Friday, April 29, 2011


Pets die, darn it.  And when you happen to have very small pets, they die fairly often.

I was particularly fond of our dwarf hamster Tina, who passed away a couple months ago.  She spent all her time sleeping, eating, and exercising - if you throw in reading, those are my favorite things, too, so we bonded right away.  Someday I'll be ready for a new hamster, but for now, when I need a dose of Hamster Love, I read Hot Rod Hamster by Cynthia Lord and watch some footage of Tina doing what she loved best.

And then one of our venerable hens died.  Angel had been languishing for a while - the wet winter was hard on her - and finally quietly drifted away while nestled in her nesting box.  In this clip, filmed just a few weeks before she died, Angel is the one standing on the porch by herself, looking longingly into our house.

I brought Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein home the other night - and read it to my 16-year-old.  She thought it was hilarious, and I found it comforting in more ways than one.  Reading a picture book to my big, purple-haired teenager reminded me of when she would grab a book and back her diaper-butted self onto my lap at the slightest opportunity.  My little book-addled girl has grown into a big book-addled girl!

And we still have 3 hens who are doing very well.  They aren't particularly spunky, though.  In fact, when we let them out recently during a family gathering, it was a toddler who did all the interrupting.  Those poor hens couldn't get a beakful of bugs without getting all loved up.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Same as it ever was

Here's my horoscope for today, according to the LA Times:

"Some of your thoughts are the same as yesterday and will repeat again tomorrow.  There will be unique thoughts, too."

Which seems as good an excuse as any not to write a post today.  Perhaps tomorrow some of those unique thoughts will arrive, but today I've just recycled the old ones.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

For picture book fanatics...

Horn Book will be presenting a blog that discusses Caldecott contenders, a companion to SLJ's Heavy Medal blog that presents Newbery contenders.  Thank you, Roger!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

State of Preschool report

The National Institute for Early Education Research released their annual State of Preschool report today.  Covering the 2009-2010 school year, it looks at spending, enrollment, quality control, and other important factors of state-funded preschool in all 50 states.

The report notes that there have been modest gains in some states, and others have mostly held steady.  But -
"The 2009-2010 school year was the first tracked by NIEER in which total state funding for pre-K fell from the prior year. State spending per child decreased by $114. The decrease in inflation-adjusted spending per child was on top of another modest decrease the year before. The funding situation for pre-K may get worse even as the economy slowly recovers."
 In other words, in several states (including CA), it was only ARRA money that kept our spending levels up.  And as the LA Times noted today:
"Seeking to fill a $26.6-billion budget gap, Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed legislation that imposes a 15% across-the-board cut in subsidized child care and early learning programs as well as other program changes that take effect July 1.

In addition, Brown signed legislation to shift $1 billion from state and county First 5 programs, which are paid for by tobacco-tax funds. Several local agencies filed a lawsuit to block the shift."
Just another example of slashing programs for the young and poor, demonstrating that politicians seem unable to take the long - and rational - view.  Research has proven over and over how important early childhood programs are in narrowing the achievement gap and getting kids ready to learn and read when they enter school.  And kids who do well in school from the beginning are more likely to graduate from high school - meaning they won't be filling the prisons that are costing us so much.

This makes me even more convinced that the work libraries are doing promoting early literacy to parents and caregivers is more important than ever.  And clearly we need to think about taking this message to our elected officials as well.

Monday, April 25, 2011

As you know, Children's Book Week runs May 2 to 8 this year, and here in Los Angeles, we're celebrating big time.

Southern CA is rich in natural resources, and one of them happens to be children's writers and illustrators.  I don't know if it's the mild weather or our gorgeous coastline and mountains, but this place is teeming with creativity, not to mention generosity.  When I put a call out to folks asking them if they would come visit one of our Los Angeles Public Library branches during Children's Book Week, 20 of them said yes!  And many more expressed dismay that they would be out of town or busy that week, but asked me to keep them in mind for future events.

Writers of children's and YA books are the best people EVER! 

Here's the schedule - I hope you're able to come out and show a children's author - and library - some love.

