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Children’s Books

Guest Post: Norman Bridwell on the Enduring Appeal of Clifford

CliffordNorman Bridwell reflects on his career writing Clifford the Big Red Dog, a beloved children's character for more than 50 years now.

Clifford has been a big part of my life for more than fifty years now, and I am so pleased to be able to share him with you.

When I was a child, I spent much of my free time drawing imaginary people in imaginary scenes. I remember walking to and from school making up these stories. At the end of the day, I’d illustrate them on a scrap paper my father had brought home from work for me. 

After I finished high school, I dreamed of doing cartoon-style illustrations for magazines and newspapers. My mother suggested that I go to art school, and I took her advice. While I was there, I found that people enjoyed my funny illustrations and stories filled with wordplay.

In 1962, my wife thought I should try to illustrate children’s books. I showed my paintings to several publishers, but no one was interested. I was very disappointed, but there was a ray of hope! One editor told me to try writing a story based on my painting of a little girl with a very big dog. I was so excited that I wrote the story in just three days.

When my story was bought by Scholastic and published in 1963, I was shocked. I had not expected Clifford the big red dog to be published. Thanks to Scholastic, and some very wonderful editors, the Clifford books were born... and my life changed completely.

Because of Clifford, I have traveled all over the world. The Clifford books themselves have taken quite a journey, too. They’ve delighted children as far away as Siberia. I know because I’ve gotten letters from children who live there.

Creating Clifford has also given me the opportunity to meet incredible people like the President and First Lady of the United States, movie actors, newspeople, and famous authors and artists that I admire.

But most wonderful of all, Clifford has brought me into the lives of many children. I am very lucky. I love kids, and I love to make them laugh – and I hope whether you’re a kid or a grown-up, that’s just what Clifford will make you do.

Guest Post: "Tales of the Great Beasts" Author Brandon Mull

SpiritanimalsBrandon Mull returns to the world of Erdas for Tales of the Great Beasts, a collection of short stories that spins off of the Spirit Animal series.

When my daughter Sadie started begging for a dog, I was hesitant.  I have four kids, and a dog would mean new responsibilities. But Sadie promised she would take care of the animal, and a bird we had owned previously gave me hope that she might mean it. Besides, I had a dog as a kid, and I didn’t want to deny my children that experience.

We settled on a Sheepadoodle—half Old English Sheepdog, half Standard Poodle. As it turned out, after getting the dog, Sadie kept her word. She took on the duties of feeding the dog (named Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and making sure the animal got opportunities to do her business in the side yard. It has been fun to watch the relationship between Sadie and Buffy grow, and to see my daughter learn lessons in responsibility.

The first book in the Spirit Animals series is dedicated to Sadie and Buffy (along with Fluffy, the dog from my childhood, and Mango, our bird that died). I dedicated Wild Born to Sadie and those animals because they reminded me how much people and animals can mean to each other.

Since the Spirit Animals series launched last year, it has been a pleasure to watch the stories and online game inspire kids to read and imagine. In the world of Erdas, when children reach a certain age, they have the chance to summon a spirit animal. If they do, that animal becomes a lifetime companion and friend.

I visit schools all over the United States, and the kids I’ve spoken with seem to love the idea. Many tell me what spirit animal they would choose, and ask what mine would be (dolphin for personality, tiger if I lived in dangerous times).

The Spirit Animals series was designed from the start to be written by a team of authors. My role was to create an outline for the series and to write book one. The other six books would each be written different authors. Since Scholastic put the team together, the other authors are all very talented people.

After completing the outline and book one, my role in the main series was finished, and I went back to work on my latest series, Five Kingdoms. But when Scholastic decided to make a book of short stories called Tales of the Great Beasts, I got the opportunity to tell one more story in the world of Erdas.

The Great Beasts are fifteen powerful animals who watch over Erdas. They are much larger than ordinary animals, capable of human speech, and virtually immortal. The four main animals in Spirit Animals were once Great Beasts, but they perished in battle to save Erdas and became known as the Four Fallen. At the start of the series, the four main characters of Wild Born summon the reborn Four Fallen as their spirit animals.

