Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Colour me Chuffed

As an Anglophile from way back, who cut my literary teeth on E. Nesbit's books about the Bastable Children, intrigued by their fascinating and mysterious world (Why did they have a pudding every day? And what was a pantomime? And who on earth was this mysterious "general" who seemed to be a housekeeper?) I was disgusted to discover, as an adult, that the U.S. editions of Helen Oxenbury's charming board books had obviously been bowdlerized and that the line that had surely been "Wave to Mum" in the original (because it rhymed with last word of the previous page--"thumb," or "plum," or something) had been stupidly changed to "Wave to Mom." I just used to read it "Mum" anyway. Same with U.S. versions of Shirley Hughes's "Alfie" books (also almost all out of print! Phooey Phooey Rats!).

Much has been written about the Americanization the Harry Potter books' U.S. editions (see this line-by-line analysis of the first book for details) but one of the happy side-effects of the Potter phenomenon is that publishers seem to be finally realizing that American kids are not stupid and can deal just fine with some exotic and unfamiliar words, and in the last several years there's been a flood of British kid- and YA-lit imports, generally quite lightly edited.

Some of my favorites (or favourites, I guess I should say) of these are Hillary McKay's books about the artistic and eccentric and troubled and hysterically funny Casson family. When the third title, Permanent Rose, came out a couple of years ago I couldn't wait for the US. publication and bought the British (well, Canadian) edition on a trip to Vancouver. Truth is, I bought the British edition because I just like British editions of British books better: you can be sure that you're reading the real deal, with all the hair elastics and lorries and car boots and single quote marks left intact.

The U.S. version I ordered for the library hadn't come in yet by September, so I loaned my copy to a kid who had loved the first two books, Saffy's Angel and Indigo's Star, and couldn't wait to read the new one.

She brought it back a couple weeks later. "It was good," she said, "but kind of confusing. Like, what's a biro?"

I thought back to the opening scene, in which Rose, the youngest and fiercest of the Casson siblings, opens the door to a friend of her brother's, who is nonplussed to see that she's been writing all over herself with the aforementioned article. "It's a ballpoint pen."

"Ohhhhhh." She nodded, satisfied at last. "Okay, that makes sense."

So, it's true, you can't necessarily catch everything from context. And I did notice that in the American edition that arrived a few weeks later the word had indeed been translated to "ballpoint pen."

This is all by way of a lengthy and meandering introduction to a link that might be of interest to other Anglophiles, literary or otherwise: Separated by a Common Language is all about the differences between British and American English. I found myself unable to stop reading the post and comments linming the differences between a "hair slide," "hairband" and "barrette." Check out the highly illuminating post on Types of Schools and School Years, too.

Found via Books, Words, and Writing.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Arnold Hanger Lives!

One of my very favorite moments ever in children's literature has got to be the author visit in Jane Gardam's A Long Way from Verona, in which young Jessica Vye is transformed by (fictional) writer Arnold Hanger's lecture at her prim, proper, pre-World-War-II British girls' school. After Hanger has spoken and read aloud from all kinds of books, one after another, "poetry and all sorts," he seems to be done, and the Head is just about to sweep him off for tea when he suddenly turns and bellows at the startled girls: "To Hell with school!" he hollers. "To Hell with school! English is what matters! ENGLISH IS LIFE!"

Jessica, of course, is never the same. It would ruin it for you if I gave too much away. (I know, the book is long out of print in this country, and hard to find, but damned if I'm going to spoil it. Go on! Protest! Storm the publishers in your quest to find out what happens! Buy it from! This one should be out there!) Suffice it to say that Jessica emerges from the incident and its aftermath convinced that she is "a writer beyond all possible doubt," and that this certainty drives the novel and Jessica's life thereafter.

While George Shannon didn't do anything that transgressive during his visit today (and I suppose that if he had I would have been in the unenviable position of the scandalized Head at Jessica's school), he did manage to fire up the kids about writing and literature in general. Jaded 6th and 7th graders who wouldn't be caught dead reading a picture book asked him serious questions about plot, pacing, and the writing process. Kindergarteners jumped into the "Maybe Maybe" game, suggesting possible adventures for a monkey who finds himself in a peanut shell. I sat at my desk taking notes and getting quietly inspired myself.