To kick off Children's Book Week, drop by the LA Time Festival of Books, April 30 and May 1, at its new location at the University of Southern CA.  As always, admission is free of charge - and there is plenty for fans of children's and YA literature to marvel at.  One tiny example - a panel on "Worlds Beyond Imagination" with Jonathan Stroud, Megan Whalen Turner, and Rick Yancey.

Finish off Children's Book Week with an invigorating and enlightening program held at my own Central Library.  The Children's Literature Council of Southern California is presenting "Read the Movie?  Using Movies Based on Books to Promote Literacy" on Saturday, May 7 from 8:30 to 1 pm.  It features Wendelin Van Draanen talking about the process of having her fabulous book Flipped turned into a rather wonderful movie.  Tickets are still available - register today!

Ah - springtime and books!  Life is good.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Review of The Trouble with May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm

Holm, Jennifer L. The Trouble with May Amelia.  Atheneum, 2011.

The Finnish-American heroine of Newbery Honor-winning Our Only May Amelia is back, and her life is as tumultuous as ever.  On the one hand, being a 13-year-old girl on a farm in the wet middle of Washington State nowhere in 1900 means a whole lot of monotony.  On the other hand, having 6 older brothers (plus a male cousin), a fierce and dour father, a kind but busy mother, and penchant for trouble means that May Amelia's life is never quite dull enough.

Life is hard for May Amelia's community.  No one makes enough money from farming or from the logging camp, and the latter job is hazardous to one's life and limbs.  There are natural disasters and tragic deaths and accidents and financial ruin and disastrous fires and a favorite teacher who gets married and must quit.  Somehow, May Amelia stays buoyant despite all this AND the constant put-downs from the males in her family - so it's a good thing she's telling this story, or the reader might get sucked down into a bog of despair.  I'm SO glad I don't live by the soggy Nasel River in 1900! 

But May Amelia does just fine.  She's strong enough to take tough luck and scathing remarks - though even May Amelia buckles a bit under her father's scorn when she's made the scapegoat for the family's losing all their money to a scoundrel.  I'm betting that with her resilience and sense of humor, not to mention her scads of tough older brothers, she'll be a force to reckon with in a few years.  The local boys won't know what hit them...

Highly recommended for readers ages 9 to 13 who enjoy quirky historical fiction with tough yet tender heroines, and of course for everyone who loved Our Only May Amelia.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Maybe it's time to finally buy a Kindle

Seeing as how I like to BORROW my books, not buy them, I've been waiting for this.

Creating a new crop of Library Kids

Haven't had much time to post on my own blog, but I did manage to get a post onto the ALSC blog - it's about targeting outreach to kids who aren't regular Summer Reading Program participants.  Check it out!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Coming out of the woodwork

When the May issue of Harper's came out, I knew it was time to finally get to the April issue.  And I'm glad I did, as there was an article about Lynd Ward, whom I know as the illustrator of dozens of children's novels and picture books (Forbes' Johnny Tremain, Coatsworth's The Cat Who Went to Heaven) but who also created wordless "graphic novels" for adults composed only of wood engravings, which were compiled in Six Novels in Woodcuts by the Library of America last year.  It's always a revelation when I find out folks actually do stuff beyond the realm of children's and YA literature - sort of like when little kids assumed I lived at the library and were astonished to see me at the supermarket.

A person who writes children's books automatically takes on an aura of sweetness and wholesomeness, at least so far as Hollywood is concerned; witness the Arthur remake starring Russell Brand.  His love interest is Greta Gerwig, who plays a quirky fresh young tour guide (unlicensed) named Naomi who dreams of writing and illustrating her own pop-up children's book about New York.  This being a movie, the book not only gets accepted* - and then published within 6 months - but also its publication apparently transforms Naomi from a just-scraping-by gal with an eccentric wardrobe to a sleek-haired successful woman.  I can just feel the outrage of all writers who published their first picture book and failed to see the mega-bucks roll in.  *It must be noted that jillionaire Arthur purchases the publishing house in order to ensure that the book is published, to Naomi's horror when she finds out.  So there is some understanding that it might not be so easy to get published.

