Friday, December 17, 2010

Doubt and Faith

There are so few Christmas-themed books aimed at teens, and I’m hard pressed to think of any with the staying power of Katherine Paterson’s Angels & Other Strangers. The nine short stories here focus on young people and adults experiencing the kinds of crises of faith that often creep up during adolescence—and a single event that brings about a change in perspective.

Over the years, many of the teens and adults I’ve spoken with have described going through their catechism, confirmation, bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah—a rite of passage at the center of their communities of faith designed to welcome them in—and finding themselves questioning that very community. It’s such a common experience of adolescence, yet we rarely talk about it amongst ourselves or with teens. We become complicit in a silent agreement that in “polite society” we don’t discuss religion or politics. But books like Katherine Paterson’s can help young people feel less isolated if they’re experiencing a sense of alienation from their religion, and to know that doubt is part of developing a lasting faith.

Many of our country’s citizens came to our shores to escape religious persecution. Not just the Puritan pilgrims, but throughout history—Jewish families seeking refuge during World War II, Muslim refugees from Kosovo, the subject of Paterson’s The Day of the Pelican. Growing up in a family that practices religion is not always easy. Communities are made up of individuals, and a teenager who questions his or her religion does not always feel there are places to go to talk about those questions. And the wide range of religions and cultures in America also make us feel that we’re in a largely secular society, making teens feel they must be believers in secret.

Books like Katherine Paterson’s let teens know they’re not alone, that there are many stages within a religious practice, and that it’s also normal to doubt. Some of the characters in these nine stories are in a crisis of faith, like Carol, the mother in “Tidings of Joy.” Others are in a period of doubt, like Carl, the father in “Star of Night.” Or they have only ever known doubt and fear, like Genevieve, the foster child in “Maggie’s Gift.” But in each story, one honest act of compassion or generosity—often from a child—leads the questioning adult or child to a place of hope, and perhaps on the road to a more lasting feeling of faith. For those times when we feel alone and faithless, these characters make good companions.

Friday, December 10, 2010

A Trusty Companion

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Eva Nine in The Search for WondLa, written and illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi, feels certain that there are other human beings like her. She is forced outside of the Sanctuary she shares with her robot guardian Muthr, and finds other creatures, but they too look nothing like her. The elegant two-tone double-page illustrations that open each chapter pull you into this futuristic world where things are out of balance, and Eva is trying to find out why.

It’s a quest story with a girl at the center, surrounded by her trusted creatures, most notably Rovender Kitt (the blue-hued rabbit-like Caerulean) but also Otto (the armored water bear). These creatures, both male, and the fast-paced adventure and advanced weapons will keep boys, too, glued to the pages. (Plus there’s an augmented reality feature: if you have a Web cam and go to to download the software, you can experience WondLa-Vision—by holding up several spreads from the book, you can see a 3-D map of Orbona. But that’s an added bonus to a completely satisfying straight reading experience.)

The Search for WondLa is an example of beautiful bookmaking—a thick volume with creamy pages into which you and your youngsters can happily escape over the winter break when the days are short and a great story makes the best companion through the long winter nights.

Friday, December 3, 2010

A Birthday Party for Jesus

Who knew that the story of the birth of Jesus could be told so simply yet so completely? In The Child in the Manger, Liesbet Slegers distills the events related in the Gospel of Luke to their barest elements. Mary and Joseph are on a journey: “They knocked on many doors. But nobody would take them in.” They are grateful to find a stable “because Mary wanted to lie down. She felt that her child would be born soon.” Slegers’s version is an example of superb storytelling because she never loses sight of her audience.

In a recent interview, Liesbet Slegers talked about her approach to The Child in the Manger, and she said that she took her story into the schools as she was working on it (from the link to the interview, you may also read the book throughout the month of December online free). She said she read it over and over again to “test my ‘book to be,’ ” to make sure it was connecting with her audience. Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight Moon, did the same thing. She went into New York City classrooms and tried out her stories with the students.

Slegers captures the sense of wonder at the birth of Jesus, with the angel, the shepherds, and the three kings all playing their parts in the story. And then she brings that sense of wonder into a context that’s familiar to children. The idea of Christmas as a birthday party for Jesus, at which we all get presents, is one that nearly every child can comprehend—and celebrate!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Fireside Stories

Those of you who have been following along for awhile know how often I trumpet the virtues of reading aloud. That’s why I can’t resist recommending Tomie dePaola’s version of The Night Before Christmas, for youngest book lovers.

To me, the holidays are an opportunity for celebrating not only the pilgrims’ landing, Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa but also for gathering around the fire with a great book and reading aloud as a family. After all, at the heart of each holiday we celebrate there are great stories of courage and commitment, of people through the centuries who followed their hearts and maintained a sense of integrity. Reading aloud is a long held tradition in my family, and one I’ve carried with me into the classroom and continue to this day. I read passages aloud to friends and family, and welcome every chance I can to start off my nephews, nieces, and any young reader in my life, with a great book by reading aloud the first chapter.

If this is not already a tradition in your family, the holidays are a great time to start a new one!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Ahoy, Comics Fans!

The best graphic format books entice young people—even those who would not describe themselves as readers—because they’re caught up in the scene before they're even conscious of becoming engaged. They want to understand what’s going on, so they begin reading the dialogue balloons. Before they know it, they’re hooked. The Unsinkable Walker Bean by Aaron Renier, colored by Alec Longstreth, adds to that winning formula a delectable pirate adventure, a kidnapping and an evil pair of gargantuan merwitches. Who could resist?

There’s also a budding friendship between Walker Bean and Shiv, a teen on the ship’s crew who looks out for him, and an unexpected ally (we won’t say who). Renier has a knack for creating cavernous interiors (such as the pirate ship’s hull) and claustrophobic street scenes, and his pacing is superb. Kids who are true comics aficionados will also appreciate the color by Aaron Reiner. I hadn’t realized how essential the colorist was to successful comics until I spoke with Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim about their collaboration, The Eternal Smile. Like music in a film, color sets the mood; it also indicates a change in location and, in the case of Walker Bean, the decision to make him the sole blond means he can easily be spotted even in a crowded street or a pirates’ brawl.

If your teen enjoys making his or her own comics, be sure to recommend Adventures in Cartooning. Even though it’s in our ages 8-12 section, it’s funny and sophisticated enough to appeal to teens, too. And its tips for making comics are some of the easiest to follow and to immediately put to use.

Friday, November 12, 2010

(Nearly) Happily Ever After

Do you remember telling scary stories around the campfire or at sleepover parties? The best scary stories were always funny, too. I know I’ve talked about that thin line between scary and funny in the past, but there’s something about that moment when you can release all the terrifying tension with laughter that creates a great sense of relief. I think that’s the secret to the success of A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz.

He has a way of saying, “Here comes the best part,” but with a sense of irony. At the end of the “Brother and Sister” section, he says, “I will tell you, as I always tell myself, that things will get better. Much, much better. I promise. Just not quite yet.” He tantalizes and taunts in the best possible way. It’s as if he’s saying, “Cover your eyes for this part,” knowing you will peer through your fingertips.

The other aspect of his writing that’s surprising (aside from the here-comes-the-scary-part-close-your-eyes aspect, which makes you laugh instead of tremble), at least for me, was the way he threaded together the well-known tales to make something completely new. With a slight adjustment, he makes “Brother and Sister” into an environmental story: the punishment comes to Hansel because he’s taking more from Lebenwald, the Wood of Life, than he needs. In a retelling of “Robber Bridegroom” (called “A Smile as Red as Blood”), Gretel is not all innocence: she ventures where her kind guardian warns her not to go. But each of the siblings learns something from those experiences that they apply in a later chapter of the book.

Even if the young person (or people) in your life is the most dedicated of Brothers Grimm fans, he or she cannot help but be impressed by how Adam Gidwitz reinvents their stories here. This is the ideal book for these long winter nights… Meh heh heh heh (think Vincent Price laughter…).

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Power of Persuasion

Last weekend, I had the privilege of leading a discussion of five humorous picture books at Book Fest at the Bank Street College of Education in New York. A Pig Parade Is a Terrible Idea by Michael Ian Black, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes, was one of them. The discussion group included teachers, public librarians, school librarians, college instructors of children’s literature, and reviewers. My favorite comment came from a school librarian.

