A Year in the Life of a Complete and Total Genius by Stacey Matson is the story of aspiring writer Arthur Bean. If you had to pick just one word to describe our young hero, that word would NOT be “humble.” Told largely through school writing assignments, journal entries, and emails, many of the laughs come from Arthur’s pompous and defiant attitude.
Arthur has no doubt that he will handily win this year’s short story competition — in addition to writing for the school newspaper, starring in the school play, and just generally being a seventh grader. His attention is further diverted by his crush on his writing partner Kennedy, and being forced to tutor his nemesis Robbie. On top of all that, his mother died recently, his father isn’t handling it well, and Arthur feels isolated from their extended family. It’s certainly not an easy time to be Arthur Bean. And it’s not surprising that he develops a crippling case of writer’s block.
Arthur’s confidence doesn’t waver despite never writing a single word of his short story. When he makes a choice that is even more duplicitous than usual, readers will wonder how he will justify his actions and get himself out of this tricky situation.
Fans of Gordon Korman’s Swindle and Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series will enjoy Arthur’s antics. A sequel has already been published in the author’s native Canada.
I sat down with British illustrator and comic artist Luke Pearson while he was in town for the Small Press Expo to discuss his recent work and his ongoing graphic novel series, Hilda.
Between the Covers: How has Soft Spot [the animation you’ve been collaborating on with fellow comic artist Phillippa Rice] been going?
Luke Pearson: Phillippa is the driving force behind Soft Spot. All the stop motion stuff is entirely her. I’ve been doing smaller bits within those episodes. We haven’t collaborated that much before, so it’s nice to have something that’s actually both of us. We’re both just kind of experimenting and playing around.
BTC: You’ve also joined the pantheon of people working for Adventure Time doing some storyboarding.
LP: I’ve boarded four episodes overall and I’m hoping I can do more at some point. They’re very time consuming because I’ve always done it freelance with quite big gaps in between. It’s quite hard to get back in that mindset.
BTC: You’ve spoken before about how you’re inspired by Scandinavian myth in the creation of your own series, Hilda, but I see a lot of original world building and myth making.
LP: The Scandinavian folklore is like a jumping off point really. So much fantasy in general comes from those same stories and people just twist them and reinvent them in their own way. What I was trying to do with that was portray them in a way that is closer to how they are in the oral tales, rather than sticking a grand mythology onto them. There’s tons of stuff in Hilda which is just made up as well. I think as it goes on, it’s evolving into its own thing and the place she lives in has less of a point of reference with a real world place.
BTC: Hilda exploring the world seems like a central theme. Are you also figuring out what the rules for that reality are as you go along, or is it building on something you already know?
LP: It’s not really building towards something I already know. There are certain things that I have had locked down in my head from the start, I’m not totally winging it. But I don’t have a big bible that I wrote beforehand with all the stuff in there. I think that would feel counterproductive. As time goes on my tastes and interests change, when I draw each book I want to feel like I can change my mind about things. I’d rather do that than be a slave to this thing I made up five, six years ago that maybe I don’t agree with anymore.
BTC: Do you consider your audience as you’re working? Do you censor yourself because you know you need to appeal to kids?
LP: I don’t censor myself because I know they’re not for really little kids. It wouldn’t cross my mind to do a super dark Hilda story. What’s the point? I would just do a different comic. I want it to be a little bit scary and weird. I think kids can handle more than some people can give them credit for. If there’s a scary thing in the story, I want them to actually be scared of it. I don’t want to just put some big, goofy monster in that everyone is acting afraid of but isn’t actually scary. I always aim to resolve things in a way that is comforting.
BTC: Your next book, Hilda and the Stone Forest, is going to be coming out next year. Is there anything you can share about that project?
LP: It’s a bit different to previous ones in that it’s the first one where I feel like you probably do need to have read at least one of the other ones to get it. I’ve always been reluctant to do that in previous books, I wanted each one to be a standalone thing, but as I get deeper into the series it makes less and less sense. I feel like people enjoy the way the world is growing and it feels like a shame to gloss over all the other things. The start of the book will be the kind of things Hilda’s been getting up to. Hilda has so many magical-ish friends and tricky ways that her mom is getting slightly irate. She’s off on adventures all the time, possibly covering up how dangerous they may or may not be. It will be the first story where Hilda and her mum actually go on an adventure together.
