Posted in children's books

Where’s My Happily Ever After, I Ask You?


Disney Villains

Studio Fun International has come out with yet another twist on Disney’s fairytale franchise.  It’s called “Disney Villains: The Evilest of Them All,” and, you guessed it – it’s come out just in time for Halloween.  Ok, that’s my cynic coming out.  I tried to hold onto that point of view, because hey, I disdain all empires that try to control our relationship to the incredibly rich world of fairy tales and their character tropes.  But then I actually spent some time with this book…..and changed my mind.  It’s a deceptively sophisticated piece of material culture.

First of all, the book covers all the Disney villains we love to hate: the Evil Queen from Snow White, the wicked stepmother from Cinderella, the wicked Vizier from Aladdin, Mother Gothel from Rapunzel, Ursula from The Little Mermaid…you get the picture. Kind of makes you want to binge watch all those old movies, doesn’t it? Like a blast from the past.

Only this book brings the whole kit and caboodle smack into the present, thank you very much. Each section features a villain, and reads like a LinkedIn profile. There is a place for Prior Work Experience (such as “Sorceress of repute throughout the surrounding lands and kingdoms,” “Swindler,” or “Fairest in the Land”); Education (“Studied alchemy, transmorgrification, and advanced hexes”), Likes (Infinite Power, Unquestioning Obedience) and Dislikes (Meddling princesses, Banishment). Pretty hilarious from an adult perspective.  I’m not so sure kids will be able to appreciate this aspect quite as much — adults are the ones joined at the hip to LinkedIn. But they’ll still get the humor, for sure, and it’s a cunning way to introduce this aspect of modern life to those too young to actually get it.  Each chapter also contains humorous dialogue between the Evil One and his or her henchmen. The wicked stepmother chats it up with the awful stepsisters; Jafar discusses the scope of his powers with the ever-sarcastic Iago, etc.  Through these conversations we come to know that each villain sees his or herself as the hero of the story! They refuse to admit defeat, and describe themselves as the victim, every time. Readers will delight in realizing that they know the truth about these villains – who somehow have their whole story wrong! Having the backstory of these baddies, told from their point of view, is a current trend (think Wicked, Disney-style.) It’s a clever way to get young readers used to engaging with narrative in this way.

Kudos to book designers Kara Kenna and Mariel Lopez-Cotero; the physicality of the book itself is also modern, and fun. The back cover copy mentions  “gatefolds” to explore – pages that are folded up on themselves, and open up to reveal very different illustrations.   In fact, open them up and the gatefolds reveal the true evil nature of the villain. It’s very cool. There are also more traditional lift-the-flaps scattered throughout.

All in all, readers will have to do a little work to figure things out, no slight accomplishment in the often stereotyped world of Disney characters.  My inner cynic is appeased.  While the characters themselves remain true to form, the innovative narrative and physical structure of the book is creative and engaging.

Disney Villains: The Evilest of Them All  Written by Rachael Upton                                  ISBN 978-0-7944-4160-9


Posted in children's books

Thomas the Tank Engine Gets Woke

 Thomas the Tank Engine turns to an unlikely friend for script help: the United Nations

In an effort to update Thomas the Tank Engine, Mattel is collaborating with the United Nations on a cable television series “Thomas & Friends: Big World! Big Adventures!”   The hope is that the new show, which features Inclusive characters, gender equality, and other relevant messages, will shore up flagging sales of the brand by appealing to a more modern sensibility.

Interestingly, the story lines discussed between teams from Mattel and the UN were based on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. These consist of 17 objectives regarding global challenges such as poverty hunger, inequality, pollution, climate change, and injustice that it hopes to achieve by 2030.

They settled on five of the SDG’s: education, sustainable communities, responsible consumption, gender equality and healthy ecosystems. Several male characters were replace with female ones, which should help to attract more girls.

