Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Keep reading to older children

(This is a post I started on several years ago, but never published.)
Don't stop reading aloud to your children just because they are old enough to read to themselves!

ACT data show that fewer than two in ten eighth graders are on
target to be ready for college-level work by the time they graduate
from high school. This means that more than eight of ten eighth-grade
students do not have the knowledge and skills they need to enter high
school and succeed there. And not surprisingly, our research shows that
students who are not prepared for high school are less likely than other
students to be prepared for college and career by the time they graduate
from high school...
In recent years, there has been heightened awareness of the importance of
early childhood education and high school as intervention points in the
educational lives of America’s children. Less attention, it seems, has been
paid to the importance of the upper elementary grades and middle school
and the role they must play in the preparation of students for life after
high school. - from "The Forgotten Middle: Ensuring that All Students Are on Target for College and Career Readiness before High School", an ACT report. Full text available at http://www.act.org/research/policymakers/reports/ForgottenMiddle.html

The years between third grade and eighth grade are years your child should be soaking up information like a sponge (forgive the cliche!). Children should be reading independently, but they should also continue listening to you read aloud - often books that might be a stretch for them to read on their own. Ideally, children will re-read, on their own, books they have heard you read. This is NOT wasted time. Remember the research that found that the most effective way to improve reading fluency is to RE-READ.
Disasters - the human fascination with things gone wrong and nature's power begins early. When I started work on this post, my three-year-old nephew was into volcanoes. Of course you don't want to frighten children. Books are better than movies - you can stop to go over the most interesting or confusing parts, talk about it, edit it to make it suit the age or interests of the child, and you can always just close the book.

In no particular order, here are a few books about disasters, natural or otherwise. Check the nonfiction sections of your library or bookstore for more about natural or historical disasters.

Dear Katie, the Volcano Is a Girl, by Jean George, illustrated by Powers - a gentle argument between grandmother and granddaughter, as grandmother explains the geological processes that cause volcanoes to erupt, and the little girl counters with the Hawaiian myth of Pele. (Early elementary and up - picturebook)

Volcanoes and Earthquakes, by Rose (DK Eyewitness Books) - Lots of spectacular pictures and information, for elementary and up readers/listeners. The "Eyewitness" series has excellent books about other nature and science topics.

Jumanji, by Van Allsburg - the Caldecott winner with the adventure board game that turns out to be real - complete with lions, a volcanic eruption, and other unexpected occurences - when the kids don't read the directions first. (Kindergarten & up, picturebook)

The Village of Round and Square Houses, by Grifalconi - an African village, where the tradition of women living in round houses and men in square houses originated after the nearby volcano erupted. (Picturebook, early elementary and up)

Forces of Nature: The Awesome Power of Volcanoes, Earthquakes, and Tornadoes, by Grace - A National Geographic book, with the outstanding photography you would expect - this book covers the work of some scientists studying these forces of nature as well as the disasters themselves. (Middle elementary and up).

Noah's Ark by Peter Spier - a nearly-wordless picture book with intricate, sometimes amusing, pictures illustrating the traditional Bible story of the flood. (Ages 3-K)

The Ballymara Flood: A Tale from Old Ireland by Stuart, Illustrated by Booth - a silly look at a town flooded when a bathtub runs over, told in verse (age 3-early elementary)

SOS Titanic by Bunting - historical fiction with a touch of romance - the main character is a 15-year-old boy, and we all know the main plot! (middle school up)

White Star: A Dog on the Titanic by Crisp - a dog story, AND a disaster! Sam is a 12-year-old doglover on the Titanic, and determined to save the dog he has befriended on the voyage. (fourth grade up)

Millions of Cats… and thoughts on e-books

I've been neglecting this blog for years now, but I'm trying out a new idea.  Since my grandchildren don't live close enough for me to read to them - in person - regularly, I'm recording books for them, and this is the first one:  Wanda Gag's classic picture book, Millions of Cats.
  I really would prefer to post it as an audio file, but apparently the expectation is that everyone does video - I don't find an option for plain audio.

