Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Best. Word Book. Ever.

I've had some variation on this conversation quite a few times, almost always about the same author:

Customer: Can you help me? I need to buy a gift for a four-year-old, and I don't know much about kids' books. I don't even really remember what I read as a kid. Is there something with trucks, maybe?
Me: Sure, of course. How about Cars and Trucks and Things That Go?
Customer: Oh, right! I remember Richard Scarry!

Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever turns fifty this year, and Random House is marking the occasion with a new edition, which will kick off a rebranding of much of Scarry's backlist. The changes sound fairly minor (new covers, but Scarry's original artwork will be scanned), and I say more power to a Scarry push. In many ways, Scarry does for the picture book set what a lot of nonfiction does for older kids who might find themselves reluctant readers of more linear text. Scarry's busy, busy pages tell kids that they don't have to read or sit through a story from cover to cover. They can "dip in." They can interact with each page, discovering new details every time or developing their own custom routines of elements to point out every time they share the books.

Maybe that's why Scarry has such an ability to jog the memories of adults who as a whole don't have strong memories of childhood reading. I can see why his books might leave an impression on kids who otherwise didn't enjoy reading. Scarry's work broadens the definition of what reading can be like for early readers, and if those reluctant readers who found his books forty or fifty years ago had then found lots more books like them, I wonder if they would've had a more natural progression into reading. These days, with so many kids' books using more visual formats (I'm looking at you, nonfiction and graphica and semigraphica), I wonder if Scarry's books are better positioned to serve as gateway books.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Head-over-heels literary love

It's been a while since I've had a strong experience of couldn't-put-it-down, wanted-to-share-it-with-everyone literary love. That just happened with David Levithan's Every Day. The premise: each day, A inhabits a different person's body. The major (though not only) conflict is that A falls in love but is not in a great position to establish a long-term relationship; I don't always find romance plots very compelling, but the circumstances of this one made it worth following. To me, though, the most interesting aspect of the novel was A's day-to-day (see what I did there?) life. A embodies the close friends and family members of countless people, and thus learns all about human nature and relationships. I could've done without the occasional preachiness, but was in constant awe of A's primary goal for the vast majority of A's life: to make things as easy as possible for the owner of each inherited body. I actually spent the first few chapters wishing this were a middle-grade novel; I'd love to see how a younger A would grow to understand that kind of existence, and I was very glad Every Day eventually addressed A's childhood pretty thoroughly. In any case, wow. This is the kind of mind-bending fantasy that's so closely tied with reality, it makes me see life differently, and looking at life through its lens was so interesting that I didn't really mind the lack of an explanation for A's situation. (Side note: did anyone else mentally assign a gender to A? I think I tend to project the author's gender onto the protagonist, especially in a first-person novel, if the gender isn't immediately apparent. Or maybe I was just influenced by the first form in which we meet A.)

Spoiler alert: Every Day will probably be my next staff rec at the store, and that's saying something, because I've had a great reading streak overall lately. A few other good reads of late:

Absolutely Normal Chaos, by Sharon Creech. The lady is good at voice. And thirteen-year-olds. And hilariously blossoming understanding of adult matters.

Scarlet, by A.C. Gaughen. I am a sucker for a good reimagining of an old story. I'm only passingly familiar with the Robin Hood tales (and by passingly, I mean my frame of reference is almost entirely Men-in-Tights-based), but all the same, I loved the new elements introduced to deepen Will Scarlet's backstory.

A Family of Poems, by Caroline Kennedy. I'd flipped through this and her newer collection, Poems to Learn by Heart, but I took a closer look while staffing a book fair last week. Kennedy's done a great job of gathering a variety of poems in a way that encourages making them a part of daily life, and there's nothing like a Jon J. Muth illustration to make an old favorite new again.

Borrowed Names, by Jeannine Atkins. Have I mentioned I love new perspectives on familiar stories? Atkins realized that Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madame C.J. Walker, and Marie Curie were all born in 1867, and drew more connections among them, which resulted in a verse novel focusing on their daughters. I have to admire the publisher that was willing to take on an idea like this, and I'm glad one did.

If you've tried to talk to me in the past few weeks and just gotten a "hmmmm?", one of these books was probably why.


The children's lit community suffered a sad loss last week. I only knew Kristin Sinclair briefly through a few classes at Simmons, but I remember her as constantly enthusiastic, equally so for books and ideas and for the people she encountered. My heart goes out to those who were close to her.