Author Review: Steve Jenkins

Recently, my son “adopted” a book for his school library. He chose Eye to Eye: How Animals See The World, by Caldecott Award winning Steve Jenkins. As part of the adoption, my son was the first one to check the book out. Not only was it filled with amazing facts about how animals see, but the artwork was stunning!

You see, Jenkins isn’t just an author–he’s an illustrator, too. His amazing paper collage illustrations first drew me to his work a few years ago, and I’ve enjoyed every title of his that I’ve read. His books, often collaborations with his wife, Robin Page, are all non-fiction books exploring animal biology with intriguing titles such as What Do Yo Do When Something Wants To Eat You? and What Do You Do With a Tail Like This? The topics range from prehistoric animals to skeletons, from beetles to Mount Everest. He’s also illustrated a number of books for other authors as well.

Jenkins’s newest book, also with Page, is Egg. It comes out this spring. His webpage shows an interesting slideshow of how they created the book, if you’re interested.

If you or whomever you’re reading to enjoys non-fiction about animals, then you simply must check out Jenkins’s beautiful and informative books. Learn more about Jenkins here.

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Joint Book Review: The Man Who Walked Between The Towers by Mordecai Gerstein

CM_between_towersToday we’re trying something different–a joint book review of The Man Who Walked Between The Towers by Mordicai Gerstein. This Caldecott Award winner follows the true story of Philippe Petit’s historic tightrope walk between the World Trade Center Towers.

It’s 1974, and construction of the World Trade Center is nearing completion. Enter Philippe Petit, a street performer. To him, the gap between the two buildings would be the perfect place to walk a tightrope. With a beautiful progression of illustrations, including some fold out pages that enhance the height of the towers and of the wire, the story follows Philippe as he faces numerous challenges in attempting his goal.

Joanna: My five-year-old son Karsten frequently requests this book at bedtime, and it is a joy for me to read. Part of the appeal is my connection to New York City and the WTC Towers themselves. Growing up outside New York, they were an iconic part of my childhood. I’ve been up them only once–a few months prior to the 2001 attacks. This book is a wonderful commemoration to Petit’s feat as well as to the WTC tragedy and the spirit of New York. It’s also a great story about having a dream and making it come true against the odds.

Katie: Interestingly, my kids had different reactions to this book. They did not know anything about Philippe Petit, so as he planned his walk between the Twin Towers, the suspense kept building. They were both asking, “Does he make it?” There was a sigh of relief once he did. My four-year-old daughter was a little too afraid of him falling to enjoy the middle of the book, but my son was thrilled to find out how it turned out.

There is a documentary called Man On Wire about Petit’s extraordinary feat. Comprised of interviews with the people involved, including Petit, it’s quite interesting. Petit might come off as self-centered and perhaps a touch crazy, but what he accomplishes is nothing short of amazing. Not sure I’m ready to show it to my young son yet but I definitely will in the future. (Note: it received a rare 100% from Rotten Tomatoes!)

If you want to delve even deeper into Philippe Petit’s life and his accomplishments, a full length novel is available. In the current printing it is called Man on Wire, and before the documentary it was called To Reach the Clouds. Philippe Petit himself penned several books about his life as well.

If you’re a teacher, here’s a lesson plan from Scholastic. Or if you watch BookFlix (available through your public or school library), there is a nice read aloud of the book.

Welcome to the new and improved blog!

After almost three years writing at A Life Spent Reading, we’ve learned much about what we like to blog about, what our readers enjoy hearing about, and what it takes to maintain a blog (even if it is a labor of love!)

Last October, we asked you what you most wanted to see on the blog. A third of you told us you most enjoyed the book reviews, with interviews and writing advice coming in a close tie for second. Joanna and I also discussed what we liked about other blogs and investigated some updated features.

So today we are proud to announce the re-launch of A Life Spent Reading! We’ve begun incorporating your feedback on content, added new functionality and updated to a fresher, cleaner look. We hope you like it! If you are an email subscriber, click over to the site itself to have a look.

To celebrate the re-launch of our site, we’re holding a contest! Tell us your favorite type of book, and we will randomly choose a winner from the participants. The winner will receive their choice of one of the following books, chosen from the local authors section from each of our towns’ independent bookstores:

Connecticut:

Little Author in the Big Woods: A Biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Yona Zeldis McDonough

The Serpent’s Curse, Tony Abbott

Wyoming:

Ice Whale, Jean Craighead George

How to Babysit a Grandma, Jeanne Reagan

The contest ends on Friday, January 29th.

