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From Harry Potter-style mega-hits to controversy over banned books to hot competition for literary prizes, there is never a dull moment in the book world. Chapter & Verse keeps readers up-to-date on the latest in literary headlines. Check in with us daily to learn about books and their people - those who write them and those who love them.

Readers of e-books read an average of 10 books more per year than readers of print books, according to a new study by the Pew Internet Project. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

E-book revolution: We're reading more than ever

By Husna Haq / 04.05.12

If you read an e-book in the past year – or suspected your holiday gift of an e-reader has led you to read more – you’re not alone.

Some 21 percent of adults have read an e-book in the past year, according to a new study by the Pew Internet Project. What’s more, readers of e-books read an average of 10 books more per year than readers of print books.

According to the Pew report, the average reader of e-books had read an average of 24 books in the past 12 months compared to 15 books for non e-book consumers.

In effect, the digital revolution really is transforming our reading habits and the publishing industry as a whole – and this is just the beginning.

“Every institution connected to the creation of knowledge and storytelling is experiencing a revolution in the way information is packaged and disseminated,” said Lee Rainie, one of the authors of the Pew Internet Project report, in a statement. “It’s now clear that readers are embracing a new format for books and a significant number are reading more because books can be plucked out of the air.”

In fact, some 30 percent of those who read e-content say they spend more time reading, a figure many e-reader owners can attest to. (Of course, you don’t need an e-reader like a Nook or Kindle, to read e-content. According to the study, among those who reported reading an e-book in the past 12 months, 42 percent had read it on a computer, 41 percent on an e-reading device, 29 percent on a cell phone, and 23 percent on a tablet computer.) 

And good news for publishers: e-readers also buy more. Those who own e-book reading devices not only read more books, but prefer to buy, rather than borrow, books. (That explains why Amazon is selling Kindles like hotcakes, at a loss – to sell more content.) 

As bibliophiles, we have to admit we were relieved to learn that the e-reading revolution hasn’t left print books, those lovely bastions of literature, in the dust. Those who read e-books are not abandoning print books. On the contrary, some 88 percent of those who read e-books in the past year also read print books, according to the Pew report.

Print books continue to have a place in our hearts (How do you stock your shelves with e-books?), and we’re not alone. In a head-to-head competition, people prefer e-books to printed books when they want speedy access and portability, but print wins out when people are reading to children and sharing books with others.

“E-book readers and tablet computers are finding their place in the rhythms of readers’ lives,” said Kathryn Zickuhr, an author of the Pew report, in a statement. “But printed books still serve as the physical currency when people want to share the stories they love.”

We’re glad there’s room for both.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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Jonathan Franzen and Ann Patchett has each had to deal with "a quasi-comic albatross," says Martyris. "His is called Oprah, hers is called being childless by choice." (R: Courtesy of Greg Martin/Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Is Ann Patchett the female Jonathan Franzen?

By Nina Martyris / 04.04.12

TIME Magazine canonized him with the corny halo of Great American Novelist. He loathes Twitter and Facebook and spits on e-books. Is childless by choice. Waxes passionate about endangered species (songbirds like the Cerulean Warbler). Was devastated by the loss of a beloved friend and fellow writer to suicide. Has strong if owlishly unfashionable opinions on the way we live now. (“It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction”). And was scathing about literary taste-makers who didn’t get his work. (“Michiko Kakutani is a national embarrassment.”)
 
TIME Magazine has nominated her to its list of most-influential persons. She finds Twitter distasteful and hasn’t watched television in years. Is childless by choice. Waxes passionate about a different endangered species (independent bookstores in Nashville, Tenn.). Was devastated by the loss of her closest friend and fellow writer to a heroin overdose. Has firm opinions on the way we live now, whether it is  the sexual revolution (“You can have my birth-control pills when you pry them out of my cold, dead hands”) or children playing Angry Birds on iPads (“a terrible idea”). And was scathing about sub-literate suburbanites who didn't get her work. ("If stories about girls who are disfigured by cancer, humiliated by strangers, and turn to sex and drugs to escape from their enormous pain are too disgusting, too pornographic, then I have to tell you, friends, the Holocaust is off-limits. The Russian Revolution, the killing fields of Cambodia, the war in Vietnam, the Crusades.”)

