Children’s Books

Never Grow Up

15 January 2017

From Slate:

Why has Margaret Wise Brown’s picture book Goodnight Moon sold upward of 48 million copies? To the adult eye, it’s appealingly illustrated but oddly written, with rhymes that seem improvised and a meter that turns itself off and on. It has none of the virtuoso wit, rigor, or invention of, say, Dr. Seuss. But generations of parents can attest to this little book’s soothing powers. Like most of the hundreds of children’s books, poems, and songs Brown wrote during her short life, Goodnight Moon is less a story than an incantation. It summons a cocoon around reader and listener, a sensation of being pulled out of the hurly-burly of the world into a pocket of charmed tranquility. Amy Gary’s new biography, In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown, replicates this spell for adult readers.

Brown was unconventional. The daughter of a well-off importer from a distinguished family (her grandfather was a senator and candidate for vice president), she never married or had children of her own, choosing a free-spirited career in Greenwich Village during the 1930s and conducting a decadelong relationship with a flamboyant society woman who had once been married to John Barrymore. She lived part of every year in the only house she ever purchased, an abandoned quarry master’s shack without running water or electricity, on an island in Maine. Although most of her books feature small furry animals as their heroes, Brown was herself a joyful hunter. One of her favorite activities was “beagling,” in which people, dressed much like traditional fox hunters but without the horses, run through the countryside after packs of dogs chasing down a rabbit.

. . . .

Gary has written the book as an intimate, immersive narrative, closely following the chronological unfolding of Brown’s life and focusing almost entirely on how Brown experienced the events described. Marcus’ book, by contrast, is all context, explaining where Brown fits in the evolution of children’s literature, a field dominated in her day by strong personalities like Anne Carroll Moore, head of the New York Public Library’s children’s department, and Lucy Sprague Mitchell, founder of the innovative Bank Street College of Education, where Brown worked during the ’30s.

At that time, most children’s librarians believed that fantasy, in the form of classic fairy and folk tales, made the best reading for kids. Mitchell and other progressive educators strongly disagreed, arguing for an approach called “Here-and-Now” that represented the world children actually live in. Brown’s own books don’t quite fit the formula of her mentor, but she worked with Mitchell on writing and compiling textbooks and other materials, and wrote and edited titles for a Bank Street–affiliated publishing company.”

Link to the rest at Slate and thanks to Matthew for the tip.

I wished

5 January 2017

I wished she’d never stop squeezing me. I wished I could spend the rest of my life as a child, being slightly crushed by someone who loved me.

Gail Carson Levine, Ella Enchanted

Neighborhoods parched for books

5 January 2017

From the New York Daily News:

On the last day of 2016, the Barnes & Noble bookstore in the Bronx closed its doors for good, leaving New York City’s poorest borough without a general-interest bookstore. The borough’s 1.5 million residents — including 200,000 children in public schools — are left without a place to purchase books.

With this closure, the Bronx is joining an increasing number of communities that can be classified as “book deserts” — low-income neighborhoods with limited access to print resources. Our recently published study suggests that book deserts are becoming more common in cities across the U.S. The increasing concentration of poverty, coupled with technological advances that change how we buy and read books, is leading to neighborhoods where parents will have difficulty finding books to buy for their children.

Even if, in this age of Amazon, large brick-and-mortar bookstores are a thing of the past, city planners and retailers must find ways to ensure that poor neighborhoods are not cut off from crucial resources, including if not especially books.

. . . .

Book deserts are particularly detrimental for young children. Babies and toddlers (who do not yet have access to books in schools) need to be surrounded by books to develop preliteracy skills. When very young children are exposed to books and reading, they develop vocabulary and stretch their brains. When they don’t, they enter pre-K or kindergarten behind their peers, opening racial and class disparities that only grow over time.

Libraries offer crucial access to books. But in many low-income neighborhoods, they are woefully underresourced. When cities faced tough economic times in recent years, library budgets were slashed, leading to reduced collections and shorter hours. Even when libraries are open, some low-income families struggle to find transport to the library. Others forgo checking out books for fear of fines.

. . . .

So, you ask, why can’t they just buy books online? Or read books online? The digital divide is decreasing, but low-income families still have less internet access than their middle-income peers. And the jury is still out on whether kids learn as well from e-books as they do from paper books.

Link to the rest at the New York Daily News

The PC Police Crack Down on . . . Kids Books

3 January 2017

From The Wall Street Journal:

Ranking high among the surrealities of 2016 was the meltdown at a literary festival in Australia when the American-born novelist Lionel Shriver defended the freedom of fiction writers to conjure characters unlike themselves.

