Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Milton Meltzer, 94

"That damned Horn Book"--the first words Milton Meltzer ever said to me, upon our mutual introduction fifteen years ago. Meltzer was ever-watchful of how the review journals were treating nonfiction books, a crusade begun by him in our pages more than thirty years ago. We commemorate the passing, on September 19th, of this omnivorously curious and immensely prolific writer with a profile of him written by Wendy Saul upon the occasion of Meltzer receiving the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award in 2001.

Monday, September 28, 2009

See Baby Miles. See Baby Miles Read.

(I take it as a mark of long-delayed maturity that I now find holding a baby more rewarding than playing with a puppy.)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Two Scary Stories

Julianna Baggott (aka N.E. Bode) writes in the Boston Globe about a scared-silly principal, who apparently isn't down with her homonym.

And Jon Scieszka leads off the Library of Congress's Exquisite Corpse adventure. (Thanks to Leila for the tip.) I'm not sureI am down with the LC reading software but my eyes are old.

Friday, September 25, 2009

I agree with everybody

Pirate Pete asked my thoughts on the Almagor/Flake debate. I was unable to post while it was at its height and did not want to stomp in at the end, but I felt like they were both right, a situation made possible because they weren't talking about the same thing.

It's the same dilemma we see presented by the Coretta Scott King Awards. Why is there not more overlap between the CSK Awards and the Newbery and Caldecott? While some have speculated, evidence be damned, that the Newbery and Caldecott committees sometimes pass over books by African Americans because they figure the CSK committee will fill in the blanks, I think it is because the committees have radically different criteria for their choices.

Where the terms for both the Newbery and Caldecott specifically say that those awards "[are] not for didactic intent," here is the CSK explicitly endorsing didacticism: "Given to African American authors and illustrator for outstanding inspirational and educational contributions, the Coretta Scott King Book Award titles promote understanding and appreciation of the culture of all peoples and their contribution to the realization of the American dream of a pluralistic society."

The current dominant mode of children's-book evaluation at least nominally disdains "didacticism," by which it means preachiness or sermonizing. But the provision of explicitly uplifting messages (and, in picture books, the explicitly sermon-structured text) is a prevailing, if by no means absolute, characteristic of contemporary African American literature for young people. Whether this is because of the CSK criteria or whether the criteria and the literature spring from the same aesthetic, I don't know, but I think that the arguments on the Debating Black Books thread demonstrated more than anything an underlying disagreement of terms.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

You Probably Think This Word Is About You

Choire Sicha has an interesting point about the use of the word gay to mean lame.

Here, Kitty

On October 3, the Eric Carle Museum is sponsoring a panel discussion about the legacy of NYT children's book editor Eden Ross Lipson along with a display of books from an exhibition Eden had been planning for the museum, "The Silent Cat." While it is NOT true that the Caldecott Committee awards extra points for unexplained feline wanderings in illustrations, it is definitely one of the more offbeat but persistent tropes of the picture book. Mordicai Gerstein will be on hand to discuss and sign copies of his and Eden's new picture book Applesauce Season (in which a dog performs the cat role en travesti.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Friday, September 18, 2009

Debating Black Books

Due to popular demand, we're posting Lelac Almagor's And Stay Out of Trouble: Narratives for Black Urban Children from the September/October special issue on Trouble. And to further, er, trouble the waters, we have a response to the article from writer Sharon G. Flake. I'd be interested to hear any comments in the comments.

As previously mentioned, I am going to California to see our boys, their wives and the new grandson. Kitty and Lolly will be here to keep you all in line and I'll be back next week. Au reservoir!

[Update: Lelac Almagor responds]

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Get Your Factoids Straight

I've got the new Dan Brown (audiobook edition) for our flight this weekend to meet the grandchild. Can't wait for either! Child_lit has been discussing how books perceived as page turners (like The Hunger Games) don't get the respect they should, but I figure there's page-turners and then there's page-browsers--James Patterson, I'm looking at you.

What I think I like most about Dan Brown is the opportunity he gives me to go around correcting everyone's use of the term factoid to mean a small, arcane, interesting fact. But Brown uses factoids in precisely the way coiner Norman Mailer intended: small, interesting, but completely made-up bullshit designed to look as if it were true.

Friday, September 11, 2009


That is, What Would Miss Manners Do upon receipt of a blog tour "invitation" that opened "Pick a date in the month of November that you'd like to host us."

Hmm, let's see. "Gentle Reader: While Miss Manners was pleased to be in your thoughts she thinks you have your roles mixed up. It is the host who offers the invitation, not the guest. Miss Manners confesses she is quite agog with confusion over the prospect of a world in which a guest might phone one up and suggest dinner at one's domicile. She is further confounded by the notion that a host appreciates being offered a "menu of options" that the guest would find acceptable. Even if Miss Manners were running a restaurant--which she is not--she would settle upon the menu herself. She would also charge, which would rather change the position of the guest to that of a customer, no? But Miss Manners is as loathe to charge for her hospitality as she is likely to enjoy having you "stop by" on the "tour" you are proposing. Bon voyage!"

Thursday, September 10, 2009

"What do YOU do when your favorite author turns out to be a puppy-kicker?"

