Cover Reveal: The 11:11 Wish by Kim Tomsic

Today the American Library Conference in Chicago begins. It is the one of those rare times when casual observers can watch librarians running around like crazed chickens with their heads cut off. Tis a glorious sight. That said, I’d bet good money that a bunch of you are not attending and are, instead, in desperate need of a good cover reveal. One from, say, 2018. For you, my lucky readers, I provide. Better still, I’m giving you a debut author. How’s that for cheeky?

Meet Kim Tomsic. She writes for the blog Bookshelf Detective and is yet another SCBWI success story.  Now meet her book, The 11:11 Wish.  Now read this testimonial from, what else?, a librarian:

“Kim Tomsic’s debut, THE 11:11 WISH, is a delightful, magic-infused romp that will make you wince and cheer for Megan Meyers as she navigates new friendships and learns what it means to be true to herself. Megan was a complete nerd, famous for snort-laughing at her old school, but a new school offers her a chance to start over fresh. Armed with internet advice on making friends, she vows to take the school by storm, but when her plan fizzles on the first day, she resorts to magic. She makes a wish on an enchanted cat clock, and to her astonishment, the wish comes true! But magic always has a cost, and she soon discovers the real price of having her wishes granted. Megan learns the hard way that there’s no shortcut to true friendship and honesty is the best kind of magic. THE 11:11 WISH is perfect for readers struggling to find their own voice in the tricky social landscape of middle school.” Ida Olson, Library Media Specialist

Don’t take it personally, authors, but I trust librarians. I really do.

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for . . . the cover reveal!


You can never, ever, go wrong with blue and yellow.

Thanks to Kim for the debut!


Review of the Day: Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

beyondbrightseaBeyond the Bright Sea
By Lauren Wolk
Dutton (an imprint of Penguin Young Readers)
ISBN: 978-11-101-99485-6
Ages 10-14
On shelves now.

No author gets a free pass. Your last book have been a spot-on bit of brilliance, lighting up the literary landscape like a thousand Roman candles. Pfui. A writer is only as good as their latest book, as any jaded 10-year-old will tell you. And while I greatly enjoyed Lauren Wolk’s debut novel (and Newbery Honor winner) Wolf Hollow I also knew full well that the author originally intended that book to be a written work for adults. Beyond the Bright Sea, her next novel, is written specifically with a child audience in mind from the start. Would that change Wolk’s writing style at all? Could she maintain the same level of written sophistication if she knew the book was going to be read by young people, or would she veer off into the dreaded trying-too-hard territory known by too many authors all too well? Heck, would she even respect her audience or would she be writing down to them? In retrospect, I suspect that it didn’t matter much how I felt about the book walking into it. If I’d had high expectations, they would have been met. Low ones were simply exceeded. Beyond the Bright Sea is a slower, statelier novel than a lot of books out there, but once it reaches its full speed there’s no holding it back. Leprosy, pirate gold, orphans, shipwrecks, lost messages, they all crowd the pages and leave you coming back for more. Wolk actually knows how to write for kids, and not just that, write beautifully. The proof is in the pudding.

Crow says it was seeing that light on Penikese Island that started it all, but I don’t know if you’d agree. Maybe the real beginning was when Osh found her as a baby, washed up on the shore in a makeshift boat. Clearly her boat came from Penikese where the leprosy sanitarium was located. He could have turned her in to the proper authorities, but for a man escaping a past he’d never discuss, it was actually easier to raise her with the help of his neighbor Miss Maggie. Now Crow is older and she wants to know where she came from. Who her parents were. What she doesn’t know is that delving deep into the mystery will reveal a lot more than her family. There’s a man out there who thinks she has what he wants, and if Crow isn’t careful she’ll lose everything she has in pursuit of what she wants.

I certainly wouldn’t peg the book as a straight-up mystery, but after Chapter 10 that feeling does begin to pervade the pages. And if it is a mystery then Wolk is playing fair. She gives the kids all the clues they need, and no doubt some of them will solve some of the origins of Crow’s birth on their own. Wolk fills the book with mysterious happenings that are within a child’s grasp, and that goes double for the foreshadowing. Now I like to compare foreshadowing to spice. Some authors think the more you have, the better, and they’ll laden their chapters down with it so much that by the time the big event actually arrives it’s anti-climatic. Wolk is different. It isn’t that she uses less foreshadowing, she just parcels it out better. For example, a mention in the first chapter of the boat Crow arrived in and that Osh burned in the first makes her wonder why THAT particular wood got burnt. And yes, many is the chapter that ends with a breath of things to come, but they do what they are designed to do. They pull you further in.