When I was a kid in the '70's, I don't remember any authors visiting my school, a mere bus ride away from the heart of publishing and writing in this country. Nowadays it's pretty standard to have author visits; I try to book one every year. I can't help but think that it's good for everyone: for the kids, for the teachers, for the authors (who get book sales as well as a source of income from the presentations), and for all of us readers who might in 20 years ago get to read some terrific books inspired by kids who got to see that the people who create books do exist in real life, and that they themselves can become writers beyond all possible doubt.

Monday, February 26, 2007

All of them. Even "The Story of Mankind."

Genevieve asked below if I can post about the Newbery unit when I teach it, and I will for sure, if we even get to it-- I'm trying something new with this class, an individual author study project cribbed and modified from Planet Esme, and what with interruptions for assemblies and topical one-shot lessons and vacations and snow days, it is taking a long, long time. A weekly 45-minute library class seems like plenty until you're actually trying to get something done, and then it is as a blink of the eye.

I hope against hope that by the time they do their presentations they're not all heartily sick of their chosen authors.

In the meantime, check out The Newbery Project, a group blog whose members are reading all the Newbery Medal winners and posting about it. I like the Newbery trivia and the tangential questions like "are there any children's books with adult [human] protagonists?" Fun.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Bookloft Strikes Again

Who are these people at the Charlotte-Mecklenberg Library? And who are the incredibly game teens appearing in this best YouTube Summer Reading Program Video ever?

Think about it: When you were in high school (or middle school, by the looks of some of these kids) would you have let anyone film you--for the viewing pleasure of your classmates and zillions of anonymous strangers on the Internet--singing show tunes and getting whomped on the head by flying books? All while flogging the summer reading program at the local library??

I don't think I'll see anything nearly this amazing on the Oscars tonight.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Two last words on hot-button words

Before the Great Scrotum Kerfuffle (and if that's not a word-lover's word, what is? Kerfuffle! Scrotum! It's been a great week for great words, all right) fades into history, here are two late links that highlight the best in the world of adults who write for kids, and who write about kids' books (thanks to Big A, little a for the links):

Cynthia Lord and her fellow Newbery Honor winners have spoken out in support of Susan Patron and "The Higher Power of Lucky," on LiveJournal, The Random House website, and other fora. Lord's Newbery Honor book, Rules, is about a girl who learns that rigid rules are less important than standing up for her family and friends; its author obviously walks that walk, too.

If there were an ALA or kidlitosphere award for thoughtful analysis of a big media mess, pixie stix kids pix should totally win it for this post. I'm especially fond of her "anatomy of a kerfuffle" chart graphing hyperbole against time.

"I meet Jesus!!!! and he reads!!!"

The good people of The Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenberg County must be doing something right to get a comment like that on their library's MySpace page for teens. In fact, their whole LibraryLoft teen website is something of a knockout, in terms of both design and content. Check out their resource page on "Life Info: When Life's Not Always Easy or Fair." Well-organized, easy to navigate, and just plain gorgeous. I wouldn't be surprised if it's saved a couple of lives somewhere.

PLCMC might be exceptionally groovy , but they're not the only ones trying to get down with the kids through MySpace. There's a whole list of teen library MySpace pages at the Library Success Wiki. The YAAB (Young Adult Advisory Board) at the Fort Vancouver (WA) Regional Library District gets points for friending YA authors like Meg Cabot and Brent Hartlinger, but points off for the annoying song and a background pattern that makes the text almost impossible to read. Pawtucket Library's page isn't flashy, but has lots of useful info presented in an accessible way.

Even ALA is onto the MySpace trend; last year in New Orleans they passed this very formal-sounding "Resolution in Favor of Online Social Networks." Very nice, even if it doesn't answer that eternal question: if Jesus had a MySpace page, who would He friend????

Friday, February 23, 2007

They're Baaaack!

Loganberry Books has a great long list of beloved old books that are back in print after a hiaitus. I was tickled to see that those deliciously creepy Edward Gorey books are available again.

And Enchantress from the Stars! One of my favorites! And a real genre-straddler of a novel: science fiction, myth, fairy tale, thought-provoking take on anthropology, and coming-of-age story, with a dash of romance thrown in. What's not to like?

April's Kittens made such a strong impression on me that almost 40 years later I still have vivid memories of the illustrations, and of the situation: April's family lives in such a small apartment that she still has to sleep in a crib, even though she is a big girl. So how can the family accommodate a litter of kittens?

There's more, more, much more. But could the "George and Martha" series ever have gone out of print? Really?!? Things are more dire than I'd even thought.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Can you ever forget your first?

