Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Read-alones for easy reader graduates - short and snappy chapter books

There is that special stage in the reading life of many kids, right after they've graduated from easy readers but before they are quite ready for chapters books packed tightly with words but lacking in pictures. These kids might be anywhere from 6 to 8 years old - or they might even be slightly older and are looking for a light and undemanding read.

And don't we all need a light and undemanding read sometimes?

I've compiled a short but sweet list of great read-alone chapter books for the discerning reader who wants a lot of bang for his or her reading buck. Some are quite easy, some a tad bit more demanding, but all offer plenty of fun (and not too many words) per page. And remember, there is no rule that says a kid reading at a 6th grade reading level shouldn't read these books just because they're "easy." I read way below grade level on a regular basis - in fact, some of my favorite books wouldn't challenge a 3rd-grader - and my reading skills haven't suffered any, I promise. A child - or adult - who is reading for pleasure should choose any book she wants. What's the point otherwise?

When the book is part of a series, I've listed the first title in the series.

And without further ado:

Applegate, Katherine. Never Glue Your Friends to Chairs (series - "Roscoe Riley Rules")
1st-grader Roscoe can't seem to help getting in the weirdest kind of trouble. (approx. 80 pages)

Blume, Judy. The Pain and the Great One. (series - "The Pain and the Great One")
All about The Pain (a 6-year-old boy) and his 8-year-old sister The Great One. (most about 100 pages)

Cabot, Meg. Moving Day. (series - "Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls)
When 9-year-old Allie moves, it means a new (scary) house, a new school, and new friends. (approx. 225 pages)

Cowley, Joy. Snake and Lizard.
Think Frog and Toad, but set in the desert. (approx. 85 pages)

Denton, Terry. Wombat and Fox: Tales of the City.
Another friendship story, but this one is more urban. (approx. 125 pages)

English, Karen. Nikki and Deja. (series - "Nikki and Deja")
When a new girl joins their class, these two 3rd-grade friends don't treat her well at first. (approx. 75 pages)

Gifford, Peggy Elizabeth. Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Stuart Little. (series - "Moxy Maxwell")
Too bad almost 4th-grader Moxy is trying like crazy to avoid her assigned summer reading. (approx. 90 pages)

Grimes, Nikki. Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel.
When 3rd-grader Dyamonde moves to a new school, she makes it her goal to befriend a rather cranky boy. (approx. 75 pages)

Hale, Bruce. Prince of Underwhere. (series - "Underwhere")
When a pair of twins and their cat accidentally discover the realm of Underwhere, adventure and undie jokes ensue. (approx. 160 pages)

Harper, Jessica. Uh-oh, Cleo. (series - "Uh-oh, Cleo")
Poor Cleo has to get stitches when her twin brother accidentally injures her. (approx. 50 pages)

Hicks, Betty. Scaredy-cat Catcher. (series - "Gym Shorts")
When Rocky, a baseball catcher, gets injured while tagging a runner out, he is too scared to try it again. (approx. 55 pages)

Kline, Suzy. Horrible Harry in Room 2b (and plenty of others about Harry and his classmates)
Having a friend like Harry isn't easy - but it's never boring.

Lowry, Lois. Gooney Bird Greene. (series - "Gooney Bird Greene")
A new 2nd-grade girl entertains her class with strange but true stories. (approx. 90 pages)

McDonald, Megan. Judy Moody. (series - "Judy Moody")
Third grade doesn't start out so well for Judy. (approx. 160 pages)

Moss, Marissa. Alien Eraser to the Rescue. (series - "Max Disaster")
A boy keeps a diary in the form of a comic book. (approx. 40 pages)

Park, Barbara. Junie B., 1st-Grader - Aloha-ha-ha! (series - "Junie B. Jones")
This is one of many in a series about an irrepressible K/1st-grade girl. (approx. 100 pages)

Pennypacker, Sara. Clementine. (series - "Clementine")
8-year-old Clementine deals with troubles with friends and pigeons. (approx. 120 pages)

Simon, Francesca. Horrid Henry. (series - "Horrid Henry")
Honestly, this boy is really badly behaved - especially compared to his oh-so-perfect brother. (approx. 80 pages)

Van Draanen, Wendelin. Villain's Lair. (series - "Gecko and Sticky")
A 13-year-old boy and his talking gecko have daring and magical adventures. (Approx. 200 pages)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Haven't read a single one - yet!

The Man Booker Prize Longlist for 2009 has been announced.

Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger is on my shelf, and the Byatt and the Toibin are on my must-read list already - but the others are completely unknown to me. I'm looking forward to making their acquaintance (once they're finally published in the U.S., that is).

Monday, July 27, 2009

Struggling to make libraries friendly to families

Lots of library systems give lip service to the importance of serving families with young children, but not all deliver.

