Children’s Books

The Kid’s Book That Connects Me to My Lost Soviet Childhood

26 October 2017
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From Electric Lit:

I twirl a package in my hands, a crumpled plastic sleeve with line after line of stamps and my mother’s neat handwriting. She memorized the list of items approved for mailing to the States by heart. Russian chocolate, gingerbread cookies, newspaper clippings, socks — all okay. No luck on tea bags, CDs, religious paraphernalia. Sometimes she gives packages a false bottom and hides an icon for this saint or that. She says she worries about my spirit. This package came earlier today and I know, before I rip the plastic open, that it’s a book. A copy from my childhood, worn edges, the price — six kopeks — listed on the back cover.

The Adventures of Dennis by Victor Dragunsky is classic Soviet literature — Soviet, not Russian. Does the difference matter? It didn’t when I was a kid. My grandfather read those stories to me at bedtime. In them, a mischievous eight-year-old boy finds all sorts of trouble. Perched on my stool at the gate, I open the first page. These titles! “3rd Place, Butterfly Stroke,” “Exactly 25 Kilos,” “Who Ever Heard of It?” Each one resurrects a memory. In one story, Dennis forces himself to drink a full bottle of soda to weigh exactly 25 kilos and win a year’s subscription to Murzilka, a children’s magazine. In another, he performs “satire verses” during a Young Pioneers concert, only to suffer from extreme stage fright and be stuck singing the same line. Twin stories “Things I Like” “…And Things I Don’t” list with lucid detail the tastes of a young boy in the 1950s, one of them playing “Reds and Whites.” He doesn’t like to be a “White,” Dennis says. He’d rather drop out of the game.

Pioneers, Murzilka, Reds and Whites were relics by the time I entered school in the early ’90s. Things of the past, but not forgotten. Reds, of course, were the Bolsheviks in the Civil War; Whites were the remains of the old society, the side that lost. My great-grandfather, a White Officer, disappeared in the prison camps. “I love stories about Red Army cavalrymen who always win their battles,” Dennis says in “Things I Like.” I did not hear it as a child, but now that I sit with this book 25 years later, I wonder. Did my grandfather’s voice falter when he read this story to me?

. . . .

I want to slow down, savor the stories, but the moment I finish one my eyes find the first line of the next. “The Mystery Clears,” “Chicken Soup,” “Twenty Years Under the Bed.” New editions of the book come every year, but it’s becoming harder and harder for parents to translate the realities of Soviet life to their children. “Chicken Soup” begins with Dennis’ mother bringing home a whole chicken, which she hangs on the window frame. The English translation published in 1981 by Raduga has the mother put it in the fridge instead. Playing hide-and-seek with his friends in “Twenty Years Under the Bed,” Dennis enters an unfamiliar room only to be accidentally locked in by the room’s occupant, the elderly Efrosinya Petrovna. This won’t make a bit of sense unless you’ve lived in a communal flat.

. . . .

The book is flimsy, with a faded image of a boy bundled in a thick winter coat marching in front of his father. It doesn’t scream of being a children’s book, not unless you can read the title in Russian. Or is it my connection to this book? After all, The Adventures of Dennis is an intimate part of my childhood. Somewhere in it are chocolate stains from my six-year-old fingers. Trapped between its pages is the smell of meatballs and pickle soup my grandmother made every month.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

School District Pulls To Kill a Mockingbird: It “Makes People Uncomfortable”

15 October 2017

From Slate:

The Biloxi school district in Mississippi has decided to remove To Kill a Mockingbird from its junior-high reading list. The reason? Some of the book’s language “makes people uncomfortable,” the vice president of the school board, Kenny Holloway, said. “There were complaints about it,” he added, “and we can teach the same lesson with other books.” The administrator insisted kids could still go to the library to read the book “but they’re going to use another book in the 8th grade course.”

Although the school administrator doesn’t say it, a parent who first contacted the Sun Herald with the news of the apparent mid-year shift in the reading list said the decision to pull the book was “due to the use of the ‘N’ word.”

. . . .

Many criticized the decision by the school district, including Arne Duncan, who was secretary of Education from 2009-2015 under President Obama. “When school districts remove To Kill a Mockingbird from the reading list, we know we have real problems,” Duncan wrote on Twitter. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska also blasted the move, calling it “a terrible decision.”

