Friday, October 30, 2009

Looking at children's library services with new eyes - part 3

In part 2, I mentioned the importance of having a mission statement and goals for a library system's children's services program. As an illustration, here is what the Sarasota County Public Library recently came up with as a basis for the programming and services they will offer over the next 5 years. This comes from an email that Carole Fiore posted on the PUBYAC listserv:

Strengthening Sarasota County's Youth through Robust and Vigorous Public Libraries
Strategic Plan for Youth Services 2009-2013

"Plan for the future because that's where you are going to spend the rest of your life."
Mark Twain

The mission of the Youth Services Team of the Sarasota County Library System is to help youth succeed in school and in life by:

. Nurturing young readers and learners;
. Stimulating imagination;
. Satisfying curiosity; and
. Providing comfortable real and virtual places.

Goal 1: Sarasota County school age children and teens will have access to age and developmentally appropriate resources and programs to support their success in school.

Goal 2: Children, tweens, and teens and their parents, teachers, and caregivers know about summer library programs and know the value of these programs.

Goal 3: Families with preschool children, birth to age five, will have access to age and developmentally appropriate literacy resources, programs, services, and environments, and trained staff to service them and the children to support the development of young readers and learners.

Goal 4: Children ages 0 through 5 years will have access to age and developmentally appropriate books at home.

Goal 5: Families with children birth through 5 years of age will understand the importance of early and emergent literacy activities have the resources to read to their children, be encouraged to use the library, and become the best first teacher for their children.

Goal 6: Children served by members of the Sarasota County early care and education community will participate in programs designed to nurture young readers and learners and originated by Sarasota County Library System staff.

Goal 7: Youth in the Sarasota County Library System service area will have access to library materials in various formats that encourage the development of independent learning practices, research proficiency, and the development of literacy skills.

Goal 8: Youth in the Sarasota County Library System service area will have opportunities to participate in library programs that encourage creativity and imagination so that they may develop and express innovative ideas in a dynamic and rapidly changing society.

Goal 9: Youth in the Sarasota County Library System service area will have opportunities to publicly express ideas through the arts so that community members of all ages develop respect for their insights and capabilities.

Goal 10: Children and teens in the Sarasota County Library service area will have information and resources that will instill a love of life-long learning and enrich their recreational experiences.

Goal 11: Children and teens in the Sarasota County area will be offered programs that will instill a love of learning and enrich their recreational experiences.

Goal 12: Children, teens and their parents, teachers, and caregivers will find the children's and YA spaces in all Sarasota County libraries accessible and conducive to reading, study and library-appropriate recreation activities.

Goal 13: Sarasota County children, teens, and their parents, teachers and caregivers will recognize the library as a popular and socially acceptable place to go for school-related assignments and for recreation.

Goal 14: Youth in Sarasota County who use the libraries' children's and teen's web pages will find them relevant, exciting and current.

I don't exactly what programs and services were changed, eliminated, or added as a result of the new strategic plan, but Carole did mention that it was not a painless process! Those goals do seem to cover just about every possible service the library could offer youth, so I'm wondering how Sarasota is using them to prioritize services - perhaps the goals are listed in order of priority?

LAPL also created a strategic plan, covering the years 2007 through 2010. Service to children (or to any other group) wasn't focused on specifically, but here are some of the goals that specifically mention service to children:

Goal 3: Help Students Succeed
Children and teens in Los Angeles will have resources that assist them with
their assignments and help them succeed in school.

Goal 4: Provide Reading Readiness
Infants, toddlers and preschool children in Los Angeles will have access to
collections, programs, and services that will help them develop a lifelong
love of books, reading, and learning.

Goal 6: Offer New and Popular Material Now
Children, teens and adults will have access to materials, programs and
services that stimulate the imagination and provide a variety of leisure
activities and experiences.

For each of these, there is a list of objectives and actions, most of which are services we already provide and a few of which are new. For most goals, the objectives seemed to be to simply increase what we're now doing and whom we're now serving - increase enrollment in summer reading club, increase the number of kids going to programs, increase the number of kids who have library cards, and so on. Certain benchmark goals are also set - a certain number of classrooms should be visited, a certain number of presentations should be made to preschool teachers, and so on.

There's nothing wrong with those goals at all - but measuring our success merely by trying do more, more, more doesn't seem to me to be the way to go. I won't even go into some of the panic children's librarians feel when they wonder if they will "get in trouble" if their statistics don't pick up - or have declined! - by the end of 2010.

I would like to measure our success not just in numbers but in outcomes. Here is how outcome is described in Dresang , Gross, and Holt's Dynamic Youth Services Through Outcomes-based Planning and Evaluation - " the change in attitude, behavior, skill, knowledge, or status that occurs for users after a purposeful action on the part of the library and library staff." To be fair, LAPL's strategic is not devoid of outcomes-based objectives; for instance, objective 4.3 states "By FY09-10, at least 75% of the parents/caregivers who bring preschoolers to the library will say the library plays an important role in helping children to develop a love of
books, reading and learning." I assume this will be captured by a survey, though I haven't heard of any plans for one.

However, I want to know more. Let's take my old pal the Summer Reading Club. I already mentioned in a previous post on the SRC that the California Library Association launched a pilot project this past summer to measure certain outcomes in certain branches of certain library systems. Although I was sent some information on this, it was in draft form, so although I can't quote the document, I can mention that different outcomes were decided on for preschoolers, school-age kids, and teens and they included such simple things as "Children enjoy reading." Information was gathered both before and after the SRC in the form of surveys, interviews, and focus groups. The librarians involved in the project have met and will continue to meet throughout this next year to figure out what worked and what didn't, what needs to be changed, and how to implement the project on a larger scale without driving staff to an early grave.

I don't know the results of this project, but I do have to wonder about one thing. My experience has been that kids who participate in the Summer Reading Club (and here I'm talking about the part where kids read and maybe earn incentives of some sort, rather than the programming part) do it for one or more of the following reasons: they already like to read, their parents make them do it, and/or they want to earn those incentives. For the kids who already liked to read at the beginning of summer (which is probably most of them), the desired outcome of "children enjoy reading" doesn't apply. For the other two categories, it only applies if they disliked reading (or didn't like it much) at the beginning of summer but at the end of summer they like reading. For those kids who now like reading at the end of summer, what brought on the change? And for those who dislike reading at the end of summer despite the summer reading club, what can be done differently next year? I'm not sure that it's very likely that a child who dislikes reading will suddenly learn to like it over the course of one short Summer Reading Club - although perhaps such miraculous conversions do occasionally occur ("The Diary of a Wimpy Kid changed my life!!!") At any rate, I'm not sure we can reasonably expect that outcome.

Things start to get complicated as the questions mount! One of the many things I always wondered about my own Summer Reading Clubs was: how many of the kids were coming to the library for the first time because of SRC and of those kids, how many would continue to come to the library throughout the school year? That's something I might try to measure - although the thought of trying to track those kids is daunting, to say the least. That's the thing about any kind of evaluative project. Not only do the results have to be meaningful, but the process has to be feasible.

I seem to have rambled on quite a bit over these past three posts. You may have noticed I have offered no answers, only many questions and things to think about.

That's my message, I suppose. Don't stop thinking about what we are doing. Keep pondering what we are trying to achieve and how we can best achieve it. By doing this, we'll stay receptive and relevant to the needs and desires of kids and their families.

Heh! Sermon over - but the topic is not. Please feel free to write voluminous comments - and you'll hear from me again.

Review of 11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass

Mass, Wendy. 11 Birthdays. Scholastic Press, 2009.

Amanda and Leo, born on the same day in the same hospital, have celebrated their birthdays together every year – but at their 10th birthday party, Amanda overhears Leo saying some mean things about her to his friends. Amanda is so hurt that she runs home, throws a potted apple tree that she had planted with Leo out the window, and then doesn’t talk to him for a year.

