awesome School Library Journal article series!

If you know me well, you know I love series books.  Love them.  The series of my heart will always be the Baby-Sitters Club; the joke about them I tell is that I can’t do algebra, but I can tell you every member’s full name.  (Kristin Amanda Thomas, Mary Anne Spier, Claudia Lynn Kishi, Anastasia Elizabeth McGill, Dawn Read Schaefer, Mallory Pike, Jessica Davis Ramsey, Shannon Kilbourne, Logan Bruno, Abigail Stevenson!)  But I was also obsessed with Animorphs and fond of a variety of of other series, ranging from the Sleepover Friends to Nancy Drew (Clue of the Whistling Bagpipes or GTFO).  As an adult, my fondness for series books (especially series books marketed to girls) has continued; I still reread BSC books, and I wrote a proposal for a girls’ series books bibliography for one of my library-school classes.

The Baby-Sitters Club graphic novel: Kristy's Great Idea

Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels still sold at the bookshop. The originals? Not so much.

Well, School Library Journal has a great series of articles about series books–and more importantly, what should be done with them as they age.  So far, Endagered Series has covered the Boxcar Children, the Hardy Boys, the American Girl franchise, and–oh, the pain–the Baby-Sitters Club.  Travis Jonker lays out what the books are about, the pros and cons to keeping them around, and his own solutions.  With shelf space at a premium, “what shall we do with these books that were popular a decade (or longer!) ago?” is an important question to ask.  Tough, perhaps, since these books span the 20th century and thus could be part of any working librarian’s childhood, but absolutely necessary.

One thing I find interesting about the series is that while the author talks about the Baby-Sitters Club, the spinoff series don’t come up.  Obviously, they don’t need to delineate BSC versus Super Specials, Mysteries, Super Mysteries, etc.  But the Baby-Sitters Little Sister books (and the Kids in Ms. Coleman’s Class series, which was a short-lived spinoff of the Karen books) seem like they might be their own beast, and the same with the California Diaries.  They’re for slightly different ages than the original BSC books–Little Sister skews younger, and California Diaries, older.

…But I am coming at this from the POV of someone who still has dozens of BSC books to her name.  This level of specificity is pretty nitpicky to me–and the Little Sister and California Diaries books (the latter especially) seem like prime weeding opportunities, since they are vestigial series.

Another fascinating aspect to this series is the variety of comments in reply to each article.  Some librarians have the same problems with the series featured; others see them fly off the shelves.  Tastes vary so much from town to town, neighborhood to neighborhood, and school to school!  It’s incredible.

At the bookstore, I saw similar issues.  We tried to keep a few older series on the shelves, but most people who came in just weren’t interested in the Baby-Sitters Club, Animorphs, and whatever else we’d ordered in a fit of nostalgia.  (It doesn’t help that the new Animorphs covers are off-puttingly ugly, in my humble opinion.  But there’s also the argument that Animorphs is a series that is quintessentially 90s–that the worldview is such that it must be set in the 90s–and that must seem like ancient history to a kid who wasn’t alive for Hurricane Katrina.  Or maybe it’s just the fact that the series wavered significantly in quality.)

I Survived series: Hurricane Katrina, 2005

No joke: I once booktalked I Survived Hurricane Katrina, 2005 to a seven-year-old kid and realized halfway through that I was talking to someone who had no firsthand knowledge of it. Look, my math isn’t great.

Some series books did sell well, though!  And those tended to be much newer, which isn’t surprising.  I Survived by Lauren Tarshis was incredibly popular.  So were the various diary books–you know, every hardcover Diary of a Wimpy Kid competitor.  You can easily tell them at a bookstore, because they’re inevitably the exact same shape and size, and with few exceptions (The Popularity Papers, which actually have been released in trade paperback, comes to mind), they’re only printed in hardcover.

As far as “classics” went, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books sold pretty well.  The Magic Treehouse books were incredibly popular (and while they might not seem that old, since they’re an ongoing series, the first one was published over twenty years ago!).  Goosebumps had a significant revival over the two years when I worked there, and I expect that’s likely to increase with the release of the new movie.  The Boxcar Children actually were pretty popular, but they were often books booksellers and parents were recommending to kids, rather than books kids picked up on their own.

