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
"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.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What to read to your children December 2008

My family's most lasting Christmas tradition? Each child always gets at least one book.

So why are fewer parents reading to their children?

[ From Echo News, 8:40pm Tuesday 28th October 2008 - See whole article at ]

"READING aloud to children is seen by many as a parent’s duty. But sadly, in today’s time-pressed world it’s one that’s increasingly taking a back seat. Just a third of parents now read aloud to their children every day, with 35 per cent of those who don’t saying they have too much else to do, with 30 per cent saying they’re too tired.

New research by the Book Trust found daily reading aloud with children has decreased over the past two years from 43 per cent of parents of young children in 2006, to just 33 per cent in 2008. In addition, 23 per cent of parents never or rarely read aloud with their children.

Not surprisingly in this modern age, the average four to five year old spends twice as long watching TV as he or she does reading with parents. Yet, one in five children say they don’t read enough with their family. "

Another study recently out associates time children spent with 'media' (TV, video games, internet, etc) with higher rates of obesity, smoking, and early sexual activity. The evidence is fairly clear - it's better for children to have LESS time in front of the TV or video games, and MORE time doing things with their parents.

Picture books for December reading:

Christmas, by Pienkowski - the text for this book is from the King James Bible. It begins with the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, continues through the birth of Jesus, and ends with Joseph taking the family to Egypt. The distinctive illustrations look like black paper cut-out silhouettes of the people, animals and places, set against colorful backgrounds. My favorite may be the one of Mary hanging out laundry when the angel appears to her! The text has initial letters illuminated on each page, like an old Bible, and is decorated with a different symbolic plant on each page: holly, ivy, mistletoe, oak, rose, etc. In our family, we read this book and The Night Before Christmas just before bed on Christmas Eve.

Christmas in the Manger, by Buck, illustrated by Bond - a board book with sweet, simple illustrations, this is a good one for the youngest listeners - age one and up.

Room for a Little One: A Christmas Tale, by Waddell, illustrated by Cockcroft - a kind of 'always room for one more' retelling of the birth of Jesus from the point of view of the animals in the stable, with slightly old-fashioned-looking painting illustrations. Age two and up.

The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree, by Houston, illustrations by Barbara Cooney - One of my favorite Christmas stories - Ruthie and her father pick out a Christmas tree for the church in the spring, and then he is sent off to fight in the war. The war ends, and they get a postcard saying he will be home by Christmas, but on the day before Christmas Eve he still isn't there, so Ruthie and her mother go up the mountain alone in the snow to cut the tree, and then, since there is no money for presents, her mother cuts up her wedding dress to make a doll for Ruthie, and her angel costume for the church Christmas pageant. For four or five year olds and up.

The Mousehole Cat, by Barber, illustrations by Bayley - I mentioned this book with other cat stories a few months ago, but it is set just before Christmas. Winter storms have prevented the fishing boats from going out, and the village people have run out of food. An old fisherman and his cat risk going out in the rough sea to bring in fish for their starving neighbors. Although it is not very "Christmas-y" in the usual ways, it is a story of unselfish heroism, and ends with a joyful feast. Four or five year olds and up.

The Polar Express, by Van Allsburg - after The Night Before Christmas, and possible Suess's How the Grinch Stole Christmas, this must be the best-known children's Christmas story in the country. Van Allsburg's illustrations are not all black and white (as in Jumanji), but the colors are soft, muted, with a night-time feel. A boy travels by train to the North Pole, and when Santa asks what present he would like, chooses just a bell from the harness on Santa's sleigh. When he wakes up on Christmas morning, he finds the bell missing, and thinks it must have been a dream - till the bell reappears mysteriously, but is silent for those who no longer believe. Age three or four and up.

Laughing All the Way, by Sam, illustrated by Sophie Soprano - Just published, this has a story in the tradition of the Grinch, but the pictures are what really shine. Colorful, whimsical, joyful - just plain fun. Age three and up.

by Tomi de Paolo: The Legend of the Poinsettia, The Legend of Old Befana, The Night of Las Posadas, The Friendly Beasts, An Early American Christmas, The Story of the Three Wise Kings - I think there are even more Christmas books by de Paolo, who creates beautiful, stylized illustrations and writes lovely, understated text. These books are good for three or four year olds and up, and the stories come from various folk traditions.

Christmas in Noisy Village, by Lindgren, illustrated by Wikland, translated by Lamborn - a traditional Christmas celebration in Sweden, as told by the author of Pippi Longstocking. Three or four year olds and up. Lindgren's The Tompten, which I think I mentioned in a previous post, is also a nice bedtime story for reading around Christmas.

Christmas Day in the Morning, by Buck, illustrated by Buehner - Buck's classic story about the teenage boy who gets up early, early in the morning to do all the farm chores so his father can sleep in has wonderful pictures in this edition. Read to five or six year olds and up.

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by Wojciechowski, illustrated by Lynch - A Scrooge-like man is transformed after a widow and her little boy ask him to carve a creche. For five or six year olds and up.

For Elementary School Age Children:

The Long Winter, by Wilder - I find this to be the most memorable of all the "Little House" series - a prototypical 'pioneer winter on the Great Plains' story, with danger, privation, blizzards, heroism, and family love. Laura is a teenager, and they are living in the "Little Town" on the prairie. Almanzo is one of the daring young men who venture out for supplies when everyone is running out of everything. Second or third grade and up.

Why the Chimes Rang, by Alden - an old classic Christmas story with a message, longer than most picture books but still short enough to read in one sitting. First or second grade and up.

A Christmas Carol, by Dickens - Dickens' writing is well worth reading aloud, long, long after he wrote this icon of Christmas tradition. Movies and abridged editions aren't bad, but none of them capture the complete flavor of the original. Third or fourth grade and up.

For Young Adults:

The Glass Castle, by Walls - This is an autobiograhical story about growing up (childhood through young adulthood) in a family with (to put it mildly) unconventional parents. Jeannette is the second of four children born to an irresponsible, brilliant, alcoholic father and a self-centered (possibly bipolar) artist mother. You will want to bang the parents' heads together before you are three chapters into the book, and you will marvel at how the children survived. Practically the ONLY things Jeanette's parents did right were to instill a love of reading in the children and give them a chance to be out in nature. Walls writes with almost no self-pity or bitterness, and her sense of humor and the love the four children have for each other helps keep the book from becoming too bleak. I would probably consider reading this to fifth or sixth graders or above, or giving it to high school readers to read themselves (especially if they are feeling like their lives are pretty tough!). There are at least two Christmas chapters - one from when the children were still very young, and their father takes each, individually, out into the night and tells them they can choose any star as their present - and then tells them all about that particular star; and one later, when their father's drinking ruins what might have been the nearest-to-normal Christmas they ever had.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Books to Read Aloud - November 2008

With all the bad news these past few weeks on the economy, reading is looking even better - it is cheap, fun, educational, AND offers you a temporary escape from current events. Reading aloud doesn't require higher processor speeds, additional memory, a more expensive video card, or a new flat-screen. As days get shorter and colder, it is cozy to sit together on a winter evening and enjoy a good story. If you haven't already got one, give yourself the gift of a library card.

Picture books:

The Thanksgiving Story, by Dalgliesh & Sewell - this book was published in 1954, and is the traditional story of the Pilgrims. It follows one family as they leave England, cross the ocean, and begin a new life, surviving the difficult first year. I am particularly fond of the picture of the ship on the dark green ocean - as a child I always thought it looked just like the ocean I knew (in the Pacific northwest). (Age three and up)

Two very different takes on the Bible verses from Ecclesiastes, both beautiful:
Turn, Turn, Turn by Seeger & Halperin - The text is just Pete Seeger's folk song, and the illustrations feature the round earth, and emphasize the cyclical nature of things. It includes a CD with both Pete Seeger's banjo-accompanied version of the song, and the Byrds' rock version.
To Everything There is A Season, by Leo & Diane Dillon - the text is straight from the Bible, and the illustrations show off the Caldecott-winning artist team's skill with different styles, all lovely.

