Tag Archives: kidlit

Are Enhanced eBooks Really Enhancing Anything?

One of the things I hear often about the children’s book market is how picture books are suffering. Shelf space is evaporating for them as Barnes & Noble and Borders scale back their number of stores. And kids–at least those who read at all–are jumping into full-fledged novels much younger than they did even ten years ago. End result: Less demand for picture books.

The iPad is often touted as the savior for a re-imagined picture book, the enhanced edition. I’m still not all that sure that I get what a book can do on the iPad that makes it better, but I started to think that maybe I should get me one just to make sure I’m not missing anything. Then I came across Oceanhouse Media. They produce ebook versions of Dr. Seuss and Berenstain Bears.

Here’s an example of what they’ve done with the Grinch on the iPhone:


I love that Oceanhouse is trying to take picture books into this new medium, but, um… why not just get the paper book here? Both kid and mom look so uncomfortable, squished around this screen. The only real advantage isn’t an advantage at all. Parents no longer need to read the book to their kids. The app will do that for them. Mom is there in the video of this Grinch app, but she’s pretty much superfluous.

So… rather than going on a rant about how I wouldn’t trade the time I spent with my mom and Where the Wild Things Are or, a few decades later, my nephew and No, David!, I’ll just say I don’t get it. On their site, Oceanhouse indicates that they’re not particlarly interested in developing concepts for single apps, but would like to hear from owners of “branded content.” That pretty much says the value in these apps is Seuss or the Berenstain Bears, not the app itself. It’s all in the branding, not the so-called enhancement.

Maybe this new medium will one day re-invigorate the picture book, but what we’ve seen so far isn’t it. These apps need to do something new, something unheard of before, something not possible before. They can’t just reformat picture books with little cues about objects in them, but need to invent a totally new art form. In the meantime, I’ll stick with picture books. Maybe everyone on my list this year will get one, new titles by new authors.

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Suggested Reading from the Book Banners

This week is Banned Books Week, at least according to the American Library Association (ALA).

They have a great site on the phenomena of the banned book, with a statistics pages that appeals to my inner nerd. Surprisingly, total challenges brought against books seem to be trending down. Are video games stealing this piece of book thunder too? The stats also show, as expected, that Americans have a much tougher time with sex (which is covered in three categories) than they do with violence. Parents are most likely to initiate challenges to books, and the bans focus on schools and libraries. Anywhere public money is spent on books, someone will try to control what everyone else can read.

The ALA site lists the 100 most frequently challenged books from both the last decade and from the 1990s. You have to wonder why the likes of Aldous Huxley, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, and even Judy Blume are still on the list. Isn’t that stuff all terribly old school by now? Kid’s book authors make up a good chunk of what gets banned. Madeline L’Engle, Garth Nix, Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, Lois Lowry, Louis Sachar, Maurice Sendak, R.L. Stine, and Chris Crutcher all appear for this decade. Poor Roald Dahl and Shel Silverstein (along with Stephen King) seem to have fallen back into grace.

Looking over the list, I noticed two things. First, banned books receive some notoriety before getting banned. There’s no point in banning it if no one’s heard of it. How many other far more shocking books never made the cut and instead languish silently on library shelves? Second, they deal with an issue–whether it be sexuality, racism, or religion–that some would rather not have anyone write anything about, ever. That makes for great suggested reading. Books that are well written enough to get noticed, and that deal with challenging subject matter.

Of course, bookstores saw this as a marketing opportunity long ago. Banned book displays do a remarkably good job of selling banned books. Thank you book banners! Keep up the good work of ferreting out titles worthy of lasting attention.

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Thoughts on The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

The Lightning Thief by Rick RiordanI read The Lightning Thief primarily to see what all the fuss is about. It’s the first in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan, which seems to have taken over multiple shelves in book stores everywhere. Of course, the film adaption this year has helped matters, but there’s no denying that the books were already doing quite well without any Hollywood interference.

The story is straightforward enough. Percy Jackson has never done all that well in school, suffers from both ADHD and dyslexia, and is prone to freak accidents. This all starts to make sense when he discovers that he is a half-blood, with a god for an absentee father. The Greek gods are alive and well, and relocated to America in the not-too-distant past. Percy soon finds himself at a camp with other half-bloods, the first place where he has ever felt at home. Soon enough the action kicks in again and Percy sets off on his quest to battle a small chunk of the pantheon and ward off World War III.

