Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Midweek Musing #6— Judy Schachner and a Furry Companion

Skippyjon works on his Skipposaurus (and eats a pickle),
from Skippyjon Jones and the Big Bones
Among the character-driven childrens books being created today, one of my very favorites is Skippyjon Jones, the irrepressible Siamese kitty who insists that hes a Chihuahua.  His rampant imagination and hankering for adventure get him into a wild variety of troubles, the world he inhabits is an explosion of colors.  The walls of his room are a mess of Skippiti graffiti, and the soundtrack of his life an effervescent fizz of pidgin Spanish.

Im very happy to have the creator of Skippyjon Jones and many other funny and heartwarming books, chiming in on this blog today—the wonderful Judy Schachner, whose imagination must surely be as rampant as her kitty protagonists. And I suspect that Judys answer to this blogs question to its writer/illustrator guests, Whos your favorite character in childrens literature, and why? will surprise you. (And on a personal note:  if youre a cat person and havent read her Oct. 2013 release Bits & Pieces yet, run to the bookstore!).

Judy Schachner's feline friend,
Chicopee, makes a point.
Judy Schachner:  Those who know me well understand that I have been and always will be a cat lover.  It’s not for nothing that I have written and illustrated 14 picture books based on my very own Siamese children alone. My cats have occupied chairs and beds and laps in just about every darn book I’ve had my paws on. So if you were a gambling sort, you might place a bet on the hunch that I would pick a feline as one of my all time favorite characters in children’s books but darlin’ you’d be wrong.

“It was in May, 1918, that a new friend and companion came into my life: a character, a personality, and a ring tailed wonder. He weighed less than one pound when I discovered him, a furry ball of utter dependence and awakening curiosity.”
So begins the tale of RASCAL, the endearing story of a motherless boy and his foundling pet raccoon. The boy was the author himself, Sterling North. It was published in 1963 when I was twelve years old and feeling the uncertainty of a world that would soon claim my own mother’s life.  I never had a pet raccoon, but at around the same age as author Sterling North was when he found his beloved Rascal, I was given a Siamese kitten (a close approximation if you ask me) by my oldest brother Ted. Never doubt the healing powers of critters.

In answering this question about “one’s favorite character” in children’s literature, I was delighted to revisit the world of Boy North and the hilarious antics of his adorable pet. But more importantly, I was grateful to be reminded of what I loved most about this book… the seamless blending of heart and humor that to this day still moves me. With a few minor changes the author could have been writing about me at the same age…
“Often the only occupant of our ten-room house was an eleven year old boy working on his canoe in the living room and thinking  “long, long thoughts.”
 …I asked myself how God could be all knowing, all-powerful, and all merciful and still allow so much suffering in the world. In particular how could he have taken my gifted and gentle mother when she was only 47 years old?”

My mother was just 47 when I read these words…she would die 2 years later. So yeah, that day Boy North became my hero because he had made it to the other side of loss and he had made it with the help of a raccoon.

 “Several nights later I was startled and delighted to hear Rascal’s trill from the pillow beside me, then to feel his little hands working all over my face. My raccoon baby had climbed from his hole, opened the back screen door, and with eyes that could see in the dark made his way to my bed. “

As far as I was concerned North’s raccoon baby Rascal, and my Siamese kitten baby Frankie, were one and the same. In fact that’s pretty much how I felt about the Boy North too. We may have grown up in different times and under different circumstances, he may have been a boy and I a girl but at that point in time while reading those words, we were one and the same.

The starkly beautiful scratchboard illustrations in this book were by John Schoenherr. He would later go on to win the Caldecott award for OWL MOON by Jane Yolen. I thought it best to let the art speak for itself…except to say that John Schoenherr’s depictions of Rascal remain to this day some of my very favorite illustrations in all of children’s literature. The man gets raccoons…just say’n.
John Schoenherr's 1963 endpapers for Rascal 

— • —

Whose portrait is this, anyway?

Judy Schachner was born into an Irish Catholic working class family from New England.  Money was as tight as their apartment was tiny, and though she may not have had the easiest of childhoods, she credits her imagination with helping her survive it.

She can't ever remember a time when she was not drawing and like most budding artists she doodled on everything, including her fathers bald head.  She drew herself into stories where she was the smartest in her class and into a family where mothers lived to be a ripe old age.  In many ways, Judy feels that her own life has resembled the fairy tales she loved reading as a child, complete with a happy ending.  And the best part of this author/illustrators story?  She married a prince of a guy and they had two beautiful daughters and just like the mothers in her earliest tales, she plans on living to a ripe old age.

