Tell me there’s a story about cats and books and I’m in! New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul’s picture book, Rectangle Time, unfolds from the family’s calico cat’s perspective. Through humor and heartwarming moments, the cat and boy grow from lap reading to independent reading—the calico certainly has its opinions about which type it prefers. “Watch carefully: See how the man and the boy hold the rectangle together? That means they each have one hand free for me.”
As a parent, I appreciate the well-depicted bittersweet moments of a child’s independence as well as the clever commentary from the cat. “Look at the poor little guy. He’s just . . . staring at the rectangle,” the cat thinks when the boy picks up a book on his own. As any cat owner knows, it’s all about the cat; this comes through strongly in the calico’s continued need to be the center of attention.
Becky Cameron’s art will make you laugh as she captures feline moods from furry contentment to perplexed then miffed. The secret second cover (look under the book jacket) echoes the satisfying ending.
I’m thrilled to have Alexis back on GRWR to talk about her latest picture book biography and the quirky visionary she chose to write about.
Melvil Dewey’s love of organization and words drove him to develop andimplement his Dewey Decimal system, leaving a significant and lasting impact in libraries across the country.
When Melvil Dewey realized every library organized their books differently, he wondered if he could invent a system all libraries could use to organize them efficiently. A rat-a-tat speaker, Melvil was a persistent (and noisy) advocate for free public libraries. And while he made enemies along the way as he pushed for changes–like his battle to establish the first library school with women as students, through it all he was EFFICIENT, INVENTIVE, and often ANNOYING as he made big changes in the world of public libraries–changes still found in the libraries of today!
Buy the book from your local independent bookseller.
Good Reads With Ronna: It’s like the history of Melvil Dewey has been hiding in plain sight all these years. I never gave much thought to his decimal system of book organization for libraries, and definitely never figured it out. What sparked your curiosity into the man and his contributions?
Alexis O’Neill: I hadn’t given him much thought either, Ronna, until a librarian friend sent me a funny video she used to help teach kids the Dewey Decimal System. That made me realize I didn’t know a thing about the inventor of this seemingly ubiquitous system.
GRWR: Apart from what Melvil Dewey is most famous for, what other ideas did you discover during your research phase that he championed which have impacted our lives?
AON: Dewey really championed education for all. He was concerned about rural Americans as well as the waves of new immigrants having easier access to information. He also was a proponent of the Simplified Spelling movement, a precursor to today’s texting – getting rid of vowels and extra letters in words that hindered or were unnecessary to pronunciation – like “tho” for “though.” He chopped “Melville” down to “Melvil” but when there was an outcry, was convinced not to change “Dewey” to “Dui.”
GRWR: Let’s talk about Dewey’s dream of a librarian school at Columbia College where he was the chief librarian. Trustees did “not want women on their campus.” So how did he succeed?
AON: He got around them by following the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law. When Columbia College Trustees refused to have women on campus, Dewey bent rules to his needs: he opened his School of Library Economy in a storeroom over the chapel across the street. The entering class had seventeen women and three men.
GRWR: Dewey is referred to in the jacket flap as “EFFICIENT, INVENTIVE, and often annoying.“ Can you describe some of his quirky character traits?
AON: Even if Dewey had no fatal flaws (and he indeed had them), I still don’t think I’d be able to stand being in the same room with him for very long. He talked incessantly and rapidly. While the average American speaks at about 100-130 words per minute, one of Dewey’s students clocked him at a rate of 180 words per minute. When he tried to convince others about one of his ideas, he was like a dog on a bone. From a very young age and throughout his life, he obsessively kept lists of things such as his height, weight, assets, and more. And he fixated on the number 10, thus decimals. He wrote, “I am so loyal to decimals as our great labor saver that I even like to sleep decimally” (in other words, 10 hours a night.)
GRWR: Melvil approached every endeavor and encounter in his life at 100 mph. The train visuals speeding through the pages of your story perfectly convey this energy. Do you think he moved at this pace because he had so much to accomplish in his lifetime that was predicted to be short after he inhaled smoke during a fire in his youth?