This year is also the 30th anniversary of a favorite book of mine - The Hero and the Crown - winning the Newbery Medal - may Robin Mckinley live forever and continue to publish more books!

I've (fairly recently) acquired a Kindle and begun reading more with it than with "regular" books.  In part, this is because my bookshelves have been full for years, and I have no more space for adding shelves… I also like the idea of conserving paper, and the slightly lower price of electronic books, and the ability to increase the print size as my eyes age.  There has been recent research on how reading on electronic screens affects our learning, and it has come down on the side of traditional books being more effective for learning.  No one is quite sure why yet - possibly something about turning the physical page activates another part of our brain (though that doesn't make a lot of sense to me since Kindle has made "turning the page" feel a lot like the act with a regular book).

One thing I do notice when reading on Kindle or iPad is that I don't have a sense of where I am in the story.  In a regular book, the thickness of the pages I've already read, vs. the ones still to come, remind me constantly of how close I am to the end of the story.  Yes, I can look at the percentage on the bottom of my screen, but that isn't the automatic feedback I get from holding the physical pages.

I do still firmly prefer picture books in the traditional form, not shrunk down on a screen, and the open book is better for sharing with a child sitting beside me.  I gave my grandsons a physical copy of Millions of Cats to look at while they listen to me reading the story.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Reading to Your Children February 09

**I just checked the lists of the new Newbery, Caldecott & Printz books - last year I wasn't very excited about most of the books, but this year I could easily drop $150 on the ones that look like they might be really good!**

I recently heard part of an interview with Susan Jacoby, author of a book called The Age of American Unreason. I haven't read it, or anything by Jacoby, but some things from the interview rang true to me. One of them was that all of us, but especially parents, need to be careful how we spend our time. There is nothing wrong with occasionally relaxing by watching TV, playing video games, surfing the web, or whatever form of 'junk thought' (her phrase) you prefer. However, if we allow ourselves and our children to regularly spend a lot of time engaged in 'junk thought', we can't expect our children or our country to excel. If America is going to be a leader in science, innovation, the arts and business, we have to instill the habit of deeper thinking and a respect for learning into our whole culture.

Wisdom in picture books:
First, I want to mention two books many people love that I don't much care for: The Giving Tree, by Silverstein, and Love You Forever, by Munsch. Lots of people love them, and you might, too, so you might want to take a look at them. They just don't appeal to me. Following are some that do.
People, by Spier - A celebration of the similarities and differences among people, with small, detailed, colorful illustrations you could spend hours looking at - good for close-up viewing more than for showing to a large group. Short & simple enough for very young children, with enough possibilities to use with older kids, too.
The Treasure, by Shulevitz (Caldecott Honor book) - a story about traveling far to seek a treasure, and eventually finding it back at home. Lovely illustrations. Ages three and up.
Old Turtle, by Wood, illustrated by Chee - Almost any of the pictures in this book are beautiful enough to make me want to frame them and hang them on the wall to enjoy more often. The story starts as a sort of fable about the animals and elements arguing about what God is like. The message is one of love and responsibility for each other and the environment. Ages four or five and up.
Zen Shorts, by Muth (Caldecott Honor book) - three stories from Buddhist & Taoist traditions within a story of children meeting a bear who speaks with 'a slight panda accent' and carries a large umbrella - and tells stories. Beautiful, watercolor illustrations. Ages five and up.
The Three Questions, also by Muth - This is a more child-friendly adaptation of the ideas from a short story by Tolstoy, also with Muth's typical watercolor paintings. Ages five or six and up. It would be fun to read this and then the Tolstoy story with middle school or high school kids.
Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, by Jeffers - Adapted from the famous speech by Chief Seattle, wonderfully illustrated by Susan Jeffers - maybe there are people who dislike 'environmentalists' who wouldn't like this book, but otherwise it's hard to imagine anyone not liking it - a message of caring for the land, and the inter-connectedness of all life. Ages four or five and up.
It Could Always Be Worse, by Zemach - I mentioned this one not that long ago, but it fits well in the 'wisdom' category - a Jewish folktale with funny, clever illustrations. Ages four or five and up.
The Story of Ferdinand (Leaf) and The Carrot Seed (Krauss), both of which I've mentioned before, can also fall into this category, and are short enough to read to very young children.