In terms of character development, Wolk outdoes herself. We spend a long time with Osh, getting to know him as an outsider would, before Miss Maggie tells us a story that essentially reduces his personality down to its most perfect form. It’s the story of meeting a man who, when starving, would cut only a single arm off of the starfishes he caught for starfish soup. His logic was that he would live and they would live. A WWI survivor (we’re never certain about the degree of his involvement, but there are some distinct moments of PTSD) he bears not a little similarity to another haunted war survivor in Wolk’s books. Toby, the shell-shocked man in Wolf Hollow was far more damaged than Osh, but maybe if he’d found a way to cut himself off from the wider world (as Osh does) and care for someone, he would have thrived. Curiously, while we get great swaths of story with Osh, we know almost nothing about the other adult in Crow’s life, Miss Maggie. Why does she live alone? What was her life like once? And in true keeping with a child’s perspective regarding the adults around her, we never get a clear sense of Maggie and Osh’s ages. Some mysteries are not meant to be solved.

If Osh and Toby share similarities, what are we to make of Wolk’s latest villain? After reading Wolf Hollow I was struck by a single, piercing thought. The character of Betty in that book is, without a doubt, the most chilling psychopath I’d ever encountered in a tale for kids. And for a while there it seemed as though Beyond the Bright Sea didn’t have a baddie at all. When at last you do meet him, you don’t realize him for what he is (or the threat he represents) at first. It’s only when you get to know him better that you realize he’s actually the polar opposite of Betty. While she was a cunning little girl, able to use society’s expectations to her advantage, the man in this book is dumb as a box of rocks. By the internal logic of children’s literature itself that should make him less of a threat. Dumb villains are easy to outsmart and therefore pose no real harm, right? But it’s quite the opposite here. And as it happens he does share one particular quality with our dear Betty: He’s unpredictable. And unpredictability, as anyone can tell you, can get you killed.

Now Wolk’s the kind of writer where you feel this strange palpable sense of relief, if you’re a children’s librarian, delving into her book for the first time. Relief, that is, that she’s such an excellent writer. The kind of writer that makes you want to quote lines from her book out of context. That’s always my instinct, and why not? Here are some choice examples that I particularly enjoyed:

• “… feeling hurt and being hurt aren’t always the same thing.” (Re: leprosy)
• “What you do is who you are.”
• “So that’s writ in stone. The rest in water.”
• “… there are better bonds than blood.”

But would a kid actually want to read it? Well, that’s sort of a trick question, isn’t it? As any children’s librarian worth their salt knows, you can get a kid to read anything if you sell it to them correctly. A co-worker pointed out to me recently that the first chapter or so is relatively slow, compared to the rest of the book. That’s a bit unfortunate. Slow passages are fine, particularly if they are of a literary bent, but you wouldn’t usually kick off your book with them right from the start. Still, once the plot gets moving you’re in for a heck of a ride. There is true villainy and true love on these pages. There’s the mystery of adults who have learned too much and the foolishness of children who only want to learn more. A kid reading this book will read it on one level, an adult on another, and history clearer still. A bright, beautiful read.

On shelves now.

Like This? Then Try:

Best Sentence: My library co-worker pointed out that this book contains one of the best sentences in children’s literature. I will point out that the sentence is a bit of a spoiler, so don’t read it if you haven’t read the book:

“We all knew that he’d send for the police in Falmouth and then, with his next breath, begin to spread the news that Mr. Sloan had been held captive in the leprosarium by a mysterious southerner.”

Like I say. Best ever.


Fusenews: Always Pegged Batman as More of a Tomi Ungerer Fan Myself

Happy ALA Conference Week!  Starting this Thursday or Friday or so the librarians will descend en masse upon our fair Chicago.  To better prepare you please be so good as to check out Andrea Vaughn Johnson’s piece for the ALSC blog Chicagoland Mini-Tours for Book Lovers. That will fill in any gaps you might have if you arrive too early or depart too late.

