Friday, August 28, 2009

Personal Space

Personal space is a difficult concept for a child (and, let’s face it, it’s even difficult for some adults). How much space do we need to feel comfortable? There’s the abstract space, and there’s the physical space.

Katie Loves Kittens is deceptively simple in the way that it explores respecting someone else’s space, both in the physical sense and in the abstract sense. And as children prepare to leave the comfortable surroundings of their homes, where they know the rules, and enter into a daycare or preschool or kindergarten classroom, where each fall there’s often a new teacher establishing new rules, and a new set of children to meet and get to know, this book can be an extremely helpful conversation-starter.

As adults, each of us has our own sense of the situation in which we feel most comfortable. Someone who lives in the country is accustomed to wide open spaces and may walk for a half mile without encountering anyone else. A city person, on the other hand, is used to getting bumped occasionally on a busy sidewalk (accidentally, of course) or crowding onto a train just inches from a fellow passenger, or having to step aside in the narrow aisle of a grocery store to let someone pass. As adults, we learn to instinctively preserve that cushion of space, but for children, who are often less conscious of others (both their proximity to others and also that they may have a different point of view from others), it’s much more difficult to articulate what they need. Their discomfort often comes out as a blurt: “Don’t touch me!” or “Ow! You’re stepping on my foot!” or abruptly fleeing from a peer who makes them uncomfortable.

But there’s also the idea of personal space in the abstract--giving someone room to get to know you and allowing a friendship to evolve. Some children make friends easily and are immediately comfortable with others, like Katie the pup in Katie Loves the Kittens. Others take more time; they’re more circumspect and want to observe through a child’s actions whether or not they can trust this new person, much like the kittens whose affections Katie tries enthusiastically to win. Of course this is all unconscious in young children; they don’t often realize the way they come across or why they react as they do to others. That’s why this book is so useful in approaching the topic of respecting others: most dogs are naturally affectionate and boisterous and forthcoming, while most cats are instinctively more independent and standoffish until they observe a situation and come to trust a person or another animal.

Katie and (by the happy ending) her kittens allow children to look at both sides. They can see that, whether they are more like Katie or more like the kittens, they can learn to get along with the other children and begin to form friendships in their own good time.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Preparing to Read

Before children can read words, they are absorbing clues about stories in other ways, and often more quickly than we think.

We could speculate about why Mother Goose’s often nonsensical rhymes are so appealing to young children, but since they don’t have the tools yet to tell us themselves, we will never know for certain. The rhymes offer so many details and such unusual situations, that they’ve inspired an abundance of illustrations both delectably simple and elegantly complex.

Every nursery should have at least one collection of Mother Goose rhymes, and we recommend My Very First Mother Goose for its inclusion of all-time favorites and Rosemary Wells’ welcoming animal characters. What I like about Mother Goose: Numbers on the Loose as an addition to your child’s Mother Goose library is that Leo and Diane Dillon have created a loose kind of logic to the nonsense rhymes through the unifying theme of numbers and the idea of putting on a play.

Most of the rhymes the Dillons have chosen use numbers 1 to 5, which toddlers can master on one hand. Still others in this volume have been set to music (such as “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep,” “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe,” and “Four and Twenty Blackbirds”), so youngsters have yet another way of building confidence, a kind of Musical Literacy. I also think it’s important that adults enjoy the books they read (or sing) aloud, because when a child loves a book, they want to return to it again and again, and the more variety you can discover in the illustrations, or in the ways that you join in the refrain together, the more you and your child enjoy the book together.

As young children feel more confident with words and numbers, with holding a book and turning the pages, they begin to think of themselves as readers.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Internet: Uniting Readers and Writers

In literature, there have long been examples of fans reaching out to their favorite authors--Beverly Cleary's Dear Mr. Henshaw and The Mouse of Amherst by Elizabeth Spires--and of course, Charles Dickens read new installments of his novels aloud to his readers on the streets of London. But it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when writers were so accessible to their fans across the nation and around the globe. John Green is one of those writers.

On BlogTalkRadio last week, I mentioned John as someone who writes about smart kids (okay, I called them “nerds,” having been one myself, but as Youth Empowered talk show host Eric Komoroff pointed out, that’s a loaded word). In Green's most recent book, Paper Towns (which comes out in paperback next month), one of Q’s two best friends, Radar, rewrites entries on a Wikipedia-like site in his free time. This is a kid who enjoys exercising his intellectual muscles.

