Category Archives: Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax: Calling all nonfiction fans!

From: Walk the Ridgepole
October 18, 2012 at 08:55AM

Much of the best nonfiction for kids is, in one way or another, interactive. It gives them a chance to do something: breeze past one spread, choose another spread to obsess over, explore this diagram, discover what’s under this flap or that fold-out. Astound their friends and family with their ownership of topic-specific knowledge. Two people who realize this are author Richard Platt and illustrator Stephen Biesty, both of whom will be at the USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown, MA (close to Boston’s North End) this weekend.

Platt, author of books in the Incredible Cross-Section and Eyewitness series and most recently of Plague, Pox and Pestilence, will present “Finding a Voice: Writing Non-Fiction for Children” at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, with a meet-and-mingle reception preceding from 12:00 to 2:30.

 Biesty, illustrator of the Incredible Cross-Section books and other works including the very cool Into the Unknown: How Explorers Found Their Way by Land, Sea, and Air, will present “Illustrating History in Detail” at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, also preceded by a meet-and-mingle reception from 12:00 to 2:30.

While you’re there, check out the museum’s All Hands on Deck: A Sailor’s Life in 1812 exhibit. What was that about nonfiction being interactive?


Shoshana Flax: Lessons from a ten-year-old girl

From: Walk the Ridgepole
October 05, 2012 at 11:04AM

A mother approached me in the store earlier this week, looking a little confused. Her ten-year-old daughter had read and loved See You at Harry’s, by Jo Knowles, which they both viewed as intermediate, but we had her other books shelved in Young Adult, and they had age guidelines on them. In particular, she was asking about Lessons from a Dead Girl, which is recommended for ages 14 and up. Before launching into a discussion of Lessons, I mentioned that Harry’s has some mature and serious themes, too, so I would guess that her daughter is a fairly mature reader; the mother agreed that her daughter really liked a good “weepy” story. Then, I explained that Lessons is about a controlling friendship between two girls that becomes sexually abusive. The mother’s eyes got a bit wide. Still, she didn’t immediately write it off; instead, she asked, “Would you say it’s too old for a ten-year-old?” I told her, “I would pause. Every reader is different, and it’s definitely a very good book, but it might be one to keep in mind and read in a few years.”

At this point, the mom called the daughter over. She repeated my explanation of what Lessons is about. (I don’t think she used my exact words, but she did use “friendship,” “controlling,” and “sexual,” and acknowledged that the friendship themes, at least, were something her daughter understood.) The mom made it clear she was hesitant, and the daughter agreed: “I’m ten, mom. I don’t want to read about sexual… stuff.” I agreed that if the reader herself was saying that, it was worth waiting, and repeated my suggestion that they keep the book in mind for a few years down the road. In the meantime, I suggested Wonder, which they were excited about.

In all the Banned Books Week talking we do about letting people make decisions within their own families, it was a perfect example of how well communication can work. A ten-year-old who knows she doesn’t want to read something racy is probably a ten-year-old whose family trusts her enough not to constantly try to hide things from her.

Still, before posting about this encounter, I thought I should check with Jo, who was my writing professor at Simmons. After all, the story didn’t end with the sale of one of her books. Here’s an excerpt from her response, which came in minutes:

“That is a PERFECT example of individual choice, not censorship. Love it! I can’t imagine recommending Lessons to any ten year olds I know. I’m so glad they chose something else. I think 14 is the appropriate age recommendation. Same for [Jumping Off] Swings. She might be ready for Pearl, which is 12 and up. But again, the mom should read it first to make sure…

“So often parents are like, ‘My kid reads above her level’ or whatever, and they don’t get that it’s about content, not advanced vocabulary. I’ve convinced many parents not to buy my books, too, for the same reason you outline… Right book right kid right time. It’s an important formula.”

Jo says she has two more YA novels in the pipeline, and then a middle grade. I can’t wait to help them find the right readers.

