Saturday, March 29, 2014

Kids' Books March Madness: My Bracket is Busted

Well, I tried. I really thought that one of my trio of picks -- Flora & Ulysses, The Animal Book and The Thing About Luck -- had a chance to make it into the final, Big Kahuna round of School Library Journal's Battle of the Kids' Books. But, one by one, my hand-picked winners have fallen.

The first to fall was Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo, which lost out to Far, Far Away by Tom McNeal at the hands of judge Sara Mlynowski in Round One. Mylnowski concluded: "Flora & Ulysses might be an easy sell to kids, but Far Far Away blew me away."

 Going into Round Two, I was still confident, thinking that either "The Animal Book" by Steve Jenkins or "The Thing About Luck" by Cynthia Kadohata would go the distance. But, in Round Two, judge Tonya Bolden chose "Boxers & Saints" by Gene Luen Yang over "The Animal Book."  As Bolden summed up: "I found myself with an unenviable choice when SLJ asked me to choose between the works of two fine artist-writers: Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints and Steven Jenkins’s The Animal World, two works that are necessary, two works that will stay with me for years, two works I am sure to revisit.Which will I revisit first? Boxers & Saints."

Yet, judge Katherine Marsh kept my hopes alive when she picked The Thing About Luck over The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt in Round Two. I was still in the game!

Alas, it was a short-lived victory. In the just-concluded Round Three, judge Robin LaFevers gave the nod to P.S. Be Eleven over The Thing About Luck. LaFevers concluded her selection remarks by noting: "While I was forced to pick just one of these books, you don’t have to. Anyone who reads both of them will be the true winner." Yes, that's true, but her selection leaves me with my bracket busted.

Wait! There's still a slim chance that I could get back in the game! On Monday, the Battle Commanders will unveil the winner of the "Undead" poll.
What's this, you say? Well, before this year's Battle of the Kids' Books began, folks were urged to vote for the book that they'd most like to see come back into the Big Kahuna round. As the Battle Commanders explain it: "The previously-eliminated contender that receives the most votes will be taken out of the grave to join the two other finalists for the final bout featuring our Big Kahuna judge, 'Typical' Jennifer Holm."

So, fingers crossed for Monday. I'd be happy to see any of my trio resurrected to battle it out with the other two finalists, Boxers & Saints and P.S. Be Eleven in the Big Kahuna round on April 1. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Review: The Cafeteria Is Closing!

Five years ago, author/illustrator Jarrett Krosoczka introduced an unforgettable character to the world of children’s comics. Her name is Lunch Lady, and her tag line is “Serving Justice and Serving… Lunch!” Who can resist a come-on like that?

The first Lunch Lady book – “Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute” – was published in 2009, and the series has become a favorite with young readers. Kids love the way that Lunch Lady (a true kick-butt type) and her sidekick Betty modify various types of food products and kitchen utensils into superhero gadgets and use them to ensure that Thompson Brook Elementary stays safe from bad guys. Only a group of kids known as the Breakfast Bunch knows of Lunch Lady’s secret identity.

Krosoczka continued to chronicle the adventures of Lunch Lady in eight more books, winning more readers with each one. The series is instantly recognizable with its yellow, black and white color scheme, and kids tell me they love how someone they deal with every school day – a lunch lady – is a superhero in Krosoczka’s books. In fact, Krosoczka says he got the idea for the series years ago when he went back to his grade school to talk about being an author and saw Jeannie, who had been the lunch lady. As he says, “I had never thought about her life outside of the lunchroom. I went home and began writing.”

More than 315,000 “Lunch Lady” books have been sold, there’s a movie option on the series, and now Krosoczka brings the Lunch Lady saga to a grand finale in the recently-published “Lunch Lady and the Schoolwide Scuffle” (Random House, $6.99, ages 7-10).  In this book, the Breakfast Bunch convince Betty and Lunch Lady – whose positions have been cut from the school budget – to return and help the students fight against the new administrators, who just happen to be the evil doers from all of the previous Lunch Lady adventures. It’s a perfect, satisfying way to end the series as young readers will enjoy seeing villains from previous books come up against Lunch Lady one more time.

Lunch Lady has her own website, and kids can go there to play a video game based on the series, and find out about the books. But kids and parents also might want to check out Krosoczka’s own website, where they’ll find eight different versions of Krosoczka’s biography (including a Twitter biography and a Fake Biography), a wonderful feature called “Sketchbook Saturday,” in which Krosoczka shares his latest drawings, and activities based on the “Lunch Lady” series and other books that Krosoczka has written.

