The Case for Picture Books

A few weeks ago, I read the book The Case for Books by Book Historian, and head of the Harvard University Library, Robert Darnton. It was a rather heavy collection of essays, but they made a very good case for both the printed book and e-book to coexist. Darnton’s book had a lot to do with Google’s Book Project, and why Google – though their motto says, “Don’t be evil” – may actually be doing evil. As a librarian, he had no objections to sharing and openly lending resources. What he objected to was the potential for a company with a monopoly to profit off these resources to satisfy their shareholders.

The internet has certainly disrupted many industries such as the newspapers (we lost one of our major ones here in Seattle last year), the music industry, and the traditional encyclopedia. Still, the book, according to Darnton, has staying power.

My personal experience is that beautifully illustrated children’s books cannot be replaced by a glossy iPad or Kindle. Maybe I’m projecting, but I think kids need the tactile feel of the page in their hands. They physical motion of turning the pages, scanning the illustrations before reading the text don’t seem to work with e-readers. At least I don’t see the appeal.

For adult books, however, I have found that my reading habits have increased with an e-reader. The ease of downloading a book without leaving your home is easy. I worried, at first about the inability to write in the margins or leave sticky notes on pages, but the annotation tools are quite easy to use. What about borrowing e-books?

I’m a heavy public library user both personally and for books to complement my classroom library. I tried borrowing ebooks before I had an e-reader and reading for long periods of time on a computer screen is definitely not ideal. Now, however, there’s an app/service called overdrive that works with the Seattle Public Library which I tried. The list is rather limited, but there are some good ones available: Daniel Pink’s Drive, the Heath Brother’s Switch, and Gladwell’s Blink. I searched for books on education and only a handful of decent titles came up. Unlike the library’s traditional books, when an e-book is unavailable, they don’t tell you how many holds there are ahead of you. There are also several audiobooks available through this service that you can directly download to your mobile device. After 21 days, it will magically expire. Some titles, like David Brooks’ new book were not available, so I just went to the Kindle store and bought it. As much as I want to support my local bookstore, it was too easy to purchase from the comfort of home.

The public library’s juvenile fiction section is ok. I assume they’re building their collection. There were a few popular titles of children’s book series like Percy Jackson, Artemis Fowl, or Katie Kazoo. But very few classics were available. Here were some I found: The Phantom Tollbooth, Boxcar Children, Encyclopedia Brown, and a few Magic Treehouse books. This year and last year’s Newberry winners were available, but Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book or Louis Sachar’s Holes, weren’t, nor were any Lowis Lowry books available to be borrowed in this format.

As for picture books, I’m guessing the public library has the same feeling I do about the tactile nature and visual quality of a great picture book. Either they’re not spending any money on them, or they don’t exist as e-books. I would say there’s definitely a case for picture books.

On a somewhat related note, the WSJ reported that Random House was changing it’s pricing format for ebooks purchased from libraries to lend out. I’m not sure how I feel about this.

I hope both formats continue to exist, but it’s an interesting time in the book publishing industry. Nonetheless, despite budget cuts, public libraries continue to innovate and aim to be centers of learning for all. Our schools need to be too.


It’s Awards Season

The American Library Association announced this year’s winners for the Caldecott (illustrator) and Newbery (author) awards for children’s literature. The book A Sick Day for Amos McGee which I posted about last week, won the Caldecott. Sometimes books can be simple and sweet without the harsher realities of the world and offer children a nice escape into a world where everyone is kind to one another. If you follow this blog, you know I really enjoyed it, but I thought David Weisner’s Art and Max was a little better. Of course, Weisner has already won 3 Caldecott Medals, so maybe they decided to skip him this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see him again soon. What was a pleasant surprise was the Laura Ingalls Wilder award. The Wilder Award honors an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children, and this year’s winner was Tomie dePaola; it’s a fine coincidence that second grade is currently involved in a dePaola author study. It’s often quite exciting to observe children when they have a close connection to current events. Below are a few of dePaola’s better known titles. Another author/illustrator known for simple and sweet. I haven’t read this year’s Newbery winner Moon Over Manifest, but it sounds good, and perhaps I should grab a copy. Hopefully it’s as good as the last two winners.


Field Trip: Seattle Public Library

Collections of written knowledge have been around for centuries. From ancient scrolls to the Great Library of Alexandria (a somewhat public library, if you were considered a scholar). I feel really lucky to live in Seattle as it has an amazing public library system. It has suffered from budget cuts (down significantly from its $50M operating budget in 2008) as many have recently, but it still remains an incredible resource that serves a huge and diverse population. As print media starts to level off and digital media continues to accelerate, public libraries continue to adapt and promote learning. They also provide access to information not everyone might be able to afford.

Yesterday, I took a little trip to Seattle Public Library’s main downtown branch. Besides being an incredible example of mind boggling engineering and architecture (by Rem Koolhaus), there is an incredible wealth of archival material, art, periodicals, and of course, books. The library seems to have responded to its diverse needs. It has an incredible children’s area, its electronic materials like cds and dvds (yes, you can cue up movies like netflix) continue to grow, their graphic novel section has never been larger, and they have a great English as a second language department. While private and college libraries in this country pre-date the first public libraries in the late 1800s, public access has always been a fundamental part of their missions. With today’s high tech necessities, the library also provides access to resources like computers, the internet, printing, and so on. For those of us fortunate enough to have our own connections, we don’t have to leave our homes to get access to a wealth of databases of periodicals and journals, reference materials (like the OED), children’s databases, etc. For materials I use for my classroom yearly, but don’t have room to store, the SPL is truly a remarkable jewel (the main branch is kind of shaped like one too).

I am grateful that my school has an incredible collection, and that the heart of our new campus building will be the library. I still think every child should also have a public library card, and we should be smart and efficient about how we use and share our resources. Over the years, I have also built up a nice-sized classroom library, and hope that people other than just my second graders feel welcome to borrow materials.

If you haven’t taken a tour of the main branch of the Seattle Public Library, I highly recommend it. I could go on an on about the library, but you can learn a lot just by visiting their website.