Saturday, March 31, 2007

Introducing Myrtle Jane

Never having run an online chicken-naming contest before, I took my responsibilities in this regard quite seriously and made two lists of of entries to peruse: one with the names of the entrants and one without. I printed out the one without names to avoid being unduly swayed by the identities of the entrants, and looked at it and looked at it.

And to my surprise, the name that seems to match this chicken wasn't attached to a particular literary figure; it just felt right.

So, herewith, I introduce to you the official book, book, book mascot, hereafter to be known as... Myrtle Jane Chicken, Literary Maven.

"Myrtle" was Susan's suggestion, so she wins the prize! Susan, send me your street address and I'll pop Father's Arcane Daughter in the mail to you.

By rights, Liz deserves a prize too, for contributing the felicitous phrase "Book Maven" which I altered only slightly. I just have one copy of the book, but Liz, if you email me your address too I will gladly send an alternative.

"Jane" is my own addition, to weight down the name and in honor of Chicken Jane, a character in the PBS TV show "Between the Lions". But as no one from PBS actually entered this contest, they don't get any prize.

I have to admit that as a longtime Muppet Show fan I was sorely tempted by the name "Camilla," after Gonzo's longtime hennish love, when I read it in Little Willow's list of literary and pop culture poultry characters, but in the end Myrtle was a Myrtle and that was that. She is a kindly chicken but will brook no waffling.

For your reading enjoyment, here is the complete list of entries, with participants' names and entries' literary antecedents:


*From Kathy:

Henrietta (SuperChicken)
Babs (Chicken Sisters)

*From Genevieve:

Minerva Louise (Stoeke stories)
Henrietta (Hoboken Chicken Emergency)
Pouletter (Hen Lake & Peeping Beauty)
Lottie (Mathers books)
Rosie (Rosie’s Walk)
Chicken Little
Philadelphia Chicken (Boynton)
Chicken to the Rescue!
Hen (Little Bear)

*From Anonymous:

Billina (Oz books)

*From Liz:

Henny Penny

*from Alkelda the Gleeful:

Maxine Synecdoche

*From Zeelibrarian:

Ophelia (Hamlet (I love that farmyard Shakespeare idea!)
Babs (Chicken Run)
Ginger (Chicken Run)

*From Liz again:

Hazel Hen, book maven
Ms. Hazel Hen, Research Librarian to the Stars

*From Susan (who claimed to have "nothing to add," which just goes to show you)


*From Tricia:

Poulet Bibliophile

*From Little Willow:

Bawk Bawk Book
Poultry in Motion
Book Chick

*Also from Little Willow, a long literary list from Wikipedia, including:


*From cloudscome:

Ms. Pecknote

*From Vardibidian:

Darles Chickens
Hen Carey Thomas
Henny Dreadful
Information Hen (Between the Lions)
Helena Henway

*From Slim and Slam:

Helen the Chicken

*From web:


*From Barbara Bietz:


*From HipWriterMama:

Library Chick
Ms. Chickels Peckaway

*From anonymous:

Chicken Little(rary)


Many squawks of thanks to everyone who entered! I'm honored to peck around in the yard with such a creative and well-read flock.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Passover with Pearl

Chicken Spaghetti has kindly written a Passover Books post, for which I am exceedingly grateful, because I was feeling like I should but the effort of preparing for Passover and writing about Passover at the same time was threatening to make my head spin. And the Passover Book List [PDF] that she links to has more books than I ever would have thought of.

However, there is one Passover book that demands to be written about in detail, both because it's so excellent and because there is one very, very strange thing about it. And that is Pearl's Passover, by Jane Breskin Zalben.

Jane Breskin Zalben has written and illustrated a whole slew of adorable picture books, many of them about Jewish holidays and rites of passage. Several feature a little bear named Beni and his family, who, in various books, celebrate Chanukah and Purim and Rosh Hashanah and go to a wedding and that kind of thing. The stories and illustrations are sweet without being cloying, understated without being boring, give enough information about the holidays to satisfy the curiosity of non-Jewish kids while giving Jewish kids enough plot to hang their interest on. And many of them are small, just the right size for small kids to browse through themselves. All in all, a totally charming series.

Pearl's Passover is a nice mix of plot, crafts, recipes, and Passover information. In short, read-aloud-able chapters, Pearl and her family celebrate Passover with their relatives, including cousins Harry and Sophie, the "two terrors from Teaneck." In between each chapter, Zalben gives instructions for making crafts like place cards, reclining pillows, Miriam's Timbrels, and a seder plate.

Last year at about this time, my daughter and I were cozily reading away on the couch when we got to the seder plate part and were brought up short. See, one of the objects on the seder plate is a lamb shank bone, to symbolize the lamb's blood that the Israelite slaves used to mark their doors right before escaping from Egypt, so the Angel of Death would pass them over. Kind of a gory little detail, but my child is a veteran of religious school and a big fan of the Kids' Cartoon Bible (a terrific Bible-story version that's not as well-known as it should be), and she wasn't shocked by that. No, what stunned us both was that, see, well, it suddenly dawned on us that Pearl and her family were all sheep. Literally. Some of Zalben's books are about a bear family, but there's a whole other series, including this one, that are about a sheep family.

So this sheep family in this book celebrating a holiday where the liberation of the Jews hangs in part on the slaughter of...sheep.

"That's a little weird," my child offered. I agreed.

