350 for 50

350 for 50 typewriter popWe are delighted to announce the winners of this year’s 350 for 50 contest! An author from three age categories was challenged to write a 350-word story that included the sentence, “There was a rattling noise.” Enjoy!


Sleepless, the Squirrel
By Samantha Gunton, age 10

Sleepless the Squirrel_artwork by Aliisa Lee My eyelids open. I look out the window to see what’s making the noise; three kids in a snowball fight. I get out of bed and put on my slippers. Groggily, I walk down the hallway and out my front door.
“Hey! You’re trespassing!”
The kids don’t even glance my way. I watch as a boy with bad aim throws a snowball at MY tree, which doubles as my house. Grr – how am I going to get rid of them? You know, I wouldn’t have to deal with this if it weren’t for my real estate agent, Larry…
“It’s a great deal!” Larry had exclaimed, “No human beings will bother you!” Regretfully, I had believed him.  Now, I was awake during hibernation. I needed to visit Professor LeNut, the genius, to see whether he could help. I hopped to Professor LeNut’s house and knocked on his bedroom door.
“Hello? You awake?”
There was a rattling noise. What was that?
“Ughh…is it spring yet?” the professor moaned.
“You’re awake! Good. I need your help.”
Professor LeNut finished putting his retainer back in its case (that was the rattling sound) and turned to me. “You see those humans out there? I can’t get them to leave.  I need to hibernate.”
“First of all, WHY IN THE NAME OF WALNUTS DID YOU WAKE ME UP?!! Second, just pretend you have rabies. And lastly, how were you able to wake me?? It’s physically impossible to be awoken during hibernation. So either this is a dream or -”
Cutting him off, I said “Thanks!” and ran out. Once outside, I squeaked my way to the smallest kid and started foaming at the mouth.
The little humans got it, shouting, “Rabid squirrel!” They dashed away. I ran like my tail was on fire back to my tree house bedroom. I collapsed on the bed, closed my eyes and thought, “When I wake up, it better be Spring. If not…Larry, you’re going to get it!”


The Last Cabin_artwork by Aliisa LeeThe Last Cabin
By Hugo Kim, age 11

There was a rattling noise. The sound appeared to come from the front door, thought the last man on earth. Two months earlier, the man came to this remote cabin up state to shut the world out and finish his first novel. The cabin didn’t have an address for mail, TV, telephone, or any connection to the civilized world. Disconnected to civilization, he busily typed away on his manual typewriter. He was almost done. Tomorrow, he planned to drive forty miles the nearest post office to drop off his manuscript to a publisher.
What this man didn’t know was that a terrible epidemic had swept around the world. Somehow, a virulent strain of avian flu had combined with a lethal swine flu, mutating into a deadly pandemic. Scientists who discovered this flu called it N8H9 and it was spread through tiny droplets when people coughed.  The incubation period lasted a week. N8H9 was highly contagious and completely resistant to all types of antivirals. In just forty-three days, the entire world’s population had ceased to exist.
He heard the sound again. This time, he could hear someone turning the doorknob. The man got up and walked to his front door. No one knew about this place, so how could he have a visitor? He unlocked the door and opened it. Standing outside was a beautiful woman. She looked very pale and tired. The man asked if he could help the woman. She came closer as if to say something very important. The man leaned close to her face to hear what the last woman on earth had to say. He felt it was going to be something very, very important. That’s when the woman coughed.


