Sunday, July 29, 2007

Keeping a List of Your Books

I am not a great list maker.

In fact, when I sit down and make a list of all the important things I need to accomplish, I often misplace the list almost immediately. I start a new list and the first thing on that list is usually something about finding the old list. So I cannot be classified as an efficient list maker.

But I do keep a list of what I've read. Not only the name of the book, but also who wrote the book and when I finished reading it. Wierd, huh? I started doing this right after I graduated from college. The last year or two I haven't been as devoted to my list of books, and I usually end up playing catch up after a few months roll by and I have to remember what I read. But I still keep a list. And I've never lost this list.

Why do I do this? I'm not sure. It seemed important when I first started reading like my life depended on it. Honestly, the list is not even that useful. Nobody has ever asked me for a list of what books I read in, say, October of 1989, or what my literary pursuits were in the last quarter of 1992. Of course, I can look it up and tell them if somebody did ask. But nobody ever has.

I have taught my kids to keep lists of the books they've read each year and the date they finished. They're pretty good at it. They like to keep count. It's fun to look back and remember your favorite books of the year. I like to brag about their lists to anyone who'll listen. I think this makes them proud of their accomplishment. If you've got young readers, get one of those little spiral binders and have them start writing down what they've read and when they finished. You'll be able to look back and count how many books they read over the summer, and how many they knocked off over the entire year. Maybe one day they'll look back and show their kids what they were reading when they were trying to fill up the long days of summer. My older daughter now uses her list to create her "Top Ten" list for each year.

I bet any kid would work a little bit harder if they know there was a list—I mean who, after all, wants to brag to Grandma that "I read almost one and a half books this summer!" Nope. They'll remember that list. And I bet they go for double digits. And that's something that everybody likes to hear about.

And I bet they never lose that list either.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Are Books Even Important Any More?

Why is reading important?

And by that I mean literary reading, as opposed to other kinds of reading, like salsa recipes, street signs and the latest juicy gossip about Britney and Lindsay.

Is literary reading more important than reading magazines? Newspapers? The Internet? That little chart of nutritional facts on your last can of Who Hash? (How's that for a literary reference!)

As I plow my way through the National Endowment for the Arts report entitled Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, it's clear that Americans of every demographic group are reading less. All education levels. All ethnic groups. All age groups—but the steepest decline in literary reading is among the youngest age group studied, down 28% over the last twenty years among 18- to 24-year olds.

So what? Does it really matter any more if people are reading novels, short stories, poetry or drama? Who gives a dang? Who cares? What's that stuff have to do with today's world? In my gut I know it's important, but it's hard to explain why to someone who hasn't thumbed through a book since they had to write a book report for Mrs. Grumhipple.

I saw this quote in the report by Dana Gioia, the NEA's Chairman: "Literary reading is fading as a meaningful activity, especially among younger people. If one believes that active and engaged readers lead richer intellectual lives than non-readers and that a well-read citizenry is essential to a vibrant democracy, the decline of literary reading calls for serious action." And then this: "Indeed, at the current rate of loss, literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century." Is this guy just a pick-me-up, or what?

So would you rather be stuck in an elevator for eight hours with someone who reads literature or someone who doesn't? Would you prefer your company to hire a reader or a non-reader? Would you prefer your daughter to marry a guy who's well-read or a guy who only uses books as doorstops? Would you prefer our next President to be an avid reader or someone who's too busy counting donations and reading polls?

If you chose the literary reader...why?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Television: The Anti-book

Some call TV the "idiot box." Others call it "the boob tube." I like "the one-eyed soul sucker." Or "crack in the box."

Let's face it, TV is addictive. And this country has a serious TV jones.

While that flickering cyclops casts its spell on us with ease, most of us wish we watched less, wish that infernal box had less power over us. Can you magine lying on your deathbed and kicking yourself for not having watched more episodes of Dukes of Hazzard?

One thing you notice when you dive into the statistics about reading and kids is that TV is the elephant in the room everyone's reluctant to point a finger at. ("But we just watch educational programs!") It's the number one enemy of the book. TV is the the anti-book.

