Blogs about Reading
Page by Page
Reading Rockets' children's literature expert, Maria Salvadore, brings you into her world as she explores the best ways to use kids' books inside — and outside — of the classroom.
Memorial Day is coming up soon — marking the unofficial start of summer. Parents and teachers know how hard it can be for children to remain focused as the school year ends and summer starts.
Summers that don't include books and reading for children most often results in the "summer slide" — the loss of reading skills gained during the previous school year.
Barbara Heyns' research, reported in her widely-read book Summer Learning and the Effects of Schooling (Academic Press, 1978), concluded that it is the public library more than any other institution — including schools — that had the greatest impact on a child's intellectual growth during the summer.
A recent report from the Pew Research Center, Parents, Children, Libraries, and Reading, clearly finds that parents understand the significance of libraries for their children.
The report indicates that of the 94% of parents who think libraries are important, 84% say libraries are important because library access helps inculcate children's love of reading and books, and 81% say that libraries allow children access to information and reading that is not available at home.
Equally important to my way of thinking is access to trained professionals to not only encourage engagement with books but also to navigate that information.
The Pew report also finds that "Almost every parent (97%) says it is important for libraries to offer programs and classes for children and teens."
It makes sense. A study by Dominican University released in 2010 suggests that summer reading programs enhance children's reading skills.
Libraries and children's summer reading go well together. After all, it's fun, it's free, and it can yield tangible results. Don't know what to read? Take a look at Reading Rockets' 2013 Big Summer Read. You'll find recommendations for dozens of fiction and nonfiction books (by age and reading level) that can be printed out at home or at the library.
A friend and colleague was telling me recently about a project that her son was working on and the power of a book they shared had on his thinking.
Each of the third grade students was to research one state; Rafe chose Alabama. I'm sure he identified the usual things about it like the state flower (camellia), its capital (thanks to the Rafe's scrutiny, I was reminded of the importance of verifying information. The capital of Alabama is not Birmingham as I originally wrote; it is Montgomery though Birmingham, Rafe tells me, is that state's most populous city) and the state bird (yellowhammer). In finding out about Alabama's history, he found out that it was once segregated.
When my friend shared an atypical history with her admittedly sophisticated 9-year-old, even she was amazed at the result.
In a note to me, Susan wrote, "It's amazing how books can bring things to life for us in a way nothing else can. Rafe certainly understood parts of what he read about Alabama history and the Jim Crow South from the research that he did for his school project, but hearing stories about a boy like himself was eye-opening. He has not been able to stop talking about and thinking about it."
The book is a memoir called Leon's Story (Square Fish) by Leon Walter Tillage. Leon's story is revealed without sensationalizing the horror but by simply relating what happened. It's tough stuff, too, as Tillage was the son of a sharecropper sharing his experiences while growing up in the 1950s and 60s; not a book that a child should read alone, no matter how sophisticated.
Susan is a wise woman who recognizes the power of story, contextualizing and personalizing historical events. She's also wise to take the time to read and talk about a difficult story with her child. It is sure to answer Rafe's questions and raise others, while bringing history and its impact on people to life.
After all, Rafe is beginning to realize that history isn't old and dusty at all. He can have an impact on it because isn't today really tomorrow's history?
The lasting impact of early childhood education has been known for a long, long time. The first three years of a child's life are crucial to their development socially, emotionally, and educationally.
This was confirmed by a recent piece in the Baltimore Sun. Kindergarten readiness is on the rise in Baltimore, attributed to what has been going on in preK classrooms. There, too, the impact of the Common Core Standards is being felt. Here's an excerpt from the story:
"In the classroom, that meant swapping Jack and the Beanstalk [the traditional tale] for From Seed to Plant [the book by Gail Gibbons] to teach how plants grow — making way for nonfiction authors on the shelf next to Dr. Seuss and requiring a grocery list for playtime on the kitchen set.
"It really took courage to do this," said Sonja Santelises, chief academic officer for the city school system. "Our teachers said at the beginning, 'We're really freaked out by this nonfiction thing.' And we had to really convince people that this does not mean that we have 3- and 4-year-olds sitting in chairs scribing or tracing numbers all day. But what it did mean was that we were not going to be afraid of this content."
Why must books that engage young children be either/or? It's not fiction (including picture books) VERSUS informational books. They can be quite complementary.
I wonder, too, why do informational books for young children get such a bad rap? Some of the most highly engaging, informative books provide lots of visual and textual information; in fact, they are often called "informational picture books." (I think of books by Lois Ehlert, Steve Jenkins, and Susan Stockdale.)
I hope that all schools (and parents) embrace this chance to use books — the literature of fact and of fiction — to make the early years the start of a lifelong journey of learning.
It's not at all unusual to hear adults lament the loss of the "good old days." Memories are, of course, filtered and perhaps even reworked over time.
I know I've had fond memories of books that I read and adored as a child blown away when I reread them as an adult. (As a child, I identified with Peter Pan, never Wendy; but when I read it as an adult, I was shocked at Peter's take on Wendy's role and how she embraced that role. I won't even mention Barrie's treatment of Indians.)
