Saturday, December 31, 2011

Favourite children's books of 2011

Picture books:

Cat Secrets by Jef Czekaj - Many reviews have compared this interactive story to the Pigeon tales of Mo Willems, and with reason: the suspicious feline narrator of this book addresses the reader, refusing to divulge cat secrets until readers prove they are, in fact, cats themselves.

The Can Man by Laura E. Williams - A poignant story about a young boy who struggles to save enough money for a skateboard, something his family cannot afford to buy for him. He strikes upon the idea of collecting cans to make some quick cash, but soon finds that he is infringing on the livelihood of the Can Man, a local homeless man who used to live in his building. The Can Man generally keeps to himself, but pitches in to help the boy; the boy, meanwhile, struggles with why the Can Man does what he does, and whether the Can Man's desire for a winter coat is more important than his need for a new skateboard.

Won-Ton A Cat Tale Told in Haiku by Lee Wardlaw - A shelter cat tells his story in his own words. A great introduction to poetry in a classroom setting, and a touching story about a tough cat with a vulnerable core. Hate That Cat for the younger set, with fewer tears and more laughs, but just as much heart.

Honourable mentions to two titles technically not published or first read in 2011:

Taming Horrible Harry by Lili Chartrand - This was my go-to book for outreach visits to the K-3 set this year, of which I made significantly fewer, alas. This is the story of a monster who becomes captivated by books and learns to read. A joy to read aloud (with opportunities for roaring (kids) and licking (adults... don't ask....)). Translated from the French.

Not All Princesses Dress in Pink by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple - Yolen and her daughter co-authored this charming rhyming picture book depicting a variety of princesses (some with power tools, some in sports gear ... all in crowns and NONE in pink). The illustrations are not my favourite, ever, and the crown refrain is a bit tiresome, but this is a good pick for adventurous girls everywhere. Kirkus called it "A joyful and much-needed antidote to the precious pink pestilence that has infested picture books aimed at girls." Ha.

Best book trailer for a picture book: My Rhinoceros by Jon Agee

Middle grades:

The Odious Ogre by Norton Juster - The titular ogre terrorises entire communities until he is utterly confounded by an unfailingly pleasant young girl: “Are you new to the neighborhood?” the girl asks sweetly. “Please don’t leave until you’ve had a muffin.” Ponders the ogre, "I can't be liked. It's bad for business." Verbose, exaggerated fun for the whole family, this book is full of life and wickedly funny.

This Child, Every Child: A Book About the World's Children by David J. Smith
Each page illustrates aspects of children’s lives (at home, at work, schooling, gender inequality, being “on the move” due to adoption, kidnapping, immigration, etc.) and has the text of a related Article from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in a box at the bottom (the simplified text was a bit jarring to me, but appropriate for children). Sometimes, one child’s situation is used as an example of a certain aspect of children’s lives; sometimes, two or more are juxtaposed. There is a section for “learning more” and a great list of sources for all the statistical information in the book. The Children and the future section is a bit of a platform for UNICEF programs, but it is still very good.

The Adventures of Jack Lime
by James Leck - Short detective stories written in the style of a 1950s potboiler. And I quote:

"What you are about to read are some of the more interesting cases that have crossed my desk. You see, I'm a detective, a private investigator, a gumshoe. What I do is fix problems for people who need their problems fixed. My name is Jack Lime, and these are my stories."

This book fell into my lap several months before Leck made a series of successful and entertaining class visits to several OPL branches (including Rockcliffe Park, which I was temporarily supervising at the time). Leck was fun to work with, and was great with kids. I hope to see more of Jack Lime, since it's always a struggle to find funny, interesting middle grade books with appeal to both boys and girls.

A Second Is A Hiccup
by Hazel Hutchins - A book about time (and thus, math) for the middle grades set. In other words, a pink polka-dotted unicorn. Thank your lucky stars for this charming, engaging book that illustrates different units of time with real-life examples. For instance, "A second is a hiccup--the time it takes to kiss your mom, or jump a rope, or turn around," and "If you build a sandy tower / Run right through a sprinkly shower / Climb a tree and smell a flower / Pretend you have a secret power / That should nicely fill / An hour."


