to use in a class she is teaching called “Books and Art” for four and five year olds.  Amazing!  She was looking for picturebooks to use as read-alouds to inspire the chidlers’ projects – specfically books about creating art or using colour.

In an ideal world, I would have taken five days to answer this and sent her an annotated list of 100 books.  Then I would have gone home to read a new book by James Mashall  In reality, I had about 20 minutes and I went home to eat some Pilsbury Easter cookies I got for 35% off.  I thought it might be fun to share what I came up with.

Keep in mind that I was limited by what is in my library’s collection (we’re not super teensy, but we’re not huge either.  We serve about 33,000 people and are the only library in town).  Because I was short on time, I relied on my own knowledge but discovered 2 or 3 of the titles while browsing – yay for serendipity!  I also wanted to include some Canadian titles because I’m pretty gung-ho about promoting Canadian books.  I know I’m probably missing a buncha titles, so please feel free to leave more suggestions in the Comments.

Also, sorry that the books aren’t in any kind of order.  They were originally organized according to what was in and what was on loan at my library.  I also don’t have the authors and illustrators listed (where applicable) because we catalogue our picturebooks by author.  The annotations are the same ones I included in my response to the patron.

Picturebooks With an Art Theme for Reading Aloud to 4/5 Year Olds

The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau – John Agee
A classic story about an artist who paints animals..that come to life!

I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More – Karen Beaumont
An artistic take on the song “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More.”  A boy who gets in trouble for painting on the walls takes matters into his own hands and paints his whole body!

White is For Blueberry – George Shannon
A concept book that explores the not-so-obvious colours of familiar things – the black centre of a poppy, the green top of a turnip, and the purple hue of shadows on the snow.

I’m the Best Artist in the Ocean – Kevin Sherry
A big, bright, hilarious story about a giant squid who loves to paint.

My Many Colored Days – Dr. Seuss
A very sensitive offering from Seuss about the connotations of different colours.

The Party – Barbara Reid
While not about art, this book is noteworthy because the illustrations are done entirely in plasticine.  Reid is internationally known for her work with plasticine and has many, many stellar books.

The Dot – Peter H. Reynolds
Vashti hates making art but learns that even a random dot of ink can bring inspiration.

Draw Me a Star – Eric Carle
This is essentially a creation story about an artist who draws the world – starting with a single star.  There are directions at the end showing children how to draw the stars in the book.

Augustine – Melanie Watt
Augustine is a penguin who idolizes famous artists.  When she moves to a new school, her art helps her overcome her shyness.

The Imaginary Garden – Andrew Larsen.  Illustrations by Irene Luxbacher
This book actually includes painting lessons within the story.  After a young girl’s grandfather has to leave his beautiful home garden to relocate to an apartment, the pair find an artistic solution by painting a garden on a giant canvas.  The text might be a little long for a read-aloud for 4s and 5s, but it is really worth checking out.

Art and Max – David Wiesner
A perfect story for beginning artists with stunning, semi-surreal artwork about two reptilian friends.

Harold and the Purple Crayon – Crockett Johnson
A classic.  Harold steps into his own drawings and has all sorts of adventures.

Dog’s Colourful Day – Emma Dodd
A simple, engaging story about a white dog who gets into a rainbow of messes after his daily walk.  Any of Emma Dodd’s books are fantastic for this age group.

The Black Book of Colors – Menena Cottin
A completely one-of-a-kind book done all in black.  Different colours are described with words and with textured pages.  It gives very young children a sense of what it would be like to see the world without sight and to essentially “feel” different colours.

I got a very lovely thank-you email from the patron after she received the list saying how inspired she is now.  Can’t ask for anything more!  (plus, 4/14 Canadian books ain’t bad!)

Ricky Gervais is Wrong – Serendpitiy is (was) Awesome!

I recently saw a rerun of Inside the Actor’s Studio where Ricky Gervais said his least favourite word was “serendipity.”  That may be, Ricky, but it was one heckuva conference!

