Monday, March 31, 2008

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Friday, March 28, 2008

Hard books

Having successfully evaded Middlemarch in college (I thought it was too hard), I am now reading it (via audiobook, with the Modern Library edition at hand) completely enraptured. It reminds me of another reason why children's book professionals need to read books for grownups:

Buyers of the Middlemarch newspapers found themselves in an anomalous position: during the agitation on the Catholic question many had given up the Pioneer--which had a motto from Charles James Fox and was in the van of progress--because it had taken Peel's side about the Papists, and had thus blotted its Liberalism with a toleration of Jesuitry and Baal; but they were ill-satisfied with the Trumpet, which--since its blasts against Rome, and in the general flaccidity of the public mind (nobody knowing who would support whom)--had become feeble in its blowing.

That's not only a long sentence, with a confluence of colon, semicolon and em-dash that even the Horn Book wouldn't let you get away with, it--I'm guessing--entails some aspects of English history about which I know nothing and care less. But I'm a confident enough reader to make peace with my ignorance and keep going, even while I remain defeated by Eliot's epigraphs: "Qui veut délasser hors de propos, lasse--Pascal."

Young readers are put in this position all the time, meeting words, sentence structures, and extra-textual references for the first time. It's salutary for those of us concerned with their reading to put ourselves in their shoes, a circumstance more likely to occur for us in reading books for adults. Hard books, the definition of which being completely self-determined. When we hit a patch of French in a novel, we--at least those of us not educated to the standard Eliot expected of her readers--can look it up or shine it on, but either way we're challenged by a text that doesn't give itself up easily. That choice comes more easily to the veteran reader than to the neophyte who's still underlining each word with a finger. Learning how to skip is just as important to reading as learning how to persevere.

But reading difficult books is not just a reminder of how hard it is to learn to read. The sentences in Middemarch are often enormous but also enormously dense--Eliot uses an awful lot of words but few seem extraneous. You really have to pay attention, especially with the audiobook--let your mind stray for a few seconds and you're lost. But the reward of such required concentration is absorption, a rare and welcome state in a clamoring world.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Many Mysteries of Children's Choices

Huh? seems to be the main question directed at the Children's Book Council's just-announced Children's Choice Book Awards, an Internet election for "Favorite Books," "Favorite Author," and "Favorite Illustrator." The five nominees, "compiled from a review of bestseller lists, including those prepared by BookScan, The New York Times and USA Today," for each of the latter two categories include the expected names (Rowling, Horowitz, Willems, Brett, etc.). But the "favorite books," with five nominees for each of three age categories are more surprising in that they include no books from any of the favorite authors or illustrators, nor, as Betsy Bird points out, any novels at all among the nominees for the Grades 5-6 category. Maybe the Horn Book really is an ivory tower, but I confess no more than a passing acquaintance with a dozen of the fifteen nominated titles, all 2007 books.

According to the CBC, these fifteen "finalists were determined by the IRA-CBC Children's Choices Program." Watch out for the passive voice, it bites you in the ass almost every time. The Children's Choices program has been around since 1975, enrolling children in schools around the country in a system of book discussion of several hundred books (nominated by their publishers) that results in a list of 100 titles each year. As far as I know, this list has no "top fifteen," so we don't know how these "finalists" were chosen. I suppose it could be that these books are the ones the Children's Choice children did like best, but their relative obscurity prompted the CBC to supplement those choices with ballots for the authors and illustrators who were unaccountably ignored. Ya got me.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Art on the wall

This is Lolly Robinson, Horn Book designer, posting at Roger's invitation. (Thanks, Rog.)

First a confession: My attention has been divided lately and I might have left my heart in Santa Barbara. Not romantically like Judy G., but I've been moonlighting on an exhibition that turned into one of those magical collaborative work experiences in which each person involved has improved the final results. Of course, I am also in love with the weather, the smell of the air, the plants, and the pace.

The exhibition in question, "Over Rainbows and Down Rabbit Holes: The Art of Children's Books" represents a sampling of Zora Charles's art collection. She and her husband Les are former teachers and perpetual book lovers, and the exhibit (at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art until June 15; moving to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art on November 11) spans 100 years of illustration but concentrates on picture book art of the past 50 years.

