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Book World Live: Children's Books

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Rachel Hartigan Shea, deputy editor of Book World; Liz Ward, children's book columnist; Rosemary Wells, children's book author
Tuesday, December 11, 2007; 3:00 PM

In this special online roundtable on the notable children's books of 2007, Book World deputy editor Rachel Hartigan Shea fielded questions and comments, along with children's book columnist Liz Ward and children's author Rosemary Wells.Read this week's Book World roundup: Best Books for Young People

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Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.

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Rachel Hartigan Shea: Hello everyone! I'm so pleased to have Rosemary Wells, who writes, illustrates and writes/illustrates many wonderful children's books, and Elizabeth Ward, Book World's expert on kids' books, here to join us to talk about the year in books. We're all looking forward to your questions.

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Washington: I read anywhere from two to five books per day to my son. I bought several lots of books from garage sales when he was an infant, but they were only so-so. I figure we have about 300 kids books. I'm getting most of the books from the library, but their selection isn't great. I can't afford, you know, $10 per title, but books just keep getting more expensive. How can I purchase these books you review at let's say, $1-$3 per title? I go to stores and they're ten times what I can afford to pay.

Liz Ward: This is a big problem that I think about every time I write a review. And $16 is more like the going price for a new hardcover picture book. When my kids were younger and I was facing exactly the same problem, my solutions were 1. the library; 2. fairs or sales (which you are already doing) and best of all, 3. paperbacks, paperbacks, paperbacks. It also might be a good idea to trade with friends.

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Washington: Hi! My sister is having a baby in April, and I'd like to get him started with a library of all the best childrens books. I'm curious which you would suggest for the littlest ones? (I have time to buy older childrens/young adult classics later.) I've already picked up "Good Night Moon," a favorite from when we were little. Thanks!

Rachel Hartigan Shea: Well, speaking as a mother rather than an editor, my son loved "Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb," "Where the Wild Things Are," anything by Dr. Seuss, basically anything that sounded good outloud.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi! Not sure if this is a right place for this, but I wrote a little children's story about twins. What should I do next to possibly have it published? I've never tried doing it before and don't really know where to start. I would really appreciate your help. (If it matters, the story is probably for toddlers age group.) Thank you!

Rosemary Wells: Join the SCBWI. They have a website and a how to get published kit.

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Richmond, Va.: Can you recommend a book to read to my son at bedtime that's in chapters? We've gone through "The House at Pooh Corner," which he enjoyed, but we are ready for something different. He is four, so "Harry Potter" and similar novels are too mature for him. Thanks!

Rosemary Wells: How about trying Voyage to the Bunny Planet

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Alexandria, Va.: Thank you for the article. Sometimes I'm overwhelmed by the number of choices at the library/bookstore so it's nice to see a list and have a starting point. My question is sort of a broad one related to children's books/reading. Growing up, my only source for books for leisure reading was the library. As a mom, I find myself buying books directly from Amazon or Barnes & Noble for my daughter (convenience and inexpensive) rather than going to the library to borrow them. Granted, she's only two and is happy reading the same books over and over again, but as she gets older will she be missing out on something if I don't patronize the local library?

Rachel Hartigan Shea: Libraries may not have all the latest books (and those they do have may be chewed up and colored over!) but they do have librarians, who can help you find the books to meet your kid's interest and reading level. I can't tell you how many great shark books the librarians at my local library have located for my son, books we may not have pulled off the shelves others. Plus, most have storytimes, another good way to be introduced to other new books.

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Rockville, Md.: Hi -- thanks for taking my question. I wonder if you have suggestions for books which are appropriate for an early reader -- I have a daughter who reads very well in first grade, and it's hard to find books that have appropriate content for someone who is younger. She loves the "American Girl" books, for example.

Liz Ward: Have she started on Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" series? She sounds as if she's at just the right point for those wonderul books. Also the tried-and-true "Boxcar Children" series.

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Easton, Md.: Merry Christmas! I enjoyed the children's book round-up in Sunday's Book World. The book "Artist to Artist" caught my eye. My daughter loves to draw, but she's almost 10. Is this book age-appropriate, or will it be too young for her? I thought it might make a nice Christmas gift. If not, do you have other suggestions? I like the premise of famous illustrators offering their words of wisdom.

Rachel Hartigan Shea: Oh, I think it would be great for a 10-year-old artist, so inspiring, and so fun to see where all the artists (including Rosemary Wells!) work and read how they got started.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Ms. Wells, what is your writing process, if you have one? Do you form a story first and then seek things you think would appeal to children, or do you have a moral or message you wish to bring to children and find a story to shape it? How do you construct a children's story?

