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In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

Summer Reading Update

On 04, Jun 2015 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

Although it wasn’t officially anything I had to do, the librarian I’ll be working with this fall asked me about the summer reading. She hated the format of the current lists (lists she didn’t put together) and wanted to work with them. I volunteered to take a look at them and see what I could do. I ended up completely revamping them. The project was a lot of fun and since I had the time and expertise, the librarian was more than happy to let me run with it.

I completely agreed with her. The lists were a mess. They were really long and hard to read (OMG comic sans!). There were quite a few way-out-of-print titles (things that didn’t even come up on Amazon) and a handful of typos per each grade level. It was definitely time to redo them. The first thing I did was simply read through the lists and figure out problems with them that we could fix. None of them were terrible lists, but these were the things I decided to focus on:

  • length (way too long)
  • old (many titles were quite old)
  • very, very white
  • not much poetry
  • virtually no nonfiction

I don’t know exactly why, but I decided the new lists should have three sections: suggested authors/illustrators, suggested series, and suggested titles. I went through and highlighted all the titles I wanted to keep (only about 3-5 per list), any series that were worth keeping on the list, and any authors or illustrators worth keeping. There were books recommended by very prolific authors (Jan Brett, Eric Carle, etc.) and there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to why the specific title listed was chosen. These authors went into the suggested author/illustrator list. A family could read any book by them and it will be good.

I made a point to be sure there were authors and illustrators of color as well as stories featuring characters of color in them or characters with disabilities (although that one was a lot harder). I also tried to get some books with different family structures on the list (The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, for example). The school has a pretty diverse population and I think we need to reflect that in the reading suggestions we make.

If there were series on the list I often put them into the new suggested series section, although I dumped a fair number of older ones. Especially the Little House on the Prairie series. Yikes. I replaced that with Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House series.

The new lists of suggested titles range from about 20-25 titles. Much more manageable than the 50 or so of the old lists. I should note, none of this is required reading so long lists didn’t seem necessary. I also made a point to put in a few poetry books and quite a few nonfiction books. Nonfiction books also ended up in the suggested series section as there are quite a few good series out there for elementary school ages (Scientists in the Field, for example).

As far as older titles, my feeling is that parents have heard of or even read many of them. Classic children’s literature is easy to find at the library and in the book store. These lists were an opportunity for us to feature things parents might not come across on their own. We could highlight more diversity, new material, and some of our favorites. I also made a point to include books that would tie in with themes and topics I know each grade level studies (birds for first grade, insects in second, biographies in third, California history in fourth).

We did one final thing. The letters that accompanied the reading lists kind of had links to ALA award lists and a note to look at the California Young Reader Medal website for more suggestions. A year or two ago I got really frustrated with the ALA website. It’s slow to load and it’s hard to navigate when you’re trying to look at the award lists. They are on two different division pages (ALSC and YALSA) and are about a hundred clicks deep within those. The formatting is all over the map. Some lists have tons of information (most of it totally unnecessary) from ISBNs to publication dates to titles while others have next to nothing. And there is no consistency. From a user’s standpoint, they’re awful. I wanted lists of the awards so I could refer to them and read through them so I created PDFs of all the major awards. The lists are clean, they don’t contain too much or too little information (mostly title, author, illustrator, and year of the award) with a blurb about what the award is for at the top. The formatting is consistent across all of them and they look uniform and clean.

Now, I can’t imagine sending a parent to look for award-winning titles on the ALA website pages. They would give up. So we decided to post the PDFs of the award lists that I created on our summer reading page for parents to download. Each summer reading letter has a short list of the grade appropriate award lists parents can download/consult. A lot of the books from the old summer reading lists are award winners and this not only provides another place for parents to find reading suggestions, but gives them a way to find many of those oldies, but goodies.

We’re still working on the lists, but by and large they are done. Next week I’ll be posting some reviews of some of the books I previewed for the lists. They’re lumped into two large posts otherwise I’d have a full month’s worth of content. Maybe two and I didn’t want to do that. So stay tuned.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Lulu and the Duck in the Park by Hilary McKay

On 18, Feb 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

LuluLulu and the Duck in the Park written by Hilary McKay, pictures by Priscilla Lamont

Lexile: 740L

From GoodReads: Lulu can’t understand people who don’t like animals – people like her teacher, Mrs Holiday. When Lulu tries to help Mrs Holiday to find her perfect pet, she is banned from bringing an animal to school ever again! Then Lulu rescues an abandoned duck egg. She’s going to have to take it to school to keep it safe.