My Grandmother's Journey, by Cech & McGinley-Nally - The story of a grandmother who grew up in Russia, survived the revolution, and walked through World War II, pregnant and then carrying a newborn, to finally immigrate to the US. The pictures are colorful and have a Russian flavor - reminiscent of those nesting dolls. (age four and up)

Grandfather's Journey, by Say - About a Japanese-American family, their love for both their countries, and the feeling of not quite belonging. The illustrations are in soft, faded tones like old photos. (Caldecott award winner - age four and up)

For elementary school or older readers:

My Diary From Here to There, by Perez & Gonzalez - a Mexican girl's experience with moving to the US, brightly illustrated; any child who has had to move to a new place could relate to this story. (Written in both English and Spanish - age five and up)

Fire on the Mountain, by Kurtz & Lewis - a wonderfully illustrated version of the story of the boy who stayed all night on a cold mountain, looking at a candle across the valley (age five and up)

Elijah of Buxton, by Curtis - (historical fiction; Newbery honor book) this is in many ways an "old-fashioned" story about the life of a twelve-year-old boy in the mid 1800's, with touches of humor (Elijah is gullible), but Elijah is a free black, growing up just over the Canadian border in a community of escaped slaves and their children. Elijah is afraid of snakes, and timid about a number of things, but his courage is tested by the end of the story. Don't let the humorous tone of the beginning fool you - the last quarter of the book deals with some of the grim realities of what happened to runaway slaves, or even free blacks, in pre-Civil War America. It is not generally graphic (the violence is mostly "off screen"), but there are scenes of death. Elijah manages to bring one small triumph out of tragedy in an ending that definitely isn't "and they all lived happily every after". Probably fourth or fifth grade and up, though some middle school-age kids may initially feel that the book is "too young" for them. I highly recommend this one as a family or classroom read-aloud - it is the kind of book not many kids might pick up on their own, but it is a story that will stay with you.

House of Many Ways, by Diana Wynn Jones - (fantasy) Just out, this book says it is a sequel to Howl's Moving Castle, but it can easily stand on its own, and most of the characters from the previous book don't even show up till the second half. The two main characters are a boy and girl who are very realistic early teenagers, flaws, talents, and all. Like many of Jones' books, this one has a humorous tone and gives some twists to the conventions of fantasy. It should appeal to fans of the early Harry Potter books. Fourth grade and up.

For teens:

The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Speare - (historical fiction) This book is a classic now. It is the story of Kit Tyler, who has been raised and spoiled by her grandfather in the Barbados, and must, on his death, go to Puritan Massachusets colony to live with her aunt, uncle and cousins. It is a story that works on several levels - Kit's adjustment to the different culture, her coming of age and learning to work hard and care for others, some mixed-up romances that work out for the best, and a look at prejudice, religious intolerance, and the witch scares of the times. Memorable, distinct characters, a window into Puritan life, and well-crafted writing make this one worth re-reading. Fifth grade and up.

Chalice, by Robin McKinley - (fantasy) Joy! Robin McKinley has a new book out! This is classic McKinley - a well-written fantasy with a heroine who is trying to save her "prince", and a happy ending. In some respects, you might almost see this story as yet another "Beauty and the Beast", but it is an original "fairy tale". The main character is an ordinary young bee-keeper who has suddenly been thrust into a position of great responsibility in the governing of her country, at a time of upheaval and looming disaster. Bees and honey play an important role in the story, which is laced with a sort of earth magic. There is a creepy villain (or two), and true love (but no sex), and not much violence. I think I would try this one with fourth graders or up, certainly with sixth graders or higher.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Reading to Children: October 08 - Horse Stories, Mostly

"Kids who come to kindergarten and first grade with rich language experiences—language play, rhymes, and being read to from birth onward—have a deeper awareness of how 
language and reading works. Studies suggest that children without such backgrounds have an increased risk of reading difficulties." - from "The Mystery of the Struggling Reader" by Mike Knight,

... but if your kids missed the pre-school experience of being read to, you can still give them a boost by starting now. The year I taught third grade, one of my biggest pleasant surprises came from several "resource" students who started the year reading at about first grade level, but finished almost on grade level, after a school year of a half-hour a day of silent and/or assisted reading aloud, and a half hour a day of listening while I read aloud.
Just today I read an e-mail from a new student in my on-line ninth-grade English class. She is a senior making up a quarter of ninth grade English, and she tells me she hasn't read a book since ninth grade, and hasn't been required to read a book for any of her classes in her first three years of high school. And we wonder why test scores don't rise?
Of course the schools have a role and a responsibility in getting kids reading, but as a parent, you have a greater responsibility for your kids' education. Your children see your priorities on a daily basis, and care more about your regard and opinions than about their teachers'. Along with everything you do to keep their bodies strong and healthy, nourish their minds with lots of reading!

Picture Books About Horses

Horses of Dreamland, by Duncan & Diamond - a short bedtime story in rhyme about "a child who dreams of horses" and her dream adventures. The illustrations are beautiful rather than cute, some in dreamy watercolors, some using silhouettes of horses, mountains, and mesas. This book seems to be out of print, but if you have a little horse-lover it is worth searching for used. Ages three and up.

The Sleep Ponies, by Ongman - soft watercolor illustrations showing cute ponies and children in meadows - a bedtime story, the basic concept is similar to Horses of Dreamland, but it is carried out quite differently. Ages two or three and up.

Snow Ponies, by Cotten & Cockcroft - When Old Man Winter lets his snow ponies out of the barn, they gallop over the countryside leaving everything white - a well-illustrated, magical story. Ages three and up.

Snow Riders, by McGeorge & Whyte - After a big snowstorm, a brother and sister build snow horses instead of snowmen - and that night, the horses come to life and carry them on a ride through the winter night. Wonderful illustrations - the night time pictures have deep, rich colors in the background, in contrast to the bright-white horses. Ages three or four and up.

Billy and Blaze, by Anderson - now a classic, C.W. Anderson's first picture book of several about a boy and his horse. The illustrations (pencil?) are typical of all Anderson's books - the horses (along with everything else) are drawn in impeccable, loving detail, and look absolutely real, ready to step off the page. K-3rd grade.

The Gift of the Sacred Dog, by Goble - a re-telling of a native American story about how the first horses were given to people, when a boy acted unselfishly. Like all Goble's books, this one has his distinctive, stylized, brightly colored illustrations, any one of which I would love to frame and hang on my wall. If you like this one, see also Goble's The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses, and, for that matter, all his other books. Age five and up.

For elementary school listeners:
(see also A Ride on the Red Mare's Back, by LeGuin, in a previous post)

The Superlative Horse, by Merrill & Solbert - a picture book, but with more text than most, this one is based on a Chinese folk tale and has lovely, Chinese-style illustrations - about a peasant boy who becomes the emperor's "Chief Groom" because of his skill and integrity. I think it is out of print, but available used. For first or second graders and up.

Mrs. Mack, by Polacco - another longer picture book, autobiographical, about how the author learned to ride and the woman who taught her (and many others) horsemanship. First or second graders up.

Horses Across America, by Mellin - nonfiction picture book, this one mixes some history and geography with an introduction to common breeds of horses in the US. A mixture of black and white drawings and color paintings, but all beautiful and accurate. Also out of print. Second graders and up.

Classic Horse Stories: Smoky the Cowhorse, by Will James; The Black Stallion by Walter Farley; National Velvet, by Bagnold; Black Beauty, by Sewell (there is also an excellent abridged edition, abridged by Robin McKinley and with illustrations by Susan Jeffers); My Friend Flicka (NOT to be confused with the movie(s) of the same title) by O'Hara, and the two sequels; and the Marguerite Henry historical fiction horse books, including King of the Wind, Misty of Chincoteague, Brighty of the Grand Canyon, Black Gold, Justin Morgan Had a Horse, and two of my favorites of her lesser-known works, Gaudenzia: Pride of the Palio, and Born to Trot.

