Wednesday, March 8, 2017

KidLit Diversity: Two Approaches

It's taken decades, but it seems that there is finally a consensus -- and an urgency -- about creating more diverse books for children and teens. There are still mountains to move, of course: just look at the latest statistics from the Cooperative Children's Book Center, which show that only 12 percent of children's books published in 2016 were created by authors and illustrators of color.

But there are definite signs of real change. The creation of We Need Diverse Books, is one key sign of change. Other signs include the fact that Simon & Schuster has established the first imprint for Muslim children's books, Salaam Reads. And now Kirkus, a professional review journal, routinely notes the race of characters in books that it reviews as a way of "unmaking the white default" in the world of children's books.

At a recent program hosted by the Children's Book Guild of Washington, D.C., two other approaches to diversifying children's literature were put in the spotlight. Both approaches are 25 years old. One approach, Africa Access, was founded by Brenda Randolph as a way of highlighting accurate, well-written books about Africa for children. The other approach, First Book, was established by Kyle Zimmer as a way of using market power to push publishers towards offering more diverse kids' books.

Brenda Randolph

Randolph opened her talk by giving a bit of personal background. She grew up in Richmond, Va., at a time when the public libraries were segregated. Later she encountered a different form of discrimination as a young librarian at a mostly white private school in a wealthy Boston suburb. When Randolph tried to convince the head librarian to jettison some racist and inaccurate books about Africa from the school's collection, she was consistently rebuffed.

"Things have changed since then," Randolph said. "Some of the earliest stereotypes have disappeared, but we still see stereotypes in other way."

To ensure more accuracy in children's books about Africa, Randolph founded Africa Access in 1989. Her idea was to assemble a team of experts who are scholars in African studies and have them review children's and teen books that focus on Africa. With that effort successfully up and running, Randolph then had an "epiphany" one day in 21992. "Instead of talking about what's wrong with books about Africa, how about flipping it around and celebrating books getting it right."

Thus was born the Children's Africana Book Awards, given annually to the best books about Africa for kids and teens. "We try to recognize as many books as we can," Randolph said. In recent years, Randolph's organization has become part of the Center for African Studies at Howard University. Africa Access also now celebrates Read Africa week by spotlighting a particular African country and offering resources about it to kids, families and teachers; this year's country is Ghana.

"One of the questions I get a lot from kids is 'Do you speak African?'" Randolph noted. "That's one of the reasons that we decided to focus on a country at a time."

While Randolph has focused her efforts at diversifying children's literature at the micro level, Zimmer has worked at it from the macro level. Zimmer said she decided to create First Book when she read a statistic that show that 79 percent of 4th graders from low-income families don't read proficiently.

Kyle Zimmer

"It's not surprising, but I'll never get over it," Zimmer said. Knowing that low-income kids generally have much less access to book, Zimmer realized that just getting books into the hands of those children would be a good start. And to do that, Zimmer created a system for tracking publishers' left-over inventory. The publishing industry is built on a consignment model, meaning that publishers take back from bookstores whatever books don't sell. With First Book's National Book Bank, Zimmer offered publishers a way to both store and manage that left-over inventory; in return, First Book is able to ensure that the books are sent to Title 1 schools and other places where they are most needed.

"While I love the First Book National Book Bank, it doesn't really fix the problem -- it's an end-of-the-pipeline solution," Zimmer said. To diversify children's literature, "we really need to change publishing," she added.

So ten years ago, Zimmer created the First Book Marketplace. The idea is simple but effective: First Book agrees to buy lots of copies of particular books on a non-refundable basis -- not on the consignment model. As she said: "When you say that to publishers in New York, choirs of angels sing." As a result of the Marketplace, First Book now has become "one of the specialty book buyers in the U.S.," and tries to use its market powers to push publishers towards offering more diverse books, Zimmer said.

For example, it was First Book's request that led to the first-ever bilingual (Spanish-English) edition of Goodnight Moon, the classic bedtime tale by Margaret Wise Brown, Zimmer noted. So far, First Book has bought and given out 100,000 copies of the book. "It's all about how to use the various levers and knobs in the marketplace to elevate the demand for diverse books," she said, adding that reducing their financial risks allows publishers to take chances on more diverse books, including those by first-time authors and illustrators of color. "We leave it to the experts as to what the content should be. Our job is to make sure that the buying tracks that."