Kat, Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis - A Regency England tale for young girls, about a widower parson, his three unruly daughters, and a family secret. As previously blogged, this tale features "three quarrelling sisters, two highwayman (real/not), secret family magical powers, romance, the clergy, and a flying teacup." Flavia de Luce for the 8-12 year old set.

Plain Kate by Erin Bow - An utterly captivating read. Few of you will know that I am tremendously sentimental about animals (in film and books - I was influenced early and deeply by The Velveteen Rabbit, wept at The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, avoided The Underneath and am currently studiously avoiding War Horse). As such, I am compelled to point out that the cat, Taggle, made the book for me, here. I read this shortly after my cat died and every time Taggle found himself in a sticky situation, I was falling to pieces. I wept. Seriously. ANYWAY, feline attachment aside, this is a rollicking good tale about an orphan who is the victim of a small town's superstitions. Alone and abused, Kate falls under the spell of the mysterious sorcerer, Linay, who, in exchange for her shadow, promises to grant her heart's wish. As Kate agonises over her (limited) choices, she befriends a young girl and learns that her fate, as well as that of her new friend and her deceased mother, might be connected to Linay's world in more ways than one. A truly dark and dangerous fairy tale.

Lily Renee, Escape Artist by Trina Robbins - Seen via the fabulous Elizabeth, this is a graphic novel biography of a real-life comic book artist and Holocaust survivor, Lily Renée Wilheim Peters Phillips. Lily escapes Vienna in 1939 via Kindertransport, arriving in Leeds at the home of her pen pal. She soon realises that some people in wartime England aren't quite as welcoming as she had hoped, and the book follows her as she works various odd jobs (mother's helper, servant, caretaker, candy-striper), eventually securing her (aging, ill) parents' passage to England after years spent unsure if they were still alive. Lily went on to work as a penciller for early comic books, creating and illustrating stories about Jane Martin, a female pilot, and Senorita Rio (at left). The facts of the book are compelling, and I agree with Elizabeth, who writes at Fuse #8 that "one thing about the book I liked without hesitation was the backmatter. In addition to the Glossary of German to English terms there are wonderful sections explaining everything from the British Internment Camps (something I’ve never encountered in a book for kids before) to automats." (Seriously, automats. Read all about them).

The Summer of Permanent Wants
by Jamieson Findlay
This was such an odd little book, but I really loved it! Eleven-year-old Emmeline, who suffers from aphasia since an illness abroad, sets off with her grandmother in a boat rigged up as a traveling bookstore one summer. Aboard "Permanent wants," the two voyage down the Rideau Canal Waterway, in towns real and imaginary, encountering characters both possible and impossible. This book works as a novel but is best understood as a series of linked short stories about Permanent wants's various ports of call, and the mysteries Emmeline and her grandmother encounter there. From a lonely woman whose vocation is to be a mailwoman between doppelgangers, to a fraudulent sea captain, to a reptile zoo and its extravagant owners, this is a book rich with diverse characters and suffused with tenderness.

Previous children's lists: 2010, 2009, 2008.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Children's Book Bank

On our last visit to Toronto, the Husband and I were fortunate to receive a tour of The Children's Book Bank from our friend, Jackie Flowers, the organisation's assistant executive director.

I first read about The Children's Book Bank in 2010, in this article in the Toronto Star. Later that year, we parked directly outside the Bank on our way to the newly-renovated Parliament Branch of TPL. The Book Bank was definitely something I was aware of, but, to be honest, the impact it has on children's lives was most powerfully observed in person when we visited last month. Both the Husband and I were getting misty-eyed.

From its website, "The Children’s Book Bank is a registered charity that provides free books and literacy support to children in low-income Toronto neighbourhoods." The books are new and gently-used donations received from publishers, organisations such as First Book Canada, schools, groups, and individuals. The Book Bank is located in Toronto’s Regent Park neighborhood (Canada's oldest and largest social housing project), on the main floor of a lovely old rowhouse. Founder Kim Beatty, a litigation laywer, began the organisation as a search for meaningful work. She reasoned that since there were other types of "banks," (eg. food banks and clothing banks), then why not a book bank? Considering that many families would be willing to contribute old children’s books, she and her husband set up the Children's Book Bank in May 2008.

