In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Brown Girl Dreaming: my Newbery hope

Dear Annie,

I sell a lovely little board book, called
My Face Book
, with photographs of babies' faces, one to a page.  There are several books like that, but what I particularly like about this one is that the faces are majority non-white.  It's one of those happy baby books.  I showed it to a customer the other day (Caucasian) who was looking for a book of faces for a baby gift.  Thanks, she said, but this one is “too diverse,” and she added a sentence I've heard more times than you'd expect over the years: "I want him to see faces that look like him."  One can point out that a 3 month-old has no idea what he looks like, or that they’re all human babies, or that the bunnies in Goodnight Moon don't look like him either, but it won't change anything.
I bring this up to say that there's a section of the white buying public -- no matter what their political beliefs may be -- who aren't comfortable mixing books about children of color with their own children.  It's a minority, but I'm frequently reminded that it's there.  When kids get up to the chapter book age, it's really noticeable: it's hard to sell novels about African Americans to some white parents.

A year ago, when I was selecting yet-to-be-published books to carry in our store, 
Brown Girl Dreaming
by Jacqueline Woodson was one of the offerings from Penguin.  My sometimes cynical self, I confess, heaved a sigh.  It’s a memoir written in poetry – poetry! not a big seller either – focusing on an African American girl growing up in South Carolina and New York in the 1960s and 70s.  I was skeptical about being able to sell it.  But when I got around to reading it, I knew I had to try: it’s an amazing book.

We won't have a girl named Jack, my mother said.

And my father's sisters whispered,
A boy named Jack was bad enough.
But only so my mother could hear.
Name a girl Jack, my father said,
and she can't help but 
grow up strong.
Raise her right, my father said,
and she'll make that name her own.

Name a girl Jack
and people will look at her twice, my father said. 

For no good reason but to ask if her parents
were crazy, my mother said.
So how was I going to sell the book?  A review in the New York Times raved about the universal nature of the story: how it would resonate with any girl growing up.  “The title seems to confine the book in too narrow a box,” wrote the reviewer.  “Will girls who aren’t brown know, without prompting, that they too are invited to the party?”

Because we have a right, my grandfather tells us –
we are sitting at his feet and the story tonight is

why people are marching all over the South –

to walk and sit and dream wherever we want.

First they brought us here.
Then we worked for free.  Then it was 1863,
and we were supposed to be free but we weren’t.

And that’s why people are so mad.

The reality of a black family’s life in the South during the civil rights movement is here.  There are sit-ins and marches, back-of-the-bus moments, anger, pride, a school burned.  To dismiss the title and sell it as an Everygirl memoir denies who Woodson is. She is a brown girl, first in the South, then in Brooklyn.  The book shows us a loving and very religious family, a marriage that has ended, joy in nature, friendship, and how it feels to discover the amazing power of words. The poetry, the language, is what plaits all the elements together. 
How amazing these words are that slowly come to me.
How wonderfully on and on they go.

Will the words end, I ask
whenever I remember to.

Nope, my sister says, all of five years old now,
and promising me

 Brown Girl Dreaming was released at the end of August, and despite my enthusiasm, sold not as well in the store as I’d hoped, but not horrendously either.  I wrote a blurb that tried to say how much the book encompassed, and even listed page numbers of four poems which would give a browser a sense of the many elements of the book. Then in November, it won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. 

The awards ceremony had a horrifying incident in which Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), MC of the event and a friend of Woodson’s, commented as she left the podium, “Jackie’s allergic to watermelon.  Just let that sink in your mind.”  Woodson wrote an incredibly eloquent response in the New York Times.  

That Handler remark – of a white man flamingly uncomfortable with the blackness of a friend and colleague – brings me back to the rejection of the baby book.  Would Handler shop for a board book with not too much diversity?

The National Book Award had many happier outcomes also.  My pile of Brown Girl Dreaming started to sell a lot faster: that gold circle on the cover said “read me” better than I had been able to.  It's on the bestseller list now.  But the National Book Award for children is an odd duck: it doesn’t guarantee that a book will stay in the public eye over the years.

The award which makes a massive difference in kids’ literature, of course, is the Newbery Medal, which will be announced this coming Monday, February 2.  The last time a book with an African American protagonist won the prize was 2000, my first year selling books.  Before that, one has to go back to the years of Woodson’s childhood: the 1970s. 

So I am hoping – and we know my record on Newbery predictions is abysmal – that Brown Girl Dreaming will pick up another gold circle for its cover on Monday, and that it will enter the canon of classics which all kids will be reading for decades to come.  I’ll be tuning in for the webcast,at 9 a.m.




Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Multicultural Children's Book Day!

Dear Aunt Debbie,

A couple of months ago, in response to reader requests for books to help make their kids' school book fairs more diverse, I posted about a couple of organizations dedicated to increasing kidlit diversity.

