Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Evanston Public Library (Website Time!)

Evanston Public Library is the third site that I chose to review. This website was a very curious mix of old and new. Its design was fairly cluttered and lacking in style and two of the main things I encountered upon opening the site were TWO listings of the EPL phone number. This seemed to shout: "Don't use our site! Call us instead!" which was strange to encounter. What made it even more baffling is that on the left hand side of the site there is a chat box where one can contact a staff person through online chat! If they are going to have online chat available while they are open, it does not make sense to me that they would also push for their patrons to call in instead of using the site.

The website also includes links to subjects like: Bestsellers and Awards, Fun Stuff, Places to Go, Web Guides, Parents/Teachers, Booklists, Kid's Events, and Calendars. Most of these links seemed self-explanatory but while they were at least similar in nature to those provided by CPL and OPPL's sites, they seemed less inviting and useful. The site does provide useful and persistent links to its catalog on each page although it also has a note of the phone number at the top of every page as well.

After thinking through the design elements of the website I have come to think that perhaps the phone number idea is a recent development of the Evanston Public Library's financial issues. Starting with the economic recession several years ago, EPL has been struggling to find funding for its staff and programs. Almost every fiscal year the administration is reduced to begging for money to keep its doors open. Perhaps by using the website to push back towards personal interaction they can be sure to remind people, even subliminally, that when they use the library, they are dealing with actual librarians and helpful people in general.

In the end I cannot be sure what has motivated EPL to have a website like they do. All I know is that as a consumer and library user I am not terribly drawn to spend large amounts of time on the site. It feels less friendly than I would want and the extremely text heavy page design does not make me want to spend energy reading through each and every description to find what I want. With this in mind as an adult, I can only guess that kids are even less drawn to using the site which seems like an even greater shame. Perhaps if the EPL's financial woes are ever ended they will have time and funds for renewing their site and making it a good resource for kids in their area.

Oak Park Public Library (Website Time!)

The second website I chose to review is Oak Park Public Library's Kid's section. The opening page has large inviting letters and colored boxes with links in them. The Search link takes patrons to a place where they can look for books through Title, Author, or Subject terms. It also includes an online library card application form and information about applying in person at the branches. The Participate feature allows for patrons to view information Programs and Storytimes, as well as photos and a news letter. The Read section provides access to various Reading Lists, Awards, and New Items to the collection as well as giving advice on how to Raise a Reader. The Play link leads to a list of websites and links that give access to free online games for kids. Study leads to a list of homework help websites and links as well as another search engine for the OPPL's catalog. Finally, the Ask link leads to FAQs about the Kids section as well as the computers in the Kids section.

The site is well put together and is a good example of how simple can still mean useful even in a technologically advanced setting. Other nice features on the site are a section on the front page that alerts patrons to new features on the site such as when they update the new book section or the game links. There is also a consistent link at the top of each page that connects to each other section. Each of those connections is distinguishable through both text and color and makes it easy for computer using patrons of any age to find their way through the site.

All in all, the combination of user friendliness and consistent design makes the site a good tool for citizens of Oak Park to find out about books, programs, and connections online. The site gives access to the library catalog for those who cannot make it into the branch as well as being a tool that patrons and librarians alike can reference to aid one another in finding materials.

Giving patrons a resource that will help them be more connected with the library's services and resources is a good way to ensure that patrons continue to support the library in the future. Without a portal to the public that lets those outside the library's doors know what there is to do, fewer people would make their way into the building. Oak Park's site is a good example of using a tool to create positive advertising as well as providing patrons with a resource.

Chicago Public Library (Website Time!)

For the purposes of disclosure I will state right away that I currently work for the Chicago Public Library and so feel a bit odd about reviewing their website for this project. However, if people from within the organization are not watchful of their own content, who else will be? I strongly believe that it is our duty to make sure that we are providing our patrons with excellent and relevant content both in person and online.

The first thing we are greeted with upon opening the Chicago Public Library Kids section are two green links at the top of the page: "Search all kids events" and "Find All Kid Events." Right away I am not impressed with the graphic design of the site. The lack of consistency and punctuation editing in the links does not bode well for the rest of the site's design. This is problem number one: Good Design = Care and Care = Use. In other words, the better a website is designed, the more its creators care about it, and the better a website is taken care of, the more helpful, and thereby more used it becomes.

