West Virginia Book Festival

The incredible staying power of Arna Bontemps

I’ve read Harlem Renaissance writer Arna Bontemps to fifth graders before. But this year it was different.

My standard is “Bubber Goes to Heaven,” written in the early 1930s but not published until 1998. That year Oxford University Press brought it out with gorgeous carved and painted illustrations by Daniel Minter. It’s about a poor, African-American kid in Alabama who falls out of a tall pine tree and goes to heaven, where everyone has plenty to eat and all the washer women have plenty of work.

It always pleases the class where I am a Read Aloud volunteer. We get to discuss this child’s idea of heaven and what it reveals about his daily life in the rural South during the Great Depression.

It also always connects, despite being so removed in time, place and even dialect. The first year, when it became clear that the boy in the story was awarded a purple ribbon bookmark from Shiloh Baptist Church for learning the books of the Bible, a girl in the class piped up, “I have one of those.” Hers was also an award for scripture knowledge. Another year, a student commented that her church had the same name.

But this year, it sparked its own little Arna Bontemps revival, right there in Charleston, W.Va.’s Piedmont Elementary School. As soon as we finished the last page, the questions came fast.

“Are there any more of those?”

“Is that a series?”

“Is there another story in that book? What are those extra pages?”

It is not a series, I answered. There is another story with a character named Bubber. I had recently learned as much from one of the essays in the “extra pages” in the book. It is not clear whether it is the same character.

“If I can find another book by this author, would you like me to bring it?”

There was a chorus of “Yes.”

So, we all parted for a three-week school break, and I hurried to the computer to track down copies of “Lonesome Boy” and “Sad Faced Boy,” two of Bontemps’ other children’s books. I did not find them in recent reprints, but in older, less pristine forms. When school resumed, I dutifully carried in “Lonesome Boy,” what I considered the better of the two, and more likely to please. It tells the story of an older Bubber who so enjoys playing his trumpet, he plays it anytime, anywhere. His grandfather warns him not to play his instrument absent-mindedly, but always to pay attention to his surroundings. The young man heads off to New Orleans, forgets his grandfather’s advice, and catches himself in some bad and dangerous company.

The students liked it. They immediately spotted the contrast between the heavenly imagery of the first story and the devil imagery of the second. They begged for yet a third Arna Bontemps. So, with some inner reluctance, we read what I thought was the weakest, certainly the simplest, of the three, “Sad Faced Boy”. Three children hop a freight train and head to Harlem, where they stay with their uncle and have child-size adventures that contrast their 1930s rural life with the bustling life of New York City.

The physical volume itself had a story to tell. I’m so glad that someone somewhere along the way taught me not to judge a book by its cover, and so I told the class. Because this old, plain, worn burgundy cover had fraying corners, and it smelled. But we opened it anyway. The pages appeared to be from a first edition in 1937. They were delicate, but whole. The book had clearly been rebound. I pointed out to the students the biggest surprise. On the title page, among the many marks this book had acquired in its long journey, was a stamp from the Rowther Relocation Center in Arkansas. Relocation center? As in Japanese internment camp.

So before we read, we took a moment to understand where this book started out, and who might have read it, and what was going on in their world at the time. We examined some kid’s notes on the endpages — “5×8=40; 5×9=45.” That brought a sympathetic laugh.

And then we read of three boys who get into a parade, who form a band, who find the park, who eat ices. I would have thought the adventures were too quaint, too old-fashioned to impress these young sophisticates, but there was something both strange and familiar about these children leaving home to see the world.

We spent almost the whole term on this author in weekly installments, not by my plan, but by theirs. In the end, most of the 47 students said “Sad-Faced Boy” was their favorite of the three. That might have been because it was most recent in their memory. Or it might have been the intriguing journey taken by the book itself. In any case, after all these years, Bontemps still brings it.

Before the end of class, one student asked me how much the book is worth. Another one made me an offer to buy it. I call that a successful read aloud.

Book awards, nominees and other news

A bunch of book award news lately:

| The most storied award in children’s literature, the Newbery Medal, was awarded on Monday to “The One and Only Ivan” by Katherine Applegate, a story for children ages 8 and up about a gorilla whose contented existence in a cage is upended when he’s joined by a baby elephant. According to the review in School Library Journal, the story is “a poignant, quietly powerful tale that sheds light on animal cruelty.”

| Also Monday, the Caldecott Medal for the top American picture book went to “This Is Not My Hat,” which was illustrated (and written) by Jon Klassen (who seems to be making a career of writing about animals and hats). School Library Journal said that “the brilliantly spare digital artwork conveys a parallel narrative with tiny telling details revealing that crime does not pay.”

