Monthly Archives: February 2009

A Gold Star for ‘Magic Box’

Alison Morris - February 26, 2009

I’ve been staying up late reading f&g’s, preparing for sales rep appointments which have been taking up the bulk of Lorna’s and my at-work hours these days. In the shuffle of the hundreds (literally) of picture books I’ve read in past few weeks, there have been a number of stand-outs. But one in particular has really knocked my socks off, in part because it’s rare to see a picture book so well-executed by a first-time author/illustrator. The book is Magic Box (Disney-Hyperion, June 2009) by Katie Cleminson, and I think BOTH are worthy of a gold star.

If Antoinette Portis’s Not a Box and Emily Gravett’s Monkey and Me had a love child, it might just be this book. A playful, preschool-appropriate romp that’s a testament to the power of the imagination, Magic Box is the story of Eva, who receives a (seemingly) simple box for her birthday that allows her to tranform into a magician (with the addition of a hat, a wand, and a cape). Eva’s first trick is to wish for a pet named Monty, who arrives in the form of an ENORMOUS polar bear. Eva and Monty are soon accompanied by a large number of long-eared rabbits Eva has pulled from various hats, then later by a large menagerie of instrument-playing animals who contribute to the party-like atmosphere Eva and her wand have created. The party is capped off (as the best parties are) by a great deal of very lively dancing, and let me just say that the rabbits in this book have some truly impressive moves. When Eva’s party winds down to a fatigued finish, she snaps her fingers and the magic vanishes… almost. One large, furry piece of her entourage stays behind.

Much of what makes this story magical for the reader is the interplay of lines and color in Katie Cleminson’s delightful illustrations. Bold splotches of color stand in stark contrast to the grays of the ink-drawn characters here, but the simple additions of orange stripes on Eva’s shirt and rosy circles on her cheeks are enough to make readers warm to her immediately. Meanwhile, the splotches of paint on this book’s pages seem to have almost as much life as Eva and her animal friends. They grow in number and intensity as the story crescendos, adding color and movement to story in all the right places and all the right ways. 

And can I just say that the endpapers are superb too? On them, blue-washed bunnies swing and tango their way across an empty music staff. Who needs notes when you’ve got dancing rabbits?

In summary, I think this is a perfect picture book. The text and illustrations are balanced perfectly, and the story feels fresh in spite of the fact that it’s a variation on a theme countless others have tried before. Anyone who has written one (or has tried) can tell you that a simple picture book is the hardest kind to write and/or illustrate. First-time author/illustrator Katie Cleminson has managed to both, and for that I think she ABSOLUTELY deserves a gold star. (Here’s hoping it’s the first of many!)

Two More Bookish Birdhouses

Alison Morris - February 24, 2009

A Harold house and a Pigeon house are my latest birdhouse creations, which I’m sharing here because so many of you have told me (mostly off-list) how much you enjoyed my last "bookish birdhouse" and how much you’d like to make one of your own. What follows, then, is a bit more inspiration! Pardon the yellowish tone to these photographs, but the nighttime lighting in Gareth’s and my apartment leaves something (actually, lots of things) to be desired.

First, though, I just want to say that I carved out time to make these birdhouses during a very busy weekend because I could think of no better gesture for saying a heartfelt THANK-YOU to our Store Manager, Deb Sundin, and our Assistant Manager, Kym Havens, for all they do on a daily basis to keep our store running, keep our staff happy, and keep me (personally) sane. I have never worked for two more agreeable people than this pair, and our store has never been in better hands than it is with the two of them at the helm. Everyone should have the joy of working for and with people who make them feel respected, who tell them they’re appreciated, and who listen, always, to what they have to say. People who do those things are worth their weight in birdhouses, I always say. (Okay, maybe I’ve never said that before in my life, but I’m starting now!)

Up first, a birdhouse (for Deb) découpaged with pages from an ancient, pages-missing copy of Harold and the Purple Crayon that I once bought at a library sale for ten cents.

