A Family of Readers

Many thanks to the folks at the Horn Book, who recently sent me a copy of A Family of Readers: The Book Lover's Guide to Children's and Young Adult Literature (Candlewick, 2010), signed by editors Roger Sutton and Martha V. Parravano. I've been dipping into A Family of Readers here and there since it arrived, concentrating on the chapters about genre, nonfiction, and Girl and Boy Books in Part Three: Reading on Their Own. Each section closes with a list of More Great books of that particular sort, and since I tend to like what the Horn Book likes (see: this year's Boston Globe-Horn Book Award winners), I'm usually either nodding my head in agreement or adding titles to my TBR list. [Roger and Martha were at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast when A Family of Readers first came out to note which new books they would have liked to include, too.]

On a related note, the Horn Book is starting a new blog, Calling Caldecott. A companion to SLJ's Newbery blog, Heavy Medal, Calling Caldecott will also run from early fall through the winter (basically award season for children's books). And now that I've taken KT Horning's Caldecott class, I hope to be able to contribute something to Calling Caldecott other than its name.

Why couldn't I have come up with something catchier when I named this blog, though?

Despicable Me and Sleepy Kittens

The best part of the movie Despicable Me, for my money anyway, is when Gru reads a bedtime story to Margo, Edith, and Agnes, the three little girls he's adopted to help him infiltrate his nemesis Vector's lair.  The book he reads--at Agnes's insistence--is called Sleepy Kittens; it's a novelty book featuring three kitten finger puppets who drink their milk, brush their fur, you get the idea.  Gru is disgusted: "This is garbage!  You like this?"  (Of course they do.)  I think he even suggests that a two-year-old could have written it.  I'm sure a lot of parents have thought they could do better when it comes to their kids' books, too.  It's harder than it looks.

Anyway, the smart merchandising folks at Universal published Sleepy Kittens as a movie tie-in, finger puppets and all.  Apparently the actual book is not as good as the one in the movie, in a sort of meta-reversal of people's usual complaints, but it's a clever idea nonetheless.

[And one that the people who made Michael Clayton missed out on completely.  My post on the middle-grade fantasy novel featured in that movie, Realm+Conquest, consistently gets more hits than anything else I've written here, and despite the fact that Realm+Conquest is not a real book, people continue to ask me where they can get it.  Someone please write that book already!]

Back to Despicable Me.  Later in the movie, Gru reads the girls a book he's written just for them, The Lonely Unicorn.  He should probably stick to his day job, but the girls love it.  (Of course they do.)  Have you seen the movie?  Did you?

Nonfiction Monday: The Vermeer Interviews

There's something about Vermeer that speaks to me and, I think, to a lot of people who are familiar with his work.  But he's never spoken to me quite as clearly as the figures in his paintings speak to Bob Raczka in The Vermeer Interviews: Conversations with Seven Works of Art (The Millbrook Press, 2009).  I knew I wanted to feature The Vermeer Interviews at bookstogether, so--naturally--I asked if I might interview Bob himself, and he kindly agreed.  Read on for more about The Vermeer Interviews and Bob Raczka's latest Art Adventures.

Anamaria Anderson (AA):  Bob, your approach to Vermeer’s paintings in this book is so intriguing.  Which came first, the interview format or the subject matter?

Bob Raczka (BR):  Definitely the subject matter. Vermeer is one of my favorite artists, and I had wanted to do a book about him for a long time. I actually wrote four or five different versions before I settled on the interview format. In my slush pile at home, I have a Vermeer alphabet book, a book of cinquain poems about Vermeer, a “house that Jack built” approach to Vermeer, and a “day-in-the-life” version.

Interestingly enough, the idea to interview the paintings came to me when I was reading Ways of Telling by Leonard Marcus, his book of interviews with several children’s book authors.

AA:  What kind of research did you do to prepare for The Vermeer Interviews? Were you able to look at any of the 7 paintings you interviewed in person?

BR:  Unfortunately, I have never seen any of Vermeer’s paintings in person. My “bucket list” includes seeing every Vermeer that still exists.

