Shawn Stout takes a break from her popular Penelope Crumb series to introduce young readers to Frankie Baum in her engaging new middle grade novel A Tiny Piece of Sky. It is 1939 in Hagerstown, Maryland, and Frankie Baum, the youngest of three sisters, is wondering if her German-born father really is a spy. Newbery Honor and National Book Award-winner, Kathi Appelt raves about this captivating coming-of-age story, “At turns hilarious, at turns heartbreaking, Shawn Stout’s story shows us the damage that a whisper campaign can do to a family and a community, and at the same time shows us, each of us, a way to find our hearts.”
Between the Covers: What was the inspiration behind A Tiny Piece of Sky?
Shawn Stout: A Tiny Piece of Sky was inspired by the lives of my grandparents, Albert and Mildred Beck, and their three daughters, in the 1930s. My grandfather, the son of German parents, was a restaurant owner and businessman in Hagerstown, Maryland, and amidst the post-WWI anti-German hysteria, he was falsely accused of being a Nazi spy. Following those accusations, there was an organized boycott of his restaurant, which sent him and my grandmother into a financial crisis and contributed to my grandfather’s early death.
I grew up listening to my mother’s stories about her family’s restaurant, about the rumors of espionage and about the boycott. Many decades later, after my grandmother died, we were cleaning out her apartment and found letters dated 1939 from local civic organizations, which voiced their support for my grandfather and his restaurant, and denounced the accusations that he was a German spy. I held onto those letters and knew that one day I would write about their story.
BTC: Frankie is Number Three, the youngest of three sisters and yet she is spunky and fun. Is her character autobiographical in any way? The sisterly relationships are so real. Did you draw on real life experience from your own family?
SS: Like Frankie, I’m a Number Three, so I do know what it feels like to be the last to do everything. (It doesn’t feel so great, let me tell you.) I certainly heard a lot of “No, you’re not old enough,” when I was a kid, so I can relate to Frankie’s frustrations. But that’s where our similarities end, I think. Frankie is much more adventurous than I was at her age, and she has a lot more gumption. Gumption. I love that word.
The relationship between the Baum sisters was really fun to write. I don’t think I consciously drew on any experiences from my own life, but it’s hard to say where things come from when I’m writing. Having an older brother and sister, though, has definitely helped shape who I am and made me sensitive to the dynamics between siblings.
BTC: You did an amazing job of capturing the feeling of life in a small city during the war. What kind of research did you do to create this authentic setting? What is your writing process like?
SS: Before I wrote a single word, I read a lot of books about pre-WWII era in the United States, and about anti-German sentiment and the super-patriotism of the time. I listened to radio broadcasts from the 1930s like “The Shadow” and dug up newsreels and local newspaper articles. I also interviewed family members and those few still living who worked at my grandparents’ restaurant in the 1930s. To get a feel for the place, I was able to find photographs dated 1938 of the restaurant and staff, as well as advertising postcards, matchbooks and an original menu.
My writing process is different for each book. For this one, I started out with the research and tried to immerse myself in the period. Then, once I felt as though I had enough of a handle on the time and place, I started writing. I knew I wanted to tell the story mostly through the youngest Baum’s eyes — Frankie’s — so I started with her character until I could find her voice. When I found it, the story started to take off.
BTC: One of the most impressive feats in this book is your ability to address injustice through Frankie’s eyes without preaching. So many children’s books seem to feel a need to teach a lesson and become didactic. How do you let the reader come to his/her own conclusion and avoid lecturing?
SS: That’s a great question. I try to stay inside my characters’ head as much as I can and let them react to what happens in the story as it unfolds. Honestly, as I’m writing, I’m rarely thinking about the reader — my focus is on the story and the characters — so the idea of teaching lessons or morals doesn’t ever occur to me. I learn so much about the world through my characters as I’m writing, so there’s no place for me, as the author, to preach to anyone.
BTC: What were some of your favorite books as a child and what do you tell children who ask for advice on how to be a writer?
SS: My favorite book as a child was The Secret Garden, but I read everything I could get my hands on. I was also in love with Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series. I still am, actually.
BTC: Will you share with our readers some of your favorite things about living in Maryland?
