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:
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.
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’s me with the antenna. Wait, no, I’m in the middle.
I started at Scholastic as a Junior Copywriter for $12,500 a year, hired partly because of a writing sample, an opinion piece I wrote about the subway shooter, Bernie Goetz (no lie), and also because I was the first young, heterosexual male to enter the building in the last six years — besides the mail room guys, of course. There were three other copywriters working on the book clubs: Bill Epes, Karen Belov, and Cynthia Larkins. I may have muffed those spellings. My primary responsibility was the K-1 SeeSaw Book Club. I sat in a cubicle and banged away on a typewriter. Computers came in less than a year after I arrived, a transition that caused great upheaval. We threw away our little bottles of liquid white-out, learned how to boot up with an MS-DOS 5 1/4 floppy disk, and so on.
An aside: I just breezed through the brilliant biography, STEVE JOBS, and it so captured the changes of technology through my life. If you are around my age (51 yesterday), or maybe any age, you’ve got read it. The author, Walter Isaacson, also wrote the biography, EINSTEIN, that I raved about previously.
At Scholastic, in the old 730 Broadway location, I worked in-house for almost five years, rising all the way to lower-middle obscurity. Another memory: I remember when they instituted a new policy no longer allowing people to smoke at their desks. Suddenly you had to go down to the 8th floor to the “smoker’s lounge.” Many of us feared that our old-school copyeditor, the chain-smoking Willie Ross, would lose her mind completely. Such a violation of personal liberty, an outrage perpetrated by the PC police, and I was sure the laughter I heard came from the belly of Big Brother.
I continued on with Scholastic as a consultant and favored freelancer. Launched and ran the Carnival Book Club out of my home in Albany, as both editor and promotion manager. Wrote some books, started doing Jigsaw Jones in 1998, and on and on. I assumed my time at Scholastic would go on forever. But not quite. I used to really, really love that place, and I know I’m not alone in that regard.
The man on the left of the photo is my great pal Craig Walker. In life you don’t get to know too many people who become mentors, people you respect and admire and love, and for me Craig heads that very short list. He was one-of-a-kind. There was a long stretch of about 15 years or so when we were really, really good friends. We probably ate lunch together three times a week for four years, usually in the cheapest, no-nonsense dives we could find. Or was that the bars we frequented? The truly remarkable thing about Craig is that so many people felt that way about him. Our relationship was special. Our friendship was unique and powerful. Dozens upon dozens of people could make that same claim — and they’d all be correct. He was just one of those guys that made you think, “I wish I could be more like him.” Craig is gone now, but as I’ve written before, I try to remember everything.
1986, the day we watched Game 6 of the 1986
World Series at Brenda Bowen’s parents’ summer
place. Me and Craig.
Let’s see, yes, that’s art director Scott Hunt next to me. I thought of Scott a few days ago when, reading the book, I LOVE IT WHEN YOU TALK RETRO, the author Ralph Keyes explained the origin of one of Scott’s go-to words, “skosh.” As in, “Let’s move that type down a skosh.” Confusingly, it came from the Korean War, but was adapted from a Japanese word, sukoshi, meaning “a small amount.” Reading about those origins, I wondered if perhaps Scott’s father spent time in Korean conflict, hanging out with Hawkeye, Trapper John, Hot Lips, and the gang. Scott used to complain that his father was a gung-ho outdoors type, always taking the children on camping trips and forced hikes up impossible mountains. Scott would say, “I hated those hikes. I just wanted to stay home and watch movies!”
And to the right, that’s Cynthia Maloney, a Kansas gal. Cynthia used to wear a deerskin vest the like of which you have never seen, in Manhattan, no less. She had the messiest desk on all three floors. I’d ask her about something, an important memo or whatever, or a mechanical board she had to review and sign, and she’d turn to this tilting mountain of paper and, after a considered time, miraculously extract the key document from the perilous pile. Cynthia was older than I was, married with children, but I always had a secret crush on her, the way you do in office life, ten cubicles down, a world away. She might have been the nicest person in the place.
Anyway, we started a preschool book club, called it FIREFLY, and as far as I know it’s still going strong today, 25 years later. I wrote all the promotional copy, including every book description, for several years. At the time, it was a big, risky project. Craig’s editorial meetings were hilarious and legendary. Scholastic of that time was led by a supremely talented trio: Jean Feiwel in editorial, Barbara Marcus (my first real boss) in marketing, and wise old Dick Krinsley, steering the ship. Around then I had the honor of writing their first hardcover catalog — it included a total of four books by, um, Harry Mazer, Anne Mazer, Julian Thompson, and somebody else. Oh, what was it? Something about child safety, I think. A book cover that Craig likened to those Heimlich posters you’d see in restaurant bathrooms. He’d say something along the lines of, “I don’t know if it’s a good thing that every time I look at the book cover, I think of choking victims.”
