Friday, November 21, 2014

Author-illustrator Patrick McDonnell.

Happy Friday, friends! As you know, every Friday an author or an illustrator drops by to finish my sentences. Caldecott Honor illustrator Patrick McDonnell is this week's special guest. Hooray! We chatted about Louie, Amelie, school libraries, and picture books. I wrote the words in red, and he wrote the words in black. Thank you, Patrick! 

Here are three things you should know about Little Louie...
  • In an early version, he was a rabbit.
  • He has a sister named Little Louise
  • My middle name is Luigi.
Illustration Credit: Patrick McDonnell 

The idea for A Perfectly Messed-Up Story came from my sketchbook.  I’ve always been fascinated by the way drawing can be so ‘alive’ on the page, for example Ernest Shepard’s Winnie the Pooh art.  When I started on A Perfectly Messed Up Story, I was playing with the idea of a character who had self-awareness about being in a book.  In my sketches, he complained about my messy ink smears.  When I drew Louie complaining about a blob of jelly, I knew I had a book.

If you visited my studio my dog Amelie would insist that you play ball with her.

When the 2012 Caldecott Committee called it was very early in the morning and it just so happened that I was in the hospital (for a minor procedure) and a nurse was taking my blood pressure.  True story.

School libraries were a favorite place for me when I was a kid.  I always looked forward to library day.  I recall reading a series of biographies of famous people.  New inspiration every week.   

Picture books are comforting portals to other worlds and to our inner selves.

Reading is essential.

Click here to download the guide. 

Mr. Schu, you should have asked me about Louie’s journey.  I intended for A Perfectly Messed-Up Story to be a funny, interactive book.  But underneath the fun there is a message of “loving what is.”  That life is what you think and make of it and we should embrace it, jelly stains and all.  

I am giving away 5 (yes, 5) copies of A Perfectly Messed-Up Story

Rules for the Giveaway 

1. It will run from 11/21 to 11:59 p.m. on 11/23. 

2. You must be at least 13. 

3. If you win, please pay it forward. 

Borrow A Perfectly Messed-Up Story from your school or public library. Whenever possible, please support independent bookshops. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Storm Whale Trifecta

My wonderful friend Mr. Colby Sharp, the Nerdy Book Club, and I are celebrating one of the best picture books of the year: Benji Davies' The Storm Whale. Have you read it? Isn't it stunning? You plan on buying many copies for your family and friends, right? My niece is getting a copy for Christmas. Did you see the whale Benji's mom knitted? It is a-d-o-r-a-b-l-e! 

Hi, Benji! I bet you have rituals before you read, illustrate, or write a picture book. Before I read a picture book for the first time, I must: 
  1. Examine the front cover illustration, the back cover illustration, and the spine.
  2. Take the cover off to see if there is a surprise on the case.
  3. Read the bio on the back jacket flap.
  4. Smell the paper.
I give The Storm Whale’s front cover illustration, back cover illustration, and spine 5 stars. 

I award the surprise under the case and the smell of the paper 5 stars. 

Your bio earns 5 stars, too. 

So, tell us about your rituals… 

Benji Davies: Thank you! I'm so pleased you like it.
First of all my eyes widen slightly... and then I pick up the book, scan the cover admiringly, read the title and feel the surface texture of the paper, tilt it in the light... like you, I then flip it over and do the same on the back paying attention to the smaller details. Jackets aren't as common on picture books in the UK, so this less of a concern. Next I open it and have a good look at the endpapers at the front (like in The Storm Whale, the story sometimes starts here) and then, full of expectation, I begin reading. 
The writing and illustrating rituals are a little harder to pin down. There is a lot of pacing and head scratching, looking out of windows, making cups of tea, chin rubbing, checking twitter. In no particular order.

Illustration/Photo Credit: Benji Davies 

This quotation appears on the title page: 

“The wonder of the world,
The beauty and the power,
The shapes of things,
Their colours, light, and shades—
These I saw.
Look ye also while life lasts.” 

Please share why you included this quotation. 

Firstly, I think its beautiful and poetic. I didn't write the words but they really speak to me. It expresses something that I believe is true of what drives me to draw and record the world around me in my writing and illustration, the act of looking at the natural world in detail and handing down a message to the reader. I want them to see things how I do. Also, the idea of things coming to pass, which I find very life affirming - there is a great strength in this idea and the way it has been written. It takes my breath away.

My favourite book when I was about eight years old was called The Little Grey Men by BB, about the three last gnomes in England and their quest to find their lost brother. The author was an artist and writer called Denys Watkins Pitchford. He used the “BB” nom de plume when he wrote for children. His father had copied this quote from a tombstone in the north of England, and BB then used it as a quote in the front of many of his books, which is how I found it.
So it has lots of relevance and connections for me, which is why I chose to use it over a personal dedication.

