Monday, March 30, 2009

CPSIA and Vintage Books: Speech! Speech!

I've agreed to speak at the April 1st CPSIA Fly-In, Rally, and Congressional Briefing on vintage books. I'm slightly terrified; it feels like a gigantic responsibility, and most of my speaking experience for the last ten years is to groups of school kids who like my fart jokes and curly bug demonstrations. I think I have to be a little more serious to speak to congressmen.

Here is my work-in-progress, way too long outline. I'm going to use it to make up my leave-behind notes for congress folk, but I also have to pare it to the bare essentials so I can get through everything important in my alloted 3-4 minutes. I'd appreciate any suggestions!

Outline: Speech on CPSIA and Books

Amend the CPSIA Rally, April 1, 2009 

I.               Thanks and intro self Author/illustrator and lifelong advocate for children (doctorate in clinical child psychology, early childhood educator, classroom and literacy volunteer, parent, etc. Well aware of the real risks of lead poisoning in kids.) Quick description of how books handled under CPSIA (exemptions for books for kids up to 12 printed after 1985 for possible lead in ink; also for collectible books that because of rarity and value would not be given to children.) Not enough - urging exemption for all books, including vintage ones.

II.             Vintage books are safe. Speaking as a scientist with experience and expertise in interpreting research findings.

A.    No known cases EVER of lead poisoning from books (of 44 rare sources of lead poisoning in children cataloged by CDC, none is from a book – only print-related case was an infant who had elevated levels after parents burned logs made from old newspapers – people don’t burn children’s book logs.) No mention ever, anywhere of lead in books even contributing to elevated lead levels.

B.    Statement by CDC (“on a 1-10 scale, books are a 0.5 risk”)

C.    If a something is a significant source of a toxin, then people with a high rate of exposure to the source should suffer more harm than those with a low rate of exposure. Instead, we find just the reverse with books, even when we look only at studies conducted prior to 1985 (when lead in books no longer an issue). Children with more books in the home, who spent more time engaging in leisure reading, or who were read to more by their parents fare better on the outcome measures associated with lead poisoning – like IQ, school achievement, rates of learning disorders and ADHD, frequency and severity of antisocial and aggressive behavior. (Caveat – this is all correlational evidence,  just like the studies linking blood lead levels and poor outcomes – neither proves clear, causative pathways.)

D.   Lead is found only in some old books (but no way to tell which ones without testing) Even the worst offending books are borderline cases; highest levels being found by CPSC’s digestive testing are around 300ppm (below current allowed levels, around the level that goes into effect in August). No feasible way to detect which books are safe and which aren’t – can’t use XRF testing for books, where ink is part of substrate, and since used booksellers’ inventory tends to be OOAK, digestive testing is impossible as well as obscenely expensive.

E.    Book ink poses virtually no threat under normal use and abuse by a child

                                                     i.     Book ink soaks into paper, does not rub off on hands

                                                      ii.     Research on absorption of lead from ink – saliva can’t leach

                                                        iii.     Bibliophagia (eating books) rare at any age.

1.     Normal for babies and toddlers to mouth board books (usually just edges), but studies show putting books in mouth becomes unusual past 18-24 months. Law covers books for kids up to age 12, 10 years past age when mouthing occurs.

2.     Actually eating the book is exceedingly rare – usually sign of pica, a medical condition in which people compulsively eat non-nutritive substances (and thus not under the umbrella of “normal use and abuse.”(and only found 2 cases in which young children were said to have eaten a book, along with other substances that posed much greater risk of lead poisoning or other health problems – both kids were later diagnosed with pica and treated for underlying medical conditions.)

F.    Emerging evidence that exposure to books may help to both prevent and treat harmful effects of lead toxicity.

                                                     i.     Evidence from human observational studies that mentally stimulating environment is protective against lead’s ill effects. [Bellinger (major lead researcher from Harvard); CDC recommendations]

                                                      ii.     Evidence from animal studies also supports those conclusions (rat studies)

                                                        iii.     Books are easy, inexpensive way to provide enriching environment, plus increase parental engagement with child, creating a virtuous spiral of better environment for child. Success of early literacy book distribution programs. 

G.   Despite safety that is clear even to public health officials, equally clear that vintage books as a class nonetheless do not pass muster under the excessively strict guidelines of the CPSIA – total lead content in vintage books sometimes exceeds 300 ppm, and more will exceed 100 ppm if/when that goes into effect in August, 2011; there’s a general lack of peer-reviewed, scientific evidence (don’t study what’s not a problem) and none likely to be available any time soon; what little evidence there is prevents assertion that there’d be no absorption of any lead ever from an old book – just that the risk is insignificant.

                                                     i.     Bottom line: if a parent, teacher or librarian asked my professional advice about removing old books, I’d tell them not to, and if they’d be unable to replace those books, the answer would be an emphatic NO – the risks from having few or no books greatly outweighs the miniscule risk of lead exposure.

                                                      ii.     I’d still give my kids vintage books. Talked to many parents; all would continue to allow their kids access to older books.

III.           Why Should Anyone Care?

A.    Aren’t old books worthless? (That's what CPSC thinks)

                                                     i.     No one uses books more than 20 years old - they’re worn out and the content is obsolete, right?

                                                      ii.     The exemption for collectibles covers the special old books, like the first edition Winnie the Poohs, so nothing more is needed, right?

                                                        iii.     Publishers could just reprint the old books if someone wanted them, right? 

B.    WRONG! Loss of number of books available to kids – hard to say for certain, but likely hundreds of millions of old books currently in use by kids.

                                                     i.     Old children’s books have remarkable staying power, both in content and physically

                                                      ii.     The number of books at risk also must include books that were printed post 1985 but which lack print dates – a common practice in kids’ books. Likely affects millions or even billions more volumes.