Serendipity is the name of an annual conference organized by the Vancouver Children’s Literature Roundtable.  It’s a big deal.  Big deal people come in from all over.  It’s not really a conference in that there are break-out sessions and such – it’s more of a day in an auditorium with a slew of really great children’s writers, illustrators, editors, etc.  In the past, they’ve hosted the likes of Katherine Paterson, Linda Sue Park, David Wiesner, David Macaulay, Cornelia Funke, David Shannon, Liz Bicknell (from Candlewick), and so many others. I think a lot of manager types are hesitant to send staff to conferences that don’t have an obvious practical bent.  But I don’t think you can put a price tag on the kind of inspiration you get after hearing from the creators of books you love (oh boy – CHEESE ALERT – but it’s true!).

In any event, it’s a highlight of life here on the West Coast of Canadaland and this year was no exception.  It took place last Saturday and I had the pleasure of Mcing. Billed as a graphic novel event the speakers were (in chronological order of the day):

Matt Holm

Raina Telgemeier

Gene Luen Yang

Valerie Wyatt (winner of the Roundtable’s Information Book Award for How to Build Your Own Country)

Jason Shiga & Aaron Renier (they gave the coolest workshop on making your own comic.  Watch this YouTube video!  Now!  It’s the most amazing, simple, and low-budget thing you can do with kids)

Aaron and Jason also joined in a panel discussion in the last hour but should have had their own spot on the bill, fo’ sho’.

There are two things I wonder when I hear about an event I didn’t attend:

  • What is that author/illustrator/big deal person really like?
  • What neat things were shared?

Let me answer those questions for the first three presenters.  Why just the first three?  I had a really bad cold and was too busy blowing my nose and sneezing in the afternoon to take notes.  Note: I wouldn’t include the answers to that first bullet if all of the speakers weren’t amazing people.  You’re not going to see me write “___________ was a major D-bag.”

Matt Holm

What’s he like?

He personifies joy itself, not unlike Wilson the Weasel.  A generous laugher (the BEST kind of person – one who laughs with you when you’re trying to make jokes to impress them) and so easygoing and mellow and seemingly unaware of what a big deal he is.

Neat things learned:

  • He showed us an amazing collection of old family photos – heartening and really lovely to see all the real-life love behind Babymouse
  • He frequently forgets to draw Babymouse’s tail
  • A Babymouse book takes a year from start to finish

Raina Telgemeier

What’s she like?

So genuine and sweet (real sweet – not syrupy) and speaks so well and confidently.  That gal is the kind of role model you want for your kids.  I mean, seriously.

Neat things learned:

  • Her dad bought her this graphic novel when she was a young ‘un and it really stuck with her
  • She was reading Bone back when it was being published every month.  She was on top of that, yo!  She’s legit.
  • She is inspired by Calvin and Hobbes (Matt Holm said he was too – actually, I think everyone on the panel mentioned it)
  • Ann M. Martin was none too pleased when she saw that Raina had given Claudia a haircut in the BSC graphic novels
  • Smile was in a Cul de Sac comic!!!

Gene Luen Yang

What’s he like?

HILARIOUS.  Puts Jon Scieszka to shame.  For REALS.  But so, so insightful and eloquent.  He seriously is Children’s Literature Ambassador material.  I was blown away.  RUN TO SEE HIM IF YOU GET THE CHANCE.

Neat things learned:

  • He received a grant from the Xeric Foundation.
  • Great quote – he said that all one needs to be a comic creator is “a healthy ignorance of your own artistic limitations.”
  • Another great quote – “Self-publishing in comics is proof that you’re awesome.”  He had some very enlightening things to say on the differences between self-publishing a novel vs. self-publishing a comic.
  • He did his MA in Education thesis on teaching math with comics.  He also put this into practice with one of his high school classes (he’s a part-time teacher too).  I begged him to do a book on this.

