Why Kids Need to Read What They Want

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Is this how we want kids to act when it comes to reading? / flicker, C. Bitner

In the most recent edition of Cover to Cover by K.T. Horning, there are no early childhood, middle grade, or ya distinctions in books for children. Encompassing fiction and nonfiction, the breakdown is:

  • Picture books (including board books)
  • Readers/Beginning Readers/Easy Readers
  • Transitional books
  • Chapter books

That’s it. We have those formats, and within those formats, every genre is covered, for ages birth to teen. (Oh, but wait–where should graphic novels go? I’d include them with chapter books, honestly; the art in a graphic novel serves as a concurrent visual text, in my opinion. Or, heck, let’s put them in with picture books, maybe? I don’t have all the answers, clearly.)

In my ideal, imaginary library, this is how it would be– those formats would be organized, so kids who are being read to can find board and picture books, pre-readers can find the books they need, transitional readers the same, and then chapter books for independent readers who can make their own choices (with guidance from their parent/guardian and, ideally, a librarian). There would be a call number, and no other designations– no guided reading, or any of that other stuff. Just books and excellent staff and seemingly limitless choices. (I’m getting chills just writing about it.)

Does a library like this exist? Probably not. Although my personal library is like this. I’m sure everyone’s personal library is like this. So why do we insist that youth follow dozens of arbitrary guidelines when it comes to the stories they get to read?

Anyway. This summer I tried something different with our suggested reading book lists, in an attempt to create a small scale version of this literary utopia. I wanted to move away from parents just grabbing the list of their child’s grade, and slavishly following those suggestions we’d made, with the best of intentions. Instead of lists covering 2 grade levels, as had been the practice in the past, I had:

  • Pre-readers (babies-Kindergarten): includes board and picture books, all genres
  • Beginning readers (K-3rd): easy/beginning readers, all genres
  • Transitional Third Grade reads: transitional chapter books, all genres
  • Third Grade and Up: picture, beginning, transitional, and chapter books, all genres

Now, there isn’t just one Third Grade and Up list, oh no. There were several, with titles like:

  • Smile Diary: books for Wimpy Kid and Telgameier Fans
  • Murder and Mayhem: stories that are scary and thrilling
  • WONDERing what to read next: Wonder readalikes
  • Full STEAM ahead: books for kids who like to tinker and create
  • Myths, Magic and More: fantasy, science fiction, and the just plain strange
  • Game On: books for gamers
  • Tell Me A Story: books about the magic of storytelling
  • That’s Funny: Books to make you laugh
  • Can You Believe It?: Books to make you see the world in a different way

The books were listed not in alphabetical order, but rather in order of literary and thematic complexity.

To explain, each list had an introduction like this:

3rd Grade and Up

Murder and Mayhem: stories that are scary and thrilling!

If you enjoy scary stories, thrilling tales of true crime, forensic science, and the unexplained, then these books are for you!

Read from the beginning of the list when you’re short on time but still want a good story. Read from the end of the list when you’re up for a more textually and thematically challenging experience.

Not every book on every list will be right for your child. If you have questions about any title, please see [library] staff for guidance.

Third grade and up meant just that: independent readers from third to twelfth grades (or beyond! Mom and Dad, you can read these books too!) could read these books, all of which were chosen from our children’s department collection. I wanted to do this so that an older student who wasn’t reading at grade level wouldn’t be stigmatized by reading from a list that was clearly marked for a younger age. By having only a lower limit, rather than a lower and upper, the list was more open to more readers. And by keeping the selections limited to our children’s department, we were still helping parents make appropriate choices for their child (advocate for freedom that I am, I still want to make things easier for parents, so I’m not going to hand them a third grade and up list with really intense themes and situations).

Oh, and another cool thing–the books on these lists were jointly nominated by my library staff as well as school librarians from our main school district, and they used these lists as their district’s recommended summer reading. How great is that? School librarians got to suggest awesome books that they loved, while I did all the grunt work of collating and organizing them, and our wonderful graphics department made them into beautiful brochures.

Ultimately, I wanted these lists to provide some guidance, while also encouraging kids and parents to use library staff to help them find the  best book for them.

For teens we had 7th grade and up lists, with items exclusively from the teen collection. (Now, ideally I’d want to include picture and other books, but with display and cataloging restraints, this just wasn’t possible; and, again, these teens could also enjoy all the books on the third grade and up lists.)

