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!