Archive for December, 2010

December 31, 2010

Grown-ups who read kids’ books

Here’s what I think.  Yes, technically this blog is for parents to recommend books to their kids, or read along with them, but there are a lot of adults reading children’s books out there, whether their kids are reading them or not.  And not just Harry Potter and Twilight (oh please, not Twilight).  But a lot of other good stuff, too.  And I wanted to celebrate that!  Take the cover off the book you read on the train and come out from under the covers at night.  I think these are great reads for adults!

Middle grade books are my favorite.  I’ve always taught middle school, with a few forays into elementary and high school, but I always come back to middle school, so maybe whatever it is that draws me to these kids also draws me to these books.  But I really do think that middle grade books often tackle much more complex issues than adult books and tend to be much more honest. The Golden Compass, anyone?  Who has read an adult book lately that talks about stripping our souls away from us?  (And for more thoughts about what it means to take away your soul, just look at Harry Potter‘s Voldemort.)  And what about The Hunger Games?  Katniss is such an honest character—she’s tough and likeable, brave and resists authority like any Tom Clancy hero, but she’s also unsure of herself, unsure of love, and unsure of her role as a heroine.  She’s a real, complex personality.  And Ender’s Game?  Ender is only six when the book starts, but his journey is one we can all learn from.  And all of these books have a lot to say about our own society as well.

Almost every time I read adult fiction, which is rare, but I make an exception once in awhile for a notable book (most recently for A Reliable Wife), I regret it.  In A Reliable Wife, for example, the writing was superb, the plot interesting and complex, but the characters.  “Ah humanity,” as Bartleby would say.  Oh good lord.  None of them were at all likeable.  I get it, the world has evil people in it.  They do weird and bad things.  But please, it’s almost as if to be considered good adult fiction it has to be dark and subversive—happiness is thought of as a childish emotion and not part of reality.  (Frankly, I loved Gretchen’s Rubin’s point in The Happiness Project that happiness is actually very hard to achieve in the modern world and people who do so are usually shot down by the rest of us, who take the easy, cynical route, and take it too seriously.)  There’s plenty of dark, subversive things to be found in kids’ books, but kids’ authors don’t have to put on a hoity-toity pretense that it isn’t good writing if someone doesn’t get raped or murdered.

Honestly, I think the characters in kids’ books, because they are going through that awkward time in their lives where they so outwardly try to “find themselves” are much more honest portrayals of reality.  Because really, has any of us actually found ourselves?  No, I didn’t think so.  If I’m going to read an “adult” book, it usually has to be nonfiction.  Or a Jonathan Safron Foer book.  Maybe Jonathan Franzen.  Or the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.  Because seriously, Ma Ramotse is a great character.

December 30, 2010

Moms, get down on your knees and let your inner BOY out!

When I saw the UPS truck pull up in front of my house today, I knew it was here.  The book I had been waiting for!  The book I saw on the Kirkus Book list for 2010 and decided to wait until after the holidays to order.  You can see I waited a long time.  I tore the box open immediately and have already read it, although at this point it’s probably apt to say that it’s a picture book, I’m an adult, and technically, this is a present for my son.  Well, he can have it later.  I’m busy now.

Title: Shark Vs. Train
Author: Chris Barton and Tom Lichtenheld
: Picture Book
Age: 2 – 6

Summary and Review:

Here’s the plot: it’s a shark versus a train.  I know, I know, the title says it all!  That’s why I had to get the book.  But who will win?  Well, that depends, which is the storyline.  Are they in an ocean? (Shark.) A train track? (Train.)  Roasting marshmallows? (Train: it has a smoke stack, after all.)  Are they giving rides at a carnival?  (Train: are you really going to ride a shark?)  The answers are not in the text, only the illustrations.  The battles get progressively silly until the two toys are sword-fighting on a tight-rope, a situation neither is happy with, and you can almost see the imaginations of the two boys getting stressed, even though they aren’t pictured except in the beginning and ending few pages.  But luckily, mom calls for lunchtime (it could be dad or grandma–the character is off-book), and the toys are put away (thank you, illustrator, for that great example!) for next time, although they are still talking the talk in the toy box.

I mean, I was an obvious candidate for this book, as evident from the fact that I eagerly awaited it knowing little more than the title.  And really, the title was all I needed—it surpassed the expectations of a book with that title.  But this is a really fun book.  It’s clearly aimed at the boy, testosterone-powered crowd, with its fierce characters and epic battles.  Plus, the two kids in the story who play with the toys (although they only make brief appearances) are both boys.  But I think girls would love it, too.

