The relevance of first day of school books has never been broader nor more challenging than it is today—the day that the 2021 First Among First Day of School Books champion will be determined. The central themes of these books—anxiety, foundering presentiments, clashes between expectations and experience, making adjustments to adapt to an evolving communal landscape—apply to just about anyone of any age right now. On the other hand, the peculiarities and uncertainties of school in 2021 reflect the broader world more greatly than the more insular and comforting traditional first day of school experience did.
Our winner this year will best address these complexities in a warm, reassuring, and relevant manner. It is true that more is being asked of it than was called for from our prior champions such as Edda: A Little Valkyrie’s First Day of School; Steve, Raised by Wolves; A Letter to My Teacher; The Pigeon HAS to Go to School!; and If I Built a School. Yet one would expect that this year’s standout would address transcending the vagaries of fate with aplomb.
I got an email this morning from a very good, dear, out of state customer, letting me know that a good friend of hers, someone she regularly has me pick out books for, is terminally ill. She asked me to pick out some books for her one last time with a special mind to end of life.
We often think of children’s books as a means for helping a child handle and grow from loss, but now I asked myself which books would mean most to an adult facing “the poppy that abideth all of us by the harbour of oblivion.”
I sought books that warmly, richly, and truly convey an enduring dynamic loss captured and cultivated in the integration of continued life and engaged memory. I picked out two novels and one picture books which embody this principle. The novels are Otherwise Known as Possum by Catherine Laso, and The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepherd. The picture book is Ida Always by Caron Levis, illustrated by Charles Santoso.
Otherwise Known as Possum is a remarkable affirmation of life enriched by loss, written by an author literally on her deathbed. It is truly a triumph of the human spirit and redolent with warmth and humor and truth.
I can’t think of any book that captures the power imagination has over life, especially as it’s narrative is forced to an ending, than The Secret Horses of Briar Hill. Nor a book that so strongly affirms the power of shared and affirmed imagination, which is a powerfully important aspect of friendship.
Picking a picture book was a toughie, as I really love Samsara Dog too, but to me Ida Always so perfectly affirms the power of living memory that no book could be more touching or supportive for anyone facing the end of life either personally or though loss.
When deeply moved to disapproval we often ask ourselves an important question: Is my displeasure just or petty? And so it indeed transpired when I learned that Amazon, having purchased the television rights to The Lord of the Rings and all related works, was actively producing a billion-dollar epic set in the second age of Middle-earth, presumably dealing with the fall of Numenor and serving as an all-around prequel to TheLord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
This initially struck me as an outrage on many levels, but as my temperature cooled I could see that this was not simply a case of an evil corporation violating the integrity of Middle-earth to further leverage their drive to market domination. The true problem lay in the mundane nature of Amazon’s exploitation. Using Tolkien’s material to make a popular miniseries along the lines of other popular streaming successes such as Game of Thrones is offensive because it so utterly fails to make use of Amazon’s true strengths. The Lord of the Rings is a tale of an epic quest. Amazon, too, is on a quest. Should that not inform their undertaking?
One of the laws of bookselling physics is that if a book by an established author has the material to reach beyond their usual audience, it needs a cover which will both lure the perspective and reassure the established audiences. The case of Jay Kristoff’s new epic dark fantasy, Empire of the Vampire, is a peculiar one in that regard.
Shana Youngdahl, author of the young adult novel As Many Nows As I Can Get, is an exceptional writer. Having an author of her widely recognized ability and rising stature on the faculty of the University of Maine at Farmington has been a remarkable asset to both the university community and the community at large. Shana was hired as an English professor. Her ability as a novelist surfaced during her time here and was akin to having a rare jewel fall from the sky and land in the community’s lap.
Shana is leaving to take a new position as Assistant Professor of Creative Writing in the MFA Program at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri. This occurred not because she wanted to leave UMF or the Farmington area, but because her contract was not renewed and she was let go. Her departure speaks to a broader issue, the profound undervaluation of children’s literature by academic institutions and the literary community in general. There is a strong gender bias at work in that, equating children’s books and bookselling with child-rearing and women’s work.
I suggest that this is a spectacularly ill-advised bias. There is nothing more central to the human experience than the maturation process known as coming of age. It encompasses the navigation of a changing relationship to agency, from being a subject of the world to being a creator of the world. The nature of responsibility, justice, love, personal identity, and morality are all intrinsically centered in young adult novels exploring the coming of age. What could be more important than an engagement with these issues? What could provide more of a bridge to adults working with teenagers and young adults than reading their literature? What could be more important than opening up to the persistent relevance of these issues to an engaged adult?
In my opinion, the failure to value young adult literature by academic institutions is a failure to appreciate the nature of their own mission. I’ll miss Shana deeply on an array of personal and professional grounds, but it is the needless nature of the loss and what that says about our social and cultural values, that I mourn most.
I’ve been given to understand that aliens are having a moment. With secret government agencies set to deliver The Disclosure, which will go way beyond the government’s recently released UFO Report, it seems a good time to me to hone up on our alien knowledge so that the shock of the revealed truth won’t be too overwhelming.
Consider too that in the wake of The Disclosure, aliens may soon gain even more traction in children’s books, dethroning unicorns and narwhals.
Find out now if you are under, over, or well prepared by taking the 10 question quiz I developed. Just click on the image of the first three questions below to take the real quiz.
With the acquisition of Houghton Mifflin by HarperCollins, it has been noted that the century-and-a-half-old name of Houghton Mifflin will now fade away. To understand what that will mean, I turned to the people who clearly have the greatest appreciation of the loss, namely the characters from The Lord of the Rings, Houghton’s signature franchise.
My missive is a bit scattered and hiccupy this week, dear colleagues, for I’m rather overwhelmed with the state of the world, and I fear that in the words of young Walt in John Irving’s The World According to Garp, “the under toad is winning.”
On the eve of the first anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, I look around my little bookstore and see shelves of face-out covers of Black Lives Matter titles. I see picture books and middle grade titles and YA novels featuring BIPOC characters, and analysis of our sales in the last year shows much higher numbers of those featured books than in years past, and my staff can tell anecdotes of customers of all backgrounds looking to diversify the shelves of their young readers. We are trying to do the work of antiracism in the small ways that we can, and we are trying to be present for those who lead us. And yet, last month, more than 300 parents in our community attended a school board meeting to protest the hiring of a DEI officer by the district. I have written and erased at least five different sentences to conclude this paragraph, and there’s simply nothing I can produce to say that’s helpful or wise. There is so much more to do.
A father and his 10-year-old son were in the store the other day, both of them big readers and good customers. The young lad and I had the following conversation.
Lad:I’m looking for What Is the Story of Dracula. Your website said you had a copy in stock.
Kenny: Sure. It should be over here in the Who Was spinner.
Lad: There it is!
Kenny: (Ducks out and grabs a book a few displays down) If you’re interested in vampires you might like Threads of Magic. I just finished it and, aside from being kind of sensational, it had some great evil in it. There are Specters who are kind of soul-consuming cousins of vampires.
Lad: Is that fiction? I really prefer non-fiction.