Monday, November 29, 2010

A Peek inside Porcupine's Tree

Ever wonder how an illustrator begins the process of creating the art for a picture book? In his blog, Werner Zimmermann shares his process by showing off some of his earliest sketches from our book,  A Porcupine in a Pine Tree.

No need for me to recap here - just follow this link to see Quilliam (the porcupine, of course), the squirrels, moose, loons, dogs and puffins as they come to life in Werner's sketchbook.

Awesome. Just awesome.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Best Books for 2011 from the Canadian Toy Testing Council

The Canadian Toy Testing Council just came out with their annual report. It's chock fill of great stuff for kids  of all ages.

Most interesting to those of us who love children's books is the list of best books for kids. Lo and behold, my own What's the Big Idea? made the list!

My pal Patricia Storms' wonderful picture book, The Pirate and Penguin, also made the list!

For the complete list of selected books, and for a list of the children's choices for best toys, check out the Canadian Toy Testing Council's website.

My favorite? Gee, it's a word game!

Here's the description, from the Canadian Toy Testing Council:

"The entire family can enjoy this 3-D word-building game that

encourages spelling, dexterity, and understanding balance and physics.

The game comes with 26 chunky letter pieces that stack together to

build a teetering tower of words. The clear instructions explain that the

goal of the game is to get to 20 points, but watch out – the wrong move

could cause gravity to kick in and make the entire Konexi collapse! This

is a learning game that does not feel like a learning game; children

revisit it often to challenge their friends, siblings, and parents."
What's not to like, I say? Words, science, laughter?  I hope to find this game in my "stocking" this year.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

How to Help Kids Learn - and Love - Science

A few months ago, I was interviewed by Parentdish columnist Carrie Snyder. She wanted to know how she, as a self-confessed science-phobic, "artsy-craftsy" kind of mom, could help her kids become more science-y.

So I dished, offering my own opinions formed over years of writing science-related activity books, and as a parent myself. The interview is now available to read on line. It's full of useful info, and pretty damn funny to boot. :)

I'm reprinting some of my pithiest comments for your immediate reading pleasure here. However, I urge you to go to the Parentdish site to read the entire interview, and to check out Parentdish's awesome menu of parenting advice, insights, and cool ideas.

Carrie: Can any kid be a scientist?

Helaine: Most kids are curious about everything, and are therefore natural scientists. The attitude that is a 100% guaranteed way to turn kids off is that there is a "right" or a "wrong" answer, or that there are "right" ways to do things. Besides, it's just plain wrong. Scientists usually learn the most from screwing up - there's a reason the process is called "trial and error." Alexander Graham Bell, for example, invented the telephone when he got the whole darn contraption put together backwards.

Carrie: So, how do we feed rather than stifle our kids' curiosity?

Helaine: Science, and learning of all sorts, is about making mistakes. Those who are most willing to make mistakes are the ones who will wind up learning the most and coming up with the best new ideas. So, to encourage this, let kids mess around as much as possible without too much supervision.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Canadian Children's Book Centre Best Books for Kids and Teens 2010 Announced

One of the perks of being a member of the Canadian Children's Book Centre is that you automatically get copies of the wonderful CCBC magazine. Each issue (4 a year)  provides wonderful reviews of the best of the best in Canadian kid lit, as well as interesting news stories, and profiles of some of Canada's most exciting authors.

Best of all is the issue that contains the Best Books lists and reviews for the year. It comes out in November to coincide with the TD Book Awards and the launch of the holiday shopping season. (Get yours today!)

This year, when I opened my issue, I was thrilled and honored to discover not one, not two, but THREE of my books were included for 2010!

The Insecto-Files appears in the Science and Technology section, along with What's the Big Idea?

I had hoped (with crossedy-fingers) that at least one of these two books would be included this year, so I was more than happy to find them both listed. But happy doesn't describe how I felt when I noted the third included title. It knocked my socks off, especially since it was given a coveted starred review!

What was this mystery selection?

You'll find it at the back of the mag, in the sports section:
Now don't get me wrong - My surprise wasn't because I don't think Skateboarding Science deserves the mention. Of course it does!!!! My surprise comes from the fact that this book was part of a sports science series I did for Crabtree Press. It's sold primarily through the school library market, so it's not particularly high profile.