I was so taken by the work being done by the folks at Multicultural Children's Book Day that I signed up to be an MCCBD blogger, and to link today's post to their website along with a host of other excellent bloggers. The co-creators of the event are Mia Wenjen from Pragmatic Mom and Valarie Budyar from Jump Into a Book. I've listed their sponsors at the end of this post.

Here's their mission statement:

Despite census data that shows 37% of the US population consists of people of color, only 10% of children’s books published have diversity content. Using the Multicultural Children’s Book Day, Mia and Valarie are on a mission to change all of that. Their mission is to not only raise awareness for the kid’s books that celebrate diversity, but to get more of these types of books into classrooms and libraries. Another goal of this exciting event is create a compilation of books and favorite reads that will provide not only a new reading list for the winter, but also a way to expose brilliant books to families, teachers, and libraries.

The MCCBD team hopes to spread the word and raise awareness about the importance of diversity in children’s literature. Our young readers need to see themselves within the pages of a book and experience other cultures, languages, traditions and religions within the pages of a book. We encourage readers, parents, teachers, caregivers and librarians to follow along the fun book reviews, author visits, event details, a multicultural children’s book linky and via our hashtag (#ReadYourWorld) on Twitter and other social media.

After I signed up to be an official reviewer, the publisher Lee & Low Books sent me the recent YA novel Drift, by M.K. Hutchins. (Their website is another nice place to look for a variety of children's books celebrating diversity.)

Drift is an interesting read. It's set in a fantasy world based on the Mayan legend that described the world as perched on the back of a giant turtle, floating on a watery underworld. Hutchins takes this idea farther: in her universe, people live on multiple turtles, which swim around, feed on coral reefs, and sometimes go to war with and conquer each other. Each turtle/floating island home has a huge life-giving tree in its center. The roots of this tree are constantly being attacked by nagas: semi-human monsters with vicious teeth, who kill people in the water. You don't really want to go swimming.

Because a turtle is slowed down by having more people to carry, being married and having children is seen as a major negative. The top echelon of society are the Handlers (male) and the Tenders (female), who live in and protect the tree. They remain celibate, but come out to settle disputes among the artisans (also celibate) and the farming class (they're the ones who have kids, ew).

Our hero and narrator is a boy named Tenjat, who escaped with his sister from their previous turtle-island after something (Tenjat doesn't know what) forced them to leave. They left their father and younger brother on the island, and their mother sacrificed herself to the nagas so their raft could reach the new shore. Over the course of the novel, Tenjat passes the test to become a Handler, and begins to learn about the inner workings of the tree and the secrets in his past -- just as the turtle and tree are threatened! The story culminates with a satisfying explanation of how this world fits into the world we know -- thought-provoking stuff, especially for a 12-14 year old.

The world Hutchins creates is a fascinating one, and multicultural in that it's based in Mayan legend, and there are a few descriptions that imply everyone in the book has brown skin. I was struck, however, by the restrictive gender roles throughout. Boys and men have one set of roles, girls and women another, and all interactions between them are loaded with the threat that women might seduce men into becoming "hubs" (husbands), a terrible fate.

Hutchins sets up her two main female characters as exceptions to the rule: they're two of the most powerful people in the book. Eflet, Tenjat's sister, turns out to be a Seer; it is her powers that have put the family in danger. Avi, Tenjat's Handler trainer and love interest, is the only female Handler, and has both Handler and Tender gifts. Tenjat, it turns out, has Tender gifts as well as Handler ones, so there's a little gender-bending there.

But ultimately, Eflet, Avi, and Tenjat play into gender stereotype. There aren't any male-female friendships unaffected by romance. Eflet is oddly secretive, revealing almost nothing to Tenjat about their shared past. Even when all is revealed by the end of the book, her sphere remains domestic and child-bearing, and you get the feeling Tenjat still doesn't understand her mysterious femaleness. Avi is kicked out of the tree, and while she has saved Tenjat's life several times, they start a new life together in a place where he has experience and knowledge, but she has none.

The fact that I was prompted to think so much about this, to trouble it deeply, speaks to the staying power of the world of the novel, and the imagery in it. Still, it's a book I'd want to discuss with my daughters if they read it on their own. (Eleanor, age almost-8 but with a crazy high reading level, tried picking it up, but deemed it "too scary." Maybe later.)

For now, I'm thrilled to have another set of lists where I can look for titles for all three of my children, and for the classrooms and book fairs I'll be involved in in the future.