The Dragon Princess
By Angelina Han, age 14

The Dragon Princess_artwork by Aliisa LeeThere was a rattling noise beginning somewhere deep inside the dragon’s chest, softening into a delighted clicking sounds and a low purr as the girl tickled the soft skin underneath his chin. The dragon rolled onto his back, spraying green fire from his nostrils for the girl’s amusement. The girl clapped and chortled, running around on her short legs. “Dragon!” The girl babbled, laughing. “Good dragon!” Her tightly curled hair bobbed in tandem with her small white dress. The dragon tilted his head to the side, pondering the strange little creature. He’d never seen anything like this before, and what were those noises she was making? It didn’t matter. He liked her already, and with a swoop of his great golden wings, he picked her up. She squealed with happiness as she flew for the first time, oblivious to the shouts below and the crown that had fallen off of her head into the dewy grass. The dragon carried her to his nest, and she stayed there with him.
Fourteen summers had tumbled by with laughing footsteps and constellation-filled nights when the girl and the dragon returned again to the spot where they had first met so long ago, though neither knew it. The girl had grown into lovely young lady with golden ringlets looping down her back, and she had all but forgotten her brief time with the humans. The dragon was her father now, and they communicated in sounds that dragons used. As they walked silently through the field still hung with morning dew, the girl tripped over an object that lay half sunken and long forgotten in the mud. She picked it up curiously, and it glinted in the rising sun like the dragon’s scales. A silver crown, bent and tarnished with moss crawling over it in spongy strands. A memory came to port on the foggy sea of her consciousness, and the girl slowly lifted the crown to her head.
“Dragon,” she whispered, her lips struggling to form the once-familiar words. She smiled at the dragon, who looked at her with large iridescent eyes. “Good dragon.”


Artwork by Aliisa Lee

Podcasts! Podcasts! Podcasts!

bibliofiles artwork by aliisa leeI’m delighted to announce that the BiblioFiles, our illuminating interviews with children’s book authors, are now available as podcasts! Download interviews with Phillip Pullman, Sharon Creech, Candace Fleming, Atinuke, Rebecca Stead, Gary Schmidt, Trenton Lee Stewart, M.T. Anderson, and more!

To visit the main site (which includes webcasts and interview transcripts), click here.
To visit podcast central, click here.

Interestingly enough, it was Lloyd Alexander who inspired this program.

Back in 2003, when I was still in graduate school, I decided to start reading children’s literature to counter all the academic reading I was tackling. Seeking some of my old favorites, I discovered that, happily, some authors had kept writing while I was detoured by college, working life, and graduate school. While reacquainting myself with Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain (“A Fflam thrives on danger!”), I found his 2003 book, The Gawgon and the Boy.

It’s a wonderful story about a boy named David who, after recovering from a life-threatening illness, is tutored by his Aunt Annie (a tough individual he secretly names “The Gawgon,” after the mythological monster, the Gorgon). However, as they spend more time together, the boy realizes what a true treasure the Gawgon is. I found the book to be lively, unique, and utterly heartwarming (later, I learned that it was also semiautobiographical, which makes it even more wondrous). So, at the tender age of 28, I wrote my first letter to an author, sharing how much I had loved reading his book.

And Mr. Alexander wrote back!

So I wrote him back!

And he wrote me back!

I wrote my last letter to him in 2006. I described how I had just moved to New Jersey, having accepted a job at the Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton University. I told him my greatest hope was to design creative literacy programs for children that would be worthy of the Gawgon. In the back of my mind, I had already decided that I once I got my legs under me, I would invite Mr. Alexander to the library for a visit.

Unfortunately, it was not to be; he passed away in 2007. I was incredibly saddened by the news. While I had already shared, through my letters, how much I loved his books, I would never get to truly voice my gratitude to him. I would never get to ask him questions about his writing and hear his responses. The conversation I wanted to have with him  about his characters, his inspirations, and his experiences was no longer possible. I decided that I needed to find a way to record and preserve conversations with the creators of brilliant, creative, beautiful, funny, and thoughtful children’s books.

Thus, the BiblioFiles. It took some time to get the program up and running, but in 2009, I aired my first interview with the enormously talented Kenneth Oppel. It was recorded in a tiny room at WPRB, a local radio station. Shortly after that, we moved to the University’s new Broadcast Center. Originally, the interviews were aired during the All-Ages Show, a children’s radio program. Then the interviews became webcasts, and our online archive was launched. Now, the interviews are downloadable as podcasts!

