Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Let your ears do the reading

While the theory of different learning styles (auditory vs. visual, for example) has come under fire of late, there is no doubt that when it comes to reading books in a traditional way vs. listening to them on audio, many people have strong preferences and opinions!

Wired for Sound is a fascinating essay exploring one man's preference for audio as compared to his wife's assertion that reading text with one's own eyes is a superior option. The author contacted Howard Gardner, of multiple intelligences fame, for his input on the topic as well.

I am a fairly recent convert to audiobooks, and find that as a busy working mother, they are a lifesaver! I can "read" while commuting to and from work or cooking dinner. Suddenly, in the midst of a hectic schedule, I am more easily able to keep up with new literature while also enjoying a superb performance that most often brings a rich new dimension to the book in question.

Audiobooks are a great way to encourage a child who is a reluctant reader or who isn't eager to branch out into different genres. Even enthusiastic readers find themselves unexpectedly enjoying books they didn't think were appealing when they are presented in audio form by a parent who stealthily pops a CD into the car stereo. They are also great for physically active kids, who can play with Legos while listening to a book rather than being expected to sit still and read. Check out this earlier blog post on the topic for more information and suggestions!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Winter break 2011 reading list

Without further ado, here are a few gems to explore over winter break! Also view my profile on GoodReads for more recommendations!

Picture Books for All Ages

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen – A deceptively simple, quite ingenious book. Ponder the clues in the illustrations and see if you get the joke at the end!

The Selkie Girl by Susan Cooper – Dreamy illustrations perfectly match this haunting and magical Scottish folktale of love and longing.

The Three Golden Oranges by Alma Flor Ada – This is a beautifully illustrated retelling of a well-known Spanish folktale.

White is for Blueberry by George Shannon – “White is for blueberry… when the berry is still too young to pick.” This clever book will encourage you to look more deeply, see the world differently and ponder the surprising connections between everyday objects.

Elementary Fiction

A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond – First published over 50 years ago, this class is not as widely read today as it deserves to be! When the Brown family takes in a homeless young bear, they have no idea what adventures will ensue!

Billy and the Rebel: Based on a True Civil War Story by Deborah Hopkinson – Who says beginning readers have to be boring? This story captures the tension of the original, real life encounter between a runaway Confederate boy soldier and the kind Union family who shelter him.

Calvin Coconut: Trouble Magnet by Graham Salisbury – The first in a fun series about Calvin, a little boy who lives in Hawaii. Perfect for fans of Ramona, Stink, Fudge and other humorous realistic fiction books.

Houndsley and Catina and the Quiet Time by James Howe – This beginning chapter book is perfect for a peaceful, snowy winter’s day. Snuggle up inside and share this one together!

Elementary & Middle School Fiction

Bird in a Box by Andrea Davis Pinkney – Boxing legend Joe Louis is at the center of this heartwarming story about the lives of several African American families, each dealing with different kinds of troubles during the Great Depression.

Boom! by Mark Haddon – Did you ever suspect some of your teachers might really be aliens? Find out what happens when two curious boys stumble into the adventure of their lives!

The Friendship Doll by Kirby Larson – Inspired by 58 dolls sent from Japan to the US in 1927 as a gesture of friendship between the countries, this sweet chapter book follows one doll as she changes hands over the years and is loved by girls leading very different lives.

The Truth about Truman School by Dori Hillestad Butler – Can you write anything you want online just because it’s true? Where is the line between honesty and cruelty? A group of students find their lives deeply affected by anonymous comments on their online school newspaper.

Middle & High School Fiction

Hero by Mike Lupica – There is non-stop action and adventure in this exciting mystery investigating the death of his father, an undercover government agent!

Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge – A truly creative and inspirational graphic novel about high school students coming into their own and learning to express themselves through art.

The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen – How would you cope if one day you discovered you couldn’t pursue your passion? Track star Jessica has to find the answer to this question after a tragic accident leaves her with only one leg.

The Summer I Learned to Fly by Dana Reinhardt – One of my favorite books of the year, this is a lovely story about a girl’s summer of personal exploration, a boy’s quest for the miracle that will reunite his family, and their budding friendship.


