Month: March 2014

Libraries, Library Cards and Kids Books

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As the youngest of four children I had a couple years one-on-one with my mom before hitting kindergarten. We spent lots of time with books, and afternoons in the Clayton branch of the St. Louis County Library involved me, cross-legged on a thickly varnished wood floor, working my way down a seemingly endless bottom-shelf of picture books. My mom handed down a love of libraries and of literature, and pretty much everywhere I’ve lived since then — even briefly — I’ve gotten a library card.

During the SCBWI 2014 Annual Winter Conference in February I wandered over to the New York Public Library to check out the exhibit, The ABC’s of it: Why Children’s Books Matter (curated by Leonard Marcus and up just until this Sunday, March 23, 2014).

This survey exhibit, drawing on the NYPL’s collections, touches briefly on the relationship between the creation of Children’s Rooms in libraries and the growth of the children’s book publishing industry in the United States in the early twentieth century. Despite my repeat affairs with libraries and my parallel love of children’s literature, it is not a piece of history that I know much about.

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Trolling for more information, I found an article by Jill Lepore — lately in the public eye because of her new Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin — which offers a glimpse into the period at the turn of the lst century when Children’s Libraries came to be in the United States. Published in the July 21, 2008 issue of The New Yorker and titled “The Lion and the Mouse“, the piece examines the stir between Anne Carroll Moore, the first Superintendent of the NYPL’s Department of Work with Children, and writer E.B. White — around the publication of White’s first book for children, Stuart Little.

(Though the NYPL show mentioned White’s ever-popular Charlotte’s Web, and also Anne Carroll Moore, I didn’t notice anything on Stuart Little or the scuffle between the two.

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The conflict and the book — which Lapore’s read as “an indictment both of the childishness of children’s literature and the juvenalization of American culture” — would have been a complicated addition to the exhibit in any case!)

“The Lion and the Mouse” provided a nice introduction to this piece of history.

Curator Leonard Marcus is also author/biographer/historian Leonard Marcus. I loved his biography of Margaret Wise Brown, Awakened by the Moon. And I have lately been meandering through another book he edited: Dear Genius, a collection of the letters of Ursula Norstrom, the legendary director of Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to the mid 1970’s. Nordstrom’s epistles — full of force and character — are a great window onto of an exciting era in children’s book publishing.

On my quest I came across another of Marcus’s books which I haven’t read: Minders of Make Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs and the Shaping of American Children’s Literature. This one is a historical survey of Children’s Literature on these soils from colonial times forward. I’m hoping that Minders of Make Believe gives a fuller picture of the co-development of children’s libraries and the beginnings of the modern children’s book publishing industry; a quick review of the contents suggests it will. In any case, I’ve now got a HOLD on it at The Free Library of Philadelphia.

People of Color in Children’s Books

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The cover of this past Sunday’s New York Times ‘Sunday Review’ section asks “Where are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” Under this heading, a beautiful pair of opinion pieces — one by author Walter Dean Myers and one by his author/illustrator son, Christopher Myers — take up the question of why it is important to challenge what the younger Myers calls “The Apartheid of literature — in which characters of color are limited to the townships of occasional historical books that concern themselves with the legacies of civil rights and slavery but are never given a pass card to traverse the lands of adventure, curiosity, imagination or personal growth…”.

Walter Dean Myers calls himself “something of a landscape artist.”  Throughout his career he has strived to create landscapes and worlds that offer inner-city youth an opportunity for “… recognition of themselves in the story, a validation of their existence as human beings, an acknowlegement of their value by someone who understands who they are… the shock of recognition at its highest level.” He did not experience this sort of recognition as a young child. Reading James Baldwin’s story, “Sonny’s Blues”, as a teen was a pivotal moment.”I didn’ t love the story, but I was lifted by it” he says “for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew.”

Christopher builds on his father’s ideas with the notion that children relate to books “less as mirrors and more as maps.” Children “…create, through the stories they’re given, an atlas of their world, of their relationships to others, of their possible destinations….. Children of color remain outside the boundaires of imagination. The cartography we create with this literature is flawed.”

