Halloween Books: Scary, but not TOO Scary

Books for Halloween: Scary, But Not TOO Scary

[Note: I promised a post on Robert’s Snow this week, but am postponing it once more as Halloween waits for no blogger. If you just can't wait, take a look at this post--and many others around the kidlitosphere--for a quick overview.]

Spend any time around kids in first or second grade who are looking for books, and you’re sure to hear a request (or two, or seventy-five) for scary stories. Especially as the end of October draws nigh. Now, as children’s librarian Adrienne has rightly pointed out, not everyone likes to be scared. But more than once I’ve had some tiny, pudgy-cheeked child turn his or her adorable angel face away in utter scorn of whatever mildly frightening title I’ve proffered, demanding instead “Something REALLY scary.”

This presents the thoughtful librarian or relative with a book-recommending dilemma: if you’re too weenie about offering up scary stuff, the kid will decide you are just another clueless grownup and stomp off on his or her own to find the most irritating and/or product-placement-laden book possible, and then demand that someone read it to them over and over until all family members are driven insane. On the other hand, accede too readily to the “REALLY scary” imperative and as likely as not the child will end up having nightmares and/or hiding the book under a pile of junk in the basement so as to be spared the scary sight of it.

So, for those parents (and kids) who don’t have a taste for insipid junk, night terrors, or library replacement fees, here are a few picture books and early readers to take a look at. None of them are Halloween books per se, but they all aim for that sweet spot beloved of many kids at this time of year: scary enough…but not TOO scary.

King o’ the Cats, retold by Aaron Shepard. This retelling of an old English tale features, among other things, a spooky feline funeral in a church. The author even provides a readers’ theatre script of the story on his website.

Black Lagoon series, by Mike Thaler. Every book in this series follows the same pattern: a kid recounts the terrible, gruesome, scary things he’s heard about the (teacher, principal, librarian, custodian, bus driver…) only to be disabused by the actual niceness of the grownup in question. I used to read The Librarian from the Black Lagoon to 1st graders at the beginning of every year, and they loved it even when they didn’t understand all the jokes. My favorite part is how if you talk too much…the librarian laminates you! Heh, heh, heh.

The Spider and the Fly, by Mary Howitt and Tony DiTerlizzi. A gloriously creepy illustrated version of the 19th-century poem that speaks to the goth in us all. I know one very young kid who loved this book so much she simply took it home from the library and refused to return it.

For the rest of the year. Her mom wasn't thrilled, but I bet the illustrator would be if he knew.

Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, by Adam Rex. In one gleefully silly (and perfectly illustrated) poem after another, monsters do things that you don’t usually see them doing: the Mummy demands a bedtime story before his eternal rest; the Phantom of the Opera (in a particularly crowd-pleasing running joke) gets a series of songs stuck in his head; and of course there is the titular sandwich. This is one of those books that is sophisticated enough for middle-schoolers to enjoy, but younger kids go crazy for it too even if some of it is over their heads.

Precious and the Boo Hag, by Patricia McKissack. Precious’s brother is just teasing her with his stories about the Boo Hag…or is he? I have to admit that this one is my favorite out of all of these. It is juuuust the right amount of scary, has a great refrain, a great story, and a spirited and smart heroine.

[Next week: for real, the big idea behind some little snowflakes.]

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It's Really All About Them

It’s Really All About Them

I have been trying to understand an alarming epidemic of parental anxiety about how one’s kids perform, how they measure up to peers as early as preschool. This contagion of worry is mainly focused on academics, but it often includes other things, such as sports and social success. A preoccupation with our kids’ standing is not that new, having been with us for a number of years now; but it does seem to have become more and more intense, with the crescendo paralleling political focus on children’s carefully measured, overscrutinized academic functioning. What does seem different lately is that we have unequivocally tied kids’ achievement or lack of it to the adults in their lives. Suddenly, it’s all about us. Teachers’ jobs are in jeopardy when kids don’t make the improvements expected; and parents’ self esteem is all tied up with their kids’ grades and test scores.

