Friday, December 18, 2009

Reading Aloud: A Shared Adventure

When I first launched Twenty by Jenny back in April, I mentioned that some of my favorite memories of growing up involved my brother and me sitting on either side of my mother as she read aloud to us. She often read books that would have been difficult for me to read by myself at the age of seven or eight, and my brother wasn’t reading yet. But as long as there were plenty of photos or illustrations, we both had a way into the story or subject.

Similarly, when I was teaching third grade and I read aloud to the students, I always tried to select books that were slightly more challenging than what they might choose on their own. In reading class, naturally, we read together books that most of the children could comprehend and read aloud themselves with relative confidence. But when I read to them, I wanted to pick books that would expand their vocabulary and take them to new places, both literally and figuratively.

Reading aloud was a big part of our holiday celebrations. In a tradition that began with my father’s family, everyone who came to celebrate with us at both Thanksgiving and on Christmas Eve had something to read. We family members all had established readings. My father always read “The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers” by Felicia Dorothea Hemans, and his brother Chris always read “When the Frost Is on the Pumpkin” at Thanksgiving. For Christmas, my mother always read “Dear Virginia,” and her mother would read “ ’Twas the Night Before Christmas” with all of us cousins flanking her on the couch so we could see the pictures--Heather, the youngest, sat on Gramma’s lap. Immediately, even first-time guests felt a part of the celebration (shy guests could choose a four-line poem with a punch line).

All of this to say that the holidays are a perfect time to read a good book together aloud. (If you’re feeling hesitant, here are a few tips.) Harry Potter reminded us how wonderful it is to dive into another world with the entire family along for the journey. A break from school and some time off from work creates another opportunity to enjoy a book together as a family, and Yummy and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon are two books that the entire family can enjoy. Each has self-contained shorter sections, too, which allow you to dip in and out or read the whole book—depending on whether it’s a bedtime ritual or an afternoon-long adventure (in the case of MountainYummy you could still finish up rather quickly). If you will be spending the holidays with older children, ages 12-up, then The Book Thief is an excellent read-aloud choice. Remember: You are never too old to be read to.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Raising Word Connoisseurs

I’ve just returned from a two-day silent retreat on the Hudson River. I try to do this once or twice a year. Every time I go, I’m amazed by how few words we really require. I was thinking, too, about very young children who do not yet have language, but who still manage to communicate effectively. They reach for a bottle, push away a spoonful of peas, and hold up their arms when they want to be held.

What a sense of accomplishment they must feel when they can name things—a bottle, a blanket. And then to be able to call out for Mama, Papa, Grandma and their big brother or sister—and to point to themselves and say their own names! The world is theirs for the asking! All that time they were wordless, they were extremely watchful. Once they begin to speak words, it can feel like a current of electricity has been unleashed. They’re sharing all they’ve gleaned in those months of silent observation.

Sandra Boynton’s books milk that early knowledge and churn it into humor like butter. She sets up scenes very familiar to toddlers: a barnyard in Moo, Baa, La La La!, a set of clothes in Blue Hat, Green Hat. Then she takes what a child knows and upends the facts in a nonsensical way. While cows “moo” and sheep “baa,” three pigs sing and dance! In a recent blog, I mentioned a discussion with Leonard Marcus in which he described just how early children begin to develop a sense of humor, and how much of a child’s early attempts at humor are playing with what they know in order to make a joke themselves.

All of us have experienced the pleasure of a peek-a-boo game, even before a child has words—they take pleasure in knowing someone is there but pretending to hide. When my niece Maggie was just over one year old, she delighted in the punchline of Sandra Boynton’s book: I would talk to Maggie on the phone, and she wouldn’t say much, but when I asked her, “What do three pigs singing say?” she’d answer, “La! La! La!” During my most recent visit (Maggie’s now two), she was drawing something at a small plastic desk in the living room. I asked her, “Maggie, are you drawing at your easel?” She repeated, “EA-sel” and started laughing. She loved the word. Throughout the day, she’d spontaneously say, “EA-sel” and start laughing. I noticed she picked out other words she’d hear in conversation and collect those, too, like a word connoisseur.

So let’s hear it for humor! Humorous books encourage a playfulness around a child’s early ideas about language and concepts. Once children are engaged this way, the possibilities for expanding their base of knowledge seems limitless. If I had my way, they’d all be word connoisseurs.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A World Both Like and Unlike Our Own

The best fantasy stories take us to a place that, at face value, seems completely unlike our own, and then create just enough parallels to allow us to pause and reflect on the world we live in. Kristin Cashore’s books, Graceling (published last fall) and Fire (published this fall) do just that.

We are heading into the holidays, so let’s emphasize the escape and adventure qualities of the reading experience. A rugged and mountainous landscape policed by monsters. A beautiful heroine who wants to use her talents (to read minds and change them) in the service of a greater cause. An on-again-off-again romance and the possibility of something more lasting. But, for more analytical teens, there’s also a view of what it means to strike out on their own, the responsibility that comes with that, and the realization that you must make your own choices and live with the outcome.

Think of 1984 or C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books or Watership Down. Or, more recently, Feed, So Yesterday, The Giver, and The House of the Scorpion. All fantasies, all with universal themes that allow us to examine our present society and individual situations with a new perspective from a safe distance. Okay, so this is a favorite riff of mine, that ultimately literature teaches us about ourselves. But I have watched young people describe their “aha!” moment, and even liken a situation they recognize in their own lives to one that a character from a favorite book has experienced. It is a gift to be able to try on someone else’s life without having to live through it ourselves. Maybe those characters take a wrong path so we don’t have to. Maybe they figure out a solution we hadn’t thought of. Or maybe they just allow us to escape our own anxieties for awhile and travel somewhere else.

Yes. Maybe they just let us truly enjoy a vacation from our daily lives.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Immigrant Story

The Lleshi family’s story in Katherine Paterson’s novel The Day of the Pelican seems especially appropriate at this Thanksgiving time, when so many of us think about our own families coming to this country as immigrants. Many families, like the Lleshis, could not speak the language or understand the subtleties of the culture when they first arrived here. What is it like for Baba, the head of his household, to have to rely on his children to translate for him, not only the language but also a gesture or custom? What is it like to watch your children set aside many of the things you’ve taught them in favor of new friends, new fads, new values?

