The Three Investigators

In the old days, kidlit mysteries were solved by plucky tweens charging 25 cents plus expenses…

I love shopping for kids’ books at used bookstores for two reasons – #1). you never know what you’re going to find and #2). it’s a fantastic reminder that the world of children’s literature has always, ALWAYS been gloriously and deliriously WEIRD.

Because sometimes, when it comes to children’s books, we romanticize the past. We look at the current world of children’s publishing – with kids’ books written by celebrities, kids’ books based on toy lines, and kids’ books all about what it would be like if your pets could text you jokes (not making that up) – and there’s a tendency to think, “Sigh, it wasn’t like this in the good old days. Back then, kids read LITERATURE.” Well, I’m here to tell you that kids have been reading weird stuff for AGES, since long before dogs even knew what text-messaging was, and part of the fun of used bookstore shopping is seeing what kinds of literary oddities earlier generations inflicted on their youth.

In my most recent trip to the children’s section at our local used bookstore, I found several books from the 1960s that had odd celebrity tie-ins. There was a dog-eared copy of A Red Skelton in Your Closet: Ghost Stories Gay and Grim Selected by the Master of Comedy, because, if I’m looking for something truly scary to read in 1965, I’m going to hit up a master of comedy… apparently. (Aside from selecting the stories, Skelton also wrote an introduction titled “Of Course I Believe in Ghosts.”) Then there was the pristine copy of Shirley Temple’s Storytime Favorites, with the picture on the cover that made Temple look more like Betty Crocker than the child star she’d been in the 1930s. But, hands-down, the best, the most wonderfully weird ’60s celebrity kids’ book I encountered – and that I just HAD to buy – was all about Alfred Hitchcock, possibly the most acclaimed movie director of all time, teaming up with three kid detectives to solve mysteries.

The Three Investigators: The Secret of Terror Castle

Hitchcock even does cameos on the covers of children’s mysteries…

That’s right. Alfred Hitchcock, director of Psycho and Vertigo, hanging out with three Encyclopedia Brown knock-offs. And did I mention that the kid detectives drive around in a chauffeured, gold-plated Rolls Royce? How could I NOT buy the book immediately? There’s actually a whole series of books in the “Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators” imprint. I picked up the first and seventh volumes of the series, The Secret of Terror Castle and The Mystery of the Fiery Eye, and they’re the best things I’ve bought in a long time.

Here’s a quick excerpt from Hitchcock’s “Introduction” to The Secret of Terror Castle:The Three Investigators: The Secret of Terror Castle

I seem to be constantly introducing something. For years I’ve been introducing my television programs. I’ve introduced motion pictures. And I’ve introduced books of mystery, ghost and suspense stories for my fans to shiver with. [read the rest of the post…]

{ 9 comments }

You Can Build Your Library on Instagram Now…

by Tom B. on November 12, 2013

Hey visual learners – Building a Library is continuing its painful slouch into the twenty-first century by finally kicking of our brand new Instagram page! (At this rate, we’ll be joining Pinterest in 2015, just in time to pin pictures of our hoverboards and self-lacing sneakers.)

You can find us at instagram.com/buildingalibrary or you can click on that cool little Instagram logo in the upper right-hand side of this page.

Building a Library Instagram

Because looking at pictures of books is way, way more fun than looking at what your co-workers are eating…

What can you expect from the Building a Library Instagram page? Mostly pictures of over-priced hipster breakfasts. (Kidding.) OR, what’s more likely, is that you’ll be seeing cool little snapshots from our home library collection, recommendations for awesome new kids’ books, fun images of interesting book paraphernalia and minutiae, and any other weird little items I can dig up during my hunt for amazing reading material for my daughter. That’s the plan, at least.

Building a Library Instagram

I kind of adore these Harry Potter book-ends that my mom got us…

So, subscribe to the Building a Library Instagram page and, since I’m new to Instagramming, if you know of any Instagram accounts that I really should be following, please leave your recommendations in the comments section below. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to see which filter hides my thinning hair best. (Darn you, Amaro, why can’t you hide my flaws better??)

{ 1 comment }

Lost in the shuffle...

It’s so easy for new kids’ books to get lost in the shuffle…

For a parent, keeping up with the current state of children’s publishing can be hard. Children’s and young adult titles are more popular than ever, so there are just an immense amount of new kids’ books hitting the shelves every week. And, for parents, finding those new titles – the new and really, really great titles that your kids will totally love – isn’t always easy or intuitive. Oftentimes, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for parents to encounter new kids’ books. Maybe you’ll see one online (if it’s prominently featured by one of the big retailers), maybe you’ll see one at the library (if your library ordered it), or maybe you’ll discover it at your local bookstore (if you still have a local bookstore). There are so many variables working against parents in the hunt for new books for their kids.

