Monday, December 15, 2008

Books and the Stinky Economy: Invest in yourself! Read!

Are you sitting down? Yes? Okay. Here it is: the economy is simply yarkful right now. Okay, that's not a word, granted, but I can't really think of a fitting adjective. Pardon the cliché, but words escape me.

It's hard to sell manuscripts right now. An editor of mine was recently let go. Bookstores are reporting a drop off in sales. And I keep hearing it's going to get worse—just in time for my two releases in the spring! Agh! Is it me, or is it even getting hard to keep spirits from spiraling?

Well, at least there are books. Books, I hear, do well in a down economy. Although this recent item from the LA Times informs me that it's actually TV use that tends to rocket when people can't afford to go out to Sizzler for dinner. In fact, it says that the average US household now watches 8 hours and 18 minutes of TV a day, the highest numbers they've gotten since they started tracking usage back in the 1950s. Holy slackers, Batman!

So...please read. Buy books; they're a cheap thrill. Go to the library; that's a free thrill. Buy books for Christmas gifts and stocking stuffers. Tell people about a great book you read recently. Read an old classic; I happen to be reading "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens right now and it's a hoot. I've ordered the 1951 move with Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge from Netflix (arriving tomorrow, so I gotta finish that slim tome, because I think this is that great old black and white movie I remember watching as a kid on rainy Saturday afternoons on our old black and white TV, the one with the broken knob, which required a pliers to change the station, which resulted in me getting my tube socks shocked off on more than 11 occasions—which may explain a lot!).

Anyhoo, I still say there's nothing quite like a good book, a warm blanket, and crackling fire—as long a there's sufficient distance between all three, of course.

Here are a few Dave's Book Bits-worthy links that I've come across:

• Here's a Newseek story about how watching lots of the idiot box can be unhealthy for kids—conjure up in your mind the characters on the spaceship in Wall*E.
• Here's a fun audio interview from NPR with Jon Scieszka, who doesn't seem to need my help in getting publicity; he's everywhere. But when you're the Library of Congress' first national ambassador to children's literature, you've got a bully pulpit, so why not use it?!
• Lastly, if you want more information on the detrimental health effects of media exposure on kids mentioned above, you can get the fully story and download the actual study here.

So as you can see, my thinking is a bit scatter shot these days, not that that's at all unusual. Hope your holiday has more yee-haw and less humbug! Merry Holidays!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Barack Obama Book Club

The odds that President Elect Obama reads this blog are slim. Slim to none. Okay, they're none. But what if he did?

Well, if he did, first I'd say good luck on that Herculean task awaiting you at the White House: make the economy hang a u-turn on a dime—actually a nickel would be better. Next, I'd tell him that he really should make the Barack Obama Book Club "a thing." It could be huge. Bigger than Oprah (...hey, I didn't mean it that way). I have no doubt that President Obama's Book Club would get people reading again. Wouldn't that be an impressive accomplishment to chalk up in the first 100 days?

Let me back up. I get a daily email newsletter about the publishing business called "PublishersLunch." While scanning it today, I ran across the phrase "Obama Book Club." The bells went off in my head. The bologna fell from my eyes. I screamed "Holy Romano cheese! That could be bigger than Taft!"

Think of the positive influence he'd have on reading in this country if he made this thing "a thing." People are inspired by him. He's cooler than Clinton. He's our first real celebricrat. So if his press secretary announced the Obama Book Club selection on the first of every month, half the dang country would stumble out the door, buy the book, and read it immediately. That book would rule the water cooler roost. Imagine a "book" in that position.

Look, nobody can deny Oprah's Book Club has gotten lots of people reading again. It has, in a big way. But Obama is bigger. Much bigger. As far as I can tell, the Obama Book Club idea started out as a fun campaign strategy to get book clubs formed to read his autobiographies and discuss them. Cool idea. But since I've heard him say on numerous occasions that parents should turn off the TV and the video games, he should encourage them to use that free time to go hit the dang library.

Now here's the selfish part of this post (it always comes back to me somehow...). He's got two young kids, right? So in addition to his monthly grownup selection, he could simultaneously recommend a book for American kids, or two (since his older daughter is more likely reading middle school books). And guess what? Maybe in May he could recommend "Bobby Bramble Loses His Brain," a hilarious and heart-warming tale of a boy whose head cracks open and his brain runs off, written by a great American named Dave Keane, who he'd invite—with his wife and three kids, of course— to the White House to spend the night in the Lincoln Bedroom—for a WHITE HOUSE SLEEPOVER!.

Hey, a guy's gotta dream.

But Mr. Obama, if you read this, seriously, I promise to make the pancakes in the morning.

And if not, would you consider posting a guest blog on Dave's Book Bits? The offer is on the table.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Getting goosebumps over "Goosebumps"

You cannot deny that there are a few authors whose books have made readers out of children who were non-readers before they encountered their books. Dav Pilkey's "Captain Underpants" books come to mind, as does R.L. Stine's "Goosebumps" series, which I still see kids reading all the time these days.

Both of these series has something in common: many teachers, librarians and parents don't like them. In fact, many books that are great for reluctant readers have this same trait. Many grownups think they're poorly written, are a bad influence, or will rot kids' brains right inside their skulls. Well, too bad! Kids love 'em because they're fun! Reading can and should be fun, believe it or not. And kids tend to like them for reasons tall people don't: they're goofy, silly, disgusting, gross, rude, milk-out-your-nose funny, sleep-with-the-light-on spooky and just plain childish...which is the why they're so DANG FUN TO READ!

Remember, those who fall in love with reading Goosebumps, Captain Underpants and—dare I say it?—Joe Sherlock: Kid Detective will not always necessarily read those types of books. They graduate and move on to bigger and "brighter" books, books that are more challenging, literate and "appropriate." Maybe. The point is that we need to get kids to consider books as essential, as viable forms of entertainment, as portals to engaging worlds that their game system just can't replicate.

So, by God, let them read, for reading at a young age is GOOD—and don't be such a stick in the book.

And if you'd like to know more about the 300-million-copies-sold-and-still-counting "Goosebumps" series and the man responsible for it, listen to this cool report by Lynn Neary of NPR radio.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Should We Do More to Celebrate Reading, Books and Authors?

There are fewer and fewer reviews of books in magazines and newspapers. In fact, on many newspaper websites, if you click on the navigation button marked "Entertainment" there is no subsequent section for "books." Oh, sure, there are reviews of music, movies, TV shows, restaurants and gadgets, but you often can't find anything about good ol' books. I'm afraid that throughout the popular culture books have slipped into an unseemly "also ran" category.

In relation to this decline, I've been thinking about books, authors and celebrities. This country has a few celebrity authors. A few. We could really use more. Perhaps there are so few because authors tend to be bookish, quiet types who spend their days with their noses in either a book or a keyboard—and they have that look about them. But not all authors. Some are sharp dressers, articulate, interesting. And authors used to be considered celebrities in this country, even when I was a kid I remember authors appearing on daytime talk shows and on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. But do enough people care about books for the media to pay attention to authors? I don't think the media thinks so.

Publishers have figured out that it's easier to pluck a celebrity off the pages of People magazine and have them pen a book, than to turn an author into a celebrity—after all, the hard part about becoming famous has already been done! Anybody read Pamela Anderson's latest novel? Sadly, the book itself has become an afterthought, the media attention is what's really important. Rightly or wrongly, the technique works and publishers, after all, are in the business of moving books, and if celebrities move books, they're good for business. We live in a celebrity culture, not a book culture.

At one of my book signings, an earnest woman told me she LOVED children's books. She then proceeded to tell me without a hint of irony that she had "all of Madonna's books." Good for her.

But there are things that work to bring attention to books. These things should be studied carefully, because they make books relevant again. Oprah's Book Club is a force for literacy, no argument there. Many women belong to social book clubs, which I'm sure account for millions of book sales a year. Movies based on books also help spur interest in the original source material. And things like the National Book Festival held every year in Washington, D.C. are great ways to celebrate books and make authors celebrities once again.

