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June 9, 2004: On the Campus

Illustration by Ferruccio Sardella

Kids say the darndest things

By Andrew Romano ’04

If you’ve read Where the Wild Things Are a few dozen times – and almost any current Princetonian has – it would have seemed on a Friday evening in late April that a starry sky had swallowed up the ceiling of the Cotsen Children’s Library and a black forest had overgrown its walls.

A meeting of the Cotsen Critix – a group of imaginative young book reviewers from in and around Princeton – was just getting under way.

Shortly after 4 p.m. eight girls and two boys between the ages of seven and 11 squeezed into a tent tricked out with the requisite campsite amenities: cups of hot cocoa, cozy sleeping bags, and, of course, a plentiful supply of Ritz Bitz s’mores.

“This is my first time camping out!” said one girl. She poked at a small campfire of cardboard logs and red cellophane flames flickering a few feet from the tent’s entrance flap

“Listen up everybody,” said Jessica Lautin ’03, the program’s coordinator. “Today we’re going to learn how to review a collection of short stories.”

In the tent the Critix wriggled to get comfortable; master hot-cocoa maker and Cotsen outreach coordinator Bonnie Bernstein lowered the library’s lights and shut the blinds. The room went dark. Seven year-old John David looked around, awestruck. “This really has the camp . . . um . . . camp . . . hmm,” he whispered, scrunching his eyebrows and lips toward the center of his face as he searched for the right word. Suddenly he smiled. “This really has the camp sentiment,” he concluded.

Searching for the right word – and investing that search with the spirit of adventure – is what the Cotsen Critix do. “[The Critix] were already avid readers and writers,” says Bernstein. “As a staff of book reviewers, they’ve had a chance to explore the literary world in some very creative ways, and in the process, to develop critical reading and writing skills across several genres.”

The Critix first jelled in February 2003, when Bernstein and Eunice Kim ’04, Lautin’s predecessor, invited a handful of Cotsen regulars to meet children’s book author Michelle Green. Within a year, the 17 local elementary- and middle-school students who’d earned the title of Cotsen Critix had adopted pen names (I. Paws, Agnes K. Theodore, S.L.R.J. Menlo) and created a Web site (http://www.princeton. edu/~cotsen/critix/) to house their reviews (“I loved this book! I have a dog and he is one of my best friends.”). They got tips on reading and reviewing poetry from John Timpane, author of Poetry for Dummies (2001). They held a “Beat Poets Café,” where they donned little berets and brooded over original poems. And they held a “literary salon” worthy of late 18th-century Paris, assuming the dress – and, in most cases, the characters – of their favorite writers, and punctiliously debated the finer points of each other’s prose.

“The Critix never dropped their author personas,” says Bernstein, proudly.

All this thanks not only to Bernstein, Kim, and Lautin, but also to a revolving cast of undergraduate advisers.

“Student volunteers are my only staff,” says Bernstein. “They bring creativity, energy, and fresh ideas to programs that they often initiate. [Princeton undergrads] make it possible for me to offer a full calendar of programs every semester.”

Back at the campsite, the latest crop of student advisers – Mimi Chubb ’06, Alli Berliner ’06, and Dustin Ferrer ’05, who together had planned the week’s outdoorsy get-together – guided the Critix through a medley of short stories, original and otherwise.

Ferrer read Sandra Cisneros’s “My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn.” When she finished, she asked the Critix to respond. “It was weird,” said Sam, who’d been thumbing a GameBoy. “Why do you think the story was weird, Sam?” asked Lautin. “If you were to write a review, you’d have to say why.” “Well,” said Sam. “Usually you wouldn’t describe someone as smelling like corn.”

Chubb convinced Lily to share a folksy tale she had written, partly in Gaelic, the week before. “It’s called The Golden Ball,” Lily said, then cleared her throat. “Do you ever wonder how the moon got in the sky? Well here is a story that tells you why.”

Lily’s success inspired Irene, who had spent this meeting of the Cotsen Critix tugging at her Winnie-the-Pooh socks, to give her first book, The Hair and the Turtle, its public debut. “I just felt like writing a book,” she said, “and so I did it.” Irene hesitated. “I was six years old when I wrote this,” she added, “so I spelled some words wrong. But now I’m seven.” Then she started to read.

Andrew Romano ’04, an English major, is interning at Newsweek this summer.



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