The Far-Distant Oxus, by Hull & Whitlock - written by two teenage girls in the 1930's, this is the story of several children on summer holiday in England farm country, a summer in which they each have a pony to ride. If you have ever read Swallows and Amazons, by Ransome, this book does with ponies what Ransome's books did with sailboats. Amazingly, it seems to be back in print, in paperback. Wonderful, old-fashioned fun. Read to third or fourth graders and up.

The Silver Brumby, and The Snow Filly, by Mitchell - The Snow Filly is the first full-length book I can remember really coming alive for me to read myself. I was in third grade. Coming back to them as an adult, I was afraid I might be disappointed, but I wasn't. Mitchell's love and knowledge of the Australian mountains shine through in her fluid writing, and the wild horses make wonderful characters. Third graders and up.

Afraid to Ride, by Anderson - a horse-crazy girl who has been thrown and badly frightened is paired with an abused Thoroughbred jumper, and gradually they heal each other. This book was written long before the fad for "animal rescue" stories came along, but it is realistic and optimistic - and since it is by CW Anderson, it also has some lovely illustrations. Fourth graders and up.

Fly-By-Night, by Peyton - set in Great Britain, a girl without much money acquires a green pony, and the two of them learn (sometimes the hard way) enough to have fun together, and join a local Pony Club. Well-written, with strong characters and realistic action, plot and subplot, this is a delightful "a girl and her horse" story. Fourth grade up. The sequel, The Team, is also excellent.

For Teens:

The Horsecatcher by Sandoz - Newbery honor book, historical fiction about a Cheyenne boy, maybe in the early 1800's or late 1700's. Young Elk's father and older brother are important hunters and warriors in the tribe, and he is expected to follow in their footsteps, but what he truly wants is to be a horsecatcher and trainer. This is a wonderful coming-of-age story about how he learns to follow his own heart, but in the end makes a personal sacrifice for the good of his people. Sandoz researched the Cheyenne culture extensively, and the bits about horses are realistic and believable. I remembered this story well from when I read it as a child. Can work as a read-aloud for about fourth or fifth graders and up.

Three of Robin McKinley's wonderful fantasies include significant equine characters - Beauty, The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown. I couldn't live without any of them, and although the main characters in all three are girls, my boys loved these books, too. The Blue Sword is a sort of distant sequel to The Hero and the Crown, but it really doesn't matter in which order you read them.

Not on a White Horse, by Springer - realistic fiction, about a twelve-year-old girl from a tough community. Her father's been laid off and drinking, her pretty teenage sister runs off to marry a boyfriend, and of course they can't afford a horse for Rhiannon. The way things work out is optimistic but believable.

Flambards, by Peyton - set in England in the early 1900's. Christina is sent to live with her uncle and cousins in the country, and introduced to foxhunting. This well-written book isn't so much about horses, but horses play in important role. It also has at least two sequels.

My Horses, My Teachers, by Podhajsky - nonfiction, autobiographical - the author remembers the horses he has known and learned from over a lifetime that led him to be head of the famous Spanish Riding School and the Lippizan stallions. Fascinating for serious horse-lovers, especially if they have had some experience actually riding or training horses.

The Man Who Listens to Horses, by Roberts - autobiographical, although there is some question about whether some of it is fictionalized. Skip the introduction, as the person who wrote that either doesn't know much about the history of horsemanship or chose to disregard it. Whether it is 100% true or not, this is an interesting story about one of the most famous living horsemen in the US and his experiences and ideas about training horses.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Reading to Children - September 2008

New Research Shows Hope for Dyslexic or Poor Readers
Two recent studies using brain imaging (MRI) found that the brains of children who were having trouble reading actually changed and became like the brains of normal readers in the course of intensive remedial training. Children with reading problems can be helped - most dyslexia does not have to be a lifelong problem. One of the studies focused specifically on how children process the sounds of oral language, as this is one of the causes of reading difficulties. The study did not specifically look at reading aloud, but it seems very likely that more practice at listening will help children who have these difficulties. (Note that these children did not have problems with hearing, but with understanding or processing what they heard.) These articles are available at - "Learn to Read Through Sound" dated May 1, 2008, and "Remedial Instruction ReWires Dyslexic Brains" dated August 7, 2008.

Picture books:

A Visitor for Bear, by Becker, illustrated by Denton - My brother told me his two year old likes this book, which has perfect pictures to go with the story of a grumpy, reclusive bear and the irrepressible mouse who keeps ignoring the "no visitors" sign, and all the bear's objections, till the bear finally discovers that he really does enjoy company, after all. Funny & sweet, with just the right amount of repetition, this is a new book you won't mind reading over and over again. Age two and up.

Millions of Cats, by Gag - first published in 1928, this is one of the oldest of my favorites. It is a tall tale of sorts, about a man who sets out to get his lonely wife a cat, and ends up bringing home... "hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats" because he can't decide which one is prettiest. When he asks the cats to choose which one is prettiest, a fight ensues, and when the old man and his wife venture back outside, they find only one frightened kitten hiding - which, of course, turns out to be the perfect cat for them. It has simple, black and white illustrations. Besides just being a clever story, any child who grows up reciting the repeated lines about how many cats there are will never have trouble remembering the order of the place values in numbers! Age two and up.

Mrs. Crump's Cat, by Smith, illustrated by Roberts - another fairly new book, 2006, with a theme similar to A Visitor for Bear. Color pictures are somewhat stylized, but the expressions of the characters are priceless. Irritable Mrs. Crump has no use for cats, and finds them sneaky, finicky, and troublesome... but somehow she lets the wet stray cat on her doorstep in one evening. Ages three and up.

The Boy Who Drew Cats, by Levine, illustrated by Clement - This story is based on a rather spooky Japanese folk tale, and the pictures are beautiful, perfect for the story. Kenji is a boy who loves to draw, and he is forced to leave his monastery after he is discovered drawing instead of working. Lost, he ends up spending the night in an old temple that has been abandoned because the King of Rats has taken it. Kenji fills some blank screens with drawings of cats, and wakes in the morning to find his cats have magically defeated the King of Rats, the temple safe again, and the villagers grateful. Ages four and up.

Wendell, by Nones - Wendell the cat keeps getting into trouble because none of the humans in the house can see the little gremlins who do things like knocking a fork off the table, moving Dad's reading glasses, or moving the TV antenna. He gets put outside till a mouse shows up - and then gets to chase both the mouse and all the gremlins out of the house. Ages four and up.

Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: A Message from Chief Seattle, illustrated by Jeffers - The text of this book is a translation of Chief Seattle's famous speech about loving the land, and the pictures are Susan Jeffer's softly colored illustrations. This may be her most beautiful book, and the words are suitable for bedtime reading or to spur a discussion about conservation. Ages three and up.

The Sons of the Dragon King, by Young - based on a Chinese legend, this is a story about how each of the very different nine sons of the Dragon King first gets into trouble, and then finds a way to use his talent for the good of the people. The illustrations are a nice mix of traditional-looking and more modern styles, but all with a strong Chinese flavor. Ages four and up.

For Elementary-School Age and Above:
The Book of Bad Ideas, by Huliska-Beith - This is a picture book, and not terribly long, but pre-schoolers might miss most of the humor. The illustrations are very brightly-colored, and text is written in an unusual, sort of hand-written-looking font. It starts out with "Bad Idea #134: Rollerblading with your dog even though he flunked out of obedience school" and a picture of the dog in hot pursuit of a cat and towing a girl on rollerblades, and it goes on from there with lots more bad ideas and their amusing results. Kindergarten or first grade and up. (A fun writing project might be to try to create more "bad ideas".)

Catwings, by Leguin - a chapter book with quite a few pictures about a litter of kittens who are born with wings, and so don't fit in with either cats or birds. There are three sequels. These make good books for kids who are "in between" picture books and longer books, and Leguin's writing is well-crafted. Read aloud to first graders and up.

