Saturday, October 27, 2007

YouTube Reading List

Even though this is above the age level I usually write about, it is such an awesome way to spread a love of books that I had to pass it along. This young man shares the books that he's found meaningful and have helped shape his view of the world. Classics (in the original sense of Marcus Aurelius), science fiction, philosophy, pop culture, psychology, sociology, current fiction, poetry, etc. which, when set to music ["Slow Motion(Explicit Version)" from "Third Eye Blind: A Collection (Remastered)"] become social commentary.

My son is working on his personal music biography, and this is somewhat the same idea. This would be a great reading list for anyone, but for young people coming of age at this time in this culture, the titles are particularly appropriate. I am fascinated by the communication opportunities that new social media communities like YouTube present to all of us. This is just as valid a way to communicate the importance of books in our lives as any other. It's also going to reach a lot more people than BookTV. Check it out. I'd love to hear your comments.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Review: Hank Zipzer - The Curtain Went Up, My Pants Fell Down

Hank Zipzer is billed as the "world's greatest underachiever," because he has learning differences that make school more difficult for him than it is for other kids. This is actually #11 in the series and I can't wait to read more of these middle grade novels. Hank reminds me of several boys I've known including one of my sons. Based on the true-life adventures of Henry Winkler, Hank and his adventures are brought to life by the talented co-writers Lin Oliver and Henry Winkler - both accomplished story tellers. They write with humor and absolute veracity about something that didn't even really have a name or a diagnosis 30 years ago.

We know a lot more about how the brain works now and conditions such as dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, and various kinds of information processing challenges. We have a vocabulary, diagnostic tests, and teachers trained to recognize symptoms of learning challenges in the early grades. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to being "labeled," but whether there are actually more cases of learning differences now or we are just getting better at diagnosing them, it is rare that teachers don't have at least one student in their class and in some cases, several students struggling with a learning disability of one sort or another.

Brain research has helped us learn much more about how and when human beings learn. Even without learning challenges, everyone has a preferred learning style and our optimal learning occurs in a multi-sensory way - by reading, listening, doing, reflecting.

What is great about this novel is that the characters, situations, and dialog all resonate. The story is skillfully told and the situations and characters are believable. Certainly, anyone who has helped a child struggle with learning differences will see that story reflected here. And, it's not just about the learning difficulty itself, it's also about self-perception, and coping with other people and their expectations. And for "tweens" there is the social aspect of not being perceived as different that is still as important as it's always been.

With his lead in the school production of "Anna and the King" at stake, Hank must score a B+ on the math test or his father won't let him stay in the play. Hank works with his peer tutor, Heather, who always acted "like her braids were pulled too tight." Hank's typical dance-and-duck response to uncomfortable situations is to be the class joker. But by using stacks of library books, Heather finds a concrete way to explain long division so that Hank finally gets it. We are as happy as he is at his "Eureka" moment.

"Seeing the answer to the math problem right there in front of me was like a door opening and letting light into my big, dark brain. My head couldn't visualize the numbers on the page, or understand the fancy math words. But I could see the books, count the books, and figure out the answer that was right in front of my eyes!" This AHA moment is what every teacher lives for. It's why they put up with everything they do to stay in the classroom. And good teachers, even a "peer" teacher in this case, will figure out what they have to do to convey the learning in a way the student can understand.

Series fiction allows writers to develop a character over time and multiple stories. For kids captivated by a character, it is almost impossible to have too many stories. I inhaled Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Cherry Lane, Black Beauty and other series when I was a tween. For kids who see their story reflected in Hank Zipzer, there are many opportunities to see him react to different situations throughout the 14 books of the series - so far. Visit Hank's website and share his stories with some of the learners in your family.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Texas High School Teacher Suspended for Book Choice

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports that in Tuscola, Texas, a 9th-grade English teacher has been suspended (on paid leave) after a student's parents complained to police about a book their child read by Pullitzer-Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy called Child of God from the 9th-grade reading list . The 1974 novel is a story about an outsider falsely accused of rape, who then begins killing people and living in a cave with their decomposing bodies.

