Author Interview: Judy Freeman on Books Kids Will Sit Still For 3: A Read-Aloud Guide

Books Kids Will Sit Still For 3: A Read-Aloud Guide by Judy Freeman (Libraries Unlimited, 2006). From the promo copy: “The largest and most comprehensive book of its kind ever written, it’s an indispensable treasure trove of 1,700 child-tested favorite read-aloud titles, published since 1995. This is the definitive source for the best recent picture books, fiction, poetry, folklore, biography, and nonfiction books to share with children. The extensively annotated bibliography incorporates thousands of innovative and inspirational ideas for booktalking, book discussion, creative drama, storytelling, poetry, writing, library skills, and other literature-based teaching.”

Judy Freeman is a well-known speaker, consultant, and writer on reading aloud, storytelling, booktalking, librarianship, and all aspects of children’s literature. She is an adjunct faculty member at Pratt Institute’s School of Information and Library Science in New York City, where she teaches graduate courses on children’s literature and storytelling.

“After 25 delightful years as a school librarian in New Jersey, in 2000, Judy gave up her day job and took to the road as a children’s literature troubadour, though she still spends many days each year working with children and teachers to try out scores of new children’s books and ideas.” For more information, visit Judy’s website.

What were you like as a child reader?

I was a real book nut. I remember throwing a fit when I was in seventh grade and my mother promised to take me to the store to get a copy of the Newbery Medal winner, A Wrinkle in Time, but then reneged, saying she had other things to do. Hah! I wrote her my first impassioned persuasive letter and slid it under the bedroom door. “All right, we’ll get the blasted book!” she said, and we did. I read it a million times, and it’s still in my psyche.

My parents took my older brother and sister and me to the public library every Tuesday night and we all took out armloads of books and then got ice cream. One of my great passions in life is still ice cream (cherry Garcia, hot fudge) with a good book.

I also had a fabulous elementary school librarian–Mrs. Amato–and it didn’t hurt that my mother became a librarian when I was young.

My sister Sharron was Beezus to my Ramona. I once melted the head of her ballerina doll on a light bulb. She still hasn’t quite forgiven me. (Remember when Ramona wrecked Beezus’s birthday cake–twice?) And my older brother was terrified of Miss Clavell in the Madeline books. We were all a little odd.

Your credentials include school librarian, national workshop presenter, storyteller, and book reviewer? What put you on the path of a life of books?

My mother wanted me to go on Broadway. She loved to sing, but always substituted her own words for the great standards of the 30s and 40s. We all sang, and my parents read to us–lots of Winnie-the-Pooh and Mary Poppins and Beverly Cleary and Dr. Seuss. I can remember way back then, reading the New York Times Sunday Book Review when they did their children’s issue every spring, yearning for all those books.

I still yearn for books. When my mother became a school librarian in the 1960s, she kept bringing home all of these great books for me to read, even though I was in high school already. That’s when I met Harriet the Spy. And I still have my first edition of Where the Wild Things which I bought in high school. You’d think I’d be tired of children’s books after half a century, but it’s still magical when I read a great one.

When I was in college, I wanted to be a folk singer. Realizing if I didn’t work, I wouldn’t eat, I got practical and became an elementary school librarian instead, saying, “Well, I’ll try this for a little while until I decide what I really want to do.” And it was a blast. I sang with the kids, I read them stories, I told them stories. We acted out stories. It was a wild and crazy place, my library. I can’t figure out where 26 years flew.

What do you love about your work? What are its challenges?

What I’ve loved about my work is how diverse it can be.

I’m a book review columnist for School Library Media Activities Monthly and NoveList (online), and wrote for Instructor magazine and Teacher for many years.

I’ve also gotten to write extensive and very fun teacher’s guides for publishers for some amazing books and authors, including Jennifer Armstong‘s An American Story, illustrated by Roger Roth (Random House, 2006); this year’s Caldecott, The Hello, Goodbye Window by Norton Juster, illustrated by Chris Raschka (Hyperion, 2006); most of Mo Willems‘s books at Hyperion, and a guide to the picture books of Kevin Henkes for HarperCollins. My guide for Lane Smith‘s fabulous John, Paul, George & Ben (Hyperion, 2006) just came out and it’s a hoot. Oh, and I also did one for Kate diCamillo‘s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (Candlewick, 2006), which just won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for fiction. You can find it at (teacher’s guide).

(Yes, I would have rather written any of these books than just the guides, but it still was stimulating and challenging to do.)