For teens, our themes were:

  • Social Justice: books about making the world a better place
  • Not Okay: readalikes for The Fault in Our Stars 
  • Get Real: Realistic fiction and memoirs
  • Myths, Magic and More: Fantasy, sci-fi, and speculative fiction

I have to say, the impetus for this project was the book Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want—and Why We Should Let Them. We actually recommended this title to parents in our lists, and amazingly, the book got checked out. How many people actually read it, I don’t know, but it just goes to show that if you make something available, people will take advantage.

I was concerned about confusion and push back–would parents get on board? Would they understand it? Was I creating a problem where there wasn’t one?

I don’t think so. I actually think these lists have been doing what they are meant to do–broaden the scope of what kids read, and providing guidance while also encouraging choice.

Now, summer’s not over, so the verdict isn’t completely in yet, but so far I’m going to call this a success. Books are still getting checked out at a rapid clip, I’ve heard people express delight at the themes, and so far no one has been upset that a book about the Lizzie Borden case was on the “Murder and Mayhem” list (really, with a title like that, I was suspecting parents of sensitive kids would know to steer clear).

What do you think? How do you handle suggested reading/passive reader’s advisory?

 

 

 

 

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Wolf Hollow review

Wolf HollowWolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

Cross The Bad Seed with To Kill A Mockingbird and add a dash of Night of the Hunter, King Lear (“I would fain learn to lie,” says the Fool), and Rebecca (the first line of this book is just as haunting as “Last night I dreamt of Manderly again”), and the result will most likely be this taut, beautiful terror of a book. I finished it all in one night because I couldn’t stop reading.

This is definitely getting book-talked in the fall of 2016. The students are going to be clamoring for this one.


Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

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How Much Can A Picture Book Do?

update 01/17/16: Scholastic is no longer distributing this title. 

The picture book, as a form, has been around for years, and has contributed to literature some of its most stunning masterpieces, in terms of both text and illustration. No one can dare deny the genius of Sendak, Kraus, Keats, Williams, or Raschka.

The picture book can do many things, and tell many stories, yet on the whole is often closer to poetry than to prose, even when a narrative is involved; with only 28 to 30 pages for actual story, the best picture books include meaning and poetry with their covers, end papers, and even in dedications and author’s notes.

The realm of picture books is vast; it contains multitudes. Yet, how much can these slim volumes be expected to reveal and share? Can every story be told well and accurately (and by accurately I include emotional as well as factual or historical accuracy) within the constraints of the form? Just as a poet knows when to use a sonnet, villanelle, or haiku, should an author know when to choose between a picture book, a chapter book, or a biography?

I ponder these questions because of a new title that is generating a lot of discussion, A Birthday Cake for George WashingtonI have not had a chance to review this book myself, so I am only going on reviews and descriptions– there has been much written on it already, including essays by both its author and editor, and a response from the publisher, wherein they sort of admit that the book might fall short of its intended aim:

Because we know that no single book will be acceptable to every reader, we offer many other books and resources that address slavery and Black history here and here.

The author, Ramin Ganeshram, certainly seems to have done an immense amount of research, yet one review notes that there are no sources cited in the actual book.

Ganeshram defends the upbeat, positive tone of the book and its cheerful (and admittedly beautiful) illustrations thusly:

Bizarrely and yes, disturbingly, there were some enslaved people who had a better quality of life than others and “close” relationships with those who enslaved them. But they were smart enough to use those “advantages” to improve their lives.

It is the historical record—not my opinion—that shows that enslaved people who received “status” positions were proud of these positions—and made use of the “perks” of those positions. It is what illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton calls out in her artist’s note as informing her decision to depict those in A Birthday Cake For George Washington as happy and prideful people.

This is not something I will endeavor to dispute. Slavery was an immense, complex, and shameful time in our history, and like any other grand horror, the feelings it inspires, in both those who lived through it and those who can only learn about it through other channels, including testimony, biography, and yes, even art, will not be easily or neatly categorized.

Ganeshram goes on to write:

In a modern sense, many of us don’t like to consider this, fearing that if we deviate from the narrative of constant-cruelty we diminish the horror of slavery. But if we chose to only focus on those who fit that singular viewpoint, we run the risk of erasing those, like Chef Hercules, who were remarkable, talented, and resourceful enough to use any and every skill to their own advantage.

I do not fault the author, illustrator, and editor for wanting to explore this facet of an American tragedy, or even this facet of Black history. There is a definite need for books that reflect diverse experiences. The black experience is about so much more than just slavery or the civil rights movement, and even within those historical narratives, I’m sure opinions and feelings on the situations varied widely.

