No, Books Should Not Have Content Ratings Like Movies

From Book Riot:

One of the great joys of my young life was reading books pitched to older children. Graduating from picture books to chapter books with pictures, then chapter books, then longer and longer books was a big deal to me. For kids’ books in the U.S., you can usually find an age range somewhere on the flap or back cover of a book. Readers and people acquiring books for readers occasionally use this as a guide for getting books for appropriate ages. In recent years, certain groups have demanded a more robust rating system for books, similar to the MPAA rating system for movies. However, there are many reasons why books should not have content ratings like movies.

The general idea behind a “rating” system for kids’ books makes sense to me. The widespread availability of the Internet means that kids have access to some of the worst information ever documented with just a few keystrokes. Technology companies attempt to keep up with this freedom by providing methods of blocking content that could be upsetting or out-of-age-range for young children. The problem with books is that there’s no way to automatically censor content in books unless you ban them, rip out specific pages, or cross out certain words with a permanent marker.

Since books are longer and more involved than movies, they’re trickier to pin down with exact content ratings. Including age ranges can sort of help, but they don’t tell you much about the content. A 10 year old is also unlikely to have the exact same experiences or sensitivities as a 10 year old from a different country, or even one from a different neighborhood.

. . . .

Jon Lewis, author of Hollywood v. Hard Core: How the Struggle Over Censorship Created the Modern Film Industry, argues that the ratings are subjective by design. We can see what he means in how certain movies are declared to be far more “adult” than others.

. . . .

Parents don’t even seem to like the MPAA rating system all that much, criticizing it for desensitizing children to violence. So what’s the argument for a rating system for books?

The idea is that kids should not have access to stories that could upset them or expose them to difficult topics. The rating system outlined on Book Cave uses seven categories (crude humor/language, profanity, drug and alcohol use, kissing, nudity, sex and intimacy, and violence and horror), and then rates each category on a scale from All Ages to Adult+. The book is then weighted for a final rating. Common Sense Media gives detailed advice about how to assess various aspects of books and how to choose them for children, and promises to provide detailed reviews to help parents, guardians, and other stakeholders make decisions.

. . . .

Age ranges and reading levels are also very hit-or-miss. Reading levels were introduced in schools to make sure students were keeping up with reading demands, so there were lots of numbers introduced to explain these levels. The important part of reading levels is that children should be able to ingest and understand the majority of the book they’re reading so they don’t get discouraged. However, kids should challenge themselves with books theoretically outside of their level so they don’t get bored.

If reading levels are determined by word difficulty alone, that can also make books look less complex than they are. Age ranges and reading levels are somewhat necessary for educators to build curricula, but kids should always be allowed to seek books outside of their “level” or assigned classroom work. I’m an advocate of the method “bring kid to library and let them explore for three hours,” as my caretakers did for me.

There are problems with rating systems that use categories to determine appropriateness as well. A book might not have violence in it explicitly, but it could have imagery that gives your child a nightmare. We can’t determine how kids will react to reading in general, so over-arching rules and categorical rating systems are limited.

Rating systems that determine how “adult” a book is also impose a certain kind of life experience on childhood. They present a monolithic idea of maturity: a child can only read about violent content when they’re of the age to be familiar with it. There are children in the world who are familiar with curse words, or have experience with violent or upsetting events. “Milestones” in childhood are impossible to pinpoint because people’s life experiences are so wildly different.

Reading about difficult topics, whether or not children have experienced them, can be a good way to process complex emotions. It’s also an important way for children to develop language and understanding around “inappropriate” topics.

. . . .

At the surface, none of this sounds necessarily bad. Parents obviously want kids to read, but they don’t want kids diving into books with intense horror that will scare a 7 year old or overt descriptions of sex before a parent has had ‘The Talk’ with their kid.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

PG notes that parents are not the only people who give or choose books for children.

Schools, public and private, also give/choose books for children. Ditto for libraries.

A ratings system doesn’t need to be perfect to be useful for people who choose books for children to read.

Given the nature of a relatively small portion of books which parents are likely to find objectionable, PG doesn’t mind terribly that a ratings system might err on the side of excluding books that only a small portion of the children’s families would likely find objectionable.

A single book is not the only way a child can learn about something the child or family might regard as objectionable. There are zillions of books available on all manner of topics, presenting them in a wide variety of ways.

As a final observation, PG notes that opinion pieces that claim it’s important for children know about this or that at a particular age are generalizing about children in a manner that assumes that all children of a certain age are ready to understand this or that fact of life. They also often assume that getting such information with a certain degree of specificity is important when a more general discussion might provide some or all children with the information they need to know and assuming they can extrapolate from the general to the specific without having the specific laid out in great detail.

PG’s experience growing up on ranches and farms with livestock of various sizes and shapes exposed him to some universal elements of mammalian interaction between the female and male of a given species gave him the general idea concerning male/female reproduction cause and effect among mammals of other types.

He expects that any child growing up in a neighborhood with more than one or two dogs might have the same general type of experience from time to time without the specificity provided in a book describing such details between human males and females of different ages.

But, as usual, PG could be completely wrong about this whole subject.

More than half of young readers credit BookTok with sparking passion for reading

From The Bookseller:

A poll conducted by the Publishers Association has found more than half of young readers credit BookTok, a subcommunity on the social media platform TikTok focused on books and literature, with helping them discover a passion for reading.

Of 2,001 16–25-year-olds surveyed by the organisation in October, 59% said that BookTok or book influencers had “helped them discover a passion for reading”, while more than half (55%) said they turn to BookTok for recommendations. Moreover, 68% said BookTok had inspired them to read a book that they would have never considered otherwise.

The research also saw 38% of young people say they turn to BookTok for recommendations ahead of family and friends, while nearly one in five (19%) reported that following the Booktok hashtag helped them find a community. Another 16% reported that they had made new friends through BookTok.

Dan Conway, chief executive of the Publishers Association, said: “It’s great to see that the BookTok phenomenon is igniting a love of reading for young people. Reading can be so beneficial to health and happiness and is a way for all ages to connect over common interests.”

Findings suggest a boost for bookshops, too, with nearly half (49%) of respondents visiting a physical bookshop to buy a book they have seen on BookTok. Book Bar, an independent bookshop and wine bar in London, is among a number of bookshops aiming to cater for this audience.

Due to trends driven by BookTok, the shop now stocks more contemporary books which cater to a broader demographic. Chrissy Ryan, the owner of Book Bar, said: “Launching in the pandemic was challenging but BookTok has been really helpful in driving customers into our store. More and more we are seeing young people come to the shop asking for books they discovered on TikTok.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Inside the Real-Life Succession Battle at Scholastic

During his internet checking for the post that appeared online just before this one, PG was researching a bit about Scholastic and stumbled onto something he thought would be of interest to visitors to TPV. This story appeared in October, 2021.

From The New York Times:

When her phone buzzed on June 6, Iole Lucchese was still absorbing a shock that had come the day before. Her longtime boss, M. Richard Robinson Jr., the chairman and chief executive of the Scholastic publishing company, had died suddenly while taking a walk with one of his sons and his former wife on Martha’s Vineyard.

Now, Scholastic’s general counsel, Andrew Hedden, was on the phone, delivering a second surprise.

He had called to inform her that Mr. Robinson, 84 — who turned his father’s book and magazine business into the largest publisher and distributor of children’s books in the world, known for thousands of beloved series, including Clifford the Big Red Dog, Hunger Games and Harry Potter — had left Ms. Lucchese 53.8 percent of Scholastic’s Class A stock. The company where she had worked for 30 years, rising from a junior employee in the Canadian market to one of its top executives, was now a company she controlled.

“It was overwhelming,” Ms. Lucchese said in an interview at Scholastic’s headquarters in SoHo, water towers punctuating the cityscape behind her.

Being handed control of the company, which is valued at $1.2 billion, has made Ms. Lucchese, 55, one of the most powerful women in book publishing, and the stock provides her — the daughter of a construction worker and a homemaker — with significant wealth. The gift also shifts the business, which had been passed from father to son, to a person outside the family and puts Scholastic in an extremely unusual position for a public company: adapting to a succession plan many key players did not know was coming.

In his will, Mr. Robinson described Ms. Lucchese (her name is pronounced YO-lay lew-KAY-zee) as “my partner and closest friend.” But an article in The Wall Street Journal described them as “longtime romantic partners.” Six former employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were reluctant to cause further embarrassment to Mr. Robinson’s sons, confirmed to The New York Times that the romantic relationship between Ms. Lucchese and Mr. Robinson had been well known among many Scholastic employees.

“We were great business partners and close friends,” said Ms. Lucchese, a senior executive responsible for strategy and the company’s entertainment division.

She declined to address The Journal’s claim that she and Mr. Robinson had been involved in a relationship, which the employees believe ended a few years before his death.

This was Ms. Lucchese’s first interview with the news media since the death of Mr. Robinson, whom everyone called Dick. She was joined at a round conference table by Peter Warwick, the company’s new chief executive, and flanked by two publicists, one from Scholastic and another from the public relations firm Edelman.

“Dick understood that I shared his passion for Scholastic, and what this company means to the teachers we serve, to the children we serve, to everyone,” Ms. Lucchese said of his decision to leave his Class A shares to her. “He trusted me with that legacy, and I think it’s because we worked together and he knew that we were aligned.”

That bequest bypassed his two sons, John Benham Robinson, 34, known as Ben, and Maurice Robinson, 25, known as Reece. Mr. Robinson’s sons declined to comment for this article.

. . . .

The publisher’s offices are in a warehouse-style building with exposed bricks, subway tiles and a giant sculpture of Captain Underpants busting through the lobby wall. On the day of the interview, the offices sat mostly empty as many employees continued to work from home because of the pandemic. Any silences in the conversation hung heavily in the air.

Sometimes confining herself to one-word answers, Ms. Lucchese discussed her career and the unusual situation of being both a longtime senior executive and now also the chairwoman. A stack of Harry Potter books kept watch from a large wooden bookshelf over Ms. Lucchese’s left shoulder.

“He’s the boss,” she said, motioning to Mr. Warwick, who, as chief executive, in one sense outranks her.

“But I do report to the board,” he answered.

An Envelope in a Safe

“Scholastic announces the untimely death of its chairman and CEO M. Richard (Dick) Robinson, Jr.,” a company news release declared the day after Mr. Robinson died. It emphasized that his passing had been unexpected and sudden, even though he was 84 years old.

About six weeks later, Ms. Lucchese’s new position as chairwoman was made public, with the company including that update midway through a news release titled “Peter Warwick Named Chief Executive Officer of Scholastic Corporation.”

Scholastic did not seek publicity for its new chair, the first woman and the first person outside the Robinson family to hold the position in decades. A few days after the news of the personal complexity around the succession had broken in The Journal, the company, known for its stable of beloved childhood classics, became an object of tabloid interest — “How ‘chameleon’ Iole Lucchese won $1.2B Scholastic empire,” read one New York Post headline.

When a reporter for The New York Times emailed Scholastic in August requesting an interview with Ms. Lucchese, Ira Gorsky, executive vice president at Edelman, the public relations company, called to inquire about whether Ms. Lucchese would be asked about “the alleged affair,” saying, “You can see how this is offensive, how the allegations implied that she has not gotten to her position because of merit.”

Mr. Gorsky said that as “a ground rule for giving an interview,” the Times reporter could not ask Ms. Lucchese about a personal relationship with Mr. Robinson. When the reporter declined to agree to such limitations, Mr. Gorsky responded: “Then we’re done.”

Ms. Lucchese did eventually agree to be interviewed, and no one representing her asked again for restrictions on topics or questions. Aside from an hourlong conversation with Ms. Lucchese and Mr. Warwick, preceded by a tour of the company’s archive led by a librarian, Scholastic declined to make any other employee available.

