This summer I was contacted by "Lemon Tree," a fancy South Korean women's magazine. They were writing four articles about reading initiatives in different countries around the world. The magazine had lined up representatives from Denmark, Japan, and France, and now needed one for the U.S. Apparently their South Korean editor is a big fan of Bookie Woogie and had also read some interviews I'd done online. Somehow through all this she determined that I was a good spokesperson for the state of literacy in the U.S. (?!?!?)
I assured her that I was in no position to speak on behalf of the country. But I certainly could share my own personal beliefs and could relate the practices of our own specific family. Eventually I did the interview, and the kids posed with a few of my books for some photos (taken by our talented friend Julie Emmons).
We recently got a copy of the magazine -- a beautiful, spiffy, glossy, 350 page magazine. I thought I'd share the results: a nice full spread!
Since the article that was eventually constructed is in Korean, I have no idea what it actually says. But I do know what the interview contained... So for anyone interested, here you go!
Lemontree: I wonder if the American children’s reading education system is family-oriented or government-oriented. I mean, in Korea, Children’s reading education is not an urgent gov issue, but parents are obsessed with their kids reading these days. It’s a kind of trend due to the catchphrase “if your children read, they will achieve good academic score at school.” So they start to read books (many English books too) to their baby right after they’re born to be smart at school. The funny thing is that parents don’t read books that much for themselves. 3 Korean adults out of 10 don’t read a book a year. -- that’s contradictory, you know. In contrast, I found the American reading education very impressive, because the gov. runs a reading campaign for kids, not small but in a big scale, for children’s reading. I’m curious about whether those passions on reading education happen because families ask them to or if gov. urges family to read kids many books. Where does the passion does come from?
AZ: The American family and the American government both share a strong passion for education and reading initiatives. It think that passion is circular. The topic is such an important one for American families, so as a result folks in government are quick to champion these causes. And because the government therefore spends great time and energy promoting these things, the public continues to recognize their importance. And round and round it goes... each side increasing the passion of the other. Right now we have a generation of young parents who, as kids, grew up watching wonderful programs on public television (government sponsored television), programs that daily praised the importance of reading. These are wonderful shows that are still around today, like Sesame Street for example.
Lemontree: Please tell me how the public sector is helping your children’s reading. Libraries, schools, and other public institutions. According to your former interview with Tara, you borrowed books from the library, 30~40 at a time. You even have 3000 book at home. Why is that so?
AZ: Public libraries are wonderful resources. Their book collections are ever-growing. Libraries also host programs throughout the year to get kids excited about reading. Both of the libraries in our area recently ran summer reading programs with weekly events and prizes. Magic shows, puppet shows, author visits, craft hours, pet shows, dance troupes all brought families through the library doors. And local businesses donated books, free food treats, even free trips as prizes for kids and families who read a certain number of pages to qualify. Our kids plowed through many more books trying to win goodies than they would have on their own. It was good for them to have that encouragement. In our family, we love books anyway, so it's not odd to find 30 to 40 books checked out of the library at any given time. We also have a huge collection of our own books gathered over the years, which includes over 3000 children's books alone. We have 7 bookcases in our living room, a wall of books in the girls' room, multiple bookcases in my studio, bookcases in closets, books in cupboards... tucked everywhere we can find room! We simply love books: they transport you, they teach you, they connect you with other people's dreams and ideas, they are beautiful things.
Lemontree: When do American parents start to read books to their children? In your case? Do you think reading books to a baby in a very early stage, like right after giving birth, is good idea?
AZ: I don't know if there is a typical age that American parents start reading to kids. It most likely varies widely from family to family. In our home we haven't really initiated reading attempts. With so many books around, it is simply a matter of time before our children toddle up with a book they've grabbed off the shelves on their own. They see us read; they see their siblings read. They are naturally curious to try it out as well. I wouldn't discourage reading to a child right after birth. There is certainly no harm that can come from it. Whether or not "Reading" itself has any benefit at that early age is debatable -- but certainly the closeness physically, the sound of a parents voice, the rhythm of language all have their own benefits. And it could lead to the formation of good habits for the parent early on.
Lemontree: When do you usually read books to your children? Once a day? How many hours? Do you reserve time for this?
AZ: We "homeschool" our children -- we teach them ourselves in our home rather then send them to a public or private classroom. Therefore, reading takes place on a daily basis as part of the educational process. In addition, we also read often for pleasure. We read during quiet moments -- or when we need to create quite moments! Pleasure reading is not scheduled or even required in our family. I do read a book to the older children at night before bed -- this we attempt to do every night. We work our way through longer books for this activity, a chapter or two each night.
Lemontree: On your blog ‘Boogie Woogie,’ you guys talk about a book once a week, don’t you? Who thought of making this blog? That’s quite brilliant. ^-^ Please tell me the first motivation of the blog.
AZ: One day I simply realized there was a void. There are plenty of adults talking about the children's books they love. But no children doing it! If I were to start a review blog like everyone else, sharing my own opinions, I'd be lost in the crowd -- just another voice out of many. But children reviewing children's books, for some odd reason, is a novelty. So the Zenz family stepped in to fill the gap. It has been a lot of fun.
Lemontree: How do your children like blogging their discussions about books? It seems quite delightful. ^-^ Please describe the scene of your discussion. Do you all gather around the living room? Do you guys sit on the sofa? Having some snacks?