However, I have read many books about Vermeer–everything from Girl with a Pearl Earring, a fictional account of how that painting came to be, to Vermeer’s Camera, a nonfiction investigation into his use of the camera obscura, an early version of the camera. And I spent a lot of time poring over details of the paintings in those oversized art books you can find at the library.

AA:  Which of the figures was the most forthcoming? Which was the hardest to get to know?  Do you have a favorite?  (I’m partial to The Milkmaid myself.)

BR:  The Milkmaid was very easy to talk to. I get the feeling she likes to gossip. The Geographer was also very forthcoming–a man of science who enjoys sharing his knowledge of the world.

The student in The Music Lesson was very hard to get to know. She seemed shy about her feelings for her tutor.

It’s tough to pick a favorite, but I would have to say Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, The Geographer and The Milkmaid rank at the top of my list.

AA:  I visit the Woman Holding a Balance at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. fairly frequently. Is there anything you would like me to ask her next time I see her?

BR:  First of all, apologize for me. I was limited to seven interviews for my book, and she was not included.

One thing you could ask her is whether or not she is Vermeer’s wife, Catharina. Many art scholars suspect that Catharina was the model for at least a few of the women Vermeer painted, but no one knows for sure.

AA:  The Vermeer Interviews is the 11th book in Bob Raczka’s Art Adventures series, published by The Millbrook Press. Would you tell me a little about some of the recent and forthcoming books in that series?

BR:  Of course. Action Figures: Paintings of Fun, Daring and Adventure, was the 12th, published in the fall of 2009. Designed to appeal to young boys, it features paintings of a boxing match by George Bellows, a cattle stampede by Frederick Remington and a shark attack by John Singleton Copley, among others.

AA:  What a great concept!  I think I know where to find one of those paintings, too [Copley's Watson and the Shark is part of the NGA collection].  What's next?

BR:  Speaking of Art: Colorful Quotes by Famous Painters is being published this spring. For each artist, I pair an interesting quote with a representative work. For example, Paul Klee once said, “A line is a dot that goes for a walk.” Pablo Picasso said, “To draw, you must close your eyes and sing.”

This fall brings Before They Were Famous: How Seven Artists Got Their Start. This book features paintings by Picasso when he was 8, Dali when he was 10 and Michelangelo when he was 12.

AA:  Congratulations!  I understand you also write children’s poetry. Do you have any poetry books forthcoming?

BR:  As a matter of fact, Guyku: A Year of Haiku for Boys is being published this fall by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It’s illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds, of The Dot and Ish fame, and I’m very excited about it.

AA:  Me, too; I'll be sure to look for it in the fall.  Til then, where can readers find more information about you and your books?

BR:  Readers can visit my website at bobraczka.com.

AA:  Thank you so much, Bob, and congratulations again--this looks like an exciting year for you!  I hope you'll keep us posted at bookstogether, too.

Now, inspired by The Vermeer Interviews, I have a few questions of my own for Vermeer's paintings--and for my readers:  Which is your favorite Vermeer?  What might you ask it?

NaNoWriMo NoMo

No, I will not be participating in National Novel Writing Month this year.  I'm a two-time NaNoWriMo loser, in fact, but I'm grateful for what the experience taught me about myself as a writer.  It was this passage from a speech by Jane Yolen (quoted in an interview with Yolen at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, 8/20/08) that reconciled me to it, though:

Now, there are two kinds of writers in the world [writes Jane], and they were described for me by my friend Susan Schwartz.  "I," she said, "am a mad monk, going up a rock face with a rather large chisel and carving out great swaths of story.  But you are a gem polisher.  You take a small, wonderful gem of a tale and polish it till it shines."

I'm the first to admit that I'm no Jane Yolen (ni mucho menos), and I'm not entirely sure whether this passage is speaking to process or product, but if gem-polishing works for her (and she's incredibly prolific, too) then maybe I can make it work for me.

Even though I'm not participating, I want to cheer on the "mad monks" among us who are.  Who are you?  And what's your novel about?