Her supporters say that as a 30-year veteran and a longtime senior executive of the company, she represents continuity and is qualified to lead it. Any skeptical reaction to Mr. Robinson’s choice of Ms. Lucchese is “laced with sexism,” said Erik Feig, the founder of Picturestart, a media financing and production company that Scholastic invested in and where Ms. Lucchese is a board member.

“She understands every brick of the literal and metaphorical building of the company,” Mr. Feig said.

Wall Street does not know her as well as some players in Hollywood do. Scholastic’s largest investor, after the Robinson family, was not aware of Mr. Robinson’s succession plan. “On a number of occasions, I asked Dick,” said David Wallack, a portfolio manager for T. Rowe Price, the Baltimore-based investment company, which holds more than 18 percent of the company’s common stock.

“He would tell me, ‘When I die, there is a safe, and there is an envelope in the safe, and the board of directors will open the safe and see what my wishes were,’” said Mr. Wallack, who was in regular touch with Mr. Robinson for 20 years. “I thought it was hyperbole.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times

(Sorry if you hit a paywall. PG isn’t a subscriber to the NYT digital edition, but somehow managed to slip past the NYT paywall this one time. Sorry, but he doesn’t know what magic formula got him there.)

What Young Readers Need

From Publishing Perspectives:

Among the two days of B2B sessions programmed for the inaugural season of our Publishing Perspectives Forum at Frankfurter Buchmesse, an October 20 discussion called “What Young Readers Need Today: Children’s Publishing CEOs in Conversation” drew a strong audience of trade visitors and exhibitors.

Frankfurt president and CEO Juergen Boos led the wide-ranging conversation with Scholastic president and CEO Peter Warwick and Ravensburger CEO Clemens Maier.

Scholastic, based in the States but with deep international-market penetration, is about a century old and is widely recognized as the largest publisher in the world of its kind. Ravensburger was founded in 1883 and, at 139 years old remains focused on a range of products, not just on books, its first product actually having been a wood chip basket sold in 1884.

“Where I think we’re united and a little bit difference from many publishers,” Ravensburger’s Maier said early in the discussion, “is that [we’ve each] actually built a brand, a company brand, a recognizable brand” which may, in fact, be understood differently according to which consumer you ask about it.

“‘The parents know ‘Ravensburger,’” he pointed out, while youngsters for whom those parents are buying educational content may be more familiar with one of the company’s brands such as ThinkFun or Brio.

Warwick pointed out that there’s a parallel in the brand discussion for major companies like Scholastic and Ravensburger and the author-illustrator relationship.

“In illustrated children’s books,” he said, “it’s always a marriage” between the work of the author and the illustrator,” although he agreed with Boos that by the time a reader may be getting into the YA range of the market, there’s a good chance that she or he will be starting to recognize authors’ names, perhaps as readily as a favorite illustrator.

This creates a kind of shifting market dynamic for young readers’ work, and especially for major houses like Scholastic and Ravensburger.

“We always try to analyze as much as we possibly can,” Warwick said, “to understand exactly who is the customer: is it parents, is it the teachers, is it the child? In different circumstances, it can be it can be all of them.”

This question of market analysis and consumer insight prompted Maier to talk about “huge advances in technology and artificial intelligence that we can use in our industry, I think it’s super-exciting.

“We’re looking at things like text-to-image,” he said, “where through simple sentences, you can create images, it’s quite fascinating.”

While “the human hand is still very, very important, we see technology enabling us in many respects, with all the data analysis” that goes into good marketing by taking into account consumer reaction to products.

“Even a company of our size has to be pretty technologically savvy at this point,” Maier said.

And that, as Warwick had pointed out, is itself complicated in the children’s sector by the fact that the buyer and the reader frequently aren’t the same person. Just how text and image may affect the “consumer” can vary according to who that consumer is.

. . . .

“We do a very significant part of our business actually on the school premises,” he said. “We weren’t able to operate [Scholastic’s] book fairs. And we weren’t able to operate our book clubs. There was nobody around for quite a few months to significantly buy educational books, either. Those, our trade books, and what we sell internationally,” Warwick said, “are the core of our business.

“So the timing of the pandemic was pretty serious,” he told Boos. “What happened was that instead of being able to do commerce, as it were, on the school premises, we did a lot more business with the booksellers and the trade, and a lot more business with direct-to-parents—being able to deliver bookshop choices to parents rather than schools. It’s now reverted back to pretty much where it was before, which is to say 85-percent book fairs,” he said—”and the fairs’ revenue is higher than before the pandemic, so that’s very satisfactory.”

On the other hand, he said, “Our trade sales have cooled a little because those books the parents might have [bought] by going to a bookstore, the kids are now getting through the book fair. So we’ve seen the switch and the switch-back.”

Warwick added that the supply-chain effects had been substantial for Scholastic, as well. Having seen a lot of books come in later than expected a year ago, “We wanted to make sure that [now] we have everything. That’s been a change from last year to this year, a fundamental change in the way our business has been organized.”

. . . .

“With families staying at home,” Maier said, “there was a lot of time to play and a demand for those products, semi-educational products. A good chunk of our business is puzzles.

A lot of people” who might not normally advertise their fondness for puzzles “now started puzzling and were very vocal about it. We found ourselves on the front pages of American newspapers like the Wall Street Journal. I think it was the Australian prime minister who said that puzzles are ‘a product of national need’ and that you were allowed to leave the house for that.

“In that sense, COVID was kind to us. Obviously that’s changing now. Some of that extra time is going away and we do feel supply-chain challenges that many people fear. I get the sense our whole modern global supply chain has been built for 2-, 3-, 4-percent swings, not for the 20-percent swings we’ve been seeing over the last couple of years.”

Warwick concurred with Maier on this: “The whole basis of the supply chain for many years was ‘just in time.’ And it’s now become ‘just out of time,’ really because if you’re working on a just-in-time basis, that will really have to change.”

. . . .

Maier made a aside that in Ravensburger’s GraviTrax interactive construction apps, “Lots of people play it, but what we don’t do—or very rarely do—is try to mix the product experience.

“So when the issue was new, everybody was saying, ‘Wow, that is so cool.’” Some elements of the app’s operation could make it appear that an iPhone was broken, although this was simply a messaging effect built into the media.

“What we all realized, Maier said, “was that joining the experience of digital and physical in-app is not a great idea. Going with the same brand into both worlds we do think is a great idea. And then of course there’s exceptions to that because there’s some things where the screen for learning, as a supplement makes a ton of sense.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Perhaps it’s just PG’s mood today, but none of the participants in this discussion sounded particularly intelligent, insightful or innovative.

Exhibit A: “The whole basis of the supply chain for many years was ‘just in time.’ And it’s now become ‘just out of time,’ really because if you’re working on a just-in-time basis, that will really have to change.”

Duh! Covid shutdowns disrupted manufacturing and shipping for virtually all major industries all over the world, a fact which most intelligent business executives took on board months ago.

Exhibit A is the equivalent of saying, “Trees used for printed books take too long to grow.”

Exhibit B: “In illustrated children’s books,” he said, “it’s always a marriage” between the work of the author and the illustrator.”

Oh, really? It takes an author and an illustrator to created an illustrated book? Who would have thunk that?

Presumably, Publishing Perspectives picked the highlights of the statements of these corporate drones to include in its article summarizing what was likely at least a one-hour session.

There was one key indicator Publishing Perspectives didn’t include in its reporting — How many audience members walked out during the session to look for something that was less tedious and more interesting.

Rick Riordan to Return to Percy Jackson Next Fall

From Publisher’s Weekly:

In 2014’s The Heroes of Olympus: The Blood of Olympus, Rick Riordan wrapped up the tales of Percy Jackson, Annabeth Chase, and Grover Underwood, allowing them to concentrate on the future rather than saving the world. Save for the occasional cameo, since then the three have yielded space to other protagonists, such as god-turned-mortal Apollo. However, in September 2023, Riordan will reunite his iconic trio for another grand adventure, when they’re called upon to retrieve a missing artifact.

Percy Jackson and the Chalice of the Gods started off as a way to entice Hollywood studios into supporting the rebooted Percy Jackson TV adaptation for Disney+. “What if I sweetened the deal,” Riordan said he pondered, “by giving the readers something they’ve been wanting for the last decade, a classic Percy Jackson novel from his point of view, featuring Percy, Annabeth, and Grover, just like the original five books? It would be the first time since The Last Olympian in 2009 that we had an honest-to-goodness Percy Jackson novel.” (The Heroes of Olympus series, which initially focused upon Roman demi-god Jason Grace, expanded the cast and was told from multiple points of view.)

“I knew we basically had a year to play with during Percy’s senior year in high school, where nothing had been sketched out, no canon described,” Riordan said. “All we know is he’s in school in New York. So what would happen to him? Of course, he’s getting ready for college. And I’ve been through that with my two boys, and that means recommendation letters. And to get into New Rome University, you need recommendation letters from the gods, and they don’t give those out for free. So Percy has to do quests—not to save the world this time, but just to get into college.”

But the television deal with Disney took off and the pitch proved unnecessary after all, so Riordan shelved the idea while working on other projects. When Disney asked Riordan if he had anything they could publish to support the show, he said, “I have these ideas that I came up with two years ago. Why don’t we give the fans a treat?”

Link to the rest at Publisher’s Weekly

21 of the Best Opening Lines in Children’s Books

From We are Teachers:

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?”

Charlotte’s Web

“In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on a leaf.”

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

“On Thursday, when Imogene woke up, she found she had grown antlers.”

Imogene’s Antlers

“In an old house in Paris, that was covered with vines, lived 12 little girls, in two straight lines.”

Madeline

“There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.”

Holes

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Link to the rest at We are Teachers

Running an Olsen Twins Fan Page Taught Me to Craft an Online Identity

From Electric Lit:

Before my online life orbited around Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, my imaginative play centered on being Mary-Kate and Ashley. The twins were girls like me, except cuter and blonde. A bit older. Certainly smaller, but still, larger than life. They were influencers before the advent of social media. Their empire was built upon their ability to successfully monetize the self. 

 “Do you want to be Mary-Kate or Ashley?” I’d ask my neighbor, Megan, as we waded through the creek by her house. Megan always wanted to be Mary-Kate. That’s why I’d given her a choice. 

Mary-Kate was marketed as sporty and adventurous. Ashley was stylish and demure. Who you chose aligned with the girl you hoped to be – and for me, that was the most feminine girl, the most perfect of girls, everything I’d been told a girl should be. 

We divvied up the twins and mimicked plot lines from their direct-to-video mystery and You’re Invited! series, pretending to solve crimes in our neighborhood cul-de-sac, planning occasion-less parties in the garden. Everything the twins marketed was rooted in a reality that could theoretically be replicated – a reality more exciting and beautiful than the mundane life of a rural West Virginia girl.

By the time the Olsens were in elementary school, their manager, Robert Thorne, began the work that would lead to their jaw dropping fortune. No longer just child actresses, they became a brand. Their faces appeared all over Walmart, one of the only places to shop in our small town. As my mom filled up her grocery cart, I strolled the dimly lit makeup aisles where I spotted the Mary-Kate and Ashley line: jelly lip glosses and creamy eye shadows in a variety of catching colors. Their makeup boasted no specific cosmetic improvement. Not longer lashes or brighter skin or stronger nails. The only brag was the association.

I walked to the middle of the store, to their girls’ clothing line targeted to tweens, those in-between childhood and adolescence. There, I picked out one of their tank tops to purchase with my allowance money, a flimsy piece of fabric in aquamarine, its back a maze of strings. 

“I don’t know,” my mom said as I held the shirt up in the freezer section of the grocery store, harsh lighting barely illuminating the small rhinestones sewn into the fabric for embellishment. “You wouldn’t be able to wear a bra with that.” 