Green has 4,967 friends on Facebook; 6,459 members of his SparksFlyUp page on; and more than 610,000 followers on Twitter. Early adapter that he is, he’s likely also on sites unknown to me with comparably impressive numbers of followers. But there is perhaps no forum for capturing the imaginations of his fans better than Nerdfighters. You have to see it to appreciate its many aspects, but Nerdfighters is essentially an online community for blogging, conversing about recent events and literature, and vlogging (the video equivalent of blogging). As Green explained, “Videoblogs are community-oriented. They are shaped by the viewer. TV is not.” Green established Nerdfighters with his brother, Hank, and the two create videoblogs that simulate a conversation. Because it’s completely authentic, and because John and Hank Green are, shall we say, keenly attuned to their teen audience, teens flock to the site and not only respond but also create their own original material.

Witnessing John Green with his fans is a wonder to behold. They tell him which parts of his books they liked best and why, and which parts they didn’t like (at times, they are brutally honest). At the signing I attended, one teen told him she liked Paper Towns even better after she’d read Leaves of Grass (Walt Whitman’s book provides clues to the whereabouts of Margo, a character who’s disappeared), and then reread Paper Towns. And the best part is, the teens feel like they’ve only begun the discussion. After they go home, they continue to engage with the author and with each other in conversations on Nerdfighters. As a former teacher and a lifelong reader, I get very excited about seeing kids—especially teens—get this passionate about books, history, politics and geography. So I’ve become one of those converts who believes (not to evoke Jon Scieszka’s name yet again, but…), like Jon Scieszka, that the Internet is not the enemy, and that we can foster kids’ love of reading in all kinds of venues. So let’s hear it for John Green and the Nerdfighters!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Give Comics a Chance!

I’m a late bloomer when it comes to comics.

It was not until I got into publishing and heard Seymour Simon, the esteemed nonfiction writer for children, and Avi, the Newbery medalist, and, more recently, Jennifer Holm (a Newbery Honor author and also a co-creator of the Babymouse graphic novels series with her artist brother Matthew) all talk about how they became readers because of comic books that I started to give comics more credence.

I may be biased, but I believe that it was Art Spiegelman’s MAUS—his memoir of the Holocaust rendered as a graphic novel that won a special Pulitzer Prize—that finally won the form widespread respect among American adults. Even though Spiegelman and his wife, Fran├žoise Mouly, who is the art editor of the New Yorker, had been creating and editing groundbreaking comics in their publication RAW, their approach to featuring such a haunting and horrifying topic as the extermination of Jews during WWII in such an original way captured the imagination and attention of readers with even the most conservative definition of “the book.”

I suppose I’m making the case to you, the adult reader, so that you will consider accepting the idea of the young people in your life reading comics. I believe that comics are unique in their appeal to kids who don’t perceive themselves as readers. Because of their highly visual presentation, comics offer readers a myriad of additional clues about what's happening on the page, comics can more easily introduce the idea of sarcasm and wit (by creating a joke in the interplay between text and pictures), and they can begin to build a sense of confidence in readers who experience a mastery of what they are reading, often for the first time.

Adventures in Cartooning is a terrific book for many reasons, not least of which it demonstrates how easy a medium it is to work in but also how hard it is to be really good at comics. As with so many disciplines, we learn how hard they are to master when we begin to work on them ourselves. I had a new appreciation for ballet dancers after I took ballet lessons. I still listen in awe to Van Cliburn because even after 10 years of piano study, I never came close to the way he translated his passion and mastery to the keyboard.

In the coming weeks and months, you’ll be hearing more about comics here, but in the meantime, here are some tips and titles from Mark Siegel, a wonderful author-artist in his own right. He started a comics imprint where he publishes high-quality books like Adventures in Cartooning, and his Web site offers a kind of syllabus in helping the novice get started with comics.

So let’s give comics a chance! They can turn our young people into readers, and give them more opportunities to explore their own artistic side.