Love, Annie

MCCBD’s  2015 Sponsors include Platinum Sponsors: Wisdom Tales Press, Daybreak Press Global BookshopGold Sponsors:  Satya House,,   Author Stephen Hodges and the Magic PoofSilver SponsorsJunior Library Guild,  Capstone PublishingLee and Low Books,  The Omnibus PublishingBronze Sponsors:Double Dutch DollsBliss Group BooksSnuggle with Picture Books Publishing,  Rainbow Books,   Author FeliciaCapers,  Chronicle Books   Muslim Writers Publishing ,East West Discovery Press.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Game-players, large and small

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Your list of early chapter books to help a fairly new reader ramp up step by step is inspiring -- thank you for this one! I have a feeling that Isabel, as she begins to do more independent reading, may follow this trajectory as well.

With the new year came new teacher consulting work for me, and the last couple of weeks have found me scrambling to keep on top of everything. Apologies for the brief hiatus.

While my blogging has paused, reading in our house continues unabated, and since Christmas we've been helped monumentally by your excellent finds for all three kids. Today I thought I'd highlight three, all playful reads, all new to me, which have become immediate favorites.

For Eleanor, in the middle-grade range: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library, by Chris Grabenstein. This is a book for book-lovers, game-players, and decoders, which makes it an excellent fit. Twelve 12-year-olds are invited to the grand opening of a huge, state-of-the-art library designed by eccentric game-making genius Luigi Lemoncello. They're locked in for an overnight party, and the next morning discover that the game will go on: anyone who chooses to stay has 24 hours to find their way out, using clues and puzzles hidden around the library.

Our hero is a video and board game-playing whiz named Kyle Keeley, who starts out less interested in books than some of the other players involved. He's a good guy, and teams up with three of the other players: Akimi, Miguel, and Sierra (sneaking in some ethnic diversity in the supporting characters, there). On the flipside, our antihero Charles Chiltington is a spoiled, rich kid who will stop at nothing to win. He teams up with a cheerleader who's smarter than she looks, and a whiny kid.

The book is packed with references to other books -- mostly children's literature, but some adult novels and stories as well. If you think this all sounds a little like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, well, that comparison is made directly by the characters involved. There's fun in the identification of famous quotes and titles, but you don't need wildly extensive book knowledge to appreciate the story. Grabenstein includes a few small puzzles that a reader can try to work out as well. Eleanor whipped through the book in less than a day, and has declared it's one of the books she wants to use as a project choice for her 2nd grade reading portfolio. I'm reading it now (slower than my daughter), and enjoying it very much.

Isabel, the girl who only wants to read books with pictures, is now in love with The Book With No Pictures, by B.J. Novak. (Yes, that B.J. Novak -- writer and director of The Office fame.)

It's a meta-book, the kind that declares up front that it's a book, and then plays with the concept -- much like our old favorites Press Here and We Are in a Book! Novak's conceit is that he's writing to convince kids that books without pictures can be fun. He starts out:

This is a book with 
no pictures.

It might seem like no 
fun to have someone 
read you a book with 
no pictures.

It probably seems 


Here is how books work:

Everything the words
say, the person reading
the book has to say.

No matter what.

The book goes on to make the reader say all kinds of nonsense words, with little side comments ("Wait -- what? That doesn't even mean anything"). With the right adult reading the book aloud -- it begs for over-acting -- the kid listening gets the experience of making the reader look and sound ridiculous. Isabel's favorite page reads: "My only friend in the whole wide world is a hippo named BOO BOO BUTT."

There are visuals -- changes in font, font size, and font color to liven things up. But at heart, the book is an exploration of the effect words can have -- pretty thrilling for a five-year-old.

Back in the land of picture books that do have pictures, Will is crazy about A Visit to Dr. Duck, by our beloved Rosemary Wells. It looks like it's being marketed as a Don't be afraid of going to the doctor book, which it sort of is, but the joy in this little board book is in Wells's lovely quirky use of language, and her utterly appealing animal drawings.

It begins: 

At bedtime Felix ate too many chocolate blimpies and stayed up way too late.

Felix's mama tries sugared prunes ("You'll feel perkier with the prunes") and sending Felix outside to play ("Fresh air will give you a boost.") When none of this works, she takes him to see Dr. Duck, a squat little guy who stands on his desk to greet them while Felix hides under the back of his mama's coat (Will finds this very funny). Dr. Duck lets Felix's mama stay in the room for the examination, then gives him "two spoonfuls of Happy Tummy" and sends him home. Felix sleeps, and feels like himself again. The book ends with a page of "Dr. Duck's Tips for Staying Perky" (eat fruits and vegetables, get good sleep, play outside, etc.) Will loves it so much, he has me read all the advice every time.

Thank you again for this bounty. More soon!

Love, Annie

Monday, January 5, 2015

Early chapter books, step by step

Dear Annie,

Happy New Year!

