How to Take the Joy from Literature

Sometimes as teachers, our attempts to help students find deeper meanings in literature may have unintended consequences.

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Snowy Woods

This afternoon I’m weeding through some of my books and came across one by a favorite children’s author, Jean Little — Hey World, Here I Am! On page 28 I came across a poem, “After English Class.” It’s written in the first person in the voice of Kate Bloomfield, who describes how she used to like the Frost poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” She liked the sound of the words and their rhythm, and the imagery. She could see the snow and hear the jingling bells. I think that’s what Robert Frost would have wanted.

The next lines explain how the teacher ruined the poem for her:

But today, the teacher told us what everything stood for.
The woods, the horse, the miles to go, the sleep—
They all have ‘hidden meanings.’
It’s grown so complicated now that,
Next time I drive by,
I don’t think I’ll bother to stop.

Sometimes as teachers, our attempts to help students find deeper meanings in literature may have unintended consequences. Just as a student of biology may prefer a living whole frog to the dead one they have just dissected, the students who read a poem may just want to enjoy it and respond to it with  their own imaginations. Does the dissection the teacher provides keep students from gleaning meanings they might have discovered on their own?

Photo courtesy of http://pixabay.com/en/users/PublicDomainPictures/

My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother – YouTube

Watch Patricia Polacco’s picture book My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother expertly read aloud in this video. Use it as a role model for reading to your own children.

I’ve always loved Patricia Polacco’s books. Her illustrations are a perfect complement to the stories she writes, and both the stories and pictures tell us a lot about the author herself. In the video you see one of her favorite themes, that of the love that binds families together. You also get an example of how to read aloud with expression. Watch the video, but don’t let it be a substitute for reading aloud to your children yourself.

You can learn more about Patricia Polaccoand find her books, new and used, at Tomfolio.com’s Patricia Polacco’s Biography page

 

Rare Sun-bonnet Babies Book Sold

Are you familiar with the Sun-bonnet Babies, the creation of Bertha L. Corbett? I first met them in greeting card form, and then a few years ago, I met them in a book I had Acquired, published in 1900.

Every once in a while in a bookseller’s life comes the opportunity to acquire a special book. One of the special books I had the opportunity to own for a time was The Sun-Bonnet Babies.

Sun-bonnet Babies Introductory Picture
Sun-bonnet Babies Introductory Picture

Most people aren’t old enough to have seen this book by Bertha L. Corbett, since it was published in 1900. If you follow the title link above you will learn more about this book, which I sold yesterday. I thought of taking it down, but since I had such a hard time finding any information on it when I was researching it, I decided to leave it up for anyone else who might happen to come across it.

I probably could have gotten more than I did for this book, but I was feeling generous and did not make the buyer a counter offer. It is, after all, close to Christmas. I was not sure exactly what the true value of the book was, so I went by the old adage that a book is worth what a willing buyer is willing to pay willing seller.  If someone took advantage of me, so be it.

I suppose this book was special because in my days as a card buyer I met the Sun-bonnet Babies in greeting card form. The greeting card babies were in color, but other than that they looked like the ones in the image above, except they were larger. Have you met the Sun-bonnet Babies before seeing them here?

Oral Comprehension Lays the Foundation for Reading Comprehension

If we are trying to improve a child’s reading comprehension, we need to start with oral comprehension, and we should begin this when the child is still just learning to use language. This means parents need to be involved. They are their children’s first teachers, and they lay the foundation for all future learning.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? If a child can’t comprehend spoken language, he’s not likely to understand what he reads, either. We all learn to use spoken language before we learn to read. Almost any parent or teacher has those moments when they are quite sure a child has not understood a word they said, though they also might believe the children did not want to understand and didn’t really listen.

It still follows, though, that if we are trying to improve a child’s reading comprehension, we need to start with oral comprehension, and we should begin this when the child is still just learning to use language. This means parents need to be involved. They are their children’s first teachers, and they lay the foundation for all future learning. One of the first things they teach children is how to talk.