This seems like a great idea. If it works to revitalize the brand, then it will be a business model that works to educate future generations about super important issues. Everybody wins. The trick will be creating storylines that are fun and interesting to little kids. Time will tell.  The LA Times reported on this fascinating collaboration, referring to it as a “trial balloon of sorts for a new…form of entertainment, one in which global activism and commercial Hollywood are entwined.”

Blending education and entertainment is not really a new idea. In fact, it goes all the way back to the beginnings of children’s publishing. In 1744, John Newbery, who was the most prominent publisher of children’s books in the 18th century, wrote and published what is considered to be the first book specifically created for children. It was, as the publisher stated, “intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly.” There was a letter for each from Jack the Giant Killer, about the need to be good, to do the right thing, to improve their character. There were lots of rhymes and songs, and after each one a related moral. Along with each book came a ball for the boys, and a pincushion for the girls. (There is the first reference ever to the game of baseball in this book. Pretty cool!) Gender typecasting aside, this was definitely for both educational and entertainment purposes.

Should children’s books be for entertainment or education? It’s not a new question. People have been debating it for centuries.  In 1791, radical British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft wrote Original Stories from Real Life, with Conversations calculated to Regulate the Affections and Form the Mind in Truth and Goodness. Since this was born out of a culture bent on creating character and morality, these were the lessons highlighted. But it is parallel to planting seeds of global activism in a child’s mind. Such an approach is much more than entertainment.

Wollstonecraft is known for writing the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a political treatise on the rights and education of women, in 1792.  Her work would fit right in with the UN’s initiative for women.  While she wrote on truth and goodness, and Thomas the Tank Engine’s new initiative is related to global activism, the underlying arena is the same: how do we behave as moral creatures, as good people. This is something that we can all relate to, and strive to impart to our kids, regardless of our historical context.

Posted in children's books

Books for the Holidays — What Kids Really Want

Jessie Willcox Smith, “The New Book”  1915

What do most kids age 6-17 want to find in the books they read?  Do they want to laugh, explore places they’ve never been, or simply be made to think and feel new things?  A little of everything, as it turns out. Scholastic, the global children’s publishing, education and media company, has created a printable, mobile-friendly 2017 holiday gift guide based on top children’s titles and matching them with the kinds of things kids look for themselves when choosing something to read.  Research on these most sought-after characteristics, as well as a plethora of other fascinating information, was carried out by Scholastic and put into their Kids & Family Reading Report™.  Check out the facts and figures, and download the link to the publishing giant’s research-based holiday gift books here.

The holidays are a perfect time to create or add to your family library.  Enjoy!


Posted in about childhood, children's books, fairy tales

Beauty and the Beast, Ages 2-102

Have you seen the new live action Beauty and the Beast? The chances are good that you have; according to Forbes the film earned $6.9 million on its second Monday alone. This isn’t really surprising. The landscape of fairy tale is a map we all know so well. Close your eyes and you will see the contours laid out clearly, at times lovingly spiritual in its universality, at others chillingly human in its earthy specificity. There is the castle, shining in the background, flags flapping in the wind. Then there is the dark and murky wood, where wolves and bears and other frightening creatures roam – and where you must go to face your destiny. Upon this landscape live the many stock characters that breathe life into the tales: the cruel witch, the fairy godmother, the lonely Beast, the despairing princess, the courageous prince.   In this land Magic runs rampant and injustice is fought until finally the balance of life is restored. Our collective unconscious stores this map, these characters, and their stories. We seem never to tire of recreating them time and time again.  Most of us were introduced to fairy tales in childhood, some of us reading large heavily illustrated books ourselves, or having them read to us.

To continue that tradition, Silver Dolphin Books has come out with a series of board books for very young children, called “First Stories,” from which I had the pleasure of reading three fairy tales: Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, and Rapunzel. Each one is a little gem, charmingly illustrated in bright colors and adorable, detailed illustrations.

Chunky and sturdy, the board books are interactive, with tabs to push, pull, and slide. Pull up on one tab and Cinderella’s rags are transformed into a beautiful ball gown; pull down on another, and the Beast appears in his castle door. You can shimmy the witch up Rapunzel’s hair as she leans out of her tower, or push Cinderella back and forth as she sweeps the kitchen – and then, a few pages later, slide her foot up to the glass slipper! This is Exciting stuff.

