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.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Diversity in the details

Dear Annie,

Happy post-Thanksgiving!  That was a very impressive list of resources for diverse books.  You talked about getting involved in school book fairs -- excellent!  Most of my knowledge comes from supplying one annual book fair which gets all its books from us, with which we've evolved a really lovely list.  We should talk about book fairs more in the future: I think a lot of schools charge into them without defining why they're doing them.  A blog for another day.

Today we have one more request from your bid for same.  Dawn writes:
 I'd like to learn about more books like *Anna Hibiscus* that are good for gently introducing children to global diversity. At Alice's insistence we read *Anna Hibiscus* together three times, and it was only our insistence on moving on to *The Borrowers* that kept us from reading it again.
Anna Hibiscus is of course a big favorite of ours.  Dawn, I assume you know it's a four book series.  Anna lives in a family compound in a city; Atinuke's No. 1 Car Spotter lives in rural Africa.  So far there are only two Car Spotter books.

I'm interpreting Dawn's question as having to do with more or less contemporary real life situations.  Moving south to Botswana, adult novelist Alexander McCall Smith has written two early-chapter book series for kids.  One chronicles the elementary school life of Precious Ramotswe, the heroine of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books. 

The Great Cake Mystery: Precious Ramotswe's Very First Case
, Precious solves a case involving an unjust accusation of theft.  Her father, whose legacy funds her detective agency in adulthood, is very present in Precious's young life, a constant storyteller. 

Iain McIntosh's illustrations give a refreshingly different feel to the book series.

They're gentle and engaging mysteries.

McCall Smith's earlier children's series is about a boy named Akimbo, whose father is head ranger in a game preserve.  The stories include everyday life scenes, and adventures he's involved in because of his father's work.  Akimbo and the Lions is a younger variation of Born Free: Akimbo raises a lion cub but then realizes he has to send it back to the wild when it starts scaring his neighbors.  In Akimbo and the Elephants, he tries to catch ivory poachers who have been killing elephants.  They're great stories -- I used to sell a lot of them.  They're all now unfortunately out of print -- links are to alibris used listings.

Back to the north of the continent, a classic picture book:
The Day of Ahmed's Secret
by Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliland, illustrated by Ted Lewin (written in 1995).   Ahmed, bursting with excitement because he has a secret, drives his donkey cart through the streets of Cairo delivering bottled cooking gas.  (Spoiler alert: the secret will be revealed.)   We get a sense of the intensely rich and varied street life of the city.  When he finally gets back home, he announces the secret: he's learned to write his name.  I once had a customer who used this one as the central book in a first grade book group about urban life.

Another what-life-is-like on the street picture book is On My Way to Buy Eggs, by Chih-Yuan Chen.  A girl in Taiwan walks to the store to buy eggs, finding constant diversion in what she sees: a shadow, a blue marble, a pair of glasses.  Also not available new in the U.S.  Link is alibris.

I hope, Dawn, that these are books you haven't yet discovered.

Happy reading!


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Increasing kidlit diversity in book fair season

Dear Aunt Debbie,

It's school book fair season! Last weekend, Eleanor's school held a book fair at Barnes & Noble; this week, Isabel's school is running a Scholastic book fair in their multipurpose room. I have mixed feelings about both endeavors.

On the one hand, both kinds of book fairs encourage buying and reading books. They end up supporting the schools, to some extent, and get kids fired up about using their money to buy books. They turn book-buying into an activity central to the school community, and offer an easy way for parents to get more books into their children's hands if they don't frequent bookstores regularly.

On the other hand, the book-buying isn't going to support any nice independent bookstores. Much of what gets bought are highly-marketed franchise books and book-related swag: books packaged with toys or dangling plastic charms, junior novelizations of movies and video games, cute little cheap erasers.

We came out of the B&N fair having supported the Frozen franchise yet again (Will is now just as obsessed as Isabel. He sees anything Frozen-related and calls out, "Da Do!" a.k.a. "Let It Go!"). What Eleanor wanted most in the world was the latest Percy Jackson Heroes of Olympus book (we can't get it from the library, as we did the first 9, because the waiting list is 500+ people long). We redeemed ourselves slightly by buying a George O'Connor Olympians book for an upcoming friend's birthday, and donating a couple of books to Eleanor's classroom.

On Monday, I volunteered for a bookselling shift at Isabel's Scholastic book fair. Leaving aside my misgivings about the number of Lego Chima books sold, there is something beautiful about seeing a room full of kids browsing through tables of books. The school had also set up a "pay what you can" table of donated books, so that every kid attending the book fair could walk home with a book of his or her own, no matter their family's finances.

