Happy Winter Solstice!

Wishing you that, on this, the shortest day of the year, your night is filled with family, friends and all the warmth you can generate! As for my family, we will be making our traditional trip to the beach (Moonlight, in Encinitas in case anyone wants to join us) to frolic in the dunes and watch the sun set and enjoy a bonfire. Afterwards, we will partake of the Solstice Cake - 2/3 chocolate and 1/3 vanilla.

This stunning photo is titled Winter Solstice was created by Bruce W, Berry Jr. His photos are amazing and I encourage you to check them out.

I will be taking a break as the year ends and will return on January 1, 2010 with my round up of best picture books of the year. In case you missed it, you can read Best Picture Books of 2008 posted on January 2, 2009. And don't forget, the Newbery and Caldecott Awards are right around the corner. Here is the round-up of last year's winners.


Book Lists: From the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature

Jon Scieszka is wrapping up a busy two year stint as National Ambassador for Young People's Literature with a list of all the great books that were published during his tenure.

No doubt you know Jon from his gut busting, timeless picture books created with artist extraordinaire, Lane Smith. But you may not be aware of the tireless work he has done to encourage reluctant readers, boys especially, to enter the wonderful world of reading. January 6, 2010 will be Official Jon Scieszka Day at books4yourkids.com! I will run a new post that highlights some of Jon's work as ambassador, including an article he wrote about his experiences while holding the post and I will also be featuring a re-write of my review posted in 2008 on his chapter book series, The Time Warp Trio as well as a review of his autobiography for kids, Knucklehead. Scieszka is also the editor of a great book for fans of children's literature titled, Guys Write for Guys Read. This collection was meant to encourage reluctant boys to read as well as inspire them to read more by compiling short, funny pieces about being a kid written by some of the biggerst (guy) names in kidlit. The book and also produced a non-profit organization (with a really great website) Guys Read.

Here is the text of Jon's article for the LA Times feature Children's Books of 2009 that ran on 12/13/09. I have to take a minute to brag an point out that some of the books I enthusiastically reviewed in the 15 months since I started books4yourkids.com made Jon's list!

No way you could make a list of great kid's literature from the last two years and NOT mention Brian Selznick's Caldecott winner, The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Neil Gaiman's Newbery winner, The Graveyard Book. I was also pleased to see his nods to Mo Willem's duo, Elephant & Piggie as well as Eoin Colfer's spectacular series Artemis Fowl. I was thrilled to see Scieszka's shout out to graphic novels, especially Françoise Mouly's new series for beginning readers, TOON Books, featuring Eleanor Davis's award winning Stinky, and Shaun Tan's masterful work of art, The Arrival. Scieszka also mentions author of picture and chapter books who is new to the scene, Mac Barnett. Mac's two picture books and chapter book were all illustrated by a favorite artist/author of mine, Adam Rex, author of The True Meaning of Smekday. Barnett's books, as well as a few other things he has up his sleeve, will be featured in a review on January 4, 2010 that is not to be missed. I'll put a sock in it for now, but I do want to add that Scieszka mentions some great teen books that my family and I have had the pleasure of reading over the last two years as well!

Children's books 2009: It's all good! says Jon Scieszka

A report from the National Ambassador of Young People's Literature.

By Jon Scieszka

December 13, 2009

As our first national ambassador of young people's literature, I am pleased to report that the world of children's books is rocking.

My job for the last two years has been to raise national awareness of the importance of kids' books and to promote the full variety of great children's literature. My fellow authors and illustrators have made that job as easy as falling off a log while wearing a fancy sash. By my official ambassadorial estimate (and yes, I do also have tassels on my sash and those little triangle-shaped flags on my car), Jeff Kinney's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series and Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" books got 49,323,701 kids reading.

And enjoying it.

My platform has been to reach reluctant readers. And one of the best ways I found to motivate them is to connect them with reading that interests them, to expand the definition of reading to include humor, science fiction/fantasy, nonfiction, graphic novels, wordless books, audio books and comic books. Librarians and teachers have embraced all of these new kinds of reading.

"The Invention of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Selznick, a fantastic 544-page genre-bending combination of text and art, won the Caldecott medal for most distinguished American picture book in 2008. Neil Gaiman's amazing fantasy-horror-thriller, "The Graveyard Book" (with illustrations by Dave McKean), scooped the Newbery medal for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children in 2009. A generation ago, an illustrated book or a fantasy thriller would not have been considered "real reading."

I am thrilled to report that humor is also finally getting its long overdue credit. "Skippyjon Jones Lost in Spice" by Judy Schachner and "Duck! Rabbit!" by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld -- two great new picture books for beginning readers -- are funny. Mo Willems' new early readers, the Elephant & Piggie books, are seriously funny. Eoin Colfer's middle-grade "Artemis Fowl" series is fantastically and flatulently funny. And the humorous state of the children's book world has been massively improved by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's smelly cheese/weinermobile thriller, "Science Fair."

