Archive for May, 2014

So I’m still thinking about last week’s #kidlitchat because it’s an interesting exercise, an alternate version of the question “your house is on fire and you have to evacuate — what would you grab in five minutes?” Growing up in California (and living a good chunk of my life there) earthquakes and wildfires happen and the question becomes less academic. Although I lived through the 1971 Sylmar and 1989 Loma Prieta quakes and was very near the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire I never really had to make those tough decisions.

The Desert Island question seems simple on the surface — what would you want to have with you? — but there are so many factors involved. It’s presumed you were traveling, but would you be traveling with your favorite books, or ones you wanted to read while traveling? If you being deliberately marooned and had the time, would you choose comfort books? Favorites that would help pass the time? Wouldn’t practical titles (plant guides, survival manuals) make more sense?

Am I over-thinking this?

Actually, no, but I’m not thinking very progressively, and neither were a lot of my fellow kidlit-chatters.

Of the twenty-one titles I listed for my desert island archipelago library I count only three women writers and no discernible minorities. Looking back at the titles other kidlit-chatters put down I see a few who made the effort to be inclusive, but that’s what it felt like, an effort to be inclusive and not necessarily and automatically obvious choice. This could be easily explained by the fact that until recently the children’s book world has been dominated by mostly white authors and, among “classics,” mostly male. Easily explained, but not happily. But we’re talking about this now, and we’re working on it, so no need to belabor the point.

When I think about what I didn’t include I realized two things: first, I had a larger number of books that stuck with me from childhood than I originally thought and second, fourth grade was a really good year.

After lunch in fourth grade Mrs. White would read to us from the middle grade books of the day. I date myself by saying most of these books were released within five years of my fourth grade year: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Sounder, Harriet the Spy, and James and the Giant Peach. There was no attempt to use these books to teach concepts (that I remember), no summary essays to prove we were listening (except occasionally when we acted up), it was a time to settle in after being wild and to listen to a story for the joy of the story. Though many had those gold and silver medals on them we had no idea what that really meant, and no fear of their being over “message” stories, they were simply contemporary titles that spoke to our ten- and eleven-year-old hearts and souls. Fifty years on and they’re all classics, popping up on adults desert islands.

But I know not a single one of these would end up on my daughter’s version of this list.

Oh, they know the books, and even like some of my classics, but for Em her list would have to include Harry Potter, and Jules would need some Sharron Creech or Leap by Jane Breskin Zalben. Maybe when they’re adults and have a different sense of what makes a classic they’ll redefine their memories, but already I can see the changes in the generations: their favorites include more women writers than mine.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, of all people, once said “Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.” Replace ‘people’ with ‘kids,’ ‘peace’ with ‘diversity,’ and ‘publishers’ with governments’ and…

Indeed, I think that kids want diversity so much that one of these days publishers had better get out of the way and let them have it.

Kidlitchat happens every Tuesday night on Twitter, and you never know how long a simple question and an hour-long conversation is going to sit with you and make you think.

9 to 10 PM EST, hashtag #kidlitchat. open to all. I consider it an important part of my continuing education.

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It was pretty clear to me half way through last Tuesday’s #kidlitchat that many people found it hard to limit the number to five. I had already thrown down ten titles and felt I could do thirty or forty more, easily. But after a list of my cherished five, followed by a round of classic (and not at all kidlit) titles, I wanted to throw out something a little more challenging in terms of what might be overlooked.

I went with graphic novels. And if I had to pick five of those for another, different desert island…

Watchmen. The comic book that blew my mind and helped me get away from superheroes.

Zot! by Scott McCloud. Yes, the author of Understanding Comics wrote a comic book that smooshed superhero elements, a parallel universe, and manga style all together, with teen characters at the center. Good stuff, few people seem to know it, which is a crime.

Bone, complete. There are a number of epic-length, multi-volume stories that could learn a lot about pacing and storytelling from Jeff Smith’s masterpiece.

Sandman. This is a cheat because there’s no one single volume of all the Sandman tales, but it’s my island so there. This, coupled with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight and Watchmen pretty much changed the way I, and many other people, viewed comics.

The Airtight Garage by Moebius. Or Le Garage Hermétique de Jerry Cornelius if you want to get all French and technical about it. French comic master Moebius (Jean Giraud) was the reason I started reading Heavy Metal magazine as a teen, and his science fiction visions and stories clearly influenced writers and filmmakers. He was Star Wars before Star Wars. He was Little Nemo for adults who liked aliens. Moebius wrote dozens of stories over the years and while it’s hard to single one out, this collection is the most complete for me.

