Monthly Archives: May 2016

Diversity Window, Mirror, or Neither?

Recently someone told me they didn’t like the lack of mention of Africa in Double Trouble for Anna Hibiscus! by Atinuke, illustrated by Lauren Tobia.  Since the continent is mentioned in the opening (“Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa. Amazing Africa.”), my guess is the complaint was really about the lack of specification of a country. Yet, this is how (to the best of my knowledge) all of Atinuke’s Anna Hibiscus books begin. It is a storyteller’s trope, a purposeful and lyrical story introduction. Indeed, the author is a professional storyteller as well as someone with a similar background to Anna, a biracial individual who spent her early years in amazing Africa, more specifically Nigeria. I am a huge, huge fan of these books — they are full of simple yet rich stories of Anna’s life with her white Canadian mother and her black Nigerian father, mostly in their urban African home. While Nigeria isn’t specified in the books, the food, the experiences, and so forth are coming from Atinuke’s personal experience and thoughtfully and accurately visualized by white illustrator Tobias.

What I’ve been brooding about is why it would be necessary to identify the country in these books. Are they windows into a different culture, mirrors for children of that culture, or are they simply stories that happen to be set somewhere else? For me, the chapter books do indeed provide a delightful, authentic, and real view of one small piece of Africa — both windows and mirrors for young readers. Windows for those far from Nigeria, for whom this is a somewhat different way of living. I’ve enthusiastically recommended them for those looking for good books set in Africa. But they are also mirrors, both for children of Anna’s background as well as other children her age who are experiencing the same sorts of ups and downs of life that she is in different environments.

Earlier this year I was teaching my annual unit on the Transatlantic Slave Trade. I read aloud the initial chapters from the first Anna Hibiscus chapter book as well as some picture books by other authors set in present day Africa, wanting my students to have a sense of the continent today, not just historical in terms of our studies. However, Double Trouble for Anna Hibiscus!  wasn’t among them as I considered it not a book about Nigeria or Africa, but a book about a little girl coping with twin baby brothers. That the situation happens to take place in Africa, that it is resolved by extended family, is secondary. The pleasure is in the relatable experience of being a single older sister to some rambunctious baby twin brothers.

This has me thinking — when is a reading a window? When is it a mirror? When is it one or the other or both depending on the reader’s circumstances?



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Go On, Celeb — Write a Children’s Book!

Is there a celebrity (past or present) left who hasn’t or isn’t writing a children’s book because, as the latest (Simon Cowell) evidently feels, “…all children’s books are boring – at least the ones that he’s reading to his two-year-old.”?  I vaguely recall Madonna making a similar claim a few years ago.  Doing a bit of internet research I came across this entertaining quiz from, what else?, Entertainment Weekly.  Here’s another list.

I’m trying to think of my favorites in this oeuvre, either the most horrifying or those that are actually good. Of the later, I really liked B. J. Novak’s The Book With No Pictures. (ETA — just thought of an example of one that was really, really, REALLY bad — Tyra Bank’s Modelland.) Betsy Bird had a few thoughts about some adult writers turning their hand at writing for kids. Like them, but they aren’t really by and large the sort of media celebs Madonna, Cowell, or Novak are. So what about all of you? Any thoughts?



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The Ongoing German Fascination with American Indians

Yesterday Debbie Reese and I had an interesting twitter conversation about the odd American Indian obsession that so many German-speakers still seem to have. Debbie has now followed up with the blog post, “Stereotypes of native peoples, in children’s books, in Switzerland” and here is mine.

It fascinates me that the German writer Karl May and his legacy still have such a hold in German-speaking countries. While unfamiliar in the US, this prolific 19th century German writer wrote a series of adventure novels set in a mythical American West that he never visited. His popularity was vast in my parents’ German childhoods as is evident from these excerpts from my father’s memoir:

As I was so rotund and it suited my mother’s pacifism at the time, I was mortified when I was surprised with a Dr. Doolittle costume for my birthday and not the Indian outfit I so badly wanted to play with the kids who read Karl May….

I was encouraged to read the “good” literature in my parents vast library and kept away from “trash.” Instead of reading and acting out, like other kids, the highly popular fantasies of Karl May, I was directed to James Fenimore Cooper’s more edifying stories about American Indians.

While today we are likely to flinch at the idea of Dr. Dolittle and Fenimore Cooper’s works being worthy reading material (I’ve written about Dr. Dolittle and its like here), in 1931 Germany it was all about literary snobbery  — the racism and stereotyping in these books were not on my grandparents’ radar at that time.  And while Lofting and Cooper’s original works no longer have the clout they had in my parents’ childhood, Karl May endures. I well remember, while living in Germany in the mid 1960s, my best friend’s obsession with his books and how she dressed up as Winnetou for Fasching (the German Carnival).  And it still goes on. You can get a taste from these articles:

Curious to see what sort of recent books were coming out on the topic in Germany I did a search on the German Amazon site. Going in to seeing the variety of books on the topic in Germany is quite a wormhole and I learned that a new Winnetou movie is in the works. A little more poking around and I found this 2015 Hollywood Reporter article, “Germany Reviving “Winnetou” Westerns for TV” and this trailer. Seems Karl May love is loud and clear still in Germany. Will be curious if the commentary in Germany around this movie considers its problematic nature.



