Monday, December 26, 2011

'Tis almost the other season...

...ALA Youth Media Awards season, that is! The Caldecott, Newbery, Printz, and a number of other awards will be announced on January 23. A few thoughts, Part I:

Kadir Nelson's Heart and Soul, whose images stayed with me long after I closed the book, is my pick for the Caldecott.  That's not to say that there aren't legitimate contenders among more traditional picture books (or books in the Bricks by Brian Selznick genre), but I think Heart and Soul stands out both in the achievement of the art itself and in the way the art enhances the text. Whether or not it wins the Caldecott, if it doesn't win the Coretta Scott King, I'll (make a hat out of something edible and) eat my hat.

The Newbery field is more crowded, methinks. I'm pulling for Anne Ursu's Breadcrumbs, which manages to be a great fantasy without losing any of the qualities of a great realistic novel - that is to say, it's both accessible and challenging to fans of both and makes total emotional sense. (It also does a great job of addressing things that need to be addressed more - race, divorce, depression - without being About Them. The first half of that probably shouldn't count in Newbery decisions, but the second half means it's good storytelling.)

For the Printz, if there's one novel that illuminates the young adult condition, it's Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler's The Future of Us. I don't think that's too broad a generalization - even if not all teens use Facebook, I would bet that at least most know what it's like to be concerned about one's future. The Future of Us approaches that natural concern in a thoughtful, well-plotted, often hilarious manner.

Stay tuned (or, um, stay on the Internet?) for Part II: The Awards for More Specific Stuff.

Monday, December 19, 2011

It's alive!

Death of the book, my sore feet. Death of the book, my hoarse handselling voice. Death of the book, my overflowing clipboard.

People are buying books.

They're buying them for their nieces and nephews and grandkids, their college friends' kids and their coworkers' kids, and their own kids (don't talk too loudly, he's right over there). They're asking about classics they remember from their childhoods and about what to give a kid who's read everything. (Breadcrumbs.) They know everything about the recipient and can describe exactly what they want (sometimes to the point that what they want doesn't exist); they've never met the kid. They want large, fancy gift editions; they want books that are easy to mail. Some have ten minutes' worth of questions before they even bring up the second sibling; some say "perfect!" to the first thing they hear described as "about right for an eight-year-old."

Luckily, most of these giving folks have enough residual goodwill to understand a chipper "I'll be right with you," and even more luckily, fellow booksellers jump in when necessary. It helps that it's the kind of store where we bring in food for each other all month, search for the perfect gift for our "secret gnomes," and even get store-sponsored massages.

The store is not a calm place right now, but by and large, I think it's a happy place. Which may be a symptom of a happier-than-we-thought industry.

Happy holidays!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

French the llama! something John Green says when he's excited. I suspect that he is these days, what with The Fault in Our Stars topping the bestseller list before its release, largely if not completely due to an army of Nerdfighters' excitement about his promise to sign all the preordered copies. (If I ever get carpal tunnel syndrome, I want it to be for a reason like that.)

And French the llama, I'm excited about this. A few friends and I are planning to fangirl geek out attend, and I'm equally excited to hear both the hosts of my favorite place on YouTube. If Hank sings, it will pwn n00bs.

There's lightness and levity surrounding the release of The Fault in Our Stars, which might seem incongruous for a book about teens with cancer. But John and Hank are good at combining the silly and the serious. For all its references to puppy-sized elephants, Your Pants, and even Humpy Hank, their vlog's major goal is to "decrease world suck." They bring attention to things in the world that ought to change, from local attitudes (if there's such a thing as local on the Internet) to global crises, and they get teens mobilized within a community that accepts them, which isn't always a given for Nerdfighters.

It's a good time to be nerdy.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The reinvention of Hugo Cabret

"So what's this Hugo movie about?"
"Oh, the book is really cool! Parts of it are told in images instead of text, so reading it is kind of like watching a movie."
"Oh. Huh. But what's it about?"

The Invention of Hugo Cabret tells a good story, but when I talk about it, I usually focus on the aspect that made it so fresh when it came out: its form. Reading it really does feel like watching a movie, but it also feels like you're a real reader who can get through a a gigantic book (which does have sizable passages of text), and more than one customer has praised it to me as the book that infused his or her child with reading confidence. What happened to Hugo, though interesting, seemed less important than all that. (I'll admit that although I think Selznick is immensely creative, I can find his prose to be a little stilted and distancing, particularly in Hugo, which is probably part of why I didn't embrace the plot or characters on my first encounter.)

My first response to the announcement of Scorsese's production was, "But it already works like cinema. How are they going to turn it into a plain-old movie?" The answer, I found out yesterday, is that the story is awesome enough to stand on its own. With the elimination of the need for narration, all the words in the movie are dialogue of the sort that reveals, and usually endears, the characters, and everything else is left to the visual. And it turns out that a story largely about movies--silent movies, at that--is better the more visual it gets. Scenes depicting once-wondrous, now-cheesy pre-World War I films are, in my generation's parlance, uh-mazing in a way the book couldn't be expected to show.

Go see Hugo, guys. And then, come home and read Wonderstruck.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Conquerors of NaNo, explain yourselves! (Please.)

First of all, congratulations to all of you who completed NaNoWriMo!

NaNo, for the uninitiated, is a challenge to write a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. It's a really cool idea, and obviously, it assumes that most writers will leave revisions for December and beyond and just focus on getting words onto the page. That, I understand.

What's harder for me to wrap my mind around is where planning fits in. Even if I go into a project with a good idea of what's going to happen, I find that the first few chapters are the slowest going. At that point (and I've heard other writers say this as well) every line involves decisions that will affect the rest of the novel - what kind of character is the person who's about to say something, even a basic something? How does the narrator feel about every person and concept that comes to his or her attention? Once I get past these questions, I can produce volume faster, but in order to do NaNo, I think I'd need to spend October producing thirty pages and an outline.

So, NaNo champions, I'm curious - how do you do it? Do you do lots of planning before the month begins? Do you jump in and make notes as you go if you change your mind about major plot elements or character traits? Do you make a rule that doubts have to shut up until December?

I'm impressed, guys. And very curious.

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.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Are Harris Burdick's chronicles too mysterious?

It's a new book by fourteen "alleged authors" of tales behind drawings in a style very similar to Chris Van Allsburg's, originally published as a picture book in 1984, but apparently created and captioned by a mysterious artist named Harris Burdick decades earlier. Handsell that.

The Brattle Theatre was full a few nights ago with people eager to hear from a distinguished panel about The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. It was an audience made up almost entirely of adults (one teenaged audience member faux-huffed when that was pointed out), and my sense is that many of us were, in one way or another, "children's lit people." This thing could be meta-children's-lit enough to implode on itself.

But I suspect it isn't.

Look at it this way: it's fourteen authors who are all different kinds of awesome, each responding to a writing prompt in the form of a picture and a caption. It's like a game, and I hope teachers will let their students try their hand at it before sharing the collection. The backstory will likely be fun for some kids; I would've loved it. But for those not drawn in by it, I think the collection will stand on its own.

In any case, if you ever have the chance to hear Chris Van Allsburg talk about physical books or Lois Lowry about Elsie Dinsmore, take it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hear, hear!

A number of people I respect have issued a proclamation. It's a good one.

I don't think the current picture book market is drowning in drek, not at all. The early days of picture books had Margaret Wise Brown, but they didn't have Mo Willems. Innovative work is still being produced; some of it feels like it could only have been created by its particular artist, and some of it makes me wonder, "Why didn't anyone think of this before?"

What I'd like to tell some authors and illustrators, though, is that it's not enough to know and to show us that children are charming. We know children are charming, and children know it, too; childhood is where they spend all of their time. For a book to be worth a child's time, it needs to do something of its own, or do something in a new way. That might mean introducing a character who's interesting for a reason beyond being young and cute, or it might mean approaching a concept like the alphabet in a way children haven't seen before, or...

well, you're the innovators. Show us something.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

"I don't grunt, I don't oink, I don't even squeak or squawk."