As much as he wants his children to excel in their new surroundings, Baba also wants them to honor their family’s traditions, and these two desires are not always an easy fit. Assimilation often trumps tradition. In Pelican, Katherine Paterson explores the complexities of these competing influences. After the events of 9/11, Meli and Mehmet’s teammates lash out at them—verbally in Meli’s case, and physically in Mehmet’s case—because they are Muslim. Neither of them wishes to return to school, but Baba tells them they must. The teens’ coaches pay a call at the Lleshi home, apologize to Mr. and Mrs. Lleshi and tell them that they will remove the offending students from the team. But Baba tells the coaches that such a step would seed more hatred toward Meli and Mehmet. “My children are strong,” he says. “They have endured many hard things in their short lives. They can also endure this.” In her interview (below), Katherine Paterson discusses the importance of the scene between Baba and the coaches, and the respect these coaches gain for Mr. Lleshi.

It is the immigrant story. A family arrives in America to gain a better life for their children. Often the children adapt more readily to the language and ways of their new life. The challenge to the older generation is to keep the family together in the face of these other forces of influence, and the challenge to the new generation is to remember what is important even as they acquire knowledge and skills that will serve them well in their new homeland. The Lleshi family’s story reminds us of the great sacrifice all immigrant families make when they courageously arrive at our borders and on our shores.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Power of Silence

What you notice first about Jerry Pinkney’s The Lion and the Mouse is the beauty of this foreign land. The acacia trees, the many different-colored grasses, the vast sky. There are no words to tell us what to think or where to look. We simply take it in. We begin to notice the creatures that populate this stunning land, and a story begins to take shape in the quiet expanses of his wordless sun-filled watercolors.

Jerry Pinkney lives near a nature preserve, and in this book he recreates that experience of being alone with the quiet. The only sounds are the screech of an owl, the squeak of a mouse, and the growl and roar of the lion. There are so few places today where we can find quiet. We have to seek them out. With cell phones that ring and video games that bleep, and iPods turned up loud enough so that everyone nearby can hear what’s playing, there’s noise everywhere we turn. Even on the bus we’re privy to conversations we’d rather not overhear. The library, the subway, an airplane and driving alone in the car are among the scarce few sanctuaries.

The word sanctuary is sometimes used as an alternative to “nature preserve,” like a “bird sanctuary.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a holy place.” In the quiet, we can also quiet the mind and begin to forget about the office and the grocery store and other daily urgencies. We can begin to focus on the more important things. Ultimately, Jerry Pinkney’s book reminds us of how attentive we become in the quiet. We pay attention. We notice body language and facial expressions. We really see each other. When the lion holds the mouse in his paw, looks into her eyes, and truly sees the mouse, he does not wish to harm her. Her life is valuable, too. He lets her go. This kind of close attention is the greatest gift you can give a child. To truly see him or her, to engage, to be fully available and present when you’re together.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday: It’s for all Americans of every faith and culture, for families generations-old and immigrant-new; the emphasis is on preparing and sharing a meal together, and telling stories; the holiday itself is named for gratitude. May you and your family find some sanctuary this Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Developing a Sense of Humor

Children begin to take in a great deal of information very early on.

They know that if they eat all of the food that’s good for them, they will get dessert. They stretch the limits of bedtime by making acceptable requests, such as, "May I have a glass of water?" "Would you read one more story?" and "I need to go to the bathroom." Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Jen Corace’s books are spot-on because they begin with the everyday routines that even youngest readers can recognize, and upend the logic. Little Pea hates sweets, Little Hoot loves bedtime, and Little Oink keeps his room spotless. It’s the adults who break the rules.

Recently, I had a chance to talk with Leonard S. Marcus, the renowned children's books scholar, who has been co-teaching a class with a child psychiatrist at New York University, and who recently wrote a book called Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy. We were talking about the age at which children start to understand certain kinds of humor, such as parody or satire. “With very very young children, they start off just wanting to know things, like the names for things,” Leonard said. “Once they get to the point where they’re starting to get the hang of that, there seems to be an impulse to go beyond it, and begin to play with the things they know. So they’re no longer cut-and-dry facts, but they’re things that can be manipulated, which implies a kind of mastery.”

What surprised me, but made perfect sense when Leonard explained it, was how early in a child’s development this occurs. “When a child is about a year and a half old, they might point to a dog and say, 'cat,' and that’s the beginning of humor and nonsense. And what a powerful statement that is for them. It’s designed to make the person listening--probably a parent--laugh, and to produce a smile on another person’s face. That’s a huge accomplishment for a little child, and it’s one of the best experiences you could ever have. You’ve given pleasure to the person who’s taking care of you. That’s wonderful. And once you’ve had that experience, you want to do it more.”

It seemed to me that what Leonard was describing also could explain, at least in part, a child wanting to read a book over and over again. That, too, would contribute to a sense of “mastery” of a favorite book, knowing what to expect and then playing with the things they know. The child wants to be in charge of the timing of the page turn, and the delivery of the punch line. And what a wonderful thing that is for all of us watching this child develop his or her own sense of humor, as he or she takes “the cut-and-dry facts” and begins to play.

Friday, November 6, 2009

War and Youth

In Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld takes a real situation—the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who advocated for peace—and follows its repercussions through the lives of two fictional 15-year-olds: the Archduke’s son, Alek, and Deryn Sharp, who disguises herself as a 16-year-old boy named Dylan in order to enlist in the Royal Air Service. Yes, elements of the book are fantastical (the giant armored Stormwalker; the living breathing hybrid Leviathan), but the atmosphere of war and the way that war makes everyone a suspect is real.

Young people have always fought our wars, from the Revolutionary War to the Great War to the Vietnam War right through today in Iraq and Afghanistan. Young men (and likely young women) have often lied about their age in order to enlist. Like Alek and Deryn, many of them are just teenagers, idealistic and invincible, when they risk their lives.

