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, January 30, 2011

Dear Annie,

Even though it's past her bedtime, I'd like to start this post with an enthusiastic Happy Birthday to Eleanor! You've been a mother for four years now -- does it feel like that? Parenthood has wreaked havoc with my sense of time: everything in my children's lives feels like it was either just yesterday, or forever ago.

It all goes so amazingly quickly. Four years ago she was just beginning to figure out how to focus her eyes; now she's fathoming why people in a story throw stuff at old men and whether she can make God happy by leaving him necklaces. It's a lot to wrap one's brain around.

I remember Mona asking, when she was around Eleanor's age, "Is death real?" When one is sorting out stories about fairies and worlds hidden behind wardrobes and lots of talking animals, it seems like a pretty reasonable question. There are books that help children deal with the deaths of people close to them (we can talk about those sometime), but the deaths that cry out for parental explanation are the ones that happen in stories. And because child development keeps charging through different stages, one is not always going to know how a child will react. There have been times when I've felt that the death of Babar's mother is much more disturbing to a parent reading The Story of Babar aloud to a three or four year-old than it is to the child. (See a great post at The Twin Coach blog on this topic.) You felt blind-sided by the death of Tacy's baby sister in Betsy-Tacy, but who knows how Ian and Eleanor will react to it when they finally hear it?  It will probably depend a lot on how old they are.  It could be more upsetting when they're five or six and able to understand a bit more what it's about. 

I think this gets back to discussion of social justice books, in the sense that as kids grow, they're more able to see the world around them.  As empathy develops, one can imagine the emotional pain of the death of someone close.  And one can understand mistreatment of a person or a group, even if one isn't part of that group.



Friday, January 28, 2011

Death, religion, and the afterlife

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I'm so sorry the Comment Challenge happened when I was ostriched in my end-of-term work.  Maybe I'll have to challenge myself unofficially during summer vacation.

The books you and Denise have been talking about sound extraordinary and powerful, and are certainly some that I will want to read with Eleanor and Isabel when they get a little older.  War and slavery and the terrible things people do to one another are certainly tough topics to broach with kids; I know there are many difficult conversations ahead.

Right now, for me, the issues that are looming large and difficult are those of death, religion, and the afterlife.  The Christmas season brought with it a first-time awareness on Eleanor's part of the story of Jesus, and there were plenty of nativity scenes in our neighborhood for her to notice ("Look!  It's Baby Jesus!").  As you know, I come from a non-religious family.  While I want my kids to be exposed to and understand various religious traditions and beliefs, I'm not teaching them that one religion is the right path, or that I, or anyone, knows what happens after we die.  Sometimes I'm sorry I don't have this certainty, and can't pass it on to them.

Our conversations about death have stemmed sometimes from books -- fairy tales in particular, where people are always dying and coming back to life -- and sometimes from real-life conversations.  Eleanor understands, sort of, that my grandparents all died before she was born.  Recently, we were talking about Grandma Ruth, and I said I missed her, and Eleanor said, "That's okay, Mommy.  You'll get another grandma." and I had to explain that no, unlike in so many stories, death is permanent.

Last weekend at my parents' house, Eleanor wanted me to read her one of the books from their kids' bookshelf (happily, they saved everything from Michael's and my childhood): The Clown of God, by Tomie dePaola.  I had itchy I don't like that book feelings about it, but couldn't remember exactly why.  The visit before, I put her off, but last weekend we sat down and read it.

dePaola's drawings are, as always, beautiful and expressive.  The Clown of God is a retelling of an old French legend about a poor boy who raises himself up by becoming a talented juggler and clown.  He performs all over the country, making audiences happy with his act, which culminates with a rainbow of balls, the last a golden sun.  His success fades as he ages, and he gets to a point where he stumbles, and the audience throws things at him.  He quits juggling and wanders the country, begging, until he ends up at a monastery, where he sees a statue of Mary and baby Jesus being worshiped during a church service.  After the rest of the people leave, the old clown puts on his makeup and juggles for the stone-faced baby statue.  The show is amazing, best he's ever done.  Then he drops dead.  When a scandalized monk comes to see the sacrilege that is happening in the church, he finds the Jesus statue holding the golden ball, a smile on his face.

There's a lot going on here: death, the idea of doing something beautiful to make God happy, the question of why people would throw things at an old man.  I'm not sure what aspect of the book left me with my initial negative feelings about it; it's quite sweet in a number of ways.  But then there's the question of how Eleanor is taking this talk about God, coming from our house: is this a story to her like all the other stories we read?  Or does the fact that her friends are starting to talk about their belief in God make religious stories read differently to her?  (She has, in the last week, attached two necklaces to the headboard of her bed, and when I asked her why, she said, "To make God happy.")

The other book that came to mind for me on this topic is a very different one, a chapter book for older readers about a pair of brothers, aged 10 and 13, who embark on a saga-like adventure after death. The Brothers Lionheart was written by Astrid Lindgren, of Pippi Longstocking fame, though it bears little resemblance in tone to its more famous cousin.  The narrator, Karl, is a terminally ill 10-year-old boy; his older brother Jonathan is strong, smart, and brave.  Karl learns at the very beginning of the book that he is about to die, and Jonathan tries to reassure him by explaining that after death, they will both go to Nangiyala, the land where sagas come from.  In saving Karl from a fire, Jonathan unexpectedly dies first; Karl follows him, and the two brothers find themselves in an afterlife filled with adventure, battles of good against evil, and traitors.  It is, and is not, the land they were hoping it to be.

I remember loving this book as a kid; tonight, rereading bits of it, I was immediately sucked in again.  There is an immense seriousness to Karl's narration -- it's an adventure story, but a weighty one, and even the ending is not easy or happy.  The Brothers Lionheart, too, makes me itch a little uncomfortably, but in a productive kind of way.  It's a vision of the afterlife which, I'm sure, will spark all kinds of interesting conversation down the road.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tough topics, good books

Dear Annie,

Today was the last day of the comment challenge.  I have to confess I didn't get near 100 posts -- more like 28 or 30.  But it was quite interesting, I found a number of blogs I really like, and I've developed a bit of a commenting habit.  A good experience all around.  And the folks over at Mother Reader and LeeWind who organized it posted this amazing graphic of all the participants.  Look closely: we're there:

Thank you so much to Denise for her wonderful Picture Books that Raise Social Awareness post.  Such a great topic!  And Denise, you sound like such a fantastic teacher.

As Denise showed, there are a number of excellent picture books out there on some pretty heavy issues.  My experience selling books is that a large majority of kids and their grownups tend to reject all picture books -- no matter what the topic -- if the child has progressed to being able to read chapter books on his/her own.  By around second grade -- eight or so years old -- picture books which tell a story are seen as something for younger readers.  Schools have a huge advantage in being able to keep kids engaged in picture books -- especially if they're doing it in the kind of creative ways that Denise is using.