And, because ours was a store in Minnesota, there was always demand for the Betsy-Tacy books.  Those were generally requested by parents and grandparents who had grown up with the series, but we definitely had children who liked them, too.  We kept the full Betsy-Tacy series on hand, though only the first few books were classified as being for “young readers” in our system.  The others were shelved in the general fiction section, which was confusing for customers.  (Similarly confusing: Only Redwall was shelved in our children’s department.  On more than one occasion, I had to lead a confused child and parent over to our Scifi/Fantasy section for every other Redwall book.  It was annoying, too, because the mass-market paperbacks stocked in Scifi/Fantasy looked way less child-friendly, especially when surrounded by completely kid-inappropriate books.)

Anyway, you should definitely check out those articles.  And you should expect more content from me!  I’m going to the ALA Midwinter conference at the end of this month, which is Kind of a Big Deal in the library world (and for everyone else, it’s where the Newbery, Caldecott, and Printz awards, among many others, are announced!).  And in February, the greatest semester ever starts: I’m taking Young Adult Materials and Storytelling.  Expect to see some deets about those.  (I just devoured The Outsiders and Forever… for YA lit, and now I’m forcing myself through The Chocolate War.  Wish me luck!)

So how are you doing, internet?  And what book series do you think Endangered Series should cover?  (Animorphs better make an appearance, is all I’m saying.)

a depressing compliment

Today, a young man with a developmental delay was interested in what our e-readers were and what they could do.  I explained to him how they could be used to play games or read or use apps, just like a tablet.  We talked a little bit about Netflix, I asked him if he had any more questions, and when he said no, I told him to have a nice day.

After, a woman came up to me and told me she was impressed at the respect I had showed him.  I said thank you really awkwardly, because I didn’t expect her compliment, and then I helped her find a book, and the day went on.

It’s a nice feeling to have your attention to others noticed and remarked upon, but the fact that she felt my behavior was notable makes me so, so sad.  We should all make it a practice to be kind and considerate of others, no matter who they are.  People with cognitive disabilities are just as human as anyone else and deserve to be treated as such.

This is also related to why I’ve come to feel so strongly about children’s books that feature disabled protagonists wwondermaggotmoonho also happen to be geniuses.  Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper is, in my opinion, one of the absolute worst for this, but there are plenty that do it.  It feels to me like the characters’ brains are there to “make up for” their disabilities in these books.  Disabled characters of average or below-average intelligence are shunted off to the side or ignored entirely.

In American popular culture, especially popular culture aimed at children, it seems like it’s always “it’s okay if you aren’t smart at school, because you’re probably really smart at something else!” It’s never “it’s okay if you aren’t smart at school, because you can be a good person!”  I’m all for teaching children that there are many different ways to be intelligent or talented, but there are children out there who don’t feel like they’re especially smart with anything; when we tie their worth so strongly to their supposed smarts, we do those children a serious disservice.

If you want to read books where disabled protagonists are allowed to be disabled without having to justify their existence by supersmarts, please try Wonder by R.J. Palacio and Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner.  These are books where disabled characters’ compassion and strength of character genuinely matters more than their grades in school, and I absolutely recommend them.

Stories like these are important.  I hope that children and teenagers who grow up reading them will treat people of all abilities with the respect they deserve, regardless of their intellect.

happy labor day weekend! read children’s books.

The irony of the modern Labor Day is, of course, the fact that people who work for sub-living wages generally have to work on it.  I myself will be working Saturday-Sunday-Monday, and presumably I’ll be humming Billy Bragg tunes under my breath the whole time.

If you’re fortunate enough to have a job that recognizes Labor Day as a holiday, consider reading a book or two with your free time.  Here are my two favourite pro-labor children’s books.  Consider picking copies up at your local bookstore or library, and enjoy some empowering stories of workers uniting for better treatment!  You can listen to some classic Labor Day songs while you do.

Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type – Doreen Cronin81N4eYNa87L

A perfect introduction to the value of collective bargaining, written in a way both preschoolers and adults can both appreciate.  Farmer Brown’s cows aren’t satisfied with life on the farm as it stands–and now that they’ve found a typewriter, they’re ready to make their complaints known.  He’s going to hear a lot of

click, clack, MOO

in the future if he doesn’t take their strike seriously!  Cronin’s text is funny, and while I personally don’t care for the illustrations, they’re serviceable enough.  The implications of the text, that striking for better treatment is a worthwhile endeavour, matters more than whether the cows are rendered to my taste or not.

