Thursday, May 28, 2009

Musical Literacy

Have you ever noticed that the melody for "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" shows up for a variety of favorite childhood lyrics?

Maybe I'm the only adult who didn't know this, but on a recent visit to New York, Suzie Chase Brown, my sister-in-law, pointed this out to me as we skipped down the street with her son (my nephew), Tiger, between us.

"Have you ever noticed that the ABC song is set to the melody of 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star'?" she asked. We enlisted Tiger's help (he is six now, and very comfortable with his ABCs). We asked him to sing the ABC song while his mother and I sang "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." Sure enough, Tiger confirmed, after merrily trumpeting, "A B C D E F G,..." the songs shared the same melody.

"And," Suzie added, " 'Baa, Baa, Black Sheep,' too." This time Tiger wanted to sing about the sheep: "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep,/ Have you any wool?/ Yes sir, Yes sir/ Three bags full." Well! I thought, is there no other melody under the sun? Maybe not, but what a fun idea to share with a child! They can test each song against the melody of "Twinkle, Twinkle..." in order to prove or disprove this theory themselves. Look how well they've done their research, and they realize that they can master all these different songs!

Voila! Not only do your youngsters discover that they have a fine repertoire, but they now have a way to talk about melody using songs they know well. They have acquired musical literacy.

Friday, May 22, 2009

We Only Absorb What We Can Handle

Just as two adults can take away from the same situation two very different experiences, so can children and teens come to the same book and take away from it a wide range of experiences.

I believe that children and teens absorb only what they can handle. Every day they are exposed to difficult subjects and sophisticated topics – on the news, in their schools, and in their neighborhoods. They navigate through the death of a loved one, the loss of a pet, the abrupt end of a friendship simply because they must, because that is the reality they face.

The beauty of literature is that it allows children to explore situations and themes that they may not yet have experienced for themselves, and from a safe distance. If it’s too much, they’ll set the book aside, or they’ll skim over a section, or their brains won’t quite take it in. As a teacher, I have seen this happen. The child won’t quite understand that Charlotte died after she gave birth to her spiders in Charlotte’s Web. They’ll remember it as “she went away, and left her babies with Wilbur to look after them.” On the other hand, if they have experienced a loss like Wilbur’s, they feel reassured by Wilbur’s ability to go on, to remember Charlotte and to know that, while no one will be her equal, she also leaves behind their shared memories and her prodigy. Sometimes just knowing that others have lived through a loss like theirs can help children cope. Similarly, seeing a teenage character experience intimacy too soon may help a young adult to rethink a decision, and to wait until they experience the kind of mental connection that Mia and Adam share in If I Stay, or that Katsa and Po forge in Graceling.

I believe we have to have faith in young people’s ability to process what they’re ready to process and to set aside the issues they are not yet ready to handle. I’m not advocating handing YA novels to 10-year-olds, but I think that kids are extremely observant, and that they often perceive far more than we give them credit for. So bring on the literature, and let’s allow them to explore situations and moral questions from a safe distance, trusting that they will find their own comfort zone.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Words by Heart

Ambassador Jon Scieszka credits two books with making him a reader: Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham, and Go, Dog, Go! by P.D. Eastman. He said he’d been reading Dick and Jane in school, but once he found Seuss and Eastman, he thought, “I want to be a reader. I want to figure this out.”

That got me thinking about my college graduation. At our graduation ceremony, my alma mater gave an honorary degree to Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss). When he approached the podium to accept it, the entire student body erupted into a spontaneous chorus of

I would not eat green eggs and ham.
I do not like them, Sam-I-am.

It had probably been a good 15 years since all of us had learned to read that book, and yet those words had stayed with us. We knew those words by heart.

This is one of the great benefits of being a reader: We get to own what we read.

I don’t mean just owning the book, though I am a great book collector (and long ago books took over the studio in which I work). I mean that we get to take our favorite phrases and poems in, memorize them, own them. The author sends their words out into the world, but it is up to the reader to take them in, to accept or reject them. And for those words and ideas we hold dear, to take them to heart, to learn them by heart.