The Cat Who Went to Heaven, by Coatsworth - first published in 1930, this re-telling of a Japanese folk tale is still a good story about being rewarded for compassion. There are at least two different illustrated versions, both of which are very nice. Like The Boy Who Drew Cats, this is also a story about an artist, but they are quite different. Read to first or second graders and up.

It's Like This, Cat, by Neville - a quiet kind of story, but very well-written, about a teenage boy growing up in New York City with, yes, a cat for a pet. This book is a Newbery winner, and the kind of book your child might not pick on his/her own, but is likely to enjoy (and re-read later) if you read it aloud. For listeners fourth grade or above.

For Teens:
Tailchaser's Song by Williams and The Wild Road by King - both fantasy with cats as the main characters, and a cut above many YA fantasies in the quality of the writing. These are also both quite long, and they might be candidates for you reading the first quarter, and then letting kids finish on their own - but you might enjoy the story enough that you won't want to stop. Read to seventh graders and up.

Rose Daughter by McKinley - Robin McKinley's SECOND novelization of "Beauty and the Beast", this one is quite different from the first (Beauty). I wouldn't want to have to choose between them - both are wonderful - but this one is a little more complex and nuanced, requiring a little more mature reader (no, there isn't any "inappropriate" content, but it is just not quite as easy to follow). Read to sixth or seventh graders and up.

The Book Thief by Zusak - a Prinz Award winner. You may think you have read enough books set in WW II Germany, but make room on your shelf for this one. The first few pages are a little difficult, but persevere. The main character, Liesel, is a foster child who starts out the story at eight years old, not yet able to read, but having a book she stole. Some readers might find it distressing that characters (including the foster mother) refer to each other with German terms most of us would regard as vulgar, but try to get past that. This is an important book, one that deals with many issues of love, loyalty, friendship, courage, integrity, compassion - and, yes, the importance of reading, words, and books. It is never preachy, and never predictable, but it shows ordinary people making extraordinary choices. Read it to fifth or sixth graders and above.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

August 2008 Suggestions for Reading Aloud

It's the "dog days" of summer, so named originally because the "dog star", Sirius, rose around sunrise at this time of year. It's also the last month of summer, and we are inundated with advertising reminding us that school will be starting again soon, for those on a traditional school calendar. If your children have put off doing assigned "summer reading", why not jump-start them by reading the first part of the book aloud together? If you haven't already started reading aloud regularly, this time of getting ready for the change in family routine to accommodate school schedules is a good time to establish a new routine. Most American children aren't getting to bed early enough to get as much sleep as they need. Use an evening reading time to get them to unwind and settle down for an earlier bedtime.

Dog Stories for Preschoolers:

Where's Spot? , by Hill - for really young children (under three), this is a simple, cute story with heavier-weight pages and a little flap to lift on each page as Spot's mother goes looking for him.

Good Dog, Carl, by Day - a funny, mostly-wordless picture book about what happens when the dog is left to tend the baby. Age two and up.

A Boy, a Dog and a Frog, by Mayer - a wordless picture book with really detailed drawings. A boy and his dog set out one day to try to catch a frog, but have a series of cartoon-style misses and finally give up and go home - but in the end, the frog follows their wet footprints and jumps into the bathtub with them. Age three and up.

The Dog Prince, by Mills, illustrated by Nolan - a spoiled, selfish prince offends an old woman, who turns him into a hound, and a hound he stays as he learns some manners from a goat girl and eventually defends her goats in a completely unselfish heroic act. Lovely, traditional watercolor pictures complement the traditional, fairy-tale tone of the story. Age four and up.

No Roses for Harry, by Zion - another story about Harry the Dirty Dog, this time about an unwanted gift - a doggie "sweater" with roses on it, which Harry is embarrassed to wear in public. Age three and up.

Dog stories for elementary to middle school listeners:
Lots of classics:

Lassie Come-Home, by Knight - the original story of the beautiful collie who escapes from her aristocrat owner to return to the poor family she loves. There is also a beautifully illustrated, abridged edition, abridged by Rosemary Wells and illustrated by Susan Jeffers. The original version is probably for second or third grade or above listeners, the abridged version for first grade or higher. This is the rare dog story with a happy ending.
Old Yeller, by Gipson - combination pioneer story and dog story; told in first person by Travis, a teenage boy who is trying to be the man of his pioneer family on the Texas frontier while his father is away temporarily and a stray "no-account" yellow dog shows up. One of those books that will make you laugh in some places and cry in others. It has a sequel, Savage Sam, which has fallen out of favor, I suppose because the plot turns on a portrayal of the Indians as savage kidnappers. Third or fourth grade and up.
Big Red, by Kjelgaard - starring an Irish setter (a valuable show dog belonging to a wealthy neighbor) and the teenage boy Danny, this is another story about the loyalty of a good dog to his master. Kjelgaard wrote many other dog stories, including some sequels to this one (Irish Red and Outlaw Red) and one about a greyhound called Desert Dog. Third or fourth grade up.
Other dog classics: Beautiful Joe, by Saunders (an early novel about the abuse of dogs), The Incredible Journey by Burnford (a lab, a bull terrier, and a cat travel across Canada to find their humans), Where the Red Fern Grows, by Rawls (a boy and a pair of coonhounds in the Ozarks), Bristleface, by Ball (see my July post), The Call of the Wild and White Fang, by London (sled dogs in Alaska), Lad: A Dog, and sequels, by Terhune (collies), and Finn the Wolfhound by Dawson (Irish Wolfhound, first in England and then in the wilds of Australia). Finn the Wolfhound is a bit longer and probably best for fifth grade or above listeners.

Ajax, Golden Dog of the Australian Bush, by Patchett - old enough to be a classic, but not as well-known as the others, perhaps partly because it is by an Australian author. This is a book about a GIRL and her loyal dog, and their adventures in the Australian bush. It also has a happy ending. I loved this book when I was in upper elementary school, and I recently bought a hard-back copy off Ebay. For third or fourth grade and up.

Stone Fox, by Gardiner - this is a fairly short book, but the end packs a real punch. Willie decides he must train his dog, Searchlight, to win the annual sled dog race so that he can use the prize money to save his grandfather's Wyoming potato farm. However, he will be competing against the native American Stone Fox whose team of Samoyeds has never lost. Guaranteed tear-jerker, to read to third graders or above.

My Life in Dog Years, by Paulsen - autobiographical stories about eight different dogs from Gary Paulsen's life. Also by Paulsen: Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod, and Dogsong, and several other books featuring dogs.

No More Dead Dogs, by Korman - only peripherally a dog story, this recent, funny contemporary book is about a middle-school boy in trouble because he doesn't want anything to do with reading another book where the dog dies in the end - yet he ends up reluctantly involved with staging a play based on that book, and, from the teacher's point of view, creating mayhem along the way. Korman's humor makes his books popular with kids - read aloud to fourth or fifth grade and up.

Because of Winn-Dixie, by Dicamillo - I haven't seen the movie, but the book is sweet and funny. Opal is the only child of a preacher (her mother is long gone), and lonely because they just moved to a new town, when she spontaneously claims a big, hairy dog who is bouncing through the local grocery story. Third grade and up.

For older readers -
Dogsbody, by Jones - a fantasy and dog story with a sense of humor. Sirius, a kind of seemingly immortal being, is unjustly accused and punished by being turned into a puppy on Earth. To regain his proper form, he must perform a nearly impossible task within the limitations of his dog body. For sixth grade or above listeners.

Bandit: The Heart-Warming True Story of One Dog's Rescue from Death Row, by Hearne (This may be a re-issue or revision of the book titled Bandit: The Dossier of a Dangerous Dog) - Vicki Hearne, a dog and horse trainer and university philosophy professor, is at her best when she is telling stories about the animals she has trained. Some of her ideas are too complex for younger readers, but a bright teen who is interested in animals will really enjoy this one. If so, next try Hearne's book Animal Happiness. Probably for eighth grade or above.