Now I know at least some of you have that handy dandy little ALA app that helps you arrange your schedule at the conference.  I highly suggest you add a couple of the following events to it, like the live Yarn Podcast recordings held on both Friday AND Saturday!!  And should you find you have some more down time:

On Saturday, June 24th:

  • 9:00 a.m. – Come by the Penguin Random House booth where I’ll be signing FUNNY GIRL.  I figured out how to turn the flourish on the title page into a funny face.  Worth it, right?
  • 2:00 – Come to the PopTop Stage on the Conference floor for this:

Unlocking Ideas:  Donning Our Thinking Caps and Embracing our Mistakes in the Name of Picture Book Art

Meet 6 creative minds, illustrators Judy Schachner, Kadir Nelson, Corinna Luyken, Greg Pizzoli, and Duncan Tonatiuh and moderator Betsy Bird, who will discuss the importance of imagination, creativity, and accidents in art-making as they relate to their books and the writing & illustration process.

  • 3:00 – Run like billy-o (feet don’t fail me now!) over to room W180 for this panel:

Women Aren’t Funny (And Other Essential Untruths For Middle Grade Readers)

Humor! It grabs boys’ attention, keeps them turning pages and makes them clamor for “more books like that!” But wait a second – boys aren’t the only ones demanding funny books. And men certainly aren’t the only ones writing them. So why do these misperceptions persist? With editor Sharyn November as moderator, five middle grade authors will discuss the serious business of busting stereotypes and the pleasures and pitfalls of being female and writing funny.

On Sunday, June 25th:

  • 9:30 a.m. – Come to the Graphic Novel / Gaming Stage on the Conference floor for this:

How to Write for Children

An overview of graphic novels for kids and teens, from classics (like Tintin, Boule & Bill), contemporary favorites such as Marguerite Abouet’s Akissi and Aya of Yop City, and new releases like The Baker Street Four illustrated by David Etien and Audubon: On the Wings of the World by Jérémie Royer. Moderated by Betsy Bird.

  • 2:00 p.m. – Not a librarian? Jealous that you can’t see any of this cool stuff? Then leave the Conference Center entirely and travel to LaGrange, IL for this event at Anderson’s Bookshop:

Andrea Beaty, Cece Bell, Betsy Bird & Erica Perl – Moderated by Sharyn November
Sunday, June 25th at 3:00 PM
Anderson’s Bookshop La Grange

Join us to meet a great panel of middle grade authors!  Author Sharyn November will be moderating the book discussions.

This event is free and open to the public. To join the signing line, please purchase one of the author’s latest books:
Andrea Beaty – Dorko the Magnificent 
Cece Bell – Rabbit and Robot and Ribbit
Betsy Bird – Funny Girl
Erica Perl – The Capybara Conspiracy: A Novel in Three Acts

  • 3:30 p.m. – Watch Betsy hyperventilate and then die of exhaustion, tragically just hours before that evening’s Newbery/Caldecott Banquet. In the unlikely event that she doesn’t do herself to death, you will see the latest outfit construction.  I promise no miracles, but it should be . . . on topic.


Soo . . . . has anyone else noticed the plethora of children’s literature news featured at Atlas Obscura in the last week or two? Some examples:

There are actually a lot more, but I’ve only so much time. The kicker is that all these posts are remarkably good. And that last one even managed to get Stephanie Whelan’s beloved Blast Off on there, which is fantastic since it’s probably the only book by an African-American author/illustrator and about a black kid on the list.

Winged Girl

Speaking of obscure but beloved children’s books, I’m happy to report that my beloved obscure Newbery Honor winning title The Winged Girl of Knossos (finally reprinted after all these years) just got a Wall Street Journal write-up.  A worthier book you could not hope to bestow such an honor upon.


I don’t know if you’re familiar with the site A Book and a Hug but it’s one of those rare places where you can find new books by filling out a variety of different screens that narrow down the title you seek by type.  Plus it’s adding new books to the equation every day.  The site isn’t new but its update is.

This is for the New Yorkers out there – Books of Wonder to Open Upper West Side Location.  Because apparently having just one children’s bookstore on the Upper West Side isn’t enough.  We must put the only two in town as close to one another as humanly possible.  Seriously, this I do not get.  I understand that Manhattan real estate is expensive no matter where you go, but specifically the Upper West Side?  I suppose it’s too much to hope for the Bronx (currently a borough without a single bookstore) but Harlem could have been nice.  Or Hell’s Kitchen for that matter.

NCTE has released its Reading List for Summer in Participatory Citizenship. Whaddaya waiting for?  Go! Find! Distribute to the masses!

Meanwhile over at 100 Scope Notes, Travis Jonker says what we’ve all been thinking but haven’t had the guts to say. Does anyone else remember the time he turned a snow covered hillside into WWIII?  And now I’m supposed to be learning fiscal responsibility from him? Puh-leeze.

