Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Bird Songs!

It’s finally spring (after a too-long winter where I live), and publishers have brought forth a number of picture books focused on birds. Each one of these books is wonderful in its own way, yet they’re all quite different. So there’s a real bonanza of choices for young fans of our feathered friends. Here’s a closer look at what’s out there:

Young readers are treated to a lilting rhyme that introduces them to some common backyard birds in Have You Heard the Nesting Bird? (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99, ages 3-7). Author Rita Gray beautifully balances poetry and information as she details the thoughts of two young children as they enjoy a day of bird watching.
But the main story of this book revolves around the children’s curiosity about the robin’s nest they have noticed high in a tree. They wonder why the robin is so silent while the cardinal, chickadee, crow and other birds they have spotted are so noisy. Suddenly, there is a “tapping “ and “cracking,” a “breaking” and a “shaking,” a “ruffling” and a “shuffling,” and the children cry: “The baby birds are here!”

Gray’s text is perfectly matched by artist Kenard Pak’s illustrations, done in watercolor and digital media. Pak uses a palette that mixes delicate spring colors with earth tones, and he has fun playing with time, perspective, white space, and page turns. In one, mostly white two-page spread, for example, he shows a cardinal in mid-flight on one side, and a chickadee hanging upside down from a branch on the other. The way the birds are placed on the pages subtly underlines the sense of flight that pervades the illustrations in the book. And one gorgeous two-page spread of a nighttime scene, showing the robin in its nest as the children sleep in their house, provides a natural way to move the story forward to the birth of the baby robins. For readers looking to learn more, Gray provides a whimsical but fact-packed robin “interview” – “A Word With the Bird” – at the conclusion of her story. And there's even more to enjoy from these interviews with Gray and Pak.

Author/artist Jorey Hurley also has a robin theme in her debut picture book Nest (Simon & Schuster, $16.99, ages 3-6). But Hurley uses only 15 words – one for each two-page spread – to take readers through a year in the life of a robin family. As the book opens, we see a male and female robin perched on the edge of a nest in which there is a blue egg.

The word on the spread is, naturally, “nest.” Several pages later, there’s the word “hatch” as we see a baby robin emerging from the egg.  Further on, we see the baby “grow” as its fed in its nest in a just-blooming tree. And so on through the year until the book ends with the word with which it began – “nest” – as we see the now-grown baby robin making a nest with a mate. Hurley’s background as a textile designer shows in her clear, uncluttered but stylish illustrations, done in Photoshop. An author’s note at the end gives more information about robins that parents can share with their children, and readers can learn more about Hurley from this video.

Nests are front and center in Mama Built a Little Nest (Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster, $17.99, ages 4-8). Author Jennifer Ward packs a plethora of facts into her deceptively simple rhyming text. Ward provides a four-line poem on each two-page spread, and each poem begins in a similar way: “Mama built a little nest.”

Since each two-page spread features a different kind of bird, the way the nests are built varies; in one case (a male cactus wren), it’s “Daddy built a little nest,” and in another (falcon), it’s “Mama scraped a little nest.”
Along the way, young readers learn about the different ways that birds build their nests. Ward’s poems, printed on one page of a two-page spread, are paired with more facts, which are provided, in smaller print, on the other page. The illustrations are done by Caldecott Honor artist Steve Jenkins, the master of precise but beautifully rendered collage art.

 OK, Peggy’s a chicken – but she’s still a bird! And the story of her visit to the big city is bound to be a hit with kids, who will readily identify with Peggy’s efforts to find her way in the midst of a busy world filled with unexpected twists and turns, as well as creatures who are much larger than she is.

