October 2007

Arrow to the SunJust today I saw a mention of a blog/resource that’s worth a look – Debbie Reese’s American Indians in Children’s Literature. Reese teaches in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s American Indian Studies Program, and teachers and librarians can thank her for sharing a Native American perspective on a topic that many of us in the field can find confusing.

For example, I’ve over the years used a lot of Native American stories, adapting them for storytelling and puppet shows. Reese feels that a lot of the Native culture of specific Indian nations gets lost when artists and writers change stories to satisfy their artistic styles. “We’re all products of a society that romanticizes American Indians,” she says. (An example of a book she finds problems with is Gerald McDermott’s Arrow to the Sun – see the picture.)

I know that some of the things she brings up prick the consciences of those who aren’t Native Americans but still want to use materials on American Indian cultures in our classrooms and libraries. But she gets us thinking about them, and maybe taking another look at the stories and nonfiction materials we’re using. And that’s good.


Last Supper imageA 16-billion-pixel image of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” has just gone online, giving us a look at the kinds of Web wonders we can expect to see, and for students to access, over the next few years.

The original painting, on the wall of Milan’s Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, is slowly peeling away and vanishing, and this Web site, provided by a company called Haltadefinizione, allows visitors to zoom in and get a view of the painting so close that it appears only inches away. The BBC reports that over 350,000 people view the painting each year, and now people who can’t get to Italy can see it, too. Only now that broadband has become near-universal are most personal, library, and school PCs able to handle these incredible downloads in a reasonable amount of time.

Unfortunately, the image is “watermarked” with an “H9” (you can see it in the picture) that slightly spoils the image, and points up what happens when a company claims intellectual property rights to a scan. We can only hope that children of the future won’t need to get too accustomed to seeing “watermarks” like these on all the images of great works of art they’ll experience online.

ADDENDUM: 10/29, 11:23 a.m. ET: Oops. Well, I just checked, and the picture seems to have gone offline. I hope it’s back up soon, because it’s really worthwhile to see this masterpiece in detail.

LATER: Hooray – the site’s back up.

Get ready to read! bookIn this unfortunate educational age, in which the federal No Child Left Behind Law holds sway over our schools, we’ve seen a big push for young children to read at the age of 5 or even earlier. That first big standardized reading test that comes in the third grade scares every elementary principal nationwide, and the message goes down the line to the earlier grades and even the preschools: start drilling those kids in the two important testing subjects – math and reading.

A new study from the Center on Education Policy reports that 44 percent of 350 school districts surveyed admit reducing the time they spend on subjects and activities outside of elementary math and reading (i.e., things such as art, music, and even social studies). Anecdotal information from many teachers in many districts implies that an even greater number of schools are teaching specifically to the statewide test and sacrificing drawing, singing, and everything else that’s not numbers or printed language. This means that public libraries should take the opportunity to step up and present programs that share things like songs, chants, and storytelling with kids.

Redleaf, a publisher specializing in works about the education of young children, has a series of Guides for Parents that are designed to help parents of young children understand best practices for their education. I want to share a quote from Get Ready to Read! by Sally Moomaw, Brenda Hieronymus, and Yvonne Pearson:

Testing has become a pronounced part of the educational environment, and some elementary schools and even preschools teach lessons specifically to help children pass a test. This generally unhelpful practice is especially so in preschool. Preschools or child care centers may drill children over and over again in phonemes – the discrete sounds that make up a word. They may emphasize learning one letter per week, one at a time, isolated from a letter’s meaning within a word or situation. They may use worksheets, such as tracing letters, to teach writing. But, because their brains aren’t ready to process information on this level, this kind of teaching is generally a waste of time for preschool children.

I think we need more books like this one, and I recommend it for any library’s collection of books for parents.

Early childhood and librariesThe other day I gave a talk on how to choose and share books with young children in ways that will make books appealing to kids. I present it several times a year to various groups of parents. This time it was for one of my favorite kinds of audiences – Head Start parents. Here in New York City, a lot of HS parents are immigrants, and I’ve always felt that once they hear what to do, so many of these parents will grab on to the how-to aspect of early literacy, and they’ll run with it.

