First experiences at ALA

ALA conf 2016

The American Library Association (ALA) annual conference, a ginormous offering for ALA’s 68,000 member librarians, was held this past weekend in Orlando at the newly refurbished Convention Center. Why should that matter to you? According to the ALA convention website, approximately 16,000 people who are decision makers concerning which books are purchased for their libraries were expected to attend. Roughly eighty-six percent of them purchase books at this annual conference. This is a huge marketing outreach for new books for kids.

Here is an impressive bit of trivia – the ALA is the oldest and largest library association in the world. How’s that for clout?

Maryann Cocca-Leffler and Jair Hernandez int he Diversity Pavilion.

Maryann Cocca-Leffler and Jair Hernandez in the Diversity Pavilion.

W SD hardcoverFullSize2

Newly available in hardcover too!

I am especially keyed into this 2016 event since Babl Books, Inc. brought my book, Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar, in its brand new, hard cover, printed in the USA, Spanish translation. This was the first time Babl Books has participated and it was a productive move for all of their authors and illustrators.

Jair Hernandez, President of Babl Books, Inc., continues to promote his mission to publish much-needed quality bilingual picture books that deal with universal themes. Babl Books exhibited in the Diversity Pavilion, in good company with We Need Diverse Books nearby, who also exhibited there for the first time.

W Nancy Cote JBMaryann Cocca-Leffler, Acquisitions Director for Babl, is also an Author-Illustrator of Children’s books. She joined Jair in promoting Babl Books and their 20+ distinguished Authors & Illustrators (current and upcoming lists), including Nancy Cote, David McPhail and Michael Garland.

Jair reports: We met with a lot of enthusiastic librarians, publishers, and vendors who want to see more bilingual books. Our hard work leading up to the conference definitely paid off, as we were able to showcase our books and speak of a literacy need that resonated with many of the people we spoke with.

The road to ALA 2016 wasn’t without its hiccups, which included me dropping all my catalogs in the parking lot. 

ALA catalogs

We felt ALA was a great success for Babl Books and our Author Partners. Maryann and I were able to cap off the weekend  with some local flavor at Cafe Tu Tu Tango, where Maryann tried her first gator!

Maryann adds: All our books are available in hardcovers for Libraries through Babl Books and through Ingram and hopefully soon through Baker & Taylor.

Librarians at ALA were actively on the look-out for bilingual books. Though Spanish seems to be the most sought after, we got enthusiastic response for our bilingual offerings in our other 7 core languages including Portuguese, Chinese and Vietnamese. There was lots of talk about “Family Literacy” and many found our dual text particularly helpful when a child shares their books at home. Many librarians asked for Arabic, which we currently don’t offer, but may look into that possibility.

I think people were most surprised by our innovative translation platform and our POD ability to print quality hardcovers, which truly gives us the ability to add many language offerings. We are actively growing our line and are gaining interest from authors, illustrators and agents.

Our booth was in the Diversity Pavilion. We not only connected with Librarians but other valuable industry professionals. Many Librarians brought along their families. It is nice to hear that as parents they want to bring up their children in a bilingual household. (I slipped some paperbacks books to the kids!)

David McPhail coverSwag – book related freebies – is often available at conferences, book launch parties, and conventions. Jair and Maryann held raffles each day to give away themed packets. On Friday it was a Celebrating the Child pack including Something Special, Jackson’s Blanket, Fatuma, and I Like Buttons. Saturday’s was a Nighttime pack featuring Caroline Dreams, Before You Go to Bed, Time to Say Bye-Bye, and Mouse Counting. On Sunday they gave away a Summer Kick-off pack including Hermit Crab, Whale-snail, Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar, and Clams All Year.

A conference like ALA Orlando has enormous power to connect people with books for children. This first experience for Babl Books as an exhibitor at a major event like this one proved to be gratifying.

To find out more about Babl Books please visit

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Babl Books at ALA

I am excited that Babl Books, whose mission is to offer bilingual picture books, including mine, to kids everywhere,  will be at ALA this weekend. They are sharing a booth with We Need Diverse Books. Check them out if you go!
BABL BOOKS will exhibiting at the 
ALA Conference in Orlando – Jun 24-27
Find us at the DIVERSITY PAVILION  # 1067F 
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Author – Artist Residency Tips

by Joyce Audy Zarins

If someone from a school overseas invited you to do an author or artist residency in connection with your picture book what would you do? I said yes even before I knew the particulars. If that would be your reaction, there are a few things you may want to consider to maximize this opportunity.

W ACS Lower School

Part of the ACS Cobham International School’s Early Childhood area.

W ACS Early Childhood

The Kindergarten building.

I had never been to England, where the ACS International School in Cobham, Surrey, UK has students from all over the world. This would be different from the artist residency I had done last May in Akyreyri, Iceland where I helped the students in grades one through ten paint murals. The ACS school was interested in my picture book Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar, originally published a while ago in New York by Lippincott (and subsequently Harper & Row) in a hardcover English-only version. The book was reissued this past November in six languages, which fit with the school’s international community of students. Would I come and talk to kids in pre K to grade two? I formulated a list of options for the teachers to choose from and started collecting what would be needed. By the time I headed for the airport last week the plan had morphed into a week of presentations for 300 kids in groups of 12-15, including a few classes of 2 year olds. Actually they were closer to three, because it’s nearing the end of the school year. The plan for them was a simple story time.

