25 December 2009

Christmastime is Here

There is one book that I can say without hesitation that I prefer the movie, which isn't surprising since it was a movie before it was a book. A couple of years ago one of the books in the Kohl's Cares for Kids line up was A Charlie Brown Christmas. We got it as a gift. I love the show and we have watched it the past couple of years on Christmas Eve with friends. It is one of the few Christmas specials from my childhood (and before) that has withstood the test of time and that I want to share with Isaac. Rudolph, not so much.

But the Charlie Brown Christmas book is just unbearable to read. Which means that Isaac chose it about 3 out of 5 nights the past few weeks at bedtime. Linus' recitation of the Luke Christmas story just cannot be replicated in print. Neither can Schroder's music. And, as hard as I try, I just can't do "Hark the Herald Angels" sing like the Peanuts Gang can.

But if for some reason they stop showing that particular Christmas special each year, or when our VCR finally dies and we have no way to play our VHS version, we will have the book as a backup. Because, despite its early commercial ties to Coca Cola, A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of the best illustrations of the Christmas spirit. One that I want Isaac to internalize as he grows up.

The book will soon be packed away with the other Christmas books and decorations. But I will let the VHS tape stay out in the general collection just in case Isaac wants to watch it later. Its message is relevant year round.

19 December 2009

Letting Boys Be Boys

I got to play Santa Claus on Friday. Toys for Tots was delivered and those of us who were available spent the day (all three hours of it due to early release because of the snow) matching toys with children. Toys for Tots is huge at our school and most of our students receive a gift. I always have a lot of energy when we begin and there are lots of toys to choose from, but it becomes tiresome sorting through the last bit of toys trying to put together a decent gift after hours of choosing and bagging.

Every year we have the dilemma of what to do with the toy guns that we receive. Since we are a public school, we really can't give them out. But that means they are left over, sitting unopened in a box in an office somewhere. This year, I was particularly frustrated by some of the toys that were set aside. One was a set complete with camo hat, toy compass and other soldier paraphernalia, including a very fake-looking plastic rifle. It was in the box with the toy cowboy pistols and the Nerf guns. Our school social worker and I protested some of what was set aside, including the soldier set. I could imagine Isaac with that set having a great time playing soldier.

I have mixed feelings about guns in general, and I don't love that my son plays with guns. But I also know that there is very little I can do to repress those tendencies. Since he was two, anything that could possibly pass for a gun or a sword or a light saber has been wielded by Isaac in some imaginary battle. Boys don't need toy guns to include them in their play. All they need is an imagination. So what do we accomplish by denying them toy guns except to place some mysterious power over weapons that makes them even more intriguing to curious little boys?

Seeing the box of toy guns also reminded me of a discussion I had been part of just the day before at a meeting of school librarians. We were sharing our reviews of new books and one librarian showed us an Eyewitness book she had purchased. This series is very popular, especially with boys. Each book provides in-depth details and illustrations about its topic. The one she showed us was Battle. It is not great literature, but it is what the boys want, so she bought it for her library. Isaac would love the Battle book, just to see the pictures of the weapons that have been used throughout time. Just as he loves the Star Wars Visual Dictionary which includes any and every battleship and weapon even glimpsed in the movies. It was not said at the table during the discussion, but I am sure more than one of us wondered how we would handle a challenge to a book of that sort. It is within the realm of possibility that someone would find that book, or similar books on similar topics, objectionable because of the concern that they somehow promote violence. I am not sure how I would handle it. I hope I never have to figure it out.

Isaac has toy guns, he has books about weapons, he has seen movies with fight scenes. He is not a violent child, nor do I think he is in danger of confusing play fighting with how to appropriately interact with other children. He does need to learn how to control his pretend play, but that is part of the maturing process all children go through as they assert themselves and test their boundaries. Matt and I will protect him by continuing to have conversations with him about being compassionate and caring and, of course, what to do when he is around real guns, not by denying him the experience of playing with toy weapons.

We will be finishing the toy distribution on Monday. I am not sure if the soldier set has been assigned to someone, and I do not have final say about whether or not it will be. I will argue my point, as I am known to do, but I may lose. If I do, the soldier set will join the guns from past Toys for Tots distributions and disappear into some deep, dark closet never to be played with. And I will hang up my Santa hat until next year.

18 December 2009

All I Want For Christmas Is Books, and Maybe Some Cars

There is a Scholastic Warehouse near where I live and they have a half-off sale every winter. I go with the intention of buying gifts, which I do, and being restrained when choosing books for Isaac, at which I fail miserably. We have reached maximum capacity in books and hot wheels, yet I can't keep myself from buying more of either.

This year was an exception when I went to the sale, though. I was a little disappointed in the selection. The books they had were good books, don't get me wrong, but they weren't what Isaac would want. There were lots of warm, fuzzy animal books and cozy, lap-reading books. But I didn't see many scaly, slimy, gross-me-out books or fast paced, action books. There was lots of fiction, but not much non-fiction. Basically, lots of books that would appeal to young girls, but not to young boys.

I did not leave empty handed, however. I did manage to find some of Mo Willems' books that we did not yet own, and I bought the latest paperback copies of the Bear series by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman. But, the books I think Isaac will be most excited about getting are the Fly Guy books by Tedd Arnold.

We own one Fly Guy book and I brought another home from my library to read to Isaac a few weeks ago. They are a huge hit in our house. They are silly, simple books about a boy, Buzz, and his pet fly, Fly Guy. In each book of the series, Buzz and Fly Guy have a new adventure. The books are written in Early Chapter Book format, so young readers feel like "big" kids when they read them. But big kids like them, too, because they are funny. There is not much text and it is really Arnold's illustrations that make the books so entertaining. Arnold is an author/illustrator who has the knack of knowing how to connect with kids using humorous language and exaggerated pictures. His Parts series is popular in my library, but I think Fly Guy is his most widely appealing character.

I have put all of these new books away until Christmas, when they will magically appear with the other gifts from Santa, including some more Hot Wheels which we will squeeze into the basket with the hundreds of other cars that Isaac owns. I am sure seeing the Fly Guy books will bring a smile to his face, and I think that they will be read more than once soon after.

17 December 2009

Some Bears, Snowmen, a Grinch, a Mute Elf and a Rottweiler. It Must Be Christmas Again.