 In “Peggy: A Brave Chicken on a Big Adventure” (Clarion, $16.99, ages 3-7), author/artist Anna Walker combines uses a spare text and expressive watercolor illustrations to tell the story of an intrepid fowl. As this whimsical story opens, readers learn that Peggy lives on a quiet street and thrives on the routines of her daily life there, from eating her breakfast to watching the pigeons.. One day, however, a gust of wind literally sweeps Peggy into an urban landscape, filled with hurrying people and buildings that touch the sky.
Unruffled, Peggy plunges into the delights of big city life, as she “watched, hopped, jumped, twirled, and tasted,” discovering everything from cupcakes to high heels to escalators. It’s fun, but Peggy eventually misses home and, with a bit of help from her pigeon friends, she makes it safely back to her quiet street, where she revels once again in her everyday life.

Yet Peggy has been smitten by the delights of the metropolis and so, as Walker writes on the book’s final page, she “sometimes caught the train to the city.” “Peggy” is a delight from start to finish, a book that touches the heart – and the funny bone – and also is lovely to look at. Get a taste of Peggy's story with this book trailer.

Little readers can learn basic concepts while following the exploits of a cheerful little red bird in “Early Bird” (Feiwel & Friends, $15.99, ages 2-5). In her debut picture book, author/artist Toni Yuly offers readers illustrations featuring brilliant colors and simple shapes, as well as a story that has a surprising plot twist at the end.
Along the way, readers will learn concepts like “across,” “through” and “under,” yet Yuly’s text is never didactic. Overall, “Early Bird” shows that Yuly is an author/artist who understands the art of both educating and entertaining very young children.

 It’s pretty much impossible to describe “Aviary Wonders Inc.” (Clarion, $17.99, ages 9-12), written and illustrated by Kate Samworth. Despite its picture book format, the book is clearly meant for older readers as Samworth uses irony and advertising lingo to give an idea of what could happen to our flying friends if their natural habitats disappear. The book, which is meant to look like a catalog, is set in the year 2031 and, because so many birds have virtually vanished, the only way to enjoy their presence is to “build your own” by ordering various parts from the Aviary Wonders catalog.

Samworth’s dark humor will capture the interest of some readers, while others may find it disturbing. Still, there’s no denying that Samworth makes her point about the need to protect birds and their habitats in a unique way. But the real scene stealers are Samworth’s illustrations, lush with color and detail and done in oil, ink, graphite and colored pencil. You can get a sense of her work from this book trailer.

 Author/illustrator Edward Gibbs is on a roll with his I Spy books about animals, which include die cut-outs that allow young readers to guess which animal he’s writing about. The latest in the series is I Spy in the Sky (Templar/Candlewick Press, $14.99, ages 4-7), in which young readers can learn a bit about everything from eagles to peacocks. Gibb’s over-sized birds are fun to look at, and kids will enjoy this new twist on the classic game.

So, there you have a it! A plethora of new bird books to enjoy this spring.
And don't forget a couple of my all-time, older favorites: My Spring Robin by Anne Rockwell (now out of print, but worth searching for a paperback copy), and Birds, written by Caldecott Medalist Kevin Henkes and illustrated by his talented spouse, Laura Dronzek.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Adult Interruptions: "Overwhelmed"

For some time, I had been thinking about interspersing children’s book reviews and notes with a very occasional feature about adult books, just to spice things up a little. While I’m a kids’ book fiend, I will admit that, now and then, I do enjoy reading an adult book. It’s also important for me to have at least some knowledge of adult books – fiction and non-fiction – when I’m staffing the desk at my public library on Saturdays, and patrons ask me for recommendations.

OK, so I was thinking of doing writing occasional pieces about adult books anyway, and thought of calling it "adult interruptions." Then, real life hit – a real adult interruption in my life as a children’s librarian and children’s book reviewer. If you wondered at all why I haven’t updated my blog here’s the reason: my husband had emergency surgery. He spent seven days in the hospital and, thank goodness, is recovering nicely at home.

All this real life stuff, of course, wasn’t conducive to writing blog posts. I did do lots of reading while my husband was napping and I was hanging out in the hospital, keeping him company and hoping to catch his doctors on their rounds. Writing about what I was reading, however, just required more psychic energy than I could muster.

