Monthly Archives: September 2008

Interview: Matt Hammill

Today I am happy to present my interview with one of Kids Can Press’s new author/illustrators, Matt Hammill. Matt is one of three authors featured this week during Kids Can’s New Voices Blog Tour. Before we get to the interview, here’s the schedule for the rest of the tour. Check it out:

Tuesday, September 30th
Willow Dawson will be over at Good Comics for Kids talking about her illustrations for No Girls Allowed.

Wednesday, October 1st
Susan Hughes, author of No Girls Allowed, will be visiting with Kelly at Big A little a.

And now for the main event:

Adventures (Expected and Unexpected) in Writing & Illustration.

What tends to inspire you (situations / works of art / places / foods / people)?

More often than not I don’t know where an idea comes from; I just try to jot it down before I forget. But if someone asked me in an interview, hmm, I could say nature documentaries, old movie special effects, Lego, independent video games, and walking through forests at night. I get inspired by finding random brilliant artists online as well, although there’s something strange about clicking through someone’s entire body of work in sixty seconds.

Is your writing space a place of loveliness? Describe where you work.

When I was working on Sir Reginald’s Logbook my workspace was not particularly lovely—it was a small bedroom in a basement appartment I was renting for college. I’d write on my computer, and do the art on a very messy art table. It was usually dark by the time I’d get a chance to work on it, but I have this great white light lamp that lets me see what colours I’m painting with. I hate painting under yellow incandescent light—I can’t tell what I’m doing.
My workspace is a bit nicer now that I’ve moved into a place in Toronto. I don’t sleep right beside my art table any more so I don’t need to breath in so many paint fumes!

I imagine that publishing your first book has been quite the adventure, especially when you happen to have been “discovered” at your illustration program’s graduation show. Would you tell us about this experience? What was one aspect of the publishing process that proved to be an unexpected adventure?

At Sheridan College I studied illustration, and for one of my projects I decided to make a zine (that is, a small print run of photocopied, stapled books). I wrote and drew the first version of Sir Reginald’s Logbook, and printed about fifty copies to take to our program’s graduation show in Toronto. A couple of people from Kids Can Press (my editor Tara Walker, and Karen Powers, the designer of Sir Reginald’s Logbook) stopped by the show and saw my book, and they liked it enough to take a copy and pitch it to the publisher as something that could be made into a longer, full-colour, commercial children’s book. After many, many months of intermittent meetings and exploring how I could expand the book, I got a contract and we started work on the final version.

It was a bit funny, because I’d already sent in some other prototype books to Kids Can Press which were rejected, and I’d been planning to send Sir Reginald’s Logbook to them as well. Meeting them at the show did make it easier, however! One unexpected part of the publishing process was having to present the book at conferences—as an artist/writer, public speaking isn’t the most comfortable thing for me. But so far, I haven’t died.

What’s the best piece of writing / illustrating advice you’ve ever been given?

One of my art teachers, Clemente Botelho, made sure we all kept sketchbooks. And keeping up my sketchbook’s helped a lot, both as encouragement to draw and jot down ideas, and as a record of the work I’ve done. Continue reading


Enigma – A Magical Mystery

One of the loveliest things about blogging in the kidlitosphere is that some days you get home from work to find just the right book to perk you up, as if the lovely publicity people at X publishing house knew exactly what you needed to brighten up your reading life. This happened yesterday, when I opened a package addressed to Shelf Elf and found Graeme Base’s latest picture book, Enigma: A Magical Mystery, inside. “Goodie,” I said.

I said “Goodie” because when I was a kid, The Eleventh Hour, Base’s first solve-the-mystery picture book, was a book I read until it was all beat up and bent and thoroughly loved. Now Base is back with another title that is every bit as innovative, gorgeous to look at, and downright fun (for grown-ups too, I must admit).

Bertie Badger is the pint-sized sleuth in Enigma, and he has his work cut out for him when all sorts of magical props go missing at the Retirement Home for Elderly Magicians, where his grandfather, Gadzooks the Great, now lives. Bertie wanders about the home, visiting his grandfather’s housemates – magicians and illusionists all – trying to piece together the whereabouts of the important magical items that each one of the animals has lost. As in The Eleventh Hour, the tale is told in rhyme, and it’s the illustrations that hold the key to solving the mystery. At the very back of the book is one of the niftiest additions to a picture book I’ve come across in a while: a fantastic code-breaking device that involves turning three dials to show the correct series of symbols, which then allows the reader to decode a message hidden in a letter from the story. When I first found this code-breaker device, I think my exact words were, “How cool is that?”

