smilerats

Smile! Rats! Or, a book talk

When I book talk, I sometimes like to structure them as a sort of narrative unto themselves. I thought I’d attempt to write out an example for you.

When I book talk Smile, I like to throw in my own personal story about when I was a kid and I needed a retainer because one of my front teeth threatened to grow straight out, and my other front tooth looked like it was going to grow straight back.

Which leads naturally into my favorite fact from Oh, Rats!, about how if rats don’t constantly chew things they run the risk of having their teeth grow until they pierce their brains.

Then I like to talk about The Twyning and the urban legend of rat kings (google at your own risk), at which point I will tell the kids (usually middle schoolers) the urban legend about the people who bring home a pet from a foreign country thinking it is an ugly dog but turns out to be a rat.

How do you structure your book talks? Have you tried an approach like this? Let me know!

 

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No, really, let kids choose what they read

In case you need something to tide you over while you wait for your copy of Reading Unbound to arrive, here are some more quotes about why we need to let kids choose what they read.

We want to help our students fall in love with books in ways that foster a life-long devotion to reading. So what should schools do? We think the implications of our research are manifold, but two seem especially compelling.  First, our data make clear that educators should consider interpretive complexity in concert with textual complexity, a centerpiece of the Common Core State Standards.  Every text our participants read—from graphic novels to dark fiction to Harry Potterrequired sophisticated strategies for entering a story world and absorbing the twists and turns of the plot line and character relationships.  All fostered deep intellectual engagement.

Our data also convinced us of the importance of choice. Students should have regular opportunities to behave the way adult readers do and choose their own reading.   They know the kinds of texts from which they will take pleasure. At the same time, teachers should expand the possibility of pleasure by introducing students to new books they might not select on their own.

http://edublog.scholastic.com/post/why-kids-need-read-what-they-want

I love that this quote illustrates the role that “gate-keepers” should have–opening gates rather than closing them. Once a kid has read through everything they could find on their own, teachers and librarians can help them find the hidden treasures that will still meet their needs.

Reading is indeed crucial to success in school and in careers.  But we worry that discussions of reading, especially public policy discussions, focus almost exclusively on its utilitarian value. What’s missing is the pleasure readers derive from the reading they do.

http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/11/the-most-important-lesson-schools-can-teach-kids-about-reading-its-fun/281295/

Again, people making these policy decisions know very little about children and child development; however, I do believe that Common Core, with its breadth of text types, actually encourages what I believe is important–giving children a wide variety of choices when it comes to what they read. Have you ever had it suggested that novels in verse are better for struggling readers because of the white space and shorter length? Then what about play scripts? White space abounds, it is mostly dialogue, and it very pointedly tells you what you’re seeing–but then again, it’s like a graphic novel without the images, and your imagination needs to fill in the pictures. HOW AWESOME IS THAT?

If I were Queen of the World, I would decree that all students be given the gifts of time and books they want to read throughout their schooling, and all pre-readers would have an adult who would read aloud to them everyday. Through independent reading children gain a wealth of background knowledge about many different things, come to understand story and non-fiction structures, absorb the essentials of English grammar, and continuously expand their vocabularies. Many also remember visually how to spell words. In a nutshell, the habit of reading does as much, if not more, than Direct Instruction and the rigorous demands of the Common Core. All without boring kids to death or persuading them that they’re dumb.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/09/08/why-kids-should-choose-their-own-books-to-read-in-school

Yes.

Years ago, I received a phone call from my godson’s mother. She said, “I know you told me to wait, but David is reading Harry Potter on his own.” David was in kindergarten. David read Harry Potter at 5 for the plot. He reread it at 10 for the plot, characters and emotional truths. He reread the entire series repeatedly the summer he was 13, to his mother’s dismay. “Can’t you get him to read something else?!” I didn’t even try.

NY Times Room for Debate

Yes. The importance of re-reading. I know, I know, there are so many books! But every time you re-read something, you gain something new. It’s magical.

The latest salvo comes from a survey released late last week by Scholastic Corp., a publisher of popular children’s books, which suggests that middle and high school students who have time to read books of their own choosing during the school day are also more likely to read frequently for pleasure.

“For us, choice is key,” said Kyle Good, a spokeswoman for Scholastic. “When you let kids choose the books they want to read, they’ll be voracious readers.”

In the survey, 78 percent of students, who read frequently for fun (at least five days a week), said they had time to read a book of choice during the school day. By contrast, 24 percent of infrequent readers — those who read for fun less than one day a week — said they had time to read a book of choice during the school day.

