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1. Wishing...and hoping...and thinking...and praying...

Somehow - perhaps it's the arrival of Spring and all that it promises - one anticipates updates as to the fate of one's (mine of course) literary send-outs. More specifically and to put it in simply and succinctly ('that's a lot of sss's, Eleanor'), will any of my plays see a stage this year.

Throughout the year minor dialogue changes were made, a few lines were eliminated or added but for the most part they were sent on their way based on the strength of the story line and characters, to seek their fate. Waiting to receive news about one's plays is comparable, at least for me, to sending your children out to seek their fortune in the jungle of life (feeling very philosophical today) for their own good, if not for the caregiver's good. So they're all "out there" and the wait for any updates is all-consuming wondering and hypothesizing what's happening at the 'other end', so to speak.

"How many more plays are left to be read?" a literary manager might ask a theatre producer and play readers while assessing the amount of plays still waiting to be read  "Seems like there are thousands more waiting to be read."

"We have to narrow it down to just a few promising plays, already," the literary manager will/could/might declare, while checking her/his cell phone for phone messages. "Time is marching on and we have to choose some potential money-makers for the coming season."

"I've come across a promising production," one of the readers could suggest, "although the playwright doesn't have any track record. The play, though, is really a good read."

"Nothing produced, anywhere, in the whole wide world?" the producer would ask of the reader.

"Not according to her biography and CV but really - she's good and this play is and an entertaining read  - really funny!" the reader would affirm.

"Could be problematic if she hasn't got a recognizable name that could sell tickets, though," the literary manager and/or producer would put forward.

"But it's a really good play," the reader would insist. "Why not give her a chance?"

"Not bankable," the literary manager and/or producer would answer, somewhat sadly (one would hope). "File away for future considerations."

Pure speculation on my part but one has to do something waiting for "the word". Then again, depending on what the word is, perhaps ignorance is bliss.

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2. 2013-2014 yearbook superlatives

mortarboard chocolates 2013 2014 yearbook superlativesAs summer winds down and the new school year looms, we look back on the year that was. Here are our senior superlatives for characters in the class of 2013-2014. What superlative would you award your favorite character?

Wild-and-craziest: Mr. Tiger (from Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown)

Slow-and-steadiest: Giantess George (from Galápagos George by Jean Craighead, illus. by Wendell Minor)

Bravest: Peggy (from Peggy: A Brave Chicken on a Big Adventure by Anna Walker), Chicken Little (from Brave Chicken Little by Robert Byrd)

Most chicken: Alvin Ho (Alvin Ho: Allergic to the Great Wall, the Forbidden Palace, 
and Other Tourist Attractions by Lenore Look, illus. by LeUyen Pham)

Most zen: Koo (from Hi, Koo! A Year of Seasons by Jon J Muth)

Most loyal: Santiago (from Santiago Stays by Angela Dominquez)

Class clowns: the Vole Brothers (from Splat! Starring the Vole Brothers by Roslyn Schwartz)

Miss Congeniality: Princess Ko (from The Cracks in the Kingdom by Jaclyn Moriarty)

Mr. Congeniality: Jackson Greene (from The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson)

Cutest couple: Emily and Sam (from Just Call My Name by Holly Goldberg Sloan), Amy and Matthew (from Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern), Devorah and Jaxon (from Like No Other by Una LaMarche), Mouse and Mole (from Mouse and Mole, Secret Valentine by Wong Herbert Yee)

Most complicated love triangle: Alix, Swanee, and Liana (from Lies My Girlfriend Told Me by Julie Anne Peters)

Most likely to elope in Vegas: Holly and Dax (The Chapel Wars by Lindsey Leavitt)

BFFs: Rose and Windy (from This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki, illus. by Jillian Tamaki), Sophie and Bernice (from Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller, illus. by Wilsdorf), Pom and Pim (from Pom and Pim by Lena Landström, illus. by Olof Landström)

Best frenemies: Dog and Cat (from Dog vs. Cat by Chris Gall)

Best dancer: Josephine (from Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker by Patricia Hruby Powell, illus. by Christian Robinson), Rupert (from Rupert Can Dance by Jules Feiffer)

Best artist: Emily (from Emily’s Blue Period by Cathleen Daly, illus. by Lisa Brown), girl with red crayon (from Journey by Aaron Becker), prehistoric child (from The First Drawing by Mordicai Gerstein)

Best knitter: Needles (from When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds)

Best dresser: Rose (from The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee)

Best/worst babysitter: Octopus (from Thank You, Octopus by Darren Farrell), Baba Yaga (from Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire)

Best car: Mike and Tschick (from Why We Took the Car by Wolfgang Herrndorf)

Best facial hair: George E. Ohr (from The Mad Potter: George E. Ohr, Eccentric Genius by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan)

Best teachers:

French: Mr. Hulot (from Hello, Mr. Hulot by David Merveille)

Chinese: Norman (from Norman, Speak! by Caroline Adderson, illus. by Qin Leng)

Sex ed: Sophie Blackall (author/illus. of The Baby Tree)

Best bus drivers: Joe (from My Bus by Byron Barton), Gus (Gus, the Dinosaur Bus by Julia Liu, illus. by Bei Lynn)

NBA-bound: Josh and Jordan (from The Crossover by Kwame Alexander)

Future mathlete: Annika (from Annika Riz, Math Whiz by Claudia Mills, illus. by Rob Shepperson)

Future gymnast: Jake (from Jake at Gymnastics by Rachel Isadora)

Most likely to be a vet: Lulu (from Lulu and the Rabbit Next Door by Hilary McKay, illus. by Priscilla Lamont)

Most likely to win an Oscar: Kate Walden (from Kate Walden Directs: Night of the Zombie Chickens by Julie Mata)

Most eco-concious: Kate Sessions (from The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever by H. Joseph Hopkins, illus. by Jill McElmurry)

Most traveled: cat (from City Cat by Kate Banks, illus. by Lauren Castillo), dad (from Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman, illus. by Skottie Young)

Most likely to get abducted by aliens: Robbie and Marilee (from The Summer Experiment by Cathie Pelletier), Aidan, Dru, and Louis (from Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn by Greg Leitich Smith, illus. by Andrew Arnold)

Cutest siblings: Gaston, Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo, and Ooh-La-La/Antoinette, Rocky, Ricky, and Bruno (from Gaston by Kelly DiPucchio, illus. by Christian Robinson)

Weirdest siblings: Merciful and Gospel Truth (from Engines of the Broken World by Jason Vanhee)

Most dysfunctional family: the Romanovs (from The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming)

Most well preserved (for her age): Lady Dai (from At Home in Her Tomb: Lady Dai and the Ancient Chinese Treasures of Mawangdui by Christine Liu-Perkins, illus. by Sarah S. Brannen)

Poshest: Lord and Lady Bunny (from Lord and Lady Bunny — Almost Royalty!: By Mr. & Mrs. Bunny by Polly Horvath, illus. by Sophie Blackall)

Bathing beauties: Queen Victoria (from Queen Victoria’s Bathing Machine by Gloria Whelan, illus. by Nancy Carpenter), Elizabeth (from Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas by Lynne Cox, illus. by Brian Floca)

Night owls: Hannah (from Hannah’s Night by Komako Sakai), Chengdu (from Chengdu Would Not, Could Not Fall Asleep by Barney Saltzberg), Tippy (from Tippy and the Night Parade by Lilli Carré)

For more Horn Book silliness about books we love, see the 2014 Mind the Gap Awards and our 2012-2013 yearbook superlatives.

