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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.
Summer of this year marks several things worth remembering. Some are happy anniversaries, others not so at all.
What do these events mean to children? Are they relevant to them in any way at all? What do stories — real or fictional — offer to children? Can they inspire as well as inform?
It was in July 1969 that Neil Armstrong left the relative safety of his spacecraft to walk on the moon. Many books are available about Apollo 11, about the moon itself and this special anniversary.
Nelson Mandela, stalwart leader of South Africa and the world, celebrated his 91st birthday this month. Frankly, a recent and accessible biography for young readers would be useful.
Anne Frank, the Jewish child who left a diary in revealing daily life in hiding during German occupation of Amsterdam, would have turned 80 years old this year. Instead, she perished in a concentration camp; this year marks the 65th year since SS Sergeant Karl Silberbauer arrested her.
A new book about how Simon Wiesenthal identified Anne's captor — proving once and for all that her diary was authentic — is tough but valuable reading. Don't let the picture book format fool readers into thinking that this is a book for younger children. The Anne Frank Case: Simon Wiesenthal's Search for the Truth (Holiday House) by Susan Goldman Rubin tells a difficult though riveting story and is most appropriate for grades four and above.
Carefully chosen books can share stories in memorable ways, perhaps at least familiarizing adults with real stories to share (or choose not to share) with children.
Imagine…a small mouse being chased by a hungry owl disturbs a fierce looking lion. The lion, however, release the mouse only to be caught up in a rope trap himself. When the mouse hears the lion's roar, what does he do?
If you've read the "Lion and the Mouse," a fable credited to Aesop or even a tale called "Androcles and the Lion" (in a collection by Joseph Jacobs now long out of print) then you know it's been around for a while, a long while.
What can be done to make an old, even ancient tale brand new? You'll want to be sure to look for Jerry Pinkney's wordless picture book telling due out this September. I just returned from a conference where I actually got to see and hold The Lion & the Mouse (Little Brown) — and it's truly a stunner.
Everything from the feel of the paper calls to mind the African savannah (maybe the Serengeti) where both animals live. No words — even on the cover — are needed in this unique telling of unlikely friendship and assistance coming from surprising places. The emotions, subplots, motivation, and tension — all hallmarks of well-told tales — are conveyed visually.
Children, even the youngest, can visit the lion's habitat again and again. It might just spark interest in lions or other animals or even in Africa. Who knows where it could go? That's what makes books so exciting. They intrigue and inspire — and the good ones do it without being didactic.
The Lion and the Mouse really is a tale that roars, and more.
I was reading a novel last night, a book called Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba by Margarita Engle (Holt). It's a tough subject even for the target reader (12 years and older) as the title suggests.
The telling, however, is filled with beautiful images that somehow both soften and strengthen its power. Daniel, a Jewish refugee who is one of the voices, describes the music of Cuba as "…an entirely new/sort of music,/the sound of a future/dancing with the past." (p. 108)
'Dancing with the past'….how interesting it sounds. What does the future sound like? And even if I didn't think about these things, I'd probably just enjoy the sound of the words; they kind of trip off the tongue.
Books for young children should also sound good. After all, these are books that should not only look good but sound good — even if young children don't understand all of the words, it's the sound of the language that can captivate.
There are books like Denise Fleming's In the Small, Small Pond (Holt) in which a child witnesses seasonal goings-on like "lash, lunge, herons plunge."
All of Baby, Nose To Toes by Victoria Adler (Dial) rhythmically describes the child such as "Baby's got legs,/strong little legs…Caper and prance legs./Kick me in the pants legs…" The naming of familiar parts of the body is made lively and fun — all while celebrating the baby's special place in the family.
Rhyming words are illustrated to make a humorous, short, but fun-sounding concept book (that also creates outrageously comical short stories with its lively illustrations) in Billy & Milly: Short & Silly by Eve Feldman (Putnam).
A pleasure that can last a lifetime, the pleasure in words — lovely words that sound good, feel good on the tongue, create powerful images — starts by introducing young children to a steady diet of rich language in books.
It's always good to rediscover something, especially if that something slows you down, makes you think, and creates vivid images.
What I've rediscovered is Mary O'Neill's collection of poems about colors, Hailstones and Halibut Bones (Doubleday). Though the book was originally published in 1961, it was newly illustrated in the late 1980s and recently reissued. Old is new all over again.