Nonfiction used to get no respect. Now adults have realized that some kids are not big fiction fans. They want information. "Horse Song: The Naadam of Mongolia" by Ted and Betsy Lewin and the "Frogs" and "Spiders" photo books of Nic Bishop show new worlds. History comes artistically to life in Jim Murphy's "A Savage Thunder: Antietam and the Bloody Road to Freedom," Kadir Nelson's "We Are the Ship" about the Negro baseball leagues and Walter Dean Myer's historical fiction "Sunrise Over Fallujah."

And I'm not sure what to call " Lego Star Wars: The Visual Dictionary." Nonfiction? Movie/toy fiction? But it is any Lego/Star Wars' kid's dream. Call it spectacular.

"Just looking at pictures" used to be considered cheating. No longer. The graphic novel is booming. Comics, heavily illustrated texts, books with no words are now accepted as reading. The ambassador approves. Graphic storytelling is a great way to help kids get started reading. It's also a powerful artistic form in its own right.

Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman have started publishing high-quality comics for kids at Toon Books. "Jack and the Box" by Spiegelman, "Little Mouse Gets Ready" by Jeff Smith (see also: his amazing "Bone" series) and "Stinky" by Eleanor Davis are inspiring kids to become savvy visual readers.

First Second Books has also pushed kids' literature into wonderful new graphic territory with everything from funny early readers like "Sardine in Outer Space," written by Emmanuel Guibert and illustrated by Joann Sfar, to the graphic novel/photo journal of war-torn Afghanistan, "The Photographer" (photographs by Didier Lefèvre, written and drawn by Guibert).

Shaun Tan's wordless book "The Arrival" will take you places you've never been. David Small's graphic memoir "Stitches" is one of the best books I read all year.

Audio books have also gained acceptance as a type of reading, thanks to great recordings like "Martina, the Beautiful Cockroach," written and narrated by Carmen Agra Deedy, "Elijah of Buxton" by Christopher Paul Curtis (and narrated by Mirron Willis), and "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" written and narrated by Sherman Alexie.

The former stepchild genre of sci-fi/fantasy gave us novels as compelling as any classics: Suzanne Collins' dystopian thriller "Catching Fire" (the second in the "The Hunger Games" trilogy), Scott Westerfeld's steampunk adventure "Leviathan" (with illustrations by Keith Thompson) and Alexander Gordon Smith's ferocious nightmare suspense "Lockdown: Escape From Furnace."

New voices? Plenty. Look at everything by Mac Barnett: "Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem," "Guess Again!" and "The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity." Ditto for author-illustrator Adam Rex, who illustrated each of these books.

During my ambassadorial tenure, we did alphabet books like nobody does alphabet books. The wonderfully abstract "A Is for Art" by Stephen T. Johnson and "Just in Case a Trickster Tale and Spanish Alphabet Book" by Yuyi Morales represent some of the most inventive.

We welcomed great books from writers who didn't start in the children's field. Thank you to sportswriter Mike Lupica for "Million-Dollar Throw," Terry Pratchett (smartest/funniest fantasy writer in the universe) for "Nation" and Paul Feig (brilliant creator of television's "Freaks and Geeks") for "Ignatius MacFarland: Frequenaut!"

And last, but certainly not least, the old standard fiction gave us some killer storytelling: "After Tupac & D Foster" by Jacqueline Woodson, "Going Bovine" by Libba Bray, "Book of a Thousand Days" by Shannon Hale and "The Magician's Elephant" by Kate DiCamillo with illustrations by Yoko Tanaka.

The state of children's books? Thriving. Inspiring.

Get out there and see for yourself.

Scieszka is the author of numerous books, including "The True Story of the Three Little Pigs!" His successor as the national ambassador of young people's literature will be announced by the librarian of Congress in January.


Oscar and the... written and illustrated by Geoff Waring, 32 pp, RL 1

In this great new series from Candlewick Press titled, Start with Science, we meet Oscar, a geometrically pleasing wonderfully curious kitten. In this series written and illustrated by Geoff Waring, all but two of which are available in paperback, young readers are introduced to core science concepts through the meandering investigations of Oscar and his friends. Unlike most books aimed at readers this young (I would definitely read this to a three year old and think a 6 year old could read it alone, in most cases) the Oscar books are not dry and dull to look at. These are stories wrapped in science, or is it science wrapped up in a story? And, despite the fact that the books are only 32 pages, each book has an index as well as a spread at the end that re-examines the subject covered, which I find especially scientific. The Oscar books are great for storytime, whether you are looking for a teachabe moment or not. The colorful illustrations are totally engaging, as is Oscar's exploration of his world. In Oscar and the Snail: A Book about Things We Use, the pair examine a nest, explore the many uses of stones and learn that glass is made by melting sand. They also learn about uses for oil, wood, wool and wheat.