We paged forward to the part where Pearl's grandpa (also a sheep!) is retelling the story of the ten plagues. It's the tenth plague, Death of the Firstborn, that prompts the sheep's blood thing, which supposedly alerted the Angel of Death not to kill the firstborn in the marked houses. But Grandpa, understandably, glosses over this part, explaining only that Moses told his people to "mark [their] doorposts."

After that, we had to put the book down and do something else for a while. We just couldn't look at any more pictures of sweet little Pearl and her family. It was like reading a retelling of Lord of the Flies starring pigs.

Aside from this one disturbing aspect, Pearl's Passover is pretty close to the perfect Passover book for kids. You can skip the crafts and read the story; you can skip the story and do the crafts. You can use it as a pre-Seder primer: it's got a map of the exodus from Egypt, and a list of the fifteen steps of the Seder, and important Passover songs like the Four Questions and Dayenu and Chad Gadya all transliterated with musical notation, and it has a glossary at the end. It's fun and cute and great to read aloud.

Just don't be surprised if after reading it your child does a double-take when she sees that shank bone on the Seder plate.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Bookbk’s First Meme

The vicissitudes of life, tax season, and the preparations for two successive family visits have slowed down both the blogging and the Chicken Naming Contest results. I don't want to do something so serious and permanent as naming a chicken while my head is spinning with car rentals and seder food orders, but fortunately I have been tagged with a meme by the impressive Kelly Herold of Big A little a, who challenges her tag-ees to list five non-kidlit blogs they read. That, I think I can handle.

I read a fair number of personal blogs; here are some of my favorites:

The Wait and the Wonder, a ClubMom blog by Moreena, whose 6-year-old daughter, Annika, is currently waiting for her third liver transplant. This blog is thoughtful and occasionally heartbreaking and also not incidentally falling-on-the-floor FUNNY. I mean, funny like the funny that you laugh when you're up till 3 in the morning because you're all so worried and fried and scared and don't know what else to do. But also funny like the parent of two kids who seem to have their respective careers of Goth Fashion Designer and Potty Training Counsultant all picked out.

Kate Rothwell
. The subtitle of Kate's blog is "Mostly about writing romance and selling it," and I don't even read romance (barring the odd Meg Cabot book), let alone write it or try to sell it. Doesn't matter. I like Kate. I like her witty and occasionally obnoxious sons, I like her take on various prejudices, I like her contests. Basically (hmm, I'm sensing a theme here) she cracks me up.

Milkbreath and Me. By Rachel Hartman, creator of The Nameless (but not for long) Chicken, and fearless wrangler of a preschooler, a YA-novel-in-progress, a number of other projects cartoonish and not, and the cathartic Moron Mondays. Also, funny.

Woulda Coulda Shoulda
. One of the great things about personal blogs is the way they can open this little screen-sized window into someone's life on a day-to-day basis. And when you read them over the years, people's lives change. When I started reading Woulda Coulda Shoulda almost three years ago, Mir was a recently-divorced single mom of two young kids, struggling to find a job in a field she didn't particularly love. Oh, and she was obviously an incredibly sharp and talented writer. Now she's the about-to-be-remarried mom of two bigger kids, getting ready to move halfway across the country...and she's working as a full-time freelance writer. It's hard not to love her story, or her blog.

Peter's Cross Station. Another blog where I came for the writing and stayed for the story and because I'd come to care for the blogger. Shannon started writing "Waiting for Nat" when she and her partner were waiting to adopt a baby. Now Nat is a toddler and they're on the list for a second baby. This is probably the most political blog I read regularly; I'm hooked on the personal anecdotes, but Shannon's posts about adoption politics, racism, and other big-world topics are always thoughtful and often articulate things that had never occurred to me.

Whew! That was harder than I thought. In fact, it took so long that most anyone who wants to be tagged is probably tagged by now. If you're not, and you're reading this, I tag you!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Last Chance to Enter

I personally can't imagine any more chicken names. But all week I've been thinking, after each comment, "Well, surely this is the ultimate contribution to the effort of chicken naming; there can't be any more after this," and then there would be, gloriously, more.

So if you happen to have a chicken name floating around in the back of your head, or if you thought of what seemed like the perfect one but were too shy to enter, please write it down in comments below today, as today--Saturday, that is--is the last day to enter the Name That Chicken contest.

The Nameless One to the right thanks you!

Thursday, March 22, 2007


I tried not to blog about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. I did. I figured enough folks were trashing it, and my reasons for hating it were about the same as many other peoples', and I didn't have much to add, so why waste everyone's bandwidth?

Then the darned thing won the Irish Children's Book of the Year award, and Fuse #8 wrote about it, and I followed her link to Bookshelves of Doom's post on the matter, and...well...I guess I just don't have that much will power, because suddenly there I was, commenting away, refuting points and hitting the caps lock key and generally frothing at the mouth.

The point has been made several times that calling something a "fable" isn't enough to excuse inaccuracies and mawkish writing, but the truth is that as I was reading Pajamas all that didn't bother me so much. It was only after I finished it that something started to nag at me. The book reminded me of something; what was it? Then it hit me: it reminded me of many of the books reviewed in A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children.

I've been wanting to write about this astonishing resource for a while, but haven't known where to start. At its heart, it's a collection of reviews of hundreds of books with Native American content. There are chapters covering books about Raven, books about Thanksgiving, books about the Indian Residential Schools... on and on and on. And, no big surprise, most of these books--including many written by really big names in children's literature, writers whose work I know and love--are dreadful from a Native American perspective.

