Monday, February 24, 2014

Bad Things

The other day a girl, maybe in the 4th grade or so, came up to me and asked for help:

Girl:  "Can you help me find a series?"
Me:  "Sure.  Was there a certain series that you wanted, or do you just need help finding something new to read?"
Girl:  "It was a series where bad things happen..."
Me:  "Oh, I know what you're looking for!"

Instantly I knew exactly which series of books this girl was looking for, possibly because this particular series has a very soft place in my heart.  The books in question were Lemony Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events."  Each book in this series describes the trials and tribulations of the recently orphaned Baudelaire children and their efforts to remain out of the clutches of their evil uncle, Count Olaf.

Admittedly, bad things happen is lots of children's books.  This girl's vague description could have described any of a number of books or book series.  But instinct told me to look for Lemony Snicket, and of course my instincts proved correct.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Don't Discount YA Literature, Part II: The Dos and Don'ts of Criticism

Last week I talked about a certain amount of prejudice that seems to exist in the minds of many adult readers when it comes to books written for teens.  My complaint is that many adult readers of YA novels seem to either expect that the book will be flawed, or will readily excuse any flaws in the novel because of the target audience.

I will admit that not every YA book is a masterpiece.  There will be books out there that do have their problems, and it's perfectly acceptable for a reader to voice their criticisms of the novel.  However, we can very rarely can we chalk these flaws up simply to the book's target audience.  It is important instead for readers to really think about and be able to define exactly what a book's problem's are when reviewing, discussing, or otherwise critiquing a YA (or any other) novel.  This way they will not fall into the trap of immediately placing blame for a book's inadequacies on the perceived target audience.

Here are a few common critiques that I have seen made of YA books by adult readers.  I will be attempting to define what is or is not productive about such comments and, if needed, explore alternative ways to more concretely express dissatisfaction with a novel:

"This book had its problems, but it's a YA novel so I kind of expected it."
Should you be making this comment:  I hope not!  I'm very sorry if you've had bad experiences with YA novels in the past, but please do not assume that all YA novels are poorly written.  They're not.
Better ways to deal with this reaction:  Unfortunately, there might not be a better way of expressing this type of reaction.  But exactly why is it that you have such low expectations for this kind of book?  If you find yourself making this comment frequently then it might be time for you to try some different YA novels.  More on that to come in a future post.

"I was willing to let a few things go with this novel because it's a YA book."
Should you be making this comment:  NO!  It's perfectly fine if you decide to let a few minor flaws go with a book.  Readers of all kinds - myself included - do this all the time.  What is not okay with this kind of comment is the implied assumption that all YA novels will have problems or that it's somehow more acceptable for books written for teens to have these problems.
Better ways to deal with this reaction:  "This book wasn't perfect, but I was willing to let the flaws go.  Here are the flaws.  Also, here are the things that I did like that really made this book work for me."

"Ugh, teenagers are so annoying.  I hated the characters."
Should you be making this comment:  NO!  Teenagers as a whole should not grate on your nerves because no two teens - or teen characters in novels - are alike.  This sort of broad generalization is a bit unfair to an entire demographic of very real people and fictional characters.  It's fine if you didn't like the characters in one particular book.  That happens.  What's not okay is blindly assuming that all teen book characters are terrible.
Better ways to deal with this reaction:  "I did not care for the characters in this book.  Here's why."

"This book was nothing but teen angst."
Should you be making this comment:  Probably not.  Do you know what "angst" really is?  It basically means that the character has an emotional situation that needs dealing with that is causing him/her some sort of duress, and it not exclusive to teenagers.  Conflicts like this exist in books written for all ages, not just YA novels, and these sorts of concerns are necessary to drive the plot and create an interesting book.  As with anything else there will be situations where angst is over or poorly used, but if you really try to put yourself in the character's shoes you'll see that most of the time their concerns have real foundation.
Better ways to deal with this reaction:  Just be careful not to throw the word "angst" out there too readily.  It's an apt word in some cases, but the phrase "teen angst" has such a negative connotation that it should not be used lightly.  Try to understand the source of the "angst" before you critique it too harshly - a little understanding can make a situation seem more like "conflict" than "angst."