Described by the New York Times as “…something like the James Joyce for the elementary school–set,” Judy Schachner is the #1 NY Times Best Selling Author/Illustrator of over 23 books for children including Bits & Pieces, the Skippyjon Jones series, Yo Vikings, The Grannyman and Willy and May.  She has won many awards, including the first E. B. White Read Aloud Award.
Skippyjon Jones Snow What, the next Skippyjon Jones book,
arrives in October, 2014.
Bits & Pieces.

To learn more about Judy Schachner and her work, visit her website.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Midweek Musings #5: Daniel Kirk and Two Flawed Amphibians

My guest here today is Daniel Kirk, illustrator of more than thirty books and author of most of those, including his perennial favorite Library Mouse series.  Daniel is a polymath; he's artist, author, musician, entertainer.  As he says on his website, "I like to make kids smile.  I like to write things that are funny, and quirky, and bring fantasies to life."  And he does all of the above.  Here, he answers the Midweek Musings question:  Who is one of your favorite children's literature characters, and why?  And he answers the question with a small twist, as Julie Danielson did in her February 26th post.

Daniel Kirk:  I have discovered, over the years, that a very few children’s books seem to get better with age. Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books have gotten richer, sweeter and finer, the longer I have owned them. And every time I read them, they seem better than they did before. My affection for the Frog and Toad books is partly about the characters, partly about the artwork, and partly about the language. Allow me to speak briefly about each of these things!

As characters, Frog and Toad are cheerful, well-intended and good-natured. But every “I Can Read” story reveals the ways these two little amphibians are flawed—and their limitations make them all the more endearing. For instance, in a story called “The List,” Toad makes a “to-do” list for the day, and is very happy to cross things off his list once they have been accomplished. But when a passing breeze blows his list away, and he and Frog are helpless to find it, Toad grows despondent. Only when night falls, and he remembers the last item on his list is to “go to sleep,” is he contented once again.

In “The Garden,” Toad works very hard to make some seeds grow in his back yard. He reads stories and poems to his seeds, and plays music for them. Finally his seeds grow, and he is exhausted but happy. Frog and Toad seem to be adult animals, living in their separate houses, with no relatives or other neighbors in site. And yet, though they want to be logical and rational, they often think and behave like small children. Their efforts to be grown-up don’t always work out the way they intended. I think that is what makes me like them so much!

The artwork in the Frog and Toad books is very simple. This is another way that I have learned to appreciate them more with time. When I started making my own illustrated books, I wanted the illustrations to look like artwork. I wanted each picture to stand alone as a piece that one could frame and hang on the wall. It took me a long time to learn that each illustration in a picturebook is just a part of the whole, and that the entire book is supposed to be the work of art, and not the individual picture…The pictures are meant to work together to tell the story. 

 Frog and Toad books are “I Can Read” books, with a lot of small “spot” art that fits in among blocks of text. Full-page illustrations are few and far between, surrounded by a lot of white space, and often a few lines of the story. Most of the pictures are just simple images of the characters against a vague, soft background. The artwork has only a few colors—green, brown, and a few shades of gray and black. They often look like they were drawn pretty quickly, with just enough detail to give an impression of a place, and no more. And this is something else I appreciate about the books—they have an economy, a simplicity, that leaves a lot of room for the reader’s imagination to fill in. This isn’t just true of the art; the plain-spoken simplicity is the writing style, too.

Authors who wrote for the “I Can Read” series were limited to certain words that would match a young reader’s vocabulary, without trying to stretch it too much. If you were given a hundred simple words, and told to write a story, those restrictions would force you to write differently than if you could use any words you chose. In the characters, the art and the language, Arnold Lobel chose to keep things simple, direct and straightforward…while suggesting something far richer and complex.
I find that in reading these books I am always struck by the feeling of peace and contentment I get from the experience. It’s like sipping from a glass of cool water, or feeling a breeze on my cheek on a summer’s day. And the older I get, the more I appreciate the feeling. Lobel wasn’t just writing for little children, he was writing about and for all of us, with a kind and forgiving heart, a warm sense of humor and the artistic and literary touch of a true master.


Daniel Kirk
Daniel Kirk is the author/illustrator of over thirty-five books for children, including the popular Library Mouse series. His next two published books, coming out later in 2014, are You Are Not My Friend (But I Miss You), from Abrams Books, and Ten Thank You Letters  from Nancy Paulsen Books. Learn more about Daniel Kirk’s work at

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Midweek Musing #4— Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, crushing disappointment and why reading IS better

I'd intended these Midweek Musings to be only about living characters in children's books, yet I've had two encounters in the past few weeks with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  The movie was being shown on cable, and my wife and I decided to watch "just the beginning."  I hadn't seen it in maybe fifteen years, and I wanted a refresher.  We ended up watching the whole thing, from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's narrow escape from the crusher, to the Toot Sweets, to the Child Catcher, and so on to the end.

