Electronic Morning Buzz

Recently I was reading this article in The New York Times and saw a little too much of my own family in the portrait of a busy family with his and hers Blackberry devices and laptop-toting kids.

As our family prepares to head back to school, my husband and I are trying to reduce our morning compulsion to check email or surf our favorite news websites at breakfast time. It is hard enough to make it to school on time without these digital distractions. Now sitting down to eat breakfast together is our main focus when we get up in the morning. 

We want our kids to feel that our morning routine is not too rushed, so if they are finished dressing and eating breakfast, we let them have a bit of free time before heading out the door. My son will sometimes dash off a new drawing before leaving the house in the morning and my daughter will sometimes take a few minutes to read a good book. Whatever they do to unwind it happens without the laptop. This downtime helps them get their head together before the busy school day.

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Celebrity Surprises, Archie’s Choice, and The Best Birthday Present Ever

We’re on one last vacation before school starts up again, so I’ve gathered a few links and notes about kids, books, and kid-book-like stuff. If all goes well, it will post while I'm gone and you'll never even know I'm not here! (well, except that I just said so.)

  • Speaking of childhood favorites, I wouldn’t be surprised if some thousands of kids first got hooked on reading through Archie Comics. Oh, those fun-loving teenagers and their antics, in a world where even in my childhood (the tumultuous 1970’s) it still appeared to be approximately 1953! Ah, the eternal triangle, in which Archie is forever torn between wholesome Betty and rich, bossy Veronica! Well, that bitter rivalry is about to be resolved at last: The Guardian reports that Archie has proposed marriage to…what, do you think I’m going to tell you who? Go read the article!

And lastly: my sister-in-law and 5-year-old niece came to visit last week, and brought with them a belated birthday present for me: my very own knitted, stuffed Elephant and Piggie! Look, aren’t they cute?:


(My daughter thought of making Gerald the elephant’s glasses out of twist-ties, and I think they are indeed the perfect touch.)


Apparently they inspired my nearly-9-year-old and her cousin, who is about to start kindergarten, to collaborate on some fan fiction. (They’re not the only ones; Mo Willem’s blog is full of tribute art and stories from kids.) I came home from work the next day to find this promising beginning written in an open notebook:


Today is the first day of school


Piggie: “Gerald, how is school?”

Gerald: “School is great!”

Gerald [sic]: “I know all about school, you get 3 resses and they give a snak!”

I’m still curious to see where it goes from there. According to my daughter, Piggie is worried about school, and Gerald assures her that it will be fun.


And may it be so for everyone starting school around now, with lots of recess and snack thrown in.

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When Kids in Books Read Other Books

One of the things about the characters in children’s books is that, sometimes, you’ll find them reading children’s books. I always get a kick out of it when that happens.

The other day I was (finally!) reading The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, and at one point, the Penderwick sisters’ aunt gives Jane a stack of books by her favorite author: Eva Ibbotson, and she exclaims with delight and glee and plunges right into reading Island of the Aunts. And I, too, was delighted and gleeful, and felt for Jane Penderwick the kind of fellowship that sometimes happens when you find someone who loves the same things you do, a feeling which was in no way lessened by the inconvenient fact that Jane Penderwick is fictional.

I suppose I really should have been feeling fellow-feeling towards the Penderwicks’ creator, Jeanne Birdsall, who chose such a perfect favorite author for the kind-hearted, thoughtful, imaginative Jane. It always warms my heart when children’s book authors sneak references to other kids’ books into their fiction; it’s a neat way to establish character, and is the best kind of advertising for the books, to boot. Also, it’s mildly surreal, like when people on a TV show watch television: it reminds you that the people you’re reading about are not actually real people but are, themselves, characters in a children’s book, reading about other characters in other children’s books, who might themselves be reading further children’s books, and so on ad infinitum…

Anyway, here are five of my favorite intertextuality/kidlit-product-placement moments in kids’ books:

  • When Angel in The Same Stuff as Stars, by Katherine Paterson, takes her  little brother to the library, and the librarian immediately, and accurately, pegs him as the kind of kid who would like The Stupids, and he immediately plonks down on the floor, entranced. He’s a very angry kid, with a lot to be angry about, and these irreverent books give him something to laugh about instead.
  • When Rose in Forever Rose by Hilary McKay doesn’t like reading, and her friend Sarah keeps trying to get her to read by giving her books she might like, and one of them is Where the Wild Things Are, and Rose, who is a brilliant artist although she has trouble with reading, is inspired to draw huge trees on all the walls of her room.
  • Not a moment exactly, but the kids in Half-Magic and Edward Eager’s other books are forever referring to the E. Nesbit books, which is as it should be, considering how much his fantasy owes to Nesbit.
  • I think it’s in Toy Dance Party that the toys recall to each other the various books that the Little Girl has read to them, or has had read to her as bedtime stories; they don’t name them by title, but at least one is about a mouse and it seemed to me that it was a reference to The Tale of Despereaux.