While I can’t solve the problem – because I miss just as many amazing kids’ books as the next parent – maybe I can help a little. Here are five of the coolest, most interesting, recently released children’s titles that I’ve encountered over the past few weeks. Even if these titles aren’t ideal for your kid, these books are all outstanding enough that they should definitely be on your kidlit radar.

1. Aesop’s Fables by Aesop and Ayano Imai

Two years ago, I wrote a post about “The Difficult Task of Introducing Your Kid to Folk Tales and Fairy Tales,” which was all about the responsibility I felt, as a parent, to give my child a well-rounded introduction to the myths and legends of the world. Related to that, let me just say, one of my biggest regrets is that I never bought my daughter a collection of Aesop’s Fables. It was a huge oversight on my part that possibly occurred because I never really read them myself as a kid. But, if you want a truly superior introduction to Aesop’s Fables for your home library, you can’t do better than this off-the-charts GORGEOUS picture book by Ayano Imai. The edition of Aesop’s Fables is ingeniously designed (you flip the pages landscape-style, like a calendar), Imai’s illustrations are packed with absorbing details, and it’s just one of those picture books where you want to frame every page and hang them in your kid’s room. I think the book may have been originally published in 2012, but I just saw a new 2013 edition of Imai’s Fables last week and I was blown away. (You can learn more about the book here and browse through it here.)

Aesop's Fables by Ayano Imai

A simple, elegant retelling of Aesop’s best fables…

2. Ballad by Blexbolex

Ballad by Blexbolex

There’s enough genius in here to keep your kids occupied for DAYS…

Blexbolex is a ridiculously talented French illustrator and, last June, I wrote about my love for his beyond brilliant word-book People. That title was an epic, phone-book-sized masterpiece that taught children about a huge variety of different people, including contortionists, centaurs, fakirs, tattooed men, rabbis, cat burglars, and more. (Seriously.) Each page featured wonderfully simple and iconic representations of different kinds of human beings, illustrated in a fashion that almost made them look like they were screen-printed or stamped onto each page. If it’s possible, Blexbolex‘s new picture book, Ballad, is an even more ambitious work, a truly staggering piece of visual storytelling.

Ballad follows a young boy as he walks home from school and, during his journey, the boy spins a series of increasingly complex stories based around the different environments he encounters – school, street, path, forest, and, eventually, home. The boy’s stories feature classic icons from the history of fables, ranging from witches to queens, and Ballad just perfectly captures how ingrained storytelling is in our day-to-day lives and imaginations. (Maria Popova wrote a much better and more perceptive review of Ballad – with way more images – that you can read here.) If you want your child to have really smart and beautiful picture books on their bedroom bookshelves, works like Ballad are a great place to start. [read the rest of the post…]

{ 1 comment }

The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations

Any fans of kidlit need to see this documentary…

Back in October 2011, I contributed to a Kickstarter campaign by filmmaker Hannah Jayanti, who wanted to create an original documentary to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of The Phantom Tollbooth, a children’s classic written by Norton Juster and illustrated by Jules Feiffer. I’ve written about The Phantom Tollbooth at considerable length in the past (here and here and here), largely because I think it’s one of the most profound books I’ve ever read. As a kid, it hit me like a ton of bricks and, when I found out that I was going to be a father, the very first thing I ever bought for my yet-to-be-born daughter was her very own copy of The Phantom Tollbooth. So, understandably, I was more than a little interested in seeing a documentary about the origins of the book and the creative duo that brought it to life.

A few hours ago, I just finished watching the finished product, Jayanti‘s charming and perceptive The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations, and, let me tell you, the title is apt. The documentary exceeded any expectations I could’ve had for the project and, I’ll be honest, as a bit of a Tollbooth fanboy, my expectations were probably set unreasonably high to begin with. Even if you’re not a card-carrying devotee of Milo and his adventures beyond the tollbooth, this is just a really great film. Anyone interested in art, creativity, learning, or the power of words should see this movie.

