More Superheroes, and a Quest for Library Opinions

More Superheroes, and a Quest for Library Opinions

At the end of my somewhat grouchy post about superhero books from a couple of weeks ago. I asked commenters to add their own suggestions for superhero books that I might have missed, and got some heroic recommendations:

Which brings me to my second topic of the day: libraries, and what people want from them.

I’ve been doing time behind the reference desk at several different libraries in the last month or two, and have been thinking a lot about what makes libraries places where people want to go—whether it’s the physical comforts (spaces to read or work or let the kids crawl around) or the friendly service, or the helpful recommendations via booklists (like the Wilmette Library's) or in-person suggestions, or the rows and rows of computers with free Internet access. 

Conversely, I know several people, some of them big readers, who don’t use libraries at all; it’s not that they’re necessarily anti-library; it’s just that the library isn’t in their orbit. Sometimes they don’t like trying to find their way around what feels like an arcane organizational system, or they find the fines off-putting, or there just isn’t a nearby branch that’s convenient to them. If they want a book, they’ll buy it at a bookstore or online.

So…if you are a library enthusiast, what makes it a place you want to be? And if you aren’t, is there any particular reason? 

If you want to play another way, here’s a question from a survey I recently gave to teens at local high schools: what’s one thing you like, or don’t like, about the library? (and please let me know which it is! I got several replies from my teen participants that read simply “Quiet” or “Books”, leaving me to puzzle over whether these were likes or dislikes.)

I’d be grateful for all replies, and promise to post another follow-up.

April 30, 2008


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Old Favorites

Old Favorites

The sight of my daughter in a new pink sweater the other morning nagged at me. It wasn't that she didn't look fine, but something about her reminded me of something. What was it? I searched my mind, and finally hit upon the answer: in her long braids and vaguely 1950's-style cardigan, my child captured the essence of a character in something I'd read at about age six, a long out-of-print picture book called The Shy Little Girl, by Phyllis Krasilovsky, and the character was not the shy little girl herself, but her eventual best friend, Claudia, as depicted by the illustrator, the late, great Trina Schart Hyman. That book stayed with me so powerfully that the image of the sweatered, braided child, lo these 35 years later, still resonates.

My stepsister rhapsodized for years about a book that she remembered as "Jacqueline, Jacqueline, and Jacqueline." All she recalled about the plot was that all the characters were named Jacqueline, and that it was sort of strange and surreal.  In those days before the Internet and online used booksellers, it was hard to find out more, but when one day at an antiquarian book fair I happened across a book called Story Number One, by the absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco, I had a feeling I'd found it. I gave it to her for her next birthday, and from the look on her face, it might have been a treasure trove of gold and jewels. And, in a way, it was: it was the key to a formerly lost part of her childhood.

My stepsister and I aren't alone: the books we encounter in childhood have that kind of power for lots of people. They can become part of the sensory, primitive memory that we carry through the rest of our lives, often retaining only a hazy but strong sense of the book or maybe just a single image. Many people have this feeling about popular children's classics like Goodnight Moon or Where the Wild Things Are,  but when the book is obscure and not likely to be found again, it can take on an almost mythical quality in the rememberer's mind.

library children's departments are popular haunts for adults tracking down the half-remembered books of their childhoods, and requests for help with old book"stumpers" appear regularly on librarians' listservs. If you're looking for a long-lost childhood favorite, one resource is the Internet Public Library's Half-Remembered Children's Books Search Strategies, which outlines some search methods and linkes to three different websites devoted to helping people track down those books they loved but can't quite remember.

Do you have any long-loved, long-lost childhood favorites? Did you ever manage to find them again in adulthood?

April 25, 2008

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A Gifted Child

A Gifted Child

Long before I had anything resembling the wisdom to guide him; I met and tested a young boy whose I.Q. score exceeded the top of the scale on the Stanford Binet Intelligence Test. (His IQ score was over 170.) At the time, the “Binet” was the most respected measure of intelligence in young children. I was a graduate student; yet this boy, whom we will call Andrew, remains as vivid in my mind today as any child I have worked with in my career. I have often wondered what became of Andrew — whether with his extraordinary gifts he found a comfortable niche in this world.

