Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Kids in Bookshops Say the Darndest Things

This is fun. Jen Campbell, bookseller and author of the "Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops" series, offers these delightful comments by children who have visited her bookstore. Enjoy!

Children Say the Best Things in Bookshops by Jen Campbell

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

My Heroes Have Always Been Writers

The return of my arch nemesis, Captain Underpants, compelled me to reinstate this blog after a yearlong hiatus. I’ve bemoaned my son’s obsession with Captain Underpants more than once in these pages. (See Reading for and About Boys and Linking Reading and Writing Through Fan Mail.) So you might suppose I dragged my feet when I learned Dav Pilkey was signing books at our local Barnes and Noble to promote the latest Captain Underpants misadventure. Reader, I did not.

Despite my protests, I acknowledge Captain Underpants as a hero. Sure he's flawed, like Batman in tighty whities, but anyone who inspires my kids to read is a champion in my book. In that sense, the character is less heroic than the author who created him.

I will drop most other plans to meet a published author. As a child in small-town Nebraska, I never had that opportunity. The closest approximation was a presentation by a Mark Twain impersonator at the local Carnegie library. Today I live within walking distance of a bookstore that attracts several author visits a month. I consider that a small miracle.

How wonderful that my kids appreciate this miracle too. My children regard authors, all authors, as celebrities. Isn't that as it should be? I don’t know much about Dav Pilkey aside from his books, though in his brief interaction with my kids he demonstrated kindness and a sincere respect for his readers. What I do know is that any published writer has qualities I'd be glad for my children to emulate.

Writers are resilient. You've probably heard that Theodor Geisel's first children's book was rejected two dozen times before he found a publisher and became Dr. Seuss. That rejection rate is in fact quite low among writers. Bestselling novelist Janet Evanovich, who today ranks among the world's highest paid authors, wrote for 10 years and collected a packing crate of rejection letters before her first book was published. I don't know about you, but I might have stopped with a shoebox full. It takes extraordinary perseverance to keep writing when editors reject you, life interrupts you, and the general public ignores you. Every writer's story involves overcoming those obstacles.

Writers work hard. Perseverance is more than a mindset. It's action. Contrary to popular images of writers dashing off a few pages between glamorous book tours or lunch dates with friends, writing is hard work. Consider the work ethic of mystery author and screenwriter Stephen J. Cannell, who wrote five hours a day for more than five years before any of his work found an audience. Cannell told an interviewer, "I'm very disciplined about the way I go about (writing). You know, when you say, 'He created 42 primetime television series—how'd he do that?' Well, you'd be surprised at what you can do if you get up and write for five hours a day every day for 35 years.” In addition to writing, successful authors work hard at revising their work, marketing their manuscripts for publication, and promoting their published work to potential readers.

Writers pursue passion before profit. Anyone who invests so much effort with no guarantee of publication, let alone sales, is after more than a quick buck. Don't get me wrong; I don't think starving writers are nobler than those who earn a decent living. I believe good writing is undervalued, and writers deserve better compensation for their hard work. (Read about the meagerness of author compensation in my post on why I buy books.) Nonetheless, I admire those who take seriously poet Mary Oliver's challenge: "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" As a reader, I admire most of all those who respond by transforming words into worlds.

Writers elevate language. There's elevated language—highbrow and hackneyed—and there's the elevation of language. Good writers achieve the latter. The graceful assembly of words invigorates our language. Language is how we know, remember, and connect. As poet Dana Gioia observes in his poem“Words”: “The stones on the path are no less real for lying uncatalogued and uncounted…Yet the stones remain less real to those who cannot name them…" Dav Pilkey must have had great fun naming the fictive world of Jerome Horwitz Elementary. (Jerome Horwitz, incidentally, is the birth name of Curly Howard of Three Stooges fame.) Saddling the JHE faculty with monikers like Mr. Rected, Miss Anthrope, and Ms. Guided may have been irreverent, but it's clever wordplay. Irreverent writing can still promote reverence for language. For example, Scholastic's guide to using Dav Pilkey's books in the classroom explores the significance of descriptive language in action-adventure stories like the Captain Underpants books.

Writers tell stories. So many celebrities are the story, and so many of those stories are tragedies. Yesterday's child star becomes today's troubled young adult. An all-star athlete is charged with a criminal offense. A marriage that began with a lavish wedding ends in a bitter divorce. In contrast, writers commonly celebrate heroes who behave heroically. Even in a dark story like The Hunger Games integrity triumphs over injustice. A fictional story might end as tragically as a celebrity tabloid tale, but fiction accommodates more than voyeurism or titillation. Besides being deeply satisfying, the narrative arts uphold a culture's ethics and values. Stories also have the power to change prevailing values. Uncle Tom's Cabin is a famous example. The most heroic writers tell stories that leave us better for having read them.