The point is, there are things that can be done to champion books and reading in the media and in the culture at large. Maybe we just need a task force to study these issues and work up a list of proposals, initiatives and plans. Then the question becomes: what celebrity can we get to head up such a committee?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Freakonomics and Reading Incentives

What incentive do kids have to read books?


Why read a book these days when you can watch a just-downloaded movie on your iPod? Or fire up a game of Super Monkey Ball on your iPhone? Or plop down on the LA-Z-Boy and watch the latest installment of "Dancing with the Stars?"

How do you get kids to pass up these easier, more enticing, and less mind-taxing options?

I just finished Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. The authors explain that "economics is, at root, the study of incentives" and that "the typical economist believes the world has not yet invented a problem that he cannot fix if given a free hand to design the proper incentive scheme."

As my mind is want to do, I start thinking about all this economics/incentive stuff and how it relates to getting kids to read more. The authors deftly explain that incentives come in three types: economic, moral, and social. Turn the knobs on these three types of incentives, they argue, and the economist believes that he can find the right combination to make folks do just about anything.

So how about kids and reading? Hmmmm.

Economic incentives might work: If Tiffany reads three books she gets $30, or $300, or $3,000. That could get expensive, but you could probably reach a number where Tiffany simply couldn't resist, at least until she got sufficiently rich on your unwise and costly incentive program.

Moral incentives might work: Little Kevin might read if society as a whole looked down upon kids who eschewed the book and chewed on the idiot box. What if a family felt shamed by a child who never cracked open a book? But moral incentives don't seem possible in this case, especially when the society as a whole prefers to collectively drool at the feet of "Deal of No Deal." Just not gonna happen.

Social pressure would work: This is the one knob I would suggest turning. Right now, kids who read a lot are made fun of, are teased, or called book geeks/nerds/pinheads, etc. That knob would have to be cranked back 180 degrees the other way. To me, this seems do-able. I'm not exactly sure how, but if kids by and large treated things like the latest Percy Jackson book as the must-have accessory for the Fall Season, books would be back in favor. But what's the plan? How do you make that happen? I haven't seen the show "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" but that might be a place to start—sadly, it's another ding-dang TV show!

I'll think on it. Let me know if you come up with anything—of course not until after "Deal or No Deal."

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Why everyone hates "required summer reading"

Today is our last day of summer. The kids start school tomorrow. Whew! It was a lovely summer, to be sure, but as of late the hot topic of conversation on the normally upbeat BBQ circuit is that "stupid, cursed book for required summer reading." All the hair pulling, snarling, and gnashing of teeth has caught my attention...and got me thinking.

Even for my older daughter (who read about 25 books this summer—an avid reader to be sure), it's torture. She is like a horseless stagecoach mired in cold oatmeal when it comes to the required summer reading book and project. Honestly, I think she'd rather move to a new town, assume a new identity, and just read "the books she wants to read."

Why is summer reading required when everyone I've ever met despises the concept? Let's face it, everyone hates required summer reading. Everybody. (If you know someone who likes it, please point them out to me, and I'll assign them a book that they don't want to read for the next time they go on vacation!)

Who invented this idea? Who decided that it was a good idea for school to spoil that sanctity and serenity of summer vacation? After all, what is the ultimate goal of this cruel and unusual punishment? Does it actually achieve anything? Yes? Than show me the study that shows that it is really useful. Where's the research? Where's the proof? Where's the beef?

Teachers have told us that if they do not assign a book and project during the summer, most kids will not read a book at all. And what, is the required summer reading book supposed to engender some kind of love of literature? Ha! Or is it supposed to keep their reading skills sharp? Ha! In fact, studies I've seen show that reading one book over the summer does nothing in terms of maintaining reading skills.

Often "required summer reading" consists of just one book, sometimes picked from a list of 5 or 6 age-appropriate titles that the teacher has deemed worthy, instructive in some way, and certainly "good literature." Then why does everyone put it off until the last moment, under punishment of no texting/email/internet/video games/TV/friends/food/oxygen—whatever the threat required may be to get Jimmy or Jilly to read that godforsaken tome?

Hey, why don't we just assign a book? Any book. Of the child's chosing! Some kids like humor books. Others like biographies about people that interest them. Others would like to read about American Civil War battles. But these kinds of books are usually not offered. This change would at least make the practice less torturous. I mean, c'mon, hasn't anyone ever thrust a book at you and said "you gotta read this," but you didn't because it just didn't capture your interest? That's "required summer reading" in a nutshell.

I think the practice just builds up resentment in kids for books. The ultimate goal may be a worthy one, but in practice it's a big, fat backfire. A dud. A failure that needs to be put to rest or overhauled in some way.

So I'll go on record: Required summer reading is not only ineffective, it's worthless, resented, irritating, and an invasion of privacy into what was once the carefree joy and freedom of SUMMER VACATION.

If we really want kids to read over the summer vacation, we can come up with something better. No?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Fighting Summer Reading Loss

I was asking one of my daughter's friends the other night how many books she had read so far this summer. "None," she stated simply, as if this were the only logical course of action after a stressful, intense, homework-packed school year.

You can't really blame her.

But that got me to thinking about something that's often called summer reading loss. Basically, it's like kids' brains melt a bit over the hot summer months when they don't read. You see, by not reading books over the summer a child's reading ability and achievement actually goes backwards. It regresses. I've seen figures that say reading achievement typically declines on average by three months during the hot, lazy months of June, July and August if kids don't read. Most troubling, research indicates that summer reading loss hits lower income, at-risk kids the most, and the effects are cumulative. And the kids most impacted are those students in K-3rd, but summer reading loss can rob kids of critical reading progress all the way through middle school.

So what to be done about it? First, read this good article titled "Bridging the Summer Reading Gap," written by Anne McGill-Franzen and Richard Allington. Next, dig into the research about summer reading programs by starting with this excellent and informative research summary. Then read this primer on the issue from RIF's website. Check out those three things and you'll know more about this issue than 99% of people.

Here a few key tips I gleaned while going through all this information:

You don't have to read A LOT of books: Just five or six books can maintain reading levels over the summer.
Do not push books on kids that are too tough: Summer reading should be a time to enjoy reading. Struggling through something too difficult defeats the purpose. Kids would rather pick at a scab then machete their way through the complex, confusing and dull.
Let kids self-select their books: Don't make your son read Little Women or The Red Badge of Courage because they're classics. Let your daughter select books with subjects, themes and styles that interest her. She can read a series about ponies or cave exploring adventurers, while he reads books about dinosaur poop or medieval combat. Just butt out!
• It doesn't matter what they're reading, as long as they're reading: Do not roll your eyes at comic novels. Do not scoff at Captain Underpants. And don't you dare groan when a child approaches waving a Joe Sherlock mystery!
Sign up kids for summer reading programs at the library and get them there: Kids can't drive. Adults need to get kids to where the books are. Where there are no books, there is no reading.
• Keep track of progress by making a list: Slap a list of completed books onto the fridge with a magnet. Write down each book knocked off. Show the list to EVERYBODY who comes by. Send a copy to Grandma. Bring the list to your knitting group. Or show it to the guys you play golf with. Get involved. Your child's eyes will shine with pride. Trust me. Perhaps you might even slap your own list on that fridge? Have fun. Be creative. Show that it is your #1 Summer Priority and it'll get done.

Happy Summer Reading!

Monday, June 30, 2008

Screen Time vs. Make Believe

When I was a kid I spent a lot of time "pretend playing." Of course, we didn't call it that. We called it "cowboys and indians," or "cops and robbers," or "an alien just ate my little brother." The point being: we used our imaginations quite a bit during play.

If you've read this blog before, you know that one of the subjects I like to touch upon (nay, hammer upon!) is how "electronic media" or "screen time" is crowding out "book time." But it also crowds out "pretend time." Do kids spend the same amount of time pretending today as they did in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s or even 90s? There must be something different about pretending to be a dusty town's sheriff trying to run off a ornery gunslinger, than playing a video game in which you blast your way through the OK Corral.