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National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Gene Luen Yang’s Challenge

I really like Gene Luen Yang‘s book challenge. He asks readers to step out of their comfort zones. It is about no-walls rather than walls-so-high-we-can’t-see-over-them. It is about opening and expanding world views rather than limiting oneself to one’s own. My students’ school year is now an intense dash-to-the-last-day, but I want to figure out a way to get them to do this. If not now, next fall for sure.



Gene asks on his blog that:

When you finish, take a photo of you and the book (or just the book if you’re shy) and post it on Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #ReadingWithoutWalls. You’ll inspire others to do the same!

If you are a teacher, librarian, or bookseller, you can challenge your students, patrons, and customers to read without walls, too! Check out what San Francisco’s Live Oak School did this past school year!

Read without walls and see what happens.  I bet it’ll be something amazing!

I agree!


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The Hallmark Great Stories Award

I would say there are never too many awards, especially those that honor children’s book creators. So here’s a nice, shiny new one (with not just a shiny medal, but some significant cash, and positioning of the winning title in stores):

KANSAS CITY, Mo., May 11, 2016 /PRNewswire/ — In keeping with its vision to create a more emotionally connected world, Hallmark Cards today introduces the Hallmark Great Stories Award, honoring new children’s picture books that celebrate family, friendship and community and that exhibit excellence in both writing and illustration. Nominations are being accepted now, and the winning book will be announced in March 2017.

“For more than 100 years, Hallmark has encouraged people to tell and share stories that celebrate the very best in the human heart and soul,” said Amy Winterscheidt, director and committee chair, Hallmark Great Stories Award. “Our goal with this award is to honor stories that will endure in the minds and hearts of readers … stories that become a valued, shared memory between people. We are interested in all kinds of stories but primarily are looking for themes of togetherness and community.”

Each nomination will be reviewed by a multi-disciplinary panel of judges made up of experts in the fields of children’s storytelling, literacy, child development and library science. Also, each year a senior Hallmark artist and writer will serve on the selection committee. For the inaugural year, judges include: Elizabeth (Betsy) Bird, Evanston Public Library, Evanston, Ill. and blogger at A Fuse #8 Production; Alfredo Lujan, Monte de Sol Charter School, Santa Fe, N.M.; Alan Bailey, associate professor,East Carolina University, Greenville, N.C.; Cheri Sterman, director of education, Crayola; Melvina Young, Hallmark senior writer; and Daniel Miyares, Hallmark senior artist.

Eligible picture books include those published by publishers in the United States between January 1 and December 31, 2016. Books must be entered into the competition by the publisher. Only finished picture books are eligible; self-published books are not eligible.

The winning picture book’s author and illustrator each will receive a special award medal and $5,000. If the author and illustrator is the same individual, the cash prize is $10,000. In addition to traditional distribution, the winning picture book will be available in Hallmark Gold Crown® stores nationwide.

Publishers should visit to learn more or to submit a nomination.

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Philip Pullman’s Ponytail

It is “moving towards the place where I think the end will be. I’ll be so glad to reach it so I can cut my hair.” He has promised not to do so until the book is done. “When I cut my ponytail off I shall put it in a zip-lock bag and give it to the Bodleian,” he says with a smile. In a tone of mock self-importance, he adds: “Present it to the nation.”

“The book is getting longer. But it is filling up with things that are all germane to what the story is becoming. Some of the themes I turned up in the course of His Dark Materials are going to be central to it.” One of these is to do with William Blake’s ideas about how we see things, as expressed in a little poem he wrote in a letter to a friend. Pullman wants to dramatise Blake’s idea that we should have twofold vision – and see with feeling and understanding, rather than a reductionist single vision, which is interested only in facts.

Tantalizing tease from Philip Pullman about The Book of Dust in this interview mostly about his terrific-sounding graphic novel, The Adventures of John Blake, out in the UK in May 2017.


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Winner of Hans Christian Andersen Award, Cao Wenxuan, in NYTimes

“The children went to school as usual, and read their books as usual, but the beautiful rise and fall of their voices as they read out loud got weaker and weaker until they were no longer capable of reading aloud,” reads one passage in the English translation by Helen Wang. “People were worried. They were sweating with anxiety. When the hunger was at its worst, they thought about gnawing on stones.”

That’s from Bronze and Sunflower, a venerated work of Chinese children’s literature by the newest Hans Christian Andersen award winner,  Cao Wenxuan, in Amy Qin’s New York Times piece today, “Little Sugarcoating in Cao Wenxuan’s Children’s Books“.  I’m really looking forward to seeing Candlewick’s US edition of this book, due out early next year. More about him and the book here.

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I Get to Select Someone Awesome

I don’t think I’ve mentioned here yet that I’m a member of the 2018 Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Committee. I was surprised and delighted when invited as I had thought ALA committees like this were out of bounds for me given my hope to have another book under contract one of these days. But there is no problem with this committee as far as that goes and so I’m on it! I’m very excited to be working with my fellow committee members: chair Betsy Bird, Timothy Capehart, Wendy Lukehart, and Sharon McKellar. Quite a group, right?

Our specific charge:

To choose annually an individual of distinction who shall prepare and present a paper which shall be a significant contribution to the field of children’s literature; to select a host institution and make appropriate arrangements for the presentation of the lecture; to arrange for publication of lecture in children and libraries.

I’ve been trying to think far and wide for potential speakers: people from all aspects of this world (creators, scholars, editors, and others), within and beyond our shores. If you have a suggestion go here to submit your nomination by June 20th. Our choice will be announced at Midwinter in January and then will come our second task — selecting the location for the speech.


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