This time of year we are reading Christmas stories at bedtime. If there is one thing I am particular about when it comes to what we read, it is that Christmas stories are read between Thanksgiving and Christmas, no earlier and no later. The Christmas books get packed away with the decorations and the tree after Epiphany and emerge along with all the Christmas cd's when Advent begins so there is no chance that Isaac will insist on reading one at bedtime in July. Christmas may come to the rest of America when the first ornaments hit store shelves in August, but in our house there is no sign of it until late November.

But once it does come to the Cravey household it hits with full force. The decorations go up, the music starts playing and bedtime stories are dominated by Santa, elves, Grinches, Whoes, mangers, angels and a host of other Christmas symbols. I try to buy Isaac a Christmas book each year so that we have a new one to look forward to, but he often returns to some old favorites.

Some of his most recent repeat choices:

Carl's Christmas -- I don't use this blog to talk about books I do not like, but I am not a fan of the Carl series. So, of course, Isaac loves this book. I just don't understand how the parents can leave their infant home to be babysat by a rottweiler?! Which is exactly the appeal of this wordless story in which Carl, said rottweiler, and the nameless baby (really -- the parents call it baby on the one page that has words) eagerly await Santa's visit while the parents are off to church and Grandma's house. Why don't they take baby with them to Grandma's house, you ask? That is a question for the Wise Men.

Snowmen at Christmas -- This is a follow up to Snowmen at Night (which is allowed to stay in the regular rotation of books seeing as it is a winter story not a holiday story -- I am okay with reading a winter story in July). In these books, a little boy builds a snowman and imagines what he does when no one is watching. There are snowmen parties and games and a snowman Santa and snow ornaments and snow presents and snowmen singing carols around a tree. Isaac is fascinated by the adventures that the snow people have and it is fun to read.

You Can Do It Sam -- This story is about a little bear who helps his mother deliver treats to their neighbors on a cold winter morning. I think the appeal in this book is that the little bear is learning how to be independent, just as Isaac is at this stage. And the bear has the same name as one of his best buddies.

Bear Stays Up for Christmas -- This is part of a series of books about Bear and his forest friends. The first one, Bear Snores On, is my favorite, but Isaac likes the Christmas one a lot, too. Bear's friends keep him awake so he can celebrate Christmas with them for the first time and Bear surprises them by making them presents.

Elf on a Shelf -- This is not just a book, it is a season long game. I finally bought it this year and we are all having fun -- Isaac by trying to find the elf each morning and Matt and I by finding new places to put him each night. We have been reading the book that comes with the elf for the past few nights. The book is so-so, but the elf is cute.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas
-- Not much needs to be said about this one. Isn't it everyone's favorite?

There are hundreds of Christmas stories for children out there that hold a special place in many people's hearts. These are Isaac's favorites. What is yours?

21 November 2009

Bedtime Poetry

One of the books Isaac picked for storytime tonight was My Parents Think I'm Sleeping, which is a short collection of poems by the first Children's Poet Laureate, Jack Prelutsky. I was glad that Isaac picked it for a few reasons. First, Jack Prelustky is a wonderful children's poet. He knows how to capture their voice and speak to their sense of the absurd. And he is funny. I like to read funny books at bedtime because I like to hear Isaac laugh. I was also glad that Isaac chose this book because I hope that he has a better experience with poetry as he goes through school than I did. I figure if he begins developing an appreciation for it now, maybe it will survive the endless forced analyses that he will have to sit through in English class.

So, from that last sentence you can probably figure out my problem with poetry. I can remember listening to my 6th grade teacher read Shel Silverstein to us and loving it. I can still recite the first few lines of "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out." Then I went to middle school, and then high school, and finally college, and I hated poetry by the end. Well, maybe I didn't hate poetry. I hated picking a poem apart to get at the "meaning." I could never "see" the meaning behind the words that the teacher wanted me to "see." I am very literal and most of the time just didn't get it.

But I have found a new appreciation for poetry since teaching and working with children, and having a child of my own. Children's poetry doesn't have to be about anything, it just has to be fun or interesting to read. That is why I like Jack Prelutsky. Whether he is being funny or poignant, he is always writing for kids, not to kids or at kids.

The book that Isaac chose tonight was a collection of poems about bedtime. They are all written from the perspective of a little boy and they explore the same issues that we go through every night as we put Isaac to bed: making your parents think you are asleep while you are really playing, seeing weird shadows on the wall or hearing weird noises, being hungry after the lights go out, wanting to stay up and play. All of the experiences that boys and girls everywhere go through to avoid going to sleep. But Prelutsky doesn't just bring out the humor of childhood, he also captures the wonder. Here is my favorite poem from the book we read tonight:

"A Million Candles"

A million candles fill the night,
they glister in the dark,
and though by day they hide their glow,
now each displays its spark.

Amidst them all, there is one light
that has a special shine,
and that's the one whose name I know ...
I think that it knows mine.

We try to read Isaac poetry every now and then, but we don't force it on him. I want him to enjoy it and seek it out on his own, as he did tonight. I know he will be forced to write the papers and pick apart the poems just as I had to, but I also hope that he will remember the poems that made him laugh and enjoy revisiting them when he is older.

31 October 2009

Trick or Treat, Smell My Feet, Give Me Something Good to Eat

Five Little Pumpkins (pictures by Dan Yaccarino)

Five little pumpkins sitting on a gate.
The first one says, "Oh my, it's getting late."
The second one says, "There are witches in the air."
The third one says, "But we don't care!"
The fourth one says, "Let's run and run and run!"
The fifth one says, "I'm ready for some fun."
Oooooooooo went the wind and out went the light.
And five little pumpkins rolled out of sight.

Five Ugly Monsters (by Tedd Arnold)

Five ugly monsters jumping on the bed.
One fell off and bumped its head.
Called for the doctor and the doctor said,
"No more monsters jumping on the bed!"
Four ugly monsters jumping on the bed.
One fell off and bumped its head.
Called for the doctor and the doctor said,
"No more monsters jumping on the bed!"
Three ugly monsters jumping on the bed.
One fell off and bumped its head.
Called for the doctor and the doctor said,
"No more monsters jumping on the bed!"
Two ugly monsters jumping on the bed.
One fell off and bumped its head.
Called for the doctor and the doctor said,
One ugly monster jumping on the bed.
He fell off and bumped his head.
Called for the doctor . . . and then I said . . .
The End

Isaac loves these Halloween rhymes. Hope you did too.