Here is the story of what brought him to our clinic and the questions with which we (my faculty supervisor, a seminar of faculty and advanced students) wrestled. Hopefully describing Andrew’s situation will breathe life into a series of discussions about choices facing gifted kids and their parents.

When we met, Andrew was just 5 years old. His parents brought him to the university diagnostic service at the urging of their pediatrician. That doctor was so blown away by this child’s obvious intellectual precocity that he persisted until the family reluctantly agreed to go ahead with the referral. I couldn’t yet appreciate the fact that encountering a child this brilliant was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for almost any professional. The pediatrician and my supervisor understood that. I would never again encounter Andrew’s intellectual equal.

Interestingly enough, his parents were resistant to considering him “gifted”, an unusual twist on what most of us expect from parents, even those whose kids’ gifts are less remarkable than Andrew’s. Andrew’s parents were naturalized U.S. citizens who had spent their earliest years under unspeakable conditions in their native land. Having at last achieved the chance to live safe, normal, even mundane lives in America, they were apparently determined to assimilate and blend in. They had been working and saving to move out of the city and into a homogeneous suburban community. There they and their two children could be real Americans.

In actual practice, it is rare for a psychologist to spend more than one session on diagnostic testing; but I had 5 or 6 sessions with Andrew. This was a training center. We were encouraged to take our time. Administering the Binet to a gifted child took time, because the design of this test requires beginning at the child’s age level and asking harder and harder questions until the child gets several wrong in a row. That didn’t happen until Andrew reached mostly adult levels.

After the formal testing, we played in the playroom and carried on a dialogue about everything from dinosaurs, and the library books he was reading, to school and friends. Away from purely intellectual pursuits, Andrew’s remarkable maturity had vanished. He was sillier than even the typical 5 year old, had difficulty with cooperative play, referred to his classmates’ not liking him or he them, and even with me, he was awkward, in great contrast to his poise during the formal testing. I noted that Andrew wasn’t comfortable having a two-way conversation. He made pronouncements or said nonsensical or irrelevant things. I could imagine that such behavior was not likely to endear him to his peers. His motor development also stood in sharp contrast to his intellectual performance.

I was convinced that this boy should apply to a highly respected school for the gifted, associated with a college in the city. I had no doubt that he would be accepted, and it was tuition-free for those who qualify. That, of course, would mean that the family would have to cancel or defer plans to move to the suburbs. In addition, I recommended social skill training, speech therapy for a lisp, and occupational therapy for his lagging motor development.

It seemed to me that in the public school of a homogeneous suburb, Andrew would be an oddity, likely to be teased and/or isolated. There seemed every reason to expect his parents to give up their dream to support this genius of theirs. What is more, they would very likely be facing a similar issue with their daughter before long.

But they were resolute about their plans, and I think politely resented the interference from their pediatrician and me. How could I, a sheltered, 20-something, American born woman, without children, possibly understand their family’s needs? I hope time and experience have seasoned me; I think I do understand now. I understand that each child and family’s situation is unique; and one member’s (or even two’s) extraordinary IQ scores cannot/should not determine the family’s lifestyle.

Read the whole series on gifted kids:

1. Congratulations: Your Child Is Gifted
2. Many Kinds of "Gifted"
3. Guiding a Gifted and Talented Child
4. Why Gifted Isn't Everything

April 23, 2008

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The Case of the Missing Superhero Books

The Case of the Missing Superhero Books

There are books aplenty to satisfy those ravening hordes of princess-crazed little girls, but as Your Neighborhood Librarian implied in her comment on my last post, boys are much more likely to be into superheroes.

And this is a problem. Not so much for the boys themselves, who are quite happy to re-enact Spiderman scenarios on the playground ad nauseum until dragged inside by spoilsport teachers, and who have a wealth of superhero videos, lunchboxes, and assorted other merchandise with which to enrich their imaginative lives.