It’s my sincerest wish that you find inspiration in these interviews. Perhaps you’ll gain some good advice about writing, hear a character’s voice come to life, discover an interesting behind-the-scenes story, or simply learn what your favorite author’s laugh sounds like! I hope that the conversations evoke deeper connections to the books you love, and introduce you to new books you have yet to discover. Listen, laugh, ponder, discover, but most of all, enjoy.


BiblioFiles artwork by the super talented Aliisa Lee. 

Deepest heartfelt thanks to Dan Kearns, the Princeton University Broadcast Center’s sound engineer extraordinaire.

An additional shout out to Lance Harrington, the Broadcast Center’s resident wizard, for his endless patience and assistance in launching the podcast site!

Heartfelt

Cozy-Classics-Emma-largeThe first paragraph of Jane Austen’s Emma contains 40 words. Imagine narrowing it down to 12. Not challenging enough? Try narrowing the entire book down to 12 words.
Twin brothers Jack and Holman Wang not only stepped up to this challenge, they also proceeded to condense other classic works such as Pride and Prejudice, Moby Dick, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, and War and Peace. 

Each 12-word board book is illustrated with truly astounding needle felt models, which are beautifully posed and photographed. The books are enchanting, delightful, and obviously labors of love.

Cozy-Classics-Emma-LadyWelcome, dear readers, to Cozy Classics (published by Simply Read Books).

Intended for children age 0+, the books use child-friendly and child-familiar words to introduce works of classic literature.  Accompanied by illustrations that reflect the context and mood of the original works, these books are the perfect first step towards the larger realm of literature.

Cozy-Classics-Oliver-Twist-MeetCozy-Classics-War-and-Peace-DanceCozy-Classics-Pride-and-Prejudice-FriendsThe creators of Cozy Classics are well-matched to their task. Jack has a Master’s in Creative Writing and a Ph.D. in English. Holman, an artist and former middle school teacher, holds a Bachelor’s in education and a Master’s in architectural history. Jack and Holman have D.A.D. degrees, as well (i.e., they’re both fathers)!

How did this collaborative adventure start?

Jack: I was the one who came up with the idea of abridging classics for babies. When I shared the idea, Holman loved it. At the time, we both had a child under two, so board books were definitely on our minds. The only question was how we were going to illustrate our books. We wanted to do something original that would jibe with the classics. Holman’s sister-in-law does some needle felting, and that gave him the idea. So we each contributed something important to the concept, and that’s how Cozy Classics got started.

baby readsWhat is needle felting, and where did you learn it?

Holman: Needle felting is basically sculpting with wool. You stab loose wool repeatedly with a barbed needle, which entangles the fibres and makes the wool firm enough to hold shape. We taught ourselves how to needle felt for the purpose of these books. My very first figure, Ishmael, wound up in Moby Dick, but our technique has gotten a lot better since. For example, Ishmael didn’t have eyebrows or thumbs. He also had no armature (wire inside), which all our figures now have. This makes posing and re-posing them a lot easier.

How long does it take to craft and photograph a single illustration?

Holman: That’s hard to say. It takes 20-30 hours to complete a single figure. If a scene requires a studio set, it might take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to build. Lighting and photography generally takes three to five hours. If a scene requires an outdoor location shoot, it can again take anywhere from a few hours to a few days, depending on the weather and the travel involved. But the short answer is, a long time!

fake forestWhat books did you decide to do and why?

Jack: So far, there are nine Cozy Classics: Pride and Prejudice, Moby Dick, War and Peace, Les Misérables, Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, Emma, Huckleberry Finn, and Tom Sawyer. We have to think practically—it’s harder, for example, to do a book with a lot of characters—and we do think about gender balance, but mostly we just pick books that we care about and that we think other people care about, too.