Crucially, both are envied purveyors of literary "masstige" – a  marketing mash-up of “mass” and “prestige” to tag gourmet but fast-moving consumer goods, or in this case, serious literary novels that are thumping best-sellers. Success – the operatic, breakthrough sort of success that they now command  – came late in their writing lives, and, co-incidentally, in the same year, 2001. His first two novels – "The Twenty-Seventh City" and "Strong Motion" – had no foretaste of the electrical blitz that was to be unleashed by "The Corrections." And her first three – "The Patron Saint of Liars," "Taft," and "The Magician’s Assistant," and – got only a drizzle of attention compared  to the sensational "Bel Canto." “Before Bel Canto,” wrote John Updike in the New Yorker, “she had been admired but obscure, a veteran of academic postings and the grant wars.”

And – we’ll stop now, but this is important – both admire Henry Green, the now forgotten but once acclaimed English novelist referred to as “the writer’s writer’s writer,” whose "Loving," an Irish upstairs/English downstairs story, was featured by TIME on its list of the “100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.”

Also – we can’t possibly leave this out –  for years now, each has had to deal with a quasi-comic albatross. His is called Oprah, hers is called being childless by choice. Being constantly chivvied for not reproducing can be infuriating, but it’s a minor irritant compared to “the tsunami of hydrochloric acid” that washed over him for belittling Oprah as low church of literary taste. (Not that TIME, with its arbitrary lists and cover stories is exactly high church, but we’ll leave that battle for later). Their respective albatrosses, however, are non-transferable. She has no problem writing for Oprah's magazine, and he, though occasionally asked about not having kids, gets off lightly. He once related how he told his editor at the New Yorker that he was seriously thinking about adopting some Iraqi war orphans. Horrified, the editor, “took two toothpicks from the bar and made the sign of the cross and waved it slowly in front of me as if warding off an evil spirit. And he sensibly pointed out that there are more people in the world who can make good parents than can write good books.” Imagine any woman getting away with that.

So is Ann Patchett the female version of Jonathan Franzen?
  
 Despite their delicious points of convergence, the two novelists diverge fundamentally in temperament and writing.  

As the unflinching and anxious diarist of the American un-Pastoral, Franzen carefully builds enormous Midwestern family novels around a solidly neurotic moral center. More than any other novelist today, he hears clearly the alarm bells of unease jangling over tree-shaded, stucco-clad Americana. Like Walt Whitman, his pen covers continents of subjects – the environment, the family, America’s role in the world, phony liberal pieties, the consumer economy, Capitalism, pharmaceutical skullduggery, social pathology, and love. Like Whitman, he speaks at every hazard.

As someone who is Catholic, believes deeply in the fundamental goodness of the human race and the ties of community, and whose roles models are “childless nuns with their vocations,” Patchett explores emotionally complex human relationships with depth, wit, and beauty. Lyrical, and with a profoundly moral core, her novels view the darkling world through the healing optic of optimism. It’s not that the battered environment or the fertility-industrial complex or corporate empires are absent from her works. They are there as the background against which intensely challenging power relationships – between captors and captives, teacher and student, father and sons – play out.
 
 If the word ‘dysfunctional’ crops up in every Franzen review, "redemptive" is the word that Patchett is stuck with. To caricature them, he is Cassandra to her Pollyanna. Quite appropriate, for the assured new owner of the Parnassus bookstore who said, “I may be opening an ice-shop at the dawn of Frigidaire, but that’s not going to stop me.”

Nina Martyris is a freelance journalist.

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Pottermore users who learn to brew a potion correctly can earn points for the House Cup, which is won by one of the four Hogwarts houses in the "Harry Potter" books. (Pottermore/YouTube screenshot)

Pottermore gives users a sneak peek (+ video)

By / 04.04.12

Eager Harry Potter fans got another peek at the Pottermore website – scheduled to open early this month – through a video released by the site. 

Pottermore is the official website of Harry Potter and will be the only venue at which Potter e-books will be sold. The website will also have many interactive components, through which users can be "Sorted" into Hogwarts houses, fight duels with other users, create potions, and access never-before-seen backstories about the Harry Potter universe written by author J.K. Rowling.

The promotional video released by Pottermore shows the screen on which the Sorting into a Hogwarts house would take place, a screen depicting Platform 9 ¾, various challenges, including catching a Snitch and brewing a potion that will cure boils, and the “explore chapter feature,” which allows users to click on various features of a scene. 

In a section called “The Cupboard Under the Stairs” (the title of one of the chapters in the first Harry Potter book “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”), new content appeared in the video titled “Vernon and Petunia Dursley” which gave new insight into the relationship between Harry Potter's profoundly Muggle aunt and uncle. “He had a perfectly correct car, and wanted to do completely ordinary things,” the excerpt reads. “And by the time he had taken her on a series of dull dates, during which he talked mainly about himself and his predictable ideas on the world, Petunia was dreaming of the moment when he would place a ring on her finger.”

