Tag Archives: Children’s Books

Summer Reading: Thinking Outside the Covers

Today we share with you a post that first ran in 2016, which has been updated with information for this years’ Peabody Summer Reading.  We hope you enjoy exploring the various kinds of reading you can accomplish at the Library this summer!

I think we’ve made the analogy here at some point before, but books are a lot like food.  Some formats, genres, styles, etc., are like candy, that you can just keep consuming with nary a thought.  Some are like really expensive, decadent cakes that you bring out for special occasions, and some are like bananas, that, frankly, make you gag just thinking about them (I’m using a personal example here.  If bananas are your thing, then more power to you.  You can have All My Bananas, too).


Furthermore, the way that we ingest stories is as varied and as particular as the way we ingest food.  Some people gobble, some people nibble…you get the idea.  The point I am trying to make here (other than the fact that I wish it were lunchtime) is that there is no right way or wrong way to get your daily dose of reading.

downloadIn the case of younger readers (and anyone who has Summer Reading to accomplish).  Time was when ‘Summer Reading’ was akin to force-feeding, especially for those students who weren’t visual learners, or who read more slowly, or in a way that wasn’t strictly standard.  And that experience turned a lot of people off of reading for a very long time, which is truly heartbreaking.  Thankfully, now, summer reading lists tend to be much more flexible in terms of students’ choices, as well as much more inclusive of popular titles and more modern themes (incidentally, if you want to see some of these lists, for you or a student near you, you can see them here).  And, even better, is that, as we learn more and more about the wonders of the human brain, we are beginning to appreciate more that not everyone absorbs books in the same way.

AudiobooksFor example, despite the fact that we live in a world that is increasingly based on visual learning in the form of computers, tablets, and screens, there are still any number of people who are auditory learners, meaning that they remember better after hearing directions or a story or a lecture than they do after reading or watching one.  Often, auditory learners have a tough time with summer reading because it is supposed to be an individual, and highly visual exercise that often feels at once very challenging and very boring.  For these readers, audiobooks have been a saving grace.  Not only to they present books in a way that auditory learners can absorb much better, they offer any number of benefits for all.  For example, audiobooks can help readers access stories about their reading level, or in an unfamiliar vernacular–for example, books like Wuthering Heights or Return of the Native that are denser, and tend to feature very rural language and slang that isn’t always easy to comprehend if not spoken out loud.  Additionally, I often find that audiobooks allow me to see the humor or subtext in stories that aren’t always readily obvious from the text.

Fortunately, the Library not only has plenty of audiobooks on our shelves, we also have access to digital audiobooks via Overdrive (which you can download) and Hoopla (which allows you to stream content).  You can chose to read along with the audiobooks, or listen exclusively.  Additionally, a number of e-books offer audio narration along with the text (which Amazon has named WhisperSync) so that you can listen and read at the same time.

graphic-novels-melbourne-482x298For Peabody middle school readers, praise the Heavens, the only requirement for the summer is to read two books.  Any books, whatever books make you happy.  And this opens up a whole world of potential for readers.  For those who aren’t huge fans of traditional books, the Library has a sizable collection of Graphic Novels.  These books are just as valid, just as emotionally and intellectually engaging as straightforward novels, and feature a range of plots, genres, and reading levels.  It’s also worth noting that, as graphic novels become an increasingly popular genre, we are seeing the rise of picture books for adults, that feature beautiful, vivid, and imaginative illustrations for those of us who might not be graphic novel readers.  These books are a great way to start a conversation about visuals in books, and to help readers of different mediums find some common ground.

Finally, reading never has to be a solitary pursuit.  Check out our great Teen and Children Events calendars to see some of the great programs we have lined up to help you meet your reading goals, whatever those might be.


Happy Birthday, William Steig!

Growing up,  Sylvester and the Magic Pebble was one of my favorite books, so it is with enormous pleasure that we at the Free For All celebrate it’s author, William Steig, who was born this day in 1907.