One of the heavier subjects picture books help to introduce to younger kids is slavery.  Most of the slavery books for young children tend to focus on the heroic narrative.  There are some wonderful stories about the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, and dramatic escapes.  I'm quite partial to
Henry's Freedom Box
by Ellen Levine, illustrated by the amazing Kadir Nelson.  It's the true story of Henry Brown, a slave in Richmond, Virginia who, with the help of two other men, was closed into a wooden crate and mailed to Philadelphia.  The trip took 27 hours, and he arrived safely.  For a good deal of the time the This End Up sign was ignored, and Henry was upside down stuck in the box (see picture).  Two men on the ship carrying the box eventually put it right side up, going through a series of moves wonderfully drawn by Nelson.  The book opens long before the escape, with the young Henry being taken from his mother, and later Henry's wife and children are sold away, both horribly traumatic events.

As Denise points out, the civil rights movement is another way to introduce injustice to younger ones.  I think of A Wreath for Emmett Till as a poetry book for much older kids, given its horrific subject.  The younger Freedom Summer, which Denise also writes about, is by Deborah Wiles, whom I've mentioned more than once in this blog as the author of Countdown.  Good writer. There was a period when Mona was 5 or 6 when she became fascinated with The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles. It's the true story of the first black child to go to a previously all-white school in New Orleans. The white families all pulled their kids out of the school, so every day for months this incredibly brave girl, flanked by armed federal marshalls, walked through a crowd of screaming whites and was the only child in her first grade class.  Mona, who at 19 is immersed in issues of social justice, remembers the book fondly, and says she thinks she picked it out at a library because she was drawn to the picture of the girl on the cover.  One can always wonder when the seeds of understanding and activism are first planted.

I feel like I could talk about a raft of books on tough topics, but it's not just the books, it's what surrounds the reading.  Parents can explain more about why those crowds were yelling at Ruby Bridges; teachers can place a heroic escape in a bigger context. And when children are old enough to be in a school setting, they're more aware that there's a wider world out there, with people going through many different kinds of experiences.

I'm  really looking forward to what you're thinking on this subject.



Monday, January 24, 2011

Guest Blogger: Picture Books that Raise Social Awareness

Dear Aunt Debbie,
I love that video.  Your life sounds extremely intense right now, too!  Any chance there are some less-traumatic books in those boxes as well?

As I finish my portfolios, here's our final guest blogger (for the moment -- I hope we'll have more in the future).  Denise is the mom of one of Eleanor's good friends, and she's also an amazing middle school English teacher.  Here's her post:

Picture Books that Raise Social Awareness

I just finished teaching a unit to my eighth-grade English classes called: Picture Books on Social Issues. In this unit, I read a few mentor texts and guided the students in writing their own books on issues of personal importance. Just last weekend, I read and graded all 85 of their picture books (ahhh… what a relief… now I can pay more attention to my two biological children) which they wrote and illustrated themselves. Some wrote Seussish, rhyming stories with invented creatures, others historical fiction about the Great Depression and the Armenian Genocide, and others wrote passionate allegories about bullying, peer pressure, and animal abuse. As a culminating activity, my students will be reading their books to students at a nearby elementary school.

One of my favorite texts to teach is Freedom Summer, written by Deborah Wiles, illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue. This story takes place in the American South in the 1960’s, right at the beginning of desegregation, and is about two young boys who are best friends: Joe who is “the color of the pale moths that dance around the porch light at night”, and John Henry who is “the color of browned butter.” They love to swim in the creek, shell butter beans, and eat ice pops together. One day, Joe’s Daddy says, “The town pool opens tomorrow to everybody under the sun, no matter what color.” That day, the boys run and race each other to the pool, but have to stop abruptly. Instead of gleaming, cool water in the pool, there is steaming asphalt. One of the most poignant illustrations is of the two boys sitting on the diving board facing the dark mass, their slumped backs facing the readers; they seem to be hovering over and surrounded by this dreary reality that as John Henry says, “White folks don’t want colored folks in their pool.” This moment, of course, changes them, and as the story progresses, they figure out a way to show their town that everyone under the sun really can unite and be harmonious.

Another book about this time period that I find hauntingly beautiful is
A Wreath for Emmett Till
which is a heroic crown of sonnets written by Marilyn Nelson and illustrated by Philippe Lardy. In it, the sonnets bring together pieces of Till’s life and weave them into a wreath of symbolism, imagery, and heavy emotion. One of the sonnets that makes me gasp is written to Mamie Till Mobley, Emmett’s mother: “Your only child, a body thrown to bloat, / mother of sorrows, of justice denied. / Surely you must have thought of suicide, / seeing his gray flesh, chains around his throat. / Surely you didn’t know you would devote / the rest of your changed life to dignified / public remembrance of how Emmett died…” This book really makes it impossible to forget the brutal injustice of his death.

Moving to a different part of the world: a somewhat more uplifting book is The Librarian of Basra by Jeanette Winter which takes place during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This is a true story about Alia Muhammad Baker who, with the help of some of her neighbors, rescued seventy percent of Basra’s library collection before the library was burned down due to bombs. Because she feared that harm would come to the library, she moved thousands of books to what seemed like safer places, her own home, other neighbor’s homes, her friend Anis’s restaurant.

There are two other books on different wars that I read to my students: Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust by Eve Bunting, and Faithful Elephants: A True Story of Animals, People and War by Yukio Tsuchiya. Bunting’s book deals with how many people look the other way when terrible things happen. In this book, ominous shadows called the Terrible Things represent the Nazis and they come to the woods and take away different animals, first the birds, then the squirrels, and later the rabbits. Each time an animal is taken away, the other animals are glad and continue on with their lives; in the end, one small rabbit survives to tell others about what happened. The Tsuchiya book, like Winter’s book, is a non-fiction story; it tells of what happens to animals in a zoo in Tokyo during the attack of Japan at the end of World War II.

These books lead to important discussions in my classes and sometimes bring about tears, especially Faithful Elephants. I think they show significant lessons about the world, but I wonder at what age I could read these books to my own children. I do think reading picture books can help us raise more compassionate, aware, and tolerant individuals, though at what point do I teach my own children about lynching and the Holocaust?

I have some thoughts about this, which I'll get to on Friday.  You?

Love, Annie 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Book Fog

Dear Annie,

It's good to have you back for a bit.  I keep romping through kidlit blogs -- much fun.  Here's my latest discovery: the first entry in a make-a-90-second-video-summarizing-a-Newbery-winner:

Newberys of course make me think about what books are good and how people -- be they judges or book buyers or good ol' readers -- can distinguish the good from the average.