These are parents who want their kids to succeed. When I hand out booklists, brochures, and anything else I can find to give them some direction, they take them all and ask if they can give the extras to their friends.

I was looking for materials I could share, and as I always do, I did a Google search for early-literacy material I could steal ideas from. Here are two pages that any librarian who looks for ideas and suggestions about young children and early literacy might want to visit:

The Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library has a nice page on its Library Foundation’s site called “Early Childhood Literacy: Fostering the Fundamentals.” It’s a great message to steal when your library might be looking for a way of expressing to any power-brokers in your community why the library’s role in early literacy is so important. One paragraph says:

According to Marilyn Jaeger Adams, author of Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print, the typical middle-class child is read to 1,000 to 1,700 hours before entering first grade, whereas a child from a low-income family is read to an average of just 25 hours.

The page describes how the library, through its childcare outreach program, reaches many of these low-income children – those whose parents aren’t likely to be library users. It’s a worthwhile read, and an even better example of how a library can sell itself to the public.

The other site I wanted to mention is the Brooklyn Public Library’s First Five Years site, with entertaining booklists, suggestions and video clips that encourage parents to interact with their young children.

More early literacy sites coming soon….

Action Hero’s HandbookThere’s a good article, in yesterday’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer, about “boys’ lack of interest in reading,” by Paul Nyhan. Author Walter Dean Myers, who has written some of the truly great guy-oriented works of YA fiction, spoke at the University of Washington’s Information School on “Books & Boys – Making It Work.” Myers told the paper:

I would say there is a crisis…. Too many parents have walked away from this idea … that education is a family concept, is a community concept, is not simply something that schools do.” 

He also feels that the publishing industry is more oriented to girls than to boys, because girls buy (a lot) more books, most children’s and YA editors are female, and even that boys feel freer to ignore the things teachers tell them.

Whatever the reasons that more girls than boys are serious readers, the implicit message in articles such as these is that boys aren’t reading good books because they’re not reading fiction – that they’re not reading the kinds of books that win awards. I see lots of boys reading nonfiction for pleasure, but the education establishment doesn’t give the Eyewitness series’ Shark the same importance as a Newbery winner, even though the boy may feel differently about it.

During the many years I’ve worked in public libraries, I’ve often been confronted by a mother dragging in a reluctant son – often a fifth- or sixth-grader – to tell me, “I can’t get him to read anything.” 

As much as possible, I’d draw the boy away from Mom and ask him what he was interested in, and discover that he liked the kinds of things that were plentiful in nonfiction books. But the reason he was here with Mom was because he had to choose a fiction book for school. His teacher wanted him to read some good literature, the kind of book that wins prizes, while he really wanted a sports biography or a martial arts guide.

What’s absolutely true is that our video/Internet culture hardly ever shows boys and men reading books, and never reading fiction. That’s neither tough nor action-packed. But boys will read, and read happily, if you can get them together with the right books.

I’m glad to see that the writer asked Seattle Public Library YA librarian Hayden Bass for some recommendations, and one of them (although unfortunately the only nonfiction title) is one of my favorites: The Action Hero’s Handbook by David Borgenicht and Joe Borgenicht. This one is always great fun to booktalk because you can describe how to save the life of someone who’s flatlined, or pull up someone who’s hanging (the way they always do in movies) by one hand from the edge of a cliff.

Sometimes I think the world really needs an army of booktalkers with drama and/or storytelling backgrounds, who will walk into fifth- through ninth-grade classes nationwide and describe books that boys will love. I’ve done it, and I know it works. If we don’t stint on the nonfiction and the graphic novels, we’ll have the boys lining up.

Libraries and childrenThere’s an article by Scott Carlson in the new Chronicle of Higher Education (I’m not sure how long it’ll be available free) that has attracted some blog attention. It’s called (ahem) “Young Librarians, Talkin’ ‘Bout Their Generation.” We’ll pass over that title, but the article itself gives us some great insights from recently minted librarians about how they view the future of the profession. Because the article is college-&-university-library oriented, I’m going to surmise (and well, yeah, just plain guess at, too) what these under-40 librarians might have to say about our work with young people.