Both the Newbery and Caldecott are awarded by the American Library Association. A list of runners-up for both awards, as well as honorees for several others, can be found here.

| Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up The Bodies” has garnered more than its share of awards already. It won the Man Booker Prize, and it ended up on year-end best books lists from The New York Times, The Washington Post and many others. Mantel added to her haul on Tuesday, when “Bring Up The Bodies” won the Costa prize (and the 30,000 British pounds that come with it) on Tuesday.

The book is the second part of a trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, the clergyman and minister who helped bring about the English Reformation before (spoiler alert!) losing his head at the Tower of London in 1540. The first installment of Mantel’s trilogy, “Wolf Hall,” also won the Man Booker Prize.

“Bring Up The Bodies” was unanimously awarded the Costa (which was called the Whitbread Prize until 2005), becoming the first book to ever win both that prize and the Man Booker Prize.

| The annual list of nominees for the Edgar Awards, from the Mystery Writers of America, should be required reading for mystery fans. Besides the overall mystery category, there’s biography, first novel, young adult, etc. — including TV teleplay, where you’ll find the pilot episode of “Longmire,” the A&E television series based on the novels of 2012 West Virginia Book Festival presenter Craig Johnson.

| There’s also some news about book awards that doesn’t have anything to do with actual books. The National Book Foundation, which presents the National Book Awards, is changing the process by which the winners are chosen. The judging panel will be expanded, and both a longlist and shortlist of finalists will be announced.

If that sounds familiar, maybe it’s because the Man Booker Prize is awarded in a similar fashion. National Book Foundation people say they want to integrate the award more into popular culture, and they want to goose sales not just of the eventual winner, but of the books that make the shortlist as well.

A Golden Delicious story to go with the stamp

The drawing of a Golden Delicious apple featured on a new postcard stamp.

News came last week of the relative immortalization (is that a word?) of the Golden Delicious apple, discovered in Clay County in the early part of the 20th century. The U.S. Postal Service is putting the apple — along with the Baldwin, the Granny Smith and the Northern Spy (which sounds like the coolest apple ever) — on a series of postcard stamps.

That makes this a good time to remind kids and their parents, teachers, etc., about “Golden Delicious: A Cinderella Apple Story,” the children’s picture book by West Virginia’s Anna Egan Smucker. The book tells the story of Anderson Mullins and his farm in Clay County, where the Golden Delicious apple was first grown.

Smucker was a featured presenter at the West Virginia Book Festival in 2008, the year “Golden Delicious” came out. Her book, according to Kirkus Reviews, is for kids ages 6 to 10 and is “a standout amidst the proliferation of apple books found in elementary classrooms.” If that’s not good enough for you, here’s a video of Smucker reading from her book (put online by Read Aloud West Virginia).

Charleston Gazette holding book drive for W.Va. kids

The Charleston Gazette (a sponsor of the West Virginia Book Festival) is collecting gently used children’s books to share with children around the state.

The Gazette’s Happy Valentine’s Children’s Book Drive runs from now until Feb. 14.

Donors may drop off books at the newspaper’s lobby at 1001 Virginia St. E., Charleston, seven days a week. Children’s Home Society of West Virginia and Read Aloud West Virginia have agreed to help distribute the books to children who need them.

“Books are so important,” said Gazette Publisher Elizabeth E. Chilton, who created the book drive. “If you love books, you just want to share them.”

Having books at home actually makes a difference in how far children go in school, according to a 20-year study published in 2010.

Children in homes with their own books go further in school than those with no books at home, according to a study of families in 27 countries led by Mariah Evans, sociology professor at the University of Nevada.

Having books at home made a difference whether families were rich or poor and whether parents were highly educated or not.

In families with libraries of 500 books or more, children averaged another 3.2 years of education compared to those who had no books.

Even smaller book collections made a difference. Families with as few as 20 books still showed a significant educational difference.

Children need opportunities to practice the skills they learn in school, said Mary Kay Bond, executive director of Read Aloud West Virginia.

“You don’t fall in love with books if you don’t see them and you don’t have access to them,” she said.

Other research has shown that children who read for pleasure read more often than kids who don’t read for fun. Kids who read on their own also improve with practice and tend to make better grades and test scores than children who do not read for fun.