For my story in Tales of the Great Beasts, I dramatized the battle where Briggan the Wolf, Uraza the Leopard, Jhi the Panda, and Essix the Falcon fell. It’s a key moment in the history of the Great Beasts—bringing it to life felt like writing the climax of a novel.

I expect that Spirit Animal readers will enjoy experiencing that vital moment, along with other stories about the Great Beasts that will offer new insight into some of the favorite characters in the series. And I’ll enjoy watching kids and families continue to connect with Spirit Animals.

Guest Post: Diary of a Wimpy Kid Author Jeff Kinney

DowkComing up with over 200 jokes, creating the cartoons to accompany them, then traveling around the world to share in the results can seem like a long haul — of the best kind! Jeff Kinney, author of the best-selling Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, shares his thoughts on songs for a road trip playlist. The newest title in the series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul, is available November 4.

"Starlight" by Muse: Most people won't be familiar with it but it's a great, upbeat song to set the tone.

"Walls" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: A lost gem that you can't help but sing along to.

"Marry You" by Bruno Mars: This one kept my spirits up during a long book tour. Don't ask me how this one didn't become a huge single.

"Someone Saved My Life Tonight" by Elton John: Play this when you need a low-key moment. Beautiful song that still holds up.

"Brownsville Girl" by Bob Dylan: The ultimate road trip song about the ultimate road trip. Plus, every long road trip needs some Bob Dylan.

Hugh Howey on His New Children's Book, "Misty"

MistyScience fiction writer Hugh Howey releases his first children's book this month. The author introduces Misty, about a young cloud learning to be herself.

"Tell us a story," my nieces begged me. We were together for the holidays, and Jordan and Catherine were playing "Storytime." They knew that I was a writer, but my stories were usually too dark for them, with bad things happening to good people. But I couldn't refuse. So I made up a tale on the spot, a story about a cloud named Misty who couldn't turn into shapes the way her friends could, which made her sad and brought on the thunderstorms.

Even while telling a children's story, I couldn't help but take a sinister turn.

My nieces didn't seem to be traumatized by the telling; in fact, I think they liked it. And this character and her world lived on in my imagination. Years went by. I published a number of novels and had quite a bit of success. I was eventually able to quit my day job and take on projects that had little hope of doing well. Returning to the world of Misty, I wrote a formal script for a children's book, and I sent it off to my agent. The next thing I knew, we were looking at illustrators and discussing how to make this a reality. I was going to put together my first children's book.

Growing up, reading was always a major focus in my house. My mother was a school teacher and taught us to read before we went off to kindergarten. Those first encounters with text and story and gorgeous illustrations are why I became a voracious reader -- and eventually a writer. With the freedom to pursue the projects I was passionate about, I thought it would be exciting to reach out to kids just learning to read today. I wanted to share with them this story about a young cloud learning to be herself and learning that it was okay to cry. 

Together with the unbelievably talented artist Nidhi Chanani, we brought Misty's story to life. And any doubts I had about this project vanished with my first beta reader. A friend's 2-year-old daughter sat in my lap while I went through the first proof copy of Misty. We turned the pages slowly while I read aloud. With cries of "again," we started from the beginning. The first time she pointed to a cloud and cried, "Misty," I knew I was hooked. This was what it was all about. Watching a new reader come to life, hopefully a future voracious reader. Maybe even a writer.

Guest Post: C.C. Payne, Author of "Lula Bell on Geekdom, Freakdom & the Challenges of Bad Hair"

Lula-bellIn honor of National Bullying Prevention Month, C.C. Payne, author of Lula Bell on Geekdom, Freakdom & the Challenges of Bad Hair, shares the books that helped her through some rough days in middle school.

Hey! I’m Lula Bell Bonner. That’s my picture right there on the cover of the novel, Lula Bell on Geekdom, Freakdom & the Challenges of Bad Hair—not that I think I'm cool or anything—nobody thinks that. I'm in the fifth-grade, where I'm trying desperately to fit in but (sigh)... it’s not going so well.

