In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bone at the book festival

Dear Annie,

I love your reading-at-the-party photo.  Isabel is really focused in.

I wanted to go back to the National Book Festival for one last author.  I went predisposed to like Jeff Smith, author of the
graphic novel series.  He grew up in Columbus, Ohio -- the big city of your grandpa's childhood.  And he grew up reading lots of comics, including
by Walt Kelly, which you and I both were introduced to in my parents' home (yeah, well, 25 years apart).  While still a kid, Smith created the character Bone, and added Bone's two cousins who look remarkably similar.  In interviews, Smith is very up-front about being influenced by Kelly.

What I really liked about Jeff Smith was that, even though he wrote Bone for adults before it was bought by Scholastic, he treated his kid fans with wonderful respect.  Some children's authors will show up at an event where the audience is more or less split between kids and grown-ups and play to the adults in the crowd.  But Smith really talked to the kids in the audience, without talking down to them.   Smith is 50 years old, and started out saying he grew up in a time when reading comics was not considered to be reading.  He was fascinated by drawing cartoon characters, created Bone early on, and wanted to insert cartoon characters into more serious folklore/legend-style stories.  That's basically what the Bone series is: three clueless Bones who have wandered into a world of mythic good and bad guys (and some fabulous women) and creatures deep in generations-old struggles.

One nine or ten year-old in the audience asked Smith a slightly inarticulate question about why the Bones didn't have swords.  The cartoonist understood the question immediately, talked about how the characters were inserted into this mythic setting.  "They're classic slapstick comedians ... Their job is to get in trouble."  And it's up to other characters -- usually Gran'ma Ben and her granddaughter Thorn -- to wield the swords to get them out of trouble. "The Luke Skywalker part of the story goes to Thorn and Gran'ma."

Smith drew several pictures of the main characters on a big newsprint tablet.  It was remarkable how after just two strokes of his pen, you could see the character.  One girl asked him if he saw the whole picture in his head before he drew, or if he figured it out as he went along.  The latter, he said, and proceeded to demonstrate by drawing Smiley Bone throwing a ball.  Smith threw an imaginary ball four or five times in the 90-second process of doing the drawing.  It was great -- made you feel a part of his creative process.

"I like comedies that forget they're comedies sometimes," he said, which sums up the feel of the Bone books quite nicely.  Good reads, probably ages 9 or 10 and up.

I plan to spend this weekend unpacking boxes and boxes of books in the new store.  I hope all of you are immersed in books too, but less overwhelmingly.



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