“We have a lot of research out there that suggests some of the simple and most effective ways to raise readers are overlooked,” Bond said.

Motivating students to be interested in reading, giving them reading materials of interest to them and then giving them opportunities to read can spark new habits.

“Those three things, whether you’re applying it to reading or sports, have to be there,” Bond said.

Donated books will be distributed to children in many different circumstances. Some may be in foster homes or staying in shelters because of abuse or neglect. Many more donations will go to children in families whose biggest problem is poverty, who have nothing left after paying bills and buying groceries.

“When you are trying to survive, you’re not thinking about buying books,” said Mary White, chief operating officer at Children’s Home Society.

But poor children need access to books, too, and her agency routinely tries to put books in the hands of children who do not have easy access to them. She answers calls from families, other agencies and teachers looking for extra help for needy students.

“We want children to learn to read because if you learn to read your opportunities are far greater than if you don’t learn to read,” White said.

The Happy Valentine’s Children’s Book Drive welcomes new books, but used books are fine. Books should be clean and in good shape and appropriate for children.

Books that appeal to all kinds of readers are wanted. That means picture books and novels, but also board books for little ones, and non-fiction books about horses, dogs, cats, bugs, sharks, dinosaurs, pirates, sports, space and anything else that kids enjoy reading about. Joke books can be popular and inviting among new readers, as are “strange but true” science books.

“Very often the opportunity for children to read for fun gets drowned out with overscheduled children or because children are plugged in all the time,” Bond said. In busy classrooms, many teachers feel like they cannot spare 15 minutes a day for students to read something just because it is of interest to them.

“Yet, we know when they do, they catch that reading habit, and the benefit extends beyond the school day,” she said.

A few holiday gift book ideas for kids

This column originally appeared in the Saturday Gazette-Mail on Dec. 22.

Of course, all of your packages are wrapped and ready, so this list of gift ideas for multiple ages couldn’t possibly interest you. Nevertheless, you are welcome to stay while I recall fondly some of the books I spent time with this year:

• On most bookstore shelves this fall is the latest Lane Smith picture book “Abe Lincoln’s Dream.” Poor old Abe is troubled and restless, and goes on a tour around the White House with a little African-American girl.

During the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, during the term of the nation’s first African-American president, with that stunning Lincoln film still playing, it is nice to imagine this child comforting the man who freed the slaves.

It is also good for the spirit to take a break from the problems of the day, both real and imagined, and admire how far the nation has come. This book is short and warm enough for young listeners, but deep enough to engage older readers.

• Another picture book, “Bill the Boy Wonder” by Marc Tyler Nobleman, you may have encountered on West Virginia Book Festival: The Blog. Nobleman was at the Book Festival in October and described how he found and tracked down the forgotten descendants of Bill Finger, the uncredited co-creator of Batman.

It is a vibrantly illustrated non-fiction tale that appeals not only to Batman fans and comic book readers, but also to anyone with a sense of justice.

“Dead End in Norvelt” came out last fall, won the 2012 Newbery Medal, as well as the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and is by one of my favorite authors. Jack Gantos, a 2005 Book Festival presenter, set his story in 1962 Norvelt, Pa., one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s Depression-era settlement communities, where the author actually lived as a boy.

He borrows heavily from his own childhood for this upper elementary/young adult novel about a family and town pulled between their past and future. Jack’s father is a World War II veteran who wants to shake the dust of the dying town and seek his fortune where there are jobs and opportunity. Jack’s mother was a girl in Norvelt during the Great Depression and wants to maintain the caring community people built there. For all the weighty ideas in this book, it is not heavy. I recently read it to 38 fifth-graders, and they laughed all the way through it.

One thread of the plot involves someone buying vacant houses in Norvelt and moving them to Eleanor, W.Va., another settlement community that is growing, not dying, as the character says. I would love to know what people of Eleanor make of some of the book’s characterizations

“Alvin Ho” isn’t new, but it is one of my favorites for kids who are reading on their own and have started to move into longer books.

From the moment in 2008 when I picked up “Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School and Other Scary Things,” I was smitten. Alvin is so scared of school, he is unable to speak there. But at home he is the energetic and vocal Firecracker Man. Alvin’s adventures are full of suspense and action, despite being limited to the world of home, school and the doctor’s office.

• When I picked up “A Coyote’s in the House,” from way back in 2004, I was skeptical. There seems to be no end of well-known adult authors writing kids books that are more about name-dropping than having an interesting and readable story to tell. But with Elmore Leonard, author of gritty, contemporary adult fiction such as “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight,” have no fear.