                                                        iii.     Contrary to CPSC assertions, discarding old books would have devasting impacts on library collections – estimates vary, but even well to do libraries estimate as much as 1/3 of their collections would be lost. Small, low income libraries could be even worse.

                                                       iv.     Equally terrible impacts on schools and childcare facilities, also contrary to CPSC assertions. Old books in libraries, classroom libraries (often assembled out of the teacher’s own pocket), sets of classroom novels used only a few times a year.

                                                      v.     Also hurts home libraries. Number of books in the home one of the best predictors of child’s success in school (after maternal education). Vintage books often significantly cheaper and better quality than even more recent used reprints (because of law taxing warehouse inventory).

                                                       vi.     The one category with a low survival rate is books for the youngest kids – the ones at greatest risk for ingesting books and for lead poisoning. Thus the books that pose the greatest risk – but still small – are not a significant problem. 

C.    Loss of diversity in books available to kids – as bad as the loss of number

                                                     i.     New books don’t make old books worthless anymore than second child makes first one obsolete. Compare also with suggestion that we discard all paintings done before 1985 because they also contained lead – we can just get by with new paintings, copies of old masters, cheap reproductions. Doesn’t sit right, does it? Same emotional response to this law by people who know and love children’s literature.

                                                      ii.     Most old books out of print in any form – loss is not just of volumes, but of actual titles, content, values, historic style, etc.

                                                        iii.     Most unlikely to be republished (variety of reasons)

                                                       iv.     Differences between new and old books, even when reprints available (paperbacks vs. hardcovers, quality of paper and printing, loss of special features like endpapers, jackets, re-illustration, changes in text to reflect current values).

                                                      v.     Certain categories more affected than others (like poetry, other non-fiction, anthologies and collections)

                                                       vi.     This problem reflexively feels like censorship to most people, even though that’s not probably not what was intended. (Not helped by 1984 cutoff date.) At a minimum creates de facto censorship.

D.   Economic Impact 1 - Threat to businesses, individuals that sell older books

                                                     i.     Huge impact on used booksellers large and small – Quotes from Half Price Books, Jacobsen books, Deputy Headmistress (others?)

                                                      ii.     Hard to judge overall impact in dollars, but likely substantial, especially as it’s not uncommon for a book to be resold more than once.

                                                        iii.     Good business for tough economic times – internet makes it easier than ever to make money through resale. Prices are low enough that the product is affordable to families suffering through hard times. Amusement for child with hours of use and re-use, educational, quiet, etc.

                                                       iv.     Common and profitable items at yard sales – right now many families need even the small change that these kinds of sales produce.

E.    Economic Impact 2: Hurts charities that raise revenue through book sales (like libraries, Goodwill, literacy programs)

                                                     i.     Literacy programs also redistribute used books to homes, schools, child care centers, after school programs, waiting rooms

                                                      ii.     Also hurt charitable recipients overseas – we ship used textbooks and trade books to schools in 3rd world countries to stock schools. Not allowed under CPSIA 

F.    Groups especially hurt by loss of old books

                                                     i.     Chronically needy, families hurting in recession – increased costs of books for kids; harm to institutions in low-income areas doubles impact.

                                                      ii.     Home schoolers – low cost way to obtain necessary teaching materials

                                                        iii.     Gifted children – older books tended to have more innocent themes, while having more difficult vocabularies and longer, more complex texts (c.f., Make Way for Ducklings with a modern duck picture book for same age). 

G.   Loss of history of children’s literature

                                                     i.     Children’s books not just used by kids, but will be lost to adults too. Impact on social scientists, historians, children’s lit scholars, contemporary authors and illustrators (and thus harm to quality of books going forward), book artists.

                                                      ii.     Exemption for collectibles not sufficient to protect books from extinction or unavailability – most old books sell for less than new books, making it difficult to argue they’re too valuable to give to children. Also, dividing line is in the eye of the beholder, making selling collectibles an uncertain business.

                                                        iii.     Will increase rarity and drive up prices, putting old books out of reach of all but the wealthiest individuals and institutions.

                                                       iv.     Sharing childhood books is especially powerful spur to connecting generations, interesting reluctant parents in reading to their kids


In sum: Harm likely to be caused to books and kids under CPSIA greatly outweighs any possible small benefit in terms of reduced lead exposure.

IV.           Action I’d like to see

A.    1st choice: repeal act and start over. Too flawed, piecework amendments will make an already too-complex law even more complicated and increase violations and difficulty of enforcing it.

B.    Otherwise, amend law to make it more reasonable – and thus more effective.

                                                     i.     Exempt all books, except those with high risk components (like baby bath books). (Other categories of books with unnecessary burdens, like most novelty books, stapled books, books aimed at older kids with risky components)

                                                      ii.     Limit age range to under 3

                                                        iii.     Make standard for getting exemptions more reasonable – give CPSC more discretion (e.g., reliance on expert advice in absence of peer reviewed scientific evidence), ability to balance risks and benefits

                                                       iv.     Get rid of retroactivity of law – if problem not serious enough to recall/recommend discarding ALL old kids’ products

                                                      v.     Un-deputize states’ attorneys general, or require them to follow guidelines set by CPSC.

                                                       vi.     Make penalties less extreme for all but the worst offenders.

                                                         vii.     Say what you mean, and mean what you say – if CPSC doesn’t intend to go after used booksellers or people holding yard sales, make it law,  not Russian roulette

                                                          viii.     Let parents make their own choices for their own kids – allow warning labels or an educational campaign instead of banning books for all.

                                                        ix.     Concentrate resources instead where most fruitful – will increase compliance, ease enforcement, gain buy-in by folks who care about kids, like those here today.


