Friday, August 27, 2010

Never Too Many Chefs

In It’s My Brithday by Helen Oxenbury, everyone contributes an ingredient, from the toddler birthday celebrant, to the assisting animals, and then they all help make the cake. I’ve mentioned before how my mother helped me get comfortable in the kitchen very early on: she’d tell me how much flour a recipe called for, then she'd measure it out and place it on the counter next to me. When the time came for the flour, she’d ask me to add it while she stirred – just as the birthday child does in Oxenbury’s book. Gradually, my mother gave me more responsibility, cracking an egg over the bowl (being careful not to get pieces of shell in the mix), and later holding the mixer myself.

A terrific pre-K teacher at the Manhattan New School in New York City encourages her students to make their own sandwiches—with peanut butter and jelly to start (and very safe spatula-style knives)—and teaches them to clean up afterwards. This is a life skill, learning to prepare a meal for themselves, and it’s never too soon to start learning their way around the kitchen. It’s a wonderful sense of accomplishment to sit down and share a meal that they’ve helped to prepare, just as Oxenbury’s characters do when they shout “Happy Birthday!” and pass the communal cake.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Learning Facts from Fiction

I am a late convert to nonfiction – that conversion story, which occurred in college, is one I’ll save for another time. Up until that point, however, I had learned--and I continue to learn--many of the facts that I have retained in my life while reading fiction.

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus is an excellent example of the kind of fiction I love that has taught me a great deal about factual situations. This book lays bare the ideological chasm that existed between East and West during the 19th century, through the riveting adventures and subsequent transformation of a real person: Manjiro or, as he came to be known in America, John Mung.

Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief helped me imagine what it might be like to live in a small town in Germany and to hide a Jewish friend from the Nazis—ordinary people living through an extraordinary time.

In Go and Come Back, Joan Abelove transported me to a small village on the Amazon where the villagers held a different perspective on life—and a vocabulary to reflect that experience. The novel inspired me to think differently about modern society’s attitudes and values.

Set in contemporary Iraq, Walter Dean Myers’ Sunrise Over Fallujah taught me more than news reports ever could about the approach to warfare and peace-keeping in the Iraq war. Coupled with his Fallen Angels, set in Vietnam where the author served as a soldier, these two books paint a full portrait of modern warfare and its toll on those who are party to it—whether they be soldiers or civilians.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly taught me about life in a small Texas town at the turn of the 20th century, when Darwin and the Church and the start of the industrial revolution were all influencing family life across the country.

For Heart of a Samurai, Preus culls from her extensive research the details of what the whaling ships were like, what the men ate, the conditions of the ship and the attitudes on land, which were often more provincial than those of the men at sea, naturally. The author even includes reproductions of John Mung’s drawings.

But in order to fill in his emotional life, she imagines his thoughts and conversations, which makes the book a work of fiction. What an amazing way to introduce to young people this era and the cultural history of East and West.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Literary Touchstones

In Cynthia Lord's Touch Blue, Tess’s hope that Aaron, her new foster brother, will be more like Anne of Green Gables and less like the Great Gilly Hopkins got me thinking about other characters who make literary references.

This is one of those moments when I wish I were sitting at a table with three or four other book-lovers to come up with more. I know there are more. The example that leaped to mind, of course, was Mira in When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, and her many references to Meg in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. And, though it’s slightly different because Jack becomes fascinated with Walter Dean Myers as an author rather than one particular character in his work, I do love how Miss Stretchberry starts Jack on his way in Love that Dog by Sharon Creech, with examples of various poets, and then he finds Myers’ work and mines the author’s books himself. In John Green’s Paper Towns, Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” from Leaves of Grass holds clues that are key to the mystery of Margo’s whereabouts, but that’s (obviously) not a children’s book.

I know there are more. Can you think of other books whose characters make literary references to sum up their situation? We’ll have a virtual round-table discussion.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Reading Buddies

How I wish I’d had How Rocket Learned to Read by Tad Hills when I was teaching reading and writing!

Yes, it’s a book about learning to read, but it’s also a story of bonding over books. Have you ever thought, “Ooo, I like this person!” because you liked the same books, the same characters? Or admired someone with whom you disagreed about a book because he or she was so passionate in defense of that beloved story or poem or biography (or so eloquently against it)? Maybe once or twice they even persuaded you, or at least got you to think about something differently, or to return to a passage and reread it.

At the risk of alienating you, I’ll admit that I am one of the few people in America who does not love Eat, Pray, Love. I acknowledge there are some scenes described by Gilbert that are truly memorable, such as some of the cultural traditions of Bali in the “Love” section. But I found Gilbert’s voice disingenuous. I have, however, had some thought-provoking conversations about this book. One of my favorites was with a friend who, when I told her my reaction to the book said, “Oh, I heard the first section was annoying, so I skipped “Eat” and just read “Pray, Love.”

I have another friend who, at the time when Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities was all the rage, felt bogged down in the middle, so he just skipped to the end. I had always been a traditional “start at the beginning and go straight through” sort of reader, and even though I, too, had felt bogged down in the middle of Vanities, I kept plodding through the pages. But after that conversation, I started abandoning books that didn’t hold my attention. That was a big change for me, and I enjoyed reading more because I only read the books I liked (I stuck with Eat, Pray, Love because it was so important to several people who kept recommending the book until I read it; but that was an exception, not the rule). I share that strategy with young readers because I’d rather see them toss aside one book than to give up on reading for pleasure completely.

I admire the little yellow bird in How Rocket Learned to Read. She knows just which story will pique Rocket’s interest and just when to stop reading to keep him coming back. All of us who love books know that he has a wonder-filled journey ahead of him, especially with his reading buddy at his side.