No, it's a problem for us children's librarians who are doing our best to lure them in to the world of reading using the bait of their pre-existing obsessions. Books about pirates? We got 'em. Books about mummies and skeletons? Sure! Books about dinosaurs, trucks, sharks, snips, snails, puppy dogs' tails? Yup, yup, yup, yup, yup.

Books about superheroes? Um…let me get back to you on that.

The truth is, aside from repackaged picture books based on the standard Marvel characters, there is a real dearth of superhero books out there, especially for younger kids. I'm not sure why this should be; it's a great topic, and what books there are have instant appeal and a pretty much built-in audience. But I've had to disappoint more kids looking for superhero books than I like to think about.

Normally when listing books in this space, I'll introduce them with something like "here are a few of my favorite books about…" or "This is a small sampling of…" But not this time. Here, for your perusal and edification, are all the decent original superhero books for kids that I know of:

Picture books:

Chapter books:

That's it! If you think of any I missed, I'd be grateful if you'd list it/them in comments.

And if you're a children's book writer, or an aspiring one, looking for a subject—especially one for a picture book—might I suggest superheroes? Little boys everywhere, and their librarians, would thank you for it.

April 15, 2008


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A Grandmother's Dream

A Grandmother's Dream

I am just coming back to earth after a wonderful long weekend of celebrating the Bar Mitzvah of my oldest grandchild. Of course, he was remarkable, poised, and beautifully prepared. Seeing him on the Bimah in his blue blazer, rep tie and button-down collar had an air of unreality. It was just “five minutes ago” that he and I were introduced, as he was being wheeled out of the delivery room by his Dad. That night, our eyes met, the newborn’s and the new Grandma’s. It seemed to me that he looked around eagerly, a little Columbus who had just happened upon this new world. I imagined that I heard him say, “Oh, so you are the Grandma, huh? That’s cool!” or as he would put it today, “Sweet!”

The Bar Mitzvah was special because it was his, my first grandchild’s, and also because he did so beautifully. Then too, there was the icing on this delectable cake. The synagogue was peopled with family who had come from far and wide. There were crawling babies, vocal toddlers, and little cousins in party outfits. My almost 4-year-old grandson was all decked out in a striped shirt, tie and jacket; other young cousins from across the country were scrubbed for the occasion. The Bar Mitzvah boy’s 2nd-grade sister was a stunning sight in pink and white. She had prepared me in advance. “You know, Grandma, there will be lots of 7th graders (i.e., big kids) at the party.” Smiles spread across all adults’ faces as we found each other a row or two or more away, smiling eye contacts, throughout the service. What a happy day! Everyone there wanted to be there. How rare!

Then came the party, which had been so thoughtfully planned with the comfort of all in mind by my daughter. Speaking of pride, she and my son-in-law filled me with an abundance of it. They arranged the rooms so adults could sit away from the break-dancing 13 year olds and ear-piercing disc jockeys with screaming mikes. We ventured in and out of the kids’ room where hot pretzels, little pizzas, little hot dogs and big hamburgers beckoned. I had to watch my almost 4-year-old grandson doing his moves without even sending his striped tie askew. So cool, as if he always dressed this way. His baby brother watched wide-eyed, from his stroller, bouncing his approval to the relentless beat. Then back to the relative calm of the adult tables in time to greet a 6-year-old cousin excited to show his parents his prize--a 7-foot-long pretend snake. Talk turned to the challenge of getting this creature onto the plane heading back to Seattle.

At 5 PM, several who didn’t want the party to end accepted an invitation to stop by the Bar Mitzvah family’s home. After pizza and more laughs there and some hoops over the garage for the boys, the party moved to our house. We lingered a while longer. Several people said, “What a lovely day!” It was not easy to let it end.