See, fitting in at school is a very delicate art form. For starters, it requires the right lunch, the right clothes, the right friends, and relatives who don't show up unexpectedly. I have none of those things.

My Grandma Bernice (who showed up at school this morning WITH HER CURLERS STILL IN HER HAIR!) says that’s okay, because we're not made to fit in; we're made to stand out. But she’s wrong. Standing out or being different in any way is bad—very bad. It causes other kids to make fun of you, laugh at you, and humiliate you until you no longer want to just “fit in”; you want to disappear.

C. C. Payne here. Like Lula Bell, I often wanted to disappear as a middle grader. Like Lula Bell, I was bullied—though there was no official word for it back then, no anti-bullying campaign, and no training for educators or parents on how to handle such situations. My teacher overlooked my torment under the heading of “Kids will be kids.” My dad told me it shouldn't matter if some people didn't like me. My mom’s solution was to “kill with kindness,” even going so far as to have me look up my bully’s phone number and dial it with trembling hands and with the intent of inviting her over (!!!). Thankfully, no one answered. After that, I never again complained. Instead, I silently swallowed my humiliation, pain, fear, and dread. But that was about all I could keep down. Since my stomach was constantly upset, I ate very little—I became even thinner. This caused rumors that I was anorexic—as if I didn't have enough problems. No one understood.

Except for Judy Blume. Her honest portrayal of the pack-mentality that often comes with bullying in the novel Blubber, let me know that I wasn't alone. Wanting to “fit in,” the protagonist, Jill, goes along with the other girls as they bully an overweight classmate, whom they've nicknamed Blubber. Thirty years later, I still believe that Ms. Blume is one of the best friends a middle grade girl—and her parents—can have.

Author Ellen Potter is another worthy friend. 12-year-old Owen, the protagonist of her novel, Slob, is an overweight genius. Naturally, Owen’s classmates—and his gym coach—find these traits unforgivable and Owen finds himself a victim of bullying. Even so, he doesn't feel sorry for himself. No, Owen copes exceptionally well—demonstrating intelligence, resourcefulness, and good humor.

Of course, bullying doesn't only affect those who are overweight. In Wonder by R. J. Palacio, Auggie is a fifth grade boy with severe facial anomalies, who, despite being different, dares to want the same things we all want: acceptance, friendship, and belonging.

All of these books provide understanding, comfort, hope, and courage—not to mention laughter—to those in need, to those who are different, to those who fail to fit in, because they're made to stand out—to shine.

Kelly Barnhill's Recommended Halloween Reading

Witches_boyWitches, wolves, and a very sharp knife--Kelly Barnhill, author of The Witch's Boy, shares her five favorite Halloween reads for middle graders.

When autumn drifts into the forests and prairies of Minnesota, it is easy to believe in ghosts: the shadows become long, all spindly legs and needle-like fingers; the desiccated leaves whisper in the darkness; the skeletal trees scratch at the thinning sky. When I was a young child I used to hunger for scary stories, but my hunger was never so great as it was in autumn. A terrifying tale leaves a peculiar mark on the soul. I recommend these unsettling stories for your late-night reading. They are sure to leave a mark. Possibly forever.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken Because the universe is cruel and capricious, I never managed to connect with this book as a child. It is a pity, because it has all the things that my dark little heart would have adored: evil governesses, malevolent men on trains, wicked schemes, bees, cruel twists of fate, resourceful children, orphanages, and wolves. Also: Mortal Peril. Which never gets old, really.

The Witches by Roald Dahl It is, when it comes down to it, very similar to several family vacations I remember from my youth: a hotel filled with child-hating witches who are concocting a scheme to turn the nation’s children into mice and subsequently setting the exterminators on them.