Check out the new video below:

Molly Driscoll is a Monitor contributor.

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Teddy Roosevelt may have failed as a reformer of New York, but he succeeded in proving himself to be a remarkable human being, says Richard Zaks. "They don’t make politicians like that any more."

'Island of Vice' author Richard Zacks on Teddy Roosevelt's crusade to clean up NYC

By Randy Dotinga / 04.03.12

In the 1880s and 1890s, vice never slept in New York City.

Gamblers gambled, prostitutes prostituted, and thieves thieved, all under the not-so-careful watch of police on the take. Then an aristocratic little man named Theodore Roosevelt decided to make a big difference.

Cocky and sure of himself, Roosevelt became an unyielding force. He stalked the streets of the city in search of corrupt cops and made a stink about a police department that barely seemed to police anything.

The ultimate fate of Roosevelt's efforts can be found in the title of historian Richard Zacks' new book, Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York. Never mind the giveaway of the ending. "Island of Vice" is a rollicking tale of hedonism and hypocrisy, crime and corruption, and one man's refusal to accept any of it.

In an interview from his home in New York City, Zacks – who previously made a splash with his book "The Pirate Hunter" – describes the sinful world of the Big Apple, Roosevelt's remarkable nighttime excursions and the guts of a man who refused to take get-lost for an answer.

Q: Just how bad was vice in New York City before the turn of the century?

A: It was extraordinarily full of vice. About 40,000 prostitutes were working in the city at the time, and there were many brothels, casinos and bookie joints. As for alcohol, clubs, and bars were supposed to close at one in the morning. But some couldn't remember being closed since the Civil War. All of these activities were illegal, so somebody had to pay off the police to make it happen.

Q: A few years ago, I interviewed Karen Abbott, the author of "Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America's Soul." She told me that some upstanding people at that time thought it was a good idea to isolate vice into specific neighborhoods so they wouldn't corrupt the good people. Was this an issue in New York City?

A: There was a debate about having regulated red-light districts, which they had in most of the European countries. But the purest reformers rejected it. In New York City, a police official testified in 1885 that there should be red-light districts in the city. Cynical types thought he wanted to bring in one-stop shopping so he could collect money more easily.

Q: How rampant was prostitution at that time?

A: Emma Goldman, the labor radical, thought about 100 percent of single men and about 50 percent of married men went to prostitutes in that era. It gives you a sense of how widespread it was. The thing that most people now don’t realize about prostitution was that almost no respectable women went to the bars at that time. If a woman was in a bar at night, she tended to be a prostitute.

Q: As your book showed, one of the top anti-vice activists was an incredible hypocrite. Hypocrisy, of course, is common in many do-gooder movements, as is self-righteousness. But Roosevelt, several years from becoming president, doesn't come across as either a hypocrite or a prig. Is that your sense too?

A: He wasn't a hypocrite. He was a happily married man who wasn't sneaking off to the brothels. And he was by no means as self-righteous as some of the more church- and temperance-oriented reformers. But he did irritate people.

Q: Why did he think the city needed to be cleaned up?

A: He was a student of how corrupt the municipal governments of America were, how they’d been taken over by corrupt political organizations. He thought if he cleaned up New York, the Sodom of the country, it would have a snowball effect. If you could do it here, you could clean up any city.

Q: On some nights, he'd wander the streets of the city incognito and confront cops who weren't doing their jobs. What would happen?

A: The cops would say "I'm going to beat you!" or "I'm going to fan you!" with their nightstick. That’s when he was really popular. Nobody had so blatantly stood up to the cops like that. This 5-foot-8, 5-foot-9 little aristocrat confronting big Irish guys and lecturing them! I really don't think he did it as a publicity stunt, but it worked out to be one of the greatest publicity stunts. The city loved it at first, and the country loved it.

Q: What turned the city against him?

A: The crackdown on saloons being open on Sundays. When the city realized that this passionate man was actually going to really go through with it and never back down, he became despised in some quarters, and 30,000 people got in the streets to protest his policy. The immigrant cauldron of New York refused to be sober on Sundays. It was going to find a way around this crackdown, and it did, but not in a way anyone expected. They found a loophole, and suddenly everything backfired.

Q: What happened in the long term to Roosevelt's anti-vice and anti-crime efforts?

A: A lot of the things that Roosevelt cracked down on are now legal. He wanted to reinforce laws about not serving alcohol on Sundays; now bars can serve it on Sundays. He was cracking on off-track betting parlors, and now we have those. We have casinos not too far away, and the lottery. Society has just changed its opinions about a lot of the things that Roosevelt was cracking down on.