I know few parents who have taken an educational methods course in teaching children to talk. They are able, instead, to zero in on the child’s own desire to interact with them. If the parents talk, the child  will want to talk. If the child wants something, he has to learn the words that will communicate his needs. He also begins to learn what the parent expects of him, and even the meaning of the word “No!” The parents will teach the names of the objects and living beings in the children’s world and some basic concepts such as over, under, through, run, push, and all the rest. By the time the child reaches kindergarten, he’s supposed to have that basic grasp of language.  He will, if the parents have spent enough time interacting with him.

However, many parents are too busy and too tired at the end of a day to meet all the child’s interaction needs. Many children live with a single parent who also works outside the home. At the end of a day, the temptation is to put the child in front of the television or a video game rather than interacting with him. Thus the child has no need to to actively use his brain to understand, but can sit passively and absorb or, in the case of the video game, develop hand/eye coordination, but not improve communication skills.

What’s the solution? Reading enjoyable stories to the child for twenty minutes each night, maybe just before bed, can be a big help. The parent can go to the public library once every couple of weeks and check out books that look not only appropriate for the child’s age and interests, but that also look like they would be fun for the parent to read. Keep these books so the child has access to them at certain times of the day, and then let him pick one of them for you to read to him. There are some good suggestions in this previous post: Choosing the Best Children’s Books, Part 1. Another previous post, When You Read Aloud, Ham it Up, might also inspire you — especially if’s there’s a bit of the actor or actress in you.

We found that our own children looked forward to story time, and when we read stories to them during summer vacation, they would often round up their friends to join in. As we discussed the stories, it was easy to talk about the meanings of words they might not know, ask what they thought might happen next, ask why they thought a character behaved as he did, and so on.

Little Red Hen by Paul Galdone
Little Red Hen by Paul Galdone

Let’s  take some examples from a story you may remember from your own childhood : The Little Red Hen.

As you sit with the book in your lap and your child next to you, begin the story. The  process of making bread as it’s described here may be entirely new for your child, so you can talk about what the hen is doing and why. Here are some questions that would be perfectly natural:

  • What is the hen doing with the wheat? Why?
  • What other jobs does the hen need to do to make the bread?
  • What does the hen ask the other animals to do?
  • Do they want to help her do any of  the jobs?
  • Why do you think they don’t want to help her?
  • When the bread is ready to eat, do they want to help her eat it?
  • Does she let them? Should she have shared? Why or why not?

These questions will not only help you make sure the child is understanding the facts in the story — what’s happening, but also will let you know what the child is thinking about the story line itself. Does the child think the hen should have shared? Did the child think it wasn’t fair for the hen not to share? Does he see the point that the animals didn’t want to help with the work, but thought they were entitled to the result of the work whether they had helped or not? This involves higher thinking skills than just knowing what happened.

Almost any folk tale lends itself to a good discussion as you read it aloud. If you have a discussion like this several times a week when you read a story together, your child will naturally learn the comprehension skills they will later try to teach in school : main idea, figurative language, context clues, reading for detail, inference, cause and effect, drawing conclusions, fact or opinion, logic and reasoning, and predicting outcomes. If he can figure out the main idea orally, it will be easier to find it in a passage he reads in school, because he will know what a main idea is. He has learned that the main idea in The Little Red Hen is that those who do not want to help with the work should not expect to share in the results of the work. To see if they can apply this to other situations, you might ask them for examples of this same main idea in what they observe from life. (If a child won’t share his toys with others, should  he expect the others to share their toys with him?) You get the idea. Now, if you apply it, your child will be well on his way to improving reading comprehension later on.

Is This What Might Replace Paper Picture Books?

What might be lost in the move from paper to digital picture books? Or will digital books improve the the experience of reading?

Cover, Paul Revere's Ride
Cover, Paul Revere's Ride

As you all know, I love picture books. So when I got this link for a digital picture book, I had to check it out. (The link is at the end, since I want you to finish this before you click. ) It heralds the possibilities of moving books from paper to digital form — possibilities for word play, matching, watching, and story telling. Young readers will be able to read not only left to right, but also see words moving right to left and up and down. Words can appear and disappear, or letters can glide into a word. Both pictures and words can move in any direction (often off the screen, so there’s a lot of scrolling to keep up with.) The producer of this book (Can I call him/her  an author?) points out that paper picture books are limited to only one dimension, and are unidirectional and static. The producer tells us that two things can remain in the move to digital books:  The reader reads and the reader controls the story. By controlling the story, I assume we’re talking about turning pages or clicking buttons.