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3. Rockwell and Engelbreit

Over the weekend my family visited the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. It was suggested as a things-to-do-with-kids-in-the-Berkshires activity because of Rockwell’s “accessibility” as an artist. (Be that as it may, the little boys were much more interested in climbing on the outdoor sculptures — allowed! — and running around on the lawn.) Amidst all the small-town folksy scenes and the smiling cheerleaders was Rockwell’s arresting The Problem We All Live With. Large and horizontal, among the mostly vertical and more contained (and restrained) pieces, the image commands attention and reminds viewers that Rockwell, though undoubtedly adept at capturing cozy Americana, had something more to say.

rockwell The problem we all live with Rockwell and Engelbreit

I then read in the news about the flap caused by illustrator Mary Engelbreit, best known for her sweet, cherubic children and bucolic scenes — from her website: “Mary Engelbreit is known throughout the world for her distinctive illustration style, imbued with spirited wit and nostalgic warmth.” The St. Louis native was inspired by events in Ferguson, Missouri. Who knew she had it in her? You go, Mary.

engelbreit ferguson Rockwell and Engelbreit

It’s an apt time to re-post last summer’s thoughtful, moving piece by Christopher Myers — “Young Dreamers” — about cultural diversity in children’s media, the state of race in America, and childhood cut short.

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4. The Voice of Reason

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to The Horn Book’s July/August 2014 editorial (“Don’t Speak!”) regarding the ALSC Policy for Service on Award Committees that was revised during the 2014 ALA Midwinter meeting.

In response to the ever-increasing number of requests regarding the appropriate use of social media from conscientious award committee members wishing to respect the code of confidentiality that has sustained the stature of these venerable awards well, the ALSC Board of Directors established a task force (TF) to examine the current policies and bring forth recommendations. The TF was intentionally designed to include a range of member and stakeholder thinking, and consisted of a representative from the publishing profession and four past or current award committee chairs; one of whom is a reviewer and blogger of national reputation, another of whom has served as consultant to the award committees for the past three years and has grappled with the queries and concerns from circumspect members and chairs. The issue of confidentiality within the changing landscape of electronic communication and social media was carefully considered. Many colleagues, including children’s librarians and publishers beyond those who actually served on the TF, were surveyed and consulted.

The TF and the ALSC Board absolutely acknowledge and respect the role that social media play in the professional responsibilities of librarians. We recognize their benefits and power in accessing, assessing, and promoting books and information to our colleagues and to our clientele. We value the dynamic discussion that they facilitate amongst passionate professionals. We appreciate the possibilities for enriching our service and our lives. However, we recognize that there are pitfalls as well. As former Horn Book editor Paul Heins observed in a School Library Journal letter to the editor from May 1972, “Twentieth Century life has become overorganized and overcomplex,” and that was over forty years and several eons ago.

Privacy is a price one may pay for public dissemination of information and opinion. As information professionals we have always worked to balance the public’s right to know with the individual’s right to privacy. ALSC award committee members value the confidentiality that guards the privacy of all committee discussion and fosters an environment of candor, honesty, and flexibility. Indeed, the preservation of this policy has kept the awards, as noted in your editorial, “admirably if boringly scandal-free.” Committee members are free to speak frankly, ask questions, and change their minds without worry that their comments will be repeated or even implied beyond that meeting room. If these confidences are compromised, and the effects compounded through global dissemination by electronic means, it could have a chilling result. This courtesy also extends to authors and illustrators whose work is under consideration. Many have heard Lauren Myracle speak of her public embarrassment when Shine was mistakenly announced as being on the short list for the National Book Award. When committee conjecture or inside information is released, it travels far and fast and can never be fully retrieved, much like the old folktale of gossip and feathers in the wind. Such a situation would undermine both the process and the perception of these prestigious awards. Committees of the present and future deserve the same protections and considerations as committees of the past.

A receptive atmosphere is also cultivated when members enter into the discussions with an open mind and without taking an official, public position on any title prior to discussion. Such a stance, whether endorsement or indictment, does have an influence on the ensuing deliberations, where every title should begin on level ground. While committee members are encouraged to discuss their opinions verbally (despite the title of the editorial), when commending or condemning an eligible title in writing via blog post, tweet, email, or signed review, a member is establishing a viewpoint from which the rest of the committee must then work. Readers of blogs and recipients of email are not under a confidentiality agreement and not constrained from forwarding on a committee member’s opinion, thus increasing the influence exponentially. As Miss Cary exhorts Benji in Christopher Paul Curtis’s novel The Madman of Piney Woods, “The written word is different. Once you commit something to print, you are, in effect, chained to it. It is always available to be looked at again and traced back to you.” That is true more than ever these days.

Despite the assertions of your editorial, librarians (and editors of review journals) who serve on award committees are still “able to promote good books” and fulfill their professional responsibilities (and pleasures) in many ways:

• Members of all committees may write and publish unsigned reviews of any book.

• Members of all committees (except the Batchelder) may write signed reviews or discuss via social media any book previously published in other countries, or by an author or illustrator who is not an American citizen or resident.

• The Batchelder committee members may write signed reviews or discuss via social media any book that has not been translated.

• Books with no illustration provide a wide field for members of the Caldecott committee.

• Books with no text are available for Newbery committee members (and seeing that all three Caldecott Honor Books qualified for that category this year, it would seem a rich field).

• The Belpré committee members are welcome to write signed reviews or discuss via social media any books by non-Latino authors and illustrators.

• Members of the Sibert committee may write signed reviews or discuss via social media all works of fiction.

• Geisel committee members may write signed reviews or discuss via social media any books beyond the scope of a beginning reader.

• The wide and wonderful world of YA literature is available to all of us who value and evaluate literature for older youth.

The editorial calls for “more fresh air” in the awards program. Luckily, there is a plethora of blogs and discussion lists offering ample opportunity to follow the thoughts and insights of well-read colleagues who are not serving on award committees and to engage in communal speculation and promotion of worthy titles — combining electronic communication and professional expertise for the best possible advantage and allowing us to participate vicariously without jeopardizing the purity of the process and dissipating the distinction of the awards, as with the editorial’s example of the Children’s Choice Book Award, where too many voices can crescendo into cacophony.

I confess that I am perplexed by the comment that impugns the integrity of members who contribute unsigned reviews “and remain free to revel in the attentions of publishers eager to wine and dine them.” The implication is that attending a publisher’s event without making a public declaration about a book is somehow unethical. I know of no member, reviewer, or editor of a review journal, whether penning an opinion or not, who would be influenced in such a manner. While some committees and individual committee members occasionally do decide to forego such invitations, that is their prerogative.

I am indebted to award committee members for their dedication to service and for requesting clarifications that have led to examination of the policy. I honor their concern and commitment to maintaining the ethical standards that underpin the eminence of these awards, and their understanding that awards of distinction (e.g., the National Book Award, The New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books, etc.) carry a commitment to a certain level of comportment. They have our complete trust and confidence.

I am proud to be a member of this passionate profession and am grateful to all those who have added their voice to this discussion. Even when we may differ in opinion on process, I know that ultimately we all agree in principle — we want the very best for children. I invite any interested parties to peruse the official documents.

Roger Sutton responds:

I also encourage Horn Book readers to examine ALSC’s award guidelines and commentary at the link Starr provides, as well as to look at my editorial and the (sometimes heated!) comments it engendered.

From the September/October 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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5. Why Readers, Scientifically, are People, Too

A few weeks ago my dear sister shared an article titled "Why Readers, Scientifically, Are The Best People To Fall In Love With." Improper title capitalization rules and superfluous prepositions aside, I take issue with the article. What would one expect, coming from Elite Daily, a site, I must admit, I hadn't stumbled across before but calls itself "the voice of Generation Y." Isn't that a perfect title for a Gen Y site? Elite. Yes, yes you are. Maybe that's my problem. As a Gen Xer, I'm an old fart, skeptical of everything.

Even myself. And I'm also not all that special. I'm just a person with an opinion and about three pounds of neurons in my skull, but I do like to think.

I learned the habit of asking questions of EVERYTHING in undergrad at Kansas State University, probably even before that. Richard Fogg, if you're out there, your lab section of Psych 350: Experimental Methods in Psychology way back in the fall of 1995 was brilliant. Thanks for teaching me true inquiry, critical thinking, and objectivity--and the cool lesson about what happens to a person when they come to the emergency room on a heroin overdose from your days in LA. That was awesome.

