Children's Literacy Round-Up: NEA Study, Math Skills, and Pirates
Tuesday Afternoon Visits: Amazon's Kindle Reader, Brendan Fraser, and Boys Blogging Books

NCTE Conference Notes

Over the weekend, I attended the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) annual convention in New York City. It was my first NCTE conference, and I found the 50 simultaneous sessions and huge, book-filled exhibit hall a bit overwhelming (especially on my still-gimpy knee). But I attended some interesting sessions, and was able to spend some quality time with my fellow bloggers and co-panelists, Mary Lee Hahn from A Year of Reading, Liz Burns from A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy, and Susan Thomsen from Chicken Spaghetti. I was also able to meet Franki Sibberson from A Year of Reading for the first time, albeit briefly, and to chat with Betsy Bird from Fuse #8 before and after her session. And Stacey from Two Writing Teachers came to our session. In the exhibit hall, I was pleased to run across Emily from Emily Reads, as well as various other publisher contacts and authors.

I had books signed by Maryrose Wood, Ellen Emerson White (a serious Red Sox fan if there ever was one) and Sara Pennypacker. I also met Scott Westerfeld, Howard Whitehouse, E. Lockhart, and Tanya Lee Stone, and chatted very briefly with Laurie Halse Anderson (who very generously mentioned my Growing Bookworms newsletter on her blog last week). There were many others who I would have liked to meet, but, well, it was also a vacation trip, and Mheir was with me, and we had other sight-seeing to do, friends to see (hey C), and bagels to eat. (The September 11th Memorial Museum is very powerful).

These are the sessions that I attended (links mine, notes mine, and errors in conveying what I remember clearly mine):

A panel of award-winning authors will discuss how literature for YA readers has evolved from its roots in the 1970s to contemporary novels that tackle issues of sex and sexuality. Chair: Teri Lesesne, Sam Houston State University. Keynote Speakers: Laurie Halse Anderson, Brent Hartinger, E. Lockhart, Laura Ruby, Tanya Lee Stone, Lara Zeises

Notes: When panelists were asked whether they are guided by the story or the message that they are trying to convey, Laurie Halse Anderson said she just tries to tell a great story, and that if it's good, kids will get the message. E. Lockhart said that she looks for meaning, not message, and this idea was echoed by Laura Ruby. Presenters agreed that in handling book challenge battles, it's better to shine a public light on them. Brent Hartinger mentioned that the question of age appropriateness is valid in book challenges, and presents a way to find common ground. Someone (I think it was Teri) observed that kids are quite good at censoring themselves, and aren't usually interested in reading things that they aren't ready for. Brent said that hearing personal stories from kids who read his book is the best part of what he does. He also said that teen literature is universal because everyone who reads the books is a teen or was a teen, and that many adults could benefit from reading more YA literature.

Sponsored by the Standing Committee against Censorship. Three authors of young adult fiction and nonfiction—all of whom have been targets of recent censorship attempts—will discuss their work, the challenges they have faced, and the consequences of these challenges for intellectual freedom. Chair: Teri Lesesne. Presenters: Robie Harris, Carolyn Mackler, Maryrose Wood.

Notes: Robie Harris talked about how it feels to have a book challenged (not exciting, more like a sick feeling in the stomach), and that she wants to support the librarians who have to go through trouble to defend her books, but has to maintain some distance to avoid making things worse. She keeps writing her relatively controversial books because she feels strongly that kids have a right to information about their bodies, and that having this information helps keep kids healthy. She routinely asks herself "Is this in the best interest of the child?", and acts accordingly. She said, and I'm paraphrasing a bit 'if one piece of information gets out there that can help kids, I don't care what adults think.'

Carolyn Mackler talked about her popular side vs. her alone side in high school, and how she turned to books for company. She said that books helped her to survive adolescence intact (I feel that way, too). She read a letter aloud from a girl who was helped by reading one of her (Carolyn's) books, and said that things like that are what makes her feel like what she does as a writer is important. Like Robie, she talked about how horrible having a book challenged feels. She also talked about the importance of being loud about book challenges, saying that for every challenge reported in the news there are four or five that go unreported (this was a quote from somewhere, maybe As If!). She mentioned how when one of Chris Crutcher's books is banned at a school, he'll send multiple copies to the public library in that town.

