Karen MacPherson, the children’s and teen librarian at the Takoma Park Maryland Library, spent 20-plus years covering children’s books for Scripps Howard News Service. Here, in an adaptation of her final column, she reflects on her tenure with the wire service – which has ended operations after nearly a century – and the changes she witnessed in the industry over more than two decades.
Since 1990, I’ve had the privilege of bringing the best children’s books and their creators to millions of readers via The Children’s Corner, my weekly column that was sent out to newspapers around the country by Scripps Howard News Service. Over the years, I’ve read and reviewed so many memorable books for kids from babies through teenagers that compiling even a short list of favorites would be an impossible task. I’ve also interviewed, and been hugely inspired by, dozens of children’s book authors and illustrators – many of them winners of the Caldecott and Newbery medals – whose passion for creating the best books for young readers is truly an awesome thing to behold.
In fact, reading these books and interviewing their creators actually convinced me to change careers in 2006, trading my nearly 30 years as a newspaper reporter for a job as a children’s and teen librarian in a public library (after I spent more than five years earning the required master’s of library science). By that time, I had already been writing my column for more than 15 years.
Now my Scripps career has ended, as the Scripps Howard News Service closed down at the end of December. Looking back over the nearly quarter of a century that I wrote my Scripps column, I can see what a wild and amazing ride it has been, both for me personally and – more important – for the world of children’s literature.
To take just one example: who knew that the 1998 U.S. publication of a debut book by an unknown British author would create such literary and financial magic and make reading a cool pastime worldwide? Somehow J.K. Rowling struck a cultural chord with her Harry Potter books, and young fans from around the globe gleefully dove headfirst into the world of the boy wizard. Readers, including my own two kids, found his adventures so fascinating that they lined up for midnight releases, while publishers vied with one another to come up with the “next Harry Potter.” I saw Rowling in person just once, when she appeared at the National Press Club in Washington in 1999, just after the release of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Rowling wasn’t doing press interviews at the event, preferring to focus on her young fans. While she was signing a copy of the book for my daughter, however, I snuck in a question, asking Rowling for her reaction to people who wanted to ban the series. Rowling looked up at me and said calmly that she had a simple answer for those who think her books are inappropriate: “Don’t read them.”
The Harry Potter books were instrumental in sparking another trend that continues today: the crossover book, a volume that appeals to both kids and adults. It turns out that adults also liked Rowling’s books, just as they subsequently liked the Twilight books by Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series, and The Fault In Our Stars by John Green.
Another trend that I’ve witnessed was the explosion of “hybrid” books. Hybrid books are heavily illustrated novels for young readers, and the success of these books, especially the mega-selling Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney, shows that kids have clearly decided to rebel against the dictum that they don’t need pictures once they have learned to read.
Then there is the related rise of popularity of graphic novels, a.k.a comics, for children, a movement led by librarians (like me) who see that many kids take to comics like a duck to water. Why not capitalize on that connection? Comics can require some real brain power; if a picture is worth 1,000 words, think about what happens when you add text, as in a graphic novel! Interestingly, it took publishers longer to catch onto the trend, but once they saw many librarians and teachers give their official blessing, the publication of graphic novels for kids has boomed.
At my library, I see the benefits of the trend firsthand. Because kids are so screen-focused these days, comics, with their visual impact, are great for drawing them away from screens and back to books.
I’ve also noticed a steady increase in high-quality non-fiction books for kids, especially ones that present information in an engaging narrative, and a skyrocketing number of novels – many of them of high literary quality – for teens.
Sadly, however, some things haven’t changed. For example, the publication of multi-cultural books still isn’t a priority, and children’s books don’t always reflect our richly diverse society. And, despite their importance to developing the adults of tomorrow, children’s books and their creators seemingly remain second-class literary citizens; as two-time Newbery Medalist Lois Lowry once told me, someone asked her when she was going to write a real book – one for adults.
A final trend to note: the rise of the digital book. Clearly, e-books are here to stay, but many parents aren’t yet totally sold. In my librarian job, I’ve seen that even the most tech-savvy parents still prefer to read their children physical books, especially picture books. True, older kids are reading more e-books, but they also still read physical books. As one young reader in my library told me recently: “I love checking out a whole armful of books!”
I’m honored to have spent more than two decades chronicling children’s literature, and grateful for the authors, illustrators, publishers, editors, and readers who have joined me in The Children’s Corner.