That's a great question, asked by an Anon on the Richard Peck post, and it's the third time in as many days that I've seen it pop up. First, poet Marilyn Nelson had a question over at her Facebook page: "how do we measure the value of the art made by an artist who is also a monster, who is known to have done monstrous things?" Then I saw at Judith Ridge's Misrule a discussion about A.S. Byatt's contention that writers for children have a greater than average propensity to be terrible parents, a hypothesis that neatly dovetails with the case, discussed on Marilyn's page, of Anne Sexton, a sometime-children's poet who sexually abused her daughter.

First, I don't think it takes a monster to do monstrous things--Anne Sexton was a deeply disturbed woman, not a monster--but I wonder what it might take to cause me to boycott an author, or to use an assessment of his or her life in qualitatively judging his or her work. One thing is for sure: "by their fruits ye shall know them" does not apply to writers!

Reading aloud and alone

Twitter is atwitter with responses to Richard Peck's remark in Notes that
"over and over [kids are]telling me that the books I wrote for them to read are being read to them by their teachers. And hearing a story read doesn’t seem to expand their vocabularies. If a teacher is going to take limited classroom time in reading aloud (and even giving away the ending), the least she could do is hand out a list of vocabulary from the reading to be looked up and learned."
While I think Peck was complaining about classrooms where kids' only exposure to trade books was hearing them read aloud, some teachers have articulated thoughtful responses, among them Monica Edinger and Sarah, who blogs at The Reading Zone.

I'm just grateful that Peck is still doing so well in his dual roles, as a novelist both respected by critics and enjoyed by kids, and a provocative voice in the shaping of young people's literature and its importance for readers. Thirty-five years ago, in American Libraries, he wrote one of the most cogent responses I've seen to Cormier's newly published The Chocolate War. And, with the Grandma Dowdel books, I'm loving his renaissance of books for younger readers--remember Blossom Culp?

Also, I predict that this Twitter tempest will seem but teacup-sized once the p.c. police get wind of Mrs. Dowdel's charade, in A Season of Gifts, with the bones of the alleged Indian princess. Pass the popcorn.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

New Notes, September edition

An interview with Richard Peck leads off the latest issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

September October Horn Book Magazine

The September/October special issue is out. Trouble is its theme and we've posted a few of its articles, including Betsy Hearne's topic-setting "Nobody Knows . . ." on the website. Take a look.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Can we grow the number of readers?

Zetta Elliott makes some great points re people of color in books and as authors.

Without in any way diminishing the very real problem of the white worldview of children's book publishing, I am struck by how often and widely charges of non-representation ("why aren't there more _____ in children's books?" "where are the books for ____ children?") are made of children's and YA literature. Books for and about boys. Books that show children in non-traditional families. Books that show children in traditional families, attending church. Middle-class black people. Girls who don't like pink.

The thinking goes that if there were more books about and for _____, more kids who are the same _____ would read. I wonder. Although I do believe that readers, at least in part, read for "the shock of recognition" Richard Peck talks about, I'm not sure that translates to wanting to read books "about people like me." It's more about being able to see yourself in circumstances unlike your own. To take the argument to its absurd conclusion, the belief that books should reflect their readers' circumstances means we could all give up reading and just look in the mirror.

But the concern here isn't so much with readers but with nonreaders. Do you remember the scandal of a few years ago with those Freakonomics guys, claiming that an enjoyment of reading was genetic? That kids didn't read because their parents read to them twenty minutes a day, they did so because their parents, as readers, were more likely to read to them twenty minutes a day? This is a little too mechanistic for me but I don't discount it completely. The pursuit of a more varied literary universe is an unalloyed wonderful thing--for readers. But I don't know that it will swell the ranks.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Would you trust these people with your kid?

Well, of course, not you, but I'm thinking that even parents who haven't cracked a book in years would think twice about sending their children to a pricey private school without any books in the library. They need to realize, at the least, that college admissions Deciders have a vested interest in validating their own expensive educations and are thus likely to look dimly at applicants who have been told they don't need books.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

It's Not How Long You Make It, Is It?

A tangential question that came up when we were discussing digital review copies made me pull out my calculator. How much longer are books getting?

I compared fiction for ages 12 and up reviewed in the Magazine in the September issues of 2009, 1999, 1989 and 1979 (October issue; we were on a different schedule then).

Average number of pages in books for teens reviewed in 1979: 151
1989: 157
1999: 233
2009: 337

Now, part of this is the current preponderance of fantasy, which has always tended to run longer--the longest book reviewed in the '79 issue was Robert Westall's (fabulous) Devil on the Road, at 245pp. But when I took fantasy and sf out of the 2009 sample, I still came up with 280 pp. average for realistic YA fiction, almost twice as long as it was thirty years ago.

The success of Harry Potter must take some of the heat for this; another factor could be that YA has gotten older: there is much more published for older high school students than there was even ten years ago. Plus, realistic YA seems more character-driven than it used to be in the old problem novel days, and while this has given the genre undeniable depths, it may also have encouraged a certain amount of yammering on. And people are also blaming the nexus of word-processing, larger lists, and smaller editorial staffs combining to mean less pruning. What else? I suppose we have to consider the possibility that the current crop of Horn Book editors and reviewers likes longer books, but surely you know us better than that.