Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The comfort of Bear Country

As many of you have heard, Jan Berenstain, co-creator of the Berenstain Bears series, passed away this week. When we talk about what makes a good story for kids, we often emphasize that it shouldn't be written just to teach a lesson, and in many cases, that's true. But if there's one series that makes customer after customer say, "Oh, my gosh, these books were my childhood," it's The Berenstain Bears. And I think there are good reasons for that.

The Bears were real characters. They had Everybear sorts of names, but they also had personalities that could play off each other in funny ways. Once you'd read one or two, you knew that Papa Bear and the cubs were going to take something too far, Mama Bear was going to step in, and everything would go back to normal.  The lessons were fairly obvious, and were even hinted at in the little introductory poems so you knew exactly what would turn out to be "right." When you're three, four, or five, that's a powerful feeling.

The family dynamic in these books is pretty similar to that of a lot of sitcoms, and I think they've been popular for similar reasons. For one, it's fun to feel smarter than the dad. But also, sometimes, it's helpful to see what you sort of already know (honesty is the best policy, we should include each other in our games, a new sibling will change things but your parents will still love you) spelled out. It feels good to nod and say, "Silly Brother Bear, I knew that."

Thanks, Berenstains. Even if your eight-by-eight books barely fit in the spinner.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Africa--Amazing Africa

I thought about this when I read Atinuke's Anna Hibiscus, and now that I just put down Alexander McCall Smith's The Great Cake Mystery, I'm thinking about it again.

It seems like conventional wisdom says kids want to read about protagonists who are as like themselves as possible. In this country, that often (though less often now than in previous decades) translates to fewer stories that take place in other parts of the world or that have characters who look different from the majority population. As many have pointed out, it definitely translates to fewer book covers depicting anyone or anything "different," because such images might tell some readers, "this story isn't about for you."

But kids do want to read about, say, Hogwarts. And Panem. And Camp Half-Blood. I'm fairly certain none of the customers I've encountered have Greek gods for parents, but they sure are eager to read about kids who do. Obviously, I'm not equating any real place with a fantasy world. But kids' interest in reading about them indicates to me that they're very capable of imagining settings they've never seen, and many of them want to.

Of course, many books with dark faces on the covers tell very serious stories, and these stories are worth telling. So are the serious stories out there with white kids on the cover. But for every Mockingbird, there are ten or so Ramona books, so no one gets the message that these books aren't fun.

Sometimes, you're just in the mood for a fun read, and that's okay. When that happens, I may just point you to Anna Hibiscus and her hilarious cousins in Africa--amazing Africa.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Literary Love: A Very Special House, by Ruth Krauss

In the first half of the twentieth century, Lucy Sprague Mitchell started what she called the "here and now" movement. Stories didn't need fairies or magic to be exciting, she postulated. What children needed was to see their own lives reflected in picture books. They needed to see and recognize a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush, and they needed their inner lives legitimized and celebrated.

Enter Ruth Krauss, author of books including A Hole is to Dig and The Carrot Seed, and to my mind currently one of the most under-appreciated children's authors of her century. Her characters make simple, genuine observations about the world around them, the kind that are amusingly childlike without being gimmicky. And sometimes, they take flights of fancy, but those flights take off directly from Childhood Experience Airport.

Such is the case with A Very Special House, her 1953 collaboration with one Maurice Sendak, which is pitifully unavailable nowadays. It begins thus:

"I know a house--it's not a squirrel house--it's not a donkey house--it's not a house you'd see--and it's not in any street and it's not in any road- oh it's just a house for me Me ME."

The rapid-fire rhyming lines jumble together, rather as they do above, as the narrator gets more and more excited about the house where he and perhaps his animal friends can "ooie ooie ooie." Sendak's Caldecott Honor-winning illustrations, sketchy with occasional spots of color, make it pretty clear that this is an imagined place, and Krauss finally expresses that idea with perfect childlike linguistic playfulness: "oh it's right in the middle--oh it's ret in the meedle--oh it's root in the moodle of my head head head."

And I hope you discover it yourself self self--put it right in the middle of your shelf shelf shelf. (Which would make alphabetical sense.)

Friday, February 3, 2012

It's a good time to be a children's lit nerd.

Is it just me, or is children's lit everywhere lately?

By now, hundreds of thousands of people have viewed Stephen Colbert's two-part interview with children's book demigod Maurice Sendak. It's here and here, in case you're not one of them. (Fair warning: Part 1 is a bit, ahem, adult.) In between guffaws at the inevitable bluster-meets-crotchetiness hilarity, I got a real sense that the piece was created with respect for children's books. Colbert got all the names and titles right, which shouldn't be remarkable but is in comparison with past glances from the media at little old kiddie lit. We got two full segments and lots of acknowledgement (via TV-persona-Colbert saying the opposite) that our medium is important and takes skill, not just a big name and a vague awareness that children are charming.

And then there were the ALA Youth Media Awards, which caught enough people's interest that #alayma was a trending topic on Twitter during the announcements--not bad for a webcast that only "seats" 1000. Even better, NPR's Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! had the good sense to invite hash smuggler-turned-Newbery winner Jack Gantos, possibly creating the highest concentration of funny people ever in one radio broadcast.

Oh, and BEA, the conference that's given me the strongest impression that publishing is an industry,
just added a children's day.

It seems people are realizing that there's value - social value, artistic value, monetary value, what have you - in children's books. I'm proud to say I knew that before it was cool.