My Bio

My Bio
My name is Sharon Levin and I've been reviewing children's literature for 20 years. I founded and run the Bay Area Children's Literature List. My biggest passion (outside my family) is getting books into the hands of children and teens. My favorite thing is getting non-readers to realize that they're readers. I also LOVE t-shirts that have to do with books or literature. As soon as I figure out how to do it, I'll have a click through on the above picture so you can see my entire collection (and where to get them).

October 1, 2013

Those are Fighting Words...... how Language Matters

I had a lovely, lovely dinner last night with a bunch o' book people and two FANTABULOUS authors, Julie Berry (her book, All the Truth That's in Me, was the cause of wrestling matches between me and Elise because we both were in the middle of it and didn't want to share) and Holly Goldberg Sloan, whom I love not only for her amazing book I'll Be There and her new stunner, Counting by 7's, but also for Angels in the Outfield, one of my favorite movies (she wrote the remake).

I wish I could say that I just wanted to write to gush about these books, but really, I'm writing because I got really angry last night.

Why?  Well, Julie was talking about the number of publishers who rejected All the Truth... (bet they're kicking themselves now, because anyone who loves good YA is raving about this book) and one of the other attendees started railing about publishers and talking about how everyone should self -publish.

I said, "Are you kidding?!?!?!  99% of self-publishing is crap.  There's a reason for editors, etc."  (okay, my percentage may be a 'bit' high but I can't think of one self-published book that has blown me away, or even struck me as truly good, although I'm sure someone will post a comment with titles).

She said that the publishers were censoring because they had rejected Julie's book.  Okay, for me that's absolutely ridiculous, not liking something is NOT censoring. 

I said, no, self-published books are often terrible (I am not using quote marks anymore, because I don't remember exactly what I said) and I can tell a self-published picture book the second I see it (the art is normally horrific, especially if there are human faces involved.  I don't know why, I can't draw at all, so I'm not sure what it is about faces, but apparently they're very difficult to get right.)

She then said that I was censoring, I said, "No, I'm reviewing."  and she said, "No, you're censoring."  Luckily, someone, I don't know who, managed to switch the topic a bit, but I was just fuming.  Censoring is an extremely loaded word and makes the accused (and I was definitely being accused) look closed minded and conservative (ironically, this same woman said she didn't like the 'f' word in YA lit, I'm just sayin' ) *I* on the other hand belong to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation  (yes, I'm doing a throw down with my liberal credentials).

So, is this blog just about venting?  Well, not entirely.  We also talked about how language matters (although not about this word in particular, it was just too touchy).  Julie and I bonded over the misuse of 'disinterested'.  It is almost always used, incorrectly, to mean 'uninterested' meaning, you know, not having an interest (duh).  Disinterested means unbiased, impartial.

The latest barrage on language, as far as I'm concerned is that Merriam-Webster has decided that 'literally' can now mean 'figuratively'  pretty much THE EXACT OPPOSITE of what 'literally' means.

Now, I know that people say, "Oh, language is fluid, it evolves."  Sorry, but caving in to the misuse of a word is DEVOLUTION not evolution.  Fluid is 'impact' as a verb which still drives me crazy as does 'incentivize' (really?  REALLY?) but those words still give a correct, okay, correct-ish, form of the meaning of the word.  Literally, means literal, real, actual, not figuratively.

So, choose your words carefully and be careful who you call a censor, because that is figuratively a fighting word.

July 15, 2013

Quick note: commenting on the blog, issues

Hi!  I've heard from some of you that you have tried to comment and it's not working.  Please feel free to e-mail me directly sharonlevin   at symbol  mindspring  dot com.  I will send this on to my Blog Goddess, Renee and she will put her techie magic to work.  Thanks!