I even got to record a CD of 23 songs and stories to go along with my guide for Rosemary Wells‘s 96-page picture book, My Kindergarten (Hyperion, 2005). You can download the guide and play or burn copies of the CD at Just type the title into the search bar and you’ll find it. My cousin Pete Fand is a musical genius, and we worked together on it. It was the most fun thing I’ve ever done, writing the songs, singing and playing guitar, recording, and then having Hyperion make it available for free. That’s thanks to the wonderful, amazing, and adorable Angus Killick, who said, “Could you set a few of Rosemary’s poems to music and make a little CD?” I got to be a rock star!

I taught as an adjunct in the library school at Rutgers for 20 years, after Mary Kay Chelton, my wonderful professor, encouraged me to take over her booktalking course. She was leaving Rutgers and recommended me as the instructor. I was astonished. How could I possibly teach a course? (I was all of 29.) I did, though, having the time of my life and have taught dozens of courses since then.

Now I’m an adjunct at Pratt Institute in NYC where I teach storytelling and children’s literature. I teach most of my courses in the children’s room at Donnell Library, across from the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street, and guess who’s there? Winnie-the-Pooh and his pals! All of Christopher Robin’s stuffed animals are there, in a glass case, looking worn and overloved. And P. L. Travers gave the library Mary Poppins’s parrot-headed umbrella. I love teaching there–they have a fabulous staff of book-savvy librarians, headed by John Peters.

When I was school librarian, I got to laugh every single day. My friend worked at Johnson and Johnson making some bigtime salary, and she told me, “We have to clean off our desks at the end of every day. Down to the bare wood.” I thought that was hilarious. My workspace has always been a little cluttered. (My cousin Ezra came up into my attic, my garret, one time and looked around at the chaos. “My god, Judy,” he said. “This looks like the inside of your brain.”)

I was a school librarian for 26 years, and then I wanted a new challenge. So six years ago I left my job, figuring I could go on the road as a speaker and cheerleader for children’s books and reading. I had already been speaking for BER (Bureau of Education & Research; for six years, doing about ten all-day seminars each year. I didn’t know if I’d get enough work. Sure, I write reference books about children’s literature, but I would starve to death if I tried to live on my royalties. I decided I’d try it for a year.

Well, it’s been terrific. I get more requests to speak than I can handle–I do about 80 workshops, speeches, and programs for kids each year–and I’ve gotten to travel all over the U.S. In February, I’m speaking in Juneau at the Alaska Library Association Conference, and that will be the fiftieth state where I’ve done a speech or workshop. In March I’ll be speaking at an international schools conference in Bangkok, and last year I spoke at another similar conference in Istanbul. I’ve loved all of it, except for the jet lag, the airports, the bad food in the airports, and, worst of all, being away from my wonderful, patient, supportive husband, Izzy, who holds down the fort at home while I’m out gallivanting.

To keep my credibility as a children’s book reviewer and presenter, I go back to my old school, Van Holten School in Bridgewater, New Jersey, and several other schools to work with the talented staffs of teachers and librarians and with the people for whom these books are intended–actual kids. I field test scores of books with kids each year to see what they love, and their teachers and librarians do fabulous follow-up activities with them. (For instance, at Adamsville School in Bridgewater, New Jersey, I read Nick Bruel‘s hilarious picture book, Bad Kitty (Roaring Brook, 2005) to Miss Tricarico’s kindergarten class. They followed up by writing their own book, “Bad Kiddies”–“We weren’t always bad kiddies. We used to be good kiddies . . .”) I love to bring these responses to literature along with me when I speak to show some of the wonderful ways kids and grownups can fool around with books.

What’s it like traveling these days?

Traveling has its moments. Last year the hotel where I was doing an all-day seminar had an electrical fire during lunch. We lurked in the parking lot all afternoon while helicopters fluttered overhead, 14 fire trucks surrounded the building, and big hunky firefighting guys were toting hoses and eating doughnuts. (Apparently, the fire was catered.) I stood out there watching, and figured if my books and props and puppets were destroyed, they could be replaced. What I was really worried about was the kids’ work I brought along with me–those are my best treasures. Luckily, everything was okay, though it all reeked of smoke.

I’ve had my extra set of guitar strings confiscated in Canada–they considered it a weapon. A weapon? All I could hear was my mom’s voice in my head: “You could put someone’s eye out with that!”

My suitcases have taken detours, not always arriving when I do. I travel with two big 50-pound suitcases. No bags, no program. They’ve always showed up eventually, but travel isn’t getting easier, that’s for sure. Dialogue at many airports: Security: Okay, ma’am, what in these bags? Me: Children’s books! And puppets! Security: Hmmm. Better have a look.” We children’s literature people are obviously dangerous characters. I had a great plastic screaming hatchet and a crashing hammer that got stolen from my checked bags in Taipei. The only thing I haven’t had is the strip search and the cavity search. It’s only a matter of time.

