Sunday, February 24, 2019

A Book Is A Good Book

Recently, a YouTube video of a Scottish grandmother reading to her grandson went viral.  With her grandson, who was too young so sit up on his own, tucked snugly into the crook of her arm, she was reading him a picture book I’d never heard of, The Wonky Donkey. His eyes were wandering but still, she was reading to him. And she was having the best time. As she roared with laughter, I couldn’t help but laugh too, until my eyes teared.  
I posted the video to social media and sent it to other children’s-book-loving friends. One of the first responses I received was “I wish it were a better book.”
I was horrified.
This child, this baby, this infant, really, was being exposed to words and  pictures, to the opening of a book and the turn of a page, to wordplay and the idea of a cumulative tale, to animal noises. He was being shown that reading is not a chore but a joy. Most importantly, he was experiencing time and affection from his grandmother. What brought them together? A book. That sounds like a darn good book to me.
A few days prior, Marie Kondo’s supposed exhortation that those trying to declutter should get rid of books had created a viral outcry. The minimalists were pitted against the book lovers. As the commenting on social media became increasingly heated, one person in my feed stated in passing that, “But it is a reality that book clutter can be a form of OCD. I’ve seen pictures of people with shelves full of mass market paperback mysteries, and that’s a whole other demographic, but even serious book lovers [emphasis added] can get crowded out and overwhelmed by too many books.” Again, I was horrified. Someone who loves mass market paperback mysteries can’t be a serious book lover? This sort of intellectual book snobbery is offensive. Are some books “better” that others? Well, yes and no. It depends on what standard you are judging them by. Some are sheer entertainment. Some evoke deep emotion. Some have beautifully crafted sentences. Some provoke discussion of social issues. Some make us think about the human condition. Some teach and inform. Some - and they are rare - do some combination of these. For some people, only those that do something in addition to entertain (or perhaps don’t entertain at all!) are worthy.
But on another level all books are good. Even books which are arguably racist, sexist, or otherwise objectionable are opportunities for discussion. As an elementary school librarian, I have to make tough choices about which books to purchase and keep for the library all the time. Budgets and shelf space are finite. Some books really do not belong in my school library for a variety of reasons, but there are no books that I would tell a child not to read because the book did not meet some imagined, arbitrary quality standard. Every year, I conduct a Mock Caldecott competition with my students where we vote for the book with the “best” illustrations and we discuss past winners of the real Caldecott medal, which is awarded annually to the "most distinguished American picture book for children." I always caution my students that just because a book has a shiny gold sticker on it doesn’t mean they will like it. Or that they should. And just because the book they love lacks that sticker doesn’t mean they shouldn’t like it. Taste is, and should be, personal. Janice Clark, the grandma in the video, sets a wonderful example. She teaches us not to be intimidated by books or by reading aloud. Read what you like (especially while the child is too young to object!), and share the experience with someone you love.    A book that brings people together is a good book. A book that makes you laugh is a good book. A book that teaches you something is a good book. A book that entertains you is a good book. A book is a good book.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Kindness v. Truth

Especially in this age of fake news and truthiness, it is harder than ever to teach a child the value of a white lie, the value of tact which may require at least omission and at most a small fib.

Enter Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have A Horse, a picture book relative of the classic The Hundred Dresses.  Just as Wanda Petronski did not own a hundred dresses, Adrian Simcox does not own a horse.  The other children self-righteously call their bluff and learn to regret their unkindness.  While I've always found The Hundred Dresses a little didactic, Adrian Simcox is not.  (Amazingly, it is author Marcy Campbell's debut picture book.)

Chloe's indignation blazes off the page.

Adrian Simcox is a beautiful book in every way - the language, the message, and, of course, the illustrations.  Illustrator Corinna Luyken, of The Book of Mistakes, uses an autumnal palette of golds, oranges, and ochres and purples for Adrian and a darker purple and black palette for Chloe, the narrator who insists on complete and utter honesty.  Of course she learns that kindness is sometimes more important than the literal truth.

Adrian lives with his grandfather, who I'm convinced is Marty, the protagonist of Mop Top by Don Freeman.  That hair!

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Oscars of Children's Books

In honor of the ALA Youth Media Awards, which are being announced this morning, I came to school in a sparkly silver dress.  It has long sleeves and is a bit sack-shaped and is from the Gap, but hey, if Sharon Stone can wear a black turtleneck from the Gap to the Oscars, then this dress is certainly festive enough.