Westerfeld sweeps us up in his tale of an orphaned teenage boy—who may or may not be acknowledged as the heir to the Hapsburgs’ Austro-Hungarian throne—thrust into a war by forces outside his control. Deryn, seeking excitement and the chance to be airborne, winds up at the epicenter of what would become the Great War. But Alek and Deryn’s predicament shares a great deal in common with the situations of real young men and women who enlist: They don’t know what they’re in for until they get there. In one of the most powerful scenes in the novel, Alek must deal with an array of feelings after he kills a young soldier in hand-to-hand combat.

Leviathan is a grand adventure story with cool machinery and fascinating creatures, conflict and a whiff of romance. But Westerfeld’s genius—as he’s proven in many of his other novels—is that he uses story as a way into thinking about the deeper issues that haunt human beings: the need to be accepted (So Yesterday), to be beautiful (the Uglies series), to be patriotic (Leviathan). While he holds teens in the grip of his stories, he asks them to question prevailing societal attitudes and to think about whether these hold value or meaning for them as individuals.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


The Graveyard Book was 20 years in the making, according to Neil Gaiman in his 2009 Newbery acceptance speech. He first got the idea for the book when he watched his son, Michael, ride his tricycle in the cemetery of his old Sussex neighborhood. Michael is now taller than his father. He is 25; the same age Gaiman was when he started The Graveyard Book.

What a terrific example to share with young people about how to slow down and not rush things. From the time we are children in school, we are often driven by deadlines. We have due dates for written reports and oral presentations, we attend practices to prepare for football or basketball games, track or swim meets, recitals and plays. Once we enter the working world, there, too, we have due dates for reports, projects, and presentations to bosses, colleagues, and clients.

It’s easy to get caught up in the goal and lose sight of the process. It wasn’t always just about the trophy, was it? At first, wasn’t it the pure pleasure of running under the trees, or swimming out to the sandbar, or giving voice to a song? We start as amateurs, in its original sense of cultivating something for the love of it. Maybe we return to it because it gives us joy, and the more we run or swim or sing, the better we get. We run sprints and swim laps and practice scales, and we learn more about how far we can go. And if we're lucky, and if we stay with it, one day it all comes together.

In those intervening 20 years, Neil Gaiman did not stop writing. He wrote his Sandman series, American Gods and Coraline, to name a few. But he did eventually return to The Graveyard Book. Gaiman said that when he wrote the last two lines of his Newbery Medal-winning novel, he realized, “I had set out to write a book about a childhood . . . I was now writing about being a parent. The fundamental most comical tragedy of parenthood: If you do your job properly . . . they won't need you anymore. If you did it properly, they go away.” He continued, “I knew I'd written a book that was better than the one I had set out to write.”

Friday, October 23, 2009

Staying True to Yourself

When I first started teaching (and that was 20 years ago now), Halloween was all about the costumes and the candy and who could get the most. It’s still all about the costumes and the candy and who can get the most.

What I love about Dav Pilkey’s The Hallo-Wiener (aside from the fact that it stars a Dachshund, a breed to which I’m partial), is that he exploits these two facts to their fullest comic potential. And because he is so funny, Pilkey is able to subtly touch on two themes here that often plague childhood: acceptance for being exactly who you are, and bullying—which are often related.

The other dogs make fun of Oscar because of who he is (“Wiener Dog! Wiener Dog!”). He looks different from the other pups pictured. He’s long and low to the ground. He looks forward to Halloween because he can escape into another identity with his disguise. But his mother, who loves him for who he is, buys him a costume that accentuates the very trait for which he is ostracized (a hot dog bun with mustard). Not only that, but the costume’s unwieldiness slows his pace, and the candy’s all gone by the time he arrives at the front door of each house on his route.

When I hit my teens, my peers began teasing me about my red hair and freckles. I’ll never forget in 8th grade science class, the most popular jock telling me I had “puke-red hair.” And even worse, I remember my mother’s hairdresser, while giving me a haircut, told me, “Don’t worry, you’ll be beautiful when you’re 30.” There I was with my puke-red hair, freckles and braces, and I was miserable! Like Oscar, I wanted to escape into other disguises. So I acted in plays and literally became other characters. Later, I was glad to have had all of my theatre experiences, which I likely would not have pursued if I’d been welcomed into the popular crowd. Today I even enjoy being a redhead. But try telling that to any child or teenager. They still have to live through all of this awkwardness and discomfort.

In this humorous but gently wise tale, the very characteristic that make Oscar the butt of his peers’ jokes—his low point of gravity—gives him the perspective and the strength needed to spot the true identity of the monster and also to unveil the monster for what it is. The other pups are grateful that Oscar saved them, and appreciate his resourcefulness.

Yes, the book is most of all a sweet and satisfying humorous tale in which the underdog winds up on top. But it also has some strong points to make that, after many rereadings, your youngsters will begin to internalize, whether you ever discuss its subtle lessons or not.

So even though much of the fun of Halloween is dressing up and stepping into another identity (and eating bagfuls of chocolate), Dav Pilkey’s clever comedy tells us that, ultimately, we need to be comfortable with who we are all year long.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Fine Line Between Fright and Humor

How many times have you seen a scary movie and laughed in relief at a false alarm? Laughter is our preferred way to release tension. Harriet Ziefert and Rebecca Doughty in Halloween Has Boo! do a bang-up job of walking that line between funny and gently frightful for toddlers.

Art Spiegelman, who started his career writing and drawing Wacky Packages jokes for Topps gum (like "Quacker Oats," featuring a duck in place of the usual pious gent pictured on the familiar cardboard oats canister), says that much of what we find to be humorous arises out of conquering one's fears. He points to a classic example, the jack-in-the-box. When a child first encounters the toy, he or she does not know what to expect, so when Jack pops out, it's frightening. But once the child knows how the jack-in-the-box works, and that he or she can predict when the doll will pop out, and that replacing the top will close Jack back securely inside, the child thinks it's wildly funny.