But I digress. A little.

I don't believe, and never will, that reading makes a person more empathic. That would be a causal relationship, one the author of the article implies with lines like "readers are proven to be nicer and smarter than the average human, and maybe the only people worth falling in love with on this shallow hell on earth." Wow.

While readers may be smarter and nicer than the average human (14 + years in education make me question both of those claims), I do not believe for an instant, not one millisecond, reading makes a person smarter or, and here's the most important disbelief, nicer than anyone else. There's simply a correlation between reading and empathy, reading and intelligence, reading and "theory of mind"  (the ability to hold opinions, beliefs and interests apart from one's own). I've known plenty of kids who could strip a 1968 Chevy Camaro and rebuild it who couldn't read all that well. How, exactly, are we defining intelligence?

Perhaps empathic, intelligent, and "mindful" people simply are drawn to reading. Perhaps.

But there's more. The author of "Why Readers...," Lauren Martin, cites another study which suggests kids who have more stories read to them have better theories of mind. I have no doubt--but using the word "prove" as in "results that prove the more stories children have read to them, the keener their [mindfulness]" really trips my critical analysis trigger. Maybe the interaction with people is the key, the common factors--good, healthy relationships with caregivers or other adults doing the reading--is the real seed of mindfulness and empathy. Show me a study suggesting a robot can read books to kids and those kids are more mindful than anyone else... well, I guess we're doing a whole lot of supposing without real results and a whole slew of ethical concerns. I haven't read the original studies, but these seem more correlative (collecting data and finding relationships) than causal (actual, controlled studies).

Are readers "the best people to fall in love with"? I don't know. But empathic people are nice. Mindful people are very nice. I'm in love with a woman who is empathic, mindful, and intelligent. She's nice. And while she reads ALL THE TIME I don't know that either of us have finished more than a book or two in the time we've known each other.

I believe reading is very important--Martin cites several other studies "proving" readers are the only worthwhile people on the planet--but it is not the only thing which creates a human. Reading is not the only factor which contributes to intelligence, empathy, and mindfulness.

And yes... this is coming from a guy who writes. And writers need readers. Did I just alienate all of you?


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6. Finish this sentence ...

"Finish this sentence: I'm a librarian.  I ..."

 Mrs. Joan Fertig, Hungarian-born librarian at the Westinghouse plant
Mrs. Joan Fertig, Hungarian-born librarian at the Westinghouse plant
Collins, Marjory, 1912-1985, photographer

Consider these rather simplistic statements that people might make about various degreed professions:

  • I'm a doctor. I care for people's health.
  • I'm an educator.  I teach people new skills.
  • I'm a lawyer.  I assist people with important legal matters.
  • I'm an accountant. I advise and assist people in the management of financial matters.

Now, finish this sentence:  I'm a librarian. I ...

...and therein lies a problem.  Although we are regulated in many states and hold master's degrees in our field, many (most?) people have no idea what librarians do. Even we can't distill it into a single sentence! As a whole, I feel that we're doing a poor job of promoting a greater understanding and appreciation of our profession in today's high tech era.

Here are some conversations I've had recently:

  • The other day I had some uncomfortable dental work (no one asks dentists what they do all day!).  My face was numb, my jaw hurt, and I was complaining about going to work.  "Don't worry about it," said my mother-in-law, "just find a nice corner where you can sit and read all day." (I wish!)
  • At a previous dental appointment, I was speaking with the hygienist and the conversation turned to various state regulations.  When I mentioned that NJ librarians must have state-issued certificates, she said, "Whatever for?  Why would a librarian need to be regulated?" (Among other reasons, because we are degreed professionals entrusted with the privacy and confidentiality of our patrons, the lifelong education of people of all ages, the proctoring of college level examinations, and the proffering of important and often sensitive information.)
  • Out with friends the other night, the topic of my job came up in conversation; someone said, "Oh, right ... Dewey Decimal System and all that." (It's the "all that" that takes up my time)

So - if you're not a librarian, what do you think we do all day?  If you are a librarian, can you finish my sentence for me so I'm ready the next time.  Please?

Want to know what the American Library Association has agreed that all librarians should know? The list is here, known by its official title of "ALA's Core Compentences of Librarianship." 

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7. 2014 Mind the Gap Awards

mindthegap2014 237x203 2014 Mind the Gap Awards

Too Grim(m)? Far Far Away by Tom McNeal
Better Luck Next Time The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata, illustrated by Julia Kuo
Didn’t Pan Out Bo at Ballard Creek by Kirkpatrick Hill, illustrated by LeUyen Pham
Have You Seen My Big Gold Seal? Have You Seen My New Blue Socks? by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Sergio Ruzzier
Foreclosed On Building Our House by Jonathan Bean
Busted Bluffton: My Summers with Buster
by Matt Phelan
Declawed Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown
Popped The Big Wet Balloon by Liniers
KO’d The Mighty LaLouche by Matthew Olshan, illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Lights Out On a Beam of Light by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky
Kept in the Dark The Dark by Lemony Snicket,
illustrated by Jon Klassen
Who Put Baby in the Corner? A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty
Stop, You’re Both Pretty Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang,
color by Lark Pien

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8. A 2% Effort is not Sufficient for a 100% Life

A 2% Effort is not Sufficient for a 100% Life
In public schools throughout the country, a student is taught to read in Grades K-3. Beginning in Grade 4, there is a fundamental switch.  A student is no longer learning to read, but instead is reading to learn

A school year in my state of New Jersey consists of 180 days. Kindergarten through Grade 3 is 4 years of schooling, or 720 days (assuming 100% attendance). The approximate average life span is 78 years or 28,470 days.  
Roughly stated, those 720 days amount to only 2% of a child's lifetime. Think about that.  Only two percent of a lifetime is allotted to impart the fundamental reading skills which positively or negatively impact the remaining 98% of a life!

A student who cannot read or read well upon entering Grade 4 will be at a distinct disadvantage, possibly for the rest of her life. (see related articles below)

Public libraries around the country stand ready and able to help children attain reading success.  In New Jersey, as in many states, librarians are licensed professionals with a Master of Library (or Information) Science degree.  We are trained to assess the needs of those in our community and provide opportunities for early and lifetime learning.  During the year we typically offer story time programs which promote early literacy skills, as well as book clubs, computer classes, and a host of other educational fare.  In the summer, youth services librarians turn our attention to preventing the "summer slide," the loss of reading skills that occurs during the summer break from school.  We do everything short of standing on our heads to encourage kids to read, and have fun doing it!

Summer reading clubs at the public library are fun, they're free, and they pay lifetime benefits. 

Related articles:

Thanks to school superintendent Peter Morris, for helping me to frame this conversation.

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9. Harriet at 50

harriet banner 76x550 Harriet at 50

She doesn’t look a day over eleven, but this year Harriet the Spy, first published in 1964, is turning 50. To celebrate, The Horn Book Magazine‘s May/June issue features thoughts, musings, riffs, and remembrances about the girl spy. Click on the tag Harriet at 50 to see what Jack Gantos, K. T. Horning, Megan McDonald, and more are saying about Harriet.

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10. I Spy: Harriet and I

harriet at 50 banner I Spy: Harriet and I

When I was a boy, I knew I was sneaky, but I didn’t think of myself as a “lowlife sneak” until my mother called me one with such disgust in her voice I actually did feel ashamed.

I was babysitting at the next-door neighbor’s house when my mother looked out her own bedroom window and spotted me, twenty feet away, in Mrs. Hanley’s bedroom. I was sitting on the edge of her bed and reading her Last Will and Testament, which I had found in a bottom dresser drawer. It was not interesting. But the thrill of being sneaky was addictive. I had done a lot of babysitting in the neighborhood. I read Mrs. Hogan’s diary and might have known she was leaving Mr. Hogan before he did. I knew where the smutty magazines were kept—and all their compatible products. I didn’t do anything with what I found — I just liked knowing I had discovered something that was supposed to be a secret.