Maryrose Wood mentioned that she didn't understand at first why the early reviews (of which my review was one) of Sex Kittens and Horn Dawgs Fall in Love stressed how "clean" and "innocent" the book was. Until her book was challenged based solely on the title, that is. She told, in detail, the story of her book's challenge in Florida (which actually had a happy ending).

A noted author of science fiction and fantasy will discuss his writing process, and university faculty members who have conducted research on engaging adolescent boys with literature will offer findings and recommendations followed by book talks of literature for adolescent boys. Presenters will respond to questions and encourage open dialogue. Presenters: Pamela A. Nelson, Neal Shusterman, Donna E. Werderich.

Notes: Donna Werderich won me over by starting off talking about how important it is for teachers to engage middle school boys in reading so that they become life-long readers. She mentioned how teachers have to reach beyond their own interests in order to have read the books that boys will like. This is especially important since so many teachers are women, and women tend to be less interested in the things that boys are interested in (non-fiction books about sports figures, for example). She also talked about how teachers should be role models for kids, by talking about reading, about books they like, and even about things that they have trouble with when reading. She suggested asking questions to show interest in / curiosity about what boys value, to show respect for their interests.

Neal Shusterman said that he was the slowest reader in his third grade class, and used to get sent to the library as punishment. Fortunately, he had a caring librarian who taught him to love books by finding books that he would be interested in. His ninth grade teacher inspired him to become a writer, and taught him to deal with rejection by encouraging him to write stories and submit them to contests. He said that boys can't tell you what they want to read, but know it when they see it. They want intensity of experience, things that they haven't seen or felt before, things that keep the intensity meter constantly in the red. He thinks that students like the challenge of identifying symbolism in books, even if they wouldn't read the books if it weren't for the action. He referred to a midlife crisis as a second adolescence, a time when we assess what we're going to do with the rest of our lives. He read from two of his recent books, and pretty well sold me on wanting to read both of them (Everlost and Unwind).

Thousands of picture book titles flood the bookseller market every year, making it difficult for teachers to pick out the best of the best. And music? If you’re willing to look hard, there are amazing albums being released for kids all the time by cool new artists and singers. It can be difficult and time-consuming to sort through it all, so why not let two of the children’s librarians of the New York Public Library’s Central Children’s Room do it for you instead? Warren Truitt, creator of the Kids Music that Rocks blog, and Elizabeth Bird of the blog A Fuse #8 Production will present the coolest CD and picture book hits of 2007.

Notes: Warren really knows his online children's music resources, that's for sure. Betsy ended up talking about books that defy neat classifications, like The Invention of Hugo Cabaret, Ellie McDoodle, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and The Arrival. She sold me on all of them.

Plus, you know, our own session:

Children’s literature blogs are a fabulous digital resource for all who are interested in children’s books. In this session, four bloggers will share how blogs and blogging enhance their work with children and their knowledge of children’s literature. There will be time for questions, and handouts with web links and booklists will be provided. Presenters: Mary Lee Hahn from A Year of Reading, Liz Burns from A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy, Jen Robinson from Jen Robinson's Book Page, and Susan Thomsen from Chicken Spaghetti.

Notes: Being on Saturday afternoon, we didn't have a huge audience, but we certainly appreciate the people who took the time to attend. After our four talks, we fielded some good questions about the copyright aspects of putting book covers in blog posts, where to find reviews written by kids online (and the associated privacy issues), and other topics. It was a great experience, overall. Many thanks to Mary Lee for putting together the session in the first place, and for dragging along a laptop and projector that we could all use.

Loot: I came back from NCTE with fifteen books, including thirteen ARCs and two that I purchased. Here's the list:

I stayed up until 2:30 am in my hotel room reading one of the books (any guesses?), and read two others on the plane ride back. Reviews will be forthcoming, though probably not until after Thanksgiving.

It was a great experience, all in all, but I'm happy to be back home in San Jose. I hope to do some catching up on the other blogs before Thanksgiving.

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.