Oscar and the Bird: A Book about Electricity finds our curious kitten exploring electricity after he accidentally turns on the windshield wipers of a tractor he comes across in a field. Oscar learns how electricity is made and stored, which machines need it to work and, most importantly, how to be safe around wires, batteries, plugs and sockets.

Oscar and the Frog: A Book about Growing finds our furry friend at the pond and full of questions about growing and changing. From plants to ducks, Oscar finds out how living things begin, what they eat and how they grow.

In Oscar and the Bat: A Book about Sound, Bat proves to be the perfect friend to enlighten Oscar as to the nature of sound, from a bird's song to thunder.

In Oscar and the Cricket: A Book about Moving and Rolling, Oscar comes across a ball in the grass that sets him off on an exploration, headed by Cricket, into how things move.

Oscar and the Moth: A Book about Light and Dark finds Oscar watching the sun set, which, of course, fills him with lots of questions! Moth takes him through a tour of sources of light and explains how shadows are made and why darkness comes at night. This one is especially great for younger kids, who are usually full of all sorts of "whys" about this subject.


The Frog Scientist, Gorilla Doctors, A Life in the Wild, Life on Earth - and Beyond by Pamela Turner, RL 4

Having a son who loves illustrated reference books (almost) to the exclusion of all other types of reading material has made me very, very familiar with DK, or Dorling Kindersley, the publisher of spectacular books (and documentaries) for children and adults. However, after reading Pamela S Turner's reference books, I see that there is a whole other side to science. What Turner brings to her books is the human face of exploration, investigation and especially conservation and preservation of disappearing species. Turner's books are filled with spectacular color photos and, always, an index at the back. For readers who aren't so enthralled with non-fiction and science related topics, Turner's books will make any school report a breeze and are likely to inspire interest where there might have been none before. For young readers who are already nurturing a fascination with science, these books will be an exciting discovery!

Published in 2009, The Frog Scientist by Turner with photographs by Andy Comins is part of publisher Houghton Mifflin's Scientsist in the Field series and focuses on Dr Tyrone Hayes. Growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, Hayes loved being out in nature, collecting frogs, turtles and snakes where his first lab was his front porch. By the time Dr Hayes had graduated from Harvard with honors in 1989 and was headed to UC Berkely for graduate school, scientists were discovering that frogs all over the world were dying. Dr Hayes now researches the effects of pesticides on frog development as one of the possible causes of the rapid decline in frog populations around the world. Turner's fascinating book takes you through a brief look at Dr Hayes's childhood and then through the process of collecting and studying specimen in his lab at UC Berkeley along with the help of his graduate students. Kids will delight in the many colorful photos of different frogs, along with a few that have a certain "ick" factor (a frog with an extra leg, a frog eating a baby mouse and a frog dissection...) There are plenty of photos, captions and occasional charts on every page of this book making it an enjoyable and easy read. Learning of Dr Hayes's personal connection to and passion for (he named his daughter Kassina after the scientific name for a group of African frogs) frogs made The Frog Scientist all the more readable.

In an interesting note, I learned from reading Pamela's blog that the NY Times recently ran an article stating that the EPA would run new studies on the risks of Atrazine, the widely used weed killer that is banned in Europe. Dr Hayes has been studying the effects of Atrazine (75 millions pound of which is introduced into our environment every year) on frogs for many years.

Gorilla Doctors: Saving Endangered Great Apes by Pamela S Turner was first published in 2005 and came out in paperback last year. The focus of her book if the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, based in Rwanda. Turner donates half of all royalties from this book directly to MGVP, an organization of veterinarians who provide life saving care to the highly endangered mountain gorillas, who's numbers are critically low due to threats from war, poaching and human destruction and disease. It was more immediate and difficult for me to read about the destruction humans are bringing to the world of gorillas rather than frogs. But, story of the mountain gorillas and the work that the MGVP is doing is so important and needs to be told. Turner does a wonderful job making it readable for all ages, and, there are many wonderful photos of the gorillas being magnificent, playful, curious gorillas as well as a hopeful look at steps to educate the children of Rwanda with the hope that future care and attention to these animals will lead to a growth in their population.