As they get older, kids enjoy scary rides at an amusement park, whether that takes the form of exhilarating speed (as in a roller coaster) or tantalizing terror (as in a haunted house tour). Getting through a frightening situation makes us feel braver somehow. One of my favorite things about summer as a kid was gathering in a circle around the campfire and telling ghost stories. In these weeks leading up to Halloween, I'll be posting some more of my favorite spine-tingling tales for young scary story–lovers, but one of the best things about a book is that you can put it down at any point if it gets to be a little too scary.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Remaining Awake

The theme that unites Shaun Tan’s Tales from Outer Suburbia is to remain awake. With its miles of cement curbs, stop signs, and perfectly mown lawns, the suburbs can lull us into a kind of sleepwalk. We stop noticing the details, the people, the leaves changing, the smoke from a chimney, even the extraordinary water buffalo on the corner (featured in his opening story). And we don’t have to be living in the suburbs to lose our powers of observation. It can happen on city blocks or deep in rural territory.

A few weeks ago, when I interviewed Kate DiCamillo, she said that writing is about “being able to turn and look at everything you might not normally see.” And—these are my words now—good writers describe what they see in ways that are meaningful for someone else, that allow us as readers to enter the experience. Painters often say they paint what they feel more than what they see. But carefully chosen details allow us to stand where the writer or painter is standing and bring our own experience to the situation he or she is attempting to capture.

That’s what Shaun Tan does. He has the advantage of both tools: his text and his artwork. And he wields pen and paintbrush with equal power. He allows us to see the world from what we might normally think of as the constricted viewpoint of the leaf-like close-to-the-ground star of “Eric,” but instead we see a whole world open up in the beauty of a flower-shaped drain, and the surprise of a blossom that springs from bottle caps and peanut shells. Two boys have one opinion of a neighbor, then change it when they witness her transformation after a stranger shows up at her door. And perhaps most inspirational of all, he hints at the secret creative lives that dwell behind those closed suburban doors, and their discarded attempts at a poem gathering strength and letting loose a shower of “faded words pressed into accidental verse.”

“Every child is an artist,” Picasso said. “The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Children live completely in the moment. They notice everything and want to name everything and learn all that they can learn about the things that interest them. I believe that’s what Picasso was talking about: how do we remain curious and interested and surprised? Tan, like Picasso, suggests that young people point the way. Our challenge is to encourage that impulse in young people as they move from childhood to adolescence, where they begin to explore adulthood and responsibility. And our challenge is to model that even as adults we continue to be open to the little changes and small details that make everyday experiences astonishing.

Friday, October 2, 2009

A Matter of Trust

When Sharon Creech and her editor, Joanna Cotler, talk about how they began to work—and continue to work—together, they both say that it all boils down to trust. Sharon needed to know she could trust Joanna with her words; Joanna needed to learn how Sharon liked to work so that she could earn Sharon’s trust.

The parallel struck me that this is just what children face at the beginning of each school year. Can I trust my teacher to look at my work and see what I’m trying to do beneath that? If I make this new friend, can I trust him or her? Young people may not express it in quite that way, but that’s what is happening—we know that as adults. It takes so much courage to begin to trust. Georgia O’Keefe, whose glorious paintings often feature one flower that dominates an entire canvas, said, “To see a flower takes time./ To make a friend takes time.” Friendship, and trust itself, means seeing someone fully, listening closely, observing carefully.

This is the theme of The Unfinished Angel, Sharon Creech’s novel published this month. Angel observes the little town of Ticino so carefully and over so many hundreds of years that Angel knows its “peoples” and all of the small events that have shaped each one. So when young Zola comes along and notices a group of orphaned children taking refuge in a nearby shed, Angel has trouble believing it. How did Angel miss that turn of events? And who would let a group of children fend for themselves? This becomes the turning point in Angel and Zola’s relationship, and also in their growth as individual beings (one otherworldly, one human). Through that experience of trying to protect the children together, Angel and Zola begin to trust each other.

In this video of a conversation between Sharon Creech and Joanna Cotler, they talk about how they developed that trust, as writer and editor, and they use the example of Love that Dog. But when they move on to talk about its companion, Hate that Cat, they demonstrate what can grow out of that kind of trust--the ability to delve into deep questions together. Joanna asked, of Jack (the hero) but ultimately of Sharon as author, “Why do you write?” Often it’s not about giving someone an answer, it’s about asking the right question and then companionably standing by while she plumbs the depths to find the answers for herself.

Friday, September 25, 2009

One Act of Kindness

Yesterday I was talking with a school librarian friend in her office when a third grade teacher came by requesting a picture book about “inclusion.” It’s only the third week of school, and already a group of children were attempting to exclude other children. I kept thinking about how early that impulse starts. And also about how just the right book can get a terrific conversation going among children.

One by Kathryn Otoshi is a great conversation-starter. Not only does Otoshi explore the idea of bullying for very young children, she also reveals how bullies gain power. It’s not by brute force; it’s by subtle acts of cruelty that chip away at a child’s (or adult’s) self-esteem. Red, the bully, continues to insult Blue until he shrinks down to nearly nothing. The bystanders in this book (the other characters—Yellow, Green, Purple, Orange) become complicit in Red’s rise to power because they are silent. They do not stand up for Blue. How many atrocities can we attribute to this turn of events?

But Otoshi gives children a powerful truth: It only takes One. How much sweeping change has come from one person joining with another to take on the people of power? The conductors on the Underground Railroad, women laborers who went on strike after the Triangle Waist Factory fire, the families all over Europe who hid Jews during the Holocaust, the young people who staged sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement. History is full of examples of brave people often acting alone with their own conscience.

Even for young children, one act of kindness can make a difference: sitting next to a child who's alone at the lunch table, inviting someone to join a game at recess, showing the ropes to a new student, opening the door for someone whose hands are full. That third-grade teacher was onto something. What a great way to begin the school year, to think about all the ways we can make each other feel included.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Taking in the Details

Alison Jay in her book 1 2 3: A Child’s First Counting Book encourages children to really look at things. With all of the details she includes in her pictures, she asks them to examine each scene carefully. What’s going on in that picture of the three bears? How does that connect to other images in the book that come before and after it? At the same time, she challenges them to draw upon their experiences, what they know already about the three bears, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk. They begin to feel that they already know so much, because the clues they find in front of them connect to a larger body of knowledge they’ve been building all along.