The entire week-long experience was completely amazing, partly because of the planning that was done ahead. Edori and Helen, the two art faculty I interacted with, came up with excellent projects relating to the art in my book, Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar.

Kindergardeners made mixed media collages incorporating white negative space, like in the book.

Kindergardeners made mixed media collages incorporating white negative space, like in the book. Art teacher Edori Fertig came up with this excellent plan.

This shark attack mixed media was a surprise. Poor crabs!

This shark attack mixed media was a surprise. Poor crabs!

I must say that I had an angel. My friend Stephanie Hurlbatt was the children’s librarian in my town when my kids were young and a friend who helped my son with his magic shows. She moved to England long ago, married, and has been teaching at the ACS school since then. She was the mover and shaker for this residency and even organized the reception the school put on for me. She deserves a medal.

First graders made Styrofoam prints, drawing with a pencil what printed as the white lines. The sand dollar book originals were silk screens.

First graders made Styrofoam prints, drawing with a pencil what printed as the white lines. The sand dollar book originals were silk screens. Art teacher Helen decided on this print method.

If you find yourself an angel, here are a few things that might ensure that your experience is as good as mine was.

  1. Arrive two days early, if possible, to avoid jetlag due to the time difference and the slog that travel is. I was expected to present to five groups on Monday, and I was introduced to lots of staff and teachers. You need to be at your best. I arrived on Saturday and left the following Sunday, at the school’s suggestion. A brilliant idea.
  2. Communicate as closely with the different grade level teachers and tailor presentations to fit their curricula as much as possible. I brought four different PowerPoint slide shows and a few demonstration materials geared to different targets and age levels. Also, copies of my book in all six languages, which I donated to the school library at the end of the week even though the school had purchased one copy for each class.
  3. PreK made sand dollars of self hardening clay.

    PreK children made sand dollars of self hardening clay.

    Bring extra copies of your media. Redundancy is a good practice. I checked to be sure the school’s equipment was compatible with what I brought, and then I made two thumb drives with everything on them. This helped when, in the flurry of moving from one class to another, the first stick was left behind in the computer. I also had saved everything on Google Drive, just in case.

  4. Print out a schedule for the week, coded to your list of which presentations are for each grade. Stephanie provided an Excel grid once the schedule was set. Each block listed the grade. I added numbers coded to the list of my offerings which the school had chosen for each grade. For each class, I could easily tell the teacher which number presentation to select on his/her computer.

    A true angel - Stephanie Hurlbatt.

    A true angel – Stephanie Hurlbatt.

  5. I was fortunate that Stephanie, who teaches PreK at the school, was my sidekick for the week, assuring the logistics like where to be, where to have lunch, and so on. For PreK she sang a fun sea-themed song complete with cute gestures with the kids to fill a time gap. Yes, time slots must be conformed to. Stephanie is an amazing liaison.
  6. Managing your reimbursement is necessary. Keep all receipts for your meals, materials, and flight in one place to facilitate the payment process. Amounts for things purchased before your arrival will be in US Dollars while expenses during your trip will be in local currency. Do note that up front on your invoice so there is no confusion. When the school e-mailed me the reimbursement form after I returned home, I discovered that the bank information they needed was unfamiliar. I went to the credit union where my checking and savings are and found that they had an awkward way to handle foreign transactions. I went to a bigger local bank, but they too could have completed the transaction only by going through an intermediary bank first. So I opened an account at a local branch of Santander Bank, since they are based in Spain and have branches in England. I gave the school that bank’s information. However, I learned that all US banks have a different system than European ones. Bank of America might have been a better choice because of their scope.
  7. Keep a list of teachers’ and administrators’ names for thank you emails later. They reached out to you and spent quite a bit to bring you to their school. Mention what you provided and that you tried to tailor your programs to the curriculum for each group. For example I made rubber stamps of ocean organisms and provided books, bookmarks and stickers, and boxes with sea shells, some of which I mailed ahead. I donated these materials. And the second grade classes had all written out similes and metaphors and some classes included onomatopoeia. In addition to talking about these with the kids, I emailed a short response to each class later using the childrens’ names when possible. Showing administrators that you tried to fit your presentation into the school’s educational paradigm reinforces your value to the school.

My experience with this second overseas school residency was awesome. I was even given a gift of bunting – a charming British decorative thing – with pictures of British birds on it, as a memento. Dozens of kids gave me hugs – no such thing as too many of those! One group sang the chant from the book, which they had memorized. And one little girl told me she wished I was her mother! How cute is that.

I hope that your author-artist residency experience will be equally rewarding.


This article also appears at, a blog for authors and illustrators of children’s books.

