Meet the New Librarian: Culling the Books

 

“The book sailed through the air,

as if its pages were wings,

and landed in the box marked TRASH.” 

— from Everybody Needs a Buddy.

Over the years, I’ve been entertained by different blog sites that feature hilariously outdated books still found in libraries. This scene from Everybody Needs a Buddy, the second book in the upcoming “Big Idea Gang” series, revolves around the zippy new librarian at school, Ms. Ronson. The kids are working on their project, hoping to persuade the school to install a “buddy bench” in the playground, when this encounter takes place.

But first, a brief description from an earlier page:

Ms. Ronson didn’t look much older than most middle schoolers. Small and thin, she wore her hair short and dyed bright red at the tips. Ms. Ronson was young and energetic. She wore colorful scarves and six earrings in each ear. She even had tattoos. And, of course, the kids loved her immediately — mostly because of her lively personality. 

And later:

“Excuse me, Lizzy? Padma?” a voice called. It was Ms. Ronson, now on her hands and knees by a back bookshelf. “Could you please bring over those boxes? Thanks ever so much.”

Ms. Ronson dumped some of the books in the first box. “Good riddance,” she muttered.

Lizzy was alarmed. “What are you doing? You can’t throw away books! It’s a waste of money.”

“Oh, Lizzy,” Ms. Ronson said, “some of these books have been here forever. No one reads them. They are taking up valuable space. Look at this book.” The young librarian held up an old science book. The cover read FUN WITH COMPUTERS! “This book is twenty years old. It’s terribly out of date. It’s useless, Lizzy, and it’s got to go.”

Lizzy could see that Ms. Ronson was right.

“Here’s another,” Ms. Ronson said, her voice rising. The cover read CAREERS FOR WOMEN. Ms. Ronson flipped through the stale, yellowed pages. “Look at these jobs. Secretary, flight attendant, piano teacher, bank teller!” Ms. Ronson actually growled, grrrrr. “Where’s scientist? Or financial analyst? Or astronaut? Or how about president? Maybe that’s what our country needs — a woman in the White House!”

The book sailed through the air, as if its pages were wings, and landed in the box marked TRASH. 

Ms. Ronson laughed. “I’m sorry, it just makes me crazy.” She swept an arm across the room. “Our graphic novel section is much too small. I can’t keep enough scary books on the shelves, because they are so popular. I don’t have any of this year’s new award-winners. Libraries have to change with the times. This is why it’s so wonderful that the PTA has decided to donate money for books. Don’t you agree?”

Lizzy and Padma nodded. Yes, they sure did. Lizzy tugged on Padma’s arm. “Come with me,” she whispered. “I want you to talk with the rest of the gang. I think I’ve got an idea — but we’ll need your help.”

Illustrations by Stephen Gilpin. Coming: January 2019, 96 pages, grades 1-4, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Also look for Worst Mascot Ever from the same “Big Idea Gang” series. 

One Question, Five Authors: “How Do You Celebrate on the Day the Book Arrives?”

Greetings, my Nation of Readers (though perhaps “wee village” is more like it). Anyway, I’m grateful to anybody who stops by. I started this particular spot more than 10 years ago. During that time, I’ve tried to self-promote relentlessly in a way that’s not too grotesque . . . to provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the creative process . . . and to shine a light on different artists and illustrators whose work I admire. Usually that’s taken the form of long, sprawling interviews which require considerable time and effort. 
Recently I had a new idea: Ask the same question to a number (5) of authors and illustrators. I hope in this way we’ll illuminate the process and, hopefully, help introduce you to some of the great people who are out there, doing such high-quality work.
And, hey, less effort for me!
Today’s question: “How do you celebrate on that day when the box arrives, and you finally hold a finished book in your hands?”
Let’s hear it for our special guests: S.A. Bodeen, Matthew Cordell, London Ladd, Laurie Calkhoven, and Lizzy Rockwell. Huzzah!
S.A. Bodeen
I’ve done different things over the years. Most recently was when copies of The Tomb arrived. Per usual, I ripped it open and took one out and removed the jacket to look at the actual book. (Yes, I do that every time.) Then I read the jacket to see what state I live in. (Sometimes they get it wrong. In their defense, I move a lot.) Then I put the jacket back on and showed it to my husband and he said “We should celebrate.” If the box arrives before dinner, we go out. Last night the box came after dinner (I made fish tacos, which were actually killer), so I suggested Culver’s, where he had a root-beer float and I had a vanilla malt.

