Book Uncle and Me: Paying It Forward

A Guest Post by Uma Krishnaswami

I grew up in India. That was where I learned to read, and where I scribbled secretly in notebooks, acting on my first writing impulses. I became a writer, even though I didn’t know it at the time.

I never know exactly where stories come from. In many ways, most of them seem there already, lurking somewhere and waiting to be pulled out and made clear. I suppose, more than any other books I’ve written, Book Uncle and Me came out of those early reading and writing days.

Yasmin Kader, my nine-year-old protagonist in Book Uncle and Me, is an avid reader who decides she’s going to read a new book every day for the rest of her life. As a child, I was an utterly manic reader. I read everything I could lay my hands on. There was a great shortage of books for children in India back then, so I had to reread all the books in the house several times over. I read Enid Blyton, of course, and tattered copies of A. A. Milne and Beatrix Potter, a couple of Noel Streatfeilds, and quite a bit of Kipling. It was an odd diet for a child from a south Indian family, growing up all over the northern part of the country.

People talk a lot about the importance of having children see themselves in the books they read. I didn’t see myself in anything I read, but then I didn’t expect to. Instead, books taught me how to become other people, fleetingly, temporarily, but in some way indelibly. I’m not saying this is either good or bad. It’s just how it was.

Unlike Yasmin, I didn’t try to read a new book every day. But I could have, quite easily, had there been a ready supply handy. Perhaps that is why I ended up creating Yasmin to do what I might have wanted to do. After that, it seemed only natural to place her in a family that was not exactly like the other families in the community, in a community made up of many different kinds of people. As a writer for children, my own childhood, long ago as it was, remains a vital source of material and emotional memory. Perhaps in the end, writing is about paying it forward.

Book Uncle and Me by Uma Krishnaswami

Every day, nine-year-old Yasmin borrows a book from Book Uncle, a retired teacher who has set up a free lending library next to her apartment building. But when the mayor tries to shut down the rickety bookstand, Yasmin has to take her nose out of her book and do something.

But what can she do? The local elections are coming up but she’s just a kid. She can’t even vote!

Still, Yasmin has friends — her best friend, Reeni, and Anil, who even has a black belt in karate. And she has grownup family and neighbors who, no matter how preoccupied they are, care about what goes on in their community.

Then Yasmin remembers a story that Book Uncle selected for her. It’s an old folktale about a flock of doves trapped in a hunter’s net. The birds realize that if they all flap their wings at the same time, they can lift the net and fly to safety, where they seek the help of a friendly mole who chews a hole in the net and sets them free.

And so the children get to work, launching a campaign to make sure the voices of the community are heard.

An energetic, funny and quirky story that explores the themes of community activism, friendship, and the love of books.

Jane Ozkowski on Writing Watching Traffic

Watching Traffic by Jane OzkowskiSeven years ago, my friend Gwen came home from a trip to Germany with a box of her grandmother’s gold-capped teeth. Gwen studied jewelry design and metalsmithing at the Ontario College of Art and Design, and using the gold from those teeth would save her from having to spend hundreds of dollars on gold in school that year. It was a logical explanation, but the idea of someone’s grandmother giving them a box of old teeth stuck with me. I started imagining other situations where a grandmother might pass on such a strange and somewhat disgusting gift. I asked myself: Who might the grandmother be? Who would she give her teeth to? What would the receiver do with a box of gold-capped teeth? A few weeks later, I had the opening for Watching Traffic written.

When I began writing Watching Traffic, I didn’t necessarily realize I was writing a novel. I was twenty years old, and my main purpose for working on this strange little story about a girl and a box of teeth was to learn how to write. I didn’t set goals for word counts or chapters or even expect that I would ever finish the story. I just wanted to write for a set number of hours each day in order to experiment and find my voice as a writer. As I came back to my desk each morning, I found it was much easier to continue working on one story rather than to face a blank page each day. Slowly, an early version of Watching Traffic took shape.

Seven years later, I still can’t quite believe that Watching Traffic exists as an actual real-life book. I’ve dreamed of being a writer my whole life and have been devoting myself to writing since I was seventeen. It took years of waking up before sunrise to write before work and prioritizing writing over movie nights, barbecues, picnics and sometimes even sleep. Now that I have an actual book I feel a little stunned. I feel as though I should still be editing and making adjustments. After seven years, it’s hard to let the story go. I keep trying to tell myself that the story doesn’t belong to me anymore. It’s time for it to go out into the world and find a new home in other people’s minds.

Watching Traffic by Jane Ozkowski

Emily has finally finished high school in the small town where she has lived her whole life. At last, she thinks, her adult life can begin.

But what if you have no idea what you want your new life to look like? What then?

While Lincoln gets ready to go backpacking in Australia, Melissa packs for university on the east coast, and a new guy named Tyler provides welcome distraction, Emily wonders whether she will end up working forever at Pamela’s Country Catering, cutting the crusts off party sandwiches and stuffing mushrooms. Is this her future? Being known forever as the local girl whose mother abandoned her in the worst way possible all those years ago? Visiting her spacey grandmother, watching nature shows on TV with her dad and hanging out with Robert the grocery clerk? Listening to the distant hum of the highway leading out of the town everyone can’t wait to leave?