Chicago Tribune

Review of Reading Unbound, with links to supplementary material 

Top 5 Reasons to let kids choose their own books

 

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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?

 

 

 

 

picturebook

Wondrous Pitiful

My story being done
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.
She swore, in faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange,
‘Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful. – Othello, Act 1, Scene 3

The stories of Othello’s youth moved Desdemona to love; they intrigued her, inspired her, incited her to action and emotion. The best stories do this to us–provoke strong response, either positive or negative. Laughter, or tears, or fists clenched in rage.

My American Literature professor once related the story that when he first read As I Lay Dying, this chapter incited him to throw the book against a wall and leave it there for nearly a week:

As-I-Lay-Dying-Vardaman-William-Faulkner-My-Mother-Is-a-Fish1

This is the power of literature, of art, of story.

I finally got my hands on a copy of A Birthday Cake for George Washington, and read it several times over. It was a disorienting experience; not quite on the level of “My mother is a fish” but I was perturbed nonetheless–yet only mildly so. I was sad that this story had fallen so short of the work that its subject truly deserved.

The work is not completely without merit. I found the text to be more successful on its own, divorced of the images. The text at least hinted at the tension there must have been between Hercules and his owner: how his stern expression became a smile when Martha Washington entered the kitchen, and his tone of voice changed as well; how everyone held their breath when the cake was taken upstairs; how Delia’s heart hammered in her chest when George Washington came down after the cake was eaten. After all, if the honey experiment had failed, wouldn’t there have been a punishment for Hercules? But this is never mentioned–only the gifts of fine clothes and theater tickets. Their lack of freedom is certainly unspoken, both in the text and images.

The images, I think, went too far in the direction of trying to depict the slaves as “happy” and “prideful.” There was none of the nuance of the text, where tension could be inferred from word choice and description. In every image and spread, everyone’s expression is happy or, at least, neutral, except for perhaps Martha’s expression of concern early in the book.

I still think Hercules’ is a story that should be told, but it deserves to be told in such a way that we are left aching from how passing strange and wondrous pitiful it was for such a talented man to have and achieve so much, while being denied the only thing he truly desired–his freedom.

picturebook

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

Talk the Talk-2

Talk the Talk

Talk the Talk: The Art of Booktalking to Young Adults

Whether you’re talking to a single 12-year-old or an entire classroom of high school seniors, an effective and engaging booktalk can be a challenge. Learn best practices for presenting to young adults and how to find your finest booktalking voice. Try your hand at constructing an impromptu book talk of your very own, and leave the session with greater booktalking prowess for talking up some great reads to teens.

In October at the Illinois Library Association conference, I had the honor and the pleasure to collaborate with Alice, Katie, and Mike to talk about one of my favorite job duties: book talking to teens.

For the first seven years of my library career, I didn’t get to book talk, even during my brief tenure as a teen librarian. I was primarily an early literacy librarian, so I spent all my time reading picture books, crafting story times and other programs for young children, and occasionally doing reader’s advisory for teens on the reference desk.

So when I switched jobs in 2012, one of the things I most looked forward to was the chance to book talk, something I’d scarcely learned about in library school.

Being excited did not equal being prepared, however. I will admit, some of my first solo book talks were TERRIBLE. I talked for too long, I wasn’t familiar enough with the books (or I was talking books I wasn’t excited about), and I was talking solo. Over the last three years I’ve learned a lot through trial and error, so when Alice asked me to collaborate with her on a presentation about book talking, I was eager to share my own hard earned knowledge, and that of my collaborators as well.

While this blog post can’t replicate the awesomeness of our ILA presentation, I hope to cover some of the main points for those who attended, as well as lay it out for those of you who are just reading the post.

Who
While normally I am great at working alone–and prefer it–when it comes to book talking, I definitely want to be part of a duo at the very least. (Recently I had a book talk with four different staff members on hand, and it was amazing). When it comes to book talks, there is power in numbers, and I now do my best to avoid solo book talks that are longer than one class period.

Why talk as a team?

  1. Variety, of books and voices. We don’t all love the same books, or talk them in the same way, so students benefit from hearing a realistic fiction fan and a sci-fi fan during the same book talk session.
  2. Endurance. For my schools, it’s often easiest to schedule us to see an entire grade during one day, so having more book talkers on hand guarantees that you can get through six hours of book talks without losing your voice or your mind.
  3. Fun. With a team book talk, you can go from being a solo act to being the Smothers Brothers or Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. It’s nice to have another person to riff off of and look to, and it makes your book talks more diverse and dynamic.

