Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Purchasing Cultural Capital

Cultural capital, you will remember, is the bank of experience kids bring to the table when they go to school, and learn to read and write and compute sums, and generally navigate life. The more experiences kids have, the more "money" in their "banks." Research shows that the more actual money in the parents' bank accounts, the more experiences they can afford to purchase for their children -- things like zoo trips, museums, sports experiences, travel, computer usage, etc.

Trouble is, some of us want to give our kids these things but are living on one income. How, then, do we give our kids experiences?

Bookivore and her husband realized a while ago that birthdays and Christmas were becoming Toy Explosion Events: it was like Toys R Us threw up in our house. We were swamped with toys, drowning in toys, caught in giant sinkholes of toys from which there was no escape.

One too many Polly Pockets -- the Horror!

So Bookivore and Mr. Bookivore (who actually prefers to be known as Big Truck) started asking grandparents and aunts and uncles to start giving the kids experiences rather than stuff.

I won't lie to you: there was consternation, especially among the grandparents, for whom the role of fairy godmother was very very pleasant. However, we were as firm as we could be without actually bonking anyone on the head and shouting "Get OVER it!" And some very nice things began to happen.

My sister-in-law quit giving gifts entirely in favor of a Day of Fun: the birthday child goes to their home for the day and chooses any activity he or she wants: ice skating, zoo, pool, roller skating, ceramics decorating shop, tennis, golf...whatever. The child also chooses a lunch destination and a dinner destination (always fast food), and can add in activities like Wii, cookie making and decorating, dress up or art projects of some sort. And here's the super-coolio part: she then makes a DVD of the day using some magically awesome program on her computer that transitions photos, blends in video, and sets it all to music. Then the birthday kid can re-live the day over and over. Fabulous.

One set of grandparents has given mini-memberships to a rock-climbing facility near our house for the last 2 years. That has the added bonuses of being fun and good exercise. They also give magazine subscriptions that we would not ordinarily be able to afford. Another aunt makes about half her gifts books, which of course, Bookivore thinks is totally awesome. We still have one hold- out that can't let go of giving toys, but the balance between experiences and stuff has shifted in a good way.

Unfortunately, the starting line for kids isn't always the same, but we can help our kids stay in the game by making some changes that allow them to have more experiences, rather than just more toys to store, break, and give to Goodwill.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Off to Vietnam...

Passport to the World actually didn't have a book listed for Vietnam, but I thought it was worthwhile to add it since our own history was so bound up in some of the events there. I had a hard time finding books, not because there aren't any, but because my library didn't have them. Grrr!

As it turns out, they did have a few, but for some reason their cataloguing system does not allow users to search picture books by terms like "Vietnam" or "Asia." Kind of a critical failing, I'd say. How else are we supposed to find picture books about Vietnam? Or India? Or Korea? Or pretty-much-insert-any-country-name-here?

At any rate, I ended up with two very nice books about Vietnam, one about a family trying to bring back the cranes that disappeared during the war, and the other about a little girl travelling to Vietnam to visit her grandparents. Both invite extra exploration of the country through some supplemental activities.

We will make origami cranes (instructions here) and we'll Google some sarus crane images. These cranes are a symbol of long life and happiness, and they really were driven off during the Vietnam war, so we may talk a little about how people affect habitat and what that means to the animals. We'll also talk about what makes a home and whether you can feel at home when you're someplace far away (the subject of the second book shown above).

We'll track how far Vietnam is from our town on our graph and we'll talk about how rice is grown, since it's so prevalent in Southeast Asia. There are good sites for this here and here. This last site is a video showing how the paddies are planted by hand. We'll probably make some rice for dinner. We'll do other supplementary stuff -- math and handwriting and practicing time-telling. I have a lovely book called Somewhere in the World Right Now that introduces kids to the idea of time zones, which I think we'll also take a look at to see what time it is in these countries we're talking about. The books are a great way to put some context and content around the other activities so we're not just doing math in a vacuum, or practicing meaningless handwriting sentences.