Meet Antwan, cool, wild and savvy. He wanders into a Hollywood Hills mansion one day, up to no good, where he meets Buddy, an aging film star who wants to get away, see what he’s missing, fill a void in his life. Did I mention almost all the characters are dogs, except for the coyotes?

The sharp dialogue and the picture-perfect storytelling make this book go.

• Finally, another volume I’m giving this year is “A Tale Dark and Grimm” by Adam Gidwitz, published in 2010. I didn’t realize until I saw the Google doodle that this is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

I just know this book to be a crowd pleaser. This volume restores the blood and suffering that had been purged from the original stories to make them “suitable” for children. That makes it sound like a lot of gratuitous violence.

But it’s not. The old Grimm tales have been strung together into a novel about Hansel and Gretel. You’ll encounter old folk tales and characters you may not have known, a chatty, easy style, and a story full of love, mistakes, struggle, sacrifice, forgiveness, redemption and growth.

That makes it a very seasonal choice, indeed.

Book memories, old and new, at the used book sale

Early on in the children’s book section of the used book sale at the West Virginia Book Festival on Saturday.

I made a pass through the children’s section of the Kanawha County Public Library’s used book sale Saturday morning because you never know what you’ll find.

I found a worn but serviceable hardback copy of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” by Barbara Robinson, the funniest Christmas book ever (and deep and moving). Already have an adequate paperback. Put it back.

Grown-ups shuffled along, heads and lower backs bent to the task of sifting for fiction and non-fiction treasure. Kids wiggled in between, forming an inner line along each table, like the front row along a parade route. One girl weaved fearlessly in and out of the formation.  She examined and gathered items from the picture book table and carried them neatly to a distant box her mom was filling. They looked like they were stocking up for the winter. Other families did the same. They piled books into their strollers and carts and other load-bearing vehicles. One boy nabbed every volume in the Dragonball  series that he saw. Another pulled two books out of a lineup of early chapter books, slipped them deftly into his father’s shopping bag without distracting Dad from his own browsing, and went back to the precise spot where he had left off as if it were bookmarked. A preschooler pulled a book out of a pile and sung out triumphantly, “Toy Story!” Adults laughed, but didn’t look up.

At the big kids book table, an older woman carefully turned over every Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew book one by one. I saw “White Fang” and “Gulliver’s Travels,” and I’m pretty sure the exact edition of the Classics Illustrated “Black Beauty” that I read in third or fourth grade. I opened  Anna Sewell’s 1877 classic:

The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it. Some shady trees leaned over it, and rushes and water-lilies grew at the deep end. Over the hedge on one side we looked into a plowed field, and on the other we looked over a gate at our master’s house, which stood by the roadside; at the top of the meadow was a grove of fir trees, and at the bottom a running brook overhung by a steep bank.

While I was young I lived upon my mother’s milk, as I could not eat grass. In the daytime I ran by her side, and at night I lay down close by her. When it was hot we used to stand by the pond in the shade of the trees, and when it was cold we had a nice warm shed near the grove.

Yep. Still a classic.

I really don’t need any more books. The crowd was thick and intent at this hour. It was time for me to get to a 10 a.m. program, so I backed off my browse. As the children’s books disappeared behind me, I heard a gruff man’s voice exult, “Stone Soup!”

Abra Sabuda!

We haven’t seen much of pop-up book wizard Robert Sabuda here on the blog in the run-up to the West Virginia Book Festival. Honestly, it is pretty difficult to describe the magic of opening one of his books and getting Peter Pan’s cloud-level view of London, or seeing a deck of cards appear to flick through the air. Here, watch this video:

Robert Sabuda’s Beauty and the Beast

That should give you some idea of the experience. Then you can come see for yourself. Sabuda appears at the Book Festival at 1 p.m. on Saturday.

Truth, justice and fresh picture book bios

Comic books are notorious for wrestling with themes of justice. Yet a sad vein of injustice seems to run through the lives of many comic book creators.

One is Bill Finger, the subject of Marc Tyler Nobleman’s newest picture book biography “Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman.” Nobleman will appear at the West Virginia Book Festival at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 14, at the Charleston Civic Center.

Finger was responsible for much of Batman’s look, his character development and decades of stories. But because of an early contract with artist Bob Kane, Finger’s name is left off every book, film and TV show featuring the Caped Crusader.