Link to the rest at Slate

Anatomy of a Picture Book Frontlist

12 October 2017

From Publishers Weekly:

One thing I need to get done today is go through the picture book frontlist of Harper’s Winter ’18 titles. I have a sales call for it on Friday. We are a rural store and rep appointments are mostly done by phone, so this means reading though a sales kit of F&Gs beforehand. I thought it would be interesting to make a list of what I was hoping to find in the box and then see how what I found matched up. Here’s the list.

  1. At least one book, hopefully two, that I absolutely love and can handsell to the nines. Ideally it would be an easy handsell, whose interplay of text and illustration is gestalt and intrinsically engaging. A true store favorite like A House in the Woods.
  2. Around five strong books which fill evergreen needs at the store, great new baby gifts, sibling anxieties, birthday books, books that have a moose in them, solid new entries by established authors and whatnot.

. . . .

5. Finally, recognizing that most of the books will fall into the category of being not so bad, and being mindful of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s observation that “there is nothing quite so bad as something which is not so bad,” I hope that one of the books will be spectacularly ill considered, a la Bronto Eats Meat, just for the edifying window it provides into the industry and humanity in general, and the appreciation for quality titles which we should never take for granted.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Since PG is entertained by much that is ill considered, here’s a link to Bronto Eats Meat.

Judy Blume, a Pre-Teen Fiction Trailblazer, Opens Up Her Archive

9 October 2017
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From The Wall Street Journal:

Once upon a time, there were lots of picture books for children but not many stories for young-adult readers. Then along came Judy Blume. In the 1970s, the author of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” spun pitch-perfect prose for adolescents and middle-schoolers, detonating a genre that exploded with wizards, babysitters, vampires and the junior-high drama of BFFs and frenemies.

The author, who will turn 80 in February, said, “50 years of writing…could be enough.” She is selling her literary archive to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library later this month.

Ms. Blume has published dozens of books, ranging from humorous children’s tales (a second-grader’s quixotic quest in “Freckle Juice”) to grown-up novels (enduring friendship in “Summer Sisters”). But she made her name with stories that resonated with pre-teens. She also took on subjects, including divorce and sexuality, that at the time were taboo for young readers. Ms. Blume’s candor drew fire from some quarters but earned her a world-wide following.

. . . .

The Beinecke, home to the papers of Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and others, also has a rich collection of children’s literature. Timothy Young, curator of modern books and manuscripts at the library, said the acquisition will turbocharge its growing young-adult holdings.

For some readers, Ms. Blume defines the genre. “If you ask anybody on the street to name a young-adult writer,” Mr. Young said, the response often is Judy Blume: “She is the iconic person that you’ve read and you loved or you didn’t love but you knew her work.”

Young-adult literature is a largely unexamined area of archival study, Mr. Young said, and one likely to attract faculty, researchers and visitors to Yale.

. . . .

Ms. Blume said she is no pack rat—in part because she moved houses often—but from the start she held on to the rejection letters that met many of her early efforts for very young children. She also kept the mockups of books that she submitted to publishers in her twenties. For those early attempts, she wrote rhyming verses, illustrated them with colored pencils and used brass fasteners to hold the manuscript together. Her creations “would come back rejected and every now and then I’d get a really nice rejection letter,” she recalled.

Ms. Blume also saved boxes of fan mail in which some readers revealed their hopes and fears. One 10-year-old wrote in ballpoint pen on a sheet of Garfield the Cat stationery “in every one of your books you give us a new way to cope with life.” Ms. Blume and Mr. Young said they are working with Yale’s legal advisers to allow access to the letters while preserving the young writers’ privacy.

. . . .

Ms. Blume said the $500,000 Yale is paying for the archive will go to the Kids Fund, her foundation through which she makes charitable contributions.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

First Books: The Stories That Got Us Into Reading

30 September 2017

From Bookriot:

When I was nine years old, a collection of books changed my reading habits forever. I can even remember exactly which book made me become an avid reader, and how reading went from being something I liked to do in class, to something I couldn’t live without.

Many years later, I still hold Uma Aventura by authors Ana Maria Magalhães and Isabel Alçada (a Portuguese set of adventure books with no translation to English, unfortunately) close to my heart; they led me to a path I am more than grateful for. Books are magic, and I hold that magic in my hands every day thanks to a single story I picked up as a child.

. . . .


