Sunday, February 28, 2010

Background Reading

A super quickie: If you have a child who is interested in the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, this little book from Dorling Kindersley (DK) is good background reading. It covers the basic relationships between the Greek gods and also many of the hero myths -- Hercules, Perseus, and Theseus -- and some of the more familiar stories like Pandora, Midas, Orpheus and Daedalus. It's a nice overview that helps put the Percy Jackson books in context and makes some of the monsters and events make more sense.

Note: this is the same book with different covers. Your bookstore might have either one.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


Sometimes, ideas for books just tickle me...well, pink.

Pinkalicious, the title character, eats too many pink cupcakes and voila! She turns pink from head to toe. She is thrilled. "I was so beautiful, I cried." she says. Then she runs around yelling "I'm Pinkerbelle! Look at me, I'm Pinkerbelle!"

Her mother takes her to the doctor, who prescribes a diet of green food to cure her "pinkititis." Yuck! No way Pinkalicious is signing up for that. She sneaks one more pink cupcake and wakes up...RED! Oh no, this won't do. She buckles down, eats her greens, and returns to normal.

If you have a 3-5 year old who loves pink, this book will be an instant hit, and deservedly so. It's charming, funny, and a pleasure to read.

Enter Purplicous.

Purplicious is not charming. In fact, it's rather appalling, especially following on the heels of something as sweet as Pinkalicious. It loses the light, humorous tone that made Pinkalicious so readable and gives us some mean girls, picking on Pinkalicious for her love of pink. Yes, Pink goes on to meet a girl who loves purple and admits that perhaps there's more to life than pink, but it seems to me that they've completely misjudged the target audience. The publisher lists this one as a book for 5-8 year olds, but I can't see many 7 or 8 year olds with this book. It's a preschool/kindergarten book --maybe up to age 6 -- and as such the mean-girl behavior is bewildering to kids -- why would anyone be so mean about liking pink? This is not how it is in preschool, unless your preschool has a Lord-of-the-Flies quality that ours lacks.

Enter Goldilicious.

Goldilicious has a premise that is more appropriate to the true target audience of 3-5 year olds. Goldilicious is Pink's unicorn. Adult readers will realize the unicorn is an imaginary friend (he becomes see-through whenever Pink's mom is around) and he and Pink have wonderful adventures together. And guess what? Now Pink has a fetish for all things gold! Go figure! Kind of thin, as plots go, but at least no one's being nasty to each other.

Goldilicious exists because Pinkalicious is a lucrative franchise. Anymore it seems almost any book that sells well will spawn enough sequels to completely exhaust an otherwise good idea. It happened with Skippyjon Jones (with ever-decreasing lucidity) and Walter the Farting Dog (how many books about gassy dogs do we need?) and Olivia (and you can certainly argue that Olivia's franchise was spinning out thinner and thinner until she was picked up and made into a cartoon by NickJr.)

My advice: get Pinkalicious if you have a preschooler who loves pink, check out Goldilicious from your local library, and leave Purplicious on the shelf.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams

This Caldecott Honor book by Jen Bryant is one of the most beautiful I've ever seen. The cover gives only the barest hint of the luminous artwork within, and even that artistry is taken to a completely different plane by the addition of Williams' beautiful words.

In spare language, the book tells the story of William Carlos Williams, his early life and the everyday things that inspired his poetry. The illustrations are snippets of his poems, embellished and illumined by Melissa Sweet's gorgeous collages and watercolors. I can't say enough about how visually stunning this book is. You can go here and click Google Preview, but even that isn't going to give you more than the tiniest taste.

A book like this belongs in classrooms -- it's perfect for 3rd, 4th, even 5th and 6th grade. Williams' poetry is very accessible -- it's everyday stuff, celebrated in direct and beautiful language. For those who have trouble "getting" poetry, a book like this gives them another dimension, another sense from which to approach it.

Perhaps because I was an English teacher, this kind of book makes me dizzy with delight. Anything that marries beautiful words with beautiful pictures in such a harmonious way...what can I say.....they had me at 'Hello.'

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Mama Gets A Mulligan

Before Christmas, I shared a post about buying devotionals for my kids. I had chosen one for my 3 year old that I thought was a little over her head, but possibly one she could grow into.

Turns out I was way wrong.

There's nothing wrong with this book, except that it's just too mature for her. We tried reading it a couple times, but there weren't enough pictures and the lessons, while excellent, just went in one ear and out the other. She'd get about two-thirds of the way through one and say, "How 'bout Pinkalicious, Mama?"


