31 January 2010

Snow, Snow, Snow, Snow!

For some reason I feel compelled to write about a snow book. Possibly because there is over 6 inches of the stuff outside my door right now.

Isaac loves the book Snowmen at Night by Caralyn and Mark Buehner. It is the prequel to Snowmen at Christmas. Have you ever wondered what snowmen do at night? What causes them to sag and look lopsided the morning after they have been created? In this book, the boy asking these questions imagines a world where the snowmen come to life once the town is asleep. They gather in the park to play, skate, sled, and have snowman races. They return home as the sun comes up, a bit worse for the wear, but grinning from snow ear to snow ear.

The text has a nice rhythm for reading out loud and Isaac enjoys seeing the snowmen act like little kids as they throw snowballs, make snow angels and generally frolic in the snow. But what really makes this book great are the illustrations. Buehner's pictures are computer generated, but they are much more layered and textured than most computer generated illustrations I have seen. The colors are vibrant, even though the setting is the middle of the night. The pages almost come to life as you turn them.

There us a bit of a gimic with the book. Buehner has hidden small images in the pictures that the children are challenged to find. They do not have anything to do with the story, but children will want to spend time looking for them, which can be fun and frustrating. Some of them are not easy to find.

I think we will be digging this book out tonight for story time. I would much rather read about snowmen than go out and build one right now.

30 January 2010

ABC's and 123's

Lately monkeys and penguins have been popular at our house. Makes a lot of sense, actually. Penguins are one of my favorite animals and monkeys are Matt's. I love the fortitude of Emperor Penguin mothers as they leave their families to search for food and the faithfulness of the fathers as they stay to take care of the egg. Matt loves the playfulness of monkeys and, well, just that.

Two books that Isaac has chosen recently at bedtime are Counting Penguins and Naughty Little Monkeys by Jim Aylesworth. It just so happens that these books focus on learning and recognizing numbers and letters, something that we have been working on as Isaac gets closer to entering kindergarten.

Counting Penguins is a counting book, as the name implies. Each page shows a different species of penguin, the number of penguins in the photograph getting larger with each turn of the page. Matt lets Isaac say the numbers as they turn the pages. When they get to the end, he has Isaac read the numbers in reverse order as they go backwards through the book. Going forward is much easier because Isaac can say his numbers past ten, but is having trouble recognizing the number symbols past 5 or 6.

Naughty Little Monkeys is an ABC book. The parents have 26 monkeys, each one having a name that begins with a letter of the alphabet. When the parents go out for the evening, all 26 create havoc at home, each action matching the letter with which their name begins. Isaac thinks the mischief the monkeys cause is hilarious, from sliding down the banister to cutting up Dad's newspaper to breaking the window with the yo-yo. As we read this book, we have Isaac name the letter before we read the rhyme that goes with it.

We realized a couple of weeks ago that Isaac did not know as many of his letters and numbers as we thought he did. He has been able to recite the alphabet and say his numbers for a while, and we both thought that the recognition was coming along, as well. We were wrong. I talked with his teacher to get her perspective and she reminded me that he is a boy, and boys take longer to tackle these skills than girls. He is also the youngest in his class, but is probably in the middle as far as progress, so he is doing pretty well. All of this I know rationally. But my parenting nerves kicked in.

So Matt and I have been focusing on helping him with these skills. We are trying to make it as fun as possible, using books and games. We are also trying to praise the effort that he makes to help him begin to value the act of learning.

Kindergarten is not what it was when I started school. Students are expected to know more coming in and accomplish more before the year is over. I want Isaac to be prepared and I want him to value learning for learning's sake. I also want him to be able to have fun and enjoy the social aspect of school and time with his friends.

A good friend just had to decide whether to enroll her son in a traditional 4 year old part-time preschool program or in a full-time pre-k program. As a parent, I understand her wanting her son to have one more year to enjoy the freedom of a less structured environment. But as a teacher, I see the value of pre-k programs and the foundation they give students before starting school. It is a difficult decision for parents who have the choice to make.

