28 September 2010

Subversive Favorites: It's a Book by Lane Smith

This post was originally prompted by an on-line discussion I've been following--and contributed to--about whether or not this picture book should be shelved as a picture book, fiction or in the children's room at all. You might have heard about It's a Book on NPR,  or read a review of it (there are many, and they are favorable.) You might have even read it yourself (please do!) What prompted the discussion was the use of a single word--and here I am going to give away the punchline of the book, so if you don't want the wicked wit revealed.....SPOILER!

The conversation was prompted by Lane Smith's use of the word, "jackass." He uses the word twice: at the very beginning, when he is introducing the characters in the book, one of which is, indeed, a jackass. He uses it again, with much more dramatic effect at the very end, when Jackass is addressed by name. However, by the end of the book the reader has realized that Jackass is not just a donkey, but a fool as well, hence the comedic brilliance of that utterance.

So first and foremost, thank you Lane Smith for reclaiming the word for legitimate use in children's literature! After all, 'jackass' is not an intrinsically bad word, one which has simply been commandeered for nefarious purposes (can anyone say, 'bitch'?) Actually, to be more accurate, I think it suffers from its association with a certain part of the human body (can anyone say, 'Uranus'?) But I digress. Children may snicker at the word. Or, perhaps if we give them a little credit, they might actually get the point. Adults reading this book certainly should. And if, after tucking their kids into bed for the night, they pick up their Kindles and iPads with a twinge of guilt, well....that's not such a bad thing. Books work precisely because the technology is simple. The only interface necessary involves picking it up and giving in to its pull. Talk about subversive!

To be honest, the books of Lane Smith beg the question--is sarcasm wasted on young readers? Perhaps 'sarcasm' is the wrong word for what I am trying to describe, which is closer to sophisticated, sly, sharp humor. If you revisit The Happy Hocky Family Moves to the Country (a personal favorite) or Glasses, Who Needs 'em? or even the much lauded John, Paul, George and Ben, there is a bite to these stories which rises above situational humor or visual jokes. Do young readers, 'get it'? Of course, as with any book, it depends on the reader. But in my opinion, why not test a child's wit? I've witnessed my own daughter, who at nine still laughs at burps, fling a zinger out every now and then. It's like she's using humor to test deeper intellectual waters. And in the end, isn't that what all great books do--challenge us intellectually?

26 September 2010

Think for Yourself--Banned Books Week

I love the catchphrase for this years' Banned Books Week (25 September - 2 October, 2010.) Think for yourself. Because that's really what book banning is all about, isn't it--the desire to influence how people think. Advocates of removing books from libraries have convinced themselves, and then try to convince everyone else, that they are somehow serving the common good by recognizing a threat and removing it before it falls into the wrong hands. Wow. Thanks. But you know what? I'll figure it out on my own, ta. There's only one way to decide what you agree with, which values you value, and that's by coming face-to-face with those you don't. If someone else has already made that determination, then what has really been learned? That they know best. For you, for your children, for the whole wide world.

My one experience with a book challenge was pretty benign compared to irate parents, brimstone fueled editorials, or waffling school boards. But it was indicative of the cowardice which I think is at the heart of  book challenges. Yes, I said 'cowardice'. If a person is so afraid of the written word that they would rather eliminate it than think about it--that is cowardly.

One day a book was returned with a sticky note attached to the front cover which said: "Bad word in this book." That sticky note was damning. To me, sensitive professional that I am, it implied that I had erred in my duties, and the patron was taking it upon themselves to gently point that out before calamity crashed down upon me. It also implied an expectation that I would efficiently yet quietly take care of the problem, just as I had been efficiently yet quietly made aware of its existence.

The book in question was Piggy by Mireille Geus, a 2008 import from the Netherlands about an autistic girl who is bullied and manipulated by a new girl at school. Since a gauntlet disguised as a sticky-note was flung at me, what else could I do but take a closer look at the book? The first thing I did was to check if I had ordered the book for the Young Adult collection and it had inadvertently been cataloged in Children's. Nope. Target audience is grades 5-8. Next, I checked the professional reviews, on the basis of which I had purchased the book. No mention of offending language in any of them, which made me think that it was not gratuitous and probably not worth mentioning. There was nothing really left to do but sit down and read it.

Indeed, right around page five, there is a very bad word. It is uttered by the bully Piggy herself, who is so transparent in her usage of the word. She wants to shock. And she does. The protagonist doesn't know what to make of her. But the reader does, by the efficient use of one, well-placed curse. A point which was clearly missed by the writer of the sticky note, as was the book's redeeming, timely message about bullies and the children who learn to stand up to them. I don't like swearing, but I do like the efficient use of language. The book went back on the shelf.

I'd be lying if I said I'm sorry that was the end of the matter. I don't look for fights. I alerted my director to the situation, in case a more formal protest followed. But nothing did. To be honest, a challenge might have done Piggy some good. Circulation records indicate that the book last went out over a year ago. It has only circulated 6 times in two years. Only three other libraries in our network own the book: two put it in YA, one other in Juvenile, like I did. It hasn't circulated much anywhere. But it's on the shelf waiting, and when it next ends up in the hands of a reader, I hope it leaves an impression beyond a single four letter word. It should, in the hands of a perceptive reader, who has been allowed to think for his or herself.

