Sunday, March 10, 2013

Don't Be Afraid To Be Silly: CYA Storytelling and Booktalking iTea Is a Great Success

On Wednesday February 6th, CYA had the pleasure to host the Mississauga Public Library at the “Stellar Storytelling and Brilliant Booktalking iTea!” Daria Sharanewych, the Manager of Children’s Services at the Mississauga Library, and the rest of her team shared their wisdom about providing children’s programming. If you were in the Inforum or just passing by you probably heard funny voices, great stories, and tons of giggles! The Mississauga storytelling team brought smiles to everyone’s faces and let us remember what it is like to be a child, including being extremely silly!

Programming for children is not a specific skill that is taught at the iSchool. The iTea was a great way to observe and understand the process behind storytelling and booktalking. The staff of Mississauga Public Library presented their favourite programming ideas that they incorporate on a regular basis. There were stories with books, stories without books, songs with books, and songs without books! Many of the staff engaged the audience by including them in the stories, which felt awkward at first, but everyone was quick to reignite the kid inside them.

The biggest recommendations from the children’s services team were to just be yourself, and do what feels comfortable! Picking stories you actually love will invest your performance with that love, and the children will feed off of it. One of the children’s staff even recommended practicing in front of the mirror! Another piece of advice was to not worry about being silly in front of your audience, because children want to have fun. Engaging children in the performance also makes the experience more personal.

The hour iSchool students spent with the Mississauga Public Library was a memorable experience that will help many future children and youth librarians. Many students left with smiles on their faces, and with many ideas for programming!

Now that the iTea is over, a great idea is to start reading lots children’s books and find out what your preferences are. Even practicing your performances with friends, family, or a mirror is a great idea. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or ideas too! Many children’s librarians are experts and are always willing to share programs that have been successful. Overall, the “Stellar Storytelling and Brilliant Booktalking iTea” was a great success!

-- Contributed by Sarah Gauthier, CYA member, 2013-14 Co-Chair

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Book Reviews: Nonfiction books about animals

In this post, I look at two nonfiction books for young readers. Both are featured in the current "Forest of Reading" program, a province-wide recreational reading program sponsored by the Ontario Library Association. Both fiction and nonfiction winners of the various Forest of Reading awards - Silver Birch, Red Maple, and so on - are featured in public and school libraries throughout the province. In other words, lots of kids will read these books. And that is a very good thing.

The Sea Wolves: Living Wild in the Great Bear Rainforest, Ian McAllister and Nicholas Read, 2012

This beautiful book introduces young readers to some fascinating creatures and their unique habitat. The Sea Wolves begins with the many cultural myths and fears about wolves, then dispels those misconceptions with facts about these beautiful, intelligent, highly social animals. The book examines a unique sub-species of wolf that lives in the rainforest on Canada's Pacific coast. Smaller and thinner than the gray wolf, the sea wolf can swim like an otter, and fishes for salmon like a bear! The sea wolves are also unique among wolves in that they have never been hunted. The First Nations people of the area have lived side-by-side with wolves for thousands of years; their culture holds wolves in a position of respect and admiration. The book also describes the wonders of the Great Bear Rainforest, an isolated wilderness now threatened by plans for the tarsands pipeline.

A lot of information is packed into this short book, richly paired with Ian McAllister's stunning photographs of the sea wolves and the rainforest. (McAllister and Read's earlier book about the Great Bear Rainforest, The Salmon Bears, was also a Forest of Reading selection.) The book is truly a love-letter to wolves and to the Canadian rainforest.

Although The Sea Wolves makes a strong case for conservation and preservation, and does mention that the wolves' future is uncertain and the rainforest is threatened, it stops short of endorsing activism. One never knows about the politics behind the scenes - if the authors had wanted to make the activism piece stronger, but were prevented from doing so - but a short piece of "What you can do to help" would have been better than merely giving a website where interested readers can get more information.

This is a beautiful book, both visually attractive and extremely well written. It has the potential to propel many young readers towards a fascination with wolves, the sea wolf, and one of our continent's last bit of wilderness.

