Miscellany – Thoughts on Childrens Book’s, Reading with My Daughter, and More

This is the hodge-podge section. This is where you’ll find my random thoughts about children’s literature, finding books for my daughter, reading with kids, publishing, random stuff, videos, links – that which defies categorization.

A Letter to My Mom

My mom is getting a pretty cool Mother’s Day gift this year…

A few months back, I got a very unusual invitation. I was asked to contribute to an anthology titled A Letter to My Mom, a book of letters written by celebrities and normal folk (like myself) in which we all take a moment to thank our moms for, well, being moms. (It was the continuation of a series started by Lisa Erspamer – the previous volumes were A Letter to My Cat and A Letter to My Dog.)

I like my mom. A lot. She has sacrificed a lot for my sister and I over the years and she loves and nurtures my daughter in the tradition of the best kind of grandparents, so I was very happy to be given such a unique opportunity to say “thanks” to her in such a public setting. (She’s really pretty great.) Well, the book was just released and it’s now on sale. I am 100% biased when I say that it would make a great Mother’s Day gift, but I’m allowed, right? It’s my first legitimate book credit.

And, oh boy, the company I get to keep in this book is SURREAL. Not only does the book collect my heartfelt letter to my mom, but it also collects letters from celebrities like Melissa Rivers, Shania Twain, will.i.am, Christy Turlington, Kristin Chenoweth, Mariel Hemingway, Josh Groban, Monica Lewinsky, Dr. Phil McGraw, Suze Orman, Kelly Osbourne, Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York… the list goes on and on.

A Letter to My Mom

A brief excerpt from my letter, in which I compare my mom to Keyser Soze from “The Usual Suspects”…

The book is sentimental and sweet and wears its heart on its sleeve, which is easy to do when you’re talking about people that you love. So, if you’re so inclined, seek out A Letter to My Mom. It’s a celebration of all things “mom” and I had a great time contributing to it.

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The Death Eaters are coming for you!

The Death Eaters are coming for you!

Two weeks ago, my daughter’s elementary school had their annual Fall Festival and I got talked into… I mean, I got the privilege of helping head up the haunted house. Actually, it’s called The Haunted Hallway because, basically, we have a few hours to transform two sections of school hallway into something that can creep out a K-6 audience. But WEEKS of planning happens before that short set-up time, particularly regarding the “theme” of the haunted house, which has to be both appropriate and interesting for elementary school kids. This year – and I couldn’t have been happier about this – the theme was HAUNTED HOGWARTS. That’s right. A Harry Potter Haunted House.

It made the kidlit/Potter-nerd in me completely geek out and it couldn’t have been more perfect because my daughter is currently reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. (She’s almost done. ______ _____ just died. She’s sad. We’re dealing with it.) Originally, we hit onto the idea because we thought that it would be really creepy to have Dementors going after the kids, but, after a few weeks of planning, we didn’t end up having Dementors at all. (The costume was tricky and we couldn’t figure out a good “Dementor Kiss” effect.)

Instead, the students entered a hallway in Hogwarts (complete with floating candles and talking pictures) where Professor McGonagall warned them that Voldemort and the Death Eaters were on the rise. Next, they went through a pitch-black Forbidden Forest, where they got whomped by parents in Whomping Willow costumes and almost got eaten by a giant spiders. They then moved onto Diagon Alley, getting harassed by goblins all the way, until they ended up in a graveyard where Voldemort and some masked Death Eaters were waiting for them. (I was a masked Death Eater who jumped out from behind a curtain, yelled “Avada Kedavra!”, and pointed my wand at them – which was really an air-compressor hose that loudly sprayed a stream of air at them, making the kids scream and run out the exit.)

It was a whole lot of fun and I’m proud of what we accomplished on a very small budget in a very small amount of time. Here are some pictures of our nerdy parents having DIY fun in J.K. Rowling’s world…

This was the first Hogwarts Hallway. Isn't that backdrop painting cool?

This was the first Hogwarts Hallway. Isn’t that backdrop painting cool?

Our very own Acromantula (i.e. big-*** spider)

Our very own Acromantula (i.e. big-*** spider)

Our homemade Diagon Alley...

Our homemade Diagon Alley…

... complete with creepy Kreacher-esque goblins (yes, I know Kreacher was a house-elf, but they're still creepy)

… complete with creepy Kreacher-esque goblins (yes, I know Kreacher was a house-elf, but they’re still creepy)

[read the rest of the post…]

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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??)

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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.

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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.

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Hogwarts

You may have read about this place in “Hogwarts: A History”…

Earlier this year, a few days after my daughter finished reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, she came down with a fever and had to stay home from school. I kept her company that day and, by 10 am, we were both fairly bored. As she sat on the couch, listlessly playing with some new Harry Potter Lego mini-figures, out of nowhere, I asked her, “Hey, wanna make them their own Hogwarts?” Her eyes INSTANTLY perked up and that kicked off one of the most purely fun sick days we’d ever shared.