For, if you don’t already know it, the author/illustrator of “Lunch Lady” also writes picture books and novels. Among his picture books are “Good Night, Monkey Boy” (his first published book), “Bubble Bath Pirate,” and “Punk Farm” (and its companion, “Punk Farm on Tour”). The multi-talented Krosoczka also has started writing the “Platypus Police Squad” books, a fiction series for kids ages 8-12. The first book is titled “The Frog Who Croaked,” and the second book, set to be published at the beginning of May, is “The Ostrich Conspiracy.”
And, if you’re looking for inspiration – for yourself or the child/children in your life – watch Krosoczka’s October 2012 TED talk, “How the Boy Became an Artist.” In the talk, Krosoczka talks about being adopted by his maternal grandparents after it became clear that his mother, a heroin addict, was unfit to be a parent. Krosoczka also relates the importance of reading and learning to do art were in his childhood, adding bluntly that “imagination saved my life.” Krosoczka’s talk is less than 20 minutes, but it’s guaranteed to put a smile on your face and help you remember just why being a children’s author is such an important – and fulfilling – career.

(Note: This blog post is based on a copy of "Lunch Lady and the Schoolwide Shuffle" sent to me for review by Random House Children's Books, and I borrowed my post's headline -- "The Cafeteria Is Closing!" from the Random House press release).

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Non-Diverse World of Children's Literature

The lack of diversity in children's books is a stubbornly persistent issue. Years ago, Nancy Larrick, a former president of the International Reading Association, sparked a vigorous and heated debate when she wrote in the Saturday Review about the "all-white world of children's books." In the article, Larrick noted that, while "integration may be the law of the land... most of the books children see are all white."

Larrick wrote that in 1965, and, in 2014, the world of children's literature remains a basically all-white world. According to the latest statistics gathered by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, of 3,200 children's books published in 2013, just 93 were about African Americans, 57 were about Latinos, 69 were about Asian/Pacific Islanders, and 34 were about American Indians. Clearly, these numbers don't reflect the reality of our increasingly multicultural country.

Folks in the world of children's literature have spent much time recently discussing the lack of diversity in children's books and how to remedy it. A great example of the recent focus is this post from the blog of Lee & Low, a publisher of multicultural books, whose tag line is "About Everyone. For Everyone." In that Lee & Low blog post, children's author Uma Krishnaswami noted: "It seems to me that as long as so-called 'multicultural' books, even award-winning ones, are placed in a separate category and not judged and read and recommended as good books on their own merit, this will continue to be the case."

Then last Sunday, Walter Dean Myers, a much-acclaimed author of numerous children's and teen novels and a former National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, brought the issue out for the general public to ponder. In a powerful, eloquent essay published in The New York Times and titled "Where Are the People of Color in Children's Books?," Myers talked about the importance of books in his own childhood, and then his increasing dismay as he matured that there were no characters like him in the books he read. As he writes in the Times: "As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine...Books did not become my enemies. They were more like friends with whom I no longer felt comfortable."

Christopher Myers with his father, Walter Dean Myers.
Myers' essay was paired with another, written by his son Christopher Myers, an award-winning children's book creator in his own right. In "The Apartheid of Children's Literature," Christopher Myers says bluntly that "(t)he business of children’s literature enjoys ever more success, sparking multiple movie franchises and crossover readership, even as representations of young people of color are harder and harder to find."
Christopher Myers

If you haven't read the two essays by Myers, father and son, I urge you to do so. It's a hugely important topic, and the Myers' essays poignantly detail the human cost of the lack of diversity in children's books. Walter Dean Myers, for one, hasn't given up, but the urgency of addressing the issue is increasing. As he concludes in his Times essay: "Black history is usually depicted as folklore about slavery, and then a fast-forward to the civil rights movement. Then I’m told that black children, and boys in particular, don’t read. Small wonder.
There is work to be done."

Friday, March 14, 2014

Tales From the Library: Novel Concerns

Recently, a patron called me to ask for recommendations for her mother-daughter book club in which the young participants are third-graders, most around nine years old. This patron and her daughter, a voracious reader, had suggested “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’Dell as their pick for the club. The patron told me that her daughter loved the book and wanted to share it with her friends.

But another mother in the club objected, saying that she had read on Common Sense Media that Karana, the main character, in “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” witnesses the deaths of her father and brother, and that the book contained a fair amount of violence. This mother felt that would be too much for her daughter and asked that the club read another book.

