Monday, May 31, 2010

The bookseller is listening!

Listening, eavesdropping, innocently overhearing... call it what you will, I catch a lot of conversations as I shelve in the kids' section. Luckily, quite a few of them are heartwarming, or at least entertaining.

There's the dad who deliberates seriously with his toddler over their choice of Clifford book. The two-year-old who picks up a Go, Diego, Go! book with English text and chirps out a story beginning, "Hola! Yo soy Diego!" The parents who, similarly, translate entire books into their native languages for their kids' benefit. (Bless patient parents' hearts.)

I hear, "Mommy! Those grown-ups are looking at kids' books!"

Or "I told you John Grisham's new book was for kids. See, Mom? Newspaper knows all."

Or "Time to go, sweetie." "Can I just hug the hippo for one more minute?" (Child proceeds to do so for at least a full minute. Hippo is a stuffed James Marshall creature, in case that context is necessary.)

It's a great soundtrack to my workday. But really, I'll be cool as long as I keep hearing, "They have it! Yes!"

Friday, May 28, 2010

Spectacle on 34th Street

I'd begun to form the impression that the book world was a small one. Silly me. The New England children's book world is small. But if Book Expo America was any indication, this country contains quite the universe of publishers, booksellers, librarians, and other interested parties.

I was happy to see some familiar faces, to pick up some ARCs with familiar names on the covers, and to talk with the gracious authors and illustrators of works I've admired and enjoyed. But it was also a chance to explore the new, to get a better sense of a semi-familiar publisher or discover a debut or new-to-me author, to chat with a stranger and find out that we have similar views on what a reviewer's job is or what makes a book valuable.

Beyond the chance encounters, there was the more organized chaos of the sessions. A panel on YA editors' favorite new releases gave a good sense of what's about to be out there, and I was happy to see that even if trends are definitely present (news flash: fantasy is popular lately), editors are most excited about the authors who do something new with it. A steampunk panel both clarified and raised more questions about what this genre/style/set of elements is and why it attracts us now. The Cake Boss (yeah, the sessions were varied) talked about how important food is to family and basically revealed that he's a pastry-makin' sweetheart.

Finally, a stage full of hilarious and smart guys (I believe there was a Sciezska in there? And a Kinney?) introduced Guys Read: Funny Business, making us crack up while they showed us their passion for reaching out to an often reluctant reading demographic in a way that respects that demographic. Highlight.

Back in Boston now. Ready to read/sell/review/write some books!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Discovery Night!

Tonight, I got a glimpse into the work of three new-to-us writers at the Susan P. Bloom Discovery Awards. The event is really a great concept: writers who've never been published before submit samples of their manuscripts for children, and the winners present their work and have the manuscripts read by editors from several publishing houses. Kudos to the PEN New England Children's Book Committee (whose historic name-change from Children's Book Caucus we witnessed tonight) for showing talented "pre-published" writers some love. And kudos to Bette Anne Rieth, Linda Zajac, and Heather Jessen for their manuscripts; I hope to snag copies some day.

I'll BEA there

So who's going to BEA? I'll be there starting midday Wednesday, and I'm glad to know I'll see some familiar faces. Anyone been before and have survival tips?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

"All I really need is a song in my heart..."

Nannying gives me a lot of exposure to a close cousin of children's literature: children's music. My charges listen as closely to lyrics as they do to stories, and it's a lot of fun to see how they understand both.

A (20 months) has certain sounds or gestures she makes at appropriate times. Lately, the girls are listening to a lot of Raffi. Every time the farmer "stamps his feet and claps his hands," A knows it's time to clap her hands, too. (I may need to teach her to stamp her feet, too, just because that would be really cute.) She has routines just like that with books; there are pages for making animal sounds and pages for pointing out the moon. Newest development: when we get to the B page in Dr. Seuss's ABC, she says, "Ba ba ba ba." Not that I'm proud of her or anything.

For S (4 and a half), listening to music is more a matter of interpretive dance. She doesn't just happy-tap with Elmo, she emotes with Ernie, clutching her heart and swaying until I am fully convinced that she, like her orange accompanist, does not want to live on the moon. The meanings stay with her, too. Just like with books, she'll bring up questions later that come straight from songs, or she'll sing her own versions, just as she makes up forgivably derivative stories.

So yeah, consider me on the list of people who support the use of music in education. You can put my name right under Will Schuster's.

Monday, May 17, 2010

NESCBWI! Et cetera!

I got to spend the weekend with lots of people connected to children's literature at the New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conference. This was my third year attending the conference, and as always, it provided some new information, some review, and lots of enjoyment. Cynthia Leitich Smith told us how a conversation with her local ducks transformed her from a lawyer to a writer of the multicultural and the vampiric. Pat Lowery Collins offered useful suggestions on how to fit poetry into the current kidlit scene, and Kim Ablon Whitney gave insight into grants, awards, and residencies. Marla Frazee and Allyn Johnston gave us a peek into what must be one of the sweetest editor-author/illustrator relationships out there. Mitali Perkins moderated a really informative panel consisting of agents Ammi-Joan Paquette of Erin Murphy Literary Agency, Edward Necarsulmer of McIntosh & Otis, and Sarah Davies of The Greenhouse.

Liza Ketchum got us thinking about dialogue and its uses (which include but are not limited to creating visual breaks for readers, which is exactly why this is a new paragraph). Melissa Stewart advised us on how and why to make one nonfiction work different from another. Erin Dionne went in-depth into "hysterical epiphanies," a great way to use humor to advance a story.

