In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The categorizing mind

Dear Aunt Debbie,

There's a new kind of reader in our house.

I've always enjoyed the way that kids have their own reading personalities, their ways of approaching and engaging with books. Eleanor was ready for chapter book read-alouds far earlier than Isabel, and her love of a long, gripping narrative has continued well into her own independent reading years. Isabel has always responded intensely to visuals, and graphic novels have eased her transition from emerging reader to full-on independent reader. Will, it turns out, has a categorizing mind.

This first became apparent last spring when Eleanor was doing a 2nd grade nonfiction project about Jim Henson. We took a bunch of books out of the library (how much do I love the Brooklyn Public Library?), among them a nice big coffee table book about all of Henson's creative projects ever: Christopher Finch's Jim Henson --The Works: The Art, the Magic, the Imagination.

It's a pretty fabulous book, especially if you're interested in the Muppets at all: accounts of Henson's early life, his first commercial projects, the birth of Sesame Street and the Muppet Show, his later, weirder TV shows and movies. Lots of glossy pictures, including a four-page spread with thumbnails of the guest stars in every Muppet Show episode that ever aired. (Bob Hope! Lesley Ann Warren! Alice Cooper!)

Will became obsessed with this book. He was just over 2 years old, and would sit on the couch turning the pages over and over -- so much so that, after he ripped a couple and we taped them, we returned the book to the library and bought our own used copy. He called it "Gog Book" (for "Frog," a.k.a. Kermit). And as he turned the pages, Will was categorizing: memorizing names and faces, putting things in order in his mind.

He particularly loved the big Muppet monsters: Sweetums, Thog, the purple-bodied twins/triplets The Mutations. One double-page spread contains pictures of the cast of puppeteers, showing who played which characters, and Will would ask us to read all the names: Richard Hunt played Janice, Scooter, Beaker, and Wayne of Wayne and Wanda. "Who played Thog?" The book didn't say. "Look it up on your 'puter, Mommy." I looked it up. Turns out it was Jerry Nelson.

Probably three weeks later, Jeff was reading the Gog Book with Will, and got to that page. "Daddy, Jerry Nelson played Thog." Okay, though it doesn't say that in the book. "No! Jerry Nelson played Thog!" Total nerd recall.

While full-bodied Muppet monsters still hold a place in his heart, Will has lately moved on to a full-fledged superhero obsession. Again, there is so much categorizing going on: the names of superheroes, followed of course by the powers and weapons of each one. What does Batman carry in his utility belt, you ask? Why, among other things, Batarangs, Batcuffs, and Batrope, of course.

As I mentioned in my last post, we've been reading a ton of superhero early reader books, some better than others. Generally speaking, we've found the I Can Read! books featuring the DC superheroes (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) to be better written than the World of Reading books about the Marvel superheroes (the Avengers, Spiderman, X-Men). Not loads better, but enough that the language allows you to read aloud with a little dramatic flair.

Here's Donald Lemke writing Batman: Winter Wasteland:

When he arrived in Gotham City, he spotted his coldest enemy, Mr. Freeze.
The frozen felon fired icy blasts at nearby buildings.
"Stop right there!" shouted Batman.
The villain turned and smiled.
"Don't you mean freeze?" he asked.

Compare that to Clarissa Wong writing This is Black Widow:

She was an orphan.
She lived at the Red Room.
The Red Room was a secret camp.
It was an evil place.
The camp leaders trained her to be a spy.
They taught her to steal.
She knew the Red Room was bad.

Yup, that's the book I read aloud five times yesterday.

Your latest slam-dunk gift, however, gives me hope for the Marvel universe. A month ago, you gave us Will's current favorite book, Meet the Marvel Superheroes, by Chris "Doc" Wyatt. It's an illustrated character encyclopedia, listing more than 100 Marvel superheroes, from the best-known to some I'd never heard of (Squirrel Girl, anyone?). The lineup is more diverse than I feared it might be -- lots of women, and a decent if not huge number of superheroes of color (Ms. Marvel, a.k.a. Kamala Khan, is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants; Black Panther stars in a new series this year written by Ta-Nehesi Coates). None of the depictions of women are so sexualized as to make me cringe, though it is interesting to note how many of the female superheroes have powers that involve mind control. (Those crazy women -- they can make us do anything they want!)