Big time Steven Universe fan over here, that’s me. And why not? It’s a cartoon with catchy songs, great voicework, and killer writing. Plus the creator’s name is “Rebecca Sugar” which, as a Betsy Bird, I appreciate on a different level entirely. Now Rolling Stone has interviewed Ms. Sugar about the show and it’s glory.  As well they should, my friend.  As well they should.

Daily Image:

On the one hand, there’s a very large part of me that can’t believe that this is real . . .

Screen Shot 2017-06-19 at 10.45.18 PM

Screen Shot 2017-06-19 at 10.45.31 PM

On the other hand, there’s an even larger part of me that is desperate to believe that it IS!


Book Trailer Premier: How It Feels to Be a Boat by James Kwan


Let me be clear – I don’t actually post every book trailer I’m asked to premiere.  If I’m lucky, I may already love a book and then find myself offered the chance to debut it after previously falling for it hook, line, and sinker.  How It Feels to Be a Boat by James Kwan fits the bill perfectly.  It dwells in a kind of gentle illogical logic that kids really dig.  You know what it reminded me of the most?  Rude Cakes by Rowboat Watkins.  Silly, sweet, oddly moving stuff.  Best of all, creator James Kwan appears to be willing to go all out when it comes to book promotion.  I mean, I’m happy to make videos for my books, but green screen technology?  That’s beyond my yen.  I salute you, man.

Click on the video below. If it requires a password, type in “boat”.  And enjoy!

Screen Shot 2017-06-18 at 11.00.04 PM

Thanks to HMH for the premiere.


Newbery/Caldecott 2018: The Summer Prediction Edition

Did Betsy drop the ball in her last Spring Newbery/Caldecott Prediction post?

Yes, Betsy did drop the ball in her last Spring Newbery/Caldecott Prediction post.

Will Betsy do better with her Summer Newbery/Caldecott Prediction post?

Yes, Betsy will do better with her Summer Newbery/Caldecott Prediction Post.

Back in the spring I ran into a bit of a puzzler.  Normally by March, I will have read at least 3-4 potential Newbery and Caldecott winners apiece.  But this year, 2017, for the first time I ran into a bit of a brick wall.  I hadn’t read a single serious Newbery contender.  I’d read plenty of perfectly fine books, but nothing I could put my weight behind for the big-time Award.  Now we find ourselves in June so surely I’ve read loads of Newbery potential titles by now, right?  Right?

Er . . . sorta?

Okay, I’ll tell you what I’ve read. I’ve read other people recommending books that THEY think have a chance.  Reliable people. Trustworthy people.  People whose opinions I value.  And this is a good thing because on my part I’ve read one single solitary Newbery contender for 2017.  So for the first time ever I’m bucking tradition and I’m including the Newbery contenders that other folks are promoting.  But first, the much easier category:

2018 Caldecott Predictions

The Antlered Ship by Dashka Slater, ill. The Fan Brothers


How can you tell when a publisher believes that they have an award winner on their hands?  There are lots of “tells” but none so obvious as the way in which they treat the original F&G.  When I received The Antlered Ship in the mail the other day I was instantly drawn to it.  Partly because the art is instantly luscious and lovely, sure.  But Beach Lane Books went the extra mile and made sure that the F&G feels good.  You pick it up and you instantly start stroking the cover.  It’s pleasing on a tactile level, which is extraordinarily smart.  After all, this book isn’t out until September so the easiest way to lure in potential award committee members is to make it memorable to multiple senses.  Here are some interior spreads to give you a sense of its loveliness:



And my personal favorite . . .


Can you tell that I like it more than The Night Gardener?

But wait a minute, sez you.  The Fan Brothers . . . aren’t they Canadian?  They live in Canada.  Well, yep.  But according to my fellows in the business, the whole reason their last book The Night Gardener was able to appear in so many Mock Caldecott lists was that they were born in the States.  Therefore, they are eligible.  *shrugs*  Fine with me.

How to Be an Elephant: Growing Up in the African Wild by Katherine Roy


2017 is, as I may have mentioned before, an extraordinarily strong nonfiction year.  With that in mind, it wouldn’t surprise me if more nonfiction books than usual won some major awards not specifically designated for information texts this year.  Katherine Roy is probably best known at this point for her jaw-dropping Neighborhood Sharks from a couple years ago.  Having studied under David Macaulay, Roy elevates nonfiction illustration to a whole other level.  In this book she takes a topic that you could easily believe has been done to death, then uses illustration to a remarkable degree to illustrate points about elephants that I am confident in saying you have NEVER heard before.  Sharks didn’t get the level of adoration I would have liked.  Maybe this book will make up for that.