Altogether, reading my issue of the Best Books list made my day. I know reading the mag will make yours too, because there are literally dozens of fabulous books described in it, books that will be "just right" for that special someone on your shopping list. Or, ahem, for you.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Another BIG night on the Kidlit Party Calendar

It's that time of year again, full of fun and frolic for all of us kidlitters. We get out of our basement offices, shed our yoga pants, and go out for a night on the town. Or two. Or ten.

I was barely recovered from Tuesday night's extravagantly wonderful TD Children's Book Award Gala, but I forced myself to go out to dinner with my #Torkidlit peeps, Mahtab Narsimhan, Bev Katz Rosenbaum, Claudia Osmond and Jo Shwartz. The occasion was warming up for Marsha Skrypuch's presentation at the CANSCAIP meeting.

Unbeknownst to Marsha, she was going to be given the Canscaip "pin" for service to the organization - the highest honor we've got. Naturally I wanted to be there to give a hearty round of applause to this great lady who has done so much for writers and readers everywhere.

Marsha (at right, holding pin) with author and CANSCAIP goddess Gillian Chan

An added bonus for me was I FINALLY got to meet Werner Zimmermann, the artiste extraordinaire behind A Porcupine in a Pine Tree, my current Christmas book with Scholastic. What a thrill this was!

We cooked up some fun plans to video school choirs singing our version of the familiar Christmas carol, and talked sequel!

I'm so excited. I LOOOOVVVVEEE the porcupine, and want to see him in many, many MANY new books. We have already discovered that the book is going back for a second rush reprint as it's selling out right across the country - a quick peek at the rankings on Book Manager put A Porcupine in a Pine Tree at #35 on the National Bestseller List - for kids AND adult books combined!

It's lovely to know that I'm not the only one out there with a crush on cutiepie Porky. And on Werner.

Gala Awards Night!

Tuesday evening was a biggy in Toronto - two major awards ceremonies were held, celebrating the best in Canadian literature. More than $90,000 in prizes was handed out. Anyone who is anyone in the world of books  put away their birkenstocks and slipped into fancy party shoes for the bestest bash of the season.

That bash was NOT in honor of the Giller Award, the prize most people across our fair land know about.

The best party was the one held by The Canadian Children's Book Centre and TD Bank, sponsors of the TD Book Awards for Children's Books.

I've got nothing against the Giller, mind you. In fact, I'd be delighted to win one some day - wouldn't that be a hoot! But it does kind of irk me that the media pretty well ignores the children's book prizes. Again. And Again. And Again. No matter what they are, when they are, or what fab outfits we are wearing.

That's me on the left with kidliterati Patricia Storms, Helene Boudreau, Marina Cohen and Deborah Kerbel. Aren't we all gorgeous???

Maybe I'm thick. But why are children's books so consistently overlooked? Were we not all children once, inspired to become the people we are by books we read in our own day?

Quite frankly, I think kid's books are MORE important than ones written for adults. Most of the books we read as adults give us nothing more than passing pleasure; a rare few will inspire us or open new doors for us. How many will literally change your life from here on in?

Yet every single child's book does all of those things. They bring pleasure to readers, both new ones and experienced ones, through shared experience and closeness with a beloved family member (being read to remains one of life's greatest joys) and through moments of cozy escape. Every single book a child picks up opens new doors for her - to far away worlds, or the microscopic one at her feet; to imaginary Shangrilas, or the gritty reality of life here and now. And every single book a child reads has the potential to change his life, to spin him in new directions that will orient his chosen path long into the future.

In fact, I would dare say that it doesn't even matter what book a child reads, because the act of reading itself is life-changing.

So I know, I'm stomping on the soapbox, shaking up the soap flakes. This little rant won't make much difference to whether or not the CBC provides splashy coverage for the TD Book Awards next year. Or does a major five-part special on the awesome Forest of Reading awards program that shakes up kids' lives here in Ontario every Spring.

But I can tell you this - those media folks missed one helluva party.