The reading list was compiled by all of the high-school English teachers for an advanced Placement class. Last week the school board voted to keep the three-year veteran teacher on paid leave even though more than 120 parents attended the meeting asking that he be reinstated. In fact most of the school's parents are in favor of reinstating the teacher. The teacher has not been charged with anything, but is being investigated for distributing harmful material to a minor. In the meantime, the book has been deleted from the reading list by school officials.

My first response to this story was, "here we go again."

My second was, "why did the parents report this to the police instead of the principal?" Were they concerned about the reading list or were they exploiting an opportunity to push their own agenda?

It occurs to me:

  • that the list was assembled by a group of high school English teachers not just the one on suspension.

  • since the author is a Pullitzer Prize winner and this is a 34-year old title, the English teachers must have agreed that despite it's macabre story line, it had redeeming value or it would not be on the list.

  • the student chose to read this book. If the parents were that concerned, why didn't they help their child select a "more appropriate" title?

  • if we accept the premise that a community has the right to decide what is and is not offensive,(even though it is clearly a violation of the first amendment) and we know that most of the school's parents are in favor of reinstating the teacher, can we infer that the parents filing the complaint are out of step with the majority of the town's 700 inhabitants?

As I've stated before, banning books makes them more attractive to the people. What credentials to these parents have for judging whether a book is or isn't worthy of study? Why didn't these parents choose to minimize the alleged "damage" the book produced by quietly discussing the book with their child and then moving on to reading a book that was more in line with their personal moral code? Why report it to the police?

I understand that definitions of "good writing" vary and there will never be consensus. It seems clear to me, however, that these people must be making a larger point, although I'm in the dark as to what that might be. The situation might be more understandable if it were a current book reflecting today's pop culture. But, it's not. Unfortunately, the knee-jerk reaction to book challenges in schools is to pull the title. And predictably, that is what happened in Tuscola. One can only hope that cooler heads will prevail in the end and that nobody has to leave town.

What invariably happens when books are challenged or banned is that they achieve a stature far greater than they would have claimed had the book not been challenged. The American Library Association (ALA) website gives a comprehensive history of book challenges in this country as well as helpful advice in coping with a book challenge.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Review: Library Lion

I love waking up on Saturday mornings. Saturday has always been the day of greatest possibility. You never know what can happen on a Saturday. It is usually the one day of the week that has fewer "must dos" or scheduled activities. We have the luxury of imagining our day unfolding in many different ways. One of the things I have always loved to do on Saturdays is go to the library. You can imagine with all of the wonderful libraries in the world that you should be prepared for wonderful things to happen. But a real live lion?

Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes is a warm and engaging story about libraries, books, rules and friendship. And most of all, when it is okay to break the rules to help someone. One of the librarians, Mr. McBee, is quite upset when a lion walks into the library one day. When he reports it to Miss Merriweather, the head librarian, her only concern is whether or not the lion is following the library's rules. The main rule in a library, of course, is keeping quiet or speaking in a low voice so as to not disturb other people in the library. When Mr. McBee reports that the lion is not breaking any rules, Miss Merriweather says to leave him alone

As it turns out, the lion's favorite time in the library is story hour when the story lady reads aloud to the children in their comfy story corner. However, he is not at all happy when she is done for the day as he wants to hear another story and so he roars very loudly. When Miss Merriweather comes to scold him, the children ask if he can return the following day for more stories if he doesn't roar. Miss Merriweather responds, "Yes. A nice, quiet lion would certainly be allowed to come back for story hour tomorrow."

Each day the lion returns early for story hour and makes himself useful by licking envelopes or dusting the encyclopedias with his tail or putting children on his back so they can reach books on the high shelves. But one day while he is helping in Miss Merriweather's office, she falls from a ladder and hurts herself. She tells the lion to get Mr. McBee to help. Mr. McBee has not grown any fonder of the lion and ignores him. The lion is trying to follow the rules and not make noise but Mr. McBee does not understand that the lion needs his help, so finally in frustration, he roars "the loudest roar he had ever roared in his life."