July 13, 2013

One of those personal posts - Remembering Uncle Ronnie

Those of you who know me in the 'real world' know that I mock those who overshare, on Facebook (look at the soup I'm having for lunch), tweeting and yes, blogging.  I realize that MAYBE three people reading this blog would have actually known my Uncle Ronnie, and yet, I feel the need to write this for a (somewhat) larger audience.

I just found out yesterday that my uncle, Ronald Cohn, passed away on July 9th at the age of 83.  It saddens me to think of his passing without sharing what he meant to me, and since I will not be able to attend services (if there are any) this is my eulogy for him.

Uncle Ronnie was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, which meant that anytime I called him I'd hear "Hello Darlin'" in a warm, southern accent.  I always called him on his birthday and Christmas and tried to catch him in between with calls or an occasional picture of my daughters.

I also remember that when my mother would call home or visit Florida, he would give her the hardest time for talking like a "Damn Yankee"  

When I'd call on his birthday he'd say, "How do you always remember the date?"  I'd laugh and say, "Well, you ARE my mother's twin brother after all."  My mother passed away in 1975, so having her much adored twin in my life meant a lot to me.

I remember going to Florida in college to visit my grandmother and I went on a trip with Uncle Ronnie and his third wife, Mary (a warm, buxom woman who, with much love helped me feel more comfortable with my own zaftig build).  We went to a mall and there was an ear piercing booth in the middle of the mall.  They asked me if I'd like to get my ears pierced as my holiday gift.  I wasn't sure because, while I wanted pierced ears, I was also not all that comfortable with a needle being 'shot' through my ear.

They very patiently walked the mall with me while I decided.  My favorite part of this memory is that while I went and sat on the chair and Mary stood beside me, Uncle Ronnie stood about 20 feet away, pacing, more nervous about the whole procedure than I was.  I almost yelled "Ow" really loudly just to freak him out, but just couldn't do it to the dear, worried man. :-)

Uncle Ronnie was very happy that we named our first daughter, Elise, after my mother, Elsie (and he understood why we wouldn't want to saddle a child born in 1994 with the name Elsie) and he loved hearing what the girls were up to. 

When I was talking to Sasha yesterday about Uncle Ronnie she asked "Does Uncle Mike (my bro) look like him?" and I pointed to a photo of my father and said, "No, Uncle Mike looks almost exactly like Grandpa Herman."  (yes, real winners in the name department, my parents)  :-)  She said, "Do you look like him, because you look a lot like Grandma Elsie."  and I realized that, yes, I must look a bit like Uncle Ronnie then too, it's a comforting thought for me.

Elise had a period for a while when she talked about how little impact people make and how little they are remembered (teen angst at its best).  I remember telling her that as long as memories and stories are shared, that people live on forever.

Perhaps that's my reason for writing this.  Wanting Uncle Ronnie to be remembered in a loving and smile inducing way and knowing that I can help the stories go on.

As I said at the beginning of this, I always called Uncle Ronnie on his birthday.  However, this year we were getting ready for a two week family vacation and leaving at 4 a.m. the day after his birthday.  I got caught up in the packing and stress and thought, I'll bring his number with me and I'll call him from the trip.  But I forgot to write it down, so I thought I'd call after we got back.  This will end up being a forever regret.  I did not talk to Uncle Ronnie, I did not get to say goodbye and I did not get to say "I love you." and hear it in return in that deep Southern voice that I loved so well.

June 23, 2013

Katherine Paterson confirms why I HATE Standardized Testing

A few years ago I was at one of my favorite conferences, Children's Literature New England (it was like camp for children's literature aficionados) in Essex, Vermont.  One of the keynote speakers was Katherine  Paterson (  She told a lovely and aggravating (given the state of schools and testing today) story about a friend of hers.  Because I am the Queen of Procrastination, I asked Mrs. Paterson for permission to put this story on my blog TWO YEARS AGO, which she generously gave me on the spot (so the delay is entirely my fault).  So, here is her story, but sadly in my words, about her friend (any errors are entirely mine and my sieve-like memory):

Many years ago there was a single mother with three highly energetic sons.  She was doing her best to raise them by herself in the city, so she was thrilled when the opportunity came to send them to the countryside for the summer where they could work on a farm and enjoy the wide open spaces.