Where to talk
Does anyone just, like, hold book talk programs in the library that teens will come to? I think this is probably a rarity, so most of the time I’m guessing you’re going to be book talking in a school to a class or a set of classes.

My ideal situation is book talking to one or two classes in a group, in a larger space such as the library media center or common area. I’ve grown to like having a few tables at the front where I can display my books covers out.

I also take out a mobile circulation station (laptop, hot spot, scanner) which I set up away from the book talk area, so teens can check out books they are excited about ON THE SPOT. This has changed the game when it comes to book talks– no more handing out lists and hoping they’ll come to the library to check something out, nope, if they want it they get it. (This means the number of books you bring is radically different, which I will address in the next step).

What to talk
Ideally, you’ll talk books that you have 1) read and 2) are really, really excited about. However, none of us live or work in an ideal world (if you do, you’re a lucky duck!), so sometimes we’ll have to book talk on an assigned theme, or we’ll accept a last minute book talking request and we won’t have enough new books read to fill the request, so we’ll have to fake it.

If you’re trying to talk books you haven’t read, the team and I had a few strategies to share:

  1. Read a LOT of reviews. Certain reviewers are better at indicating potential readers than others, so once you figure out those reviewers, turn to them first. Bookshelves of Doom is great for Fantasy/Horror, and Stacked is great for realistic fiction and fantasy/sci-fi. I also turn to common sense media quite a bit so I can be more certain of the content of thornier books, especially when I’m talking to sixth graders.
  2. Observe your fellow book talkers. This is another pro of talking in teams. There are some books I still haven’t read, but I’ve heard my colleagues talk about them enough that I’ve memorized their talks.
  3. Admit it! I’ve taken out a few books based solely on their covers and blurbs, so I admit this to the kids. “I haven’t had time to read this one, but it has a rabid squirrel on the cover, so I was pretty sure someone would want to read it.”

Remember the mobile circulation station I mentioned? This affects how many books we bring. We try to bring multiple copies of as many books as possible, so we can repeat book talks throughout the day. This reduces the number of unique book talks we need to prepare and present, and the physical number of books that we have to take out to a school. Each book talker generally brings out two to three large tote bags full of books, and we usually take back one or two tote bags of books that didn’t get checked out.

How to talk
The right way to  book talk is the way you feel comfortable, excited, and enthusiastic. Everything else is up to your personal preferences and strengths.

I will say this– if you’re able to take a stand up comedy class (seriously!) or another kind of live literature or storytelling class, this could improve your book talks immensely. Because really, what is a book talk other than a story about a story? And while you don’t have to be a laugh riot, the ability to land a joke can go a long way in making your book talks more enjoyable for your audience (don’t forget the teachers in the back!).

My style involves a lot of personal anecdotes. Teens are fascinated by personal narratives and making yourself even the tiniest bit vulnerable can have a huge impact on how they perceive you.

Why
Why do we book talk? To get teens to read, yes. To circulate books, yes. Book talking was created by teen librarians for teens because even in the 1920s, teens who could read were choosing not to, for many reasons. Very noble goals, and goals I try to achieve with my book talks.

I also see book talks as a way of developing relationships– with the teens, with their teachers, with the school librarians, with their school, with your coworkers. Even if teens don’t care for any of the books you talk during a particular session, with any luck they’ll realize you know a lot about books, and might come seek you out to help them find what they want to read.

So that’s the Hi, Miss Julie guide to book talking! Thanks for reading.

Read More About It!

Everyone’s favorite, wikipedia

How Did YA Become YA? (includes why book talking was created for teens)

A Chair, A Fireplace and A Tea Cozy book talks

YS Wikispaces Booktalking

Randomhouse Booktalking 

We Need Diverse Books Booktalking Kit

Interview with Alexis Coe, Author of Alice + Freda Forever

I’d like to say that I got to sit down with Alexis in a lovely little diner somewhere, drinking coffee as we chatted about vicarious menstruation and murder, but alas, I only got to email her my bizarre questions, but the answers are fabulous, and I appreciate her being a good sport about my admitted weirdness. Here we go!Alice+FredaForever_9781936976607 Alexis Coe_Alice and Freda Forever_1Julie: One of my favorite details in Alice + Freda Forever was that Sarah Bernhardt was trying to get an opera written about the couple–I think that would have been amazing.  Do you think your book might spawn a movie which will then become a musical which will then become a movie musical? And who would you cast as Alice and Freda? 