Monday, August 3, 2009

BlogTalkRadio: Books for Teens

I am honored to be a guest of Eric Komoroff and the Community of Unity on the Youth Empowered BlogTalkRadio show on Monday, 08/03/09 at 6 pm. In an effort to provide an easy reference for some of the resources we'll be discussing, I've listed many of the authors and books I plan to mention below. Our conversation will touch on these possible points:

1. Why read?

Walter Dean Myers gave a keynote speech at IRA (the International Reading Association) some years ago, and I vividly remember two points he made:

A. It used to be that if you had a strong back, you could work. That’s no longer true. You have to read in order to be employed.
B. Myers does a lot of volunteer work in prisons, teaching inmates to read. He made the point that in Japan, prisoners are not released until they can read.

2. How do we get kids to read?

A. Jean Carlos Artiles, interviewed on this program on July 20, talked about “feeling alone.”
One of the great benefits of reading is that you discover other people who feel the way you do, who confront the same situations you do.
J.C. Artiles also advised parents, “You’re not raising yourselves, you’re raising your children.” To that end, it’s important to point kids to strong sources for books – local libraries, many of which have teen programs; bookstores, many of which invite teens to blog about new books and teen events; and not to “require reading,” but rather point them toward books they might enjoy. And then let them do their own discovering. Ultimately, they will enjoy most the books they discover for themselves (even if you're the one who initially points them out).

B. Jon Scieszka, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, offers these excellent tips, which I believe are appropriate for parents of kids from birth through the teenage years:

--Expand your definition of reading beyond fiction and novels. Lots of kids love to read non-fiction, humor, comic strips, magazines, illustrated stories, audio recordings, and websites. It’s all reading. It’s all a good way to become a reader.

--Let kids choose reading that interests them. It may not be the reading you like, but making the choice is important to kids.

--Be a good reading role model. Talk to your kids about how you choose what you read. Share your reading likes and dislikes. Let kids see you reading.

--Try not to demonize TV, computer games, and new technologies. These media do compete for kids’ time, but they are not the “bad guy.” Help kids become media literate. Show them how different media tell stories in different ways.

--Think global. Act local. There are all kinds of good people and worthy groups working to help kids read. Teachers, librarians, and booksellers are a wonderful resource. Ask them for book recommendations. Many of them already have programs in place for teens, teen volunteers, teen bloggers, a chance to write book recommendations.

3. Now that they're reading, which books have value?
All books have value, in the sense that it’s important to permit teens to explore books, try different titles, series books, magazines, comics, nonfiction, photo essays. It really goes along with what Jon Scieszka said (above) about letting kids “choose reading that interests them.” For teens, it’s often about reading what your peers are reading, so the more you can encourage your teen to get involved at your local bookstore or library where they can meet up with other kids who enjoy reading, the better. Your local librarian and bookseller are great sources for new books, too.

4. What does "reading level" mean and should we care?
I’m not a fan of “reading levels.” I understand the impulse to be able to easily categorize books into grade levels and thus make recommendations, but I find reading levels terribly misleading. There are books written on a “fifth-grade level” that have very mature themes, and there are books written at a higher grade level on accessible topics of great interest to kids who will stretch to read more challenging books because they’re passionate about the subject matter. So I think it’s really important to listen to teens talk about what interests them, and guide them to resources and titles that cover subjects and themes they’d enjoy.

5. What are some good sources for finding books?

I’ve culled my favorites in the list 20 Classic YA Books, a mix of recent and established books for teens, on my Twenty by Jenny Web site.

And here are some terrific additional resources:

2009 Best Books for Young Adults / ALA (American Library Association)

Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers / ALA

Graphic Novels recommended by First Second Books

Many authors who write for teens also have Web sites and blogs. Encourage them to Google their favorite authors and see if they can find out more about the authors and their books.

And if the teen in your life is interested in writing, I highly recommend SmithTeens:
SmithTeens is an online community of teen writers who are publishing six-word memoirs online. The first published collection -- in book form -- of the online community’s work will be published in September, I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets. The site is curated by professional editors, so there is no inappropriate content on the site, and teens can connect immediately with other teens who are interested in the same things they are.

I hope these are helpful suggestions, and that you'll tune in to BlogTalkRadio (which will be available even after the show airs) if you'd like to hear the full discussion with Eric Komoroff.