At first, she did not love the book. But because it was on our discussion list, she read it and reread it. She began to change her mind about the book. Then she thought, “This would be a great example of persuasive writing for the fourth grade teachers to use with their students.” When she told this to the group, you could see the idea spread like a virus through the room, indicated by the “aha” expression that lit up everybody’s faces. A sixth-grade teacher had said as we introduced ourselves that she was using picture books to teach examples of good writing to her students. She looked particularly pleased.

I’ve thought a lot about that librarian’s insight. It reminded me of Avi’s observation at an NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) conference that humor books rarely win the awards, but humorous writing is very hard to do well. (Avi went on to win a Newbery Honor, but not for his humor books—it was for a historical novel The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.) Why not cite A Pig Parade Is a Terrible Idea as an example of persuasive writing? After all, one of the greatest examples of using humor to make a persuasive argument is, as far as I know, still taught in higher institutions of learning, and it dates back to the 18th century: Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” (And even at the pigs’ most piggish they could never achieve the kind of repulsive reaction that Swift’s proposal might from its more literal-minded listeners.) With Pig Parade, we can get children started at a far younger age to think about creative ways to make their arguments, and the kind of comical examples they could employ in service to their causes.

Friday, October 29, 2010

A Pooch Parade

When I walk my dog in New York’s Riverside Park, no matter what time of day it is, I see a procession of pooches. Children constantly ask their parents and caregivers—and occasionally the dog owners themselves—“What kind of dog is that?” (Mine is a rescue dog of mysterious origins, so the answer is: Dachshund, Chihuahua, with maybe some beagle thrown in.) Walk the Dog by Bob Barner makes a terrific travel companion for these young minds curious about canines. The dogs on display in the oversize board book pages range from the familiar (“Hound Dog” and “Pug”) to the more exotic (“Queensland Heeler”).

Once a child takes an interest, you can encourage him or her to widen the investigation--with photographic books of dogs, books devoted to one breed, and wackier offshoots such as William Wegman’s fairy tales and adventures starring his pristine Weimaraners. This alphabetical introduction to dogs of all shapes, sizes, and colors is a great way to get toddlers started and to help them name the furry creatures they encounter in their daily routines.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Future Society

What would a society of the future look like? Nomansland by Lesley Hauge inspires us to ask ourselves this question.

Would societies of the future scoff at Barbie dolls, high heels, and nail polish? Would they yearn for separation of the sexes to omit distractions? Is that really so far off from some pockets of our culture in which citizens strive to stave off modern technology and attitudes?

How do we as human beings respond to these restrictions? Some of us embrace firm guidelines: someone else can determine the rules, I will simply follow them, we might say. On the other hand, especially in adolescence, we may wish to see how far we can stretch the rules. What happens then? What are the consequences? Nomansland makes a nice pairing with The Hunger Games because they both ask the question, how do we fight for our families, peer group, or way of life if it means putting others in peril? What are the consequences of my actions?

Futuristic novels often raise questions from a slight remove, asking us to evaluate what is important to us now, and what will be important to us going forward. Nomansland does just that.

Friday, October 15, 2010


At the center of the mystery in Zora and Me, someone is not being honest about who she is, and the effects of her lie ripple through both the black community of Eatonville and the white community of Lake Maitland.

When Zora and Carrie go with Mrs. Hurston into Lake Maitland, they see Mrs. Hurston present the situation with a little white lie, in order to fly under the radar of the white shopkeeper. And the girls encounter a woman named Gold. “She was the sun,” Carrie thinks. Gold makes a beeline for Zora and Carrie, and Carrie thinks, “Whatever it was that made her so beautiful must have been inside of us, too.” But Mrs. Hurston knows who she is even if, for her own protection, she presents a slightly different picture to the shopkeeper. Gold, however, lives a deception, and when she walks away from the girls, Mrs. Hurston says, “She best be careful about being too friendly with people she gave up her place with.”

I had a chance to talk with Victoria Bond and T.R. (Tanya) Simon about their process in writing this book. I found myself telling them about when the public schools started busing in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I was in third grade, just a little younger than Carrie and Zora in their novel. My best friend was a new girl who was bussed into South Westnedge School, Theresa. During one of our weekly Sunday visits, my grandfather said something about how “no granddaughter of mine is going to go to school with colored people.” I was eight years old, and I can still remember what I was wearing. I thought about that word, “colored.” I thought, “What does that mean?” And then, “Is Theresa colored?” And then it dawned on me: I could never tell Poppy about Theresa. I would have to keep her a secret.

When I told that story to Vicky and Tanya, they pointed out that this was a “passing story.” Vicky said, “With the introduction of race, we now have the introduction of a secret.” Tanya added, “And then you become involved in your own passing story. You pass as someone who holds values that you don’t actually hold in your heart. This is why there’s been the emergence of race studies, where white people suffer under racism as well as blacks. You always have to think, what happens to you at the point that you dehumanize a person?”

With Zora and Me as an entry point, children can talk about what happens to us at the point that we dehumanize a person, and what it feels like to be deprived of humanity. Only by talking about the subtle and not-so-subtle ways people look past or ignore each other can we begin to see and appreciate one another fully. By discussing a fiction, we can get at the truth.

Friday, October 8, 2010


Peter Brown’s sense of humor in his latest picture book is completely in sync with his audience. Children love to role-play, and the idea of a boy acting the part of a misbehaving kitten or puppy—the way “Squeaker” does in Children Make Terrible Pets—will have them laughing until their sides hurt.

Squeaker is housebroken, but other than that, he has everything in common with a new pet run amok—messing up furniture, being a poor tea party guest—and he even runs away. The advantage Squeaker has—at least in Brown’s images—is that he knows how to play to the camera: us. Even if your child has never had a pet, he or she will recognize these situations. The boy can conjure all sorts of associations. (Squeaker can also be a stand-in for the annoying younger sibling.) The fact that a bow- and tutu-wearing bear wants to “tame” or “train” the boy only adds to the comedy.

Peter Brown (no relation) is quickly developing a repertoire of outlandish situations with familiar underpinnings—or perhaps he can simply predict the future. His The Curious Garden pictured a seemingly impossible green space high above a bustling city. But just a few weeks ago, when my aunt, uncle,

and their friends were visiting from Michigan, we visited just such a place: The Highline, winding through the upper echelons of New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood.

So the next time you see a bow- and tutu-clad cub, check to see if she has a Squeaker in tow…

Friday, October 1, 2010

Getting Word-Rich

As babies begin to put sounds together and make sense of their world, we can see the delight on their faces. They are communicating with the people they love. We answer in kind, with supportive sounds and loving hugs, in the sort of call-and-response that encourages further exploration of sounds and words. These are all instinctive. The Baby Goes Beep by Rebecca O’Connell, illustrated by Ken Wilson-Max, encourages these kinds of exchanges in playful, meaningful ways.

Last week, I attended the ALSC (Association of Library Service to Children) Institute in Atlanta, Georgia. Susan B. Neuman, a professor at the University of Michigan in Educational Studies specializing in early literacy development, talked about how key this kind of wordplay is to the development of early literacy. She emphasized the importance of talking to your child (even when you’re not in the best mood), singing and playing in helping your child to develop language skills. But—no surprise to all of us who love books—“books are the single most important avenue for learning new words.”

One thing that did surprise me was when Neuman said we should always respond to babies with the correct name for the things in their world. For instance, to take a common example, if the baby says “baa baa” for “bottle,” to respond with, “Would you like your bottle?” She encouraged us to always supply the baby with accurate vocabulary, so he or she can continue to expand his or her language in vocabulary-rich ways. Neuman said it takes, on average, 28 repetitions of a word for a child to learn it.

So, the message I took from her was: Have fun with language, sing, play, shout from the rafters—and give children the proper names for the things they seek.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Price of Belonging

So much of adolescence involves discovering and defining who you are in opposition to everyone else. Do you honor the things that make you unique? Or bury them in order to be who you think others want you to be?

In The Space Between Trees by Katie Williams, someone whom 16-year-old Evie once counted as a friend has been murdered. In her loss and grief, she becomes drawn to someone she would not normally spend time with, bad girl Hadley, who makes hate lists and hangs out with people she doesn’t like but whom she can control. Evie finds herself becoming more deeply tied to Hadley and doesn’t see a way to extricate herself.

Your teen will be caught up in the mystery and wind up identifying with Evie’s feeling--if not the outer trappings of her situation. It’s a beautifully written book that explores how a series of small decisions and a wish for companionship lead Evie further from herself. And who among us has not had experience with that?