The Book Bank now averages 150 - 200 books given away each day. A small staff, and a large contingent of dedicated volunteers, sort incoming donations (in bins, at left), arrange the shelves (focusing on thematic displays and sections divided by age and popular series reading), provide readers' advisory services, and offer literacy support and programming. Local schools and daycares visit, as well as families from the neighbourhood and further afield. The Book Bank has a complementary relationship with TPL's Parliament Branch across the street: they noticed a dip in visits to the Book Bank when Parliament closed for renovations, and Beatty said in the Star interview that she "will often send children across the street if they are looking for a particular title or popular series." As a librarian, I can see the merit in both organisations: while the library is a great place for voracious reading across a wide range of subjects and levels, there is something very uniquely important about owning a book, both in terms of lifelong learning habits and in terms of personal pride and self-worth.

When we visited The Children's Book Bank on a busy Saturday morning, it was hard to find a place to stand where we weren't in the way of one of the visiting families. In the front room, where the desk and infant / parenting books are, people were coming in and on their way out (every book is stamped before leaving with a personalised stamp that reads "This book came from The Children's Book Bank and now belongs to _____"). In the back room, a girl and her father were offloading a half-dozen boxes of donations from a book drive she organised at her school. In the early readers room (heavy on series such as The Magic School Bus, Junie B. Jones, and the other usual suspects), a young girl stared shyly at the Husband and I (he smiled at her; she hid) as we perused the warmly-decorated wooden bookshelves and the spectacular table display of medieval stories. In the back room (more novels, and many picture books), we came upon a mother reading to her son in an oversized armchair, and a family sitting on a back bench under a window, also sharing a story. The walls and tops of bookcases are decorated with stuffed animals (all book characters; Jackie says occasionally some find their way home with visitors!) and photos of visiting children with their hand-written book recommendations (see above, at right - "Hannah recommends Ms. Nelson is Missing"). The sense of excitement and wonder was palpable.

For more information about The Children's Book Bank, please check out their Facebook page and blog. They are also on Canada Helps as BN: 844532952RR0001 (registered as: The Children's Bookbank and Literacy Foundation).

At the moment, the Children's Book Bank exists only in Toronto; for more information about future plans, write me (alexandrayarrow -at- yahoo -dot- com).

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bookmobile news round-up

My team: Paul, Leslie, France, Beatrice, Martin, me, Emilie

This may be the last Bookmobile round-up for awhile, as my time with this amazing team comes to an end. I promise to monitor the news on a less frequent basis, though, and save the juiciest morsels just for you!
  • Bus –>Public library, via Recyclart
    "A conceptual vision for a new public library, which would be housed in a waste tram at the “Otets Paisiy” Street in the town of Plovdiv."
  • Hitch on bookmobiles: "Christopher Hitchens: 'God is not great' - but bookmobiles are" via the Christian Science Monitor
    "“When I was very young I lived in a remote village on the edge of an English moorland,” Hitchens recalled. “Every week, a mobile library would stop near my house, and I would step up through the back door of a large van to find its carpeted interior lined with bookshelves.... If I live to see retirement, I would quite like to be a driver of such a vehicle, bringing books to eager young readers like a Librarian in the Rye.”"

Friday, December 23, 2011


Well, that was quite the month.

I've been writing fewer original posts about life in general recently, not from lack of news, but from a surfeit of news, really. I needed to let the dust settle (both in life and inside my head) before I distilled some things in print here (wow. Mixed metaphor. Sorry).

One of my favourite professors from Marianopolis, Dr. McKendy, had several "bits" he used to employ in class as humourous reminders of salient points in our course. One of these was a piece of tongue-in-cheek advice: if you are ever writing an essay piece for a final exam, on a piece of literature you have never read, or you have run out of time, scrawl down "THINGS CHANGE." This will always be applicable to any novel.