Rosemary Wells: The story always comes first. The story comes to me from the air. This is my job. It is a writers job to have ideas and know how to construct a story from them

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Arlington, Va.: Ms. Wells, I'm doing a study on creativity for my degree. May I ask you what factors influenced your creativity and writing career as you were growing up? Thank you.

Rosemary Wells: Reading wonderful stories and excellent literature. Having no tv around.

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Life after Harry: My 8-year-old daughter is a great reader and has devoured books since kindergarten. We've hit a roadblock, however. She adored the "Harry Potter" series, which she read on her own, and now is hearing me read to her younger sister. I'm all for re-reading beloved books, but I'd love for her to discover new books as well. Everything she tries just seems blah compared to Harry. I greatly enjoyed the "Harry Potter" series myself, so I do understand what she means. Recent attempts include "Princess Academy," the "Sisters Grimm" series, and the first book in the "Dark is Rising" sequence, "Over Sea Under Stone." Nothing captivates. Although she is a good reader, I don't think she can handle themes that are too sophisticated, which means I think she should wait on Ursula Leguin's "Earthsea" books and "The Golden Compass." Any suggestions?

Liz Ward: I have two quick suggestions you could look at: the English writer Philip Reeve's "Larklight: A Rousing Tale of Daunting Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space," (really), published last year, I think) and the very recently published "The Black Book of Secrets," by F.E. Higgins, also English (and like the initials-using J.K. Rowling, a woman). Oh, and if you can find a copy of the possibly out-of-print "The Owlstone Crown," by X.J. Kennedy, I can almost guarantee she won't be able to put it down.

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New York: Hello! My children and I just love reading books about animals, whether they talk or not. I like reading books that have a lesson in them too -- nothing overbearing, but at least something learned. A friend of mine says that both those genres (for lack of a better term -- forgive me, my brain is fried!) were on the outs. That books today, especially for little ones, should be silly with no redeeming moral value. She also said that anthropomorphism was dead. Thoughts?

Rosemary Wells: She is wrong she might as well kill off charlott's web and Goodnight Moon and Winnie the Pooh and any number of the greatest classics for children. I guess she doesn't like Max and Ruby! She is completely off base. All good children's books. Leave you knowing more than when you started.

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Arlington, Va: My nearly 6-year-old son has been engaged in book-reading his whole life. Until recently we typically checked out 30 to 40 picture books every week from the local library -- many we read several weeks in a row. He is a great reader, but now that he has started kindergarten he all of a sudden hates to read and doesn't want to be read to anymore. Can you suggest any books that could spur interest again? I'm sure he would love to hear "Harry Potter" but I'm waiting for another year on that. ... Chapter books or "I can read" books are too simplistic (plus he would reject reading them out loud, he thinks it's boring). Even holiday books -- tried and true at this time of year -- are not capturing his attention. I know this is a very broad question but thought you might know of books that are particularly engaging/not easy to put down. Thanks!

Liz Ward: Absolutely. Ruth Stiles Gannett's trilogy from the 1940s, still in print, "My Father's Dragon," "Elmer and the Dragon" and "The Dragons of Blueland."

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Arlington, Va.: How do you get started on a children's book?

Rosemary Wells: Its my job to have ideas. I am a writer that is what I do. All books are different.

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Virginia: I have a rambunctious 2-year-old daughter who loves books. Do you have any suggestions for good (and relatively sturdy) interactive books for toddlers? We have lots of good story books, but she doesn't always have the patience for those -- things with flaps and pull tabs keep her interested for a long time!

Rachel Hartigan Shea: The trouble with pop-books is that they get pulverized so quickly. Even Maurice Sendak's "Mommy" probably requires supervision, if you don't want it fall apart immediately. That said, Chuck Murphy has some great, "slide & seek" board books, with simple titles like Shapes, Colors, Opposites and Counting. They all withstand much toddler abuse and are good for teaching concepts in an interactive way.

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Aspiring Childrens Writer Wants to Know...: Happy Holidays Ms. Wells! Any advice for an aspiring children's book writer? I have several stories completed and submitted, and always am working on more. Some publishers will love one story but not quite while other publishers will hate it outright. I know it's a subjective industry, but sometimes I wonder if it's all about the marketing (movie rights, toys, celebrity authors, etc.). What are your thoughts?

Rosemary Wells: Join the SCBWI

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Where to get cheap books: Look into Dover Publishing for classic (some abridged) childrens books in paperback. For example, "Little Women" is $4 for a 220-plus page paperback. "Anne of Green Gables" is $2. Of course, you still pay shipping.

Rachel Hartigan Shea: Great idea! Most bookstores have racks of those books at the front.

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Arlington, Va.: I love your list of best books, but found that there seems to be a level missing ... I have a first-grade daughter who is a strong reader but is six years old. We want to keep encouraging that love for books, so I often am struggling to find her good books that are age-appropriate but also interesting. She loves "Judy Moody" or "Ivy and Bean" books and is starting on the "Little House" series (not beginning chapter books, but not too deep, scary or difficult either). Are there other chapter books -- particularly new ones -- that you could recommend for younger kids? Thanks.

