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Newbery Award stuck in a time warp? January 3, 2009

Filed under: In the News,Issues — jbmcqueen @ 8:25 am

A Brigham Young University study has pointed up a large bias toward white, male characters from two-parent households in the juvenile titles receiving the prestigious Newbery award. It seems even our increasingly diverse — not to mention PC — society hasn’t touched the American Library Association, which has bestowed the Newbery honor on one book per year since 1922.

In thinking about this finding for just a minute, and reflecting on the Newbery titles that instantly spring to mind, I have to pretty quickly acknowledge this claim of bias does seem true. From titles as different as Bridge to Terabithia to the wildly imaginative Holes, yep, the main characters are indeed white, male, and residents of two-parent households. The seeming preference for these types of families may likely be unintentional — I don’t see how anyone could question the superiority of the writing and stories in titles such as those — but it’s there.

Two things. One, I can’t stand it when any institution, whether it be a contest, election or a book award panel, becomes so PC that it’s simple to project who the winner will be due to the mere presence of ethnic characters or daring themes. But I can still see the reason for the recent outcry.

The Contra Costa Times quotes Pat Scales, the president of the Association for Library Service to Children, which runs the Newbery program: “The Newbery is given for literary quality. Ethnicity, gender — nothing of that is necessarily taken into consideration.

“We certainly want children’s books to mirror society… It’s not as magic as whether there is a boy main character or a girl main character or an African-American or Latino or Asian character. We owe kids good stories that reflect their lives and give them a more global view.”

But while the stories may be good, the conventionality of the households from which the characters come definitely is old-fashioned, hardly global.

The second thing — the Newbery panel is famous for NOT really selecting the best title every year. Often, the superior title is the runner-up, such as Newbery Honor books like Hatchet. While it’s true the Newbery titles always stay in print and win the author much prestige, I remember even from my own childhood that often these titles are viewed as “untouchables” by students, perceived as too highbrow (read, boring) to be enjoyable.

We’ll see what happens with the good ol’ Newbery. We’ll hope they find a way to hunt down titles that give young readers broader cultural views while preserving the spirit of the quest for great story.

posted by Janie McQueen author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

www.magicbookshelfonline.com

 

Green Christmas December 11, 2008

My husband Josh has a Quaker background that doesn’t seem to manifest itself much in his daily life anymore — except when it comes to children’s books. Blog readers familiar with the Quakers, or the Religious Society of Friends, know they have a distinctly “green” streak that runs deep.

So while we were waiting for our twins’ birthdate last week — they were born Wednesday, Dec. 3 — Josh read a children’s book review in one of our oft-arriving baby magazines that had him rushing to the nearest bookstore within a day or two of John and Susannah’s birth. What did he buy? Guess How Much I Love You? Love You Forever? No, he bought When Santa Turned Green by Victoria Perla.

Newly published in October 2008, this vastly different spin on the usual Santa fare centers on an unabashed environmental theme. Santa as depicted in the illustrations by Mirna Kantarevic actually bring to my mind a much older environmentally themed book by the great picture book master: The Lorax (Classic Seuss). Remember it and its famous tag-line? “I speak for the trees!”

Perla too speaks for the trees — and the polar ice caps, and the Earth’s atmosphere… in fact, the whole planet. I love how, when Santa decides he must combat the issue of global warming, he goes straight to the people who can help the most — the children:

“He went to the real future. To you.

And your sisters and brothers and friends.

That’s right, he went to the children.

Because they have the power to change the world.”

The story goes on to detail what some individual children do to help save their world, from using reusable lunch containers to composting to getting Grandpa to buy a hybrid vehicle.

Parents and educators who don’t have much patience for didactic books may be put off by this book’s overt environmental theme, but I like it for its straightforward, non-sneaky and non-apologetic tone. My guess is When Santa Turned Green will turn out to be more than just a Christmas book, snapped up by those who embrace its message and who want to help children think more broadly than Christmas lists and sleighbells.

posted by Janie McQueen for www.magicbookshelfonline.com

 

Children’s lit goes political propaganda again November 3, 2008

A couple of months ago, I blogged on what I felt was a misuse of children’s literature, in that case for the promotion of political candidates. I weighed in that some parents might indeed want to share with their children the merits of their chosen candidate, but where these books were concerned, the material was more fiction than biography, and other more objective kids’ books about politics and elections could easily be found.

Today I read about the use of children’s literature as a different kind of propaganda — in this case, to either promote or hinder a gay agenda.  Sara Nelson wrote a very good blog for Publishers Weekly she entitled Book Abuse, detailing how a children’s picture book published by Tricycle Press is being used in an ad campaign supporting Proposition 8 in California, which would overturn recently passed laws permitting gay marriage. (See the ad in the YouTube clip above.)