It's a little overwhelming to read, especially for someone used to thinking of most of these books as basically unobjectionable. I have to admit that more than once I felt a defensive, argumentative reflex while reading the reviews."Aw, c'mon," I wanted to say, "maybe the author got a couple of details wrong, but basically it's all about our common humanity, right? How bad can it be to take a few liberties with the facts, if you get the feeling right?"

Then I read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and I heard a little click in my head. Oh...right. People aren't metaphors. Historical events aren't playthings for writers who want to make a point. Details matter, especially to the relatives and descendants of those to whom those details happened. Native Americans aren't handy symbols for the Vanished West, or Our Lost Connection to Nature; they're people with an actual specfic history. And the Holocaust isn't a symbol for universal evil; it was a horrific historical event. And in either case, it doesn't really help to stick on a preface (or afterward) discussing the deep feeling you have about whatever the book is distorting.

It's hard to tell the difference if you don't know the facts. Lots of people know the facts about the Holocaust, so The Boy in Striped Pajamas is getting rightly slammed from many quarters (though you'd never know it to read the majority of reviews). Fewer people know that, say, there were no Indian schools in Michigan as depicted in Gloria Whelan's Indian School, or that The popular version of The Rough-Face Girl, used in Cinderella units in many schools (including mine) smooths out and romanticizes the original Mi'Maq (not "Algonquin") tale (which, if I read the review correctly, was itself a conscious retelling of the Cinderella story and not an independently occurring folktale) to the point of changing its meaning.

I deliberately cited in the above paragraph two books I personally like and that were generally well-reviewed. I'm not trying to slam them, or the reviewers who lauded them. But what I know about Native American culture would fit in the tiniest of cheesy tourist dreamcatchers. I know I wouldn't have enough background to assess the accuracy or offensiveness of any such book if I reviewed it; how many reviewers would?

Anyway, that's the story of how I came to hate The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and simultaneously to cast a slightly squinty eye at a big chunk of the contents of my library. (You should see A Broken Flute's review of Walk Two Moons. And though I can't unlove the book, I do see the reviewer's point.)

For more along these lines, check out A Broken Flute contributor Debbie Reese's blog American Indians in Children's Literature.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Kids' Choice Awards, Part 2: Big Kids

Here's part 2 of the Children's Choice Award overview for my state. Part 1 is here.

Genevieve asked in the comments of the last post why all this year's Picture Book nominees had copyright dates of 2004 or 2005. The simple answer is that the nominees for each year's award are required to have copyright dates of two or three years earlier. There are similar rules for the chapter book awards below.

Basically, this is because books are nominated by teachers and librarians and kids, and they need to have had time to find an audience. Older books aren't eligible because theoretically they had their chance earlier, and (I think) to keep the award feeling fresh (I've often thought of conducting a school-wide "favorite dusty old book" award some year, for which only books published at least 10 years earlier would be eligible, but have never managed to put it together). Also, with the chapter book awards, it helps if at least some of the nominees are available in paperback, as many libraries (including mine) buy multiple copies of each.

All the awards below are given to chapter books or novels, with the occasional nonfiction title thrown in. Unlike the Picture Book award, these are designed for kids who can read the books themselves (though teachers are encouraged to read nominees aloud, too); anyone in the age range who reads two nominees can vote.

Sasquatch Awards, officially for any grade but most of the kids who participate are in grades 2-6. They read at least 2 of the chapter books on the list and vote for their favorite. Votes due in by April 1; haven't heard about next years' list yet. This award tends to skew younger than the better known Young Readers Choice Award, so I'm more comfortable promoting it to 2nd and 3rd graders who are strong readers. I like that this award includes shorter chapter books for kids who aren't necessarily strong readers but are sophisticated enough to enjoy a novel.

Evergreen Young Adult Book Award
, for grades 7-12. These are mostly hard-core YA: lots of Serious Issues and swearing and suchlike. This year, the nominees included Runaways, a graphic novel about teens who discover that their parents are supervillains, and Chanda's Secrets, in which a teenage girl in Africa discovers that the AIDS crisis has hit her family, as well as more innocuous titles like Airborn. I loved all three of these and would have had a hard time choosing among them were I a teen in grades 7-12. Though I think I might've gone with Airborn.

The Evergreen people like to make life complicated by setting the deadline for getting ballots in at March 15th, so our school's 7th and 8th graders voted last week. Based on their ballots, I'm predicting The Supernaturalist (which I never did get around to reading) will win.

And last, but far from least, there's the venerable Young Reader's Choice Award, the oldest children's choice book award in the country.

Unlike the other awards, the YRCA is conducted all over the Pacific Northwest: Washington, Oregon, Montana, British Columbia, Alberta, Idaho, and Alaska. This makes it the only international readers' choice award that I know of, and explains the frequent and welcome presence of Canadian nominees on the lists. (The wartime spy story Camp X, for one, has had a continuing fan base in my library ever since it was up for the YRCA a few years ago.)

The YRCA comes in three flavors: Junior (grades 4-6), Intermediate (7th-9th grade) and Senior (grades 10-12). The Intermediate nominees tend to come in a bit younger than the Evergreen Award books, and the Senior a bit older, though there's lots of overlap. Younger kids who read books in the older categories can vote for those awards (at my school it's not unusual for 6th graders to have read more of the Intermediate nominees than the Junior ones), but older kids can't vote younger.

