Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Trying to Change the World

The readers and writers of this blog understand our mission: to get kids to learn the material taught in their curricula by reading interesting, well-written books on the various topics. Simple idea, right? There’s a larger mission out there: to get kids to read, period. Again, our answer is to give them interesting and entertaining books to read and show that fiction doesn’t have a lock on reader appeal. Another simple idea that we each reiterate in blog after blog, book after book.

The world doesn’t yet get it. If it had, we authors would all be making decent, secure livings. Some of the impediments come from the vested interests of textbook publishers who have a political stronghold on classroom reading via the factory mentality of education—feed kids all the same gozintas to produce standardized-testing gozoutas. (How’s that working for us?) Another comes from harried, overworked and frightened teachers who have no time to invest in learning about alternative reading materials and believe that their job security depends on sticking with the prescribed books. Still another comes from frustrated school librarians who don’t have enough administrative support to help them work with teachers.

Jay Gabler, who did his doctoral dissertation at Harvard on a " Social History of Children's Literature" gives us authors credit, along with progressive publishers, for the dramatic and welcome changes in children's nonfiction literature. He says, "It's important to note, though, that my time frame is on the order of decades,such changes don't occur overnight, but one book at a time. Authors and critics, it seems, have long been on the forward edge of the progressive movement in children's literature (as in literature generally) with publishers and the audience catching up over time"

My preK-1 “Science Play” series, published 6-8 years ago, is very innovative. I disguised the books to look like traditional picture books designed to be read aloud by a loving adult to a child. (Julia Gorton did a great job with the illustrations.) Since the best picture books promote unscripted interactivity between the reader and the child, (read my piece in
Booklist about such books) I built the interactivity right into the script itself. The reader is to read a few pages, an activity is suggested, the kid and reader do the activity and then come back to the book and read some more. Ultimately, the reading and stopping to do stuff culminate in a non-intuitive understanding of a scientific concept worth cheering about, in physics no less. The books were well reviewed and I Face the Wind was the only Sibert Honor book of 2004, which gave that title a slight bump in sales. Over the years sales leveled off and despite the awards and great reviews HarperCollins has declined to commission any more books like this. Since timing may be the key ingredient to success, I can only conclude that, once again, I’m ahead of my time. (Sigh!)

Jay’s observations seem to be confirmed by a recent royalty statement. Much to my delight I discover that in the last royalty period thousands of copies of each title in the Science Play series were sold instead of hundreds and the winning title was I Fall Down about gravity, not the big award-winner about wind. The sales increase is due to some special sales but hey, now a lot more kids will be exposed to these books and maybe word of mouth will kick in. Something is cooking out there in the universe.

The way the world changes requires a slow, sometimes glacial, accumulation of various incarnations of a concept, book by book, blog by blog, decade by decade until there is a critical mass. Suddenly the light dawns and it seems that change is overnight. As we wait for the world to see the light, I’m hoping that perhaps we are now catching a few glimmers on the horizon.

1 comment:

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Congratulations on your recent sales success, Vicki. As you say, all we can do is keep writing - one book at a time. Speaking of which... back to work!