Shoshana Flax: The cantaloupe in the bushes (and other thoughts from the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards)

From: Walk the Ridgepole
October 03, 2012 at 12:56PM

The Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards were this past weekend, and as usual, we were treated to the sorts of speeches that make one want to run and add to one’s current manuscript. There was Julie Fogliano’s earnest story of a musing-for-the-day that turned into And Then It’s Spring, Mal Peet’s rant to the choir about writing “against the grain,” and Jon Klassen’s reminiscences about imagination taking over when stories know where to stop. The speech that stands out to me most, though, was Mac Barnett’s, and not just for its hilarity. Barnett talked about that phase in childhood when kids are able to understand when stories aren’t true, but at the same time, believe that they are. He used examples from his time as a camp counselor, when he had campers convinced that he used to be a spy, and even got one girl to believe she had grown a cantaloupe by tossing her daily melon chunks into the bushes.

Camp Givah, the day camp I attended for seven years and staffed for six, has had a monster-in-residence for much of its fifty-plus-year history. The leaves in the lake are the Givah Monster’s hair, which is why wise campers should keep their hands in the boat. Clothes that are left out will be eaten by the Givah Monster, and he’s to blame for any and all missing items. He has sharp teeth and green fur, or maybe orange or purple. I can recall only one instance in all my years there of a child being scared of the Givah Monster. Mostly, what I remember is eager camper participation in the legend. The kids might not have fully acknowledged that the monster wasn’t real, but they knew that they could make up details about him, as evidenced by the many camper-penned articles about him and interviews with him that appeared in the camp newsletter. (I will neither confirm nor deny that I threatened other counselors with Givah Monster consumption if they were late with their articles.)

Once you know deep down what’s not real, you can have fun with it. You can try to badger your counselor into telling you whether the Givah Monster really exists without actually thinking he’ll bite off your fingers. You can believe in a place of escape and Wild Things, a fairy who comes into your room and takes your teeth, or a guy who uses your chimney as an entry point, and it’s all safe.

I suspect Mr. Barnett was a great counselor.

Shoshana Flax: As Banned Books Week approaches…

From: Walk the Ridgepole
September 28, 2012 at 02:15PM

…I give you the ALA’s list of the most frequently challenged books last year.

A few observations:

It’s not an entirely comfortable list. It’s easy to expect that books only get challenged for being too progressive, too sexy, too full of bad words, and in those cases, the counterarguments flow smoothly. Kids (and adults) have the right to think for themselves and to explore new ideas in a safe environment, they’re seeing it all on the Internet anyway, et cetera, et cetera. But three books in the top ten were challenged for racism. A book in question may aim to show that racism is wrong, but who am I to say that no one should feel uncomfortable with the way a race is discussed or portrayed, for any purpose?

But that’s sort of the point of Banned Books Week and the movement against censorship. Books get to be here even if someone doesn’t like them, no matter who that someone is. Censorship is not always a neat liberal/conservative issue, and defending the right to write and to read can mean defending books we don’t agree with. Yes, this might mean defending Gossip Girl or something like it. (Defending does not necessarily mean praising.)

Item 3, the Hunger Games trilogy, highlights for me how individual these cases are, and how silly it is to ask whether a book is appropriate for an audience at large. I’ve been asked pretty frequently whether these books are appropriate for a(n) [eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen]-year-old, and my response is to explain the premise and then say, “You probably know better than I do whether that’s something (s)he can handle.” (Interestingly, when I add, “There is a lot of violence, but there’s no sexual content,” a lot of these parents seem reassured enough to seriously consider the books.)

I haven’t read any of the ttyl books, but now I want to. In the meantime, Alice in the Know has been on my to-read shelf for a good while; thanks, would-be censors, for the excuse to read it between September 30 and October 6.


I’ll be at the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, still blown away by Code Name Verity. Hope I’ll see some of you there!

Shoshana Flax: An informal poll

From: Walk the Ridgepole
September 13, 2012 at 07:35PM

For any of you who tend to read while surrounded by strangers, i.e. on public transportation:

A) How often, if ever, do you get comments or questions from strangers about what you’re reading?

B) Would most of your reading material generally be categorized as adult, or as children’s and/or young adult? (Bonus question: Are you generally categorized as an adult, an adolescent, or a child?)

