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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.
We've gone from a lovely spring to brutal heat yet it's not even summer officially. The heat, however, reminds me that the dog days of summer are indeed close; that is, if they're not here already.
It's a great time to lay back with a good book to beat the heat and read about what else? Dogs.
Animal constellations may be a good place to start the story of summer's dog days. Jacqueline Mitton's Zoo in the Sky (National Geographic) sets the stage for the summer sky (and the background for the term "dog days"). Luminous illustrations and brief text introduce stories of the stars and help readers see the animals.
Closer to earth there are working dogs like the four that live in Upstate New York with writer and photographer, John Katz. His photoessay (a picture book, really) for children, based on his dogs, are introduced in Meet the Dogs of Bedlam Farm (Holt). The dogs' distinct stories and personalities are sure to remind children that everyone — even those with four legs — hold special places in families.
When Sam and Gram go to the shelter to Pick a Pup (McElderry), that one special pup picks Sam. The lively language in this rhyming picture book introduces a range of canine behavior while gently suggesting that choosing a dog takes a bit of work.
Of course some dog books are just plain fun. Dog in Boots by Greg Gormley (Holiday) presents a delightful brown and white mutt who, inspired by the tale of Puss in Boots, tries on different footwear from rain boots to heels — finally figuring out that he already has what he needs.
The dog days are just starting and so is the pleasure of sharing books on a summer day.
I don't remember learning to read, really, but I do remember the warmth and pleasure when my mother read aloud to us as children. I was reminded of the power of books shared early and often when I saw a Mother's Day video done by First Book.
What is the greatest thing that adults can share with young children? How is this achieved? Certainly not by skill and drill as a recent blog by Joanne Meier suggests, but rather by supporting children's natural curiosity about their world and igniting a passion for learning.
The program to which Joanne refers relies on repetition of a particular sort. And nothing sucks the joy out of learning quicker than an unstoppable barrage of skill and drill when there's only one way, one right answer — almost like brainwashing.
All parents want the best for their children, but life is busy and often complicated. They feel that introducing math and reading concepts early on is a good thing — and it is, but it has to be appropriate and it's got to be pleasurable for both the adult and the child.
Think about it: since most adults choose not to make a habit out of something that causes incredible discomfort, why would children?
Parents need help in recognizing that small things support young children's learning a great deal. A recent project called "Where Literacy Begins" helps parents and caregivers of young children get solid ideas for children from birth to age 3 (that are readily adaptable for 3 to 6 year olds). There's not one bit of drill in it but there are books, and lots of them.
And for young children, there's no better way to stimulate an interest in their world while learning more about it than books.
Three of my very favorite illustrators have been nominated for a very prestigious award, the Hans Christian Andersen.
Every other year, the names of an author and an illustrator are put forward for consideration for this international honor, selected by the National Sections of the International Board on Books for Young People (better known as IBBY). The award is given for their lasting contribution to the field of children's literature.
The illustrator nominated by USBBY (the United States chapter of IBBY) is Caldecott Medalist, Chris Raschka. American readers are very familiar with at least two other illustrators: John Burningham, the British nominee, and Peter Sís, nominated by the Czech Republic.
I find it interesting how illustration seems to translate more readily than text even though each culture seems to have its own unique way of presenting things visually. Take a look at some of the picture books in the International Children's Digital Library and let me know if you agree. (It's also interesting to note that the award for illustration was established ten years later than the author award.)
Like letters in print, images need to be decoded but it's assumed that illustration is easier to understand. Perhaps it is — if the viewer has the context in which to make meaning. (I'll never forget the city-bound child who made the logical assumption that the four-legged creature with two ears and a tail was a dog; it was a picture of a cow.)
It's a marvel to observe a young child pour over illustrations in a book; talk to them about what's going on, and maybe start a conversation about it. Ask about color (what do those colors make you think of?), line smooth or jagged, bold or thin (how do they make you feel?), composition (why do you think the character is over here rather than in the middle?). The illustrations of Raschka, Buningham, and Sis are unique to each artist and perfect for starting this kind of discussion.
