I could speak at length about the wonders of Judy Freeman, and indeed I’m inclined to. Her credentials are the kind of thing you could spend a lifetime acquiring. Author. Reviewer. Teller of tales. She writes some of the best books on actually using children’s literature out there (Example A: Once Upon a Time: Using Storytelling, Creative Drama, and Reader’s Theater with Children in Grades PreK-6) And her Newbery year (by which I mean the year she served)? Bud Not Buddy. So right there you know she has good taste. Plus she owns Ragdoll cats. Awesome.
The thing about Judy is that she’s been busy lately working on this big time literacy site called ReadKiddoRead. Insofar as I knew, that site was run by author James Patterson. So what was the deal with that? It’s this literacy site, right? May as well as the lady herself then.
Fuse #8: Okay. So, we all know that James Patterson is a writer for adults. And I think that there’s a fair amount of folks who know about his teen fare. I’m not so sure as to how many of us know that he’s all about getting kids reading, though. So why exactly did he start this website?
Judy Freeman: So here’s this stupendously successful and famous author with over 150 million books in print, and what was he dealing with at home a few years back? His own son, Jack, not wanting to read.
It’s often a challenge to get boys reading in those transitional years, grades 1 to 4. You know the drill: “I don’t want to read. Books are boring.” It’s why we are perennially grateful to Jeff Kinney for his Wimpy Kid books. “You can’t make me read. I hate books. I won’t read anythi . . . Oh. Wow. Look at this. I can read that. This is easy. It’s . . . ha. Ha ha. Ha ha ha. Hahahahahaha. Thud.” That’s the Wimpy Kid effect—get those boys falling off their beds in hysterics. Jeff Kinney, you are a God! (You too, Mo Willems, Jon Scieszka, Rick Riordan, Jenny & Matt Holm, Beverly Cleary, and all you amazing authors who make kids clamor for more.) I worship these people. They are the Miss Rumpiuses (how do you write Miss Rumphius, plural?) of children’s literature, doing something to make the world more beautiful.
Fuse: I think it’s Miss Rumphiusi, but I’ll have to check my OED.
Judy: James Patterson and his wife, Sue, went looking for titles Jack couldn’t put down and worked their parent mojo magic to get him into books,. Jack’s now 11 or 12 and a voracious reader, so their efforts paid off in spades. Jack is also why Patterson started writing books like the Maximum Ride series and the Daniel X books for kids, which both boys and girls can’t put down. Jim (that’s what people call him; I’m kind of in awe of him, so for me it’s like calling a teacher by his first name) figured there had to be plenty of parents out there who didn’t know what books would work to turn their kids into real readers. He’s always been philanthropic—he sponsored the Pageturner Awards before he began ReadKiddoRead—and passionate about reading and literacy. So he said, and I paraphrase, “There needs to be a place where parents can find books that work.” Et voilà. ReadKiddoRead was born.
There’s a fascinating cover story about him called “James Patterson Inc.” that ran in the January 24, 2010 New York Times Sunday Magazine.
My husband read the article and said, “That guy is brilliant.” Yup. He is. He’s a marketing genius, former head of the J. Walter Thompson Agency, who even wrote the jingle, “I’m a Toys-R-Us kid.” Jim got some of his old friends and colleagues from the ad agency to design the site—it’s very handsome and extensive—and they did a fabulous job pulling it all together. Caroline Henley is in charge of the site, putting up all the reviews and articles, keeping the dreaded spammers at bay, and juggling a million other daily tasks.
Fuse: Generally speaking, is the site for kids or teachers or librarians or parents?
Judy: When we started working on the site two years ago in March, 2008—it launched in November, 2008—it was targeted at parents. I’m a lapsed school librarian, so I always assumed my peeps, librarians and teachers, would be interested as well, and that has proved to be the case. When Jim gave a keynote at the AASL Conference in November, 2009, the school librarians were very enthusiastic about the site, which was gratifying. We won the first Innovations in Reading Prize from the National Book Foundation, which was pretty mind-blowing, and ALA designated us as one of their Great Web Sites for Kids, which was a huge thrill, too. (As the professional fingersmith in Roald Dahl’s short story, “The Hitchhiker,” says, “It’s always nice to be appreciated.” Do you know that story? What a great read-aloud for grades 5 and up.)
