Category Archives: Children’s literature

The verdict is in…

Yesterday was the first Bagels n’ Books book group.  A great, enthusiastic bunch of fourth and fifth graders, a dozen bagels that rapidly and magically disappeared into eight mouths, and a lot of talk about The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.  Guess what?  The kids didn’t like the book much.

These kids are well-versed in how to discuss literature, and though there were a few groans when I said it’s not enough to just say you don’t like a book, that you have to give specific reasons, they all provided clear and definitive reasons for why they didn’t like the book.  One girl said it was too easy and it didn’t take her very long to finish the book.  A boy chimed in that he read the book in, like, an hour.  Another girl said that there is no point to the book.  “Ah-ha!”  I thought to myself, “Maybe they haven’t delved deep enough into the book and that’s why they didn’t like it!”  But no, this girl went on to say, “I mean, I understand that it’s about Edward learning to love and getting back to Abilene, but what’s the point of that?”

A different boy, and the girl beside him, complained that the book didn’t have enough action.  They mentioned that Kate DiCamillo’s other books have action and excitement, and that The Tiger is Rising and The Tale of Despereaux are books that they enjoyed reading.  Other kids agreed vigorously to this comment.  One girl was brave and spoke up to say that she LOVES the book because of the language and style of DiCamillo’s writing; she also commented on the cyclical nature of the storyline and had as many bookmarks marking places in the text as I did.  Future English major, guaranteed.

I used Aidan Chamber’s technique of writing likes, dislikes, puzzles, and patterns on a big sheet of paper, trying to keep my mouth shut about my own opinions in order to let the kids fully express their thoughts.  Had we had more time together (our actual book discussion only lasted for a half hour), I could have gone on to guide the group to a deeper discussion of the book.  But I’m still not sure that I would have been able to change the minds of those kids who strongly dislike the book; and that was never my goal.

What fascinates me most is that a lot of the negative adult commentary I’ve read about the book has focused on it being too sad for children, too emotionally wrenching.  The kids yesterday really weren’t bothered by the sadness in the book, they were annoyed by the lack of action.  They had wanted a book that was going to take them on journey; I mentioned that well, Edward Tulane does go on a journey, and most of the kids just rolled their eyes at me.  “It’s not a REAL journey!”

Two things come to mind: this book is a very different type of fantasy than the fantasy that prevails in the publishing world today (I hesitate to say it: the Harry Potter type of fantasy).  Most of the kids in the book group yesterday are probably used to action-based fantasy with magic and heroes and sparks and blood.  Edward Tulane can’t speak or act, and thus passively endures all that happens to him, except for the growth within him of a heart and the ability to love.  His physical strength doesn’t change, and he doesn’t accomplish great physical feats in the process of learning to love; he simply learns to love.

The other thought that comes to mind is that any reader, young or old, has the ability to skip those parts of a text that he or she either isn’t ready for or just doesn’t want to deal with.  I do this all the time: when reading the sixth Harry Potter, I knew that someone was going to die, so I purposefully read the end first to find out who so that I wouldn’t be held captive by the suspense of the book.  Perhaps the kids in yesterday’s book group don’t want to read about loss and sadness, or perhaps they’re not ready for stories that deal with those issues in depth, and so the book seemed, to them, to be boring.  It didn’t address their concerns, and it didn’t appeal to them.

Notably, though, it was loved by one group member, the girl who was adept at locating subtleties in the text and who possessed the most sophisticated literary vocabulary.  I’ll go out on a limb here and say that she was ready for the text, and thus loved it.  Ready for the text, and also interested in what the text had to say.  “The right book for the right child at the right time.”  No one book can appeal to everyone.

At the end of the hour, I presented the book group members with seven books to choose from for our next meeting in October.  The choices were: The Tale of Despereaux, The Diamond in the Window, Love That Dog, Half Magic, Room One: A Mystery or Two, The Penderwicks, and The Search for Delicious.  The winner was:  Half Magic by Edward Eager, coming to the library on October 24th.

More new books

Three more new books that I absolutely love:

The True Story of Stellina by Matteo Pericoli

This one has received rave reviews in many different journals, including Horn Book Magazine.  So I was expecting great things from this book, and it more than delivered.  It’s a very sweet, unsentimental tale of a baby finch in New York City that falls out of its nest and is taken in by a young woman, after she watches and waits for many hours for the finch’s mother to claim her baby.  The young woman and the finch live happily together in a NYC apartment, and eventually Matteo Pericoli and the young woman get married and the finch, Stellina, continues to live with the two of them.  Stellina lived to be eight, and Pericoli’s retelling of her life story is beautiful and touching.  His prose is spare and lovely, and his illustrations are absolutely gorgeous.  (I was very misty-eyed — runny mascara — when I finished reading this book at my desk in the library.)

The Art Book for Children by the folks at Phaidon Press

This isn’t a picture book (I’m cataloging it in the section of the library for third grade and up).  Art from many different eras and styles is represented in this book, and the authors do an amazing job discussing the background information on specific pieces of art, pointing out certain aspects of each piece of art, and then posing open-ended questions about that artwork.  I can see parents reading this along with their children, with ensuing lively discussions about art.  Wish I’d had a book like this as a kid…it wasn’t til my junior year of college that I knew how to look at art and feel confident in my own opinions about that art.