The pages of this book were too small to fill either the front or back side of the birdhouse, so I clipped decorated bits from other parts of the book to fill things in a bit. I left a space between the top and bottom bits and the central page on each of those sides, so that a stripe of the background color shows through.

The book’s pages fit the roof of this house perfectly! Here’s the right side.

And here’s the left side:

This is the first birdhouse I’ve done that also incorporated text from the story, and I think it worked quite well! I especially liked putting the last page of the book on the back of the house, so that all the other sides seem to tell the story up to this point

And yes, of course, the perch on the front of Harold’s house is…? A purple crayon.

Next (for Kym), is a birdhouse découpaged with pages from an F&G for Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! (I’ve been saving that F&G for years, because I knew it would eventually be perfect for one project or another, which it has!)

I promise you the colors are MUCH better in person… (sigh)

Here’s the right side of the house:

Here’s the left:

And here’s the back where (just as he is on the front) the Pigeon is dreaming:

In the absence of tiny steering wheels (who’s got those lying around?) I couldn’t come up with any obvious "bus" tie-in for the perches of this house. Gareth suggested that a yellow number-two pencil would at least be the right color, resembling school busses as those pencils do, and I agreed.

I think the Pigeon would approve, don’t you? (Goodness knows he’s got an opinion about EVERYTHING!)

Deb and Kym, THANK YOU!

Cheeky Reading About Backsides

Alison Morris - February 23, 2009

Butts, behinds, rear ends, tushies. Call ’em what you will, they’re making quite a number of appearances in picture books this year. I’m nearing the end of the buying season for this year’s Spring/Summer lists, and I’ve seen four books so far that focus on this very subject.

Of course, these are not the first four picture books to feature backsides (as any child familiar with No, David! can tell you). But I can’t remember seeing this many books about butts in any one previous season, let alone year. In fact, had 2009 not already been coined The Year of the Ox, I might be tempted to call this The Year of the Butt. (But mostly because the idea of that makes me chuckle.)

Chicken Cheeks 
written by Michael Ian Black, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes
(Simon & Schuster, January 2009)
First up is Chicken Cheeks. When a bear is unable to reach the honey he’s after, he enlists the help of some animal friends who climb atop one another to form a tall stack of what? Animal butts. Here each rear is given a rhyming or alliterative moniker like "moose caboose" and "penguin patootie" and "kangaroo keister". With very few words this book will garner a great numbers of giggles.

Always Lots of Heinies at the Zoo
written by Ayun Halliday, illustrated by Dan Santat
(Disney-Hyperion, May 2009)
Strikingly similar to Chicken Cheeks (and just as silly) is this offering, from first-time author Ayun Halliday, in which animals’ backsides are described in entertaining rhymes. ("From the feathered booty of the cockatoo To the hairy haunches of the caribou…") Here we learn one of the primary differences between humans and animals: animals are allowed to show their bare heinies in public.

The Tushy Book 
written by Fran Manushkin, illustrated by Tracy Dockray
(Feiwel & Friends, March 2009)
The least zany and most cutesy of the books in this bunch, The Tushy Book is also the only one that isn’t primarily about the butts of animals. Focused mostly on humans instead, this book explains some of the reasons why you should be glad to have backside behind you. (Imagine having no tushy on which to sit and have books read to you?)

Chicken Butt!
written by Erica Perl, illustrated by Henry Cole
(Abrams, March 2009)
And now we’ve come full circle (heh, heh), because the title of this book sounds a lot like Chicken Cheeks, does it not? While it features fewer butts than the others mentioned here, I think Chicken Butt! might be the one that’ll generate the most guffaws from youngsters, because it features the dumbest, most nonsensical reply anyone ever coined to a question. What? CHICKEN BUTT! Why? CHICKEN THIGH! While some adults might frown on this invitation to sass one’s grown-ups, I for one find this book to be a delightful celebration of what seems to have become a juvenile right of passage — one that some of us never outgrow.

To quote from the final pages of Chicken Cheeks, "THE ENDS."

