Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Reading out the storm (and beyond)

First, there was a rush to get freelance work done in case the power went out. There was also some rushed checking of Facebook, which doesn't feel as frivolous when it's bringing news of friends and family in other affected areas.

But then, there was reading.

As the storm upended everything and made us feel that couldn't know what to expect, I read a volume of poetry that did the same in a more positive way. JonArno Lawson's Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box, with papercut illustrations by Alec Dempster, turns words on their heads and uses them to reimagine familiar notions and stories, including Biblical incidents and fairy tales. I was especially pleased to see the collection open with "Our Imaginary Selves," about the fate of the gryphons, dwarves, and elves in the (apparently timely) Noah's Ark tale; JonArno had included that poem in an email several years ago when I queried him about a visual project for a children's poetry class, and it inspired the format for the whole project. (Thanks, Noah's Ark Colorforms!)

Then came a very different read: agent Mary Kole's Writing Irresistible Kidlit. I found myself nodding a lot at her advice, both about craft and about the market, but there's enough concrete, savvy information that I didn't feel like I was just reading a rehash of information I already knew. My litmus test for whether a writing guide is worth reading is this: Does it just tell me that plot and conflict are important, or does it actually help me create plot and conflict? Writing Irresistible Kidlit does the latter, and does the same for many other elements of novel-writing.

There was also Horn Book Guide reading, but I'll save thoughts on those books for my reviews except to say this: only a time travel novel that plays with history can make me hurtle through the story so I can get to the Author's Note.

I hope you and those you care about are safe. I hope you have power and aren't squinting to read this on a tiny mobile device. And I hope you have something good to read.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Do we Dewey or don't we?

According to a recent School Library Journal article, "a small but growing number of school and public libraries" have done away with the Dewey Decimal System. The article focuses on one school library, whose staff rearranged its collection according to categories devised with a lot of student input. There's a Making Stuff section, a Countries section, an Adventure section... The idea is that students should get to spend more time engaging with the books than they spend searching.

At first glance, my reaction was, "sounds like a bookstore." The fiction in our kids' section is mostly arranged by reading/listening level; the only exception that I would call strictly fiction is the Fairy Tales/Folk Tales/Mythology section. In particular, our kids' nonfiction section (smaller than that of most libraries, but certainly an active section) is categorized similarly to what the article describes. In fact, we recently rearranged it as a hazing for one of our new children's booksellers. Just as Dewey has logic that made a lot of sense when it was devised and still makes sense in many cases now, our kids' nonfiction section had a logical system, but it seemed wise to look at what books we had now, what requests we were getting now, and go from there. That led to the development of a "Series" subsection, which happened to be logical for us because we had enough Eyewitness and Basher books, and enough requests for them, to make them worth grouping. (Besides, a row of Basher books is a colorful wonder.) Near the end of the reorganization process, the newly devised "Educational Resources" section still had a "Misc" area, but an assessment of what was actually in there revealed that by creatively relocating two or three titles, we could call what was left "Trivia." You know, the "Impress Your Friends with the Weird Stuff You Know" section. It's great, and always has been, to be able to say to customers, "You like sports? Lots of books about them are over here." (We've wrestled with the same question the article mentions: should biographies of athletes go in Biography or Sports? I tend to agree that if a choice must be made, they're more valuable to sports browsers than biography browsers.)

Metis, the system described in the article, sounds wonderful for browsing--for finding the kind of book you want and then stumbling upon the perfect book plus two or three related ones. I wonder, though, if it's disconcerting for patrons who already have a specific book in mind. In fiction, particularly, readers are used to knowing exactly where to go once they know the author's name. But is Spaceheadz humor or sci-fi? Is Inside Out and Back Again historical fiction or poetry? Maybe, though, there's fun in those questions, or in finding new ways to describe your favorite book. I'll admit that I find that aspect of shelving satisfying.

There's also the question of whether the Dewey Decimal System is an important skill for school libraries to teach students so they can use libraries later in life. My tentative answer: maybe students don't need to learn Dewey specifically; what they do need to learn is how to search, how to figure out and navigate a system. (Lots of libraries use the Library of Congress system, anyway.) Maybe learning to search means figuring out the categories on their own. Maybe, and more likely in this day and age, it means using some form of online catalog based on whatever system is in use.

I don't think there are perfect answers (can we put that Jackie Robinson biography in two places)? But I'm very glad that, instead of adhering to a system out of habit, librarians are asking the questions.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Calling all nonfiction fans!

Much of the best nonfiction for kids is, in one way or another, interactive. It gives them a chance to do something: breeze past one spread, choose another spread to obsess over, explore this diagram, discover what's under this flap or that fold-out. Astound their friends and family with their ownership of topic-specific knowledge. Two people who realize this are author Richard Platt and illustrator Stephen Biesty, both of whom will be at the USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown, MA (close to Boston's North End) this weekend.