AON: Dewey grew up in a deeply religious, restrictive household. He was always concerned with wastefulness and a desire “to leave the world a better place than when I found it.” But when he was recuperating from a fire at his school as a teen, this desire became an obsession as did his preoccupation with efficiency.
GRWR: There are a lot of words printed in bold throughout the book. You also ask young readers several questions throughout it as well. Can you explain why?
AON: I wanted readers to come along with the book’s narrator on a breathless ride in “real-time” as Dewey’s driving energy rushes through the years. I used present tense, direct questions, and bolded words to make the narrative voice break the fourth wall and emphasize the surprise the narrator feels while making observations about Dewey.
GRWR: What made Dewey fall out of favor in the public’s eye?
AON: A couple of decades into his career, Dewey was exposed as a racist, anti-Semite, and serial sexual harasser. He had created the Lake Placid Club that specifically excluded people of color, Jews, and other religious groups. And there had been justified complaints for years in the American Library Association, a group he helped found, about Dewey’s serial harassment of women. For his actions, he was censured by the NYS Board of Regents for his discriminatory practices, forced to resign from his positions as State Librarian and director of the library school, and ostracized by the ALA.
GRWR: How do you reconcile Dewey’s love of books and reading driving his initial motivation to help immigrants and those who cannot afford books with his bigoted views of Jews and others?
AON: I really can’t reconcile or explain this.
GRWR: Is it hard to write about someone whose personal views you may not necessarily like or agree with?
AON: Dewey’s goal was to make the world a better place. So the question is, did his classification system make the world a better place? I believe it did. It expanded educational opportunities for the general public by making access to information more efficient. There are countless examples of artists, scientists, and others whose negative personal behaviors are hard to reconcile with their contributions, but their contributions have made significant, positive differences in so many lives.
GRWR: You used to write fiction and of late have switched to nonfiction kidlit, primarily biographies. What about writing fact-based stories appeals to you? And what do you think kids like about them?
AON: I still write fiction, but I love American history! Early in my writing career, I wrote many articles for Cobblestone Magazine, and doing the research was a kick. Like me, I think kids are excited to know when something is real. Some facts–especially in history or science–just take my breath away.
GRWR: Where do you turn to for story inspiration?
AON: Footnotes in books, articles, videos – lots of things spark ideas for stories. I never know where the next spark comes from or if it will flame into a book.
GRWR: If you’re able to divulge this info, what is on your radar for your next picture book?
AON: Right now, I have a couple of fiction picture books circulating, and I’m working on a middle-grade nonfiction project. After so many years of writing “tight,” doing long-form work is challenging. I keep wanting to cut words!
Thanks for this opportunity, Ronna!
GRWR:What a treat it’s been to have you back here to share your insights about Melvil Dewey, Alexis. I will never look at those numbers in the library the same way again!
Alexis O’Neill is the author of several picture books including The Recess Queen, the winner of several children’s choice awards, and The Kite That Bridged Two Nations, a California Young Reader Medal Nominee. Her new picture book biographies are Jacob Riis’s Camera; Bringing Light to Tenement Children and The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey. Alexis received the California Reading Association’s award for making significant and outstanding contributions to reading throughout California and is an instructor for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.
YOU LOVES EWE! (A Yam and Donkey Book) Written and illustrated by Cece Bell (Clarion Books; $17.99, Ages 4-7)
★Starred Review – Kirkus Reviews
I yam what I yam and what I yam is crazy about Cece Bell’s read aloud,You Loves Ewe!Reminiscent of Abbott and Costello’s famous “Who’s on First?” sketch, Bell’s picture book is full of laugh out loud moments from wordplay whimsy and homonym hilarity.
