Reading Without Remorse Redux

So, you might have noticed I take a strong stance on books and all reading being good reading.

That said, I want to formalize an idea that has been floating around for a while.

I’m going to make a semi-official book holiday. From here on out August 13 is going to be Read Without Remorse Day. Every Friday the Thirteenth will be a “mini” Read Without Remorse day. This will be a time to read unapologetically and freely from any genre (be it chick lit, classics, or non-fiction) and in any format (be it picture books, graphic novels, etc.).

It will be a time to remind those around you that reading is about quality instead of quantity, a time to remember that reading is supposed to be fun instead of hard. It will be a day to remember that all reading  should be created equal.

Who is with me?

Picture books aren’t going anywhere

If you know any librarians, writers, or avid readers on Twitter, you’ve probably already heard about the recent New York Times article “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children.” You may have heard about the concern that picture books are dying. You may have heard the concerns from a quoted parent whose quote was taken out of context.

You may have heard any number of panicked voices worrying about picture books and children and what not including BigThink’s ominously titled article “Love Goodnight, Moon; Forget About Harvard” worrying that we don’t know what will happen to children who don’t read picture books. Happily this article does bring some sanity back to the subject by reaffirming that reading is about quality and not about quantity.

You also might have seen Mother Reader’s very wise post reminding everyone that this is not the first, nor will it be the last, time that the New York Times has gotten something wrong in literature for young people. (If you read this blog you might remember the bad parents debacle and the remorseful reading catastrophe–I know I do.)

What you haven’t heard yet, are my thoughts. So here they are with the caveat that I very much agree with Mother Reader that this article isn’t the end all, say all about picture books. That said, I was so struck by the audacity of the article that I find myself unable to let it pass without an extensive response (you have been warned, this will be long). And honestly I didn’t take a bunch of journalism courses in college and concentrate on youth services/literature in grad school to let things like this slide.

This article reminded me a lot of what I am going to go ahead and call the Graphic Novel Ghetto in its talk of parents pushing (or letting or whatever depending on what the real context of quotes was) children to read “real” chapter books instead of picture books.

The Graphic Novel Ghetto is essentially the idea that reading a graphic novel/comic book* isn’t valuable because it doesn’t have as many words as a “regular” traditional prose book or because it’s seen as simpler in concept/content. There are parents (and tragically still some librarians) who think reading a graphic novel isn’t “real” reading or of any intellectual value.

The Graphic Novel Ghetto’s close cousins are the Chick Lit Stigma and the YA Ghetto** which have marginalized many fine and literary books. Another relative of the Graphic Novel Ghetto is the Junk Food Shame. Namely, if a book is “easy” or, dare I say, fun to read it can’t be a “good” book with any literary merit or redeeming intellectual value of any kind. Ally Carter recently said on Twitter (I don’t have the link and I am so sorry about that but Twitter ate it) that this is essentially a flawed idea because what books are really meant to be hard. And I agree.

I hate hearing about people who are apologizing for reading a silly book like The Daring Italian Businessman and His Ravishing Secretary (made up title, you know the book series I mean though) or a vampire novel, or a series like Geronimo Stilton or any number of formulaic series books. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable.

Reading is a skill but it’s also kind of like a muscle. You need to use it; you need to exercise it. Frequent use counts as exercise. Who am I to say that the girl who readers 25 mangas in a week isn’t doing as much reading or increasing her reading skills as much as the boy who reads Around the World in Eighty Days over the course of three weeks (made up figures but you get my point I hope)?

How are we defining challenging or at level reading? When I was 12 I read all of Louisa May Alcott’s books and other classics. At 14 I read The Lord of the Rings. By 16 I had Ella Enchanted and was discovering the wide and wonderful world of YA. That is neither here nor there except to say I adored all of these books. They changed how I viewed the world and they made me who I am today as a reader. Ella Enchanted inspired a whole scholarly article in college (which you might have seen already because I link to it often).

But I don’t, in all honestly, think any of those titles helped my grades in school or my vocabulary for standardized tests. This is a bold statement, but I don’t think any books can inherently prepare a child to do well in school or on tests. My mother did.

My mother did all of that (partly by being a brilliant parent but mostly) by introducing me to the library and giving me the freedom to read voraciously as I saw fit and raising me as a reader.

Children naturally move away from picture books and part of being a parent is, of course, letting that happen (as the BigThink article mentions). The thing the New York Times ignores is that a lot of children will come back to those picture books later in life. Some of them will remember their favorites fondly. Others will reference them while starting their own careers as writers and artists. Others will remember them as librarians and publishers. Like any book, picture books are a part of our culture and you can’t just erase a cultural event like that (I’ve never even seen a real eight track tape, but I still know about them–see what I mean?).

As to parents not buying them, well I still have issues with buying books that I am working through. Not because I dislike books or think they are dying (they’re not) but because I read books very quickly and they are expensive. The cost if I bought each book new is too much to sustain. Imagine the expense of buying each picture book you or your child wanted to read? Actually, don’t imagine it, go to the Library Savings Calculator and see for yourself. For myself I know in the past few months I’ve looked at about twenty picture books for work and this blog. If I had to buy them all, that would have cost 300 dollars (and that’s at 15 dollars a book–many cost more). I can’t afford that and I’m a single woman. What family can afford to buy books at that rate in this economic climate?