The collection of a dozen or so poems begins with a poetic invitation: "Like acrobats on a high trapeze/The Colors pose and bend their knees/Twist and turn and leap and blend/Into shapes and feelings without end…."
But this invitation does more than simply welcome. It effectively describes what readers will experience when they read the poems and examine the watercolor illustrations. Of course the pictures reflect the mood of the poems, but when word and image are shared together, well, it creates a place, a time, a feeling — all the more powerful when seen and heard (because after all, poetry cries to be shared aloud).
Colors around us change as the seasons change. We've just launched summer and summer reading. Why not use poetry to slow children (and adults!) down during the longer, color-filled days?
And it seems to me that yellow is best to welcome and describe summer for "Yellow is the color of the sun/the feeling of fun/The yolk of an egg….Daisy hearts/Custard pies and/Lemon tarts."
We just got back from a family vacation to Ireland. It was my teenaged son's first time out of the country and the first time for his parents since their son was born.
Not surprisingly, we packed lots of books. I'm still reading for an award committee, so most of my books were for young readers.
My husband chose to take two novels for young readers by Richard Peck:A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way from Chicago (both Penguin). Both books are very funny family stories that feature the one of a kind Grandma Dowdel. And while they could be read independently by children in grades 4 and above, they make very funny read alouds for the entire family to share and discuss.
My son packed an enormously long adult fantasy with lots of battles, not unlike Tolkien.
Even without the delays caused by weather, there's plenty of time to read while traveling. I got through a couple of books en route to Shannon, another one on the return trip, and a couple in between. My husband finished the Peck novels and started in on what I'd finished reading.
And in Ireland, we visited lots of book stores, always checking out the section for young readers. I'm not sure why I was surprised but the connection between what American kids read and what is obviously popular in Irish villages from Ennis to Kenmare are amazingly similar.
We saw American writers and Irish (and other English language) writers that are widely read in the U.S.: Eoin Colfer, Kate Thompson, there was good old Harry Potter (with the UK cover) and even the Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan. Fantasy seems to be ever-popular.
But for younger readers books were much concrete; there was Jane O'Connor's Fancy Nancy books and lots of easy nonfiction.
It was interesting to observe a young mother calm her travel weary toddler by pulling out a book and reading it aloud in a soothing voice. You could hear the grumps going out of the child.
Books sure calm me, too. I'm glad they travel well.
I'm on a national children's book award committee so submissions have been arriving at my home/office in increasing quantities. Even though I read a lot of books for young people anyway, I've been reading them to the exclusion of just about anything. (I can't give up the newspaper though; it's a must-have either online or in print.)
I'm reading so many books so quickly that I've been wondering how I can keep them clear in my mind -- beyond taking notes (which is not always possible given all the places that I find myself reading these days).
But I have started asking colleagues, family members, and young friends to read the books that I think are worth their time and energy. And I've actually rediscovered a valuable and downright fun way to gain deeper insight into what works and why: simply talking to young readers provides a look into a book's appeal that I may not have considered.
For example, a young friend named Julia, a 3rd grader, read a book by Claudia Mills, How Oliver Olson Changed the World (Farrar). I was interested in her response even though the main character is a boy (also a 3rd grader, by the way). It was a girl in Oliver's class, Crystal, who intrigued Julia.
Apparently Julia was also interested in the demotion of Pluto. You see, Crystal becomes Oliver's friend over their shared interest in Pluto's astrological standing.
Julia told me she liked Oliver but kind of felt "sorry for him." When I reminded her that he found a way of dealing with his overprotective parents, she noted that he was "kinda smart."
It seems to me that the more we talk to children about substantive things, the better we get to know them and their tastes. In fact, sometimes the power of the story just takes over itself.
I'll always remember the mother who told me that if she put her mind to it, she could do anything -- including raising her daughter as a single mom. That was a line right out of Mary Hoffman's Amazing Grace (Dial).
So, as we pack up for our family vacation, I'll take a batch of books and rely on my family -- a captive audience -- for feedback!
I'll let you know how it goes at the end of next week!
- Reading together
I spent the morning with young artists whose work was featured in an opening at The Phillips Collection that featured young (and I mean young) artists; the oldest were in 5th grade, most were prekindergarten through 2nd.
It was amazing, energizing, exciting, and downright remarkable.