The Book of Pirates by Jamaica Rose and Captain Michael MacLeod – A very entertaining combination of history, activities to try at home, recipes, humor and trivia – all relating to pirates, of course!

The Good, the Bad and the Barbie: A Doll’s History and Her Impact on Us by Tanya Lee Stone – A fascinating exploration of the cultural and commercial impact of this legendary doll. Love her or hate her, Barbie has influenced our society over the last half century – read this and find out more!

Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution by Steve Jenkins – Art and science combine in this incomparable introduction to a complex topic. Don’t be fooled by the beautiful collages and picture book format – this book is packed with science made clear and accessible!

Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story by Ken Mochizuki – Seattle author Mochizuki tells the incredible tale of a courageous man, Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who defied his government and single-handedly saved the lives of thousands of Jews during World War II in this picture book biography.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

What Makes a Book "Challenging Enough"?

This week I've been speaking with 7th and 8th graders about this year's Student Diversity Leadership Retreat which I am excited to be helping to plan and chaperone. This year's theme is media and becoming a more savvy, aware consumer of all forms of media. To spark the students' interest, I showed them a couple of television commercials and asked them to dissect the stereotypes they contained. I was impressed with their ability to look beyond the surface joke or message and recognize the common cultural assumptions or stereotypes that the ads were building on.

This got me thinking about a common request I have, which is to provide children with books that are "challenging enough." The question is, how do you define "challenging"? Just as you can relax on the sofa and mindlessly watch television, you can also take even the most vapid programming and analyze it in a complex way. Books are very similar!

Recently I had a wonderful conversation with a parent who said that her daughter didn't need to be challenged just by reading books with vocabulary levels at the upper limits of her comprehension because she recognized that challenge can come from complex ideas expressed in relatively simple language. This is especially true with realistic fiction, which usually portrays people speaking in naturalistic ways.

Three books I shared with students this week highlight this idea: Wild Wings by Gill Lewis, a chapter book I've been reading to 4th graders in connection with our information literacy exercises, and Traction Man Is Here! and Traction Man Meets Turbodog by Mini Grey, which are part of our kindergarten and 1st grade author unit on this very creative woman.

Wild Wings is not very difficult in terms of reading level, however it raises a number of challenging topics. There is a child in the book who is living in poverty. This is not stated outright, but is indicated through various contextual clues. In one scene she comes to school with no lunch, claiming she forgot it. In every 4th grade class we discussed this scenario: what appeared to be happening vs. the actual situation. Most students initially accepted at face value the idea that she forgot her lunch. However, every class had one child who suggested that this was her way of avoiding the embarrassment of admitting they didn't have enough food at home for her to bring any lunch. This insight led to some interesting conversations between the students about how people behave when they feel different, how peers can react in a kind and supportive way, and so on. This book, which might seem "easy" going just by reading level or vocabulary, is actually quite rich in meaning.

With the Mini Grey picture books, there were interesting contrasts in the developmental levels of most 1st graders as compared to most kindergartners. They are about a small boy engaging in imaginary play with his action figure. Many kindergartners initially interpreted the stories as being about a real, animated little person, rather than about a child playing the way they do with their own stuffed animals, dolls, action figures, etc., setting up scenarios using household objects and giving voice to an inanimate object. There is one scene in the second book in which Turbodog, an electronic toy, wakes up a sleeping cat. Traction Man comments, "Well, thanks for that, Turbodog." This simple statement is actually fairly complex, since the reader must understand that it was used sarcastically to actually mean the opposite. Both books contain many layers of meaning in pictures and text, as well as implied value statements about creativity and imagination - all conveyed through very little text, most of which is quite simple.

When you see your child reading an apparently too easy book, it can be a great opportunity to challenge him or her to think more deeply about the material! Wondering where to start with this discussion? Try this list of Universal Questions that work well for chapter books. With picture books, I also like to ask some of the following:

What kind of techniques or materials do you recognize in the art work? Why do you think the illustrator chose to use these materials?

Why do you think the illustrator drew [point to example] in this way? How else might he/she have drawn this? Why choose this part of a scene to illustrate, rather than something else? Do the pictures communicate the same meaning as the words? Or do they contradict each other? Why do you think that is?

Why do you think the words were printed on the page in this way? Would it have made a difference in how you feel about the book if the font were different?