Children's Reading Festival Shows the Possibilities and Challenges of Writing for a Young Audience

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photo by David Luttrell

Libraries Are Crucial

Chris Raschka has a fairly simple formula for coming up with children’s book ideas: find something he’s interested in, and then find a way to tell children about it.

“I still find it fascinating to write and illustrate for children,” says Raschka, who is headlining this year’s Children’s Festival of Reading at World’s Fair Park on Saturday. “There are only a few frameworks. One of them is that it’s generally 32 pages. But within that, there are all kinds of possibilities. I’m just finishing a wordless picture book right now, and that is quite a challenge.”

The possibilities and challenges of engaging a young audience are a shared mission for the slate of authors at the festival, which kicks off the Knox County Library’s summer reading program. Besides Raschka, they include Judy Schachner, whose popular Skippyjon Jones series is about a hyperactive Siamese kitten who imagines he’s a chihuahua; Jack Gantos, creator of the Joey Pigza and Rotten Ralph series; Mike Thaler, “America’s Riddle King” and author of the Black Lagoon books; Deborah Wiles, who has written children’s books about the Civil Rights movement (Freedom Summer) and the Cuban missile crisis (the just-released Countdown); and Chris Grabenstein, a University of Tennessee graduate and mystery writer who moves back and forth between adult and young-adult novels.

Mary Pom Claiborne, communications administrator for the Knox County Library, says many of the featured authors write about serious subjects, in ways that make sense to their readers. Gantos’ Joey Pigza books, for example, are about a boy with attention deficit disorder, and told from his point of view. “It’s a little edgier, it’s not Dick and Jane type of stuff,” Claiborne says. “It’s the kind of stuff real kids deal with on a daily basis.”

Raschka, for one, can hardly be accused of condescending to his audience. His first book for young readers, in 1992, was Charlie Parker Played Be Bop, a lively jazz primer with a narrative rhythm inspired by Parker’s recording of “A Night in Tunisia.” He has written two more jazz books—Mysterious Thelonious and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps—along with an odd tale of a fish who winds up packed in a can (Arlene Sardine), a collection of concrete poems by visual artists (A Poke in the I), and a meditation on the names of cities (New York Is English, Chattanooga Is Creek) that cleverly illustrates the diverse roots of American culture. His 1994 book Yo! Yes?, about a friendship between two very different boys, was a Caldecott Honor Book. And in 2006 he and veteran writer Norton Juster (creator of The Phantom Tollbooth) won the Caldecott Medal for The Hello, Goodbye Window, a gentle story about a little girl and her grandparents.

Raschka, speaking by phone from his home in New York City, says children’s books—and picture books in particular—may be better positioned to survive the digital onslaught than other forms of media. Even babies can grasp their basic function, both physically and intellectually. “I’m continually amazed by that,” he says, “that a 2-year-old or a 1-1/2-year-old already has a pretty sophisticated idea of how books work.”

He is also optimistic about the future of libraries themselves, which may become even more important as physical bookstores are increasingly displaced by the online marketplace. Raschka says that when he’s writing, he likes to go to a library to do it. “I still like to be surrounded by books,” he says. “I know libraries are crucial and are one of the great achievements of civilized humanity, and they will continue.”

Not surprisingly, Claiborne agrees. She notes that where children are concerned, the Knox County Library has sponsored summer reading programs for more than 80 years, helping to fill the educational dead zone of school vacation. The Great Reading Festival started six years ago as a way to promote those efforts, and Claiborne says it has been effective—participation in the reading programs has doubled, to about 12,000.

As for the role of libraries in an e-book age, she says, “The library will always center around the book. The format of the book doesn’t matter so much, what matters is that you’re using your imagination.”

It Took Imagination

Imagination is what it took for Chris Grabenstein to start thinking about approaching a new, younger reading audience. A native of Buffalo, N.Y., he spent part of his childhood in Chattanooga and his college years in Knoxville. After graduation, he moved to New York and worked variously in comic improv (where one colleague was Bruce Willis), screenplays (he co-wrote the 1986 TV movie The Christmas Gift, which starred John Denver), and advertising. In the latter role, he ended up working at the J. Walter Thompson agency for James Patterson, who was already writing mystery novels and thrillers and would eventually become a mainstay of best-seller lists. Earlier this decade, Grabenstein took up the trade himself, and had instant acclaim: Tilt-a-Whirl, published in 2005 with a nice jacket blurb from Patterson, won Best First Novel in the Anthony Awards for mystery writing.

Grabenstein has continued writing novels in that grown-up series, which feature an Iraq veteran-turned-cop working the Jersey Shore, but a few years ago decided to try something different. “I’ve got 10 nieces and nephews,” he says, “and none of them could read my adult books.”

So in 2008 he published The Crossroads, the first book in his “Haunted Mystery” series for middle-school-age readers. The protagonist, Zack, and his family move into a house with some spooky secrets. It won him another Anthony Award, for Best Children’s/Young Adult, along with an Agatha Award in the same category; the sequel, last year’s The Hanging Hill, also won the Agatha. A third book in the series, The Smoky Corridor, is due out in August.

Grabenstein says it took some trial and error to find the balance between being scary enough for middle-schoolers—who don’t want to be treated like children anymore—and keeping the content within the somewhat hazy bounds of age-appropriateness. “I guess the biggest line is the language,” he says. “And you have to be a little careful about who you kill. They have to deserve to die.”

He says that mostly he tries to remember what he was like at that age. “Kids have such a vivid imagination, you don’t have to push stuff too far,” he adds.

Claiborne says Grabenstein’s audience is at a crucial age, the boys in it especially. The middle-school years are when many boys stop reading books entirely. She hopes having Grabenstein at the festival will bring in some of those fans.

“When we can pull in a writer who really appeals to males in the middle-school years,” she says, “you might keep them reading for the summer. And hopefully for the rest of their lives.”

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