Tuesday, December 22, 2009

'Tis the Week Before Christmas...

and Bookivore is in a fair way to losing her mind.

The rush and craziness that accompanies this season sometimes makes it feel almost not worth it -- which is just a shocking, awful thing to admit. I have tried this year to make little oases of calm in the midst of the hustle and bustle. One such oasis is advent devotions, something we've always wanted to do, but never seem to have made a priority until this year.

Beyond the obvious spiritual benefits to reading a devotion with your kids, there are benefits on the learning front as well. Check out this quote from Education.com:

"Research shows that reading aloud to children promotes their development of language, vocabulary, even motor skills (as they learn to turn pages). Kids who are read to consistently from an early age don't only learn to read more easily, but they also show better language scores long after kindergarten is a distant memory-- years later in upper elementary school. In fact, the research on reading aloud is so strong, that the American Academy of Pediatrics recently began advising member doctors to prescribe daily reading to young children." (highlighted emphasis mine)

Reading something like a devotional book, particularly one that is meant to be used by a family and is therefore targeted to a wide range of ages, helps children build vocabulary. The questions for discussion provided at the end of the devotional help kids connect prior knowledge with new information, always always always a good thing.

I have looked everywhere for the research article that discusses this but can't find it, so I'm going to report it anyway without factual basis. You can take it with a grain of salt, if that's how you roll. A study I read about 10 years ago found that if a parent reads to a child -- not just kids' books, but anything at all; newspaper, cereal boxes, whatever; the child's perception of reading as an important, desirable activity increased by a nice fat amount (I want to say 30%, but I don't remember the specifics). But, and this is the kicker, if the child's father does the reading, the percentage of increase more than doubled. This is true to a somewhat lesser degree if the child merely sees the parents reading -- it conveys a sense of importance to the act of reading.

If your kids have a man in their lives, make him read to them. Even if it's just the sports scores from the paper or the instructions on how to program the DVR, his input is invaluable. Trade off reading duties with your husband at bedtime (or make it his job completely -- you probably deserve a break anyway).

I know it's like a sound byte that you're sick of hearing, but reading to your kids makes a difference. After the new year I'm going to do a weekly post on specific techniques to help improve reading skills in kids. Until then, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Beautiful Brown Eyes

Marianne Richmond's Beautiful Brown Eyes is a sweet little book about all the things we see when we look at our children's eyes. In a realistic dialogue between a mother and child, it reaffirms the connection parents have with their little ones, the way we learn to "read" them, their moods and expressions, the way we stalk them with our cameras trying to capture those little faces.

All the eyes in the book are brown and Richmond's artwork, a mixture of paint and collage, is reminiscent of Karen Katz, but softer and more textured. The colors are earthy, muted and homey -- a nice match to the text. If you don't have a brown-eyed child, don't worry: according to Richmond's blog, there will eventually be a Beautiful Blue Eyes as well. This is a nice little bedtime or naptime book, probably for one-, two- or three-year olds.

Monday, December 7, 2009

How to Potty Train Your Monster

What a cute book. How to Potty Train Your Monster by Kelly DiPucchio takes the potty training concept book and turns it on its head. Instead of a 2-3 year old, the monster must be 200-300 years old. Instead of a smaller potty chair, monsters need huge potty chairs. And of course, monsters don't read books on the potty, they eat them. Naturally, Bookivore appoves of this wholeheartedly.

The artwork by Mike Moon is cartoony and fun, and it does a nice job of treating a sometimes-serious subject in a lighthearted way. If the battle over toilet training has gotten tense at your house (like it sometimes has at mine) this is a good tool for defusing the stress, for you if not for your child.

It sure helped me to remember to lighten up a little and realize I'm going to look back on the potty training years with laughter. Might as well start now.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Devotional Books

This year, as every year, we try to get something faith-related for our children for Christmas. Often, Santa brings these presents to underscore the Christ-centered nature of this holiday. Last year, my two older children got Bibles. This year, we're giving them devotional books.

