Monthly Archives: October 2007

Steve Jenkins, Cut Paper King

Alison Morris - October 2, 2007

Last Saturday we had about 40 people (about an even mix of kids and adults) at our event with Steve Jenkins. I can say from experience that 40 people is a more than a reasonable-sized crowd for just about any author event (especially one on a beautiful, sunny Saturday), but I confess that I was hoping for more people, because Steve and his books deserve a much larger crowd and deserve to be much more widely known.

I’ve talked with a few people about why it is that Steve Jenkins’ name is not yet a household name, despite its having graced the cover of more than 30 books, one of them (What Do You Do with a Tail Like This?, a book he collaborated on with his wife Robin Page) a Caldecott Honor recipient. The general consensus is that the trouble is non-fiction. If you stick with non-fiction (especially non-fiction about non-humans) in most cases you create no identifiable characters with whom the general public begins to associate you — no Madelines or Olivias or Fireman Smalls. Even working in a illustration style as recognizable as Steve’s doesn’t mean that people will seek you out or remember your name or follow your career, which is unfortunate.

It’s certainly true that a lot of teachers and librarians do know Steve’s name. But your general bookstore shopper probably buys less non-fiction, so they’re less likely to know Steve’s books, and therefore more likely to miss out on an array of titles that might very well have equal appeal to each member of their family. Just as the natural world has no age limitations, neither do facts about the natural world, at least not when they’re presented in a way that’s as straightforward as this, or illustrated in ways that are so visually striking.

In all of Steve’s books he manages to include surprising and intriguing facts about the earth’s creatures. A mother in the crowd at our event mentioned that her family had been reading What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? aloud every night for the past week, because her kids were so fascinated by the things they were learning.

One of my favorite non-fiction books to hand-sell is Steve’s book Actual Size, which shows various creatures (or parts of creatures) true to scale. I’ve yet to put this book in the hands of a child or adult who wasn’t wowed by the giant squid’s eyeball that barely fits on a full double-page spread, or cringe (amazed) at the 12-inch span of a Goliath birdeater tarantula.

Steve is currently touring to promote his newest book, Living Color (Houghton Mifflin), which is a visual feast, glowing with (what else?) color. In the book, a vast array of species are linked according to their common hues, like the two in the illustration Steve’s holding below. That’s a baby crow and a white uakaris monkey, both displaying shades of red. Steve explains that in the crow’s case, red says: "Put the food right here." In the case of the uakaris it sends a different message: "I’m the boss."

Fashioned from cut and torn paper, Steve’s illustrations are clean and crisp but rich with detail. He captures differing contours, patterns, and textures by using different textures types of paper, many of which he showed during his presentation. It was so interesting to note how he has sometimes used the same sheet of paper to create the hide of one animal here, the horn of another there.

Amazing to think that  just by layering pieces of paper one could create something that looks real and feathered enough to lift right off the page, like the bird below, or non-fiction books appealing enough to fly right off the shelves (so long as you can get people to browse your non-fiction section in the first place).

Good Times, Good Books at NEIBA

Alison Morris - October 1, 2007

The past week has been a whirlwind of activity at the bookstore, what with our scheduling events, running events, ordering books, meeting with sales reps, trying to hammer out our choices for this year’s list of holiday gift recommendations, AND… attending the annual New England Independent Booksellers Association fall trade show, which was this past Thursday – Saturday. I always enjoy attending NEIBA, primarily for the same reason I enjoy attending BEA, which is that it’s rejuvenating to be around my fellow booksellers, hear what they’re doing in their stores, and soak up their creative ideas and suggestions.

This year I was asked to sit on a NEIBA panel with the theme "Connecting with Schools and Libraries" and feel it’s not bragging to say that the panel was a great success. I’m judging this based on the fact that I took notes on pretty much everyone’s remarks but my own! You know you’re on a good panel when you, a panelist, have a lot to say on the topic but find you learn a great deal from the others seated with you, as well as those in the audience. I definitely learned a few tips or tricks this year and would wager that almost everyone in our packed room went home on Thursday feeling the same way. Huzzah!

After the panel I helped set up for the New England Independent Children’s Booksellers Advisory Council dinner, which is always one of my favorite evenings of the year. This was a year in which I think our dinner speakers balanced one another out nicely, making the evening pass quickly and making me wish I’d somehow captured every minute of it for you and could post it here as a nifty little podcast. Alas, as the technology I had on hand was of the "pen and paper" variety, you’ll just have to use your imaginations.

The first of our dinner speakers were the dynamic and perfecly-paired duo of Helen Lester and Lynn Munsinger. Helen began by talking about how her experiences as a second-grade teacher shaped the many characters and stories that now appear in her books. Though she’s not teaching these days, she visits about 60 schools/year, no doubt adding to the material she’s got to work with. Her big message to kids is that "Authors don’t know what they’re doing, either." Lynn then took the podium and the projector, showing us delightful sketches of animals in various stages of dress and undress, giving us a sense of how she creates her characters. She apparently sometimes has friends come over to pose for her, but they aren’t always prepared for the fact that she’ll draw them as, say, a hippo — not your typical portraiture, to be sure.

Jerry Spinelli was next in line for our attention, and he honestly had most of us laughing until our faces hurt, just by reading the copious mail he receives from both his admirers and his detractors. (It helps that he does excellent kid voices, mimicking the authors of these letters perfectly.) One of my favorite quotes: "I really think your book deserved an award, but apparently no one else did."

The third author to take the podium was the always eloquent Natalie Babbitt, who I had the great pleasure of sitting with during dinner. Natalie was full of praise for Michael di Capua, who has been her (only) editor for the past 40 years. (The only author or illustrator who has been with him longer is Maurice Sendak.) She spoke honestly about the fact that, if you care about it, writing doesn’t get easier with time and experience. "If anything," she said, "it gets even harder." (Chagrined note to self…)

Friday at NEIBA, my own focus was on making the trade show rounds, refreshing my memory of the titles I’ve bought for what’s left of the fall season, and chatting amiably with our many wonderful sales reps. I was thrilled to be able to pick up a signed copy of Susan Milord’s lovely picture book Pebble, a couple more galleys of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, a finished copy of Robot Dreams by Sara Varon (whom I’ll be posting about later this week), the galley for Meg Rosoff’s forthcoming adult novel What I Was (not to be confused with How I Live Now), and a galley for The Blue Star by Tony Earley, the long-awaited sequel to one of my favorite adult/YA cross-over novels, Jim the Boy. As they do every other year, Houghton Mifflin Children’s Books sponsored a wonderful luncheon featuring a number of great New England authors, and a couple non-New-Englanders as well, Steve Jenkins among them. Why mention Steve Jenkins? Because we hosted a great event with him on Saturday at the Wellesley Free Library. Read my next post for the details.