I’d like to focus on your new release, but given that this is the third book in a series, let’s catch up on your back list titles. What was the initial inspiration for creating these books?

When I started as a sweet-young-thing librarian in Plainfield, New Jersey, fresh out of grad school at Rutgers, I started making lists. Most teachers and librarians are compulsive list makers. I made lists of books that I loved as I read and weeded my way through the library’s collection. It seemed to me that if you inundated children with wonderful books, read aloud to them on a regular basis, booktalked, told them stories, acted out stories, and fooled around with words, then kids would want to read. It was sheer intuition on my part, bestowing the passion for books my parents and teachers and librarians had bestowed upon me. I started making annotated lists of great books the teachers could read to their kids.

Many of the teachers said, “I don’t have time to read to my kids. I have to teach reading.” They were expected to administer lots of worksheets and watch their children read nice short punchy little excerpts in their basal readers, and then ask them a lot of ponderous questions. And take tests, for which they were endlessly preparing. (Nice to know nothing much has changed, right?)

After a decade of compiling my lists and testing out books on kids, I sent in a proposal for a book about reading aloud to a little library-based company called Upstart. They responded with a huge advance–a check for $200. (Don’t quit the day job if you’re a writer, right?) It was published in 1984 as a 200-page paperback and did pretty well. In 1990, I took it apart, rewrote it, expanded the text, added many new books to the bibliography section, and turned it into a 600-page behemoth for Bowker. I did an all-new volume, the 800-page More Books Kids Will Sit Still For, in 1995. (One reviewer referred to it as an 800-page tomb. I always assumed that was a misprint.)

What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing the new book to life? What were the major events along the way?

Bowker sold its children’s reference book line to Greenwood, which then acquired Libraries Unlimited, and they asked me if I wanted to do a new volume. It took me a while to say yes. I had to think about why I wanted to destroy my perfectly nice life and shut myself in my attic like a monk for two years. Then I recited my mantra–“Just shut up and do it”–and dived in anyway.

Writing insanely big reference books takes large chunks out of your brain. I had an ongoing annotated database of books I loved, but with each new volume in the series, I’ve added more stuff–such as lists of related titles and activities for using each book. Luckily, I can now look up everything online–no more searching card catalogs at the library to find out a book’s ISBN. I can look up full text reviews to see what other people have written about a book, and read the customer comments on Amazon, which can be interesting. So the research part is far easier.

My inspiration to keep going was the book Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (Pantheon, 1994), a book all writers need to read. I don’t recall any events along the way–it’s like childbirth. After what turned out to be three obsessive years up in my attic reading and writing, I have little memory of all the missed holidays, weekends, evenings, summers. My husband remembers, though. He tells me, that if I start to think about doing another one, he is going to make sure I have my head examined.

It’s a hefty mama, this new book–3.6 pounds, someone told me, so you could get two and use them for aerobic weights. Someone wrote to me that it’s the heaviest book she’s ever read. I was hoping it would top 1,000 pages, but my editor told me we couldn’t go above 925, so they shrank the print and the margins until everything fit. Lisa Von Drasek, the children’s librarian at Bank Street College of Education calls it “your honking big book” and from the beginning, I’ve referred to it as “The Awful Book.”

How can teachers and librarians use your book?

In each of the three books in the series, I’ve written about what I’ve learned lately by working with kids and from my reading about what’s happening in the fields of reading, teaching, and librarianship. In the new book, that includes chapters on Performance Art–how to do Reader’s Theater, creative drama, and storytelling. There’s a chapter on what it’s like to be on the Newbery Committee. (I served in 2000; our winner was Bud, Not Buddy (Delacorte, 1999).) And I wrote a very fun chapter called “17 Things You Need to Know to Be a Great School Librarian” which also applies to public librarians and teachers and parents. These are reference books, yes, but they’re fun to read as well. (Okay, my husband says that’s an oxymoron and calls them Books Insomniacs Will Kill For, but he hasn’t actually read them. I beg to differ.)

