Friday, May 30, 2008

Books, books, books, everywhere!

Today I spend the day at the largest book show in the U.S. - Book Expo which is in Los Angeles this year. I have been attending a small pubisher's meeting this week and today I am walking the floor of one of the most awesome trade shows for a bibliophile. Publishers, authors, librarians, and miscellaneous other vendors all in one building to celebrate reading and talk about and sell books.

Many of us have been in large bookstores and libraries and have been overwhelmed by the rich array of stories and information just there for the choosing. But that experience pales in comparison to the feeling you get from being in a convention center, the size of a small town where everywhere you look there are books and book people.

Today I will be with my people. The ones who respect and promote books. The ones that talk passionately about the books they are reading - the books that have helped form them as people - the books that have taught them, comforted them and uplifted them.

It's going to be a great day!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Review: The Boat in the Tree

Sibling rivalry is initiated when a boy's family adopts a brother for him in this fanciful and imaginative story. I love the opening line, "The day Mom and Dad went to pick up my new brother, I built a raft." Our hero sets sail for Bongodongo and then other ports as he tries to distance himself from this new brother he obviously resents.

Tim Wynne-Jones doesn't disappoint as the younger brother hangs about trying to establish a friendship with his new older brother. The Boat in the Tree was one of the books entered for the Cybils awards this year and is still one of my favorites. Although the story is quite good, what really makes the book sing are the illustrations by John Shelley.

As the boy dreams of ships that will carry him away from the new brother, Shelley skillfully captures the breadth of the ship-crazy boy's imagination complete with a pirate's island and smoking volcano. He also details the day-to-day world the boys actually live in. When a storm sends a boat into a tree and Simon helps his older brother bring it down , it is enough to bridge the gap between the boys and between the real and the imagined.

There is so much detail in the illustrations that young children ages 3-6 will be entertained for hours. I recommend this book.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Daring Adventures in the Arctic Circle

This action-packed, real-life story of Marie Peary, the daughter of Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary, is a wonderful introduction for tweens to the family life of a great explorer. Most often, the families of famous explorers were left at home in relative safety while the explorers (usually men) were gone for months and years at a time traveling to unknown and often dangerous parts of the world.

However, the Peary family was quite different. The real star of this unusual story is Peary's wife and Marie's mother, Josephine. Breaking with the convention of the day, Josephine traveled with her husband on several of his attempts to find and claim the North Pole. In fact, Marie was born in a remote northern corner of Greenland during one of these expeditions.

Marie's earliest memories and friendships were with some of the Inuit people who populated the far north. Her family depended on these kind people for help as guides and in constructing clothing to protect them against the fierce cold. Marie spent months and years living aboard ship going to and from Greenland. In fact, she and her mother, along with the ship's crew, were locked into the ice for 10 months in 1901 while trying to reach her father's new base camp.

Marie and her family developed close relationships with some of the Inuit and considered them friends. For a good part of her early life, Marie lived and played among Inuit children and had many adventures with them. Sledding down an ice mass and finding fun on nearby icebergs with her Inuit friends was a frequent pleasure.

The Inuits gave Marie the name "The Snow Baby" when she was born with blond hair and blue eyes. The book makes clear that there was much mutual respect and affection between the various explorer parties and the Inuits, and that there personal association extended over a period of years during Peary's many expeditions to the Arctic. In fact, it took until Marie was 16 before her father successfully journeyed to the North Pole and claimed it for the United States.

The book's author, Katherine Kirkpatrick, has made good use of her source material. This remarkable story is significantly enhanced with a generous collection of photographs. Even though some are extremely grainy, most are clear images of their lives in northern Greenland. The bulk of the book concerns itself with Marie's early years as part of the expeditions. Even though she and her mother spent years moving back and forth between this adventure life and a conventional life in the states, Marie was separated from her father for long stretches of time while he remained in the Arctic to winter and prepare for the next foray to the North Pole. He and his expedition did not successfully reach and claim the North Pole until 2009. Those years in between were consumed with supplying and resupplying the expedition between forays.

