Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween: Hubknuckles

HubknucklesHubknuckles by Emily Herman, Deborah Kogan Ray. Crown, 2010

This is a special anniversary edition of the book, originally published in 1985.  Herman's story feels like it dates from an even earlier time of children's picture books. Her writing has a kind of timeless innocence.

This gentle story of Halloween traditions and a child's belief provokes a yearning in me for a time when elementary schools held costume parades and there were cupcakes instead of the current state of affairs where the day is so controversial that some schools practically shrink from any utterance of the "H' word.  

Maybe it is my own nostalgia but I do yearn for the Halloweens of yore when the night was a celebration of all childish things, candy greed, costumes and make-believe and freedom to roam the streets of the neighborhood in the mysterious dark.

Every Halloween a ghost named Hubknuckles visits Lee's family and dances outside their window.  Is the ghost real?  Lee thinks she wants to know and decides this year she will investigate to discover the truth.  Deborah Kogan Ray's softly rendered illustrations in powdered graphite and pencil lend exactly the right tone of mystery to the story. Hubknuckles, the moon and the leaves outside the window glow in the moonlight.  The story and illustrations balance each other beautifully.

Halloween: Annie Was Warned

Annie Was WarnedAnnie Was Warned by Jarrett J. Krosoczka.  Knopf, 2003

In all his books, Jarrett Krosoczka conveys a playful insight into children that is a rare and fine thing.  Anyone who has shared his books as read-alouds can attest to the response to them from young listeners.

His children look out from the page into the eyes of the child holding the book and recognition sparks there.  Krosoczka's "serious" bio on his website mentions that he worked summers at camps, including the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp,  for children dealing with illnesses and other serious life issues.  I understand something about that kind of work as a parent whose child has benefited from similar summer experiences.  Krosoczka has looked into the eyes of children who are facing challenging and profound hurdles in their lives. I think he saw something very elemental at the core of childhood there.  That understanding shines through his work.

His work touches on many aspects of the every day lives of children. A bad, self-inflicted haircut is the reason for Baghead. Class elections in Max for President and dreams of rock stardom echo in the Punk Farm tales.  Lunchtime, the heart and hub of every school day (for better or worse) is acknowledged in the exploits of The Lunch Lady who defends the cafeteria, the school and the students in the graphic novel series.

In Annie Was Warned, Annie's birthday is on Halloween.  She tests her nerve and courage by going to a creepy, haunted? house, on a dare, on Halloween night.  On the book cover, Annie peers around a door.  Her eyes are wide. Her face registers apprehension and fear but she IS moving forward, shining her flashlight into the eyes of the reader, dazzling us with the light and her bravery. Krosoczka's artistic technique, composition, color palette evoke the eeriness of the night and solitude of the child in the book's paintings.  There is a fun and happily-ever-after to reward her courage. 

Halloween clearly inspires his storytelling.  Admire his pumpkins photos on his blog, The JJK Blog.  Each photo could be the jumping off point for a tale or two.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Sadness: Eva Ibbotson

It was with terrible sadness that I read the news that Eva Ibbotson died yesterday.

The Star of KazanI discovered Ibbotson as a new school librarian and wondered why I had not found her earlier. I inhaled her ghost stories including The Great Ghost Rescue, The Haunting of Granite Falls, and Dial-a-Ghost  which are wicked-funny as her displaced spirits do their best to survive in a modern world that really has no time for apparitions.   Her novels The Star of Kazan and Journey to the River Sea have a heart-felt charm and elegance that are timeless.

Dial-a-GhostMagic and fantasy overlay Island of the Aunts, The Secret of Platform 13 and Which Witch.  The pairing of her stories with the cover art by  Kevin Hawkes was an inspired choice.

Ellen Potter's The Kneebone Boy and Suzanne Selfors's novels  continue of the tradition of "magical whimsy" that Ibbotson did so well.

