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.