Children's Book Columns

12/02/2010 - 11:02am

          This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the death of Mark Twain. Although most of his books were written for adults, children and teens quickly found them, especially “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” 

          The library owns dozens of editions of this title alone. In e-book format, in paperback, in a scholarly edition from the Oxford University Press, in a children’s edition illustrated by Fredericksburg’s own Troy Howell – young readers have plenty to choose from. Tom’s scheme to get his friends to whitewash the fence for him, his infatuation with Becky Thatcher, his appearance with Huck and Joe at their own funeral – every young reader should have the chance to know and enjoy these stories. 
 
          Twain was not only a good writer, he was himself a lively character who caught the imagination of many other writers. Barbara Kerley’s new book, “The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy),” tells his story in the voice of his thirteen-year-old daughter. 
 
11/18/2010 - 3:11pm

Was it only twelve short years ago that “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” changed the children’s book world forever? This Friday’s release of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” the first installment of the last Harry Potter film, brings it all back.

I can still remember eagerly reading an advance copy of the first book and falling head over heels into the world of Hogwarts. J. K. Rowling used familiar elements – a school setting, an orphan, wise teachers, magic – in a fresh story that was notable for its wild invention. Bertie Botts’ Every Flavor Beans, portraits that came to life, the sorting hat, Muggles: these clever new creations were what readers noticed first. It was only with the unfolding of succeeding books that Rowling’s masterful plotting became apparent. Like many others, I devoured the final book over the course of a weekend, tearing up in places and turning the last page with mingled satisfaction and regret.
 
The effect on young readers was the real phenomenon. Kids who might once have eyed thick books with trepidation now proudly announced that they’d read a whole Harry Potter book in one sitting! They read the books over and over, sharing jokes and sayings from the books with their friends. It’s not too much to state that J.K. Rowling created a new generation of fantasy readers.
 
10/26/2010 - 3:30am

 Dave Hackenberg is not your average backyard beekeeper. He and his son run a business managing three thousand hives, moving them around the country in a tractor trailer to pollinate blueberries, almonds, and pumpkins from California to Maine. But one day several years ago, Dave opened a hive in Florida and was faced with a mystery: where were the bees?

What he found that day astonished him, as Loree Griffin Burns reports in “The Hive Detectives, Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe.”  Not only were the twenty million bees in his four hundred hives gone without a trace, but there was no sign of any other insects, either. Usually an abandoned hive is crawling with honey robbers, but not this time. “It was as if something was in the hives, something so awful that the bees who lived there were forced to leave, something so sinister that other insects refused to enter, even for free honey.”
10/20/2010 - 3:22pm

A recently published New York Times article, “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children,” is causing an uproar in the children’s book world.  According to reporter Julie Bosman, booksellers are selling fewer picture books than ever, and not just because of the economic downturn. “Parents have begun pressing their kindergartners and first graders to leave the picture book behind and move on to more text-heavy chapter books,” she reports. One bookseller noted that parents are now buying their four-year-olds “Stuart Little” while classic picture books languish on the shelf. 

Some of this could be linked to standardized testing, but it may also be due to the pressure parents feel to accelerate their children’s learning at an ever faster rate.
 
Those of us who love picture books lament this trend. Even if your four-year-old is enjoying “Stuart Little,” what is he missing by jumping to chapter books three or four years ahead of schedule? What great picture books are going unread?  
10/14/2010 - 11:07am
          Two new novels for middle grade readers couldn’t be more different except for one thing: they both concern eleven-year-old girls who have more to offer than first meets the eye.
 
          In Jennifer Holm’s “Turtle in Paradise,” everyone is doing their best to scrape by. It’s 1935, the midst of the Depression, and Turtle’s flighty mother finally has a job as a housekeeper. But her mother’s new boss doesn’t like kids, and her new boyfriend Archie has no room for her, so Turtle is sent far away to Key West, Florida, where her mother’s sister lives.
 
