Interview with Jen Robinson
Jen Robinson is a well-known figure in the Kidlitosphere, that area of cyberspace devoted to books for children and young adults. Her blog, Jen Robinson's Book Page, is a treasure trove of book reviews, articles about reading, and what's new in the children's book world - especially anything to do with what will get kids reading. Her blog and accompanying weekly e-newsletter are aimed at parents, teachers, librarians and anyone who shares her passion for putting books into the hands of young people so that they too will grow up to love books.
Jen was brought up in Lexington, Massachusetts and now lives San Jose, California.
I was always talking about my passion for children’s books and reading, but not really doing very much about it (besides reading children’s books as they came my way, and buying lots of books as gifts for kids). I had done some management/self-help kinds of reading (especially Never Eat Alone, by Keith Ferrazzi), which suggests that the way to success and happiness is to find what you’re passionate about, and do something with it. I knew that I was passionate about books and raising readers. But I wasn’t sure what I could do about it, since I already had a more than full-time job in a completely different field. And then two different friends independently suggested that I start a blog. I looked into it a bit and discovered a host of kindred spirits – people who care about children’s books and reading the same way that I do – and I was hooked.
Has your experience of blogging followed your vision unswervingly or have there been any digressions or detours along the way?
I’ve had some digressions. Most people I know who have blogs at some point go through something called “blog focus angst”, where they start to question what they’re doing, and how much time they’re spending, and how to make the blog more focused to meet their particular vision. For me, I became involved with several activities going on in the Kidslitosphere, the children’s and ya book blogging community – things like Poetry Friday, the Summer and Winter Blog Blast Tours (groups of author interviews, organized by Colleen Mondor), the Cybils, and Readergirlz. They were all very rewarding activities, but this was in addition to the things that I was doing on my own on the blog – reviewing books, encouraging parents to read aloud to their kids, and highlighting children’s literacy news. I spread myself too thin so last year I made a decision to cut back on some of these outside activities, and focus on the things that I’m most passionate about: my core mission, if you will, which is helping parents and teachers and librarians to help kids to love books. That re-focusing has helped me a lot. No one can participate in everything, but I think that focusing on the things the writer really cares about makes for a stronger blog.
The subtitle for your website is "Promoting the love of books by children, and the continued reading of children’s books by adults." Where do you see the connection between these two areas?
This subtitle came about when I first started the blog. I was interested in both these aspects – helping people to raise readers, and providing support/companionship for adults like myself who enjoy reading children’s books. Over time, I’ve learned that the first of these is the one that I’m more passionate about – the one that makes me want to jump up and down and encourage people to spend time reading with their kids. I do love talking about children’s books with other adults, but if I’m doing something that helps people raise kids who love books, then I feel like I’m making a positive difference in the world.
There are many reasons why I think that it’s good for adults to read children’s books. Children’s books stimulate the imagination. They are often about larger than life heroes, and quests, and saving the world. They make you want to be a better person. They cross genres, and sometimes allow you to read mystery, science fiction, and romance, all in one title. They are frequently shorter than adult books, which is helpful for time-strapped or reluctant adult readers. And I’ll tell you something else. Many of today’s children’s and young adult titles are well-written and lovingly edited, and rival anything that you can find in the adult sections. There are a lot of adults reading children’s and YA titles simply because they are such great books.
I can reconcile the two statements, however. I think that if adults read the books that their children or library patrons or students read, a number of positive outcomes emerge. The kids see that the adults value the books, and value what’s important to the kids, and this validates reading. Also, if a parent and child are reading the same books, this opens up all sorts of avenues for discussion. I think that where possible, it’s important for parents to continue reading aloud with their children for as long as they possibly can, long after the children can read on their own. This shared experience strengthens family bonds, helps kids to hear books written at a more advanced level than they can read on their own, and continues to show kids how much fun reading is. Also, if adults are reading children’s books, they’re much better equipped to help the children in their lives to select books that will appeal to them. And that is hugely important, especially for kids who are reluctant readers. They need the adults in their lives, the people who know and understand them, to help them find just the right books.
What do you think gets kids reading; and what keeps them reading?
I think that the key to getting kids reading and keeping them reading is for reading to be an enjoyable experience. People don’t voluntarily do things unless they enjoy them. If a kid is reading only because he or she thinks that reading is “good for you”, this is hardly a recipe for prolific reading.
