Friday, July 31, 2009

Bloggers vs. Book Reviewers

It's like one of those pro wrestling smackdowns. In one corner, we have the Blazing Blogger, apparently a stay-at-home mom with a toddler at her knee and an infant in her arms. She wields a mean board book, so watch out! In the other corner, we have Boudica the Book Reviewer (formerly known as Boadicea—check an actual encyclopedia, not Wikipedia, please). Her weapon is an ARC, but paperbacks can be deceptively powerful, so go ahead and hold your breath.

Is there trash talking? Why, of course!

Boudica: Unprofessional mommy person!

Blazing: Ivory tower snob!

Boudica: Illiterate wench!

Blazing: Hey, I have a master's degree in library science!

Boudica: But, those children...

Blazing: They're props. I borrowed them from a neighbor.*

Boudica: You're still not one of Us.

Blazing: If, by Us, you mean avid readers with intelligent opinions, am too.

Boudica: Are not!

Blazing: Am too!

Boudica: Did you sit through graduate-level classes about Othello's childhood?

Blazing: Worse. Post-modern feminist influences in Lord of the Flies.

Hearing this, Boudica recoils, but she soon recovers...

We'll leave these warriors to their blistering repartee and their book-shaped facial slaps. What is it that has had both the folks commenting on Roger Reads and the ones discussing blog-related issues in the Kidlitosphere community up in arms this summer? Two major questions: (1) Is a blogger qualified to talk about children's books, let alone create an actual Review? (2) Are bloggers unduly influenced by publishers and—even more alarming—by PR/marketing types slinking around in raincoats like flashers?

The discussions were lively, somewhat troubling, and perhaps overly earnest; they were also intelligent. The following are some of the critiques of (children's book) blogging as I recall them:

1. Bloggers take money out of the mouths of professional book reviewers.
2. Bloggers rely almost entirely on Personal Taste, a dubious criterion.
3. Bloggers are self-selected, which means their qualifications vary wildly.
4. The so-called "love of books" is a tawdry excuse for writing something which falsely resembles a book review.
5. Bloggers are obsessed with seeing their words in a public forum. It's the same kind of self-promotion you see on MySpace and Facebook, only with books involved.
6. Bloggers are bought and sold by marketing reps and publishers (think politicians and lobbyists).

Then there are these concerns:

7. Bloggers who run contests are subject to undue influence.
8. Bloggers who participate in blog tours are subject to undue influence.
9. Bloggers who accept ARCs are subject to undue influence.

And my personal favorite:

10. Kidlit bloggers only read each other's blogs. Since nobody out there is listening, who cares?

Nevertheless, for better or for worse, many see bloggers as a rising voice in the world of publishing. Here are some of the pro-blogger points:

--Bloggers are people who love books and talking about them, so they promote literacy. In fact, some bloggers specifically campaign for literacy.
--On a related note, blogging creates a giant, international book club. The more people who talk about books, the better.
--Book reviewers and bloggers are on the same page (pun obviously intended). They should unite to defend books against the encroachment of video games and their ilk.
--Loving books is not, amazingly enough, a Bad Thing that should disqualify one from speaking about specific books with any degree of intelligence. It is even suspected that professional reviewers love books!
--ARCs are simply a way for bloggers to get their hands on books. Most bloggers don't lie about which books they like just to please publishers. (Same thing with giveaways and blog tours, at least in my experience. Send me stuff at your own risk, Paulie PR!)
--Bloggers write for people who read books, not for publishers and their marketing departments. They're just as happy if you get a book at a library as at a bookstore.
--Bloggers have range and creativity; being independents gives them a kind of "Emperor's New Clothes" freedom.
--Bloggers bring a variety of fresh voices to a sometimes-stagnant dialogue about children's books.
--Then again, many of the best bloggers talking about children's books are librarians. Essentially, they're drawn from the same pool of talent as the professional reviewers.
--Even the much-maligned "Mommy Blogger" is often a bright, well-educated individual with actual thought processes. (Pregnancy doesn't destroy that many brain cells. And it's an urban myth that a woman's college degrees burst into flames when she brings a baby home from the hospital.)
--The difference between "I personally liked this book so maybe you will, too" and "Here's a literary analysis of this book" is fairly clear.
--As in any field of endeavor, ethical, talented bloggers tend to stand out.