Has childhood changed that much? Perhaps. But society certainly has, reflected in the themes and topics in children's books. A recent piece in the Guardian reminded me of the shift in literature for children. Julia Eccleshare writes, "The rosy, cosy vision of the 1950s and 1960s — often thought of as a golden age of children's fiction — was challenged from the 1970s onwards by an increasing emphasis on books showing different kinds of childhood."
I think there was a huge shift in the U.S. during the 1960s. That's when Where the Wild Things Are (HarperCollins) was published as well as (another personal favorite) Harriet the Spy (Yearling). Maybe childhood didn't change in the 60s, but what was considered appropriate certainly did.
Death, homelessness, war, divorce, sexual orientation have all been addressed in books, even for younger children.
A recent wordless book by Bob Staake Bluebird (Schwartz & Wade) continues to intrigue me. It's a story of loneliness, bullies and bullying, friendship, death, and hope — all in 40 pages. The limited palette and seemingly simple illustrations make it look like it's appropriate for young children — but at one point, there's a huge shift (which I admit stunned me).
What does this book say about what children deal with? Will it appeal to kids? Will adults — parents and teachers — share it with children? If so, what age and how? Please weigh in and let me know what you think about contemporary children's books such as Bluebird.
It's that time of year! Baseball season has officially started. Little leaguers are playing, summer teams are forming, and lots of people are heading to major and minor league ballparks. (I just bought stamps commemorating major league ballplayers.)
Even those who don't play baseball are sure to find something exciting or inspiring in the season's offerings. A new movie, 42, (not for young children) about Jackie Robinson made me think that baseball has sometimes made people rethink what's possible, maybe even reconsider expectations, much like the brave subject of this movie did.
Is a "perfect game" possible? Rarely. Can a boy who is striving to pitch a no-hit, no walks, batters-up-batters-down game learn anything from a Special Olympics Unified Sports team? You bet.
And so can I from reading a new novel by Fred Bowen. In Perfect Game (Peachtree), Isaac has to rethink his idea of perfection when he works with a group of kids and one boy in particular.
It's a baseball story for sure, with a fast-paced plot. But more. In an era where differences often lead to misunderstandings, it's a timely book, too. It's harder to dislike other people when you get to know them, when there's a chance to walk the proverbial mile in another's shoes.
This book is the kind of vicarious experience for both typical and special kids (I'd say 8 or 9 years old, though older kids will find something, too). It's an ideal book for adults and children to share. It may lead to some thoughtful discussion about what's important, how other people feel — and, of course, baseball. After all, it is the season!
There's nothing new about translating children's books and traditional stories into other mediums.
Who's not familiar with the Disney film adaptations of Cinderella, Snow White, and The Three Little Pigs? Live performances in children's theaters have often used children's books in their productions as do venues for families. It seems, too, that children's stories are becoming a staple of the Broadway stage.
I was reminded of the power of a good story well-told — or retold — when a friend of mine raved about the performance of the Broadway adaptation of Raul Dahl's book Matilda (Puffin). Peter and the Starcatchers (Disney) by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson appeared on Broadway last year.
Kids don't need a stage to create their own dramas, often reenacting a book spontaneously. Kindergarten children in a school I recently visited dramatized The Three Billy Goats Gruff using their voices, a large blanket (for the water) and hats (to help the uninitiated tell the difference between the Gruff brothers, of course). Their performance — creative play really — got more dramatic with each reenactment.
There's a fair amount of research that highlights the benefits of creative dramatics and the arts in the lives of young children. Perhaps just as important, the arts and drama help children learn and grow without even realizing that it's happening.
Adults are wise to share books and stories, allowing the page to go to the stage — whether the stage is a classroom or living room.
I remember one day long ago my son came home from school and proudly recited a poem. His preschool teacher shared this poem in particular often — it was a class favorite — so often that my son committed it to memory. It was long and I remember my surprise the first time I heard him.
The poem was Robert Louis Stevenson's "My Shadow" which begins: "I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me/And what can be the use of him is more than I can see." "My Shadow" is included in a recent edition of A Child's Garden of Verses (HarperCollins) illustrated by Barbara McClintock.
The Stevenson poem was the first of many; poetry was shared every day in Nick's preschool. And lots of words stuck. Poetry can do that, help words stick even if the way they are put together doesn't make apparent sense. Sometimes it's just the sound of the words that delight. (Think of young children listening to Mother Goose rhymes; I bet few know, much less care, what Miss Muffett's "tuffet" is or the "curds and whey" she was eating when disturbed by a spider.)
Poetry might appeal even more — perhaps stick better — when it's shared with a child by a caring adult. In an introduction to a new collection entitled Poems to Learn by Heart (Hyperion), Caroline Kennedy writes that a poem learned by heart "… is ours forever — and better still, we can share it with others, yet not have to give it away." She suggests, too, that from poetry, we "gain understanding that no one can take away."
