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Who Needs Pictures? B.J. Novak Tells the Story

BkWithNoPicturesFrom his work on The Office we already know B.J. Novak is funny, and we had a great time reading his book, One More Thing earlier this year.  It was when he came to our office for that book that I met Novak and he told me about the children's book he had coming out at the end of September.  A picture book format but with no pictures. Huh. 

When The Book With No Pictures came in I took it home right away, read it to my seven-year-old and we both cracked up.  This is one of those rare children's books that, as a parent, I'm willing to read over-and-ove--and believe me, I've been asked to do exactly that.  Loads of fun for kids and adults, Novak proves that even in children's books, words can do all the heavy lifting.

In his guest essay below, B.J. Novak talks about the origin and creation of The Book with No Pictures (one of our Best Children's Books of October and our top pick for ages 6-8).


When I was a very little kid, I was lucky enough to experience the joy and connection of having my parents read books to me. I found myself drawn above all else to humor, and especially the sense of controlled rebellion that humor always represented in books by my most beloved authors—Dr. Seuss,  Shel Silverstein, and Roald Dahl, to name a few favorites. The world they presented had clear rules and expectations; and when those rules and expectations were bent and broken, the results were exciting, interesting, funny.

Last year, as I waited for my first book, One More Thing, to be published, I would often spend time with my friends and cousins who were starting to have kids. My role in connecting to these kids was always to ask which books he or she would like me to read.

My best friend has a very young and rambunctious son named Bruce. One day when I was visiting, Bruce picked up a book and held it out to me with an insistent expression that I read him whatever was inside, and something occurred to me. This is funny, I thought. Even though I’m the one who can read, and I’m the adult—he’s in control of me, because he’s choosing the book, and the book is in charge. This was basically a little two-year-old producer handing me a script. And it occurred to me that any kid who hands you a book is essentially the producer of that evening’s entertainment, a tiny Harvey Weinstein telling you, “Here’s what you’ll be performing tonight. These are your lines, stick to the script; and I may ask you to do it a second time.” The kid was in charge because the book had the power, and the kid had the book. That was funny to me. And I thought, you know who would really find this funny? The kid.

The idea started as simply as that: If a book is a script that a grownup is being asked to recite, what script would be the funniest one for a kid to hear? As I thought more about this idea, and looked back at my favorite books from childhood from the point of view of someone who had written comedy for adults but not yet for kids, I realized a second necessary function in comedic children’s books that is not present in comedy for adults. Comedy for adults takes the rules of the world for granted - and then twists them. The world has already provided the set-up; all that the humor really needs to provide is a punchline. But comedy for the youngest children needs to accomplish a second purpose, too: It needs to somehow introduce kids to both the setup and the punchline. In an Amelia Bedelia book, a child may need to be introduced to the idea that words can have double meanings; in Dr. Seuss books, there is an established sense of order that it would be particularly funny to disrupt.

This inspired me to play with the ways that a book might introduce the rules of the written word itself, leading to a comic payoff of these rules a few pages later. The fun would come from the child and book “teaming up” to make the adult say words that were purely for the enjoyment of the child. And the lesson would be that written words aren’t simply captions to pictures: They are powerful on their own—and they can always be a child’s ally. To try to make this lesson even more clear, I came up with a title that I knew would inspire a child’s curiosity with its sheer audacity: The Book With No Pictures.

I wrote and printed up a copy and took it around to the houses of other friends with young children and asked if I could watch them read it to their kids—rather than read it myself —because I wanted to be sure I had a book that worked as a reading experience for every type of parent. With each reading I made small changes to phrasings and pacings based on the grownup’s reading and the child’s reactions, until I could tell it inspired the same amount of laughter for everyone, but for different people in different ways. As the book got closer to publication, I focused on the design, keeping an eye out for two purposes: that the page looked beautiful and colorful to a child’s eye; and that the size, spacing, and rhythmic layout of the words were so clear and simple that even the most performance-shy adult could read it easily and intuitively.

That’s the story of The Book With No Pictures. I hope people enjoy it! There’s no sound in the world like a child’s laughter, and while there are so many things I can’t do—for instance, draw—it would be quite an honor to know I’ve contributed a little more of that sound to the world.--B.J. Novak

Rick Riordan's Greek Mythology Pop Quiz

BloodOlympusToday marks the release of The Blood of Olympus, the fifth and final book in Rick Riordan's Heroes of Olympus series. It's hard to believe the second Percy Jackson series has come to an end, but in true Riordan fashion he wraps things up beautifully though of course we still want more (always). 

Next up will be a brand-new series based on Nordic mythology--look in the back of The Blood of Olympus for a tidbit of info about the first book...

After all the Greek mythology we've absorbed courtesy of the Percy Jackson books, including the recently released Percy Jackson's Greek Gods, now might be a good time to take a little pop quiz composed by the author himself to see how your knowledge stacks up:

Choose the best answer to each question below then check your answers to see how you did.

1. He was raised by the magical goat Amalthea on the island of Crete; after eating and drinking from the cornucopia, he was eventually returned to his father, soon after which he rejoined his brothers and sisters.




2. She was the mother of the goddess of spring, who was also the Queen of the Underworld; her name in Greek means “Barley-Mother.”

Artemis
Hera

3. Which of the Olympians chose never to set foot on Mt. Olympus?

Aphrodite
Athena
Poseidon
Hades

4. This god’s symbols are the shield and spear; the moons of the planet which bear his namesake are Phobos and Deimos.




5. This Greek goddess of victory’s Roman name was Vitula; the gods wisely did not contest with her, as she could not be defeated.




6. This Olympian god made golden mechanical women and twenty 3-legged tables with golden wheels that ran by themselves to help him in his smithy as he made weapons and armor for the gods and heroes. Who was he?




7. Chiron was this type of mythological beast.




8. This sorceress changed the men of Odysseus into pigs, although later she recanted and turned them back into men when Odysseus tricked her.




9. This was the favorite food of the gods.




10. Who ferried the dead across a river in the Underworld if they gave him the proper payment, a coin or obol, which the Greeks always placed under a dead person’s tongue when given a proper burial?




 SEE THE ANSWERS

Jane Lynch Gets Mean (fictionally speaking, that is)

MarleneQueenOfMeanEarlier this year, when I found out I was going to interview Jane Lynch during Book Expo America, I kind of got heart palpatations.  I love her in films, particularly Best in Show, saw her play Miss Hannigan in the Broadway revival of Annie last year (a show I'd never had a particular desire to see until I heard she was in it), and then of course, there's Glee...

Turns out, she's this totally amazing, down-to-earth children's book author. Yes, that's right--Jane Lynch, along with her co-authors and illustrator, have written a funny and smart picture book about bullying.  October is National Anti-Bullying Month, so it's only fitting that we should be talking about Marlene, Marlene, Queen of Mean  on October 1st.

The main character, Marlene, is a bully who is trying--as many do--to make friends and be popular with other kids, but just doesn't know how, and so resorts to being pushy and mean.  In the video below, Lynch and I talk about Marlene, Marlene, Queen of Mean, Lynch's own experience as a bully, and creating a character that stays true to her personality but learns how to tone down the sharp edge. 

 

 

Graphic Novel Friday: Hello Kitty(!) at 40

Hello Kitty is 40 years old. How did this happen? I remember first encountering Hello Kitty’s visage in a puffy sticker pack belonging to my sister. Then she appeared on purses, backpacks, notebooks, clothes, cards, and soon celebrities began to co-opt her image—and then Hello Kitty was everywhere. To celebrate the 40th anniversary milestone, Perfect Square enlisted significant talent to tell 40 stories (plus one for good luck) in the life of Hello Kitty and her friends. The results are a lot of fun, no matter the age of the reader—and now I’m online looking for vintage Hello Kitty puffy stickers.

Top 10 Reasons to Read Hello Kitty, Hello 40: A 40th Anniversary Tribute

10. “Cast the Pie,” Chuck BB’s story, sets Hello Kitty and her crew in medieval times with cloaks, eye patches, helmets, torches, and a scary dragon.

9. Juan Calle sends Hello Kitty into outer-space in “Lost & Found,” complete with a lovable alien cyclops.

8. That cover…you cannot resist…that adorable cover.

7. Full color interior, although a few artists employ beautiful black and white pages as well.

6. The artists appear to be free to express their indie selves—like Theo Ellsworth’s weird Hello Kitty rollercoaster ride to…well, I’m not sure, or Cynthia Liu’s mushroom-laden “Hello Kitty in Dreamland.”

5. The spooky-themed stories like “The Picnic of Peril” by James Turner and “A Frightful Night!” by Brian Smith—perfect for trick-or-treaters in October.

4. Gene Luen Yang pits Hello Kitty against a minotaur in his story.

3. Every few pages, the stories stop to give the artists a chance to write “What Does Hello Kitty Mean to You?”

2. This is Hello Kitty at age 40. In another 40 years she will likely rule us all. Best to appease her now.

1. Reading or even flipping through this book is the equivalent of smiling: it’s infectious and best passed to a nearby friend.

Happy Birthday, Hello Kitty! (File under: things I never thought I'd type)

--Alex

Jennifer Holm and Esther Ehrlich: Best Books of September

14thGoldfish400Two of my favorite kids' books this month (both on our Best Children's Books of September list) are Jennifer Holm's The Fourteenth Goldfish and Esther Ehrlich's Nest.  They are very different stories, but have strong family relationships and spunky main characters in common--I think the same reader would really enjoy both.

The Fourteenth Goldfish (our spotlight pick) is clever, funny, and thought-provoking.  I loved eleven-year-old Ellie's grumpy inventor grandfather who teaches her about the power of science and belief and being no less than one hundred percent yourself.  I laughed A LOT reading this book and recommended it to three people just last night.  Not even kidding.

Set in 1972, Nest is a powerful story about Nest400eleven-year-old Naomi, called "Chirp," and the tremendous change her family undergoes as the result of physical and mental illness.  Over the course of the book they bring out the best and worst in each other, anger and love competing for space.  Chirp finds solace in the birds near home and in an unlikely friendship with the neighbor boy who has family problems of his own. This is a book that made me hug it to my chest and heave a big sigh when it was over.  Fans of Jenni Holm's books like Turtle in Paradise would like this one.

These two authors recently got together and shared their conversation:

Jenni Holm: Your book is just gorgeous. Was there a specific moment in your life that inspired it?

Esther Ehrlich: Thanks, Jenni! No, there’s not a specific moment that inspired Nest but, I think, a lifetime of moments. The spark for the book was an image that came to me of two sisters dancing in the road together in a summer rainstorm while their mom, a dancer who wasn’t feeling well, watched them from the porch. That image captured my imagination and wouldn’t let go, and the rest of the book unfolded from there.

Jenni Holm: I have all brothers, so I really enjoyed how you delve into relationships between sisters. Can you talk a little about that?

Esther Ehrlich:  I grew up in a family with four children born within five years of each other, three girls and one boy. I guess I couldn’t imagine writing a story without siblings, but I could imagine a few less of them! Chirp having one sister just felt right.

There’s something so powerful and unique about sister relationships; they’re amazingly intimate, but you don’t choose them. Sisters can be dramatically different from each other, yet there’s a deep bond that links them together. Chirp and Rachel have such different personalities, but in ways that really matter, they’re similar—they’re both loyal, smart, observant girls with a huge capacity to love.

Jenni Holm: You developed a wonderful sense of place and time. How did you go about doing your research? 

Esther Ehrlich:  Oh, the research! I spent a fair amount of time making sure that this bird would be doing that thing at this time of year there. I depended on a wonderful guide I found online that was specific to the birds on Cape Cod. And I listened and listened to birdsongs on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. I wanted to do the birds justice—choose the right bird for the right mood/situation.

Most of my research was about double-checking the accuracy of my memory of the early 1970s. What did it say on the box of Screaming Yellow Zonkers? What Stevie Wonder song would Chirp and Sally most likely be dancing to in the basement? When did that commercial with the owl saying “Give a hoot! Don’t pollute!”run? I also dug up an old menu from Howard Johnson’s so Dad could order a “grilled-in-butter frankfort” instead of just a plain old hot dog!

Jenni Holm:  It's great having a story starring quiet yet observant children. Were you like this as a child? Why did you decide to write these sorts of characters?

Esther Ehrlich: Wow, good questions! To answer the second question first, I feel like I made very few conscious decisions about the characters, especially about such fundamental qualities like their personalities, what makes them who they are. I don’t mean to sound mystical, but the process of writing characters, for me, is much more about following their lead, paying attention to their quirks, what they reveal in little and not-so-little ways about themselves as the story develops, than about a deliberate choice I’m making. I never said to myself, “I think I want to write about an eleven-year-old girl whose eyes are wide open to the world but who doesn’t talk much to other people about her experiences.”

That said, my mother always used to say to me, “You don’t miss a trick, Es!” which I took as a compliment. I was definitely a kid who paid attention to pretty much everything. Of course, this also meant that I was very tuned in to what was going on with the people in my life—my family, friends, kids at school, teachers—and my accurate or, I’m sure, sometimes inaccurate ideas about how they were feeling. There was a vigilant quality to my observing. What is this person feeling and what is it that they need from me? No one who knew me as a kid would have described me as quiet—I was definitely a talker and still am. But the truth is, especially as a kid, my most peaceful and therefore happiest time was when I pulled back from the hard work of being vigilant and just spent time, quietly, by myself. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent alone with my bunnies in the backyard, brushing their fur with a soft toothbrush, trying to teach them to sit and stay, and just hanging out in the grass or fall leaves or snow.

Jenni Holm:  Anything you would like to add?

Esther Ehrlich: Well, I’d like to thank you for your interest in Nest and me, but I’d especially like to thank you for all of your writing. You give feisty, smart girls—and kind boys—a good name, and I appreciate that!

Rick Riordan: The Weirdest Myth

PercyJacksonGreekGodsPercy Jackson's Greek Gods releases next week (8/19) and this Best Book of August is a look at Greek mythology as only the demigod Percy Jackson can do.  We already know author Rick Riordan is an avid mythology reader but wondered what myth he's run across that was more bizarre than all the rest (because, let's be honest, a lot of mythology is really strange).  Here's Riordan's take on the weirdest myth:

The Weirdest Myth

While writing Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods, I came across a lot of weird myths. Even after all these years as a mythology buff, I’m still coming across stories I didn’t know.

Possibly the weirdest? The story of Erichthonious, the only son of Athena.

The thing is, Athena was a maiden goddess. She couldn’t have children. Yet the people of Athens wanted to find some way to claim that their king was descended from Athena, who after all was their patron goddess. They also thought it would be cool if their king was related to Hephaestus, since he was the god of useful crafts and the natural counterpart to Athena.

So the Athenians fashioned this rather weird story: The crippled blacksmith god Hephaestus fell in love with Athena, but of course Athena wanted nothing to do with him. Hephaestus tried to chase her down, but since he was crippled, Athena was faster. Hephaestus only managed to grab the hem of her skirt, and in the struggle . . . Hmm, how to put this delicately? Some of the god’s bodily fluid ended up on Athena’s leg.

Yuck. Athena got the nearest wad of wool and wiped off the aforementioned bodily fluid. She flung it down to the earth in disgust.

Sadly, divine fluid is powerful stuff. The essence of Hephaestus and Athena mixed together in that wool cloth, and a new life was created: a demigod baby, Erichthonius.

Athena heard the baby crying and took pity on him. She raised him in secret until he grew up, at which point he became the king of Athens.

And that’s how the Athenians got their ancestry straightened out. Their kings were literally the children of Athena and Hephaestus . . . though why they wanted to be descended from a discarded wool rag, I’m not sure.

Goes to show you: there’s a myth for everything. And just when you think mythology can’t get any stranger, it does. You can read the full story of Erichthonios, and so many more bizarre stories of the gods, in Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods. Hope you enjoy! -- Rick Riordan

100 Children's Books to Read in a Lifetime

Today we launched our list of 100 Children's Books to Read in a Lifetime and it's been fun to hear from readers and co-workers about their favorites.  When we came up with our list we were thinking only about books for readers age 12 and under.  Of course, we wanted to include classics like Goodnight Moon and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but we also wanted to have the recent releases that we think are going to be favorites for future generations, like Wonder and The Day the Crayons Quit

What books on this list do you love?  What would you have added if it was your list?  We have a poll on Goodreads where you can vote, and in two weeks we'll announce the Readers Choice version of 100 Children's Books to Read in a Lifetime.

100ChildrensBksLifetimeCollage500

Peter Sis Shares Early Sketches and Talks About "The Pilot and the Little Prince"

PilotLittlePrinceAn acclaimed children's book author and illustrator, Peter Sis' book The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtainabout his childhood in Cold War-era Prague, won a Caldecott Honor in 2008.  Most recently Sis turned his attention to the life of Antoine de Saint-Exupery in The Pilot and the Little Prince.  This picture book for older children (ages 6-up) tells the remarkable story of the author of the children's classic, The Little Prince, and Sis' passion for his subject leaps off the page. This is one of our favorite books for this age--actually, it's a fascinating read for anyone who's read The Little Prince--and we made it one of our Best Books of 2014 So Far.

During Book Expo America in New York last month, Sis was kind enough to do a video interview and share some of his early sketches from his studio in Manhattan.  He's a fascinating storyteller, and watching him quickly flipping through the sketches while speaking so candidly about them is something I found immensely enjoyable. 

 

 

YA Wednesday: Walter Dean Myers 1937-2014

BEA2012_WalterDeanMyers_250I'm so sad to hear that Walter Dean Myers passed away. I had the pleasure to meet him at BEA in 2012 (pictured here), when he was the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, and he was delightful.  Myers said that books gave him solace during troubled times as a young person, and in turn his books have touched many young lives. 

The author of over 100 works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, Myers won the Coretta Scott King Award multiple times, including a 2014 Coretta Scott King Honor for Darius & Twig.  He also received two Newbery Honors (for Scorpions and Somewhere in the Darkness) and his book, Monster, was the inaugural winner of the Michael L. Printz Award, a National Book Award Finalist, and a New York Times bestseller.  His futuristic young adult novel, On a Clear Day will be published this fall (September 23).  He will be sorely missed.

"I think my life is special. In a way it seems odd that I spend all of my time doing only what I love, which is writing or thinking about writing. If everyone had, at least for part of their lives, the opportunity to live the way I do, I think the world would be a better place.”--Walter Dean Myers

Amazon Asks: Ben Mezrich Brings Down the Mouse

BringingDownMouseFor his latest book, Ben Mezrich put a slight twist on the title of his best-seller, Bringing Down the Housebut this time he's writing for a very different audience--young readers.  Bringing Down the Mouse parallels Mezrich's nonfiction book in a middle grade novel full of non-stop action and excitement, risk, math, and gaming.  See what Mezrich has to say about his new book, Encyclopedia Brown, and his magical radio below.

Amazon:  What's the elevator pitch for your book?

Ben Mezrich:  Bringing Down The Mouse is the story of Charlie "Numbers" Lewis, a twelve year old whiz kid recruited into a secret club of sixth graders who use math and science to beat carnival games; their goal is to bring down Incredo Land, the best amusement park in the world.

Amazon: Why write a middle grade novel (vs. one for young adults)?

Ben Mezrich:  I've always loved adventure stories that involve brilliant kids using their brains to beat systems that seem unbeatable; when I set out to tell Charlie's story, and create this world, I wanted it to feel like a thrill ride, but with a very optimistic, upbeat edge. Charlie's Whiz Kids- his group of nerdy friends- aren't the sort of dark, brooding characters you see in young adult, maybe because I'm not very dark and brooding either. I certainly was a geeky kid myself, but to me, math and science were always these magical things- powerful tools you could use in incredible ways.

Amazon: Did you have a favorite books when you were [your main character] Charlie's age?

Ben Mezrich: I loved the Encyclopedia Brown series. Also the Electric Book, about a kid trapped in a book being written while he tries to escape. But I read just about everything; my dad had a rule when I was 12 that we had to read two books a week before we were allowed to watch TV, and I loved TV--so if became a speed reader from a very early age.

Amazon: What's your most memorable author moment?

Ben Mezrich: There have been so many. Seeing my first book on the stands was cool. Going to the Oscars, and watching Aaron Sorkin win for his adaptation of my book into the movie The Social Network was pretty amazing. Seeing someone reading something I wrote on an airplane--things like that are pretty awesome.

Amazon: What's your most prized/treasured possession and why?

Ben Mezrich: I have an antique console stand-up radio that I bought in a yard sale twenty years ago, that I've always half-believed has magical properties. It's in my office, and it has watched over each of the fifteen books I've written. It also helped me find my wife, which led to my two incredible children, and my sweet, neurotic, epileptic pug, Bugsy. But that's a much longer story, so I'll just leave is simple: my antique radio.

Amazon: What's your lucky number?

Ben Mezrich: 6 and sometimes 3.

Amazon: What's next for you?  Do you see yourself writing more children's books or entering the young adult right?

Ben Mezrich: Both. I have a thriller coming out in September called Seven Wonders. And a nonfiction book early next year. But Bringing Down The Mouse is the first in what I hope to be a many book series, so I'd love to continue writing these stories for many years to come.

 

Omnivoracious™ Contributors

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