Friday, September 17, 2010

School Daze

It doesn’t matter how great most of your teachers are or how much you like your subjects. Every student knows what a bad day feels like.

In School!: Adventures at the Harvey N. Trouble Elementary School by Kate McMullan, inspired and illustrated by George Booth, the author and artist make high comedy out of that cold hard fact. Certain things annoy us and happen every day exactly the same way, over and over again. Your child’s bus driver may not drive into a ditch every day, but he or she may say the exact same cloying thing every morning, or pull up in the wrong spot every day, or center the door directly above a giant mud puddle.

Certainly we can all remember the substitute teacher saga – everyone wants to get one over on the sub. It’s a free-for-all. Hence McMullan and Booth’s twist about having a non-boring sub carrying a briefcase makes more of an impact. The pun in every character’s name only makes the recognizable ticks and quirks more fun.

I recently got to hear Lizz Winstead speak at the BlogHer conference here in New York City this summer. Winstead is the co-creator and former head writer on The Daily Show, and an audience member asked her what she thought of a story on that asserted The Daily Show had an underrepresented number of women writers. Winstead defended the show’s hiring practices saying, “It’s not a woman thing, it’s a nerd thing,” and that in order to write for The Daily Show you have to be a “media-consumer extraordinaire, historian and satirist.”

School makes me think of that combination. The confluence of the experiences of Kate McMullan as a former fourth-grade classroom teacher and longtime author of children’s books, and of George Booth as a seasoned New Yorker cartoonist and satirist, makes their combined take on life in the halls of a frenetic public school a wildly successful send-up. No matter how your child’s school year is going, he or she will be highly entertained by this ode to school days.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Marking a Difficult Milestone

As a New Yorker, there’s a part of me that would like to be able to think of September 11 as another day in my favorite season in the city. But it’s not just any autumn day. And this year, with the controversy surrounding the building of the Muslim community center downtown, the event does not seem like it happened nine years ago. It feels very fresh and raw.

So how do we talk about the events of that day with our young people? Especially those who were either not yet born or too young to remember? Do we try to shield them from it? How can we when the images are so powerful and prevalent? 14 Cows for America by Carmen Deedy and Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah, makes an ideal choice to address these questions because of its language and simplicity.

In the book, Kimeli has been studying in America to become a doctor, and he returns to meet with the elders of his Maasai tribe. He describes the events of 9/11 to villagers in Kenya who were not there, in words that a child can comprehend:

Buildings so tall they can touch the sky?

Fires so hot they can melt iron?

Smoke and dust so thick they can block out the sun?

Kimeli requests from the elders that he be able to give his only cow, Enkarûs, to the Americans, to help them heal. And the elders respond by also giving a gift to the Americans. Fourteen cows in all. They do not ship the cows to America—it is a spiritual gift. They guard the cows for the Americans, and the herd grows in number. As Kimeli Naiyomah says in an endnote in the book, “These sacred, healing cows can never be slaughtered.”

If you and your child were to travel to Kenya, you could visit these cows--your cows--guarded by the Maasai, growing in number.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Never Too Many Chefs

In It’s My Brithday by Helen Oxenbury, everyone contributes an ingredient, from the toddler birthday celebrant, to the assisting animals, and then they all help make the cake. I’ve mentioned before how my mother helped me get comfortable in the kitchen very early on: she’d tell me how much flour a recipe called for, then she'd measure it out and place it on the counter next to me. When the time came for the flour, she’d ask me to add it while she stirred – just as the birthday child does in Oxenbury’s book. Gradually, my mother gave me more responsibility, cracking an egg over the bowl (being careful not to get pieces of shell in the mix), and later holding the mixer myself.

A terrific pre-K teacher at the Manhattan New School in New York City encourages her students to make their own sandwiches—with peanut butter and jelly to start (and very safe spatula-style knives)—and teaches them to clean up afterwards. This is a life skill, learning to prepare a meal for themselves, and it’s never too soon to start learning their way around the kitchen. It’s a wonderful sense of accomplishment to sit down and share a meal that they’ve helped to prepare, just as Oxenbury’s characters do when they shout “Happy Birthday!” and pass the communal cake.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Learning Facts from Fiction

I am a late convert to nonfiction – that conversion story, which occurred in college, is one I’ll save for another time. Up until that point, however, I had learned--and I continue to learn--many of the facts that I have retained in my life while reading fiction.

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus is an excellent example of the kind of fiction I love that has taught me a great deal about factual situations. This book lays bare the ideological chasm that existed between East and West during the 19th century, through the riveting adventures and subsequent transformation of a real person: Manjiro or, as he came to be known in America, John Mung.

Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief helped me imagine what it might be like to live in a small town in Germany and to hide a Jewish friend from the Nazis—ordinary people living through an extraordinary time.

In Go and Come Back, Joan Abelove transported me to a small village on the Amazon where the villagers held a different perspective on life—and a vocabulary to reflect that experience. The novel inspired me to think differently about modern society’s attitudes and values.

Set in contemporary Iraq, Walter Dean Myers’ Sunrise Over Fallujah taught me more than news reports ever could about the approach to warfare and peace-keeping in the Iraq war. Coupled with his Fallen Angels, set in Vietnam where the author served as a soldier, these two books paint a full portrait of modern warfare and its toll on those who are party to it—whether they be soldiers or civilians.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly taught me about life in a small Texas town at the turn of the 20th century, when Darwin and the Church and the start of the industrial revolution were all influencing family life across the country.

For Heart of a Samurai, Preus culls from her extensive research the details of what the whaling ships were like, what the men ate, the conditions of the ship and the attitudes on land, which were often more provincial than those of the men at sea, naturally. The author even includes reproductions of John Mung’s drawings.

But in order to fill in his emotional life, she imagines his thoughts and conversations, which makes the book a work of fiction. What an amazing way to introduce to young people this era and the cultural history of East and West.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Literary Touchstones

In Cynthia Lord's Touch Blue, Tess’s hope that Aaron, her new foster brother, will be more like Anne of Green Gables and less like the Great Gilly Hopkins got me thinking about other characters who make literary references.

This is one of those moments when I wish I were sitting at a table with three or four other book-lovers to come up with more. I know there are more. The example that leaped to mind, of course, was Mira in When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, and her many references to Meg in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. And, though it’s slightly different because Jack becomes fascinated with Walter Dean Myers as an author rather than one particular character in his work, I do love how Miss Stretchberry starts Jack on his way in Love that Dog by Sharon Creech, with examples of various poets, and then he finds Myers’ work and mines the author’s books himself. In John Green’s Paper Towns, Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” from Leaves of Grass holds clues that are key to the mystery of Margo’s whereabouts, but that’s (obviously) not a children’s book.

I know there are more. Can you think of other books whose characters make literary references to sum up their situation? We’ll have a virtual round-table discussion.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Reading Buddies

How I wish I’d had How Rocket Learned to Read by Tad Hills when I was teaching reading and writing!

Yes, it’s a book about learning to read, but it’s also a story of bonding over books. Have you ever thought, “Ooo, I like this person!” because you liked the same books, the same characters? Or admired someone with whom you disagreed about a book because he or she was so passionate in defense of that beloved story or poem or biography (or so eloquently against it)? Maybe once or twice they even persuaded you, or at least got you to think about something differently, or to return to a passage and reread it.

At the risk of alienating you, I’ll admit that I am one of the few people in America who does not love Eat, Pray, Love. I acknowledge there are some scenes described by Gilbert that are truly memorable, such as some of the cultural traditions of Bali in the “Love” section. But I found Gilbert’s voice disingenuous. I have, however, had some thought-provoking conversations about this book. One of my favorites was with a friend who, when I told her my reaction to the book said, “Oh, I heard the first section was annoying, so I skipped “Eat” and just read “Pray, Love.”

I have another friend who, at the time when Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities was all the rage, felt bogged down in the middle, so he just skipped to the end. I had always been a traditional “start at the beginning and go straight through” sort of reader, and even though I, too, had felt bogged down in the middle of Vanities, I kept plodding through the pages. But after that conversation, I started abandoning books that didn’t hold my attention. That was a big change for me, and I enjoyed reading more because I only read the books I liked (I stuck with Eat, Pray, Love because it was so important to several people who kept recommending the book until I read it; but that was an exception, not the rule). I share that strategy with young readers because I’d rather see them toss aside one book than to give up on reading for pleasure completely.