One of the books I read while I was hanging out at the hospital was an adult non-fiction best-seller that had been getting a lot of buzz; I had checked it out from my library on a whim just before our family’s hospital hiatus. Titled “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time” (FSG, $26), this book is chock-full of information and scientific studies showing why our over-stuffed lives aren’t good for us. Author Brigid Schulte, a Washington Post journalist, skillfully weaves all of this research in and around anecdotes about real people dealing with the stress of trying to do your best at a job that requires 24/7 availability while still trying to have a life and, in many cases, a family.

In particular, I liked the way that Schulte’s information and analysis not only targeted overwhelmed parents, but also anyone who desires a better balance of work and home. That speaks to me, as someone who has an almost empty nest that is allowing me more time and a better work-life balance. But "Overwhelmed" is an even more important book for my older child, a 23-year-old who has just started her first job and is totally consumed by it. Learning ways to cope with this workload – and, even more importantly, ways to resist it! – are really important for young people, especially if they plan to have families. Perhaps they can even lead the much-needed revolution towards a saner work-life balance.

While “Overwhelmed” can seem, at times, overwhelmingly packed with facts and stories, Schulte fortunately provides an appendix where she pulls together everything she has learned. It’s titled “Do One Thing,” and the first item is blunt: “Time is power. Don’t give yours away.” Agreed, but I believe that reading all of “Overwhelmed” – not just the appendix – is worth your time. It resonated with me, someone who was literally on call 24/7 in the nearly 30 years I spent as a journalist, although I was "part-time" (and paid that way) for more than half of those years.

By reading Schulte’s book, I finally gathered a much deeper sense of perspective about my work life. This was especially true for me in her discussion of the “ideal worker,” someone for whom work is the be-all and end-all, and how that impossible ideal permeates not only our workplaces but more importantly our own thinking about ourselves as workers. I plead guilty to always trying to measure up to that ideal worker, but I’ll admit right now that I didn’t consciously realize the psychic burden I placed on myself – and that our work-driven society placed on me -- until I read Schulte’s book. That’s just one of the many things I learned from “Overwhelmed.” (To learn a bit more about the book itself, check out an NPR interview with Schulte).

Eight years ago, I traded my crazy work life as a journalist for new career as a children’s librarian. I’m definitely in a saner situation now, in a job that I love, in a workplace that values work-life balance. Still, I have lived too much of my life feeling overwhelmed by trying to balance work, love and play, and that’s why Schulte’s book seems like an important one for all of us to read. To me, the book compellingly demonstrates that there must – and needs to be – a better way to balance our work and our lives.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Kids' Books March Madness: My Bracket is Busted

Well, I tried. I really thought that one of my trio of picks -- Flora & Ulysses, The Animal Book and The Thing About Luck -- had a chance to make it into the final, Big Kahuna round of School Library Journal's Battle of the Kids' Books. But, one by one, my hand-picked winners have fallen.

The first to fall was Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo, which lost out to Far, Far Away by Tom McNeal at the hands of judge Sara Mlynowski in Round One. Mylnowski concluded: "Flora & Ulysses might be an easy sell to kids, but Far Far Away blew me away."

 Going into Round Two, I was still confident, thinking that either "The Animal Book" by Steve Jenkins or "The Thing About Luck" by Cynthia Kadohata would go the distance. But, in Round Two, judge Tonya Bolden chose "Boxers & Saints" by Gene Luen Yang over "The Animal Book."  As Bolden summed up: "I found myself with an unenviable choice when SLJ asked me to choose between the works of two fine artist-writers: Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints and Steven Jenkins’s The Animal World, two works that are necessary, two works that will stay with me for years, two works I am sure to revisit.Which will I revisit first? Boxers & Saints."

Yet, judge Katherine Marsh kept my hopes alive when she picked The Thing About Luck over The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt in Round Two. I was still in the game!

Alas, it was a short-lived victory. In the just-concluded Round Three, judge Robin LaFevers gave the nod to P.S. Be Eleven over The Thing About Luck. LaFevers concluded her selection remarks by noting: "While I was forced to pick just one of these books, you don’t have to. Anyone who reads both of them will be the true winner." Yes, that's true, but her selection leaves me with my bracket busted.

