Unplugged

This week, I’m reading UNPLUGGED by Steve Antony during storytime. I’m taking a bit of a risk reading this book to a large group of kids. It’s filled with plenty of black and white illustrations, tiny little pictures in the middle of the book, and the general idea of computering looks more like something out of 1990 than 2018.  I’m not sure they’ll understand. And Blip–the main character–is a robot, I think. So, why is this robot attached to the computer all the time?  I’m not sure either. And I think it might be a stretch to explain it to kids raised on iPads.

But…

The point to the book is that Blip is chained to the computer all day. It’s fun, and she learns things, and gets to experience adventures and far away places. When the power goes out, she accidentally trips over the power cord and falls down the stairs and lands outside. Outside. That’s when she discovers colour…and grass, and birds, and friends.  It’s lovely, and I hope the lesson isn’t lost on the kids. Especially now that it’s spring. With the cold weather and snow (hopefully) mostly behind us, I’m hoping the kids will see that it’s nice to get outside and play and enjoy life.

It might be a better story to read to an individual child on your knee, where you can discuss the pictures and take time to really look at all the detail, but I’m hoping the bigger picture here will work. Wish me luck.

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Wonders

WONDER by R. J. Palacio is a book that came out in 2012, and hasn’t stopped flying off the shelves since. It tells the tale of a boy who is born with a facial deformity that prevents him from attending regular school for most of his life. It’s a wonderful book that demonstrates the strength of the human spirit, and addresses such themes as bullying, empathy, and acceptance. (And yes, it’s going to be a movie!)

But this spring, Palacio released a picture book version called, WE’RE ALL WONDERS, and it aims the idea of differences at a new crowd—2-5 year olds.

I read this during storytime recently, and was surprised at the reactions. While this cover has a similar looking boy…with one eye….he also wears a space helmet. When I asked the children to tell me something about the boy on the cover, they mentioned everything but the eye. He has on a space helmet! He’s wearing a red shirt! He lives in a city! Honestly, I had to point out the main idea here…and yet, these young listeners were hardly phased by it. One eye? Meh. So what? He has on a space helmet!

It’s interesting to talk with young readers about books, especially books that have a certain goal. Are children really blind to differences? If the cover of this book is any indication, yes. In real life, it’s often quite different, but the more we can expose children to ideas like this early on, the less likely they’ll be to antagonize a “different” child in real life.

We need more of these, for sure. What issues would you like to see in picture books?

Have You Read a Picture Book?

blue2As someone who sees a lot of picture books come through the library, I can tell you—there are good picture book authors, and those who haven’t quite figured it out yet. While most of the picture books out there that get published have fantastic stories, or amazing illustrations, it’s often the language that gets overlooked. And language is everything, especially when a book is geared toward small children who have attention spans of about three seconds.

So, when I came across an amazing post by Tracy Marchini, who is a literary agent, an editor, and a picture book author herself, I knew that she “got” it. Her post, “How Can You Tell If You’re Using Picture Book Language?” hits all the high points. Seriously, I think this should be required reading for anyone out there who is considering writing a picture book. It’s one of the MOST difficult things to do, even though it seems like it would be easy. The concepts not only have to be large and exciting, the language must cover no more than the anticipated reader can handle. With 40+ listeners all under the age of five at our library each week, I can tell you that a book must grab the child from word one, or you’ll lose them. And while a sleepy child on your lap might sit through a long drawn out descriptive book, most kids want to get in and get out. Tell them the story, make it entertaining, and sneak in a lesson if you can. That’s it.

So, what are some of the great concepts Marchini discusses in her post? Minimal dialog, minimal descriptions…basically, minimal everything. While it’s fine to write a book that you think will suit Kindergarten to Grade 2…keep in mind that most kids reading picture books are heading out of that age group. They’ll be wanting to read books on their own, and heading into chapter books. Your prime audience, then, is age 4 and under.

If you’ve ever contemplated writing a picture book, you’ll be wise to read the article. Not only will it save you the heartache of rejection when it comes time to try to publish, but you will set yourself apart from all of the other would-be authors out there who haven’t figured out the concept yet. And maybe I’ll end up reading your book at storytime one day!

Should celebrities write children’s books?

As someone who spends many hours each day with children’s books, I can tell you there are some great ones out there…and some not-so-great ones. Usually, the ones in the latter part of the list have just missed the mark, either with a topic that’s too far above it’s intended reader, with language that just doesn’t appeal to a reader (or parent), or a plot that doesn’t really exist.  But many of these books get published anyway, and often I wonder why and how.

But the celebrity author is a new  trend that really mystifies me.  Just because someone is famous and has a child does NOT mean they should write children’s books. Apparently, Hollywood doesn’t care.  And with an established name, publishing houses are probably quick to jump on the bandwagon.  Who wouldn’t buy a book written by Madonna or Tori Spelling?? I mean, come on….they’re famous!  And so, they get a book published, people buy it out of curiosity, and this sends the message that they should write more.  Why wouldn’t they, if the first book sold so well?

