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.
The most prestigious awards for teen and children's literature were announced by the American Library Association in Boston earlier this morning. Awards were given in a wide range of categories that covered all formats and age levels. A complete list of awards, winners and honorees can be found here.
The Caldecott Medal is awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children. This year’s winner is Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear written by Lindsay Mattick and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Blackall's warm gouache-and-ink illustrations complement this story of the real bear who inspired the creation of the beloved Winnie-the-Pooh. Caldecott Honor winners include Trombone Shorty written by Troy Andrews and illustrated by Bryan Collier, Waiting written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes, Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement illustrated by Ekua Holmes and written by Carole Boston Weatherford and Last Stop on Market Street written by Matt de la Pena and illustrated by Christine Robinson.
The oldest of the medals awarded, the John Newbery Medal, is awarded to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. This year’s medal recipient is Matt de la Pena for Last Stop on Market Street, a picture book illustrated by Christine Robinson sharing the simple story of a young boy riding the bus with his grandmother and learning to find the beauty in everyday things. Three books were selected as Honor winners: The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson and Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan.
The Michael L. Printz Award annually honors the best book written for teens, based entirely on its literary merit. This year’s winner is Bone Gap by Laura Ruby. Ruby blends mystery, romance and magical realism and draws the reader into this place and the story of Finn, an eighteen-year-old outsider who is the only witness to an abduction. Printz Honor awards went to Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez and Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick.
The Coretta Scott King Awards are given to outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values. Bryan Collier received the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for his vibrant mixed media collages which bring to life the story of author Troy Andrews who shares his childhood dream of becoming a musician. Rita Williams-Garcia, one of the authors selected for this year’s inaugural BCReads, was awarded the Coretta Scott King Author Award for Gone Crazy in Alabama, the final installment in the heartwarming Gaither family series that began with One Crazy Summer. Congratulations also to local author, Ronald L. Smith, author of Hoodoo, for winning the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award. Be sure to read more about our hometown winner in our interview with Smith earlier this year.
As the weather gets colder and the snow days start piling up, you may find yourself wondering what to do with your children now that they are stuck indoors more than usual. No need to sit them down in front of the television or computer — here are some great activity books for kids that are sure to alleviate their boredom and inspire their creativity.
The Curious Kid’s Science Book by Asia Citro encourages children to develop a scientific curiosity about the world around them. Citro points out that children are naturally inclined to ask questions about the way things work, making them “born scientists.” A science teacher herself, Citro reassures parents that the experiments in the book aren’t complicated and don’t need to be executed perfectly in order to have value — the main purpose of the experiments is to show kids how to use the scientific method and develop scientific skills. The book is divided into simple topics such as “plants and seeds,” “water and ice” and other concepts that introduce children to the basics of biology, chemistry, physics and even engineering. This book is great for parents of 4-7 year olds who want their children to start developing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills early in their education.
Do you have a budding chef or a young Martha Stewart on your hands? In Good Taste by Mari Bolte is filled with fun recipes that kids can put together and package with style to give as great holiday gifts. Bolte encourages kids to be creative with their presentation and packaging as that is often what makes a gift go from being ordinary to extraordinary. Some of the gifts include pickles in decorated mason jars, homemade marshmallows wrapped in colorful cellophane and ribbon and bouquets of fruit cut into decorative shapes. She also includes a section at the end where multiple gifts from the book can be combined into themed gift baskets. This book is best for slightly older children in middle grades with an aptitude for cooking and an eye for aesthetic appeal.
For parents whose children are more interested in arts and crafts, Paper Mania by Amanda Formaro has a variety of projects for kids of all ages and skill levels. The projects include everything paper: from simple paper airplanes to magazine collages and mosaics, from toilet paper tube marble racetracks to papier-mâché masks and decoupage. Children will develop their skills with cutting, weaving, pasting, measuring, folding, coloring and more. Formaro is a mother and blogger who has been crafting with children for years. Her blog, CraftsbyAmanda.com, includes projects for both adults and kids — so parents can join in on the crafting fun too!
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.
A fascinating read that focuses on both local and internationally important histories, Breakthrough! Is the record of the surgeon Alfred Blalock, his assistant Vivien Thomas and Dr. Helen Taussig, who teamed up to invent an operation to save some of their tiniest patients. Previous to the innovation of Blalock, Thomas and Taussig in 1944 there was an affliction known as “blue baby” syndrome, in which the patient’s color would change and their breathing would gradually decrease This syndrome was almost always fatal, and affected mostly patients between birth and 5 years of age. Dr. Taussig often worked with and attempted to treat many of these Blue Babies and was the leading expert on the disease but she needed the help of an experienced surgeon to develop and perform what she thought could be the cure. She, Vivien Thomas and Dr. Blalock were all working at Johns Hopkins at the time and although Blalock was reluctant to take on the task at first, he eventually agreed. Essential to the story is the fact that Thomas, who because of his African American heritage had been kept at the level of assistant instead of given schooling and credentials that would have promoted him to surgeon, was the main developer of the operation, which involved re-routing veins in the heart in order to increase oxygen flow in afflicted patients. The incredible delicacy and skill Thomas possessed could not be put into practice in the operating room directly, but he did assist and direct Blalock every step of the way on the revolutionary day that all three of their efforts paid off and their first young patient was permanently cured.
Breakthrough! is a fascinating piece of local history that discusses how much medicine has advanced in this century, the racial and gender barriers we have overcome and those still left to tackle on the horizon. It’s excellent reading for personal interest or for research on the topic of the blue babies disease or any of the individual doctors the account centers around.
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.
Publishers seem to be making a real effort to create informative books for kids that are beautifully crafted and truly spark imagination. Wide Eyed Editions are among the best, and they have recently released two atlases that are great for aspiring explorers.
Rachel Williams’ Atlas of Adventures takes readers around the world to experience different places, cultures and events. Giant illustrations done by Lucy Letherland invite readers to dive into exotic locales while interesting captions give facts and short descriptions of each unique experience. Every full-page spread offers a tantalizing peek into another culture. Choose from pages such as “Go to sleep under the Northern Lights”, “Learn to steer a gondola in Venice,” “River raft down the Grand Canyon” or “Set the world aglow at Hong Kong’s Lantern Festival.” The editors have captured some of the most fascinating events around the globe and made them wonderfully accessible. The adventures are organized by continent, and each section begins with a map of the continent showing important places as well as each adventurous destination. Readers can leisurely explore one continent at a time or jump from Paris to the Great Pyramids with a flip of the page. At the end, there is a collection of things and people to go back and search for in the illustrations.
The 50 States by Gabrielle Balkan is another wonderful atlas for children from the same publisher. This book shows children “the story” of each state and is fascinating even for readers who aren’t usually drawn to history or geography. It is a perfect balance of fun and fundamental kinds of facts accompanied by eye-catching illustrations. Maps include geographic information like borders and bodies of water, but they also include inspiring people, landmarks, “regional spotlights” for things you just don’t find anywhere else and historical moments that made each state what it is today. The book inspires an interest in the natural world by highlighting state parks, battlefields, reservations and national forests. It is easily accessible but still manages to give readers an idea of the personality of each state.
Readers who enjoy these will like other Wide Eyed Editions, such as Maps by Aleksandra Mizielinska or This Is the World: A Global Treasury by Mirosalv Sasek.