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.
If you already love the Crystal Gems from Cartoon Network’s hit show, Steven Universe, Volume One is a collection of short stories to enhance and enrich your interaction with the characters and their world. Writer Jeremy Sorese and artist Coleman Engle bring to life Steven and his space-warrior guardians Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl as they go on magic-laden adventures in the name of protecting the Earth and developing Steven’s budding magic powers. Including life-skills lessons and graphic shorts just for fun, the book includes wisdom about friendship, family and even a recipe or two!
The comics are light, lusciously colored and beautifully drawn. The mood ranges from laugh-aloud funny to softly melancholy and meaningful, taking advantage of the full artistic range of both the artists and the writers. Although familiarity with the animated cartoon will enrich the reader’s appreciation of these graphic shorts in context of their larger world, the book is a delightful introduction to Steven’s home of Beach City and a great read for kids and adult-sized kids alike.
Make sure to pair your Steven Universe experience with Gem Glow, or similar reads such as Adventure Time, Bee and Puppycat and Bravest Warriors.
Rebecca Stead’s latest novel Goodbye Stranger is a shining example of how amazing children’s realistic fiction can be. Stead dares to believe children can grapple with big questions that secretly plague us about our place in the cosmos and that they will understand and relate to complex characters that can’t explain why they do things, like wear cat ears every day. What she creates is a beautiful story that will be loved by readers young and old.
The story is told from three different points of view and different perspectives in time. Much of the narrative focuses on Bridge and her best friends. They’re trying their best to hold fast to one another during the tumultuous times of seventh grade as they navigate their first forays in love and finding their place in the bigger world around them.
Bridge also becomes close with Sherm, the second narrator of the story, who speaks to us through unsent letters to the grandfather he isn’t speaking to. The final narrator is an unnamed high school student speaking from Valentine’s Day. Her story seems unrelated to the other characters except that it touches on the same themes of friendship and finding out who the person you are becoming really is. In the end, the stories fall perfectly together into an intricately crafted plot. This book is sure to appeal to fans of Stead’s other works as well as fans of Wonder by R.J. Palacio.
It’s a fact that librarians are partial to cats, but so are picture book authors. There is no shortage of felines on the pages of children’s literature, including this trio of recently published titles. In How to Catch a Mouse, author-illustrator Philippa Leathers introduces an adorable green-eyed marmalade tabby named Clemmie. Although readers find out about Clemmie’s superb mousing skills on the first page, we quickly realize that she may be bragging a bit too much. Has she ever seen a mouse? What about the little gray master of disguise who has been walking around the house, almost in plain sight? This gentle story, humorously illustrated in pencil and watercolor, is perfect for young preschoolers.
Owners of timid felines come in droves to the newly established Miss Hazeltine’s Home for Shy and Fearful Cats, also the title of this charming picture book by Alicia Potter. Their cats are failing at all things cats are known for, including pouncing, purring and chasing birds. Patient Miss Hazeltine runs her nervous charges through a daily roster of classes such as Climbing Up, Meeting New Friends and How Not to Fear the Broom. She lavishes special attention on the most bashful little kitty, Crumb. But what happens when Miss Hazeltine goes out to fetch some water and needs rescuing herself? Birgitta Sif’s pencil illustrations and muted palette perfectly capture the essence of such a fanciful boarding school in the woods, run by a sweet, calm and lithe young woman who loves her work. Sif is a master at depicting the many aspects of feline nature, with distinctly different kitties of all shapes and sizes napping, licking, hiding, lapping, perching and hanging on every page.