The article in the NYT addresses a real situation but as any student of statistics can tell you, correlation does not equal causation. Where are the libraries in this article? Where are the parents who come to the library every week to return a stack of twenty picture books only to immediately borrow twenty more? Where are the librarians who have story hours every week for babys, toddlers, and children? How, in a time when libraries are seeing more use than ever, can any responsible article say picture books are no longer a staple for children?

Even without those basic issues though, picture books (like graphic novels) are huge as learning tools and teach just as much about reading as traditional (all word) chapter books.

What this NYT article (and I guess the parents worried about test scores?) fails to mention is that reading a picture book isn’t really just reading a picture book.

First of all, most picture books are designed to be read aloud–they’re too complex to be read by a child on her own. Parents, caregivers (or perhaps librarians?) are meant to read many picture books to a child and work through the books with them.

Picture books are about interaction and analysis. That’s why we have the huge spectrum of books ranging from the wordless (like the recent Caldecott winner The Lion & the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney–save for sound effects) to the longer works of Chris Van Allsburg which in addition to being lengthy texts introduce complex concepts like distinguishing between real and imaginary. That isn’t even addressing other picture books like Mostly Monsterly that deal with socialization (and being yourself) or How to Catch a Star which explores the more abstract concept of finding a friend or books that build vocabulary not through flashcards but through everyday like My Heart is Like a Zoo which introduces children to words and concepts including bothered, rugged, frightened and thoughtful. That isn’t even to mention the rich, advanced literature found in picture book adaptations of myths, folk tales and legends.

Second of all, when you read a picture book you are not reading one story. You’re reading at least two: the one told in words and the one told in pictures. Writers and illustrators of picture books often do not know each other and don’t even meet face to face while working on a book. For that reason they both bring many different elements to the story being told.

A picture book–even a simple one–isn’t an illustrated story or a series of captioned pictures. A picture book is an interplay of text and images. (Even when it is written and illustrated by the same person because writing a book is a different task than illustrating a book.) You read both and you draw conclusions between the two (and if it’s a graphic novel style book you also learn sequencing which is a whole different skill). Kevin Henkes’ books are a great example of this. Go, take a look at Kitten’s First Full Moon. First look at the pictures. Then look at the words. Can you tell the whole story without both?

Finally, and I can’t stress this enough, reading is never about quantity. Reading is about quality. It is about an individual experience and individual progress. What a child reads isn’t, I think, as important as the fact that they are reading. Any book–every book–is a gateway to more books. To imply that reading picture books won’t help a child with standardized tests is like saying learning to count isn’t helpful in understanding math. Reading is qualitative. It’s about building comprehension and learning textual literacy (and visual literacy for picture books) but it’s also about enjoyment.

My issue with the NYT article isn’t that it was wrong or nonsense (although I really do think it was the latter) it’s that once again the New York Times is trying to tell people what they can and cannot read.*** Some kids will move to chapter books as soon as they can. Others will stick with picture books or illustrated chapter books. Some kids won’t read until they are much older. Some might never like to read. And all of that is okay. In a world with so many wonderful and varied options for books, why does anyone have to choose just one format or one genre? Why isn’t all reading created equal?

*I could get into the differences (and if anyone wants to hear about them please tell me in the comments and I will oblige because I wrote not one or tow but three essays about the merits of graphic novels in grad school) but for all intents and purposes the terms are interchangeable and I will be using them interchangeably here.

**In short: Writing By Women Authors Isn’t Real Writing At All and Writing For Teens Instead of Adults Isn’t Real Writing At All respectively. I wrote a huge manifesto about both a few months ago if you want more info/links.

***Not to mention implying that every post-Twilight paranormal romance was inspired by the Twilight books. Hello? It’s called a sub-genre.

Cybils Nominations are Live

Just a quick update for anyone who missed my big news:

I’m a Round 2 Judge for the Cybils in the YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Category. This is a book award given by book bloggers (like me!) to books nominated by anyone and everyone (like me, like you, like that guy standing over there–everyone!).

The Cybils nominations opened this weekend and will be open until October 15th at 11:59 p.m. Eastern time. You can view the nomination form and nominate one book for each category listed. You also might want to check out the nomination guidelines. If you want to see what’s already been nominated, there is also a handy set of posts with up to the minute lists of nominees for each category.

I’d offer some suggestions for what to nominate but a lot of my top picks are already listed among the nominees.

Anyway, go forth and nominate your own favorites because a book can’t win until it’s been nominated.

Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters by Natalie StandifordThe Sullivan family’s Christmas began in the traditional way that year. The six Sullivan siblings opened their gifts. Daddy-o made pancakes for breakfast and Ginger contributed her signature dish to the feast (sliced grapefruit halves sprinkled with Splenda).

Christmas would take an unexpected turn at the Sullivan’s annual holiday dinner with the family matriarch–unaffectionately known by family, friends, enemies, and most of Baltimore as “Almighty Lou.”