I ran around the house, collecting every appropriately-sized cardboard box that might make a good Great Hall, dormitory, or potions classroom. I then gathered up all the cardboard cylinders I could – paper towel rolls, wrapping paper tubes, a breadcrumbs container, etc. – to make castle towers, tunnels, and, in, at least one case, a Chamber of Secrets. We raided ever dollhouse and Playmobil set my daughter owned for furnishings and, after she insisted on making her own Forbidden Forest, we used an old piece of posterboard to act as our foundation, allowing us to sketch out the perimeter of the grounds and attach a series of plastic trees (mostly old birthday cake toppers) using globs of Play-Doh.

Here are some pictures cataloging our Homemade Hogwarts. (If you click on any of these, it will take you to a bigger version of the picture AND an online album with even more pictures of “the grounds.”)

Homemade Hogwarts

Our homemade, maker, whatever-we-had-handy version of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

We’re not a particularly “crafty” family. We don’t paint murals on our walls or hand-make our own Valentine’s Day cards or anything. But, for whatever reason, my feverish daughter and I embraced this homemade Hogwarts project with both hands, working on it for hours. We geeked out over every detail and even learned to love all of its wonderfully well-intentioned mistakes and imperfections. This isn’t a Pottery Barn Hogwarts. This is a cobbled-together, warts and all, magic-marker-and-scotch-tape Hogwarts, born of discarded Amazon boxes and the love of a six-year-old.

Homemade Hogwarts

A Nimbus 2000-view of our cardboard Hogwarts

We adored building it so much that it remained in the center of our dining room floor for MONTHS (until we eventually carefully transplanted it down to the basement playroom). [read the rest of the post…]

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Building a Library

Um, yeah, I have no good excuse for taking so much time off…

So, as some of you may have noticed – if anyone reads this blog anymore – that I haven’t posted in a long time. A very, very long time. Like the whole summer, practically.

And you may be asking yourself, “Tom, have you forsaken us? Have you recommended all of the books you care to recommend? Are your suggestions for ‘building a home library’ now complete”?

The answers are – yes, I did forsake you a little bit and, no, I’m not done recommending kids’ books.

In fact, I have lots more recommendations coming in the next few weeks, even though you have NO reason to believe that claim, based on this past summer.

My excuses are extremely mundane. It’s been a weird summer. Work has been hectic, life has been hectic – but that’s pretty normal. Mostly, I’ve been dealing with the most selective form of writer’s block I’ve ever experienced.

During this summer, I’ve actually written quite a few things, including seven chapters of a young adult novel I’m working on that I’m convinced (today, at least) will never, EVER be done.

But, whenever I’ve sat down to write for this blog, I’ve been blocked. Blocked entirely.  I would try to write a glowing review of a book we just discovered at the library and… nothing.  Just nothing and a blank brain and anxiety and excuses for going to sleep early and/or watching Game of Thrones on HBOGo again. So… yeah… I’m a bad, bad kids’ book blogger.

However, I think I’ve turned the corner. In fact, I didn’t even let myself post this mea culpa until I had four subsequent book posts written and in the hopper, so I can guarantee that some new content IS coming.

So, if you stuck with this blog, thanks a ton. If you bailed during the doldrums, hopefully, I can win you back someday. But new stuff is coming and I can’t wait to share some new recommendations with you and steal some suggestions from you guys as well.

Thanks for listening,

Tom

PS – I just read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time for the first time last week. Oh my god, how good is that book, guys? I mean, seriously, I tossed it onto the “Books My Kid Will Read in the Future” shelf as soon as I was done. Just a gorgeous book that made me want to give fictional Meg Murray a hug for at least a week.

A Wrinkle in Time

What a seriously cool book… I even love the ’70s-looking, Zardoz-esque cover of this old paperback.

PPS – The Hope Larson graphic novel adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time is similarly amazing. A brilliant work of adaptation. I know me liking a comic book isn’t a huge surprise, but… wow. It’s seriously good.

A Wrinkle in Time Graphic Novel

One of the best graphic novel adaptations I’ve ever read…

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Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late

This is how I felt for the entire month of April…

Regular readers of this blog might have noticed a teeny-tiny reduction in the number of updates lately. Oh hell, let’s be honest – I took the entire month of April off.  Why? Because April was a great, glorious time-suck of a month this year. It wasn’t the cruelest month, as T.S. Eliot suggested, but it was one of the busiest months I’ve had in a very long while.

Work commitments, father of a first-grader commitments (I appeared as a lovely magician’s assistant in my daughter’s talent show performance), personal commitments, writing commitments (Have I mentioned that I’m currently writing a YA novel? Guess what? Writing is HARD) – As a month, April totally got away from me this year, and Building a Library suffered as a result. Sorry about that.

On the plus side, I was able to squeeze in some quality library time with my daughter, so I have a lot of new discoveries and re-discovered old favorites to share in May. OH, and to prove that I haven’t been a complete sloth, I thought I’d share with you some of the articles I’ve been writing over the past few months for other websites. So far, this year, I’ve had pieces featured on The Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, and 8BitDad.com, AND I’ve appeared twice as an on-camera commentator on Huffington Post Live, which was surreal and awkward and even a little bit fun. [read the rest of the post…]

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The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes

A story as progressive as “The Country Bunny” is a perfect fit for PBS…

I always look to see if there’s any accompanying video content available whenever I make a book recommendation – an author interview, a book trailer, etc. – and I found a real gem while looking for video related to The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes this week.