The younger Myers also addresses ‘The Market’ and is critical of how its “demands” are used as an excuse and rationalization for the dearth of children’s books about black people.

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The Myers’ editorials brought to mind exhibits that ran in Philadelphia over this past summer (2013) on Ezra Jack Keats and Jerry Pinkney. Both author/illustrators have devoted their lives and work to tipping the scales back in the other direction, portraying African American children and lives. The exhibits have moved on but, fortunately, good portions of each can be found on line.

Witness: The Art of Jerry Pinkney ran at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Organized by the Normal Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA, it is currently at the African American Museum of Dallas, March 7-May 31, 2014.) Pinkney, a Philadelphia native who grew up in the city’s historic Germantown section, is the patriarch, now, of a family full of great contributors to the world of children’s literature. The PMA exhibit, being at an art museum, focussed on his illustrations — with a cozy library installed near the entrance loaded with Pinkney books for the set that didn’t abide by the ‘please don’t touch’ mandate of a major art museum.

A smaller, companion exhibit at the Parkway Central Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Drawing on the Reverse Side: The Art and Life of Jerry Pinkney, traced Pinkney’s life from early childhood through college here in Philadelphia: a story of firsts and of pushing through obstacles thrown up by racism. Being the work of the wonderful but chronically-underfunded Free Library of Philadelphia, I couldn’t find much on line about this show, save for a couple of reviews. One in Publishers Weekly, “Move over Rocky: Philadelphia Celebrates Hometown Hero Jerry Pinkney”, gives a nice overview of the interplay of the two exhibits. The book accompanying the PMA exhibit — Witness: The Art of Jerry Pinkney — provides good biographical background too.

At the same time, The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats ran at the National Museum of American Jewish History. (Organized by the Jewish Museum on New York City, it is opening at the Skirball Cultural Center in LA on April 10, 2014.) The bulk of the exhibit’s content is on its website. To contextualize The Snowy Day‘s publication and the arrival of Keats’ Peter — an African American boy — in the world of children’s literature, one section of the exhibit examined how African Americans had been represented in American picture books prior. This bit of history also provided good context for Pinkney’s life and work.

Keats and Pinkney have each created numerous books that mirrored the landscapes of African American children and offered new maps, working to create “cartographies that have no blind spots” in the world of children’s literature. The lives and work of both stand out, with hope, against the statistics and stories cited in the Myers’ editorials; their lived stories — and the life stories of Walter Dean and Christopher Myers — are good maps for the next generations of children’s book writers and illustrators to take up this struggle.

WRITING FOR YOUNG CHILDREN, by Claudia Lewis (1954/1981)

Claudia Lewis’s Writing for Young Children was the first book I ever read on the subject, and it remains one of my favorites to this day, having become something of a touchstone for me.

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Lewis doesn’t describe how to write for the market, or how to get published, or how to create a great story arc. She doesn’t offer tips on writing a query letter, or inside information about this or that publishing house, or an account of her own route to publication. Not that these things don’t matter. Lewis’s book, though, is about the poetry and pleasure of language.

She writes about children — about their “language of sensory perception” and their own spontaneous poetry. She argues that “…children know how they feel, inside and out, from their toenails to their teeth, while we grown-ups — and would-be writers at that — have long since lost contact with our physical selves.” She goes on, “Whenever the writer can seize upon a phrase of living speech; whenever he can make us feel the hot sun on our backs, or dampness against the skin, or light and dark around us… children will listen, and will return to listen again… Primarily [children] want what we all want when we open a book — words that can work a little magic, a language strong enough to hold emotion.”(from the Introduction)

Lewis believes in poetry and in a strength in language that is rooted in full physical experience of the world — a sort of experience that she sees as the domain of childhood. She doesn’t suggest that adult writers imitate children’s usage, so much as try to understand it, learn from it, and take note. The text is peppered with great observations and examples, and while Lewis’s argument for strong and evocative language is not an unfamiliar one, her anchoring of it in the lives, words and experienes of children is less typical.

Whenever I return to the book I find myself drawn most to the Introduction and the first three chapters: I. The Language of Sensory Perception, II. Rhythm, III. Sound. The remaining three — IV. Form,  V. Content, and VI. Some Common Pitfalls — feel more dated and less elemental.