There are many ways to do animal voice wrong. Most of these ways involve overthinking it, twisting your mind too hard around what animals would know: "The human jangled the small pieces of door-opening metal. Maybe I would get to take a ride in the big moving thing!"

There are many ways to do animal voice right. Most of these ways involve creating a set of rules for what these animals understand and owning those rules, whatever they are. Elephant and Piggie are almost indistinguishable from humans. Wilbur, Charlotte, and their friends have distinctive but mostly human-like voices. Despereaux tells Princess Pea that he honors her, and Princess Pea understands.

But the best animal voice I've read recently came from an unlikely source: a YA dystopia. In Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy (thanks for the rec, everyone!), thoughts are audible, so it follows naturally that we hear from animals as well as from humans. The animals are kept animalistic, and their self-expression is kept simple and thus believable. "Hungry, Todd." "Thirsty, Todd." "Boy colt?" Their words, and especially their identifications of the people closest to them, combine with their actions to tell us plenty about them. We learn enough to care about them as what they are - animals whose emotions are basic but include loyalty and love.

"Lap, Shosh," a certain cat seems to be saying. Signing off.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

How to infringe on Mo Willems' copyright* and other lessons from the Boston Book Festival

*reference to copyright infringement copyright Mo Willems

-The man who brought us the Pigeon, Cat the Cat, Knuffle Bunny, Elephant, and Piggie is at least as hilarious in person.

-You can draw the Pigeon even if you can't draw. Mo will even teach you how, copyright be darned.

-Differences between a child's Pigeon and Mo's Pigeon constitute the child's drawing style and are to be encouraged, even by a Caldecott honoree.

-It is possible for the Boston Book Festival and good weather to coincide.

-When such a weather phenomenon coincides with a grilled cheese truck phenomenon, the BPL cafe becomes a much quicker place to get lunch.

-Authors of novels that aren't really "humor books" can create a substantive, informative panel on "Funny Kids' Fiction."

-Authors who grew up on oral tradition, like Julia Alvarez, can provide great insight into what makes a "reluctant reader."

-I really need to read Meg Wolitzer's The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman.

-Chris Raschka is an excellent deadpanner.

-Linda Urban is excellent at taking kids seriously, as when an eight-year-old audience member requests advice on overcoming writer's block.

And finally, one lesson that was purely review:
-There are so many books. There is so little time.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The structure of adventure

In a New York Times article published yesterday, Maria Tatar suggests that the often frightening fantasies of today give kids and young adults less space to play in wonderlands than did their counterparts in earlier decades and centuries. I agree with some of the points she makes, though I'm not sure that scary books necessarily give readers more of "a dose of adult reality" than cheerful books do. Yes, scenes of violence and political unrest may reflect realities or project possibilities, but so do scenes of love and triumph, regardless of one's age. I don't think the question is one of adult reality, but rather one of story structure and how it's changing. A home-away-home pattern was once pretty standard for kids' books, particularly those for middle-graders and younger. That pattern hasn't disappeared, but my sense (anecdotally) is that it's appearing in fewer stories now.

(A few non-shocking spoilers below.)
It went without saying in the 1860s that Alice would make it back up the rabbit hole. Small, happy-ending changes were standard, but they might be as slight as a bell under a Christmas tree and a happy memory of a Polar Express train. But things change irrevocably for Harry Potter and for a lot of his young descendants (I speak not of the painfully named Albus Severus). It's especially true in YA, but the middle-grade world is hardly immune.

I'm not calling the change a good or a bad thing. Characters should change and grow. In many cases lately, particularly in dystopian fiction, their worlds change and grow with them, which is awesomely empowering for the characters and thus for the readers. But I think there's value in both types of structures. There's great comfort in a home-away-home story, and I hope that comfort, like Max's supper, is still hot.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What Sendak sends us

Maurice Sendak seems to be everywhere these days. With the publication of Bumble-Ardy, the first picture book he's written and illustrated since 1981, comes a plethora of articles and interviews, and every time I read one, I learn something new. There's a lot to the guy.

It's good fun to read some of his saltier comments (he mentions his mother with that mouth?). He's always insisted that the young aren't necessarily innocent, and he's proof that neither are the old. The details of his life give him good reason to make a few negative comments on the world, and that he does so with humor and hope is to his credit.

But what I especially come away with is that Sendak, this person who would like to die dancing, has a rich lifetime's worth of wisdom, and he's chosen to apply that wisdom to creating books for children.  Before places like Simmons granted the field academic legitimacy, before series like Harry Potter made it commercially attractive, Sendak decided to use his artistic skill and everything else he had to tell children honest stories they could appreciate on whatever levels felt right to them. He's still doing exactly that, and his work is probably a big part of the reason that other people are, too.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Horn Book at Simmons: It's not just on M&Ms

Horn Book at Simmons M&Ms are a real thing. So are Simmons College glasses-cleaning cloths and tote bags reading "Crit Happens." For some kids, so is Stuart Little.

"Engaging Worlds, Real and Imagined" was the theme of this year's Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium, which followed the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards for the second year in a row. Both events, and the kidlit meetup that took over the Coolidge Corner Panera yesterday, created a world for people who deal with children's lit in all sorts of real ways to engage with the field.

We looked at ways real people have looked at imagined worlds; Richard Peck reminded us of the library world's objections to a human giving birth to a mouse. The same sorts of oppositions have plagued nonfiction; Steve Sheinkin gave all kinds of examples of how truth can be more fun than fiction if no one tries to sanitize it. A panel of publishers imagined how people might find their way into the worlds of stories in the near and distant future.

Reassuringly, it seems stories will still get to be stories. And there are still plenty of us in favor of obsessing about them. Good, honest, speculative discussions are a real thing, too.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Night Kitchen in the light of day: Happy Banned Books Week

A child in the target age group for most picture books puts beloved Where the Wild Things Are back on the library shelf and picks the book next to it: In the Night Kitchen. I read it to her and she's not especially into it, which is her prerogative, but she enjoys Mickey's similarity to Max. At one point in the reading, she giggles a little. "He's dirty," she says. On the page in question, Mickey is covered in cake batter.

The full-frontal male nudity gets no reaction.

There's plenty to say about censorship of young people's reading material, and it's a discussion worth having. But often, I think the debate can be more about adult politics than about the children and teens both sides are trying or ostensibly trying to defend. The human body is old news to kids who've had help getting dressed, and I suspect that many of the other issues that come up in censorship debates are fairly dull to kids (though in some cases, that may be less true as they get older). Arguments often arise over one potentially objectionable scene, one image, even one word. It takes more ink than that to make a story, and it takes a good story to hold a reader's interest. "Once upon a time there was a scandal" may not cut it.

Happy Banned Books Week. Go read what you feel like reading.

ETA: But first, learn to protect yourself! Thanks to Fuse #8 for the link.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

This just in: Parents don't (and shouldn't) know everything

Republic High School, which made news earlier this year over challenges to Slaughterhouse-Five and Twenty Boy Summer, has reached a compromise: a restricted section of the library accessible only to parents. In effect, students can read these books if their parents say it's okay (and are willing and able to make the trip to the library).

I've heard many basically anti-censorship people argue that decisions over what young people may read should be between them and their parents (rather than involving school administration or other institutions). In an ideal world, this makes some sense. Many parents do know what their kids can handle, what they've already been exposed to, and what they need to know. Awareness of what their kids are reading can give parents a chance to mediate, to explain or discuss concepts that may be difficult for their children, and to make it known that they're available to answer questions.

We don't live in an ideal world, though, and not all parents know best about all subjects. Not all parents want their kids reading about, say, people who live differently in one way or another, and that doesn't mean the kids shouldn't. And even when parents are fairly open-minded, there are plenty of books that kids and teens might not feel comfortable asking for.



I'm feeling

(idly curious about)
(compassionate toward people experiencing)
(morbidly fascinated by)
(ashamed of how little I know about)
(personally invested in)

matters of

(rock and roll)
(mental illness)
(cultures different from ours)
(values different from yours).

May I read

(a book that I know exists even though I'm not allowed in the section that contains it?)
(a book you will select for me in your infinite wisdom?)