No Shelter Here: Making the World a Kinder Place for Dogs, Rob Laidlaw, 2011

Talking to children about cruelty is always tricky. I've written about, for example, being traumatized by learning about the Holocaust as a child in Hebrew school, or by seeing certain details of animal abuse on a documentary. Children need to see the world as it is, but a sensitive child can be overwhelmed by the view.

In No Shelter Here, a book about animal abuse and injustice, Rob Laidlaw has found the perfect approach. The book alternates between problem and solution, first showing us an arena of maltreatment - such as puppy mills, research, or dogs kept alone and chained - then introducing us to "Dog Champions," actual young people who have taken action. For every injustice, there is a real person fighting for justice, and suggestions on how a young reader can get involved. In this way, the book is not merely informative and depressing, it is motivating and empowering.

Young people from all over the world are spotlighted as Dog Champions, each with photos, a short story of how they got started, the actions they chose, and their accomplishments. At the end of the book, readers are invited to take The Dog Lover's Pledge, and to visit animal-welfare websites.

No Shelter Here is full of photographs of imploring brown eyes and dogs in need of champions, but the photos are not shocking or explicit. There are also plenty of photos of Dog Champions at work, and joyful, healthy dogs who have been championed. As one reviewer put it, the issues are "addressed frankly but gently". Animal-loving children will find this book disturbing, but they are likely to motivated to educate others, and to become part of the solution.

- Contributed by Laura Kaminker, CYA 2012-13 Co-chair, originally posted on wmtc.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Book Reviews: Classics Old and New (part 3)

Parts 1 of this series is here; Part 2 is here.

Still Classic?

A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle, 1962

A Wrinkle in Time has always been one of my favourite books. Although I have re-read it a few times over the years, I approached it for this series with some trepidation, a bit concerned that I might no longer recommend it to young readers. I needn't have worried. The book - continually in print since it was first published in 1962 - was reissued last year in a special 50th anniversary printing, and with very good reason.

From the moment we begin, we are drawn to Meg - confused and frustrated, feeling like she can't do anything right. Scrappily defending her odd younger brother. Clinging to her mother's calm faith that her father will return. Feeling destined to never fit in.

And as we're identifying with Meg, the mystery begins to unfold. Who is this strange Mrs. Whatsit, and how does she know a secret about Meg's mother, one that even Meg didn't know? Family bonds, the pressures of conformity, and the shifting landscape of our own self-esteem quickly become entwined with time travel, the limits of our known world, and the battle against the nameless evil, fascism. The language feels fresh, the characters alive. We follow them into a fantasy, only to learn a basic truth: that we must find our own moral courage, and we must witness the power of love. This book is timeless.

Where to go from there? There are the other four books in L'Engle's "Time Quintet": A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time. I haven't read them all, but young people love series, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend anything by L'Engle. However, I would recommend following up in a different direction.

* * * *

Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, The Graphic Novel, adapted and illustrated by Hope Larson, 2012

Madeleine L'Engle died in 2007, so she didn't live to see her greatest work thrive in a new format. I suspect she would have loved it. The award-winning author and illustrator Hope Larson has brilliantly adapted A Wrinkle in Time into a graphic novel. It's faster-paced than the original, as you might expect, but true to both plot and feel.

A reviewer at calls it "a love letter" to the original.

On HuffPo, Hope Larson writes about why she took on the project and what was involved.

* * * *

And finally, I want to (again) mention a contemporary children's novel that pays homage to A Wrinkle in Time: Rebecca Stead's 2009 When You Reach Me.

Miranda, the protagonist of When You Reach Me, is obsessed with A Wrinkle in Time. She carries the book with her and reads it again and again. Perhaps that helps prepare her for what is to come. This book is a daring meld of a realistic story with something fantastical and other-worldly. It is a treasure.

* * * *

- Contributed by Laura Kaminker, CYA 2012-13 Co-chair, originally posted on wmtc.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Book Reviews: Classics Old and New (part 2)

Part 1 of this series is here.

* * * *

Still Classic?

