Friday, July 30, 2010

Fostering a Kinship with Nature

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 23, 2010

A Killer with a Conscience

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

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

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

Friday, July 16, 2010

Pink Wheelchairs Aren’t “Cute”

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Power of Choice

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

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

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

Friday, July 2, 2010

Laying the Groundwork

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

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

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

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