Little Fox in the Forest by Stephanie Graegin


I’m still mulling this one over.  Graegin may be known to you for her work on books like Water in the Park by Emily Jenkins.  In this wordless title we follow two perspectives and a theft.  There’s a subtle sophistication to what the author/illustrator is doing on these pages.  I feel like artists that work in the realm of “cute” live in danger of being put in a corner and ignored.  Cute is a completely fine method of illustration for kids and does not mean that the creator did not work their butt off getting everything just right.  Graegin’s strength here is molding the tone to the individual scenes, honing both the child reader’s sympathies and outrage by turns.  I need to think about it a little more, but it’s a contender.

Mighty Moby by Barbara Dacosta, ill. Ed Young


To what degree do you root for someone who has won the Caldecott Award before?  I think this often whenever David Wiesner makes another particularly good book.  And I’ve vaguely thought about it with other Ed Young titles, but I think that this book, even more than the lovely Tsunami (which got far too little attention), is his greatest award contender in years.  And for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, rest assured that it isn’t just a picture book adaptation of Moby Dick but a clever title with a true child-perspective.

Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters by Michael Mahin, ill. Evan Turk


Sometimes Travis Jonker over at 100 Scope Notes will produce a graph that shows the months that award winners are most often published.  This year, I’m noticing that a lot of September release books are really gorgeous.  I’m the one who beats the drum for Evan Turk every single year that he produces a book, but this year, THIS YEAR, I think he’s got a real shot. Some interior art for your consideration:


You see where I’m coming from.

A Perfect Day by Lane Smith


I always drop a couple titles between one prediction post and the next, but I’m sticking by this Smith book.  Even the cover is notable.  Look at the texture on that paint on the bear’s face.  Ist not gorgeous?

Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell


Still the #1 contender in my book.  Nuff said.

2018 Newbery Predictions

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk


Review forthcoming, but I will say that this blew me away.  Now I was a big fan of Wolf Hollow when it came out, but I did wonder if it was a one-off fluke.  Nope.  Apparently the woman can write.  After reading  a run of nice middle grade books that didn’t quite grab me, the descriptive language of Wolk’s latest comes across as completely enthralling.  It also came as an odd relief because this is the only book I’ve read this year that had that effect on me.  So for some comparison, let’s see what other folks have been predicting for this year.

One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes  


A great librarian friend of mine proposed this one, and I like the idea.  No one’s going to contest that Grimes is a remarkable poet and writer.  There are two potential issues with a Newbery win. One is the age level and whether or not the book is too old.  Since the Newbery can go to the age of 14, I think it’s okay.  The other is that the book isn’t wholly new.  Grimes is combining her words with those of famous poets.  It’s a mash-up book, and it will be entirely up to the Newbery committee to determine if mash-up culture has a place in the pantheon of Newbery winners.  If ever, the time is now.

Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder


Okay, so I’ve been hearing about the Newbery potential of Ms. Snyder’s latest from multiple folks.  One was Cristin Stickles of McNally Jackson and the other was author Jonathan Auxier.  Jonathan didn’t use the “Newbery” word but he did say the book was his favorite of the year so I’m going to take that as a recommendation.  And up it goes on my To Be Read shelf. Extra Bonus: It’s out now so you can actually read it (unlike those September books I keep recommending).

Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team by Steve Sheinkin


The last two books on today’s list mark a significant trend.  We know that the occasional nonfiction book will appear as a Newbery or Caldecott winner on occasion.  What if the fact that 2017 is such a strong nonfiction year means that we’ll see a lot more nonfiction titles on the final award lists?  If that was the case then I think Mr. Sheinkin would be a true possibility.  I’ve read the criticisms and it stand up to them overall.

Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman


The true contender.  Maybe even my Newbery frontrunner.  Though marketed as YA I think it could easily be considered for the 14-year-old set and is therefore viable.  Buried under the weight of a million starred reviews, this is quite possibly Deborah’s magnum opus.  Even more so than Charles and Emma (and that’s saying something). Read Julie Danielson’s interview with Deborah over at Kirkus if you get a chance.  It will make you a convert.


New Podcast Alert: Mine!

