Author and illustrator Jarrett Krosoczka is just 35 years old, but he's already published 20 books, including the popular Lunch Lady graphic novel series, NPR's Backseat Book Club pick for May.
The Lunch Lady is actually a secret superhero with all kinds of special cooking gadgets — fish stick nunchucks, a hairnet that catches the bad guys and a spatula that spins into a helicopter. She doesn't just serve food — she serves justice. It's a silly premise, but take the time to read these books and you'll see that The Lunch Lady is a subversive superhero. Her special power: attracting reluctant young readers.
'You Guys Are All Authors, Too'
Krosoczka loves visiting classrooms; as he explains in the video above, an author's visit to one of his childhood classes was a formative moment for him as a young artist. On a recent spring day, he joins NPR's Michele Norris at the Walker-Jones Education Campus in Washington, D.C., where he has a message for the eager audience of kids: Everyone's an author.
"When I look back at my career as an author, I don't look at the first book that was ever published as to where my career began — I look to the first book that I ever wrote," Krosoczka tells the students. He wrote that book when he was in just the third grade. "You see, an author is somebody who writes a story. It doesn't matter if you're a kid or if you're a grown-up, it doesn't matter if the book gets published and lots of people get to read it, or if you make just one copy and you share that book with one friend."
He asks the students how many of them had written their own books. As the hands go up, he tells them, "I hope you all realize that you guys are all authors, too."
The kids are curious about Krosoczka's inspiration. Third-grader Damian Williams wants to know who his favorite superhero was.
"When I was a kid ... if I couldn't get a ride to the comic book store I would walk a mile and a half each way to get the latest issues of Batman and Spider-Man and X-Men," Krosoczka answers. "I could not choose one over the other."
Krosoczka asks Williams who his favorite superhero is. Without missing a beat, Williams answers: "Lunch Lady."
A Rough Start
The kids at Walker-Jones learn in the shadow of the nation's Capitol; you can see the majestic dome blocks away through their window. Yet the students live in some of the city's roughest neighborhoods. They have done their homework on Krosoczka, and learned that his childhood wasn't the stuff of fairy tales, either. They are curious to know more.
"When I was a kid, it was tough for me," Krosoczka explains. "I lived with my mom for the first two years of my life, so suddenly she just wasn't there any more, and I didn't know why. And I never knew my father when I was really young. ... I was raised by my grandparents ... and it wasn't until I was a little bit older, maybe fifth or sixth grade, when my grandfather sat me down and he said, 'It's time that you know [the] truth about your mother,' and that she's been in jail, she's been in halfway homes, and that she's an addict. And that was a really tough pill to swallow. I was not expecting that."
Even while Krosoczka's mother was incarcerated, she helped to inspire him. "My mother was a very talented artist," he tells the students. "When she was in jail, we'd write letters back and forth; that was pretty much the only form of communication we had. And she would draw me a picture of Snoopy ... and she'd request a cartoon character back. So I would draw her Garfield. And then I would request, say, The Pink Panther. ... We would send letters back and forth, and we would draw each other cartoons."
It was only as he grew up that Krosoczka realized what a gift his mother had: "As I got older, I thought, 'Wow, she's so talented.' And I said, 'I am gonna make something really big happen with the same skills that was handed down to me from her, and to her from my grandfather Joe.' "
A Blast From The Past
Krosoczka's grandparents gave him stability, art classes and unconditional love, and along the way he had teachers who nurtured his talent. Yet every so often his past catches up with him — and he says that's OK. Krosoczka recently celebrated 10 years as a published author and illustrator with an event at the Worcester Art Museum. That's the museum where his grandparents had sent him to take classes as a kid, and in their honor, Krosoczka had set up a scholarship to help other kids take classes there, too.
A woman and her children came through the line to meet Krosoczka. "She was very excited to see me, and I signed her books; there was a nice little moment. And then she walked about 10 feet away to chat with her friends," Krosockza recalls. "But she didn't realize that she was standing next to my wife, Gina."
Krosoczka's wife overheard the woman say to her friends: "You know, the last time I saw him I was his mother's parole officer, and I went by their house to check on them. And he was a baby crying in his crib by himself, with no one to care for him. But now he's here, signing books and celebrating 10 years as a published author."
Krosoczka doesn't take his success for granted. He became an author and artist, he says, because "I had grandparents who loved me, and because I had teachers who cared for me, and because I believed in myself and because I worked really hard."