We read this book all the time. Will has memorized names, relationships, weapons, powers. Each page contains handy thumbnail illustrations of the superheroes related to the one depicted on the page, which helps with the categorization.

I hesitate to be gender reductive here, but it does strike me that I've seen this kind of reading pattern -- learn all the facts about a particular universe, categorize them, repeat them -- more often with boys than with girls. But even as I write that, I think of the power of the superhero narrative: Will takes all of his knowledge and puts it into 24/7 roleplay, dressing up and casting all of us as superheroes around the dinner table, stopping our conversation to announce: "There's a new villain in Gotham City!"

So I'll take a step back from trying to categorize this type of reading, and go get ready to fight crime. You might not know it, but I'm Batwoman.

Love, Annie

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

New year, new spunky feminist princess

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Happy New Year!

It's been an intense and happy holiday season, filled on our end with lots and lots of good reading. As it's been a while, here's a quick snapshot of the reader profiles at my house these days:

Eleanor, in 3rd grade, tries very hard to read at every waking moment: at the breakfast table, brushing teeth, on the street walking home from the library. We've outlawed reading at dinner, but allow it during dessert; consequently, it can now take up to 25 minutes for her to eat a single cookie.

Her tastes run to big novels about mythology and magic: she's read and reread all of Rick Riordan, from Percy Jackson through his Egyptian series and the new foray into Norse mythology. For lighter fare, there are the Dork Diaries books (not my favorites, as you know), and lots and lots of Geronimo and Thea Stilton, the strange, translated-from-the-Italian series about talking mice with long hair and clothes.

Isabel, in 1st grade, has become a full-fledged independent reader in the last several months. She went from early reader books leapfrogging up to the Critter Club series (early chapter books focusing on girls who love animals -- a clear fit), and just this past month I looked over and she was reading Ruth Chew -- real, full-on chapter books, with hardly any pictures -- and telling us all about the stories. I remember loving Ruth Chew as a kid. The Matter-of-Fact Magic books are set in 1970s Brooklyn, actually not far from where we live now; in each, children encounter small, imaginative bits of magic that change their lives a little bit, but aren't scary or terribly permanent. The fate of the world is never at stake, and practical details pop up regularly: what do you do when you use a wizard's magic umbrella to transform your clothes into bathing suits, then lose the power to change them back, and no longer have the front-door key to your house? (The Trouble With Magic.)


Will, closing in on age 3, picks up books almost as often as his sisters. He's currently obsessed with superheroes and Yoda, so we're reading aloud a lot of I Can Read! books from the library with titles like Batman: Winter Wasteland. He is building up a baseline of specific character knowledge that I'm sure will come in handy later. Meanwhile, we all know much more about the specific powers of a wide variety of superheroes, in both the DC and Marvel universes.

Despite their different interests and ages, graphic novels remain a major go-to for all three kids, a kind of common denominator. When one picks out a new graphic novel of any kind, from Avatar: the Last Airbender to My Little Pony, they all vie for a turn to read it.

We stumbled across our newest favorite graphic novel series at the library, and the girls kept the first three books in such solid rotation that it was clear we needed to own them.

Princeless is centered around the adventures of Princess Adrienne Ashe, who begins the series at age 16 having been trapped in a tower -- like her 5 older sisters before her -- by her parents, in the hope that a dashing prince will come to save her. Unlike her sisters, Adrienne makes friends with the dragon guarding her, puts on the armor of one of the hapless princes who's been eaten by that dragon, and busts out of her own tower. Her goal? To save herself, and then to head out and save her sisters.

