Opinionated for 25 Years

There aren’t many things that our newest Supreme Court Justice and I have in common, but I will admit to one: I, too, have held onto many calendars over the years.

1994 calendar cover And I stumbled across this one today, and casually opening it up, I found an interesting entry: On August 3, 1994, I started my reviewing career.

1994 augustA few days before, I was talking with my closest friend, Jan. Both of us were stay-at-home moms after beginning our careers at the Chicago Public Library. She commented, “You know, you should do something more literary, like Roger Sutton.” We had both known Roger at CPL. And the very next day, Roger Sutton called and said he was looking for a writer for the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, and our former boss had recommended me. Never before or since has something so odd happened to me, but I was delighted to make an appointment. He gave me three books to review as a trial, and I began what has been an almost entirely wonderful part of my life.

At BCCB, the standards were high, set by Zena Sutherland and Betsy Hearne–no using unspecific words like “colorful,” “charming,” or “beautiful.” No taking cheap shots to look smart. And the process there of going in person once a week and passing reviews and books around the table for critiquing was a time of my life that I look back on as a sort of Camelot. Working with a small group of really sharp and witty people was tough and incredibly fun, and if my mistakes like using a dangling modifier were laughed at mercilessly, I learned. Writing 7 or more book reviews a week challenged me, and today when so much of my reading time is eaten up online, I can hardly believe the amount of reading I used to do. BCCB remains a frank and thoughtful source of book reviews today.

Once the Bulletin moved out of the city, I began reviewing for Booklist, the review journal of the American Library Association. In the Books for Youth section, I continued writing many reviews a week, and during the fall got to go in for weekly meetings to discuss the year’s best books for Editors’ Choice. I got to meet editorial assistant John Green, and remember well when I first started reading the ARC for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, realizing quickly that it was something very special. Hazel, Ilene, Stephanie, Sally, and Carolyn were and are such wise women, each great writers in their own right.

Eventually I followed Roger to The Horn Book Magazine where I have remained for almost 20 years. Roger’s deft editorial hand and his ability to keep Horn Book formal but fresh have kept me on my toes. The number of reviewers has recently greatly expanded, allowing a wider number of voices to be heard, and having the chance to weigh in and listen to comments on what should be starred each month keeps widening my perspective.

The advent of online reviewing has changed the field. Anyone can start a blog like this one and start opining away. But review editors like other editors in publishing help ensure that reviews are fair, facts are checked, and prose is polished. It’s been a huge privilege to write for each of these journals (as well as Kirkus and Reading Today) and I will always be grateful for the editors, fellow reviewers, book selectors, and most of all for the authors and illustrators that keep children’s literature such a vibrant and ever-changing world.


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Help! I’m drowning!

Do you ever just feel crushed under the weight of the books that you should be reading? I am finally getting around to Middlemarch, and the further I read the more I love it. It clearly is a book that deserves being reread, because the characters are so rich and well-developed that you can only fully appreciate them through multiple readings. But do I have time?

Ursula K. LeGuin has just died. I started to write “passed away,” and immediately deleted it as the sort of wimpy phrase that she would despise. A Wizard of Earthsea became one of my favorite books from the moment I finished it, but it’s been many years since I re-read it. Do I have time?

Authors coming from other cultures and races and perspectives are finally having a chance to be published. I actually started and stopped reading Angie Thomas’s brilliant The Hate U Give. Stopped, because her voice in that book is so fresh and stunning and real that I immediately felt out of place. It starts with a party, and introverts like me don’t love parties that much, but more than that it just wasn’t a party I would ever be invited to. It was uncomfortable. I loved it, but it took me awhile to be able to sit with it. By the end, I wanted to start it all over again. Do I have time?

