Paul Gude’s picture book A Surprise for Giraffe and Elephant highlights the close friendship between a silent, thoughtful giraffe and his constant companion, an enthusiastic, loquacious elephant. The second outing for this dissimilar pair, Surprise features three funny, knowing stories that manage to distill the essence of what true friendship entails. In the first, Giraffe struggles to find the right time to play his alpine horn. The second depicts Giraffe working through the night to honor Elephant’s wish for a toboggan. The final story finds Elephant diligently preparing to throw her friend the perfect surprise party. Gude’s simple yet expressive line drawings and bright, zingy color palette are immediately appealing to young readers.
BTC: Congratulations on the publication of the new Giraffe and Elephant book. I understand that this duo has been around for quite some time. Tell us their origin story and a little bit about their history. And why a talking elephant?
Paul Gude: My standard line when people ask me why Giraffe doesn't talk is to say, "You're less surprised about the talking elephant?" So, you've beaten me at my own game. My hat is off to you. Giraffe came first. I would draw little pictures for my friend with little captions. I drew one that said, "Here is a giraffe eating some leaves!" She made some comment like, "I like giraffes almost as much as I like elephants!" I drew another picture with a giraffe and elephant eating ice cream cones together with a caption like, "You don't have to choose! Giraffes and elephants are friends!"
I had this crazy idea of just drawing the giraffe and elephant doing all sorts of things together. So I kept at it. The very next thing they did was steal a van. Then Elephant shot Giraffe out of a cannon. They invented new words. Every day it was something new. That was in 2000. In 2001, my friend KMO at C-realm.com gave me space to publish them. This was before Tumblr and its ilk, so having a place to put an archive of comics was kind of a big deal. I just kept doing them over the years, until I amassed almost a thousand.
I flirted with publishing a collection of them in the mid-2000s, but nothing came of it. Later on, a friend of the editor who had been trying to get someone to publish the book asked her if she knew anyone who might need representation. She put him in touch with me and that's how I got my agent.
We sent out the collection, and the feedback was, "We like the characters, but can they be involved in a story?" At one time I would have taken this to mean, "We don't like your book," but I had matured enough by then to know it meant, "We like the characters, but can they be involved in a story?" My agent was smart enough to make sure I understood that this wasn't a brush-off, and set me to work telling the stories. That became When Elephant Met Giraffe, which my agent sold to Disney/Hyperion. That's kind of how they solidified into the personalities that they are today. Granted, they're drawn a bit better now as well. Years of practice can help in that regard.
BTC: What medium do you use to create your art?
PG: While I like pen and ink just fine, Giraffe and Elephant were born as crudely drawn characters using a mouse and Photoshop. They've been mostly digital from then on, although I do experiment from time to time. The artwork for both When Elephant Met Giraffe and A Surprise for Giraffe and Elephant was done on an iPad 2 with a program called iDraw. It was actually the cheapest option and I was short on funds.
BTC: When I read the Giraffe and Elephant books, I was reminded of both James Marshall’s George and Martha and of Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie. Did they come to mind as you were writing the books? Which children’s authors or illustrators inspire you?
PG: I love Mo Willems. I was lucky enough to interview him back when that was part of my day job. He's very friendly and super funny. It's worth noting that he and I are both published by Disney/Hyperion and he was there first. So, I'm hoping the fact that we both have characters who are elephants will stop being a sticking point for some folks eventually. Your question was very polite, but others have been quick to criticize as though my elephant is derivative. I think it's a little unfair. First of all, his elephant's name is Gerald. Elephant's Gerald. Say it out loud, and you get what kind of a genius that man is. Second, anyone who reads Mo's books and mine knows that his are mostly dialog-driven, whereas mine are more narrative. In short, they are much more like George and Martha. More of what I was reading as a kid, I suppose. Maurice Sendak was a big one for me. Also, I loved Shel Silverstein. Other favorites from my childhood include the Ann Trompert and John Wallner book Little Fox Goes to the End of the World. So many others I know I'm forgetting. In these modern times I'm a big fan of Zoom and Re-Zoom by Istvan Banyai and Jon Klassen's hat books. Again, I know there must be more. I'll have to check my daughter's bookshelf.