There is so much to like here. First, Adrienne and the entire royal family (King Ashe, Queen Ashe, 7 princesses and one prince) are black. This is obvious from the illustrations, of course, but it's also front and center in the text: the first three pages of the first issue show Queen Ashe reading Adrienne a prince-saves-the-blonde-princess-in-a-tower story, and Adrienne angrily critiquing it while her mother struggles to comb her hair.

Adrienne is confident, strong, and smart, not to mention physically capable -- she teaches herself swordfighting, and almost immediately does pretty decently in combat with her father's soldiers (they think she's a knight who has killed the Princess Adrienne). She's not invincible -- there's a good amount of slapstick with Adrienne falling from balconies and being tangled in her ill-fitting armor -- but she's resilient.

Almost all of the supporting characters in the series are female. In book 1 (Save Yourself), Adrienne meets and befriends Bedelia, the teenage daughter of a dwarf blacksmith who, it turns out, has been doing all the smithing for years while her father goes to the bar. Book 2 (Get Over Yourself) brings in Adrienne's sister Angelica, the most beautiful of the princesses, who has positioned herself as the muse for a town full of artists. In Book 3 (The Pirate Princess), Adrienne and Bedelia rescue, fight, and team up with Raven Xingtao, the daughter of a pirate king. (Raven is getting her own spin-off series this month.) Book 4 (Be Yourself) focuses on the quest to save Adrienne's sister Angoisse, who is shut up in a dark swamp castle with a gorgeous but creepy vampire boyfriend. There are also Kira, a werewolf being groomed to take over her father's position of wolf pack leader; Delores Grunkmore, a dauntless goblin guide; Queen Ashe, who disappears mysteriously partway through the series (Eleanor and Isabel and I have a theory about that); and of course Sparky, Adrienne's dragon.

Contrast this with the lineup in the (otherwise wonderful) Zita the Spacegirl, in which the rag-tag bunch of creatures and robots Zita gathers on her journey are entirely male, in classic Wizard of Oz fashion.

Characters throughout the series are diverse, both racially (so nice to see such a variety of skin colors in a comic book) and in ways that play with stereotypes. I say "play with" rather than "defy" because author Jeremy Whitley's tone is often knowing -- he's consciously poking fun at and retooling narratives we've seen before, sometimes in ways that feel a little heavy-handed to me, if not to my kids. I think of Adrienne's twin brother, Devin: a sensitive guy, an artist and designer, written in direct opposition to the hyper-masculine King Ashe, who so far has no redeeming qualities.

But I felt that way about the stereotypical aspects of both Princess Angelica (the beautiful one) and Princess Angoisse (the goth one) too, and Whitley managed to find endings which allowed each princess to find her own way of being empowered. I'm willing to reserve judgment as the series goes on.

And some of the wink-wink-nudge-nudge moments are Whitley's funniest. When Adrienne first meets Bedelia in Book 1 and expresses an interest in getting some armor that fits her, Bedelia ushers her into the "Women Warriors Collection":



That would be, from left to right, the costumes worn by Wonder Woman, Red Sonja, and Xena, Warrior Princess. Adrienne and Bedelia's commentary:


[Side note: I mentioned Will's current superhero obsession, which, among other things, is bringing home to us just how sexy and sexist the depiction of female superheroes is. Here's what happens when your son asks you to google pictures of Poison Ivy -- and this is with Safe Search on! We have a lot of conversations about how Wonder Woman must be really cold.]

After walking us through the implications:


Adrienne requests that Bedelia make her some real armor. Which she does:


In my googling, I found a nice interview with Whitley about his inspirations for the Princeless series. He's white, but his wife and daughter are black, and he saw a huge gap in the kinds of comic books he'd be comfortable giving her to read:

"Good heroines are few and far between. When you look for ones that are leading books, it narrows the scope more. When you look for one that is appropriate for kids, it gets much narrower. When you talk about one with a lead female of color, the number drops to nearly zero (they exist, they are just very difficult to find). My daughter is black and while I encourage her to look for role models of all colors, girls need to be able to see girls that are like themselves in media. They need it even more when it comes to seeing them portrayed with strength."

Here's hoping these books keep selling like hotcakes. We'll certainly be buying them.

