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Exclusive Q&A with Cece Bell

Cece Bell, author/illustrator of the graphic novel memoir "El Deafo," talks about her husband's early enthusiasm for her artwork, and how it led her to a career in children's books. ElDeafo

I wouldn't be an author if I hadn't been an illustrator first, and I wouldn't be an illustrator if I hadn't met Tom Angleberger first.

Tom and I were both students at the College of William and Mary in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. I was a driven SuperStudent who majored in English and took copious notes and believed that an “A” was absolutely without a doubt the only acceptable grade one should ever receive. Tom was a laid-back PrettyGoodStudent who majored in Fine Arts and took no notes and believed “B”s were perfectly acceptable. I did allow myself one or two “non-academic” art classes, for fun. Tom saw my artwork and liked it. (He also liked me.) As I became increasingly frustrated with my major (reading books from The Canon and analyzing books from The Canon and writing papers about books in The Canon), Tom encouraged me to switch majors and join him in the Fine Arts department. When I finally did, I threw myself into it so completely that I became a SuperStudent of Art. I had so much fun making all that stuff, even though I had no idea what I was going to do with my life as an artist. Could I really make a living having that much fun?

Most of my artwork in college was bright, funny, and weird. I decided that illustration was the right direction for me. Tom and I got married (turned out I liked him, too!), and we headed off to Ohio immediately after our wedding so that I could study illustration at Kent State University. Tom worked in a factory and as a newspaper reporter to put me through school and pay all our bills. Seriously, if that ain't true love, I don't know what is.

I eventually became a freelance illustrator who really, really wanted to illustrate children's books. But no one would hire me. The only way to illustrate children's books, I realized, would be to write the books myself. So that's what I did. Luckily, it turned out that I like writing every bit as much as I like drawing. Using both words and pictures to tell funny stories is just about my favorite thing on Earth (other than Tom).

My first book was "Sock Monkey Goes to Hollywood," published by Candlewick Press in 2003. I've done a lot of books since then, but my graphic novel memoir "El Deafo" is definitely the Big Boy of them all. It's about my childhood hearing loss and my subsequent feelings of isolation and loneliness. It's also about how I used my super-powerful hearing aid to impress my classmates. And of course there's a crush on a boy, a quest for a true friend, and plenty of hilarious misunderstandings. This book is the first book in which I acknowledge my deafness outright, and it was every bit of it cathartic.

Tom, as most of us know, went on to write and illustrate the Origami Yoda series, and lots of other great books, too. I will always remember, gratefully, that when I first met Tom, he didn't seem to mind one bit that I wore hearing aids. On the contrary, he thought I was cute! I will forever be indebted to him for encouraging me early on, and for helping me find my life's work.

Sneak Peek: "Amulet Book 6"

Get a special sneak peek at a gorgeous double page spread from New York Times Best-Selling author Kazu Kibuishi's "Amulet #6: Escape from Lucien."

Amulet Spread Pages 104-105

Author Q&A: Dav Pilkey, Captain Underpants Creator

Captain_underpantsDav Pilkey takes us behind the creation of Captain Underpants. The latest book in the series, Captain Underpants and the Tyrannical Retaliation of the Turbo Toilet 2000, is out on August 26. 

Which characters from your books are the most similar to you? George and Harold are both based on me when I was in elementary school. Like George and Harold, I was always getting in trouble with one authority figure or another when I was a kid. My troubles usually came from trying to entertain the classroom (with either my comics or my silly behavior). But unlike George and Harold, I don’t think I actually saved the world very often (maybe just once or twice).

Did you like to read as a kid? Actually, no. I had a lot of reading problems when I was a kid. I still remember feeling dumb because I couldn’t read very well, and I’ll never forget the torture of having to look through hundreds of library books trying to find one that seemed interesting to me. I usually settled on a book that had lots of pictures (more pictures equaled less text), and short chapters (I was such a slow reader and would often feel discouraged when I’d spend an hour suffering through a book without even finishing a whole chapter). When I began writing the Captain Underpants series, I tailor-made these books to suit all of my childhood “requirements”:

1) They had to be funny.

2) They had to have either robots or monsters in them (preferably both).

3) They had to have tons of illustrations (I made sure there was at least one on every page).

4) They had to have short chapters (many of them are only one or two pages long).

5) They had to be at least 100 pages long so they would qualify for book reports.

What inspires you the most? I think most of the stories are inspired by memories from my childhood—by the feelings of helplessness and frustration I felt (and I’m sure most kids feel) when I was constantly surrounded by adults who were either mean, dumb, or unfair (and sometimes all three). “Kid empowerment” is a very strong theme in my books.

