Tuesday, October 19, 2010

What Makes an Award-winning Nonfiction Book for Children?

Last weekend, Alexis O'Neill, Mary Ann Fraser and I presented a talk on Funding Author Visits at the CRA (California Reading Association) conference in Riverside.

Here we are with the Barnes & Noble booksellers.

One of the highlights of the event was a session introducing this year's CRA's Eureka! Awards for Nonfiction. Coordinators Sandra Yoon, Helen Foster James, and Armin Schulz gave us insights into why the books were chosen.

Factors included:

1. Tie in with the curriculum, and/or with excellent fiction (Larry Dane Brimner's Birmingham Sunday, for example, would pair up nicely with The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis). Several titles were recommended for Women's History Month.

2. Innovative, appealing book design and illustration.

3. Unusual take on biography (The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy)).

4. Relevant for a range of grade levels.

5. Dramatic narrative (or poetry) was enhanced by factoid sidebars (in one case including photos).

6. Useful, accessible glossary of terms.

7. Subject matter pertinent to their students' cultural background.

8. Inspirational story with kid appeal (Pierre the Penguin).

It was a pleasure to learn what leading educators value in nonfiction, and to hear so much excitement and praise for it. Kudos to the committee for all the time and thought they spent on bestowing these awards.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Blog Stop for Ogg and Bob

The Cat & The Fiddle happily joins the blog tour for Ogg and Bob by Ian Fraser, with illustrations by Mary Ann Fraser.

Ian reinvents the easy reader "buddy genre" with these charmingly illustrated books ("Meet Mammoth" and "Life With Mammoth") about two cave guys and their pet. The cave buddies' naivete and misadventures should elicit lots of laughs, and their rudimentary speech ("Me wash feet ten days ago") is just right for decoding practice. Another plus is the exotic, distant setting- it's a place children rarely get to visit in fiction. Ogg and Bob delivers fresh meat to the easy reader crowd- and they're going to eat it up.

I had lots of questions for the talented son and mother team behind this book.

The idea of using early man with simplistic speech for an early reader is brilliant...how did that idea come about? What were the turning points (the most important events) on the road to publication?

IAN: Well I'm pleased that you thought that the simplistic speech was brilliant. The idea was mostly a result of long hours spent reading all of Gary Larson's The Far Side comic collection, Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes, and a whole lot of boredom. I simply thought that cavemen were funny. The book started out as a small story that I wrote when I had nothing to do. It was the encouragement of my mother and the lack of something to do for my senior project in high school that prompted me to try publishing it.

Why the fascination with cave men? Tell us a little about playing "cave man" when you were a boy.

IAN: I suppose pre-history was a large part of my childhood. Or some semblance of it was anyway. I always loved dinosaurs, and there was always a need for hapless victims of these rampaging beasts. I guess there's probably something deeper about getting in touch with our primeval selves or something else silly like that, but the truth is I thought that it would be funny to use cavemen at the time.

Are you more of an Ogg or a Bob- how so?

IAN: I'm not really sure. I see myself as a combination of both really. Their interactions and personalities are probably similar to how I would interact with myself if I were cloned in some secret government base, tagged, and let loose in the wild.

Keeping in mind the format of the easy reader, what were your goals in writing each of the little stories--(for example, it had to have repetition, physical humor, etc)

IAN: The stories weren't really written for a easy reader format. They were actually written more for something like a cross between a screenplay and a comic book. I wrote them to be as entertaining and as hilarious as possible. When writing, all I did was try to make each scene as funny as possible. Most of my editing however, was to piece everything together and make it flow in some semblance of a story.

What advice would you give someone whose illustrator is their mom?

IAN: Be happy for it. Being able to communicate exactly how I saw the story whenever I wanted was a blessing. We could exchange ideas simply by walking into the next room. I don't know if Ogg and Bob could have succeeded this well if I had someone else illustrate it for me.

Now, some questions for Mary Ann. Did you encourage Ian's fascination with cave men when he was young?

MARY ANN: Not really. Ian was a voracious reader and had a fascination for all kinds of subjects when he was younger. He loved humor, particularly Gary Larson's The Far Side, so I think there was fodder there for sure.

Could you tell us about the process of creating the characters? Why did you choose blue for Mug (their pet mammoth)?

MARY ANN: It took a lot of sketching to develop Ogg and Bob. I wanted them to be distinct as individuals and to project very child-like qualities despite the underarm hair and five o'clock shadows. I think of them as the Lucy and Ethel, Laurel and hardy of neanderthals. Mug's blue hue was actually the suggestion of Margery Cuyler at Marshall Cavendish. The publisher had decided to do the books in full color, but the art was predominantly browns, a bit boring, so we spiced it up. Ian has had a difficult time with the blue. He likes things to be based in fact, but that's a mechanical engineering student for you. I like how it visually punches up the book and informs the reader not to take this from a scientific point of view.

What are the challenges of illustrating an easy reader as opposed to a standard picture book?

MARY ANN: First of all, there's simply way more art. Keeping the characters consistent and the art varied is that much more of a challenge. Also, the books are a smaller trim size than I am used to, so the gutter has a bigger impact and compositions need to be kept simple.

What were the joys and tribulations of working with your son?

MARY ANN: It was mostly all joy. Ian cracked me up a lot of the time when we would be talking about the project. A couple late nights we bantered ideas back and forth about Ogg and Bob's possible misadventures until we were in hysterics. Invariably he did his own thing and I really respect that. I think staying out of it when he was working on the book for his senior project was the most challenging part for me --parents weren't allowed to be mentors. Following the two book offer from Marshall Cavendish he had to expand the stories he had and then write three additional ones, and he only had his winter break from college in which to do it. I think that was a bit daunting, so I tried to be the cheerleader. (You can read supportive nag here.) Once he wrapped his head around it, though, I was amazed at how quickly he pulled it off. I hope he continues to enjoy writing as much as I have. Rumor tells me that he has more adventures for Ogg and Bob rattling around in his head when he's not reading quantum physics or studying material properties. Now if I could just get him to call home more often.

For each day of the tour Mary Ann Fraser will be giving away an original piece of art from Ogg and Bob to a randomly selected commenter. So follow the tour and be sure to comment to enter. "Winners of the "Ogg and Bob Art Giveaway" will be announced Monday, October 18 at www.maryannfraser.wordpress.com/.