Author Spotlight: Sara Varon

This has gone on long enough. It is high time we discussed Sara Varon.


Last year, Varon released a collection of short stories, comics, and journal entries that discuss her creative process called Sweaterweather (First Second, 2016); part of the inspiration for starting this blog was so that I would have somebody to talk to about my love for writers like Sara Varon. Varon is less prolific than some of the other writers I’ve covered in the spotlights, but literally every last project she’s been involved with is delightful.

Graphic novels for middle-grade readers are kind of a big thing right now. We’re getting graphic-novel adaptations of classics, like Shannon, Dean, and Nathan Hale’s Rapunzel/Jack and the Beanstalk reboots, autobiographical stories like Raina Telgemeir’s work, and even strip comics collected into books, like Lincoln Pierce’s Big Nate series.

Respectfully, I submit that Sara Varon is the indisputable world champion of this cohort, and this is for two reasons:

1. In a world of reboots and the lamentable Everykid phenomenon I mentioned here, Varon’s characters are new, interesting, and a special blend of weird and relatable.

Sometimes this characterization is explicit, as in Odd Duck, which was written by Cecil Castellucci but illustrated with Varon’s signature whimsy, about the friendship of two ducks who don’t quite fit in with the other ducks, or anybody else either, and who aren’t even that much alike between themselves. But affection for the “odd duck” is a cornerstone of Varon’s milieu even when she’s not illustrating literally odd actual ducks. Her characters are all animals, anthropomorphic desserts, or robots, but they are somehow really believable, and her worldbuilding always makes a strange sort of sense. The anteater family in Robot Dreams eats ants, because obviously, but they also enjoy snowball fights and sledding, because obviously. Similarly, the robot shouldn’t swim, because hello rust, but it does enjoy dancing and books, because who doesn’t?

What’s more, Varon’s books explore the task that so often eludes the odd duck: how to forge real, genuine connections in a society that doesn’t seem to have set itself up to quite welcome you, personally. In Odd Duck‘s example, the ups and downs of Theodora and Chad’s friendship teaches them how to discern when differences are superficial and how they can coexist with connections that run much deeper.  Chad may not share Theodora’s preference for tidyness and she may not care for his favorite music, but they share an appreciation for the notion that the world is much bigger than them and support each other’s instincts to be curious.  e1f2720d93d86f791c27a982181c5d00odd59

In Robot Dreams, a graphic novel with a more literal take on the title of an Isaac Asimov short story, Robot and Dog are unable to circumvent the obstacles, both coincidental and self-inflicted, that separated them; they both end up moving on with others. But this more bittersweet ending is okay, too, because sometimes the stars just don’t align for particular relationships to work out, and sometimes that’s okay, too. And in Bake Sale, Cupcake learns how to balance her solitary pursuits with maintaining her relationships with others.

These lessons are thorny and complicated, but Varon presents them with warmth and fun and subtle humor.

2. Her books are genre-bending in ways that they don’t get credit for.

Her books are marketed to children and housed in children’s sections because of their pastel color palettes, ultra-G-rated content, and tenor of kindness and warmth. But they are the best example I have ever seen of media that is truly for “all ages,” if only we can get the heck over our need to categorize books by their shape and size.

Because Robot Dreams is a graphic novel with no text, the reader plays a significant role in infusing the story—-whose ending isn’t unhappy, but it’s not of the straightforward “and then everybody got exactly what they thought they wanted after all” variety—-with meaning and nuance. An eight-year-old can certainly read it, and sit with it, and discuss it from his perspective, but it was also pretty universally embraced by the college students I assigned it to in my university teaching days, and it’s a personal favorite of mine. (Side note: Robot Dreams‘s publisher, First Second, is pretty dope generally if you’re into graphic novels; I highly recommend checking them out.) Odd Duck works as a read-aloud if you skip the talk bubbles and stick with the narration in the captions, but is even better read silently to oneself.

Bake Sale and Chicken and Cat are perhaps Varon’s most early- and middle-grade-reader-specific titles, but these, like the aforementioned Justin Case books, are of the type that one can read as an adult concurrently with one’s child and still find engaging and fun.

If you have never read a book by Sara Varon, your life is more tragic than you know. Get thee to a library or a local bookstore and give her a try!

All ages
Robot Dreams, First Second, 2007.
Odd Duck (illust.; written by Cecil Castellucci), First Second, 2013.