C) Do you have an e-reader?

I ask because it’s been brought to my attention that A is more dependent on B than I thought. (I’ve added C because I’m sure it plays a role, though I personally find that seeing an e-reader makes me curious about what someone’s reading.) In a bookstore and in many of the other book-centric environments where I’ve spent time, it’s not terribly unusual to jump into someone’s conversation about a book. So I didn’t think it was that strange when the passenger next to me remarked, in an ostensibly friendly way, on how few words The One and Only Ivan had per page.  Another non-cover-based conversation about the open copy of Jake and Lily on my lap ended nonsensically with, “At least it’s not a bad Shakespeare novel” (huh?), but still, friendly. The guy who wondered if I thought the war-centered Dear Blue Sky was “too jejune” clearly had a chip on his shoulder, so I shrugged him off mine. There was also a Fourth of July encounter based more on the fact that I was reading, but even I’ll admit that that was a little unusual amidst that evening’s revelry. And The Diviners is noticeably huge.

But I mentioned one or two of these stories to a few friends–also very frequent readers, also women around my age–and the response was that they’ve never had a similar encounter, or that it’s happened once in five years in Boston. The above list of my own encounters comes from about the past six months. The only first-glance difference between the friends I questioned and myself? They primarily read adult books, and I’d say about eighty percent of my reading is kids’ and YA books.

I’m not sure what to take from this obviously anecdotal observation. Are people just reacting to the incongruity of an adult reading children’s books? Does my reading material make me seem more approachable? “Too jejune” guy aside, it hasn’t seemed like my fellow passengers were trying to make themselves feel superior, but were they?

In any case, I’d be curious to hear what others have experienced.

Shoshana Flax: Reading Ramona en Espanol

From: Walk the Ridgepole
September 08, 2012 at 08:20PM

Ramona la chinche, the 1984 Spanish translation of Ramona the Pest, made a good novelty gift for a children’s lit geek who studied and enjoyed Spanish through high school and slightly into college. I probably wouldn’t have sought it out, but since I had it in hand, I read it out of curiosity. What would it be like to read a familiar text in a language that’s mostly been dormant in my head for about a decade? How would a story whose most memorable parts in my mind had to do with misunderstanding of language handle translation?

It turned out to be a lot of fun. If I hadn’t already known the story, it would’ve been much harder to get my bearings, but as it was, I only turned to the dictionary a few times, and most of those times were more out of curiosity than out of a sense that I was lost. At the beginning, I found myself saying the English meaning of each sentence in my head, but once I got into the flow of reading in Spanish, I rarely did that. The reading obviously took much longer than it would’ve taken to read a similar book in English, but every time the meaning of a funny line became clear, I had a visceral laugh reaction, I guess because I had to work harder to get to the joke. It’s been a long time since I was a new reader, but this experience reminded me a bit of that one. Being fairly sure but not certain that conejo means rabbit, and then turning the page and seeing one pictured, lends a satisfaction similar to what many new readers must experience as they tentatively sound out words.

The translation follows the original almost completely, at least as far as I could tell. The only story difference I noticed, beyond changes in example words Srta. Binney uses to teach phonics, was that the tooth fairy became “el ratoncito que se lleva los dientes” (the mouse who takes the teeth). Some small moments in the story felt slightly old-fashioned to me (the original was first published in 1968), and I’m sure there are bits that might seem strange to someone from a different culture, but basically, starting school is starting school.

And in answer to my biggest questions, “Sit here for the present” translates directly. “Dawnzer lee light” does not, obviously, but footnotes can do anything.

Shoshana Flax: I must, I must…

From: Walk the Ridgepole
September 06, 2012 at 08:48AM

…support Ms. Blume or bust!

Judy Blume posted yesterday about her experience with breast cancer. Her post handles this very adult subject, this sensitive and scary subject, the same way  her books have always handled subjects that were sensitive and possibly scary for kids and teens. She’s open. She’s funny. She conveys that the disease, not the body, is the frightening part.