The book languished on her shelf for a few weeks, and then we decided to start doing dinnertime devotions again. I grabbed her book for lack of anything more family friendly, and that's what we started reading.

Well, it was a hit.

Turns out it is perfect for family devotions -- it hits our 6 and 8 year old just right, has thought- and discussion-provoking questions for them and a clear, biblical tie-in that makes sense to them as well. They love stories about animals and animal behavior, so that's a good fit, too.

And what about the 3 year old? She is so proud that we are using her book for devotions, she actually pays attention. I'd say most of it is still way over her head, but she listens with interest to her siblings' answers.

I would love to pat myself on the back here, but it's really kind of a fluke that it worked out this way. But, lesson learned: sometimes a book in one context doesn't work. In that case, try a different context.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater, is going to remind you of Twilight. The comparisons between the two are inescapable: the whole star-crossed, girl-meets-supernatural-boy thing is just too similar. But where Twilight shows a certain restraint, Shiver's characters don't remain as chaste.

Grace was attacked by wolves as a little girl -- pulled from her tire swing and dragged into the woods, she should have died. Somehow she didn't, and now she has an obsessive interest in one particular wolf with yellow eyes.

After a classmate is killed by wolves, hunters enter the woods to exterminate the pack. Grace, terrified that something might happen to "her" wolf, manages to stop the hunt, but not before one of the wolves is shot. Arriving home, she discovers a boy on her deck, covered in blood and obviously suffering from a gunshot wound. He has yellow eyes. Somehow she knows that he is her wolf.

It is love at first sight, or at least at first human sight since all their prior contact has been inter-species. Sam moves in with Grace (her parents aren't very parental: they spend all their time acting like they don't have a child and don't notice that Sam is staying in their home, despite the fact that he lives there for more than a month).

Cold, it turns out, is what changes the werewolves into wolves. The colder the weather, the closer they get to changing until at last they change for the winter and don't become human again until spring. And eventually, they don't change back at all, living out the rest of their lives as wolves. It becomes critical for Sam to stay warm: he is close to changing and is certain that this will be his last year -- after he changes this time, he will not be human again.

The central mystery of the book is whether there's a cure for this ailment. Grace was bitten during her attack as a child, yet has never changed. She appears to have increased sensory awareness -- her wolf sense -- but she stays Grace. How is this possible? What implications are there for Sam?

Some of the writing is lyrical. It draws heavily on poetry -- Sam is a songwriter and the loss of his self-awareness when he becomes a wolf is devastating to him. He is forced by his nature as a werewolf to live in the moment. Grace, on the other hand, is hyper-responsible, a planner, and her practicality in the face of her parents' immaturity is another theme that's well handled. Their different approaches to this problem of Sam's wolfishness are part of what makes the book work.

Where Twilight spends three full books on the "I want you-But we mustn't!" tug of war, Shiver only draws out the suspense for about 2/3rds of the novel before Sam and Grace sleep together. I have a problem with that, given that this is targeted at 13-18 year olds. Granted, they are supposed to be soul-mates (wolves, you may remember, mate for life), and it's not explicit, but still, Grace is only 16 or 17. Shiver's language is also rougher; more OMGs, a "bitch" or two, and one reference to "ass-kicking boots." It's relatively tame compared to the way actual high school students talk, and not at all gratuitous, but it's there.

The ending really got me, mainly because it wasn't well explained. I found myself closing the book and thinking, "How did that happen?" I think I have made peace with it in my head, but to say that it's clear would be grossly misleading. Perhaps this is going to be explained in the sequel Linger, due out this summer (2010).

Shiver has some nice bits -- the poetry, Sam's agony as he anticipates losing himself and Grace, perhaps forever, the way weather intrudes in and shapes the story. But I wouldn't recommend it for kids under 16, because of the sexual relationship.

And seriously consider reading this one under a blanket, because the constant references to the cold start to get to you after a while.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Classic Monday: Nate the Great

"I, Nate the Great,
am a detective.
This morning I was a cold detective.
I was standing in the snow
with my dog, Sludge,
building a snow dog
and a snow detective.
They looked like Sludge and me.
They were cold and white and wet.
And so were we."

Nate the Great and the Snowy Trail

You gotta love Nate the Great: his hard-boiled monologue, his love of pancakes, his determination to solve the case. He's been around for nearly 40 years and still stands as a classic chapter book for readers beginning to read independently.

