Kid Lit: Building Reading Confidence

I dabble a lot in children's literature. With two kids aged six and eight, one girl and one boy, I get to read it all. From the uber-awesome Mo Willems' Piggy and Elephant books (we own them all) to the entire Percy Jackson series, I've read it. Out loud. Multiple times.

While reading to our children is a given, sometimes having our kids read to us is a bit trickier. Children who are consistently read to generally develop superb reading comprehension skills at a very young age. Good example: my eight year old son relished Richard Adams' Watership Down over the summer. I mean, he loved that book. He loved the characters, understood the themes, the whole nine-yards. But this was me reading the book to him. He would not have been able to read the book himself. He's just not at that reading level yet. 

When children first learn to read it's all about board books. Simple words, big pictures. They are then supposed to progress to the chapter book. When you think about it, this is a pretty big leap. The simplest - and most popular - chapter books are the Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne. First published in 1992, the Magic Tree House books are based on a simple premise: two young siblings, Jack and Annie, discover a tree house in the woods that is able to magically transport them to different historical places in time and back again. You can see the formula here, right? It's like Danielle Steele for the 6-8 year old range....just change the setting and character names and boom, it's a whole new book. There are 52 books in the series so far with room for many more to come and kids love them. (Please don't make me read them all. I'm begging you.)

For $106 you can own your own Magic Tree House Hell, you lucky dog, you.
The problem is that despite their popularity, from a child's point of view it is a huge jump from reading the simple words in board books to the Magic Tree House chapter books which weigh in at around 80-100 pages per book. They are daunting to the new reader and can quickly dash a child's new reading skills. Yet that vast gap between board books and chapter books has remained empty for years and years. It's sink or swim in the reading world, kiddos.

Enter Branches, a new arm of Scholastic. Someone - probably someone with children of their own - saw the need for a simple chapter book with subjects more mature than Goodnight, Moon, easier to read than full-fledged chapter books so as not to crush emerging readers, but challenging enough to build new reading skills. It's a publishing miracle. I'm in love.

First of all, the vocabulary in the Branches books isn't dumbed down. It's just as sophisticated as any other chapter book out there on the market. What makes the Branches books brilliant is this: shorter chapters (usually 4-5 pages each) and more illustrations to keep their interest going. This simple adjustment produces an amazing result in emerging readers: it creates self-confidence in their reading skills. And that is a vital part of learning to love reading.

Branches is just getting warmed up. Their books are each developing into series (yay!). There are series targeted towards both boys and girls and gender neutral, as other words, they are working hard towards getting something to suit everyone. We are currently reading the first in the new Dragon Master series by Tracey West in this house and I couldn't give it a higher recommendation. Let me tell you why....because last night as my son finished reading his standard one chapter to me, for the very first time ever, he asked:

"Do I have to stop? I want to read another chapter."

Someone hand me a Kleenex.

How the soldiers of WWII saved The Great Gatsby from obscurity

Yesterday, as we all paused to offer our thanks to our veterans, the odd relationship between books and wartime was streaming and out of my consciousness throughout the day. There are, of course, countless wonderful lists of both fiction and non-fiction books on the subject that no serious bibliophile should miss. But I was ruminating on the relationship between the publishing industry and wartime, specifically the Council of Books in Wartime, an organization formed in 1942 by people in the book world who wanted to use books to promote the war effort.

It was well known at the time that Germany and other Axis powers were fond of book burning. This tried and true Fascist trick was quickly becoming a symbol of the oppression dictators like Hitler and Mussolini were trying to spread throughout Europe and beyond. The Council of Books in Wartime saw a multi-faceted opportunity. If they were to distribute books - free books - to American soldiers fighting overseas, not only would we be boosting the morale of our own troops, but the world would see America's freedom. Not only do we not burn books in America, we give them away - we fly books thousands of miles over vast oceans to distribute them to our soldiers. 

Of course, the publishers had other motives as well. They were hoping to create a new generation of readers; men who would return from war with a love of books that they would then pass on to their children and so on and so forth. It was, in a sense, a financial investment.

The editions of books the Council chose to publish would become known as the Armed Services Editions. And they were amazing. The publishers went with quality literature, but they needed to be able to publish new editions cheaply (the army was only paying $0.06 per book). They ended up using magazine presses to keep the cost low and the books were wider than they were tall with two columns of text on each page. The first boxes were shipped out in the summer of 1943 and were an instant hit with the troops.

Over the next four years, 122,951,031 Armed Services Edition books were printed. These were quality, hard-cover books being turned into portable paperbacks for our troops. And it was amazing. Did it pay off? In a word, yes. But in ways not expected. Veterans did return from the war still yearning to read books, but it wasn't the hard cover books the publishers were hoping for. Instead, they ushered in a new demand for paperback books that brought publishers unexpected profits and turned reading into a new American pastime. 