So is the digital book better? I’m asking my self what the difference is between such a digital book and an animated story with subtitles. Picture book artists such as Thomas Locker, Ruth Heller, Patricia Polacco and too many more to mention offer not only a story, but a rich visual experience that would not seem to lend itself as easily to animation as maybe the work of someone who is simply bold and colorful. I would think it difficult for the subtle tones  of work done in oils to come through as intensely in digital form as on paper.  So I believe these digital picture books might rob young readers of a more desirable artistic experience.

As to the multi-directional feature,  it seems to me that this sort of reading is not good preparation for learning reading fluency and developing the necessary skill of reading from left to right. I think reading from left to right is a good thing — especially for the young picture book crowd. Some of the multi-dimensional effects gave me a headache as pictures zoomed in and out. I guess, though, that today’s children are used to that.

kingwhorainedOne virtue of these books is supposed to be that they offer opportunities for word play, matching, and watching. I think paper picture books can match that. Check out Marvin Terban’s books on word play. Or try The King Who Rained by Fred Gwynne (This link enlarges the image at left.) It’s full of illustrated homophones that will promote a chuckle. (It can be found with other concept books here.) As to matching, you don’t really need a story. There are already many games in boxed or digital form that offer that. As to watching, that’s also been done very well on paper. Go back to one of my older blogs and read the review of Over the Steamy Swamp. In that book, every one is watching and being watched.  Another book that involves watching is Rosy’s Walk by Pat Hutchins. It’s humor and irony will have young readers chuckling as they watch the fox watch the hen.

The last proposed advantage of the digital book is story telling. I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean. Any decent paper picture book tells a story, though some are definitely better than others. If the idea is that it encourages a child to tell a story, there are books that do that, as well. A good example is Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie dePaola. This wordless picture book follows a woman from the moment she gets out of bed, hungry for pancakes, until she finally eats them at a neighbor’s house. We watch her put on her apron, begin mixing ingredients, gather eggs, milk the cow, churn the butter, go out and buy syrup, walk home with dreams of mixing and cooking and  eating the pancakes, and arrive back to find her cat and dog have spilled the milk and broken the eggs. As she thinks of the pancakes she dreamed of, flying away from the platter, she smells her neighbor cooking some and decides to go and visit. Have your child “read” you this story if he’s not a reader yet, or write the story to go with the pictures if he’s learning to put his thoughts on paper. It requires imagination to “read” this book.

I suppose though, that the main reason I prefer paper is that paper encourages a child to linger over the pictures to appreciate the details, anticipate what comes next, and maybe even discuss the book with the person who might be reading it to him. Digital books, at least in this example, encourage speed and constant moving to keep up with the action. Although the producer says the child controls the story by clicking the “next” button, I imagine the child is in the habit of clicking next as soon as he finishes a screen, rather than lingering. So which is the most interactive experience? Clicking the button  or actually turning physical pages. Watching a screen and clicking, or talking to a real person who may be reading the book to you and discussing it as you go along. I’ll take the book, preferably on the mom’s lap with the child or children cuddling up to her as she leads them on an imaginative journey.

And now that link you’ve been waiting for to see the book.

When You Read Aloud, Ham it Up!

When you read aloud to your child, you can make it more entertaining for all of you if you use these hints to ham it up.

Ham it Up When You Read to Your Children

When I was teaching English and elementary grades, I had many opportunities to hear students practicing for oral interpretation events in upcoming speech competitions. I listened to  “Binker” by A.A. Milne,  “The Black Cat” by Edgar A. Poe, and many other dramatic readings of stories and poems more times than I can count. All of the
students did their best to bring their readings to life.

Do you do the same when you read to your children? Do you just read the story? Or do you “ham it up” by changing your voice as you become each character? Can your child tell by just your voice whether you are a frightened little pig or the Big Bad Wolf? Can you be a convincing troll as the billy goats try to cross the bridge?