Another highlight was when Aaron Renier signed my copy of The Unsinkable Walker Bean. He asked me “What do you like?” I gave the most obvious answer, of course: “Girls with big hair.”  He obliged by drawing the cutest gal with big hair and her peppy little dog, all the while fretting that it wasn’t good enough.  I was like “Dude, it’s awesome!  I’m the dummy for answering your question with ‘Girls with big hair!'”  Here’s what it looked like:

Oh, and I also won a Babymouse sketch in the silent auction!

There you have it.  Serendipity’s 2012 theme is Asian children’s literature and Paul Yee is already booked!  I’m going to suggest that we try and wrangle Grace Lin into coming.  How cool would that be!?  Very.

October Was a Busy Chidler Book Month in Vancouver!

I spend a lot of time on Twitter – about 72% of that time is devoted to being jealous of all the cool stuff that happens in New York and Boston.  But Vancouver can get pretty bumpin’, especially in October and February.

October brings the Vancouver Children’s Literature Roundtable’s (VCLR’s) Illustrator’s Breakfast and the Vancouver International Writers Festival.  February brings the VCLR’s Serendipity Conference (2011 will have Matt Holm, Raina Telgemeier and Gene Luen Yang!)

This year’s Illustrator’s Breakfast featured Pierre Pratt.  It really doesn’t get any better than French-Canadian illustrators.  I mean, seriously.  There’s Monsieur Pratt, of course, but there’s also Marie Louise Gay and Melanie Watt and so many others  (this is such a fun website if you want to see a buncha Quebec illustrator talent).

Pierre Pratt was very charming and showed us some striking Little Red Riding Hood illustrations – while he doesn`t have a publisher attached to the project, he’s thinking of doing a wordless Little Red book.  That would be so cool!  I need to start bringing my camera to things, but here’s a crappy Blackberry photo:

You can't see it very well, but that's Little Red actually walking up the Wolf's tongue. Amazing!

The next week was the Vancouver International Writers Festival where I had the pleasure of introducing Kenneth Oppel, Richard Scrimger, Kevin Sylvester and Richard Newsome.  Here are a few things you should know about each of them:

Kenneth Oppel: He’s a super funny guy.  Who knew!?  He looks so serious and pensive (and dreamy!) in all his author photos but he’s a laugh riot.

Richard Scrimger: Do Americans know about him?  They should.  Add him to your “I need something for a teenage boy who won’t read anything” list.  Oh boy, and he’s so funny too.

Kevin Sylvester: Also funny!  There was a lot of funny going on.  I don’t think there are enough books about kids and cooking and mystery.  Sylvester has this market down.  And he sent me a thank you email after his presentation!  So classy!  I’ll be printing that off and selling it on eBay if times get tough…

Richard Newsome: I’m sad to report that Richard Newsome didn’t offer to adopt me.  You can tell he’d be the greatest dad and The Billionaire’s Curse is so good (and so hot right now).  And the book trailer is beyond impressive and special effect-y (the first one on the page).  Puts Titanic to shame.

And I almost forgot – I won a piece of Julie Flett’s artwork at the silent auction at the Pierre Pratt breakfast.  It now hangs in my office.  She is one of my all-time favourite illustrators and was just nominated for a Governor General’s award.  NB: The Moccasins is the simplest, most beautiful story for kids growing up in foster families (not to mention being a positive, loving portrayal of a First Nations family).

"Blueberry Bird"

These were just the events I managed to get to – October also brought the start of a year-long position as the Head of Youth Services at the Port Moody Public Library (the most fantastic public library I could ever hope to work at), my very first guest review (i.e. – the long ass 950 word review) for Quill & Quire and committing to be on the Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s 2011 Best Books for Kids & Teens Committee.  I’ll be looking at non-fiction, so things might get a little factual ’round these parts for the next couple months.

Scholastic’s I Am Canada Series: Making History Manly

Awhile ago, I posted in anticipation of Scholastic’s new I Am Canada series.  I had a few reservations.  My feelings about the name remain (a bit beer commercially), but I’m won over by the prettiness.

