Archive | August, 2010

How one person created his own YouTube “university”

27 Aug

Check out this great profile of Sal Khan, a Harvard MBA and former hedge fund manager living in the Silicon Valley, whose goal is to create nothing less than “tens of thousands” of tutorials offering the “first free, world-class virtual school where anyone can learn anything.”  This YouTube phenomenon is currently a 1600+ video library.  Indeed, some critics do consider it more of a library than an academy, as there are no assessments or tests of performance, and no student-teacher discussions.  However, Khan’s gift for succinctness and clarity has caught the attention of some tech-y notables, including Bill Gates.  “His gift, like that of many teachers, is being able to reduce the complex,” says the article’s author.  Khan Academy is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3).

YA Novels are Popular with All Ages says NYTimes Essayist

9 Aug

In this past Sunday’s NYT Book Review, Pamela Paul wrote an essay entitled “The Kids’ Books Are All Right”.   It sums up what we have always known, that good “KidLit” is simply good reading period, no matter what age you are.  Here is the essay:

The Kids’ Books Are All Right
By PAMELA PAUL
Published: August 6, 2010

While au fait literary types around town await the buzzed-about new novels from Jonathan Franzen and Nicole Krauss, other former English majors have spent the summer trying to get hold of “Mockingjay,” the third book in Suzanne Collins’s dystopian trilogy, so intensely under wraps that not even reviewers have been allowed a glimpse before its airtight Aug. 24 release. What fate will befall our heroine, Katniss Everdeen? My fellow book club members and I are desperate to know. When will the Capitol fall? And how can Collins possibly top the first two installments, “The Hunger Games” and “Catching Fire”?

Oh, did I mention? “Mockingjay” is for teenagers. I am well into my 30s.

But I am not embarrassed by my, shall we say, immature taste in literature. And I wasn’t much concerned when, barreling through “The Hunger Games” at the hospital after giving birth to my third child, I hardly noticed whether he ate or slept. When will the rebellion begin, I wanted to know. Which suitor will Katniss choose? Nor am I alone. According to David Levithan, editorial director at Scholastic, Collins’s publisher, roughly half of the “Hunger Games” fans on Facebook are full-fledged adults. “The Harry Potter generation has grown up,” he told me.

It isn’t just the kids who graduated with the Hogwarts crowd who are tuning in. After all, the historian Amanda Foreman, a 42-year-old mother of five and author of “Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire,” was honeymooning when she first read Harry. When I asked Foreman about her young adult reading habit, she could hardly contain her enthusiasm. I must, she urged, read Susan Cooper (“incredibly clever”), Eoin Colfer (“a brilliant author”), Rick Riordan (“really, really, really good”). I must! “A lot of adult literature is all art and no heart,” Foreman, who is currently working on a book about British involvement in the American Civil War, said. “But good Y.A. is like good television. There’s a freshness there; it’s engaging. Y.A. authors aren’t writing about middle-aged anomie or ­disappointed people.”

That may be, in part, why so many middle-aged readers like them. (“They’re also easier to read, and people are tired,” Lizzie Skurnick, author of the anthology “Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading,” suggested. “I’m sure I’ll get in trouble for saying that.”) But big type and short, plot-driven chapters aside, the erosion of age-­determined book categories, initiated by Harry Potter, has been hastened along by an influx of crossover authors like Stephenie Meyer and interlopers like Sherman Alexie, James Patterson, Francine Prose, Carl Hiaasen and John Grisham, to name just a few stars from across the spectrum of adult fiction who have turned to writing Y.A. According to surveys by the Codex Group, a consultant to the publishing industry, 47 percent of 18- to 24-year-old women and 24 percent of same-aged men say most of the books they buy are classified as young adult. The percentage of female Y.A. fans between the ages of 25 and 44 has nearly doubled in the past four years. Today, nearly one in five 35- to 44-year-olds say they most frequently buy Y.A. books. For themselves.

When Gretchen Rubin, the author of “The Happiness Project,” started up her Kidlit book club in 2006, it was a furtive, underground pursuit. “I always knew that I loved children’s literature but had shoved it to the side because it didn’t fit my idea of myself as a sophisticated adult,” Rubin, a former clerk for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, told me. “So I read it on the sly, when I was stressed out. If I found myself rereading ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ it meant I was really anxious.”

The idea for Kidlit was hatched at a lunch with Jennifer Joel, a literary agent at I.C.M., in which both tentatively expressed a love that ran deeper than Potter. A few days later, Rubin discovered that another acquaintance, Jonathan Burnham, senior vice president and publisher of Harper, was also a fan. Their first meeting was held shortly thereafter. Its subject was “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” At the end of dessert (Turkish delight), Amy Zilliax, who has a Ph.D. in English, stood up and shouted, “At last, I have found my people!”

Kidlit has now expanded to three groups, which meet every six weeks, alternating between classic and contemporary works. When I joined in 2008, the initial appeal was catch-up. Why had I never read “Bridge to Terabithia”? Shouldn’t I tackle H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, “Where the Red Fern Grows”? But I was also intrigued that Lev Grossman, book critic for Time, and Laura Miller, the book critic for Salon, along with several top agents and editors, were also members. What, I wondered, were such high-powered literary eminences doing in a club devoted to children’s stories?

Arguing, often passionately, about the books, for one thing. “We take these books seriously,” said Grossman, whose latest novel, “The Magicians,” has been described as an R-rated Harry Potter. His group recently devoted two sessions — “among the most contentious and shouty we’ve had” — to “The Hunger Games.” Is Katniss a feminist hero? Is she a tool of the state? Is this a conventional romance or a subversion of the genre? “Everybody had an opinion,” Grossman added.

And none of it feels like homework. The themes are serious and the discussions intense, but the books are fast-paced and fun. “A lot of contemporary adult literature is characterized by a real distrust of plot,” Grossman said. “I think young adult fiction is one of the few areas of literature right now where storytelling really thrives.”

Y.A. may also pierce the jadedness and cynicism of our adult selves. “When you talk to people about the books that have meant a lot to them, it’s usually books they read when they were younger because the books have this wonder in everyday things that isn’t bogged down by excessively grown-up concerns or the need to be subtle or coy,” explained Jesse Sheidlower, an editor at large at the Oxford English Dictionary and member of Kidlit. “When you read these books as an adult, it tends to bring back the sense of newness and discovery that I tend not to get from adult fiction.”

“There’s an immediacy in the prose,” said Darcey Steinke, a novelist who says she reads about one Y.A. book a month (recent favorites: “Elsewhere,” by Gabrielle Zevin — “better than ‘The Lovely Bones’ — and anything by Francesca Lia Block of “Weetzie Bat” fame). “I like the way adolescent emotions are rawer, less canned.”

Caitlin Macy, the author of the story collection “Spoiled” and another Kidlit member, pointed out that the early teens are “a moment in time when you feel that each decision you make — like who you sit next to at lunch — is actually going to have repercussions for the rest of your life.” As Steinke puts it: “There’s a timelessness to the period. These books are far from you, yet are also the same as you.”

Fortunately, it’s a you who need not be embarrassed about still reading kids’ books.

Pamela Paul’s most recent book is “Parenting, Inc.” She writes the Studied column for the Sunday Styles section of The Times.
A version of this article appeared in print on August 8, 2010, on page BR23 of the Sunday Book Review.

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