Interview: The Luminaries of Booklights

What do you get when you combine the integrity of PBS Parents, three power-house book bloggers (who also happen to be moms, librarians, and literacy specialists), and a college professor?

An incredible blog, booklightsSMenergized by a team of women who are passionate about inspiring a love of reading in children and their caregivers.

I don’t remember if Jen Robinson found my blog or I found hers. Doesn’t matter. It was the beginning of an incredible journey into what many of us affectionately call the Kidlitosphere.  Back then, it seemed that literacy was a small piece of the ‘sphere – almost a byproduct of our love of reading and books.  Not anymore.

As we have continued to chat with each other through our blogs and conferences, sharing knowledge and ideas, inviting others, the “literacy piece” is coming into its own. IMHO Booklights, the PBS Parents blog that launched in April 2009, is a concrete manifestation of that.

In the interest of full disclosure – which is how we blog with integrity – long before there was a Booklights blog, I was a huge (geeky) fan of Jen Robinson and Jen Robinson’s Book Page; Pam Coughlan and Mother Reader; and Susen Kusel and Wizards Wireless.  Through Booklights I’ve *met* two more friends: Ann Neely and Gina Montefusco. The circle grows.

For the Summer 2009 Author Showcase, I decided to do something a little different. I wanted to do something that takes a look at some of the other corners of the Kidlitosphere and how we create the next generation of readers. We previously chatted with journalist and author Fiona Ingram and talked with songwriter and music therapist Cathy Bollinger.  Today, I’m thrilled to share a group discussion with the Booklights team. As we were working together to put the finishing touches on our interview, the team kept thanking me for the opportunity. To be QUITE frank, the honor was all mine.  On with the show …

It took just about a year for everything to come together for Booklights, a collaborative project sponsored by PBS Parents. The team is as dynamic as it is passionate about sharing easy-to-use tips and ideas for connecting kids with books.

gina_montefusco_booklightsGina Montefusco, who works on the PBS KIDS Raising Readers initiative, is the pivot person for the team. Before coming to PBS, she worked for Reading Is Fundamental, where she produced reading games, activity calendars, and author and illustrator interviews. She participates in several book clubs and writers’ groups and also helped teach creative writing to high school students through the Young Writer’s Workshop at the University of Virginia. As she explains, “I have never outgrown my childhood love of books.” Gina is joined by three powerhouse bloggers who are well-respected, go-to sources for all things related to children’s literature.

jen_robinson_booklightsJen Robinson has been blogging at Jen Robinson’s Book Page since 2005 … and she’s loved children’s books for as long as she can remember. Her passion for reading and paying forward a love of reading knows no bounds. In fact, she is the Literacy Evangelist for the Cybils (Childrens and Young Adult Bloggers Literary Awards). Mention the words reading, kids, and helping parents in a sentence and watch Jen’s face light up!

susan_kusel_booklightsSusan Kusel credits her mother for sparking a lifelong love with books. Now a mom herself, she reads with her son and is thrilled to see how much he enjoys books. “I have the two best jobs in the world: children’s librarian and mom.” Susan’s blog Wizards Wireless (est. June 2007) is her virtual spot for sharing a love of children’s books, comics, and Harry Potter. In her “spare time,” Susan also runs the DC Kidlit Book Club, a group of librarians, authors, bloggers and parents who meet monthly to talk about children’s literature.

pam_coughlan_booklighsPam Coughlan is MotherReader. She is mom, children’s librarian assistant without portfolio, and the creator (with the help of her husband) of Kidlitosphere Central. Pam is currently organizing the annual Kidlitosphere Conference (Arlington, VA 15 to 17 October). Once again this fall, Pam will be sharing her tips and ideas for building your blog. She should know: her first post got 13 comments. Unheard of!

Ann Neely, the newest member of the team, joined Booklights in June 2009. Ann teaches introductory and advanced seminars in children’s literature professor at Vanderbilt University. Her expertise complements the bloggers’ efforts and she writes a monthly feature that pulls together the themes from their posts and offers additional ways to build on those ideas to raise readers.