A yam introduces himself and a sweet little ewe to Donkey. The character Donkey doesn’t seem to understand that the ewe being referred to is not YOU, or in Donkey’s case, him. He thinks everything Yam says is directed at him. Poor Yam gets mildly frustrated and with the help of Ewe, makes posters and spells out the difference between the words EWE and YOU. “Look. EWE and YOU are two different words. They sound the same. But they do not mean the same thing.”
More fun follows when other examples of homonyms are offered such as DOE and DOUGH, MOOSE and MOUSSE and HARE and HAIR. Further complicating things is a romantic twist. More zaniness and misunderstandings occur when Yam declares his love for Ewe. Why? Because Ram, who spotted Ewe during an earlier homonym lesson, also confesses he’s in love with Ewe. Children will be giggling and perhaps even talking back to the book during Donkey’s confusion. After all of the word mix-ups, you may wonder who Ewe loves. Ah, that’s not something I’ll reveal to you ewe, I mean you, write (right) now!
Bell’s vibrant, outlined artwork will please kids who love bold graphics and picture books featuring cartoon frames. What a wonderful way to get kids excited about the intricacies of the English language!
With British royalty in the news so frequently of late, it seems only fitting to share Judy Moody and The Right Royal Tea Party, a brill new chapter book from Megan McDonald that is sure to get readers raring to look up their family trees. As always, this internationally best-selling series features the inimitable artwork of Peter H. Reynolds, bringing the plucky, sometimes stubborn and bossy, but always irresistible Judy Moody to life. Reynolds’ illustrations keep the story fresh and relatable from start to finish.
Judy Moody’s learning about family trees in Social Studies and teacher Mr. Todd wants everyone to research their lineage and report back. Lovable Grandma Lou’s got some interesting facts from her husband’s side of the family including one relative who died a hero on the Titanic and another who, family lore has it, goes back to the time of Queen Elizabeth I. In fact the name ‘Moody’ means brave and that long ago brave cousin might possibly have rescued someone from the Tower of London, the famous prison. Well that’s all Judy needed to hear to decide her ancestry’s tied to that of the current royal family, namely the Queen. It makes sense to Judy since she has a pen pal there already and her favorite color, purple, is the color of nobility. So no surprise that it doesn’t take long for Judy to imagine herself as Queen. She even writes a fab and funny letter to HRH with questions that are sure to crack up young readers. Here’s one of my favorite questions: Can you make someone bring you a snowball in the middle of summer? In true Judy Moody style, this young wanna-be royal creates a castle in her backyard and even digs a moat causing some royal run ins with her brother, recently dubbed Sir Short Shanks.
When visiting a nearby castle with her family, Judy and her younger brother, Stink, spy her frenemy Jessica Finch enjoying a tea party on the premises. Blimey! How could Jessica have all the fun and all the tea? Judy decides she’s going to throw a high tea party of her own, a right royal one. Only things go south quickly once Jessica Finch shares her family tree in class 3T and Judy’s seeing all shades of blue. Does she smell a rat or is she related to its keeper? Crikey! What’s a royal red-head to do? When no one shows up to her party, Judy’s dreams of queendom fade fast. Luckily a pinkie promise to keep a secret secure saves the day and Judy bounces back like any noble blooded royal would.
Filled with kid-friendly facts and puns galore, Judy Moody and The Right Royal Tea Party also includes lots of British English words and expressions explained in the back matter. It feels like McDonald had a terrific time writing the book because it reads so effortlessly and the humor flows from one fun scene to the next. Now that there’s going to be a royal birth this spring, kids will find this timely fourteenth book absotively posolutely the bees knees, no lie!
AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET: BEN FRANKLIN AND NOAH WEBSTER’S SPELLING REVOLUTION Written by Beth Anderson Illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley (Paula Wiseman Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
is reviewed today by Cathy Ballou Mealey.
Anderson’s debut picture book, AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET, will resonate with young readers who are in the thick of mastering the spelling oddities of American English. While some may doubt they have anything in common with Noah Webster or Ben Franklin, Anderson makes a convincing case why the two revolutionaries should be lauded for efforts to unite a young America through common spelling and language conventions.
