Friday, April 27, 2012

Things to Do If You Are a Book: An Original Poem

I was determined to post today at Blue Rose Girls early this Friday. Unfortunately, I was involved in an auto accident this morning. That kept me from posting until now. Here’s a picture of the damage done to my car.

And here's the story of the accident: I was the second car in line at the drive-up window at the bank where we do business. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the car in front of me BACKING UP! I honked my horn--but too late. The driver of the car crashed into me and broke my passenger-side headlight. So it goes.


I decided NOT to write a car crash poem for the occasion. Instead, I have an original "things to do" poem that I also posted at Wild Rose Reader today:


Be filled with words that tell a tale
of a little mouse and a giant whale
of a runty pig and his spider friend
who was true and loyal to the end
of a badger who loved eating bread and jam
of a funky guy, green eggs, and ham
of a spunky girl named Ramona Q.
of a boy and the Jabberwock he slew.
Be filled with words and tell a tale
that will let my imagination sail.
Be a mystery
or a fantasy
or sing with sounds of poetry.
Between your covers
let there be
a story that’s just right for me.


Win a Poetry Book!
I should have announced weeks ago that I’m giving away a poetry book each week during National Poetry Month at Wild Rose Reader. If you’d like to have your name entered into the drawing for this week’s book—Requiem: Poems of the Terezin Ghetto by Paul B. Janeczko—leave a comment at one of my poetry posts during the fourth week of National Poetry Month (April 22-28).

Here are links to this week's poetry posts at Wild Rose Reader:

Coelacanth Speaks...December 1938: AnOriginal Animal Mask Poem

Things to Do If You Are a Book: AnOriginal Poem

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Fascinating question, Meghan! (and the child who came up with it)

When a short biography of Thomas Edison I wrote years ago didn't sell, I spent an inordinate amount of time doing it again and again. I couldn't even tell you how many times I rewrote that ms. Yes, it was funny, and I think kids would have liked it -- but editors didn't want to buy it and I should have accepted that fact and let it go.

Then I went on to write two more biographies of that length; neither of them sold either.People told me biographies of that length were hard to sell; I didn't listen. I thought of all the ones out there I liked -- which I now realize were written by people who are famous authors (like Alice Walker's biography of Langston Hughes) or can also illustrate them (like the near-perfect ME JANE!) or both. Thank goodness I'm writing a novel now. It may not get published either but if it doesn't, it it won't be because of the format/genre. Believe it or not, that's consoling!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mail I love and the Eric Carle

Getting emails from kids about my books is really just the best. Last week this photo from a second grader named Arden, who used A Photo for Greta for her book report, was sitting in my inbox. Her shadow box features hand-colored illustrations from the book, a light made out of coffee stirrers and foil, and a camera made out of electrical tape. Such genius!

And on an unrelated note, I had such a wonderful time at the Eric Carle Museum last week, signing books with the below authors and illustrators, as part of the SCBWI-NE spring conference. If you haven't been to the museum, now is a great time to go... there is the most fantastic exhibit of Kadir Nelson's work! Here we are standing in front of a giant Eric Carle painting.

(from left to right: Heidi E.Y. Stemple, Shelley Rotner, Brian Lies, Harry Bliss, Carlyn Beccia, me, Jane Yolen, Dan Yaccarino)

Saturday, April 21, 2012


That's a question I got asked yesterday. Kids always surprise me. I get the standard questions, like why do you always make those big eyes and that sort of things, but then I get thrown for a loop and get questions I wouldn't expect. I told the kids I'd change my first book. It's so different looking from my others. None of the scenes have backgrounds -- it's all flat colors. But now that I'm thinking about it, it kind of shows how much I've grown... so maybe I wouldn't change it. I'm not sure.
Authors: what's one thing you would change?

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Book and a Chair: Two Original Poems about Reading to Young Children

I must apologize for being AWOL from Blue Rose Girls for so long. Although I may be retired, my new “nanny granny” schedule keeps me really busy. I leave my house every Monday afternoon and don’t return until Thursday evening. I have also been working on the final revisions for my Things to Do poetry collection—which will be published by Chronicle Books.

I’m finding I have much less time for blogging than I had in the past. I am, however, hoping to find more time for blogging in the future. I have made a real effort to post more often at Wild Rose Reader during National Poetry Month. And because this is National Poetry Month, I thought I’d post two original poems.


Many years ago, I wrote the following poem titled A Book and a Chair about reading to my daughter when she was little:


A book and chair
Are nice to share
When the edges of day
Are melting away
Into the night.

A book and a chair
Are nice to share—
Touching and talking,
Reading and rocking
Into the night.