Now it’s the day of their 11th birthday, a Friday. It’s a normal sort of day – Amanda has a pop quiz, she reluctantly tries out for the cheerleading team (freezing when it comes time to do her backflip), and has a rather miserable birthday party that evening (most of the kids go to Leo’s party instead). But then – she wakes up next morning and it’s Friday again, the day repeating itself just like the day before. And then the next morning is also Friday, and the next, and the next. And it’s not only Amanda this is happening too, but Leo as well.

It turns out that the reason for this strange situation lies in an old feud between their great-great-grandparents. Also involved is a mysterious old lady with a strange birthmark, who was at the hospital when Leo and Amanda were born and who keeps popping up in odd places. A good deal of the plot involves Leo and Amanda tracking down the mystery so that they can finally get to Saturday, but for me the real pleasure of this book comes when Amanda relaxes into the predictability of her ever-repeating Fridays and, bit by bit, experiments with changing and improving the day.

There are obvious parallels with Groundhog Day, but unlike that movie, this story never goes over the top. Even after they realize that they can do whatever they want and there will be no consequences the “next” day, Amanda and Leo never do anything wilder than ditch school, borrow scooters from a neighbor, and go off to the mall – and they are so horrified by the worried and furious reactions of their families, even though the condemnation only lasts one evening, that they don’t even consider such a thing again. I thought that Amanda would, a la Groundhog Day, practice her backflip over and over every day and then perform it perfectly. She does finally perform it, but not very well, and only because she has achieved some confidence, not actual mastery.

The kids’ reactions to an extraordinary situation are absolutely authentic; except for a movie moment when Amanda, at Leo’s urging, enters the try-outs for a rock band’s vacant drummer position, I never questioned the kids’ decisions or thought processes, which is very refreshing. We don’t get to know anyone other than Leo and Amanda very well, and all the parents are absolutely nebulous. This is Amanda's story, however - a light-hearted look at how making little changes in one's approach to life can have big - and unexpected - effects.
Recommended not just for fans of contemporary fantasy but for kids who like stories about friends – for grades 4 – 6.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Rock on, Library 101!

Dedicated to those who not just accept but totally embrace technology in libraries - for more info, check the Library 101 website.

Should a librarian tell an 11-year-old she's too young for Twilight?

Here's a fascinating discussion from the Good Comics for Kids blog on whether or not librarians should decide that a child is too young for a certain book - and if so, how do they decide and how far should they go? Be sure to read all the comments, too. And by the way, "Eva" is Eva Volin, not me.

Looking at children's library services with new eyes - part 2

In yesterday's post on looking at children's library services, commenter Sophie makes a good point when she says of storytimes "...they are hugely beneficial in bringing people into the library, at least in my community. Our morning storytimes consistently bring in big numbers, and many of the audience members were brought by others, or heard about us word of mouth, and so they started coming to the library. Even if the storytime isn't their cup of tea, most leave with library cards and a sense of the resources that are available."

Absolutely. It wouldn't do much good to go out into the community extolling the wonders of the public library if families then came to the library and didn't find any programs for them. Storytimes might be considered a core service that most or all libraries should provide. What I question is the complacency that might set in (as it did to a certain extent with me) when librarians devote lots of energy to keeping a relatively small portion of the community happy. We might be serving 50 or even 100 families really, really well - but what about those families that don't come to our storytime?

Now, they might not want to come - perhaps their kids are too old or storytime isn't their scene or it's too much of an ordeal to pack up the kids and haul them to a program at the library (all those scenarios have fitted me as a parent at one time or another). But it's also possible that these families haven't heard about the storytimes, or can't get in because the storytimes are too full or at an inconvenient time, or aren't sure what the benefits of attending storytime are, or don't even know where the library is or have never been to it. Don't we need to worry about these unserved folks too?

And yet we can only do so much - it's not reasonable to expect a children's librarian in a busy branch to provide all the storytimes and other programs the community both needs and expects AND go out and make sure the whole community knows about the library AND find out what unserved families might need that isn't being provided AND go back and add yet more programming. We need to partner, we need to focus, and we need to have reasonable and well-reasoned-out priorities.

It might be a good time to look beyond one's own branch at the services offered by community agencies and by neighboring branches. While we'd love to be able all the services our community demands, we can't. However, if two neighboring branches have made baby/toddler storytimes a priority and both the neighborhood recreation center and the local YMCA are offering inexpensive mommy-and-me classes, it might be reasonable to focus on a different, as yet unmet need in the community. As Ginny said in her comment "One library might discover a need for intensive early literacy programs. Another might need to focus on after-school homework help. Another might start a father-son book discussion group or manga club." And perhaps a community agency could be beguiled to help fill a service need. In her comments, Sophie mentioned LAPL's partnership with the LA County Museum of Art, in which volunteers come to the branches to present a series for school-aged kids on art creation and appreciation.

In order to focus on how best to serve the community, it's necessary to have a mission, some goals, and some notions about how to achieve them. In my next post, I'll look Sarasota County Public Library's recent efforts at creating a plan for the next five years of youth services and I'll ponder (yet again!!) the Summer Reading Club.

Please add your thoughts. The comments on yesterday's post were thought-provoking and fascinating - more, please!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Looking at children's library services with new eyes - part 1

Like other library systems all over the country, the Los Angeles Public Library has been weathering some tough times, and things may well get worse before they get better - an early retirement incentive plan that is expected to be approved by the City Council this Friday could mean hundreds of retirements in the library department alone. The 3.5 hour per payperiod furlough that goes along with this package will mean a staff that is stretched even thinner. That something has to give is clear, and hopefully it isn't our sanity!

Our library director, Martin Gomez, recently said to staff, "The one thing I'm certain of is that the Los Angeles Public Library of today, will be different tomorrow."

It seems like a good time to take a good look at the services we offer to children. Except for a few grant-funded programs that have requirements about, say, how many Read To Me LA storytimes are offered in each branch, each branch children's librarian works with his or her branch manager to figure out which programs and services to offer children in the community. This means that we have an amazingly eclectic array of programs throughout our 71 (soon to be 72) branches, but it also means that the type, quantity, and even quality of programs can vary from branch to branch. Is it possible to offer some kind of consistency throughout the City while avoiding cookie-cutter programs and encouraging the creativity of children's librarians? Something to ponder.

What I believe for sure is that we as a library system need to figure out what the needs of our community are, which of those needs we will make it a priority to meet, and then what services we will offer to meet those needs. It doesn't work to try to be everything for everybody - if nothing else, we'll go bonkers in the attempt. And continuing to offer programs and services "because we've always offered them" isn't going to cut it in a era of teeny-tiny budgets and staff.

What does it mean for children's services in libraries? Take storytimes. In a branch I worked in for almost 10 years, I offered preschool storytimes every two weeks on Monday evenings all year round. They were very popular - kids and parents loved them and I drew a steady audience of 15 to 25 preschoolers and their families. That was great - we were all happy. But now I look back and wonder if that was the best use of my time. Yes, storytimes are essential for introducing books, stories, songs, and rhymes to kids and their caregivers, for demonstrating to caregivers how the 6 preliteracy skills can be taught and reinforced, and for helping preschoolers practice their sitting still and listening skills. In addition, parents and caregivers can meet each other and share ideas and resources. And all this happened at my storytimes - and my storytime families benefited.

But! What about all those families who DIDN'T come to storytime? Let's face it, most families in my community didn't come to storytime. Most probably didn't even ever come to the library. And many of them probably didn't have many or any books at home and didn't read to their kids or understand that they were their children's first and best teachers. With stories like this one about Latino kids lagging behind other groups by Kindergarten, this isn't something that can be ignored.

So - most children's librarians are keeping their regular patrons very happy with storytimes and other programs, and meanwhile there are huge numbers of families with no connection or possibly even knowledge of the library and its services. But how to let them know about our services? More importantly, how to ensure that the library even has what they need? What DO they need?