And kids are loving the site, too, which I always figured they would. I do storytelling and book-related assembly programs at elementary schools, and the kids think it’s very cool to look up reviews. Kids are so savvy these days; they write reviews on Amazon that are almost as fun to read as those written by Ramseelbird, my favorite reviewer there.
Fuse: I hear good things about that one. Now when you go to the website, is it in any particular order or format? I mean, what can you find there?
Judy: How do you organize reviews for kids from ages birth through teen? That was tricky. We ended up dividing it into four major categories, which you see when you go to the homepage: Great Illustrated Books (Ages 0-8, though I think many of the picture books are grand for all ages), Great Transitional Books (Ages 5-8, with easier chapter books, like Clementine by Sara Pennypacker), Great Pageturners (Ages 8-12), and Great Advanced Reads (Ages 10 through teen).
Click on one of those categories and you’ll see we divided each category into four sections: Fantasy & Other Worlds (including sci fi); Real World Fiction (realistic fiction including historical/hysterical/problem novels/animal stories/sports stories/school stories, etc.); Action, Adventure, and Mystery; and Just the Facts (nonfiction). In the Great Illustrated Books section, though, our four sections are: Books for Babies (Ages birth-2), Storybooks (picture books), Easy Kid Reads (easy readers/chapter books, starting with emergent readers like the Elephant and Piggie books by Mo Willems), and Just the Facts (nonfiction).
So, everything we choose has to slide into one of those 16 slots, which can be tricky. What about stuff that defies categorization like joke books or poetry? We slip them in here and there. We’re ever on the lookout for books kids won’t be able to put down. The first books I thought of, 2 years back, included: Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox (the best baby book since Goodnight Moon, though today I read Marla Frazee’s latest picture book, coming out in August from Beach Lane, The Boss Baby, and it’s a hoot), I Stink by Kate and Jim McMullan, Actual Size by Steve Jenkins, Bad Kitty Gets a Bath by Nick Bruel, the Babymouse books by Jennifer and Matthew Holm, How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O’Connor, Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and We Are the Ship by Kadir Nelson. Kick-butt titles, all, I think. I read about 3,000 kids books a year. I generally read twenty books to find one I am passionate about, with a plot or theme that bowls me over, and characters I dream about. I don’t like to review books I’m not passionate about.
Patterson doesn’t want a lot of “for the special reader” books that kids will start and put down right quick. Yesterday, I was speaking at a school in North Jersey, in an assembly for kids in grades 4-6. We were talking about strategies for selecting books we love and compiled a list: “10 Ways to Pick a Great Book.” The kids came up with all the categories (including: The title is awesome; Your best friend told you you had to read it; It won a prize . . .), and one kid says, “It has to be a grabber!” That’s what I’m looking for in a nutshell—the grabbers, the books that pull kids in on page 1. Or at least by page 10. Which is why you’ll see books like 11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass and Malice by Chris Wooding in upcoming reviews.
I’m also trying to give kids groundbreaking books that will excite them intellectually, give them empathy for all kinds of people, startle them out of their reading ruts, and get them thinking about the world and their place in it. It’s what I’ve spent the last 35 years of my career doing, and it’s still thrilling to find unputdownable new books each year and share them with kids. I’m just rereading one of my very favorite YA books this year, How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford, and marveling over its cleverness and heart and connection to the rebellious, too-smart-for-her-own-good teen I was. It’s spectacular in the way that The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks was for me last year, and I can’t wait to write about it. And I just reviewed the newest Alvin Ho book (Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters) by Lenore Look, a memorable and uproariously funny little transitional fiction book about a Chinese American boy who never talks in school. Right. A book about elective mutism. A regular laugh riot. But it is.