All Creatures Great and Small, by Herriot - autobiographical, stories of starting his career as a vet in rural England, this book is not specifically about dogs, but all sorts of animals. It is full of self-deprecating humor and real incidents from his experiences. There are also sequels. Fifth or sixth grade and up.

Deerskin, by McKinley - the darkest of Robin McKinley's fairy tale novelizations, the main character in this book is a princess whose father decides to marry her - so early in the book is an incident of sexual abuse of a teenage girl. It is not detailed or particularly graphic, but you should read it yourself and decide whether it is something you would want to share with your teenager. Once you get past that, the rest of the book is about how the girl and her dog (and eventually, a whole pack of dogs, since she becomes a kennel worker in the realm of a neighboring kingdom) heal physically and emotionally. Although it is grim in the first third of the story, I find it ultimately uplifting, an affirmation of how the human spirit can rise above horror with love.

Friday, June 13, 2008

More Books to Read Aloud - July 2008

Keep your children interested in reading after age eight!
Excerpt from news report on, June 13, 2008: "There's a decline of reading as children age. And it's kind of a drop off at the age of 8," said Patrick Muir with Shadow Mountain Publishing. He says the survey [by Scholastic] discovered the problem wasn't TV, music or social life. "One of the key reasons they found is [that children] have difficulty finding books that they like," he said.

Age EIGHT??? That's about the age kids are just starting to read independently - and they are already losing interest? How are they ever going to improve enough to read at a college level?

It's right around the time children turn eight years old that most parents and teachers stop reading aloud to them. ~ After all, by then the kids know how to read themselves.~ Why keep reading aloud to them? One big reason is that you will help your children continue to find GOOD books - books they will want and like to read themselves. (Also, incidentally, books and authors that you chose - important if you want your children reading things that reflect your values.) here are more of my suggestions:

Picture books:
It's really summer now!
I am Eyes (Ni Macho) by Ward, illustrated by Hogrogian - very simple, brief text with lovely color (watercolor?) pictures - a child in Kenya wakes up and lists things she sees throughout the day - for age two and up
Oh Lord, I Wish I was a Buzzard by Greenberg, illustrated by Aliki - a child in Mississippi helps her (sharecropper?) father pick cotton on a long, hot summer day, and keeps wishing she was a dog, or buzzard, or snake, or butterfly, that didn't have to work in the hot sun - brief, repetitive text, for age two and up.
Time of Wonder, by McCloskey - an older Caldecott book, a nostalgic look back at summers spent on an island off Maine, with color pictures; or
One Morning in Maine, by McCloskey - same author/illustrator, same setting, but black & white drawings with more of a story line - this one follows Sal through the day on which she loses her first tooth - digging clams, taking the motorboat to the village, getting an ice cream cone, and feeling grown-up because she is losing her baby teeth. Age three and up
... and while we're doing Robert McCloskey, my favorite of his:
Blueberries for Sal, by McCloskey - Sal and her mother go picking blueberries up one side of a hill at the same time a mother bear and her cub are eating blueberries up the other side of the hill... wonderful drawings and a memorable story. Age three and up.
One Grain of Sand - A Lullaby, by Seeger, illustrated by Wingerter - exceptionally beautiful illustrations for a simple, sweet lullaby by Pete Seeger. The tune is written out at the beginning in case you want to sing it, but sung or read, a wonderful bedtime story for ages eighteen months and up.
Harry, the Dirty Dog, by Zion, illustrated by Graham - another older book, about Harry, a white dog with black spots who runs away from home to avoid taking a bath, and gets so dirty he is a black dog with white spots... and when he goes home, no one recognizes him, and he ends up begging for a bath. Age two and up
How the Sun was Brought Back to the Sky, by Ginsburg, illustrated by Aruego & Dewey - a folk tale about how the chicks and their animal friends bring back the sun after days of dark clouds; bright, cute pictures. Age three and up.
What You Know First, by MacLachlan, illustrated by Moser - a little girl doesn't want to leave her prairie home when her family is moving, and starts by telling how she will stay by herself, but ends by deciding what to take with her to remember, and to show her baby brother about where he was born. Illustrated with beautiful engravings. Probably age four and up.

Longer stories for middle elementary and up:
A White Heron, by Jewett, illustrated by Cooney - too long to be really a picture book, but with illustrations on most pages - a shy Maine farm girl meets a nice young man who is hunting for a white heron. She wants to please her new friend, but in the end, she does not tell him where to find the heron. First or second grade up.
Two that are politically incorrect in parts, but still fun to read (to grades two and up) if you don't mind that:
Mary Poppins, by Travers - the prim, strict but magical governess, in the original, authentic version, and...
Doctor Doolittle, by Lofting - the doctor who can speak to animals (including some that you won't find outside the pages of these books, like the push-me-pull-you that has a head on both ends) and his unlikely adventures.

Homecoming, by Voight - realistic fiction; it's summer on the east coast in the 70's when Dicey's mother packs up the four children to go to an aunt's house in another state - and then walks into a mall and doesn't come back out. The father is long gone. Dicey decides to take her sister and two brothers on to their destination, on foot, with only about fifty dollars to buy food along the way. This is a wise, sad, but ultimately optimistic book about family love, determination, and facing responsibility. It is a long book, but the times I have read it aloud, the children listening loved it. It is the first of several books about the Tillerman family and their friends. Third or fourth grade up.

Bristleface, by Ball - dog story, set in the South in the early 1900's; this is a story in the tradition of Where the Red Fern Grows, about the love between an orphan boy and a hunting dog, but with humor as a bonus. There are some really funny scenes in this book, along with a real tearjerker. It is certainly one of my favorite dog stories. Third grade up.

Kim, by Kipling - historical fiction, set in India during the time of the British empire, I suppose there are some politically incorrect bits in this book, too, but it is a grand adventure, following the orphan boy Kim as he survives by his wits, and picks up a piece-meal education, alternately employed by players of "the Great Game" (the British spy network), and following a devout holy man on a pilgrimage to enlightenment. Fourth or fifth grade up.

For teens:
The Arm of the Starfish, by L'Engle - part spy thriller, and a small part science fiction; Adam, just out of high school, has a summer job working for a famous scientist (Calvin O'Keefe, from A Wrinkle in Time)on an island off Europe. The lab is working on figuring out how starfish are able to regenerate body parts that have been cut off, and , secretly, on beginning to apply the technique to humans. In the airport on his way there, Adam is contacted by a beautiful girl about his age, Kali, who tells him Dr. O'Keefe is working with "the wrong people", and that Kali's father is trying to prevent the scientist's work from falling into evil hands. Adam must figure out who is really on the right side in a confusing life-and-death struggle. Although this book is not as well-known as A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels, this one is my favorite of L'Engle's work. As in many of her books, the themes of real love, selflessness, and forgiveness play a big part. Probably for seventh grade up.

The Blue Sword, by McKinley - fantasy, Newbery honor book; Harry, a teen-age orphaned tomboy, leaves her home to join her brother at a military desert outpost, on the edge of a frontier inhabited by mysterious nomads who ride fabulous horses and whose rulers are reputed to have magical powers. When the desert king, Corlath, comes to warn the military commander that they have a common enemy who is about to invade, his warning is ignored, but his "kelar" (magical instinct) tells him Harry is important, and so he kidnaps her and takes her far out into the desert. This is a beautifully-written and exciting story that has plenty of action for boys even though the main character is a girl. Sixth grade up. It is, VERY loosely speaking, a sort of sequel to The Hero and the Crown, but is set hundreds of years later and you can read either book independent of the other. This one is somewhat easier to follow, so if you are reading to kids under thirteen or fourteen, I'd read this one first.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Books to Read Aloud - June 2008

Summer vacation is here (although you can't tell by our weather), and most kids are out of school for two or three months - a great time to catch up on reading for fun! Make weekly trips to the library to choose books to read, and take a little more time to read to your kids on these long summer evenings, or on a hot afternoon when they can sip lemonade while they listen.
Often children or teens will want to re-read a book you have read aloud to them, or an old favorite they have read before. Sometimes parents worry that this is a waste of time, but actually, re-reading is a great way to build up reading fluency and speed. If a child ONLY wants to read one book, over and over, you might want to encourage him to try something else in addition to the favorite - and remember, one of the best ways to do that is to read something new out loud to him!

