Monthly Archives: November 2012



I was thinking about your comment about your “discovery that apparently I have no fixed pronunciation for the words ‘aunt’ and ‘route'” and I had to laugh. Because those words (not to mention “envelope”) vary for me, too. And because how many of us readers have had the experience of knowing words but not knowing how they are pronounced?

But there’s also the whole issue of pronouncing especially foreign words and place names when you are reading aloud. I remember that when I read Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books aloud, I always pronounced Fflewddur Fflam something like “Flewthur Flam.” A few years ago, I listened to The Book of Three on audio, and the reader pronounced it more like it looks: “Flewder Flam.” At the time I wondered where I had gotten the idea to pronounce it as I had, although I was certain that I had read it somewhere.

Then last year, after Susan Cooper was named the Margaret Edwards Award winner by YALSA, I re-read the whole “Dark is Rising” sequence, and realized that that was where I had read that in Welsh, the “dd” is pronounced as a “th.” (And this could lead us to a whole other discussion about the things we have learned from books that came in handy in other parts of our lives!)

The question of pronunciation came up again during the whole Harry Potter craze. I read the books, but also listened to all of Jim Dale’s narrations of them, so I had definite ideas about how various words and names should be pronounced. I don’t know if you remember, but shortly before the seventh book came out, Hank Green (on what was then Brotherhood 2.o) wrote and performed the song “Accio Deathly Hallows.” In the song, Hank pronounces “accio” as “axeo.” Jim Dale pronounced it “AH-seo” and other commenters thought it should be more like “AK-eo.” And so on. But I had Jim Dale’s voice so firmly implanted in my head that I was certain he must be right.

Although, oddly enough, even Jim Dale changed some pronunciations during the course of reading the seven books. In the first couple, he pronounced Voldemort as if it were a French word, dropping the final “t” sound (like Stephen Colbert!). But in the later books, he made it sound more English, with a firm final “t.”

I think I’m pretty good at reading aloud and pronouncing words correctly, but you will have to tell me, as you read more and more chapter books to your own kids, if you come across words that you remember hearing differently as a child than the way you would now pronounce them. (Of course, I might have let some midwesternisms slip in at times, too–hard as I tried to get rid of any trace of Kansas in my voice!)

– Mom



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Reading Aloud: Humor and Prosody


Reading aloud to Elsa and Taran (and especially Elsa now that we are able to read some chapter books) is one of the great joys of my life.  Fortunately for me, I have not yet encountered any old favorites that fail to live up to my memory, although certainly some books read better than others.

By far my favorite thing about reading books aloud is that the humor comes through so much stronger.  When I read humorous books to myself, I find myself thinking “oh, that was funny,” but I very rarely find myself laughing out loud. In contrast, when I’m reading to Elsa, even when she can’t possibly understand the jokes, I laugh continuously through favorites like Winnie-the-Pooh, Emily Jenkins’s Toys books, Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine books, and (of course) anything by Roald Dahl.  When Elsa doesn’t get the joke, she either just laughs along with me (because it’s fun) or grills me as to why it’s funny (which is usually an intriguing experience).

Let me give you an example.  This is from the first chapter of Polly Horvath’s The Trolls.  The children’s parents are trying to find a babysitter:

“Well, this is a fine kettle of fish,” said Mrs. Anderson.

“What about a kennel?” said Pee Wee. “Are you going to put us in a kennel?”

“Kennels are for dogs,” said Melissa, who always knew everything.

“She said kettle,” said Amanda, who often knew everything.

“Oh,” said Pee Wee, who knew nothing and led the life of a worm.

“Who’s Sally” asked Pee Wee.

“You know Aunt Sally. We get a Christmas card from her every year. It’s a picture of a moose with tree lights strung on it.”

“Oh,” said Pee Wee. “Do you think she’ll bring her moose?”

“It’s not her moose, dummy, it’s just a funny Christmas card,” said Melissa.

“Nobody has a moose. What did you think–it was her pet or something?” said Amanda.

“A moose would make a nice pet,” said Pee Wee.

“She’s not bringing a moose,” said Melissa.

“Why do you think Daddy doesn’t want to call Aunt Sally? Wait a second, he’s picking up the phone,” said Melissa.

“Maybe he’s calling a kennel,” said Pee Wee.

“THERE WILL BE NO KENNEL!” yelled Melissa.

All this business with the moose and the kennel actually goes on through the whole first chapter, and it’s pretty funny in print, but when you start reading it to a 4-year-old with a sense of the absurd, and you’re changing voices between the children and kennels and moose are flying everywhere, you end up in tears pretty quickly.

