Cozy-Classics-Emma-largeThe first paragraph of Jane Austen’s Emma contains 40 words. Imagine narrowing it down to 12. Not challenging enough? Try narrowing the entire book down to 12 words.
Twin brothers Jack and Holman Wang not only stepped up to this challenge, they also proceeded to condense other classic works such as Pride and Prejudice, Moby Dick, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, and War and Peace. 

Each 12-word board book is illustrated with truly astounding needle felt models, which are beautifully posed and photographed. The books are enchanting, delightful, and obviously labors of love.

Cozy-Classics-Emma-LadyWelcome, dear readers, to Cozy Classics (published by Simply Read Books).

Intended for children age 0+, the books use child-friendly and child-familiar words to introduce works of classic literature.  Accompanied by illustrations that reflect the context and mood of the original works, these books are the perfect first step towards the larger realm of literature.

Cozy-Classics-Oliver-Twist-MeetCozy-Classics-War-and-Peace-DanceCozy-Classics-Pride-and-Prejudice-FriendsThe creators of Cozy Classics are well-matched to their task. Jack has a Master’s in Creative Writing and a Ph.D. in English. Holman, an artist and former middle school teacher, holds a Bachelor’s in education and a Master’s in architectural history. Jack and Holman have D.A.D. degrees, as well (i.e., they’re both fathers)!

How did this collaborative adventure start?

Jack: I was the one who came up with the idea of abridging classics for babies. When I shared the idea, Holman loved it. At the time, we both had a child under two, so board books were definitely on our minds. The only question was how we were going to illustrate our books. We wanted to do something original that would jibe with the classics. Holman’s sister-in-law does some needle felting, and that gave him the idea. So we each contributed something important to the concept, and that’s how Cozy Classics got started.

baby readsWhat is needle felting, and where did you learn it?

Holman: Needle felting is basically sculpting with wool. You stab loose wool repeatedly with a barbed needle, which entangles the fibres and makes the wool firm enough to hold shape. We taught ourselves how to needle felt for the purpose of these books. My very first figure, Ishmael, wound up in Moby Dick, but our technique has gotten a lot better since. For example, Ishmael didn’t have eyebrows or thumbs. He also had no armature (wire inside), which all our figures now have. This makes posing and re-posing them a lot easier.

How long does it take to craft and photograph a single illustration?

Holman: That’s hard to say. It takes 20-30 hours to complete a single figure. If a scene requires a studio set, it might take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to build. Lighting and photography generally takes three to five hours. If a scene requires an outdoor location shoot, it can again take anywhere from a few hours to a few days, depending on the weather and the travel involved. But the short answer is, a long time!

fake forestWhat books did you decide to do and why?

Jack: So far, there are nine Cozy Classics: Pride and Prejudice, Moby Dick, War and Peace, Les Misérables, Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, Emma, Huckleberry Finn, and Tom Sawyer. We have to think practically—it’s harder, for example, to do a book with a lot of characters—and we do think about gender balance, but mostly we just pick books that we care about and that we think other people care about, too.

Cozy-Classics-Les-Miserables-SadYour Cozy Classics board books consist of 12 words and 12 illustrations. How difficult is it to take a classic book that’s hundreds of pages long and boil it down to 12 simple words?

Jack: It can be challenging, that’s for sure. Some people think it’s just a matter of picking the twelve most memorable scenes, but twelve famous scenes and twelve random words won’t necessarily tell a story. So we start by choosing words that we think will give the best sense of the main storyline. Our motto is “no subplots.” And it’s not just twelve words but, as you say, twelve simple words, which means your dictionary isn’t very big to begin with. Sometimes words repeat from book to book because novels often share crucial elements. We’ve noticed there’s a lot of dancing, running, and helping in novels!

Cozy-Classics-Moby-Dick-Find2Which story was the most difficult to adapt?

Jack: Probably Emma. You would think it’d be a tome like Moby Dick or War and Peace, but both those novels have a simple narrative arc when you boil them down. But Emma has subplots that are fairly indispensable to the story.

Some people might be surprised to learn that – at least for your Cozy Classics book series – there are no computer graphics used on the photos. Tell us a little bit about the perils of setting up the perfect shot.

Holman: You’re right. Our attitude, at least for Cozy Classics, is that computer generated images would be “cheating”. So when you see sky in a shot, it’s natural sky. If you see a forest, it’s a real forest. Shots with stars were created by back lighting card stock with holes punched in it. Trying to do everything in camera definitely creates perils. The main peril of location shooting is wind. We’ve had figures and sets blow away on us. For studio shots, the main peril is fire. In one scene, Tom Sawyer had to hold a candle, but I let it burn too long and burned his thumb off. We’ve just finished Great Expectations, and, naturally, we had to set Ms. Havisham on fire. The trick was to do it in a way that didn’t destroy her completely (and luckily we didn’t), but she’s definitely worse for wear!

les mis shootI’m particularly interested in the cover image of Huckleberry Finn and Jim on the raft! Was that actually floating in water with you madly snapping shots?