Kennedy's work with young people in New York City schools strengthened her conviction of the power in poetry. In fact, some of these students helped select poems included in this handsome and diverse collection ranging from contemporary to traditional with poets spanning generations and time, from Rita Dove and Gertrude Stein to Geoffrey Chaucer and Henry Longfellow.
Spring is in the air — and that means more than just daffodils. It's time to read and cast votes for favorite books.
The Children's Book Council (CBC), a venerable trade association of publishers, counts down the days (hours, minutes, and seconds, too) to the national celebration of Children's Book Week.
For children and adults alike, the Children's Choice Book Awards are a chance to cast a ballot for favorite books and book creators. It's always fun to see what makes the list in each category: kindergarten through grade 2; grades 3 to 4; grades 5 to 6; and even a young adult category.
Finalists for the awards are books that have received the highest number of votes in the International Reading Association (IRA) and the CBC Children's Choices program.
It's a fabulous opportunity to help children develop critical thinking skills and the language to express it. Sometimes it's simply a matter of framing questions that require more than a one word response. (In talking about two of the books in the K–2 category, questions might start like this: What is it about Pete the Cat that makes him special? Why do you think Duckling (and not Pigeon) gets a cookie? How do Pete (and Pigeon) behave?
Likes and dislikes in books are a matter of taste but also a matter of exposure. In order to have an opinion, children need to view lots of different styles and types of material. The ability of children to think critically and express their thoughts often just takes practice. And books are a fine way to start practicing these life skills.
So librarians, teachers, and parents — encourage the kids you live and work with to read the books (they should be available in schools and libraries), think about them — and vote. The behavior can be modeled for children as there's even a place for you to cast your own ballot!
My husband and I are empty nesters now. Our son is in college though he comes home for the occasional weekend, holidays and breaks. His room is gradually evolving, from that a child to one more fitting of a young man.
One thing hasn't changed though: his shelves (and shelves) of books.
A recent post by a Vermont bookseller in Publishers Weekly said, "… judging from the number of young adults (in their 20s and 30s) coming in to the store searching for long-lost treasures their parents threw away, those books [childhood favorites] might be worth hanging on to."
And from her perspective, the impact of e-books may mean fewer physical books and a tougher time finding hard copies of old treasured books to share with another generation.
So what should we keep and what could we give away? There are books from his picture book era: Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are (HarperCollins) was (and who knows, still may be) my son's top book — and one that is likely to be available in perpetuity. But there's also a little known book which is no longer in print called The Old Woman and the Willy Nilly Man (Putnam) by Jill Wright with Glen Rounds' illustrations.
Nick had good taste, and lots of his very favorites are still available: Shortcut and Bigmama's (both Greenwillow) by Donald Crews are still around (and I hope will be as long as Sendak is). So is Brown Angels: An Album of Pictures and Verse (HarperCollins) by Walter Dean Myers — too terrific to ever be out of print.
His favorite novels are still on store shelves, too, from CS Lewis' Narnia (HarperCollins) series (with renewed interest due in part to the action-packed film adaptations) to Harry Potter (Arthur Levine/Scholastic) (did interest ever wane?) plus probably most of Walter Dean Myers' young adult novels.
If you're in a similar situation, let me know how you handle it. Any advice as to how to decide what to give away will be most welcomed. We could sure use the shelf space!
How do the realities of our contemporary life mesh with childhood? Have expectations of what a young child should know changed so much that they're not able to be young? What are — or might be — the consequences?
These questions came to me after hearing illustrator/author Henry Cole speak to a group of adults and reading a potent condemnation of educational reform by Carol Burris, an award-winning school administrator. Though from completely different backgrounds, Burris and Cole expressed alarmingly similar concerns.
Cole identified particular childhood recollections and experiences as influences on his work. Parts and pieces of his childhood and teaching experiences as an adult appear in each of his books, from the wordless story of bravery in Unspoken (Scholastic), to the funny alliterative saga of the near-death of an insect in Clara Caterpillar (written by Pamela Edwards; HarperCollins), to the wonder of creating a rich outdoor environment in On Meadowview Street (Greenwillow). Cole pondered aloud what consequences the structured, data-driven world in which today's children are growing will have on their ability to see the wonders around them and perhaps even approach and solve problems creatively. Interestingly, each of these books has the potential to support the Common Core standards.
Burris's colleagues at her New York school shared stories of how their young children are being tested in 2nd and 3rd grade This led Burris to the conclusion that the Common Core standards are being "operationalized" to support data driven "reforms." She contends that in a "data driven, high-stakes learning environment … that the full domain of what should be learned narrows to those items tested." Although all English language arts skill areas (reading, writing, speaking, listening and collaboration) are listed in the Standards, only reading and writing will be measured. That means test preparation for even the youngest child and Burris says, reformers "see data, not children."
Though each author differs in background and experience, Burris's and Cole's expressed concerns are quite similar. Children are not being given the chance to explore, to enjoy, and to follow their innate curiosity and thirst for learning.
After all, Burris says, "Real learning occurs in the mind of the learner when she makes connections with prior learning, makes meaning, and retains that knowledge in order to create additional meaning from new information. In short, with tests we see traces of learning, not learning itself."