BTC: One of the things I loved about both When Elephant Met Giraffe and A Surprise for Giraffe and Elephant is that they’re picture books adults also enjoy — they’re droll, and not preachy or sappy. How does being a parent affect your work?
PG: The funny thing about the publishing world is that it moves so very slow. When I was writing When Elephant Met Giraffe it was a little too advanced for her. By the time it was published, she had already outgrown it. She's 9 now, way outside of the target demographic. Still, she's the one looking over my shoulder when I'm working. So, I suppose in a way that's a big reason why I throw in humor that everyone can enjoy. I want my kid to still think I'm funny. In a more pragmatic sense, the parents are the ones who are going to have to read the book over and over again, so I try to make it as painless as possible. Very few words. Funny pictures. You can't go wrong. Well, you can go wrong, I suppose. It depends on who you ask.
BTC: One "quirk" of Surprise mentioned by a major review publication is the fact that Giraffe uses an acetylene torch to build a toboggan. Were you surprised by this bit of criticism?
PG: Oh, boy. Yes. This was brought up as the book was in production, and I was like, "No, no, they can be wood or metal. I know. I had a metal one." Apparently I am one of the few people who remembers these types of toboggans that had metal scoops on the front, though. If you look for pictures of them online, the curved part at the front is almost always wood. I kept searching and searching until I found a picture of one. I thought I was going crazy. They exist, though. I've seen them. I've linked to one on my blog. It's odd to me that people leap to the idea that Giraffe is erroneously using a torch on a wooden object rather than the thing he's constructing being partially made out of metal. I assume they simply don't have the design skills of a giraffe.
BTC: I recently followed Giraffe on Twitter. I’ve enjoyed having a look into his psyche. What prompted him to get on social media? What kind of device does he use?
PG: It's always been in the back of my mind that Giraffe has a very rich inner life. When Elephant isn't distracting him from his studies, he's pursing art and science through his own self-taught methods. As an offshoot of this, I had an idea that Giraffe has built himself this amazing contraption that allows him to communicate on Twitter via Morse code. There's a pressure plate he uses to tap out words, and then this complex series of switches turns it into text. Where does he get his Wi-Fi service though? Giraffe keeps secrets even from me.
Isobel is the strongest, fastest, fiercest bunny in her Bunjitsu school, yet she tries her hardest to never hit anyone. Faced with tough challenges such as getting into a locked room, facing down bullies, dealing with nightmares and learning new fight strategies, Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny by John Himmelman teaches a lesson in every chapter. Join Isobel as she handles her problems in the most peaceful way possible, until she determines it is time to fight back! Great stories children will easily relate to, short chapters children can easily handle, along with charmingly simple illustrations make Bunjitsu Bunny a great choice for both a read aloud and for young independent readers. The Bunjitsu Code listed at the back of the book will empower your young readers to be their most powerful selves.
Princess Magnolia is a fancy-tiara-, frilly-pink-dress-wearing kind of princess, until her monster alarm sounds – then she becomes…the Princess in Black! While entertaining the nosy Duchess Wigtower, Princess Magnolia’s monster alarm sounds. As she quickly excuses herself to transform into the ninja princess hero that saves the day, she worries that the curious Duchess will discover her secret. With a pet unicorn that transforms into her black pony sidekick and a secret passageway to the Monster Land entrance, The Princess in Black by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale delivers all of the superhero accoutrements expected, including a young lad in distress – Duff. The first in a promising new series from the authors of Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack, The Princess in Black grabs the reader in the first few pages and never lets go. With bright, beautiful illustrations by LeUyen Pham, it is perfect for both a read aloud and for the young independent reader (or for the young independent reader to read aloud!) This series is sure to be a favorite.
In addition to being a Maryland-based author, Mary Downing Hahn is known for creating memorable characters who go through some tremendous situations that young readers can relate to. In Where I Belong, Hahn does it once again with Brendan Doyle, a misfit living in foster care who wants to find someplace where he can fit in and feel safe. Brendan’s life has been full of misfortune; abandoned at birth by his supposedly crack-addicted mother, he has bounced around in the foster care system until he feels completely unloved and unwanted. Yet, Brendan’s saving graces are his artistic ability and amazing imagination which allow him to escape the painful reality that surrounds him.