I admire the little yellow bird in How Rocket Learned to Read. She knows just which story will pique Rocket’s interest and just when to stop reading to keep him coming back. All of us who love books know that he has a wonder-filled journey ahead of him, especially with his reading buddy at his side.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Fostering a Kinship with Nature

The Water Hole by Graeme Base is a great way to bring awareness to youngest children about other animals around the globe, their habitats and common needs. I believe that one of the great gifts we can give young people is an appreciation of nature. If we encourage them to explore the natural world with a sense of adventure and also with the sense of peace and tranquility to be found in nature, they will likely become willing to do what they can to take care of their planet.

I don’t believe it’s fair to fill their minds with tales of global warming or disappearing species when there’s so little they can do to help at this age. But if they begin to identify animals, put a name to them, and match them to their natural habitats, they will start to develop an awareness of the other creatures and plants with which they share this glorious planet.

When Jerry Pinkney gave his acceptance speech last month for the 2010 Caldecott Medal for his book The Lion and the Mouse, he said that as a child visiting the zoo in the 1940s, he was troubled by the “dark, musty structures” that held the big cats, pacing their cages with blank stares. His artwork reflects a lifelong love and close study of nature, a passion that he shares with the young readers who open his books and the adults who visit the museums where his fine art is on display.

As children count the animals or pick out the comical frogs on the pages of The Water Hole, and search for the animals hidden in the shadows and tree branches, they will continue to get familiar and comfortable with these creatures. They'll start to recognize the animals the next time they see them in photographs, films, or at the zoo, and may well begin to feel a sense of kinship with them.

Friday, July 23, 2010

A Killer with a Conscience

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is action-packed adventure from the first paragraph. Even though it is set in the future, this fictional world strongly resembles our own. Because both male and female protagonists play pivotal roles, the book appeals to all readers. And once you’ve read Catching Fire, the second book in the trilogy, you can’t help but go back to The Hunger Games, looking for clues that led to this or that plot twist. And you will find them.

That’s the other reason these books appeal to all ages and genders: There’s suspense and mystery for readers who love’em, and the writing is masterful for the prolific readers who admire intricate plotting and strong character development. The Hunger Games came out before I started Twenty by Jenny, but it’s one book I don’t want you or your teen to miss. And you still have time to read it and Catching Fire before the release of the trilogy’s conclusion, Mockingjay, on August 24, 2010.

Your teen can read these books for pure entertainment, but there’s also plenty here to leave readers thinking. Katniss must fight for her life, but she does it with a conscience. Her motives are pure and her loyalty unshakable.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Pink Wheelchairs Aren’t “Cute”

Melody Brooks, who narrates Out of My Mind, brought me right back to fourth grade reading class at Parkwood Upjohn Elementary School in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and my classmate Joy. In the novel, Melody says, “By the way, there is nothing cute about a pink wheelchair,” with the brand of wit that I remember from Joy. In addition to having started busing to racially integrate the Kalamazoo Public Schools the prior year (in 1971), Parkwood Upjohn served a physically challenged population. The school had a small swimming pool for physical therapy, and ramps for students who required wheelchairs.

Joy was funny and smart and often added a pithy remark or two at just the right time. Unlike Melody in Out of My Mind, Joy could speak easily, but her torso and limbs had ceased to grow, and she relied on a wheelchair to get her from place to place—though she could also use canes to advance her immobile legs. An aid helped Joy get from place to place, but other than that she seemed very self-sufficient to my nine-year-old mind. The teachers went a long way to create a space in which we all treated Joy as one of us.

Not until many years later when I read an article called “Unspeakable Conversations” by Harriet McBryde Johnson in the New York Times Magazine did I consider how much work must have gone into Joy’s daily routine. In her article, Johnson, a lawyer and disability rights activist and advocate born with a muscle-wasting disease, talks about a debate she had with Professor Peter Singer in her home state of South Carolina. She begins her article this way, “He insists he doesn't want to kill me. He simply thinks it would have been better, all things considered, to have given my parents the option of killing the baby I once was, and to let other parents kill similar babies as they come along and thereby avoid the suffering that comes with lives like mine and satisfy the reasonable preferences of parents for a different kind of child. It has nothing to do with me. I should not feel threatened.” But in the course of the article, she talks about how her debates with Singer (he later invites her to speak at Princeton University, where he teaches) cause her to reflect on the complexities of humanity and society. She’s candid about the fact that her willingness to look at Singer not as “a monster” but as a person, beyond the views he holds, allowed them both to achieve a level of honesty rarely achieved in public discourse. It made me think about the missed opportunities buried inside political correctness and the ways in which honest dialogue can at least open up our thinking if not change our minds. When Harriet McBryde Johnson died at the age of 50 in 2008, Peter Singer’s tribute showed that her views had also caused him to reflect on the complexities of humanity and society.

Johnson also wrote a moving novel for teens called Accidents of Nature. What comes through in both Johnson and Draper’s writing is how much people with physical challenges just want to be treated with respect like anyone else.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Power of Choice

Children make choices every day, but they may not always be conscious of what they are doing. They choose chocolate over vanilla. They choose blue socks over green socks. Those choices are easy. But what about the decision to include a neighbor in a game or to leave that child out? Sometimes it feels much harder to invite a child to play than it does to simply not make that phone call or avoid walking by his or her house—or leave him or her standing on the sidelines.

Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s What If? is brilliantly understated. She makes no judgments. She simply shows a scene in which two seals are playing in the water with a beach ball, and the arrival of a third seal on the beach introduces a situation where a choice must be made. Because these are seals, Seeger keeps them relatively neutral—their only differences are in the markings on their coats. It’s not about one seal luring another away with flash or style. The gray seal comes to the beach to retrieve the ball. The gray seal can run off with the ball and with the newly arrived brown seal and abandon the beige seal in the water. Or it can return with the ball to the beige seal and leave out the newly arrived brown seal; or all three can play together (the final scene).

This book is a great conversation-starter for when these situations arise, whether your youngster is the one being left out, or party to leaving out another child. It’s also a nice way to open up a discussion before a situation like this ever arises. We all know that summer with its long stretches of unstructured time is ideal for pulling together a neighborhood game of hide-and-seek or gathering everyone at the baseball diamond, and situations like the one featured in What If? are likely to occur. Another title that touches on a related theme, if one neighborhood child is dominating the playing field, is Kathryn Otashi’s One. The idea of one person reaching out to or standing up for another is simple yet powerful. And both of these books demonstrate to young people that any child can make that choice.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Laying the Groundwork

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “No way. I finally got my kids out of school, and she’s already talking about the first day back.” Yes, you’re right. Feel free to tuck this one away until August. Or, you might think about it another way.

Mouse’s First Day of School by Lauren Thompson, illustrated by Buket Erdogan, is really a story about Mouse hiding in a backpack and going to school accidentally. In the process, Mouse takes the mystery (and therefore the anxiety) out of that very first day. And if you begin reading this little Mouse adventure in, say, very late July or early August, by the time school comes around, this will all be old hat. Your preschooler or kindergartner will be far less intimidated than he or she might have been.

Recently, I got to witness the value of arming a toddler with information as my brother and sister-in-law prepared my two-year-old niece, Maggie, to undergo open heart surgery. She was born with a hole in her heart, just like her mother. For weeks, Suzie (her mother) talked to Maggie in simple terms about what the procedure would involve. They would give her something to help her sleep through the operation, the doctors would sew up the hole in her heart, and afterwards, she would wake up to see Mommy and Daddy there, and she would have a scar on her chest, just like Mommy’s. (I might be leaving out a step or two, but you get the idea.) Every once in a while, Maggie would check in with her mother to ask a question or to make sure that she understood how it would go. “We have matching scars, Mommy?” she would ask. By the time Maggie got in the car to head out for her surgery, she knew the steps by heart. The hardest thing for her was leaving her big brother, seven-year-old Tiger, behind.

If you’ve been with me for awhile, you know that I’m a big believer that children can understand a great deal, and that whatever they can’t take in, they will simply ignore. So even if it seems like your toddler is not taking in Mouse’s first exposure to a classroom setting, you may be surprised on that maiden trip when he or she walks into that preschool or kindergarten room and says, “Look! There are blocks, just like Mouse’s!”