And if that isn't confusing enough, because all these awards are organized by different organizations, it's not uncommon for the same book to be nominated on a couple of different lists (Airborn and The Supernaturalist, for example, are up for YRCA as well as Evergreen this year). The resulting overlaps are sometimes baffling (like last year when The City of Ember was nominated for Sasquatch (grades 2ish-6ish) and also for the Intermediate YRCA (grades 7-9, supposedly), though it's nice for librarians with a limited budget who want to conduct lots of awards.

Is your head spinning yet? Mine is. Now I remember why I'm totally beat every year by Spring Break.

But there's no time to relax; the YRCA has just announced their 2008 nominees. Most of them are new to me, and I have to start reading.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Kids' Choice Awards: Part 1

The end of March is approaching, and that means one thing: librarians all over the Pacific Northwest are gathering student ballots for various readers' choice awards and sending them in to the bewildering array of awarding organizations, while anxiously refreshing those groups' websites to see if next year's nominees are announced yet.

As a librarian at a Pre-K through 8th grade school, I'm a bit award-happy and promote a bunch of them. Students like having a say about which book wins, and some get very focused about reading as many of the nominees as possible. For myself, the need to promote the books spurs me to read titles I might otherwise pass up--Saffy's Angel (it had a boring cover) and Runt (I'm not big on animal stories) are two that I'm sure I never would've picked up if I hadn't needed to booktalk them for the Young Readers Choice Award. I loved both books, and now recommend them all the time.

One award I've promoted for the last several years is the Washington Children's Choice Picture Book Award for grades K-3. Twenty picture books vie for one award. I've been reading this years' nominees [link is a PDF file] to all the K-2 classes off and on since the beginning of the year--3rd graders at my school get to hear some of them, and read as many others as they can at checkout time and if they finish projects early. Voting will be coming up right after the book fair loads out.

I started out with mixed feelings about this award--so many books to get through! Wouldn't it just take over my curriculum? And what if I didn't like them?--but have grown fond of it over the years. One effect of promoting it is that it creates a sort of canon of picture books that all kids within a few years of each other know about. In many years there are cults that develop around particular books, and every once in a while I'll hear older kids reminiscing about a Children's Choice nominee of their distant youth.

The kids take their votes very seriously. And the winner almost always surprises me; last year it was Arrowhawk, the true story of a wild hawk who survived for several weeks with a poacher's arrow stuck in his leg before being rescued by raptor specialists. I would've thought the book was too intense and even gory to appeal to many younger kids, but they were fascinated and voted it in at my school and all over Washington State.

I have my suspicions about this year's winner, but as always, it's hard to tell. I won't handicap it until the votes are in, for fear of jinxing it. And I can't wait to see what next years' nominees will be.

*Coming up tomorrow: Readers' Choice awards for older kids

Nonfiction Read-Alouds

Charlotte of Charlotte's Library complained the other day about the chore of reading nonfiction aloud to her children: the genre tends to be divided, she observed, into two groups: the "banal learning to read books" and the "lavishly illustrated, lots of information in clumps all over the page, style", which can be a huge pain to read aloud.

As a hardcore fiction girl myself, I empathize. (come to think of it, I may have managed to get through six years of parenthood without ever cracking the spine of a "Magic School Bus" book.) But there are some nonfiction titles that are a pleasure to read out loud. Here are a few I've found:

Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinoasaurs! by Kathleen V. Kudlinski
I brought this home one evening for my daughter to look through, and we were both fascinated. Who knew so many scientists could be so...wrong? Or that reading about it could be so entertaining? I ended up reading it aloud through one whole bathtime.

Chameleons are Cool and The Emperor's Egg, both by Martin Jenkins
Both these books were Washington Children's Choice Picture Book Award nominees in different years (boy, they've really got to come up with a less unwieldy name for that award) so I've had the chance to read each of them many, many times, and they stand up really well even in a group setting. The illustrations are bright and lively and colorful, and the text includes little sidebar-like nuggets of information every page or two without being overwhelming in that DK way.

A Drop of Water, by Walter Wick
Well, the truth is, I haven't read this aloud in some time, or maybe ever. But it remains one of my favorite nonfiction books of all time. Wick is best known for his "I Spy" series, and the photos here--of an egg splashing into a glass of water, or droplets condensed on the head of a pin, a close-up of a snowflake--are astonishing. And the text is brief and straightforward.

Chickens Aren't the Only Ones; Color, Color, Color, and others by Ruth Heller
I don't know how Ruth Heller does it, but she manages to write about topics as diverse as color physics, egg-laying creatures, and a bunch of other scientific topics, all in bouncy, engaging rhyme.

If the World were a Village, by David Smith
This book is almost too easy to read aloud; the concepts pack quite a wallop and could keep a family or a class busy thinking and discussing for days. The premise is simple: If the entire population of the world was represented by a village of only 100 people, how many would speak English? How about Chinese? How many would be children, and how many adults? How long would each person's life expectancy be? How many would have clean, safe water to drink? The answers are often surprising and sometimes sobering.

These are just a few that come to mind off the top of my head. What nonfiction have you liked reading aloud?

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Amazon Links Revisited

I loved reading the comments on my Amazon links dilemma post and found them tremendously helpful. If only I could set up similar discussion forums for all the areas of my life where indecisiveness reigns! Especial thanks to Phantom Scribbler and Andy Laties for so clearly defining the terms of the conflict.

So upon careful reflection, it seems to me that there are two reasons to add a link to a book title in a blog post: either you want to give readers more information about the book, or you want them to be able to get their hands on the book easily, or both. I haven't found a more complete or accessible all-on-one-page source of book information than Amazon (though admittedly I haven't looked very hard, and I like Varbidian's suggestion of linking to the publisher's page), so from that standpoint Amazon seems like the way to go, all politics aside.

