A Conversation with… March 2009
Wendie Old, librarian and children’s book author
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
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
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,
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