“I don’t need a bra,” I argued, though my mother and I both knew that I certainly did. I could tell she was about to say this, though she stopped herself, perhaps for fear that my response to being punished for breasts would be continued attempts to starve them away. 

“You can only wear it around the house,” she said.

“In the neighborhood?” 

“I don’t know. Certainly not out.”

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

The Enduring Allure of Choose Your Own Adventure Books

From The New Yorker:

You were a girl who wanted to choose your own adventures. Which is to say, you were a girl who never had adventures. You always followed the rules. But, when you ate an entire sleeve of graham crackers and sank into the couch with a Choose Your Own Adventure book, you got to imagine that you were getting into trouble in outer space, or in the future, or under the sea. You got to make choices every few pages: Do you ask the ghost about her intentions, or run away? Do you rebel against the alien overlords, or blindly obey them?

This was the late eighties in Los Angeles. You binged on these books, pulling tattered sun-bleached copies from your bookshelf: four, five, six in the course of a single afternoon. All over the country, all over the world, other kids were pulling these books from their bookshelves, too. The series has sold more than two hundred and seventy million copies since its launch, in 1979. It’s the fourth-best-selling children’s-book series of all time. Its popularity peaked in the eighties, but the franchise still sells about a million books a year.

In “The Cave of Time,” the first book in the series, you discover a time-travelling cave whose tunnels carry you to Colonial Massachusetts, where you become a soap-maker’s apprentice; or to the Titanic, where your attempts to warn the captain are futile; or even to a version of the year 2022 that does not look much like our version of 2022 (more bike trails). The stated desire of your character (to return to your own time) is at odds with the actual desire of a reader (to have as many adventures as possible). You want to die in the jaws of a T. rex, or change the course of history by eating a sandwich. The warning at the beginning of the book tells you, “Remember—you cannot go back!” But of course you can go back, and you will. After the first few books, the warnings stop saying “You cannot go back!” They understand that going back is the point—not the making but the re-making of choices, the revocability of it all. In childhood, you get to take things back. It’s a small compensation for having very little power in the first place.

Choose books invited kids to exercise some agency, as they rattled around in these cages of limited possibility: millions of seven-year-olds who would someday become thirty-five-year-olds remembering with an aching nostalgia this early sense of freedom; this faith that, after every death, there would always be a do-over.

TWO DADS

The story of Choose Your Own Adventure is largely the tale of two men: Edward Packard, a lawyer who came up with the concept while telling bedtime stories to his two daughters (who sometimes wanted the protagonist to do different things), and R. A. (Ray) Montgomery, an independent publisher who put out Packard’s first book, in 1976, after all the big houses had rejected it. Each of them eventually went on to write nearly sixty titles in the series. During the next three decades, Packard and Montgomery (who died in 2014) weathered an evolving, sometimes fractious relationship. Each, at various points, pursued publishing ventures without the other. But together they were responsible for many of the most beloved titles in the series: Packard’s “The Cave of Time,” “Your Code Name Is Jonah,” “Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey?,” and “The Mystery of Chimney Rock”; Montgomery’s “Journey Under the Sea,” “The Lost Jewels of Nabooti,” “Mystery of the Maya,” and “Prisoner of the Ant People.”

Both men went through divorces shortly before the series started gaining momentum, and ended up writing many of their books as single fathers. Their children remember helping their fathers invent and flesh out new scenarios: Packard’s daughter Andrea suggested the idea of a time-travelling cave; Montgomery’s sons, Anson and Ramsey, suggested cars (the Saab 900 Turbo, the Lancia Stratos) for “The Race Forever.” Packard paid his children thirty-five cents an hour to read his manuscripts and offer feedback: Which parts were boring? Which choices would kids enjoy? (Andrea, Anson, and Ramsey ended up writing for the franchise, publishing their first Choose books during college.)

Andrea recalls that time with her father felt even more precious after her parents divorced. (They split up when she was seven.) He would take her on weekend outings that emphasized experiment and tactile experience—encountering the world in concrete, physical ways—and Andrea sees the Choose books as another manifestation of this ethos: a way of encouraging kids to experience the world through exploration and curiosity. Andrea can still remember looking at her father’s diagrams for the books: the forking branches spidering across taped-together paper charts. To her, “those charts felt like houses of possibility.”

. . . .

THE STORYTELLER

When his daughters were young, Packard told them bedtime stories about a boy named Pete, a literary alter ego of Andrea’s. (Pete was also the name of a friend she had a crush on, but she thinks the character’s creation had more to do with her suspicion that boys had more freedom in the world.) At key junctures in the story, Packard would ask his daughters what they thought Pete should do next, and when they gave different answers he’d play out both possibilities. Packard remembers this innovation as a function of necessity—“If I’d been a better storyteller, we never would have gotten the form. . . . I’d get stumped, and ask the girls what should happen next”—but Andrea recalls it as an instance of his generosity. He wanted to give each girl her own ending, just as he was always meticulously fair in his distribution of snacks, compliments, and attention.

Andrea remembers bedtime stories with her dad as sacred—this was the time the kids got to be with him, after his long days working at a law firm in Manhattan and his lengthy train commutes back to their home, in suburban Connecticut. Eventually, Packard began using these commutes to turn his bedtime stories into his first book, “Sugarcane Island,” a story full of branching paths recounting Pete’s adventures on a remote island. Working on the manuscript offered Packard an escape from a law career he found largely unsatisfying. In 1969, Packard signed a contract with an agent, who submitted “Sugarcane Island” to various New York publishers and accumulated a stack of rejections. One editor thought it was more of a game than a book. Another said, “It’s hard enough to get children to read, and you’re just making it harder, with all these choices.”

THE SCENARIO BUILDER

On a Vermont ski vacation in 1975, years after getting rejected by every editor who read “Sugarcane Island,” Packard stumbled across a magazine article about a small publisher called Vermont Crossroads, run by a husband-and-wife team: Ray Montgomery and Constance Cappel. They were looking for inventive children’s literature. When he sent them “Sugarcane Island,” they were immediately excited by the concept. One of Montgomery’s jobs had been consulting as a scenario builder for the Peace Corps and for Con Edison, writing elaborate second-person roles for participants: “You are a construction worker in your mid-thirties. . . . Oil shortages worry you, but you believe a lot of it is bluff.” Packard’s book reminded him of those scenarios: their immersive perspectives, decision junctures, and forking paths.

Despite the couple’s enthusiasm, Vermont Crossroads didn’t have many resources to devote to promotion. Packard had to pitch in to help with the publishing costs. Montgomery Xeroxed sixty copies and gave them to a local teacher to pass out to her students as a kind of juvenile focus group. Asked if they found the book interesting, fifty-nine said yes—and the one who called it “boring” reported having read it nine times. When asked if they would give the book as a gift, only four students said no (one of whom explained, “I’d keep it”). Another student said, “In other books if you’re in a jungle and a snake was next to you, you would have to go away or stay still but in this book you can do both.”

“Sugarcane Island” went on to become one of Vermont Crossroads’s most successful books, selling more than five thousand copies, but both Packard and Montgomery believed that the idea had the potential to break out on a much larger scale. That’s when things got a bit messy, both personally and professionally. Montgomery and his wife separated (as Packard tells it, “she got the house, he got ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ ”); and both men tried (separately) to take the Choose Your Own Adventure concept to larger publishers. First, Packard signed a deal with J. B. Lippincott & Co., an imprint of Harper, and published two Choose books. His pitch for a third was rejected. Packard says that Montgomery, “miffed” that Packard had left Vermont Crossroads, approached Bantam, then part of Bertelsmann, with the concept on his own. Montgomery got a contract for six books. As Packard tells it, Bantam “wouldn’t sign the deal” without Packard’s involvement; as Montgomery’s widow, Shannon Gilligan, tells it, Montgomery’s sense of fairness, as well as a feeling that six books in a year was too much for one writer, inspired him to get Packard involved. However it happened, they eventually split the deal.

Andrea helped her father come up with the idea for “The Cave of Time” during a road trip. They were in his orange Volkswagen Squareback—with a stick holding up one window, and no seat belts in the back—going to see his mother on the North Fork of Long Island. Packard told his daughters and their younger brother that he had a contract with Bantam and he needed ideas. Andrea had recently gone spelunking at summer camp, crawling into a small cave beneath the main cave, farther than anyone else, and felt torn between exploring more—had anyone ever seen these tunnels?—and returning to safety. When she suggested the idea to her father—a cave whose deepest tunnels transported you through time—he said, “Great idea! Get started!,” and handed her a yellow composition pad. “The Cave of Time” credits Andrea with “concept, title, and editorial assistance,” and she has always received a percentage of the royalties.

At Bantam, Choose Your Own Adventure finally found the huge readership its creators always believed it could entice. A 1981 feature in the Times described a fourth-grade classroom with seven students all making different choices in “The Cave of Time.” Soon afterward, Packard was interviewed by Bryant Gumbel on the “Today” show. (He’d been hoping for Jane Pauley, whom he had a crush on.) At some point in the early eighties, Bantam decided that it wanted twelve books a year, so it got six from Packard and six from Montgomery.

The Choose franchise hit a generational sweet spot, alongside the rise of Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games. Back then, it was these text-based experiences which could most powerfully deliver the possibilities of interactive narrative.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

Best-Selling Children’s Books of the 20th Century

From InfoPlease:

  1. The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1943) 140 Million
  2. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J. K. Rowling (1997) 120 Million
  3. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll (1865) 100 Million
  4. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis (1950) 85 Million
  5. The Adventures of Pinocchio, Carlo Collodi (1881) 80 Million
  6. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J. K. Rowling (1998) 77 Million
  7. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J. K. Rowling (1999) >60 Million
  8. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J. K. Rowling (2000) >60 Million
  9. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J. K. Rowling (2003) >60 Million
  10. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J. K. Rowling (2005) >60 Million
  11. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J. K. Rowling (2007) >60 Million
  12. Heidi, Johanna Spyri (1880) ~50 Million
  13. Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery (1908) ~50 Million
  14. Black Beauty, Anna Sewell (1877) ~50 Million
  15. Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White (1971) ~50 Million
  16. The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter (1902) 45 Million
  17. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle (1969) 43 Million
  18. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame (1908) ~25 Million
  19. Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak (1963) ~20 Million
  20. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl (1964) ~20 Million

Link to the rest at InfoPlease

PG notes that various compilers of best-selling book lists don’t always use the same sources, metrics (number of copies sold vs. number of dollars, euros, etc., earned) or ranking process.

Children’s Nonfiction Has an Image Problem

From Publishers Weekly:

It’s no secret that many adults enjoy reading nonfiction, and as a result, in the adult publishing world, fiction and nonfiction are respected equally. Major book awards routinely include separate categories for fiction and nonfiction, as have the New York Times bestsellers lists since their inception in 1931.

But as Cynthia Levison, Jennifer Swanson, and I wrote in PW last year, nonfiction for kids has an image problem—at home, at school, and in the media. Despite a robust body of research showing that many children prefer nonfiction, and many more enjoy fiction and nonfiction equally, most adults mistakenly believe children prefer made-up stories.

As a result, well-intended parents favor fiction for bedtime reading, and most teachers automatically choose made-up stories for read alouds and book talks as well as science and social studies lessons. A 2015 study published in Teaching Informational Text in K-3 Classrooms found that only 17–22% of titles in elementary classroom libraries were nonfiction. This sends a powerful message to children—that nonfiction isn’t as valid and valuable as fiction, that it’s not meant for everyday enjoyment.

“Children want their nonfiction books; adults may be their barriers,” says Heather Simpson, chief program officer for Room to Read, a global nonprofit organization focused on improving literacy and gender equality in education. “A child learning how to read with fiction texts alone misses a unique opportunity to pique an independent interest in reading.”

