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Book request haiku: what happens when librarians start to imagine patrons’ requests in a slightly poetic vein. I think the form also lends itself nicely to the tiny amount of information a librarian is sometimes presented with when a patron is looking for a particular book.

The Horn Book printed several of my haiku in their November/December 2012 issue (you can read the clever haiku of some readers in the comments), but here are a few more. The titles are at the end of the post.

 

Something terrible/ Happened to every letter/Of the alphabet

An elegant mouse/Who lived in a pagoda/And her humble swain

I would have tried the/Frobscottle. But snozcumbers?/That sounds disgusting.

She was strong enough/To lift a horse. I wanted/Her for a neighbor.

The kid starts this fire/With a hammer. Or a jackknife./No–what’s that thing called?

The mom keeps singing/Her grown son to sleep. Is it/Funny, or creepy?

Thanks to the Horn Book for publishing the best of them!

Answers: The Z Was Zapped; The Rescuers; The BFG; Pippi Longstocking; Hatchet; Love You Forever

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 This is part of a series of interviews with New Mexico children’s writers to celebrate the state centennial in 2012. (1)

Carolyn Meyer has made a career of writing historical fiction for young people. Her books include the Young Royals series, The True Adventures of Charley Darwin, and the main subject of this interview, Rio Grande Stories. Written in 1994 and republished more recently with an author’s introduction, Rio Grande Stories is a composite novel written in the voices of students at Rio Grande Middle School in Albuquerque; it’s also a collection of brief essays on New Mexican history, a guide to doing local history projects, and a beautiful example of what happens when children become aware of their own particular place in the world. Welcome, Carolyn!

Your book Rio Grande Stories is like a pocket-size tour of everything that makes New Mexico unique: the cultures, the food, the settings, the traditions. How did you put it together? Did you know most of the stories before you began writing, or did you discover new elements as you wrote?

 I had the germ of most of the stories when I was figuring out what to include. For instance, my husband, Tony Mares, makes an appearance in the story about Padre Martinez of Taos. When I met him, he was an actor wearing a priest’s  cassock and traveling around the state giving performances as Padre Martinez. (He was also writing a play called “Death Comes for Willa Cather,” which should let you know where the author of Death Comes for the Archbishop stands in our household!) And I did meet people who claim to be descended from Padre Martinez, so that story was easy to figure out. None of the others was quite that easy.
 
In the introduction to the reprint, you say that you learned a lot of New Mexico history from listening to your in-laws. What other kinds of research did you do? Did you have any unusual experiences doing research for the book?

 
I spent a month at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, teaching writing classes in exchange for use of their wonderful little library and a chance to wander around Espanola, dropping in on a guy who painted low-riders, attending pueblo dances, watching potters, and using the bulging “vertical files” at the library. There was certainly plenty of material available; the hard part was inventing believable characters in stories that would stand up on their own.
 
You also mention that RGS has inspired real students to undertake family/community history projects of their own. Have you seen any of these projects? What have you heard from teachers and students who have done this?

 

Schools in Capitan and Loving, NM, invited me to spend several days in each, working with students and developing interviews with locals. Both schools produced books based on their interviews. And I was invited to a middle school in Virginia where the 7th grade had spent a semester creating their own book. They threw a big party for the families and the people they’d interviewed, and I was the guest of honor with my name spelled out in M&Ms on a series of cupcakes. I’ve heard of other schools with similar projects, using RGS as a model, but I’ve not been involved with them.

 
Your series The Young Royals doesn’t take place in New Mexico, but let’s talk about it anyway! Of all the figures you’ve studied (Marie-Antoinette, Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, Catherine de Medici, and many more), whose life was the most fascinating? Which was the most difficult to research? How do you approach the business of getting inside the head of a historical figure? Have you even wanted to write about someone but abandoned the project for lack of sympathy with them?