Claudia Louise Lewis (1907-2001) was both an educator and a writer, and was a true Progressive. Born in Oregon, she studied first at Reed College, then at Bank Street in New York, then the University of Minnesota and, finally at Columbia Teachers College — where she earned her PhD in 1959. She taught at progressive schools in the New York area for years, and from 1938-1941 founded, directed and taught at a nursery school at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee — a nexus of labor and civil rights activism in the south during the mid-twentieth century. Later in her life, on the faculty at Bank Street College, she taught children’s literature courses and courses on writing for children.

Lewis’s own published writing ran the gamut from children’s books to textbooks to poetry collections — with poetry viewed as her strength (Bank Street College annually awards the ‘Claudia Lewis Award’ to the best children’s poetry book of the year). Few of her books have remained current, though.

Writing for Young Children draws from Lewis’s lifetime of experience working with children: paying close attention as great teachers do, and always listening. Her basic idea of knowing a young audience in such a direct and immediate way seems somehow eternally relevant. As does her urging that we, as writers, fill our own language with the sort of poetry that emerges so effortlessly and spontaneously in young children’s words.

(The book was originally published in 1954, and a revised edition came out in 1981. Finding a copy probably requires a library visit or, alternatively, a trip to Biblio.)

Becoming an Independent Reader with a Pod of Dolphins

My ancestors, down one side, came to Beaverwyck (now Albany, NY) as fur traders from Holland — which was all the excuse my husband and I needed to troll through a list of Dutch names before the birth of our second child. We chose the name “Adrie” for our daughter, because we liked the way the name rolled around in our mouths. In Dutch “Adrie” means “of the Adriatic” or, by extension, “of the sea.”

Adrie (now 8) is a child who has always known her mind: her likes, her dislikes, her desires. As if by prophecy, at 5 she discovered the sea. She had experienced it before in all its pounding, salty, rollicking power, but when her kindergarten class began studying the ocean she came home chattering non-stop about the daylight zone, the twilight zone and the midnight zone, and the denizens of each. She recounted the habits of fish we had never heard of, and she bandied about terms like “symbiotic relationship”, “bioluminescence” and “echolocation”. She was fascinated, too, with whales and the words that describe their surfacing beahviors: breaching, spyhopping, logging, lobtailing. The mystery and wonder of the sea — and its language — took an immediate and firm grip on her imagination.

Adrie has zero interest in mermaids and she won’t eat fish. A twiggy kid with no body fat, she is always cold in the water, and the only way I’ve gotten her to learn to swim is by buying her neoprene and dangling before her the lure of one day snorkeling and scuba diving. In first grade she led a cadre of her buddies in a collaborative writing and illustrating endeavor to create a 42-page book called “The umazing crechrs of the Sea”. The book is loaded with drawings of invented sea animals, witty speech-bubble dialogue, and wonderful, first-graderly, invented spelling.

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Her growth as an independent reader has tracked right along with her interest in the sea and, especially, dolphins and whales. As she was just beginning to regularly read aloud on my lap, I stumbled upon a book from Harper & Row’s fantastic old “Science I CAN READ Book” series: Red Tag Comes Back (by Fred Phleger, ill. Arnold Lobel, 1961). The book beautifully follows the lifecycle of a single salmon.

We ended up reading every book from the series that we could find — mostly published in the 1960s and 1970’s. The series’ books are  in a genre that I would call “illustrated narrative non-fiction”, and they were a boon to a child so entranced with science and the natural world. The stories, language and illustrations are straightforward and direct, very much a product of the era when they were written and completely on-target for an emergent reader. Other of the titles that fed her sea-love were:  Fish Out of School (by Evelyn Shaw, ill. Ralph Carpenter, 1970), Seahorse (by Robert A. Morris, ill. Arnold Lobel, 1972), Dolphin (by Robert A. Morris, ill. Memoru Funai, 1975) and Catch a Whale by the Tail (by Edward Ricciuti, ill. Geoffrey Moss, 1969).