A deeper dive into adults’ biased attitude toward nonfiction for children shows that the problem is especially egregious for books that explain STEM concepts.

. . . .

As a science writer who has published more than 200 nonfiction books for children since 1998, I’ve witnessed the exciting evolution of these books firsthand, and I’ve grappled with the bias against them—including my own.

During school visits, children frequently ask me if I’ll ever write fiction. Early in my career, I gave the same answer every single time: “Maybe, I just need to find the right story.”

I don’t know if that answer satisfied the students, but it certainly didn’t satisfy me because it was a lie. In my professional life, I was surrounded by a community of people who prized stories and storytelling, and, for a long time, I thought I should too.

I remember praising the innovative format of a particular picture book biography during a presentation at a writing conference in Texas. Later, a friend kindly pointed out that, to her, the characters in that book seemed a bit wooden.

Not long after that, while serving on a book award committee, a fellow judge campaigned for her favorite title by asking, “Didn’t it bring a little tear to your eye at the end?” One of the other judges, agreed that it had. But I didn’t answer. I was embarrassed and ashamed that I didn’t share their emotional connection to the book.

These comments, and others like them from authors, editors, and educators I respect, gradually made me realize that I don’t experience stories in the same way as my colleagues. I felt like an

But then in 2014, I was doing a week-long residency at a small school in Maine. By the last day, I was really getting to know the students, and I felt comfortable with them. So when a fourth grader asked the question, I finally decided to be honest.

I asked the group: “How many of you like to write fiction?” Many hands went up, as I knew they would. Then I took a deep breath and said, “I know lots of writers who love to create characters and invent imaginary worlds. But for me, the real world is so amazing, so fascinating that I just want to learn as much as I can about it and share it with other people. That’s why I write nonfiction.”

And then something astonishing happened. A boy in the back row—a child none of the teachers expected to participate—lifted his arm, extended his pinky and his thumb, and enthusiastically rocked his hand back and forth. Because he wanted me to know what he was thinking without interrupting, he was using a nonverbal hand gesture popular in many U.S. schools.

“Me too,” he was saying. “I agree.” A moment later, a half dozen other students joined him.

I had validated their way of thinking, their experience in the world, and they were validating me right back. It was a powerful moment.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Two Books Plumb the Hidden Depths of the Fairy Tale

From The Wall Street Journal:

Once upon a time, fairy tales were the rage in fashionable Paris. At literary salons and at the court of Louis XIV, ladies and gentlemen beguiled one another with fantastical tales of talking animals and monster-husbands; of djinns and sorcerers; of sleeping beauties and ravenous ogres. Many tales had their origins in the nscrutable past of oral storytelling, containing narrative elements that in some cases dated back to the Bronze Age and could be traced to no single creator. In time, they began making their way into print—and acquiring authors.

In 1697 the French writer Charles Perrault published the first volume of European fairy tales, “Tales of Mother Goose.” A few years later, Antoine Galland thrilled salon habitués with his translation into French of the Middle Eastern folk tales known variously as “The Thousand and One Nights” and “The Arabian Nights.” These stories, glittering with thrilling detail and told through the framing device of a princess determined to keep her homicidal husband hanging on her words, were a literary sensation.

Who told the stories first? Who knows? As Nicholas Jubber writes in “The Fairy Tellers,” “searching for the roots of fairy tales is a process of entangling oneself in mysteries. Delve into the sources and we can find, every so often, the frayed end of the line, but there are always more knots to untie.” Fiddling about with frayed story-ends and pesky authorial knots is the business of this enthusiastic and enjoyable book, in which Mr. Jubber, a British travel writer, explores the lives and work of seven storytellers who are mostly unknown outside academic circles. The exception is Hans Christian Andersen, the 19th-century Danish fabulist who remains a household name thanks to the enduring popularity of original fairy tales such as “The Little Mermaid,” “The Snow Queen” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Andersen aside, the general reader is unlikely to have met Mr. Jubber’s other subjects and may be amazed to learn the degree to which these unsung men and women have shaped the fairy-tale canon we enjoy today.

Consider, for instance, “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” sensational tales of wealth and trickery that are perhaps the best-known of all the rich story delights of “The Arabian Nights.” As Mr. Jubber explains, neither tale made an appearance in the first seven volumes of Galland’s translations. The Frenchman was able to add them only after his encounters in 1709 with a Maronite Syrian storyteller who was on a sojourn to Paris. The identity of that long-ago traveler remained obscure—a frayed end, we might say—until 1993, when a Ph.D. student poking through Arabic manuscripts in the Vatican archives happened upon the fellow’s memoirs. The man who brought the world the story of a shiftless youth inveigled by a magician into stealing an enchanted lamp; the storyteller who first told of a bandit chief using the words “open sesame” to enter a treasure cave—this man was a former monastery novice from Aleppo named Abd al-Qari Antoun Youssef Youhenna Dyab. Hanna, as he was known, told 16 stories to Galland, who translated them later into French. “Galland did much to colour in the details,” notes Mr. Jubber, “but it was Hanna who provided the characters, the twists in the tale, the settings and resolution.” In a charming revelation, it transpires that this earliest-known teller of “Aladdin” borrowed ideas for his character’s wonderful palace from what Mr. Jubber calls the “fairy tale seraglio” of Versailles. Thus do fairy tales ever adapt, collecting bits of color and changing shape as they travel through time and language from one person to the next.

We see this process unfurling in the stories told by Mr. Jubber’s other tellers: the Renaissance Italian Giambattista Basile, author of the earliest European versions of “Rapunzel” and “Cinderella”; Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, whose 1740 “Beauty and the Beast” was the first of its kind; Dortchen Wild, the amiable young woman who gave “Rumpelstiltskin” and “Hansel and Gretel” to the Brothers Grimm for their 1812 collection; Ivan Khudiakov, the 19th-century Russian folklorist who amassed fairy tales about princes, fools, the witch Baba Yaga and the magical Firebird; and Somadeva Bhatta, the 11th-century Kashmiri court poet and author of a tremendous, multifarious work known in English as “The Ocean of the Streams of Story.” To bring us into the realms of these men and women,, Mr. Jubber interleaves passages of quirky biography, literary history, personal anecdote and his own retellings of their fairy tales. Rosie Collins, meanwhile, supplies neat little drawings to start off each chapter. The result is a handsome book stuffed with surprise and interest.

. . . .

One of America’s most distinguished experts in fairy tales and folklore is on a reclamation mission of her own with “The Heroine With 1,001 Faces” (published last year but due in paperback in September). In this fluent, genre-spanning work, Maria Tatar, a Harvard professor who specializes in German culture, sets out to illuminate the constellation of heroines that spangle the cultural firmament. In doing so, she purposely offers a complement—and compliment—to Joseph Campbell’s model of male heroism as explored in his 1949 book “The Hero With a Thousand Faces.”

To the task of identifying heroic female qualities (not least, care and compassion), Ms. Tatar brings a virtuosic command of story and character, gliding with impressive, almost too-slippery facility from Greek mythology to Buzzfeed; from Scheherazade to Clara Barton; from Fern in “Charlotte’s Web” to Starr Carter in “The Hate U Give.” Heroes, Ms. Tatar reflects, “embark on quests and journeys that have as their goal more than a return home.” Heroines, by contrast, are “habitually bent on social missions, trying to rescue, restore, or fix things, with words as their only weapons.”

Ms. Tatar admits to having been deeply moved by the #MeToo movement, seeing in its revelations the same tensions between speech and silence (and silencing) that have affected women since antiquity. “Rarely wielding the sword and often deprived of the pen,” she writes, “women have relied on the domestic crafts and their verbal analogues—spinning tales, weaving plots, and telling yarns—to make things right, not just getting even but also securing social justice.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Is Amazon Sabotaging a Pro-Trump Kids’ Book?

From PJ Media:

Earlier this month, former Trump official Kash Patel published The Plot Against the King, a kids’ book taking the real-life Russiagate plot to sabotage Trump’s campaign and presidency and turning it into a family-friendly tale set in medieval times. The book was published by Beacon of Freedom Publishing House, an imprint of Brave Books.

As of this writing, the book is in the top 100 of all books on Amazon and had previously been in the top ten; however, the author says that Amazon is now trying to sabotage his book.

Amazon has restricted the book to verified purchase reviews only. If you attempt to write a review without having purchased the book first, Amazon won’t let you, giving you the disclaimer: “Amazon has noticed unusual reviewing activity on this product. Due to this activity, we have limited this product to verified purchase reviews.”

However, despite this restriction, the author says that Amazon is throttling five-star ratings from verified purchase reviewers by not allowing them to be posted.

“I have received numerous complaints from supporters that after purchasing my book, The Plot Against the King on Amazon, they were not able to leave a review,” Patel says in a statement obtained by PJ Media. “Like I have experienced numerous times in the past, with the documentary The Plot Against the President, Amazon is actively throttling my book.”

In addition to five-star reviews being throttled, Patel notes that there are about 70 unverified one-star reviews from customers who most certainly did not read the book, and haven’t been taken down despite the limitation placed on the book’s reviews. Patel wonders why Amazon allows these bogus one-star reviews to remain, “but doesn’t allow real verified customers that have read the book to review it.”

Link to the rest at PJ Media and thanks to K. for the tip.

Per GeekWire, as of February this year, Amazon had over one million employees. PG suggests that any organization with that many employees is bound to be paying wages to multiple crazy people and fools.

Ideally, an employer identifies a crazy person/fool pretty quickly and takes appropriate action, but, as a wiser person than PG once said, “The problem with fools is that they can be so ingenious.” Crazy people can pass as non-crazy people for a period of time.

In PG’s experience, sometimes large organizations have to fire a crazy boss before they recognize that most of the people that boss hired are also crazy.

So, a crazy person decided to manipulate the hidden levers of Amazon to sabotage a book he/she/they/it didn’t like. PG suggests that spreading the word about this unfair practice/treatment of the book was likely the best way of remedying the problem.

Evidently, somebody else at Amazon doesn’t share the view of whoever glitched the book in the first place. PG just checked and The Plot Against the King is ranked #1 in Children’s Action and Adventure Books on the Zon.

PG would have put up a Look Inside widget for the book, but evidently, someone at Beacon of Freedom Publishing House, an imprint of Brave Books, didn’t think anyone reads ebooks and the paperback link to look inside doesn’t work with the Amazon’s Look Inside WordPress Widget. PG will not indulge in speculation about whether another crazy person working at Brave Books or not.

PG also notes there’s a nice photo of the author with former President Trump or “King Donald” as he is apparently called in the book.

Sci-Fi for Kids Is a Missed Publishing Opportunity

From Publishers Weekly:

While taking a class on fantasy literature in graduate school, I had the idea to go to a local elementary school where a friend worked and count the books in the library to see how many fantasy titles there were. It turns out there were plenty of fantasy books, but my attention was caught by a different genre’s absence: there were barely any science fiction books. I wondered why, and I ended up pursuing the answer for years. I looked at school libraries in almost every region of the U.S., surveyed teachers and librarians, recorded readings with children, and of course read lots and lots of books. Science fiction for children, I discovered, is full of contradictions.

When I looked at very different libraries all across the country, I saw the same low supply of science fiction that I had observed in that first elementary school library, but I also saw a high demand for it. In each library, only about 3% of the books were science fiction. I expected to see a corresponding low number of checkouts. Instead, the records showed that science fiction books were getting checked out more often per book than other genres. While realistic fiction books were checked out, on average, one to three times per book and fantasy books were checked out three to four times per book, science fiction books’ checkout numbers were as high as six times per book. These libraries may not have many science fiction books available, but the children seem to compensate by collectively checking out the available books more often.