I know Isaac will be fine when he starts kindergarten in the fall. If he struggles, he has Matt and I to help him and support him and teach him to learn from his mistakes. But I still worry and probably always will. For now, we will keep reading and working and learning. And we will have fun.

22 January 2010

This Year's Winner

I originally intended my post about the Newbery Medal to focus on this year's winner. But I started ranting and decided to do a separate post for those people who gave up before reaching the end of that last one. The soap box is hard to climb down from sometimes.

I am deviating a bit with this blog from my usual focus on books for boys. As ambivalent as I tend to be about the Newbery, I really liked this year's winner and feel compelled to write about it to get the word out, assuming anyone really reads this blog. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is the 2010 Newbery Medal Winner. The main character is a girl, and the themes are mostly girl-centric, but I think there is enough science-fiction, mystery and just plain good story telling in this book that boys would like it, too.

Miranda is the heroine. She is at that awkward age of 12, not quite a teenager, but not a kid anymore. She has had one real friend her whole life, Sal (a boy), who is suddenly not her friend anymore. At the same time weird things begin to happen. A semi-crazy, sometimes nude man has taken up residence on her street corner and she begins to receive mysterious notes in disturbing places. The notes point toward a pivotal event in her life that has yet to happen, but of which the writer seems to know the outcome. As she tries to decipher their meaning, Miranda is also on a journey of discovery as she forges new friendships and finds herself.

This book has been called The Time Traveler's Wife for kids because of it's circular plot and themes (minus the nudity and the sex). There are also many parallels to A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle, which is Miranda's favorite book and is referenced a lot in the story. I started When You Reach Me last night after dinner and read it in one sitting. (Well, actually two sittings -- I took a break to put Isaac to bed and run about three chapters in.) It is saying a lot about the hook when a parent of a four-year-old can read a book that is longer than 32 pages in one night. It is one of the best books I read this year, for kids or adults, and in my opinion the most well-rounded, universally appealing Newbery Medal winner in a long time.

But will boys like it? If they can be convinced to overlook the fact that on the surface it is a "girl" book, then I think the science-fiction and mystery elements to the plot will pull them in. There is a little bit of a girl-boy relationship theme, but less than there was in the 6th Harry Potter book and a lot of boys, and grown men, managed to get through that. The cover is fairly gender-neutral, so when the boys judge it by its cover, literally, they shouldn't see anything off-putting.

Librarians and parents will have to work to "sell" this book to boys, but I think it can be done and is worth doing. I am making Matt read it this weekend, so maybe he will weigh in with his perspective when he is finished. In the mean time, happy reading.

And the Award Goes To . . .

The middle of January is like Oscar season for librarians and those who follow children's literature. The anticipation and the predictions of what will win the numerous awards given out by The Association for Library Service to Children fill the first part of the month and the analysis of what and why take up the latter part. Some winners are well-received and much applauded and some cause raised eyebrows and Kanye West-like outbursts as people wonder what on earth the committee was thinking and why a different book was not selected.

I follow these awards with vague interest, to be honest, especially the Newbery. I am always curious to know what wins, but seldom do I feel like the winner is a book that the children at my school will really connect with. Somewhere, some kid will love the book, but in reality the awards are given by adults who are choosing books that they like, not books that the kids like. That is not to say that I believe the award is not valuable. It is, just as the National Book Award and the Pulitzer are. But, really, how many typical Americans read the winners of those awards? Nor do I think that that the committee should begin to consider popularity when determining who the medal goes to. It is important to exhibit outstanding literature for children and adults. But that book that gets left off the list is also important because some child, somewhere has read it and it meant something to him.