Illustration/Photo Credit: Benji Davies 

Noi and his dad have six cats. They do not have names in the story, but did you name them in your head? Do you have any pets? 

I don't have pets. If I didn't live in London, I'd love to have some chickens and a couple of pigs.
I did name a couple of the cats, although long after I’d written the book, to help decipher them from one another to somebody who asked whether there really were six. 

Heres roughly what I said. I hope it helps:

There are 3 black cats, one ginger and one grey tabby, and one white with black ears and spots. One of the black cats has white front paws - but in the main exterior house image he is the one inside the house framed in the window. He tends to hang out there in the morning, waiting for Noi to serve up his milk breakfast - and of course his paws are hidden from view behind the window frame. The other two pure black cats are the older of the gang and do more sleeping, under the house, in the chair or on the rug by the fire. They find their own breakfast elsewhere.

The cat asleep on the shed roof (lets call him Smokey) is a lazy old cat and doesn’t move from one spread to the next. The cat on the high roof in the wide vista of the beach spread, he can be Shadow, is the cat who was asleep under the steps on the previous spread. He has gone for a walk and a stretch up on the roof before disappearing into the sand dunes for the morning.

Illustration/Photo Credit: Benji Davies 
If we visited your studio, what would we see? 

You would find a very neat narrow room, with two desks by the window, one for my computer, one for drawing and painting. All the pencils and pens and brushes would be in their pots lined up at the back of the desk. There would be no half-drunk cups of tea, no inky glasses of water used to wash brushes in an emergency, and all the papers would be squarely stacked and put away in the plan chest. All the sketchbooks would be arranged on the shelf and you would walk easily into the room, not tripping over boxes of foreign editions sent to me by publishers, yet to find a home. My year-end accounts would be done and filed, no receipts would lie scattered about the room.

If you let me know you were coming.

Please finish these sentence starters:

Picture books are worlds you can escape into.

Reading is the most important thing you can learn to do.

Mr. Schu, you should have asked me where I keep the stroopwafels.

Thank you, Benji! 

Please head over to the Nerdy Book Club's blog to learn how The Storm Whale came to be. 

Visit Colby Sharp's blog to read ten things he loves about The Storm Whale

Borrow The Storm Whale from your school or public library. Whenever possible, please support independent bookshops. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Where Will I Be at #NCTE14?

To sustain lifelong reading habits, students must develop positive reading identities. Join the Nerdy Book Club and learn how to foster students’ reading identities in this fast-paced, interactive session. Attendees will reflect on practices, explore instructional moves, and build communities that help students write (or revise) their reading stories.

Friday 11/21 11:00 AM - 12:15 PM in Gaylord National Resort, Maryland A


  • Chair: Donalyn Miller O. A. Peterson Elementary School, Fort Worth, Texas -

  • Tradebook Author: Jonathan Auxier Abrams, New York, New York - Tuesday: Author Post

  • Roundtable Leader: Sarah Gross High Technology High School, Lincroft, New Jersey - Roundtable 1

  • Roundtable Leader: Tony Keefer Dublin City Schools, Ohio - Roundtable 5: Monday: Reading Lives

  • Roundtable Leader: Teri Lesesne Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas - Roundtable 7: Sunday: Surprise Sunday

  • Roundtable Leader: Cindy Minnich Upper Dauphin Area High School, Elizabethville, Pennsylvania - Roundtable 3: Wednesday: New Book Review

  • Roundtable Leader: Karin Perry Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas - Roundtable 4: Saturday: Top Ten

  • Roundtable Leader: Gae Polisner Algonquin Young Readers, Chapel Hill, North Carolina - Roundtable 2: Thursday: New Book Reviews

  • Roundtable Leader: Augusta Scattergood Scholastic, Inc., New York, New York - Roundtable 2: Thursday: New Book Reviews

  • Roundtable Leader: John Schumacher Brook Forest Elementary School, Naperville, Illinois - Roundtable 4: Saturday: Top Ten

  • Roundtable Leader: Katherine Sokolowski Washington School, Monticello, Illinois - Roundtable 6: Friday: Pay It Forward

Graphic novels are a powerful tool in the classroom. Using visual literacy to teach story can help create lifelong learners. Our panelists of authors and educators will share their most successful tips for inspiring readers and writers and will also discuss how they create graphic novels.

