Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Let's call it... the Boynton

Are you a picture book reader/listener? An emerging reader? A middle-grader? A young adult? A young adult who wants to read crossover adult books? An audio-phile? A nonfiction fan? A reader interested in stories about your own or another culture or life experience?

There's an award for that.

There are so many children's and YA lit awards out there, both from ALA and from other sources, that it can seem like there's a chance for every worthy title to be honored. But what about It's a Little Book? What about Yawn? And as long as I'm wish-listing, let's ignore original countries and languages of publication and ask, what about every board book Herve Tullet has ever done? I'm not aware of any major award for board books (or, more generally, for books aimed at ages 0-2), and I think that's symptomatic of a prevalent attitude that board books aren't worth much critical attention.

Some of them aren't. Some are vehicles to sell franchise characters (not always a bad thing, but only good if the familiar characters act as a hook into a book worth reading). Some are pretty much photo albums to teach vocabulary, which is fine but not particularly memorable. Some are adaptations of existing picture books with varying degrees of success. (I maintain that It's a Little Book goes far beyond just adapting It's a Book.)

But then there are the books that take advantage of a baby or toddler's skills and interests to create something entertaining and edifying. These newest of people have hands that can grab, they have eyes that love bright colors, they have mouths that can laugh at and maybe imitate an animal sound. They love repetition, they love getting involved, and they're just beginning to understand humor and cause and effect. Give them the power to lift a flap and reveal Spot, or to laugh at the incongruity of pigs saying "la la la," and you've taught them that they're pretty smart and reading is fun.

Why isn't there an award for that?

Monday, January 23, 2012

We have winners!

First things first: The ALSC Youth Media Awards broadcast this morning began with a plea to sign a petition asking that the the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) include dedicated funding for school libraries. So many great children's books were honored today, and there are stacks and stacks more whose names were bandied about as award-worthy, but they can't do nearly as much good as they have the potential to do without places to live in schools and librarians to help kids find the right one.

 This year's crop of winners happens to be well-poised to capture the interest of a broad range of kids. I'm pleased to see a funny book, Jack Gantos' Dead End in Norvelt, win the Newbery, and I'm also, shockingly enough, cheering for the less light but wonderful verse novel Inside Out and Back Again. Caldecott winner A Ball for Daisy is ideal for showing the newest readers that reading is fun--colors! A dog! A story they can understand without a grownup because it doesn't have any words!

Like many of us, I've got some reading to do, and like most of us, I had some predictions blown out of the water. But that's part of the fun, if not most of it. This is our Superbowl.

Pass the bean dip. And then, pass a good book along to a kid.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Never let it fade away

I just had a lovely time at Susan Bloom's annual book talk, this year titled "Catch a Falling Star." The event had its traditional hamish atmosphere, complete with cider and star-shaped homemade cookies, and we even got to meet a former classmate's starry-eyed new son. Stars, of course, was the first book on the list, which encompassed everything from Life: An Exploded Diagram to, just to bring the talk up to the minute, The Fault in Our Stars.

One theme that kept coming up in the simplest titles, the most complex, and everything in between was that of wonder, the idea that there's always something amazing out there to learn about, always something new to put in your pocket. I found myself thinking along the same lines yesterday, too, in terms of A Wrinkle in Time, and look: fifty years later, there are still new reasons to say "wow." There are still new falling stars to catch.

Now, that's a thought to save for a rainy day.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

There is such a thing as a tesseract.

Tesser with me, if you will, to the early 1960s. An author best known for realistic fiction writes a novel with imaginary planets, dimension-busting characters with names like Mrs. Whatsit, allusions to Shakespeare and Goethe and Jesus and math, and a lot of big ideas. It gets rejected a whole bunch of times by publishers who probably think, "What is this thing?" Then it gets published, gets beloved, and wins the Newbery, not necessarily in that order.

Tesser now to the early 1990s, when I have what's probably a fairly common experience with the book. It goes something like this: "Time travel? Cool!... Wait, what is this thing?... Wow. Whoa. Wow."