Right now, within eight feet of where I'm sitting, I have nine boxes full of bound galleys: paperback advance versions of chapter books which will be published between now and September.  I've already ordered most of the books coming out in the next three to four months, but right now it's summer ordering season.  I meet with sales reps from one or two publishers every week for the next six or so weeks.  I get anywhere from ten to 30 galleys from each company.  So there's a lot of triage before I even start reading.

We don't have a large Young Adult section, so the first thing I eliminate is usually books with photographs of shapely "women in big dresses," as one of my reps calls them.  If these women's heads are visible (sometimes we just get bodies), they have long waving tresses.  Forget 'em.  Then there are the tiny little early chapter books which are being released as hardcovers for $16.99.  There has to be something exceptional about those for me to consider them before their paperback stage.  After that, it's a matter of reading the blurbs on the backs, occasionally getting some guidance from a sales rep, and then plunging in. 

Before I had this job, I felt it was a point of honor to finish reading whatever I started.  That's just not possible now, although I frequently put down a book thinking, yes, I should come back to this.  Sometimes I do.  This week, I've read parts of:
  • An R.L. Stine book about a boy who keeps waking up on the first day of school, and each iteration becomes more creepy and violent. It's the first time, I confess, that I've read RLS.  Your mother used to have good things to say about Goosebumps for some inexperienced readers.
  • A book about a boy abandoned in Mt. Desert Island by his mentally ill mother.  He decides to make it home without involving the authorities.  Sounds a little like a book I was dissing a few weeks ago, but as of halfway through it feels more believable.
  • Here's the start of another's blurb: 'A snowy winter's night.  Three small children are chased from their home by the forces of a merciless darkness..."  I'm partway into it.  Evil orphanages.  Time travel.  Missing parents. Okay so far.
  • An unhappy young Yankees fan with an abusive father who's just moved from Long Island to a small town in upstate New York is going to find meaning in the prints of John James Audubon.  I'm looking forward to finishing this one -- it's by Gary Schmidt whose work I like.  Could be quite good.
  • A YA book about a high school runner who loses a leg in a car accident and has to learn to find happiness in her life again.  This one's out already -- the precis makes it sound worse than it actually might be.
  • A graphic novel about a ghost who tries to goad a middle school girl into being a budding mean girl.
  • A graphic novel about a girl who's an artist but too shy to show her art to anyone.
  • I've also listened to a new recording of Are You There God, It's Me Margaret -- made it all the way through that one.
Sometimes I feel that I'm stuck in the fog.  Large brown boxes of galleys loom up from time to time -- I grab handfuls of books and wander through the fog again.  Then every now and then the fog clears -- maybe there's even a little shaft of sunlight -- and I forget about all the other books I've got to get through this week and just get pulled into one really good book.  Countdown was like that, and A Tale Dark and Grimm.  That's not to say that all other books are bad.  We all read books that we like, but aren't necessarily always drawn into them.  And I like knowing about many different kinds of books that might connect with all the different readers I meet.

But it always reassures me when I find a really good one --- makes me feel like I still can think.



Friday, January 21, 2011

Moon Man, Moon Kitten

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I'm still plugging away at my grading, and on Monday there will be one more fabulous guest blogger, but tonight I'm giving the portfolios a rest in order to jump back into the conversation.  Your last post about moon books made me think immediately about two I love, one from my own childhood, and one newer.

Moon Man, by Tomi Ungerer, is a strange and wonderful book.  I haven't yet read it with Eleanor, but I remember reading it often as a kid, and loving the glowing quality of Ungerer's illustrations.  It's the story of the man in the moon, who loves to watch people on earth dancing, and one night hitches a ride on a comet and falls to earth.  Ungerer is fairly political -- the moon man's landing causes all kinds of trouble, and he's hunted down and put in jail for a little while, but eventually (through his waning-moon abilities) escapes, gets to dance, and gets back home.  So it's not for the youngest readers, but it's quite lovely.  I also remember adoring Ungerer's Crictor, about a friendly French boa constrictor, and Rufus, about a bat who falls in love with movies and turns himself briefly technicolor.  (Sadly, this one is out of print, though several of Ungerer's childrens' books have recently been reprinted.)

For younger kids, I'm back to Kevin Henkes and his book Kitten's First Full Moon.  The moon is full, and the kitten mistakes it for a bowl of milk, just too high to reach, then makes the same mistake with the moon's reflection in a lake.  It's a really sweet book (Jeff was surprised a few days ago to realize that Henkes is the same sarcastic man who wrote the Lilly books), and the black/white/gray drawings are luminous.

Then of course there's Thurber's Many Moons, which you've written about -- who knew there were so many lovely moon books?

We saw the full moon on the way home on Wednesday, by the way.  It made Isabel howl.

Love, Annie

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Moon

Dear Annie,

Well, I miss your posts, but I must say you have an interesting and literate group of friends.  I'm really enjoying these guest posts.

Holly longs for a chance to read fiction with Ian, but I'm quite impressed with the non-fiction books that interest him -- including longer complicated ones like the H.A. Rey Find the Constellations.  Rey, best known as the creator of Curious George, has another astronomy book called The Stars: A New Way to See Them, written in 1952, but revised since the Pluto demotion.  I wonder if Ian's found that one, and what he thinks of it.

Holly, it's lovely that you've managed to find books that engage Ian, and that you find appealing too.  Both generations enjoying reading together is the best.  Occasionally a mom will come into the store and complain that her child -- usually, but not always, her son -- "isn't a reader."  Oh, he can read, she'll say, he reads science books all the time, but he's not reading fiction.  Many of us for whom reading fiction is central to who we are sometimes overlook the fact that non-fiction books are reading too, with plenty of chances to process what's written.  And having a child who loves to be read to means he'll grow up caring about books -- and who knows where his adult (or six year-old or 12 year-old) taste will take him.

I'm a bit of a star gazer myself, but have never seen the Andromeda galaxy, although now I intend to search for it next summer in Maine where the Milky Way shines brightly.  I thought I'd offer Ian a few books about the celestial body he can see: the moon.  There's a series called Let's-Read-and-Find-Out-Science which has dozens of books aimed at the early elementary grades but very read-aloud friendly for the younger crowd.  The topics include plants and animals, human body, weather, dinosaurs, earth science, and space.  I once met a mom and her first grade daughter who were working their way through all the books, which could take a while. 
The Moon Seems to Change
gives the basics of sun-moon-earth alignments, and also talks about what you'll see in the sky, and where different-shaped moons will be. When the illustrations include people looking at the sky, the backgrounds are usually urban. It gives a fair amount of information, with no bad puns. 