“Taken to their logical conclusion,” Ms. Shriver warned, “ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all.” Among the concepts she skewered was “cultural appropriation,” the notion that members of one ethnic group mustn’t use (or eat or wear or write about) things emanating from other ethnic groups. The illogical impracticality of the idea, especially with fiction, hasn’t impeded its spread, and the resulting umbrage was a wonder to behold: An Australian writer of Egyptian and Sudanese origin stormed out of the speech, later blaming Ms. Shriver for celebrating “the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction.” The officials in charge of the event disavowed their keynote speaker’s remarks.

Such exquisite sensitivities put a lot of well-meaning people into terrible predicaments in 2016. In the children’s literary realm, where “diversity” has become the lodestar, the year began and ended with choler, indignation and the repudiation of books.

. . . .

That controversy was reminiscent of an earlier one, when ignominy befell author Emily Jenkins and illustrator Sophie Blackall, who are white, for their 2015 picture book “A Fine Dessert,” published by Schwartz + Wade. The story traces four centuries of social and domestic change by showing the evolving ways in which families have prepared a sweet dish called blackberry fool. The book’s crime, to its detractors, was what one called the story’s “degrading” depiction of an enslaved mother and daughter in 1810 enjoying themselves as they make and taste the dessert.

In July, controversy swirled around Lane Smith’s picture book “There Is a Tribe of Kids” (which publisher Roaring Brook did not recall) for representing children in a natural setting with feathers in their hair (see below)—as if, critics said, they were “playing Indian.” In August, Candlewick recalled copies of E.E. Charlton-Trujillo’s young-adult novel “When We Was Fierce.” Early critical praise had morphed into social-media wrath over the author’s use of an invented urban dialect that was, in the words of one prominent fault-finder, “deeply insensitive.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

PG says fiction is fictional. It’s made up from thoughts in the author’s mind.

Fictional stories don’t belong to anyone other than the author. Most historical fiction involves the author trying to imagine what life was like during a time before the author was alive. PG doesn’t believe that an author of the same ethnic group as a fictional character who lived 200 years ago has any better idea what that ethnic group’s daily life was like than an author of a different ethnic group.

In any case, it’s fictional and the author can include or create any components of characters or settings the author thinks will make for a good story.

These are fictional characters, not somebody’s actual great-great-great-great grandparent. Even in stories, fictional or nonfictional, that include actual people, those stories are not the property of the descendants of those people.

Are Mexican Americans to be prevented from writing about George Washingon? Can British authors write stories that include American characters? How long would the Western world have waited to read about the challenges of rural Chinese life before World War I if Pearl Buck hadn’t been permitted to write about it?

On a related note, it’s a long-established tenet of American law (descended from English common law) that you cannot defame a dead person.

The rationale is relatively straighforward. Defamation is defined as an act or statement that damages one’s reputation. The dead do not have reputations to damage. As the English jurist Sir James Stephen said in 1887, “The dead have no rights and can suffer no wrongs.”

(PG will note that some states recognize a right of publicity that prevents others from commercially exploiting the image or likeness of a celebrity without consent. Under some state laws, this right (which is a property right akin to a trademark, not a personal right) continues for a period of time after the death of the individual.)

Even under rights of publicity, only Michael Jackson’s heirs, not any African-American, can prevent the use of Michael Jackson’s image for commercial purposes. Similarly, Jay Silverheels’ heirs, not any Native American, could prevent the use of his image or commercial persona. (For those who may not know of Silverheels, he was the actor who played Tonto, the “faithful Indian companion” of The Lone Ranger in a television series created during the 1950’s.)

Furthermore, if one author writes a story, another author can write another story about the same subject or person. The idea that a story is “appropriated” by an author of a particular ethnicity implies that, by writing the story, that author has somehow prevented another author from writing about the same subject.

There are a great many biographies of George Washington. There are also a great many biographies of George Washington Carver. Nothing prevents any would-be author from writing another biography or work of fiction about either of these extraordinary individuals.

End of PG’s pontification.

Watership Down author Richard Adams dies aged 96

29 December 2016

From BBC News:

The author of Watership Down, Richard Adams, has died aged 96, his daughter has said.

Juliet Johnson said her father had been “ailing for some time” but “died peacefully” on Christmas Eve.

Watership Down, a children’s classic about a group of rabbits in search of a new home after their warren was destroyed, was first published in 1972.

Adams was 52 when he wrote it, after first telling the story to his two daughters on a long car journey.

It went on to become a best-seller, with tens of millions of copies bought around the world.