Q: What about the Wild West nature of New York City?

A: It has definitely gotten tamer. Here's an ultimate example: My teenage son called me. He said, "Don’t worry about me, I'm in Times Square." It's like a mall now. He doesn't know any better.

Q: What can we learn about Roosevelt in this whole story?

A: The big thing that still astounds me is that he did not back down even though he ultimately had a vast majority of the city and police department opposing him. When he took a poll, he took a poll of one: he asked himself what was the best thing to do. They don’t make politicians like that any more.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos told the Seattle Times in a previous interview, 'Our core business activities are probably the most important thing we do to contribute, as well as our employment in the area.' (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Amazon hears from hometown critics

By Husna Haq / 04.02.12

Whether it's Apple’s Cupertino headquarters, Target’s Minneapolis home base, or General MotorsDetroit, hometowns are usually supportive of their local businesses.

Unfortunately for Amazon, the relationship with its hometown – Seattle – isn’t quite so rosy. In a string of blistering articles written over the past several days, the Seattle Times has portrayed local powerhouse company, Amazon, as an aggressive, self-interested market dominator that has done little for its home city.

“From the moment Jeff Bezos launched Amazon.com in a small Bellevue house in 1994, it has cultivated a reputation as the consumer’s friend,” begins the introduction to the Seattle Times’s four-part series on Amazon. “But as Amazon prepares to turn 18 this summer, its practices are drawing increasing scrutiny, from civic leaders in its hometown to lawmakers around the country, from business partners to labor activists.”

The article then proceeded to list Amazon’s apparent offenses in detail.

“We found that the company is a virtual no-show in the civic life of Seattle, contributing to nonprofits and charities a tiny fraction of what other big corporations give. In the political world, the company's hardball efforts to fend off collecting sales taxes – a key advantage over brick-and-mortar stores – has ignited a backlash in several states. In the publishing world, smaller companies have begun to publicly criticize Amazon's bullying tactics. And in some of its warehouses around the country, Amazon is drawing fire for harsh conditions endured by workers.”

One story in the series, entitled “Amazon.com trying to wring deep discounts from publishers,” outlines the company’s efforts to bully publishers into selling books at drastically low rates. In one example, Amazon sent publisher McFarland & Co. an email saying it would buy its books at a 45 percent discount, “roughly double its current price break.” Although Amazon represented nearly 70 percent of McFarland’s retail sales (and 15 percent of its overall business), the publisher held its ground. 

In another example, Amazon demanded a similar discount from Berkshire Publishing Group. That company also declined the demand and Amazon stopped ordering from it.

Of course, the Seattle Times has acknowledged that many industry players have a bone to pick with Amazon and that’s why many are stepping forward to speak out against it.

“Although publishers rarely criticize companies they do business with, some say they're speaking out against Amazon partly because they're offended by its tactics,” writes the Times’s Amy Martinez. “They describe Amazon's demands – made in email, with no personal-contact information provided – as overly aggressive and leaving almost no room for discussion.” 

In another article entitled “Amazon a virtual no-show in hometown philanthropy,” “the Seattle Times outlines the company’s somewhat meager participation in civic life in the city where its headquarters are, a major contrast to other large corporations in the area such as Microsoft,” writes publishing trade newsletter Shelf Awareness

According to the paper, Amazon contributed nothing last year to United Way of King County and is “not a major donor” to other local charities or civic groups. 

Nonetheless, Amazon has been “taking some steps toward greater involvement in its hometown,” write the Times’s reporters, Kristi Heim and Martinez. It pledged to establish two $1-million endowed professorships at the University of Washington and offered volunteer help and in-kind donations to more than 30 local nonprofits.

There may be a reason for Amazon’s relatively less active role in local philanthropic causes, muses Shelf Awareness.

“For his part, Amazon's Bezos has questioned the value of traditional philanthropy. In 2010, he told Charlie Rose: "I'm convinced that in many cases, for-profit models improve the world more than philanthropy models, if they can be made to work." And last year he told the Times: ‘Our core business activities are probably the most important thing we do to contribute, as well as our employment in the area.’”

Still, the Seattle Times’s reporting – and its bruising revelations – will continue to chip away at Amazon’s reputation.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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'Game of Thrones' author George R.R. Martin has refrained from setting a publication date for 'The Winds of Winter,' but fans hope that 'Winds' will be completed more rapidly than was 'A Dance with Dragons,' which was released six years after its predecessor. (TIFF/YouTube screenshot)

'Game of Thrones' author George R.R. Martin reads excerpt of upcoming book (+video)

By / 04.02.12

As part of the “Game of Thrones: The Exhibition” event in Toronto, “Song of Ice and Fire” author George R.R. Martin read a new excerpt of the next book in his series – Book No. 6 – which will be titled “The Winds of Winter.” 

