Interview by S.C. Torrington
“Every book in my children's department is the very best book for somebody,” declares Wendie Old, the children's librarian at the Joppa Branch of the Harford County Public Library.
And she should know. Old has been a storyteller and children's librarian for more than 30 years. She is a children’s book author as well, having written biographies for elementary and middle school-age kids and picture books for younger readers.
Baltimore’s Child: From your perspective as a librarian and an author, how has children’s literature changed over the years?
Wendie Old: One of the major things that has happened is that nonfiction is more appealing to young readers because of the ability of publishers to use color in their books. It's reached a point where some children will reject books with black and white photographs and large masses of writing. It also means that there is lots of brightly illustrated, easy reading, nonfiction for beginning readers.
BC: What makes a child’s book popular? What makes it good? And what do you think about books turned into movies, such as the Harry Potter series or The Tale of Despereaux.
WO: Now, this is an impossible question, but I'll try. What makes a book popular for children is the same as what makes an adult book a Best Seller. A story that you simply get caught up in—it sweeps you away. Something that seems very real, often having funny parts.
Harry Potter is a good example. It's a good, fast read. Elementary students just can't believe they read the whole thing. It's an adventure story. It's a school story. It's a friendship story. It's a lost prince story. It's a sports story. It's an "I can't possibly belong to this family; they're so unlike me" story. It’s an adoption/custody story. It's a fight of good against evil, and you're not always sure that good is going to win.
The Tale of Desperaux is similar in another way—it's also a cross-cultural story. You have your princess, your scullions, your rats, and your Mouse with Big Ears and a Big Heart who has ambitions of knighthood.
Do they make good movies? Well, it's difficult to transfer a huge book into a movie of a little over an hour. Much has to be either left out or condensed. Short stories make better movies. And yet they made an attempt to capture the heart of [those books] on film.
BC: Do you think the debate over whether the recent Newbery Award books are so complicated and inaccessible that they are turning off kids to reading will affect the quality and subject matter of children’s books?
WO: Probably not, because the Newbery and other award-winning books for the next few years have already been written, purchased by publishers, and may have even gone to press.
Writers and publishers aren't going to try to write to what they think the public wants. They're going to try to produce the very best story they can and throw it out there, hoping that people pick it up and discover how good it is.
The Newbery Award isn’t supposed to be a popular choice. Whenever elementary kids vote for their popular choice, it's usually something funny that wins.
The award committees are looking for more than that. They’re looking for a story that stays with you long after you close the book. A story that sets up a problem and then follows the protagonist while [he or she] interacts with people while arriving at the solution. They look for good writing.
BC: How can parents and other educators “turn on” their children to reading?
WO: Be a good example. Let your children see you reading. We have magazines all over the bathroom, books by the bedside, and books in almost every room of our house. My problem is to get the kids to stop reading and go to sleep!
Whenever [your children] show interest in something—get a book from the library about it. If [your son] likes frogs, there are frog stories and informational book about frogs written from preschool level to college level. Go for it!
Be loud in telling your kids that reading nonfiction IS reading. It doesn't have to be just fiction.
Subscribe to children's magazines so that something special arrives monthly for your children to read, something of their very own. There are magazines for preschoolers, tons for elementary and middle school ages. Your library should have copies of some of them that you can let your kids check out before spending money on a subscription.
BC: Do you have any suggestions or advice to families about how to get the most benefits from their local library branch?
WO: Every person in your family should have a library card! One library card is good for every library in Maryland. Make a habit of getting books, magazines, DVDs, computer games, playaways, and even more from your library every few weeks. Think of your library as a source of help for homework assignments. Use the adult nonfiction and fiction collection yourself, and let the children see you using it. Check the program guide. There are storytimes, author visits, book-related programs like those featuring the American Girl series of historical books, food programs for children and adults, performers, crafts, and more. BC
Wendie Old’s “Current Favorites” Reading List
The Gingerbread Girl, by Lisa Campbell Ernst (Dutton Juvenile, 2006)
Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, by Mem Fox (Harcourt Children's Books, 2008)
Go Dog Go (I Can Read It All by Myself Beginner Books), by P.D. Eastman (Sagebrush Education Resources, 1999)
The Elephant and Piggy series, by Mo Willems (Hyperion Book, 2007-08)
For Elementary-Age Readers
Gallop!: A Scanimation Picture Book, by Rufus Seder (Workman Publishing Co., 2007)
No Talking, by Andrew Clements (Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing, 2007)
Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon, by Catherine Thimmesh (Houghton Mifflin Books, 2006)
Middle School is Worse than Meatloaf, by Jennifer Holm (Ginee Seo Books, 2007)
For Middle School-Age Readers
The Wizard, the Witch, and Two Girls from Jersey, by Lisa Papademetriou (Razorbill, 2006)
Elijah of Buxton, by Paul Curtis (Scholastic Press, 2007)
Diary of a Wimpy Kid (and its sequels), by Jeff Kinney (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2007)
© Baltimore's Child Inc. March 2009