"I'm not a teenager, so I couldn't identify with the characters/plot/setting of this YA novel."
Should you be making this comment:  I hope not!  The vast majority of the conflicts and issues that teen characters are dealing with in YA novels actually apply to the adult world too - relationship woes, conflicts with family, dissatisfaction with the society we live in, trying to find one's place int he world, bullying, violence...the list goes on.  Admittedly, a teenage character lacks the life experience that, say, a 40-year-old adult has when dealing with some of these problems, so they might go about it differently.  This is an opportunity for the reader to really put on their empathy shoes and try to explore something that is unfamiliar.  This should be exciting, not alienating.
Better ways to deal with this reaction:  Before responding this way to a book, reflect on the situation that you had trouble identifying with.  Really flex those empathy muscles and make an honest effort to try to understand whatever it is that initially seems so foreign to you.  If you still feel alienated, then that's fine.  It'll happen.  But please keep an open mind and be open to discussion with someone who was better able to identify with the book.

The moral of the story:  Be thoughtful.  Be empathetic.  Be open minded.  If you've done all of these things and still find yourself unsatisfied with a book then that's fine.  You don't have to like everything.  But please make a sincere effort to try.

See also:  Don't Discount YA Literature

Friday, February 14, 2014

Heart Stamping

This week for storytime we got ready to celebrate a special holiday - Valentine's Day.  We read some of my favorite Valentine's Day stories (outlined in this post from a few years ago) and did a sweet rhyme together:

I Have a Little Heart

 I have a little heart, 
             (place hand over heart)
And it goes thump, thump, thump,
(pat chest three times)
It keeps right on beating,
when I jump, jump, jump
(jump three times)
I get a special feeling,
when I look at you.
(point to child)
It makes me want to give you,
A kiss or two.
             (blow kiss)

To finish off storytime, we did a special stamping craft.  I've seen the basic idea for this craft in several places online, but this is the blog post that I pinned to my Pinterest board and referenced as I was getting my supplies together.

For a few weeks before storytime I spent some time gathering toilet paper tubes.  Library staff brought some from home, and we also asked the library's cleaning staff to save any that they came across while cleaning our bathrooms, and we had a very good stock collected in only two weeks time.  Just as is described in the blog post linked to above, I flattened the tubes and shaped them into hearts, using a piece of tape to hold the curved pieces in place.  After storytime we gathered around our craft table and I set out the tubes and pans with four different colors of paint.  The kids could dip the heart-shaped tubes into the paint and use them as a stamp to make heart shapes on their paper.  

 The finished heart collages were all lovely, and the kids had a great time experimenting with the different colors of paint.  There was almost no mess with this project either - the kids were warned to be careful with the paint and adults were on hand to supervise, but I really think that most of the kids were so focused on the task of careful stamping that it never even occurred to them to try and make a mess.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Don't Discount YA Literature

One of my greatest pet peeves of all time is when an adult has read a Young Adult novel and makes a comment something to this effect:

"This book had its problems, but it was a YA book so I didn't mind."

Or alternatively:

"It's a YA book, so I expected this book to not be awesome."

I think that this attitude is a real problem.  It makes me sad that so many adults out there have lower expectations of books that are written and marketed for a teen audience than they do for book that are marketed for adults.  I can't even imagine what the cause of this prejudice might be.

Is it because at one point in the not-to-distant past a series of books about sparkly vampires (or who who knows what other topic) turned them off from the genre?  But it hardly seems fair to judge an entire body of literature based on a few bad experiences.  Do we discount novels written for adults because we once read a book that we didn't care for?  I don't think so.