Jayanti‘s visual palette and design sense are as precise and whimsical as the men who created The Phantom Tollbooth, and the handcrafted feel of the film itself is wonderful vehicle for conveying the story of the book’s creation. (The animated sequences, narrated by David Hyde Pierce, are particularly delightful.) The documentary interviews Juster and Feiffer extensively, both together and separately, and, through their interactions, you can still see how these two men, bursting with creativity, could come together to create such a literary classic. In addition to the creation of the book, Beyond Expectations also explores the histories of the creators, the personal and cultural impact of The Phantom Tollbooth, the importance of both education and failure (which I don’t think gets enough attention as an educational tool), and how Norton’s approach to learning positively impacted the lives of his daughter and granddaughter.

The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations

I love the look of this film…

I think it’s impossible to come away from watching The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations without an overwhelming sense of affection for Juster, Feiffer, and the world they created in The Phantom Tollbooth. And, personally, I just couldn’t be happier that this film not only got made, but got made so well.

If you’d like to see The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations, it’s available now for instant streaming and HD DRM-free downloads HERE. (You can also pre-order the DVD.) To find out more about the project, you can visit the film’s official website HERE. There’s a lot of great content on the official site, including information on the creators, production videos, and a video that profiles Norton and Juster’s latest literary collaboration, The Odious Ogre.

Seek this documentary out, folks. It’s worth your time.

{ 1 comment }

Lonely Planet Not For Parents Travel Book

This is a fun book about travel for kids, but it’s not actually about kids travelling – which is an important distinction.

One of the most common grade-school writing assignments is the classic “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.” However, if you go to a bookstore or library and look for books where real kids actually explain what they did do on their summer vacations, family trips, or any other travel experience… you’re not going to find much. Or at least I didn’t. Maybe I’m just not Googling correctly, but, if there are books out there collecting really superior examples of travel writing for kids, they shouldn’t be this hard to find.

First, let me explain what I’m NOT referring to when I say “travel writing for kids.” I’m not referring to books about geography or other cultures. I’m not referring to nonfiction books that open with “Hello, my name is ____. I am from _____. Let me tell you about my country.” And I’m not referring to maps, atlases, or any kind of reference book. (If you want a particularly good example of a fun, readable geography book for kids, I’m a big fan of the Lonely Planet Not For Parents Travel Book.)

What I am talking about are travel memoirs, first-person accounts of people travelling across the globe and sharing with their readers how those experiences made them feel. And there are so many fantastic travelogues and travel memoirs that are written both by adults and for adults – for example, the nonfiction works of V.S. Naipaul, Alexis de Tocqueville, Paul Theroux, Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing is, technically, travel writing), Bill Bryson, Colin Thubron, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck (and his Travels with Charley) – the list goes on and on.

Personally, I’m a big fan of Michael Palin, the former member of Monty Python-turned-world-explorer, who’s responsible for a remarkable series of BBC travel documentaries and accompanying volumes of travel memoirs. (Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days is a particular favorite.)

But, while the world of adult travel writing is robust and varied, there are almost no works of travel writing that address the experience of children travelling, either coming from the perspective of adults travelling with their children or the perspective of the kids themselves. Which feels like a hugely missed opportunity.

A Little House Traveler: Writings from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Journeys Across America

Wilder’s diaries aren’t just historical nonfiction, but they’re also solid examples of travel writing that’s actually about a young person travelling.

(The only big exceptions to my “no travel writing for kids” argument – that I’m aware of – are Laura Ingalls Wilder’s diaries from her family’s journeys across the American frontier, which, I’ll admit, I haven’t read.)

Personally, I love travelling with my daughter. We’re not an exceptionally well-travelled family, but, whenever I take my daughter somewhere she’s never been before, the best part of the trip is always seeing the place through her eyes. Travelling with a child forces you to adopt an entirely different perspective as a traveler. Because, when you travel with your kid, you have to be both their steadfast travel companion, the person who’s going to lead them out into the big scary world, AND you also have to take on the responsibility of placing that big scary world into context for them. [read the rest of the post…]

{ 4 comments }

Scholastic’s Kids Are Authors Contest

Does your kid want to publish their very own picture book? Scholastic can help…

While 826 National does publish some of the most beautifully designed kid-authored books I’ve ever seen, they’re certainly not the only organization that publishes books written by school-aged kids. If you’re interested in more examples of superior student publications, you should definitely check out the current and past winners of Scholastic’s Kids Are Authors Contest.

Scholastic, publisher of both Harry Potter and school book order catalogs (not sure which is more famous), sponsors an annual contest for K-8 students in the United States in which teams of students can collaborate on writing and illustrating their very own book. Students can submit their books to Scholastic, which publishes two winning entries each year – one fiction and one nonfiction  – and sells the finished books via their national network of school book fairs.

