Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Controversy vs. Mediocrity

It is only January 19, but I feel like it's already been a huge and exciting year for children's literature. Last week we saw picture book Last Stop on Market Street win the Newbery and a Caldecott honor. This book got it RIGHT in so many ways.

This weekend, I spent a lot of time reading commentary in the children's literature world about a controversial picture book called A Cake for George Washington. The short story is this - the book is based on a real slave of Washington's who sets about to make a birthday cake with his daughter, only to find there is no sugar in the kitchen. A simple search will pull up opinions left and right and give you more information about it than I want to rehash here. The problem in simple terms is that the father and daughter are depicted as happy and smiling while they set about their work. Illustrators will say they very well may have been smiling while taking pride in their work. Critics will say this gives children a white-washed view of slavery.
Scholastic pulled the book not long after printing, so we may never get to read it. As a librarian, I want to read it. As a writer, I still wonder how that book made it to print. But I love hearing the different opinions that are coming out of this. The discussion, the texts I exchanged yesterday for an hour with a co-worker about this. Because even though I may not have read it,  here's what I think it is probably not - MEDIOCRE.

The author, Ramin Ganeshram, is a food writer with great writing credentials in other areas. I believe she and the illustrator had good intentions in crafting this story, and I think it's a great idea. It may be a story that should be told, just in a way that wasn't quite so...off. As writers and publishers and librarians, we need to get this stuff RIGHT.

So if any good comes out of this, it is that we are talking about it and trying to get it RIGHT. And also GREAT. Coincidentally, I have been reading Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature by three experts in the children's lit world. I recently texted my co-worker a passage from the book, where the authors remind us about the time author Jane Yolen called three popular children's books - (The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister and Love You Forever by Robert Munsch) the "triumvirate of mediocrity". My co-worker and  I laughed because we've seen these titles get requested many times. We know there's nothing wrong with them, but we also know there are so many wonderful books BEYOND those. We talk about how even though we have a small library where most of what I order is the CREAM of the CROP, we still get new books that come in, get passed around the staff, and get a resounding...eh. It's fine. It's okay. Did that author do their BEST?

So let's keep the conversation going. I want to hear what Chris Rock says as the black host of the all-white Oscars this year. I want to order more diverse books for my not-so-diverse library population and I want them to make my patrons take them out so I can justify ordering them. I want more stops on Market Street and more conversations by publishing houses about how to make A Cake for George Washington RIGHT. I also want less mediocrity, because our children deserve it.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Nature Anatomy: a review for Nonfiction Monday

The Curious Parts & Pieces of the Natural World
by Julia Rothman
with help from John Niekrasz

Pub. 1/2015, Storey Publishing
224 pages, all ages

I can't say enough about this beautifully illustrated book by Julia Rothman. I'm a little late to the game since it came out in early 2015, but when I finally ordered it I couldn't put it down. If I had gotten my hands on this book as a kid, I would have first retreated to my desk to copy as many of Rothman's illustrations as possible, and then ventured outside to see which of the hundreds of awesome nature-y things I could find!
She has previously published a similar title, Farm Anatomy: the curious parts and pieces of country life, but I think the broader appeal of nature in general will find her more readers. What makes me love this more is that Rothman grew up in the Bronx and currently lives in Brooklyn. She was inspired by taking nature walks in her neighborhood park! And while you may not find an elk or geoduck in New York City, you will find their illustrations and over 700 more in this book. From minerals to snowflakes, and mushrooms to salamanders, Rothman has it covered, along with tidbits of information like Five Rules for Grazing Wild Edibles and Anatomy of a Jellyfish.
A must-read or browse for any child at all curious about nature, and adults too! (This book was on the Library circulation desk while I was writing this and an older gentleman asked me to hold it for him!)

For a look at what's inside this great book, check out:
You Tube Review by Parka Blogs

Friday, January 8, 2016

The 672 Pages I Read in a Day

Yes, the title is a little misleading - you'll see why in a minute. Backstory - I injured my hand over the holiday break and therefore am unable (or unwilling) to take down all the Christmas stuff in my house. So what better to do? Read of course. I've been wanting to read The Marvels by Brian Selznick since it's release in September so now was the perfect time.

The Marvels is Selznick's third book in an unofficial trilogy of sorts. Meaning it follows his award-winners, The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck, in overall design and use of illustrations. The stories are completely different and you don't have to read the others to read this one. The Marvels has about 400 pages of illustrated story, which was AWESOME. I found the artwork for this title to be my favorite of the three books, even though I still place the other two stories ahead of this one. That said, it's still an amazing book with too many starred reviews to count, and just a joy to read. 
If your child has read the other two titles, make sure they get their hands on this one as well. Then have them let me know which was their favorite. I'm going with Wonderstruck. Maybe.