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Word by Word

Word by Word and Keynote Butterflies

I had a great time at the SCBWI-Utah/Southern Idaho Regional Conference last week. Not only did we rock, we rocked out! Move over Rock Bottom Remainders--here comes "Banned"! But before I got to pick up my bass and play, first I had to give the opening keynote speech.

This was a new experience. I've taught workshops all over the place, and done zillions of critiques, even spoken to a crowd of over 200 teachers, but a Keynote--the very word had me shaking in my boots. I thought I'd signed on for a two hour craft lecture on "Voice", and I was fine with that. But change "lecture" to "keynote" and somehow it upped the ante. I was breaking out in cold sweats just thinking about it. That's the power of words for you.

In the end, that's what I spoke about--The Power of Words. My talk was well received, to judge by the comments. At least and the audience laughed in all the right places. So I want to thank the organizers for inviting me--and making me step out of my comfort zone.

Authors included Sydney Salter (My Big Nose) and Carol Lynch Williams (The Chosen One). Lori Benton from Scholastic and Jennifer Rofe from Andrea Brown Agency also spoke.  Read More 
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Best Books of 2011

Happy News!

Two of my books, CINCO DE MOUSE-O! (Holiday House; illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler)and CARMEN LEARNS ENGLISH (Holiday House; illustrated by Angela Dominguez) have been chosen as Best Children's Books of 2011 by the Bank Street College of Education.

The Children's Book Committee reviews over 6000 books each year and selects 600 books to include in their annotated bibliography. From their website:

"The Children's Book Committee was founded almost 100 years ago to help parents, teachers, and librarians choose the books that children will find captivating and transforming."

I'm proud to be among the books selected. Read More 
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Having a Wonderful Time, Wish You Were Here

Luncheon in Prince George
I recently had a wonderful time in Prince George, British Columbia. In spite of some travel mishaps (maybe someday I'll write a humorous account of my travel mishaps--but right now they are still NOT funny)I was treated like royalty by three elementary schools: Highglen Montessori, Heather Park, and Ecole College Heights.

I was invited to visit Prince George by Nancie Miners's Division 6 class at Highglen Montessori. They had read both books in The Tails of Frederick and Ishbu series, THE MYSTERY OF THE BURMESE BANDICOOT and THE CASE OF THE PURLOINED PROFESSOR last year, and wrote me letters. They sent me photographs of their classrooom pet rats--Tonks and Fleur--who just happened to look like the rats in my book! We started corresponding, and I was invited to visit.

It was wonderful to meet all of the children, parents,teachers, and librarians. One of the highlights of my visit was a luncheon put on by Division 6. We had tea brewed in a china teapot and served with cream and sugar, coffee cake made by the teacher, and a violin serenade. I shared stories about the real Frederick and Ishbu, and gave the kids some writing tips.

Thank you, Prince George! It was a trip I will long remember.  Read More 
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And the Winners Are....

Judy Cox
Monday was a big day in the world of kidlit. The ALA Youth Media Awards were announced. The awards are the equivalent of the Oscars for children's book authors, illustrators, and publishers.

The awards, given by the American Library Association, are announced during the ALA January conference. In 2005, Elbrite Brown won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent for his gorgeous cut paper illustrations for my book "My Family Plays Music". Amazingly, I didn't find out for two weeks!

This year's Newbery Award went to "Moon Over Manifest" by Clare Vanderpool.

The Caldecott (for picture book illustration) went to "A Sick Day for Amos McGee,” illustrated by Erin E. Stead and written by Philip C. Stead.

I'm looking forward to reading these books, along with the other award winners and honor books. I don't always agree with the committee's selections--my most frequent complaint is some of the books seem to have less kid appeal than adult appeal--but I know that a Newbery or Caldecott winner will always be beautifully crafted, adding breadth and depth to the world of children's literature.

What were some of your favorite books this year?  Read More 
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My Favorite Christmas Books

Every year on December 1st, we haul out two boxes of Christmas books. It became a tradition, mostly started as a way to help temper my son's excitement and let it build more slowly. I still get the books out on Dec. 1st, even though my son is now in college.

Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorite Christmas books. Most of them are for children, but not all:

The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
A Christmas classic picture book. So much better than the movie. I hang silver jingle bells on the tree every year.

