Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Eastern United States’ Category

JerryPallottaWhen Jerry Pallotta would come home from work, his wife would ask him to “Read to the kids!” Not only did Pallotta love the experience, but he also learned to appreciate children’s books. Many of the books he read were alphabet books and counting books. One day, he decided to write his own alphabet book, one about his memories of lobstering, fishing, mossing, clamming and rowing in his dory at Peggotty Beach in Massachusetts.

Thirty years ago, at age 32, Pallotta wrote his first book. He came up with the idea, wrote it, designed it, researched it, and edited it. His cousin illustrated it. Pallotta published it. He’ll never forget July 7, 1986, the day his first book was published. It eventually became the #1 best-selling book at the New England Aquarium. He was afraid that only his mother would like it, but teachers and kids told him they really liked his book. While speaking in schools, teachers told him they were looking for simple non-fiction nature books. This gave him the confidence to write more. Now his books have sold over millions of copies.

I had the pleasure of hearing Jerry Pallotta speak at the 2015 Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. Below are my notes from his speech. Return tomorrow for a review of a few of his picture books. Save the date: November 3!

Pallotta started his presentation by talking about a book he wrote decades ago that no one would publish. The book starts, “An ant did one, but no one could hear it…. Okay, who did it?” When he became famous, he decided to try again and approached Scholastic. They rejected it. Pallotta started to refer to it as the unnamed book by an unnamed author. A few years ago, a high school student was about to shred the book, but Palotta decided to send it out again. After more rejections, Sleepy Bear Publishing accepted it. They provided various titles: Hiccup, Burp, etc. No children’s audience liked it. Finally, the book won favor with the title: A Giraffe Did One.

From this story, Pallotta switched gears to talk about family and hobbies. He showed photos of his wife and his two sons. The one is head of Netflix, while the other doesn’t like to work and so he joined the army. As for hobbies, Pallotta likes to bike across the country. There’s a bike path that goes through many states. He has put a back bike tire in the Pacific and a front tire in the Atlantic.

Next Pallotta talked about being from Massachusetts and its influence on him. His childhood inspires him. When reading alphabet books to his kids, he wanted to write Alphabet of the Bay. He grew up near the ocean and wanted to learn everything about it. His children also inspire ideas. His son inspired The Icky Bug Alphabet Book, when he picked up a bug and said: “Ick.”

Continuing to share about projects, Pallotta shared that he grew up hanging on the rock and the dory. He still does. That become a book idea. His interest in fishing for crabs inspired a book about them and their camouflage. He wanted it to be called Wicked Cool Crab Alphabet Book but Scholastic thought the title too regional. His current project is seventy stories, each featuring a relative, about growing up near the ocean.

Palotta noted that he started writing nonfiction alphabet books, because no one else was doing them. He considers himself lucky because, at the time he began to write, the country was going whole language and everyone was looking for informational alphabet books. He decided to become king of nonfiction alphabet books.

Pallotta also talked about his writing process. For his airplane book, he studied planes for two years before he began to write. Pallotta will often write and rewrite and then revise again. He tries different nouns, verbs, and phrases. The latter he looks up when he isn’t sure about them. For example, should he say “earn their living” or “earn their money”? Kids often provide him slang words. He joked that we should ask him for copies of his rewrites! His bird book has intentional mistakes to catch the reader, such as featuring robins with a chicken egg. The mistakes also allow for humor. He included bats in his bird book and then wrote, bats aren’t birds, get out of this book.

What happens when Pallotta gets stuck? He’ll read every word related to his topic. Then he’ll compile a list of the 32 pages which comprise a picture book, followed by a list of 26 words for the alphabet. It took him two years to find cool beetles for the letter.

Pallotta showed pride in the creativity behind his various books. For example, with his book about beetles, songs from the Beatles were written on the beetles. He doesn’t expect children to get the humor, but adults might. With his eyeball book, he included idioms. He tried to fill the book with great vocabulary and everything he could about eyeballs. It shows info about eyeballs and animals with them. Green is in the book, because his mom had green eyes. For his skulls book, he visited a museum and put his head into ones. The skull book includes presidents in the drawings.