Happy Halloween.

22 October 2009

Lists, Lists and More Lists

A few weeks ago I borrowed a book from a colleague that is right up this blog's alley: What Stories Does My Son Need?: A guide to books and movies that build character in boys. Of course, the title caught my eye, as did the author, Michael Gurian, who wrote Minds of Boys, about which I have also blogged.

I brought it home to peruse and share with Matt, wanting to see how our reading and viewing habits measured up against Gurian's suggestions. I was curious to see what he would recommend. The book lists 100 books and 100 movies, divided into age appropriate categories, that boys and young men should read or watch before graduating high school. One thing to note, however, is that the edition I have is almost 10 years old (copyright date 2000, so assume the material is a year older than that). So, anything published or released in the last decade is not included, and a lot of good stuff has come out in that time.

We hit the Preschool/Kindergarten list two or three times each for books and movies. He recommends an interesting assortment of titles in both. I tend to disagree, though, with the age appropriateness of some of his suggestions. The fact that I take issue with age appropriateness is probably raising some eyebrows among people who have read my previous blogs. Here's an example though-- he recommends The Butter Battle Book for Isaac's age. Now, yes it is by Dr. Seuss, but many of Dr. Seuss' books are best shared with older kids. They are longer books which lose a 4 year-old's interest pretty quickly and some of them tackle some weighty issues. He also recommends It's a Wonderful Life for 1st through 3rd graders. I know adults who hate that movie; I don't think a 7 year-old would make it through it. And, while I like Animal Farm, I think I would suggest it to Isaac in high school, rather than middle school like Gurian recommends.

There are also titles that I think he nails as far as age appropriateness is concerned. Where the Wild Things Are and The Snowy Day make the preschool/kinder book list. Both are classics for that age. And Babe and The Iron Giant make the movie list for the same age. Isaac loves both of those movies. Harry Potter and Hatchet and Stand By Me are appropriately listed under Middle School books and movies. The high school list includes The Jungle, one of my favorites from high school English class, and Mississippi Burning, which I remember watching in a high school history class.

A lot of my angst about his age recommendations stems from an issue I have with the books and movies we push on our kids in general. High schoolers are pushed to read the classics, middle schoolers are reading books I read in high school, and elementary students are reading books that are beyond their level of emotional comprehension just because they are the right "reading level." Kids are missing out on great literature (I'm not so sure about movies) because it is supposedly not challenging or intellectual enough.

All of that is not to say that I think this book is unhelpful. It actually can be very useful if you make your own judgement on when to read or watch the titles he suggests. He offers a synopsis of each book or movie and gives discussion questions to help you talk with your son about the story. The introduction is also very insightful and thought provoking about how boys relate to various forms of media.

I would love to see an updated version of this book. Until then, I hope my co-worker is not missing her copy.

17 October 2009

And It Was Still Hot

Of course, I have to comment on the recent release of Where the Wild Things Are in theaters. The book has been a classic for decades, though it wasn't well received when it was first published. It did win the Caldecott Medal, but librarians were reluctant to buy it. They didn't get it. It wasn't until they realized that the children loved it that adults caught on to the book's appeal. There is a little bit of Max in all of us. If you haven't read it in a while, the text of the book consists of only a few hundred words, ten sentences. Matt recited it almost word for word for friends of ours last night at dinner who were going to the movie with us. Someone commented to Matt the other night that the magic of the story is in what is left out. The fact that most of the story is told in a child's own imagination is why this book has been so popular for over 40 years.

Matt and I have been excited about the movie since seeing the first trailer in the theater last summer. I am not typically enthusiastic about movies adapted from a classic childrens book. I have complained about the lack of originality in Hollywood many times and I am concerned about our society's need to mass market childhood. However, even though I had reservations when I first heard about the movie, once I read some interviews with Spike Jonze and Maurice Sendak, and especially after seeing the trailers, I could not wait to see it simply because it looked like it would be a good film.

We have been reading Where the Wild Things Are to Isaac since he was born. But we were a little worried that the movie would be too scary for him. A few reviews and articles alluded that it was more a movie for older fans of the book than it was for the young children for whom the book was written. But we decided to take him. We knew that if he became scared we would be there with him and would talk him through the difficult scenes. Or we would just let him hide his eyes and tell him when the scary part was over.

I read the book to Isaac before we went to the movie and we talked it up to get him excited about it. But Matt and I were the most excited, and we were fervently hoping that we would not be disappointed. And we weren't. The movie is beautiful and poignant and edgy and respectful of children. Is it a "kid's" movie?" To be honest, not really. It is a movie for those of us who remember the pain and loneliness that is a part of childhood. Most of it was beyond Isaac's understanding, but there were many times that he had a big grin on his face as the Wild Things frolicked. There were also times that Isaac was touched by the emotion and looked at me with a frown or asked why someone was crying.

I don't need to go into a critique of the movie here or try to dissect the characters' motivations or take it apart bit by bit and talk about how it was or was not faithful to the book. There are plenty of reviews and articles that already do that. I will just end by saying that this is a book that all children should experience, and they should all read it before seeing the movie, though I would say that about all books. Children should be able to make their own meaning out of Max's adventures, without Hollywood, or even a talented director like Spike Jonze, creating the meaning for them. Unfortunately, I know that that is unlikely to happen and some of the magic of the book will be lost to children now.

We will probably end up owning this movie and will watch it with Isaac again. And as he gets older I think the movie will take on new meaning for him, just as the book tends to do when people read it at different stages of their lives. A small part of me wishes we had waited until he were older to let him see it, but I do not regret it. It is a beautiful, well-made movie and watching it with Isaac was magical.

12 October 2009

Wrestle Mania

A recent bedtime favorite has been Clancy The Courageous Cow by Lachie Hume. It is a story about being comfortable in your own skin and it teaches kids that it is okay to be different. This, of course, is not why it appeals to Isaac. It is also a story in part about wrestling cows. What boy could resist?

