Here’s another in my series of children’s books blogger interviews. Today I report on my interview with Charlotte Taylor (abbreviated “CT” below), who blogs at Charlotte’s Library. As you will see from the interview, Charlotte’s blog focuses on fantasy and science fiction children’s books (especially for middle-schoolers and teens). The point of these interviews, of course, is to help connect readers of Children’s Books and Reviews to some of the many other excellent websites focused on children’s books. So, after reading the interview, I encourage you to check out Charlotte’s blog, and the excellent resources for fantasy and science fiction children’s books it provides. Thanks Charlotte!
Q: How and when did you start your children’s books blog?
CT: It all started in September of 2006 with a hardcover first edition of Kira-Kira I picked up at a library booksale for fifty cents. My sister saw it lying around my house, and let me know it was worth something. Indeed, it was—more than enough to cover that pesky sewer bill. Knowing that next September would bring a fresh sewer bill, it occurred to me later that fall that it might be useful to buy another first edition Newbery winner, so I went online to find out if anyone had predictions. And this led me to this post on Linda Sue Park’s blog—the very first blog post I remember reading.
I was in a bad patch, bookwise, constantly running out of things to read. I would wander into book stores, not know what I wanted to buy, and leave again empty handed….very sad. Linda Sue Park’s list of recommended books seemed like manna from heaven—not just these specific titles, but the realization that there were people out there who could help me. So I began reading blogs….and reading more blogs… and I saw that bloggers were having interesting conversations, and publicizing great books, and (I admit that this last seemed incredibly attractive) getting books in the mail.
I wanted to join in the fun myself! I wanted to share books I loved, and try my hand at thinking critically about them.
Q: What is the content of your blog, and what are your goals for it? In particular, tell me about how you came to focus on fantasy and science fiction children’s books.
CT: As the years of blogging passed, I began to realize that the books I really enjoyed reading and talking about were fantasy and science fiction children’s books (not just middle grade, but the younger side of YA too). And I also began to realize that I would be happiest, and motivated to keep going, if my blog were to be a Resource. Although there are lots and lots of blogs that talk about YA fantasy and science fiction, middle grade is more sporadically covered, and it seemed to me that this was a niche that needed filling.
I write almost exclusively about fantasy and science fiction children’s books, but I don’t mind it when I stray outside that genre—I also review interesting non-fiction for kids, and any other books regardless of genre, that might take my fancy. I have two topics that I return to on a regular basis—time travel books, and fantasy and science fiction children’s books featuring kids of color, and I’ve put together lists of these books that I’m always adding to. In part because I’m always on the lookout for these subgenres, I review a mix of older books and new releases. And I also like sharing books from my own childhood that I still love!
Viz goals—I think I’d just like to continue up the path I’m on—adding to my lists, so as to be a better resource, and continuing to promote the genre I love best, mainly through my Sunday round-ups of posts from around the blogosphere about middle-grade fantasy and science fiction children’s books (and other things of interest).
Q: What criteria do you use to evaluate the children’s books you review?
CT: I’m on shaky ground here. I am a somewhat impressionistic reader, by which I mean visceral reaction is more important to me than crisp logical thought. I can usually cobble together logical thoughts after the fact, but the starting point of every evaluation I write is how the book made me feel—did I lose myself in the book’s world? How resentful did I feel when asked to make cheese sandwiches while reading it (mercifully, the children are becoming better at tending to their own wants). Did the book make pictures in my mind? Did I care about the characters? Once I get those questions out of the way, I can then use other parts of my brain, and ask more universally useful questions, concerning audiences that might appreciate the book, whether it did what it set out to do in ways that worked…that sort of thing.
I will never give stars (and that’s something that keeps me from cross posting much on Goodreads) because I am pretty sure my starring wouldn’t be consistent (and I think there is star inflation).
Q: Why children’s books and not adult books?
CT: There are a couple of reasons for this. One is a simple logistical fact—children’s books are shorter, and have larger type. My reading time tends to be somewhat snatched, what with work, and children, and an old house that we are renovating, and many etcs. I don’t have the patience for a book that will take me longer than three days—I want faster gratification! I have a feeling that children’s books tend to be crisper than adult books—things move from Point A to Point B with more directness, and I appreciate that.
The second reason is that most adult books leave me cold. The characters are often not people I want to spend my time with—often they are miserable, discontented, shallow, unpleasant, downright mean etc. I am something of an innocent and trusting reader, bad at picking up Clues and seeing Hidden Motivations and Dark Depths to characters. I don’t want to be manipulated by authors, and I think that those who write for children tend to do so less often.
Also, I am not particularly interested in adult problems. I read primarily for escapism, and so quotidian 21st century life as an adult has little appeal. I don’t much like suspense, mystery (Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers excepted), or romance, which rules out a huge chunk of it….Those adult books that I do read tend to be pretty far off topic for my blog, so I feel no urge to write about them. That being said, I do happily review the occasional fantasy and science fiction books for grown-ups.
The last work of adult fiction I tried to read was The True Deceiver, by Tove Jansson. It made me miserable, so I stopped. [AM: Note that Jansson's Moomin books for children—e.g., Comet in Moominland—are fantastic; definitely not miserable!] My husband loved it, but he also loves Red Shift (most depressing book ever).