Jean Feiwel, do you remember that book?
Ah, forgive me, memory lane.
This is an advertisement I wrote at that time. A full-page ad was a huge extravagance, and you wouldn’t believe how many people fussed over this, and revised it, and changed it again and again. That was my line, “Because Growing Up and Good Books Belong Together.“
Jean wrote and gave me the name of that elusive title, CLOSE TO HOME by Oralee Wachter!
Craig had a flare for exaggeration, but the point stands:
I’ve been dwelling lately on the concept of “books for boys.” It’s a huge topic, one that I can’t possibly address in a single blog entry. I mean, yes, we’re all aware of the gender gap in reading, that many teachers and parents struggle to inspire in their boys a love for reading. There’s been progress made, an awareness that boys are different from girls, and that their tastes in books often reflect those differences. Enlightened teachers are allowing boys to self-select more of their own reading material; graphic novels are gaining popularity and respect; and so on.
Bu when I encounter lists of “books for boys,” I’m often left deeply dissatisfied — even troubled. Because these well-intentioned lists are often guided by limited stereotypes: boys like action, boys like trucks, bodily humor, adventure, violence, etc. Okay, true enough. But these lists led us to an extremely narrow view of what a boy is, and what a boy could be. What about friendship stories? What about sensitivity to others? Gentleness? Don’t boys love their mothers, don’t they struggle with relationships, don’t they ever feel lonely or afraid?
I’ve been thinking about an old favorite book, Patrick and Ted by Geoffrey Hayes. It is out of print. I first encountered this quiet little picture book back in the 80’s, when I wrote copy for the SeeSaw Book Club, edited by Craig Walker. Yet it has lingered in my memory ever since. I think it’s a perfect story, one of the few books I wish I’d written. So I finally got around to purchasing a used copy. Let’s take a look at it:
Whoops. Because the image is not available on the internet for screen capture, we’ll have to go to my cheap scanner. My apologies to Mr. Hayes — and to you, Dear Reader — for the darkness, the low resolution. The actual book looks a lot better.
It is the story of two boys, best friends. They did everything together, even quarrel sometimes. But those brief spats did not matter . . . “because Ted was Patrick’s best friend, and Patrick was Ted’s.”
Then, one summer things changed . . .
A quick aside: This is such a classic story format, and a great model for new (and veteran!) writers. So many stories begin by establishing a timeless permanence. The well-ordered past, where time is frozen and things are always true. We meet the character, or the place, find out what he or she or it is like. And somewhere along the line we turn the page to find a phrase like this: “And then one day . . .” The story leaps into the present moment (if not literally the present tense). Now the real story begins. I think of these as “and then one day” stories. You’ll find that structure everywhere.
Back to those best friends, Patrick and Ted. One summer, Ted goes to stay with his aunt and uncle at their farm. He even advises Patrick, “Don’t let anyone else use our hideout.”
Patrick is sad and lonely.
But as the days pass, he makes new friends, has new experiences. He joins in with others, he goes to the movies with Mama Bear, he plays alone.
A hideout of his own. Patrick is learning something valuable here, something vitally important.
Then, happy day, Ted returns — with two pet geese!
I love that sentence: “They were loud and quick, and Patrick did not like them.”
The boys argue, get angry with each other — Patrick pushes Ted against their hideout! — but they resolve the conflict to play happily together once again.
And yet there’s been a fundamental shift. Their world has changed . . . inside and out.
“. . . because Ted was still Patrick’s best friend, and Patrick was Ted’s.”
End of story. And by the way, isn’t that great, when you look back at the book, those two illustrations of the swing? First we see Patrick in solitude, seated on the swing, motionless. On the last page of the book we see the swing again: Patrick is smiling, swinging high, pushed by his friend. Again: just right.
Is this not a book for boys? My guess is you won’t find it on many lists. So when we try to serve boy readers, let’s not be so quick to put them in a box labeled, “What Boys Like.” Let’s remember that they have feelings, and struggle with friendships — that they experience confusing emotions — just like everybody else.
I’ve read a lot of books recently about girls trying to make sense of friendships and themselves, so it was a delightful surprise to find and read an advance review copy of a book that deals with boys trying to find where they belong in Along Came Spider, by James Preller (due out September 2008).
Interesting, isn’t it? It came as a surprise to the reviewer, a fifth-grade teacher, to find a book that dealt with content typically found in a book for girls. Things like friendship, discovery of self, fitting in. Does that mean Spider, like Patrick and Ted, is destined for obscurity, the furnace where “out-of-print” books go to die? Perhaps so. Perhaps it’s not a book that most boys will naturally pick up. I mean: I realize that it isn’t. Just as I know that a book titled “Patrick and Ted” isn’t going to bring boys clamoring. But I can’t believe that when they read it, they won’t see themselves reflected in those pages.
