By Kate Hannigan
Isabel Baker is the owner of The Book Vine for Children in McHenry, Illinois. Isabel has master’s degrees in education and library science, experience as a librarian, consults with preschool teachers and does presentations on early literacy at education conferences all over the country. She is a member of NAEYC, National Head Start, American Booksellers Association and Zero to Three. Isabel supports Voices for Illinois Children; Big Brothers, Big Sisters; and Southern Poverty Law Center. As an avid reader of children’s literature, Isabel has contributed book reviews to Early Years: The Journal of the Texas AEYC and consults on recommended book lists for various organizations. She also writes children’s book reviews for “The Reading Chair,” a regular column in Young Children, a NAEYC publication. Isabel graciously talked to The Prairie Wind in February.
You began The Book Vine over 25 years ago from your apartment in Chicago. Can you explain The Book Vine’s mission and what sparked your passion for books for the very young?
I became a children’s librarian because of my love of helping children find the best books available, but going into business happened by accident. (Isn’t that how it always is?) Well, 28 years ago, when my husband and I were living in a high-rise in Chicago, I had a baby. Of course, because I was a librarian, that baby had to have every good book known to man. One day I got a call from a young Head Start teacher. She had heard that I had a wonderful children’s book collection and asked to come over and see it. Since she didn’t sound like an axe murderer, I invited her in. She stayed for a couple of hours, and we just looked at and talked about children’s books. She said, “We need someone like you, someone to help us choose books.” I realized that every elementary and high school in the country had a librarian. However the Early Childhood world was left to fend – and select books – for itself. So, I started doing book fairs (which I no longer do) and selling books to schools. And that is how The Book Vine started. It began on one shelf in our apartment and, within four years, it had taken over every room. Now, we’re in a big warehouse in McHenry, Illinois.
My mission today is unchanged: It’s my job to get quality books into the hands of preschool teachers and the children in their classrooms.
Hardback vs. paperback. What’s your opinion?
I’m a huge proponent of hardcovers. Their robust shape, stitched binding and high-quality paper are a tactile and visual treat, and the weight of a hardcover lets the reader know that they are holding something special. In addition to that, they stand erect at story time, so they’re easier for children to see than a floppy paperback. They stand up on a shelf and have spines large enough for children to identify on their own, which is an important early literacy skill. And, they last longer! Paperbacks often get tossed in a bin, where they’re hard to sort through. In my opinion, it’s better to have two neat shelves of excellent hardcovers than bins of paperbacks. That said, you may notice we have a list of paperbacks in The Book Vine catalog. We recently began selling paperbacks because they’re a great option for Lending Libraries, where books are read one-on-one between parent and child – and are frequently lost in transit.
Pirates and Fairies are battling dinosaurs and princesses for space on the bookstore shelves. What trends have been done to death in your opinion? What are the trends you are seeing for 2008?
I’ll tell you what I’m tired of. I’m tired of bathroom humor and books that rely on a single joke without using well-developed characters and interesting plotlines. I’m tired of hip illustrations, hip texts and extra glitz meant to make a book jump off the shelf into the hands of the customer. For 2008, I’m seeing more of the above. I’m seeing more mediocre books being marketed for narrow age groups (birth to 6 months, 6 to 12 months, 12 to 18 months). This kind of breakdown is artificial, anti-intellectual, anti-art and anti-literacy. We all want and need the freedom to explore all kinds of books. Books should be works of art first, including the alphabet books and counting books. Works of art will inspire and teach children more than books designed primarily as teaching tools.
But, I’m not totally down about trends. Lately, there have been more books incorporating children with special needs. There have been more books about two-mom or two-dad families. There are more multicultural books these days, although we’re still looking for more books about Arab children, for example. For The Book Vine to carry a title, being topical is not enough. It must be well-written and well-illustrated. But we’re excited nonetheless that these topics are getting more attention.
What are the holes you see, and what should children’s book authors keep in mind?
First and foremost, there is always room for quality. Good stories, interesting nonfiction and good illustrations will never go out of style.
The Book Vine for Children is devoted to the very youngest readers, birth to 6 years, and their teachers. For the infants and toddlers, there is a shortage of good, age-appropriate board books. Many books for older children are being printed in board for durability, but I’m referring to books for infants and toddlers. I also see a shortage of well-illustrated age appropriate rhyming books for the very young. Good nonfiction for preschool is just starting to get more attention due to the Universal Pre-K initiatives in many states. There is definitely room for more!
If you could make a wish, what would you like to see happen in the world of children’s books?
I would like to see the publishers stop cutting down so many trees to produce and print junk. The vast majority of what is published will be out of print within a season or two. I would like to see more literature and less emphasis on being hip-to-the-moment. I want to see books meant to improve the inner life of a child, where the heart of the child is front and center. A lot of books – like some bathroom humor books – offer a quick laugh, but they’re not enduring stories. Parents need to teach their children to have a little patience, because the rewards of reading a more fleshed out and challenging story are incomparable. And, I think the best way to teach children to be patient readers is to give them good books. The problem will take care of itself.
What have been your favorite books in recent years?
Here’s a Little Poem is the best poetry collection available for preschoolers. The poems speak to preschool sensibilities, and the illustrations are priceless. My Lucky Day is a story about an underdog who’s more on top of the situation than his nemesis realizes. Children will love being in on the joke. Alligator Boy captures the importance and magic of imaginative play. Haven’t we all known a preschool-age alligator – or dog, or fireman – at some point? A book that might surprise you is Vulture View. Who knew that, with majestic illustrations and poetic text, the bird that eats dead animals could become so intriguing? I have to mention Peanut, a quirky story about a lonely woman who has a hard time seeing her pets for who they are. But, her character – a caring soul who wants the best for them – is clear. Lastly, I’ll mention I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More. This perfectly paced sing-along about a boy who gets into trouble with paints incorporates rhyme, body parts and colors, but what makes it stand out is the incredible fun readers will have with the lively illustrations and text.
What inspires you and makes you want to get out of bed in the morning?
Second to my family is my work. I consider myself lucky, because I do love my work! I love connecting preschool teachers and children with great books. It gives me deep satisfaction, because I know it makes a difference in all of their lives. Reading good books to students makes a teacher proud of her curriculum, and being read to every day enriches childhood, especially when the titles are well-selected. While I sell books mostly to schools and preschool programs, I am also interested in connecting with parents. I never tire of listening to parents talk about the books they read to their children.
I always feel I am on a search for the best new books, and that hunt is my fun. I suppose that’s the librarian in me. Finding good art and beautiful text to feed the minds and nourish the hearts of young children. . . how could I ask for more?