It’s a little kooky to say, but as strange as it may sound I’ve jumped back into the podcast biz.  Years ago I created a little personal project in NYC that was fun but exhausting!  Today, I am pleased to announce that there’s a new children’s literature podcast in town.  Called Fuse 8 n’ Kate, it stars me and my sister Kate.  Here’s a description of what the show consists of:

Two sisters, one in L.A. and one in NYC, both move to the Chicago area and start a podcast. The premise? Picture books and are they really that great? Join Kate and Fuse 8 (Betsy Bird) as they track down a picture book “classic” each episode and try to determine if it deserves to remain in the canon of children’s literature.

In creating the show I wanted to provide an alternative to the many wonderful interview-based children’s literature podcasts out there.  Kate and I will probably never interview anyone.  We’ll just talk about your favorite (and not so favorite) books instead. For our starter episode, we’re jumping right in with a thorough consideration of Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel, ill. Blair Lent.  Does it deserve to be called a classic?  Find out!

HAPPY UPDATE: We are now live on iTunes. If you’ve any interest, just look me up there either through Fuse 8 n’ Kate or my own name (Betsy Bird).

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Review of the Day: Town is By the Sea by Joanne Schwartz, ill. Sydney Smith

Groundwood Logos SpineTown Is by the Sea
By Joanne Schwartz
Illustrated by Sydney Smith
Groundwood Books
ISBN: 978-1-55498-871-6
Ages 4-9
On shelves now

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how a parent can engender empathy in their children. It’s a good question and worth a lot of discussion and listening. As a parent I’ve wondered about it myself, but it’s not the only question I’ve asked myself. How do you give a child a sense of self-worth without false ego inflation? Does responsibility linked with a direct reward system help or hurt the child in the long run? And most importantly (and this is a kicker) how do you help a child feel grateful for the life that they lead? Gratitude is a particularly difficult feeling to get a read on. You could spend all your livelong days telling a kid how grateful they should feel, but are you really going to get an emotional response out of them? Enter literature. Books. Learning. On Twitter today I saw an article in passing that suggested that we learn how to be human through books. If that’s the case then let me read Town Is by the Sea to my kids one more time. Exquisitely rendered, it’s a subtle day-in-the-life title that through the repetition of the text, and the pairing of light and dark images, manages to show, not tell, how hard the life of a coal miner’s kid can be.

TownIsBySea2“From my house, I can see the sea.” A boy narrates a typical day in a Cape Breton mining town. While he scampers up the hills, plays with his friend, swings, walks to the store, and admires the sunlight on the water, his father toils away beneath the sea in a coal mine. The boy narrates for us how his days tend to play out and though we seem to see what looks like a collapse in the mine, nothing changes the boy’s spritely text. He’s no more excited than usual when his father comes home, but we know how close the man came to death. As the boy drifts off for the night we are assured that one day, down in those deep dark tunnels, “it will be my turn.” And the cycle of mining will begin anew.

I love a picture book that knows how to be a picture book. Joanne Schwartz has been in this game for years and you can tell (and the fact that she’s a double threat as both author and children’s librarian probably doesn’t hurt matters either). The choice use of repetition and simple lines lend the text this oddly comforting quality, even as some of the images grow increasingly suspect. The fact that the book is narrated in the first person present tense is a careful choice. In the voice of the boy you discovered that in the face of uncertainty (whether or not his dad will come home alive at the end of the day) the boy has organized his life precisely. The location of his house to the road, cliff, sea, and town. A catalog of sounds heard when he wakes up. The form of the boy’s morning, lunch, and walk to the store. And these words are so constant and comforting to the reader that when you hit on that silent two-page spread, not knowing if the dad is alive or dead, it’s a gut punch. Artist Sydney Smith is also on board with the boy’s systematic cataloging, turning the bright days of summer into six distinct squares on the penultimate pages, finalizing everything with the black of the sea at night.

TownIsBySea3For such a dark concept it’s not a dark book. When my husband and I read this book to our six-year-old and three-year-old they seemed more intrigued by the fact that a kid could walk by himself to the store (this is the 50s’ after all) than the fact that someday that boy will work all day in the claustrophobic dark below the sea. Indeed I was intrigued to find that the chilling final lines of the picture book sink far deeper into the psyches of the adults reading this book than the kids. But I like that Joanne Schwartz does not judge the workers or the town. The inevitability of becoming a miner isn’t delivered by the young protagonist with anything more than simple honesty. Just listen to those final lines: “I’m a miner’s son. In my town, that’s the way it goes.” The dread I felt when he alluded to his future was purely personal, helped in no small part by Schwartz & Smith’s clever pairing of sunlight and gloom throughout the book. You might not want to work down there, but when your future is set in stone it’s hard to think outside the box. There’s a quote that Schwartz includes in her Author’s Note from Robert McIntosh’s Boys in the Pits: Child Labour in the Coal Mines that summarizes this perfectly. “The boy may have seen for years his father and older brothers leave for the pit. For most boys raised within these communities, the day arrived when they too surrendered their childhood to it.”