Platt, author of books in the Incredible Cross-Section and Eyewitness series and most recently of Plague, Pox and Pestilence, will present "Finding a Voice: Writing Non-Fiction for Children" at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, with a meet-and-mingle reception preceding from 12:00 to 2:30.

 Biesty, illustrator of the Incredible Cross-Section books and other works including the very cool Into the Unknown: How Explorers Found Their Way by Land, Sea, and Air, will present "Illustrating History in Detail" at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, also preceded by a meet-and-mingle reception from 12:00 to 2:30.

While you're there, check out the museum's All Hands on Deck: A Sailor's Life in 1812 exhibit. What was that about nonfiction being interactive?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Lessons from a ten-year-old girl

A mother approached me in the store earlier this week, looking a little confused. Her ten-year-old daughter had read and loved See You at Harry's, by Jo Knowles, which they both viewed as intermediate, but we had her other books shelved in Young Adult, and they had age guidelines on them. In particular, she was asking about Lessons from a Dead Girl, which is recommended for ages 14 and up. Before launching into a discussion of Lessons, I mentioned that Harry's has some mature and serious themes, too, so I would guess that her daughter is a fairly mature reader; the mother agreed that her daughter really liked a good "weepy" story. Then, I explained that Lessons is about a controlling friendship between two girls that becomes sexually abusive. The mother's eyes got a bit wide. Still, she didn't immediately write it off; instead, she asked, "Would you say it's too old for a ten-year-old?" I told her, "I would pause. Every reader is different, and it's definitely a very good book, but it might be one to keep in mind and read in a few years."

At this point, the mom called the daughter over. She repeated my explanation of what Lessons is about. (I don't think she used my exact words, but she did use "friendship," "controlling," and "sexual," and acknowledged that the friendship themes, at least, were something her daughter understood.) The mom made it clear she was hesitant, and the daughter agreed: "I'm ten, mom. I don't want to read about sexual... stuff." I agreed that if the reader herself was saying that, it was worth waiting, and repeated my suggestion that they keep the book in mind for a few years down the road. In the meantime, I suggested Wonder, which they were excited about.

In all the Banned Books Week talking we do about letting people make decisions within their own families, it was a perfect example of how well communication can work. A ten-year-old who knows she doesn't want to read something racy is probably a ten-year-old whose family trusts her enough not to constantly try to hide things from her.

Still, before posting about this encounter, I thought I should check with Jo, who was my writing professor at Simmons. After all, the story didn't end with the sale of one of her books. Here's an excerpt from her response, which came in minutes:

"That is a PERFECT example of individual choice, not censorship. Love it! I can't imagine recommending Lessons to any ten year olds I know. I'm so glad they chose something else. I think 14 is the appropriate age recommendation. Same for [Jumping Off] Swings. She might be ready for Pearl, which is 12 and up. But again, the mom should read it first to make sure...

"So often parents are like, 'My kid reads above her level' or whatever, and they don't get that it's about content, not advanced vocabulary. I've convinced many parents not to buy my books, too, for the same reason you outline... Right book right kid right time. It's an important formula."

Jo says she has two more YA novels in the pipeline, and then a middle grade. I can't wait to help them find the right readers.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The cantaloupe in the bushes (and other thoughts from the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards)

The Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards were this past weekend, and as usual, we were treated to the sorts of speeches that make one want to run and add to one's current manuscript. There was Julie Fogliano's earnest story of a musing-for-the-day that turned into And Then It's Spring, Mal Peet's rant to the choir about writing "against the grain," and Jon Klassen's reminiscences about imagination taking over when stories know where to stop. The speech that stands out to me most, though, was Mac Barnett's, and not just for its hilarity. Barnett talked about that phase in childhood when kids are able to understand when stories aren't true, but at the same time, believe that they are. He used examples from his time as a camp counselor, when he had campers convinced that he used to be a spy, and even got one girl to believe she had grown a cantaloupe by tossing her daily melon chunks into the bushes.

Camp Givah, the day camp I attended for seven years and staffed for six, has had a monster-in-residence for much of its fifty-plus-year history. The leaves in the lake are the Givah Monster's hair, which is why wise campers should keep their hands in the boat. Clothes that are left out will be eaten by the Givah Monster, and he's to blame for any and all missing items. He has sharp teeth and green fur, or maybe orange or purple. I can recall only one instance in all my years there of a child being scared of the Givah Monster. Mostly, what I remember is eager camper participation in the legend. The kids might not have fully acknowledged that the monster wasn't real, but they knew that they could make up details about him, as evidenced by the many camper-penned articles about him and interviews with him that appeared in the camp newsletter. (I will neither confirm nor deny that I threatened other counselors with Givah Monster consumption if they were late with their articles.)

Once you know deep down what's not real, you can have fun with it. You can try to badger your counselor into telling you whether the Givah Monster really exists without actually thinking he'll bite off your fingers. You can believe in a place of escape and Wild Things, a fairy who comes into your room and takes your teeth, or a guy who uses your chimney as an entry point, and it's all safe.

I suspect Mr. Barnett was a great counselor.