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.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

How to support your kid's summer reading

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Summer! A little later than much of the rest of the country, we here in New York are finally done with the school year, and ready for the mix of camps, playgrounds, travel, and crushing humidity that awaits us. Of course, there's also summer reading.

Ah, summer reading. That list you get from your kid's school of a variety of titles suggested -- or required -- to be read over vacation in order to prevent a summer slide in reading skills. The list that promises nagging, nudging, even bribing to get your kid to read. The list that threatens to make reading feel like homework, something to be avoided all summer long.

It doesn't have to be this way.

As a teacher and as a mom, I've spent a lot of time over the last 15 years thinking about what makes kids want to read. Our whole blog is based on the idea that if you surround kids with books, read to them regularly, and help them find the books that will spark their interest and deepen their passions, they will become readers. Summer reading can be a positive part of this. Here are a few suggestions on how to make it work for your whole family:

Let your kid choose what to read.
Many summer reading lists are actually "suggested summer reading" lists. If your child's school encourages reading over the summer, but doesn't require that students read books strictly from the list, branch out! Use the list as a jumping-off point, but look for other lists as well (we have a few good ones over there on the right side of this page, like this for middle-grade readers, and this for YA). Find out what your kid's friends are reading, and pick up some of those books, or do a book swap. Browse libraries and bookstores. Think about your kid's interests, and look together for books that will support and deepen those interests.

If your child's school requires that students read a selection of books from the summer reading list, help your child "interview" the books in order to choose which ones to read. That is, teach your child what adult readers do when deciding whether or not to read a book: look at the cover, read the back cover or jacket flap, open up the book and read a few pages, look up book reviews. Learn a little bit about each of the books before making a decision. And let your kid be the one who makes that decision.

Let your kid read books s/he loves, even if you don't love them.
There's a lot of talk these days in education about helping students find "just right" books: books that they enjoy and are able to understand independently. The more kids enjoy reading, the more they will read. The more they read, the better readers they'll become. As they become better readers, they will naturally want to find books that are a little more challenging -- but challenge isn't something you need to push for during the summer. (Think about what you choose for your own beach reads.) The most important thing is that your kid is reading something s/he wants to read. Is it a comic book or graphic novel? There's a lot to be said for the joy of text combined with visuals. Is it an endless series you find totally drekky? Well, at least you don't have to read it to your kid out loud.

Make choosing a book feel like a special event.
Plan trips to your local library. Before you go, do some digging: find titles and authors you're going to look for. Look books up online and put in a hold request. I've downloaded the Brooklyn Public Library app onto my phone, and now all three of my kids know that they can ask me to put something on my hold list at any time. They love looking at book cover images on the phone, and the excitement when a book they've requested arrives is huge. There it is on the hold shelf, with their last name on the spine in bold letters, waiting especially for them. Browsing in the library can also yield terrific finds, but it's good to go in with a plan.

Plan trips to your local independent bookstore. Again, make a list of titles and authors you're looking for, and call ahead if there's something you want to order in. Booksellers can have great suggestions, and there's nothing like browsing through shelves of brand-new books.

Read aloud to your kid.
Along with your child's independent reading this summer, choose books to read together. This might be a place for you to introduce some of your own childhood favorites, possibly books that are written a little above the level your child can read on his or her own. Recently, Eleanor has been asking me to read aloud chapter books that she's already read on her own. Sometimes this means that she knows the plot before I do, which she clearly enjoys; often I think the re-reading allows her to process more deeply what she sped through the first time. Reading aloud is warm quality time, and can lead to wonderful conversations.

Pick up a book for yourself.
One of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to help your child with summer reading is to pick out some good summer reading for yourself. Talk to your kid about what you're reading, and why you chose it. Let your kid see you reading -- it's the purest kind of modeling.

Of course, none of these ideas are limited to summer use -- they're good year-round. Happy reading!

Love, Annie

Friday, June 12, 2015

Redefining Dork

Dear Aunt Debbie,

And then there are the books that your kid loves and you hate.

Over the last couple of months, as we read The Penderwicks together each morning and Eleanor encouraged me to make The Marvelous Land of Oz our next bedtime chapter book with Isabel, she has also continued her own voracious independent reading habits. At school, she exhausted her own 2nd-grade classroom library, and wrangled herself permission to go book-shopping in a 3rd-grade classroom (with a teacher known for her love of books). At home, Eleanor provides me with a constantly updated list of titles she wants to take out from the library (thank heavens for the public library!), and we cart them back and forth to our local branch.