In the Annotated Read-Aloud Lists section of Books Kids Will Sit Still For 3, I included my favorite read-aloud titles for Preschool through sixth grade, divided into Easy Fiction/Picture Books, Fiction, Folk & Fairy Tales, Poetry, and Nonfiction. I calculate I read about 20,000 books to find the 1,705 I used in the book. I also indexed everything by title, author, illustrator, and there’s an extensive subject index. So you can look up, say, individuality or insects or inventors or integration or Ireland and find lists of the recommended books I’ve included. Then, when you look up an individual book, there’s a meaty annotation, a germ (small, brief pithy and practical across-the-curiculum ideas of how to use the book with kids), a killer list of related titles (for thematic units, story hours, read-alouds, or follow-ups for kids to read), and a list of subjects, so you can see what themes the book encompasses.

People tell me it’s one book they keep on their desks and use on a daily basis to prepare storyhours and literature-based lessons for their kids. That’s gratifying. It also makes a fine paperweight.

So far, the book is doing well on Amazon. I check my numbers constantly. (Oh look! They must’ve sold one today!) People have written very nice comments about it there and on, for which I am thankful. I’m waiting on tenterhooks for some reviews. My mother used to say to me, “For god’s sake, Judy, write a 32-page picture book! Why do you need to write such giant books?” She was right of course, but I couldn’t help it. Actually, there’s a chapter about my mom in the book–I think of the whole book as a tribute to her. She died in 2000.

How about writers and/or illustrators?

You’ll get a good overview of books that kids love. If your books are in there, I’m very much obliged to you for writing or illustrating a book that has given so much pleasure to children (and to adult readers, as well as making my day). I included books teachers or librarians would find to be great read-alouds, but not every great book fits that category, so there are many more wonderful books out there that kids adore. (Mind you, I also had to cut 300 wonderful out of print titles because the book was running way too long. Your book could have been included in that batch. If so, my great apologies.)

What about parents?

In all three books, my focus is on teachers and librarians, but parents who are into children’s literature will finds lots of ideas, too. Home schooling parents should find plenty of titles–as read-alouds or read-alones–to keep their kids engrossed and sparked. If you find yourself, on a regular basis, sneaking novels by folks like J. K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Lois Lowry, or Kate DiCamillo instead of books on the NY Times fiction list, then you’re a serious children’s literature fan. My book can help you nurture that bad habit, for which your kids will be grateful.

I’m forever faced with parents boasting that their four-year-old was reading Harry Potter to herself in utero (only a slight exaggeration). I’m guessing that means they’re quick to give up reading with their kids. Why is reading aloud so important?

I think everyone should read to their kids in utero. There was a famous study, dubbed the “Cat in the Hat” experiment, that showed fetuses respond to Dr. Seuss–it’s the rhyme and rhythm of it, apparently. And parents need to continue reading aloud and telling their kids stories, oh, forever. We never lose the need for a great story. In my new book, I made a list of reasons why:

What are some of the benefits of reading aloud and using real books with children? Here is a baker’s dozen:

1. To bond together, either one on one, as parent and child, or together as part of a larger group
2. To model acceptable behavior and figure out how to handle new or difficult or challenging life situations
3. To open up a global window and see how people do things in other parts of the world
4. To visualize text and stories and exercise the mind’s eye or imagination
5. To develop empathy, tolerance, and understanding
6. To grow language skills, exploring narrative, dialogue, the use of language, vocabulary, and the relationship between the written and spoken word
7. To better recall and comprehend the narrative structure, plot elements, and sequence of events in a story
8. To be exposed to eloquent, elegant, interesting, or unusual examples of language, writing styles, and words, and hear the author’s voice out loud, spoken with expression and fluency.
9. To share emotions, from laughter to tears
10. To develop critical thinking skills including: making inferences, drawing conclusions, identifying key words and ideas, comparing and contrasting, recognizing cause and effect, sequencing, and defining problems versus solutions
11. To provide sheer enjoyment and the love of stories, both old favorites and brand new ones, for their own sake
12. To hone writing skills. As children’s author Richard Peck, writes in Past, Perfect, Present Tense: New and Collected Stories (Dial, 2004), “Nobody but a reader ever became a writer.” And “You have to read a thousand stories before you can write one.” And, “We write by the light of every story we ever read. Reading other people’s stories shows you the way to your own.”
13. To turn avid listeners into avid readers, learners, and thinkers

So far, what are your favorite read-aloud titles of 2006 and why?

There are some fabulous books out this year. I’m still plowing through piles and boxes of books this year, so my list is in no way comprehensive. For the workshops I do across the U.S., I pick my top 100 books of the year and bring about fifty of them to show and tell, sing and dance. It’s always so interesting to me to read everyone’s best books lists, because no two readers ever agree on the exact same titles. I look for books that delight, amuse, surprise, startle, provoke, intrigue, inform, satisfy, and stay in my head. Sometimes I dream about them.