A glance at the list of past Newbery winners and Honor books comes up with very few boy-centric books. The 2009 winner, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, is an obvious exception, but most of the books have either girl main characters or themes that are more appealing to girls than boys. Girls will read about boys; boys generally will not read about girls. Of this year's Medal winner and four Honor books, only one has a boy for a main character or a boy-centric theme, The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick (though I will argue in another post that boys could be convinced to read this year's medal winner and I hope they will be). Does this mean that the books being written that will appeal to boys are not exceptional? Not necessarily. Could it point to a failure on the part of the female-dominated committee to be able to appreciate literature that appeals to boys? Maybe. Does it really matter in the long run whether or not a "boy" book won a medal or an honor as long as boys are finding books they like to read? Not in my opinion. But it is something worth thinking about as teachers or parents push children to read these books just because they won an award.

The Medals are signs of exceptionalism. The books that win stand out from the millions that are published each year. Even ALA's Notable Book lists are not an exhaustive account of all the great books that came out within the past twelve months, though they are a commendable effort to recognize more books, because if it makes a list it is much more likely to be bought and read. Making it to the selective Newbery list should not mean that every child should read the book. Or that the book should be liked by everyone. Many states have begun Children's Book Award programs. North Carolina has a picture book and a junior book category. Diary of a Wimpy Kid won the 2009 NC Children's Junior Book Award. Is it Newbery quality? Heavens no! But the boys, and girls, love it and it is never checked in at my school. That makes it valuable. The Newbery Medal and the other awards given by ALSC have their place in children's literature, but so do awards like the NC Children's Book Award. Ultimately, winning an award doesn't mean much if kids aren't reading the book.

As January passes us by, so will the excitement of Monday's announcement. Very few people will be able to name the books on the various lists in a few months, just as not many people can name the winner of last year's Best-Supporting Actress Oscar (without Googling it). But boys everywhere who have found that one book that they really connected with will remember it for the rest of their lives, whether or not it won an award or was on a list somewhere.

19 January 2010


Our family vacations usually involve a trip to at least one theme park to ride roller coasters. Matt has been measuring Isaac since he turned one, waiting impatiently for the day that he would be tall enough to ride something. I get updates each spring on which rides Isaac is now big enough for. His first trip to Disney World was when he was 4 months old, and he has been multiple times since, thanks to the good fortune of having relatives who work there. He rode the Tower of Terror for the first time this fall. Carowinds is another destination with which Isaac has become very familiar and he took his first trip to King's Dominion last spring. Busch Gardens Williamsburg will be added to the list in a few months and Matt is already planning our vacation for the summer of 2011 to California, the home of Disney Land and Legoland.

Needless to say we are fans of coasters and thrill rides, none of us more so than Matt. And he began passing his obsession on to Isaac since day one. So, when I saw the book Roller Coaster by Marla Frazee at a book fair a couple of years, of course I had to buy it. It was one of the first books from which Isaac could recite lines.

The story is perfect for any child about to take that first trip to a big amusement park and take the step of riding the big rides. I remember riding my first coaster with my dad, and the nervousness and excitement and fear are all contained within the pages of this book. The story follows a crowd waiting in line for a coaster. The narrator describes the people -- the old couple who have ridden so many coasters that they are blase about this one, the teenage girl hanging fearfully/coquetishly on her boyfriend's shoulder, the big strapping guy who would rather have his manhood questioned by his friends when he gets out of line than face the noisy monster before him, and the little girl who is unsure about what she is about to do but knows that she is safe with her daddy.

As the people finally board the train, the reader is swooped along for the ride as the coaster turns and jerks and even goes upside down. There are lots of small details for kids to notice in the illustrations -- the looks on the riders faces ranging from exhilaration to terror, the hat falling off the little boy and being picked up by a bird, the hulking guy who vomits in a trash can when the ride is over. And at the end, one rider is ready to do it all over again, right then.

This book comes out every time we get ready to visit a theme park, and many other times, too, just to remind us of the rush of riding coasters. Roller coasters are about seeking out thrills and defying the laws of nature. Pretty much what boys dream of doing every day.

07 January 2010

There is a Monster at the End of This Book.

