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.