Next up: Cambodia and Thailand!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Books vs. Movies

Lately it seems like children's books are being made into movies so quickly, kids barely have time to finish reading a novel before it appears on the big screen. Bookivore personally thinks this is because Hollywood had run out of ideas for films, so is desperate to put anything out there that might equal the success of the Twilight books, or Harry Potter.

The problem is, these movie renditions often fall far short of the books. Bookivore will concede that there have been a few -- a very few -- movies that did justice to the books they were based on, and that there have been one or two movies total that improved on their book sources. One example of a movie that at least did justice to its source work was Holes. It's a straighforward retelling of the book -- the book in visual form, actually. The casting gurus completely missed the boat using Shia Labeouf as Stanley Yelnats, who was supposed to be overweight in the book. Not that Shia was bad, just that I think he should have played the first half of the movie in some padding. And of course, the movie loses the lyrical quality of the book -- the beautiful language and the fabulous characterizations of the boys at camp. But otherwise, it's a solid effort. Another similar movie would be Twilight -- although some of the casting struck me as a bit off. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe surprised me by being a pretty nice adaptation as well.

A movie that improved on its book -- and I know I'm going to get zinged for this -- was Fellowship of the Ring. I know it committed the heresy of leaving out some beloved characters, but I always felt Tolkien needed a better editor anyway and the movie cut out a lot of stuff that, while nice, just didn't do it for me. What emerged was a leaner, more streamlined, dramatic story, rather than the meandering trip down a river that the book is. Another good example is Horton Hears a Who.

But the largest category by far is Movies that Fell Short of the Books. Into this I can toss scads of examples: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief; How to Train Your Dragon; The Black Cauldron; the Harry Potter movies (all of them); the Pride and Prejudice remake with Keira Knightly (so, so bad...not stictly a kids' book, I know, bu t it does appear on some high school reading lists); Nim's Island (so close, but just didn't quite measure up to the book); The Cat in the Hat... and the list goes on.

Sometimes the problem is in casting -- Pierce Brosnan as Chiron? Are you kidding me? And sometimes the problem is that the book is just too big, too rich, to adapt well to the screen (like all the Harry Potter movies). Sometimes Hollywood takes just a shred of an idea from the book and goes off at right angles to it, producing something that resembles the book only in that they have the same title (How to Train Your Dragon). Sometimes a book just shouldn't be made into a movie, period. I think The Cat in the Hat proves that beyond a doubt.

The worst thing about movies based on books, though, is that they may prevent kids from reading the books at all. Why read Harry Potter when you've seen the movies? This is my 11 year old nephew's opinion and it drives me crazy. You read the book because it is so much better than the movie.


There are so many more -- Because of Winn Dixie, Despereaux, Hoot, Guardians of Ga'hoole (coming in September), City of Ember, Ella Enchanted (ugh!), Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Freak the Mighty, How to Eat Fried Worms, The Princess Diaries, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Inkheart -- all made into movies that kids may see and think are the be-all and end-all of the story. They're not bad, necessarily, just not good substitutes for the literature that inspired them.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

An Excellent Read-Aloud

Whittington, by Alan Armstrong, is the story of a stray cat who finds a home in a barn with an assortment of oddball animals, mostly strays and abandoned creatures who had nowhere else to go. There's a chicken who can't walk, a pair of retired horses, a band of vicious rats, and the leader of them all, a Muscovy duck called the Lady. Into this mixture come a pair of similarly abandoned children, whose friendship with the animals paves the way for them to heal and grow past their hurt and confusion.

Whittington fits all my qualifications for a good read-aloud book: it's a nice length, it's got engaging characters, and its use of language is sometimes striking. Bookivore likes kids to hear good writing, to get their ears attuned to spectacular turns of phrase and expose their minds to particularly apt imagery. Consider these two examples from Whittington:

"'Why don't you try for another family?'

'Because I'm not cute anymore,' said Whittington. 'My voice is harsh, I've got the shakes, I have opinions, I like to stay out, I stink, I like to fight. I'm not a house pet.'