Friday, March 27, 2009

CPSIA and Original Book Art: The One of a Kind Problem

Copyright 2009, Carol Baicker-McKee

 Cost of One Piece Original Art by Carol Baicker-McKee from An Apple Pie for Dinner by Susan vanHecke (Marshall Cavendish, Fall, 2009)

Testing for:
Foamcore for backing and supports $100
Mat board for support $100
Chenille stems (metal plus fabric) $200
3 colors of acrylic paint $300
13 colors of polymer clay $1300
12 different fabrics $1200
5 different threads and floss $500
4 different textile trims $400
Polyester batting $100
Metallic powder $100
2 colors pastels $200

Labor, artistry $500
Total: $5,000

Cost of destroying my one of a kind artwork so I can sell it: Priceless

My mixed media artwork is undeniably more complex, with many more components than most illustrators' work (the above photo is of a much simpler book in progress, and you can see there are lots of parts), but non-artists would still be shocked to break down the components in even a typical painting. Plus the parts of a frame. But either way, illustrators who want to sell their artwork on the open market, especially if like me they haven't yet achieved the level of fame and fortune that would allow their work to be classified as "collectible" (and thus not intended for use in a children's bedroom) are probably in deep doo-doo under CPSIA. My estimate above of the testing costs is surely a low ball figure, as I used only $100 per component and I know that's low, and I've undoubtedly overlooked a few pieces to boot. Unframed, testing costs would drive up the price to 10 times what I'd guess would be a top, top make-me-very happy price for that piece. Framing would add a couple hundred dollars more. And then there's the wee final problem: I'd have nothing left to sell after I got it tested.

When I spoke with Joe Martyak, the Chief of Staff at CPSC, for information for my article for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), he initially seemed bewildered about my questions about original artwork and CPSIA; he didn't seem to think wall artwork was covered. When I said I'd read several documents from CPSC that specifically mentioned posters and other wall decor, he hemmed and hawed, and said, well, if it was intended for a child's room, it probably would be. Then he said art wouldn't be considered accessible once it was framed. I said, "How is art protected by a piece of fragile glass on one side and a thin piece of cardboard on the other less accessible than the inside of a bike tire valve stem? And how does an artist judge what is "normal use and abuse" for a framed picture? Because if it includes throwing something that knocks it off the wall, it could certainly become accessible, though of course the broken glass might be a more immediate worry." I also asked about the problem of testing one of a kind items (known among the crafty set as OOAK items). At that point, he decided he'd have to get back to me about original art. 

Of course he hasn't yet, and I don't blame him; among the millions of details the CPSC has to sort through and rule on, questions about original art surely rank very low - unless you're an artist creating work that would be bought for kids and you'd like to keep earning a living. (Or in my case, would also like to clear a little shelf space to accommodate all the other bulky art work you're producing.)

This piece is a very simple one, one of several I made at my publisher's request as promotional giveaways to promote one of my books (Merry Christmas, Cheeps! by Julie Stiegemeyer, Bloomsbury, 2007). Paying to test it would of course be foolish on many fronts, but even a small simple piece like this has an insane number of components (at least 22 by my quick count), thus putting an end to cool promotional items. These matter because buyers for book chains base their orders on initial buzz for the book at BEA and other venues - and special promotional tactics get attention.
The photos above and below are of a piece I made for a charity, Robert's Snow, that raises funds for cancer research. The event honors the husband of the enormously talented and well-loved children's book author and illustrator Grace Lin, who was stricken with a rare cancer. Children's book illustrators are invited to create artwork on wooden snowflakes which are then auctioned. Again, mine is probably more complex than most, but many others are incredible 3-D creations too. (And little did I realize by adding a box intended for long term storage I'd be adding to the components in need of testing.) Some of the snowflakes by top illustrators fetch collectible level prices, but others are not out of question for hanging in a child's room. It's yet another very gray area under CPSIA, surely not one that anyone intended, but one that looms ominously over people trying to do a good thing nonetheless.

If you have a few more minutes, go check out this post at Deputy Headmistress's The Common Room. She finally found someone to kind of debate the merits (or at least intentions) of CPSIA with her. PJFry via BoingBoing mentions a number of the misconceptions about lead in books, and Deputy Headmistress walks her through the science and real-life reasons why they're wrong.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

CPSIA: Should Schools Be Exempt?

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith, public domain
There has been little discussion in the press or even the blogosphere about how schools will be affected by CPSIA - but that doesn't mean they aren't concerned, confused, and seeking guidance from both Congress and the CPSC. They are particularly worried about the ban on pre-1985 books (as well as the impact of testing on the costs of books and other supplies going forward), which flies in the face of the CPSC's assertions that schools have no pre-1985 books to worry about (more about this in a minute). 

Michael Resnick, Associate Executive Director of the National School Boards Association, wrote to the CPSC on March 6th, urging them to recognize the safety of books and exempt all of them. He noted that schools are concerned about liability even during the one year testing stay, and need some guidance immediately. So far, I do not believe any has been forthcoming (based on a discussion with a school official following the law and the lack of any follow-up correspondence on the NSBA website; I'm awaiting comment from their go-to guy).