Town Is by the Sea, by author Joanne Schwartz with illustrations by Sydney Smith.

Toronto artist Sydney Smith first came to the notice of a lot of American children’s librarians when he illustrated JonArno Lawson’s sublime Sidewalk Flowers. Smith captured the tone of the book so beautifully that had he any American residency at all that title would have been a true Caldecott Award contender. In “Town Is by the Sea” Smith stretches his proverbial limbs. Interestingly, he doesn’t dwell on the industrial grit and grime of the coal mines. The image of the industrial site is almost rudimentary and down in the mines themselves he’s far more interested in conveying the sheer oppressive weight of the rock and the sea by placing the workers in the lowest strata of the page. The bulk of the book is far more interested in light. How it fogs the horizon in the morning so that the line between sea and sky blurs to white. How a midday sun flecks the tips of the waves out at sea a pure white. Early afternoon sunlight through windowpanes and the sparkle of sun on sea and that sunset . . . that sunset. Though the Author’s Note at the end mentions that this book is set in the 1950s, you wouldn’t necessarily notice. There’s a timeless quality to these watercolors.

To feel gratitude for one’s life, one needs to start out in a pretty privileged position from the start. If there’s nothing to feel grateful for then you’re probably not going to start because of a picture book. Still, a lot of kids in America that have regular access to picture books should feel a little gratitude for the fact that they don’t have to work in the coal mines when they turn 18. You get the feeling from the boy in Town Is by the Sea that he is perfectly aware of how lucky he is to see the sun shining on the sea all day every day. Schwartz and Smith have created a book that is both a good story and a beautiful object. A book that grants dignity to its characters and a seriousness to its subject matter without sacrificing a child’s need for play. This is, in short, a magnificent book. The kind that every reader will interpret in a different way. Only the best books can do that. Only the best books are capable.

On shelves now.

Source: F&G sent from publisher for review.

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We Need Diverse Collectables: Why the Collectors of Children’s Books Need to Diversify

We need diverse books.  But it’s not as simple as you think.

When I do presentations for up-and-coming authors and illustrators of children’s books I sometimes show them this slide:


Impossible to read here thanks to the teeny tiny type, this is my breakdown of the different factions that make up children’s literature.  To spare your eyes I’ll just list them for you now:

Children’s Literature Fandom Simplified

  • Bloggers
  • International Focus
  • Librarians
  • Parents
  • Authors/Illustrators
  • Booksellers
  • Academics
  • Non-Profits
  • Teachers
  • Agents
  • Publishers
  • Collectors


I show this slide to new creators so that I can explain to them how different groups of people have different interests and attitudes towards books for kids.  We all love them but sometimes we love them for very different reasons.

In my peculiar situation as blogger/librarian/parent/author/reviewer, daughter of a bookseller, with a love of international titles, and the occasional academic paper under my belt (Routledge) I still have some gaps. I’m no teacher.  I work for a library, but that’s different from a non-profit.  I’m no agent (nor will I ever be) nor a publisher.  Yet over the years I’ve constructed this crazed One World paradise view where I can someday see ALL these different aspects of books for kids working together, talking together and generally trying to make this world a better place.

What does this have to do with the We Need Diverse Books movement?  Everything.

Let’s examine what we mean when we say we need diverse literature for kids.  First off, we want new books being published today to not only present better representation on the page for children, but we want the publishers themselves to increase the number of voices from a variety of different races, perspectives, religions, and backgrounds within the publishing companies themselves.  We want teachers to learn about these books and to share them with their students.  We want bloggers to step out of their comfort zones and talk about more diverse titles.  Librarians and booksellers to share them with the people who walk through their doors.  International books are inherently diverse, but let’s see more representation from countries other than Europe.  We want more voices writing and illustrating these books (#ownvoices), academics not just talk about them in papers but to also teach new librarians and teachers what’s available.  We want parents to be informed, non-profits to spread the love of the best of these books, agents to represent more voices, you name it!!!

Did I forget anyone?

Ah yes.


You can’t pick and choose when it comes to diversity. Either we commit to this wholeheartedly or not at all.  And so I ask you this – What is the most highly sought after children’s book written and/or illustrated by an African-American?