Hooray! Another book with incidental diversity. A chapter book for younger readers, no less. Nothing said here about what Lulu looks like, but Lamont has drawn her as African American. Fabulous. But I was of two minds with this one.

Lulu was awesome. She loves animals, she applies kid logic to her situation (an egg isn’t an animal, so it’s okay to bring it to school), and she always jumps off swings. Her best friend and cousin, Mellie, is the cautious kid who is always losing things. She was a great pair with Lulu and also a true blue friend. When Lulu told her about the duck egg, she took it in stride and helped her keep it safe and secret.

But their teacher Mrs. Holiday was such a grouch*. When the children are in the park on the way back from swimming, they witness two dogs scattering a bunch of duck nests. The ducks are terrified, the ducklings are terrified, and a lot of the eggs end up cracked. The kids are crying and obviously upset. What does their teacher do to help them process it? She gives them a speech about how they have to just move on. She has also told the kids that she doesn’t like animals and if any of the kids make good on their offers to bring a friend for the class guinea pig, she’ll swap Class Two for their stick insects. Plus she’s constantly snipping at the children.

I know there are terrible teachers out there, and I know Mrs. Holiday isn’t an example of the worst, but for a beginning chapter book I thought she was awfully mean and insensitive. She was also very two-dimensional. And I think the story would have worked even if she was a lot nicer. Maybe this characterization bothered me because I am a teacher and don’t like negative portrayals. Maybe it bothered me because it was not exaggerated enough to make it clear that it was a trope (think Mrs. Gorf in Sideways Stories from Wayside School). I have no idea if this will bother kids who read this book. I suspect not. Certainly they will love Lulu and the predicament she finds herself in, but I don’t want kids to come away thinking teachers are bad or rude and expect that behavior in their own. Something about it makes me uncomfortable.

The story about Lulu is very funny though and it would be great for kids who love animals, which is most kids at this level. In the end I doubt my own personal reservations would prevent me from handing this book out to beginning chapter book enthusiasts. It’s also the first in a series with Lulu and other animals which is great.

*Actually, I wanted to use a stronger word.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit: Princeless by Jeremy Whitley

On 11, Feb 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

PrincelesPrinceless: The Arduous Business of Getting Rescued written by Jeremy Whitley, illustrated by M. Goodwin

From GoodReads: Adrienne Ashe never wanted to be a princess. She hates fancy dinners, is uncomfortable in lavish dresses, and has never wanted to wait on someone else to save her. However, on the night of her 16th-birthday, her parents, the King and Queen, locked her away in a tower guarded by a dragon to await the rescue of some handsome prince. Now Adrienne has decided to take matters into her own hands!

A princess book for those kids and parents who want an alternative to the passive princess. Adrienne is one of those girls who questions everything and she’s a bit confused as to why she needs a prince to come save her- this is shown beautifully in the first scene with her mother reading a vapid fairy tale before bedtime. Unfortunately Adrienne’s parents don’t quite see it the way she does and at 16 she ends up locked in a tower.

I absolutely loved the characters in this book. Adrienne finds her situation silly and exasperating so she sets out to do something about it. She enlists the help of the dragon protecting her and she getting out isn’t quite so hard as she thought, so she decides to save her sisters. That proves more difficult, especially because she doesn’t really have a plan, she just flies by the seat of her pants. This makes for a lot of funny situations. Her quest puts her in a lot of danger, but she takes it in stride and thinks fast. What’s not to like about a pragmatic princess, one that is going to rely on herself instead of other people?

Then there is her new-found ally Bedelia, the blacksmith’s daughter. She’s hilarious and while she helps Adrienne out, outfitting her with armor and helping her fight off palace guards, she’s overly-enthusiastic and kind-of-silly. Her goofiness makes her a nice foil to the more serious and focused Adrienne. She’s not so silly, though, that she’s useless. She has skills as a blacksmith and she’s clearly physically strong and willing to help out Adrienne. She also makes an interesting comment toward the end about how Adrienne has been locked in a tower, but she has too. She’s been stuck covering for her alcoholic father by being the blacksmith of the town and hasn’t had a lot of choice in her situation either. It’s an interesting point about the different ways women can get stuck in towers.