Mr. McBee runs to Miss Merriweather's office to report that the lion has broken the rules when he finds Miss Merriweather on the floor with a broken arm needing help. He realizes that the lion broke the rules to help a friend. But the lion doesn't come back to the library the next day, or the day after that. Everyone was sad, especially Miss Merriweather. So, Mr. McBee searches the town to find the lion to tell him about the NEW library rule - that there is no roaring in the library unless you have a good reason like trying to help a friend who's been hurt. The lion returns to the library the next day and is welcomed by all his friends.

In addition to being a good story with a happy ending and illustrated with evocative, soft pastels, the story celebrates friendship and the importance of community.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Gluttony and Delight at the Library

Libraries are such magical places. You can choose your delights from the featured books gathered in places (usually by theme) throughout the library; cruise the fiction shelved alphabetically; or hightail it directly to a favorite section such as history, art, or gardening. Long before children learn the Dewey Decimal system, they learn where their favorite books are shelved. The youngest children choose by cover design - young readers often choose by favorite author - then we mature into readers who also consult the covers, inside jacket blurbs, and perhaps the introduction or table of contents before we make our selection.

No matter how we make our selection, every book can be checked out and taken home. Unlike the book store where selections are made according to need and bank balance, hungry-eyed readers have access to every single book in the library. Food gluttony can lead to illness, but I never heard of anyone getting sick from reading too many books or learning too much.

Because books are always coming and going from library shelves, you are never sure what you are going to find in a favorite section or by a favorite author. Yes, you can reserve books in advance and pick them up when they're available, but that takes the fun of discovery away. I love that "oh, wow" feeling when I find a treasure I wasn't expecting on the library shelves.

Last Saturday on a gorgeous afternoon, I went to my local branch. I found two books I had been wanting to read and empty rocking chairs on the screened in porch looking out over a lovely wood. As I rocked and reviewed my stack to determine which of the lovelies would actually go home with me, I was so thankful to Andrew Carnegie and all the other hundreds of folks who developed and continue to sustain public libraries across the country.

The role of libraries continues to change. There are more and more computers as people surf the information highway. There are study groups, language tutoring, story telling, community meetings...but the main business of the library is still circulation. Sharing books with anyone with a library card. What a gift. Today, I'm thankful for my current bag of books from the library. Support your library. It is partially funded on its circulation numbers. Patronize your library. Join a book group, tutor a child, attend a meeting, or just sit and read. You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Fancy Nancy and Tiara Day

You know, sometimes you just have to call it a tiara day. There is something about wearing a tiara that lifts your spirits and sends you out into life with an entirely new attitude. I have several tiaras in my collection, but the silver one with the pink boa trim is my favorite.

Nancy, in Fancy Nancy written by Jane O'Connor and illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser, is just the sort of girl who internalizes the tiara philosophy of life. From the tip of her tiara to the toes of her pink high heels she is the epitome of "fancy" and makes it her mission to transform her family from plain to fancy. Obviously good sports and full of playful indulgence to their fancy daughter, they dress up to the nines and descend upon the local diner in full regalia. Glasser's illustrations are fabulous and carry the story well, but the one that will make you laugh out loud is turning the page to see Nancy and her family burst through the door of "The King's Crown" with sunglasses, feathers, tiaras, canes, ruffles, bows, fans and attitude firmly in place. Of course they are greeted with gasps from the assembled diners "who probably think we're movie stars". It is a terrific moment with a priceless illustration.

The ensuing adventure is a bit predictable for adults, but still very fun because of our heroine and her wonderful family. This family has such a great sense of play, you really want to be IN her family.Dress up girls of all ages will love this book. ISBN 978-0-06-054209, Harper Collins.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Cybils' Annual Book Bloggers KidLit Awards


CHICAGO – Will Harry Potter triumph among critical bloggers? Will novels banned in some school districts find favor online?