The opening of the 'Young Artists Exhibition: Art Links to Literacy' culminated a yearlong museum-school program developed by Turning the Page (TTP), a DC-based organization whose mission is to link "public schools, families and our community so that we can ensure DC students receive valuable educational resources and a high quality public education." (By way of full disclosure, I believe in what TTP does and its approach, and serve as a board member.)
Collaborations with rich resources like the Phillips (and its forward thinking Education Department) helps make learning come alive for young children, their teachers and just as important, the children's families.
It was electrifying to see how many family members attended a daytime program. Not only mothers and fathers but grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles — it was just that special. And all partners — museum, TTP, and school staffs — made everyone feel welcomed and wonderful. Parents in particular were thanked and honored by the sponsors — and by their children.
After the various presentations, the families had an entire museum to visit using the "museum manners" that the children reviewed with the Phillips staff. They also had lots of books carefully selected to enhance not only the museum experiences but also the strides the children made in reading and making connections.
The children went through the exhibit with catalogs in hand, examining the child-artist creations carefully, savoring the moment and the experience.
And so should anyone who is in the neighborhood of The Phillips Collection. "Community Vision" will be up through August.
A colleague recently sent me a link to new and "hot" children's book releases. The majority of them were books that featured well known and proven characters like the eloquent Nancy of fancy language fame and a skeleton detective, Dirk Bones (both HarperCollins).
There are also a number of series books based on television and movie characters. Think Transformers, Spider Man, and even Max and Ruby.
I was always a bit dismissive of series books until I came across a piece of research by C. S. Ross published in 1995. In "If they read Nancy Drew, so what?: Series book readers talk back" Seems that Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden and all of the other series that I gulped down as a kid were actually beneficial to the emerging reader in me.
Ross concludes that series teaches children to read by not only getting children reading, but also by introducing them to patterns in books — and I'll add that these patterns are visual as well as textual (plot, characterization, etc.).
And so, maybe it's not such a bad thing — especially if adults read widely and continue to introduce young readers to a broad range of books — books that are stand alones, books that might stretch the imagination and even the comfort level of readers and listeners.
Frankly, I always think of poetry when I think of stretching security zones. A lot of adults are uncomfortable with it — but even here, a series book can help. Teachers and children alike will appreciate what Gooney Bird and others in Mrs. Pidgeon's 2nd grade class learn about poetry in Lois Lowry's Gooney Bird is So Absurd (Houghton).
And so I'll continue to read extensively but I won't feel nearly as guilty the next time I pick up one of my adult novels that just may be one of a series.
It's Children's Book Week, a longtime celebration of books and reading now celebrated in May. Even though it's almost over, the festivities should continue beyond this week.
Also during Children's Book Week, children's book preferences are made known. This year's Children's Choice Winners were announced at a gala ceremony hosted by the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. Even Whoopi Goldberg and Al Roker, from The Today Show, were there!
Here are a few ideas to make every week Children's Book Week in your home or classroom. Hope you'll add to it!
- Visit the library every week; take out more than one book. Vote on your favorite of the week. (Kids' votes should count double!)
- Make a new bookmark and put it in the favorite book.
- Ask the teacher to share one of your child's favorite books with his/her class. Have other children bring in their favorite books.
- After a few weeks, take a class vote.
- Make a list of the children's favorite books; copy and send home before the summer.
Any other ideas? Let's add them as we count down to summer!
This weekend is Mother's Day. I always thought of it as a holiday created by, well, by Hallmark.
But it's not. I learned that it has roots in a feisty woman named Anna Jarvis who wanted to honor her mother. And apparently mothers were celebrated even farther back in history.
I admit that I have a particular point of view; that any day and any celebration is better with a book.
Much lauded artists, Leo and Diane Dillon, introduce readers to mothers and children around the world in a stunningly illustrated book entitled Mama Says: A Book of Love for Mothers and Sons (Scholastic). The simple words of wisdom, written by Rob Walker, appear in English as well as Russian, Hebrew, Korean, and other languages. The words are universal but the images go places quite literally.
For younger children, My Mom and Me (Little Simon) celebrates what mothers and children enjoy sharing. It, too, presents families from different cultures and uses words from different languages.
And look for a new Martha Alexander book recently completed by James Rumford. In Max & the Dumb Flower Picture (Charlesbridge), preschooler Max rebels against coloring in the lines of a pre-drawn flower to give his mom for Mother's Day.
Here's to mothers and celebrations — and to books shared between moms ands kids.