The answer to the first question is simple - outreach and partnerships. Although one children's librarian in one branch may not have much time between info desk shifts and programming to go out to all the schools, preschools, daycare centers, clinics, churches, WIC centers, and so on in her community, she can visit some of them. And he can work with other organizations that serve families to help get the word out, as well. LAPL is partnering with First 5 LA, an organization that uses tobacco tax funds to sponsor and fund organizations and agencies that serve kids 5 and under and their families, in a literacy/library card campaign - they are using their vast network to encourage families to visit their local libraries. Those families who sign up for a first-time library card in November will receive a canvas bag filled with informational materials courtesy of First 5 LA. We'll hoping to welcome hundreds or thousands of first-time visitors to our libraries.

The last questions - what do people need from us and how do we fill that need? - are the hardest to ascertain, and they involve some hard decisions. Needs assessment (research, focus groups, surveys, etc) is difficult, sometimes expensive, and time-consuming - and we don't have time or money right now. But we need to be judicious in prioritizing our programs. We don't want to do what we've always done just because it's "traditional," but we don't want to start slashing and burning programs without good cause either.

Watch this space for a continuation of this discussion - and please add your thoughts.

Monday, October 26, 2009

If you've got a YA manuscript tucked away in a drawer

It's possible that everyone but me has heard about this contest already, but in case you've been turtling yourself away recently, here's the press release:

Get in Front of Top YA Editors and Agents with
ONLY the First 250 Words of Your YA Novel!

Have a young adult novel—or a YA novel idea—tucked away for a rainy day? Are you putting off pitching your idea simply because you’re not sure how to pitch an agent? No problem! All you have to do is submit the first 250 words of your novel and you can win both exposure to editors, and a one-on-one chat with one of New York’s TOP literary agents Regina Brooks.

Regina Brooks is the founder of Serendipity Literary Agency and the author of Writing Great Books for Young Adults. Brooks has been instrumental at establishing and building the careers of many YA writers, including three-time National Book Award Honoree and Michael Printz Honoree Marilyn Nelson, as well as Sundee Frazier—a Coretta Scott King Award winner, an Oprah Book Pick and an Al Roker book club selection. As an agent, she is known for her ability to turn raw talent into successful authors.
ADDITIONALLY: The top 20 submissions will all be read by a panel of five judges comprised of top YA editors at Random House, HarperCollins, Harlequin, Sourcebooks and Penguin. All 20 will receive free autographed copies of Writing Great Books for Young Adults by Regina Brooks. Of the 20, they will pick the top five submissions and provide each author with commentary and a one year subscription to The Writer magazine. ONE Grand Prize Winner will have the opportunity to get feedback on a full YA manuscript and win a free 10-week writing course courtesy of the Gotham Writer’s Workshop.

Please submit all entries via the contest website at One entry per person; anyone age 13+ can apply. Open to the U.S. & Canada (void where prohibited). Entries for the YA Novel Discovery Contest will be accepted from 12:01am (ET) November 1 until 11:59pm (ET),

In honor of National Novel Writing Month (—an international event where aspiring novelists are encouraged to write an entire novel in 30 days—this contest is meant to encourage the aspiring YA author to get started on that novel by offering an incentive for completing the first 250 words.

So apply now!

YA literary agent Regina Brooks, along with editors at Sourcebooks, will read all of the entries and determine the top 20 submissions. These submissions will then be read by Dan Ehrenhaft, head Acquisitions Editor at Soucebooks Fire; Alisha Niehaus, Editor at Dial Books for Young Readers (Penguin); David Linker, Executive Editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books; Michele Burke, Editor at Knopf Books for Young Readers (Random House); and Evette Porter, Editor at Harlequin. These judges will whittle the top 20 down to four winners and a grand prize winner—all five will be provided commentary on their submissions.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Review of Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan

Phelan, Matt. The Storm in the Barn. Candlewick Press, 2009.

I just finished reading this graphic novel and now I want to take a shower to wash off all the sand I can feel coating my skin and then sit in my green and shady garden. Phelan's gray and beige illustrations, rendered in pencil, ink, and strangely gritty-looking watercolor, feature people, buildings, and fences whose outlines are blurred by ever-present dust. It got into my nostrils and eyes - while reading, I kept rubbing at my face and wishing I had some hand lotion.

Young Jack is the hero of our tale. Picked on by bullies and deemed useless by his careworn dad, he is a caring and helpful brother to his sisters, one of whom has "dust pneumonia" and must spend her days in bed under a draped cloth, reading her Oz books (this is Kansas, after all). When an abandoned barn on the neighboring property begins emitting a periodic strange light at night, Jack warily investigates - and soon comes in contact with a moist and hostile creature who seems in some way to be connected to this 5 year drought. When Jack finally decides to go up against this malevolent character - and wins - the whole community benefits.

This storyline, taken on its own, seems a bit thin to me (a bit like the kindly storekeeper's Jack stories, actually), and I have a bunch of questions about the barn and the carpet bag and the thunder and lightning - it just doesn't hold water, so to speak. But on the other hand, the real story is not the creature in the barn but Jack and his family and his town, and there is plenty of drama there to go around. The rabbit-killing scene alone will leave readers almost as shaken as the townspeople who take part in it.

The illustrations often show show various angles of the same scene, repeat exactly, or show a person's face as its expression transforms by almost imperceptible degrees - and these drawings have a real power. Sometimes I couldn't tell exactly what was going on - a scene with the rainy Creature apparently entangled in some rope had me completely bewildered until I just told myself, "The dude got himself entangled in some rope; time to move on, Eva." Faces and body language are deliciously expressive and tell much of the story, something I've always loved about Phelan's artwork.

The happy ending, when it finally comes, is surprisingly brief. It rains, the townspeople savor it, and Jack's dad, with a gaze that shows some awareness that something extraordinary has occurred, speaks volumes when he tells Jack they're staying on the farm and that he sure could use Jack's help with it. Jack slowly beams - and the rain continues to fall over the land.

So - a slice of dusty 30s life with a strange supernatural element and some intense moments, all illustrated with spare emotion. Recommended for ages 9 and up.

Jennifer Holm and her fabulous t-shirt

It was such a full morning of breakfast, schmoozing, and then two hours of book awards being presented and received that the annual Children's Literature Council of Southern California's Fall Gala is all a bit of a blur. (sort of like this terrible too-dark photo of Jennifer Holm, standing to the left - the best of several I took)

Jennifer Holm's speech does stand out, however - for her lightning-fast sketches, her impromptu phone call to her brother Matt to talk to picture book award winner Berkeley Breathed (if it was a set-up, it worked for me), her drawing contest between Breathed and children's librarian Alicia, her hysterical slide show in which meat loaf figured prominently, and most of all for her Babymouse Dragonslayer t-shirt.

I was sitting fairly far back and couldn't get a good picture of this fabulous garment, which featured chain mail, a heavy belt, and of course a big pink heart. I needed to leave right after the speeches, so I knew I wouldn't be able to stalk Holm during the book-signing portion of the event - but no worries, Holm announced that the shirt was available on her website. Well, darn it - I checked this morning and, although there are plenty of wishlist-worthy items, there is no Babymouse Dragonslayer t-shirt. Phooey. You'll just have to imagine its wonderfulness.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Ooohhh, I got to meet Jackie Robinson's daughter!

Say the name "Jackie Robinson" to yourself. What do those words conjure up? I'm guessing something along the lines of amazing-baseball-hero-first-black-groundbreaking-brave-iconic-wow, right? He's somebody so legendary that he almost doesn't seem real.

I met his daughter!! And as you probably know, Sharon Robinson just happens to be a children's book author, and her first picture book, Testing the Ice: A True Story About Jackie Robinson (illustrated by Kadir Nelson, awesomely enough - Scholastic), has just been published. To celebrate, the folks at Scholastic Book Fairs invited me along to a luncheon in honor of Sharon and Kadir, where I managed to accidentally seat myself at their table.