Writer and printer Benjamin Franklin was frustrated by inconsistent spelling. He tried to simplify the alphabet by removing extraneous letters, but his work did not catch on. Post-Revolution, Noah Webster was also vexed by grammar and pronunciation differences. His solution was the creation of a written guide to American English, but that also did not win public favor.
When Franklin and Webster finally met in Philadelphia, their shared interests in reading, writing, language and education sparked a new synergy between them. They agreed that “Using twenty-six letters to write forty-four sounds caused nothing but trouble.” Together they decided to devise a new alphabet in which letters matched sounds and sounds matched letters.
Franklin, the elder partner, left young Webster to the task of winning the hearts and minds of Americans to these spelling reforms. It was a long, uphill battle, even for these two accomplished and educated thinkers, to reach their ambitious goal. Yet Webster’s ultimate solution – a dictionary – was successfully published in 1806 with 37,000 entries, laying the groundwork for the spelling and grammar resources we use today.
Anderson’s illuminating text incorporates playful examples of inconvenient homonyms and confusing phonetic spellings that readers will appreciate. Baddeley cleverly energizes the subtle wordplay with colorful block letters that envelop and accost the main characters. Whimsical wallpaper, silly signage and quirky colonial architecture offer bold and brilliant punny details. In addition, charming dog and cat characters, explained in the postscript, provide lighthearted counterpoint to the “two men wearing tights and ponytails” throughout.
Thoroughly researched and delightfully presented, AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET is a unique look at a new kind of “revolution” and a lively choice for its approachable introduction to the history of American English.
I practically live in my local library so I’ve always found books about them quite appealing. Josh Funk’s latest, Lost In The Library, is no exception. Even the colors illustrator Stevie Lewis has used look like library colors: warm browns and beiges, deep rusts, soft greens and grays. I could even feel the cool hallways, hear the echoes of feet and the crisp flipping of page turns and, last but not least, smell centuries-worth of books, some old and dusty, others new and slick.
That brings me to Funk’s wonderful story about two iconic library lions who sit atop plinths in front of the Main Branch of the New York Public Library. Patience and Fortitude, so dubbed by Mayor LaGuardia, have rested in those spots since the 1930s. Lost in the Library, a rhyming picture book, begins with Fortitude noticing that Patience is missing. He then heads into the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (aka the Main Branch) to find his friend and, thanks to his search, provides readers a vicarious visit inside this 100 plus years-old library. While hunting in the wee morning hours before opening time, Fortitude meets various statues, paintings and even a lion fountain located throughout the building’s abundant and beckoning rooms and halls. Each new encounter brings him closer to Patience with hints for savvy youngsters that the lion is no stranger to the vast corridors of the NYPL.
During a well-timed moment of reflection, Fortitude shares how he and Patience weren’t always pals. In fact Fortitude initially mistook Patience’s shyness for rudeness but with time the lions grew close. The main feature that helped form the bond of their friendship was Patience’s gift of storytelling. “Fortitude cherished each one.” Determined now to find his buddy, Fortitude, with the help of a trusty Visitor’s Guide, finally locates Patience in the place most adult readers likely suspected, The Children’s Center. With its bright, welcoming colors, the room is filled with everyone’s favorite books by their beloved authors and illustrators. It seems the storytelling lion’s secret source was there on the shelves of the library all along!
There aren’t a lot of people in the story, but artist Lewis has given those who briefly appear a cool retro style which adds to the timeless quality of the library’s decor so beautifully illustrated. And I love how Funk seamlessly weaves Fortitude’s quest for Patience with the library tour and notable library attractions. I cannot wait to go back to NYC to have another visit and I bet attendance has soared since this book’s publication! The back matter includes interesting information about the library’s lions and other facts that even I, a former New Yorker, didn’t know. This touching tribute to libraries everywhere and the enduring power of great stories will endear it to readers young and old. Getting lost never felt better.