Reading the Bible

If you are a Christian, presumably you can think of many reasons to be reading the Bible to your children. Even if you aren't much for religion, there are good reasons to read the Bible aloud with your family. If you don't believe it is divinely inspired, it is still an amazing work of literature, full of spiritual wisdom. Most works of classical literature make allusions to the Bible, and Biblical stories and quotes come up constantly in our culture (for example, people who aren't familiar with the Bible couldn't have understood all the implications of the line in President Obama's inauguration speech where he said we need to 'put aside childish things').

For very small children, there are many lovely picture-book editions of Bible stories. As children get older, choose suitable sections. I wouldn't read young children the story of how King David commits adultery and then arranges the death of the woman's husband, and I can't see myself reading pages of genealogy to kids. But there are many 'kid-friendly' sections even for early elementary listeners - the creation, the story of Noah, and much of the Gospels, for instance - and more for older children. Choose a translation you like - I mostly prefer the King James for its beautiful cadences, even if it is sometimes a bit obscure. Take time to talk to your children about what you believe, and why.

For upper elementary or teens:
Breaking Through, by Jimenez - a memoir of the author's teen years, this tells the story of a Mexican immigrant family. Francisco's family had been migrant farm workers when he was in elementary school, but this book picks up with the family settled, though still doing low-wage farm labor and living without indoor plumbing. In a simple, straight-forward first-person narrative, Francisco paints a picture of what it was like to grow up working hard for everything the family had. He captures the innocence of youth along with the frustrations, and the tone is not bitter - no whining here! The family is briefly deported (his father has a green card, but his mother doesn't, and he and his older brother were born in Mexico), but is able to complete the paperwork to come back legally fairly soon. His dedication to studying and success in school eventually get him scholarships to attend college, and his younger brother agrees to take over the job Francisco had been working to help support the family. A glimpse into another way of life, and a portrait of a realistic, loving family. Grades four or five and up.

Shabanu, by Staples - this is a powerful book, and a peephole into a very different world - the traditional, nomadic culture of Pakistan, where marriages are still arranged by the families, and women have little power. Shabanu is the second daughter, and already, at age twelve, betrothed to a distant cousin, though she is a bit of a tomboy and has a rebellious spirit. When her older sister's betrothed is killed, the family's plans have to be changed, and Shabanu faces marriage to a middle-aged man who already has other wives. There is no magical happy ending to this story, though there is some sense of hope as Shabanu accepts that she will not shame her family, but her husband cannot touch her spirit. The story touches on rape and sex, but doesn't dwell on any details. Nothing would shock a child over ten who has watched primetime TV. Still, I would probably read it to kids of twelve or over. It would be interesting to pair it with Catherine, Called Birdy, by Cushman, about a girl facing an arranged marriage in medieval times, which has a lighter feel and is appropriate for younger children; or with Julie of the Wolves, by George, about an Eskimo girl forced to marry at thirteen, which is also more for teens, and has an ambiguous ending.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