We do family devotions (kind of sporadically) so I wanted them to have something personal. Something that would stay on their nightstands. Something that they could read alone and meditate on, or read with a parent and talk about. Enter the devos of 2009.

For my 8 year old:

What I like about The One Year Everyday Devotions by Stephen Arterburn and Jesse Florea was that it almost always uses a Bible story for the lesson. Many, many kid's devotionals use a modern story to illustrate the lesson, then they tie that story to a biblical principle. I think this is okay, but I'd rather my kids get really familiar with the Bible itself and what they can learn from it, especially for my 8 year old. Another thing I liked was that this devo uses the New Living Translation for the Bible passages, which is very accessible and understandable for kids. The lessons are a good length and have pithy points that seem more likely to stick with the reader. The writing style is nice -- casual and conversational.

For my sports-crazed 6 year old:

I struggled with a devotional for my 6 year old. I had a hunch he'd be offended by anything that seemed too babyish, but at the same time something like the Arterburn devo is just beyond him. Truthfully, the reading level of Heads Up: Sports Devotions for All-Star Kids by Dave Branon is also beyond him, but I think the subject matter will appeal to him so I'm going to risk it. This devotion (probably more for 9 year olds and up) uses examples of real athletes from a wide range of sports who are living out their Christian faith. There were some nice lessons dealing with things like sharing your faith, and how your behavior can undermine your witness. In addition to the lessons, there are random sports factoids which I think my son will find interesting. We'll be reading this one to him for a year or so, but I think it's one he can grow into.

For my 3 year old:

God's Amazing Creatures and Me by Helen and Paul Haidle says it's for 6-10 year olds, but when I flipped through it at the bookstore, I thought it might appeal to my 3 year old. Some of the lessons are going to go straight over her head, but it has pictures on every page and uses animal characteristics and behavior to illustrate biblical principles, particularly the idea that God has a plan and design for each of us. In one devotion, it describes how a male Emperor penguin incubates its egg on its feet for 60 long days in the freezing cold. Nothing much happens with that egg until the 60th day -- then, there's the baby! Enter the story of Elijah and his perseverance -- what if Elijah had given up because nothing much seemed to be happening? It'll be a stretch for a 3 year old, but I think it's a nice one to grow into.

I want to hasten to say that I went through probably 15 different devotional books looking for ones that would be a good fit for my kids -- for their reading levels, comprehension abilities, and interests. Unless you know the book well, it's probably NOT A GOOD IDEA TO BUY ONLINE. This is one purchase where you need to go to a bookstore (and not Barnes and Noble -- a Christian bookstore so you get a really good selection of devotionals) and spend some time looking through devotionals until you find one that you think your child(ren) will like. And by "spend some time," I mean plan on about 30 minutes or so. If you're not giving it as a surprise, you could take your child(ren) along and let them look, too. I made a list of the most promising ones, then came home and looked them up on one of the Big Two websites to check the target ages and read reviews from others who had purchased them. Then I went back and purchased them.

Why so much care? I want their devotionals to be appealing and inviting, something they look forward to reading with us or by themselves. If we can instill in them this practice now of reading their Bibles and thinking about what they read, it will be something they come back to again and again into adulthood.

Just keepin' our eyes on the prize.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Pretty Books for Christmas

I love when bookstores bring out all the beautiful Christmas books. Of course, now this happens in mid November, but it's still part of the seasonal excitement. This year, I found lots of lovely books that I'd love to bring home.

Santa's Favorite Story by Hisako Aoki is one we actually own, and we bring it out after Thanksgiving every year. It's a wonderful way to tie in all the Santa stuff with the real meaning of Christmas, Jesus. The animals are all anxiously awaiting Christmas when they find Santa asleep in the woods. Worried, they ask how the Christmas preparations are going. Oh, it's so much work, and he's so tired...perhaps, says Santa, he just won't deliver gifts this year. But, say the animals, then there won't be Christmas! Santa gently corrects them: even if he doesn't deliver gifts, Christmas will still arrive. And he tells them the story of the birth of Jesus, emphasizing that all the presents and whatnot have nothing to do with that ultimate gift so long ago. It's a lovely little story, beautifully illustrated with watercolor paintings.