Cozy-Classics-Huckleberry-Finn-largeHolman: Absolutely. I borrowed a pair of fishing hip waders from a friend and ventured into a local slough. I tied the figures onto the raft securely with wire ahead of time so they wouldn’t fall into the water. But the big hazard was the whole raft floating away on me. So I would gently push the raft in motion, madly snap shots, and then grab the raft before it went too far ashore. Also, the whole time I was just one slip away from plunging my camera in the muddy water and destroying it.

huck finn shoot 2Your Star Wars Epic Yarns series (published by Chronicle Books) will be released this April. Amazing! Tell us how this project came to be!

Jack: Holman and I were in Italy in 2013, where our artwork was on display in the Illustrators Exhibition at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. We struck up a conversation with a rep at Chronicle Books, who was kind enough to take some of our books back with him to San Francisco to show the head of their children’s division. When Chronicle asked us what other ideas we had for abridging classics, Star Wars was our first answer. Chronicle loved it.

StarWarsJedi_COV_1G.inddHolman: Of course, doing Stars Wars means licensing with LucasFilm/Disney. LucasFilm is very discerning when it comes to licensing Star Wars books, so we were thrilled when they came on board.

SW-Epic-Yarns_A-New-Hope_5_Rascal-©-TM-Lucasfilm-Ltd.-640x640What are you up to next?

Holman: More Cozy Classics, like Great Expectations, are coming soon, but we have other big ideas in the works, too. Unfortunately, we can’t disclose them now, but we hope that you’ll be hearing a lot from us in the future!


Images used with permission of Jack and Holman Wang. All Star Wars images © LucasFilm Ltd. Star Wars is a TM of LucasFilm Ltd.

Cozy Classics’ Moby Dick was also featured on our curatorial blog. Click here to see it!

The BiblioFiles Presents: Martin Kratt

martin and chris kratt

Martin Kratt (left) and Chris Kratt (right). Photo courtesy of J. Shulz, Brookfield Zoo

Just posted! An interview with Martin Kratt from the popular PBS Kids animated series Wild Kratts. Along with his brother Chris, Martin writes, directs, and stars in the show.

Wild Kratts is best described as a blend of zoology, biology, science fiction, and comedy. Team Wild Kratt consists of brothers Martin & Chris, engineer Aviva, communications expert Koki, and pilot Jimmy Z. The team is on a constant global road trip as they visit and observe creatures in their various habitats. Martin and Chris can also become the creatures with the help of their high tech Creature Power Suits. By touching the creature and pressing a chest disc, the brothers transform into slick, stylized versions of mammals, reptiles, birds, and insects. Along with the animated portions of the program, there are live action segments in which Martin and Chris introduce the real creatures and habitats featured in the program.

In addition to Wild Kratts and their live national tours, the Kratt brothers have produced a number of award-winning nature shows including Kratt’s Creatures, Zoboomafoo, and Be The Creature. Wild Kratts has earned them three daytime Emmy nominations for “Outstanding Writing in a Children’s Series.”

The Kratt Brothers are informative, fun, and completely engaging. They have an intrinsic talent for making non-fiction exciting and inspirational. From the smallest insect to the largest mammal, their enthusiasm for creatures is genuine and infectious. I can honestly say I see the creature world in a completely different light after enjoying several seasons of Wild Kratts with my children.

This summer, the Kratt Brothers published their first Wild Kratts book, Wild Sea Creatures: Sharks, Whales, and Dolphins! Their second book, Wild Reptiles: Snakes, Crocodiles, Lizards, and Turtles will be released in January.

Follow this link to the BiblioFiles interview

Robots at the Ready

robots at the readyA robot backpack? Yes indeed! Now you and your robot pal can embark on a series of terrific adventures. But the best thing about this story time? The author, Jared Aldwin Crooks, came to read the book to us!

jared aldwin crooksIn addition to penning a children’s book, Jared studied astrophysics, has worked at NASA, and is currently obtaining Masters degrees in International Policy and Mechanical/ Aerospace Engineering here at Princeton University. There’s a short interview with him at the end of this post!We read The Several Strange Adventures of Max and Ding, written by Jared Aldwin Crooks and illustrated by Scott T. Baldwin (Crooks with Books, 2014). Maximilian Finch (Max for short) lives in a sleepy town where not much happens. During school breaks his classmates go to all sorts of exciting places, but not Max. But one Sunday, Max builds a robot named Ding. That week, Max and Ding hit the road – riding paper planes through jungles, climbing mountains, visiting the circus, digging to Atlantis, fishing for treasure, building a bridge to the moon, and discovering new planets. Thanks to his pal Ding, Max now has plenty to talk about!

