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Schools and Kids
With guest Jabari Asim
Children's Book Editor, Book World

Wednesday, April 12, 2000

Jabari Asim, children's book editor of The Washington Post's Book World and author of an upcoming novel for young readers, answered your questions about children's books.

Asim says he grew up reading "widely and unpredictably" across genres: he loved Dr. Seuss, The Call of the Wild, Nancy Drew mysteries inherited from an older sister, and stacks of comic books, especially the "super-hero-in-tights" variety.

Later this year, he will publish The Road to Freedom, a novel about a 10-year-old boy named Ezra set in the post-Civil War South. Ezra and his father, both former slaves, seek to establish themselves after emancipation as they search for Ezra's mother, who disappeared when he was a baby.

Asim's review appeared recently in Book World.

Read the transcript.

Jabari Asim: Good afternoon and welcome to our monthly chat about children's books. I'm heartened by the responses/attention we've received so far, and I want to encourage you to keep those comments and questions coming.

Minneapolis, MN: What would be a good selling topic to write a children's book on?

Jabari Asim: Thanks for your question. I'm not sure that there's such a thing as a good selling topic. If you look through a publisher's catalogue or just browse the shelves at your local bookstore you'll find that the titles cover an incredibly wide range of subjects. What's more important is a well-told story, using imaginative language and characters that children will be able to relate to.

Alex, VA: 1. What kind of resources are out there for someone who wants to write children books and wants to get their book published but does not have the funds right now.

2. How can a person promote their book are it has been published.

Thanks for your response.

Jabari Asim: Hi. I'd start with the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and the Children's Book Council. Both organizations have Web sites with useful information and links to other helpful sources, including references to grants and awards available to folks working in this field. Once your book is published, you'll want to work closely with your in-house publicist to make it known to reviewers, librarians and booksellers. I'd also look at online discussions and seriously consider constructing a web site devoted exclusively to the book. Make it your business to visit all the libraries in your area; librarians wield consider influence where children's books are concerned.

Washington, DC: Hi,
Sometimes on a children's book, I can find an age guide telling me what age the book is geared for.

And sometimes I -can't- find it!

Do you know where this appears, and does it depend on the publisher? I'm an aunt, not a mom, so I can't always tell if the book is right for my niece or nephew.


Jabari Asim: Good question. It depends on the publisher and often such information isn't listed at all. Online bookstores usually list the recommended age range for a book, and bricks-and-mortar stores often group them accordingly. The best measurement of course, is you. It's a good idea to eyeball the book thoroughly despite age recommendations, just to make sure it's appropriate for your young reader.

Alexandria, VA: Two questions: 1. Where did you get your idea for The Road to Freedom? and 2. Will you (and other authors) be contributing to the new Post Kid's Page?

Jabari Asim: "The Road To Freedom" (now available in bookstores!)came about when the publisher contacted me to participate in a historical series called Jamestown Portraits. Each book in the series features a young hero or heroine living in a different time period. The editors were looking for a fictional piece set during Reconstruction. After a few conversations with them, I came up with an outline that they approved. After that, it was simply a matter of getting to work. I don't know what the KidsPost editors have in mind in terms of covering authors, but we have discussed linking our Book World reviews to their stories when it makes sense.

Falls Church VA: Do you think the Harry Potter books will be published in paperback?

I can only find the first one in paperback.

Jabari Asim: To my knowledge, the first Harry Potter is the only one available in paperback. Someone out in cyberspace may know differently. I'm sure the others will be issued in paperback, but perhaps not as long as the hardcover versions are selling so briskly.

California: Hi Jabari,

My son is three and a half and his reading materials currently includes many of Dr.Seuss's children's books.

Could you recommend some good reading materials as he turns 4.


Jabari Asim: These days, I'm high on "Max Loves Sunflowers," by Ken Wilson-Max. Not many words, but incredible illustrations. Choosing titles for tots is tricky. My own 4-year-old seems to like this book but I'm not sure that she likes it as much as I do. The Eric Carle books are tough to beat where top-notch illustrations are concerned. I believe his latest is called "Does A Kangaroo Have A Mother Too?" It passed the test with my daughter, although I think she prefers such Carle classics as "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" and "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?"

Alex, VA: What type of funds or resources are available for aspiring writers?

Jabari Asim: I'd start with Poets & Writers Magazine (www.pw.org), which is one of the best sources of general info for writers, including grants, awards and other types of funding. You might also try Bookwire (at www.bookwire.com), or consulting one of those annual handbooks for writers. There are more sources of funding than many people realize, but finding them requires some digging.

Jabari Asim: I get this question a lot, but I'm fickle enough to provide a different answer every time. Lately I've been thinking about a book that I spent a lot of time with when I was small. It was called Gateway To Storyland and was an anthology of tales for children. I remember the little gingerbread boy, the three little pigs, another story about a pig who was either contented or discontented (I can't quite recall). The illustrations were very good, and it was a book that I revisited again and again. I have no idea if it's still in print, but now that I've talked about it I'm going to find out.

washingtonpost.com: The last question came from Arlington, VA:

So what are some of your favorite kids' books? I still have warm, fuzzy childhood memories of "Goodnight Moon."

Montgomery Village, MD: Hello Mr. Asim,
I remember being frightened of the Cat in the Hat as a child, but I love the story now that I read it to my kids. Do you know of any pseudo-scholarly interpretations of the story? The more I think about it, the more I think the Cat is a figment of the boy's imagination, the part that wants to misbehave. I think the fish represents the part of him that knows right from wrong. I think he imagined the whole story while his mother was out. Am I nuts?

Jabari Asim: I absolutely love The Cat In The Hat. I can't name any scholarly interpretations of the book, but I'm almost certain that Dr. Seuss has been the topic of more than a few graduate student papers. I can see the fish easily in my mind's eye, struggling to stay afloat in that pot, warning, "He should not be here when your mother is out!" I won't risk assessing your take on things, although your observations do raise the questions about the role the narrator's sister plays in all the shenanigans, and what on earth do we do with Thing 1 and Thing 2? I like them much better than the little cats who emerge during the climax of the sequel, The Cat In The Hat Comes Back.

Arlington, Va. : What ingredients make a quality children's book? Are we getting too concerned with sending a message, rather than just giving a child a good story?

Jabari Asim: I think the elements of a successful book remained unchanged, solid, compelling characters and/or clever, imaginative language, an absorbing plot, and in the case of picture books, charming illustrations. I'll risk an overly broad generalization by saying that books that try too hard to send a message tend to fail. The story inevitably suffers, and children have proved reliable at detecting when authors are condescending to them. Once you've insulted their intelligence you've lost them. The Harry Potter books, for instance, teach valuable lessons about friendship, honesty, courage and loyalty, but never at the expense of the story. Ditto for Tolkien, Seuss, L. Frank Baum, Lucille Clifton, Patricia McKissack--and all the other masterful storytellers.

Jabari Asim: Reluctantly, I must sign off until next time (I have a pile of editing awaiting me, and Book World goes to press in an hour). I had some good questions that I was unable to get to this time. I hope to address them when we meet again. Goodbye, and have a great April. Could Spring be here at last?

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