Fuse: Never really thought of Alvin that way, but you’re right. Hey, was ReadKiddoRead modeled after any other site? I know that there are a fair amount of fun literacy sites out there like Jon Scieszka’s Guys Read. What distinguishes this site from the others out there?
Judy: I don’t think there’s anything else like this out there. The reviews are more thorough than those on Oprah’s site or on Guys Read. I try to find the heart and soul of each book so people have a real mental picture of it and feel a strange compulsion to run out and read it. OK, compared to your flowing glorious book reviews, Betsy, mine are downright brief, but they usually run about 300 words.) I also compile a meaty list of related titles for each book—labeled “If You Love This Book, Then Try:”—so if a kid says, “I loved that book. You got another one like it?” he’ll be ready to roll. This is not a random collection of books—I handpick titles I’ve read and loved on the same theme or that make sensible segues from readers. Lately I’ve been adding teacher tips to some of my reviews. The teacher in me can’t help but offer advice on how to use books with kids. (In my own books, I call these little ideas “germs” that you can take and germinate as you see fit.) I also list the general themes for each book.
For each book we review, there are quotes from other printed reviews and links to a variety of places you can buy it online. Each review makes a tidy package. I’ve been writing about 15 new reviews each month, and we put up about 4 new ones each week to keep the site fresh so folks will keep coming back. There are more than 300 reviews up there right now, most of them selected and written by me.
Fuse: Anything particularly new on the horizon?
Judy: I’m just now getting into reading the latest 2010 children’s books. I travel a lot—every other week I’m on the road doing workshops and speeches all over the map. I’ve spoken in every one of the 50 states, including the cold one. (I’ve even spoken at the Wasilla Public Library and at the elementary schools there. No, I didn’t see Russia, but I had a blast there and in Palmer and all over the state.) When I get home, I’m forever inundated with boxes of new books to read, and I never catch up. ( Boo hoo. Yeah, I know—we should all have such terrible problems.) Right now, there are two shelves filled with 50 new fiction titles in my attic office, my Hellhole in the Sky, screaming out to be read. And boxes of picture books in the dining room, nonfiction in the basement, and stacks in the bathroom. I’d love to add a huge warehouse to the back of my house so I could roller skate from shelf to shelf. Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan, Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, and Cosmic by Frank Boyce are all sitting by my bed right now, calling my name.
This month, I’m getting ready for my annual The Winners! Workshop, which I give four times throughout New Jersey the last week of April. It’s an all-day book extravaganza where I sing & dance, praise & pan the 100 best kids’ books of the past year for grades PreK-6. I just heard from my editor today that The Winners! Handbook (Libraries Unlimited, 2010), which participants will receive as their workshop handout (and anyone else can buy a copy from LU or any online bookseller or jobber), is due from the printer any day. It’s always a thrill to see your own new book, and this one’s downright spiffy—the biggest one yet. (All of my yearly Winners! handbooks since 2006 can be considered updates to my book, Books Kids Will Sit Still For 3, which came out in 2006 from LU.)
Fuse: And how about yourself? How’d you get started with this site? What do you do for it now?
Judy: Patterson’s people asked me if I’d be interested in this new project they were starting, and it sounded irresistible. It was a way to do on a big scale what I’ve always done in my school library, in my books, and in all of my speeches and workshops—recommend books that will turn kids into lifelong readers. I haven’t had a minute free since, since I’m always either reading or writing, or thinking about reading or writing. I write reviews in the car (on the passenger’s side, of course), on planes, at the beach. (I’m a lot of fun on vacation, forever reading children’s books. My poor husband . . . He’s used to it, but still.) It’s been the most stimulating and interesting job I’ve ever had, and I’m grateful to Mr. Patterson for trusting my taste in kids’ books.