Each is a winner — even though the HCA awards won't be announced for almost a year. It will give the nominees time to bask in their country's recognition of their contributions to children's literature.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, buses of young adults who went south to challenge a racially segregated interstate bus system which reflected a great deal of what was going on throughout the country. You can learn more about the Freedom Riders from the PBS series "The American Experience."
Many of the freedom riders are now grandparents; their stories continue to be important. Especially for children.
Older children (grades 6 and older) will gain insight into what it was like for the Freedom Riders in Ann Bausum's insightful, moving, and necessarily harsh — but riveting — Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement (National Geographic).
An equally personal look at this era of U.S. history that deals with another part of daily life is Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down (Little Brown) by Andrea Pinkney. Though it deals with the protest of Woolworth's segregated lunch counter, not transportation, the picture book format and rhythmic language makes a difficult time accessible to younger children, perhaps as young as second grade.
I know history can be tough but if we don't share sensitively revealed stories of times past, there is the real danger of repeating it. And maybe, just maybe, children become empowered when the impact and importance of individuals is recognized.
There are celebrations for virtually everything these days but few have the staying power of Children's Book Week. It was established in 1919 and is still going strong!
Children's Book Week is under the auspices of the Children's Book Council (CBC), the national nonprofit trade association of children's publishers. One of the more significant actions taken by the CBC in conjunction with the International Reading Association was the establishment of the Children's Choice Awards.
Since 1975, these awards have provided a voice for young readers who can now vote online for their favorite books. (The 2011 winners will be announced tonight at a fundraising Gala in New York City.)
Children's choices for award winners may not be the same as those chosen by adults but adults can learn a great deal by looking at what children select. There's a lot to learn when you look at the 2010 choices.
There's lots of nonfiction on the list — and not what I consider merely "functional" nonfiction (you know the type — books that look like they came out of an encyclopedia: think "school reports") but informational books that inform as well as intrigue and inspire.
All of the books seem to have an emotional truth to them. Some are more subtle or better written and illustrated than others, which must be expected, of course. All, however, demonstrate a respect for the audience.
These are books that mostly reflect children's likes and dislikes and that should of interest and concern to adults. In the very adult field of children's literature (in which adults write, illustrate, edit, publish, and ultimately purchase books for young readers in homes, libraries, and schools) it is critical to keep in mind the young reader and what books can do: introduce children to a lifetime of learning and pleasure.
April has been called the "cruelest month" (what else might one expect from a T.S. Eliot poem entitled "The Waste Land"?) but it is filled with wonderful surprises.
We celebrate Earth Day, especially poignant given that this month is also the first anniversary of the Gulf oil spill. (Lynne Rowe Reed's Roscoe and the Pelican Rescue published by Holiday House gives younger children a glimpse at what it takes to save an animal effected by it — and providing readers with a bit of hope.)
And notably, Beverly Cleary celebrated her 95th birthday. What's notable about this birthday is that her characters, their problems, and the way they handle them are ageless. Ramona (sister to the long suffering Beezus) first appeared in a book of her own in 1968; Ramona the Pest (Perfection) has been read by several generations.
Cleary wrote in an earlier era but with a timelessness that is based in portraits of real people with real feelings that capture the drama in everyday life. The Ramona books are a fine reminder that life continues, that there is resolution for some problems that humor exists in those.
Alll this in spite of constant reminders from the media-saturated world and its seemingly endless problems. Like Ramona on her first day of kindergarten, let's each celebrate "a great [April] day!"
I get to meet lots of people, travel to distant places, and often learn things I never even thought could be in the least bit interesting. I've just met another intriguing man in a place I've only heard of, and found out about an idea that's working to improve the lives of people who live in arid climates.
I didn't even have to leave home to do all of this. I just picked up a recent book by author/illustrator Susan Roth about a scientist named Dr. Gordon Sato whose work in a village in Eritrea, a small county in east Africa, is helping to better the lives of its citizens and change the world.
The book is The Mangrove Tree: Planting Trees to Feed Families (Lee & Low).