The Lady nodded. 'I guess not.'

The wind picked up. The Lady shifted into it like a moored dory."

"When they arrived, it was snug in the barn, pungent with damp dung and hay. The bantams murmured and cackled together like they were telling jokes. Now and then Coraggio crowed. He always startled folks when he crowed because they never knew when he'd do it, and he didn't either."

Blended with the story of the children, Abby and Ben, is the much older traditional tale of Dick Whittington and his cat. His rise from poverty to wealth with the help of his cat is woven throughout Ben's struggle to overcome his learning disability. He draws inspiration from Dick's travels and his triumphs over adversity.

The story is a compelling one, hard to put down even for an adult. The relationships between the animals and between the animals and the children is part of the charm; it touches that part of us that wanted (and still wants) animals to talk. The beautiful language makes the read-aloud even more powerful.

Note that there is a reference to opium and hashish in one part of the book as a bit of historical information about the merchants in Dick Whittington's day. If this bothers you, you could easily skip it as it only appears in a list of commodities brought to England from the East during the Middle Ages.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

OOPS! I Forgot This One

Another summer reading incentive for kids, this one from Half Price Books: kids get a $3 book coupon for every week they read at least 15 minutes per day. Go here for details. I can't believe I forgot to include this one, since we did it last summer and practically lived at the store. Lots of books for kids available for under $3, and plenty more can be had for very little with the coupon.

There's still time to participate in these incentives as well.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sustained Silent Reading

Bookivore has talked ad nauseum about the benefits of reading to your children. If you can't get enough of my harping, you can re-read it here, here and here.

But today I want to tell you about the natural partner of reading aloud, Sustained Silent Reading (SSR), and how it can help your children improve both their attitudes about reading and their reading ability.

SSR is a period of time between 10 and 30 minutes in which a child reads recreationally. There is no limitation placed on what he or she chooses to read, other than that it should be interesting to the child. If they want to read the newspaper, great. Magazine? Okay. Serialized Pokemon novels? Knock yourself out. Generally, of course, they're going to be reading books, and that's mainly what should be available, but other forms of text are fine. The only "rule" is that they do nothing but read to themselves for a sustained period (which at its minimum, isn't all that long).

What will SSR do for your kids? In a study on kids who were reading 2 years behind grade level, the children were divided into 2 groups: one group spent 10 weeks doing SSR, the other group spent 10 weeks using a basal reader (a book used to teach reading and reading skills). In other words, one group was being "taught" reading, while the other group was just reading. The result of the study was that the SSR group scored significantly higher in measures of reading and attitudes toward reading than the basal reader group (Holt and O'Tuel, 1988).

Similarly, The Condition of Education, 1997 reported that 9, 13, and 17-year old students who reported reading for fun at least once a week had higher average reading proficiency scores than those who reported never or hardly ever reading for fun.

The more you read, the better you get at it. Amazing!

So in the midst of your busy summer, grab a stack of books, set aside a 10 -30 minute period and tell your kids they're going to spend it reading. Let them read whatever they want. Don't grill them on what they read afterward. Aim to do it 3 times a week. Bookivore humbly suggests you drop what you're doing and join in. There's nothing more powerful than the very-present model of a parent reading for fun right along with the kids.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Yes, Virginia, There are Unicorns...

If you were in junior high or high school in the late 70s and 80s, the word unicorn is going to conjure up images of afros, rollerskating in short shorts, and sparkly tee-shirts with rainbows and such like. They belong in the same category as Care Bears and Trolls-- a collective interest that we're now just a little ashamed to admit we actually liked back when we were young and impressionable.

At least, that's the baggage I had to get over when I picked up the first volume of The Unicorn Chronicles, by Bruce Coville. I had very low expectations for this series, but agreed to read it because my then-10 year old niece really wanted me to.