Well Witched by Frances Hardinge I read Well Witched as an adult, though it was the eleven-year-old version of me, still holding court in my brain, who insisted that I stay up deep into the night reading this sinister tale of kids who steal coins from a wishing well—and the witch who makes them wish they hadn’t. I would suggest starting this book during full daylight. And maybe leaving the lights on at night for at least a week.

Wizard’s Hall by Jane Yolen Now this is a book with odd similarities to a Certain Other Book about a wizard’s school, but Yolen’s slim volume came out several years before the first of the Potters, and both magical worlds are distinct and unique from one another. What sets this book apart is the terror of the dark wizard’s plot—attacking the wizard’s school with a terrible beast. And what’s worse is that the beast is a quilt. With teeth. And each square of the quilt is the soul of a wizard that has been devoured by the beast. I know, right? Terrifying.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” And so begins a tale of a boy who escapes death—indeed his whole family has just been murdered—and finds safety in a graveyard, under the protection of a kindly vampire and a new family of ghosts. The macabre mixes with the mundane, allowing the journey of childhood to be seen as exactly what it is: a dark, dangerous road, fraught with peril, confusion, and pain, where those who love us will help us when they can, but we must be brave enough to face the darkness on our own. This is why children love scary books, by the way. Because nothing is as scary as childhood itself. Nothing at all.

R. L. Stine: "My Time of Year"

HauntedmaskHalloween provides plenty of material for R. L. Stine, creator of the Goosebumps series. The author discusses the inspirations behind his many spooky tales.

Halloween is my busy time of year. I'm always traveling to bookstores and schools and libraries, scaring kids (which is my job). I've probably written more Halloween stories than most authors. I've written about haunted masks and inhabited costumes, eerie pumpkin patches, parties that turn into screamfests,  and jack-o-lantern people who invade from another planet.

Weirdo Halloween. Headless Halloween. The Five Masks of Dr. Screem.

Yes, those are Halloween titles that I have to take credit for.

Perhaps the most popular of all my Halloween books is The Haunted Mask. That book—and the TV adaptation of it—comes up whenever I speak to groups of kids or adults.

Someone always asks, "Where did you get the idea for that book?" Strangely, it is one of the few books I have written that began with an incident from real life.

It was approaching Halloween time, and my son Matt was five or six. I was watching him from the doorway to his room. Matt was trying on a green rubber Frankenstein mask. He pulled it down over his head—and then he couldn't get it off.

I watched him tug and tug, but the mask was stuck. And I thought, What a great idea for a story.

I know. I know. I should have helped him pull the mask off—shouldn't I! I guess I didn’t win the Good Parent Award that day. But the idea for The Haunted Mask began to form in my head, and I couldn't wait to start jotting down ideas.

The story turned out to be about a girl named Carly Beth, who is tired of being bullied and teased and considered the biggest 'fraidy cat in school. She buys the most frightening Halloween mask she can find. Unfortunately, it turns out to be haunted.

It tightens around her face, sticks to her skin, becomes part of her. And then when she realizes the mask can't be removed, it begins to change her personality. It turns Carly Beth evil.

Often, people tell me how traumatized they were by this story. Many have told me they couldn't wear a mask for years after reading the book or seeing the TV show. So I guess I did my job well.

I'd like to tell you more about The Haunted Mask. But I have yet another  Halloween story deadline upon me.

Anyone have any good ideas?  

When the Whole School Reads "The Truth about Truman School"

Truman_schoolIn celebration of National Bullying Prevention Month, Edgar Award–winning author Dori Hillestad Butler discusses her anti-bullying school visit program.

My book, The Truth about Truman School, is a story of middle school cyberbullying as seen through the eyes of the bully, the bullied, and the bystanders. I’m proud of this book because there aren’t many books for fifth–eighth graders that look at bullying from multiple points of view, but I’m especially proud of the school visit program I offer to schools that have done all-grade or all-school reads of this book.

It started with a school in Colorado. A counselor there wrote to tell me her school had a cyberbullying problem. But she’d read my book and she wanted the whole school to read it. And then she wanted me to visit the school, do a presentation, and lead some discussion groups.