With memories of last year's Superstorm Sandy still fresh, NOAA is warning East Coasters and those farther inland to brace for another active Atlantic season, predicting that as many as six major storms will develop between the beginning of June and the end of November.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration believes that this year, there is a 70 percent chance of 13 to 20 named storms, with winds of 39 mph or higher, of which seven to 11 of them could become full-blown hurricanes, with winds 74 mph or higher.
NOAA says three to six of them could become major hurricanes of Category 3, 4 or 5, with winds greater than 111 mph. How many, if any, of these storms might make landfall in the United States is impossible to know as yet.
The seasonal average is 12 named storms and six hurricanes, three of which are Category 3 or higher.
"As we saw first-hand with Sandy, it's important to remember that tropical storm and hurricane impacts are not limited to the coastline. Strong winds, torrential rain, flooding, and tornadoes often threaten inland areas far from where the storm first makes landfall," said Kathryn Sullivan, NOAA's acting administrator.
NOAA forecasters cite a strong West African monsoon, warmer-than-average water temperatures in the tropical Atlantic and Caribbean Sea, and the lack of an El Nino, which acts to suppress hurricane formation, as contributing factors.
NOAA's National Hurricane Center says:
"New for this hurricane season are improvements to forecast models, data gathering, and the National Hurricane Center communication procedure for post-tropical cyclones. In July, NOAA plans to bring online a new supercomputer that will run an upgraded Hurricane Weather Research and Forecasting (HWRF) model that provides significantly enhanced depiction of storm structure and improved storm intensity forecast guidance."
When Duke Ellington received the news that Billy Strayhorn, his songwriting and arranging partner of 28 years, had died, Ellington reportedly cried and told a friend, "No, I'm not all right! Nothing is going to be all right now."
The cancer-stricken Strayhorn passed away on May 31, 1967, and Ellington himself would follow seven years later, dying on May 24, 1974, at the age of 75. But the Duke did not go gently into the good night of his own mortality; he toured incessantly in the last years of his life and produced late-period masterpieces such as The New Orleans Suite and The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse. "Who's 70?" he said to a reporter who kept bringing up his age. "That's an awful weight to put on an up-and-coming man like me."
As his son Mercer Ellington later noted, Duke Ellington took Strayhorn's passing as an impetus, born of necessity, to increase his own productivity as a writer. His discography from 1967 to 1973 contains numerous points of interest, such as The River (written for an Alvin Ailey ballet), a duet date with bassist Ray Brown (This One's for Blanton) and a stellar piano-trio concert (Live at the Whitney). Here are five more glowing snapshots from the Ellingtonian twilight.
It's not every day that a 9-year-old girl chastises the CEO of one of the world's biggest fast-food chains.
Yet that's exactly what young Hannah Robertson did Thursday morning at McDonald's annual shareholders meeting in Chicago. When the meeting opened up to questions, Hannah was first up at the mic with a pointed criticism.
"It would be nice if you stopped trying to trick kids into wanting to eat your food all the time," she told McDonald's CEO Don Thompson.
Hannah, a native of Kelowna, British Columbia, didn't get to Chicago on her own, of course. She and her mother, Kia Robertson, who blogs about how parents can help kids make healthful food choices, showed up as part of a contingent from the watchdog group Corporate Accountability International.
"We want them to stop their predatory marketing to kids," says Sriram Madhusoodanan, a national campaign organizer with the group.
Corporate Accountability has been pushing McDonald's to change its ways for years. Two years ago, it launched a so far unsuccessful bid urging McDonald's to retire Ronald, its famous clown mascot. Its latest social media campaign involves harnessing the power of mom bloggers like Robertson to tell McDonald's that they're "not lovin'" the company's efforts targeting kids, such as including toys in Happy Meals.
Ironically, as we previously reported on The Salt, mom bloggers are a demographic that McDonald's actively courted as it revamped its Happy Meals — downsizing french fries and adding apples to every meal — in response to pressure from parents and public health officials.
CEO Thompson pointed to those efforts in defending his company's marketing practices. "We sell a lot of fruits and veggies and are trying to sell even more," he said in his reply to Hannah.
But Madhusoodanan wants to see the company do far more. His group put forth a shareholders' proposal to get McDonald's to assess its nutritional initiatives and their impact on childhood obesity, in the face of growing public concern about the health impacts of fast food. It failed, attracting just 6.3 percent of shareholders' votes.
Thompson — who Hannah says called her "brave" in a brief exchange after the meeting — challenged her mother Kia's assertion that McDonald's does an end run around parents. "We're not marketing to schools," he said point blank. "We don't do that."