It was while I was tossing out these titles that chat co-moderator Greg Pincus suggested I needed my own archipelago. Indeed! And why not? A small spit of connected islands, each with it’s own specialty lending library! TIme was running out on the chat, so I could probably get one more island’s worth of titles in.

Seeing a lot of the same shared titles come up I decided for the last round to come up with titles deliberately selected because they would be unlikely to be on anyone else’s list. But still kidlit.

Moon Have You Met My Mother? the collected poems of Karla Kuskin. This epic collection runs the gamut from serious to funny and is, in some ways, a nice counterpart to Shel Silverstien. Personally I give those two equal weight as kids poets and yet I rarely see anyone mention or feature Kuskin when talking about poetry for kids. Am I missing something?

Owls in the Family by the late Farley Mowat. Got a reluctant reader boy? Got a kid that likes rescuing animals? Got a hankering for the crazy interaction of humans and owls with very distinct personalities? Why have you not read this book yet?


Lizard Music by Daniel Pinkwater. Actually, I think Pinkwater deserves his own island, but push-to-shove it came down to this or The Hoboken Chicken Emergency and Lizard Music won this time. It’s the most sincere of the two, in a Pinkwaterian sort of way.

The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll. Everyone else will have Alice’s Adventures, why not a nautical tale?

Homer Price by Robert McCloskey. A quintessential mid-century boy’s boy, this collection of tales that weaved together to a final climax reads like William Saroyan for the middle grade set.

As time was winding down on the chat I realized there was one book that simply had to be added: Pippi Longstockings. It’s only been in the last 10 years or so since I started writing for kids that I’ve come to marvel at this brilliant, subversive, unusually structured masterpiece.

One person commented that they hadn’t heard of most of the titles I mentioned in the chat. Another insisted I was sitting in front of my library just writing things down. To the first, what a shame that more people don’t know these titles. I recognize that not everyone can have read everything, but I didn’t find these titles by chance; I actively sought out good, unusual, original stories both as a kid and as an adult. And I feel sometimes that adults devote their time reading and reviewing new titles when it should be fifty-fifty, old and new.

After the chat was over I looked back and felt I had made some omissions, that the collected titles represented an interesting cross-section of agreement with little dissent. Or diversity.

Next: Desert Island Omissions, Glaring and Otherwise.

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Last night’s #kidlitchat on twitter was based on a suggestion I made a few weeks back during an open call for topics:

You’re gonna be stuck on a desert island and can have five children’s/YA books with you. Which five? And why?

I totally skipped the why part of the topic in favor of finding ways to subvert the five-book-limit. I mean, come one, if I was hauling favorite books and got stranded with them I was probably carting a good, important chunk of my library SOMEWHERE for a reason, so I probably would have ended up with more than five. But, if only five, of forced, I chose these.

The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (the Zipes translation for now, but ultimately including the ones they recently discovered as well. Enough stories for one-a-day.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, Schindelman illustrated edition. This is pretty much the book that hooked me as an independent reader, and with these illustrations this is pretty much a comfort book.

The Complete Nonsense Verse of Edward Lear. Another comfort book, and if I were stuck on an island I’d want a big, fat collection of short verses that I could memorize over time. Plus, I’m stuck on an island, I’m going to want some fun diversions.

Dangerous Angels, the collected Weetzie Bat stories by Francesca Lia Block. So many comfort touchstones here, but as a former Angelino this one really hits some soft spots.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. Huh, ya think I love me some nonsense?

I wasn’t content to stick with just five and I wanted to think about what my 16-year-old me could/would/should be stuck with on a desert island. I wanted a mix of serious and light and came up with this handful:

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. I could have put The Count of Monte Cristo here as well. Or Hunchback of Notre Dame. I really like these sprawling epics, full of the whole range of the human condition.

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. Because.

Nation by Terry Pratchett. This might not stand the test of time, but when I read it a few years back it was the most modern book that felt like a classic to me. I kept feeling shades of Lord of the Flies and The Black Pearl and Treasure Island seeping through the pages.

The Collected Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Because.

Finally, any short story collection by Ray Bradbury. Though I grew up thinking of him as a sci-fi writer I’ve really come to see that his were always stories about people and ideas, and space was just a place to lay those elements out for observation.

At this point I was on a roll, and I felt like there were too many “friends” being left behind. But what else would I want to bring with me? And how to group them?

Under the gun of one hour, could you pick only five books of children’s literature to take with you on a desert island? And which ones?

The clock is ticking!

Next: The Desert Island Archipelago!

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