PS if you want to see who won all the $$$, the TD Book Award list is here and the Giller Prize bumpf is here. Apparently you can only find the Giller Prize winner on Kobo since they are O/S, so may I suggest you hurry up and go buy Art Slade's fabulous Hunchback Assignments instead? It's terrif.

AND - if you want to come to the party next year, you're invited! Just join the Canadian Children's Book Centre. Your membership gets you the hottest ticket in town. So please join, and start shopping for party clothes today!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

I TOLD You School Libraries Were Underfunded....

A nice fat article in today's National Post says it all. "School Councils Forced to Focus on Fundraising."

And they're not just fundraising for decorations for the school prom. They're fundraising for basic school supplies. Textbooks. Library books.

In fact, according to the survey conducted by People for Education, more than half of Ontario's school councils use their fundraising dollars to buy books for the school library.

Why? For obvious reasons - the Ministry of Education is not adequately funding schools and school libraries. It hasn't been for years. And parent councils are left to pick up the slack. A secret tax on parents.

There are major equity issues here. We've all known it for years - if you live in a "better" neighbourhood, parents will fundraise extensively to fill the gap left by the Ministry underfunding. At my own kids' former elementary school, for example (they've now moved on, agewise), our parent council regularly raised $50K+ a year. That money was used to buy computers, rebuild our playground, fund school trips, and pay for on-going music programs, art programs and after-school programs.

That option  - raising $50K a year - is simply not available for schools in lower-income neighbourhoods. We've essentially created a two-tier system within our public schools, due to private financing withing the public sphere.That's a disgrace.

This situation burns my butt on so many levels. One, as a tax-payer, it distresses me greatly that my taxes are not being used properly. I know there was waste in the schools - in fact, as an entrepeneur who used to make my living selling school supplies, I have a first-hand grasp on exactly how much money had been wasted in the past. But still...there's something in between gross waste and bare bones. And yes, there still is waste going on too, but give me five seconds with the red pencil and I'll get rid of it for you, thank you very much. I bet most teachers and principals can tell you where the waste lies too, and do the same magic trick if they were given the chance.

Secondly, as a parent, it drove me nuts that I had to pay this additional tax - to the school council -on top of my regular taxes  in order to get basic services for my kids. And it IS a tax, that you will pay if you have the money. And let's not forget the tax on teachers themselves, who pay for many of their classroom supplies out of their own pocket. According to a study done by The National School Supply and Equipment Association, a trade group for businesses selling into the school market, teachers spend about $1000 a year of their own money to purchase school supplies. We're not talking cute desk accessories that are personal in nature either; we're talking books, pencils, art supplies, bulletin board decor, scales, math manipulatives and the like. When I sold school supplies to teachers, this was true right across Canada; I was frequently paid with personal cheques, and told "I won't be reimbursed for this."

Third, and perhaps most important, a public school system is for ALL our kids. Kids in lower income areas deserve the same quality education as kids in better off areas, and a public school system exists to make sure they get it. I'm no Pollyanna, I know that on the ground, things won't ever be totally equal. That's just not possible. But equality - equity - should be closer than it is now. We should at least be making the effort to ensure kids in less affluent areas have access to basic educational needs - school supplies, books, music, gym, art. There's no real future for them, or for us as a nation, if they don't.

For me, the biggest gap, and the one with the most longterm effects, is the funding of the school library. In a high-functioning school, the library is the heart of the building. It keeps the rest of the place going, by supporting every single curriculum topic. A library is the physical embodiment of literacy at work. If you don't have a functioning library, you cannot have a fully literate environment. If you think you can, you are shortchanging yourself, and the kids in your care. So while people yap about how they care about instilling literacy skills in the next generation, if the school libraries are languishing, you can be assured that it's just talk.

The Post story focuses on Ontario. But the situation described, that parent councils are making up the shortfalls in education spending in key areas like libraries, is by no means exclusive to Ontario. I see the same situation ad nauseum when I tour schools in every province and territory in Canada. I've seen it in the US too.

It's time to stop lying to ourselves. If we, as a society, care about literacy, we must recommit to funding school libraries at an appropriate level.

Because: Science!