January 2009 - Books about play and families

From "Taking a Reading on Literacy" in The Times of Trenton - see the whole article at http://www.nj.com/living/times/index.ssf?/base/living-1/1226984741286110.xml&coll=5
"Those of us parents who are lifelong readers know how much reading for pleasure can enrich your life. But there are practical reasons for parents to want kids to become readers as well. Kids who read every day for pleasure get better grades in school and earn higher salaries once they're out in the working world, according to the federal Department of Education."
A year ago I started this blog, and I have enjoyed having a reason each month to think about the children's & YA books I loved as a child or parent, and to search out good new books. Last month I became a grandma for the first time, so I have another reason to stay on the lookout for good books!
I think most of us who have managed to raise a child for at least sixteen years or so would agree that when the children were young, we were so busy with the day-to-day issues of work, family, survival, and fun that we felt our children would be children forever. Then, suddenly, one day we realized that this kid was about to be legally an adult, and, for better or worse, loose in the world without our constant oversight. I remember feeling a pang for all the things I meant to teach them or places I meant to take them but never quite got around to.
There is really quite a short window in which you have the chance to help your child establish the skills and habits for success in learning (and thus, opportunities in the working world). By the time s/he is fourteen or fifteen, the demands of friends, hobbies, sports, school, work, and boyfriends/girlfriends will be filling every moment of the day. Make the most of those years between infancy and high school. Turn off the televisions, movies, electronic games, and cell phones. Play games like dominoes and cribbage that teach number skills; sing and play musical instruments; dance, hike, bike, and play soccer; and, of course, read!

Picture books
Not a Stick, by Portis - my older son just gave me this book for Christmas. The text is very short and simple. Pages that show only a child (well, a very simple, line-drawing young pig) holding a stick, and an admonition a grown-up might give a child about a stick ("Be careful with that stick") alternate with pages that show what the child is imagining - stick as paintbrush, stick as baton, stick as spear, etc. Simple and short enough to read with a very young child, but also a good book to read with elementary-age students as a starting point for talking about imaginative play. Ages two and up.

Bedtime for Francis, Bread and Jam for Francis, by Hoban, illustrations by Williams - these books (and a couple other 'Francis' books) were written about fifty years ago, but children really haven't changed, and Francis, who doesn't want to go to bed, and doesn't want to try new foods, still seems very real today. Ages three or four and up.

Only Opal, by Whitely, Boulton & illustrated by Cooney - selections from the diary of an orphan girl living in lumber camps in Oregon about 1905. She refers to her foster mother as 'the mama' and her late parents as 'Angel Mother' and 'Angel Father', and records events in her daily life - chores, her pet mouse, the names she gave her animal friends. In places, the language usage is non-standard because she was very young when she kept the diary. Cooney's trademark lovely watercolor illustrations capture the beauty of the Oregon forest. Ages four or five and up.

It Could Always Be Worse, by Zemach - re-telling of the classic Jewish folktale about the difficulties of a large family living in a small hut - funny, and so, so true! Expressive illustrations with lots of action. Ages three or four and up.

My Great-Aunt Arizona, by Houston, illustrated by Lamb - A little girl is born in the Blue Ridge mountains, and grows up dreaming of the faraway places she reads about in books - but lives her whole life there, becoming a teacher in the one-room schoolhouse, and telling her students they will go to the faraway places she has not seen. Interesting to pair with Miss Rumphius (Cooney). Ages four or five and up.

Albert's Toothache, by Williams, illustrated by Chorao - young turtle Albert tells his mother he has a toothache and needs to stay in bed. No one in his family will believe him (after all, turtles have no teeth) till finally his grandmother arrives and saves the day. The worried mother, the cocky older brother, the smug older sister - like the 'Francis' stories, these are all recognizable family members. Ages four and up.

Also see Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day, by Viorst/Cruz, Ox Cart Man, by Hall/Cooney, Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters, by Steptoe, One Morning in Maine, Blueberries for Sal, and Time of Wonder, by McCloskey.

Winnie-the-Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner, by Milne, illustrations by Shepard - if you've only known the Disney animation Pooh, you may be surprised at the old-fashioned charm of the original stories. The book contains ten chapters, each of which is a self-contained little story, but they do require a child who has enough listening experience to sit still for a while. Ages five and up.

