Sunday, March 10, 2013

It’s Like Goodreads for Kids: Meet the Creators of

Interview by Jack Silbert
If your 8-to-12-year-old kids love to read, you may want to introduce them to! The site, launched by children’s publishing professionals Karen Wang and Nancy Tsai in 2009, has a brilliantly simple concept: Recommendations of kids’ books from fellow kids. Who better to suggest a great read than your peers? In addition to kid-written reviews (330 and counting), there are author interviews; Karen and Nancy’s book suggestions, movie reviews, and blog posts; sweepstakes for signed books; teacher-friendly content packages (book list, podcast, and video) on a wide variety of themes; and plenty more. And the site practically bursts with a genuine sense of fun and an unbridled enthusiasm for the world of reading. I recently sat down with Karen and Nancy to discuss their website, trends in middle-grade literature, and recent children’s books that they think are awesome.

Media Darlings: What is the basic philosophy behind the site?
Karen Wang: We know from research that independent reading for pleasure tends to drop off around the age of 8. One of the main reasons is that kids just don’t know what to read next. We thought we should create a site where they get recommendations of great books that they would enjoy reading, but get those recommendations from other kids. So it’s peer-to-peer, instead of always having to rely on a teacher, or a librarian, or god forbid, your own parents!
Nancy Tsai: Also, since we do keep up with the latest book news—we both work in children’s publishing and the book world—it’s a good place for kids to find out about new series and titles. For example, they might love Percy Jackson and [series’ author] Rick Riordan, but they might not know when he’s going to have a new book out. So the site helps build excitement for new releases.

MD: The two of you are clearly great friends. What are your backgrounds, and how did you meet?
NT: I always knew I wanted to work in publishing. I loved reading when I was growing up, obviously. I got an internship at Scholastic, and they put me with e-Scholastic [the company’s online division]. It was a surprising but good fit, because I’m kind of a tech nerd. I like to build websites for fun, that kind of thing. After I interned there, they hired me, thankfully. That’s where I met Karen. I was there almost five years, and now I work at Barnes & Noble on NOOK Kids for digital picture books. I also work on customer recommendations on anything digital for kids and teens. So it’s just kids’ books, all day and all night!
KW: I always loved reading and writing, and I thought maybe I’d be an author one day. That’s how I got interested in publishing. During college, I had an internship at a children’s publishing company in California. Ever since then, I’ve been all about kids’ books. After graduating, I started at e-Scholastic. So for the past 10 years I’ve been managing different aspects of the Scholastic website, doing content for both teachers and kids.

MD: And how did get started?
KW: In 2009, we were working on the kids’ site for We were both really excited about it, but we also wanted to be talking about books in general, the whole gamut of other publishers’ great books. We were just reading tons and tons of kids’ books. I don’t think I’ve read a book for adults in at least five years! There was so much we wanted to talk about. And we really felt that it was an area that was lacking: a venue for kids to talk to each other about books they wanted to read and books they’d recommend to each other.

MD: “Kidsmomo”—it’s fun to say. How did you come up with the name?
NT: We had a huge list. As I mentioned, I’m a tech nerd, so I would read [technology website] gizmodo a lot. One day, I said, “What about Kidsmodo?” Karen said, “That doesn’t mean anything.” So I said, “Well, what about Kidsmomo?” That doesn’t mean anything either, but I made up a meaning for it: kids and more and more books. You know? Get it?

Nancy Tsai and Karen Wang
MD: Uh … sure! But speaking of gizmodo and digital culture: What effect would you say that technology is having on kids’ overall reading experience?
NT: This is my personal opinion, and does not reflect the opinions of! I do love physical books; the smell of them, holding them, and there are certain things you can only do in a physical books, like a true pop-up. But I think digital reading is great. The quantity you can get, just in what you’re holding in your hand, is amazing. For younger kids, the interactivity is great. For middle grades, it’s so easy to look up words in the e-reader’s dictionary. It brings so much more of the world to them, in a safe manner. Some parents are very protective about screen time, which is totally understandable. But sometimes kids will take their screen time in the form of reading.
KW: And the ease with which you can get the next book in a series is great. If you’re reading something like Harry Potter, where the whole series is already out: Right after you read book five, you can immediately start book six. You don’t need to go to the library the next day or the bookstore. If we’re talking about keeping kids excited about reading, and keeping alive the joy of reading just for fun, then I think that sort of convenience can go a long way.