What the Moon is Like
gets you up to the lunar surface  There's lots of description of what it looks like, and what the astronauts did when they were there.

There is no air on the moon -- no dust, water droplets, or molecules in the sky.  There is nothing in the sky to be lighted, so it is always black.
From the moon, people can see the stars at night, just as we can from Earth.  But they can see the stars in daytime, too.  They can see stars in the black sky when the sun is shining.

I thought I'd sneak in a little moon fiction here, too, since we're on the subject of lunar travel.  Back in my first post, I talked about
Man on the Moon (a day in the life of Bob)
, by Simon Bartram. It's the story of a man who commutes to the moon to work every day. His job is to clean up the moon (all that dust!) and to tell the tourists that there are no such things as aliens.  Even as he's saying that, of course, cheerful little green men with antennae are popping up in the background in every picture (note green guy under Bob's elbow on the cover).  He remains happily oblivious through the whole book.

Jimmy Zangwow's Out-of-This-World Moon-Pie Adventure
by Tony DiTerlizzi, as the title promises, offers a little more excitement. Jimmy flies his jalopy to the crescent moon before supper because he's longing for a moon pie. After some negotiation, the Man in the Moon gives him a thousand pies ("Gadzooks!" says Jimmy, "A whole year's supply!"), but on his way home, Jimmy ends up crash-landing on Mars. He's met by 999 friendly little blue men, all of whom are hungry. And then a monster shows up.  All gets resolved very cordially -- burps play a crucial role -- and Jimmy makes it home in time for supper.  It's fun and the illustrations are lush and full of detail.

There's a full moon tonight, by the way.  Didn't realize that until I wrote all this.  Enjoy it.



Monday, January 17, 2011

Guest Blogger: Stars and Outer Space

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I'm looking forward to having a chance to check out more kidlit blogs next week, once the grading slows down.  (I'm looking forward to a lot of things after the end of this little crunch period.)  For today, we have another wonderful guest blogger: my friend Holly, mom of Eleanor's best friend Ian.  Your last post mentioned the blog Book Loving Boys, which among other things takes up the question of what books boys are drawn to.  I hate to admit it, but in our experience there's been a definite difference.  While Eleanor is All Narrative, All The Time, Ian is much more into nonfiction.  Here's what Holly has to say:

I’m sometimes a bit jealous hearing about what books are in circulation over at Annie’s. All my attempts to get Ian to read The Wizard of Oz, or Rapunzel, or my childhood fave, The Wonder Clock, have been met with “Leave out the scary parts.” Which leaves pretty much the title pages. But I’ve come to love reading endless books about how asphalt is made and feel pride at not stumbling when reading through lists and lists of saurases and ceratopses.

His recent obsession is space, and he is madly in love with the A True Book series by Elaine Landau, each about a planet in our solar system (or a dwarf planet). They are pretty heavy handed with flashy graphics, but that, combined with the really beautiful pictures, good pacing, and very clear but somehow not heavy descriptions of basic principles make them very exciting to read. Instead of relying on corny cartoons or retched puns (don’t get me wrong, we read our share of Magic School Bus, too) they rely on the interest in the subject itself to carry you along.

Our other current favorite is Find the Constellations, Second Edition (yes, Pluto deniers, now with Updated Solar System Information!) by good old H. A. Rey. It starts with the Big Dipper and shows how you connect the stars to make a picture, then goes into what a light year is, names of stars, the zodiac, and has very lovely seasonal star charts which we’ve played with a lot. As well as, to my joy, bits and pieces of the back stories of some of the leading constellations, like Orion. We even got through the story of Andromeda, which is pretty scary!

But here’s the part that gets me:
“Do you see the little curlicue near Andromeda’s knee? This is the famous Nebula of Andromeda. You see it on clear, dark nights, a wisp of faint, hazy light. It is tiny yet it’s worth looking for: it is the most distant object -- the farthest-away thing -- anybody can see with the naked eye. And this wisp of haze looking so small is in reality the biggest single object you can see. It is a galaxy, a gigantic swarm of stars, a hundred billion of them, far, far out in space.”

I can’t help wondering if Ian thinks of all of it as just an elaborate fiction, given that he’s never even seen the Big Dipper. Here in Brooklyn we are lucky to see two or three stars in the whole sky. When I point one out he says “that’s the Andromeda Galaxy” and I just nod and tell him the other one’s Betelgeuse.

More, certainly, for us to check out.
Love, Annie

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Comment challenge & Collier

 Dear Annie,

I've been having such an interesting online weekend, thanks to Rachel, Friday's guest blogger, who alerted us to Comment Challenge 2011.  It was started by Mother Reader, a quite wonderful kidlit blogger, with maybe the best subtitle going (check it out on her site). On January 6, she challenged bloggers to leave 100 comments on other kidlit blogs, by January 26.  That comes out to five comments a day, if one had started at the beginning.  I signed up on Friday, so my goal is simply to keep up with the five-a-day pace, which, it turns out, is a lot.  It doesn't take long to write a comment, but many of these blogs are really interesting -- one can spend quite a chunk of time wandering around.

So welcome to all you other Challenge participants, and today I strongly recommend you check out Book Loving Boys, by Trina.  The post I've linked to is about finding the time in busy lives to settle down and read with your kids.  One of Trina's discoveries is to read to her kids while they're in the bath.  The post brought back waves of memory for me -- bathtime reading was one of our favorites.  Mother memory seems appropriate today, my firstborn's 21st birthday (that's Lizzie in the photos to the right, lying on the grass reading Harry Potter #7).

The other thing I wanted to do today is come back to one of last week's award winners:
Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave
, a non-fiction picture book for  which Brian Collier won both the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, and a Caldecott Honor (also for illustration).  It's the story of a slave in South Carolina who worked making large pots used as storage vessels.  We know about Dave because he inscribed short bursts of poetry into the clay of his pots.  The picture book is short and eloquently written by Laban Carrick Hill:

To us
it is just dirt,
the ground we walk on.
Scoop up a handful.
The gritty grains slip
between your fingers. 
On wet days,
heavy with rainwater,
it is cool and squishy,
mud pie heaven.

But to Dave
it was clay,
the plain and basic stuff
upon which he learned to
form a life
as a slave nearly
two hundred years ago.

Collier's illustrations follow the whole process of mixing the clay, throwing the pot on a wheel, finishing off the tops, then scratching in a line of poetry.  His awareness of Dave is so beautiful.  It's a portrait of a man deeply involved in his craft.  Even this picture of Dave's back shows someone who's completely absorbed.


Aunt Debbie

Friday, January 14, 2011

Guest Blogger: If I Had to Pick Just One...