Amazingly, each tale is pared down to only four rhyming couplets. Silver Dolphin did a good job picking out those plot points, and somehow the stories manage to come across, in no small part because the illustrations by Dan Taylor are richly detailed, in a deceptively sophisticated way.  And not to worry about being too frightening for little ones; while there are scary moments — these are fairy tales we are talking about — the colors are bright and there is a cheerful atmosphere maintained throughout. The iconography of the fairy tale landscape is all there, giving your toddler the means to start their very own map of the enchanted world we all love.

For the older child, or just the young at heart, comes a gorgeous coloring book of Beauty and the Beast, with quotations from the original story by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, first published as a novel in 1740 and later abridged and rewritten into the tale we know by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Ornate and lavish, the exquisite drawings, based on the wonderful work of English artist Walter Crane, are reminiscent of 18th century France.  Once I saw it I immediately went out and bought a set of colored pencils. It will take a while to get through the whole coloring book, but who’s complaining? Any girl –big or little –, who loves to color, will sigh with happiness when they get their hands on this one. Just make sure you have colored pencils or crayons at hand – they won’t want to wait to get started.

Beauty and the Beast Coloring Book put out by Silver Dolphin Press
Beauty and the Beast Coloring Book
Posted in children's books

How the 20,699-word iTunes T&Cs became this year’s hottest graphic novel | Books | The Guardian

Witness the growing form of the graphic novel. I love the originality of this project!

Snoopy contemplates pre-orders and the Hulk navigates iTunes Match … here Robert Sikoryak discusses his ingenious take on Apple’s Terms and Conditions

Source: How the 20,699-word iTunes T&Cs became this year’s hottest graphic novel | Books | The Guardian

Posted in children's books




This is my first post after the long, delicious, deep and richly emotional holidays with my big and boisterous family.  Ah, to write again.  The above link will take you to a review of the movie Hidden Figures (with a nod to the book on which the film is based).  I found it moving and inspiring.  It resonates with the national conversation on so many levels – and left me feeling hopeful, that our higher selves can and will triumph, even as we shimmer and shake on the edge of despair on our way to making this world a better place.  Again, the world of children’s literature; with its books, blogs and reviews, holds — at least for me — an unwavering candle up to the heavens.

Gonna have to see this movie, and soon.


Posted in children's books

Interview with Henry H. Neff



I had the good fortune to take a master writing class with Henry Neff at this year’s 2016 SCBWI Carolinas Conference, “The Power of Story.”  The class was on world building, and boy is he a master at it.  His much-anticipated latest novel, “Impyrium” came out in mid-October, and Henry was kind enough to agree to give me an interview in the midst of what I am sure was a whirlwind of a month.  I loved the book, and will be reviewing it as soon as NaNoWriMo is done 🙂  In the meantime, please enjoy this interview.  It gives honest insight into this very successful and relevant author, who also happens to be a really nice guy.

Q: You are such a wonderful world-builder.  Where does your affinity to this come from?

Thank you. I think it’s a combination of having loved immersive fictional worlds while growing up, and later acquiring a history teacher’s perspective on how to analyze civilizations at specific points in time. The former fueled my interests and imagination; the latter gave me tools to start building worlds of my own.

Q: Why do you write fantasy?

A variety of reasons. First and foremost, I really like fantasy. No one should write a genre that they don’t enjoy. The other reason is that fantasy presents challenges I find fun and engaging. It’s one of those genres that fools people into thinking it’s easy (I can just make stuff up!) but it comes with traps that make it difficult to write well. Two of the biggest are magic and, funnily enough, world building. If you’re not careful, magic can be overdone and lose its impact, unbalance the world, or create gaping plot holes. With world building, many writers invest considerable time and energy in their worlds. That’s not a bad thing, but it can cause some writers to become Tour Guides from Hell where they insist on showing the reader every aspect of the world they’ve so lovingly created. I enjoy the challenge of writing fantasy that’s got some grit, realism, and leaves you wanting more.