Fortunately, the website's design issues do not hamper its usefulness in this case, although there is still a strong argument for use issues. It was not pleasant working through the website and really disliking the way everything looked. Considering that CPL just had a major overhaul of its website a couple of years ago, I would hope that its Kid's section would be better looking. Anyway, the resources provided through the website are numerous and showcase what a great public library system can bring to a city.

The calendar feature allows patrons to search by keyword, event type, program name, and location to find programs they they might be interested in attending. The Type Search link gives the normal Author, Title, Subject search headings and the Explore link gives general categories that slowly narrow until a list of books appears on the screen that fit the searcher's interests. There are links to Popular Topics, Book Reviews, Homework Help, Teacher Resources, and Parent Resources. In fact, there are very few areas of interest that are not supported through one link or another on the front page of the Kids section. One might argue that there are too many links, but because they are organized nicely on the sides of the page, it is not too overwhelming or hard to navigate.

All in all, I can say that I am not overly embarrassed to point people to our website at CPL for Kids resources. Other than some design issues, it seems that the website is a well functioning piece of equipment that can reliably point patrons to good resources and programming.

Today I Will Fly

Leave it to Mo Willems to appropriately infuse even the easy reader and picture book crowd with a healthy dose of graphic novel love. Willems is a two time Caldecott Honor winner who has a flair for making hilariously fun stories out of the most absurd situations.

This time around he takes the classic odd couple story and turns it into a great kid's book. Piggie is an optimist who thinks she can will herself into the air. Elephant is a little less sure. In fact, his pessimistic side is so strong that he can't just let Piggie try, he has to turn her down over and over until finally he yells, "You will not fly today. You will not fly tomorrow. You will not fly next week. YOU WILL NEVER FLY!" Piggie is sure that she can prove him wrong though.

Today I Will Fly is a wonderful story about the power of perseverance. And in conjunction with being a clever play on the idea of "when pigs fly," it certainly contains a nice wink from Willems concerning the topic of optimistic self delusion. By the end of the story, Piggie does fly (with the help of a very strong bird) and Elephant changes his tune. He declares, "Tomorrow I will fly!" and with a conspiratorial wink to the audience, Piggie whispers, "Good Luck."

Willems' story is quite reminiscent of some of the Dr. Suess series authors, particularly P.D. Eastman. His characters are lots of fun, his pictures are simple yet entertaining, and his dialog is clever. Despite the fact that his vocabulary is very limited by the need to keep things simple for early readers, the story doesn't get dull. The same is true for the art in the book. The pictures are mainly straight forward line drawings with single color fillings and yet the art is still interesting and compliments the story very well.

This and basically all of Mo Willems' other books are highly recommended for young readers from kindergarten all the way up through 3rd grade. The books will stand up very well to repeat readings and lend themselves quite handily to story times or reading programs. They are excellent material for librarians to lean on in a pinch and are easy to base craft times and programs around.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

It's rare to come across an item that is firmly in a single medium and yet feels so strongly like it represents a different one. There are times that pictures resemble books and there are times when songs resemble portraits. But The Invention of Hugo Cabret, for all intents and purposes, is a gorgeous black and white stop motion movie.

Hugo Cabret is a boy without a home. He doesn't have a family or a school to call his own. He was "adopted" by his uncle to help keep the clocks in his train station running but after his uncle disappears one evening, Hugo is alone. All he has left is a dream his father left him with. A badly damaged automaton poised with a quill in hand, ready to write. Hugo doesn't know what it is that the automaton is ready to spell out, but he knows that he has to find out.

Equal parts magic and technical skill, this story easily captures the imaginations of those who read it. The easiest comparison for this story is to a graphic novel. Writer and artist Brian Selznick weaves gorgeous black and white drawings into the narrative which actively advance the storyline and act as visual cues to where the characters are and what they are up to. The pictures have a sense of urgency to them and as Hugo's life slowly spirals out of control, that urgency becomes palpable.