I was carefully returning Mrs. Hanley’s will back into the dresser drawer when the doorbell rang. I ran to answer the door, and my mother was on the other side. Her first biting sentence was well chosen. “You are nothing but a lowlife sneak!” she hissed.

She had me there. But I was only a sneak of casual opportunity. Besides my babysitting sneakiness, I listened in on other people’s phone conversations, read mail that wasn’t mine, used binoculars to watch people from safe distances, and basically amused myself by ferreting out secrets that were none of my business. But I wasn’t an organized, literary sneak — that is, until I read Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.

I came to Harriet the Spy a little late in my reading life. Harriet was in sixth grade and I was in seventh when I first read it, and I wouldn’t have discovered the book at all except that my older sister, Betsy, had it. She didn’t care for the book, but she did say, “You’ll like it. You are a sneak, too.” My mother always confided in my sister, which only allowed my sister to loathe me more than what came naturally to her.

So I read the book. It was an odd read. Harriet creeped me out because I was as emotionally awkward as she was, and it repulsed me to see myself defined through the mirror of that text. Still, the book connected me to one particular activity: Harriet kept a notebook and wrote down secret observations she made while out walking on her “spy route.”

I had a journal (the boy name for a diary), and the idea of an organized “spy route” got under my skin. For the first time I began to draw maps of my neighborhood, and maps of my school, and maps of the inside of people’s homes I would visit or babysit for — and maps of my own home, too. I would annotate the maps and then write short bits about certain characters, objects, or events. I was a stamp collector and coin collector, and so discovering secrets about people and putting them into a book was right up my alley.

See, for example, the map of my home [printed in the May/June 2014 Horn Book Magazine].

Look inside the house and you will see “My Room” (with a picture of my journal). Across the hall was my sister’s room. I once read her diary and she caught me and hurt me badly, but for some reason I didn’t draw that moment. We had one bathroom and I was not allowed to lock the door because my mother caught me taking fake, waterless baths. The “Cool Air Chair” in the kitchen is pure genius — we had no air conditioning in South Florida, and the moment my parents would leave the house I would open the refrigerator, pull up a dining-room chair, get a book, and sit on the chair and stick my feet in the refrigerator and prop them up on a shelf. Now that was great reading! (My mother caught on to me one day because I had gotten too comfortable and kicked my sneakers off in the refrigerator and forgotten to take them out.) “Jack’s Stain” is where I threw up on the wall — it was spaghetti, and we never could get the faint, greasy orange stain off the wall. “Zippy the Roach” was one of my roach pals. I wrote his name on his back with nail polish and Scotch-taped him to a Hot Wheels car, and then made a leash out of thread and pulled him down the sidewalk. Once, when my sister was sleeping with her mouth open on the couch, I dropped him down her throat. She threatened to tell my mom unless I took off all my clothes and ran naked around the house. I opted for the naked punishment. But while I was running, she locked all the doors and windows, and I had to hide in the front bushes all day until my dad came home. “Wart Trouble” is when I ripped a wart off my foot with pliers and lost a lot of blood and it got infected and my foot swelled up to the size of a canned ham and then I broke out in boils. My mother told our family doctor that I was the “stupidest kid in the world.” I broke my little brother Pete’s arm in the backyard. Our cat fell out of a tree and did not land on its feet. An alligator ate our dog. I could go on and on…and if I had more room I’d write about the Pagoda family next door. My mother called them the “low supervision” family, and they taught me a lot of dangerous stunts.

Harriet the Spy started all this business, which resulted in maps and journals full of stories, which eventually turned into five volumes of Jack Henry stories. I’m forever grateful to Louise Fitzhugh for the inspiration. I love Harriet, and now when I read the book I get very upset when anyone is mean to her.

From the May/June 2014 Horn Book Magazine. Part of a special section commemorating the 50th anniversary of Harriet the Spy.

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11. Writer, Wrestler, Stutterer, Spy

harriet at 50 banner Writer, Wrestler, Stutterer, Spy

This is the story of how I came to read and know and love Harriet the Spy. It is also a harrowing account of my brush with danger, in which my ten-year-old self stared fear in the face.

When I was nine or so, I started having trouble with words. I grew up with four older sisters. My bridge-builder dad got home every night after dark, but Mom would hold dinner and we’d all eat together at our big round kitchen table with a lazy Susan in the middle. Dinnertime was our time to talk and tell about our day. But as the youngest kid, I could never seem to get a word in edgewise.

I began to stutter.

My mother was concerned about the stuttering. Every night, she would tap on a glass with a spoon and announce that it was my time to talk. Just me. Nobody else. The kitchen fell funeral-quiet. Forks stopped clattering and sisters stopped chattering. Of course, as soon as it was my turn, I became even more tongue-tied.

Then my mother had an idea. One day, she ventured into downtown Pittsburgh to the book department at Kaufmann’s department store, where she talked to a knowledgeable salesperson about a book that might speak to her ten-year-old daughter who stuttered.

She brought home a brand-new, shiny hardcover. Cleverly, it was not a book about a girl who stuttered, or the heroic story of how such a girl overcame stuttering. It was a book about writing. A book about wanting to be a writer. A book I would go on to read over and over. The book was Harriet the Spy, written and illustrated by Louise Fitzhugh.

And with it, my mother handed me a lined spiral notebook, in hopes that I’d write down all those things that I wasn’t able to say.

I read the book in gulps, lying on my stomach under the piano by the cozy heating vent. I read myself to sleep at night, just like Harriet. I still have my original hardback copy; it creaks with age. It smells of childhood and secrets and the underneaths of pianos and beds.

I soon began eating tomato sandwiches, pestering my mother for spy-approved dance classes, and conducting science experiments with my friend in the basement. I wore dress-up glasses with no lenses and adopted my own spy route. Pocket notebook in hand, that’s when I first began writing everything down. And spying.

Spying is bound to get you into trouble, as it did with Harriet. My own spying venture landed me in a world of trouble. I grew up in the suburbs, where, alas, nobody had a dumbwaiter for spying on rich folks like Mrs. Agatha K. Plumber. But dumbwaiter or not, I, too, wanted to spy on somebody interesting. Somebody other. Somebody famous.

I knew of only one famous person in our neighborhood: Bruno Sammartino. Bruno Sammartino was a famous wrestler. We watched him on Channel 11 on Saturday evenings, on the popular Studio Wrestling program hosted by Chilly Billy Cardille. Dad told us tales of Bruno’s historic match with Gorilla Monsoon.

Who wouldn’t want to spy on a famous wrestler? My plan was to sneak up to his house in an attempt to capture a glimpse of his exciting secret life. Then, à la Harriet, I would dutifully write down, for time and posterity, all the amazing things I uncovered.

I hopped on my red Schwinn Stingray Slik Chick bicycle and pedaled, fast and furious, over to Bruno’s street. WWHD? What Would Harriet Do? Ditch the bike at the corner, hidden in the bushes, of course. Then proceed to Bruno Sammartino’s house on foot. Glancing left and right, I made certain nobody was watching — no one even peering from behind a neighbor’s curtain. Crouching low to the ground, I crossed the yard and hid in the spiky bush outside his window.

I tried to quash the fear, the mixture of thrill and tomato sandwich rising up from my belly.

I took deep breaths to tame my heartbeat. Just as I was about to peek into the house, just as I was about to get a window into Famous-Studio-Wrestler-Bruno-Sammartino’s world, I froze.

Because what I hadn’t known was that Bruno Sammartino had a very large, very scary guard dog. A German shepherd with pointed black-tipped ears and the teeth of a wolf.

I remember the giant sound of a snarl.

I remember running.

I forgot I’d been told that dogs smell fear. I forgot to freeze in place. I forgot to think about what Harriet would do.