Princess-Academy-HDPrincess Academy – Shannon Hale

The title might put you off, but give it a chance anyway, because Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy is a wonderful story about the ways education and community organizing can lead to better lives for everyone.  Miri lives in poverty on Mount Eskel, the backwoods hick territory of her fairy-tale kingdom, where everyone strong enough to work mines stone for starvation wages.  When the kingdoms’ seers declare that the next princess of the realm will come from Mount Eskel, the people down the mountain are horrified–after all, the girls of Mount Eskel are illiterate peasants who don’t even wear shoes.  What to do?  Send a delegation up to educate them, in hopes that one of them might make a suitable bride for the prince.

Miri and her friends learn more than just the three “R”s when they’re coerced into the makeshift “princess academy.”  Whole worlds open up to them because of their newfound learning–and Miri discovers a shocking fact.  The stone they mine is, in fact, considered incredibly valuable down the mountain.  Now that she knows the truth of what their work is worth, can she convince the other villagers to demand fair prices for the fruits of their labor?  And who’s going to marry that prince anyway?  Find out in Princess Academy.

For more great Labor Day books–for you or the children in your life–check out this list from DailyKos.  And remember: there is power in a union!

american girl and beforever (which i keep saying as “beef or ever” in my head)

One of my eventual assignments in my kidlit class is to read an American Girl book and bring it into class to discuss.  I was already excited about this assignment, because I was obsessed with the American Girl dolls when I was a little girl.  I’ve discussed the American Girl concept with my professor in brief in the past, and I do think her point that they encourage materialism is salient; however, I think they also provide a way for children to interact with the past and act out the things they’ve learned in the books.  I’m fascinated by history and historical fiction for numerous reasons, but the opportunity to read about girls in different historical contexts is one of the major influences on my literary tastes. 

My preliminary plan is to read an American Girl book from after I “grew out of” the franchise.  (I, like many people who grew up with Pleasant Company in her metaphorical backyard–occasionally, my parents would drive us out to look at the outside of the factory where the dolls were made, then out at the very edge of the city and now surrounded by suburban sprawl–am not entirely pleased with where Mattel has taken things on the whole.)  Either Rebecca or Cécile, probably, as those are the two newer characters I’m most interested in investigating.

Our eventual class discussion of the American Girl franchise should be made all the more interesting by the recent rebranding of the American Girl historical characters (Samantha, Addy, etc.) into the Beforever line.  The short version is that the dolls’ six books have been condensed into two longer books–same text, new omnibus format–with a third choose-your-own-adventure-style storybook as well.  The dolls’ clothing options have also changed, and the book covers have been updated to reflect those changes.

A good overview of the frustrating aspects of this update can be found in this blog post.  The points that I think are most salient are these:

  1. This change to the historical line of American Girls retires four dolls, two of which are characters of colour.  With the removal of Ivy Ling and Cécile Rey, the line now includes only one African-American character and no Asian-American characters.  And Addy, the remaining African-American doll, has a storyline focused on slavery; Cécile’s storyline provided an opportunity to learn about a historical African-American child who was not a slave.
  2. The clothing changes aren’t as historically accurate or, in some cases, as detailed as the characters’ previous outfits.  Many of them look like they came out of a modern child’s closet.  This movement away from historicity is disappointing to me.  While I know that there have been historical inaccuracies within the franchise before (here’s a great review of the Kaya series that points out inaccuracies, another of the dolls that’s after my time), I don’t think that’s an excuse for replacing good outfits with blatantly modern-looking clothing. 
  3. The entire line of visual changes has made things significantly more pink than they were before.  Many of the books feature the colour in their covers; many of the characters’ outfits feature the colour, even if other colours would be more likely.  The most egregious example is Depression-era Kit in a birthday dress that features bright pink despite the fact that she hates the colour in the books.  However, I think it’s a disappointing change all around.  The emphasis of pink-as-feminine is not only ahistorical in places (here’s an article on the history of pink-as-feminine to give you an idea), it means yet another line of products for girls doused in pink for no better reason than “otherwise, how would you know they were for girls?”  Say what you will about American Girl as a line of toys, but earlier iterations featured significantly more varied colours and types of clothing for the dolls to wear. 

