Thursday, April 30, 2009

Poor Lois

I don't envy Lois Lowry her BoB choice between Kingdom on the Waves and The Hunger Games. According to SLJ's poll, public opinion is hardly divided: ol' Octavian has eleven votes while Katnip has 157 and is the top vote getter by far in the pool of sixteen.

I'd go with Kingdom (to short-title a short title), but then I got used to the Roger-Hates-Kids meme back when I was SLJ's YA columnist and let slip that I thought library-sponsored YA kissing contests were stupid. Be strong, Lois!

Is that a hobbit in my pocket?

Mainly because I could, last night I downloaded the Lord of the Rings to my Baby-Touch-Me iPod. Fourteen bucks from Amazon's Kindle store, not bad.

I'm all for ebooks and read them a lot, but I wonder if the format will encourage the kind of devotion to a text that my friends and I had for the Tolkien books in high school and college. I went through three paperback editions: the Baynes covers (I had a poster based on those, see left), the Tolkien watercolors (pale but evocative) and the Brothers Hildebrandt (fanboy embarrassing). The Baynes were for a boxed set ($3.00!) and in every case, having the books meant as much as reading the books. Digital culture will obviously create its own items of nostalgia (like that damned Myst music) but how will plain text fare?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A belated secret message

To the person who mailed us an anonymous submission in response to my query for suggestions for changes to the Horn Book Magazine: while we could, if warranted, publish an article by an Anonymous, we would need to verify who you are before doing so. But I do thank you for the very helpful thoughts.

Anyone else?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Presto, change-o

Collecting Children's Books has had a couple of interesting posts about books such as They Were Strong and Good and The Rooster Crows, which have been bowdlerized to reflect changing standards of "appropriateness" in regard to depictions of nonwhite characters. Those are two among several if not many; Mary Poppins, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Dr. Doolittle are some of the others. What I hadn't realized until Peter pointed it out was that changes like these are sometimes made without any acknowledgment of the fact within the new edition; kind of Orwellian, yes?

Many years ago I was on YALSA's (then YASD) Intellectual Freedom committee, and we had a bit of a tussle with Scholastic, which was asking authors to make "word changes" (read: remove obscenities) from their books before Scholastic would reprint them for its lucrative book clubs. Two things were at issue: Scholastic did not want to acknowledge, in the paperbacks, that changes had been made, and, in the cases of books that had been named to the Best Books for Young Adults List, the publisher wanted to be allowed to say that the expurgated editions were BBYA winners. No and no, although we only really had the power to enforce the second.

To me, the weirdest part of Scholastic's argument was that since it was the author making the change, an affected book was still a BBYA choice. And some committee members bought this argument, as well as buying into Scholastic's emotional blackmail that we were "punishing the authors" by disallowing the BBYA designation. Well, tough: why would we want to reward authors for caving to commercial pressure? The money would have to be enough.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Don't forget!

X hits the spot

Reviewer X has a good discussion going on blog reviewing. I confess I'm dying to try Twitter if only to see just WHO is:

comparing their "hit lists" for authors they plan to ask for ARCs, trading e-mail addresses and results, complaining about whether they're getting an ARC, and actually encouraging each other to send nasty mail to authors they "know" have ARCs, and just won't give them to them. As if they're entitled! (And YES, I have the transcripts. I was appalled.)

I don't do book reviewing here, so I hesitate to join the discussion. Oh, not really. I'm surprised to find out that some book-bloggers request ARCs from authors. Way tacky. But then, it must work often enough if it's being debated as a practice. The forum also has me wondering about just what effect YA book-blogging was having on sales and readership: if the audience for review blogs is mainly other review blogs, and if they are all scrambling for ARCs, do any books get sold as a result? And: Are these bloggers largely adults reading for their own enjoyment and essentially simply swapping recommendations (and tips on how to score free books) among themselves? But then I saw that the very smart X was fifteen and the world brightened a little.

Whither YA?

Josie has a post up about adults buying young adult books for their own pleasure, citing The Book Thief, Hunger Games and the Stephenie Meyer books as particular favorites among customers at The Flying Pig. I was musing about this topic the other day with the YA class over at Simmons, as we asked the question "what makes a book YA?" The students had read Stephen Chbosky's Perks of Being a Wallflower for the session, and it's a book that rather famously was denied consideration for the Printz Award because it had not been published specifically as a YA book. (Reading it again for this class revealed to me that it has not exactly held up well, either.) When I look at books like Madapple, The Book Thief, Octavian Nothing, Tender Morsels--basically, literary YA fiction--I wonder what the gains and losses were in publishing them as YA. These are all books that undeniably have a YA audience, but without an adult audience as well they would be unviable. But had they been published as adult, would they have an audience at all?

