Mining for Gold in Children's Books

Interview Kathleen Odean

If you put end to end all the children's books that Kathleen Odean has read, they would reach to the top of Mt. St. Helens in Washington and maybe back again.

Ms. Odean estimates that she has read between 10,000 and 20,000 books in her 16-year career as a children's librarian. That's just what you'd want from a woman who has written two valuable guides about choices for children's reading: "Great Books for Girls" and "Great Books for Boys" (Ballantine).

Odean, who currently works with children ages 3 through 11 at Moses Brown, a Quaker school in Providence, R.I., says she wrote her guides to great children's books, in part, because she was outraged by the media's handling of gender issues for girls and boys.

"Children are taught very young that males are important and females are relatively unimportant," she says. In the introduction to "Great Books for Girls" she notes that even on "Sesame Street" there are more male than female characters. "Great Books for Girls" strives to give girls a range of strong, competent role models. Odean says professionals, many of them parents who came in contact with her unpublished manuscript exclaimed, "I need this book!"

In selecting titles for inclusion in "Great Books for Girls," Odean based her choices largely on character and situation. Explaining her criteria in the introduction, she writes "I sought out characters who have attributes too seldom associated with girls, such as bravery, athleticism, and independence. These girls take risks and treat setbacks as ways to learn."

Odean originally intended this first volume to be for all children, not one that was gender-specific. "Boys need to see strong female characters too," she says. But her publishers adjusted the title to focus on the girls who appear as main characters in many of the recommended books.

'What about the boys?'

After the publication and success of "Great Books for Girls," the question naturally arose, "What about the boys?"

"I'm equally concerned that boys are so often forced into competitive roles," she says. So she took a year off to create "Great Books for Boys," an annotated listing of more than 600 books that feature male characters in a wide range of settings.

In this second volume, Odean paid special attention to strong characters, good plots, and general appeal. Eschewing what she calls "shallow, stereotypical male characters" and "sensational or predictable plots," she looked for books that captured the complexity of boys' lives, and ones that boys would want to read.

This collection includes humor, adventure, sports, and information books - genres and topics that experience and research show will engage young male readers. Some of her choices include "Ira Sleeps Over," a picture book by Bernard Waber, "Henry and Mudge," by Cynthia Rylant, and "The Stories Julian Tells," by Ann Cameron.

Odean says that a major challenge facing educators is not so much getting boys to read in the early grades but keeping them interested in reading as they mature.

Odean freely admits that not every volume listed is a great book. "There are great elements in every book, though," she says. "Great illustrations, great read-aloud texts, great depth to plots and characters."

There are few literary classics listed in these guides. Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island," for example, and L.M. Montgomery's "Anne of Green Gables" are conspicuously missing. Odean says that because adults will often introduce a child to a favorite classic, she focused primarily on newer books that parents may not know.

Some books, such as "Anne of Green Gables," weren't selected because, in the end, their characters are self-sacrificing. "I believe that girls have plenty of examples of women giving of themselves for others. Females are taught to please and help others.... Far more difficult for girls is finding the moral courage to face conflict [in order] to pursue their own paths and dreams."

Maintaining enthusiasm for reading was never a problem for Odean. She was an avid reader, and names "Eloise" (written by Kay Thompson, illustrated by Hilary Knight) was one of her childhood favorites. This popular 1955 book about a precocious little girl living in New York City's Plaza Hotel is a selection in both of her "Great Books" volumes, part of an overlap of about 15 percent in the 600 or so titles in each of the guides.

Throughout her career, Odean has been intimately involved in selecting award-winning books. She has served on the Caldecott Committee, which each year chooses the best-illustrated book in the United States. She has been a member of the Newbery committee, which selects the best-written US book of the year. And she has served on the Notable Children's Book Committee of the American Library Association.

Advice for parents

If adults and kids do not agree with every selection Odean has made, she is unperturbed. She offers this advice for parents wanting to choose their own great books:

* Read, or at least scan, the books.

* Look at the art of picture books. Ask librarians for advice.

* Use book-review publications, such as The Horn Book Magazine and Publisher's Weekly.

* Check lots and lots of books out of the library. She also suggests that young readers ask each other for recommendations.

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