Monday, January 31, 2011

Sorry, Susan B. Anthony.

Lately, I've found myself in a number of conversations that involve shuddering at books and related products deemed sickeningly girlie. You know the ones. They're pink, of course, and they either depict bejeweled, willowy young women, promise to help little girls become like those women, or both.

"Girl products" have become so ubiquitous that it's easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to them. So let me be clear: I don't think pink is bad. I don't even think it's bad to give kids the opportunity to play dress-up or admire pretty things, if that interests them. My objection comes with these two implications:

1) If you're a girl, this is definitely for you.
2) If you're a boy, this is definitely not for you.

Obviously, these implications don't always come exclusively from the products. They come from Society and The Media and parents and other gift buyers who supply princess fantasies at the exclusion of gifts with other messages.

But there are still a surprising number of books out there with some variation of "for girls" in their titles, and I'm not talking about puberty guides or anything else that has good reasons to be gender-specific for most kids. Those are the ones that make me look at the calendar, confirm that yes, it is 2011, and go back to shuddering.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Good job, '60s and '70s!

Recently, I made a reference list of books in our store's children's department that depict non-white characters. The goal of this list is for any bookseller, familiar with kids' books or not, to have answers when approached with questions like, "Do you have any books for my children/students with characters who look like them/don't look like them?"

There's a lot to say on this topic, some of it very positive, some of it about areas for growth. But I was particularly struck by the age of what I think are some of the best examples. Like Whistle for Willie, published in 1964. Corduroy, published in 1968. The Snowy Day, published in 1976.

Plenty of good books are about race, and there's definitely a place for those, too. But these books and others (John Steptoe's work, for instance) do something that's at least as important: they show non-white children just living lives. You know, like real children. I don't remember Lisa's race even registering with me when I read and re-read Corduroy as a child; she was just another kid with a lot of love to give to a scruffy teddy bear. There's some implication of economic struggle, but to Corduroy, Lisa's apartment is what so many small apartments are to so many kids: a home.

Positive multicultural representation in children's books is not a new idea. I'd even say it's a classic.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The tale of Beedle the barred

Girl, 10ish: Dad, they have Tales of Beedle the Bard! That's in Harry Potter! That was in Dumbledore's will for Hermione! I really want to read it!
Dad: Come on, that's awfully thin. It looks too easy for you.

The book stayed unbought.

Putting aside the fact that length and challenge don't always have a direct relationship, so what if the girl had read harder things before? She was excited about Beedle - excited, in fact, because it would have told her more about a series of gigantic books that she'd presumably already read. Where's the problem?

Not every book a child reads has to be a "step up." Adults who've read Shakespeare are allowed to read Danielle Steel or the comics or whatever else catches their fancy. Reading doesn't always have to be work.

I wish there'd been a good point to jump gently into the conversation, but alas, I didn't find one. Kid, see me for directions to the library.

Friday, January 21, 2011

You're the Elephant to my Piggie.

Frog and Toad. Elephant and Piggie. George and Martha. Bink and Gollie.

There are pairs everywhere in literature, but it seems like friendship gets a starring role in books for early readers. Frodo and Batman and Anne of Green Gables may have sidekicks, but Frog, Elephant, George, and Bink have partners. (Don't those names sound strange on their own?) The "and" is just as important as the names sandwiching it.

Having two equally billed characters makes sense for some practical reasons. It allows for humorous dialogue and simple conflict in stories that don't need to be complicated enough for friendship to be an afterthought. When you're just learning to read, you've got enough to wrap your head around without Gollie fighting dragons and then telling her wisecracking pal Bink about it. Friendship itself, if portrayed entertainingly, is story enough.

In fact, when you're five, six, or seven, "best friends" are starting to enter the picture. At that age, the idea of sharing top billing with a friend might be just as exciting as having it for yourself.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Overheard at work

(translated from Hebrew)
Child: "Mom, where are you?"
Mom: "With the books."
Child: "Where?"
Mom: "With the books!"

Note to any new readers of this blog: I work in a bookstore.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

We'll stay up till this decade shines like the top of the Chrysler Building!

