November 2007


Baltimore skylineAn editorial published in the Baltimore Sun on Wednesday calls the city’s school libraries “a disgrace.” Its author, Michael Corbin, who teaches at the Academy for College and Career Exploration – a Baltimore public high school that has no library or librarian (as, ironically, many of the special “academies” in urban school systems do not) – points to the NEA’s new study “To Read or Not to Read.”

The NEA study demonstrates that, particularly at the high school level, students are reading fewer books that ever. Baltimore’s schools, cash-strapped in the way big urban school systems always are, has avoided its commitment to provide good school libraries, says Corbin:

Only 139 of the city’s more than 190 schools report having a library, and many of these libraries are inadequate. The Maryland State Department of Education’s report “Facts About Maryland’s School Library Media Programs 2005-2006” notes that of schools that reported having libraries, only 3.6 percent of city schools met state collection-size standards and only 29.9 percent met state staffing standards.

Most Americans hate paying taxes (duh), and the No Child Left Behind law does not put any pressure on schools to provide cash for libraries that will really make a difference to children – to urban children in particular – and so limited funding is used in the areas where NCLB exerts the greatest pressure, such as tutoring underachieving kids in those all-important test subjects. Libraries? Oh, we’ll get to them one day.

I’m encouraged, though, to see the Sun running an article about the need for better libraries – a topic the media in most places typically cruises right past.

1925 Children’s Book Week posterChildren’s Book Week has become a long-standing tradition in many libraries every November. Each week before Thanksgiving, librarians have for decades displayed, and persuaded kids to look over, books new and old, reminding them about all the great titles they haven’t read during the past year. (In 2007, the Children’s Book Week dates were November 12 – 18.) The poster you see here, from Jon O. Brubaker, comes from the 1925 Children’s Book Week.

Now that will change. Michelle Bayuk, the marketing director for the Children’s Book Council (CBC), a professional association of people in the children’s book trade that sponsors CBW, has announced that the week will be moving halfway around the calendar, from mid-November to May 12 – 18 in 2008 as part of an effort to tie it to the CBC’s “Children’s Choices” lists, a cooperative project with the International Reading Association.

Here’s how Michelle describes how the new process will work:

… 10,000 children in five teams from around the US spend months reading and evaluating books submitted by all publishers. They look at 500-700 titles and the favorite 100 make the final list, approximately 33 titles in each of three grade categories: K-2, 3-4, and 5-6. The favorites are presented in alphabetical order, but we’ve always known the ranking of each title relative to the overall list. In March and April 2008, we will present the top five books published in 2007 in each of these categories for nation-wide vote. Kids can vote electronically online or in their school, library, or bookstore via paper ballot. The winner in each category will be named at a Gala Awards dinner during Children’s Book Week 2008 in New York City.

When I heard this news, I immediately thought about all the statewide and regional awards, typically sponsored by a state’s library association or school media association, in which children vote in the winter or spring on a list of books (usually from two years before, so they’ll be available in paperback) and announce the winners in several age groups. Wouldn’t this new award put the English- and reading-teacher-focused IRA into conflict with the librarians? Michelle told me:

It’s my understanding that most of the programs are finished with their voting process by March, so we don’t think there will be much overlap. Also, not every state (nor every school in every state) participates in a state level program. We won’t be requiring registration or minimum participation levels, so every group can participate at their own level. A point worth mentioning is that unlike the state level programs, our short lists are developed by kids as well, so there is an extra level of interest and excitement for the kids.

There’s been quite the discussion about the change on the ALSC-L discussion group, and several librarians are regretting the move. It does put CBW awfully close to mid-April’s National Library Week, and it will now arrive in the midst of the crazy month of May, in which just about every children’s services librarian I know is running around to schools, promoting summer reading.

I’ll be interested to see how the change affects the celebrating of Children’s Book Week in libraries. And, hey, if we want to, we can always make up our own reason to put up a big display of hot children’s books just before Thanksgiving. “Be thankful for all these great books!” Or something like that.

Fisher-Price Easy Link Internet Launch PadEvery holiday season, more and more electronic beeps, bells, and whistles are marketed to the youngest children. I cringed and grimaced (but nodded, too) as I read a story in the New York Times this morning, “For Toddlers, Toy of Choice Is a High-Tech Device” by Matt Richtel and Brad Stone.

Among this new generation of tech toys is Fisher-Price’s Easy Link Internet Launch Pad (pictured). Designed for preschoolers, it plugs into the family PC (Windows only) via a USB cable. It gives young kids who aren’t yet reading or using a keyboard access to a very limited number of online games, while forbidding them access to Mom and Dad’s hard drive.

Toddlers and preschoolers catch on pretty quickly that whatever it is that parents, caregivers, and older siblings do at the PC must be important – after all, those grownups just sit there, completely focused on that screen instead of paying attention to them – and so they want to do it too. And they know they don’t want a “play” cellphone or laptop, parents and toy manufacturers tell us; they want one that actually works. The Times story says:

If you give kids an old toy camera, they look at you like you’re crazy,” said Reyne Rice, a toy trends specialist for the Toy Industry Association. Children “are role-playing what they see in society,” she added.

