My friend Ken Szymanski, a middle school teacher, used to bring a few of his students to my Literature for Adolescents university class. His kids told my future teachers and librarians what they thought of The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. Ken had his students introduce themselves by telling us their favorite book.
I’ve since asked my own students to share their all-time five favorite books with each other. It’s a fun activity that breaks up our normal class routine. The energy level in the class noticebly increases as students react to each other’s choices. Year after year, titles by Jodi Picoult and Nicholas Sparks often come up. Pride and Prejudice is another popular choice. Lately, more students have been adding children’s titles as their all-time favorite books. The Harry Potter series resonates with this age group, of course, but I’m also seeing more choices such as Oh, The Places You Can Go by Dr. Seuss, Love You Forever by Robert Munsch, and The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.
Since I’ve done this activity for several semesters now, I’ve fine-tuned my own personal Top Five Favorites and broken them down into different categories. As you can see, I could not decide on five for each category. Some of the titles were chosen for nostalgic reasons and others because they evoked emotions in me few writers are able to touch.
Children’s Picture Books (in alphabetical order by title)
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff
Many Moons by James Thurber
Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag
Press Here by Herve Tullet
Juvenile Chapter Books
Holes by Louis Sachar
Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne
Actual Size by Steve Jenkins
The Great Fire by Jim Murphy
Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World by Jennifer Armstrong
Winterdance: the Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod by Gary Paulsen
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (I’m counting this as one long book)
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time by Michael Perry
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
Surprisingly, I don’t have a favorite Young Adult list yet. This is slightly ironic since I do this activity in a YA class. I keep going back and forth on which titles to add to this list. Sabriel by Garth Nix is definitely on the list. I’m having trouble nailing down the others. I started to put The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier and Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block on the list because I love to talk about them. I’m not sure they are my favorites to read again. I want to add The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, but I feel like that’s cheating because they were intially marketed as adult books. I’ll eventually make this list. Maybe you folks can share your favorite teen titles.
I listed my top ten favorite children’s alphabet books in an earlier blog back in May 2012, my top ten children’s songs in June 2012, and my top ten children’s poetry books in February 2013.
Of course, some people don’t like to make these kind of lists. But it certainly makes for invigorating conversation, even if one mentions just a few favorites. Try it with the kids in your life or even an adult book discussion group. And feel free to share some of your all-time favorite titles here.
This month’s topic on the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s listserv is about the 75th Anniversary of the Caldecott Award. The listserv’s moderators asked the question “How well are multicultural artists represented among Caldecott books?” Here is my response:
I sense there is a mindset among the dominant culture that artists of color have awards of color and we’ll honor those works that way. We in the dominant culture find more familiarity in picture books such as A Ball for Daisy, House in the Night, A Sick Day for Amos McGee. I love those books, but I’m looking down the list of winners and seeing too few of the winners of the BIG Caldecott award awarded to artists of color. Jerry Pinkney finally won the big one (five previous honors), but notice it wasn’t for one of his books representing African-American culture. Yes, it was set in Africa but it was an Aesop animal fable and maybe that was a factor in this particular book winning. Otherwise, it’s been years since David Diaz won for Smokey Night (1995), Allen Say for Grandfather’s Journey (1994), Ed Young for Lon Po Po (1990), down to Leo and Diane Dillon’s back-to-back years in 1976 and 1977. I look at E.B. Lewis’s work on The Other Side and wonder why that didn’t win the Caldecott. I look at Kadir Nelson’s work on Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom and wonder why it didn’t win the Caldecott. I look at the most amazing double-page spread I have ever seen in any picture book – the girl in front of the American flag from Martin’s Big Words—and wonder why Bryan Collier didn’t win the Caldecott. I love the Coretta Scott King Award and the Pura Belpré Award, but I wonder why many works don’t win those awards AND the Caldecott Award at the same time.”
I did a quick tally of the number of Caldecott winners and honor books since the year 2000 and came up with the following figures. There are a total of 58 winners and honor books. Of those, to the best of my knowledge of the illustrators, 9 of them were illustrated by artists of color. In the last two years, that figure is 0 out of 10 Caldecott winners and honor books.
There has been a healthy discussion going on since. Feel free to add to it here.
I remember the first time I read A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson back in 2005, when it was published. I think my head vibrated and I shot backwards across the room and slammed into a wall. I couldn’t believe I was reading writing of such magnitude in a book for young people.
A Wreath for Emmett Till was published during the 50th anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder. Emmett was a 14 year-old African-American boy from Chicago visiting relatives in Mississippi. He was murdered for supposedly speaking to, flirting, or whistling at 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, owner of a store. Bryant’s husband and brother-in-law took offense and beat Emmett to death, tying a weight around his body, and throwing him into a river. The murderers were found ‘not guilty’ of this crime. This happened just a few months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The two events were pivotal moments in the African-American Civil Rights Movement.