I'm a writer. Without my robust imagination, I might have been forced to become a lawyer. Or, a doctor. Or a politician. (I think I just got really snarky right there—and for that I am truly sorry.) But I'm not one of those people in your neighborhood; I make up stories. Will this generation of screen monkeys have the same kind of imaginations as previous generations? Could TVs, cell phones, computers, iPods, video games, hand-held gaming devices and DVD players installed into car headrests be robbing our short ones of a future bolstered by an active, rigorous and productive imagination? It's something worth thinking about—if you still have the imagination to do such mental hijinks.

These questions about pretend play started firing off in my head like a lost cap gun after reading an interesting interview with Susan Linn about her new book "The Case For Make Believe" in the USA Today. You can read it here.

If kids no longer cram bath towels into the necks of their pajamas—for the perfect poor man's cape—and run careening through the house as a superhero with certain incredible but mysterious powers, what will become of us in the long run? Just use your imagination.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Is the Internet Making Us Stupid?

My family always spent a week in Lake Tahoe in the summer, usually in August. During these vacations, my oldest brother would occasionally become so absorbed in a book that he would sit completely still for hours simply reading, without moving, save for the sudden, violent arm convulsion that was required to turn the page. No bathroom breaks. No idle chitchat. No chips and dip. He was busy burrowing through a few hundred pages like a book mole, unwilling to stop until his bladder burst or someone threw him in the pool—or both. We called this marathon reading "nerd factor," as in, "he's got some good nerd factor going on."

And my dad would sometimes fall victim to this deep, almost hypnotic state of reading. After making Super Scrams for breakfast, he would leave the wreckage of the kitchen in his wake and idly pick up a James Michener tome as fat as my head. Invariably, he'd be "lost at sea" for the day, simply unable or unwilling to drop the thing with a thud and participate in vacation. It was like the idea of a bookmark had never even occurred to him, and the mere suggestion of one would elicit a look of sheer incomprehension or outright disgust. He would not stop reading until he reached the end, by George! End of story. As my mom would aptly put it, he had been "sucked in." There was no amount of begging or pleading to go to the pool, play a round of miniature golf, or invest in an outing of horseback riding that could get him to stop. "Nerd factor, warp speed ahead, Scotty!"

My daughters also have this "nerd factor" ability; they can sit for hours plowing through a book till it's history, thank you very much! Not me. I get distracted half way through that tiny slip of paper that comes out of a fortune cookie. I get bored while reading street signs. Truth be told, I've become a big advocate of haikus, bullet points and communicating through body language alone. What gives? (Keep reading! I'm getting to the point, you with the attention span of a Drosophila fly!)

One of my brothers mentioned something about this to me the other day. He's having trouble concentrating, finding a book he felt enthusiastic about finishing. That got me thinking: How has our fast-paced, Tivo-fueled, Internet-surfing world impacted our ability to enjoy a James Michener novel that Paul Bunyan could use as a footstool? Has the Internet spoiled our ability to enjoy a good book?

Then I ran across this fantastic article from The Atlantic magazine by Nicholas Carr entitled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" In it, Carr discusses the impact of Internet browsing/reading has had on our ability to engage in and enjoy deep reading. In essence, he posits that our flitting around the net all day gathering gossipy tidbits, sound bites, and snippets of news and infotainment has impacted our ability to "read." It's as if the Internet itself—with it's fast-paced, get-it-in-a-second nature—has reprogrammed our minds at a biological level, influencing the way we actually think and process information. It's cogent, trenchant, keenly written and, I swear, not too long. You should take the time to read it here. It'll leave you itching for a thick brick of Michener.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

What Kids Say About Not Reading

Kids are reading much less today than they did 20 years ago, according to a recent study by Scholastic. Oops! My bad! I know, I should have warned you, or at least told you to sit down first, instead of just hitting you in the face with that cream pie of shocking news right off the bat. Mea culpa.

I read an article in USA Today about the Scholastic study and noticed something interesting: the kids don't mention TV by name as what they do instead of reading. In the survey of kids from 5 to 17 (too wide of a range to lump together in my opinion), 31% say they don't read because they would rather do other things. Like what? Huh, kids? TV perhaps? Why can't they just spill the beans?

That got me thinking: Is there still shame associated with nestling in on the couch and systematically inhaling a foot-long tube of vacuum-packed Chili Cheese Pringles while watching five staight hours of soul-sucking reality TV? If there is still some degree of ignominy associated with slack-jawed drooling at the base of a 65" hi-def plasma, that's a good thing! Hurray for the good guys! There's still hope.

The study also reports that 25% of kids reported having trouble finding something to read. I buy that one. It's true. Finding a book that's just right for a new reader can be tough—especially when you're seven or eight and can't just grab the keys to the SUV and thunder over to B&N or the local library. It takes exploration. It takes a lot of experimentation. It takes a flippin' drivers license! A kid needs a big person's help to find that first book or series that really butters their bread and initially greases the wheels of literacy.

On that subject, I found the article's little sidebar insightful. Here are the top five sources for kids to get ideas for books to read for fun:

1.) Mom at 65%—See? They're counting on Mom to help them!
2.) Friends at 61%—Nothing more powerful in publishing than "kid buzz."
3.) Teachers at 57%—Now I think many people would have thought teachers would be first, not so. But still critical.
4.) Librarian at 57%—That's why they rock so much!
5.) Dad at 43%—Not bad for dads, but they could do better (turn off the game!).

Anyhoo, it's always good to see my favorite topic get ink in the country's biggest newspaper. You can read the USA Today article here (there's entertainment to be had in the comments and in that interesting sidebar).

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Children That Ate America

My last post was about a class that kids sign up for to get comfortable with playing outdoors. That sad subject was still fresh in my mind when I saw this cover for the current issue of Time magazine, so that's probably why I laughed out loud. Oh, Mylanta! I know that kid! I see this kid every time I visit an elementary school. He's everywhere! And he's starving. He's not counting the minutes till school is out, he counting the minutes till lunch. Forget about Lord of the Flies, it's now Lord of the Fries!

You can read the article about the widening of America's youth here.

Simply put, American kids are turning into human garbage disposals. Listen to this: 14% of kids 2 to 5 are already overweight. Those are toddlers, people. Almost 20% of 6-to-11-year-old kids are obese in America. Not chubby. OBESE! Ever wonder where's Richard Simmons has been lately? Some kid ate him!

Hey, you raise a nation of kids on Fat Pants Donuts and American Idol and this is what you get. Once again, it's our old friend, the bane of America, the dang electronic cyclops, who's not just lurking in the living room any more, he's now lurking in every flippin' room in the house. I haven't seen any numbers yet, but I wonder how many homes now have TVs in the bathroom, so little Carl Jr. can keep watching SpongeBob while he keeps the wheels of fast-food commerce turning? (Oh, I think I just made myself nauseous—somebody crack a window.)

Just today, I was entering 7-11 with my son when a five-year-old chubster was exiting the store with a Slurpee bigger than my head! And in his other chubby hand he clutched a bag of Sizzlin' Picante Flavored Doritos that was bigger than my first car! (Okay, it was an economy car, but still!)

America's kids spend nearly six hours a day glued to a screen. That's a lot of the idiot box, a ton of video games and a lifetime of Internet time-suckage. Not a whole lot of time left to practice layups, but more than enough time to practice eating Lay's up.

I can envision a time when we're left with a nation of kids that can't jump a fence, dig a hole with a shovel, or skip a rock across a pond. Has America gone soft? I'm not sure, but the least those little porkers could do is crack a book while they're working their way through the next box of Double Stuff Oreos.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Summer and Teaching Kids How to Play Outdoors

Today is the first day of summer. At least for my kids it is.

Why do mom and dad seem more relieved and full of joy than the kids do about school ending?