The first two books are Hugh Brewster’s Prisoner of Dieppe and Paul Yee’s Blood and Iron. Both these authors are natural choices for these topics as they’ve already done their homework: Brewster’s Dieppe: Canada’s Darkest Days of World War II came out last year and no one should ever forget about Paul Yee’s Tales From Gold Mountain and Ghost Train.

The I Am Canada website, as is the case with the Dear Canada site, is stellar.  It is also  imbued with a healthy amount of testosterone and perfectly reflects the books in all their navy blue glory.  I’m really impressed with the cover design – it has enough in common with Dear Canada with the photo and the weathered paper, but also stands alone, too.  These boys and girls sure look smart together, don’t they?

We stand on guard for good book design.

It’s interesting that the I Am Canada books seem available only in paperback (correct me if I’m wrong here).  Perhaps because of the maxim that boys prefer paperbacks?  If so, very interesting.

While I think boys might be reluctant to read the Dear Canada books (there’s a picture of a chick on the front, plus the hardcovers have a ribbon for a bookmark), I can see gals partaking in I Am Canada.

Next up is to give these new boys on the block a read and see how they measure up.  But with authors like Brewster and Yee on board, I suspect the final verdict will be… Shannon: 0  I Am Canada: 1

Book Covers: Testicular Heart Cherries are to Girly YA as Silhouettes are to Evolution Kidlit

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that silhouetted book covers and evolution have been mad played out lately.  Behold, this image I constructed with Microsoft Word and a screenshot program (Photoshop is beyond me) that I posted a few months ago to illustrate what many others already know:

Sidenote: I am introducing Half Brother author Kenneth Oppel (along with some other very talented authors like Richard Newsome and Richard Scrimger) at the Vancouver International Writers Festival next month.  Lots of swooning to follow.

I snarikly tweeted some time ago that Lo Bosworth of The Hills has a book coming out that features some testicular-looking cherries on the front.  But it seems she’s not alone!  Alexandra Diaz’s Of All the Stupid Things also has the same testicular cherries, complete with matching heart stem!

Diaz’s cover was first, so Lo is officially getting sloppy seconds.  If I find a third cover like this (three cherries – very Vegas slot machine), methinks it will officially be a trend.

The Unfinishables (or, book trauma)

“If I open you, I will finish you.”

This is the creed I stick to whilst reading.  I am incapable of not finishing a book.  I can take a book out of the library, mind you, and not read it, but once I start it, it’s on.

Holy Toledo – there were four commas in that 22 word sentence.  That’s way too many.  I’m just going to leave them there as a kind of cautionary comma tale.

I believe the worst experience was in Grade 11 when we were all forced to read Who Has Seen the Wind by W.O Mitchell.  The classroom jokes included calling the book Who Has Seen the Plot and “Woooaaaahhh, Mitchell – your book is bad.”  I think I was the only one who finished the cursed thing.  I realize that hating this books makes me a bad Canadian, and an even worse Saskatchewanian, but I FINISHED IT.

Thinking back, there are only four books I haven’t been able to finish.  I’ll start with the least traumatizing and work my way up.  Give the pictures a clickaroo for more info on the books (especially Abadzis’ awesome Laika “micro-site”).

Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading by Lizzie Skurnick.  Avon: 2009.

This books is full of plucky, spunky, funny, articulate essays on everything from Harriet the Spy to Forever (yes, Skurnick’s definition of teen is kinda liberal).  My plan was to read one of the essays each night before bed.  That meant I would take at least a couple of months to finish the book, but it would be a fun lil’ pre-sleep routine.  Well, not so much.  Why?  The dang thing was chalk-full of spoilers!  While I had read a good chunk of the titles featured in the book, there were many still in my “To Read” shelf on goodreads.  So, I had no choice.  I had to put it down a mere twenty-some pages in.  I know I just could have plowed through, as no plot synopsis or analysis is a substitute for the real thing, but I just couldn’t do it.  This is not to say that Shelf Discovery is a bad book.  Quite the opposite.  But I just couldn’t live with the spoilers.