Pretty please?"

Reading is supposed to be a really easy way to rebel a little and learn a lot. Adults, let's keep looking the other way.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

No mistakes in it yet: The prevision of an empty novel

“Isn't it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?” -Anne of Green Gables

I'm in the early stages of a new novel. The very early stages. That means that although I have four pages of notes (single-spaced, thank you very much), I haven't yet written a word that will be part of the manuscript itself.

The first few days of this were on the scary side. I had a setting idea, a few character ideas, and even a subplot or two, but, um, no main plot. But now that I think I know what big, bad thing is going to happen and part of why it's going to matter, I get to work on details of this (realistic) world. I get to plan, and I get to consider, and I get to try to do right what I've thought some writing (my own and others') has done wrong. I haven't yet gotten mired in or attached to ideas that will end up needing changing, and for now, it's all about possibilities.

Don't worry, I'll get past this. Next stop: Draftland. Stop after that: Revisionville.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

People. It's 2011.

When co-authors Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith submitted their post-apocalyptic YA novel to an agent, they were offered representation... on the condition that they make a gay character straight. They refused. And then they told the Internet.

First of all, don't agents realize that controversy equals attention equals sales?

That aside, though, ew.  As I've said before, the industry is rapidly getting much, much better about representing characters who aren't all the same and don't all want to be with the same people. But just as books like The Snowy Day helped normalize kids of color by featuring one without focusing on his race, a book like the one Brown and Sherwood submitted would be good for readers of all orientations. If there's one way to show that gay kids are normal, it's to let them be part of the apocalypse just like everyone else.

There are great (and not-so-great) works of "LGBT fiction" out there, and that's awesome. But the mainstream needs to work on letting everybody in. YA needs more non-straight and not-sure-they're-straight teens slaying dragons and worrying about their SATs. More kids in middle grade need to get grounded by their two moms, and yes, even kids in picture books need their wild flights of fancy to end in the comforting arms of both their dads. Whether you're gay or straight, life is not all about sex, folks. It's not even all about dating. Life is about all the things it's about, and that's true no matter whom you love, where you're from, what you look like, whom you worship, what your abilities are, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

I hope Brown and Sherwood's novel gets picked up by a smarter agent and published. I hope the flap copy and the reviews mention the same-sex relationship if it's important to the story, and don't if it's not. I hope this industry, which has so much influence on the images humans see at the beginning of their lives, starts sending the message that people are people are people. It's 2011.

Edited to add: Hmmm. An agent has responded to the original post, stating that she believes the post is about her and that her editorial comments were significantly misinterpreted or misrepresented. It's hard to know for sure what happened here, so I won't make any accusations against either side. But whatever happened in this particular case, we as an industry do need to get better about letting young readers of all backgrounds, orientations, etc. see themselves and the people around them represented in normalizing contexts.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

"There are no bad guys in Brookline."

"Let's put this here so people won't have to use their keys," said the almost-six-year-old in my care, trying to prop the door to her apartment building.
"That's a nice idea," I told her, "but we need to lock it for safety."
"From bad guys?"
"Kind of, yeah. It would probably be okay, but we have to be careful just in case, so only people who are supposed to come in will come in."
"But there are no bad guys in Brookline."

To some kids, though certainly not all, bad guys are the stuff of story. In that conversation, I'm not sure whether "Brookline" really meant "Brookline," which is considered a relatively safe area, or whether it meant "real life." Many kids are accustomed to monsters threatening to eat good characters all up, but it's okay, because monsters aren't real.

So how do we--individual adults, and media like kids' books--handle things like 9/11? Do we focus on the victims and hope kids don't wonder too hard about the perpetrators? Do we discuss motive and explain the difference between violent extremism and normal disagreement? Or do we start with the idea that the particular people involved were "bad guys," and that yes, sometimes bad guys are real?

The answers should vary, of course, by child, age, and situation, and I doubt that easy or definite answers exist at all. For now, I'll just feel grateful that today, we have the luxury of taking the time to think about it.

Wishing you peace.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Putting the gal in Dorothy Gale, or taking it out

Quick: Is The (Wonderful) Wizard of Oz a "boy book" or a "girl book?"

The holiday season is close enough that the store is making floor plans, and visions of gift-buyers dance in my head. Well-meaning friends and relatives approach this process with a variety of ideas about a) kids and b) books, but as I've lamented mentioned before, one very common notion is that some books are for boys and some are for girls. Factors involved in the distinction involve everything from cover color to princess presence to weapon count, but the most common one seems to be the gender of the most visible character(s). Case in point: The Seven Chinese Sisters seems to be girls-only no matter how much dragon butt gets kicked.

Dorothy is a girl. She's played in the movie by Judy Garland in a pinafore. But she's not in the title. The titular Wizard is male, and so are quite a few major characters, and there's a whole hero(ine)'s journey full of adventure. L. Frank Baum himself says in his 1900 introduction, "...The story of 'The Wizard of Oz' was written solely to please children of today." (The "solely" refers to the lack of intended moralizing.) Does this mean someone wrote a popular children's book 111 years ago with the expectation that children as a whole would enjoy the same type of story?

I think this will be a frequent handsell this year. If you spot me tallying how many are going to boys and how many to girls, pay no attention to the lady behind the curtain.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The boom has lowered.

Remember when YA was it? When the word "buzz" pretty much only applied to YA, and usually to YA fantasy? When that seemed to be all that editors and therefore agents were interested in?

YA is doing fine. It has cross-overs. It has controversy. I love it dearly, and I weep for it not.

But I love middle-grade even more dearly, and I'm really excited about what seems to be a major middle-grade boom.

What I think makes this boom so huge is variety. There are two major trends, and those trends are pretty different from each other. Trend one: adventure, often but not always set in fantasy. Trend two: semi-graphica, often but not always humorous. Lots and lots of kids like both, but it's possible to completely spurn one and still have plenty of new reading material. And though the Big Daddies of both types of books have male main characters (I speak here of Greg Heffley and Percy Jackson - Harry Potter, at this point, is the Bad Granddad of the latter), these genres have their share of female characters, and they definitely have readers across the gender spectrum. I just had an affecting conversation in Spanglish in which I disappointed a tween girl with the news that The Lost Hero wouldn't be in paperback before her return to Spain.

Those aren't the only flavors of MG flying off the shelves, either. Don't forget the traditionally realistic Penderwicks or the sporty success stories by Tim Green or Mike Lupica.

It's a good time to be a middle-grade( write)r.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The English language, 1993: A snapshot

Someone gave me a gift certificate to a bookstore when I was nine or ten, and what I wanted was a dictionary of my own. Maybe my teachers had impressed dictionaries' importance upon me; maybe I wanted to be able to look up words without walking across the house and waking my parents. Whatever the details, I remember feeling like if I had a dictionary right in my own room, the possibilities would be endless. I also remember thinking it was cool that my dictionary had words in it that hadn't existed when my parents' impressive-looking one was published.

Well, my 1993 acquisition has followed me from home to home, but I'll admit it: if I'm already at the computer, I usually look up the word online. Last night, though, I needed a word after I'd turned my laptop off (no, this was not during our Irene blackout, though that might've made a better story). Before I opened the dictionary, I glanced at the back.

"New entries such as AIDS, African American, fax, fungible, gridlock, and many more," it said.

Love it.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Reading out the storm

My best memory of reading during noteworthy weather involves a thunderstorm, a candlelit kitchen table, Harry Potter, and a goblet of fire. Hogwarts was so removed from flash-flooded Albany that reading about it in an atypical setting (with fire in it! like the goblet!) really did make me feel transported. For the duration of the book, getting the electricity back didn't seem to matter.

I just read Trapped, by Michael Northrop. It's an interesting elevator-play sort of scenario, and I was glad to read it, but my timing probably could have been better. Reading a story about people stranded in an epic snowstorm, especially a story that immediately announced it would not end well, made me feel a bit skittish. For one thing, I was honestly a little worried that I would get the teens' snow survival strategies confused with tips I've read on preparing for Irene.