. . . .

Mrs Johnson told BBC Radio 4 she had a “long talk” with her father on the night before he died.

“I assured him that he was much loved, that he had done great work, that many people loved his books,” she said.

She said an upcoming adaptation, which is due to air on the BBC next year, gave Adams “great composure and comfort”.

Describing Christmas Eve a “rather a magical night”, she said: “It’s the night that traditionally the animals and birds can talk.

“It was absolutely typical of Dad that he would choose such a night on which to leave this world.”

Link to the rest at BBC News and thanks to Joshua for the tip.

Forget ‘Pat the Bunny.’ My Child Is Reading Hemingway.

19 December 2016

From The New York Times:

Alice Hemmer’s favorite part of Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road” doesn’t involve the drug-addled cross-country road trips, encounters with prostitutes in Mexico or wild parties in Manhattan. Alice, who is 5 and lives in a Chicago suburb, likes the part when Sal Paradise eats ice cream and apple pie whenever he feels hungry.

She hasn’t actually read Kerouac’s 320-page, amphetamine-fueled, stream-of-consciousness classic. (Alice is a precocious reader, but not that precocious.) Instead, her father read her a heavily abridged and sanitized illustrated version of “On the Road” designed for six- to 12-year-old children.

“She didn’t love it,” said her father, Kurt Hemmer, an English professor at Harper College and scholar of the Beat Generation, who noted that even some college students failed to appreciate the novel’s subtle spiritual message. “To really grasp it, you need to be a bit more mature.”

“On the Road,” with its recurring references to sex, drugs and domestic violence, might not seem like an ideal bedtime story for a child. But that’s precisely the point of KinderGuides, a new series of books that aims to make challenging adult literary classics accessible to very young readers.

. . . .

 Though the premise of their project may strike some as absurd — does a first grader really need to be introduced to Kerouac or Capote? — kiddie lit has become a surprisingly lucrative and crowded niche. Anxious parents who played Mozart for their babies in utero and showed them Baby Einstein educational videos have snapped up children’s books that promise to turn their offspring into tiny literature lovers.

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Tom for the tip.

Self-published author opts for print over digital

13 December 2016

From The Toronto Observer:

It’s tough to write a book. It’s even tougher trying to sell it. For many writers, the publishing process can be an uphill climb. Traditional publishing routes are highly competitive and, for children’s books in particular, many publishing houses aren’t accepting manuscripts from new authors.

“Publishers don’t seem willing to take the risk on new authors,” Jeffery Li, a Toronto author, said.

It’s why many new writers opt to self-publish their books, usually in a digital format. In an increasingly digital world, e-books are often touted as the way to go.

. . . .

It can also be difficult for children to interact with e-books, according to Li. There is value to the tactile component of holding a book and looking at its contents.

It’s what made him make the decision to print his book.

Li is author and illustrator of The Little Princess Who Fought a Dragon, a children’s book he started writing after he started noticing how the children at the daycare he was working at were playing. The kids were engaging in exclusionary techniques that adhered to traditional gender roles. This intrigued Li. So he wrote his book to help challenge these societally based gender roles.

. . . .

He illustrated and wrote the book over the course of one year and published it to the Amazon kindle service in 2014.

His book didn’t sell well. He estimated only five to 10 copies. Knowing he wanted to still work on getting his book out there, Li began to look into self-publishing hard copies. He found a small printing press in China and ordered 1,000 copies.

Since then, he has seen an increase in his sales. He estimates about 140 copies have been sold since he first got the print copies. He’s also had the opportunity to showcase his work at a local Chapters.

Link to the rest at The Toronto Observer

The Life-Changing Effects of the Baby-Sitters Club

12 November 2016

From BookRiot:

Katie MacBride and Jen Sherman are Book Riot’s resident Baby-Sitters Club mega-fans, and both have written about BSC before. In this post, they talk about their memories and experiences of growing up with the BSC.

. . . .

JS: The most influential and long-lasting series in my life, however, was the Baby-Sitters Club. I picked up one at random when I was 11, and never looked back. I don’t even remember what drew me in initially, because I recognise that they are not great literary works, but at some point I became so immersed in the world of Stoneybrook, Connecticut and the lives of the baby-sitters that I couldn’t leave. I’m still there today.

KM: My older sister was reading the BSC books when I was about seven years old and she started reading them to me. My mom thought I was too young for the books (the girls sometimes had boyfriends! *gasp*) but my sister—displaying the talent that now makes her an excellent lawyer—argued in my favor. The moment I got the green light, I devoured all the BSC (and BSC Little Sister) books I could. I roped my cousin into the depraved world of Stoneybrook, Connecticut and we read them obsessively, long after my sister had outgrown them.

