Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Interview: Elizabeth Kennedy on About.com: Children's Books

Elizabeth Kennedy is celebrating ten years as the Guide to Children's Books at About.com: Children's Books.

Children's books have played a prominent role in Elizabeth's career in PreK-12 education. As a journalist, She has reviewed and written about children's literature for more than eight years.

Elizabeth has an extensive background in education, having worked as an early childhood educator, elementary school teacher, museum educator, and PreK-12 arts-in-education program director over the past thirty-five years.

As a writer, her work has been recognized with first-place awards from Kansas Press Women and the National Federation of Press Women.

What kind of young reader were you?

Voracious! I have always loved to read. My favorite book as a child was The Secret Garden [by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)]. The edition I have was my mother's. It has wonderful color illustrations. I still love it and try to reread it annually, although now I have to borrow it from my daughter. My granddaughter is already asking when her mother will hand the book down to her.


Could you tell us about your background in youth literature?


I majored in English Literature and also studied children’s literature. During my work as an early teacher, a museum educator and the program director for an arts-in-education nonprofit, I read and utilized a lot of children’s books.

When I was a child, my mother took me to the library every week. My parents read to me regularly, and I did the same with our children. When my kids were in school, one was an eager reader and the other was a reluctant reader, so reading aloud was particularly important in reinforcing vocabulary development and comprehension.

What is About.com?

About.com is part of the New York Times Company. As the company states, “About.com is an online neighborhood of hundreds of helpful experts, eager to share their wealth of knowledge with visitors.”

The About.com sites are organized into 23 different channels, including Education, Entertainment, and Health, as well Parenting & Family, where you will find my children’s book site.

What approach do you take in your coverage of youth literature?

I tend to concentrate on books for children for babies through middle school age. In addition to book reviews and subject lists of children’s books I recommend, I have developed a calendar of children’s books, with links to books and other resources related to each month of the year. It tends to be particularly popular with teachers.

I try to provide helpful advice to parents. This includes such things as how to encourage reluctant readers to read, information on the major children’s book awards and the winners, and online children’s literature resources.

My readers are also a great source of advice for other parents, providing tips on such topics as keeping kids reading during the summer and sharing stories about how they introduced children’s books to their babies and toddlers.

What do you love about it?

I love having the opportunity to read so many different books. I like learning about children’s books about (and from) different cultures. I enjoy hearing from site visitors from many different countries. I love finding wonderful books and being able to introduce them to others through my site. I am always delighted when parents and teachers tell me that my site helped them find the perfect book for a particular child or occasion.

What are the challenges?

For every three or four books I cover on my site, I read/look over about 100. Since I don’t have the time to cover everything, I am constantly making choices between this good book and that good book. I receive about 70 emails a month asking me to review books, on top of the packages of books from publishers seeking reviews that arrive several times a week.

Sometimes, I feel that I am buried in books!

However, precisely because so many children’s books are published every month, I hope my site is a helpful resource for parents, teachers and others eager to learn about good books for children.

How do you decide who and what to feature?

I feature books appropriate to the seasons and annual events on an ongoing basis. I also cover certain topics related to children’s books, like raising a reader and banned books, as well as authors, illustrators and publishers of children’s books.

I visit one or more public libraries, two major book chains and an independent bookstore one or more times a week to discover new books, and I read, read, read review copies and library books as well.

Who usually approaches you--authors, illustrators, publishers?

All of them, as well as publicists from marketing firms. I am on the regular mailing list for a number of children’s book publishers and also receive emails and news releases when they are promoting a new book or series.

Some publishers and authors use publicists from private firms to promote their books, and they send me information and query letters.

I have been hearing directly from more authors and illustrators lately, many of whom have self-published their books.

What Dos would you recommend to someone interested in pitching material to you as an online reviewer?

1. Do include information about the book in the body of the email; even better, provide a link to a Web site that includes cover art (and additional illustrations if it’s a picture book), a summary and an excerpt.

2. Before emailing a pitch, do your research. Make sure the reviewer covers your type of book and the age group your book targets.

3. Do request that the reviewer confirm receipt of your email.

What are pitfalls to avoid?

1. Don’t send attachments. For security reasons, I have been advised to never open attachments from people I don’t know.

2. Don’t expect a reviewer to review your book from a description or a PDF. My policy is that I never review a book unless I have seen it and read it.

3. Don’t write, “If you are interested in receiving a review copy of the book, let me know.” If you do that and don’t hear from the reviewer, you will never know if it’s because the reviewer didn’t receive your email or if the reviewer is not interested in your book.

4. Once you have sent a query and the reviewer has confirmed receipt of it, don’t keep emailing the reviewer. There is no need, and if the reviewer is already getting as much email as I do, it is apt to annoy the reviewer.

5. If the reviewer asks for a review copy, please send it promptly. It’s very discouraging to receive a wonderful Halloween book the week after Halloween, especially when the request was made three months before.

Do you consider self-published or e-published work?

Yes, I do consider them. However, for reasons of quality, I have not covered a great deal of self-published or e-published books. I look for good production values (paper, book design, layout, etc.) as well as excellence in the story and illustrations in every book I cover.

What advice do you have for new online youth media journalists?

You need to not only learn as much as you can about traditional children’s books, reading, literacy, and the general field of children’s literature, but right now, you also need to learn more about the various ways in which children’s books are increasingly available--from iPads and e-book readers to phone apps.

I am working on an article on the subject and have discovered that there are an enormous number of things to consider.

What were your top three favorite 2009 books published for young readers and why?

I am still discovering books published in 2009 and haven’t really made my choices, except in the case of picture books. For my nine favorites, see my feature about the Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2009.


Who are a few of your favorite authors and illustrators and why?

I keep discovering new ones, so that’s hard to answer. I’ll limit it to just a couple here.

I like the novels of Sharon Creech and Kate DiCamillo because the authors are so good at capturing the “voice” of their protagonists.

I have enjoyed Jerry Pinkney’s artwork for years and was delighted when he won the 2010 Caldecott Medal for his picture book The Lion and the Mouse (Little, Brown, 2010). His artwork always evokes an emotional response that enhances the story.

What do you do when you're not reading and writing?

I spend time with my family, read cozy mysteries and nonfiction, serve on the boards of the Kansas Citizens for the Arts and Kansas Professional Communicators, attend arts events and take classes in kiln-fired glass jewelry.

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