The story is full of twists and turns and I was never sure where it was going to end up. Hugo's story is fictional but much of tale is based on the real life troubles of Georges Méliès. He was a real person who went from being a magician to an early film maker and then, through tragedy, suffered relapses in his personality that left him toiling at a booth selling toys in a train station. I suppose this puts it in the realm of historical fiction, but considering the emphasis on technological magic, the tale carries a feel of surrealism and mystery along with it.

This wonderful book entrenches itself firmly in so many categories that it is difficult to put into a single genre. Mainly, I would just classify it as beautiful and moving. It was a joy to read and I would recommend it to almost anyone looking for an excellent tale. I would feel comfortable including it in school programs, as a read aloud for a classroom, and as a part of any number of library reading programs. I am excited for anything else that Selznick continues to write.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Gone With the Wand

I picked up Gone With The Wand from the recommended reading area of Thomas Hughes Children's Library. The cover art was cute and the title of the story is strange enough that I took a look through it. The opening sentence caught my attention and so I decided to check it out and review it.

The book seems to be an example of a picture book for a slightly older audience. Where many picture books are meant for young kids to help them learn to read, and eventually progress to Easy Readers and Chapter-books, this story is probably only viable as a level 3 Easy Reader, or a read-aloud story. The humor is more mature than most picture books and the story is certainly more complicated than a lot of picture books and many Easy Readers.

The tale begins with Tooth Fairy Second Class, Edith B. Cuspid telling the audience that Bernice Sparklestein, once the best Fairy Godmother in the entire universe and beyond, is having a bad wand day. All of Bernice's normal tricks are turning out terribly. She can't even magic up some tea and crumpets for herself and Edith to snack on. Now that it seems like Bernice's days as a Fairy Godmother are over, it becomes Edith's goal to find a new suitable job for her dear friend to take on that will put her considerable skills to good use.

While the book is filled with magical jargon and funny phrases, it is quite a charming read. The jokes involved are very cute and it is humorous to see Bernice going through all the costume changes as she tries out various fairy type jobs. The story also includes a decent amount of jokes and parenthetical remarks that are aimed at the adults reading the book. All of this is accentuated by the cartoon-ish art and crazy surroundings the two fairies find themselves in.

The book is a nice read aloud choice for a first grade story time or perhaps as a supplemental picture book to break the monotony of the Easy Reader grind. It would also fit in quite well with a fairy godmother display or reading program. All in all its a solid magic themed picture book to add to the collection.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Busy Little Squirrel

Fall is my favorite season. I love the weather, the trees, and the way everything feels crisp and beautiful. The cover of The Busy Little Squirrel jumped out at me from the new books section of Thomas Hughes right away. The warm colors, the playful squirrel, and that it was obviously about Fall all worked together to make the book seem inviting and fun to read.

The story is simple: Winter is quickly approaching and the little squirrel has so much to do to get ready! All the while, his friends ask him if he wants to partake in their fall activities. No matter how much he might like to nibble pumpkins with the mice, hop rocks with the frogs, or watch the moon with the owls, he has way too much preparing to do so he can be safe and comfortable all Winter long.

This is a very nice book for introducing young children to the seasonal change of Summer to Winter. It gives beautiful insight into the behavior of animals and shows in brilliant colors the changes of nature in each of its pictures. The pictures look to be created with ink and colored pencils with touches of paint. The book is full of gorgeous browns, oranges, reds, blues, and greens. Overall it is a very comforting and cozy color palette which fits the theme of Fall perfectly.

The pictures are deep with detail and include interesting things to investigate in the foreground and background which makes this book ideal for story time and repeat readings. In each picture, the squirrel is collecting various goods to store for winter. The pictures all have a quality of motion to them as the squirrel is never still and always working hard to gather food. In the last pane, he is asleep in his tree hollow surrounded with all the goods he harvested in his preparations for hibernation which allows for a fun run down of all the places the squirrel ventured to in his busy time.

The Busy Little Squirrel is an easy inclusion in a fall reading program for younger children and could even work on a picture book list of stories about animal behavior. The book talks about mice, birds, toads, cats, dogs, and owls in addition to the squirrel which makes it a diverse addition that is sure to please young animal lovers. Because of the beautiful pictures and interactive aspects of the drawings and story, it is also a great choice for a read aloud book for early reader or preschool classrooms as well.