And finally, there are so many children’s books I want to read, mainly because the blogs I read tend to write about them! So my wish list grows apace…and I never need to look beyond in order to have a comfortable (daunting) stack of books on hand.
Q: Tell me about your involvement with the CYBIL Awards.
CT: I’m currently in my fourth (!) year as a Cybils panelist. The Cybils, for those who don’t know, are awards given by children’s and young adult book bloggers to books that combine great writing and great audience appeal. Shortlists are assembled by first round panelists in the fall, and then winners are picked by second round panelists. The Cybils shortlists are a fantastic place to find great books in a variety of genres.
My first year I read Young Adult books. It was very depressing. Lots of sexual abuse, misery, suicide, poverty….That was the year Boy Toy, by Barry Lyga, went on to win. I realized, after that fall of 121 YA books, that realistic YA fiction was not for me (although two books that we shortlisted I still love—Red Glass, by Laura Resau, and Tips on Having a Gay (Ex) Boyfriend, by Carrie Jones).
So the next year I put my name in the hat for fantasy and science fiction children’s books (SFF), and never looked back. It was after that first SFF fall that I officially focused my blog on that genre, because I realized these were the books I most enjoyed reading and writing about!
Right at the moment, I am busily reading middle grade fantasy and science fiction children’s books for the Cybils—I’ve read 86 out of the 148 books in our category. Come December, our panelist discussions will really get going, as we face the challenge of picking the 5-7 books we think best meet the Cybils’ criteria…that part of the process is great fun!
Q: What do you enjoy most about your work around children’s books?
CT: Well, the reading itself is, of course, great fun (mostly). And it’s a lovely thing to look at how blog readers are finding my blog—searching for books on particular topics, and staying long enough so that I know they read what I wrote, or searching for books that they clearly only dimly remembered, and finding them again. It’s also great to be able to bombard my own two boys with books that I’ve found through blogging, and to see those books (some of them) being read and loved.
It’s been incredibly gratifying to meet authors, whether in person or on-line, and to meet fellow bloggers who share my passion for children’s books. Standing around the playground after school, I feel a tad lonely—so few of the other parents (i.e., none that I know of) share my interests. I generally am carrying around a children’s book as an identifying emblem, in case there are others like me, but so far no luck. So it is lovely, and more than a bit validating, to meet other bloggers and fans in person!
Q: I understand that you are an archaeologist by profession. Tell me about that.
CT: I’m a government archaeologist—a large part of my job is to make sure that construction projects don’t damage archaeological sites. I’m also in charge of keeping track of all the archaeological sites in my state, and making sure that any underwater archaeology meets federal standards.
I became an archaeologist so as to have an interesting life and for a while this went swimmingly—I’ve done fieldwork in Africa, and many places in Europe and North America. Now I don’t get out into the field much at all—too busy pushing around piles of paper!
Q: Does your archaeological work influence your approach to children’s books? If so, how?
CT: My decision to become an archaeologist was influenced by books I read as a child—historical fiction, in particular the books of Rosemary Sutcliff, was a huge influence, as was The Lord of the Rings. I’m not sure there’s much influence in the other direction—I am, perhaps, more picky about details of material culture and everyday life—there’s one book set in medieval Asia that I almost put down because a character referred to potatoes—and I certainly read any fictional account of archaeology with a very critical eye, but that’s about it. However, cultural anthropology and linguistics are required graduate school courses for archaeologists in many American universities, and I think that educational background has made me much more appreciative of dense and intricate world building, and books that explore the meeting of very different cultures/peoples (I love Ursula Le Guin, for her deftness in this regard!).
Q: On your blog, you say that you also serve as “president of the Friends of a small New England library.” Tell me about that work. How does that influence your approach to children’s books?
CT: Our house is four doors down from the library (one of the reasons why we bought it). When we moved here, the children’s room of the library was essentially a time capsule from the 1970s, and there was no children’s librarian. I wanted the library to continue to exist and to offer amenities such as current books to my children (and, of course, I do sincerely believe in the importance of libraries as neighborhood anchors—ours is a non-affluent mill village, and I think it’s tremendously important to keep the library going!) so I joined the Friends…and found myself, eventually, President (no one has appeared to take the job from me….sigh). As president, I work my tail off running our booksales….and have the great satisfaction of saying to our children’s librarian (we did finally get one, and a very lovely one too)—what would you like us to buy for you? And it has been very satisfying to fill the shelves with review copies received from the publishers.
I have, in fact, done such a good job of this that I have been told not to donate any more YA books because there is no room. SIGH. This is actually one of the very pragmatic reasons why I review more middle grade–there is still room there, as many of the books from the 1950s-1970s have moved on (a number of them into my house….which is a side advantage (?) of being in charge of the booksales).
Q: If you were standing on a soapbox full of children’s books, what advice would you give your audience?
CT: Don’t stand on books.
But seriously, something that has become very clear to me, in my own efforts to raise readers, is that some kids are just picky, and it will take a lot of book offerings before they find one they like. Don’t be afraid, I would say, to check books out of the library with gay abandon—most of them won’t get read, but if one out of twenty does, that still achieves the desired result.
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