 

The most challenging, and therefore the most fascinating, was Cleopatra, because so little is actually known about her: when she was born, who her mother was, what she looked like–minor details! So I had to invent practically everything. Then there was the problem of getting Elizabeth Taylor out of my head. A real problem was deciding where to end her story–her life got really interesting when Marcus Antonius entered the picture, but by then she was much older than my usual readers. Getting inside the head of any historical figure–not just Cleopatra’s–isn’t much different than getting into the head of a contemporary teenager, because the issues are pretty much the same: absent fathers, domineering fathers, jealous sisters, petulant brothers, controlling mothers, vengeful stepmothers, inappropriate boyfriends, unloving husbands, and the fear that  you’re never going to grow up, never be beautiful or happy or in control of your own life. The background changes, the clothes, the food, the customs are different, but the emotions are eternal, and that’s what I try to tap into.

 
The Professor’s question (in honor of Vaunda Nelson’s bookselling great-uncle, who started a bookstore with only 5 books): If you were going to start a bookstore with 5 books, which would you choose? These don’t have to be your five personal favorite,desert-island books, but the 5 that you would most want to share.

 

My true colors will show here:

A  dictionary that includes etymology, because our language is so rich and our vocabulary so extensive and drawn from so many sources
A grammar book, one that isn’t too stuffy, because our complex language is so elegant when it’s used correctly
A contemporary translation of the Bible, because the characters, their stories, and the imagery are unequalled
A simple bilingual book (any language) with pictures to introduce a reader to the beauty of an unfamiliar language 
A blank book to write down ideas and observations, but not such a pretty blank book that you’re afraid to write in it
 
Since this is a series in honor of the NM centennial, what are some of your favorite books set in New Mexico or by NM authors?


Río Del Corazón and Astonishing Light: Conversations I Never Had With Patrociño Barela, two collections of poetry about New Mexico and New Mexicans, by thoroughly New Mexican poet E.A. “Tony” Mares – referenced above as “my husband” and “an actor…giving performances as Padre Martinez.”  I make no apologies for including books written by a spouse, because they are indeed among my favorites. (No apologies needed! I think that’s wonderful.)
 
What was the best piece of writing advice you received when you were starting out, and what would you pass along to other writers?

 

“Accept criticism.” I deal with it much better now than I did sixty years ago, and I actually welcome it and learn from it. But criticism is only useful when it comes while the work is still in progress. Once the book is published, you’re better off ignoring it.

 
 Most importantly, have you ever actually traveled through time to research a book? Kersten Hamilton can travel forward at the rate of one second per second, but I thought perhaps you had discovered some other means in order to get all those books written.

 

Time travel? No–just long hours of work in the present. 

 Thank you, Carolyn!
Carolyn’s newest book is The Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary Queen of Scots, which will be published by Harcourt in the fall of 2012.
 
 1. Read more interviews with children’s writers in New Mexico here.
 
2. Carolyn Meyer’s website.

This is part of a series of interviews with New Mexico children’s writers to celebrate the 2012 centennial. (1)

Lauren Bjorkman (2)is the author of My Invented Life (Henry Holt , 2009), a YA novel that takes on sibling relationships, sexual identity, and Shakespeare, all through the voice of cynical-yet-daydreaming teen theatre geek Roz. PW called it “fun, thought-provoking reading,” and I have to agree. Welcome, Lauren!

Roz has such a strong voice, and she’s such a believable mix of self-awareness and denial. How did you develop her voice in writing My Invented Life?

 I started with a picture in my mind—a big, adorable dog that wants to be loved, but doesn’t know how to behave around people. To that, I added some observations I’d made of a young woman in my hometown, a talented actress with a big heart and boundless energy. Once Roz came alive for me, everything I wrote went through the Roz-o-matic filter—would Roz do this? Would Roz say that? It was great fun to create someone so unlike myself.

The plot of My Invented Life models the play, As You Like It, that the theatre geeks are practicing. How did that come about? Were you planning from the start to use Shakespeare? If you had to introduce Shakespeare to teens using a different play, which would it be?

I started with my sisters, and the secret that divides them. Then I fleshed out my characters and designed a rudimentary plot. When I shared my thoughts with my critique group, one talented writer said, “Your plot sounds like a Shakespearean play, where everyone is pretending to be someone else. I’d seen As You Like It in high school, and re-read it. That gave me an insight—Roz had all the hallmarks of an actress. So I transformed her into one.

