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.