Truth be told, I'm a little fuzzy on mine, though I distinctly remember being very proud to sound out the first pages of Green Eggs and Ham: "I AM SAM. SAM I AM." So quite possibly the first book I read on my own was that classic of the genre.

Not everyone is so predictable, though. Phantom's son LG, for example, has shown a nonfictional and artistic bent in his first solo reading choice, and it looks like his little sister is right behind him.

As for my own daughter, despite being surrounded by the cream of the crop of picture books and early readers thanks to her two librarian parents, the very first book she finished on her own, on a memorable snow day early in the winter, was this deathless title. Just goes to show you that you never know what's going to be the book that hooks a kid, and that adults' literary judgments aren't the only measuring stick.

Out of Print, Not Out of Mind

Fuse #8's "Out-of-Print Crimes Against Humanity" list (on her right-hand sidebar, scroll down a bit) spurred me to thinking about all the books I love, or just want for my library, that are also out of print. Of course, many of them are quite old. But even newer titles don't stay in print long; it's just not the publishing trend.

Yesterday, a teacher came by to return the copy of Welcome to the Ark that I'd recommended to her-- it's a dark, intense, thought-provoking YA novel featuring four telepathic gifted kids in a dystopic terror-ridden future, and I figured if she read it she'd know just the Middle School students who can handle it.

She loved the book, and had already looked up Stephanie Tolan's website and discovered that it was the first in a trilogy. "Do you have the next volume?" she asked, quite reasonably.

We didn't. A minute's poking around on Amazon and we found out that the sequel, Flight of the Raven, is out of print. It was only published a few years ago, but the reviews were mixed, and the publishers just let it go.

Another anecdote: George Shannon is coming to visit our school next week. I called the bookstore today and asked if they could send over a copy of his book This is the Bird with the other titles we'll be selling during his visit; I've read the public library copy to a few classes, but our library doesn't own it and I wanted to buy one.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," the bookseller sighed. "It's out of print."

"Really? Oh, it's a lovely book! The kids really liked it, and the pictures are great, and it ties right into the curriculum-- they read The Keeping Quilt in 3rd grade every year-- and--"

"I know," she said. "It happens faster and faster. Really, it's a shame."

Now, neither of these books are incredibly popular, and neither got stellar reviews. But they're both perfectly solid titles by well-known authors, published within the last ten years. It just feels intuitively wrong that they should be out of print so quickly.

I know that more and more children's and teen books are published every year, and it stands to reason that publishers don't keep up the backlist for as long as they might. And of course there's always, the great used-bookseller clearinghouse, if you really really want to find that favorite childhood title.

I just hate the feeling that books are becoming like magazines, and that if I don't buy the latest ones now, in a short time it'll be cleared off the shelves to make room for the next issue.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

How it works in real life

I've got a group of really smart, spirited 5th graders. Today several of them sauntered into the library at lunch recess with their usual demand for "good books." I skipped my usual answer to the kids I think can take it ("Sorry, we only have BAD books here. BAD, BORING books.") and they turned their attention to the big sign near the checkout desk, the one that says "WARNING: This library may contain unusual, hilarious, fascinating, sinister, and even frightening things. Read at your own risk."

I asked, "Do you want to see the book that won this year's Newbery award, that there's a big controversy about?"

"Oh!" a couple of them said. "I heard about that! It was in the New York Times!" (Like I said-- smart kids.) They gathered around our brand-new, still-uncataloged copy of The Higher Power of Lucky and scrutinized the fateful first page.

What followed was every librarian's dream (well, every librarian I know; maybe not the ones quoted in the Times article): a whirlwind discussion of the First Amendment, the mechanics of challenging or banning books in this country as opposed to places where the government restricts freedom of the press (one kid cited Nazi Germany as an example), their opinion of the ridiculousness of sheltering kids from knowledge of names of body parts that half the population possesses (with some rowdy joking about people who don't know their own anatomy), the concept of twelve-step groups and addiction, the need for a waiting list for this particular book since at least one kid desperately wanted to read it and it's not cataloged yet, and how cataloging a book for the library works.

We ended up with a quick tour of the books in our library that have been banned or challenged, like the "Scary Stories" series, Robie Harris's It's So Amazing, and To Kill a Mockingbird ("But isn't that taught in a lot of schools?" "Yep. And it's also been challenged in a lot of schools.") , finishing with a visit to the ALA Most Banned Books list, where the kids were shocked and scornful to see Harry Potter ("Harry Potter?!?") right up there at Number 7.