Via ThingLink

Steig was the child of two Polish-Jewish immigrants from Austria; his father Joseph was a house painter, and his mother Laura was a seamstress.  Growing up, he loved art and literature, and his mother, especially, encouraged his own artistic endeavors.  He was also a talented athlete, and was a member of the collegiate All-American water polo team.  He graduated high school at 15, and though he attended three colleges: two years at City College of New York, three years at the National Academy of Design and five days at the Yale School of Fine Arts, but never graduated from any of them.  His siblings were also artistically talented: is brother Irwin was a journalist and painter, his brother Henry was a writer, painted, and saxophonist, and his brother Arthur was a writer and poet, who, according to Steig, read The Nation in the cradle, was telepathic and “drew as well as Picasso or Matisse”.

Because they were confirmed Socialists, Steig explained,  “My parents didn’t want their sons to become laborers, because we’d be exploited by businessmen, and they didn’t want us to become businessmen, because then we’d exploit the laborers.  Since we couldn’t afford to study professions, we were encouraged to be artists.”  Steig became the breadwinner of his family when his father lost his job in the Great Depression.  By selling his drawings, he remembered, “I earned $4,500 the first year, and it was more than our family, then four of us, needed.”

Steig published his first New Yorker cartoon in 1930.  It was the first of some 1,600 that he would publish in the magazine.  His humor was visual far more than it was linguistic–in other words, you could learn what you needed about the cartoon and the joke it told by looking at it far more than you could by reading the caption.  This style liberated a number of cartoonists who came after him to try to convey more with art than with words.

According to The New York TimesSteig was also credited with changing the nature of the greeting card industry. His symbolic drawings were licensed to appear on cocktail napkins, glasses and cards. “Greeting cards used to be all sweetness and love,” he explained in an interview with The Hartford Courant. “I started doing the complete reverse — almost a hate card — and it caught on.”  You can see an example of his card to above, taken from Fine Art America, and decide for yourself.

Steig was also a gifted children’s book writer and illustrator, publishing 25 in the course of his lifetime.  He especially liked using animals as the characters in the stories because he “could get crazier with animals and have them do stranger things.”  Not only did Steig’s books embrace the slightly kooky logic, language, and morals of childhood, but his drawings were also simple, accessible, and, like so many of his drawings for grown-ups, packed with emotion.

So if you’re looking for a bit of an escape today, why not check out a few of William Steig’s books, listed below.  I guarantee you that you already know of at least one of them!

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble: A terrific, funny, and tense story about being careful what you wish for, as well as the power of parents to see you for who you really are.  Even if it’s a rock.  This book actually got Steig in a bit of hot water–in the course of the book, the police are summoned to help find our hero, Sylvester.  Steig made the policemen pigs, a choice that got the book banned in places because the International Conference of Police Associations thought Mr. Steig was calling policemen pigs.  Steig adamantly argued his intention was never negative.  The book won the National Book Award and the Caldecott Medal.

Doctor De Soto: Doctor De Soto, a mouse dentist, copes with the toothaches of various animals.  He and his wife, who serves as his assistant, work together to treat patients with as little pain as possible. Dr. De Soto uses different chairs, depending on the size of the animal, with Mrs. De Soto guiding her husband with a system of pulleys for treating extra-large animals. They refuse to treat any animal who likes to eat mice…until one day a fox comes to them in great pain.  This is a story that really highlights Steig’s love of language–to this day, it’s still fun to read the Fox’s dialog while he’s in Dr. De Soto’s chair with his mouth propped open (“Frank Oo Berry Mush!”).  This book was in my dentist’s office when I was a kid, and, as a result, I learned that dentists were nice, and would help you out, even if you said silly things to them.  And didn’t try to eat them.

Shrek!: Raise your hand if you knew that William Steig was the creator of everyone’s favorite green ogre.  The name “Shrek” is the romanization of the Yiddish word that equates to the German Schreck and meaning “fear” or “fright”.  It’s a common exclamation in Yiddish culture, and thus a natural choice for Steig to name his ogre who leaves his home and travels the world to find his princess.  Steven Spielberg acquired the rights for the book in 1991, and released the film Shrek in 2001.  Steig passed away shortly before the release of Shrek 2, and the film is dedicated to him.


