THE 104TH ANNUAL conference of the American Library Association in Chicago July 6-11 which attracted about 15,000 participants, all clearly crazy about books, was, among many other things, the year's most impressive gathering of authors, illustrators, editors and publishers for the young. They are engaged in what publishers have discovered to be a tremendously profitable business.
As an author of such books myself, and a consumer as well, since I have a 21/2-year-old daughter named Lily, I paid particular attention to the latest products inspired by this bonanza. My humble opinion is that young adults are being offered wise and courageous and absorbing tales indeed, generally speaking, but that, again generally speaking, the books for the likes of Lily are beautifully illustrated trash. It is as though those who produce tales to be read aloud to toddlers believed their audience to be brain-damaged.
Does Lily herself know that she is often so patronized? You bet she does. When I promised to bring her lots of books from the conference, she pleaded, "I want you to bring me nice books, Mommy. No more dumb ones."
So, respecting her wishes, I brought her only two, both her instant favorites, both scheduled for fall. Neither one has pop-ups or holes or feelies or wheels. They simply have pages that can be turned easily or lie there nice and flat. Imagine that! They make beautiful use of the language, to her, just now, the most enchanting of all inventions. Neither one is an exercise in supposedly merry, surely random, nitwittery. Each one has, from a toddler's admirable point of view, a gripping, memorable tale to tell.
My own favorite of the two is The Donkey's Dream by Barbara Helen Berger (Philomel Books) published under the editoship of Ann Beneduce. Aside from being a gifted illustrator, Berger has a poet's ear for language. Every word is lovingly selected, and Lily gratefully savors each and every one of them. The meter is just right for reading aloud to a child.
Based on the birth of the Christ Child, it is the story of a little donkey who carries Mary on the long journey to the town of Bethlehem and as he walks through the starry night he begins to dream. He dreams he is carrying a ship, rocking to and fro like a cradle amidst the deep, dark waves of the night. Then a fountain, its water singing with the laughter of children. Then a rose, soft as a mother's touch, sweet as the sleep of a baby. Finally he dreams that he is carrying all of heaven on his back. Reaching the end of his journey the donkey is tired no more.
The other book I liked is coming from Crown where David Allender has recently been made editor of the juvenile department. Titled The World From My Window, by Sheila White Samton, it begins: "The moon is rising in the sky./ And two pale clouds are drifting by,/ And far away, three hills sit back, Against the sky, and they look black." The text continues with this graceful ease and deceptive simplicity, introducing young readers to numbers one through 10 with a visually breathtaking twilight view of the world as seen from one window.
AS I'VE already said, there is an abundance of good writers for young adults -- YA authors they're called -- and some of the most popular ones -- M.E. Kerr, Paula Danziger, Robert Cormier, Virginia Hamilton, Richard Peck and S.E. Hinton were on hand to meet and greet their many fans. I talked for a while with Bob Cormier who had this to say about why he loves librarians:
"I always enjoy attending ALA conferences because I feel I'm meeting old friends. Most young people are introduced to my books by librarians as opposed to picking them out for themselves from among the fantasies and romances in the bookstores, so I'm grateful to these 'introducers.' I love sitting at the booth and signing books even though my private nightmare is that no one will show up. The library has always been a second home to me. As a 13-year-old aspiring writer, I discovered Thomas Wolfe there and my life was never the same afterward. I still visit one of the libraries in my hometown just about every day of the week."
On hand, filming Cormier, was CBS's Sunday Morning crew with correspondent Robert Lipsyte who is himself a well-known YA author.
A perfect example of the richness of story telling for the young adult field is The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, this year's Newbery winner. McKinley, wearing a black feather boa over a long black dress looked like a princess of her own invention as she stepped up to receive her medal, conferred annually on what the judges consider to be the best book of the year. She told us that female characters are no longer a pale and silly chorus for males' deeds of derring- do.
How important do librarians consider the job of getting good books to children? At the awards dinner on Sunday night, ALA president Elonnie J. Josey reminded the assemblage that "A serious measure of society is how it treats its children. Every day brings new evidence that their plight is getting worse. Children constitute 40 percent of the nation's poor. One in five of America's children lives in deep poverty. Our mission at the Children's Services of the ALA is more important than ever. We must increase our library services to children."
As for librarians' awareness of how empty and even annoying so many children's books are these days, Jane Bothem, president-elect of the ALA children's division, had this tart comment: "Publishers are looking for eyecatching books instead of trying to develop new writers."
And there is plenty of discontent within the publishing industry itself, as consider these words from Janet Schulman, editor of children's books at Random House: "It really should be the word first. It has to add up to something. When you think back to your childhood, the books that made an impact were the books that changed your way of thinking in some way. You didn't love a particular book because it was glitzy or artistic. Dr. Seuss, for example, will be remembered because he's a word man, and not because of his drawings."
Ask anybody Lily's age what matters most in a book. Ask anybody any age what most matters in a book. It's the words.