First off, I’m no expert on education. But I remember my own experience struggling with Shakespeare in high school. Hating it, to be honest. So here are my recommendations based on n=1.

  1. Read the play aloud in class, stopping to interpret the language at every turn. Switch roles, so everyone gets a turn to read.
  1. Let your students watch a theatrical or movie version of the play.
  1. Romeo and Juliet is a good choice because it has both romance and swordplay, and therefore broad appeal.

Stories like Roz’s let readers into the mind of someone who is questioning all kinds of things: sexuality, loyalty, friendship, self-worth. What do you hope readers will take away from reading My Invented Life and other books with similar themes?

For me, reading is often about taking a look at life through new eyes (while being entertained, of course!). Who in the story can I identify with most? What would I do in the main character’s shoes? I want my readers to be surprised, and, if they don’t quite fit in, to feel less alone. My story is celebration of our differences.

In my next novel, Miss Fortune Cookie, about a teen advice blooger, my characters are not LGBT. Still, when a gay hate group pickets their school, they organize an event—a sort of modern day love-in/dance party—to counter-act the hate.

I heard you speak at a bookstore event with Malinda Lo, Alexandra Diaz, Megan Frazer, and Kristin Cronn-Mills on LGTBQ youth literature (3). That was 2010; what do you think of the state of things today? What are some of your favorite recent books for teens on LGTBQ issues?

What a fun event! Sadly, the issues around bullying of LGBTQ teens haven’t diminished, but the number of teen LGBTQ novels published each year continues to grow. More schools have Gay-Straight Alliances than ever before. I adore the It Gets Better Project , and feel optimistic about the future.

I haven’t kept up with my TBR this year because of building a house, and then moving in! That said, I managed to read and fall in love with Will Grayson Will Grayson.

Kirstin Cronn-Mills has a new novel about a trans character coming out in October, Beautiful Music for Ugly Children–Love, transition, violence—mix with music, and broadcast on the radio. Not your typical teenage life.

Malinda Lo’s new YA science-fiction thriller called Adaptation will be released in September. Reese can’t remember anything from the time between the accident and the day she woke up almost a month later. She only knows one thing: She’s different now.

What is the best part about writing for teens? Have you heard anything from a teen reader that really made your day?

For me, it’s all about fame and fortune. Just kidding! The best part is making connections with teens. It’s great when someone is crazy about my book, of course, but sometimes a teen just needs someone to talk to or take an interest in his or her writing. I love that part too.

Here are a couple fave reactions: One reader wrote that she sighed and hugged my book after finishing it, like it had become a friend. Another chose my My Invented Life as the next Great American Novel for a class assignment, which cracked me up, and made my day.

The professor’s question (in honor of Vaunda Nelson’s great-uncle, who started a bookstore with fivebooks): If you had to start a bookstore with just fivebooks, which five would you choose? These aren’t necessarily your five favorite desert island books, but the five you most want to share with the world.

Hard question! I’m kind of fickle. My favorite books change all the time, depending on what I’m reading.

So I’ll recommend my favorite classics, plus one amazing graphic novel:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Emma by Jane Austen

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Are there any excellent Shakespearean curses that didn’t make it into My Invented Life?

Go read a book, thou infectious clapper-clawed pignut!

Good advice! Thank you, Lauren, for this interview!

1. For more interviews with NM children’s writers, go here.

2. Visit Lauren’s website.

3. Malinda Lo. Alexandra Diaz. Megan Frazer. Kristin Cronn-Mills.

I recently acquired five new books (by which I mean, five old books) and they have inspired me to be lazy. Not a contradiction in terms! Here are five quotes, one from each of these books on–what else?–books and reading. They represent several different viewpoints: reader, writer, philosopher, critic; and differing temperaments, from the Great Books approach to the love of reading for its own sake. But they are all nifty in their way, and one of them mentions sandwiches.

 In response to the question What makes a book great?

“Great books are those which contain the best materials on which the human mind can work in order to gain insight, understanding, and wisdom. Each in its own way raises the recurrent basic questions which men must face. Because these questions are never completely solved, these books are the sources and monuments of continuing intellectual tradition.

“Carl Van Doren once referred to great books as ‘the books that never have to be written again.'”