Adrienne’s brother, Devin, introduces the idea of men who are not traditionally manly. He isn’t interested in fighting and shows some interest in poetry much to the disappointment of his father. He is the heir to the throne and the father worries he won’t be fit to rule. He, like Adrienne, questions the status quo, suggesting that maybe one of his sisters could rule. Their traditional father doesn’t agree and continually makes disparaging remarks about the son’s lack of interest in traditional manly things. I hope the father is fleshed out a bit more as the series continues. He’s awfully two dimensional.

I was particularly pleased to note that Adrienne and her parents could have been any color, but the illustrator chose to draw them as black. Of course there are no physical descriptions in graphic novels because you see the characters, but that’s true in picture books as well and yet how many times do we see a characters defaulted to white?

My one complaint is that quote at the top of the book about the story Disney should have been telling- a quote not from the author or illustrator, but a reviewer. I read a recent blog post by Liz Burns about princess shaming that I totally agreed with. It’s definitely food for thought, and it addresses exactly why I’m uncomfortable with this quote. I personally am not a princess person. I was always way more interested in talking animals. My daughter is the same and also likes fairies. But we’ll watch a princess movie and enjoy it for what it is- a bit of light entertainment. I think the pinkification of girlhood is troubling, but because it can over sexualize young girls, not because some girls like pink and like princesses. And for those girls that do, I don’t feel comfortable invalidating their interests simply because they aren’t mine. I encourage you to read Liz’s post.

As for who would like this book, I would say anyone. You don’t have to be looking for a kick-butt princess. You don’t have to be a feminist. You don’t have to be looking for diversity. It’s just a fun read that happens to have all those elements. It’s also totally appropriate for all ages. Sure older kids (high school) might find it a bit young, but the characters are so appealing and the story so much fun that they’ll get into it too. Middle schoolers will probably catch on to the girl saving herself theme and lower school kids will see a great role model in Adrienne. I hope future additions to the series touch on girl friendships with Adrienne and Bedelia.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Taking Flight by Michaela DePrince

On 10, Feb 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Taking FlightTaking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina by Michaela DePrince with Elaine DePrince

From GoodReads: The extraordinary memoir of Michaela DePrince, a young dancer who escaped war-torn Sierra Leone for the rarefied heights of American ballet.
Michaela DePrince was known as girl Number 27 at the orphanage, where she was abandoned at a young age and tormented as a “devil child” for a skin condition that makes her skin appear spotted. But it was at the orphanage that Michaela would find a picture of a beautiful ballerina en pointe that would help change the course of her life.
At the age of four, Michaela was adopted by an American family, who encouraged her love of dancing and enrolled her in classes. She went on to study at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at the American Ballet Theatre and is currently a member of the Dutch National Ballet’s junior company. 

Michaela DePrince is probably one of the most upbeat, positive and, therefore, inspiring people I’ve read about in a long time. She was born in Sierra Leone during the civil war there and was orphaned early. While much of what she recounts is from the perspective of a three year old, it’s still quite brutal. It’s horrifying to think what such a small child saw and experienced. The first quarter of the book was absolutely heart wrenching.

I am always impressed by people who know from very early on what they want to do. Michaela wanted to be a ballerina and, considering her early-life circumstances, was incredibly lucky to make it. But none of it came easily. She had to work very, very hard to achieve her dream. It’s a little mind-boggling that some one so young was willing to stick with all the training, time, and effort it took to make it as a professional dancer. Clearly she had a passion and the drive.

In Taking Flight her voice comes across as genuine and sincere. She openly talks about her struggles through the years without over sharing. But she also doesn’t dwell on all the bad things that have happened to her. She takes them, examines them and weaves them into the fabric of who she is. I was particularly struck by her discussion of her first year in high school, away from her family. She is taken in by some older teens that introduce her to some really bad habits (drinking, smoking, and eating disorders). She freely admits to trying all those things, with the exception of the eating disorders. However she also says she was disappointed in herself for doing things she knew were not good for her, were not going to help her career in the long run, and ran counter to the values her parents instilled in her. Her early experiences with starvation and dysentery convinced her that she would not use an eating disorder to stay thin.