I will note that this debate parallels last fall's debate about the Newbery selection process, boiling down to the great question of literary vs. commercial publications, or rather academic vs. popular taste. The final selection, Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, is a more-than-fortunate blend of both. (I have since been amused by all the swooning librarians who are enchanted by Gaiman's accent and neo-Byronesque smolder. I was even more amused by James Kennedy's faux Newbery challenge!)

In addition to considering points of logic, we should consider outcomes, the true targets of this uneasy talk about blogging. Perhaps the most worrisome outcome is that bloggers are being quoted on book jackets as if they were reviewers for Booklist and School Library Journal and the Horn Book Magazine. Most readers don't know the difference between a pro reviewer and a possibly compromised blogger. Does that make these blogger blurbs a problem?

I would have to say no, and not because I'm a blogger. Rather, I'm a cynic. When I look around, I see a vast corporate marketing machine dominating the nation, if not the world. (Conspiracy theorists, come on down!) I'm not the only one who thinks like this, of course. What's really funny is that most book buyers don't know the significance of Booklist and School Library Journal and the Horn Book Magazine. What they do know, after hours of TV viewing, is that anyone shilling a product is probably paid to do so. At the very least, they realize that the person quoted is expressing an individual opinion. I'm guessing Mom and Pop Reader take any and all back jacket quotations and associated hype with a big old shaker of salt.

Parents are wa-a-a-ay more interested in whether the jacket art is appealing, the flap copy sounds good, and, most important, whether Johnny has the slightest interest in the book they're waving in his direction. I mean, have you ever walked through the children's section of Barnes and Noble? The opinion of a sales clerk is the only possible source of information parents seek out, and they don't always do that. (Insert fully deserved plug for independent bookstores here.)

Frankly, people who care about books are lucky when a kid will agree to buy something that's not based on either a TV show or a toy commercial disguised as a movie.

Yes, bloggers are undeniably treading on the toes of the pros. But I suspect they're not taking over the world, at least not yet. I do cringe when book reviewers talk about bloggers as if they're uneducated hicks, completely vulnerable to the machinations of book publicists. The blogs I've been reading are written by a very educated group of people who have thoughtful things to say about books.

As for me, I've never taken a children's lit class. (Just things like Faulkner, the Greek tragedies, linguistics, and education.) Mostly, what I've done is read thousands of children's books for 43 years and write a few of my own. I'd like to think that makes me something of an expert.

*PC Disclaimer: Let it be acknowledged that some librarians actually procreate, negating the need for borrowing children in order to participate in imaginary wrestling matches with book reviewers.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Dragon Pages

I'm all excited because the new pages are up on my author's website for The Runaway Dragon (coming out September 1)! Check them out. They're like DVD extras on my semi-sprawling site. Thanks to Barb Aeschliman of Jaleroro Web Designs for her wonderful work in bringing my ideas to life. The pages are "Malison's To Do List" (Malison being an evil teen sorceress), "Naming a Dragon," and "Squirrel Stuff."

Plus I added "Half the Kingdom," the short story that partly inspired The Runaway Princess, while I was at it.

(And now, back to our regular programming!)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

On Vacation - Here's a Fun Link!

I will be on vacation out of town for the next week, in the land of Mac computers and family obligations. I'll be back posting next weekend. And for this weekend, here's a fun link, a fan-made anime version of back-to-back movie trailers for Twilight and New Moon. Yes, you too can see parts of Edward and Bella's story acted out by anime characters, with Japanese voiceover and English subtitles!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Review of When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me is the kind of book that wins the Newbery Award. Remember that next year, because I will be very surprised if this doesn't get at least a Newbery Honor, or even win.

It's the kind of book where various bits and pieces manage to seem symbolic even as they do a perfectly good job of carrying the story along. How can a story full of such ordinary details seem so intense and cosmic? Perhaps the greatest trick the author pulls off is to put in vats of significance without adding even one viscous drop of that goop, pomposity.

When You Reach Me is a book that weaves in another book, A Wrinkle in Time, for more than one reason.

It's a book that talks about friendship in a way few books have. Among them is Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy, another book which is alluded to once here, albeit obliquely.

And even though When You Reach Me is a book about kids and friendship, I spent the whole thing in a near-breathless state of suspense. Because something bad is obviously going to happen—probably. So this book is also a mystery. Maybe it will win an Edgar award, too.

When You Reach Me reminds me a little of Markus Zusak's book for teens, I Am the Messenger, except that the ending of this one works better.

