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Posts Tagged ‘children’s literature’

Think back five years ago to 2006. What was your favorite book of 2006?

Is that a difficult question? Do you have to mine journals and blogs and run a Google search just to remember what was published five years ago? Now let me stop you for a moment so I can throw a number out there.

29,248

That’s how many juvenile titles were published in 2006 according to Bowker’s Books in Print database for the year. That number includes fiction and nonfiction, picture books and middle grade books, board books and young adult and everything in between. I cannot imagine any one person even reading a fraction of that number of books in a single year, but of that number what are the chances that a number of them of a lesser quality? What do you suppose the ratio is between a high-quality title and a book that is just plain boring?

And where do you think your favorite book of 2006 falls in the spectrum?

2006 was the year I began to take my writing for children seriously and when I started a review blog called the excelsior file to keep a record of the books that moved me to comment. I started the blog late in the year so I only have a few months worth of reviews, and I was still getting by blogging feet, so I can’t say it was a thorough accounting. But looking over the books I did review two of them stood out as books I still can recall and recommend to people today. One is the Barbara McClintock picture book Adele and Simon and the other is a middle grade books by Gary Paulsen called The Amazing Life of Birds. There were dozen’s of others, some older ones among the new, and many of those other books were easily forgettable and forgotten. No doubt there were 2006 books I eventually read and enjoyed (Gutman’s The Homework Machine, Portis’s Not a Box, Green’s An Abundance of Katherines, among others) but even of this shallow pool of titles how many of them were truly great, exciting books that turned me into a you-must-read-this evangelist? Compared with the total number of books printed that year, the percentage is pretty dang low.

Like 0.0002%.

But this isn’t a science, and with creative arts there is always room for varied opinion. Day after day I try to immerse myself in this world of books aimed at children and young adults and wonder why such a large portion of them are quite simply boring beyond all reason. Teen romances with cardboard stereotypes and predictable endings. Picture books lacking subtlety, some of them even ugly to look at, seemingly aimed at filling in short attention span bedtime reading with quantity and not quality. Rambling middle grade books that confuse bulging words counts with quality and spend more time aimed at providing readers hope rather than delivering believability a reader can identify with. And over all, books and books and books where heroics are more important than ideas.

Cue Tina Turner singing the theme for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

Perched as we appear to be on the cusp of a digital revolution that will provide more content than ever before I think it’s imperative that those of us in the reading and writing game consider raising the bar. We should seek out and produce the difficult books, the ones that challenge a reader’s perceptions and cause a cultural stir. And perhaps we can consider talking less about good books and talking more about exceptional ones.

Five years from now when someone asks “What was your favorite book of 2012” there shouldn’t be a question or a hesitation, we should all be able to recall those titles that demanded our attentions and challenged readers to move beyond the comfort of the “good” books.

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In a new study that hardly qualifies as news, The New York Times reported that there is gender bias in children’s literature.

Shocking, maybe, if this were 1971.

The argument over and over is that girls will read about boy characters but boys won’t read girl characters. Publishers don’t want to eliminate 50% of their audience, but isn’t that a self-fulfilling prophecy?  All the usual complaints.

When these gender studies are done, has anyone bothered to parse out content to see if maybe there isn’t some negative gender reinforcement there? You want a boy to read a picture book with a girl protagonist, fine, stop making the story be about a Purple Plastic Purse or getting dressed up Fancy and going out to dinner. You want books to appeal to boys, then appeal to what boys want.

As an emerging reader I read Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline, but I didn’t read any of the sequels.  Why?  Because walking in straight lines and being led around town by a nun did not appeal to me. It wasn’t that it was about a girl character, it’s because it was about character behavior I couldn’t identify with.  If the story had been about a boy named Montague and a dozen other orphan boys being lead around Paris in two straight lines I wouldn’t have been any more interested.

That lack of interest extended to male characters as well. Babar the Elephant was a ba-boring simp.  Stone Soup… really? A soldier tricking a town into feeding itself?  And if I’m being honest, I never understood the fuss about Peter Pan. If you don’t grow up, how can you be a fireman or policeman or, as was my case, a swimming pool builder?  These characters didn’t appeal because of who they were, not their gender.

Munro Leaf’s Ferdinand appealed to me because there was chaos and character and action. Despite his pacifist ways, which might be seen as anti-boy, the fact is that there are bulls and bull fighting and the idea of finding identity.  Similarly one might look at Leo Lionni’s Frederick as a soft male character, a poetry collecting mouse who nourishes the soul, but here’s a secret: boys actually like poetry, until they get the joy of it killed out of them through education.