Reading, for me, is not usually about escapism; many of my favorites are realistic stories that could happen to me or to someone I know. But when there's something to escape, particularly something that may keep me in one place for a while, then give me a story that takes place, in some sense, far away.

Eager as I am to read The Other Side of Dark, which is next in the pile, I think a creepy tale set here in Brookline is better suited for later in the week. The Notorious Benedict Arnold it is!

Hope this weekend finds you safely curled up with a good book.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

"It's always been this way... Back and back and back."

Step 1: Anticipation of rite of passage related to the protagonist's identity and future, in which we learn how things have been for as long as the protagonist can remember.

Step 2: Rite of passage in which something goes awry for the protagonist, suggesting that the protagonist is special, perhaps suspiciously special.

Step 3: Shock among all those who witness the rite of passage, because such an aberration has never happened before, or at least not for a long, long time...

There's a definite pattern to the dystopian novels I've read lately (with some variations, of course; The Hunger Games, for one, has some similarities but doesn't quite fit the formula. But then, Panem is a little different because it never claims to be Utopian). I think the general formula is an effective one, one that quickly shows us a society's conventions and how ingrained they are and gives the protagonist a good reason to start questioning them.

But I'm pretty sure this particular incarnation of the Hero's Journey (Call to Adventure, anyone?) has only been popular in recent years; The Giver is the earliest example that comes to mind. (Feel free to show me up with Biblical, Shakespearean, or otherwise older examples.) There are plenty of earlier dystopias, of course, but we don't observe Winston Smith or Guy Montag in identity-forming rituals gone wrong. The above isn't so much a formula for dystopian fiction as one for dystopian YA fiction, because like much of YA, Matched Delirium Divergent Enclave is about figuring out who you are and how you differ from those who've taught you and protected you.

Only when you figure that out can you set out for the Wilds, for Topside, for Elsewhere.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

New Voices. (Okay, some familiar voices.)

Mentorship presentations are among the highlights of a children's lit student's year at Simmons. Students present the novels, picture books, and other projects that have consumed them for months. For audience members, it's a time to learn more about classmates and get some ideas and (honestly, if cornily) inspiration. For presenters, it's a chance to share work with an audience that cares, an audience that remembers the projects and brings them up in conversation long after the semester ends.

Kind of like the Brookline Public Library's new series, "New Voices in Y.A. and Children's Literature."
I attended the second installment last night, and got to hear everything from the quasi-post-apocalyptic to the humorously fairy tale-centric to the locally historical with a creepy twist. A panel discussion got the writers talking about why they write what they write and for whom (and, in many cases, how much coffee is involved). As an audience member, I once again came away with inspiration.

The series will continue in October; more details to come. In the meantime, I'll be working on that speaking-slowly thing.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

It's a (different) Book

Remember last year's It's a Book? The ever-clever Lane Smith's send-up of our obsession with technology features a frustrated monkey trying to make a donkey understand that no, you don't need a password, and no, you don't need to scroll down, because it's a book, jackass. It's more overt in its back-to-basics message than, say, Press Here, and it's funny. Every adult I've talked to thinks so. I've never actually seen a child's response to it, and indeed, our store displayed it much more prominently in adult-land than in the kids' section. I don't think that's just because of the "jackass" punchline, either. Two- and three-year-olds today have varying awareness of computers, but the concept that passwords and scroll bars are obliterating a simpler time is a pretty adult one.

Well, this week, the board book version arrived, complete with diapered baby animals. It's a Little Book replaces the donkey's technobabble with questions like, "Is it for wearing?" and "Is it for chewing?" I doubt this one will get as much notice from adult readers, but I think it succeeds better as a children's book. It's easy to imagine toddlers answering each question with a giggling "noooooooo." In this case, they're in on the joke.

The ending? "It's a book, silly."

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Historical fiction has AOL now

The few times I've started to describe The Future of Us (on sale three months from now), I've gotten stopped in the middle. "It's about these teens in 1996--"

 "Whoa, 1996?"

"Yup! They somehow get access to their Facebook profiles and find out what their lives are like in 2011, and that affects all their decisions."

It's sci-fi with a cool, if unexplained, time paradox. It's a commentary about social networking and how we use it. It has the feel of a contemporary YA novel. But it also crosses into the same genre as, say, Fever 1793. It's historical fiction, my friends, and though adult readers may get a kick out of how recent and yet distant the year seems, the target audience was born right around then.

 I read this right after The Help, which is set in the early '60s (a time my parents couldn't believe I was learning about in history class). Though not a comedy (was the ad I half-watched this morning trying to market the film as such?), The Help does have its funny moments. “There is a skirmish in Vietnam," one character notes. “The reporter seems to think it'll be solved without much fuss." That kind of dramatic irony seems to be a trope of historical fiction, one that's fun to pick out. Knowing more than the characters--knowing more than anyone in the world of the book--is a great way to feel in on the joke.

"I don't know what Harry Potter and The Help are, but Josh gave me Tuck Everlasting for my eleventh birthday," Emma comments on the list of favorite books on her future Facebook page. Being incredulous at what a character doesn't know is one thing. It's a whole different thing to realize you remember a time when you didn't know it yourself.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The body wiggly, or why Clementine matters

It's not quite feasible to post in-depth about all the speakers and sessions at the Simmons Summer Institute (though if you'd like to hear or talk more about any of them, feel free to leave a comment). I think it's clear how much I appreciated all aspects of the conference. But I want to focus a bit more on one presentation that stood out to me (unsurprisingly, given my own reading and writing interests): Sara Pennypacker's.

Sara put a new spin on the now-familiar phrase "writing for children." That for, she pointed out, doesn't just mean that kids are the intended audience. It can also mean writing for them because they, to varying extents, can't write for themselves. I've realized in recent years that giving everyone a voice and a chance to see him- or herself reflected is one of my overriding values, and Sara echoed that value. There are lots of kids (with or without ADD or ADHD) who are more interested in what's happening in their heads than in what their teachers are saying, and I suspect it's helpful to see a character - a widely beloved character, at that - who has the same problem but is not dumb, lazy, or bad. Sara also pointed out a reason she thinks so many people compare Clementine to Ramona: both exist in "functional" families and school systems. Kids in other situations need their stories told, of course, but so do kids with lives like Clementine's and Ramona's. Sometimes they have not so good of a week, and their stories are worth telling.

It's considered a truism in this field that girls will read about boys, but boys won't read about girls, so I had to ask: "Was there any pressure to make Clementine a boy?" Surprisingly and cheeringly, Sara said that there wasn't. She pointed out that Clementine herself is as gender-neutral as she can be; she hates it when Margaret gets into makeup, but also finds some traditional "boy" activities too gross or messy. She's good at art, but also at math. Sara even mentioned a theory that creative people are often less gendered. I don't know whether that's true in every case (and would need really good definitions of both "creative" and "gendered" to even begin really analyzing it), but I can see why the tendency might exist. Maybe creativity allows people to consider roles for themselves beyond polarized ideas of male and female. The good news is that, at least in my experience, parents of boys are creative enough to imagine their sons enjoying Clementine.

This post came out a lot more serious-sounding than I expected, but maybe that's apt. Funny little books about wiggly little girls have serious value, after all. It's worth paying attention.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

I blog The Body Electric.

(Be glad I don't sing it. Trust me.)

The topic for this year's Children's Literature Summer Institute at Simmons was "The Body Electric," which meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To many, it was a chance to reinterpret their bodies of work, or talk about what had galvanized them. To Brian Floca it was, among other things, a chance for clever riffs: "I push the button electric!" To Jack Gantos, it was the impetus for a side-splitting stroll through an imaginary graveyard of "canon fodder." Gene Yang, Barbara O'Connor, and Sharon Draper demonstrated it literally with animated presentations; I don't envy anyone the task of presenting after lunch on day 2.5 of a conference, but they had enough energy to transmit some to us.