Wait! There's still a slim chance that I could get back in the game! On Monday, the Battle Commanders will unveil the winner of the "Undead" poll.
What's this, you say? Well, before this year's Battle of the Kids' Books began, folks were urged to vote for the book that they'd most like to see come back into the Big Kahuna round. As the Battle Commanders explain it: "The previously-eliminated contender that receives the most votes will be taken out of the grave to join the two other finalists for the final bout featuring our Big Kahuna judge, 'Typical' Jennifer Holm."

So, fingers crossed for Monday. I'd be happy to see any of my trio resurrected to battle it out with the other two finalists, Boxers & Saints and P.S. Be Eleven in the Big Kahuna round on April 1. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Review: The Cafeteria Is Closing!

Five years ago, author/illustrator Jarrett Krosoczka introduced an unforgettable character to the world of children’s comics. Her name is Lunch Lady, and her tag line is “Serving Justice and Serving… Lunch!” Who can resist a come-on like that?

The first Lunch Lady book – “Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute” – was published in 2009, and the series has become a favorite with young readers. Kids love the way that Lunch Lady (a true kick-butt type) and her sidekick Betty modify various types of food products and kitchen utensils into superhero gadgets and use them to ensure that Thompson Brook Elementary stays safe from bad guys. Only a group of kids known as the Breakfast Bunch knows of Lunch Lady’s secret identity.

Krosoczka continued to chronicle the adventures of Lunch Lady in eight more books, winning more readers with each one. The series is instantly recognizable with its yellow, black and white color scheme, and kids tell me they love how someone they deal with every school day – a lunch lady – is a superhero in Krosoczka’s books. In fact, Krosoczka says he got the idea for the series years ago when he went back to his grade school to talk about being an author and saw Jeannie, who had been the lunch lady. As he says, “I had never thought about her life outside of the lunchroom. I went home and began writing.”

More than 315,000 “Lunch Lady” books have been sold, there’s a movie option on the series, and now Krosoczka brings the Lunch Lady saga to a grand finale in the recently-published “Lunch Lady and the Schoolwide Scuffle” (Random House, $6.99, ages 7-10).  In this book, the Breakfast Bunch convince Betty and Lunch Lady – whose positions have been cut from the school budget – to return and help the students fight against the new administrators, who just happen to be the evil doers from all of the previous Lunch Lady adventures. It’s a perfect, satisfying way to end the series as young readers will enjoy seeing villains from previous books come up against Lunch Lady one more time.

Lunch Lady has her own website, and kids can go there to play a video game based on the series, and find out about the books. But kids and parents also might want to check out Krosoczka’s own website, where they’ll find eight different versions of Krosoczka’s biography (including a Twitter biography and a Fake Biography), a wonderful feature called “Sketchbook Saturday,” in which Krosoczka shares his latest drawings, and activities based on the “Lunch Lady” series and other books that Krosoczka has written.

For, if you don’t already know it, the author/illustrator of “Lunch Lady” also writes picture books and novels. Among his picture books are “Good Night, Monkey Boy” (his first published book), “Bubble Bath Pirate,” and “Punk Farm” (and its companion, “Punk Farm on Tour”). The multi-talented Krosoczka also has started writing the “Platypus Police Squad” books, a fiction series for kids ages 8-12. The first book is titled “The Frog Who Croaked,” and the second book, set to be published at the beginning of May, is “The Ostrich Conspiracy.”
And, if you’re looking for inspiration – for yourself or the child/children in your life – watch Krosoczka’s October 2012 TED talk, “How the Boy Became an Artist.” In the talk, Krosoczka talks about being adopted by his maternal grandparents after it became clear that his mother, a heroin addict, was unfit to be a parent. Krosoczka also relates the importance of reading and learning to do art were in his childhood, adding bluntly that “imagination saved my life.” Krosoczka’s talk is less than 20 minutes, but it’s guaranteed to put a smile on your face and help you remember just why being a children’s author is such an important – and fulfilling – career.

