Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mad's whacky blog of books. It's all books, all the time!

Moma left this comment on a recent post:

One thing I was wondering about was how to evaluate kid's books and was hoping you might write a post on that. For example, my daughter loves the Arthur and Franklin series. Would these be considered good reading? What should I be looking for in a book for a preschooler? It was easier to pick out books when they only had a few words on the page.

I always find it hard to blog about this kind of thing because we all have to stumble our way through libraries and bookstores as parents and we all develop tips and tricks in the process. I never like to presume that I have better ways of doing things than the next parent. Having said that, selecting children's books is what I do for a living and I do think I have developed professional savvy over the years. I regularly give library instruction sessions to education students who will need to select and evaluate books for children in their careers. About a week ago, I gave a workshop on picture book literacy for a large group of day care and preschool teachers. So, for those who might be interested, here is my 2 cents dollars worth.

I will make my answer a series of posts that will come out over the next couple of weeks or so with the odd interruption for Hallowe'en post-mortems and other daily life occurrences that demand bloggy treatment. The series will run as follows:

Part 1 (today's post): Tips for finding good books and making the most of your local library.
Part 2: How to know when a book is superb: pictures edition
Part 3: How to know when a book is superb: words edition
Part 4: Genre summary with a few title recommendations
Part 5: A list of 100 excellent author and/or illustrators for the pre-school set

Part 1: Tips for finding good books and making the most of your local library

1. Ask your children's librarian for recommendations: A good children's librarian is yours and your child's best friend. She/he will be able to recommend books that are pitched to your child's interests and abilities. She/he will know other books that are like titles your child already loves. She/he will know if a new dinosaur book has just come in or if the latest Stella and Sam book is about to be published. If Christmas is coming, ask him/her about what books to buy vs borrow for your child or other children. Ask her what tools and resources are available at the library to help you self-select materials. Shop around for a librarian or library staff person that you mesh with. Just because you had a bad experience with one person at the help desk doesn't mean that another person in the organization won't be more up your alley.

I know that this recommendation doesn't particularly help people who rely on small or rural libraries as much as it does to people in larger centres but, hey, that's why I have several recommendations on this list.

2. Use your library catalogue: Find out how to use your library catalogue well and then use it often. In my library, I can limit search results to just children's books (and sometimes depending on the search I can limit to just the picture books in the collection). Setting such limits makes it easy to perform targeted searches on subjects my daughter is currently interested in: elephants, dinosaurs, farms and the like. Library catalogues may also allow you to limit your searches by date of publication or language as well. For example, I get countless language students coming to me looking for French children's books to help them as they learn the language.

3. Read reviews: Does your local paper write reviews of children's books? If so, read them and then ask for recommended titles at your library. Does your library subscribe to a reviewing service like the Children's Literature Comprehensive Database (CLCD)? If so, you can quickly and easily look up reviews of books that you might be considering for your child to find out if a) they are recommended and b) if they would be appropriate for your particular child. If your library does subscribe to the CLCD, you can generate subject specific book lists that are pitched to a particular age range or reading level.

4. Devour award winners: Read your way through the extensive lists of award winners and honour books that are now posted all over the internet. If you find a book you especially like, then find every other book that author wrote. Keep in mind that award books can span age ranges so make sure you've got an age-appropriate book in your hands before you start reading aloud at bed time. Here are some lists of award winners to get you started but there are plenty more out there:

US-based awards
The Caldecott Medal: Awarded to the best picture book by an American citizen or resident published in the US in any given year. The current winner and honour books are listed here. A complete listing of past winners is here.

The Newbery Medal: The oldest, ongoing prize for children's literature in the world, the Newbery medal is awarded to the most distinguished work for children published in the US in any given year. The current winner and honour books are here. Past winners are listed here.

The Michael L. Printz Award: An annual award that recognizes literary excellence in young adult literature. The current winner and honour book are listed here. The full listing of past winners and honour books is here.

The Coretta Scott King Book Award: This annual award is given to African-American writers and illustrators of books for children. The current winner is listed here (and is sitting by my bedside) along with the 2008 honour books. A full listing of winners and honour books can be found here.

The Boston-Globe Horn Book Prize is presented annually in three categories for prestigious picture book, fiction and poetry, and nonfiction published in the United States. Here's the current winners and the full listing of award winners.

The New York Times Best Illustrated Books for Children is an annual listing. Here is a slideshow for the 2007 edition of the awards.

Canadian Awards
The Governor General's Literary Awards: Awarded annually, one for children's text and one for children's illustration with categories in both English and French. Here's the 2008 shortlist. Here is the list of past winners.

The Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Award: Awarded to the outstanding illustrator of a children's book published in Canada. The complete list of winners is here.

The Canadian Children's Book Centre maintains a listing of Canadian book awards. Rather than reprinting it all here, you can find the full list on their website.

British Awards
The Kate Greenaway Medal: Awarded annually for children's illustration. It's the UK's equivalent to the Caldecott Medal. Current short list is here. Past winners are here.

The Carnegie Medal: Awarded annually to the writer of an outstanding book for children. It's the British equivalent of the Newbery Medal. Current short list is here. Past winners are here.

Smarties Prize (renamed Nestle Book Prize): A recently discontinued UK prize for various age categories of children's literature. The Smarites Prize was sometimes considered controversial because of its affiliation with Nestle and their practice of promoting infant formula use in developing countries. 2007 winners are on the main page. Past winners are listed here.

International Distinction
The IBBY Honor List: a bienneal listing of excellent books for children put out by the International Board on Books for Young People.

5. Seek out lists, blogs and children's book web sites: In this bloggy age, a lot of informed people are posting book lists, reviews and recommendations. I keep lists of all the books Miss M has read over on my sidebar there. Librarian-mother-blogger extraordinaire, Kittenpie, has a couple of review sites: one for younger kids and one for older ones. That second link also has links to some other children's review sites. Mo-Wo and P-Man also recommend books every now and then. Just One More Book features daily podcasts on children's books. The list goes on and on, but my hope is not to overwhelm you in this post.

6. Make sure you cover off as many genres as you can. There are so many kids today who never hear poetry or who don't receive grounding in oral folk-tale culture. That grieves me. In Dewey classification systems, the picture books and easy readers are catalogued separately from poetry, folklore, non-fiction, music, biography and the like. You have to go hunting to move beyond picture books. More on this in part 4 of the series.

7. Give your child free range in the library and work by trial and error. A child needs to know that he/she has some agency when it comes to selecting books. I have read some real howlers to Miss M but I respected the fact that she chose the books. This is where all those dreadful movie spin-off books come into play. There's also a number of didactic or messagey books out there that I flat-out disagree with, but I suck it up and read them anyway if my daughter has taken a fancy to them. I try to not pass judgment while I'm reading a book but I will often discuss my likes and dislikes after the fact. Take, for example, The Rainbow Fish. I personally don't like how preachy that book is. I don't like the message that in order to be liked you must give up all of what it is that makes you unique. I do, however, like fostering notions of sharing and consideration for others and so Miss M and I have talked about what I did and didn't like about the book. She's a fan but I think her love of the book has more to do with the brightly coloured illustrations than the book's message.

OK, so that's part 1. I really haven't answered your question at all, though, have I? The Franklin and Arthur series are perfectly fine books. They're not standouts in my opinion but they are also not dross. Miss M and I have read all that we can get our hands on. Clifford and Little Critter books too. I like the early Franklin books the best of this entire bunch because the illustrations in them are more naturalistic than the more cartoonish later versions of the series. The realistic pictures of the animals sets those early Franklin books apart, in my opinion. And look at that, I've used the expression "in my opinion" twice in this last paragraph. Literary preference is always one part quality and one part opinion.

I welcome all comments, additions, links, discussion issues, what have yous. Part two will come your way likely early next week.


womaninawindow said...

oh, eh, ugh. Is that enough of the sounds for you? Our library sucks. Plain and simple. We should totally go to the neighbouring city's library (um, two hours away) and LIE and get cards there to HONESTLY borrow books and bring 'em back. Our library sucks. Oh wait, I said that. But we read anything and everything that comes our way anyway. We even buy up their refuse and revel in their smells. All other smart comments to follow:

flutter said...

can't I just ask YOU?!?! come on, Mad be a team player!

crazymumma said...

Holy links. Don't you have a TV?

Mary-LUE said...

There is a podcast called Chatting About Books put together by ReadWriteThink.org. It has book recommendations every month. You can subscribe via RSS or iTunes.

Here is a teeny, tiny URL for you:


Mary-LUE said...

I can't resist one more. This is a poetry resource blog by Sylvia Vardell who has written books about poetry for children.


(I just discovered tiny URLs today!!!)

'Book AwardTragic' said...

Hi, I enjoyed your blog and the insights it contained. My wife and I have four children eight and under who devour books. Even though I publish five international literary award sites for a living, it is still challenging to vet thoroughly! As the children are getting older they are getting pretty good at it themselves and the books that they like best are not always the ones Dad gets excited about that have won awards!

Thanks for the blog & regards from the Land Down Under.

Kevin Parker- publisher
Book Awards Online

kate said...