In my interview with Kate DiCamillo, in which she discussed her latest book, The Magician’s Elephant, she talked about art as a way of looking at our world closely. I’ve been thinking about that a lot as the first signs of fall have set in--the shorter days, the crisper temperatures, the quicker step in the already purposeful pace of my fellow New Yorkers. Yesterday I found myself in midtown Manhattan with an hour between appointments. So I walked to the Museum of Modern Art on West 53rd Street and up the stairs to the second floor where an intimate collection of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies are on exhibit. I say “intimate” because there are less than a dozen paintings, and yet I felt enveloped by them (which was Monet’s wish with his larger “decorations,” according to one caption). At various points in the room, I felt as if I were standing on Monet’s Japanese footbridge, or coming upon the pond at the heart of his garden in Giverny.

The paintings in this exhibit were all created toward the end of Monet’s life, and in one I’d never seen, he painted a fiery rendering of the Japanese Footbridge (1920-1922) in mad brushstrokes that look more like pastels than oils, so forcefully and spontaneously is the paint applied. I wondered if he were angry when he did it – almost like it was too soon for autumn to arrive and to have to say goodbye to his garden. Was I projecting?

It is an amazing experience, to be enveloped by art, to be so deep in a story that we feel as if we know the characters, to be taken in by a piece of music until it becomes the soundtrack to an episode in our own lives, to be so completely surrounded by a painting that it transports us to another place and time. And I was, in that moment, standing in Monet’s garden in Giverny, watching my parents cross the Japanese footbridge a decade ago, watching the way the sun and clouds reflected back in that pond. I was inhabiting both past and present, mindful of the person I am because of where I’ve been. And I also felt connected to the here and now, to the strangers in the room beside me, each of us sharing this experience, yet having our own private and unique response to the beauty around us.

Children are so awake to the world, so naturally curious and observant. It seems to me that the greatest gift we can give to them—and to each other—is to encourage that wakefulness, that appreciation, that curiosity about the people and places on this planet of ours.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Six-Word Obsession

Do you remember when we were growing up, and at the beginning of each school year, the (usually) well-intentioned teacher would ask us to write about our summer vacations? Well, what if he or she instead asked for a six-word summation of the summer? Just imagine how creative we’d have been.

Ever since my interview with Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser from SMITH magazine about their book I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets, I have become, well, obsessed with six-word phrases that sum up a situation. (SMITH is an online writing community; founder Larry Smith was inspired by the legend that Ernest Hemingway once wrote a six-word short story, and challenged his community members to write six-word memoirs.) On SMITH’s Web site, they showcase a New Jersey teacher, Mrs. Nelson, and her class of third graders who created a book of extraordinary reflections captured in half a dozen words. Mrs. Nelson and her students have proven that children of all ages can stretch themselves while also having a lot of fun with these six-word puzzles.

Last month, I was visiting my friend Joanne and her two daughters, ages seven and 12. After I explained to both of them the concept of the six-word memoir, they each had a go of it. One of my favorites penned by the seven-year-old was a description of her grandfather, whom she’d recently visited: “Sleep all day, snore all night.” The 12-year-old, anticipating the start of school, came up with this gem: “Grade system: A, B, and flunk.” Throughout my three-day visit, I would notice long silent pauses from the girls, and glance over to see their fingers going as they counted off how many words were contained in the phrases in their heads.

Joanne urged me to pass on the six-word phrase I coined for the advice I was given my first year in the classroom: “Teachers should not smile before Christmas.” The irony: that advice came from a third-grade teacher with a soft spot for bullies and naughty boys. Every year she inspired them to do their best work, and they often emerged from her classroom as bigger and better people. (As if it were a New Year's resolution, she started smiling each January.) I won’t reveal her identity here. After all, it’s the start of a new school year, and those bullies only have until Christmas to shape up.

Meanwhile, here are six great writing tips that editor Rachel Fershleiser adapted for teens….


By Rachel Fershleiser

1. Be specific. "Homecoming king with a septum ring" says more than just "punk but popular"; "We are banned from Wal-Mart forever"—not just "my family is embarrassing."

2. Be honest. Many of the most interesting memoirs are so raw ("First time hazy. Blame the booze"; "Hung myself. Sister found me. Alive") I'd personally be too chicken to put my name on them.

3. Forget the thesaurus: Choose interesting words, but only ones that come naturally to you.

4. Use your speaking voice: With "Got three sisters and two dads" and "Hair’s pink to piss you off" you can hear them saying it.

5. Experiment with structure. Two three-word sentences. Three two-word sentences. One statement or six separate ones. Repetition can be powerful and punctuation is our friend: "Fat camp makes fat campers fatter"; "Never been drunk. Never been happier."

6. Stop trying so hard. Or "Write carelessly; edit carefully." Throw a million ideas down and then decide. These aren't epic novels or Supreme Court decisions. Just start scribbling and see what catches your eye. In our experience, peoples' first instincts are usually the best.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Writing with a “Manageable, Reachable Goal”

Kate DiCamillo has just published her fifth novel, The Magician’s Elephant. She writes two pages a day. She calls that a “manageable, reachable goal” (see interview below). I think my students would have thought that was a manageable, reachable goal, too. I wish I’d known about that when I was teaching.

As your child heads back to school and begins to get assigned projects, that is a good piece of advice to bear in mind. Whether they are working on a painting, a book report, or an oral presentation they must give in front of the class, they can break down their projects into manageable, reachable goals. They may begin with a sketch, notes taken and page numbers jotted down while reading, and recording themselves on an audio cassette or in front of a video camera.

I have also heard Katherine Paterson and Linda Sue Park say that they write two pages a day. In fact, at the Texas Book Festival two years ago, I heard a child ask Linda Sue Park, “When you write, how do you know whether it will be a novel or a book of poetry?” And Linda Sue Park answered, “I do not write novels. I write two pages a day.” If she thought she was writing a novel, she said, she’d be too overwhelmed to finish it.

Linda Sue Park, Katherine Paterson, and Kate DiCamillo have each won the Newbery Medal. They have each written novels. Two pages a day.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Coming soon...

For those paying very close attention...