Maybe there’s a bit “too much of a good thing” going on here. Research has suggested that kids whose parents are actively involved with their children’s schooling are likely to do better than the children of less involved parents. But, of course, there is “involved” and then there is “over-the-top involved.” I’m not talking about asking, “Have you done your homework?” or offering, “If you have any questions about the homework, I’ll try to help you to answer them.” Rather, it’s about at least one parent being at the elbow of each child while he or she unwraps the assignment, never leaving until the last “i” is dotted. It is no longer “your” homework; it is now “our” homework. Schools are encouraging this despite the fact that it can cause a lot of tension and angst all around. Too much is riding on a 2nd grader’s weekly spelling tests or a kindergartner’s name writing. It makes everybody tense and defensive. Kids are not as free to learn, stumble, then master, and achieve independently. The learning situation is contaminated with generational power struggles. Not good. There is a rolling snowball effect since goading to do better is coming from all directions. One of the things at stake seems to be parents’ own sense of having parented correctly, whatever that means. And that’s where my new theory comes in.

I have begun to wonder whether all this hovering and pressure-cooker climate about academics may have gained steam from a silent struggle between working and stay-at-home moms; or perhaps more accurately, a silent struggle within each individual mom. Both the Stay at Homes and the Working Moms may be enduring their own silent struggles. It could go something like this: “Did I do the right thing to stay home — am I making a contribution to the world, living up to the expectations my own teachers and mentors had for me? If my kids are successful, then it could turn out to have been the right choice.”

Or: "Am I shortchanging my kids by pursuing my own ambitions? Sure, it shows up in our better standard of living; but I had better spend evenings doing homework with them to make up for my daytime absences. If they succeed, I can feel less guilty.”

Of course, both of these positions are dangerously oversimplified and wrongly focused on the adults. We can’t seem to shake the exaggerated assumption that parents make or break kids. It’s a short-sighted view since it misses the two most important factors in how well children will do: who they are to begin with (the DNA factor); and the degree to which they feel understood, valued and loved as they are. It’s really all about them.

October 23, 2007

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The Kidlitosphere, Part 1: Cybils

The Kidlitosphere, Part 1: Cybils
If you’ve spent any time writing or commenting on blogs, you may know the thrill of connecting with people you’ve never met in person, whose real names you may not even know, but who magically share your interests: who've read that book or seen that obscure movie that you thought nobody else had ever heard of, or who just love the same stuff you love. For people who love kids’ books, that sense of shared excitement has led to an informal network of blogs, affectionately nicknamed “the Kidlitosphere,” which has grown, amoeba-like, in the past few years. Members of the kidlitosphere include librarians, academics, writers, booksellers, homeschoolers, and many others whose expertise about childrens’ books springs not from professional affiliation but from lifelong personal passion.

For those of us who are part of it, the kidlitosphere has become a valuable resource for reviews, recommendations, booklists, and author interviews. Meetups have been arranged, blogging friendships have blossomed, and this fall even saw the first-ever Kidlitosphere Conference. As authors and publishers have become aware of this medium, the kidlitosphere has become an avenue of publicity for new books, which has helped several new titles get noticed and also led to some lively blog debates about the ethics of reviewing.

Many kids’ book people—including me—first became aware of this vast network of like-minded souls about a year ago, when the first ever Cybils made their debut. CYBIL stands for “Children’s and YA [Young Adult] Bloggers’ Literary Awards” This new book prize was the brainchild of Kelly Herold, who writes the comprehensive kids’ book information blog Big A, little a, and Anne Boles Levy, whose picture-book review blog, Book Buds, was the first one I ever read. These two intrepid bloggers rounded up a gallant crew of volunteers who narrowed down down the wealth of nominated titles to a list of five finalists in each category. A panel of judges then awarded the coveted Cybils medal to titles in several genres, including Middle-Grade Reader, Picture Book, Nonfiction, and Graphic Novels. The finalist lists were made available in printable form, and the final winners--and the awards in general--made a big splash.