The parallels to Harry Potter are unavoidable, but this book feels quite different. It has a breezy style so that the book is more easily inhaled than read. The pages turn quickly. The plot, while somewhat formulaic and at times predictable, never relents. Even the most reluctant reader will find this book an easy challenge to finish. This is a great book for boys, with far more focus on action than quiet moments. And yes, there is at least one explosion. The creatures and monsters that pop up throughout are done well, but not so well that they’re likely to induce nightmares. There are also enough comedic interludes and spots for brief reflection to please more thoughtful young readers, though the book never wavers from its intent to entertain first and foremost.

That said, The Lightning Thief is not all mayhem. It sneaks in a crash course in Greek mythology. The gods are all present and slightly reinvented for the contemporary kid. These parts of the book feel somewhat inspired by Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, reimagined for kids. Each history is given in an engaging way that puts my high school Greek history class to shame. All around, the book has piqued my interest to seek out the second in the series. There are five books in all released to date. Another factor likely to please hesitant readers: the books stay pretty slim… unlike that other infamous series.

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Guys Read: Funny Business Book Trailer

One of the things I often hear at writer’s conferences for kid’s books is that boys don’t read. As someone who at one time was both a boy and a voracious reader, I’ve always felt that this has a lot more to do with how books are presented (and marketed) to most boys than with any gaping deficiency in boys themselves.

Then I found the Guys Read website. They group books into boy(ish) categories: at least one explosion, animals, dragons, robots, etc. How about we get all of them into one dang book? That would be awesome. It’s fantastic to see some of the books that first got me reading featured, like Where the Wild Things Are which I learned by heart before I could read and Childhood’s End which totally blew my mind in the 5th grade.

The organization is the brainchild of Jon Scieszka who I’ve been fortunate enough to hear speak at two writer’s conferences. He’s the author of The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Fairy Tales, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, and other books with a wickedly boyish slant. He also served as the first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and, all around, is a spectacularly funny guy.

Guys Read releases its first anthology, titled Guys Read: Funny Business, this September. If the book trailer is any indication, it’s a must read for boys everywhere.

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Thoughts on The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

"The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is one of those books that seems to pop up everywhere. It’s at the front of all the major bookstores, is mentioned with envy at every writer’s conference, and was featured prominently in a recent New Yorker article on the rise of the dystopian kid lit novel. The Hunger Games had caught my attention, but it didn’t make it onto my list until I saw my 12-year-old niece reading it. She was even nice enough to buy me a copy of it last Christmas, though I’ve only just now snatched it from the shelf.

Once I dug in, it didn’t take long to understand why the book gets such rave reviews from all corners. This is not a book that’s read, so much as swallowed by the spoonful. The story follows 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen. It’s set in a future society in the North American Rockies, following some unspecified cataclysmic event. A rich capital city is surrounded by 12 provinces, all overrun with varying degrees of impoverishment. Each year, to keep the provinces in line, there is a lottery that selects two children from each province to become contenders in the namesake Hunger Games. It’s a critique of our reality-TV-drenched society, only in this world the games are a fight to death… between kids. Last one alive wins. Katniss, of course, ends up as a contender for her coal-mining province, the poorest of the poor.

Collins does a superb job of launching the plot from the first page, but offers much more than just relentless story. The reader quickly develops deep empathy for these characters. While Collins never does stop throwing rocks–sometimes quite literally–at her beloved Katniss, the book also has highly reflective moments for her. These come crashing to an end, long before they get boring, with some new disaster that Katniss must claw her way out from under.

One of the most striking things about this book is how it deals with death, which is featured rather prominently and sometimes almost gruesomely for a kid’s book. Collins hasn’t created a moving novel on mortality like Tuck Everlasting, or one that reflects on humanity’s weaknesses like The Lord of the Flies, but she does pluck at something more profound than just the heartstrings. I highly recommend it for kids and adults alike, just slightly older kids. It’s not a good candidate for bedtime reading for truly little ones. The sequel, Catching Fire, was released late last year, and we’ll probably all hear a great deal–perhaps too much–about the third book in the series, Mockingjay, when it’s released this August.

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Top 3 Things I Learned at SCBWI

It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than a week since the SCBWI conference ended. Though now that I’ve had a little time to digest all of it, I can whittle down the two-day conference into the top three things I learned.