(Note: This blog post is based on a copy of "Lunch Lady and the Schoolwide Shuffle" sent to me for review by Random House Children's Books, and I borrowed my post's headline -- "The Cafeteria Is Closing!" from the Random House press release).

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Non-Diverse World of Children's Literature

The lack of diversity in children's books is a stubbornly persistent issue. Years ago, Nancy Larrick, a former president of the International Reading Association, sparked a vigorous and heated debate when she wrote in the Saturday Review about the "all-white world of children's books." In the article, Larrick noted that, while "integration may be the law of the land... most of the books children see are all white."

Larrick wrote that in 1965, and, in 2014, the world of children's literature remains a basically all-white world. According to the latest statistics gathered by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, of 3,200 children's books published in 2013, just 93 were about African Americans, 57 were about Latinos, 69 were about Asian/Pacific Islanders, and 34 were about American Indians. Clearly, these numbers don't reflect the reality of our increasingly multicultural country.

Folks in the world of children's literature have spent much time recently discussing the lack of diversity in children's books and how to remedy it. A great example of the recent focus is this post from the blog of Lee & Low, a publisher of multicultural books, whose tag line is "About Everyone. For Everyone." In that Lee & Low blog post, children's author Uma Krishnaswami noted: "It seems to me that as long as so-called 'multicultural' books, even award-winning ones, are placed in a separate category and not judged and read and recommended as good books on their own merit, this will continue to be the case."

Then last Sunday, Walter Dean Myers, a much-acclaimed author of numerous children's and teen novels and a former National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, brought the issue out for the general public to ponder. In a powerful, eloquent essay published in The New York Times and titled "Where Are the People of Color in Children's Books?," Myers talked about the importance of books in his own childhood, and then his increasing dismay as he matured that there were no characters like him in the books he read. As he writes in the Times: "As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine...Books did not become my enemies. They were more like friends with whom I no longer felt comfortable."

Christopher Myers with his father, Walter Dean Myers.
Myers' essay was paired with another, written by his son Christopher Myers, an award-winning children's book creator in his own right. In "The Apartheid of Children's Literature," Christopher Myers says bluntly that "(t)he business of children’s literature enjoys ever more success, sparking multiple movie franchises and crossover readership, even as representations of young people of color are harder and harder to find."
Christopher Myers

If you haven't read the two essays by Myers, father and son, I urge you to do so. It's a hugely important topic, and the Myers' essays poignantly detail the human cost of the lack of diversity in children's books. Walter Dean Myers, for one, hasn't given up, but the urgency of addressing the issue is increasing. As he concludes in his Times essay: "Black history is usually depicted as folklore about slavery, and then a fast-forward to the civil rights movement. Then I’m told that black children, and boys in particular, don’t read. Small wonder.
There is work to be done."

Friday, March 14, 2014

Tales From the Library: Novel Concerns

Recently, a patron called me to ask for recommendations for her mother-daughter book club in which the young participants are third-graders, most around nine years old. This patron and her daughter, a voracious reader, had suggested “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’Dell as their pick for the club. The patron told me that her daughter loved the book and wanted to share it with her friends.

But another mother in the club objected, saying that she had read on Common Sense Media that Karana, the main character, in “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” witnesses the deaths of her father and brother, and that the book contained a fair amount of violence. This mother felt that would be too much for her daughter and asked that the club read another book.

The patron who called me was frustrated by the situation and also concerned, as it seemed that the other mother’s concerns could greatly circumscribe the club’s reading. We talked about the “dead parent syndrome” in children’s books, so many of which feature at least one dead parent, which allows kids to be more adventurous. But she wasn’t sure that her mother-daughter book club would be able to read even classic books in which one parent was dead (“The Penderwicks” by Jeanne Birdsall as a recent example). “I know that kids mature at different ages and that can be hard,” the patron said to me. The patron added that she had talked to her daughter about the issue and that her daughter said, “Mom, I know that people die. That’s sad. But I just read those parts and move on.” Clearly, the patron said, her daughter is at a different place than the other mother’s child, but everyone in the club – both mothers and daughters – are good friends and so they really want to try to accommodate each other.