End Notes: Thanks to Brenda Randolph and Kyle Zimmer for sharing their visions, energy and hope for the future! Thanks also to my Children's Book Guild program co-chairs, Maria Salvadore and Alison Morris, for putting together such a thought-provoking, timely event. And thanks to Guild President Kem Sawyer for her great flexibility in securing a new program venue just a few hours after we learned that our original venue would be closed in honor of #DayWithoutImmigrants.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Emily Jenkins & the Fun of Playing with Words

Author Emily Jenkins loves to play with words, so it's not surprising that she's long been a fan of the picture books written by Ruth Krauss. Among Jenkins' favorites are Krauss' A Very Special House and I Want to Paint My Bathroom Blue (both illustrated by Maurice Sendak). One favorite verse, from I Want to Paint My Bathroom Blue, goes like this:

 "I'll make a big white door
with a little pink doorknob --
and a song about the doorknob goes
a doorknob a doorknob
a dear little doorknob
a dearknob a dearknob
a door little dearknob...."

In fact, it was that "dearknob" verse that Jenkins was chanting with her two daughters one day when they were taking a walk. "And then at one point, we saw a greyhound, and I started playing with the rhythm using the word 'greyhound,'" Jenkins told a crowd gathered at my library recently after reading her newest picture book, A Greyhound, A Groundhog. "The book really came from that rhythm and those sounds before it came from any characters."

In A Greyhound, A Groundhog, Jenkins uses just a few words, but plays with them to create a story that is both whimsical and action-packed, and is totally fun to read aloud. Here's an example: “A round hound, a grey dog, a round little hound dog. / A greyhog, a ground dog, a hog little hound dog”. The lively watercolor illustrations by Chris Appelhans perfectly match Jenkins' text, making A Greyhound, A Groundhog "a feast for the eyes and ears," Kirkus put it. The book already has won great critical praise, include five starred reviews.

Jenkins came to my library, as part of our partnership with Politics & Prose Bookstore, to promote A Greyhound, A Groundhog. During the program, Jenkins also read and talked about two other recent picture books she's written: Toys Meet Snow, published in 2015 and illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Paul O. Zelinsky, and another just-published book, Princessland, which features artwork by Yoko Tanaka.

Toys Meet Snow is the first picture book that connects with the popular Toys Go Out chapter book trilogy written by Jenkins and also illustrated by Zelinsky. The books highlight the adventures of an unlikely trio of toys -- StingRay and Lumphy the buffalo, both plush toys, plus Plastic, a red rubber ball. Jenkins said at the library program that that there likely will be another Toys picture book in the next couple of years, although there are no plans for any further chapter books.

Meanwhile, in Princessland, Jenkins said that she was trying to both recognize the princess craze that many young kids, especially girls, go through while also pushing the boundaries a bit. "I like a good princess as much as the next person," Jenkins said with a grin. "...they're just fun! However, when my daughters were in their intense princess phase, I was always looking for what I would call 'feminist' princess books."

So, in Princessland, the main character, a girl named Romy, complains one day of being bored and wanting to be in "Princessland." Romy heads outside, accompanied by her talking cat, who asks her what Princessland is actually like. As Romy explains that, for example, the princesses can look out of their tall castles and see for miles, the cat leads her up a tree where -- yes -- she can see for miles. And so it goes, as Romy comes to understand that all of the things that she likes best about Princessland are actually in her own world, if she chooses to see them. Jenkins' story makes a point, but is never heavy-handed, while Tanako's colorful illustrations have plenty of glitzy details to satisfy young princess fans.

While Jenkins was focused on picture books in the recent program, she is a multi-talented writer who also writes chapter books for kids ages 7-10. In addition, using the nom de plume E. Lockhart, she's the author of several young adult novels. As a child, Jenkins always wanted to be a writer, but that changed in high school and college, when she became enamored of theater. Still, Jenkins ended up majoring in English, and then earned a master's and finally a doctorate in English literature.

It was while she was finishing her doctorate that Jenkins realized that what she really wanted to do was write. Over the years, she has published 44 books, which she characterized to the library audience this way: "Four books are for babies, 19 are picture books, 10 are young middle grade, nine are young adult, and two are for grown-ups. I wrote those two a long time ago, before I realized that I'd much rather write for kids."