April 15, 2008

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Be a Clown, a Clever Clown

Be a Clown, a Clever Clown

I get really giddy when I discover that without realizing it, I had actually done something right — something now considered “good parenting” — back when I was in the trenches. I know you’re probably scoffing at that statement, thinking something like, “What; is she being coy? She’s the parenting expert — must have known how to do everything right with her kids (poor kids!).” Wrong. Now I am trusting you, so be gentle with me. Confession: I have no more confidence about the worthiness of my parenting than anyone else does; in fact, maybe less. So now that that is established, let’s move right along.

Here’s what brought this all on: I discovered “10 Ways to Encourage Your Child’s Sense of Humor.” Eureka! Guess what, without even having had the benefit of this suggestion, lo those many years ago (I’m Grandmom now, remember?), humor was the name of the game in my parenting style. Today, there are a few little children who call me “Grandma Silly”! No change in style after all these years. Anything I try to tell you about that is funny will probably fall flat on this two-dimensional screen, but there's no live comedy offered yet on (Be patient, though; we’re always looking and planning ahead!)

I found that kind humor had a real calming effect when one of my kids was scared. (I emphasize the word “kind”, because it is very unfunny and unproductive to be sarcastic or mocking when a child is frightened.) Anyway, here’s an example of reassuring humor: We used to watch the Saturday morning cartoon "Underdog." (Yes, I confess, I allowed an hour of Saturday cartoons, the funny kind only.) Well, one day my 4 year old found two wasps buzzing around his bedroom and called out “Mommy, there are wasps in here!” I instantly leapt, two steps at a time, a fly swatter poised in each hand, offering the pronouncement, “There’s no need to fear. Wasp Woman is here!”

Shared media experiences are very useful to draw on at moments like that (and no legal release is needed in the privacy of your home). There's an old Woody Allen movie in which the female lead is raving about some handsome, strong, perfect hero of a guy when wimpy Woody asks, “But can he do this?” while making a contorted movement that no one would ever need to do. That scene has been replayed in our family countless times when someone is waxing poetic about some other person’s great qualities or achievements (like winning a Nobel Prize).

Whether they are macho acting or not, all kids have some anxiety about doing something for the first time, maybe going away to camp or taking a big test. My daughter would approach those moments with questions that always began with “What if?) After responding to the first several such questions, I would greet the rest with, “Sorry, no more what-ifs allowed today!"

So I agree with and heartily endorse the spirit and the content of the “10 Ways…Humor” piece. Of course there is a lot more to many of those “ways” that we could talk about another time. Being playful is easy for many of us; in fact, it’s tougher to get serious. Even a warm supportive home is doable. But how do you build self-esteem? That’s a treatise in itself and a controversial one for another time. Perhaps the most urgent recommendation is #4: “Help her tune in to the needs and pleasures of others.” Yes, you do need to stay emotionally tuned in and value that skill above all. The rest, especially laughing at yourself, are noteworthy too, so take it all to heart. This is no joke!

April 8, 2008

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Princess Tales

Princess Tales:
In Which Alkelda the Gleeful and My Kid Basically Write My Blog Post For Me

Although I've waxed lyrical in the past about the joys of connecting with other bloggers, the truth is that in recent months I've been a pretty pathetically inactive member of the children's literature blogging community. However, now that these Scholastic blogs have blogrolls (look over to the right!) I've been inspired anew to keep up with of my favorite kidlit bloggers. And lo! I have been rewarded with blogging inspiration.

Over at Saints and Spinners, Alkelda the Gleeful recently interviewed her young daughter about princesses and invited her readers to do the same. Since my 7-year-old daughter is a longtime princess fan, and since princesses and princess books tend to be topics of consuming interest to girls around the ages of 4 to 7, I was especially happy to take Alkelda up on it. And since answering these questions offered my kid the chance to delay bedtime, she was in turn happy to participate. Here are the results:

What do you like about princesses?

They're pretty, they're kind, warm-hearted when others are not, and their outfits are pretty, and they're special.

What do princesses do?

Be royal, have fun, go out in the gardens, go to balls. They live happily ever after!

When you pretend to be a princess, what do you like to do?