I often think of Dr. McKendy, and of THINGS CHANGE (it's always in capitals, ok, and it's always in his voice, too). My entire month of December can be thus described. It was a month in which I found myself contemplating two roads diverging in a wood. It was a month in which I had to give up several dreams, but found another I perhaps needed to fulfill first. It was a month in which I discovered that people I thought were enemies were perhaps at the very least receptive and friendly, and people I thought were friends developed a more complicated, troubled relationship with me. It was a month in which I packed up offices in three libraries, and moved into a cozy one tucked under a staircase, with a bay window. It was a month in which I was able to use extensive knowledge about grief in the workplace. It was a month in which I broke down leaving a thank-you voicemail for a wonderful City of Ottawa employee, with whom I had developed an unexpectedly great rapport with on a City-wide committee this year. It was a month in which I made some mistakes, and was saved only by the generosity and support of my team. It was a month in which I moved beyond projects and external goals, and saw for the first time in my career that maybe I really influenced a team for the better.

It was also a month in which I tabulated the final grades for my Acquisitions class, read voraciously for BOYCA, accepted the role of the Chair of the Local Arrangements Committee for CLA Conference in Ottawa in May 2012, agreed to be on the Ottawa IMPAC committee, trained an employee, coached another, sat on an interview committee, judged some poster sessions, went to Toronto, and fêted the retirement of our City Librarian (one of my own mentors, and a friend).

Maybe I should be clear now.

Late last month, I accepted a new position as the Coordinator of the Carlingwood Branch of the Ottawa Public Library. Carlingwood is one of our larger branches, with some of the highest circulation of material in the entire system (Q3 2011 circ was 145,888, surpassed only by Beaverbrook, Main and Nepean Centrepointe). I'm really pleased to be back in a large branch for the first time since I left Westmount, but I do miss the community feeling in a smaller branch. I already miss doing storytime and find myself lingering in the children's department like a pathetic loser, but I enjoy having more time to focus on supervisory tasks. I am worried about leaving the downtown marginalised populations I have grown to love and admire so much, and with whom I see so much more to be done, even as I know I will discover other groups in my new neighbourhood in great need. I am getting to know the teams I work with, and I continue to be amazed by the great people we have working at the library, full of ideas and ready to go out of their way to support each other and serve our patrons. Everything this month has been a bit like Elizabeth Bird's Fortunately, Unfortunately blog post of last year (brilliant, btw). I am finding myself paralysed when people ask me how things are at Carlingwood: no one really wants the full answer... it would take too long to list all the good things, and all the things I am sad to lose! There is so much going on! THINGS CHANGE!

I'm just getting my bearings, still exhausted from wrapping up a multitude of projects at Bookmobile, training my replacement there, and saying goodbye to three teams: Bookmobile, Homebound, and Rideau Branch (for the first time in five years, no longer my substantive job, my home base amid renovations and repairs and mat leave replacements....). I've hardly even started to make a list of the ideas for Carlingwood swirling in my head. I still have at least three boxes hiding under my desk that I have to unpack.

Here's to turning the page to an exciting new year.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Seen reading on OC Transpo

Ottawa in 1800, at the Walkley transitway station

  • Better than chocolate by Susan Waggoner
  • The daring deception by Brenda Hiatt
  • Me: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, my students' exams
So, my lovelies, discuss: why are readers on the #87 reading such absolute shite? And why am I reading a Western? It's like Opposite week!

Bonus reading + public transit link: "Bus-stop books – Israel's newest public library," by Karin Kloosterman: "Wait in line at the bus stop, shuffle through a few books, and take one with you on the commute? The idea could not only increase literacy rates in communities, but also serve as a new way of connecting people [....] Israel already has professors giving scholarly lectures on trains. Maybe thanks to this new project, new authors will give public reading at bus stops. Shoshan thinks such a project could work as a community-builder in disadvantaged areas as well." (with thanks to C for the link)

Friday, December 9, 2011

RA in a Day 2011: Serving Readers with Library Building Projects

Our last session of the day was Serving Readers with Library Building Projects: Toronto Public Library, Mississauga Public Library, Ottawa Public Library

I was presenting, so no notes on these sessions. My session was Serving Readers at Ottawa, and here are some of my speaking notes.

I opened by speaking about GASP - a set of standards for graphics, ambiance, style and presentation developed by American consultant Peter Robinson, and first implemented in West Palm Beach Public Library (see here). I talked about how this unifying set of standards was very challenging in a large library with 33 branches, but necessary: it doesn’t mean OPL locations have to have to be cardboard cut-outs of one another, but they do have to be identifiably part of the same family. GASP standards apply to everything from promotional posters and customer service to renovations and new buildings. We implemented some of OPL's GASP standards in several of our renovations, and these proceses relate to serving readers, as part of an over-arching idea of customer service in the library.