By request of Scholastic, Pallotta wrote the Who Would Win? series. To develop it, he tried to think like seven or eight year old boy who doesn’t like to read. He tricks kids into reading his books, because they think his books will be all about fighting, but they’re all about compare and contrast. Pallotta talked to animal experts for his research.

To wrap up his presentation, Pallotta showed examples of students have been inspired to create their own alphabet, counting, and “Who would win?” books. Students might even dislike reading, writing, or school. Yet they’ll use his books as models to write about things in their house, places in their town, sports, or other interests. Teachers have also joined in the fun, developing their own noun, verb, adjective, and adverb books.

Somewhere inside the pages of Close Your Eyes Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian, there is a story. However, due to the introspection and rambling of the main character, I struggled to find one. There is a poignancy to the climax, but how many readers will get to that point? For these reasons and others, my reaction to Bohjalian’s newest novel is mixed.

Introspection is supposedly at the heart of young adult novels. However, the more young adult novels I read, the more I realize that writing emotions is kind of like telling jokes. It’s extremely difficult to pull off. And, even when done well, what resonates with one person might not with another. Bohjalian does have his fans for his portrayal of Emily. For me, however, I tired of Emily’s constant put downs of herself. She keeps writing about how much of a loser she is, but in reality she seems like the average teen who experiments with drugs, drinks, and cutting herself while trying to find her place in the world. Also, I never could figure out if Emily really believed herself at fault or if she felt as if life would have been better if not for her drunken parents, overbearing teachers, and the cataclysmic meltdown of the nuclear plant in her town. In one breath she’s excusing her actions and in the next she’s gushing out apologies, but mostly she seems to lay blame on her bad luck. I just never could develop any real sympathy for this girl who feels her only redeeming quality is that she cared for a lost boy.

Ironically, there should have been ample reasons for me to care about Emily. She’s gifted but school doesn’t challenge her. Her parents love her enough to dole out consequences for misbehavior, but apparently can’t stay sober long enough to bring her to or pick her up after socials. Finally, a cataclysmic meltdown of the nuclear plant in her town robs Emily of her parents, her beloved dog, and even her social status. The latter happens because her parents rightfully or wrongfully become the fall guys for the disaster.

With all this going wrong, how could I not feel anything but compassion for Emily? Unfortunately, Bohjalian jumps so frequently from one event to another in Emily’s life that mostly I just felt confused, overwhelmed, and lost. In just a few pages that I picked from the middle of the novel, Emily tells of stealing a bike, talks about why the bike shouldn’t be called a mountain bike, observes all the supplies that people bring with them as they flee town, jumps ahead to a robbery in which she participated, compares it to Bonnie and Clyde’s escapades, remembers how she used to watch the History Channel, and then flips to telling readers about how Emily Dickinson’s songs can be sung to the tune of the theme song from Gilligan’s Island.

Once I reached the climax of Close Your Eyes Hold Hands, I did finally begin to understand where Emily had ended up, who she was sharing her story with, and why she might tell her story in such a convoluted way. I even began to feel some compassion for Emily who, having already suffered so much, is forced to make additional tough choices. The poignancy of the climax is enough to soften my negative reaction, but unfortunately not enough to woo me.

With Close Your Eyes Hold Hands, Bohjalian could have focused on any number of themes. He could have explored how an underachieving teenager rises above her dysfunctional parents, how a homeless teen is changed when she met a foster kid on the run or, because dystopia is popular right now, how a nuclear meltdown turned one family’s life upside down. Indeed, for many readers, Close Your Eyes Hold Hands may even represent a successful mix of all these plots. As for me, it seems to waffle between being a problem novel for young people and a reflective novel for adults, and as such never really captivated me.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?

ChrisBohjalianVermont’s Chris Bohjalian is the author of 17 books, including ten New York Times bestsellers. His books have been chosen as Best Books of the Year by various venues, won multiple awards, and been translated into roughly 30 languages and three times become movies. He has written for a wide variety of magazines and newspapers, as well as has been a weekly columnist in Vermont for the Burlington Free Press since 1992. The paperback of his most recent novel, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, was narrated by his daughter, Grace Experience, a young actor in New York City. I’ll review Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands tomorrow. Save the date: April 17!


