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.
When we first meet Ronan, the barbarian leader, he’s a typical marauder, pillaging with his cohorts and pretty much content. His usual raids involve bringing back jewels and gold, that is until his latest plundering reveals a chest full of books. Not exactly what was in the cards. While at first Ronan considers the haul useless—“Kindling? Origami? Toilet paper?”—it doesn’t take long for him to get pulled in by a picture and hooked on the book. He reads late into the night, oversleeping in fact. From that moment on, Ronan was a changed marauder.
Wherever Ronan travels to invade, raid and then trade, his mind is always focused on the current book he was devouring, eager to return home to it at day’s end. As the leader, Ronan shifts the pillaging priority from taking baubles to books and his collection grows and grows. It becomes so huge he needs a library to contain it. Much to Ronan’s disappointment, his partners in pillage show no interest in reading. “Barbarians do not read books.”
Determined to whet their literary appetites, Ronan decides to read a mythical tale aloud to his community. Yet everyone appears to carry on with their work, leaving the barbarian bibliophile convinced his story has not made an impact. However, when he later discovers the library has been invaded, not by pillagers, but by curious villagers, Ronan could not be happier. “It turns out, barbarians do read books.” Ronan lives happily ever after only now he can add librarian to his skill set. With stories filling their minds, everyone’s lives grow richer because we all know what treasures can be found inside the pages of a book.
I love how Luebbe and Cattie have taken the most unlikely of characters to ever want to read and turned that on its head. Who can’t fall for a big bearded barbarian smitten by the love of reading? Kids will love saying some of the goofy barbarian expressions like “Uff da!” They’ll also find adorable characters (I like Helgi), wonderful rhythm, and repetition that will make this a much requested read. In addition to enjoying every page, kids should make sure to revisit the art. Maderna’s added some fun details in her lively illustrations like a goat eating the paper from the book haul and again in the library munching on a book, a dinosaur skeleton under the floorboards in Ronan’s home, a library sandwich board that reads “Come Read! Free Mead,” and a library bulletin board with some very funny “Rules and Advice” notices. Parents, teachers and librarians will enjoy sharing Ronan the Librarian, a book that subtly and cleverly extols the virtues of reading. This witty picture book begs to be read at library story times and will make even the most reluctant of readers root for Ronan, even if you may think he could use a shave.
On Saturday mornings the beloved characters of this series, Houndsley the dog, Catina the cat, and Bert the big white bird, meet and walk to the library together. At the library, Houndsley assists students learning to read, Catina participates in a yoga class, and Bert is a library volunteer who helps reshelve books. After their visit, they return to Houndsley’s house for tea and fresh baked muffins.
On this occasion, they notice that Trixie, the librarian, seems unlike her usual upbeat self and the friends become concerned. Soon they find out that Trixie plans to retire to pursue her dream of performing in a circus. “it is never too late to try something new,” she tells the friends. However, since there is no one able to replace her, the library will have to close. The trio are shocked and saddened, but quickly busy themselves with creating a “special” gift for Trixie’s retirement party. Houndsley and Catina have no problem coming up with an idea for Trixie’s gift. Gay’s homey watercolors depict Houndsley pouring over a recipe book with a steaming cup of tea and Catina strolling through a quaint small town to pick up supplies. However, Bert is unable to think of anything and wonders what he could bring Trixie “… for all the happy Saturday mornings she had given him.”
On the day of the party, the three friends meet at Houndsley’s house. He has baked delicious muffins: pumpkin chocolate chip, blueberry buttermilk, cranberry orange, and more. Oh what a feast! Catrina brings a special circus outfit that she has made for Trixie’s next career. Poor Bert still has not thought of a gift. However, just as he leaves his house, he suddenly realizes what he can bring. What special gift could he get at the last minute? Why himself, of course! Inspired by Trixie’s belief that anyone can learn something new, Bert decides to attend library school so he can take Trixie’s spot and keep the library open. Everyone gives a big cheer (perhaps even bigger than the cheers for Houndsley and Catina’s gifts). Soon the closing sign on the library door is changed to read: “This library will not be closing.”
This is the sixth in a series of touching friendship stories with gentle life lessons woven in. I love how this story draws on library values of bringing people together and creating a community while weaving in concepts of caring and supporting people. Howe’s story also introduces retirement, new careers, and adult education, life changes even young children are likely to see in their families.
The three short chapters listed in the table of contents give this transitional reader the feel of a chapter book. Vocabulary and concepts are more advanced, but appropriate and accessible for children who are almost ready for full length chapter books.
Adding to the book’s appeal are Gay’s whimsical and endearing illustrations. The bright and homey watercolors, packed with intricate details, perfectly fit the story’s quiet and charming tone. Children will be so busy pouring over the details in Houndsley’s messy kitchen, the visit to Trixie’s backyard, or Catina’s adorable red-trimmed house, that they might forget to read the story! But, no matter, they’ll want to return to this lovely neighborhood again and again.
As a librarian I was touched by Howe’s dedication. He writes: “in memory of Winnifred Genung, my first librarian – and to all librarians past, present, and future. Where would we be without you?”
Thanks James and Marie! Authors and illustrators like you make our job of promoting reading and literature to children so easy!
INKLING Written by Kenneth Oppel Illustrated by Sydney Smith (Knopf BYR; $17.99, Ages 8-12)
• A New York Times Notable Book • A New York Public Library Best Book of the Year — top ten selectionaAs a fan ofKenneth Oppel’smiddle-grade book The Nest, I was just as pleased with Inkling, a lighter, funnier tale with lots of heart. The likeable Rylance family consists of sixth-grade Ethan, eight-year-old Sarah (who has Down syndrome), their famous graphic-novel author-illustrator father, Rickman the cat, and Inkling, the inkblot from Dad’s sketchbook who came to life. Inkling provides the Rylances with what they need—and they each need something different. If you find it farfetched for a main character to be an ink splotch, read this book. The characters have emotionally relatable depths.a
I enjoy stories without obvious plots and Inkling is just that. Typical middle-grade characters are rendered with fresh perspectives. Ethan struggles to complete the illustrations for his group’s class project, but, unfortunately, he can’t draw; no one knows this, though the class bully Vika Worthington suspects. She’s the best artist in their grade and the daughter of Ethan’s dad’s boss. Throughout, Ethan relives the day Vika tornado-kicked him into a garbage can.
Sydney Smith’s illustrations intersperse the text, adding depth and delight. Vika’s furrowed brow is perfectly sinister. Graphic-novel images complement the story line.
Inkling resonates with the underlying grief Ethan’s family is trying to process; unspoken words cloud their days. Adults can appreciate the pressure of raising kids alone, having a special-needs child, or watching their creativity come to a grinding halt. Oppel’s clever plot will make you fall for Inkling and keep you hooked until the end.
If you liked The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole (written and illustrated by Michelle Cuevas, Dial/Penguin, 2017), Inkling hits some similar notes, check it out.