Nelson writes: “King & King, a children’s picture book by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland, which was originally published in the Netherlands, is cited by a New England mother and father who were horrified that their son was exposed to the book—a kind of fairy tale in which a prince falls in love with a prince—at school.”

I know books are used for all kinds of reasons, not only to spin stories. They convey morals, they can illuminate different points of view, and they can show someone how to do something, from using the potty to building a fort. I myself am the author of how-to books, and I love nonfiction.

But sometimes I wish everyone would leave the children’s book field alone. I know gay parents and others celebrating diversity and acceptance appreciate “teaching” books like King & King, and the landmark Heather Has Two Mommies: 10th Anniversary Edition (Alyson Wonderland). I know parents who’ve greatly appreciated books about infertility and adoption, in vitro fertilization, and using donor sperm or eggs, to show their children in child-friendly language and art how they were conceived (for example, the X Y and Me series.)

Does everyone need these books? No. Not everybody needs my parenting books, either. Does King & King have to be in school libraries? To say no would be censorship, but as a parent, I’m admittedly on the fence. I don’t have a problem with such books existing, but I suppose if pressed I’d want to choose when to “go there.” If it’s on the library shelf for one of my children to pick up and bring home, that’s forcing me to “go there.”

However, passing a gay couple holding hands makes us “go there” as well, as does attending religious services with a very liberal and accepting congregation. Likewise, so did the fact that my older son had a kindergarten classmate who had two moms (something the children never even commented on but which caused a pretty shameful uproar in the rather conservative school). Is a book on a shelf any different?

It’s delicate subject matter, to be sure. And for all parents who wish to expose their children to its message, there are as many or more that do not. Nelson’s column is devoted to the issue of whether a book that actively promotes tolerance should be used in a campaign against that very ideal.

I know this is very sad to people who love this book, and to its publishers. But all’s fair. No one has to uphold the authors’ and publishers’ intent. (They also will enjoy the kind of backlash promotion that comes with campaigns like this. After all, were it not for this campaign, I might never have heard about the book.)

But just like I bemoaned in my blog about politics overrunning children’s book merchandising, can we just leave children’s books out of it?

posed by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

visit www.magicbookshelfonline.com

 

Are we standing between our children and nature? October 21, 2008

Yesterday’s blog centered on ways children can help free themselves from constant electronic stupor and get started doing real things again, with the help of a few good kids’ how-to books like The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Daring Book for Girls.

Almost as soon as I pressed the “publish” button, it occurred to me that many parents these days also come from the home computer generation, and might struggle themselves to “get back to nature.” I know I’m one to have trouble disengaging myself from my laptop — I can find almost any reason to log on.

Yesterday my older son Riley and I researched and quickly came up with a homespun Halloween costume, an old-fashioned white-sheet ghost with some professional finessing thanks to a video series from eHow. So yes, even and sometimes especially where children are concerned, electronics like Ye Olde Internet can be a prime resource.

In fact, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv is mentioned in the bibliography of my book The New Magic Bookshelf, but as my book doesn’t center on this subject, I don’t say much more about it there except that it’s a wonderful tool packed with practical ideas on enriching our children’s lives with nature.

But as Publisher’s Weekly so cannily points out in its review of Louv’s guide: “Indeed, a 2002 British study reported that eight-year-olds could identify Pokémon characters far more easily than they could name ‘otter, beetle, and oak tree.'” Hear, hear! I can definitely relate to this.

Quite aside from our lip-service about wanting our children to have some appreciation for the “simpler things” is the seldom recognized craving children have for contact with the natural world. I doubt many of us witness true joy when we watch our children engrossed in a video game or TV show. A robotic focus is what I see. Compare this with the too rare, healthy pleasure that radiates from the faces of barefoot children pink-cheeked from chasing fireflies, gathering dandelions, splashing in a stream or even just playing with the dog in the backyard.

The “simpler things” do seem to require more effort from us. It’s hard to push ourselves away from our home offices, and pull the plug on a child clutching a handheld, ever-so-close to “beating the game.” And Louv also acknowledges that sometimes our keeping children securely behind closed doors is a safety measure — children can’t run around at will anymore, as some of us lucky souls were able to do.

However, in Louv’s words: “Although we have plenty of reasons to worry about our children, a case can be made that we endanger our children by separating them too much from nature, and that the reverse is also true — that we make them safer, now and in the future, by exposing them to nature.”

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

Visit www.magicbookshelf.com

 

Kids need REAL real-world experience October 20, 2008

My sons’ entries into a library-sponsored Wii tennis tournament on a recent teacher workday off from school only reinforced my decision to continue to limit electronic gaming in our household.

We don’t have a Wii, so I thought getting to play it outside a friend’s house would be novel. Well, competition was stiff. I mean, cutthroat. You could immediately see the lay of the land in that fluorescent-lit library multi-purpose room amid the gray metal folding chairs.