Why do I ask this question?  Because when we talk about the people that collect children’s books, we’re talking about the people that assign a monetary worth to the books we work on or with so passionately.  Most of us, I’d warrant, are unfamiliar with the world of the children’s book collectors.  They’re a very specific group with, insofar as my research has indicated over the years, no overarching organization aside from that of general book collectors.

Years ago, I got a glimpse into their world.  The Grolier Club in New York City was hosting the latest in its regular “One Hundred Books” series.  This time it would be celebrating “One Hundred Books Famous in Children’s Literature”.  Look at how vast that statement is.  It does not limit any of these books by nation, creator, or time period.  The sole stipulation would appear to be the fact that there need to be 100 of them.  This can be misleading.  As it turns out, exhibitions of this sort are often limited by the books they are able to attain at all.  And so many collectors willingly lent their priceless books to the exhibit for a one-time-only showing.  I saw such things . . . things like an edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland where Charles Lutwidge Dodgson had marked passages in purple ink that would be used for “The Nursery Alice” published later in 1889, which was abridged for younger children.  Or an edition of The Little Engine That Could from 1930 that precedes the Watty Piper one we all know so well.  Or an edition of Harry Potter (the most controversial inclusion in the exhibit, as far as I could ascertain) that was a very rare library edition (only 300 copies were ever made) given to public libraries and featuring a blurb on the cover from a “Wendy Cooling”.  I have in my possession the accompanying book that went with this exhibit and it is amongst my most treasured possessions.

And yet . . . even a surface glance around the room revealed pretty early on the sheer lack of diversity in the collection.  Yes, there was The Snowy Day and Uncle Remus, but they were both written by white guys, yes?  Is there a reason why the collectors weren’t displaying any diverse titles?  The book accompanying the exhibit poses this question: “what are the criteria for inclusion?”  As it turns out, the criteria seemed to boil down to the fact that the books had to be “famous”.   And THAT right there is the rub of it.

Collecting anything with an eye to its worth means that the book is, in some way, famous, yes?  Either that or the collector is convinced that the book will become famous in the future.  So is it true that no diverse children’s book is famous?  What about a first edition of Heather Has Two Mommies?  Original Caldecott winners and honors like Grandfather’s Journey or pretty much anything by John Steptoe wouldn’t count?

To this, I have no answer.  After all, I’m no collector.  I’m still floored by the fact that they don’t set much store by ARCs and galleys (the ultimate ephemeral collectable, as far as I can tell).  But if we want diverse books then we want the collectors to realize that there is more to the literature than yet another copy of Curious George.  Which brings me to Stallion Books. And back catalogs.

I think that there’s a danger that comes with celebrating books that are always new (said the person who only reviews books published in the current year on her blog).  The new is shiny.  The new is beautiful and pleasing to the eye and ear.  New books are fun and who wouldn’t feel a thrill if you received a box of them like an award committee does?  But in all the celebration of new diverse titles let us not forget the diverse authors and illustrators who were already in the trenches producing books for kids that served as windows and mirrors for decades upon decades.  They didn’t have non-profits proclaiming their titles widely.  They just knew how to make good books.

Yesterday in Chicago I attended the Printer’s Row Lit Fest.  Book vendors from all over the city and authors of all kinds were present.  And on Dearborn Street, not far from Gino’s East of Chicago, was a stand for Stallion Books.  I was particularly intrigued when I saw the cover of this catalog:

Stallion copy

Inside is the full back catalog of the three authors/illustrators mentioned: Ashley Bryan, Jan Spivey Gilchrist, and Eloise Greenfield.  That description at the top proclaiming them to be “Three Legends” is no misnomer either.  All three have been working in the field for decades upon decades and even travel together to promote their books.  Find a children’s library worth its salt and you’ll find copious titles by them on the shelves.  Looking through the catalog I saw a Collectors Set of 128 of their titles for sale for $3,490, which is a cheap price all things considered.  I mean, you could diversify your library collection instantaneously with that purchase.

Paging through the catalog, I got to thinking about why it is that children’s book collectors don’t know enough to realize that an original edition of any one of these authors’ books would be a sound investment.  I suppose collectors only know as much as they themselves are taught.  Many of them probably collect the books they read as children.  With that thought in mind, let us hope that the kids of the 21st century are seeing books like those of Ashley Bryan, Jan Spivey Gilchrist, and Eloise Greenfield so that when they grow up and collect books for professional reasons, they’ll see the worth of these titles from both a monetary and a personal standpoint.