See this post for some examples of how to do it exactly wrong - and some shining examples of good service as well.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Some great chapter-book read-alouds

After reading my review of Emmaline and the Bunny by Katherine Hannigan, a mom emailed me to ask about more good read-alouds for her 7 1/2 year old daughter. This, as I mentioned in my post, is one of my favorite sorts of reader's advisory questions, especially since all it takes to answer it is to lead the parent to the fiction shelves and trail my hands along the books - soon I've heaped his or her arms full.

Writing out a list of wonderful read-alouds is a different proposition. For one thing, I'm sitting at home tip-tapping away on my netbook instead of wandering the stacks of a library, and the old brain sometimes doesn't function as well when having to dredge up memories rather than using sight and touch. Also, there is this terrible pressure to create a List to End All Lists, one that has everyone's favorite read-aloud on it and will be of use to parents for Years to Come.

Luckily, Jim Trelease has already done that for me with his The Read-Aloud Handbook. Phew! And as for the first problem (that memory issue), I can think of just enough books to tide over the average 7 1/2 year old, and perhaps even most 6 to 8-year-olds. These are chapter books, short and long, that are a joy for adults and kids to share together. For the most part (although not in every case), they are wonderful candidates for read-alouds because the reading level is far above the average beginning reader but the content is just right.

So here are just a few read-alouds I have known and loved:

Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan.
Like Mary Poppins, this is one that many folks don't ever read - but if you do, the complexity, lilt, and humor of the language will blow you away.

Blume, Judy. Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing.
This book, a favorite of many kids, is the kind of read-aloud that may have you laughing too hard to talk.

Chase, Richard. Jack Tales.
Your kids will probably never read these on their own, so you're going to have to be the ones to introduce them to this excellent piece of Americana - and man, are these stories fun to read aloud.

Cleary, Beverly. Beezus and Ramona. (and all the others)
What is entrancing about these books is that both Beezus and Ramona types listen to them with rapt attention - and I am still amazed at Cleary's insight into the minds of kids. She is a genius of the world.

DiCamillo, Kate. The Tale of Despereaux. (also The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane)
Plenty of adventure, plus mice and royalty. How could you go wrong?

Gannett, Ruth. Three Tales of My Father's Dragon.
A boy rescues a baby dragon, and they go off to a magical land and have adventures - 'nuff said!

Ibbotson, Eva. The Secret of Platform 13. (and her other fantasies)
For kids still too young for Harry Potter, Ibbotson's charming and thoughtful fantasies offer magic without quite the intensity of HP.

Jenkins, Emily. Toys Go Out (and its sequel Toy Dance Party)
Short, sweet, and funny, these are perfect read-alouds for 5 and 6-year-olds - and good read-alones for kids just leaving easy readers behind.

Jonell, Lynne. Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat. (and its sequel Emmy and the Home for Troubled Girls)
A girl with a problem meets a rat with a talent - this is Dahl-like but without the mean-spirited edge he has sometimes (which I quite like, actually, but which some parents don't).

King-Smith, Dick. Three Terrible Trins (and Babe and Ace and Lady Lollipop and just about everything he has ever written).
Warm-hearted, sweetly funny, and always a joy to read aloud.

Martin, Anne M. The Doll People (and its sequels).
This series about the friendship between old-fashioned china dolls and their modern plastic counterparts is enlivened by the genius illustrations of Brian Selznick.

Patron, Susan. The Higher Power of Lucky. (and also its sequel Lucky Breaks).
Although Lucky is 10, her friendships and frustrations in Hard Pan, CA will appeal to younger kids as well.

Riddell, Chris. Ottoline and the Yellow Cat (and Ottoline Goes to School)
Illustrated with detailed and piquant drawings, these tales are off-beat, quirky, and irresistible.

Sandburg, Carl. Rootabaga Stories.
The lyrical language in these imaginative stories makes them an obvious read-aloud choice. My mom read these to me - I can still hear her voice in my head telling the story of the White Horse Girl and the Blue Wind Boy.

Selden, George. A Cricket in Times Square.
This Newbery-winning tale of a musical cricket and his friends is sometimes overlooked these days - time to rediscover it.

Travers, P.L. Mary Poppins.
Like Peter Pan, this was one that I discovered by reading it to my daughters. What fun! Don't rely on Disney's version - read the original to your favorite kid.

White, E.B. Charlotte's Web.
Yes, you will choke up at the end and have to compose yourself before you can continue reading. Your kids might cry too (although mine didn't...they took it all in stride). That's okay. You must read this aloud to your kids - possibly multiple times.

Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House in the Big Woods. (et al)
My mom read these all to me, of course. But not only did my own repeated attempts to read these to my daughters fail, but they refused to read them on their own. Where did I go wrong??? This is one of the Big Mysteries of my life as a mother.

Don't see your favorite chapter book read-alouds for 6 to 8-year-olds? Please list them in the comments!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Or maybe Severus Snape/Jo March...

So last night my almost 15-year-old daughter wandered into the kitchen where I was puttering about and said (continuing a labyrinthine musing about anime, manga, fan fic, fantasy, and her own characters that has been going on for months. Make that years), "So my OTP used to be AkuRoku, which is Axel and Roxas from Kingdom Hearts 2, but now it's Louis and Lestat from the Vampire Chronicles - but that's kinda canon."

Me: Huh? (this, by the way, is at least evidence that I was listening. Usually my response is more along the lines of "uh-huh...")

Nadia: What?

Me: What's OTP?

Nadia then explained that it stands for One True Pairing and is a standard term in Fan Fic circles. It's the couple that you think is meant to be together.

Me: (as my husband walks into the kitchen) You mean like Daddy and me.

Nadia: (rolling her eyes) No, you guys are canon. It's more like two people who aren't together in the book or movie but would be perfect together. It doesn't even have to be the same book.

My husband: So more like your mom and Keanu Reeves. (my hubby knows me so well)

Nadia: Yeah, kinda.

Well, this got me thinking about my own OTP. Having recently seen the movie, the Harry Potter universe sprang immediately to mind - and of course many other folks have given much thought to a Harry/Hermione pair or perhaps (maybe I'm getting a little crazy here) Draco/Luna. Woo!

Nadia and I both think that Ruby Oliver (of Lockhart's The Boy Book et al) would be happiest if she avoided all boys at her claustrophobic little school and dated hunky Angelo instead (she did have a chance - and a make-out session - with him, but she messed it up. Oh, Ruby). Nadia floated Ruby/Hutch as an OTP but we decided that was just crazy.

You see the appeal of this - it's almost as much fun as deciding what character you are most similar to (for me, an amalgam of Rabbit and Piglet from Winnie-the-Pooh) or what character you would most want to cosplay (Miss Europe from Cornish's Monster Blood Tattoo series).

Yeah, I'm kinda wishing I was at ComicCon this weekend. Since it's sorta hard to find graphica/anime characters that a 40-something lady like me can convincingly play, I think I'd just go as Totoro.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Cop talk

In one of those strange moments of reading synchronicity, I'm reading Joseph Wambaugh's Hollywood Crows at home - and I'm listening to Tamora Pierce's Terrier during my commute to work. And though they seem dissimilar on the surface - one being a modern, slightly satirical tale about LAPD cops and the other being a YA fantasy - they have both allowed me to immerse myself in the culture of cops.

Cop talk, cop loyalty, cop cynicism, cop idealism, cop violence. Sure, in Terrier the cops are called Guards, or in slang "dogs," and they have to cope with magic as well as with garden-variety rogues and thieves. Still, they bear a startling resemblance in outlook and behavior to those Hollywood boys (and girls - another similarity is that women play strong roles as cops in both books) in blue.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

But I'm still feeling grumpy

I know I'm not the first person to feel a strange kinship to Jeremy Tankard's Grumpy Bird.

And although I'm more a Beezus than a Ramona (and could show you several photos of my sister and me to prove it), see page 149 below for a nice illustration of my current mood. No, I am not a Merry Sunshine.

Color me a bit less depressed

Sigh - I have been suffering from Mild yet Persistent Frustration and Perplexity.

Thank goodness for Katie Sokoler, Brooklyn-based photographer, blogger, and free spirit. Her posts on Color Me Katie often cheer me up, especially this recent one on rules to live by.

And of course Cake Wrecks is always good for a laugh - and sometimes even related to children's literature in some way. Check out these Wrecked Harry Potter cakes.

Gotta love Awful Library Books. You would never find any like these in my collection, mind you, super-weeder that I am.

Ah - much better!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Music to our ears

The California economy continues to tank. The situation in LA City (and thus in my library system) is sure to get worse. Don't get me started - argh!

When faced with bad situations and decisions that I am powerless to control, I try to think Good Thoughts. For instance, the warm and sunny weather we've been having has, after weeks of gray gloom, finally caused my veggie plants to sit up and take notice. I'm finally getting more than two string beans a day, my eggplants are ready to harvest, my basil is getting bushy enough to give me pesto fantasies, and the tomatoes and peppers are going to start turning red any day now, I just know it. Only my zucchini plants are languishing. You scoff? You think a zucchini plant can be nothing but overgrown and prolific? Take a look:

And lest you think Ms. Kaya there had something to do with the tragic condition of those plants, let me assure you that only after I gave up on the sad zukes did I let my hens root away in there.