The librarians were just as surprised as I was. Library software doesn’t keep track of each book’s genre, and so librarians have no easy way of knowing that science fiction books are being checked out so often. Librarians are, however, aware that there isn’t much science fiction available. There just aren’t as many choices as there are for other genres.

My research has led me to believe that this shortage of science fiction exists simply because adults assume that children don’t want it. There are several larger cultural reasons for why adults find it easy to assume that kids won’t like science fiction. In short, adults often associate children with nature and innocence rather than science and experience, and this bleeds into what adults think children like.

Author Jon Scieszka once told me that his editor asked him to reduce the science in his science fiction Frank Einstein series because it would be off-putting for kids (Scieszka refused). An indie publisher informed me that it doesn’t acquire many science fiction books—even good submissions—because it expects low sales simply due to the combination of genre and target audience. If no adults think that children like science fiction, then no one makes it, no one sells it, and no one buys it because adults are in charge of these processes.

. . . .

Even though, based on my data, children seem to like science fiction, that doesn’t mean they are immune to the stereotypes that adults indirectly teach them about it. Because of the way it is avoided, children may not know that they like science fiction. Indeed, many of the most frequently checked-out science fiction books in school libraries—such as Margaret Peterson Haddix’s Shadow Children series and the Lego Star Wars novels—are often marketed primarily as something else, like adventure or humor.

. . . .

Not long ago, many adults (including professional educators) assumed that children preferred fiction to nonfiction. Around the turn of the 21st century, researchers began investigating the books taught and available in classrooms and found that teachers were avoiding nonfiction—especially science books. Yet when children were asked what genres they wanted, they were highly interested in nonfiction. Following these discoveries, nonfiction has been added to widespread curriculum guidelines and seen greater demand from educators. Publishers have met this demand with increasingly high-quality nonfiction books.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Texas leads among 26 states with book bans, free speech group says

From CNN:

More than a 1,000 books have been banned in 86 school districts in 26 states across the United States, a new PEN America analysis shows.PEN America, a literary and free expression advocacy organization, released a detailed analysis on Thursday of challenges to and bans on school library books and class curriculums. The group said it documented media reports, consulted school district websites, and spoke with librarians, authors and teachers from July 31, 2021, to March 31, 2022.According to PEN America, in that period, there were 1,586 books banned. Texas led the country with the most book bans — 713 — affecting 16 school districts, followed by Pennsylvania and Florida with 456 and 204 bans, respectively. PEN America describes a book ban as “any action taken against a book based on its content” that leads to the removal or restriction of a previously accessible book. The analysis includes book removals or restrictions that lasted at least a day, the group says.

Jonathan Friedman, director of PEN America’s Free Expression and Education program and lead author of the report, said challenges to books in American schools are nothing new, but the rate at which they have recently taken place is “unparalleled.”

“Challenges to books, specifically books by non-White male authors, are happening at the highest rates we’ve ever seen,” Friedman said. “What is happening in this country in terms of banning books in schools is unparalleled in its frequency, intensity, and success.”

. . . .

The group says the book bans were directed at 1,145 different titles, many of which tell stories related to LGBTQ people and people of color.

PEN America said the analysis of book titles was based on “standard publishing information provided through marketing and sales materials by publishers for books, as well as relevant reading and review of the books in question.”

. . . .

Politicians and school board members have played a significant role in book banning, PEN America says. At least 41% of book bans were linked to directives from state officials or elected lawmakers.
In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has pressured school boards to remove what he calls “pornography” from school libraries. Meanwhile in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill late last month that requires school libraries to post more information about their collections and seek community input on materials they acquire.

The trend, PEN America says, is a departure from past book removal practices, which were usually initiated by community members.

The book bans “have become a favorite tool for state-wide and national political mobilization” with groups such as Moms for Liberty, a conservative group whose “mission is to organize, educate and empower parents,” curating lists of books to be challenged and urging parents to mobilize, the analysis says.

The group also found that at least 96% of the bans were initiated by school administrators or board members and that for the most part, school officials did not follow existing guidelines, raising “serious concerns,” it said.

Link to the rest at CNN

PG wonders who else other than elected school board members and the parents of students attending a public school should determine what sort of books their children should read.

PG also doesn’t have a problem with people residing in some geographic locations making different choices about what is appropriate for their children to read.

PEN America presently has 7,500 members. Its principal office is in New York City with another office in Santa Monica, California and a third in Washington, DC.

The current president of PEN America, Ayad Akhtar, lives in New York City. The overwhelming majority of PEN America’s staff lives in New York City with much smaller number based in Santa Monica and Washington, DC. (For visitors from overseas, Santa Monica is solidly ensconced in the Los Angeles metropolitan area.)

If PG were asked to list three large metropolitan areas that are the least representative of the majority of the population of the United States, he would, without hesitation, name New York, Los Angeles and Washington, DC, in that order. PG has spent substantial periods of time in each of those cities/metro areas and can say with confidence that he has a pretty good idea of the sorts of people likely to staff PEN America’s offices in each of those places.

While he won’t categorically reject the opinions of the PEN staff regarding choices made by Texas school boards and parents about what their the children for whom they are responsible should read, PG will with confidence say that the opinions of those in the New York PEN office are exceptionally unrepresentative of almost everybody in Texas. PG would guess that few members of PEN management have close friends or acquaintances in Texas.

The current PEN America senior management appear to come from an exceptionally homogeneous backgrounds. The bios PG was able to access showed that virtually everyone attended college in New York or Boston (there was one outlier from the University of Chicago, an elite institution that isn’t located within 50 miles of an ocean). Everybody listed in Los Angeles appeared to have attended colleges located in the same places that staff in the New York office attended.

PG says that Texans and Floridians can be pretty certain that nobody at PEN America is much like them or holds views about almost anything that parents of public schools in Texas or Florida believe are relevant to their parenting decisions, including decisions about what sort of books their children should be reading.

PG will note that both Texas and Florida have a much higher percentage of Latinos (AKA persons of color) in their populations than the state of New York does.

PEN America is simply too provincial to be credible outside of the narrow social, educational and cultural sphere its employees inhabit.

Soapbox: Have We Solved the Problem of Boy Books and Girl Books?

From Publishers Weekly:

For nearly two decades, I have been speaking about the ways adult gatekeepers encourage girls to read books about boys but discourage, prevent, or even shame boys from reading about girls. A couple of years ago, a helpful industry professional let me know that gendered reading wasn’t an issue anymore. “We’ve moved past that, you don’t need to keep talking about it.”

I’d heard that before, always from those who live in large coastal cities. I can’t say if those parts of our country have evolved beyond it, but I live in a flyover state, and that very same week, five women had come into my home office one by one to work on a non-publishing project. All were mothers who had at least one son and one daughter, and as copies of my books were in the room, I offered to sign some for their kids as a thank you. Every single one asked me to sign them to their daughter. When I learned their sons were also the target age of the books, I asked if I could sign one for them as well. It was almost comical how identical their reactions were. Uncomfortable. Confused. More than one even spoke those words: “But… it’s a girl book.”

So I gave my spiel: how we assume that boys won’t want to read about girls, but that’s our own bias. How kids don’t look for books based on gender but by genre and interest. How boys should definitely be encouraged to read books about other boys—all kids deserve to see themselves reflected—but that denying boys the opportunity to also read from another point of view is doing them a disservice, because understanding and developing empathy for more than half the human race can only help them as they navigate their lives, and so on and on. I could go on for hours. I promise, I try not to!

I didn’t know if I convinced them, but they did take the books, and weeks later one of the women reported to me—in shocked tones—that her son had read the books and actually liked them!

And this is how the effort goes. We slowly try to change things, one parent, one book, one kid at a time. It feels like the ol’ teaspoon and the ocean, and sometimes I worry that nothing really gets better. When I hear how many people in my own industry don’t think the problem exists at all, that worry dips toward despair.

But I would say most of the gendered reading bias I’ve encountered is not fueled by bad intent. It’s ignorance. Ideologies work their sneaky best when they feel “natural,” as in, “That’s just the way things are.” And our cultural ideology has for so long taught us “girls will read about boys, but boys won’t read about girls” that it feels like truth. That statement is putting an innocuous mask on this foundational belief: girls should (and for their own survival, must) learn to understand boys, but it’s demeaning for boys to understand girls. It reveals that we’ve created a hierarchy out of the binary opposites of male and female, asserting that the masculine is aspirational and the feminine is degrading. And excluding non-binary individuals entirely.

When my husband and I first had the idea for The Princess in Black series, we wanted to write it specifically for the mostly pre-third grade audience, partly because third grade is the age when kids have already absorbed that ideology and it’s so much harder to unpack. But if, from a young age, boys have read and loved books about girls, the ideology will have a harder time infiltrating their brains.

Here is the advice I got from many people at the time: boys are never going to willingly read about a princess. If you want boys to read about a girl, you need to disguise that the book is about a girl.

But that’s the whole point! The book has “Princess” in the title! And a princess on the cover! There is no denying it’s about a girl—and the boys will still read it and like it. That’s an experience their third-grade brain won’t be able to erase. And that will show the naysayers!

Eight years later, I am happy to report that the naysayers have been shown. Alas, they continue saying nay. Especially on Twitter.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

When Poetry Goes Viral

From Publishers Weekly:

On Mar. 13, 2020, I posted a piece of writing to my small group of friends on Facebook. My response to lockdown during the first anxious stage of a pandemic was a brief prose poem told from the future, describing the choices we’d made in facing the virus. That night, a friend asked if she could repost it. “Sure,” I replied, and that was that.

Or so I thought.

Two mornings later, my husband was scrolling through his Facebook page and asked, “How could this former student of mine be reposting something you wrote?”

I had no idea.

The next day, a friend texted me: “Deepak Chopra just read your poem on his daily video.”

And so it began. During a viral pandemic, my poem went viral. Within a week, my little locked-down life was inundated with hundreds of requests from all over the world. It was chaotic, exhilarating, exhausting, and possibly the greatest learning experience of my life. The blessings outweighed the challenges (though they were many and at times daunting).

Two of those blessings stand out. First, going viral when the world was in lockdown connected me with many other artists seeking collaboration and mutual inspiration in translating our conflicted experiences of this pandemic into art. I spent the first year of the pandemic almost entirely immersed in creative work with composers, musicians, visual artists, dramatists, and choreographers. Many of these artists have become life-changing friends. Others twirled into my life and out again, but their enchantment stays with me.

. . . .

The second blessing has been the realization of my lifelong dream. I was invited to become the writer I’ve always been and only ever wanted to be. An editor working with Tra Publishing contacted me about turning the poem into a children’s picture book, and thus And the People Stayed Home was born. I was not familiar with Tra, but after researching its work I let go of hesitancy, as so many of these viral experiences were inviting me to do, and entered into what has become a gifted collaboration. It has been like stepping into my true self, that space that had always been waiting for me.

I’d been writing poems and stories for children all of my life, but “over the transom” manuscript mailings, seminars, online associations, literary agent queries, and every other way into publishing that I knew of had yielded nothing. For most of my adulthood, the internet and self-publishing didn’t exist. I thought I’d exhausted my options for entryways into traditional publishing.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

What If Your Memoir Is Middle Grade?

From Jane Friedman:

Many of the adult memoir manuscripts that cross my editorial desk share one issue: They start too early. Usually, about 50 pages too early. The writer spends time establishing the quirky small town/neighborhood they were born in, the family experiences that shaped them, the early realizations that they—or their family—weren’t like everyone else, carefully setting up the clues for later revelations about divorce, addiction, illness or triumph.