Aside from humor, you mentioned that reading aloud calls attention to assonance and alliteration, and you are exactly right, but it is even more than that.  It calls attention to the entire flow of the language.  For example, take Dahl’s tongue-twistingly knotty language.  I dare you to read the following passage from Matilda out loud, with the proper intonation (yelling at full volume) without having prepared it in advance:

“This clot,” boomed the Headmistress, pointing the riding-crop at him like a rapier, “this blackhead, this foul carbuncle, this poisonous pustile that you see before you is none other than a disgusting criminal, a denizen of the underworld, a member of the Mafia!”

“Who, me?” Bruce Bogtrotter said, looking genuinely puzzled.

“A thief!” the Trunchbull screamed. “A crook! A pirate! A brigand! A rustler!”

“Steady on,” the boy said. “I mean dash it all, Headmistress.”

“Do you deny it, you miserable little gumboil? Do you plead not guiltyy?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the boy said, more puzzled than ever.

“I’ll tell you what I’m talking about, you suppurating little blister!” the Trunchbull shouted. “Yesterday morning, during break, you sneaked like a serpent into the kitchen and stole a slice of my private chocolate cake from my tea-tray! That try had just been prepared for me personally by the cook! It was my morning snack! As as for the cake, it was my own private stock! That was not boy’s cake! You don’t think for one minute I’mk going to eat the filth I give to you? That cake was made from real butter and real cream! And he, that robber-bandit, that safe-cracker, that highwayman standing over there with his socks around his ankles stole it and ate it!”

Notice the staccato phrases, with no conjunctions, the bunches of hard consonants and alliteration.  Aside from the fact that I was laughing so hard (especially at “stead on”) the first time I read it, it was impossible to get through.  But not because Dahl is a bad writer.  On the contrary–it is because he so perfectly captures Mrs. Trunchbull’s impossible personality.  This is in total contrast to someone like AA Milne, whose language simply flows off your tongue and makes you want to live inside his books.

I have many more thoughts on reading aloud (including the discovery that apparently I have no fixed pronunciation for the words “aunt” and “route”), but I’ll leave it at humor and prosody for now.

– Mark

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Reading aloud


We were talking at Thanksgiving (IRL) about reading aloud and about how children can listen to a book that has much more complicated language than they can read. As I recall, the examples that came up were Roald Dahl books. Your brother Stephen is reading Matilda to his 6 1/2-year-old daughter Kayla, and you have read it to Elsa (4). Kayla is capable of reading it herself. But you brought up The B.F.G., and said you thought that while Kayla would also enjoy listening to that, she might find it tough going to read it herself, because of the made-up words, and the way the B.F.G. talks.

I started thinking about how both reading books aloud and listening to books (in my case, audio books, since hardly anyone ever reads to me any more) can change the reading experience.

One example that popped immediately to mind was the Robert Heinlein juveniles. I had read and enjoyed several of them, in particular The Tunnel in the Sky and The Door Into Summer. Great, fun adventure science fiction stories, and two of Heinlein’s best. (The great thing about his juveniles–or, as we’d no doubt call them today, his YA novels–is that he left out most (not all) of the political/sexual philosophizing and just got on with the story.)

Anyway, at some point, when I was reading every day to you and your brothers, I picked up one of these–Tunnel in the Sky, I think–to read to you. And, oh my goodness–I couldn’t believe how badly it was written. It was really excruciating to read aloud. The painfully bad dialogue. The short declarative sentences. Even some of the absurd plot points I hadn’t noticed before. It really changed my whole perspective on Heinlein and  on these previously beloved books. Continue reading

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When the National Book Award nominations were announced I wrote a very snarky post claiming that the NBAs are all about “serious, political books,” including this line: 

But hey, you know, The Penderwicks won in 2005 so maybe William Alexander’s Goblin Secrets has a chance!

 Oops.  I guess that’s what I get for being mean spirited. Congratulations to William Alexander! Still haven’t gotten my hands on the book

– Mark


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The Life of a Teen Librarian


Some really good questions–I’ll take them slightly out of order. 