The ALA Youth Media Awards are the Oscars of children's literature.  In fact, just like the Oscars, they save the "big" awards until the end.  Since the ALA Mid-winter convention at which the awards are announced is being held in Denver this year, we don't know the winners yet, as they begin the announcements at 8am Mountain Time.  Therefore, the Caldecott and Newbery Medal and Honor winners won't be announced for another hour or two.

As the Children's Book Oscars, I think ALA needs to step things up a bit.  I want a red carpet, with librarians, authors, and illustrators asked who they are wearing.  I want to hear about the jewels loaned by Harry Winston.  And I want them televised.  To that end, I have a few suggestions.

1. Move the awards to the evening.  No one is going to watch awards at 8am.  No one gets dressed up at 8am.  No one drinks cocktails at 8am.

2.  Nominate a short-list of 10-12 books for each award.  Without nominees, you can't invite authors and illustrators to the award ceremony because the field is wide open.  The Oscars went from 5 nominees for best picture to a maximum of 10.  There must be some procedure for the ALA membership to vote and make this change.

3.  Contact ESPN.  If ESPN can televise the Spelling Bee, it can surely televise the Youth Media Awards.

Until then, I'll be sitting in my sparkly silver dress, watching the live feed in between classes coming to the library.

Next year, the red carpet!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Schooldecott 2018!

On the eve, literally, of the announcement of the winners of the Caldecott and Newbery medals tomorrow morning, along with a slew of other awards, I tallied our school's votes just in time.

I selected 12 nominees:

Kindergartners and first-graders voted only for their favorite; everyone else voted for their top three.  A book got 3 points for a first-place vote, 2 for a second-place vote, and 3 for a third-place vote.

The winner was... (drumroll)... The Wolf, the Duck & the Mouse!

It was followed closely by After the Fall (How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again), then Big Cat, Little Cat, and then The Book of Mistakes.

I can't wait to find out whether any of our choices were selected by the ALA.

May the best book win!

Sunday, January 7, 2018

A Dinosaur's (Literary) Ancestors

"Real dinosaurs didn't like attention.  They didn't want anyone to see them.  That's why Bolivar lived in the busiest city in the world."

Bolivar has been getting a lot of justly deserved attention.  But he is not the first (fictional) dinosaur to find refuge in New York.

That would be - I think - Sinclair Sophocles, The Baby Dinosaur.  Published in its author's and illustrator's home of Vienna in 1971 and published in English in the United States in 1974, Sinclair has Bolivar beat by over 40 years.

You might think that a lot has changed in 40 years, and a lot has.  People lament the gentrification and write odes (through rose-colored glasses, in my opinion, possibly even hot-pink) to the gritty days of yore.

But some things never change.

In Sinclair Sophocles Friederike Mayrocker wrote, "You are probably wondering why the people in the street did not stare or scream when they saw a baby dinosaur walking by.  I am wondering, too, but the fact is - no one did.  People who live in cities are often like that."

Were truer words ever spoken (or written)?  We New Yorkers pride ourselves on not staring - not at celebrities, not at crazy people, not at the strange outfits or the strange things people carry with them.  Some people disparage this attitude as isolating.  We prefer to see it as respecting people's privacy.  Therefore people of all stripes, clothing and headgear- and dinosaurs - can ride the subway in peace.

Bolivar rides the subway undisturbed and unnoticed

The Lizard form the Park rides the subway, undisturbed and unnoticed

Man with giant red mouse ears rides the subway, undisturbed but noticed by me

Shopping at Fairway, of course
The 1 train does not stop here!
Bolivar is strikingly beautiful and detailed, leading to cries of recognition (Fairway! the subway tiles!) and the occasional calling out of an error (the 1 train does not stop at 81st St for the Museum of Natural History; that would be the B and C trains).  There also some clever visual jokes, some New York-related (the local hot dog joint is the Papaya Czar rather than the Papaya King) and some not (Sybil's mom uses a Pineapple brand laptop (or perhaps Pomegranate)).  The themes of friendship and when privacy becomes isolation, when anonymity turns into loneliness are treated with a light touch.