THE FANTASTIC LIBRARY RESCUE AND OTHER MAJOR PLOT TWISTS Written by Deborah Lytton Illustrated by Jeanine Murch (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky; $7.99, Ages 8 and up)
Read Our Q & A With Author Deborah Lytton
On today’s post I’m excited to share a recent interview I had with author, Deborah Lytton, about book #2 in the Ruby Starr series, The Fantastic Library Rescue and Other Major Plot Twists, which came out earlier this month. Having thoroughly enjoyed this chapter book for middle grade readers* that includes illustrations of Ruby’s active imagination at work, I can see how much tweens and bibliophiles will gravitate to the series, and this new book in particular, especially since it tackles two important issues: libraries losing funding and friendship predicaments. I especially like that Ruby’s friend Will P is also in a bookclub, something I don’t usually see depicted in stories. Here’s how Sourcebooks Jabberwocky describes Lytton’s latest:
The second book in this fun series that’s perfect for younger fans of the Dork Diaries and Story Thieves series. Ruby Starr is an older Junie B. Jones with a big imagination and a love of reading.
Ruby Starr’s life is totally back on track. Her lunchtime book club, the Unicorns, is better than ever. And she and Charlotte, her once arch enemy, are now good friends. The only thing that’s really causing any drama is her upcoming poetry assignment. She’s a reader, not a poet!
But disaster strikes when Ruby learns that her most favorite place in the world, the school library, is in trouble. Ruby knows she and the Unicorns have to do something to help. But when Ruby’s plans end up hurting a friend, she’s not sure her story will have a happy ending after all.
Q & A:
GOOD READS WITH RONNA:Ruby is a charming, book-loving outgoing yet introspective fifth grader. And while she is not perfect she certainly is someone any parent would be proud of. Do you happen to know any Rubys? And if not, how did you wind up with her as a main character for your series?
DEBORAH LYTTON: I do know a Ruby. My inspiration for this series came from my younger daughter who was in fifth grade when I began writing the first book. My YA SILENCE had just been released, and my older daughter was reading it. My younger daughter wanted me to write something for her to read. She asked for a story that would make her laugh. I based the character of Ruby on her initially, but then as I began to write, the character took on her own qualities. My favorite part of writing is when the characters begin to shape themselves. That definitely happened with Ruby Starr.
GRWR:What do you love most about her?
DL:I love that Ruby makes a lot of mistakes, but always tries to fix them. My favorite thing about Ruby is her kindness. She thinks about other people and their feelings and tries to help them when she can. This is a quality I truly admire. I also enjoy writing Ruby because she is so imaginative.
GRWR:I realize this is book #2 in the series but yet I felt fully up-to-speed. Can you please tell readers briefly what happens in book #1?
DL: I am so happy to hear that you felt up-to-speed! It was really important to me to write a second book that would let readers jump right in. Book #1 establishes Ruby’s character and her love for reading. The story centers on friendship troubles. When a new girl joins Ruby’s fifth grade class, she begins pulling Ruby’s friends away from her. Then she threatens to destroy Ruby’s book club. Ruby has a difficult time, and then she learns something about the new girl that changes everything. Ultimately, books bring the friends together.
GRWR:Is there a book #3 on the horizon?
DL:Yes, I am really excited about Ruby’s third adventure. I have just finished the manuscript and I can tell you that Ruby and her friends get into a little bit of a mix-up and that it all begins with a very special book.
GRWR:As a kidlit reviewer I love that Ruby is in a book club (The Unicorns), and as a writer I love Ruby’s vivid imagination. Did your own childhood inform these traits or did you feel she’d need these qualities to be a role model for tweens or someone many young readers could relate to?