Picture Books:
The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Carle - not really a natural history lesson (though the caterpillar does turn into a butterfly at the end), but a colorful, fun counting book - a classic that doesn't seem to ever go out of print, for two-year-olds and up.
The Windigo's Return, by Wood, illustrated by Couch - an Ojibwe tale that explains the origins of mosquitoes, with lovely, sometimes almost batik-like, illustrations. The Windigo is a man-eating monster who must be trapped - maybe a little scary for some little ones, so use your judgment - for three or four year olds and up.
The Legend of the Whale, by Stansfield - this reads like a folktale, and the illustrations are brightly-colored, stylized paintings with an aboriginal feel to them, but it is actually an original story that explains the origin of the whale in a kind of allegory about peace. I often find myself irritated at children's stories with a "message", but this one has enough fun details to win me over. A bit long for really young children - probably good for four & up.
Miss Rumphius, by Cooney - Miss Alice Rumphius wanted to travel to faraway places and then come back to live by the sea - and her grandfather told her she must also do something to make the world more beautiful. This story has been criticized by some because it tells how she planted lupine seeds around her community (ie, bringing in possibly "invasive species"), but it is truly a classic, wonderfully written and illustrated. When your children are older, you might want to discuss reasons it might not be a good idea to spread around plants that aren't native - but for now, enjoy the story! Short enough to read to a three year old, meaningful enough to read with elementary children, or even teens.
Once There Was A Tree, by Romanova, illustrated by Spirin - originally written in Russian, and translated into English - an old tree is struck by lightning and then cut down for firewood. The story follows what happens to the stump, as it is used by insects, animals, and eventually decays and a new tree grows. It is both a natural history story, and a rumination on philosophy - who does the tree stump belong to? The illustrations are delicate and intricately detailed. For three and up.
The Bee-Man of Orn, by Stockton, illustrated by Lynch in this oversized picture-book, but available in various editions - as picture books go, this is quite a long story, and the sly humor would go right over the heads of young children, although they might enjoy the story anyway. I'd try it with second graders and up.

Survival Stories for Elementary & Middle School-Age Children

Hatchet, by Paulsen - probably now the best-known survival tale for kids, this is about a boy who is in a small plane over the Canadian wilderness when the pilot dies of a heart attack. Brian must survive months waiting for rescue. Realistic fiction, listening for third grade and up. (There are also sequels.)
Swiss Family Robinson, by Wyss - though dated in some ways, this classic is still a good read with a little "suspension of disbelief". A family is ship-wrecked on an island with exotic animals and plants, and they begin to build a life for themselves using supplies retrieved from the wreck, and resources they find on the island. (The tree-house home alone is worth reading the book for!) Third grade and up.
Island of the Blue Dolphins, by O'Dell - historical fiction, based on an actual incident - a native American girl is accidentally left behind on the island where she has been raised when the rest of the tribe leaves. She must find food, maintain shelter, make clothes, and conquer loneliness as she grows up all alone. A classic that still stands up to expectations, well worth sharing - third or fourth grade up.
The Sign of the Beaver, by Speare - historical fiction, set in early Maine - a twelve-year-old boy's adventures when he is left to take care of the family's cabin while his father goes to get the rest of the family, and is befriended by a local native American boy. Third or fourth grade up.
Julie of the Wolves, by George - a thirteen year old Eskimo girl runs away from her village when she is told to marry an older boy, and learns to survive and become accepted by a wolf pack. There is a scene early in the book where the older boy knocks her down and attempts to rape her, but a child who didn't already know about sex wouldn't realize that was what was going on, since it is implied rather than described. The information about the wolves is scientifically-based (the author is from a family of naturalists/biologists), and the book is well-written and haunting. The ending is ambiguous - did she choose to go back to civilization or not? There is a sequel. Fifth or sixth grade and up.
Touching Spirit Bear, by Mikaelsen - realistic fiction - a violent teen juvenile delinquent who has not been improved by previous punishments is sent to live alone on an island off Alaska, where his anger management problems get him into more trouble, but there is no one to blame it on but himself. This book has been a favorite of some of my teen students. I'd try it for sixth graders and up.

One you might want to read with teens...
Life as We Knew It, by Pfeffer - realistic fiction, except that it is set in the VERY near future after the moon is knocked closer to the earth by an asteroid - setting up for floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, and the breakdown of society and government. The main character, Miranda, is an average tenth grader before the disasters, wondering if she will ever be asked out, living just outside a small town in Pennsylvania. None of the spectacular disasters occur where she lives, but until the power and radio stations go out, a few months into the story, we hear about the news. Gas gets terribly expensive and eventually unobtainable, food gets scarcer and scarcer, and the weather turns terribly cold. The ending is optimistic, but much of the story is quite frightening, especially set against the general anxiety these days about gas prices and climate change. If your teen is a worrier, you might want to skip this book. On the other hand, it is a gripping and powerful story, in the main believable, and shows Miranda maturing and becoming responsible rather than self-centered.

...and one you probably DON'T want to read with your teen -
How I Live Now, by Rosoff - don't get me wrong, I really liked this book in many ways, but I wouldn't want to read it aloud to my children. You need to know, right up front, that two of the main characters are teen-age cousins who fall in love and have sex. No, it is NOT graphically described, but it is happening. The main character, Daisy, is an American girl not getting along well with her father and stepmother, and is sent to England to spend the summer with an aunt and cousins she has never met. She immediately likes them all, and within days her aunt leaves on what is supposed to be a weekend trip, but a war breaks out. Daisy and her cousins are fending for themselves on the farm without adult help or supervision. At first it seems idyllic, since the war doesn't impinge on the farm for a while, but then the farm is commandeered by the army, and the teens are sent off to live with other families - the girls to one place, the boys to another. A subtle sub-plot is that Daisy is anorexic, but that is one of the things she matures out of in the course of the book. It doesn't sound like an appealing book, but Daisy's narrative voice captured me in the first couple pages, and never faltered. I was completely swept into her world. If you find the fact of the sexual relationship to be objectionable, you probably don't want your teen reading this book. As an adult reading it, I loved the book.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

More Books to Read Aloud - May 2008

From the BBC website, April 10, 2008:
Less than half of fathers regularly read bedtime stories to their children, research has suggested.
Some 42% of fathers said they were bedtime story readers, compared with 76% of mothers, a poll of 2,207 adults for the National Year of Reading found. Boys are consistently outperformed by girls when it comes to reading.
Television was children's most common pre-sleep activity.
Children's Secretary Ed Balls said reading opened doors to everything. "Reading to your children for 10 minutes at bedtime is the best way of improving our kids' chances when they get to school."
... Ten minutes? Well, that's a good start! ;)

Spring is here, or at least it should be soon. Here are some picture books with spring themes:

Make Way for Ducklings, by McCloskey - an old classic Caldecott book, this story follows Mr. and Mrs. Mallard in their search for the right spot to build their nest and raise ducklings. When writing and sketching for this book, Robert McCloskey bought ducklings and put them in his bathtub to keep them handy for drawing, and if you look at the pictures you will see that each duckling has its own personality. Good for preschool through first grade.

The Carrot Seed, by Krauss, illustrated by Johnson - this classic recently celebrated its 60th anniversary! This may be the quintessential children's story - a little boy plants a carrot seed and faithfully takes care of it even though everyone keeps telling him it probably won't come up. Of course, the adults (and older brother) are wrong, and the little boy is right. This is a very short, simple story, with simple, minimalist, almost cartoon-style illustrations. If you happen to be a gardener, you will recognize how appropriate a choice carrots are for the story - nearly every year I despair of my carrot seeds ever sprouting, and then one day, there they are. Pre-school through early elementary.