Now would be a good time to say, I was completely wrong. This is no sappy, sugary unicorn tale; it's a fully realized fantasy with complex characters and a compelling plot that follows so many twists and turns I won't even begin to attempt to untangle it all here. The fact that it spans four largish books would make that task pretty unrealistic anyway.

Here's an ultra-short teaser: Cara Diana Hunter has been thrust into another world to escape a Hunter. Why she is being hunted, she doesn't know. She only knows that she and her grandmother, Ivy, are always on the run. Now she finds herself in a world where the trees have blue leaves and odd creatures are roaming about, some friendly and some not. She meets a unicorn named Lightfoot and learns about the Hunters and their "grandmother" Beloved, a woman who is being simultaneously wounded and healed constantly by a shattered unicorn horn in her heart. She is consumed with hatred for the unicorns, and although the unicorns left earth centuries earlier, Beloved can't rest until she finds a way into Luster to finally carry out the genocide she has dreamt about for so long.

Along the way, Cara meets a variety of creatures and characters -- dragons, delvers, dwarves, centaurs, a gryphon, a geomancer, an assortment of humans, and the squijum (don't ask me what it is -- some kind of squirly thing, I think). It's at least partially a coming-of-age story about Cara, but it's so enmeshed in the fantasy that it doesn't feel like that at all. It's really the story of the unicorns and Beloved. The fourth book, last in the series, is finally out some twenty years after the series began. I can only be glad I was introduced to these books now and didn't have to wait two decades to see how it all turned out.

There are some things in the final book that some readers might find disturbing. Cara's grandmother, we learn in Book 2, is actually a unicorn. She became human when she stumbled back to Earth while pursued by hunters. This makes Cara 1/4 unicorn. In the last book, Cara is offered the chance to become a unicorn to escape a large party of hunters who are tracking her. She accepts, but I found this really unsettling, the idea of losing your human-ness. I was particularly bothered by her lack of hands and found myself feeling rather claustrophobic about her transformation. Another theme developed in the last book is that of the Great Powers, the immortal beings who created the world of Luster and at least some of its inhabitants. The Great Powers are portrayed as essentially human in nature, just very much more powerful. Two of them have been exiled because of the illegal creation of Luster -- something the Great Powers aren't actually great enough to be permitted to do. One of them was exiled to earth, where he must "do enough good to earn my way back into paradise." So, running around in the narrative you have these beings that are, for lack of a better explanation, the gods of this world who subscibe to a kind of "do good, get good" philosophy. It's probably more mature than I'd be comfortable with for a child under 12.

It's epic, it's sweeping, it's long, but it's well worth the effort. Good reading for 10-15 year olds, maybe a little younger if your reader isn't intimidated by big books. Just bear in mind that the last book is for an older child -- perhaps 7th grade or so -- because of the themes and events it contains.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Hello Korea!

Stop number 3 on our Library World Tour is South Korea. I have to say that I couldn't find any of the recommended books for Korea in our library, and the ones I found on Amazon were suspiciously absent as well. In fact, my local library was woefully understocked in children's books about Korea in general. I did manage to find this one (above) at the larger Metro library. I like the story of the little girl moving from Korea to the U.S. and thought it did a nice job conveying the differences and similarities between the two. There were other books on Amazon that looked better, but this one did the job and was free -- so I am trying not to pout about it. It's a lovely book, but I'm annoyed by the scarcity of choice.

We also picked up Bee-bim Bop from our library, which is geared for much younger children, but which I thought could work in the context of seeing how the food was cooked and the people ate. I love that the family says grace before their meal -- it really highlights the fact that one of the largest faith groups in Korea is actually Presbyterianism.

To enrich this lesson, we are going to use the recipe for Bee-bim Bop at the back of the book. We'll track how far away Korea is from our town on our graph and find Korea on our world map. I have to say, there aren't a ton of kid-friendly resources that I could locate on the web; most of the stuff was aimed at older children writing reports for school. My baby will do a Letter K coloring sheet and my son will copy some sentences about Korea for handwriting.

Next Stop: Vietnam