That seems to be the case even when youngsters are not old enough to have any clue how to use actual gadgets.

Yunice Kotake, of San Bruno, Calif., recently purchased a Fisher-Price Knows Your Name Dora Cell Phone for her twin year-old daughters. But a few days later, she returned the play phone to a local Toys “R” Us, after she found that the girls seemed to prefer their parents’ actual phones.

But isn’t this excessive fixation on technology bad for a young child’s development? It probably is; the story quotes pediatrician Donald L. Shifrin of Seattle, who says that “tech toys cannot replace imaginative play, where children create rich narratives and interact with peers or parents.”

In libraries, especially libraries that make toys available either in the children’s area or for circulation, we need to be doing some serious thinking about our role in the world of tech toys. More and more of them will appear in the years to come, and they change so quickly that we shudder at the notion that we could possibly keep up with the demand for them, once we let them into the children’s area of the library.

How should we handle these new tech toys? It might not be a bad idea to let some of it into the building and see how it works with our young users; but we should never let go of the thing we do best – demonstrating the power and charm of the book, the song, the rhyme, and the story.

For these very young children, it’s important that they see that the adults in their lives find books at least as important as their cellphones or their laptops. For a great many adults, that’s a big demand; but preschoolers will always look first at what their elders are doing and take their cues from them.

Little starsTime for one of my favorite storytime songs – or groups of songs, really – The “Twinkle, Twinkle” medley. It’s actually three songs, all of which have the same tune and exactly the same chords. You can sing them individually, or all together, or in any combination that strikes your fancy: “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “ABC,” and “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep.”

All three of these songs use those same old C, F, and G7 chords you should know well by now, just to keep things nice and simple. I hope that you enjoy singing all three of them with the ukulele as much as I do.

I Will Never Not Ever Eat a TomatoHere’s something relieving that I’d like to pass along from Borders bookstores’ corporate HQ. It should ease your mind as we pass into the holiday season. With all the anxieties that parents, grandparents, and other gift-giving adults might be facing over toys shipped over here from China, and then recalled because of lead paint, Borders’ CEO (in a quote I hope you find as amusing as I do – it rather sounds as if he’s dissing the parental anxiety, don’t you think?) wants to remind us that books are quintessentially safe gifts:

This safety factor is a big deal with parents. Books are safe,” Borders Group CEO George Jones said Wednesday during a conference call with analysts. “The things we sell still make very good and very affordable gifts.”

Are books truly safe? I’m sure that Mr. Jones has never seen a toddler smack another toddler over the head with a copy of I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato, the way I have. There may also be a few librarians who have dealt with a big-time book challenge – and smiled, and done their best to talk things over diplomatically with an outraged parent – that might disagree.

Einstein Never Used Flash Cards coverEveryone who works with children aged five and under knows how kids of those ages love to have things repeated, and repeated, and… you know. I recently mentioned how I like to repeat the songs I sing in storytime, such as “The More We Get Together.” When I sing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” with toddlers and preschoolers, I sing it three times – once really slow, once normal speed, and once “fast enough to burn holes in your knees.” The younger they are, the more repetitions many children need to see and hear before you see their eyes light up and they’ve got it, and they’re ready to join in. And this afternoon I found a serendipitous quote about repetition.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golikoff, and Diane Eyer wrote a book called Einstein Never Used Flash Cards (Rodale, 2003) that should be in every library’s parenting collection. The authors take aim at the “hurried child” syndrome that seems to drive many parents into getting their toddlers ready to enter Harvard by the time they complete their toilet training. Hirsh-Pasek, Golikoff, and Eyer instead want young children to learn the way they learn best – through playing, and yes, through slowly repeating things. Here they talk about educational TV shows that move at a young child’s pace:

We love Sesame Street, but there are also lessons in slow-moving, repetitive programs like Barney and Teletubbies that children enjoy. The developers of the famous show Blue’s Clues, for example, actually studied what children prefer in order to make their episodes maximally appealing. They found that children love repetition. Indeed, although it may be deadly for us (how many of us have fallen asleep midsentence?), children love to hear the same stories night after night – they get something new each time and enjoy finding predictable patterns.

So shall I tell you again? When you’re presenting songs and activities for young children, repeat generously.

Boy readingHere’s a new blog that I hope will attract some interest among readers, tween and teen boy readers in particular. It’s called Boys Blogging Books, and it features three boys – ages 14, 11, and 12 – who are reviewing new books and interviewing authors.

I wish them luck. The blog looks a little too slick to be set up by the boys themselves, and I notice that there is a mysterious “Sheri” who actually does the posting, so I have a feeling that there’s an adult mastermind hiding behind the curtain. But no matter – the idea is a good one, and I hope these boys will continue writing about books they enjoy. Every boy of this age who reads and tells other people about it serves as a great example to other boys (even if the boy himself would sometimes rather duck and stay out of sight).

LATER: Check out the Comment from Sheri. She’s the mom of two of the boys…

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