Resnick further asks that schools be exempt from the law all together. A public school official I spoke with today (off the record) noted that her school district is well aware that many of their ordinary, necessary actions would classify them as "manufacturers" under the guidelines issued to small businesses etc. and thus either subject them to unaffordable testing or force them to drastically change the way they operate. For example, schools frequently assemble and bind packets and books for students to use and keep (with plastic comb, stapled, or glued bindings); they put together science kits; they make art projects that are intended for use by children; and many of their fundraising and charitable projects also involve "manufacturing" things for children. (For example, parents at my kids' elementary sell handicrafts, many intended for children, at the holiday shop that funds many school extras; the kids assemble toiletry-and-book packages for kids in homeless shelters; and the school sponsors book drives either to promote literacy or to donate to children locally or abroad.) Recognizing these issues, Mr. Resnick asks:
"As you continue to address enforcement and implementation issues, NSBA urges the Commission to exempt local school districts from the lead level requirements under the law; or at the very least, to establish a transition period that would enable public schools and libraries to meet the spirit and intent of the law without creating financial burdens on states and local communities in this dire economy and extreme reductions in their revenues. "

You can read the whole letter here

Meanwhile, the CPSC seems to be getting their information about how schools are affected from some other source - some unnamed "trade associations" (not sure who the public schools trade association would be). On page 17 of Nord's response to Rep. Dingell, the Commission asserts: 
Based on information from the trade associations with information regarding books in libraries and schools, the Commission staff understands that most textbooks in schools are less than ten years old. Likewise, the information received suggests that most library books lent to children are recycled approximately every 18 lending cycles or three years. Thus, it appears that few of the books being provided to children in their schools and libraries would be more than 20 years old.

The school official I spoke with today just laughed at that statement; she said if schools were forced to discard all their pre-1985 materials, they'd basically stop being operational. Although schools do strive to replace text books more often than that, occasionally they get stuck with a series for longer, especially in subjects where the information changes little (math for example) or where the books are for a minor subject (like Health). Not only is buying new sets of textbooks expensive, it's a slow process, more akin to turning an ocean liner than swinging a Mini Cooper around - it takes years for most districts to go through the textbook adoption process. The bigger problems though, are with things like classroom sets of novels (which get used for a few weeks at a time rather than all year), classroom libraries, and books in the school library, which most certainly not are not fully recycled every three years. 

Another problem for schools, libraries, and used booksellers, is the high number of books that lack accurate print date information. For example, the easy readers above (all still in good shape after heavy use by my 3 kids) were purchased new in the 1990s, and I suspect were printed sometime near then - but they all have copyright dates prior to 1985 and no print date information at all. A librarian I know said some libraries could track likely print dates through purchase records, but that would take hours of research, especially since few libraries had gone electronic in the mid 1980s. And it would still leave them uncertain in many cases and vulnerable to a dispute with a disgruntled patron. (Keep in mind the expenses of defending a lawsuit are typically not awarded even if you win, so every lawsuit is bad news.) If the law remains as is, they'll probably just toss questionable books. 

All of this is a huge headache for school districts - and for Congress and the CPSC. On the one hand, if they enforce the law for schools, they'll send school budgets out of control and probably deprive many students of necessary materials at least in the short run. On the other hand, if they exempt schools, they open themselves to the criticism that they either don't care about kids since they're willing to force them to wallow in dangerous lead-laden environments 6 hours a day, 180 days a year, or that lead in things like books and school supplies really isn't much of a threat to kids at all. It's basically a lose-lose proposition, which is probably why the CPSC guy I spoke with danced around the issue, promised to get back to me, and never has. And my congressmen have been utterly silent in response to my specific questions too.

The book above, about a school that's as ridiculous as the CPSIA, is much funnier than the law because it's fantasy. It's also not clear whether it's a banned book, since it was printed in 1985. For quite a while, CPSC seemed to be using that as the year that was safe going forward, which would make this copy okay to sell or distribute - but more recently, agency spokesmen have been using a new cut off year - 1986 - which would make it toxic waste. (See, for example, this AP article).
These books above are all well used cheap paperbacks, all printed in the 1970s or earlier. The pages have yellowed a bit and a couple of the most heavily read have mangled spines (like the copy of The Four Story Mistake by Elizabeth Enright which was part of the "Bathtub Books" collection in my family growing up - it's a really excellent, old-fashioned yet timeless story about a large family living in an interesting old house in the 1940s). But all are perfectly usable - and are still re-read by me and my kids occasionally and are similar to books still found in many classroom libraries. This is part of what CPSC doesn't get - old books, even the cheap, not particularly well-made ones, typically have very long lives. The good quality hard covers go on and on and on, and may well outlast new paperbacks. I can only remember having thrown away about a dozen books in my whole life - I've donated or passed along plenty of others - but few have been in such bad shape they only deserved tossing. 

One funny note about ratty paperbacks: one of my kids used to consistently select the most bedraggled looking copies when I gave the kids money to get a book or two at a library sale or used bookstore. When I asked him why he picked those particular books over the nicer ones, he said (quite logically) that the beat up ones had obviously been read many times which meant they were probably good.
Illustration for Ring o' Rosies by L. Leslie Brooke, public domain

Finally, a reminder to consider joining the April 1st rally in DC, either in person or via the webcast at And check out recent coverage of the law on Walter Olsen's Overlawyered, the Deputy Headmistress's Common Room, Valerie Jacobsen's Bookroom Blog, and Rick Woldenberg's Learning Resources, Inc. blog. (I have no idea why Blogger is underlining all this text, but it won't stop!)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

CPSIA and Vintage Books 6: Rally 'Round!

Illustration by Marjorie Torrey, copyright, 1956, Random House
The illustration above (and the close-up detail below) are from my childhood copy of Favorite Nursery Songs, compiled by Phyllis Brown Ohanian and illustrated with delicate watercolor and pencil pictures by the Caldecott-honored Marjorie Torrey. The book, my favorite songbook when I was growing up, was published in 1956 and has been out of print ever since.
Detail from "Ring Around a Rosy"
More about Ms. Torrey's charming illustrations in a minute, but first I want to encourage everyone who can possibly make it to join me in a trek to Washington D.C. for a fly-in, rally, and Congressional briefing on Capitol Hill to amend the CPSIA. You can get all the details, including the info on hotels offering special deals for the event, at a special website here.