Writers foster community. Even more than reading, writing might seem like the quintessential solitary activity. But I suspect many writers are motivated by the sense of connection that British author and playwright Alan Bennett describes in The History Boys: "The best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.” Beyond this abstract handholding, writers build tangible communities by bringing together readers. Half the fun of the Dav Pilkey signing was the buzz of conversation among young readers who entered the store as strangers but immediately found something in common as they joined the line. Shared reading can help us find our tribe and prompt us to endeavor beyond it. This is part of the idea behind communitywide "one book" initiatives. As a Massachusetts librarian noted upon the launch of one such program, "A shared reading experience within the community is an excellent way to value and discuss ideas that may differ from our own, as well as foster ties between generations."

So carry on, Captain Underpants. Keep my son reading with your toilet talk and your lampooning of clueless adults. We all know who the real hero is.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Children's Books About September 11

If you’ve watched television or read the news this week, chances are you’ve seen constant reminders of September 11 as we near the tenth anniversary of the bombings. And chances are your kids have seen them too. You might choose, as some of my friends have, to avoid the media retrospectives this weekend. But you can’t avoid talking with your kids about 9/11 at some point, if you haven’t done so already. As with so many difficult subjects, reading a relevant book together can facilitate a conversation with young children and might prompt children to ask questions or make observations they wouldn’t have articulated otherwise.

The Integrating Literacy site features September 11-related children’s books this week, along with more comprehensive ideas for discussing the event with your kids. In addition to the books recommended on that site, take a look at A.B. Curtiss’s The Little Chapel That Stood, a book that portrays courage and instills hope without downplaying the devastation of the terrorist attacks.

For a breathtaking read about the World Trade Center, check out The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordecai Gerstein. Gerstein writes with wonder about Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. Your children will be enthralled by Petit’s daring and the aerial perspective of Gerstein’s illustrations. The loss of the Towers becomes the context for the story, alluded to in the opening sentence (“Once there were two towers…”) and referenced again at the end: “Now the towers are gone. But in memory, as if imprinted on the sky, the towers are still there. And part of that memory is the joyful morning, August 7, 1974, when Philippe Petit walked between them in the air.” As Curtiss does with St. Paul’s Chapel (describing the chapel’s connection to George Washington and Alexander Hamilton), Gerstein places the Twin Towers in historical perspective rather than confining their significance to a single, tragic day. The Man Who Walked Between the Towers is also available in Scholastic video format.

Note: After you’ve read The Man Who Walked Between the Towers with your children, watch the grown-up version of Petit’s story in the captivating documentary Man on Wire. Then read Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, which tells the disparate stories of several New Yorkers whose lives intersect on the day of Petit’s tightrope walk. If you don’t read the whole novel, find a copy and at least read the first section. Seriously. Those few pages may contain the most mesmerizing prose you’ll ever encounter.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Review: The Twelve Days of Kindergarten Series

Writing about school-related books reminded me of a picture book series my son and I read over and over again a few years back. Deborah Lee Rose’s The Twelve Days of Kindergarten, The Twelve Days of Winter, and The Twelve Days of Springtime portray a kindergarten classroom over the course of a typical school year. As the titles suggest, the books follow the counting pattern of the familiar Christmas song. (“On the first day of kindergarten, my teacher gave to me the whole alphabet from A to Z. On the second day of kindergarten, my teacher gave to me two picture books and the whole alphabet from A to Z…”) A nice variation from most counting books, the Twelve Days books give kids practice counting backwards and building their memories as the list of “gifts” grows from one item to twelve.

Carey Armstrong-Ellis’s hilarious illustrations are the reason my son and I returned to these books again and again. The same eight students are pictured throughout the series (how’s that for a student-teacher ratio?), and each student displays his or her unique personality in an entirely age-appropriate way. Your child will enjoy predicting what new trouble the two roughhousing boys will create, what elaborate outfit the fancy girl will wear, how the horse-loving girl will express her passion, and whether the shy girl will come out from behind the teacher’s back or the nose-picking boy will ever get his finger unstuck. Observant readers can even guess the narrator’s identity. Armstrong-Ellis clearly knows her way around a kindergarten classroom. Her illustrations incorporate charmingly familiar details like an alphabet chart and various supplies stored in cubbies or shelved behind handmade curtains. The classroom gradually descends into chaos as each book progresses. The supplies come off the shelves, hamsters Chuck and Joe become Chuck and Josephine and breed offspring that escape from their cage, and a deceptively quiet student invites outdoor animals into the classroom. You get the sense that the teacher, who looks to be a seasoned pro with a youthful spirit (check out those earrings), finds this group of students more challenging than most.