In David Shannon’s No, David! we have a boy behaving badly.  Or rather, we see a boy behaving like a boy. If we were to gender swap this story and only change the name and the appearance of the main character, would the book work?  Probably not, because the mischief David gets into is the personality of a boy who is curious to the point of destruction and it would read odd if what we were seeing was No, Doris.  The argument could be made that there’s a gold mine to be made in simply taking successful and award-winning books with male characters and creating new versions with female characters, but if it were as easy as that wouldn’t someone have done it already? If gender were truly the key to formula then girls would have their own Curious Georgina.

Dr. Seuss didn’t seem to have very many female characters, but one that sticks out for me is The Lorax.  Sort of a humanoid creature, he does nonetheless have a rather prominent mustache. Does the gender of the Lorax make any difference?  Not at all, which is interesting because I think if Seuss had feminized the Lorax there wouldn’t be any change in the message and I don’t believe it would be any less popular among boys.

Even when the story features a character without gender, say a garbage truck as in Kate and Jim McMullen’s I Stink, the appeal of that book is generated by the attitude and language.  Boys like reading about trucks, and things that stink, and the unashamed tone of the garbage truck simply calls out for boys to imitate it.  Is it biased to appeal to boys this way?  Does it reinforce gender stereotypes to not have a similar book where a garbage truck is behaving with more decorum and etiquette?

I think if we’re going to dredge up the old gender question in children’s books we need to look at what those main characters are doing and question the stereotypes they portray. Boys and girls behaving like boys and girls, both fictional and in real life, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And if there’s truly a problem with gender inequity it doesn’t appear that having fewer female characters has had an effect on girl readership.

So seriously, what’s the big deal here?

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…like myself, and any others out there who were (and occasionally are) meant to feel somehow not as good as all you people who can whiz through books.

I know there are some of you out there who can polish off books in mere hours while us slow readers will take days.  Sometimes it’s a question of mood.  Sometimes its fatigue.  Occasionally our minds winder, us slow readers.  We aren’t necessarily savoring these books either, we read at the speed that is most comfortable for us and when that gets in the way of other goals it can have a huge detrimental effect on things.

Back in 1986 when I took my first stab at an MFA in creative writing, we grad students were marched across a hall at orientation and meant to stand in front of a freshman undergraduate class and introduced as the students who would be delivering lectures on selected titles.  Our names, books, and lecture delivery dates were chosen at random right then and there.  I was given two weeks to read and prep an undergrad lecture on Moby Dick.

I dropped out of grad school instead.

But I tried first.  I went home and sat down with Melville, and tried like mad to get that damn book read and could not get past page 32.  Even without a lecture assigned, we were expected to read two books a week, write compare-and-contrast papers on them weekly, and in our spare time keep a log of “all the other” books we read.  It was expected, and none of the other students raised an eyebrow.  Many relished the opportunity to devour books like mad and get little gold grad student stars on their heads while doing so.  I felt like a failure of a student, and it took me another 20 years to get over that feeling and try again.

I’ve always had this “problem.”  In elementary school things were mostly fine, but by the time I hit seventh grade the expectation to read and read closely never came to me.  To do close readings slow me down even more, because there’s a part of my brain that’s second guessing whether or not I’m missing something.  The epic battles in my head to shut down the doubting voice and the negative voice and instead listen to the story voice are sometimes an additional cause for the slowdown.

Stepping back a bit and thinking in defense of slow readers I have a question: just how many books a year is a person supposed to read?

Absurd question, no?  It isn’t like we have a national average or standard for this sort of thing.  People who like to read and read a lot occasionally tally how many books they’ve read in a year – Goodreads and Library Thing exist almost entirely for readers to show off their virtual shelves of books – but how many books should we, could we, expect an average human to read in a year?  A dozen?  A hundred?  One?

Out of curiosity I asked my teen daughter what she thought would be a good number of books for a person to read in a year.  After admitting that people read at different speed – she herself can polish off 300 pages in less than five hours – she thought it was reasonable to say eight books a year.  She said, as an average, sometimes you’d read more books back-to-back and other times you’d go for long stretches without reading and sometimes you just wouldn’t be in the mood.  Could she have been saying that for my benefit, knowing the old man isn’t anywhere near as fast a reader?  Perhaps, but it was an interesting thought that an “average reader” who was reading for pleasure and at leisure would spend eight weeks between titles.

When I’m not busying myself with plot or picking at the bones of craft, I sometimes think about what an awesome responsibility it can be to tell stories.  To ask strangers to take time out of their lives to read the words and think the thoughts and experience the emotions, it’s not something I take for granted or lightly.  I am constantly thinking about that teen boy I was, and what he would read, and what he wished was available to him, because I remember how bad it felt to be effectively standing still while everyone whizzed past him in the fast lane of reading, and how he felt like he was somehow doing it wrong.

