Thursday, March 24, 2011


Amelia Earhart was a survivor—except when she didn’t survive. She was charming—except when she wasn’t charming. Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming reveals the person behind the legend. The author essentially states that the pilot may not have fully prepared for her what turned out to be her final flight. Amelia Earhart was willing to wreck a friendship to get a lecture tour and a marriage to get the man she loved and who could ensure her fame.

These are not easy things to know about your hero.

Yet the author takes nothing away from Amelia Earhart’s intelligence, goal-setting and accomplishments. She worked hard and earned every success. As readers we can feel Amelia’s charm and courage coming through the pages. Each chapter makes a strong case for why she became an American hero. I had a chance to interview Candace Fleming recently, and one of the things I found most touching was the reason for the author’s fascination with Earhart. “My mother, who must have been 13 in 1937 [when Earhart disappeared], would tell a story about going outside and looking up, convinced that she'd see [Amelia] fly over her little town in Indiana,” Fleming says. “She couldn't believe her Amelia was lost—not the person she had seen in the newsreels and in the papers!”

The book leaves us with haunting questions: How far would you be willing to go to pursue a dream? Would you risk all that Amelia Earhart risked? Friends, family, safety? If presented with the right opportunity, if we were offered a fully funded chance to fly around the world as the first woman pilot—the Friendship flight that started her on her way—maybe we would have risked it all, too.

Friday, March 18, 2011


One of the things I admire most about Kylie Jean is the way she goes to her friends and family for help. Together, she and her cousin and friends figure out how to cope with the mean new girl without stooping to mean-girl tactics, in Kylie Jean: Drama Queen by Marci Peschke, illus. by Tuesday Mourning. In Kylie Jean: Blueberry Queen, she asks her cousin (a different, older cousin) to help her register for the Blueberry Queen contest, then calls upon her grandparents for assistance—her photographer grandfather for a picture, and her other grandparents for sponsorship. Kylie Jean also asks a neighbor she admires to write a recommendation for her. The heroine models a strategy that can be very helpful to children of this age, who are making fledgling attempts toward independence. She asks for help from people she trusts. Clara Lee also does this in Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream when she seeks out her grandfather as her trusted advisor.

That awkward transition to doing things on their own is easier for both Kylie Jean and Clara Lee because of the roles their families play in helping them achieve their goals. Kylie Jean makes a list of tasks to complete in Blueberry Queen, and enlists her family or friends with specific skills to help with each. In the case of Clara Lee, it’s self-confidence she needs—to believe she, too, deserves to represent her town, not because her family helped to found the town (like her rival’s family did), but because she sees herself as an integral part of its community. And then she must summon the courage to give a speech. But once she overcomes the first crisis of confidence, the second feels easy.

It’s sometimes hard to find strong books for this age group because so few drill down to these essential issues of blossoming independence. But Kylie Jean, Clara Lee, Dessert Schneider from Dessert First, Clementine, and Ivy and Bean can be strong guides through rough waters.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Read-Aloud Adventures

Please, little red chicken, interrupt! It means you’re paying attention!

Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein captures the essence of the experience of a child reading aloud with a loving adult. In the opening wordless scene, we detect hints of the ceaseless energy of the young chicken before she ever appears. Once she’s in her pajamas, she asks for a story, and Papa says, “Of course, you are not going to interrupt the story tonight, are you?” We know that she will (though she promises, “I’ll be good”), and we can’t wait.

When she breaks into the story to warn Hansel and Gretel about the witch--and to take part in the other two stories--it’s clear that the little red chicken knows these stories by heart. My favorite aspect of the book is the way the little red chicken imagines herself as a character in each story. She believes she can save Little Red Riding Hood from the Wolf. In Stein’s artwork, the little red chicken literally appears as a character alongside the red-caped star and the villain who would, if left to carry out his mission, swallow the girl’s granny. In an interview, Stein discussed the process of creating this clash of the "real" and storybook worlds. (He received a 2011 Caldecott Honor citation for Interrupting Chicken.) The feathered heroine is a riot of color in a sepia-toned world. She is shaking things up.

The captivating little chicken at the center of this story is smart and spirited, she loves her Papa, and she cares about the characters in her books and wants to help them. We can imagine her becoming a passionate and involved member of her classroom and community. The best books enhance and help to develop those qualities in a child, by opening up a discussion between the child and someone who cares about him or her--someone who has a wider experience of the world and can help to process all that a young person is learning from hour to hour. So maybe it’s worth moving up bedtime just a bit, just enough to allow for those interruptions.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Active Imagination

For Lucy, the little fox who stars in Red Wagon by Renata Liwska, the stress is on the “active” in “active imagination.” As she takes an action (going to the market on an errand for her mother), she uses her surroundings to feed her fantasy and transform a chore into a pleasurable experience. It starts to rain, and Lucy imagines the red wagon as a ship, and rescues a raccoon pirate. We see all of her friends joining in to play a part.

When we were kids, we often staged plays in which everyone took a part, helped figure out the scenery and props, created makeshift costumes from castoff clothes or old sheets. We’d go exploring in the woods and build lean-to forts from large branches and sizable pieces of fiberglass we’d find. We’d make igloos after a large snowfall. Our parents would say, “Go outside and get some fresh air and exercise.” That’s what Lucy and her friends are doing. They’re exercising their imaginations along with their bodies, and each of them takes a role in the imagined scenes.

As a huge fan of technology, I recognize how it has freed me up in myriad ways, given me access to quantities of information in a moment that in the past would have taken hours to compile, and it allows me to stay in touch with people on the other side of the country. But as a former teacher, I do wonder if children get away from the computer and TV and their electronic games often enough, to go outside and play--exercise their minds in a different way, spontaneously making connections and choices in concert with other children. Even Albert Einstein took his dog for long walks.

Lucy demonstrates that we need very little to create a big adventure. She turns what could have been a dreary errand into an exciting journey, and inspires all of us to do the same in our own lives.