The reader needs some of that information, yes, but not all of it. A concrete, well-timed detail can give a lot to readers without spelling it out. For example: I could fill you in on my family history of alcoholism, how it manifested in my grandparents’ daily “cocktail hour,” my own shying away from drinking because I don’t like the taste and I’m scared, what it was like living with a father who was drunk or at least buzzed most of the time—or I could tell you, I have a hard time telling when someone else is drunk. I think they just seem “jolly.” For an adult memoir about an adult experience in my life, and in context, that’s probably enough background.

But what if your childhood is the whole point?

While some adult memoirs successfully cover childhood in depth (notably Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club and Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle), there’s a whole new category out there, selling like hotcakes: memoir for young readers. Graphic-novel autofiction like Raina Telgemeier’s Guts and Jerry Craft’s New Kid and Class Act. Memoir in verse like Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming and Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out & Back Again, both winners of the National Book Award and Newberry Honors, and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Shout, the memoir version of her bestselling novel Speak.

These memoirs fall into Young Adult and Middle Grade, but they don’t shy away from hard subjects. Anxiety. Racism. Immigration. Poverty. Sexual assault. They embrace beautiful writing while dealing with issues their readers experience, in vocabulary their readers can understand and apply to their own lives. Not everything ends happily ever after.

In an adult memoir, childhood is usually a chance for reflection, as in Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened:

By age seven I realized that there was something wrong with me, and that most children didn’t hyperventilate and throw up when asked to leave the house. My mother called me “quirky.” My teachers whispered “neurotic.” But deep down I knew there was a better word for what I was. Doomed.

Lawson takes us into the feelings of the child she was, but she’s processing her experiences through the reactions of the adults around her at that time, and her own knowledge now of her adult life. We know she survived—she wrote a memoir about it.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

An 8-year-old slid his handwritten book onto a library shelf. It now has a years-long waitlist.

From The Washington Post:

Dillon Helbig, a second-grader who lives in Idaho, wrote about a Christmas adventure on the pages of a red-cover notebook and illustrated it with colored pencils.

When he finished it in mid-December, he decided he wanted to share it with other people. So much, in fact, that he hatched a plan and waited for just the right moment to pull it off.

Days later, during a visit to the Ada Community Library’s Lake Hazel Branch in Boise with his grandmother, he held the 81-page book to his chest and passed by the librarians. Then, unbeknown to his grandmother, Dillon slipped the book onto a children’s picture-book shelf. Nobody saw him do it.

“It was naughty-ish,” Dillon, 8, said of covertly depositing the book without permission. But the result, he added, is “pretty cool.”

The book, titled “The Adventures of Dillon Helbig’s Crismis,” is signed “by Dillon His Self.”

He later confessed to his mother, Susan Helbig, that he slid his book into the stacks and left it there, undetected. But when they returned about two days later, to the spot where he left the notebook, it was missing. Helbig called the library to ask whether anyone had found Dillon’s notebook and to request that they please not throw it away.

Branch manager Alex Hartman said he was surprised at Dillon’s bold move.

“It was a sneaky act,” said Hartman, laughing. But Dillon’s book “was far too obviously special an item for us to consider getting rid of it.”

Hartman and a few co-workers had discovered and read Dillon’s book — which describes his adventures putting an exploding star on his Christmas tree and being catapulted back to the first Thanksgiving and the North Pole. They found it very entertaining.

Hartman read the book to his 6-year-old son, Cruzen, who giggled and said it was one of the funniest books he’d ever known.

“Dillon is a confident guy and a generous guy. He wanted to share the story,” Hartman said. “I don’t think it’s a self-promotion thing. He just genuinely wanted other people to be able to enjoy his story. … He’s been a lifelong library user, so he knows how books are shared.”

The staff librarians who read Dillon’s book agreed that as informal and unconventional as it was, the book met the selection criteria for the collection in that it was a high-quality story that was fun to read. So, Hartman asked Helbig for permission to tack a bar code onto the book and formally add it to the library’s collection.

Dillon’s parents enthusiastically said yes, and the book is now part of the graphic-novels section for kids, teens and adults. The library even gave Dillon its first Whoodini Award for Best Young Novelist, a category the library created for him, named after the library’s owl mascot.

. . . .

As luck would have it, the lone copy of “The Adventures of Dillon Helbig’s Crismis” has become a book in demand.

KTVB, a news station in Boise, reported on Dillon’s book caper earlier this month, and since then, area residents have begun adding themselves to a waiting list to check it out. As of Saturday, there was a 55-person waitlist.

. . . .

Dillon is also writing a different book about a closet that eats up jackets.

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

The Tale of Beatrix Potter

From The Public Domain Review:

This year [2014], the works of one of the most successful and universal writers of all time came into the public domain in many countries around the world. The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck – in all, thirty-three books bearing the name “Beatrix Potter” have sold close to 200 million copies.

. . . .

A teenage Beatrix Potter with her pet mouse Xarifa, 1885, from Cotsen Children’s Library, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University

Her appeal is so powerful that museums hold her in permanent exhibition – and some of them even commemorate her solely. Hollywood has trawled through her life, if somewhat on tiptoe. The great and the good have acknowledged her influence and the affection she inspires. Pottery, apparel, wallpaper – all kinds of domestic accoutrements bear her quaint, unthreatening drawings; her inescapably fluffy image has driven a licensing industry that has been worth millions. Yet Beatrix Potter was a sharp-edged, and reclusive woman, serious and complex, and her “nursery” reputation does her scant justice; she was much more than a “mere” children’s writer. Which, however, is where and how her famed “product” began – with the famous letter from Beatrix aged 27 to Noel Moore, aged 6, the little son of her final governess;

Sep 4th 93

My dear Noel, I don’t know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were – Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail – and Peter. They lived with their mother in a sand bank under the root of a big fir tree…

She called it a “picture letter.” In among the words she had sketched each character in the tale, with Peter unquestionably the perkiest: he’s the only one standing upright. As adults’ novelists do, she had taken him from life – Peter Rabbit was based on a Belgian buck, she’d given him the name “Peter Piper” and described him thus: “Whatever the shortcomings of his fur, and his ears and toes, his disposition was uniformly amiable and his temper unfailingly sweet.”

Link to the rest at The Public Domain Review

Beatrix Potter’s Eye for Nature

From The Wall Street Journal:

Britain’s brief but fertile Edwardian period was a golden age of children’s literature. The first decade of the 20th century saw the stage premiere of J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” and the publication of Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows.” But no writer represents the genre in its heyday better than Beatrix Potter, whose diminutive illustrated picture books gave the world Peter Rabbit, Tomasina Tittlemouse and a host of other precocious animal characters. Precise, expressive watercolor illustrations by the author were the trademark of her books, which have now sold hundreds of millions of copies.

Potter, born in 1866, didn’t publish her first book, “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” until her mid-30s. She would go on to write 23 tales for children, but as early as 1913, at the height of her fame, she began to wind down her career to devote herself to sheep farming in England’s Lake District. When Potter died in 1943, she left behind a treasure trove of drawings, letters and personal effects, which form the basis of a new exhibition opening on Feb. 12 at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

“Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature” includes nearly 200 artworks, books, photographs and other objects, from Potter’s childhood sketches, already demonstrating a keen eye and a steady hand, to a letter written the week before she died. Potter was raised in an upper-middle-class Unitarian clan that made a fortune from printing calico cloth; a photograph of her at 15, holding one of her many pets, shows a cosseted young Victorian. The photo also hints at a sense of thwartedness. In spite of her career, she arguably lived under the thumb of her parents until she married at the age of 47.

. . . .

A toy from the 1920s based on Potter’s character Jemima Puddle-Duck is an artifact of her enterprising forays into merchandising. A cross between J.K. Rowling and John Muir, Potter set herself up in midlife as a guardian of the Lake District’s picturesque countryside and traditional farming methods. She first visited the area on childhood vacations with her family and eventually bought up some 4,000 acres of farmland, which she left to Britain’s National Trust. A 1909 watercolor landscape in the exhibition—“View across Esthwaite Water,” painted near where she eventually settled as a farmer—seems to cross objective topography with frank affection. Later, a 1930 photograph of Potter with a shepherd and a prize-winning ewe casts the London-born writer as a timeless rustic.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes if you hit a paywall, but this should be a free link.)

Considering Enslavement and Its Legacy in Children’s Literature

From School Library Journal:

Children’s literature has been, historically, a site for the origin of ideas about race and racism in the United States. Since I was a child, I have wondered why Black children show up most often in certain genres of the fictions of childhood, and not in others. I grew weary of many of the Black children’s books I read when I was in school. It seemed that if we weren’t following the North Star to freedom or marching for civil rights, we were dodging bullets in the ghetto, or we were the Black best friend in the otherwise all-white landscapes of childhood and teen life. Although we’ve seen movement in recent years, my weariness has shown up during recent presentations as a cynical joke about “The Five Black Kids You Meet in Children’s Literature.” It’s quite telling that audiences almost always laugh. Knowingly.

They’ve met those kids in books, too.

Children’s literature is becoming more inclusive. But it has been a long, complicated road, and the journey is ongoing. Black child readers, and their teachers, families, and communities, occupy a unique place when it comes to stories for children that deal with race. The collective trauma of enslavement—what literature scholar Saidiya Hartman has called the afterlife of slavery—has continuing implications for the descendants of enslaved people living today. That’s because slavery influences the way that Black people are perceived, more than 150 years after Emancipation. In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois notes the presence of Blackness as always already being a problem, in reality and imagination:

To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem?
I answer seldom a word.

Women, people of color, and other marginalized populations have always had to read ourselves into literary canons where we were absent.

We’ve always told our own stories. Black storytelling extend deep into our past, predating the Middle Passage and the Door of No Return, as poet and essayist Dionne Brand observes. After passing through the Door, African Americans have had to write ourselves into existence. Recently, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and author Renée Watson came up with another lyrical metaphor—Born on the Water, the title of their 2021 picture book in verse, derived from the 1619 Project. Black storytelling traditions have always existed in the shadows of the American story—and that includes in children’s books.

“The lost shadow book is the book that Blackness writes every day,” poet Kevin Young writes in The Grey Album. “The book that memory, time, accident, and the more active forms of oppression prevent from being read.”

I love this observation. Despite adversity, oppression, and the shadow books lost along the way, Black people have kept storying. “Storying,” Young writes, is how “Black writers have forged their own traditions, their own identities, even their own freedom.”

Prominent in the shadows cast by Black children’s literature is The Brownies’ Book, a periodical for Black children published in 1920–21 by Du Bois and Jessie Fauset, an editor and writer. Also published in 1921 was Willem van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, which includes the observation about enslaved Black Americans, “the Negroes were strong and could stand rough treatment.” It won the inaugural Newbery Medal the next year. Issues of The Brownies Book included stories, photographs, games, poetry, and information on current events; a goal was to dispel stereotypes of Black people and expand Black children’s literature. The Brownies’ Book was missing from mainstream shelves, but present in Black communities.

Link to the rest at School Library Journal

Join the Fight for School Librarians

From Publishers Weekly:

I’m a children’s book author, a mom, and a grownup whose earliest childhood memories involve trips to the library. As a kid in the ’70s my mother would take me to the public library, where I’d fill my plastic flowered library bag to the brim. It was a magical and mysterious place, with its distinct smell of books and the Shakespeare portrait by the water fountain that gave me the creeps. At school, on crisp fall days, our librarian Mrs. Bright read us the Cranberryport series by Wende and Harry Devlin. She helped us discover our favorite authors and expertly guided us through book reports about unusual animals such as the aye-aye. My time in libraries was a treasure and a privilege—one that some kids will never know.

As a grownup, I know that things are not fair. Not all kids get to go to the public library or bookstores on weekends. Not all homes have shelves brimming with books, or parents who read bedtime stories. For some kids, their best—and possibly only—chance to interact in a meaningful way with books is at school.