A Life in the Wild: George Schaller's Struggle to Save the Last Great Beast, published in 2008, is the winner of the Golden Kite Award for non-fiction, presented by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Turner first learned of George Schaller while researching Gorilla Doctors: Saving Endangered Great Apes. Schaller, a naturalist and conservationist, was the first scientist to study wild gorillas. He spent 20 months studying the gorillas in the Virunga Mountains in Africa in 1959-60. Seven years later, Dian Fossey, familiar with Schaller's research, would arrive to learn more about this endangered species. In her biography of Schaller, Turner features six different periods of study in Schaller's life in addition to a chapter on Schaller's childhood and a final chapter titled, "The Fate of the Wild" in which she provides an update on endangered animals and how they are faring as well as a great section on how readers can get involved in animal and habitat conservation. Schaller studies gorillas in Africa, tigers in India, lions in Tanzania, snow leopards in the Himalayas, pandas in China and asses and antelopes in Tibet. As someone who has grown up, and who's kids have grown up, as members of the San Diego Zoo and sister site The Wild Animal Park, A Life in the Wild was utterly fascinating. Also concerned with conservation of endangered species and their habitats, I have seen many of the animals Schaller has studied at the Zoo or Wild Animal Park over the years. In her book, Turner highlights Schaller's research and shares his field notes and illustrations. I was especially fascinated by Schaller's sketches of the gorillas' "nose prints" that helped him to identify all 169 of the animals he was observing in 1959-60. I am definitely going to take a closer look at the gorillas the next time I am at the Wild Animal Park! But, it is Turner herself who describes A Life in the Wild best when she says, "I am always writing for my twelve-year-old self, and this is just the sort of book I would have loved: stories of memorable beasts, insights into nature and inspiration from a life of dedication and purpose." As with Gorilla Doctors, Turner dedicates a portion of her royalties, this time to the Wildlife Conservation Society, as well as other organizations of George Schaller's choosing.

Life on Earth-and Beyond: An Astrobiologist's Quest, Turner focuses her on astrobiologist Chris McKay of NASA. But first, Turner explains that biology is the study of life on Earth and astrobiology is the study of life in the universe. Astrobiologists want to answer the question, "Does life exist beyond Earth?" Since life has not been discovered beyond Earth yet, astrobiologists travel to places on extreme environments on Earth to understand how life might survive on other worlds. McKay (and Turner's) explorations take him from the Dry Valleys of Antarctica to Siberia, the Sahara, the Atacama Desert in Chile and Death Valley, CA. While the studies that McKay and his team of scientists make at each location are fascinating, Turner does an brilliant job of showing the reader exactly what is involved in setting up a laboratory, not to mention living environment for the scientist, in each locale. These scientists are more like adventurers as they survive and work in extremely hot and cold environments in order to complete their investigations and experiments. I felt a bit as though I was watching a reality show on Discovery Channel, maybe Dirty Jobs, as I read this book. They should really look into making a show about astrobiologists. Life on Earth - and Beyond has some great pictures of space, including one taken by the Hubble Telescope as well as a very helpful breakdown of the top spots in the search for life beyond Earth. My favorite part of the book was when McKay and his team went to Lake Hoare, Antarctica to see if life could survive beneath a thick, permanent cover of ice. The description of McKay preparing to dive under into the lake and under the ice is chilling - no pun intended - as are the pictures. Is there life at the bottom of this lake? You will have to read to find out!

Turner's latest book, Prowling the Seas: Exploring the Hidden World of Ocean Predators was released in October of 2009. Again, Turner focuses her book on an endangered species, this time the dwindling numbers of ocean predators and a group of scientists who study loggerhead turtles, great white sharks, bluefin tuna and sooty shearwater seabirds with the hope of saving them.

And lastly, just had to share Turner's author picture from The Frog Scientist !


Eleanor Davis Interview

I was so enthralled with Eleanor Davis's graphic novel The Secret Science Alliance and enchanted by Stinky that I had to know more about the amazing person who created these spectacular, perfectly balanced books that combine a very visual storytelling style and just the right amount text to make a new, for me anyway, kind of reading experience. As an art school drop-out, I was fascinated to learn the about the many aspects that go into creating sequential art (the fancy art school term for comic books.) As a lover of novels with almost no background in reading graphic novels, I was hoping for some education and maybe even a little instruction in appreciating the art of the comic book. Eleanor was extremely articulate, interesting and helpful! Lastly, I was very excited to discover that the British newspaper The Guardian recently ran a series of articles on Fairy Tales and invited Eleanor to illustrate Beauty and the Beast, Hans the Hedgehog and The Monkey and the Shark. I have included one illustration. Here is the link to the post on LiveJournal where you can also read the fairy tales!

(My questions are in yellow)

How did you decided to go to art school and did you choose Savannah College of Art and Design specifically because of the Sequential Art program they have?

I decided to go to art school because I wanted to go to college but I didn't want to ever have to write another school paper! But I did love art, and I was already really into comics and excited to pursue them more seriously.
Did you have a foundation year at SCAD where everyone took the same basic classes, regardless of major? If so, what was your favorite? What was the most challenging?

Yup, we all had foundation classes. Color Theory, Drawing 1, Life Drawing 1 and 2, 2-D Design, etc. My favorite were probably the life drawing classes. Life Drawing 1 might have been the most challenging, because I had to learn how to draw in new ways that I wasn't used to, and that initially I really struggled against - I was a very fast drawer, for instance, and the first time I had to draw a long 6 hour long pose I felt like I was going crazy! But one of the most important things art school can do is challenge you and force you to work in new ways. I ended up being very thankful for every teacher who would say "Good job. Now do it completely differently."