Poor Cat. He’s lost a tooth, but he was asleep when the Tooth Fairy came and he really wanted to meet her. But when he tries to trick her by leaving the tooth of a comb, she turns the tables and insists he must help her out by picking up the teeth of various animals who have lost them. Although he’s excited to be the Tooth Fairy’s apprentice, Cat is none too thrilled to wear a tutu and wings, let alone to share duties with Mouse! Deborah Underwood’s Here Comes the Tooth Fairy Cat is a funny take on this childhood legend, complete with a few surprises along the way. Underwood, who previously featured Cat in two holiday offerings, Here Comes the Easter Cat and Here Comes Santa Cat, uses the technique of an off-page narrator who speaks directly to Cat, questioning him and offering advice. Cat himself communicates only through broad facial expressions and signs he holds. Claudia Rueda’s comical yet warm color pencil and ink drawings are integral to the story, which like its predecessors, would make an excellent classroom read aloud for the kindergarten set.
Ronald L. Smith's debut novel Hoodoo, also the name of the main character, is about a 12-year-old African-American orphan living in Alabama in the 1930s. Hoodoo was named as such because of his birthmark which was taken as a sign of his inheriting the family’s magical talent. Despite the mark, Hoodoo is incapable of casting a spell. His lack of skill doesn’t stop him from being drawn into the supernatural world in this spooky story enhanced by historical details of rural life during the Great Depression. Get to know the author as he shares his inspiration for the story, tips for young writers and living in Baltimore.
Between the Covers: Hoodoo is set in rural Alabama during the Great Depression. You do an amazing job of bringing that time and place to life. Can you share some of your research? Why Alabama? Why the 1930s?
Ronald L. Smith: Thank you.
Well, my parents are from Alabama and we took trips there when I was a kid. I fell in love with the flora and fauna, the food and people. It’s a place full of history and tall tales. When I started looking into my family history, I began to wonder about that time and what it must have been like to live in that era. My parents were a great resource, and they told me much about their early lives.
BTC: Some have said that this novel is a meeting of Zora Neale Hurston and Stephen King. I think this is a perfect description. Was it challenging writing horror for a younger audience? Why did you want to share the history of folk magic?
RLS: Well, I didn’t really set out to write a book like this. As a lot of writers would probably tell you, ideas just come to you, and if they stick around long enough, you just have to put it on the page. Once the story began to take shape, I started thinking that I might be on to something special.
I wasn’t challenged by the horror aspect of the book. I just wrote for myself, as something I would have liked to read. Of course, I was aware that the book would be geared towards young readers. My editor and agent weighed in and I think we found a good balance.
BTC: Hoodoo’s voice is genuine and appealing. How did you get in the head of a 12-year-old living in the south during the Great Depression?
RLS: I guess a lot of it is drawing from my own childhood: the way you feel as a kid, the way your parents talk to you, the way you look at the world. It all just came out in a kind of fugue state, if that makes sense. I used to write literary fiction until I discovered that my voice was a better fit for children’s literature.
BTC: This is your debut novel. What has been the most exciting thing about the publishing process? Has anything surprised you?
RLS: It has all been very exciting! It’s something I’ve wanted my whole life. The most exciting aspect of the adventure was when my agent called and told me the book was going to auction. That’s something I’ll never forget. Getting support and input from my editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was also fantastic. It’s truly been a wonderful experience.
BTC: Describe your writing process. How long did it take you to complete your first novel? What’s in store for readers next?
RLS: Well, writers will tell you there are two kinds of writers: plotters and pantsters. I am of the latter, which means I fly by the seat of my pants when I write. I have tried outlining, index cards, Scrivener — all to no avail. I start with an idea and see where it goes. Once I have a few thousand words, the story begins to take shape. I always go back and add whatever is needed, once I know where the story is headed.
Hoodoo is my third novel, and the one that got me an agent. The first one I wrote took a few years and is on a file on my computer where it will remain! It was good practice, though. The second book is still close to my heart, and I would like to see it published someday.
After Hoodoo comes The Mesmerist, another middle grade, [which] takes place in Victorian England! Expect plagues and scary monsters!
BTC: What authors, books or ideas influenced you? What are you reading now?
RLS: That is a good question and I could fill several pages, but I’ll spare you.
I like children’s lit that is smart and assumes the reader will understand the concepts and themes of the book. Authors like M.T. Anderson, Philip Pullman, Holly Black. I’ve always been a big sci-fi and fantasy buff. I like dark movies and films. Not horror, specifically, unless it is done very well. I’m more interested in the supernatural aspects.