BTC: I really like the way you’ve been portraying their dynamic. They’re obviously parent and child but they get along and it’s not stereotypical, you convey a more complex relationship.
LP: I’ve just naturally become more interested in exploring the mom character. She was just there in the first couple of books to explain how Hilda exists in the world, because she can’t live on her own. That character’s just been evolving to the point where, in this one, they’re co-leads. It’s tricky to do but I want the child reader to slowly pick up on the fact that she’s not just a mom, she is a person. It seems like in a lot of children’s fiction the parent is just a source of comfort or a source of antagonism and that’s it. They’re like a caricature. I like the idea of a kid empathizing and relating to the mom in a personal way rather than relating their idea of their mom. It’s hard to see your own parents like that until you get older.
BTC: Are you finding any of your own childhood emerging when you’re writing?
LP: I had a pretty comfortable, pleasant childhood but stuff does kind of come through. The last book all the stuff where she joins the Sparrow Scouts, that was kind of based on my experience as a scout.
BTC: Did you enjoy scouts?
LP: Yes and no, which I think I was trying to get across for Hilda. I like the idea of it and I did have fun at times, but I also didn’t enjoy it that much for not quite the same reasons as Hilda. I was just always very shy. I liked messing around but I always felt like I wasn’t very good at actual, legitimate scout stuff. As a kid I basically only enjoyed sitting and drawing and making stuff up.
BTC: What are you reading right now?
LP: I’m actually reading the Earthsea series for the first time. It’s really good. I’ve only read the first book so far but it’s incredible. I’ve had this boxed set since I was a kid, I think they were my mom’s. I’ve been carrying them around forever.
The next Hilda book, Hilda and the Stone Forest, is due to be released in Spring of 2016.
Just in time for Native American Heritage Month are two narratives of famous Indians by famous Indians for children. In response to the misrepresentation in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem “The Song of Hiawatha,” Hiawatha and the Peacemaker sets the record straight on the legend of two Indians who united the warring tribes of the Eastern Great Lakes region to form the Haudenosaunee — what would become of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy and the oldest participatory democracy in the world (formed well before the American Revolution). This epic tale is written by Robbie Robertson of The Band fame (who was immortalized in a biography of his own last year), with page-popping illustrations by Caldecott winner David Shannon. Sitting Bull is the latest biography in a series of Lakota histories written and illustrated by S. D. Nelson, who uses the famous chief's life story to contextualize the conflicts making up the American Indian Wars. The book begins with a first-person account of the major events in Sitting Bull's life, dotted throughout with direct quotations and photographs from the time period, followed up by a detailed timeline and concluding with an author's note discussing Nelson's thoughts as a member of the Sioux.
Despite the fact that they represent different tribes and different time periods of Native American history, both stories tell of how Indians have borne the brunt of adaptation in the face of great adversity and conflict. What is most interesting about this pair of stories is how they have incorporated mediums characteristic of the Indian arts. Hiawatha and the Peacemaker includes a CD, not of an exact reading of the text but of Robertson's musical performance of the legend that parents and kids will both enjoy listening to. Nelson has formatted his work in the form of Ledger Book Art: palimpsests that evolved as interred Indians repurposed the accounting cast offs from the U.S. government, examples of which can be seen at the National Museum of the American Indian.
During that lull between the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and football games, before your home fills up with family and you fill your bellies with food, here are a few new Thanksgiving-themed picture books to share with the kids.
Sharing the Bread: An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving Story by Pat Zietlow Miller and Jill McElmurry depicts a 19th century family preparing their Thanksgiving feast. Everyone has their own special job — Daddy tends the fire, Grandma bakes her pumpkin pie, the baby sleeps as quietly as a mouse. Short, simple rhymes make for an enjoyable read aloud about the love, hard work and synergy that go into a holiday meal.
In Little Critter: Just a Special Thanksgiving by Mercer Mayer, Little Critter enjoys the Thanksgiving holiday with his family in typical Little Critter fashion — from forgetting his lines during the school play and singing an impromptu song instead, to hitching a ride on a parade float when he’s tired of walking. The illustrations are what make the book so special, adding an additional layer to the narrative by filling in the details that he neglects to mention or showing how his version of events diverges slightly from reality.