I ran. But not before I got bitten by Bruno Sammartino’s dog.

I ran all the way home. But as soon as I got to my front door, I realized I couldn’t tell my mother what really happened. If I did, I’d have to admit I’d been sneaking around and trespassing and spying on Bruno Sammartino.

So I told my older sisters. I showed them the gash on my arm where I’d been bitten. The bite was ugly and discolored, complete with what I was sure were tooth marks.

Their immediate reaction: “You have rabies!

I could not believe my ears. Rabies!? “What does that mean?” I wailed.

My sisters, who liked to tease me, soon had me convinced that I’d be rushed to the hospital, foaming at the mouth, where the doctor would strap me down and give me a shot with a needle the size of a baseball bat—right in my belly button.


I ran across the street to tell my best friend. Judy was to me as Sport was to Harriet. I showed her the dog bite. I asked her if she thought I had rabies.

“How do I know?” she shrugged. “But I know how we can find out.”

She rushed into another room and came back armed with Volume Q–R of the World Book Encyclopedia. She looked up “Rabies” and began reading aloud.

By this time, my arm was swollen at the site of the wound. It was turning black and blue. My arm felt numb and tingly, like when one of your limbs falls asleep.

As my friend read to me, we learned that there were three ways a person might detect if she has rabies.

1. At the site of the wound, it will begin to swell and turn black and blue.

I held up my arm as proof. “I have it!” I cried.

2. You will feel a sensation of numbness and tingling.

Bingo! My arm already felt as if it was asleep. I was going to have to get the big, giant needle in my belly button!

3. You will experience difficulty swallowing.

I did not have that symptom. Not until my friend read it to me from the encyclopedia. But the power of suggestion is strong, and I started to feel my throat closing up.

Judy dragged me by the shirtsleeve into her kitchen. There, she lined up glass after glass of water. I must have downed ten glasses of water! Twelve. Twenty. I’m certain I drank half of Lake Erie. We reasoned that as long as I could drink water—i.e., swallow—I did not have rabies.

In the end, my mother found out and took me to the doctor. Luckily, I was spared the baseball bat–sized needle; I did not have rabies after all. But they called the dog’s owner (yes, the famous Bruno Sammartino!) to find out when the dog had last had its shots.

I, and my Harriet-the-Spy top-secret spy mission, was discovered.

To this day, I still shrink down in my seat when we drive by the Sammartino house in our old neighborhood.

But that’s how my life as a writer began. As a spy. It was with that tiny Harriet-the-Spy notebook that I started to write. I stopped stuttering. I started to find my own voice.

Just as Ole Golly tells Harriet, if you’re going to be a writer, you’d better write everything down, and find your truth.

From the May/June 2014 Horn Book Magazine. Part of a special section commemorating the 50th anniversary of Harriet the Spy.

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12. Harriet and Me

Where to begin with how important Harriet the Spy has been in my life? I guess I’ll have to start with my childhood. I was in fourth grade, at a school book fair. I’d forgotten to bring money that day, which was a problem because there was one book I was desperate to have. It had a bright orange cover with bold yellow type and a girl wearing glasses climbing all over it. And somehow I knew I was going to love it and I had to read it. AND IT WAS THE ONLY COPY AT THE FAIR. So I did what any right-thinking person would do under the circumstances: I hid it. Specifically, I put it at the bottom of a pile of very drippy-looking books (I’m guessing they were Winnie-the-Pooh; I detested Winnie-the-Pooh back then) and kept my fingers crossed that no one would find it and I could buy it the next day. Which I did. And Harriet has been a part of my life ever since.

It occurs to me now that this is probably the sort of thing Harriet herself would have done in a similar situation. And that in turn tells you why she’s a character who has endured for so long. She’s resourceful, quick, a little unscrupulous, and entirely recognizable. A real person, in other words. You might not like her (and I’m still not sure I do), but you know this girl.

That school book fair was the first time I remember Harriet being important to me. The second time came much later. I was a young assistant editor, starting out in children’s books. I’d been promoted and assigned a mass market series to edit. It was a steady-selling series for the publisher, and I was excited to be working on something so substantial. Needless to say, I took my responsibilities very seriously. This manuscript was going to be IN PRINT, after all. It was going to be a book! It had to be good! The future of the nation’s youth and the success of the series were resting on my shoulders alone! (I’m exaggerating just a bit, but I really did feel this way.) Unfortunately, the manuscript was about the worst thing I’d ever read. I couldn’t even articulate why it was so awful, but it was complete dreck, and I had to fix it. Or at least make it readable and enjoyable enough to sell ten thousand copies. And I had absolutely no idea how to do this.

Okay, I said to myself. Think about some other books, books you love. What makes them so great? That’s when I remembered Harriet. And I went back and read it — really read it, this time. I took it apart, technically. I began to understand how good it is. And even though the manuscript I was working on was a YA book and Harriet was a middle-grade novel, I learned things from Harriet about dialogue, structure, character, action, and pacing that I was able to apply, in a different way, to the problematic manuscript I had to edit. Harriet saved my bacon that time, and also made me think about books and reading and writing in a new way. It’s actually ironic that Harriet helped me edit a conventional YA romance, because Harriet is the complete opposite of that; it is in fact a wildly subversive novel. Which of course only makes me love it more.

What’s so revolutionary about it? Let’s start with the fact that Harriet is not a nice little girl. She does illegal things when she spies. If she doesn’t actually break into Mrs. Agatha K. Plumber’s house, for instance, she comes pretty close. She writes terrible things about people — not just the people she spies on, but also her best friends. The thing is, she’s not doing it because she’s mean (although she certainly has her mean moments). She’s doing it because she’s honest and because she’s compelled to do it. The note-taking is part of who she is, what she is training herself to be: a writer and observer. It’s work, and she takes it very seriously. And her friends accept this about her, even after she hurts them with her brutally honest observations. They know she can’t change. Even when she’s forced to apologize, she does it out of practical necessity, because she wants to keep her friends, not because she really means it. And then she goes back to doing exactly what she was doing before. She hasn’t changed one bit, and her friends know it.

Just think about all of this! It’s a giant raspberry to the school of thought that says, A-character-in-a-children’s-book-must-change-and-grow-throughout-the-course-of-the-story. Or to the school that says, A-character-must-be-essentially-good-and-lovable. In fact, any rules or precepts or cutesy-poo ideas you might have had about children’s books fly right out the window when you read Harriet the Spy. There is no great moral lesson to be learned, no transformative change that happens to the protagonist. Above all, there is no tidiness. Harriet is real life in all its messiness and ambiguity, populated by real people who are also messy and ambiguous.

There is yet another reason to love Harriet, and it’s another editorial story, this one about its origin. In the book Dear Genius, the great Ursula Nordstrom, the visionary editor at Harper & Row during its golden era, writes about how Harriet the Spy came to be published. It all started with a reader’s report from Charlotte Zolotow, who was then a senior editor, urging Ursula to read the manuscript. “You have to get this writer to come in and talk. This isn’t a book, but it could be,” she wrote enthusiastically. And on what did she base her enthusiasm? Pages of Louise Fitzhugh’s drawings and disconnected narrative, which seemed to consist mostly of Harriet’s spy entries. Somehow Charlotte was able to see past this jumble of words and envision a book. She and Ursula worked with the author and helped her find the characters and story that became Harriet.

In this age of acquiring manuscripts from debut authors that have to be perfect or nearly perfect to be signed on, I find this story to be an inspiration, and most of all a reminder: you have to keep an open mind about the creative process. It’s messy and unpredictable and risky. But the rewards of taking that leap of faith are boundless.

Just read Harriet again and see.