But here’s the thing: just last year a textbook was published that called slaves brought over from Africa “workers.” This usage slipped past countless editors and educators, only to be caught by a boy named Coby as he read the textbook in his classroom. This term was used on a page discussing “patterns of immigration.” Now, slanting enforced capture and kidnapping as “immigration” is offensive and inaccurate, no matter how you try to slice it.

This indicates that in many ways, many children–and adults–are still not learning about or aware of the accurate history of what happened during slavery, and many (white) people in power are still deeply in denial about it:

Still, Ratliff, a Republican, found 16 other references to slavery in the geography book that he believes were accurate. He says the story of that one, problematic caption has “gotten blown out of proportion.”

Dean-Burren disagrees. She’s concerned about the words textbooks use — or don’t — to teach our nation’s rich history. Still, she’s proud of her son and the lesson he’s learned.

In this light, can we reasonably expect any picture book, no matter how well-intentioned or well-researched, to do justice to this infinitely complicated subject?

We could contrast this effort with a picture book that has been well-reviewed and well-received– Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad*.

Kirkus describes Henry’s Freedom Box thusly:

Related in measured, sonorous prose that makes a perfect match for the art, this is a story of pride and ingenuity that will leave readers profoundly moved, especially those who may have been tantalized by the entry on Brown in Virginia Hamilton’s Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom (1993). (emphasis mine)

Ganreshram places Henry’s Freedom Box and other picture books like it in this context:

In the sadly not-so-distant past, enslaved people were often depicted in children’s literature as childlike, foolish, or happily insensible of their condition.

Counteracting the industry’s previous wrongs, recent books like Dave The Potter, Henry’s Freedom Box, and The Story of African Americans have been gorgeous, intense and…pervasively somber. These depictions lend legitimate gravitas to their subjects—but the range of human emotion and behavior is vast, and there is room in between how the literary world depicted historical African American characters [then?] and how it does now.(I think perhaps she’s missing a “then” in that sentence)

 

Again, not having read Ganreshram’s book, I can only surmise certain things, and it seems like she’s saying her book is an update because Hercules is aware of his condition (that condition being slavery), but is making the best of it anyway. Which is not, I suppose, a wholly untenable approach to take in a story. After all, didn’t Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl detail how she made the most of a horrific situation?

Yet– consider the formats. Anne Frank’s work was a diary, consisting of hundreds of pages, allowing her narrative, characters, and setting the time to bloom and be fully explored. The complexity of her situation is given the time and the space to develop, giving us a fuller picture of what was happening, and providing us the context required to understand her and her story.

Within the constraints of a picture book, I think Ganreshram is hard pressed to succeed in her mission, no matter how well-intentioned, and thusly Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s beautiful artwork will also suffer within the context. I just don’t think that the complexity of Hercules’ story is possible to condense into the poetry of a picture book at this moment in time.

I think those “pervasively somber” books are much more successful because they have a unified vision for the work. The story and art work in tandem, evoking the sorrow and sometimes horror of what they describe, whereas A Birthday Cake For George Washington is trying to have its cake and eat it, too, by calling Hercules a slave yet not indicating any of the darker emotions that entails, and having no tension between the art and the text.

I believe that the story of Hercules is an important one, and deserving to be told; but I don’t think that the picture book format, as versatile, diverse, and wonderful as it is, is up to the task of this complex narrative and character.

*Henry’s song inspired another picture book telling, Freedom The Song: The Story of Henry “Box” Brown. Even in 1849 it was included in a book of children’s stories:Screenshot 2016-01-16 09.07.14

Review: The Lions of Little Rock

The Lions of Little Rock
The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t cry at books. It’s happened only a couple of times. I’m much more likely to cry at television or movies, mostly because of the added manipulation of the music and cinematography. For a book to elicit such a reaction, it has to be darn powerful.

From the goodreads summary:

“Twelve-year-old Marlee doesn’t have many friends until she meets Liz, the new girl at school. Liz is bold and brave, and always knows the right thing to say, especially to Sally, the resident mean girl. Liz even helps Marlee overcome her greatest fear – speaking, which Marlee never does outside her family.

But then Liz is gone, replaced by the rumor that she was a Negro girl passing as white. But Marlee decides that doesn’t matter. Liz is her best friend. And to stay friends, Marlee and Liz are willing to take on integration and the dangers their friendship could bring to both their families.”

This is a book, above all, about ethical courage, a topic that is near and dear to my heart. It is a book about speaking up for what you believe in and what is right. It is a book about taking risks, being true to one’s self, and finding one’s place in the world.

