Archive for October, 2010

October 10, 2010

The painful death of picture books, according to the New York Times

(BIG DISCLAIMER ON THIS POST: One of the major quotes for this article in the NYT was taken way out of context and the parent has cleared this up on her blog, The Zen Leaf.  I try not to spread rumors when possible, but really, I didn’t think reposting a New York Times article would be akin to spreading rumors.  Sometimes I worry that journalism isn’t just dying because of the internet, but that journalists are giving up on it themselves.)

This is sad.  Really sad.  Kids should LOVE reading.  Or they are not going to read.  This should be obvious.  I find it interesting that so many adults think kids are going to act differently than themselves.  I mean, how many things do you do that you don’t really like?  It reminds me of a friend who once said she tried to start eating more healthy foods by buying tofu, until she realized that putting tofu in her refrigerator for a few weeks and then throwing it out when it was old was NOT a good way to get protein.  Similarly, buying chapter books for reluctant readers who want to read picture books is NOT a good way to get literate.  I mean, seriously, buy them some Captain Underpants.

New York Times article on disappearing picture books
(I think you need to register or log in to read, but it is free).

October 7, 2010

Boys (yes, and some girls, too) will love the trucks, You will love the paintings

Look, it’s not that I’m sexist.  At least, not any more than most other people I know.  I understand that there are gender stereotypes out there that can really hurt people, careers, and families.  But at a baseline, it’s true that boys and girls are different.  And so when I say that boys will love the trucks, I’m not saying all boys will, and I’m not saying all girls won’t.  I’m just pointing out the obvious–that more boys are likely to be into trucks than girls.  Just to clear that up.  I mean really, I have a son in ballet.  (There’s a blog entry for you, maybe another time–what people say to me when I tell them THAT.  We do live in a sexist world.)

Title: Machines go to work
Author: William Low
: Picture Book
Age: 0 – 6

Summary and Review:

This book is gorgeous!  Not the first thing you’d expect someone to say about a book on trucks and machines, but it absolutely is.  The paintings are first-rate, beautiful, and I never tire of looking at them.  The backhoe isn’t standing in the middle of a construction site, but is surrounded by tulips and crabapple trees.  The fire-engine is in front of a backdrop of blooming cherries, and the pick-up on top of a hill overlooking the water.  I’m not sure where the illustrator lives, but the scene reminds me a lot of Seattle; if you told me it was somewhere else, I would be surprised.

I don’t know if my toddler appreciates the art, but he loves the machines and he loves the stories.  For each machine, there is a question.  Then you turn the flap for the answer.  The answer always starts with “no”, and my son is excited to shout “no!” every time the flaps are turned.  (E.g., “Is the backhoe digging up the flowers?  No, it’s digging a hole for new crab-apple trees.”)  In fact, the language of the book is such that even though we’ve only read it a few times, he’s already memorized most of it and likes to “read” it himself.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

It’s a book about machines, and it shows really nicely how there are a lot of different machines for different kinds of jobs.  There is also an index in the back with pictures of all the machines in the book, so at the end of the book, you can review, which is my son’s favorite part of reading anything.  Ask your child about the different machines–which one is for digging?  Which one is for rescuing people (or cats in this case)?  Which one carries things in cars that it pulls?  Which ones ride on the road?  On the water?  On tracks?  Etc.  Pointing out that different things have different purposes will help them develop their observation and think critically about what they are looking at.

Another game you can play is “find the machine”.  I can’t take credit for this–my son invented this game.  Any book that has pictures in the back, if we see the pictures, he has to search through the book to find where they are in the book.  Why not?  It keeps them involved with the book and the content, encourages them to learn the book’s layout and materials, and also teaches them that books are a place you can find information.

Hopefully, when my son grows up enough to start writing those nonfiction school reports, books will still exist for him to look through.  🙂

October 6, 2010

Is anything about a teen’s life not TANGLED?

Is there an experience out there more intimate than reading?  Sure, television and movies can give you more detail, but the connection between you and the characters is sometimes lost by the guy chewing popcorn next to you or your toddler throwing things at the screen.  So I like to stick with books.  With books, it’s just me and the words, and with a good book, after a few paragraphs, it’s just me and the language in my head, which in the end, is really just me.  And there’s nothing more intimate than that.

Title: tangled
Author: Carolyn Mackler
: Realistic Fiction
Age: Upper Middle School and High School, 12 and up

Summary and Review:

Carolyn Mackler’s tangled is one of those intimate reading experiences.  There are four main characters.  A slightly awkward, half-Jewish girl, a definitely not awkward tall blond young actress, a so-awkward-his-parents-put-him-in-a-camp-that-teaches-social-skills guy, and that same guy’s very non-awkward football-playing older brother.

