Service of Children’s Books

May 10th, 2010

Categories: Awards, Books, Education, Pets, Positive Thinking, Writing

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Mary Nethery, [Left], Mary Ellen Robinson,

VP The Christophers & Kirby Larson. Nethery &

Larson co-authored Nubs.

I love buying book gifts, especially for children. But if I don’t have time to read or skim the hard or paperback, I won’t make the purchase. I spent far too much time, one Christmas, rejecting book after book, leaving the store empty-handed and frustrated by not being able to judge a book by its cover.

A failsafe shortcut is to find out if the book has won a Christopher Award. For a full list of this year’s winning books for young people–and the age appropriateness of each–visit the site. 

First presented in 1949, the Christopher Awards were established by Christopher founder Father James Keller to salute media that “affirm the highest values of the human spirit.” According to the Christophers, award winners encourage audiences to see the better side of human nature and motivate artists and the general public to use their best instincts on behalf of others.

I was lucky to promote the Christopher Award winners in both adult and children book categories and took advantage of the opportunity to ask some children book authors questions I’ve had for eons.

Following are the responses:

How do you get into the head of a child or young adult reader and how do you know how to write for a certain age and reading/listening-comprehension level?

Kirby Larson, Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers/Hachette Book Group, Inc.): I don’t! My job is to tell the story at hand as fully and honestly as possible. I find if I keep my focus on that task, I can engage my readers, no matter what their ages.

Mary Nethery, Nubs: With the exception of “early readers” or “hi-low” books [designed for children who are not reading at their level], there really are no age or reading/listening-comprehension level restrictions. Eve Bunting, a renowned author of children’s books, has said there’s no subject that can’t be dealt with for young children if handled in a developmentally appropriate way-she’s explored topics such as death, war, and homelessness.

The one restriction I impose on my own writing is always to offer hope to children. Anything less seems to me to be an abdication of creative and adult responsibility to our community of children.

How do books compete with the electronic gadgets and gizmos, TV and DVD distractions that fascinate children?

Kirby Larson: Until scientists invent time machines and teleporters, electronic gadgets and gizmos don’t stand a chance against books! What other media can fully transport a child to King Arthur’s court, to the moon, to a place where Wild Things rule?

I think adults may be the biggest hindrances to kids’ reading. We have a huge responsibility to let kids catch us reading, and to let them see how much we love and value it ourselves. And just think about the message that gets sent if adults actually read the same books – and chat about them – that the important kids in their lives are reading. Talk about powerful!

Mary Nethery: An even field of competition requires parents to introduce books to children early on, to gift them with that unforgettable pleasure of sitting in a lap as a book, another universe, is unveiled before their very eyes. But first things first: A great story that captures the heart must exist for each and every child and their particular taste. Diversity is a critical piece of the puzzle.

Do you hear from your readers?

Kirby Larson: I’ve heard from hundreds of readers – with my novel, Hattie Big Sky, fan mail has come from places as far away as Qatar and Lebanon, and from readers ranging in age from 11 to 94!

One of the emails that made me really smile was about my book, Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship and Survival. A first grade teacher wrote to say that her students were now “playing” the Bobbies at recess: One would be Bobbie Dog, one Bob Cat and one Bobbie’s chain!

An email about Nubs that brought me to tears came from the wife of a military officer. She wrote, “Countless times, my husband stood on the ramp in the cold, dark hours before the sun came up, waiting for a body to be put on an airplane and flown out of the country. When he got home last spring, he couldn’t watch a movie where anyone died. Nubs is more than a dog; he’s hope and life and healing. But you knew that.”

This last email, especially, reminds me of a favorite C.S. Lewis quote: “A children’s book that is only enjoyed by children is not a very good children’s book.”

Mary Nethery: Both Two Bobbies and Nubs sell to boys and girls, men and women. They’re great examples of “cross over” books.

From fans, we receive the most thoughtful, heart-tugging emails about our books, such as this one about Two Bobbies: “I wanted to write and thank you for your wonderful book . . . When my beloved pet dog, Bear, passed away unexpectedly earlier this week, my wife handed me your book and asked me to read it. I was so touched by the story, and by the kindness that those two showed to each other. Your book has helped me greatly through my grief over my pet’s death. I never thought that I-a 30 year old man-would find so much comfort and joy in a children’s book.”

That’s the secret of books for children- they’re not really just for children after all! All books are tasked with needing a plot, great characters, and something that speaks to the human condition.

tonyahegamin1Tonya Hegamin, [Photo, Center] Most Loved in All the World (Houghton Mifflin Company), illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera [left] with Monsignor Peter Flinn. Hegamin:  Yes, I have actually had mixed feedback about the book from parents and caregivers. I had a father tell me that I was wrong to have the mother “abandoning” her child. I explained that the mother is doing the most nurturing thing she can do in her circumstance–she treasures her child’s freedom above all else and is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to give her a chance. I’ve had kids love it and some who get very upset about the story and tell me they don’t want to read it again! I’m happy that it’s sparking all kinds of discussions.