If you’re just looking for a quick refresher on the holiday’s roots and customers, Sally Lee delivers A Short History of Thanksgiving. The simple text, illustrated with both drawings and photographs, is perfect for beginning readers and includes details on the tradition of fall festivals, the meaning of thankfulness and also touches on modern ways of celebrating the holiday.
Sometimes the best way to tell a story is with no words at all, as Daniel Miyares has done with the picture book Float. This book uses imaginative panels to tell the story of a young boy, a paper boat and rainy day. We follow the boy and his boat on a grand adventure. Each seemingly simple picture perfectly captures the stormy weather and the boy’s thoughts and movements. Readers and aspiring readers will love this lovely little book, which includes instructions for making paper boats to occupy other adventurous souls on rainy afternoons.
A cardboard box is another fantastic vessel for great adventures, and this is where we begin in Sara O’Leary’s This Is Sadie. Sadie sails around the world before breakfast, but quietly “because old people need a lot of sleep.” She knows that adventure can be found in a book and has lived at the bottom of the sea and been the hero of every fairy tale. While she loves playing with friends in the pool, she is equally content chatting with birds at the top of a good climbing tree. This sweet story is accompanied by Julie Morstad’s charming illustrations which invite readers into Sadie’s enchanted world.
Nino has a dog that dives into the deepest water, climbs trees and dares to jump into the lap of a formidable great-grandmother, though he doesn’t really have a dog. The Dog That Nino Didn’t Have by Edward van de Vendel is a story about a boy who imagines a dog to keep him company while his dad is away traveling the world as a pilot. Nino’s dog tromps through woods next to him and comforts him when he misses his father. One day, a package arrives and Nino gets an actual dog. Though it isn’t quite the same as his imaginary dog, he learns to love his real dog. He also realizes he can still have his imaginary dog and dream up any kind of imaginary pet he wants. With that sort of menagerie it is hard to be lonely. This story is told in a wonderfully original voice, and the stunning illustrations invite you to step directly into the book.
Writer Kate Schatz and artist Miriam Klein Stahl pair up to make their wonderfully colorful and informative book Rad American Women A-Z. Each woman gets a two-page spread with a graphic illustrated portrait and a few easy-to-read paragraphs. There are a myriad of different women including actresses, artists, scientists and activists. In addition to showing a variety of careers, Schatz and Stahl feature women with different socioeconomic backgrounds, races, ages, gender identifications and disabilities. Notable features include Kate Bornstein, a transgender writer and performance artist, “who reminds us to bravely claim our true identity,” and Temple Grandin, an autistic animal science professor, “who shows us the power of a brilliant mind.” Although the text is written at a fifth-grade level, the women featured can be shared with any age group, from kindergartners to adults.
A to Z Great Modern Artists, drawn by Andy Tuohy and with text by Christopher Masters, is the kind of aesthetically pleasing book to have on your coffee table for when you want to get absorbed into something interesting but don’t quite feel like engaging yourself in a novel or magazine. Each featured artist has a portrait drawn by Andy Tuohy that replicates the style of that artist—Piet Mondrian’s portrait is drawn in the signature geometric style of his artwork, while Andy Warhol’s portrait is done in his famous pop-art style. In addition to Tuohy’s creative portraits, each letter of the alphabet feels like its own exhibit and includes notable works of art from the featured artists. You’ll want to move through the book slowly, like you would when walking through an art museum, in order to fully appreciate all of the nuances of Tuohy’s creative design.
My Cousin Momo is Zachariah OHora’s latest lovable picture book about a flying squirrel named Momo who is visiting relatives. His cousins have been anxiously awaiting his arrival, but he isn’t quite what they expected. In fact, Momo is a little weird. He doesn’t fly, his favorite superhero is Muffin Man, and he doesn’t even know how to play the simplest games, like Acorn-Pong! However, he manages to show them that being weird is cool and doing things differently is actually pretty awesome. Kids will relate to this delightful, simple story which encourages readers of all ages to look at the world a little differently. The quirky, fun illustrations are a big bonus as well.