The main narrative of Moon Over Manifest takes place during the Great Depression. So does Turtle in Paradise, one of this year's Newbery Honor books.

That's not to say that no other historical period has been highlighted in children's literature lately, or that literature about other parts of history hasn't been honored. (Hello, One Crazy Summer.) But of all the myriad subjects a novel can be about, two of the top-honored children's novels this year are works of historical fiction about the same decade. And that makes total sense.

In recent years, lots of kids have had to learn to understand why their parents don't have jobs anymore... why they can't go on the same trips anymore... why they don't go out to dinner as much... why their summer camps are closing... why others can't afford to donate as much to the charities that serve them. Some of them have probably wondered if it was their fault, and many of them have likely wondered if it would ever get better.

Maybe it's helpful for some of them to know that this has happened before on an even larger scale. (Maybe it's helpful to the authors to write about it, too.) It may help to see that other kids complained, too, and stamped their feet at things that couldn't be changed. And they got through it anyway. And eventually, things did change.

Bet your shiny medals that tomorrow, there'll be sun.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Newberies and Blueberries

Newberies and blueberries,
a blintz for Mr. Printz.
Caldecott and chocolate, hot
as everybody hints
at what should win Coretta
and the Stonewall and the Schneider.
We breakfast with the Batchelder.
We pour a cup of cider.
The best of books for budding brains
are up for conversation
as book nerd after book nerd strains
to watch, across the nation.
The competition's always been
hard-fought, but rarely vicious.
To some, it matters not who wins.
The wondering's delicious.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Mockingbird is sad, guys.

Shocker there. Mockingbird is about a girl who recently lost her brother in a middle school shooting. That's unfathomably traumatic, no matter who you are, and when Caitlin's school counselor and others are "dealing with" her often out-there behavior, I want to remind them that this is not just Caitlin being Caitlin. This is Caitlin dealing with something that would shake any of us to the core.

Katherine Erskine made a really interesting choice when she decided to tell a story about Asperger's syndrome together with a story about school violence. It lets us look at an angle at the grief and anger that are inherently part of the story, lets us think new thoughts about them as we see someone experience them who hasn't heard lots of discussion of similar incidents on the news. Kids in the book's middle-grade audience may be too young to quite remember the Virginia Tech shootings; this approach makes this kind of story new to the the person telling it. The focus on how Caitlin understands the world around her--both her brother's death and more ordinary moments--allows for some lightness in the telling, as well. (Really, though, someone should have thought to tell the literal Caitlin that "closure" doesn't mean "feeling completely better.")

I'm well into Francisco Stork's The Last Summer of the Death Warriors now--another fabulous book that also begins with the loss of a sibling and then introduces more difficulties. There may need to be some happy reads in the near future.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Oscars, Schmoscars.

The Newberys are coming. And the Caldecotts, and the Printzes, and the Geisels, and the Schneiders, and the Stonewalls...

Whatever wins or doesn't, I'm going to read, recommend, and try to emulate books that look good to me. But a) these awards are significant in that they serve as some indication of what the gatekeepers value in children's literature and also influence which books will end up in a lot of young hands and b) it's January, the streets are slushy, and it's fun to have things to get excited about.

Part of the fun this year is that a lot of the awards seem wide open. Oh, Bink and Gollie is gunning for the Geisel, methinks. But the Newbery? There doesn't seem to be a front-runner, which means that if I want to be ready to cheer at the announcement, I'm just going to have to read a lot of good-looking books. I've read Zora and Me and Touch Blue, I'm halfway through Mockingbird--thanks, Secret Gnome at work--and I took Keeper and The Dreamer out today. One Crazy Summer is next on my list. The Printz field looks even wider, but I have Revolution and The Last Summer of the Death Warriors on my to-read-soon shelf.

The Caldecott has plenty of worthy contenders as well. I'd do plenty of cheering if the gorgeous and imaginative Art and Max won. But my less traditional side holds out a jazzy little hope for Pete the Cat.

Happy January, folks. Sing it with Pete and me now: "I love my wet shoes, I love my wet shoes, I love my wet shoes."

(Anyone else? Predictions? Hopes?)