All this has made me interested in getting involved in planning next year's book fairs, and seeing how much I can tweak the content. What's the ratio of commercial stuff to good but lesser-known kids' books that will make money for the school AND send kids home with books they'll want to reread? I'd love your bookseller's opinion on this question.

Two friends and blog readers recently asked us about how to help make their school book fairs more diverse and multicultural. I'm afraid that because of fall craziness and family sickness, my thoughts on this are woefully late (apologies, Jonathan and Liz!), but perhaps they'll be useful for the next book fair season?

I started out with some Googling, and came across a number of excellent lists, and a growing movement aimed at making the world of children's books more diverse.

First, the movement:

Bloggers Valarie Budyar, of Jump Into a Book, and Mia Wenjen, of Pragmatic Mom, teamed up last year to create Multicultural Children's Book Day. On January 27, 2015, there will be a host of blog posts and other activities aimed at increasing awareness of children's books that celebrate diversity, and getting more of those books into classrooms and libraries.

The organization We Need Diverse Books was founded last spring by a group of authors and grassroots activists. Their campaign began as a response to the trade convention BookCon, which put forward an author panel consisting entirely of white men. After a wildly successful Twitter campaign (#weneeddiversebooks), the organization has begun to build programs to increase diversity in books used in classrooms, created an awards and grants program, and begun planning for a Children's Literature Diversity Festival in 2016 (in Washington, D.C.!).

These two sites led me to a number of excellent book lists featuring children's books with diverse characters:

The Multicultural Children's Book Day website has a nice set of book lists here.

Pragmatic Mom collects multicultural booklists here. My favorite is her Top 50 list, which is broken down by age group.

What Do We Do All Day has a list of 21 books which include diverse characters.

We Need Diverse Books has a collection of lists here.

Ink & Pen collects some good lists here.

And of course, we have our own list of Picture Books with racially diverse/mostly non-white characters.

So while it's troubling that these campaigns and lists need to exist in 2014 -- shouldn't we be at a point where the representation is far more equal? -- it's heartening to see that they're here, ready to be explored.

Love, Annie

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Reading routines with multiple children? Help!

Dear Aunt Debbie,

When we put out a call for readers' questions last month, our friend and guest blogger Faith asked a few good ones. You wrote to her about horse books for kids, both picture book and chapter book level. Faith also asked for advice about reading with multiple children of different ages:

Strategy question: How do people manage bedtime reading with multiple (say, 4) children at different levels, when some are ready to listen to chapter books, but also when the oldest child has to read a book from school aloud to the family each night???

She elaborated:

I'm okay with not having the full attention of all audience members -- we've been doing that for years. I'll just add in our personal wrinkle, which is that our 1st grader comes home every night with a book that she has to read out loud to us (and I have to sign off on her "reading log.") These are books like Amelia Bedelia and Frog and Toad, so they take a substantial amount of time to read. And, she's a pretty fluent reader, but if you've ever heard a 1st grader read (I know you all have), you'll understand that there's NO WAY that this is keeping her sisters' attention. 

So, by bedtime every weeknight there's usually no time (or attention span) left for Erick or me to read to them. And this is particularly frustrating because our kindergartener and 1st grader are at the perfect age to start listening to some really great chapter books, but how do we structure time for that after the read-aloud? Also, all four girls share a room, so separate bedtimes would be challenging (though not necessarily impossible.)

My first thought was to ask some other parents of multiple children to weigh in on Faith's question. I emailed two other friends/guest bloggers: Cyd, mom of four girls between the ages of 7 and 1, and Matthew, dad of a girl and two boys between the ages of 6 and 3.

Cyd goes the highly structured route, with separate reading-with-mom times for Rebekah (7) after her sisters are in bed, and Ellie and Klara (almost-6 and 4) early in the morning before their sisters are up:

This works pretty well, except for the cries of "She *touched* me!!" Klara has always been precocious in terms of her interest in listening to higher-level books and her ability to understand them (she was obsessed with Ramona before she turned 2, showing interest in chapter books well over a year and a half earlier than either of her two big sisters) so books that work for Ellie work for her.  I have to have several books going at a time, as if one of them gets up before the other, I can't read her a book that both of them are listening to....