My Side of the Mountain, Jean Craighead George, 1959
Hatchet, Gary Paulsen, 1987, first of series of five books

Sam Gribley, the teenage hero of My Side of the Mountain, runs away from his crowded New York City home, determined to live off the land. He brings only a few basic tools and a little money, and learns how to survive by trial-and-error and through research at the local library. Sam does more than survive: he builds a rich life for himself in the woods. After contact with some locals from nearby towns, this "wild boy" of the forest becomes something of a local legend.

I was fascinated with this book as a child. It inspired fantasies of living off the land the way Sam Gribley did, and deepened my appreciation of nature. Re-reading the book as an adult, I was still impressed. There are some awkward, old-fashioned phrasing - "You know, it really does hurt to be terribly hungry" does not sound like a teenage boy to me - but the arc of Sam's progress is compelling enough to overlook those. The book is packed with details about nature and survival, from how to build a fire and find edible plants, to how to train a hawk and tan a deerskin hide.

In Gary Paulsen's Hatchet, fifteen-year-old Brian Robeson survives an accident but is left alone in the Canadian wilderness, his only tool and helper, a hatchet. Where My Side of the Mountain is a naturalist's tale, Hatchet is about survival. Brian's life is at stake. He is forced to learn how to build a fire without matches, how to make a safe shelter, how to get food. These lessons are about more than information and technique. They are, quite literally, lessons of life or death.

As Brian adapts and learns, he becomes more atuned to both himself and his surroundings. He acquires more than new skills; he acquires a new sense of self, of nature, of the interconnectedness of all things. He also learns, painfully, about the random luck of life and death, of nature's beauty, and its cruelty, and its loneliness.

Paulsen's writing is sparse and urgent, and always feels authentic. Because Brian has survived a terrible accident and has no possibility of simply leaving and going home, Hatchet has an urgency that My Side of the Mountain lacks. Brian is also dealing with his parents' recent divorce and some painful knowledge about his mother. This also grounds Brian's character in reality. Sam Gribley's family, by contrast, is an abstraction.

Jean Craighead George, author of My Side of the Mountain, also wrote the excellent Julie of the Wolves (1972), among other books. George was a naturalist who lived with a family full of animals, and a prolific and excellent writer. She died in 2012, her death little noticed (perhaps because Maurice Sendak, a more famous children's author, died around the same time).

I would still recommend My Side of the Mountain to young readers, but I'd go for Hatchet first.

Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder, series originally published from 1932-1943, republished in many subsequent editions
Dear Canada, Dear America, My Story, I Am Canada series, various authors

I was fascinated with the Little House series as a child, and you can guess why. The main character's name was Laura, and she grew up to be the Laura who wrote these books. A Laura who was a writer. I don't know if I read the entire series, but I read many of them, and many times. [The Canadian equivalent may be Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables. But I didn't grow up in Canada, I don't share the Canadian obsession with these books, and I won't venture into that territory just now.]

I haven't looked at a Little House book since my grade-school days, and I had no idea how they would read. The answer is: really well. The writing is simple and straightforward, and surprisingly, does not feel dated. The Ingalls family faces challenges and hardships, always together as a family, and always seeing the bright side of every situation.

But. There's a big but. The Ingalls family were white settlers on the American frontier. That means they encountered Indians, as the Native Americans would have been called. And depictions of Indians, in those days, means racism. The Little House books are perennials on the Challenged Book list, always accused of racism. Picking up these books for the first time in more than 40 years, I was holding my breath a bit, wondering how bad it would be.

I'm pleased to say it wasn't that bad. Nowhere near as racist as Hollywood movies of the same era, where Indians are either bloodthirsty savages or lazy idiots. Wilder's Indians are utterly different from the white settlers - they are exotified - and their difference frightens the family. But they are depicted as real human beings - people with families and traditions, and an authentic culture of their own. When a character says, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian," Pa - who is the moral authority of the series, the voice of benevolent authority - disagrees. Pa believes in mutual respect, in live-and-let-live.

But. But still. These are settlers. They are descendants of Europeans, and they are "taming" a "wilderness"; they are claiming this land for their own. There is no challenge or counterpoint to Manifest Destiny. I would hardly expect a children's book to refer to the westward expansion as genocide, but the indigenous point of view is completely absent.