The patron who called me was frustrated by the situation and also concerned, as it seemed that the other mother’s concerns could greatly circumscribe the club’s reading. We talked about the “dead parent syndrome” in children’s books, so many of which feature at least one dead parent, which allows kids to be more adventurous. But she wasn’t sure that her mother-daughter book club would be able to read even classic books in which one parent was dead (“The Penderwicks” by Jeanne Birdsall as a recent example). “I know that kids mature at different ages and that can be hard,” the patron said to me. The patron added that she had talked to her daughter about the issue and that her daughter said, “Mom, I know that people die. That’s sad. But I just read those parts and move on.” Clearly, the patron said, her daughter is at a different place than the other mother’s child, but everyone in the club – both mothers and daughters – are good friends and so they really want to try to accommodate each other.

So the patron decided to call me, and ask for recommendations that might work for everyone. I’ve had this type of situation occur before, with parents asking for “gentle” fiction that contains no elements likely to upset their children. It can be extremely tricky terrain for a librarian to navigate, as every parent/child combination is likely to consider different elements as “upsetting.” For some, there can be no deaths that occur (I even had one mother tell me that she was reading “Charlotte’s Web” to her three-year-old child. (!) When I asked how she was going to explain Charlotte’s death to her child, the mother said that she was going to change the ending to a “happy” one where Charlotte lives. Aaarrrgh!) For others, the concern focuses on violence, which most likely means no fairy tales or graphic novels. Even our library's “all ages” comics, for example, usually have some kind of cartoonish violence. (If it’s the violence is more realistic, we put the graphic novel in our “older readers” section as a way of signaling that to parents).

 Certainly I believe that parents have the right to determine what their children read (although I also believe that parents should work to transfer that right to their children as the kids mature). With that parental right, however, comes a responsibility to ensure that you, as a parent, aren’t needlessly limiting your child’s ability to read books that may important for them to read. Fairy tales are a good example of this, with the classic thinking (Bruno Bettelheim, et al) that the violence in these classic tales (Red Riding Hood’s grandmother eaten by a wolf, Hansel and Gretel left in a forest by their father) can actually help kids work out some of their fears.

Full disclosure: I have to acknowledge that it wasn’t easy for me as a parent to refrain from trying to “protect” my kids from books that might upset them. One of my children had major sleep issues and so I thought that by limiting her reading of books with “upsetting” elements, I was helping her. My wise pediatrician, however, eventually convinced me that I couldn’t – and shouldn’t – try to sanitize the world for my daughter, and that it truly might be helpful for her to read about death and violence in a children’s book and see how the characters worked it out, and think about how she herself might work it out. By letting her read books with “upsetting” elements like death and violence, I was giving her some of the tools needed to function in the real world. Today she’s a well-adjusted 23-year-old, and I give some of the credit to the books she read as a child and teen.

Two other things: First, I recognize that my daughter was lucky that she grew up in a stable environment, emotionally and economically. Not every child is so fortunate, and books with death and violence may actually mirror their own experiences, not be something just to read about in a book. They may not have a choice of knowing about death and violence at young age. Second, remember that we are talking about children’s books! Even if there is a death in the book – often offstage, before the story begins, as in books like “The Saturdays” by Elizabeth Enright -- or some violence, like the way the title, canine character is stolen by some ne-er-do-wells in “Ginger Pye” by Eleanor Estes – these are children’s stories, and there will be a happy ending, at least of sorts.

 With all of this in mind, I came up with a list of possible books for the patron to suggest to her mother-daughter book club. They were specifically looking for fiction, so I didn’t include non-fiction or graphic novels – although I did include “Ellie McDoodle,” a “hybrid” book that features a mix of words and illustrations. Many of these books feature some element that might be considered upsetting by some parents (i.e. the divorced parents in “Flora & Ulysses” and the mostly unrepentant behavior displayed by the title character in “Harriet the Spy.”) I had a tight deadline to develop the list, which is by no means exhaustive, and so would love to hear more suggestions from others! This is an issue that comes up regularly for both parents and librarians, and it’s always good to be armed with recommendations. Meanwhile, here's my start at such a list:

__ "The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp" by Kathi Appelt

__ "Whittington" by Alan Armstrong

__ "Ellie McDoodle" by Ruth Barshaw (Hydbrid book, “Wimpy Kid”-style, half illustrations, half text)

__"The Penderwicks" (and follow-ups) by Jeanne Birdsall

__"Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing" by Judy Blume
__ "Masterpiece" by Elise Broach

__ "The Enormous Egg" by Oliver Butterworth

__ "The Cheshire Cheese Cat" by Carmen Agra Deedy

__ "The Cats of Tanglewood Forest" by Charles DeLint

__ "Flora & Ulysses" by Kate DiCamillo

__ "Half Magic" by Edward Eager

__ "Ginger Pye" by Eleanor Estes

__ "The Saturdays" by Elizabeth Enright

__"Harriet the Spy" by Louise Fitzhugh

__ "Bo At Ballard Creek" by Kirkpatrick Hill

__"The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate" by Jacqueline Kelly

__"Rabbit Hill" by Robert Lawson

__"Ella Enchanted" by Gail Carson Levine

__ "Rules" by Cynthia Lord

__ "Betsy-Tacy" by Maude Hart Lovelace

__ "Anastasia Krupnik" by Lois Lowry

__ "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH" by Robert O’Brien

__"Tom’s Midnight Garden" by Philippa Pearce

__"The Cricket in Times Square" by George Selden

__ "Young Fredle" by Cynthia Voight

Monday, March 10, 2014

March Madness for Kids' Book Fans

The battle is on: the Battle of the Kids’ Books, that is. Today was the first official day of this year’s battle, which pits two hand-chosen children’s books – often of very different types – against each other in the literary equivalent of a bracket. Then a judge, always a well-known children’s author, must choose one book over the other, and give their reasons. 

Today, for example, author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson faced a choice between a non-fiction book, “The Animal Book” by Steve Jenkins and a teen novel by Julie Berry, “All The Truth That’s In Me.” It’s an oranges vs. apples choice – the books are just that different. But that’s exactly what makes the Battle of the Kids’ Books so fun. (And, no, I won’t tell you which one she chose; you need to read her wonderful essay. Something you do need to know is that Nelson’s book, “No Crystal Stair,” was the winner of the 2013 Battle of the Kids’ Books).

This is the sixth year of the Battle of the Kids’ Books, which is sponsored by School Library Journal and was the brainchild of Monica Edinger, a fourth grade teacher at The Dalton School in New York City, Roxanne Feldman, Dalton’s middle school librarian, and Jonathan Hunt, the county schools librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. All three -- they're called Battle Commanders during March Madness -- have served on Newbery Medal committees and are supremely knowledgeable about kids’ books. All three also have great blogs. Edinger blogs at educating alice, Feldman’s blog is Fairrosa CyberLibrary, and Hunt teams with Oakland, California librarian Nina Lindsay on the Heavy Medal blog, which looks at Newbery Medal possibilities from October through January. Back when I was still working for Scripps Howard News Service, I wrote an article about how the Battle of the Kids’ Books came to be.

As always, the books listed in the brackets are some of the best books out there for kids, and you can’t go wrong with any of them. Then there are the judges, who are kids’ book authors themselves. It’s not surprising that their essays explaining why they are choosing one book over another are models of how to write an elegant, and persuasive, defense. The “Big Kahuna,” or final round, will be judged by Newbery Honor author (and “Babymouse” graphic novel series creator) Jennifer Holm. There’s also an “Undead” element to the contest, in which a book that was eliminated earlier is resurrected for the final round, to go head to head with the two finalist. And there's even a Peanut Gallery, where you can read a round-up of what people around the Internet are saying about the Battle of the Kids' Books. 

All in all, it’s a great way to get kids reading some wonderful books and have some fun while they do it. So, have some fun yourself with this literary brand of March Madness! (And for some extra entertainment, check out this video, which is two years old but gives an overview of the whole process with great humor). As for me, I’m spreading my bets on any one of a trio of books to win: “Flora & Ulysses,” the 2014 Newbery Medal winner, by Kate DiCamillo (pitted against “Far, Far Away” by Tom McNeal); “The Thing About Luck,” this year’s winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, by Newbery Medalist Cynthia Kadohata (pitted against "Rose Under Fire" by Elizabeth Wein); and “The Animal Book” by Steve Jenkins. Let the games begin!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Vive La Difference?

Readers of “Bringing Up Bébé,” the best-selling book by Pamela Druckerman about the hands-off French way of raising kids compared to our American “helicoptering” parenting style, won’t be surprised to know that the French also have a different view of what constitutes an appropriate children’s book. Just as the French have a more laissez-faire attitude to parenting, they also don’t worry so much about whether a children’s book has a happy ending – something that is pretty much de rigueur in the United States. It also goes without saying that nudity is no big deal in French children’s books, given the relaxed Gallic attitude toward the unclothed human body.

