Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Book-crush Wednesday: Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze

(Just a warning, as I was writing this post got kind of REAL. Also long. Also I wanted to post it sooner, but I thought it was appropriate to wait until this week. So. Yeah.)

Readers, there are some things I do that I am not proud of.

One of those things is my first encounter with the author of Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze.

In  retrospect, it's a DAMN good thing I didn't know when I first met him that the author of this brilliant middle grade novel is also responsible for THIS, otherwise I think I would have fan-girled even more embarrassingly than I did. 

I mean, seriously. He wrote the lyrics!! And who doesn't LOVE Killer Tofu??? (Unless you weren't a 90s child. Then you probably think this is weird.)

Earlier in the day, I had seen him speak in a panel with his editor, so I knew all about the book and the difficult topic it tackled — one that I related to so much I was crying in the panel. So when I saw him at the party, I knew I had to say something, and ended up kind of rambling a lot about how I couldn't wait to read it and then pretty much spilling my life story in a crowd of 1,300 people.
Our next encounter went better, I think.

Anyway, the good news is that Alan Silberberg, author of the brilliant Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze, was gracious in both our encounters, and his book is fan-freaking-tastic. He probably survived our meetings because he has a great sense of humor, which served him well in writing Milo, which won SCBWI's Sid Fleischman Award for humor.

And funny it sure is. Milo the character is real and hilariously flawed, and those flaws and that real-ness open him up to the kind of observations that produce fantastic belly laughs. The humor is so real because Milo is so real. It doesn't feel forced. It's the kind of humor writing I wish I could manage, but instead I stick to depressing topics because, well...I'm not so good at humor. Plus there are comics in the book, which are mostly funny (though some of them are so painfully sad and poignant), and Alan's artistic talent at drawing attention to just the right moment was clear. The balance of graphic text to novel text was just right.

Don't let the award or the cartoons fool you. Milo also tackles an incredibly serious subject: mother loss. Liesa Abrams, Milo's editor, said in a panel at SCBWI-LA that a frequent question while the Milo MS was making the rounds at Simon and Schuster was, "Where were you when Milo made you cry?" 

For me, that place was the hotel lobby at SCBWI.

And again in LAX. (Twice.)

As someone who lost my mom as a teenager, I can tell you that this book describes perfectly what losing a mother feels like. The book takes place years after Milo's mother's death, but he is still very much coping with what her death means. He's struggling to move on while at the same time struggling not to forgot. 

God, do I know what that feels like.

There were so many moments in this book that resonated so strongly for me. Things that I had to put the book aside and have a moment because they were so reminiscent of my own experience of my mother's death. In one scene, for example, Milo goes garage sale hopping with his friends and finds items that he is so certain belong to his mother (but realizes they probably just look like things she once owned.) I experience that every time I go to a thrift store in my area. I know we donated a bunch of her belongings, so I always look at an outfit or a dish or a knick-knack and think, "This must have been hers." And now that I'm a semi-fashionable adult and wear scarves, I get angry every day that we donated her scarf collection — I could have had a daily reminder of her.

But that's what Milo does so well. For me, it was therapy. It showed me it was OK to move on, and that it wasn't forgetting. 

My mom died eight years and two days ago. I am an adult, and Milo helped me cope. I can't imagine how wonderful this book must be for children, middle-graders, who are going through something like this.

And even for those who aren't, it's a fantastic, heart-warming, funny book full of belly-laughs and tearful moments.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Fabulous Picture Books!

My friends Jennie and Jacki and I were discussing picture books at the Decatur Book Festival this weekend, and I mentioned to them that I really love a specific type of humor in my picture books; the kind of post-modern, quirky, bizarre humor that Jon Scieszka and Mo Willems so perfectly write. In my quest to find more books like theirs, I have read a LOT of picture books – some which actually have this kind of humor, and some which are just awesome on their own.

As I was talking, Jennie said, "You should blog about that."

So I am.

Here are four fantastic picture books that I've read since January. It's safe to say that, even though I'm not including any Jon Scieszka or Mo Willems on this list, since they are my inspiration for it, I think pretty much everything they write is awesome. (Especially that Scieszka dude. He's pretty much flawless. Also, his last name rhymes with FRESCA. You're welcome.) These books are more in the metafiction/weird humor categories; I've read some traditional ones I've loved, as well. Feel free to ask if you want to know about those.

Book 1: Nothing by Jon Agee

I love this book! This was the first Agee book I read, and it caused me to go on an Agee streak. Though I loved a few others, as well (particularly the alphabet book Z Goes Home, which almost made it onto this list instead), no other book has captured my heart as much as Nothing. 

The concept of this book is so fun and simple. Shop owner Otis has sold the last antique in his shop, and therefore has nothing for sale. But then the richest woman in town comes in, insisting she must have this "nothing." Otis, not wanting to let her down, sells it to her and loads it into her car. Soon, shops all around the town are selling nothing, and the townsfolk throw away all their stuff to make room for more nothing. It's a fantastic satire on mob mentality and consumer culture, but not something that would go over a kid's head. In fact, it's the perfect book to use to bring up that type of discussion, if it's something you're interested in talking to your children about. Otherwise, it's just plain funny.

Book 2: The Book that Eats People by John Perry, Illustrated by Mark Fearing

This picture book is metafiction at its best! It's The Monster at the End of this Book for the 21st century! So, naturally, I love it.