Speaking of folks who publish first-time picture books, Maya Soetoro-Ng, author of the just-published Ladder to the Moon (illustrated by Yuyi Morales), will be appearing at Central Library in Los Angeles this evening, April 19, at 6:30.  In addition to being a children's author and a PhD in Education, she is President Obama's half-sister. For more information, call the Children's Literature department at 213-228-7250.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Review of A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull

Mull, Brandon.  A World Without Heroes (Beyonders #1).  Aladdin, 2011.

As so often happens, a couple of regular human kids are sucked from Earth into a magical world where they are immediately enmeshed in a life-or-death struggle against Evil that requires utter commitment and extreme heroism. 

In this case, Jason and Rachel find themselves in Lyrian, which is ruled by a tyrannical wizard emperor named Maldor.  Simply by being "Beyonders" from Earth, the kids have caught Maldor's attention, but after Jason unwittingly gains partial knowledge of a magical Word that could destroy Maldor if spoken in his presence, Jason and Rachel are forced to go on a desperate and dangerous quest to find the rest of the well-hidden syllables of the Word, while Maldor's numerous allies are constantly at their heels.

While the basic premise of the story is a common fantasy trope, the details of this fantasy distinguish it from many similar tales.  The situations and people (a man who lives in a sea cave guarded by a giant man-eating crab; another man whose head and one arm live in a volcano while the rest of him is locked in a cask at the bottom of the sea; a spinning pub - and that's just scratching the surface) that Rachel and Jason come across in their travels are wonderfully bizarre.

Particularly eerie are the "displacers," who can remove their own body parts at will (the volcano man is of course a displacer).  Jason and Rachel, who are befriended by a kind displacer named Ferrin, are outraged at the hostility and prejudice Lyrians have against displacers - until they discover the real reason for it.

The story is told in the 3rd person from Jason's point of view, so we get to know him fairly well, listening in his thoughts as he tries to reconcile his 21st-century Earth instincts with the fantasy world he must now skillfully traverse; most of the book's humor arises from Jason's internal voice.  Rachel, although certainly brave and resourceful, isn't a fully realized character; Ferrin and even Maldor come across as more vivid and complex. In fact, Rachel is the only main female character in the book; only one other even gets a speaking part of more than a few sentences.  This is very much a tale of male rogues, villains, and heroes.

By the end of the book, the situation is far from resolved, and in fact it ends on such an intriguing note that readers will be yearning for the next book in the series.

Although girls will enjoy it, this is a great tale to recommend to boys ages 9 to 13 who enjoy fast-moving and intelligent adventure fantasies.  Show them this book trailer and they'll be hooked.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Go Banana Slugs!

The Beach Boys' Be True to Your School came up on my Ipod this morning, which seemed appropriate given how much schools have been on my mind lately.

My school spirit was virtually non-existent.  Could it have been because of our ultra-dorky mascots?

John Marshall High School - The Barristers (do students even know what that is?  slogan: Veritas Vincit - Truth Conquers)

University of California, Santa Cruz - The Banana Slugs (really!!)

My daughters and my sister are students/alumni at
Venice High School - The Gondoliers (slogan: "Rowing, Not Drifting" - SNORT!)

At least my library school was
UCLA GSEIS - The Bruins (roar!)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Squeezed teachers; frustrated librarians

As a public librarian, I feel that teachers are my sisters and brothers.  The education and nurturing of our community's children is our mission; we are guided by often missionary zeal to empower kids with the knowledge and understanding they'll need for the rest of their lives.

As a proud member of the Librarians' Guild (ASFCME Local 2626), I understand the importance of a strong union, and I sympathize with the fears teachers have when faced with new and complicated ways of evaluating performance, such as the value-added analysis suggested by the LA Times last year.

And yet, as a parent with two kids who have spent over 2 dozen years between them in public schools and as a librarian who has walked into hundreds of classrooms over the last couple decades, I know that there are teachers in classrooms who should not be teaching.  Not only do their students not learn much, but in one year, they can negate much of the love of learning that a child might have brought to their classroom at the beginning of the school year.

Most teachers care deeply and want to be as effective as possible.  Most teachers would love to get rid of the bad eggs who are currently protected by contracts and rules.  But it's going to take some guts.  Not only will teachers have to buck their own unions, but they will have to be willing to be evaluated by new and unfamiliar methods, and they may be dismayed by the results.

Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa, in his 2011 State of the City address today, declared education the focus of his last two years in office.  He decried the fact that CA is 47th in per capita student spending and he asked teachers to take hard but necessary risks when it comes to evaluation, saying "We can fulfill the promise of public education by agreeing to a new contract with ourselves - a promise to put aside the concerns of a few adults in the interests of all children."  The Mayor has no direct authority over LAUSD, but he does have influence over the school board, so his call for reform isn't entirely empty.  However, the bigger problem is LAUSD's massive budget crisis, which matches the City's in size and horror.  How that will be solved, I can't imagine.

Teachers are being squished from all sides - even when they aren't being laid off, their schools don't have enough money; they are considered public enemies #1 for their pensions and their balky unions; and their jobs are challenging enough as it is.

Librarians know teachers are super-busy.  They don't have time to keep up with all the new books coming out, nor do they know all the resources public librarians have to offer.  The challenge is getting the message about these resources to the teachers, schools, and district.  Seems easy enough?  Sure, teacher by teacher, and even school by school if the principal is extremely excellent and proactive (which is not so easy to find).

But district-wide?  LAUSD has over 1,000 schools and almost 700,000 students!  The administrative bureaucracy is vast and labyrinthine.  Administrators don't return emails or phone calls.  There is often little communication between departments.  If there is a good way to give concise, crucial information on library services to top administration and have it trickle and spread down to all layers and schools and teachers and students in the district, I haven't discovered it.

So our branch librarians keep making contact with their local teachers and schools, one at a time, and I chip away at the district from the sides, sending emails, making calls, and giving presentations to whomever will take me - LA's Best, Beyond the Bell, smaller regions within the District, and so on. But it's inefficient, time-consuming, and frustrating.

John Deasy is taking over from Ramon Cortines as LAUSD Superintendent this Monday.  He's in favor of reform.  I hope he's in favor of information and communication as well, because if he's ready to listen, we have a lot to tell him about how public libraries can help LAUSD students and teachers.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Public schools and libraries - one true pairing

Public schools and public libraries have had an intense and satisfying relationship since libraries first began.  Even when most libraries didn't have children's reading rooms or allow children to check out books, librarians brought books and booklists to classrooms.  After public libraries embraced the mission of providing space, furniture, books, and programming especially for young people, children used the library as a place not just as a place to study and check out homework resources, but also as a sanctuary from home and school, a third place where they could read whatever they wanted.

For decades, the Los Angeles Public Library has worked closely with schools.  The only public school district that serves the City of Los Angeles is the Los Angeles Unified School District, which actually extends far beyond the city borders to many corners of Los Angeles county.

The children's and YA librarians in our 72 community branches visit their neighborhood schools at least once a year to drop off flyers, chat with the administrative staff, make presentations in assemblies and classrooms, and talk at PTA and faculty meetings.  Dozens of classes from all over the City visit our Central Library's Children's Literature and Teen'Scape departments every month.

Because the huge majority of kids in our city attends an LAUSD school, we librarians pay close attention to any LAUSD news or change, as it will no doubt affect us.

When LAUSD voted last December to begin the 2012 school year on August 15 rather than the traditional "Tuesday after Labor Day," it threw us into turmoil.  Would we have to change our Summer Reading Club dates this year??  A month later, the school board voted to put that off a year, and we changed our dates back.

A few weeks ago, LAUSD announced that it was finally abandoning the Open Court reading program in favor of a program called California Treasures.  We've been living with Open Court for years, and regardless of how we felt about the heavily scripted program, it has shaped our collections (city wildlife books for third graders!  the history of medicine for fourth graders!); now we'll be working with a whole new set of assignments and themes.

And horribly, LAUSD continues to face huge budget shortfalls, which has led to hundreds of teachers being laid off.  This year, school librarians are being particularly hard-hit; next September, many schools will find themselves with no librarian at all on their campus.  This is devastating for teachers and students, and of course it will impact public libraries as well.  We've always heavily supplemented the school curriculum, but now we will be the only source of books for homework, beyond the textbooks that are supplied in classrooms.