For chapter book readers, Jenkins writes the Invisible Inkling series, and is one of three authors of the Upside-Down Magic series. (The other two authors are Sarah Mlynowski and Lauren Myracle. ) And, as young adult author E. Lockhart, Jenkins has won acclaim for such books as We Were Liars and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, which was a National Book Award finalist. Asked at the program if she likes to write for young adults, Jenkins replied that "writing for teenagers is being in an angst place -- a place of humiliation, a place of longing, a place of fury, a place of rejection of your family of origin.

"Even in comedies, it's still a fraught place to be. So I don't want to be there all the time. I don't want to spend all my life in that head-space. Sometimes I just want to be in the Upside-Down Magic headspace!"

END NOTES: Thanks to Emily Jenkins for a wonderful library program. Thanks to Kathy Dunn and the other Penguin Random House folks for sending her to my library. Thanks to Politics & Prose for our great partnership. And thanks to Bruce Guthrie for taking great photos of the event!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Subversive Children's Librarians

On Inauguration Day 2017, I was in Atlanta, far from my hometown of Takoma Park, Md. (just over the border from Washington, D.C.) and happily ensconced in a daylong educational institute for children's librarians. Among the programs featured were "Passing the Mic: Muslim Voices in Children's Literature and Lessons Learned in the Pursuit of Equity and Inclusion," "Why Is It So Difficult to Talk about Race, Culture and Other Marginalizations in Children's Literature" and "Welcoming Rainbow Families @ Your Library."

Gene Luen Yang, Nat. Ambassador for Young People's Literature, created this program.

These wonderful, enriching programs were punctuated by talks by well-known children's authors and illustrators, including Caldecott Medalists Kevin Henkes and Erin Stead, Cuban-American author/illustrator Carmen Agra Deedy, and National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson. We all ended the day energized and uplifted, and armed with great materials, such as a list of well-written books for kids, teens and adults by Muslim authors and featuring Muslim characters and themes. I've already used the list to order books that my library doesn't currently own.

Overall, the institute was the perfect way to spend this particular Inauguration Day, a way of countering the new administration's message of hate and fear by celebrating our rich diversity and highlighting marginalized voices. It was a day that helped remind me and other participants of our important mission of empowering ALL young readers through programs, services and books and other materials.

The institute was sponsored by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), the children's division of the American Library Association (ALA). Interestingly -- and importantly! -- the institute took place in Atlanta because ALSC voted to cancel a bigger institute that was supposed to take place in Charlotte, N.C. last fall; the Charlotte institute was cancelled because the state passed a law preventing transgender people from using the public restroom they prefer.

For me, the ALSC institute in Atlanta was a great way to open a particularly important ALA Midwinter conference where it seemed everything we did and said stood in direct contradiction to the new administration. At times, it felt like a subversive act just being at the conference! For example, it was particularly satisfying to see hundreds of librarians from around the country taking time off from the conference to participate in the Atlanta Women's March, many of them wearing the March's trademark pink hat. ALSC Blogger Karen Ginman was one of the marchers. 

Another example was a program entitled "Racial Justice @ Your Library," sponsored by Libraries4BlackLives. And then there was the speaker chosen for the ALA President's program -- 2015 Newbery Medalist Kwame Alexander. This ALSC Blog post by Sondy Eklund gives a flavor of his talk, as does this one. Here are a few quotes Kwame's talk, as recorded by Sondy: "Librarians, fire your cannons!  Books have a job to do and words plant seeds" and "Books connect us to each other.  Books don’t segregate. We do."

(On a personal note: I was lucky to sit next to Kwame and also Caldecott Honor artist Ekua Holmes at a Friday night dinner given by Candlewick Press to celebrate their new book, Out of Wonder. Talk about inspiring -- both meeting these two incredibly talented people and also reading their new book!)

Another example of Midwinter conference subversiveness: the adulation -- and acclaim -- rightly accorded to Rep. John Lewis, whose congressional district includes Atlanta. Lewis, the Civil Rights icon, recently was excoriated as "all talk, talk, talk -- no action or results" in a tweet by President Trump. Lewis, however, has found new fame and fans in the library world for his autobiographical graphic novel trilogy, March: Books One, Two & Three, co-written by Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell. Librarian Karen Ginman captured her excitement at meeting Lewis in this ALSC Blog post.

Lewis also made history at the Youth Media Awards, the annual announcements of the winners of such prestigious awards as the Newbery Medal, the Caldecott Medal, and more. At this year's awards, held on the morning of Jan. 23,  March: Book Three won a record four top ALA awards: the Michael Printz Award, given to the best book for teens; the Coretta Scott King Author Award, given to the best book by an African-American author; the Robert Sibert Medal, given to the best non-fiction book for kids; and the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) Non-Fiction Award. Lewis accepted the YALSA award in front a large crowd, and his speech was captured in this ALSC Blog post.