Book Review: Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

51YuPuZ0efLChains follows Isabel, a young slave, on her quest for freedom during the Revolutionary War. I admit it took me a few chapters to embrace the story, but once it picked up (or once I wasn’t distracted by life, really) I was entranced. Anderson made the American Revolution come alive through her attention to historical detail and skill at weaving believable fictitious characters and desires with historical events. I loved the characters–especially Isabel and her sister Ruth. Isabel is looking for freedom, and she’ll side with whomever she thinks might help her attain it. This wonderful middle grade novel would provide ample opportunities to talk about race, freedom, and our nation’s history.

Chains is the first book in Anderson’s Seeds of America Trilogy. The second book Forge received this review from Kirkus. Some readers might find it “one of the best novels they have ever read.” What a statement. I’m heading to the library today! The third installment in the trilogy, Ashes, has not yet been published (as far as I can tell).

For readers capable of appreciating mature topics such as PTSD or eating disorders, Anderson has a wealth of novels, including Wintergirls, Speak, and the recent The Impossible Knife of Memory. All amazing.

New Years Follow-up: Katie shared her goals and inspirational word for the new year in last week’s post. My word is courage. Now that I’ve finished my MFA (!) I need to take some risks. Whether it’s finishing the revision of my current work in progress or submitting said revision to agents, I’ll need to adopt an assertive attitude toward what comes next. Here’s to a courageous 2015!

Congratulations Joanna!!

I am pleased to announce that Joanna has officially graduated with her Masters in Fine Arts from Lesley University! She has invested 2 years of hard work, which went by amazingly fast (she may disagree with that last part).

The other member of our critique group, Anne, and I are so proud of her. We are excited to see where her writing career goes next – it will certainly be to wonderful places.

Congratulations Joanna!

Merry Christmas!

For those of you who celebrate Christmas like we do, we hope you have a peaceful, joyous, and blessed Christmas with your friends and family. Whatever your traditions are, and whatever the day may bring, may you enjoy the little moments that cause us to celebrate the good in the world.

Christmas decorations

Author Review: Peter Brown

Instead of selecting one book this week, I thought it would be fun to talk about an author. Okay, so Peter Brown isn’t only an author–he also illustrates. And not just any illustrator–the 2013 Caldecott Honor winner for Creepy Carrots! I first heard him speak at the 2012 SCBWI winter conference in New York City. I hadn’t read any of his books prior to that, and while he seemed like a nice (and kinda hip) guy, I can’t remember running out to get any of his books after the conference. Then, while browsing at our local library, I found The Curious Garden. I’ve been enjoying his brilliance every since. Here are a few of my favorites.

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The Curious Garden follows a young boy who discovers a pocket of bright green plants growing in his otherwise dull gray city. He cares for the plants, training himself in gardening. Under his attention, the garden expands, transforming the city. I suppose, it’s kind of a true story, in a way. NYC’s High Line Trail is an elevated railway converted into green walking space. Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail is also being developed. So cool! All making The Curious Garden a poignant tale for showing what can happen with just a little bit of love.

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Mr. Tiger lives in a pseudo-Victorian world where all the animals are uptight. It’s no fun, so Mr. Tiger Goes Wild! The illustrations here are simply gorgeous–and they won Brown a Bull-Bransom Award, a yearly award for the best in children’s book illustration that focuses on nature and wildlife (given by the National Museum of Wildlife Art, in my hometown of Jackson, WY!).

TeacherMonsterDropShadow

When my five-year old started kindergarten this fall, I got him Brown’s latest book, My Teacher Is A Monster! (No, I Am Not.) Bobby is convinced his teacher is a monster, and retreats to a park to unwind. But what happens when he runs into his monster of a teacher in the one place he can be free? Bobby learns that people can be quite surprising.

Here’s a few of Brown’s other titles, but the list isn’t exhaustive.

Creepy Carrots! (written by Aaron Reynolds)

You Will Be My Friend!

Children Make Terrible Pets

Chowder

Flight of the Dodo

If you haven’t already enjoyed Peter Brow’s creative brilliance, do it now!

Review: The Dot (AKA Step One on the Path to Creativity)

Creativity is an intangible thing. It can’t be held in your hand or bought with money. Each of us knows (or is!) someone who claims, “I’m not creative.” Yet I would argue that creativity is accessible to all of us. Maybe we just need a little help getting there.