Actually I like that kind of hint even more than when actual titles or authors are mentioned—it’s like being a member of a secret club. Though if a book is mentioned by name, and I haven’t read it, and like the book that mentions it, I always want to go out and read that title right away; it’s like having a good friend recommend a book. Because, I guess, I think of the characters in books I’m reading (well, some of them) as my friends. At least while I’m reading about them. And getting a book suggestion from a friend who knows what you like is one of the best bets going. Authors know this, and that’s one reason they throw in those references—to get kids reading other good books.

But also, I think, authors—being book-lovers—just can’t resist recommending books they love, so much so that those suggestions sneak into their fiction, too. Because the feeling of turning someone on to a good book that you loved is almost as good as—maybe some ways even better than—the feeling of reading that book yourself.

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Book By its Cover, Part 2: A Short and Unscientific Survey

It’s hard to get a book cover right: to make it appealing to kids, and honestly representative of the book’s content, and cool-looking and distinctive. Everyone who works with kids and books—teachers, librarians, booksellers—knows how much the cover matters. If it looks boring, or drab, it’s like pulling teeth to get a kid to pick up the book, no matter how enticingly you might try to hand-sell it.

After reading about the controversy over Justine Larabastier’s new book Liar and its cover, I put on my critic’s hat and took a look at some book covers, particularly covers of books about kids and teens of color, and how accurately they do (or don’t) depict the actual content of the book. I ended up examining the covers of four books that are, like Liar, highly-acclaimed contemporary novels for teens about African-American (or, in one case, Haitian-American) girls. Links will take you to cover images and info about the books:

Touching Snow, by M. Sindy Felin. This cover, a pair of disembodied feathery angel wings, is beautiful, but it gives zero sense of the book, which is in turns brutal, moving, and cuttingly funny. You almost get the feeling that the publishers were scared of the content—not just the race of the Haitian-American protagonist, Karina, but of the horrific abuse she endures at the hands of her family, and the violence she propagates in turn. That one-sentence summary makes the book sound so dark, but Karina’s voice, snarky and smart and observant, and the love and closeness that she and her sisters share, give you hope. Surely a cover could have been found that would’ve given some intimation of both the book’s darkness and power, instead of just this lovely but bland one?

After Tupac and D Foster, by Jacqueline Woodson. Three girls on the verge of adolescence are at the center of this novel, but the ghostly face on the cover is that of the rap artist Tupac Shakur. This isn’t necessarily inaccurate—Shakur is both a real person and an idea to these girls, and is central to their dreams and imaginings as they navigate their world—but it makes the cover more abstract, less literal, and maybe even misleading as to what the book might be about.

When the Black Girl Sings, by Bil Wright. The hardcover cover shows three neat rows of white butterflies pinned to a framed canvas, as a single black butterfly wings above them, out of the frame. This perfectly captures the theme of the book, in which Lahni is the only African-American at her private school and in her family, and her adoptive white parents, though loving and supportive, can’t help her with her feelings of isolation. I go back and forth about this cover: as a metaphor, it’s perfect. But I’m not sure how much kid-appeal it has; it makes the book seem darker and scarier than it is. The paperback cover is much more evocative of the book, and I think more directly appealing to teen readers.

Kendra, by Coe Booth. The cover shows the back, arm, and partial profile of a girl who is recognizably African-American. We can’t see much of her face, but we can see that she’s looking through a chain-link fence. Overall it’s a perfect cover for this book, in which Kendra is observing, and facing, the limitations of her life and of the lives of the adults who care for her.

So…of the five covers I looked at, only two—Kendra and the paperback of When the Black Girl Sings—actually showed an image of an African-American girl. The others rely—with varying success—on metaphor, allusion, and abstraction to get across a sense of the book.

Not coincidentally, these are also the most successful covers, in my experience as a librarian who tries to get teens to read books that I love, is the paperback When The Black Girl Sings. The girl on the cover looks straight out at you, thoughtful yet challenging, which is what Lahni’s like. The piano keys and the silhouettes of birds clue you in to some of the themes of the book. My second favorite cover is Kendra. It’s visually arresting, intriguing, and puts you right into the Kendra’s world. (Full disclosure: it’s also from a Scholastic imprint. But that’s not why I’m drawn to it, and I’d be critiquing it as hard as the others if I didn’t like it.) You don’t have to puzzle it out or wonder what it means, and yet it’s not too on-the-nose: Kendra, or the girl on the cover, is facing away from the camera, in shadow. There’s some mystery to her, and it makes me want to know her story.