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I love the image of you hovering over the computer to buy the winning books immediately, like a Springsteen fan with Ticketmaster on redial the moment the tour goes on sale.  Hope you did well!

I am enjoying my students' portfolios, thanks!  I'm lucky to have the freedom, in my Writers' Workshop course, to encourage a wide variety of writing styles and content.  These collections are full of my students' beliefs and wild ideas (and a whole lot of fantasy-influenced plotlines), and they're deeply personal.  I'm grateful to our guest bloggers for giving me a little more time to stay on my strict grading schedule.

Tonight's guest is Rachel, one of our most frequent commenters, who has just started a kids' book blog of her own: Even in Australia.  Here's her post.

Perhaps my very favorite children's book, if I had to pick just one, is
The Lion and the Little Red Bird
by Elisa Kleven,.  In fact, I chose this book for the picture book swap hosted by Playing by the Book.  It tells the story of a lion whose tail changes color every day and the desire of his friend, the little red bird, to know why.  Although she and the lion are unable to communicate, they have a true and deep friendship.  He rescues her from a thunderstorm; she pulls a thorn from his paw.  They love each other and take care of each other and simply enjoy each other's company.  And of course, at the end the little red bird learns the lion's secret.
I love nearly everything about this book.  The story is so gentle and heartwarming.  The language has such a delightful rhythm to it and the line breaks add to the poetic feeling.
"In the morning the lion came out,
swishing his tail -
which was no longer green, but orange as a flower,
orange as a butterfly,
orange as the setting sun.
'Lion, Lion!' the bird chirped, astonished.
'Why is your tail so orange?'
Again, the lion did not understand the bird."
Best of all are the illustrations, which are mixed media collages.  They are so detailed - I want to reach out and feel the lion's tightly curled mane and have a picnic in the field of orange flowers that he frolics in.  The only false note are the illustrations of children playing in the background.  I can't figure out if their primitive look is intentional, to convey playfulness or childlike-ness.  If so, they don't succeed, but this is such a minor complaint in the context of the entire book that I feel almost petty pointing it out.
I love finding books that mention other books (take a look at my post on the topic).  So I was excited when I discovered that this one appears in Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten by Joseph Slate (not one of my favorites but a big hit with my kids).  It appears among the books the ones the eponymous teacher is shelving.  It is lying on the floor, open, so you have to be familiar with it to spot it.  Sharp-eyed readers will also notice Robert McCloskey's classics, Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal.
Happy reading! 

And happy long weekend to you!

Love, Annie

P.S. On the MLK Day weekend note, do you have any good suggestions for books about King?  I scanned a few they had out at our local library this week, and they all looked pretty bleah. 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Moon Over What?

Dear Annie,

I hope that grading your students' portfolios is bringing you much pleasure, even as it consumes your time.  I really liked Cyd's guest blog entry.  I haven't looked closely enough at Close Your Eyes -- it's on my to-order list right now.

My week started with what is now for me a once-a-year ritual: Monday morning I was holed up in my bosses' house across the street from our store, with their home office computer playing the live webcast of  the American Library Association awards. Their teenage daughter's laptop was on the desk (thank you, Zoe), open to the ordering page of a national book wholesaler. As soon as a winner was announced for one of the four or five big awards, I'd enter it in the shopping cart and pray there was still available stock. The winners often sell out within minutes after the announcement. Every year there are one or two books from small publishers who had no idea they were about to hit the jackpot, and it takes two months for them to get another print run going. So if I don't get an order in immediately, it could be a while before I'll have those books in stock. The whole process is both nerve-wracking and fun; when I worked in television news, the adrenaline rushes were more or less daily, but in the book business, there are very few moments when one  has the opportunity to react well under pressure.

And, as in the news business, the excitement of it all tends to distract from the content. It's taking me a while to process some of the winners. Very little this year was predictable. The biggest surprise, for me, was the Newbery medal (for best children's literature), which went to
Moon over Manifest
, by Clare Vanderpool.  She's a first-time author who wrote the book over the course of five years when her four children were growing up.  I hadn't read the book -- reviews describing the 12 year-old heroine as "plucky" and "scrappy" put me off a bit.  I'm about a third of the way through it now, haven't formed a coherent opinion yet -- will report more soon.  It's the story of a small town during the Depression.  There was no clear front-runner in this contest this year, but I was sad that two of my favorites, Countdown and A Tale Dark and Grimm were completely iced out.  They're still great books, I'll still be able to sell them, but these awards really do have a big influence on demand and publishers' allocation of resources.  It's funny, I have to disengage from the books I was rooting for before being able to appreciate the chosen few.

The other surprise was the Caldecott Medal, which went to
A Sick Day for Amos McGee
, illustrated by Erin Stead. It's a lovely book, in many senses of the word. The text, written by the illustrator's husband Philip Stead, tells a sweet and quiet story of a zookeeper who tends his charges lovingly:

When he gets sick, some of them leave the zoo and go to his house to take care of him. The illustrations are wonderful: full of feeling, and with enough going on that you can keep discovering things in subsequent readings.  It's great and definitely merited the big award.

But with the Caldecott, there was also, so to speak, the elephant in the room: David Wiesner's
Art and Max
. I've really enjoyed this book (see blog entry from back in October) and have had a lot of fun watching both kids and adults read it for the first time. All year it's been clear this is a very wonderful book.  But Wiesner is also the winner of three previous much-deserved Caldecott medals.  It's clear the award committee decided to look to other candidates -- Art and Max didn't even receive an Honor.  It's one of those questions one can debate at length: should a clear front-runner be passed by to make room for newer talent?  I don't have an answer on this one, and I think it's great that the Steads' book won, but something seems vaguely not-right in here somewhere.

In the meantime, I've got several more award-winning books to catch up on -- a task I'm looking forward to.



Monday, January 10, 2011

Guest Blogger: Bedtime Books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Our first guest blogger, as I toil away at grading my students' amazing final portfolios, is my dear friend Cyd.  Here she is:

Bedtime Books

I can't remember exactly when it happened, but sometime around the time that Rebekah, my oldest, was weaned (at 15 months), we started our routine of books before bed.  It wasn't much earlier; prior to that she wasn't too interested, and once we were upstairs in the nursery and in the rocking chair she wanted just to nurse and go to sleep (she's always loved her sleep, that one).  But at some point, when the nursing went away, the books came in.

For a long, long time we rotated between five: the classic Goodnight Moon, Sandra Boynton's Going to Bed Book and Pajama Time, Todd Parr's Otto Goes to Bed, and Kate Banks's Close Your Eyes (illustrated by Georg Hallensleben).

