Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Read-Aloud Streak

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Rhyme Time

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 12, 2010

It's spring!

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Sense of Personal Responsibility

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

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

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

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