What inspired you to write about Captain Underpants? He was a character I created in 1974 when I was in the second grade. I got in trouble constantly for making Captain Underpants comic books at school and disrupting the classroom with them. One teacher, after angrily ripping up one of my comic books, told me I’d better start taking my studies more seriously because I couldn’t spend the rest of my life making silly books!

What was your favorite book or author as a child? A Fish Out of Water by Helen Palmer and P. D. Eastman, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, and Georgie and the Robbers by Robert Bright. Those were the books I remember reading over and over, and I would often grab a stack of paper and try to draw the characters.

The book that influenced me the most as a child was The Children in the Jungle by Leif Krantz and Ulf Lofgren. It’s been out of print for a long time, but this book had a direct influence on many of my books, from When Cats Dream to The Adventures of Ook and Gluk, Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future. There’s even a three-word sentence from The Children in the Jungle that I have used in every Captain Underpants epic novel.

What children’ books writers have inspired you as an adult? As an adult, I fell in love with the books of James Marshall (George and Martha) and Arnold Lobel (Frog and Toad). I owe so much to the influence of these two wonderful artists and their gentle humor.

Jack Gantos & Lane Smith on Middle Grade Must-Reads

JoeypigzaThe Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza, the last book in Newbery Award-winner Jack Gantos’ Joey Pigza series, is out September 2. The series has racked up some impressive accolades, including a National Book Award finalist and a Newbery Honor. Just in time for the series’ conclusion comes a fresh look for the first four titles, with new covers by Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator Lane Smith. Jack and Lane collaborate on a list of essential novels for young readers.

Jack Gantos’ List
Half Magic
by Edward Eager; illustrated by N. M. Bodecker: This book is everlasting magic in the hands of a reader. You can’t put it down until you finish it. And once the book is finished, the story is with you for the rest of your life.

The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden; illustrated by Garth Williams: Chester the cricket, Tucker Mouse, Harry Cat, Mario Bellini—these characters live forever in the train tunnels under Times Square. I dare you to read this book slowly—but I doubt if you can do it. You’ll be turning the pages faster than a speeding train.

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh: This book revealed to me the secret to being a better writer. Basically, Harriet taught me that it was okay to be sneaky and overhear other people’s conversations and write them down. This book is a must-read for every young writer who dreams of seeing their name in print on a published book.

The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois: This quiet book of hot air ballooning reveals an explosive story. How does one man float away on one giant hot air balloon only to to be found again with twenty one? This tall tale takes an imagination the size of the globe to answer that question.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White: You must read this classic novel and join the club of people who are never the same once they finish it. The title of this book gives a clue as to what happens to the reader--you will be trapped in a web of words that will capture your heart.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg: When you think you are not appreciated and you plan to run away from home, pause for a moment and read this book. No, it will not scare you (maybe a little) or deter you. It will, however, open a wondrous world of possibilities for you to imagine. Tip: On your way out the door stick this book in your back pocket.

Lane Smith’s List
True Grit
by Charles Portis: I love the stylized dialog. I love the gumption of the book’s protagonist, 14-year-old Mattie Ross. Roald Dahl says on the back cover, “He [Portis] hasn’t put a wrong foot anywhere.” I agree.

The same could be said of Matilda by Roald Dahl. Wicked. Wicked fun and funny.

The Treehorn Trilogy by Florence Parry Heide, illustrated by Edward Gorey: I can’t say enough about these three books collected under one cover. The Shrinking of Treehorn is a classic but I believe the other two are as well. Deadpan dialogue. Deadpan illustrations.

Nick Adams Stories by Ernest Hemingway. Required reading.

The Complete Peanuts by Charles Schulz: I admire Schulz’s simple line work but also admire the lines he puts in his little characters' mouths. Sad. Angry. Poignant. Philosophical.

Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos: C’mon, you didn’t think you could have a list without Gantos? All of his books are great but this one is doubly great because it’s true. An adventure tale, a cautionary tale. Inspiring and inspired. The best writer working in the field today.

Video: Jules Feiffer on His Career and His New Book

Believe it or not, early in his career Jules Feiffer wanted nothing to do with animals. But anyone familiar with his roster of children's books--including illustrating The Phantom Tollbooth to Bark, George, Henry the Dog with No Tail, and most recently Rupert Can Dance--knows that resolve wouldn't last. Watch below as Feiffer discusses how he went from Village Voice cartoonist to beloved creator of animals and more.


