Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Our heritage online

The Smithsonian Institute in Washngton D.C. houses some of the nation's most important artifacts. Anyone who visits there and walks through the halls, learns something about how America started and how it has made its way through the years. Many children are frequent visitors, especially those who live nearby, and many families from all over the country visit the museum at least once, but others never have an opportunity of going to D.C. Now the museum has decided to make its treasures available to everyone with access to the Internet. This is no short-term project, and librarians can expect to wait for years to have all, or most of the items scanned and made acessible. Still, it's a prospect worth waiting for and when the task has been accomplished, every library in the country--and in many other countries--will be able to see not only the artifacts themselves but the curators' commentaries about the meaning and importance of the items. This is a step to be applauded--and funded--so let your representatives know that you support it.

Monday, January 26, 2009

What Would the Library Ladies Say?

When the Newbery Medal winner was announced today at the ALA Conference in Denver, some of the venerable ladies like Anne Carroll Moore who started children's services in public libraries might have turned in their graves. The medal went to Neil Gaiman for his spooky Grave Yard Book, the story of a boy named Nobody who was raised by ghosts. The protective librarians of a century ago might have wanted to shield children from such frightening territory populated by vampires and ghosts. Today's librarians have more faith in the essential toughness of children who have already made the book a bestseller. Gaiman's background in writing comic books and movie scripts is also a departure from the traditional literature-based authors of the past. Despite the changes in approach, though, we shouldn't predict too confidently about what our departed colleagues might have thought. They were strong, assertive women who battled for the right of children to choose their own reading, so perhaps they would have cheered the honoring of an inventive new tale to add to our stock of enticing books for children.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Award Day coming up

Although it may not get as much attention as the Oscars, the awarding of the Newbery, Caldecott, and other ALSC awards are important news for librarians. This year the award ceremony will take place in Denver, CO, at the American Library Association Midwinter Conference, as it does every year, and the venue this year is Denver, Colorado. The date is Monday, January 26, and this year there is no excuse for anyone to have the news delayed. Awards will be posted on a special ALA website at 7:45 MT, which is 9:45 Eastern Time. The news will also appear on the ALSC blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. Gone are the days when librarians had to rush to a phone to call home and tell the folks the winner. Plan now because some of these channels may be crowded and you don't want to miss the awarding of America's most prestigious awards for children's literature.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Finally put to rest

For ten years the ACLU and the ALA have resisted government efforts to implement the Childrens Internet Protection Act (COPA), which would place restrictions on Internet content that children might see. In court cases judges have ruled the law unconstitutional, but the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to overule this decision. Today the Supreme Court refused to take on the case, which means the law will disappear. Many parents and some media commentators have wondered why librarians should oppose a law aimed at ending online pornography, but history has shown there are good reasons for this. The issue raises a lot of questions and very few answers: What is pornography? What is bad for young people? To what extent should children be protected against knowing how people behave? Do all children react in the same way to sensitive material? The United States is built on the principle of freedom of speech, even of speech that is unpleasant, immoral, and which supports values we don't like. Whenever speech is to be limited to any group of people, it should be limited as little as possible. Parents are the only people in a position to know how their child will react to specific information or presentations, and often enough even parents are wrong. Now that technology allows parents to limit what their children can view online, that protection is sufficient to serve the public good. Filters make it possible for parents to control access and they are the ones who should take the responsibility to do so. The Supreme Court's decision not to take the case is a vindication of librarians' convictions that freedom of speech is basic to any democratice society. After ten long years the decision is finally made. Three cheers for the Court, for ACLU, and for ALA.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Some people care

Librarians sometimes feel they are under-appreciated for the work they do, but there are some areas that many people care about and awarding medals is one of these. The Newbery Medal, presented by the American Library Association for the best American book published for children in the preceding year, usually receives some attention in the press. This year the Newbery Medal has an especially high profile because there has been much discussion about whether it is being given to books that children care about. The NPR program "On the Media" recently aired a segment in which Pat Scales, president of ALSC, talked about the medal and why it is important. The podcast of this show should be required listening for children's librarians who might want to encourage parents and teachers to listen too. It's important to get a perspective on what the Newbery and Caldecott Medals are meant to encourage--excellence in children's publishing. In a few days, Monday, January 26, another set of medal winners will be announced. Read the books and judge for yourself whether the medals are living up to their aspirations.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

How is it going for children's publishing?