CPSIA: Big Deal, Little Brother

Alison Morris - February 19, 2009

Last Wednesday at the most recent meeting of the New England Children’s Booksellers Advisory Council, we spent at least an hour discussing the most recent alterations to and debates surrounding the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. Had there not been other items of importance on the meeting’s agenda, our conversation about the well-intentioned but poorly executed Act that Congress so hastily passed could have lasted well into the evening.

We booksellers are feeling both besieged and stymied by the complicated mess of unclear rules and uncertain expectations the CPSIA places on all of us. As are librarians. As are book publishers. As are toy makers and crafters and artisans. As is everyone who sells used books or used toys or used clothing for kids. Everyone who manufactures or sells products for children, it would seem, rightly regards the CPSIA as the source of innumerable headaches and huge potential profit losses.

The consequences are especially dire for small manufacturers who are, as the regulations currently stand, expected to spend thousands of dollars to have their products tested for various levels of product safety. One bookseller I know recently received an e-mail from a guy she’s purchased hand-crafted wooden toys from for years. He can no longer sell her his handmade wares, because he can’t afford to have them tested.

For reasons beyond my comprehension, however, the New York Times has chosen to regard this matter as something flippant, inconsequential, and undeserving of their time. Yesterday on his popular law blog Overlawyered, Walter Olson rightly decried the paper’s unforgivably naive remarks on its editorial page about CPSIA and presented examples of professionals in several industries who are wringing their hands about changes that could spell doom and gloom to their businesses.

While I’m as big a believer as anyone in the importance of protecting our children from bad chemicals and evil carcinogens, I have (like most business professionals) been horrified at the blanket regulations the CPSIA applies to manufactured products (including books), with ZERO regard for whether or not any problems have previously arisen from the items covered by its rules. When was the last time you heard of a child getting lead poisoning from the print on a book’s pages, for example, whether or NOT that book was printed before 1985? Answer: you’ve never heard of such a thing, because as far as anyone’s aware, it hasn’t happened.

One of the statements made during our NECBA meeting last week was that there’s a difference between "non-compliant" and "not safe." Just because a book was printed before 1985, has not been tested for lead and phthalates and is therefore non-compliant with the CPSIA rules, that does not mean that the book is unsafe. But the scare this act could potentially start among members of the public may very well have them believing otherwise.

Since I first began learning about it, the over-reaching and harmfully inclusive regulations of the CPSIA have reminded me of one particular book: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. Among the many points Doctorow makes in this entertaining novel is the fact that sometimes in its efforts to enact laws aimed at increasing the public’s safety, a government makes its citizens less safe, or at least a lot more inconvenienced that should ever have been necessary. I was thinking maybe I ought to be sending copies of this book to members of Congress, but I’m now thinking I should start by sending a copy to the New York Times.

Who Are Your Literary Crushes?

Alison Morris - February 17, 2009

Today’s topic of discussion comes compliments of my outrageously intelligent and well-read friend Peggy O’Connell, who posted the following bit on her LiveJournal blog a week ago. I thought it posed such a good question that I asked Peg’s permission to reprint it here. Can’t wait to see what responses you come up with to this one!

I was feeling particularly disinclined to get out of bed this morning, so I was lounging around pretending to be Nero Wolfe, lying in my yellow pajamas and bellowing for Archie. Then I thought that if I had an Archie, I’d be particularly disinclined to get out of bed. 

This led to a discussion with my husband Kevin about literary crushes. I fully admit that if Archie Goodwin or Peter Whimsey were real (and living now), I’d totally leave my husband to be their love slaves. I have literary crushes on them.

I challenged Kev to name his female literary crushes, and he couldn’t. We both lay there for a good 10 minutes racking our brains, trying to come up with a female worthy of literary crush. I even went and scanned the book shelves.

So I throw the question open, particularly to the males out there. What female literary character do you have a hankering for? Comic books are completely ok, but no fair using characters that have subsequently been in movies if you liked them because you liked the actress.