As to buying the book--well, mostly I get my own reading material from one library or another, and I suspect most of this blog's readers are similarly inclined. But much as I'd like to link to item records on everyone's individual library system so you can all whip out your cards (or just type in your memorized card numbers) and reserve the book, I don't think that would work very well unless you all agree to move to one metropolitan area for my convenience. (Though wouldn't it be great if there were a Booksense equivalent website for libaries? I could link to a composite item record for all libraries in the world, and you could type in your zip code and then just reserve from there...ah, well. Another project for some technological genius somewhere?)

I like Madame Esme's compromise of linking to Amazon for information, and providing a disclaimer and a link to booksense at the bottom of each post. But I suspect I'm too lazy and forgetful to include something like that every time I post about a book.

So here's my own carefully-thought-through, total-copout compromise: I'm going to link wherever I feel like. If I'm just mentioning a book and want to provide a quick link for those who want to know more about it, I'll link to Amazon or maybe the publisher if I have time. If I'm reviewing the book and want to send all dozen or two of you off to read it as fast as possible, I'll probably link to Powell's (which seems to have added a lot of features since last time I checked--they have reviews now. And a Wish List option. So maybe I'll just link to them all the time. But I'm not promising.).

And I'll add a support-independent-bookstores disclaimer and link in the sidebar, where it can compete with the chickens and booklists and archives for rare and precious eyeball attention.

There! Inconsistent, wishy-washy, and unclear! I feel better already.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Name that Chicken!

When I started this blog a month or so ago, it felt a little bare around the top. As I can't draw animate objects for beans, I begged my friend Rachel (and I feel sort of name-droppy saying "my friend Rachel" as she is in real life a brilliant cartoonist and the creator of the lovely Amy Unbounded comic-book series. But also she's my friend!) anyway, I begged Rachel to draw a chicken reading a book. And she very kindly came up with the literary fowl that you see up top to the right there, just above the "About" sidebar .

Immediately I felt more settled into my new blog home, with the companionship of this contented bookish coffee- (or maybe tea-) drinking chicken. (Rachel and I had a brief discussion about whether it was okay for the chicken to drink coffee in the library, and eventually agreed that she has checked out the book and taken it home to enjoy. In case you were wondering about that.)

She needs only one thing: a name. A literary one would be nice, but my mind is a blank; I can't think of a single literary chicken. But really, any name that just seems right will do.

So I am throwing this burning question open to the public, and officially announcing the book, book, book Name That Chicken Contest, to run from now through, oh, let's say March 24.

To enter, suggest a name for the chicken in comments below. If I choose the name you suggest, you win...a book! A completely non-chicken-related book called Father's Arcane Daughter, which is one of E. L. Konigsburg's lesser-known works and one of my favorites. It is sadly out of print, so I've been stockpiling copies and have an extra.

How often do you get the chance to name a chicken and win a copy of this family mystery about a funny, obnoxious, angry, sad boy and his two sisters, neither of whom may be as they appear?

P.S. Thanks to everyone for your thoughts below on the Amazon linking dilemma. You might have noticed that I'm still begging the question. Will write a real follow-up soon.

Updated to clarify: It doesn't have to be a literary chicken's name, though those are welcome. Just gaze at the chicken...look deeply into the chicken's eyes...and toss a suggestion in the comments.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Scholastic Book Fair: 1. bookbk: 0.

Personal anecdotes are not the focus of this blog, but it does seem relevant to note in this space that the Scholastic Book Fair literally attacked my brain today.

I was roving around the library, checking the good-stuff-to-licensed-crap ratio in the big prestocked bookcases, when a dictionary leaped from its spot on display atop one of the cases and fell on my head, hard pointy corners first.

It didn't quite knock me unconscious, but it sent me reeling and hurt a lot more than you'd think. I've been dizzy all day. I think I have a concussion.

It's hard to avoid suspecting that the Spirit of Scholastic Books, Inc. was exacting vengeance on me for hiding the Bratz books and moving the Barbie Activity Set to an inconspicuous spot. So the question is: what would be a suitable act of reprisal?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Two Good Things

I was all set to write a wussy apologetic post about how the Scholastic Book Fair has eaten my brain and sapped every bit of my writing energy, but then the Three Silly Chicks completely made my day by declaring me a winner! Such excellent timing. If there's one day a year when I could do with winning something, it's book fair setup day. Many thanks, chicks!

Plus, the book fair seems to have sent us much less utter crapola than in previous years. And I hid the Bratz books (cleverly positioned on the bottom rack of the pre-stocked cases Scholastic sends, for maximum kid-accessibility) under some Dora and Diego ones.

There's some excellent stuff in those cases, too. Even in the frantic haze that setup induces in me, I spotted The Invention of Hugo Cabret, among several others that I plan on snagging with my book fair credit.

So, not that bad a day, in retrospect.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

New England Labor History Cage Match!