Rick Woldenberg of Learning Resources, Inc. (see his CPSIA blog here) has been helping to organize people from many affected industries, large and small, to get our voices heard by Congress. I'm trying to schedule meetings with my senators and representative as well - and I'm taking my teenage daughter, so she can see political activism at work in person (and put in her two cents worth too). I'm planning to leave from Pittsburgh very early on the morning of the first and return in the evening. I have a minivan, and if anyone from the area needs a ride, just shoot me an email and we can work out the details.

Copyright Random House, 1956

Detail from cover
Isn't the cover of this book beautiful? The quality of the color reproductions was really quite remarkable for the era, too. You can readily see the rough texture of the watercolor paper, as well as the soft layers of washes and the nuances of the pencil lines. I think it's notable that these images still come vividly to mind more than 45 years after I first saw them the moment I hear the familiar first lines of songs like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" or "Here We Go 'Round the Mulberry Bush."

Here's a glimpse of the illustration for the former song, as well as a closer look at a couple of the figures. There's a real sweetness, without veering into saccharine. The botanical elements are consistently precise and beautiful. 

I spoke recently with Joe Martyak, the chief of staff at the CPSC, for information about how CPSIA affects children's books, literacy programs, libraries, and the sale of the original art from children's books for an article I'm writing for the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI - visit their website here) and for an opinion piece with a similar theme I'm working on to submit to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (which ran one excellent article on CPSIA and dirt bikes but has otherwise ignored the whole thing). Although much of what Mr. Martyak told me could be construed as encouraging from a short-term perspective (he didn't think the CPSC would be going after libraries, literacy groups, booksellers, etc. any time soon due to low priority and lack of resources), my overall mood is one of gloom for the future of children's literature's past unless Congress agrees to try again with the CPSIA. He was clear that their preliminary testing  finds many older books hovering around the 300 ppm level - the standard which goes into effect in August. (This is destructive testing because XRF testing is not particularly helpful for books since it can only measure the lead in a particular spot which tells you little about total lead) An even stricter standard of 100 ppm goes into effect in August, 2011, at which time my guess is that few old books will pass.

Mr. Martyak did his best to ask my specific questions, but it's clear there's just much that he and the agency have not yet figured out. And that of course is just one of the many, many problems with passing a tsunami of a law and rushing it into enactment: there are a nearly limitless number of details and judgment calls with a law like this, and no matter how hard-working or well-meaning the folks at CPSC are, they will simply not be able to sort them out any time soon, not in the next year, probably not in the next five. For example, he had no idea how the law would be applied with regard to schools (who become manufacturers under a strict reading of the law when they create unit packets with comb bindings - or when they even just staple a pile of papers together). He thought that the publishers who produce inexpensive staple-bound paperbacks could get away with just testing the staples (since for now "ordinary books" are exempt from testing), but it sounded to me in other published CPSC advisories like deviating from the ordinary book definition meant the whole product had to be tested. And Mr. Martyak had not realized the agency had used different definitions of ordinary books, nor whether that signaled a shift in interpretation.
I love how she handled the challenge of facing pages that couldn't really bleed together, given the printing limitations at the time.
Aren't the cherry blossoms breathtaking? And they should be in bloom on April 1st for the rally. Of course, that baby should be sleeping on his back, in an approved, labeled crib. Hope there aren't any fasteners or phthalates in that sleeper. On the whole, I think the CPSC investigators would have a field day, as would CYS.

Right now, those of us who oppose the CPSIA are largely at the wind-blowing stage. (The ATV industry and the thrift stores too are past that though). But the bough-breaking phase is not far off - next February 10th will herald both the testing and certification mandates - and the end of many more businesses and safe, useful products. We need to take action now, before disaster strikes.
Not sure if this guy is looking for his little dog, or for the toys, books, and clothes he used to have.

One of the extra elements common in older books are illustrated endpapers, like those above. You still see them in some picture books today, but much less frequently since they're an added expense, as well as more work for the illustrator (who is generally paid the same whether or not the end papers are illustrated). Endpapers are not usually included when a hardcover is reprinted as a paperback, which is yet another reason to prefer the older editions.

The description below is from a bio of Marjorie Torrey (who was also an acclaimed mystery writer) by Tom and Enid Schantz that appeared in the Rue Morgue Press in 2002:
"But it was her work as an illustrator that brought her fame and awards. Her first Caldecott Honor book, Sing Mother Goose, with songs by Opal Wheeler, came in 1946. The following year she earned another Caldecott Honor medallion for illustrating Sing in Praise: A Collection of the Best Loved Hymns, once again selected by Wheeler. A Caldecott historian wrote of her work: 'The full-color illustrations reflect the solemnity and reverence seen in Torrey’s Mother Goose collection, and these interpretations communicate the essence and importance of the songs’ words…Torrey’s gentle black-and-white illustrations possess the softness of pencil, some the sharp lines of pen and ink, and others a combination of both.'...All of her books are out of print today. Even her Caldecott honor books are difficult to find, often confined to rare book rooms or the special collections section of larger libraries."
You can read the whole article here. And despite the rarity of her books (which my attempts at searching for them confirm), you can still find a few inexpensive copies (see these amazon listings for the song book I own), meaning the volumes likely won't qualify as collectibles under CPSIA standards - so better get a copy while you can.
Ms. Torrey was also well known for her version of Alice in Wonderland.
I'm hoping someone decides to republish her work.