Friday, June 25, 2010


Grief is such an all-consuming experience. When grief strikes, the ground shifts like an earthquake, and then the tremors continue for days, weeks, months, often when we least expect them. It’s hard to see or hear anyone or anything else. Jandy Nelson captures that experience so beautifully in The Sky Is Everywhere when Lennie says, “It’s as if someone vacuumed up the horizon while we were looking the other way.” When her sister, Bailey, dies, Lennie looks for ways to feel intense alternative emotions, like getting involved with her sister’s boyfriend, and then creating a love triangle with Joe Fontaine—and shutting out everyone else. And then there’s that feeling of, why do I deserve to make a life when my sister’s has ended?

All of us who have lost someone close to us know that the intensity of the feelings may lessen with time, but the feeling of loss never really goes away. We just learn how to carry that person with us. Lennie does it through her poems to her sister, set adrift in the river or aloft on a breeze. We find ways to honor their spirit, the music they loved, the dreams they dreamed. The tension in The Sky Is Everywhere resides in the question of whether or not Lennie will allow herself to pursue the music she herself loves and her own dreams.

When my mother died, a friend who had also lost her mother told me, “It’s like living underwater.” And it was. It felt like everything was happening at a remove. I could see that the world was still spinning and that life was going on around me, but I felt separated from all of it. Gradually, I surfaced again, but it took time, and everything was different when I did. In The Sky Is Everywhere, we watch Lennie during her underwater period—loving and laughing but at a remove, seemingly unaware of the consequences of her actions. And then we see her come to the surface. It’s how she gets there that makes Lennie’s story such a moving and healing experience.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Making (Fun) Choices

Meanwhile by Jason Shiga is a graphic novel version of a choose-your-own-adventure. It's about making choices and discovering the consequences of those choices, presented in a fun, entertaining way. There’s also a memory element involved because you want to avoid taking a path that leads you back to the same destination (though that seems inevitable, at least until you get the hang of it). As you go through the book, you also gain an appreciation of imagination—mostly Shiga’s, but also of what the human imagination is capable of—between Professor K’s inventions and the offhand explanation of physics, and the idea that our choices lead us to unexpected places, both physically and mentally. And it's all couched in a kind of Three Stooges slapstick comedy framework. As Shiga connects various plot paths to the multi-colored tubes, he leads us through the tabbed pages in unorthodox ways, on a journey of possibilities—3,856 possibilities, to be exact.

This is the ideal book for a long car trip or a rainy summer afternoon, when a child can plunge into Meanwhile with complete abandon, and no sense of time passing. The pages require that you engage your brain fully, to pick up on visual cues, so that you remember which tube(s) you’ve already followed and which new tube(s) may yield a different outcome. Then follow it with Adventures in Cartooning to get some idea of the structural planning and visual pacing required to complete a project like Meanwhile. Your child will be lost in it for hours and will want to share it with friends. No Kindle or iPad can create this kind of experience.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Moved to Act

In Moon Bear, readers follow the majestic creature through the seasons as it scrounges for food and finds shelter high in the Chinese Himalayas, and the book ends with the birth of cubs. When any of us is in the presence of animals, whether it be a tiny kitten or an 8-foot bear, we cease to think of anything else. Especially for children, such an encounter can be awe-inspiring. They immediately want to protect and preserve this life form—it’s one of the reasons I suspect that, despite the controversy surrounding even the best of zoo environments, we humans continue to build zoos. Once children are exposed to these animals, they want to preserve them.

When editor Laura Godwin learned about the moon bears and how they were being held in captivity (the bears are farmed for the healing properties of their bile), she wanted to do something about it besides just make a donation. She wanted others to know about the bears. She asked science and nature writer Brenda Guiberson (whose books Laura has edited for more than 20 years) if she knew about the bears and would be interested in writing about their situation. Once Brenda agreed, Laura approached Caldecott medalist Ed Young (whom Laura has also worked with for a number of years) and he, too, agreed.

Laura and Brenda felt it was important to let children know that there were adults working to rescue the moon bears, and that there were ways they, too, could help if they wished. The reference to the bears’ captivity is very subtle in the book (the text refers to “poachers”) but the end note shows rehabilitated bears and gives a link to find out more about Jill Robinson and her team at Animals Asia who are rescuing the bears. Your child will be reassured that efforts are well underway to rescue these magnificent creatures. And if they want to help, there are concrete ways to do so.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Pillowy Pages

For us grown-up book lovers, nothing gladdens our hearts more than to see a baby cuddle up with a book—literally. We've all seen babies take to a book so strongly that they carry it around wherever they go, sit on it in their car seats, stow it on their high chair trays and fall asleep on it in their cribs. That’s one of the reasons I was delighted to discover the Fuzzy Bee and Squishy Turtle Pack by Roger Priddy. Not only can a baby snuggle up with Fuzzy Bee and Friends—and use its crackly pages as a pillow—but the bold stripes and contrasting colors captivate youngest eyes that can’t quite pick up details yet. Plenty of books for babies present the facts, but both Fuzzy Bee and Squishy Turtle deliver information with a touch of humor, too.

Here’s an idea: Maybe publishers could create cloth books for us grown-ups, too. One of my most moving memories of my grandmother, as she began to lose her short-term memory, was when she took me to her room because she wanted to show me something. She had carefully made her bed, and it was littered with hardcover books. She told me, “I want all my books with me.” There was just a narrow space in the center of the bed where her long, lean body could fit. I don’t know how she slept with all those books dominating her sleeping space. Now, if she could have created a makeshift bumper pad of cloth-covered books, think how well she might have slept!

Wouldn’t it be nice to be surrounded by our favorite books, softly bound in quilted covers? Imagine how sweet our dreams would be. Babies have that luxury, so let’s indulge them!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Going It Alone

White Cat by Holly Black is all about the experience of adolescence as a solo journey. All of the members of Cassel Sharpe’s family were born with a gift; each is a curse worker who can alter memories or dreams or life itself. Cassel doesn’t understand why he doesn’t have the gift. He doesn’t fit in with his peers (because of his family’s heritage—curse-working was banned in 1929) nor does he feel that he belongs in his family. Adolescence is all about questioning. Why is my body changing? What do I believe? Where do I belong? It is during this period—when you feel entirely alone—that you discover who you are, what you enjoy, what is uniquely yours.

The best YA authors explore this central experience of adolescence in new and interesting ways, as Holly Black does here. She answers none of these questions, but raises them in a fictional context and from different perspectives to allow teens to examine these questions for themselves. Cassel’s family tells him that he killed Lila Zacharov, but this makes no sense to him. He loved Lila. Something also seems off about his memories of the night that he supposedly killed her. And he’s been having strange dreams about a white cat. Little by little his instinct to investigate these nagging questions leads him to discover that his family is not telling the truth. Are they protecting him? Or themselves? He feels betrayed by them.

What do you do when you feel alone? You search for the answers yourself, and you begin to take responsibility for your life. This is the transition to adulthood, and while Holly Black constructs a framework of magic, the feelings and the experiences are real.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Connecting Past and Present

Rick Riordan has zeroed in on my two favorite topics when I was in school: Greek myths (with his Percy Jackson and the Olympians series) and ancient Egypt (with the launch of his Kane Chronicles series earlier this month, The Red Pyramid).

In Mrs. Hecker’s seventh-grade English class I remember really locking onto the Greek myths. I had always been fascinated by them, but there’s something about the Greek gods that speaks to that point of embarkation into puberty. Perhaps it’s the adolescent behavior of many of them. Anyway, I guess you could say I never really stopped focusing on Greek mythology because I did my senior thesis in college on James Joyce’s Ulysses (which also led me back to Homer’s The Odyssey).

Some of you are likely too young to remember when the contents of Tutankhamun's tomb first traveled around the country. Again, I believe I was in junior high when King Tut came through Chicago, a mere 3-hour drive from Kalamazoo, my hometown. For the first time, all the things I’d read about and the photos I’d seen in National Geographic were sitting there in front of me in three dimensions. That made an enormous impression on me. But what I hadn’t known before reading Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles was the depth of influence of what was called The House of Life--the ancient school of Egyptian magic.