One of the young men (let's call him Steve) was in high school and he was often getting into trouble and always doing poorly in his classes.  He was no more cooperative when he was sent to the farm.  By the second day, the farmer had decided he'd had enough of this young man and locked him in the attic as punishment.

First Steve railed at the unfairness of it all.  The farmer was not a nice person and he treated all the boys unkindly, but he had the least patience with Steve.  Steve stormed around the attic until he was too tired to continue.  He then looked around his surroundings.

All around him were bookcases, filled with all kinds of books, especially classics.  Steve figured, "Well, as long as I'm stuck in here, let's see what's in these books."  and he settled down to read.  He curled up on the floor and read for the rest of the afternoon, in that hot, stuffy attic.

The next day, he acted up again and the farmer immediately sent him to the attic.  Steve continued his 'misbehavior' in order to be locked up, but instead of being locked up, he was actually escaping.

After a summer of this, Steve and his brothers returned to the city where Steve began his senior year of high school.  In his fall semester, he was required to take the boards for college.  He aced them.  His principal, his teachers, they all believed that he had cheated.  There was no way that this lazy troublemaker could have done it any other way.

They made him take the test again, this time closely observed by two adults who stayed in the room with him.

And, yes, he aced it.

He went on to go to college, to grad school, to have a very successful career and family life - all because he read voraciously over one summer in his youth (and, of course, continued as a voracious reader ever after).

As Mrs. Paterson says when she tells this story, "What do you think would have happened if he'd been locked in an attic full of test prep materials?  Do you believe we'd have the same happy ending?"

I certainly don't.  Do you?

May 6, 2013


 Yes, I am jumping on my soap box (this will happen relatively often).  I have been never been a fan of students identifying themselves through a number (hi, I'm a 760, can you find me a book?).  But something happened recently at the school where I volunteer, and it inspired me to write this at this time.

Okay, first I guess I should explain what Lexiles are. They are a way of 'leveling' a book (yes, that's verbizing a word and I hate that, but I'm hoping my disdain comes through when I use that term) to let children and teen readers know what books they should be reading.  Lexiles are based ENTIRELY on vocabulary.  The more often an unknown or uncommon word shows up, the higher the Lexile score, the higher the score the more difficult the book is (according to the Lexile people, at least).

Back in the day when I worked for Addison-Wesley Publishing, we called these Readabilities.  One of my jobs as a freelancer was to run readabilities on books. Let me tell you what that entailed.

I would choose random pages within the book (I don't remember how many) and type a paragraph into the computer.  Back would pop up the unfamiliar or uncommon words with a score (a reading level).  Content and context were not taken into consideration.  Now, these WERE textbooks, so plot was not really an issue.

While I don't remember most of the books I ran readabilities on, I do remember one book that stood out as an example of how stupid these levels were.  The book was a computer textbook.  Given that this was 1984 (yes, I'm old) the readability program considered the word 'computer' to be an uncommon word,  so every time the word 'computer' showed up in this COMPUTER textbook, it would bump up the reading level.  Do we see a problem here?

Fast forward to now, when I am a professional booktalker, reviewer and evangelist for children's books (in a non-religious way).

When I give booktalks I always, ALWAYS insist on talking about Lexiles as part of my talk.  The number of teachers and librarians who come up afterward to tell me they appreciate what I'm saying and that it supports their own feelings and knowledge as educators is overwhelming (and quite validating).

 A couple of years ago I gave a number of booktalks at our local high school in preparation for summer reading. It was great fun and quite a few students came up to me and told me how much they enjoyed it (as did their teachers).  I even heard from teachers this year that they had students who had been touched by those past booktalks.