Love, Annie

P.S. What did you think of yesterday's Newbery and Caldecott winners? I was thrilled to see Roller Girl named a Newbery Honor Book!





Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A nativity that breaks the mold

Dear Annie,

One more shopping day to go.  The store has been its usual nutty busy self these past few weeks.  We've sold out of a lot of good books, but are having fun finding the right matches for the kids Santa is just starting to think about.  Almost 200 of the new Star Wars movie books, which went on sale last Friday, have already sold.

In keeping with the season, I thought I'd mention one more nativity book.  As you probably know from your mother, our parents' household always incorporated the Bible story of Christmas into our non-religious life.  My interpretation of that as a grown-up is that if you're going to get all the pagan and commercial benefits of the holiday, you need to acknowledge the religious underpinnings too.  In 1950s Pleasantville, this meant staging a nativity pageant in our living room.  Two of us would be Joseph and Mary, Judy's doll Annie played Jesus every year, and the third child would read relevant Bible passages aloud.  Someone would play whatever instrument he or she was learning at the time, and there would be some giggling about the King James wording.

I've already written about my favorite nativity book for kids: Julie Vivas' exuberant Nativity.  (That post is full of links to many of our other Christmas blog entries.)  It's still the best.  But here's another for the construction-minded child:
The Christmas Story: The Brick Bible for Kids
  by Brendan Powell Smith.  Yep, it's the nativity illustrated with tableaux of Lego figures.  Smith seems to have the corner on many stories with Lego illustrations, including several Bible stories for kids, and more comprehensive Old and New Testaments for adults (circumcision in Lego: who knew it could be so vivid?).

The wording in this one leaves something to be desired.  But the illustrations are a kick.  Consider, for example, the progression of Mary's pregnancy, from annunciation (left), to Joseph's discovery of her condition (center) to the arrival in Bethlehem (right):
Makes one think about Lego bricks a little differently.

The baby ends up in a sort-of manger in a stable Joseph is trying to make livable:
Always a pleasure to have a variety of interpretations to offer readers.

Merry Christmas and much love to you and yours!

Deborah

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Holiday Choice: the Gift of Other Lives

Dear Annie,

Here we are this holiday season, with many of us are feeling horrified at the tone and content of political discourse in America.  How to handle this with the children we love?

You know me: I look to children's books.  One of the things we can do this year -- and any other year -- is to give children the gift of other people's lives.
We've written here (and here and here) about books as mirrors/books as windows.  The mirrors reflect back readers' own experiences; the windows let them experience worlds they haven't known.  And of course, one reader's mirror can be another's window.  Americans need more looking into the windows of those who we are not.

Look Both Ways in the Barrio Blanco
by Judith Robbins Rose provides a nuanced window for many of us.  Aimed at kids from 9 to 13 or so, it's the story of Jacinta, the U.S.-born child of undocumented parents in Colorado.  Most of her world is the barrio in which she lives, with little contact with the Anglo culture.  Then a white television news reporter reluctantly agrees to become her mentor through a community center.  Everything is new and threatening, including a ride with her sister to an indoor swimming pool:
Long after we should've been at the pool, we took another turn.  Then we were on a freeway.
   I gripped Rosa's hand.  Her sweaty hand.
   We'd been places in Papi's truck, but never on the freeway.  Driving on a freeway is like begging la policia to drag you back to Mexico.   
One of the things I like about this book is that it's full of flawed characters.  Jacinta gets jealous, fights with her sister, tries to manipulate situations to her advantage.  But she's a very believable 11 year-old.  Her mentor introduces Jacinta to white privilege in action: she's an assertive woman who's used to getting what she wants through manipulation of her fame and veiled threats.  The girl is impressed by what she sees as a woman being powerful, but eventually understands the arrogance.

Lots for readers to think about in this book.

Thinking about others is one of the things we can give children in books.  Here's a quick list of books we've written about over the years that speak to some of the issues roiling around right now.  They immerse their readers in other lives.  There are lots more -- readers, please add more below.  This is just a start.