SS: I grew up in Maryland and continue to love living here for many reasons — watching the seasons change, being close to both the mountains and the ocean and the Chesapeake Bay, and enjoying its eclectic cities. Maryland has so much to offer. I’ve lived here all my life and still haven’t explored everything.
BTC: What can your fans look forward to next?
SS: I’m working on a new middle grade novel, but it’s too early in the process to talk about it in very much detail. I will say that it has to do with a lonely girl, an unkindness of ravens and a bit of old magic.
Jo Franklin’s book I’m an Alien and I Want to Go Home begins with Daniel Kendal’s sister telling him, “You’re an alien, abandoned on Earth by your alien parents.” It’s a typical nasty remark that siblings say to each other but to Daniel, the statement makes sense. He is tall and lanky with brown hair and eyes. His parents and siblings are all short and stocky blonds with blue eyes. There are no baby pictures of Daniel, and the final bit of evidence comes from a paper clipping his mother saved regarding some sort of unidentified object crashing to earth the day Daniel was born. All of these factors make Daniel feel certain that he is an alien and needs to go home.
With the help of his two best friends, Eddie and Gordon, Daniel figures out that he must be from a distant planet known as Kepler22b. The problem is how can he contact his ‘real parents’ and get back to his home planet. Through a series of hilarious misadventures including a bizarre encounter with a group of self-proclaimed alien abductees, the trio set out to find a way to send Daniel to Kepler22b.
For any young people who have ever felt like they didn’t fit in, Daniel’s quest to get back to where he thinks he really belongs is both relatable and humorous. Franklin’s short chapter punctuated with clever dialogue and Marty Kelley’s quirky illustrations make this book a great choice in particular for reluctant readers.
Dealing with the loss of a parent is hard enough, but in Leza Lowitz’s Up from the Sea, teenager Kai must learn how to continue on after the loss of almost his entire world. March 11, 2011, should have been a normal day for Kai and his classmates; instead, it quickly turns into horrific tragedy as the students struggle to escape as their hometown is destroyed by the Tohoku earthquake and the resultant tsunami. In the course of a few hours, Kai goes from a normal student who loves soccer to one of the few survivors left alive to salvage what they can from the destruction.
The story then follows Kai through the next year as, angry and grief-stricken, he must come to terms with what has happened to him. This includes travelling to New York City to meet with young adults who lost their parents 10 years previous on September 11. Kai is encouraged to go as a way to heal and connect with others like him, but agrees only when he realizes he has a chance to find his estranged American father if he goes. But once in New York, Kai gains a greater understanding of how tragedy shapes us, and is inspired to reclaim his life.
Author Lowitz was living in Tokyo when the 2011 Tohoku earthquake struck Japan and took part in the volunteer relief efforts. While fictional, Up from the Sea is inspired by her experiences and by the survivor’s stories. Lowitz creates memorable images with very little description, allowing readers to share in both Kai’s grief and his burgeoning hope. Because it is a novel-in-verse, it’s a fairly fast and clear read, good for all kinds of readers. But that doesn’t lessen the emotional impact of Kai’s journey from the dangers of the earthquake and tsunami to his struggles as he learns just how strong he can be.
Even though Kai’s loss is caused by an unexpected natural disaster, Kai’s personal journey is universal, one we all have or will have to face. Up from the Sea is ultimately a hopeful and encouraging story of humanity’s strength of will to persevere. Readers who enjoy this book may also enjoy Cynthia Kadohata’s Kira-Kira.
Yo-Kai Watch is poised to become the next Pokemon! The Nintendo 3DS game about tracking and befriending cute little Japanese folklore-inspired ghosts has landed stateside and brought with it an anime show and a manga series. Kids everywhere can get their Yo-Kai fill no matter their preferred medium.
In the first volume of the manga, Yo-Kai Watch hero Nate Adams — an ordinary elementary school student — is on his way home one afternoon when he happens across a capsule machine made of stone. To Nate’s surprise, the machine still works and grants him a stone capsule. At first he feels slightly underwhelmed by the rock, but then it goes nuts and poofs out a floaty, unibrowed, blue Yo-Kai called Whisper.