When I was a kid, summer seemed truly endless. We left the house early and came home late. There was no TV watching (except for Saturday mornings—you simply could NOT miss Run, Joe, Run). Back then, we didn't go out and buy summer clothes; we simply pulled out mom's sewing scissors and turned our Tuffskins with the double knee-patch into cutoffs. Presto: shorts for the whole summer. With our cutoffs hand-frayed to look acceptably groovy, we were off!

There were non-stop baseball games in the street, and strike-out matches against the front door with a Wiffle ball and bat. We practically lived off the plum, cherry and apple trees in our backyard and scattered around the neighborhood. We played marbles. We played guns. We built forts. We caught frogs (and tadpoles in coffee cans) at the creek. We'd scrounge up some change and walk up to Hacienda Gardens to buy 5-cent gum and Spider-Man comic books, or drop into the utterly sweet-smelling and air-conditioned Sugar Chalet to buy a jaw breaker or a foot of licorice rope. There were constant sleepovers, water balloon fights, and crowded games of pickle on dad's precious front lawn ("Getoffadagrass, ya ninnies!").

We rode bikes around tracks we sketched onto the street with the white display rocks from the lady's house across the street. We climbed trees. We waited for something interesting to happen; it never did. We waited for a girl to move into our neighborhood; she never arrived. The Fourth of July seemed to take forever to arrive, but it sure hit big when it came to our blocked-off street. I can still taste the watermelon, and recall the seed-spitting contests. I can still hear the hiss of those little lady finger firecrackers, and the bottle rockets screaming overhead. And I can still recall the thrill of the desperate scavenger hunt down the street the next morning to find the "duds" we could still get a bang out of. Now that was Summer.

I thought of these times when I saw this article by Dana Hall in the San Jose Mercury News about a summer drop-off program that parents can sign their kids up for so they can experience the joys of playing outside. It's a "movement" now, half-jokingly called "Leave No Child Inside." How times have changed.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Is the Internet Generation Dumb and Dumber?

The recent extensive media coverage for Mark Bauerlein's book, The Dumbest Generation, indicates to me this whole subject has touched a nerve—and isn't it refreshing to have the subject of literacy come up in the national discourse? (It's a nice break from non-stop celebrity cellulite sightings!) As we've discussed here in the last few entries, this subject deals directly with the impact of young people reading less, and the consequences this shift is having on American society and culture as a whole.

I think Craig Wilson of USA Today got it right in this funny column.

Now Newsweek has weighed in with this article on whether the "Internet Generation" is really dumb and dumber than previous generations.

I think the Newsweek folks got it all wrong. It's not so much that kids can't access information in an instant with a quick Wiki search, more than it's the fact that they're wasting their time on the Internet socializing and watching YouTube clips. (Are they hanging out at or at Facebook, MySpace and I'd argue the bulk of time spent online by the youth of America is wasted with the inconsequential and recreational, the fleeting and meaningless. (It's fun, but so is eating cotton candy.)

I think the real danger that The Dumbest Generation points to is the fact that we're losing our common culture. If 30 out of 30 middle schoolers can't tell me anything about Rip Van Winkle, David and Goliath or Pandora's box, then we're losing the common cultural touchstones that we use to communicate—touchstones that you're not likely to learn while posting photos of yourself "shredding" on your MySpace page.

Of course, I still have to read the dang book! (And here I am "socializing" on the Internet!)

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Cognitive Surplus and the Idiot Box

If I could get all the hours back that I wasted watching Hogan's Heroes as a kid, I could use that time to go to medical school. Twice. And walk/swim around the earth eleven times.

Regular visitors will know that I consider TV the anti-book. And it is. So it was with much interest that I read a truly hilarious column by Mark Morford on the San Francisco Chronicle's website. In it, he discusses getting sucked in by the tube in relation to NYU professor Clay Shirky's notion of the "cognitive surplus," which he defines as all that leftover brain power we are blessed with, but collectively fritter away drooling in front of the idiot box. You can read Mr. Morford's funny column here.

Shirky calculates that Americans, as a whole, spend about 200 billion hours a year in front of the tube (see above reference to frittering). The number is mind boggling. But, he argues, the web is starting to eek out a tiny sliver of this time, and he thinks that this still-nascent technology will soon unleash a new, participatory revolution that will change the course of mankind and the conceit of "free time." We'll see. But it's a cool idea: those billions of hours of "passive" time will slowly evolve into more active, participatory, brain-activated time. You can watch a fascinating 15-minute video of Mr. Shirky discussing the "cognitive surplus" here.

(I should note that Mr. Shirky seems quite a bit more sanguine about the future of the web and its prospects for the human race than does Mr. Bauerlein, whose book, The Dumbest Generation, I discussed in the previous post.)

Oh, I also read an interesting, but, I believe, somewhat overly optimistic, article on Newsweek's site about the explosion in YA (Young Adult) novels. My beef with the story was the lack of numbers/facts/statistics. Although this category of book has certainly seen an uptick, the numbers I've seen indicate that overall teen reading is going nowhere but south. Could it be that a small pool of avid-reading kids are just reading more? Hmmm. Either way, I was bolstered by the mere idea that reading may be considered a vital part of "hip" youth culture. You can read it here.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Internet Reading vs. Reading Literature

The notion that kids may be reading less is often considered not such a bad thing because they're using the Internet more these days. Aren't they reading on the Internet? Why doesn't that count? What does it matter what they're reading, as long as they're reading, right?

First, a few numbers to consider:

According to an NEA study, between 1997 - 2003 home Internet use soared by 53% among 18- to 24-year-olds. From 1981 to 2003, the leisure reading of 15- to 17-year-olds fell to seven minutes a day from 18. What's more, 58% of middle and high school students use other media while reading. So, apparently, when kids report that they're reading, they're often also watching TV, playing video games, instant messaging, emailing or surfing the Web. Consider that by 2003, children were cramming an average of 8.5 hours of media consumption a day into just 6.5 hours—by multi-tasking.

So what's the big deal? Kids can do more than one thing at once; they can chew gum while texting! Isn't that a good thing in our ever more complex and technologically focused world?

But according to a new book, called The Dumbest Generation, by Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, youngsters are not spending their time learning on the web, reading Wikipedia articles about the finer points of Greek architecture or the root causes of The Great Depression; they're watching YouTube videos of guys riding scooters down stairs or saying "hi" to friends on MySpace and FaceBook. The professor suggests that "kids are using their technological advantage to immerse themselves in a trivial, solipsistic, distracting online world at the expense of more enriching activities—like opening a book or writing complete sentences."

The professor may have a point. Younger Americans do seem to struggle more than ever with writing coherent sentences, and many have difficulty carrying on an intelligent conversation—at least that's my experience.

I found out about this interesting book by reading a review of it in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. You can read it here. I've ordered a copy from the library (ordered it online while listening to music and sending text messages!), so I'll give you the scoop once I get my hands on it.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

America's J.K. Rowling?

My daughter was almost breathless after practically speed-reading Stephanie Meyer's three vampire novels—and they're as thick as bricks. As they say, she "devoured" them. She can't wait for the next one to come out; it's titled Breaking Dawn. If you ask her, she can even tell you the pub date: August 2nd. (I just checked, and it's freakin' #7 on Amazon right now!) So it was with much interest and seething jealousy that I happened across an interesting Time Magazine article about the author, her lightening bolt jolt of inspiration, and her subsequent meteoric rise—which, of course, I devoured. (Truthfully, how cool for her!)

I also thought this short piece by Christopher Paul Curtis from the May/June issue of Horn Book Magazine was pretty cool. In it, he describes his starkly different approaches to getting his two kids to love reading—the 13-year difference in age might have something to do with his radically different methodology. Great title too: A Dad Grows Up. There's something profound to be learned here.

Although I must admit, reading Christopher Paul Curtis' column reminded me of this article from Newsweek about how the older sibling always has it toughest, while kids later down the line get to skate through without getting hassled much. Of course, I immediately emailed the link to my six brothers in the hope of getting some mid-week fireworks started.