With poetic prose and a keen eye for the quirks and ironies of small-town life, Jane Ozkowski captures the bittersweet uncertainty of that weird, unreal summer after high school — a time that is full of possibility and completely terrifying at the same time.

A Peek at Spreads from Groundwood’s September Releases

We’ve got FIVE new illustrated books publishing on September 1st (and available at a week early on August 25th)! If you can’t wait until then (and we don’t blame you), take a peek at a spread from each book to help tide you over (click on the image to enlarge!):

Turn On The Night
by Geraldo Valério
Turn On The Night by Geraldo Valério

A Family Is a Family Is a Family
by Sara O’Leary, illustrated by Qin Leng
A Family Is a Family Is a Family illustrated by Qin Leng

The Moon Inside
by Sandra V. Feder, illustrated by Aimée Sicuro
The Moon Inside Illustrated by Aimée Sicuro

Bear’s Winter Party
by Deborah Hodge, llustrated by Lisa Cinar
Bear's Winter Party illustrated by Lisa Cinar

The King of the Birds
by Acree Graham Macam, Illustrated by Natalie Nelson
The King of the Birds illustrated by Natalie Nelson

(And hey! We’ve also got two young adult books forthcoming in September: Book Uncle and Me by Uma Krishnaswami and llustrated by Julianna Swaney, and Aluta by Adwoa Badoe.

Gold-Medal Olympic Reads from Groundwood

The 2016 Rio Olympics are underway! While the athletes are going for gold on the running track, we’re taking it a bit easier and going for gold with a reading marathon. If you’re looking for Olympic-themed reads for kids, we have a few gold-medal picks worth exploring:

Swimming, Swimming by Gary Clement

Swimming, Swimming by Gary Clement

Drawing on his own memories of the best days of summer in the city, Gary Clement brings us an illustrated version of the beloved classic “Swimming, swimming in a swimming pool,” full of fun and humor.

The illustrations show a young boy and his friends spending a carefree day at the neighborhood pool. We see them walk to the pool together, change into their trunks and then spend hours swimming, cavorting, splashing and diving. The pool is full of moms, dads, other kids and babies, all enjoying a chance to cool off on a hot summer day. The boy returns home, tired but happy, and falls asleep holding onto his goggles in anticipation of another delightful day at the pool.

Includes a short explanation of the hand gestures for the song and a link to a video demonstration.

Jimmy the Greatest! Written by Jairo Buitrago, Illustrated by Rafael Yockteng

Jimmy the Greatest! by Jairo Buitrago
Illustrated by Rafael Yockteng

Listed as one of the Best Children’s Books of 2012 by Kirkus, honored with the Horn Book Fanfare, and selected for the School Library Journal’s 100 Magnificent Children’s Books of 2012

Jimmy lives in a small town by the sea where there is just one tiny gym. The owner of the gym suggests that Jimmy start training, and to inspire him, he gives Jimmy a box full of books, as well as newspaper clippings about Muhammad Ali – “The Greatest.” Jimmy is swept with admiration for Ali. He begins to read and run and box like crazy, even though someone at the gym has taken his shoes. And as he does so, he makes a great discovery: you don’t have to leave home to be “the greatest.”

Unlike many stories about emigration, Jairo Buitrago’s simple, profound text is about someone who decides to stay in his small remote town in Latin America. Combined with Rafael Yockteng’s humorous illustrations, this book will be especially appealing to boys and boxing aficionados.

A Guest Post by Elise Moser on Milly Zantow

It’s easy to feel that things have always been the way they are, or that stuff we see every day has always existed. Of course, we know that’s not true — everyone knows there were not always spaceships, or air conditioning, or two-flavored, triple-layered chewing gum. But we don’t always stop to wonder where something comes from (did you know rubber comes from tree sap, and petroleum jelly was an accidental byproduct of oil drilling?) or who invented it.

When I heard that a woman named Milly Zantow invented the triangle symbol for recyclables, I was surprised. First of all, because I had never stopped to think that someone had to invent that (d’oh!). And second of all, because it was invented by a woman. And then, in my surprise, I thought, I want everyone to know a woman did this. And I want KIDS to know a woman did this.

That was the beginning of an adventure. It’s as if I found the very small end of a thread and gently pulled. The thread kept coming, appearing from somewhere in the space-time continuum. I pulled and pulled, and it got thicker. Then it was two threads, and five, and seven threads tangled together, and then a chicken’s egg popped out and chairs made of mushrooms and 2:30 a.m. trains and seagoing catamarans made from plastic water bottles rescued from the garbage — all because I was curious about that woman who created the recycling symbol. Who was she? Why did she do it?

And then it turned out that she hadn’t done it at all. What she did do was create the system of numbers, one through seven, that appear inside the triangles to identify the several categories of plastic. It wasn’t just a matter of clever graphic design (the “chasing arrows triangle” is very clever); it was even more interesting: the story of one woman’s determination, tenacity and creativity. And once I pulled this woman from the past, her whole story tumbled out with her — her childhood on a hardscrabble Oklahoma farm, the classified documents she typed as a young secretary, getting dragooned into looking after a stable full of captive cranes in the middle of a Wisconsin winter. And ultimately, putting her intelligence and energy to work to figure out not only how to recycle plastics, but make it possible on a large scale — and convince people to do it.