What were the names of some of the classes you took in the Sequential Art program?

Intro to Sequential, Pencilling and Inking 1 and 2, Materials and Techniques, Alternative Comics, Survey of Sequential Art.... there were a lot!

We live in a pretty work oriented society, one that does not always see the value of an education for the worth of the education itself but as a stepping stone to a job. Did you ever wonder/worry about what kind of career you would have after graduation?

When I was an undergrad, I was mostly too stupid to think much about what kind of job I was going to have after graduation! I just figured I would be a glamorous 'starving artist' type, I guess. (!?) Currently, I've found that working full time as an illustrator is way too much stress, so I work part-time at a really nice co-op grocery store and part time doing art and freelance work.
I don't know a thing about the world of zines and mini-comics, except that they are usually hand made, not produced by a publishing house. How do you share what you make with others? Do you have a Mini-Comicon? Have you ever had a booth at Comicon? I'm guessing that the internet makes the world of mini-comics and zines a lot smaller?

Yup, minis and zines are usually xeroxed or otherwise produced oneself, sometimes very simply, but sometimes put together very artistically with fancy covers, or fold-outs, or in interesting shapes and formats. People who make mini-comics can go to small press conventions like SPX, MoCCA, APE, Stumptown, or my hometown's own Fluke. You can sell over the internet, or at indy-friendly comics and book stores. My husband Drew and I go to some conventions and sell some over the internet. But the print runs of most minis are very small- from 50 to 500 copies would be about average, I would guess. The internet has really changed the mini-comics community. Back in the late 80s - early 90s, access to cheap xerox technology gave people a chance to be heard in a way that wouldn't have been possible before. Diaries, political opinions, ranting, comics, record reviews, anything you wanted could be put into a zine. These days, people who just want to be heard are more likely to have a blog or a Flickr account where you can reach far more people in far more places. Folks who are into mini-comics now are often attracted by the physical object itself, or the potential for papercraft, things like that.

Do you ever create artwork to that is shown in galleries?

Yup, I'm often in Giant Robot's group shows. I'm doing a show in Kate Guillen!

How did you connect with Françoise Mouly at TOON Books? I have read a few interviews with her, is she as cool as she seems?

Françoise found my website and contacted me about the TOON books project. And, she's even COOLER than she seems! She's not only a powerhouse and an amazing editor and art director, she's interesting and funny and really, really nice!

Had you written Stinky before connecting with TOON Books?

Nope! I came up with the idea after Françoise contacted me.

Did you draw, ink and color Stinky?


I was admiring your original art for sale at Little House Comics, the website you and your husband, Drew Weing who is also an artist, share. I noticed that there were no word bubbles in the art. What comes first for you, the picture or the words?

Many of my comics I go ahead and put the word bubbles, and words, in the original art. The exceptions are Stinky and SSA because we needed to be able to edit things up to the last minute. But when I create a comic, I'm usually thinking about the words and the pictures simultaneously. I sketch lots of little thumbnails and write down tons of notes before I go to finished art.

Francoise Mouly and Jonathan Bennett are credited for Book Design on Stinky. What does this mean?
I only made the images and words; Françoise and Jonathan were the ones who put them together into a beautiful book. That's a big job including decisions about book size, paper stock, indicia, endpapers, color scheme, placement of spot illos, and cover design - those nice spines all the toon books have, the lovely matte hardcovers, the title design, etc.

For people like me who aren't familiar with the world of comics, what does "inking" mean?

Many commercial artists working in traditional media like their art to be easily reproduced - like nice, crisp, black ink. But working straight in ink is hard because you cant erase, so many artists do an under-drawing called 'pencilling', finish the drawing in ink, and then erase the pencils. In traditional comics, these two jobs have often been split between professional pencillers and professional inkers.

Your husband inked The Secret Science Alliance and the Copy Cat Crook. How/why did you decide to have him do the inking and have

I was running behind of my deadlines! And Drew is an amazing inker, and had been heavily involved with the book from the start. So when he offered, I jumped on the chance to be able to work with him on this project.

I know that computers are used for creating illustrations these days, did you use a computer for either of your books?

Computers are used less in most art than you might think, even art that's created using digital media - there's always a live person behind every line! For SSA, we used the computer in a couple different ways. I scanned my pencil drawings and printed them out in light blue for Drew to ink - I like to pencil small and Drew likes to ink big, so this way I was able to blow up my art. Drew's inks look almost computer-precise, but actually they are drawn by a metal quill pen dipped in ink the ultra-old-fashioned way. Then we scanned Drew's inks and our awesome colorists, Joey Weiser and Michele Chidester, colored them in in Photoshop. Finally, Bryant, our letterer, put in the words working from a script I had given him.
You mentioned in an interview that you do a lot of work with your husband, brainstorming and sketching together. I have always wondered how two artist collaborate on a piece? Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher are a team who have illustrated many children's picture books. When I read one of their books, I always scrutinize the artwork to see if I can tell who did what. Can you describe the process of working together for you and Drew?