So much has been said about Goodnight Moon (some of it on this blog) and there's not much more to say.  It is, in many ways, a perfect book.  The quiet rhythm of the words, the incredible detail of the illustrations -- every day my daughter would point out something new in the pictures that she hadn't noticed before, even though we read it over and over again.  It is such a satisfying putting-to-bed book.

Of course it feels like everybody with young children knows Sandra Boynton too.  Maybe the biggest problem with Sandra Boynton is that she is so prolific.  Where does one even start with her?  Which ones to buy?  I'm a big fan of Barnyard Dance, but these two bedtime ones are also good places to begin.  You can't really read Pajama Time!; you have to sing it.  And while I wouldn't call it a lullaby -- it's more of a rollicking good ditty -- it does end with a nice and final "Good night.  Sleep tight" that is the perfect precursor to lights out and a good-night kiss.

Otto Goes to Bed
is one in a series of Otto-the-dog books (my children are also particularly fond of Otto Has a Birthday Party, in which Otto's birthday cake, made himself with ingredients including shoes and a cootie bug, explodes when he takes it out of the oven).  In this book, Otto doesn't want to go to bed, but finally realizes that bedtime is fun "if you dream about all your favorite things."  I don't particularly like books where the children (or dogs) don't want to go to bed; although I know that many children can identify with this, Rebekah always did like going to bed and I didn't want her to get the idea that this was not the norm.  (In contrast, her sister, Ellie, who is 2, has always hated sleep and I need nothing to reinforce her feelings about bedtime!)  And I'm never sure how much children understand the concept of dreams anyhow (the other night, Ellie woke up crying and when I asked her if she'd had a bad dream she said, "Yes, yes, bad dream!" but then when I said, "Ellie, what is a dream?" she looked at me quizzically and said, "I don' know!").  Not to mention you can't exactly make yourself dream about what you want to dream about.  But Rebekah and Ellie have no such quibbles with the book.  They love it, and I don't mind reading it over and over.

By far my favorite, though, is Close Your Eyes, which was given to me by my friend Lauren, whose twin boys (now 13) loved it when they were little.  For about a year and a half, although we rotated through the others, this one was a constant: we read it twice a day, every day, before nap and before bedtime.  It's the story of a little tiger who doesn't want to go to sleep and comes up with a myriad of excuses ("but if I close my eyes, I can't see the sky! I can't see the bird with the blue feathers!").  His mother gently reminds him of the power of imagination ("you can see all kinds of birds with different feathers") and at last he confesses what is really at issue: "I'm scared."  His mother reassures him that she will be there in the morning, offers him pleasant things to dream about, and nestles close to him as he finally closes his eyes.

I can take issue with this book in the same ways I take issue with Otto Goes to Bed: it reinforces the idea that children don't like going to bed; it suggests you can determine your own dreams, etc.  But in this case none of it bothers me at all.  The language is poetic; the relationship between the mother and baby tiger so real and warm; and the illustrations (by the artist who illustrated Mommy Hugs and Daddy Kisses) are lush and beautiful.  Eighteen months, twice a day -- that's equal to about 1,100 readings, and I was still sad when Rebekah decided she was ready to move on to other things. She still lets me read it to her once in a while, and I'm hoping Ellie is close to hitting her phase of being obsessed with it.

Thank you, Cyd!  And goodnight to all.

Love, Annie 

Sunday, January 9, 2011

King-Smith: not just pigs

Dear Annie,

Somehow, the late Dick King-Smith seems worth a second entry.  In the process of writing about him last time, I came upon a list of all his books in wikipedia: about 150 of them.  Many are out of print -- some of them deservedly.  But some of them are definitely worth tracking down.

Heaven knows if it's readable, but Bernard the Magical Toilet Brush has to be one of the great book titles of all time.  I'd never heard of it until I saw the list.

For those looking for more King-Smith picture books, I only know of one other:
I Love Guinea Pigs
. It looks a bit like All Pigs Are Beautiful, but the text, although full of reminisces about guinea pigs he has known, reads a bit more like information for pet owners.

Those searching for shorter chapter books to read to younger kids should go to Alibris for the Sophie books -- all out of print.  He wrote six of them, starting when Sophie is four years old.  She's an opinionated little girl who intends to grow up to be a "lady farmer" -- the only part of the books that irritated me: I dropped the "lady" in the reading.  She acquires a new pet in each book, starting with Sophie's Snail and working her way up through kitten, puppy, rabbit, and pony.  In the last book she inherits a castle in Scotland from a distant relative.

Pretty Polly is a shorter chapter book in which a farmer's daughter teaches a chicken to speak.  It's been many years since I read it, but Wheaties (the cereal) figure in the motivation for speech.  The Cuckoo Child, also much reread in our household, is the story of a boy who finds a mysterious egg and gives it to his geese to hatch.  It becomes an ostrich.  Almost everything I know about ostriches I learned from this book, including that their kick is worse than their peck.  Both these books, like most of King-Smith's are very gently funny.

And finally, there's The Queen's Nose, which the BBC apparently turned into a TV serial for several years.  It's the story of a girl who receives a magic coin which, when rubbed on the side across from the queen's nose, grants a finite number of wishes.  In the British tradition, wishes can turn out literally true but not quite as intended.  I'd call this one older than the others above: maybe seven and up.  It has a nice ending about acting selflessly.

Even though a lot of these books are currently out of print, I want to believe that they'll come back again.  King-Smith had such a lovely touch -- one hopes many of these are not gone forever.



Friday, January 7, 2011

The Golden Rule via fairy tales

Dear Aunt Debbie,

We will have to try again with some of King-Smith's books.  At your suggestion a few months ago, we took Three Terrible Trins out of the library.  I liked what I read of it, but Eleanor found it frightening -- in the first chapter, three mouse husbands of the trins' mother die at the hands of the cats, and Eleanor, who has not been fazed by much more intense moments of violence in other contexts, was really disturbed.  You never know.

A while ago, Gina asked in a comment for recommendations of picture books that might help teach her 4-year-old twins about compassion and helping others.  One place we've been going recently to have this discussion is into fairy tales.

It started with trying to think of another way to explain to Eleanor that she shouldn't grab toys away from Isabel, even if they were her toys.  I heard myself saying, for the millionth time, "How do you feel when someone grabs something away from you?" and then I thought of teaching her the Golden Rule.  It has a sparkling, toddler-friendly name, and it's incredibly helpful in a variety of sibling and playdate situations.  I've used the formal phrasing ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"), but have mostly paraphrased it as "Treat other people the way you would like to be treated."  Then we found, on separate library trips, two really weird and wonderful fairy tales that helped reinforce the message.  They are both out of print, so get ready for some Alibris links.