Everything that I’ve ever read on this topic (see especially The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease) suggests that the number one way for parents to get kids reading is to read aloud with them, starting from birth and continuing even after the kids can read on their own. When a parent reads aloud to a young child, the child will forever associate reading with positive parental attention. The child will also learn vocabulary words, and learn how books work, and have his or her imagination stretched by hearing wonderful stories. But the most critical thing is for the parents to make reading together an enjoyable activity.
As kids get older, there are several things that keep them reading. Seeing their parents read for pleasure is a big one. Kids learn by example, and kids who have parents who read are more likely to grow up to read themselves. It doesn’t have to be books – it can be the newspaper, or magazines. It can be fiction or nonfiction or comic books. The important thing is that the parent lets the child see the positive aspects of reading.
Another thing that I feel is important is for kids to be able to read books that they enjoy. I think that “Drop Everything and Read” (or “sustained silent reading”) programs in schools are wonderful. When a teacher tells kids “read whatever you enjoy, and I’m going to do that, too”, that sends a powerful message. By contrast, when kids are pressured to read books that they don’t enjoy, or have to do lots of drills and answer questions about the books they’ve read, this can kill the joy of reading. And that’s a tragedy.
There’s a lot of focus at the moment on reluctant readers, especially boys. What particular encouragement do they need?
I think a lot of the problem with boys as reluctant readers stems from the fact that many boys are more interested in reading non-fiction books, filled with facts, or comic books, or joke books. Women (and this is admittedly a huge generalization) tend to be more attracted to fiction. This means that much of the reading that boys do ends up not quite “counting”, is not considered “real reading”. So I think (and I owe much to Jon Scieszka, our first National Ambassador for Children’s Literature, and the founder of Guys Read, on these opinions) that the encouragement that boys need is to be told that the kinds of books they like to read are okay, and to have people recommend books specific to their interests. This is, of course, true for reluctant girl readers, too. Many readers remain uninterested in books until they come across that one book that gets them hooked. And then there’s no stopping them.
You mentioned the Cybils earlier – can you tell us a bit about that?
The Cybils are a series of book awards given by bloggers each year in various categories. The project was started by Kelly Herold and Anne Boles Levy. I think the Cybils are an important award, because they not only focus on books that will keep kids turning the pages, they also focus on quality. I think it provides a nice blend of democracy (anyone can nominate one title per category) and careful consideration of the books (the judges are people who blog about and review books year-round).
I’ve been involved with the Cybils since they started. I was the administrator for the Young Adult Fiction category in 2006 and the Middle Grade/Young Adult Nonfiction category in 2007; and I’ve also been a judge each year, which involves picking the title that most meets the award criteria out of a short-list of five to seven titles for that category. I think that participation in the Cybils fits in with my blog’s mission, since it helps me to keep tabs on books that will get kids reading; and I also very much enjoy working with the other Cybils organizers.
You have a very broad awareness of organisations which promote reading and literacy, on both national and international levels - and your weekly literacy round-up posts are invaluable for passing on information about them. What are some of the literacy initiatives you’ve come across recently that have really caught your attention?
I’ve added three programs that focus on getting books into kids’ hands to my blogroll recently, and I think that all three are doing impressive things:
The Children's Book Bank, a charitable organization based in Toronto, “designed to support children's literacy by providing free books and literacy support to children in lower income neighbourhoods.” They have a lovely, welcoming website, too. Their site says that “A visit to The Children's Book Bank is much like a visit to a familiar and well loved children's book store. The space is safe, warm and inviting and is intended to create a wonderful oasis for the children; a place where they can relax and experience the magic of books and enjoy reading.”
Second Chance Books, a “collaboration between the Austin (Texas) Public Library and Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center, began in the Fall of 2003. The project offers young people who are in trouble - who need a "second chance" - an opportunity to read for pleasure and, secondarily, to learn about library resources.” The idea is to provide incarcerated young people with books, and help turn them into lifelong readers. One thing that especially struck me from their website was this statement: “For many of these children, this is the first time they have ever read a book outside of a school assignment.” Which just goes to show the importance of programs like this.
Read from the Start, a program from the Missouri Humanities Council. They offer workshops for parents of children from birth through age five where they encourage reading and storytelling. They also give kids free books. Their mission statement says: “READ from the START is centered on the joy of family reading. It is based on the conviction that parents are a child's first and most influential teachers, and that the love of books and stories begins at birth. When parents take pleasure in books, that pleasure is conveyed to the child. Children who grow up hearing stories and looking at books fall in love with language.”
I've noticed from your blog that you listen to audiobooks – do you think this is becoming a popular way to "read" among young adults and is it something we should be taking more notice of?