Giving students and teachers the resources they need - books, periodicals, databases, computer use, homework centers, information literacy instruction - is one of our main missions at the public library.  It's a large part of what we do every day.  We take our symbiotic relationship with schools as a given.

And yet - schools often don't seem to know or care about our services, seeming to operate in a separate, complicated universe.  It seems obvious that teachers would want to know about and promote all the services we provide them and their students, and often they are our biggest fans.  But not always.  Why is it sometimes so hard to get schools - and the school district - to work with us?

I'll ponder this in an upcoming post - but feel free to comment now!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Up and Away at Central Library

If you're an Angeleno with some kids and time on your hands this Saturday, April 9, come on down to Central Library for Science Day 2011!  From 2 pm to 4 pm, the Taper Auditorium and Children's Courtyard will be teeming with creative crafts, wild experiments, and plenty of stories - all on an aeronautical theme.  All ages welcome!  Click on the link above for more information.  Sponsored by FOCAL.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Review of Across the Universe by Beth Revis

Revis, Beth.  Across the Universe.  Razorbill, 2011.

Pack thousands of people - some frozen, some not - into a metal canister hurtling for hundreds of years through space toward a distance planet, and you've got a recipe for seething trouble.  That's why I love science fiction that takes place on generation ships, and Across the Universe is a fine example of the genre.

17-year-old Amy reluctantly allows herself to be frozen so that she can accompany her parents on a 300-year voyage that will end with all of them being thawed out in order to colonize a new planet.  But Amy is thawed out long before the voyage is over, and, after getting over that shock, realizes that life for the non-frozen folks on board ship is very odd indeed, and has been for for generations.  Luckily, she's not all alone.  Fellow teenager Elder is being groomed to take over as leader of the ship after Eldest, the current leader - but he has almost as many questions about the ship as Amy does. 

There are many problems on board ship, from the way the people seem to be under some form of mind control to all the secrets that Eldest is keeping.  And if that isn't bad enough, someone has been unplugging and killing the frozen colonists, one by one.  Who could it be - and why?

Telling the story from both Elder and Amy's point of view allows the reader to gain an insider's understanding and perspective of life on board the ship, while at the same time feeling the horror of Amy's situation.  Elder has never known any other life, and yet like any thoughtful teenager, he is beginning to see the imperfections and strangeness of things he previously took for granted.  Amy won't see her frozen parents until the ship finally lands on their destination planet - if then - and is almost all alone in a hostile and bizarre environment.  That both perspectives are fascinating and believable is proof of Revis' fine writing and tight control over her story and setting.

Plenty of fascinating topics are raised, providing juicy food for thought.  How can only a couple thousand people keep themselves and their spaceship in good condition over many generations, especially if things go very wrong?  What happens if people start to disagree with one another about the best way to do things?  What if discord threatens to destroy the whole mission?  How far should a leader go to ensure the survival of the ship and its people?

This is excellent science fiction for teens ages 14 and up.  (Do be warned that at one point in the story, quite a bit of rampant sexual activity occurs - nothing gratuitous, mind you, but rather shocking, at least to Amy).  Be sure to check out the double-sided jacket (I much prefer the side with the schematic of the spaceship) and the official website

Monday, April 4, 2011

Word Power

Words are powerful, and knowing lots of them is not only vital to success in school, but downright empowering.  Can there be anything more satisfying than using just the right word at the right time?

Example #1
One day in 2nd grade, my teacher played a phonics game with the class, seeing how many words we could make ending in "an."   Man, can, pan, even plan - soon we had a nice long list and the hands stopped going up.  But there was one word missing, a word I had read over and over in a book at home.  I raised my hand hesitantly.
"Wan," I said, pronouncing it to rhyme with man.
"I don't think that's a word," my teacher said kindly.
I hadn't expected that.  This was awkward.  I turned red.  "No, it is.  It's in a book.  I think it means pale - like "why so pale and wan, fond lover?"
My teacher blinked.  "Oh - wan!" she said, pronouncing it to rhyme with John.  "Yes, that's a word."  She wrote it on the board, and thus was my reputation for genius assured among the teachers at Westminster Ave. Elementary School.
No, I wasn't reading classic English poetry at age 7 (or at age 45, either - just now I had to look up that quote to find out that it's the first line of a poem by Sir John Suckling, 1609-1642), but rather a novelty book that took the first lines of famous poems and added silly second lines to create "fractured poetry."  Too bad I can't remember the 2nd line.  I loved this book, though I had no idea that the first lines were famous; nor did I get most of the jokes (it was absolutely a book for adults, probably published in the 50s). There were funny rhymes and goofy cartoon illustrations; this was all that mattered.