A Long Walk to Water  - what leads people to become refugees
Day of Ahmed's Secret - daily life in a busy arab city.
Anna Hibiscus  - daily life in Africa, including children learning about poverty
brown girl dreaming - growing up black in America 
American Born Chinese - one teenager coming to terms with his Chinese identity
Persepolis - living under -- and eventually leaving - an increasingly repressive government
diversity in kidlit - lots of resources
Wonder - an amazing and now-classic book about a severely deformed child.
Almost Home by Joan Bauer and Hold Fast by Blue Balliett - we haven't written about these: both are middle grade novels about American families becoming homeless.
All American Boys - I haven't read this one but it sounds excellent -- link is to School Library Journal.  The story of an incident of police violence told through the voices of the black teenage victim and a white classmate who witnesses it.

Wishing good holidays to all,

Deborah





Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Scientific women

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Welcome back from summer! It's lovely to hear from you, and to get a glimpse of the goings-on at the National Book Festival.

You asked whether Harry Potter has made an appearance in Eleanor's life. It's interesting: several of her friends and 3rd-grade classmates have gotten very into the books, but Eleanor is holding off. Twice, she's tried starting to read the first book on her own, and each time she has stopped because she feels like it's "too scary." This from a girl who within the last year devoured all of Percy Jackson, and is two-thirds of the way through the Books of Beginning, both series which include great violence, battles, magic, and end-of-the-universe stakes. And yet there's something about Harry that she doesn't feel ready for. As we've discussed in person and you've mentioned on the blog, there's a lot of material in the later Harry Potter books that isn't really appropriate for elementary-age kids, so I'm fine with Eleanor waiting until the books click for her. I've thought about beginning it as a read-aloud, but right now most of our read-aloud time also includes Isabel, and I don't really want to start Harry Potter with an almost-6-year-old.... Ah, well. Thankfully, there's plenty of time for reading and rereading.

Isabel has started out her first-grade year by declaring that she wants to become a rock star, and that her favorite subject is science. As if by magic, two of your recent gifts chronicle female scientists who became rock stars in their fields. Both books have become huge hits over here.

The Tree Lady, by H. Joseph Hopkins, is a picture book chronicling the life and times of Kate Sessions, the scientist and tree hunter who brought trees to the desert climate of San Diego in the early 1900s.

On each page, Hopkins positions Kate as an exception to the rules of her world:

Katherine Olivia Sessions grew up in the woods of Northern California. She gathered leaves from oaks and elms. She collected needles from pines and redwoods. And she braided them together with flowers to make necklaces and bracelets.

It was the 1860s, and girls from Kate's side of town weren't supposed to get their hands dirty. 

But Kate did.

...

When Kate grew up, she left home to study science in college. She looked at soil and insects through a microscope. She learned how plants made food and how they drank water. And she studied trees from around the world.

No woman had ever graduated from the University of California with a degree in science.

But in 1881, Kate did.

A nice proud feminist vibe throughout!

The illustrations, by Jill McElmurry, are beautifully specific: pictures of plant cells, specific (labeled!) types of leaves and desert trees, a real sense of the desert climate in the San Diego scenes.

There's enough of a story here to make it interesting, and enough scientific detail to encourage questions and further investigation.



The graphic novel Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas, by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks, gets far deeper into the complexities and triumphs of scientific research. This is a book you can get lost in.

Primates provides a clear and well-dramatized introduction to the work and lives of these three primatologists, the first to live with and study primates for years in their natural habitats: Goodall with chimpanzees, Fossey with mountain gorillas, and Galdikas with orangutans. Each woman tells her own story in first-person, and in her own font and color, which helps keep the voices distinct. There are similarities in the stories, but the very different personalities of the researchers come through well.

The fourth voice in the book is that of Louis Leakey, the anthropologist and archeologist who gave all three women their start. He believed that women were better-suited to this kind of work: more patient, more observant. Through Leakey, the three women meet each other, so there are some nice moments of crossover.