We're starting 2015 with an Emerging Reader, as we say in the biz.  Your pal (and guest blogger) Cyd's daughter Ellie is working her way into independent reading step by step:

We went from Learn to Read type books (Henry and Mudge, Pinkalicious, Fancy Nancy) to Mercy Watson and then to Stephanie Greene's Princess Posey series (perfect next step: chapter books but with large print, short chapters, and easy vocabulary, but high-interest level for a first grader, as they are about a first-grader) and now we've just started Julie Sternberg's
Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie
, which is also perfect: very short chapters, slightly harder vocabulary (but only slightly), written almost like verse so not much text on a page.... I need something at either the same level or just above.  She gets overwhelmed by too many words on a page and too much vocabulary she doesn't know and then gives up, so taking it up notch by notch is very important.

I've grabbed a handful of books -- all from different series -- which I would talk with Cyd and Ellie about if they came to the store.  I'm not sure where Ellie's interests lie, but here's an assortment to consider, more or less in order of difficulty.

-- The Cam Jansen series by David Adler, now up to #33.  Cam is a fifth grader with a photographic memory.  She needs only to say "click," and she memorizes a perfect image of what she's looking at.  Very useful in solving a string of mysteries with her friend Eric.  The mysteries maintain interest, and  action.  Pictures on almost every page, with occasional lapses.  Here's a two-page spread from the first book:

-- I know I rail against Magic Tree House books, but this is the situation they were invented for.  They're great for kids who are getting their confidence reading on their own.  Think of these books, with repetitive plots and structure, as aerobics for the reading muscles.  The reader doesn't need to figure out who the characters are every time she opens a book, she knows more or less what to expect, yet has some variety from story to story.  She can keep exercising those muscles until they're strong enough to realize they're a bit bored, and ready for something more challenging.

-- Cyd mentions that Ellie's progressed beyond the Fancy Nancy readers.  Jane O'Connor has also put her character into a chapter book mystery series: the first is
Nancy Clancy Super Sleuth
.  The mysteries are tame, the emoting is high.  As with all Fancy Nancy books, these come with a Lesson to be Learned.  In this book, it has to do with her parents trying to convince her that everything isn't a huge deal to worry about.

-- Sometimes I feel the entire publishing industry is pushing Books About Girls, and Books About Boys, with not a lot in between. But hey, you may find the perfect book if you cross the line. 
Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot
, by Captain Underpants author Dav Pilkey, combines slick illustrations, a little bit of graphic novel, simple text and a sense of humor.  Ricky is a mouse who befriends a giant robot.  They have adventures that involve some cartoon physical combat and villains from many planets.  They're an easier read than Captain Underpants.

-- Moving to slightly harder, the Geronimo Stilton series is wildly popular.  It's translated from the Italian, about a newspaper editor mouse who has many many adventures.  The series has spawned several spinoff series as well.  Part of the attraction of the books is the playful use of typeface:

-- The same author has started a lovely mystery series called Agatha, Girl of Mystery, under another pseudonym, Sir Steve Stevenson.  It's a little harder read.  Agatha goes to a different country in each book (eight so far), and the mystery usually involves a missing object.

-- Has Ellie read Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown yet?  A classic: Stanley wakes up one morning and he's flat.  Flat enough to be a kite, to be mailed to California, and to solve a museum theft by hanging on a wall.

Three which you've probably hit as read-alouds are worth considering for reading alone:

-- The wonderful Anna Hibiscus.  Good stories, lots of pictures, just good.

-- The Ramona books.  Ellie's probably not quite there yet, but her familiarity with them might make them feel a bit less intimidating.

-- Lulu and the Brontosaurus comes in a nice oblong shape with illustrations on every two-page spread.  And it has that excellent repeating chant:  "I'm gonna, I'm gonna, I'm gonna, gonna get/A bronto-bronto-bronto Brontosaurus for a pet."

I've saved one of my favorites for last.  In the great sea of early chapter books, many of which are just great for this stage of getting used to reading, lovely writing is not always there.  Enter
Violet Mackerel
by Anna Branford, a relatively recent arrival from Australia. It has large type, fewer words per page, but a more sophisticated vocabulary than others with this typeface. Violet lives with her single mom (romance shows up as the series progresses) and has real-life feelings and mild adventures.  I love to sell this book: I just open it up and show the customer the first page:
Chapter One: The Red Button
Violet Mackerel is quite a small girl, but she has a theory.
  Her theory is that when you are having a very important and brilliant idea, what generally happens is that you find something small and special on the ground.  So whenever you spy a sequin, or a stray bead, or a bit of ribbon, or a button, you should always pick it up and try very hard to remember what you were thinking about at the precise moment when you spied it, and then think about that thing a lot more.  That is Violet's theory, which she calls the Theory of Finding Small Things.

Here's hoping Ellie will find many more books -- small and large -- to keep her happily reading.