Monday, November 21, 2011

Thank you, thank you, Sam-I-Am!

(or Thanksblogging consolidated.)

I'm thankful to be surrounded by children's books - the old favorites, the new discoveries, the tinies and the tomes, the visual and the oh-so-texty, the ARCs and the dusty volumes with decades-old inscriptions, the not-to-my-taste-but-I-see-why-it's-good and the throw-it-across-the-room awful, the sweetly traditional and the progressive (which can also be sweet), the to-read pile and the tempted-to-reread list.

I'm thankful to encounter so many people who care about children's books, be they professionals in the field, invested parents, interested friends, customers who (think they) remember very little but really want to find the right gift, or, of course, kids.

I'm thankful that while our ways of getting information and entertainment keep changing, books are still part of the discussion. Physical books are still a major part of many people's lives, maybe especially many children's lives. And though I haven't gone the e-book route, I think it's pretty cool that in the midst of all the bells and whistles of recent technology, someone thought, "How can I make books a part of this?"

I'm thankful that every time it seems like we could be out of ideas, a whole bunch of new ones prove us wrong. This past year yielded plenty of creativity, and I have no doubt that the next few years' books will surprise us in ways we may not even be able to imagine yet.

I'm thankful that my own manuscript will probably do that, too. (It better, since I don't have all the details figured out yet.) And I'm thankful to belong to crowds in which we all get excited about each other's nebulous ideas. It's a great way to make them less nebulous.

Finally, I'm thankful to all of you for letting me go on and on about my favorite field. Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

In which I jump on the bandwagon...

...and present my own list of favorite* 2011 books for kids, young adults, and the adults who read over their shoulders.

*I say "favorite," not "best," because a) I have not read everything and b) the point of this list is to highlight books that made me personally say, "Wow, I'll be recommending this right and left."

In approximate order of intended audience from the earliest readers to the most advanced (though of course, all can be enjoyed in different ways at different ages).

Hervé Tullet's work. Press Here is getting a lot of notice, and with good reason. Its premise--press a dot, turn the page, and see what you've "made happen"--gives kids a chance to feel like they have power in the reading experience. But there's no need to wait until kids understand that paper in books is not for ripping. Tullet's board books, including The Game of Light, The Game of Finger Worms, The Game of Mix-Up Art, and others include some of the most sophisticated die-cut pages I've ever seen. For kids under a year old, that means lots to grab, which means reading is fun. For older toddlers, there's room for more complex involvement and exploration of shapes.

I Want My Hat Back, by Jon Klassen, and everything Mo Willems ever does. I lump these together because they're recommend-worthy for a lot of the same reasons; the concept of a character asking for something repeatedly and getting a "no" answer, ideally from the audience, is a great one but not a new one. Still, the rabbit's fate in IWMHB is unusual in American picture books, and the book is hilarious enough to pull off a [spoiler alert] bunnicide without being scary. Speaking of hilarity, Willems embodies it so well that it's possible to forget how Elephant and Piggie's accessible speech bubbles, spare text, and variations on repeated phrases are helping kids learn to read.

Every Thing On It, by Shel Silverstein. Posthumous collections are sometimes more sentimentally interesting than they are good; after all, they're made up of work that either the author or the publisher didn't see fit to publish in the author's lifetime. But there are plenty of exceptions, and this is one of them. These poems were kept out of previous collections for the sake of sequence, and they sound and feel just as Shel-y as his other work.

Wonderstruck, by Brian Selznick. Selznick once again alternates series of images with passages of text to create an experience like a movie. This time, there are two intertwining stories, with their parallels revealed gradually and their direct connection not revealed until near the end. As in The Invention of Hugo Cabret, this book's format gives kids a chance to say they've read a really, really thick book; more than one customer has told me that Hugo was a turning point in a child's confidence as a reader. And it's not a stretch to say that a kid who's read either book has mastered a huge story; both books call for lots of inferences on the reader's part, and that's particularly true of Wonderstruck. I'd still love to see prose from Selznick that made me feel more in-the-moment, but perhaps the distance that his style creates helps with the sense that the reader has "figured out" the story.

Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu. It's become rarer for a fantasy to have strong roots in a realistic setting, but this one spends about half its pages building up the realistic emotional reasons for its characters to end up in its Narnia. It's full of references to the fantasies that came before it, which creates a great payoff for well-read kids.

Heart and Soul, by Kadir Nelson. In the voice of a kindly grandmother, Nelson gives an overview of the African-American experience. The topic is a broad one, obviously, and this book would do well with adult mediation and/or other reading. It doesn't shy away from painful subjects; there are memorable images of slavery and of a burning cross. But the kindly-grandmother voice Nelson adopts sends the message that it's okay, that it's safe, to talk about these very not-okay parts of American history.

On a lighter note, Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler's The Future of Us depicts two teens in 1996 who gain access to their future Facebook profiles. More than an amusing commentary on how social media helps us be obsessed with ourselves, TFOU points out how much control we have over our futures, but how hard it is to use that control because of how little we know. Funny and thoughtful, fantastical and realistic, and fascinating in that it's historical fiction about the decade when the target audience was born. (Feel old, my contemporaries. Feel very, very old.)

Finally, on an even lighter note, Libba Bray's Beauty Queens. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I've never had so much fun being hit over the head. This tale of a bunch of pageant contestants on a desert island is about as subtle as a plane crash, but if that means I get to laugh really hard while reading about characters who are all different kinds of kickass, I'm all for it.

Death of the book, my left pinkie toe. Happy reading.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Those happy golden years... and these

As I've said, I agree with quite a bit of the recent proclamation on the state of picture books. But it also got me thinking (as a good proclamation should). It's very easy to label the past as "the good old days," and indeed, children's literature (in general, not just in picture books) has had several identifiable "golden ages." Like 1865ish to 1910ish, when it first started to occur to the creators of books for children that those books could be for fun, not just for instruction. Like various points during the editorial career of Ursula Nordstrom (1940 to 1973), which encompasses everything from the lyrical but accessible Goodnight Moon to the subversion of Louise Fitzhugh and M.E. Kerr. (There's a lot more to be said about what those 30+ amazing years did for children's books, but that's a topic for several more posts. Here, a start.)

There are other times, too, that are worth remembering fondly and learning from, for a wide variety of reasons. Look at the eighties and early nineties, for one example. A lot of the work produced then might not be "golden" from a critical standpoint, but there's a lot to be said for how accessible the proliferation of (affordable, paperback) series made reading for kids. These were books that kids found through their friends, not their teachers or their parents; it's almost like there was a renewal of the realization a century earlier that fun could be a primary purpose of kids' books. That trend helped make me an eager reader, and I'm far from the only one.

Which brings me to now. In the past decade or so, the industry has given kids and teens all kinds of reasons to want to read, and though some of those reasons are more commercially than critically appealing, there are still plenty of places for critics to pin their stars. Genre lines are blurring between prose and graphica, between novel and picture book, between picture book and app, and I've heard more than a few customers make comments to the effect of, "I didn't know that was possible!"

In terms of finding and running with new ideas, and in terms of letting readers of varying interests and learning styles know that reading is for them, too... dare I say it? I think we're in a golden age.