Thursday, October 29, 2009

Is twitter the future of books?

Although it hasn't hit the children's publishing market yet, twitter is making an impact on the adult publishing world. The N.Y. Times today reported that a new literary journal will be published in several electronic formats including twitter. The journal "Electric Literature", a quarterly, appeared last spring and has received good reviews. So far the stories have been of conventional length, but in November, Rick Moody will tweet a story over three days. The two founders of the new journal believe that electronic formats of many types are a natural for fiction. Mr. Lindenbaum, the fiction editor, said, “The short form could work increasingly well in a hectic age.” Librarians will want to keep an eye on this development and see whether the journal and the format take hold. It's an exciting time to be in publishing and in the library world as new materials keep appearing in a variety of forms that challenge our settled ideas about what reading material should be. (As well as challenging our ability to organize and access the mass of electronic materials.) The children's field will surely be an arena that will welcom innovations as they develop.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

What's best for baby?

For several years, videos for babies have been big sellers, especially popular among middle class parents who have set their eyes on the prize of a brilliant baby with an assured route to an Ivy League school in 18 years. Now the Disney Corporation that produces the Baby Einstein videos has announced it will give refunds to people who have purchased the video. As the N.Y. Times story announcing this move, tells us, this is a "tacit admission that they [the videos] did not increase infant intellect". Whether is policy will mean the end of videos or other electronic media for infants is not clear. After all, babies do seem to like the Baby Einstein and similar videos. Parents have become accustomed to using television as a distraction to soothe fretful infants, and the simple baby videos are less objectionable than much of broadcast television. The American Pediatric Association has recommended that children under two not be allowed to watch any TV, but most American children today do see a great deal of it. It's unlikely this will change in the near future. The one important step forward that Disney's choice makes is to acknowledge that it's unlikely videos of any type can change or influence a child's intelligence. For centuries parents have tried to figure out what will enhance their child's chances of becoming a genius. It seems we still have to look further--videos won't do it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A different take on Indians

Choosing materials from ethnic groups different from our own is a difficult and sensitive task for many librarians. Professional journals often run articles about the faults of presentations in children's books of racial, religious and ethnic groups. We turn with relief to writers who spring from the culture they write about or make films about, but still we worry. It's refreshing to read a frank interview with Sherman Alexie in the N.Y. Times. Mr. Alexie, author of the hugely popular book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian talks, among other things, of the ways in which tribal culture has changed over the years, the effects of pop culture on his life, and his passion for basketball, a most un-Indian sport. It's important for children and teenagers today to learn about the Indian way of life both on and off the reservation, and that means allowing some of the idealization of tradition to fade away. Alexie has been criticized for portraying misery and failures in life on the res, but young people have to learn to live with truth. We owe a debt of gratitude to Sherman Alexie for bringing realism, as well as humor, into his portrayal of growing up Indian. We must trust youngsters to sort the good from the bad and develop a healthy respect for cultures different from their own.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Talking about picture books

Children's books are being discussed in the general media more than ever. The New Yorker has an article on the behavior of children in picture books that every librarian ought to read. The author, Daniel Zalewski, compares the behavior of recent protagonists like Olivia the cheerful little pig to earlier ones like Frances the Badger in Russel Hoban's classic picture books. The more recent heroes and heroines triumph over their parents, misbehaving in wildly inappropriate ways without experiences any downside. Unlike the parents in the Frances books or the even earlier Robert McCloskey books, today's parents are unable to restrain their children's tantrums. In the new Constance series by Pierre LeGall, the young heroine is able to fool all the adults around her by acting virtuous in boarding school without really changing her outrageous behavior while at home. Do these new books reflect a change in parental behavior or simply a new freedom for editors, authors and illustrators to portray naughtiness that would ge many children into trouble? Fantasy is fine for young children, but librarians might do well to talk to kids at storyhour about whether these stories reflect something that might happen or whether they are pure imagination. Let's hear some feedback from the target audience!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Why is this boy so successful?

You know a children's book series is a success when it's written about not just in the book section, but in the general news sections of newspapers. The phenomenal success of the Wimpy Boy series is attested by the N.Y. Times article about the books. This article appears in the Times's health section and the attention paid is far more psychological than literary. Why is it that a boy who calls himself wimpy turns out to be a hero to so many child readers? Usually the heroes in books for preteen boys are athletic or at least successful in school and in life. Can anyone picture either of the Hardy Boys calling himself wimpy? (Of course the word probably didn't exist when the Hardy boys romped through their adventures.) The Harry Potter books have been a huge success, but they make no attempt to picture the life of real kids in a contemporary world. Perhaps this is why the Wimpy Boy series has reached thousands of kids who think they don't like books. Librarians may not approve, but it's hard to argue with success.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Do we need a new term?

Recently there has been a flurry of online chatter about whether we need a new term for reading from a screen as opposed to reading on a page. Take a look at this blog for example. The term that seems to be cropping up most often is "screening", although that ruins the image of wealthy people in the Hollywood hills screening films in their rec rooms. Not to mention the screening we all endure at airports. You have to wonder whether reading words differs from one medium to another. Does reading handwriting differ from reading printed type? What about reading characters in Chinese as compared with reading alphabetic scripts? Are the differences great enough to require a new word? For librarians and teachers the important issue may be whether children who habitually read from a screen are having a different experience from those who read from a book. And are these differences great enough to require a different word? It's still an open question, but after trying my first Kindle yesterday, my own feeling is that the differences between e-books and paper books are far less than the similarities. One will be more convenient than another under specific circumstances, but in reading it's the ideas and story that matters--not the material on which it appears.

Monday, October 5, 2009

A new pal for Pooh

Children and their parents, and especially grandparents, have enjoyed the Winnie the Pooh stories for many years, but perhaps the major impact of the books has been as a revenue stream for Milne's estate, the Disney Company and manufacturers of Pooh products. Pictures of the familiar characters are available on clothes, bedding, calendars, tableware and other products. Now a new book is being published to take advantage of the interest. It is the first authorized sequel to the Pooh books and offers new stories and new illustrations as well as a new friend for Pooh--an otter. The New York Times article announcing this gives a sample of the illustrations, which seem pleasantly close to the originals. We will be lucky if the author, David Benedictus, captures the original spirit in his writing too. If he does, the children's publishing world may have another blockbuster, that is, if today's children can accept anything other than the Disney version.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Yet another kind of e-book

Publishers are becoming very creative in devising new formats for the products formerly known as books. The latest version reported in the NY Times is being called a "vook" Unlike the standard e-books we've seen on Kindle or Sony readers, this version integrates video clips with the text. The reader can read the book on a printed page and then go to a computer to watch the interspersed videos, or the book can be read entirely online or listened to in an audio version. The key feature is to have some of the scenes presented as video pictures rather than text. It seems likely the next step toward this vision might be on a mobile phone which already has facility to show both text and video. Jumping back and forth between media sounds awkward to a traditional reader, but we have learned to do that when reading newspapers online, so perhaps we could adjust to doing it with books too. No one can predict where this will all lead, but librarians are going to be hard pressed to keep up with the ever-changing media formats patrons might want--and young patrons will probably be among the most eager.