On Christmas Eve by Margaret Wise Brown
I am so glad this was reprinted with new illustrations. The text captures both the shivers of excitement and the peacefulness of Christmas Eve.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
A classic on the true meaning of Christmas. Read the book, then watch the cartoon narrated by Boris Karloff. Don't bother with the movie.

The Snowman by Raymond Briggs
This gentle wordless picture book was made into an animated short movie some time ago. The movie is worth seeing and has an exceptionally beautiful score.

Miracle on 34th Street by Valentine Davies
The best movie version is the 1940's black and white movie with Maureen O'Hara. This book came after the movie, in an unusual switch. I have the version illustrated by Tomie dePaola.

The Jolly Christmas Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
A seasonal sequel to The Jolly Postman, with letters and games that actually pull out of the book.

The Christmas Alphabet by Robert Sabuda
My favorite of the pop-up book artist's Christmas titles. All the pop-ups are in white, on colored background.

Peter Spier's Christmas by Peter Spier
If I could choose only one Christmas book to read every year, this would be it. It's a wordless book, a simple story of a family getting ready for Christmas. For me, the magic is in the fact that the book ends--not on Christmas day, with gift giving--but in undecorating, taking out the trash and the tree, returning items, and the sense that Christmas will come again next year. There's something incredibly reassuring about that--things don't have to be perfect! I get another shot at it next year!

Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas by Russell Hoban
This is a wonderful book to read aloud. Jim Henson made a muppet-style movie of the book, which I enjoy. But the book is better. Maybe because I'm a musician, I really appreciate the musical context.

Pilgrim's Inn by Elizabeth Goudge
This is a book for adults, set in England following World War II. It's not primarily a Christmas book, but the end scenes take place in an old inn, at Christmas. The author's descriptions are incredibly visual.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham
Another book that is not primarily a Christmas book, but has a wonderfully Christmasy scene in it. And who doesn't love Mole, Rat, and Toad?

The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
Always winter, and NEVER Christmas? The spell is broken when Father Christmas arrives.

Santa Calls by William Joyce
The pictures of the North Pole are outstanding in this humorous adventure book set in a fictional 1908 time period. Think of old adventure movie sequels.

It's a Wonderful Christmas by Susan Waggoner
A non-fiction book for Baby Boomers. The subtitle is "The Best of the Holidays 1940--1965. Tons of photos and old ads.

That's my list. Have a wonderful holiday and a happy New Year! Read More 
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The Important Thing about Picture Books

Recently, an article in the New York Times (see link on sidebar)
stated that picture books seem to be on the wane, as parents and teachers push children into reading “harder” books in order to make gains on reading tests. This is such a mistaken notion.
Picture books far are more than easy books with pictures as a crutch. Like learning to crawl before learning to walk, picture books serve an important function in a child’s language development.
I hope we as a culture haven’t forgotten that picture books:
• Develop vocabulary. Because picture books are meant to be read by an adult to a child (and not the other way around) the author is free to use any words at all—including made up words and words in other languages. There are no restrictions. The level of vocabulary in a picture book is much higher than in a leveled chapter book.
• Teach an appreciation for language. Picture books sound best when read aloud. They use playful, tongue-tickling language. Picture books teach an appreciation for all the fun of English, including alliteration, onomatopoeia, puns, and word play. No where else, aside from poetry, will you find such joy in words.
• Visual interpretation. The pictures in a picture book often tell a companion story to the text, so the reader learns to interpret visual clues—like facial expressions and body language. In our graphics-heavy culture, the ability to “read” visuals is a key skill.
• Shared experience. A picture book, shared by an adult with a child, is an interactive experience. It gives the child a chance to ask questions, and make comments. It gives the adult a chance to listen, guide, and direct. The interaction leads to increased receptive and expressive language.
• Brain development. A picture book read by an adult to a child engages more centers of the brain than a video. (see link on sidebar)

I remember hearing about a grandmother who was concerned when her grandson entered school, and was labeled as language delayed. She promptly put him on a “diet” of fourteen picture books a day. Imagine—she read fourteen picture books every day (not in a row) to her grandson! Within months, he had caught up to the rest of the children in his class.
So snuggle up with a child today and share a picture book. You won’t regret it.  Read More 
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Carmen Learns English

Carmen Learns English
A lot of people ask me if I get my story ideas from my experiences as a teacher. Mostly, my answer is no. Most often, my ideas come from my own childhood, recalled to mind by observing and listening to my students.