Kids today aren't going to get the Joe Friday tone to Nate's speech, the short, clipped sentences, the just-the-facts-ma'am attitude, but parents who grew up on Dragnet re-runs or have caught them on cable will recognize the similarity.

Line lengths are short, but there are quite a few per page. Often an entire page is covered in text. The stories are accessible, always involving other kids and their mysteries. The stories offer the opportunity to stop and predict what might happen -- a good higher-order thinking skill. The books are usually under 50 pages.

Lots of sight words here, and lots of repeated words, mainly because of how Nate talks. The repetition is nice for early readers because they get practice with the same words. However, this repetition makes them not a good choice for reading aloud -- you, the parent, will find yourself getting either a little bored with or annoyed by the text -- wonderful practice, but a slow read for competent readers.

There are about 25 books in Marjorie Sharmat's series, though several since the 1990s have been co-written with Craig or Mitchell Sharmat, who are presumably her sons. Nate the Great remains a good choice for beginning readers.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Usborne Young Reading

After my last post, I got to thinking about good transitional books and wondering why I don't have more of them. So I dug into my stash of readers, which I have handily sorted into plastic shoebox bins and keep stored on top of a bookcase in my bedroom. In my box labeled "Level 3 Readers & Early Chapter Books" I found a couple Usborne Early Reading books.

These are much like the Stepping Stone Full Color Chapter books, in that they are true chapter books with full-length sentences, but they have brightly colored pictures on every page. They come in two levels -- Series One and Series Two, with the text length in the series two books being a little longer and more complex. There is a Series Three, but the subject matter is definitely for older kids -- not so much transitional.

Most of the titles in either series are remade classics -- books like Beauty and the Beast, and Sleeping Beauty, as well as The Adventures of King Arthur, Robin Hood, The Prince and the Pauper, The Wind in the Willows, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Phantom of the Opera and so on. There are a few original titles, some informative, like The Story of the Olympics and The Story of Castles, and some original titles like The Incredible Present and Mystery Mansion. The titles in Series One are overwhelmingly fairy tales, while Series Two seems to be mainly classical literature and informational.

Usborne is a British company which publishes a lot of great kids books, and they are particularly well know for their illustrations. These books are no exception -- not great art, but highly colorful and inviting pictures compliment the stories well. They are well suited to their target audience of 6-8 year olds. The example below really highlights what Usborne does so well: provides pictures with a lot going on in them. Kids will enjoy poring over them to pick out details. Not all the books are illustrated like this, but many are.

This is a big series -- the list of titles in the two series numbers well over 100. You can see the full list at Usborne's website, but keep in mind that this site is located in England and some books won't be available here. Amazon and Barnes and Noble have several of these books, but not nearly as many as Usborne actually publishes. I feel fortunate to have stumbled on a couple hard-bound copies at my local used book store. They are wonderful examples of their type and well worth searching out if you have a child who needs a nudge to the next level of reading.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Stepping Stones Chapter Books

I am always on the lookout for good transitional books; books that allow my kids to move beyond early chapter books like the Henry and Mudge series or the Level 2 and 3 readers. These early books often have larger print and color illustrations, and the text is usually arranged on the page in short lines, but I want my 6 year old to start moving into actual paragraphs, though still with larger print and lots of pictures.

I like the Stepping Stones series from Random House Children's Books, but haven't really considered them transitional since they are more true chapter books, with smaller print and black and white pictures. Just this weekend, though, we hit the jackpot at Half Price Books.

Stepping Stones has a few books which they call "Full Color Chapter Books." These are BRILLIANT. They're usually under 50 pages, the print is larger, but not huge, text appears in full paragraphs and the pictures are in full color and somewhat more frequent than true chapter books, about ever 3rd page or so.

I bought all they had (3 books) and went on a hunt for more online and found several more -- Monsters (not pictured), King Arthur's Courage, Unicorns, The Magic of Merlin, Mermaids, (all classified as fantasy) Gold Rush Winter (history), and Ice Wreck (true story). The books classified as 'humor" were fictional stories, the fantasy books range between fiction and a kind of fantasy non-fiction which traces mythical creatures through legend and history. History is historical fiction and True Stories relate the tales of actual people -- Ice Wreck is the story of Ernest Shackleton's disastrous voyage to the South Pole.

One of the books I bought was Dragons, and I particularly liked that it referenced a number of classical sources, including Beowulf, St. George and the Dragon, and the Norse myths. Remember Cultural Capital? Little things like this -- just a mention of Beowulf or Thor -- lay the groundwork for future learning.