Rosemary Wells: Of my books, I would recommend Yoko's Kind and Gentle World. Soon she will be ready for Charlott's Web and Stuart Little

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Arlington, Va.: My question for Rosemary Wells: What advice can you offer would-be children's book illustrators? Thanks.

Rosemary Wells: Make sure that your illustrations are of a character that would appeal to children. The SCBWI has a website and probably have a local chapter in your area.

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Northern Virginia: Hi! I'm looking for book suggestions for a precocious 9-year-old girl. My third-grade daughter loves to read and reads well above her grade level -- which leaves the problem of finding books that are age-appropriate for her, but not boring or "too easy." She's done with "Harry Potter" (still not sure those were age appropriate!) and Laura Ingalls Wilder, as well as most of the Roald Dahl I can lay my hands on. I'd rather keep her away from the Disney princess and fairy stories as well. I saw the review for Rosemary Wells's "Red Moon at Sharpsburg" -- is that okay for a 9-year-old?

Liz Ward: It depends on the 9-year-old, of course, but I would say so. (Rosemary?) I would suggest two great series, if you haven't already tried them: Joan Aiken's Wolves Chronicles, beginning with "The Wolves of Willoughby Chase," and Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising sequence. Would also highly recommend Cooper's historical fantasy about Lord Nelson and a young American girl, "Victory," and Geraldine McCaughrean's very sharp, funny sequel to "Peter Pan, "Peter Pan in Scarlet." Which means that your daughter can also have fun discovering J.M. Barrie's original "Peter Pan." which she should of course read first.

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Rachel Hartigan Shea: Just had another thought about where to get inexpensive books: Does your child's school or preschool order books through Scholastic books? We've gotten great books (Five Little Monkeys, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, Stellaluna) for very little money, all paperbacks, through them. Sometimes the catalogs have a bit too much Disney and Thomas the Tank Engine, but there's always at least one book worth ordering.

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Arlington, Va.: Please explain Max & Ruby's relationship. She seems more like a mother than a sister...

Rosemary Wells: All older sisters behave this way. I try to write my characters as children really are. Not as we think they should be. My oldest child is Ruby and her words are verbatim on the pages!

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Houston: My 12-year-old niece reads slowly and does not enjoy it. Pretty much all she'll read is "Babysitters Club" and the like. Any suggestions as to what we may be able to tempt her with? Oh, and according to her teacher she's reading "at grade level."

Rosemary Wells: I really can't answer, I'm not an expert. Try Nancy Drew. She sould pick out her own books let her come to it herself. Don't push her or she will resist.

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Philadelphia: Ms. Shea, you are an editor. Have your written any children's books, and if so, what have you written? If not, do you think you may write one sometime?

Rachel Hartigan Shea: Alas, I have not written any children's books and bow down before Rosemary, who has written a mind-boggling 126! I've probably read at least that many though....

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Frustrationville: Hi all! As a budding children's writer I have to get something off my chest. A friend of a friend is having a picture book published soon. He's basically an illustrator whose logos the publishing house liked, so he built a story around said logos. I write stories and can't draw a lick, but from what I've read about the publishing world they say not to worry because publishing houses have illustrators they use. I hope to be published someday too. Do publishing houses favor illustrators/writers? Do budding writers even have a chance anymore? The business seems very celebrity- and toy-oriented.

Rosemary Wells: Ok the business is celeb and toy oriented. However don't believe a lot of myths about publishing, my advice is to join the SCBWI.

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Annapolis, Md.: Just wanted to thank Ms. Wells for the lovely essay in yesterday's Book World. It was a fine tribute to reading out loud, which my wife and I both remember fondly and which we have passed on to our kids. And it made me consider whether my own kids (nine and six) are ready for "A Child's Christmas in Wales." Thanks again.

washingtonpost.com: Small Treasures: An author and illustrator remembers books of Christmases past (Post, Dec. 9)

Rosemary Wells: You're welcome. My pleasure.

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Washington: Hello. Have any of you read Sherman Alexie's new young adults book, and if so do you think the books recommended in this past Sunday's Book World were better? I was surprised that his book was not mentioned. Thanks!

Liz Ward: I'm afraid I missed reading that one, which is one reason it wasn't on the list. I've been hearing so much about it since, it's definitely high on my "catch-up" list.

Rachel Hartigan Shea: We ran a separate review of Flight here http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/12/AR2007041202510.html.

The reviewer (Ann Cummins, who has written novels about Native Americans, including Yellowcake) liked it very much, but it wasn't an out and out rave, which is how we determine what gets on the best lists.