If I were a teen, white or Black or any other ethnicity, Kendra or the paperback of When the Black Girl Sings would be the book I’d pick up first if I were browsing through a library or bookstore. The other covers are artistic and pretty, but don’t hook me in the same way.

This is far from a scientific survey, but it does give some weight to the probability that publishers really are shying away from directly depicting African-American protagonists on YA books marketed to a mainstream (i.e. largely not Black) audience. And that’s too bad, in part because it makes for less effective covers.

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Raising Bilingual Kids

While in the midst of packing for our big trip to France and I could see how excited my kids were to see their French side of the family. Sure, it helps that there was a big family wedding this year where they are sure to see all of their cousins, but I know they are also excited to spend more time with their other language and culture. They have been keeping their French side under wraps for most of the school year since there is not much opportunity to speak French at school.

Spanish is the enrichment language of choice these days and they are learning some Spanish at school. Still I am glad my kids are learning French at home with their papa and during regular visits to France. They have many family experiences to back up their immersion in the language.


It may sound silly, but I think my kids sound and act different in French. Maybe it's all the baguette and Comtécheese that goes with the conversation or somehow their French language filter is just a little different than their American filter. My son is ten now and he sometimes mentions he would like to spend more time with his cousins and grandparents. He really looks forward to his summer visits to France. This year my 6-year-old daughter was mainly excited about the wedding and seeing a cousin's pony farm.

They appreciate the differences between their home in Brooklyn and their grandparents' vacation home in Brittany. The abundance of good food and lots of family visits make the visits fly by and they enjoy a bit of independence since they are visiting small town France where kids can roam free and enjoy nature.

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Book By its Cover

So, the vacation was great, with an excellent time had by all. We camped, we swam, we played music, and I read up a storm; though I didn’t make it through all the books I brought by a long shot.

 Meanwhile, back in the real world, things were happening, as they tend to do. I returned to discover that the kid/teen literature universe had been embroiled in outrage—and rightfully so—over the cover of the U.S. edition of Justine Larbalestier’s newest YA novel, Liar. Liar is, as you might guess from the title, the story of a teen who is a compulsive liar. Its protagonist and first-person narrator is African-American, with hair that she herself characterizes as “nappy,” and the problem arose when the design for the United States cover was released (the book itself won’t be released until October): it depicted a close-up, dramatic view of a straight-haired girl who was, to all appearances, Caucasian.

From what I gather based on Larbalestier’s eloquent and classy blog post on the topic, and the hundreds of comments it garnered, there was then a huge outcry among advance-copy readers. As Larbalestier explains, cover design is the decision of the publisher, not the author; she had opposed the cover from the beginning, but didn’t feel it was professional to speak out publicly about it until others had done so. When they did, she outlined her objections, which were, basically:

1)      The cover misled readers as to the book’s content (don’t you hate when that happens?), even leading some to question whether the narrator, who is after all a compulsive liar, is actually Black.

2)      Even more troublingly, the cover was racist: the thinking behind it appears to have been that people are less likely to read or buy books about Black people, so the solution was to try to cover up the fact that this book was about a Black person. That this still goes on is not shocking to me—this kind of “whitewashing” of covers is endemic in all areas of book publishing—but it is infuriating.

Many of the commenters on Justine’s post noted that they themselves were Black and/or were the parent or teacher or librarian of Black kids and teens who are desperate to find reading material the reflects their ethnic background. Others pointed out that they and/or their kids and/or their students were white and read and enjoyed books about African-American characters all the time, and that this assumption on the part of publishers was insulting to them.

One positive thing that came out of all this was that the publisher decided to scrap the old cover, even though it’s only a couple of months to publication, and create a new one featuring an African-American face. Another is that Justine, who is white, used the controversy to turn attention to several recent teen novels both by and about African-Americans, such as Coe Booth’s amazing Kendra (which does feature a recognizably African-American model on the cover) and to link to some blogs focusing on kids’ and teen books about people of color, blogs like The Happy Nappy Bookseller, Reading in Color, and Color Online. (I’d also recommend The Brown Bookshelf as an excellent source of recommendations of  books about African-American kids.) As several commenters on Justine’s post and elsewhere pointed out, there’s a general dearth of coverage of this area in the kidlitosphere (this blog not excepted, I’m afraid), maybe such a high-profile incident will lead some change.

Meanwhile, I’ve been taking a look at the covers of some other recent kids’ novels that feature kids of color, and will post a list next time. Anyone want to suggest any such books whose covers did them (or didn’t do them) proud?

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