Drew and I mostly brainstorm together, and give each other input and critiques. We fight a lot! (But mostly in a good, productive way ;) .) Or, we parcel out the work, like when I pencil and Drew inks. I think every artistic team kind of has to figure out their own way of working - it's a challenge for sure!

From reading interviews, I know that your parents were into comics, so you grew up with comic books in your house and expanded your interest from there. I grew up in a house with no comic books, in fact, I never even read the comics in the newspaper. I think reading Gary Larson's Far Side one panel comics has been the extent of my appreciation up until the last year. I have to admit, as someone who has a passion for reading novels, I feel like I'm cheating somehow when I read a book that has more pictures than words. I also feel like I am cheating (or being cheated?) when I read a book in one sitting, as I do with the kid's graphic novels I've been picking up lately. What's wrong with me? How can I shift my attitude so that I can really appreciate the graphic novels I have been reading and enjoying?

Well, every artwork needs to be judged on its own merits. But there are really good comics out that are excellent works of art. Most people think of film as being a fine art form, and most movies take under two hours to watch. A great piece of music can be only a couple minutes long. A timeless painting, or a lovely haiku, can be taken in even more quickly. Every art form is unique, with it's own benefits and limitations.

Likewise, when I first saw The Seven Samurai I felt weird - it was supposed to be a great film, but it was so fun to watch! The idea that anything good has to be hard work is pernicious for sure, and has resulted in a lot of bad art whose creators think they just have to be really boring and oblique.

Additionally, people new to comics often read them too quickly because they aren't used to really looking at the pictures - they just skip from word balloon to word balloon. It can take some time to learn to read comics slowly, looking at every image and letting it speak for itself.

Like any work of art, I judge a comic by the emotions it makes me feel, whether it stays with me and I find myself thinking about it after I'm done, and whether I find myself revisiting it again and again.

I read that some of your childhood favorites were Eloise, by the amazing team of Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight, and Janet and Alan Ahlberg, creators of the incredible Jolly Postman Books, among others. I LOVED Eloise as a kid - I still have my mom's falling apart copy. I remember doing a 3-D book report on the book when I was in 5th grade (even though it's a picture book) and making a diorama of her very messy bedroom and a little Eloise doll out of pantyhose. I have a print Hilary Knight did in celebration of Eloise's 40th birthday with 40 different images of her. Hilary Knight's style is very illustrative, almost comic like. Do you think this is part of what drew you to the book as a child? I think that Janet Ahlberg's style of illustration is a bit comic like as well, with the inked outlines of her characters and scenery.

Cool! That diorama sounds great! Boy, do I love Eloise. I grew up reading the copies that my mother grew up reading when she was a girl, and I poured and poured over them. (A good example of the potential lasting value of a quick read!) Hilary Knight and Janet Ahlberg could be called cartoonists, if they wanted, not just because of the style they draw in, but because of what they draw, I think - they both do a lot of sequential storytelling within their illustrations. And their drawings are lively and inviting, and they put in so many wonderful details that multiple readings are really rewarding, especially for young readers. Eloise, the Ahlberg books, and kids comics are like magnets for kids that haven't quite learned to read yet because there's a lot you can get out of them even if you can't read the words.

Now, on to The Secret Science Alliance and the Copy Cat Crook! I have to say, one of the things that drew me to Stinky right off the bat was the map of the swamp at the front of the book. I am a huge fan of maps and will buy almost any book with a map in it, even if it is a map of a kitchen. In a way, many of your illustrations in The Secret Science Alliance and the Copy Cat Crook are maps or map like. What role did maps play when you were illustrating The Secret Science Alliance and the Copy Cat Crook?

I love maps! I love how long you can spend looking at maps, and just how much information they can show. In a way, comics are one of the few art forms that can seamlessly incorporate maps and diagrams, and the reader themselves can pour over them and appreciate them. I liked using maps and diagrams in SSA for many reasons: they're great for clear storytelling, they add to the scientific feel of the book, they are uniquely suited to the comics medium, and kids really like them.
As I said in my review of The Secret Science Alliance and the Copy Cat Crook, I felt like I had read a 200 page young adult novel when I turned the last page of your book. Aside from a really great plot, I think a large part of this comes from the extremely well developed characters of Julian, Greta and Ben. What went into thinking up these three? How did you decide to give Ben the big eyebrows? How did you decide to make Greta African American? And motherless? How did you decide to make Julian the main character and new kid at school rather than Greta or Ben?