From Library Land: Is Dr. Seuss Tired?

The world is a fraught place, dear readers.  And in such a world, it can be really, truly difficult to avoid seeing the world as an exclusively polarized place…as black/white, good/bad, right/wrong…and forget that very few things in human society are that simple.*

A few weeks back, there was a bit of a brouhaha in Library Land over a letter written by a children’s librarian in Cambridge, addressed to the First Lady of the United States regarding the donation of several children’s books to the school at which she worked.  The letter is still posted on The Horn Book website.  You can read it, if you so choose, and form whatever opinion you chose.  The letter and its author have become the target for so much public debate, acrimony, and verbal bile that it doesn’t seem particularly useful for us to wade into the whys, wherefore, and whataboutisms.

However, I would like to bring up one point in the letter that many people have tended to overlook: that line that calls Dr. Seuss  “a bit of a cliché, a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature.”

Now this is a subject that requires a lot more scrutiny.  This is especially true in light of a recent announcement by the Dr. Seuss Museum in Springfield recently ordered a mural at The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum to be removed because it contains an illustration of a Chinese man with chopsticks.  This was in response to a letter written by author and illustrator Mo Willems and two other authors, Lisa Yee and Mike Curato stating that they would not be attending an event at the Museum, first, because of a mural on display there that depicts a scene from Dr. Seuss’ first book, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, and secondly, because, when contacted, the administration of the  museum “replied that it was the responsibility of visitors to contextualize the oversized painting of the ‘Chinaman’ for their younger wards, not theirs.”

The image depicts the reference in the story to “A Chinese man who eats with sticks“.  The image itself is of a very stereotypical Chinese caricature, with a pointy hat, and slanted eyes.

So what are we to do with this information?  What good librarian patrons do…get more information before making a judgement call.

Ted Geisel was absolutely a man of his time.  He frequently reproduced cultural and racial stereotypes in his work without questioning their validity, their effect on others, or the harmful mentality that produced them–the Chinese man (or Chinaman in the original text) is just one example.

And, because it’s not a stereotype that is as widely discussed today, the image of the slant-eyed Chinaman with the pointed hat originated during the late 19th century.  Chinese immigrants were associated with opium dens and often accused of ‘polluting’ British and American men (and women) who visited these dens.  Around the turn of the century, it was quite normal to see highly stereotyped Chinese villains in books and films.  They were portrayed as something other than human, and a threat to all “good” people.

To provide a few examples: Philip Nel, who wrote the endlessly fascinating and extraordinarily thought-provoking book Was The Cat In The Hat Black?, points out that Geisel wrote and performed in a blackface minstrel show in high school, called “Chicopee Surprised”.  When he was drawing the initial sketches for the Cat, in The Cat and the Hat, Nel observes,  Geisel was “inspired by blackface performance, racist images in popular culture, and actual African Americans.  Now, in 1920-1 when this show was performed, blackface was a very popular, highly visible form of caricature and entertainment.  It was criticized as racist, demeaning, and offensive by some, but you don’t have to look any further than Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer to see how well-known and generally unquestioned it was.  (The photo to left is Geisel in 1925, when he was a student at Dartmouth College in Massachusetts, via Today In History).

Following the bombing of Pearl Habor, Geisel, who drew a large number of political cartoons in the course of his career, drew a cartoon of a line of Japanese people, captioned the “Honorable 5th Column” waiting in a line to receive blocks of TNT, while one (highly racialized and stereotypes) figure looks eastward with a telescope “Waiting for a Signal from Home“.  The cartoon supports Japanese interment camps, which were being established on the west coast, and in which American citizens of Japanese origin and heritage were treated with brutal inhumanity.  This was not, by any means, the only racialized cartoon he drew to represent the Japanese during the Second World War.

None of these facts are pleasant or easy to discuss.  It’s hard to accept that a person whose books you grew up cherishing was a human person with ugly, unquestioned prejudices.