RRoom for a Little One by Martin Waddell may end up in my 3 year old's stocking this year. It's got pretty pictures and a sweet story. Animals are coming one by one -- tired, old, lost -- and all are welcomed into the stable. At last, Mary and Joseph arrive and are welcomed, too. When baby Jesus makes his appearance, well, of course there's room for him as well. The paintings positively glow and it comes in a nice boardbook format.The next two are so similar, I think you could probably throw a dart and be equally happy with either. Voices of Christmas by Nikki Grimes and The Twelve Prayers of Christmas by Candi Chand. Their formats are almost identical: a retelling of the Christmas story through a variety of perpectives. In Twelve Prauers the perspectives are rendered as prayers, while Voices tells the story in first-person narrative poems.

Both books have stunning artwork and I loved the ethnic flavor of both -- Gabriel is black, Mary looks hispanic or middle eastern, baby Jesus has dark hair. It makes a nice change. My sense of Voices is that it's more Poetry (with a capital p) and some of the lines seem better suited for older kids. In Joseph's poem, he wonders "How can I marry a girl who is having someone else's baby?" Most of the Voices poems are longer than those in Twelve Prayers, again making them maybe a little better for older kids. Twelve Prayers poems are shorter, rhymed texts, beginning with Mary and ending with Jesus. Both of these are gorgeous books with lush, detailed paintings amply complimenting the writing.

The Spirit of Christmas by Nancy Tillman is one that caught my eye because of the illustrations and then I was drawn into the text. The adult narrator is having trouble getting into the Christmas spirit, so the Spirit of Christmas appears, offering sights and sounds of the season to help the narrator along. In the end, though, what's missing is what began it all --Love and a Child. Tillman's luminous illustrations are lovely and convey a sweet nostalgia. This doesn't have the most hard-hitting "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" message, but it's sweet and sentimental and points in the right direction.

I like to have a collection of books like this to bring out at Christmas and leave scattered on end and coffee tables. Even my oldest, who is "too old for picture books, Mom!" will pick them up and thumb through them. It's nice to have some new options for the season.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Sports Books -- Learning to Love Matt Christopher

Sometimes, boys are a little harder to motivate in the reading department than girls. This isn't always true, but in my years of teaching I would say that in general, boys had a harder time finding stuff that interested them than girls, who tended to be more omnivorous in their reading preferences. For grade school boys who are interested in sports, Matt Christopher can be a real Godsend.

I only discovered him because my 6 year old son emptied his piggy bank during the Scholastic Book Fair at his school and came home with three books about football. Double Threat by Matt Christopher was one of those books. It's a book meant for independent readers; it has no pictures and runs 128 pages. However, it worked well as a read aloud book, too, and since my son is currently obsessed with football, he was willing to sit and listen to the whole book, which took us about 4-5 days to read.

What the book does is take a story and then weaves it around some sport -- in this case football -- incorporating lots of play-by-play action. My son was riveted. He even stopped playing with his legos to listen. The next morning, he brought it to the breakfast table and wanted me to read it while he ate breakfast. Talk about motivation.

I am thrilled to have found an author who may inspire my son to make the leap to true chapter books. Right now he's not really interested in abandoning books with pictures -- at least some pictures -- but these books may be what propells him to the next level. He is so obsessed with football and so keen to understand all the ins and outs of the game that I am looking for more of these to give him for Christmas.

Next spring, when he's playing baseball again, there are Matt Christopher baseball books for him to read. And in the fall, when we go back to soccer, there are soccer books as well. In fact, if you have a child that plays a sport, any sport, chances are good there's a Matt Christopher book about it. In addition to the mainstream biggies (football, basketball, soccer and baseball), hockey, snowboarding, skateboarding, and even such esoteric things as lacrosse have made it into Christopher's books.