Before and during the conference, I thought about all kinds of things "the body electric" might mean. Toward the end, I took a fresh look at Whitman, and it's all there. I was surprised to see how closely connected his words were to Laban Carrick Hill's and Bryan Collier's presentations. But really, everything's connected. (Currents. Circuitry. Joints and sinews. Describe it as you will.) Helen Frost connected her books to each other and to her family history. Grace Lin's questions about whether "multicultural" books can be for everyone were easy to connect to Amy Pattee's images of books about overweight characters; is putting a relatively thin girl on the cover the only way to make this sort of book cool enough for everyone? Much of what Sara Pennypacker said connected with my own interests and values, enough so that I'm planning to write a separate post on her talk.

That certainly isn't all; I enjoyed and got something out of every presentation and every breakout session, as well as the conversations I had with friends old and new. M.T. Anderson spoke about how the world of stories is changing in ways that can both worry and excite us, and he's right. But as long as this community's here, I know I can find people who care about the things I care about.

I celebrate the us yet to come.

Monday, July 25, 2011

"Is this a kissing book?"

Every time I read or watch an old favorite like The Princess Bride, I notice something new, and last night's outdoor viewing was no exception. (You haven't lived until you've done a  communal recitation of the "mawwidge" monologue on the waterfront on a summer night with a bunch of good friends.) This time, TPB reminded me of bookselling.

Most of us have awwwwed over the exchanges between the recently departed Peter Falk and an adorably young Fred Savage as Grandpa tries to convince his feverish grandson to give a book about true love a chance. "Murdered by pirates is good," little Fred eventually concedes. The book sets up a similar dynamic, with a fictionalized younger version of author William Goldman demanding to know if his father's favorite book has any sports in it. "Fencing," returns his father. "Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge..."

I have variations on this conversation all the time in the bookstore. My suggestions are always books that I think the reader will enjoy; I'm not trying to make a tricky sales pitch. But readers and (more often, honestly) adult book-bestowers come with biases about what the right book is and isn't, which puts me in the position of the father and grandfather in the two Princess Brides, looking for the angle that will make a book most appealing.  I've found that Graceling is hand-sellable to boys and their gift-buyers (and even had one customer come back and say he loved it), but the more I can say about Katsa before arriving at a gender pronoun, the more likely I am to win the customer over. And Frannie K. Stein? The mother of a sci-fi-and-horror-loving second-grade boy was convinced to give the heroine a chance only when I said, "Yeah, but it's a science girl."

As you wish, readers. As you wish.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Literary Love: Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu

I am totally on this bandwagon. If buzz is any indication, lots of booksellers and librarians will be scattering Breadcrumbs this fall, and with good reason.

Breadcrumbs is the story of Hazel and Jack, two fifth graders who get pulled into the world of "The Snow Queen." It's a fantasy, but with a first act rooted in realism, which I think will make it appealing to kids who are primarily fantasy fans as well as those who'd rather read about kids like them. Jack and Hazel are kids like them, or like many kids. Their sense of not belonging and their discomfort with the changes and losses that come with growing up bring them into the fairy tale world, and it makes complete emotional sense that both of them have a hard time resisting that world's pull.

There's extra payoff for The Kid Who's Read Everything. A review of or introduction to "The Snow Queen" is certainly helpful, but there are plenty of other references to recognize (and I don't know about you, but I love recognizing references). There's a whole lot of Narnia, some Harry Potter, some Alice, a Phantom Tollbooth nod... there's even a mention that Hazel is reading about a character who's reading A Wrinkle in Time--a When You Reach Me reference sandwich, to paraphrase myself from a Facebook conversation this morning.

A story full of snow. Doesn't that sound nice?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Not-so-stinky cheese

I recently saw a film made from a children's book. There was much I liked about the film; many of the little emotional moments were played just right, and it told a story well. But - and I'm being pseudo-cryptic here so I can deny it all to any who violently disagree - some moments in this film might be described as cheesy.

It's hard to avoid being overdramatic when you're showing a moment that characters, readers, and viewers have been awaiting for a significant portion of their real or fictional lives. Think about something you've wanted for as long as you can remember, something that everyone you know wants for you. In the movie of your life, what would the background music and camera angles be for the moment you attained that something? There's probably an understated way to play that kind of moment in a visual medium, but I don't know what it is, and I'm not sure Hollywood does, either. I can forgive Hollywood for that, and even thank it for giving me a few good laughs while I enjoyed its storytelling.

Still, epilogues, like strong cheese, are best used sparingly.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

When Chicka Chicka clicked

When A turned two back in September, I thought Chicka Chicka Boom Boom would be the perfect gift. I knew from plenty of trials with Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and its sequels that she was a Bill Martin, Jr. fan; she was getting older and becoming ready for longer texts and for the alphabet; and what kid wouldn't be attracted by Lois Ehlert's simple, boldly colored shapes?

She wasn't into it. I suspect that she mostly just wasn't into anything unfamiliar; she had her favorites, and why read some strange new thing for the first or second time when you can read a beloved Maisy book for the seventy-second time? (I told you she liked bold colors.) Whatever the reason, CCBB skit-skat-skoodle-doot-flip-flopped.

Well, now A is two and three quarters. (Credit for that precision goes to her five-and-a-half-year-old sister.) This weekend, on a whim, I pulled CCBB out of the book bin. Early in the first read-through, she was answering my "chicka chickas" with "boom booms," and when we reached the end of the alphabet's ascent up the tree, she jumped in with, "Now I know my ABC; next time won't you sing with me?" On the alphabet's way down, she was fascinated with the crying k (the letter is shown with a tear dripping from its top).

In fact, when we reached as-yet-unscathed k in its first appearance on the second read-through, she stopped me. "Let me show you something," she said, and turned the pages until she found the crying k. She flipped back and forth, showing herself and me that k and crying-k were the same character (in every sense of the word).

The right book for the right child at the right time? We got there eventually.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

"Alas, Morgenstern invented it all."

My favorite adaptation isn't really an adaptation at all.

I refer, of course, to The Princess Bride. Author William Goldman claims to be abridging a classic tome by one S. Morgenstern of Florin, and through Goldman's little notes about what he's cut, what he's kept, and why, we get the feeling we're enjoying a favorite tale along with him. But florin is nothing but currency, no one named S. Morgenstern ever lived there, and without Goldman, no part of The Princess Bride would exist. It's not hard to see who gets the credit there.

In other cases, though, the point of an adaptation can be harder to find. I've heard many objections to the abridgements of classics for early readers. Personally, I don't object to their existence; if a six-year-old is interested in a sneak peek at what this Oliver Twist business is about, more power to him or her. I just hope parents and other gift-givers aren't motivated by a desire to be able to say that the child in question is reading "classics." After all, there are plenty of classics whose originals--with their original voices intact--are intended for new readers, and I'd hate for those readers to miss the real Frog and Toad or The Hundred Dresses because they were limited to a not-quite-real Secret Garden or Moby-Dick.

But there are adaptations that are works of art in themselves. Some of the graphic novel versions of existing works are somewhat perfunctory; others may be helpful in understanding those works, but are otherwise forgettable. But then there are Gareth Hinds' graphic novel adaptations. Just look at The Odyssey. I think I've made a few maybe-graphic-novels-aren't-junk converts just by holding it up.

And then there's The Flint Heart, Katherine and John Paterson's "freely abridged" adaptation of Eden Phillpott's 1910 novel. I've read only a brief excerpt of the original work, but my impression is that the Patersons did something really smart: they preserved the voice. It's not dumbed down, and the funny lines keep on coming. It's easy to preserve plot in a retelling (though many film directors could stand a lesson in that). But the new Flint Heart also holds onto other important elements that make a story worth reading. If this edition brings a near-forgotten story to more readers, I think it serves a worthwhile purpose.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

"Squee!" said the Anne-girl fangirl.

For the past decade or so, every visit to a used bookstore included a check for L.M. Montgomery's journals. Various articles had indicated that the journals would shed light on the novels I'd read so many times in adolescence, but they weren't easy to find. Until now. A co-worker let it slip at a party that she admires LMM and... has her first journal, which she has graciously loaned to me, and which I've almost finished reading. (If you know of any major revelations near the end, don't tell me!)