But the story doesn’t stop here.  Because Geisel was also a human being in the very best sense–he was able to grow, and to change.  As Willems, Yee, and Curato wrote in their letter, “The career of Ted Geisel, writing as Dr. Seuss, is a story of growth, from accepting the baser racial stereotypes of the times in his early career, to challening those divisive impulses with work that delighted his readers and changed the time.”

Geisel began Horton Hears a Who in 1953, after a postwar visit to Japan, when he was researching a piece for Life magazine on the effects of the war and post-war efforts on Japanese children. With the help of Mitsugi Nakamura, dean of Doshisha University in Kyoto, Seuss went to schools all over Japan and asked kids to draw what they wanted to be when they grew up.

Having met Japanese people, and seen the effects of the war on everyday human beings there, he realized just what kind of harm caricatures like his earlier political cartoons had provoked.  The book is dedicated to Nakamura, and the message, about embracing everyone’s humanity, regardless of whether they look or sound like, marks not only a huge moment in children’s literature, but also an enormously revelation for Geisel himself.  The Whos are saved by one small Who, named Jo-Jo, makes his “Yopp!” heard–as Kelly Smith points out in this sensational blog post, “Dr. Seuss is stressing the power of a single voice making all the difference for a people and, with it, showing how he should have used his voice to protect the Japanese, rather than denigrate them.” 

via Dr. Seuss Wiki

He more explicitly apologizes when he puts himself in his rightful place in history with the previously skeptical kangaroo, who says “from now on, you know what I’m planning to do?… From now on, I’m going to protect them with you” (page 58 of Horton Hears a Who)

Following Horton, he wrote The Sneetches, another book about how individuals are punished for the way they look, and the harm it does, not only to them, but to their whole society, as well.  In 1973, he changed the text and the images in And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street.  He removed the “Chinaman” reference, changing the wording to “Chinese man”, and made the character’s face the same white color as the rest of the figures in the story.  It’s not the everything.  But it’s a huge sign of change.

We need diverse books.  We need to have children from all backgrounds and experiences to be able to see themselves in the stories we tell.  Therefore, Dr. Seuss should by no means be the only books we read.  However, neuroscientists have proven, through the marvels of science, that Dr. Seuss’ use of repetition, rhythm and rhyme help children in crucial ways to process the speech they hear, and fine-tune the connections between auditory and language networks in the brain.

But, maybe more importantly, Dr. Seuss’ own story teaches us a powerful lesson: people can change, and they can change for the better.  Children, just like grown-ups, are faced everyday with people who are scared, who are angry, and who are resistant to change.  We cannot protect them from that.  But we can show them what positive growth and change looks like by talking to them about Dr. Seuss, and how he grew as a person, an author, and a spokesperson for humanity.  This lesson is as important today–perhaps even more important–as it has ever been.

Portraying Seuss’ illustration of “the Chinaman” without talking about how it changed, and how he changed, really isn’t fair, either to Dr. Seuss or his readers.  Portraying him as “tired” does enormous dis-service to the energy with which he combatted stereotypes and xenophobia in his later career.  For that reason, it’s important not to forget Dr. Seuss’ inspiring contributions, even as we work to fill our shelves with a world of diverse books that tell even more powerful stories.

Because a person’s a person, no matter how small.

Via Dr. Seuss Wiki



*Some things are that simple.  Things like “be kind to others”, don’t drive if your motor skills are impaired”,  “mosquitoes buzzing in your ears at night is awful”, or “raccoons are terrifying”.

On our Childhood Libraries…

Recently a college friend of mine sent around this article, written by a fellow alumnae, author J. Courtney Sullivan.


The article focused on Sullivan’s quest to rebuild her childhood book collection as an adult, and the memories that each of those books held for her now.  Some were of reading with her dad:

When I received the “Stickybear” books by Richard Hefter and saw the familiar endpapers covered in strawberries, I recalled how my dad would read the strawberries as part of the text. Example: “The end. Strawberry strawberry strawberry strawberry strawberry.”

