22 Aug

Bartography Express for August 2014, featuring Jennifer Holm’s new novel

This month, one subscriber to my Bartography Express newsletter will win a copy of The Fourteenth Goldfish (Random House), the new novel from Babymouse author and three-time Newbery Honoree Jennifer Holm.

If you’re not already receiving Bartography Express, click the image below for a look. If you like what you see, click “Join” in the bottom right corner, and you’ll be in the running for the giveaway at the end of this week.

20140822 Bartography Express

12 Jun

Squish: Game On! and The King of Kong

In Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet, “O” is for… well, it’s for something other than “obsession.” But that might have made for a good alternate. Probably since about 24 hours after the first video game was switched on, there have been stories about video-game obsession — stories of players who just… can’t… quit.

Recently, I enjoyed a couple such stories, for distinctly different audiences.

Squish Game On

For the younger set, there’s Game On!, the fifth book in the Squish graphic novel series by siblings Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm. The series centers on its grade-school-age namesake amoeba who, this time around, finds himself hooked on the handheld game Mitosis.

Game On! walks the fine line between sympathizing with Squish’s obsession and scolding him for the lengths he will go to in his pursuit of the next level. The narration and visuals are full of self-aware fun, with the Holms keeping things light even when Squish appears to be heading off the deep end.

The tone gets a lot darker, and the ideal audience considerably older, with the 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

The obsession this time around that of adults fixated on the all-time high score in Donkey Kong — who holds it, how they got it, whether they’ll be able to hang on to it, and what they sacrifice along the way.

But as with Squish — and as I suspect is true with most obsessions– Donkey Kong challenger Steve Wiebe makes it through to the other side of his fixation in pretty good shape. (Here are part 1 and part 2 of a 2012 interview with him.) Each of these protagonists picks up some knowledge of himself along the way, and that’s not a bad thing at all.

15 Dec

Interview Across a Breakfast Table: Big Trees, Fancy Cakes, Primary Sources, and Good Friends

Welcome back to the ongoing series in which my wife — author Jennifer Ziegler — and I question each other amid coffee refills, canine constitutionals, and sometimes even actual breakfast.

After a bit of a hiatus, this week Jenny and I are each posting our conversation about one of the biggest reasons for that hiatus: our part-work, all-fun November visit to the Bay Area.

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(Though I can’t help but point out another reason for that hiatus: Jenny was busy putting the finishing touches on her purty new website.)

Me: It seems like we were just there, but it’s already been nearly three weeks since we got back from our trip to San Francisco, where I went for research and you went for fun. Before we forget, what stood out for you about our visit?

Jenny: So much! The people. The conversation. The architecture. The museums. The weather. The trees, water, bridges, and sea lions. And cake. How about that cake?

Me: That Shark Vs. Train cake was something else. And we’ve got the before-and-after photos to prove it.

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These amazing and delicious Shark and Train cakes were made by Misery Loves Co. in Fremont.

These amazing and delicious Shark and Train cakes were made by Misery Loves Co. in Fremont.

My college roommate’s birthday celebration — just a few miles from the location of the only baker I know making three-dimensional cakes based on any of our books — was a terrific way to end our visit. But let’s go back to the first day. What did you do when you found out that the Museum of Modern Art was closed?

Jenny: I did what I was planning to do anyway for part of the time: I wandered. I poked around shops and explored Yerba Buena Gardens, across from the museum. (The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Fountain was beautiful and inspiring.) I bought a tea latte in a lovely little sweet shop where about five languages were being spoken. I then went into the Cartoon Art Museum, where they had a special exhibit on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

It was a great day to observe and study and think. Speaking of that, were you having some big “eureka!” moments while researching at the Museum of Performance + Design? What were your most exciting discoveries?

Me: My biggest “eureka!” while researching the Christensen brothers and The Nutcracker at the MP+D was pretty much the same as it is every time I’m researching a nonfiction topic and make the jump from secondary sources to primary ones. (In this case, interview transcripts with the brothers and some of the dancers they worked with, programs from the first US productions of The Nutcracker in 1944 and 1949, costume designs from those productions, etc.) I’m floored every time by how much closer to my subjects that primary research gets me.