Apparently, during the late ’70s and early ’80s, Nebraska Public Television and the Nebraska Department of Education developed a children’s show to promote reading called Once Upon a Time. The show revolved around a witch who loved stories so much that she locked Marion the Librarian in her tower until (to quote the theme song) “the witch is happy / And lets Marion go away.” So the show mostly involves Marion reading stories to kids each week from the witch’s tower- it’s like a mash-up of old locally-produced children’s shows (like Bozo the Clown and Mister Dress-Up) and the old PBS classic Reading Rainbow.

(There was an oddball Canadian kids’ show about reading – the weirdly sci-fi Read All About It – that I adored, even though its floating-head main villain, Duneedon, terrified me when I was younger.)

Once Upon a Time

This is how we got kids to read in the ’70s and ’80s…

Once Upon a Time is low-budget and a bit cheesy, but the 33 episodes are so earnest and charming that it’s hard not to feel a lot of affection for the show. I would’ve LOVED it as a kid. Plus Marion the Librarian read lots of really great books, including The Country Bunny, Make Way For Ducklings, Madeline’s Rescue, Horton Hatches The Egg, Stone Soup, and more. So, if you’re interested in checking out a nicely nostalgic public TV take on Du Bose Heyward’s The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, here you go:

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Quiet! There's a Canary in the Library

Finding perceptive, interesting book suggestions can be hard…

While I love doling out kids’ book recommendations to other parents, the sad fact is – my knowledge of children’s literature is woefully finite. If we’re talking about any of the books in our home library or our local library favorites, I can puff my chest out and throw out suggestions like nobody’s business. But, if a parent or friend needs a recommendation for a book that lies outside of my home library wheelhouse, I need help. And, since there are thousands upon THOUSANDS of kids’ books that never make it into our extended library circle (despite my best efforts), I find myself looking for help with reading suggestions all the time.

As such, I thought it might be helpful if I listed some of the places I go when I’m looking for really great book suggestions. Some of these resources are fantastic at making themed recommendations – i.e. the best books for Spring, Easter, Arbor Day, etc. – and some are just excellent at profiling the coolest new children and young adult titles that totally should be on your radar. So, if you want to be a fake kids’ book expert like I am, here are five superior resources that will really make you sound like you know what you’re talking about.

1. EarlyWord.com

EarlyWord.com

This is where librarians get all their inside information…

Anybody who loves literature should have EarlyWord.com bookmarked and they should check it daily. It’s a site designed for collection development librarians – a.k.a. the people at your local library who decide what books they should buy for your community. The founders of EarlyWord keep a very keen eye on what’s being published by all of the major publishers, specifically so they can let librarians know what books they should be keeping an eye on as well. They alert librarians about hot new titles, they keep track of literary awards, they profile books that have been mentioned on TV or that have been turned into movies lately – all because they know that those are the books that patrons will be asking about at their local libraries soon.

EarlyWord.com has a Kids’ Section that’s extremely worth checking out on a weekly basis. They have a recurring feature called “Kids New Title Radar” where they profile the most significant new kids’ books coming out every week. Their kids’ section collect kids’ book trailers, they suggest reading lists for major holidays and events – it’s an amazing resource. And, if you check out the right-hand sidebar of the site, you can find a treasure trove of valuable information, ranging from a calendar of upcoming book-to-film adaptations to a downloadable Excel list that collects every kids’ book that made it onto a major “best books” list in 2012. This is easily one of my favorite sites on the web.

2. The Books on Top of the Shelves in the Kids’ Section at Your Local Library

I’m not going to point out that your local youth librarian is a great resource for reading recommendations because…well, duh. That’s their job. If you’re struggling to find really good books for your kids and you haven’t asked your local librarian for help yet, you’re missing out. So, while the importance of kids’ librarians may be obvious (to me, at least), some of the things they do for you on a regular basis may not be. For example, when you walk into the children’s section of most libraries, you’ll see a variety of books prominently displayed either on top of the shelves or arraigned on a rack at the end of the shelves. Again, this may be obvious, but… you know they’re there for a reason, right?

Quiet! There's a Canary in the Library

No, no, the good stuff is ON TOP of the shelves…

All of those “featured books” aren’t there to add a splash of color to the shelves. They’ve been placed there ON PURPOSE by the librarians. This is how they communicate their personal reading suggestions or how they highlight new, exciting titles that the library has just acquired. Whenever I enter the children’s section at our library, the very first thing I do is a circuit around the shelves to see what the librarians are suggesting this week. Thanks to the simple act of balancing a book on top of a shelf, I have “discovered” so many spectacular books that never would’ve been on my radar before. So, the next time you’re at the library, be sure to keep your eyes on the shelves. [read the rest of the post…]

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