Cozy-Classics-Les-Miserables-SadYour Cozy Classics board books consist of 12 words and 12 illustrations. How difficult is it to take a classic book that’s hundreds of pages long and boil it down to 12 simple words?

Jack: It can be challenging, that’s for sure. Some people think it’s just a matter of picking the twelve most memorable scenes, but twelve famous scenes and twelve random words won’t necessarily tell a story. So we start by choosing words that we think will give the best sense of the main storyline. Our motto is “no subplots.” And it’s not just twelve words but, as you say, twelve simple words, which means your dictionary isn’t very big to begin with. Sometimes words repeat from book to book because novels often share crucial elements. We’ve noticed there’s a lot of dancing, running, and helping in novels!

Cozy-Classics-Moby-Dick-Find2Which story was the most difficult to adapt?

Jack: Probably Emma. You would think it’d be a tome like Moby Dick or War and Peace, but both those novels have a simple narrative arc when you boil them down. But Emma has subplots that are fairly indispensable to the story.

Some people might be surprised to learn that – at least for your Cozy Classics book series – there are no computer graphics used on the photos. Tell us a little bit about the perils of setting up the perfect shot.

Holman: You’re right. Our attitude, at least for Cozy Classics, is that computer generated images would be “cheating”. So when you see sky in a shot, it’s natural sky. If you see a forest, it’s a real forest. Shots with stars were created by back lighting card stock with holes punched in it. Trying to do everything in camera definitely creates perils. The main peril of location shooting is wind. We’ve had figures and sets blow away on us. For studio shots, the main peril is fire. In one scene, Tom Sawyer had to hold a candle, but I let it burn too long and burned his thumb off. We’ve just finished Great Expectations, and, naturally, we had to set Ms. Havisham on fire. The trick was to do it in a way that didn’t destroy her completely (and luckily we didn’t), but she’s definitely worse for wear!

les mis shootI’m particularly interested in the cover image of Huckleberry Finn and Jim on the raft! Was that actually floating in water with you madly snapping shots?

Cozy-Classics-Huckleberry-Finn-largeHolman: Absolutely. I borrowed a pair of fishing hip waders from a friend and ventured into a local slough. I tied the figures onto the raft securely with wire ahead of time so they wouldn’t fall into the water. But the big hazard was the whole raft floating away on me. So I would gently push the raft in motion, madly snap shots, and then grab the raft before it went too far ashore. Also, the whole time I was just one slip away from plunging my camera in the muddy water and destroying it.

huck finn shoot 2Your Star Wars Epic Yarns series (published by Chronicle Books) will be released this April. Amazing! Tell us how this project came to be!

Jack: Holman and I were in Italy in 2013, where our artwork was on display in the Illustrators Exhibition at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. We struck up a conversation with a rep at Chronicle Books, who was kind enough to take some of our books back with him to San Francisco to show the head of their children’s division. When Chronicle asked us what other ideas we had for abridging classics, Star Wars was our first answer. Chronicle loved it.

StarWarsJedi_COV_1G.inddHolman: Of course, doing Stars Wars means licensing with LucasFilm/Disney. LucasFilm is very discerning when it comes to licensing Star Wars books, so we were thrilled when they came on board.

SW-Epic-Yarns_A-New-Hope_5_Rascal-©-TM-Lucasfilm-Ltd.-640x640What are you up to next?

Holman: More Cozy Classics, like Great Expectations, are coming soon, but we have other big ideas in the works, too. Unfortunately, we can’t disclose them now, but we hope that you’ll be hearing a lot from us in the future!

Cozy-Classics-Great-Expectations-Jack-and-Holman-Wang


Images used with permission of Jack and Holman Wang. All Star Wars images © LucasFilm Ltd. Star Wars is a TM of LucasFilm Ltd.

Cozy Classics’ Moby Dick was also featured on our curatorial blog. Click here to see it!