A post by Matt:

Ms. O, one of my favorite teachers from my childhood, gave Isaac a copy of “There is a Monster at the End of this Book” shortly after he was born. The book was no longer in print, but she knew a place that she could order it from. When she gave it to us, she told us fondly about how hard her sons would laugh when she read it to them when they were little boys.

It would be an easy book to overlook since it is a Sesame Street “Little Golden Book”. Many of the licensed character “Little Golden Books” are simply poorly written summaries of the latest Disney movie. (Hey kids! Want to read a story about Quasimodo’s gargoyle pals?)

“Monster” features Grover who sees the title of the book and pleads with the reader to close the book and walk away because he is afraid of the title character. On each page, Grover builds walls and barricades to prevent the reader from turning any more pages. The monster at the end of the book of course turns out to be Grover. On the last page, Grover hangs his head and says,” I am so embarrassed”.

Besides giving boys the chance to “Demolish” brick walls and wooden structures, it gives them a chance to safely conquer fear, and gives them power and control. (It may indulge a slightly sadistic streak as they get to torture Grover by continuing to read, but it’s for his own good now isn’t it?)

Whenever I read the end of one of Grover’s pleas to “Not turn the page!”, I look over at Isaac who almost always has a mischievous grin and enthusiastically encourages me to keep reading. What is there not to love about that?

The funky 70 style lettering and art remind me of my own childhood. There is slightly updated sequel called “Another Monster at the End of this Book” which features Grover and the Red Menace (Elmo). It’s pretty much the same thing, only 28% more marketable to today’s on-the-go-toddler.

You can find copies on Amazon (one even goes for $68!). It is the rare gem in the sandbox of children’s TV character stories. Whenever I read it, I can’t help but think about my former teacher who loved books and children’s laughter so much that she went out of her way to make sure that it was part of Isaac’s childhood.

03 January 2010

Times, They Will Be A-Changin'

As I sit typing this on my laptop, Isaac is across the room playing on his Fisher Price Cool School computer that is hooked up to our PC. He doesn't play on the computer much and has not used the Cool School program often since he got it for Christmas last year. But he rediscovered it over the holidays and requested that I set it up for him when he came downstairs this morning. While I am glad that he prefers playing with his toys or setting up a board game to being in front of the computer, I also know that he needs some exposure before he begins school next year. I hear comments from friends and acquaintances about their children playing computer games or with their DS Lites or knowing how to "google" at 3 years old and I worry that he will be behind. But I am not going to push him to use the computer. When the time comes, I am confident that he will acquire the skills he needs and soon enough we will not be able to drag him away from the computer or video games. For now, I will enjoy the fact that he still wants to curl up with a book.

We have been reading his new Christmas books over and over again this past week. I predicted correctly that the Fly Guy books would be a big hit. Last night, 4 of his 5 bedtime books were Fly Guy. Knuffle Bunny, Too by Mo Willems is also a favorite. He is the same age as the main character in the story and can relate to her anxieties. And Mo Willems is just fun to read. Superhero ABC, on the other hand, wasn't as popular as I thought it might be. Isaac prefers books about superheroes he knows, like Batman and Spiderman, but I think that book will come out again in about a year and become a favorite. We also read Bear Feels Sick and Bear Feels Scared a couple of times since Christmas. The characters are familiar and the repetitive rhyme scheme helps Isaac participate in the reading.

We did discover something very surprising and exciting when opening Tedd Arnold's Hooray for Fly Guy the first time. The book is dedicated to Arnold's alma mater, The University of Florida, and it's great sports teams. (In the book Fly Guy plays football.) Being the avid Gator fans that we are, we were very excited to read this. I knew there was a reason we liked Tedd Arnold's books so much. Go Gators!

Isaac has finished on the computer and is now sitting next to me badgering me to close my laptop and play. While I feel a bit rushed to wrap this up, how can I fuss at him? I am sure the situation will be reversed sooner than I think.