Meanwhile, several other award-winning books also spotlighted diverse voices. Illustrator Javaka Steptoe won the 2017 Caldecott Medal and the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, a book about the hugely talented African-American artist.

A book about an important piece of African-American history, Freedom in Congo Square, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie and written by Carole Boston Weatherford, was one of four Caldecott Honor books.

And finalists for the YALSA Non-Fiction Award, which won by March: Book 3, included In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives, by Kenneth Davis and This Land Is Our Land: A History of American Immigration by Linda Barrett Osborne.

In fact, the Youth Media Awards themselves are a celebration of all kinds of diversity. In addition to the Caldecott  Medal, the Newbery Medal, and the Coretta Scott King Awards for books by African-American authors and illustrators, other awards presented include:

__ the Pura Belpre Award, given to the best books by Latino writer and illustrator. This year's author winner was Juana Medina for Juana and Lucas, while the illustrator award went to Raul Gonzalez for Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, written by Cathy Camper;

__ the Schneider Family Book Awards, given to books that embody an artistic expression of the disability experience. The award for young children (ages 0-10) went to Six Dots:A Story of Young Louis Braille, written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Boris Kulikov, the award for a middle grade book (readers ages 11-13) went to As Brave As You, written by Jason Reynolds, the teen award went to When We Collided, written by Emery Lord;

__the Stonewall Book Award-Mike Morgan & Larry Romans Children's & Young Adult Literature Award, given to books of exceptional merit relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender experience. This year's winners were: Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgar: The Hammer of Thor, written by Rick Riordan and If I Was Your Girl, written by Meredith Russo.

ALA leaders hold some of the winning books.

Now it's time to bring all of this home, to keep up the momentum for celebrating diversity and spotlighting social justice. One thing I've committed to doing is creating a new book club, which I'm calling "Books to Action: A Social Justice Book Club for Kids and Adults." Our first meeting is Sat. Feb. 18 at 2 p.m. at the Takoma Park Maryland Library. We'll read and discuss 2-3 illustrated books (generally geared to ages 5-10) around a particular issue (I'm betting immigration might be our first topic) and then do a simple community service project. I got the idea for the book club and the name from reading about a California State Library project, and things crystallized when several patrons with young children asked if we could do a regular event based on the "Hope & Inspiration" Community Read-Out that my library offered in December.

Let me conclude this blog post with this hopeful image (with thanks to Anne LeVeque):

END NOTE: A big shout-out to librarian Mary Voors, who manages the ALSC Blog, and her team of volunteer bloggers for doing such a great job of covering the Midwinter conference!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Place Your Bets!

It's the most wonderful time of the year for children's literature fans, the time when we eagerly await the announcements of the winners of the prestigious Caldecott Medal and Newbery Medal. Those winners (and the winners of a host of other children's and teen book awards) will be announced on Monday, Jan. 23 at an early morning press event at the American Library Association's Midwinter conference in Atlanta. The event will be attended in-person by hundreds of librarians but it also will be live-streamed so folks everywhere can enjoy the excitement.

While the discussions of the "real" 2017 Caldecott and Newbery committees will remain forever secret, children's book fans around the country have been discussing and voting on their own choices for these top awards. These gatherings, called "mocks," are a wonderful way to connect with other children's book lovers who share a great enthusiasm for trying to predict the Caldecott and Newbery winners. Young readers themselves, of course, also have been participating in mocks in their classrooms and at local libraries, trying to see how close they can come to the "real" winners.

At my library, we held two mock events. In December, we hosted our third annual Mock Caldecott for Adults. In three hours, we read together our 20 finalists (which I had chosen with my co-host, Alison Morris) and discussed them according to the Caldecott criteria. Our mock Caldecott winner was They All Saw a Cat, written and illustrated by Brendan Wenzel. We had two mock Honor books: Du Iz Tak?, written and illustrated by Carson Ellis, and Daniel Finds a Poem, written and illustrated by Micha Archer.