So, in honor of Banned Books Week, I would like to remind everyone that we are free to read whatever we want in this country. And if you take a look at some of the most frequently challenged and banned books in recent years, you might be surprised to see what made the list and why. If any of those books mean anything to you, think what you would have missed if some know-it-all censor got to it before you did. What if you never got to read To Kill a Mockingbird because someone objected to racist language? Or Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl because she writes about puberty? Talk about missing the point!

I, for one, like to think for myself. This week, and every week.

23 September 2010

Spiderwick Chronicles--the Pumpkin

Today NMD had to turn in the first big project of the school year--a pumpkin decorated like a character from a book she read over the summer. It is 100% her work, and I'm pretty proud of the effort she put into it. So without further ado, I present Mallory, from the Spiderwick Chronicles Book 3: The Ironwood Tree!
Here's an up close shot of Mallory (sans sword). The pumpkins will be on display in the school library, just in time for all the parents to see and admire when we attend Back to School Night.

20 September 2010

Lets have some non-fiction picture book (NFPB) love!

In preparation for October 1st, when nominations open for the current crop of awards, The Childrens and Young Adult Bloggers Literary Awards (CYBILS) are starting to announce the panels which will be reviewing and judging in each category. Because today is affectionately known as non-fiction Monday in the kidlitosphere, they have announced the panels for both categories of non-fiction: the Middle Grade/Young Adult (MG/YA) panel, and the non-fiction picture book (NFPB) panel. It is my great pleasure and honor to be participating for the second year on the NFPB panel. After reading more books last year than I could possibly imagine in the first round, this year I get to try my hand at judging, working in the second round with a panel of five bloggers, under the guidance of group organizer Jone MacCulloch, to select the finest non fiction picture book of the year.

Here are your 2010 Non-Fiction Picture Book Panels, Rounds I and II:

Panel Organizer: Jone MacCulloch, Check It Out

Panelists (Round I Judges):
Doret Canton, Happy Nappy Bookseller
Shirley Duke, Simply Science
Amanda Goldfuss, ACPL Mock Sibert
Abby Johnson, Abby (the) Librarian
Jone MacCulloch (see category organizer)
Karen Terlecky, Literate Lives
Carol Wilcox, Carol's Corner

Judges (Round II):
Kara Dean, Not Just for Kids
Roberta Gibson, Wrapped in Foil
Deb Nance, Readerbuzz
Carol Rasco, Rasco from RIF
Franki Sibberson, A Year of Reading

Other panels will be announced in the following days. Start thinking about your favorite childrens and YA books from this year and get ready to nominate them all, starting October 1st.

19 September 2010

Rave Review: Big Red Lollipop

Big Red Lollipop is a heartfelt, and heartbreaking, picture book about a girl named Rubina who is invited to her first birthday party. It is also a book about sibling relationships. It is also a book about the immigrant experience. It is also, in my opinion, a story about parental failure--a big, fat reminder of how much we forget about being children once we grow-up, and how parents demand wisdom from their children when we clearly don't have any ourselves.

When Rubina comes home from school one day, breathless from excitement about her first ever birthday party invitation, she is delivered a ghastly ultimatum by her mother, who has never even heard of birthday parties: she must take her little sister, Sana, with her or forfeit the party herself. The mother, dressed in the traditional garb of her home country, is lost in translation as Rubina tries to explain that that's not the way things are done. But the mother is adamant, and Rubina secures an invite for her bratty sister, despite the realization that her own social life is doomed. Rubina's one consolation for the day, a beautiful red lollipop received in her goodie bag, which she saves to enjoy later, is also lost to her when her sister eats it herself. 

Soon Sana is old enough to receive her own birthday party invitation. Rubina watches a familiar scene unfold as Sana's initial joy is squashed when her mother informs her that she must take both Rubina and the youngest sister, Maryam, with her. Rubina wants nothing to do with this scenario, despite the mother's insistence that it is fair. Sana, who has clearly forgotten her own role in the previous party events, is beside herself and pleads that she simply cannot bring the youngest sister with her.

Rubina's intervention is graceful, generous, and born of a wisdom which comes from stigma. The mother may or may not have noticed the lack of further party invites for her eldest daughter, but they are fresh in Rubina's mind. Sana proves herself to be grateful in the end, and the strengthened bond with her sister is a beautiful way to finish the book. But for me it is simply silver lining, because the central lesson revolves around the behavior of the mother. You can call it a cultural difference, an angle which is certainly emphasized in the story. But truthfully, I think the problem is in the process of growing-up. As adults we forget about the things which are important to children, such as the desire to not stick out. Compared to our weighty concerns, what's the big deal to bring a little sister--a child--to a child's party? How often do we tell children that life's not fair, and then force adult concepts of "fair" on them (such as being told to share a lollipop with a sibling who has already taken the lollipop for herself.) Or maybe it's just me. Perhaps this book struck a chord because I know how often I have failed my daughter with my own lapses of memory. Perhaps Big Red Lollipop simply speaks to my guilty conscience, that of a mother who has fallen back on the annoying get-out clauses my mom used ("Because I said so!") rather than remember my own nine year old cares and concerns.

Before finishing, I must take a moment to comment on the illustrations of Sophie Blackall. As the illustrator of the Ivy and Bean books, I always associate her work with the mischievous, slightly subversive behavior of those two girls. Here she has used her talent for expressiveness to eloquently compliment the text. The exchange over the purloined lollipop is a masterpiece of scowls, indignation, and contempt for the plain, awful unfairness of it all. And the cover, with the striking visual of the dominant lollipop, conveys the import of that controversial sweet without revealing the magnitude of the life lesson learned inside the book.

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