In Aaron Reynolds new picture book, Nerdy Birdy doesn’t feel like he fits in anywhere. With his giant glasses and odd allergies, he just isn’t cool enough to hang with Eagle, Robin and Cardinal. Just when he thinks he’s doomed to be friendless forever, he meets a group of birds just as nerdy as him. They even like to play World of Wormcraft! When a different kind of outsider wants to join their flock, Nerdy Birdy needs to persuade his new friends to accept misfits of all sorts. This is a great book about making friends and welcoming everyone. Reynolds manages to make this sometimes difficult topic truly giggle-worthy.
As societal awareness of the transgender identity grows, the conversation on what it means to grow up transgender is also gaining new voices. First-time author Alex Gino’s book George puts readers inside the mind of a transgender child struggling to understand her gender identity and to convey that identity to those important to her.
George is a fourth-grader with a mother and older brother, a best friend and a secret – she’s a girl who wants to be called Melissa, not the boy named George that everyone thinks she is. It’s distressing for her to have to use the boy’s bathroom, to keep her hair cut short and to be called “young man.” George’s greatest fear is that her family won’t understand or accept her if she tells them the truth. She decides, instead, to hide her identity, causing her to continue to feel isolated and frustrated.
This changes the day her teacher holds auditions for the class play of Charlotte’s Web. George desperately wants to play Charlotte. Not only does she admire Charlotte’s strength, but also believes that if she can land this key role she can show everyone, especially her mom, the girl she is. However, her dream is dashed when her teacher won’t let her audition for the part; after all, Charlotte is a girl role and to her teacher George is a boy. When her best friend Kelly comes up with a plan for George to be able to perform as Charlotte, George has to gather her courage to show everyone who she is.
While the book is recommended for middle school readers, George is the story of a child discovering and accepting herself that everyone, child and adult, transgender and cisgender alike, can relate to. George’s quest to be accepted for who she is gives readers insight into her world in a way that is equally heartbreaking and heartwarming. Readers interested in children’s books with a transgender protagonist should also read Ami Polonsky’s Gracefully Grayson.
If you already love the Crystal Gems from Cartoon Network’s hit show, Steven Universe, Volume One is a collection of short stories to enhance and enrich your interaction with the characters and their world. Writer Jeremy Sorese and artist Coleman Engle bring to life Steven and his space-warrior guardians Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl as they go on magic-laden adventures in the name of protecting the Earth and developing Steven’s budding magic powers. Including life-skills lessons and graphic shorts just for fun, the book includes wisdom about friendship, family and even a recipe or two!
The comics are light, lusciously colored and beautifully drawn. The mood ranges from laugh-aloud funny to softly melancholy and meaningful, taking advantage of the full artistic range of both the artists and the writers. Although familiarity with the animated cartoon will enrich the reader’s appreciation of these graphic shorts in context of their larger world, the book is a delightful introduction to Steven’s home of Beach City and a great read for kids and adult-sized kids alike.
Make sure to pair your Steven Universe experience with Gem Glow, or similar reads such as Adventure Time, Bee and Puppycat and Bravest Warriors.
Rebecca Stead’s latest novel Goodbye Stranger is a shining example of how amazing children’s realistic fiction can be. Stead dares to believe children can grapple with big questions that secretly plague us about our place in the cosmos and that they will understand and relate to complex characters that can’t explain why they do things, like wear cat ears every day. What she creates is a beautiful story that will be loved by readers young and old.
The story is told from three different points of view and different perspectives in time. Much of the narrative focuses on Bridge and her best friends. They’re trying their best to hold fast to one another during the tumultuous times of seventh grade as they navigate their first forays in love and finding their place in the bigger world around them.
Bridge also becomes close with Sherm, the second narrator of the story, who speaks to us through unsent letters to the grandfather he isn’t speaking to. The final narrator is an unnamed high school student speaking from Valentine’s Day. Her story seems unrelated to the other characters except that it touches on the same themes of friendship and finding out who the person you are becoming really is. In the end, the stories fall perfectly together into an intricately crafted plot. This book is sure to appeal to fans of Stead’s other works as well as fans of Wonder by R.J. Palacio.