Ottaviani and Wicks don't romanticize the details of living in the bush. You get a real sense throughout of the difficulties and privations of each woman's chosen career: leeches, trekking through forest, sitting for hours, days, weeks in observation. All three come across as passionate and unconventionally brilliant, deeply dedicated to the animals and their land.

While non-kid-friendly details are alluded to in the book -- Louis Leakey's womanizing, Dian Fossey's murder -- the stories are kept age-appropriate. It feels to me like a book that will deepen with rereading as you learn more about each woman's life from other sources.

I think that Isabel responds to the fierce determination of the women depicted here: their focus and refusal to be put off. I have a feeling there are more animals in her future.

Love, Annie


Saturday, September 12, 2015

National Book Festival

Dear Annie,

I spent last Saturday at the National Book Festival, which now takes place in a huge convention center and not in the circus-like tents it formally occupied on the National Mall.  Worse ambience now, but better climate control.

The day felt like a series of meditations on the theme, "Why write?"  First up was Kwame Alexander, who won the Newbery Medal this year for his novel-in-poetry,
The Crossover
.
"There's no such thing as a reluctant reader," he said, only someone who hasn't found what they want to read (a man after my own heart).  His own discovery of poetry at age 12 connected him more intensely to the written word.  He talked about poetry, because of its economy of language, as a basic building block, one from which the reader can move on to other genres.  When children are small, he said, they love poetry -- Seuss, Silverstein.  "My goal [in writing] is to bring back that love."  Start with poetry, he says, and other kinds of reading will follow.

For others, it has to do with the author's need to write.  The person who introduced Libba Bray, author of a slew of hugely popular YA novels, many of them historical/magical, quoted from her website bio:
Three weeks after high school graduation, I had a serious car accident. I demolished my face and lost my left eye. ... It took many years to put me back together again, but most of the pieces seem to be in the right places, and anyway, that’s when I discovered how powerful writing can be, because writing everything down kept me alive. This is how I know that writing can save your life. ... Should you ever find yourself in a bad, hopeless place, please know that you can write your way out of something that feels completely unwinnable and into something better and, just possibly, into something wonderful.
El Deafo
Cece Bell, author of El Deafo, came with the clunky hearing aid which was central to the book and strapped it on herself (still fits: she's a small woman).  A strong contrast to the two small aids she now wears behind each ear, which she removed to show us.

She talked a lot about how uncomfortable she had been with deafness, not identifying with other deaf kids when she was growing up.  A child in the audience asked how it felt to write about herself.  "It was terrifying to write an autobiography." she said.  "I live in a hearing world.  I was terrified I would offend others who are deaf."   The result of taking the risk and writing about herself, though, brought a profound result:  deaf people reacted to her account, she met more members of the deaf community than she ever had.  "I've made new friends who are deaf.  It's been a great ride," she said, with a trace of tears in her eyes.  Writing about her isolation led to new connections.

Books as a connection among people came up frequently at the festival.  I spent some time listening to kids who had won writing contests read their essays.  Allison Templeton, a winner in the "A Book That Shaped Me" contest, credited the Harry Potter series with staving off loneliness. She wrote about changing schools in fourth grade, and finding new classmates who were also reading the series.  The most important thing, though, was how the books kept an old friendship going:
Without the same teachers, classes, or even friends in common any more, we turned to Harry Potter as a topic of conversation.  We spent hours debating whether Professor Snape was good or evil.  We laughed about Fred and George Weasley's funny sayings.  Being able to discuss our favorite characters, our emotions while reading and predictions about what would happen next helped hold our friendship together.
Anyone who was of reading age when the books first came out will recognize this behavior.  For an earlier generation, Harry Potter was a mass phenomenon.  It makes me happy to see that Harry provides the same connections -- of immersion, anticipation, speculation -- on a smaller scale for succeeding generations.

How does your family feel about Harry Potter?  Does Eleanor have interest in reading the books?

Love,

Deborah

Friday, July 31, 2015

Read it again, Mom

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Yet again, you've provided me with a treasure trove of titles to add to my own YA reading list. I have a feeling Eleanor will be getting to these stories of responding to adversity as well, fairly soon.