What are these books saying about the celebrities themselves?  Do they really have something to say that will make sense to the general masses?  Or are they so out of touch with the real world that they think their topics are really important?  You decide.  Here are a few books by celebrities that are stocked on bookstore shelves.

Kathie Lee Gifford’s Party Animals is a story about a goose who is planning hr own birthday party, but feels that all the other farm animals have too many flaws to be invited.  The Wise Old Owl convinces her to invite them all anyway, because it will just make for a better party.  I have to wonder if this is typical of planning a Hollywood party.  You might not want to invite Lindsay Lohan, but it sure would make the party more interesting.  Just a thought.

Presenting Tallulah by Tori Spelling is about a little girl who doesn’t fit in with the rest of her classmates.  They just don’t understand her diamond jewelry, expensive handbags or the limo that drops her off to school everyday.  But it all works out in the end when she finds a rich boy who loves her for her and gets a puppy.  Of course…this is absolutely something that every child can relate to.  Uh…right.

If Roast Beef Could Fly by Jay Leno is another of the picture books you can purchase, written by celebrities.  Apparently, celebrities think that kids will be really excited about seeing a cartoon version of a famous person in a book (even if that celebrity is on way too late for the picture book crowd to even know who he is).  This one is probably entirely for a fan of Jay Leno.  It’s about a boy who really, really wants a taste of his father’s roast beef, and instead, drops his comb into the mix and it melts, ruining the food in the process.  Supposed to be funny?  I’m not so sure.

You can see more celebrity picture books right here.  Decide for yourself if you’d purchase one.

Are picture books too easy?

An article appeared in the New York Times recently that claimed picture books were on their way out!  Apparently, some bookstores are finding picture books so unpopular that they end up sending many of the copies unsold back to the publisher, when just a few years back, they were flying off the shelves.  The culprit?  PARENTS.  Yes, I said it….parents.


It seems that these days many parents are so worried that their young children are going to be left behind that they are forgoing picture books for chapter books, even if their children are not strong readers. Books with pictures are apparently not challenging enough for young readers (namely, kindergarten aged children), and many parents have stopped purchasing them altogether.  Accelerated learning is the culprit and many parents are following along.

But what if kids actually LIKE picture books?  Trust me, they do.  They love picture books, even kids who have gone well past the stage.  Just as Harry Potter changed the way parents see juvenile fiction (Rowling did not write these books specifically with kids in mind, but rather with the fact that their parents are reading the books to the kids, I think)….many newer picture books are smart and funny and appealing to all ages (think, Scaredy Squirrel, Chester and the like).

Can we really blame the parents though?  They are under a lot of pressure to keep up with the Joneses, even if it’s for the wrong reasons. If given a choice, children will read what they like, whether it is a picture book or a chapter book, and trying to make your child read something, ANYTHING, is one of the most sure-fire ways to get them to immediately STOP reading. Try it.  Pick something for your child or grandchild to read, just because you think it will be good for them, especially if it is way above their heads.  They will promptly put it down and protest the next time you ask them to pick up a book, even if they once enjoyed it.

You can read more from the NY Times article right here.

So whether you have a little one or not, encourage those you know to pick up a picture book (in fact, pick up lots of picture books), look at the art, read the words on the page and talk about how funny or sad or scary the story was. You’ll develop a reader faster this way than any other, I guarantee it!

Write something funny

chesters-back

If you are thinking about writing a children’s picture book,  my advice would be to write something funny.  Why?  The awards are the proof.

We have been busy with the Forest of Reading program and after talking with a lot of children about the books that they thought were the best (and eventually voted for), the resounding idea is that they want to read something funny.  I can’t tell you how many great stories that I read each week, either as I catalog or for my storytime, and nine times out of ten, the books that have the kids giggling are the ones that they want to take home and read again.

chester

Canadian writer Melanie Watt (and a long-time favourite of mine), just won the Blue Spruce prize in the Forest of Reading program 2009 for her book called Chester, about a crazy cat who takes over the writing of the book by doodling his own artwork and text over the original using a red marker.  And today, it was announced that Watt also recently won the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Award 2009 for her sequal to Chester called Chester’s Back!  She also previously won for her funny book  Scaredy Squirrel.

scaredyWhat makes funny books so important to children and why should you write something funny if you are an author?  Of course, the monetary rewards are nice, but this generation of children is used to dynamic colours, instant gratification and fun.  Gone are the days of the sweetly artistic bunnies and stories with a theme or moral (some of the funniest books DO have great morals.  They are just hidden, somewhat.).   These days, our kids need to be amused and the funny picture books are where they start learning that.

Just an observation on a Friday morning.