Matthew Cordell

I’m probably my own toughest critic when it comes to my books, so I’m always a little nervous about opening up a box of finished books. It’s a little weird to look at something you made many months or over a year before you see the finished product. As artists, we are (or should be) constantly evolving and getting better as we work. So, a lot can change in a year’s time. I guess my personal celebration is flipping through a book several times. The first time with one eye closed probably. Each time looking at it gets a little easier on the eyes. Each time, seeing less of the flaws and more of the achievements and fond memories from the time spent collaborating and creating. Then it feels good. Then I take a picture and share it on social media. I hope that isn’t too bleak of an answer to your question.

London Ladd

It’s an easy question. After I open the package I touch and squeeze the book because I like feeling it before opening it. The new smell, the stiffness of the hardcover, the heartwarming note from the publisher…all of it really makes me so happy. Afterwards I look at the front cover and back to check out the design and font, I still get a thrill seeing my name on the cover :).  I open it and quickly scan the book jacket and then examine through the pages for all the things I should have done better and make mental learning notes on what not to do for the next book. I really love creating pictures books but I strive to be better.

 

Laurie Calkhoven

I’m afraid I’m a sad failure when it comes to celebrating my work. Part of the reason is the question of WHEN to celebrate. The day I accept the offer? The day –- weeks later –- when the contract arrives for my signature? The day – even more weeks later –- when the countersigned contract arrives with the advance check? The day that lovely box of books arrives? What about publication date? I DO usually pop a champagne cork or two with my writer’s group when I accept an offer. The other milestones are hit or miss depending on deadlines and whatever else is going on in my life. Sometimes I buy myself a piece of jewelry or a ticket to a play when the check arrives, but publication dates tend to pass without any notice from me. Lots of writers throw book parties (and I happily attend), but the idea of having one for myself makes the introvert in me want to run for the hills.
Lizzy Rockwell
I can’t say I have a ritual with this, but it is always a thrill. Like most thrills, it is mixed with a bit of fear. What if I find a mistake, what if I think I could have done better? Once it’s a book, all those choices that I agonized over are now finite. It’s so gratifying to see all the hard work by the editor and art director that pulls it all together. Things like end-sheets, typography, color matching, printing, paper quality, that I have nothing to do with, make such a difference. And it is the first time I have held the book in my hands, and read it start to finish, in color, while turning the pages. I always make a physical dummy booklet to draw my sketches in, so I can see and feel how the pacing goes as you turn the page. So until I see the printed book for the first time, that narrative continuity has been broken up into distinct parts over the many months that it takes to do all the editing, and complete the finished art. So there is a deep satisfaction when the book finally arrives in the mail (a year after I last saw the paintings). It’s my chance to hold the physical object, read, look, and turn the pages and finally see it as a unified work of art.
If readers care to suggest questions for future posts, please make a comment below!

“What Level Is This Book?”

A number of Jigsaw Jones books have been offered through Scholastic Book Clubs. My niece, Jamie, sent along a snap:

 

As my many biographers are well aware, I began my career as a junior copywriter in 1985 at Scholastic for $11,500. My first job was writing the SeeSaw Book Club. 

I noticed those data points at the bottom right:

LEX: 360L-450L

GRL: 0

DRA: 34-38

I confess that I don’t know what any of those numbers mean. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not. Should I be aiming for a higher or lower “DRA”? Clearly, this is some kind of “important information” (yes, in quotes) about the level and age-appropriateness of the books. To help guide parents/teachers about the level of the product offered.