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Big Sur on Cape Cod

W beach at Sea Crest Beach Hotel

I’ve just returned home from Big Sur on Cape Cod, a wonderful mentoring weekend for children’s book authors and illustrators organized by Andrea Brown and her most-successful-in-the-US literary agency, in coordination with Lisa Rehfuss. This event is held annually in California, and for the first time was offered here in New England (lucky us). The program and venue were fantastic. The food too, especially those lobster sliders!

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Box lunches on the deck.

W Littleneck clam chowder

Littleneck clam chowder.

The ratio of mentors – meaning agents, editors, and established authors – to attendees was one to five. Of the fifty attendees at least two had their work requested by agents present during the weekend. Editors Yolanda Scott of Charlesbridge and Christine Krones of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will be open to queries from attendees for the next three months. Yolanda Scott also revealed that Charlesbridge will release YA books in 2017. All fifty registrants received fabulous feedback, business pointers, and camaraderie.

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David Elliott with four of his five acolytes.

My two mentors were Kelly Sonnack, a seriously perceptive and business minded Senior Agent at Andrea Brown, Inc. and David Elliott, a New York Times best-selling children’s author and almost opera singer. I am so grateful for the wisdom they and my workshop peers shared. Brandi Hand not only has beautiful red hair, but cleverly volunteered to set up a Big Sur Facebook page for post event sharing.

An added bonus was an impromptu illustration critique session by Anne Sibley O’Brien, a well-known author/illustrator of wonderful books focused on diversity. Workshop attendees from picture book people to YA authors came from the Midwest, New Orleans, and even Stockholm, Sweden.

No time for this!

No time for this!

This weekend was a convergence of fertile minds and eloquent hearts all striving towards compelling writing and art for children’s books.

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Interview: Totally Talented Brian Lies

I recently did an interview for with Brian Lies, successful author and illustrator of gorgeous books for children. It was posted to coincide with the release of Brian’s latest picture book, Gator Dad. You can see his glorious artwork and read about him here.

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Two May Residencies

W-Teens-on-the-Wall-4Iceland, 2015

Being invited for an artist or author residency is such an honor. Last May I went to northern Iceland for a week long artist residency to help seventy kids in grades one to ten paint murals. The school was Valsárskóli in Svalbarðsströnd, which is across the fjord from where my son Eric and his wife Inga live. Inga, whose full name is Inga Sigrún Atladóttir, is the Principal of the school and was kind enough to hire me. It was only the second time that I’ve needed a translator to communicate with students. The youngest kids are beginning to learn English, but the eighth to tenth graders are fluent. All of them painted with enthusiasm and flair. The younger artists worked from sketches they had done of things important to them, from sheep to trees with little people living in them. The middle group did rainbows, Minecraft, and even police cars with lights flashing. Within this rainbow is a red, fire-breathing dragon wearing a nice hat with a flower on it!W-Teens-on-the-Wall-6

The older kids did conceptual self portraits within tracings of their own shadows. We used a powerful light borrowed from their auditorium and drew the shadows on paper first so we could arrange them well on the wall.

Hrafntinna, who was shy, was the last to decide on a pose. She was sprawled on the sofa where the kids were hanging out watching the painting unfold and for the longest time wasn’t sure what position she wanted to be in.

W-Teens-on-the-Wall-3One girl had done a yoga tree pose, some kids were leaning on their closest friends, three buddies were arm in arm, and so on. But she was undecided. So I suggested that she use the horizontal pose she was in right then. She agreed, we traced her, then floated her above everyone else. What color did she choose to paint herself? Sky blue. And when she added her conceptual imagery, it consisted of tiny birds flying within her form.



In the video, the adults (Ásrún, Elizabet, Hrafndís, and Belgie), are teachers who helped enormously with communicating with students (Kristján, Rakel, Hrafntinna, Alda, Alida, Ásdis, Kristbjord, Orri, Ragnar, Stefán, Sævar, Telmar, and Þorri) and with keeping the paint under control. Through the window you can see a bit of the fjord and the snow-covered mountains on the other side.

Working with these teens and  younger people on their artistic visions was an awesome experience.


England, 2016

Sand Dollar bookmark2Now this May I will be heading to Cobham, Sussex, England for another week-long residency, this time at an international school.  The kids will be in preK to 2nd grade classes and we will spend time thinking about art, writing, and nature. My first picturebook, Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar (originally published by Lippincott, then Harper & Row in 1980), was reissued last year, in a paperback version, translated into six languages, which is the connection to this international school. Each book also includes the story in English and so these translations are ideal for kids, in the U.S.A. and everywhere, who are bilingual or hope to be.

Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar was inspired by my love of the beach at Plum Island in Massachusetts. It is about Peter and his dog Urchin making a sand castle, then dealing with the sea washing the castle away. He wants the waves to go away, and thinks his sand dollar does make it recede. But when he finds a little flounder, who needs the sea, he says, “What have I done?” And what do you think he does next? This story is about a fine day at the beach, but also about our responsibility toward the environment we love.

I will be bringing sand dollars and other shells, slide shows relating to the beach, giant insects, and steel and mixed media sculpture. And we will make things that show how we feel about the natural world.