Then I test them out on kids to see if they agree. Sometimes the books we grownups think are wonderful leave kids absolutely cold. And vice versa.

Here’s my list of favorites so far:

Frazee, Marla. Walk On. Illus. by the author. Harcourt, 2006. (Gr. PreK-2)
Henkes, Kevin. Lilly’s Big Day. Illus. by the authors. Greenwillow, 2006. (Gr. PreK-2)
Klise, Kate. Why Do You Cry? Not a Sob Story. Illus. by M. Sarah Klise. Henry Holt, 2006. (Gr. PreK-2)
Knudsen, Michelle. Library Lion. Illus. by Kevin Hawkes. Candlewick, 2006. (Gr. PreK-2)
Smith, Lane. John, Paul, George & Ben. Illus. by the author. Hyperion, 2006. (Gr. 1-8)
Winter, Jeanette. Mama: A True Story in Which a Baby Hippo Loses His Mama During the Tsunami, but Finds a New Home, and a New Mama. Illus. by the author. Harcourt, 2006. (Gr. PreK-3)
Cronin, Doreen. Dooby Dooby Moo. Illus. by Betsy Lewin. Atheneum, 2006. (Gr. PreK-2)
Krosoczka, Jarrett J. My Buddy, Slug. Illus. by the author. Knopf, 2006. (Gr. PreK-2)
McClintock, Barbara. Adèle and Simon. Illus. by the author. Farrar, 2006. (Gr. PreK-2)
Young, Ed. My Mei Mei. Illus. by the author. Philomel, 2006. (Gr. PreK-2)

DiCamillo, Kate. Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, The. Illus. by Bagram Ibatoulline. Candlewick, 2006. (Gr. 3-7)
Jenkins, Emily. Toys Go Out: Being the Adventures of a Knowledgeable Stingray, a Toughy Little Buffalo, and Someone Called Plastic. Illus. by Paul O. Zelinsky. Schwartz & Wade, 2006. (Gr. 1-4)
Kadohata, Cynthia. Weedflower. Atheneum, 2006. (Gr. 5-8)
Lin, Grace. Year of the Dog, The. Little, Brown, 2006. (Gr. 3-5)
Lowry, Lois. Gossamer. Houghton Mifflin, 2006. (Gr. 5-8)
Pearsall, Shelley. All of the Above. Little, Brown, 2006. (Gr. 4-7)
Pennypacker, Sara. Clementine. Illus. by Marla Frazee. Hyperion, 2006. (Gr. 1-4)
Singh, Vandana. Younguncle Comes to Town. Illus. by B. M. Kamath. Viking, 2006. (Gr. 3-5)
Stanley, Diane. Bella at Midnight. HarperCollins, 2006. (Gr. 5-8)

Armstrong, Jennifer. American Story, The. Illus. by Roger Roth. Knopf, 2006. (Gr. 3-8)
Fleischman, Sid. Escape: The Story of the Great Houdini. Illus. with photos. HarperCollins, 2006. (Gr. 4-8)
Jenkins, Steve, and Robin Page. Move! Illus. by Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin, 2006. (Gr. PreK-1)

Rex, Adam. Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich. Illus. by the author. Harcourt, 2006. (Gr. 2-6)
Sidman, Joyce. Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow. Illus. by Beth Krommes. Houghton Mifflin, 2006. (Gr. K-5)

What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?

I’m always reading and writing. My friends call me “The Attic Girl.” I’m hoping to get a life this year, though. When I’m not obsessing over deadlines or out on the road, I play tennis, go into New York to museums and plays and restaurants, garden, and travel. And I’m getting a new cat. I work better when there’s purring.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I’m the Book Aunt to the kids of so many friends and relatives, so I get to hear a lot of feedback from them and from the kids I work with at schools. I do a fair amount of school assemblies as well, where I booktalk new books and tell stories and sing songs. Kids are so hungry for stories. Not enough people tell them stories, read to them, and do booktalks.

It’s so easy to do, but in these days of No Child Left Undone, if it’s not testable, people think it’s not worthwhile. I despair sometimes, but Vicki Cobb gave me the most wonderful quote from Robert Anderson, author of the play “Tea and Sympathy.”

He said: “Expect Nothing. Blame Nobody. Do Something.” And then I think about Barbara Cooney‘s wonderful picture book, Miss Rumphius (Viking, 1982), where Alice’s grandfather tells her, “You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

Cynsational Note

See interviews with Cynthia Kadohata, Grace Lin, and Ed Young. Judy’s guide also is recommended to writers as a source of models to study in various categories.