The obvious audience for this book is girls and boys interested in ballet, but if you can get other kids to pick up a “ballet book” I don’t see why it’s audience has to be limited by anything. Her story, while not universal, is incredibly inspiring. She keeps hope when it seems there is none. She works astonishingly hard at both school work and at ballet. I think best of all, though, she wants to be a good person and that shows through in her sincerity. She tries very hard to keep true to herself, her goals, and her beliefs and she does a remarkable job of it. In sharing that story it would seem incredibly didactic and lecture-y, but it never is. I think she buys into it so whole-heartedly that everything she writes comes from an deeply genuine place. Any kid would do well to see how far you can go with luck and determination.

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In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

The Place of Information

On 02, Dec 2014 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

This is going to be a little friend-of-a-friend-y due to the nature of a post I recently read, but please bear with me. This post was about teaching informative Arabic novels and I was especially drawn to an idea that the author calls the “place of information”:

“I realize that I go there — to that place of “information” — more times in a week than I’d care to admit. I, too, have written and taught about “current events,” and made literature the handmaiden of hot-button discussion.”

The author elaborates quoting another article, by Miral al-Tahawy, (I’m quoting a quote!) explaining what the place of information means in the context of both the classroom and using translated books:

“So that kind of novel, sometimes I choose to include it. It’s there to inform people about the Middle East, to inform the students about something they care about…But when you speak about literature… I feel it to be something magical, it’s something different, which is really hard to be translated, first, because it’s very connected to the language, the Arabic tradition, the symbols, the smells, the human beings that live.”

What particularly interested me was that I think this idea really applies to the discussions librarians (and parents and the general public) are having about a lack of diversity in children’s publishing. I think a lot of the books that are considered diverse fall into that place of information in that they are there to show kids diversity.

I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing, although I worry they can make diversity seem exotic and “other” as well as exoticise other cultures and people. But we need books that just are diverse. Not more books that, as the blog post says, make “literature the handmaiden of hot-button discussion”.

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In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

#weneeddiversebooks: The Wedding Week

On 03, Nov 2014 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

I came across a Kickstarter campaign through one of my non-library blogs. I’ll just quote you their about page, because they do a better job explaining their mission than I will:

“In one Lagos bookshop in 2008, there were no children’s books with African children on them.

I couldn’t believe it. At the time I was working for Tamarind Books, a bastion of multicultural children’s book publishing in the UK. Unfortunately their books weren’t reaching a global audience. Neither were many other great, high-quality multicultural and multilingual children’s books published by the best trade publishers. So I decided to join the dots.

Kio exists to serve schools, governments, charities and families with educational resources that reflect cultures and languages globally. At Kio, we believe education should reflect and celebrate the global village we live in.

Many organisations working in Africa, Asia, South America and beyond don’t know that there are resources which reflect the children they serve. As a consequence, those children grow up seeing images of success, opportunity and education that exclude them. By shopping with Kio, you are enabling us to change this.”

Here is the blog post I found them through: What If We Publish Children’s Books African Kids Could Relate To. This just hit home the point for me that we all need diverse books and that, sadly, the story of the whitewashing of US publishing is a story you can find all around the world.

Their Kickstarter campaign can be found here: The Wedding Week. It looks to publish a book called The Wedding Week which, led by gecko, takes you through a week of weddings all over the world. They chose weddings because they are a great entree into food, clothes, and culture. The collage/cut paper illustrations look beautiful. I gave 30 pounds, which is about $50. Please give if you can. They have about a week left and need about 2,000 pounds more. The money goes to paying the author and illustrator and to printing and distributing the book to African kids.

Update: 11/3/2014, 10:15 They just passed their initial funding goal!! Any additional money they raise now will go toward making the book into an interactive ebook with audio (read in the languages it is published in), extra content, and animation.


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In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

#weneeddiversebooks: Problem Books

On 30, Sep 2014 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

When I was at the ALSC Institute about a week and half ago I attended a breakout session about diversity in children’s publishing. It was a really great discussion and I’m hoping to talk more about the issues when I attend the Kidliosphere blogging conference in a couple weeks.