Whisper is super grateful for being freed and pledges to serve Nate as his personal butler. He even gifts Nate a swanky watch...a Yo-Kai watch! The watch emits a special light that reveals the otherwise invisible Yo-Kai to its wearer, which Nate quickly realizes makes him his look like a crazy kid as he converses with his invisible familiar in front of his friends and family.
It’s for the greater good, though. Each chapter pits Nate and Whisper against a mischievous Yo-Kai hounding people around town. First is Jibanyan, a fiery two-tailed cat who vows to get revenge on the car that ran him over. Then there’s Happierre and Dismarelda, two bulbous spirits who alter the moods of everyone and everything around them but balance one another quite perfectly. Next comes Mochismo, an animated rice cake who haunts a child who never finishes his rice cakes whenever he’s treated to them. That’s not even all of the Yo-Kai Nate meets in volume one — they’re everywhere!
Children who know and love every last Pokemon or teens who grew up with the critters should definitely check out Yo-Kai Watch.
There’s a new kid at school, and the title of Patrick Jennings’s new book Odd, Weird and Little describes him perfectly. Toulouse is certainly odd — he dresses in a full suit and tie; he writes everything with a quill and ink, which is definitely weird; and he’s undeniably little: “kindergartner short,” according to our protagonist, Woodrow. Woodrow takes a liking to him anyway, and the two slowly become friends. Woodrow, often the subject of ridicule for many bullies himself, stands up for Toulouse despite his weirdness. However, even Woodrow can’t deny that Toulouse is not quite normal, perhaps even not quite human. For instance, he refuses to take off his gloves or hat. He rarely speaks, though when he does he has a musical, “flutey”-sounding voice. And he can climb higher on trees and ladders than any other 10-year-old kid should be able to. But Toulouse doesn’t say a word about being different, and Woodrow is too polite to ask.
Although Woodrow recognizes that Toulouse is a little odd, he empathizes with Toulouse rather than ostracizing him, understanding that he, too, can sometimes be a little odd. This book is a humorous, light read for children in grades 4 to 6, with traditional-yet-always-relevant messages about bullying: that it’s okay to make friends with the kid everyone is teasing, it’s okay to stand up for him and it’s okay to be a little different yourself.
If you’ve read every rendition of The Night Before Christmas and you know every line of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Polar Express, you might be looking for something different this holiday season. Here are just a few new picture books featuring some familiar characters.
In his third adventure, The Gingerbread Man Loose at Christmas written by Laura Murray and illustrated by Mike Lowery, the Gingerbread Man and his classmates prepare songs, cards and treats to show their appreciation for their neighbors and community helpers. Drama ensues during the delivery of gifts when the weather suddenly turns windy and snowy and the class returns to school…without the Gingerbread Man! With his icing dripping and his legs doughy, will he still be able to deliver his Christmas gift to a very special person?
In The Not Very Merry Pout-Pout Fish written by Deborah Diesen and illustrated by Dan Hanna, the pout-pout fish is gloomy because he has procrastinated his holiday shopping, and still needs to find gifts for all his friends. The gifts must be perfect in every way— big, bright and meaningful, with a little bit of bling. First, he is overwhelmed by choices, and then all the stores close, leaving Mr. Fish wondering how he will find all his just-right gifts before the Christmas party. This holiday-under-the-sea is a beautifully illustrated variation of the typical White Christmas setting.
When Santa Claus arrives at the castle with presents on Christmas Eve, three knights mistake him for an intruder and are determined to keep him out in The Knights Before Christmas written by Joan Holub and illustrated by Scott Magoon. Santa Claus is just as determined to reward the knights for their chivalrous deeds, and launches their goodies over the castle wall using a Christmas tree as a catapult. This book is a fresh and enjoyable take on the original poem, and the detailed illustrations filled with speech bubbles and puns will require several re-reads to appreciate all the humor.
A Year in the Life of a Complete and Total Genius by Stacey Matson is the story of aspiring writer Arthur Bean. If you had to pick just one word to describe our young hero, that word would NOT be “humble.” Told largely through school writing assignments, journal entries, and emails, many of the laughs come from Arthur’s pompous and defiant attitude.