The thing is, every book I read makes me richer in some way, but every book I read is another book I don’t have time to read. At this time of year, I’m trying to catch up on the 2017 books while understanding that it’s at the cost of the 2018 books. It’s possible that when I am old enough to retire, I will have time to read All the Books. I’m not sure when just the joy of reading seemed like enough to me, and when that changed to feeling like I needed to have a voice in trying to influence what other people read.  But I do think it is probably time to finish Middlemarch as I have finished The Hate U Give, and to pick up A Wizard of Earthsea again.

Time…it just keeps marching on. Writers, they just keep writing on. I can’t keep up, but I guess that’s okay.

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Recipe for Storytime Success

Millions of CatsMy Storytime for Big Kids is the high point of my week, which is otherwise occupied with budgets and HR and planning and communicating with board and staff and the public. I actually enjoy that work too, and I like working with colleagues to create an environment where good things can take place. But there is nothing in that work that feels as successful as a storytime that has gone really well.

I had a great reaction in storytime today to a book. Its pictures are black and white; the text by modern standards is too long, there is not a trademarked character in sight, and the kids (and adults) were completely and enthusiastically engaged. The book came out in 1928, and it is funny and quirky and wonderful. Most of all, it is a story, and kids love love love a good story. Instead of waiting through the book to find the parts where they were supposed to be participating, the kids were riveted because they wanted to know what happened next.

The biggest mistake I see people making in planning their storytimes is that their focus is so much on participation. It’s about having a craft (and the eternal struggle to find a craft that kids can do without too much adult intervention and still be something that the adults who bring them will find worthwhile). It’s about getting the kids up and down and up and down and not making them sit through too many books. It’s about making sure the books themselves have lots of opportunities for the kids to participate. Often these days it is about teaching a child facts or skills. It is almost never about finding a story that will surprise and amaze and delight a child.

There are some great, highly interactive books, and the very best books and folk tales often have some element that repeats, or that kids want to say along with you. Being interactive in itself isn’t a bad thing. But the problem with the modern storytime structure is that young kids have a hard time settling down, so planning your storytime assuming that books are boring is exactly the wrong thing to do. They actually need time to settle in, begin to focus, start to catch on that something interesting is happening in the story. They need a chance to actually look at the pages long enough to notice things, and they need the stories to unfold in a way where they start to get the hang of it, but they are still surprised at the twists and turns.

I am a big fan of Megan Lambert’s technique of slowing down and really examining a book closely. I find that when I take the time to look at the cover, and the endpapers, and the title page, and to stop and make sure we know what’s happening in the pictures at first, the kids get much more deeply engaged in the book. They are able to predict what will happen (sometimes right, sometimes wrong, but that’s part of the fun). They often notice details in the illustrations that I haven’t even picked up on. They listen more carefully, too.

Most of all, they get to take a few minutes in lives that these days are rush rush rush rush, and they get to stop and appreciate and enjoy things. They aren’t being told to stand up as soon as they finally started looking at the pages of the story, and they aren’t being hustled through one activity to get to the next. There is a stillness that comes over a room when the adults and the children are deeply engaged. Those are the very best moments of storytime.

My colleague at the library where I work, Ms. Clara, once told me that the kids in her storytime really love the moment in Kevin Henkes’ Little White Rabbit where the little bunny imagines what it would be like to be as still as a rock. She has them try that out, and they all get as still as they can be. Since then, I have tried that out several times with groups and she is right–they love that few moments of stillness.

Today’s big hit was a book I learned to tell as a story–Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats, with the immortal refrain, “Hundreds of cats. Thousands of cats. Millions and billions and trillions of cats.” It has one of the most brilliantly unexpected plot twists in any of children’s literature… and unlike the equally charming and old-fashioned Caps for Sale, none of the kids knew it.

I encourage storytime planners to focus on finding the stories that they love, the ones that have a turn of phrase or a sensibility about them that are unlike the others. Don’t keep looking for the book that you have to shake or stick your finger through or the one that is trying too hard to be funny. It is all about the rhythm. Have confidence in yourself, and the books, and the kids.