Judy also emphasizes that her responses and decisions thus far were right for her. The role she’s played in so many people’s understanding of their physicality doesn’t make her own any less personal or individual. I’m impressed to realize that her diagnosis was fairly fresh news when I heard her joyful Clemens Lecture; I, at least, saw nary a sign that anything was wrong.

Unsurprising statement 1: Cancer sucks.

Unsurprising statement 2: Judy Blume rocks.

Shoshana Flax: My little bookworms

From: Walk the Ridgepole
August 30, 2012 at 08:10PM

Today I wrapped up a longtime babysitting gig, at least as a regular thing. (They’re moving; I’m going full-time at the bookstore.) When I first inherited the family from a Simmons classmate, S was three and a half.  She was a Frog and Toad fan with a hard-working imagination, fond of making up stories. One of my first memories of her involves carefully crossing “the deep… old… cold river,” a puddle whose name I suspect was inspired by We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.

A was eight months old. We read a lot of Sandra Boynton and Eric Carle board books, and she did a lot of playing with the pages and not much letting me finish them. In those early months, she started crawling unprompted into the rocking chair we used for reading, books in hand, and while she was learning to talk, we developed a routine of pointing out anything in the illustrations that she could name. “Moooooon” was a favorite.

Three years and a zillion games of “I’m thinking of a character” later, S is still reading Frog and Toad. But now she’s the one reading it aloud. She still makes up stories, but now when there’s writing to be done, she does much of it herself. She takes the big parts in staged readings of Elephant and Piggie books and does a mean analysis of the themes in Yertle the Turtle. In short, S is going to knock the socks off of first grade.

A, too, is complexly into stories. Like S around her age (almost 4), she’s discovered that books can deliver a safe thrill, so she’s been on the lookout for “scary” books. We spent much of the past two mornings in the fairy tale section of the library, reading and rereading version after version of Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel. Once she was familiar with the latter. she started skipping ahead: “I want to get to the witch part.” It took convincing to get her to spend any of our four hours together at the playground while there were books to read.

And K, who was born this June? He’s already got S reading to him.

Shoshana Flax: A cornucopia of dystopia?

From: Walk the Ridgepole
August 26, 2012 at 08:20PM

The word dystopia has been thrown around a lot lately. It’s a useful term to refer to novels that take place in a world where there’s been a big change in the way society runs things. I’ve used it myself to refer to, say, The Hunger Games. But a discussion of how exactly to define dystopia has made the Internet rounds lately, and this flowchart in particular got me thinking. (Click to embiggen, as they say.)

Dystopia is the opposite of utopia, and in the novels that I think perfectly fit the designation, those in power have tried to create one. In The Giver, the community has eliminated pain and suffering by eliminating emotion. Ditto, basically, for Delirium. In Divergent, the “solution” to humanity’s problems is to isolate and strengthen each of five dominant human characteristics, and in Uglies, it’s to make everyone look and think the same way. There’s some overlap, certainly, among the solutions in many of the above and others like them (to mention both The Giver and Delirium is to think of Matched). Most of them involve some degree of removing difference and emotion in an effort to remove the problems that surround them, and I think we keep exploring that idea because it seems tempting. But then, of course, the dys comes in; the “solution” turns out not to be worthwhile.

I’m loathe to, ahem, let go of my beloved Knife of Never Letting Go as a dystopia, and one might argue that the decision to start a society on New World counts as an attempt at a utopia, though it’s much clearer from the outset how wrong things have gone. But there’s little if any pretense that the Capitol in The Hunger Games is making its decisions for the good of the community.

In any case, we’ve had a spate of novels lately that show ways our society could change dramatically, complete with characters who deal with it in interesting and often inspiring ways. Not bad for a follow-up to the vampire trend.

Shoshana Flax: “Patient is a useful way to be when you’re an ape.”

From: Walk the Ridgepole
August 22, 2012 at 07:34PM

In an odd intersection of life and story, the hero of a novel published in January passed away this week.

Ivan really was a western lowland gorilla born in about 1962 in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He really spent twenty-seven years on display in a shopping mall without seeing another gorilla. There really was public pressure to move him to an environment better suited to his needs, and it really did work; he was donated to the Woodland Park Zoo in Tacoma, WA in 1994 and was soon transferred to Zoo Atlanta. He really did love to paint.