Brendan loves fantasy fiction, particularly stories about the Green Man and the creatures that live in the forest. When running away from some bullies, Brendan stumbles into the forest near his home and discovers an ancient oak tree that he feels would make a great fortress. Although he completes his treehouse, he totally neglects his schoolwork and is forced to enroll in summer school in order to enter middle school in the fall. At first, Brendan tries cutting class until his new teacher explains things in a way that finally makes sense. Brendan even tries to befriend Shea, a girl with her own painful secrets, and a mysterious stranger in the woods who may be the Green Man himself. It seems as if Brendan may finally have found two people he can care for until a series of events threatens to permanently destroy his world.
Hahn does an amazing job of capturing the way Brendan perceives his life and his frustrations about not being understood by people such as his teachers, school mates and foster mother. For both children in similar circumstances and adults who have experienced being an outsider, Brendan’s struggles to be himself yet longing to fit in somehow will resonate with them.
In William Alexander's Ambassador, Gabe Fuentes is an illegal alien. The Envoy is an extraterrestrial alien. Together, they might just have a chance at saving Earth.
Gabe is a quiet, competent boy, used to juggling his family, school and friends in such a way that he causes the minimal amount of trouble. He thinks things through before he acts in the most efficient manner. These traits, and the fact that he’s still “neotenous,” young enough to be open-minded, land him the almost completely powerless but absolutely necessary position of “Ambassador of Earth.” When he sleeps, his entangled mind is transported to a dreamscape populated by the children of every sentient culture in the galaxy, and sculpted to make sense to the mind of the viewer. Gabe sees his ambassadorship as a large playground, and so long as he doesn’t look at them sideways and break the illusion, all of the other ambassadors look like Earth children.
He’s going to need to figure out this interstellar diplomacy stuff fast. Space pirates are trying to kill him. A hostile alien force is marching across his stellar neighborhood on a campaign of purification. The cops just pulled his father over on a routine traffic violation and are going to deport his parents. His house just blew up. He’s not alone. His family are survivors. His best friend’s family has had back-up plans for him for years. Gabe also has the Envoy, a morphing blob who speaks in his mother’s voice, both helping him negotiate and throwing him into the path of pirates and genocidal conquerors.
William Alexander throws out invention after wild glorious invention, but grounds them in the normal family life of people outside the law. Gabe is a kid like a thousand other kids, marginalized by the laws of a country that doesn’t want to accept he even exists. He may save the day, but that might create even bigger problems. Expect the sequel in September of 2015.
According to Chinese astrology, time passes in a 12-year cycle with each year associated with an animal. On February 19, it will be time to welcome in the Year of the Sheep (or Goat). Those born in the year of the sheep are believed to be cooperative, kind-hearted and creative. These aspects can be seen in the main character, Sydney, in The Year of the Sheep: Tales from the Chinese Zodiac by Oliver Chin.
The sheep family welcomes a new year and a new baby, Sydney, into their herd. The shepherd’s daughter, Zhi, and Sydney become great friends, and Zhi teaches Sydney how the people and the sheep take care of each other. Most of the sheep would stay together when going out to pasture, as there is safety in numbers. However, Sydney wants to explore and has a tendency to stray off the beaten path. Luckily, Zhi and her dog Dao come to her rescue as her curiosity results in Sydney getting stuck in a tree and later falling down a chimney. When a storm comes, it causes the land to become a mess. The pasture withers and the river no longer flows with water. Can Sydney discover what has caused this devastation and rally the animals of the zodiac to help Zhi bring the water back to the riverbed?
With themes that include cooperation, friendship, creativity and even a dose of engineering, this delightful picture book is an excellent choice to share with young children. The soft watercolor illustrations by Alina Chau are a perfect fit for the story. My favorite picture is towards the end of the story where the tiger is taking a “well-deserved rest” and is counting sheep with numbers written on their wool in Chinese.
What would have happened if the author of Frankenstein and the world’s first computer programmer met as girls in early 19th century London? Why, they would have joined forces and become private detectives! Follow along as Mary Shelley and Ada Lovelace sort through a false confession, eliminate some odd suspects and finally solve the mystery of a stolen necklace in The Case of the Missing Moonstone, book one of The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency series by Jordan Stratford.