And I thought, I wonder if that’s my Karen Roosa? My Karen was an old stall buddy from Scholastic, back in the mid-to-late 1980s. We were copywriters together, working on book clubs and catalogs. Neighbors, we shared a cubicle wall, but had lost touch twenty years ago. So I contacted Julie, who kindly passed along Karen’s email, and here we are: She’s a big-shot famous author and I knew her when!
– – – – –
Karen, it’s so nice to catch up with you. You must be excited about your new picture book, Pippa at the Parade. It takes a long time, doesn’t it?
It is great catching up with you too, Jimmy. It really does take a long time to see a picture book published. I had sent a different manuscript to Boyds Mills Press in late 2006, and got a call from the editor saying that story wasn’t quite right for them, but to send others. They were looking for stories that would appeal to very young children.
Actually, I’ve heard that picture books are trending younger these days; publishers seem to be looking for titles that will appeal to the preschool crowd. We’re seeing less of the text-heavy, William Steig-type picture book.
Yes, I think that’s true — picture books for the very young child. So I sent a collection of summer poems and the Pippa manuscript, and he replied about a month later in early 2007 that they’d like to publish Pippa at the Parade. My part was essentially done right then, but an illustrator needed to be chosen, the artwork completed, and the book printed. Two years, or even longer, is fairly common.
Tell us a little bit about the inspiration for the book.
I was trying to write a “musical” story, something rhythmical and fun to read aloud, but nothing seemed to work. Once I started thinking about feeling the rhythm through the sound of the instruments, the idea of a little girl at a parade came to me.
I get the sense that your first love is poetry.
I do love poetry, reading and writing it. Trying to pare language down to its essence.
Did you have any input into the illustrations? How did that relationship with artist Julie Fortenberry work? And be careful, Julie might be reading this.
I didn’t have any input, which is not unusual. My editor fortunately chose Julie Fortenberry, a fine artist and illustrator. I saw her work online and really liked her style. Then I just had to wait to see the finished illustrations.
What was it like when you finally saw the illustrations? It’s an exciting but also a frightening moment.
It was very exciting. The art director at Boyds Mills sent me a PDF last summer to check the text one last time. It was then that I could see the illustrations for the first time and I really loved them, very whimsical and playful. They fit the story perfectly. It was a thrill to receive the finished book in the mail.
I see you already got a great review from KirkusReviews. And I quote in part:
“The marching band booms by and the onomatopoeic text enlivens the rhythm, “Clapping hands! / Clappity-clap. / Band is coming! / Tippity-tap.” As each section of the parade passes by Pippa is enchanted by the many instruments, which include trumpets, trombones and drums. First the gymnasts flip past, then the ten-foot-tall man on stilts . . . Fortenberry’s rippling illustrations, at once serenely indistinct and lovingly detailed, combine misty, milky hues with thick, robust pastels, presenting a celebration of excitement and indulgence that can only be fully appreciated in childhood.”
Pretty nice, Karen — you too, Julia, and thanks for the use of your illustrations. Personally, I’m frightened by reviews.
It is a little scary. But I have to look. And by the way, congratulations on Six Innings being named an ALA Notable Book — very exciting.
Thanks. I’m sorry that I missed your first book when it came out, Beach Day, illustrated by Maggie Smith. You must have been thrilled when it was named a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book of the Year. Now it looks like you are on a roll. What’s next?
I have a couple of picture book manuscripts that I’m sending out, and I’ve always liked the idea of trying a longer story for older children. Plus maybe poetry, short stories . . .
Well, obviously, the big bucks are in poetry.
Yes, of course!
We shared a cubicle wall for at least a few years back in the way back, the late 80’s, when we both worked as copywriters for Scholastic Book Clubs. Was I good neighbor? I tried to keep the music down when I had large parties. You never called the cops.
Those were good days at Scholastic. The 80s!
Let’s pause here for a salute to the decade . . . and yes, I wore a black Members Only jacket. Their tagline: “When you put it on, something happens.”
A touching tribute, Jimmy. That job at Scholastic was one of the best ever. It was great being cubicle neighbors with you. I actually do remember a lot of parties on our floor.
As one of the few heterosexual males in the department, I used to joke with Craig Walker that I felt personally responsible for all the sexual tension in the building. It was pretty much up to me, Greg Holch, and the mail room guys. The pressure on us was enormous. I’d come home from work exhausted.
That’s funny, Jimmy, but you might be exaggerating a little.
Never! Eva Moore was the editor of Lucky Book Club back in those days. Each month, we had to read and describe more than 30 books for both teachers and young readers. It was quite an education, wasn’t it?
You’d get your box of books from Craig Walker for Seesaw Book Club, I’d get mine for Lucky Book Club, and I remember quite a few conversations about Curious George and Clifford the Big Red Dog.