Rick Riordan on His Favorite Myth

Percy jacksonRick Riordan, author of the forthcoming release Percy Jackson's Greek Gods, has written multiple books based on Greek mythology, but one myth in particular continues to captivate him: the story of Orpheus. Here he explains why he finds the myth so enduring.

You know what’s weird? After writing ten books of adventures based on Greek mythology, I still haven’t used my favorite myth: the story of Orpheus.

I’m not sure why the Orpheus myth hasn’t made it into Percy Jackson’s world yet. Maybe because it is my favorite, and I’m waiting for the perfect opportunity to use it.

I love Orpheus because he’s a hero who uses music rather than strength or magic weapons. He was so talented he could charm wild animals and even the gods themselves with his golden lyre, but like all heroes, he had his fatal flaw. When his wife Eurydice died, Orpheus charmed his way into the Underworld and made Hades agree to send Eurydice back to the world of the living. Hades had only one condition: Orpheus could not look back at his wife until they both reached the upper world.

Orpheus, riddled with doubt, looked back too soon, and his wife vanished before she could reach the sunlight. The myth is tragic and moving, much like Orpheus’s music. He is a symbol of trusting in one’s own talent, and the perils of overthinking and succumbing to self-doubt.

Maybe one day soon, I’ll incorporate the Orpheus myth into a story you can read on your Kindle. I’ll do my best not to look back or give in to doubt until the story is finished. There’s nothing worse than an idea that vanishes into an apparition before it reaches the daylight!

Sizing Things Up with Anna Kang and Christopher Weyant

You are not smallIn Anna Kang and New Yorker cartoonist Christopher Weyant’s new picture book, You Are (Not) Small, young children learn that size is relative—and that true friendship is always “one size fits all.”

Help kids to keep track of who is big and who is small with a growth chart featuring characters from the book. Click here to access the chart and follow the instructions listed on the PDF.


Nancy Drew and Other Mysteries for Budding Sleuths

SpycatchersMegan Frazer Blakemore, author of the new book The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill, shares some of her favorite mysteries for middle grade readers.

As a child you could often find me slinking around my neighborhood with a pencil and notebook. I would collect clues and ascribe meaning to them. Sometimes I would even leave clues for myself to find--a single glove, perhaps, or a crumpled up note.

Although I was influenced by Harriet M. Welsch and the composition notebook she filled in Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, the biggest inspiration for my detective work was Nancy Drew. Nancy got into far more exciting scrapes than I could ever have hoped to encounter, but remained unflappable. She was independent, but was always able to return to her safe and warm home. I raced through the blue and yellow covered classics. My favorite was The Hidden Staircase, which layered a haunted house onto the mystery, an enticing blurring of genres.

Some of my other favorite mysteries for middle grade readers include:

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg: When I decided to try to write the middle grade novel that would evolve into The Water Castle, this was the first novel I chose to revisit. What I remembered most of it was the way that Claudia and her brother, Jamie, make a life for themselves hiding out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In fact, I had forgotten all about the mystery of the Michelangelo sculpture! The mystery picks up when Claudia and Jamie venture to her house to find out once and for all the mysterious origins of the statue.

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin: The story begins with the death of Samuel Westing. Sixteen heirs, who previously didn’t know they were related to Mr. Westing, are called to hear the reading of his will, which is actually a murder-mystery puzzle. Whoever solves his murder will inherit his fortune. Reading it as an adult you realize what an odd middle grade novel it is. There is only one child character in the book: Turtle Wexler, and yet this book stands the test of time. I think it’s the way that Raskin involves the reader in the mystery, and keeps them guessing right up to the surprise ending.

Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking by Erin Dionne: Moxie’s beloved grandfather may have had a more exciting past than she realized: he used to hide things for a Whitey Bulger-esque mobster. One of his lackeys shows up trying to shake down Moxie for information on where her grandfather hid the gang’s biggest heist: the stolen artwork from the Isabella Stuart Gardner museum. The catch? Moxie’s grandfather suffers from dementia, and even he might not know where the treasure lies. Teaming up with her GPS-loving friend Ollie, Moxie races to find the art before the gangsters do in order to save her grandfather’s good name. I probably would have enjoyed this book for the Gardner Museum connection alone, but it was Moxie who truly won me over.

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead: What I love about Stead’s novels, including the Newbery winning When You Reach Me, is that she carries you along on a lively story, only to offer a gorgeous twist at the end. In Liar & Spy, Georges must leaves his beloved apartment for a smaller place, where he meets Safer, the leader of a “spy club.” Together they work to uncover the dark mystery of one of the building’s other tenants. It is the secrets that Safer is keeping from Georges--and the secret that Georges is keeping from himself--that lend this novel devastating poignancy.

