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.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Read it again, Mom

Dear Aunt Debbie,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Annie

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Bad things happening

Dear Annie,

I love your Summer Reading post.  The pick-up-a-book-for-yourself line to grown-ups was a lovely reminder at the end.

I would add one other element in helping one's children be engaged with reading: give them space.  Unscheduled time when they can curl up with a book or play in other ways helps kids to find their own pace, including the most satisfying times to read, and for how long.  And limiting screen time for the entire family will help everyone to engage more with books and each other.  Just as kids benefit from seeing parents read, it helps them to see parents who don't need to be constantly plugged in.  NY Times column on this last week.

I had a lovely challenge from a mom the other day.  I often speak with parents who are looking for books with action and adventure, but nothing scary.  There are lots of concerns out there about kids' fear thresholds.  And many parents recoil from books in which the mother is dead.  But this mom said, "My daughter wants books where bad things happen."  The girl was 10, and it turned out she wasn't looking for unalleviated tragedy.  It was more wanting a plot driven by some form of adversity.  I offered a lot of books, most of which the girl had already read, but the process of applying her Bad Things standard to familiar stories gave me fresh eyes.

She wanted neither historical fiction nor fantasy.

Books which fit into the definition, but which she'd read already:

Counting by 7s
by Holly Sloan: Both parents are killed in an accident in the first chapter.  The book is about the odd and endearing main character's quest to find people with whom she can belong.

Wonder by R. J. Palacio: Spectacular book about a boy with severe facial deformities. Link is to blog entry singing its praises.

Out of My Mind
by Sharon Draper: Spectacular book about a girl with cerebral palsy who can't communicate.

by Cynthia Lord: Girl grappling with her relationship to her autistic brother.

Rain Reign by Ann Martin: Girl on autism spectrum who finds and loses a dog.

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech: Girl sets off in search of her missing mother (at that point, I was searchng for dead-mother books).

All of these books are basically optimistic stories which affirm the goodness of human nature.  But in order to get to that conclusion, bad stuff has to happen.  This girl wanting bad things is, I think, a step in becoming a more mature reader.  If bad stuff happens -- we're talking about kids' books here -- the journey to resolution is bound to follow.  Which makes for a more interesting and also more emotionally complex read.

The winners were:

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park.  Set in what is now South Sudan, it's the grimmest of the list.  The book alternates chapters about a fictional girl who must walk 8 hours a day to bring water to her family, and a real boy who was one of Sudan's Lost Boys, displaced by war.  The fictional character and the real guy meet at the end of the book.

Anything But Typical
, by Nora Raleigh Baskin.  Like two of the books above, this one features a kid on the autism spectrum.  He befriends a "neurotypical" girl through a kids' online site, then panics when he's presented with the opportunity to meet her in person, afraid that she'll see only his difference.

Love, Ruby Lavender
by Deborah Wiles.  A delightful, often-epistolary novel about the relationship between a small-town girl and her grandmother.  During the course of the book, the circumstances of the grandfather's death come to light.

Saffy's Angel by Hilary McKay: Well, I just love it.  And Saffy is dealing with the pain of not having known for 8 years that her birth mother had died when she was little, leaving her to be raised as a sibling among her cousins.

by Sharon Creech.  A girl who really really doesn't want to go is sent to a Swiss boarding school, in the midst of kids very different from her.

Things I should have offered:

The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963
by Christopher Paul Curtis.  A black family goes from Michigan to Birmingham, arriving just before the church bombing.  It has a lot of grim intensity, but also wonderful characters and hilarious moments.

The Search for Baby Ruby
, by Susan Shreve.  Baby is kidnapped while being babysat in a hotel by her teenage aunt -- much family drama.

I didn't try the concept of action thrillers: books where bad things are perpetrated by villains, the CIA, or enemies of the CIA.  I don't think they would have had the emotional depth she was going for.

Now I'm longing for the mom -- or preferably the mom and the daughter -- to come back so I can see where she'll be heading from here.