Monday, January 16, 2017

Subliterary Scare

By C.J. Hirschfield

I’m finally getting around to writing about an article that appeared in the online Slate magazine, a piece that has generated no small amount of interest: 340 comments at last count.

In “My Kids Read Only Subliterary Branded Commodities. Yours Probably Do, Too,” writer  Gabriel Roth tells us that children’s book publishing today “is dominated by … book-like objects featuring familiar properties licensed to publishers by massive entertainment conglomerates.” Examples include Dora the Explorer, Transformers, My Little Pony and the Disney Princess and Disney Fairies line.

Roth is not shy about his views on the subject.  

“These stories are the juvenile equivalent of pornography: They aim to gratify base desires as voluptuously as possible,” he says. Comparing these books to junk food, he nonetheless concludes that he’ll continue to let his daughter indulge in her Disney fairy fantasies. He grudgingly ends his piece with: “My daughter’s appetites are her own.”

In 1972, Fairyland was featured in a subliterary branded commodity: a "Dennis the Menace" comic book.

At Fairyland, we don’t offer books in our gift shop, or in our Reading Room, that are based on branded and licensed products. There are too many creative, inclusive and original stories — many written and illustrated by Bay Area locals — that we prefer to highlight.

Books in Fairyland's Reading Room are not what one writer describes as "subliterary branded commodities."

But I was interested to know what our local expert — the person who has the final say on all of the children’s books that are purchased for the Oakland Public Library — had to say about the subject. As it turns out, Children’s Collection Management Librarian Amy Martin says this is one of her favorite topics in children’s literature.

She points out that there’s a good reason you’ll find scads of Dora the Explorer, Thomas the Tank Engine, Peppa Pig, and even Transformers picture books in your 17 local children’s library sections: kids LOVE them. And that’s why a goodly portion of the children’s library’s $200,000 annual book budget goes to purchase – or replace – these books. 

Oakland Children's Librarian Amy Martin reading to children in an Alameda County Social Services Agency waiting room.

Amy wants kids to get into the habit of reading for pleasure. She believes it's important to teach kids that books reflect what they're excited about, whether it's drawing with a purple crayon or mermaid Ariel getting married. She cited an important study that affirms that reading for pleasure -- anything the child chooses -- gives children more educational advantages than having two parents with college degrees. 

Other Oakland children’s librarians concur. Here’s one story Amy heard from them: Two young brothers visited East Oakland’s Martin Luther King, Jr., branch on their own (many, many kids come to the library without adults). The older brother browsed, but told the librarian that his younger brother hated reading. That changed when Younger Brother discovered the library’s collection of “The Simpsons” comic books. After that, he returned every few days for a new stack.
“We found his entry point,” is how Amy describes it.
Feeling snobbish about Disney books? Talk to the children’s librarian at Oakland’s Brookfield branch, who still thanks Amy for approving the order of many books in this series.
Allowing kids to choose their own books validates their choices in general, something Amy thinks is important. “If adults reinforce that the things children value aren’t good, that could lead to defiance or bruised self-esteem,” she says.
She says she loves to see the excited faces of kids holding books. “I don’t necessarily care what the book is,” she says. And, she assures us, “classic books aren’t going anywhere.”
But she also loves to purchase original books by local authors. One she particularly likes is One of a Kind, Like Me, written by Laurin Mayeno, illustrated by Robert Liu-Trujillo, and published right here in the Bay Area by Blood Orange Press. It tells the true story of the author’s young son, who wants to wear a princess outfit to a school parade and is supported in his (ultimately successful) quest. 
One of a Kind, Like Me / Unico Como Yo

We like the book, too -- and are pleased that Laurin (and hopefully Robert) will be among the authors featured in our May 6 Turn the Page! childrens book festival. It's a celebration of Bay Area authors and illustrators, wholl be reading, drawing, and talking about books in front of their biggest fans: kids. There may be some princesses, ponies, and trains in the lineup, but for this particular event, none of them will carry a registered trademark symbol.