Alexis: I like this question so much—you clearly read the endnotes! Fortunately, my literary agent is at William Morris Endeavor in New York, and their LA office is handling the creative rights, so we might just see AFF the movie->musical->movie musical. I’ve only seen one of her movies (“Hanna”), but I can see Saoirse Ronan playing a wild-eyed Alice. I’ve got no idea who would play Freda, but I imagine she’d be very pretty and flirtatious. I’ve been on a serious “Good Wife” kick, so I picture Julianna Margulies as Alice’s mother, Isabella Mitchell.

Julie: I’m now fascinated by vicarious menstruation and erotomania. Are there any other esoteric and/or antiquated diseases that you are particularly interested in?

Alexis: This is going to seem morbid, in addition to writing a book that opens with a gruesome murder, but when I worked at the NYPL I spent way too long perusing a log book about causes of death in the 1820s. That’s where I was first introduced to “bad blood,” which is syphilis, and the many ways people died by horses hooves. They were most often kicked in the face, but children crossing the street were trampled by buggies, too. Memphis had a series of Yellow Fever outbreaks that devastated the city, and there were reports of “black vomit,” which was vomiting old black blood.

Julie: The story of Alice and Freda has been compared to the Parker-Hulme case in New Zealand (upon which Heavenly Creatures was based). What do you make of these comparisons? Are they apt?

Alexis: Although Alice was never tried for murder, I can see how the Mitchell-Ward case reminds some readers of the Parker-Hulme case. In both instances, media coverage was sensational, and same-sex love was linked to insanity. Issues of morality were at the forefront. But from there, I think their stories and lives were quite different.

Julie: As a librarian I love how well-researched your book is, with great citations and list of sources. Once you’ve researched a topic, how do you transition into writing the narrative so its engaging to readers while still adhering to the facts?

Alexis: Thank you! That’s high praise from a librarian. I write a very dry first draft in order to lay a solid foundation. It could probably pass for a graduate thesis, and is by far the most agonizing part. I then rewrite as often as I can. If I take a break to walk my dog, I think about what I’m writing, where I’ve been and where I need to go. I worry. I get upset. I laugh. I get angry. That’s when I know the historical actors have become real people to me, and that shows in the writing. If I’ve got a lot of time, which almost never happens, I’ll try to take a few days away from the project. That’s the ultimate luxury.

Julie: I loved Alice + Freda Forever so much, I’m already curious about what your next book might be. As a farmer’s daughter I’m hoping it might come from one of your Modern Farmer articles. Can you tell us anything about possible future books?

Alexis: You’re so kind! I know what you mean. When I finish articles, I often think, this should be a book! People need to know about this! Alas, saying that and starting the process of researching is quite different. There have been a lot of ideas that I thought about often, bemoaning how little time I had to explore them, and then, when I finally do, they never get past the first day of research. As far as the next book, I’ve been researching an economist who had been blacklisted by McCarthy, but then AFF came out, and it has taken up all my time since October 7th. I’m still the Toast’s history columnist, so you can find me there, and check out my Author Facebook page or twitter for the latest. By the time this goes up, Vice may have posted a personal essay I wrote about AFF.

Thanks, Alexis! When that essay goes live, I will link to it here.

Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis

Publisher’s information:

Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis
In 1892, America was obsessed with a teenage murderess, but it wasn’t her crime that shocked the nation – it was her motivation. Nineteen-year-old Alice Mitchell planned to pass as a man and marry seventeen-year-old Freda Ward, but when their love letters were discovered, they were forbidden to ever speak again. Desperate and isolated, Alice pilfered her father’s razor, and on a cold winter’s day, she slashed her ex-fiancée’s throat. Now more than 120 years later, their tragic but true story is being told. Alice + Freda Forever, by historian Alexis Coe and with illustrations by Sally Klann, is embellished with letters, maps, historical documents, and more. (Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis by Alexis Coe / Published by Zest Books and distributed by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / ISBN-13: 978-1-936976-60-7 / $16.99 Hardcover; 224 pages, Ages 16+)

Alice+FredaForever_9781936976607I have to say I love this book. Like many I go through reading phases, including but not limited to: YA Fantasy and Sci-fi, YA Romance, Adult Fantasy and Sci-fi, Comfort Rereads, Biographies, Radiolab-esque nonfiction, and the genre that Alice + Freda Forever falls under, True Crime. One of my favorite true crime stories is that of Juliette Hulme and Pauline Parker, which, while a different story, does contain a couple of similar elements (which is something I asked Alexis about in my interview with her, which you can read here), so when the chance to read Alice + Freda Forever came up, I quickly took it.