The Indian in the Cupboard, by Banks, and The Return of the Twelves, by Clarke - Stories of children whose toy people (what we might now call 'action figures') come alive. Banks' book is more recent and much more widely known; Clarke's book is one of those forgotten classics for children, based on the stories the Bronte children wrote about their toy soldiers, and might be for a slightly older audience (starting in fourth or fifth grade, rather than third). Both are delightful stories.

The Penderwicks, by Birdsall - just published in 2005, you would think this might have been written thirty years ago. Subtitled 'A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy', this is an old-fashioned story in the sense that it is focused on the three-week summer vacation doings of basically happy, healthy children having children's adventures. This is not to suggest that it is stodgy or preachy or stiff. Each of the children has a distinct, vivid personality, and the story moves along nicely in chapters. The point of view switches from sister to sister without being confusing, and is charming and sweet without ever becoming sacharine. Terrific read-aloud, probably for third grade and up.

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Juster - this classic is sort of a fantasy and sort of a parable, full of wordplay and puns. It starts out with a boy who is BORED with everything - so, of course, he gets pitched into a series of quirky, impossible, bizarre adventures (at one point, he asks for a "light meal" and is treated to a sort of laser show, though the book was written before such a thing existed). Some children will catch on to all the word play, and some won't, but there is enough action to carry the story along anyhow. Try it with fourth graders or so.

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians, by Sanderson - I would be really curious to hear what kids think of this new fantasy, which is sort of a tongue-in-cheek cross between A Series of Unfortunate Events (Snickett) and Harry Potter. In places I thought the author overdid it, but it improved as it went along, and probably some children will find it very funny. I might try it with fourth graders or above.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, & sequels, by Taylor - the story of a black family in the mid-1900's, and growing up in the still-segregated South. Newbery winner. Third or fourth grade & up listeners.

See also classics Pippi Longstocking, by Lindgren, Little House in the Big Woods & sequels, by Wilder, and The Secret Garden and A Little Princess by Burnett.

Middle School
Dark Angel, by Kirby - a story of a Mormon pioneer girl and her sister, and a strange, grim man who saves them from being assaulted by three irresponsible soldiers in the first chapter. The narrator is the younger sister, a bright, sassy, and innocent little girl, but this is not a typical sugar-coated Mormon pioneer story. Polygamy is neither idealized nor demonized. Some readers may be offended by the fact that the little girl makes reference to times when her parents 'make the bed squeak', but that is as close to dealing with sex as it gets. This is a book I think deserves to be more widely-read - an unexpected, vivid, well-told story. Sixth or seventh graders and up.

Homecoming, Dicey's Song, A Solitary Blue, Come a Stranger, Sons from Afar, and Seventeen Against the Dealer, by Voight - I've mentioned the Tillerman books before, but these are all wonderful books about families and growing up - not idealizing, but showing characters who face problems with courage and love for each other. The story starts with Homecoming, and, as with the Harry Potter books, the content and complexity of the later books are more for slightly older audiences. I've read Homecoming to third graders, who liked it, but the others are probably more for fifth graders and up.

The Glass Castle, by Walls - see my last month's notation - for a look at a very dysfunctional family!

Wild Roses, by Deb Caletti - Caletti is a current author popular with teens. This is contemporary realistic fiction, with a mystery subplot, and might be classed as a 'problem' novel, as it deals with both divorce and mental health issues. The main character is a teenage girl whose parents are divorced, and whose mother (a cellist in an orchestra) has re-married, to a famous composer and violinist. Cassie has a pragmatic view of her parents' divorce and a healthy sense of humor, but things begin to get complicated when she falls in love with a boy being coached by her stepfather, who is mentally ill and has gone off his medications because he feels they prevent him from composing.
The teen romance consists of hand-holding and kissing, and one line worded something like '...and what we did there was nobody's business but our own.' I suppose one might take that to suggest they had sex, but nothing else in the book supports that conclusion. If you have teenagers, especially teen girls, they would probably enjoy this book either as a read-aloud, or to read on their own.