To be, or not to be. That is the question.

We hold these truths to be self-evident…

Follow the yellow brick road…

Friday, May 8, 2009

A Week Devoted to Children’s Books

Monday is the official start of Children’s Book Week, May 11-17, 2009, a week dedicated to children’s books.

Last year, the Children’s Book Council together with the Center for the Book (in the Library of Congress) created the position of National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and appointed Jon Scieszka. That’s right, the author of The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, The Stinky Cheese Man, and most recently, Knucklehead (a memoir of his youth). As a children’s book author himself and a former schoolteacher, he is ideal. Plus, he’s very funny, as you can see from this interview I did with him. Here is his five-point plan for getting children to read, which you can print out as a bookmark:

1. 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.

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

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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. Join a local literacy group.

The very first observance of Book Week (as it was called then) was organized in 1919 by Frederick Melcher, editor of what is now Publishers Weekly; Franklin K. Mathiews, founder of Boys’ Life, and the New York Public Library’s storied librarian, Anne Carroll Moore. That makes Children’s Book Week 90 years old.

Let’s celebrate! In honor of Children’s Book Week, read a book aloud to your child every day. (I’m nothing if not consistent.) Check at your local bookstore and library to see if any special events are planned. Have a great reading week!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

There Is No Bad Way to Read Aloud

Having made the case for reading aloud (see first blog entry), I want to reassure those of you who are still hesitating that there is no bad way to read aloud.

Recently, I joined two school librarians at a coffee hour with parents of nursery-school age children and kindergartners who wanted to hear about new book recommendations. At the end, we encouraged parents to ask questions. Almost all of their questions had to do with reading aloud.

Q: We often stop and discuss some aspect of the story, or I’ll interrupt to ask my child questions to make sure she understands what’s going on. Is that okay?
A: Reading aloud is a time to enjoy the pure pleasure of a story with your child, and I recommend reading the book straight through, if possible. Of course, if your child asks questions as you go along, it makes sense to answer them. But sometimes a “Let’s read on and see” will take care of it. This is a chance for your child to relax with you with no goal other than to enjoy the experience of sharing a good story.

Q: Sometimes when I’m reading aloud and I see a word that I know my child will not know, I skip it or substitute a different word. That’s okay, right?
A: Chances are, the author has spent a great deal of time selecting the right word or phrase. Hopefully, you’ve selected this book because you believe it will appeal to your child, or because a trusted teacher, librarian or bookseller has recommended it to you as one they think your child will like. Most children can make a guess about the meaning of a word from its context or by picking up clues from the pictures. Reading aloud allows them to expand their vocabulary, and sometimes you’ll even hear them “adopting” a new word and trying it out in different situations. If they ask, certainly help them figure out the meaning by pointing out clues from the context or the artwork, but otherwise, keep going.

Q: What if my child is stuck on a book I dislike or am just tired of reading aloud night after night?
A: If you really dislike a book, tell your child why, and try to be as specific as you can (e.g., “You know, I don’t like this book very much. I think the main character is mean to his classmates”; or “I don’t think it’s as good as some of the other books we’ve read”). Then suggest, “Let’s pick another book.” If that doesn’t work, bring home an alternative (“Look what I picked out for us to try”). You may have to ride out your child’s obsession with a book or series, but that doesn’t mean you can’t introduce a new title into the mix every now and again, and your child will eventually tire of it. In the meantime, you’ve (a) expressed your opinion if you disliked the book and (b) attempted to bring in some variety.

The most important thing you can do is commit to reading aloud regularly, ideally establishing a consistent time of day when your family reads aloud together. It might be when your children get home from school, right after dinner or just before bed. But try to keep it consistent, so that it’s something you all look forward to each day. Reading aloud gives you the gift of family time together, a common vocabulary, and it gives you great memories of shared stories.