I've only read Double Threat so I can't speak for every book on the list (and it's a long list -- check the inside back cover of any of his paperbacks), but the one we read was blessedly free of the OMGs that seem to dog kids' literature. The characters have problems that are age-appropriate, they work their problems out in a responsible way by the end of the book. Neat, tidy, not overly angsty. There's a lot of sport woven into the narrative, so you may find yourself lost in or bored by the long descriptions of passes, dog-leg plays, tackles or whatever. But don't underestimate the power of this type of interest-specific book. It can be a great springboard into more fluent reading.
Most, if not all, of Christopher's books are available in paperbacks and are very affordable. I checked with our local library and found 171 of Christopher's titles available, so if it's not your lifelong dream to amass a collection of sports books, you should be able to find them at your library, too.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The 39 Clues

At our house, we sometimes fight over books. Right now, we're fighting over book 6 of The 39 Clues (I'm winning). We began the series about 2 months ago, and haven't looked back since. If you're looking for a good series to start your 3rd-5th grader on, this might be the one for you.

The 10-book series was conceived and mapped out by Rick Riordan (of Percy Jackson and the Olympians fame) and he penned the first installment, The Maze of Bones. His romping, adventurous style and light, sarcastic humor are evident throughout. If you've read the Percy Jackson books, you'll be familiar with the flavor this one brings to the table. Subsequent books have been written by a host of children's authors -- Peter Lerangis, Gordon Korman, Jude Watson, Patrick Carman, Linda Sue Park, Margaret Peterson Haddix.

Amy and Dan Cahill are at their grandmother's funeral. She was their only true family after their parents died, and now she's gone, too. At the funeral, they discover that Grace has laid down a challenge, not just to them but to the other far-flung members of the Cahill clan. Take a million dollars now and walk away, or give it up and start the hunt for the legendary 39 clues. Why give up the money? Because the possessor of the 39 clues will have the ultimate power, will, in effect, rule the world.

So begins Amy and Dan's adventure, as they criss-cross the globe looking for the 39 clues, occasionally helped, hindered or flat out sabotaged by their unsavoury relatives who are also engaged in the hunt.

Each book takes place in just one or two locales -- Philadelphia and Paris, Egypt, Australia and Java, South Korea, Austria and Italy, Russia. Most of the books revolve in some way around historical figures (who, the series claims, were all Cahills in one way or another) -- Benjamin Franklin, Mozart, Amelia Earhart, Rasputin. Each book weaves historical information throughout the narrative, but in a way that's important to the story. Kids aren't going to feel like they're being bludgeoned with lessons. My husband was laughing because he'd never actually heard of Rasputin until he read book 5 and that spurred him to look him up on Wikipedia, as well as a couple of Russian landmarks mentioned in the book. There's also quite a bit of geography as well and we've had fun tracing Dan and Amy's journey on a world map. It's interesting stuff and provides kids with the kind of cultural capital that will probably pay off when they take their SATs in 7 or 8 years or so.

My one concern was how consistent the story would be given that so many different authors were writing it, but I have to say that over the 6 books I've read so far, the tone and pacing are remarkably constant. The only book that seemed a little out of step with the others was book 3, The Sword Thief, written by Peter Lerangis. It's the only book where Nellie, Dan and Amy's au pair, uses the occasional OMG. In fact, in that book, Nellie seemed most like a caricature and the pacing seemed faster than in other volumes. Lerangis also wrote book 7, which will be released February 2, 2010, so I will be curious to see if my impression of book 3 is validated by book 7.

Like so many things, there's also a 39 Clues website where kids can participate in the search for the clues. Mostly this is just a game and puzzle site, but it seems harmless enough. My kids lost interest in it after about a week.

