MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
It's Mardi Gras. The celebration, a New Orleans tradition, is back in full swing after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city a little more than two years ago. Or is it? We're going to ask a local business owner to tell us.
But first, it's winter, and for many of us that means keeping the kids inside much of the time. So what better time to get the kids into some good books?
From time to time, we talk to Loriene Roy. She is the president of the American Library Association. And whenever she joins us, she brings a bunch of goodies, great books to keep children and young adults reading. She joins us now here in our studio. Welcome back.
Ms. LORIENE ROY (President, American Library Association): Thank you, Michel. It's great to be back.
MARTIN: And you've actually been traveling quite a bit since we saw you last. Where are some of the places you've got?
Ms. ROY: Oh, since last fall, Durban, South Africa, two trips to Mexico, New Zealand and a trip to China.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: I get tired just hearing about this. But so let's - at least, you know what, a lot of time to read on those long plane trips, right?
Ms. ROY: That's right.
MARTIN: Okay. So, the Library Association recently announced its annual children's book awards. You also have awards specifically for Latino and African-American works. Just tell us a little bit more about the winners in those categories.
Ms. ROY: Sure. I brought a couple of the honor books, Pura Belpre for Latino writers. And one is "My Name is Gabito," "Me Llamo Gabito." And this is the life and story of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And it's a beautiful story, talking about how Gabriel Garcia Marquez was influenced his life and how he became a writer.
MARTIN: And is it bilingual? Is it both in English and Spanish?
Ms. ROY: Yeah, right. It's in English and in Spanish, and beautifully illustrated. Another Pura Belpre honor books is "Martina the Beautiful Cockroach: A Cuban Folktale." And it's a great read for this time of year, not only for winter, but it's a love story between cockroach and other sorts of animals and how she finds her true love and her true husband.
MARTIN: "Martina the Beautiful Cockroach." That is an intriguing subject for a love story. You know, I want to hear more. Do you want to read us a little bit?
Ms. ROY: Let's read a page of this book.
(Reading) "Don Gallo, the rooster, strutted up first. Martina tried not to stare at his splendid shoes. Keeping one eye on his reflection, Don Gallo greeted her with a sweeping bow. Caramba, you really are a beautiful cockroach. I will look even more fabulous with you on my wing. With that, he leaned forward and crooned, Martina Josefina Catalina Cucaracha, beautiful muchacha, won't you be my wife?"
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: And it is beautifully illustrated, I have to say. The colors are gorgeous. And what age group, again?
Ms. ROY: I would say a good reader to be - you could read this to kindergarteners. I like the rhythm of the story. I would think any age. But they repeat her name as each suitor comes before her, and she has a test for him, a test for each suitor that her grandmother taught her.
MARTIN: Okay, very nice. Your spotlight works for children with disabilities, for children and for young adults. Why do you think that's so important?
Ms. ROY: Well, I think children want to see reflections of themselves, inclusion. In fact in "Feathers," one of the main characters in this book is a young boy who's deaf. And the ability to find and the ability to communicate with him and how his family interacts with him and how others do is an ongoing theme to this title.
MARTIN: And your point here is not just for children who are addressing these difficulties themselves, these disabilities themselves, would want to be exposed to these books. These are great for other kids, so that they have some idea of what other kids' lives are like.
Ms. ROY: Absolutely.
MARTIN: Do you have any books that might be of particular interest to adults or to, say, mature teens?
Ms. ROY: Well, maybe a surprising book for some people would be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's "On The Shoulders of Giants." And it's subtitled "My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance," and a book that allows him to explore issues to Harlem Renaissance, especially jazz, the first African-American basketball team, the Rens in the U.S., and the influences on this life as a young man and how he became, not only a basketball player, but now an author and historian.
MARTIN: And were there any prizes awarded to books for older students?
Ms. ROY: The Pura Belpre Award for the best book of the year goes to a book that would be of appeal to older students and also adults, "The Poet Slave of Cuba." It's a biography of Juan Francisco Manzano, and it's written in poetry, in poems. And so it tells the unfortunate and difficult life of a slave of Cuba who was also a poet.
MARTIN: And I have to say that that's not - slavery is not an easy topic. So I'd just like to ask, you know, how some of the more gruesome aspects of slavery dealt with in this book. Is this the kind of book that perhaps a parent should read first before deciding whether a child is old enough to handle the content?
Ms. ROY: I think this would be a family book, in part, because of the format and the poems. And you're hearing the voices of not only Juan, but his mother, his slave owner and her husband and her son. So you're hearing perspectives from different audiences who are viewing his life from different perspectives. So, I think it's a great family story.
MARTIN: What age group would you recommend?
Ms. ROY: Like 8 years old and up.