How do you suggest we keep alive a reading tradition for children?

Kirby Larson: I touched on this with an earlier answer, and I second Mary’s comments. It boggles my mind that parents are letting pass away those magic moments of sitting with child-in-lap, paging through a book. Get those 3 year olds off the computer and cuddle up with them and a good book!

Mary Nethery: Ideally, every adult would embrace the concept of childhood and maintain that moment in time for each child, providing books galore at home (if they can) and liberal access to the public library which offers open arms to everyone. What we don’t value dies a natural death.

Tonya Hegamin: With my writing I try to really reach the heart of the reader.  The emotional connection between reader and writer can be very palpable and the page conveys that in a tactile manner.  I continue to write emotion-evoking books because it engages young readers to reach the heart of their other issues.  Reading those types of books keeps kids wanting more. 

What are a few of your favorite children’s books?

Kirby Larson: The book that made me want to write for children was Ming Lo Moves the Mountain, written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel, which I discovered as an adult. A Larson family favorite when our kids were small was How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen, by Russell Hoban and illustrated by Quentin Blake.

Mary Nethery: I loved any book with animals that talked-didn’t care that much for reading about other kids, just animals! And, a little later on, I couldn’t get enough of Nancy Drew-I wanted to live her life, have a sports car and be a very important person!

Tonya Hegamin: I’ve always been a romantic.  One of my favorite books as a kid was Julie (Edwards) Andrews’ Mandy.  It’s about an orphan who makes herself a home.  I also loved L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle and her other books, although I never got into Green Gables.  Of course I’ve always been a fan of Virginia Hamilton– really all of her books.  I used to read a lot of Christopher Pike and Edgar Allen Poe, too.  I started reading serious poetry at 12– Rilke mostly.  I also read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in the 6th grade.  Again, anything that evoked strong emotions.

Yumi Heo, Ten Days and Nine Nights: An Adoption Story (Schwartz & Wade Books/Random House): My favorite children’s books are Across Town by Sara, The Bomb and The General by Umberto Eco and Eugenio Carmi, and all the titles by Ezra Jack Keats.

What are your favorite children’s books? Do you have a comment or question for the authors?

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14 Responses to “Service of Children’s Books”

  1. David Reich Said:

    There’s a beautiful book for kids called “I’ll Always Love You.” I can’t recall the author’s name now, but my sister gave it to me when I lost my first dog Muffin. It’s about a boy and an older dog, who eventually dies, and it tells how the boy deals with the loss. I still get teary-eyed when I read it, and I’ve given it to others who’ve lost a pet friend.

    I also remember a series of books from when I was about 10 called Freddy the Pig. There must have been about 20 in the series and I read every one. When my kids where young, I couldn’t find those books in the library and they were also not available in stores. A friend I’ve known since childhood, who also liked Freddy, came across one in a used bookstore and gave it to me. After all these years, I just couldn’t get back into it. I guess it needed the mind of a 10-year old to be fully appreciated.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:

    David,

    I still love Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline series. Madeline was always a favorite…I learned about appendicitis from her and it didn’t seem that scary. I learned manners from the Goops.

    Like Mary Nethery, I adored Nancy Drew. One Christmas, a second cousin got the entire series. Was I jealous! And Eloise at the Plaza was the opposite of me but I enjoyed her escapades.

  3. Nenaghgal Said:

    Funnily enough I have a post ready to go up on this wonderful childrens book called Stand Tall Molly Lou Melon – about a very small girl who has buck teeth and doesn’t sing very well but her grandmother just tells her to be herself and basically she’ll earn the respect of those around her. I read it to my daughter last night and it’s such a good book to start teaching those all important lessons. But I have so many favourite childrens books- we’ve been reading all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books slowly but surely. Good for children to hear about how different life was back then. My daughter loves the books – This is New York, This is Paris, This is Ireland – they are dated (but have been updated) and are wonderful books. I could go on and on – will have to go and look in my daughter’s library and do another comment! Great subject.

  4. Nancy Farrell Said:

    OK, so I admit it. I’m middle aged and I still have most of my Nancy Drew books–even those handed down to me from an older relative. I have no intention of letting them go any time soon.

    There were a few other favorites, too. When I was very young, my older sister read me A Fly Went By by Mike McCintock nearly every day for what seemed liked years and years. I also loved The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton and–because who wouldn’t want to run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York–From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Koningsburg.

  5. Lucrezia Said:

    I was a Nancy Drew and Bobsey Twins fan until the stories became too bland for my taste. As a pre-teen, my favorite classic was Little Women, and favorite author an African Veld explorer whose name I forgot. Not forgotten were the ongoing fights with the 96th Street librarian who reluctantly yielded to my protests about not being allowed to borrow from the “adult” section in which said explorers works could be found. I now support an African wildlife foundation, immortalizing said librarian with every check. As a teen, I latched on to Walter Scott, Pearl Buck, Theodore Dreiser & some Irish potato famine authors.