In my work as a youth librarian who works closely with educators, I often think about how the books I read could be used by teachers, and I can see a lot of ways that Alice + Freda Forever could be used in high school classrooms and even in college classrooms, in addition to just being a great, high-interest read. Pair it with Orlando and discuss gender identity, or with In Cold Blood to compare and contrast murder narratives. Assign it in a course about civil rights along with reading the works of Ida B. Wells. Include it in a reading list about obscure and outdated diseases. The possibilities are endless and that is, for me, a mark of quality nonfiction.

Although this book is definitely aimed at an older audience, with upper high school at the low end, I am really, really happy to see the copious amount of research that was done, and the list of sources that were referenced. Nonfiction for youth, despite being an in demand property, is, in my opinion, often lacking in references and source material, and the authority of the author is often questionable (have you noticed how many former lawyers write children’s nonfiction these days?). This is not the case with Alexis Coe, I am glad to say.

I also thought the design of this book was beautiful, and spot on for its audience. I can see teens who enjoy graphic memoirs easily embracing this beautifully illustrated title, and reluctant readers being pulled in by the striking red cover.

AliceFreda_parting
Alice and Freda parting.

One final note about this book and its imprint, Pulp. Ever since the term “new adult” appeared on the scene, I’ve scorned it. It seemed silly, redundant, and none of the books bearing that stamp seemed at all fresh or interesting to me. But then Pulp gave me a definition of new adult that I could accept and even support:

At Zest Books, we’ve been publishing nonfiction books for teens and young adults since 2006, but we’re growing up a little bit in 2014: Today we’re proud to announce our launch of Pulp, an imprint for “new adults.” Like our previous Zest titles, the books in the Pulp imprint will include contemporary and narrative nonfiction books, specializing in memoirs, graphic novels, and art and humor books, but for a slightly older audience. […] We’re looking forward to taking even more risks with these books, especially in terms of how we cover our topics. Many of our Zest authors were coming to us because, as readers, they appreciated our honesty and curiosity, but that sensibility is something that has value for adults as well. In fact, that sensibility is already being reflected at sites like Rookie and The Toast, where some of our current authors now publish. Additionally, the issues that we’re now covering for teens—such as sexuality, health, behavior, and relationships—shift significantly as young adults mature, and the Pulp line allows us to expand both what we can cover and how we can cover it. Some of our Pulp books will have immediate appeal to teens in the same way that our Zest Books titles often sell into the adult market. We embrace that fluidity, while at the same time recognizing a need to let booksellers and librarians know how our respective books are intended. (Emphasis added. Via Zest’s website).

Anyway, this book is a great read and belongs in most public and academic library collections, and could certainly see some applications in upper high school courses. Highly recommended.

Daisy to the Rescue: Book Review

Daisy to the RescueTrue Stories of Daring Dogs, Paramedic Parrots, and Other Animal Heroes

By Jeff Campbell and illustrated by Ramsey Beyer, with a foreword by Dr. Mark Bekoff / Published by Zest Books and distributed by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / ISBN-13: 978-1-936976-62-1 / $17.99 Hardcover, 320 pages, Ages 12+)

Daisy to the rescue

As a single woman with two cats, I’m always interested in a good “animal saves human” story, especially ones involving animals other than dogs. Cats are more known for their propensity to eat your corpse if you die at home alone (although I recently learned that cats will mostly eat only your face, so as a “green burial” strategy, corpse removal via cat is not your best option) so I’m always on the lookout for a cat hero story to make myself feel better about the beasts who occupy my home.

Campbell’s book meets this need of mine and then some. Not only do cats save lives in this book, so do parrots, potbellied pigs, ponies, and kangaroos. I was personally greatly comforted by the tale of Inky, who saved his owner from being crushed by a fallen door. I hope my cats show the same heroic spirit should I ever become trapped under my refrigerator. Not that I think about that. No.Inky Card front

Campbell divides his tales into four parts to cover a variety of animal stories, including my favorite part, Legends and Folktales. This section includes a story of feral girls in India who may or may not have been raised by wolves, and whether or not a priest was trying to spin their story into an elaborate hoax.

