of the Center for Children's Books:
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.
Often authors find a niche early in their career and remain in the comfort of those confines for years, but there are some writers who master with apparent ease the craft of jumping from one genre to another. One such is the prolific and talented Tony Johnston, who has exemplified an extraordinary versatility throughout her writing career. The author of more than one hundred books for children, Johnston has run the gamut from poetry to folklore to easy readers to picture books, displaying throughout style, grace, and distinction in her writing. What's more, she bucks the current inclination to write for older and older readers by doing her best work for the younger end of the kid spectrum, whether early readers or avid listeners.
Her easy reader entries take an everyday starting point--the theme of friendship--while adding fresh touches or additional complications to the straightforward subject. In Sparky and Eddie: The First Day of School (BCCB 11/97), the neighborhood buddies must start school in--horrors!--separate classrooms. In Alien & Possum: Friends No Matter What (BCCB 1/02), the familiar subject of friendship is explored through a most unfamiliar pairing: that of a rodent and space being. In both texts, her gift for color within compressed text shines through, as she refuses to let the limitations of easy vocabulary and sparse wording prevent her from fully developing the tenderly humorous details of the friendships.
She has also successfully drawn on folklore in such audience-pleasing adaptations as The Tale of Rabbit and Coyote (BCCB 7/94) and Alice Nizzy Nazzy (BCCB 5/95), both illustrated by Tomie De Paola. The Tale of Rabbit and Coyote brings together several folktales to recount trickster rabbit's victory over the heedless coyote. Sonorous and effective similes ("free as a bee", "cold as a cabbage") provide a lyrical storytelling lilt to the tale, and the appealingly naughty rabbit is an entertaining protagonist. The hilarious and terrifying Alice Nizzy Nazzy is a good example of Johnston's ability to balance darkness and comedy for young audiences (Alice is rumored by local families to eat small children); the energetic language of this carefully patterned Baba Yaga retelling boldly describes Alice's run-in with a particularly daring little girl. There's also a hint here of Johnston's taste in protagonists--she seems drawn to the offbeat, the daring, and the willful, the anything-but-demure
Johnston's most significant contributions, however, are undoubtedly her picture-book texts. That's an unusual feat right there, since picture books generally bring fame to illustrators rather than writers, except in rare cases such as that of Margaret Wise Brown. Johnston is another such rare case, bringing tremendous humor and wit to bear on concise original narratives (many of which tempt novice readers as well as readaloud audiences). Spanish words (Johnston's love of the Southwest, a region less traveled in picture books, imbues many of her texts) naturally pepper her classic The Iguana Brothers (BCCB 7/95), which tells of the day-to-day trials and tribulations of being an iguana; listeners will sympathize with Tom's growing (and very funny) disgust with eating bugs, despite his brother Dom's insistence that "Bugs are crunchy. Bugs are munchy. Bugs are deliciosos." In The Ghost of Nicholas Greebe (10/96), Johnston exchanges southwestern sun (and lizards) for New England winter cold (and skeletons), carefully balancing dark humor and ghostly chills in the story of a ghost who's determined to be reunited with the bone stolen from his grave by an unknowing pup. In Go Track a Yak (BCCB 9/03), Johnston's rhythm, humor, and pacing shine in the description of Papa's search for "yak juice" for his poor sick baby; the folklore-informed structure, the chantable refrain, and the hapless parents (it's really the yak who's the heroine of the tale) make for an irresistible readaloud adventure. In her recent The Worm Family (BCCB 9/04), Johnston works not only in controlled comedy but controlled absurdity in a story like no other, wherein a cast of free-spirited worms undergo a bumptious and joyful trek from neighborhood to neighborhood, seeking a place "where Worm is a Glorious Thing!"
Tony Johnston's considerable oeuvre assures her a valuable place in the literature
already;, since her effective collaborations with an impressive range of illustrators
and her mastery of delicious cadence, solid storytelling, and kid-appealing
humor has been satisfying audiences for years. It's nice to be able to laud
a True Blue with plenty of opportunity for literary wonders to come as well;
Johnston's flexibility and talent for invention means we may not know exactly
what to expect in the future, but we know it's something to eagerly anticipate.
--Hope Morrison, Reviewer
Alice Nizzy Nazzy: The Witch of Santa Fe; illus. by Tomie dePaola. Putnam,
1995. (BCCB 5/95)
Alien & Possum: Friends No Matter What; illus. by Tony DiTerlizzi. Simon, 2001. (BCCB 1/02)
The Ghost of Nicholas Greebe; illus. by S.D. Schindler. Dial, 1996. (BCCB 10/96)
Go Track a Yak!; illus. by Tim Raglin. Simon, 2003. (BCCB 9/03)
The Iguana Brothers; illus. by Mark Teague. Blue Sky/Scholastic, 1995. (BCCB 7/95)
Sparky and Eddie: The First Day of School; illus. by Susannah Ryan. Scholastic, 1997. (BCCB 11/97)
The Tale of Rabbit and Coyote; illus. by Tomie dePaola. Putnam, 1994. (BCCB 7/94)
The Worm Family; illus. by Stacy Innerst. Harcourt, 2004. (BCCB 9/04)