Arthur has no doubt that he will handily win this year’s short story competition — in addition to writing for the school newspaper, starring in the school play, and just generally being a seventh grader. His attention is further diverted by his crush on his writing partner Kennedy, and being forced to tutor his nemesis Robbie. On top of all that, his mother died recently, his father isn’t handling it well, and Arthur feels isolated from their extended family. It’s certainly not an easy time to be Arthur Bean. And it’s not surprising that he develops a crippling case of writer’s block.
Arthur’s confidence doesn’t waver despite never writing a single word of his short story. When he makes a choice that is even more duplicitous than usual, readers will wonder how he will justify his actions and get himself out of this tricky situation.
Fans of Gordon Korman’s Swindle and Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series will enjoy Arthur’s antics. A sequel has already been published in the author’s native Canada.
I sat down with British illustrator and comic artist Luke Pearson while he was in town for the Small Press Expo to discuss his recent work and his ongoing graphic novel series, Hilda.
Between the Covers: How has Soft Spot [the animation you’ve been collaborating on with fellow comic artist Phillippa Rice] been going?
Luke Pearson: Phillippa is the driving force behind Soft Spot. All the stop motion stuff is entirely her. I’ve been doing smaller bits within those episodes. We haven’t collaborated that much before, so it’s nice to have something that’s actually both of us. We’re both just kind of experimenting and playing around.
BTC: You’ve also joined the pantheon of people working for Adventure Time doing some storyboarding.
LP: I’ve boarded four episodes overall and I’m hoping I can do more at some point. They’re very time consuming because I’ve always done it freelance with quite big gaps in between. It’s quite hard to get back in that mindset.
BTC: You’ve spoken before about how you’re inspired by Scandinavian myth in the creation of your own series, Hilda, but I see a lot of original world building and myth making.
LP: The Scandinavian folklore is like a jumping off point really. So much fantasy in general comes from those same stories and people just twist them and reinvent them in their own way. What I was trying to do with that was portray them in a way that is closer to how they are in the oral tales, rather than sticking a grand mythology onto them. There’s tons of stuff in Hilda which is just made up as well. I think as it goes on, it’s evolving into its own thing and the place she lives in has less of a point of reference with a real world place.
BTC: Hilda exploring the world seems like a central theme. Are you also figuring out what the rules for that reality are as you go along, or is it building on something you already know?
LP: It’s not really building towards something I already know. There are certain things that I have had locked down in my head from the start, I’m not totally winging it. But I don’t have a big bible that I wrote beforehand with all the stuff in there. I think that would feel counterproductive. As time goes on my tastes and interests change, when I draw each book I want to feel like I can change my mind about things. I’d rather do that than be a slave to this thing I made up five, six years ago that maybe I don’t agree with anymore.
BTC: Do you consider your audience as you’re working? Do you censor yourself because you know you need to appeal to kids?
LP: I don’t censor myself because I know they’re not for really little kids. It wouldn’t cross my mind to do a super dark Hilda story. What’s the point? I would just do a different comic. I want it to be a little bit scary and weird. I think kids can handle more than some people can give them credit for. If there’s a scary thing in the story, I want them to actually be scared of it. I don’t want to just put some big, goofy monster in that everyone is acting afraid of but isn’t actually scary. I always aim to resolve things in a way that is comforting.
BTC: Your next book, Hilda and the Stone Forest, is going to be coming out next year. Is there anything you can share about that project?
LP: It’s a bit different to previous ones in that it’s the first one where I feel like you probably do need to have read at least one of the other ones to get it. I’ve always been reluctant to do that in previous books, I wanted each one to be a standalone thing, but as I get deeper into the series it makes less and less sense. I feel like people enjoy the way the world is growing and it feels like a shame to gloss over all the other things. The start of the book will be the kind of things Hilda’s been getting up to. Hilda has so many magical-ish friends and tricky ways that her mom is getting slightly irate. She’s off on adventures all the time, possibly covering up how dangerous they may or may not be. It will be the first story where Hilda and her mum actually go on an adventure together.
BTC: I really like the way you’ve been portraying their dynamic. They’re obviously parent and child but they get along and it’s not stereotypical, you convey a more complex relationship.