Is it because people have lower expectations of teenagers, and therefore have lower expectations of books that are written and published with them in mind?  Let me answer that question with another question:  Have you spoken to a 14-year-old recently?  I have - it's my job, after all - and most teens that I've spoken to are able to define what they do and do not like about certain books.  Teens know what they want, and they know how to pick out the good books from the bad ones.  Teens, like their books, will certainly surprise you with what they are capable of doing an enjoying.  Besides, teens are very rarely the ones creating YA books; they are written and published by adults.  YA is not the market where B-list authors and publishers are banished to when they can't hack it in the adult market.  In fact, many authors will admit that they didn't quite realize that they had written a YA book until their publisher defined it as such.  These creators are incredibly talented people who work hard at their craft and who should be held to the same standards as the authors of adult materials.

Is it because when today's adults were teens, the market for YA books was vastly different than it is today?  Perhaps, but consider the realities of the changing publishing world.  Could you not find a good book to read at your library when you were a teenager?  Maybe not because when you were a teen the market for YA books was much, much smaller than it is today - perhaps even non-existent depending on your age - so it was less likely for there to be a book on the shelf that suited your particular tastes.  The market for YA books has grown vastly over the course of the past 15 years or so, and this means that the demand for quality material has also increased.  The creation of the Michael L. Printz award in 2000 also encouraged publishers to increase the quality of the YA books published, and they have certainly responded in kind.  Don't assume that because you were not happy with the available books during your teen days that today's readers will have a similar problem.

When it comes down to it, there are lots and lots of amazing books written for teens out there being published today.  Adults should take notice!  Don't feel guilty about picking up a novel with a YA sticker on it, because even though it's marketed for a younger audience it's probably awesome.

Admittedly, not every YA book is brilliant.  There are sub-par books out there.  But there are also lots of sub-par books out there written and marketed for an adult audience.  We really need to hold books written for both markets to the same standards and not make snap judgments about books written for teens because of whatever prejudices we may have.  Literature is literature no matter who the publisher's target audience might be.  Go out there and enjoy it.

I have more to say on this subject, but I think that I'll save these thoughts for another post.  Look for more soon!  In the meantime, check out this article, or this article, both of which also do a fantastic job of talking about the awesome YA lit that is out there and why adults should not automatically discount it.

See also:  DDYL, Part II: The Dos and Don'ts of Criticism

Friday, February 7, 2014

Divergent Trailer

Today I stumbled upon another trailer for the upcoming Divergent movie.  I was not thrilled with the first trailer, but this one is a lot more compelling:

What do you think?

Divergent will be released in theaters on March 21, 2014.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

New Design

Hello everyone,

If you're reading this, than I'm sure that you've noticed that I have changed the design of this blog a bit.  The layout is more or less the same for now, but the design and color scheme is quite different.  I'm hoping that this design is a little easier on the eyes.

I'm hoping to make a few other minor tweaks soon to this blog in terms of the layout and design.  We'll see if that plan actually comes to fruition, because this librarian has a lot of other projects on her plate at the moment.

Thanks again for reading!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Mystery Book: Animals at the Market?

A father came in with his young son, about age 3-4.  Dad was looking for a picture book that they had read and enjoyed together before, but could not remember the title or the author.  I agreed to play detective to help him find this mystery favorite.  Here's what Dad told me:

"This book was about 7 or 8 different animals - actually, that might have been part of the title.  These animals all went to the market together and the cow drank all the milk, the little dog ate up all the bones...things like that."

The father was also able to show me that he had originally found this book in one of our browsing bins.  He even specifically remembered that it must have been one of three particular bins because they were in the area where his son likes to play.  Since our browsing bins are intended to be sorted roughly by the author's name, this gave me the hint that the author of the book likely had a last name that feel within the C-G range.

None of these clues rang any particular bells with me, so I turned to my friend Novelist K-8.  I started out by using two keywords that I had pulled directly from the father's description of the book:  "animals," and "market."  Typing these two keywords into Novelist's very smart database came back with several hundred possible matches, but after inspecting the first few search results I was able to quickly uncover the book that we were searching for.