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Meet Viðar

ViðarMeet our newest family member, Viðar, who is Dagbjört and Erlingur’s baby. He was born February 2. In line with Icelandic custom, his name was not used until he was christened this past Sunday, Easter. Isn’t he beautiful? The photo was taken by Eric, who is now a grandfather! Viðar and his parents live in Reykjavík.

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World of Books: France, Belgium and Czech Republic

by Joyce Audy Zarins

Les Mammouths

In my small collection of children’s books from around the world, some help explain ways of thinking to the young. The world can be a scary and sometimes puzzling place, so clues are always useful.

In Les Mammouths, Les Ogres, Les Extraterrestres, et ma petite soeur, as the title suggests, creatures of the past and future meet and the question of what is real and what is imaginary is raised. It is also self-referential. This Tom’poche publication originated in Nice, France and is written by Alex Cousseau and illustrated by Nathalie Choux with whimsical decorations that include many references to folk tales and other children’s stories. The colors are warm and bright and blend the possible with the impossible.

Les Mammouths4The existentialism begins with the first sentence, “Papa says that mammoths do not exist.” Well, considering that Papa appears to be that very species, albeit with a bow tie, the fun begins. Papa says that ogres don’t exist either. Mama adds that mammoths only existed a long, long time ago. So what about this nice family with their wide open eyes? The little mammoth asks, “Do you exist or not?”

Papa explains as they walk out on the street and into the world that they only exist when the author of the book writes their story and the illustrator draws it so. In spite of appearances, they are not really on the street or in the world. If the author wants to show on the street an ogre on top of a sheep, he will ask the artist to draw that. Little mammoth notes that the result looks more like a green extraterrestrial than an ogre. Papa concurs. That is because the artist lady is not so good at drawing ogres. She is very good at drawing sheep, though.

Les Mammouths6The little guy with the red pants turns out to be the ogre and imagine his surprise when he is riding in the pannier of Papa Mammoth’s doughnut-wheeled motorcycle and overhears that he doesn’t exist either! Imaginative adventures happen. Past, present, and future collide and there is a lovely mix of realistic artichoke roofs on buildings and doll-faced characters (one of whom is reading the very book we’re discussing) dancing across the pages with the Seven Dwarfs, a blind mouse, and lots of other improbables.

At the end of this philosophical day, the little mammoth mentions something else suggested by the book’s title. “I would love to have a little sister.” But that won’t happen unless the author thinks of it and writes her into the book and the artist draws her, right? No, Papa explains. The little sister will only exist when Papa and Mama wink to each other. This is the way it always begins.

This is a completely delightful book, and I know for a fact that it does actually exist.


In Trouwen met Tanja (Married with Tanja) by Bart Van Nuffelen and Klaas Verplancke there is also a huge emphasis on the written word, but in a different way. For example, the endpapers are covered with a child’s cursive writing that repeats endlessly, “I will not marry Tanja.” The typography throughout the book uses scale and color changes to emphasize the action and meaning of the story using Clarendon type. And the underlying message regards keeping your word, though maybe not when your promise has been coerced.

Trouwen2BOn Marc’s last day of kindergarten before a vacation he and the other kids are doing foolish things, running in circles until they see stars and so on. Along comes Stief, who is grosser than most, especially about bodily functions. He also knows more about the female anatomy than anyone. He imitates a robot making everyone laugh and Marc falls to the ground with the hilarity of it all.

He feels someone grab him – first by his neck, then in other places. It is Tanja. She is silent, then she gently asks him, “Will you marry me?”

She looks weird to Mark because she’s so close. He can only see a bit of her at a time. Her freckles remind him of countries on the globe and he feels like a fly caught in a spiderweb. She asks again and he says no. She squeezes his fingers. Her sharp teeth remind him of the Ural mountains, the Central Massif…even Mount Saint Helen. Steif yells at him to answer her and under pressure he caves in and squeaks out a “yes.” Oh no. What did he do?

Trouwen3During vacation Marc tries outlandish ways to change his bad luck, because he does not want to marry Tanja. When he asks Mom and Dad what happens if you promise… Mom interrupts and says he must keep his promise. Marc feels doomed. He decides to hold his breath until it isn’t true anymore. That doesn’t work. He tries other tricks. Nothing. Zorro, who is Stief in disguise, appears and gives him a clue. And the saga continues. This goes on through the entire vacation, then once back at school, there she is again, the inescapable Tanja. Amid kids chanting and other chaos, The chant from the beginning of the book is repeated and Marc flies head over heels off toward America to escape.

The mixed media images are large-scale madcap exaggerations which makes them completely engaging, especially Tanja as a global entity. And everyone’s eyes are the same bugging-out-of-their-heads type as those in the previously described book – round white circles with expressive black pupils. The illustration colors used are deep tones that make the compositions pop.

The drama is clear and the characters certainly emote.

Jako by

Jako by se tu nekdo snazil nevydat ani hlasku (A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound) by John Irving, illustrated by Tatjana Hauptmannova, was translated from the original English by Meander publishers, Czech Republic. It was originally published by Bloomsbury Publishing, London.