Brilliant, yet socially inept Ada Bryon is not happy about the departure of her governess and the arrival of her new tutor, Peebs. However, this change does bring to Ada the first true friend she has ever known, the adventurous and kind Mary Godwin. The girls notice the newspaper contains several articles about crime so they decide to form a “private and secret constabulary for the apprehension of clever criminals.” It isn’t long after they run their advertisement for the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency that they accept their first case and begin their adventures.
A host of historical figures, including Charles Dickens and Charles Babbage, make appearances in this fun children’s book. While Stratford has admittedly taken liberties with regards to the timeline (Mary Shelley was actually 18 years older than Ada Lovelace), the setting and character behaviors are historically accurate. A humorous, action-packed story, this book features strong female characters who use math, science and deductive reasoning skills to solve the crime in a vivid, alternative historical setting. I wouldn’t be surprised to find this one on school reading lists this summer.
Wendy McClure’s newest book, On Track for Treasure, is the second installment in the Wanderville series. She has written several books for adults and children including The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, which in 2011 won the Midwest Bookseller’s Choice Award for adult nonfiction. She is also a senior editor at the children’s book publisher Albert Whitman and Company, producing picture books, young adult novels and the popular Boxcar Children Mysteries. She grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, and now lives in Chicago with her husband. Between the Covers recently caught up with her over the holiday season.
Between the Covers: Wanderville ended on a very tense note! Where will we find Jack, Frances, Harold and Alexander as On Track for Treasure, the next book in the Wanderville series, begins?
Wendy McClure: They’ll be in the middle of an escape! And it won’t be just the four of them — the other kids they rescued at the end of the first book will be with them: 10 kids in all! And when trouble hits, they find it’s hard to find places where they can all hide, so they realize their best option is to hop on a freight train out of town. Then it really gets interesting!
BTC: One of the most compelling relationships in Wanderville is the connection between Frances and her little brother Harold. In researching the real orphan trains for writing the Wanderville series, did you find that siblings often stuck together? What was your inspiration for Frances’ determination to keep her brother close?
WM: When I was researching kids in the tenements of New York City, I came across a photograph showing two or three girls out on the sidewalk holding their baby siblings on their hips. The caption read “Little Mothers,” a term that described girls who had to take care of their younger brothers or sisters all day because their mothers had to work. When I saw that I knew I wanted that to be the backstory of Frances and Harold before they were in the orphanage. Frances would have pretty much raised Harold. As for the orphan trains, I imagine the circumstances of the train journeys would have compelled siblings to stick together as much as they could. But the sad reality is that they were usually encouraged to forget their old lives, including family ties. And then when the placement process began, siblings were often separated, since it was hard to find a home that could take in more than one child. Some siblings were lucky enough to be placed out together, or to at least wind up in homes in the same town, but many more were forced to be apart. In Wanderville, Frances soon realizes the danger that she and Harold are in, and that helps motivate her to escape.
BTC: In your book The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, you connect deeply to the books you loved as a child and demonstrated how that love of reading can influence one's future. What do you hope the children who read Wanderville take away from this series?
WM: I hope that for kids I can capture the exhilaration of being independent — of having adventures without adults around, of creating and building things on their own. That’s a very basic but important thing. I also hope the books can nurture a curiosity about the past — not just history, but a richer sense of this different world that came before ours. That was certainly one of the things that I loved most about the Little House books.
BTC: What challenges do you find writing a series rather than just a stand-alone novel? What about writing children's books versus books for adults?
WM: Writing a series is sort of an odd way to write a long story. It’s like painting a huge mural by starting at one end and then having to paint in only one direction without going back to change or adjust anything. Book one was already published by the time I wrote the third book. It’s fun trying to make everything work, though. As for writing for kids versus adults—it’s hard to say, because the Wanderville books are the first long-form fiction I’ve ever written, whereas my adult stuff is all nonfiction. I remember when I first started working on the books I felt this giddy sense of freedom because I got to make things up. But at the same time, having that freedom can be terrifying.
BTC: What are you working on next?