But this time, I found something in the movie that rocked a lifelong love of that vehicle.

Now THAT'S a car.  Source:
First, a little background.  Like lots of people my age, I grew up with the Disney movie and wished that someday I could have a car like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

What was so great about it?  The early 1900's racer was exotic and sleek.  That gleaming hood!  Those scarlet wheels!  The rounded wooden back, reminiscent of the varnished woodwork on a classic boat.  Now that was a car!  No Dodge Dart or AMC Gremlin for me.

But that amazing car only got better when the red-and-yellow wings popped out of its sides, and when the purple pontoons emerged, rescuing Mr. Pott, the children and Truly Scrumptious from the ship full of quasi-Germanic evildoers who had interrupted their beachy picnic.

Growing up, I coveted the die-cast metal Corgi toy Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which produced a pair of wings when you pushed a hidden button (if anyone has one of the originals and wants to make an extravagant gift out of it, I'm willing).

When I visit schools, the question comes up constantly about whether I included Chitty Chitty Bang in Bats at the Library (see below), when the bats imagine themselves in their favorite stories.  To clarify, though the car has a slight resemblance, that's Mr. Toad from The Wind in the Willows.  As a boy, I didn't even know there was a book.
If you look closely at the book, you'll notice the picnic basket strapped to the back of the car says "Toad Hall."
But back to the movie.

As the end of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang approached, I noticed something I'd missed before, something that changes everything.  I realized this:  all of the great things that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang could do were merely part of a fanciful story that the genial Mr. Pott had spun for Truly and the children as they rested, following their picnic.  It was nothing but a darned story!!! I had a flashback of a traumatizing movie we were shown in high school, based on Steven Ambrose's An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.  A soldier, in the process of being hanged, manages to escape and returns to the loving arms of his family, only to be brought up short by the discovery that it is all a wish-story that his brain has concocted in the seconds before he dies.

After all of my years of yearning for those pop-out gadgets, Disney's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang wasn't a mechanical miracle.  In the end, it was just a sleek and beautiful restoration.
Source:  Internet Movie Cars Database

It was . . . a car.

I expressed my outrage to my wife, who gave me the kind of look my college English professor, Patricia Caldwell, had given me when I admitted that I had actually attempted a self-improvement chart technique that I'd read about in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin back in high school.  The look was a combination of gentle amusement, and bewilderment that someone had not understood that that particular part was fiction.

Shaken, I decided it was time to read Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  I downloaded a Kindle version, and read in the dark after my wife went to sleep.  And you know what?

I liked the car in the book much better. Why?  Because all of the cool gizmos Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has in the book are real.  And she's actually a character, not just a car.  Her license plate?  GEN 11, which Jemima points out spells genii, a plural of genie.  In the book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a kind of enchanted being.  She has moods, she thinks and acts on her own, she is loyal.  And she has British pluck.

I was also struck by how completely different the story was from the movie.

First, the story is set around 1960, not the 1920's.  So the car isn't the former racing car seen in the movie.  Mr. Pott isn't down on his luck at all—in fact, he strikes it rich by selling his whistling sweets almost immediately to Lord Scrumshus.  He buys this dilapidated car, to the delight of his whole family, including his wife (his WIFE??  Then what about Truly??  Poof—she doesn't exist).  As the children go off for a term at boarding school (!!!), Mr. Pott works on the car and ultimately rolls a moody, gleaming green vehicle out into the yard, having created a few "improvements." But he expresses mystification at a series of buttons, knobs and levers on the car's dashboard, modifications which he says, "seem to have taken place all by themselves during the night, when I wasn't there."

Source:, 42 Worst Ever Car Movies
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a car with many secrets, and strong opinions.  During one moment of frustration, she tells Mr. Pott what to do by switching on a light above one of the dashboard knobs.  "PULL," it says, and when Mr. Potts fails to do so, it reads, "PULL, IDIOT!"  He does, and away the car and family go into the sky, lifted on wings that were formerly metal fenders.

Throughout the rest of the book—and I'm not going to spoil it for people who, like me, never read it—Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's awareness and spunk make her the most amusing character in the story.  She's magical.

For years, I've told students in schools I visit that, given the choice, they should read the book first and then see the movie.  That way, the vision they have of the story will be what their brains created, not what a committee in a script meeting decided we should see.  A story filled with details that your mind summons up from your own experiences is always going to fit you better than someone else's ideas.  But reading Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has given me a glimmer of hope.  Sometimes you can salvage a story when you've seen the movie first.

While it's still true I'll never be able to visualize Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as anything other than the chrome-and-wood car that Disney depicted, it's now Sir Ian Fleming's version that I really want.

What do you think?

. . . and the less said about the Child Catcher, the better.
Source for original at left: