Reporting: Henry Holt and Feiwel and Friends Spring & Summer 2009
The good people of Henry Holt Books for Young Readers are part of Macmillan. Like all publishers, they have to deal with upsets in the industry and not knowing where they’ll end up next. They do have one distinct advantage over their competitors, however. One element to their average day that they could lord over the rest of us, if they weren’t such sweet folks.
They get to work in the Flatiron Building.
This is a fact that comes to mind each and every time they have a preview or an author showing. I was invited to one such event just the other day. I managed to muck up my visit quite spectacularly, though. Yeah. So, y’know those invitations you get to events where they say at the bottom of the invite "RSVP by April 15th" or some such nonsense? Basically I read that as, "This event will take place on April 15th" instead. So 15 days prior to the actual preview I was trying to convince the nice Flatiron guard that no, really, I was invited to the building.
Take two and I’m at the Flatiron Building again (different guard . . . phew) and up we go to the Henry Holt offices. A Henry Holt preview is a bit different from that of another publisher in part because HH puts out a relatively small list each season. Their events reflect that crisp, succinct attitude and contain the following parts:
1) Better desserts than you will find anywhere else. There are moist brownies. Betsy like brownies. Betsy happy.
2) Comfy chairs made of leather. Granted, the chair set-up is designed specifically to make audience members sit near the front of the room. It’s a subtle piece of psychological workmanship. The comfy boardroom appropriate fancy leather chairs are near the front. The moderately comfy padded chairs are in the middle. The crappy plastic and metal chairs that require you to shift your weight from one buttock to another every 20-38 seconds are in the back. I sat near the front along the aisle. Choice.
3) Gift bags that contain some edible piece of admirable workmanship. Previous Henry Holt previews have been known to include within their goodie bags handmade (hand crafted, no less) chewy sugar cookies in the shape of the United States of America to celebrate The Scrambled States of America Talent Show. This time there was a lollypop assortment (crafted just for this program) that highlighted the different books to be discussed that day. I shall display them even as I discuss the authors and books.
4) Art. The art had an additional component this time that was noteworthy. Five artists were there to accompany their workmanship. So while I made sure to stuff my face with the appropriate amount of sweets, I also wanted to get up there and talk to some folks.
Complication: I was pressed for time. Not only was this Henry Holt event happening at the same time as the Ezra Jack Keats Awards at ALA and the Neil Gaiman/Shaun Tan discussion panel at the Scholastic Auditorium but it was ALL happening just before the 826NYC event in Brooklyn with Jon Scieszka (more info on that later). So I was going to have to scram before the proceedings were finished. Blurg.
Fortunately I was able to chat with an author or two first. Then it was back in my seat, violently stuffing my 3 large bulky bags beneath the chair of the person in front of me with my feet, and we were off.
Downside: I never think to bring a notepad to these events. Worst. Reporter. Ever. So I scribbled everything into the back of the HH catalog for the current season, which was fun, if messy. The day was introduced. The applause polite. And the first illustrator introduced.
Lolly #1: That’s a butt. A butt lollypop. I could think of a million comments for this, but sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words
So you know how I keep talking about how I have this butt-related picture book trio coming to speak in my library today? Well here is butt book #3, front and center. The Tushy Book (Feiwel and Friends) is by Fran Manushkin, and its illustrator is the multi-faceted and absolutely hilarious Tracy Dockray. Before she came up to speak it was explained that The Tushy Book was originally with a different publishing house. When it was determined that the illustrations were not sufficient unto the text, however, the project was pulled and Henry Holt came onboard. Ms. Dockray then stood up and recounted how much harder the book was than she had originally anticipated. Her initial thoughts had been somewhere along the lines of, "I have kids. I love their bottoms. Sure!" Soon enough, however, the project became significantly more difficult. "I spent hours drawing a plumber . . . augh!" On her own she read the books (without pictures) to kids to gauge their reactions. They loved it. As Ms. Dockray spoke, it occurred to me that the cover of this book is pretty clever. I mean, it shows a butt, well covered in its protective diaper. You know what it’s referring to, but it isn’t the kind of picture that’s going to raise any ire (unless you’ve a particularly neurotic parent on your hands). The art in the book consists of ink and watercolor on vellum too, which gives it a nice feel. Altogether, I can’t wait to see how Ms. Dockray reads this book aloud later today.
Lolly #2: Goose. Sideways goose, that is.
After Ms. Dockray it was time for a different kind of artist. Ms. Huy Voun Lee is the illustrator of April Pulley Sayre’s Honk, Honk, Goose!: Canada Geese Start a Family. If you’re anything like me, you’re probably shocked that anyone would write about Canadian geese. Man oh geez, can those birds be nasty. It’s not as if Ms. Sayre is unaware of that fact, however. As a resident of South Bend, Indiana, I’d bet good money that she’s seen her share of ill-disposed goslings in her time. And if you read Honk, Honk, Goose! then you get a very good sense of an average goose’s nasty temperament. In the book a father goose honks off any potential threats to his nestlings. So for the illustrator HH needed someone who could create believable goslings, and yet also convey the character of the parents. Ms. Lee came to mind. In my library I know Ms. Lee best for her 1, 2, 3 Go!. We learned pretty quickly that she’s a more hands-on artist than anything else. As she told it, when Ms. Lee was six she had to move to America. As a result she just cried and cried and cried. Eventually, someone gave her a pair of scissors and the weeping ceased. The two have never left one another since. All her art is cut by hand, and she explained how her preferences include the #11 blade of the Exacto knife, and a pair of haircut scissors that give her cuts the right support. For this particular book, Ms. Lee had never really seen a Canadian goose before (lucky girl) so she did some research to find out more about them. As part of her process, Ms. Lee sculpts three-dimensional version of her characters (in this case, the geese) so as to get a better sense of how they look from various angles. Though nervous to be speaking to adults rather than 2nd graders, Ms. Lee was able to amuse us adequately with her creation of an angelfish cutting and owl/Kilroy bookmark before our very eyes. By the end of the day my Materials Specialist from my library was telling me in no uncertain terms to get Ms. Lee’s contact information for future programs. Done and done!
Lolly #3: Fire Truck. Green green fire truck.
Up next, another fellow who will speaking at my library (the first Saturday in June as part of my Children’s Literary Cafe). William Low may be best known to you for his picture book Old Penn Station. Certainly we New York librarians loved it though, of course, we’re rather focused on our own particular burg. It’s nice to have a focus. Old Penn, as it happens, was Mr. Low’s thesis project at Syracuse, when he was taking classes in digital art. Now his latest picture book Machines Go to Work (which I reviewed a couple months ago) is coming out soon and is a delight. In his talk, Mr. Low discussed his digital process and the Illustrator program that makes his work possible. By turning objects into simple shapes Low is able to pay more attention to color. After finishing Penn Station, his inclination was to do something lighter. Machines gave him that opportunity, and after creating the trucks and other machines, he found the story within the images. He even showed us the teeny tiny dummy he created, which looks like nothing so much as a bite-sized version of the final product.
Lolly #4: Butterfly
Meet Neil Numberman in his cute hat. His last name is "Numberman". That is essentially the universe’s equivalent of knocking you over the head and shouting in your ear, "You’re gonna have to work with kids SOMEHOW, buddy!" Numberman (as he shall hitherto be called) was promoting the upcoming middle grade graphic novel Joey Fly, Private Eye: Creepy Crawly Crime, written by Aaron Reynolds. The story behind the story is pretty interesting. Apparently this book was originally intended to be a plain old early chapter book tale, until someone somewhere realized how similar it would be to Bruce Hale’s Chet Gecko series. Then someone saw Numberman’s work on Rabid Rabbit and his style stuck in their brains. Interestingly the book was an actual script at one point, allowing Numberman the chance to storyboard it out. His preferred method is to storyboard it in bed, allowing himself the chance to feel as if he’s reading a book as he’s creating it. In the end, this book took a month to create. As part of his process, Numberman found himself watching a lot of classic film noir (The Maltese Falcon was played a minimum of five times in his home). The result was that he was able to "steal" windows, poses, shots, buildings, etc. The normal process was play, pause, steal something. The colors, you will find, have been added digitally, so once again computers play a part in the day’s artistic creation.
Lolly #5: Witch on Broomstick
I feel as if I may have mentioned Only a Witch Can Fly (Feiwel and Friends) by Alison McGhee sometime before in the past. Was it in reference to the sheer plethora of oddly gorgeous Halloween picture books like Ghosts in the House! by Kazuno Kohara? Probably. In this particular case the featured illustrator was the multi-talented Taeeum Yoo. You’re probably best familiar with her covers on the new paperback editions of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time series. Ms. Yoo showed us her old printmaking techniques, which yield the gorgeous pics you’ll find in this book. She essentially uses techniques from the 1950s alongside a limited color palette with linoleum block prints. In this title you will find only five colors: green, orange, black, brown and the paper color (white). First Ms. Yoo does the sketches. Then she blows them up 100% and traces them onto the linoleum blocks. Each picture requires three different carved blocks for the three layers of different colors. In the end this 32-page book was responsible for the carving of at least one HUNDRED individual carved blocks. Now I had spoken to Ms. Yoo a little earlier before she addressed the group and I couldn’t help but notice the magnificent photograph sitting on the table next to her art. It was a quickie snapshot of a small child wearing an elaborate and cleverly made dinosaur suit. Ms. Yoo explained to me, and later to the group, that her niece was a dinosaur fanatic. As a result, when you look through Only a Witch Can Fly, you may notice that the main character’s little brother is wearing that exact same costume. It was great getting to do a little compare and contrast.
To my relief, everyone kept their talks brief. I was running out of time by the end, which meant that I had to duck out before the presentation of Jon J. Muth’s reprinted title Stonecutter (Feiwel and Friends). Ah well. What they showed was a video. A rather beautiful one too. See for yourself.
Good food. Good artists. A good time.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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