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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.
Recently I watched a small group of young children playing in a childcare center. There were toys and books and lots of other things around but that's not what held their attention.
What did? A large (particularly when compared to the children) cardboard box.
I didn't hear the conversation because I didn't want to become a distraction to their play. But they were clearly imagining something much more interesting than the box. Had it become a train? A car? A house? I suppose it could have been any one of these or virtually anything else — limited only by the children's imagination.
Play has changed over time. There are many more distractions, lots of concerns over safety and well-being, and pressure to perform — much of which impacts children's ability to play independently.
Nonetheless, the benefits of creative play are recognized; it has a positive impact on children's social, emotional, and cognitive development.
How has our society's affinity for electronic gadgetry had an impact on children's play? Has it changed how adults interact with children and the behaviors that adults model for children?
Maybe Antoinette Portis' mini-classic, It's Not a Box (HarperCollins) should become required reading for adults — then shared with children. The book is a simple yet totally recognizable take on imaginative play — with a box. Like the children I watched play, this rabbit/child's box takes him to places that can only be imagined.
We should try to give children space for imaginative play. It's when a box is not a box.
A staff member at a child care center I visited this week looked at me very skeptically when I said that we were going to have a good time together. I was there to introduce the staff to children's books and how media and hands-on activities help lay a firm literacy foundation.
For the next hour, we read, watched a short clip from a children's television program, sang, made noise, read some more, discussed educational benefits and generally had a good time. I was heartened when the skeptic in the group actually smiled.
Why would anyone be skeptical when learning is associated with fun? When did learning become the antithesis of pleasure? What sucked the light out of education?
I suppose it really doesn't matter but let's start taking pleasure in not only what children learn but how they learn it.
What might children gain when they and their teachers, child care providers or parents share a book like The Seals on the Bus by Lenny Hort (Holt)? (You can tell from the title it's a take-off on the familiar song, 'The Wheels on the Bus.')
Children will recognize the pattern of language, how to predict from textual and visual clues, differentiate sounds, encounter different animals in an unlikely setting — all while having fun and building on (or meeting for the first time) a recognizable tune — and having a good time with an adult.
Both children and adults enjoy the sound of the nonsense words, are introduced to a jazz great, and have a ball with Chris Raschka's Charlie Parker Played Be Bop (Scholastic). This picture book was inspired by Parker's rendition of 'A Night in Tunisia.' It's a fascinating book to share in lots of different ways: as a call and response, fast or slow, with exaggeration, and more.
(Even if you're familiar with bebop, jazz or scat, it's worth seeing — and hearing — how this book is shared on Between the Lions.)
Don't we do more of the things that we enjoy? Keeping or sometimes putting the fun back in learning may make it easier for all of us to do more of it — a crucial notion to share with our children.
The world is addicted to media and technology. Information whether accurate or not speeds from one corner of the globe to the other in a matter of minutes. Got a question? Google it. Want a book or music? Download it. Want to create a reader? Slow down.
An article about New England booksellers getting back to basics — how to "hand-sell" children's books — reminded me that talking about books to children and the adults in their lives remains vital.
Being in touch with authors is still a thrill to kids and grown-ups alike. I recently saw Rosemary Wells and her Hyperion editor, Stephanie Lurie, speak to a group of teachers and college students. They talked about how they worked together to make the forthcoming Yoko Learns To Read a rich experience for readers of all ages, the process of writing, editing and publishing books, and more.
The teachers and future teachers and librarians who shared the afternoon with them are sure to share the insights they gained with the young children in their lives. They'll hand-sell Wells' books — and look for ways to do the same with other books.
They'll probably share some of the ideas or get more using the various media now available in so many formats — very useful tools. But let's not forget that young readers often start with an adult who shares their passion for books.
Like most of us, I enjoy parties. And outdoor parties on glorious sunny days are among the best.
It was on just such a gorgeous day that, with young friend and his mom, I attended a book party to celebrate the publication of Katy Kelly's newest Melonhead (Delacorte) adventure. (To fully appreciate Adam Melon, you'll just have to read these engaging books — ideal for reading aloud to 6-8 year olds, by the way.)
The party was impressive for a number of reasons. What a pleasure to see young booklovers who had already met Melonhead (like my 8 year old friend) but were anxious to talk to the author and have her sign the newest installment. There were lots of adults to support the author — many authors themselves but all readers of children's books.
