Thursday, March 20, 2008

Kids' Writers for Writers w/ Kids

So this isn't about politics, but if you voted for George W. Bush you're probably not going to be interested in this list; you're going to want to read your kids books with highly discernable messages, like this, 'We're proud that our tax dollars kill Muslims.' Something like that. Or scratch the story. Just read your kids that sentence, over and over. If they want to know what taxes are, you can say, 'Our hard earned money that the Government should never take from us unless it is inspired to kill Muslims.'


When my daughter was born, five years ago, I started seeing there was a problem RE: kids' books. They sucked. The writing was often dumb. A lot of the time, the stories weren't stories at all. I knew and liked Dr. Seuss, but I found that I couldn't read One Fish Two Fish every day. "This one has a little star. This one has a little car...." Not good. Prose was needed.

I had a couple of friends w/ kids and asked them but found that they hadn't got much further than I had in solving the problem. "Sendak," they said. Of course, Sendak. But what else?

Well, five years have gone by. I spent most of that time in Santa Cruz, which has lots of book stores, one w/ a huge quality used kids' book section (Logos). I'd take N out in the Baby Bjorn when she was tiny, and we'd find authors.

1. Tim Egan

I bought his first book, "Friday Night at Hodges Cafe," at Logos. He does about one a year, and he's great. His characters are usually personified animals, and he does the art in watercolors that are warm and rich. Babies like it. His prose is crisp, natural, and alive w/ his sense of humor, which blurbists call strange or quirky but which just seems good to me. My daughter's favorite is probably "The Trial of Cardigan Jones," which is about how townspeople come to some hasty conclusions about a newcomer, an oafish Moose. It's got a wigged judge with a gavel that comes into play. My daughter likes that word, 'gavel.' There are too many other great Tim Egan books to list here, but quickly: "The Blunder of the Rogues," Pulp Fiction for your five-year old; "Burnt Toast on Davenport Street," a messed-up three-wishes scenario; and "Serious Farm," about a dude who won't smile.

2. Eve Bunting

She's better known than Egan, but possible to overlook, and you don't want to overlook her. She did "Fly Away Home," which is for older kids (5-9) and about as close as a picture book will come to a great short story (It's about a homeless father and son who live at the airport, pretending to passengers, trying to go unnoticed; it's narrated by the kid and, though not sentimental, is pretty crushing). Much different is her "Night of the Gargoyles," which is a modernist-style (non-rhyming) poem. From memory here: "…for there is no place inside their stone / for laughs to somersault…" David Wiesner, a Caldecott-winning illustrator, does the b/w charcoal artwork. This book has a 'cool' factor, apparently: N was really excited to take it to school for show-and-tell.

3. Jon Agee

His new one is called "Nothing." His artwork has evolved over the years; in the newer books, he's working in sketch-mode, shaping his characters in an intuitive-seeming way that reminds me of both Madeline and R. Crumb. The plots of his stories are tight and switching and always interesting. In "Nothing," a top-bald antiques dealer is sweeping up his empty shop, having just sold his last item, and a rich woman comes in saying 'What a nice shop' and asking what's for sale. The dealer says, "Uh, nothing." And she goes, "Wonderful!" Because she has everything but nothing. The sequence of events that this sets off is absurd but not without relevance, if you know what I mean…. Other great new Agee books: "Terrific," about a shipwrecked schlub; and "Milo's Hat," about an incompetent magician. Other great older ones: "The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau," an art-comes-to-life tale; and the "The Return of Freddy LeGrand," which is hard to describe but about a French pilot who might be something like the dude who first crossed the English Channel…..

Gotta go, more later if you want….