I pick up so many books now that stretch to nearly double the size of the books I would have read as a teen and find myself wondering why they had to be so long.  Recently at this summer’s SCBWI conference Jon Scieszka was quoted (and retweeted) as suggesting that most picture book manuscripts need to be cut in half.  I would say the same thing should be done with most middle grade books and a fair number of YA titles.  I won’t name guilty parties here, but what a lasting testament to all those books I read that the main thing I remember about them is that they were too long by half, not their stories or their authors intent or that I enjoyed the experience, but that reading them felt like a chore.

It’s easy to dismiss the slow reader.  He or she (most likely he though) is probably a marginal force in the market.  Slow reading is anathema to the idea of book commerce, of quick sales and quick profits.  And while it’s easy to blame our accelerated culture for leaving slow readers in the dust, I’m going to argue that the very same acceleration that has built fast readerships has done so to the detriment of books the way fast food has assaulted nutrition.  I find I’m just not interested in hurrying up to gobble up the next book and then the next.  Its like literary indigestion, I don’t find that pleasurable.

I am a slow reader, and I enjoy reading.  It takes me longer to read most books and it’s taken me a while to be okay with that. And I am okay with that.

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I’m going to try desperately to stay as on-topic and positive as I can here.

This past weekend I had to do some research that required visiting my local independent bookseller.  I was doing some recon on a couple of areas, to see what was out there and available.  My local store has a decent (not stellar) children’s department and you can learn as much about sales and trends by what isn’t on the shelves as much as what is there.

You know what’s not there?  Poetry.

One shelf for poetry, shared with nursery rhyme collections.  Half of that shelf was Shel Silverstein, with a face out of Where the Sidewalk Ends.  Two Jack Prelutsky’s, one recent collection edited by Mary Ann Hoberman, a Douglas Florian, a Patricia Boynton, and an Edna St. Vincent Millay collection.  I think any adult with a passing familiarity with children’s literature could name at least one book or author not represented, if not a dozen.  Put all of us together and we could fill a store with what wasn’t on the shelves.

I’m pretty sure I saw this question come up recently.  Kids love poetry, they love wordplay and the fun of what poetry can do, so where are all the poetry books?  Is it simply a question of shelf space in a store, of low sales demand?  Have the children’s poets exhausted all possible subjects?  I’m so full of thoughts and ideas I can barely think straight.  Here’s some of what’s in that jumble of a head of mine.

Poetry books are too expensive to produce, or purchase. When the children’s book market shifted its focus from institutional sales (libraries, schools) to retail, few consumers (parents) saw the value in a book that would be read while waiting in line to purchase it or might not be reread.  Hardcover poetry in particular has the feel of a “gift book” in the children’s market, and unless each poem is accompanied by full color illustrations the perceived value of words-to-page versus cost is too dear.

Let’s set aside the fact that a poem shouldn’t require an illustration at all if done correctly.  I mean, talk about painting mental pictures, poems should produce whole galleries of images to the reader.  Why can’t these be simple line illustrations on the page?  That takes care of production costs right there.  Ditch the hardcover until a book has proven itself worthy of “gift editions,” and make them portable enough to be carried everywhere.  If a mass market paperback can hold 200+ pages and come in under $10 there’s no reason a 48-page chapbook of poems with line illustrations can’t be sold at less than half that.

Think about all those series books kids gobble down (and parents purchase) like Magic Tree House and the like.  You expect me to believe a series of poetry chapbooks the same size and cost as those books can’t be as successful, given the same marketing emphasis?

Editors and agents actively discourage children’s poets. I think there is a fear, perhaps rightly so, that there is a lot of bad poetry in the world, and editors and agents already have a tough enough time with lackluster submissions as it is.  Fair enough.  It would be nice to go back to the golden days when Ursula Nordstrom and William Cole would put together showcase collections of poets that could serve as trial balloons for what readers respond to, but those days are behind us.

Or are they?

Recently I came across an interview with an editor who suggested that poetry collections should be pitched as picture books.  This seemed like a novel solution for the serious poet looking for a way past the “no poetry” edicts handed down: if you could sell the theme of the collection as a picture book then clearly you’ve considered the market and understood what is and isn’t saleable.  The problem with this line of thinking is that a picture book is an expensive undertaking – color pages and all – and poems on a particular theme don’t have as wide appeal as omnibus collections.