One last tesser, and yes, our tessering destinations are far simpler, far more familiar, than those of Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin. At fifty, A Wrinkle in Time holds up because along with its excitement and its lovably flawed characters, it's full of ideas that can deepen readers' understanding of the world. The one that strikes me most (in this and other books by L'Engle, particularly A Wind in the Door) is that there's always more to understand. Meg and her traveling companions (and readers) may feel sorry for Aunt Beast and other inhabitants of Ixchel because they can't see, but they learn that there are ways to understand that go beyond seeing - ways not to "know what things look like... [but to] know what things are like" (181 in my edition). We don't know exactly what that means, but we know it's better.

So many meanings are possible in this idea that we don't and can't know everything. It can have spiritual meanings for some, but for just about anyone, it can bring both wonder and humility. Think about all the things we know now that no one knew in 1962. What will we understand in 2062 that none of us today can imagine?

I hope  we'll be celebrating Wrinkle's centennial then. For now, Walk the Ridgepole wishes it a hearty Happy Fiftieth!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

WorldSuck: Decreased. Awesome: Increased.

John Green's The Fault in Our Stars launched yesterday. There was a gathering.

It was Nerdfightastic.

John and brother Hank provided the tremendous, "WOOOOOOO-ing," Wave-doing, Harry Potter/Star Wars/DFTBA shirt-clad crowd with an amplified version of their vlog. John read from and talked about the book, and the audience had good questions. Hank sang his songs (like this one and this one), and the audience knew all the words. Also, there was a sock puppet, a timer, and a tutu.

It might be difficult to reconcile last night's goofy atmosphere with the book, which is about several teens' battle with cancer, but I do think they can exist in the same headspace. John says he's been working on TFIOS for twelve years; I'm sure that when he started it, he couldn't have imagined that one day he'd discuss it at an event featuring costume changes. I was reminded a bit of the RENT phenomenon: both stories unite people in the notion that lives with sadness, even serious sadness, are allowed to also have joy and love, and yes, it's acceptable to get really, really excited about that.

As important as John's books are (good realistic YA novels are nothing to sneeze at this decade), the Nerdfighter phenomenon has gone far beyond the books. In one of the moments that defined what the evening was, Hank played "Shake-a-Booty," and an audience member got up and danced. And then another member joined her, and then another, and soon most of the room was shaking its booty with be-yourself abandon.

We've been telling teens who don't fit one mold or another that it gets better. For many, it looks like it's getting better now.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A bunch of unscientific speculations

As promised, a few more thoughts on the ALA Awards...

The Batchelder, for a book translated from a foreign language, is easy this year because of a French picture book called Un Livre, known in the U.S. as Press Here. Done, I say.

The Morris "honors a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrating impressive new voices in young adult literature." Exposed, by Kimberly Marcus, fits that description perfectly, now that I've looked up the pub date of her picture book, Scritch-Scratch: A Perfect Match, and confirmed that Exposed did come first.

The Schneider, which honors "an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences" should be interesting this year, particularly in the Middle School category. Two books this year, both of which have been mentioned as contenders for other major awards, feature illiterate early adolescents. I'm pretty sure, and correct me if I'm wrong, that neither [spoiler alert times two] Okay for Now nor Bluefish names a specific disability, but they're both sensitive portrayals within good stories of what many kids and teens with various learning disabilities experience.

I'm going to harp on Heart and Soul some more for the Sibert.

I would have no objection to seeing the Geisel handed to another Elephant and Piggie book; Should I Share My Ice Cream? uses its small space impressively to show Gerald's conflict between wanting to be generous and wanting to be selfish (after all, as every kid knows, ice cream is the ultimate temptation and the ultimate thing to share with a friend). And if I have fun reading that protracted "NOOOOOOO" aloud, imagine how much fun it must be for a new reader. I wonder, though, what of the early chapter books, the stories a step above Mercy Watson? These rarely win the Newbery (Sarah, Plain and Tall is a exception), and many of them deserve honors for the way they function as transitions into the reading of novels. I'm feeling Ivy + Bean; I'm feeling Marty Maguire; I'm feeling Gooney Bird Greene. (I'd be feeling Clementine, too, but I think the strongest installments so far are from earlier years.)

How about the rest of you? Picks?