When you narrate a book without much conversation, do you pay attention to the punctuation? Do you read faster or slower, emphasize  words, and adjust the volume of your voice to create a mood? In a book like Who is the Beast? by Keith Baker (you will find this book among those at the end of the link), can you put some fear into the lines “The beast, the beast! I must turn back. I see his stripes, yellow and black.” Can you put a sense of puzzlement into the lines “Who is the beast? Who can it be? I see no beast. I just see me.” as the tiger wonders whom everyone is afraid of?

Making the Most of Sounds, Repetition, and Refrains

Some books beg you to read them aloud, and as you play with the words and chants, the child will want to join in. In Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag (reviewed near top of post linked to), your children will easily pick up the refrain of “Hundreds of cats, Thousands of cats, Millions and billions and trillions of cats.” The Gingerbread Man, The Three Little Kittens, The House that Jack Built, Love You Forever, Green Eggs and Ham, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen, and probably hundreds of other picture books feature these repetitive lines. Ham them up!

The Dr. Seuss books, Skippyjon Jones by Judy Schachner, Caps for Sale: A Tale of a Peddler by Esphyr Slobodkina, the Steven Kellogg version of Chicken Little, and more poems than I have room to mention all lend themselves to playing with words and sounds. Children love sounds, so make the most of alliteration, assonance, rhythm, and rhyming words  — with some funny faces when appropriate — and you will delight your children and probably have some fun yourself. Allow yourself a second childhood when reading and ditch your inhibitions.

If you practice these hints, not only will you be showing your child how to read with expression, you will also have a wonderful time. You may even discover you have a flair for drama buried inside. Let it out! Ham it up! And do it often!

Most books referred to above can be found at your local library. You can read the reviews of many of them and see the cover art on Books to Remember

How to Make the Most of Your Child’s School Book Fair

If you are the parent of a preschool or early grade child, please consider these suggestions to make the book fair a happier experience for everyone involved.

A Single Section of One of My Book Fairs
A Single Section of One of My Book Fairs

As a seller of books for children and educators, I have gone to many California schools  to supply their book fairs. During this time I’ve had plenty of opportunity to watch the teachers, parents, and children who some in to look for books. In most schools, each class comes in once a day with the teacher. Sometimes parents of children come in with their class to assist. Children often come in on their own during recess and before and after school. I’d like to share some of what I’ve seen and a few suggestions that might make the experience more enriching for everyone.

One reason schools have book fairs is to expose children to a wide variety of books with the hope they will find at least one they will want to own. Most suppliers try to have a variety of books at every price range so that everyone can afford at least one book. Some children approach books fairs with anticipation, eager to find a book or books to take home. Those children are, of course, the most fun to serve. Most of them are readers. Some children come (mostly those of middle school age) because they have to, and these have little interest in books. They stand around and talk to each other, ignoring the books. Some children come so they can get out of class for a few minutes. These last two groups are a challenge, but as the book fair lady I always had a few minutes at the beginning of each class visit to give students the “lay of the land” and try to introduce books that might catch their interest with instructions on how to find them.

After this, some students usually go immediately to the fiction or a special nonfiction section of interest. Some quietly consult each other for recommendations. Some talk to their teachers or parents and some ask me for help and advice. Once I had a group of seventh grade girls discover the Amelia Bedelia books they’d enjoyed in first grade. Would you believe they sat in a circle and read them aloud to each other? Some students want to buy the books their teachers have introduced in class. I love watching this, and I love trying to find just the right books for a student who seeks my help.

But not all the experiences are happy. Most of the unhappy experiences happen in preschool or the very early grades, and they happen because parents make what I believe are mistakes. If you are the parent of a preschool or early grade child, please consider these suggestions to make the book fair a happier experience for everyone involved.

First, if you have a very young child, either at a preschool book fair or accompanying you to an older child’s book fair, try to remember that you are the adult and your child really has no idea what is good for him in the book department. He sees only a cover.  He might like a book just because it’s red or has a picture of a dog on it, even if it’s Lassie Come Home or a math dictionary. You know your child’s interests. So please don’t follow your two or three-year old around and ask her what she wants. Nine times out of ten she will pick something totally inappropriate, and when you nix her choice she will get very unhappy and will then not want anything you pick out. Then you might get angry and say something like “You can’t have a book then.” And your child will cry more. You will both leave iin a huff and be miserable for a while.