Martin discussed his planned septology on March 12 in an interview with interviewer Teri Hart, who works for The Movie Network, a Canadian TV channel. The portion of the interview in which the author read an excerpt from his upcoming book for more than eight minutes was apparently a surprise to the audience.

“They don’t know?” Martin asked when Hart announced it. 

Martin warned the audience to leave if they hadn’t read each previous book, including “A Dance with Dragons,” the fifth book in the series which was published this July. There is currently no official planned publication date for "Winds."

The excerpt was told from the point of view of Victarion Greyjoy, who is the brother of Balon Greyjoy, the ruler of the Iron Islands, an area of the kingdom of Westeros. Residents of the Iron Islands are famed for their ships, and Victarion commands the mighty Iron Fleet, holding the title of Lord Captain. Victarion is the uncle of Theon Greyjoy, one of the main characters in the series who was raised by Eddard Stark, though technically a hostage of the Starks. Theon was turned over to Eddard Stark as punishment for Balon’s failed rebellion.

(Spoilers follow for “The Winds of Winter.”)

In the excerpt, which Martin said begins around “five minutes” after the end of “Dance,” Victarion tells three oarsmen from the Iron Fleet that they have been chosen to blow the hellhorn, which is said to have the power to control dragons. According to Victarion, the last man to blow the hellhorn died.

“Game of Thrones: The Exhibition” was held from March 9 to 18 and was presented by HBO Canada and the Toronto International Film Festival. Various items from the hit HBO series were available for viewing, including costumes from the show and props, including the Iron Throne, the chair that is the symbol of power for the king of the fictional country of Westeros. 

Check out the video below – Martin begins reading at the 30:49 mark.

Molly Driscoll is a Monitor contributor.

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A book like 'Snowy Day' with an African-American protagonist would still be unusual 50 years later, says Kathleen Horning, director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education. Printed with special permission from the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation

'The Snowy Day' celebrates its 50th anniversary

By / 03.30.12

In 1962, a little boy named Peter woke up to a world full of snow. Putting on an orange snowsuit, the little boy ran outside: “Crunch, crunch, crunch, his feet sank into the snow.” Thus begins The Snowy Day, the 1962 picture book written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats. This March marks the 50th anniversary of the Caldecott Medal-winning story that has enchanted readers for decades.

Peter’s wondrous day full of snow angels and snowballs is something so many children can relate to. Peter is also African American. And with this quiet, yet significant illustrative decision, made in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, Keats’s book became the first full-color, mainstream picture book to feature a black boy as the main character.

A critical – if not uncontroversial – success, Keats received letters from fans across the country, including the poet Langston Hughes, who wrote that he wished he had some grandchildren to give the story to. One reviewer in The Baltimore Sun commented, “The fact that the artist has pictured Peter as a Negro child, quite without making any particular point of it, is a pleasant surprise.”

The character of Peter was based off a set of photos clipped from a 1940 issue of Life magazine. For 22 years, Keats kept those photos on his wall, hoping to be asked to illustrate a book about such a boy. But it wasn’t until he decided finally to write a book himself was he able to use them.

Deborah Pope, Executive Director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, is careful to point out Keats wasn’t trying to make a big statement. 

“He made the hero black, because he was there,” Pope said. “Ezra grew up in a city where as we know there is the broadest range of humanity. And so this boy was there, and so he put him in the book. It wasn’t anything really more complicated than that.” 

Pope was 10 years old when The Snowy Day first came out. The daughter of Keats’ boyhood best friend, she said she took for granted the work of her Uncle Ezra for many years – until she had children. “And then I understood,” she said. As head of the foundation, Pope has devoted her life to using the late illustrator’s royalties to promote and support the work of librarians, teachers and aspiring artists who continue in the tradition of Keats.

In particular, the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer and New Illustrator Awards, announced annually in April, embody this commitment. The awards celebrate “people at the beginning of their careers, creating beautiful books, about children of every sort, so that children of every sort can see themselves in the book,” Pope said. “It’s very important that these not be cause books. They are books that say, this is a great story. It’s not that we’re all equal, it’s not that we’re all the same. We just are.” 