While we were talking at this breakout session, though, I had a question that I’m not sure how to answer. Our discussion never really steered in that direction so I didn’t bring it up, not wanting to derail the whole session, but it definitely pertains to diversity in children’s literature. I’m wondering what you should/could/would do with problematic books that are already in a collection? Books that have stereotypes or racist over/undertones.

Specifically the Little House on the Prairie come to mind, but so do the TinTin comic books and I’m sure there are many more out there (especially some of the classics). I like to think that there books make for good discussion starters with kids, but I think the reality is that kids check them out, their parents don’t know that they have these issues, the kids read them, and bring them back. No discussion. The Little House books are pretty ubiquitous, at least at my school. They’re in several classrooms, they are in the library and a lot of kids read them. The teachers and librarian also hand them out/recommend them without making note of or even knowing about the racism in them. In fact I know many of them have fond memories of reading the books when they were young. I think it’s a problem if kids read this stuff and internalize the stereotypes and rhetoric and I really think it’s a problem if we don’t talk about it with kids. I don’t think the answer is to not let kids read the books, though. They have value, but how do you balance that with their issues?

So, what do you do with these books? Do you leave them in the collection? Do you weed them? Do you ask that kids present their parents with a note when they check the books out that details concerns with the book? Do you educate the teachers? Do you remove them and find better alternatives? Do you start the conversation with the kids? Does this cross boundaries that the parents may not want crossed?

I’m sure there is no one perfect answer or solution, but I think it’s really important that we don’t let the label of “classic” or our own nostalgia get in the way of being sensitive to the very dark issues that these books have.

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In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

#weneeddiversebooks and Education

On 11, Jun 2014 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

Here I am again, hopping on the bandwagon. Good thing this is a good bandwagon to be on. Between my job I have as children’s book curator for a small company and the library world I feel like I’ve recently become a lot more aware of diversity in children’s publishing (or maybe I should say lack of diversity). I’ve been trying very hard to ensure that I am getting a selection of diverse books. I was really pleased to see the #weneeddiversebooks campaign taking off over the last month or so.

So many of the responses and ruminations on the importance of diversity in literature has focused around race and “seeing yourself” in the books you read. I could not agree more, but as a white, middle class female, raising a white middle class daughter I think the importance (for us) is different.

My daughter has an enormous library of books in our home. So enormous that we have trouble finding space for all the books. So enormous my husband may have banned me from buying more books (champagne problem! I know, I know). While many of the books we have are simply appealing stories or classics, I have also tried very, very hard to use our library (and the public one) to expose my daughter to all kinds of topics. And that includes diverse cultures and people.

I got a decent, private school education. Certainly the best education available in my hometown (thanks, Mom & Dad!). But it was still incredibly lopsided and white in scope. I had inklings, through limited and small projects that we did in high school history, of what was out there in the world, but my eyes were really opened and my curiosity became insatiable in college when I began my anthropology classes. I was exposed to fascinating cultures all around the world and I was amazed. Seriously, if I could read some of the ethnographies I read in college to my daughter now I would. Sadly, she is two and these books just don’t appeal to her yet. Instead I use as many diverse children’s books as I can to build that foundation.

This really came into focus for me the other day when I was listening to PRI’s The World, one of my favorite news shows because it focuses on places outside of the US. There was a story about ethnic tensions in western China between the Han Chinese and the Uyghur people (pronounced wee-gurr). I would have only partially listened to this story had I not recently read The Vine Basket, a middle grade novel about a Uyghur girl and her family. I was excited that I knew who they were talking about and a little bit about the tensions in the region.

But it’s about more than just people half way across the globe. I also want her to know the diversity we have her in our own city. I want her to know that there are people with mental disabilities, with mental illness, who go to bed hungry and scared and cold. I want her to see how lucky she is to have a home, two parents, (eventually) a private school education, the possibility of college. Obviously I don’t want to frighten her now and I don’t want to guilt her, but as she gets older I want her to see that these situations exist. And I think a very good way and a safe way to do this is to let her read about it in books.

So, we need diverse books so we know our world. So we can learn. So we aren’t so focused on ourselves. We need diverse books so the world doesn’t seem so foreign or frightening. We need diverse books so we don’t always see ourselves in our books.

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