Children's librarians depend on publishers to provide the basic materials they need for their libraries, so the health of the publishing industry in these bad times is a constant concern. Harold Underdown, who maintains the invaluable Purple Crayon website devoted to children's publishing, has posted a fascinating blog entry about the state of publishing this season. Editors are being laid off or shifted from one department to another. Publishing has always been a fast-moving industry and librarians with their stable government funded jobs have watched in amazement as editors move from one house to another year by year. Right now the climate is reasonably good for reading, sales figures for children's books were quite stable in 2008. Still, there's a general feeling of concern as one publisher after another announced cutbacks and the usually reliable school and library market for new books shrinks. We are all dependent on one another in this profession--writers, illustrators, publishers, librarians--all locked together in an effort to continue the tradition of providing good books for children. Let's not focus too narrowly on our own budgetary concerns, we need to be aware of how the others in our field are doing. Along with Publishers Weekly, the Purple Crayon is one good way to stay in touch.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Congress is doing it again

Once again library circles are buzzing about the passage in Congress of a rather confusing law designed to protect children. The Children's Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) requires that all products being sold to children under twelve years of age be tested for safety before being marketed. The issue for librarians is whether this includes chldren's books. The law does not exclude books and some commentators worry that libraries will be asked to test whether or not the books in their current collections are free of contamination. To avoid this burden on libraries, ALA has discussed the issue with lawyers and is working to get a specific exclusion for children's books. There is no reason to believe that Congress intended the law to apply to library collections, so ALA's advice to librarians is not to do anything at the moment. If the exclusion is not made, it may become necessary for librarians to contact their representative is make sure their collections are safe from prosecution. Just one more thing to worry about!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A sure winner

With children's book publishing in the doldrums just like most publishing these days, editors are searching for sure winners. They seem to have found one in producing a sequel to Winnie-the-Pooh which will come out in both the U.K. and the U.S. in October 2009. The original story appeared a hundred years ago in a world far different from the one children live in today. Over the years, and especially after the hardships of World War II, the book was sometimes criticized for offering children a snobbish, aristocratic view of the childhood of a privileged upper class child who had a large supply of toy animals. Certainly no echoes of economic woes or the changing ethnic profile of British children appear in the book. Nonetheless it has earned a large following on both sides of the Atlantic. Because parents and grandparents are responsible for so much bookbuying for young children, it's almost certain that the sequel will meet with a joyful response. Whether 21st century children will be quite as enamored of the story as earlier generations were remains to be seen.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A trend to notice

Surely the biggest contribution that picture books make to a child's development is to help them learn the value of a good story. Year after year picture books tell appealing stories about family life, about animals, about fantasy creatures. Now they are being asked to do more. Reviews in the N.Y. Times Book Review this week give a round-up of picture books about math for children. Educators have been telling us for years that American children do not excel in math and girls in particular turn away from it because in our society math is considered dull and fit only for geeks. But given a chance, many children would learn the excitement of knowing about numbers, and falling in love with numbers as a chld can lead to a lifelong love of math and perhaps a career in science or engineering. So three cheers for math books for preschoolers. Let's hope this trend will last a long time.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Read any good screens lately?

Editors and publisher who decide what children will be reading in six months or a year are having a hard time seeing the future these days. Books for children were good sellers during the dismal holiday season this year. Bookstores had a difficult time keeping enough copies of Stephanie Meyers' Twilight series on the shelf. And yet, and those pesky e-books keep gaining on print. One commentator after another notices how popular the less expensive electronic versions of books are becoming. Amazon's Kindle has been a success and offers bargains in books that parents find hard to ignore. Children are becoming used to finding information and entertainment online. Will this trend grow big enough to push print versions off the market or will e-books continue to occupy a niche of its own and leave lots of room for more traditional formats? Publishers would give a lot to know the answer--and so would librarians. Libraries face more of a dilemma than parents. Should they invest in e-book readers or expect the children to own one? Should they put precious budget dollars into e-books or not? The future looks dim and foggy. Those who guess well will have a bright future, so we all must keep looking for the light.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Starting the new year with books

As we start 2009, though of us involved with children's books and media can look forward to another year of reading and evaluating the books published for children. But I'll bet that many of us envy the way children themselves greet the books they find to read. Instead of trying to read coolly and place each book where it belongs in the wide field of "literature", children plunge right in a devour a book. A N.Y. Times column today echoes the feeling of many parents and other adults who wish they could read as enthusiastically as children do. Falling into a book and finding yourself in another world, built by the author and offering a different version of reality than the everyday world, is one of the greatest pleasures of reading. It does come more naturally to children than to adults. As we grow older we think more about plot and character, we question the author's premises, worthy tasks and necessary for developing a true understanding of literature, but it's important to remember that children who read are having a different experience. When we struggle to figure out how children can delight in some of the illogical and flimsy stories they chose, we should think back to our own youth and remember the total surrender to the word. It's something they will outgrow, but while they are there, let them enjoy it.