I herded them out the door for lunch amid a babble of demands (like I said--spirited kids): "Can we have a list of those books?" "Can I check that book out?" "You need to teach a class on this. THIS WEEK!"

Now, I work at a small private school and might have more than ordinary freedom to wing it, and this is an unusually sophisticated bunch of kids; I probably wouldn't have been quite so forthcoming with a group of 3rd graders. And who knows; I might get some feedback, positive or negative, from a parent tomorrow. But I'd hate to think of working in a library where I couldn't be open to that kind of spontaneous conversation. And as a parent, I'd hate for my daughter to miss out on a learning opportunity like that because her teacher or librarian was too scared of a parent's potential complaint.

And boy, do I have a great hook now for the Newbery unit when we get to that in 5th grade later this year.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Higher Power of Libraries

Two separate relatives have already emailed me the NY Times article about the controversy over the word "scrotum" in Susan Patron's 2007 Newbery award winner, The Higher Power of Lucky," and it's all over the Interwebs, too. So how can I resist? I just tried to leave a comment on Jessamyn's site. It got eaten by the spam detector, but that's okay; halfway through writing it I realized that it should probably be its own post anyway.

Here's the thing: Parents and community members challenge books all the time based on a single word, or phrase, or image, in the book. At my own library, I've had parents informally express concern about books containing one disturbing illustration, or one paragraph they think is inappropriate. The Catcher in the Rye regularly tops most-banned-books lists in large part because of four (count 'em, four) repetitions of the F-bomb. And I don't know how many times--but it's a lot-- Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen has been banned, challenged, or simply not purchased on account of one image of a naked little boy crowing on top of a milk bottle.

I'd be lying if I said I'd never passed up on purchasing a book because I anticipated complaints from parents, not just because of overall themes or subject matter, but due to one or two words or phrases that might trigger some parent's anxiety or fear or anger. I have to admit that when I opened up my library's brand-new copy of The Higher Power of Lucky the other day and read about the dog's scrotum right on the first page, my first thought was "Oy. Okay, maybe not pushing this to the 2nd-grade crowd."

But if I allowed those first admittedly cowardly reactions to dominate my purchasing decisions, where would it end? With pulling Number the Stars because it contains the word "damn?" Or what about the word "anus" (also in regard to a dog, interestingly) in Gail Carson' Levine's wonderful The Wish--what if someone was offended by that? Lots of parents complain about the improper English that Junie B. Jones uses in the series by that name--maybe it doesn't have a place in our library either? I mean, hey, we have a small collection! We're in loco parentis! Where's my responsibility to those easily-influenced children and their concerned parents?

On my better days, I know exactly where my responsibility lies: it lies with the kid who's looking for the book that will open up their world. Even if that book might irk some other kid's parents.

I'm no First Amendment martyr. I hate trouble as much as the next person, and I like my job. When I decide to buy a book that I know might be controversial, it helps that I know my community, know the kids I work with, and have been at my job for eight years now. It also helps that I have a solid Board-approved collection policy behind me.

But it burns me up that so many librarians appear to have absolutely no compunction about dismissing this year's Newbery Award winner out of hand, without even waiting for a parent or community member to complain, based on one little word.

My favorite commentary on this whole kerfluffle comes from an anonymous commenter on the As If! site:

" Maybe only males have a scrotum, but anyone who censors a book out of fear has no balls."

First Squawk

Welcome to Book Book Book!

At college they taught me to cite my sources, so if I don't start with a link to the original joke from which this blog gets its name, I'm sure to be haunted by the ghost of M. Carey Thomas. I heard it on the Prairie Home Companion joke show about ten years ago; then a professor in a library class told it; then it was everywhere.

Several years ago the joke was expanded into a picture book by Deborah Bruss. I read it to kindergarteners at the beginning of the year. They liked it pretty well, though it hasn't been received with the avid hysteria of my other September library class kick-off title this year, Once Upon a Cool Motorcycle Dude (which has nothing to do with chickens, but what the hey; if you ever have to read a book about writing or fairy tales or sex roles or collaboration to a group of elementary-school-age kids, and have them rolling in the aisles as a bonus, this is the one. I swear I've never in nine years had so many kids begging me to read a book again.)

Speaking of chickens and kids' books, old M. Carey will also come after me if I don't acknowledge another kidlit blog with a chicken-related title: the fabulous Chicken Spaghetti. I don't know the author and have only lurked on the site, but it's as comprehensive a children's lit review as you could hope to see. And I totally covet the chicken picture on the masthead.