It was really depressing to realize that there are plenty of books I’ve loved with female protagonists, but that as a whole, they’re not presented as being quite so godlike and admirable as the males. We use the term Mary Sue, but perhaps it should be Murray Sue.

Come on, people, help me out here. There’s got to be someone. Don’t make me lose faith in literature.

Dishware for Lit Lovers

Alison Morris -

Among the many fun places to blow some cash is in the dishware store Fishs Eddy, located in NYC’s Flatiron District, OR on the store’s website, where I recently discovered a number of wonderfully bookish designs.

First up: dishes and glassware featuring an Alice in Wonderland Pattern. (Click on the photo to be transported to the Alice page of the store’s website.) My only complaint is that none of the dishes sport the words "Eat me" or "Drink me," which seems like a missed opportunity.

My favorite part of this set are the salt and pepper shakers.

Children’s book enthusiasts might also enjoy seeing familiar rhymes ring the sides of cereal bowls, mugs, and glasses with a "Nursery" theme.

Keep your mind on your writing with these mugs, glasses, and cheese trays that look like writing paper (or graph paper for you techical artistes). Fishs Eddy calls this its "Memo" line.

You’ve gotta love the "Composition Cup."

Think of the fun messages you could spell with a complete set of these "Alphabet" mugs. Heh, heh, heh. Great cabinet prank potential.

What does the squirrel platter below have to do with books, exactly? It’s one of a few pieces designed by Jessie Hartland, author and illustrator of Night Shift (Bloomsbury, 2007) and illustrator of Messing Around on the Monkey Bars and Other School Poems for Two Voices written by Betsy Franco (Candlewick Press, July 2009), to name just two of her books. (Note that on the Fishs Eddy website, Jessie is listed as "Jesse" without the "i". A typo, I assume?)

And finally, for those of you who prefer "OLDER" literature, you can drink your favorite beverage from one of these glasses featuring "Heroes of the Torah."


My Crash Course in the World of NY Comic-Con

Alison Morris - February 12, 2009

Last Saturday Gareth and I spent the weekend in NYC, where he signed copies of The Merchant of Venice on Saturday at New York Comic-Con. We spent just that one day at the show, but that was plenty long enough for me to get a solid dose of life at a "Con" which was, as I expected, QUITE different from life at, say, BookExpo.

One thing both shows have in common, though, is (ta da!) the Javits Center. I confess to loving that the building’s entryway allows in so much natural light. Ah, if only the convention rooms were that way. 

Below we see the big entrance to the Con which, as you can see, was VERY well attended. So well attended, in fact, that all tickets to the show were sold out at the door when we got to Javits at 10:30 am on Saturday. (Some 77,000 people attended the show over the course of its 3 days!) Gareth and I already had badges, fortunately. Our friends Tim Decker and Cliff Young were told to hoof it over to Midtown Comics, where they were rewarded with two of the last tickets the store had left. (Whew!)

We cruised the aisles of exhibitors, which included comics publishers, book publishers, video game companies, and vendors selling action figures & toys, t-shirts, and more. There were even some booths selling original artwork. I especially enjoyed thumbing through the albums that contained original drawings and paintings by Bill Sienkiewicz. The downside was that moving from booth to booth meant shuffling our way through crowds like this one.

The upside was that the crowd was filled (FILLED!) with people dressed like this:

Or like this:

Or like Catwoman, below. See how popular she is? At the Con, no one shied nervously away from people in costume, like those of us at "typical" book conventions are often wont to do. No, at NY Comic-Con it felt almost strange to NOT be in costume. In fact, I do believe that next year my pal Tim Decker will be dressed like Princess Leia in a metal bikini. (Isn’t that right, Tim?)

(Reality check moment: There is an entire website devoted to Princess Leia’s metal bikini. Seriously. The fact that this surprises me means I am probably not yet ready to tackle a full 3 days at ANY big Comic Con.)