Follow-up with the kids:

Okay, this one is both obvious and fun.  Let’s encourage some creativity and strike those imaginations.  Get a toy shark and a toy train.  Or a stuffed elephant and a toy car.  Or a … well, ANY two objects really.  And play Shark Versus Train!  Invent situations and talk about who would win.  Make sure your toy talks it up, saying why he would win, and encourage your young son to do the same with his toy.  When possible, act out the situation for real.  Get physical.  Make sure the game isn’t too quiet–I don’t think Shark Versus Train should be a quiet game.  There should probably be some non-violent aggression going on.

Moms, get down on your knees and let your BOY out!  (And the actual boy whose been cooped up in the house with you all winter.)

December 27, 2010

A Fairy Tale book that is not too simple and not too violent but just right for your little Prince or Princess

Ah, my poor holiday-neglected blog!  I have not forgotten about you!  In fact, the holidays have given me a lot to write about, but I’m going to focus on fairy tales today because I am really excited about this book.  My family is lucky enough (crazy enough?) to celebrate two holidays, and while I’m not sure that means more presents necessarily, as each holiday’s gifts come from different sides of the family, it certainly does lend itself to quite the extended season of present-opening.  My husband and I decided that, knowing the wrapped love that was going to be poured on our son from grandparents, great-grandparents, and aunts and uncles, that we weren’t going to go crazy with gifts ourselves.  So, we bought a book of fairy tales and put it under the Christmas tree.

I was a little nervous that after the puzzles and games, magazines and toys from all the other relatives that my lone book gift would go neglected in the days after Christmas.  So it was with a really proud heart and a smile on my face that I found myself agreeing to read the fairy tales to him for the first, second, and third time right then on Christmas morning!  We even paused present-opening to read some of the stories!  We’ve read it multiple times each day and night since–and I am SO PROUD of myself!  Is that ridiculous?  I don’t care!  Parenting does not necessarily come with a lot of moments where you feel like you know what you are doing–so I am going to revel in this one!  I chose a great present!  And it was a book!  And he loves it!  Ha!

Now, I spent hours researching this book, and it was harder to find that I anticipated.  Part of this was because my beloved local bookstore has just now gone out of business, so asking them for advice was not to happen.  I did visit one of their really depressing, crowded, going-out-of-business sales in search of some books, but the shelves had been all but torn down by the vultures that had come to prey on the dying store, and what’s more, had been recently restocked with total junk books presumably brought in by the company running the closing sales.  So while I did find some fairy tale books that were marketed at the toddler age group, they were really, really horrible.

Then I looked online, and I found the same thing.  My options seemed to fall into one of three categories: (1) fairy tales that had been so dumbed down and shortened as to have almost no meaning whatsoever, (2) Disney-brand fairy tale stories, and (3) adult-length gorgeously illustrated stories that closely followed the original versions.

The first option was out for obvious reasons.  While I wanted short text, I wanted enough words for the story to actually make sense.  This seems obvious to me, but apparently not to some publishers.

The second option was also out for (what I hope are) obvious reasons.  I have nothing (or very little) against Disney, and I’m sure we will one day have all those Disney DVDs lined up on a shelf somewhere, but there’s something to be said for not reading brand-name versions of hundreds-of-years-old stories.  Disney changed a lot, really–you should have seen my husband’s surprise when he read the end of “The Little Mermaid” to my son.  Not to mention his surprise that some of the titles in the book were actually fairy tales and not Disney movies.  Sigh.  So no Disney version for me.

And as for the third option, while perhaps more literary and historically accurate, well, let’s face it, the original fairy tales are a little longer and more graphically violent than I really need to be reading to a two-year-old.

So, after much searching and review-reading, I came across this book.  I love it.  Is it perfect?  Maybe not for everyone.  But I think it really does the job, hits all the points I was worried about, and given the number of times we’ve read it so far, I’d say it was the right choice.

Title: Fairy Tales
Illustrator: Mary Engelbreit
Genre: Picture Book, Fantasy
Age: 0 – 6, Toddler, Preschool

Summary and Review:

I was intrigued immediately by this book because of the illustrator.  A Mary Engelbreit print hangs in my laundry room, stolen from my mom’s laundry room after she died.  A Mary Engelbreit anything reminds me of my mom, my aunt, and my grandma.  I remember a phase in my family when all greeting cards and calendars were Mary Engelbreit.  I think there was even a Mary Engelbreit apron.  Her artwork is original, colorful, and somehow simplistically complicated.  My son seems drawn to it, too.  I know that pictures are part of what draws him to a book.