Oh goody, I love this stuff!!!

Karen said...

Oh, I'm so glad to hear someone else not being a big fan of Rainbow Fish! It just seems like a sad story to me.

mek said...

Mad - this is fabulous - thanks for all the resources in this post! I'm looking forward to the others. Our 2.5 year old is in love with books (hooray) and the library (double hooray).

Andrea said...

This is awesome. I'm planning al ibrary trip w/ Frances this afternoon and I'm sure all of this will be helpful as I comb through the book racks (and she just wants to play with the toys). Especially now that I'll be paying more attention to the beginning-reader books.

Also wanted to point out: you've got a "local your library" up there. While I love the metre, I'm pretty sure it's not what you meant. ;) I'm also wondering how I might go about localling my library. I suppose I could try a really big lasso. (Right by part 1.)

Mad said...

Andrea: Thanks. I've been finding typos in this post all morning long. I think I get lazy with the proof-reading when I've done so much linking. Either that or I am just starting to lose it.

painted maypole said...

thank you for taking the time to do this - very helpful!

Anonymous said...

this is exciting! I must come back later to read during my "real" blogging time. I'd like to forward this to my sister who is a reading teacher, but she's already putting in twelve hour days, so I might not be doing her a favor.

No Mother Earth said...

Thanks for the listing of awards and links to winners. The Boy and I just read a few of them - including Wild About Books, and, well, he's just wild about them.

Magpie said...

#7 is the one I have a hard time with, as I bite my lip when she brings home "Sleeping Beauty" or "Cinderella" from the school library. But yes - she needs to have free reign someplace, and I need to respect that.

Nice post, Mad. And useful.

Jenifer said...

Awesome Mad...I have bookmarked this post to refer to as needed. I am constantly trolling the library website in search of something great.

Janet said...

Oh, good, I've been on the right track so far. I agree with you about the Rainbow Fish. I had the same reaction. But it has not been a favorite so I haven't worried about deconstructing it yet.
We have a surprisingly good library given the quality of everything else in this town. The children's section is quite good, and the children's librarian is a lovely young woman who is very open to suggestions for books and will order anything we ask for.

Looking forward to the rest of the series.

alejna said...

This is fabulous, Mad. Those are some great resources. You've got me all fired up about exploring children's books with my little ones. To the library!

I love working my way through the award books. I love reading children's books for myself, and have worked my way back through about 30 Newbery winners. (I've also read quite a few Caldecotts, but they tend to be somewhat quicker to read. Though I was surprised to see more of a young adult graphic novel was a winner in some recent year.)

I must now resist the urge to check out all of the links you provided, as I have work I'm supposed to be doing.

Reluctant Housewife said...

Great post, Mad! Really good advice, especially number 6 - I hadn't really considered whether I was exposing the boys to poetry and other genres of story telling... I'm now going to try to do so. Thanks.

Beck said...

Actually, Woman in a Window, you can get library cards in that city for FREE. Without lying!
Our little local library is TERRIBLE. I have a card to the substantially better library two towns over because otherwise? Phhf..

mo-wo said...

I wonder what makes all these libraries so terrible. The people or the collection or both?

Lots of good advice. You got nuts to push the proletariat at reviews.

Mad said...

Mo-Wo: my readers are wise. They can tell piss-poor or agenda-driven reviewing from the real enchilada.

Mary G said...

Mad, just super! Thanks so much. (I had to type 'type' three times before I got it right. I'm the typo queen.)
I agree with you on the fish scale book -- it's the glitter. Litte Stuff loved it, alas. She also adores the Oz books. All of them. More turgid prose is hard to find.
I have a bias toward 'golden oldies' for small children's books, including 'A Child's Garden of Verse' (it was mine; you can imagine what the cover looks like), Milne, Seuss. When I find a wonderful new one, I feel ashamed of myself for not researching more and more often.
A couple of classics that both my kids and granddaughter love are 'Tikki Tikki Tembo' and 'Make Way for Ducklings'.
There's also the 'Catwings' series.

I love your Hallowe'en wallpaper. And I am brooding about the 'Missed Book' question you posed earlier.

Mimi said...

Oh hooray! What a great resource you've written up here for us all. I am generally sheepish when we go to the library, because I know so little about kids' books, but then Munchkin brings me a bunch to read and once i read them ... it's easy enough to sort the yuck from the wow.


Anonymous said...

Great post!!!

Now if only some one could come up with a list of age appropriate books for a 6 year old reading at a 6-7th grade level. Our librarian and I have been trying to keep up with my son with limited success as he can do a book an hour.

Will have to check out the review sites.

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