LP: I’ve just naturally become more interested in exploring the mom character. She was just there in the first couple of books to explain how Hilda exists in the world, because she can’t live on her own. That character’s just been evolving to the point where, in this one, they’re co-leads. It’s tricky to do but I want the child reader to slowly pick up on the fact that she’s not just a mom, she is a person. It seems like in a lot of children’s fiction the parent is just a source of comfort or a source of antagonism and that’s it. They’re like a caricature. I like the idea of a kid empathizing and relating to the mom in a personal way rather than relating their idea of their mom. It’s hard to see your own parents like that until you get older.
BTC: Are you finding any of your own childhood emerging when you’re writing?
LP: I had a pretty comfortable, pleasant childhood but stuff does kind of come through. The last book all the stuff where she joins the Sparrow Scouts, that was kind of based on my experience as a scout.
BTC: Did you enjoy scouts?
LP: Yes and no, which I think I was trying to get across for Hilda. I like the idea of it and I did have fun at times, but I also didn’t enjoy it that much for not quite the same reasons as Hilda. I was just always very shy. I liked messing around but I always felt like I wasn’t very good at actual, legitimate scout stuff. As a kid I basically only enjoyed sitting and drawing and making stuff up.
BTC: What are you reading right now?
LP: I’m actually reading the Earthsea series for the first time. It’s really good. I’ve only read the first book so far but it’s incredible. I’ve had this boxed set since I was a kid, I think they were my mom’s. I’ve been carrying them around forever.
The next Hilda book, Hilda and the Stone Forest, is due to be released in Spring of 2016.
During that lull between the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and football games, before your home fills up with family and you fill your bellies with food, here are a few new Thanksgiving-themed picture books to share with the kids.
Sharing the Bread: An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving Story by Pat Zietlow Miller and Jill McElmurry depicts a 19th century family preparing their Thanksgiving feast. Everyone has their own special job — Daddy tends the fire, Grandma bakes her pumpkin pie, the baby sleeps as quietly as a mouse. Short, simple rhymes make for an enjoyable read aloud about the love, hard work and synergy that go into a holiday meal.
In Little Critter: Just a Special Thanksgiving by Mercer Mayer, Little Critter enjoys the Thanksgiving holiday with his family in typical Little Critter fashion — from forgetting his lines during the school play and singing an impromptu song instead, to hitching a ride on a parade float when he’s tired of walking. The illustrations are what make the book so special, adding an additional layer to the narrative by filling in the details that he neglects to mention or showing how his version of events diverges slightly from reality.
If you’re just looking for a quick refresher on the holiday’s roots and customers, Sally Lee delivers A Short History of Thanksgiving. The simple text, illustrated with both drawings and photographs, is perfect for beginning readers and includes details on the tradition of fall festivals, the meaning of thankfulness and also touches on modern ways of celebrating the holiday.
As societal awareness of the transgender identity grows, the conversation on what it means to grow up transgender is also gaining new voices. First-time author Alex Gino’s book George puts readers inside the mind of a transgender child struggling to understand her gender identity and to convey that identity to those important to her.
George is a fourth-grader with a mother and older brother, a best friend and a secret – she’s a girl who wants to be called Melissa, not the boy named George that everyone thinks she is. It’s distressing for her to have to use the boy’s bathroom, to keep her hair cut short and to be called “young man.” George’s greatest fear is that her family won’t understand or accept her if she tells them the truth. She decides, instead, to hide her identity, causing her to continue to feel isolated and frustrated.
This changes the day her teacher holds auditions for the class play of Charlotte’s Web. George desperately wants to play Charlotte. Not only does she admire Charlotte’s strength, but also believes that if she can land this key role she can show everyone, especially her mom, the girl she is. However, her dream is dashed when her teacher won’t let her audition for the part; after all, Charlotte is a girl role and to her teacher George is a boy. When her best friend Kelly comes up with a plan for George to be able to perform as Charlotte, George has to gather her courage to show everyone who she is.
While the book is recommended for middle school readers, George is the story of a child discovering and accepting herself that everyone, child and adult, transgender and cisgender alike, can relate to. George’s quest to be accepted for who she is gives readers insight into her world in a way that is equally heartbreaking and heartwarming. Readers interested in children’s books with a transgender protagonist should also read Ami Polonsky’s Gracefully Grayson.