The stories are simple, perfect length to read two or three at bedtime, and a perfect length for a young attention span to really enjoy and understand them.  Some may complain that they could be a little longer, they could include a little more of the beautiful complexity of the originals, but I do think they are a good compromise–they are introducing my toddler to these stories and he will have plenty of time later to fill in more details (starting, probably, with the Disney movies, and hopefully moving on from there).  They are told in a gentle manner without losing their charm, and for the most part stick closely to the original plot-lines.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

Fairy tales are rich with allusion and meaning and give a lot of opportunities to ask leading–or open-ended–questions to the unsuspecting toddler.  My favorite leading question in books like this is to say “that’s not very nice, is it?”  Yes, I realize by doing this I am indicating my moral choices and hoping my son will agree.  But if that isn’t parenting, what is, really?  And I don’t want him to think that by reading a story about someone making a bad choice that I am condoning that choice.  Of course, you can ask a more open version of that question if you prefer, and definitely should if your child is older and closer to preschool age.

Fairy tales are also full of characters that make choices.  Ask your preschooler if they would make the same choice.  Examples: would you give up life as a mermaid and risk death for a chance to meet the prince?  Or, “do you think the mermaid was right to take that risk?”  “Should she have killed the prince to save herself?”  Vary the type of question you ask, how you ask it, and whether or not you ask them to project the feelings onto themselves by your child’s age and the level of questions you think they will be able to understand.  Ask him why Ella’s stepsisters are so mean to her.  Ask her why Beauty would volunteer to live with a Beast.  Why did the princess first lie to the frog?  Why did her father, the King, insist the frog stay for dinner?  And why did she change her mind about the frog later?

Fairy tales are also great for reenacting.  Have a puppet theatre?  Act out the fairy tale.  Or make a crown out of some construction paper, and act out the story yourselves.  Fairy tales are such a beautifully rich part of our heritage.  Helping your kids understand their basic plots and structure will give them a solid foundation for understanding much more complex literary and morality in their years to come.

And you won’t risk hearing them one day say “Wait, you mean The Little Mermaid isn’t a Disney story?  Hans Christian Who?”

But really, my husband has other redeeming qualities.

December 9, 2010

Donkeys and Asses and Children’s Delicate Ears

I remember reading a book aloud to a third grade class in my first year of teaching.  Technically, I was student teaching, but full-time student teaching in the middle of Dorchester, MA, counts as full-time teaching any day of the week.  I forget the book; I think it was Roald Dahl–maybe James and the Giant Peach?  Or maybe we just read that one that year and it wasn’t the same one I’m thinking of.  It doesn’t really matter.  The point is, I was reading along and noticed that a few sentences ahead (yes, when you are reading aloud to third graders–or any graders, really–it’s a good idea to have your lips pronouncing words your eyes have already read) there was the word “ass”.  I had to make a quick decision.  Did I skip it?  Change it to “donkey” (as was the meaning here–it was not intended to be a swear word or a part of the body)?  Change the sentence entirely?  Eventually I went with just reading it.  I read right through it as if it was no big deal, glared a a few kids who dared to laugh (with my best “are you seriously that immature?” glare I could produce at the time) and continued on.  Later, the teacher (the actual teacher in the classroom) came up to me saying she was impressed that I said that.  I’m not sure if she meant impressed that I was that brave, or that stupid, or both, but I just smiled and shrugged.  I had been embarrassed to do it, but I was also embarrasssed at my embarrassment, so I let it go as if it was no big deal.

But I smile to remember this incident because apparently it is a big deal all over again.  It now comes from a great picture book that I first saw in a wonderful independent bookstore in Asheville, NC.  My husband saw it first and handed it to me, knowing I would like it.  The book is all about two characters talking about what a book can do.  “Can you turn it on?” one character asks, and proceeds to question the other about things you can’t do with a book.  “Can you scroll down?”  “Can you blog with it?”   The lesson learned is that no, you can’t turn it on, scroll, or blog, but it’s an amazing tool anyway, and the skeptical character is carried away on the literature-powered ride of the imagination.  It’s a beautiful book with a beautiful lesson for today’s plugged in kids.

But apparently the author had to get in one last joke.  The character reading is a donkey, or as he is otherwise known, a jackass.  So the last line, “It’s a book, Jackass” has caused some heads to spin.  It is this line that is responsible for every 1-star review on Amazon.  And it has apparently put a halt on a project in Gloucester, Massachusetts, that was due to give a copy of this book to every child in the school district.  Click here to read the article in the Gloucester Times.