And now they're doing it again: nominations are now open for the 2nd Annual Cybils. If anything, even more energy and talent is going into the awards this year. Over ninety bloggers have volunteered to serve as panelists and judges, and this year awards are being given out in eight different categories. 

If you’re interested in kids’ books and want to see what’s new out there, it’s well worth looking through the Cybils nominee lists in your favorite categories. Nominations will be open through November 21st. Though you have to have a kidlit-related blog to volunteer, anyone can nominate a favorite book through the Cybils home page. So if you’ve read a children’s book lately that you’ve loved, you might consider nominating it in the appropriate category. Just check out the nominating guidelines in the right-hand sidebar, and remember that all nominees must be copyrighted 2007!

Next week: an exciting project that will see snow falling on dozens of kidlit blogs this month.


October 22, 2007

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Environmental Books for Blog Action Day

Environmental Books for Blog Action Day

In honor of Blog Action Day, all the books recommended today have something to do with the environment. "The Environment" is a pretty big, abstract concept, especially for kids. These books all do something to make that concept concrete. Mostly they're not treatises on global warming or any other specific environmental crisis; instead, they do what books do best: tell stories, bring characters to life, and help us understand that the big picture is made up of many small pieces.

Aani and the Tree Huggers, by Jeannine Watkins.
Aani, a young girl in rural India, marshalls the girls and women of her village to join forces and stop the nearby trees--a precious natural resource for the villagers--from being cut down. The story, which is based on true events, is told clearly and directly; when the women literally hug the trees to stop them from being felled, it's easy to see how much courage this simple action took. And the illustrations, by Venantius J. Pinto, are striking and rich.

Pearl Moscowitz's Last Stand, by Arthur A. Levine. [out of print, alas]
Another picture book about taking action to save trees, but with a very different setting. Mrs. Moscowitz has seen her neighborhood change: from Jewish, to African-American, to Latino, to Asian. But she's still there, and so is the gingko tree that her mother saw planted many decades ago. When a man from the city comes with official orders to have the tree cut down, Pearl and her neighbors try to distract him, first with plates of food, then with overloaded wallets of family photos. Finally, Mrs. Moscowitz chains herself to the tree, bringing on the TV cameras and saving the day.

Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, by D. B. Johnson.
What's the faster way to get from Concord to Fitchburg: walking? Or taking the train? Henry, an amiable bear, poses this question to his friend, and they try it out: The friend works all day to earn the train fare, while Henry spends the same time walking to Fitchburg through fields, gathering flowers, and picking blackberries. This first volume in a series of four stories about Henry is based on a passage in Henry David Thoreau's journals, and is a great way to start kids thinking about the way people live (and don't live) our values through how we choose to spend our time and energy.

If the World Were a Village, by David Smith
The concepts in this book pack quite a wallop and could keep a family or a class busy thinking and discussing for days. The premise is simple: If the entire population of the world was represented by a village of only 100 people, how many would speak English? How about Chinese? How many would be children, and how many adults? How long would each person's life expectancy be? How many would have clean, safe water to drink? The answers are often surprising and sometimes sobering, and bring the issue of population growth and its effect on the earth into striking focus.

Material World, by Peter Menzel et. al.
Like If the World were a Village, this book takes a simple concept and uses it to completely crack your head open. It's brilliant: a team of photographers travelled around the world, finding one "average" family in each of over 30 countries and photographing that family surrounded by all their material possessions. The logistics involved must have been tremendous, and the contrasts are fascinating. Aside from the photo-essays on each family, there are pages devoted to individual items: televisions of the world, typical meals around the world, and (always a favorite among kids) toilets of the world. It's an eye-opener--literally--to see the evidence of how many millions of people get along the sheer amount of stuff that's amassed by many people in Western countries.
    I have to admit that this is my favorite title of any on this list. Though it's not technically a children's book, I've used it many times with 4th, 5th, and 6th grade classes, and the kids are always fascinated and fight to check it out.

If you want to find out more about Blog Action Day, check out their website! You might also be interested in some of the environmental charities affiliated with Blog Action Day.