While others helped her realize how differently younger readers absorb and learn to love literature:

Childhood is where a love of reading is forged through the tactile. The stories themselves matter, of course. Sometimes I think about Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona,” with her tubes of toothpaste, her bites of apple. Nothing I’ve read since, no single image, stands out as these do. But in adulthood, it’s always the text I admire. In childhood, the book as object matters most.

It’s a lovely article, and the quest itself upon which Sullivan embarks may be familiar to many of you–she notes that a number of book sellers with whom she dealt were curious about all the early-to-mid 1980’s picture books that were suddenly enjoying a resurgence in popularity.

And, of course, it got me thinking about the books that defined my own childhood.   I realized, pretty quickly, that most of the books that defined my growing-up years were ones that I shared with others–usually, they were books read to my by my Father, or my teachers, or books that I learned to read myself (see below).  I always had trouble as a kid with the thin line between fiction and reality (I still do, let’s be honest here), and it was (is) a source of constant frustration for me that I was the only person who knew the members of the Baby-Sitters’ Club, or who had wandered around Gormenghast castle with Steerpike, or bought fancy shoes with Polly from An Old Fashioned Girl (let it not be said that I didn’t have eclectic tastes as a young-in’!).  So in picking books that were important to me, I realized that I was also picking moments in my childhood that were significant, or people, or places.

In that sense, nothing has changed for me.  Some of my favorite literary memories are from reading specific books in specific places (I first read ‘Salem’s Lot in the Belfast Botanical Gardens, and Oscar and Lucinda in Harvard Square one blustery autumn week).  And the specific people with whom I shared them.  So here are some of the first titles that leapt to my mind upon reading Sullivan’s article:

But No ElephantsFor some reason, I was obsessed with this book as a little kid, and made my parents read the adventures of Grandma Tildy and her willingness to take any animal–except for pachyderms–so often that by the time I was about two, I had the whole book memorized, including when to turn the pages.  It then became my parents’ favorite parlor trick to set me up on the couch when company was over and tell them I could already read.  I rediscovered this book when I was a bit older, and still found plenty to appreciate here–especially the brave little(ish) elephant who proves his worth to his new family when Grandma Tildy finally relents enough to take him in.

Ramona the Pest: My second grade teacher was so good at reading stories out loud that we would do any math exercise, any spelling test voluntarily in order to make time for reading at the end of the day.  We made it through most of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books by the end of the year, but this one I remember most vividly because, in it, Ramona learns how to tell time.  Or learns that she doesn’t know how to tell time.  And it wasn’t until that scene that I realized that I didn’t know how to properly tell time either!  Digital clocks were just becoming a think (I’m old, I know, it’s fine), and so I had been able to avoid analog time-telling up to this point.  It’s a rare day when I put on my watch that I don’t think fleetingly of Ramona heading off to school, and of my teacher who brought her stories to life for us.  (Note: this was absolutely not the cover of the book we had.  Our class book was printed in the 1960’s, so I think it was avocado green or something….)

There’s  A Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom: I’ve told about my love of Louis Sachar’s wild imagination a few times before.  But this book was the first “realistic” one that I read.  Or, specifically, that my Father read to me.  We had a nighttime reading ritual of a chapter a night, and I loved this book…right up until the last chapter.  Essentially, the main character, a boy who everyone considers ‘unmanageable’, has quite the imagination, and creates beautiful, elaborate stories with his figurine collection.  He finds the courage and tools to begin socializing with his peers after working with his school’s counselor.  And he sends her a gift in the end.  And because my imagination was as good, if not more tenacious than his, I cared way more about his figurines than his actual friends.  And I lost it.  Ugly crying everywhere.  Luckily, I have a Father who gets it, and he and I set about re-writing the ending to the book, so that, in our world, at least, it ended properly.  And it’s a trick I’ve used to endure books with “bad” endings ever since (and here, “bad” is defined absolutely, positively subjectively).

How about you?  What books, moments, places, and people make up your early literary history?