RT: In April 2009, PBS Parents launched Booklights as the newest component of its Raising Readers initiative. Can you tell us a little bit about how the idea started? When did the collaboration begin?
Gina: I have always been involved in literacy, reading, and finding fun ways to engage kids in learning by having fun. In fact, our Raising Readers initiative uses games to reinforce core learning and the mechanics of reading. On we offer online games and resources for kids (2-8), their parents, teachers, and caregivers. For me, starting a blog about the joy of reading seemed like a natural companion to that. I’m also a lifelong fan of children’s books, and was inspired by Jen’s stint on the PBS Parents Ask the Experts feature in January 2008. There has been a lot of support for and excitement at PBS about Booklights – people here love reading and children’s books, and it was easy to get coworkers on board. Of course, having the all-star line-up of Jen, Pam, Susan, and Ann made that even easier.

Jen: Jean Crawford (PBS Parents site director) asked me to be the January 2008 “expert” for a running Q&A series on PBS Parents. The strong response, in terms of comments and questions from parents and members of the Kidlitosphere got Jean interested in a recurring column about children’s books. When Gina came on board, we started moving forward. We brainstormed at the ALA (American Library Association) conference in Anaheim last summer. We both knew Pam and Susan, and thought that they would be ideal as co-contributors.

Susan: I had seen Jen’s guest column on PBS Parents and was delighted with the interest it generated. We had a Kidlitosphere dinner at ALA last year, and Jen mentioned that PBS was thinking of creating a permanent feature. We were thrilled that her wonderful posts would reach so many parents. The next night, I happened to have dinner with Jen again, this time at the Newbery/Caldecott banquet. She had talked with Gina earlier in the day, and asked if I would be willing to be part of the blog team. I was absolutely stunned. I’m a fairly new blogger and couldn’t believe they even considered me. It turned the night of the banquet from a special evening into a magical one.

pam coughlanPam: Gina talked with me after a DC Kidlit Book Club meeting, and I was very excited. I suggested a feature I’d been using at MotherReader that provided brief, parent-friendly reviews, knowing that format could also be used to convey quick, practical reading ideas. Since I had made some moves into funded ventures online that hadn’t panned out, I didn’t let myself believe I’d be writing for PBS until it happened. And here I am.

RT: Each of you brings a specific talent to Booklights that can inspire caregivers to read with kids. Are there things you are looking forward to learning from your colleagues (e.g., stretching your comfort zone)?
Jen: I’d like to learn from Gina about connecting my individual blogging efforts with the larger literacy community. Ann has already shown that she has a research and literature background, and can tie some of the things that I discuss on my blog in with more formal research. Pam reminds me all the time, by example, to keep it fun. And Susan reminds me to keep a broader focus, looking at everything from comics to cakes.

Pam: Having known Jen for years as a BFF – Blogging Friend Forever – I’ve always admired her dedication, professionalism, and depth. Susan has limitless energy, involving herself in numerous activities in the areas of librarianship and children’s literature. I’m getting to know Gina and Ann better as we go on this Booklights journey, but am already impressed by their knowledge and drive. I can only hope that some of the professionalism, drive, energy, dedication, knowledge, and depth rub off on me.

Susan:I’ve learned so much from Pam and Jen over the years, they’ve both really helped me develop my Wizards Wireless blog. It is exciting to be working together on the same project; I keep learning more from them every day. Jen does such fantastic research and draws in all parts of the Kidlitosphere. Pam always makes me laugh and shows me how important humor is. Ann’s posts have been fascinating. She catches things in all of our posts that I would have missed otherwise. Gina has been wonderful and professional and has given me a much broader educational perspective about children’s literature.

Gina: I love the book recommendations from the bloggers. They open my eyes to both new books and classics that deserve a second (or third or fourth) glance. Every post shows the excitement and insight they have for books, and how we can get kids to feel that same way.

RT: In introducing yourselves to the PBS Parents audience, you listed some of your favorite children’s books. Jen and Pam covered chapter books, and Pam, Jen, Susan, and Ann listed picture books. Are these books you loved as kids or books you love for kids? Do you think there’s a difference in how we see children’s books as adults, even when we loved them as kids? Gina, do you have any favorite children’s books?
Pam: I listed both books I loved as a kid and newer titles. Working in a public library for nine years and being a parent for 13, I’ve received lots of real world practice with children’s books. I take the read-alouds on test drives at home and at storytimes. I see how my library patrons respond when I put the books in their hands. I ask for and listen to the opinions of my own kids. All of these experiences do make it easier to identify the kid-friendly books. But the best books – especially picture books – are the ones that equally engage the child and parent, because those are the books that will encourage them both to share the reading experience.