For a confusing experience, try reading Elizabeth Winthrop's Counting on Grace and Katherine Paterson's Bread and Roses, Too in the same week. Both about 12-year-old girls caught up in labor unrest in New England in the early 1900’s. Both by established children’s authors. Both with so many similar motifs that I had to make a chart to keep them straight. Here it is [Warning: spoilers!]:

The Great New England Labor-Themed Historical Novel Comparison Chart
Similar ThingCounting on GraceBread & Roses, Too
HeroineGrace: restless, fiery, second-best reader in classRosa: responsible, anxious, best student in class
Significant BoyArthur: best reader in class and closet labor agitatorJake: mill worker, street kid, and inadvertent strike evacuee
Colorful Immigrant Ethnicity
ShoesDoesn’t have her own pair, so she goes to work as a dofferFalling apart, so she tries to hide them in a garbage heap
MotherFastest spinner in the mill; hates labor activists; something of a terrorBig-hearted striker; hates the bosses; something of a stereotype
FatherKind of a nonentity compared to Mamere, but comes through in the endDead
Big SisterDelia: Never liked school; works at Mamere’s side at the millAnna: Never cared for school; Works at Mama’s side at the mill and on strike
Ruthless CapitalistUnidentified cotton mill ownersBilly Wood, big boss of the American Woolen Company
Capitalist StoogeFrench Johnny, overseerMiss Finch, schoolteacher
Vermont ConnectionEveryone lives thereKids of strikers sent there from Lawrence, MA for the duration
Actual historical eventLewis Hine’s subversive documentary photographsThe “Bread and Roses” strike of 1912
Related historical artifact that gives me goosebumpsWrenching and beautiful cover photo of child mill worker who for some reason reminds me of my kid“Bread and Roses” song that was for some reason the unofficial anthem of my undergraduate alma mater
Real-life labor heroLewis HineJoseph Ettor, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Big Bill Haywood
TeacherHeartbroken that kids have to leave school for the dangerous mills; sticks her neck out for the workersHeartbroken that kids are misled by dangerous and wicked labor agitators; pawn of the patriarchy
DeathGrace's kindly grandfatherJake’s abusive dad
Change of HeartMamere allows that reading might be valuableMiss Finch allows that kids might be hungry

They’re both well-written, solid books, though I ended up liking Counting on Grace better: the characters felt more fleshed-out, and the plot was less sprawly. Bread and Roses, Too is written on a grander scale and spreads out its focus somewhat.

Plus I just loved that Grace. She jumped right off the page.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Amazon Links: The Devil's Handiwork or A Boon to Readers? Discuss.

Once again a post at Fuse #8 has springboarded me to a post of my own. Actually it's the comments that have me in a tizzy.

As a lone librarian at an independent school, in charge of 12+ classes a week, reference, school-wide events, collection development, the works, I frankly rely on for quick reviews. Gone are the days of paging leisurely through SLJ: if I hear about a book, I look it up on Amazon and see what the consensus is. Some years ago I bit the bullet and started an Amazon Wish List for the school library, so parents can donate books in honor of kids' birthdays and the like.

But when I order a book for myself or for a gift, I go independent. I've worked at two different independent bookstores (one sadly defunct, one still cheerfully hand-selling away right in my neighborhood) and can't stomach handing my own money over to the behemoth that helped kill the Red and Black Books Collective. I've occasionally stepped into a Bunns & Noodle to spend a gift certificate (all hail Alison Bechdel for inventing that nickname) but always feel guilty and furtive when I do.

A couple months ago, Jody at Raising Weg wrote a cogent, convincing post about the value of the big chains, especially in areas that hadn't had any bookstores before. It almost convinced me that objection to chains was an elitist stance. Then I read posts like this, and I rebel: no one person should have that much power over what gets published (Clamouring Hour, anyone?*). I realize that brick-and-mortar chains and Amazon aren't really the same thing, but from my independent-bookstore-loyalist perspective they're two of a kind.

As this is a book blog, I expect to be discussing many (wait for it) books. And I expect that the odd reader or two might want to buy a title they see here. A link to Amazon will hook up those readers with a passel of editorial and reader reviews, plus referrals to other similar titles. If I link to Powell's, they get none of that, but they might buy from an independent. Lots of people I admire in the kidlitosphere link to Amazon and even have Amazon stores on their pages, so I guess I could, too. But I haven't been able to bring myself to.

Truth is, I feel a little silly twisting myself up over this moral dilemma when the readership of this blog numbers in the low two digits, and when I use Amazon all the time as a book-information source. But if you think this is tortuous, you should've been there for some of those bookstore collective meetings.

In any case, advice and opinions are welcome. So far I've been begging the question by not linking anywhere, but that seems like cheating, no?

*Gratuitous Fly By Night reference

Friday, March 9, 2007

Poetry Friday: Judith Viorst

Judith Viorst is usually thought of as a comic light-verse poet, but I found a lovely reflection on friendship today tucked in among the knock-knock jokes and kiddish complaints in her Sad Underwear and Other Complications: More Poems for Children and their Parents.

I'm lucky enough to have a few friendships like those portrayed in her poem Phyllis [poem removed due to copyright restrictions].

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Happy Teens, Happy Tech, Happy Week

The Brookeshelf reports that it is Teen Tech Week, and what do you know-- I inadvertently celebrated by downloading a teen audio book from my local public library this weekend for the first time ever. I feel very hip. And topical.

The book I'm listening to oh-so-topically on my computer is A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life, by Dana Reinhardt. So far, so good; I like it (though I'm wondering what the adoption community thinks of it). But I'm only about one-third of the way through it because, although I am hip enough to download an ebook, I am not quite hip enough to have an Ipod. So my laptop gets dragged around the kitchen with me on a stool as I listen and do dishes and make lunches and occasionally trip on the headphone cord. Not earbuds, mind you: big puffy headphones. Because I am just cool like that.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Towards a Definition of Teen Bookiness

What's the difference between a teen book and a middle grade book? (Besides the little publisher's note on the spine, that is.)