Is When You Reach Me science fiction? Fantasy? Magical realism? A coming of age story? Not so coincidentally, the same questions have been asked about A Wrinkle in Time. I was reshelving my own library by genre the other day and stood there for five minutes with L'Engle's book in my hand, trying to decide where it should go. I never really came up with a satisfactory answer. (Louis Sachar's Holes is a little like that, as well.)

There's something poetic about this book. Listen to sixth grader Miranda's voice, clear as the air on a mountaintop:

When we were too little for school, Sal and I went to day care together at a lady's apartment down the block. She had picked up some carpet samples at a store on Amsterdam Avenue and written the kids' names on the backs. After lunch, she'd pass out these carpet squares and we'd pick our spots on the living room floor for nap time. Sal and I always lined ours up to make a rectangle.

One time, when Sal had a fever and Louisa had called in sick to her job and kept him home, the day-care lady handed me my carpet square at nap time, and then, a second later, she gave me Sal's, too.

"I know how it is, baby," she said.

And then I lay on her floor not sleeping because Sal wasn't there to press his foot against mine.

So please, follow Miranda around and try to figure out why her best friend, Sal, is avoiding her. Check out the two-dollar bills, the V-cut, Alice's bathroom dance, and Julia's silver bracelet. Wonder for yourself why the homeless guy on the corner sleeps with his face under the mailbox, also whether Miranda's mom will win when she goes on Dick Clark's game show, The $20,000 Pyramid. It's 1978, sort of. And everything matters more than you think.

Note: Although When You Reach Me is listed on Amazon in one spot as being a YA book, it's listed elsewhere as being for ages 9-12. The publisher, Wendy Lamb (Random House), lists the book as suitable for readers ages 9-14. So I'll stick with my Newbery prediction rather than the Printz!

A Review of Clover Twig and the Magical Cottage by Kaye Umansky

Clover Twig is practical. Clover Twig is brave. And Clover Twig needs a job. So when she finds out that a woman everyone says is a witch is advertising for a "STOrNg gRIL To CLEEN," Clover happily applies. Having gotten past a cranky talking gate, she soon proves her worth to Mrs. Eckles and is hired. Clover ignores her family's worries and settles into the new job—which proves far more interesting than originally anticipated.

You've gotta love a book with chapter titles like "First Off, Are You Stupid?" (That would be part of the job interview, of course. How many interviewers over the years have wanted to come right out and say THAT?)

Clover Twig and the Magical Cottage is a cheerful, rollicking story, which is one of my favorite kinds of fantasy. Clover eventually realizes that a mysterious enemy is after something in the witch's cottage, or possibly after the cottage itself. She is joined in her adventures by a klutz named Wilf who has no idea that he is already a pawn in the hands of a bad witch named Mesmeranza.

In counterpoint to Clover's story, the author lets us in on what Mesmeranza is up to. The spoiled villainess reminds me of the evil sorceress in Vivian French's The Robe of Skulls. At least, Umansky's Mesmeranza would really appreciate that robe. After all, she lives in a castle and collects great shoes. She also has a Plan, along with a motley crew of minions who are some of the most entertaining characters in this book—among them Miss Fly, the cat-loving (and cat-allergic) secretary, plus a couple of dungeon keepers named Humperdunk Chunk and Jimbo Squint. The sorceress's plans, which include leaving enchanted cakes on the cottage doorstep, are endearingly melodramatic. I almost feel sorry for Mesmeranza because, being a woman, she can't grow a long moustache and twirl it while practicing her evil laugh.

Naturally, Clover and Wilf end up in Mesmeranza's dungeons after failing to protect Mrs. Eckles's magical property. But never fear: they're sure to escape and save the day. Clover Twig is clever as well as funny, and it has prompted me to order a copy of one of the author's previous books, Solomon Snow and the Silver Spoon. In a year of sometimes indistinguishable fantasies, many of them ponderously dark and YA-ish, Clover Twig and the Magical Cottage offers middle grade readers a refreshing change.

Note: Umansky is a British author, and this book was originally published in Great Britain with a more spoilerish title. See also my post on British whimsy from April 18, as Clover Twig qualifies!

A Review of The Secret of Zoom by Lynne Jonell

I quite liked the author's previous book, Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat, plus its sequel, Emmy and the Home for Troubled Girls. I'm not as thrilled with her new book, The Secret of Zoom, due out September 1.

The Secret of Zoom is an adventure story with some science that reads more like magic, since it's all based on the properties of an imaginary substance, a sort of mineral deposit called zoom.