There were picture books I loved as a kid but nothing fueled my desire to read more than The Babysitter’s Club. My older sister would read them to me before I could read them myself and that got me started on the Babysitter’s Club Little Sister books. But those were just a placeholder until I could get my hands on the “real” BSC books. Once I did, I devoured them feverishly–the regular series, the Super Specials, the mysteries, the Super Special Mysteries, etc. The Babysitter’s Club taught me to love reading (and writing) and I’ll always be grateful to Ann M. Martin for that.

. . . .


For 8-year-old me, the Goosebumpsseries was like my imagination synthesized into story. I was the kind of kid that still needed a nightlight, that snuck into my parent’s bed when the nightmares became too much, that, yes, still sucked my thumb and carried around the remnants of a blankie. But the Goosebumps series let me resolve those nightmares, and I loved them. I would carry a stack to school and try to finish my busy work as fast as possible so I could have extra time to read. I combed used bookstores to find the ones I was missing. I even wrote a short story and entered it into a Goosebumps’ writing contest (alas, my pirate-ghosts short story did not win). It wasn’t long after that I discovered Stephen King, and began reading adult books for the first time. It may seem like a leap in reading levels, but I had no difficulty navigating from one to the other. Eventually, I switched from horror to fantasy, but Goosebumps enabled me to move from middle grade reading to adult reading, and it also showed me, all unknowingly, that escapism can help me to face my fears.

Link to the rest at Bookriot

How Reading Rewires Your Brain for More Intelligence and Empathy

16 September 2017

From Big Think:

Fitness headlines promise staggering physical results: a firmer butt, ripped abs, bulging biceps. Nutritional breakthroughs are similar clickbait, with attention-grabbing, if often inauthentic—what, really, is a “superfood?”—means of achieving better health. Strangely, one topic usually escaping discussion has been shown, time and again, to make us healthier, smarter, and more empathic animals: reading. 

Reading, of course, requires patience, diligence, and determination. Scanning headlines and retweeting quips is not going to make much cognitive difference. If anything, such sweet nothings are dangerous, the literary equivalent of sugar addiction. Information gathering in under 140 characters is lazy. The benefits of contemplation through narrative offer another story.

The benefits are plenty, which is especially important in a distracted, smartphone age in which one-quarter of American children don’t learn to read. This not only endangers them socially and intellectually, but cognitively handicaps them for life. One 2009 study of 72 children ages eight to ten discovered that reading creates new white matter in the brain, which improves system-wide communication.

White matter carries information between regions of grey matter, where any information is processed. Not only does reading increase white matter, it helps information be processed more efficiently.

Reading in one language has enormous benefits. Add a foreign language and not only do communication skills improve—you can talk to more people in wider circles—but the regions of your brain involved in spatial navigation and learning new information increase in size. Learning a new language also improves your overall memory.

. . . .

Novel reading is a great way to practice being human.1 Rather than sprints and punches, how about something more primitive and necessary in a society, like empathy? As you dive deeper into Rabbit Angstrom’s follies or Jason Taylor coming of age, you not only feel their pain and joy. You actually experience it. 

In one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.

This has profound implications for how we interact with others. When encountering a 13-year-old boy misbehaving, you most likely won’t think, “Well, David Mitchell wrote about such a situation, and so I should behave like this,” but you might have integrated some of the lessons about young boys figuring life out and display a more nuanced understanding in how you react. 

Link to the rest at Big Think

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory hero ‘was originally black’

14 September 2017

From The Guardian:

Roald Dahl originally wanted the eponymous hero of his much-loved children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to be black, his widow has said.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme for Roald Dahl day on Wednesday, Liccy Dahl said: “His first Charlie that he wrote about was a little black boy.”

Asked why it was changed, she replied: “I don’t know. It’s a great pity.”

Her husband’s biographer Donald Sturrock, who was also being interviewed, said the change to a white character was driven by Dahl’s agent, who thought a black Charlie would not appeal to readers.

“I can tell you that it was his agent who thought it was a bad idea, when the book was first published, to have a black hero,” said Sturrock. “She said people would ask: ‘Why?’”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

AA Milne memoir shows Winnie-the-Pooh author longing to ‘escape’ his bear

12 September 2017

From The Guardian:

Winnie-the-Pooh may have secured a place in the hearts of children worldwide and made his creator a millionaire, but author AA Milne resented the way the bear of little brain undermined his reputation as a serious writer.