Cari Best's Top 10 Summer Books for Kids

DiggingCari Best, author of A Perfect Day for Digging, rounds up 10 books to keep young ones reading all summer long.

Each of the ten books on the list feels like a good friend, sharing a different experience with me every time we are together. And as I love certain things about each of my friends, I love certain things about each book: the joy of planting a garden; the awe-inspiring wonders of nature; a picnic and a funny dog; being cooled off by the rain on a boiling, hot day; watching a hurricane while safe inside my house; a caterpillar, a butterfly, a firefly, a hummingbird.

I realized after I'd completed my list that more than half the books I'd chosen were written by authors I had met during my time as a children's librarian, an editorial director of a film company that makes movies (and still does) from children's books, and later as an author. I have derived much pleasure from knowing these wonderful people–as well as inspiration–because their writing styles and stories stay with me wherever I go and in whatever I do.

My writing room is very small. I have a window that overlooks a pond with generations of goldfish, frogs, and snapping turtles— all but the turtles are a tasty snack for the great blue heron that stops by daily. I also saw a bobcat once from my window and even a robber who thought no one was home! But mostly the window to the world is in my head. I always have ideas to try and turn into books. And, at the same time, I always want to get outside and ride my bike. Sometimes the two factions argue with each other—writing and riding—but mostly my sweet dog, Jennie, wins out and we go for a walk in any weather. It’s a lot like the family in my book When We Go Walking

Continue reading "Cari Best's Top 10 Summer Books for Kids" »

The Baby-Sitters Club Grows Up

California-diariesAnn M. Martin, author of The Baby-Sitters Club books, discusses her spin-off series, The California Diaries, now available on Kindle for the first time.

Early in 1985 I was getting ready to leave my job as an editor of children’s books at Bantam. I had been working in juvenile publishing for seven years, had seen the publication of the first three of my own books, was lining up freelance work, and was desperately hoping that I could make it as a full-time freelancer and writer. Also, I was desperately trying not to look at the button my mother had recently given me, the one that read I just wander from room to room. It seemed less than helpful at that juncture in my life.

I made call after call, lining up the writing of everything from TV novelizations (Why, yes, thank you, I would love to work on Punky Brewster picture books) to encyclopedia entries. And then Jean Feiwel telephoned. Jean and I had worked together during my years at Scholastic, Inc. She had an idea for a four-book miniseries titled “the Baby-Sitters Club” and wondered if I’d be interested in writing it. So I created the characters of Kristy, Claudia, Stacey, and Mary Anne and wrote one book about each girl. That was supposed to be the end of the series. It had been a nice way to enter the world of full-time writing and had allowed me to throw out the awful button from my mother.

But the Baby-Sitters Club blossomed in ways no one had expected. The books sold well, so Scholastic signed up two more. The sixth appeared on the B. Dalton bestseller list. Two more titles were signed up, and then twelve at a time, a year’s worth, as the books were published at the rate of one per month. Baby-Sitters Little Sister spun off as a series for younger readers. Eventually, there were Baby-Sitters Club Mysteries and Super Specials and Portrait books.

My editors and I brainstormed monthly about adventures for the characters, who had aged one year by the end of book ten. However, since the series showed no signs of slowing down, we’d realized that the main characters would have to remain permanently thirteen. (If they had aged in real time, they would have been twenty-six by the time the series ended in 2000.)

Permanently thirteen and in middle school. It wasn’t something I would have wished for myself. Furthermore, plotting so many, many books for characters who didn’t age and therefore didn’t grow much emotionally was becoming difficult. At the same time, BSC readers were aging, of course, and they wanted to read about the characters facing more mature situations and challenges. On the other hand, new readers were discovering the series for the first time; some of them were as young as six or seven. What to do?

The California Diaries were the solution. Set in California, where Dawn Schafer, introduced in BSC book four, had grown up, they centered on Dawn and her West Coast friends who now attended a school for students in grades eight to twelve. Older readers could follow Dawn into more advanced territory. Same characters, higher reading level, more mature stories. To further distinguish the books from the BSC series, the California Diaries appeared as journals, complete with lined pages and printed in handwriting fonts.

It was wonderful to be able to stretch my wings as a writer and to address the wishes of older BSC readers. The California Diaries, the last of the BSC spin-offs, seemed a fitting way to say good-bye to the characters introduced almost fifteen years earlier.