I felt Very Shy, but it didn't matter in the slightest as Sharon turned out to be a warm and friendly conversationalist who chatted easily with all of us as if she hadn't been visiting several schools and libraries a day, being interviewed by PW, NPR, and so on, and in general undergoing a whirlwind book tour. In Kadir, however, I sense a kindred spirit - he is clearly someone who would rather listen than talk - and maybe he'd just rather be painting instead.

After lunch, Sharon shared some anecdotes about her dad and spoke about how worried he was when he would test the ice every winter for the neighborhood kids despite not being able to swim. In the book, she uses this as a metaphor for the way he fearlessly tackled his tough but vital role as the first black ball player in the Major Leagues; the two stories are interwoven together as Jackie tells the neighborhood kids about those early days.

Kadir's oil paintings are playful (check out the front cover), action-packed (Jackie sliding into home on the back cover), and solemn by turns (Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson face to face, making history together). His portrayal of the kids is somewhat goofy and fun, but Jackie is masterfully portrayed both as a loving family man and a dignified national hero, rolled into one great guy.

Oh, and it turns out that Sharon once lived in Venice, CA! It was in the late 70s, when the boardwalk swarmed with discoing rollerskaters - Sharon allowed as how she had a pair of rollerskates herself. Once a Venetian, always a Venetian...

Review of the Prince of Fenway Park by Julianna Baggott

Baggott, Julianna. The Prince of Fenway Park. HarperCollins, 2009.

I read this baseball fantasy at an especially apt time, as the Dodgers crashed and burned for the second year in a row on their way to the World Series. Those who wear Dodger Blue know something about curses…

Still, the Dodgers have nothing on the Boston Red Sox, which as everyone knows suffered a curse that began in 1919 when they sold off Babe Ruth and didn’t end until the 2004 World Series. And how did they shake off that losing streak? Readers of The Prince of Fenway Park will thank one Oscar Egg, a 12-year-old mixed-race child adopted as a baby by two well-meaning but imperfect parents, who soon divorce. As a result, Oscar has always felt a bit out of place.

When his mom abruptly drops Oscar off with his dad so she can be with her boyfriend, Oscar learns why his dad has always seemed so hangdog and sickly and why he has never invited Oscar to his home. It turns out that his dad lives under Fenway Park and, like all its other unhappy denizens, is half-fairy and half-human. And, like the Boston Red Sox, they are laboring under the Curse, which has afflicted the entire Park not just with baseball losses, but with a screaming Banshee, weasels, mice, an alarming Pooka, and assorted other strange creatures. Oscar not only feels immediately at home, but decides to set about breaking the Curse – with help from his dad, his aunties, and Babe Ruth himself.

The mechanics of this fantasy are a bit clunky – Oscar is gifted with the ability to “read signs,” meaning he can decode anything from a song’s hidden message to a weasel’s snapping communication to a mute auntie’s blinking, and there is also a tunnel and key that allow him and his nemesis to go back and forth in time. However, the strange and seedy magical underworld of Fenway Park is enthralling and its doomed denizens, all never failing to wear their Red Sox caps, are fascinating. I was reminded of Tim Powers’ contemporary novels – such as Last Call - featuring magical beings living their marginal and dangerous lives on the seedier edges of Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

The climax, in which the 12-year-old versions of famous ball players in history (Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Pumpsie Green) face off against such disgraced players as Ty Cobbs, Jose Canseco, Eddie Cicotte, and Pete Rose in a ball game that will determine whether or not the Curse is lifted, is sure to be a treat for kids who are familiar with these players and their styles. It’s the scene before it, in which Oscar goes to these kids one by one, asking them to come play ball, that is moving and heartfelt, especially as the author has taken pains to explain why each of Oscar’s team members was marginalized or felt like an outsider during his career. This part goes on a bit too long and some kids may not have the patience for it, but those who don’t skim through it will find plenty of interesting history.

This is an obvious choice for baseball fans and for kids who love Dan Gutman’s “baseball card” time-travel fantasies, but I think the premise – and the appealing jacket art – will attract all kinds of readers. Recommended for kids ages 9 to 12.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Taking time for training

All the children's librarians in my library system used to gather together once a month for three hours of information sharing, discussion, and training. After lunch, we'd inspect all the children's books offered on that month's order sheet so that we could make informed choices about how to spend our limited budgets. Then we'd go home happy, satisfied, and in love with our profession and jobs.

Ah, those halcyon days!

Due to anticipated staff shortages, our administration cut back our meetings and book inspections to every other month and limited the duration of the meeting to one hour. Um... one hour?? Luckily, we have been able to push our meetings to two hours, but we require special permission and good reason to hold a three-hour meeting.

We are flexible people and we have done our best to adapt, trying to pack the most information and training that we can into our short and infrequent meetings. But there is never enough time and never enough meetings! Here is a list of only some of the topics that our children's librarians want meetings/workshops on or that we want to provide:

Baby/toddler storytimes (best practices, etc)
Early childhood development (brain development, developmental stages, parental roles, how librarians can help)
Computer classes for kids (info literacy, how to look up a book, how to do research, using fun apps, word processing)
Children's books (meeting authors, how to booktalk, best new books, etc)
Web 2.0 (how children's librarians can use it for professional development and with kids)
Book discussion clubs for kids/kids advisory board
Summer reading club (outcomes measuring, innovative programs, etc)

And we only meet every two months for no more than two hours! Aiieeee! And of course different children's librarians (and Children's Services staff) have different priorities.

Well - at least I am happy to see that I've got enough work to keep me busy for a LONG time!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Review of The Mammoth Academy in Trouble by Neal Layton

Layton, Neal. The Mammoth Academy in Trouble! Holt, 2009.

The staff at my elementary school always made an announcement when the local Junior High was letting its students out early. A terrified and excited buzz always immediately filled the classrooms. “The Mark Twain kids are getting out early!” “They’re gonna be waiting outside!” “They’re gonna beat us up!”

Looking back, I don’t really know why these announcements were made, but we all assumed back then that it was to warn us that those big juvenile delinquents would be prowling the streets looking for pipsqueaks to beat up. We were never warned about the Venice High students – presumably they were too busy beating up the Mark Twain kids to worry about us small fry.

I don’t know if any one actually did ever get beat up by a Mark Twain kid, but the possibility alone was thrilling. We’d walk home in packs, trying to look both insouciant and tough but not being able to help looking over our shoulders every two seconds.

The animal students at the Mammoth Academy feel much the same worried excitement when they find the words “We is gonna git you!!” defacing the school wall when they return after winter break. The headmistress explains that humans are to blame and warns them to stay well away from those “wild and dangerous animals.”

The buzz begins - “Humans!” “Did you hear…?” “Humans are scary…” “What is going to happen?” – but school is so fun that they all become absorbed in their activities, especially those involved with the Founders Fiesta to be held at the end of term. The humans persist, not only scrawling more graffiti but throwing snowballs and iceballs at the academy students as they leave school. Finally, the humans surround the school during a huge storm and then break in, forcing the students to flee through a secret passage way. Luckily, a huge model mammoth built as a class project ends up being a secret weapon that scares all the nasty humans away, hopefully for good.

Layton’s scrawling, messy drawings of mammoths and foxes and rabbits (all in school caps, of course) are a funny counterpoint to his dryly hysterical and oh-so-British text.* The humans are barbaric cavepeople who can’t spell worth a darn and mostly say “ugh!” whereas the students are all quite kind and civilized. They hate it when the storm keeps them cooped up at school, especially when they run out of tusk paste and all have bad breath. “Everyone was in a very disheveled and miserable state.”

This would make an excellent read-aloud for kids ages 5 to 7, and a short but very funny read-alone for kids ages 7 to 9. And if you love this, you must read The Mammoth Academy as well.

* The author bio on the back flap mentions that Neal Layton has “worked on a lettuce farm, in a chocolate factory, in a teapot factory, and has delivered papers. Mr. Layton lives in England.” No, really?