Roommate (who absolutely abhors American Girl for a variety of reasons) said that it sounds like American Girl is trying to compete with the Disney Princess line.  I agree, and it makes me sad.  I think that American Girl should, ideally, be about learning about the past, finding differences and similarities in the lives of girls who have lived before oneself, and sparking an appreciation for history in children. 

Personally, I eat-sleep-breathe history and historical fiction, some days. I’m in the process of planning both midgrade and young adult historical novels.  I know that being able to read and play out historical stories as a child helped kindle my love of history, especially American cultural history, and I want other young girls to be able to find that same inspiration in their reading and playing. 

not the first, never the only, and definitely not the last.

One of the first assignments for my kidlit class* is to bring in copies of a favourite picture book and chapter book from childhood.  I take designations like “favourite” very seriously (too seriously), so I’ve been thinking about it a lot.  And my thoughts have wobbled around from actual books to nostalgia to thoughts on the relative validity of ebooks as a mode of enjoyment.  So while my hair is drying, let’s chat for a while.

*Let’s just get down to brass tacks: There’s no way I’m writing out “children’s lit” all semester.  Kidlit it is.

Back Home by Michelle Magorian

My copy isn’t nearly this nice looking anymore, lol–but this is the cover I have, so obviously, it’s the best one.

A favourite chapter book is easy.  I’m bringing Michelle Magorian’s Back Home, about a World War II evacuee’s return to England after living nearly half her life in America, in great part because I have my copy here in my apartment.  My Aunt Rachel and Uncle Tom gave me my copy when I was in the third grade, and now, nearly twenty years later, my copy is in well-loved tatters.  In retrospect, it’s a dark novel for an eight-year-old–subjects covered include infidelity, suicide, natural death, depression, corporal punishment, conformity, the dissolution of a marriage, and the word “ass”–but I utterly adored it.  Rusty Dickinson, our artistic, athletic heroine, is a true survivor whose rebellion against an environment hellbent on cutting her down to size has always been incredibly appealing to me.  I’ve read it over and over, and every time, I find more to appreciate in it.

A picture book is harder.  All the beloved choices of my childhood live six hours away from me, these days.  Several of them are out of print; many of them aren’t available through the library system up here.  (For whatever reason, the rest of the world doesn’t look upon stories like Florence and Eric Take the Cake and Baby Blue Cat and the Whole Batch of Cookies with the same nostalgic reverence I do.  Their loss.)  Eventually I decided that, since I can’t have one of my actual books anyway, maybe I should buy a used copy of something I’ve never owned and bring that.  And that’s how I decided to go with Trinka Hakes Noble’s Apple Tree Christmas.

Apple Tree Christmas by Trinka Hakes Noble

The cover illustration is nice, even if it doesn’t inspire much nostalgia. I’m looking forward to my copy coming in the mail.

It’s another obscure one (though hopefully you’re familiar with Noble’s The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash), and up til this year, I’d never seen a copy in person.  You see, when I was a little girl, I had cassette upon cassette of books taped off library recordings, and I’d listen to them over and over.  I vividly remember sitting in my childhood bedroom (purple and wood walls, mottled dark pinky-purple carpeting, a bed spread with hearts and Sesame Street characters on the quilt) with my parents and their creakity old turntable; I’m just old enough that some of my tapes came from books on record.  Among my collection of books on tape were

  • Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day
  • Alexander, Who Used to be Rich Last Saturday
  • The Cat Ate My Gymsuit
  • The Chocolate Touch
  • The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash
  • Jimmy’s Boa Bounces Back
  • Apple Tree Christmas

I want to say I had The Tenth Good Thing About Barney as well, because I know that story absurdly well but don’t feel anything at all for the illustrations in the book. And there were surely plenty more titles beyond those.  I had music, as well, Marlo Thomas and Judy Garland and the original cast recording of Annie Get Your Gun and children’s songs and stories I can describe to you but not name.  A dramatic retelling of Mary Had a Little Lamb about just how they met, for instance.  And something about a sad little zebra, the details of which have fled, but the feelings–of loneliness, mostly–of which have lingered into my adulthood.