The solution: bring back the poetry collections.  Let the houses put out trade paper editions twice a year – fall and spring – edited in-house from submissions taken during limited windows.  Put some interns to work sorting, discover some new voices, encourage children’s poetry. Something akin to the way the Evergreen Review used to be, with an editor at the helm.

Poetry is marginalized and destroyed in schools. First, it’s segregated late in the school year during National Poetry Month, and after third grade poetry is “taught” to the extent that the joy is removed from it.  Once reading moves from pleasure to purposed – around the fourth grade – poems (and fiction for that matter become object lessons in simile and metaphor and theme and structure.  This is where the joy of wordplay is beaten out of kids, and right about the time kids start to lose their interest in poetry.

So first thing we need to do is turn National Poetry Month into National Poem of the Week.  I think Robert Pinsey tried to do this when he was poet laureate, with a weekly syndicated column in the national newspapers.  Maybe one of the duties of the Library of Congresses Children’s Poet Laureate would be to select the weekly poems to be featured and sent to educators so that there’s a national dialog about poetry going on, in addition to filling in those lessons with poems selected and shared by kids.  Yes, meter and structure and the finer points of poetry should be taught and discussed, but more time should be spent in reading and sharing in the schools.

Ultimately, I think the real solution will come from e-readers.  Once they become cheap enough that kids are downloading books, the e-book market will be ripe for consumers of poetry (like kids) hungry for poems. Publishers could hardly claim that poetry collections are too expensive to produce as e-books, but by then they might have totally alienated the poetry market altogether; it’s already easy enough to upload chapbooks to Scribd or as Kindle original books.  And it isn’t like it’s hard to break into the kidlit poetry market when it hardly seems to exist as it is.

Personally I would much rather see dozens of new poetry books published for children every month, simple books with nice line drawings, designed with care by inexpensive, given the same marketing as other books.  I’d like to walk into a book store in my home town and find dozens of titles and hundreds of poets crammed into that one shelf of space.

As long as we marginalize poetry, give it short shrift on the shelves, and provide no incentives for reading or owning poetry, how can we ever expect children to accept, much less enjoy, poetry?

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This middle grade novel is turning out to be quite the exercise in patience.  I guess it’s to be expected that when you live with an idea for years without really thinking it through before writing.

Last semester I took this thing on because it was the most pressing, the most insistent of my unborn children waiting to see daylight.  I felt it was a good place to start on my MFA journey because the characters would be easy and the story simple.

Easy, ha! Simple, pfeh!

So I wrote a good 70 pages or so and then it was clear it wasn’t working.  Reboot.  Started again and it felt like I was writing to please my advisor. Abort.  Took a month off and came back to it fresh and ended up with a good, solid 20 pages.  Six months and 20 pages, but they were good pages.  Okay, I’m a novice, I’ll take it.

This semester I was determined not to let all that hard work dissipate so I picked up where I left off.  40 new pages the first month, almost 70 the second, I was too close to stop and pushed to finish.  It took 10 weeks but it was a solid 150 pages of middle grade humor and anxiety and I thought: finally, time to pass go and collect $200.

Revision came and I saw the flaws in the opening, a beginning written before the ending was clear in sight, a beginning full of the wrong voice and misplaced focus.  No problem, just dump it.  Take a later chapter and use it as the opening, refocus the relationships.  Add some chapters, splice together with other ideas.

Nope, not quite.  I created a monster.  It’s still too much the old wrong story, too much of a Frankenstein creation than a new vision. Re-vision, reenvision, revise, reinterpret, rework, work.

The notes came back that if I was going to tell this story I needed to incorporate any number of elements much earlier than I originally planned.  The notes included a laundry list of elements from the manuscript, characters and conflicts.  The notes included the recommendation for an “experimental” new opening chapter incorporating all these elements.

I’ve sat down five days in a row and tried to re-imagine the opening, the last four days I have tried to start from scratch.  After the first day I had to ignore the original first draft and attempt a chapter purely from my memory of what I had written and the laundry list of notes.  After three days and three different openings I started a fourth, totally ignoring everything including the notes.

I think I’m getting it.

It isn’t just an experiment, it’s an exercise, a flexing of the muscle I call a brain.  It’s an expansion of the story, a variation on a theme, an orchestral development of a melody and a new arrangement of harmonies.  It’s a test of direction, a test of faith, a test of wills between me and the story.  It will either be an unmitigated disaster or a quiet triumph but will be the natural conclusion of all these attempts.  It might not even be the final version, but it should at least be able to stand on its own finally.

But it needs to be written first.  And the next person who hears about what I’m working on and says “I’ve been thinking about writing a children’s book,” thinking it’s as easy as jotting an email to a coworker, had better step back when they say it; I’m coming out swinging.

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