Our second event was the culmination of a year of monthly Caldecott Club programs for kids and adults. At each program, we read four books, discuss them according to our "kid-friendly" Caldecott criteria, and then vote on our favorite of the evening. That book then becomes one of our finalists. Earlier this month, at our January Caldecott Club we re-read all of our nine finalists as well as a ringer that I tossed in -- They All Saw a Cat. I was interested to see if our Caldecott Club members, who range in age from 3 up, would like the book as much as those who attended our Mock Caldecott for Adults. It turns out they did: They All Saw a Cat easily won our Caldecott Cub mock election. We also chose one mock Honor book, School's First Day of School, written by Adam Rex and illustrated by Christian Robinson.

Looking at the results of mock Caldecott programs held around the country, it's clear that They All Saw a Cat is a favorite. But that doesn't necessarily mean it will win the 2017 Caldecott Medal. Having served on the 2016 Caldecott Medal committee, I can tell you that we read both more widely and more deeply than others would be able to do. Even more importantly, we spent two days in intense discussion of our nominated books. Predicting a winner beforehand would have been truly impossible.

Still, it's fun for those not serving on the awards committees to try to predict the winners! This year, for the second time, the Association for Library Service to Children has dedicated a space on its blog for reports of the mock winners across the country. While the most popular mocks focus on the Caldecott Medal and the Newbery Medal, some libraries also hold mocks focused on the Geisel Award (given to the best book for beginning readers), the Sibert Medal (given to the best non-fiction book for kids), the Printz Award (given to the best book for teens), and more.

And, for those who can't get enough of trying to predict the winners, there are discussion blogs focused on various awards. These include Heavy Medal (focused on the Newbery Medal), Calling Caldecott, Someday My Printz Come, and the newest blog, Guessing Geisel. But there's nothing like hearing the awards announced in real time. So mark your calendars for January 23 at 8 a.m. and join the excitement via the live webcast!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Winnie-the-Pooh and Me

A year ago today, children's book illustrator Sophie Blackall won the 2016 Caldecott Medal for her illustrations for Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear.

Sophie gets "the call"

 It was a huge day for Sophie, and a big day for me too, as I was a member of the 2016 Caldecott Committee that chose Finding Winnie as the "most distinguished American picture book for children."

Here I am with some of my fellow "Caldecrew;" our wonderful chair, Rachel Payne, is second from right in back. 

A quick recap of the story recounted in Finding Winnie: In the book, author Lindsay Mattick tells of the impetuous decision by her grandfather, a Canadian veterinarian by the name of Harry Colebourn, to purchase a bear cub for $20 as he was heading off to serve in World War 1. Harry brought the cub, which he named Winnie for his native Winnipeg, across the Atlantic with him and she was a mascot at his training camp in England. Before Harry and his unit left to fight in France, however, he realized that it would be best to leave Winnie behind at the London Zoo. It was there that a young boy named Christopher Robin Milne met Winnie and decided to name his favorite stuffed bear after her; his father, novelist A.A. Milne, immortalized the name in a book of stories about his son's bear, a book called Winnie-the-Pooh.

It's a rather incredible-but-true tale, and one that had been little known in the United States before the publication of Finding Winnie. But the story, made even more memorable with Sophie's stunning artwork, now has found a wide audience, thanks to the Caldecott Medal.

Six months after our committee chose Finding Winnie for the 2016 Caldecott Medal, Sophie formally accepted the award with a heart-tugging speech in which she noted that Winnie-the Pooh was the first book she bought with her own money: "It was an old, worn edition. A prop in my mother's antique shop. I read it in my secret spot under a table. I used to hide the book so no one would buy it. Eventually, my mother sold it to me for a dollar, and I polished the steps to earn the money.

"I had never known a book like it. A book with interjections and digressions and ponderings. One that meandered and backtracked, that bounced and hummed, that drew you in so close that you felt you were in the very forest itself, and at the same time allowed you to step back and see the actual form of a book. With characters so endearing you hated to leave them behind. So you didn't."

Sophie's cover for the July-August Horn Book.
As Sophie spoke those words at the Newbery-Caldecott banquet on the night of June 26, 2016, I had a flashback to my own introduction to Winnie-the-Pooh (and The House At Pooh Corner) years ago. Since then, I have discovered -- or, rather, rediscovered -- a number of ways that my life has been connected to Winnie-the-Pooh, years before I served on the 2016 Caldecott Committee.

Some of these connections are tangential, such as the fact that some of my first children's books were given to me by my mother's cousin, whom I called Aunt Priscilla. She worked for a Boston-based publisher named Little, Brown. Guess who published Finding Winnie? Yep that's right --Little, Brown, now based in New York.