In my catalog essay, I got to hold forth on the problems of taking picture book art out of context, offering my PB101 mini-course about art and text working together, page design, sequence, pacing, and bookmaking. Of course, everyone won't actually BUY the catalog, or even read the essay if they do... For myself, I have come around to believing that showing this kind of art in a museum is not a sacrilege against picture books but can in fact open people's eyes to the quality and complexity of a seemingly-simple, well-crafted picture book. What do you think? Have I gone over to the dark side?

Rather than going on and on about the exhibition itself, I will leave you with a few photos.

Librarians and booksellers were out in force during the posh Saturday night opening.

The installation design by Scott Flax includes a circular reading area made of 6-foot hedge benches. The Seussian flower arrangements were just there for the opening.
Left to right: Les, Zora, Lolly, and Bruce Robertson (my partner in curatorial crime). The masks were made by SBMA's wonderful education department to instigate a hunt for animals found in the art.

Top photo: Lolly Robinson. Other photos courtesy of Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

Code Pink

Scanning the multitudes of new books throughout the office, I am struck--again--by the endurance of pink covers on light teen girl fiction. I know this is nothing new; what interests me is the fact that I wrote about this four years ago, and I'm surprised it still works--not the chicklit formula, which is eternal, but that pink remains the go-to color. When does this kind of genre marker stop signaling "Here I am! The kind of book you like!" and start saying "I've got your number"? Do girls who like this sort of thing appreciate the code, or do they roll their eyes and read despite it? There was a story in PW some years ago about two African American women in a bookstore laughing about the omnipresence of the word "Sister" in the titles of books marketed to black women, suggesting that the ploy had run its course. Will pink? Ever?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

I like timetables, too.

Marc Aronson and I have been talking about Boys Books a lot, and about how boys can be confounded by adult definitions of what constitutes worthwhile reading: usually it means a book, often it means fiction, and when it does include nonfiction, it had better look a lot like a novel.

But I am loving this:

Transit Maps of the World: The World's First Collection of Every Urban Train Map on Earth, by Mark Ovenden (Penguin). Unless you are a boy, you might not think that a collection of subway maps would make for such compulsive reading. It's a kind of reading that often gets dismissed as "browsing," because you don't start at the beginning and work your way patiently through, and because most of the text works as caption, not exposition: "Barcelona's current Metro map (4) is a successful hybrid. While it shows some topographic detail, it manages to retain all the attributes of a schematic." Yeah, baby, talk dirty! But what you're mostly interested in reading is the maps themselves. There are four of the Barcelona system, ranging from 1966 to the present, showing not only the growth of the system but the refinements in graphic design, creating and reflecting changes in how we look at abstract information. The current map is an organized glory of lines and colors and informative dots. Berlin gets fifteen maps, from 1910 to the present, including spooky ones from the 1960s that show the "ghost" stations of East Berlin that the West Berlin trains would shoot right by.

If I were a boy today, I don't know if a collection of subway maps would do it for me, but I bet that I would appreciate the way this book celebrates Facts, especially facts united by a theme but untied to any story save the one they allow me to tell myself.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

But I Play One on TV

Elissa told me that Parker Posey's character in the new Fox sitcom The Return of Jezebel James is a HarperCollins children's book editor. Any reports?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

I Think She Might Have Liked Mine More

Horn Book reviewer Christine Heppermann heard a Who at the cineplex this weekend. I saw Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park, which felt like a YA novel written by Robbe-Grillet, when in fact it was based on a YA novel written by Blake Nelson. It was good.

Monday, March 17, 2008

That's Why We Clap

Saturday night we went to see a semi-pro production of Puccini's Turandot in the dining hall of Lowell House, a Harvard College dorm that has been putting on operas since the 1920s. Turandot is pretty grand as these things go and the production didn't miniaturize anything--full orchestra, colorful (very "Oriental") sets and costumes, big voices in the big parts. The program, and a preshow announcer, politely admonished us to applaud only at the end of an act, a request (rather stuffy, but maybe they were worried about time) that the audience adhered to until Calaf's big third-act opening number, "Nessun Dorma." We all clapped madly.

It was practically Pavlovian. We clapped because it was a beautiful performance, but also because we knew the tune and loved it, and we knew other people knew the tune and loved it--group hug, anyone? "Nessun Dorma" is a high culture artifact that secured a place for itself outside the gates when it was kicked over the wall by Luciano Pavarotti at the 1990 World Cup. Now it shows up everywhere (fabulously by Aretha Franklin at the 1998 Grammys); it has nothing to do with Turandot; and you can get it as a ringtone.

