Summertime and the Reading Is Easy

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“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” Henry James.

Ah, summertime and the reading is easy. Finally, time for teachers to read something just for fun. Nothing is more enjoyable than sitting under a tree with a cool drink and a good book written for children or teens.

Once upon a time in the late nineteenth century, recreational literature written for children was considered a waste of time. Children were expected to read “the classics,” educational or inspirational literature. In even earlier times, critics thought that novel reading, especially by women, would rot their brains and corrupt their souls. Although U. S. public libraries were among the first places to provide special areas set aside for children and children’s materials, the controversy over the purpose of those spaces began over a hundred years ago among librarians trained in the newly instituted library science profession.

Now, we expect our local libraries to have colorful and inviting children and teen rooms filled with age-appropriate delights of both the print and digital variety, and most likely noisy young folks enjoying them. However, in the early twentieth century,  Alice Carroll Moore, pioneering children’s librarian at the New York Public Library, dictated for decades what was considered the best and most essential for children’s collections in public libraries and perhaps even more importantly, to publishers.

Ms. Moore was not a fan of E. B. White’s Stuart Little, hating its blurring of fantasy and reality. A recent New Yorker article, “The Lion and the Mouse, the Battle that Reshaped Children’s Literature,”  shares the details of this indomitable woman’s influence on providing children with only “high quality” reading.

This particular type of literature, especially fiction, written just for children was firmly established by the time the American Library Association (ALA) created its first award for children’s books. Publishing for children’s tastes and interest has thrived ever since. Read about the history of the Newbery Medal, beginning in 1922, on the ALA website and peruse the list of winners and honor books. You might be surprised by how difficult the reading-level was in those early years.

The Caldecott Medal is presented not to the author but the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children during the previous year. This award, honoring the best in children’s literature, acknowledges that picture books are a separate, delightful art form that can be enjoyed by all ages. Spend an afternoon with a pile of picture books and get lost in timeless stories seamlessly enhanced by their illustrations.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird, now staples of high school English classes, were written for adults. The publishing of young adult (YA) books – stories written specifically for twelve to nineteen-year-olds – took off in the 1970s with the huge success of The Outsiders, S. E. Hinton’s “problem novel” about teenage boys. Both adults and Hollywood producers have embraced this YA genre thanks to bestsellers and blockbuster movies.

The Young Adult Library Services Association of ALA recognizes many different outstanding YA titles each year; one vehicle for that recognition is the Printz Award.  A nifty service from ALA to help select a YA title is the YALSA Teen Book Finder, a database of winners of both fiction, nonfiction and multimedia titles. Keep up-to-date with YA books by reading The Hub, a blog that discusses teen resources. Looking for more ideas about what to read? Find some fabulous titles in the TeacherFirst’s CurricConnects posts.

July is the birthday month for several famous authors, including E.B. White and Beatrix Potter. Those authors might be a good place to catch up on children’s literature. Beatrix Potter’s works are now in the public domain. A fascinating site to find some of her stories that are scanned versions of the printed books is the International Children’s Digital Library, which features public domain titles from all over the world in the original languages.

Explore the world of E. B. White at the Open Library Project, a free open source library catalog of the world’s books that is part of the Internet Archive. The Library of Congress Center for the Book, or, has resources and ideas to encourage reading, including some fun, interactive online books. July 22 is Pied Piper of Hamelin Day so let this version of the Piper by Robert Browning and Kate Greenaway take you to the land of children’s and YA books for a delightful summer afternoon.

About the author: Paula Deal

Retired high school media specialist, Paula Deal, has been a pioneer in many shifts in the library sciences throughout her career. Paula contributes a monthly column on research, digital citizenship and other ways to find and use media resources in the classroom.

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