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.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A stupendously slated September

For those keeping count, we've already got a new Sendak and a collection of previously unpublished Silverstein coming out in September. And now this.

Authors, if you have anything debuting in September 2011, you might want to change your names to something starting with S. If you want to stand out, try Shakespeare.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

I'd be a fool to carry it on.

As I'm sure many of you guessed, I lied yesterday in celebration of my favorite holiday. Wonderful as it would be to hear Shel Silverstein read live, he unfortunately passed away in 1999, and if any of you did meet him, I'm envious.

The bit about a new collection of his work is true, though. Its September release will come just two weeks after Maurice Sendak's Bumble-Ardy.

So yes, April began with lies, as it tends to do, but September is going to be pretty awesome.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Meet you where the sidewalk ends, of course.

Rumor has it that reclusive children's poet Shel Silverstein plans to come out of hiding for a series of speaking engagements upon the release of his new collection, due out this year. If Shel-in-person is anything like Shel-reading-his-poems, meeting him is sure to be a memorable experience.

Here, have a listen:

I am so there. Who's with me?