Susan: I also listed both, but I think the two categories coincide for me. I think there is a definite difference in the way kids and adults see and understand books. And each person, whether an adult or child, has their own perspective. For example, last year I helped run a Mock Caldecott program in an elementary school with 4th and 5th graders. The picture books we talked about with that group were also ones I heard discussed in professional journals, on listservs, in blogs, in Capitol Choices meetings, in my book club, and at ALA Notables discussions. Plus, I tried some of the books out in storytimes, with library patrons, and with my five-year-old son. Every group of people had a different reaction to the books and I learned something from each one. The most striking reaction came from the kids in the Caldecott program. They were older than the standard picture book audience and they had fantastic insights into the books that didn’t get mentioned in any of the myriad of adult forums.

Jen: Some of the books on my lists are titles I loved from childhood; others are newer books. I think it is hard to be objective about the childhood titles, because they hold such a strong place in my heart. But with newer titles – titles I first read as an adult – I do try to keep an eye on what I think kids would enjoy. For instance, I love the picture book A Visitor for Bear because I think it is such a wonderful read-aloud for preschoolers. But I don’t tend to have books on my favorites list that I outright didn’t enjoy, just because I think that kids will like them.

Gina:One reason our bloggers are so good is because they are so tuned into kids and what books might spark their interest. I think of them as experts at recommending books today’s kids will love. It is good, nostalgic fun to learn about someone’s childhood favorites, and we’re launching a “Show and Tale” feature that discusses just that. Booklights doesn’t focus on abstract content – the bloggers give parents advice they can use. As an adult, I find myself returning to childhood favorites and loving them just as much as before: Charlotte’s Web, anything Roald Dahl or Madeleine L’Engle, A.A. Milne, and P.L. Travers. I am also finding new ones to obsess over: Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, Mo Willems, Mark Teague, and young adult like Sarah Dessen, Laurie Halse Anderson, E. Lockhart, Jenny Han.

RT: When you think about the Booklights audience, who do you see sitting there reading your posts?
Susan: That’s an excellent question because it is something I think about with every post I write. Reading the comments have been fascinating because we seem to be reaching so many different types of people, more than I could have imagined. I’ve been delighted to see so many bloggers, teachers, parents, and librarians reading the blog. It’s particularly exciting to be able to write a post about something like board books and feel like I am actually reaching parents that find the information useful.

Pam: I see Brad Pitt reading my posts, but I have an active imagination. Seriously, I hope to see parents looking for good books for their kids, new ideas to make reading fun, and engaging stories to make children’s literature accessible. I also see busy teachers and librarians who need to rely on a few sources of information and turns to a trusted source like PBS.

Jen: I think it’s a mix of three groups. There are people from the Kidlitosphere, who read because they know Pam, Susan, and me. There are teachers and librarians, who don’t necessarily blog, but who have a lot of real-world experience in connecting kids with books. And there are parents who are here because they trust PBS, and want to know more about children’s books. I try to write more for that third audience at Booklights, but I very much value the insights that I get, in the comments, from the first two.

Gina: We got a great response early on from the Kidlitosphere, and it made our launch a happy one – visitors and commenters right away! I think like Jen on this, I see three parts to our audience.

RT: Do you see an audience beyond the computer? If so, how do you hope to reach them?
Gina: That’s a question we ask ourselves a lot. A lot of our PBS KIDS Raising Readers outreach focuses beyond the computer through PBS stations and targeted libraries. We also have a ton of games and resources at Even so, I know a lot of parents simply don’t have the time to be on the computer much. Blogs are a simple and effective way to reach a wide audience. I hope that teachers and librarians who read the blog will be able to pass on any tidbits they learn from Booklights. We’re lucky to be a part of PBS Parents, which has a built-in audience of parents who aren’t necessarily tuned into the Kidlitosphere – or have even heard of that term!