These days I’m having fun reading to my granddaughter Julia Anna. Although Julia still likes to chew on books, she is now eight-months-old and is beginning to understand books better.

A couple of months ago,  my daughter snapped a picture of me reading to Julia before she headed off to work one morning. Julia and I were reading Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes.

The picture inspired me to wrote the following poem:

A Book and a Chair
(For Julia)

A book and a chair
Are nice to share
When dawn wakes the sun
And morning’s begun.

A book and a chair
Are nice to share
When I am with you
And the day is brand new.


Over at Wild Rose Reader, I have an original poem titled Things to Do If You Are a Nightlight. It was one of the poems that we cut from my Things to Do poetry collection.

The Poetry Friday Roundup is at Random Noodling.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

An interesting idea!

I recently received an e-mail from author Kate Milford (whose book The Boneshaker I highly admire)  about an interesting promotional idea for her upcoming book The Broken Lands. It's a kickstarter project to self-publish a complimentary novella. This explains it better (from her Kickstarter page):

The big idea:
I’m publishing a novella companion to release this fall with my second book,The Broken Lands (Clarion, September 2012). I want to experiment with self-publishing as a way to promote and enhance traditional releases by providing extra content to readers in the form of complete, related tales. I also want to use resources that support independent bookstores. It's my hope to release a self-published novella alongside as many of my forthcoming hardcover releases as possible in an ongoing effort called the Arcana Project, which is why it has the optimistic subtitle.

Fascinating idea, is it not? What do you think? Part of me wishes I was a faster writer and could try doing this myself...

Monday, April 16, 2012

Book Signing and Mix and Mingle at The Eric Carle Museum

This Friday, I'll be signing books and chatting with attendees of the NESCBWI annual conference at The Eric Carle Museum. If you are attending this year's conference, please come by and say hello! Details below.

Book Signing and Mix and Mingle at The Eric Carle Museum
on April 20th from 11:30-1:30 pm. This event is part of the SCBWI-NE spring conference. Anna will be joined by Harry Bliss, Dan Yaccarino, Carlyn Beccia, Brian Lies, and Shelley Rotner.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A few pictures from the Virginia Festival of the Book

This year, in addition to visiting schools, I gave a book talk as part of Va Book's Storyfest line-up. It was a rainy day, but we had a nice group of families. Here are a few pictures, taken by my dad, our photographer for the day.

Coloring sheets for all:

Artwork on display:

Talking to kids about how to make a book:

Drawing demo:

Kids making their own illustrations:

And coloring in my drawings:

A quiet moment at the end of the day:

Monday, April 09, 2012

Question and Images of the Week, and more!

Last week's question of the week was "What made you laugh out loud?" I had intended to answer the question last week, but better late than never, right?

I laugh a lot in my life in general, but being around children makes me laugh and smile all that much more. Two weekends ago I had dinner with friends who have a two-year-old child, Violet. We all know that children fall down a lot, and depending on the fall, they either cry, or they just get up and keep going. Well, Violet's parents have established a routine of Violet "shaking off" her falls. This is how it works:

Violet falls down while running around.
Her parents: "You're okay! Shake it off!"
Violet stands up and proceeds to shake her whole body, especially her arms, while smiling broadly.

It was an extremely endearing sight and it made me laugh out loud. It also made me want to "shake it off" myself whenever I "fall down". I think it will work!

And speaking of kids, this past weekend some of us got together up in Western Mass. I loved taking pictures of (and with!) Anna's daughter Tilda, and here are two of my favorite shots:

Tilda looking "cool" in my sunglasses.

making faces!


And finally, if you're in the NY area, please come out tomorrow night (Tuesday, April 10 at 7 pm) to Word Bookstore in Greenpoint. Barry Lyga and I will be discussing his new book I Hunt Killers. Hope to see you there!

Sunday, April 08, 2012

image of the week

This stretch of street is usually not very picturesque, but with the trees in bloom it is like walking in a dream:

Friday, April 06, 2012

Rethinking Tikki Tikki Tembo

Once, I visited a school where the kids put on a play of  Tikki Tikki Tembo, in my honor. The kids were absolutely great, the teachers were quite lovely and the play was really well done. They had all worked hard on it and  I was very grateful for the warm welcome the school gave me, yet deep down I felt a strange awkwardness that I couldn't put my finger on.

So, when a friend of mine, recently sent me this blog post written by Irene Rideout, a lightbulb went on. When I read it, I suddenly thought, Oh that's why I felt weird!