Clancy is born into a herd of Belted Galloways, but he has no belt. He is shunned by the herd because he is different. He tries to gain a belt by rolling in the snow, tying on a bandage, and even painting one around his middle. But nothing works. In a neighboring pasture lives a herd of Herefords. They are big and fat because each year they win the rights to the better pasture in a wrestling contest between their herd and the Galloways. The smaller, weaker Belted Galloways lose each year until Clancy begins sneaking into the good pasture at night to eat the rich grass. He is not spotted because he is all black and he becomes big and fat and strong. Finally his herd realizes that not having a belt can be a good thing and Clancy enters the wrestling contest and wins. When his herd begins to exact revenge on the Herefords for their many years of ill treatment, Clancy calls for peace among the cows and the herds begin to mingle and live together in harmony.

Yes, very cheesy. I agree. But the illustrations are amusing and kind of folksy. It is the spread that shows pictures of Clancy practicing different wrestling holds, however, that clinches the boy-factor in this book. The idea of the underdog triumphing over the oppressor also resonates with children, especially young boys.

I do like, too, that this book begins to teach that being different is okay, and it can even be an advantage. Kids face so much cruelty as they grow up, from each other and from society, and they are bombarded with so many messages that conforming and blending in is better than being an individual. Any book that passes on the message that to be yourself is to be valuable is one worth sharing. That is a message that even boys need to hear. If the book also has wrestling cows, all the better.

08 October 2009

Still My Baby

I sometimes forget how young Isaac is. I know that sounds silly, but we tend to read books and watch movies with him that are geared toward older children, so when he latches on to a "babyish" book I am pulled back to the reality that he is still very much a pre-schooler. And that is fine with me. As much as I look forward to being able to put the money that goes to daycare each month into our savings account or toward a new car payment, I really am not wishing the time away. I enjoy the nights when bedtime stories range from The Avengers to Goodnight Gorilla and I will miss reading Where's Spot when he no longer pulls it from the shelf.

On our last trip to the library we brought home some books that reminded me of Isaac's pre-schooler tastes. One in particular is Who is Driving? by Leo Timmers. Each spread features four animals in varying outfits and a vehicle. One of the characters is dressed so that the children can pick out who goes with the vehicle. The text simply asks, "Who is driving . . . ?" The reader has to predict who will be driving the fire truck or the convertible or the race car on the next page. I was actually pretty impressed that Isaac was able to figure out that the stork in the bomber jacket and leather helmet is supposed to fly the WWI era plane, not the polar bear dressed as a modern day pilot.

This book appeals to boys' fascination with all things wheeled. Add in the animals and it is a sure fire hit with pre-school males. The illustrations are simple, brightly colored acrylic pictures that are not overwhelmed with detail that is lost on a four-year-old. The text is concise and after a couple of readings, Isaac was "reading" it to me.

I think I enjoy reading books like this more than Matt does, partly because I know the day will come soon enough that Isaac no longer wants to read "baby" books. And I will miss them because it will mean he is not my baby anymore. For now, though, pair this with a Hulk comic and everybody is happy.

25 September 2009

Up, Down and All Around

Isaac and I visited our local library branch Sunday afternoon to pick up some books and take a walk. The library is situated in a park, with nature trails connected to its grounds. After choosing our books, and finally getting Isaac a library card, we took a walk around the park. Isaac led the way, like a little explorer, protecting me from bears, stopping to listen occasionally to make sure we were safe, and searching the ground for animals. It was one of the best hours I have spent in a long time.

We checked out a bag of books that afternoon and have been reading a few each night. One that has caught Isaac's interest is Up Above & Down Below by Sue Redding. Each spread pictures a scene which is split horizontally on the page and the text contrasts what is happening above to what is happening below. Some of the pages picture nature scenes, such as the rain forest where "furry and feathered friends play up in the leaves, creepy crawlies rule the ground under the trees." Other pages feature absurd scenes, such as the one where golfers play up top while rodents down below rig an elaborate machine out of golf balls and tees which they have taken from the unsuspecting golfers.

Isaac will sit and "read" this book to himself, which is unusual for a book that he likes. Typically, when he likes a book he wants it read to him over and over. This shift is in part, I think, due to his increasing independence. But I also believe that this book lends itself to being perused by children. The pictures are detailed and there is a lot for him to look at. The text is simple and after one or two readings he knows the story well enough to narrate it himself.

The other morning, after I had left for work, Matt awoke to find Isaac in bed with him, with my booklight on, quietly looking through this book. How cute is that? I think the best recommendation a children's book can have is that kids go back to it over and over. I have a feeling we will read this one a few more times before it goes back to the library.

24 September 2009

Look Out!

Isaac received some books in the mail from his Gammy a few weeks ago (actually more like months -- I'm a little behind in my blogging) that make him laugh out loud. Dav Pilkey of Captain Underpants fame (which I refuse to read despite the popularity with my students) has also written and illustrated a few other books that have nothing to do with a character's undergarments.

Kat Kong and Dogzilla are Pilkey's interpretation of the classic "horror" flicks King Kong and Godzilla. They feature his own animals in the title roles and mice as the frantic citizens trying to save their towns. They also contain groan inducing puns and wordplay.

The illustrations are collages which use manipulated photographs and painting. The cat and the dog loom threateningly over the mice in both stories, but the mice prevail in the end. The wordplay is mostly well beyond Isaac's understanding, but he finds the pictures of the animals hilarious, and he does get some of the jokes.

We have fun reading these books to him. He giggles merrily as we read, and though we cringe at some of the silly puns, we smile at his sheer enjoyment of the story.

Dav Pilkey knows what boys like, whether it is a super-hero in underpants or a dog terrorizing a city full of mice. And as his website warns, "some material may be too goofy for grown-ups."

18 August 2009

Into the Woods

Shortly after Isaac was born I read Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. If you are not familiar with this book, in it Louv proposes that our children suffer from "nature deficit disorder." He believes that they lack the connection with nature that previous generations have had and this "deficit" is detrimental to their health and well-being, as well as having a negative affect on our society as a whole. Last Child in the Woods has become one of my parenting handbooks. I want Isaac to feel connected with nature and to have the freedom to explore and discover the natural world.

Last year I attended a workshop based on Michael Gurian's book Minds of Boys which examined how boys learn and how best to teach them. Boys need a different classroom structure than girls. They need freedom to move around to stimulate their brains and they need to be able to express themselves verbally. Louv would add that boys, in fact all children, need time outside to help them focus. He believes that nature has a calming affect and goes so far as to assert that the rise in diagnoses of ADD/ADHD in children is linked to the disassociation with the natural world.