Go ahead - make my day

Pigeon fans must check out this fan art on Mo Willems' blog. Thanks to Fuse #8 for the link.

Dilemma - paid tutors at the library

At first glance, it's a heartwarming scene - books and homework spread out over library tables as kids and adults study together.

But when you look again, you see that these are not kids and parents but rather kids studying under the guidance of private, paid tutors. And they are taking up every single table in the children's area, and in much of the rest of the library as well. And some of them whisper quietly, but others make no attempt to keep their voices down.

Paid tutors have been a problem in overcrowded branches for a long time, and it seems to be getting worse. It's a dilemma. On the one hand, they are using the library as we love to have it used, as a place to study and do homework, and the students are getting much-needed help. On the other hand, most of these tutors are using the public library's limited space and resources to run a private business.

Last spring, the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library in Alabama made it an official policy to ban paid tutors from its branches. Or rather, the tutoring must be offered free of charge, which luckily seems to exempt tutors who might be paid through a grant to offer free tutoring to needy children. Here's an August article from the library's local news station about the policy.

The Los Angeles Public Library, like most library systems, is trying to handle the problem with a variety of methods, including signage on tables (limiting certain tables to particular uses at particular times), making sure tutor groups don't get too noisy, and so on. This has had some success in some branches, but the problem continues in others.

I can certainly understand why the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library instituted their policy, and I hope it has improved conditions in their branches. But of course there are probably still plenty of wifi laptop users with their hazardous cords ready to trip patrons and staff, retirees who spend much of their day reading the paper or chatting incessantly with staff, and homeless folks falling asleep and drooling on the tables. All these patrons take up tables and chairs, often for long periods.

It's all a matter of balance. I wouldn't blame tutors and their clients for feeling singled out for punishment - but then, I've also seen tutors taking over every table in the library as they conduct their business.

I do have to give the HMCPL credit for having the cajones to make a tough and controversial policy decision.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Which, as those of you J-culture afficionados know, means "cute!" in Japanese.

This Cake Wrecks post has compelled me to share with you my very own (albeit copied from craft books) Japanese-inspired kawaii creations. These are just the cuties lying around the house at the moment - I've made and given away many more.

It's a sickness - but a good way to keep busy while watching videos.

And here's a wikipedia article on the Japanese cuteness phenomenon.

Thoughts on the Summer Reading Club 2009

Now that summer is over and the season of class visits and school assignments is upon us, it's time once again to ponder the Summer Reading Club.

Last year, I was feeling a bit jaded about the whole thing and wishing we could use something more meaningful than numbers of sign-ups and attendance at programs to measure SRC success. I also yearned for a way to focus more on books and reading, child by child, than on gimmicky toys and huge performer programs.

This spring, I wrote about how outcome measurements could be used to plan and deliver a superlative SRC, one that left us knowing exactly what kids got out of the program rather than just how many kids came to the library.

I was excited to learn that several library systems, including neighboring Santa Monica Public Library, in California initiated an experiment to measure outcomes as part of California Library Association's California Summer Reading Program. The results haven't been published yet, and I am very curious to find out how they decided on the desired outcomes to measure, how they measured the outcomes, and how they will incorporate the findings into the planning of next year's program. When I find out, I'll post it.

In the meantime, I found a helpful chapter called "Review and Reflect: Meauring Outcomes" in Rita Soltan's Summer Reading Renaissance (Libraries Unlimited, 2008). This book suggests an interesting approach to SRC, incorporating museum-like interactive "exhibits" in the children's area that change weekly and both enhance and extend the SRC theme for the summer. Whether a library uses this approach or not, Soltan's chapter on how to measure for those less tangible results like the SRC's influence on a child's reading habits and interests, success in narrowing summer reading loss, and so on is extremely useful - she includes not only a discussion of outcome-based evaluation (and to a certain extent planning), but also methods of collecting data, including informal interviews, staff logs, surveys, and focus groups. For the latter, she includes sample questions - so handy!

My own system, like most library systems, isn't there yet - we still collect the same old output measures like number of sign-ups and number of kids at programs. Still, this summer seemed a bit... fresher than summers past, and I believe this is because our tiny budget for performers and incentives meant that children's librarians had ample opportunity to get creative. And lo, they rose to the occasion with admirable innovation and good cheer.

We allow the children's librarians in our 71 branches and Central Library to use the method they think best to administer the program, and so some reward kids for visits to the library, some for number of books read (although this is very rare), some for number of minutes read, and some for pounds of books read (yes, the books are actually weighed). So far, no change from previous years - but I loved where the children's librarians went from there.

One librarian gave each kid one "vote" for each pound of books read, and they got to use these votes to decide on what was coolest, pirates or ninjas. (Our theme was "Treasured Islands" - pirates bury treasure on islands and ninjas come from the island of Japan) Ninjas won, so the End-of-Summer party had a ninja theme. Cool!

Another librarian gave each kid a ticket for every 20 minutes of reading - at the End-of-Summer party, kids could "spend" their tickets for small prizes (pencils, books, etc).

Another librarian used a variety of "incentives." For younger readers, she gave kids a piece of a puzzle for each week they participated in the program, which they colored as soon as they received it. At the end of summer they had a colorful completed puzzle. Older kids earned raffle tickets for each week of reading. And coolest of all, for each 10 books a kid read, they "earned" a paper image of a canned good. This would be colored and put up on the bulletin board - and at the end of the summer, her Friends group bought real canned goods for each of the paper ones and donated them to the LA Food Bank. Now that's reading for a good cause!

From reading their reports on the SRC, I get the feeling that many children's librarians relished the opportunity to get creative with all aspects of the program. Now that they have been inspired and refreshed, we need to be able to measure the effect of the SRC on kids, in a way that is both meaningful AND not too onerous for staff.

Hmm - we've got our work cut out for us - but luckily, I like a challenge!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Review of Sacred Scars by Kathleen Duey

Duey, Kathleen. Sacred Scars (A Resurrection of Magic, book 2). Atheneum, 2009.

As anyone who has read at least the first quarter of the first book in this series, Skin Hunger, knows, Sadima not only does isn't able to stop Somiss, but 200 years later he and his magicians are still torturing and killing young boys in the name of magic. In Sacred Scars, we find out why Sadima did not succeed and what happened to her, as the timeline of her story gets closer and closer to student Hahp's time.

Meanwhile, Hahp and his fellow students continue to survive, but only just barely, as they struggle to master the skills taught to them by a small group of enigmatic, and often cruel, magicians. Hahp's attempts to understand the mysteries of the academy and to link all the boys together in a pact to destroy it are both hopeful and horribly frustrating.

This book, like the first, is painful to read, both because so many people are vilely treated and because of Sadima's failure to rescue Somiss's young prisoners (this isn't a spoiler - readers of Skin Hunger already know that Jux is one of Hahp's magician teachers). The brutality and cruelty of the magicians is breathtaking, and Sadima's fate, though it has many wonderful and redemptive aspects, is awful as well (especially since it renders her unable to act against Somiss for so many years).

Sacred Scars ends on a more hopeful note that did Skin Hunger. I figure that the academy may well be overthrown, or at least transformed, in book 3 - but I have this awful feeling that a bunch of pain and suffering is coming, too. It'll be worth it, to see Somiss brought down. Go Sadima and Hahp!

Highly recommended for all those who devoured Skin Hunger.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Brief comments about Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow by James Rollins

I've got SO MANY books to read and review, so this isn't a full-fledged review, just a once-over-lightly treatment.

In this Indiana Jones-style adventure fantasy, 8th-grader Jake and his big sister Kady, left essentially orphaned when their archaeologist parents disappeared in southern Mexico three years ago, are magically swept into a strange land called Calypsos. In Calypsos, groups of Mayans, ancient Romans, Neanderthals, Vikings, and more folks from different places and time periods all live together - along with dinosaurs, saber-tooth tigers, and a very bad guy called the Skull King. Clearly, this place - and Jake and Kady's sudden appearance in it - is linked to the disappearance of their parents.