But how does The Great Gatsby figure into all of this? I nearly forgot to tell you. One of the books chosen to be published and sent to the troops in 1945 was a little-known short novel that probably shouldn't even have been included by the Council. It had only sold 120 copies in 1944 and by 1945 it had been allowed to go out of print entirely because it was so obscure. But for whatever reason, it was included in the list of books and 155,000 copies were sent off overseas. The novel, of course, was The Great Gatsby. Without the Council of Books in Wartime, Fitzgerald's novel would never have become required classroom reading in America. A most interesting turn of events.

For more information on this interesting event, consult Yoni Applebaum's article in The Atlantic.

How women's fiction won the fight against misogyny

Recently I came across one of Roxane Gay's essays in her collection Bad Feminist titled "Beyond the Measure of Men" in which she laments what she calls the "trickle-down misogyny" that has pervaded the publishing world resulting in that evil-of-all-evils, women's fiction. While I love a good social injustice to rise up against as much as the next liberal, try as I might I simply can not see the injustice in the women's fiction genre.

Oh, that an obnoxious patriarchy exists in the publishing world exists cannot be denied. The aged group of white, button-down, Presbyterian men who lunched with luminaries such as Bennet Cerf still cling to some semblance of control (and their oxygen tanks) whilst trying to instill their antiquarian views on their sons and nephews, but their days are undoubtedly numbered. They matter little and are on the official Endangered Species list even as I type this.

What matters - and what women authors such as Gay and Wolitzer and Messud tend to forget or altogether ignore - are factual statistics. According to multiple surveys taken in the United States, Britain, and Canada, men make up only 20% of the fiction readers market (See NPR article). That's right. 20%. This would be why author Ian McEwan once said, "When women stop reading, the novel will be dead."

Is it any wonder that the marketing departments of the great publishing houses created the so-called Chick-Lit genre? Dear God in heaven, bankruptcy would have ensued had they not desperately catered to their largest market: women. Whether a woman prefers literature (Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Erdrich, Jennifer Egan), mysteries (P.D. James, Janet Evanovitch), romance (Nora Roberts), historical fiction (Hilary Mantel, Diana Gabaldon, Sarah Waters, Geraldine Brooks), Fantasy (Margaret Atwood), Sci-Fi (Ursula Le Guin), or Non-Fiction (Mary Roach, Laura Hillenbrand), as an author I'd sure as hell want my work sub-categorized as "Women's Fiction" so the damned thing would sell to the one audience who is buying......WOMEN. 

Is it more important to be publicly lauded by a questionable human being such as Franzen than it is to out-sell the bastard? Do we really - as a gender - need validation from men to feel important? I'm left feeling worse than when I simply thought women were being held back.

As a woman who works in an industry fraught with misogyny far worse than the publishing industry, I understand the underlying frustration expressed by Gay and her fellow authors. Really, I do. But after over a decade fighting it, I've also learned this: a woman has to learn what it is she is fighting against. I don't think these intelligent, bright women understand - at least not quite yet - what they are fighting against. 

Because they don't realize they've already won.

Welcome to Night Vale

While others are binge watching shows on Netflix, after learning that Wil Wheaton made a guest appearance on the October 15 episode of the on-going, comedy-satire-conspiracy-theory-podcast-masquerading-as-a-novel-masquerading-as-a-radio-show for the fictional town of Night Vale, I decided it was finally time to binge-listen to this cult classic and get caught up on Welcome to Night Vale.

For those of you unfamiliar with this popular podcast now in it's second year (Episode 56!), Night Vale is a conspiracy ridden desert town in the Southwest. Every podcast is delivered by Night Vale Community Radio. We learn every soap-opera-like detail (hysterical) via this radio broadcast, each of which lasts approximately 20 minutes. Created by Joseph Fink with the radio broadcast performed by Cecil Baldwin, the podcast is drowning in satire and has led the Top Ten Podcasts lists since 2013.

I won't try to catch you up on the plot of Night Vale, but I will say that if Wil Wheaton is guest performing, it's cool enough for all of you, too. 

Holy Episode 3:

"Listeners, we are currently fielding numerous reports that books have stopped working. It seems that all over Night Vale, books have simply ceased functioning. The scientists are studying one of the broken books to see if they can understand just what is going on here. The exact problem is currently unclear, but some of the words being used include ‘sparks,’ ‘meat smell,’ ‘biting,’ and ‘lethal gas.’ For your own safety, please do not attempt to open a book until we have more information on the nature and cause of these problems. The city council has released only a brief statement, indicating that their stance on books has not changed, and that, as always, they believe that books are dangerous and inadvisable, and should not be kept in private homes."