Here are two more CPSIA articles on books in the MSM: a Washington Post article that ran in the health section, and one from the St. Petersburg Times here. Very discouraging, but I think Congress ought to take a look at the typical comments about this law. Don't know who those constituents are that they claim are pestering to preserve the law unchanged, but they're not exactly vocal in public.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

CPSIA and Books 5: The Threat to Staple-Bound Books and Literacy Efforts

Vintage books are not the only ones affected by the CPSIA interpretation of which books are exempt from the testing and certification rules. According to the Statement of Commission Enforcement Policy on Section 101 Lead Limits, dated February 6, 2009, which grants the exemption to ordinary books:

"The term "ordinary book" in this context means one that is published on cardboard or paper printed by conventional methods and intended to be read. It excludes children’s books that have plastic, metal or electronic parts. "
This definition is a footnote to Section 5 at the bottom of page 4 of the document. You can read the whole pdf here.

In other words, this definition of "ordinary book" excludes many popular children's books: for example, the "touch and feel" baby books like the classic Pat the Bunny by Dororthy Kunhardt; cookbooks and craftbooks with metal or plastic spiral or comb bindings; what the trade calls "book plus" formats (for example, a book packaged with a stuffed animal, one that incorporates a finger puppet or some other toy element, or a project book that incorporates supplies, like the enormously successful Klutz line and many American Girl craft books); many cloth and all vinyl baby books; and those horrid things that have buttons kids push to make screechy electronic sounds at the appropriate moments (or inappropriate ones, as the case may be - personally not sorry to see those go).

There's lots of gray area too: what about paper and board books that seem no different from other ordinary books except that they're intended more for play than reading, like the ones that form a play set or include paper dolls? What about pop ups that have a fabric element (since fabric is deemed safe too)? Books with metallic lettering or foil along the binding (like the Little Golden Books) or gilt edges like many children's Bibles?

I'll discuss these issues in later posts, but for today I'm going to focus on books with stapled bindings (which in the trade are called "saddlestitched" bindings). The books above and in the top photo below are typical examples of staple-bound paperbacks, held together not with glue or thread but with two small metal staples. Extra tall picture books might have three staples. (The ones in the second photo before are examples of glued bindings, called "perfect bindings.) These stapled books are tremendously important to literacy groups, schools, and other organizations that promote reading.

The staples are clearly metal and equally clearly part of the book, which under the CPSC's earlier definition of an ordinary book seems to make them subject to the same testing and certification requirements as other non-exempt children's products. I say "seems" because there's some confusion about whether they are in fact included in the ban, confusion that arises in part because of CPSC's inconsistent language in defining an "ordinary book." For example, in their more recently published Guide to Small Businesses, Resellers, Charities, and Crafters, a guide that nonprofit literacy groups, thrift stores, and small used booksellers might well rely on to make decisions about which books it's okay for them to distribute, an "ordinary book" is defined this way:

Children’s books printed after 1985 that are conventionally
printed and intended to be read, as opposed to used for play"

Note the absence of any language about metal, plastic or electronic parts. I've come across similarly abbreviated definitions of an "ordinary book" in other documents posted by CPSC. I spoke with a lawyer about whether this change in the wording could be interpreted to reflect an actual change in the definition. (While not an expert on CPSIA or product liability in general, this lawyer deals pretty much daily with other federal regulatory agencies.) He said that typically agencies are extremely precise about their language when offering guidance, so most of the time it would be reasonable to assume that yes, they'd changed their minds about the definition if they changed the wording. In this case though, because the language occurs in a glossy brochure written in layman's language, he'd caution against relying on the more casual definition and advise you to consult with someone at the agency.

Good luck with that.

I've emailed and called CPSC dozens of times now with specific questions about this and other issues. I assume my emails go through, but my calls to the ombudsman's office don't. I'm working on a couple assigned articles about the CPSIA, which makes me a member of the press so I tried the media number early in the week and did get through to someone - who couldn't answer my questions. Late Friday someone else finally called me back (after I got my congressman's office to intervene for me) but unfortunately I wasn't home and he didn't try my cell phone despite having been given both numbers. So I still don't know whether staples are in fact okay, but I'm inclined to think not.

I'm not the only one. Many booksellers are removing the stapled books from stock (see this post from semicolon and the coverage on books from Walter Olson at And other groups are simply panicking. I've spoken with representatives at several large literacy organizations. At Reach Out and Read, a very successful program in which pediatricians "prescribe" books and give out both books and lessons on reading to youngsters at regular health check ups (check out their website here), the coordinator opted to pay for testing of their inventory after doctors and parents expressed concern about the stapled copies that are the bulk of the books they give out to kids over three - and that's money she now doesn't have to buy new books or use to train doctors and nurses in teaching literacy. As she expected, all the books passed with flying colors. (In an earlier post, I linked to an article about this group's concerns - read it here if you missed it.)

But the most common reaction I get from groups that distribute these books to schools, from publishers to schools to other literacy organizations is "Huh?" If they've heard of the law, most have some significant area of misinformation: "It doesn't apply to us because we're nonprofit," or "They exempted all books except vintage ones," or "Someone would have notified us if we were supposed to comply with that." But the most common response is, "I have never heard of that law and I have no idea what you're talking about." (So far, no school district I've called has heard of the law at all so of course they are taking no steps to comply with it. One teacher I chatted with though noted that she regularly assembles packets of papers on a topic and staples them together herself or has the district bind them together with a plastic comb binding if they're thick and will get heavy use - guess that makes schools manufacturers of potentially deadly books too in need of testing and certification too.)

But back to stapled books. Why don't publishers and sellers just switch to glued bindings for their picture books and easy readers, if the stapled ones are a problem? After all, there are other reasons too that make stapled bindings less desirable than perfect bindings - the stapled books have no spine so it's hard to find a shelved book, they also often have lighter-weight covers and look more like a pamplet than a traditional book, and there's always the risk of getting poked by a bent staple, or swallowing one if you're inclined to eat your books (as CPSIA presumes).