Growing up, I probably watched television more than I should have. After school you could catch some Popeye or an episode of The Three Stooges. And, of course, there were Saturday morning cartoons, a highlight of any kid's week back in the 70s. But it's so different today; now there's children's programming available 24/7 on almost two dozen kid-friendly channels. The trough is open for business whenever little Jimmy or Janey has a spare moment.

We have not had TV at our house for about 12 years. (You should see the looks of utter horror on the faces of my children's friends when they hear that bit of news!) I jokingly tell people you really only miss it for the first eight or nine years...then you simply become numb to the outside world—did you hear Hawaii and Alaska have been added to the Union?

I'd have to say the benefits of life without TV far outweigh the disadvantages. Most importantly, we no longer have to be subjected to nerve janglers like, "What you don't know about hamsters and salmonella could be putting your family at risk! The report you can't afford to miss tonight on Action News 8!"

But I can honestly say that my kids wouldn't be such big readers and I would have never become a writer if I was spending my evenings drooling with a vacant stare in front of such important cultural milestones as Pimp My Ride and The Bachelor.

Honestly, I don't know how people find the time. But at the Keane house we always manage to fill the hours of the day. Imagine that.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Impact of Harry Potter

Since practically every muggle on the planet is buzzing about the final Harry Potter installment arriving at midnight tomorrow, I thought I'd point out an interesting subgenre of the Potter hype: what effect has the Harry Potter series had on the reading patterns and habits of children? Also, what has been the series' overall impact on children's publishing as a whole?

This topic is mulled over in this interesting article from today's Washington Post. Often mentioned in these stories is Scholastic's own study on the impact that Harry, Ron and Hermoine have had on young readers. The Post also has an intresting online discussion on this topic here. (You may need to register, but it's free!)

I found the most intriguing concept in the article to be a comment about "postive social pressure" to read the Potter books, which begs the question: is there a lot of "negative social pressure" out there regarding kids and reading? I know my 11-year-old bookworm hears it. Is reading considered cool for today's kids? My daughter anwers with an emphatic "NO!" Is it uncool to be seen reading or carrying a book? "YES!" says daughter, "IT'S CONSIDERED TOTALLY UNCOOL!" The subtle and not-so-subtle pressure that swirls around children reading for fun deserves some looking into.

Another thing: Are the 61% of boys and 41% of girls who have read the hero of Hogwarts books, but who weren't reading for fun before picking up a Harry book, actually reading anything else besides the Harry Potter tomes? Or are these kids simply 100% Harry? That's hard to say with any degree of certainty. But speaking as a children's book author, I say any talk in the popular culture about a book—any book—is a good thing . . . and anything that brings traffic into bookstores is good for EVERYBODY.

Thoughts? Has Potter cast a spell on your young readers? Doesn't a chocolate frog sound good right now?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The M Generation: Reading vs Electronic Media

I just read the executive summary of the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation study titled "Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year Olds." (They're calling this generation Generation M for all the time they spend with (electronic) media.) As a guy who writes books for children the report is sobering and, frankly, a little depressing. During school visits I sometimes have the feeling that I'm the representative for the whole book industry, trying to lobby for the paltry few minutes kids devote to reading—and I lobby with all I've got. From TVs playing in the back of the SUV or family van (forget about talking, reading, or singing campfire songs!) to kids in the second grade constantly text messaging each other, the world she is a changin'!

Are books holding their own against 300 TV channels, video game consoles, email, cell phones, text messages, digital cameras, computer games, the Internet, instant messaging, and downloading the latest must-have hit song for your iPod? Care to hazard a guess? More importantly, how is all this media exposure and multi-tasking changing American youths?
As the report asks: "What does this mean for the nature of childhood? or to interpersonal and familial connections?" Good questions.