So, this year I was getting ready to prep booktalks for the high school again and I checked in with the department chair to see which teachers would like me to come to their classrooms. Because of the objections of one teacher, I made sure that I was upfront with the chair about my insistence on including Lexile information in my talk (and that I would leave my opinions at the door).

(As a parenthetical comment, the objecting teacher agreed that Lexiles weren't great, but they gave teachers a starting point.  My response was that that's the equivalent of a Geography teacher starting with a 3-D model of a flat Earth.  If your tools are wrong, how are they useful?)

When I heard back from the department chair, I was told they could not use me if I made any disparaging statements about Lexiles because the district uses SRI and Read 180 programs, which rely on Lexiles to tell students what books they should be reading.

What is this dangerous information I want to share?  Why are teachers and administrators afraid to have students know a fact about the program by which they are judged?  I do not know.  Keep in mind that I was not going to give my opinion, I was not going to use the term B.S.  I was merely going to give information.

Are you ready for what they don't want me to tell their students?  Here it is:

The Wee Little Woman is a board book by Byron Barton and has a Lexile of 1300

Moby Dick (yes, THAT Moby Dick) by Herman Melville has a Lexile of 1200. (in theory, the higher the Lexile the harder the book).

Oh, and the stunning, STUNNING book The Arrival by Shaun Tan has no Lexile because it is wordless (which does not mean that this book is not complex and thought provoking, sigh).

 Shhh, don't tell the students.

April 28, 2013

The Path to College (a request! WOW!!)

Hi all,

For those who don't know (since I have not gotten my act together and done the bio part of the blog yet), I founded and am Minister of Communication of the Bay Area Children's Literature List (and yes, I want a click through to sign up members, but I'm still a newbie, so I'm still working on it).  This list has been going on for well over a decade, so while it mainly has posts related to the children's literature world, occasionally I'll go into the personal.

Last year at this time I sent a post regarding my daughter Elise's journey to college.  One of my listees requested that I use it as a blog post (that was SO COOL!!  Thank you!)  So, you have her to credit (or blame) for this.

Here it is as it was sent to the list:

Some of you have known my kids since they were babies, some came in later, but those who have met my daughters have always been so sweet to them and interested in them that I thought I'd share with you the Elise College Process.  She really has become the best example of making sure you get all the info before picking a school and don't think you know what you want before you look.

Here's her journey:

I want to go to school in Manhattan. 

I will NOT go to school in California

Manhattan is too overwhelming.  I'm NOT going to school in Manhattan.

I will go to school in California, it's between Davis and Berkeley.

I HATE Berkeley!

I'm going to Berkeley.

The entire process was without any pressure from us (okay, she'd disagree with that).  We wanted her to choose the right school for her.    She LOVED Davis when she visited (as did I, we found a great independent bookstore and a restaurant with a large gluten-free menu)  She hated Berkeley on Cal Day and decided to go one more time to check out Psych classes.  She met the nicest students, realized that the Berkeley Psych Dept. is ONE THIRD the size of Davis' (meaning more opportunities for internships), sat in on a Psychology of Happiness class and decided Berkeley was where she wanted to be (one week before the decision deadline).

All I can say is, Phew.

As a p.s.  Elise is entering 'Dead Week' at Berkeley next week with finals after that.  It has truly been a fantastic fit for her and given that there were two emergency room runs (if there is a germ, it will find Elise - and considering that Elise's dorm has gender neutral bathrooms, there are many germs) and various ailments it was good to have her close to home.  AND, before anyone flames me, I have no issues with gender neutral bathrooms, I am delighted that Berkeley has these.  It's just that Elise has seen boys' (let's point fingers here) dirty footprints coming OUT of the shower.  Okay?  All I can say is, eeeewww. (but to keep it balanced, Elise's half of her dorm room qualifies as a bio-hazard).