And here's another cause for joy - our new City Librarian Martin Gomez, while speaking to the YA librarians at their bimonthly meeting this morning, said he very much believed in "using technology to create community" and suggested we do some social networking at LAPL. You can imagine the storm of applause from our tech-savvy YAs, and this children's librarian was clapping hard too.

Although kids aren't reading blogs, tweets, and so on, their parents and teachers are. How valuable it would be for parents to subscribe to their branch's blog and/or follow it on Twitter in order to get the latest information on programs, great books, and more for their kids. And kids do access YouTube, meaning that videos of programs, crazy-fun book talks, silly tours of the library, and kid-created book and library-related content might be fun ways to reach out to kids in the community... and beyond.

We don't do this stuff at LAPL right now - but perhaps the time is right to plunge (belatedly but with great gusto) into the thrilling waters of the 21st century. Lead on, Mr. Gomez - you've got plenty of folks with lots of enthusiasm and great ideas (and goggles, flippers, and boogie boards) right behind you.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Stephen Krashen - a reading advocate

I had the opportunity yesterday to hear Stephen Krashen, author of The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research, speak about the importance of Free Voluntary Reading in creating proficient readers and writers. FVP is essentially reading whatever you want, for the pure pleasure of it - what we book addicts take for granted but what sounds absolutely alien to too many children out there.

Krashen maintained that it isn't simple illiteracy that is the problem - he says most schools do an adequate job of teaching American children basic reading skills - but rather that more and more jobs are requiring higher reading skills than ever before, and many Americans are simply not up to the task.

He cited several studies that show that it is poverty that is the highest indicator of poor reading skills - and a big reason for that appears to be a lack of access to books. Not only do poor households have overwhelmingly few books on their own shelves, but there are few bookstores or other sources of books in those neighborhoods. School libraries in poor neighborhoods are often rotten, as well - particularly here in California.

Krashen also implied that public libraries in poor areas are worse than in wealthy areas. That is probably true in many communities, but at the Los Angeles Public Library, we do an excellent job of ensuring equity in ALL our 71 branches, from Brentwood to Watts. From book budgets to staffing to special programs, all our branches are on the same footing - while busy branches might get more staffing and/or material funds than slow branches, all receive the same minimum level of funding, and in many cases branches in poor areas receive extra funds.

That quibble aside, Krashen's talk underscored what we all fervently believe - that without the skills that are obtained by reading for pleasure, children will be hard-pressed to do well in school or on the job. And he mentioned something that backs up my belief that we must keep trying to put books in the hands of reluctant readers, even when it seems futile - when kids are asked if there was one book or reading experience that interested them in reading, they not only say yes, but can often name the book! Jim Trelease calls these books "home run books" and it's our duty as children's librarians to keep finding the right home run book for the right child.

The event at which Stephen Krashen's talk took place was the 20th Anniversary of LAPL's Grandparents and Books (GAB) program, an amazingly successful volunteer program in which volunteers read to children one-on-one - for fun, of course, not as a tutoring program - in our branches and at Central Library. We train the volunteers in good reading-aloud techniques, tell them about new trends in literacy and children's literature, show them oodles of great books, and then they go off to their neighborhood branch, all inspired and ready to read to kids - some of whom would never be read to otherwise. It's been going on for 20 years, and may it last at least 20 more! Below is a display made by my colleague Maureen Wade, who has administered the GAB program since its beginning.


I've been having trouble sleeping lately - not hard-core insomnia, but a tendency to sleep too lightly, wake up frequently, and take a long time falling back asleep.

An element of Graceling by Kristin Cashore that made a huge impression on me was Katsa's ability to sleep. No counting sheep, no tossing and turning, no keeping her bedmate awake with anguished sighs and moans - she just fell asleep and stayed asleep until she needed to be awake. Now that's a Talent.

So often I wish I had an "off" switch like that.

Lucky Breaks trailer

I'm fascinated by this new phenomenon of book trailers - not only is it a great way to get the attention of web-cruising kids, but it's also a great way to spark some creativity. When I watch book trailers, I keep thinking, "What kind of trailer would I make of my favorite book? And what would kids come up with?" If I get the time and opportunity, I'll find out.

But in the meantime, I enjoy trailers like this new one for Susan Patron's Lucky Breaks, produced by Tina Nichols Coury in collaboration with Susan Patron.

I love that the trailer is from Brigitte's point of view - it offers a whole different slant on the book. Now I want a trailer from Miles' point of view!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Dang, Harry Potter is short - and other shallow thoughts on the film

I saw Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince last night while up in Davis, CA (over 100 every day - oh, but "it's a dry heat." So it's like being in an oven, not a sauna. Luckily, it does cool down at night, making for truly pleasant mornings - like this one I'm enjoying at a coffee shop called Delta of Venus. Can't help thinking of the Anais Nin book of the same title - but the theme here is not European sexiness and debauchery but rather Jamaican-tinged funkiness).