Built to Last: Building America’s Amazing Bridges, Dams, Tunnels, and Skyscrapers by George Sullivan

Admittedly, I haven’t spent as much time reading this book as I should, but my excuse is that it’s a fairly dense text and I have a LOT of books to process at the moment.  What I’ve seen and read, though, I like a lot.  This book is definitely intended for an older audience, probably fifth grade and up, and gives details about various construction projects throughout the US.  Being from the Boston area, I read the section devoted to the Central Artery (the infamous Big Dig project), and found the text well-written and the photographs informative.  At the beginning of each section, the main facts about the project are set apart for easy reference and comparison: cost, time to complete, etc.  In addition, there are boxes in each section with related interesting facts; in the Big Dig section, there is a discussion about a privy from the 1600’s that was uncovered in the course of the construction, and what was found in the privy (including an early bowling ball!).

These books, and many other new books, will be the books available for summer reading bookplates.  Any child who read more than 30 hours during the summer will be able to choose from these great new books and have a bookplate put into the chosen book with that child’s name and the total number of hours that child read over the summer.  Some kids have just reached 30 hours, others are aiming high and have already reached 120 hours.  I’m really impressed by their achievements, and I’m glad that I have a stock of such great books from them to choose from for this bookplate adventure!

The Owl Service

My current book is The Owl Service by Alan Garner, the classic 1968 winner of the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Award.  Though I’m really enjoying the book now that I’m more than half-way through it, I have to admit that I’ve really struggled with the Welsh colloquialisms and the Welsh names of people and places and the allusions to Welsh myths.  We’ve placed this book in the juvenile section of the library, based upon its content, but I’m wondering now if it really belongs in the young adult section.  It would take a precocious fifth grader to wade through all the Welsh vocabulary and stick with the book long enough in order to get fully involved in the story.

Has anyone else out there read this book recently?  I’d love to hear your thoughts about the book, and about who is its actual reader.

(As a postscript, my summer reading time is currently 24 hours; looks like I’ll meet my goal of 30 hours by the end of summer reading, August 18th!)

finally

After renewing the book more times than I can count (a major benefit of being a librarian!), I FINALLY finished reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.  I wish that I had some incredibly intelligent and informed comments to make about the book, but, alas, I don’t.  Although that is telling in itself, since I usually have more to say about a book that I’ve just read than other people care to hear.

But I’ll squeeze a few comments out of myself…

Though there were exciting plot twists and turns in the book, mostly I found it to be just plain dull, and tortuous to slog through.  It’s almost as though J.K. Rowling has lost her spirit, and doesn’t really care about Harry and the gang anymore.  The first few books in the series aren’t very well-written, but there’s a certain joy and vivacity in them that’s missing from The Half-Blood Prince.  Hopefully Rowling will regain her stride a little in the upcoming final book of the series; maybe the light at the end of the tunnel will inspire her to recapture some of the freshness that’s missing from books five and six.

So now it’s time to move on to OTHER books.  Here’s what’s on the docket:

Spy Force: Mission: In Search of the Time and Space Machine, by Deborah Abela

Can’t say I’m expecting a whole lot from this one.  I’m reading it because books about spies seem to be “hot” right now, and I’m previewing this particular one before I order the series for the library.  It hasn’t gotten the best reviews, so I’d rather read it for myself and make my own judgement before investing the library’s money in it.

The Owl Service, by Alan Garner

We just ordered a new paperback copy of this 1967 work, and I remember really enjoying it when I read it in graduate school.  Time to cleanse my reading palette with something of quality!

The Pilot’s Wife, by Anita Shreve

My good friend Judy gave me a copy of this book a few weeks ago.  I’m looking forward to reading it.  And it’s adult literature, what a concept!

New Boy, by Julian Houston

I heard Houston speak at The Concord Bookshop back in April or May, and I was very impressed by him and by the book passages that he read aloud.  Impressed enough that I bought a copy of the book and had him sign it, despite my complete moratorium on book purchases for myself.  (Our small house just can’t hold another book…)

I’d love to hear what other people are reading right now; drop a comment and let me know what you’re enjoying this summer!  And also check out my brother’s blog (follow the link on the right to “Yet Another Unitarian Universalist”); he has periodic entries about his summer reading.

Next in line

I’ve just read two excellent books, the newish young adult novel Red Sea by Diane Tullson, and the newish children’s book The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo.  (I’ll write an entry about each of these books in the near future.)  Now it’s time for me to move on to the next book…which I have decided needs to be the 6th Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling.  We just received a donation at my library of a new copy of the book, and I felt compelled to take the book home to read while it was still clean and beautiful.

I read each of the other five Harry Potter books as soon as it came out (pre-ordered my copies from Amazon, even).  It’s not that I’m addicted to Harry Potter, or that I’m a huge Harry Potter fan.  In fact, a year or more ago I gave away all of my copies in one of many purges of my bookshelves.

But I’m also not a literary snob.  A wise and funny friend of mine often says that it’s not fair to hold children and young adults to higher literary standards than we do adults.  Adults often read bestsellers, books that are engaging but not fabulous, fun but not life-changing.  Why shouldn’t children and young adults have the same opportunity?  Don’t children and young adults have the right to take time away from the crunch of their school work and lose themselves in a quick plot and a fantasy world?  Wouldn’t we, the judging adults, rather see our young people turn to a book instead of a television show or the internet?  (The role of adults in the selection of and production of children’s literature is a topic that I’ll approach in future blog entries.)

I have no grudge against Harry Potter.  The only reason I’ve waited so long to read the 6th installment is rather lame, actually: the 5th book is SO large that I found it physically uncomfortable to hold while I read it.  But as a children’s librarian, it’s both my duty and responsibility to know and understand the literature that the users of my section of the library (children) seek out.  So, Half-Blood Prince, here I come!