I suppose if I looked, I could find these cassettes in my mother’s basement, buried away with the detritus of three childhoods and two moves.  I could convert them to mp3 and glory in the voices that brought these stories to life for me.  Someday, I’d like to.  But thus far, I haven’t, and unless I do, I’ll never be able to experience these books in a way that feels like my childhood.  The illustrations for Apple Tree Christmas are pretty but foreign to me.  Ray Cruz’s Alexander is expressive, but he doesn’t look quite the way I pictured him–and the black serif text doesn’t get across the voice I hear in my head when I think of the words “I went to sleep with gum in my mouth, and now there’s gum in my hair.”

And I’ve been thinking that perhaps that’s why wailing and gnashing of teeth over ebooks seems silly to me.  Books weren’t the first medium for story; they’ve never been the only medium; they won’t be the last.  No book in the world will tell to you “Little Red Riding Hood” as my mother told it to me, with the wolf locking Grandma in the closet and the hunter chasing the wolf away.  (I was baffled and disgusted as a child to find that other children were told pernicious lies about the grandmother being swallowed up by the wolf, and the wolf’s stomach being filled up with stones.  What a horrible thing to do to an animal, even if it wasn’t an innocent one!)  Even if you found a story with the right text, you’d miss my mother’s voice, and the expressions of her face and hands.  Even if you had my cassette tapes and a boombox, you wouldn’t have my little twin bed to lay on, or my glittery white ceiling, which sparkled like stars at night when only my Christmas lights were on, to look at.  Stories are experiences, and books are only one way to experience them.

At the same time, I think I can understand the fears and uncertainties hiding behind comments like “I read books, not Nooks” and “But people will miss the feeling of paper!”  Change is frightening, and seeing your preferred medium derided as a thing of the past can hurt, especially if you’ve been told similar things about yourself.  (Not everyone who’s anti-ereader is old, but I can tell you from field experience that a lot of them are.)  But it doesn’t do any good to be a jerk to other people about it.

Anyway, that’s the news here.  Getting ready for school, distracting myself from the looming specter of an interview in the short term.  I’ll let you know how it goes, internets.

just a list to help me remember!

Books I’m gonna read very soon after I’m done with my class readings:

  • The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats
  • The Other Side of Paradise – Staceyann Chin
  • Dragon Age comics with commentary
  • I Stay Near to You – M.E. Kerr
  • Lucy the Giant – Sherri L. Smith
  • Jane Eyre (Illustrated Classics edition)
  • Destiny’s Embrace – Beverly Jenkins
  • Landline – Rainbow Rowell

got the loveliest birthday present!

One of my sisters sent me the most wonderful book from California!

The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats is an exhibit that she and her boyfriend went to at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles!  I was superenvious when she told me about it, because come on, who doesn’t want to see Ezra Jack Keats’ work in person?  And then, just look what I got in the mail!

Entertaining fact for you: Sara found out that her boyfriend never read The Snowy Day as a child, and both she and I were a little amazed at the idea.  I related this story to Roommate, who looked at me blankly–turns out Roommate has never read The Snowy Day, either!  And I don’t want to suggest that either Roommate or Jonathan had deprived childhoods, but The Snowy Day is one of the single best picture books ever written.  I’m just saying.

(Are you unfamiliar with The Snowy Day, internets?  Let me tell you a little about it!  The book was written by Ezra Jack Keats in 1962, who won the Caldecott Medal–think of it as the picture-book equivalent of an Academy Award–for it in 1963.  The story is of a little boy named Peter who delights in the simple pleasures of a snowy day in New York City.  The illustrations are phenomenal, the text is timeless, and the book deserves some special note for being an early(ish) children’s classic featuring an African-American protagonist.  Critiques have been made of the book throughout the years, and you can read about them here, but I can honestly say I adore it unreservedly.)

An image from The Snowy Day–Peter pokes at a snowy tree with a stick. Imagine seeing this in person!

Anyway, this was such a thoughtful gift that I wanted to tell the whole world.  Thank you, Sara!  All my love to you, too (but you know that).

If you’d like to learn a little more about the exhibit, you can check out the information posted on the official Ezra Jack Keats website.