In several renovations, for instance, our use of slatwall, the use of angles as well as lines, and our common chair and carpet designs, unified branches with a similar visual style.

In serving readers with renovations, one important element is to emphasise the library as a place of discovery. This was something we really tried to highlight at Rideau Branch, for instance: says manager Philip Robert, “I hope that people can walk around [...] and discover ideas, authors, books, etc. that they were not thinking of when they arrived at the branch.” We created small display spaces/nooks as best we could, within the constraints of the building. These mini-displays creates sense of discovery for patrons throughout branch and allows you to use small collections in small branches for small displays.

Other renovation ideas that directly serve readers and highlight collections include gondolas and tiered shelving. The latter is both less intimidating, and invites people down the aisle if you use the flat top for display – this was creatively used in a Vanier Branch renovation to pull people into a somewhat arhcitecturally awkward space in children's non-fiction).

In terms of overall architecture, creating an unobstructed view of stacks is helpful for readers, and invites discovery, as does effective use of lighting and floor. Floor colours and materials can be fun to play with - for instance, at Rideau we created the "green carpet" runway that both complements the oak ceiling beams (you can't fight your architectural bones) and leads patrons to the Information desk; we also placed alphabet carpet tiles along a whimsical hopscotch-style pathway in the children's section. Adorable seating in the children's section add to the atmosphere: staff are commenting that young families are staying in the children's section longer and more often after the renos at both Vanier and Rideau. "One of our goals was to make that section into a destination point for young families," observes Philip, and it definitely worked!

If you know Rideau Branch, you know we are lucky to have 30 foot ceilings, which invite the kind of spirit of imagination and inspiration that I am hinting at as an overall theme for serving readers with building projects. These windows both allow us to capitalise on a "cathedral" atmosphere and display selections from the City art collection, further encouraging and supporting creativity in the library.

Moving on to Greely Branch of OPL: Greely's previous library was a 946 square foot space in the fire hall; now they have 3000 square feet. Greely is the fastest growing rural village in the City of Ottawa, and, in fact, one of the fastest growing in Ontario. We received $400, 000 each from ISF, and federal and provincial gov'ts for this new build, with the City contributing the remaining costs. Again, here, you can see how we capitalised on small spaces using some of the same techniques as Rideau and Vanier to create spaces for readers: we used angles rather than straight lines, we made a Teen "nook" behind the circulation desk with a special reading bench, and tucked a display space on the other side of the circ desk. We also used slatwall and adjascent windows to create a small adult reading area: a space of quiet contemplation, cut off from the traffic in the branch.

Words of wisdom from Ottawa Public Library managers and staff:
  • Know your natural environment: the way the sunlight streams into those lovely windows at Rideau affected our plans (after the fact). We realised that we had moved the circ desk into the path of direct sunlight, and had to order custom blinds!
  • Win some, lose some: gradual height increases in shelves opens up the area for display and browsing, but you lose precious shelf space.
  • Re-use and Re-cycle: OPL manager Tony observes, "at both Alta Vista and Ruth E. Dickinson, we were able to re-use and re-cycle many pieces of furniture. The end panels of the shelving at Alta Vista were of excellent quality so we refinished them and we re-purposed shelving from the old City of Ottawa archives. Similarly, at Ruth E. Dickinson we are having chairs with good quality wooden frames re-upholstered in flattering new fabrics."
  • Check the latest accessibility guidelines for design (eg. aisles) . In high use public areas, aisles and passageways, a minimum of 1675 mm wide is recommended to allow two persons using wheelchairs or scooters to pass each other easily. 1200 mm width is required to allow one person using a wheelchair and one ambulatory person to pass. Interior barrier-free routes shall be minimum 1100mm wide with a 1600mm by 1600mm turn-around space a minimum of 30m apart. Know the rules before you make your plans!
My final observations came from:

Lawson, Bryan. "Healing Architecture: For a long time, we have supposed that good design will improve patient well-being. Now we have figures to prove it. Bryan Lawson reports on how patient treatment and behaviour improved with new architecture. (Theory)." The Architectural Review 211.1261 (2002): 72+. Academic OneFile. Web. 4 July 2011.