The House of Life earned its name because the practicing magicians were healers (through the spells they cast), and they also staved off curses and thus protected Egypt's Pharaohs. For all of us who believe that words and books can create entire worlds and spark new philosophies, there’s a precedent for that in the House of Life as well. The ancient Egyptians believed that hieroglyphs themselves created magic. As Rick Riordan put it in a recent interview:

“The ancient Egyptians considered all writing magic. They had to be careful: if they created the word ‘cat,’ they had to deface it slightly, because they believed they could create a cat. The idea was that the ultimate form of magic was to speak and the world began. You see that influence in the Gospel of John: ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ All these ancient cultures dovetail, and they were all forming and evolving at the same time.”

It’s both awe-inspiring and humbling to think about how far-reaching our roots go. To think of America, almost two-and-a-half centuries old, with seeds planted half a world away and thousands of years old makes the planet seem a bit smaller, doesn’t it? Like Carter and Sadie, the sibling protagonists of Riordan’s new series, we begin to see portals to the past all over the place.

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Sense of Wonder

Zig and Wikki in Something Ate My Homework by Nadja Spiegelman, illustrated by Trade Loeffler, perfectly captures the sense of wonder that a close encounter with the natural world can inspire in us—and especially in children. Every morning I take my dog, Molly, for a long walk (unless there’s a downpour or a blizzard). Part of the week we spend in the city, and part of the week in New Jersey, where my husband and I share a cabin in the foothills of the Appalachian Trail. One spring morning last year, Molly and I came upon a bear cub, not 10 yards away. My first thought was, “This creature is magnificent!” The bear was on all fours, and we were slightly behind it (thankfully) so I couldn’t see how large it was, tip to toe, but I thought, “Wow!” It was the first time I’d ever seen a bear in the wild, and there really are no words to describe being in the presence of such a powerful, beautiful beast.

My next thought was, “Where is its mother?” Because of course I’d read many times, in both fact and fiction (Jean Craighead George’s novels leap to mind), how protective mother bears are of their cubs. Molly had not yet spied the bear (whew!), and did not bark. There was a small stone wall on the left side of the street, where the bear was, and I began to steer us to that side, so we’d be obscured from the bear’s view. He (or she) continued across the street seemingly oblivious to our presence and went on through the trees and onto a neighbor’s property. I began singing—as a camper in my Girl Scout days, I was told to make noise in bear territory so the animals wouldn’t be startled. We made it home with no further bear spotting.

A few days later, I was in the post office, and bumped into a neighbor couple (not the ones whose property the bear had entered). The husband asked me if I’d seen a bear recently, and I told him about my encounter while walking Molly. “Oh, that’s not a cub,” said the wife. “He’s at least a year old and looking for territory to claim for his own.” That explained why there was no mother.

Clearly that experience has stayed with me, and I will likely never forget it. Bears are much larger than the fly, dragonfly, toad and raccoon that Zig and Wikki encounter, but every time we get an opportunity to observe another living thing up close, we get a chance to stop and reflect on what an amazing thing life is. To watch a dragonfly dip its lovely wings close to a pond’s surface or observe the concentration of a raccoon when it’s stalking its prey (or trying to get into a garbage can, as I witnessed many times growing up in Michigan) is to be reminded of the majesty in life’s small moments.

I can think of no better way to engender in children a sense of wonder and an appreciation of nature than through direct experience and careful observation. Children are quick to realize the commonalities between us and all living things, and to feel a sense of duty in preserving the world around them.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Singing Lifts the Soul

Nothing takes the edge off a long car ride like a singalong. Last week, my two-year-old niece, Maggie, was petering out near the end of a three-hour–plus drive, and we started singing If You’re Happy and You Know It! How I wish we’d had Jane Cabrera’s board book with us! Suzie, Maggie’s mother, and I quickly ran out of verses. (You may remember Suzie from the Musical Literacy blog.) We could only remember the “clap your hands” and “stamp your feet” verses, and Maggie was strapped into her car seat, so we were trying to come up with verses she could do in her confined state.

As the saying goes, “Desperation is the mother of invention,” so we started making up verses (and of course, repeating them—thank goodness toddlers love to repeat things). Maggie’s favorite was “touch your nose.” We repeated that verse a lot. You know how you always think of the perfect line hours after a conversation takes place? Well, since then I’ve thought of “wiggle your ears” and “go snap, snap” (with your fingers). But the point is, there are myriad opportunities to add verses.

That’s what I enjoyed most about Jane Cabrera’s version of the song. She spices it up with humor, with the chimp clapping, the elephant stamping its very large feet, and the giraffe nodding its head at the end of a very looong neck. If we’d had Cabrera's book in our “backseat library,” we may still have run out of verses, but we would have had a much longer stretch without a repeat (more important to the adults than the toddler). It’s nearly impossible to come away from this song without feeling uplifted and energized. Altogether now, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!”

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Finding Ourselves in Fiction

Many of us turned to books when we couldn’t turn to our peers or our parents. If you’ve read through my list of Twenty Classics for teens, you already know that I learned about puberty from Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Some topics just seem too private to discuss with anyone else.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan tackles two of the toughest topics for young men to talk about with others: friendship with a gay male, and knowing that you’re gay but not ready to come out openly. Through the alternating first person narratives of Will Grayson and will grayson, Green and Levithan create fully formed characters who grapple with these issues sometimes clunkily and sometimes gracefully—just as teens themselves do.

The first Will Grayson (created by John Green) is a straight male whose defense of larger-than-life Tiny results in, as you might have guessed, Will also being called gay. Then there’s will grayson (created by David Levithan) who knows he’s gay but has told no one except for an online friend named Isaac, whom he arranges to meet and which occasions his chance introduction to the other Will Grayson.

Next there’s Jane, who Will thinks may or may not be gay, but who is a member of the gay alliance at school and a friend of Tiny’s. And then there’s Maura, who has an unrequited crush on will. Will and will, Tiny and Jane offend their friends, then win them back; at times one friend seems to have all the power, then it shifts back to the other friend, and sometimes they even shoulder the burden equally. This book is as much about how to communicate honestly with friends and—yes—parents, as it is about the first stirrings of attraction, and even love.

There is so much for your teen to mine here about common missteps in friendship and romance, not to mention the trademark humor of both authors (John Green you may know from Paper Towns, and David Levithan from his co-authorship with Rachel Cohn on Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, the inspiration for the feature film of the same name). What are books but emotional laboratories, where we can test our theories about other people, and safely explore our ideas about ourselves.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Nature: The Key to the Spark Within You

I was 13 when I first visited Walden Pond. It was 1976, the Bicentennial, and my father had a professional conference to attend in Boston. He and my mother decided we would drive from Michigan, making stops in Lexington and Concord, Mass. We visited Louisa May Alcott’s home, where I remember thinking the rooms were so small, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s house where I seem to recall an etching on a downstairs window purportedly made with a diamond, and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home. It was astounding to me that all of these writers I’d been reading could be so concentrated in one place. But I think stopping at Walden Pond made the biggest impact. To see the land that had inspired so many of Henry David Thoreau’s ideas--to walk where he had walked and planted and harvested--made his journal real.

Thoreau at Walden by John Porcellino impressed me greatly because his graphic novel format captured visually the feeling of setting foot on that land, and what it’s like to be alone beside the water and to smell the earth. His images of the landscape render words unnecessary in many of the sequences of panels, and he gives you room, as readers, to take in what it’s like to stand where Thoreau stood, to see what he saw.

Young people are so in touch with that sensory experience. Right now I’m staying with my seven-year-old nephew, Tiger, for a stretch here in Austin, Texas, and he and his classmates are so connected to the present. We’ve had a series of overcast and rainy days, and at the first sign of sunshine, they’re out the door, riding bikes, zipping on their scooters, playing hide-and-seek among the trees in the park. There’s something about being in nature that makes us more alive, more awake.

That’s what John Porcellino taps into in the quotes and episodes he’s chosen from Thoreau’s journals, and it’s the reason I’ve returned to his book again and again since its publication in 2008. In an interview, Porcellino said he discovered Thoreau in high school, at about the time that he began to experiment with comics. Porcellino said that his advice to young people is to “Find that spark that’s unique to you and express that.” He believes that that is a large part of what we can take from Thoreau’s philosophy, too, as a man who lived differently from his peers in 19th-century New England. Though Thoreau may not have been fully appreciated in his own time, his ideas continue to influence us today.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Decoding Language

When children can't make sense of a word they hear, they will often substitute a different word that does make sense to them. But, let’s admit it, we all do it. Song lyrics leap to mind. We hear a catchy melody and want to sing along, but we’re unsure of the words, so we might mumble some consonants that faintly resemble the singer’s phrases, or we fill in a seemingly logical alternative.