I did not send out a newsletter aimed at ages 8-12 today because there is a very important publishing event on Tuesday that I want to fully celebrate.

So, have a great Labor Day weekend, and we'll meet up here (and via newsletter) on Tuesday!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Personal Space

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 21, 2009

Preparing to Read

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Internet: Uniting Readers and Writers

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 7, 2009

Give Comics a Chance!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 3, 2009

BlogTalkRadio: Books for Teens

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

1. Why read?

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

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

2. How do we get kids to read?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. What are some good sources for finding books?

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

And here are some terrific additional resources:

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

Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers / ALA

Graphic Novels recommended by First Second Books

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

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

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

Friday, July 31, 2009

Permission to Play

William Carlos Williams’ ability both to run a full-time medical practice and also to devote daily time to his writing is one of the things I admire most about him. The other, of course, is the quality of his writing, his ability to see and describe the exquisite details in everyday things. The movements of a bird outside his window, the taste of a sweet plum from the icebox, the clangs, siren, howls and rumbling wheels of a red fire truck. When I read A River of Words, I realized that those two characteristics—his talent for balancing work and creativity, and also for noticing and describing his experience—probably both stem from the many hours he spent walking beside the banks of the Passaic River.

During my first year of teaching elementary school in New York City in the late 1980s, I was shocked to learn about “play dates.” Parents called each other to schedule a “date” for their children to play together. I guess that makes sense, I thought. New York is a big city and you have to plan for transportation, and you certainly have to know where your child is. But I thought of my own carefree afternoons growing up in Dearborn (and later Kalamazoo), Michigan. Our neighborhood was much like the setting in Gran Torino, little lots close together—you could practically call out the window and get a game of kickball together. A bunch of us would walk back from school together at age 6 and 7, maybe stop home to change clothes and grab a snack, but then we’d meet in the front yard with our bikes or bats and balls. The afternoons seemed to stretch delightfully endlessly to dinnertime. There was a spontaneity to our play that seems harder to tap into today.

Many of my friends have preserved that for their children. But they’ve had to work at not scheduling their children's time too tightly, allowing them room to play in the yard or go to the neighborhood park. They’ve had to limit the lessons and practices and time in front of the TV or computer. Even as adults it’s sometimes hard to give ourselves permission to “procrastinate now,” as Ellen DeGeneres advises. My friend Elmera often says, “I constantly have to remind myself that I’m a human being, not a human doing.”

William Carlos Williams, by his example, shows us there’s room for both doing and being.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Here on Lake Michigan, where I’m spending the week with five nieces and nephews under the age of eight, you can already see peer pressure at work.

If seven-year-old Hale is doing something, you can bet his cousin, six-year-old Tiger, wants to be doing it, too. And Ryan, Hale’s six-year-old sister, certainly does not want to be left out. Maggie (Tiger’s sister), who will turn two in October, speaks in complete sentences, while Charlotte (Hale and Ryan’s sister), who turned two in May, saves her energy for key words like “bottle,” “Mama,” “Dada,” “Giggy” (for Grandma), and “mine.” Both Maggie and Charlotte are good at identifying what is “mine.”

Maggie and Charlotte can also identify when they have a dirty diaper, the first step in potty training. Of course, the key step is being able to identify when you need to go before you actually go. They’re not quite at that point yet, but it likely won’t be long.

I know parents who, once their child can identify their need to go, stay at home for an entire day (usually a weekend day) with the toddler, diapers off, and essentially teach them how to indicate when they have the urge so that the parents can quickly help the child get to the potty. The child repeats the experience in succession enough to understand the necessary steps and it soon becomes a habit that they can initiate on their own. Other parents take a more gradual approach and wait until the child can communicate when he or she has to go and also can consistently get to the bathroom before they go. The child then graduates to pull-ups and might wear a diaper only at night, moving gradually to “big girl” or “big boy” underpants.

Whatever the approach, it’s helpful for toddlers to have a book like No More Diapers for Ducky! that depicts other youngsters going through the same experience they are going through. The best thing about Ducky is that it shows one child teaching another child by example.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Once You Learn How, You Never Forget

The beauty of Sarah Dessen’s analogy of bike-riding in Along for the Ride is that—up to this summer—Auden West has accomplished everything by thinking it through, and often, as Eli puts it, “overthinking.” But there is no way to intellectually master riding a bike, you have to just do it. The fact that Auden would, at age 18, be willing to learn to ride says more about her open-mindedness, and her willingness to change, than just about anything else could.

Everyone in my neighborhood knew how to ride a bike by age five. It was the way kids got to their friends’ houses, met up at the A&W on South Westnedge for hot dogs and root beer, and traveled to the baseball diamond. When we moved to Kalamazoo, Mich., I was seven. And I did not know how to ride a bike.

On the 4th of July, my Uncle Chris came to visit us in our new home. (He is my father’s brother, four years younger than my dad.) Uncle Chris probably learned of my dilemma in a conversation that went something like this:

“What are you doing inside? It’s a beautiful day. Why don’t you go ride your bike?”
Barely audible, I might have said, “I don’t know how.”
“What?” (booming voice) “You don’t know how to ride a bike? Well today you’re going to learn.”

Uncle Chris removed the training wheels from my bike and, just as Dessen describes Auden’s experience with Maggie as her “buddy,” he held onto the bike and ran alongside me, and then let go, “Keep pedaling!” he’d shout. Yes, I fell a number of times. But each time my uncle would say, “Let’s try again,” and I’d mount the bike and off we’d go, with him running alongside (“Keep pedaling!”). We did this again and again until, suddenly, I didn’t fall. I kept going. I pedaled and pedaled all the way to the end of our street and then turned right, and, aided by gravity, swiftly flew down a steep hill on a dead end street. I can still feel the wind rushing through my shoulder-length hair with the breakaway speed of it. And, because I did not yet know how to stop, I came to a soft landing smack in the middle of the Parker family’s peonies. They were very nice about it. The best part was, I now knew how to ride a bike. (I just had to practice braking.)

How sympathetic perfect Auden seems as she tries to convince Eli, a competitive stunt biker, that she’s pretty sure she learned how to ride when she was six. He knows there is no gray area. You either know how or you don’t. Once you do, your body intuitively shifts to stay upright, adjusting a little to the left or right, forward or backward, to maintain that balance. It’s not something you think about.