Early- to middle-grade readers
Bake Sale, First Second, 2011.
Chicken and Cat, First Second, 2006.



Author Spotlight: Mo Willems, part 2: Elephant and Piggie

As promised, I’m following up with Part 2 on my author spotlight of human penny-farthing Mo Willems.

I separated his easy-reader series, Elephant and Piggie out of Hyperion, from the rest of his work because though the title characters have much of Willems’s signature charm—-they’re funny and a little quirky; they’re ironic but kind; they’re simply but vibrantly drawn—-I actually believe that Elephant and Piggie represent total mastery of the entire subgenre, which all future easy-reader books should aspire to but can’t hope to match, and no I’m not exaggerating.

Easy-reader books have come a long way since I was an easy reader. And even then, they had already come a long way since my mom was one. They’re overall livelier and more interesting than they used to be. They’re purpose, however, remains pretty narrow: they’re good for a new reader to practice reading words on pages, and that’s pretty much it.

By contrast, Elephant and Piggie weave every possible kind of literacy in each story. I realize I’m being sort of weirdly breathless here, but when you start examining these books and taking apart all the little things they manage to do pedagogically, it’s hard not to make a face like this:


The books sport simple, clean sentences in large, clear font typical of easy readers to eliminate as many barriers as possible for little guys to read them. They absolutely do the same job that easy readers have been doing since Dick, Jane, and Spot. I, you, go, is, it, look, me, my, play, funny…all of these words appear on the Dolch sightwords list (if you care about that sort of thing) and all make frequent appearances in each Elephant and Piggie adventure.

Yet Willems goes a step further: the typeface itself is dynamic; the size of the font varies depending on the context of the stories, prompting a reader to use context clues to SHOUT or whisper to give the stories some impact.

So fancy.


Willems even makes clever use of punctuation: frequently, Elephant and Piggie will repeat after each other. But where Gerald the elephant, who tends to be neurotic, might end his sentence with a question mark of nervousness?, Piggie the pig, who is optimistic and exuberant, will end the same sentence with an exclamation point of enthusiasm!

On relocating the birds on Gerald’s head—-Gerald: “Ask them?” Piggie: “Ask them!”

But most impressive of all is how Elephant and Piggie books even promote literacy when there are no words on the page whatsoever: Willems uses the every-line-counts nature of his cartoon-style drawings to help early readers make meaning of facial expressions. Sometimes, the drawings show a contrast between a character’s words and what they mean:

When Gerald thanks Piggie for helping him relocate those birds.

Sometimes, their expressions allow the characters to communicate their thoughts nonverbally:

Say what?

And other times, their faces just indicate their relationship to one another:




Language is more than just putting words together according to a formula—-there are countless paratextual details that impact how we use and understand words. It’s rarely what we say, but how we say it, and what face we’re making while we say it, that holds meaning. Elephant and Piggie brilliantly brings out and itemizes all of the various nuances of literacy specifically for early readers to practice. In fact, these also make spectacular read-alouds to preschoolers and toddlers, too: read them the words, but let them put the words together with the expressions.

It almost seems obvious: how is it that every easy reader isn’t written this way?

But the very most special thing about Gerald and Piggie and their books, which gives all of this literacy-learning purpose, is the main characters’ friendship. All of these words, with all of these different expressions, facilitate Gerald and Piggie’s ability to care for and have fun with each other. Words, and the expressions that go with them, are the carriers of humor, compassion, and, okay, sometimes jealousy or nervousness, but ultimately—-hopefully—-kindness.

More than demonstrating how to use words and decipher the many codes they comprise, at the heart of Elephant and Piggie is why words and the stories they make are important in the first place. And that’s what Mo Willems’s books do better than anybody else’s.

A quick list of Dr. V’s faves:
There Is a Bird on Your Head!, 2007
We Are in a Book!, 2010
I Am Invited to a Party!, 2007
Let’s Go for a Drive!, 2012

Author Spotlight: Sandra Boynton

We’ve talked briefly about what makes a good board book for brand-new people before. Here, I want to elaborate on a specific author who does a particularly great job with this genre, and has since the 1970s (whoa.).

Sandra Boynton’s most frequent cast of characters

Board books are often pretty simple, and this is by design. FFS, they’re specifically constructed for a group of people famous for destroying everything their dimply little hands touch out of sheer lack of coordination or sense of social norms.