One of the Sullivans has deeply offended Almighty.

Subsequently the entire family has been cut out of her will unless the offending person comes forward with a full confession by New Year’s Day. If not, their share of the fortune will be donated to Puppy Ponchos–a charity providing rain ponchos for dogs in need of raincoats.

No one knows for sure what drove Almighty to this extreme.

Could it have been seventeen-year-old Norrie and her completely unsuitable romance? Did sixteen-year-old Jane’s airing the family’s dirty laundry on seal the family’s fate? Or does it have something to do with fifteen-year-old Sassy maybe, possibly, sort of having something to do with the death of Almighty’s fifth husband Wallace?

The girls dutifully write their confessions hoping to appease their grandmother. If they can appease her their lives can go on as before. But once the confessions are written and the secrets revealed, nothing will be the same in Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters (2010) by Natalie Standiford.

Find it on Bookshop.

Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters is an interesting blend of romance, humor, elements of the magical and a classic coming-of-age story all rolled into one. Broken into three parts, each sister has a chance to tell her own part of the story. Except all of their stories occur over the same period of time. This fact creates an interesting narrative with overlapping events, blended narrations, and multiple viewpoints used to flesh out certain aspects of the story.

Standiford also provides a surprising amount of suspense for a story that is decidedly not an adventure. Will the Sullivans be disinherited? Is Norrie’s romance going to end horribly? Is Jane’s family really evil? What is going on with Sassy? There are so many juicy questions to be answered that Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters quickly becomes equal parts page turner and Bildungsroman.

Some aspects of the story are bizarre and almost out of place–the whole novel is actually very reminiscent of the blend of everyday and surreal elements commonly found in magical realism–but by the end of the story it all kind of works. Standiford has once again taken a unique premise and made it something really special with winsome characters and clever prose.

Possible Pairings: Drink, Slay, Love by Sarah Beth Durst, Bright Young Things by Anna Godbersen, King of the Screwups, Girl Overboard by K. L. Going, by Justina Chen Headley, Confessions of a Not It Girl by Melissa Kantor, Blue Plate Special by Michelle D. Kwasney, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, The Sullivan Sisters by Kathryn Ormsbee, Even in Paradise by Chelsey Philpot, The Edge of Falling by Rebecca Serle

Crochet for the Insane Or: How I learned to embrace my inner crochet maven

I play Neopets. You don’t need to know much about that for this story except it’s a virtual world with virtual creatures and virtual contests. I decided to enter one of those contests a month or so ago and spent two weeks in August creating my entry. (I went on to win a shiny virtual gold trophy but that isn’t a part of this story either.)

This is Dru. She is a Woodland Elf Usuki which is kind of like being a Woodland Elf Squirrel. She was my entry.

She was inspired by the original Woodland Elf Usuki here:

The contest was essentially to pick an Usuki like the one above and recreate with yarn.

My mom is extremely skilled when it comes to knitting and crocheting so I knew she could help me and, thanks to her tutelage, I also know how to crochet. (I can knit too but I don’t like to because I find crocheting easier to do and easier to read.) The problem? I had no pattern.

So for two weeks while Mom and I would sit watching TV, I would also sit working on Dru. The amazing thing was that it wasn’t hard. I made her entirely without a pattern only using single and double crochet stitches. I created the head and then I made the body and  the hat. Instead of working from a pattern she became an exercise in geometry as I thought about how to make the shapes I needed to create this little creature.

The thing is, until I finished her I didn’t really think of myself as a crocheter. It was something I did, something I could do, but never a real skill because I never thought I was very good at it. But sometimes you really do learn by osmosis.

My mom starting teaching me to crochet when I was very little with the usual worsted weight yarn(this is thick yarn, the weight usually used to garments like hats and scarves and sweaters) and a large sized crochet hook. I can’t count the number of “scarves” (crocheted rectangles) I started and never finished because it was just never interesting to me.

Then a few years ago I was going through my mom’s old crochet pattern books and found one for bookmarks in size ten crochet cotton (this is the same thickness as embroidery floss, if you ever buy a crocheted doll or a lacy scarf–something with really thin yarn, that’s crochet cotton or at least the same weight of crochet cotton). And I knew: This was my project. These I could do.

So I crocheted bookmarks and angel dresses for clothespin dolls. When my mom was crocheting dolls and teddy bears I also made a doll and teddy bear. (Interestingly my mom adapted the patterns for her dolls and bears from existing patterns much in the way I made Dru “from scratch”.) But I had always been working from a pattern and just assumed anyone could do that and didn’t think much of it.

I still think with a little time that anyone can crochet but making Dru here also showed me that some skill is also involved–maybe more than I initially gave myself credit for.

This all sounds very self-congratulatory but I really just wanted to introduce you all to my lovely new friend here and remind all of you, dear readers, to remember to give yourself credit for your myriad talents. Maybe you also blog. Maybe you read critically. Maybe you bake like nobody’s business. Maybe you do something else that’s really cool. Just remember to own it and toot your own horn. Because no one can know how great you are if you don’t tell them every once in a while ;)