The book in question was Eight Animals on the Town by Susan Middleton Elya.  Just as this parent described, this book tells of eight animals who go into town to find some dinner.  They visit the market and each animal finds something good to eat, followed by dancing and the animals' drive home.  What really stands out about this book - and was, interestingly enough, not at all mentioned by this bilingual father - is the way that Spanish words are seamlessly incorporated into the story, both in the text and the illustrations.

Dad was thrilled that I was able to track down the book, and his son was excited to see this favorite story again.  Success!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

The trailer for the movie "The Fault in Our Stars," based on the widely popular book by John Green, was recently released to the public.

Despite the fact that I feel that this trailer really focuses its attention on the more uplifting/romantic aspects of the story, it still makes be cry every time I watch it.  Perhaps the raging pregnancy hormones have something to do with that.  Hard to say for sure given the content - the book made me sob too.

The film will appear in theaters on June 6, 2014.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

2014 Youth Media Awards

On Monday the American Library Association announced the winners of the 2014 Youth Media Awards.  These awards are given to the best of the best in children's literature in a variety of categories.  Today I'm going to focus on the two oldest and, arguably, most prestigious awards:  The Caldecott and Newbery Medals.  To see a full list of the awards and this year's winners, click here.

Caldecott Medal

The Caldecott Medal is awarded each year to, "the most distinguished American picture book for children."  This year the award goes to a lovely piece of picture book nonfiction:  Locomotive, written and illustrated by Brian Flocca.  This book will transport readers back to the sepia-toned days of the old West, when travel by train was new and exciting.  Plenty of details about trains and train travel are provided.  For example, did you know that back in 1869 toilets on the train were nothing but a hole in the floor?  Even the text of this book is rendered beautifully, with certain words printed in a special typeface with a scale and color that really makes the text move along with the train.  This book was graced with another awards, the Sibert honor, for its roles as a great work of nonfiction for children.  Nonfiction does not often win other awards, so Locomotive's receipt of the Caldecott Medal is especially notable.

Three Caldecott Honor books were also named:

  • Journey, written and illustrated by Aaron Becker
  • Flora and the Flamingo, written and illustrated by Molly Idle
  • Mr. Wuffles! written and illustrated by David Weisner

Newbery Medal

The Newbery Medal is awarded each year to, "the most outstanding contribution to children's literature."  This year the award goes to the book Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, written by past Newbery winner Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by K.G. Campbell.  This this unique novel, Flora is a cynical young girl who also happens to be a fan of the comic series Terrible Things Can Happen to You.  When her neighbor accidentally vacuums up an unsuspecting squirrel, Flora discovers that Ulysses has been born anew with powers worthy of the comics, including flight, super strength, and the ability to write poetry.  Flora takes Ulysses under her wing and with the help of her squirrel friend, her unusual yet kind-hearted neighbors, and her father, she learns to overcome her cynicism and once again feel hope and love.  This novel is written mostly in lovely prose, though periodic comic-style illustrations show readers the action from Ulysses' viewpoint.  This is a fantastic book for readers of all types.

Four Newbery Honor books were also named:
  • Doll Bones, by Holly Black
  • The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes
  • One Came Home by Amy Timberlake
  • Paperboy by Vince Vawter

My Thoughts
This was a good year for picture books, and I know that I had an especially hard time predicting who the winner of the Caldecott Medal would be.  Despite this deep pool of talent I am not at all surprised to see most of the books that were granted Caldecott Medals or Honors on this list!  I'd expected Aaron Becker's Journey (which is a wordless story reminiscent of the classic Harold and the Purple Crayon but with tons of lush detail) to take the shiny gold medal, but Locomotive's charm makes it easy to accept the committee's final listing.  David Weisner's Mr. Wuffles! is also a delight, and it's definitely my favorite book from this outstanding author in quite some time.  The only real surprise for me on this list comes in the form of Flora and the Flamingo, which though certainly charming took me by surprise when it was named an honor book.  Still, it's sure to be a hit with young girls everywhere.