Adler, Mortimer. Great Ideas from the Great Books. Washington Square Press, 1961.

“The ways in which reading fulfills its aims beyond the immediate verbal encounter are necessarily mysterious. In exploring them we explore, though unscientifically, some of the operations of consciousness itself, especially those having to do with perception and memory. We have to ask not only how we translate a symbolic code, but also what is the effect upon us of the translation process and the translated content? How do we make use of our own experience when we engage a novel? To what extent are we present in the content of what we read? How do we store what we’ve read, and how do we draw upon our reading memory over time? For it is one book we close the covers on today, and quite another after some months or years have passed. The words on the page don’t change, but we do, and our ‘reading’–the experience we had over the duration of our encounter with the book–has the plasticity of any memory.”

Birkerts, Sven.The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Fawcett Columbine, 1994.

“A public that tries to do without criticism, and asserts that it knows what it wants or likes, brutalizes the arts and loses its cultural memory. Art for art’s sake is a retreat from criticism which ends in an impoverishment of civilized life itself.”

Frye, Northrup. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton UP, 1957.

 

 

 

“Fiction seeks out truth. Granted, it seeks a poetic kind of truth, universals not easily translatable into moral codes. But part of our interest as we read is in learning how the world works; how the conflicts we share with the writer and all other human beings can be resolved, if at all; what values we can affirm and, in general, what the moral risks are. The writer who can’t distinguish truth from a peanut-butter sandwich can never write good fiction.”

Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. Vintage, 1985.

“If once in a while the beginning writer does something interesting with language–shows that he’s actually listening to himself and looking closely at words, spying out their secrets–that is sign enough of the writer’s promise. Only a talent that doesn’t exist at all can’t be improved. Usually. On the other hand, if as readers we begin to suspect that the writer cares about nothing but language, we begin to worry that he may be in for trouble. Normal people, people who haven’t been misled by a faulty college education, do not read novels for words alone. They open a novel with the expectation of finding a story, hopefully with interesting characters in it, possibly an interesting landscape here and there, and, with any luck at all, an idea or two–with real luck a large and interesting cargo of ideas. Though there are exceptions, as a rule the good novelist does not worry primarily about linguistic brilliance–at least not brilliance of the showy, immediately obvious kind–but instead worries about telling his story in a moving way, making the reader laugh or cry or endure suspense, whatever it is that this particular story, told at its best, will incline the reader to do.”

Gardner, John. On Becoming a Novelist. Harper & Row, 1983.

Awards for children’s books have a long an illustrious history, not to be recounted here. You have heard of the Newbery. You have heard of the Caldecott. Have you heard of the Sibert? Ah! That is an award for informational literature for children, otherwise known as nonfiction. Typically it goes to beautifully produced trade nonfiction like Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot (Houghton Mifflin, 2010) by Sy Montgomery, photographs by Nic Bishop. book cover image: kakapo rescue

Montgomery and Bishop can fairly be called superstars of children’s nonfiction. Montgomery has written eight well-reviewed books for children, many based on her work for adults. Bishop’s trade books are so well-conceived that they have titles like Nic Bishop Frogs (Scholastic, 2008). Two of his other trade books, one by Montgomery and one written by Bishop himself, have won Sibert honors. But Bishop has another line, in what his website calls “books for schools,” but what we librarians call series nonfiction. He’s done dozens of these books, with little fanfare.

Pause for a definition: trade nonfiction you can buy in a bookstore; series nonfiction is produced specifically for the school and library market, is often linked to curriculum standards and reading levels, and can generally only be purchased through library vendors. They have what is called “library binding,” and often have nice wipeable covers to erase the stickiness of many enthusiastic and grubby hands.

So why is it that Bishop’s trade books can win awards, but not his series books? I haven’t examined them, and I’m not saying that they should win awards. I’m not saying that a series book will never win the Sibert. I’m saying (clearing my throat and puffing up my chest) that, darn it, series nonfiction deserves an award of its own. Trade nonfiction has the Sibert. I humbly suggest an award for series nonfiction:

The SNibert. Pronounced “sny-bert” with a long I. (And keep in mind that ALA can afford professional designers, wheras I cannot.)