MD: Online safety is obviously a major concern for families. What steps does your website take to ensure a safe environment for kids?
NT: The site is completely COPPA-compliant, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. We assume that anybody coming to the site is under 13 and we don’t take any personal information. If a kid wants to submit anything, Karen and I review it and make sure there’s no personally identifiable information or anything inappropriate. Each review is only attributed to the first name, age, and state. If a kid accidentally types in their whole name, we’ll delete the last name before posting it. And if it’s something very personal or a kid trying to share their email address, we delete it altogether.
KW: For our sweepstakes, we do collect emails, but kids must also provide a parent’s email address. We then automatically send an email to the parent saying: Your child has entered a sweepstakes; here’s the information they gave us. The parent can immediately opt the child out and we then delete them from the system.

MD: What trends are you noticing in middle-grade books these days?
NT: Diary fiction is huge right now, especially with Wimpy Kid and a lot of other books in that format and style. I just started Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made. It’s really cute, written in diary format by this kid who really wants to be a detective but he’s really incompetent. These books definitely speak to reluctant readers.
KW: A lot of them are text paired with illustrations. The kind of line drawings you see in Wimpy Kid are also in Dear Dumb Diary, The Dork Diaries, Big Nate—there’s a bunch of them.
NT: Another trend I’ve been noticing is very quirky books. I’ve had this argument with people before, that kids’ books are just… kids’ books; they’re not particularly good. But I’m seeing a lot of depth, and a lot of very clever things. People might think that a 10-year-old can’t understand certain concepts or will only appreciate potty humor. That’s not true. A lot of kids’ books are surprisingly serious. Sometimes the world doesn’t give kids enough credit.

MD: What were some of your favorite books when you were in that 8-to-12-year-old range?
KW: There’s one series that I know we both share as a favorite: The Baby-sitters Club.
NT: In my first month at Scholastic, I got to talk to [series author] Ann M. Martin; it was the most exciting day of my life. She’s incredibly nice. She had no idea how excited I was on the phone! I also really liked the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
KW: Another favorite of mine was Edward Eager’s Magic series. I loved all those books.
NT: I was really lucky. My mom doesn’t speak English that well. So when we would go to the library as kids, her method of choosing books for me was to look at the spines and just pick the ones that had the Newbery Medal sticker on them. She was, like, “Well, this has a medal; clearly it’s going to be good.” So I read all these award-winning books! And they were really good; some of my favorite books are Newbery winners.

MD: If you could be any character from children’s literature, who would you be?
NT: This is a hard question!
KW: It’s really easy for me! I love the Harry Potter series so much that I have often fantasized about being a student at Hogwarts. I have basically created my own persona as if I were there. I know I’m a Hufflepuff; they don’t get a ton of play in the actual books. But I have this Hufflepuff version of myself.
MD: Nancy, you’ve now had some time to think about it.
NT: Oh gosh….
MD: You can’t be a Hufflepuff; that’s taken already.
KW: She’s a Ravenclaw anyhow.
NT: I would’ve said Hermione Granger actually, because she’s such a kick-butt girl and she gets to do magic. But whenever I read a book—no matter for what age group—for a day or two afterwards, my internal monologue is entirely in the voice of that book. To be honest, no particular book has ever stayed with me so long to not be overridden by the next book.

MD: Can you recommend some recent favorite books?
KW: One of my favorite books from this past year was Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage. It’s about a girl who is an orphan who’s been taken in and essentially raised by this whole small town. She’s dealing with issues of abandonment and thinking about her mother who she doesn’t know. The book combines this with a good old-fashioned mystery. There’s a lot of humor, but it’s also really poignant.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio is a fantastic book—also a lot of humor and crying in that one. The author and publisher are behind this “Choose Kind” anti-bullying campaign. The main character in the book is disfigured and has been home-schooled his whole life. He then goes to school for the first time and has to deal with how people respond to him. It’s very uplifting.

But I also like funny books. The Origami Yoda series by Tom Angleberger is one of my favorites. They kind of fit in with the diary books—there are entries in case files with drawings.
NT: I’m giving you a preview of what I’m going to review on Kidsmomo soon! I just finished reading Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz. There’s magic and humans turning into dolls! But it also draws on very mature thinking, put in a very appropriate way for kids. It’s so well-written. And spooky!

I also recently read Bomb: The Race To Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin. It’s getting a lot of attention now, but I feel like it’s one of those books that should’ve gotten attention much earlier. It is a great book for boys—a real-life spy thriller.

Thanks, Karen and Nancy! Media Darlings readers, if your kids don’t agree with those suggestions, they can write their own reviews on Kidsmomo right now. And parents, you can connect with Kidsmomo on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Pinterest. If you need a kids’ book recommendation for a gift, ask away—they are happy to answer!

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