You can check out the whole range of Stepping Stones books at the Random House Site. Unfortunately, they didn't provide a separate listing of just the full-color chapter books -- they're scattered among the other categories and you have to have good eyes to detect the tiny (on the web pictures) line that says "full color chapter book" versus "chapter book."

I was tickled to bits to find these and am keeping an eye peeled for further copies. I hate to pay full price for books like this because children can grow past them so quickly, so finding them used was a real bonus. They're really a wonderful bridge to the next level of reading.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Invisible Detective

The Invisible Detective, by Justin Richards, is a series billed for 5th to 8th graders with mystery and adventure and a dose of the paranormal thrown in for good measure.

It's not new -- book 1, The Paranormal Puppet Show (which goes by Double Life in the U.S.) was published in the UK in 2003 -- but it hasn't been heavily promoted in the U.S. and that's a shame because these are really excellent books.

The stories center around a group of children in 1936 London; Meg whose father knocks her and her mother around, Flinch, who has no family and lives on the street, Jonny, who is undersized and bullied, and Arthur Drake, the 14 year old son of a Scotland Yard detective. Together they have become the Cannoniers, the leg-men for a mysterious character known as the Invisible Detective. The book reveals right away that there is no Invisible Detective -- it's Art and his friends, solving minor mysteries and answering questions for the people of the community. Suddenly, though, they find themselves caught up in a real mystery, and one that threatens to be much bigger than they bargained for.

An odd exhibition has come to Cannon Street -- a warehouse filled with automatons which look eerily like people who have been reported missing in the community. Coincidence? The children aren't sure, but there is certainly something sinister going on, if only they could figure out what it is.

At the same time, there's a parallel story from 2003; Another Arthur Drake, this one thoroughly modern, stumbles into a shop one day and discovers the casebook of the Invisible Detective. Funny thing is, the whole notebook is in Art's handwriting. He becomes obsessed with figuring out who the Invisible Detective was, and how he himself seems to "remember" things he wasn't even alive to experience.

The story is full of action, creepy, but pleasantly so, and the characters are likeable. The historical period is one which American kids aren't going to be familiar with -- it concerns the abdication of Edward VIII so he could marry Wallis Simpson, and Hitler re-arming Germany prior to the start of WWII -- but the events are pretty well explained for readers.

I think this one could be for kids even older than 8th grade, certainly at least through 9th grade, and possibly even through 11th. I wouldn't go much younger than 5th grade, as it might be a little scary, a little violent (people do get killed, though all the violence is at the end and is not graphic at all) for younger kids and the complexity of the language is better for middle school and older.

This is a series that deserves a wider audience in the U.S. It's good literature for kids, thoughtful, exciting, full of kids with integrity trying to do good things, a solid mystery, and a second, even more tantalizing mystery about Art himself. There are 8 books in the series -- go check them out from your public library.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Cultural Capital

There is an assumption that all children begin kindergarten at the same starting line. Any achievement they later attain is therefore a product of their intelligence, right?


Children don't start at point "A" and proceed to point "Z." It would be more correct to say that some children start at point "A" while others start at point "C" or point "E." What determines their starting point is something called cultural capital.

Cultural capital is access to experiences that enable kids to succeed in school, particularly on tests, and even more particularly on standardized tests. Check out this kindergarten readiness list. Note that it assumes a number of things, like access to puzzles, crayons and scissors and exposure to shapes and colors. At its core, it assumes that children entering kindergarten will have had some sort of preschool experience, something that many children don't have because they can't afford it.

Cultural capital is closely correlated with wealth. The higher up the economic scale you go, the more experiences you can provide for your children. These experiences go a long way toward preparing kids for school and supporting their achievement while in school. These experiences don't have to be earth shattering -- a trip to the zoo provides a wealth of new information for the brain -- but it is by no means a sure thing that all children will have been to a zoo by the time they start kindergarten.

A zoo trip is dependent on the parents' ability to pay for such experiences. If you are lucky enough to live in St. Louis, you can go to the zoo for free (Grant's Farm, too), but in our community it costs $10 per person to go to the zoo. And this, keep in mind, is a small zoo without elephants, bears, large primates or even wolves. It costs our family $50 to go to the zoo. There is a much larger, better zoo about 2 hours away from us. It also costs roughly $50, plus the added expense of gas and the hassle of a four hour drive, to visit. If your yearly income is low, or if you are a single parent, this may be well out of your reach.