School library programs provide equal access to books, technology, and research skills—lifelong and life-altering benefits. School library programs improve students’ literacy outcomes, test scores, and even graduation rates.

In addition to providing equal access to materials, there are social-emotional benefits to having trained librarians in schools as well. Kids feel seen by a knowledgeable adult, a reading concierge of sorts, who recognizes what they like to read and can show them to new and interesting books, topics, and authors. In the school library, kids have choice, autonomy, and freedom. This differs greatly from the classroom, where reading can be mired in leveling, mechanics, and even shame at not being on par with other students. It’s in the school library where children truly choose books for pleasure, where they fall in love with them and become life-long readers.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

A Lovely Long Sentence

From Stuart Little:

In the loveliest town of all, where the houses were white and high and the elms trees were green and higher than the houses, where the front yards were wide and pleasant and the back yards were bushy and worth finding out about, where the streets sloped down to the stream and the stream flowed quietly under the bridge, where the lawns ended in orchards and the orchards ended in fields and the fields ended in pastures and the pastures climbed the hill and disappeared over the top toward the wonderful wide sky, in this loveliest of all towns Stuart stopped to get a drink of sarsaparilla.

Link to the rest at Stuart Little by E.B. White

Long on Kid Appeal, Browsable Nonfiction Continues to Trend

From School Library Journal:

I first heard the term “browsable nonfiction” used by Jennifer Emmett, senior vice president of National Geographic for Kids in 2012 at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) writing retreat in Silver Bay, NY. It’s the perfect moniker for a popular category of children’s books inspired by Dorling Kindersley’s groundbreaking Eyewitness Book series.

When these lavishly photo-illustrated books entered the U.S. marketplace in 1991, they revolutionized children’s nonfiction by giving young fact lovers a fresh, engaging way to access information. Both then and now, the eye-catching design and short blocks of clear, straightforward expository text delight “info-kids” who crave knowledge about the world and how it works and their place in it.

Here’s what some young readers have to say about browsable books:

“You can open to any page and find a cool fact, and I like reading cool facts.” —Lily, second grader
“You have a lot of choices about how you read. It’s like the potluck dinners at my church.” —Matthew, fourth grader

“I like the design. I prefer to flip through the pages to find exactly what I’m looking for rather than having to read through a whole book.” —Keith, fifth grader
The ability to dip in and out of these books instead of reading from cover to cover is a key characteristic of browsable nonfiction, but—initially—it was this very aspect of the category that worried adults.

“When Eyewitness Books first came out, some educators thought the format would interfere with students’ ability to develop critical reading skills,” says Michele Nokleby, school librarian, Hawthorne Elementary School, Missoula, MT. “They wondered: Would these books impact reading stamina? Would they affect students’ attention spans? As a result, teachers were hesitant to use them in the classroom.”

Luckily, that attitude has changed. As is increasingly true with graphic novels, educators now recognize that browsable nonfiction is a gateway to literacy for many children. And according to Marlene Correia, associate professor of elementary and early childhood education, Bridgewater (MA) State University, these books can also “help students who prefer fiction develop the skills necessary to navigate the more complex expository texts they’ll encounter in high school and college, and in their future careers.”

Link to the rest at School Library Journal

Forget Disney. Author Soman Chainani thinks of fairy tales as ‘survival guides to life’

From c/net:

Author Soman Chainani has spent 10 years working on his children’s book series The School for Good and Evil. He finished the sixth, and last, book in the series, One True King, in March 2020, and says he was ready to take the rest of the year to relax and head out on new adventures. But the day after he turned in the manuscript, COVID-19 happened and so he spent most of 2020 pretty much indoors.

What did he do during lockdown? He wrote a new book, called Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales, which has just been released.

Just like The School for Good and Evil, which aimed to upend the fairy tale genre, Beasts and Beauty reinvents 12 classic stories, including Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and Peter Pan. There’s a common thread in his approach: Chainani says he thinks of fairy tales as “survival guides to life” and he wants kids to consider the heroes and villains in a completely different way, non-Disney way.

. . . .

“I grew up with Disney fairy tales almost exclusively in our house … and so my entire viewpoint of good and evil is shaped by Disney, and I would honestly say I think most people in my generation and above have their morality shaped by Disney, which is why I’m not surprised that our politics is so polarized,” Chainani explains in an interview for CNET’s I’m So Obsessed podcast.

“Because when you have such a clear good guy and evil guy in all our storytelling … it means that one side has to live and one side has to die, and you’re not going to make any accommodations for either.”

. . . .

As a college student at Harvard University, Chainani reread the original classic fairy tales and learned how much “room for ambiguity and good and grayness and in-the-spectrum-between-good-and-evil there is.” That thinking led to The School for Good and Evil in 2013, which tells the story of 12-year-old friends Sophie and Agatha who go to a magical school where children are trained to become fairy-tale heroes or villains (Evers and Nevers).

Chainani says he wanted to upend “this idea that we brand the evil kids ‘the bad kids’ without understanding who they are and what they’re about and understanding that we all have a different way of approaching life.”

“Once you start experimenting, and giving people the chance to mess with their identity and experience life from the opposite perspective, all hell’s gonna break loose,” he says with a laugh. “But in a way, that’s going to ultimately lead to a more positive reconstruction of the world.”

. . . .

The series has sold more than 2.5 million copies and Netflix is adapting The School for Good and Evil into an original movie set for release in 2022. It’s being directed by Paul Feig (Freaks and Geeks, Bridesmaids and Spy) and stars Charlize Theron, Kerry Washington, Michelle Yeoh and Laurence Fishburne. “It’s going to be a big huge fairy-tale, action spectacular,” Chainani told his fans.

With Beast and Beauty, Chainani decided to “blow up the fairy tales and retell them as if I was the Brothers Grimm in the 1700s and I could see what the world would look like now.” That’s why Snow White is the only black girl in an all-white kingdom and Red Riding Hood is about how the most beautiful girl in town is marked for sacrifice every spring to a pack of wolves/boys in what he describes as the “ultimate #MeToo experience.”

Link to the rest at c/net

Animals have dwindled in novels since 1835. Is fiction undergoing its own extinction event?

From The Guardian:

A recent study in People and Nature claims that animals are being written out of novels at a similar rate to their extinction in the real world. The German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research searched the entire online Project Gutenberg archive of 60,000 texts, written between 1705 and 1969. They found that since 1835, animal usage in fiction – other than domesticated beasts such as horses and dogs or “threat” animals such as bears or lions – has dwindled to a fraction of its former propensity. Professor Christian Wirth, the study’s senior author, argues that this has implications for our response to the climate crisis: “We can only halt the loss of biodiversity by a radical change in awareness.”I think he’s right, but not because animals have been written out of novels. They’ve just been written in the wrong way.

Like all such headline-making research papers, context is everything. I am not sure that public-domain books only, written in English only, from a western canon only, are fully representative of the rich and increasingly human diverse fictional world today. But the decline in actual biodiversity is terrifyingly real. According to the latest reports from the UN and WWF, we have not only lost 60% of animal populations since 1970, but one million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction if we do not act now.

Has that profound sense of loss in fact made animals more attractive to fiction writers? There is certainly no shortage of animals in the world of children’s literature. My latest book, The Wild Before – about tackling biodiversity decline – has a hare as a main character, and an animal cast, following in the tradition of books such as Watership Down. This past year alone has seen critically acclaimed children’s books starring a stranded polar bear, a haunting Greenland shark and a magical talking stray cat.

It is no coincidence that The Jungle Book, The Wind in the Willows and the Beatrix Potter books, early children’s classics of anthropomorphism, emerged out of the Industrial Revolution and the first huge jump in biodiversity decline. It appears that the less connected we are to other species, the more their mystery and appeal deepens. Would either Judith Kerr have invited a tiger in for tea, or Yann Martel set one sailing across the ocean in Life of Pi, if encounters with those endangered creatures were commonplace? Would the bestiary of fantasy creatures, from Tolkien’s wargs to George RR Martin’s direwolves (based on an extinct species), have captured our imagination if real wolves weren’t so absent from our landscape?

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Who are Political Children’s Books For?

From The Drift:

“Harriet Tubman was born a slave, and her story could have ended there. Instead, she persisted, escaping from slavery and becoming the most famous ‘conductor’ on the Underground Railroad,” begins the first section of Chelsea Clinton’s baffling 2017 children’s book, She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World, illustrated by Alexandra Boiger. True to its subtitle, the book marches on through thirteen stories of women persisting. Helen Keller persisted, by learning to read and write. Nellie Bly, told by a male colleague that working women were a “monstrosity,” persisted to become a working woman anyway. Sally Ride persisted to overcome stereotypes about women in STEM to travel to space. Ruby Bridges persisted when she attended kindergarten despite threats on her life from segregationists. Oprah Winfrey persisted by rising from humble origins to media superstardom. In case you managed to miss the message, it appears in bold, colorful letters in every woman’s story: “She persisted.”

This phrase, if you have managed to attain blissful amnesia about the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election, is drawn from something Mitch McConnell said about Elizabeth Warren, after the Senate voted to stop her from speaking during Jeff Sessions’s confirmation hearings. “She was warned. She was given an explanation,” McConnell said. “Nevertheless, she persisted.” This became an immediate feminist rallying cry, and was printed on bags, posters, pins, and t-shirts. In 2018, it was adopted as the “theme” of Women’s History Month (which, you might argue, already has a theme). Clinton notes in the dedication that she was “inspired by Senator Elizabeth Warren,” though Warren is not one of the book’s thirteen women who persisted.

This contemporary quote is an ill-considered retroactive framing device for a book about thirteen American women who lived during different times and under wildly different circumstances. There is an obvious flattening that occurs here: Winfrey’s persistence looked nothing like Bridges’s, or for that matter, Bly’s. Clinton applies a one-size-fits-all pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps narrative to multiple women’s stories in a way that ranges from tedious to outrageous; to suggest that Harriet Tubman’s story “could have ended there” if not for her persistence is to imply that people who were enslaved had individual responsibility to free themselves. Through grit and determination, the book suggests, any woman can succeed at any set of challenges! (And, it is careful to imply in some stories, pull other women up with them.) Reading She Persisted, one might get the impression that the experience of American womanhood over the course of the last 200 years has resembled that of doing an obstacle course — and winning.

She Persisted, whose original list price was $17.99, has sold nearly 450,000 copies and spent 47 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Unsurprisingly, it spawned sequels. There is now She Persisted Around the World, featuring a grab-bag of international women that includes J.K. Rowling, Malala Yousafzai, and nineteenth-century New Zealand suffragist Kate Sheppard. There is also She Persisted in Sports, about American Olympians who “changed the game.” It has even become a kind of franchise: there’s a series of chapter book biographies written by other authors that are sold under the She Persisted heading. (Clinton writes the intros.)

The project is a blockbuster in a genre that has become increasingly popular over the past decade: children’s books by political, or politics-adjacent, figures. Recent examples have been written by Kamala Harris, her niece Meena Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Charlotte and Karen Pence, Barack Obama, Condoleezza Rice, Sonia Sotomayor, Callista Gingrich, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Jenna Bush Hager, and Barbara Pierce Bush. These join the realm of a related subset of picture books that are not by politicians themselves but that ride the coattails of political celebrity. The hagiographies include I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark; Mayor Pete: The Story of Pete Buttigieg; Revolution Road: A Bernie Bedtime Story; Little People, Big Dreams: Michelle Obama and Little People, Big Dreams: Kamala Harris; Joey: The Story of Joe Biden; Hillary Rodham Clinton: Some Girls are Born to Lead; Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope; Journey to Freedom: Condoleezza Rice; Kamala Harris: Rooted in Justice; Today’s Heroes: Colin Powell and Today’s Heroes: Ben Carson; My Dad: John McCain (by Meghan); The ABCs of AOC: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from A to Z; a series comprised of Donald and the Fake News, Donald Builds the Wall! and Donald Drains the Swamp!; Elizabeth Warren: Nevertheless She Persisted; and, most recently, Dr. Fauci: How a Boy from Brooklyn Became America’s Doctor. Forthcoming this fall: Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi Calls the House to Order and Pinkie Promises by Elizabeth Warren.