Very cool indeed, actually, and it just adds to the reader’s motivation to discover the “answer” hidden in one of the pictures within the book. As if we needed any extra encouragement to pore over Base’s tremendous illustrations, every one rich, detailed, humorous and magical. Once kids have figured out how to break the code, the patient way or the cheater’s way (aka my way), there’s more to do: hunt for magic paw prints in every picture, find the missing objects, and track down all of the hometowns of the animal magicians. This is one crafty, and well-crafted picture book package. Can you say, Christmas present? (or birthday or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or any other holiday out there you happen to celebrate).

It seems that others share my excitement for Enigma. Publishers Weekly just gave it a starred review, and interviewed Graeme Base about the book, his art and his upcoming North American tour.

So a big ol’ thank you to Abrams for sending me this treat. I’ll be sure to pass it on to a lucky kid.

Poetry Friday: Hip Hop Speaks to Children

In my class, every year each kid chooses a poem and recites it for the class, and each year, I’m simply amazed by how excited they are to do it. I suppose the whole thing feels a shade old-fashioned, some might even say out-dated. I sort of feel like I’m the school teacher in a one-room schoolhouse when they stand up and recite their poems in front of the blackboard. Very Anne Shirley. Nevertheless, it’s one of the biggest hits of my language program and so I keep on doing it. We finish up with a poetry slam of sorts, where they stand up and perform their poems. Last year, after the first poem was read, all the kids started to clap and one of my students said, “No. It’s poetry. When it’s poetry you snap.” And so we snapped. We real cool.

I’m practically all tingly with the prospect of introducing Hip Hop Speaks to Children into my poetry unit this year. I can just tell the kids are going to get into this book. You’ll find all sorts of treats, some quite unusual, in this collection of Hip Hop and related poetic forms, edited by Nikki Giovanni. There’s some Langston Hughes, Walter Dean Myers, Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Queen Latifah and Martin Luther King Jr – and more besides. 30 of the poems are performed by artists and poets on a CD included in the book (in much the same format as the very successful Poetry Speaks to Children).

I love the way this text encourages readers to discover the connection between modern Hip Hop and earlier musical and poetic traditions, reaching all the way back to Call-and-Response texts used in worship, to hamboning, and rap and the blues. I think that by seeing the roots of hip hop, kids and teens and parents will see this art form in a new, more open way. Another real strength of the text is the illustration. Each page offers bright and intensely rich colours, with different artistic styles to keep things lively for the reader. Even short poems get their own full page, which means lots of illustration to enrich the text and give readers something to sink into. Take a look at a sample page:

I have only one small quibble with this lovely poetry collection. In her introduction and in the notes about several of the poems offered on the CD, Nikki Giovanni’s tone veers towards the academic, which makes me wonder about the intended audience. I think that it might have been possible to tailor her language more to the age group that the book seems to be targeting. I imagine my class of ten year olds tuning out for a lot of that, or thinking, “Huh?” Valuable insights and important information about the poems and poets certainly, just not presented in an entirely kid-friendly manner. Of course, you could shift this observation more towards the positive by noting that Nikki Giovanni’s explanations are sophisticated enough to make parts of this book appropriate for early high school students too. Here’s Nikki talking about the book:

Coincidentally, soon after I received my review copy of this book, I was listening to the CBC morning show and there was an interview with the founder of what sounds like a remarkable literacy program, called Literacy Though Hip Hop. I’m thinking they need to order a few boxes of this collection to support their initiative. Hip Hop Speaks to Children is released October 7th, by Sourcebooks. It will add spice, depth and greater perspective to any poetry unit.

Readergirlz Night Bites

Now there’s something to knock your socks off. The genius crew over at readergirlz has put together a 5-night extravaganza of delight for YALSA Teen Read Week. There will be live themed chats Monday-Friday from October 12-18 at 6pm PST/9 pm EST with all of the tremendous authors listed above. I can hardly contain my excitement.

Just to get you even more hyped about it, check out this fantastic trailer:

Can you say YAY?