There this tough, sharp-tongued girl finds a whole new world that’s entirely different from the New Jersey shore she knows. Turtle describes Key West as looking “like a broken chair that’s been left out in the sun to rot.” But it’s also green, covered with vines, brightly colored flowers and palm trees. All the kids go barefoot, most of them are related to her, and news of her arrival is soon all over the island thanks to the “Conch Telegraph.” 
09/23/2010 - 2:07pm

          Before you take your children to pick pumpkins or enjoy a hayride this fall, be sure to check out picture books showcasing farm life.

          Elisha Cooper’s “Farm” focuses on the farm family as much as on their daily work.   The two farmers and their two children plus a house, two barns, four silos and lots more make up a farm where feed corn is the main crop.
Tractors rumble back and forth on the bare dirt in early spring, March brings mud, and later the children plant tomatoes and carrots. The children have other chores, too, of course: feeding the cattle (the girl) and the chickens (the boy). Summer brings heat, and fall brings the harvest, with the farmer in his combine checking the corn’s yield on his computer and talking with other farmers on his cell phone. 
 
09/16/2010 - 3:40pm

    It’s no fair, Isabel complains, that the porcupines don’t get to have balloons at their class’s Graduation Day, as the raccoons, possums and other animals do.  But balloons are not safe around the porcupines’ prickly quills, Isabel’s porcupine teacher gently explains.  The porcupines will get bookmarks instead.


    Isabel and her friend Walter are not happy.  “I heard that after a few days a balloon floats halfway between the ceiling and the floor…it just hangs there like a ghost,” Walter says longingly. So Isabel makes a plan to do something about it in Deborah Underwood’s new picture book, “A Balloon for Isabel.”    

09/14/2010 - 3:14pm

    Duncan and Samantha, our newest library babies, are just a few months old, but they’re not too young for books.  Board books, made of heavy cardboard with just a few words on each page, fit babies’ interests and attention spans perfectly.  They are just the right size for lap sharing, and their sturdy construction means you can safely prop them up next to a baby who’s too little to hold them but big enough to pick up her head and enjoy the pictures.


    My favorite board book to give to babies is Tana Hoban’s “Black & White.”  First published as two separate board books, “Black on White” and “White on Black,” the new edition includes both books in an unfolding accordion-style format, just right for standing up in the crib of a curious infant.

09/01/2010 - 5:27pm

      What have the thousands of kids in our summer reading club been reading all summer long? A quick look at our Book Match service, which connects readers with book recommendations via email, shows that series books continue to be popular.  (Find Book Match here.)

          Anna-Marie asked for more American Girl History Mysteries like “Ghost Light on Graveyard Shoal” by Elizabeth McDavid Jones because “I liked the pirates and the skull on the island. I liked trying to solve the mystery along with the characters.” We suggested another in the series, “The Smuggler’s Treasure” by Sarah Masters Buckey. Eleven-year-old Elisabet travels to New Orleans in 1812, determined to find a smuggler's treasure to ransom her father, imprisoned by the British.
 
08/18/2010 - 4:35pm

 A friend witnessed the future of the book on the Metro the other day. A mother and daughter were sitting side by side, reading. Nothing unusual there – but my friend was amused to see that the mother was reading a book on her Kindle, the e-book reader from Amazon, while the daughter was listening to “Black Beauty” on her MP3 player. At one point, the girl’s face crumpled and tears sprang to her eyes as she listened, prompting the mother to reach out and pat her daughter’s hand. Clearly, “Black Beauty” can still reduce readers – and listeners – to tears, whether they are reading a physical book or listening to a digital audio edition.

Digital books are much in the news these days, with some pundits predicting that the ink-and-paper book is on its way out. Bookseller Andy Ross says, “There is going to be a tipping point where e-books become the dominant medium, thus ending 500 years of the Gutenberg Age." Nicholas Negroponte of MIT’s Media Lab proclaimed at a recent technology conference that “It’s happening. It’s not happening in 10 years. It’s happening in 5 years.”
 

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