With 90 volunteers poised to sift through hundreds of new books, the second annual Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers’ Literary Awards launched on Oct. 1. Known as the Cybils, it’s the only literary contest that combines both the spontaneity of the Web with the thoughtful debate of a book club.

The public’s invited to nominate books in eight categories, from picture books up to young adult fiction, so long as the book was first published in 2007 in English (bilingual books are okay too). Once nominations close on Nov. 21, the books go through two rounds of judging, first to select the finalists and then the winners, to be announced on Valentine’s Day 2008.

Judges come from the burgeoning ranks of book bloggers in the cozy corner of the Internet called the kidlitosphere. They represent parents, homeschoolers, authors, illustrators, librarians and even teens.

The contest began last year after blogger Kelly Herold (Big A little a) expressed dismay that while some literary awards were too snooty – rewarding books kids would seldom read – others were too populist and didn’t acknowledge the breadth and depth of what’s being published today.

“It didn’t have to be Brussels sprouts versus gummy bears,” said Anne Boles Levy (Book Buds) who started Cybils with Herold. “There are books that fill both needs, to be fun and profound.”

Last year’s awards prompted more than 480 nominations, and this year’s contest will likely dwarf that. As with last year’s awards, visitors to the Cybils blog can leave their nominations as comments. There is no nomination form, only the blog, to keep in the spirit of the blogosphere that started it all.

Review: Looking for Alaska

John Green's first novel, Looking for Alaska, is a faced-paced coming-of-age novel in which many teens will see themselves and their concerns. Although the basic plot line is one we've seen before - "odd" group of kids find themselves thrown together where they wrestle with big issues such as the meaning of life and how to be true to oneself - Green gives it freshness and depth.

This book was written for a young adult audience, but it resonates for adults as well. Many of us can also relate to the experiences of Miles (Pudge) Halter and his new boarding school mates because the situations they encounter mirror much of what we deal with as adults: friendship and loss; distrust of others not exactly like us; emotional pain; possibility; finding kindness; and adventure. They also recall the pain and uncertainties of our own adolescent journeys.

Miles is a smart and witty narrator. The story and the action centers around Alaska Young who is beautiful, bright, sexy, angst-ridden and tragic. She is the comet that Miles and his roommate, "the Colonel" chase after. She befriends them, she taunts them, she mystifies them, and she loves them. There are two others that round out this little circle but they are less defined and exist only as foils for our main trio. Green takes characters that could be stereotypes and realistically fleshes them out so that we are caught up in their story and care about them.

While there are plenty of warnings for inappropriate behavior and consequences, they are presented through an intimate story of one, individual boy's deepening maturity. A boy the reader grows to care about even if he likes to memorize the dying words of famous people.
Although this book would be perfect for school discussion and I am confident that there are teachers who see this book in the same way they view Catcher in the Rye, it will certainly make appearances on the banned books list for language, sex, and underage drinking. It is precisely because of these things and the universality of the experience for today's young people that it should be read and discussed. It accurately represents the choices and activities of today's teens and would resonate with them for precisely these reasons. I highly recommend it. ISBN978-0-14-240251-1, SPEAK; Penguin Putnam imprint.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Salute a banned book: The Higher Power of Lucky

It seems such a silly thing to me to ban books for children. Any one who knows kids will tell you that to forbid something makes it that much more enticing. Even if they weren't initially interested, telling them not to do something almost always ensures that they will. Which is okay with me because kids are supposed to test their limits and boundaries. That's how they learn to be adults who understand action and consequence.

The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron won the 2007 Newberry Medal this year, it set off an amazing brouhaha that did not put school librarians in a very good light. Schools are fighting for resources, fighting for relevance, fighting for change - and the last thing they want to do is fight with parents who are up in arms about "bad" language. So, some school librarians preemptively struck the title from their lists. Now the fact that most public and school libraries make it a point to have multiple copies of the entire list of Newberry and Caldecott award titles made this news. What makes it sad is that the wonderful story of a plucky girl who takes charge of her history, her pain, and her future took a backseat to ONE vocabulary word which happens to be the last word of the second paragraph on page one. I'm sure that many people never read beyond the second paragraph. That the name of a body part (which we do teach in school, by the way) could be the catalyst for such nonsense - particularly in light of what kids can see on network TV any day of the week - was surprising.

