21 July 2011

Movie Time

This is a blog about books that we read to and with Isaac, but occasionally I take the liberty to digress and talk about something I have read or seen that may inform my parenting or teaching. Today I am going to go in a different direction entirely and write about movies.

This should really be Matt's post since he is the film-hound and a much more thoughtful movie critic than I am. But Isaac and I have seen quite a few movies this summer and I wanted to share some of them.

Many of the movies that have come out recently for children have been based on books or book characters. Mr. Popper's Penguins was the first one that we saw a few weeks ago. It is based on a children's book that Isaac's teacher read to the class last year, so he was very excited when he found out they were making the movie. I have to admit that I have not read the book and cannot judge how closely, or not, the movie follows the plot. And Isaac is not yet discriminating enough in his movie tastes to care. It was pretty good for a summer-get-the-parents-to-bring-their-kids-to-the-theater-release. Jim Carrey was his usual funny self, but the penguin stole the show. It had heart, but really all the kids wanted to see was the dancing penguin scene and Jim Carrey make the zookeeper punch himself in the face. It did have Angela Lansbury, but anyone below 35 isn't really going to appreciate the sentimentality of her appearance. Show the penguins again, already.

We also saw Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer. This movie is based on a children's series and the author co-wrote the screenplay. I liked that it continues the character's story, rather than simply takes one of the books and puts it on the screen. Fans of the series will find many familiar references and characters to connect back to the books. The movie employed some fun effects to bring out Judy's personality and the flavor of the books that are difficult to get across when you lose the inner-dialogue that the books allow the reader to be privy to. My only real problem with the movie was Heather Graham. I am just not a fan. And I don't appreciate the sexy-aunt character. She is supposed to be a free spirited artist, but that could have been portrayed just as easily in a caftan as a bustier. I am sure, though, that many fathers who were dragged to the movie by their children would disagree with me.

The one big movie disappointment of the summer was Cars 2. I should clarify that Matt and I were disappointed, Isaac liked it just fine. I have wanted to write about Pixar before, but just never took the time to focus on it. As a family, we love Pixar films. I believe they have made many of the best films of the past 20 years. Typically, Pixar movies have a strong story, relatable characters, and amazing animation. I really don't think there is one I have not liked, until now. Cars was one of Isaac's favorite movies for a long time, which means I have seen it a lot. We were really looking forward to this new one, and were also sad that Paul Newman had died before being able to be a part of it. A few days before the movie was released, we watched a documentary about Pixar and its rise as a creative force in the film industry. Over and over again the key players in the company emphasized the importance of "story" to their movies. Without a good story, the movie would fail no matter how great the animation. Somehow, they lost sight of that with this latest movie. The story was haphazard and the movie was simply a showcase for the funny stars and the cool animation. But again, Isaac liked it, and Pixar will make money on it and all of the merchandise it spawns. Hopefully, though, they will get back on track and find another good story for their next film.

I think today Isaac and I will go see Zookeeper. It's not one I would normally choose, but I have a feeling I will have sat through worse. (I actually took him to see Yogi Bear back in the winter -- it can't be worse than that, can it?) The one job that Isaac keeps coming back to when he is asked what he wants to be when he grows up is a zookeeper, so he has been excited about this movie for a while. It's really hot today (possibly getting up to 100), it's been a hectic week, and Isaac and I have been getting on each other's nerves. An air-conditioned movie theater, a tub of popcorn and some talking gorillas sound like just the thing we need.

20 July 2011

Summer Reading Blues

We are continuing to work on Isaac's reading this summer. It is a frustrating process. Finding books that he is interested in and willing to read that are on his reading level is not as easy as I thought it would be when summer began. Storytime often turns in to struggle-time of late -- it is a struggle to keep Isaac focused, to keep him motivated, and to keep a hold on both our tempers. His friend from school is working with a tutor this summer to improve her reading skills. I wonder if we should have tried a similar arrangement. But I should be able to do this. My job isn't actually to teach reading, but to make sure books are available to students at all reading levels. But I feel that I should be the one to work with Isaac on this or I will have failed in some way, as a teacher and a parent.