April 23, 2013

A Tribute to E.L. Konigsburg, a Wonderful Author and Lovely Woman

Mrs. Konigsburg passed away this last weekend, the literary and physical worlds have lost a wonderful person.

Mrs. Konigsburg will always have a very, very special place in my heart.  She can be credited (or blamed) for turning me into an author groupie.

This is something I sent to my Bay Area Children's Literature list 9 years ago, and I'm making it my second blog post, because I got off my booty and finally started this blog because I wanted to pay tribute to her.


Soooo, years ago (almost 41 to be precise) I was reading "About the B'Nai Bagels" right before we were going to Jacksonville, Florida to visit my grandmother. My father picked up my book and said, "Look, this author lives in Jacksonville, you should give *him* a call when you visit Grandma."  (Looking at my old copy of BB I realize it does say she on the book flap, but guess we didn't look THAT closely.)

Anyway, we got to Jacksonville and one day I went into my grandmother's bedroom, closed the door (I didn't want anyone to know what I was doing, just felt kind of embarrassed) and called.  A woman answered the phone and I asked if this was the home of E.L. Konigsburg and she said 'yes'.  I asked if I could please speak to E.L. Konigsburg and she said "speaking". 

I told her what a big fan I was and that I wanted to call her while we were visiting my grandmother.  She invited my mother and me over to visit!!!  I was in seventh heaven!!

We got to go to her house, sit in her living room and chat.  I remember looking up and seeing two large oil portraits on the wall and I said, "That's Claudia and Jamie!"  Sure enough, they were paintings she had done of two of her children, the two who served as the models for the drawings in "From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler"

She had just published "A Proud Taste of Scarlet and Miniver" and told us a bit about it (I had never heard of Eleanor of Acquitaine - so it was fascinating AND educational) :-)

It was a wonderful, delightful afternoon and I still remember her warmth and openness to two complete strangers.

My mother, who had happily taken me to meet my heroine that day, only lived another three years, until I was 13 years old.  To tie this together a bit more, my mother died from pancreatic cancer.  Years later, Mrs. Konigsburg would lose both her husband and her editor to the same horrific disease.

Fast forward from age 10 to age 34,  I called her again to interview her for a children's literature course I was taking.  She remembered me and even remembered who some of my 'mother's people' were (this is the south after all) :-)

SO, I felt as if we had come in a bit of a circle when on March 20th,(2004) Mrs. Konigsburg (cannot think of her as Elaine, there's that Southern influence again) came and spoke at the annual Otter Dinner put on by the Northern California Children's Booksellers' Association.  At that dinner, I introduced her to MY 10 year old daughter (who had just finished reading "About the B'Nai Bagels) who is named Elise after my much loved mother, Elsie (who would have completely understood our rearranging the letters of her name and not actually saddling a child born in 1994 with the name Elsie) :-)

Mrs. Konigsburg was just as warm and gracious as I remembered her and introducing her to Elise brought tears to my eyes.  It is a moment that Elise and I will both remember (and I'm sure Grandma Elsie was there somewhere as well) for a very, very long time.

Thanks for letting me share.


April 22, 2013


After making sure that I retain my title as Queen of Procrastination, I am FINALLY launching my blog.  (This was set up almost two years ago, sigh.)

I've been reviewing children's literature for 17 years, reading it for 48 (never stopped not even in those years between being a child and having children) and love talking about it and 'evangelizing' for books that I'm passionate about.

However, life in general often gives me things to muse about, so I won't be just talking about books, there will be a lot of life happening too.  Hopefully, this will also mean laughter.

I hope you enjoy reading this blog.  I will (once I figure out how to do things) be vetting comments, since, while I do not mind if people disagree with me, I don't want to allow even a nanosecond (yes, I'm married to an engineer, why do you ask?) of hate speech on my page.  If you disagree respectfully, you'll be posted. 

If you have hints, since I have obviously never done those before, I'd love to hear them.  Just be kind, since I'm a newbie. 

Okay.  Here goes....