Posted in Childhood reading, Children's books, storytime, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Staff Picks

It was my turn to put together a staff picks display for my library. I have to say that it was much harder than I anticipated. It was hard in a good way–it made me think.

When you put a group of books on display with your name and face in front of them, it really reinforces your connection with those books…and by books I mean books and DVDs and music. An astute children’s librarian told me I was overthinking it, and she was absolutely right. But it also reinforced for me the new reality which is that as a library director, people will pay more attention to my opinions.

I was appointed director in May, and already I have begun to realize that I no longer have the ability to make a suggestion. When you are the director and you make a suggestion, it happens. Maybe it was a great idea, or maybe a good suggestion that you have been sitting on awhile, or maybe a completely half-baked dumb idea. But whatever category it falls into, it will probably happen. That is taking some getting used to.

So, when I went around the library looking for the materials for my display, I was a little intimidated. I am perfectly comfortable recommending children’s and YA books, because that is my field. I’ve been a children’s book reviewer and a children’s librarian for many (frighteningly many) years now. But although I have continued to read adult, or as I think of them, “grown-up” books whenever I get the chance, I lack the same confidence in my recommendations for those. I am aware that most of the time I will choose a female writer, for starters, which I don’t even consider when reading children’s and YA books, so right there that seems like a thing to  worry about.

It was kind of agonizing. An author like Anne Tyler is easy. I love her books, and they are well-written and insightful. I love Anne Lamott, with her easy mix of life experience and religion. I have no problem throwing in the Martha Grimes, which is literary mystery, and ditto P.D. James. But at a certain point, especially after hitting the Young Adult section, it became clear that my taste in literature is much darker than I ever realized before. It was Laura Ruby’s mysterious Bone Gap, and Christine Hepperman’s feminist poetry retellings of fairy tales in Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty. It was Maggie Stiefvater’s compelling Raven Boys cycle, and the still excellent Hunger Games, which by the way if you read it as a romance, you are reading it all wrong. They’re all great. They’re all very dark.

It was the same with the television series and movies. I have no appetite for gore, so I’m sure I am missing many wonderful DVDs, but my favorite shows are The Sopranos, and The Wire, and The Good Wife, and others that mix tough reality with humor and thoughtful contemplation of what a strange thing the human condition is.

Then it was onto the nonfiction…and that was impossible. When you are the director, you have to worry that if you put out a Suze Orman book that one person will think it is too pop culture and another will think the particular book is dated and another will find it inappropriate to mention money at all. When browsing the political books looking for material, I found myself beginning to think how entertaining it might be to put out books that express the complete opposite of what I actually believe. It’s very revealing to choose nonfiction. I ended up going with dog books and knitting books, conveniently overlooking that my dog is not well-trained and my knitting is…well…soothing but not artistic.

It was a much more personal experience than I anticipated. By the time it was done, my feet hurt and so did my brain. But in the end I think the fact that it was very uncomfortable made it well worth the time. I learned a lot about myself, and my new role, and that’s not even talking about all of the stuff I learned about how the collections are arranged and their ease of use. So I recommend it. The patrons seem to really like staff picks displays, and what a person chooses is pretty interesting. Just don’t judge me for the odd juxtaposition of Anne of Green Gables and Game of Thrones. We are all a mix, aren’t we?

photo taken in my library by Ed Spicer

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The new young adult books

Goodnight MoonLanguage changes. It always has, and probably it always will, but that won’t stop those of us who enjoy language from railing against awful usage and mistakes that become common practice. Who doesn’t enjoy a good argument about the Oxford comma or a rant against verbing? (Most people you say? Oh. But anyway, for some of us, expressing disgust with new/wrong word choices is a sport.) Language changes.

So when Time Magazine listed its 100 Best Young Adult Books of All Time, I immediately braced myself because I now know that the mainstream press has begun to use “young adult” to mean “children’s book”. Many children read Charlotte’s Web in second or third grade, and there aren’t a lot of 7-year-olds who qualify as “young adult” in my book. But I had this shock of understanding when I looked at the list that those of us who know the difference have lost this battle–Time Magazine will get dozens more readers than this blog post. Or millions more. Realistically.

