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.