There were actually very few truly stand-out children's novels this year in my mind, so I was thrilled to see that my favorites from the year were all graced with awards of some kind.  I'd really expected the Medal to go to either Doll Bones or The Year of Billy Miller, both of which I found to be outstanding books.  Looking back on it, I can definitely see how Flora and Ulysses's style and charm won over the committee.  Its elegant prose, whimsical characters, and even the comic illustrations all work well together and make this novel stand out from the pack.  Time and energy permitting, reviews for these three great books may be forthcoming on this blog.  Authors Amy Timberlake and Kevin Henkes are both Wisconsin-born authors, and it's nice to see my home state represented so well at this year's awards.  Paperboy, however, was not even on my radar.  I'll need to explore this one on my own to discover what exactly it was that made this book a winner during what I felt was a off year for children's novels.  

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Dancing Storytime

It's January in Wisconsin, and it's been - even for us - unseasonably cold, snowy, and miserable.  This means that everyone is getting a little restless, with just a touch a cabin fever.  The best solution?  A storytime where we can use our dancing shoes!

Here are the books we read:

Hilda Must Be Dancing by Karma Wilson, illustrated by Suzanne Watts
Hilda the hippo loves to dance:  Ballet, rumba, disco, you name it!  Unfortunately, Hilda is also a big animal and her favorite hobby isn't exactly quiet.  Her stomping and swaying is making a lot of noise and is disturbing the other animals.  They try their best to get Hilda to try a new hobby, but nothing works!  Finally, Hilda decides to try swimming and, fortunately for everyone, she discovers the joys of water ballet dancing.  This book has great rhyming text and I love Hilda's dancing costumes in the illustrations.

How Can You Dance? by Rick Walton, illustrated by Ana Lopez-Escriva
I have the kids stand as I read this book.  On each page there is a four-line rhyming poem asking the reader how they would dance if they were a certain object or animal.  After reading this rhyme I ask the kids to try dancing that way.  We probably only spend 10-20 seconds on each page and each type of dance, and the kids were all really good about keeping their own space and getting ready for the next set of instructions as we progressed through the book.

Tanka Tanka Skunk! by Steve Webb
This is a really great book when it comes to rhythm!  The book invites readers to clap along to the beat of the story and introduces readers to the basic concept of syllables.  I use this book as a great way of introducing parents to the concept of phonological awareness (we spend a minute talking about this concept before we even open the book) and I talk to them about all of the reasons why music is so great for young children.  I ask the kids and the parents to all clap along to the beat of the story, and they catch on pretty quickly!  We read most pages twice so that everyone can get a good feel for the beat each time.

Wiggle by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Scott Menchin
I like to keep Wiggle in my back pocket just in case I don't have the right audience for Tanka Tanka Skunk (I find that it works best if you have a few 4-year-olds help to lead the younger ones and/or some really awesome, cooperative parents who will actively play along), if everyone is really rambunctious and needs more moving-around time, or simply as a time-filler should we need an extra activity.  Like How Can You Dance? this book is a great one for getting kids on their feet and wiggling in different ways.

This storytime was all about moving and dancing, so we did a few other activities as well.  First, we did the Hokey Pokey!  This song is a bit of a classic, but even if the kids don't know how this dance goes they all catch on very quickly.  For some reason I also find that this song makes the grown-ups in the audience really excited.  I'm not sure exactly why, but I'll take it!

To conclude this storytime, I decided to try something a little different.  We had a dance party!  I put on some music, got out our fancy scarves, and invited the kids to stay in the storytime room and dance for as long as they wanted.  Once I showed the kids what they could do with the scarves they were pretty enthralled.  The CD that I chose to play was Disney's "Dancin' Tunes," which included such dance hits as "YMCA," "The Twist," "Shout," and plenty more, but just about any music would work for this activity.

I sincerely regret not getting video of the kids dancing!  It was too much fun.

Since this group of storytimers also generally expects some sort of craft, and because I figured that a few shy kids didn't want to dance, I also put out a coloring sheet and crayons.  Kids could float between coloring and dancing for as long as they wanted.

Cabin fever really must be in full force around here, because this storytime was a big hit!  Everyone had a good time, and there were a few kids who had to be pried away from the dance floor.