Monthly Archives: June 2010

Unleashing Your Inner 12-Year-Old

I know, I know – middle-grade books are for EIGHT-to-twelve year olds. Myopic cretin that I am, however, I’ve chosen to focus on 12 for…no particular reason, really. I suppose because “finding your inner 8-12 year old” just looks kinda silly to me. Or maybe it’s just because my book’s protagonist is 12. I’m 40, by the way, soon to be 41, so it’s been quite some time since my twelfth birthday. What tools and techniques can a leathery old human saddlebag like me use to effectively capture the voice of a character whose tenure on the planet is so much more brief than mine?

If you ask me (I know you didn’t literally ask me, but you metaphorically did by coming to this blog, so just settle down, buckaroo), it always comes back to memory. I followed assorted tweets from the Caldecott & Newbery Awards banquet on June 27 (with only a soupcon of envy to poison my voyeuristic enjoyment), and Kate Messner reported that Rebecca Stead described her sublime MG novel WHEN YOU REACH ME as “an impossible mystery played out on the streets of my own childhood.”  In a recent blog post, Nova Ren Suma said seventh grade “…was a very painful time for me personally, family-wise, socially, and more. But it’s so vivid—and I keep wanting to write it.”  In this interview on Vivian Lee Mahoney’s blog Robin LaFevers candidly talks about how her childhood forms the basis for one of her signature characters, 11-year-old Theodosia Throckmorton.

So yeah, personal memories. Personal memories are big. That having been said, I also agree with cartoon memoirist Tracy White, who mentions the unreliability of memory in this Washington Post article.  We do indeed forget some things, enhance some things, and diminish others. So! How to combat the memory slippage?

An obvious  tactic is to hang out with 8-to-12 year old kids. That’s not a real easy tactic for me, since my own kids have a few years to go before hitting that age range, and I’m not a librarian like Nan Marino (although I do have a Slinky just like Nan does). I didn’t keep diaries like Sarah J. Stevenson did, although I am trying to take her advice and hone my skills at eavesdropping. Tricky, though – I don’t want to be creepy. Creepy is bad. Author Jodi Moore is also an inveterate eavesdropper, bless her heart, and for added value she watches the TV show “Degrassi.” Incidentally, this demonstrates one of the absolute greatest things about writing for children: a built-in degree of legitimacy for the consumption of sweet, fizzy pop culture. That is the very definition of bliss, yo.

Mnemonic devices? I gotcha mnemonic devices right here.

Still, there’s a really obvious answer to the question of “how to best spur those 8-12 year old memories in order to crowbar them into a book.” It’s elementary, Watson. One of the prime ways to push a tap into those spongy, nerveless brain tissues and drain out some useful memories for your MG novel is to read a whole lot of other MG novels. There’s a reason why the entire kidlit industry goes on and on and on about the need to both write and read – the reason is because it’s true, babies.

The books I loved during my own middle-grade years are stunningly effective at evoking the sensations, thoughts and feelings I had back then, so I try and check back in with old favorites like DRAGONSONG or THE MERRY ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD or A WRINKLE IN TIME every once in a blue moon, although that gets harder as I continue to get older. Reading newer books like THE YEAR THE SWALLOWS CAME EARLY and THE STRANGE CASE OF ORIGAMI YODA, on the other hand, massages different places within the folds of my cranium – they don’t have the pure evocative magic of those old favorites, but that’s okay, because they stir up swirls and eddies of other memories that have been sitting on the shelf, undisturbed by other provocations.  There’s a certain amount of distance when that happens – it becomes more about the adult me observing the childhood me, in a way – but hey, whatever works, right? Dude, this writing stuff is hard, and transmogrifying one’s self into a state of twelvishness is not exactly the easy part. Populating your desk with action figures, eating pop rocks, listening to the same Beach Boys records your cousin used to like, and especially reading books…you do what you gotta do, am I right?

Mike Jung has not yet conquered the galaxy with his mildly snarky MG manuscripts, but he’s working on it.

The Care and Feeding of Young Library Patrons

Photo credit: The Consortium via Flickr

Fairfax County, a heavily-populated Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C., could arguably be the epicenter of young reader-dom. When Amazon held its “Harry-est” city in the country contest to celebrate the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, two cities in Fairfax County were in the top five spots.

Georgia Chirieleison is responsible for keeping these young readers well-supplied. As the Children’s Selector for the Fairfax County Public Library system, Georgia selects all titles for patrons from birth to age 18 at 22 branches. She has also worked as the head of information at the Centreville Library and was a children’s librarian for 20 years.

Like libraries across the country, the library here is facing cutbacks in staff, hours and materials. However, it is still in the business of buying books, and Georgia was gracious enough to spend some time with Mixed-Up Files and answer some questions about the behind-the-scenes workings of the largest public library system in Virginia and what makes her buy a middle-grade book.

Q: Since your job consists of buying books, how has your work been affected by budget cuts?
A: We are buying fewer titles, all across the board. We have also raised our hold-to-copy ratio. It used to be that we would by an additional copy of a book when there were more than 4 holds on the title; now it’s been changed to 6. It’s harder to spend money. We spend a lot of time being careful.

Q: So, out of all the middle-grade titles you’re looking at right now, what percentage, roughly, would you say do you purchase?
A: It’s hard to say – probably 25-40%.

Q: Approximately how many new titles do you acquire each year (as opposed to copies of each title)?
A: In 2009, for titles labeled “JFIC,” we purchased 667 titles. This excludes Young Adult and Picture Books, but may include different formats of the same title, such as the same book in a different language or on CD. (Interviewer’s note: Just as an example of why it might be important to distinguish between copies of a title and different formats of a title, I checked on the blockbuster Diary of Wimpy Kid. The library alone had 179 copies of the original English language version, in addition to 4 copies in Korean and 8 audio copies!)

Q: My 10-year-old son recently read his first e-book, thanks to the FCPL system. How do you see e-books fitting in with the needs of your middle-grade readers?
A: I expect the demand for e-books among middle-graders to go up. We are seeing more holds showing up in our system for e-books all the time. The advantage to us is that e-books take up no shelf space. It’s an interesting time.

Q: How do you decide to acquire a new middle-grade fiction title?
A: We order based on reviews. Looking at preview copies is prohibitive because of the sheer volume and workload involved in handling them. We order from companies such as Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and BWI. They provide lists of genres I’m interested in, and they provide links to interviews to the titles. Patrons and branches can also suggest a title, and we will respond based on reviews and availability.

Q: If there’s a book with mixed reviews, what factors would push you to buy the book?
A: The author’s reputation would make a difference. We would consider customer demand, the setting and the subject of the book – if it were something customers would find interesting or relevant in some way.

Q: You mentioned earlier that you purchase your book through book companies. What do these companies do? Why do you choose to go through these book companies instead of book stores?
A: Companies like Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and BWI are book wholesalers that provide many time-saving services to libraries. They provide discounts and we can request certain processing, such as a barcode, specific jacketing or heavier binding to stand up to circulation. They carefully monitor what is published and provide alerts, suggested titles lists, and powerful selection software. We also have the ability to go outside the book companies if there is a book we want. In addition, we have standing orders with certain titles or series.

Q: Do you ever look for specific books in a particular genre or with a certain type of character?
A: We do occasionally scout for books, but generally, it’s what looks good that year. Some years are a bumper crop; not so much other years.

Q: Are there books you feel are needed but not being published?
A: Sometimes I can’t find books in some non-fiction areas. Right now there is a lot of demand for fantasy and science fiction. Vampires are still hot, and we are seeing more angel stories, too.

Q: What is the best part of your job? The worst?
A: The best part of this job is that I like all kinds of books, especially picture books. I like seeing new books as they come out, knowing people will enjoy them. The hardest part is sitting at a computer for long periods of time – I think part of me never grew up!

Q: Final question – who are some of your favorite middle-grade authors?
A: For fantasy, I like C.S. Lewis and Ursula K. LeGuin, J.K. Rowling, Jonathan Stroud, Maryrose Wood, Trenton Stewart and many others. In terms of realistic fiction, I like Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and Gordon Korman, Andrew Clements and Kimberly Willis Holt’s “Piper Reed” books. I also like Mary Downing Hahn – she’s a local author who writes historical fiction as well as suspense.

After speaking to Georgia, a quick peek into the library catalogue revealed that for 2009, in addition to the 667 middle-grade titles, Georgia also purchased 693 picture books and 588 young adult titles, bringing the number of titles (and formats) she purchased to 1,948! That’s not including non-fiction titles, or the fact that based on her own estimates, Georgia is probably looking at upwards of six or seven thousand titles to get to her selections. Whew!

Wendy Shang’s debut novel, The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, comes out January 2011.  She is a Ready-to-Read volunteer with Fairfax County Public Library.

Audiobooks: Great sounding middle-grade books

Heard any great middle-grade books lately?

If not, you’re in for a treat. With long road trips to vacation destinations looming ahead, or just endless days filled with proclamations of “I’m BORED!”, summer is the perfect time to get hooked on great middle-grade audiobooks.

High angle view of a boy listening to music on headphones

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Listening on the road: Audiobooks are a great alternative for kids who feel carsick while reading. They also make a nice change from DVD’s and endless games of “Bumper Stumpers”.  You can listen to audiobooks on your car CD player or they can be uploaded as playlists on your middle grader’s MP3 player.

image from http://www.playaway.com/

Listening at home: Audiobooks can help augment your middle grader’s everyday book-reading too. Listening to the first book in a series, for instance, can encourage kids to check out later volumes in print form too. Audiobooks can also encourage kids to try books at a higher reading level. Once they’ve heard a book read out loud, it may encourage them to seek out other books by the same author.

Listening at the library: Check out your local library’s audiobook selection. Often, popular titles are more readily available in audio than in print form. Some libraries allow users to download the sound file directly from the Internet. It really doesn’t get any easier than that!

Oh, wait a sec. Yes, it does…

Listening on the go: Ask your school or local librarian whether they have PLAYAWAYS. These self-contained MP3 players are pre-loaded with an audiobook. Great to grab-and-go.

Everything old is new again: Even old favorites seem new-to-you when read by a great narrator.  The HARRY POTTER series by JK Rowling, read by Jim Dale, A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeleine L’Engle, read by the author and A SINGLE SHARD by Linda Sue Park, read by Graeme Malcolm, are all oldies but goodies. (Click on the image to hyperlink to a sound sample.)

       

Newer titles like WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead, read by Cynthia Holloway, OPERATION YES by Sara Lewis Holmes, read by Jessica Almasy and GOOD MASTERS!  SWEET LADIES!: VOICES FROM A MEDIEVAL VILLAGE by Laura Amy Schlitz, read by Christina Moore and a full cast, are also great bets.

       

A few more top picks from our Mixed-Up authors:

THE BOXCAR CHILDREN by Gertrude Chandler Warner, read by Phyllis Newman

BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA by Katherine Paterson, read by Robert Sean Leonard

CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY by Roald Dahl, read by Eric Idle

THE GET RICH QUICK CLUB by Dan Gutman, read by Angela Goethals

THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX by Kate DiCamillo, read by Graeme Malcolm

THE RED BLAZER GIRLS series by by Michael D. Beil, read by Tai Alexandra Ricci

NORY RYAN’S SONG by Patricia Reilly Giff, read by Susan Lynch, and the sequel, MAGGIE’S DOOR read by Fionnula Flanagan

BUD, NOT BUDDY by Christopher Paul Curtis, read by James Avery

And there’s more!: Here are a few more lists to get you started…

The Booksource

Renaissance Reading

Audible

WHAT ABOUT YOU?  Have you listened to any great middle-grade audiobooks lately? Care to share?

**Oh, and don’t forget to enter our second summer giveaway – one lucky reader will win three amazing middle-grade books!

Hélène Boudreau listened to the whole HARRY POTTER series (close to 100 hours worth!) while training for her latest half marathon walk, and appreciated Jim Dale’s company and fabulous narration through it all. You can visit her at www.heleneboudreau.com