There are other cringe-worthy bits, too. In Little Town on the Prairie, a minstrel show comes to town. The racism here is blatant, and quite disgusting.

Racism and imperialism in classic children's literature is a huge issue, and I won't try to deal with it exhaustively here. Little House on the Prairie is the tip of the iceberg. Some old children's books considered classics, still on the shelves in libraries throughout the English-speaking world, are shockingly racist, and I question the need to include them in our libraries today.

Here are two interesting perspectives on this issue. In The Diamond in the Window, a blog about children's books, a mom writes about dealing with the racism, both written and implied: Racism, History, and Little House on the Prairie. This mom feels the answer is providing context. I agree, but it's a tough job, and I wonder about the necessity of it. Do our children really suffer if they're not exposed to the books of their parents' or grandparents' youth? Won't books of their own generation do well enough?

In the Laura Ingalls Wilder blog Only Laura, a writer and fan of the series asks, "Little House on the Prairie: Racist or Not?".
Yes, Ma is racist (and as a mother I must say understandably so, trying to mother her children in the middle of such unrest). But if Ma is racist, isn’t Pa her counterpart? And whose side does Laura take? Whose side does the narrator take? What emerges is, in fact, a complex push-pull relationship as Laura has to make a decision about how she feels about these people she knows as Indians. And the author shares with me — the reader — that decision.

Laura likes Indians. She admires them. She feels badly for what’s happening to them. She does not say each of these things outright, although she does say some of them. By what Laura Ingalls Wilder, the writer, chooses to share about the character Laura’s thoughts about the Indians, it’s clear that to her, Ma’s judgment does not ring true.

I think that for young readers, the lesson here is not racism. It’s acceptance and respect.
Well, maybe. This is the perspective of someone who finds racism "understandable" when a woman is "mothering" children, and who employs that delicate, blame-free euphemism, "unrest". I agree that Wilder, through the character of Pa, emphasizes tolerance and mutual respect. But the reader is still identifying with the trials and tribulations of the settlers. The Indian perspective is barely alluded to.

I think young readers are better served from a fresher perspective on history. Historical fiction series like Dear America, Dear Canada, I Am Canada, and My Story all tell history from the first-person point of view of a young person. They tackle some difficult territory, like the internment of Ukrainian immigrants in Canada, the anti-Semitism that led to boatloads of doomed European Jews being turned away from North American shores (both in the US and Canada), and child labour. The writing is very good, and the first-person narratives are gripping.

I was very disappointed to see that the "Dear Canada" series is marketed exclusively to girls. The equivalent series marketed to boys is almost entirely focused on war. (One exception is a book about building the transcontinental railway.) Don't boys need and want to learn about history? As a student librarian, I already find myself clashing with childrens' readers' advisory that is almost entirely segregated by gender. Let's save that discussion for another day.

However, as I was writing this post, I was very pleased to learn that the "I Am Canada" series, the "boy" history series, includes a story of a war resister! A soldier in the trenches of WWI, horrified and traumatized, wanders off, as if he can go home to Canada. He comes upon a band of deserters, and must decide whether to continue to resist the war, or to return to the front. I've requested a copy from the Toronto Public Library (the Mississauga Library System doesn't own it) and will write about it soon.

These historical fiction series are, of course, still official readings of history. Don't expect Howard Zinn. But the non-dominant perspective is brought forward, in a way that the Laura Ingalls Wilder books cannot do.

Contemporary Classics

When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead, 2009

Set in New York City in the late 1970s, When You Reach Me is a straightforward, realistic story, with a touch of the fantastical mixed in, a kind of magic realism that is thrilling and just a bit scary.

As Miranda's long-time best friendship breaks apart, and just as she tentatively begins to form some new friendships, the barefoot, laughing man appears in the neighbourhood for the first time. Who is sending Miranda these tiny handwritten notes - and how does the note-writer know so much about her?