I have taken the messages in these two books to heart in my parenting and in my teaching. Boys are surrounded by women during their childhoods. Their moms are often the most important person in their lives and their formative years are mostly spent in school being taught mostly by women. And, though many women don't want this getting out, we don't really understand what makes men (boys) tick. I can't teach boys the same way that I remember being taught. It won't work for them. So I need to learn how to teach them in a way that will meet their needs. And I can't parent Isaac the way I was parented. I need to understand his motivations and needs in order to help guide him through his childhood into adulthood.

I have found that it is easier for me to adjust my classroom techniques than it is to change the way I approach exposing Isaac to the natural world. I enjoy being outside and appreciate nature, but I prefer to experience it from beneath a tree with a book rather than down in the woods behind our house digging in the mud and getting eaten by bugs. But down in the woods with the dirt and the bugs is where Isaac will get the most out of being outside. There he can touch and hear and see and smell, though preferably not taste, the world around him. Isaac is content to sit by a stream for half an hour stirring the water with a stick making "soup" and studying how the dirt moves and I am ready to move on after five minutes. Matt is a better nature guide than I am, but I am trying.

In my quest to make playing outside less of an effort for me, I attended a workshop this past weekend at the North Carolina Zoo on working with children in outdoor environments. The day was spent learning how children play and how playing outside contributes to learning. I learned a lot and left the workshop energized and excited. As the school year begins I hope that I can hold on to that excitement and channel it into my teaching, finding ways to bring nature and playing into my classroom. But, more importantly, I hope that Isaac will benefit from what I learned as we play together. I am ready to go exploring, stick in hand, sneakers on. Bring on the dirt! But no spiders please.

13 August 2009

Curiosity Killed the Ape

We have probably read every Curious George book at least once at our house. Some nights all we read before bed time is Curious George. But, while Isaac loves all of them, he does have particular favorites which are pulled off the shelf over and over again. Curious George and the Chocolate Factory is one of them.

How could anyone not love this book? The idea of going to a chocolate store, sneaking into the behind-the-scenes tour and helping himself to as many sweets as he can eat is probably every child's dream, as well as some adults. Well, it's mine anyway. Of course, George gets into mischief but manages to save the day in the end.

The books are formulaic, and boy do they get repetitive to read (Isaac can recite the first line of every book -- This is George. George was a good little monkey and always very curious). But the familiar pattern is part of the appeal for children. They know what to expect and they know that everything will turn out all right in the end. It is comforting for them to know that, even though George causes trouble, The Man With The Yellow Hat still loves him and accepts him. My boy appeciates this message, as I am sure do many others.

Matt and I do have one BIG pet peeve with the book, though. You might have noticed that George is an APE, not a monkey. Monkeys have tails. George does not have a tail. Isaac gets annoyed when we change the words while reading it to reflect the appropriate species. He'll live, and he will know the difference when he gets older.

17 July 2009

Read To Me Daddy

I rarely read the stories during our bedtime ritual. Almost every night, Isaac can choose five stories, and almost every night Matt reads them. I am not sure how this came to be the routine, but I am comfortable with it. Isaac and I read together and I take him to the library regularly. He sees me reading almost daily, whether it' s the newspaper, a book or a magazine. I know that he is getting the message from me that reading is a good habit. But he is a boy and he needs to get that message from his daddy.

So bedtime reading, for the most part, has become Matt's domain. He also takes Isaac to the library and to book stores and he also reads every day. As Isaac grows up, having Matt read to him, I hope, will have a positive impact on his own reading habits. Matt will have an advantage over me when it comes to helping Isaac find books that excite him simply because he is a guy.

It is a fact that most teachers and librarians are women. And, while fathers play a much more active role in parenting that in the past, mothers are still the central figure in most boys' lives. Historically, the people who have encouraged and pushed boys to read have been women. Boys need to have male role models who read. They need to have their father-figures share favorite books and introduce them to new characters. They need to be able to share their favorite books with other boys.

Mentoring boy readers has been a hot topic lately. A popular children's author, who himself is a favorite of many boys, started a website called Guys Read to offer help in addressing the concern that boys are not reading. The website offers suggestions for adults who want to encourage boys' reading habits and the author's perspective on why boys don't read. But what is really helpful are the lists of books and authors. It is a great starting place when looking for the next book to entice your boy.

Now, the moms reading this should not stop sharing books with their sons. And if there are dads reading who are already modeling for their boys this important habit, great! But look at your routines -- Do you read with your son each day? Who reads, mom or dad or both? Does your son see you reading almost every day? How can you make the message that your son is getting about reading more positive?

Isaac and I will be visiting family in Florida for two weeks and Matt will not be there to read the bedtime stories. I think I can manage without him, but I am sure Isaac will be glad when we return and he gets Daddy back at bedtime. And I think Matt will be glad, too.

14 July 2009

Dewey Have Animal Books?

I hate shelving books. I know that it should be an aspect of my job from which I derive a lot of satisfaction because if books need to be shelved that means they are being read, but, like laundry (which I also hate doing), it is never done. There are always books to be shelved. I know this is a good thing, but it makes me long for a house elf.

The section of books that I loath to shelve is of course the one that is circulated the most. The 590's. For those of you not as familiar with Dewey categories, the 590's are the animals. Everything from creepy-crawlies to the big and furry. My collection usually looks like it is lacking in this section because most of the books can be found on the never-empty "to be shelved" cart. And, yes, most of them are checked out by boys, though many girls frequent this section, too.

One of the authors/illustrators that can be found in the 590's is Steve Jenkins. He has illustrated numerous books about animals, many of which he has written himself. He uses collages to create his animals and, next to Eric Carle, he is my favorite collage artist. His pictures are full of texture and amazingly life-like. They make you want to touch the pages to find out what a gorilla hand or a butterfly feels like.

Jenkins' animal books are very accessible for young children. They are information books, but they are not over run with text or hard-to-digest facts. The youngest children can simply appreciate the pictures and learn the names of the animals, and older children can read the additional information provided. Typically, the books also have an informational page at the end that lists extended facts about the animals pictured.

I recently bought Isaac 3 of Jenkins' books at Kohl's. For those of you who do not have a Kohl's department store near you, each season they feature 3 or 4 books by an author and sell hardback copies for $5 each as part of the Kohl's Cares for Kids program. I have bought many books for Isaac through this program and I have mostly been impressed by the past offerings. I was quite excited to see Steve Jenkins' books in the display last week.