First, there are as many reasons to prefer the stapled bindings as to dislike them. Glued bindings just don't hold well unless there are lots of pages, and a standard picture book has only 32 pages. You may have had the experience with a perfect-bound book of pages coming loose (like the book above - a copy of Alfie's Feet by Shirley Hughes, one of my favorite children's book author-illustrators) or even coming out all together and getting lost. The stapled bindings which fasten folded pages rather than individual sheets almost never lose pages unless they're ripped. In addition, the stapled bindings generally lay flat and stay opened, an advantage for little guys and kids just learning to read, who may find juggling holding a book open and steady to be just one task too many on top of the challenging job of deciphering the words.

Sometimes, especially with older books or ones that get heavy use like in classrooms, the glue in a perfect binding just gives out all together, and the whole book separates into chunks which come loose from the cover, as with this copy of Angus and the Ducks by the talented Marjorie Flack.

I'm going to blog about this vintage book in a separate post, so check back if you want to learn more about the notable book about the curious little Scottie .

The main advantage of the stapled bindings, though, is cost. Sticking a couple of staples through the pages and cover in one fell swoop is both faster and way, way cheaper than applying glue, letting it dry, then gluing the cover on and letting it dry again. The coverstock can also be thinner, which means it's cheaper, and in addition these books are often printed on thinner, lower quality paper.

Publishers can thus offer these stapled picture books at a pretty substantial discount, which is why they're common in the book club offerings, stocked by the checkout counter at the supermarket, popular with libraries with smaller budgets or who want to stock some books with time-limited appeal or lesser literary merit, used for classroom collections of literary readers, and much used for literacy programs that do free book distributions.

Many of the groups offering these inexpensive stapled books (like the book clubs, many of the larger publishers, etc.) also award bonus points that can be redeemed for classroom books or other supplies (like math manipulatives) when students order books, and others kick in extra books or even deeper discounts to organizations that buy in bulk.

Most of the book distribution programs, like RIF (Reading is Fundamental), Reach Out and Read, First Book, and Beginning with Books are nonprofits with tight budgets and a determination to get not just one new book but many in the hands of needy kids at risk for low achievement. These programs are consistently successful and have the research to prove it, but they don't have the funds to buy as many hardcover or even higher-priced paperbacks for all the kids they try to serve. This matters because research has shown that kids who own more books are more likely to become both capable and eager readers (see this pdf of a study from Columbia University's Teacher College as an example, and see these links to studies about the relationship between the number of books a family owns, poverty and outcomes in the U.S. at the First Book website).

If these literacy groups have to forgo both older donated books (which some distribute and others resell as fundraisers) and either or test or discard their inventories of the affordable stapled books, their programs will be severely affected and many fewer children will get books in their hands this year. It's unclear what will happen to the prices or availability of these books once testing and certification of non-exempt products goes into effect in February, 2010 - but it can hardly be good.

And now to why this really, really matters, in terms of children at risk for lead poisoning. Right now, there are no effective medical treatments for kids with elevated blood levels. For kids with dangerously high levels, doctors do chelation therapy which removes heavy metals, but it's risky and not effective at the low levels more commonly seen. Bellinger, one of the major researchers on lead poisoning, has noted that there is not a consistent dose-effect relationship between lead and neurological functioning (information I suspect was likely missing from the Congressional hearing on this issue). See this abstract of a journal article on the research here. Based on his review of the body of literature and his own research, Bellinger hypothesizes that an enriched environment can prevent or ameliorate the effects of lead exposure, which is especially significant in light of the absence of an effective medical treatment. In the journal Pediatrics, Bellinger noted (emphasis added is mine):

Finally, characteristics of a child’s rearing environment might influence the
toxicity of a given lead dose.47 Lead seems to be similar to other biological risks, such as low birth weight, in that children from environments that offer fewer developmental resources and supports express deficits at a lower blood lead level than do children from more optimal environments45,48
and show less recovery after exposure.

In his book Human Neurodevelopmental Toxicology (at $250 from Barnes and Noble not a cheap read, but you can view the relevant pages on p. 76 at Google Books here) Bellinger asserts that his idea about the benefits of enriched environments is also supported by animal studies (which are critical in lead research because experimental studies obviously cannot be conducted on human beings). For example, in one animal study, lead-poisoned rats raised in an enriched environment outperformed non-poisoned rats raised in a regular rat environment and didn’t differ significantly from non-poisoned rats raised in an enriched environment. These findings are also consistent with the every day observations you see in blogs and comments to news articles every where: "If lead is always so bad, why are people like me who were obviously exposed to lead as a child just fine?" It's also consistent with the research going back many decades that consistently shows that children who read a lot (and thus would likely have had the most exposure to lead in books) typically have better achievement scores and lower rates of the behavioral problems like ADHD and aggressiveness than kids who rarely read (and thus presumably have the lowest exposure to lead in books).

And, what's one of the easiest, cheapest ways for a low-income parent to provide an enriched environment for his child? Books of course - which are free through the public library and book distribution programs, and inexpensive through used booksellers and book clubs.

Or used to be. Good luck with that post-CPSIA.

P.S. Reviewing the research on lead toxicity is tremendously difficult for the average person. Not only does it involve slogging through lots of technical language and reams of data and statistics, it's nearly impossible for someone who doesn't have access to a university library or a huge discretionary budget to obtain whole journal articles (you can often find abstracts on Google Scholar) and book-length professional summaries and analyses of the literature. It might not matter, except that folks like Jared, a staffer at the Senate commerce committee, informed me that the only thing likely to push the DeMint bill out of committee is high quality scientific research suggesting that the law is over-reaching. Since not only is conducting research like that out of the reach of the typical person affected by this law, but looking it up is too, it's going to be hard for the people who care to build the case that will persuade Congress to try again.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

CPSIA and Vintage Books: A Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Law

I went to sleep with no coffee in the house and when I woke up there was still no coffee in the house and the garbagemen came before I could stick the smelly leftovers in the can and then I found an even stinkier new statement from the CPSC about books, and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

I think I'll move to Australia.