The good: The plentiful action and thrills, as well as the exotic setting and people, should grab and hold the attention of readers who love adventure. Even reluctant readers may give this one a whirl if it's booktalked with maximum verve, and it might be a fun read-aloud for a 5th or 6th grade class.

The bad: The sentence structure is short and choppy - perhaps this is good for a reluctant reader but it certainly detracted from my own reading pleasure. There is very little character development and, although some information on Mayan culture and other historical/cultural matters is bandied about, I didn't get any sense about how these folks actually lived. Although supposedly the various groups in Calypsos are living in their traditional way (in the hopes that they'll be transported back to their own place and time one day), nothing about their way of life seems particularly historically authentic.

The ugly: At times, the fast pace is broken up by goofy events that reminded me of some b-grade kids' movie. For instance, Jake's teen sister Kady leads all the Amazon gals in an American-style cheering session, complete with high kicks, during a Coliseum game. Puh-lease...

The verdict: This was not my cup of tea at all, but I'm willing to bet that some kids will find it exciting enough to be impatient for the sequel that is to come. For grades 5 - 8.

But he left out cats and acronyms

Everyone's favorite guybrarian has a post about Things Librarians Fancy over at Scope Notes.


Guilty of several of those...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Chair That Susan Sat In

To find out the previous illustrious occupant of my office chair, please see this interview that Kathryn Maurice did of me for her blog A Twisted Clump of Seaweed.

Kathryn Maurice is the author of the acclaimed The Year The Swallows Came Early - and she recently told me she has a couple of amazing books up her sleeve. Read her blog to stay tuned!

New Yorker article on discipline as depicted in picture books

Children’s books, parents, and discipline:

Shared via AddThis

Thanks to Monica of Educating Alice for the link.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Review of Fortune's Folly by Deva Fagan

Fagan, Deva. Fortune’s Folly. Henry Holt and Co, 2009.

After 17-year-old Fortunata’s mother dies, her shoemaker father, once a master of the art, produces such horrible shoes that he becomes a laughingstock. After angering the powerful and cruel Captain Niccolo, Fortunata decides that it might be best for her and her father to relocate. However, they are waylaid by a nasty piece of work named Ubaldo, who makes Fortunata tell faux fortunes – and eventually he drags her to the land of Domo, whose Prince Leonato can’t ascend the throne until he rescues a princess in distress, and a fortune-teller is needed to find that princess for him.

Under duress, Fortunata makes up a wild fortune about a witch and a shoe and a captive princess in the town of Sirenza – and strangely, as she journeys with Prince Leonato on what should have been a wild goose chase, all the elements come more or less true. And as she and the prince become close, Fortunata is filled with anguish at both the thought of all her lies and at the prospect of her prince marrying that princess in distress.

There are many fairy tale elements woven into this story, from the Shoemaker and the Elves to Cinderella to Rapunzel, and this, plus the Italian-esque setting, makes this story feel very familiar – I thought of The Rope Maker by Lloyd Alexander and several of Donna Jo Napoli’s books. The action moves along quickly, although the two very different sections – Fortunata’s life as a traveling fortune-teller and her almost madcap adventures with Prince Leonato trying to fulfill his quest – seem to come from two different books.

Overall, the tone of the book was somewhat uneven. Sometimes goofy (those bumblebee shoes), sometimes horrifying (Ubaldo’s brutality), and sometimes romantic (although just barely), this tale never quite gelled for me into a completely satisfying fantasy. The fantasy elements don’t always make sense (how on earth did Fortunata’s silly fortune come true?) and characters turn up willy-nilly in various towns, even ones that are two weeks of hard travel distant from one another. I didn’t buy Fortunata as an even half-way convincing fortune-teller (an opinion with which she herself would no doubt concur) and it is downright ridiculous that anyone else would, especially the sweet Prince Leonato, even full of hope as he is.

In the end, this is a light diversion of a fairy tale fantasy that will entertain readers for an afternoon or two but won’t leave much of a lasting impression. For readers ages 11 to 14.

For Steampunk Fans Only

I haven't received a copy of Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan yet. While I'm waiting, these sweet treats, courtesy of Cake Wrecks, are soothing my restless steampunk soul.

Oh, and I see Mr. Westerfeld found that Cake Wrecks post, too! And now you, too, can pass the geared glory on.

Sure signs of autumn

Fall has clearly come to Venice, CA. Yesterday was "nippy" (it never got above 67 degrees - brrr!), so Venetians strolling along trendy Abbot Kinney Blvd. were swathed in colorful knit scarves and caps. Meanwhile, out-of-town tourists were wearing shorts as they ambled along the Boardwalk. One person's chilly fall weather is another person's balmy paradise.

Monarch butterflies have been swarming my milkweed bushes; soon the leaves and stems will be decorated with Very Hungry Caterpillars.

The squirrels have revved up their already frenetic activities, burying nuts and pine cones in my planter boxes (much to the devastation of my lettuce and swiss chard seedlings). My husband swears that a squirrel took deliberate aim at his head with a pine cone as he was sitting reading in the tree house. Thinking of both Squirrel Nutkin and those rascally squirrels from Mutts, I'm sure he's right.
The L.A. Roadrunners can once again be seen early every Saturday morning, loping two by two along the Venice Boardwalk like baby ducklings following their mama, as they start training for the LA Marathon. Rain or shine, I'm there with them, drawing raised eyebrows from early-morning tourists and much commentary from the homeless.

And it's supposed to rain today! By this time of the year, Angelenos' memory of rain is very vague - it feels like a mythological phenomenon. Like Momo in Umbrella, I've been waiting and waiting for rain. Usually we have to wait until November, December, or beyond - but today the dust and oil of many months might finally be washed off the streets and sidewalks.

I love fall!

Cybils nominations - only 3 more days!

Get yourself over to the Cybils site to nominate books in categories ranging from picture books to YA to graphic novels.

I'm a panelist for Middle Grade Science Fiction and Fantasy (yep, I'm very happy) - my fellow panelist Charlotte has posted all the nominated books in that category to date. If there's a terrific fantasy book (published between Oct. 15 2008 and Oct 15, 2009) missing from that list, please go nominate it! But remember, only one nomination per person per category (and I've used mine up for Middle Grade Fantasy, darn it.).

Nominations end October 15, so hurry!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Review of Hannah's Winter by Kierin Meehan

Meehan, Kierin. Hannah's Winter. Kane/Miller, 2009.

12-year-old Hannah lived in Japan for two years when she was in preschool and she's been studying Japanese in school ever since, so it makes sense that her mom decides to bring her along for a 3-month stint in Japan. Her mom is determined not only that Hannah soak up some Japanese culture, but also that she learn 1000 kanji while she's there. The catch - not only will Hannah be missing school back in Australia, but she'll also have to live with a Japanese family and going to school while she's in Japan, instead of gallivanting around with her mother exploring Japanese gardens.

The Japanese family, friends of Hannah's mom, turns out to be eccentric but wonderfully nice, and there is a daughter Hannah's age named Miki - and there is also the ghost of a young boy and a mysterious puzzle that Hannah and Miki must solve in order to free him. Mild danger lurks in the form of a malevolent female spirit, but the girls and their neighbor Hiro receive plenty of help and guidance from benevolent spirits and humans alike. The mystery of the little ghost boy - and his amazing link to Hannah - is revealed at the end in a diary entry written in 1840.

We aren't hammered over the head with all the strangeness and oddities of Japanese culture - instead, we catch glimpses of both daily life and culture through Hannah's eyes. Her host family is almost worth a book all to themselves - Otosan ("dad"), who owns a stationery store filled with gorgeous Japanese paper goods, sees ghosts and occasionally sneakily eats raw bear meat despite his family's condemnation; Okaasan ("mom") is busy morning to night with ecological causes; and Granny appoints herself as the Shoe Police (after Hannah keeps forgetting to take hers off when she comes home) and Custodian of Japanese Culture. It's not that characters are particularly well-developed - but they are quirky in the way that all people are when you get to know them and their everyday routines.