1) What makes a book “for my library”?  With my central selection (selecting new YA fiction for all eight branches in the county) my basic premises are two.  First, I try to get a basic foundation of what to my mind consists of books that every library “should” have.  That means all the big buzzy books, along with as many of the highly praised books as I can afford.  I’m looking for starred reviews, books that look to be award contenders, books with big marketing pushes (Baker and Taylor gives me numbers on how many copies they’ve ordered for each region of the country, so I look at that to see how popular they and the publishers think an item is going to be).  To put it in terms of VOYA scores (because I love them), I’m looking for books that rank 4Q or 5Q, and 4P or 5P, hopefully in some combination.  I try to avoid books that score 1Q or 2Q unless they are absolutely no-brainer hits, but I’m a little more lenient on 2P books because often these are niche items, as long as they have high Q scores.  Obviously if a book isn’t reviewed by VOYA, I have to use my own judgement based on the review and other information as to what those scores would look like.

The second consideration is the more geographically specific concerns of my population.  Solano is a bit of a strange county, in that the biggest city, Vallejo, where I work and live, is a major outlier from the rest of the county.  Vallejo is, as you say, economically and ethnically (and, concomittantly, politically) diverse, but the rest of the county is much less so.  So I have to do a bit of a balancing act in terms of purchasing books that appeal to Vallejo’s strong Black and Filipino populations–Urban novels, books published by Kimani Tru–as well as more “conservative” books for some of our outlying communities.  Fortunately for me, we have a floating collection, so I don’t have to make the decisions about which specific branch each book ends up at–I just have to make sure to buy at least some books for each population.

2) Readers’ Advisory.  Honestly, I find that the most important aspect of readers’ advisory for me is display.  I do a fair amount of working with individual teens, but it is such a tiny percentage of the items checked out that I think my time is better spent working on displays.  My most effective one is one that you already know about (I believe you used it as an example in one of your books): my Teen Picks display.  I give my teen customers a chance to recommend books to their fellow teens, then I type up their reviews, round up the books and display the two together in a shelf of 20 or so Teen Picks.  This has been widely popular for about three years now.  Other than that, I do New Books displays, displays for things like Teen Read Week, and just as much face out displaying of books as I can fit on the shelves.

When it comes to specific teens, I’m nowhere near the best booktalker in the world, since I often can’t remember the plots very well, but what I like to do is to walk into the YA section with a teen and start pulling books off the shelf that I’ve read recently or been hearing about.  I basically never get a satisfactory answer to that perennially recommended question “what was the last good book you read?” – so instead I start with something I love and try to read the teen’s face as they look over the cover and flap information, then hone the next book to their responses.  I’m sure there are better approaches, but I’ve had some success with this.

3) Formatting. Honestly, I really have no idea how formatting and trim affect teen response.  When I have two editions of a book on the shelf, I generally offer both to the teen, but I don’t think I’ve ever noticed a pattern to their responses.  In library school, I read quite a bit about the supposed teen preference for mass market paperbacks, but I don’t think I’ve seen a ton of evidence in my own library to that effect, although the data would be skewed because our budget constraints make it so much more cost effective to buy hardbacks that we often only have the hardbound edition of a book.  So, I don’t think I can be of much help on that question.

4) Finally, your question about being a male librarian.  I have heard this question so often, and I have thought about it, but it still leaves me without much to say.  The problem is that even though I’m a man, my reading tastes track much more closely with the “typical” female: fiction over nonfiction; character over plot; emotion over adrenaline, etc.  So in a lot of ways, I think I prefer to work with my female customers, because I feel more comfortable knowing I can find them something they’ll love.  When I get a boy asking for a good mystery or “scary” book, I start to break out in a sweat a little bit.  One more piece of evidence for “biology is not destiny.”  I’m sure my customers themselves respond differently to me, as a man, than they do to my female colleagues, but I would never presume to make any sort of blanket statement about what those responses are, so I’m afraid I’m not a ton of help on this question either.

So, there you go – highly ancedotal, ambiguous answers to your four questions.  Hope I helped!

– Mark

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Selecting and Sharing Materials with Teens


I’m in the midst of teaching an online course, called Teen Services Fundamentals, for California’s InfoPeople project. The learners are a mix of librarians (mostly new to teen services) and library support staff (library assistants, mainly).

This week we’re going to be talking about teen materials selection and readers’ advisory. So I thought maybe you could share (so I can share with them) some of your own selection and readers’ advisory tips.

I know you work in an economically and ethnically diverse city. You mentioned using the standard review sources to decide “is this for my library?”, but tell me a little more about what you’re thinking when you do that. What makes a book (or video or audiobook or whatever) “for” or “not for” your library?

And how about readers’ advisory? What are some of the ways you find most effective (or least effective) for reaching the teens in your library?

Do you think being a male librarian makes a difference in either how you select or how you relate to teen boy and girl readers in your library?