Nonfiction Monday: No Girls Allowed

Need a little girl power to kick start your Monday morning? Look no further. Kids Can Press presents No Girls Allowed, a new book written by Susan Hughes, and illustrated in rockin’ graphic style by Willow Dawson. This book hits the mark in many ways. It offers readers short tales, in graphic format, of women throughout history who disguised themselves as men in order to shape their lives on their own terms. You’ll find the story of Hatshepsut, the female pharoah, and the tales of Mu Lan and Alfhild, the Viking warrior. Each mini-bio is quite short, around ten pages, so I imagine there will be a lot of readers who want to learn more about the women they read about here. Good thing there’s a list of Further Reading suggestions on the last page. Susan Hughes’ afterword, in which she leads readers to consider why women have faced different treatment throughout history to the present, is a good introduction for all young readers to a complex subject.

This one belongs in classrooms, as it matches strong kid-appeal with worthy content, and a contemporary feel.

I won! I won!

Melissa of Book Nut just gave me a little award. Aw shucks. Right back at you. Thanks Melissa! Now I’m pretty good at receiving these types of blog awards… not so good at the passing-them-along-to-others part. So I decided to seize the moment and just do it, gosh darn it. I can think of lots of blogs I love, so why not spread the love to a few blogs I don’t cheer enough about?

Here are the rules:

1) Add the logo of the award to your blog

2) Add a link to the person who awarded it to you

3) Nominate at least 7 other blogs

4) Add links to those blogs on your blog

5) Leave a message for your nominees on their blogs!

(drumroll…) “The envelope please…”:

Class of 2k8 (The best place to discover the best new writers)
Reading Rants (Awesome, succinct reviews for teens)
The Planet Esme Plan (Like hanging out with the coolest librarian ever)
The YA YA YAs (The latest, greatest in everything YA)
Read.Imagine.Talk (Smart ideas on education, kids’ books and raising readers)
The Book Club Shelf (A made-for-teachers site crammed with ideas for book clubs)
Just One More Book! (Podcasty perfection)

Thanks to all of you, for making the land of blog that much cooler, everyday.

Poetry Friday: Mark Strand read by Mary Louise Parker

I’ve been out of the Poetry Friday loop for a month or so, and now I want back in. So I apologize if lots of people have already happened upon and celebrated this poem & video from Poetry Foundation. I think it’s worth looking at over and over, in any case.

This poem gives me the chills. It’s one of those really special ones that conveys exactly something I’ve felt before, in an almost spookily apt way:

Lines for Winterby Mark Strand

Tell yourself
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
walking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself—
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon’s gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars…

For the rest of the poem, click here, and then you must take a look at the video reading by actress Mary Louise Parker. Gorgeous.

Just Grace. Just Awesome.

Just Grace is soul sister to Clarice Bean, Clementine, Judy Moody and Ellie McDoodle and is entirely lovely in every way. Last week, I sang the praises of Charise Mericle Harper’s Fashion Kitty books. Just Grace is every bit as delightfully cheery and clever.

Grace becomes “Just Grace” because there are 3 other Graces in her third-grade class and in the interest of not going round the bend, her nothing if not practical teacher decides Grace will be known as Just Grace. This is not exactly fab news for Grace, but she dwells on it only for a little while before thinking about all sorts of other important things, mostly her “teeny tiny superpower”: the ability to feel a person’s sadness and help that person feel better (commonly known as empathy). Grace’s empathy-powers bring her into contact with lots of different people as she works to be kind and make a difference the best way she knows how.

All throughout this book you’ll get all kinds of funny little cartoonish drawings that add tremendously to the story’s humour and charm. It’s a book about communication and openness and being a kid. This is really a big grin between two covers.

I’m already reading the second one, Still Just Grace, and then it’ll be Just Grace Walks the Dog. Good times.

For a laugh, follow this link to hear Charise interviewing her daughter in role as Just Grace (so cute).

Colors! Colores!

This picture book is something a bit out of the ordinary and rather beautiful. Colors! Colores! is a bilungual book that celebrates the poetic qualities of colour. Award-winning Mexican writer, Jorge Lujan, has created simple but evocative text to inspire children to consider everyday colours in fresh, creative ways. A taste: “Yellow rolls through the sky like a warm, gold coin” and “Into a tiny seed fits clover, fits a tree, fits the whole jungle… fits green.” I can imagine using these small poems as first stanzas for students to use as inspiration for writing their own poems about colour. South African illustrator, Piet Grobler, offers up the perfect match for Lujan’s poetic jewels with understated, whimsical watercolours. I’m crazy about the artwork here.

For a book that is so spare in its text, and in the style of illustration, it feels remarkably rich, and would make a lovely gift for a would-be artist. Proof that something understated and restrained can be every bit as pleasing as flashier reads.

Colors! Colores! is published by Groundwood Books.