"Sex, drugs, violence" is the quick and easy answer, but as Dawn notes in a comment on her recent post, sometimes the distinction has more to do with emotional complexity and sophistication.

You can argue (and I have) that age distinctions for books are pretty arbitrary and marketing-driven to begin with. But as I get older and stodgier I'm more willing to concede that some titles are considered by consensus to be more appropriate for distinct age groups. Though I've sometimes been surprised at how many middle school students are happy and willing to read "down"--in subject matter, not reading level. Often they'll pick up and enjoy books that I would've guessed they would reject as too kiddish.

This could be a much longer post, but instead I'll just throw it out here: what makes you think "Now, this is a teen book"? Not a book for kids--or for adults, for that matter--that happens to have an adolescent protagonist?

(Though obviously real live teens read all of the above: kids' books, adult books, and books marketed especially to them.)

Monday, March 5, 2007

For Kids Who Don't Fit on the Story Rug

The Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Madison has a terrific list of Picture Books to Share With Older Children and Teens. (Thanks to Fuse #8 for the link)

Truth is, you can read almost any well-written picture book to older kids and even teenagers if the context is right and if they trust you and know that you know that they're smart. I've seen cooler-than-cool 5th graders beg to read Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, shouting "No!" at the pigeon with as much verve as kindergarteners. (Well, they're in 5th grade, after all, so some of them shout "Yes! Go on! Drive the bus!" But they have a good time while they're doing it.)

But there are some picture books that will engage their sophistication and intellectual background right off, and that even a complete stranger (like a visiting librarian or substitute teacher) can get away with. Here are some that didn't make it onto the CCBC list that I'd recommend for kids in 4th grade up through middle school:
  • Bunting, Eve. Smoky Night. Prejudice and rioting in a multi-ethnic neighborhood. Incredibly gorgeous collage illustrations.
  • Fleischman, Paul. Weslandia. The 6th grade teacher at my school uses this to introduce her Ancient Civilizations unit.
  • Giovanni, Niki. Rosa. Finally, a Rosa Parks biography that features the nitty-gritty work of the Civil Rights Movement--meetings and mimeographs along with the civil disobedience and rallies--and makes it clear that Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King didn't exist in a vacuum. Beautifully told and stunningly illustrated, too.
  • Innocenti, Roberto. Rose Blanche. A wordless Holocaust parable with a devastating ending. Actually, there are several amazing Holocaust-themed picture books out there that I wouldn't read to most groups under fourth or fifth grade.
  • Laden, Nina. Roberto, the Insect Architect. A termite with a dream comes to the big city. Many sly references to famous architects and media figures.
  • Polacco, Patricia. Pink and Say. A family story from the Civil War. Most of Polacco's other books have more than enough depth to intrigue an older audience; this one is one of the few that is just too wrenching to read to most younger groups.
  • Seuss, Dr. The Lorax. Our 7th graders put The Onceler on trial every year, with this book as Exhibit A.
  • Shannon, George. The Secret Chicken Club. The animals of Wise Acres Farm aren't quite as smart as they think they are.
  • Sherman, Allan. Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah. A classic, finally illustrated. Best shared along with a recording of the song, though I once just sat and turned the pages as a class of gleeful 5th graders sang this book to me, complete with Yiddish-inflected word endings.
  • Smothers, Ethel Footman. The Hard-Times Jar. The oldest daughter in a family of Black migrant workers longs to have a book of her own.
  • Stewart, Sarah. The Gardener. Younger kids enjoy this book too, but older ones will appreciate the depth of Lydia Grace's courage and resilience in what's really a pretty grim situation.
  • Wisninewski, David. The Secret Knowledge of Grownups. If you have time and inclination, kids can write their own "Secret Knowledge" explanations.
  • Wisninewski, David. The Golem. Another cut-paper masterpiece by Wisinewski, retelling a dark tale of medieval anti-Semitism. Mary Shelley was inspired by this legend when she wrote Frankenstein.
  • Yorinks, Arthur. The Flying Latke. Funniest. Chanukah. Book. Ever. For those who appreciate Borscht Belt farce. Film afficionados will recognize a few familiar faces, too.
  • Zelinsky, Paul. Rapunzel. Closer to the Grimm's original than most retold versions, this one includes Rapunzel's pregnancy with twins.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

So Meta it Will Make Your Head Explode

Not related to children's books at all, and only tangentially to libraries, but this brief piece in the New Yorker completely made my day yesterday [ellipses and emphases are mine]:

The July 31, 2006, piece on Wikipedia, “Know It All,” by Stacy Schiff, contained an interview with a Wikipedia site administrator and contributor called Essjay, who...was described in the piece as “a tenured professor of religion at a private university” with “a Ph.D. in theology and a degree in canon law.”

...Essjay now says that his real name is Ryan Jordan, that he is twenty-four and holds no advanced degrees, and that he has never taught. He was recently hired by Wikia—a for-profit company affiliated with Wikipedia—as a “community manager”; he continues to hold his Wikipedia positions. He did not answer a message we sent to him; Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikia and of Wikipedia, said of Essjay’s invented persona, “I regard it as a pseudonym and I don’t really have a problem with it.”

(Okay, maybe this wouldn't have everyone on the floor gasping with laughter. Maybe to think it's as funny as I do you have to have spent huge chunks of time, breath, and keystrokes in attempts to convince students and teachers alike that Wikipedia is not a citable source for academic projects? Could be.)