These books are typically upbeat, didactic, and unimaginative. Many of them repackage the same themes and characters; frequently, authors select a set number of historical figures to celebrate. Obama picked thirteen American “heroes;” Chelsea Clinton picked thirteen American women; Gillibrand picked ten suffragists. They often rely on the repetition of certain catchphrases, so there is no way to miss the point, even when the point is remarkably banal. Yet they keep coming: in August, the imprint Philomel Books announced that it would be releasing ten more chapter books in the extended She Persisted universe, along with another picture book, She Persisted in Science: Brilliant Women Who Made a Difference.

One might feel compelled to ask why so many of these books exist, but the main reason is obvious: money. In 2003, Madonna published a picture book called The English Roses, a moralistic story about friendship and jealousy. Despite the fact that Madonna was not an obvious fit for a young audience, the book debuted at the top of the New York Times bestseller list and reportedly sold more than a million copies worldwide. It has been translated into 42 languages. Like She Persisted, English Roses led to spinoffs and a chapter book series. And it became a kind of test case, evidence that even an unexpected celebrity author could produce a bestselling book for kids. As in the grown-up books market, an established name — any kind of name — goes pretty far. Unlike your average children’s authors, celebrities can leverage massive social media followings and public relations networks to promote their books; they might even get booked on late night shows. Since Madonna’s hit, celebrities as disparate as Katie Couric and Pharrell Williams have authored kids’ books. (Perhaps it goes without saying, but many employ ghostwriters or co-authors.) With enough starpower, these authors can command big advances: Meghan Markle was rumored to have been paid £500,000 for a children’s book called The Bench that, in a rare turn of events, was panned by critics. Still, it hit the top of the New York Times bestseller list for picture books.

Link to the rest at The Drift

What would we do without traditional publishers to curate our culture?

What Makes a Book “Appropriate” for School?

From Publishers Weekly:

When I was a teen, I’d have given anything for a book like Ordinary Hazards. Of course, it hadn’t yet been written. What I did discover back then was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. In her novel, I found Francie, a character I resonated with deeply. We weren’t of the same race, nor were our lives a perfect replica, by any stretch. Still, Smith’s character and I both faced tough challenges in our young lives, and like me, Francie knew the color of hell by heart. Because of her story, I knew that I wasn’t alone in the world, and knowing that gave me strength for my own journey. This is the power of story. This is why I became a purveyor of story, myself.

Over the course of my long career, I’ve written fiction, nonfiction, historical fiction, and poetry on a wide variety of subjects, but the one thing I’ve always believed is that the single most important story I have to tell is my own. Ordinary Hazards, my memoir in verse, is that story. It is a story of darkness and childhood trauma, of a parent’s alcoholism and mental illness, of the seamy side of foster care, and of sexual assault. But it is also a story of love and light, of faith and grace, and of a young girl’s discovery of the power of the written word.

Mine is a story of triumph over darkness, and, as such, is ultimately a story of hope. The possibility of planting seeds of hope in the hearts and minds of young readers is why I wrote Ordinary Hazards. As agonizing as it was to rip open the wounds of memory, I knew there were young people who needed a story like mine—and a true story, at that. And thousands of readers across the country have already been inspired by it. This is why I was stunned when I learned that a school district in Leander, Texas, had elected to remove my award-winning memoir from their curriculum.

What???

It is one thing to rip a book from your own teen’s personal library, but to interfere with every other teen’s access to that book throughout your school district goes beyond the pale.

Leander’s issue with Ordinary Hazards—and Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone, and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Shout, among other titles recently removed—is that these titles are considered to have “inappropriate content.” I’m assuming the content in question in Ordinary Hazards is difficult subject matter, namely alcoholism, sexual assault, and mental illness. Difficulty, though, is no reason to remove a book from an age-appropriate reader’s easy reach.

The truth is, the lives of many teens are difficult. Some are homeless, or have parents in prison, or have been bounced from one foster home to another—or all of the above. Other teens live, as I did, in homes where a parent wrestles with mental illness or alcoholism, or may struggle with these issues themselves. Finally, though you may be unaware, countless teens of every gender, sitting in high school classrooms right now, have been sexually assaulted. Is this subject uncomfortable? Absolutely. But writing about the topic is hardly inappropriate, especially when it’s handled delicately.

Censors will find nothing salacious, graphic, or gratuitous in Ordinary Hazards. I specifically chose to write my memoir in poetry because the form allows for the delicate treatment of difficult content. As such, no one can reasonably charge the writing itself of being inappropriate. When it comes to sexual abuse, what is inappropriate—not to mention criminal—is the abuse itself. Writing about that abuse is both appropriate and necessary. Teens need to know that sexual assault is not a secret to keep.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Why Adults Should Read Middle Grade Books

From Book Riot:

The TV show Ted Lasso was not at all on my radar until I started to hear about it everywhere — from friends, on social media, and even on my professional Slack network. I am not a sports person, but I do succumb to peer pressure when it comes to certain media, and like many I devoured the AppleTV show in a single weekend. One of my favorite episodes in season 1 is episode 3, “Trent Crimm: The Independent.” In it, Coach Lasso is working hard to connect to his new football team and inspire them to make some essential changes in how they interact with one another. In order to accomplish that, he gives them all books that he hand-picks for their various needs and personalities. To surly, gruff team captain Roy Kent, who resents Coach Lasso’s upbeat attitude, Lasso gifts a copy of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

Roy reluctantly starts reading the book, which at first he dismisses as a book about a “little girl.” L’Engle’s classic is about Meg, a young girl whose father has disappeared. She learns that he is being held captive by an evil force on the other side of the universe, and she must rescue him with the help of three mysterious entities. In one of my favorite scenes in the entire first season, Roy is reading the book aloud to his niece when he comes across a passage that illuminates why Coach Lasso gifted him the book in the first place. “F****!” he yells when the realization hits, because he now understands what he needs to do next in order to bring his team together.

It’s one of the most relatable moments of the show for me, and I think it speaks to the subtle, quiet power of children’s books. Adults tend to view books written for children as childish or just silly entertainment, but those of us who write for kids (and teens) know that there is usually a lot more going on underneath the surface. We assume these books are childish, but that’s the deception: Children’s books tend to contain the same big, complex ideas about life that adult novels do…but they’re conveyed in such a way that a young reader can grasp them.

However, I don’t think that a children’s book has to contain a lesson or be emotionally complex in order to be valuable to child or adult readers. As adults, we read books that are entertaining or silly or simply fun escapes, and children’s lit can be that, too. The value in returning to these books as adults is in reminding ourselves what it’s like to be a kid, to gain a different perspective on the world, and to expand our understanding of different experiences and communities. And, of course, to be entertained.

The exciting thing about children’s literature is that it’s constantly changing, so if you’re an adult reading this, there are some amazing books that have been published since your elementary and middle school days, and children’s writers are constantly elevating the field with their incredible writing and stories. Even if you don’t have any kids in your life, there is no one stopping you from picking up some amazing children’s books that run the range from silly to serious and will help expand your perspective. 

Link to the rest at Book Riot

Hong Kong Police Arrest Five Over Children’s Books

From The Wall Street Journal:

Hong Kong’s national-security police arrested five people for allegedly conspiring to commit sedition through a series of picture books that portray sheep being targeted by wolves—an allusion to China’s crackdown on pro-democracy supporters in the city.

Hours after police detained five members of a speech therapists’ union, police displayed three illustrated books that they say incited hatred against the government among children as young as four. The cartoons simplified “political issues that kids wouldn’t comprehend and beautifies criminal activities,” Superintendent Steve Li Kwai-wah told a news conference. “They’re meant to poison the minds of children,” he said.

Described as teaching aids, the books were distributed through pro-democracy businesses, local political offices and online by the speech therapists’ union, which was founded in November 2019—a time when some activists formed workers’ groups as a way to organize protest actions against the government.

The books include one titled “The Guardians of Sheep Village,” which is set against the backdrop of antigovernment protests that rocked Hong Kong in 2019. It depicts a malicious plot by the wolves to take over the sheep’s village and devour them all.

Another, “12 Warriors of Sheep Village,” refers to a dozen activists who were caught by the Chinese coast guard during an ill-fated boat escape from Hong Kong last year. The third book in the series, titled “Street Cleaners of Sheep Village,” alludes to a medical workers’ strike last year when Hong Kong faced its first coronavirus infections imported from China, using cartoons of littering wolves to portray outsiders.

. . . .

Thursday’s arrests are part of an intensifying crackdown on dissent in the former British colony and were made on the same day that four former executives and journalists of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily appeared in court charged with violating the national-security law by conspiring to collude with external forces. Apple Daily, founded by jailed media mogul Jimmy Lai, was forced to cease publication last month after authorities seized its assets.

. . . .

Publishers have been among the targets of authorities since the national-security law was imposed last year. Media groups and opposition groups have raised concerns that free speech is being eliminated and so-called red lines about what amounts to a crime are being expanded to eliminate criticism of authorities.

“Even children’s picture books cross the red line,” Herbert Chow, a local businessman who supports the protest movement, wrote in a Facebook post referring to the arrests.

The five people arrested—two men and three women, aged between 25 and 28 years old—are board members of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists. They were detained under a colonial-era antisedition law rather than the security law imposed by China.

In its online mission statement, the union says it has chosen to align itself with the politically marginalized. “We are a group of speech therapists, we should walk with the unheard,” it said on its website. “Those who are lucky won’t understand that being able to speak is a luxury. But we resonate with this.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Summer Book Kit Giveaway at The New York Public Library

From The New York Public Library:

Starting Monday, July 12, visit your local NYPL branch in the Bronx, Manhattan, or Staten Island, and pick up one of our free summer book kits! With special contents tailored to kids and teens of all ages, including books to take home and keep, activity guides, and more, these kits are a great way for kids and teens to keep their skills sharp all summer long. Get yours but act fast—supplies are limited!

. . . .

The New York Public Library’s free summer book kits have been specially prepared for kids and teens of all ages:

  • Babies and Toddlers (Early Literacy)
    Includes a special NYPL tote bag containing NYPL’s ABC Read with Me in NYC board book, and an early literacy tip sheet for caregivers. 
  • Pre-K through 1st Grade
    Includes a red drawstring bag containing two free books to take home and keep, NYPL’s Summer Learning 2021 welcome kit, and the NYPL After School Activity Guide for Grades K–3 (28 pages, English/Español).
  • 2nd and 3rd Grade
    Includes a red drawstring bag containing two free books to take home and keep, NYPL’s Summer Learning 2021 welcome kit, and the NYPL After School Activity Guide for Grades K–3 (28 pages, English/Español).
  • 4th and 5th Grade
    Includes a red drawstring bag containing one free book to take home and keep, NYPL’s Summer Learning 2021 welcome kit, and the NYPL After School Activity Guide for Grades 4–6 (16 pages).
  • Middle School
    Includes a red drawstring bag containing one free book to take home and keep, a special NYPL bookmark, one pot of Play-Doh, and a stress ball.
  • High School
    Includes a red drawstring bag containing one free book to take home and keep, a special NYPL bookmark, one pot of Play-Doh, and a stress ball.

Link to the rest at The New York Public Library

See also Summer Reading Downloads which anyone can download to allow their children to record their summer reading and write a review of one or more of the books they’ve read.