Together, we also worked our way through the non-fiction section of our Free Library branch devoted to the ocean, coral reefs, dolphins and whales. We checked out biographies of Jacques Cousteau, Sylvia Earle and Rachel Carson. She especially enjoyed two new-ish narrative non-fiction picture books: Winter’s Tail (Craig, Juliana & Isabella Hatkoff, Scholastic, 2009) and The Eye of the Whale (Jennifer O’Connell, Tilbury House Publishers, 2013). At some point we also read aloud George Selden’s much-loved and tragically out-of-print Oscar Lobster’s Fair Exchange.

As she began to brave chapter books at school, her fantastic teachers — who have been with her for both first and second grades and know her well — gave her A Dolphin Named Bob, by Twig C. George (ill. Christine Herman Merrill). Adrie thoroughly enjoyed this fictional account of a mischevious aquarium-dwelling dolphin. Then a couple of weeks ago, while waiting for a few titles from the library that seem to be in the same adventure-dolphin-story vein (Wayne Grover’s books Dolphin Adventure,  Dolphin Treasure and Dolphin Freedom, and Ann McGovern’s Little Whale and Shark Lady: True Adventures of Eugenie Clark) we began taking turns reading Karen Hesse’s The Music of Dolphins aloud to one another.

Hesse’s narrator, Mila, was raised by dolphins from the time she was 4 years old. Captured, she becomes the subject of scientific study. Mila’s narration varies in complexity as she acclimates to and struggles with the human world: early chapters are printed in large, bold, choppy text with simple vocabulary. As Mila’s mastery in her new world grows, the font size shrinks, her vocabulary expands, and her language grows increasingly complex.

Hesse’s technique is effective in conveying Mila’s transformation and challenges — and it had the side-benefit of cultivating confidence as Adrie increasingly worked through this longer chapter book. I read the introductory sections to her, then she began reading the large-print sections to me. When the text shrank, she adjusted without being bothered. And by the end of the book she only let me read the small-print italicized format that Hesse used when Mila was back with her dolphin family. The Music of Dolphins proved to be a perfect transition piece for a child ready to move into reading more complex chapter books independently.

Then last week at bedtime Adrie and I began reading an even longer chapter book together — Gill Lewis’s One White Dolphin. After two nights, though, Adrie cut me loose: I was holding her back and she couldn’t wait. Between the bus ride to school, classroom reading time, and down time at home, she finished the book in a matter of days. And over the course of those days she repeatedly called out, annoyed, to the rest  of our family “can you please stop talking? I’m reading!”

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Last weekend, as a belated 8th birthday present, we drove from Philadelphia down to Baltimore to visit the National Aquarium. The timing of the trip somehow felt, accidentally, like a sort of culminating celebration. We spent our first two hours there in the Dolphin Discovery exhibit, where Adrie and her 10 year old sister, Mira, watched the animals circle and studied each dolphin’s markings and distinct fin and fluke shape — the better to know who was who. They chatted with trainers April and Ashley like old pros, full of thoughtful questions and observations.

At one point Adrie got sad about how boring the tanks must be for the dolphins. I pointed out the irony of it being because of those boring, sad tanks that we were able to watch the dolphins at all and she returned, “Mom, its sort of sweet and sour, being here.” She meant “bittersweet” — which is a concept that entered her lexicon years ago through one of our family’s favorite ever picture books, The Sea Serpent and Me (by Dashka Slater, ill. Catia Chien, HMH Books For Young Readers, 2008). It was an apt moment for the reference: Slater’s story about growing up and letting go is one for parents as much as for children. It follows a girl as she cares for and raises a foundling sea serpent, and then reckons with the fact that it is time to set it free in the great, wide sea.

Watching Adrie move through all these ocean and dolphin books and develop a love of reading, I remain in awe of her focus and the depth of her knowledge and interest. And I am so thankful that, as she flies through this period of intense learning and growth, there are good titles at every stage for her to stretch and grow with. (Somewhere down the line I’m guessing  she will have to read Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins which, as I recall, does not have any active dolphin characters — despite its titular marine mammal.). And somewhere down the line her interest in dolphins and their kin will probably wane (or maybe not). In any case, these creatures — and all the great authors who have chosen to write about them — have been fantastic partners as she has grown to be an independent reader and a great lover of books.