You’ll need:

  • 1 box for robot body (mine was 4 ½” X 4 ½” x 6” – a small tissue box works too)
  • 1 smaller box for robot head (mine was 2.5″ x 3.25″ x 4″)
  • 1 box cutter
  • 1 small craft stick
  • 2 strips of white poster board for backpack straps (approximately 1″ x 28″)
  • A 20″ piece of mesh tubing (string, ribbon, or yarn works too)
  • 2 rectangles of poster board for arms (approximately 1.5″ x 5.75″)
  • 2 rectangles of poster board for legs (approximately 1.5″ x 11″)
  • Robot decorating materials (we used metallic duct tape, prism tape, tin foil, beverage lids, washed Altoids tins, twisteez wire, sparkle stems, paper cups (in silver and gold), small plastic cups, embossed foil seals, craft ties, dot stickers, rectangular stickers, foil star stickers, colored masking tape, balloon stick cups, grey construction paper, embossed foil paper, and mylar).
  • Scissors, tape, and glue stick for construction
  • Markers for decorating
  • Hot glue

To make a robot backpack, cut four, 1.5″ slits in a box. Then, use a small craft stick to enlarge the slits a little (this will make it easier to slide the backpack straps through the slits later).

backpack box slitsSlide the white poster board straps through the slits like so:

backpack strapsNow, holding the box firmly to your back, curl the straps over your shoulders, adjust them, and staple them. Put pieces of masking tape over the staples (thus avoiding staple scratches or clothing snags). Later, when your robot is finished, you’ll want to tie a piece of mesh tubing (or string, ribbon, or yarn) around both straps to keep them from sliding off your shoulders.

strap stepsWhen the backpack straps are finished, you’ll need to hot glue the head, arms, and legs on your robot’s body. You can do that now, or wait until you’ve decorated your robot a little. I offered OCuSoft lid scrub boxes as an option for the robot’s head. As you can see, when covered with tin foil, they look like fantastic smiling robot faces!

ocusoft box headAnother great recyclable discovery? balloon stick cups make great robot antennae holders. I definitely use balloon sticks for projects (see here, here, and here) but I don’t use the cups as much. But a doubled-up sparkle stem fit perfectly in the narrow end of the cup.

robot antennaeFor decorating, we offered metallic duct tape, prism tape, tin foil, beverage lids, washed Altoids tins, twisteez wire, sparkle stems, mesh tubing, paper cups (in silver and gold), small plastic cups, embossed foil seals, craft ties, dot stickers, rectangular stickers, foil star stickers, colored masking tape, balloon stick cups, grey construction paper, embossed foil paper, and mylar.

Here’s Jared, his robot, and our program area after our creative little endeavor concluded!

jared and robotHi Jared! Tell us a little about yourself!
Hey there! My name is Jared Aldwin Crooks. I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas before coming to Princeton to get my undergraduate degree in Astrophysics and my Masters degrees in International Policy and Mechanical/ Aerospace Engineering. I have always loved creating things, whether it is some kind of contraption, food, or just writing down all of the things that are in my head. My creative partner, Scott T. Baldwin, and I are always working on a new project or book!

My passion is making the world around me a better place and I believe this can be done through little improvements over time (kaizen). My wife and I started NouriBar, a social venture that makes all-natural fruit and nut bars and for every bar purchased we work with the local communities to feed a child in need a hot meal in school. I also love doing radio and voice work. During my time at NASA, I was one of the narrators for the ScienceCasts! I love to cook and watch great films (Kurosawa, Bergman, Hitchcock).

What were some of your favorite books when you were a kid?
I was constantly reading as a kid. One of my all-time favorite books growing up was a picture book called Corduroy. The artwork seemed to jump out at you on each page and I loved the storyline! Other books that I really loved include any and all of the books from The Little Golden Books series, the Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper, and the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Why did you decide to write this book?
This book is loosely based on the daydreams that I had growing up. I had always wanted to share the things that had captured my imagination growing up; the stars, building things, wildlife, robotics etc. I also wanted write something to inspire kids to dream big and especially wanted to make sure that young kids of color could see another kid building and imagining things that are not typically represented in stories that are accessible to them. I linked up with my wonderful creative partner, Scott T. Baldwin right at the beginning and he shared the same vision that I had and he illustrated each page to show exactly what we had dreamed; so this is how the book came about!

What was an unexpected difficulty in writing this book?
One surprising difficulty I experienced while writing this book was trying to fit all of Max and Ding’s activities into 7 days! They have so many places to choose from and travel!

If Ding the robot appeared right now, where would you go?
Ding and I would most definitely travel to Cape Town, South Africa and have a swimming contest with a few great white sharks before hopping over to New Zealand and going to all of the Lord of the Rings filming locations!

Many thanks to Jared Aldwin Crooks for sharing his book and being our special guest!