Thursday, October 30, 2008

What do they learn about sex?

The sexual habits of teenagers may not seem closely related to children's libraries, but at an early age children start learning attitudes and habits that will influence their future behavior. A New Yorker article about the different attitudes toward both sex education and sexual habits is the surprising source of insight into what may trouble parents when they look at the books and other materials in our collections. The religious and political backgrounds of the families in our communities influence their views of marriage, teenage pregnancy, and sex education. Evangelical teenagers tend to become sexually active earlier than some other religious groups and teenage pregnancy is more common among them. At the same time, evangelical parents promote abstinance only sex education and feel strongly about the importance of traditional marriage. Understanding these attitudes is important for librarians who have to respond to concerns about library materials and defend their selection of materials. The more we know and understand about the families we work with, the more effective we will be in meeting the needs of all members of the community.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Will newspapers disappear?

The announcement today that the Christian Science Monitor will no longer publish a print edition on weekdays may not touch children's library services very closely, but it does have an effect. For many years this newspaper has provided information that librarians could rely on for objective news about many topics. No youngster or high school student was going to run into a scandal story or racy picture while searching through the Monitor either online or in print. Most newspaper reference searches have already shifted to the online versions of papers, but the print source remained a backup for many libraries. The decline and eventual disappearance, as predicted by many people, of our newspapers will inevitably lead to greater dependence on the Internet, on the expensive machine that access online sources, and on the basic electricity and high-speed connections we have come to rely on. Most Americans take these utilities for granted, but in rural areas in the country there are still patches of non-connectivity, and there are still homes where electricity is not always certain and reliable. As librarians we mourn the loss of one more source of news we can offer our patrons. We are moving on, but let's be sure the people we serve are not being left behind.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Listening to the masters

One of the lovely things about working with children's books is being able to hear and sometimes see the authors and illustrators who give us those books. To most librarians these days, Judy Blume is a master of the genre. She has entertained and informed several generations of girls now (and some boys) which is why it is so gratifying to be able to hear her talk about how she came to writing and why it means so much to her. Recently Judy Blume gave the Charlotte Zolotow lecture at the University of Wisconsin and you can watch the video to hear what she has to say Watching her and listening helps us understand why she means so much to the readers in our libraries. Despite the years of experience she has had in writing and the fame she has won, she retains the sense of wonder as each book comes to life for her. She is a living demonstration of why children's literature is so important for our culture.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Always something new

It's disappointing to see the N.Y. Times referring to "prim librarians" on the front page of their online edition, especially when the article is about street lit, one of the newer forms of publishing now being bought by libraries. These urban stories, many of them set in New York City, tell stories of drug dealing, poverty, and crime and the characters are mostly African Americans. This is not children's literature by any means, but many teenagers are attracted to it despite the disapproval of adults who deplore the rough language and behavior--or perhaps because of adult disapproval. Whether a librarian decides to buy fiction in this genre is a decision for each institution to make, but we owe it to our patrons to know what it is about and to seriously consider whether the books should be included in our collections.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A different kind of bookmobile

Books inspire some people to do great things and today's N.Y. Times reported another case of a dedicated man spending countless hours to take books to people who are unlikely to have them otherwise. This story comes from rural Colombia where a school teacher began to collect books from friends and supporters to take to people who live far from libraries or bookstores. He straps the bundles of books on a burro and walks the long roads in Colombia delivering books to people who want them. When a story about him appeared in a local newspaper, his supply of books shot up and his limited efforts expanded into a full time operation. It's hard to know what may happen after this story reaches the worldwide circulation of the Times. Why is it that librarians are so touched by these stories? Perhaps because it is the greatest justification that can be found for our efforts to give children access to books. Sometimes the children in our affluent neighborhoods may seem indifferent to our offerings, but when we read about how important books are in the lives of people living in harsh circumstances in a faraway country we know again that books are important and our work is vital. The books we offer today may not be highly valued, but someday many of the children who come to our libraries will remember them and will recognize how their lives were shaped by the books the librarian gave them in the children's department.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Are we shrinking the kids?