Here we have mistreated orphans, the lonely rich girl in the house on the hill, a missing mother, and a dastardly villain who reminds me of the bad guy in Fortune's Magic Farm by Suzanne Selfors. (We also have an odd little diatribe about how to teach math, though perhaps I only caught that because I'm a teacher.)

Zoom offers us a lot of fun details, like the way orphans are culled for an unpleasant secret mission based on their singing ability, not to mention miniature zoom-powered planes, secret tunnels, and mad scientists.

So yes, The Secret of Zoom is a fairly entertaining read. I just can't help thinking that it could have been a better one. When I read Clover Twig and the Magical Cottage (see review above), I found myself sucked into the story. I'm always reading more than one book, and I'll confess I set Zoom aside repeatedly for other things. Clover Twig brought me back much more easily. And then there's When You Reach Me (see even higher above!), which I devoured in one sitting.

Zoom's plot didn't capture my heart any more than its characters did. I'm on board with all kinds of fantasy, but I'm not sure the zoom premise works as written here. And the missing mother subplot feels a little hokey, although I'll admit that's a hard one to pull off. Then there's the orphan Taft: he makes a nice counterpart to Christina, but I don't feel convinced by their friendship.

While your child might enjoy this story very much, it wouldn't be my first pick in the bookstore.

Note for Worried Parents: In addition to child labor, you'll find one really gruesome detail in The Secret of Zoom about what is done to unsatisfactory orphans. The rest of the story is an adventurous romp, but that bit might give you pause.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Shelley Moore Thomas's Good Knight

There are a lot of forgettable easy readers out there, unfortunately. Notable exceptions include Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad books, which are brilliantly written, though they may feel a little quiet for some of today's kids; Dr. Seuss's easy readers, such as the iconic Green Eggs and Ham; James Marshall's Fox books; and Mo Willems's Elephant and Piggie books, those shiny new masterpieces. Joanna Cole's Bony Legs is a marvelous easy reader retelling the Baba Yaga story. I've had older students and boys like that one, probably because it's a little scary. And speaking of scary, Alvin Schwartz's In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories is another good easy reader, especially for boys. Two more classic easy readers are P.D. Eastman's Are You My Mother? and Nancy Gurney's The King, the Mice and the Cheese, while Dr. Seuss's Hop on Pop and Eastman's Go Dog. Go! are the easiest of the classics I recommend. (The latter is surprisingly long. It should be read in sections and thoroughly savored.)

Another series I adore for this group of readers is Jonathan London's Froggy books. They're not billed as easy readers, but with a little support, they make a nice transitional tool. The first book, Froggy Gets Dressed, is still my favorite, with its wonderful onomatopoeia and its call-and-response between Froggy and his mother.

Anyway, I recently came across Shelley Moore Thomas's Good Knight books and have happily added them to my repertoire of worthwhile easy readers, particularly for boys. The first book was no doubt inspired by a play on words: Good Night, Good Knight. We start off with an introduction to three dragons, but they're not quite the dragons you might expect:
Once there were three little dragons. They lived in a dark cave. The cave was in a dense forest. The forest was in a faraway kingdom. The poor little dragons were very lonely in their deep dark cave.
And where you have dragons, of course you have a knight. But he's not what you'd expect, either. Then again, the dragons throw him off his game:
He came to the deep dark cave. Inside he saw the first little dragon. "What's this?" he asked. "Methinks it is a dragon!" And he drew his shimmery, glimmery sword. The dragon had on his jammies. He was all ready for bed. "Oh good. You have come," said the dragon. "Could you bring me a drink of water? Please. Then I can go to sleep."
Yep, the Good Knight soon finds himself acting as a sort of guardian to three little dragons. Basically, all of his adventures consist of dealing with the trouble the dragons get into. After he puts them to bed with various complications in the first book, we find him taking care of sick dragons in Book Two. ("Methinks I heard a sneeze," said the Good Knight.) He ends up getting help from a wizard, and then from his mother.

Our hero celebrates his birthday with his three charges in the third book, Happy Birthday, Good Knight. He doesn't guess why the dragons want his help coming up with a present for someone special, and their attempts to make a gift result in more than one mess. Three little dragons can use an amazing amount of glue when making a birthday card!