It was fun to see several familiar faces at the Con, including those of the delightful Kirsten Cappy of Curious City, the wonderful Diane Roback (my "editor" at PW), and the seemingly all-knowing Neal Porter of Roaring Brook Press, who escorted a small group of us over to the First Second booth where for the LIFE of me I could NOT get a decent shot of both Gina (left) and Calista (right), who were ably managing the large crowds of people jostling my camera arm — hence the unfortunate photos. You can see better pics in First Second’s photostream on Flickr.

What you won’t see there, though, is the ENORMOUS seemingly homemade Incredible Hulk costume in front of which Gareth and I posed for this lovely shot, which I joked would be PERFECT on our wedding invitations. (I said "JOKED," people. JOKED!)

Better still is this one, of me, Tim, and Gareth, though I do think it would be still more entertaining if Tim was wearing that metal bikini. Perhaps next year.

Your Last Chance to Name a Bookish Breakfast Cereal

Alison Morris - February 11, 2009

There have been some GREAT entries in Gareth’s and my "Name a Bookish Breakfast Cereal" contest, and we’ll be selecting a winner later this week! So, if any of you have been holding out with your great ideas, post them in the comments field by this Friday. Soon thereafter we’ll unveil our design for a book-inspired box!

What Books Make the Best Escapes?

Alison Morris - February 10, 2009

This week has gotten off to a truly sad start, as I received some terrible news from some friends of mine today. In thinking about what I could do for them to help them through this difficult time it struck me that some "escapist reading" might be one of the few truly helpful things I could give them right now (apart from intangible things like love and support, of course). Maybe a few books they might be able to lose themselves in for a few minutes or (in the best of cases) hours at a time. I’d like to get your recommendations for this gift, but first, here’s a recommendation of mine.

At the risk of over-sharing I’ll just say that I lost one of my dearest and closest friends almost six years ago after he lost his long-standing battle with depression. It goes without saying that his loss was devastating to me. In the first few months after his suicide I searched for comfort, understanding, and escape in the pages of books, hoping that something might speak to me and say whatever it was I most needed to hear. I found, though, that I didn’t have the attention span for anything lengthy. The longest book I could make it through in its entirety was the very short Darkness Visible by William Styron, which did more for my understanding of depression than anything I’d read before or have read since. Apart from that one, though? Books — fiction or non-fiction (and I tried LOTS) — weren’t really helping. It was poems that did the trick.

A few months before my world unravelled I’d picked up the British edition of a poetry anthology from our galley pile at the store. The collection was about to be reissued here and, though, it had one of the WORST titles I’d seen in ages, I dipped into its pages and really enjoyed what I read there. Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times edited by Neil Astley is a collection of poems on almost every imaginable subject that’s related to the topics of life and death. It’s a brilliant mix of older poems and more contemporary pieces, but what I love most about it is that almost all of the poems are highly readable. Their topics they cover are often deep but the poems themselves aren’t written in the types of puzzling styles that stump people who haven’t been raised to love the stuff.

In any case, after losing my friend and finding my brain too addled for lengthier things, I began reading lots of poetry, and this was the book I began to explore in depth for the first time, as I read poem after poem after poem. My friend had been a poet, so it seemed right to be immersing myself in his world at such length. It felt like maybe reading poetry was what I was "supposed" to be doing in some odd way. That feeling was fully confirmed for me when I finally read the last poem in the book and found in it all the things that I’d most needed to know, hear, think, be reassured about when it came to accepting my friend’s loss.

It’s this poem that I now share with anyone who’s lost a loved one, because to my mind there’s nothing better. I can recite it from memory because it’s permanently etched on my heart. Its words are the ones I repeat to myself whenever I think of my friend or the other people whose lives touched mine before they went… elsewhere. And now, I’m sharing it with you.

Late Fragment by Raymond Carver

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

With that heady introduction I say that, for me, poetry is great escape reading — and this book of poetry in particular. Now I ask you: what reading (either type of reading or specific books) do you think makes for a great escape from, well… life in general? (Bonus points if your recommendation is also a good escape from the subject of death, specifically.) Please share knowing that you’re lending a hand both to me and to some friends in need, for which we all thank you.