Up the Chimney, retold by Margaret Hodges and illustrated by Amanda Harvey, is a revisiting of an old English folktale.  A family with two daughters keeps all their money in a long-tailed bag, and when it's stolen, the girls decide to help out by going to seek their fortunes.  The eldest girl goes first.  She can't find any work in town, and on her way farther out into the country, things start talking to her.  She passes an oven with bread baking, and the loaves say, "Little girl, little girl, take us out.  We have been baking seven years, and no one has come to take us out."  She does.  Then it's a cow who needs to be milked (again, seven years, ow), and then a laden apple tree that needs help shaking down its apples.  She helps them both.

The girl finds a job as maid to a witch, who warns her not to look up the chimney.  When the girl does look up, her parents' stolen money bag falls down on her, and she runs off home with it.  The witch pursues her, but the tree and the cow and the oven and baker all help hide her, because -- Golden Rule Alert! -- she helped them first.  She gets home safe with the money.  The second sister decides she'll do the same, but she turns out to be selfish and won't help anyone who asks her, so when the witch comes looking for her, the tree points in her direction and the witch beats her with a broomstick and takes the money away.  Generosity and compassion are rewarded!  Selfishness is punished, but not with anything too horrific!

Eleanor loves this book.  I think part of the attraction for her is that the moral is clear and written at her level -- she talks it through and really gets it.  There's also some fun repeating poetry in the witch chase scenes:
Cow of mine, cow of mine,
Have you seen a girl
With a willy-willy wag, and a long-tailed bag,
Who's stole my money, all I had?
Finally, the illustrations are energetic and funny, all the characters leaping around with their arms up, and in modern dress.  The older sister has a long expressive braid, and the selfish younger sister wears a walkman and a pink feather boa.
The second is a book by Robert San Souci, of Young Guinevere fame, based on a Russian tale: Peter and the Blue Witch Baby. In this tale, handsome young tsar Peter runs afoul of a witch.  When he goes off in search of his chosen bride, the Little Sister of the Sun, the witch seeks her revenge by planting herself in his palace in the form of a baby.  With Peter gone, the witch baby grows into an enormous blue giant baby, with clanging iron teeth, and destroys everything she can.  Meanwhile, Peter meets three sad giants on his way to the Little Sister of the Sun.  To cheer them up, he gives each giant one of the three magic gifts he was bringing to impress his lady love: a pebble which turns into mountains, a seed which becomes a forest, and a glass bead which creates a gush of water.  The giants are happy.  Later, when he needs saving from the blue witch baby, the giants all help him.  Golden Rule Alert!

I like the morals in these stories partly because they're not treacly.  In my book, it's more fun to discuss empathy in the context of giant blue witch babies with gnashing iron teeth than it is, say, with the Berenstain Bears.

For the next couple of weeks, as I wrestle with my end-of-semester grading, I've invited a few book-loving parent friends to step in as guest bloggers.  Stay tuned for Cyd's pick on Monday.

Love, Annie

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Dick King-Smith

Dear Annie,
…Of all the pigs I have ever owned, my one particular favorite was a boar called Monty, who was a large white.  Monty never looked very white, because he lived out in the woods where there was a pond in which he liked to wallow – but he looked very large.  And he was.
I bought him as a youngster, but when he was full-grown he weighed six hundred pounds.  Monty was so gentle.  When I went out to feed him and his ten wives, he would come galloping through the trees at my call, a really monstrous and frightening sight to anyone who didn’t know what a pushover he was.
 The words of Dick King-Smith, in one of his few short picture books,
All Pigs are Beautiful
.  He died the day before yesterday, after a long life as a farmer, a teacher, and an excellent writer of children’s books.

The farms in his books, like the man, were British, with stone buildings and animals who were usually polite, well-spoken, often intelligent, and in his best works, crafty.  He wrote a few duds, but so many wonderful ones too.

Best known in this country is
Babe: The Gallant Pig
, about a smart little piglet adopted by a sheep dog who grows up to be a sheep-pig.  His secret to herding sheep is his unfailingly polite approach.  He also learns the ovine password from the sheep at his farm, so that he can gain the trust of strange sheep at a sheep dog trial.  It was a frequent recitation in our house for a few years:
“I may be ewe, I may be ram,
I may be mutton, may be lamb,
But on the hoof or on the hook,
I bain’t so stupid as I look.”
One of my favorites is
Pigs Might Fly
, about a runt of the litter who thinks he’s going to grow up to fly, having overheard someone say, “pigs might fly.”  He learns to swim instead, and saves the farm that way.  The book is so wonderfully pig-centric, as in this description of the farmer:
They thought of the Pigman as a servant since he did nothing but minister to their wants; he fed them, he  watered them, he cleaned them out and brought them fresh bedding.  They spoke of him – and to him, though he could not understand this – simply as “Pigman,” as a Roman nobleman might have said “Slave.”
When Daggie, our hero meets a domesticated duck, he refers to Pigman:
“Pigman?” she said.
“Yes, the servant,” said Daggie.  “You know, that dirty fat man.”
“Oh, you mean Duckman,” said the Muscovy.
Then, lest I give the impression he only wrote about pigs, there’s
Three Terrible Trins
, one of the funniest books ever about revenge.  It’s the story of how five quite clever mice successfully run all the cats off a farm.  And there’s a great subplot involving the irascible farmer’s glass eye.

King-Smith had such warmth and humor.  He’s one of those authors who you feel would be a lovely person to meet.  I’ll end this with one more quote about Monty, the 600-pound pushover.  The farmer in the illustration bears a strong resemblance to the author.
What he really loved, once he'd finished his slop, was to be scratched on the top of his head, between his big ears, and it always affected him in the same way:

Dick King-Smith, 1922 - 2011


Monday, January 3, 2011

Dogs playing poker and a crafty new graphic novel heroine

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Like so many other aspects of parenting -- all of them, really -- the technological/non-technological is a hard balance to strike.  We go to the library, and Eleanor and her friends spend at least half of their time playing or watching other kids play on the children's section computers.  (The last time we were there, Eleanor spent several minutes fiddling with a Dora the Explorer game that consisted solely of standing Dora in front of a stocked closet and getting her dressed.  Urgh.)  But we also have our Library Bag hanging from the stroller handle, and our Library Shelf at home in the girls' room, and both girls reach for books as much as or more than they reach for anything else.  That new picture on the right is Isabel at Jeff's parents' place over Christmas, after trying several times to get herself and her enormous book up into that chair.