Where was I?

Oh yes - so I haven't re-read the book since it first came out in 2005, so I went into the movie remembering only Dumbledore's dire fate. Now, this knowledge did take much of the tension away from that scene in the tower, but it seemed as though the director was downplaying the whole scene anyway. It was very quick and matter-of-fact, and even the holding up of lighters - er, I mean wands - afterward didn't cause me to well up (although I did hear some sniffles from the audience). The horror of death-eaters wreaking havoc inside Hogwarts was barely touched on - although I did think Draco's look of anguish as Bellatrix gleefully lays waste to the dining hall was poignant.

I could list plenty of crucial scenes that were left out or downplayed (I'm remembering more of the book than I thought), but I'd rather mention what I liked. The music was particularly effective - playful, quirky, stately - and it rarely jerked me out of my movie immersion the way many scores do. Also wonderful were the goofy bits, especially with Professor Slughorn. The funeral of the giant spider (and its sodden wake afterward) was a high point, managing to be solemn and ludicrous at the same time.

Here's something I can't remember from the book (which I'm now determined to re-read), and as far as I can tell, the movie didn't explain it. Who was that guy in the brown robes who snuck into Hogwarts through the main gate and then appeared briefly in the dining hall before disappearing into a wall during Dumbledore's speech? Any thoughts?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

It'll be pimples and angst next

If you felt betrayed when your favorite book character (perhaps one of the Pevensie kids in the Narnia books or even the kids of Hogwarts) grew older and you wished they would always stay the same age (like the scary kids in the Family Circus cartoon), imagine how it feels to have your very own character age without your permission.

Susan Patron addresses this awkward situation in her article in the journal Hunger Mountain - read it first, and then read the other articles by such authors as K.A. Nuzum and Janet S. Wong.

She's something of a Renaissance Librarian

That over-achieving Betsy Bird - she's an NYPL children's librarian, a kick-ass blogger, an author, a creator of fab tattoos, and now she makes music videos - check out this one.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Review of The Waters & the Wild by Francesca Lia Block

Block, Francesca Lia. The Waters & the Wild. HarperTeen, 2009.

Most teenagers feel like misfits at least occasionally. Whether you’re a neat freak in a household full of slobs or a dark and brooding person in a household of sunny souls, every one of you once and current teens has had a moment – or several years – of being certain that you don’t belong in your family.

Which brings us to the irresistible allure of changeling fiction. What better explanation could there be for this glorious fey person living with a family of lumpen sods? And of course there are usually gifts and talents associated with being a changeling, anything from otherworldly beauty to heightened senses to magical powers. True, there is usually a downside – if the humans around you aren’t trying to kill you, then your human counterpart in the land of faerie is trying to get his or her life back.

And of course no one completely understands you.

And thus it is with 13-year-old Bee, who lives with her perfectly nice mom and stepdad in a nifty little beach bungalow in Venice, CA (my own town!). And yet – she is troubled. She has odd dreams and visions, is stick-straight (but eerily beautiful), is attracted to plants and dirt but can’t eat meat and doesn’t want to eat much else. Friends? Ha!

Luckily, Bee does find a couple other oddballs at her middle school – she even does teen-type things like crash the party of the local meangirl and hang out all night with her friends at the park – but this only makes more clear to Bee where she really belongs, which is in the fairy world. And the human Bee wants her own life back and is determined to have it. Because their desires are in accord, things turn out just fine – and though Bee’s two new friends lose her, they gain each other.

At 113 pages, this is a slim and mystical novel. The short scenes and occasional fairy poetry make for a fast, although occasionally confusing, read. The narration is sometimes distant, sometimes swollen with intensity – much like a 13-year-old, come to think of it. Although much of this story would appeal to 10 and 11-year-olds, be warned that condoms and sex are mentioned (nothing graphic – after Bee says to her mom, “No, I’m all right. I think I’m just over-stimulated or something,” her mom says, “Do you want to explain that one to me? Do we need to take you to buy some condoms?” And Bee comments that she knows some of her friends have had sex.) Bee's blossoming friendship with two strange and unique kids is understandable, special, and wonderfully described.

Due to its brevity and starkness, this fantasy isn’t completely satisfying; I wanted to know more. However, Francesca Lia Block is not only an expert at mystical teen alienation, but also is a writer of lovely prose. Recommended for fey kids in grades 6 – 8.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Caught fire this weekend...