So it comes as a bit of a surprise to read about a French politician who recently attacked a French children’s picture book, “Tous à poil!” (“All in the Buff”), saying that the nudity in it made his “blood run cold.” True, it’s unlikely that “Tous à poil!, co-authored by Claire Franek and Marc Daniau and illustrated by Daniau, would ever be published in the United States, given that its pages are illustrated with humorous drawings of people in different jobs – police officers, teachers, etc. – and other folks ditching their clothes in preparation for a joyous run into the sea.

According to an article by John Lichfield in The Independent, a British newspaper, “Tous à poil!” was written to show children that humans come in all shapes, and that they shouldn’t be obsessed with having a perfect body. But Jean-Francois Copé, the current leader of the center-right UMP political party in France, contends that the book leads children to disrespect authority figures, given that the illustrations show them wearing nothing but their birthday suits. Copé also argues that “Tous à poil!” is part of an effort by the current Socialist government to create a genderless society.

It appears that Copé’s remarks, which Lichfield says were “widely mocked in the French media,” didn’t convince his fellow French citizens. Since Copé’s outburst, the book’s sales have gone through the roof, Lichfield says. "‘Tous à poil!’ had sold only 1,000 copies before Mr Copé's comments on television made it sound like a blend of the Marquis de Sade and Karl Marx for five-year-olds. Sales have since rocketed and the book is now the second best-selling French-language book on Amazon.” (That was February 16; as of March 2, the book was No. 122 of all French-language books, and No. 3 among picture books, on Amazon France).

Writing for the Comic Books Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), librarian Maren Williams notes that the controversy began when Copé “brandished” a copy of “Tous à poil!” during a television appearance. Until then, Williams said, the book was little known, just part of a “rather obscure bibliography, compiled by a regional nonprofit, of children’s books that fight gender stereotypes. The entire bibliography is linked from a Ministry of Education website–but it’s been there since fellow UMP member (Nicolas) Sarkozy was in power” (as the previous French president).

Daniau, the co-author and illustrator of  “Tous à poil!", has found the whole affair ludicrous. In an article published in the French news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur (and translated by Williams in her article for the CBLDF), Daniau said the purpose was both to demystify nudity and to counter the Photoshopped images of bodies that children see in the media. “If we follow the thought process of the UMP boss, then we shouldn’t take children to museums either,” Daniau observed. “No one is shocked by the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel!”

"Neighbors in the buff!"
 There’s apparently a political subtext to all of this, and it has to do with the idea of “gender theory” and the French right’s contention that the Socialist government is trying to break down traditional gender roles. As Lichfield writes, all of the ruckus over “Tous à poil!” “would be mildly amusing if the remarks were not part of a campaign – partly sincere, partly cynical – to radicalise the political debate in France along moral and cultural "identity" lines. Mr Copé was trying, clumsily, to hitch himself to a bandwagon launched in recent months by ultra-Catholic conservatives and by the extreme nationalist right.”

For Francophiles like myself, this whole issue has been just fascinating to follow. I’ve always been interested in the contrast between the cultural sensibility behind our children’s books and some of the ones published in France. Examples of French children’s books like these would certainly give American parents pause, if not incite absolute hysteria. So what’s especially stunning in the case of “Tous à poil!” is that Copé seems to be taking his cues from those in the United States who, as Williams writes for the CBLDF, want to ban books like Maurice Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen” because the young protagonist appears blissfully naked in an illustration or two. But here’s one last, crazy plot twist, according to Lichfield: French conservative politicians actually consider gender theory “to be an American progressive plot” that has resulted is having books like “Tous à poil!” included on school booklists in the first place.

The controversy over Copé's remarks has continued. In the latest salvo against the politician, a group of French booksellers recently posed nude (except for strategically-placed books) to show their support for “Tous à poil!” and authors Franek and Daniau. Now that's French! Vive la difference!

Note: Thanks to the American Library Association’s “American Libraries Direct” weekly e-newletter for the initial links to the story. For those who, like me, read French, here are some links to French coverage of the issue. Here, for example, is an article in the respected French daily Le Monde; here’s a Le Monde blogger on the controversy; here’s an update from radio station  in which Copé states that he is no regrets about raising the issue; and here are the comments by Tous à poil!” author/illustrator Daniau in Le Nouvel Observateur.