Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
A Kids' Librarian's Advice
What books should your kids read? Just ask Betsy Bird. As a senior librarian at the New York Public Library's Donnell children's branch, she talks to parents and kids of all stripes about great reads. When she's not at the library, she's blogging on A Fuse #8 Production, her popular website dedicated to children's literature. And when she's not blogging, she's on the radio, talking about kids' books on NPR. All this as "a mere slip of a 28-year-old." We called Betsy for a book-filled conversation about children's lit:
VT: Do you still remember the books you read as a kid?
Betsy: Oh sure, I was a voracious reader. My mother worked at one of the independent book stores in Kalamazoo, MI, so we were flooded with books growing up. She brought us a lot of the classics, so I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Wind in the Willows, a lot of Tasha Tudor books, things like that. As I got older I enjoyed things like The Westing Game, and the whole series of Apple paperbacks like The Girl With the Silver Eyesby Willo Davis Roberts.
VT: Do kids still read these books today?
Betsy: Yes, we have them at my branch. In fact, I was so delighted to find that we have every book I read as a kid. We have the Trixie Beldenbooks and even a couple of the Three Investigatorsbooks on our shelves.
VT: Does children's literature go through waves of popularity?
Betsy: A series will. Right now, there's a new publication of the old Baby-Sitter's Club series but redone as graphic novels. A whole new generation of kids is revisiting this older title. But some things never go away, like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. They update them, but the classics are what the kids usually run and grab.
VT: What makes for a great children's book?
Betsy: Good books are the books kids will want to read but at the same time are the books you want them to read.
VT: How do you help parents find the right book for their kid?
Betsy: Parents will sometimes come in and say, I've got a kid who never wants to read -- but I want to get him Treasure Island. Well, you can't start him out on Treasure Island. You got to start slow, you've got to begin with stuff your child already finds interesting. Slowly, as they become readers, they'll work themselves up to the classics, the harder texts out there.
VT: When should parents introduce their kids to books?
Betsy: I always encourage people to start reading with their kids as young as possible. Here at the library we have a baby board books area, an easy book area for kids just beginning to read on their own, and a separate picture books section for parents to read to their children. That's how we try to start off readers. A really good early reader just came out last year, by the way, called A Splendid Friend, Indeed by Suzanne Bloom. It's such a charming book, so succinct, a lovely little story, and the words are simple.
VT: What's your favorite children's book right now?
Betsy: My favorite book of the year so far, one that I think is incredibly fun and just a wonderful book, is called Fly by Night by Francis Hardinge. It's a British import, about a girl and her goose. The goose is homicidal, and it's the girl's best friend. The book's set in late 17th century England, but through an alternate world. Its use of words is just fabulous. I try to recommend it to everyone I know. And by a first-time author, too.
VT: What else can parents do to find great books for their kids?
Betsy: Libraries often put out lists of the best books of a given year. The New York Public Library certainly does that. We have one called the 100 Favorite Children's Books and another called the 100 Picture Books Everyone Should Know. Always ask librarians if they have lists of books they'd particularly recommend. Other lists I like are Guys Read, the Newberry Medal Winners and the Caldecott Medal Winners.