Tuesday, June 30, 2009

What will they read this summer?

Summer reading lists have been popular--at least with teachers--for a long time. Often the books listed by the schools are featured in public libraries and large bookstores so students can pick them up easily. One questions that's often raised is how to balance classics with popular reading on these lists. The scales are turning in favor of popular books according to an article in the Boston Globe If the reason for these lists, the argument goes, is to get students to enjoy reading, there's no point in assigning books that are too difficult and/or "boring". Who would read Jane Austen when Pride and Prejudice and Vampires is on the list, as it is on several high school lists this summer? Many librarians and teachers hope that developing a love of reading will lead teens to wider reading and eventually perhaps to the classics. And if they don't read the traditional canon, is that so bad? Maybe encouraging teenagers to read manga from Japan, journalists from India and Afghanistan and novels from South America will be better preparation for 21st century life than reading the old standbys like Kipling, Dickens and Melville.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Publishing in a recession

Children's book publishers, just like the rest of us, are suffering through economic hard times. Does this mean the number of children's books available to schools and libraries will be dropping? It's hard to tell but Harold Underdown, creator of the Purple Crayon website, gives us a lot of important information in his latest entry on working through a recession. Throughout 2008 publishing for children seemed less affected by hard times than general publishing was, but 2009 presents a bleaker picture. Underdown looks back at history to compare what is happening now to what happened during the 1930s and the 1970s. Conditions are different, of course, because the market for children's books in those days was much more dependent on school and library sales. Many of today's children's books are aimed at parents and children, especially the fiction titles. Nonfiction titles sell better in the institutional market, so as schools and libraries lose funding, publishers will be affected too. This is an important article for librarians whether in school or public libraries. We depend on publishers to supply the resources we give to children. For all our sakes let's hope the recession doesn't last much longer.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Intrigue in children's publishing

We've come a long way from the stereotype of a children's author as a solitary woman scribbling away in a garret, like Louisa May Alcott working on Little Women or H.K. Rowling sitting in a coffee shop with a pen and paper handwriting the first Harry Potter book. Still it's a surprise to read in the N.Y. Times that several publishers on Madison Avenue are looking at a new young adult sci-fi series of books by an anonymous author rumored to be James Frey of A Million Little Pieces fame. Has the celebrity author decided his fame might influence publishers against his books for youth? Surely the teenagers themselves would be pleased to know that an author made famous by appearing on Oprah is writing for them. And with movie rights also on offer, the books are not likely to remain unknown. This is just one more example of how publishing for children has grown into a mainstream media industry. Whether this is good or bad for developing talented authors who have something important to say to young people is a question we'll long be arguing about.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

More cooperation

Schools and public libraries often work together to help children have better access to the resources they need for homework and pleasure. Often this is done by simple means such as linking to each other's catalogs on the homepage of each system. New York City is now aiming for a more elaborate way of inducing students to use their public library resources through developing widgets to make the process easy. School Library Journal reports that work has started on these widgets and the first of them will be introduced at the NYC School Library Conference in the fall. Librarians throughout the country will be keeping on eye on the developments. It sounds like a winning idea for everyone.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Copyright for the grandkids?

Arguments over copyright will probably never end and librarians need to be informed of the legal and moral rights of people who write, draw or otherwise create content. There is a difference, however, between the moral rights of a creator of content and the legal rights of a corporation that controls the copyrights of many creators. Many new works and creative commentary on published materials are stifled by narrow and sometimes absurd restrictions. A new book about the Internet and its follies, Digital Barbarism, written by Mark Helprin, comes in for some thoughtful criticism by N.Y. Times columnist Ross Douthat. Anyone who has read through the long columns of comments appended to many news stories and blogs, will sympathize with Mr. Helprin's anger, but it's important to remember that a few of the comments will be thoughtful and offer new insights into any subject. Listening to the voice of the people is tedious, but in the long run we often discover that truth lies somewhere in the welter of words and is often worth seeking out. Our copyright laws need revision, but we need to listen to more voices than that of Mr. Helprin.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What's in a title?