One of my favorite examples in literature occurs in Bette Bao Lord’s novel, In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, when 10-year-old Bandit Wong emigrates to the U.S. from China and has to recite the pledge of allegiance with her classmates. She says, “I pledge a lesson to the frog of the United States of America, and to the wee puppet for witches’ hands…” Even children born in this country are uncertain in elementary school about the words “allegiance” and “republic.” What exactly are we pledging and to whom?

According to an interview with author-artist Keith Baker, the idea for LMNO Peas came from hearing kids say “L-M-N-O-P” whenever they said the alphabet, as if these letters made a word. “I was sharing this with some teachers who taught pre-readers, and they said that kids don’t understand that L M N O P are actually five distinct letters,” he adds. In his book, the pea
characters work and play among the letters, emphasizing the individual letters’ shapes and sounds. Your youngsters build confidence as they master the alphabet, but all the while they feel as if they’re just being entertained. What an ideal way to learn.

Friday, April 9, 2010

A Curious Nature

What is it about animals that captivate us? Maybe it’s their complete abandon. They pay close attention to whatever they are doing, especially when they’re eating, which is why we always want to be present at feeding time at the zoo or aquarium. First of all, they come from everywhere to get the food, but secondly they’re completely absorbed in what they’re doing. As we observe them, we feel like spies because—unless we interfere in some way, with a sound or a sudden movement—they seem completely unaware of us.

In Busy Birdies by John Schindel, the photographs place us in close proximity to the parrots, ducks, herons and peacocks Steven Holt captured on his camera. How often would we get near enough to a hummingbird to watch it extract nectar from a flower (“Birdy sipping”)? When young children have this opportunity to observe an animal up close, they seize it. And birds are the perfect place to start because they are so abundant—even in the city you can find sparrows, pigeons, even the occasional red-tailed hawk!

A book like this can be a way into encouraging a child’s naturally curious nature. Using that photo of a goose with its wings spread and its companion with wings retracting, you can start a conversation with a child about how geese fly, and then observe birds in flight to see what it looks like in action. Children begin to ask questions—what kind of bird is that? Why does the hummingbird sip from flowers? And that leads the way to searching out more books about birds, and maybe a hike with binoculars in tow.

I remember a friend who lives in Baltimore laughing as she told me that she’d taken her children to the zoo in Washington DC and all her kids wanted to do was follow the pigeons. Birds are so much a part of a child’s everyday experience that they naturally gravitate toward them (plus birds are smaller than they are). It’s a great place to start, and then let their curiosity lead as far as it will take them.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Finding Meaning

The observance of Passover and Easter are difficult to explain to a child. They hear the stories each spring, but children aren’t really equipped to process the events recounted in those stories for years. It’s right around adolescence that young people begin to understand and take in the stories they’ve been hearing in Temple and church, about injustice, life and death, and starting over with a second chance at life.

Whatever your family’s traditions may be, nature reinforces these themes, with its renewal of life, crocuses bursting from the barren earth, blossoms forming on bare trees, and longer stretches of sunlight. A sense of hope emerges. That sense of hope is what Sam gains during the course of the seven days following her fatal injury in a car accident in the first chapter of Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver. It is not a book with religious themes, but it is a book about finding meaning in one’s life. Much of the rebellion associated with the teenage years involves finding one’s own way, not accepting as a package what we’ve always been told, questioning our parents, our teachers, our religious practices. We have to doubt in order to find a deeper sense of faith, whatever that faith may be.

When I was younger, I deeply resented the phrase (usually uttered by my grandparents or their friends) “Youth is wasted on the young.” I’ve come to think that what underlies that statement is that when we’re younger we have no sense of our mortality, so we take things for granted. As we get older, the moments matter more. Faced with the possibility of death, Sam begins to wonder, why did she abide her friend Lindsay’s cruelty? Why would Sam want the guy who makes her more in the eyes of her peers, rather than the guy who brings out the best in her? The fact that Sam is in the popular crowd makes her vulnerability all the more poignant. She begins to see things and people, including her own family, differently when she realizes they may be lost to her—forever. She begins to think about her “greatest hits,… the things I wanted to remember; the things I wanted to be remembered for.”

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Read-Aloud Streak

For those of you who’ve been following along for awhile, you already know how passionately I believe in reading aloud together.

I’m privileged to serve on the Bank Street Children’s Book Committee, and one of the great pleasures I derive from the many hours we spend together discussing books is when one of the members says, “Just listen to the language here,” or “look how playful the rhythms are in this section,” and he or she proceeds to read aloud the author’s words. To sit back and let the words wash over me is sheer heaven. I have never outgrown it. And if you are truly honest with yourself, you haven’t outgrown it either. There is nothing like the sound of a true storyteller’s voice.

That brings me to the piece I discovered in last Sunday’s New York Times. A father and daughter had started what they deemed, “The Streak”—a read-aloud streak. Kristen and Jim Brozina began to read aloud together on November 11, 1997, when Kristen was in fourth grade, and read for 3,218 straight nights until her first day of college. At a time when their family’s composition was changing (Kristen’s mother left the family, and her older sister left for college), this father-daughter read-aloud ritual became a stabilizing force for them both.

And what did I think of? Another parent and child who share a love of books and, more specifically, poetry: Julie Andrews and her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton. They share a love of writing poetry, too, and include some of their own works in Julie Andrews’ Collection of Poems, Songs, and Lullabies, illustrated by the wonderful James McMullan. Music is another powerful way into words and literacy, too, and the mother-daughter selectors include a wide range of song lyrics, not only diverse in their uplifting or melancholy tones, but also in their level of sophistication. There is plenty here for the entire family to enjoy.

Who knows, as you gather next week for Passover or Easter, you may be inspired to start a “Streak” of your own…

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Rhyme Time

Few things give me as much pleasure as words put together well and in surprising combinations.

Perhaps that’s why I’m continually attracted to poetry. Button Up!: Wrinkled Rhymes by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Petra Mathers, delighted me when I first read it because I’d never read a collection narrated by shoelaces, soccer jerseys and jammies, for one thing. Nor had I considered just how early we begin to think of clothes as an indication of who we are and what we do.

These poems can be enjoyed by youngest readers, all of whom can see at a glance just how cool Bertie is by his sunglasses, or how sleepy Joshua looks in his jammies, or what a call to action “Bill’s Blue Jacket” is, by its pounding beat and its invitation to step outside and see the world.

Poems—especially poems for children—can be deceiving in their simplicity. I know I’m jumping the gun a bit—Poetry Month officially begins in April—but good poetry must be read all year round. I subscribe to “The Writer’s Almanac” so that a poem arrives every morning in my e-mailbox. And luckily, the clothes that narrate the poems in Button Up! can be “worn” in all seasons.

Friday, March 12, 2010

It's spring!

Dare we say it? Spring has arrived here in New York. Temperatures have been climbing to near 60 degrees, and the sun has been out (today being an exception…). And we children’s book fans know that can mean only one thing: Bunnies and flowers and birds!

Tao Nyeu celebrates not just spring, but also summer and fall in Bunny Days, her three tales about six white bunnies. With a disarmingly simple text and artwork, she introduces the cycle of nature to toddlers who are often the first to notice a bird, frog or butterfly in our midst.

Perhaps my favorite quality about the book, because it’s so difficult to do well, is the way Tao Nyeu plays with fact and fancy. Would someone vacuum the leaves outside, and thus accidentally vacuum up the bunnies from their warren? Would real bunnies hang on the clothes line to dry after a spin in the washing machine? Of course not! But the nature of the illogical scenarios allows toddlers and preschoolers in on the joke. They already know how bunnies behave. They already know that vacuum cleaners belong inside, not outside. Just as they know balls are outside toys—or at least, they know that balls don’t belong in the living room.

Yet, because of the way Mr. and Mrs. Goat come across in the artwork, it seems perfectly plausible that they would vacuum outside or accidentally clip a cottontail while trimming the hedges. They always seem just a bit absentminded or distracted. And this leads to the other fun, gentle commentary: the bunnies are always alert and aware. So the contrast between the bunnies and Mr. and Mrs. Goat lays the groundwork for the jokes. Luckily, Bear is as alert as the bunnies and always has a solution for both the Goats and the bunnies. And because Bear is neither male nor female, goat nor bunny, Bear can be whoever the toddler reader needs Bear to be—loving guardian, caregiver, teacher, aunt or uncle.