The books are funny, they're exciting, they're full of history and geography. They're also very nice, library-bound hardcovers, which makes them durable and (says my 8 year old) comfortable in the hands. They're on my list to buy for my 10 year old niece and nephew and we've already pre-ordered The Viper's Nest (book 7) for my daughter. A great choice if you have 8-12 year olds to buy for this Christmas. These are an imprint of Scholastic, so if you live near a Scholastic Warehouse sale, they should be very available, often at a nice discount.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Never Smile at a Monkey

Steve Jenkins, how I love your books. This is another offering from one of my favorite artists. If you've never experienced Jenkins' awesome collage work, here's your chance to pick up his newest gem.

Never Smile at a Monkey * and 17 Other Important Things to Remember is a cool book about things you don't really want to do around animals. For example, never harass a hippo: Jenkins goes on to explain that hippos are among the nastiest customers you'd ever want to meet outside a nice, safe zoo. Likewise the beautiful yellow tang, which has two vicious barbs next to its tail that can seriously wound, even kill, the unwary. I was just at the pet store buying food for our psychotic crayfish when I noticed a yellow tang swimming around in a saltwater tank. I checked and sure enough, there were the barbs. Kinda makes you look at fish with a little more respect.

The whole book is a compendium of dangerous, poisonous and scary animals (cone shells, blue ringed octopi, monkeys [!]), making it one for older kids, not toddlers and babies. Like all Jenkins books, it's very informative in a way that will appeal to children. This one is on my gift list for my 1st grader, but I know my 3rd grader will enjoy it as well and I will be cooing over the stunning pictures right along with them. These books are always a pleasure to read and I am thrilled that he's got a new one out just in time for Christmas.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

I Utterly Love Clarice Bean

In my quest to find age-appropriate books for my 8 year old, I have read my share of disappointing books. Allie Finkle, for example, didn't really float my boat. Utterly Me, Clarice Bean, on the other hand, hit the mark just right.

What I love about Clarice is that she acts, talks and thinks like a kid, not like a teenager masquerading as a kid, or like a quippy, smarty-pants, sitcom kid, or like adults think kids talk. She seems very authentic. She's part of a large, messy noisy family which seems very authentic as well. She's the third of four kids and like most kids has a love-hate relationship with her siblings.

The story revolves around a book project which Clarice and her best friend Betty must complete for school. Naturally, they choose one of their favorite books from the (fictional) Ruby Redfort series. First, though, they have to justify their choice with their awful teacher, Mrs. Wilburton, who doesn't feel that a book about a girl secret agent is "suitable material for little girls."

Just like a Ruby Redfort novel, Clarice find herself in the middle of a mystery -- Betty has disappeared! -- and she finds herself reassigned to a new partner, the most awful boy in class. As if that weren't bad enough, the book project trophy is stolen and Clarice's new partner is blamed. Clarice has to set things right before the night of the project presentations.

I liked Clarice Bean -- she was engaging, a little overly dramatic (as little girls sometimes are), enthralled by her book heroine, coping with her goofy family. The book is peppered with Lauren Child's drawings, which add to the quirky feel of Clarice's world. Unlike Allie Finkle, Clarice is willing to give her new partner Karl a chance and discovers he has talents she'd never recognized before. There's a nice sense of camaraderie between Clarice and Karl as they realize it's them against the truly awful Mrs. Wilburton. Clarice's problems are small, but important to her and that rang true to me as well. Not every kid is going through a giant crisis; most of their issues are small and personal.

Clarice also passed the 8 year old girl test: my daughter loved this book and wanted to know if there were really any Ruby Redfort books and could she check them out? (there aren't: I checked).

This one is highly recommended for 2nd, 3rd and 4th graders.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Some debut novels feel like a first effort; they stretch their wings a bit, wobble a tad until they find their groove. But some debut novels burst out with such a sure hand that you are instantly swept into the story and only handed back your consciousness when you've finished the ride. This is one of those books -- a great book. Once I started it, I could. not. put. it. down.

Katsa is a graceling, a person with eyes of two different colors, denoting some special skill or "grace" that is an integral part of her nature. All gracelings become the property of their kings, sent home only if their grace serves no useful purpose. What a person's grace is is not always immediately clear, but after a frightening incident when she was 8, Katsa's grace seems to be killing. Naturally, she is now of great use to her uncle, the king.