Q: How important is it to you to follow your own instincts as a writer?

You never want to ignore your instincts but it’s important to recognize not all your instincts are good ones. We all have blind spots when it comes to our writing style, character development, and plot structure. In my case, I have a tendency to lean too dark, to make things too bleak for my characters, etc. There are times when that makes sense, but I’ve come to realize that I tend to veer in that direction like a wonky shopping cart. Being aware of that tendency helps me keep it in check. That said, I do think it’s important to trust your instincts in situations where you’ve heard conflicting feedback and need to make a decision. I try very hard to listen to my editors, digest their suggestions, and act upon them. 95% of the time they’re right. But there are situations where I simply don’t see it the same way—particularly when it comes to quieter scenes that focus on character development rather than plot advancement. In those scenarios I trust my instincts and I’ve never regretted it.

Q: What was your favorite childhood book?

Ack! So many to choose from! Some that come to mind include: The Ant and Bee books, Where the Wild Things Are, Harold and the Purple Crayon, The Fourteen Bears, The Spooky Old Tree, Charlotte’s Web, Danny the Champion of the World, The Soup books, Tales from a Fourth Grade Nothing, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Dark is Rising, and Sherlock Holmes. Yes, I realize that answer is a cop out 😉

Q: If you were on a train going across America at midnight, conversing with your favorite authors (from any time period)  – who would those authors be?

Tolkien, Maurice Sendak, Patrick O’Brian (author of my favorite historical fiction novels), Ursula LeGuin, and Susan Cooper

Q: What is your writing Kryptonite?  

Momentum. Once I lose it, it’s difficult to get back—particularly on rough drafts.

Q: As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal (homunculus J?)

Ooh! I’d choose a lymrill (a creature from my books). They’re tough, lovable, and demanding — the perfect muse.

Q: There is a spiritual undertone to the magic in Impryium. Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?

I think there’s something spiritual about finding your passion and acting upon it. To some degree, I think that’s true of magic within IMPYRIUM. Part of Hazel’s journey is understanding herself, embracing who she is, and that does play a role in her ability to tap and channel the magic within her. So, yes, there probably is a spiritual/reflective component of magic within my stories. It’s definitely not just supernatural science—it comes from somewhere deeper and soulful.

Q: Hazel is a very well-developed character. What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?

I wanted Hazel’s character, persona, and dialogue to resonate as authentic. We’ve all read stories where the author’s attempt to portray a character or demographic fell short. I didn’t want that to be the case and really tried to put myself in Hazel’s shoes—particularly in situations where I thought her reaction (both inner and outer) would differ from someone like Hob’s. Her relationship with her sisters really helped bring that out — the dialogue between them flowed very naturally.

Q: Dàme Rascha has a very human dimension somehow to her character.  Was she based on any real person or persons in particular?

I enjoyed writing for Rascha. She might be cranky and demanding, but she also loves Hazel like a daughter. Ironically, I think Rascha’s “human” characteristics are heightened by the fact that she’s not human. Vyes look like wolves, like some sort of fairy tale monster and there are times I make a point of emphasizing that they have a feral quality that can be unsettling. But when we see that “monster” speaking quietly with Hazel or giving a grudging laugh, it registers as surprisingly human. Rascha isn’t based on any one individual, but I’m sure she’s an amalgam from people in my subconscious. I think most characters are.

Q: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Write rough drafts quickly. To this day, I take too long with mine and I really don’t think there’s much benefit. Just get the story down, step away from it, and start revising. It’s always easier to react to something that exists than to try and pen perfection as you go. The latter takes too long and it doesn’t result in better writing—just slower submissions.

There you go.  (I can totally use that last piece of advice.) Thanks so much, Henry.  We look forward to to more of the series, so hurry up — I’m not sure I can wait too long for the next installment.