I never read an Ibbotson novel that I didn't love.The closest I've ever come, as an adult, to recreating that time of reading "unconscious delight" that I knew as a child was when I was reading her works.

Reading Ibbotson is like taking a vacation to a time and world apart. Luckily I have still not read them all. I have many more trips to look forward to.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Why do they do it?: Middle school/junior high parent angst

Phil Bildner's piece, "Texas: If You Can't Ban Books, Ban Authors" in Time, discusses the denouement of the Humble Independent School District Book Festival. He included some comments from me in his article.  Bildner raised an interesting question during our discussion: Why are there more of these types of challenges in middle school and can anything be done to help the situation?

The Houston Chronicle article,  "Are these books not for our kids?" by Maggie Galehouse, discusses the incidence of  book challenges and banning in Texas public schools. Using numbers from ACLU of Texas, Galehouse points out,    "Middle schools across Texas saw the most controversy, with 50 percent of banned books removed from their shelves or class reading lists."

Hopes and fears

As a parent who ran the junior high gauntlet with my own children, I have great empathy and sympathy for everyone trying to survive those years.

I believe parents initiate censorship attempts for a variety of reasons,  the least of which is the book itself.  Unfortunately, junior high school is where a perfect storm of worry, control, anger, frustration, guilt, difficult kids, sympathetic kids, academic struggles, a need for attention and more can come together to form book hysteria.

Middle school is the first time real academic and sports/fine arts competition kicks in. A child may not make the volleyball team, the honor choir, the football team or the pep squad.  Social and romantic situations intensify. Academic difficulty ramps up (7th grade math, remember?) while academic placement in junior high often foreshadows a child's peer group and courses in high school.

All of this puts real pressure on kids AND parents. I think some parental units channel their guilt, fears, frustrations, disappointments, and lack of control into book challenges. Their child may not have made Junior National Honor Society but they can be sheltered from more of life’s cruelties by challenging a book that may feature them.

I have observed that by the time the child enters high school, parents are dealing with new issues including college entrance exams, no pass-no play, extra-curricular activities, dances, driver's license terror and AP course work which take precedence, to some degree, over library book selection policies. A parent's brain can only handle so much at one time, I know.

The books on the library shelves

There is a world of difference between a sixth grader who still has one foot in elementary school and eighth graders who are straining for a glimpse of high school.  Kate Messner describes the challenges of providing books to that wide range of reading interests and emotional development that is middle school in her guest post at The Hate-Mongering Tart.  Read it.

Parents who appreciate the need for The Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle AND  Louis Sachar's Holes in an elementary school library, often adopt a one-size-fits-all outlook when it comes to junior high school libraries.  A book that is comfortable for a sixth grader does not necessarily meet the reading interests or needs of an eighth grader and vice a versa.

There are more choices for YA readers today than in their parents' tween and teen years. These parents are a nervous lot.   YA books that deal with sex, drug abuse, and teenage "attitude" can panic them into a belief that the presence of these behaviors in a novel will encourage their child to emulate the plot line in real life.  Personally, I always felt it would be beneficial to have my own children experience dangerous and complex life situations through literature in preparation for the the real thing.  In my experience, kids are VERY good at self editing.  They will close a book they are not ready for. 

Still, not every book fits every reader so if a parent feels their child should NOT read a certain title, that is their prerogative.  They cannot make that decision for another family

What can be done?

Everyone suffers in a book banning maelstrom. Book banners decry the motivations of librarians, teachers, schools and threaten authors with diminished book sales.  Name calling does not help anyone. Once that starts, the conversation ends. I would rather channel my energy into talking and educating. I may not be able to persuade the person with the problem but others are listening to the discussion.  When a challenge occurs, policies must be followed exactly and all parties, the administration and library staff must behave with scrupulous professionalism. The book deserves due process, so to speak.