This question is a little off the wall, but I’ve been wondering lately about book size and format. Do you see a preference in your library for paperbacks vs hardbacks, trade paper vs mass-market paper, large-format nonfiction vs more traditional-sized nonfiction, etc.? Just as an aside, this last one came up in the comments on Someday, and I know that the size of the trim was really my only quibble with Bomb; I kept thinking, why couldn’t this have looked like a regular adult nonfiction book, they way Benedict Arnold did? Or Hopkinson’s Titantic, for that matter.

Anyway, there are some questions for you to ponder this Thanksgiving week. Anything you can share with my class will be appreciated!

– Mom


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Book Reviews and Audience


I think the most important question to deal with regarding book reviews, reactions, etc. is the audience for which they are intended.  For example, I read reviews with at least four different hats on: 1) as a professional teen librarian, where part of my job is to purchase books for my community, 2) also as a professional librarian, but in my (to my mind very separate) job of Reader’s Advisory, 3) as a passionate reader of YA literature who likes to have a nice argument about the merits of books, and 4) as a fellow reviewer and blogger, who knows (perhaps) a bit more about how reviews are written and edited than the average reader.  If I talk about all four of these roles, this post will go on forever, so I’m going to focus on roles 1 and 3.

In role one (collection development) I was a little baffled by this question Carla, Francisca, and Angela posed:

  • What is the role of the professional book review now that social media outlets serve as book information resource channels? Continue reading

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More Symposium follow-up


I’ve been thinking some more about the YA Lit Symposium. One session I went to was directly applicable to this blog, and really got me thinking about what it is we do here. The session was called The Future of Review Guidance and it was a panel discussion with three people you know well from the Adult Books 4 Teens blog at School Library Journal. Francisca Goldsmith, Angela Carstensen, and Carla Reimer asked two questions:

  • What is the role of the professional book review now that social media outlets serve as book information resource channels?
  • How do book-related social media communications address various needs of library staff who work with teen readers?

Angela and Carla both surveyed the teens they work with (for Angela, high-school girls in New York City; for Carla, middle schoolers in Oakland, California) and discovered, unsurprisingly, that the number one way they learn about books is from friends, and almost all of them also recommend books to friends. They also find books by browsing the shelves in stores and libraries, by reading reviews, by getting recommendations from their school librarian, and by reading blogs and magazines. Continue reading

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It worked! I went back and read Year of the Beasts in one sitting and found it quite moving and interesting. And you were right, knowing something about what was going on helped me with both the prose parts (and the distance you mentioned) and the graphic parts (which were just bewildering to me, initially).

[A side note here: like you, so-called “spoilers” don’t bother me. In fact, I’m one of those people who will sometimes flip through the book to find out what to expect, or even read the last few pages. ]

Now that I see how the whole thing fits together, I think the graphic novel sections were a brilliant way to show the way that Tessa felt after Lulu’s death. Seeing herself as Medusa, with the ability to turn others into stone by looking at them, was a wonderful metaphor for the way a person feels after the death of someone close to them–because no one knows how to look at her or talk to her. And the other characters as well–Celina as the legless mermaid, Charlie as a centaur, Jasper as the Minotaur–were intriguing metaphors. Continue reading

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Dead Siblings


I’ve thought before about putting some kind of disclaimer on this website that says No Spoiler Alert Zone – because I hate saying “spoiler alert” and I love talking about endings.  So, you and everyone should be warned that I will feel free to spoil the endings of books, starting with this post.

As I started thinking about what to say about Year of the Beasts, I realized that I was being sucked into a vortex of dead siblings.  Over the past few days I’ve read: Personal Effects by EM Kokie, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher, The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab, and (reread) Year of the Beasts.  If you didn’t finish it, you don’t know that Year of the Beasts is about a dead sibling, but I actually think it reads much better if you know that, either rereading it, or just having it spoiled.  About three-quarters (maybe more) through the book, Lulu and Tessa go on an ill-advised swim in a river, and both of them are sucked under the water.  Jasper is able to save Tessa, but Lulu drowns.  What we realize when this happens is that the graphic novel portions of the book are a fantasy version of Tessa’s life after Lulu’s death, as she deals with her tremendous survivor’s guilt, made so much more painful by the fact that the sisters have been rivals throughout the summer (btw, on my reread, I noticed that Castellucci foreshadows Lulu’s death in numerous ways, the most mundane–and therefore paradoxically most heartbreaking–is one page 4: as Tessa is arguing with her mother about bringing Lulu along to the fair, she says “I’m not my sister’s keeper”–a line which takes on a tremendous resonance on a second read). Continue reading


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