A study was done in a new wing of a hospital, observing patients’ responses to their surroundings. Patients in the newly designed environments gave significantly better ratings to their treatment and thought more highly of the staff treating them, even though in some cases, it was the same people and the same service. The study concluded that there is a direct relationship between people and their environment, and important factors included:
  • the colours of surfaces
  • the temperature of rooms
  • high and airy spaces
  • an environment that appears loved and cared for
It also cconcluded that it is EVEN MORE IMPORANT how the environment mediates the relationships between people:
  • Matters of privacy or how spaces enable people to establish community or maintain personal place.
So, what does this means for us in a library environment? Although library patrons are not as vulnerable (hot/cold spaces, privacy) as hospital patients, there are some ideas here about serving a variety of people with a variety of spaces and options, being aware of how high and airy spaces are inspiring and formal, whereas lower ceilings are cozy and informal, and about noise versus quiet. Think about how people currently use your space: you can prescribe use by changing elements, and you can capitalise on current spaces/touchpoints by targeting areas for specific reader-oriented activities.

P.S. The computer crashed mid-way through my presentation (it was all a bit "Computer says no") and I had to ad-lib the rest with no pictures - the greatest tragedy was people missed out on the owl (slide 19 above).

Most of the other presentations (very visual!) are online:

Seen reading on OC Transpo

  • Navarro's Promise by Lora Leigh
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry (spotted by P!)
  • The Estrogen Effect: How Chemical Pollution Is Threatening Our Survival by Deborah Cadbury (A
  • My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult
  • Something by Sidney Sheldon
  • Me: The Summer of Permanent Wants by Jamieson Findlay (local author alert!) - excellent....

Friday, December 2, 2011

RA in a Day 2011: The Psychology of Reading Fiction with Dr. Keith Oatley

Dr. Keith Oatley is Professor Emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, and it is due to the hard work of committee member Diana (pictured here!) that he graced us with his presence at RA in a day. His slides are here.

Dr. Oatley has written extensively about the psychology of reading fiction (see here). He opened his talk by describing character in a novel as being made up of both actions and what happens “beneath the surface,” what is visible and invisible. The relationship between the two is what the psychology of fiction is all about. One of the unique things about a novel or a film is that we can be ourselves and another character when reading or watching: this is “the centre of the psychology of fiction. We take the author's instructions and we mentally create the imagined world.”

Oatley made an interesting comparison with the process of meditation: in reading fiction, we insert the intentions of the protagonist into the part of our mind with which we usually make our own plans. In essence, their plans become are plans: we feel our own emotions in the circumstances in which the protagonist finds him/herself. Studies are beginning to show a correlation between reading fiction and empathy: the more fiction you read, the more empathetic you are and the better you are at understanding others. This could be a kind of “expertise” being developed: for instance, if you read a lot of novels about romantic relationships, you develop better skills in these relationships in real life.

An interesting study was done by Oatley and his colleagues in which a “small personality change” (proportional to the emotions felt) was documented by subjects who were given a Chekov story to read, compared to a control group given a nonfiction re-writing of the same story. One might be able to conclude that “the story enables people to change, but it doesn't make people change.”

Another interesting observation Oatley made was that studies have shown, preliminarily, that people who may be “avoiders” of emotional engagement in real life actually feel empathy more strongly in fiction – perhaps fiction can circumvent that avoidance?
Oatley closed with two wonderful quotes:
  • Proust on his books: they allow people to be readers of themselves, not of my book. My book is the “magnifying glass by which I could give them the means by which they read within themselves.”
  • George Eliot on writing: "It's a set of experiments to see what we humans are capable of."

Seen reading on OC Transpo

Take your book and move to the back of the bus, please!

  • The cluttered corpse by Mary Jane Maffini
  • Alone with the devil: Famous cases of a courtroom psychiatrist by M.D. Ronald Markman, Dominick Bosco
  • Sugar and spice by Debbie Macomber
  • Me: I am half-sick of shadows by Alan Bradley and I am Canada: Shot at dawn: World War I, Allan McBride, France, 1917 by John Wilson