The higher up the salary scale you go, the more likely you are to take vacations. And to include places like museums and aquariums and other educational sites in those vacations. Last year we took our kids to Mt. Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park. We have also been to Arizona (where I grew up) several times and we always make a point to visit the Sonora Desert Museum. We were blessed with some generous financial assisitance from our parents; without it, we probably couldn't have done any of these things. As it was, they were a finacial sacrifice for us, but we felt they were important experiences for our kids to have. For some, though, the financial cost would be not just a sacrifice but an impossibility.

One aspect of cultural capital is access to books. Books in the home, access to libraries, value placed on the reading of books. This is an area in which we can level the playing field. Children with access to books can read about places and cultures other than their own. They can build their vocabularies. They can be exposed to ideas outside the sphere of their experiences. Reading offers them the opportunity to fill in gaps in our experiences. Children with access to a variety of print media (magazines, newspapers, books, e-books, etc.) develop greater ability to transfer information between contexts -- in other words, they can take something they read in a book and apply it on a standardized test more easily, or they can remember something they read in a magazine article and use it as evidence when writing an essay.

We may not have the money to send our families to Aruba in February or take the kids on a tour of European capitals, but anyone can visit a library.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Classic Monday: Caddie Woodlawn

Some stories from my childhood stand out very clearly from the huge mass of literature I absorbed between 2nd and 12th grade. Caddie Woodlawn, by Carol Ryrie Brink, is one that sparkles in my memory.

Often the books we loved don't always survive the test of an adult reading, but Caddie leapt from the pages as fresh and spirited as she was when I first read her 30 years ago (and yes, just writing that makes me cringe -- 30 years!) I liked Laura Ingalls, but I wanted to be Caddie.

Her life was so much more exciting than mine, running wild as she did all over the woods of Wisconsin with her brothers. I envied her the thrill of riding through the night to warn the Indian village of an impending attack -- I envied her all the adventures she and her brothers cooked up. She was forever doing boy things instead of sitting at home sewing. Mind you, though I wasn't sitting home stitching samplers, I am old enough to remember when girls couldn't play little league (or a lot of other sports) and when we were shunted into home-ec classes whether we wanted to take them or not, so the theme of boy-destiny vs. girl-destiny was one I could relate to.

The language of Caddie Woodlawn is more complex than her sister books, the Little House on the Prairie series, so if you have a reader who loved Laura and Mary et al., this would be a good step up to extend vocabulary and comprehension. It's also a good one if your daughter likes the American Girl books, particularly if she likes Kirsten or Kaya, since the time periods are about the same. Caddie is somewhat more accessible than Little House, I think because there is less that needs to be explained to modern children (read a Little House book and you will find yourself explaining all sorts of things -- butter churns, sod houses, plowing, calico, nose-bags, etc.) But also because Caddie herself is more accessible. Her spunk, her fearlessness, her confusion as she tries to reconcile her tomboy ways with approaching womanhood is one that many girls can relate to, however many opportunities are available to them today. And everyone can relate to the incident with Cousin Annabelle's buttons -- who hasn't done something to be funny and ended up going a little too far?

Other nice touches are Caddie's relationship with her father and brothers and her emerging relationship with her younger sister Hetty and ultimately her mother. The choice her father must make -- whether to return to England and take up the inheritance he is entitled to or stay in America -- is another element that lends depth to the story as Caddie empathizes with her father's younger self. Her developing empathy for others is a theme of the book; in an earlier chapter she chooses to spend a treasured dollar on three little boys who have lost their mother. There is rich food for discussion here -- bigotry, fear of differentness, the nature of compassion, taking action to right a wrong, family relationships -- all are dealt with in these pages and provide wonderful opportunities to talk to your child (and build some critical thinking skills into the bargain).

I would suggest reading Caddie Woodlawn aloud to your child, unless she's a very strong reader. It is a touch slow starting, so it helps to have an adult read the first chapter or two (or even the whole book) to pick up the cadence and rhythm of Brink's writing. Children can always understand more difficult literature when it is read to them, and having more difficult books read to them lays the groundwork for reading such literature by themselves later on. I think there's enough adventure and boy-stuff here that boys would be okay with this book, but since the main character is a girl, it's a fair bet most boys will pass this one by. However, if you have a son and daughter who are close in age, this would make a good family read-aloud book, too.

Like Laura Ingalls Wilder, Caddie Woodlawn was a real person (she was Brink's grandmother) and her story is worth reading again today, both to see how the lives of girls in America have changed, and how at their most basic levels they have stayed the same.