With Irene's permission, I've republished her blog post here (her blog is private) for people to read. I think it's good food for thought:

Rethinking Tikki Tikki Tembo
by Irene Rideout

As a child, did you love Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel? Did you find the absurdly long name "Tikki Tikki Tembo-no Sa Rembo-chari Bari Ruchi-pip Peri Pembo" intoxicatingly fun to chant or sing? First published in 1968, the book has won some honors:

When I overheard my half-Chinese/half-Caucasian 6-year-old daughter singing the name a couple months ago, I had to ask her where she learned it. "In music class, at school," she replied. And to tell you the truth, I felt uneasy.

My first encounter with Tikki Tikki Tembo occurred around middle school. A Chinese-American friend was talking about the way other kids chanted "Tikki Tikki Tembo" around her. I had never heard those words before, so I asked her, "What does that mean?" The quiet seriousness of her response struck me. She looked me in the eye and said, "It's racist."

This is how the story is summarized on
"In this beautiful edition--complete with line and wash illustrations by artist Blair Lent--Arlene Mosel retells an old Chinese folktale about how the people of China came to give their children short names after traditionally giving their "first and honored" sons grand, long names. Tikki tikki tembo (which means "the most wonderful thing in the whole wide world") and his brother Chang (which means "little or nothing") get into trouble with a well, are saved by the Old Man with the Ladder, and change history while they're at it." (
The Multiculturalist, a publication by Northern Illinois University, warns that, contrary to common misconception, not all children's books about other cultures are authentic.( On page 4, the article states:
"Teachers who want to share other cultures may unintentionally choose books that are racist or not representative of a particular group... A book that is often recommended (see Huck, Hepler, & Hickman, 1987) is Tikki Tikki Tembo (Mosel, 1968)... The text and illustrations, however, are inaccurate depictions of any Chinese... The message about Chinese names is less than flattering."

I do think the use of the word "unintentional" is important. I hold my daughter's school system in very high regard, and from the beginning, I had to assume that the teachers and administration - not a single person of color among them! - simply did not know about the racist perceptions of this popular tale. I mulled over the idea of calling up the school principal and just letting him know that the story isn't exactly culturally sensitive. But I admit, part of me thought, "Maybe another Asian parent will do it." It wasn't until I found out that the entire school would be acting out the story and performing the song "Tikki Tikki Tembo" at a school meeting that I finally realized, "No one else is going to speak up."

So, in a phone call with the principal, I explained why the story is racist.
  • The book purports to be an "old Chinese folktale," but it is not. It is actually thought to be based on a Japanese folktale called Jugemu. ( Presumably, that tale was picked up and retold by Westerners, who mistakenly attributed it to China and added to the story. The result is a story that is neither Japanese nor Chinese, and it exemplifies the racist attitude of, "Chinese, Japanese, what's the difference, they're all the same." 
  • Though the book's illustrations are beautifully drawn by Caldecott Medal-winning artist Blair Lent, they do not authentically depict Chinese people, as noted by The Multiculturalist above. Tikki Tikki Tembo's shoes are actually strikingly similar to traditional Japanese geta footwear, again reinforcing the inaccurate perception that all Asian cultures are the same.
  • Tikki Tikki Tembo's little brother does have a Chinese name, Chang, which, according to the book, means "little or nothing." The book was written in 1968, well before pinyin was standardized, but even if we generously consider all tones of "chang" and "zhang," none of the dozens of possible translations even come close to meaning "little" or "nothing." 
  • According to the story, Chinese people traditionally gave their first-born sons long and honorable names. This is not true. I tried to find a source to back up this point, but apparently there isn't really a good way to find evidence of what a culture is not. This Wikipedia article, at least, provides information on Chinese names, modern and historical, and makes no mention of first-born sons ever getting especially long names.
When I read online forums and discussions about the potentially offensive nature of Tikki Tikki Tembo, I am disappointed because so frequently the responses are dismissive. People say, "Oh, lighten up, it's just a fun story for kids." There is, of course, a difference between INTENT and IMPACT. I feel pretty confident in surmising that the author and illustrator of Tikki Tikki Tembo did not set out to offend anyone. In fact, the INTENT may even have been to honor the Chinese culture by sharing a charming story of their understanding of China. But the IMPACT is that an entire culture is misrepresented, and it is not unreasonable that people within the misrepresented culture might feel offended. It's understandable that some people may have happy and fond childhood memories of this book, but their positive experiences with this book does not make other people's negative experiences any less valid.