Becoming a Reader

I don’t know if you know this, but the Peabody Library has the best Pages around; a by Pages, I mean the young people who re-shelve books, help with gathering requests, generally do the daily tasks that keep the Library running smoothly…not the paper pages.  Though we have a lot of paper pages, and many of them are delightful, too…

…But anyways…the other day, I got into a conversation with one of our Terrific Pages about the books that made us into readers in our childhood.  It turns out that I was not the only one who was (is) addicted to the Choose Your Own Adventure Series!  And fifteen minutes later, I found three said CYOA books waiting for me, having been snuck up from the Children’s Room by said Terrific Page.  And my day, nay, my week was made.

Seriously, so much fun.

But that conversation got me thinking about those books that made me a reader as a child.  Not just the books I enjoyed, or remember fondly, but those reading experiences that I am still trying to replicate to this day.  Those books that continue to shape my thinking, my reading tastes, my world view…That might be a little exaggerated, but not by much, to be honest.

I don’t know if I’d necessarily want to read all of these books again.  Some of them I didn’t actually enjoy, as I’ll explain below.  Some of them, I know, meant something to me at the time because of some particular Life Thing I was experiencing, and picking them up now, when that Life Thing is over, may actually be a bit of a dream-killer.  The best of this list, however, are the books I have read again as an adult, and loved just as much, though perhaps for different reasons.

So here, in case you were interested, are some of the books that made Younger Me into the reader I am today.  What are yours?

The Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye: For the record, my copy of this book had a much more purple cover, and one that looked much less like a story from the Brothers’ Grimm.  But regardless of the cover, this book was my go-to from fourth through sixth grade.  I think I read it five times during those years, and loved it every time.  At her christening, along Wit, Charm, Health, and Courage, Princess Amy of Phantasmorania receives a special fairy christening gift: Ordinariness She is the “plain” one in her family of beauties, the clumsy one in a family of grace and elegance, the one who is unsure of herself in a family that has inherited self-confidence.  But rather than wallow, our heroine heads off on her own, getting a job as a kitchen maid at a neighboring palace, and finding a prince who is just as “ordinary” and unique as she, and who loves her precisely as she is.  I loved the humor in this book, especially the gentle satire regarding Amy’s elitist family, and Amy’s resourcefulness.  This is a book that isn’t meant to make “ordinary” readers feel better.  Instead, it’s a rally-cry to embrace everything about yourself that makes you you, and to demand happiness on your own terms.  And that’s a message we all need to hear, no matter how old we get.

Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar: I developed a taste for Weird Fiction from a very young age, and I blame it all on Louis Sachar.  Wayside School is a building that should have been built on one story, with the classrooms all next to each other; instead, it was built with one classroom on top of another.  Each story in this book, and its sequel, Wayside School is Falling Down, focus on the students in the classroom on the thirtieth floor.  These stories have their messages–asserting that everyone learns a little differently and that’s ok, that bullying isn’t cool, etc.,–but they are also genuinely bizarre, in that way that the best children’s stories should be.  What I specifically remember is the section of the book that deals with The Thirteenth Floor.  Like many buildings, Wayside School doesn’t have a thirteenth floor (this book was the way I learned that)…but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a thirteenth floor.  Those chapters freaked me out to no end when I was seven, and, after re-reading these stories, they still do.  The same unsettling uncertainty that makes Poe’s or Stoker’s stories so chilling is present in spades in Sachar’s stories, and I was hooked from a young age.  Apparently, there are more Wayside School books now, you lucky readers!

High Trail to Danger by Joan Lowry Nixon: I think I’ve mentioned this book before at some point.  I’m going to discuss it again because it nearly destroyed my life, and extinguished all happiness from my soul.  When seventeen-year old Sarah’s father is killed in the mining town of Leadville Colorado, she decides to travel west to clear his name.  But her search lands her in more danger than she ever imagined.  I lived for this book, and for its sequel, A Deadly PromiseI loved the historic details of Leadville (which was a real place, and just as dangerous and wild a place as Nixon describes), I loved Sarah’s determination and fearlessness.  But I did not love the love triangle that developed between Sarah and the two gentlemen she encountered on her quest.  Because she chose the wrong man.  And then I threw the book across the room and didn’t talk to anyone for two days (this is absolutely true).  I abhor love triangles to this day, for any number of adult, feminist, and literary reasons, but they all stem from my inability to recover from this first, total, heartbreak.