Books Four and Five switch to a picture book format, so I guess I'm cheating here, but maybe your reader will be able to practice in a slightly tougher format with your help. Take Care, Good Knight is the story about what happens when three little dragons attempt to pet sit for an old, old wizard. But when an old, old wizard leaves you a note telling you how to care for his seven cats and you can't actually read, you're bound to misinterpret his drawings and make some mistakes. Fortunately, the Good Knight is willing to act in an advisory capacity after the cats are put in a cupboard, among other mishaps.

The author's most recent book is A Cold Winter's Good Knight, in which it's too cold for the dragons to stay in their cave, so the Good Knight brings them to the castle. However, there's a ball in progress and the dragons have no idea how to behave. They raise a ruckus as the knight repeatedly tries to instruct them in castle etiquette.

Jennifer Plecas's line drawings, with their bug-eyed baby dragons and their slightly harassed-looking knight, suit this series like a good coat of armor. While her work has a cartoonish feel, the loose lines bring it back into the realm of illustration. It's a nice balancing act.

If you have a kindergartner or first grader at home who's done with Green Eggs and Ham and wondering what to read next, give this series a try. The combination of the author's sense of humor with the fresh premise of a knight fostering baby dragons makes it a charming alternative for the easy reader crowd.

Update: The author dropped by this post and let us know she has a new Good Knight book coming out next year, so look for it!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Harry Potter Prize Pack Winners

The results are in! And by the way, I simply did a drawing. Because we ended up touching on grief situations, I felt it was inappropriate for me to select any of the winners personally. So here are the names of the five winners:
  • Silverhartgirl

  • Roswell

  • Shooting Stars Mag

  • Robin Titan

  • SMD
CONGRATULATIONS! (And no, I did not do this alphabetically! It just so happened that all of the winners started with R and S!)

If you are a winner, please e-mail your snail mail address to me at author at katecoombs dot com, which is also linked from my author's website. I will then have the books sent to you. Note that it may take a few weeks, as I am not the actual sender. As for the rest of you, like me, you will have to console yourselves by seeing the movie.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Ten Books at a Time

I was at a friend's house the other day when she mentioned that her 8-year-old son, whom I'll call Mark, doesn't like to read very much. She has him on a summer reading schedule of 20 minutes a day, but he fights her constantly.

"What's he reading?" I asked. She brought out the latest book to show me. I also interrogated her son, who clearly suspected that if he admitted to liking any kind of book at all, he would be forced to read more. After further pestering, he begrudgingly acknowledged a fondness for action and sci-fi.

I took a closer look at the book. It was contemporary realism about a kid who tries to build a spaceship out of cardboard boxes. He then pretends to have adventures in it. There were also some family problems, but I got the picture. This was the wrong book for my friend's son.

After a little more conversation, I discovered that every week my friend took her two boys to the library and asked them to pick out one book each. As part of their vacation homework, they would have to write a book report at the end of the week. "Sometimes Mark likes to read, though," she explained. "He loved those Magic Tree House books. Maybe we could find another series."

The next time I came over, I brought an emergency bag of books designed to pique Mark's interests, along with some suggestions for his younger brother Adam, who's currently reading Frog and Toad. My bag contained the following: the four Horrid Henry books by Francesca Simon that I recently reviewed; all six On the Run books by Gordon Korman; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl; The Heroic Adventures of Hercules Amsterdam by Melissa Glenn Haber; Dial-a-Ghost by Eva Ibbotsen; and Mister Monday by Garth Nix. (I suggested that this last book and its sequels should come after the others, as they're much denser reading.)

I also strongly recommended The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, although I couldn't find my own copy. It was actually my top pick for Mark.

Further prescriptions from Dr. Coombs? I explained, first to my friend and then to her wide-eyed sons, that when they go to the library they should each check out ten books for the week. Mark winced, so I hastily reassured him that he didn't have to read all ten. "It's so if one of them turns out to be a dud, you have other books to choose from."

I had already told my friend that when a book is boring you to tears, you shouldn't finish it. Whereupon she said that even she had been bored by this week's book, which she was helping her son get through, taking turns.

"Guess how many books I checked out at the library yesterday?" I asked the kids.

"A hundred?" Mark asked.

"Nope. I couldn't carry a hundred. I got 20. At my house I have 2,000." Or is it more?

The two boys looked at each other, suitably impressed.

"We only have 50," Mark informed me.

One thing I hear a lot from well-to-do suburban parents is that they have plenty of books at home. I remember doing a school visit at a private school a few years back and getting a sense of what was going on. After I made a big pitch for going to the library, some of the students' comments made me realize that their wealthy parents didn't ever take them to the library. Instead, they were proud of their supposedly extensive home libraries.