Monday, April 21, 2008

Helicopter Parents vs. Real Danger

I was speaking at library recently and a few kids were hanging out at my table after all my books were signed, telling me all about this and that. One fifth grade girl told me her mom doesn't like her to go to the library. "Why not?" I asked. "She's afraid I'll get shot by gang members while walking over here," she told me kind of matter-of-factly. Yikes! Some kids just have it tougher. Tougher neighborhood. Tougher home life. Tougher school. Thank goodness for the neighborhood library. During my visit, I really felt like this library was a refuge for these kids, a place to hide from the outside world, to be surrounded and protected by books. And, hopefully, those same books may even transport them to new, faraway places.

I recalled this girl's story when I stumbled across an interesting article on Newsweek's website about whether parents today are overprotective of their kids. Are things more dangerous now for kids than they were 30 years ago? Are modern kids too coddled? One mom let her son ride the subway home alone, sans cell phone, and later wrote about it. She got blasted for being a neglectful parent. The article has a great title: Helicopter Moms vs. Free-Range Kids. Good stuff that you can read here.

I'm always bashing TV—especially too much TV for kids. We don't have TV at our house, so regulating it is easy. But I do sometime get my feathers ruffled by those who say TV is good for your diaper-clad rug monkey, especially "educational" programming for kids on stations like PBS. An article on the Washington Post's website points out, rather interestingly, that most young children don't possess the cognitive firepower to have any real understanding of much of the stuff they're watching. Not only that, but kids often misinterpret or miss altogether the "messages" that many of these shows are trying to convey. If you let your little droolers watch TV, read what the latest research has to say about what they should be watching here.

I was green with envy when I saw this article about My Beautiful Mommy, a picture book that deals with a mom going under the knife to "fix" her flaws. (Don't get me started!) Man, talk about great publicity! This dang story was on every single website I visited. Putting aside the book's merits and flaws, when was the last time a picture book got this much attention? Do you know what all that publicity is worth in media dollars? Millions! My dad used to tell my brothers and me, "It doesn't matter what they're saying about you, as long as they're saying something." But the raspberries in this case were pretty thunderous. Now how could I get this kind of publicity for next year's release of my first picture books? Maybe I should get pec implants before I go on tour!

Not to end on a sour note, but this article from Publisher's Weekly about RIF (Reading Is Fundamental) losing its funding is a real drag. I've met lots of kids whose only books in their rooms at home are from RIF's free book distribution program. There are links in the article if you'd like to encourage your representative, senator or the president to continue RIF's funding.

Chow for now!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

What's An "Appropriate" Book Anyway?

Occasionally, my books are called "inappropriate." When they are, I never have a great response. (If you've got one for me, let me know.) About all I can do on the rare occasion that I do get a comment like this is to say, "Well, not all books are appropriate for all people. And that's okay with me." No exactly brilliant, but it always seems to mollify the offended citizen before me.

Although, honestly, my books are so tame that I don't even bother to put up a fight. If books came with a rating like movies do, my Joe Sherlock mysteries would get a G Rating, for "Mild Gross Humor." (Wouldn't that be awesome! Great marketing idea!) One day, I wish I could just say, "Lighten up, chief. It's all in good fun." But I always chicken out.

Speaking of inappropriate books, I've begun reading an interesting book called Welcome to the Lizard Motel by Barbara Feinberg. It's a first-person, non-fiction book that tells the story of a woman and her strange tale of how she goes about learning exactly why her 12-year-old son truly hates the books he's assigned to read in school. She's shocked once she starts reading the books herself and considers the content inappropriate and grossly unappealing to young boys. I'm just getting started; I'm just on page 25. But it's been an interesting read so far. I'll keep you posted.

How strange, then, that yesterday I stumble across this article on The Washington Post's website about the difficulty parents, teachers and librarians have in deciding which books are appropriate for young readers. As you might expect, there are as many opinions as there are children.

I'd like to say more here about this subject, but I'm certain it would be highly inappropriate.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Are smart and cool mutually exclusive?

After a school assembly earlier this year, there was a beehive of activity going on around me; kids were swarming everywhere. I was signing books and also putting my autograph on tiny slips of paper that kids had ripped out of their notebooks. One little girl told me I was the first famous person she'd ever met. Other kids just stared at me with big bug eyes. This is the kind of thing children's authors live for, right? Then a cute kid caught my eye and said, "Books are for nerds."

All I could do was laugh and say, "Well, then I guess I'm a nerd."

I was struck by the dichotomy: How one kid could be so excited about getting an actual author to sign his book, while another wouldn't be caught dead with a book? How'd that happen?

Getting kids to read can be like that: a big, complicated mystery with no easy solution.

The San Jose Mercury News ran the first story in a fascinating series this week titled Smart vs. Cool. It's about the "success gap" in school, and how different races and ethnicities approach popularity and academic success. It's a MUST read.

Is reading cool? Is doing well in school cool? I sometimes hear about the issues concerning "A students" and how the kids lower down the grade scale treat them. Isn't it interesting how those who are considered "smart" are also relegated to the role of pariah? How destructive is that to the future of America? How the heck did that happen?

When I was in school I was neither smart nor cool. Nor popular. Nor a good dresser. I also had bad hair. When I was in middle school—as many of the kids in this article are—I think I was so lost in my own miserableness that I never quite registered on the popularity radar. I was just that weird, funny guy who was always scribbling cartoons in his notebook. So the pressures on the smart kid are something I've never dealt with on a firsthand basis.

In the end, I guess the question is this: How can we make being smart cool to young people? How can we make reading books the coolest thing you can do?

Talk about a tall order. Any of you smart people out there have any ideas? How about you cool people?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

It's Alive: Making Your Little Reader Come To Life

I hear from so many fretful parents who want their young elementary school kids to be readers, but they can't seem to get their little creatures to read. "It's like getting him to eat broccoli," one mom told me. "I can't force feed him books."

So I thought I'd throw out five simple tips that just might help get your carpet monkey started on a lifetime journey in books.

1. Think selection. Kids are picky. Do not limit the pool of potential books in your child's room to just five that you think are examples of fine children's literature. Think of it as setting up a buffet. When you go to a wedding and walk alongside the buffet table, do you skip the beets? I do. They're gross. But maybe beets make other people swoon with delight. (Yipes!) It's the same deal with books; bring your child to the library and check out 20 or 30 books of all kinds: mysteries, adventures, histories, how to, comic books, humor, books about pirates or snakes or knock-knock jokes. At this point, it's all about reading, not what they're reading. So cast a wide net and you'll catch something that floats their boat.

2. Read to them. Just because your child can finally read for themselves doesn't mean you should stop reading to them. And don't just squeeze in 7.5 minutes of speed reading right before the lights go off at night. A couple of nights a week, get ready for bed and hour early and read aloud for 45 minutes. They'll beg for more. If you want your child to be a successful member of his or her baseball team, you need to play catch once in a while. Same deal.

3. Hang out in bookstores. We take our kids to the bookstore all the time. The library works too, but you need variety. And a bookstore has all the latest stuff. Let them walk around, sit on the floor, play with the toys. They often stumble across things they find interesting. Who knows, it might be a book about kitchen table science experiments! But if you don't go, you don't know.

4. Turn off the bloody TV. Moms and dads have got to suck it up and turn off the freakin' TV once in a while. I've stated before that TV is the anti-book. It still is. Dancing with the Stars, American Idol and Survivor are like junk food—fun while you eat them, but in the end just empty calories. Unplug that brain-draining cyclops for a week, or a weekend, or even a day. Hide the wires if you have to. Reading will not happen at your house if SpongeBob is on. Period.

5. Be flexible. All kids are different. Some like chicken. For others, just the sight of a Colonel Sanders' joint will send them into a spittle-producing crying jag. Don't try to make your second child be like your first. Don't attempt to mold your little Johnny or Janey into what you were like as a reader at their age. You don't fit into the pants your friends wear (which could be a good thing, or a bad thing!), so don't try to do the same with your kid's reading material. Just get them in the habit of reading now and they will evolve as readers, just as people evolve as musicians, golfers, painters and athletes. The key in the early stages is making reading fun and enjoyable.