I loved that the author, Kristin Levine, was brave enough to use accurate language in this historical novel. I’ve called out other authors for dropping the ball on this issue, and I appreciate that Kristin used the accurate terms and epithets, not because I like those terms, but because using them is important to the story, and the cumulative effect of those terms and this narrative is what, ultimately, had me crying at various points in the story.

This story isn’t only important when studying history, but in this time of “binders full of women”, it also serves as a springboard to talk about who is qualified or entitled to do what, and why. Marlee is a whiz at math, and wants to grow up to build rockets (which reminded me of the most excellent play Flyer by Kate Aspengren, read it), but will she get the chance since she is a girl?

As an accessible description of an important historical period, a beautifully rendered tale of friendship, and an issues novel that provokes discussion, this book succeeds on all counts, and is highly recommended.

Boundtrack suggestions: Fables of Faubus by Mingus, That’ll be the Day by Buddy Holly.

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Tales of the Madman Underground: a love letter

I fall in love with books the same way I fall in love with people– deeply, unabashedly and without any pretense of dignity. This post is a love letter, and like the gushing of any girl newly in love, it may ramble here and there, but I hope you’ll indulge me.

One book that I fell for, hard, during my youth, is John Barnes’ One For the Morning Glory, an utterly unique fantasy novel that will nevertheless remind readers of The Princess Bride and the Prydain Chronicles. Tales of the Madman Underground is nothing like that book, but I’ve still fallen head over heels for it, which is a testament to Barnes’ versatility and skill as an author.

I will admit that I actually haven’t finished the entire book; it’s a long one, and I’m taking my time with it. You might say that I’m enjoying the early stages of being smitten to the fullest. The novel is very episodic but cohesive, thanks to the strength of the main character’s voice. It’s the story of Karl Shoemaker, a teen with an extremely fucked up home life, and the interconnected tales of other members of the Madman Underground, which is the nickname for a group of teens who attend therapy together during the school day. Karl is a brutally honest narrator who tells his story with black humor and a lot of profanity.

Madman reminded me strongly of The Catcher in the Rye, but while I can’t STAND Holden Caulfield, I would love to have Karl as my secret mentally disturbed high school boyfriend. For teachers who want to explore those classic themes of alienation and teen angst, but can’t stand Holden either, I think Madman would be an excellent substitution or alternative for any curriculum or reading list. The book’s profanity might make it a hard sell in schools, though, which is as shame.

There’s a great scene with a teacher explaining about how to read Huckleberry Finn that I think should become a mandatory introduction during any study of that novel. The teacher, Gratz, says that there are wrong ways to read Huckleberry Finn, one of which is the Hollywood way, which portrays the story as being about “[…] all=American boys on a road trip on a raft (211).” The second wrong way to read it, Gratz says, is as a racist novel:

‘[…T]here is a very important character in the book called Nigger Jim. And because of that fact we will say the word ‘nigger’ pretty often in this class. And when you talk about Jim and the way he is treated, sometimes you’re going to have to say the word ‘nigger.”

‘So understand me. First of all and mot important, we don’t ever call anyone a ‘nigger.’ Not in this class. Not anywhere. When we have to discuss the idea, we always quote the word ‘nigger.’ […] It is okay to say that thus and so is what those very prejudiced white people meant when they said the word ‘nigger,’ and that they meant it about Jim. […]’

‘[…T]o show the evil of racism to anyone, you have to use the words that the racists use. And some groups out there insist that Huckleberry Finn is a racist book, and that a teacher who teaches it must be racist, and even that the students who read it will automatically become racists, all because’–he whispered dramatically–‘it…has…that…word!” (213-14).

I read that passage (which I’ve vastly abbreviated) shortly after the “search and replace” Huckleberry Finn debacle, and I put the book down so I could clap. This is an extremely brave statement to make, and I applaud both the author and the fictional teacher for taking that risk.

We talk a lot about keeping kids safe. We put them in booster seats, we keep them away from plastic bags, we rate our movies, and we bowlderize great fiction for their benefit, because apparently exposure to ideas is equivalent to being thrown through a windshield or choking on a hot dog. But you know what? We can’t keep kids safe. We can try, yes, and we should, but sometimes they need to be exposed to danger. Until I read Don’t Hurt Laurie!, I didn’t know that anyone else knew the pain of being physically abused by someone they loved and who loved them. I didn’t know that help was available. I didn’t know that I was alone, until I found that book, and took solace in it. I read that thing to tatters, and it helped me survive. Some people want to label literature that explores difficult topics as triggering and not think any more about it. In my case, triggering literature may very well have kept me from pulling a trigger.