After months of media attention, the controversy settled down and many school libraries quietly added the title to their collections. Like many other wonderful titles on the banned books list (check out the
American Library Association), the issue will be resurrected annually at the beginning of the school year.

Some things to consider:
  • Author Susan Patron has spent her career as a children's librarian in the Los Angeles County Public Library so one would expect that she spends a lot of time with kids.
  • Could the author have chosen a different word? Probably, but word choice is clearly in the realm of the author's creative imagination and process. And we have to assume that she crafted her story with care and chose her words intentionally.
  • In a culture where "family" is continually being redefined, isn't it our responsibility to create mirrors for our children that illustrate and illuminate these various iterations of family so that more children can see themselves?
  • Isn't that one of the primary roles of fiction?
  • How revealing is it that knee-jerk reactions to a single word in a children's book tell us so much more about where our attention is as opposed to where it could be - like poverty and lack of basic healthcare for America's children.

In the end, like most of the banned books list, The Higher Power of Lucky is a terrific story, well-written and engaging for kids. It's a contemporary treatment of an age-old yearning to belong. And why people find that objectionable in any way is beyond me. So what was the "word" that provoked all the controversy? Well, you'll just need to read the book to find out. ISBN 978-1-4169-0194-5

For another perspective of this title check out this posting at the Miss Rumphius Effect.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Call to Action for Funding School Libraries

Unfortunately, I'm a bit behind on my blog reading and just discovered this September 19th post from Kelly Fineman tonight which relates to an earlier post of mine on funding school libraries.

Congress is considering proposed legislation that will increase financing for school libraries and in many cases, improve or restore library programming in school districts across the country. The SKILLS Act (short for Strengthening Kids' Interest in Learning and Libraries -- clearly the acronym came first here) was sponsored by Senators Jack Reed (RI) and Thad Cochran (MI) and by Representatives Raul Grijalva (AZ) and Vernon Ehlers (MI). According to the tracking organizations, the bills (one in the House, one in the Senate) have been referred to committees.

In less than two weeks Congress will be voting on legislation that will:
1. Get much needed funding to school libraries.
2. Requires that every school in every school district of every state employs at least one state certified, highly qualified school library media specialist.
3. Provides monies for training and professional development for school library media specialists.

What does this mean?
1. It means more monies for schools to buy books and educational materials.
2. It means that young people will have access to more and better books because informed, knowledgeable librarians will be making book selections for their schools and will have more input and influence on trade and educational publishing for young people because they will have more purchasing power. (Many schools' libraries are run by parent volunteers and/or a teacher or other educational professional who may or may not have the skills and knowledge of a certified school librarian.)
3. It means that young people will have a knowledgeable librarian to teach them how to be informed consumers of information and critical thinkers.
4. It means that those wonderful people who are running school libraries who are not trained as professional librarians, will have access to professional develop monies to help them to get the professional training they need to help our kids.

1. Fax or email or call your congressional representatives in support of this legislation: the Strengthening Kids’ Interest in Learning and Libraries (SKILLs) Act. If you are uncertain who your Senators are, or who your representatives is, you can find out at this website.
2. Copy and paste this into an email and send it to everyone you know, especially: friends, family members, neighbors, colleagues, editors, publishers, authors, illustrators, teachers, librarians, parents---everyone and everyone you know. Add your own short personal note and ask them to please contact their congressional representatives today by fax or email to support the SKILLs legislation. Encourage them to write a very few short words in support of this legislation. If you use a formula message it will not be taken as seriously as a more personalized fax or email.

Remember- Your voice and your vote do count---Your legislators keep actual tallies of fax, phone and email messages from their constituents on various issues, and it can influence the outcome of their vote!