As I continue packing for our cross-country move, the belongings and decisions seem to expand rather than decrease. Next month the decisions will have been made and I will be writing from Florida. Today though, in this final blog of my blog duet, I continue to ponder the question of which books to keep and which to leave behind, along with the inquiry into the values certain books bring us.
This past month, I asked some folks whose opinions I hold dear about their thoughts on values in picture books.
Dashka Slater, dear friend and fellow Cliffhanger (the name of our writers group), says this: “To me the most important value is kindness and the ability to look at things from someone else's perspective. I also think it's important to show kids that there are lots of different kinds of people and lots of different kinds of families and to make sure our books reflect that. I value humor, whimsy, and imagination and want my books to convey that. Since nature is important to me, environmental values are in my books, in large ways and small. But I also know values can be misunderstood. My book Dangerously Ever After has been discussed from many different perspectives and some people see things in it that are not what I believe the book is saying. But that's OK. We all see things through different lenses."
Another Cliffhanger, Liz Scarpelli, notes that Eve Bunting is a master at presenting lessons about very tough topics that don’t sound like lessons. “Telling a tale in a way that makes a child think, but doesn’t bang them over the head.”
Deborah Davis mentioned Jacqueline Woodson’s books, which model values so beautifully, along with A Chair for my Mother by Vera B. Williams.
Values shape our behaviors, our choices, and our relationships. When we model positive values for our children, in person or in books, we help them build healthy relationships, be empathetic, have integrity, and encourage them to become independent thinkers.
As a writer who wants to write books filled with humor and joy, as well as high values, I think it’s important to have an agent who views the world in a similar way. So it’s great to have Karen in my corner.
My wonderful agent Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary shares, “I actually rep picture books simply because they make me happy and I love them, not because I want to influence anyone.” Karen has it absolutely right. We should all do our work out of love and happiness. When we do that, we bring the love and happiness to everyone we touch. But Karen adds: “What I most want children to take away from the picture books I represent is an ability to relate to others in a more sensitive and empathetic way, as well as an increased sense of self-worth and wellbeing. Those traits alone would make the world a kinder and more peaceful place.” We can talk values all day long, but I think that a kinder more peaceful place is what most of us long for
And the final word from my cohorts goes to my amazing friend and mentor, Jane Yolen. Heed well, writers. “I think there are two kinds of books--head books (How Do Dinos books) and heart books (Owl Moon). It's best to work at full heartbeat when doing a head book while being aware of market problems when writing your heart books. In each case, though, set your ego aside and ask the story what IT needs.”
This morning I made a few more decisions on which books to keep and which to leave. In the “Keep” pile are Barbara Robinson’s The Best Halloween Ever, inscribed, “This is for my good writer friend, Marsha.” I miss Barbara’s gentle, fun-loving spirit. There’s also Kathryn Otoshi’s What Emily Saw, inscribed “Thanks for filling me with inspiration.” Yes, I inspired Kathryn at the beginning of her career as she inspires me now. There’s Humphrey The Lost Whale, the story of a whale who traveled up the Sacramento River in 1985 ending up in the middle of a farmfield. The whole Bay Area watched his rescue effort for nearly a month. The book is part of my history and I want to share it with my granddaughter Gráinne, a way to show her where and who I was. There’s Padraic Colum The Children’s Homer. Honestly, I can’t recall if I ever read it to my children, but I will not be negligent with Gráinne.
In the end, I’ve discovered the values reflected in the books we can’t let go not only have to do with books reflecting kindness, friendship, and honor, but also have to do with whom we’ve shared the books with and the connectedness and relationships the books reflect.
Let's all go share a book, right now.
Mira was fantastic enough to invite me to write an ongoing series of posts on the darker side of kidlit, as well as books for very young readers. As a father of a two year old boy, I have a lot of opinions on that genre that I’ll be hoisting on you soon. I thought I’d start with a post on scary books and how they can offer a sense of control to little ones. – Jorge Lacera
“Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses.” - Neil Gaiman
Like a lot of children, I really loved scary books. Anything with a monster, alien or ghost, I would hunt down and devour. Unlike other kids, my love of those stories continues to drive and inspire me and my creative work to this day. I distinctly remember being freaked out in the car reading a book on the skunk ape and then staring out the car window, imagining him roaming the Florida streets. Other people may disagree, but I think reading scary stories at a young age helps kids cope with fear.
Kids understand horror and ghost stories better than adults. They have to. The whole world is larger, scarier, and meaner than they are. Pretty much anything is capable of smooshing them like bugs. Reading a scary or spooky story puts the power back in their hands. Literally. Too scared? Just close the book! Our television and film saturated society very often doesn’t give kids a chance to turn away. I think we can all relate to glancing at a screen and seeing a tv show, news story or movie clip that is frightening and devoid of context. The fleeting image is gone and you are left to deal with it on your own.
With a book you can reread that chilling passage, or stare at the scary picture. You get to process and actually sit with the fear. Until it goes away.
It’s no coincidence that the best authors of scary or creepy stories are also funny as hell. Roald Dahl is the master of this, of course. His parallel adult short story career and experiences during WW2 give his work for children a real sense of danger, humor and wit.
Same with Edward Gorey, Charles Adams or Lemony Snicket. Scary and funny go well together, like peanut butter and chocolate or werewolves and vampires.
I also think there is a lack of really fun--scary or otherwise--creepy books for kids. Here are five random examples of old and new books I like:
1. Uncle Louie’s Fantastic Sea Voyage:
My two year old loves this book. Jan Loof's art is a cross between R. Crumb and Herge’. The main character even looks like a hipster Tintin!
2. Creepy Carrots!:
Peter Brown takes Aaron Reynold’s story and lavishes it with glorious black and white (and orange) imagery worthy of James Whale or Hitchcock himself.
3. The Wolves in the Walls:
Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean tell a tale that oozes with dead pan humor, atmosphere and doom.
4. The Gashlycrumb Tinies:
Edward Gorey’s classic abecedarian book about all the funny ways little kids can die.
5. Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich:
Adam Rex’s love letter to his favorite monsters. Rex’s detailed illustrations and hilarious rhyming poetry make this an Insta-Classic.
I hope you've enjoyed these and I look forward to sharing more with you on the 4th Friday of every month.~ Jorge Lacera
Meet the Friday Blogonauts
First Fridays will feature Bryan Patrick Avery, published writer , man of mystery, and professional magician among other things.
Second Fridays will feature awesome multi-award winning author Marsha Diane Arnold who will be writing about character-driven and/or nature-based books and/or anything she likes :)
Third Fridays will feature independent Aladdin/Simon & Shuster editor Emma Sector who has helped bring many books into the world.
Fourth Fridays will feature the great Christine Taylor-Butler who has published over 70 award-winning fiction and non-fiction and nonfiction books including the acclaimed new middle grade series - The Lost Tribes.
Fifth Fridays will feature the fabulous Carl Angel award-winning multi-published Illustrator and graphic designer.
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