And then, of course, there are your wonderful gifts!  We've just finished one of the longer books in the box, and are all enamored of this quirky, funny graphic novel/middle-grade reader hybrid.  Ottoline and the Yellow Cat, written and illustrated by Chris Riddell, is a pure pleasure.  As so many early and middle-reader books seem to be, it's a mystery, but the mysterious bits (why are there so many lost lapdogs?  Who is stealing rich women's jewelry?  Where is the disappearing laundry in the Pepperpot Building going?) aren't really the point.  The young heroine, Ottoline, lives in a large apartment filled with her parents' collections (four-spouted teapots, extremely small paintings, etc.) with a small hairy Norwegian bog-person named Mr. Munroe.  Her parents are always away on collecting trips, but they write postcards with eerily accurate advice about what Ottoline should be taking care of at the moment.  The book is packed with pictures and diagrams, and many, many things are labeled and explained -- the drawings feel rich.

The illustrations include floor plans (these were fun to explain to Eleanor) and maps and newspaper clippings and pages from Ottoline's notebook, and are all done in black and white with the occasional shading of red. 

It is so much fun I don't want to give much more away, except to say that Ottoline is a Master of Disguise, and there is also a bear.  A total hit!  Thank you.

Love, Annie

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Digital rant

Dear Annie,

And a happy new year to you, too.  Seems like a good time to talk about one of the waves of the future: electronic learning stuff.

The past almost-20 years have been such a whirlwind of adults constantly learning new technologies. The entertainment/education industry keeps morphing along to keep up. My main feeling about technology and kids is, what's the rush?  Parents still want to be the main source of values for their children, and we all want them to grow in developmentally appropriate ways.  Digital learning stuff isn't all at odds with this, but a lot of it sure is.

Let me just do my rant about the Tag reader, then I'll get back to the Bigger Picture.  We sell it in the store (as a toy, not part of the book department), but I am less than enthusiastic about it. Why would one want a machine to teach a kid to read?  Maybe the parents don't like to read?  Maybe they don't have time to teach their kid?  Maybe they want the kid to be the best reader in pre-K, and they think this is the way to push her ahead?  Maybe they want to get him accustomed to digital interface so that he can segue seamlessly into hand-held games (Leap Frog has another product that does that even better)?  Maybe she's not seeing enough commercial-laden daytime TV, so they want her to get used to the Disney marketing machine in other ways?  Okay, I'm getting very crabby here.

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, the book that's included with the Tag reader, is a book that customers of many ages get nostalgic about: there's lots of warmth in those memories.  The lower case letters of the alphabet climb the coconut tree, all fall out of it, get briefly comforted by the adult (upper case) letters, head home, then plan another assault on the tree.  It's an alphabet book with suspense (will there be enough room?), rhythm (chicka chicka boom boom), sense of humor, and simplicity.  It's one of those books a child can sit alone with and make up words if s/he's not reading yet.  Unless, of course, they have an electronic device that eliminates that leap of imagination and fills it in for them.  It's a book I can imagine you and Jeff having some fun hamming up as you read it out loud.  How does the Tag do with the line, "Skit skat skoodle doot/Flip flap flee/Everybody's running to the coconut tree"?

The parents I see at the store who feel powerless in the face of their children's digital obsessions are the ones who didn't think about it when the kids were younger.  As you know, Bob and I banned television from our home when our girls were growing up.  It worked well for us: the girls were close enough in age that they created a world of imagination games which kept them entertained and thinking.  Worries that they wouldn't fit in with friends who watched TV were groundless.  I also know that complete abstention isn't the only satisfactory route.  But I think parental understanding of the technology that comes in the door is essential, and the limitations on using it help to keep everyone sane.  It's not necessary for one's children to be as techno-immersed as everyone else's: the concept that one's own family does things differently is not difficult for kids to grasp.

Because of the onslaught of constantly-changing technology, it's not uncommon for some parents to say, better to get our kids into digital toys and games now so that they don't get left behind.  I would argue the opposite:  put it off until the technology is something they actually need. They'll be able to figure it out then in half the time their parents can, whatever it is.



Saturday, January 1, 2011

The technology of reading

Dear Aunt Debbie,

First off, Happy New Year!  I hope you all rang it in joyfully.  We saved your Christmas box until last night, and devoured much of it immediately -- I'll post on a few soon.

I know exactly what you mean about that itchy preposterous feeling.  I'm having trouble as well coming up with more good examples, but my most recent one came while reading The Knife of Never Letting Go, which I otherwise found gripping and thought-provoking.

MINOR SPOILER ALERT for those who haven't read it yet -- you might want to skip the next paragraph if you don't want to know something about the plot, though I'm not giving away any of the book's biggest secrets.

For much of the book, Todd carries with him his mother's journal, which his adopted father Ben gives him when he's sent running away from Prentisstown, and which tells the story of her life on New World up to the day of her death, when Todd was a baby.  Ben also includes a map and a brief page of writing and tells Todd to read them when he gets far enough away from his hometown to be somewhat safe.  Trouble is, Todd can't read well -- it's serious work for him, and his macho instinct kicks in and he doesn't want to ask for help.  But when it becomes clear to Viola, the girl he ends up traveling with, that one of the things Ben has written is "You must warn them," I find it extremely hard to believe that Todd wouldn't immediately hand the book over to Viola and ask her to read the whole page.  And why doesn't she take it out of his bag and read it when he's comatose for five days and she's just sitting there watching him?  I spent much of the book wanting to know more about what was in that inner book, and the lack of use it gets feels ultimately uncomfortable to me --weirdly dismissive of Todd's mother and anything she might have had to teach Todd or Viola.

We spent much of the first day of the new year reading, and Isabel practiced for the land-speed record of pulling books off shelves as quickly as we reshelved them.  Eleanor played as well with one of her new Christmas presents: a Tag reader, a generous gift from Jeff's aunt.  Are you familiar with the system?  It's a chunky pen which you can load up with software and then use with special Tag books in astonishing ways: the pen will read individual words aloud, or make sounds when passed over an object, or read the whole story, or ask questions as part of identification games.  I am both awed by the technology and a little uncomfortable with it -- I'm an old-fashioned book person, with no interest myself in electronic readers, and I'm not sure how this kind of reading experience will fold in with all of Eleanor's others.  The pen also somehow takes in data about how Eleanor is using it, which raises privacy concerns for me.  It makes me feel pretty old-fashioned (she said, writing on her public blog).

The book we got with the pen is Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, by Bill Martin Jr and John Archambault.  It's a nice alphabet rhyme of a book, and I like the fact that all the letters are lower-case, as Eleanor is less familiar with them than with capital letters.  She played with it a bit this afternoon, but spent the most time touching the pen to the sample page catalogue that came along with it, getting glimpses of a Tinkerbell book and jonesing for Disney Princess books.  We've ordered the interactive world map for her birthday -- not  what she most wants, but what we'd rather have in the house than sparkly princess noises.  I'm curious to see how this pans out.  I'll report back.

May the first days of 2011 bring you much joy.

Love, Annie