Purists scorn but I love this. Opera buffs are like librarians or anybody in a community of shared aesthetic commitment (although Wayne Kostenbaum writes that putting two opera queens in the same room spells trouble). Everybody likes being an insider to something, whether it's opera or--I hoped I would get here--children's books. We saw that in spades here last week, when children's-book-lovers came together to rail at what they perceived was an attack by me on their affections. But it was also a very in-groupy fight on all sides, one amongst ourselves, the kind of debate that reinforces allegiance to the group because all sides agree that This Matters.

I don't think we adults who love children's books do so to be insidery (hmm, children's books or high fashion. Which will make me cooler?) but our shared love does give us an inside to be in. We like having a cultural vocabulary shared by a few, but we are also aware that the reason we're few is because children's books don't matter to most adults. This cognitive dissonance can cause both anxiety and a pleasant sense of superiority.

So we too like it when one of Ours is kicked over the wall, whether it's everybody reading Harry Potter or, my favorite example, a country song that can cite Charlotte's Web ("now I'm the one that's caught in . . .") and assume that listeners will know the reference. It reinforces our superiority (we knew Harry Potter before he was Harry Potter) and soothes our anxiety (if Charlotte's Web is part-of-everything then maybe I am too). Mostly it's just nice to have your affections confirmed, like when you convince a friend to like a book or a song you like. It makes you like it even more.

Friday, March 14, 2008

My favorite new reviewing word,

from Publishers Weekly's 3/3/08 review of Penny Vincenzi's (love her) An Absolute Scandal: "chickensian."

Bye, Bear

Betsy Bird says goodbye to the bear who has been her daily companion for lo these many years. I was glad to be able to pay my respects myself last week. Betsy was out sick when Richard and I were there, but we did get to have a nice chat with John Peters, taking a break from packing up all the stuff that is the Donnell Central Children's Room. He even showed us his collection of "wishing candles," an NYPL storytelling staple introduced (if I have this right) by Mary Gould Davis in the 1920s. I was taught in library school by Ellin Greene that one would give, say, a birthday child the privilege of snuffing the candle at the close of story hour, but John tells me that in these more egalitarian times, everybody gets to make a wish and blow the candle out.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Hard books and awards

Australian Sonya Harnett has won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, an honor that speaks to the discussion we're having about Nina Lindsay's comments about "shelf-sitters." Completely deserving of the many awards her writing has won, Hartnett is, however, no crowd-pleaser. While as a culture we are used to the fact that adult fiction with a small audience routinely beats out bestsellers at awards time, we don't seem to like it so much when something similarly "literary" for children competes for shelf space, attention and awards alongside books that have wider appeal. "No kid is going to read this" is something we have all said. That can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, of course, if the person who says it therefore decides not to review it or buy it for a library.

This is a situation as old as libraries but has become more prominent as a) libraries have become less elitist and more responsive to popular taste and b) book budgets have shrunk, making it more attractive to purchase something that will circulate twenty times rather than twice. It's hard to imagine it now, but there was a time when juvenile hardcover fiction was only found in libraries. Expectations were smaller, so were print runs, and thus smaller books had a chance. Is this still true? Could Sonya Hartnett thrive in America?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

I really don't have a horse in this one.

Interesting piece from The Guardian about the pending court case involving J. K. Rowling and the would-be publisher of a Harry Potter encyclopedia. What's intriguing to me is that both sides seem to have given statements that support the opposition!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Sunday, March 09, 2008

More on the Love That Won't Shut Up

I'm very interested in a comment Nina Lindsay made on the "oh, grow up" thread. Nina said, in part:

To take this in another direction...I'm someone who reads both adult and children's literature recreationally, but I do find often that my recreational response to children's literature gets in the way of my professional response. On a daily basis I have to actively separate my appreciation of a children's book from my critical brain. At the same time I find that my public library colleagues who don't read children's literature recreationally also tend not to choose to review it professionally...just because they don't really like to read it. This then puts a whole new layer on how I read reviews of children's literature; if I suspect that most reviewers are actually "fans," I have to suspect their evaluation of the audience for the book, and look actively for evidence in the review that they considered a REAL child audience. The evidence isn't always there. I'm probably guilty of neglecting it myself.