I highly recommend these books for your preschool or kindergarten child. Older kids might enjoy reading them aloud to younger siblings or just reminiscing about the good old days of kindergarten.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Very Hungry Caterpillar in Time-Lapse

Thanks to my friend Donna for sharing this wonderful time-lapse video documenting the transformation of a caterpillar to a monarch butterfly. As Donna points out, it's perfect for sharing with your kids alongside Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Elementary, My Dear Reader: Children's Books About the School Experience

My kids and I usher in the school year with a variety of emotions: Excitement and some trepidation for them, a bittersweet blend of melancholy and relief with a pinch of denial for me. (I can’t possibly be the mother of a third grader and a kindergartener!) Bookstores and libraries observe back-to-school season as well, displaying titles that build excitement and soothe fears about starting or restarting school. Think The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn, Will I Have a Friend? by Miriam Cohen, Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come! by Nancy Carlson, and similar books.

Beyond general back-to-school themes, school-related children’s books address an assortment of surprisingly specific subjects. For elementary school kids, check out the following titles about various aspects of the school experience:

Reluctant Readers
Miss Malarkey Leaves No Reader Behind by Judy Finchler and Kevin O’Malley
This story is based on the premise that there’s a book out there for everyone and that given the right book, anyone will enjoy reading. While I don’t completely buy that premise (I hate to admit that in a blog about children’s books and literacy), I do recommend Miss Malarkey for competent readers who resist reading outside of school. The book’s first-person narrator opts out of his school’s reading program. Even the principal’s pledge to dye his hair purple and sleep on the school roof doesn’t entice the narrator to contribute to the school’s collective reading goal. None of Miss Malarkey’s reading suggestions hold the narrator’s attention until she hits upon a title that combines all of the boy’s interests. Reluctant readers will recognize themselves in the narrator and his friends, and might be persuaded to keep searching for a captivating book—particularly if you discuss this book with your child as you read.

Standardized Testing
The Big Test by Julie Danneberg
While part of me finds it sad that standardized testing has made its way into children’s literature, I applaud Danneberg (a teacher) for addressing the apprehension that often accompanies test week. Mrs. Hartwell’s class has worked hard and enjoyed learning all year. But as the Big Test approaches, a sense of dread pervades the classroom. Mrs. Hartwell’s well-meaning attempts to prepare her students “to show what you know” only add to the tension, and a few students become physically ill with anxiety. Deciding to change her lesson plan on the final day of test prep, Mrs. Hartwell makes a surprise move that gives her students the necessary confidence to face the Big Test. This book helps put standardized testing in context for elementary-aged readers and offers them practical ways to prepare for test week.

Behavior Issues
David Goes to School by David Shannon
Some kids learn classroom rules by listening quietly as the teacher recites them at the beginning of the school year. Others, like David, learn the rules by breaking them. For kids like David, who first appeared in the award-winning No, David!, there is nothing natural about sitting still, waiting silently before speaking, standing in line, or walking slowly down a long expanse of hallway. David Goes to School is a deceptively simple book with cartoon-like illustrations and text that is accessible to very early readers. But it’s a profound experience to identify with a character who doesn’t fit the mold, to find your differences validated within the pages of a book. My son, a "David" through and through, adored David Shannon’s books for their humorous and reassuring portrayals of high-spirited kids.

Learning Difficulties
Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco
Trisha is excited to start school and learn to read. But school gradually becomes torture for Trisha as her classmates master reading while she struggles to decipher the symbols on the page. Trisha feels different and dumb, especially after her beloved grandparents die and her family moves across the country. Then in fifth grade, a new teacher named Mr. Falker advocates for Trisha when other kids tease her and becomes the first person to recognize her learning difference. With help from Mr. Falker and a reading teacher he enlists, Trisha soon learns to read. Mr. Falker, the reading teacher, and Trisha all shed happy tears by the end of the book. I’ve yet to read it without getting choked up myself—especially on the final page where Polacco reveals that this story (like so many of her wonderful books) is autobiographical. I dare you to read about Polacco’s encounter with the real Mr. Falker thirty years later without feeling a tug at your heartstrings.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Shielding Kids from Scary Stories

Stay tuned for more original content soon. I'm gradually increasing my screen time as I recover from eye surgery. Meanwhile, take a look at this Boston Globe article on how parents grapple with difficult content in children's books. (You'll need to register with the Boston Globe or log in to your Facebook account to view the article. If you go the Facebook route, why not become a fan of How to Raise a Reader while you're at it?)