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?