One series that I am trying to get Isaac to read is Biscuit by Alyssa Capucilli. They are geared toward beginning readers. These books about a rambunctious puppy are just the right reading level for where Isaac is right now -- he should know most of the words, with a couple of challenging ones thrown in. In the right frame of mind, Isaac does well with them. When he is not in the right frame of mind, you would think he had never seen letters before.

Another series that I thought Isaac would find fun is Max Spaniel by David Catrow. Again, these books are the right reading level. We had a bit more success with this book than we did with Biscuit, because Catrow's exaggerated pictures bring in a level of humor to otherwise dry text.

Matt worked with Isaac on reading Itchy, Itchy Chicken Pox by Grace MacCarone last night. It is well within his reading level, but you would have thought the poor boy was being tortured. I believe that if we can hit on the right books, Isaac will take to this reading thing. Unfortunately, they haven't written a series of beginning readers featuring Spider-man or Batman.

We will continue to persevere as summer begins to wind down. My hope is that Isaac will at least not have regressed when he is assessed at the beginning of first grade. Improvement would be ideal, but holding the line will have to do. Right now, survival is my ultimate goal.

19 July 2011

Fast Travels

Matt and Isaac will end summer vacation by traveling to New York City to visit a high school friend of ours. Matt is already planning the trip -- Statue of Liberty, Coney Island, Museum of Natural History, possibly a Broadway show.

They are taking the train there and back, and will travel around town using the subway. Isaac has never been on a train (neither have I for that matter) except for the old steam engine rides they have at amusement parks. He did ride the subway when we visited friends in DC two summers ago. I guess it is more accurate to say he rode the Metro.

Since I knew they would be getting ready for this trip, I brought home Subway Ride by Heather Lynn Miller from the library. It is written in rhyme and the characters travel the subway in various international cities. Sue Rama, the illustrator, captures the hustle and bustle of the many cities in her paintings. This book is a quick underground trip around the world. There is also a fact section at the end about the different places mentioned in the book that was quite interesting.

As we read the book, we talked about riding the Metro in DC and looked forward to the experience they will have in New York. We even talked about maybe visiting another city with a subway system, now that we are international travelers, although it is more likely we will just go to Atlanta and ride MARTA.

16 July 2011

Obligatory Harry Potter Post

Matt asked me a few days ago when I was going to start reading Harry Potter to Isaac. I had just finished re-reading the final book, Deathly Hallows, in preparation for the final movie that was released this weekend.

I have considered the question before, with no good answer. Part of me would like to start sharing the books with him in a year or two. But another part wants to wait until I feel he is ready to read the whole series so we can read all seven books straight through, assuming he likes them, of course.

My answer to Matt was "not for a few years." Whatever that means.

I love the Harry Potter books. I have not liked the movies so much. I had not seen an HP movie since #4 until this weekend. But I felt compelled to go see the final one, and I even sat through #7 part 1 so that I could appreciate the theatrical version of Deathly Hallows in its entirety.

A group in our town organized a pre-show tailgate at one of the local theaters, which was also showing part 1 before the midnight premier of part 2. Matt and I know the organizer, and wanted to see part 1, so we went to the party. We tasted butterbeer, I got Hedwig painted on my face, and we commented on the various people in costumes. One girl was wearing a particularly impressive "snitch" costume.

There was one moment that I wished Isaac were able to experience the excitement (he was spending the night with friends so Matt and I could go to the movie). There were children dressed in their Hogwarts robes, carrying wands, with house crests painted on their cheeks. Many of them had not even been born when the first book was published, or the first movie was released. (I will not reflect on the fact that many of them had probably not actually read the books.) I missed Isaac as I watched these other children and saw how excited they were. I was sorry that he had missed out on what has been an amazing phenomenon. I know he will read the books, and I hope that he will feel the same exhilaration when he experiences the story as the children we watched Thursday night did. But by the time he experiences it, he will be playing catch-up. The first thrill will be gone. That made me a little sad.

So, Matt and I watched part 1, then left the theater and stood in awe of the crowd waiting to see part 2 premier at midnight. The line wrapped around the sides of the building on both sides. We found the youth group from the church in the mass of people, but were quite happy to leave them behind and go home. We could wait another 18 hours before seeing the final piece of the puzzle.

