September 2007

Ask Olivia graphicIt’s always gotta be embarrassing not to know about something cool that’s been around for years. So to help diminish my embarrassment, I will pass this on to you as if I know all about it. Which I don’t, which is even more embarrassing, since I don’t read the language.

There’s a fascinating Danish online library reference service for young people named “Ask Olivia.” Go to this link and you will meet the Flash-animated Olivia, who’s supposed to be 14 years old, and you can ask her questions via chat. (Of course, everything’s in Danish, so I have no idea what anyone’s asking or answering.)

When Olivia’s answers come back, the answers actually come from a rotating team of librarians from several libraries in southern Denmark. This site has been around for at least three years, and there are also other resources on Olivia’s site, several of which made no sense to me at all since I know no Danish.

But everything sure looks cool. Also, take a look at another Danish library-related site called “DotBot.” I wonder what it would be like if American public library children’s services sites looked and behaved the way these two do.


Cover of “Eightball #22″Here’s an interesting story – “Graphic novels have more kids reading, but questions arise” by Rachael Scarborough King – from the New Haven Register. A teacher at a New Haven high school gave a graphic novel, Daniel Clowes’s Eightball #22 (pictured here), to a freshman girl student as a makeup summer reading assignment, but her parents feel that it’s inappropriate for her to be reading it because of some adult imagery. I haven’t read this graphic novel, so I can’t comment on that.

But the author makes a point in the story that I do want to mention – that still, in 2007, there are adults who don’t know exactly what graphic novels are, or who are disturbed by them and feel that they’re not appropriate for young people. I’ve spoken to a number of educationally conservative folks over the years – several of them librarians – who have been unhappy about the enthusiastic response graphic novels have received from the library community. One librarian recently said sadly to me that the material that we gave kids in school, like graphic novels and Web sites, continued getting more and more “dumbed down.” Of course kids didn’t want to work hard – that’s the way most kids are, this librarian said – but with graphic novels, teachers and publishers seemed happy to oblige them.

I’m a graphic novel fan, though. The article also mentions two graphic novels that were temporarily removed from a Missouri public library, and one of them – Blankets by Craig Thompson – is, I feel, one of the best YA novels ever published, prose or graphic, for its depiction of the clash between sexuality and religion in a teenage relationship.

I know that fads in reading matter change, and honestly, I’m waiting for the game/novels of the future, which will let their players/readers influence their story arc. Remember “Choose Your Own Adventure” paperbacks? Well, imagine them more sophisticated graphically than an Xbox game, with controllers and plot elements.

Cover of “Saffy’s Angel”For decades I’ve been following the differences between boys and girls and their reading habits. Researchers know, of course, that girls develop language skills a lot earlier than boys do. But let’s suppose that a group of boys and a group of girls are both exposed to plenty of language, and have lots of books read to them, until they’re seven or so.

Even then, once boys hit second or third grade, at about the age many adults expect them to start reading on their own, their interest in reading fiction drops to the floor – maybe even through the floor. Most will continue being fascinated with nonfiction topics – books on cars, planes, sports, and the more senational aspects of nature, such as crocodiles and tsunamis. Girls continue to read fiction and, to some extent, biographies and history. For the most part (with plenty of exceptions for individual kids), boys like stuff, especially stuff that makes noise, bites you, and/or blows up, and girls enjoy all the mysteries and complexities of human relationships.

I maybe read ten or so novels between the third and sixth grades, but I remember checking out and reading hundreds of nonfiction books. That’s what I see boys do today, although they’ll prefer to look at the Internet if they can. Girls still read fiction (along with the Internet).

All of this is prelude to an article in the UK’s Times Online called “How judging a book by its ‘girlie’ cover is putting boys off reading.” The cover of the British edition of Hilary McKay’s Saffy’s Angel is criticized there for being too much targeted at girls (which of course it is – just look at it). As librarians, we know that the covers can make or break a book. But I still don’t think the covers have all that much to do with boys not voluntarily picking up fiction books, folks. As the Scholastic publisher in the article admits, they know who buys certain kinds of books – fiction + human relationships = way girls – and that’s who they market to. The pink cover is icing on the cake for their target audience.

Just as long as they keep also publishing those other books with suits of armor and erupting volcanoes on the covers…

MusicHere’s another of my favorite ukulele songs – Aiken Drum. I tell adults that this helps build pre-literacy skills because it’s a thinking song. The preschoolers I sing this song with need to think of and shout out a) some kind of food that Aiken Drum’s body parts can be made of, and b) whether that food is fun and shaped appropriately. When I ask them what kind of food Aiken Drum’s legs are made of, it’s a lot more fun to have his legs be bananas than, say, beets. When you sing this, encourage the kids to think of whether they’d rather have, for example, their feet made of potatoes or potato chips (where they’d go “crunch, crunch” whenever they’d walk). And what if your feet were made of Twinkies? Eww. Your shoes would leak filling.

I hope the instructions for this song are clear, since I am not telling you what Aiken Drum’s arms and legs are made of – you need to either ask the kids or come up with a fun food yourself. Plus – for the first time I’m actually including the diagram of the appropriate uke chords. I’ll be adding these diagrams to all the ukulele songs I’ll post from now on. Go now, strum, and sing.