That's my two cents for today...but wait, there's more...

While flipping through an old Horn Book Magazine, I ran across this article by Robin Smith, a second grade teacher. It's one of the best, most concise, most common sense-filled articles on this subject I have ever seen. Check it out and good luck!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What's Your Reading Level? What's My Writing Level?

I recall my surprise when I first saw the different reading levels each of my Joe Sherlock books had been assigned. Surprised mostly because I felt they were all about the same reading level. I wrote them, I should know, right?

Some of the Sherlock books were rated at an early third-grade level, while others were deemed to be right for a student with a high fourth-grade and even an early fifth-grade reading level.

Huh? Was I unaware of my difficulty level while writing these books? Did I inadvertantly make some books more complex and difficult than others? Was I having a three-month senior moment during the creation of each of these mysteries? So much so that they could fluctuate almost three grade levels? Was I asleep at the keyboard?

I did some digging.

I learned that books are not assigned a reading level by a reading expert, a panel of teachers, a seasoned librarian or even a children's cognition specialist. I discovered that the books are torn apart and the pages are fed through a scanner. The computer converts the scanned image into text, and the computer uses some kind of complex formula (with some fancy-pants algebra, a half-dozen mysterious algorithms and a handful of isoceles triangles thrown in for good measure) to assign a "grade level appropriateness" rating to each book.

Well, I felt a little bit better. Besides, what does HAL know about reading books? (Is there a problem, Dave?) I walked away somewhat mollified, but still somewhat puzzled. Until I stumbled upon this interesting article by "The Numbers Guy" (aka Carl Bialik) in The Wall Street Journal about exactly how reading levels are determined.

See, when you peel back the layers, things usually just keep getting uglier . . . so view assigned reading levels and grade levels with a grain of salt.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Tooting My Own Horn

I've been reading a great book called "Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It" by Peggy Klaus. This is exactly the kind of book an author—or just about anybody who needs to communicate with the outside world—should read. It's so hard for many of us to explain in a concise and captivating way what makes us—or what we do—interesting, unique and worth paying attention to.

It seems to me creative types often have an acute difficulty when it comes to talking about themselves and their work. (I've noticed lawyers don't seem to have this problem.)

The sad truth is that even though I've been through this book twice, I'm still going to need to read it a half dozen more times. It's not easy to conceive, polish and deliver a "bragalogue" in a way that's smooth, natural and customized to the audience for maximum impact. I talk in front of groups all the time, but I feel I always have room for improvement.

When I speak to librarians, for example, I like to breakdown why I think my Joe Sherlock: Kid Detective books make a great read for kids, especially reluctant readers. I've been able to create a list in my head of bullet points that I can know rattle through with ease. I can deliver this stump speech in 20 seconds or 2 minutes. It goes like this:

• They're laugh-out-loud funny—parents often find themeselves tickled as much as the child they're reading to
• They have short chapters—that sense of accomplishment comes fast and furious
• They have illustrations on almost every page—a must for the reluctant reader
• Every chapter ends with a cliffhanger—they can't stop reading and they don't know why
• They're each stuffed with some kind of time pressure—a ticking clock always ups the ante
• Joe Sherlock is enthusiastic and good-hearted—although he's a natural-born bumbler
• Joe Sherlock is no Encyclopaedia Brown or Hardy Boy—he's just and Average Joe, so kids can relate to him
• Girls also like the books because of Hailey, the younger, smarter sister who delivers all the zingers

Let me tell you, it's a relief to have this stump speech in my back pocket; I can always pull it out when I need it. The key is planning and foresight and being loaded for bear wherever you happen to go. No matter if you're an author, a teacher, a librarian, a mom, a bright-eyed kid or a plumber, you've got an interesting story to tell—but it's all in the telling!

So what do you do? The next time someone asks you what you do for a living, will you be ready with something that will knock their socks off, complete with illustrative examples, memorable anecdotes and catchy phrases? There's no more valuable utensil to have in your toolbox than a pithy but powerful "bragalogue" that will make you hard to forget and easy to like. So get started today.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Baby That Reads! How Cool Is That?

I ran across a story about a baby who can read. Seriously.

This is a pretty cute story and the video of the little girl's appearance on the TODAY Show is amazing to watch.

I think the most telling facts in the story are that both parents are speech pathologists and they began teaching their daughter sign language from the start—and spent a lot of time reading her books! This must have thrown the development of those parts of the brain responsible for language and reading into overdrive during that first year of vast and complex growth. (Imagine the disadvantage of spending your first two years in a home where there are no books and nobody bothers to read to you!)

The takeaway: You can't underestimate the power of reading to babies early and filling up their world with rich language and "human" interaction—not interaction with the idiot box. I couldn't help but smile when the story mentioned that the couple's daughter doesn't watch TV, except for one show about sign language. Now that's what I'm talking about!

You can see it all here.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

What's The Big Draw?

I enjoy talking to kids about the joys of reading and the thrills of crafting a good story. But nothing lights up their eyes more than watching me cartoon some quick, goofy characters; kids are natural-born artists. But all the pressure to score well on tests and today's myopic obsession with the three Rs sometimes leaves creativity out it the cold. And that's a shame. Because all the smarts in the world won't accomplish much without the world's most powerful accelerant: creativity.

I found an interesting slideshow with cool audio track on the Washington Post's website that has vivid photographs and is well worth seeing. You can watch (and hear) the kids of North Chevy Chase Elementary School exercise the side of the brain that's often left out at school these days: the right side! Watch it here now!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Why Do I Write Books? Why Does Anyone, For That Matter?

The most difficult question I ever got at an author appearance came during a festive celebration marking the re-opening of a children's library. It came from a tiny, towheaded girl (maybe three?), still wearing diapers, who peered at me over the microphone and asked me why I wrote books.

I was stumped. It was the first time anyone had ever asked me that question, and I honestly had never really thought about it much. I was speechless (which doesn't happen much!). Why in the world do I write books anyway? Good question! This was much more difficult than the typical questions I get, like "Where do you get your ideas from?" and "Do you always talk this fast?" and "How tall is your wife?"

Why would it be so hard to explain why I write books? I guess it's a difficult question because there's no simple explanation—at least not one that I've come up with after some serious noodling on the subject.

I think most people imagine it would be neat to be a writer, to see your name in print, to have your stories read by thousands. But most people never get around to writing anything. Why not? What do writers possess that everyone else doesn't? To be frank, I don't know why anyone would want to put themselves through the process—certainly not for the fortune, the fame or the influence. (Truth is, I spend what little influence I have trying to convince kids that it can actually be fun to read and that they should do it on a regular basis.)

So why do I write books? Or why does anyone for that matter? Where, in fact, do writers come from? What things in their childhood cause them to become spinners of tales? Were there traits I exhibited as a child that a keen and perspicacious observer would have pointed to and said, "Ah, now little David here is bound to become future writer."

Last night, I stumbled upon an fantastic essay by Julianna Baggott on this very subject. She writes a successful children's book series under the perfectly goofy nom de plume N.E. Bode. (My daughter's fourth grade class is reading one of her books, which put her on my "author radar.") She is also a poet and a writer of books for tall people, too. Her essay appeared in a HarperCollins newsletter. It's fantastic, and hilarious, and eerily insightful. It's really worth a read, so please do so here.

This article is the closest I've gotten to figuring out an answer to that toddler's curve ball. And it may help you identify a future writer who's lurking in your midst—and those traits that drive you bananas just might just be the makings of a future writer of fortune, fame and influence!

Monday, March 3, 2008

Why Are Finnish Kids So Smart?

I visited seven different California schools in February as a visiting author and illustrator. These visits got me thinking about what makes a school successful—and the individual student successful. Heck, I've been thinking about what makes a country as a whole excel or sink academically. So it's no surprise that articles on successful schooling would catch my eye. I'd like to share two of them in particular.

The first is a Wall Street Journal article by Ellen Gamerman about why Finnish students score so high on international academic tests. Fact is, they are at the very top. In the end, the conclusions are somewhat muddled, but it's certainly interesting to examine some of the reasons why Finnish kids are at the top academically, while their America counterparts are mired in the middle of the pack. I found this part of the article telling:

"One explanation for the Finns' success is their love of reading. Parents of newborns receive a government-paid gift pack that includes a picture book. Some libraries are attached to shopping malls, and a book bus travels to more remote neighborhoods like a Good Humor truck...Many children struggled to read the last Harry Potter book in English because they feared they would hear about the ending before it arrived in Finnish. Movies and TV shows have Finnish subtitles instead of dubbing. One college student says she became a fast reader as a child because she was hooked on the 1990s show "Beverly Hills, 90210."

Hmmmm. Could these subtle cultural differences make a big difference on overall intellectual and academic achievement? You can read the article here.

The second piece I spotted in today's San Jose Mercury News. It's an editorial written by a high school teacher in Los Altos, CA named Robert Freeman. While discussing why he thinks the standard "fixes" like increased spending, more testing, better teacher training, enhanced technology and instituting a longer school year will not make our schools more successful, he says this:

"The reason is that all of these "fixes" assume that the student is a product, something to be built, tested and packaged for use. They overlook the two most critical things that matter in education: that character is more important than content; and that it is the student - much more than the teacher or school - who ultimately determines success."

The student must assume responsibility? Hey, now that's a radical idea! Certainly food for thought. You can read Mr. Freeman's editorial here.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Book Snooper or Shelf Enthusiast?

There's nothing I like to do more at a party than to sneak away from the crowd and check out the host's books. (C'mon, I can't be the only one who likes to do this! Can I see a show of hands, please?)

Ah, the unbridled beauty of the bookshelf. If there are just 10 books, that's cool; I'll hang out for just a short while. If it's a whopping collection, I'll be gone for half the night. Am I socially inept? Probably. Am I a complete book dork? Certainly. Am I snooping? Not really—I just like books.

I love a good bookshelf. I can get lost in a home library. Nothing better. Racks of wisdom, adventure, mystery, history, horror and biography just waiting to entertain. All that raw potential just sitting on the shelf, ready to pounce.

But is the bookshelf a thing not long for this world? A moribund piece of furniture, replaced by the 65" widescreen HD plasma with teeth-rattling digital surround sound?

Since most of my books now reside in dusty boxes in the garage and our kids' books have taken over the house, I miss my old bookshelves. This slideshow on the LA Times website got me dreaming of a having a giant wall packed tight from floor to ceiling with books. Maybe that's how I'll know when I've "made it."

Be sure to check out the "flybrary." Could anything be cooler?

So, are books in a place of esteem at your house? If they are, odds are your kids will be reading enthusiasts. Let's just call it "trickle down book enthusiasm!"

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Who is Rip Van Winkle? Anybody? Bueller? Bueller?

Who is Rip Van Winkle?

What is Pandora's box?

Who were David and Goliath?

Lately, I've been asking my older audiences this series of questions. (Older, in my case, means 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th graders.) Invariably, and without fail, nobody can identify any of these cultural touchstones. Sometimes I get a "that sounds familiar" response, but so far I'm batting a big fat zero.

What's it mean? I'm not sure. But I do remember being very interested in E.D. Hirsch, Jr.'s books in the late eighties; in 1986 he wrote a book called Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and in 1988 he published The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. These books caused a big stir. As I recall, the premise was that Americans were slowly losing that common cultural literacy that tied us all together and helped us communicate and understand each other. There is no question the problem continues today. Perhaps it's getting worse?

Because none of the kids I speak to know who Rip Van Winkle is, I decided to write a picture book manuscript about him. It's called Rip Van Winkle: A Hide-and-Seek Legend. Who knows if it will ever sell, but I think it's really funny and helps promote a cultural icon that everyone should be able to reference and understand. (Fact is, I think it's flippin' hilarious...but I'm not ready to send it to my agent, Linda, just yet!) I should mention that ol' Rip came up at our house because my 12-year-old has begun that Rip Van Winkle stage of life.

Lo and behold, I pick up the this morning's USA Today and there's a sizeable article on just this subject, front page no less! Sounds like a new report came out telling us how clueless our kids are. It's a study released by a researcher named Rick Hess at the American Enterprise Institute and titled Still at Risk: What Student's Don't Know, Even Now.

For an overview of it all, you can read the USA Today article here. You can even take a test and see if you're smarter than a 17-year-old!

And if you don't get that "Bueller? Bueller?" reference in the title of this post, I'm truly concerned about your cultural literacy!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Stockton, CA and Free Rice!

I've just returned from a week of school visits in Stockton, CA. I met lots of fun kids, great teachers, cool librarians and a passel of interesting artists and illustrators.

The school district in Stockton decided to bring an author or an illustrator to each one of their elementary schools during the week to foster an interest in reading and books. So Susan Katz, my booking agent and head honcho of a fantastic company called Connecting Authors, brought roughly 25 authors and illustrators to Stockton for the week. Getting a visit from a goofy, whacky author who draws super fast really makes a difference to these kids; I saw firsthand how my visit got the kids fired up about reading, writing, drawing and cooking up stories. Kudos to the Stockton Unified School District for making it happen!

While there, I heard from some of the other authors about a SUPER cool website you simply must visit. It's called and it tests your vocabulary. For every word you test yourself on, the site donates 20 grains of rice through the United Nations World Food Program. It's so fun and easy—and you feel good while doing it! And they even show how many grains of rice you've donated in a rice bowl graphic next to the words. I checked it out on and it's all legit; the advertisers at the bottom of each page end up paying for the rice. (I just donated 880 grains of rice!)

Talk about the power of the Internet! Go there now.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Borders Goes Digital: The Future of Bookstores?

Just got back from a school visit at Mariemont Elementary School in Sacramento, CA and boy are my vocal chords tired! Great kids. Well organized. Amazing posters the kids made showing each of the Joe Sherlock books. And hilarious questions from the kids. The two best were, "How tall is your wife?" and "Why don't you have a cat?"

While in the state capital, I was nursing me gnarled voice box at Starbucks when I ran across a USA Today article about Borders bookstores being in the early stages of adding major "digital" sections to their stores, an attempt to attract younger customers and compete with the likes of It's an interesting article that highlights the future of the competitive and rapidly changing book-selling business. (BTW, I still think Borders should put a little more "design thoughts" into their children's book area, which I often find confusing, crowded and not sectioned off like Barnes & Noble's children's section—which makes it easier to keep your kids corralled.)

A fews interesting factoids that caught my eye:

• The average customer spends about an hour in a Borders
• More than half the books sold in the USA are bought by people over 50
• Online bookselling still commands an edge over big-box bookstores and will continue to exert financial pressure on Borders and others (mostly because of their DEEP discounts, which bookstores can't compete with)
• More than 100 independent bookstores have opened over the last three years (but they don't say how many closed!)
• Though Borders was the first to add a cafe to a store, Barnes & Noble made a bigger splash when it added Starbucks in 1990.
• Borders has Seattle's Best Coffee cafes, also owned by Starbucks

You can read the article for yourself here.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Babies Watching TV Is A Good Thing?

There's a brief, one-page article in the current issue of Newsweek that practically had me groaning like Frankenstien's monster in the grocery store check out line—the really slow line, of course. I rolled my eyes, smacked my forehead, clutched my roiling belly—oh, that's when they told me how much I owed . . . the article got me kinda mad, too.

I mean why are they bending over backwards to say it's okay to subject your rug monkeys to TV? One "expert" says that it's perfectly okay to have your baby watch a Baby Einstein video as long as a dopey parent stands by the TV, points out certain objects on the screen, then calls out the object's name to the burbling baby. Are they freakin' kidding me? Have they ever heard of this thing called a book? I mean, why not just crack open a flippin' book and save some face!

