When’s the last time you celebrated children’s literature?
Liking children’s books is one thing. Throwing a party for the genre is another.
Jo Ann Dent is part of a team gearing up for the second annual Sheboyan Children’s Books Festival. This literary cheerleader knows how to celebrate—not just showcasing the books and their creators, but saluting the young people who savor these creations.
Jo Ann, what’s the good news about children’s books right now?
Learning to read is hard work. And it is naturally harder work for some children than for others. But very often, when emerging readers find that ONE book that draws them in, that grabs their interest and compels them to keep reading, something clicks. Like magic, a young child who is learning to read (and who perhaps finds it really, really, extra super hard work) becomes a reader who can’t get enough of, well, fill in the blank. It may be that reader’s new favorite author or series or illustrator or genre or format, but it sets that reader on the path to acquiring the reading habit and becoming a lifelong reader. The good news is that with today’s vast selection of children’s books of every stripe, there is definitely a book out there that will be that ONE book to a child who is learning to read, even—and especially—for that child for whom learning to read is really, really, extra super hard work.
What could be done to make things better?
The Annie E. Casey Foundation does a great job getting the word out about the importance of reading proficiently by the end of third grade. Children who are not reading well by fourth grade are more likely to struggle academically and are at increased risk of not graduating—a risk that is even higher for children living in poverty.
From my perspective, there is a disconnect between what we know about the importance of early reading and the funding for community institutions that play a vital role in linking children to the wide, wonderful world of books and authors and illustrators. We could make things better right now by contacting our libraries and schools to ask how we can volunteer or advocate to support what they do. And when funding cuts are discussed, we can voice our opinions about what an investment in schools and libraries means to that child who is learning to read.
Jo Ann Dent lives in Kohler, Wisconsin with her husband. They have two grown daughters and a couple of lovable pets. Jo Ann is a former public library director and elementary school librarian and is a co-chair and founder of the Sheboygan Children’s Book Festival. She is the coordinator of literacy programs for a Sheboygan-area family service agency.
Sue Stauffacher grabbed my attention back in 2005. Donuthead had me. The title called to me. Learning that her hero had that name? I vowed that this author would remain on my radar.
Fast-forward (or pedal) to her newest book, Tillie the Terrible Swede. Checking out her blog. I see that she’s still writing what she knows. Sue Stauffacher is living her words.
In thinking this through, I would say that the good news today about children’s books is that children need stories now more than ever. In a world that is increasingly chaotic and diffuse, books are a place to make sense of the world for the young mind. Children’s literature has always been a safe place to explore other identities, work out conflicts through characters, and form an independent self. Fast visual media makes the viewer a passive receptor of information, while books invite children to question, comment, learn. When we grow tired and overwhelmed by surface treatments, we dive into books to be refreshed and renewed. I see evidence of this all over the country when I see firsthand kids connecting with teachers, parents, authors and librarians around works of literature.
In your opinion, what can be done to improve the world of children’s literature?
Which brings me to your second question, what will make the field even better? I think we authors are being asked to step up in extraordinary ways to respond to the changes in publishing, education, and technology. We must redouble our efforts to connect to kids in authentic ways. It’s a fallacy to believe that increased social media (though I make use of it myself) will win us new fans. Whatever we give to the world has to be uniquely ours and has to help kids “live outside the books” as that is increasingly the way the world is going. So don’t stick your head in the sand and don’t believe that having a Facebook page is going to turn your career around. In my own world, I try to help kids, parents, and teachers “see” my creative process on my blog imaginerience, the blend of imagination and experience that I use to create books. So I try to show the creative process. I’m also riding my bike from Grand Rapids to Chicago in May in Tillie Anderson’s history-making cycling costume. We’ll visit schools along the way that have never had a children’s book author visit. For me, this is a way to reconnect to my readers, and to bring history alive for them. Readers from all over can follow the ride at www.tillieride.com.
Born in Pontiac, Michigan, Sue Stauffacher earned her B.A. from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and her master of fine arts in creative writing from the University of Arizona in Tucson. Her work has been honored by the N.A.A.C.P, American Library Association, the Women’s National Book Association, Borders Bookstores, the Library of Michigan, and the New York Public Library. Sue is a frequent visitor to schools as a speaker and literacy consultant, drawing on two decades of experience as a journalist, educator and program administrator. For the last 19 years, home has been Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Chris, what’s the good news about children’s literature?
I think the good news about children’s literature right now is that it is alive, vital, full of art, humor, storytelling, and poetry. There are so many great authors and illustrators out there. That will remain whether books are electronic or in their traditional form. Even though this is somewhat of a transitional time with e-books coming more and more into play, the creative people behind the books will always be there.
From your perspective, how can we make that good even better?
Kids still love books. As long as their interest exists, so will children’s literature. Like any other art form it is constantly evolving and building on the past. Newer forms like the graphic novel are growing from the traditions of comics and children’s books. I think it will be fun and interesting to see how artists and authors utilize new technology to enhance the experience of the children’s book, maybe through animation, music, and interactivity. The potential right now for new forms is exciting.
That said, I still think that the actual physical “book” is here to stay. It is hard for me to picture a daycare center where all the toddlers are running around with rubber Kindles.
Although e-books will make it easier for kids to read under the covers at night without a flashlight.
Chris Monroe is an American painter, cartoonist, and children’s book author who was best known for her weekly comic strip “Violet Days,” which appears in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Daily, and the Duluth News. With the publication of Monkey with a Tool Belt (Carolrhoda), she established herself and Chico Bon-Bon as part of the children’s literature canon. Chris lives, works, and ponders new ideas in Duluth, Minnesota.
She builds a strong foundation for illustrations. Her just-right text is easy to read and hear. It’s all about the story and the reader.
By standing back, she stands out!
Phyllis, what’s the good news about children’s literature?
The good news in children’s literature is what it has always been: children read books. Literary books, comic books, non-fiction, graphic novels, pulp fiction—whatever the form in which the books are delivered, kids still want them and still read them. The hunger for good stories isn’t much different from when I read Little Lulu comic books and Nancy Drew mysteries and The Little Engine That Could along with anything else I could get my hands on.
What could make that good news even better?
Knowing that all of us who write for children are doing our best to give them good writing, compelling stories, fascinating information, humor and horror and stories that linger long after the last page is turned.
I confess I’ve had my doubts about writing children’s books over the years. Would ebooks turn picture book writers into the equivalent of buggy whip manufacturers? Hasn’t happened yet. Would the deluge of celebrity picture books crowd out writers committed to the long haul of giving children the best books we can give them? That hasn’t happened yet, either. Would the mega-success of Harry Potter mean that publishers will now purchase only books with huge commercial potential? I haven’t seen that happening (which doesn’t mean, of course, that it can’t, but so far so good).
Kids who want good stories, writers who want to give them good stories. What could be better news than that?
Phyllis Root lives in south Minneapolis with two cats. She’s written forty books for children. Phyllis teaches at Hamline University in their MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Her most recently published books are Lilly and the Pirates and Big Belching Bog.