Here's another, more direct connection. I had somehow never read Winnie-the-Pooh as a child, yet because my sister, seven years younger than I, was passionately attached to the Disney version of the Milne books, I certainly knew of the character.

But it wasn't until I was in my late 20's that I first read the "real" Winnie-the-Pooh. My husband and I were spending the day in Savannah, Ga. and stopped in at a bookstore called The Book Lady. There my husband spotted used hardback copies of Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, books that he had loved as a child. Astounded that I had never read them, my husband bought them on the spot and we read them aloud, a chapter at a time, when we returned home. They became instant favorites of mine, and I've re-read them numerous times since then.

Today, in yet another rather amazing connection, our son now is a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design and he lives just a block from The Book Lady.  My husband and I love to visit Savannah, and The Book Lady is a must-do destination each time. (And I still have wonderful memories of reading Winnie-the-Pooh aloud to my son who was both charmed and calmed by the stories.)

One final -- and very direct -- connection to Winnie-the-Pooh: in the early 1980's, I was working as a Washington correspondent for The Albuquerque Tribune, a paper owned by Scripps Howard. The main company had just formed the DC-based Scripps Howard News Service and was scrambling for copy to put out on its wire. While I enjoyed covering politics for the Trib, I really wanted to write national features for the news service. First, however, I had to convince the editors to create that beat.

Elliott Graham and the original Winnie-the-Pooh

To persuade them, I decided to write a few features in my own time, and one of them relates directly to Winnie-the-Pooh. I had read about the fact the real Winnie-the-Pooh and his stuffed companions resided (at that time) in a New York publishing house and so, the next time I visited New York, I set up an appointment to see them. I also got to meet their human companion, a lovely man named Elliott Graham who actually chaperoned Winnie-the-Pooh on visits around the country.

My article on Pooh and Elliott went out on the Scripps wire and got picked up by newspapers across the country. While I never did convince my bosses to start a national features beat, the Pooh article inspired me to create a weekly children's book review column for Scripps Howard News Service. I wrote that column for 23 year until the news service was ended in 2013. This blog is the successor to that column, and now here I am, once again writing about Winnie-the-Pooh -- only this time in my second-career persona as a children's librarian, and incredibly proud member of the 2016 Caldecott Committee!

One final note: a mega "Thank You" to my fellow "Caldec-crew" members and our incredible chair, Rachel Payne. I've definitely gained 14 wonderful new friends through our work together as a committee. And, of course, a big "Hurrah!" to Sophie for creating such extraordinary illustrations in Finding Winnie. As Sophie put it so beautifully in her Caldecott acceptance speech: "To the 2016 Caldecott committee: we are forever connected, you and I. You are my committee and I am your medalist." Indeed.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Surprised By the New Harry Potter

When I recently sat down to read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I felt a range of emotions: happiness at being back in Harry's world again; worry that both the script format and the story itself might be disappointing; and fascination with the idea that the "boy who lived" was now a middle-aged wizard.

What I didn't expect, however, was the gut-wrenching emotions I felt watching Harry and his younger son Albus try to deal with their already-complicated relationship as Albus becomes a teenager and really feels the weight of being the son of the world's most famous wizard. That's not a spoiler -- pretty much everything that has been written about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has referred to the fraught Harry-Albus relationship as a major part of the story.

Yet while I knew about it, I wasn't prepared for the way the emotional force of their parent-teen divide would hit me. Perhaps it's because I've recently experienced the ups and downs of parenting adolescents myself (and come out the other side with two wonderful young adults). Or perhaps it is the way the story brings out the nuances and complexities of the awkward/strained Harry-Albus relationship. Harry may be the world's most famous wizard, but that doesn't meant he's having an easy time dealing with a teen who really doesn't want much to do with him. And, of course, Harry didn't have any real parent role models in his own growing-up years, which just makes it harder. In her recent review, New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani further explores the Harry-Albus dynamic as a key emotional element Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

This was definitely the biggest surprise in the book for me, but there were others, most of which I won't discuss as I believe it's best to come to any Harry Potter story as fresh as possible. I will say, however, that I found the story irresistible, the script itself well-written, and I especially loved the way that bits and pieces from the Harry Potter books were woven into the play. There is one further surprise I can discuss, however, which is how easily I became accustomed to the script format. Like many others, I had originally found it somewhat irritating that what had been billed as the "new Harry Potter book," was actually the "special rehearsal edition script" of the play that opened recently in London. It seemed a bit like cheating! And I wondered -- a little -- about how accessible young readers would find the format, although as I told a New York Times interviewer: "Any true Harry Potter fan will leap over any obstacle to keep up with his story." (Unfortunately I wasn't quoted in the Times story -- a hazard of which I'm well aware as a former newspaper reporter, but it was fun to marshall my thoughts about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in preparation for the interview).