There are a few of us who care about this, and we will continue to point out how absurd it is in a related article titled 17 Famous Writers on Their Favorite Young Adult Books that Martin Amis says Goodnight Moon. Clearly he was asked for his favorite children’s book. Maybe that error is so absurd that the editorial staff at Time will be more careful…but I doubt it. Over at CNN they have the list of Young Adult Books That Changed Our Lives with the Narnia books on it, along with several other solidly fourth/fifth grade books. Publishers and bookstores have an interest in pushing the boundaries of the enormously popular YA category down to get more readers. There is also a perception that children don’t like to be called children.

My other theory is that young adult books have become so similar in their themes and structure that writers throw on children’s books for the sake of variety. A list made up mostly of dystopian books and romances becomes dull very quickly. But that’s not fair to the many excellent YA writers like Maggie Stiefvater and E. Lockhart, who write uniquely voiced and richly imagined stories for teens. No, it is probably not thought out at all–it is probably an editor who doesn’t know much about the topic deciding quickly that “young adult” is trendy while “children’s literature” is not, and going with the trendier term.

I’m going to try not to let it get on my nerves. I can’t afford to be cranky about everything.


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Digitizing Our Treasures

library-488692_640Many in the library world will by now have read The Aspen Institute’s Report, Rising to the Challenge: Re-envisioning Public Libraries, and if you haven’t, you should.  It is thoughtfully prepared and presented, and it makes an important point about the key role that the public library is geared up to play in the new world of technology and community. I completely support the idea that public libraries have to be putting their attention on preparing for the future. I don’t agree with the line in it about public libraries in the past being an amenity instead of a necessity–that’s never been true–but overall I think it makes many meaningful and useful points.

For me personally, it’s funny that it came along right as I have again been getting concerned about losing our past. Friends of mine who work for a prestigious university told a chilling story at dinner about going to the reference room of their prestigious university library and finding it empty except for some cheap furniture. The reference books, it seems, have been moved into random locations where they cannot be easily accessed, and the collection as a whole has been broken up.

Nobody in the public library world would find it surprising that a reference collection is being downsized. That’s what’s currently happening, as answers to questions are increasingly available online. But in the academic world, where sources must be meticulously cited so the next scholar can come along and use those same sources…those libraries are getting rid of their books, too?  What is the point to a footnote that leads to a book that no longer exists? Do we as a society no longer value scholarship at all? It is the nature of architects to find books things that interfere with the good use of space, but should the librarians be acting like we agree?

So that’s disturbing. Then I participated in a group where the leader took a creation story written by Virginia Hamilton and turned it into readers’ theater.  And I went back to my library, and of course we no longer own that book, though I know we once did. There are still 16 copies in our library consortium, though, so no need to panic, right? Right, except that in the great weeding frenzy that is taking place in libraries these days, I can’t find anyone out there who is making sure that we aren’t losing our last copies of things.

I have said before that I believe our patrons/taxpayers think that we are the curators of our collections. Someone recently expressed surprise that while museum staff think of libraries and museums being interconnected, librarians do not, and I think that is true. And it’s partly because we don’t want to be held responsible for our collections in the way that a museum feels responsible. “My library is not an archival library,” we say. “These things are available online,” we say. “If people were interested, they would have checked them out sometime in the last ten/five/three/two years,” we say.

As a children’s literature fan, I am particularly concerned about those books, and the fact that no one is taking responsibility for making sure they don’t disappear altogether. We can feel somewhat assured that a good percentage of adult materials are being digitized. Who is digitizing the children’s material? Who is making sure that Virginia Hamilton’s glorious collection of creation stories from ancient cultures–the stories that tell us about how the people who lived thousands of years ago thought and felt and how they connect with each other–who is preserving those?