If you've ever read this childhood classic by Judith Viorst with expressive black and white line illustrations by Ray Cruz (Atheneum, 1972,), I'm sure you get my literary allusion. And if not, here's the first page as a teaser - you have got to read this book, which is still completely relevant and delightful 37 years after it was published. It's just as appealing to adults as it is to kids.

Copyright 1972, Judith Viorst and Ray Cruz

So here's why it was a THNGVB day. The CPSC put up some new "helpful" powerpoint slides for their staff today (you can read them all here).

Here's the line that's got me ready to move to Australia. Or, better yet, ready to make Congress move to Australia and let the country start fresh. Page 6 has the guidance on children's books (ordinary books safe if published after 1985, limited staff analysis has shown some lead in older books, blah, blah). And then this line:

Children’s books have limited useful life
(approx 20 years)

I had to read this statement about a dozen times before I could believe it really said this.

What planet do these people live on? Have they never heard of Winnie the Pooh? The Wizard of Oz? Peter Pan? Alice in Wonderland? Peter Rabbit? Charlotte and Wilbur? Mike Mulligan and Mary Ann? I could go on for quite a while.

Maybe, my son suggested, they were referring to the physical book, that volumes wear out after 20 years. Except that's equally asinine. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that there are millions of copies of children's books published and printed before 1989 that are still in excellent, completely useable condition, with content still just as capable of stirring the souls of children or tickling their funny bones or teaching them something interesting. Otherwise, there'd be no one out here making a stink about old books, but there are tons of us.

Well, maybe, said my Devil's Advocate, they were referring to library copies which can get some pretty tough wear and tear. True - but libraries are still sweating bullets about having to purge the pre-1985 books from their collections, which makes me think those old books are surviving at a pretty high rate. Doesn't surprise me, when you consider the industrial strength of some of those bindings and the fact that past the age of 2 or 3 kids start to treat their books with a little more respect.

In fact I recently finished reading a truly outstanding library book, Mine for Keeps, by Jean Little (Little, Brown, 1962) and although after 46 years the cover art looked faded, there weren't even any ripped pages or significant stains or anything else that would make this book unusable. And the content, about a girl with cerebral palsy who struggles to fit in at her local school after returning from a special boarding school was timeless and universal. I really cannot recommend a book more highly. I read it first when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade and when I rediscovered it I was overjoyed. What's really wonderful about this book is, despite my initial description, is that it's not so much about a girl and her disability as it is about the typical kid challenges faced by a girl who also just happens to have CP. That's an important distinction, and it's only part of what makes this book so great. (It's a great dog story too.)

Illustration copyright 1962, Lewis Parker
I'm now reading my way through all of Ms. Little's sensitive, moving books (thanks to the many amazon sellers who haven't yet been forced to remove their inexpensive non-collectible copies of vintage kids' books), including her memoirs, which I also strongly recommend. In the first volume, Little by Little, there is a hilarious scene in which Jean, who is blind from shortly past conception, subs for a last minute scratch in a championship college intramural basketball game. Today that scene would have been videotaped, become a viral youtube video and been re-broadcast on ESPN and all the morning talk shows.

No, the CPSC's completely ignorant statement is the equivalent of saying that we have no need of Rembrandt, Matisse, or da Vinci paintings since some perfectly nice ones have been made in the last 20 years. No need of Shakespeare, Jane Austen or Dickens when you can read John Grisham or Janet Evanovich (not that I have anything against those latter authors - fine beach reading. In fact, Grisham could write a pretty good thriller featuring an evil congressman in cahoots with the consumer lobbyists and aided by a nefarious CPSC enforcer as they pursue a beautiful crafter fleeing with his movie-star beautiful fiancee, the vintage bookseller.)

I had started a completely different post about the impact of CPSIA on literacy programs (I've been collecting info from several prominent ones), the economics of binding, and the research on the link between lead poisoning and exposure to books and educational toys (which I have a feeling will surprise Congress). But I'll save it for tomorrow.

Let this sink in meanwhile: Mary Poppins: irrelevant. Pippi Longstocking: useless. Babar, Ferdinand, Curious George, Frances, Corduroy, Harriet the Spy, the Very Hungry Caterpillar, Madeline, the Borrowers, Little Tim, the Runaway Bunny, Max in his wolf suit, Horton and the Whos, the Grinch, Sam-I-Am, Amelia Bedelia: who needs them?

Now this book above you might argue is an example of why a children's book is "useless" after 20, well, more like 40-some years. As you can see from the cover, this volume has had a long, rough life. The Trolley Car Family by Eleanor Clymer (David McKay, 1947 - my copy is from the late 50s or early 60s) was one of the many books in my family's collection of "bathtub books." The house we moved into when I was 10 had a huge claw-footed bathtub on the third floor, and my sisters and I spent substantial chunks of our moody teens in it reading and re-reading our favorite childhood books. But even though this book's cover is rather the worse for the wear and it's a bit wrinkled from too much hot water and Calgon, it still has all its pages. Twenty years after its bathtub duty, my own kids enjoyed sharing the old-fashioned adventures of the family who was forced to move into the trolley car their dad drove until the trolleys were replaced by more modern buses, Pa lost his job, and the family was forced out of their home.

Come to think of it, a story about job loss, home foreclosure and useful things deemed obsolete doesn't sound so old-fashioned these days, does it?