From the May/June 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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13. Black History Month - fact and fiction

  • "Frederick Douglass appealing to President Lincoln and his cabinet to enlist Negroes," mural by William Edouard Scott, at the Recorder of Deeds building, built in 1943.
  •  Highsmith, Carol M., 1946-, photographer

Last year, I reviewed a copy of Russell Freedman's, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).  The story of their friendship and the "back story," was so interesting, that I thought it might make a good topic for a Black History Month program for younger children.  I began searching for a way to communicate to a young library audience the connection between the history of African Americans and these two great men. In researching, I found that the founder of African American History Month (it was originally called Negro History Week), Dr. Carter G. Woodson, initiated this cultural celebration in 1926, and chose February because the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass are both celebrated in February. (1)   I then discovered an earlier book, Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship (Henry Holt, 2008), that recounts the friendship but targets a younger audience.  Even better, it has a companion DVD.  So, I planned a Lincoln and Douglass birthday celebration, featuring the Lincoln and Douglass picture book and an explanation of the founding of Black History Month. Perfect, right?

Well, not quite.  In reading Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship, I found several discrepancies.  As it turns out, the timeline included in the picture book's back matter is correct, but some dates within the book's narrative are not. For example, Freedman's thoroughly researched book has the initial meeting of Lincoln and Douglass as a central theme. The picture book gets the date wrong.  Though the picture book still has merit and will be useful to introduce Douglass and Lincoln to a young audience, I can also use it as a teaching moment.  Always check to see that a book has been properly researched if you plan to use it as a representation of factual material.

Oddly, the same thing happened to me last year.  I sketch out my programs many months in advance to satisfy printing and publicity deadlines.  I fill the details in later.  Last year, I offered a Black History Month program on Follow the Drinking Gourd (Knopf, 1988).  While investigating resources, I found that the story, while well-known and generally accepted, is more folk legend than truth. (2)  Again, the story is not without merit and I was again able to use it as a teaching moment.  Besides the obvious lesson, we looked at ways in which to read the stars without a compass.

I understand narrative license.  I understand that it's particularly useful in treatments of difficult topics for younger children.  I also understand, however, that there is a concerted effort by our nation's leaders to raise a new generation of critical thinkers, and to achieve that end, the use of nonfiction books will rise dramatically.  It is up to us as librarians, teachers, caregivers and parents to discern fact from fiction, even when the line between them may be indistinct.  In doing so, we will help children to navigate a world where information is everywhere for the taking, but truth must be mined.

Today's Nonfiction Monday roundup is at Apples with Many Seeds.

And don't forget, February is a perfect time to head over to The Brown Bookshelf; each day in February will feature a different artist in this annual celebration of Black History Month and children's literature.

(1) Library of Congress, "African American History Month"http://www.loc.gov/law/help/commemorative-observations/african-american.php (Douglass' actual birthdate is not known conclusively)
(2) Follow the Drinking Gourd

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14. Where are the teens in teen book awards?

Photo: Miler Lagos, Book Igloo

Earlier this week the American Library Association announced their 2013 Youth Media awards, sparking immediate discourse on Twitter and listserv about the winners and honorees.  Being Australian leads to some unfamiliarity with these American titles, however I found myself reading the thoughts of many American librarians.  Their arguments were scarily familiar– the notion of literary quality versus teen appeal.

Is the priority in these awards to recognise the best writer?  Awards committees have an established list of guidelines in which to follow – it makes sense that a title’s literary qualities are more easily quantifiable.  A writing award should go to the best writer.  Good writing elevates young adult literature. However, in arguing for the best piece of literature, we sometimes eliminate books that resonate more strongly with teen readers.

Many librarians expressed dismay that some of the awarded titles would gather dust on their bookshelves despite vigorous booktalking and elaborate displays. Which begs the question – is the concept of quality made null and void if there is no hunger for what is being awarded?

Many readers read books that are the equivalent of Fruit Loops while growing up, yet will move onto works of literary genius.  Some readers like to dally in each end of the reading pool, some like the deep end, some do laps churning through everything.  Teens know what quality is.  They just prefer it when quality is also enjoyable to read.

It is nigh on impossible to sell a book to a teen if it doesn’t sell itself.  Quality or not, there needs to be a plot or a concept that ignites a spark.  Quality isn’t a selling point to a teen and this is something we need to remember as adults.  We might be over paranormal or dystopia, they aren’t.  We might choose to reference  Ferris Bueller in order to spark their interest, they probably haven’t heard of it.  At some point, we need to divest ourselves from the equation.

While teens are represented in the title of an award, they should also be a part of the award criteria.  Young adult literature is for teens.  That should count for something.  While we have a vested interest in cultivating taste, and having teens read about social injustice and inclusivity – sometimes teens just want to read what they want to read.

While quality is important, so is the teen reader’s engagement with reading. There are many authors who achieve this, John Green’s Looking for Alaska, Cath Crowley’s Graffiti Moon, or Markus Zusak’s The Messenger.  I am cautious of award winning books that have an “issue” clearly stated in the blurb.  Good writing for teens isn’t about an issue, it’s about living, loving and surviving.  It’s about bravery, and yearning, and sacrifice.  It’s about growing and changing, not learning.  It’s about feelings, emotions and the every day difficulties of ping ponging between who you are and who you want to be.  It’s these books, without social agenda, that connect.  It’s these books that fulfill teenage readers.

Quality in youth literature should represent exceptional writing, emotional awareness and a representation of a young person’s experience through an authentic gaze.  Some people will read this and believe I am a proponent of dumbing down teen’s reading.  This is not true.

Every year the Centre for Youth Literature hosts the Inky Awards, a teen’s choice award.  Teens have a strong voice in the longlist of ten Australian and International titles, and are primarily responsible for the shortlist and the ultimate winner.  The adults who oversee the teen judging panel usually approach the task assuming the teens will choose along popularity, quality-lite books.  They come away knowing they are wrong, and reevaluate their thoughts on teen readers and their perceptiveness.  Previous Inky winners, as decided by teens, have included John Green, James Roy, Simmone Howell, Jenny Downham and Lucy Christopher    Teens have taste, and quality ones at that, so why is teen appeal so often dismissed as popularity?

Why are adults deciding what is quality teen literature?  Where are all the judging panels that have teens sitting alongside librarians or teachers?  Often awards from teens are separated from the big awards.  Where is the teen representation for the Printz, The Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year or Prime Minister’s Literary Awards?  If awards are for teen literature, shouldn’t the audience be represented?


Adele Walsh is the Program Coordinator for the Centre for Youth Literature promoting ways and means to encourage young people to read for pleasure. Adele is an avid YA reader and advocate, and a successful YA blogger (Persnickety Snark). She has previously worked as a teacher in Australia, and Japan.






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15. It's that time of year - biographies!

By In Helmolt, H.F., ed. History of the World.
New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1902.
Author unknown, [Public domain or Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Whether you're a school media specialist, a public librarian, a parent or a teacher,

if you know children over the age of 7, you're familiar with "the biography assignment."  It comes around every year, and depending one's perspective, it may be a source of excitement, drudgery, irritation, disappointment, interest, or a mixture of all.

Some thoughts on "the biography assignment"

Children need to understand the difference between an autobiography and a biography.  Many students arrive at the library insistent that their teacher has assigned an autobiography and a biography will not suffice.  I always try to comply with their request, however, there are few autobiographies written for children, though if the child is slightly older, I will always recommend Jon Scieszka's, Knucklehead (hands down, the best and funniest autobiography for children). For older kids, Walter Dean Myers and Gary Paulsen have both written excellent memoirs.  In most cases, the teacher will accept either an autobiography or a biography, but children don't always realize that.

Graphic novels biographies are perfect in certain circumstances and I wish more people would give them a try.  A reluctant reader might love Terry Collins', King of Pop: The Story of Michael Jackson, or any title from the American Graphic Biography Collection, or other similar offerings. Just because they have panels, that doesn't make them less true, less valuable, less informative.
Picture book biographies are not just for very young children - in fact, seldom are.  There are so many wonderful and informative picture book biographies.  I urge teachers to read a few and give them a chance.  Demi's books are not only informative, but beautiful and evocative - Marco Polo, for example is simply stunning.  Or how about Bill The Boy Wonder by Marc Tyler Nobleman? Or Michelle Markel's, The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau?  I could go on for days ...