This powerful tween novel also pays homage to one of the best children's books of all time, A Wrinkle in Time. I can't tell you what the two books have in common without giving too much away. Like Holes, When You Reach Me is a story of redemption. It's also about friendship, and independence, and what gets left behind as we come into our own. Also like Holes, it's one of the very best tween books I've read.

Because of Winn Dixie, Kate DiCamillo, 2000

When 10-year-old Opal finds a big, ugly dog in a Winn-Dixie grocery store, she names him after the store and brings him home. Opal lives with her father, a preacher, and misses her mother, who she doesn't know much about. Opal needs friends, and she makes them - because of Winn Dixie.

An assortment of quirky but very believable characters comes into Opal's life. The town librarian, whose ancestor made his fortune by creating a candy that is sweet, but tastes like sorrow, and who once fought off a bear with a copy of War and Peace. A nearly blind woman who town children say is a witch. A man in a pet store who plays his guitar for the animals. Winn Dixie brings these people into Opal's life, and Opal brings them into each other's lives.

This is a lovely, sad, heartwarming, but not sentimental, story. Children who like it will want to read it again and again, to get closer to the wonderful characters.

- Contributed by Laura Kaminker, CYA 2012-13 Co-chair, originally posted on wmtc.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Book Reviews: Classics Old and New (part 1)

In a series of reviews, I'll write about one or two older children's books, assess whether I believe the books are still relevant to a young reader today, and offer a more contemporary alternative. I'll also review two additional children's books that I recommend.

* * * *

Still Classic?

The Borrowers, Mary Norton, 1952, five books in the series
The Spiderwick Chronicles, Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, 2003, currently eight books in the series

Borrowers are tiny creatures who look like miniature people, live in human homes, and re-purpose human belongings. If you're missing a thimble, a Borrower might be using it to strain spaghetti. Your missing bandanna might be a blanket for a king-size Borrower bed. When you lose something that you just know is in the house somewhere, but you can't find it, perhaps a Borrower took it.

The premise of The Borrowers is a terrific idea, but the books are old, and they are British, and may make unsatisfying - or incomprehensible - reading for a child in Canada or the US today. The language and the sentence structure may be too inaccessible. References to hat pins, darning, breakfast rooms, cupboards, and a hoop (as a toy), all in the first few pages, are likely to be off-putting.

A similar fantasy concept forms the basis of Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black's The Spiderwick Chronicles: three children move into an old estate and discover a world of fairy creatures living in the walls and floors. The ensuing adventures are a little scary and a little gross, full of vivid descriptions and lots of action. The childrens' personalities and issues will ring true to most readers. And it's all complimented by beautiful Gothic-style illustrations.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler, E. L. Konigsburg, 1967
The View from Saturday, E. L. Konigsburg, 1996

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler is a classic 'tween novel about a girl and her younger brother who run away from home and hide out in New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Claudia's issues - feeling underappreciated, wanting to separate from her family and have her own adventure - are universal for young readers. The art-world mystery the children discover, and their new relationship with a surrogate grandparent, develop quickly and feel relevant. While some details feel dated - Claudia saves her allowance for a $1.40 train fare, her brother Jamie buys a transistor radio - I think young readers will easily glide over these and enjoy the story.

While I wouldn't avoid From the Mixed-Up Files, published in 1967, if I were introducing a young reader to the joys of E. L. Konigsburg, I'd start with 1996's A View from Saturday. Four misfit middle-school students will represent their school in an academic competition. Chapters following their progress alternate with chapters narrated by one of the members, each recounting a story of something that changed their life. At the heart of the competition is not so much a mystery as a puzzle. The clues are not obvious - in fact they're a little convoluted - but good readers won't be put off. Funny, touching, insightful, A View from Saturday is an excellent tween novel that will resonate with many readers.

Contemporary Classics

Holes, Louis Sachar, 1998

Stanley Yelnats has been accused of stealing a pair of sneakers from a famous baseball player. Despite his innocence, he is found guilty. That's typical for the Yelnats family. If it weren't for bad luck, they'd have no luck at all.