Example #2
When I was about 9 years old, a pair of mischievous twins in our gang of kids drove us all into absolute frenzies of frustrated fury one afternoon by coolly and disdainfully calling us "dromedaries."  We were certain this must be the worst insult ever, and it was only after someone finally tattled to an adult that we learned its meaning.  Not only did the twins get to snicker and giggle at us for hours, but they didn't even get in trouble for using a bad word.  This still strikes me as a truly fabulous and hilarious prank.

Example #3
My 4-year-old daughter's Pre-K teacher asked the class if anyone could think of any other words that mean "little," probably hoping for small, tiny, and so on.  My daughter raised her hand.
"Miniature," she said.
The teacher raised her eyebrows as I beamed with pride from the back of the room, where I was cutting out construction paper hearts.  It was like "wan" all over again!  Except that this word came not from a book but from a museum we had visited recently, the Museum of Miniatures.

Example #4
I spent more than 10 hours snugged up next to a 20-month-old toddler during a car trip with friends to the mountains this past weekend, plus many more hours talking and playing with her in the cabin.  Phoebe's parents have been talking, reading, and playing with her since she was born, and it shows.

Phoebe has learned that when she wants something, whether it's a cup of milk, another song, or to go outside, it works best to use words.  A plaintive wail will only garner lots of guesses as to what she wants, whereas "more juice" (even if it comes out "moh zhu") gets better, faster results.  Her vocabulary is large, giving her an ever-increasing arsenal of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, and she employs it effectively.  She greeted the snow, pronounced my husband's legs "hairy," was able to get me to sing songs and play games over and over, and earned a huge grin from me every time she said my newly-learned name.

Thanks to her parents and her caregiver talking with her every day, Phoebe will have a strong and useful vocabulary by the time she starts Kindergarten at age 5.  Knowing lots and lots of words, and being able to use them, will allow her to understand and communicate with her teacher, learn to read more easily, write fluently, and have an excellent chance of being a successful student - in Kindergarten, in 3rd grade, and beyond.

Words are tools.  The more you have, the better equipped you are to do well in school and in life.

And if you can wow folks with words like wan, dromedary, miniature, and hairy along the way - well heck, so much the better!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Review of A Tale of Two Castles by Gail Carson Levine

I wrote the following review for School Library Journal's April 2011 edition.

LEVINE, Gail Carson. A Tale of Two Castles. 336p. CIP. HarperCollins. May 2011. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-06-122965-7; PLB $17.89. ISBN 978-0-06-122966-4. LC 2010027756.
Gr 5-8–When 12-year-old Elodie leaves her family farm for the capital city of Two Castles, she intends to apprentice herself to a mansioner, as actors are called. However, as she has no money for an apprenticeship, she goes to work for a clever if cantankerous dragon named Meenore, who instructs her in solving mysteries using induction, deduction, and common sense. Elodie’s first big case is to try to figure out who is stealing from and threatening the life of the town’s ogre, Count Jonty Um. There are so many suspects, and no one is quite the individual he or she seems; it takes all of Elodie’s new skills to keep the Count–and herself–from harm. Although warned about dragons and ogres, Meenore and Jonty Um become Elodie’s closest friends. Meenore, whose gender is unknown and so must be referred to as IT, is prickly but steadfast, and shy Jonty Um is hugely troubled by how much everyone hates and fears him. Other characters, such as the gorgeous cat trainer Count Thiel and the dithering Princess Renn, are also fascinatingly unpredictable. Elodie, luckily, is sensible and reliable through and through (if inclined to the dramatic side of life). Readers are certain to be pulled, like Elodie herself, right into the midst of the rich and swirling life of Two Castles.–Eva Mitnick, Los Angeles Public Library