The book is literally about a book that eats people — and that book is the book that readers are holding in their hands. It's a little bit scary, yes, but the concept is so ridiculous and the illustrations so outlandish that I don't think a child could actually be frightened by this book. Especially if they read it with their parent, and the parent got interactive, making the book chomp on their little toes while reading! (I don't know if that makes me a horrible person or an awesome person. Probably both.)

Also, can we talk about that author's last name? Mark FEARING? Yeah. Loves it.

Book 3: Let's Do Nothing! by Tony Fucile

This is a great example of a book where the author/illustrator combo definitely comes in handy. I don't think one person could have written this and then passed it off to another to illustrate, because the text and the illustrations lose themselves in one another.

Let's Do Nothing! is about two kids who try to, well, do nothing for an afternoon. They sort of make it into a contest, but that little dude there on the right (the one with the glasses. Of course.) keeps messing everything up with his big imagination. It's a simple concept, but it stuck with me months after I read it.

Maybe that's because I'm lazy and like to do nothing.

 Book 4: The Pencil by Alan Ahlberg, Illustrated by Bruce Ingman
Oh, how I love this tale of "a pencil, a lonely little pencil" and all the things he draws to keep himself company: a boy, a dog, a kitty, a paintbrush, an entire village, and eventually a sadistic eraser who destroys everything! There is something so simple and beautiful about it, and just a little bit sad, too, but also sweet and fun. The illustrations are just gorgeous, but the story is fantastic, too.

I mean, really, I could go on and on (and on and on and on) about all the fantastic picture books in the world. When one really strikes me, I'll post it for a Book-Crush Wednesday. But this is a good starting place if you're new to picture books.

OK, so you might be asking yourself (or me): "Self/Heather, Why would I want to read picture books? I don't have kids. I don't write picture books. This seems like a giant waste of my time!"

On the contrary, dear reader. Picture books can teach you about rhythm and word choice and language and comedic timing and using the space on a page and a whole host of things that books for older readers are harder to study. Writing a picture book, just one picture book, will give you immense appreciation for how hard the craft is, and will show you the power of choosing your words carefully, which is definitely something that can be carried into novel writing. Plus, if you've never written and revised a piece from start to finish...well, there is definitely something gratifying in doing that exercise and starting small.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Decatur Book Festival Highlights!

Hello readers!

I'm back from the Decatur Book Festival!

OK, I got back yesterday, but we're going to ignore that fact. It was late and I was sleepy. Atlanta is many, many hours from here.

Let's talk highlights!


Do I even need to say more?

That's right. There were copies of LOLA AND THE BOY NEXT DOOR. ON. SALE. Weeks before release! There were only a limited number, though, and I managed to snag one. It was one of the highlights of the festival.

Here's how it went down:

Sunday morning was a late-start day, but I got to the festival grounds around noon. I figured I would goof off and shop, eat a corn dog and a popsicle, and participate in general merriment until 1, when I'd sit in in the panel before the panel with Rachel Hawkins, Jackson Pearce, and Victoria Schwab, which was set for 2. It was a pretty great plan, and it worked out great.

Except the 1pm panel cancelled.

It didn't make sense to go spend more time at the main part of the festival, plus it was raining, plus I'm lazy, so I just tweeted for awhile and then looked bored. Eventually I thought I'd take a look at the books on sale, even though I knew I already owned everything I wanted and basically I didn't need more.

I swear, sometimes the books just call to me, readers.

While I was standing over there, someone asked this little girl (who must have been around 12, and I don't think she knew what she was in for) if they had copies of LOLA. The girl said "Oh, yeah, totally!" and opened a box. It was like freaking Pandora's box. Chaos! I managed to snag two copies, one for myself and one for my friend Jess, and was just about to text the friends I was at the festival with to tell them to head over and grab their own copies when they ran out. I had no idea copies were so limited, but I am overjoyed to have gotten one.

I've already finished it, naturally. It was fantastic. But more on that in another post.

2. The authors! Here's a little list for you:

Rachel Hawkins
Jackson Pearce
Victoria Schwab
Beth Revis
Myra McEntire
Elizabeth Eulberg
Terra Elan McVoy
Stephanie Perkins
Lauren Myracle
Libba Bray

And that's just a few! There were a TON of fantastic authors there, I couldn't even list them all! I got face time with some of my favorites (even though the crowds were seriously intense), and the panels were FANTASTIC. Lauren Myracle talked about SHINE (which you know I loved...have you read it yet???) Libba Bray did a BEAUTY QUEENS MadLibs, which was awesome. She also told the story about how she became a writer, which makes me cry. Rachel Hawkins, Jackson Pearce, and Victoria Schwab were HILarious together. And over all the whole thing was just fantastic.

3. These women:

These women are amazing. They made the festival for me, and I loved seeing some of them again and meeting some of them for the first time. You should get to know all of them.

Top: Tameka, from Imperfection is the New Pink; Jacki from Lovely Little Shelf; Crystal from Life, Love, and Literature; and Ashley from That's Life

Bottom: Julie from Book Hooked; Jennie from Life is Short, Read Fast; and Me!

I can say with confidence that I will make the trip to Atlanta as long as I am in close proximity, because the Decatur Book Festival is a seriously amazing time!! If you're within distance, I definitely suggest adding it to your calendar (and even if you're not...these ladies came from all over)!

I'll be posting more specifics about the panels and more pictures in the coming week!
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