I have a particular fondness for that kind of deadpan tone that the New Yorker does so well. Especially when imparting news of a spectacularly embarrassing nature.

For the complete text of the retraction, see the note at the end of this article, or page 10 of the March 5, 2007 issue of the New Yorker.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Sound the Graggers! Eat the Hamentaschen!

Costumes, raucous silliness, noisemakers, candy, treats, even special cookies--sounds like a great time, yes? Well, it is. Today is the Jewish holiday of Purim, and not only does it feature all the above elements, but it sports one doozy of an origin story (also found in the Book of Esther in any handy Bible).

So you'd think the shelves of libraries and bookstores would be groaning under the weight of all the terrific kids' books about Purim. And you would be so wrong. I work at a Jewish day school, and while we have more great Chanukah stories than anyone could read during the entire month of December (including several by the King of Chanukah Books, Mr. Eric Kimmel), and even a respectable selection of appealing Passover tales, I can barely count the attractive, kid-friendly, read-aloud-able Purim books on my fingers.

And most of those merely retell the story of brave Esther, wicked Haman (boo! booooo, Haman!), good Mordechai, and dopey King Ahashuerus. Granted, it is a fantastic story--Queen Esther the Morning Star, by Mordecai Gerstein, is one of the best versions--but it's as if the only Christmas books you could find to read to kids were retellings of the Nativity: no Grinch, no Santa, no Nutcracker, no nothin' but little baby Jesus in the manger over and over again.

Then there are the books that pretty much just recount how the holiday is celebrated. You'll find these for a lot of Jewish holidays. They tend to go something like this: "I love to celebrate Purim! My friends and I get dressed in costumes. We wave our graggers when we hear Haman's name! We eat special cookies for Purim; they're called Hamentaschen..." While these can be helpful for introducing a non-Jewish audience to Purim, or for preparing very young children as the holiday approaches, they're a yawnfest for most Jewish kids over the age of four. One that the preschoolers at my school enjoy is Sammy Spider's First Purim, by Sylvia Rouss and Katherine Kahn. Sammy Spider introduces several Jewish holidays in his series of books, and while they don't get much beyond the superficial symbols, they're a fun read.

For a long time, the only Purim book I could find that actually tells a good, original story and has decent illustrations was Cakes and Miracles, by Barbara Diamond Goldin, about a blind boy who is inspired by a dream to make and sell special Purim cookies to help his widowed mother. Another strong story is Raisel's Riddle, by Erica Silverman, a Cinderella variation set around a Purim ball. They're both a bit wordy for younger grades to sit through, though.

Then, last year, the Purim book of my dreams appeared: The Mystery Bear, by Leone Adelson. It's short, it's simple, it has big, bright illustrations (by Naomi Howland), it's about Purim, it's not set in ancient Persia, and it's got a real, Honest-to-G-d plot, which I can recount in one sentence: Hungry bear cub wakes up early from hibernation, wanders into Purim celebration, and is mistaken for a costumed reveler in a bear suit; hilarity ensues.

It's perfect. Hebrew school teachers can read it to their classes; public librarians and public school teachers can throw it into the program for a multiculti twist on hibernation and springtime; I can give it to the first grade teachers; and everyone can be happy.

Now, if only I could find a halfway decent book about Lag B'Omer...

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Library Web Design Geek Moment

I don't spend much time browsing around in bookstores or libraries any more, and only partly because I work at one. Mostly, I find books I like online, and then reserve them online, for work and pleasure. This afternoon I spent an hour or so with three windows open on my work computer: one for surfing around the kidlitosphere for reviews and recommendations and awards, one set to my local public library so I could put reserves on for books I want to read, and one on so I could update my school's wish list, enabling parents who want to donate books in honor of their kids' birthdays to browse and buy and send the books right to my hot little hands, where they'll (the books, not my hands) be cataloged and stamped and covered and adorned with a nice bookplate noting the kid's name. (And at a different time in my ordering cycle I would've had a fourth window open, so I could add books to my order list with the vendor I usually use. But we're about to have a book fair, so I'll wait.)

When I stop and think about it, it's weird to do all this reserving and buying and donating without ever touching an actual book until it gets bought or comes in on reserve. It means that library web sites (and bookstore sites, too, but I'm a librarian so I'll stick with libraries) are the front door, the welcome sign, the New Books display and the reference area for most patrons. For me, all I need to know about the actual library is where to pick up the reserves and where to do self-checkout; the website is where I do my browsing and database searching and actually use the library.

Even though I work at a school library, the same holds for a lot of my patrons-- especially the middle school kids, who (like many adults who use libraries) have Web access and busy lives. So I try to make as much as possible available via the library website: our catalog, links to public library catalogs and online reference sources, some information about the library, and some booklists. This is pretty bare bones for a library site, and I know I could do a lot more.

Not surprisingly, I am far from the first person to think about this. The Library Success Best Practices Wiki has a ton of resources on library website design. I guess it's a measure of my library geekitude that I just spent a while on the browser emulator, checking to see what bookbk looks like on, say, NCSA Mosaic, or Netscape Navigator circa 1995.

More practically, the "Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design" should make just about every librarian cringe--especially Mistake #1, which is perpetuated by most library catalogs. By this measure, the old card catalogs were actually easier to use. Progress really means that we all have to know how to spell everything, apparently.

This concludes our Library Web Design Geek moment. We'll be back to books tomorrow. Though of course they'll probably be books that I found through some website or other.