Isaac has enjoyed reading his new books and looking at the animals pictured in them. My favorite of the 3 is Actual Size. Jenkins created collages of animals and then featured them, or part of them, in life-like size on the pages. Isaac likes putting his hand on top of the gorilla's to compare the size. It's rather daunting, whether you are 3 or 35. The two page spread for the anteater's tongue is also rather impressive. The last page of the book shows a complete, smaller picture of each animal with additional facts.

If your son is an animal lover, check out Steve Jenkins at your local library, but good luck finding them on the shelves.

09 July 2009

Yes, David!

You can't go wrong with a David Shannon book. Whether it's his David series or another gem, he writes great books for boys.

We checked a couple of his books (No, David! and Too Many Toys) out of the library on our last visit. This morning, I found Isaac on his bed looking at Too Many Toys, quietly providing his own narration for the pictures. Now, he was supposed to be getting dressed when I peeked in, but how could I fuss when he was "wasting" time by looking at a book?

A David Shannon favorite in our house is Duck on a Bike. It never fails to get a laugh. What duck wouldn't want to ride a bike? And how could the other farm animals resist when they see how much fun it is? His books are infused with a great sense of humor, and occasionally a touch of sweetness. The illustrations are child-like and the situations his characters find themselves in are ones that many children will understand.

One of my favorites, that I have not yet shared with Isaac, is A Bad Case of Stripes. The main character suffers from an affliction that is common among children -- she wants to please everyone and finds it hard to remember what will please her. It has a great message for boys and girls.

Even Shannon's girl characters will appeal to boys. Boys, more so than girls, want to read about other boys. But the characters in Shannon's books, whether male or female, are universally appealing. Alice, the main character in Alice the Fairy, has a rich imaginary life to which all children will relate. The boys might imagine themselves as Luke Skywalker rather than a fairy, but her exuberance and joy in her imaginary occupation will be familiar to them.

And the best thing about Shannon's books is that they can be enjoyed by parents as well as kids. He understands children, but he also knows that his books will be even more well-received, and read more often, if the parents enjoy them, too. Every parent has had a No, David! day. But, when it is over, we all give our sons a hug and tell them how much they are loved. If you have trouble remembering to do that after a particularly David-like day-- keep this book on hand and you will never forget.

07 July 2009

Spiderman, Wolverine and Mr. Darcy?

Isaac loves comic books. He gets this from his dad. I never read comic books growing up, so I am playing catch-up in order to understand my son's fascination with Spiderman, Bat Man and Wolverine.

Matt has been buying Isaac comics aimed at younger kids, though they are still supposedly meant for children older than 3-soon-to-be-4. But Isaac loves them. There are some nights that the bedtime stories are comic books and nothing else. Do you realize how long a comic book takes to read out loud, even one geared toward younger children? Now multiply that by 5. Those are the nights that the bedtime routine needs to start at 6:00 in order to be done by 8:30.

There have been a lot of polls published about the reading habits of Americans recently. Many of them report that Americans are reading less. But what they really mean is that Americans are reading less fiction. Americans are reading newspapers, magazines, graphic novels, online articles and a host of other forms of writing. Maybe not as much as we should be, and maybe what we are reading is not the most thought provoking fare out there, but at least we are reading.

Boys read comic books. They are fascinated by the superheroes and the fantasy worlds in which they live. As boys get older they typically read less traditional fiction and more comic books and graphic novels. Some educators do not consider this legitimate "reading" and try to push boys back to "books." My approach, with my students and with my son, is to let boys read what they want to read. Reading comic books is not going to deter them from reading when they are older. Pushing them to read something they are not interested in will. Comics might actually encourage boys to find stories in other formats that interest them as adults.

When I titled my blog "Book for My Boy and Yours, " I knew that I would be writing about what we read to Isaac, but I had not thought further than that. When I began thinking more about what he enjoys reading, I realized he reads a lot of non-traditional formats. There are comic books on his shelves, as well as Star Wars picture encyclopedias. He also enjoys looking at nature and car magazines. So, in this blog I will occasionally write about things other than "books." The point isn't to find books that boys will read, it is to find anything that they will read and to keep them reading.

I now wish I had read comics as a child, not only to be able to relate to Isaac's interests. The worlds that the writers and artists create are complex and connect multiple generations. I am enjoying discovering them with Isaac.

When we were told we were having a boy, I was thrilled. But I immediately thought of things that I wouldn't experience with him and was almost nostalgic for the little girl I wouldn't have. One of the experiences that I won't be able to share, at least not in the same way, is my favorite book, Pride and Prejudice. However, this summer my favorite novel of all time is being adapted into a 5 part graphic format. Of course, I am buying them as they come out and I am looking forward to the day when I can introduce Isaac to Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in a format that will appeal to him. And who knows, maybe he will be inspired to read the book. I can dream.

28 June 2009

Barack and Baseball

We are leaving tomorrow for a visit to DC and then to western Virginia to ride the Creeper Trail. I am trying to pack lightly for all three of us, but don't want to completely toss aside the normal routines for a week. So, we will be bringing one sleep-toy and some books with us to continue Isaac's bedtime rituals.

I asked Isaac to choose the sleep-toy and books he wanted to pack for our trip today. Surprisingly Froggy made the cut and Blackie Bear will be left at home. But this blog is about books and not my son's current favorite stuffy, so here is a list of books that Isaac chose to bring along (he was limited to five).

Oh, David! by David Shannon
The Okay Book by Todd Parr
The Pop-up Commotion in the Ocean by Giles Andreae
Casey at the Bat illustrated by Christopher Bing
Marvel Adventures: Hulk, Misunderstood Monster

Since we will be gone for a week, and neither Matt nor I want to read these particular books umpteen times over the next few days, I added to the list.

Spiderman: Worst Enemies by Catherine Saunders
Amazing Tigers by Sarah Thomson
Duck On a Bike by David Shannon
Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems
Curious George Goes Camping by Margret and HA Rey
The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog! by Mo Willems

These books should keep Isaac occupied for a little while in the car and provide some variety at bedtime. I considered bringing the Barack Obama biography that he has since we are going to DC, but wanted to conserve space. We haven't left yet, though, so it still might make it in. Isaac is very excited about seeing where the President lives.

When Isaac first brought his choices to me, he had The Memory Coat by Elvira Woodruff in the stack, rather than Casey at the Bat. He has pulled this one off the shelf a couple of times and I always encourage him to pick a different book. It is one that I had purchased as part of an author visit, so it has been added to his collection even though it is not an appropriate book for his age. I think he chooses it because the cover is a similar color to Casey at the Bat. It is not that I do not want to read the book to him. I do, when he is older. I just know that it is not a story he will understand and appreciate, or be able to sit through, right now. Today I asked him to look inside the book to make sure he wanted to bring it. He did, and after looking at a couple of pages of soft watercolors and lots of text, he closed it and said "No, I don't like this." Upstairs he went, and back down he came, this time carrying Casey at the Bat. A much more appropriate, if not more welcome, choice. By now I can almost recite the entire poem, we have read it so many times. After this week, I might be saying it in my sleep.

"The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day; the score stood 4 to 2 with but one inning more to play. And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same, a sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game. . . "

26 June 2009

Ladybug Girl to the Rescue

Isaac’s choices surprise me sometimes. I try to be very conscious about picking out books on topics that interest him. I don’t want him to become uninterested in books or not want to read because his librarian mom is always trying to read a “nice” or a “sweet” story to him. So my choices are heavy on the cars, trucks, robots and scary or slimy animals that he likes. When we go to the library I encourage him to find books that he wants to bring home, though most of the time he plays in the tree house in the children’s section of our local branch while I fill our bag with books I think he will like.

Then there are the occasions he does choose books, and I ask him two or three times if he is sure he wants THAT one as we narrow down our choices. This last visit to the library was one of those occasions. He picked out a book called Ladybug Girl by Jacky Davis and David Soman. Now don’t misunderstand, I do read him books with female characters and I want him to be exposed to many different types of books to broaden his appreciation and enhance his reading experiences. I just don’t expect my car-loving, lightsaber-wielding boy to pick a book with a girl in a ladybug outfit, complete with a red tutu, on the cover.

But Isaac intuited something I did not and it was one of the favorites from our last library visit. Lulu, or Ladybug Girl, is told she is too small to play with her older brother, so she sets out to find her own fun and proceeds to rescue ants, scramble over fallen trees and splash in lake-sized puddles. In the end, while watching her brother argue with his buddies over their baseball game from her perch in a tree, she decides she is not too small after all.

This book speaks to all children and their frustrations with being told they are too small or too young. It also appeals to a child’s sense of playfulness and adventure. Would most boys pull this off the shelf and want to read it? Probably not. Boys, more so than girls, tend to want to read about their own gender, especially as they get older. But they should be encouraged to read good books with strong female characters. While the character in this book is dressed up in a tutu with wings on her back, she is a role-model for every young boy and girl trying to find their sense of place in a “you’re-too-small” world.

If you can’t get your boy interested, tell him she is a child-superhero. That may get his attention long enough to get him interested in the story. If he doesn’t love it, at least he gave it a try.

25 June 2009

A Great Dane Called Pinkerton

My mother took my sister Alison and I to the bookmobile or library weekly during the summer months. It was always a treat to go home with a sack of books. One of the first author/illustrators I remember looking for as a child was Steven Kellogg. Once you read one of his books, you can easily spot another one by his distinct style of illustration.

Arguably his most popular character is a great Dane named Pinkerton. Who can resist a giant dog who acts like he is a puppy? Although Pinkerton drew me to Kellogg’s world as a child, it was the eye for details that hooked me. I used to love looking at the expression on each character’s face. In A Rose for Pinkerton, there is a vicious pack of French poodles that is as absurdly funny as it is unsettling.

The worlds that Kellogg illustrates are populated with smiling kids, patient parents, loyal dogs, cats, cows, snakes, foxes, bears and plenty of other animals for kids to enjoy. Every page has lots of tiny little surprises for the reader who will take the time to savor the pictures.

In the book If You Go To the Moon, Kellogg illustrates a how to guide for lunar travel written by Faith McNulty. The lunar landscapes are very different from his typical style. The pictures of the moon visit are sparse, but they provide a stark contrast to the return trip to Earth. During the voyage home, our planet slowly gets larger and larger, and ultimately ends with a four page fold out picture that I wish I had a print of for Isaac’s wall. Kellogg creates an idealized snapshot of our world featuring oceans, polar regions, jungles, deserts, a brief history of human kind, dozens of different animals and a pond full of kids from around the world playing and splashing.

I often get a lump in my throat when Isaac and I get to that picture. He and I take turns trying to find different animals. I’m sure Isaac will remember Kellogg’s style and will hopefully pick up some of his books for older children in the future.


What's Brown and Sticky?

The best books for young children are often the simplest. Mo Willems' books, as I wrote yesterday, are excellent examples. Another author who has mastered the simple approach to writing for children is Antoinette Portis. Her books Not a Box and Not a Stick capture the essence of imaginary play better than any I have read recently.

I recently checked Not a Stick out of the library for Isaac. While I was in a cleaning frenzy one Saturday, Matt spent some time with Isaac reading the library books that we had gotten that week. The next morning Isaac came down the stairs with Not a Stick and sat "reading" it to himself. The text is simple enough that he remembered enough of the words to almost quote every page, using expression and inflection, and then he started over. He went through the book at least five times. It was one of those memories that I wish I had on tape just to hear his voice as he narrated the story.

Not a Box and Not a Stick take a simple concept and make a book that all kids, but especially boys, will relate to. How many of us raising sons have seen them ignore a room full of toys for a cardboard box, or use a stick as their "gun" in a game of cops and robbers or a "sword" as they fight off dragons? Actually in Isaac's case the stick is a lightsaber and he is Obi Wan Kenobi and I get to be Darth Vader. I hate to break it to him that, in that particular fight, I win.

The illustrations in these books are simple black lines. The only character is a bunny and there is one line of text on each page. But they are not boring to read. Trust me on this. You do, however, have to give your imagination free reign as you read them. Remember what it was like to be a kid and build that box fort or fight the fire breathing dragon. You may find yourself reaching for these books at bedtime before your son does.

A sidenote from Matt: Cardboard Box and Stick have been added to the National Toy Hall of Fame, alongside Mr. Potato Head, frisbee (a family favorite) and other classic toys.