MARTIN: Okay. And I should mention that we will author a robust list on our Web site of all the books that you wanted us to consider and take a look at, so that people shouldn't, if they're driving, they shouldn't feel a need to pullover and pull out a pencil. We'll have these all on our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore. So, what else have you brought?
Ms. ROY: Well, we all know Dr. Seuss, and there is Theodor Seuss Geisel Award that honors illustrators of beginning reader books. And this year, one of the award committee honor books is called "Jazz Baby." And this is for a young child, and it's a wonderful, rhythmic story about a family that enjoys jazz, including the very youngest baby.
MARTIN: And it's very colorful, too. Looks like a lot of fun.
Ms. ROY: A lot of energy in that book.
MARTIN: Mm-hmm. You've got something called the Caldecott Honor Award. What's that?
Ms. ROY: These are books that are recognized for their outstanding illustration. And one of the four Caldecott honor books is "Henry's Freedom Box: a True Story from the Underground Railroad." And it talks about a slave who mailed himself to freedom, and it's his true story.
MARTIN: And again, not the easiest topic. It is a book aimed at young children, but there is a challenging issue in the book. Do you mind if I mention what it is? It's that one of the reasons why Henry needs to get away is that his children had been sold away from him. And that's a very difficult thing, I think, for children for contemplate. So what age group would you recommend to introduce this book to?
Ms. ROY: Well, the Caldecott books do recognize readers from ages eight to 14. But in this case, again, you know, a good family book, a book that will supplement what students were learning in school as well.
MARTIN: Okay. The Newbery honor books.
Ms. ROY: So, one of the honor books is Christopher Paul Curtis's "Elijah of Buxton." A similar story covering slavery, but this time the story of the first free-born young gentleman in Canada, and living in a community called Buxton and his life and how this community survives. Lots of humor in the story as Elijah shows his many gifts - for example, how he catches fish.
MARTIN: Okay. And what about the Coretta Scott King Author Award? I see here that Christopher Paul Curtis also was awarded that. That's a great honor.
Ms. ROY: Right, the same title received the Coretta Scott King Award, and that award, again, outstanding books of children and young adults that promote understanding.
MARTIN: Any particular suggestions for Black History Month, which is upon us?
Ms. ROY: Well, all those titles that we've mentioned sound terrific for Black History Month. Another Newbery honor book is "Feathers" by Jacqueline Woodson and, again, a Newbery honor, one of the best books in terms of text. And she takes a poem by Emily Dickenson reflecting hope as a thing with feathers, and talks about a community in the '70s, a lively African-American students in an urban community and how they receive a young man coming into their school.
MARTIN: And, of course, we always love to talk to you about books, but I also understand that you're concerned about the state of school libraries, and you wanted to talk to us a little bit about that.
Ms. ROY: Well, one of the challenges that we have, especially this year and last year, is increasing funding for school libraries. School librarians bring to school libraries special skills, not only in selecting material and working with young people, but the fact that these are educators, they are certified teachers and they are people who can not only select material, but educate the teachers they're working with and also the parents.
MARTIN: Is it your view that librarians are particularly vulnerable because they're not viewed as - I don't know what to say - frontline personnel?
Ms. ROY: I think you've hit it on the head here, Michel, in terms of sometimes if there's - one school makes a decision that a school librarian could be replaced with a parent, then it becomes a pattern and becomes a quiet, kind of subtle pattern. A bunch of moms in Washington State have said this is enough, and they're actually composing legislation at the state level that will require a school librarian in all their schools.
MARTIN: Well, what would you recommend - I know this isn't, you know, really your area. But if people are concerned about having trained librarians in their schools to work with kids and help them really explore the joy of reading, what do you recommend?
Ms. ROY: Well, there's legislation that's being considered, not only at the state level, but nationally, something called the SKILLs Act, and it's time that one can call one's legislator and say, you know, this is something very important, not only for me, but for the young people who live around me, for their future citizens. So supporting school librarian…
MARTIN: I understand that our first lady is a former school librarian, right?
Ms. ROY: She - that's right. And she's a graduate of the school where I teach, at the University of Texas at Austin High School of Information.
MARTIN: Well, I assume at least you have one set of sympathetic ears - at least one set of sympathetic ears at the White House.
Ms. ROY: Yeah, it's been great having a first librarian.
And you know what? You're our first librarian.
Ms. ROY: Oh, thank you. (unintelligible)
MARTIN: And it's great having you. Loriene Roy is the president of the American Library Association. She joined me here in Washington. Thanks again, Loriene.
Ms. ROY: You're welcome. Thank you.
MARTIN: You can find out more information about the American Library Association and the honored books that Loriene was sharing with us at our Web site: npr.org/tellmemore.