An interesting thing has happened in my reading with Eleanor over the last few months. We have always managed to carve out reading time for the two of us alone, time for the longer chapter books that Eleanor has had the interest in and stamina for since she was quite young. For almost five years, the books I read to her during this time were books above her reading level -- books she quite literally could not read on her own. As her reading level has skyrocketed, I knew this was going to change.

There are a shrinking number of age-appropriate books that Eleanor is interested in and can't read to herself -- we're pretty much down to Anne of Green Gables and its ilk. This summer, I bought her 26 E. Nesbit novels for 99 cents on a Kindle, and she's read about half of them already. I started Caddie Woodlawn with her recently, hoping to read that together, but she took it to bed with her and finished it that night.

Which is the other problem: reading on her own, Eleanor can finish a thick novel far, far faster than she and I can read one together. Our reading time is limited to early mornings and stolen afternoons; her solo time, especially over the summer, is almost endless.

The result? Eleanor will read a book to herself, sometimes even re-read it alone, and then ask me to read it aloud to her. Our last three read-alouds have been books she has read on her own, but I haven't yet read.

This leads to a major role-reversal: it's Eleanor who knows the plot of the story, where the climax is coming, what's going to happen to the characters. She's read the ending. I'm reading it cold, trying to fend off her hints and reveals (she's terrible about spoilers), and sometimes surprising her when I guess which way the plot is going to go, based on my own years of reading.

What is it that makes Eleanor choose some books and not others as read-alouds post-solo-read? (I need a name for these: read-agains?) I think part of it is that they're books with characters and subject matter she wants to talk about in more depth. She races through books so fast that sometimes Jeff and I wonder how much detail she's retaining, and how many words she might be skipping over (though her vocabulary grows by leaps and bounds each month). Read-alouds are a way to slow things down.

The first books Eleanor chose as read-agains were the Penderwick series, which you wrote about here as a series to follow Harry Potter, and I wrote about here when Eleanor asked me to read it aloud a few months back. We've now done the second and third Penderwick books as read-agains, and the fourth book (which Eleanor read in one day when we took it out from the library) is next on our list. There's nothing too disturbing about the Penderwicks, but there are some fairly adult emotional themes that reading aloud has given us the chance to discuss. The Penderwicks' mother dies of cancer before the beginning of the series, just after the birth of the youngest daughter, and dealing with her loss is a theme that runs throughout the books. Jeffrey, the boy befriended by the Penderwicks in the first book, has never known who his father is. In book 3, The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, he and his father discover each other, and their reactions are complex -- there's a lot of anger and hurt along with the joy of discovery, which Eleanor wanted to talk through.

Our most recent read-again was The Emerald Atlas, the first book in John Stephens's trilogy The Books of Beginning. This is high fantasy: dark magic, time travel, dwarves, wizards, a quest to save the world from a deeply evil power. The heroes are siblings Kate, Michael, and Emma, who were separated from their parents as small children and have moved from orphanage to orphanage for ten years when the story begins. Over the course of the novel, they discover that each of them has a special, prophesied connection to one of three Books of Beginning, which together contain magic which can create and destroy worlds. The Emerald Atlas, which imprints 14-year-old Kate, allows its possessor to move through time. It's a gripping, well-written book, and the siblings emerge as realistic and likable characters -- I want to get to know them better.

Isabel moved in and out of this read-aloud -- some parts of it are quite scary, and much of the plot revolves around all the children of a town being separated from their parents and under threat of death. Eleanor often reacts strongly (and loudly) to suspense. But because she had read the book already, Eleanor was able to reassure Isabel (and me) that all of the main characters were going to be okay. Reading it first gave her this power.

I'm tempted to pick up the fourth Penderwicks book on my own, to finish The Books of Beginning myself after I've put the kids to bed -- I want to know what happens next! But I'm also loving this new reader's role my oldest child has placed me in. It's a good summer for surprises.

Love, Annie