This can easily be prevented with a bit of forethought. If you can, preview the book fair before your child sees it. Try to find several books that would be appropriate for your child and dovetail with your child’s interest or are similar to books she’s enjoyed in the past. Which books could you read over and over to your child and still enjoy them? If you can’t preview the book fair, try the library. Read a lot of books and see which ones you think might stand the test of being read multiple times. Check them out and read them to  your child. Then if you find a book your child has enjoyed, she will probably want to own it.  (Unfortunately many of the books you both enjoy might be out of print and unavailable at the book fair, so do try to preview the book fair. Or, click here to see some wonderful books I used to have at my book fairs for ideas). When you have found a group of books you are happy with, present them to your child and ask her to choose one. She still chooses, but what she chooses will be appropriate. If, on the other hand, she has independently found another book within her age and interest level, keep an open mind. Ask why she wants it. Listen. If there is any way you can feel okay with that book, buy it. But also buy one or two of the ones you like (or more if you can afford them). She will eventually want you to read them to her even if she didn’t pick them out. She’s just not going to admit that now. Tomorrow she will probably forget she didn’t choose them.

One scene I’ve had to watch too many times is parents with one idea about what is a proper book and a child with a different idea. I’m not talking about moral issues and values here, but about genres. Many young children, especially boys, simply prefer nonfiction. They want to read books that will answer their questions about the world they live in. They want books about snakes, frogs, fighter planes, classic cars, science experiments, computers, sports, or whatever their current interest is. If Mom gave them $20 and didn’t come to the book fair, they would walk out with as many books on snakes as they could find. But when Mom comes, and they bring her that really cool book on snakes or rockets or the first moon walk, she sometimes says, “No. I want you to get a story.”

Now I love well-written picture books and novels as well as anyone and love to share my favorites in read-aloud sessions. But the first book I bought my adopted son was on his favorite subject — something I knew nothing about — big rigs. He lived for big rigs. So I special-ordered the book he’d loved  when we checked it out at the library and I got it for him for Christmas. He spent hours with that book before he could even read. I was always able to read Jason the stories I loved, and he learned to enjoy them, too. But when he could chose, he chose nonfiction, and those choices not only helped him learn to appreciate books, they prepared him to later read other kinds of books. Your son will grow into Bill Peet books, Mike Mulligan, or Homer Price soon enough. So please, Mom, let him buy the snake book at the book fair and you buy a story that’s just a bit above his reading level to read at an opportune moment at home. Make sure it’s a book you really like, and I’m quite sure he will learn to like it, too. And he may discover he likes stories after all — especially if you can find one about a snake.

Is What Children Read Important, or Is It Enough That They Are Reading?

If you have exposed your children to genuine book treasures, they will soon learn that all that glitters is not gold. They will learn to discern for themselves what’s most worth reading. It doesn’t have to be a case of children reading bad books or reading nothing — not if you start developing a healthy book appetite in your children early enough.

Today in the WSJ I read the following by Ann Patchett: I am a firm believer in the fact that it isn’t so much what you read that counts, it’s that you read….I’m all for reading bad books because I consider them to be a gateway drug. People who read bad books now may or may not read better books in the future. People who read nothing now will read nothing in the future.

Should we apply that to children? Many teachers seem to think so. The general opinion seems to be that it doesn’t matter what a child reads, as long as he or she reads.  I agree only if parents and teachers have been striving since a children’s earliest years to  expose children to good literature through regular reading aloud. What and how a parent  chooses to read aloud  to a child greatly influences that  child’s own later choices.

Is What Children Read Important, or Is It Enough That They Are Reading?

I was fortunate in that my mother read to me often in response to my begging, and, of course, the begging was due to my earlier experiences of hearing the stories she chose for me. I also had two elderly ladies, both teachers with no children of their own, who were like adopted grandparents to me. They loved to buy me picture books. I still have some of them, and their choices helped develop my reading tastes.  By the time I was three years old, I had taught myself to read with a little help from my parents. I was dying to read stories without having to wait for someone to have some extra time to read to me. When someone finally gave me a very easy book with very large print and just a few words, I soon had it memorized because I’d heard it so often. Then I could go back on my own and study the words. I guess I was learning sight words without knowing it. Pretty soon I really could read the words and know which was which.

Somehow I also learned about letters. I would ask my dad about the ones in the headlines he was reading in the newspaper, and he always took the time to answer my questions. Someone probably also told me that the letters made sounds. The words I learned in the first book, I See a Kitty, which I can still recite over sixty years later, were like the Rosetta Stone to me. I could recognize them in other books being read to me, and then, after hearing the stories, I could go through the books on my own, looking for the familiar words and remembering some of the new ones through the context and illustration hints. This was how my reading vocabulary grew.

I See a Kitty didn’t have much plot.  Had it been my first book to hear I might have lost interest. But I had also heard Belinda and Father Christmas, Amanda (see my review of this here),  Marshmallow, by Clare Newberry, and many other books I’ve lost track of now.  So when I See a Kitty arrived, I already knew that learning to read was worthwhile, and I seemed to know that particular book was the key to my learning to read. From then on I read anything I could get my hands on, but the adults in my life made sure I could only get my hands on books that would feed my imagination, expose me to good art, and model the appropriate use of the English language. These books used complete sentences.  They helped me to reach for the sky instead of plunging me into verbal garbage.

In the late 1940’s when this was happening, there were not so many picture books available to children as today. We had the Little Golden Books. So I cut my teeth on The Taxi that Hurried; The Poky Little Puppy; The Saggy, Baggy Elephant; The Tawny, Scrawny Lion, and all the others.  Some of my favorites have titles I can’t remember, but all of these books introduced exciting new sounds and words — descriptive words  such as baggy, tawny, poky, scrawny, twinkly, drowsily, bashfully, lopsided– and an assortment of verbs to add to my conversations: yawn, stretch, tiptoe, prance, gobble and many more.  I was introduced to manners by Mr. Do and Mr. Don’t, who were created by Virginia Parkinson and Lowell Grant, a claytoonist in 1943.

By the time I was six I was an avid reader. On the Christmas of that year my Cousin Edna and Auntie Lucile gave me six Thornton Burgess books and I had devoured them in a week. I learned that toads can sing and  have beautiful eyes. I learned why the other animals respected Jimmy Skunk and didn’t mess with him. I also  learned about nature and human nature by meeting Sammy Jay, Chatterer the Red Squirrel, Old Mr. Toad, Reddy Fox, and the other inhabitants of the Green Forest and the Green Meadows.  The adults in my life learned that the way to my heart was to give me more and more books in the series.  And as I read each new book, my reading fluency improved.

After that, I met Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Maida, and the other popular series available at the time. They were not great literature, but neither were they pure fluff. They, too, helped develop fluency.  My favorite of these series was Maida, and my favorite in that series was Maida’s Little School — perhaps my first introduction to home schooling.

I have lost track of where my hungry mind went next. I remember the Bible-themed biographical fiction of Gladys Malvern. I unfortunately did not meet C.S. Lewis or Tolkien until I was a college student working in my local library.

Today parents and teachers are faced with an overwhelming variety of books when choosing reading material to read aloud or have around the house.  Some of it is excellent, some so-so, and some are uncreative combinations of words with wonderful pictures. Just as parents go through their children’s Halloween candy, they should also approach the varied books on the library and bookstore shelves.  Ditch what looks dangerous and issue the rest of children’s choices with moderation. You don’t have to read everything a child chooses. A little fluff won’t hurt your child anymore than an occasional candy bar or soft drink. But first children need to develop a taste for the milk, meat, and veggies of the book world — the books that will feed their imaginations, model the variety to be had in the words and phrases  of the English language, and introduce the kind of characters you’d like to have  play with your children.

When a child reads, he is entertaining the characters of a book, and if those characters are rude and disrespectful to others, that behavior will begin to seem “cool.” Real children can be engaging without constant disruptive or rude behavior. I’m not suggesting that only children too good to be true are suitable protagonists. Nick in Frindle and Dave and Lynsey in No Talking — both by Andrew Clements — are leaders of their peers, but they are also thoughtful and able to relate respectfully to adults.  Imperfect children also visit Narnia, but we can see they do have a sense of right and wrong. Compare them to Ivy and Bean, who seem totally self-centered and think nothing of lying, talking back, and being downright mean to siblings. Which of these children do you hope your child will most be like?