The series that has risen to the top of the library list most recently is Rachel Renée Russell's Dork Diaries. I glanced at them as we brought them home: cartoony drawings, fake-handwriting font, lots of lines WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS!!!! Very tweeny feeling.

I had a sense that these were not going to be my new favorite books. Still, like you and Neil Gaiman in this 2013 lecture, I'm a big believer in letting kids read pretty much anything they want, at least if it's not wildly age-inappropriate and if they can read it to themselves without you getting involved. But I do like to keep tabs on what Eleanor is ingesting, so we can talk about it afterwards.

Earlier this week, I had a chance to sit down and read one of the Dork Diaries books: number 6, Tales from a Not-So Happy Heartbreaker. And wow. There is so much not to love.

The books are written as a series of diary entries of middle-schooler Nikki Maxwell, the "dork" of the title. Nikki has two best friends (sorry, "BFFs!!!"), a bratty younger sister, a perfect-boy crush, and a nemesis, MacKenzie: "a shark in lip gloss, skinny jeans, and platform heels." Pure evil. Nothing redeeming here.

What does dork mean, in this context? Apparently it means that Nikki sees herself as unpopular, second-guesses and self-censors her thoughts and actions, and pays extreme attention to every possible slight from the kids around her. Like Bella in Twilight and a host of other middle-grade and YA heroines, she's a girl who constantly talks about how uncool she is without noticing that the people around her all seem to like her. Her intense focus on her own flaws is accurate to the middle school state of mind, I suppose, but it's also not really what I want my daughter reading as she grows into those years.

As I read, then skimmed, through the book, I started thinking about the conversation I wanted to have with Eleanor. Not an "I hate your book choice, please stop reading this series" conversation -- as I've mentioned before, I read my share of Sweet Valley High and other gender-essentialist drek in my time -- but a "Hey, I read this book, and here's the thing I don't like so much about it, what do you think?" conversation.

One of the things that bothered me the most about Nikki was her self-censoring. There's a subplot throughout the book about Nikki needing to pass a swimming skills class, but being terribly afraid of sinking. She talks a lot about how she's going to fail, brings in flotation devices she's not allowed to use, almost drowns during an exercise, and then in the last chapter swims perfectly across the pool when she thinks there's a shark following her (it's a scuba fin). So apparently she could swim just fine the whole time.

At one point, Nikki dives in scuba gear:

"Sorry, Miss Maxwell," my teacher said. "But you're diving for plastic rings, NOT sunken treasure! No scuba gear is allowed!!"

Apparently, it was against the pool rules. But HOW was I supposed to know THAT?!

The only sign about rules I saw said...

1. NO running!
2. NO eating!
3. NO horseplay!
4. NO peeing in the pool!
5. NO float toys!

There was nothing on that list that said...


That's when I totally lost it and yelled at my teacher: "Sorry, lady, but I'm NOT some humpback whale capable of diving to the deepest, darkest, most dangerous depths of the pool. I NEED my mask, wet suit, regulator, tank, and scuba fins. Besides, the water is so deep my eyeballs could pop out. And I could die from decompression sickness.

"Worse yet, YOU didn't even bother to have an ambulance here just in case I needed to be rushed to the hospital! So let me see YOU dive to the bottom of the pool without having a massive stroke or something!"

But I just said that in my head, so no one else heard it but me.

That diving skills test was SO unfair! I should definitely get a do-over!! I'm just sayin'!!

Whew. Good thing she didn't actually try to make a case to her teacher directly when she thought something wasn't fair. Much better to keep quiet and rant about it afterwards.

Walking Eleanor to the school bus yesterday morning, I opened the conversation. I told her I'd read the book, she asked what I thought, and I said I wasn't crazy about it. I focused on the way that Nikki talks about herself negatively, her lack of self-confidence, and how those things play into stereotypes about girls. Eleanor said, "Mom, I don't want to be like Nikki -- it's just a book!" and I said I knew that, but I wanted her to think a little bit about how Nikki talks about herself while she's reading. She agreed that it was weird that Nikki acted like no one likes her when they clearly do. And then the bus came, and she got on, with another couple of books tucked into her backpack. So much more to take in, so much more to process.

Love, Annie