Keats’ work has also been cited as the inspiration behind some of today’s most decorated authors and illustrators. Bryan Collier, whose intricate watercolor and collage creations have been honored with multiple Caldecott Medals and Coretta Scott King Awards, as well as an Ezra Jack Keats Award, remembers his mother bringing home a copy of The Snowy Day when he was just four or five years old.

“I don’t know what it was,” Collier said, “but when I saw that boy Peter, he looked like me. I was like, Wow!”

Growing up as the youngest of six during the often snowy winters of Maryland, Collier said he knew exactly how Peter felt watching the ”big boys” having their snow ball fights. The Snowy Day had subconsciously planted a seed inside of him, Collier said. For 10 years that seed waited, while Collier dreamed of playing professional basketball like the great Dr. J. But one day the 15-year old hoops fan stumbled into a freshman art class, and the seed was finally ignited. “It was an impact, it was visceral. You just feel it,” he said.”

Just like the feeling of that first art class, Collier said America felt a bit of a spark with the publishing of the landmark picture book. “I think it put so much greatness into the world, a sense of diversity,” he said. “It unveiled something that was always there. The jolt was that the rest of the world, the publishing world, didn’t get it. They didn’t really get it until they saw it.”

The Snowy Day was awarded the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 1963, the same year that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream Speech” from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

“This was a very difficult time in America,” Pope said. “It was a time of the real strengthening, the emerging of the Civil Rights movement as a truly strong movement.”

But nearly a half-century later, a serious void continues to exist in the world of children’s literature. In terms of minority representation, there’s definitely still work to be done, Collier said. 

As the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education, Kathleen Horning has been keeping track of such representation since the mid-1980s. 

Out of all the 2,500 trade books published for children and teens by trade presses in 1985, Horning and the CCBC were shocked to find only 18 were written or illustrated by African Americans. “Even publishers were surprised the number was so low,” Horning said. “The only people who weren’t surprised were African American parents and teachers, who didn’t find it at all surprising.“

In 1995, the CCBC found that out of 4,500 total books published, only 100 books written by African Americans, and 167 written about (without taking into account any probable overlap). And there’s been little statistical change since. Books written by and about other minority groups are even harder to find.

“Since really the early 90s, the number has really stagnated,” Horning said. Even when you can find books featuring African American characters, they generally fall into two specific categories, she said: historical narratives from the 19th century, or stories about Civil Rights leaders.

“It’s very hard to find books about contemporary African American children, especially for children’s books, especially for young children,” Horning said. “Boys are the biggest challenge. So a book like The Snowy Day  would still be unusual today, unfortunately. It would still would stand out, for the simple fact that it’s about a contemporary African American boy, a timeless story, with an African American representing a boy any child could identify with.”

The problem is not a decrease in demand, Horning said. In fact, anecdotally she believes it’s increasing. The problem now stems more from a business, rather than sociological, perspective. 

“It used to be that schools and libraries were a bigger force, but with cuts to funding, they don’t have the buying power the had 20 years ago,” Horning said. “The influence is on what will sell in the bookstore. And that can have an impact on what gets published.”

Barring a surprise re-funding of public libraries, Horning said people need to advocate with their wallets. “Buy the books,” she said. “Prove the people who are saying black books don’t sell wrong.”

One person who certainly wouldn’t mind such a consumer resurgence is Cheryl Hudson, a mother, author, and the co-founder of Just Us Books, a small New Jersey press focused solely on black-interest books for children. Along with her husband Wade, Hudson has been seeking out her niche manuscripts for 25 years. “We were parents and professionals, but we said if nobody else is going to do it, we’re going to do it for our own kids,” Hudson said.

When the Hudsons set up shop, they knew of over 300 black book stores. Now they deal with fewer than 50. Every day is a challenge, especially in terms of marketing and getting the word out about the specialized Just Us Books titles list. 

“When we first started we had so much excitement about what we were doing,” Hudson said. “Some marketers think the only time people read anything about black people is in February, in Black History month. Which is not true. But marketers are creatures of habit.” 

Children specifically need to see themselves in their favorite books, Hudson said, to have that “Wow” moment Bryan Collier experienced reading The Snowy Day for the first time. 

“All children love to see themselves, in a book or photograph or even a photo album, it’s an affirmation that you are of value,” Hudson said. “They need to see themselves in a positive way, not as happy slaves, but as African American children who brush their teeth and brush their hair, who have problems, and loves and laughs and dreams.” 

But Hudson is not discouraged. “We wish it were easier. We fought some battles 40 years ago that we thought were solved,” she said. “There are little peaks of light. But we have to be vigilant about keeping the word out.”