Sorry, but those libraries are just not good enough. They're a wonderful foundation, but the vision I want to instill in parents is that a kid should walk into a public library and feel the incredible power of owning hundreds of books, of having hundreds of choices.

When I was a kid, my mom took us to the library every week. Every week we checked out the maximum number of books we were allowed to get, which I think was in fact ten, and every week we finished those books in the first three or four days. My sister grew up to be an attorney, while I grew up to be a teacher and a writer. Those books weren't the only reason, but they were definitely a factor.

I should mention that I recommend having reading sessions designated by pages or chapters, not by time. That way kids can stop watching the clock and pay more attention to the story. This approach requires a certain amount of supervision and involvement, though. What I like to do is assign my students to read at least five pages. Then the next time I see them, I ask, "What happened in the book?" This question is meant to be gossipy, not teacherish. It's like asking a kid about a movie—they'll often retell the plot in gory detail. A corollary I've noticed is that kids who recount events in a book blithely for three days straight and then get stuck the fourth day have loudly broadcasted that they didn't do the reading. (I've also found out whether they were reading or simply retelling a movie that way, How to Eat Fried Worms being a recent example.)

"When you give Mark a book, tell him you want him to read a chapter a day, but he can read more if he feels like it. Be very casual about this," I told my friend.

While you're getting a kid hooked, you can take turns reading pages, of course. Depending on the child, I may explain to them that I'll get them started, and then they can read on their own.

When I bring books to students, I first find out their interests. If they can't name any books they like, I ask them what movies and TV shows they like, which gives me a pretty good idea. In broad terms, I've found that most kids prefer either sci-fi/fantasy and adventure, contemporary realism (family, school, and sports stories), or nonfiction. Then there are those kids who will read just about anything, given half the chance.

Some parents seem obsessed with having their precocious 6-year-olds read books intended for high schoolers because "my Johnny is reading at a 10th grade level." To which I say, "So?" Because Johnny is not emotionally ready for The Great Gatsby, and oh yeah, he'll probably hate it. Why should Johnny miss out on the great literature written for 6- to 9-year-olds just because he's "gifted"?

Now, my friend who is working on the great summer reading project is highly educated and is very supportive of her sons' academic progress. But she was not herself an avid childhood reader, so she doesn't happen to have a wide knowledge of children's literature. This is where a good children's librarian or the staff at a well-stocked independent bookstore specializing in children's books can be invaluable.

It's early days yet, but I suspect that with the reading list I've given Mark, he may yet be hooked on books. At the very least, reading won't feel so much like torture anymore. In addition, I recommended the Geronimo Stilton books for his little brother. Not because they're the best books of all time, but because they'll launch him into better books and they're just a lot of fun. I also suggested James Marshall's Fox books, which are well written.

Happily, potential readers are all around us. A few years ago, I worked with a tenth grade student who was very bright and articulate. He told me he read articles on the Internet, but he really didn't read books. I explained, "You were meant to be a reader. You're missing out." I brought him some books that didn't completely take, but he started catching on to the possibilities. His next teacher called to tell me that this boy had gone through a couple of assigned books and was now reading Machiavelli's The Prince on his own because he was interested in political theory.

Another time I was teaching a 12-year-old non-reader who informed me that there was no reason to read Harry Potter because he'd already seen the movie. I dialed it down to A Series of Unfortunate Events on the grounds that they were shorter. Pretty soon he'd read all ten of the Lemony Snicketts (then available) and was happily launching into Harry Potter. I remember his mom saying to me one day, mystified, "I don't understand it. I come into the living room, and he's sitting on the couch, reading a book. We go to the doctor's office, and he wants to bring his book."

"That's great!" I said. I waited till I got home to do a victory dance in my own living room.

It seems we are complacent in believing that the many college-educated parents in our society are successfully raising a generation of readers. It certainly isn't for lack of trying. But getting the right book into the hands of the right kid is not as easy as it looks. Of course, when it does happen, the results can be deep and rich and mind-altering.

Because there is simply nothing like a good book.

P.S. Thanks very much to Jen Robinson for mentioning this post on Booklights. More to the point, I recommend you visit Booklights, a site sponsored by PBS for parents, to get more insights into how to raise a reader. The current post is about summer reading, especially letting kids read for pleasure during the summer (as opposed to reading assigned books).