The Legend of the Bluebonnet, by de Paolo - lovely pictures illustrate this traditional Native American story about selfless sacrifice by a young orphan girl who gives up her most treasured possession to help her people. The story also explains the origin of the bluebonnet, state flower of Texas. Preschool through middle elementary.

The Marsh Crone's Brew, by Olsen, translated by Jensen - if you can find it, this is a charming little Scandinavian story about the seasons as experienced by the "marsh people" - including such details as the ice melting off the puddles because the marsh people breath on them, and how butterflies fly out of the marsh girls' ears after the mischievous marsh boys blow into them. Pre-school through early elementary. (Out of print, hard to find.)

One Watermelon Seed, by Lottridge illustrated by Patkau - a counting book that centers around gardening - it includes counting by tens, and has lots of little details in the pictures for kids to notice. PreK through early elementary.

One Child, One Seed: A South African Counting Book, by Cave, photographs by Wulfson - a counting that follows photographs of a family from planting through harvesting and making a meal. This is another book that has a simple enough story line for pre-schoolers, but also has additional text for older children, and gives a glimpse of another culture. (PreK through middle elementary)

The Spring Equinox: Celebrating the Greening of the Earth, by Jackson, illustrated by Ellis - (nonfiction) introduces spring holiday celebrations from different cultures and time periods - bright-colored, cheerful pictures. Elementary.

A Seed is Sleepy, by Aston, illustrated by Long - (nonfiction) colorful, accurate illustrations make this an attractive introduction to some basic botany. The text is on two levels - a very simple level for preschoolers, and a more detailed level for lower elementary kids.

Planting A Rainbow, by Ehlert - (nonfiction) Ehlert's bright, stylized illustrations are perfect for the story that follows the yearly cycle of gardening. PreK to early elementary - this could also be used to help teach colors.

The Lotus Seed, by Garland, illustrated by Kiuchi - elegant, soft-colored oil paintings illustrate this story about a grandmother remembering having to leave Vietnam when she was young. It could be used with other books (like My Grandfather's Journey, or Grandmother's Journey) about emigration and family heritage. Elementary.

For older children:

Spring Comes to the Ocean, by Jean George - nonfiction, marine biology for the middle elementary set.

My Side of the Mountain, by George - realistic fiction, but plays to everyone's fantasy to just leave everything behind and live alone in the woods (without parents, of course!). This old classic will appeal to boys, or any child who is interested in nature. Jean George weaves accurate information about wildlife into the story. Third grade & up listeners.

Charlotte's Web, by White - The people part of this book would be realistic fiction, but more of it features Wilbur, the runt piglet, Charlotte, the spider, and various of the other animals. Try to avoid letting your children see a video version of this, and read it to them instead. E.B. White's prose is delightful, and the story is just plain, old-fashioned fun right up to the bittersweet ending. Second grade and up.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by Lewis - I first heard this read aloud on the radio when I was maybe in fourth grade, and I found it quite dark and frightening, but probably today's children are exposed to lots more scary stuff than I was. Four British children on vacation from school climb into a big wardrobe in an old house, and find themselves in another world, where animals can talk, mythical creatures like satyrs really exist, and the evil White Witch has taken over, making it "always winter and never Christmas". The children's adventures are almost incidental to the main conflict, which is a parable for the crucifixion and resurrection story, as anyone well-versed in Christianity will recognize by the end of the book.

As an adult, I find the writing in some parts of this book to be only passable, and I nearly gagged on the line "war is ugly when women fight". However, as a child I found it interesting, and liked the whole series. Actually, my favorites in the series were The Magician's Nephew, which you really could read first, since it is about the creation of Narnia, and The Last Battle, which probably wouldn't make much sense unless you had read at least two of the earlier books, since it is a sort of parable about the end of the world, though, as I remember it, it is a much more comforting version than the book of Revelations. (third or fourth grade up)

For Teens:

The Bean Trees, by Kingsolver - the writing in this book begs to be read aloud. The narrator has a wry sense of humor and an engaging voice that immediately captures your interest. Although there are body parts mentioned, there is nothing you could call a sex scene. The main character leaves rural Kentucky as soon after she gets out of high school as she can earn enough money to buy an ancient Volkswagen, and starts driving west, very pleased to be one of the few girls in her class who didn't get pregnant and/or married. But soon she finds herself taking care of an abandoned, abused toddler, and living in the desert Southwest, working for a woman who runs the Jesus is Lord used tire shop and helps illegal political refugees from South America. Inevitably, child services finds out about the unofficial "adoption", and Taylor, who had thought she didn't want to be a mom, is frantic to find a way to keep custody of her little girl. All these disparate threads get woven into a terrific story, probably for ninth grade and up listeners, although I think my younger son was only eleven or twelve when we read it, and he liked it.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Read-Aloud Books: Suggestions for April '08

*In 2007, the average American teenager spent nearly 26 hours a week watching TV, playing video games, and/or using the computer - and 2 hours reading.*

April is National Poetry Month. Poetry is meant to be read aloud! Many poems are fun to hear, even if the listener may not entirely "understand" them. Quite a few picture books are written in verse, and some "story poems" are available in beautiful illustrated editions. Here are some books and poems to share with your children:

Picture books:
  • A House is a House for Me, by Hoberman: I always loved reading this to my children - a playful romp through different kinds of "houses", both for animals and for people, with fun illustrations, and all told in rhythmic verse.
  • Each Peach Pear Plum, by Ahlberg: Another fun picture book in rhyme, this one plays with characters from different nursery rhymes or fairy tales.
  • Mother Goose - available in various editions, but get at least one! Lots of other books refer to nursery rhymes, and it's surprising how many kids these days don't know them.
  • The Random House Book of Poetry for Children, edited by Prelutsky, illustrated by Lobel - a good anthology with pictures, with selections for reading to children three or four and up, a mix of traditional and more recent poems, arranged by topic.
  • The 20th Century Children's Poetry Treasury, edited by Prelutsky, illustrated by So - another anthology, this one containing more modern, lesser-known poems, mostly playful. It includes a CD of the poems read aloud.
  • The Golden Treasury of Poetry, edited by Untermeyer - many old classics not included in newer anthologies. This book is out of print, but check your library or - it includes one of my favorite of the lesser-known poems for children, which begins something like this:
"Zoon, zoon, cuddle and croon, over the crinkling sea,
the moon-man flings him a silvered net fashioned of moonbeams three,
And the waves roll in, and the waves roll out, and the nodding night wind blows,
But why the moon-man fishes the sea, only the moon-man knows..."

  • A Child's Garden of Verses, by Stevenson - Robert Louis Stevenson's classic children's poems are available in a variety of illustrated editions.
  • When We Were Very Young, and Now We Are Six, by A.A. Milne - These two are collections of poems by the author of Winnie-the-Pooh, and one of them includes another of my old favorites, "The Doctor and the Dormouse", which children will enjoy for the sounds of the words, and adults will enjoy for the sly pokes at the pompous doctor. It begins like this:
"There once was a Dormouse who lived in a bed
Of delphiniums (blue) and geraniums (red),
And all the day long he'd a wonderful view
Of geraniums (red) and delphiniums (blue)."
  • Hiawatha, by Longfellow, illustrated by Jeffers, or Hiawatha's Childhood, by Longfellow, illustrated by LeCain - either of these are beautifully illustrated editions of the melodic old story-poem.
  • Paul Revere's Ride, by Longfellow, illustrated by Rand, or The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, illustrated by Bing - again, illustrated versions of the poem - enough pictures for pre-K, enough story for older kids. You might want to discuss with older kids the fact that it isn't intended to be an exact historical account.