Recently, some of the larger publishers have also taken notice of the issue. The Children’s Books Council recently formed a new Diversity Committee “dedicated to increasing the diversity of voices and experiences contributing to children’s literature.” Co-chair Alvina Ling, the Editorial Director at Little, Brown, said she is encouraged by what she sees as a positive trend in general awareness of the problem.

“I feel very optimistic,” she said. “Books about diverse characters are just naturally going to succeed more and more. I think that if that weren’t the case it would be more of an uphill battle. But I think everything is on our side, it’s just going to take a while. Children’s books backlist really well. The list just keeps growing and growing." 

After The Snowy Day’s publication, Ezra Jack Keats experienced his share of critics, despite its general popularity. “I think various people were very worried their voice was being co-opted,” Deborah Pope said.

Eventually, however, time brought understanding.

“The people who criticized him calmed down, because they saw the book was doing a good thing, not a bad thing. That it was being embraced across ethnic and social lines. And that it was bringing joy to the lives of many children,” she said 

Translated into at least 10 languages, The Snowy Day continues this mission to this day. “Because,” Pope explained, as anyone who’s ever brought home a snowball could tell you, “ultimately there is no color to put on children’s experience of snow.”

Meredith Bennett-Smith is a Monitor correspondent.

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From Direwolf Ale to Auroch Stew, the “Unofficial Game of Thrones Cookbook,” by Alan Kistler offers "Game of Thrones" fans the chance to recreate "more than 150 recipes from Westeros and beyond." (Courtesy of HBO)

'Game of Thrones': as you prepare for Season 2 (+video)

By Husna Haq / 03.29.12

As with any megastar media sensation (see Potter, Harry and Middleton, Kate), "Game of Thrones," which returns Sunday on HBO for a second season after establishing itself as a cult favorite, has spawned a bevy of books.

The show, based on George R.R. Martin’s bestselling “A Song of Ice and Fire” fantasy novels, chronicles the violent dynastic struggles in fictional Seven Kingdoms of Westeros for control of the Iron Throne. From book to TV show to mega-acclaim, "Game of Thrones" is spawning yet more books for die-hard fans to enjoy.

First up is the “Inside HBO’s Game of Thrones,” an official companion book by show writer Byran Cogman to be released by Chronicle Books and HBO this fall. Entertainment news source the Daily Blam describes it as “a visual companion to the series that provides behind-the-scenes stories and details about transforming the bestselling book series to the screen.”

The full-color book will feature a foreward by Martin, character profiles, on-set photography, maps (including a foldout map of Westeros), family trees, an explanation of the Dothraki language created for the show, and interviews with cast and crew.

“The extraordinarily talented actors and artisans who work tirelessly to bring Game of Thrones to life are unequaled anywhere,” Cogman said in a statement. “This book is a tribute to them. It’s been a joy to write for this fantastic series and an honor to put together this book, which I hope will please fans, both old and new.”

And if all the anticipation and succession battles are getting you hungry, fear not, you can feed your hunger for more "Game of Thrones" with the “Unofficial Game of Thrones Cookbook,” by Alan Kistler. Yes, that’s right, there’s a companion cookbook.

Surprisingly, the cookbook is actually faithful to the books, according to reviews. Each recipe has a headnote detailing the origins of the dish in Martin’s books.

“While one may not think food when they first consider HBO’s bloody drama or Martin’s books, Kistler finds a way to make the connection,” writes Hollywood Chicago’s Brian Tallerico. “What I like most about [this cookbook] is [its] fidelity to [its] source material. The author tries to find ways to tie back even the most simple recipes to [its] franchise.”

So what do hardcore Thrones fans serve for a premiere night party? As any “Unofficial Game of Thrones Cookbook” enthusiast will tell you, Arya’s Lemon Cakes, of course.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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Over the course of her decades-long career, Adrienne Rich picked up a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and Yale Young Poets. (Stuart Ramson/AP)

Adrienne Rich: a voice for the marginalized

By Husna Haq / 03.29.12

 Adrienne Rich, a celebrated poet, feminist, and social activist who, through her thoughtful verse, challenged the American Dream and championed women’s rights, gay rights, and rights of the disadvantaged, has died. She was 82.

Ms. Rich died Tuesday in her home in Santa Cruz, said her son Pablo Conrad.

Over the course of her decades-long career, over which she published more than a dozen volumes of poetry and five collections of nonfiction, Rich picked up a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and Yale Young Poets prize for her passionate poetry that took up the causes of the marginalized.

As the precocious elder daughter of a Jewish father and Protestant mother – a heritage recalled in her autobiographical poem, “Sources” – Rich came of age in Baltimore during the turbulent social upheavals of the 1960s and 70s, an experience that heavily influenced her work. She was known for her unflinching attention to such controversial topics as racism, sexuality, war, economic justice, and homosexuality.