Reading Maud's detailed narration of her life, starting at fourteen, is like discovering a new Anne or Emily. Some passages are lifted verbatim or near-verbatim, which wasn't a huge surprise, but the general tone is even more fun to discover. Schoolroom dramas are simultaneously comedies and tragedies to her, or start as one but become the other, just as it is with her characters. It's heartening to see how well the adult LMM captured her teenaged tone.

Then there's the stuff that Anne, Emily, and her other characters never dreamed of, even if they were a little unconventional. I'd been aware that the later volumes, after her marriage, contained some thoughts darker than those expressed in her books, but in this first one, there are things LMM does, considers doing, and desires strongly to do that I doubt she could ever have mentioned in a novel intended for young ladies. The guilt she feels about it, though, is akin to what I'm sure her heroines would have felt in the same situations.

And in between, she thrills over the beauty of nature the same way Anne and Emily do--the same way that, fifteen years ago or so, inspired me to be obsessed with the sky.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Beyond Buenas noches, luna

I was approached recently by an English-speaking customer who was the mom or guardian to a little girl who knew some Spanish. The customer was eager to help the child keep her Spanish up, and asked me if I knew of any "classics that every kid should read" in the Spanish-speaking world. I had to tell her that I wasn't sure. Our store carries translated versions of some English-language picture books, and a Google search brought up some Spanish-language nursery rhymes, i.e. "Arroz con leche" ("rice with milk"). But classic bedtime stories? The question would probably have been easy for someone who grew up in a Spanish-speaking culture, but I had no idea.

What are some equivalents of Goodnight Moon, The Cat in the Hat, and Curious George in Spanish-speaking countries? I imagine it varies by country; though American kids' reading certainly has some intersection with that of British kids, Australian kids, Canadian kids, etc., I'm told that Enid Blyton, for instance, is much bigger elsewhere in the English-speaking world than she is here.

In fact, I'm curious now about what the children's classics are all over the world. Do most cultures have some kind of children's canon? Do oral stories fill this role in some countries? Is that only the case in countries where literacy rates are low and/or books are difficult to afford?

A few stories do reach us, obviously; a Hebrew-speaking customer yesterday asked the name of "the most famous Swedish children's books," and Pippi Longstocking was an easy answer from my American frame of reference. But what about the stories that never get translated or don't become mainstream in this country? What are we missing out on?

If you're familiar with children's classics from another culture, I'd love to hear about it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

"Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again." -C.S. Lewis

The last post I wrote was for Father's Day. This year, the events of Father's Day turned my family's focus to our grandfather, who passed away peacefully in his sleep.

Dr. Jay Stern (1929-2011) created hilarious fractured fairy tales for his family, as I've mentioned before. More than that, I think he shared my view (or I shared his) that life is a story worth telling. He knew the personality nuances of the characters around him, and learned what he could about those who came before him, filling something like sixteen binders with research on our family history.

He was obsessed with language, and those of you who know me can blame my love of puns on him. Though English was his first language, he knew and loved Hebrew well enough to make puns out of it on his hospital bed.

Literature has certain conventions for grandfathers and older male characters in general. My grandfather was a bit of a Dumbledore - not in the wand-waving, but in the quiet observation and planning, the scholarly ethic, the strong convictions, the winking humor.

He'll be a major character in our family stories for years and decades to come. I hope we can do him justice.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

"Some daddies teach you how to walk."

To landlord dads taking their Clementines' advice on pigeon problems and professor dads taking their Anastasias to class...

To dads who will exchange Knuffle Bunnies immediately when their Trixies don't understand what "2:30 a.m." means...

To Mitchell's car dad...

To Domingo Montoya, who created a six-fingered sword and still found time to be a loving, lifelong-vengeance-quest-worthy dad...

To dads who can always find answers to their Alices' questions, even the ones about "sexual intercourse..."

To Pas who put happy memories into a hard life on the prairie...

To Daddies with roommates and Daddies with no mates...

To dads who know kids come cheaper by the dozen but still treat them like they're worth plenty...

To Papas who'll put down the ax if their Ferns are ready to raise a pig...

To you all...

Happy Father's Day.

(Cribbed freely from here.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

In with the new, until it's out

So dystopias are the new vampires, which were the new wizards, unless the new wizards were Greek gods. (Roman and Egyptian gods are the new Greek gods.) Mermaids would be the new angels, except that they probably hope to do better than angels, which were supposed to be the new vampires. Fairies and faeries look like they might be the next mermaids, unless witches fly faster. For the picture book set, penguins were the new pirates, bunnies are back, and trucks never left. If any of the above has a head that can spin, I'm sure it's doing so.

None of these ideas are completely new, and many of the fantastical ones work best when they reimagine established folklore. That recognizability makes it easy to find a book that appeals; if you're old enough to read a vampire book, you most likely know already what a vampire is. Once you've discovered one book you like, trends also provide easy answers to the question, "What should I read next?" Since young readers tend to love familiarity, there's no reason to mess with something that works.

But what about the kids for whom the trend doesn't work? Many kids and teens do love fantasy, and yes, its ubiquity has probably created a number of fans (the degree to which entertainment creates taste, as a certain visible article suggested recently, is a subject for another post). But customers do also ask for realistic fiction. There's plenty for first chapter readers, and for older ones, there's the parallel trend of "books like Wimpy Kid," and there are--gasp--books that have been around for a few years. Beyond that, there are definitely options, just... not so many.

I just hope good realistic fiction--the funny, the serious, the sweet, the scandalous, and everything in between--isn't being passed over just because humans aren't supposed to be the new mermaids.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Kerfuffle! Kerfuffle!

Much has been said about this article, which bemoans the darkness that has taken over the YA genre. The article has some grounding in truth, but it's a bit exaggerated, both in the idea that the trend is new and in the claim that there's nothing out there for teens who would rather read something happier. I get those requests all the time around the YA shelves, along with nephew-who-just-lost-his-mom-and-could-really-use-a-good-laugh requests. I point those customers toward My Most Excellent Year. I point them toward John Green's work, with the caveat that although there's more to it than sadness, Looking for Alaska might be best saved for another day. I point them toward graphica and semi-graphica like Smile and The Accidental Genius of Weasel High.

But there's a lot to be said for escapism to the dark side. Teens know it, and adults seem to know it, too. When I see a solo adult looking a little lost in the YA section, maybe a little embarrassed to be there, I almost know before asking that he or she seeks The Hunger Games. (Twilight's been out long enough that most customers seem to know where to find it, but it too brings more than its share of adult readers our way.)

And of course, dark YA doesn't just exist for escapism. Rape and suicide and other "dark, dark stuff" does happen to teens and to people who are close to teens, and reading a story from a peer's point of view about a difficult topic is a safe way to learn about it, contemplate it, and feel less alone. (What constitutes "dark," anyway? Are sex and sexuality dark?) As the response campaign says so earnestly, YA saves.

In the past year, we've had major, somewhat manufactured controversies about picture books and YA novels. Is middle-grade next?

No one tell the press how Charlotte's Web ends.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

No piazzas were harmed in the writing of this post.

Even in the most fictional of stories, the setting is allowed to be unabashedly real. The Boston Public Garden is unlikely to sue Robert McCloskey for defamation by duckling, and Ludwig Bemelmans needn't worry that the city of Paris will object to his portrayal of its hospital ceilings as cracked. That means readers get to recognize places they know, which adds some automatic interest to stories. Try reading Make Way for Ducklings to a classroom full of young Bostonians some time.

My parents came to visit today, fresh from their long-anticipated vacation in Italy. They saw places they'd heard about and read about, and the two young Olivia Goes to Venice fans in my care will soon be receiving postcards of locations shown in the book, lovingly chosen by my mother, who read everything from Strega Nona to Angels and Demons in preparation for the trip. I expect that there will be cross-referencing of postcards to illustrations.

I've mentioned before that I'm more of a character reader than a setting reader. It was, therefore, fun for me to receive a book featuring very familiar characters.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Indies' times of sharing...