Thanks to the good folks in our Young Adult Services department, I was able to borrow an ARC of Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, which kept me happily white-knuckled much of the weekend. While it takes a while for the tension to get white-hot, the last third is a doozy. Yikes! Now how long until the third book comes out?

My husband compared me to a combine harvester today, all because I finished Catching Fire, put it down, wandered over to my to-read shelf, selected another book, and sat down to start reading it. It's a library book and it's overdue - no time to waste! But I do like the idea of steadily chugging up and down my field of books, reading without pause and separating the wheat from the chaff...

And look, my new netbook came! 3 lbs of major processing power, and sleekly gorgeous besides (if something of a fingerprint magnet - or maybe I just have particularly grubby hands). This puppy will be coming with me everywhere from now on.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

I scream for ice-cream!

It's summertime, and all I can think about on a hot Saturday afternoon is ice-cream. Why is it that the ice-cream truck never comes when you really want it - when there's no dessert in the house but the idea of actually leaving one's property to go procure some feels like way too much effort? No, the ice-cream truck only comes when you've just pigged out on 10 chocolate cookies or when you're about to sit down to dinner (and yeah, you could put the ice-cream in the freezer for after dinner, but the ice-cream truck is all about instant gratification - after all, if I wanted to act all commonsensical, I'd just have bought a half-gallon of ice-cream from the market the last time I went).

Not that the ice-cream truck is the awesome experience it was when I was a kid. For one thing, I don't get the same thrill out of that tinny music coming closer and closer. Sure, my animal brain still screams "The ice-cream truck! The ice-cream truck!" but the grown-up, spoilsport part of my mind quickly squashes most of my enthusiasm, calming asking if that chemical-loaded sweet stuff is really what I want, when a nice low-fat cherry yogurt is sitting right there in my fridge.

And ice-cream trucks are just not what they used to be, at least in my part of town. 40 years ago, Venice had some fine trucks that dispensed soft ice-cream in two flavors - a single was 15 cents. You could get a "banana boat" for 60 cents or a "double" (on a snazzy two-headed cone) for 25 cents. And that ice-cream was creamy, delicious, and practically as big as my head. Check out these photos from June 1969 - I'm the small grubby child with short hair. Now that's an ice-cream truck!

I haven't seen an ice-cream truck that dispenses soft ice-cream in Venice for at least 20 years. Now the trucks sell a variety of pre-packaged frozen desserts, from snowcones to drumsticks, often in somewhat dubious off-brands. The truck that trundles infrequently down our street is mottled and often sprayed with graffiti. The photos highlighting the desserts are faded and worn. And yet when "The Music Box Dancer" sounds discordantly from the end of the street, you can still hear shrieks of "The ice-cream truck! The ice-cream truck!" from all the kids on the block (including my two teenagers).

And if you want to see Eddie Murphy's scarily accurate and hysterically funny take getting ice-cream from the ice-cream truck, click this link. Yes, there is profanity!

Happy licking...

Friday, July 10, 2009

Freedom to explore the "wilderness of childhood"

Michael Chabon, author of some of my favorite grown-up books (you've got to read Gentlemen of the Road - and the Yiddish Policeman's Union - oh, and all his others as well) and of one children's book (Summerland, which I've never read), has written a fascinating piece in the July 16 New York Review of Books called Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood. After pointing out how many of the best children's books feature kids who have plenty of opportunity to go off on their own and explore their world (whether realistically or fantastically), he writes:

"The thing that strikes me now when I think about the Wilderness of Childhood is the incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there. A very grave, very significant shift in our idea of childhood has occurred since then. The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past. The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by the neighbors."

When I was a kid, we walked to and from school by ourselves, went to the beach unaccompanied by grown-ups, roamed the streets and boardwalk for as far as we could walk, bike, or rollerskate, and in general felt as if our neighborhood belonged to us entirely. However, by the time I was a parent, times and attitudes had changed and it was years before I let my kids go farther than three houses down the street. It's strange how easy it is to get sucked into the fear - but I do believe it's necessary to teach your kids how to be sensible and safe and then let them be free to skin their knees, cross that busy intersection, and ride the bus (sitting next to the busdriver, natch) all over town.

I can say that now that my kids are savvy teenagers - and they do bike and bus all over Los Angeles - but it took me a long time to let them do this stuff. It still makes me nervous. I'll feel anxious about their safety forever, most likely.

Chabon suffers similar doubts and anxieties with his own kids - believing in giving them their freedom but worrying not only about their safety but about the fact that, if he sends his kids out to play, they might not have anyone to play with - the neighborhood kids are all tucked safely indoors or in their backyards! I experienced this sort of problem when I was allowing my second child to walk or bike to the park by herself - but none of her friends, in 5th grade, were allowed to go past the end of the block. Jeepers!