The revelation appears in his 1939 memoir It’s Too Late Now, which is to be republished on 21 September, 70 years after it went out of print and ahead of the release of a biopic about his son, Goodbye Christopher Robin. Despite the success of Pooh, Piglet, Tigger and friends, Milne was frustrated that his reputation as a writer for adults had been irrevocably damaged.

Prior to his children’s books, Milne had written a string of hit plays, novels and short stories for adults, as well as editing the satirical magazine Punch. But his first book of children’s verse, When We Were Very Young, sold 50,000 copies within two months of publication in 1924 and his Winnie-the-Pooh books became immediate bestsellers around the world. When the first volume Winnie-the-Pooh was published in 1926, it sold 150,000 copies by the end of the year in the US alone. It has never been out of print since.

In It’s Too Late Now, Milne claims that he had tired of children’s writing after 70,000 words (“the number of words in the average-length novel”), but was trapped. “I wanted to escape from [children’s books] as I had once wanted to escape from Punch; as I have always wanted to escape,” he writes. “In vain. England expects the writer, like the cobbler, to stick to his last.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Children turn their backs on e-books as ‘screen fatigue’ takes hold and sales of books for youngsters soar

10 September 2017

From The Daily Mail:

Children’s printed book sales are soaring as youngsters turn their backs on online reading due to ‘screen fatigue’.

Sales of children’s titles rose by 16 per cent last year with sales totalling £365million, as popular authors like David Walliams inspire young readers to pick up a book.

But while printed sales increase, e-books are on the wane with a 3 per cent fall in sales.

. . . .

Figures show that almost £1 in every £4 spent on printed books is from a children’s title, reports the Observer.

Children’s authors are proving to be a key genre in the publishing industry, often outselling others.

But while parents have often worried about youngsters spending too much time on their computer or games console, experts believe that there is a real hunger for the written word among children.

According to industry magazine, The Bookseller: ‘Children are now reading more and want to read print.’

Link to the rest at The Daily Mail

Well. If The Bookseller says so, it must be true.

In PG’s observation, children like brightly-colored images and objects of all sorts, including books. A new brightly-colored object tends to be more interesting than an old brightly-colored object. Old brightly-colored objects, including books, live under the bed. Children have demonstrated this behavior for a long time.

Children also like watching Peppa the Pig, George of the Jungle, Moana, Queen Elsa, Wild Kratts, etc., etc., etc., on television. They will often do so until an adult turns off the television. This behavior has continued over several generations of children, starting with black and white television. Old televisions are too big to fit under the bed and old television shows never die. No sign of screen fatigue here.

Children also like playing with iPads, Kindle Fires, etc. Hand a child one of those and the child will often play with it until an adult intervenes. While not a widespread phenomena today, PG predicts that old iPads will someday live under the bed. No sign of screen fatigue here.

PG suggests that screen fatigue is the creation of a marketing manager somewhere, not a psychological or sociological phenomenon. PG doesn’t know if “children are reading more” is a fact, but suspects it may also be the creation of a marketing manager somewhere.

One thing PG does know is that marketing managers don’t really care if screen fatigue or reading children are genuine phenomena, so long as adults continue to purchase children’s books.

Why Picture Books Now?

27 August 2017

From Nerdy Book Club:

Remember when picture books gave us a simple view of family, neighborhoods and the world at large? As readers we felt safe, cocooned between the pages of that one view, it was comforting.

Fast forward twenty years, an elementary school librarian in a small rural town that is made up of vast social economic disparities. School population of 100+ students from surrounding hill towns. I share these details because our school is a homogenized population, where most of the children are related to each other, have never traveled outside the general area and come to us with that simple view of family, neighborhoods and the world. Is that a bad thing? Yes and no. On the no side they feel confident and vocal to judge, what to them not may not be the “normal” picture of family. On the yes side, many of our students struggle emotionally and physically when their families don’t fit that simpler view. With little knowledge of the wider world and diversity they become more closed in mind, body and words.  How do we help our students see a more modern view of themselves and the world? The school library and books!

. . . .

I have found that after reading books on diversity and compassion the Library Club students start to share their growing knowledge of diversity outside of the club, during lunch time, while chatting with friends, in their art and especially during library book check out. With exposure to books on diversity and compassion students stretch their comfort zones into new and wider reading adventures.

Link to the rest at Nerdy Book Club and thanks to Ron for the tip.

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