Jen: One of the reasons I blog at Booklights is that I feel like the community of people who blog about children’s books is a bit self-referential. I would like to reach more parents who aren’t necessarily bloggers or teachers or librarians, and help them raise readers. Being on a PBS site helps a lot, because people trust PBS. But I don’t have any concrete ideas for how to reach that audience through Booklights beyond the computer.

Susan: I find that conferences are great places to share ideas and talk about topics that have been brought up on blogs. I just got back from the ALA Annual Conference. I talked to a number of friends, colleagues, and fellow bloggers about a variety of issues relating to children’s books … including things that have appeared on Booklights. These discussions and sessions help me generate new ideas and perspectives to share. I’m really looking forward to the October 2009 Kidlitosphere Conference (aka KidLitCon) in DC for the same reason.

Pam: I don’t know about the others, but I’ve been working on a whole telepathy thing on the side. It’s been pretty disappointing so far.

RT: The reading level for the first two paragraphs on the About page is 7.6 (averaged across 5 readability programs). Do you ever think about how readability affects your audience when you’re writing your posts?
Jen: I don’t think about readability so much, but I do try to be careful not to include too much insider lingo about the Kidlitosphere or literacy organizations. I try to write for that parent who is interested in helping their child become a reader, but doesn’t read 300 other blogs on this topic.

Pam: When I write my posts, I try to capture the tone and feeling of simply talking to another mom about reading. One of the things that I find frustrating online is finding reviews of picture books that have more words than the books themselves. I like to keep my posts short, giving busy parents smaller pieces of information that they can absorb and use.

Susan: My main goal is to make my posts accessible and like Jen, I try to avoid using jargon. The range of people reading Booklights is so great and I want everyone to feel welcome. I’ve also been having fun bringing some insider events like the Newbery banquet, some librarian tricks of the trade, and publishing stories to a wider audience.

Gina: I think about readability, although I don’t necessarily use the Flesch-Kincaid scale all the time. We do a lot of user testing and research with parents, caregivers, and teachers to hear firsthand if we’re getting it right. So far, feedback has been really positive. One reason I reached out to these specific bloggers is the fun, easy readability of their existing work.

RT: Pam, Susan, and Jen: Has collaborating and writing for Booklights/PBS Parents expanded the audience for your own blogs?
Pam: I don’t know that it has, but it also doesn’t particularly matter to me. When I have a post at Booklights, I link from MotherReader because I know my readers there want to know everything that is available to them. For Booklights, I see myself as providing more of a sampling of children’s literature, and I think that is appropriate for the target audience. As a parent myself, I’m well aware of the feeling of overload that comes from too much information, too many choices. If some readers want to get more involved in the online world of children’s literature, they can visit MotherReader and I’ll be happy to show them around.

Susan: I have to confess. I haven’t been checking my Wizards Wireless statistics since I started blogging at Booklights. I’m incredibly impressed with Jen and Pam who have seamlessly been able to keep up with their own blogs in addition to Booklights. I’ve been posting a lot less at my own blog due to the limited number of hours in the day and the demands of being a full-time working mom. That said, a lot more people seem to know who I am in the blogging and professional world because of Booklights and that’s just amazing.

Jen: I think so. I do see people clicking through from Booklights to my own blog (Jen Robinson’s Book Page), especially to read reviews of books that I’ve mentioned. It is hard to say for sure if this is a different audience, because people who don’t have blogs of their own seem to be much less likely to comment. But I also think that as we build more of a trust base through Booklights, people going through to our personal blogs will increase.

RT: What would you say is a highlight of your experience in creating/collaborating on Booklights?
Gina: I am thrilled to have gotten this off the ground in the first place, and to have bloggers whose work I genuinely enjoy reading and sharing. I learn from their posts every day! The process of finding a name was a doozy – a fun doozy – but it took a while until we settled on Booklights.

Jen: I have had a couple of recent posts, one about reading and grade levels and one about “social reading” that have both generated a lot of discussion in the comments. These kinds of discussions really make me feel like I am reaching a different audience than the one for my regular blog. It has all been tremendous fun.