Once he’s done with his book snack, those glasses aren’t long for this world, trust.

These people, though unbearably cute, do not have the longest attention spans or most refined tastes (though they will definitely try to taste the book—-wocka wocka! But, seriously, to cut them some slack on that, you guys. <COOL PARENTING ADVICE>I know it seems like a really weird and gross thing to do because most of us can pretty much guess what a book is going to taste like without actually putting it in our mouths. But you know how people get to the point that they don’t need to put a book in their mouths to figure out what it’s all about? Sometime, at some point, when our brains were undeveloped blobs, EACH AND EVERY ONE OF US PUT A BOOK IN OUR MOUTH. And our brains remembered it, even if our souls have long forgotten. So let your kid slobber on the damn book. How else is she going to memorize just what, precisely, is cardboard, according to all of the senses?</COOL PARENTING ADVICE>.)

What many of these very simple board books don’t take into account, however, is the fact that its actual target audience isn’t actually reading the book at all, and in fact only kind of gets it when the book is read to them by their minion, I mean caregiver.

Does he, though?

But, I mean, what are you going to do: ironic board books? With swears and droll humor, served on a shovel or written on a craft beer label? Though all of that actually sounds kind of excellent, it also seems like perhaps it sort of gets away from the whole, reading-a-baby-a-book concept.


Enter Sandra Boynton, who writes board books that are funny and charming enough to maintain parental engagement, yet simple, colorful, and kid-oriented enough to maintain baby engagement in equal measure. Whether it’s the Jerry from Parks and Recreation-like protagonist in But Not the Hippopotamus (who eventually emerges included and triumphant, and not because the other shitty characters suddenly found him useful, which is a super common theme in children’s books for some reason—-side-eye to Rainbow Fish, ahem); the turtle’s unique name in Fifteen Animals; or the “Navel Academy” pun in The Belly Button Book, Boynton manages to create brief stories and characters that at least somewhat amuse and edify everybody. but-not-the-hippopotamus-9781442454088-in02

What’s more, Boynton is one of the few writers out there who specializes in board books specifically. Though many books are released in board-book form, Boynton’s books are unique in that they are never anything else: from concept to production, they are by and for babies. Well, except for the “by” part. Sandra Boynton isn’t a baby. She’s this lady right here:

Thank Sandra for little gems like ->


Some particular faves of Dr. V.:
Are You a Cow?, Little Simon (a Simon and Schuster imprint), 1970
Fifteen Animals, Workman, 2003
But Not the Hippopotamus, Little Simon, 1982
The Belly Button Book, Workman, 2005
Blue Hat, Green Hat, Little Simon, 1984

Author Spotlight: Mo Willems, part 1

This is an unusual Author Spotlight in that today, we’ll be talking about a writer who is not a real person but actually just a character in an indie movie.

Brooklyn writer Mo’s life was getting droller by the minute. But when he teams up with an unlikely ally, a bird on his head, they learn the true meaning of art and friendship.

I’m obviously kidding, sort of. But in addition to literally being named Mo, he is a wonderfully weird children’s book writer and former writer for Sesame Street, which is picturesquely quirky enough to make John Krasinski want to direct an incredibly average film, in which he also stars and gives the hands-down worst performance, about the guy.

But though I feel obligated to make fun of anything I really, really like (no YOU need therapy), the main thing we need to talk about when we talk about Mo Willems is that his books are just the best, especially for preschool-age types.

A quick list of my very favorites:

  1. Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and its sequels, since 2003. In his career as a children’s book writer, Willems is probably the most famous for his series in which a cantankerous pigeon, who I always read with a (bad) sassy Brooklyn accent for some reason,
    Something about the line “My cousin Herb drives a bus almost every day!” makes me want to channel this guy.*

    tries to coax us readers into letting him do various things he’s not supposed to do in the absence of the bus driver (who, frankly, we ought to start charging for our pigeon-sitting services).

    They aren’t the only books that feature a protagonist who throws a tantrum (see Anna Dewdney’s Llama Llama books, for example), but it’s a particularly well-executed play in the Pigeon books. Given how constantly little kids are told “no,” it is obviously hilarious and delightful to them to be able to say it to someone else for a change, and the tantrum is definitely played dont-let-the-pigeon-inside2for their tiny laughs. Yet asking little kids to role-play in this way—-asking them to be the ones that prevent the capricious Pigeon from doing some lunatic thing or other that’s clearly against his best interests—-also has the potential to teach them so many soft skills at once: empathy, responsibility, boundaries, and probably more I’m not thinking of (ETA: an especially smart reader suggested I add “conviction, follow through—–all necessary for learning how to problem solve and lead with care” YES!).