Ivy and Bean are popular with today’s children and on the reading lists in many classrooms. Your children will probably meet them if their friends do. But you don’t have to be the one to introduce them.  Read them something more worthwhile that’s a bit above their reading — but not interest — level. Read them the Chronicles of Narnia, Homer Price, Soup, Little Britches, Anne of Green Gables, whatever is age appropriate. Do read enough current children’s literature and interesting books for all ages to be able to make your own list of what you don’t want your children to miss, and you’ll probably discover there’s hardly enough time to get through those.  Explain there are many kinds of treasure, and books are one kind. Explain that you want to share the book treasure you have found that they might not find on their own, just as you introduced foods that have become their favorites they didn’t know about before.

In the early years, when you are still able, you can help your child cultivate a taste for the best books by choosing only the best to read aloud, at least most of the time. When you go to the library, choose books together. Your time is limited, so make it quality time. Take a book you really enjoy and read it with expression, using  many voices, to your child as you cuddle up on the sofa together. Talk about the pictures and discuss the characters as you would friends. Did they make wise decisions? What do you think they will do next? Do you think they might do something differently if they could go back in time? Whom do you like most? Why?  Did you dislike a character? Why? Which storybook character would you most like to meet in real life? Pretty soon, these discussions will come naturally as your child also asks you questions.

Your child will go through phases of reading what’s popular with his or her friends. Be sure and read some of these yourself for the purposes of conversation, because you do want to meet your child’s book friends who influence him. But continue to share your book treasure even after your child can read for himself. Share your thoughts on your individual reading with each other as another way of understanding each other. Then you will have a common frame of reference when you need to find outside examples of ways to solve problems or getting along with people. If you have exposed your children to genuine book treasures, they will soon learn that all that glitters is not gold. They will learn to discern for themselves what’s most worth reading. It doesn’t have to be a case of children reading bad books  or reading nothing — not if you start developing a healthy book appetite in your children early enough.

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Choosing the Best Children’s Books, Part 1

A child may judge a book by its cover, but when adults choose a story to read aloud, I think they should choose the story that most effectively uses new words to build vocabulary while entertaining the ear, the eye, and the imagination.

overthesteamyswampYesterday while at the library searching the shelves for  a list of picture books, I was talking to the children’s librarian about a picture book I loved — Over the Steamy Swamp by Paul Geraghty.  I told her how I laughed over the pictures and found it such a wonderful book for illustrating the food chain.  She wasn’t familiar with it, but she then pulled out another book which she thought would be similar — Wait! I Want to Tell You a Story, by Tom Willans. So I brought it home to read.

wait-iwant2tellI was quite disappointed.  First, the illustrations weren’t as funny as in Over the Steamy Swamp. But that would have been okay if the language was as vivid. In Over the Steamy Swamp, one mosquito is flying over the swamp, unaware that she is being watched by a greedy dragonfly, who is too interested to notice that he, in turn, is being watched by a famished frog, and so on up the food chain to the peckish fish, the heron, the starving snake, the craving crocodile, the hostile hunter, and the ravenous lion. Paul Geraghty’s text is simple and reminiscent of  The House that Jack Built in its repetitive style. But it’s his pictures that make the book so funny. These animals have facial expressions you won’t ever forget — especially when the book reaches its climax. After the lion’s great, big, ravenous nose is bitten by the mosquito, to say he is surprised and upset is an understatement. Suddenly, everyone in the food chain hears the lion’s yowl and looks backwards and sees what’s been about to eat him.  Not only is the art work bold and expressive, but the text will teach some great adjectives, adverbs, and verbs.

In comparison, Wait! I Want to Tell You a Story, though entertaining, has less educational value.  Although a child may learn the names of some animals — muskrat, tiger, frog, shark, lizard, snake, fly, spider, and crocodile — the interesting adjectives are missing. Although both books have repetition, the repeated phrases in Wait! I Want to Tell You a Story consist mainly of the title itself followed by “Okay, said the (name of animal), “but make it quick!” This book begins with a muskrat sitting quietly in a tree, when a tiger comes upon him and informs him, “I’m going to eat you, little muskrat.”

The clever muskrat exclaims, “Wait! I want to tell you a story.” The story consists of other animals about to be eaten by something bigger, and each begs, “Wait! I want to tell you a story.”