These teens go through everything (well, except school, there’s not a lot of that).  There is the death of a girlfriend, family break-ups, first sexual encounters (nothing crazy, just some touching in case you worry about that kind of thing), serious depression and suicidal thoughts, and first crushes.  Through it all, they are completely misunderstood by their parents, each other, and perhaps most importantly, themselves.

The story is told in four parts, with each one narrating his or her part from his or her point of view.  Sometimes, they are telling about the same time period and you get a better understanding of what actually happened when you see what two different people thought about it.  Sometimes, they move the story forward in time, talking about events entirely their own.  Always, they tell the story with their own believable, unique voices.  You would have thought that Carolyn Mackler just got out of high school herself with how accurately she seems to portray their thoughts, desires, and fears.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

So, if you are so inclined, you can talk about the physical parts.  There’s a great lesson in this book because one of the characters falls for a hot boy, only to realize she really doesn’t want to be fooling around with him (he puts his hand down her shirt and she doesn’t like it).  Later, she finds love in her own way and in a way far better suited to who she really is.  Some parents, I suppose, might find that horrific.  It’s possible, actually, that I am one of them, but I don’t really know yet, as my problems are still in the tantruming and please-use-your-fork-at-the-dinner-table stage.  But the beauty is how this character takes care of the problem herself, grows from it, and moves on.

If you think you can do it without preaching, this book could be used in that way to talk to a teenager about physical contact and what to do/expect.  However, I would really, really, stress that you should do it without preaching (preaching has, I doubt, ever had a positive effect on a teen), and I think using the context of the book and the characters–and sticking to that–would be a good idea.  I.e., don’t turn this around and say “so, what would you do if that boyfriend of yours tried something?”  But instead use the names and situations of the characters.  You’ll learn just as much by asking questions about them, and you’ll likely get further in the conversation, and thus learn even more.

The true beauty of the book, of course, is the way the four lives weave together, even though they are four very different characters.  In middle school and high school, kids can feel fairly isolated from peers that are different from them.  Talking to your kids about how different kids are involved in their lives, or how they experience similar things, might be a first step to getting them to think outside their own social clique.

October 5, 2010

What’s a big brother to do?

Okay, you might notice a theme here, but these are the books my son and I are reading right now.  I suppose it’s a good thing he wants to read them over and over.  I am in the middle of some middle-grade titles, too, so more on that coming up.

Title: What a good big brother!
Author: Diane Wright Landolf
Illustrators: Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher
: Picture Book
Age: 9 months and up 🙂

Summary and Review:

Cameron’s little sister Sadie cries a lot, and Cameron helps his parents.  He hands his dad some wipes (LOTS of them!), gets the nursing pillow for his mom, and rubs her tummy when it’s naptime.  But what to do when no one knows what is wrong?  Cameron’s soft touch not only calms the baby, but gets her first smile, too!

The story isn’t complicated–it’s really just what I’ve written above, and it gives kids at least a somewhat realistic expectation of what to expect with a baby–i.e., lots of crying and some helping of mom and dad.  It shows a young boy who gets pleasure in that kind of help, which is great.  And it shows the brother really involved in the baby’s life.

Just to warn you, the illustrations are a bit much.  They are gorgeous, but the backgrounds are this crazy hodge-podge of colors and patterns.  In fact, my son even asked what was wrong with the boy at one point because he had some red dots on him which had carried over from the turquoise-purple squares with red dots background.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

This book introduces a lot of topics you can talk about with a sibling-to-be, mostly that babies are a lot of work, but they are also wonderful to share time with.  They cry a lot because they can’t talk when they need something.  Always reminding your older one that he or she was once a baby is helpful.  In fact, the first few times you read it, you might only refer to it that way–yes, you used to cry like that because you couldn’t talk!  You used to nurse like that before you knew how to eat!  This will help the older one realize that it’s not just about the baby and, while 2-year-olds are not developmentally empathetic, it at least gives them a framework to reference the baby in comparison to themselves.

October 3, 2010

Welcoming a new BABY

Before I click “purchase” on an online site, I like to read the reviews.  But not all the reviews, only some of them.  I am very picky about what I read.  I read one or two 5-star reviews, and then I read all of the lowest reviews—the 1- or 2-star ones.

Why am I so focused on the negative?  Well, I believe you can learn more from those people.  Sometimes, the 1-star reviews are written by raving lunatics and you can tell by their first three words that they’ve never liked anything in their lives, so you can write that one off.  Sometimes, they are the most well-written and well-thought-out reviews of the bunch and you have to listen to them, grudgingly if it’s something you thought you really wanted.