For anyone interested in a non-conventional life, or intrigued by the spirit of adventure necessary to pushing out to the ends of the world, this is a delightful story. For one thing, it centers on a girl's experience and that is unusual in itself. Secondly, Marie had extraordinary, enlightened parents who saw nothing wrong with exposing their daughter to such an exceptional life. Marie grew up to spend many years of her adult life helping her father organize his notes and papers for the early National Geographic Society.

And in 1932, traveling to Greenland with her own two sons, Marie placed a monument honoring her father at the place where she was born - "the first piece of land sighted when a ship approaches Greenland from America."

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Death of Education but the Dawn of Learning: Learning to Change Video

It's not about building schools, it's about building communities of content creators and learners. Very powerful and long overdue. We're still not at the tipping point, but it's coming. As passionate book lovers, we are open and receptive to the wild, sometimes chaotic new worlds that great books reveal to us. Readers ARE lifelong learners.

How marvelous it would be if our schools could embrace an engaging, imaginative world of learning investigations previously available only to a lucky few. No longer is reading just a necessary skill for "book" learning, it is a critical skill for life in the 21st century where everyone has the opportunity to write and publish their own stories and to learn from each other by working collaboratively toward common goals.

How can each of us push the education bureaucracy away from test-taking to creating dynamic learning environments that stimulate the love of learning? Perhaps for some kids, it's not through traditional printed books at all, but the multi-media world of story available through technology. How do we as story passionistas embrace other delivery systems?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Celebrating Children's Book Week

Today is the beginning of Children's Book Week. It's a wonderful prompt to spend some quality reading time with your favorite child. Here are some sites to visit for recommendations.
The Children's Book Council
The Horn Book

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Teaching Reading v. Reading

Thousands of educators met this past week in Atlanta for the annual International Reading Conference where reading teachers, authors and publishers gathered to celebrate books and reading. This is one of the larger shows on the educational conference circuit as reading is such a foundational skill.

Some of the show buzz concerned the admission last week from the Department of Education that Reading First failed to make a difference in students' reading comprehension. The program has been under attack almost from its inception for cronyism and mismanagement. Although most educational publishers have been keeping close track of the program and have been aware of its deficits for some time, the announcement may have come as a surprise to educators whose districts and schools have benefitted from Reading First funding.

In a nutshell, evaluators agree that Reading First programs spend too much time on basic instruction and too little time on reading actual literature so that students have not substantively increased their comprehension. In fact, the decrease in reading actual books, both in the classroom and at home, is of great concern to those most passionate about the benefits of reading.

Reading First is inextricably linked to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation which is currently before Congress for reauthorization. Good teachers are leaving the field because schools are decimating their curriculums to comply with NCLB testing requirements. I have never read such a poignant perspective as Jordan Sonnenblick's essay in the recent School Library Journal article where he states:

"What I loved most about teaching middle school English was the books, the stories, the poems. I loved putting great thoughts into the hands of my students, and watching what I really, truly saw as a holy communion between child and author, with me as the officiant. And it kills me to know that if I went back, I wouldn’t have much time to teach literature, which is increasingly seen as a frilly extra. So I’m leaving the classroom because my colleagues were right: going back without time for books would kill me. But it hurts very, very much to know that, in my absence, the classroom is killing my peers and my would-be students anyway."
NCLB has reshaped the landscape for educational publishers, and decreasing time and money is certainly affecting the amount of real literature students are exposed to in school. While there may be a cumulative negative effect, there are still teachers and classrooms where authentic literature continues to play a starring role as evidenced by the reading teachers at this week's meeting in Atlanta.

Teachers, librarians and publishers believe in the power of authentic literature to deeply affect a child's life and learning. As book enthusiasts, what can we do to support the educators who are struggling every day to find the balance between teaching reading and actually reading?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

From the Classroom: Reading Test Strategies

"Spending weeks, or horrifyingly in some classrooms, months, on test-taking lore denies students a lot of time that would be better spent reading and discussing real books—a practice that is shown again and again to positively impact students’ reading achievement."

Donalyn Miller, 6th grade teacher blogger at The Book Whisperer commenting on the sad irony of focusing on teaching reading-test strategies versus teaching reading. She concludes:

"I have never seen a student who could read and comprehend a wide range of texts fail these tests, but I have seen a few students, carrying only a handful of test-taking beans, who did."

Read more of her thought-provoking observations from inside the classroom.