Chabon wonders what will happen to children's literature when the only adventuring is done on the pages of children's books, and ends with these remarks:

Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted—not taught—to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?

It's horrible to think that kids may find the notion of hopping on a bike and riding to the ice-cream store by themselves for some summertime refreshment as exotic and dangerous as going on a magical quest.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Welcome, Mr. Gomez!

For most of us senior librarians and Central Library staff, today was the first day we clapped eyes on Martin Gomez, our new City Librarian. After the short business portion of our bimonthly adult information meeting, our interim City Librarian introduced Mr. Gomez, who gave us a brief overview of his career and made it clear that he was eager to get started.

He stressed that, while he isn't a person who thinks up ideas on his own, he is very aware and receptive of great ideas that others come up with, both in other library systems and in our own. Mr. Gomez then said he welcomed our ideas and suggestions - this gave me a spark of hope and gladness, which was immediately dampened by the irrepressible thought, "I've heard that before." The last time a well-meaning library director told us that, it turned out that in fact we'd get in trouble if we communicated in any way but up through the chain of command - and we all know the problem with that. Invariably, the suggestion (or complaint, as the case may be) gets stuck somewhere at a lower level and never does reach the City Librarian at all, or in a very watered-down form.

Still, I was impressed by Mr. Gomez's down-to-earth demeanor and his slightly awkward sense of humor (because I don't trust a librarian who is too polished!), as well as his emphatic statement that he is looking forward to leading us - which is exactly what we need. And he pointed out that he brings to LAPL a wider national and even international perspective, gleaned from his time as director of the Urban Libraries Council. Excellent - we've been a provincial system for far too long. So - hopefully he really will solicit staff opinions, suggestions, and advice.

Because I dashed out after his speech to snag some pastry and fruit before heading back up to my office, I was one of the first folks at the reception and thus one of the first folks to shake Mr. Gomez's hand. I told him I was from Children's Services and that I had read he was a big proponent of youth services, as proven by his efforts on behalf of out-of-school-time programs. I then gave him a huge grin and a major thumbs-up, and moved on. What I really wanted (as I'm sure we all did) was to take him off for coffee, cake, and a light conversation about some of the issues facing LAPL - and which should be tackled first.

But - he seems like an extremely savvy, experienced library administrator and I'm sure he'll be able to see for himself where both our strengths and our weaknesses lie. But if he wants any input - and creates a good, safe way for us to give it to him - then I'll be happy to offer my $.02!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Review of Highway Robbery by Kate Thompson

Thompson, Kate. Highway Robbery. Greenwillow, 2009.

No, there isn’t much action in this slim book – essentially, a boy stands around in a nasty, cold, muddy street holding a horse for a gentleman who is conducting some business nearby. Some dubious types come around, wanting to buy (or steal, more likely) the horse from the boy, some nice stolid farmers admire the horse, and then some soldiers come by and tell the boy that this horse belongs to famous highway robber Dick Turpin. The boy must keep holding the horse until Dick Turpin comes back, at which point the soldiers will arrest the famous highwayman.

Ah, but it’s the way the story is told that had me racing through the entire book during one short lunch break. The young street urchin, shoeless and homeless, tells his own story (to someone whose identity we learn at the end) in spunky, straightforward, unsentimental terms. It begins “There are good things and bad things about being small. You wouldn’t know about that, though, would you, sir? Fine, tall gentleman like yourself. But it’s true.” The boy goes on to recount how his story, relating (as we find out) how he came by this magnificent horse, the famous Black Bess of legend, and why he is trying to sell her to his (quite dubious) audience.

The tone is breezy, describing the events of the story so vividly that the lack of action won’t be noticeable to most readers. The boy’s upbeat narration (in direct opposition to his miserable circumstances) is accompanied by detailed, slightly loopy illustrations depicting a raggedy boy, a glorious horse, and various eccentric characters (I almost said “Dickensian” but of course this story takes place in the 1700s, Turpin’s century).

Full of wry humor and a steadily building tension (will those two ruffians steal the horse? Will Turpin get away? Will the boy ever be warm again? Is the boy's story even true?), this book is a winner. Recommended for grades 4 – 6, including reluctant readers (this is easy to read and a mere 118 pages).
Added later - I gave this to an 11-year-old boy I know. Although he usually reads fantasy, he found this a fast read and said he'd recommend it to other boys his age. He was most impressed with the guttersnipe's terrible situation - no shoes, no home, no family.

One Year and Counting

I was on vacation in Minneapolis, managing (thanks to an Internet-free house and a 5-ton laptop) to blog only twice the whole week - and dang it, I clean forgot to mark my 1-year blogging anniversary on July 3. Here's my first post - can you tell that I really didn't know what I was doing? Not that I have much more of a clue, this blogging thing being a work in progress.