Have you ever looked at the titles on a library shelf and wondered why so many of them echo other books? Patricia Cohen in the N.Y. Times speculates about titles that have led to a series of take-offs. Freakonomics is one that started other authors and publishers thinking about similar titles. This is not a new phenomena, as Cohen points out Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire has led to dozens of other titles that chronicle the decline and fall of all sorts of other things. Although the trend is most prevalent in adult books, children's publishers are not immune to it. Of children usually like repetition, consider the Nancy Drew titles The Case of... over and over again, or the Harry Potter titles which always open the same way. But books that use inspiration from one title to write another on a completely different topic should be looked at carefully. Borrowing the idea of a title is all right, but we want to be sure the ideas inside the book aren't borrowed, or derivative, as well.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Another way to interact

Authors, editors and librarians have learned the value of live chat sessions, Facebook postings and other Web 2.0 formats for publicizing books, but Publishers Weekly reports on yet another avenue--Twitter. It's beginning to be clear that Twitter is a format that hasn't reached its full potential yet. Comedians still poke fun at the twittering habits of famous people, and columnists love to report that most people drop twittering after only one or two posts. But for those who can adapt and take advantage of the quick-moving give and take of a twitter session, the medium does offer possibilities. This account of an author and editor talking about a newly published book about Neil Armstrong suggests that tweets can arouse interest in a book, or presumably another product, and even spark sales. Children would surely be a good audience for a fast-moving exchange, a suggestion of a title or author to investigate, a quick answer to a question. More librarians ought to try it out.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Paying for digital textbooks

Governor Schwarzenegger's announcement that California schools will soon be using open source digital textbooks for science and math--and perhaps other subjects--was a welcome one to many teachers and librarians. The process by which schools and libraries can move to providing this material instead of paper books is still not clear. Digital material needs equipment to make it usable and school boards as well as library boards are notoriously stingy about buying enough computers and especially maintaining them well. It's not unusual to see a cluster of computers in a classroom and library in which half of the machines are "temporarily" unusable. The new Kindle and other electronic reading devices seem ideally suited to textbook use, but how will those stand up to repeated use by students year after year. It's important to look at the quality and cost of our textbooks, but librarians and teachers ought to be equally concerned with the quality and cost of the machines that give access to them.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Separate and not equal?

The difficulty of communication between parents and their preteen or teenage children has often been noted. Now that many young people spend much of their time online, is the gap becoming better or worse? Check out the blog hosted on the Digital Natives website and you can read about another website full of complaints about parents who joing Facebooks. Librarians and teachers may want to consider the implications of this. Will setting up a library page on Facebook be seen as a friendly gesture by young library patrons or will it be an intrusion into their space? Probably the best way to find out is to talk with the kids. In this world of interactive media, we adults should do our best to focus on honest interaction--asking kids what they want and listening to what they say.

Friday, June 5, 2009

More ways to get kids reading

Children love to make their own videos and express their own ideas and smart librarians and teachers help them along as much as possible. School Library Journal offers a roundup of digital products that will spark children's interests in learning and reading. Media producers are aware that many teachers are not adept at working with video cameras or editing the results, so a product like Animoto will cause rejoicing. With this tool, students can produce lively, inviting 30-second reviews of books. These will get other students talking and reading. Other products listed include a new database of books and authors that will help kids choose what they want to read next. This is a list to print out and use as a resource for providing your own stimulus package for reading.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

And the voltage grows...

Reports from the American Book-Expo confirm the growing influence of electronic books are having on the publishing industry. Although e-books are a small proportion of the market now (only one to three percent of sales) they are a growing presence in the market. Will more book buyers shift to the electronic versions or will e-books always be a minority niche-market for people who commute on trains or travel on planes? That's the question publishers and authors are asking. Those of us who are primarily concerned with young people's reading have an even narrower focus. It seems inevitable that many textbooks will shift to electronic format (California is certainly moving in that direction) but will this shift affect recreational readers too? Will children who have studied science and history on screens want to read about vampires and superheroes in the same format? Librarians who see children on a day-to-day basis will need to watch closely to see what the trends are in their libraries, schools and neighborhoods.