Stanley is sentenced to 18 months at Camp Green Lake - which isn't really a camp. There’s nothing green. And there’s no lake. In fact, there’s no anything – it’s in the middle of the desert in Texas. Nothing for miles and miles around but dry, flat, earth under the baking sun.

At Camp Green Lake, Stanley meets boys named X-Ray, Squid, Armpit, Zigzag, and Zero. And they're all digging holes.

Every day, every boy has to dig a huge hole, under the hot desert sun. The digging is supposed to turn them from bad boys to good boys. But maybe that’s not the real reason the boys are forced to dig holes. Stanley starts to realize that the warden at Camp Green Lake is looking for something. Something buried in the desert, a long time ago. What is she looking for?

Holes is a story of mistakes and redemption, of the past echoing in our lives, and of our ability to create our own lives in spite of the past. Holes is one of my favourite books, and one of the very best books for young people that I've read.

The Lightning Thief, Rick Riordan, 2005 (first in Percy Jackson series)

Rick Riordan is one of the most popular children's authors, and the moment you begin The Lightning Thief, you'll know why. The sentences fairly leap off the page, packed with action and vivid descriptions. Even reluctant readers may feel as though they're watching a movie.

Twelve-year-old Percy Jackson feels mired in a life of failure and loss, until he begins to discover his true origins and his destiny. The discovery sets Percy on a hero's journey, a quest to save his friends - and save the world. The present day coming-of-age and the fantastical hero's journey combine, as the realistic world mixes with a world of ancient gods and mythological creatures.

The Lightning Thief is super fast-paced; the narrator's voice is funny, sarcastic, and hip. Kids pick up this book and are riveted on the spot: I've seen boys read the whole novel in the library in one sitting, then go to the shelf to search for the next installment.

Rick Riordan has written two Percy Jackson serieses - Percy Jackson & the Olympians, and Heroes of Olympus, as well as The Kane Chronicles series, and several books for adults. Riordan also began the very popular (and excellent) children's series The 39 Clues. Few children's writers command as loyal and avid a following as Rick Riordan. See his website here.

- Contributed by Laura Kaminker, CYA 2012-13 Co-chair, originally posted on wmtc.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Recap of CYA fundraiser and book drive

         From November 26th-28th, the CYA held a fundraiser and book drive at the iSchool in support of the Children’s Book Bank, a charitable organization that provides free books and literacy support to children who attend schools in Toronto’s Regent Park community. During this event, the CYA successfully raised $400 and collected a big box of books! We attribute this success to the efforts and generosity of CYA members and the larger iSchool community. A month before the event, the CYA promoted the fundraiser and book drive on Facebook, the CYA mailing list, MISC digest and posters around the iSchool. During the fundraiser, CYA had tables set up in the iSchool lobby and CYA members volunteered their time selling beautiful handmade items crafted by the Stitch n Bitch group. Some of the items sold include hats, flower pins, a headband, shawl, cowl, tea towel and a kindle case.
The CYA also raised money by selling tickets for raffle prizes. A raffle ticket could be bought with a $2 donation and 3 raffle tickets could be bought with a $5 donation. Those who donated new or gently used children’s book for the book drive received 3 raffle tickets per book.
There were 4 prizes to be won:

Grand Prize - Winter Care Basket, containing:
- handknit hat
- chocolate fondue set
- diffuser with vanilla scent
- two hardcover books: Marley & Me by John Grogan, Irma Voth by Miriam Toews
- MISC travel mug for hot beverage
- winter-themed mug
- assorted travel-sized body lotions
- two MISC shot glasses
- assorted chocolates and candies

Second Prize: MISC Organic Tote Bag containing MISC merch:
- water bottle
- USB key
- travel mug
- mug
- shot glass

Third Prize:
- MISC USB key
- MISC mug
- MISC water bottle
- MISC shot glass

Fourth Prizes:
-  five winners received one MISC USB key each

The prizes for the draw were generously donated by CYA members and MISC council.

The CYA remains committed to raising awareness about the information needs of children and youth populations to the larger iSchool community. We thank everyone who contributed to the success of the fundraiser and book drive!

-- contributed by Ramona Sansait, CYA co-chair