Japanese words and bits of history sprinkled throughout the story, combined with atmospheric ancient gardens and temples, create a distinctly Japanese setting - while Hannah's voice, fresh and with a willingness to see the humor in almost any situation, has what I think of as a very Australian tone. There isn't much suspense - the scariest parts come not from the malevolent spirit but from the ghostly boy's harmless pranks - and the plot moves forward in a steady but leisurely way. What I found most compelling was not the fantastical elements but the wonderful setting, with its mixture of modern and traditional Japan. Fans of J-culture may wish for more details on fashion and food - and there is not a mention of manga to be found - but it has plenty of fascinating elements nevertheless.

Although it is (mistakenly, I feel) in the Young Adult collection of our library system (if I had seen it first, it would have gone in the children's collection! But there you go - no system is perfect), this would be an entertaining read for kids ages 10 - 13.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Edible Wild Things

From the obsessed creative genius of Anna The Red's Bento Factory comes her Where Wild Things Are bento box.

She points out in her post that she was inspired by the Terrible Yellow Eyes blog. Well, who wouldn't be? Of course, the books themselves are inspiration enough for all kinds of edible art.

I could probably manage a Wild Things pancake.

Of Otters and Ogres

There's a new authorized sequel to Winnie-the-Pooh just out, written by David Benedictus. Who?? We have several novels by Benedictus in our library collection, but none of them are for children. A new character is introduced - Lottie the Otter.

Somehow this was totally off my radar until yesterday morning when I read this editorial piece in the LA Times "pooh-poohing" the very idea of a sequel. I have to say I agree. What exactly is the point, except to make more money for the Pooh Properties Trust? As a Long-time Fan of Milne's creations, I say phooey.

I am, however, looking forward The Odious Ogre, a collaboration between Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer - whose last collaboration, The Phantom Tollbooth, was published in 1961.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Review of The Dragon of Trelian by Michelle Knudsen

Knudsen, Michelle. The Dragon of Trelian. Candlewick Press, 2009.

Calen is a mage's apprentice whose master - the palace mage - seems to think he's only good enough for errands and busywork. Meg, known formally as Princess Meglynne, is a middle princess with a big secret that she can't tell anyone in her family. When they accidentally meet, Meg knows that she can trust Calen - and brings him to the cave where a young dragon, already the size of a horse, has made his den. Jakl has linked with Meg's mind, a rare, marvelous, and potentially dangerous situation - and if that weren't problem enough, dragons are feared and hated in Meg's kingdom of Trelian for a number of good reasons.

After Meg and Calen discover a plot to assassinate Meg's sister Maerlie and her soon-to-be-husband Prince Ryant, the son of the king of the neighboring kingdom Kragnir. After overcoming some powerful magic, employing both Calen's blossoming magical abilities and Meg's link with Jakl, the plot is foiled - although the plotter, a scarily ambitious secret mage who is in a position of power in Kragnir, manages to escape, presumably to make Meg's life miserable another day.

This was a perfectly adequate fantasy, and kids who enjoyed Angie Sage's Septimus Heap books (which this reminded me a bit of, what with friendship of young mages and princesses) will certainly like this book. I enjoyed it myself, but only in the mildest of ways. It is written in a straightforward style that is perfect for kids who are new to fantasy but doesn't do much to transport the reader into another world. The dialogue is uninspired and doesn't allow the reader much insight into Calen and Meg, although their ease with each other is obvious. Worse, many characters tend to intone or proclaim in wooden tones - the worst offender is the evil Sen Eva, who speaks like a b-film villain most of the time.

There isn't much detail provided about many aspects of Meg and Calen's world. How does the magic work? The face tattoos required of all mages as they learn their craft are fascinating - I wanted more details like that about where magic comes from and what is done with it. What is Trelian society like? What are its chief imports and exports? How big is it? How does it differ from Kragnir? What do Calen and Meg look like? I know, that shouldn't matter, but it does to me. And how do Calen and Meg get catapulted magically to a strange land? And where is that land, anyway? And what's with those scary screaming horned things??

All these questions kept throwing me out of the spell of the story, and as a result it never really gripped me. It has many of the elements of a fine fantasy, but doesn't delve deeply enough into them to suit my constant fantasy jones, and the holes in the plot and the sketched-in setting frustrated me. I had to force myself to finish it.

A pleasant but undistinguished fantasy for ages 9 to 12.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

2009 Man Booker Prize announced

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - I haven't read it, of course, but I'm already on the waitlist. Here's the official announcement.

"hot" titles (or at least lukewarm)

We have an interesting feature on our library website. Somewhat hidden on our Search the Catalog page, it proclaims "HOT TITLES" in sizzling orangey-red capital letters. When I clicked on the children's category today, I found the list below. The definition of "hotness" seems to be "most requested" by which I assume is meant the number of holds placed on particular titles. However, I seem to remember that I asked someone this once, and the answer was that the numbers of titles actually checked out was also factored in. This makes sense, as there are so many copies of Green Eggs and Ham in our branches that I can't imagine too many people have to place a hold on it. I have placed a call to a Person in the Know and am waiting for the answer*
(okay, I received the answer - apparently this list is in fact mysteriously derived from an amalgam of both holds placed and copies checked out)

In the meantime, let us examine the list. There aren't too many surprises - plenty of new titles, plus a reassuring number of old classics (Alice in Wonderland! The Cat in the Hat!). I am rather curious about The Kissing Hand and Flush - and was frankly perplexed by The Button Box until I looked it up and found there are only 6 copies in our system but 26 holds. Aha - an entire class has been assigned to find and read that book. Thanks, teacher, for checking on the availability of the book first. Sigh...

Los Angeles Public Library's most requested Children's titles for Sep 16 - 30, 2009

1) Diary of a wimpy kid : the last straw
Kinney, Jeff.

2) Diary of a wimpy kid : Greg Heffley's journal
Kinney, Jeff.

3) Diary of a wimpy kid : Rodrick rules
Kinney, Jeff.

4) Harry Potter and the half-blood prince
Rowling, J. K.

5) The cat in the hat
Seuss, Dr

6) Green eggs and ham
Seuss, Dr

7) Cloudy with a chance of meatballs
Barrett, Judi.

8) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Rowling, J. K.

9) Harry Potter and the sorcerer's stone
Rowling, J. K.

10) Harry Potter and the prisoner of Azkaban
Rowling, J. K.

11) Harry Potter and the chamber of secrets
Rowling, J. K.

12) Harry Potter and the goblet of fire
Rowling, J. K.

13) Flush
Hiaasen, Carl.

14) A good night for ghosts
Osborne, Mary Pope.

15) The magician : the secrets of the immortal Ni...
Scott, Michael, 1959

16) The kissing hand
Penn, Audrey, 1947

17) One false note
Korman, Gordon.

18) The sword thief
Lerangis, Peter.

19) Beyond the grave
Watson, Jude.

20) The sorceress
Scott, Michael, 1959

21) Miley Cyrus, miles to go
Cyrus, Miley, 1992

22) Alice's adventures in Wonderland
Carroll, Lewis, 1832

23) The button box
Reid, Margarette S.

24) When you reach me
Stead, Rebecca.

25) The siege of Macindaw
Flanagan, John

Review of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

I'm going to cheat a little with this review. I'll give you a basic, short plot summary and tell you why I liked it - but then I'm sending you over to another blog so you can read a terrific review by three librarians who write for the Stacked blog.

It's 1899 and Calpurnia Virginia Tate (Callie Vee) is about to turn 12. Unfortunately, this seems to mean the end of childhood and the beginning of a long, slow, tedious slide toward marriage - knitting, tatting, piano lessons, cooking lessons, and no real fun at all.