DL:Growing up, my sister and I were like Ruby. We loved reading. Both of us cherish books and have saved many of our favorites from when we were young readers. My own daughters also love to read. In spending time helping out in their school classrooms and libraries, I have seen how many students enjoy books. I loved the idea that a fifth grade student would be independent enough to start her own book club at school to celebrate reading. Then I thought it would be fun to see where her imagination would take her, especially since she would be inspired by all the books she had read and loved. I hope young readers who have stayed up late just to read the next chapter of a book will connect with a character who is like them.
GRWR:The hero’s journey that Ruby embarks on is to save the school library where the hours have been reduced and new book purchases have been shelved due to funding cutbacks. Was this plot line inspired by stories you’ve seen in the news or even closer to home here in L.A.?
DL:I have volunteered in the libraries at my daughters’ schools so I have seen first-hand the way that budget cuts have impacted the libraries. I have also helped students search for the perfect book to read and then watched their faces light up when they discover something really special. Libraries are so valuable to our youth. I wanted to highlight that message in this story.
THE WORD COLLECTOR Written and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds (Orchard Books/Scholastic; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
Some kids collect stamps, rocks, or baseball cards; Jerome collects words. In The Word Collector, we can see and read how this young boy appreciates the way words sound and the way they look on the page. In his scrapbooks, he sorts them. While words can be beautiful and fun, Jerome finds that “[s]ome of his simplest words were his most powerful.”
Peter H. Reynolds’s 40-page picture book praises the magic of words. Through hand-lettered text and colorful heartfelt art, Reynolds once again captures the essence of something profound. The Word Collector showcases the importance of communication. We are all word collectors. Let Jerome’s story remind us to celebrate language and realize the impact words have when shared with the world. So, let’s choose our words carefully and thoughtfully just like Jerome because words are wonderful and they matter.
Best-selling and beloved titles by Reynolds include The Dot, Ish, and Happy Dreamer. The Dot was named #15 of the Top 100 Greatest Books for Kids by Scholastic’s Parent & Child magazine (http://www.peterhreynolds.com/news.html). Reynold’s books have been translated into more than twenty-five languages worldwide. In 1996, Reynolds and his twin brother, Paul, founded FableVision (http://www.fablevision.com/), a social change agency, to help create “stories that matter, stories that move.” Prepare to be moved by The Word Collector.
Pamela Zagarenski’s The Whisper, a beautifully illustrated, brilliantly conceived story, will wow readers of all ages who marvel and wonder at the mystery inside the pages of a book.
Our young heroine borrows a book from school that her teacher assures her is magical. As she runs home clutching the treasured tome, a cloud of letters – all the words from the book – spill out behind her. Although she doesn’t see this happen, a beautiful fox carefully collects them all from the air in a delicate, long-handled net.
Finally opening the book, she is puzzled to find that the beautiful pictures are wordless.
It’s just not a book of stories, without any words, she thought.
But a whisper on the wind encourages her to use her imagination, look at the pictures closely, and weave a few simple words into the beginning of a story that is hers alone.
With each page, the girl’s stories become more colorful and complex, demonstrating her growing skill and confidence in her ability to interpret the images. It is an inspiring demonstration for those just beginning to explore ways to “read” and think about wordless books and their use in sprouting imaginary tales.
There is much to praise about Zagarenski’s paintings and imagery, as evidenced by her two prior Caldecott honors. The layers of light, rich color and depth, cleverly paired with repeating symbols that will delight little eyes, make this book perfect to pore over and discuss. Crowns, bees, foxes, a tiny rabbit and a golden orb in many incarnations are tucked here and there as part of each illustration. Imagining how and why they are connected is a delightful exercise in fantasy and storytelling that echo the young heroine’s tale.
After she falls asleep, the girl’s dreams swirl with the stars, winds and gentle creatures in the book, bringing her mysterious and enchanting story full circle. The fox who captured the book’s words in a net re-appears at the end, and makes a special, charming request. The Whisper is a tender book to enjoy with the heart and mind, reminding us that our own stories are the most potent and powerful of all.
Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey
Where Obtained: I reviewed a copy of The Whisper from the publisher and received no other compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.
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