Pretend I have servants, pretend that I go to big fancy ballrooms, and play music or dance to a lively tune, which is usually one of my kids' fun CDs: mostly Rick Around the Rock, Scat Like That, or Car Tunes. 

What do princesses do that is good?

They help others! They take risks just for love. They don't care that much about money.

What are some princess stories that you like?

[Ed. note: she started paging through a fairy tale collection for reference partway through answering this question; several of the stories she lists are retold there, but most of the versions I've linked to all are stand-alone picture books.]

I like Cinderella—a certain one, where she's black and she wears a pink dress and the fairy godmother comes with her and wears a red dress [She meant Cendrillon: A Caribbean Cinderella, by Robert D. San Souci]. Sleeping Beautynot the Disney one—The Princesses Have a Ball, The Courageous Princess, Princess Baby, The Paper Princess, The Paper Bag Princess. The Princess and the Pea, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, Rapunzel, and Snow White. And The Goose Girl. Rumplestiltskin. Oh yeah, I like The Frog Prince!

Which one is your favorite out of those? (You can pick two if you like.)

The Goose Girl (from Five-Minute Fairy Tales) and The Princesses Have a Ball [Ed. note: I like this one too! It's a retelling of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" with a fun and playful athletic slant—I think that's all I can say without spoiling the ending too badly.]

Anything else you want to say about princesses?

They don't always have to look nice to be happy. They can look however and still be happy.


If you conduct any princess-related interviews of your own, be sure to let Alkelda know! I'd love to hear about it, too.

April 6, 2008

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Beware of Cyberbullying

Beware of Cyberbullying

Curiosity led me to a recent PBS documentary about contemporary adolescents' life online. The fact that most of the real people shown happened to live or work in the town to which I had recently moved was a prime source of interest. It's a quaint and very old suburban town, admired far and wide for its "best town to live in" status. Everything within view lends itself to trust. On Saturdays during fall football season, the high school marching band parades toward the field, passing right in front of our house in full regalia. At moments like that, I am taken back to the patriotic ambience of my own childhood and adolescence. They bring to mind the phrase, "What a great place to bring up kids!"

But as I discovered with considerable shock first from watching the documentary, kids today inhabit another world, where marching bands, Thanksgiving Day parades, Fourth of July picnics, low crime rates, and even school anti-bullying programs can't protect them sufficiently. That's because they have another gravely risky life--in Cyberland where anonymous bullying is rampant and (rarely) can even be deadly. The documentary reported at least one suicide of a "cyberbullying" victim. It occurred after the boy's dad had spent many weeks gently coaching the teen to be assertive and confident, at the young man's request. The child's confidence did seem to surge and the family felt good about it. Then came the unthinkable loss. The father traced the emails his son had received from a cyberbully, hoping to alert other parents, although this miscreant was only one of many.

All of this came back to me in an even more compelling form when I read Amy Barry's "Parent's Eye View" column in the March 27, 2008 issue of The Sound, one of several weeklies published along the Connecticut shore. This piece is called "Confronting The Bully That Never Goes Home" because the bully it describes "follows your kid around 24-7.” This bully "lives inside your child's computer, determined to make his or her life miserable." The author describes her own shock at discovering "how pervasive this form of harassment has become."

Much of her information was gathered at a meeting sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organization that is trying to intervene. I think it is worth quoting some of the statistics she shares:

  • More than 13 million children in the U.S. aged 6 to 17 are targets of cyberbullying.
  • In a typical classroom of 30 students, more than half have been targets of cyberbullying.

Just as with the case of the boy mentioned above who took his own life, cyberbullying is most often anonymous, which empowers kids to say dreadful things they would never say if they thought they could be found out. It is not easy for parents to defuse the explosive quality of such cyberbullying, since they are not as comfortable as their children are at chatting, emailing, or IMing. Amy Barry recommends the ADL's free downloadable lessons on cyberbullying. I am most grateful to her for bringing this vital matter to our attention.

April 2, 2008

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