This picture book was first told within Mr. Irvings’ novel A Widow for One Year, which was made into the movie The Door in The Floor. In it, the main character is a children’s book writer named Ted Cole. According to an interview with Mr. Irving, he did not set out to write a children’s book until he needed some examples to attribute to the main character of his novel. Does this suggest similarities with the Les Mammouths version of reality?

Jako by3In the picture book story, Tom is awakened in the middle of the night by a sound. He sits bolt upright in bed, eyes wide and bulging. What was that? We can imagine the pounding of his heart. He can’t identify what the sound is because it isn’t like anything he’s heard before. To him it evokes  the movement of a monster with no arms or legs dragging itself along the ground, among other imaginative responses. How creepy is that? Tom’s dad (who wisely does not actually appear in the pictures) explains that it’s just the scurrying of mice in the walls, which comforts Tom. But his little brother Tim can’t sleep for worrying because he doesn’t know what the word “mouse” means. Here again is a reference to the power of really understanding what words mean.

Jako by4This small format book is illustrated with wonderful, semi-disheveled drawings that vividly evoke Tom’s humanity, the shadowy setting, the dim moonlight, and the bulges in the wall. One clue to the mystery of the noises is an image in which a mouse, dramatized by its long shadow, crosses a room in the foreground.

In the end, all three of these books say, in different evocative ways, that reality is what you believe it to be.


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Young-Deok Seo

Young-Deok SeoHere is the work of Young-Deok Seo, a South Korean artist who wisely uses bicycle chain as his medium. This is a smart move aesthetically because the chain is beautiful and gives texture and a perforated pattern to these large scale visages. And perhaps more importantly because of its connections to global society and to motion. Here are some examples.

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Female Power Symbol

Today we walked among snow-encrusted trees at Maudslay State Park and an idea came to me. Now that I have drawn it, let me explain. can be powerful. Consider Gerald Holtom’s peace symbol, which he designed for the Direct Action Committee against Nuclear War in the fifties. It is now widely used and is a universally known symbol for peace.

During the Renaissance symbols were created to represent the male and female genders, which we still use today. The female design refers to the planet Venus and suggests a distaff used for hand spinning yarn. The male symbol represents Mars and the wielding of a spear.

I wanted to design a new symbol for female power, without aggression. The universal female symbol suggests to me a figure with arms outstretched as if welcoming or showing support. Adjusting the position of the horizontal line could imply other meanings. Bent arms did not work very well, nor did curved ones. A simple vee configuration can represent upraised arms, an active pose that implies victory and empowerment. A surrounding circle uses the other female shape and suggests the globe.Female Power origin

This symbol would be visually strongest in black and white due to the nature of those two colors as providing the widest possible contrast. And black and white is beautiful. But it would also be emotionally strong in one color plus white. That color must be purple, a blend of a warm color and a cool one, suggesting both passion and restraint. Purple also represents a union between red and blue, which has additional meaning.

Female Power symbol 1 B&WFemale Power symbol 2 B&W

Female Power symbol 1 PurpleFemale Power symbol 2 P



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Linda Sue Park: Ted talk

In this terrific TedX talk, author Linda Sue Park talks about a path to changing the world. Life is not fair, but stories engage the minds of those who can develop empathy and act in heroic ways.

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Books going global!

Check this out! “Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar,” my first picture book of long ago, is now available on Amazon in five languages! French, Spanish, Vietnamese, Portuguese, and Tagalog. All are paperback and all have the English text also. The book is being reissued by a small Boston start-up, Bab’l Books, Inc., whose mission is to provide dual language books to kids ages 3-7. Other languages and a Kindle version may follow.

Sand Dollar, 5 languages

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Yellow, the Noble Color, is for Emperors and Empresses

This is a review of two books with different target audiences that have one mission: to share some of the treasures and history of the Forbidden City in China with the world. They are voices from the other side of the globe. Can you hear them?

Bowls of Happiness

Bowls of Happiness: Treasures from China and the Forbidden City 

Bowls of Happiness is a picture storybook in sections, part non-fiction. The first, Happiness: Joyful Meetings, begins with the birth of a little girl nicknamed Piggy. The type is scaled for a child and the story is fully illustrated with lovely, delicate line work and colors in an appropriately innocent picture book style. As the child grows, Mom is making a new porcelain bowl for Piggy, painting it with designs from traditional Chinese depictions of nature. See, there are the symbols for cloud, for bat, for longevity. There are peonies and egrets and butterflies just as they were painted on the emperor’s rice bowls, but this bowl is for Piggy.

The second section, Wishing for the Best in Life, is non-fiction for older kids or adults, which suggests that this is a book to be enjoyed by a family together. There are explanations of elements of Chinese language, the ritual use of some of the emperor’s bowls and the symbolism of the designs. Delicate drawings show the artwork on all sides of some, including on the inside of one – a surprise butterfly visible once all the rice has been eaten.