Try not to confuse the reader. Ummm… yeah. I had a personal critique of a work in progress with Laini Taylor, who was a finalist for the National Book Award and one of the keynote speakers. She was fantastic, gave lots of encouragement but also pointed out where my story had gone from good confusing (ahh… intriguing) to bad confusing (argh… just confusing). Poor Laini. I left her in the weeds. The bigger problem: I’m a repeat offender. I’ve heard this before. I’ll do six or seven drafts of a piece, and by the end of it lose all track of what I’m doing at each point in the story. I told Laini that I need feedback from other readers to identify the confusing bits. “Yup,” she said, “but come on, you can do this without them.” She’s right. I just need to make a point of reading specifically for what I want the reader to know at each point in the story. Laini gave some great pointers along with a bunch of plotting advice that she’s since posted on her blog. Check it out as well as her books. I recently finished Blackbringer which I can sum up in one word: awesome.

Method writing. Sundee Frazier, author of the award-winning Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything in It, had a break out session on writing believable boy characters. There were some ideas on the differences between boys and girls that were interesting, as much for life as for fiction, but she also offered a writing tip which I’ve since come to think of as method writing. When a scene should capture a certain emotion, think back to a spot in your own life where you felt that emotion. Then write it down, get it all on the page in a great non-thinking flurry. Use that as clay that you can mold into something workable for the character. Sundee also thankfully told us that the “sensitive boy and snarky girl” duo have become so commonplace in kidlit that they’re practically a cliché. One of my projects has exactly that in it, and once she pointed out this cliché, it clicked why I’ve been struggling with it.

Enter contests. Jay Asher, bestselling author of Thirteen Reasons Why gave another keynote speech. He spoke of the ups and downs of his 12-year struggle and the four agents that he worked with until finally landing a publishing deal.  His strategy seemed to involve wearing costumes to writer’s conferences and entering every contest he could find to help build recognition. His speech was heralded as inspirational. I found it just the opposite: depressing. Curse ye fickle publishing industry and how random ye award success! As he was speaking, I thought: I’d give up long before I ever got to that point. I’m doomed. It wasn’t until I got home and was reminded that money and publishing have nothing to do with why I write that I realized two things. First, I have fantastic support for my writing at home. Second, I already gave up writing once. No publisher ever came crashing through my front door to implore me to write. I just started again because I want to write, and that’s what I’m doing. Though that said, I could also start entering contests again too.

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No More Hardy Boys, Enter Golden Age of Kid Lit

The day I realized that my stories are best suited as middle reader fiction was perhaps the only true epiphany I’ve ever had. I was working on short stories, all of which naturally emerged as quirky tales that soon grew to novella length, populated with creatures and other characters who were characters in both senses of the word. Kids popped up often too. Then one day I read an interview with a kid lit author in Writer’s Digest, whose name I’ve since forgotten, and the proverbial light bulb went on. They’re not short stories. They’re kid’s books.

Then I realized that I hadn’t read a kid’s book in decades. Easily fixed, in the years since I’ve read a huge swathe of kid’s literature. I discovered a world of amazing books, often with challenging subjects all of which are simply told and clearly written. While I have my gripes with Harry Potter, there’s no denying that he has indeed done much to make this a grand time to be scribbling for kids. The Los Angeles Times recently went so far as to proclaim our day a golden age of young adult fiction. The numbers back up this assertion. While adult hardcover sales dropped 17.8% during the first half of last year, kid’s hardcovers are up 30.7% in an otherwise stagnant economy.

Kid’s books quite obviously appeal to a lot more than just kids. Why?

There’s no pretension. The literati claim that it’s lowbrow to read mystery, nerdy to read science fiction, and downright inexcusable to be caught reading romance, but they no longer offer any such restrictions on kid’s books. This is one of the appealing things about writing kid’s fiction, and probably why so many adults enjoy reading it. There’s no literary scene where the beauty of the words alone is expected to carry the novel. No one blames the readers for failing to be smart enough to recognize “good” books. The pages turn quickly; sense of accomplishment builds.

Kid’s fiction needs to have strong characters, gripping plots, and exotic settings. The same elements we find in the classics. If Dickens were to publish Great Expectations today with dear Pip, we know what shelf it would end up on. This is also why the classics and kid lit make great movie fodder. And there’s no need to break books down by genre. Kid’s books are kid’s books. They can all sit quite happily next to each other on the same shelf. Twilight, which has sold more than 85 million copies, doesn’t need to figure out if it’s horror or romance. It can be both.

Perhaps this is even the answer to obesity in America. If kid’s books have become fashionable for grownups, how about we make the kid’s menu next in line. Mac and cheese anyone?

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