In the end, and assuming we will see a shrinkage of publishers' lists due both to economics and in the way people parcel out their attention to the various recreational media, I wonder if YA books (the high-schoolish ones, anyway) will become subsumed again into general trade fiction, reaching a dual audience without laying claim to either one in particular.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A conspiracy theory of reviewing

Editorial Anonymous has, for writers, some good news and some good news about children's books reviews. The good news, she (?) says, is that good reviews can help sell books. And the other good news is that bad reviews won't hurt selling books.

I have a more nuanced opinion. More and more children's books are review-proof: good or bad, reviews won't make much difference to series franchises, celebrity books, brand-name authors or merchandise. All of those depend on marketing and saturation. Where reviews matter is in public libraries and schools (which themselves serve as a staging post for wider readership).

Good reviews do still matter to this institutional market, and bad reviews (or no reviews) have both a primary and secondary effect. Middling or worse reviews for an author without a built-in audience mean that not only will librarians be more likely to give the book a miss, but its publisher will be less inclined to fork out more money for advertising and promotion. As the legendary Mimi Kayden said, "one or two stars won't do it anymore."

And lets not forget the ALA awards, which consistently provide a bigger boost to sales than any other award out there, save perhaps the Bluebonnet. If The Graveyard Book had been published to indifferent reviews, it would most likely have not won the Newbery Medal. Not because the award committee members are slaves to reviews (although I have seen reviews used to kill a book's chances), but because the members and the reviewers are the same people. Sometimes literally, but more pervasively in the way they imbibe the same historical tradition and, however shifting, "standards." While the Newbery Medal only gilds the success of Gaiman's book, it was essential to the shelf-life of, say, The Higher Power of Lucky (although maybe that's not the best example of my point, as the book got respectful but not overwhelmingly enthusiastic reviews prior to the award).

Certainly, reviews mattered more when most juvenile hardcover was destined for the institutional markets. But certain books still need success there (if only there, often) to allow the author the go-ahead to publish the next one.

Monday, April 20, 2009

I didn't see this coming.

Round 2 of the BoB has begun, with Tim Wynne Jones choosing Kingdom on the Waves over Trouble Begins at Eight. The judges do not have all appeared to get my memo: in this round it was supposed to be Kingdom v. Graveyard Book, Chains v. Tender Morsels, Frankie Landau-Banks v. Hunger Games and Graceling v. Nation.

Everybody except jester-under-the-table Jonathan Hunt is being soooo polite. This makes the competition look a lot less random than it actually is. Think about it: the winner will be chosen via a sequence of fifteen decisions that operate under no common principle, leading in the end to a choice that means nothing. (Go, Lois.) While I'm enjoying the judges' explanations, we each employed criteria exclusive to us and to the two books we were comparing. The winning book will be one that four people liked better, for different reasons, than one other book. A few commenters here and elsewhere have sniped that the BoB is really "all about the judges." As far as I can tell, it's not really about anything else.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A few things

I think I neglected to tell you that the new Notes from the Horn Book is out. So, Notes is out! You know, we started Notes as a more parent- and consumer-friendly alternative to the Magazine, so tell your friends, family and patrons about it. Special deal this week: free.

I was sad to hear that Judy Krug, ALA's longtime boss-lady for intellectual freedom, has died. She was quite a force, an irresistible one to be sure, with that unbeatable combination of an iron will and tons of charisma. Years ago I interviewed for a job with her and was completely intimidated.

I'll be in Ohio for the next couple of days for the Media Source board meeting, where I have to do my first Power Point presentation. Just two slides, thank goodness. Has anyone read Edward Tufte's broadside against the medium? Here's an appropriately formatted outline of his points.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Reading Fun with Goofus and Gallant

Okay, handed an easy walk, I politely stepped around the bases, shaking hands with each player as I made my way home.

Goofus, on the other hand . . . .

Saturday, April 11, 2009


Do we think that the Somalian pirate drama is going to dampen the enthusiasm for "fun" pirates in children's books? Or for--oh Lord, please--National Talk Like a Pirate Day?

Elizabeth thinks not. We just talked and she opined that the pirate thing had already run its course anyway. But there was a sturdy tradition of jolly pirates in children's books before the current craze, all more or less dependent on the assumption that pirates were far enough removed from a reading child's reality to be practically folklore. Will the current situation, terrible but absorbing and updated in real time, put Captain Abdul (already unfortunately named) out of business?

Thursday, April 09, 2009

No chance against Dick

My weeding and re-shelving project has uncovered another gem, Fredric Wertham's 1954 Seduction of the Innocent, a jeremiad about the corrupting influence of comic books:

"Sometimes Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and "Dick" Grayson. Bruce Wayne is described as a "socialite" and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce's ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown. As they sit by the fireplace the young boy sometimes worries about his partner: 'Something's wrong with Bruce. He hasn't been himself these past few days.' It's like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.