As for recent reads, I recently finished Lee Kelly’s City of Savages, which was quite good, and have also read the first book in Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy.
I am also re-reading the Harry Potter books. I’ve pretty much forgotten what happens in each, as it has been so long since first reading them. I’m watching the films immediately after I finish each book.
BTC: What would you tell young people interested in becoming writers?
RLS: They’ve probably heard it before, but read. And then read some more. Read everything that interests you, and also pick up books that you might at first turn away from: history, anthropology, biographies of historical figures. Share the things you write with people you admire: teachers, parents. Once you feel comfortable, join a group where you can all share your writing to get feedback.
BTC: You grew up in army bases all over the world and are now settled in Baltimore. How long have you lived here and what made you stay? Tell us some of your favorite things about Baltimore.
RLS: Well, my wife and I moved to Baltimore after living in Chicago for 13 years. We wanted to be closer to family. We’ve now been here for about six years. Baltimore is a strange little place. Not quite a big city, but too big to be a small town. I like its oddity, its accents and one-of-a-kind characters. The creative people that live here truly love what they do. They work hard and play hard. After living in Chicago for so long, I’ve come to appreciate Maryland’s green spaces, its beaches and rivers. Everything is here or a short drive away.
Also, crab cakes.
John David Anderson's The Dungeoneers is the story of Colm, a young boy trying to help his family. Unfortunately for Colm, he's a thief. Fortunately for Colm, he's given the chance at riches beyond his wildest dreams. All he has to do is join Thwodin's Legion, the world's premier dungeon raiding guild. Oh, and he has to survive those same dungeons, full of deadly traps, murderous monsters and, of course, a couple hundred other adventurers in training, starting with his own team. Lena is a fighter hoping to become a barbarian, with a phobia of seeing her own blood. Quinn is a mage with a speech impediment under stress and a bottomless pit for a stomach. Selene wants to make friends with all the creatures they meet in the world's most dangerous places, as long as they aren't any bigger than spiders.
Thwodin's Legion is basically Hogwarts for the kids growing up with World of Warcraft and Minecraft. Everyone fits into a fantasy archetype, from the wizards to the rogues, and while they may not move far from their base, these archetypes are classic for a lot of reasons. Everyone gets roles for their place in a dungeon raid. “Stay behind the big one.” “Don't steal from your partners, unless it's okay.” “Never let the big guy do the sneaking.”
Anderson is a master of throwing kids into situations that are so vividly detailed that they feel believable but utterly fantastic at the same time. He has also turned out the superb Sidekicked and Minion, books about kids who grow up in the battle between superheroes and supervillains. No matter how out there the world, it's grounded in day-to-day life. Colm steals because his family is poor. His family doesn't accept this because they are moral people. This book is about how a thief becomes more than just a thief, and figures out how to do the sort of right thing in a complicated world.
Reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, The Lost Track of Time by Paige Britt is a delightful, charming fantasy perfect for the middle grader.
Penelope is an overscheduled young writer who has run out of ideas as well as time to write. One day, Penelope's calendar is completely clear and she is elated! Her mother, however, quickly tries to rectify the mistake. Penelope runs away and falls into "the Lost Track of Time" and discovers the Realm of Possibility where she begins her quest to find the Great Moodler. Being careful to avoid the Clockwatchers, the Naughty Woulds and Wild Bores, she relies on getting Inklings and following Hunches to find her way to Chronos City. Meeting interesting and imaginative creatures along the way, Penelope must use all of her cunning and wits to defeat the evil Chronos, free the Great Moodler and get her writing ideas back.
Filled with wonder as well as fabulous illustrations, The Lost Track of Time will touch a nerve with today’s overscheduled world. It is beautifully written with wonderful wordplay, adventure and excitement. Beautiful drawings by illustrator Lee White enhance the already delightful story. Grownups and children alike will adore this novel. Fans of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster and The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis will also enjoy this book.