EDITOR’S NOTE: Hello everyone. This conversation with KT began way back in April. Unfortunately the episode is not yet complete. Each one of these conversations has moved along at its own pace, and that’s okay. But there’s some really good content here, and we didn’t want to delay publication any further. So we’re publishing everything we’ve got so far, and as more correspondence comes we’ll add it in. Thanks, and enjoy!
Conversation started 17 April 2014, 11:43 a.m.
PHIL: Hi KT. Thanks again for agreeing to be our first SPECIAL GUEST here on the Number Five Bus. For those out there reading who may not be familiar with KT I’ll offer this brief introduction (feel free to amend this as you see fit, KT): KT Horning is the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin. The CCBC is one of the only organizations out there devoted to the serious discussion, study, and critique of children’s literature. I tried many times to rephrase the following sentence from the CCBC website, but after numerous failures I will now resort to copy and paste:
A vital gathering place for books, ideas and expertise, the CCBC is committed to identifying excellent literature for children and adolescents and bringing this literature to the attention of those adults who have an academic, professional or career interest in connecting young readers with books.
That is the perfect description. In a cultural landscape that is so often condescending to children’s literature, the CCBC gives gives people like me hope to carry on. The fact that it’s plopped right here in the Midwest makes me all the more proud (see also: The MAZZA Museum in Findlay, Ohio—but that’s another episode entirely).
There are a lot of things I’m hoping to discuss here, some that are potentially contentious and controversial (I’ve always seen you as a bit of a rabblerouser, KT), but I think I’ll start with a softball. If you had to stock a children’s library with only three books, what books would they be?
ERIN: Interjection! That is an impossible task! But, continue…
KT: Thanks for the warm welcome. I’m happy to be part of this creative venture. The description of the CCBC is what we always strive for. I wandered in as an undergraduate killing time and have never left.
One of the things that makes the CCBC unusual is that we are a children’s literature library with no children. That is always a disconnect for people just getting to know us. Why would you have all these great children’s books and not have children here? Instead of serving children, we serve adults who work with and for children—teachers, librarians, authors and illustrators.
That’s not to say we don’t work with kids. Today, for example, I’m in the media lab at Madison Public Library working with 11-year-old Alanna who is creating a book trailer for the book Zero Tolerance by Claudia Mills. She is creating this as part of a statewide program the CCBC runs called Read On Wisconsin. We work with schools and public libraries to involve students (mostly Middle School students) in making book trailers, which are then posted on the Read On Wisconsin website.
Now to your question, which is not really a softball question. Three books? That’s hard! One would have to be Baby Says by John Steptoe. I always say if I could put one book in every American home, it would be Baby Says. It’s a great read-aloud for young children, and it’s also the easiest book in the world for beginning readers, especially struggling beginning readers. They can learn to read it, and then go read it to a younger child and have immediate success.
I would have something by Peter Sis, probably Tibet: Through the Red Box. You can read it over an over, and dwell on the pictures. It also appeals to a lot of ages, and the same reader at different ages gets something different out of it.
Third, I’d choose a great family read-aloud. For those, I always recommend books that appeal to a wide age range, and that also have a level of meaning for adults. The Phantom Tollbooth fits the bill, but I also love the books of Dick King-Smith, like Martin’s Mice.
PHIL: Well, here we are right at the beginning and you’ve already got me thinking like a CCBCer. What I mean is you’ve chosen books that aren’t just generically “good” or interesting to you. You chose books that serve very specific and important needs. I think it’s often expected that a book serve every possible function at once. On more than one occasion I’ve overheard conversations wherein a book is dismissed for not having worked in, say, a classroom setting. In the back of my mind I’m hollering: BUT THAT BOOK WASN’T MEANT FOR A CLASSROOM!!! I get myself all worked up and don’t eat for days.
So now you’ve got me thinking, if I could put just one book in the home of every small child, what would it be? I think I’d go with Bark, George!, by Jules Feiffer. It’s simple and the humor lands with 2-year-olds just as well as it does with full grown adults. Most importantly I think it demonstrates that reading is an inherently joyful act, not something to be afraid of.
Your mention of The Phantom Tollbooth also puts me in the mood to proselytize for one of my all-time favorite books, Alberic the Wise and Other Journeys, also by Norton Juster.
Alberic was published 3 years after Tollbooth and has always lived in Tollbooth’s shadow. It exists in two important but dying genres at the same time. First, it’s a book of longer fiction that is primarily meant to be read aloud by an adult to a child. The target age for Alberic is probably between 8-9, but the language and sentence structures are more suited to a college reader. I love that Juster trusted his child listeners to follow along despite the deficiencies in their own vocabularies. I think he recognized the power of context in early reading (children are always, after all, having to make sense of world with only a limited set of facts at hand). And, maybe more importantly, he understood the cheerful momentum that a text can have if it’s sufficiently musical in nature.
So, first, Alberic is a long form read-aloud. Secondly, it’s a book of short stories. The short story is drastically underrepresented in children’s literature, at least from my point of view (excluding episodic Early Readers like Frog and Toad of course). One of the only modern equivalents that comes to mind is Shaun Tan’s excellent, Tales from Outer Suburbia. The form has so many possibilities. I wish more authors would give it a try.
What do you think? Am I way off base with my assessment? And what lesser-known books do you find yourself pushing on people?
ERIN: Interjection! I noticed Phil, professional author of children’s books, calls out authors to write more short stories, whilst Phil, professional author of children’s books, hasn’t written any. Glass houses. Stones.
KT: True, true, true about the purposeful nature of books. And I usually hate that! People can sure suck the life out of a book. However, since you specified “library collection” I felt I had to select books for other people and give my reasons. I tried to choose books people would just be able to enjoy, too. If I were choosing my own personal favorites, I’d have gone with A Hole Is to Dig, Harriet the Spy, and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. (See how I sneaked in a two-volume novel?)
I have never even heard of Alberic the Wise. We don’t have it here at the CCBC. I’ll have to track it down. That’s the thing I love about books—there are always old ones you somehow missed that you discover later.
You’re right about short stories. We get some collections of short stories for teens, but they are usually on a specific topic, e.g. stories about death. There are hardly any volumes of short stories these days that are short stories just as an art form. Again, it goes back to that need to be purposeful for classroom use, I think.
E. L. Konigsburg published two collections of short stories I love: All Together One at a Time and Throwing Shadows. And there is a great British author named Janni Howker who published a terrific collection some years ago called Badger on the Barge. One of the stories is called The Topiary Garden and it’s about a 91-year-old woman who tells the young female narrator about her life, passing as a boy. It was issued years later as a picture book with illustrations by Anthony Browne, one of my favorite illustrators. Howker is one of those authors who burst on the scene, wowed us with a few books, and then disappeared. I hate when that happens.
Speaking of Anthony Browne, I often recommend his books to people. A lot of folks know his Willy books, but some of his early work is less known. I especially love Gorilla and Changes. The latter was really fun to use in preschool story hours, back when I used to do them. For anyone who doesn’t know it, it’s about a little boy who has been told there are going to be changes in his home, and he goes around looking for them. He sees all sorts of odd things—the tea kettle has cat’s ears, the bathroom sink has a nose and mouth where the tap and drain should be, etc. Very surrealistic. I would hold the page open for a long time while the 3-year-olds studied and studied the picture until one of them saw what was weird. It would sometimes take them awhile because I guess when you’re three, everything looks weird. Anyway, I used to work in a branch library where the program room had an extension telephone that would sometimes ring, and it rang while the kids were looking at one of the pictures. So here’s how the conversation went:
“There’s a nose in the sink!”
“There’s a mouth in the sink, too!”
“There’s a bird flying by in the mirror!”
“There’s a phone ringing!”
(By the way: the change is a new baby, introduced at the very end of the book)
Unfortunately, most of my favorite lesser known books are out of print. My hand-down-favorite is Else-Marie and Her Seven Little Daddies by Gabrielle Charbonnet and Pija Lindenbaum. I also love everything M.B. Goffstein ever did, and I am so sad most of her books are out-of-print and people don’t know them any more. Fish for Supper, Sleepy People, Laughing Latkes, My Crazy Sister—each one is a small masterpiece. I once got to take Goffstein to breakfast, and I remember she ordered a cup of tea and a pear. That was so perfect.
PHIL: It’s so strange that you mention M.B. Goffstein. You and I must’ve talked about Goffstein at some time in the past because after I wrote to you yesterday I had her on my mind for the rest of the day. It is criminal, CRIMINAL, that her books are disappearing. Each one is, as you say, a small masterpiece. My personal favorite is Natural History. That book is so simple and direct and yet it has a certain mysterious magic that is difficult to describe. It’s not hard to see why her books struggle to find an audience in the 21st century. They are subtle if nothing else, and subtlety is not rewarded so much these days. I wouldn’t give up hope though. Her books are so powerful that I wouldn’t be surprised if a smaller, boutique publisher purchases the rights to her canon and starts reissuing.
Regarding Alberic, I like to think that I’m singlehandedly responsible for getting him back into print. As if the publishing world was like, Hey, let’s get Alberic back out there so Phil will shut up and move on. The original book was published as a big, beautiful hardcover. The reissue is only available as a diminutive, cheap paperback. But beggars shouldn’t be choosers.
Janni Howker is completely unknown to me. I’m excited to find her. It makes me think that if you and I lived in the same town we’d be doing a lot of book-swapping.
It’s understandable to me how an author can suddenly disappear though. This is not an easy business to operate in sometimes. Economics aside, there are so many great neuroses that you can develop as a bookmaker. The pressure to create every day can be crippling. Reviews can be crippling. Lack of reviews can be crippling. I consider quitting at least once a week. Erin’s probably more like once a day. Sometimes the only thing that keeps us in this business is our complete lack of other marketable skills. Bookmaking, even for just a short amount of time, really makes you unprepared for the real world job market.
What kind of frustrations do you find yourself wrestling with in the modern world of librarianship? What keeps you going?
KT: Please don’t quit! You and Erin are two of the bright lights in the field. We’ve got to have people who care about things like full-cloth covers.
As for frustrations in the library world—shrinking budgets is probably the hardest thing for most librarians. Many of us have to spend a significant amount of our time justifying our existence. And what keeps me going is other people who care about books and issues such as equity. There is a growing division between the haves and have nots in this country. Libraries are one way of leveling the playing field a bit. I also welcome opportunities to work out in the community with kids. Seeing their enthusiasm for books is the thing that inspires me most.
PHIL: It seems to me that once forced to answer a question like: Do libraries matter in the 21st century? you’ve already lost the game. The parallel question in our world is: Are picture books really necessary?. Of course they are necessary! And of course libraries matter! But both questions come with an implied and deeply negative answer.
As a bookmaker I’m inclined to ignore the question completely and just let the great work out there speak for itself. This is one of the reasons that I love the CCBC. As an organization you are so Proactively Great that you render the question Do libraries matter? moot. Great Work doesn’t waste its time answering dumb questions because it’s too busy asking its own more meaningful questions.
But then again, I woke up feeling defiant and positive today. The sun is out.
Moving on, there are a couple things I’d really love to talk with you about. The Westing Game, for sure. Readers here might not realize that the CCBC houses all of Ellen Raskin’s original material from the creation of the The Westing Game. But before we get to that, I’d like to pick your brain about the state of multiculturalism in bookmaking, past and present. I know you’ve put a lot of time and thought into this topic. There are so many different angles to consider here, but I have one question in particular that I’d love to hear your thoughts on:
Fifty years after The Snowy Day do we have enough books that show people of color experiencing the aspects of life that are not inherently tied to race and identity?
KT: Erin and Phil, my loudest apologies are due after such a long period of silence!
We are in the process of moving the CCBC, and it’s all happening faster than we predicted. But yes, let me give you some more back-and-forth. (This is, of course, what I WANT to be doing, instead of figuring out linear feet.)
This is a subject near and dear to my heart. I came to the profession of librarianship with a consciousness of the issues involved, probably because my mother taught first grade in a predominantly black school, so I knew how hard it was for her to find good books reflecting the lives of her students. And i knew how hard she looked! This was back in a time when you rarely saw anyone on television who wasn’t Anglo (other than Rochester and Ricky Ricardo), or in magazines, let alone books. Our family subscribed to Ebony magazine as long as I can remember so my mom could take them into her classroom for her students to cut up for collage projects. So, of course, I read Ebony, alongside Life and Look magazine, and learned a lot as a kid just by seeing the same ads with models of different races. (Something very interesting I learned about The Snowy Day is that the boy who inspired Peter came from a 1940 issue of Life Magazine. There were a series of photos of a little boy in Quitman, Georgia, having a blood test, and Keats was so taken with him that he cut the photos out and stuck them up on his wall. By the time A Snowy Day came out, the boy who inspired Peter would have been close to thirty years old.)
I remember The Snowy Day from when I was a kid. I think I was in second or third grade when it came out, and I bought it as a gift for my school library. At my school, we were encouraged on our birthdays to select a book from a shelf of pre-selected books to buy for the library, and we got to sign a donor name plate inside the book. I also remember buying Amigo by Byrd Baylor and Garth Williams for the library—so I must have had an early affinity for multicultural literature. I felt really invested in those two books as a child as a result because I had chosen them to share with other kids at my school. (Okay, I was a born librarian, I guess.)
But for me, the book that made a big impact was Two Is a Team by Lorraine and Jerrold Beim, with illustrations by Ernest Crichlow. It had been published almost twenty years earlier than A Snowy Day, back in 1945, and it’s the story of a friendship between two boys, one black, one white. The artist was African-American, and it may have been one of the earliest picture books published by an African-American illustrator, if not the earliest. We didn’t own many hardcover books but we owned this one and it was one of my favorites, not because it was about in interracial friendship but because it was about two boys with a scooter.
Both Two Is a Team and The Snowy Day qualify as books in which the story is not tied to race and identity. They both show kids just being kids, and kids who could be any race or ethnicity. Of course, I think we need more books of all kinds like this—picture books, contemporary realism, science fiction and fantasy, etc. But I also think we need more books of the sort Rudine Sims Bishop termed “culturally conscious fiction”—books that include elements of culture that might resonate more deeply with kids from that culture. As an outsider, I might not even see those elements but others will, and they may connect with the story on a deeper level, as a result. What we used to call back in the olden days “validation.”
PHIL: This is dicey territory for an artist—especially a white, male artist like myself. There are things that really worry me—things that I think a lot about. I worry that great artists that do make books relating to race and identity will only be offered projects in that realm. I worry that great books about race and identity will be treated only as “great books about race and identity” and not as just “great books”. And lastly, on a personal level, I worry about my own responsibilities to help make the book world more inclusive, while not letting politics dictate my art-making.
My second book, Jonathan and Big Blue Boat, features an African-American boy as the lead character. I chose to do this for no other reason than that it was the character I saw in my head as I wrote the story. I wanted it to be no big deal, and in my mind the book had no political implications whatsoever. Things did get occasionally sticky though. In the book, Jonathan’s parents trade his favorite stuffed bear for toaster. This event sets the plot in motion. It was suggested to me midway through my making of the book that perhaps it was subtly racist to have the parents of a black child make such an egregious parenting error. My response was that all parents make practical choices for their children that can be seen as hurtful and negative to the children themselves. That’s just life. I stuck to my guns and the story didn’t change. Still, I worried a lot about there being any misperception at all of my motives.
The book didn’t sell all that well which was a big disappointment to me because I really loved the book. It’s still my favorite book that I’ve made. It was suggested to me both before and after publication that the book would not sell well because it would appeal only to a niche audience—black families. This seemed like a publishing cop-out to me at the time. I’ve always seen my niche audience as: humans with human feelings. A couple years after publication though, Erin and I were at a book signing in a predominantly white, upper middle-class area of the country. The signing was going great. We were selling out of all of our books, even the books that don’t normally sell as well. Jonathan was the one exception, and it became weirdly uncomfortable for me as the night went on. One of the last people in line did bring up a copy of Jonathan, and just when I was about to feel better about the human race she said: It’s okay, I adopted a child from Africa. For real, that actually happened.
So much for my niche audience.
My upcoming book, Sebastian and the Balloon, features a main character that is dark skinned in a non-specific way. I chose to do this for the same reason I chose to make Jonathan a black boy—because that’s the character I saw in my head. I see this book as a companion to Jonathan for a lot of reasons not related to race at all. They’re both books about imagination and the need for escape. Both books really come from the core of who I am as a person, and who I was as a kid. And of course now with Sebastian, like with Jonathan, I worry that I’ll be misunderstood, or, worse, ignored.
Basically I’m a worrier.
I don’t have much of a question here other than: What do you think?
EDITOR’S NOTE: So that’s what we’ve got so far. Please come back to see how the conversation concludes. Thanks for reading!