Aw, shucks! Thanks for the flattery. And I'm glad you like Julian and Greta and Ben! Character development is interesting, because it happens kind of while you aren't looking, and characters take off on their own in directions you weren't even expecting. Greta I wanted to have be the sort of butt-kicking super-girl I idolized when I was little. Greta's crazy personality stemmed from drawing her riding bikes a lot, and suddenly she was wearing her bike helmet all the time, and saying crazy stuff about protecting her brain, and getting really into security. I wanted to show with Ben that just because you get bad grades in school doesn't mean you're dumb - and then that led to exploring why he got bad grades, and just who was telling him he was dumb anyway. Julian was introduced first because there's such an incredible thrill to finding friends when you're friendless. And I wanted to include black and hispanic characters because I just think it's really weird for white people to only write about white people (lame!).

I read in an interview that you were and are still a bit of an inventor - a Kleenex box with a secret compartment for snacks, a desk-bookcase-bunk bed and a tiny house with wings, to name a few. When you were creating the inventions that Julian, Ben and Greta come up with, how closely did you feel you had to stick to reality?

Drew and I both felt strongly that there was a thin line we wanted to walk where the inventions in the book were thrilling and fantastical, but still realistic enough that a normal little kids might really think they could build that stuff themselves. Most kids believe they could probably build an airplane if they wanted to, although they probably know they wouldn't be up for building a rocket to the moon. I wanted young readers to feel like they could be friends with Greta and Julian and Ben, and be inventors with them.
When you were conceiving The Secret Science Alliance and the Copy Cat Crook, how did you figure out how many panels to have on a page, or per scene?

Lots and lots and lots of thumbnails. Thumbnails are very tiny sketches of each page. It was like putting together a giant puzzle where some pieces kept getting taken and out and new pieces kept getting put in. In general, I tried to fit 5 to 6 panels on a normal page.

Writing SSA - the thumbnailing part - took about a full year. We didn't even start the final art until that stage was completely finished! The final art took another 8 months or so. It was a time consuming project!
I have to say, in addition to your great story telling in The Secret Science Alliance and the Copy Cat Crook, I am sure that part of the reason I felt like I had read a traditional novel by the time I finished was because of the sheer volume of images, information and detail included on every page! How on earth did you manage to pack in so much detail and keep the illustrations looking so crisp and easy to follow?

It took a lot of time! I love drawing little details, but I knew I couldn't let it distract from the story, so I always tried to make sure each page was clear first and foremost. Drew precise inking and Joey and Michele's coloring also kept things from looking messy.

Is The Secret Science Alliance and the Copy Cat Crook going to be a series?

I'm afraid not! Although I loved working on SSA, it was a time-consuming book, and I'm excited about moving on to other projects.
I know that you are collaborating on a book with your mother, Ann Davis. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Yes! I'm very excited about it. It's a YA murder mystery set in Samarkand in 700's, starring a girl named Katta. My mom's a history teacher and it's been really exciting working with her on it. If it's half as fun to read it as it's been to write it so far, it'll be a doozy!

Thank you so much for opening up a new world of reading to me with The Secret Science Alliance and the Copy Cat Crook and Stinky!!! I am really enjoying the graphic novels I have been reading - Amulet by Kazo Kibuishi is one of my favorites so far. I also really like The Fog Mound Trilogy by Susan Schade and Jon Buller. Where should I read next in my auto-didactic exploration of the world of graphic novels?

Oh, golly, there are so many!!! For kids: Little Lulu by John Stanley, anything by Carl Barks, anything by Raymond Briggs, The Little Vampire Series by Joann Sfar, Dragonball and Kowa! by Akira Toriyama (these contain some mild nudity), Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, Bone by Jeff Smith, TinTin by Herge, Asterix by Goscinny and Uderzo, and many more! For grownups: Anything by Dan Clowes, Gipi, Joann Sfar, Gabrielle Bell, Art Spiegelman, Lewis Trondhiem, Rutu Modan, Joe Sacco, Dan Zettwoch, Kevin Huizenga, Chester Brown, Michel Rabagliati, Abouet and Oubrerie - the list is impossibly long.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me and I look forward to your next book!


The Tree of Life written and illustrated by Peter Sís

Peter Sís, born in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1949, worked as a radio disc jockey in his homeland before pursuing his artistic talents. He interviewed George Harrison and Ringo Starr of the Beatles and served as guide to the Beach Boys, who were allowed to tour Czechoslovakia in 1969 after the Russian invasion of the country. This is unique background and perspective could be what gives him the inspiration and perspective to create the diverse and unique picture books that he does. Sís the first children's book illustrator to win the MacArthur Fellowship - nicknamed the Genius Award. His books were cited as being "challenging and intricately drawn... Their graphic elegance and complexity make them appealing to adults as well." This could not be more true. Sís has a way of tackling seemingly adult topics like life behind the Iron Curtain, the life of Galileo Galilei, and his father's journey through Tibet while working as a documentary filmmaker sent by his Communist government to teach his craft to the Chinese, and making them both presentable and palatable to young readers, as well as old.

