The Family Who Reads by Aaron Zenz
In the wonderful realm of literature, I wear multiple hats. I’m an Author. I’m an Illustrator. I’m a Reader. I’m a Collector. But there is one Book-World-Hat that is most precious to me by far. I’m a Dad.
Reading has always been a major part of Zenz family life. But in 2008 our kids (the Z-Kids) began sharing some of their reading adventures with the public on a blog called Bookie Woogie. It was a unique voice in the KidLit world — actual kids sharing their experiences with kids’ books. They embarked on 7 years of public reading adventures, and they became quite well-known in the process… Their reviews got nabbed for re-print in the Grand Rapids Press, the Z-Kids appeared on the local news, and they even had a big write-up in a South Korean women’s magazine. For sure, the Z-Kids were far more well-known than me. They weren’t “those kids of that author.” In fact, when I had new books come out, people would write “He’s the dad of the Bookie Woogie kids!”
The blog finally wound down last year. I never intended for the site’s value to hinge upon the newest releases or current events. I hoped the value of Bookie Woogie would come from the Great Archive slowly being built, a permanent resource, demonstrating ways to read and create, ways to celebrate books and engage with children.
So for anyone who has not yet stumbled upon this online resource, I thought I would share 6 of the exciting things that make Bookie Woogie what it is:
1. Book Reviews!
The Z-Kids didn’t limit themselves to one type of literature. They reviewed picture books, chapter books, board books, graphic novels, and
even a handful of movies adapted from children’s books. In all, the Z-Kids shared 140 reviews, taking a look at 178 individual books.
Their honest opinions were shared with an unfettered enthusiasm that only a kid can have. Gracie said of Jarrett Krosoczka’s first “Lunch Lady” book: “It’s an action-packed book of yellowy wonder.” Her voice found its way to the back covers of future installments in the Lunch Lady series.
As an author and illustrator myself, I regularly seized teachable moments during their reviews to introduce the Z-Kids to the craft of writing and illustrating. Shannon Hale’s “Princess Academy” was a great place to talk about character arcs. Jennifer and Matthew Holm’s “Babymouse” books lead to conversations about both foreshadowing and parody. Glen Keane’s “Adam Raccoon” books were a super introduction to color theory.
Author Shannon Hale said of Bookie Woogie: “This is such a great way to combine reading, art, and action with kids in the home.”
And three years later she reaffirmed: “Bookie Woogie remains my favorite book reviewer. A wonderful model for
parents about how to talk to their kids about books and extend the learning.”
Author Bonnie Ashburn said: “What I love about their review is that I FEEL like I was perched there on the couch with them, this creative, funny family all cozied up reading my book… And not just reading it either. They discuss the book. They examine the book. They talk about how it might have been created, how it affects them, what the book is trying to say.”
2. Author Interviews!
Eventually, in addition to book reviews, the Z-Kids got the chance to interview some of their favorite Authors and Illustrators. Folks like Tony DiTerlizzi, Lane Smith, Adam Rex, and Dan Santat… twenty interviews in all.
Most of these conversations were conducted over Skype, but sometimes the Z-Kids had the chance to interview these superstars face to face. Amy Young (“Belinda the Ballerina”) invited us to her studio for a tour and spent an hour painting with the kids afterward. And Laurie Keller (“Arnie the Doughnut”) invited the Z-Kids to her house for a 4-hour play date, serving them sprinkle doughnuts and allowing them to handle original art! Not at the same time of course :)
Painting with author/illustrator Amy Young
Real-live sprinkle doughnuts with author/illustrator Laurie Keller
We try to find ways to turn books and reading into memorable family events whenever we can.
One example is the summer we decided to read through the books in the Chronicles of Narnia series. I wanted our kick-off to “The Summer of Narnia” to be just as magical as the books themselves. So for the first night, we built a great big fort out of tables and blankets, right in the middle of the living room. But not just anyone could enter the reading tent…
Hidden around the house were six special tickets. Each kid had to hunt down and present a ticket before being allowed to enter the dome.
Another fun event was heading to a nearby museum that was sharing the massive artwork created by Kadir Nelson for his book “We Are the Ship.”