The rest of The One and Only Ivan is Katherine Applegate’s story. She created relationships for him within the Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, and created a voice for him that’s so believably simple yet so poignant, it’s hard to say whether or not the book is a verse novel. Whatever it is, I loved it, and I appreciated the author’s note that explained clearly how much of the story was real.

It didn’t mention that Ivan had his own Facebook page, but he did. And no wonder: just look at that face.

Shoshana Flax: Wait Wait can wait

From: Walk the Ridgepole
August 18, 2012 at 08:05PM

I’d never been a big audiobook person. Oh, I saw their merit. When you listen to a story, after all, you engage in every aspect of reading except decoding. Comprehension, critical thinking, and enjoyment don’t always require words on a page or screen. Besides, audiobooks don’t necessarily have to exist by themselves. Looking at a book while hearing it read is great for developing reading skills; there’s a reason so many picture books and early readers are sold together with CDs.

But for a long time, audiobooks weren’t for me.

I’ve always had headphones in on my “commute” (a short walk), but I mostly listened to music or podcasts, where information came in fairly short bursts. My mind likes to wander a bit on the way to and from work, and the few times I’d tried audiobooks, that meant I’d miss some important information that I’d have found easier to catch on the page, and then the story would make little sense. And a story that doesn’t make sense isn’t very interesting. Zone out for a second on Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! and at worst, you’re lost for half a “Bluff the Listener” game.

So when friends started liveblogging their audioreadings of the Anne books, I was happy for them, but figured I’d remain vicariously so. It took one friend’s tweeting the link to Anne of the Island on Librivox directly at me to convince me that audiobooks were worth another try. You can probably guess where this is going.

A familiar text eliminates the issue of paying attention; if I do miss a bit, I still know what’s going on. And I find that most of the time, I am listening closely. Reader Karen Savage clearly appreciates a good book, and does an excellent job of conveying the import of whatever matters to the characters without overdoing it, putting to shame the way I used to read young Davy’s lines aloud to my poor sister. The funny parts are as funny as they should be. The bits about Anne and Gilbert are as unsubtle as they should be. I’m as enthralled as I should be.

And I’m just kidding about Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me; it’s getting frequent turns. As it should be.

Shoshana Flax: A “different” Jack and the Beanstalk

From: Walk the Ridgepole
August 15, 2012 at 07:23PM

Almost-four-year-old sitting charge A and I spent this morning at the theatre. Puppet Showplace Theatre has seen its share of kid audiences, and that was clear in everything from the seating configuration to the participatory discussion of how to be a good audience member. (The kids knew exactly what the grown-ups in the audience should do with their ringing, beeping “toys.”)

While we were making plans to go, A noticed that Jack on the theater’s website wasn’t wearing the hat he wears in the version she has at home, and the discrepancy led to a fairly long discussion: “Maybe he only wears his hat sometimes. Maybe he wears it in the house and not outside the house.” I was glad she raised the question because it reminded me that kids can get attached to familiar versions of stories and might need some warning that there’s more than one way to tell a tale. I have vague memories of my parents telling my sister and me that, for instance, we’d be seeing “a different Cinderella“–one with Rodgers and Hammerstein lyrics but no Disney mice.

I told A the same thing about this JATB, and we talked a little about how stories can have different versions because people can tell them in different ways. She enjoyed the Crabtree Puppet Theatre performance troupe’s funny and very age-appropriate way of telling this one as well as the demonstration at the end of how the puppets worked.

And then, of course, we went to the library.

Shoshana Flax: The NPR listeners have spoken. (So has the Internet.)

From: Walk the Ridgepole
August 08, 2012 at 09:16AM

The results are in for NPR’s poll on the “100 Best-Ever Teen Novels.”

While the poll was in progress, I saw some speculation that the vast majority of voters would be adults. Teens don’t listen to NPR, right? That may or may not be mostly true, but many teens do get involved with the YA books they love and the online communities that surround them. John Green, co-leader of what’s probably the most active YA-related, teen-populated chunk of the Internet, is all over the list. So are a lot of recent books and authors that teens are asking for themselves. Cassandra Clare. Sarah Dessen. And there are plenty of crossovers between actual teens and adults who stay current in the YA world. :cough: I’m sure Divergent and Graceling and their sequels, for instance, had support from both.