C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children's Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation's first storybook theme park.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Box of Buttons

By C.J. Hirschfield

Last week, Tim Youngs from Spokane left a review of Children’s Fairyland on Facebook. He said our park is “the last truly non-cynical destination in the Bay.”

Sometimes it really does feel like our little park is an oasis: a place where families can go to escape the troubles and fears in an uncertain world. Gentle  animals, art, storytelling, fantastic play structures, gardens, puppet shows — we present them all in a manner that respects the innocence of childhood, encourages the imagination to take flight and demonstrates the kindness we’re all capable of.

The Fairyland Card Maze (and one rose).

Monday, December 19, 2016

Family Shares First Fruits

By C.J. Hirschfield

“I adore them,” says Patricia Hall of her 9- and 5-year-old granddaughters,  Nia and Nylah, who live in Piedmont. An internationally acclaimed dancer, choreographer, and NYU professor, Pat visits her “grands,” as she calls them, twice a year from her home in New York, and Children’s Fairyland is always on their itinerary.

“Sometimes we go every day,” she says. “It’s just a wonderful place to learn, explore, and most important—to have fun.”

Last year she and Nia and Nylah visited us during our Fairy Winterland holiday celebration. In our Reading Room, they saw our exhibits explaining Diwali, Chanukah and Kwanzaa. Pat was very pleased that we’d acknowledged Kwanzaa, but, she said diplomatically, “I thought it could be more.”

She approached a member of our team and offered to create a display for the 2016 holiday. Needless to say, we happily accepted her offer.  

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Book Us for the Holidays

By C.J. Hirschfield

You’ve seen them at local bookstores, popular public attractions, even at hardware stores: those sepia-colored, photo-rich paperbacks that feature hometown history and the people, places and events that celebrate elements that define a community.

They’re the work of Arcadia Publishing, a 20-year-old company that has found a winning formula in a very crowded and competitive bookselling space. As of Dec. 5, one of Arcadia’s newest Images of America books is Children’s Fairyland. The author is Randal J. Metz, who is the director of our Storybook Puppet Theater – and who has worked for Fairyland for 47 of our 66 years. 

Proud author Randal Metz in our gift shop with the new book about Fairyland.

The pre-holiday timing of the publication is no coincidence. After making 66 years of memories, we think our new book is the perfect present for anyone who’s grown up in Oakland — wherever they now call home.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Toddler Storytime

By C.J. Hirschfield

A few weeks ago, Fairyland completed a two-day training session for eight new volunteer readers for our popular Toddler Storytime. Four librarians, three teachers, and a professional children’s performer made it through the intensive workshop.

They’re an outstanding group, and we can’t wait for them to share what they’ve learned with our appreciative young crowds, who gather on our Emerald City stage every Friday at 10:30 and 3. The before- and after-nap crowds, as we like to say.

Fairyland's newest Toddler Storytime storytellers. Back row: Shana Barchas, second from left; Angela Moffett, third from left.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Weather Permitting

By C.J. Hirschfield

Note: The recent spell of rainy weather made us remember this column, which was originally published in 2006. We’ve updated it slightly, but in fact it’s timeless ... just like questions about the weather.

We can control many things in life: what to eat, how much to exercise, which books to read. And yet as my staff and I peered out of Fairyland’s front gate this morning and saw rain, I couldn’t help thinking that the success of our business is, to a great extent, out of our control.
A fairy monitors the rain gauge at Children’s Fairyland.

Here’s what we do when the weather looks iffy.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Building Blocks of Creativity

By C.J. Hirschfield

In a world of tablets and screens, wooden toy blocks may get passed over as quaint or boring. But as I recently learned, they remain one of the best ways to encourage children’s imaginations and spatial skills. In fact, playing with wooden blocks started the career of one of our nation’s most renowned architects – and he wasn’t shy about crediting the blocks’ creator, who also invented the modern kindergarten.

While touring Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West home and studio in Scottsdale, Arizona, last week, I admired the compound’s creativity and whimsy as well as the groundbreaking techniques for which the architect is known.

The design of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West was inspired by the architect’s early use of children’s blocks