The most important thing to look for in a biography is veracity.  Are there source notes, back matter, photo credits, suggestions for additional reading - in short, all of the things that indicate the author has thoroughly researched the subject? Has the author taken "artistic license?"  That's not necessarily a bad thing, however, older students should be trained to look for it.

The point is, I understand the dictates of local, state and national policies on what must be taught to children, however, within the parameters of those dictates, there is, hopefully, some room for flexibility - some leeway for children to choose different formats, different topics, different means of delivery. To this day, I don't like the poetry of Percy Bysse Shelley.  Why?  Because when I was in grammar school, I wanted to do my "famous poet" report on Edgar Allen Poe. I was forced to choose Percy Bysse Shelley.  I've long forgotten that teacher's name, and I still don't like Shelley.   In another year, a wonderful teacher allowed me to choose Edgar Allen Poe.  Her name was Ms. Romano and I still read Poe from time to time.  See how it works?

When the biography assignment rolls around, keep your options open!

One more thing:

I haven't had one in hand yet, but Abdo Publishing has a new series of Children's Author biographies. Tell me what young boy given a biography assignment would not want to choose, Dav Pilkey?

Related posts:

Today's Nonfiction Monday roundup is at The LibrariYan.  Check it out.

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16. Protect our Children: How?

photo by armin_vogel from Flickr

When the news started coming out about the Newtown, Connecticut tragedy, many of us have been reacting strongly on social media sites and sharing in the disbelief that something so horrible could happen in an elementary school in an idyllic New England town. We have watched the stories of sadness and heroism on the news. We know that children at Sandy Hook Elementary, who should never ever witness terrible violence, saw things that as adults we cannot even imagine. People have started debating gun control and mental health care. I decided that what I wanted to say was too long for a Facebook post; and I wanted to share it with the teachers, librarians, and homeschoolers who read my blog, so here are some thoughts on this unusual Sunday post.

After 9/11, we didn’t feel safe. How could we? People didn’t want to fly. They didn’t want to go on a subway or train. Even a bus seemed frightening. People didn’t want to leave home or go to national monuments. But somehow, we got over it; and now we do all of these things again and most of them without fear. Why? I believe it’s because of the security that we now have at airports–the very security we complain about when we are running late for our plane or traveling with a tired and hungry toddler. But it’s the very security that makes me feel safe to travel. When I go to the Arch in my hometown of St. Louis, I’ve complained about standing outside in the heat or cold, while waiting to go through the metal detectors or have my purse AND diaper bag checked. But I am thankful that the security now exists. I can go to the Arch and have fun with my family.

We need to feel like our schools are safe–just like airports and national monuments. To me, a new security system and REQUIRED safety policies are what we need to implement in EVERY SINGLE SCHOOL as well as money for more counselors–especially in the high schools. To feel safe in schools, we need new policies, and they need to be strict like airport security. Stop debating gun control (although I do question why any American needs a permit for a semi-automatic weapon?) and mental health care (although I agree it is extremely expensive to get help for mental illness), and start focusing on new policies. REGULATE and GIVE MONEY to schools, so they can protect our children.

EVERY school needs an entrance where after school starts, a person–teacher, parent, custodian, principal, student–has to be LET IN by someone already in the school. I’ve been at schools who have been able to do this. You open the front door and a camera greets you as well as a locked door. You push a button. The secretary sees you, and you state your purpose. If the secretary thinks you are all right, then she lets you into the school. And obviously one thing we are learning from Newtown, where something like this was in place, is that the glass needs to be thick and hard to break at the entrance, if possible.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m not blaming any school security. I worked in schools. I was briefed on what to do with my students if a shooter came into the room after Columbine. We had a code word if we needed to protect our students. I still go into schools as a children’s author; and most of the time, only one door is unlocked. But I can walk in that door and walk right past the office where I am supposed to check in as a visitor. These schools are doing the best they can to protect their students, and they need MONEY to create more security, which is what we are going to need. I think at least all middle schools and high schools need to put in metal detectors–again we need money for this. I know we don’t want to go to school in a “prison,” but we are beyond that now. Did you watch the news this morning? Besides Newtown, there was another man shooting bullets in a busy mall parking lot and an 18-year-old arrested for planning a shooting at his high school.

We can’t let this tragedy stop us from going places. Our children still need to go to school. We need to go shopping at a mall. We need to watch our kids at their basketball game or gymnastics meet. But we need to stay safe, and I think the only way to do that is to implement policies in our schools like officials and legislators did in our airports after 9/11.

One last thought–I remember being scared to death to go to school and teach on 9/12/2001. The faculty had a brief meeting with our counselor before we were turned loose to our students. I taught fifth grade at the time, and these students WANTED to talk about what happened. They NEEDED to talk about what happened. The way I approached it was I put on the board when they walked in: Something terrible happened yesterday. If you would like to write about it in your journal, please do. If you would like to write about something else, feel free. If you would rather read, that’s a great choice. Then when I started class, I asked students to tell me what they knew or if they had any questions. This started a wonderful discussion that I will never forget, including this question, “Is a plane going to hit our school and kill us?”

Imagine what kids are thinking about tomorrow then–I encourage you to let them talk if they need to and use the resources around the web to figure out how to talk to them. Here’s a link I found: http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2012/12/newtown-school-shootings-kids-fears

Peace to you.

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17. Five Years Later

And they said we wouldn't last!

Today, in case your Muggle calendar is broken, is five years since the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Five years ago most, if not all of us were huddled over new, magical pages as we discovered the last secrets of the Harry Potter saga.

Since that time, we have been faced with questions and demands from people who know us less well than we know ourselves. What will you do? What's next? Where is the Harry Potter fandom going when it's over? I don't know about you, but I am tired of those people and those questions. We come from the age before, and are part of the age after, the glorification of enthusiasm. Part of what made Harry such a story was that no one could believe young people could be that excited about anything, much less a book. For whatever reason, it was less cool then than it is now to geek out about that which you love. Harry Potter will always be an enormous part of that evolution. For all its forbearers, for every pop culture phenomenon that led into the enormous boom of enthusiasm by which the decade of Potter was marked, Harry was the first one to break through the jaded, resisting wall of people who could not be bothered. It was the first one to make those guys seem uncool.

A lot has changed since then, but the important things have not. We still love Harry Potter; we still read Harry Potter. But we're lovers of other things too. Other books. Other series. Movies. Music. Culture. By engaging with Harry as wholly and with so much intelligence and passion, we learned how best to express a fandom: with compassion and curiosity and creativity. 

Now, geekery has become cool - nay, even hot. Showing your enthusiasm is expected. The age of being shocked that young people are obsessing over fiction, or writing their own versions of stories, or inventing music about their favorite characters, is over. It's time to unabashedly rejoice in the magic of story, and Harry Potter will always be part of why that's so very okay.

In five years from now, where will we be? Will some of us be reading the Harry Potter stories to our children? How many of us will be published novelists ourselves? Who, of those of you reading this right now, will create a TV series or movie that inspires its own fandom? When you see the unfailing joy, the unironic excitement, and clear-eyed ebullience that meaningful stories can inspire, we hope you'll think of Harry, and remember the time we all spent discovering such happiness together.

Leaky will still be here, helping chart the course. After all, a good story never dies.

Happy anniversary, everyone!