So I did. I talked about the book, how I came to be an author, my writing process, and cyberbullying in general. It was great!

Over the next year, I visited four or five other schools.

Then came the school in Missouri. There was something different about this school. It’s not that the kids were inattentive. In some ways, they were more attentive than other kids. But I had a pretty interactive program and these kids weren’t interacting.

I found out later that a girl at the other middle school in town had recently committed suicide. And she’d been cyberbullied. As an author going into that school to talk about cyberbullying, it would’ve been helpful to know that before my presentation.

I had one more visit planned for that year. I didn’t want to be caught unaware again, so I sent ahead a survey for the kids. I asked them what kinds of bullying situations they’d experienced and observed at their school. Then I graphed the responses and made them part of my presentation.

This turned out to be a pretty incredible school visit. Not only did sending the survey ahead of time show me what I was going into, I think it contributed to a deeper visit overall. I wasn’t just talking to the kids about cyberbullying in the abstract. I’d found a way to make the subject personal. And the data I collected was also useful to the teachers and administrators. So I continued doing the survey.

Then came the school in Maryland. When I shared their survey results, the kids started clapping. That had never happened before.

I waited for one of the teachers to say or do something. But no one did. I eventually stopped and asked, “Why are you all clapping?” A boy responded, “Because those numbers are really good.”

Honestly, the numbers were “good.” There weren’t a lot of kids in that school who were being bullied. But the cheering still made me uncomfortable. So I said, “I see. Most of you are feeling really proud of your school right now.” Nods all around.

Then I said, “Well . . . that’s great if you’re part of the 70% who have never been bullied. But what about the 4% who say they’re bullied every day? How do you suppose those kids feel when they hear all this clapping?”

Silence.

I let that silence hang there . . . until one brave girl slowly raised her hand. She said, “I’m not proud. Because if there’s even one kid who gets bullied at our school, that’s one too many.”

That was the moment I knew I had reached those kids. It was one of the best moments I’ve ever had in a school.

"The Book of Three," 50 Years Later

Book_of_threeFifty years after its release, Noa Wheeler, Henry Holt and Co (BYR) editor, reflects on the lasting power of The Book of Three, the first installment of Lloyd Alexander's epic Chronicles of Prydain. A new 50th anniversary edition is now available.

As a kid in the 1990s, I read Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain over and over again, beginning with The Book of Three. That book is fifty years old this year, and it’s worth stopping to wonder: What has made this series last so long? What keeps them holding up so well? I’m certainly not the only kid who was so fond of Prydain—though I suppose I’m the only kid who grew up to edit the 50th anniversary edition.

One of the many things Lloyd Alexander does so wonderfully in his books for kids is his incredible worldbuilding. He does this in several ways, easing us into this unfamiliar world in a way that makes it seem perfectly natural.

In The Book of Three, Alexander uses Taran’s impulsiveness and naïveté to great effect, to help paint the world around him. We know right away that this is a world unlike ours. The book begins with Taran wanting desperately to make a sword: “Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes.” It’s clear that this is a world in which it’s perfectly normal to make swords (as well as horseshoes), but that Taran isn’t quite there yet—here, as throughout the book, he wants to leap ahead of his abilities and do the difficult, complicated things before mastering the simple ones.

Shortly after we learn that this world is one with swords and battles, we also learn that it’s one with magic, when Taran goes in to talk to Dallben. Dallben discusses the Land of the Dead, and Taran burns himself by touching the magical Book of Three. When he goes to get lotion for his blistered hands, he and Coll discuss Hen Wen, the oracular pig who is Taran’s charge (and the impetus for the adventure to follow, when Taran goes looking for her after her escape). These magical things are presented when they fit into the story, and it is clear to the reader that these are the facts of this world.

The characters in The Book of Three do their bit to make this world fully realized, too. Many of them have their own bits of magic: Eilonwy with her magic bauble, Fflewdur Flam with his harp which snaps a string when he embellishes the truth, Gurgi—somewhere between animal and human—with his unquenchable desire for “crunchings and munchings.”