Part of me hoped that I would love the last movie. I didn't. I did like part 2 better than part 1, but many of my favorite moments from the book fell flat in the movie, not because they were not wonderful moments, but they were small moments that got lost in the action and drama of Harry's last stand against Voldemort. I think that is what makes the books so special -- there are so many small moments that give the story heart. It's hard to capture those on the screen. The friends that we watched the movie with had some of the same feelings, though we did talk about how the movies have served the purpose of fleshing out the world that Rowling had created and giving it life. I cannot fault the visual mastery of the films.

The movies may not have lived up to my hopes (I won't say expectations because those were never high), but the books will always be some of my favorites. I will read them with Isaac in "a few years" and, while he has missed out on this first rush of excitement, I think he will enjoy them. And, as Matt reminded me, every generation has a Harry Potter phenomenon. There will be something that he gets caught up in and excited about and maybe will even be dressing up for. If we are lucky, it will be something we can appreciate, too.

There is so much more I could say. What I loved in the books, who my favorite characters are, which scenes made me cry or laugh. But, as with any book, each person experiences it differently and much of the meaning that we find in the story comes from the connections we make from our own life. We give the story power, not the other way around. So if you haven't read the books, you should. The movies, well, maybe not.

13 July 2011

That Tricky Spider

I have not read many folktales to Isaac. It is hard to find good age-appropriate adaptations of many of them, emphasis on the "good." I am not one who needs my folktales to be watered down versions of the original stories, in which all the characters miraculously survive being eaten by wolves or mauled by bears and no one ever dies. But I do need them to be readable, have appealing pictures and have as little Disney influence as possible.

Earlier this school year, Isaac's class was studying Africa for their international festival at school. I am not sure if he came home talking about Anansi stories or if I picked one up from the library, but we read a few of the folktales a few months ago and I added one to the library bag again last week.

Anansi is a common character in African folktales, often portrayed as a spider or a young man. He is a trickster and loves to cause trouble, though it usually comes back to bite him in the abdomen. You can find as many versions of Anansi stories as you can countries in Africa. One team whose adaptations we have particularly enjoyed is Eric Kimmel and Janet Stevens.

Kimmel and Stevens have successful careers individually, but together they have retold and illustrated, and even written their own, Anansi tales using accessible language and fun, colorful pictures. Isaac has really enjoyed them, especially Anansi and the Magic Stick. The latest one we read was Anansi's Party Time.

I will continue to hunt down good versions of traditional folktales to share with Isaac (and my students). It is important for children to hear these stories. They are so much a part of our culture and lexicon, that to not be familiar with them is to not be truly literate. But I will not compromise on quality. After all, I am reading them, too.

12 July 2011

Sibling Rivalry

I was reflecting yesterday while reading some library books to Isaac that a lot of the books, series chapter or picture books, that we have read lately have girl characters. Typically, girls are more willing to read books with characters of either gender, while boys want books about boys. This is more true as they get older than when they are Isaac's age. I think, then, they do reach a point where they appreciate the story regardless of the character's gender as they mature as readers. But there is definitely a stage where books are "girl books" if the main character is a girl and there is no convincing them otherwise.

Isaac has not reached that stage yet. But I do make an effort to find books with strong male characters. Books about boys that he will find funny or relate to in some other way. That is why I am glad that Megan McDonald has a companion series to Judy Moody about her brother Stink. (I think his name is actually James, but Stink is much more appealing, at least to a boy.)

Stink is in second grade, so the series is geared toward a slightly younger child and still developing reader than the Judy Moody series. Judy Moody shows up in the Stink books, and vice versa, so kids enjoy going back and forth to find out more about the characters. I like Stink as a literary role model for young boys - he is funny, smart, not always well-behaved, but not obnoxious either.

We started reading Stink books before Judy Moody and Isaac is enjoying them both. We managed to read an entire book while waiting in the airport on our way home from vacation a few weeks ago. Amid the noise and the many distractions, Isaac was glued to my side so he could hear the story. The library and the used book store did not have any Stink books available when we returned home, but we are keeping our eyes open for more.

11 July 2011

Movin' On Up

We are moving up in the children's chapter book series world. We have not completely left Junie B. behind, but we are expanding our reading palette to include some other popular books.