Snibert medal

An award whose time has come

That’s an apatasaurus, by the way. A fitting representative for the SNibert because a) dinosaur series pretty much keep us in business and b) series nonfiction keeps kids informed about the latest developments in dinosaur-ology, such as the demotion of the bronosaurus and subsequent rise of the apatosaurus in its stead.
 
So what’s going on in the current series nonfiction market, and who can we look for as the inaugural SNibert medalist? Well, who better to answer that question (and several related questions) than the current and former editors of School Library Journal’s semi-annual supplement, Series Made Simple! Etta Thornton-Verma edited SMS when I was a contributor back in 2010, and Chelsey Philpot is the editor of the most recent supplement.
 
 All librarians know that series nonfiction makes up the bulk of the children’s nonfiction section, but it often doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Aside from trade-oriented series like Scientists in the Field, what are some of your favorite NF series of recent years?
 
ETV: I’m a science fan. As editor of Series Made Simple I enjoyed the best

Etta Thornton-Verma

Etta Thornton-Verma

examples of the “yucky science” trend that’s been going for a few years. Many of these series featured material and presentations that would not only draw young readers in but would also provide solid material for reports or science fairs, essential in libraries that can’t buy materials that fill only one need. Series such as Enslow’s “Bizarre Science” from Spring 2011 and Capstone’s “Nasty (But Useful) Science” from fall 2010 come to mind.

 
chelsey philpot

Chelsey Philpot

CP: I’m particularly impressed with how publishers are taking much-covered topics and presenting them in new and exciting ways. Whether using a graphic novel format for biographies, mixing science and science fiction, or listing websites to interactive online materials, series nonfiction is responding to readers and the changing times. The series that have been pushing the envelope have by and large been my favorites in recent years.

 
What is the unique role of series nonfiction in the library?
 
ETV:  Series nonfiction is the workhorse of the nonfiction section. It provides material for reports and by including plenty of hi-lo titles as well as on-level material and usually listing further-reading suggestions, it offers something for a range of patrons. Lately there is a trend toward producing series that examine in separate titles what could be (and used to be) covered in one book. While this can become expensive for libraries, when various themed months and holidays roll around and every child is looking for material on the same subject, librarians will be glad of the varied coverage provided by series nonfiction as opposed to relying on a few longer books and expensive reference materials.CP:  Series nonfiction is great for report writers, but it’s also fantastic for browsers.  Some of the designs are so eye-catching readers can’t help, but linger over them.  Great photographs and interesting topics help as well, of course.
 
From a production perspective, what makes series NF different from trade?

ETV:  This is really a question for publishers, but from my perspective I would point out turn-around time—these books that are shorter and often rely on stock images and existing research can be produced quickly. And of course there is the granularity issue mentioned above—series nonfiction often covers the same material in multiple books that trade books cover in one volume. An easy answer here would be to deride the quality of this genre, but over a few years at Series Made Simple I got to see many examples of quality series nonfiction, so that generalization no longer holds true, if it ever did.

CP:  Oh boy, a lot. The bindings and designs are usually different. The formats are consistent across volumes. They are produced as a set. I could go on and on about differences, but a lot of the stronger series share editorial qualities with excellent trade books: great text and eye-catching and edifying visuals.

 How can a librarian judge a quality NF series? What makes a series stand out?

ETV:  It’s no longer necessary for them to judge, as they can pick up a copy of Series Made Simple! But, if they must decide all on their own, the qualities they should bear in mind are the same as for any nonfiction book. Does it cover a subject my library needs at the level at which my patrons need it? Is the research thorough and accessible, including, for example, a quality index? Is the presentation engaging? Are photos and other illustrations well reproduced, relevant, and accompanied by informative captions? If the publisher is touting an online complement to the print material, is it of quality and will it last? If there is a bibliography, it should show that the writer researched using more advanced materials than other series nonfiction books, though of course the further-reading list can suggest those materials. If the library or school must adhere to certain standards, it is important that the series meets those, and a publisher should be able to confirm whether their materials were written, for example, in accordance with common core standards. Many standards emphasize the importance of primary sources and the use of these is thankfully becoming more common in children’s literature.