October 15, 2007

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The Challenge Continues

The Challenge Continues

Last week I took up the challenge of tossing out book recommendations to anyone who provided a couple of their kid’s favorite titles or series, but I only got halfway through the wealth of challengers. I’m finishing them up this week.

And so, here are my responses to the last three challenges:

4) Veronique (2nd request of 2)—7 year old boy, likes:

  • Harry Potter but really it’s too advanced
  • Calvin & Hobbes
  • Popeye
  • Picks lots of books with illustrations & reads them easily

My recommendations:

  • The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Boy (series), by William Boniface. Ordinary Boy lives in Superopolis, a town full of superheroes, but as his name implies, he is sadly…ordinary. Luckily, Ordinary Boy has smarts, and good friends, and he’ll need both of them if he is to prevail against…the sinister Professor Brain-Drain!. Although this isn’t a graphic novel, it’s great for kids who like comic books, as the illustrations play a major part—I especially loved the Superhero Trading Cards scattered throughout the book.
  • Rowan of Rin, by Emily Rodda. Rowan is the smallest and weakest person in his village, where strength and courage are valued above all else. But when the village is threatened, the map that will save everyone is visible only when it’s in Rowan’s hands, so the questing party is forced to include him. Fantasy fans who aren’t quite up for the heft of Harry Potter often enjoy this series.
  • The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznik. Not a comic book, not a picture book, not a traditional novel, it’s a 500-page novel-in-pictures: the bulk of the story is told in full-page black-and-white wordless illustrations, with the narrative filling in every once in a while to provide dialogue and exposition. The story, of a young boy living alone in a Paris train station and trying to reconstruct a mystery from clues left by his dead father, is intriguing, but it’s the format that made this book the talk of the kids’ literature world in the past year (and actual kids were reading it like crazy, too).

5) Liz—5(?) year old boy, likes:

  • Ira Sleeps Over
  • Fantastic Mr. Fox

My recommendations:

  • Enemy Pie, by Derek Munson. There’s nothing worse than an enemy, right? And Jeremy Ross is definitely our hero’s worst enemy. So when his dad promises to make an Enemy Pie that will get rid of that enemy once and for all, it seems perfect. Only one catch: he has to invite Jeremy over. For the WHOLE DAY. This is one of those books that’s a near-perfect read-aloud. And the illustrations are cheerful and vivid and ever so slightly surreal.
  • The Voyage to the Bunny Planet series, by Rosemary Wells. “Far beyond the moon and stars, twenty light-years south of Mars, spins the gentle Bunny Planet. And the Bunny Queen is Janet.” Three small picture books tell the stories of three children (well, they’re depicted as rabbits, but their lives—rife with ill-timed illness, wet shoes, and arguing relatives—will be all too recognizable to human children) who are having Bad Days. At the nadir of their experience, each child is whisked (in imagination? In reality? It’s hard to tell, and doesn’t really matter) off to the Bunny Planet, where they experience “the day that should have been.” It’s hard to convey the magical quality of these three books in a single paragraph. Such is their soothing appeal that many an adult of my acquaintance has been heard to cry out, “I need a visit to the Bunny Planet!” [Alas, these books appear to be out of print, but they're well worth hunting down at the library or on used book sites.]

6) Eugenie—3 year old boy, loves:

  • Mister Dog
  • The Moon in My Room

I have to admit I didn’t know these two books and had to look them up! They share a certain sweet, comforting quality; I can see why your son would want to hold onto them. Here are a few other books that he might also like: 

  • Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown. Brown had a gift for simple stories that connected—and continue to connect, decades after her death—with young kids. You might have read this one with your son already, but if not, it’s well worth a try. The simple repetition and gentle illustrations have made this book a bedtime touchstone for generations of children. Your son might also like The Sailor Dog, Brown’s story about a dog adventuring on the high seas,
  • I’m trying to think of another title featuring someone with the sprightly self-possession that Mister Dog evinces on the cover of his book, and it’s tough. Hmm…Oh! You know what he might like? Kitten’s First Full Moon, by Kevin Kenkes! It’s another moon book, so I hope that’s not cheating too much, but there’s just something touching and also deadpan amusing about that kitten who mistakes the moon for a big bowl of milk in the sky. And the illustrations—plain black and white pencil or maybe charcoal, with big chunky outlines around the kitten and the moon—are clear and simple and lovely.