Sunday 11/23 10:30 AM - 11:45 AM in Gaylord National Resort, National Harbor 7


  • Chair: John Schumacher Brook Forest Elementary School, Naperville, Illinois -

  • Tradebook Author: Gareth Hinds Candlewick Press, Somerville, Massachusetts -

  • Tradebook Author: Jennifer Holm Random House Publishing, New York, New York -

  • Tradebook Author: Matthew Holm Random House Publishing, New York, New York -

  • Tradebook Author: Dave Roman First Second Books and Clarion Books, New York, New York -

  • Tradebook Author: Kevin Sherry Scholastic, Inc. New York, New York-

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

4 Questions and 4 Sentence Starters with John Rocco

Hi, John Rocco! I just asked Siri the current temperature outside. “Brr! It’s 10 degrees outside,” was his response. I wish he had said, “Mr. Schu, it is the perfect weather to read John Rocco’s Blizzard." That would have been legendary! 

OK, enough chit-chat. What happened in Rhode Island on Monday, February 6, 1978?

John Rocco: One of the largest snowstorms in New England’s history happened on February 6, 1978. Parts of Rhode Island got hit with over 40 inches of snow in one night.  Snowplows did not get to our street for 9 days so we were all pretty much stuck in our houses for that time. I remember my parents weren’t so thrilled, but my sister and I had a blast. 

As an elementary school teacher-librarian, I know how much children (and many adults) love snow days. What tips can you share to help everyone make the most out of a snow day?  

John Rocco: Yes! Snow days are fantastic, and now that I live in Los Angeles I know we will not have one anytime soon. I remember sitting at our kitchen table with my sister listening to the radio for school closure announcements any time the slightest trace of snow was on the ground.  The best thing to do on a snow day is go sledding. Building a snow fort or snowman is definitely runner up. Just make sure to have warm, dry, gloves and boots, otherwise the fun will quickly get cut short. Most importantly, end the day with a cup of cocoa made with hot milk! 

Illustration Credit: John Rocco

I read that the artwork for Blizzard was created using pencil, watercolor, and digital painting. Please take us through the process of creating one of the illustrations.

John Rocco: The first thing I do is create a tonal pencil drawing using a 2H or H pencil on cold press Bristol paper. Once that is completed I scan that into my computer, and on a separate layer in Photoshop I will start painting the colors. I also introduce scans of watercolor washes and stains that I create separately. For Blizzard, these watercolor washes were integral to some of the backgrounds and atmosphere. 

If we looked at your bookcase or library checkout history from when you were 10 years old, what type of books or titles would we see?

John Rocco: I had three favorite books that I discovered when I was a kid. One was from my dad’s bookshelf, Old Man and the Sea.  It was fairly short and had the word Sea in the title, so I knew I couldn’t go wrong. It was all about fishing, and that was one thing I loved to do even more than reading. I would head down to the dock at the end of our street every morning to fish, and wouldn’t come home until suppertime.  Another book I loved was James and the Giant Peach, which was filled with the amazing drawings of Nancy Ekholm Burkert.  The last one I vividly remember was Island of the Blue Dolphins.  I received it during a RIF fair at our school. Every kid got to pick out one free book, and so it was pretty special to me. 

Please finish these sentence starters:

School libraries should not be turned into MEDIA rooms, and school librarians should not be replaced by (or turned into) Media specialists.

Reading is a time traveling, rip roaring, out of body adventure.

Picture books are meant to be shared, smelled and chewed on.

Mr. Schu, you should have asked me…What do you listen to while you work? I actually like to listen to documentary films while I am drawing. It makes me feel like I’m learning something AND drawing something at the same time.

I am giving away one copy of Blizzard

Rules for the Giveaway 

1. It will run from 11/18 to 11:59 p.m. on 11/20. 

2. You must be at least 13. 

3. If you win, please pay it forward. 

Don’t forget to check out the rest of the Blizzard Blog Tour! 
Thursday, November 6                  Mundie Kids
Friday, November 7                      Kid Lit Frenzy                                                  
Monday, November 10                  The Children’s Book Review       
Tuesday, November 11                 The Kids Did It                  
Wednesday, November 12            OC Mom Media                               
Thursday, November 13               As They Grow Up
Friday, November 14                   Curling Up With a Good Book    
Monday, November 17                 Ben Spark                                           
Tuesday, November 18                 ME
Thursday, November 20               Elizabeth Dulemba    

Borrow Blizzard from your school or public library. Whenever possible, please support independent bookshops. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Author Candace Fleming

Candace Fleming writes perfect picture books, meticulously researched nonfiction books, and funny and well-crafted novels. She can do it all! Her latest nonfiction book, The Family Romanov, hooks you from the first page. It is one of those captivating books that requires you to consume copious amounts of caffeine the next day. You know what I'm talking about, right? 

