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!

Biblioburro

Luis-Humberto-Soriano-Col-Ejemp-Cultura-1800x1200-05032014In the early hours of the morning, long before the sun rises, primary school teacher Luis Soriano Bohorque selects books, loads them on his two donkeys, and journeys to remote villages in Colombia. His mission is to bring books and educational programs to over 300 rural children, many of whom have no access to reading materials. The program is called Biblioburro, and Luis has been operating it for over 14 years.

I got in touch with Luis after reading the splendid picture book Biblioburro: A True Story from Colombia by Jeanette Winter (Beach Lane Books, 2010). Our interview has been translated from Spanish to English (you can read the original Spanish version here).

We are grateful to Paloma Moscardó-Valles from Princeton University’s Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures department for her translation work. ¡Muchas gracias Paloma!

You began this program in 1990. How did you come up with the idea for Biblioburro?
This idea was born in 1997. My community was in need of many things: there were no schools, nor teachers, the children couldn’t go to school, many of them worked. This is how I started this adventure with Alfa and Beto (my two donkeys) that we called BIBLIOBURRO (Donkey Library). Today it is a great blessing for more than 300 children of many communities in the department of Magdalena in Colombia.

aigo F300Describe a typical work day with this program.
A typical BIBLIOBURRO day starts at 3:00 a.m.: I choose the books and I start the journey. It can take up to 2 to 6 hours including the trip, getting the kids together, and starting the literacy and learning work. I return home before 5:00 p.m.

Please tell us about the children you visit.
The children that I visit live in a vulnerable situation, with few economic resources, many of them don’t have parents because they were killed in the Colombian Conflict some years ago. These children are full of dreams and hope and they want to move forward.

aigo F300Can you name a few of your favorite books from childhood?
Margarita de Baile (Margarita of Dancing), Cuentos y Aventuras para Niños (Stories and Adventures for Kids), Rin Rin Renacuajo ( Rin Rin Tadpole), among others.

How many books do you currently have in your library, and what kinds of books do you have?
Nowadays there are 6,000 books – stories, novels, fables, contemporary literature, encyclopedias, dictionaries.

What are some of the most popular titles with your patrons?
The most popular books are children stories, encyclopedias to search about important topics, and reference books.

What is one of your greatest hardships?
The biggest difficulty is not having resources for this task. We put great effort and sacrifice into our work. We need to repair the Library, to buy new equipment for the Biblioburro Digital, and I need a new prosthesis for my leg [Editor: Luis lost a leg in a traffic accident, but continued the program].

BiblioburroCould you tell us a little more about the Biblioburro Digital?
Biblioburro Digital is a program of learning reinforcement through computer and virtual educative programs. Books are still important for us. Biblioburro Digital has another program called “Countryside Movies” which are movie days for kids. It’s a very special moment to share. We have 5 computers and a projector. We urgently need a television for our library, and a new projector. We put in a lot of effort and dedication.

What are your plans for the program’s future?
In the future we’d like to have a Digital Library, better work tools, and more educational materials to strengthen the program.

What part of your work brings you the most joy and satisfaction?
All of my work gives me joy and satisfaction, seeing the kids happy when I arrive with my two donkeys is priceless. I love my job despite all the adversities and problems, and I always have a good disposition and attitude when facing the circumstances.

Caminos con Biblioburro


If you’d like to learn more about Luis and his program, you can visit the Biblioburro FaceBook page. All images are used with permission of Luis Soriano Bohorque.