While the writer never got official credit, fans and fellow comic book creators started to take notice and spread the word about Finger’s role in Batman starting in the 1960s.  Nobleman’s book builds on their work and rescues parts of Bill Finger’s story that might otherwise have been lost.

Part of what made Batman such an innovative character when he was introduced in Detective Comics back in the spring of 1939 is that he is a flesh-and-bone hero. He is not bulletproof. He can’t fly. He’s not an alien or a god or made invulnerable by radiation. He is a brave, clever, but flawed vigilante made by the world around him.

Nobleman concisely depicts the world that made Batman’s creators from page 1:

After Milton Finger graduated from high school, he invented his first secret identity. In 1933 Jews were sometimes not hired just because they were Jews. Milton was commonly a Jewish name, so Milton chose a new one: Bill.

Vivid panels of illustrations by Ty Templeton complete the story.

This book follows Nobleman’s 2008 “Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman,” another story of comic book creators and their difficulties. This time, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, a couple of teenagers from Depression-era Cleveland, sold the rights to their creation for $130, and then struggled for much of their lives trying to correct the mistake.

Illustrations again, this time by Ross MacDonald, enrich the experience. The art not only shows the style of dress and cars and pulp mags of the day; the style of painting actually evokes illustrations of the time.

These picture books are accessible to elementary-school readers and listeners, but they are sophisticated works of art and serious research capable of pleasing older readers as well. Both include detailed epilogues and bibliographies for further reading.

A page from “Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman” by Marc Tyler Nobleman, illustrated by Ross MacDonald, imitates both the art and life of the Depression-era America that give rise to the Man of Steel.


Inspiring children to read is topic of talk

Sarah Dooley
photo by John McCoy

Young adult author Sarah Dooley will present a session for adults about helping children find books they’ll love. Her talk, “Captive or Captivate: Inspiring Kids to Reach for Books,” is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 13, 11:30 a.m. at the West Virginia Book Festival.

Getting kids to read and getting kids to want to read are two separate animals. In this workshop, participants will explore a variety of strategies for connecting young readers with the books they will love.

Dooley is the author of two novels for young readers, “Livvie Owen Lived Here” and “Body of Water,” both from Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan. She holds a degree in education from Marshall University and has taught special education at the elementary, middle and high school levels. In August, Dooley won a PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship for Free Verse, which is forthcoming from G.P. Putnam’s Sons. She is a member of West Virginia Writers.

Charlaine Harris, best-selling urban fantasy novelist; Craig Johnson, author of the “Longmire” series of mystery novels; Dan Chaon, former National Book Award finalist; and Tamora Pierce, author of 28 fantasy novels for teens, have already been announced as part of the line-up for the festival, which will be held Oct. 13 and 14 at the Charleston Civic Center. The annual, two-day event celebrates books and reading and offers something for all age groups. A variety of authors will attend, participating in book signings, readings, workshops and lectures. Activities for children include special programs and a section of the Marketplace filled with children’s activities. Admission to the festival is free.

The event is presented by The Library Foundation of Kanawha County, Inc., Kanawha County Public Library, West Virginia Humanities Council, The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail and is sponsored by The Martha Gaines and Russell Wehrle Memorial Foundation; Pamela D. Tarr and Gary Hart; the Friends of The Library Foundation of Kanawha County; West Virginia Library Commission and West Virginia Center for the Book; BB&T West Virginia Foundation; Books-A-Million; and William Maxwell Davis. For more information, visit www.wvbookfestival.org.

When Bill Merical sells a book at the West Virginia Book Festival, he won’t be the only one that who benefits.

Merical, who has written a book called “The Journey of Fallen Rock.” On his website, he calls the book “a children’s story about family, the adventure of traveling coast to coast across this great land and the lesson that we all can enjoy our natural resources while we still protect and preserve them. ” The website also has a bunch of testimonials from students and teachers.

Here’s Merical explaining who else benefits from the sales:

At the West Virginia Book Festival we will selling The Journey of Fallen Rock for $10.00 and  donating a copy of The Journey of Fallen Rock plus $2.50 to Read Aloud West Virginia for every book sold.  Growing up in Nitro I look forward to getting to help out a great program like Read Aloud West  Virginia. … We only sell the book to non-profit groups, PTOs and PTAs to help them raise money and recently had several teachers write a 3-week lesson plan for 5th and 6th graders.

Merical will be selling “The Journey of Fallen Rock” at booth 203 (left side, near the entrance) in the Festival Marketplace.