The contest itself is extremely cool – the deadline for this year’s submissions is March 15, 2014 – and all of the winning entries I’ve read have been equal parts fun and impressive. There’s just something very enlivening about seeing kids put together their own books and having such control over the words and art. There are always these quirky, inspired moments in each book that I don’t think would ever occur to an adult author, but they just feel perfectly natural coming from kids.

Scholastic’s Kids Are Authors Contest

The 2012 Kids Are Authors Nonfiction winner – White Tails and Other White Tales

Past winners of the Kids Are Authors contest include titles like The Seeds of the Milkweed (written and illustrated by second grade students from East End Elementary School, Little Rock, Arkansas); White Tails and Other White Tales (written and illustrated by second grade students from Longfellow Elementary School, West Allis, Wisconsin); Two Dollars, One Wallet (written and illustrated by third grade students from William McKinley Elementary School, Burbank, California); and A Kid for Jack (written and illustrated by fourth grade students from Piney Grove Elementary School, Kernersville, North Carolina), among others.

It’s terrific that Scholastic publishes these books, however, the winning titles are exclusively sold through Scholastic school book fairs, so it’s not tremendously easy to get copies of past winners online (or to get the current winners if you don’t live near a book fair location). They’re not sold on Amazon or anywhere else, though I’ve occasionally seen a few copies of past titles on eBay.

So, if you can make it to a book fair this year, I’d really recommend checking out the winners of the Kids Are Authors contest. There’s something awesome about kids writing for an audience of their peers. The books connect with their readers in really interesting ways and such creativity and drive should always be rewarded.

Scholastic’s Kids Are Authors Contest

Some of the past winners of the Kids Are Authors Contest…

AND, if you think your K-8 kid should be a published author, check out the contest guidelines HERE. They could maybe run the idea past their teacher, put together a creative team, and who knows? They just might have their hard work featured in book fairs across the U.S. and find themselves on the path to becoming the next Mo Willems or Kate DiCamillo.

{ 5 comments }

Don't Stay Up So Late: A Treasury of Bedtime Stories Written for Children by Children

Good advice that kids never listen to…

As I’ve mentioned, 826 Michigan’s Don’t Stay Up So Late is a brilliant book, a “treasury of bedtime stories written for children by children” that was crafted with an obvious sense of affection and pride by both its publishers and student authors. But, despite all my praise, I don’t really know if I’ve been able to properly convey how much this anthology is packed with impressive details and inspired ideas. Don’t Stay Up So Late is a book that just begs for you to linger and appreciate it. So, in order to make sure that you truly get a sense of what this book is all about (and to encourage more of you to buy it), here are ten completely amazing items, details, and flourishes you can find within the pages of Don’t Stay Up So Late:

1. The book’s dedicationDon't Stay Up So Late

2. This disclaimer on the copyright pageDon't Stay Up So Late

3. The handsome title page illustrationDon't Stay Up So Late

4. Section headings like this:Don't Stay Up So Late [read the rest of the post…]

{ 0 comments }

Don't Stay Up So Late: A Treasury of Bedtime Stories Written for Children by Children

No one tells better bedtime stories than kids…

Reading at bedtime is a big deal in our house. My wife and I alternate putting our daughter down each night and our nightly rituals always involve reading before she goes to bed. Sometimes she reads to us. Most nights, we’ll either read her two or three picture books or a few chapters from longer kid-friendly novels. (We’re reading a lot of J.K. Rowling and Rick Riordan lately.) The bedtime story ritual is very, very important to our family, That said, even though we have literally read HUNDREDS of night-time books to our daughter over the years, I’m confident in saying that the hands-down coolest bedtime book we’ve ever bought for her is Don’t Stay Up So Late: A Treasury of Bedtime Stories Written for Children by Children, an AMAZING collection of stories, published by 826 Michigan, that was entirely authored by elementary school students.

Are you not convinced that a grade school kid could write an engaging bedtime story? Here’s the first story in the anthology, written by a first-grader:"The Alien in the Attic" by Zachary Smith

When I woke up I heard a rat-a-tat-tat. I went straight down the hallway and turned right and opened the attic door. I saw a green alien. The alien had eight eyes and four arms. He could make things in one minute. I grabbed him. He punched me in the nose. I called the army but the army didn’t believe me. I put him in the basement. He ran up the stairs and I picked him up, put him back, and put a gate up. I gave him some food. I wanted to keep him. I wanted to keep him forever.