Here are two things I did in Minneapolis.
I interviewed a handful of friends and family members about their favorite books:

And I visited - finally! - Louise Erdrich's Birchbark bookstore. It turns out I had gone to the cafe next door several times without ever noticing the bookstore. Well, when I get hungry my focus gets very narrow indeed.

About that 5-ton laptop - I was so fed up with it that one of the first things I did when I got back to LA was order my Dream Netbook - the Asus Eee PC 1005Ha. Plenty of bells and whistles, 10 hours (!) of battery time, and a mere 3 lbs. I'll let you know how this beauty shapes up, just as soon as it arrives on my doorstep.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Review of Alyzon Whitestar by Isobelle Carmody

Carmody, Isobelle. Alyzon Whitestarr. Random House, 2009 (c2005).

This fantasy has an excellent premise. What if all animals, including people, emitted all sorts of information, from emotions to basic messages to the nature of their very essences, that humans can no longer sense? Perhaps early in our evolutionary past, these messages were an essential means of communication, but as we developed complex language and society, we gradually lost the ability to “smell” each other.

After bumping her head, teenaged Alyzon falls into a month-long coma. When she comes out of it, she possesses not only the ability to smell the emotions and essences of people and animals, but also a heightened awareness and understanding of the world that most people don’t. She soon realizes that, although some people “smell” better than others, there are some, including a good-looking classmate, who just smell “wrong.” It’s not long before Alyzon and some new, pleasantly-scented friends are involved in a dangerous battle against a sinister disease-like Wrongness that is bent on infecting as many people as possible in order to warp and darken their souls.

Anyone who has stared at a stranger in a crowd who suddenly turns around and stares back as if tapped on the shoulder knows that humans do seem to possess mysterious and primal senses, so the idea of communicating, both consciously and unconsciously, via hormones/pheremones (or “smells”) that we can no longer consciously sense is both intriguing and logical. I would have been perfectly content for Alyzon to explore her new expanded senses for 500 pages, but apparently some kind of plot was needed – hence the Wrongness disease and the nasty constorium of powerful people and thugs needed to spread it. When Alyzon is affected personally, as when her younger sister moves inexorably toward an angrier, darker state of mind, the plot is compelling, but it veers toward quite unbelievable conspiracy-theory weirdness toward the end. After a last-minute dangerous climax, the story is wrapped up so abruptly that I flipped back and forth to make sure I hadn’t missed any pages.

Alyzon’s steady and sensible, if rather na├»ve, personality, her large and unique family, and her steadfast friend Gilly (who smells wonderfully of the sea) are some of the many strong elements of this well-written, thought-provoking fantasy. A weak point is the ridiculous cover, depicting a glamorous, glossy-lipsticked girl who looks nothing like the rather ordinary, drab-haired Alyzon. Gilly dresses her up at one point to attend an event incognito – and thus we get the off-putting, sparkly jacket art.

Highly recommended for grades 8 and up.

Review The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

DiCamillo, Kate. The Magician’s Elephant. Candlewick Press, 2009. (September) Illustrated by Yoko Tanaka.

In an allegorical novella reminiscent of an Eastern European fairy tale, young Peter is told by a fortune teller that an elephant will lead him to his long-lostsister. As Peter hadn’t even been certain that his sister was alive, this is excellent news, especially considering his grim life as a sort of apprentice to his guardian, an unbalanced old soldier who has cared for Peter since his parents died.

The only catch is that thre is no elephant in the town of Baltese – until, that is, a magician causes one to fall through the roof of the Bliffendorf Opera House. The sudden and anomalous presence of this elephant has a profound effect on all the people of Baltese, but most especially on Peter, his sister Adele, and a small and eccentric assortment of quietly anguished people.

Everything about this slim tale, from the quaint font style (Pabst Oldstyle) to the warm yet somber acrylic illustrations to the almost allegorical appearance of the elephant, brings to mind absurdist Russian/Eastern European tales like Gogol’s The Nose or Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, in which bizarre situations highlight truths about the human condition.

I cut my teeth on those kind of stories and so this tale of the fulfillment of heretofore unsuspected or buried hopes and desires felt familiar and comfortable. The writing is smooth, with just enough texture to keep one’s full attention, and the few illustrations I saw in my ARC copy were atmospheric and terrific. However, I can’t see many kids cottoning to the old-fashioned, almost mystical tone of this story, and the characters, including young Peter, remain strangely flat and enigmatic. There was altogether a distant, cool mood to the story that probably won’t appeal to kids who loved The Tale of Despereaux or Because of Wynn Dixie. Still, kids who persevere will be rewarded by an odd yet moving story.

Recommended for old souls in grades 4 – 7.