I have been hearing that audiobooks are taking hold among young adults. There’s a program I read about recently that uses audiobooks to engage reluctant readers. I know quite a few parents who use audiobooks for family listening during long car rides. They’re an excellent way to squeeze in a bit of extra reading time in situations where reading print books may be impractical. They can also help kids who are struggling with reading (ideally as an addition to, rather than a replacement of, reading with parents). And I don’t think that we’re in any danger of seeing audiobooks replace printed books. They’re slower paced, for one thing: you can read print a lot faster than you can listen. Most people listen while they’re doing something else, so you don’t have quite the same consuming experience that you do with print books.
Are you involved in any children’s literacy programs yourself?
I do volunteer for a local library: I’m on the board of the Santa Clara City Library Foundation and Friends, and I work on some projects with them. However, I don’t work directly with kids by doing that. I would like to participate in a program in which I read aloud to kids. However, that hasn’t been feasible for me because I travel quite a bit for work, and most of these programs require a regular commitment to come in and read according to a schedule. Instead, I try to do what I can to support children’s literacy programs through my blog, something I can do from wherever I happen to be. I promote events and accomplishments for RIF quite often, for example, and I try to do the same for other literacy organizations, like First Book, Reach Out and Read, and Cops ‘N Kids.
I’m also involved with the PBS Parents website. I was a guest expert for them in January, answering questions from parents about children’s books. I’m now in discussions with them about doing some blogging for them long-term (in addition to my own blog). I think that at least for now I work better as someone who supports parents and teachers and librarians, doing what I can through the website to help the people who are out there working with kids directly.
You wrote in an article for Kim and Jason that "great children’s books often focus on overcoming obstacles, and being smart and brave and loyal." Can you recommend any multicultural books that exemplify this?
I highly recommend Mitali Perkins’ books, especially Rickshaw Girl and Monsoon Summer. Both exactly fit the above description. Also Nothing But the Truth … and a few white lies and Girl Overboard, both by Justina Chen Headley. Other middle grade titles that I think fit that definition, but are very different from one another, include: The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich; Kimchi and Calamari, by Rose Kent; Heat by Mike Lupica; and Millicent Min, Girl Genius (and sequels) by Lisa Yee. For younger kids, I recommend Michelle Edwards’ Jackson Friends series.
When you were a child, who were the most important influences on you when it came to books and reading? How has that rubbed off on you?
My mother and my father’s mother were my greatest reading influences. My mother loved mysteries, and to this day I read mysteries whenever I get the chance. I read many of her childhood books, and her mother’s childhood books. She took me to the library and to used bookstores on a regular basis. We still spend time, when we can, visiting bookstores together. My paternal grandmother also loved books. She ran her church library, and I used to help her with that. She used to read children’s books as an adult, so she was also a direct inspiration to me. I still collect books from the Maida series (Maida’s Little House, etc.), by Inez Haynes Irwin, which my grandmother loved.
I also have very fond memories of my elementary school librarian, Mrs. Tuttle. I used to volunteer in the library before school. She recommended many titles to me, and I still have a couple of books that she gave me as gifts. She was a model for me of an adult who dedicated her life to kids and books.
The newsletter has been great for me. Knowing that I’m sending it out every week pushes me to keep other content on a schedule, like a weekly roundup that I do with news from the other blogs, so that the content can be included in the newsletter. I also feel motivated to write reviews, because I know that a number of people who read the newsletter read it for the reviews. I had a bit of trouble keeping the newsletter up earlier this year, when I was sidelined by a combination of moving and extra travel but I have it back on track now. I have nearly 300 subscribers, and I’m grateful to each of them for helping to keep me motivated.
What avenues are you looking to explore in the world of books – do you have any immediate plans or dreams for the future?
I would like to grow my newsletter’s subscriber base. I’m also excited about working more with PBS Parents. I would love to be able to use both of these avenues to make more parents and teachers and librarians aware of the fantastic resource that is the Kidlitosphere. I’m sure that there are parents out there who want to help their kids to love books, but don’t know where to start, or have trouble finding books. Meanwhile there is this rich community of librarians and booksellers and teachers and writers who are eager to help, and love to talk about books. I’d like to bring these two sets of people together, if I can. But my ultimate goal remains unchanged – to do my small part to help parents and teachers and librarians and other caring adults to raise kids who love books.
*Marjorie Coughlan is PaperTigers Associate Editor
Posted July 2008
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