Friday, December 21, 2012

Comfort Books

In times of grief and sorrow, we turn to comfort food. Chicken soup, hot chocolate, chamomile tea, ice cream. But how do we feed our souls? With comfort books.

Now is the time to pull out your family's favorite books: Charlotte's Web, The Little Prince, Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows. Their association with happier days comforts us during this time of distress. These are books the entire family--including teenagers--can gather together to read and reread.

Remember that your children's responses will vary, depending on their age and how much they are able to process of the events in Newtown last Friday. The school psychologist at the Bank Street School for Children, Dr. Anne Santa, encourages parents and teachers to reassure children that home and school are two of the safest places they can be. Hold your youngest on your lap and sit close together on the couch: make new memories with good books. 

A few recent favorites include Masterpiece by Elise Broach, which features a friendship that approaches Wilbur and Charlotte's. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and Starry River of the Sky, both by Grace Lin, weave together a quest tale with Chinese folklore, lushly illustrated. Callie's close friendship with a grandfather no one else seems to understand lies at the core of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly; the author also wrote Return to the Willows, a "sequel" to The Wind in the Willows.

Don't be surprised if your child asks for The Tale of Despereaux and Bridge to Terabithia--two novels that help combat fear and process loss from a safe distance. A mouse who bravely entered the dungeon and emerged triumphant, and a boy who honors his friend who has died give us hope. Let your children choose what they wish to read, and then be there to listen, to answer their questions and to hold them close.

This article first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Friday, December 14, 2012

One Stitch at a Time

Gennifer Albin

Gennifer Albin wrote Crewel on a dare from her mother-in-law.

Okay, not a dare maybe, but rather a gentle urging on a regular basis. When Gennifer Albin's daughter was eight weeks old, her mother-in-law called. She said, "I was thinking, you always talk about writing books, and I'm going to ask you every time I see you how your book is coming." Albin met her "ridiculously supportive" husband in high school, so she's known her mother-in-law a very long time. "She knew I'd take it as a challenge," Albin told me in an interview. So Albin went to the library every day and in 70-minute intervals (that’s how long she was allowed to use the computer before getting booted off for other patrons), she wrote Crewel.

Embroidering the Earth's Mantle
The inspiration for her story is an image from an alterpiece, Embroidering the Earth's Mantle by Remedios Varo, in which women embroider in a tower removed from the rest of society. This idea that the fabric of a world, the elements of a tapestry, the phases of a story may be stitched together, one strand at a time, 70 minutes per session, is a powerful one to take into the New Year. 

Albin also used the tools of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, which is November). But don't wait until November to start! Use the tools today. 

Friday, December 7, 2012

Anthem to Uniqueness

Michael Hearst 
By his own admission, Michael Hearst, author of Unusual Creatures, is attracted to the uncommon. He collects unique instruments and plays them. He collects unusual creatures and composes for them. No words, just melodies. (And by "collects," I mean collects and researches information about them, not that he collects the actual animals; though Hearst does collect the actual musical instruments.) 

The format of his book invites kids to dip in and out or read straight through. When I got a chance to interview him, he said the design was inspired by Safari Cards, which he collected as a kid. All of his interests inform his book.

Hearst said that hearing Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saens was one of the reasons he went to music school. "That gave me the idea of writing pieces of music inspired by the animals, and even by their sounds," he said. He heard Carnival performed by the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, with poems by Ogden Nash to go with the songs. When he performs the 14 songs from the CD Songs for Unusual Creatures* (which preceded the book), he also reads the poems he wrote, inspired by the animals.

If you listen to "Blobfish," for instance, you can hear its blobbiness in the music. He used two unusual instruments for the song: the contrabasson, which he said is a very deep oboe--"the lowest you can get, from the reed family"--and the tubbax. He explained, "I wanted it to sound like two blobfish talking to each other." Michael Hearst is also passionate about saving these creatures, many of whom are endangered (but he saves his gentle proselytizing for the endnotes). A Renaissance man, Hearst smoothly integrates art and science through his music, his writing and his research. 

*Note: All 14 creatures featured on the CD are also included in the book; although the CD is not included with the book, you can hear a preview (and order it) on the author's Web site.

Photo credit: Chris Smith Photography