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The Horn Book at home

Welcome to the debut issue of Notes from the Horn Book, a monthly electronic newsletter for parents and others looking for good new books for children and teenagers.

Written by the editors of The Horn Book Magazine, the nation’s leading periodical about children’s literature, Notes will provide brief recommendations of new children’s books, interviews with writers and illustrators, and news from the children’s book world.

Bertha Mahony Miller, who founded the Horn Book in 1924, wrote that she chose the name of the magazine to pay tribute to the object that opened the world of reading to generations of children in centuries past. She also indicated her intention to "blow the horn for fine books for boys and girls." We hope that this latest iteration of the Horn Book's mission will prove as useful as Bertha's initial inspiration.

Roger Sutton
Editor in Chief, The Horn Book

In this issue

Masthead art © by William Steig, used with permission of Pippin Properties, Inc.


This past January saw the announcement of the two biggest prizes in American children’s literature, the Newbery Medal (for writing) and the Caldecott Medal (for illustration), both awarded annually by the American Library Association. This year’s Newbery went to Laura Amy Schlitz for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village (Candlewick), a collection of dramatic monologues (illustrated by Robert Byrd) that together provide a lively, engrossing portrait of village life in 1255 England. All of the characters are young people, making the book a natural choice for middle-school English and history classes that need a little noise.

The Newbery usually goes to a novel, but Schlitz's book is a blend of poetry, nonfiction, and historical fiction. Likewise, the Caldecott Medal went to a "hybrid" book, Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Scholastic), whose 534 pages are a far cry from the picture book’s standard thirty-two. While the Caldecott is usually awarded to a book for young children, Hugo Cabret is for third- or fourth-graders on up, using a dazzling alternation of black-and-white pictures and text to tell its breakneck story of an orphan’s adventures in 1931 Paris.

But remember, always, that just because a book has won an award does not mean it is the right book for any one particular child. Maurice Sendak tells a funny story about encountering a mother who proudly told him that she read his Where the Wild Things Are every night to her child despite the fact that the girl screamed in fear every time. When Sendak asked her why she didn’t choose a different book, she replied, "But this one won the Caldecott Medal.” Members of award committees read widely and well but, in the case of the Newbery and Caldecott awards, are charged with rewarding aesthetic achievement rather than predicting popular appeal. They also lack ESP and thus don’t know about your child’s interests, abilities, or idiosyncrasies. Your kid might not be engaged by the Middle Ages, or may not be ready for Hugo Cabret. Prizes are designed to call attention to good books, but as the wise Nora Ephron once wrote, “Even if it is good you do not have to like it.” That’s a maxim to remember both for your own and your child’s reading.

The Horn Book's reviews of the Newbery and Caldecott winners and honor books can be found on our website. Medal acceptance speeches by and profiles of the winners will be published in the July/August issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Five questions for Jon Scieszka

The Library of Congress has named Jon Scieszka the first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a two-year appointment that will have the popular author of such books as The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (Viking) and, most recently, the Truck Town series (Simon & Schuster) speaking around the country on the importance of literacy and the pleasures of reading. I caught up with Scieszka (“rhymes with Fresca,” he likes to say) via email:

1. What do you hope the position of National Ambassador for Young People's Literature can do for young readers (and would-be/could-be readers)?

I'm hoping the National Ambassador will be a champion for kids—someone who can stand up for them and fight for their right to read for fun . . . and not just for the assignment, the questions, the testing that seem to follow every bit of reading. I also hope the Ambassador will be able to connect all those would-be/could-be readers with that text that will make them I-am-a-reader readers.

2. What do you say to a parent who says, "My kid hates to read. What can I do?"

Try expanding your definition of reading to include humor, nonfiction, graphic novels, magazines, fantasy, science fiction, online content, audiobooks. Your kid may just hate to read assigned reading. Ask them what they are interested in. Empower them by letting them choose to read, and to choose what to read. Allow them to not like what might be your favorite reading.

Be a positive role model. Talk to your kids about how you choose your reading, what you like, and what you don't.

Avoid demonizing new technologies. TV, games, the Internet, and movies compete for kids' time and attention. But they are not the anti-reading devil. We need to help kids become critical consumers of all media. They can enjoy both TV and books. Each provides its own pleasures.

3. . . . or to one who says, "My kid only reads (Harry Potter, sports magazines, the Time Warp Trio). How do I expand his horizons?"

Feed the obsession. Let your reader read everything Potter/sports/Time Warp they can. Then look for similar types of reading that they can branch off to. The Harry Potter fan can try other fantasy fiction, the Time Warp reader might head into history. Ask librarians and booksellers for recommendations. Wider reading is all about making connections.

4. We hear a lot about boys not reading; what about girls?

The girls are doing better than the boys, but the overall trend for both genders is drifting down toward less reading. Though I do think some of that is just the setup of the statistical model. All kids are doing less sitting-down-reading-a-novel than kids did ten years ago, but they are also doing all kinds of online reading and writing that didn't exist ten years ago. I'm careful to not ignore girls in this challenge to engage reluctant readers. Girls benefit from less testing and more pleasure reading, too.

5. What difference does reading make, anyway?

That is the million—maybe billion!—dollar question. As someone who enjoys all kinds of reading, I feel that the kids who don't become readers are missing the entertainment, information, enlightenment, and challenge that I get from reading. But we readers should not be so smug as to think that every kind of reading is superior to any other activity. My son taught me that he got more and better information from watching hockey on TV than he did from reading about it in the newspaper. My daughter explained to me the low-brainwave pleasures of reading celebrity magazines, but would never claim it as a superior activity to watching a well-made episode of "Grey's Anatomy" or "The Office." But I do think that, ultimately, reading allows us to be critical thinkers. If we aren't able to understand the nuanced details of, say, health care or education or finance policy, we are at the mercy of soundbite slogans, swiftboating, and bumpersticker campaigns. Readers are thinkers.

Photo: James Schuck

Three books to get you outside

In The Brook Book: Exploring the Smallest Streams (Dutton), veteran nature-writer and -illustrator Jim Arnosky invites kids and grownups to get their feet wet (metaphorically, anyway: “the complete brook explorer wears rubber boots”). His guide to the finned, feathered, and fronded life of brooks and streams is both a cogent introduction to this compact ecosystem and an irresistible invitation to put the book down and go outside. (5–8 years.)

Legendary children’s publishing executive Janet Schulman has written the best children’s book yet about a New York bird that became both celebrated and notorious, depending on which side of the window you sat. Pale Male: Citizen Hawk of New York City (Knopf), illustrated with watercolors both delicate and ebullient by Meilo So, is firmly on the side of the hawk and his mate who famously roosted atop a ledge on the façade of a fancy Fifth Avenue address. Schulman’s joins previous—and quite fine—picture books about Pale Male by Megan McCarthy and Jeanette Winter: where this latest book stands out is in its engaged and engaging narrative verve. (6 years and up.)

In A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever (Harcourt) Marla Frazee offers a salutory—and hilarious—reminder that children, like nature, take their own course. Best friends James and Eamon are spending a summer's week attending an oceanside Nature Camp, where you get to "stand and look at some flower for an hour," as James disenchantedly observes. But, thanks to the buoyancy of their imaginations and independence, the boys do manage a new appreciation for the world around them by week's end. Adults prone to over-direction of kids' allegedly recreational activities might be the most rewarded audience for this very witty picture book. (6–9 years.)

Picture book heroes return

Two bestselling and well-received picture books get sequels this season. Antoinette Portis follows up Not a Box, which garnered a Geisel Honor for outstanding beginning-reader books from the ALA, with Not a Stick (HarperCollins), in which a persistent piglet reminds us that a stick is not always just a stick—it can be a fishing pole, a paintbrush, a sword, and even a horse in the realm of the fecund young imagination. (3–6 years.) And Laura Vaccaro Seeger, who won a Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Dog and Bear: Two Friends, Three Stories, returns with Dog and Bear: Two’s Company (Porter/Roaring Brook), three more short-short picture stories about stuffed Bear and his loyal dachshund Dog. The last story, “Sweet Dreams,” in which the ever-so-slightly lazy and importuning Dog has Bear running all over to make his friend happy, is ready-made for preschool dramatization and has the sweetest ending to a picture book we’ve seen in a while. (4–7 years.)

Ask the Horn Book

Q: My nine-year-old has been looking for something like the Lemony Snicket books, and I haven’t a clue what to get him. Have you? —Cornelia West, Chicago

A: You can always go back to one of Mr. Snicket’s (aka Daniel Handler) pervasive sources, the prolific Edward Gorey, who wrote and illustrated more than a hundred strange little books with titles such as The Beastly Baby and The Haunted Tea-Cosy, most of them collected into the Amphigorey series published by Harcourt. For novel-length melodrama dashed with the gothic, try Kaye Umansky’s The Silver Spoon of Solomon Snow and Solomon Snow and the Stolen Jewel (both Candlewick), two recent adventure stories about a plucky foundling and his friends. And just this month, Newbery Medalist Lois Lowry publishes a hilariously over-the-top contribution to the genre, The Willoughbys. The four Willoughby children and their indifferent (criminally, it turns out) parents live a life straight out of an old-fashioned children’s book: “One day they even found a baby on their doorstep.”

Ironic, tongue-in-cheek humor is only part of the appeal of the Snicket books, however; the other thing kids like about them is their theme of children positively beset by danger and villainy. Not ready for Oliver Twist? Try Joan Aiken’s eleven-volumed Wolves Chronicles, beginning with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and encompassing all manner of grand adventure, high drama, and darkest betrayal in an alternate-history nineteenth-century England. Aiken's as well as Umansky's and Lowry's novels are suitable for nine-to-twelve-year-olds. —R.S.

Q: Who decides what wins the Newbery Medal? —Vaughan Rogers, Missoula

A: The Newbery Medal is awarded by the Association of Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association. A committee of fifteen (eight elected, including the chair, and seven appointed by the ALSC president) reads hundreds of eligible titles throughout the year and meets in January for one intense weekend to discuss and vote on the winner and honor books via a system of weighted ballots. This year the committee was a healthy mix of public librarians, school librarians, teachers, and book reviewers—including yours truly—from all over the country. —Martha V. Parravano, Executive Editor, The Horn Book Magazine

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