    I know little to nothing about todays childrens books, but as one who occasionally surfs the kiddie book department, wish the fare was less dull. Don’t remind me I am no longer a child. I know that. I also have a very good memory of what I liked then, to what I enjoy now, starting with my very first book: “Donald Duck” one which I taught myself to read at 4…..had terrible trouble with one word for the longest time: “Quack.” That also has had lifelong repercussions. I am a rabid fan of the Oregon Ducks, not to speak of “Aflaaaaack!”

  6. Linda Said:

    My favorite book growing up was called “Told in a Little Boys Pocket” by Sara Beaumont Kennedy. It was published in 1908 and had been my father’s favorite book as a child.

    I don’t remember much about it except the characters were things in a little boys pocket, a pencil, a button, a pin, a marble, etc. I realize, however, that it didn’t matter what the book was, the reason it was my favorite book is because my father read it to me every night as I snuggled with him. He could have been reading me the phone book; it would not have mattered. This was our special time together.

    My daughter is 15 months old, and I snuggle and read to her every night, books like “Good Night Moon” and “Pat the Bunny.” She doesn’t know it yet, but “Told in a Little Boys Pocket” is going to be her favorite book too, as my Dad plans to read it to her starting this summer.

  7. JBS Said:

    Way back in the 1940s, my favorite book was “Make Way for Ducklings” by Robert McCloskey. It won the Caldecott Medal in 1941, the year of its publication. It is about some ducks that make their nest in the Public Garden in Boston and then need a policeman’s help to get back to the river. I understand it is based on a true incident and was sent to me, I was told, by my great uncle who lived in Boston on or is it in the Tutor near the garden.

    At any rate, since it was my favorite, I read it frequently to my own children, and then when they had children, I was surprised to find out
    that it was still available and still popular. (It’s got simple brown and white drawings). I gave it to both grandchildren inscribed
    with “The hope that you will grow up loving reading as much as your grandmother does.”

    Nowadays I’m buying easy readers for Jordan and Tyler has just about given up reading (darn) because he is too busy. He told me he hasn’t even finished the last Harry Potter book, which he insisted I order prior to publication! I’ve told him he has to finish it this summer
    or I won’t pay for his basketball camp.

  8. Martha Takayama Said:

    I am an unrelenting believer in the importance of children’s books in any child’s development. The ritual of reading to a newborn should hopefully be the beginning of a lifetime of reading.

    Make Way for the Ducklings, by Robert McCloskey, a favorite from my own childhood, is still my favorite children’s book today. My husband and I constantly give books as children’s presents, remembering our own delight in reading.

    Furthermore the wonder of the text in children’s books is amplified by the visual delights of illustrations that are often works of fine art.

    I hope that I am not naive in thinking that cultivating love of reading and stimulating curiosity that should carry through to adulthood are important functions of children’s books that cannot be substituted by other diversions.

  9. Jeanne Byington Said:

    WOW. Two votes for “Make Way for the Ducklings,” by Robert McCloskey–Martha and JBS.

    I wonder if reading to children has taken a back seat with some families because parents don’t have the time or energy, they want their children to be computer-savvy and the computer, like the TV before it, becomes a babysitter and as for the kids, reading isn’t as cool as playing with a Nintendo DSi.

  10. Simon Carr Said:

    My favorite American children’s books — and I’ve read them over and over again through the years, are Mark Twain’s (Samuel Clements) four Tom Sawyer books and Booth Tarkington’s three Penrod books. Not only were they great reads, but if you read them carefully, which I did when I was older, they taught you many truths about race relations largely forgotten today.

    Simon

  11. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Simon,

    When you wrote about your favorite American children’s books, it made me think that there are some from other countries that you also like. What might a few be or am I being too literal?

  12. Simon Carr Said:

    Jeanne,

    No. You were not being too literal. There were many.

    I especially enjoyed (read perhaps five or six times) the Arthus Randsome series about the Swallows and Amazons.

    Simon

  13. EAM Said:

    Free to Be You and Me (reprinted in 2009)
    Where the Sidewalk Ends
    Subuda pop-up books

    My favorite books as a child were those that my Mom sent away for. They were personalized for me and included my friend’s names and my address. I’ve found some of those books in Pottery Barn Kids.
    I also love Jamie Lee Curtis’s books (illustrated by Laura Cornell) including “Big Words for Little People.”

  14. Jeanne Byington Said:

    EAM,

    Not my favorite, but very special to me was a book a friend of my Mom’s sent me one Christmas called “Jeanne-Marie Counts her Sheep.” I’d never seen my name in print anywhere. I would stare at the cover in wonder!

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