I’m not sure I have an opinion on this really one way or the other.  If I had my choice, as a mother, I would rather my son not call people “Jackass”.  And as a reader, I find the joke funny, but not so funny or original that it really justifies the obvious backlash it was going to get.  It feels a little bit as if the author wanted to be edgy just for the sake of it.  I mean, what if he had ended the book with, “It’s a book … Donkey.”  Some people might have seen the hidden joke in there anyway–the thing that couldn’t be said.  That would have been funnier.  But subtlety is lost in the modern world, I suspect.  Oh well, it did gain the book publicity—was that the point?

At any rate, it’s a great book—I loved reading it—and definitely worth checking out, but maybe slightly more appropriate for older children (6 and up or so), who can be taught the difference between using that word appropriately and inappropriately.  I’m not sure I’d read it to my 2-year-old.  Or actually, I would, but I’d just change the last line.  I mean, I try not to be a total prude, but seriously.  If they are old enough to read and be able to tell that you’re reading it wrong, then they are probably old enough to be taught the difference between jackass and jackass.

December 8, 2010

Toddlers and puppets and books, oh my!

I have yet to meet a toddler that loves books.  And I have yet to meet a mother who doesn’t proudly proclaim that her toddler loves books.  And why not?  Books are awesome, wonderful, cool things that teach toddlers all kinds of things they want to know.  And even all kinds of things you want them to know (and some that you don’t).  As kids grow up, that ratio will likely shift to a lot of things you don’t want them to know and some that you do, but hey, they are reading, they are exploring their world, and if you can give them that at a young age, then I think that’s the equivalent of giving them an infinite number of lives to live, one for each time they open the pages of someone else’s story.

So that’s why I think it’s cool to get kids involved in books at a young age.  And that’s why I think it’s a good idea for parents to show their kids that they read, too, and that they interact with the books in the same way they want their kids to do so.  So here’s an idea for interacting with books that will allow you to have an infinite number of conversations about an infinite number of books.  And a lot of fun, too.

Paper Bag character puppets

We all know paper bag puppets–you get a small sandwich-size paper bag, turn it upside down, draw a face on the bottom of the bag, usually with half the mouth on the lower edge of the bottom and the other half of the mouth on the bag where they meet (so the mouth opens when you move the puppet), and decorate the rest of the bag below the mouth, and even on the other side if you desire with the puppet’s outfit.  Anything can be used for this–stick to just crayons if you have a young one or like to keep it simple.  Or buy stickers and googly eyes from a craft store, buy yarn for the hair and felt to make hats and shirts.  Get construction paper and scissors and glue.  Finger paints.  Whatever your level of comfort with the crafting scene, go with that.

Then choose your favorite book (or even better, let you toddler/preschooler pick).  If you’re unsure about their picking powers, you might want to limit them to a few choices.  Not only does practice choosing between a few things help them with confident decision-making later, but it will allow you to limit their choices to books with characters that will work well for this project.  A win-win!  Sorry, I actually cannot stand that phrase…

At any rate, make puppets that showcase the characters of the book.

If you are REALLY into crafts, you can make a really easy puppet theatre with a tri-fold poster board (the kind you see at science fairs and are in most grocery stores now).  Just cut a hole in the center of one of the folds, decorate as you wish, and stand it up, putting the puppeteer and puppets behind it.  Feel free to improvise curtains with a tired napkin or dish cloth.

Okay, now you’ve got the stage.  Here are some ideas:

1. Act out the whole book for your child.  Reading each of the character’s lines with the puppets on your hands, show your child the whole story.

2. Have your child act out the story in their own words.  Learning to summarize is such an important skill!  This will be hard for many kids and feel free to help.  Start by asking them questions–what happens first in the story?  What is one character saying to the other?  Encourage them to paraphrase rather than look up the actual quote if you can.  They are really learning about reading now!

3. Engage your child in a new story, with each of you acting as one or two puppets.  For toddlers, just let them play and imagine any scenes they like.  They will probably be simple, but they will really show you what a kid is thinking!  Reluctant children might like for you to hold the puppet at first while they ask it questions, and you can answer as the puppet.  Later, they might be ready to act out their own puppet.  Older children can put on whole plays and stories with the characters as themselves.  In other words, if the dog puppet is mean in the book, the dog puppet will be mean in their story, even though it’s a new one.  Think of it as writing their own sequel.  That would really teach them to think about who the characters are in the book, apart from the one story they see them in.

4. Let your imaginations run wild!  That, after all, is the whole point of reading!