One of her most celebrated books of poetry, “Diving Into the Wreck,” published in 1973, garnered Rich a National Book Award and launched her into the top echelon of American poets. With its layers of meaning about treasure hunting, failed relationship, and gender hierarchies, Rich’s title poem was called “one of the most beautiful poems to come out of the women’s movement,” by literary scholar Cheryl Walker, in the Nation.

It began:

I put on

the body armor of black rubber

the absurd flippers

the grave and awkward mask.

I am having to do this

not like Cousteau with his

assiduous team

aboard the sun-flooded schooner

but here alone.

Rich married Harvard University economist Alfred Conrad in 1953, with whom she had three sons. She eventually left him in 1970 to live with her partner, writer and editor Michelle Cliff. Soon after she left her husband, he committed suicide. A graduate of Radcliffe College, Rich taught at many colleges and universities including Brandeis, Rutgers, Cornell, San Jose State, Stanford, Swarthmore, Columbia University School of the Art, and City University of New York.

President Bill Clinton selected Rich for the National Medal of the Arts in 1997, the highest award given to artists. Rich refused it, citing the growing disparity between rich and poor in the country.

“The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate,” she wrote in a letter addressed to then-President Clinton. “A president cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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'Harry Potter' books finally became available in digital form on Pottermore, J.K. Rowling’s new web store, enabling fans to buy e-books and audiobooks of all seven 'Harry Potter' novels. (Jaap Buitendijk/HONS/Warner Bros. Pictures/AP)

'Harry Potter' e-books: game-changers for the digital world?

By Husna Haq / 03.28.12

With a wave of the famous boy wizard’s wand – and a bevy of distribution deals – Harry Potter’s Pottermore has brought the wizarding world to the digital world.

That’s right, Harry Potter books finally became available in digital form Tuesday on Pottermore, J.K. Rowling’s new web store, enabling fans to buy e-books and audiobooks of all seven Potter novels.

But there’s more magic there than meets the eye. In a major departure from industry standards, the Potter e-books aren’t locked with encryption, allowing consumers to share and read the books on multiple devices. In other words unlike a typical e-book, the same Potter e-book downloaded from Pottermore will work on Kindles, Nooks, iPads, smartphones, and more.

It’s a significant break with industry practice and it could provide the model that will undermine e-book dominator Amazon.

“I think it’s a very large crack in a dam that’s going to collapse in the next nine to twelve months,” Matteo Berlucchi, CEO of independent UK-based online bookstore aNobii, told the Northwest Indiana Times.

As the music industry did until 2008, distributors sell e-books in encrypted form that only authorized devices can read. A digital book from Amazon, for example, can only be read on its Kindle e-readers and on Kindle apps. It won’t work on other devices. Similarly, e-books purchased from Apple or Barnes and Noble will only work on i-devices (iPads, iPods, iPhones) and Nooks, respectively. 

The encryption used today is in the form of Digital Rights Management, or DRM, which distributers say stops piracy. It was the practice in the music industry until 2008 and it’s still the standard in digital books.

Until now. Potter e-books from Pottermore can be downloaded in a variety of formats and read on a variety of devices and apps – unprotected by DRM. Pottermore will insert a watermark identifying the buyer – an effort to stop piracy – but the books can be shared with friends and family.

“We believe that people should have the right, once they’ve bought the book, to read it on any device that they choose to,” Charles Redmayne, CEO of Pottermore, told the NWI Times.

“Of course,” writes the NWI Times, “there’s another reason Pottermore is going DRM-free. It wants to “own” the relationship with the customers – the Potter fans – rather than have them go to other retailers. And the only way to get onto all reading devices without dealing with the other retailers is to sell books without DRM.” 

“It’s a very valuable thing to us to own that customer relationship,” Redmayne said. “It gives us a tremendous opportunity to create new products that we can sell to those consumers around the Harry Potter brand.” 

So far, distributors like Amazon, which sells about 60 percent of the e-books bought in the US, are playing along. If customers look for Potter e-books on Amazon, the site sends them to Pottermore. 

Pottermore e-books mark the first major experiment in DRM-free e-books, so it remains to be seen whether the industry adopts this model as standard practice, as the music industry did four years ago. If it does, that would upset Amazon’s colossal influence in the digital market and return some of that power to publishers.

Whatever happens, we’re not surprised Harry Potter is behind some potentially earth-shaking changes in the industry. It’s not the first time.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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