The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.  HarperCollins: 2009.

There are two things in life that scare me: spiders and home invasion.  I have had an irrational fear of both since childhood.  This  means that I can’t handle Coraline or The Graveyard Book. I’ve never even attempted Coraline because so many people have warned me against it (my spider fear is intense, folks).  But I was determined to read The Graveyard Book because what kind of self-respecting youth librarian isn’t all over Gaiman?  Besides, everyone told me the scene at the beginning is quick, non-explicit, and that it can be easily digested by nine-year-olds.  I gave up by the second page, scared out of my bloomers.  I’ve tried several times, even skipping over the first few pages, but I just can’t hack it.  (Note: I also tried The Graveyard Book audiobook.  That didn’t work either.  Gaiman’s voice box clearly comes from the same factory as Boris Karloff’s.  Spooksville).

Before I Die by Jenny Downham.  David Fickling: 2007.

Man, I love well-written, angsty YA.  Gayle Forman, Jandy Nelson, Sara Zarr – I love it. I like some grit, some real trauma, some good ol’ fashioned naughty bits.  When I read the (mostly starred) reviews of Before I Die, I knew it was for me.

The premise is simple (teen girl has just months to live and wants to go off her chain before the end) but all the reviewers said the execution was brilliant, raw, and beyond expectation.  Since it’s in this blog post, you know I couldn’t get through it.  I gave up around page 30.  Maybe things turned around in the end (I don’t think they do), but I couldn’t get over the “die” part.  This was three years ago and lately I’ve been thinking of trying this one again.  But for the time being, it remains an Unfinishable.

Laika by Nick Abadzis.  First Second: 2007.

I tried to read this at the lake this summer.  ‘Tis not beach reading, y’all.  Laika was the first animal sent into space.  It didn’t go so well.

I was about 2/3 into this book before my other half had to come outside, extract my bawling self from a lawn chair, and say firmly “I don’t think you should read this anymore.”   He then had to hide it at the bottom of his suitcase and return it to the library for me because I couldn’t even look at it.  The only thing more upsetting for me than this book was when I thought the baby alien was going to die in District 9. Seriously.

Laika is terrifically well done, but I think that was the problem for me.  I still can’t shake it.  It’s like Old Yeller but in Russia/space.  That makes it about 40 million times more intense.

In my experience, I find that recommending an Unfinishable to a child or teen is more effective than anything else.  If I can honestly say “I was too traumatized to even finish this book,” it will fly off the shelf.  Of course, I’m not going around trying to traumatize chidlers.  But Unfinishables make great sells.  They issue a challenge:

I couldn’t get through this book.  Can you?

Kids and Adult Book Covers (or, how the late Timothy Findley gave me a complex)

I just returned from spending seven lazy days at my family’s cabin in Saskatchewan. The highlights of this trip included a whole buncha reading, eating an entire jar of Nutella, and continuously being amazed at the sheer number of gophers that inhabit my home province.

The low point of this prairie vacay entailed losing sleep over the memory a book cover I first saw 16 years ago.

As a chidler, I spent a good portion of my summers with some cousins at Loon Lake in Saskatchewan.  When I was nine or ten, my Aunt was in loco parentis for a bunch of us as all the other adults were off doing who-knows-what.  This Aunt was the model reader.  She always had a book in hand (usually impressively thick) and I longed for the time I would be able to tackle tomes of that girth.  But one day, I glanced over and saw that she was reading this:

I had to wait until the very last second to insert this image because it makes me want to put a blanket over my head and weep with fear. But at least Findley's Canadian. Sheila Egoff would be proud.

Holy Mother of Pearl. That was one scary sack of potatoes for me circa 1993.

I saw the word “Headhunter” and it dawned on me, for the very first time in my life, that there could actually be people in the world, perhaps at our very lake, who hunted human heads.  And these individuals were bald and had highly expressive eyebrows.