Although Bohjalian mostly grew up in the suburbs of New York City, his family also moved around a lot, requiring him to make new friends on an almost annual basis. In one period, he even went to four different schools in four years.

One single period, reports Book Browse, most influenced Bohjalian’s life and decision to become a writer. When he was 13, his family moved from New York to Florida the Friday before Labor Day weekend. Shortly thereafter, a visit to the orthodontist resulted in his wearing a piece of headgear “that looked like the business end of a backhoe”. He couldn’t speak when wearing it and so refused to wear it to school. This meant he had to wear it after school, and so had no opportunity to make after-school friends, which meant books became his best friends during that adolescence.

Bohjalian spent much of his teen years reading at the public library. According to his Q&A, He read the sorts of things any adolescent boy was likely to read in the mid-1970s such as William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and Peter Benchley’s Jaws. He also read a higher caliber of literature as well such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. From these books, he learned a great deal that would help him as an adult writer. For example, he learned the importance of linear momentum in plot, along with the importance of voice.

When Bohjalian was a sophomore in college, the writer-in-residence was a novelist whose work he cherished. She was teaching a creative writing seminar in the spring semester, and Bohjalian wanted very much to be among the anointed she was going to choose to be in it. That meant submitting a short story in December, which she would read over the holiday break.

In January, he was summoned to her office in the brick monolith that housed the school’s English Department, and there he met her for the first time. Book Browse shares that when she met with Bohjalian, she adjusted her shawl, fixed her eyeglasses, and told him, “Be a banker,” she said. Bohjalian instead persevered in his dream to become an author. Moreover, he took his own advice which he now doles out to new writers wanting to be discovered. “Have a thick skin. Read lots and write often about things that interest you passionately. The key is to care so deeply about a subject that you are willing to give up a year or two of your life to it.”

Bohjalian graduated from Amherst College. In in 1986, notes Book Browse, he and his wife decided to leave New York City in 1986 for “pastoral” Vermont after a wild and terrifying 45-minute cab ride that ultimately dropped them at a crack house being stormed by police. They still live in Vermont and have one daughter.


When my 20-year-old daughter, Grace, finished reading the first draft of the novel, she said, “Dad, please take this as a compliment, because I mean it that way: Your sweet spot as a novelist is seriously messed up young women.”

–Chris Bohjalian, Mom Advice

How did Bohjalian come up with the idea for Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands? He tells Mom Advice that his main source came from being involved with troubled teens. Over the years, Bohjalin has written about teens in trouble as a Burlington Free Press columnist. He’s also a big fan of Spectrum Youth & Family Services in Vermont and so he’s met a lot of their kids. He’s heard the teens’ stories and seen their faces. He’s met the kids who are going to be okay, and “the kids who are already so far down the rabbit hole that there’s no coming back”.

One day when he was having lunch with a therapist and counselor there, she started telling him how some of the kids would build igloos against the Vermont cold out of trash bags filled with wet leaves. Instantly, Bohjalian knew instantly the novel he wanted to write. The very idea of a teen girl living alone in one of those igloos haunted him.

According to Mom Advice, a second source of inspiration came from Emily Dickinson whose poems play a big part in the fictional Emily’s life. Bohjalian has always loved Dickinson’s poetry and the mysteries that surround her life. As a novelist, he’s also often wondered about the choices she made about whether (or not) to publish her body of work. Of course, it didn’t help that Bohjalian attended Amherst College, where her spirit hovers over the community. “Sometimes it seems to me as if half the buildings I lived in on campus were named after someone she knew.”

Third, Bohjalian gives a shout-out to his daughter. Often when he was writing, he’d find himself at a loss for the right synonym for a word or to capture the precise expression that a teenage girl would use, and so he’d text his daughter.In turn, she’d text back something that would work.

Finally, Bohjalian learned about how nuclear plants work thanks to representatives at Fairewinds Energy Education, as well as the Fairewinds website. Bohjalian admits that to this day, nuclear power does make him nervous. “The exclusion zone in my novel in Vermont is small compared to the actual exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan.”

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