The tale that sticks with me most, though, is the story of Kabang, the Filipino street dog. In the Philippines, street dogs (referred to as aspin) are often raised for meat rather than kept as pets, and live short, brutal lives before being slaughtered. Before this could happen to Kabang, however, she saved the lives of two young girls in the family who had been destined to kill her for food.

Kabang jumped at a motorcyle that was bearing down on eleven year old Dina and three year old princess, knocking the bike over in time to save the girls. In the process, Kabang had her lower jaw torn from her face. The family, despite her ugliness, regarded her as a hero, and treasured her as a member of the family for the rest of their lives.

This is being listed as 12+, and I can definitely see it having wide appeal for advanced elementary school readers through high school students. The stories are short and vividly told, and could even be used as read alouds for a class. I also love that the design of the book will appeal to younger readers without being overly childlike—no older kid will be embarrassed to be seen reading this book, yet the beautiful illustrations will still draw in younger readers.

Share with readers who enjoyed Nubs : The True Story Of A Mutt, A Marine & A Miracle, Alex & Me : How A Scientist And A Parrot Discovered A Hidden World Of Animal Intelligence–and Formed A Deep Bond In The Process, fans of Jon Katz’s books, or people who have read the entire James Herriott canon and are hungry for more animal tales.

This post is part of Zest books True Stories blog tour. I have to say that Zest is now one of my favorite publishers, and I am loving the titles that they are putting out. I’ll be writing about another one of their newest titles on Monday!ZestBooksTrueStories2014

See You Later, Alligator

I’ve just started a new “stop the summer slide” session of Beginning Reader Storytime, the first time I’ve presented this program at my new library (it’s still new to me, really, even after almost two years here). For this community, I made this program drop-in, and the ages are entering K to entering 2nd grade in the fall. Here’s the plan for week one ( I am pretty sure that I am going to be able to work in alligators for all five of the sessions I am presenting, so my alligator puppet will be the consistent mascot):

Opening Routine
This is the same routine I use for all storytimes, babies through about second grade.
I’m so glad (I really need to record this)
Say Hello

Storytime Message (the storytime version of a prek class morning message):
June 19th, 2014
Dear Friends,

Today we will read some stories about alligators!
Circle the As in the message.

Book: Hooray for Amanda and her Alligator!
This book is perfect for this age group. It is divided into six and a half short chapters, which is a great stepping stone for the early chapter books many of these kids will be reading soon.

Song: “Alligator Pie”
I use Hugh Hanley’s version of this song, which includes a brief introduction for kids to “get the rhythm”. (an aside: If you don’t already own all of Hugh’s CD and book sets, why not? Do you hate being good at storytime? No? Then order them, please; ideally two sets, one for professional use and one set to circulate.)

Book: I’d Really Like to Eat a Child
(The first review there on goodreads is GOLDEN.) Yes, this book is about a little crocodile* named Achillles  who wants to eat a child. But he doesn’t. But even if he did, most kids aren’t bothered. My group joined in on the “eat a CHILD” part with great enthusiasm.

Song: “Five little monkeys swinging in a tree”
After the previous book, I said I had an animal friend who would like to meet them. They pretty quickly guessed it was an alligator. I told the kids he was hungry, and could they guess what he ate? “Children??” they asked. Oh, no, no, absolutely not–I would never be allowed to bring a child eating alligator to work. This alligator loved to eat MONKEYS. Five was the perfect number.

I used the head only alligator from folkmanis, but I still had all of the monkeys to stay in the alligator’s mouth, and I made plenty of jokes about chewing with your mouth full, etc. COMIC GOLD.

Book: There’s an alligator under my bed
This book is a classic for a reason. The rhythm is perfect and the note that the kid leaves for his dad at the end is a perfect example of emerging writing.

If I had thought of it, I should have had some nonfiction on hand to talk about what alligators REALLY eat, because I am pretty sure it’s not cookies and vegetables (or children or monkeys, for that matter). You live, you learn.

Activity:
A art—younger kids can glue down the letter and add to their picture, older kids can write a story.
Supplies:
Ellison die As
paper
Glue sticks
Markers or crayons
This is a super easy art activity/craft. The kids enjoyed making their As into alligators, people, etc.

While this program is very similar to the original incarnation, I did make adjustments for my new community (drop-in, parent not required), and I think for the future sessions I will tweak it further still, and work on some higher level literacy skills than I did for this first one. Overall I felt good about it, and the kids that attended had a good time and enjoyed the stories, which is really the primary goal.

*Crocodiles, alligators, I know they are different, but…whatever.