But in CARMEN LEARNS ENGLISH, I used some of my teaching experiences in a more direct way. Because this book springs from my personal experience, it's particularly dear to my heart.

In 2003, I got a job teaching kindergarten at a school that served a migrant farm-worker population. I was hired two days before school started, with no time to prepare. My class consisted of nineteen kindergartners. Fourteen of my students didn't speak English, and my Spanish (like Ms. Coski's) is muy terrible! Somehow, we muddled through.

To teach my students, I used puppets and stories and songs. I tried to build on familiar knowledge--like colors and numbers and the alphabet. But the single most powerful thing I did was to use my terrible Spanish. It made the kids laugh to hear my horrible accent, my mispronunciations, my wrong words. My students realized that it was okay to make mistakes--okay to try--when I was learning, too.

One day Maria held my hand as we walked to the bus to go home. We'd been singing "The Wheels on the Bus" and she was still singing the song when she caught sight of the school bus. Suddenly, I could tell something clicked for her. "Amarillo!" she shouted. "Chellow!"

I was so impressed with the patience, determination, and persistence of these children as they made their way through the school year, in a foreign country, in a foreign language. I dedicate this book to them.  Read More 
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Blast Off to New Horizons

This weekend, May 14--15, I'll be winging my way to Portland, Oregon to teach at the Oregon chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Spring Conference. The title of the conference is "Blast Off to New Horizons". To see who is speaking, I typed in the entire line-up of authors, editors, illustrators, agents, and art directors above--or you can visit the site at www.scbwior.com for a brochure.

My workshops will focus on the writing of picture books. Many people harbor the mistaken notion that because they are short, picture books are easy to write. Actually, because they are short, picture books are a challenging art form--like a miniature painting or a sonnet. There are rules! Learning the rules--and how to be creative within them--is at the heart of writing a successful picture book.

If you are an aspiring children's author, I hope you'll join me, and the rest of our illustrious crew, as you launch your writing career! Read More 
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That Toddlin' Town

Judy reflects.
I'm just home from my whirlwind adventure in Chicago! What a quick trip. I flew in on Sunday and back home on Tuesday. The weather smiled upon me and I had a brisk, blue, spring day in which to swoop about town. I made the most of it, rising early to walk through Grant Park to the shore of Lake Michigan, passing beds of yellow and red tulips nodding in the breeze. They don't call it the Windy City for nothing! My presentation at the International Reading Association National conference, with professor Deborah Wooten (author of "Children's Literature in the Reading Program: An Invitation to Read") went very well. I'd purchased a netbook computer to run my Powerpoint slide show, but didn't need it after all. Jeff Ebbeler, the illustrator of Cinco de Mouse-O! and One is a Feast for Mouse was there, so we invited him onstage to answer questions.

Jeff and I had two hours between the presentation and our book-signing at the Holiday House booth, so we caught a cab and dashed over to the Chicago Art Institute where I steeped myself in the vivid colors of the Impressionists. What a superb collection of art. One of my favorite exhibits was the Joseph Cornell boxes, but everywhere I turned I saw a painting, sculpture, print, or photo of something I recognized. The whole thing gave me goose bumps.

That night I joined Eric Kimmel, David Adler, Laurie Lawlor, Hilary Wagner, notable educators, and the folks from Holiday House at a dinner at the Chicago Firehouse restaurant.

The next morning, on Jeff's advice, I headed to Millennium Park where I had the Cloud Gate (known to Chicagoans as "the bean") all to myself. Photo op!

Many thanks to the fine folks at Holiday House for inviting me. I had a wonderful time and hope to go back again someday!  Read More 
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Countdown to Chicago!

Judy and illustrator Jeffrey Ebbeler in Chicago
It's only four days away and Wow!--am I excited.

I'll be speaking at the International Reading Association National Conference in Chicago at 11am on Monday, April 26. My presentation--with Deborah Wooten, education professor and author of "Children's Literature in the Reading Program"--is entitled "Celebrate Reading!" I'll be giving a slide show and talking about the stories behind my books.

Come join me at 2:30 that afternoon at the Holiday House booth, #1910. Jeff Ebbeler and I will be signing our newest book, Cinco de Mouse-O!

If you're in the Windy City, stop by and say "Hello!" Read More 
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