Luckily Anna (age 15 months) is asleep both early in the morning when I read to Ellie and Klara, and at night when I read to Rebekah, so I can focus on reading without trying to prevent her from climbing stairs, eating dog food, or tearing other books to pieces.  When I do read to everyone in the afternoon, she's pretty happy to toddle around from sister to sister and play with Legos or pat the dog.  She is just starting to be interested in books (current favorites: "Peek a Who" and "Dear Zoo") but she doesn't have a prolonged attention span so she doesn't have a designated reading time -- yet.

Matthew tends to keep everyone together:

For the most part, I read to all three kids at once, even though there is almost a four-year gap between August and Alden. This means sometimes August listens to us reading pretty sophisticated middle-grades stuff and sometimes Alden sitting in on Berenstain Bears, but I think there's value all around. August gets to absorb the syntax of language even if he's not retaining it all, and Alden gets to practice her reading as we go through the simpler stuff. 

Though he, like Faith, does separate out the learning-to-read time:

As Alden gets more and more into independent reading, I do more one-on-one reading time with her, so that we can really take the time she needs to work through the language (the pace tends to frustrate her brothers' interest in the story moving along a bit more briskly). Also, Kato, who is a pretty advanced reader, sometimes knows words Alden is still puzzling through, and so I need to remove him from the equation so that her pride isn't bruised. 

I remember that your routines with Lizzie and Mona were of the more structured variety, with one read-aloud book going for each girl with each parent, and maybe also one you'd read aloud together -- is that right?

In the weeks since I started thinking about this question, Cyd and Faith have been emailing, and Faith has developed a new reading routine:

Either Erick or I (we'll try to alternate) takes Fiona into our bedroom where we can snuggle up while she reads to us. The other girls each choose a short book, which is read to them by the other parent. Then, everybody convenes in the girls' bedroom, where I read them one chapter of a longer chapter book (Fiona chose A Bear Called Paddington to start). It worked really well last night (some whining over Fiona's private read-aloud aside), and I felt so much better knowing that everyone was at least getting read to at their level at some point! The down side: It's LONG -- usually 50 minutes to an hour from start to finish.

As these responses rolled in, I started to think about the reading routines in our house. This question felt timely for me, because in the last couple of months, our regular routines have been changing in drastic and not altogether welcome ways.

We've had a pretty stable system for years: I read to the girls first thing in the morning for about 15 minutes, while they're waking up, and we have a second official Reading Time every evening, with everyone in pajamas and brushed teeth. In between, there are books scattered around the house, and the kids pick them up and read on their own or grab me or Jeff to demand that we read them.

Three major factors have recently begun to torpedo this routine. First, Eleanor's independent reading has skyrocketed to the point where she often just wants to read to herself at bedtime -- there's no reason to compromise on a book with Isabel if Eleanor can just keep reading what she wants. Second, Will now has definite opinions about what he wants to read. He's no longer content to play while I read to the girls for any length of time (and it's been many months since he was the baby nursing on my lap under the book). Now, if I try to read something he doesn't want, he'll yell and try to rip it out of my hands. Finally, we moved from an apartment into a two-story house, and getting ready for bed has slowed exponentially now that it requires moving between floors. We start at our usual time, but by the time everyone is ready for bed, Reading Time has dwindled to 10 minutes or less.

Like Faith, my three kids share a bedroom and a bedtime -- there's no chance for regular bedtime reading to one kid without the others being involved. And because of Jeff's often late work hours, there's no guarantee on any weeknight that I'll have a second parent in the house to take one or two kids into another room. I wish I could set up something as structured as what both Cyd and Faith now have -- I really miss sustained chapter book reading time -- but that feels like an impossible goal in my current life.

What to do?

What to do, when you add in Isabel's kindergarten reading books that she's supposed to read aloud to us every night? When Eleanor, who is ripping through books on her own, resists reading aloud, we think because she's unsure of how to pronounce some of the words? What to do, when Will insists on reading Chugga Chugga Choo Choo 6 times in a row? (Which, by the way, is a terrific train book -- great rhythm and totally appealing illustrations which make the train set in a kid's bedroom seem enormous.)

I guess the answer is the same as with so many other aspects of parenting: we muddle through, and try to do the best we can for everybody, and then it changes again. I'm trying to be more conscious of getting the bedtime routine started earlier. I'm trying to get Will interested in the books Isabel has to read aloud (and often holding another book for him as she reads, toggling my attention back and forth). When Jeff is home, I'm trying to eke out more chapter book time with both girls, as we get close to the end of Inga Moore's gorgeously illustrated version of The Secret Garden. I'm trying not to get frustrated by the impossibility of giving every kid what she or he wants.

But man, if anyone else has suggestions on how to achieve a better balance of individual and shared reading time, I'm all ears.

Love, Annie