But it’s a varied list, which makes it even better. It’s a list that acknowledges that good books for teens have been published all along, both before we started calling it YA and since. I don’t doubt that some teens voted for the Anne of Green Gables books, but, well, so did I. I kind of do doubt that many teens voted for the Betsy-Tacy books, but they’ve meant something to teens, if not many current teens. To Kill a Mockingbird is there, and so is Speak, which to me is the touchstone YA realistic novel. The list also reflects quite a few books that changed YA’s place in the industry (and, in some cases, did so for older and/or younger reading audiences as well). Publishing and bookselling would be different places today without the Harry Potter books, the Twilight books, and the Hunger Games books.

Of course, the books available in the original poll matter in the results. By and large, the logic used to choose these makes sense to me. Seriously, though, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is “too mature” to be YA?

But that kind of discussion is part of the fun. In the meantime, I’m glad that we seem to have heard from a lot of current and former teens, and I’m glad that both NPR and a whole lot of voters thought YA books worthy of such a poll.

Shoshana Flax: Wishin’ and Hopin’

From: Walk the Ridgepole
August 06, 2012 at 07:22PM

Every so often, a young customer will ask if we have “anything else” by Rebecca Stead. These customers have usually read and loved When You Reach Me (and its oft-referenced A Wrinkle in Time), and may or may not have also read First Light. “Her next book, Liar & Spy, comes out in September,” I tell them. If I’m really feeling evil, I wiggle my eyebrows and add, “I’ve read it. It’s really good.”

They want it. They want to reach out and touch it without summer having to end. I commiserate with them as I hand them other character-driven fantasies (Breadcrumbs Breadcrumbs Breadcrumbs), and I grin to myself over how much they care. This isn’t an adult concerned with what kids “should” be reading or what gift for a child will please the child’s parents. This, like so much of the purest book joy, comes right from the kids, and if my memories of awaiting the next BSC Super-Special serve me correctly, those kids are going to part-enjoy every second of their agonizing anticipation.

A large cardboard sign just went up in the kids’ section, announcing the arrival of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Book 7: The Third Wheel. As you might imagine, kids are noticing.

The book comes out in November.

Shoshana Flax: Keep talking, books. Keep talking.

From: Walk the Ridgepole
August 02, 2012 at 04:17PM

One thing I love about working with books is that it can mean working with just about any idea in the world. Right now, I’m reading a middle-grade novel that takes place in an underground fantasy world and a YA novel set in eighteenth-century France. In the past month or so, I’ve read about mental illness, a town full of unusual families and magical realism, an siege in ancient Rome, time travel, superhero sidekicks, word origins, ghosts with gruesome designs on 1926 New York, the writing experience of our current Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, hobbits on a journey, a third grader’s quest for a halo, and an airport caper involving a stolen Star-Spangled Banner. (Two points if you can guess which two of the above were classified as adult literature.)

I’ve grown to think of the bookstore as a commons for the exchange of ideas. It’s a place where I might find myself politely defending the presence of a book that I personally dislike. It’s a place where I might quietly read a particularly adult title over the phone one minute, and the next minute joyfully reassure a customer that yes, of course we have board books featuring children of color.

The staff reading this weekend made it clear how comfortable we all are exchanging ideas of all kinds. Held in honor of assistant manager Kate Robinson’s new book of poetry (psssst… she’s really talented), the event gave a bunch of us a chance to share our “works in print and in progress,” as the events calendar put it. If I worried that my selection from a middle-grade novel wouldn’t fit in, I needn’t have. Yes, many of the other readings covered very different ground. But just as the evening’s atmosphere created a safe space for those who read dirty ghazals and free verse about bodily functions in front of a sizeable crowd that included their coworkers, it was also safe to read about a character who’s the only boy over eight at an arts and crafts camp.

Keep talking, books. And keep talking books.

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