WM: I’m just finishing up the third Wanderville book, Escape to the World’s Fair, which comes out later this year. And now I’ve been going through old family photos from the early 1900s. They might help me with another Wanderville book if I get an idea for a fourth book, or I might use them in a new story. Or else I could write an essay about them. I know I’m going to write about them, but I just don’t know how yet!
Emmy Rushford is a precocious and civic-minded 6th grader. When her class is assigned to do a community service project, Emmy thinks she has a great idea: Her group will collect food for a local less fortunate family. On the surface, this may sound like a good idea, but Emmy is not telling the whole story to her classmates or her family. In Peg Kehret’s book, Dangerous Deception, Emmy begins innocently enough but she is soon put in harm’s way.
Kehret makes Emmy a rather mature-for-her-years but believable character who wants to do good but naively believes she can handle some very adult issues. The family that Emmy is trying to help is in trouble. However, she cannot turn to her parents or teacher for help without exposing some lies she has told. Kehret sets up a dilemma for her heroine that may seem a bit beyond the abilities of most 6th graders, but she keeps Emmy from becoming a superhero. She is flawed but well-intentioned, and young readers may learn a lesson or two from some of Emmy’s poor decisions.
It’s no secret that dads can have tremendous influence on their children’s lives. Here are three very different picture books from 2014 which highlight the myriad ways in which dads positively shape their little ones, whether over the course of an hour or a lifetime. Here’s to you, dads!
A rainy day. A bored little girl. A dad who takes time to spur his child’s imagination by asking “If you had your druthers, what would you do?” Flights of fancy ensue. In the space of a few pages, author Matt Phelan demonstrates the impact of a dad who simply takes the opportunity to engage in a little play time in Druthers.
From author Daniel Beaty comes a tale of the strong bond between father and son over the chasm of many years’ absence. Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me begins with one young boy’s loving memories of his father and the knock-knock game they used to play every morning. One day, there is no knock, and a new and palpable absence begins in the boy’s life. Missing his father, the boy writes a letter urging him to come home. In time, he receives a poignant letter in return. In it, his father encourages his son, reminding him of his love and all the ways in which he will always remain with him. As the letter unfolds, illustrator Bryan Collier’s richly evocative images foreshadow the boy’s path to adulthood and his eventual reunion with his father.
Young fans of illustrator James Dean’s Pete the Cat series will warm to his latest Mighty Dads, created in collaboration with author Joan Holub. Sing-song, rhyming text pairs with appealing illustrations of construction machinery in dad and child sizes. Hardworking, protective, patient and encouraging, the mighty dad machines act as teachers and role models to their young companions, who help them over the course of a day at the construction site. Punctuated by satisfyingly repetitive and onomatopoeic descriptors (“Crash, bang, boom!”) and bold, colorful illustrations, Mighty Dads is a deceptively simplistic picture book with an underlying message about the important roles dads can play in their children’s lives.
"Seven half-bloods shall answer the call,
To storm or fire the world must fall.
An oath to keep with final breath,
And foes bear arms to the Doors of Death."
The Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan is the end, the final book in a five year saga, and the fulfillment of prophecy. Roman mythology and Greek mythology have clashed with each other, with Gods, Goddesses, Titans and the very Earth itself. It's been clear since the beginning that someone was going to die. Would it be Jason Grace, son of Jupiter? Piper, daughter of Aphrodite? Maybe it would be one of the five other heroes, including a returning Percy Jackson and Annabeth Chase. The action is big, the threats are far out there and the characters are still quipping.
In a post-Potter world, any number of contenders have stepped up to provide fantastic sagas for the young. Riordan has become the Dean of Children's Mythology. Every page in his books are full of reimagined Greek and Roman (and sometimes Egyptian, and soon to be Norse) mythology that can be quickly and easily digested by new readers. It's by turns hilarious, horrifying, action-packed and zooming along with all the speed of a thriller. There's a potency to The Blood of Olympus that comes from being built on stories that have lasted for thousands of years.
This is not a perfect book. Most of the ensemble cast run through their character arcs and just stick around for lack of anywhere else to be. The humor can be patchy. It doesn't matter, because this is smart, imaginative writing that will inspire the next generation. Some of the kids who read this will go on to be archaeologists, mythographers and authors. The rest will have a good time in a world that's grown bigger since they started reading.