Pam: I have so much respect for PBS that being part of the team is a rush in itself. It certainly doesn’t hurt to be working with people that I admire as well.

Susan: I wrote a post a little while back about cakes with children’s literature characters. Somehow it ended up on StumbleUpon and got a mind-boggling number of hits. That would have never happened if I’d posted it on my personal blog. It was amazing that a post I wrote got read by so many people … and more importantly, that so many people were interested in something to do with children’s books. Another highlight was when I wrote a post about meeting Neil Gaiman without knowing how famous he was, and Neil read it and posted it on his Twitter feed. It was exciting to have so many Neil Gaiman fans visit Booklights! As Pam said, though, just being part of the team and writing for PBS has been the biggest highlight of all.

RT: Platforms like Facebook and Twitter offer both the opportunity to reach broader audiences and the pitfall of juggling too much. Do you think that “information overload” from these tools could cause people to tune out the read-with-your-kids message because they think we’re nagging?

Susan: It is important to provide information about reading with kids in all forms: whether it is in a blog, a professional journal, on Facebook or Twitter, or in storytimes. I think different people prefer different platforms and ways of getting information, so it is helpful to use a variety of outlets. The important thing is that the message (hopefully!) is getting out there.

Pam: If there is one thing I could choose to nag people about – other than drive on the right, pass on the left – it is the importance of reading with your kids. I used to do some library work in public health and have seen success stories in getting a single, simple message out to parents. For example, the Back to Sleep campaign to reduce SIDS completely changed the popular wisdom of putting a baby to sleep on her stomach. There are so many opportunities to get out a literacy message without lecturing parents in a negative way. Repeating myself is the least of my worries.

Jen: I think it is more a question of tone than volume with these messages. Many people probably resent being told what to do, especially if it seems like the teller feels superior. But I think that if we remain genuine in our enthusiasm for reading and focus on being there as a resource for people who do want to raise readers, the message will get through.

Gina: We are trying to balance making the most of these platforms with pacing ourselves. We post a Twitter a day or so from the Booklights account, and only rarely on Facebook (although we did get a hugely positive response when we posted our launch). Hopefully that’s enough to let people know about the blog without drowning them in notifications. I wholeheartedly agree with Jen’s answer about the tone. I hope parents sense that we’re on their side and understand the challenges – and rewards – of raising a reader.

RT: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Gina: It has been so rewarding to bring my love of books – usually such a private affair – into work and have been lucky enough to snag Jen, Pam, Susan, and Ann. Booklights has turned out even better than I’d hoped because of them.

Jen: I would just like to thank Gina for getting this whole thing off the ground. It has been a great experience.

Pam: There are so many opportunities to get out a literacy message without lecturing parents in a negative way. Repeating myself is the least of my worries. (She repeats, tongue in cheek.)

Susan: I just want to say again how honored I am to be included in this wonderful venture. It has been a terrific experience. And thank you so much, Terry, for taking the time and energy to put this showcase together.

RT: You are so welcome! I’m so glad we were able to do this. Pam, good luck with the telepathy!

16 responses to “Interview: The Luminaries of Booklights

  1. At the risk of repeating myself (tee hee) … I really enjoyed it, too. It is so great to see the growth and interest in sharing reading as a positive experience for parents and kids alike.

  2. Thanks for featuring Booklights, Terry! It’s been a pleasure talking children’s literacy with you these past couple of years, and this interview is like icing on the cake.

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  5. I’m so impressed with the time and energy you put into this interview, pulling it together into such a wonderful article. Thanks you for showing off Booklights and making us look particularly good.

  6. As the newest blogger on Booklights, I am thrilled to join this group of very talented and informed advocates for children and their books. As a college professor, I could get a bit isolated from the real world. But being able to read and reflect on weekly postings by Jen, Pam, and Susan, I hope to keep some of the ideas they have generated moving forward. Gina has done a marvelous job of providing enough structure to allow for a constant flow of ideas.

  7. Ann, Thank you so much for stopping by. Great chemistry makes all the difference, and y’all definitely have that! It is so neat to see how everything weaves together in your columns. Will you still come to visit if I tell you I’m a Vol fan? If not, then forget I ever said anything! 😉

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