It's not surprising that a study found Cambridge, MA to be the most "well-read" city (in America, I'm assuming, since all the cities on the list are American). Cambridge has Harvard. It has MIT. It has a lot of people who just really love books. But think about who conducted this study and what data it used. Here, "well-read" means "in possession of, or having given gifts of, reading materials purchased on Amazon."

Here's the thing: Cambridge has no shortage of independent bookstores, and it also has plenty of libraries. I don't have the sales or circulation figures for these institutions, but I know they're still there and still vibrant places. That's not to say that all the new technology in the industry isn't taking a bite, and some stores and libraries certainly have felt it. (Even in Cambridge.) But I think we can coexist.

Lots of customers will come to our Brookline store before looking online. Some of them need the book right away, some want to support us, and some just love browsing. If we don't have what they need, we encourage them to order it through us. But if they choose not to, we've just lost a sale, not a customer. It's on that assumption that I'll continue to give book advice even when it's become clear that the book will probably be purchased elsewhere.

Most customers are going to make plenty of book purchases in their lives. As in any industry, it's easy to look at the competition with an "us versus them" mentality, but to customers, every purchase comes with a set of options. There are lots of places to obtain books, and that's because books are worth obtaining.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Of Arnold* and Audio

*Lobel, that is.

There's a lot of debate about whether listening to an audiobook "counts" as reading. Audiobooks tell stories, sure, but how is listening to an audiobook different from the passive act of watching TV? Maybe it'll introduce you to an author, but who's to say you'll ever pick up a "real" book by that author if the audiobooks are available?

I've seen S, age 5 and a pre-reader, follow along in a physical Frog and Toad book while she listened to the audio, and I have no doubt that's helping her learn to recognize words. In fact, I suspect that with her love of stories and her long attention span, she's going to be a super-reader. But it was A, age 2 and a half, who solidified my belief that listening to an audiobook is real reading, and not just because we want to say so. When A listens to Mouse Tales, she laughs in the right places. She gets scared in the right places. After seven stories, she wants to listen again.

All this happens without any visual elements. To me, that means she's practicing the skill of imagining and comprehending characters, actions, setting, and/or whatever else makes the story meaningful to her... based on nothing but words. Really, the only part of reading she's not doing is decoding.

And if you think reading is just about sounding out words, you're missing out.

Monday, May 23, 2011

I've eaten many strange and scrumptious dishes in my time... jellied gnats and dandyprats and earwigs cooked in slime..."

James and the Giant Peach, which turns fifty this year, is my personal favorite among Roald Dahl's books. I love the humor and the so-vivid-you-want-to-argue-with-them characters, of course. I love the scrumdiddlyumptious idea of an aircraft-sized peach, the perfect chaser to all of Charlie's chocolate. I love the poems, most of which can, somewhat aptly, be sung to the tune of the Gilligan's Island theme. (You're welcome.)

But I think what really appealed to me when I first encountered the book was that it seemed to be saying, "Why not?" Why not crawl inside the pit of a gargantuan piece of fruit and make friends with the overgrown creepy-crawlies within? Why shouldn't that same peach become a means of escape from your (hilariously) horrible aunts, and then a means of sustenance when that escape goes a bit awry? Why shouldn't a home and friends await every child?

And why shouldn't real kids get in on the fun?

"Now comes," the Centipede declared, "the burden of my speech:" Happy birthday, James Henry Trotter!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Indies' troubled times...

One thing I love about this industry is that people tend to care about all aspects of it, not just the ones in which they work directly. Case in point: Kelly Sonnack, an agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency, has started a campaign to bring customers into local bookstores. Here's what she says:

I’ve gotten sick of reading the bookstore obituaries in the publishing news, so I’m starting a viral campaign to get people, on 1 day, to go buy books from their local bookstore. Might not end up changing the tides, but it’s something small I can do to make a difference and I’m getting a great response so far – people are excited to be a part of this. Here are the details for you to pass on to your friends/family/fellow booklovers:

Who: You and all the book-lovers in your life
When: June 25th, the first Saturday of Summer!
Where: Your local bookstore (and if you don’t have one near you, Powell’s ships
[and, as my colleague Paul points out in our newsletter, so does Brookline Booksmith])
Why: Because bookstores are dropping like flies and we want them to stay alive

Thanks for passing this along to whomever you think would want to get on board. And blog about it, tweet about it (#SaveBookstores), FB about it, too.

Me again. You know you need a beach read this summer, or have friends with summer birthdays, or can come up with some excuse for obtaining a book. If June 25th doesn't work for you, try us the next day or the next; thanks largely to support like this, we'll still be there.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Thoughts from the NESCBWI conference, or what I might've been tweeting if I tweeted

-Gee, I know more and more people at these things every year.
-Keynote speakers are funny people.
-Keynote speakers named Tomie dePaola are particularly funny people.
-I'm glad I got my first few chapters critiqued. It gave me a lot to think about, and I felt my work was read seriously.
-John Bell makes plotting look easy.
-Having two lunch shifts feels like a plot point in a YA novel, but it's a very wise way of feeding 590 people.
-Jane Yolen practically needs two shifts to sign books.
-I am in awe of people who manage to tweet regularly amid the hyperstimulation of the conference.
-Does Nancy Garden ever stop smiling?
-I need to see my writing friends more often.
-Donna Gephart knows how to rock a pair of giant red sunglasses. She's not bad at humor-writing tips, either.
-Thank you, comfortable sandals!
-Year Four is less overwhelming than, say, Year One, but it's still pretty darn tiring.

Friday, May 13, 2011

We're continuing to go a long way, baby.

I walked into the Cambridge edition of Diversity in YA feeling that there was a lot to celebrate about the state of YA fiction, and I left feeling the same way. The tour is more about, as moderator Roger Sutton put it, foregrounding what's present than about lamenting what isn't there. One issue that came up, though, is one that's been a source of controversy for a while: the question of whether most young white readers will pick up a book with a non-white character on the cover.

I think one reason many haven't is that they've learned such books are likely to be about race, which means they're likely to be serious realistic or historical fiction stories. Whoever you are, sometimes you're in the mood for that, and sometimes you're not. Luckily, and largely thanks to the work of authors like those on the panel, what's available is changing, and readers are learning that a book with an Asian girl on the cover just might be a queer take on the hero's quest or something.

But even if teens are starting to get that message, what about the adults--parents, teachers, librarians, booksellers, assorted gift buyers--helping books get into their hands? In my experience, many (if not most) adult customers assume young readers won't want a book if the main character is of a different gender. I wonder how many think the same way, consciously or unconsciously, about race and other categories. And yes, I do think the adult factor plays a part even in YA. Teens often do select their own books, but just as often, there's an adult either buying the book as a gift or steering the teen toward a choice (at least in my particular bookstore; maybe that's less true in libraries). More than that, adults are very involved in book choice in the years leading up to YA, and I'm sure that helps shape teens' reading habits.

Still, last night's gaggle of awesome provided evidence that diversity is a) out there in YA and b) cool. Huzzah!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Celebrating Milestones in Diversity, or We've Come a Long Way, Baby

The next few days will be on the happily crazy side, children's lit-wise. Tomorrow night, I'm attending the Cambridge installment of the Diversity in YA tour, and this weekend, I'll be at Celebrating Milestones, SCBWI New England's 25th annual conference. I'm sure I'll have a lot more to say after the events, but this seems like a good time to look around at some good changes that have happened recently on bookstore shelves.

I'm not saying we've run out of room for improvement, but ethnic diversity among characters for young people is steadily increasing. Better yet, the books aren't always about race or ethnicity; there's certainly a place for discussion of people's heritage, but characters like Gonzo in Going Bovine and Hassan in An Abundance of Katherines are memorable for other reasons, which helps send the message that their ethnicities are something "normal" about them. (I'd love to see this happen more among main characters, but there certainly are examples, like the work of many of the authors speaking tomorrow night.)

I made a reference list this week of books that portray characters with disabilities, and it was longer and more varied than I expected. From light-ish realistic novels dealing with MS (Sean Griswold's Head) to fantasies with physically disabled characters (Eon and Eona), YA is doing well at making disability part of the landscape. So is middle grade, but that's another post.

