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.

1 comment:

Kaye said...

You are so right about reading to children. Let's go back to basics of real books and not stick them in front of a computer before they can even read. I started reading to my kids well before they could even walk. I just reviewed a book you might be interest in from Sylvan Dell publishing. It's called Little Skink's Tail and it is geared for children 4-8.