There were the jocks — the winners — those who had their own Wii’s at home and played so much they knew they were good. In typical self-satisfied A-team jock-style, they punched each other’s shoulders and snickered at the frightened little kids dotting the rest of the room. Then there were the in-betweens — those who had some experience, weren’t great, maybe, but comfortable with the game. They were OK.

Then there were the perceived losers, the Wii “have-nots” — excitedly yet nervously warming the little row of chairs in the very back. My boys, ages 9 and 11, fell into this group.

My younger, athletic and competitive son made friends quickly with the middle-level kids, trying to reassure himself. My older one, more sensitive, hung back with the other bench-warmers and, sadly, cried bitterly after two losses in the double-elimination format. (It was the pressure that got to him, I think. He’d actually done pretty well — he was a leftie playing with a right-handed setting, and he won one game in a set.)

I did question myself later if we should have even entered this little exercise, which had seemed harmless and fun the day I signed them up. I did tell them I’d have been more impressed with the hoody-wearing tournament winner if he hadn’t been such a braggart. I told them I’d have been a whole lot more impressed by him if he’d won a real tennis tournament, not a virtual game he obviously invested so much of his free time into to get that good.

But in the real world, the cliche is really true: you win some, you lose some.

Here’s the question: is a Wii tournament the “real world”?

I’m not really knocking Wii. I realize we that have no Wii are kind of rare, and this blog entry really isn’t about Wii anyway — it’s about making sure kids get real-world experience. We have Nintendo DS handhelds and lots of games, the boys’ dad has a Game Cube for them — heck, my mom has a Game Cube. We’re already nervous about the (engineered?) Bokugan “shortage” this close to Christmas.

But I don’t want every minute of my boys’ days wrapped up in electonic, or otherwise faddish, pursuit. I think some of the virtual games are super clever — my older son loves Guitar Hero — but I’m sorry, they’re just not real. So after homework every day and every chance I get on the weekends, I shoo the boys out in the yard or wave them off on their bikes, or insist they walk the dog they begged for several Christmases ago.

Reading books instead? Well, I’ve never seen more so-called “reluctant readers” created so fast as with the advent of the ever-intensifying gaming that takes up increasing amounts of time. But as long as parents insist time is made for reading, I believe they’ll read. The bulk of my book The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever is devoted to helping parents find exciting, challenging, meaningful books their children will devour, whatever their reading level, age, or interest.

For today’s purposes I have some book suggestions for kids who don’t quite know what to do with themselves in this “real” world. Scouting, state park Junior Ranger programs, and other groups devoted to exploring the natural world can be great in this area. Family activities like camping that force an electronic break (which is why I love it) help reel the family back to earth.

Check out these favorites from my own kids’ shelf (and, where desired, alternatives for girls):

The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn and Hal Iggulden is a gorgeous hardback volume with nostalgic-style illustrations, and just crammed with the ever-elusive Things to Do. This is cool stuff, like building a fort, cracking a code, and, if in a particular pinch, escaping quicksand. Maybe there’s no quicksand in your backyard but boys (just like their adventure-deprived dads) eat this up!

The Daring Book for Girls by Andrea J. Buchanan, in the same style and vein, contains not only projects and practical applications (how to play hopscotch, tie a sari, build a swing) but also snippets on influential women and literary characters like tomboy Jo from Little Women (Unabridged Classics). And for those who find the suggestions too sterotypical (although I think the average girl would like them — I would have), there’s no reason not to buy the boys’ edition for girls.

Then there’s How To Be The Best At Everything (The Girls’ Book) by Juliana Foster, and How To Be The Best At Everything (The Boys’ Book) by Dominique Enright. Both are self-explanatory and have lots of fun stuff for kids to master, like juggling with one hand, analyzing handwriting, making a boomerang — and maybe challenging an indoor-type bully some day.

If your children’s eyes are becoming a little glazed, or you’re always peppered with the “what can I do?” question, do check these out, and their counterparts in the recommended book titles that pop up (like The American Boy’s Handy Book: What to Do and How to Do It (Nonpareil Book, 29) and American Girls Handy Book: How to Amuse Yourself and Others (Nonpareil Books)).

Maybe your kids, like mine, get whipped at virtual golf, but they’ll know how to do the important stuff: like fend off a crocodile and spot poison ivy.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

visit www.magicbookshelfonline.com

 

Beating a Bully — With a Book October 15, 2008

Juvenile author Nancy Wilcox-Richards, whose publisher Scholastic Canada doesn’t seem to be currently distributing here in the U.S., reportedly has released her second children’s chapter book in the bully series called How to Outplay a Bully.  Her first book on the subject, How to Tame a Bully, apparently hit such a nerve that it sold 40,000 copies in the first six months.