But for my money, Sinclair Sophocles is the winner here.  Both Bolivar and Sinclair are stories of a friendship between a child a dinosaur.  Both are absurd, although Sinclair Sophocles ventures into the surreal with a talking furniture dust cover that renders the wearer invisible.  But Sinclair elevates the theme of friendship with its beautiful ending, when Sinclair flashes his "promised sign" of forever friendship in the sky: the infinity sign.

After Sinclair Sophocles came the dinosaurs of Hudson Talbott's We're Back: A Dinosaur's Story (disappointing, in my opinion), followed by Mark Pett's Lizard from the Park, both of which, amazingly, feature the dinosaurs camouflaged as balloons the Thanksgiving Day Parade:

If we expand our search to include not just dinosaurs but reptiles in New York City more generally, we have Lyle the Crocodile who made his first appearance in 1962 in the classic The House on East 88th Street and Have You Seen My Dragon?, published in 2014.  And in Chalk (2010) we have a playground structure shaped like a dinosaur coming alive in a city that, while not specifically New York, certainly could be.

And underlying it all is that old "alligator in the sewer" urban legend, which dates back until at least the 1930s.  Steve Light, author and illustrator of Have You Seen My Dragon? notes that his father used to claim that the steam coming out of manhole covers was the breath of a dragon.

There is something about the intersection of the wild and the civilized and the line between privacy and isolation that fascinate us.  Perhaps that is why the legend of the urban dinosaur, unlike the dinosaur itself, will never become extinct.

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Masks We Wear

Halloween is not my holiday.  Scary and, to me, morbid, I could happily skip the whole thing.  But most kids love it and so I decided to find non-scary Halloween books to read to my students this year.

Illustration by Louis Darling
The first book - or rather, chapter of a book - that came to mind - was the one in Ramona the Pest where she dresses up as "the baddest witch in the world" and participates for the first time in the school Halloween parade.  Reading it to classes over and over, I was struck each and every time by how perfectly Beverly Cleary describes the terror that can come with the anonymity that a costume can bring.  Cleary writes, "Nobody knew who Ramona was, and if nobody knew who she was, she wasn't anybody."  Desperate to assert her identity, Ramona runs back to her classroom and writes herself a nametag, which she proudly holds in front of her costume.

Cleary also describes with emotional clarity the satisfaction children (and adults) can have in scaring themselves - in controlling the amount of fear they experience.  Ramona finds her own mask terrifying and hides it under a couch cushion so she doesn't have to look at it.  But then she periodically "would lift the cushion for a quick glimpse of her scary mask before she clapped the pillow over it again.  Scaring herself was such fun." And while Ramona finds looking at her mask scary, when she wears it - and therefore can't see it herself - she feels brave.  That is, until she feels lost and alone.

Illustrations by Kurt Werth

Written five years before Ramona the Pest, A Tiger Called Thomas by Charlotte Zolotow also uses Halloween and costumes to tackle issues of identity, but from a very different perspective.  Thomas, who has just moved to a new neighborhood, is too shy to approach any of his neighbors.  (And why should he?!?  Shouldn't they come over and greet the new arrivees?  But that is neither here nor there.)  But safely inside his tiger costume, Thomas is brave enough to trick-or-treat, feeling secure that no one will recognize him.  Much to his surprise, everyone knows who he is!  (A Tiger Called Thomas wass reissued with new illustrations in 1988 and again in  2003 and will be published again next year with yet another set of illustrations.  There was an article in the March/April 2017 issue of The Horn Book about the different versions, but unfortunately it is not online.) 

Masks - literal and figurative - can embolden us, change us, or render us invisible or anonymous.

But I still don't like Halloween.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Imagination Can Never Be Obsolete

Finite funds and finite space necessitate that libraries weed their collections.  And when they do, they indicate which books they are removing by a variety of stamps or handwritten words, like this one:

Or this one:

But this one?

Obsolete?  Well, some books are indeed obsolete.  Books that talk about the Soviet Union as if it still exists, for example.  Atlases that show Czechoslovakia.  Books that have scientific information that has since been proved incorrect, or for which new terminology has been agreed upon (e.g. Is Pluto a planet?)

But this was a picture book.  A picture book about a child who is visited by a king and his royal entourage... which turns out to have all been in the child's imagination, piqued by a deck of playing cards.  This book is not, and could never be, obsolete.