And the final section, Let’s Make a Bowl, talks about the parts of a rice bowl and the practical reasons for their shape. There is even a dye cut bowl on a page where the reader can make a wish, presumably for happiness or something similar.

This beautifully designed and illustrated book is a wonderful window on Chinese culture written by Brian Tse, Illustrated by Alice Mak, and translated by Ben Wang, through the auspices of the Design and Cultural Studies Workshop. Both this and the following book are part of a four book series which were funded by The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation in Hong Kong to promote a deeper understanding of China’s rich cultural heritage, beginning with the culture of the Forbidden City.

What Was It Like, Mr. Emperor? Life in China’s Forbidden City


Children everywhere will be amazed to read that heirs to the imperial throne of China were schooled from 5:00 am until 3:00 pm seven days a week with only five holidays each year! By comparison, this makes contemporary education appear super easy. What Was It Like, Mr. Emperor?: Life in China’s Forbidden City is an attractive one hundred and eight page hardcover book that answers the question asked in the title by showing aspects of the daily life of each ruler within the enormous Imperial Palace complex, of 980 buildings and nearly 10,000 rooms, called the Forbidden City. I’ve been there. It is truly amazing. The map below and the photographs are meant to give context, but are not in the book. Share this fascinating slice of history and royal life, illustrated for young people, with your child.

The book shows that beginning in 206 BC Imperial Palace court officials recommended to the emperor that “studying is the only noble thing to do in life” and consequently there were always more scholars on the palace staff than military men. The emperor’s daily needs were well satisfied as shown by the list of foods cooked each day for him, although his meals were always tested first by an entourage of eunuchs. Poison and other risks to the emperor’s life needed to be guarded against. Thousands of eunuchs, female consorts, and others supplied the emperor’s every desire.

Traditionally the first born boy of the royal family would become the next emperor, so princesses were out of luck and would instead be married off young, some even at the age of ten, to suitors from faraway lands. However there was one female emperor, Wu Zetian, who reigned for a time during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907). Accounts suggest that she was no sweetheart.

W 238_Forbidden City

The Gate of Supreme Harmony (#5 on map) photographed by me in 2008.

This carefully designed book employs a beautiful yellow color throughout, perhaps in honor of Qin Shi Huangdi, who more than 4,000 years ago unified the various tribes into the nation of Chinese people, becoming their first emperor. He was nicknamed the Yellow Emperor. The simple graphic novel style drawings with thick black outlines and the clean page layouts, along with easy to understand text, showcase a surprising amount of information in an accessible way. This may be a good resource for report writing at the younger grade levels and there are many basic facts of interest to the book’s young audience.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony (#6 on map), Forbidden City, Beijing, China, 2008

Kids will be intrigued by the 12 personality symbols embroidered into every emperor’s imperial robe starting in the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 B.C.), brief bios of the Ming and Qing emperors (some wise and brave, others not), and accounts of uprisings and entertainments. There is one set of gatefolds to illustrate the ceremony at the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City where Emperor Shunzhi was crowned at the age of six and eventually began his reign when only fourteen, as was customary.

Trade publishers today and organizations such as WeNeedDiverseBooks insist that books for children about the world’s cultures and ethnicities should be written and illustrated by members of that group. Diverse literature for kids doesn’t get more authentic than this non-fiction book about life in China’s Forbidden City. It was written by Chiu Kwong-chui and Eileen Ng, translated by Ben Wang, and illustrated by the Design and Cultural Studies Workshop, which Mr. Kwong-chiu founded in Hong Kong.  What Was It Like Mr. Emperor was written and illustrated by acknowledged experts from Hong Kong and printed in China as well. Although Kirkus found issue with some aspects of the book, it’s simple distillation of a complex and long history is an appropriate introduction for young audiences. The Qing and Ming Dynasties’ Forbidden City in Beijing, originally built under orders of Zhu Di, the Emperor Yongle, who reigned from 1403-1424, is now a museum and World Heritage site.

The online description of What Was It Like, Mr. Emperor?: Life in China’s Forbidden City states that it is intended for children grades 3 and up. In the Forbidden City, a companion book in this series, received the Parents’ Choice Gold Award for 2015.

What Was it Like, Mr. Emperor?: Life in the Forbidden City is an authentic introduction to the daily life of typical Chinese emperors, well-presented for today’s children. Note: These reviews are based on copies of the books sent to me by the publisher for that purpose, which is a common practice.

Two stone dragons of the many at the Forbidden City. JAZ

Two stone dragons of the many at the Forbidden City. JAZ

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Galleta de Mar, Galleta de Mar

W Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar SpanishToday I received a copy of my book Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar in its final Spanish/ English dual language paperback version, published by Bab’l Books, Boston.

I am excited to see this book in print again! I love the idea of reaching out to bilingual kids. And, its hidden message is environmental – that we need to act responsibly toward nature to keep things in balance. That’s so important right now. The story was inspired by an experience with my children at Plum Island in Newburyport and Newbury, MA
Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar / Galleta de Mar will be available in the UK, US, and Europe and eventually in four or five other languages and as an e-book. If you know of anyone interested in purchasing one, they can get them through Amazon. Here’s the link.