Each predator replies, “Okay, but make it quick.” This works until the spider says, “I’m going to eat you little fly.” But the spider does not want to hear the fly’s story, and eats the fly. (This is all part of the muskrat’s story.)

As the tiger is about to eat the muskrat, just as the spider ate the fly, the muskrat shouts, “Wait! There’s more… and he tells how the lizard ate the spider, the snake the lizard, the frog the snake, and the shark the frog. The tiger gets curious and asks what happened next, and the muskrat said “The crocodile ate the tiger.” About that time the tiger discovers the very real crocodile, who then snaps up the tiger as the muskrat escapes. (The picture shows the tigers tail dangling from the crocodile’s mouth.)

Whereas both books do illustrate the food chain, in Over the Steamy Swamp the most violent moment is when the mosquito stings the lion’s very sensitive nose.  Everyone gets scared, but no one gets eaten. I think this story is also easier to follow, since there is no story within a story to be confusing.

In Wait! I Want to Tell You a Story it is sometimes hard to tell the story from the real events. There are no interesting words describing the animals, and the repetition, instead of being an exact recitation all the exciting phrases in a chain, one word — the name of the animal talking — is always different.  That makes it harder for children to chant along with you as you read to them.

I hope our library actually does have Over the Steamy Swamp in her library to recommend to children, and so she will have an alternative to recommending  something which I believe is a bit inferior in its use of language, repetition, and illustrations.  There are so many books in the library to choose from, but some of the best choices aren’t there. A child may judge a book by its cover, but when adults choose a story to read aloud, I think they should choose the story that most effectively uses new words to build vocabulary while entertaining the ear,  the eye, and the imagination. Wait!…. will add few exiting new words to a young reader’s vocabulary, and although it might have some striking illustrations, there is not much to feed the imagination. What happens just happens. In Over the Steamy Swamp, the illustrations have the reader anticipating what he expects to happen and then just as he expects all the animals to start eating each other, the plot twists and every one except the lion is left unharmed. The lion is left with just  a sore nose. It’s less violent and more fun. It’s a shame it’s out of print. Maybe your library will be lucky enough to  have a copy.

Second thought: After writing this, I showed Wait! I Want to Tell You a Story to my husband, and he thought it was very clever. The “telling a story to keep from being killed” technique has a long history, after all.  This story does have entertainment value and would still be fun to read aloud, since it does lend itself to dramatic interpretation. It would be easy to ham it up.

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Begin at the Beginning

‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said, To talk of many things: Of shoes — and ships — and sealing wax –Of cabbages — and kings. So I thank Lewis Carroll for my title, and you can expect to find me talking of many things in this blog.

Since I’ve chosen a blog name from Lewis Carroll, I might as well quote him in the title of this first blog. “The Walrus and the Carpenter” is one of my favorite poems. And I’m also rather fond of the Cheshire Cat. Sometimes when the moon appears as just a big smile in the sky, I’m reminded of the Cheshire Cat’s grin when that’s all that’s still visible of him. Another of my favorite scenes is when Alice encounters the caterpillar. I didn’t intend to talk about this, and I’ve no idea where my copy of Through the Looking Glass is right now, but I think these references are to scenes in that book.

'The Time Has Come the Walrus Said To talk of many things: Of shoes -- and ships -- and sealing wax -- Of cabbages -- and kings -- And why the sea is boiling hot -- And whether pigs have wings.'

As the blog name indicates, the topics may change from day to day. I am a affiliate seller of new and used books, and most of them are for teachers or children. Others, especially the used ones, are about topics I’m interested in — gardening, cooking, biography, history, humor, etc. Because I read a lot of books, I’m likely to talk about them often. I may also share experiences I have had as a bookseller or a blogger. And if it’s been a beautiful day, I just might mention my garden or what I’ve seen on a walk. Likewise, if something has inspired me, or if I’m thinking over something, I might share that here.

 

‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
‘To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.’ (from “Through the Looking Glass” by Lewis Carroll)

And that’s what I will do in this blog — talk of many things.

I hope you’ll join the conversation by commenting and asking questions. Maybe you have a new twist on something I’ve said here.Feel  free to disagree with me, too. We can all learn from each other.