The story I started with turned out to be just the first thread, and following it led me to a whole tapestry of real-life characters and events. There were the times when her father woke young Milly to help fight wildfires that threatened their crops; when Milly and her husband, Woody, sponsored Vietnamese “boat people”; and of course the time when Milly phoned Henry Kissinger, at that point the American secretary of state, and convinced him to help her bring home a researcher stranded in Iran without a visa.

The tapestry is rich with the creative ways she found to educate people. The time Milly visited a school where the kids all got Sun Drop soda (a kind of Midwestern Mountain Dew) to drink. Then she collected the empty cans and bought them from the kids, a vivid lesson in the economic benefits of recycling. The way she carried garbage bags full of recyclables when she visited local service clubs, pulling out item after item to illustrate her points as she talked. There are people woven into the tapestry, prisoners on day parole, and folks with developmental disabilities getting work experience at the recycling plant, and the retired ladies of the “Coupon Brigade,” who sorted paper and got to keep any coupons they found. The elderly dairy farmer with the long beard whom I met the night before Milly’s funeral, who used to get shredded newspaper from her to use as bedding for his cows.

Now the book is published, but the tapestry continues to grow. There are the people who knew Milly from church but never realized that the impact of her work was global. There are the local historians, booksellers and environmentalists who want to help spread her story, calling their friends to get articles written and events scheduled and books bought, posting the cover on their Facebook pages. Milly succeeded so well by cultivating an amazing community, which is the core lesson of her story. What Milly Did is nudging that community to extend itself still further — for example to the librarian four hours to the north who had never heard of Milly before but, like me, wants kids to know a woman did this.

Before Milly came along, plastics were not being recycled; she, working with the kids, the moms, the prisoners, the engineers and the volunteers, changed the way things were. Every kid who reads her story and sees that they can use their intelligence and energy to make the world better will be weaving themselves into her tapestry too.

WHAT MILLY DID by Elise MoserMilly Zantow wanted to solve the problem of her town’s full landfill and ended up creating a global recycling standard — the system of numbers you see inside the little triangle on plastics. This is the inspiring story of how she mobilized her community, creating sweeping change to help the environment.

On a trip to Japan in 1978, Milly noticed that people were putting little bundles out on the street each morning. They were recycling — something that hadn’t taken hold in North America. When she returned to Sauk City, Wisconsin, she discovered that her town’s landfill was nearing capacity, and that plastic made up a large part of the garbage. No one was recycling plastics.

Milly decided to figure out how. She discovered that there are more than seven kinds of plastic, and they can’t be combined for recycling, so she learned how to use various tests to identify them. Then she found a company willing to use recycled plastic, but the plastic would have to be ground up first.

Milly and her friend bought a huge industrial grinder and established E-Z Recycling. They worked with local school children and their community, and they helped other communities start their own recycling programs. But Milly knew that the large-scale recycling of plastics would never work unless people could easily identify the seven types. She came up with the idea of placing an identifying number in the little recycling triangle, which has become the international standard.

Milly’s story is a glimpse into the early days of the recycling movement and shows how, thanks to her determination, hard work and community-building, huge changes took place, spreading rapidly across North America.

The Adventures of Buddy and Earl

Buddy and Earl are already on their third adventure! In Buddy and Earl and the Great Big Baby, Mom’s friend Mrs. Cunningham is coming for a visit, and she’s bringing her baby! While Buddy tries to explain the ins and outs of babydom to Earl, neither of them is prepared for the chaos the small and adorable creature brings with him.

We thought we would check in on Buddy, our favourite dog who likes to play by the rules, and Earl, a hedgehog who knows no limits. Take a peek at their escapades through the series in the spreads below!

Buddy and Earl

ARRRR! In the first book in the series, Buddy and Earl were on a pirate ship! Join Buddy and Earl on their pirate adventures by making your own pirate hat!

Buddy and Earl Go Exploring

There were monsters everywhere in Buddy and Earl Go Exploring — there were even monster vacuums hiding in the closet!

Buddy and Earl and the Great Big Baby

In Buddy and Earl and the Great Big Baby, the baby manages to escape from his cage — which Buddy gently suggests is really just a playpen — and it’s up to our favorite odd couple to save the day.

Buddy and Earl and the Great Big Baby

Mom’s friend Mrs. Cunningham is coming for a visit, and she’s bringing her baby! While Buddy tries to explain the ins and outs of babydom to Earl, neither of them is prepared for the chaos the small and adorable creature brings with him.

When the baby manages to escape from his cage — which Buddy gently suggests is really just a playpen — it’s up to our favorite odd couple to save the day.

This third title in the critically acclaimed Buddy and Earl series follows a dog who likes to play by the rules and a hedgehog who knows no limits on another fun adventure in deductive reasoning and imaginative play.

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