The Tree of Life: A Book Depicting the Life of Charles Darwin, Naturalist, Geologist & Thinker, is amazing. Intricately engrossing, something new can be discovered with every reading. And you will want to read this book many times over. Like AJ Wood and Clint Twist's Charles Darwin and the Beagle Adventure: Countries Visited During the Voyage Round the World of the HMS Beagle Under the Command of Captain FitzRoy, Royal Navy, Sís's book is a scrapbook, of sorts. However, Sís's is entirely visual with no flaps, fold-outs or envelopes as in Wood and Twist's book. Yet, somehow, the delicacy and mulit-scened illustrations that Sís creates make you feel as if you are lifting flaps and unfolding pages. Sís is clearly well studied on his subject and is masterful at paring down copious amounts of information to fit into a picture book format. He does this with his illustrations, by breaking the pages into various boxes and bubbles and even sometimes mazes, and in his writing by dividing Darwin's life into small chunks. During the time after the Beagle expedition, while he was raising a family with his wife Emma and formulating his theories, Sís divides his text into "Public Life," "Private Life," and "Secret Life" portions to effectively illustrate the potentially explosive nature of the ideas and writings Darwin was producing. Sís even includes excerpts of Darwin's own words, printed in a different font throughout the book.

I wish I had more examples of Sís's illustrations to share, but there is an excellent animated excerpt from The Tree of Life on his website. It takes a special kind of reader, young or old, to appreciate the work that Sís does - it is so out of the ordinary when it comes to children's picture books or adult non-fiction books. I think, however, with the rapidly growing acceptance and popularity of graphic novels in the United States, Sís's work will definitely find new audiences and increased appreciation.

Charles Darwin and the Beagle Adventure, written by AJ Wood and Clint Twist with Extracts from the Works of Charles Darwin, RL 4

This year celebrates the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and there are many books for children and adults recognizing this. One of the most beautiful and and engrossing, and possibly the one that will be the most attractive to young readers who are less than enthralled by science, is Charles Darwin and the Beagle Adventure: Countries Visited During the Voyage Round the World of the HMS Beagle Under the Command of Captain FitzRoy, Royal Navy. The scrapbook format of this book, made popular by the Ology series of books, also published by Candlewick Press, is what makes this book so easy to pick up and fall into. My 5 year old, who cannot read yet, has spent minutes (for him, this is a very long time to sit still in one spot, regardless of what he is doing) poring over this book at a time, picking it up again and again. On top of that, our local Natural History Museum has an exhibit titled Darwin: Evolution/Revolution at which we were able to see artifacts and facsimiles of artifacts that accompanied Darwin on the HMS Beagle. This, too, proved fascinating for my son. Why? I may never know... But, I think this might be a testament to the universally interesting life of Charles Darwin.

Like Professor Ari Berk's gorgeous books, Charles Darwin and the Beagle Adventure is, above all else, a collection of the work of amazing artists. I have always been a fan of antique scientific drawings, be they of flora or fauna, and this book does not disappoint. There are also historical photographs and engravings included in the book. Small books within the book and flaps conceal added information about the subject and his journey. There are "booklets" on Erasmus Darwin, Charles's famous grandfather, navigation, orchids, slavery, hydrography, Darwin and the Bible, the geologist Charles Lyell who may have been Darwin's greatest influence, and rodents of the Andes, to name a few. There is also a fold-out chart showing the principle tracks of the Beagle as well as envelopes containing the reproduction of a letter written by Darwin as well as a family tree and a final envelope containing a brief version of his Theory of Evolution that took him 20 years to publish, as well as a handful of "photographs" that illustrate this.

Two-page spreads, with the occasional four-page spread, make up the "chapters" of this book. Beginning with an introduction that focuses on Darwin's early life, the chapters also cover the preparations for the trip, the HMS Beagle, the voyage to Brazil, South America, Patagonia, Cape Horn, the Galapagos, and the voyage back to England. The most fascinating thing that I learned as I read this book was the story of the Fuegians. When FitzRoy and the HMS Beagle first visited the island of Tierra del Fuego in 1830, he adopted four native children and took them home to England with him. FitzRoy renamed the boys Boat Memory, York Minster, Jemmy Button and the girl Fuegia Basket. They were returned to their island homeland in 1832 along with a missionary who, along with the children was meant to help spread "civilization" among the Fuegians. The missionary lasted a matter of days and was taken back on board the Beagle.

For a very thorough review of the many books on Darwin that have been published for kids this year, check out this great piece from the editors of the School Library Review. And, for a spectacular collection of poetry selected by our current Children's Poet Laureate, Mary Ann Hoberman, don't miss my review of The Tree That Time Built: A Celebration of Nature, Science and Imagination. Inspired by Darwin's Tree of Life diagram, Hoberman and Linda Winston selected poems that represented the "family tree of all life on earth" and included an audio CD of the poets and others reading a selection of these poems.