CP:  A clear and engaging design, helpful and interesting visuals, strong back matter and/or additional resources, factual accuracy, and, of course, great writing are all important things to look for when evaluating a nonfiction series.

And now, the question that’s been on everyone’s mind (for at least ten minutes): Who would be your top contender for the SNibert medal this year?

ETV:  My favorite-ever series didn’t cover science—it was Compass Point’s

migrant mother
From series veteran Don Nardo

“Captured History” from spring 2011. All four books in this series were gorgeous and meticulously researched, but the one that I still think about is Don Nardo’s Migrant Mother: How a Photograph Defined the Great Depression. This stunning book looked at the background of two women whose very different lives became intertwined—Dorothea Lange, the famous depression-era photographer, and Florence Owens Thompson, her most famous subject. It describes the years leading up to the heartbreak depicted in Lange’s searing image and the aftermath of the photograph for both women.

Dressing a Nation
It’s like she knew she was going to win

CP:  I hate to have to choose just one, but because I am a fashion buff and a history nerd, I really enjoyed reading Twenty-First Century Books’ “Dressing a Nation: The History of U.S. Fashion” series. The Little Black Dress and Zoo Suits: Depression and Wartime Fashions from the 1930s to the 1950s is particularly fascinating and what a great cover!

 Thanks to both Etta and Chelsey for taking the time to answer these questions. Take note, current and would-be reviewers: you now have a handy guide to what to look for when you crack the spine.
 
Will this be it for the SNibert? All I’m going to say is if someone hijacks the podium at ALA midwinter next January, I give advance notice that I had nothing to do with it.
 
 
 
 

Why didn't somebody tell me?

 
In the vein of my last post, here’s another nifty old cover design by a well-known children’s book person (1). This one’s by Emily Arnold McCully, author and illustrator of Mirette on the High Wire (1992), as well as scores of other picture books.  Many of them have historical settings, like Mirette and Little Kit, or the Industrious Flea Circus Girl (1995). If I knew how to talk about art, this is where I would say something about her distinctive use of line and watercolor, used to completely different effect in her recent The Secret Cave: Discovering Lascaux (2010) and 1985’s evocative and wordless First Snow. But as soon as you say “watercolor” someone who knows better comes along and says, Actually, her medium was something-something-something, and down goes your tail between your legs for trying to talk about something of which you are truly clueless. So I’ll just say her pictures are pretty.

 

The cover of Crisis in English Poetry, 1880-1940, by Vivian de Sola Pinto and published by Harper & Row in 1958, has a thematic and historical contrast: the full-color drawing of a gentleman in his carriage doffing his hat, and the line sketch in blue of the Tommies charging, one presumes, at the Germans. I would read this book to find out just what that poetic crisis was, but I suffer from a sort of fear that can only be adequately expressed by Arnold Bennett (who will earn himself a post or two shortly):
 
“There is a word, a ‘name of fear,’ which rouses terror in the heart of the vast educated majority of the English-speaking race. The most valiant will fly at the utterance of that word. The most broadminded will put their backs up against it. The most rash will not dare to affront it. I myself have seen it empty buildings that had been full; and I know that it will scatter a crowd more quickly than a hosepipe, hornets, or the rumour of plague. Even to murmur it is to incur solitude, probably disdain, and possibly starvation, as historical examples show. That word is ‘poetry.'”
-Literary Taste,  Jonathan Cape, 1909 (2)
 
Slightly hysterical? I think not. But this post was supposed to be about Emily McCully, so let’s end with a quote from her:
 
“Don’t worry about what other people are doing. Don’t try to emulate. Work from what is inside you, crying out–however softly, however timidly–for expression.” (3)
 
 
1. Where do all these great books come from? The Friends of the Library book sale, of course. Obscure and thrilling books at unbeatable prices. Even less than the $1.60 advertised on the cover.
 
2. This is one of Bennett’s brilliant Pocket Philosophies. I have a weakness for books by over-educated people who presume to tell me how to improve myself. The full title is, Literary Taste and How to Form It, with detailed instructions for collecting a complete library in English literature. If you say so, Mr. Bennett.