And the answer to the question in the title? A stick, of course. Except when it's a conductor's baton, a fire hose, or whatever else your son imagines it to be.

24 June 2009

Can I Have Some Mo?

My favorite author/illustrator for young readers right now is Mo Willems. He has written a number of award winning children's books recently, but that isn't why I like him. I like him because his books make Isaac laugh. And they make me laugh, too.

Willems' books look simplistic when you first open them, but they have a depth to them that will surprise you. He is able to put more expression into his characters with his simple line drawings than many illustrators can with much more complicated art work. His characters are real, to children and adults. Kids laugh at the Pigeon throwing a temper tantrum because tantrums are funny. Parents and teachers laugh at the Pigeon's histrionics because we have been there and done that more times than we want to admit. Children laugh at Willems' characters. Adults laugh with Willems because we get the joke.

My favorite Willems book is Leonardo The Terrible Monster. It is poignant and cute and funny and very, very readable. It is my favorite of Willems' books to read out loud to classes and has a wonderful lesson about friendship and self-acceptance. Willems doesn't dumb down his vocabulary and he isn't afraid to use wordplay and puns in his books for young children. He respects and understands kids and that comes across in his writing.

Why will boys like his books? Boys like silly characters and absurd situations and Willems delivers both. The illustrations are simple so the pictures do not overwhelm the story or distract from the humor. And young boys will relate to his characters, even the female ones, because they are ultimately just like them or someone they know. There is no use denying it. We all have a bit of the Pigeon in us.

Catching Up

Isaac will be 4 in a few weeks. We started reading to him and buying him books on Day 1, so I have a lot of catching up to do if I am going to discuss stories that have made a connection with him. There have been many favorites over the past few years, some of which have been read thousands of times, or at least it feels like it. Here is a list of some books that Isaac has gone back to over and over, in no particular order:

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
Go, Dog. Go! by PD Eastman
Curious George by HA Rey (and various sequels -- Curious George Makes Pancakes has been the most popular)
Where's Spot? by Eric Hill
Owen and Mzee Best Friends (board book abbreviation of Owen and Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship by Craig Hatkoff)
Snowmen at Night by Caralyn Buehner
Casey at the Bat by Ernest Thayer, illustrated by Christopher Bing
Fun Dog, Sun Dog by Deborah Heiligman
The Great Fuzz Frenzy by Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel
Corduroy by Don Freeman
We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen
I Stink! by Kate and Jim McMullan
Duck on a Bike by David Shannon
Tickle the Duck by Ethan Long
Hulk, The Incredible Guide by Tom DeFalco
Spiderman, The Ultimate Guide by Tom DeFalco

Many in the list you probably recognize. And some are newer titles with which you may not be familiar. Some of them have become favorites because Matt or I enjoyed reading them, which translated to Isaac becoming attached to them. And there are those that Matt and I groan over when we see them being pulled off of the shelf. Then there are the "Daddy books" that I refuse to read at bedtime. You can probably guess what those are.

I thought that I would be able to find a common theme in the list when I started this post, but in looking at it now, I can't. Many of them get Isaac giggling so hard that he truly lives up to his name. Others are sweet, gentle stories. Some of them have a character that reminds Isaac of something in his own life and a few are just good "boy" books about superheroes or garbage trucks. But what I can say about them all is that Isaac has at some point picked them out as his book of choice. And that is probably what I would rate as the most important factor in reading with boys, or any children. Let them pick the books, at least some of the time. Even if it will take 30 minutes to read and you wanted storytime to last 10 minutes. And especially if it is a book that you would never pick out yourself. By validating his choices and supporting his interests, I hope that I am showing Isaac that reading is important to me. I have even suffered through a thorough reading of Hulk's various enemies and exploits during evening storytime because that is what he pulled off the shelf that night, and Daddy was conveniently absent.

23 June 2009

Why books?

So I am taking the leap into this blogging thing. My husband, Matt, suggested a few months ago that we start a joint blog about books that we read to our son, Isaac. The idea intrigued me, but I was finishing an intensive project at the time and entering the final part of the school year, so I put it on my mental "summer projects" list. Now, summer has begun and school is out for a couple of months, so here goes.

The reasons my better half suggested the topic that he did were a) I am an elementary school librarian by profession, so kiddie lit is my job, b) we are raising a son who, right now, enjoys being read to, and c) he thought it was something we could do together, a bonding thing to keep our relationship "fresh."

In this blog I intend to discuss books that we read to Isaac, books that will appeal to boys in general (if there is such a thing), and occasionally other boy/kid related "stuff." I will put forth this disclaimer before I get started: we tend to ignore age appropriate references on books, movies, toys, etc. that we buy Isaac or let him watch or use. We pay more attention to the content of the material and what he is interested in, always keeping in mind safety, of course. He has watched, and enjoyed, some movies that parents of other children his age would probably raise their eyebrows at, Matt regularly buys and reads comic books with him, and he doesn't watch much children's programming because we find most of it intolerable.

So why did I take Matt's idea and run with it? In my work life I hear, and read, a lot about boys and books: how to raise them to read and keep them reading into and past adolescence. I want my son to be a reader. I want him to enjoy books and continue to enjoy them when he is an adult. According to many educational studies, this will be a challenge because boys tend to be readers in elementary school, but then fall off the reading wagon as they get older. So, if I can find books that Isaac relates to, or that the boys I teach enjoy, then sharing them may help other parents who want for their sons the same thing I do.

Okay, so now and then I will be sharing "cute" moments, along with book discussions. Here's the first. Our family took a road trip this past weekend and were in the car for about 3 1/2 hours each way. While we don't tend to allow Isaac to watch TV or movies much, we have traveled long distances by car enough that we do resort to the portable DVD player for out-of-town road trips. Well, on the way home we didn't turn the movie on right away. We just didn't think about it and he didn't ask for it. We had visited the used book store the night before we left and Isaac had new books in his backpack that we hadn't gotten around to reading yet. For the first half of the ride home he entertained himself by intently looking through all of the books, one of them a "chapter" length Hulk comic, on which he spent the most time, of course. Matt and I listened to him as he narrated parts of the books and quietly peeked at him from our front seats and smiled at each other. At that moment, at least, I felt hope that his future as a reader was pretty secure and I reveled in his fascination with the pages in his lap.

Happy Reading.