Anyone who has read it can write a short review for Amazon or Goodreads, if you like. (hint, hint)

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Last chance!

W-Elision-2We’ve just de-installed Elision from Sanctuary Arts in Eliot, Maine where it was all summer. There’s still time to see Solidarity and the Flying Horse sculpture exhibit at the Pingree School in Hamilton, MA. De-installation is scheduled for November 23rd.

Sept. 2, 2015 - Pingree School, Hamilton, Massachusetts

Sept. 2, 2015 – Pingree School, Hamilton, Massachusetts

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Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar

I have a teeny bit of news, but it’s in five or six languages!

My first ever picturebook, published in 1980 by J.B. Lippincott, then taken on by Harper and Row, which has been out of print for years, is being reissued by a small start-up as a bilingual paperback and Kindle book. Bab’l Books was started by two Harvard Business school graduates who are not native English speakers. Their mission is to make available dual language books with universal themes for kids ages 3-7. Their translations are obtained through crowd-sourcing.

W Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar cover

Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar, which I wrote and illustrated, will soon be available in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Vietnamese, Tagalog, and possibly German. Each also contains the English text.

Marianne Knowles interviewed Jair Hernandez, my contact at Bab’l Books, for her WritersRumpus blog. In case you are interested, that interview can be found here.

I’m psyched!

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Advice from a kid: Miranda at age 9 and at age 13

A while ago I posted an interview here with Miranda, a very special person to me. Recently, I asked her similar questions about her reading habits and those of kids she knows. The answers show a trajectory  and are useful information for writers, so I also posted this on


Nine-year-old Miranda and I went for a walk. She told me what she thinks about books.

Here’s what she said.

Topics that some kids like (kids that I know):

  • Fluffy kitty cat books (I hate them completely)
  • Books with some scary moments and action (I personally like these best :)
  • Craft books like how to decorate cupcakes, paper mache or mask making
  • Humorous books like Junie B. Jones
  • Romance with a little bit of horror
  • New stories with older settings or a combo of two older stories with a new twist.

The best rated stories have…

Only a few scary moments so you don’t get nightmares for a week or so.

Something real has to happen (unlike I bought a kitty and named it Lucie and I put a bow in her hair. The end. BORING!)

A little realistic drama (NO fainting randomly and other random things like SUPER MAN TO THE rescue!)

No cartoons except Diary of a Wimpy Kid (whole series)

Which character is most important?

The heroine/hero and the evil witch, wizard or whatever is in the story.

For example: The Hobbit. In the story a little hobbit named Bilbo wanted to live in peace and quiet. When his wizard friend drops by and talks to him and then leaves he finds that the next day there are a whole group of homeless dwarfs sitting in his house talking. They pull him in to a crazy adventure of rafting, dragons and all sorts of crazy dangers that he never even thought of. He stayed calm and went anyway and never gave up.

The evil person, character, or whatever is important (I actually think it’s most important) because if they weren’t  there what would the hero do?

A final thought from Miranda age 9:

School kids should have library class twice a week (at least) so that they can actually have time to read ‘cause kids really do need to read more than they do now.

W Miranda at Crane'sMiranda, at 13, has this to say:

What are some topics for books that teens like? (kids that you know, and yourself)
Many teens like the hyped up books like Hunger Games and the Fault in our stars. I have not read either of them, but I am sure they are great books. I really enjoy fantasy novels, especially ones with sequels, or ones in a long series.
What characteristics do the best stories have?
I think the best stories are believable, but I also think that suspension of disbelief is an important practice too. I like books that aren’t set in our world or time because I like to read in order to get away from my problems.
Which character in a book is most important?
The most important character in a book is always the antagonist. Without the antagonist, there would be no inciting incident, no rising action, and no climax. It’d be pretty boring.
What is your favorite book ever?
My favorite book ever would definitely have to be the “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare.
Is there anything you wish that there was a book about?
I wish there were more young teen “romance” novels. I enjoy reading that sort of thing, but it’s so hard to find a nice romance novel that is appropriate. I do think that current day writers are doing a great job, but I also enjoy older literature such as Shakespeare. I LOVE SHAKESPEARE!!!!!!!!! Even if the sentences are a tad difficult to understand, the stories are so beautiful, and I’d love to see more like that, perhaps written in book form, instead of a play. I might like Shakespeare so much because I myself act and can therefore envision the stage, and beautiful scenery, all tied together with the perfect actors. But, maybe that’s just me. That and maybe because William Shakespeare invented my name… I’m not biased though. In fact that is how I was introduced to Shakespearian literature.
Do you have any final thoughts for writers and illustrators?

All in all I think that if there were more stories set in Shakespeare’s time with beautiful story lines such as his were I would read a lot more (of them).

Miranda Rose dos Santos
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Interview: Carey F. Armstrong-Ellis, Thriving Author/Illustrator

by Joyce Audy Zarins

Also posted at

“Armstrong-Ellis fills the page with slime and sludge, and careful readers will even spy monster-themed parodies of works from da Vinci, Cassatt, George Rodrigue, and other artists.”