One that Isaac is taking a liking to is Judy Moody by Megan McDonald. Some of you may be aware that there is a movie out this summer called Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer. We have not seen it yet, we plan to go this week. Rather than adapting one Judy Moody book it is a separate story entirely using McDonald's characters. As one whom is bothered when movie adaptations stray from the book's plot upon which they are based, I appreciate this approach and am curious to see how the movie and the books fit together.

Judy Moody is a series about a 4th grade girl who is smart, funny, and often finding herself in awkward situations. I find her to be a cross between Junie B. Jones and Ramona Quimby. And the books are a nice middle ground, as well. A step above Junie B. in reading level, but not quite the difficulty or length of Beverly Cleary's books.

We have read the first of the Judy Moody series, and another is waiting to be read in the bag of library books we brought home last week. We will be seeing the movie, too. I will pass on Isaac's review once he has rendered his opinion.

06 July 2011

Dragon Tales

We have spent a lot of our bedtime storytime reading chapter books the past few months. So there are fewer books to write about as it takes much longer to read them. And many of the books are one of a series, and really there is only so much I can say about Junie B. Jones or the Magic Tree House.

We had seen the movie How to Train Your Dragon when it was in theaters, so as a break from Junie B. and the Tree House kids, I brought the book home from school to read.

I had not read the book, the first of a series, though I knew many of my students liked it. If you have also seen the movie but not read the book, prepare to be surprised (or not considering Hollywood's tendency to borrow a title and create a movie that has nothing to do with the book). We actually really enjoyed the movie and as a film I think it stands on its own as a good story and a well-made movie.

I think the book also stands on its own as a good story, though it was a little long and the vocabulary was beyond Isaac's level so he missed a lot of the jokes. The gimmick is that the main character is writing his story as a how-to-book for future generations. There is adventure, gross scenes and an heroic ending.

I think when Isaac gets older I will encourage him to try it again. Since it is a series, it may be something he gets hooked on.

We have a bag of library books sitting in his room (on his still clean floor), and we bought some new books at Ed McKay over the weekend, including one of my childhood favorites, The Littles. So we have plenty to read, and hopefully there will be plenty for me to share here in the next few weeks.

05 July 2011

Never Too Much

Isaac and I spent July 4th morning, and part of the afternoon, cleaning his room. My mother was rather incredulous that we really spent over 4 hours working on it. But, we did. We (I) organized toy bins, cleaned out cubbies, made piles to toss and give away, and even weeded his book collection. Right now, the floor is still free of miniature cars and light up swords.

As we were (I was) going through the book crates, Isaac pulled out Too Many Toys by David Shannon. He thought the parallel was pretty funny. I thought it was less than hilarious. But, when we were finally done with the clean up/out and Isaac asked to read Too Many Toys, I didn't say no.

I have written about David Shannon previously, and mentioned this particular book, but I did not go into detail about it. It is another David Shannon gem. His descriptions of the multitude of playthings that can take over a house are spot-on. And, I swear, he could have been writing about us, right down to the harried mother with the blond ponytail.

In the end, a small box of toys is ready to go (again, the parallels are uncanny), and the mom is satisfied (well, maybe not so much). The boy still has plenty to play with (yup) and, of course, charms his mom into leniency (Ok, I admit it). Again, Shannon manages to capture the heart of parent/child relationships while drawing laughs from mom and son.

01 July 2011

Leaping Lizards

I have not seen the movie Rango, but Matt and Isaac have. They liked it, and I had wanted to see it, but never found the time. Typical.

But, when I saw the book Art and Max by David Wiesner come in this spring, I thought of Rango. I am sure that the plots are not at all similar, but they both feature southwestern themes and lizards as their main characters.

Wiesner is a multiple-award winning author/illustrator. One of the few, in fact, that when you see his name on the book, you can pretty much count on it being a good read. Many of his books are wordless or have very sparse text. He lets his pictures tell the story.

Art and Max brings in the ideas of individuality, friendship and it celebrates creativity. It is a great read, but if you have a budding artist, this is especially a great book to read to encourage exploration and courage in the creative process.

Wiesner's other books are also well worth checking out. If you are going on a beach trip this summer, Flotsam is a wonderful book to introduce the magic of the deep-blue sea.