I remember getting advice from Ed Monagle, the Chief Financial Officer for Scholastic at the time. Ed was a money guy, not necessarily a book guy. So one day he tells me, in his avuncular way, “Jimmy, you should really make up one of these popular characters. Look at Clifford the Big Red Dog. He’s a dog. He’s big. And he’s red. How hard can that be?”
I remember Ed and can hear him saying that. If only it were that easy!
Yeah, I told him I’d get right on it.
It was great working with Eva, and reading all of those books really was a terrific education in children’s literature.
Not to mention posters of cute kittens.
I recall many cute kitten posters in my box . . . and also glow-in-the-dark Halloween stickers.
Do you have any favorite memories from those days? I remember writing the first hardcover catalog, when Jean Feiwel launched the line back in 1986 or so. It had four books, total. Harry Mazur, Norma Fox Mazur, Julian Thompson, and I forget the other book, I think it was some kind of “stay away from strangers” type book. Anyway, we came up with an awful catalog cover that Jean absolutely (and correctly) hated. A simpler time.
I remember meeting Joanna Cole because the Magic School Bus was really big at that time, Ann M. Martin when she came in for the Babysitters Club, and a lunch with Norman Bridwell. I still have the big red plush Clifford from our table that day. It was a lot of fun just being immersed in children’s books all day with others who had the same interests. And the camaraderie was great.
There’s a long gap from after you left children’s publishing to when you published Beach Day. It’s like the missing seventeen-and-a-half minutes of the Watergate Tapes – except it’s like seventeen years. What have you been up to –- and why or how did you decide to get back into it?
I left the city in the early 90’s and moved to Pennsylvania. My children were very young and I wanted to try freelance writing. I’d send out manuscripts, but had no luck for a long time.
Many others have been defeated when faced with the same situation. What kept you going? Any advice?
I think it’s important to not give up. You never know when your story might match an editor’s tastes and needs for their list at that particular moment. I still have a huge stack of rejection letters. Occasionally a publisher would jot, “Send us more,” so I kept at it. One day I received a letter from an editor asking if I’d be willing to make a few changes in a manuscript that I’d sent; after tweaking the text a bit back and forth, Beach Day was published.
Did you celebrate?
I jumped up and down on the kitchen floor.
Okay, Lightning Round. Favorite children’s books?
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and the books of Kevin Henkes, Kate DiCamillo, and Mo Willems.
Kevin Henkes is just spectacular. I really admire his work. Such a talent, almost in an Old School tradition. Mo Willems is great, too. I met Kate a couple of times, I liked her a lot, very down-to-earth. She has a wonderful essay on her website, titled “On Writing.” You have to read it. Go on, I’ll wait.
Okay, I just finished. That is fantastic. It is all about really seeing, then doing the work of writing. Sitting down to write. Rewriting. And then somehow mysteriously having those ordinary moments undergo a magical transformation on the page.
What about favorite adult books?
Atonement by Ian McEwan, The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, the poetry of Mary Oliver, Basho, and William Carlos Williams.
I’m a huge fan all three poets, though moreso Basho and Williams. My favorite Basho line is, “The journey itself is home.”
Last question: Favorite movies?
The Crying Game, Pan’s Labyrinth, Once, The Graduate, The Ice Storm.
Thanks, Karen. I’m really glad to reconnect with you after all these years. I wish you all the success in the world, you deserve it. And as a parting gift, I was going to give you a plush version of Clifford the Big Red Dog, but you already have it. So I guess I just saved eight bucks. Sweet!
As a consolation prize, please enjoy this video of Mr. T’s fashion tips — “Hey, everybody got to wear clothes!” — and be glad we survived the 80’s with (most of) our dignity intact. (The link works, but it might take a double click.)
Everybody, move over. My friend, Ellen Miles, the author of “The Puppy Place” series and “Taylor-Made Tales,” has just joined the blogosphere. Her new site is brilliant — fresh, alive, and very kid-friendly (just like Ellen!). Please take a moment to check it out. Ellen is especially interested in hearing from her readers. Her site even has games!
My second-grade daughter, Maggie, has read and enjoyed many of Ellen’s books. As she should, because Ellen does a remarkable job. If you know a dog-lover, be sure to check out Ellen’s “Puppy Place” books.
I met Ellen long ago, in 1985 I think, when we both worked at Scholastic. I was a junior copywriter working on the SeeSaw Book Club, living in Brooklyn and making $12,500 a year, while Ellen was an editorial assistant working under Jean Feiwel. We’ve been friends ever since, quietly and not-so-quietly rooting for each other from the sidelines. Ellen is a great woman, awesomely cool, and a talented writer who has dedicated her adult life to children’s books. She’s already accomplished great things, and I’m certain that the best is yet to come.