The End. That’s the whole story. Admit it – that story was ten times more engaging, heartfelt, and AWESOME than 95% of the movie tie-in, Disney, or kidlit spin-off picture books that your kid begs you to buy at Target. It’s direct and honest and Don’t Stay Up So Late is FILLED with stories just like that – stories with titles like “Supersnake,” “A Cow and a Mouse at Dance Class,” “The Super Dog That Helps People,” “The Mermaid Disappeared?”, “Dr. Jell-o’s Jell-o Plan,” and “Tiny’s Tale,” to name a few.

The bedtime stories in Don’t Stay Up So Late are overflowing with exuberant, imaginative storytelling leaps, the kinds of ingenious flights of fantasy that always seem to crop up when a kid sets his mind to tell you a story. As a parent, I found the stories in the collection to be immediately endearing and couldn’t help feeling both proud for the kids and grateful to 826 Michigan for attempting to catch such lightning in a bottle. [read the rest of the post…]

{ 2 comments }

VIDEO: Emily’s First 100 Days of School

by Tom B. on August 30, 2013

Emily's First 100 Days of School

One, one animated adaptation of the book… a-ha-ha…

Scholastic’s Weston Woods has a long tradition of making animated adaptations of classic works of children’s literature. Most are excellent – I’m a fan of their version of William Steig’s Pete’s a Pizza and their Mo Willems Pigeon videos – though a few are little questionable. (See one of my very first posts – “Dad, We Watched a Movie at School Today about an Old Lady Who Kills Children”.)

Their adaptation of Rosemary WellsEmily’s First 100 Days of School, however, is one of the good ones and should give any interested parties a nice idea of what the book is all about. Take a look and enjoy.

{ 0 comments }

Emily's First 100 Days of School

Ideal back-to-school reading for young new students

My daughter starts second grade right after Labor Day and it got me thinking about all of the books we bought her in our nervous attempts to get her “ready” for school back before she started kindergarten. Far and away, my favorite school book that we ever bought her is Emily’s First 100 Days of School by Rosemary Wells, the wonderful children’s book author perhaps best known for creating the widely known (and allegedly parentless) Max and Ruby.

The “school book” is definitely a genre unto itself in children’s lit, and the very large majority of “school books” are focused on helping kids deal with the anxiety of heading to school for the very first time. You generally either have titles like The Berenstain Bears Go to School, in which a nervous child is gently introduced to the concept of school, or you have a book like Kevin Henkes’ beautiful Chrysanthemum, in which a kid is antagonized by their classmates, loses their confidence, and has to learn to love school again.

Emily's First 100 Days of School

Is this book supposed to make me feel better about school or convince me that school is a scary place?

I totally understand the value of those kinds of school books – a kid seeing that characters in a book are dealing with the same issues that they’re dealing with can be a profound experience – but, I’ll admit, to me, some of these titles feel like they’re working from the hypothesis that “All kids will find going to school to be a terrifying, anxiety-inducing experience” and I don’t think that’s always the case.

Yes, such a major new landmark is SURE to inspire some worry in most new-to-school kids, but I’m always wary of throwing books at a kid to help them “pre-cope” with anxieties they haven’t expressed yet. To this day, I still believe that my daughter never had a fear of the dark until I read her The Berenstain Bears in the Dark, a book that (I’m convinced) introduced her to the concept that some kids regard having the lights out as a scary experience. I’m not placing full blame on Stan and Jan, but I’m just saying – we never owned a nightlight until I read that book to my daughter.

As such, I really wanted to find her a smartly-written book about going to school for the first time that presented school itself as an exciting and engaging experience. And I think Emily’s First 100 Days of School does just that. I particularly fell in love with Rosemary Wells‘ author’s note at the beginning of the picture book, where she spells out her inspirations for writing it:

When I was little, in elementary school, math was no fun for me. It was taught by rote, and it was impossible for me to see how I would use these lessons in real life.

Yet numbers are wonderful things. They appear in all our games, in our poetry, and in songs. Numbers are a vital part of our culture. Some numbers are so much a part of our language that certain things some to mind the moment the number is mentioned; other numbers are shy and need to be brought out of their hiding places. In this book all numbers are equally important, and all are fun.

Isn’t that just completely charming? I love the idea of Wells writing this book to advocate for the inherent wonderfulness of numbers. That just seems like such a fantastic, positive spirit to pass onto new young students. [read the rest of the post…]

{ 0 comments }