. . . In these stories there are practically no decent, attractive, successful women. A typical female character is the Catwoman, who is vicious and uses a whip. The atmosphere is homosexual and anti-feminine. If the girl is good-looking she is undoubtedly the villainess. If she is after Bruce Wayne, she will have no chance against Dick."

In other news, water is wet.

Feeling Funny?

Claire has a new list of surefire chucklebait (try to say that with a straight face. See?) up for her April mini-booklist. If someone were to ask me right now what children's book made me laugh the most I would have to say Hilary McKay's The Exiles. What about you?

I felt like The Wicked Child

at the Seder last night, but, being a good goyische guest, I kept my smarty-pants moyl shut when someone talked about the inspiring "true" story about the quilts that mapped the way to the North for enslaved African Americans before the Civil War. It's a nice idea but, "Escaping tonight? Oh, let me sew you a map!" Please.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

More weeding wisdom

From Work with Children in Public Libraries by Effie L. Power (ALA, 1943):

"Nationality and race influence mode and type of reading and therefore library selection. Jewish boys and girls are inclined to read serious books on mature subjects, and Italian children who live most naturally out-of-doors under sunny skies read reluctantly but enjoy picture books, poetry, and fairy tales. German American children make wide use of books on handicrafts which Jewish children largely ignore and from which Italian children choose few except those related to arts, such as wood carving, metal designing, and painting. The Czech children read history and biography. Probably the greatest readers of fiction are found among native American children."

I do like this:

"Girls, like boys, are seeking life, but in a different way. They need some so-called boys' books with moving plots and an adventurous hero to take them out of themselves and to keep them from becoming too introspective; for the opposite reason boys need some of the so-called girls' books, for their suggestions of self-analysis and wholesome sentiment."

The most arcane thing I've found thus far is a small LP from 1963 called "A Message from Lois Lenski: The Making of a Picture Book." Who's got a record player?

What did your 1970s look like?

I'm weeding the Horn Book's collection of professional, scholarly, and other adult books about children's literature, and damned if I didn't find a strange little trend. Along with the many out-of-date bibliographies and childhood reading memoirs by the foremothers (don't worry, I'm keeping those) are lots of coffee table books devoted to the work of Rackham, Nielsen and Dulac, all published in the 70's and designed with the same disco-deco look of this here Bette Midler record. You used to see these books on remainder tables in bookstores all over; if anyone is feeling nostalgic just come and grab 'em from the discards shelves outside my office.

May/June stars

The following books will receive starred reviews in the May/June issue of The Horn Book Magazine:

Not All Animals Are Blue (Kane/Miller) written and illustrated by BĂ©atrice Boutignon

Tacky Goes to Camp (Houghton) written by Helen Lester, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger

Bubble Trouble (Clarion) written by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Polly Dunbar

Hook (Porter/Roaring Brook) written and illustrated by Ed Young

A Voice of Her Own: Becoming Emily Dickinson (HarperTeen) by Barbara Dana

The Carbon Diaries 2015 (Holiday) by Saci Lloyd

Hannah’s Winter (Kane/Miller) by Kierin Meehan

Heart of a Shepherd (Random) by Rosanne Parry

The Uninvited (Candlewick) by Tim Wynne-Jones

Button Up!: Wrinkled Rhymes (Harcourt) written by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Petra Mathers

Redwoods (Porter/Roaring Brook) by Jason Chin

Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 (Jackson/Atheneum) by Brian Floca

The Rights of the Reader (Candlewick) written by Daniel Pennac, illustrated by Quentin Blake, translated from the French by Sarah Adams

Monday, April 06, 2009

Bring Pack Back!

Another duckling disappears.

Back from TLA,

and man, I do love those Texas librarians (notable exceptions aside). Forthright and friendly in nature, enthusiastic and smart about books. Although our booth was down by the clothing and jewelry department (which I'll never understand: "What, this? Just a little thing I picked up at the librarians' convention.") I was kept plenty busy, but had nothing like the success of our sales rep Katrina Elmer, completely fabulous at getting people to stop at our booth and then roping them in for a subscription or two. We weren't even giving away candy. Also had a lively dinner with Randy and Andrew (aka my bosses) from Media Source along with Viki Ash, Betty Carter, Katie Turner and Dick Abrahamson, great Texas book people all. Next week takes me to Ohio for a board meeting, soon followed by a trip to Chicago for the Sutherland Lecture, again there for ALA (thank goodness it remains my favorite city) and there's a grandchild arriving in California soon, too. Phew.