Nina is bringing up another part of the question I hadn't thought of: what's the difference between an adult reading a children's book recreationally and reading it professionally, and, crucially, what difference does that difference make? It's tricky, because children's librarians (and reviewers) are frequently reading recreationally and professionally at the same time--I'm reading Catherine Murdock's Princess Ben right now, for example, because I'm editing our review of it, but I'm also enjoying it enormously. But my enjoyment isn't really what Horn Book subscribers are invested in: they want to know if we think it is any good (we do) and if we think the young people they serve will like it. While I don't suspect that Princess Ben is going to be one of them, books beloved by librarians, reviewers and prize committees but disdained by kids are enough of a phenomenon to have earned their own name: shelf-sitters. Is this a danger of Loving Too Much? That while the reviewers are lovers of children's books, they are still reading as adults, and their enthusiasms are grown-up ones. Nina, is this at all what you were getting at?

I'd also like someday to see an exploration of the difference between "fans" of children's literature and "readers" of children's literature but I'll leave that for someone else's purgatory.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Off till next week

Thank you all for the great discussion about adults and children reading. Richard and I are going to New York today to see Elizabeth and other assorted friends and two shows: the revival of Sunday in the Park with George, which was the first show I ever saw on Broadway, and Come Back, Little Sheba starring my favorite cop, Lieutenant Anita Van Buren.

For the Limoliner trip down and back I have the new Denise Mina, Natsuo Kirino's Grotesque, and, on Miss Pod, Ha Jin's A Free Life. Should be a sweet ride.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

It's Not Easy . . .

. . . to make fun of a satirist but by gum these geniuses have done it.

Notes from the Horn Book . . .

debuted today. You can sign up for your free subscription here. It's designed as an outreach (as we used to say in the '70s) effort to parents, teachers, and others, so pass the details along to anyone who might not wander these particular climes.

And Claire has prepared a new recommended reading list of survival stories. Grrrr.

Yet another G-word

I received an email yesterday from a librarian who hated our reviews because she thought they had too much plot summary, but she was really pissed that we "almost always give away the ending."

Her first point is debatable--how much is too much?--but her second is demonstrably false while containing a truth: sometimes, we do give away the ending. As I explained in my response to her, Horn Book reviews are not written for the same people for whom the books we review are intended. The reviews are for grownups; the books are for kids. Sometimes the grownup wants to know if the dog dies.

There's a bigger, probably incendiary, question raised by this particular exchange. How do we feel about grownups who read children's books as if they weren't? That is, people who peruse the Horn Book like another person reads the Times Book Review, looking for a new book to read? As annoying as adults who dismiss children's books as unworthy of attention can be, I also feel my jaw clench when a fellow adult tells me that he or she prefers children's books to adult books because they have better writing or values or stories. This is just sentimental ignorance.

I'm reminded of the ruckus in SLJ some years back when a library school professor wrote that l.s. students like to take children's literature classes because the reading is so easy, "like eating popcorn." You can imagine the heated response, but I think she had a point. While noting the exceptions of James Patterson on the one hand and William Mayne on the other, children's books tend to be easier and thus potentially "fun" for adults in a way they tend not to be for children, an incongruence librarians need to remember, not dissolve. Whatever whoever chooses to read is their business, of course, but adults whose taste in recreational reading ends with the YA novel need to grow up.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

I Blame America

For yet another made-up memoir. As a culture we've become convinced that only real stories are true stories, or do I have that the wrong way around?

Tangentially, does anyone else think it's hilarious that the book tour for an addiction memoir is sponsored by Starbucks?

Monday, March 03, 2008

March/April 08 Horn Book

The new issue of the Horn Book is out; online articles include Lolly Robinson's guide to alphabet books and Madelyn Travis's profile of Michael Rosen (the British one), including a gorgeous poem of his about reading:

. . . Some of these things
you may have never seen before.
But now you know them.
Some are as familiar to you as potatoes.
But these potatoes are different.

There's much more in the print edition, including a fascinating oral-history portrait of Ursula Nordstom compiled by Leonard S. Marcus from interviews he did with Nordstrom's writers and colleagues. As a companion (although she would probably sniff to see what company we're putting her in), we've resurrected the equally legendary Edna Albertson and the rejection letters that made generations of authors shake in their shoes. Save yourself from Edna's scorn and read all the web extras.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Paper or Plastic?

Claire has a new list of concept books up for your edification.