Early childhood and librariesHere’s a really worthwhile New York Times article about the Reggio Emilia movement that I recommend to anyone working with young children. It’s called “The Garlanded Classroom,” by Graham Bowley. Reggio Emilia is an Italian town near Bologna with public schools that encourage young children to create a lot of their own curriculum, much of it centered on art projects that are creative and “different.” The children work together on some sizeable tasks. Here’s a quote from the story:

Reggio classrooms are packed with a profusion of innovative materials for children to work with, such as pebbles, dried orange peel, driftwood, tangles of wire and tin cans. “The environment as the third teacher,” is a favorite Reggio phrase.

Several New York City schools, as well as schools in other states, have latched on to the Reggio Emilia movement to encourage their students to play an active role in their education. Others – of course you know who they are, all the folks caught in the vise of No Child Left Behind – are saying that kids who learn with the Reggio Emilia worldview aren’t going to obtain the academic skills they’ll need to pass standardized tests.

There are some good ideas in the Reggio Emilia style of education that librarians can use, particularly (of course) in craft programs. One extremely cool idea I saw recently, offered in a program in the library from the Children’s Museum of Art here in Manhattan, is to take a five-foot-long sheet of contact paper, attach it to the floor the wrong way (sticky side up) with duct tape, and give young children (toddlers, in this case) a pile of all kinds of scraps – pieces of construction paper, bits of glitter, yarn, and whatever else is around – and let them create a cooperative mural, which is then hung on the library wall. Watching the creation – and of course, given that this is a group of toddlers, the word “cooperative” doesn’t exactly apply – is a lot more fun than watching the kids with an individual coloring sheet each and crayons.

Two books for adults about Reggio Emilia that are often in demand here at the Early Childhood Center at the New York Public Library are:

The Hundred Languages of Children: the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education, edited by Carolyn Edwards, Lella Gandini, and George Forman, and Cadwell, Louise Boyd. Bringing Reggio Emilia Home: an innovative approach to early childhood education.

technologyThis morning I attended a fascinating talk at New York Public Library’s Humanities and Social Science Library (yes, the library with the lions) by Michael Stephens, an instructor at Dominican University’s Graduate School of Library & Information Science. His message was “The Hyperlinked Library,” and it sat firmly in the Library 2.0 chair. It was time for libraries to embrace their users, their needs, and their experiences now that we’re in a time in which everyone can generate online content, he said. Stephens barely mentioned children’s services, but there was plenty for us who do work with kids, parents, and teachers to think about.

What makes a “Librarian 2.0,” he asked? We need to:


-Let go of control, and

-Be visible

We should be scanning the horizon for trends and wondering what our users will be asking for next. We need to be where the users are, not necessarily only behind our own desks and only in our own buildings. I know that we librarians often like to chuckle among ourselves about how demanding our users can be and how they ask for things we don’t provide, but Stephens quoted Karen G. Schneider, who once said, “The user is not broken.”

Every library should assemble an “emerging technologies group” and invite people of all levels in the staff to participate. Every library should be training everyone on its staff in all the technologies the library’s currently using. Libraries, he said, should be open, decentralized, and participatory.

I’ve heard most of what Stephens said before from other people who also care about the future of libraries, but it’s good to be reminded. Our role as guides to the best and most suitable information will never change, but many of the tools we use in that role are shifting around constantly. (Case in point: remember the static Web of 1997?) People with a lot of time invested in their careers often grow fearful of change, and need to be reminded that change will always be with us.

booksThis story has appeared twice in the news media recently – someone decides that a book should not be in a young people’s library collection, so they check it out and pay for it rather than return it. In other words, instant censorship.

In the first case, a woman, JoAn Karkos, checked the -notorious- sex education book It’s Perfectly Normal out of the Lewiston and Auburn, ME Public Libraries in August, and sent the librarians a check for $20.95 – the retail price of the book – for each one along with a letter saying,

“Since I have been sufficiently horrified of the illustrations and the sexually graphic, amoral abnormal contents, I will not be returning the books.”

Rick Speer, Lewiston Public Library’s director, returned the check along with a request-for-reconsideration form and he says he may work with police to have LPL’s copy returned. “It is clearly theft,” he told the reporter.

In the other case, reported in American Libraries Online, a sophomore in a Brookwood, AL high school checked out Ellen Wittinger’s Sandpiper from the school library for a book report. Her grandmother, Pam Pennington, looked it over and was incensed. She filed a complaint with the school and the girl has told the librarian she will not return the book because it goes into too much sexual detail for a high school student to read.

I’ve heard of many other cases of outraged library users deciding not to return books they consider not suitable for children. I saw it happen myself years ago with a copy of Leslea Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies. (The library I worked for at the time simply ordered another copy.) I know that in a good number of these incidents, the user keeping the book is a member of a conservative religious group who knows all about how to fill out a request-for-reconsideration form, but who believes that librarians are biased against them and will do whatever they can to keep that book on the shelf.

By stealing the book and then paying for it, I’m guessing that the user hopes it will be too much trouble for the librarians to replace the book. I hope that’s not going to happen in either of these two cases, and I admire LPL’s Rick Speer for treating the loss of It’s Perfectly Normal as what it is – perfectly normal book theft.

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