Thursday, April 30, 2009

Twenty by Jenny

Faced with the thousands of new children's books that are published each year, it's sometimes hard not to feel overwhelmed. Fear not! Jenny Brown, who has wide-ranging experiences both with children and children's literature, has a website that will get you started. Check out Twenty by Jenny, in which she shares her personal top 20 list for each age group from infant to teen. Sign up for her e-newsletter and you'll receive more book reviews each month!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Fascinating Lives

Some children are perpetually drawn to fiction while others are diehard non-fiction fans. Biographies can form a great bridge between the two since they tell a story, but one based on fact. These days there are more wonderful biographies available than ever before on a wider range of individuals than in the past. No longer must children slog through dry texts about a few hallowed individuals who come across as remote and super-human. Young people today can read about ordinary people as well as learning about the human side of well-known names from history.

Currently 2nd and 3rd graders at Open Window are in the middle of a biography unit. We are focusing primarily on people from around the world whom students are not likely to have heard of. These books have led to some interesting discussions as we reflect on what we can learn from each person’s life.

One common thread that emerges from many stories is persistence and risk-taking in the face of adversity. From John Stetson’s great creativity brought to life in Boss of the Plains: The Hat That Won the West by Laurie Carlson to the fascinating story of Sephardic Jews who intermarried with Gullah Islanders described in Always an Olivia: A Remarkable Family History by Carolivia Herron, students have remarked on the ways in which people hold fast to their dreams and do not let setbacks overwhelm them. Perhaps this was best summed up in Honda: The Boy Who Dreamed of Cars by Mark Weston, which quotes Soichiro Honda as saying “I have always had a stronger interest in the work than the money.”

Some great biographies that we did not have time to read include:

  • The Boy on Fairfield Street by Kathleen Krull
  • Hidden Child by Isaac Millman
  • Mansa Musa: The Lion of Mali by Khephra Burns
  • She Touched the World: Laura Bridgman, Deaf-Blind Pioneer by Sally Hobart Alexander
  • Stand Tall, Abe Lincoln by Judith St. George
  • Traveling Man: The Journey of Ibn Battuta 1325-1354 by James Rumford
  • Wise Guy: The Life and Philosophy of Socrates by M. D. Usher

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Proust and the Squid

Now there's a title you won't easily forget! Maryanne Wolf, a professor of child development and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, has pulled together material from a huge range of disciplines into one highly readable volume. I cannot recommend this book highly enough!

Proust and the Squid has something to offer everyone, whether you are a parent, an educator or just someone who is interested in language, history or the science of how the brain works. As Wolf points out, reading is not a natural or innate human activity; it is a relatively recent invention and not something that all human cultures have engaged in. Even among literate societies there is a tremendous range of approaches to writing, resulting in equally diverse challenges for the human brain. Different parts of the brain will be used when reading a highly regular phonetic language (such as Spanish or German) as opposed to a logographic language (e.g. Chinese) or a language that uses a mixture of logographic and phonetic writing systems (e.g. Japanese).

When you consider the many functions the brain must perform at incredible speeds to read even a simple line of text it is no wonder that children sometimes run into obstacles. Thanks to modern neuroscience we have a better understanding than ever of what form these obstacles take. The many reading challenges loosely grouped together under the heading "dyslexia" can actually be manifestations of very different problems, some of which are noticeable at very early ages while others may not become apparent until age 9 or 10.

Even if no one in your family has a reading disorder, Proust and the Squid will give you new respect for the amazing things that happen inside your child's head every time he or she picks up a book.

Monday, April 20, 2009

What else can you do with a book?

Visit Bellevue Art Museum's exhibit The Book Borrowers: Contemporary Artists Transforming the Book and you might be surprised! In this case books form the raw material that artists transform almost beyond recognition.

Other people engage in book arts: creating books that are works of art in themselves and in which the form enhances the content. Special Collections at the University of Washington library in Suzzallo has a magnificent book arts collection that I highly recommend.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Always wanted to write a book?

Here's your chance! Join thousands of other young writers for NaNoWriMo (there's also an adult version for those 18 and older)! It's a fun challenge: see if you can write a whole book in one month. The month the organizers set aside each year for this project is November, but they have resources and suggested activities for the entire year, so check out the website now and get those creative juices flowing!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Judith Krug in the New York Times

Following up on my last post, the New York Times published a lovely editorial appreciation of Judith Krug. Here is an excerpt:

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a librarian is a person who specializes “in the care or management of a library.” That definition is far too mechanical. It leaves out the larger role librarians play in our democracy, facilitating access to information and ideas and promoting and protecting a precious First Amendment right: the freedom to read.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Banned Books Week

I am sorry to report that Judith Krug, head of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom and founder of Banned Books Week (BBW) passed away on Saturday following a long struggle with cancer.

In case you have not heard of it, BBW, which takes place during the last week of September each year, celebrates intellectual freedom by calling attention to the many books that continue to be banned or challenged in the United States every year.

Some of our students' most beloved authors, such as Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, Kevin Henkes, Lois Lowry and Lauren Myracle have made the top 10 in recent years. See the ALA website for additional information.

BBW reminds us not to take our freedom to read, think, discuss - and to decide for ourselves - for granted!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Who do you love?

Last summer the newspaper The Telegraph reported on a survey of British adults' best-loved authors. The results showed that four out of the top ten were children's authors. Enid Blyton, a name well known to anyone who grew up in a Commonwealth nation, won top honors. Roald Dahl took second place.

In fact, the earliest chapter book I recall reading on my own was by Enid Blyton - and it was utterly magical. Literary merit and societal changes aside, her stories have enthralled legions of young readers around the world and it is no wonder that many adults who have not picked up a Famous Five book in decades still hold her dear.

I recently read Laura Miller's The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia, which is a fascinating personal journey through the works of C.S. Lewis - a very readable mixture of literary criticism, history and memoir. Miller describes well the way we read as children - in a way that is all-consuming and powerful to a degree that we cannot reproduce as adults. Regardless of how you feel about Lewis in particular, I highly recommend the book to anyone who is interested in this intersection between children's relationships with books and adults' desires to shape the ways in which children read (or the content of their choices).

Take a moment to think back on the books that gripped you as a child. Do you remember reading and re-reading them obsessively? Have you read them since? Have you since read anything else that transported you to that same degree?