The very best outcome would be for parents to read the books and then discuss them with their kids. Reading the whole book (not just out of context snippets)  helps develop everyone's critical thinking skills and provides context for the  story.  Books are great conversation starters for tough subjects in families. Literature is a safe way to experience what life might throw at them. Both parents and their children might be surprised to by the things they learn about themselves and each other.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Author: Scott Westerfeld

Westerfeld bravely shakes hands with one of his fans.
BookMoot was extremely lucky to visit a junior high school today where the estimable Scott Westerfeld spoke to more than one hundred students.

The group of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders were quiet and attentive as he described the history of illustration in novels. 
The illustrations in Leviathan and Behemoth hearken back to the heyday of the illustrated novel.  
Behemoth (Leviathan)His presentation was extremely well done and had some great laugh moments in the auditorium where he spoke. Regular readers of his blog may recognize some of the visuals.  Westerfeld describes illustrator, Keith Thompson's artwork as "“Victorian manga” style, part steampunk and part old-fashioned biotech." His images of war machines and characters grabbed the kids' attention today and they loved it. 

The absolute best part of any author visit for me is watching the kids, the fans. After the presentation was over, a small group ran forward to talk with him.  As they stood around him, listening and asking questions, I nudged a friend nearby and pointed at the group. "Look at their faces," I whispered.  Hmmm, which adjective to choose, "shining," "radiant," "amazed," "rapt"?  Several kids had stacks of his books filing their arms.  Later while he was signing, a boy asked him what had he wanted to be when grew up. "Rock star," Westerfeld threw out. I think he can tick that one off his "to do" list now.

So, if you, dear reader, are near any of the cities on his tour, hasten, run, sprint to your nearest walking tank or wheeled conveyance and attend.   I was so grateful that Blue Willow Bookshop and the school administration were able to make this happen for these students.  (Also, thank you  former student who took the picture of Scott and Dragon. I had to hover nearby in case of death or injury.)

For audobook fans:
The audiobooks are brilliantly read by Alan Cumming (yes, that guy that introduces Masterpiece Mystery on PBS.)  You must see Thompson's illustrations though.  Westerfeld says there are plans to do a "field guide" style volume of Thompson's reference and background illustrations of this world.


Saturday, October 09, 2010

Boots on the Ground

Observations and questions from a week in different junior high and elementary libraries.

Sign you are in a great junior high school library.
  • Post it notes with the release dates of new books stuck to the window above the librarian's computer!
  • ALL the books of a series are in the collection
  • Note left for librarian: Dear (librarian), you have a GREAT collection. You have every book I looked for in the OPAC!
    (wonders, does she read
At the desk and in the stacks

Student: "Do you have any more books by this author?" (Gail Carson Levine)

Me: Ooooh is that Fairest?
Student: "You've read it? It is sooooo... good!"
Us: (fan girl squeals)


"Can you help me find something to read?
I'd like it to be a book with other books that follow it."
Me: (frustrated grumbling) So many Book "1"s of series checked-out.
Student: "I don't want to start with Book 2"
Me: I don't like that either. How about finding an author to follow, even if they don't write series books?
Student: OK.
The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings (The Lord of the Rings Series, Part 3)____________________

"Is Return of the King checked out?"
Me: hmm...Yes.
Student: I'm reading Two Towers now. It is sort of hard to keep track of all the characters.
Me: I know. When I read the books for the first time (whispers) I skipped all the songs.
Student: "I'm skipping the songs TOO!"

Teacher@Library #1:  Do you know how to get pictures off a camera?

"Can you help me find some realistic fiction?"
Me: Is this for your genre dog tag?
Student: Yes.

Student: "Can you help me find some historical fiction?"
Me: Is this for your genre dog tag?
Student: Yes.

Student: "Can you help me find some fantasy books"
Me: Is this for your genre dog tag?
Student: Yes.

Note left for librarian:
Dear (librarian), some lessons on Genres might be a fun for your students.
Student:  "Where are the books on WWII?"
Student:  "Are we allowed to read the newspaper?"