A customer came in recently and asked if we had any YA fiction with transgendered characters. I was able to hand her Almost Perfect and I Am J, and tell her to keep an eye out for the Stonewall Award, an ALA award honoring books for young people with LGBT characters. All of that is new within the past year or so, and our list of LGBT-related books has burgeoned in that time.

I'd say we've hit a milestone worth celebrating.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Have you called your mother yet?

To the Marmees who are with their children every step of their way to becoming themselves...

To the artist moms encouraging their Anastasias and their Clementines to get paint everywhere...

To the Marillas who didn't think they wanted motherhood and the Mrs. Weasleys who always have room for more of it...

To Max's mother, who leaves a hot supper out despite mischief of one kind and another...

To both of Heather's mommies...

To the dads who are moms too (whatever that means) for their Opals, their Scouts, their Mary Annes...

To the nebulous mother of a flock of nursery rhymes...

To the moms like Precious who find room to care about their children despite unfathomable struggles...

To Miss Clavell, who always knows when something is not right...

To all of you...

Happy Mother's Day.

Friday, May 6, 2011

More More More for the Baby

The latest Horn Book Magazine asks a question that we children's booksellers get all the time: "What Makes a Good Baby Shower Book?" The article makes great suggestions, some of which I'd already been handselling to baby shower guests (Sandra Boynton owes my younger sister a thank-you for loving Moo, Baa, La La La as a newborn and inspiring me to recommend it constantly), and some of which I'm happy to add to my baby shower repertoire (Mother Goose, I'll be more diligent now in pointing customers to your collections in the poetry section).

A beginning-of-life gift requires a delicate balance. For an occasion this important, you want something monumental, but not so monumental that everyone else will have the same idea. I rarely point out Goodnight Moon or The Very Hungry Caterpillar unless asked, though I have plenty to say in praise of each; both were among our top 25 kids' sellers of 2010, so I have little fear that the guestlets of honor at any of these showers will be deprived of them. Instead, I shoot for books that are slightly less prominent but not necessarily deservedly so.

Example? "More More More," Said the Baby, by Vera B. Williams. It's a Caldecott honor book, but old enough to have fallen off the radar a bit. Its illustrations are beautiful, and the people in them are of more than one race without making the book about race. The book provides plenty of opportunity for parent-child silliness, and as the child gets older, I suspect readings will get more and more interactive. But basically, "More More More" is about families full of love.

And what's more monumental than that?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Snooki Cheese Man

It's Children's Book Week, which always feels a little redundant (though I suppose zombies feel the same way about Zombie Awareness Month). Still, I'm so glad that kids, teens, and adults still consider children's books something to celebrate. I'm so glad kids' preferences have an impact on what gets published. And I'm so glad that even though this industry does such important work, it doesn't take itself too seriously:

I have a guest post up today on author Anna Staniszewski's blog. (It's about a few different types of humor, none of which comes close to Jon Scieszka in drag.) Come visit!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The human side of scary

Holocaust Remembrance Day is this Sunday. The display of books on the subject that a couple of us created at work stands in stark contrast with the pastels of the spring and Mother's Day books on our seasonal display wall, and obviously, it's not a "fun" holiday. But I remember that when I was in elementary school, Holocaust books were something I wanted to read, and the same seems to be true for other quiet kids. By and large, these are not the kids who enjoy scary stories, but books about one of the scariest parts of human history have a strange appeal. Why?

I'm sure there are lots of reasons, among them pride that someone trusts them to be able to handle these accounts. But to me, the biggest reason is that Holocaust narratives, both fictional and nonfictional, tend to be very human stories. As violent as the Holocaust was, and as honest as many books are about that, they don't highlight violence the way a shoot-'em-up movie would. No one pretends that there's anything cool about it. Instead, books highlight what it's like to be someone, often a young someone, witnessing and experiencing the effects of violence. And just as many real people did, characters do what they can to help each other survive.

Much of the same can be said about stories of slavery and other more-than-unfortunate parts of history. When you're ready to contemplate the things that are really wrong with the world, reading is a safe way to do so.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The One Question

"How's school?" Nah. "Why is this night different from all other nights?" Not mine to ask. Nope, all my conversations with the younger generation at this year's seder started with, "So, what are you reading these days?"

B, age 13, gave me the whole plot of The City of Ember without remembering the title, but told me, "It's a really good book!" My favorite response, though, came from E, age 15. Instead of just telling me that the Ranger's Apprentice books have "really good humor," she ran upstairs, got one of the books, and had me read her favorite passage. (She was right--it was funny.)

Happy Passover, Easter, spring, et cetera.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Poetry: For anyone interested in anything

I haven't forgotten that it's National Poetry Month, but I would be ridiculously remiss if I didn't discuss it here (and no, lies don't count). The late, loved Shel Silverstein's work is as much a part of my literary DNA as any favorite novel or picture book. So is Jack Prelutsky's, Bruce Lansky's, and Jeff Moss's. A good anapestic tetrameter ("Oh I'm going to ride on the Flying Festoon/I'll jump on his back and I'll whistle a tune,/And we'll fly to the outermost tip of the moon..." -Where the Sidewalk Ends) feels as comforting to me as any lullaby, which makes sense given that nursery rhymes are poetry and lullabies are frequently nursery rhymes.

Like many kids, I found my love of poetry through silliness that sounded good. And I still think that kind of poetry is enormously valuable. It's funny, it's short and easy to read, and even the art that tends to accompany it is accessible in an "I could do that" sort of way. I think Shel would've gotten along well with Jeff Kinney.

But! The point I'd be making a lot faster if these tangents in praise of Shel Silverstein didn't keep getting in the way is that poetry can do a lot of other awesome things, too. If you enjoy poetry, you can use it to get into any other subject, and if you enjoy any other subject, you can use it to get into poetry. Anthologies like The Tree That Time Built take poems that appreciate nature's beauty and combine them with explanations of the science behind that beauty. A number of poets, Jane Yolen among them, take a similar approach with original poetry about specific aspects of nature.

Poetry can make the adventurous bits of history more exciting ("Listen, my children, and you shall hear," anyone?), and the painful parts more human and perhaps softer, as in Paul Janeczko's Requiem: Poems of the Terezin Ghetto, out this August from Candlewick. Verse novels can cut stories down to the parts with the most emotional meaning; I'm pretty sure I dreamed about the friends in Kimberly Marcus's Exposed last night, more than a week after reading it.

That's just a little bit of the recent stuff. There are also the classics; there's also JonArno Lawson's melding of silliness and serious thought, and there's Marilyn Singer's widely versatile work...

Poetry may need a longer month.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The old in with the new

For the past week or so, I've been organizing a local preschool's library. The books are obviously replenished fairly often, and there a plenty of recent titles. (Every picture book library needs a Knuffle Bunny.) But many of the books - not just the titles, but the physical copies - are much older. There are Eric Carle books so old-school that I'd never seen them (My Apron, anyone?) and was compelled to declare them salvageable even if their condition was, well, loosely so.

Curiosity always leads me to check the publication dates on the books I read, and I think that's been true since about third grade, but when I try to check as I read to kids, the kids don't get it. Thinking back, I realize I had no clue how old the Ramona books were, or Goodnight Moon, or The Cat in the Hat.

Just look at those '80s haircuts on the cover of this book, which is found in the library. Think the preschoolers care?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Once upon a podium

This Tuesday, I got to represent my store at Night of 1000 Stories, a benefit for 826 Boston, an organization that turns out to be all kinds of awesome. It provides free tutoring in writing for local students ages 6-18, some of whom spoke at the event, and some of whose stories we saw in movie form. The tales of robots and skinny jeans made it clear that 826 encourages creative thinking along with other skills. It also hires teens from its student population as tutors. In other words, it lets kids take ownership of writing, lets writing belong to them instead of just to school.

Speakers Jeff Kinney and Dennis Lehane know plenty about that. Both spoke about telling stories in places other than books. JK loves to call his brother and rehash family anecdotes. DL learned about storytelling by accompanying his dad to a Charlestown bar when he was nine or so.

Stories, methinks, can come from anywhere.