What most folks don’t realize is that there’s a whole other half of ReadKiddoRead, and that’s the Community part of the site. It’s a Ning site—which means it’s Facebook-ish. You click on the Community link at the top of the home page and are transported to a whole nother place where you can set up your own blog page, join various groups, start discussions, make comments, read or listen to interviews with famous authors, and find annotated booklists and articles. I write one article a month for the free newsletter (you can sign up and they’ll send it to you in e-mail), and then it gets posted on the Community site. I did a killer annotated list for Black History Month, a Summer Reading List, and a Best Books of the Decade list, to name a few. The one that just went up this week is Best Books of 2009. I included my 60 top titles of the past year. It’s listmania over there! There’s always something new and interesting.
Fuse: So, you are one of the best children’s and YA literary geniuses I know (true story). With that in mind, what’s your process when you put books on the website? I know you don’t just throw whatever you see on there, after all.
Judy: Aw, Betsy, you are too nice. I gotta say, I think you are the genius in this duo (true story). I read Fuse#8 every day, and marvel over the depth and breadth and hepth (hepth? An alternate and made-up form of heft, maybe?) of your coverage of books and what’s going on in the field.
Fuse: I’d edit this out but I’m a cad.
Judy: As for selecting books for ReadKiddoRead, I’ve got a little list. Actually, it’s a jampacked database, and on it are all the titles I’ve loved from the past umpteen years. From my list, I try to pick killer books that kids will read and finish. Wherever possible, I go right to the source—real kids. It’s one thing for me to say, “These are the best books to get hypothetical children reading and having a blast,” but what do I know? I’m not a kid anymore (though I still read like a 6-year-old or a 13-year-old, or whatever age a book needs to be appreciated). As a school librarian, I remember the day I discovered that Jules Feiffer’s Bark, George was not just a cute little picture book, as I thought when I read it to myself, but one of the Best Picture Books Ever. How did I find that out? I read it to a kindergarten class, and their response blew me away. Works every time.
Now that I’m not in the library fulltime, I still do hand-on book research on a regular basis at four wonderful elementary schools in NJ where I go to test out all of my choices on the people for whom they’re intended—actual kids. I go into one of those schools with a big box of new titles and whip up the kids into a book frenzy. It’s great fun. We sing, act out stories, do projects, tell jokes, and act very, very silly. I get to see what really works and better understand the dynamic between a book and a kid. Some books bomb, others are brilliant. The librarians and teachers create innovative and interesting follow-up responses (usually written and illustrated) which I bring with me to show when I’m doing professional development workshops to showcase the many creative and fun ways books can be used in school.
For instance, this year, in response to Paul Fleischman’s The Dunderheads, Jamie Vinciguerra’s fourth graders at Milltown School in Bridgewater, NJ put together a booklet of self portraits, each with a new nickname (Jewelry, Talker, Toilet Tank . . .) and a description of their own Dunderhead-like talents. They’re ready to join right in on the next heist.
Right now, I have the best job in the world. Some days I stay home and readreadread 100 new picture books, looking for keepers. Then I writewritewrite reviews and articles for ReadKiddoRead and for SLJ’S Curriculum Connections (I write a little feature every other month called “What’s New”) and for NoveList (the “Desperate Librarians” feature, once or twice a year). Then I go on the road and jawjawjaw all day at my seminars for teachers and librarians, spreading my insidious propaganda that we grownups need to have more fun sharing books with kids.
If I’m very lucky, I get to do a school visit and do assemblies for kids who love hearing stories and booktalks, and it’s just like the old days when I was a school librarian, but with 150 kids at a time instead of 25. My very favorite thing is when I get mobbed after my programs by kids who want to touch and talk about the books I’ve just booktalked and tell me what they’re reading. Their book vibe is so strong. You librarians know exactly what I’m talking about. The kids say, incredulously and beyond thrilled, “You read all these books? Our books? Coooool!” They are dismayed that Percy Jackson is a teen in the new movie instead of a preteen like them. They think the Wimpy Kid movie is “cute, but I like the book better.” They cheer when you hold up the cover of The Invention of Hugo Cabret. They make me feel like an American Idol girl, doing covers of books instead of songs. Not a bad way to spend your days.