Candace Fleming and I chatted about The Family Romanov, Caldecott Medalist Eric Rohmann, Mrs. Gaskill, picture books, and reading. I wrote the words in red, and she wrote the words in black. Thank you, Candace! 

The Family Romanov tells a compelling, heartbreaking and, at times, downright weird story.    Imagine this:  The Russian royal family is living a fairy-tale existence.  The richest man on the planet, Tsar Nicholas II owns one-sixth of the world’s land, thirty palaces, five yachts, an endless collection of priceless painting and sculpture, two private trains, countless horses, carriage and cars, and vaults overflowing with precious jewels.  The Romanovs have it all!  But Nicholas is a man of limited political ability.  He’s simply not suited to rule Russia.  And a charismatic, self-proclaimed holy man named Rasputin spellbinds his wife, Alexandra.  She believes Rasputin can save her hemophiliac son, Alexei, from bleeding to death.  Desperate, she will do anything – anything -- including handing over the reins of power to the evil monk.   Meanwhile, in the palace there also lives four, beautiful grand duchesses – Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia.  But they are kept isolated from the world by their paranoid and overprotective parents.  They don’t attend balls or banquets.  They don’t have any friends their own age, or suitors, as they grow older.  The have only each other.  Living in this bubble stunts them emotionally.  Even at age twenty, Olga giggles like a schoolgirl and blushes when she sees an onscreen kiss.  With all this craziness going on inside the palace gates, no one is paying any attention to the dark clouds gathering outside them.  Starving, war-weary Russians are tired of Nicholas and Alexandra’s inept rule.  They revolt, and the Romanov’s fairy tale lives come crashing down, leading to ninety days in captivity, a horrific and bloody mass murder, hidden bodies and rumors of escaped princesses.  Wow, if that’s not a great story, I don’t know what is! 

Anita Silvey featured The Family Romanov on November 10. 
After reading The Family Romanov you’ll begin to see connections between the Romanov’s Russia and our own time.  We’re still struggling with many of the same issues – income inequality and the concentration of wealth and power; faith and leadership and whether or not our religious beliefs should rule decision-making. Perhaps you’ll even think about your family, your faith, and your government in a new light.  If nothing else, perhaps you’ll make the same connection between The Family Romanov and The Hunger Games that my friend Karen Blumenthal did.  She contends the premise of both books is the same.  That is, the rich, clueless “nobility” in the capital hold all the power while the citizens out in district starve.  Ultimately, this leads to breakdown and revolution. Who knew history could be dystopian?

Benjamin Franklin, Amelia Earhart, Mary Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt are close, intimate friends.  I’ve spent years listening to their secrets.  I’ve uncovered their weakness and their warts.  I’ve been an invisible daily witness to their lives, standing at their elbows eavesdropping on their conversations, observing smiles and frowns.  And in the process they’ve become a permanent part of my life.  I quote them incessantly.  I mumble to them in my office.  Sometimes I even dream about them at night.  Because of Mary Lincoln, I bake Abraham’s favorite white cake every February 12th.  (I use her recipe).  I wear Channel No. 5 because Eleanor introduced me to it.  (It was her favorite fragrance).  And I once got kicked out of the Museum of American History in Washington DC because of Ben Franklin, or more accurately, because of his printing press.  All I did was lean over and touch it.  Oh, it was a sublime moment!  In that instant research and imagination came together; at that moment Ben’s life became as true and solid to me as the weathered oak of his press; at that moment… the alarm sounded.  Guards appeared.  Under their steely-eyed gaze, I slunk away.  Ah, friends!  Even dead, they can influence your taste in food and fashion.  They can even get you in trouble. 

Eric Rohmann and I collaborated for the first time on the picture book Oh, No!  We survived the process so we decided to do it again… and again… and again.  Coming this spring is Bulldozer’s Big Day (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster).  Just wait until you see it, Mr. Schu.  It’s utterly adorable.   Little readers will find Eric’s baby bulldozer hard to resist!   Next up is a piece of science nonfiction called Giant Squid (Neal Porter Books/ Macmillan).  Can you guess what it’s about?  And after that we’re doing a cozy, bedtime lullaby called Go Sleep In Your Own Bed with the amazing Anne Schwartz and Lee Wade.  As you can see, we’ve been busy.