Heaven forfend if the book is too hard or too easy.

Honestly: I’m curious. How long have book clubs been incorporating this info into the kits (as we called them back in the day). Do you see this as good information? Bad information? Misleading?

From time to time, I’m lucky enough to sign books at festivals. And more and more I’m hearing that question from parents: “What level is this book?”

And I don’t know the answer.

I mean, I have an idea of the interest level; I have a notion of the difficulty. This series has been around for two decades. My sense is that now parents are looking for highly specific information. They’ve been taught to look for this info. 

Are we overthinking this?

Why, as a book lover, does this little group of numbers and letters make me want to cry a little bit?

Because often there’s a kid standing next to mom when she asks this question. A kid who maybe wants to read the book, or maybe not. What level is it? I sure don’t know the answer.

I can’t help but wonder if this is some new version of “Dick and Jane” readers, where everything is controlled and identified. The stages of reading. 

Note, also, that this information is not included on the book itself. This comes from Scholastic Corporate, evidently in response to a perceived a need, a way to better serve customers. Who want to know the answer to the question: “What level is this book?”

When did people start asking that? What brave new world is this?

I don’t mean to be snarky. I’m grateful to Scholastic for offering my books. I’m just curious what’s going on here. It might be a positive thing, I don’t know.

But here’s a thought:

Note: I am not familiar with Jillian Starr, a classroom teacher, or her work. This was just a meme floating around the interwebs. It seemed to be saying something important. A reminder.

Thoughts, ideas?

ADDENDUM . . .

After posting this piece, I came across Donalyn Miller’s post, “On the Level,” originally posted at the terrific Nerdy Book Club site. Here’s the opening two paragraphs, but please click on the link to Donalyn’s post for full effect:

While I was visiting an elementary school library in Chicago last spring, a group of third graders came into the library to return and check out books. The children wore index cards clipped to their shirts. On one side of the card was the child’s name. On the back, layers of sticky labels with the top label indicating the child’s current Lexile reading level. The poor librarian was required to check the reading level on the cards against the books the children wanted to check out. If a child picked a book that wasn’t on their level, she had to take it from them and tell them to get another one. Imagine what it feels like to hear you can’t read a book you want to read and must choose another one. Imagine your entire class witnesses this exchange. How do you feel about reading? How do you see yourself as a reader?

Again and again, I see reading level measures used to rank children, sort them into reading groups, identify at-risk readers, or generate grades. To what end? If we truly value a whole child model of education, children’s development of lifelong reading habits and skills should matter just as much as reading scores. Does our institutional zeal for reading levels have long-term negative consequences for young readers?

That Feeling When . . . You Just Hit Send!

 

Yesterday I hit “send.” A year late, but I got there. Wilderness survival story, involving a brother and sister. Think “Hatchet” meets “Misery” . . . and there’s a dog.

I can’t wait to see this book out in the world. It might be the best thing I’ve written.

Oh, while I have you: When I start a new book, I have a ritual. I go to CVS and purchase a composition notebook. It begins that way. Brainstorming, reading, filling a notebook with random ideas and inspirations. Eventually I get to the computer and start writing. With this book, because I had to learn so much, the pre-writing process — which includes note-taking, tons of reading, and a lot of scribbled ideas — took about 18 months before I could even start. Funny how that works.

For this book, I had the title from the beginning. Same thing with Six Innings and Bystander. Other books, titles can be a wicked struggle.

I love all the characters in this book, but most particularly Grace. She is fierce and strong and courageous. In some respects, it was easy to write about her. I just had to think of my daughter, Maggie.  

Should be published in Fall, 2019. Only my wife, Lisa, has read it so far. But as Pusha T says, “When you know, you know.”

 

Please Spell “Future”

Passing along this piece of editorial artwork by my friend, illustrator R.W. Alley (Paddington Bear, Jigsaw Jones, Mrs. Toggle).

R.W. is currently working on the illustrations for the next Jigsaw Jones book, The Case of the Hat Burglar.