The Z-Kids marveled at his enormous canvases and then got to listen to Kadir himself give a presentation on the creation of his book. After studying his book and seeing his original art, the kids remarked that
they now felt as if knew the author personally in some special way.
Dan Yaccarino’s book “All the Way to America” inspired us to wonder about our own family history. This lead to an interview with the Z-kids’ great-grandma, where we learned amazing things that I myself had never heard before. It was a precious conversation with her, one that we’ll always hold dear, one that wouldn’t have happened without Dan’s book.
4. Fan Art!
After reading each week’s book, the Z-Kids would then create a piece of Fan Art. Over the course of the 7 years, Bookie Woogie showcased 520 pieces of art. (Wow!) Jarrett Krosoczka one time said, “Getting kid art by the Bookie Woogie kids is the fan art equivalent of making the cover of Rolling Stone.”
Most times Fan Art was created with crayon or colored pencil. But often the Z-Kids would experiment with new techniques — sometimes even inspired by the illustrator’s own medium of choice. Here are a few of my favorites:
cut paper by Lily at age 6, inspired by Maurice Sendak
watercolor by Isaac at age 10, inspired by Suzy Lee
drawing on photographs by Lily at age 7, inspired by Serge Bloch
scratchboard by Gracie at age 10, inspired by John Sandford
concrete poetry by Lily at age 6, inspired by Betsy Franco
sculpture by Gracie at age 9, inspired by Tony DiTerlizzi
food sculptures by all the kids, inspired by Freymann and Elffers
sewing by Gracie at age 11, inspired by Charise Mericle Harper
stone carving by Isaac at age 12, inspired by Shannon Hale
cut paper by Gracie at age 14, inspired by Princesse Camcam
Boiled down, Bookie Woogie was simply a place where the Z-Kids shared the books they loved and shared the creations those books inspired. So when James Kennedy launched his wonderful annual “90-Second Newbery Festival,” we immediately knew we wanted to join in the fun. James had the great idea to invite kids from all over the country to summarize the entire contents of a Newbery book into a (roughly) 90-second film. Over time we created 4 videos for the Festival. The process of making these films together will forever stand as some of my very favorite family moments.
The Z-Kids made videos for Grace Lin’s “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon,” for Lloyd Alexander’s “The Black Cauldron,” for E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web,” and for Arnold Lobel’s “Frog and Toad Together.”
I share “Frog and Toad” with you here:
6. Authors, Illustrators… and Friends!
There are few communities that are as kind and caring as the Kidlit community. For nearly every book reviewed on Bookie Woogie, the authors and illustrators behind those books started out as strangers. Many, many of them we would now consider friends.
When we reviewed the wonderful book “Oh No,” Isaac made a piece of Fan Art imagining a brand new robot to replace the one defeated by the giant frog in the book:
When illustrator Dan Santat saw the review, he created a piece of Fan Art of Isaac’s Fan Art and mailed it to him out of the blue:
When the amazing author/illustrator Shaun Tan read about the kids’ favorite spread from his marvelous book “The Arrival,” he mailed the family a print all the way from Australia:
The gracious illustrator Renata Liwska did the same thing when she read the kids’ “Little Panda” review:
It got to the point where I began editing out any mention of a favorite piece of artwork from the kids’ reviews. I didn’t want anyone to think we were angling for free artwork!
But it’s hard to stop the kindness of the Kidlit community :) Author/illustrator Charise Harper (whom we had never met) mailed my son Elijah a stuffed robot she had made based off of one of his drawings:
And one year, when a family member underwent an unexpected round of surgeries and we faced serious financial needs, folks in the Kidlit
community banded together to raise funds for the family. And, no surprise, books were kindly gifted to the kids as well:
The Kidlit community is a marvelous one. I’m proud to be a part of it. I’m proud my kids have grown up inside of it. And I invite you to poke around 7 years of their recorded adventures collected at Bookie Woogie: www.bookiewoogie.blogspot.com
Aaron Zenz has illustrated 31 books, 7 of which he authored as well. His books include “The Hiccupotamus,” “Chuckling Ducklings,” and the forthcoming “Monsters Go Night-Night” (Aug 2016). He lives in West Michigan with his lovely wife and super creative six kids.