Actually the interviewer was most interested in whether the fact that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was published as a script would lead more kids to read plays. As I told the reviewer, I have my doubts about that, but I do harbor a hope that the script format will lead more kids towards what is known as "Reader's Theater."

Librarian Elizabeth Poe's book is a great resource for doing Reader's Theater.

To do Reader's Theater, you take a story -- say The Three Pigs -- and re-write it as a script. Then make copies of the script, one for each character, and then choose a child for each character. Hand them a script, have them take a bow, and the show starts! Reader's Theater not only is fun, but research also has shown that it a wonderful way for kids to gain fluency in reading aloud. We've done Reader's Theater in my library, and everyone has a blast. So, if the script format of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child helps inspire more libraries and schools to do Reader's Theater, that's a great thing!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A Tale of Two Potters

It's the best of times when you get two -- yes, two! -- big children's literary birthday celebrations in one week. Interestingly, they both involve Potters.

One of the birthday celebrations is all over the news. That would be the upcoming July 31st birthday of Harry Potter, which is being celebrated with the 12:01 a.m. release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It's not a typical novel, however; it's the rehearsal script of a play now running in London and based on an idea by Harry Potter author J.K Rowling. Hearkening back to the worldwide excitement generated by the last release of a Harry Potter book (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) in 2007, bookstores around the country have planned midnight release parties, complete with trivia matches, costume contests and more.

The milestone birthday of another famous Potter -- Beatrix -- has gotten much less publicity. This week marks the 150th birthday of Beatrix Potter, who was born on July 28, 1866. Beatrix Potter, as most folks know, wrote and illustrated The Tale of Peter Rabbit and others in her now-classic "little books" series. Fewer people, however, may be aware of Beatrix Potter's fascination and talent for science, especially mycology, the study of fungi. Beatrix Potter also is well-known in the United Kingdom for her efforts at land conservation.

While Beatrix Potter's life may have lacked the excitement of the fictional Harry Potter's life, she was a ground-breaker in her own right, both in creating some of the earliest best-selling children's books and also as one of the first to begin licensing products related to her work, including a stuffed Peter Rabbit. In 2002, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, I wrote an article about Beatrix Potter in which children's book expert Anita Silvey noted: "Potter's characters are not human beings in animal clothing, They are animals who can walk and talk. Peter Rabbit is an anatomically correct rabbit. She really combined her knowledge of nature with a touch of fantasy and whimsy."

For more on Beatrix Potter, check out the official website dedicated to her life and work, as well as this article which details "six things you may not know" about her.

Meanwhile, the main focus this week remains trained on the Potter with the lightning scar on his forehead. The play of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has gotten nearly unanimously rave reviews, but very little is known about the story as playgoers (including reviewers) have mostly abided by the injunction that they not reveal its secrets.

This secrecy has made things a little dicey for children's librarians like myself who are wondering exactly what is the age range for readers of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Since it's published by Scholastic, a children's and teen books publisher, I'm assuming that it's appropriate at least for ages 10 up, but I'm certainly expecting that teens and adults will want to read it -- especially those young adults in their early 20s who grew up with the midnight release parties. And then there's the issue of whether readers -- kids or adults -- will find it hard to read the script format. Personally, I'm thinking that any true Harry Potter fan will leap over any obstacle to read more about their fictional hero.

At my library, we're skipping any midnight parties, and instead we've planned a "listening session" of the first chapters of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone from 1:30-4:30 p.m. this Saturday afternoon (July 30). In my mind, the combination of narrator Jim Dale and a Harry Potter book equals pure magic, and I'm looking forward to sharing that magic with our patrons. We'll have birthday cake, snacks and lemonade, plus Harry Potter artwork for folks to color as they listen. And we're encouraging everyone to bring blankets and pillows and just settle down to enjoy some great listening.

 But we also haven't forgotten about the birthday of the other Potter. We've put up a little display of Beatrix Potter's books, including some biographies, and hope to encourage patrons to rediscover the magic of the "other" Potter this week as well.