It’s not a rhetorical question. I want there to be an answer to it. We are not just weeding our books from the 70s/80s with cheesy covers. We aren’t just weeding our old series paperbacks with yellow pages. We are beginning to take bites out of our collections that represent some of the best writing and scholarship that we have. It’s a little like in Ally Condie’s Matched–will only the 100 designated poems remain in the end? We’re not there yet, but we’re not fighting hard enough, either.

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What management doesn’t get about Youth Services

CC BY-SA 3.0

CC BY-SA 3.0

Cutting edge libraries these days are changing up the way they do things. Management teams look at the traditional ways that libraries are set up, with an Adult Services Department and a Youth Services Department and a Technical Services Department and a Circulation Department and they get frustrated with what they like to call “silos”. The idea of a silo is that people in each area stay unto themselves. It impedes collaboration and innovation when the people in your library don’t spend time together working for the overall good of the library and stay in their silos.

So some public libraries are trying to break down the silos by organizing the functions of the library in different ways. They may put all of their programming specialists together in one department. They may pull the materials selection out of the departments and into the Technical Services Department which is often then called Materials Handling. They may have a Customer Service Department that has responsibilities at all of the library desks so there is a uniform level of service offered. They may combine their adult, teen and children’s desks into one big desk where all questions are answered. They may be eliminating the desks altogether and going with “roaming” librarians armed with an iPad and a headset. These are all things that are currently happening at libraries in the Chicago area where I work.

For the people working with adults, I think any of these things can work very well. But too many children’s managers get stuck in the extremely unpleasant position of trying to defend the status quo and thus being perceived as being balky, or stodgy, or unwilling to change. I’m sure in some cases that is true, and yet I think most of the time their concerns are rightly with their particular patrons. Child development means that a six-month-old is a very different creature from a two-year-old who is very unlike a six-year-old who again differs in many ways from an 11-year-old. On the other hand, a 25-year-old is not that different from a 65-year-old. They have some different interests, sometimes, and as patrons age they have some new needs for different formats, perhaps, but by and large they are a lot the same.

Children’s librarians must deal with the needs of all of their different patrons (including the parents and grandparents and teachers and caregivers) all of the time. As a very smart children’s manager mentioned to me recently, they know that you can’t get rid of your children’s desk and just use roaming librarians, because kids aren’t supposed to approach friendly-looking strangers who are standing around. They need to go to the official desk, where they learn through experience that those are the children’s librarians and they are helpful and nice. Children’s managers know that programming for the age groups is widely varied, and because they work with the children in the department, they get a feel for what will work, what won’t, what will be thrilling (Minecraft!) and what might flop (Online Homework Help). They know what is developmentally appropriate and what time of day children of those ages are likely to come to the library in a way that someone off in a programming department with little-to-no desk time cannot know.

So because children’s has always been about hands-on experiences, and interactivity and proactive offers of help and instruction to patrons, it can be frustrating to be told that management has discovered those things and they now feel they know more about them than the children’s staff. In the worst-case situations, the children’s supervisors are marginalized and their authority and control is gradually eroded.

As someone who has been in upper management for the past five years, I hear some of my colleagues at other libraries talking with exasperation and sometimes even rolling their eyes at the pig-headed youth services people. And to me, it seems like the breaking down of silos is resulting in a new set of silos, especially if we aren’t doing a good job of listening to each other. Change is not a bad thing, but when it is handled with top-down authority without paying attention to the people who have first-person knowledge, it is going to end up being changed back, something that has happened in several libraries in my area.

Find other ways to break down the silos. Put together teams to work on projects or areas. Do cross-training so staff can get first-hand experience at working with other patrons. Work with sub-groups of staff to plan for the future. Get people talking. And respect the knowledge and experience of your children’s managers. They know what they are talking about.


Posted in Child Development, customer service, Management, Public libraries, Uncategorized, Youth Services | 1 Comment