For elementary age and up:

  • A Child's Introduction to Poetry: Listen While You Learn About the Magic Words That Have Moved Mountains, Won Battles, and Made Us Laugh and Cry, edited by Driscoll & Hamilton - this one is not just an anthology, but includes explanations of different forms of poetry along with examples, and a CD of the poems. For upper elementary to middle school.
  • The Poetry for Young People series has illustrated volumes on individual poets (Carl Sandburg, Maya Angelou, William Blake, and many more) and on topics (The Seasons), with poems chosen as appropriate for children.
  • Where the Sidewalk Ends, by Silverstein - funny poems well-loved by many elementary-age kids.
  • Time for Poetry, by Arbuthnot - a thicker, longer anthology with fewer illustrations, this is another older, out-of-print book, but easily available quite inexpensively on-line. It has lots and lots of poems arranged by topic - all older poems, since it was published in 1959.
  • "The Cremation of Sam McGee" and "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" by Service

For Teen Listeners
  • "The Raven" by Poe, "The Highwayman" by Noyes, and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Coleridge are longer narrative poems that often appeal to teenagers.
  • April is the tragic anniversary of Lincoln's assassination. Read Walt Whitman's poems "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" and "O Captain, My Captain" to begin to glimpse the country's grief.
  • Poem a Day, edited by McCosker & Albery, is an anthology of mostly older, mostly short poems that the editors suggest would be good poems to memorize (though anyone who can memorize one a day has a better memory than I!). It might make sense to read one a day, and then choose one each week or month to try to memorize.
  • A Book of Luminous Things, edited by Milosz, is an anthology of mostly modern, mostly short, poems from all over the world, many translated from other languages, that are likely not to be familiar to most readers.

If you want to tackle a classic -
  • Beowulf: A New Verse Translation, by Seamus Heaney , or The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation, by Robert Pinsky- neither of these are easy, but they are more accessible that some of the earlier translations.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Read-aloud Books: Suggestions: for March '08

Turn off the television and read to your kids!
Quote from "What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?" by Ellen Gamerman, Wall Street Journal, February 29, 2008 : " ...
by one international measure, Finnish teenagers are among the smartest in the world. They earned some of the top scores by 15-year-old students who were tested in 57 countries. American teens finished among the world's C students even as U.S. educators piled on more homework, standards and rules. Finnish youth, like their U.S. counterparts, also waste hours online. They dye their hair, love sarcasm and listen to rap and heavy metal. But by ninth grade they're way ahead in math, science and reading -- on track to keeping Finns among the world's most productive workers.... One explanation for the Finns' success is their love of reading. Parents of newborns receive a government-paid gift pack that includes a picture book. Some libraries are attached to shopping malls, and a book bus travels to more remote neighborhoods like a Good Humor truck."

Picture books:
  • Max's First Word, by Rosemary Wells - one of my favorite very simple stories for toddlers - Max's sister is trying to teach him to say something besides "bang".
  • The Year at Maple Hill Farm, by Alice and Martin Provensen - a book of months and seasons, this picture book focuses on what is happening with the animals on an old-fashioned farm. It looks like it could be set in the northeast US. (Pre-school through first grade)
  • Ox-Cart Man, by Hall, illustrated by Cooney - a simple story about life in early New Hampshire, with lovely, spare text and simple, folk-style illustrations (Pre-school through first grade)(Caldecott book)
  • Bedtime for Frances, by Hoban, illustrated by Williams - a charming story about Frances making excuses not to go to bed (or stay in bed) - every parent will recognize some of these ploys! I suppose some modern parents might not like the reference to a possible spanking, but I can't think of any other reason not to love this classic!
  • The Mousehole Cat, by Barber, illustrated by Bayley - this book is by a British author, so it was not eligible for a Caldecott, but it must be one of the most beautiful picture books of all time. The story is of an old fisherman and his cat who brave terrible, stormy weather to bring back fish for the starving villagers, written in beautiful prose and illustrated with gorgeous, detailed pictures and decorative borders. It is a little long for younger preschoolers, but good for pre-K through second or third grade.
  • Paddle-to-the-Sea, by Holling C. Holling - a longer picture book, to be read over several days, with lots of information about the Great Lakes, the story follows a hand-carved canoe from where the boy who made it sets it into a melting snowbank in a stream that feeds into Lake Superior, through the lakes and eventually to the ocean. (Grades 1-3)
  • A World of Faith, by Stack, illustrated by Peterson - a brief introduction to 28 different religions, listed alphabetically. There is a page of text about basic beliefs, and a full-color illustration of people in historical dress for each faith. Again, this is not a book you would probably read straight through at one sitting, but maybe do one, or a few, each day, and then use as a reference book. (middle elementary to middle school)
  • Dogs and Dragons, Trees and Dreams, by Karla Kuskin - whimsical short poems (Pre-K and up)

Longer books for reading to third graders and up:

  • Surviving the Applewhites, by Stephanie Tolan - realistic fiction, funny, this book is a romp with various outrageously stereotyped (but mostly lovable) characters. The two main characters are Jake, a middle school boy who has been expelled from school for bad behavior and is sent to the Applewhite family's "home school", and the middle-school-aged Applewhite girl who feels like the only ordinary member in her brilliant, artsy family. Jake starts out smoking and swearing, but gives up both along the way. Great literature? Probably not, but a lot of fun to read. (Newbery Honor book)
  • The Secret Garden, by Frances Burnett - the old-fashioned classic about friendship between a lonely, spoiled orphan girl, her invalid cousin, and a local farmer's son who share a hidden, walled-off garden, and how working in the garden heals bodies and spirits.
  • An Edge of the Forest, by Agnes Smith - a book I remember my mother reading to us, and that I read to my children, this one can't be classified into the usual categories, but it is a wonderful story to read aloud. An orphan black lamb wanders away from her flock and is befriended by a young black leopardess, a doe and fawn, and an owl. Yes, it does have "talking animals" and sounds entirely unlikely, but the way it is written makes it work. It can be hard to find - try interlibrary loan or I found an old copy in our local library in the late 80's, considered stealing it (no one else had checked it out in years), and instead asked to buy it from them. They wouldn't sell it to me, but not long after, they weeded the stacks and threw it away. I searched through boxes of discards, but I was too late. It was one of the first books I bought, a few years later, when the internet made it possible to find rare books.
  • The Indian in the Cupboard, by Lynn Reid Banks - fantasy set in our modern world - a boy finds that he can turn a plastic toy Indian into a "real" (though still miniature) live man - the ultimate toy. Of course, when a "toy" is a live person, soon many practical and ethical dilemmas crop up, some funny and some serious. Avoid the movie, but read the book. It also has sequels your children are likely to be inspired to read themselves after you read them the first one.
  • Flipped, by Wendelin Van Draanen - realistic fiction - this story is told in alternate chapters by the two main characters, starting when they are in early elementary school, and the girl has a huge crush on the boy, who is constantly coming up with schemes to avoid her. When they get to middle school, though, he begins to notice that he likes her, right about the time she decides maybe she isn't interested after all. A light story with some humor, but also some serious undertones (about social class, stereotyping, and how we look at the mentally handicapped). The "romance" is handled in age-appropriate ways.

For reading to teens:

  • Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand - nonfiction - although this is about horses, it is also about the Depression, and the lives of Seabiscuit's owner and trainer and jockey, who were all amazing people. The interwoven stories of their personal struggles to overcome injuries and adversity create suspense even if you know the outcome of most of the races.

  • A Story Like the Wind, by Laurens Van Der Post - historical fiction, set in southern Africa; the main character is a white boy who has grown up, home-schooled, on a remote farm in southern Africa (first half of 1900's). This is a quiet story about his experiences as a boy, with his hunting dog, building very gradually to a dramatic ending that will probably leave readers wanting to go immediately on to the sequel, A Far-Off Place, which is more of a survival story, as the boy, a teen-age girl with only a few weeks experience in the area, and a Bushman couple must make their way across the Kalahari desert. (The movie A Far-Off Place bears very little resemblance to the book - even less than most movies bear to the books they are based on.)