Parents, librarians, and teachers pride themselves on broadening children's minds and introducing them to new characters, ideas, and cultures. An article on the Frankfurt Book Fair in the N.Y. Times today, however, reminds us that most Americans limit their reading to books by American authors. Although the article discusses mainly publishers of adult books, the truth is that children's publishers are equally limited. At many international conferences, European and Asian librarians are surprised to learn that Americans do not know the work of favorite authors and illustrators translated and published in most of the developed world are unknown in the United States. Of course the classic works of famous Europeans--Hans Christian Andersen, the Grimm brothers, and several British writers are known and loved here--but modern works by French, German, and Nordic writers who tell children about life in today's world are seldom translated. No wonder many school children know little about geography and can scarcely find Asia on a globe. They haven't had a chance to enter the lives of children who live in other countries, so they haven't developed any curiosity about them. It's time that librarians urge publishers to translate more of the great modern works for children. We owe it to our children and their futures in a global world.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

New role for series books

Children's books have been used to support many good purposes over the years, teaching moral values and discouraging bad behavior. When John Newbery started publishing children's books his major aim was to teach children to follow the right path in life with Goody Two Shoes. Early children's writers, however, probably never dreamed that children's books would join the fight against obesity. This year a new series of books, Beacon Street books encourage good eating habits in girls. It's a refreshing change from the Gossip Girls whose preoccupation appears to be more and more consumption rather than restraint, and there is some research to support claims that the books can help. Girls who read the new series were more likely to lose a bit of their BMI (body mass index) than girls who did not read these books. The big question is whether girls will flock to reading these books when they are not enrolled in a study. Will the adventure of living a healthy life attract a mass audience? That question rests with the author and publisher of the books, but librarians and teachers will be watching eager to see what happens.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Candidate or saint?

Librarians have been discussing the new childrens' biographies of Barack Obama and John McCain for several weeks, but the controversy has now reached the wider world of the N.Y. Times and its readers. In a review this weekend, Bruce Handy raises the question of whether anyone can live up to the "symbolic, even messianic, baggage" he's been given. It's important for children to know that the election of an African American president would be a milestone for the United States, but raising the stakes so high without mentioning the problems and struggles he'll be facing if elected puts an unfair burden on any human being. The job of President is a difficult and important one and all of our leaders have struggled to meet the challenges. We would serve the candidates better by giving children a simple, straightforward account of how the two leading candidates have demonstrated the promise that let's people believe they can do a good job rather than talking about either one of them in terms of mystical hopes and dreams. Children deserve the truth as we know it, they do not need to be fed the longings of adults whose expectations are beyond what any human being could meet.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Books for the times

As the stock market sinks lower every day, and many parents fear the loss of a job even if they haven't lost it yet, kids are caught up in the gloomy worries that pervade the media. Now is the time for children's librarians to remember some of the children's books that give a glimpse of life in hard times and fortunately Slate magazine has come up with a slideshow to remind us of some of the best. The old favorites like Little House on the Prarie and the Five Little Peppers and How they Grew remind us that hard times are nothing new and children in the past faced even more difficult circumstances than kids today. And more recent books deal even more realistically with the tensions and insecurities that children face during tough times. These books may be a lifeline for some children in today's libraries.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Coming on strong

The N.Y. Times and other mainstream media seem frequently to be surprised that children's reading and online activities are so closely related. Librarians have been aware of this for some time now. The latest report from the N.Y. Times describes how writing a book and devising an accompanying game may go together. It's important for libraries to be aware of this trend and to make both books and video games available to young people. But it is also important, it seems to me, to remember that many of the old classics and some newer print-only books still have great appeal. We don't want to neglect those or to believe that children will only accept media on a screen. It is the librarian's job to introduce books and other media and to stretch the boundaries of children's experience rather than restrict it.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Opening new worlds

Usually we think of crossover books as books published for adults that find their way into the children's room where they become classics. Occasionally a children's book comes along that is so informative and appealing that it crosses over into the adult market. Not long ago Harry Potter did that and now a new nonfiction book, David Macaulay's The Way We Work seems destined for a similar fate. Everyone is fascinated by the mysterious way human bodies work, but few of us understand the mechanics of digestion, circulation, or reproduction. Thanks to Macaulay's curiosity and hard work, as described in this N.Y. Times article, adults as well as children can have a visual tour of a body and come to understand the remarkable way it works. Children's librarians are often lucky to have a front row seat on some of the most innovative literature that's being produced.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Would you let them read that?

Banned Book Week has come around again and once more librarians, teachers and parents are reminded of all the great children's books that have been challenged in our libraries and schools. Judy Blume, still one of the most popular children's authors in our libraries, is also one of the most frequently challenged. She is articulate on the subject of how book banning can limit the variety of information and recreation that children find in books. The freedom to read is one of the basic tenets of our democracy, and the American Library Association is one of the guardians of this freedom. It's worth taking some time to think once again about letting our children find the courage to search and judge opinions and actions on their own.