So what do you think?  Would you want to re-read your beloved books today?  If not, how about sharing them with a Younger Person in your life, and get their life as a reader started?

Making Good Decisions


A few weeks ago, I was working a shift in the Children’s Room, and decided to explore all the wonders that room has to offer.

And believe me, there are plenty.  From easy reading books to slim fiction, from audiobooks and DVDs to books in Spanish, to board games, to series a-plenty….
…And amongst those series was non other than my inner child’s favorite books ever.  There is no way to describe this events in terms that are not bold, italicized, and underlined.  Because the Choose Your Own Adventure Books are back in vogue, and my world is once again full of joy.

cave_of_timeOriginally published by Bantam Books, the Choose Your Own Adventure books (henceforth to be abbreviated CYOA, ok?) were one of the most popular children’s book series of the 1980’s and 1990’s,selling more than 250 million copies between 1979 and 1998.  The series was based upon a concept created by Edward Packard and originally published by Vermont Crossroads Press until the control of  Constance Cappel’s and R. A. Montgomery, before being bought by Bantam.  They were originally written for readers between the ages of 7-14, and all featured a second-person narration, referring at all times to what you are doing, feeling, seeing, etc.  In this way, readers are immediately involved in the books and whatever high-stakes, quick-paced adventure that opened in the book’s first few pages.  Soon, however, you, the character, find yourself faced with a decision (see the page below); sometimes it is which path to take on a journey, or with which character to initially a conversation.  Depending on your choice, you would flip to a designated page, seeing the outcome of your decision.


With that first choice, the book went from being interesting to utterly engrossing.   The plots non-linear–meaning that, as you flipped to whatever page you were told to, you saw all the other possibilities that could choose later.  If you screwed up and got eaten by a dinosaur (been there), locked in an air-tight room (yup), or cursed by a vengeful mummy (several times), you could go back and re-try your decisions and discover what could have happened.  Which meant that you, as the reader, were in control of the plot.  And that is a kind of power that you don’t easily forget.

cyoa1When I was a kid, I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure books (another situation that demands bold, italicization, and underlining).  I took them on vacation and read them while walking down unfamiliar streets.  I took them out to dinner and read around my dinner while my parents pretended they didn’t mind being publicly shunned by an eight-year-old.  I got far too emotionally invested in them and occasionally got really stressed out over making the “right decision”…so I cheated.  I found the happy ending, then flipped around manically, reverse engineering a happy ending.  Then I read Inside UFO 54-40, a CYOA book with a happy ending that can only be accessed by cheating or intentionally flipping ahead (a ploy intentionally crafted by Packard and Montgomery in order to keep kids like me on their toes).  After that, I made a concerted effort to sit back, make the choices, and flip the pages without guilt or over concern.  Sometimes, I even succeeded.

But Bantam allowed the trademark to lapse after they were incorporated into Random House, so for years, it was a real pain to try and find CYOA books to give to other little kids in my life.  But in 2005, R.A. Montgomery, one of the original creators of one of the series that defined my childhood, bought the rights back, and founded Chooseco, a publishing company dedicated to giving the world more CYOA books.  Not just republishing the old stuff, which was great, mind you, but whole new books, with new premises and new choices and new consequences.  And we have them at the Library! 


And this past weekend, amidst the Thanksgiving hustle and holiday bustle, I sat down and a CYOA book for the first time in…well, longer than I am going to admit here.  And it was delightful.  All the old anticipation about finding a page with a decision and trying to decide where to go next, the heady excitement of finding out if that choice would lead to escaping the haunted warehouse, or being turned into a bit of furniture, and the conniving to understand the layout of the book, and which choices would lead to the longest stories, or the best endings, it was all there again.