During the course of the book, Lloyd Alexander also deftly gives us information about the physical form of Prydain. Three different people (Gwydion, Fflewdur, and Medwyn) draw three different maps at various stages of the journey, helping us keep track of our heroes and the path they follow.

All these things seem a natural part of the story—Alexander builds this world slowly, so that we hardly know he’s creating it around us. And the result is a world unlike any other, built loosely on Welsh myth but very clearly its own entity, which has spoken to many generations of children and continues to do so today.

As a kid I was fascinated by Prydain; as an adult I am no less so. In celebration of its fifty years in print, the new anniversary edition of The Book of Three comes with a gorgeous cover (an homage to the original), and also has extra material in it, including a new introduction by Newbery Honor-winning author Shannon Hale and a short story from Prydain.

If you’re a fan of Prydain, join us in celebrating this year by rereading these wonderful books—and if you’ve never been to Prydain, this is a perfect time to open The Book of Three and visit.

Annie Barrows on the Magic of the Character Miri

Magic in the mixAnnie Barrows, author of new book Magic in the Mix, the sequel to The Magic Half, explains why writing the character of Miri proved particularly enchanting.

Miri leaned against the doorframe, thinking, again, about the mysterious purposes of magic. Had she and Molly, perhaps, performed some service in 1918 without knowing it? Was it possible, for instance, that their presence had kept some tragic event from happening? Each tiny thing that touched them was changed a little, she supposed. She allowed her imagination to run free: there was her foot treading on a loose tree root, pressing it a fraction of an inch farther into the ground, inclining the tree by some microscopic amount in a new direction. So later—years later—when a great storm ripped the tree from the ground, that same microscopic slant would insure that it fell away from, not onto, the innocent bystander sheltering under its branches, thus saving a life destined for—what?—something noble. Hmm. Maybe. Vague, but better than nothing. “Molly?” She leaned out of her brothers’ doorway and yodeled up toward her own, “I have an idea!” —from Magic in the Mix

One of the reasons I wrote Magic in the Mix, the sequel to The Magic Half, was that I love writing Miri. Of course, I love writing all my characters, but Miri is extra-special because her brain is like mine, by which I mean it’s prone to wandering off on strange tangents, like, for instance, magic. I think about magic a lot. I always have. When I was a kid, I thought about it because I hoped it would happen to me, but now I think about it because I write books about it.

The question Miri ponders in this passage—how her time-traveling presence might change the past—is a big magical issue I’ve been contemplating all my life. The problem is that none of us knows how our actions—even the most trivial flick of the finger—will affect another person, and the result is that one hour of time traveling could produce a nearly infinite number of changes to the world, some of which would then affect the time traveling.

Let’s say, for instance, that I happen to be wearing a particularly ugly flowered shirt on the day that I get transported through time to New York City in 1925. Now, maybe I run to a department store so I can buy myself a nice 1925 outfit. But maybe I’m not quite fast enough, and a guy named Ned, walking along the sidewalk, sees my ugly flowered shirt and quickly crosses the street so he doesn’t have to look at it for another second. Well, that doesn’t seem like a big deal, does it? But what if Ned was about to run into his cousin Thomas, who was about to say, “Ned! Long time, no see! Why don’t you come over to dinner tonight? Flossie’s sister will be there!” And what if Flossie’s sister is the woman Ned is going to marry? Now, because of my ugly shirt, Ned crosses the street, doesn’t run into Thomas, doesn’t go over to their house for dinner, doesn’t meet Flossie’s sister, and doesn’t marry her. That’s terrible! I’ve ruined everything! But wait, it could be even worse! What if Flossie’s sister and Ned are my grandparents? Now I don’t get born! And if I don’t get born, I’m not there to stop the meeting between Flossie’s sister and Ned, which means it happens, which means—I get born!

Honestly, a person could go crazy thinking about magic. But I can’t stop thinking about it, and I never will. And neither will Miri, because her brain is like mine. Which makes sense, because I thought of her. Or, possibly, she thought of me.