—Publishers Weekly

Moldy Ham

Picture books by Carey F. Armstrong-Ellis are filled with hyperbole and delightfully disgusting detail. Her most recent book, released August 4, 2015, is I Love You More Than Moldy Ham, a heartwarming ode to mom and repulsive foods. You might call Carey’s illustration style refuse rococo, which is characterized by a charming over-the-topness. She has strayed afar from Read More »

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World of Books #4

This post is #4 in a series. The earlier ones are here, here and here. This article also appears on another blog, here on

W-Thailand-lizardWe see hundreds of excellent children’s books each year published here in the U.S., but what about those published in other countries? The rest of the world is producing books with interesting pictures for kids, too. What kinds of artwork are done by illustrators from elsewhere? Are they similar or different? What can we learn from them?

A while ago I decided to collect children’s books when I travel. Good friends and family have added to that collection. I look for books that seem endemic, that is, written and illustrated by people from the visited country and that portray stories that don’t seem in imitation of something American. The real deal. So far, I have forty-three books from far-off places with intriguing artwork and book design. Many have stories I can’t read, but there are things to be learned from the pictures.


This lovely book (above) was given to me by my daughter Melody who traveled through Thailand and Indonesia. I’m not sure which of those countries this comes from and I can’t read a single word of the gorgeous calligraphic letterforms, but I love the use of patterns in the pictures and the clean, bright colors. Also, the background on every page is white, becoming space, air, and a source of light.



In Catalina de Binimel-lá,written by Ricardo Alcántara and illustrated by Jesús Gabán, all of the backgrounds are dark, here lending a spooky feel that’s compatible with greedy don Benhali’s mood. The powerful sweeping curves and repeated columns along with the sense of mystery the style imparts and use of red highlights gives this book a sense of dynamism.

W Japanese storyAs you can see by the cover, this board book is read from right to left. The interior text flows top to bottom and calligraphy is a lyrical design element of its twenty-four pages. The beautiful watercolor illustrations of this Japanese folktale retold by Matsutani Miyoko, are reminiscent of traditional paintings with textured washes and linear elements done with a brush. It seems more sophisticated than we might expect for a board book presumably for young children. The content of the story is equally mature. I do not have a translation, however here is an attempt at describing what the pictures show. The story appears to be about a man who encounters a village with some serious problem. He tells the villagers to go to a shrine to pray near what seems to be a wooden casket. Two big monkey-like beings (or demons?) break the casket open and steal the woman’s body from inside. The man continues on his way, greeting others. Another man chases a white wolf from near a house where people live. Again villagers appear to bring a coffin to a shrine. Again the monkey demons come, but this time the white wolf attacks them, killing both, but also sacrificing his own life. The villagers are sorrowful that they had not treated the white wolf well. They now see that he was a good being. It is a powerful story.

W Japanese story 2

W Japanese story 4W Japanese story 3

Halfdan’s ABC, published by Carlsen Publishers in Denmark includes a music CD and an alphabet a bit longer than ours. The art style is earthy with hand lettered text that lends a sense of spontaneity. Note that in the X picture, the illustrator has included an extra detail that’s not in the text – the presumably illiterate witch uses Xs when writing.


W Halfdan's ABC 3W Halfdan's ABC 2

Curious about the verses, I tried Babylon, the free online translator and obtained what might be the gist of what is written on these two spreads for X and Y:

X is the loop you binding in curl (knot used to bind a curl?).

X is a pink plaster on the wound.

X is a pair of scissors to cut kay in your hair (to cut your hair?).

X is in Texas, and Alex and Brix.

X is a letter which rhyme witch (which rhymes with witch?)!

I chose this verse in part because of the word “Texas” and discovered that there is a manufacturer of garden machinery in Odense, Denmark by that name. To be fair, there is a ghost town named Denmark in East Texas, USA. And here’s another verse translated:

Ylle, Dylle, Dolle,

three small furry trolls

went hunting with mittens on

to shoot what they saw.

Ylle shot a coffeepot.

Dylle shot a frying pan.

Dolle shot a casserole.

Ylle, Dylle, Dolle.

These few books demonstrate a range of art styles and philosophies about illustration from bright and lively to deeper, more contemplative works. Not unlike the range you will find in an American bookstore or library. But the flavor of each country’s books for children does carry some essence of the place they are from.

To see more picture books from other lands, check out this post and this one and this other one from my blog. (I especially recommend the third one, vom Kleinen Maulwurf, which is really funny).

photos by Egils Zarins

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Diversity Part 2

I originally posted this article on

mosquito01As one of my heroes, the Dalai Lama, once said…“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”  Let’s each one of us be the mosquito!   —Lin Oliver

This week Lin Oliver, co-founder and Executive Director of the international Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), posted a great article on making all forms of diversity in children’s publishing more mainstream to reflect our world. Many of her action items are for the gatekeepers who publish or otherwise make books available for kids, while others are aimed at writers and illustrators. SCBWI has Read More »

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