My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Gaskill, owned a copy of Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond.  I wish I could tell you it was my favorite title in her Newbery collection.  It wasn’t.  In fact, the reason I plucked it off the shelf was because the edges of its gold, Newbery sticker curled up.  I knew it wouldn’t take much to peel it off.  And I needed that sticker.  I’d just finished writing my own book –a ten-paged, ten-chapter novel called Who Done It -- and I knew my masterpiece wasn’t complete without a gold sticker.  Honestly, all the best books had one, right?  So I pried the sticker off Elizabeth George Speare’s book and stuck it onto mine.  It dazzled!  So gold!  So shiny! I felt like the most sparkling, brilliant writer... until Mrs. Gaskill made me put it back.  I did, grudgingly.  To this day, that encounter remains the closest I’ve ever come to Newbery gold.

Picture books are transformative.  Oh… wait… that's so banal.  Can I try again?  And can I tell you a story?  I’m going to assume you said “yes.”  

On a still chilly April night in 1995 my four year old son and I sat reading William Steig’s The Amazing Bone.  “Later,” I read aloud, “[Pearl] sat on the ground in the forest between school and home, and Spring was so bright and beautiful, the warm air touched her so tenderly she could almost felt herself changing into a flower.”

Beside me, Mike sighed and snuggled closer.  

He fell into the story.

Days later, spring finally came to Chicago.  It arrived dramatically, as it often does, warm breezes sweeping away the iron gray skies and daffodils freckling the cold earth with color.  As Mike and I stepped into that first air-soft, blossom-sweet day, he stopped.  He looked around wide-eyed.  He sniffed the air.  Then he looked up at me, and exclaimed, “It’s spring. I think I’m turning into a flower!”
You see?  Transformative! Picture books can plant a seed in a four year old’s imagination; make a connection to his life; expose him to art and storytelling and to the emotional power of the English language.

They can even change a child into a flower.

Reading is life sustaining.  I’ve known this since childhood.  The summer I turned ten my mother instituted a new house rule: No Reading At The Dinner Table.  Without this rule my father would have forked up salad and read about fly fishing, my teenaged sister, Carole, would have flipped through the latest issued of Seventeen magazine, and I would have devoured another Nancy Drew mystery along with my pork chop.  But my mother – no reading slouch herself –wanted to hear more than pages turning at dinner.  

“Let’s talk,” my mother suggested.

“About what?” we asked.

From my place at the table I could see The Secret Of The Old Attic tented on the kitchen counter, waiting for me.  

The four of us looked blankly at one another.  Finally my mom said, “Read any good books lately?”
Had we ever!  We answered with a flood of titles and an avalanche of plot summaries.  I bet it was forty-five minutes before we left that table.

You can see we were reading crazy.  Words excited us.  Sentences transformed us.  Paragraphs ticked and delighted us.

I remember one Saturday afternoon when my father suddenly leaped to his feet, flung on his jacket and grabbed up his car keys.  

“Where are you going?” my mother asked.

“To the library,” my father replied.  “I need something to read.”

It’s funny how such a small incident can reveal such a big truth.  At that moment, I realized my family and I didn’t just like reading.  We needed to read.  We needed reading the way we needed air, water and -- if it’s on my list of life-sustaining elements – chocolate.  Basically, we couldn’t live with out it.  I still can’t.

Mr. Schu, you should have asked me to lunch.  We live so close.  I’ll bring Eric along, and we can talk books and reading and all things literature.   And let’s go to Russian Tea Time.  We’ll have borscht and blini.  The Romanovs would have approved. 

Sounds good to me, Candace! Let's do it! 

Rules for the Giveaway 

I am giving away one copy of The Family Romanov

2. It will run from 11/17 to 11:59 p.m. on 11/19. 

3. You must be at least 13. 

3. If you win, please pay it forward. 

Borrow The Family Romanov from your school or public library. Whenever possible, please support independent bookshops. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Last Week Told Through Vines


My third, fourth, and fifth graders are reading and evaluating 20 books for our Mock Caldecott unit


Yahoo! Look what I found waiting for me inside my mailbox! 

The Sharp-Schu Book Club discussed Quest, Neighborhood Sharks, and Emily's Blue Period


Author-illustrator Kelly Light read Louise Loves Art to a third-grade class. Thank you, Kelly! 


My second graders read Nana in the City with Carter Higgins' fourth graders. What a wonderful way to celebrate Picture Book Month! 


I belong to a book club with five other teacher-librarians. After this month's meeting, we stopped by Anderson's Bookshop Downers Grove to browse and buy books. I bought a copy of Grace Lin's Ling and Ting: Twice As Silly

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Link of the Week: Scholastic's Spring 2015 Online Preview

I've checked Scholastic's website multiple times this week to see if they posted the Spring 2015 Online Preview. Look what I found five minutes ago! 

Yippie-i-oh! Away you go to watch Scholastic's Spring 2015 Online Preview!

Warning: Your to-read list is going to G-R-O-W!