Another common argument in defense of Tikki Tikki Tembo is, "Children know the difference between truth and fiction. They know this is not a real story of actual Chinese culture." Perhaps some do, but what if the book is actually presented by a teacher or librarian as an authentic Chinese folktale describing Chinese culture? Weston Woods, a production arm ofScholastic, a children's book publisher that specifically creates educational materials for schools, provides a lesson plan for use with their Tikki Tikki Tembo video. Two explicit objectives of the lesson are to "learn about Chinese culture" and "enjoy a well-known Chinese folktale." ( Of course, in reading this particular book - or watching a video based on the book - the class will do neither.

In 1968, when cultural diversity wasn't yet the major issue it is today, any book that featured a foreign culture was probably welcomed, even if only for its novelty factor. But now that it's 2012, and the children's sections of our libraries are filled with authentic books about other cultures, there is no longer any need to rely on inauthentic tales like Tikki Tikki Tembo as an example of Chinese culture. I am a big fan of Grace Lin, who writes children's books of all levels ranging from picture books to chapter books. Her books are set in America, but they feature a Chinese-American family and plenty of Chinese and Taiwanese culture. For a book set in "old China," I recommend Ruby's Wish by Shirin Yim, a book my daughter actually discovered herself in the school library.

So what did my daughter's school principal say and do in response to my concerns? (My on-the-spot explanations were not quite as organized as my post here, but I think I got the ideas across!) I was so pleased and relieved to hear him say, "I had never thought about the book that way before, but now that you explain it to me, of course I understand." He repeatedly stressed his desire to be culturally sensitive, and he suggested a compromise for the school's upcoming performance of Tikki Tikki Tembo. (I knew the school had been practicing the show for months, and it was too late to do anything drastic like cancel the performance or choose a new story and song.) Rather than introduce it as "a Chinese folktale," they would simply call it "a story" and avoid any references to China or Chinese culture. I thought that was a great idea.

Moving forward, seeing how popular Tikki Tikki Tembo is in schools and with parents, I think it's unrealistic to expect everyone to simply remove it from their bookshelves. My hope is that if people do continue to pass on the story of Tikki Tikki Tembo, they do it in a responsible way.
  • One option is to use the story to bring back oral storytelling, and to leave out all references of China and Chinese culture. Without using the actual book at all, parents and teachers can tell the tale of Tikki Tikki Tembo, simply setting it in "a far away land." The younger brother can have a name that does not strongly evoke any particular foreign culture, and it can be comparable to the syllables in Tikki Tikki Tembo's name. Perhaps something like Pip.
  • Another option is to use the book as a teaching opportunity. Parents and teachers can enjoy the book and its illustrations, but follow it up with a discussion about how not all books are true stories, and not all pictures are true representations of what they are trying to depict. Inaccuracies in the story and pictures can be explicitly pointed out, and the book can be followed by a reading of another book that does authentically portray Chinese culture.
For another person's insights, I recommend this article. It gives what I think is a fair and balanced review of the book, and then it discusses the appropriateness of the book in today's diverse society. It goes even further by suggesting other books about names, and Asian names in particular, that can be used to supplement a reading of Tikki Tikki Tembo.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Your image of the week?

Linda Wingerter brought these beautiful eggs she'd made (photograph by Alvina) to an Easter party.

Eggs have been used to celebrate birth and spring for thousands of years in many cultures -- in ancient Egypt they dyed them and children rolled them (some people think this is where Dolly Madison got the idea for the White House Easter Egg party); in China red eggs celebrate a baby's first month of life.

This past week, some children in town made these string eggs and their mother shared them with me:

They also made these, using onion skins to make the patterns and dye the eggs:

So, I choose these eggs as my image (or images) of the week. I think they say better than words can my hopes for this spring, and new starts. What are your images of the week?

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

What made me smile

I had a school visit in Newton a few days ago, where I drew with a class of second graders at the end of my talk. I asked the group to help me come up with a brand new character; they choose an animal, activity for her to do, and the clothes she wears and I do my best to draw it. They chose a zebra swimming at the beach and wearing a bikini. Once I started on the bikini they broke into hysterics. Someone shouted "she's wearing a 'ZI-KINI'!" Kids have such fabulous ideas.


Have you heard about the Pottermore shop? An e-book site run by J.K. Rowling? Of course something like this could only be accomplished by someone so famous, but it does seem to be an interesting twist in the way digital book distribution is evolving. More here.

"Harry Potter is the only publishing brand big enough (so far) to break all the rules about how e-bookstores work. Instead of being sold through the retailers and their devices, or even through the publishers, all sales are made through a site owned and branded by the author. Rowling and Pottermore convinced retailers to digitally support the books with device syncing, bookmarks, and all the trappings that usually are only provided for books sold through the retailers’ own sites. "

(Via Wired)