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.