That's all for this challenge, unless anyone else has any requests; I'd also love to hear what you think of these, and to hear any book recommendations that you might have!

October 9, 2007

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What 3 minutes really mean

What 3 minutes really mean

A recent event in my 2nd grade granddaughter’s academic life got to me, as a former school psychologist, as well as her grandma. By way of background, I must assure you that this is a “heads-up” 7 year old; and not just because a quarter of her chromosomes come from me. You’ll be more likely to believe what I say about her if I tell you she is a third child whose parents were well schooled in the art of parenting by the time they got to her. What’s more, she is the third grandchild on one side and the fifth on the other. So all of her elders are relaxed around her; and her quiet confidence may reflect that fact. She is a brick at fending off the teasing of two older brothers, almost always unperturbed; loves school, playing with friends, has sleeping bag and will travel at every opportunity for grandparent or other sleepovers.

This wunderkind is a good athlete — star player in soccer and a great swimmer; also very feminine. She learned to knit this past summer in a class for somewhat older girls, enjoying the challenge and overcoming her age disadvantage through great effort and quiet confidence. (But I still haven’t gotten the scarf she promised me — maybe because there is no sign of winter weather yet here in the east coast. I haven’t given up hope.) And, of course, she is a model student; she’s an eager reader and ordinarily scores way above age- and grade-expected levels on achievement tests.

But I’ll force myself to stop bragging now and get to the point. On the first day of school this fall, she and her classmates were given a reading test with many subtests. Her teacher was alarmed by a subgroup score — a test that had something to do with vowels and blends and that lasted 3 minutes, I am told. Absolutely untrue to form, our gal bombed on this subtest; and the teacher concluded that she must have remedial help “before this becomes a learning disorder."

Granted, her mom does tend to overreact to any unfounded suggestion that her child is struggling. But this one blew me away too. Not because it will have any effect on our girl’s well-being or quiet confidence; but because it is an example of all too common misuse of test scores, “in the best interest of children.” The teacher is earnest in her wish to smooth any rough edges on this very appealing good student; but she went too far in putting her faith in a single test. I know it will roll off of my granddaughter; but I think of all the other children who may suffer from such misguided conclusions. Here’s what’s wrong: No test is a better assessor or predictor of a child’s knowledge and skills than an observant teacher’s assessment based on daily contact. Just as with a medical lab test that is alarming, but absolutely inconsistent with the healthy, vibrant appearance and functioning of a patient, we ought not to rush to believe it. Redo the test or simply ignore it and retest in several weeks or months is the mantra in both situations.

Then too, no achievement subtest that is so brief can be a reliable predictor of performance. The best prediction of future performance is past performance. And finally, making curriculum decisions for a 7 year old on the basis of a subtest given on the first day of school, when becoming familiar with a new group, new classroom, usually new teacher, and surveying what the other girls are wearing is the testee’s primary interest, is unwise. As I said, it is going to have absolutely no effect on this particular child; but an educational environment that puts so much faith in tests and so little in the observations of teachers can be dangerous to most children’s academic health and general well-being.

October 8, 2007

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The Challenge! Part I

The Challenge! Part I

I confess, I was afraid that no one would respond to the invitation on my first post, and I’d be reduced to making up imaginary children with imaginary book preferences. But, wow! That was not the case. With four responses and five challenges--and such great challenges, too, with so much potential--the hard part was limiting my recommended titles to a reasonable number. So much so that I’m going to split my response into two parts. Much thanks to everyone who participated!

Herewith, Part I: Book Recommendation Challenge Responses 1-3.