Free Fall
"Is this a good book to read to a class?"
Me: "Well, that is by David Wiesner and there are no words in that one, the story is told in pictures. Is that ok? What grade?
Parent:  Oh, no, I want to read.  Third grade.
June 29, 1999
Me: This Wiesner is fun as a read-aloud.  June 29, 1999


Student: "When is the book fair?"

Student: "Where are the comic books?"

Me: "Holy cow, the Car Section is a wreck!"

Teacher@Library #2:  Do you know how to get pictures off a camera?

Friday, October 08, 2010

Childhood is the Prime Time for Picture Books

This is surely, one of the saddest articles I have read in a very long time. New York Times: Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children by Julie Bosman.

It must be in the air
I have encountered many people recently who, in a hushed voice but with great pride, have told me the age their children started reading. It has happened so frequently in the last few weeks that I have wondered if I have tumbled into some kind of Reading Readiness drinking game. Apparently the age for exceptional kids to start reading now, is three years of age, four years old if they are late bloomers, I guess.  When Bosman wrote that Amanda Gignac's "youngest son, Laurence, started reading chapter books when he was 4," I felt like I should hoist a tasty beverage to my lips.

For years I've had discussions with parents who have assured me that their little "Hortense" or "Horatio" must quit checking out picture books and move up to "chapter books" because picture books were just too doggone easy for them.  I changed the name of that section in my library from "Easy" to "Everybody" for just that reason.

Not so easy
Picture books are NOT easy books.  Limited (usually) to thirty two pages, only the best words and writing will do. The illustrator imagines and creates pictures and layouts and colors and textures that carry the story forward.  In the best picture books the illustrations and text work seamlessly together.  They offer a feast of ideas, art and story that engages the brain and the eye. 

The Language of DovesI have a very warm memory of handing Rosemary Wells's Language of the Doves along with a box of tissues to one worried but willing mother.  Greg Shed's warm illustrations glow with the love between a grandfather and his granddaughter in this story. Thirty two pages later, the mother was mopping tears off her face. " Not an easy book, is it?"  I asked her.

The Giant Golden Book of Elves and Fairies (A Golden Classic)Without experiencing the joy of picture books, a child's imagination may never learn to supply the mental pictures needed to carry them through those much vaunted chapter books. My most vivid memories of books from my childhood are of Garth Williiams's mermaids, elves and fairies, Leo Politi's swallows, and Eloise Wilkins's children and families.

Saint George and the Dragon 
 Trina Schart Hyman's fierce and elegant renderings of the legend of Saint George and the Dragon are probably responsible for the birth of another legend in my household.

What gives?
Is this trend away from picture books an economic thing, a bizarre equation of  Value = number of words per dollar spent?  Picture books are more expensive.  Are they too much for families who are weighing every penny during these hard times? Perhaps.

Stuart Little (Spanish-language version) (Spanish Edition)Are parents evaluating books by the number of pages now?  Why not just hand the six year old Atlas Shrugged then? That is a 1200 page value. Stuart Little for a 4 year old seems equally daft, to me.

Parents!  Picture books are read over and over and over and over and OVER again.   Value = time  x  #of re-reads  x enjoyment= Priceless

Is this some kind of parental competitive one-upmanship?  Why push kids in this part of childhood that begs to be enjoyed and savored?

Certainly we should offer new reading challenges but to exclude a child from picture books if they want to read them seems just plain foolish.  Our media saturated culture encourages passive, eyes-glazed-over reception.  Picture books train the eye to engage and discern.

My home is stuffed with books of all kinds and many, many shelves are filled with picture books.  My entlings are amazing readers and have never ever been labeled "reluctant."  I think "voracious" is a better description.

Technology has made this a golden era for beautiful books.
The discovery of literature through picture books during these years is a wondrous thing.  

Picture books are a gift to the intellect and imagination of every child.  Do not cheat them out of this experience.