Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Something to be angry about

Everyone knows librarians are peaceful people who get along well with people, so it's refreshing to read a blog by a librarian who's not afraid to express some anger. When publishers of books or audio products take liberties with cover art and in do so distort the story, that's something to be angry about. SLJ blogger Elizabeth Bird points out that some producers of audio books change the ethnicity of characters and use generic white children on their products. What's the point? It's unlikely the producer cares that much about the ethnicity; more likely the only concern is cost and convenience in finding cheap illustrations. But the children who read the books deserve to get the original in all it's details. Ethnicity is not a minor point, it's a major part of identity. Let's not take it away from fictional characters any more than we would take it away from children.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Follow that monkey!

There are few stories more intriguing to librarians than the stories of how their favorite children's books came to be written. The Curious George books, as most children's librarians know, were written and illustrated by H.A. Rey with help from his partner and wife, Margret Rey. Now the Jewish Museum in New York has created an exhibit based on the story of how the Reys escaped from Europe during World War II and created George as they were on the run. Despite the aura of innocence and naivete which the books exude, they came out of a world of war and terror. George's thoughtless escapades, from which he is always rescued by the Man in the Yellow Hat, have enchanted several generations of children, but the books were written by adults under the threat of concentration camps and death. The Museum exhibit shows letters and part of H.A. Rey's diary, most of which do not reveal much about what the couple was thinking as they fled from Paris to the South of France, then bicycled to Lisbon and managed to get to South America and finally New York. We will probably never know what the authors were thinking as they wrote and drew the pictures for the early books. Perhaps they survived by creating for themselves a world safe from war and death and where the threats of runaway bicycles and all-too-buoyant balloons can always be solved by a helpful hand from the cryptic Man in the Yellow Hat. This exhibit will show in New York until late summer and in the fall will move to the Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Will textbooks be different?

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the Texas School Board's curriculum guidelines for textbooks to be used for the next decade. The politically conservative majority on the board has decided to emphasize certain aspects of American history and downplay others. The Judeo-Christian background of the Founding Fathers, for example, will be discussed, but not the reasons why they decided to separate religion from government in the new country. Liberals have protested that these decisions give a false idea of history and because they will be enshrined in textbooks for Texas, textbooks in other, smaller states will be affected as well. The eSchool News offers us a balanced assessment of whether or not liberals should be so worried. Perhaps the danger is not so great as feared, because many publishers now offer different versions of each textbook tailored to the curriculum requirements of many states. One question that bothers me is whether we as librarians and teachers should look forward to a country in which children learn different historical facts in each state. It is rather sad that a country cannot agree on whether to call our system of government a "constitutional republic", as Texas will, or a "democracy" as most of the rest of us do. The whole issue of textbooks, of course, is changing as more texts move online where they can be updated and changed frequently and inexpensively. But a new fear grows if each state and school district can modify the electronic textbook to suite the prejudices of the local community. It's something to think about. A side issue that has not been discussed is the increasing importance of libraries, which continue to offer a variety of points of view. Children and parents who want a broader view than that offered by the standard textbooks should be able to find many points of view in the library. New books, new websites, and new media offer far more information than is available in textbooks and far more individual voices. We must continue to work for continuing support for school and public libraries so we can raise children who are aware of different individuals and different visions which have contributed to the growth of our country.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Gotta Keep Reading

As of today almost half a million people have watched the video "Gotta Keep Reading" made by students at a middle school in Florida. Like many other useful and valuable items about reading, it was made famous by Oprah Winfrey who featured it on one of her TV shows. Any teacher, parent, or librarian's heart will be warmed by watching the students, each one clutching a book, sway to the music and sing about the joys of reading a good book. The children look natural and happy, but it would be fun to see them actually sit down and start reading those books. Someone ought to consider having a sit-in for book reading, where students would sit down in the schoolyard and read quietly for a few minutes. That might be an effective video too, although the sound track would be far different. Let's hope this video encourages kids not only to pick up a book and sing, but to have some quiet time to settle down and read.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The joys of chasing links

Sometimes following links on the SLJ website can lead to fascinating destinations, making it worth the time I sometimes spend doing it. Not all link-chasing leads to frivolous sites to find out the latest celebrity scandal; in fact, none of SLJ's links do that, but you can often find useful tools for helping patrons. If you've ever tried to explain social software to teachers or parents, you know how difficult the concept can be, so finding a clear, logical article that explains the components of social software is very helpful. Here is just such an article, called "Social Software Building Blocks" It's rather old now--dating from 2007--but the concepts are still relevant and can help to explain the appeal of social networks for so many young people. The more understanding librarians and other adults have about social networking, the less likely they will be to try to block youngsters from using them. The faster we get schools and libraries on board to support constructive uses of social networking, the better we can serve the young people who use them.

Friday, March 12, 2010

New, faster Internet for all

Despite the overwhelming presence of online entertainment and services for most young people in America, there are still pockets of the country that are unable to access Broadband. And of course there are also thousands of families that cannot afford access. The FCC is announcing a new ten-year plan designed to introduce Broadband access to every part of the country and to encourage making it available to all individuals and families. Part of this new plan is a digital education component to teach people how to use online information and services. The Obama administration believes, as many others do, that the Internet will become the major channel of entertainment and information in years and decades to come. There is no information yet about how librarians will be integrated into these new plans, but if we are wise, we will work to make libraries and librarians a vital part of the system. Libraries exist to provide information and entertainment, if the channels of delivery change, we need to be sure that we change with them.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

What do publishers do?

The flurry of new books that have been challenged for accuracy, or even basic truth, has caused a stir in publishing circles. As this N.Y. Times articles explains, the latest scandal over the withdrawal of Last Train from Hiroshima only causes a gentle sigh among most booksellers and librarians. We have been inundated by fake memoirs and "creative non-fiction" that sometimes has been pure fiction. Children's books have so far escaped the furor that rocks the adult publishing world. Is this because editors in children's publishing houses are more careful about checking the facts? Certainly they have set up strict rules for authors about having experts review works, supplying documentation for statements of fact, and checking many details. Librarians are at the forefront in trying to keep books credible. We need to complain when small inaccuracies creep into the books we offer children. So far it looks as though we're doing a good job, but with all the cutbacks in both libraries and publishing houses, it's important to keep our guard up. Eternal vigilance is the price of accuracy.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

New forms for books

It's a good thing this is a weekend because all librarians should take some of their extra time to read an insightful blog about book format. Craig Mod, a book designer and writer, discusses the endlessly-debated question of whether the i-Pad and other e-book readers will make printed books obsolete. Instead of merely recounting emotional feelings about print and paper, Mod thoughtfully distinguishes between different kinds of content. The content, after all, he says, should be the determining quality of the book. Much content is formless, it is essentially a flow of words telling a story about something or arguing a point. The author isn't thinking about how the words will look on a page or on a screen, but how the reader will encounter them in his mind. Other contents--poetry, and works with images embedded--are definite content. They cannot be changed in format without losing or confusing some of the meaning. People who present books to the public should think about what kind of content they are dealing with and how it should be presented. Digital or non-digital are lesser questions. Now that the i-Pad is poised to show us how digital content can integrate words and images, it may be possible for formed content to be presented in an e-book. On the other hand, some books are artifacts that should be preserved for their own sake because they are irreplaceable. This article is necessary reading. It will get you thinking. Those of us who have seen some of the book art exhibitions in which content is subordinated to lovely but gimmicky illustrations and format can appreciate Mr. Mod's respect for content. Anyone involved in the content-sharing professions of writing, reading, building a library, or publishing will want to think about what their highest goals should be.