The book itself is written in the form of a heroic crown of sonnets. As Marilyn says in her introduction, this is “a sequence of fifteen interlinked sonnets, in which the last one is made up of the first lines of the preceding fourteen.” The last line of one sonnet becomes the first line (or slightly altered) of the next sonnet. And then Marilyn went and made the fifteenth sonnet an acrostic poem. You can read vertically down the left side “RIP EMMETT L TILL.” All these years later, I am still in awe of this writing achievement.
The sonnets themselves are beautifully written. And they will appeal to young people, especially when read aloud. I have great joy each semester when I read the first and last sonnets to each of my three sections of Children’s Literature as well as my Literature for Adolescents class. Read these few lines aloud and delight in how they flow and sound. Ignore the line break (/) marks while reading:
“Rosemary for remembrance, Shakespeare wrote:/a speech for poor Ophelia, who went mad/when her love killed her father. Flowers had/a language then. Rose petals in a note/said, I love you; a sheaf of bearded oat/said, Your music enchants me. Goldenrod:/Be careful. Weeping-willow twigs: I’m sad./ What should my wreath for Emmett Till denote?”
For those folks who don’t think young people will connect to these poems, who are more comfortable with Shel Silverstein-style humor verse, I say read one of the sonnets to them and see how it moves them. Especially if you tell them the story of Emmett Till first.
It was my honor to finally meet Marilyn. We recently had dinner together with our hosts Dave and Marsha Qualey (Marsha is the noted young adult author), and my good friends Pam Gardow and Annis Williams. We were delighted to learn that Marilyn wrote the fifteenth sonnet first. I don’t know why I never figured that out before but it certainly makes sense in a mechanical way. Marilyn then took each line from this sonnet and made it the first line of each of the fourteen other sonnets. Marilyn also shared an anecdote of how she crafted the term “parallel universe” into one sonnet. Her editor wanted her to remove this two-word phrase, stating that young people wouldn’t understand it. Marilyn was worried. The whole structure of the sonnet depended on that phrase. It turns out it was only the editor who was unfamiliar with the term. Marilyn read the sonnet to some kids and they knew what it meant. They told Marilyn “tell your editor to watch Star Trek.”
I recently read the powerful novel-in-verse October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Leslea Newman. I am going to pair this book with A Wreath for Emmett Till in my future Literature for Adolescents classes. I had tears in my eyes as I read Newman’s poems about yet another tragic hate crime in our history. There is a certain kind of awareness of these events being told in verse, a certain impact that can reach the reader in a way normal prose might not. I believe both works will inspire the next generation of writers to express themselves and the world around them through creative poetic formats.
In the “Timeline of Notable Books for Young People,” we might all come into agreement for some of the touchstone books representing each decade. For the “aughts,” I can also point to the significance of The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick as a touchstone book, as well as Flotsam by David Wiesner. But the book I believe took the genre to a new level, the book I’m declaring here in print as the Greatest Book for Young People of the 2000s, is A Wreath for Emmett Till.
As National Humor Month draws to a close (yes, I know, every month is humor month around here), I’d like to share a student project from years ago. The assignment in my Trends and Issues in Literature K-12 class was to come up with a dynamic way to promote reading, children’s/YA literature, or a specific children’s or young adult book. Abbotsford, Wisconsin media specialist Krista Falteisek was in that class and she stood up and knocked us all out with her musical booktalk (which she had memorized) for the picture book The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by John Scieszka and Lane Smith. Krista gave me kind permission to reprint it in my book Something Funny Happened at the Library 10 years ago and in celebration of that timeline, here it is for all of you:
(To the tune of The Beverly Hillbillies television theme song)
Here’s a story that I’m gonna tell.
My main goal is this book I want to sell.
When I’m through I hope that you will see,
That I have done this quite cleverly.
The Stinky Cheese Man, that is,
And other fairly stupid tales.
Listen closely now!
(Switch to the theme song from Gilligan’s Island.)
Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,
A tale of Chicken Licken.
Who thought the sky was falling down
When the clouds began to thicken.
The first was Ducky Lucky,
And Goosey Loosey next.
They set off running right on down to tell the president.
To tell the president.
(Switch to the theme song from The Brady Bunch.)
Here’s a story of Cinderella,
Who was living with two stepsisters and mom.
They were four women living all together, but didn’t get along.
Then one day Cinderella met Rumpelstiltskin,
And they knew that it was much more than a hunch,
That these two must somehow form a title,
That is how they became Cinderumpelstiltskin,
That is how they became Cinderumpelstiltskin.
(Switch to The Flintstones theme song.)
Stinky, Stinky Cheese Man,
He was made out of loneliness.
Popped out of an oven,
Ran away and became a pest.
No one really wanted him around.
Was the case with everyone he found.
Stinky, Stinky Cheese Man.
Have a fun time reading
The Stinky Cheese Man
And Other Fairly Stupid Tales!
At the end of Krista’s performance, we all sat there with our jaws on the floor.