And sometimes (and this is what I’m looking for) they are well-written, but their reasons for not liking them have nothing to do with you—and that’s when I really seal the deal on a purchase.  If it has some good reviews and some bad reviews, but the bad reviews are reasons that don’t apply to me, I’m done.  So there you go.  And that’s the way it was with this book.

I found this book while looking for books to read to my toddler about becoming a big brother—something that would give him a slightly understanding of what might befall him should a baby enter his world.  This one had both very positive and very negative reviews, but I was hooked when I read my first negative review, about how the book mentions a sperm and an egg, and how that was wholly inappropriate for children.  Well, I didn’t read further.  I put it in my shopping cart.

Title: Hello Baby!
Author: Lizzy Rockwell
: Picture Book
Age: 0 – 5

Summary and Review:

This is a great, straightforward book.  It is factual without being boring.  It speaks to the kids about what is happening within the context of a story.  I like that the boy visits the doctor with his mother and hears the heartbeat–just like my son does with me, so he could relate and even knew what the machine was in the picture.  I like that the doctor is a woman (so sue me, I’m slightly sexist).  I love the pictures of the little boy as a baby, toddler, and “grown up” on his trike…the pictures so perfectly capture the first few years of childhood that they could have been my son.  I like that the boy and his grandmother bake cookies and build a fort while they are waiting for the new baby (instead of, I don’t know, watching cartoons or something sacrilegious like that).  I like that there is breastfeeding in the book, so my son knows what to expect.  I like how the daddy is just as present in the parenting as the mommy and that the older boy is encouraged to be involved.  Some of the vocab does seem a little much–I mean, he doesn’t know what a womb is.  Seriously, the baby is in my tummy.  But how else is he going to learn?  A great book, especially alongside some other, less serious ones.

But lest I give you a negative vibe here—it isn’t serious at the risk of being boring.  It’s a grown-up book about a grown-up topic with a kids’ storyline and kids’ pictures.  And I like that, too.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

Every page of this book is a conversation waiting to happen, and most of the good ones relate the baby back to your own toddler.  Examples:

Did you ever go to the doctor’s with mommy and hear the heartbeat?
Did you ever live inside mommy’s tummy?
Do you have a bellybutton?
Did you ever wear really tiny shirts and socks?
Were you ever that small?
Did you ever crawl on the ground?
Did you learn how to walk?

You get the picture.  But probably the greatest thing about this book is that it invites activities and then gives a child a context in which to understand them and feel that this is not just something happening to him alone. So, take him to your OB or midwife and let him hear the heartbeat.  Let him help assemble the crib (or if you have more commonsense and caution than I, let him play with his own toolbox next to you while you do it).  Let him help sort the clothes.  Let him pick out some baby toys.  Get him involved.  Of course, I’m still in the book-buying part of the sibling-addition process, so I’ll let you know how all my highfalutin ideas really do any good come screaming-baby-in-MY-mother’s-lap time.  (Although I do have a book about mother’s laps to talk about.  Perhaps next time.)

Okay, now for those online reviewers concerned about sperm, let’s talk about that.  There is one page with illustrations of a developing fetus.  The text doesn’t mention sperm, although the picture caption says “a tiny egg cell from the mother is fertilized by a time sperm cell from the father”.  I actually haven’t even read this part to my son yet, mostly because it’s way too abstract for him to understand.  But I do point to the pictures and show him how the baby started out really, really small—too small to see!—and then grows and grows and grows until it’s ready to come out!

When your children are too young to read, it really doesn’t matter too much what the words say.  Of course, if you always made up your own words, it would be hard for them to learn to read by following along with you.  But I doubt you always do this.  And here, you aren’t making up your own words, you are just choosing whether or not to read all of the captions.  Seriously.

(I have a potty-training book that uses words like “pee-pee” and as specific instructions on the bottom of the page that parents should feel free to substitute their own terminology.  Really?  I mean, thanks for your permission, but hopefully parents already know that this is true with all of their books!)  I’ve always felt strongly that a reader is not merely a passive instrument soaking up information, but a vital character interacting with the book.  This has taken on a whole new meaning since I’ve become a parent reading picture books every night.  I mean really, some are seriously boring.  I make up better stories to go along with the pictures.  Or there are the times my toddler requests a rewrite, as during a recent reading of “The Three Little Pigs”.  He didn’t want the wolf to blow the house down, so instead the wolf just invited himself in for a playdate.  He was happy with that version.  The next time we read it, I took a page (pun intended) from Scieskza’s True Story of the Three Little Pigs, and had the wolf sneeze during the playdates, accidentally blowing the houses down and ending with all three pigs and the wolf playing together in the sensibly built house.  I guess what I’m trying to say here is that a book is whatever you want it to be.