So the patron decided to call me, and ask for recommendations that might work for everyone. I’ve had this type of situation occur before, with parents asking for “gentle” fiction that contains no elements likely to upset their children. It can be extremely tricky terrain for a librarian to navigate, as every parent/child combination is likely to consider different elements as “upsetting.” For some, there can be no deaths that occur (I even had one mother tell me that she was reading “Charlotte’s Web” to her three-year-old child. (!) When I asked how she was going to explain Charlotte’s death to her child, the mother said that she was going to change the ending to a “happy” one where Charlotte lives. Aaarrrgh!) For others, the concern focuses on violence, which most likely means no fairy tales or graphic novels. Even our library's “all ages” comics, for example, usually have some kind of cartoonish violence. (If it’s the violence is more realistic, we put the graphic novel in our “older readers” section as a way of signaling that to parents).

 Certainly I believe that parents have the right to determine what their children read (although I also believe that parents should work to transfer that right to their children as the kids mature). With that parental right, however, comes a responsibility to ensure that you, as a parent, aren’t needlessly limiting your child’s ability to read books that may important for them to read. Fairy tales are a good example of this, with the classic thinking (Bruno Bettelheim, et al) that the violence in these classic tales (Red Riding Hood’s grandmother eaten by a wolf, Hansel and Gretel left in a forest by their father) can actually help kids work out some of their fears.

Full disclosure: I have to acknowledge that it wasn’t easy for me as a parent to refrain from trying to “protect” my kids from books that might upset them. One of my children had major sleep issues and so I thought that by limiting her reading of books with “upsetting” elements, I was helping her. My wise pediatrician, however, eventually convinced me that I couldn’t – and shouldn’t – try to sanitize the world for my daughter, and that it truly might be helpful for her to read about death and violence in a children’s book and see how the characters worked it out, and think about how she herself might work it out. By letting her read books with “upsetting” elements like death and violence, I was giving her some of the tools needed to function in the real world. Today she’s a well-adjusted 23-year-old, and I give some of the credit to the books she read as a child and teen.

Two other things: First, I recognize that my daughter was lucky that she grew up in a stable environment, emotionally and economically. Not every child is so fortunate, and books with death and violence may actually mirror their own experiences, not be something just to read about in a book. They may not have a choice of knowing about death and violence at young age. Second, remember that we are talking about children’s books! Even if there is a death in the book – often offstage, before the story begins, as in books like “The Saturdays” by Elizabeth Enright -- or some violence, like the way the title, canine character is stolen by some ne-er-do-wells in “Ginger Pye” by Eleanor Estes – these are children’s stories, and there will be a happy ending, at least of sorts.

 With all of this in mind, I came up with a list of possible books for the patron to suggest to her mother-daughter book club. They were specifically looking for fiction, so I didn’t include non-fiction or graphic novels – although I did include “Ellie McDoodle,” a “hybrid” book that features a mix of words and illustrations. Many of these books feature some element that might be considered upsetting by some parents (i.e. the divorced parents in “Flora & Ulysses” and the mostly unrepentant behavior displayed by the title character in “Harriet the Spy.”) I had a tight deadline to develop the list, which is by no means exhaustive, and so would love to hear more suggestions from others! This is an issue that comes up regularly for both parents and librarians, and it’s always good to be armed with recommendations. Meanwhile, here's my start at such a list:

__ "The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp" by Kathi Appelt

__ "Whittington" by Alan Armstrong

__ "Ellie McDoodle" by Ruth Barshaw (Hydbrid book, “Wimpy Kid”-style, half illustrations, half text)

__"The Penderwicks" (and follow-ups) by Jeanne Birdsall

__"Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing" by Judy Blume
__ "Masterpiece" by Elise Broach

__ "The Enormous Egg" by Oliver Butterworth

__ "The Cheshire Cheese Cat" by Carmen Agra Deedy

__ "The Cats of Tanglewood Forest" by Charles DeLint

__ "Flora & Ulysses" by Kate DiCamillo

__ "Half Magic" by Edward Eager

__ "Ginger Pye" by Eleanor Estes

__ "The Saturdays" by Elizabeth Enright

__"Harriet the Spy" by Louise Fitzhugh

__ "Bo At Ballard Creek" by Kirkpatrick Hill

__"The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate" by Jacqueline Kelly

__"Rabbit Hill" by Robert Lawson

__"Ella Enchanted" by Gail Carson Levine

__ "Rules" by Cynthia Lord

__ "Betsy-Tacy" by Maude Hart Lovelace

__ "Anastasia Krupnik" by Lois Lowry

__ "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH" by Robert O’Brien

__"Tom’s Midnight Garden" by Philippa Pearce

__"The Cricket in Times Square" by George Selden

__ "Young Fredle" by Cynthia Voight

Monday, March 10, 2014

March Madness for Kids' Book Fans

The battle is on: the Battle of the Kids’ Books, that is. Today was the first official day of this year’s battle, which pits two hand-chosen children’s books – often of very different types – against each other in the literary equivalent of a bracket. Then a judge, always a well-known children’s author, must choose one book over the other, and give their reasons. 

Today, for example, author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson faced a choice between a non-fiction book, “The Animal Book” by Steve Jenkins and a teen novel by Julie Berry, “All The Truth That’s In Me.” It’s an oranges vs. apples choice – the books are just that different. But that’s exactly what makes the Battle of the Kids’ Books so fun. (And, no, I won’t tell you which one she chose; you need to read her wonderful essay. Something you do need to know is that Nelson’s book, “No Crystal Stair,” was the winner of the 2013 Battle of the Kids’ Books).

This is the sixth year of the Battle of the Kids’ Books, which is sponsored by School Library Journal and was the brainchild of Monica Edinger, a fourth grade teacher at The Dalton School in New York City, Roxanne Feldman, Dalton’s middle school librarian, and Jonathan Hunt, the county schools librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. All three -- they're called Battle Commanders during March Madness -- have served on Newbery Medal committees and are supremely knowledgeable about kids’ books. All three also have great blogs. Edinger blogs at educating alice, Feldman’s blog is Fairrosa CyberLibrary, and Hunt teams with Oakland, California librarian Nina Lindsay on the Heavy Medal blog, which looks at Newbery Medal possibilities from October through January. Back when I was still working for Scripps Howard News Service, I wrote an article about how the Battle of the Kids’ Books came to be.

As always, the books listed in the brackets are some of the best books out there for kids, and you can’t go wrong with any of them. Then there are the judges, who are kids’ book authors themselves. It’s not surprising that their essays explaining why they are choosing one book over another are models of how to write an elegant, and persuasive, defense. The “Big Kahuna,” or final round, will be judged by Newbery Honor author (and “Babymouse” graphic novel series creator) Jennifer Holm. There’s also an “Undead” element to the contest, in which a book that was eliminated earlier is resurrected for the final round, to go head to head with the two finalist. And there's even a Peanut Gallery, where you can read a round-up of what people around the Internet are saying about the Battle of the Kids' Books. 

All in all, it’s a great way to get kids reading some wonderful books and have some fun while they do it. So, have some fun yourself with this literary brand of March Madness! (And for some extra entertainment, check out this video, which is two years old but gives an overview of the whole process with great humor). As for me, I’m spreading my bets on any one of a trio of books to win: “Flora & Ulysses,” the 2014 Newbery Medal winner, by Kate DiCamillo (pitted against “Far, Far Away” by Tom McNeal); “The Thing About Luck,” this year’s winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, by Newbery Medalist Cynthia Kadohata (pitted against "Rose Under Fire" by Elizabeth Wein); and “The Animal Book” by Steve Jenkins. Let the games begin!