But Auden is willing to learn. As Adam, another biker in Dessen’s novel puts it, “What defines you isn’t how many times you crash, but the number of times you get back on the bike.” Once she masters the bike, we know Auden will be just fine.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Pleasures of Rereading

One of the things I like best about Rebecca Stead’s novel When You Reach Me is the way the heroine, Mira, loves A Wrinkle in Time. The way she carries it around with her wherever she goes, and the way the book is like an old friend to her. It made me think about the pleasures of rereading books and why we do it. If we’ve already read the book, and we know what’s going to happen, why bother reading it again? It’s precisely because we do know what’s going to happen that we bother. We return to certain books again and again because we know they are reliable and dependable and will always be there for us, and events will unfold just the way we remembered them. Or if we’re really lucky, they begin to mean different things to us at different times—just like longtime friends do. The longer we know them, the more we discover. The bond deepens.

I do not know how many times I have read The Little Prince, but each time he has come through for me. When I was small, he was a traveler in a great adventure who came home, where he was happiest of all. As I grew older, he was the hero in a love story—between the Little Prince and his rose, beloved to him, unique in all the world because of his care for and devotion to his rose. Then the subplot between the Little Prince and the fox came to the fore, as I began to consider what the word “tame” meant in the context of their connection, and the complexity and trust involved. More recently, it has had a tinge of all these things, but mostly it has helped me see the importance of being at home where you are.

Rereading also teaches us to be better writers. A famous story goes that when someone once asked Ernest Hemingway how to become a writer, his advice was, “Read Anna Karenina. Read Anna Karenina. Read Anna Karenina.” Just as good painters often begin by imitating the masters, reading the masters can help us improve as writers.

Finally, it's my belief that reading and rereading makes us better people. Books allow us to enter other worlds. They offer us other points of view, help us to see another side—often of ourselves.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Planting Seeds with My Father

Peter Brown’s The Curious Garden took me right back to my own first experiences with soil and seeds. My father is the gardener in our family. He is also a jock—quarterback on his high school football team, captain of the basketball team—with some pretty strongly held opinions on what’s manly and what’s not. So, as I look back, it’s pretty great that he was the one who taught my brother and me how to garden. Chip and I were probably four and eight (I’m older) when my father helped us plant seeds for the first time. It was the first full summer we spent at our new house on Lakeside Drive in Kalamazoo, Mich., and there were two symmetrical flower beds, each maybe 3' x 10' at the bottom of a steep hill (great for sledding in the winter), with a walkway between them. Dad gave Chip and me each a small section, and showed us how to plant the seeds a few inches apart, and how deep to press them into the earth. Each day, Chip and I would check on our seeds’ progress, and Dad coached us to be patient.

As a child, there is nothing quite like witnessing a seed that you’ve planted, with care and watering, growing into a flower or vegetable. It was one of the high points of teaching my second-grade science classes--that morning when the students filed in, went straight to the seeds they had carefully placed about an inch deep in the soil of a clear plastic cup (so they could watch the roots spread), and observed a furtive green tendril breaking the soil’s surface. Even though it’s one of the golden laws of nature, it can still feel like a miracle.

I don’t remember the specifics of the flowers my brother and I planted that summer as much as I remember Dad letting us into this secret world, showing us how he spent his hours weeding and watering and tending the garden. Ever after, I had newfound respect for his dedication: pruning the lilac trees outside my parents’ bedroom window, clipping the pine hedges by the front door, and cultivating the irises and lilies in the flower beds. Today, about all I can manage are three window boxes and three planters on our terrace in New York City. I have some yellow pansies and snapdragons, purple petunias, silver dust (leafy plants), and some dianthus (pictured at left) that are supposed to be annuals but are so deeply rooted in one of my planters that they’ve become perennials--with no thanks to me.

Recently, while strolling with my friend Cary past the beautifully maintained community garden that runs south from 96th Street in Manhattan’s Riverside Park, I started pointing out the impressive array of flowers the gardeners had cultivated. She asked me how I knew the names of so many of them. “My father,” I said. “He’s the gardener in our family.” I realized that he’d given me entry not only into this secret world of his, but its language, too.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Blueberry Summer

Every summer when we were small, my mother would take my brother, Chip, and me blueberry picking. If you shop for blueberries in August in almost any area of the country, you will find blueberries from Grand Haven, Michigan. (I’ve even bought Grand Haven blueberries at the Fairway market on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.) Reindeer’s farm in Grand Haven. That’s where we picked them. Sometimes we’d go with another family, but often we’d just wake up, discover it was a great day for blueberry picking, and we’d jump in the car, Mom, Chip and me. Rereading Bruce Degen's Jamberry took me right back to those childhood outings.

We’d search the blueberry bushes for the plumpest, juiciest-looking prospects, leaving the smaller ones to ripen for someone else. They took on a rich cornflower blue color when they were ripe, while the smaller ones had more of a purple tint to them. After awhile (and if you sampled one here or there), you got the hang of it. We’d each fill a bucket full of berries. It seemed like we would never run out of them. We washed them all and froze some. We’d have them on cereal, Mom would make blueberry pancakes and blueberry coffee cake. And the frozen ones would keep for a midwinter treat.

Years later, when Chip and I were in our teens, and our Grandma Petie (that’s my dad’s mom) was widowed, she’d come and stay with us summers, and she’d make blueberry pie from scratch. No one could make a pie crust like hers. She grew up in New England, and she’d exclaim over the quality of Michigan blueberries: “I’ve never seen berries so big! They look like huckleberries!” Every summer she’d seem delighted anew. She’d make the dough and let it rise, roll it out and lay it in the pie tin just so, pile on the blueberries with just a bit of sugar (no corn syrup), then overlay the top crust and gently crimp the sides of the pie, to close it up. She’d end with the ever-important fork holes in a neat pattern on the top.