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18. 2012 Mind the Gap Awards

mindthegap2012 2012 Mind the Gap Awards

Most likely to haunt award committees Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol
Bone Dog by Eric Rohmann
Better luck next time Good Luck, Anna Hibiscus! by Atinuke,
illustrated by Lauren Tobia
Tragic and tragically overlooked America Is Under Attack: September 11, 2001: The Day the Towers Fell by Don Brown
Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance
of Amelia Earhart
by Candace Fleming
The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic by Allan Wolf
Best Cold War book left out in the cold Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet
Best year-round Christmas book
(think of the money you’ll save!)
The Money We’ll Save by Brock Cole
Science made simple (youngest) Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Beth Krommes
Science made simple (oldest) Feynman by Jim Ottaviani, illustrated by Leland Myrick
Best animal survival stories Can We Save the Tiger? by Martin Jenkins, illustrated by Vicky White
Naamah and the Ark at Night by Susan
Campbell Bartoletti, illustrated by Holly Meade
Best human survival stories Bluefish by Pat Schmatz
Blink & Caution by Tim Wynne-Jones
Best swamp survival stories Meadowlands: A Wetlands Survival Story
by Thomas F. Yezerski
Chime by Franny Billingsley
Batteries not required Press Here by Hervé Tullet

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19. What we say without words

It is said that a picture's worth a thousand words.

Every few years, publishers will print new geography books, replacing outdated population statistics,government leaders, general information, photos, etc. Cover art is typically updated as well.  In with the new, out with the old, standard procedure, nothing unusual.

Today, however, I spotted the new cover photo for the nonfiction, informational children's book, Iran, and I was taken aback.

If a picture's worth a thousand words, what do these three pictures say? 

2003 edition

2008 edition

2012 edition
Remember, these are books for children.  Can we create bias with a photo?
I think so. Should we? I think not.

3 Comments on What we say without words, last added: 2/9/2012
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20. Excerpt from The Chocolate Games

chocolategames Excerpt from <I />The Chocolate Games</p>“Hi, Mum! Hi, Pop!” Mike squeaks as he hops from the screen onto the table. “Look at me! I’m the first boy sent by television!”

Mrs. Teavee shrieks. “You’re an inch tall! Oh, my sweet boy!”

“Sweet?” Grandpa Joe whispers to me. “He blew Violet to bits!”

True, Mike did chuck his flinty Everlasting Gobstopper at the ballooning, purple Violet, popping her and splattering blueberry juice, sugary blood, and bile all over the Inventing Room. But Violet was hardly a sweetie. She was, after all, the one who had shoved Veruca into a mob of vicious, mutant squirrels and happily snapped her gum as the gnawed Princess of Nuts slid down the garbage chute. Of course, Veruca herself had previously kicked Augustus squarely in his generous lederhosen, dumping him into the churning chocolate river that led to his being swirled into fudge. (I regret ever having eaten a morsel manufactured in this place.)

Yet I find it difficult to condemn my fellow contestants for their assorted cruelties. Our sadistic host, who at present is suppressing snickers as he unapologetically consoles Mrs. Teavee, lured us all like Hansels and Gretels into this gingerbread house of horrors. If anyone here lacks sweetness, it is Mr. Willy Wonka, demon chocolatier. When this bloody contest concludes and I claim my prize, I will personally see to it that he receives his just desserts.

We were five ticket-holders this morning; now the remaining lone obstacle separating me from my prize has been greatly, er, reduced—to the size of a gummy bear, in fact. The humane thing would be to put wee Mike out of his misery. At least this is how I rationalize the heinous crime I am about to commit.

I reach into my tattered pocket and silently commend myself for having scooped up some of the treats I found behind the door marked EXPLODING CANDY FOR YOUR ENEMIES. I select a weapon disguised as a tiny yellow butter mint. It ought to be sufficient to take out a target so small.

“Go on, Charlie, finish the job,” Grandpa Joe says, nudging me with his bony elbow. “Then it’s one last moralistic Oompa-Loompa song and we’ve won.”

I nod, bracing myself for the blast, and lob the mint.

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21. Read in Your Lane

It never ceases to amaze me when op-eds appear in newspapers about young-adult (YA) books. Here are the usual flavors:

  • YA books contribute to the degradation of teens.
  • YA books are too dark and scary.
  • YA books have stopped sending messages about morals.
  • This YA book should be banned (even though I have not read it).
  • YA books are turned into movies too much.
  • All YA books are like Twilight and Harry Potter so why are people still reading them?
  • Dude, what is up with YA? I thought it was a fad.

Most of you already know that we have been blessed with another lovely opportunity. Last week in the New York Times, author Joel Stein shared his opinion that Adults Should Read Adult Books.

Of course, he is entitled to his own opinion. In his mind, it is totally not the business for an adult to read anything that resembles teen subject matter. It is embarrassing and as adults, we should only read “adult” things and have the common decency to leave those YA books for the kids. Seriously, grow up ya’ll. LOL.

So with that said, I want to share with you my opinion: Adults Should Read Anything They Want.

I could possibly be a little biased because I’m an adult who writes YA fiction. But even before I dove into this particular type of literature (yes, it is literature), I was an avid reader of YA books.

For me, reading YA novels doesn’t mean that I’m childish or irresponsible. I don’t want to “relive” or “revise” my teen years. I was drawn to these books because I wanted to be engrossed in a fascinating world with dynamic characters who are doing interesting things.

The fact is that adults read books that speak to them. Romance. Science Fiction. Fantasy. Contemporary. Mystery. Horror. Young-adult books have all that covered and then some.

Joel Stein has every right not to read a YA book. Like ever. But it’s sort of sad because I’m thinking he would really like The Fault in Our Stars. :)

For me, I think he missed the most obvious point: Maybe adults are reading YA books because they love good story-telling.

5 Comments on Read in Your Lane, last added: 4/4/2012
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22. If Babies Ran The Horn Book, Part 3 of 4

babiesran raspberries If Babies Ran The Horn Book, Part 3 of 4

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23. If Babies Ran The Horn Book, Part 4 of 4

babiesran weanroger If Babies Ran The Horn Book, Part 4 of 4

babiesran outofbox If Babies Ran The Horn Book, Part 4 of 4

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24. Neil Gaiman’s Favorite Newbery

lengle wrinkletime Neil Gaimans Favorite Newbery

That’s a hard one. I know the leading candidates—The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, A Wrinkle in Time, The High King, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. All books I loved as a child, and read, and re-read. I think it has to be A Wrinkle in Time (1963), because it did weird things to the inside of my head. I do not think I saw the universe in the same way after reading it.

—Neil Gaiman,
winner of the 2009 Newbery Medal for The Graveyard Book

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25. ASL books for kids

American Sign Language (ASL) books for kids

As a general rule, unless I am under obligation to SLJ or LT, I don't write reviews of books that I don't like.  The work of many committed people goes into the commercial publication of a book, and it would be the height of arrogance to assume that I am the best or only arbiter of good taste and quality.  I offer my opinions here for the benefit of myself and those who may not have the time to read as extensively or expansively as I do.  That being said, without referencing a particular book, I wish to offer a caveat regarding American Sign Language books for children.

I am very fortunate in that I work with a deaf woman who has been teaching me sign language for over a year.  She and I often share books and discussion about deaf culture, ASL, and unrelatedly, our interest in star gazing. (We both loved Wonderstruck.)

Over the past few weeks, I've received numerous new ASL picture books at my branch.  These recent additions depict ASL in simplistic drawings.  This may make for a cute picture book, but the signs are nearly impossible to decipher and replicate with one's actual hands. Sign language is a fluid language.  The required movements are very difficult to duplicate in pictures.  If you must rely on printed text and illustrations (which will work fine for most of the ASL alphabet), purchase or borrow books with photographs of hands rather than artistic renderings.  A better suggestion, however, if you are seeking to teach ASL, is using one of the many kid-friendly DVDs, or YouTube tutorials.  Purchasing books which rely on simple, hand-rendered illustrations of complex signs is, in my opinion, a waste of money.  My co-worker did use our new books to teach me something - the signs for "wrong picture."  (I already knew the signs for "bad book.")

If you want to learn about deaf culture or ASL, check out the site for the National Association of the Deaf, or the National Institutes of Health site, or best of all, ask a deaf person.

Today is Nonfiction Monday.

6 Comments on ASL books for kids, last added: 6/26/2012
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