Sunday, January 17, 2010

Local Librarian Panel

Normally I'd be doing Idea Garage Sale this morning, but I have a lot on my mind and it'll keep. That's the thing about ideas. They hang around your head waiting for you, whenever you want them.

So yesterday our local SCBWI hosted a panel of librarians, both from the public and from the school libraries, to talk about the areas of overlap in the interests of writers and librarians. I got there late due to various logistical problems - it's been that kind of week - and didn't catch all their names, nor did I write those names down, but here's some of the things talked about, willy-nilly and without attribution.

Middle school kids like weird things - ghosts, the supernatural (what I used to call "rumor books" and now call Forteana) - lots of graphics, and non-fiction in easily-digested snippets. One local middle-school librarian is having a run on cookbooks. She does not know why. One can't keep any of her graphic books on the shelves; another moves her graphic fiction but not her non-fiction. Middle schoolers love books in which "extreme, terrible, terrible" things are happening to the characters; the kinds of books that parents are most likely to hate, in fact. Books are a safe place to explore the dreadfulness of the world. One of them quoted Josh Westbrook: "Kids are living stories every day that we wouldn't let them read."

(I knew that, but most adults seem to forget it, unless they work with kids all the time; and even most parents forget or try to deny it. I'm constantly running across book reviews, usually in genre publications, in which a reviewer for adult fiction comes across a YA book and is both surprised at how good it is and how shocked at how graphic and dark parts of it are. Read more YA and get over your grown-up squeamishness.)

Non-fiction purchases for school libraries, and to a lesser extent public libraries, are guided by the curriculum. Language Arts teachers are now required to teach genres, and the early grades are having a hard time finding non-fiction of high literary merit suitable for the youngest kids. In Texas, second, fourth, and seventh grades are the "Texas years" in social studies, and high-quality, accurate, and graphically interesting Texas books suitable for those years are in high demand; especially ones that don't focus on the Alamo. There is a lot more to Texas history than that single battle in a single war! (Texas history has more history than all the others put together, I think sometimes.) The elementary school libraries particularly want biographies of Texans suitable for their age groups.

The public library won't do author presentations on books not in their collection and they don't buy books without strong reviews. As a public institution, they have rules and regulations as well as personal judgements guiding their acquisition. All of the librarians have such regulations, and it's part of the defense in case of a book challenge to be able say: "The reviews in School Library Journal, Voya, Bulletin for the Center of Children's Books, Library Media Connection, all the standard review organs indicated it was appropriate to my age group." If the reviews are in disagreement they have to fall back on their own judgement, and that can take awhile, sometimes involving consultation. No one wants to be a censor, but no one wants to be at the center of a controversy, either, and not all schools have the same needs. All of them have been in the position of deciding against a book which, later in the same year, they saw every kid reading - Twilight was specifically mentioned.

They all work with book distributors, or jobbers, in order to acquire books. If they have to go through a publisher or non-standard source it's a major hassle. They don't put books on reading lists if the books aren't readily available (though once in a great while a publisher who gets on the right reading list, such as Lone Star, will do a reissue to meet the demand). So, if you're with a small press or, heaven forfend, self-published, you need to focus your efforts on getting reviewed and on getting picked up by distributors before you go schmoozing the librarians.

When you get an author visit, they want someone who can engage the kids. Younger kids especially want visual simulation. They want to know what the author is like as a person and they want the story behind the story. As someone who's done author visits, I'd like to point out that you don't have to have a lot of bells and whistles; but you do need to tailor your presentation to your audience and lead with your strengths. If you're tech-challenged don't burden youself with a lot of tech. Visual stimulation can be achieved by a whiteboard and markers, or even by body language and a botched Power Point presentation can be boring as heck. Writing skills are described as "huge" in the curriculum, and every author can talk about them.

Talking about the problem of bilingual and multicultural books took up a lot of the last hour, not surprisingly, considering where we are. Although San Antonio is closing some schools for budgetary reasons, two total immersion bilingual schools will be opening soon, and they need books to serve a Spanish-English curriculum. American publishers are way behind the curve in that department. Scholastic Book Fair has recently announced that it would stop offering Spanish books because they don't sell, and our panel of librarians confirmed that this is so, despite a huge demand for Spanish books. This seems to me to indicate that whoever has been choosing Scholastic's Spanish line isn't good at his job. Small Texas presses that specialize in this area often provide books with good content, but their graphic presentation is poor - i.e., they have crappy cover art. We can bitch and whine and complain about it all we want, but kids (and adults) judge books by their covers and it doesn't matter how good the book is inside, they won't pick it up with a bad cover and no one can make them. Their best luck with Spanish-language books has been with Mexican distributors and the Guadalupe Book Fair.

Personal story here: Years ago, Switching Well was translated into Italian. I was thrilled, of course, but also surprised. As I told Margaret McElderry, the editor, I'd always assumed if I ever got translated it would be into Spanish. Her response was something along the lines of: "Spain isn't that big a market for children's books," to which I could only reply: "What does Spain have to do with anything?" It is time and past time American publishers woke up and smelled the menudo. Spanish-speaking Americans are the fastest-growing demographic in the country. They want to read as much as anybody and if we can't sell books to them, it's our fault for trying to sell them the wrong books. Hire some culturally Hispanic staff already and turn them loose on the slushpile and the conference circuit!

Back to what the librarians talked about: America is still a nation of immigrants. The librarian from the north side has a large Farsi population to deal with, and very little in the way of books to serve them specifically. They want multicultural books, books that reflect the diverse reality of their kids; but they can't move the kinds of books where the author sat down to write a multicultural book. The story comes first. Always. And why should a black, or Hispanic, or Farsi kid be constantly afflicted with stories in which the fact of being Hispanic, or black, or Farsi is the only important thing about the characters?

Then we had refreshments, and mingled, and I gave a few people my card and showed off my Ghost Sitter tour shirt, which was given to me by a class of kids bussed in from the far reaches of Kansas to attend the ceremony the time I won the William Allen White Award. It has the tilte of the book and my name above a box containing the names of the kids and teachers who got to come, all in a border of fireworks. Very cool. I only wear it on literary occasions.

I'm not a regular SCBWI meeting attendee for a variety of reasons, but this sort of panel is always useful and should be attended at every chance. Writers live so much in our heads, we need to make an effort to come into contact with the reality of the world we work in once in awhile.

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