  2. Edwina, the Dinosaur who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct, 2006. I gave Edwina a shout-out 0786837489-edwina3int_zoombefore, but I’m highlighting her again here because I think this is an underrated gem in Willems’s archive. Little jerknugget Reginald Von Hoobie-Doobie, in addition to having a never-not-hilarious name, is a little Men’s Rights Activist in training, and Edwina is kind and gracious to him but ultimately breaks through a brick wall in a burst of IDGAF when he tries to explain to her how extinct she allegedly is, and proceeds to bake everyone some great cookies. It’s basically all of my life goals in picture book form.
  3. Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs….and Leonardo, the Terrible Monster….and Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed…you guys there are too many favorites. Willems is prolific and consistent, with a goofy sense of humor that’s perhaps a little sarcastic but without anything resembling meanness driving it. His characters are largely weirdos and often flawed, which is an incredibly difficult thing to balance within the scantness of a children’s picture book, but he does so with a lightness and intelligence that keeps his characters and the lessons they learn from overwhelming. It’s rare to be unable to predict the ending of a children’s story, and have that actually be a good thing, but Willems pulls it off.maybe-not-safe-enough-4x22In fact, that may be the best thing about Willems’s writing: it’s so hugely entertaining that your kid will hardly even notice that she’s actually learning—-and learning the kinds of things that can’t be taught in a worksheet or through memorization, but only through stories. I actually don’t think I’m being dramatic if I say that Willems’s work is a great example of why children’s books—-or any books—-matter.

    Coming soon: Part 2, which focuses on his early reader series, Elephant and Piggie.

*who is actually supposed to be from Chicago, so the bad accent is even worse. And I’m beginning to think I’m revealing more about myself than I ever intended to on this blog with my movie references.

Author Spotlight: Nic Bishop

Just FYI: if you do a Google image search of “Nic Bishop” you get a bunch of pictures of this guy

and a few of this guy

The guy we’re talking about today is the second guy: the one who looks like he might put gum and carved soap in a tree hollow for neighborhood children (rest Harper Lee’s soul).*

This guy is a great guy, because this guy takes absolutely hypnotizing photos of the kinds of animals you don’t see every day and collects them in the very dopest nonfiction books for children available.

Besides the fact that kids’ nonfiction is often offensively dull, which I’ve covered before, it’s also often written by corporate authors or ghostwriters, which means it’s really rare to be able to have a go-to author in this genre. But you can feel confident that if “Nic Bishop” is on the cover next to a startling picture of a snake, it’s a solid choice, which means making good nonfiction a regular part of your library rotation just got easier.

In my experience, children’s nonfiction tends to either read like a standardized test or try so hard to be accessible they end up sort of weird and pointless. It’s almost as if writing them was as much a chore for their authors as reading them is for us—-we’re all in cahoots to Make Kids Learn using various complicated strategies. But if you’re reading a nonfiction book to a kid in your down time, it’s because that kid is curious about the actual world around them, and that world is full of interesting stuff all by itself. Bishop must understand this, because he doesn’t interfere too much with his subject matter. Did you guys know that some frogs are gliders? And they look like this?

From Frogs, Nic Bishop, 2008.

That’s hella engaging! Those colors are way more intense than a cartoon—-and you can actually see all the little sinews in the critter’s feet! And that’s what Bishop does: he offers the clearest possible look at tons of actual awesome living things for kids—-without dressing them up with cartoons, or mediating how much truth about nature we share with them (one picture features a frog with a mouse’s tail sticking out of its mouth). Bishop writes brief, descriptive captions, and then lets his stunning full-page photos do the rest.

Bishop’s work does what books do at their best: they take us to places we couldn’t otherwise go. That the places Bishop takes us actually exist on Earth makes them even more fascinating. That he does so with kids in mind (so, leaving out graphic images of, like, mating and killing or whatever that you might see in National Geographic—-the aforementioned frog picture is pretty clean, and not too scary for littles), means you get to learn cool stuff at the same time as your kids. Around here, we call that a good day at the library.

*I think it’s the straw hat and gentle aura.