She is trained and she is dispatched to and fro across the kingdom, enforcing her uncle's edicts, underscoring his displeasure, punishing his enemies -- or perhaps just those who annoy him. This is her life. And graced as she is with the ability to bring death, she seems powerless to change her situation.

Enter Prince Po, the seventh son of the Lienid king. He, too, is a graceling, but his home is one in which gracelings are free citizens, not merely the tools of their king. Graced with fighting, his personality, his presence, is a revelation to Katsa and causes her to reinterpret her role as king's enforcer.

Their story begins with the kidnapping of the Leinid king's father. Who took him? Why? Katsa finds herself in the midst of a quest for answers and when she finds them, she realizes that the fate of all the kingdoms hangs in the balance,

This book is a compelling read -- fast, but not insanely so; full of action, but also thoughtful. Both Katsa and Po must grow into their graces, both literally and emotionally. Katsa in particular must find a way to come to terms with her grace, perhaps even reinterpret it entirely.

I was surprised to find this book listed as a children's book, recommended for ages 8th grade and up. Here's why I think this is maybe a high school book (perhaps for seniors), but probably really more for adults:

SPOILER ALERT (don't read farther if you don't want to know some critical stuff):

Because of her relationship with her uncle, which is that of master-servant, Katsa decides never to marry; she doesn't want anyone to have power over her again. She does not reconsider this position, even when she and Po fall in love. She makes clear to him that she will not be his wife, but she will be his lover. They sleep together, and while this is not described explicitly, they obviously enjoy their sexual relationship. They leave their relationship open-ended -- perhaps they will stay together forever, perhaps not. I rather think they will stay together, especially in light of the book's ending and the way in which they remain committed to each other in spite of the changes in their graces, their political situations, and their physical health. But the escape-hatch mentality is central to Katsa's being.

Katsa and Po are in their 20s, so it's perhaps to be expected that they aren't going to keep their relationship platonic -- precisely why I think this book is really more for adults. Their decisions about their romantic and sexual lives are those of adults, but they're being presented to kids. These are not the attitudes I want my children to develop about love and sex and marriage.

There's quite a bit of violence in the book. It's not overly gory, not even particularly visceral, but Katsa kills and tortures people for her uncle, so much of what she does is fairly unpleasant. Her own unhappiness about this underscores the gruesomeness of her job. Then, too, there's King Leck, whose sadistic love of hurting young girls is not for the faint of heart. That scenario alone makes this for older kids -- high school at least.

In spite of this, I can't stress enough how much I liked this book. I felt for Katsa, whose ability was subjugated to someone else's will. I liked Po and the way he pulled Katsa out of herself. And I loved the mystery they solved together, only to discover that the solution presented a far more deadly problem than either of them realized.

A great book, just a little mistargeted in terms of audience.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Surviving Guided Reading

My 3rd grader brought home her Guided Reading book this weekend. It was not a book she wanted to read, but she'd been out-voted by the rest of her reading group. Here's what she brought home:

You'll notice that this is a Newberry Honor book. Usually that means it's good.

Anyway, she was having a snit about being forced to read it, so I told her I would take a look at it. My thinking was that if I could read it first, I could help her get engaged with it and smooth the way a bit. Hey, I was an English teacher; I did not in any way intend to let her off the hook.

So I read it. I was only about 4 pages in when I began to be uncomfortable. It's about a boy named Jake who has been kicked out of every school he's ever been in. Rumor has it that he may have actually burned one of his schools to the ground. His parents are both in jail -- for growing marijuana in their basement and "offering" it to an undercover police officer. Though the book doesn't explicitly say so, I think this is euphemistic language for "selling."

Perhaps you can see where I was beginning to have trouble with this book.

Kicked out of yet another school, Jake is sent to the Applewhites, an artistic family with an "academy" -- basically a homeschool set-up that will allow them to pursue their artistic endeavors free of the stultifying influence of the public schools. Jake has a colorful vocabulary, as you might expect from a juvenile delinquent. His swearing is not explicitly recorded, but the Applewhites have a parrot with a potty mouth, so comparisons are drawn between the two.

I turned the book over and looked at the back to see what, if any, commentary it had. And I saw this:

Can you see it? Here, I'll make it bigger:

My daughter is 8. Obviously, we've got an issue here. The marijuana selling and the swearing aside, this book dealt with themes that are just too mature for an 8 year old. The two main characters are 12 and 13, the first clue that this book was probably going to be thematically beyond her. Generally speaking, the age of the protagonists is the approximate age of the target audience.

This is not, let me hurry to say, a bad book. It would be fine if my daughter were in 5th or 6th grade (the age when, incidentally, my 12 year old niece read it). But there's a certain innocence that my daughter still has and that I want to protect as long as I can. So, I emailed the teacher. In my email, I specifically mentioned the marijuana growing, because I really felt that that by itself should preclude the book even being offered to 3rd graders. I assumed the teacher had probably not read the book and was operating out of ignorance.

As a parent, I have absolute authority over what my child reads. The school district cannot force her to read something that I find objectionable. I cannot dictate what anyone else reads but I can dictate what my child reads.

The teacher was willing to have the whole group change books, something I didn't expect. I was prepared to have my daughter reading something independent of the group, but this was a nice surprise. Problem solved. Sort of.

Here's the next book they wanted to read:

Now, I know a lot of people have read and loved Neil Gaiman's stuff, and this book is "recommended" for 9-12 year olds, so it's close to my daughter's age. But -- and this is a big but-- this book has strong elements of horror in it. And since my daughter has suffered from nightmares most of her life, you can see where I might have trouble with this one, too. No argument from her at all -- she wanted to read it -- the problem was all with me. I told her I'd have to read it first before I could sign off on it.

At that point, I contacted the teacher and asked for a list of the books they had to choose from. Forewarned is forearmed, my mom always says.

The purpose of guided reading is for kids to read in a small group with others at their reading level. They read aloud, which enables the teacher to see what mistakes they're making as they read, either with decoding or comprehension, and support them so they can improve.

Now, I want to tread carefully here so my point is not lost. If, like me, you have a strong reader, you may run into the problem of a child who can read many grade levels above their chronological age. The teacher may have trouble finding books which stretch your child's vocabulary and reading ability because to get them to the right level, they must choose books that are geared for older children. Older=Harder, right? But sometimes Older=Inappropriate when the audience is much younger than intended. Just because they can read books for older kids doesn't mean they should.

I suspect I'm in a minority here, because I know many children my kids' ages who routinely see PG, PG-13 and even R-rated movies. Obviously their parents aren't going to object to either of the books I've featured here. But there is a certain innocence in children that should be protected, and that's my job. I don't expect the teacher to have read all the Guided Reading books -- that would be asking a lot of one person. But I can, and will, vet every book my child is asked to read. I'll put it through my mom-filter and decide whether it's okay. I wish I didn't have to do this in 3rd grade, but I do.

And you do, too. Don't assume that everything your child is given to read is okay. Much of it probably is, but do yourself, and your child, the favor of reading it yourself and seeing how it stands up to your mom-filter. At the very least, get on Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com and read what others had to say about it. Check their listings or the publisher's website to see what the age of the target audience is. Ask the teacher for a list of the books they're expected or allowed to read. Don't assume the teacher is trying to corrupt your child. Politely request another book if something sets off your alarms. This bears repeating: be polite.

There's a lot of stuff out there that 8 year olds don't need to be thinking about. Once their innocence is gone, it's gone.

Know what your kids are being given to read.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Lego Star Wars

Oh my...have you SEEN this?

It gets better. Just look.

Impressive, no? I can tell you right now, that my 10 year old nephew and my 6 year old son were drooling over this book when they saw it at the bookstore.