So, this holiday season, if things begin to get to be just a little too much, I encourage you to find whatever book made your childhood a happy place, and to come and find that book at the Library. Revel in that old excitement and sink into the comfort of an old literary friend, even if only for a few minutes. You could even share it with a younger person in your life, and get them excited about that book, too.  It’s a great way to escape the stress of the season for just a little while, and there is nothing like reading to bring people a little closer together.  The choice is yours!

…If you need a further reason to embrace childhood memories, check out today’s Google Doodle, celebrating Louisa May Alcott’s birthday, and Little Women!

Saturdays @ the South: Celebrating Picture Books

pbmlogo-color_webresI think it’s pretty clear by now that we at the Free for All, and in particular, your friendly Saturday blogger, are fans of kids’ books, even for adults. So I’m happy to announce that November is Picture Book Month! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, picture books are for everyone. While any time is a good time to take a look at a picture book in my view, this month is a particularly good time for anyone to celebrate the artistry, beauty,  creativity and expression that is a picture book. In celebration of picture book month, this video was put together with quotes from from children’s book writers and illustrators about the medium:

Picture books are the preferred medium of read-alouds whether from caregiver to child, teacher to student(s) or librarian to patrons. They are literature that is meant to be shared. The best picture books are usually written by those who know that kids are unlikely to be reading a picture book by themselves. Authors and illustrators (sometimes one in the same, sometimes not) will leave little inside jokes that will go over 99% of kids’ heads, but will leave the adults chuckling with their own enjoyment, or they’ll add layers to the text that the children will understand on one level, but that adults will understand on different levels. In other words, good picture books will have something for everyone.

Not only that, but picture books inspire empathy, understanding and an opportunity to visualize life outside of your own. Picture books can encourage and spread compassion. They are a gateway to bigger books that introduce us to learning about the “other” in our world in an attempt to bridge gaps and create a safe space in which to express ideas. They can also teach us something about ourselves that perhaps we didn’t previously know. This is a tall order for any book, but somehow, kids books manage to do this every day, usually in just 32 pages and often with very few words. Images come to life on the page expressing more that what meager words can say, in realistic tones, in the abstract, in vivid color, in black and white and in everything in-between.

In celebration of Picture Book Month and all that picture books can accomplish, here are some South Branch favorites:

2370936A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams

After a devastating fire left a child and her mother in dire straits, this is the heartwarming story of them trying to rebuild and move on. It is a testament to the power of love and how far the determination of a child can take an entire family.

2022661It’s Okay to Be Different by Todd Parr

Differences should be celebrated because they are what make each of us unique. No matter what you, your family or your friends look like, Parr teaches everyone that it’s not only just okay to be different, it is the best way to be because you’re being who you are.

2221548Horton Hears a Who! by Dr. Seuss

This classic tale of marginalization rings as true now as it ever did. Regardless of who the Who’s are, Horton recognizes that “a person’s a person no matter how small” and brings a community of doubters together with one, great communal “Yop.”

3266651Flora and the Flamingo by Molly Idle

If anyone doubts that picture books can be art, they merely need to look at Idle’s stunning illustrations which wordlessly tell a story of friendship, acceptance and trying something new.

3841978Cloud Country by Bonnie Becker

I thought this book was worth being on a library shelf because it demonstrates Pixar artistry in a way that the movies often cannot. It deserves to be read by everyone, however, because the story speaks to the power of dreaming, being different and remembering that doing something everyone else’s way, might not be the best way for an individual. It expresses uniqueness in a way that is both accepting and celebratory.

I could keep going as there are so many books to choose from. Honestly, pretty much any book in the picture book collection at the South Branch is worth celebrating for one reason or another. They’re worth celebrating for their humor, their compassion, their artistry and so much more. Till next week, dear readers, pick up a picture book. Pick one up anytime this month. Read it to a child, to another adult or to yourself. You’ll be a better person for it.