Friday, June 28, 2013

Early Steps toward Independence

Robin Page and Steve Jenkins create a model of how to present science for young children with their book My First Day. They start by telling children what they, as newborn babies, did on the first day. They then use the same format to describe what other creatures did on their first day--some achieve more than a human newborn, others even less (the Siberian tiger, for instance, is born with its eyes closed and remains completely dependent on its mother). 

Author and artist pick usually one, often surprising fact about that animal (or bug, in one case). A wood duck, for instance, jumps out of its nest and falls "a long long way" out of its nest into a pond, then paddles after its mother on its first day. Each illustration depicts the adult parent with the newborn, so children can see how the baby will look when it's grown.

Implicit in these snapshots of animals--many of which are independent in certain respects from the start (joining the herd, walking right away)--is that their parents (usually the mother, but in the case of Darwin's frog or the emperor penguin, the father) are never far from them. Jenkins's cut-paper collage in realistic colors and textures follows a similar visual design on the page, and keeps the focus on parent and offspring.

In addition to being an outstanding introduction to science, this book is ideal for starting a conversation about going away for day camp or starting preschool or kindergarten: If a child is feeling any anxieties about leaving home to go solo for part of the day or being in a new environment, his or her worries can bubble up in a safe way, through questions about how the animal parents reunite with their babies. Detailed notes in the back of the book help parents and caregivers answer some of the more probing questions.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Wordless Communication

Many parents teach their babies a few simple words in sign language, so the baby has a way of communicating what they need or want, even before they can speak. Joy Allen's Baby Signs, with its simple pastel pictures and step-by-step (wordless) instructions for 13 words, makes an ideal choice.

Just the other day, I was walking out of Bank Street College of Education with a colleague who had just picked up her 8-month-old baby from the Family Center. She gave her baby a piece of a banana. When little Lily finished her piece of banana, she made the sign for "more." What a powerful thing, at 8 months old, to be able to "say" what she needs.

A few simple signs as a tool to indicate what they want allows babies to express themselves from the get-go. They don't have to break into tears or wails of frustration. They may still, but they have other options. Nothing inspires confidence more than being understood, no matter how old we get. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Audition as the Ultimate Test

Joelle Charbonneau
Credit: Pete Stenberg

Joelle Charbonneau, known for her humorous adult mysteries, started out as a stage performer who turned to teaching. Her teenage students study music, theater and opera. "Not only do they have to do the ACT and SAT and college applications, but they also have to audition," Charbonneau said. "I'd say to myself, 'It can't get any worse. I wonder what could be worse?' " The answer is: The Testing, her first book for young adults.

Q: At the heart of the novel is this idea of competition at the peril of one's peers--do you think that's what testing encourages?

I know it does. I've been doing theater and music since I was a kid. In general, the person who's the lead isn't often the most important person in the play. You're only as strong as your weakest link. In The Testing, a lot of people wouldn't consider Cia a leading lady. She'd be more of a supporting character. In this case, she's forced into the spotlight.

Is a real leader someone who's necessarily [been elected] the president? Or is it the person who questions? You should care when something affects anybody, not just you. Cia does question, and that's what makes her unusual. She'd like to be a leader because she'd like to make a difference, not because she wants to be the leader.

Q: Did you have an outline of all three books? Or do they unfold as you write them? 

I never have a clue where I'm going. By page 60 or 70 I take a left turn in Albuquerque and there's no way back. I had no idea where it was going. Every action that happens propels it along, sometimes in a direction that I'm not sure where it will take it. Why did I make a heroine who's so smart--in science and engineering? I'm studying the mechanics of a bridge! I've finished book two. The series was supposed to be a book a year. Now it's every six months.

Q: Cia's father raises the question of trust. But you also raise the question of whether Cia can trust her father. Will we learn more about that in future books?

The second book takes place in Tosu City. We only get glimpses of what happens in the past. We do get to see some family dynamics. The end of book three should also give the idea that kids go off to college, and home has not changed, but you have. What do you do with that? A lot of that Cia has to work out in her own head. We do see the father a bit in the prequel, a short e-book, available on the series homepage, and soon on other e-retailer websites.

Q: Tell us more about the parallel you see between The Testing and the audition process that your performer-students go through.

Sometimes it's a question of are you confident enough in your own abilities? I have to warn my students there's a warm and fuzzy quality to a school, and then there are others where snarkier kids go. They're always trying to psyche you out. If they can, they will outperform you. I have always wanted to be judged on my own merits. The question is: Are you willing to trust your own abilities, or do you want to bring others down in order to shine brighter, even if it will bring the whole show down? 

This is excerpted from a longer interview that first appeared in Shelf Awareness.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Childish Things

Holly Black with SLJ's Luann Toth

Holly Black spoke last week at School Library Journal's Day of Dialog. She confessed, "I played with dolls for a looong time. I didn't realize I could keep telling stories without them." This is the dilemma at the core of Doll Bones. When do we "outgrow" dolls and a world of make-believe? When are we too old for the imagination? 

Zach, Poppy and Alice, the three 12-year-old friends at the center of Doll Bones, weave an elaborate world around their dolls and action figures. They are at an age when others might still want to play with dolls, but have squelched that impulse. Their peers have moved on to crushes and sports teams and excelling in school. But the dolls are a launch point to these three friends' imaginations and the glue of their bond. So when Zach's father throws out all of his toys, Zach would rather give up his friends than tell them the truth--or perhaps acknowledge to himself--that the game is over. 

The more I think about this book, the more I think it's really about confronting, even grieving the end of childhood--not only for Zach, Poppy and Alice, but also for the adults who take care of them. Their parents and guardians also have to acknowledge that Zach, Poppy and Alice are not little children anymore.

The fact of Zach keeping from his friends the truth about his action figures creates a chasm between them. The secret grows in weight and strength. Later in the book we discover that Poppy and Alice have been keeping a secret from Zach, too. Black explores the implications of hiding a secret, hiding one's true yearning (to connect with their friends, to continue to explore their imaginations), and allowing someone or something to come between them. The Queen doll (pictured on the cover) becomes both a symbol and a physical manifestation of their fears. 

Doll Bones offers the opportunity to create a conversation with young people about how their friendships can change when they "grow out" of the circle faster than the others, whether or not they have to put away "childish things," and whether that sense of play can be continued in other ways. 

Imagination is essential to everything we do: problem-solving, planning for the future, playing chess or video games (which adults do). It's important that young people recognize all the ways in which we use imagination throughout our lives. Even without Zach's dolls, the three friends find ways to continue their friendship and deepen their connection. What they had to give up was not their imagination, but their secrets.