And there were people who had had a significant impact on the author — including Katy's first grade teacher.
How many adults can say that they remember their first grade teacher? Maybe many of us but how many of us have stayed in touch with that teacher?
Isn't it neat that the now-retired teacher and her former student have remained in touch and were able to share the joy of a book being published. What an elegant, articulate woman, too — the consummate professional!
I overhead the teacher talking to a small group of children about what it was like in the "olden" days in D.C. (the kids' term), patiently explaining what had changed and what remained. From the conversation I listened to, that woman must have been something in the classroom in the way she engaged the children and shared both information and experience. She's still teaching, I suppose.
Just goes to show that one teacher can have a lifetime influence.
I'm in a decidedly unfunny mood today. I suppose I've been reading too many dour books about dystopian futures, dysfunctional families, and vaguely familiar fantasies.
Why, I wonder, isn't there more humor in books for readers of all ages but especially for children? But then of course, humor is a tough thing to pin down especially when an adult looks at what humor appeals to children.
What is funny to children one day may not be so the next; plus children's humor changes over time as they grow and mature. But some books that make me chuckle whenever I read them often have a similar effect on kids.
Some are firmly rooted in grumpiness. Pete's parents know how to cajole their son out of a rainy day slump in William Steig's Pete's a Pizza (HarperCollins). And like the main character and his desire to run away to Australia, haven't we all had a day like Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (Atheneum) by Judith Viorst?
Other funny stories are based on the slapstick, exaggeration, parody. Steven Kellogg's books come to mind. He retells already tall tales like Sally Ann Thunder and Pecos Bill; he introduces larger than life characters such Pinkerton and creates entrepreneurial porkers in his reshaping of the Three Little Pigs. Kellogg also knows how to create a sight gag; his books' humor is always highlighted in lighthearted — and very funny illustrations.
So, I'll look for something to laugh about today (after all, I just read an article about the benefits of laughter).
Maybe it will start with a trip to the library.
My newly 7 year old niece, now in the 2nd grade, is visiting us this week during her school district's professional days. She's reading like a champ, gobbling down various (and more difficult) chapter books — fiction and nonfiction — with great gusto.
But she reminded me of the joy of picture books and the pleasure in reading them together or independently for readers of all ages. Michaela's imagination soars in the space left between the pictures and the words.
So often, adults assume that picture books are only for young children. Not so at all. In addition to rich language, illustrations require careful examination and often tell a tale that differs from the words or expands the narrative and sometimes even replaces it.
Yesterday, Michaela visited the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History where she was really impressed by the giant squid. That evening I shared with her Kevin Sherry's I'm the Biggest Thing in the Ocean (Dial).
As she reread it to me, Michaela started filling in what wasn't said by the words but certainly was suggested by the humorous illustrations. She created an entire new level to this seemingly simple picture story book.
I asked her why she still liked picture books even though she reads much longer books. Michaela told me she likes to look at the pictures, that they're often funny and say things by themselves. She then shrugged and said, "I just like to read them."
And read she does. Pictures and words; separate and together — with all the drama that a page turn creates.
Michaela likes to launch her creativity in the space between illustration and words found in picture books.
This September continues to be an interesting month. It started with a solemn occasion which included new memorials and remembrances for those lost on 9/11. But additionally, there are less serious celebrations and goings-on during the month.
One of my favorites is the National Book Festival sponsored by the Library of Congress. It will be held on the National Mall on September 24 and the 25th — a two-day event this year.
Our much loved National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, Katherine Paterson (who is literally a national treasure!), is among the notable authors and illustrators for young people — simply too good to miss. (If you're not in D.C., you can catch it online later.)
Meeting well known authors and illustrators inspires children and adults to read, to share ideas, and maybe even create their own. The power of story — whether in fact or fiction, orally or through books — can create a passion for lifelong learning. Many stories are ageless.
One ageless book is Ezra Jack Keats' A Snowy Day (Viking); amazingly, it will be 50 years old next year. It's a book that keeps inspiring.
And so does the Keats Foundation. The Foundation believes in the power of teachers and librarians to inspire children's passion for learning and reading and so offers mini-grants directly to them in support of programs that foster them. (Grant applications will be accepted online through March 15.)
What inspires you? How did your passion for reading and learning begin? Whatever it was or might have been, let's share it with our children.