But definitely the most exciting part of my research didn’t happen in the museum itself. It happened at the restaurant just down the street where I had lunch with Nancy Johnson Poulos, who danced in the very first full-length Nutcracker performed in the US, 69 years ago this month.

At lunch with Nancy Poulos Johnson.

At lunch with Nancy Poulos Johnson.

I’m sorry I missed the Cartoon Art Museum. How did that compare to the brand-new Arnold Lobel exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum?

Jenny: Both were terrific. Both had original outlines and manuscript pages, which are always fascinating to me. Lobel’s insight into the characters of Frog and Toad, and their friendship, was eye-opening, as was Neil Gaiman’s letter to his publisher about Sandman (a character he revived) and Death. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Arnold Lobel also did a lot of rough drafting and sketching in cheap spiral-bound notebooks — which I’ve been doing since I was a child. Seeing those slightly bent, yellowing notebooks under glass at the museum delighted me to no end.

You didn’t get to romp around the city as much as I did. But that day we spent out at Muir Woods was a memorable one, too. What did you take away from that special outing?

Me: Well, for one thing, I was surprised by the lack of non-human mammals. I saw a chipmunk outside the gift shop, but that was it. The quiet of Muir Woods — once you got to an elevation above the crowds — was astounding.

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There was so much world there — these giant, giant trees, with their enormous trunks dwarfing us and the sun filtering down through their tops way up high — and yet there was hardly any sound at all. And I loved that serendipitous moment when we were on our way down the trail and encountered that family marveling at a pair of sticks precariously balanced on the pointed tip of a trail marker. That was infectiously joyous, and entirely unexpected.

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Then, of course, we picked up the cake —

Me, Aaron from Misery Loves Co., and Shark. (Not pictured: Train.)

Me, Aaron from Misery Loves Co., and Shark. (Not pictured: Train.)

— and shared it with friends. For all the sights we saw and work that I got done, it was the people who really made the trip, don’t you think?

Jenny: Definitely. The human mammals were the best part. Jenni Holm is an award-winning author, but who knew she also offered emergency transport? She rescued us when our train left us stranded that cold night and took us out for crepes! Seeing her and meeting her lovely family was a high point.

Jenny and Jenni.

Jenny and Jenni.

Then, lucky us, we got to meet Deb Underwood for breakfast.

Me, Deb, and Jenny.

Me, Deb, and Jenny.

I haven’t seen Deb in person in over two years, but when I talk with her it always feels as if we visit on a weekly basis. We made plans to surprise Mike Jung, another of our fellow EMLA authors, at his workplace in the Bay Area, but it didn’t happen. Fun to plan, though.

More wondrous moments came from meeting people from your past for the first time – like Miguel and Juan, Britton, and Shai. I loved hearing you all relive past times. It’s clear that you are special to them. But of course. It’s always marvelous being able to weave together the different threads of our lives and our past. You know good people.

Me: I sure do.

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13 Feb

Kid-Lit for Geek Parents, and Liz Scanlon on Happy Birthday, Bunny!

In case you missed it, last night there was this:

That’s me chatting with authors Melissa Wiley and Jennifer Holm and moderator Kristen Rutherford about children’s books on the Geek & Sundry #parent show. Let me tell you — an hour goes by fast when you’ve got a great subject and good company to discuss it with. I hope we can do it again.

And in case you don’t subscribe to my monthly Bartography Express newsletter — in which case you’ve just missed out on chances to win one of my books and Liz Garton Scanlon’s newest title — here’s a little of what Liz had to say about Happy Birthday, Bunny!:

I was thinking about birthdays, about how they’re really considered the end-all and be-all events of childhood, and then I thought, Are they really always all that? Because here’s the thing: Little kids don’t really get birthdays at first. They’re noisy and overwhelming, there’s all sorts of secret protocol, you have to share, food gets set afire. Really, it’s a lot to absorb!

Click here to read the rest of my quick interview, and get signed up to receive the March issue — with which I’ll be giving away Tanya Lee Stone’s new picture book biography, Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors?: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell.