list

It’s a sad fact, but, if you’re the parent of a young girl, at some point, there’s a better than average chance that you’ll have to deal with the creeping horror that is the princess book genre. The princess craze is an amazing thing to behold. It’s like an airborne pathogen or some kind of morphic field cultural memory download. It just worms your way into your child’s subconscious with no obvious point of entry. Even if your daughter is the most tomboyish tomboy on the block, eventually, there’s like a 90% chance that you’re going to have to buy her a princess dress and a cringe-inducing selection of princess-themed reading material at some point. (No parent should have to read their child a book this pink at bedtime.)

Cinderella

How can something this boring be considered a “fantasy”?

And, trust me, resistance is futile. I’ve spent countless hours already trying to shape my daughter into a gender-proud feminist (and she’s FIVE) and yet there I was – taking her to a Disney Princess breakfast at EPCOT (by myself!) and making sure that we saw every damn princess in that park. Why? Because she simply loves princesses and fighting against their appeal is just going to make me the common enemy of both my daughter and the princess industrial complex. And I won’t survive if they unite to take me down.

So, how do I fight back? I mostly do it through books. I am still a MAJOR gatekeeper when it comes to my daughter’s reading material, so, at the moment, I do have the ability to keep her away from cheap throwaway titles like Barbie: The Princess Shoe Party Fashion Show and Cinderella: A Sparkly Royal Thanksgiving… which are EVERYWHERE and are just as soul-crushing as they sound. While I hide those titles behind the periodicals at the local library, I spend a good deal of time searching for really engaging princess stories that I then subtly push her way.

And that’s a challenge. It’s not easy finding princess books where the princesses aren’t passive, aren’t beholden to a prince, and have lives and agendas of their own. And, on the flip side, I also don’t want to give my daughter really hacky, didactic propaganda pieces where the author is just out to scream, “AND THE PRINCESS COULD DO ANYTHING THE PRINCE COULD DO! AND PROBABLY BETTER!” (If I could find the video of 30 Rock‘s Liz Lemon as her high-school football place kicker, missing an easy kick and cheering “Equality!”, I’d put it here.) Even if I agree with the message, if it’s not a well-told story, forget about it.

As a service to you parents out there who may have children suffering from princess mania or who just simply can’t face down another royal Disney bedtime, here are six really impressive princess books that your kids will enjoy and that won’t make you curl your fists in post-feminist rage.

1. The Princess and the Pizza by Mary Jane and Herm Auch

The Princess and the Pizza

The Princess and the Pizza

This is an extremely fun title – particularly if your child is already familiar with the normal Disney princess canon. Princess Paulina is struggling with peasant life now that her father, the king, has given up his throne to become a wood-carver. So, when she hears that Prince Drupert is seeking a wife, she hurries over to “get back to princessing” and finds herself in a competition against other potential princesses to be his bride. The humor in Princess and the Pizza is really irreverent and clever – it reminds me a lot of Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre – particularly as Princess Paulina realizes how ridiculous the competition is. She’s competing against nicely exaggerated versions of classic princesses like Snow White and Rapunzel and, after a cooking competition where Paulina accidentally invents pizza, the book ends with a great twist – Paulina sees the value in what she’s created, tells Drupert to shove it, and opens a successful pizza joint. This is a very silly take on the whole notion of princessing, but Paulina is such an expansive, resourceful character that your princess-jonesing kids will love her. (Age range: 3 and up. It’s more of a storybook than a picture book, so there’s a fair bit of text on its 32 pages.)

2. Princess Hyacinth: The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated by Florence Parry Heide, illustrated by Lane Smith

Readers of this blog won’t be surprised at all to hear me praising a book by Florence Parry Heide and Lane Smith, but, all of my preferences and biases aside, Princess Hyacinth is one of the best books either of them has ever done. (I will one day write a much, much longer appraisal of Princess Hyacinthfor the blog, but I couldn’t leave it off this list.) The concept is elegantly absurd – there was a princess with a problem. She floats. She can’t stop herself from floating into the air at any time. And, around that premise, Heide and Smith craft a story that just feels fresh and unique – you’ve never read a princess book like this before. Hyacinth is annoyed that she can’t play outside with the other kids (particularly with Boy, the young man she has a crush on), but she also longs to take full advantage of her unique condition and soar among the clouds. After a close call where she almost floats away into the stratosphere, Hyacinth becomes much more comfortable with who she is and decides to stop fighting against her problem and learn to enjoy it.

Princess Hyacinth: The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated

Princess Hyacinth: The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated

Smith delivers some of the best work of his career here, but, for me, it’s Heide’s prose that really makes Princess Hyacinth a classic. Her text reads like it was mined directly out of the mind of a kid, like the smartest seven-year-old in the world is telling you the greatest story she’s ever heard and, in my experience, kids eat that up. They can’t get enough of it. In my mind, the closing words of the book say it all: “The problem about the floating was never solved, and that’s too bad. But Princess Hyacinth was never bored again. GOOD.” Yes, it is. (Age range: 3 and up. There’s more text than some picture books, but it’s fairly large and fun to read.) [read the rest of the post…]

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Quiet! There's a Canary in the Library

Finding perceptive, interesting book suggestions can be hard…

While I love doling out kids’ book recommendations to other parents, the sad fact is – my knowledge of children’s literature is woefully finite. If we’re talking about any of the books in our home library or our local library favorites, I can puff my chest out and throw out suggestions like nobody’s business. But, if a parent or friend needs a recommendation for a book that lies outside of my home library wheelhouse, I need help. And, since there are thousands upon THOUSANDS of kids’ books that never make it into our extended library circle (despite my best efforts), I find myself looking for help with reading suggestions all the time.

As such, I thought it might be helpful if I listed some of the places I go when I’m looking for really great book suggestions. Some of these resources are fantastic at making themed recommendations – i.e. the best books for Spring, Easter, Arbor Day, etc. – and some are just excellent at profiling the coolest new children and young adult titles that totally should be on your radar. So, if you want to be a fake kids’ book expert like I am, here are five superior resources that will really make you sound like you know what you’re talking about.

1. EarlyWord.com

EarlyWord.com

This is where librarians get all their inside information…

Anybody who loves literature should have EarlyWord.com bookmarked and they should check it daily. It’s a site designed for collection development librarians – a.k.a. the people at your local library who decide what books they should buy for your community. The founders of EarlyWord keep a very keen eye on what’s being published by all of the major publishers, specifically so they can let librarians know what books they should be keeping an eye on as well. They alert librarians about hot new titles, they keep track of literary awards, they profile books that have been mentioned on TV or that have been turned into movies lately – all because they know that those are the books that patrons will be asking about at their local libraries soon.

EarlyWord.com has a Kids’ Section that’s extremely worth checking out on a weekly basis. They have a recurring feature called “Kids New Title Radar” where they profile the most significant new kids’ books coming out every week. Their kids’ section collect kids’ book trailers, they suggest reading lists for major holidays and events – it’s an amazing resource. And, if you check out the right-hand sidebar of the site, you can find a treasure trove of valuable information, ranging from a calendar of upcoming book-to-film adaptations to a downloadable Excel list that collects every kids’ book that made it onto a major “best books” list in 2012. This is easily one of my favorite sites on the web.

2. The Books on Top of the Shelves in the Kids’ Section at Your Local Library

I’m not going to point out that your local youth librarian is a great resource for reading recommendations because…well, duh. That’s their job. If you’re struggling to find really good books for your kids and you haven’t asked your local librarian for help yet, you’re missing out. So, while the importance of kids’ librarians may be obvious (to me, at least), some of the things they do for you on a regular basis may not be. For example, when you walk into the children’s section of most libraries, you’ll see a variety of books prominently displayed either on top of the shelves or arraigned on a rack at the end of the shelves. Again, this may be obvious, but… you know they’re there for a reason, right?

Quiet! There's a Canary in the Library

No, no, the good stuff is ON TOP of the shelves…

All of those “featured books” aren’t there to add a splash of color to the shelves. They’ve been placed there ON PURPOSE by the librarians. This is how they communicate their personal reading suggestions or how they highlight new, exciting titles that the library has just acquired. Whenever I enter the children’s section at our library, the very first thing I do is a circuit around the shelves to see what the librarians are suggesting this week. Thanks to the simple act of balancing a book on top of a shelf, I have “discovered” so many spectacular books that never would’ve been on my radar before. So, the next time you’re at the library, be sure to keep your eyes on the shelves. [read the rest of the post…]

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Scholastic 100 Greatest Books for Kids

The interactive bookshelf is equal parts cool and infuriating...

I didn’t mean to be quite so critical of the Scholastic “100 Greatest Books for Kids” list in my last post. As someone who started a blog that’s all about recommending great children’s books to readers, I think I can understand the noble aspirations that are probably behind the creation of the list and I definitely can see how some people might find a “100 Greatest” list valuable. However, that being said, I still think the overly sensational presentation of the list robs it of a large portion of its inherent value. Yes, it’s great that some very educated, very passionate people assembled such a strong reading list, BUT I think their contributions are overshadowed by the over-the-top pomp and circumstance of suggesting that these 100 books hold more value than ANY other children’s titles. The “100 Greatest Books for Kids” opted for the inflammatory over the educational, and I think that was a bad call.

But that isn’t to say that “best book lists” are always a bad idea. They can be AMAZING, when they’re done right. So, in response to Scholastic’s “100 Greatest Books for Kids”, I thought I’d pass along five other examples of “Best Books for Kids” lists that (I think) present their recommendations in much more constructive and enlightening ways.

(I seriously debated calling this post “The FIVE Best Books for Kids Lists OF ALL TIME” – which probably would’ve done wonders for my SEO – but I wasn’t sure how obvious the sarcasm would be.)

1. National Education Association’s Kids’ Top 100 Books vs. Teachers’ Top 100 Books

National Education Association

The NEA "best books" polls have very interesting results...

In November of 1999, the National Education Association ran an online survey to see children and young adults would select as their top 100 favorite books– you can read the results here. While, like the Scholastic list, this is a “top 100” list, I like the NEA list because it’s clearly the result of a survey and, as such, saying that these picks were the “favorites” of the survey audience is a much less incendiary comment than saying that someone has identified the “100 greatest kids’ books EVER.” There are some weird picks and selections I don’t agree with, but I think it’s a fascinating document of what kids were reading at the time. (Also, since the survey took place in late 1999, don’t expect to see anything too recent on the list.)

The other great aspect of this list is that the NEA suggests that you cross-reference the list with a 2007 survey they did where teachers were asked to select their top 100 examples of quality literature for children – you can read that list here. There are some FANTASTIC suggestions on the teacher list – I prefer their picks to the kids’ list – and I think the teachers did a much better job of creating a balanced selection of new and iconic titles than the Scholastic list did. Granted, there is NO commentary to accompany these lists – it’s just a big dump of titles – but I think their selections and the perspective that they bring on their respective audiences make up for that shortcoming.

2. The Guardian’s “Building a Children’s Library” Recommended Reading List

Guardian Building a Children's Library

Such a great resource...

I originally discovered the UK Guardian‘s “Building a Children’s Library” section online right after I registered the domain name for this site and was a few days away from launching it. Suffice to say, it caused me a very unpleasant afternoon filled with self-doubt and self-serving proclamations of “But it’s already been done before? WHY BOTHER?!” However, after browsing through the site for a few hours, I quickly realized that, while all about promoting the joys of reading, our sites had very different missions and voices. (At least that’s what I tell myself, so I can sleep at night… sob.)

The editorial team of the Guardian has done a blisteringly admirable job of putting together a primer for any parent looking to assemble a list of “classic” children’s titles for their kids. They break their recommendations into several different age groups – Classic children’s library: 0-3; Classic children’s library: 4-7; Books for tweens; and Teen library – and they provide some excellent and well-written commentary to accompany each title. More than any other “best books” list I’ve found online, the Guardian‘s recommendations do an amazing job of providing context for each title and really giving a nice, concise argument of WHY this title is perfect for its age group. (They also pick many wonderful-sounding UK titles that might not be familiar to US audiences – that’s another plus in my column.) One warning: The Guardian’s “Building a Children’s Library” site seemingly hasn’t been updated since around 2005 – and some lists date back to 2000 – which is a shame.

And, I’ll admit, I have a big crush on the Guardian‘s “About the Library” summary where, in a few paragraphs, they completely reject the sensational posturing of the Scholastic “100 Greatest List” and rather revel in how subjective, personal, and human their recommendations are. Here’s an excerpt:

This list is not intended to be definitive. It is merely a jumping-off point, a place to start exploring the world of books. In recent years publishing for children has become a growth area. The shelves of bookshops – but not, alas, our cash-starved libraries – are stuffed with new titles and classics. Where to begin? How to choose? We hope that this list will help you and your children and teenagers plunge in and develop your own taste and own likes and dislikes. … [read the rest of the post…]

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100 Greatest Books for Kids

It is pretty funny watching something called "The 100 Greatest Books for Kids" making adults so very, very angry...

Earlier this week, USA Today and Scholastic’s Parent & Child Magazine released their picks for the 100 Greatest Books for Kids – a list that they’ve been counting down to since last December and that, in a few short days, has already inspired some pretty heated feedback on the internet. The “100 Greatest” list found its ways onto my radar after Roger Sutton, Editor in Chief of the Horn Book, posted a link to the list on Twitter accompanied by the comment “this is a very strange list.” Sutton followed up with a question on his blog – “Does anyone know how this list was put together?” – which, frankly, is what I think ANYONE would immediately ask after reading the list.

You can check out the list for yourself HERE.

I dug around Parent & Child‘s press materials and got a better idea of the “how” and the “why” the list was created. First, let’s look at the “why.” The list was ostensibly created to mark the various BIG reading events that will be taking place during March this year, including the 15th anniversary of the National Education Association’s Read Across America Day (March 2nd, which also happens to be Dr. Seuss’ birthday) AND March just happens to be National Reading Month. (We just received our March calendar from my daughter’s kindergarten class and they’ve got multiple “National Reading Month” events planned for every week.)

In terms of the “how,” here’s how Parent & Child explains what went into the creation of their “100 Greatest Books for Kids” list:

To create our list, we asked several highly respected literacy experts, educators, and parents for suggestions. They came through in a big way — nearly 500 books were in the running. We used a variety of criteria to narrow down to 100 and then rank our titles, including diversity of genre, topic, format, ages and stages, authorship, and cultural representation. Factors such as literary and/or illustration excellence, popularity, and longevity or innovative freshness were all qualities of books in the final round.

100 Greatest Books for Kids

Their #1 pick is "Charlotte's Web", which is a good book, but is it the best of all time? (And is that what the list is saying? I'm confused.)

So, on the surface, I can generally understand how and why they decided to take on this project. I can. But here’s the thing – Sutton is right. Dead right. It is a strange list. All of these kinds of lists are STRANGE lists.

Whenever someone takes it upon themselves to assemble a list of “The 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century” or “The 10 Books That Will Change Your Life” or any of those huge, declarative “I am OBJECTIVELY ranking things that are inherently SUBJECTIVE and you will shut up and like it” lists, I don’t think it is ever, EVER a good idea.

Granted, the lists’ authors might disagree. Chances are, one of their main aims with this list was to stir controversy, get some publicity, and sell some newspapers and magazines – and, in that sense, by writing about the list on my blog, I’m giving them EXACTLY what they want. (Dammit.) BUT, beyond naked attention grabbing, I don’t think anyone can prove that lists like this one provide much positive value to the general public.

That’s one of my biggest issues with reading lists like this one – they are designed to be confrontational and inspire arguments, even though those arguments provide NO benefit to their target audience. When Parent & Child declares “these are the 100 GREATEST kids’ books“, they are blatantly implying that these titles are superior to EVERY other title that didn’t make this list. So, if Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is my favorite kids’ book and it didn’t make this list (it didn’t), by saying these books are the “100 Greatest”, it is, in effect, telling me that, “Your favorite book isn’t even good enough to crack our top 100. You are WRONG.” [read the rest of the post…]

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