AZ: Here's a bit about our reviewing process: We try to alternate between newly released books and old favorites. We also make sure each of us gets to pick a title. Ideally we try to review four books in a single sitting and then post one review a week over the following month. The three oldest kids and I each select a book and all gather on the couch. I read the first book and then turn on the recorder and start asking questions. We've learned some tricks over time... unless I ask questions to the youngest child first, she won't get a word in edgewise. Once everyone has had a chance to comment, we move on to the next book, one at a time until we're worn out for the day. Later in the week we will gather at the table for a drawing party, and everyone creates a picture based on the books we've read. (I draw with them too, even though only the kids' pictures get posted.) Later on I listen to the recordings and type up the conversation. We record much more than I eventually post - I just type up the best bits.
Lemontree: I think you ask the perfect questions to your children during the discussion. You do not disturb their thinking, do not give too much information, urge kids to tell their thoughts. However, many Korean parents find it quite difficult discussing books with kids. They force kids too hard to tell what the topic is, what do you learn from it, do you know the meaning of the word, etc. So their kids don’t enjoy the discussion with parents. Tell us some of your know-how. What’s your advice for them?
AZ: In a schoolroom setting things might be different... teachers need to track a child's progress and comprehension. I think it's important for parents to remember that when we read to our own children, it is primarily for pleasure. It is a form of play. And part of the fun is finding out what is going on in the kid's head. I don't worry about seeing if they can respond to the thoughts going on in my own adult head. I try to ask exploring questions to find out what is in theirs... "What did you think?" "Why?" "Tell me more about that." They are open-ended questions that a child could respond to in any number of ways. I put aside any agenda of my own.
Lemontree: Drawing about the book is also quite enjoyable. Who’s idea was that? Do they enjoy drawing about their reading? It seems not easy task even to me. Haha.
AZ: I am an illustrator myself. And for an illustrator there are few joys greater than getting fan art from a child who has read your books. It is a wonderful gift, and the joy one receives stays with you for days. Knowing this firsthand, and also knowing that many authors and illustrators will be reading these reviews we're crafting, I wanted to make sure fan art was a major aspect of the site. My kids draw all day long anyway. Creating a piece of fan art simply provides them with some additional subject matter. It also gives them a chance to experiment with different styles and materials as we look at different illustrators' work.
Lemontree: How do you choose your book out of 3000 books for Boogie Woogie? And how do you choose books for Z-kids ordinarily? Do you have a tactic for that? By the way, how did you collect all the 3000 books? Is it because of your profession?
AZ: I started collecting children's books in college, long before I had kids. Long before I had any idea that I would eventually be involved in creating books. It was for my own pleasure. I love art. I love story. Picture books are a beautiful combination of the two. The fact that they were supposed to be for children didn't bother me. Now that I'm an illustrator, we survive off of starving-artist income. So I don't have the luxury of purchasing many brand new books from traditional stores. Instead I have regular rounds I make to second-hand sources: library used book sales, second-hand shops, garage sales. I'm very selective in what I pick up. The number of books doesn't imply low standards, but instead reveals how persistent I am at hunting. Most times I walk away empty handed. But a book here and a book there adds up over the course of 10 years of diligent watchfulness. I look for compelling stories and beautiful illustrations. Out of all those books, I have 100-200 favorites that I keep up in my studio on a special bookshelf. It's from out of this "cream of the crop" that we pick our stories for "Bookie Woogie."
Lemontree: Do you have a must-read book list for your kids? or for Korean Lemontree readers?
AZ: I don't have any particular books to recommend, but I do have some favorite author/illustrators whose work is consistently good. I love anything by David Wiesner, Eric Rohmann, Adam Rex, Peter McCarty, and P. J. Lynch to name a few...
Lemontree: In the US, are there any book trends? Recently in Korea, educational cartoon was big.
AZ: Right now Graphic Novels are huge, and they are growing in popularity year by year. The "Babymouse" series is a good example of a successful set of graphic novels.
Lemontree: Did you have any trouble with reading education with Z-kids? Such as, they refused to read books at times?
AZ: Both my oldest son and my oldest daughter took a long time before wanting to read wordy books on their own. They enjoyed picture books, but were reluctant to move on to reading chapter books. We tried many different things to encourage them -- none of which, I believe, actually helped at all. In the end, it was all a matter of time. In their own time, when they were ready, they took off on their own. The best thing we did was to simply have a variety of reading options available and accessible to them for when they were ready. They both are eager readers now.
Lemontree: Do you have any know-how to make Z-kids read so many books?
AZ: The best thing we do is model it. They see us read. We surround ourselves with books. They think it's normal -- they don't know any different!
Lemontree: Please describe your up-coming book "The Hiccupotamus."
AZ: "The Hiccupotamus" is a fun, silly story about a hippopotamus with very bad hiccups. Since he is such a large animal, the impact of his hiccups are disastrous for the creatures around him. The other animals gang up and try to cure him by spinning him around, dunking him under water, tickling him, and scaring him. It is very colorful and filled with active, expressive characters. In English, the rhymes create many crazy nonsense words which make it a lot of fun to read out loud. I created "The Hiccupotamus" a few years ago, and it was published by a tiny, tiny company -- in fact, it was the only high-end picture book they ever put out! Now years later, another wonderful publisher called Marshall Cavendish has discovered this little lost gem and is putting it back on shelves! I'm so delighted.