. . . .

 JS: I read all the BSC books that were in the school library and that my teachers had in the classroom. We had the Scholastic Book Club at my school, and once a month, we would get the catalogue full of books. We’d take that home, go through it with our parents, and mark out which books we wanted to (or were allowed to) buy. Filled in the form, returned it with money, and on some magical day some time later, our books would arrive. I was a bit of a spoilt only child, so every month my parents would buy me a few books. BSC were always part of that.

When I was in my early 20s, I owned probably about two thirds of the full series (213 books in total at the time, before they released graphic novels and modernised versions of some of the originals). I decided I wanted the full collection, and set about scouring secondhand bookshops, op-shops, and eBay for missing titles. I remember I paid about $30 for one of the California Diaries on eBay, just to complete the collection, and wishing I bought it when it first came out when it cost $6.

I do now own the full set, but they aren’t all with me. They’re split between my parents’ house in Sydney and my house in San Diego, and splitting up the collection was one of the harder aspects of moving to America.

KM: My parents were always really cool about letting my sister and me go into bookstores and were really generous about buying books for us. That said, when The Great and Powerful Ann M. Martin started coming out with one BSC book per month, they weren’t thrilled. But, they saw that I reread them obsessively and held on to them as though they were the most precious objects, so I ended up owning most of them. Anything I couldn’t get my hands on, my cousin would and we would swap ASAP.

In college, I went through a battle with my mom where she was giving away a bunch of my childhood stuff and I told her in no uncertain terms that she was not to get rid of any of my BSC books. Not unreasonably, she reminded me that I was a legal adult now and it was absurd to cling to books written in the 80s for 12 year-olds as though they were precious family heirlooms. But she saved them and at 32 years old, I still own and cherish them.

Link to the rest at BookRiot

The Everlasting Appeal of Natalie Babbitt

9 November 2016

From Acculturated:

Whether they recognize her name or not, most elementary school students know Natalie Babbitt very well. They know her through the pages of her book, Tuck Everlasting, which seems like a typical children’s story but in fact masterfully raises a complicated question of immortality, namely: What if we could live forever?

This week, news of Babbitt’s death reminded readers of Tuck that the author had fulfilled the promise she laid out in her beautiful book: That life is a wheel that is always turning, and that people are always entering, “always coming in new, always growing and changing, and always moving on.”

For those who haven’t read it, Tuck Everlasting follows the four members of the Tuck family who innocently drink water from a spring that gives them eternal life. Never aging, never succumbing to sickness or death, they travel from place to place experiencing life again and again. After 87 years, a ten-year old girl named Winnie Foster stumbles upon them and their secret, and now must make an anguishing choice: Should she live forever and have good times that never end, or experience the untold power of certain change (and death)?

. . . .

From the first pages of the prologue of Tuck Everlasting, it’s clear you aren’t reading a typical children’s book. The unfurling descriptions of just about everything in the book, from the soil at Winnie’s feet to the first weeks of August (“curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color”) to the sun (which “hung at mid-heaven for a blinding hour”) are evocative and masterful brushstrokes by an author posing as witness to the world around us. Babbitt writes like someone who is recording memories, like someone who will one day no longer see these things.

Link to the rest at Acculturated

Amazon rolls out Rapids, a chat style reading app for kids

3 November 2016

From TechCrunch:

Rapids is a cute new kids app from Amazon using a playful chat style to help kids ages seven to twelve enjoy reading.

A lot of kid’s reading apps are a take on the traditional storybook and Amazon already has a Kindle for kids, but Amazon’s Michael Robinson who headed up the project, noticed his own kids were already using the phone to chat via text with their friends and family.

“We wanted to see what authors and illustrators could do with an app that told stories that way,” he said.

Kids can choose from hundreds of stories in adventure, fantasy, humor, mystery, science fiction and sports categories on the platform. Each story has a text message dialogue between characters and little readers can interact with the dialogue by clicking on the next chat bubble in the story’s sequence.

The app will also help kids sound out a hard word in case a parent or another adult isn’t around. This feature supports the child’s reading confidence and the word is added to their personal glossary if they need to look it up again later.

. . . .

Rapids has hundreds of these short stories in its database so far and Robinson tells TechCrunch Amazon is adding “dozens more” each month. The idea is to make them fun enough and short enough to keep the kids engaged till the end.

Link to the rest at TechCrunch and thanks to Jan for the tip.

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