1) From Susan—5 year old girl, likes:

  • First Thousand Words in Spanish
  • Madeline
  • Harry the Dirty Dog

My recommendations:

  • The Night I Followed the Dog, by Nina Laden. It’s got a dog with a mysterious secret life, a kid who goes on an adventure in the middle of the night, and best of all, Laden hand-lettered the text in a halfway-to-rebus style that I can only call “visual onomatopoeia” in which many words are written out in a way that gives a sense of their meaning: the O’s in the word “Looked” have little eyes in them, etc.
  • Madlenka, by Peter Sis. In this simple yet rich picture book, Madlenka walks around the block greeting all her neighbors—each of whom speaks a different language—with the exciting news that she’s just lost her tooth. Cool die-cut illustrations. (This feels a bit like cheating, since Akelda mentioned it in her request, but it's so perfect I couldn't resist.)
  • Manana, Iguana, by Ann Whitford Paul. A take-off on the old “Little Red Hen” story, starring an iguana who decides to have a fiesta. Every time she asks her friends for help, they respond with the title phrase…until the day of the fiesta itself. Will the iguana’s friends redeem themselves? Can you stand the suspense?? Lots of Spanish words tossed in, and a glossary at the back.

2) From Alkelda—4 year old girl, likes:

  • Madlenka
  • Princess and the Pea (Lauren Child version)
  • Fairies

 My recommendations:

  • Alice the Fairy, by David Shannon. Alice is just an apprentice fairy, so she can only do really simple magic: like turning her white dress red (with spilled juice—oops!) and magically making the room turn dark (with just a flick of the light switch). A Lauren Child fan might like Shannon’s goofy illustrations.
  • The Paper Bag Princess, by Robert Munsch. Full disclosure: knowing Alkelda as I do, I’d be surprised if her daughter hasn’t already encountered this classic tale of a princess who sets out to rescue her caddish fiancé from a fearsome but somewhat gullible dragon. But it’s always good for a re-read, and Elizabeth is such an excellent role model for princesses everywhere: she's brave, resourceful, clever, and won't put up with any guff!
  • Twig, by Elizabeth Orton Jones . Considering how many little girls are obsessed with fairies, there are remarkably few decent fairy-themed kids’ books on offer. This novel, about a charming little girl named Twig who befriends an elf, is a bit of a stretch for a 4-year-old listener, but might be a good read-aloud if broken up into small bedtime segments.

3) From Veronique (first request of two)—9 year old girl, likes these series:

  •  Nancy Drew
  •  Tin Tin
  • Harry Potter

 My recommendations:

  • Get Real! Series by Linda Ellerbee. In the first volume of the series, 11-year-old Casey Smith starts a newspaper at her middle school. Then it’s off to the races as she rakes up muck and solves mystery after mystery in volume after volume. Ellerbee (a former reporter herself) isn’t afraid to take on big issues, but she keeps the tone light and steers away from preachiness.
  • Baby-Sitters’ Club graphic novel version, by Ann Martin and Raina Telgemeier. I was too old for the Babysitters’ Club books the first time around, and never did manage to get all the way through one (though I like some of series author Ann Martin’s other books). But this! This, I liked. Raina Telgemeier cuts through what were wordy passages in the originals with a few deft visual strokes, and gives new life to this series about four middle school friends who start a babysitting club. Skews a bit older than “Babymouse,” though a 9-year-old might enjoy that too.
  • Chrestomanci series, by Diana Wynne Jones. The ripple effect from the Harry Potter craze has been great for all kids’ fantasy authors, and nobody deserves that boost more than Diana Wynne Jones, who’s been writing clever stories about magical kids since J. K. Rowling was a wee sprout sitting her 11-Plus exams. The books in this series can be read in any order—they take place in the same magical world, but among slightly different sets of characters—but I’d recommend starting with Charmed Life (about a boy whose older sister is a witch and gets invited to study with the great Chrestomanci) or Witch Week (about a school for children with witch parents, in a world where witchcraft is possible but illegal).

These descriptions are getting wordier and wordier, which means I’d better stop for now before I end up writing recommendations that are longer than the books themselves!

Back next time with the last two challenges...


September 30, 2007

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