I wish my kids, and others, could get their hands on Wilcox-Richard’s reportedly resonant books, for obvious reasons. And the subject of Therapy By Children’s Novel seems to be a trend (as per my blog from just the other day, about how novels that feature healthy eating messages can help encourage weight loss).

But there’s still lots of good bullying help stateside. Master juvenile novelist Jerry Spinelli’s Crash is riveting in its exploration of the bullying issue from the bully’s point of view. Spinelli loves sports, and here he weaves into his middle school football hero character John “Crash” Coogan’s own problems and insights into his taunting of classmate Penn Webb — a gawky, modest, and more awkward boy who would seem to have nothing — and yet possesses everything Crash really wants — at the same time. Does Crash get his comeuppance? You bet.  Is there a tidy resolution? Yes, but in a realistic and even humorous way. That’s why this book gets my top vote, for its naturalness and good writing that still drive its point without taking a didactic tone.

Trudy Ludwig is an established star in the bullying novel genre, more in didactic vein (with back-of-the-book tips), in her titles Just Kidding, My Secret Bully, Sorry!, and others.

Meanwhile, younger kids can take solace — and take notes — with the delectable Bootsie Barker Bites by Barbara Bottner, and popular Kevin Henkes’ A Weekend with Wendell.

If we didn’t know any better from our personal experiences, one would almost think from our parents’ blinders that bullying was a new phenomenon, or somehow getting worse. It seems worse to me, because my heart is walking around in the bodies of my two little boys, who encounter it seemingly more frequently than I did. Or do we just have “double the trouble” with two in the house?

But just a quick think takes me back to some Great Bullies of Literature. Remember Nellie Olsen of Little House fame? I’d have hated to be on her list. I was short, with red hair, glasses, crooked teeth, you name it.  I wouldn’t have had a prayer. Or how about Wendy — and narrator Jill — from Judy Blume’s Blubber, which takes both a female and bully’s point of view?

Unfortunately, bullying is human nature and undoubtedly here to stay… forever. But we can try to beat it, one book at a time.

Posed by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

visit www.magicbookshelfonline.com

 

Can a book really help kids lose weight? October 7, 2008

I usually equate good books with the building of reading and writing skills, the value of rich, well-written stories and worthwhile, memorable characters, and cultural literacy. A noble, brave, kind character can be an important role model, and even influence behavior.

And “just like us” characters can keep us company, reassure us that we’re OK, and maybe even help us solve our problems. Think Judy Blume, perhaps especially the landmark Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

But a book that may help young readers lose weight through modeling behavior that is neatly hidden in storyline? This I’d never considered. I’ve never thought books that promoted any agenda, from room-cleaning directives from preachy Berenstain Bears, aka The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room (A First Time Book) (I know, I know — queue the e-mailed objections) to the raft of pre-election, partisan propaganda that’s popped up between deceptively bright-and-sunny children’s book covers, were generally worthwhile reading. But I now admit some might have useful angles.

According to a bumper crop of news stories on this subject in the past few days, a new study claims kids who read books that promote healthy lifestyle choices such as exercise and good nutrition are more likely to lose extra weight.

Reports the L.A. Times, “A recent study found that after reading a book with underlying messages of getting healthy via physical activity and good nutrition, girls ages 9 to 13 showed a slight decrease in their body mass index.”

The book to which they’re referring, Lake Rescue (Beacon Street Girls, No. 6) by Annie Bryant, is part of the Beacon Street Girls series written for (ack-age guideline coming) preteen girls, and also addresses tough situations like cyber bullying and divorce. Describes the Times: “In this book, an overweight girl goes to an outdoor adventure camp with her class. Although worried about being picked on for being heavy, she finds a role model who teaches her about becoming healthier through eating right and trying new activities.”

So what’s the fact breakdown? Apparently the book’s author (in the most clever marketing ruse I’ve ever heard of) proposed the study, which featured 64 seriously overweight girls already enrolled in Duke University’s Healthy Lifestyles program. They were put into three groups and tracked. One group read no books, one read another Beacon Street Girls book that didn’t deal with health and weight loss issues, and one read “Lake Rescue.”

The Times reports the “Lake Rescue” group decreased its BMI scores 0.71%, the group that read another book decreased its BMI scores .33%, and the group that had no intervention increased its BMI scores .05%. Well, the progress may have been slight, but it’s noticeable.

And of course, nothing, including a book, is a panacea. Children need support, availability of healthy food and exercise opportunities, and other positive reinforcement to lose weight. After all, the girls in this study were already enrolled in a serious program. But given the onslaught of junk-food commercials and candy-popping peers facing them down every day, I’ll bet the weight loss proposition is harder on children, girls or boys, than it would be for just about anyone else.

If this book helps, this is wonderful. I’d even give my blessing to a Berenstain Bears book that tackled such a tough subject for a younger audience, if it got results for its young readers.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

visit www.magicbookshelfonline.com