Books like this are awesome, because the little monkeys almost don't realize they're reading. They'll pore over this, absorbing all the information about every last brick.

And there are a lot of bricks featured here.

Now the only question is do I buy it for them, or do we wait to see if Santa comes through?

Friday, November 13, 2009

'Twas the Night Before Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas
and all through the house
not a creature was stirring
not even a mouse.

We have read this one, in various incarnations, since my oldest was a tiny baby. Plug in the title as a search term on either Amazon or Barnes and Noble and you'll pull up hundreds of results. It's one of the most retold stories of Christmas ever, probably only second to the Nativity.

Today my baby and I went to the bookstore in search of a very late birthday gift for my sister and we got sidetracked in the children's section, looking at all the Christmas books that have been put on display for the season. What caught my eye was this great new interpretation of The Night Before Christmas by Rachel Isadora.

I was already familiar with Isadora's retelling of a number of fairy tales (Princess and the Pea, The Fisherman's Wife, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, Hansel and Gretel), but every time I open one of her books, the energy of the paintings just blows me away.

Isadora's artwork is reminiscent of Eric Carle's, but she gives hers a more global flavor. This version has distinctly African characters and is in saturated color that leaps off the page. This is no Currier & Ives version of Moore's poem. It's gorgeous and thoroughly modern. Love it.

Also still around is one of our favorite artist's takes on this classic, Mary Englebreit's 'Twas the Night Before Christmas.

This one is vintage Englebreit, with cute-as-pie elves and mice and all manner of detail in every two-page spread. The pictures are playful, engaging and nostalgic. My littlest one requests this book year round. It's candy for the eyes.

Even more nostalgic, but in a completely different way, is Gennady Spirin's version.

This one is closer to what I'd call the "classic" interpretation; everything looks quaintly European and softly lit. Spirin's paintings always make me think of the renaissance masters, the way they play with light. He has many books which cover a range of Christmas songs and themes and they are all lovely. This one is of a caliber to leave out on your coffee table.

Last is Robert Sabuda's take on the Night Before Christmas; a high-contrast pop-up book, also suitable for the coffee table, if you have older kids. This one is NOT recommended if you have babies or toddlers, since it likely wouldn't survive the season.

It's strongly graphic and very cool, modern and yet retaining an element of the classic about it; I'm always reminded of traditional scherenschnitte pictures, though they're not really like that. Every time I look at this one, I think "How did he figure out how to do that?"

I love all of these and yet none of them is precisely like the edition I remember so fondly from my childhood. Sadly, that book is long gone and despite many long searches through the scads of other versions, I've never been able to locate that exact one. Still, I'm glad there are so many of this classic to choose from so my children, though with different "visions of sugarplums" dancing in their heads, will have the same fond memories.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Weslandia: An Oldie, but Such a Goodie

Writing about the Dunderheads yesterday got me thinking about another Paul Fleischman book that's been in demand around here for many years. Weslandia, published in 1999, came to us via a Scholastic Warehouse Sale. It became an instant favorite.

It's the story of a boy who doesn't fit in -- wrong interests, wrong haircut, just...wrong. But instead of trying to make himself over in the image of the crowd, he veers off in his own direction for the summer, starting a garden full of a single mysterious plant. From this plant (which a neighbor tells him is a weed that should be pulled) Wesley begins to create a fantastic world. Shelter, food, clothing, ink, utensils, a sport and even a language all grow out of this beautiful (and huge) plant in his backyard.

Wesley's world is helped along by Kevin Hawkes' lush paintings. They're so inviting, you just want to step into them and hide in the cool shade of Wesley's plants. Wesley's imagination is equally attractive...by the end of the book, all the neighborhood kids who used to bully him, are lining up to be Wesley's friends.

Yeah, it's fantasy, but it's fantasy of the best kind. Wesley stays true to himself, pursues the course he's decided on, and reaps the rewards at the end. And you can't help rooting for him and wishing you could do something similar.

Weslandia is still available in paperback, and should be readily available at your public library.