Us cousins often slept up in the deluxe treehouse my Uncle had built and that evening, after our nightly routine of everyone making fun of the amount of allergy and asthma medications I had to take before bed, I laid awake in terror thinking about the “Headhunter.”  I made up a simple yet detailed narrative  about how he would break into the treehouse at night and, after much snarling, glaring, and general intimidation, rid us of our young heads.

This was my standard scared-of-the-dark scenario at the lake, but after my Uncle sold the cabin a few years later, I didn’t give the Double H much thought.  But last week, when a reasonably assertive Saskatchewan thunderstorm started brewing around the new cabin, something went off in my brain and I remembered that book cover.  I tried to shake it off but I eventually had to jump out of bed, turn all the lights on, and pace about while the cat looked at me with a mix of empathy and disgust.

And then I got to thinking about book covers.  Children’s lit types (and all lit types, in fact) have been speculating about the elusive book cover since the dawn of the codex. It’s fascinating stuff. What will lure kids into opening a book? What will turn kids off?  Is there some kind of magic formula that will appeal to both the child reader and the librarian, educator, or parent who handles the cash? There is even talk of judging a book by its spine which is equally as fascinating.

But, has anyone ever wondered how young people judge covers of adult books?  Probably not, because it doesn’t really matter.  After all, most children under ten don’t have much money, and if they did, the last thing they would be doing is hitting up Amazon for the new Yann Martel for pops.

So, while I don’t think my Findley-induced phobia suggests that adult covers should be designed with children in mind, I think it does serve as tangible evidence of the power that books, and their covers, have on young people far before they may be ready to crack the spine.

Dear Canada: I AM you.

Sarah Ellis: a.k.a the bomb diggety, Canada's Katherine Paterson, and the person I ask Santa to turn my into every Christmas

Scholastic’s Dear Canada books are the ultimate reference desk crossover books.  I’ve recommended them on the job both at the public library (for chidlers wanting some good historical fiction) and the academic library (for teachers looking for books to integrate into the curriculum).  They’re well-written, have teacher resources, and are very, very purdy.  What’s more, they have often been my “I’m stressed out and need something I know will be good to read in the bathtub” book of choice.  My favourite one is  A Prairie as Wide as The Sea: The Immigrant Diary of Ivy Weatherall by Sarah Ellis. I was born, had my awkward years, and did my undergraduate degree in Saskatchewan and worship at the alter of Sarah Ellis, so this isn’t really a surprise.

The authoresses of the Dear Canada books are the best in the country, and I remember being tickled with glee when I heard a boy was being let into the all-girls club.  Perry Nodelman joined the ladies in 2007 with Not a Nickel to Spare: The Great Depression Diary of Sally Cohen and the series chugged along being dependably awesome.

However, while Dear Canada works with both reference desks, it doesn’t totally work with both genders as the main characters (not to mention all the authors except Nodelman) have been chicks.  But the Canadian Children’s Book Centre recently announced that there would be a new series, just for dudes called…drumroll…

I AM CANADA.

Okay.  Here’s what I think about that…

First: It really, really, really (really) sounds like a certain beer commercial.  By “a certain beer commercial” I mean this beer commercial.

Second: Won’t girls  have the reaction of, “Hey, I’M Canada, too!”  I kinda did.  And I’m a girl.

Third: Why can’t the new books with a boy focus just be incorporated under the already-existing Dear Canada series? Is there an assumption that boys might not be into the Dear Canada title because of its association with writing?  I’m not saying that the association with writing will or won’t turn boys off, but perhaps that was a consideration in deciding the name?  Perhaps it was thought that the connotation had to be something more of “I am a man who stands on a mountain and wears beaver pelts!” as opposed to “I am a thoughtful, pensive citizen who favours written communication over killing a beaver with my bare hands?”

In any event, I can’t wait to read them, see what they look like, and see how much boys love them. I’m super pumped to see John Wilson on the list of authors who will kick off the series.  I met him during my time as Coordinator of the Canada Book Camp and he is a stand-up guy and a huge hit with the chidlers (especially when he busts out some WWII stories).