I’ll stop there, but let me just say that this book rewards multiple readings. Each time I do, I am ever more impressed with what Nyeu accomplishes with so few words, colors, and brushstrokes.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Sense of Personal Responsibility

Recently, we’ve been talking about young people who took action out of a sense of personal responsibility. People like Claudette Colvin who, at age 15, decided she could no longer abide the segregationist rules on public buses. As an African American, she would not give up her seat to a white passenger because she said, “It’s my constitutional right.” And the courts eventually proved her right—confirming what she believed all along. The four young African Americans who began the first Sit-In in Greensboro, N.C., also believed they belonged at a public lunch counter in a Woolworth drugstore. They, too, had the law on their side.

But what if, like most people, you did not speak and act from your conscience? And what if keeping that truth to yourself meant that an innocent man may have been convicted of a capital crime? Or what if, wishing to step into the spotlight, you fabricated details you knew nothing about? Those are the questions that plague at least one teen who was working in the pencil factory where 13-year-old Mary Phagan was murdered in An Unspeakable Crime: The Prosecution and Persecution of Leo Frank. Without passing judgment, author Elaine Marie Alphin presents a number of factors that may have contributed to the behavior of Mary Phagan’s teenage coworkers and friends.

It’s so much easier to blend into the background, or to say, “My actions don’t matter,” than it is to do the soul-searching necessary to go against your peers or the authorities or sometimes your own family to do what you believe is right. Leo Frank’s case raises searching questions about our responsibilities as citizens and as conscientious members of our neighborhoods and towns.

Here Elaine Marie Alphin talks about why she believes this case will be important to young people and why it continues to haunt her.

Friday, February 26, 2010

A Dose of Reality in a World of Magic

I used to think I was not a fan of fantasy books. I now know that’s not true. I just hadn’t read the right ones yet. The fantasies that draw me in are stories in which tightly constructed worlds that seem on the surface to be completely unlike my own cause me to think about my own world differently.

What would it be like to wake up one day and realize you were truly gifted in some way you’d never imagined? That premise could apply to any number of fantasy books (Harry Potter, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief ). The Night Fairy by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Angela Barrett, however, puts a slightly different twist on this idea: a magical being is rendered rather ordinary, because she cannot use her wings after a bat accidentally crumples them. Flory must figure out how to get from here to there, find shelter from her predators, gather food one cherry at a time because that’s all she can hold. And she must do all these things without her wings.

For Flory, now nearly everything in Nature poses a threat. She is, understandably, angry. Things are not going the way they were supposed to go. And yet she figures out how to take care of herself in this new predicament. She grows accustomed to her new routine. She begins to accept her situation as it is. And that turns things around for Flory. She opens up to the possibilities around her, for friendship and forgiveness and flights on hummingbird wings. This is the paradox: as Flory begins to accept her new reality and the world the way it is, she also sees a world of opportunities in front of her.

Friday, February 19, 2010

In Celebration of Black History Month

A few weeks ago, we discussed Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, the story of the brave teenage girl who paved the way for the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycotts. This week, we focus on another story of young people who brought about sweeping change with one courageous act, Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down by husband-and-wife team Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney.

Like the four people who began the sit-in movement, the Pinkneys take a big idea and break it down into its simplest principles. Andrea Davis Pinkney boils down a complex historical narrative into poetic phrases and a recurring refrain. Brian Pinkney’s swirling ink lines and watercolor illustrations convey a feeling of action among four people who are sitting still. The protest consisted of four young African-American men sitting at a counter where they were implicitly told they would not be served. They were not told this in words, but rather by an unspoken understanding that black people were not allowed at the same counter as white people.

It’s difficult for most children today to understand that kind of racism. Today we have a black president. How could segregation have happened so recently in our history! This picture book presents the situation in such a way that six-, seven- and eight-year-olds can have an informed discussion about what life was like for African-American citizens before the civil rights movement.

To put these events in context, Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on March 2, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama. Nine months later, Rosa Parks also refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts began in December of that year. In 1957, the Little Rock Nine—nine black students in Little Rock, Ark.--enrolled in Central High School despite the governor barring their entry; President Eisenhower sent in the National Guard to escort the students into the school. And on February 1, 1960—just 50 years ago--David Leinail Richmond, Joseph Alfred McNeil, Franklin Eugene McCain, and Ezell A. Blair Jr. (now known as Jibreel Khazan), four students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, sat down at a Woolworth lunch counter and attracted more than 70,000 people to join them in sit-ins across the South. They were putting into practice the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A timeline at the back of the Pinkneys’ book charts these milestones. This is a book that the entire family can open as a way of reflecting on how far we have come as a nation, and as an instrument for sparking a discussion of where we continue to find injustice, and what we still need to do as citizens of the United States and the world.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Paying It Forward

Thank you to Rebecca Fabian for including me in a septet of Prolific Blogger Award Winners!

I’m especially honored because I enjoy escaping into Rebecca’s blog, Afterthoughts--notably her “Porn for Booklovers”—G-rated photos of sumptuous bookshelves filled to the brim (for me, it’s a tie between the books on the beach and the cottage with the sloping roof and wall-to-wall shelves). The Children's Department Manager for the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Mass., Rebecca is also a graduate of the esteemed Simmons College Master of Fine Arts for Writing Children's Literature program, and calls herself “Full-time reader. Part-time traveler.”

Here are the rules for the Prolific Blogger Award Winners:

I. Every winner of the Prolific Blogger Award has to pass on this award to at least seven other deserving prolific bloggers. Spread some love!

Although I do not feel prolific with my weekly pace, perhaps this accolade will be an incentive for me to write more frequently? In any case, because I was slow to assemble my thoughts, fellow award recipient Deborah Sloan at the Picnic Basket (another blog I greatly admire) already passed along her kudos to another favorite of mine, Mitali Perkins’ Fire Escape.

But I easily found seven terrific blogs to praise:

1. A Fuse #8 Production: Betsy Bird via School Library Journal. Betsy was at the forefront of the blogging movement--at least in the children’s book world. She has an infectious way of talking about books that makes you want to join the conversation. She is currently counting down the top 100 novels, as polled by her readers. And she hails from Kalamazoo!
2. Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast OR “if you’re in a hurry, ‘7-Imp,’” as co-founders Jules (aka Julia Danielson from Smyrna, Tenn.) and Eisha put it. They are two librarians who love books and ask of each of their interview subjects seven questions. Jules is flying solo now, but she shoulders the responsibility well--the entries are funny, insightful and original.
3. Pixie Stix Kids, written by Kristen McLean, executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children, may not come as frequently as you’d wish (because she is out at regional bookselling conferences running panels and such), but Kristen’s entries often delve into the thorniest topics confronting the book industry. She will make you think.
4. The Written Nerd, co-proprietor of Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and formerly of McNally Jackson bookstore in Manhattan’s SoHo, this blogger (whose identity shall remain anonymous) had me riveted with updates of her store’s progress leading up to its opening, and blogs about books as well as store events. Her goings-on reflect the interests at the core of her community.
5. First Second Books. Okay, I don’t call attention to publishers’ blogs for the most part, but Mark Siegel, the editorial director of First Second, educated a great many of us when graphic novels were just breaking into the mainstream. His link for booksellers serves as the Comics 101 guide for setting up a graphic novels section in the bookstore, library or classroom, and he’s generous—he includes his favorite creators regardless of publisher.
6. Great Kid Books from Mary Ann Scheuer, a librarian in Oakland, Calif., reflects on books, students, and their reading habits. Her descriptions of her interactions with young people help me overcome my homesickness for the classroom and restores my faith that children ARE getting news about the latest children’s books!
7. Head Butler: Jesse Kornbluth’s thoughts on books, theater, music and all things cultural amuse me to no end. One of my recent favorites was his “Consumer Warning” about Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed. He's a co-founder of and former editorial director for America Online.

II. Each Prolific Blogger must link to the blog from which he/she has received the award.

Here is the original post from the Afterthoughts blog.

III. Every Prolific Blogger must link back to This Post, which explains the origins and motivation for the award.

IV. Every Prolific Blogger must visit this post and add his/her name in the Mr. Linky, so that we all can get to know the other winners.

Congratulations to everyone who received this award!