Just in the nick of time, Callie meets her Granddaddy. Now, he was there all along, living in the big house on the farm along with Callie, her mom and dad, her six brothers, and the cook. However, he had been a mysterious and daunting figure with a long white beard and a penchant for only appearing at mealtime until Callie consults him one day about a matter that has been puzzling her (it has to do with grasshoppers). It turns out that they are kindred spirits whose mutual interest in natural science has them tramping through the land making observations and collecting samples. Soon, Callie is spending most of her time with Granddaddy.

Meanwhile, several of Callie's brothers are falling for her best friend Lula, her favorite and oldest brother is having his own romantic endeavors, and Callie's mom is stepping up her efforts to turn Callie into a marriagable lady. An unfortunate piano recital, a trip to the fair during which Callie samples several glasses of that new drink Coca-Cola, and a possible discovery of a new species of vetch are some of the events that occur on the eve of the new century.

Some reviewers have commented that Callie's voice, while wry and witty, is way too knowing and adult to be that of an 11-year-old. For me, this problem was cleared up early on (page 2, actually) when Callie says "My name is Calpurnia Virginia Tate, but back then everybody called me Callie Vee. That summer, I was eleven years old..." Well, there you go. An older Callie is looking back at the summer of her 12th year. Problem solved, as far as I'm concerned.

This novel is made up of people (mostly family, but some other folks too), small events, mealtimes and holidays, frustrations and hopes. Plotwise, it's not amazingly exciting - but it's about a regular person's life, and a regular person's life can be fascinating without many thrills and chills. Kelly's delicious prose perfectly evokes a very smart girl thrashing rather creatively against the constraints of her time. Not only did Callie come absolutely alive for me, but so did Granddaddy and several of her brothers. Not all of them (well, there ARE six) and not her best friend Lula (who seems a bit drippy, as even Callie remarks) - but still, Callie and Granddaddy are really all we need.

Read Jennifer, Kimberly, and Kelly's review for some interesting comments on the Texas setting, the possibly problematic length and plotlessness, and the excellent (if perhaps too adult) writing style.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Crossover books - children's room or teen section?

Back when The Graveyard Book by Gaiman won the Newbery, there was a mild ruckus, stirred up to a fine boil by an SLJ article, about where the book belonged - in the children's room, the teen section, or both. The issue was that many library systems put The Graveyard Book in the teen section, not in the children's area, despite the fact that the Newbery is a children's book award.

When the book came into our library system several months before its Newbery notoriety, it went straight to YA Services - we in Children's Services never even saw it. YA Services judged that it was indeed appropriate for the teen section, listed it on the YA order sheet, and it was bought for YA collections throughout our system.

Then it won the Newbery. Usually when a book in our YA section wins the Newbery, we recatalog it as juvenile or else make it available in both collections. In this case, the directors of both coordinating departments felt that it should stay a YA book only. After some initial frustration with this decision, I decided that it wasn't a big deal. After all, not only was the book available in multiple copies at each of our branches, but there are no restrictions on children's library cards - they may check out YA books all they like. Therefore, access to the book by children or indeed anyone was just as easy as it would have been in the children's area.

The problem is that the Newbery is given to books for children up to 14 years of age - and our children's areas serve kids more or less up to 12. We don't check birth certificates or demand to know a child's grade in school, but we plan our outreach, programs, and of course collection development around that guideline. So a Newbery winner at the high age range may indeed be more suitable for the YA collection, as we define it. Now, this 0 to 14 age range is being re-examined, not just in terms of the Newbery but in ALSC as a whole - I'll be following the discussion via ALA Connect.

You'd think that having a clearly defined age range would make it easy to determine which books should go in which section, and usually it's quite obvious. Sometimes, however, it's not, particularly where fiction is concerned. If it's got sex and/or drugs, and it involves high schoolers or middle schoolers - fine, the YA section can have it. If it's about a couple of 5th grade friends, we'll take it. And in general, even if the book is about kids older than 12 (but younger than high school), we'll put it in the children's area because a 12-year-old will love to read about a 13-year-old - but a 14-year-old won't, necessarily. So the book will be more likely to be read in our section.

So - then we have the stumpers. When I first heard about Moribito - Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi, it seemed clear that it was for the children's area. Older kids love fantasy and all things Japanese, and there was no sex or death or graphic violence to be found. Perfect! And even after I read it for myself and discovered that the main character, Balsa, was 31, it didn't bother me - there was a young prince and plenty of action.

So of course I put Moribito II - Guardian of the Darkness in the children's collection as well. And then suffered pangs of doubt as I read it, with its fascinating but convoluted backstory and all the confusing names that sound similar and all the "foreign" words - and realized again that Balsa, although a tough female warrior, is 31, for goodness' sake! I was married with two kids and a mortgage at 31 - no kid would have accepted me as the main character of any story. But Balsa seems more like a very seasoned 17-year-old in many ways - her lack of a love interest or family, for one. (Well, there is someone, sort of - but he doesn't appear in Moribito II). But okay - this book would have been fine in the teen section, but it will also be fine in the children's section. I hope.

And then there's the graphic novel Wolverine: Worst Day Ever by Barry Lyga. It's not a full GN but rather a hybrid. Wolverine is in high school, it's written by a YA author, and we tend to put most of our Marvel stuff in YA. So obviously a good choice for the teen section, right? Well, that's what we finally decided (my counterpart in YA Services and I) after much discussion. But it would be wildly popular in the children's area as well, plus the graphic portion of the book looks sort of young. On the other hand, we knew it would be bought widely by YA librarians, so kids would have plenty of access to it.

When we're deciding where to put a book (and keep in mind that we're not allowed to "dual-catalog" - it's got to go in either the YA or children's collection, not both), we try to balance the following factors:
1. Is there sex/violence/drugs and if so, are these handled at a level that is more appropriate for teens than for 12-year-olds?
2. How old is the main character? What will want to read more about this character, a 12-year-old or a 14-year-old? Most 10 to 12-year-olds love reading about middle school kids. Middle school and high school kids, however, seem to prefer reading about high school kids.
3. Ditto for the plot - what age will this appeal to most? (note: page number plays NO role in our decision-making. Although it used to be that kids' books were thinner than YA books, Harry Potter changed all that. In fact, as far as fantasy goes, the fatter the better)
4. Where is this most likely to get both purchased and promoted - in the children's or the teen collection?

This last point is crucial and often the deciding factor (as long as the subject matter alone doesn't exclude it from the children's collection) - our children's librarians have, as a rule, a much bigger materials budget than the YA librarians. Our collections are simply bigger. Also, in general (and I have read research on this!), 10 to 12-year-old kids read more for pleasure than teens, so a book put into the children's area may well be more likely to be read, especially if a librarian promotes it.

So if we want a book to get purchased and read, we often will put it in the children's collection. But if it seems more YA for various reasons AND it will be purchased heavily (as was the case with The Graveyard Book and is true for any graphic novels), then it should go in the YA section even if children might well like it as well.

All very logical - but I still sweat a bit over some of these decisions! And I'll feel a lot better once I find some kids (12 and under, please!) who love Moribito...

Friday, October 2, 2009

fantasy games

One of my regrets about my childhood and teen years is that I never became a Dungeons & Dragons player. I'm sure I would have in a hot minute, given half the chance - as a skinny, bespectacled, fantasy/SF reading, Dr. Who and Star Trek watching nerd with a pompous vocabulary, those D & Ders would have been My People.

But I never got the chance somehow. There must have been some around in my junior high, but I didn't recognize the awesomeness of what those geeky boys were doing with their many-sided dice and elaborate pencil scribbles.

I did play this knock-off Lord of the Rings board game in the late 70s - and loved it, dorky as it was.

The appeal of online role-playing games is obvious to me - but they're just too complex, not to mention time-consuming. I'd rather just read a great fantasy book.

That said, fans of the Septimus Heap series might want to check out the new website, which features a game of sorts. It has cool maps, always a fine thing, but the quizzes floored me. Time to re-read!