Nick Baker, 29, reference and Web-services librarian at Williams College, says that 3-D books aren’t going anywhere:

[The book] won’t go away for certain purposes, like sitting down to read a novel. It won’t be replaced in my lifetime, certainly — people enjoy books. But when you start to look at scholarly inquiry, people are relying less and less on them. The University of Michigan has a papyrus collection; the papyrus hasn’t gone away, but the ratio of papyrus to books is pretty low.

This is just what I see when kids come in with assignments. “Scholarly inquiry” for kids is doing homework or researching a personal interest, and I see them using 3-D nonfiction less and online sites and e-ncyclopedias more. But when they want to read Captain Underpants or Junie B. Jones, they don’t read books in those series online; they happily pack a book along with them.

Susan Gibbons, 37, associate dean for public services and collection development at the University of Rochester, was asked what librarians do well and what businesses [read: Google and its ilk] do better. She says:

Although we have been working on it for years with metasearch and federated search engines, we just have not gotten anywhere near to what Google can do…. So I think what would be in our best interests is to drop the fight, to let Google take over that, and instead to focus on the value add that only we can do, which is that in-depth research that we can do with our users.

Once again, Gibbons is thinking of a university environment. For us youth services folks, that means that the kids we work with don’t always understand the complex language they find online, and whether what they find on Web sites is appropriate to the questions their teacher has asked them. Someone needs to be there to refine a search and interpret what’s online, and help kids find the best materials for them. We’ve always been pretty good at that.

Brian Mathews, 32, user-experience librarian at the Georgia Institute of Technology (don’t you love that title?), was asked what [academic] libraries do well, and what they don’t do so well. He said:

One thing that we are doing right is a shift more toward a user-centered approach, where we are really trying to understand not just how we fit into something limited, like writing a term paper, but where we fit in the 24-hour life cycle of the students…. One thing I don’t think we do well is play nice with others, or really partner with other service units on campus.

What would that mean to those of us working with kids and teens? It’s pretty clear that our profession is paying a lot more attention to the – excuse me for using this anachronistic but appropriate word – “holistic” needs of the young people we serve. What do they need for school assignments, for their personal interests, for their well-being, for those things that don’t relate much to books, and for their parents and caregivers? What are the games they play, and what TV shows are they fans of? Technology still can’t relate, person to person, to a child or teen the way a real human being (i.e., us) can.

And as far as “playing nice with others,” lots of the libraries I know are doing a good job working with local schools, Head Starts, health clinics, and other community agencies. As we should be.

On Wednesday, the Washington Post published an article about the Next Big Thing in libraries – the World Digital Library. The WDL’s sponsors/creators, the biggest of whom are UNESCO and the Library of Congress, plan to open the site’s doors in late 2008 or early 2009.

The World Digital Library’s goal is to make available the world’s cultural works – not only books, but music, works of art, architectural designs, and more – free in seven languages (English, French, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, and Arabic). Librarian of Congress James Billington said that “its content is being designed particularly with children in mind.” Here’s the video, featuring a bunch of the proposed 2.0 bells and whistles:

The U.S. portion of the WDL already largely exists – it’s the well-known and heavily used Library of Congress American Memory project, with its wonderful collections of photos, artworks, interview transcripts, and sheet music. From the visuals presented on the WDL site – http://www.worlddigitallibrary.org – it appears that the design of American Memory will be the guide for materials from the great libraries of other countries that will be added.

Of course, one of the big problems of American Memory is that the portion of the LOC collection that can be posted online is largely of materials in the public domain (from 1922 and earlier), which limits its usefulness to students. It will be interesting to see how materials in the WDL will be limited by various countries’ intellectual property laws.

But I say that any time that more materials are published digitally and made freely available, that’s a good thing. And it’s great news for all the kids of the future and their as-yet-unassigned homework assignments.

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