And in between, I spent time with lots of people who think it's really important to create good books for children. Not bad at all.

On top of all that, I got to celebrate the graduation of Simmons College's newest advanced degree holders, including many of my distinguished Children's Literature and Writing for Children colleagues. Congratulations to you all!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


I will be among the ranks of really excited writers at the New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conference this weekend. Will I see you there?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

"Have a carrot," said the mother bunny.

Cheaper by the Dozen. A Little Princess. The Princess Bride. All beloved in that deep, emotional way that goes beyond the objective, and all books my mother read to me. We had a nightly reading ritual that lasted well into middle school, most books chosen because they were her old favorites, A Little Princess selected because Sara started as "a new girl" and I was about to move to New Jersey.

If I remember correctly, All of a Kind Family was the first chapter book we read together. It was definitely the first chapter book I read on my own, by virtue of my sneakily reading ahead when my mom went to check on my chicken-poxed sister. Other than that incident, though, I never dreamed of reading ahead, other than letting my eyes jump across the spread as I sat at my mother's side, anticipating how she'd handle the very occasional bad word. (Yeste of The Princess Bride "sits there on his world-class mmmph!")

There were a few duds that we loved to dislike together, a few mystery series that didn't quite live up to her memories. But nearly every book we read together became a favorite, and I later read most of them to my four-years-younger sister. (I also read her a few things we couldn't tell our mother we were reading. But I think she turned out okay, given that she graduated from college this afternoon.)

The read-alouds petered out, but during my high school years, my mother and I came full circle, becoming volunteer readers in the waiting room of a local health clinic. We developed a Where the Wild Things Are routine that involved the roaring of terrible roars and the gnashing of terrible teeth. Children's books became our thing, a thing it was our job to share with the world. "Oh, yeah, children's books," I said to myself. "You know, I really like these."

Thanks, Ima. Happy Mother's Day.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A frog, a toad, a little bear, a wolf, and a reader

S, age 4 and a half, is about as literate as one can be without being able to read. Many of her favorites are the types of early readers generally associated with first-ish graders, like the Frog and Toad and Little Bear series; she just listens instead of sounding out the words, at least for the moment. She's an engaged listener when adults read aloud to her, often offering instructions on just how scarily to read about the Dark Frog today. She also follows along when she listens to both series on CD, and I imagine the transition to literally reading these books will be virtually seamless. Her comprehension is clear; she often pretends to be the characters she's read about or uses their expressions ("Never better!") correctly in conversation.

S particularly impressed me this evening when she told me the story of Wolf's Coming, by Joe Kulka. I wasn't familiar with the book, and in fact just identified it now through the magic of Google, but I'm pretty sure I heard it word-for-word, complete with expression, sound effects, and pauses in the right places.

Now that's reading readiness.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Love-hate reading relationships

An exchange in the comments of the last post got me thinking about a scene in Gone with the Wind, and I found myself almost ashamed to tell the Internet that I have any positive feelings toward that novel. There's no question that it's a deeply problematic text, portraying most of its enslaved characters as loving but lesser members of the families that enslave them, and indicting them when they don't immediately produce exactly the help the white characters need. Why should Prissy know anything about birthing babies?

But even realizing all of the above, I developed some affection for GWTW when I first encountered it at age twelve. I admired Scarlett's independence and Melanie's deceptive strength, and I thought Rhett was hilarious. It didn't make me root for the Confederacy, but I was willing to suspend my outrage and root, just a little, for these particular Confederates.

Plenty of books that are beloved for good reasons also raise objections for good reasons. Both The Indian in the Cupboard and the Little House books have faced criticism for their portrayals of American Indians, for example, and my pretty little head can't even begin to count all the sexist stories out there. And then there are the offensive throwaway lines, the stereotypical "Chinaman" in And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (later changed), the German Jew selling good old Anne the dye that turns her hair green.

Where do we draw the line? Perhaps more importantly, how do we reconcile the good with the bad? I think my answer is that if I'm reading for myself, I just need to read critically; if I'm sharing a book with a child, I need to remark upon what's wrong with it and let the child ask questions. I've also on occasion skipped or changed a line when reading aloud, but I'm not sure how I feel about that. Actually, I'm not sure how I feel about any of the above; these questions, though not new ones, are far from rhetorical. If any of you have your own answers, I'd be curious to hear them.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Little emergencies, little adventures

Eastern Massachusetts is under a boil-water order for at least a few days due to a major leak. We're washing our hands from pitchers, carting in bottled water by the delugeload, and realizing all the little ways we use running water in everyday life. I am okay with all this, and for that I credit children's literature.

When the little emergencies of a northeastern childhood sprung up--the thunderstorms, the blizzards, the minor injuries, the auto breakdowns--part of me always wanted them to get a little worse, a little more exciting. (I'm sure there was a line I wouldn't have wanted them to cross, but I was luckily secure enough in being taken care of that I never had to figure out where that line was.) I wanted to walk miles and miles to safety like the Tillermans in Homecoming. I wanted to bathe in a museum fountain like Claudia and Jamie in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I wanted to be in charge of the younger kids stranded somewhere with me like the babysitters in Snowbound. I probably also wanted school to be cancelled, but hey, that happens in a lot of books, too.

Of course, I hope this water situation doesn't last too long. My heart goes out to anyone dealing with a serious health problem or with anything else that makes these circumstances harder to handle. But for now... since I can't do anything about it anyway... bring on the adventure!