I can’t tell you how many times I watched her do this, and yet I do not have a recipe for my Grandma Petie’s blueberry pie. I have collected recipes from other friends who are masters in the kitchen, and I’ve tried one or two, but none tastes like hers. Maybe this summer I’ll begin a pie-making quest, to try and recreate a crust as close as I can to hers. But in the meantime, I can still enjoy the blueberries, every small burst of flavor in my mouth taking me back to those carefree Michigan summers picking blueberries.

Friday, June 19, 2009

How Far Have We Evolved When It Comes to Gender Roles?

After I read The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, I started thinking about gender roles at the turn of the 20th century (when the book takes place) and gender roles today, in the 21st century. How far have we evolved?

In many ways, we can pat ourselves on the back. Today, women balance family and careers, and men are far more involved in parenting than they were even a generation ago. A boy can embrace his talents in the kitchen and grow up to be a respected chef like Emeril or Charlie Trotter, or a restaurateur like Danny Meyer. A girl can grow up to become a doctor or lawyer--in fact, author Jacqueline Kelly is both (that's her with her dog Elvis).

But when I go into schools, I still see remnants of the ole gender role stereotyping—and the students do it themselves. You know who I mean—girls who insist they’re not good at math, or “don’t get” the scientific concepts they’re learning, or boys who don’t want to admit they’d rather draw than play basketball. It’s my belief that this is not always conscious on the part of children; they tamp down the interests that come naturally to them because they somehow believe it’s “not acceptable” in some way. Callie Vee (the heroine of Evolution) finds not one, but two champions (her oldest brother, Harry, and her grandfather) who stand beside her as she goes against society’s norms. How do we encourage a child’s natural interests? And how do we help celebrate their inborn curiosity?

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from my father’s college roommate, Jim Bennett. When I got to college, he told me, “Study what you love, because that is what you’ll do well in.” I resisted becoming an English major because I didn’t know what I’d do with it after college (Ha!) but studying literature and writing was what I loved. And because of Jim’s advice, that’s the course of study I followed, and I’ve never regretted it.

When we hear children belittle their talents or interests, I think we need to stop whatever we’re doing and simply say, “Why would you say that? You’re a wonderful artist!” or “But you’re great at math!” Ask the child to look you in the eye when you say it. Gently repeat it if you need to: “Did you hear what I said? You’re a wonderful artist!” It’s not the big overarching messages we have to address anymore—thankfully, those have mostly been eradicated by society at large. Rather, it’s the small insidious messages that children receive, from who knows where—the playground, a sitcom, an advertisement. Those are the statements we have to stop short whenever and wherever we witness them being internalized by a child. It’s a slow, repetitive process, but the rewards for the child are beyond measure. Sometimes, all a child needs is one champion.

Friday, June 12, 2009

If You Can Read, You Can Cook

My mother, Judy (short for “Judith”), loved to cook. Her mother, Gert (short for “Gertrude”) did not love to cook, so as soon as Judy was tall enough to stir ingredients in a pot, she began making things that tasted good to her.

Judy had a best friend named Barb (they were close buddies their whole lives, until my mother passed away a few years back). Barb’s father, Bill Knapp, started a restaurant in Battle Creek, Michigan, that grew to become quite a famous chain of family restaurants in the Midwest and in Florida. (My favorites were their scalloped potatoes and, hands down, the Bill Knapp’s chocolate cake, which they provided for free on your birthday if you joined their birthday club.) Judy and Barb loved to cook together, and I (and many others) loved to eat what they made.

As soon as I could stir a wooden spoon in a bowl (sometimes while standing on a chair), my mother had me helping in the kitchen. She would measure all of the ingredients and set them on the counter, and then tell me when it was time for each (a 2-cup measure of flour, a teaspoon of baking soda, etc.). At one point when I was in elementary school, she asked me if I thought I could cook. She told me that my response was, “If you can read, you can cook.”

Now, my husband comes from Italian stock, and he is very good at adding a pinch of this, or a pinch of that to make things taste just right. I, on the other hand, am a true cookbook cook. I tend to use the exact measurements that the recipe specifies. But I love to cook. And I realized that both Dessert First and The Year the Swallows Came Early feature true food-lovers and chefs-in-the-making. Dessert First even gives you the recipe for Double-Decker Chocolate Bars on the back of the book’s dust jacket. (That's author Hallie Durand, at left.)

So why not also talk about reading as a pathway to great dining? I think the first thing I ever cooked on my own were Rice Krispy Treats, with the recipe right on the cereal box (and only marshmallows and butter are needed in addition). The peanut butter cookies in The Joy of Cooking is another easy-peasy recipe, requiring only the basics that you likely have in your kitchen already (and then if you want, you can add chocolate kisses, or chocolate chips, or even peanut butter chips, if you’re a peanut butter fanatic like I am). And of course, Toll-House Cookies, with the recipe right on the chocolate-chip bag.

Often, books inspire us to take action, and if we read a book about good food, why not take our youngsters into the kitchen and get cookin’?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Giving the Past Immediacy

Children love to hear about historic events when they are told with lots of action, and edge-of-your-seat excitement.

Brian Floca does just that with his book Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11. He makes those eight days in July 1969 seem as if they are happening right now, as you turn the pages together. Maybe it’s because, as a boy, Floca was so amazed by that maiden voyage to the Moon. In my interview with him, Floca said that this book was 10 years in the making and that he had to set aside some of the details he found so fascinating in order to keep the text simple.

The author-artist demonstrates his artistic process with a YouTube video on his Web site and also offers downloadable coloring pages so children can make their own images of the space journey, plus he talks about previous Apollo missions—some of which have related YouTube footage available.

If ever you wanted to talk with youngsters about these extraordinary journeys through space, this book provides the perfect launchpad (pun intended) for such discussions.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Musical Literacy

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 22, 2009

We Only Absorb What We Can Handle

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 15, 2009

Words by Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We hold these truths to be self-evident…

Follow the yellow brick road…

Friday, May 8, 2009

A Week Devoted to Children’s Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Think global. Act local. There are all kinds of good people and worthy groups working to help kids read. Teachers, librarians, and booksellers are a wonderful resource. Ask them for book recommendations. Join a local literacy group.

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

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

Sunday, May 3, 2009

There Is No Bad Way to Read Aloud

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

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

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

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

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

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