It all started with the idea to plant mangrove trees by the sea. These hardy trees need very little rain (a good thing, too, since little rain falls in Hargigo, Eritrea) which would provide leaves to feed animals which will help the people feed themselves and their children — all while improving the environment. Roth's textured collage illustrations help build a strong sense of place and the lively people who live, work, and play there.
It's a fascinating story which can be used as a simple cumulative rhyme with younger children or with older children as an informative narrative is included. An afterword provides even more information about Dr. Gordon Sato and the people of Eritrea in both straight text and full color photographs.
But even more, this handsome book reminds us — adults and children alike — that one person's actions can have big results. It takes time and patience and a bit of know-how — but it all starts with just one individual with an idea.
Winter doesn't seem to want to end. March came in with a roar and seems to be leaving with one, too.
Unlike the month that we're having, Marion Dane Bauer's In Like a Lion Out Like a Lamb (Holiday) with Emily Arnold McCully's effervescent wash and line illustrations provides a lively and quite literal look at March's changing weather. You can see the book here.
Even though it's been downright cold, there are brave daffodils and cherry blossoms emerging. Spring is a green season, of course, both factually and figuratively. Green has come to mean environmentally friendly. Earth Day has become an April staple, celebrated on April 22 ever since 1970.
Even the youngest child can participate and have fun doing "green" projects. Gabby & Grandma Go Green (Dutton) just may inspire easy to do projects and activities. Monica Wellington's round-faced characters present a straightforward story and simple instructions for making reusable cloth bags as well as simple-to-do things (like recycling a newspaper).
Slightly older children will enjoy the introduction to Celebritrees: Historic & Famous Trees of the World by Margi Preus (Holt). Who would have thought that there are so many fascinating trees all around the world — some ancient, others simply old? And there are suggestions for ways to care for and help grow "celebritrees" as well as resources to find out more about the subject.
Whether or not March ends on a lamb-like note or not, the weather is changing and things are coming up green.
The images from Japan's earthquake and tsunami continue to pour in and over us and there's the specter of further disaster. What can we offer our children to help them cope?
Hope. Hope that the actions of an individual can have a positive impact. Hope that better things will come.
Kimiko Kajikawa's Tsunami (Philomel) with powerful collage illustrations by Ed Young is based on a real 19th century Japanese hero who felt the earthquake and was able to save hundreds of townspeople. Like the rice farmer in the book, he was able to find a way to get people's attention to get them to higher ground and away from the fast-approaching tsunami.
Last year, Haiti experienced a huge earthquake. And while the recovery is still anything but complete more than a year later, a recent book by Jesse Joshua Watson, Hope for Haiti (Putnam), reminds children that hope, laughter, and even play can survive.
Sharing books with their static images allows ideas and words to emerge slowly and give a young listener time to absorb them.
But more; taking time to share the experience in a book allows children to absorb more than the horror. It lets them see that hope survives.
Lots of schools are trying to get children ready for standardized tests. Science and math are usually a focus though the skill and drill approach doesn't do much to cultivate lifelong learners.
Children's books may inspire and intrigue — recognizing the pleasure in learning in science and math. Stuart Murphy's MathStart series adds playful storytelling and real life situations to basic math and arithmetic.
Questions, Questions by Marcus Pfister (North South) poetically poses questions about the natural world accompanied by stunning illustrations. It is sure to arouse interest, and remind children that "…there's so much I want to know."
A tree tells the story of George Washington Carver in Jean Marzollo's The Little Plant Doctor (Holiday House). The naive voice is complemented by Ken Wilson-Max's illustrations to reveal a budding scientist whose work as an educator and scientist are still remembered; Carver's Missouri home is now a national park.
Web resources can also be huge fun and enhance both the understanding of various topics while engaging both adults and children. I came across terrific resources for teachers from the Jefferson Lab in Newport News, Virginia.
There are pages of activities and information especially for children, K-12, though I found them rather sophisticated for younger children; most would need the help of an adult to translate information. There are even videos in the "Frostbite Theater" that are short, snappy, and informative — and could be used with a broad range of children.
Books and other resources — like this site — may just make test preparation a bit more fun for kids all the way through high school and take the sting out of testing.