Saturday, December 22, 2007

I love James Marshall

Well, that pretty much sums it up: I love James Marshall. He is one of my favorite (possibly my absolute favorite) picture book author/illustrators. He's on my mind because recently a library patron requested that we add some more Scholastic Video Collection DVDs to our collection and one of the ones I ordered was Red Riding Hood... And More James Marshall Fairy Tale Favorites. I used this as an excuse to revisit some of my Marshall favorites, including George and Martha, the Fox easy readers and Goldilocks and the Three Bears (a Caldecott Honor book). I also came across some books I hadn't seen before, like Pocketful of Nonsense, his collection of limericks and rhymes.

I know I'm not alone in my James Marshall love: he was the winner of the 2007 Wilder Medal (an award given by the ALA that "honors an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children"). Also, the forward to George and Martha: The Complete Stories of Two Best Friends, is Maurice Sendak's beautiful tribute to Marshall. You can read an abbreviated version here.

Why do I love his picture books? First, his dry sense of humor. Second, his style--there are so few words on a page and the illustrations are not at all fussy, but they convey so much meaning. Third, the beautiful sentiments his stories convey (this mostly applies to George and Martha, who have disagreements and get into fights, but at the end of the day would do anything for one another).

I could say more, but Sendak says it much more eloquently. In Marshall's work, says Sendak, there is "No shticking, no nudging knowingly, no winking or pandering to the grown-ups at the expense of the kids." "Much has been written concerning the sheer deliciousness of Marshall's simple, elegant style. The simplicity is deceiving; there is richness of design and mastery of composition on every page." Of George and Martha: "Those dear, ditzy down-to-earth hippos bring serious pleasure to everybody, not only to children. They are time-capsule hippos who will always remind us... of the true, durable meaning of friendship under the best and worst conditions."

James Marshall died in 1992 at the age of 51. Despite how young he was at his death, he left behind an impressive and sizable body of work. It's sad to think about what other wonderful books he would have written had he lived longer, but I'm so glad he left what he did for us to enjoy.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Recent YA fiction favorites

I haven't reviewed any books in quite a while, but I have been reading like crazy, so I thought I would tell you about two of the YA series I've enjoyed recently.

Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Saga (Twilight, New Moon and Eclipse):
Ok, so I'm a little late in finding this series. The books have been popular best-sellers for a while, but I just read them in November. I raced through them and am now oh-so-patiently waiting for the next in the series (scheduled to be released next fall... sigh...). A very brief synopsis: When Bella Swan goes to a new high school, she encounters the mysterious Cullen siblings. Despite an hostile first encounter with Edward Cullen, Bella becomes intrigued by him and an unlikely relationship develops. As Bella gets to know the Cullens, she discovers their secret and finds herself being drawn deeper into their dangerous world.

I highly recommend them to anyone who likes vampires or romance or just YA books in general. And once you read them, visit, which is a terrific author website with a lot of great information.

Garth Nix's Keys to the Kingdom series:
Five of an eventual seven books in the series have been published so far; the first is Mister Monday. They follow the story of Arthur Penhaligon, an ordinary boy who inadvertently becomes mixed up in a power struggle amongst beings from another world. About halfway through the third book it started feeling as though the books were following a predictable pattern (which I was losing interest in), but that perception quickly changed and I'm looking forward to the next installment of this as well. I recommend either the books or audiobooks. I listened to the audiobooks and thought the narrator, Alan Corduner, did a fantastic job creating unique voices for each character.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Why do(n't) we read?

The New York Times had an interesting article on November 25 entitled, "A Good Mystery: Why We Read." I found the title rather provocative. I thought it was obvious why we read: to enter into someone else's imagination, to learn something new, but most of all, for fun---for the pure pleasure of leaving our world for a spell and becoming engrossed in a world of the author's fashioning. (I'm talking about recreational reading, not reading for work. God knows I do enough of that for my dissertation!)

But as the author, Motoko Rich, points out, the NEA recently released a study that found that Americans are reading less for fun these days. And I have to wonder, with so many wonderful books out there, and so many literary professionals and organizations extolling the wonders of reading in blogs, websites, and through awards programs (see my friend Susan's post on the Caldecott Honor awards), why are so many young people disinterested in reading?

The rise of video games and the Internet has often been fingered as the culprit, and I'm sure that these new technologies are partly to blame. But for each generation (at least beginning in the 20th century) there has always been a new technology to tempt our attentions; radio, film and the television have competed for our time long before the XBox was invented.

One recent trend that I have noticed among other parents with young children is the desire to schedule their children in structured activities. There are Mommy and Me music classes, Mommy and Me yoga classes, Strollercize fitness classes, and of course the ubiquitous Gymboree classes. I know a mother who started her son in Gymboree classes at three months of age. Now that she is back to work, she has her nanny take him to his classes. I'm not judging her (or any mom) for signing up for such classes; I think that they are often as much, if not more, for the mother's benefit (to meet other moms and get out of the house). Heck, if I had the money I would probably sign up for one, too. But with all this structured activity, how much time is left for unstructured activities, like drawing, make believe...or reading?

One bright light in all of this are the story time programs offered at my local library. My library is tiny. I mean, really tiny---most of what I want to check out has to be ordered from other branches because the circulating collection at my library is so small. But while it may lack a large collection, it does have something that is far more important: a really enthusiastic children's librarian. This librarian has started free story time programs for toddlers as well as babies (I believe the only one of its kind in the county), and he allows anyone to attend (other municipalities in the area limit attendance to residents of that particular town). These programs are so popular that people come from the neighboring county just to attend! What a wonderful way to get moms/dads/caregivers and their charges into the library and get them excited about reading. It's a shame that the other libraries in the county don't follow my library's lead and open up their programs to whomever wants to attend. It's a great first step to creating lifelong readers.