Not every book is suitable for every reader. While I eagerly seek out and devour tales of the broken, beaten, ravaged and raped, and find solace in accompanying them on their difficult journeys, others may not find comfort in those journeys, and might wish to avoid them. That’s why we have book reviews and blurbs on the back covers, so that readers may make informed choices. That’s why people curate lists on a given topic, to point people in a direction. That’s why most lists have a focus and a theme and criteria to be followed. That’s the sort of list that is useful to readers, and the sort of list that librarians excel at making.

Love is rare enough in this world. We should do all that we can to give the right book to the right reader at the right time, and avoid, at all costs, keeping books from readers, even in the most passive of ways. Without lists, blog posts, and professional reviews, I wouldn’t have found my new favorite book, and my life would be poorer for that.

I’ll end with a short list of  books that have broken my heart, in the best way possible:

  1. Tender Morsels
  2. Deerskin
  3. Blue Plate Special
  4. Jacob Have I Loved

historic

I have a guest post up over at Librarian by Day, about one of my favorite backlist/crossover titles, My Sister The Moon, by Sue Harrison. I got into Sue Harrison’s books after I read Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear/Earth’s Children series (which is FINALLY coming to an end in 2011, thank jeebus) and have found that Harrison’s work stands the test of time much better than Auel’s. I re-read all of the Earth’s Children books recently, in anticipation of the final volume in the series, and, wow, Auel has created an obnoxious character in Ayla, the preternaturally perfect prehistoric heroine.

For those of you who’ve read the Twilight books, do you remember how Bella, when she became a vampire, was, like the BEST VAMPIRE THAT EVAR VAMPIRED? Well, that’s Ayla–except she’s not a vampire, she’s just the mother of invention. Some of Ayla’s discoveries/inventions include:

1. Fire

2. Taming a wolf

3. How conception works

4. Birth control

5. Taming and riding horses

6. Making casts for broken bones

7. Seeing through time, i.e., tripping balls

8. Taming a cave lion

9. Awesome hangover cure

Also, she’s tall and blond and thin and blue-eyed, which is apparently the beauty ideal in prehistoric times even though the prominent female idol is the chubby Venus of Willendorf. Everything Ayla does is super-sexy, super-mysterious, and super-perfect. Everyone loves her eventually, even if they are initially repulsed by her adopted family (who are insultingly referred to as Flatheads by the Neanderthals).

I actually think Twilight fans would actually really, really love these books. The quality of writing is similar and the main characters are similarly self-deprecating yet strangely irresistible to everyone she comes into contact with. ALSO, WAY before Renesme was hideously coined, Ayla named her baby Jonayla, which is a combo of her name, Ayla, and her mate’s, Jondalar, because she wanted the name to reflect how the baby was a mixture of both of them. In The Mammoth Hunters, there is also a love triangle that is WAY more frustrating than Twilight‘s ever was. I mean, Ayla actually dumps the guy on the day of their wedding to run off with Jondalar. That’s way colder than anything Bella did, I think.

These books are also great for post-Twilight teens because of their wholesome yet astoundingly descriptive sex scenes. Nothing lurid, but there are lots of body parts described in Harlequin romance type vocabulary, and you get a sexy scene approximately every twenty pages, which is a pretty good ratio. From the wikipedia entry: “The author’s treatment of unconventional sexual practices (which are central to her hypothesized nature-centered religions) has earned the series the twentieth place on the American Library Association‘s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000.” Now THAT’S a stamp of approval when it comes to sexy content, amirite?

If you like books that are so vexing that you actually yell at the book, OUT LOUD, yet you still have to keep reading because you just HAVE TO KNOW what happens, then I highly recommend the Earth’s Children books. Has anyone else read these and know what I’m talking about? Please let me know in the comments, I’d love to get a good discussion going.

Anna Maria’s Gift

Anna Maria’s Gift by Jamie Shefelman, illustrated by Robert Papp.

Summary from the book:

In 1715 Italy, nine-year-old Anna Maria Lombardini arrives at a Venice orphanage with little but a special violin her father made for her, but when her teacher, Antonio Vivaldi, favors her over a fellow student, the beloved instrument winds up in a canal. Includes glossary and historical note.

This book was okay. Serviceable might be the appropriate word. I would suggest that it be used in a music or history class as supporting material, but I don’t think it is likely to be a book that a kid would pick up by choice for a leisurely read. It could probably find an audience with fans of the American Girl books as well.

Reviewed from a library copy.