The 10th anniversary of the 21st century's "day that will live in infamy" — September 11, 2001 — is being noted in schools and across the country this week.
Those of us who were around then will never forget where we were or what we were doing on that day. But there's a generation of children who weren't born or were too young to understand the horrific events that took place.
Teachers and parents want to help children understand what happened, but how is the unexplainable made understandable? How can books help? When is information appropriate for younger children?
Books can certainly help by doing what books do best. Roger Sutton in the September/October 2011 print edition of the Horn Book suggests that while many books can inform us about 9/11, the books that continue to resound with readers of all ages are those that help readers "feel better (or worse, or more deeply) [when you] read something you love." Books that readers return to again and again.
I'd like to suggest a few titles; some are older, others new. But these are books that may resonate with readers of many ages.
There is a newer book intended to inform young readers about what happened — frightening but still hopeful. Don Brown's America Is Under Attack: September 11, 2001: The Day the Towers Fell (Flash Point) reveals what happened in an almost journalistic style with the events of the day chronologically presented. The straightforward tone of the text and of the illustration provides facts and more. By including stories of survival and highlighting the heroism of first responders and airplane passengers, a measure of hope is offered.
By looking back to a legendary firefighter of the 1800s in New York's Bravest (Dragonfly), author Mary Pope Osborne (perhaps better known for the Magic Tree House series) combines an exciting tall tale with a touching homage to the firefighters who died on 9/11.
The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (Square Fish) by Mordicai Gerstein dramatically presents Philippe Petit's walk between the Twin Towers in 1974 (when still under construction) while creating a tribute to the buildings themselves, now only a memory on the New York skyline. Gerstein won a Caldecott Medal for his vertigo-inducing illustration.
Children younger than 4 or 5 often only sense the fear or simply know that they're afraid. Some books may help them take charge of their fears.
Go Away Big Green Monster (Little Brown) by Ed Emberly allows children to build a big green monster then deconstruct it one feature at a time. Max controls his Wild Things (in Sendak's classic picture book, Where the Wild Things Are, HarperCollins) even as he controls the beast in him. The implied tune and nonspecific art of Rebecca and Ed Emberley's Ten Little Beasties (Roaring Brook) may just count a child's fears away.
Not all books are for all children. But sharing with children what makes readers "feel better (or worse, or more deeply)" about 9/11 may quietly open doors of understanding to ourselves and our world.
When I was a child, I had a particularly loyal friend who accompanied me almost everywhere. I don't remember having grown apart from my friend but there came a time when he no longer went everywhere with me. When I now think of Wormy, it's always fondly.
Did my friend (who is virtually impossible to describe beyond his endless fidelity) move away? Well, he might have had he been a person. You see Wormy (a bizarre name, I know, for a non-worm but very steadfast creature) existed only for me just like Ida's Dotty, who comes alive in a book by Erica S. Perl.
Dotty accompanies Ida on the first day of school along with other children's unseen companions. (Julia Denos' illustrations, by the way, remind readers that lively imaginary friends come in all shapes and sizes.)
As the school year goes on, however, many other children's imaginary friends recede, are replaced by growing up. Not Dotty — who pushes a classmate; not acceptable behavior at all. A wise teacher, however, resolves the issue while reassuring readers and Ida.
Children often need a good friend to support them — even if that friend lives only for that child. These buddies often help children cope with new situations like starting school; it was true of my friend and me. In this book, Ida and Dotty — and teacher Ms. Raymond — remind children that it's okay to be different and even to have special friends, even if they can't be seen by everyone.
If they're not already open, schools everywhere are getting ready for a new year and so are children and their parents.
In addition to buying the supplies needed, a stop at the library or bookstore may be just the thing to help get children really back in the groove.
Books help children prepare for school in lots of ways whether it's their first time or just to remind them of some of the things that they're returning to.
I always enjoy Lucy Cousin's Maisy. Without a hint of anxiety, the charming mouse experiences her first when Maisy Goes to Preschool (Candlewick).
For the child who may need more reassurance than Maisy, Llama Llama Misses Mama (Viking) by Anna Dewdney reminds children that home (and affection) awaits them.
Of course, Kevin Henke's slightly neurotic mouse-child and worriers everywhere probably share similar trepidations. If you don't know Wemberly Worried (Greenwillow) — even if you or your children aren't like Wemberly — this is a character worth meeting.
Books are fun all year but may be especially well-shared as a new school year starts.