Here’s another in my series of interviews with bloggers at children’s literature websites. Today I report on my interview with Elizabeth Kennedy (abbreviated “EK” below), who blogs at the children’s literature website About.com Children’s Books. Elizabeth is one of the hardest working children’s literature bloggers you’ll meet. In this interview she shares some great insights on helping reluctant readers to embrace reading, and the impact of e-readers on children’s literature. 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 children’s literature websites. So, after reading the interview, I encourage you to check out Elizabeth’s blog (link above). Click here for the the previous interview in this series.
Q: I understand that you studied both English literature and children’s literature while in college. What spurred your interest in children’s literature?
EK: My interest in children’s literature grew from the time I read The Secret Garden as a child. It was the first book I had ever read during which I felt that I was actually there: seeing what was going on, feeling what the characters were feeling. Like a lot of kids, I had a somewhat difficult childhood and found great comfort and adventure in reading.
After I graduated from college, I gained more insight into the impact that children’s literature can have when I taught for a year at a low-income elementary school and took summer classes as a participant in an NDEA Institute on Disadvantaged Youth. When I later taught three- and four-year-olds, I became even more aware of how important children’s books could be.
I have found in my own life, in my various careers and with my own children that good books can have a terrific impact on a child or teen and wanted to do what I could to help children of all ages and reading levels have that experience.
Q: How do you see your prior career roles—teacher, museum educator, and program director at an arts-in-education non-profit—influencing your work at the About.com children’s literature website?
EK: My prior career roles made me acutely aware of how different each child is and how important it is to focus on the needs and abilities of each child. I am reminded of this every time I go into a classroom and see a wide range of literacy skills among students in the same grade level.
I have also seen how children’s books can be used in both traditional and nontraditional ways to enhance learning and spark interest. For example, one of the public schools I worked with while I was at Arts Partners, a performing arts magnet elementary school, used the book I See the Rhythm in their study of the civil rights movement and created a wonderful piece of art and a musical performance based on the book.
In addition, as the parent of a daughter who has always loved reading and a son who was a reluctant reader who had no trouble reading, but little interest when he was in elementary and middle school, I learned a lot that has proven helpful to me.
Q: In your work I understand you aim to help both parents and teachers. Do you see the roles of teachers and parents as different with respect to children and literature? If so, how so?
EK: If I fully answered this question, it would take pages and pages, so here are just a few of my thoughts on the subject. I do see the roles of parents and teachers as different but they have the shared goal of helping kids to develop as readers and in their appreciation of literature. Teachers are charged with helping children through direct instruction to develop phonemic and phonological awareness and other skills needed for literacy.
Parents support this through sharing nursery rhymes, reading stories aloud to their children and discussing the stories with them. Taking their children to the library regularly and helping them find books that interest them and are appropriate to their reading and maturity level is also important in helping children develop as readers through recreational reading.
Q: What are some practical tips for parents of reluctant readers that want to help their children learn to love reading?
EK: Since there are all kinds of reluctant readers, it’s important to know the reason the child is a reluctant reader. For example, my grandson had an eye-tracking problem that kept him from learning to read well until he had weekly therapy sessions for several months. Some kids read well but just aren’t interested and it’s important to find books that pique their interest. Kids who are way behind in reading benefit from reading hi-lo books, books that have a high interest level and a low reading level. See my articles, Resources for Reluctant Readers, Books for Boys, and Hi-Lo Books, for more resources.
Q: What specific criteria do you use in evaluating children’s literature?
EK: Children’s books can be valuable in so many different ways, providing enjoyment, enrichment, enlightenment and knowledge. They can help a child to feel less alone, solve a problem, reinforce and test their own values, learn about other cultures and beliefs and much more. So first, I need to determine what it is this book provides the reader.
While I look at the basic plot and structure for fiction—character, setting, conflict, resolution—as I evaluate the quality of the writing, my criteria is dependent on the format of the fiction and the age level. For example, the illustrations in a picture book should both complement and extend the written story so the effectiveness and artistic value of the illustrations are part of the criteria I use for picture books. When it comes to fiction for older kids, “voice” becomes particularly important.
In terms of non-fiction, there are so many different formats used these days. A lot of non-fiction is now done in picture book format or with a great many illustrations. In those cases, I not only have to evaluate the writing in terms of quality and accuracy, the sources used, and the qualifications of the author, but I also have to consider the illustrations in terms of the meaning they bring to the topic. The book’s design is also important in terms of how the book is organized, if there is a glossary, bibliography, index, etc.
Q: How do you think the web has influenced or changed the children’s literature publishing industry?
EK: On the positive side, publishers are providing increased opportunities to learn about children’s books and their creators through book trailers, dedicated Web sites and previews of the first chapter, the entire picture book, etc.
On the negative side, everyone who has ever wanted to write a children’s book can easily self-publish and the quality of many of the new single-author publishing companies promoting their books on the Web tends to be low in terms of one or more of the following: production values, writing or illustrating.
In terms of e-books, copyright, pricing and royalty issues have also been problems for traditional publishing companies.
Q: How do you think the e-reader (e.g., Kindle, iPad, etc.) phenomenon has or will affect the world of children’s literature?
The enthusiasm for e-readers and e-books has represented a financial boon for publishers at a time when book sales have tended to be flat or disappointing. I have mixed emotions about the phenomenon. I recently acquired an iPad, which I love, and plan to write a lot more about e-readers and e-books, but I love the look and feel of “real” books and don’t see them disappearing.
However, we have several generations who have grown up with computer technology and the Web and to them, e-readers and e-books are a natural next step in technology. I think that the real growth in e-readers will be among teens and adults.
I think many of the schools, public and private, whose students now successfully use (and care for) PDAs and other technology may be eager to begin using e-readers, particularly since e-book versions of textbooks are less expensive. However, I think it would be ridiculous to do what several private schools have already done: get rid of all of their traditional library books and just use e-readers and e-books. It shouldn’t be an either/or situation.
In addition, e-readers have been enormously important to the visually handicapped because the reader can adjust the type size. Many children and adults who previously could not read books, or could only read books printed in large type, now have access to a much larger library of books they can enjoy.
As far as parent-child interaction goes, I’ve seen parents and their young children happily enjoying an e-book version of a picture book together. That said, I think the best way to enjoy a picture book is by sharing a traditional picture book in which the illustrations are of a size and quality that lends itself better to shared enjoyment.
This is another of those questions for which my answers could go on and on, so I’ll stop.
Q: Have you, or would you like to, serve on any children’s literature award panels?
EK: I served on a children’s literature discussion panel at Newman University, which I enjoyed, but the closest I have ever gotten to a literature award panel is sitting in on a mock-Caldecott and Newbery discussion by librarians, which I found fascinating.
I know several librarians serving on award panels. They have to do so much extra reading of books that meet the award criteria that I know I could never do it and keep up with my other reading. I read a huge number of children’s books to find books to recommend. For example, when working on a list of dinosaur books, I read 70 books about dinosaurs to find 10 I could recommend.
Q: If you were standing on a soapbox full of children’s books, what would you say to your audience?
EK: Read to your child every day. It’s a gift that will last a lifetime. Get a library card and use it weekly. Support public libraries. Be a reader yourself and discuss what you are reading and what your children are reading with them. For more, see my article, 10 Ways to Help You Raise Kids Who Love Reading: Resolutions for Parents on Raising a Reader.
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