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Vienna, Va.: Just a comment about the world of children's books: This is the new "golden age" for fantasy. The mid-20th century had Tolkein and C.S. Lewis, but thanks to J.K. Rowling, publishers are eager to take a chance with fresh new voices in fantasy. Some of the excellent established writers have received a boost as well. I'd like to recommend Shannon Hale in the first category, an amazingly creative writer whose "Princess Academy" was a dazzling Newbery Honor book last year. And in the category of established fantasy writers, Diana Wynne Jones. I think "Howl's Moving Castle" would be in my top five of any books, not just fantasy, and her "Chrestomanci" series is now available on audio. Two recommendations I suggest to children and adults.

Liz Ward: I'd also put in a word for Nancy Farmer, whose most recent fantasy is "The Land of the Silver Apples," sequel to "the Sea of Trolls," set in medieval England and Iceland. What is particularly appealing about her books is their humor, a bit unusual in what is often a rather solemn genre.

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Rosemary Wells: Are there anymore questions for Rosemary Wells?

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Rachel Hartigan Shea: I have a question for Rosemary, Liz and anyone else? With the movie of the Golden Compass just out and all the complaints about what's in it (talking bears) and what isn't (Philip Pullman's atheism), are there any movies based on children's books that you think do the job of capturing the spirit of the books. Personally, I thought the Narnie movie was disappointing....

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Liz Ward: I thought the first "Harry Potter" movie really caught the spirit of the book. The first view of Hogwarts! The first Quidditch match!

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Washington: For the person looking for inexpensive books -- Daedalus Boods, has cheap childrens books.

Rachel Hartigan Shea: Another excellent suggestion...

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"Dragon Stories": Thanks for the suggestion of the Ruth Stiles Gannett's trilogy. A quick check on Amazon shows that the writing style is very lilting -- much like Edward Lear I think. ("Four Little Children Who Went Around the World" by Edward Lear is probably my favorite children's book.) Thanks very much for the suggestion -- I will try it out. By the way, we have read all of Rosemary Wells picture books until the pages have been tattered, and "Max & Ruby" is still probably my son's favorite story series (and now my 2-year-old daughter's, too). Thanks for writing it! You've made a big difference in many lives.

Rosemary Wells: My pleasure.

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Mount Vernon, Va.: Inexpensive children's books: Libraries and many churches and nonprofit groups have used book sales. You can study up ahead of time to see what's on your school's recommended list. The Fairfax County library website has a long list of books titled "If you loved Harry Potter..."

Rachel Hartigan Shea: I've noticed those shelves in the Prince George's County libraries as well. J.K. Rowling is definitely not the only who knows how to spin magic.

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Washington: Do have recommendations for read aloud chapter books for 5- to 6-year-olds? Something with more interesting/complex writing than an "early reader" book, but themes appropriate for this age group. We've recently enjoyed the "My Father's Dragon" trilogy, the Ralph S. Mouse books, and "The Cricket in Times Square." Looking for action, adventure and humor. Thanks!

Liz Ward: The Boxcar Children series and -- a big hit with my boys when they were about this age -- Hugh Lofting's "Doctor Doolittle" books, great read-alouds

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Silver Spring, Md.: Is the Max & Ruby animated series still in production? How involved were/are you with it?

Rosemary Wells: It is not in production. But it is on the air. I am not greatly involved in the production. It was produced by Nelvana Studios in Canada.

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Columbia, Mo.: Ms. Wells, I adore your illustrations. Do you have any upcoming books you can share with us?

Rosemary Wells: Well, there are two coming next year. Yoko Writes Her Name and Otto Runs for President. Not to mention Bunny Business, another Max and Ruby.

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Rosemary's Web site: Rosemary, I visited your Web site and it's not up-to-date. Do you have more than one site? Your homepage mentioned a book of yours due out in 1999!

Rosemary Wells: I'm terribly sorry. I keep forgetting about it!

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To rhyme or not to rhyme: Are children's stories that rhyme dead? I hear mixed reviews on that. I prefer rhymes more like Dr. Seuss -- very simple and fun.

Rachel Hartigan Shea: I hope not! Reading outloud should be like singing--it's the sounds of the words that keep even babies paying attention. Just read a great one to my son last night called Bats at the Beach. Great illustrations (bats, natch, go to the beach at night) and fabulous rhymes.

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Rosemary Wells: Thank you all for your very interesting questions. I hope that I have been able to answer them all successfully. Happy holidays to everyone and don't forget to stuff a book in the stocking.

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Rachel Hartigan Shea: Well, that's it for us. Thanks to all of you for your questions, and to Rosemary and Elizabeth for sharing their expertise. You can check out our entire special kids' holiday issue at www.washingtonpost.com/books. Stuff those stockings full of books!

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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