Just tell me why they never study the benefits of a child watching a half hour of TV compared to mom or dad taking little miss sunshine or little mister sunshine over to the library for a half hour to read picture books together. Why don't they study that, huh? Dang it, I'm getting mad again.

Is it me? Maybe I'm just too sensitive. Maybe this is what happens when you escape the TV trap for 12 years.

And I love that stuff about there being no really good shows for elementary age kids, but they do suggest sitting junior down in front of the History Channel for "The Great Naval Battles of the War of 1812." AS IF! One dude even suggests that an hour a day of the boob tube is cool, but be sure to read with them at least 20 minutes a day, too. Just 20? Wouldn't spending just 20 minutes on TV and at least an hour on reading be three times better? Is reading like brushing your teeth now? Like flossing? Implied message: it ain't fun, but you should force yourself to do it every day.

You can read the online version of the Newsweek article for yourself here. Let me know if you think I'm off.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Finally, An Ambassador for Young People's Literature!

Jon Scieszka, author of The Stinky Cheese Man and Science Verse among many other titles, was recently crowned the USA's first "ambassador of young people's literature." This honor was bestowed on him by the Library of Congress and the Children's Book Council. Huzzah!

Mr. Scieszka has been appearing everywhere—and it's just great, because there's no one better to point out that reading for kids should be fun, and that it's okay if children read stuff that's "funny." (Sounds obvious, I know, but you'd be surprised by how many people I encounter who think children's reading should be serious business.)

You can read a good article on his ambassadorship in USA Today here.

If you want to read more, they also have a cool online interview available here.

Mr. Scieszka's also done amazing stuff with Guys Read, his effort to encourage boys to read more through an online site and a collection of essays he organized and edited about "guys" you can check out here.

Now, more importantly, I need to get in this dude's wheelhouse! Seriously. He's my people, he just doesn't know it yet! Anybody have an address for this guy, so I can send him some Joe Sherlock books?

Let me know what you know, and I'll leave your name out of it. Promise.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

What will life be like if people stop reading?

The New Yorker recently featured an article about what the overall decline in reading will mean to society on a large scale. It's spookily titled "Twilight of the Books" and written by Caleb Crain.

It's smart stuff on how reading developed, how reading changed human beings, and how today's growing reliance on TV and streaming video on the Internet for entertainment and news could eventually change the way we think. Of course, there's lots of head smackers about kids, reading and TV, like this tidbit:

The antagonism between words and moving images seems to start early. In August, scientists at the University of Washington revealed that babies aged between eight and sixteen months know on average six to eight fewer words for every hour of baby DVDs and videos they watch daily. A 2005 study in Northern California found that a television in the bedroom lowered the standardized-test scores of third graders. And the conflict continues throughout a child’s development. In 2001, after analyzing data on more than a million students around the world, the researcher Micha Razel found “little room for doubt” that television worsened performance in reading, science, and math.

I highly recommend the article, which you can read here.

A 12-Year Old's 2007 Reading List

Happy New Year!

Since this blog is supposed to be about getting kids to read more, I thought I'd share my 12-year-old daughter's list of books she read last year, in 2007. I spend a lot of time on this blog blabbing about getting kids to read more, so I better have some proof in the pudding! All my kids are reading machines, but this one keeps records! She keeps the books she reads written down in a notebook with the author's name, number of pages and the date she finished reading the book. Nerdy? Maybe. But she'll always be able to look back and see the books she read as a young girl. Which this nerdy dad thinks is really cool. (There are also many other benefits to this practice which I discussed in a blog entry back in July, '07!)

Here are the books with an asterisk next to her TOP TEN (her starred reviews). 78 books read in 2007! Now that's something to celebrate!

1.) Eldest, by Christopher Paolini
* 2.) A Corner of the Universe, by Ann M. Martin
3.) Winter Games, Camp Confidential #12, by Melissa J. Morgan
4.) Fairest, by Gail Carson
* 5.) Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, by Wendy Mass
6.) The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle
7.) Pish Posh, by Ellen Potter
8.) The Fire Within, by Chris D'lace
9.) The Thief Lord, by Cornelia Funke
10.) Amalee, by Dar Williams
11. ) So Totally Emily Ebers, by Lisa Yee
12.) The Million Dollar Kids, by Dan Gutman
13.) The Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
14.) The Gypsy Game, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
15.) Soccer Chick Rules, by Dawn Fitzgerald
16.) Cat Running, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
17.) The Toothpaste Millionaire, by Jean Merrill
18.) Feathers, by Jacquelin Woodson
19.) Madison Finn, Super Edition #3, by Laura Dower
20. Horns and Wrinkles, by Joseph Helgerson
21.) The Annoyance Bureau, by Lucy Frank
22.) Double Dutch, by Sharon M. Draper
23.) Click Here (To Find Out How I Survived Seventh Grade), by Denise Vega
24.) Hatchet, by Gary Paulson
25.) Crane, The Five Ancestors, #3, by Jeff Stone
26.) In the Cards Love, by Mariah Fredericks
27.) The Cupid Chronicle, by Coleen Paratome
28.) S-P-E-L-L-D-O-W-N, by Karon Luddy
29.) Listen, by Stephanie S. Tolan
30.) The Fruit Bowl Project, by Sarah Durkee
31.) Camp Confidential #13, by Melissa J. Morgan
32.) The Clique, by Lisa Harrison
33.) Twelve, by Lauren Myracle
34.) Camp Confidential #15, by MelissaJ. Morgan
35.) Charlie Bone #16, by Jenny Nimo
36.) Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling
37.) The Problem with Paradise, by Lesly Dahl
38.) Camp Confidential #14, by Melissa J. Morgan
39.) Camp Confidential #16, by Melissa J. Morgan
* 40.) The Lightning Thief, Percy Jackson and the Olympians #1, by Rick Riordan
41.) Gregor the Overlander #5, by Suzanne Collins
42.) How to Steal a Dog, by Barbara O'Conner
43.) Just Another Day In My Insanely Real Life, by Barbara Dee
44.) The Sea of Monsters, Percy Jackson and the Olympians #2, by Rick Riordan
45.) The Face of the Milk Carton, by Caroline B. Cooney
46.) Whatever Happened to Janie? by Caroline B. Cooney
47.) The Voice on the Radio, by Caroline B. Cooney
48.) What Janie Found, by Caroline B. Cooney
* 49.) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, J.K. Rowling
50.) The Titan's Curse, Rick Riordan
51.) Blue Fingers, by Cheryl Aylward Whitesel
* 52.) The Amulet of Samarkind, by Jonathan Stroud
53.) The Golem's Eye, by Jonathan Stroud
54.) Ptolemy's Gate, by Jonathan Stroud
55.) The Outsiders, by S. E. Hinton
56.) Gilda Joyce and The Ghost Sonata, by Jennifer Allison
57.) Seven Tears into the Sea, by Terri Farley
58.) Austenland, by Shannon Hale
* 59.) Eclipse, by Stephanie Meyer
60.) Feed, by M.T. Anderson
61.) Enola Holmes, by Nancy Springer
62.) Atherton, by Patrick Carman
63.) New Moon, by Stephanie Meyer
* 64.) Just Listen, by Sarah Dressen
65.) The Isabel Factor, by Gayle Friensen
66.) The Summer Sherman Loved Me, by Jane St. Anthony
67.) Grace Above All, by Jane St. Anthony
68.) Wicked Lovely, by Melissa Marr
69.) Griffin's Castle, by Jenny Nimo
70.) The Sisterhood of Traveling Pants, by Ann Brashares
71.) The Truth About Forever, by Sarah Dessen
72.) That Summer, by Sarah Dessen
73.) The Faerie Path, by Frewin Jones
74.) Pretty Is, by Elizabeth Holmes
75.) The Princess and the Hound, by Mette Ivie Harrison
* 76.) Firegirl, by Tony Abbott
77.) The Last Queen, by Frewin Jones
* 78.) Nobody's Princess, by Esther Friesner