Part One: The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds

Art class is ending and Vashti’s page is blank–she’s convinced she can’t draw. Her wise teacher suggests she “make a mark and see where it takes [her].” Vashti jabs angrily at the paper–just once–and an artist is born. As the story progresses, Vashti experiments with her own creative expression and is given an opportunity to guide another “not creative” person on the path to creativity. Her story is charming, making this book perfect for, well, everyone! Vashti is so likeable, and her artwork so simple, that it’s impossible not to be drawn in. Artsy kids will love it immediately, but the message is accessible to all types, even adults. The first time I read this book, my son hadn’t been born, but I want to share it with him now and talk about how Vashti’s experience can be applied to all kinds of situations in life–from building with Legos to experimenting with different sports as he discovers who he is.

Part Two: Creativity in Life

As Vashti’s learns, creativity starts with one action–any action–and expands with the opportunity made by that choice. “If I can make little dots,” she realizes, “I can make big dots, too.”  From this point, creativity can travel in so many directions. One podcast I’ve been enjoying lately is Sara Zarr’s This Creative Life. She interviews various creative people about their creative process, and I always find it freeing to see how diverse that process can be. That makes space for me to try whatever I want. But what if you need a bit more help? If you’re a writer, you might enjoy Sarah Selecky’s Daily Writing Prompts. These are short writing exercises designed to help spark out of the box ideas.  If you’re not a writer, or if perhaps you’re one of those “not creative” types (said lovingly), Vashti’s journey still might apply to you.

Either way, make a mark and see where it takes you.

The First Page

Attend virtually any conference on writing and someone will insist the first page is paramount. You must hook the reader. I’d heard the idea enough, and struggled with nailing a great first page on many a project, but it wasn’t until my MFA that I took the time to analyze what I thought was a good first page. While doing an editing internship with Hunter Liguore, editor at American Athenaeum, I was charged with reading 34 first pages (without knowing the author or title) and deciding which ones I would accept, as an editor, and which I would decline. It was very informative, and I encourage you to try it out. Discovering what magical recipe for first page elements I was most hooked by has helped me figure out what my own first pages lacked. Here’s a sample of questions that I came up with from a few of the samples:

Is there too much emphasis on setting?

If the character isn’t very fleshed out, does the story premise fill in the gaps?

What kind of tension was there?

Were the questions raised unique and so enticing I had to read on?

Does the description feel connected to the character?

Is there dialog? What does it show about the characters?

Ultimately, I learned that I connect most with the people, the characters. Any other element had to serve them. If it didn’t– for example, if there was a lot of description about a ritual but not about the characters–then I wasn’t interested. I writes stories about people (arguably every writer does), so I need to make sure each of my first pages highlights the characters and their struggles, their connect to place, their sense of the world.

Try this exercise with books you’ve already read. Or take ten books from your to read shelf and read only the first pages. If you could only pick one to read further (pretend you’re an editor with a limited list), which one would it be and why? Or read the latest Flogging A Pro, a post on Writer Unboxed that takes first pages from a variety of genres and analyzes them in a similar same way. I imagine most of you read or write picture books, but I think the exercise can be helpful there too. It’s a lot of fun!

If you’re a reader, and not a writer, asking these questions can help you discern what it is you’re looking for in story, in general, and help you find better books to read for ourselves and your children.

Floppy-eared rabbits

For PiBoIdMo, I decided to keep a small journal with me at all times, something I’d often considered, but had never done before. One page per idea. And I’d look to my own life for the seeds. Over the past few days, I’ve found that being attentive to, well, life and all its ridiculousness (or wonder or awkwardness or or or) is the best way to access interesting concepts for picture books. After I got my notebook, the ideas started coming like hot-cakes. Not all of them seem immediate winners.

A recent favorite: I just returned home from dinner with friends, one of whom shared a story about a bush airstrip in remote Alaska covered in floppy-eared rabbits. Now, it might take a more creative person than me to turn that into a viable picture book. But what a fantastic image! I wrote that one down, but if it inspires you, go with it. (Please send me your draft, if you do.) On a more serious note, my son has developed a fear of riding the school bus–there are so many angles to take on this theme. Katie once said that she’s got too many ideas, and I see what she means. The ideas are really every where. We just have to take them and run.

Registration for PiBoIdMo has passed, but I encourage you to check out the daily posts. I’ve gotten something from each of them, and maybe, just maybe, there might be something to help me write my book about the rabbits on the airstrip.