"We are not the cause of obesity," Thompson said. "We are not marketing unjustly to kids. Ronald is not a bad guy. ... He's about fun." (Unless, of course, you've got a fear of clowns.)
And just as the question period began with a young opponent for Thompson, it wrapped up with another child near the end rushing to the mic in the CEO's defense.
The young boy listed the many ways he thinks McDonald's helps kids. He cited the Ronald McDonald House Charities and events like McCare Nights, in which McDonald's donates a portion of sales at a particular franchise to a school it has partnered with. Schools often urge parents and students to eat at McDonald's on these nights to raise money for school activities. But that sort of soft marketing, says Madhusoodanan, is part of the problem.
"That's exactly," he says, "how they build brand loyalty."
Scientists have completed the first assessments of how readily the H7N9 flu virus in China can pass among ferrets and pigs. The mammals provide the best inkling of how dangerous these bugs may become for humans.
The news is both bad and good. They've found the new bird virus is easily passed between ferrets sharing the same cage.
"This is a more infectious virus — it has a higher intrinsic transmissibility [among mammals] — than most of the avian viruses we've seen in the past," Dr. Richard Webby, a study co-author, tells Shots.
But the saving grace, so far, is that H7N9 doesn't travel very well through airborne secretions from sneezing and coughing. It requires direct, intimate contact for infection.
Researchers have found that pigs, which often serve as incubators of flu strains that go on to cause big outbreaks in people, can get infected with H7N9. But infected pigs don't pass it on very well, either through direct contact with other pigs or through airborne secretions.
This all fits with the picture that has emerged in China this spring, where H7N9 has so far sickened 131 people and killed 36.
At least three-quarters of those victims apparently got the virus from contact with poultry or markets selling live chickens. Only a few seem to have gotten it from family members. Apparently, no one has been infected by breathing the same air as an infected person.
The new data, published online by the journal Science, come from researchers in China and collaborators in North America. Webby is an influenza expert at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. Other labs have reportedly found the same thing.
But other recent data suggest H7N9 may be evolving into a virus with more ominous implications for public health.
Several Chinese scientists have found a few tiny mutations in two H7N9 viruses they retrieved from a woman who butchered poultry and from chickens in a neighboring stall in a live-poultry market in Nanjing — a city in the epicenter of the Chinese H7N9 outbreak.
Both of these mutations are in a protein called hemagglutinin, found on the surface of flu viruses.
"These findings suggest that the novel virus had been evolving and might, with a few amino acid mutations, adapt to humans," say the authors of a letter published Wednesday evening by the New England Journal of Medicine.
Webby says the H7N9 viruses analyzed so far have receptors that allow them to latch onto cells of both birds and humans. To transmit efficiently between humans, the virus has to lose its avian gene sequences. The Nanjing virus samples seem to be on the way to doing just that.
"On a scale from 1 to 10 — from an avian virus with no potential to infect humans to a fully human-adapted strain — we don't know exactly where this H7N9 is," Webby says. "But I think we can safely say from these data that it might be closer to 10 than the avian viruses we've seen infecting humans in the last decade."
In other words, he thinks H7N9 is close to becoming capable of causing a catastrophic flu pandemic.
Webby says the viruses that caused the 1918 and 1957 flu pandemics had precursors that acquired "humanized" traits "in a stepwise fashion" as H7N9 may be doing.
The latest data add urgency to efforts to squelch the virus's spread among Chinese poultry. Otherwise, H7N9 could become entrenched in poultry populations, as the H5N1 avian virus has.
If that happens, "the opportunities for the H7N9 virus to evolve to acquire human-to-human transmissibility, or to be introduced into pigs, would greatly increase," the authors of the Science paper write.
But how can the spread of the virus in China's live poultry markets be suppressed? Webby says there are ways short of shutting down these markets altogether. "It's not easily done, but it can be done," he says.
In Hong Kong, authorities defeated H5N1 poultry infections by segregating chickens and waterfowl, and by having "clean days" when no imports of new birds are allowed while markets are disinfected.
But the political will has to be mustered to undertake such changes across a wide swatch of China. And Webby worries that the pressure to undertake them will wane as the number of human cases of H7N9 goes down — whether as a result of temporary market closures, as Shanghai has done, or the advent of summertime temperatures less congenial to flu, or both.
"There's a bit of a worry in my mind that the urgency to do something about this will drop," Webby says. "We really need to get on top of this virus and get it out of animal populations. Otherwise it's just not going to go away."