First some interesting statistics (you might want to sit down): Young people today live media saturated lives and spend 6.5 hours a day with media, the equivalent of a full time job (44.5 hours a week). 24% of kids live in a home with more than 5 TVs and TVs are still the media seduction of choice with 8- to 18-year olds spending an average of 3 hours and 51 minutes a day watching TV. Kids in my target demographic (8- to 10-year olds) watch an average of 4 hours and 10 minutes a day. 20% of 8- to 18-year olds watch TV over 5 hours a day. 72% of boys and 64% of girls have thier own TV in their room. 63% of 8- to 18-year olds live in a house where TV is usually on during meals, while 53% live in homes with no rules about TV watching. Yikes!

Okay, so what useful statistics can be gleaned from the report regarding kids and reading? Here what the report has to say: "Some kids do read less than others. For example, those with TVs in their rooms, those in homes where the TV is left on all the time, and those whose parents don't have rules about TV watching all tend to spend less time reading than others do." (Reading, according to the report, includes books, magazines and newspapers not read for homework.) Kids who live in houses where the TV is on "most of the time" spend an average of 37 minutes a day reading while those who live in houses where the TV is on a "little" or "never" spend 55 minutes reading a day. Among 8- to 10-year olds, kids whose parents have rules about TV and enforce them "most" of the time spend 38 minutes less a day watching TV and 16 minutes more reading a day.

So what's a parent to do who's concerned about getting their children to read more? They might consider these strategies:
• Don't leave the TV on, especially when nobody is watching it (that makes a difference)
• Don't watch TV during meals
• Set rules about how much TV can be watched, and enforce them
• If it's not too late, don't put a TV in your child's room (once it's there, it will be extremely difficult to remove)

A few rules go a long way; as my sister-in-law told me the other day, she enforces a "no screen day" on Sundays and the kids end up spending a whole lot of time reading at her house on Sundays. That's pretty simple to do.

The 41-page report is well written, well designed and truly fascinating. You can read it for yourself here.

ALSO, I must thank the San Mateo Public Library for hosting my talk last night, and San Mateo's M is for Mystery bookstore for supplying the books. I met some really neat kids! I signed a lot of books! And everyone enjoyed some good belly LAUGHS!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Are Kids Reading Less Today Than Ever?

I ran across an interesting article about kids and reading over the weekend in the San Francisco Chronicle. The lead paragraph in the story focuses on the issue of teen reading, but the study mentioned in the article, Scholastic's The Kids and Family Reading Report, clearly points out that kids begin to read much less for entertainment and pleasure around the third and fourth grades—and that's what I've found emperically as well. Perhaps that's when the problem begins and it becomes more acute later on in middle school and high school.

I've ordered the NEA study mentioned in the article, which I will read with much interest.

I thought the comments by Stanford's Michael Kamil were a bit troubling. Can reading a book and all the value inherent in that endeavor be put on equal footing with text-messaging your friends, playing HALO, making new pals on MySpace, or surfing around YouTube for the latest funny video clip of a guinea pig looking into the camera with bug eyes? Can these activities really be considering "reading for information?" I think not. But perhaps I'm just an old school fuddy-duddy.

Maybe somebody would like to set me straight on this score. Anybody? Bueller? Bueller?

Also, ran across this audio interview with Eric Carle today from NPR's All Things Considered program. It's moving and illuminating. And the audio slideshow of his work is also a must. The guy is a flat-out legend.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A First Dip Into The Blogosphere

Well, here goes...It's time to dip my toe into the blogosphere. First impression: It's freezing in here.

Before I get all bloggy, I should mention one caveat: I don't know what I'm doing. So if this blog looks like it's under cyberattack from an enemy of the printed word, it's probably just my learning curve showing.

In addition to blogging about being a children's book author and illustrator and all the sundry slings and arrrows that go along with that calling, I'd also like to focus on issues relating to getting kids to read more. The latest studies. Interesting articles. Tips for turning your reluctant reader into a ravenous reader. Things that have worked for your little reader. That sort of thing. To that end, I plan to post whatever "bits and pieces" come my way relating to that subject. So if you run across things that relate to this subject and you think that I ought to see/blog about it, please email me straightaway at Or just post a response.

Well, that's it for the first foray. And I don't have a scratch on me! Now if I could just get my dang photo on here.