Almost National Poetry Month!

Almost National Poetry Month!

Sometimes I'll hear or read complaints that kids don't memorize poetry any more, as they did in the dear old days of schoolroom recitations. I have found that this is not actually true. In fact, National Poetry Month—starting tomorrow!—is celebrated in a variety of ways, including memorization and performance in classrooms around the country. It's great to see how many ways there are to celebrate poetry and help kids see the joy and excitement in it.

At my old school, one of the teachers ran a "Poetry Patrol" event every year with her fourth graders: working in teams of two or three, they'd memorize a poem and not just recite it but perform it—with dance moves, props, rap stylings—whatever brought it to life. Then, on the appointed day, they'd pop up unannounced (but cleared ahead of time) in classrooms and offices all over school, to perform their assigned poem. Not only did they learn off poems by heart—albeit the likes of Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky, rather than traditional fare like the old "The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck" as did kids of yore—but older and younger students got to hear those poems in an engaging way, as well.

Last week, my family—grandma, parents, and 7-year-old child—were casting about for things to do on a long ferry and car trip home from a long weekend. After several rounds of 20 Questions, us grownups got tired of guessing jungle animals and begged for a change of pace. Poetry recitation was proposed, and found to be acceptable to all.

The 7-year-old then reeled off the complete text of Sandra Boynton's "Snoozers" by heart, reciting the six poems in the book with gusto and expression. I pulled out my one solidly memorized poem, "Jabberwocky"—I learned it as a kid, and still love that deliciously satisfying (if gory) moment when the vorpal blade goes snicker-snack! My spouse then obliged with the "Augustus Gloop" poem from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and together we pieced together most—but not all—of that grisly epic of the Klondike, "The Cremation of Sam McGee."

That last is available in picture-book form, and is a great example of a picture book you probably wouldn't want to share with a class of young kids (though an individual 7- or 8-year-old might like it, depending on their tolerance for this kind of stuff.). I used to read it to 4th and 5th grades, but it's so creepy in the middle—despite the surprise funny ending--that I was reluctant to share it with younger classes, lest it inspire nightmares.

Another great read-aloud poem for kids of maybe 2nd grade and up is "Casey at the Bat". This one's been published in a few different editions, but I like this one illustrated by Christopher Bing in which the entire book, including the cataloging information is done up in period early 20th-century reproduction style.

Do you have a favorite poem to recite? Do your kids?

March 31, 2008

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Birthdays Celebrate More Than the Passage of Time

Birthdays Celebrate More Than the Passage of Time

Along with a car-load of well-wishing family members, we traveled recently to our youngest grandson’s first birthday party. It was a convivial event with a cheerful mix of celebrants. The birthday guy enjoyed a good nap during the first half of the party, while 3 out of 4 of his grandparents, an uncle, great-aunt, cousins, friends of the family with young children, and of course his older brother sampled the pretty, paper-plated buffet.

Birthday boy’s big brother (whose own big day is coming up soon) was involved with the serious business of play. (No days off for 4 year olds!) After greeting the adult guests politely, I eagerly followed the big guy into the playroom. During my stay on the floor there, several of his peers wandered in and out. It struck me that their casual interactions were similar to those of men and boys playing basketball on concrete city courts; the participants joined or departed without even a nod of greeting or farewell.

Fours slip into pretend play without fanfare. No "hello, may I play?", and not a beat skipped; no explanations or apologies for switching the direction or theme. One minute we were in a supermarket and I was getting my pretend change. Then the scene rapidly morphed into a doctor's examining room because a 4-year-old boy named Jack had just found the doctor’s kit. My reflexes were tested before I could even pocket my supermarket change.

My grandson paused to watch, then returned to his carpentry tasks. He had recently requested that his mother help him make business cards for his budding contracting business. "Now that he's turning four," his father said, "he is giving serious thought to his future, wrestling with tough decisions. What will he be: carpenter, landscaper, plumber, or fireman?"

His birthday party will take place at the fire house, so at least for that one day, his path to the future will, I imagine, be clear. Otherwise, it's as variable as the scene shifting in pretend play; and he's comfortable with that. Shades of his oldest cousin, who is now 13 and all about sports, yet just a wink and a nod ago, it seems, was greeting me with, "Hi, Grandma. Let’s be plumbers," then a day later, introducing himself to a girl at the community pool: "Hi, what’s your name?, I’m B., the landscaper!”

How lucky am I? Just when our current fireman/carpenter/landscaper/plumber converts his energy and fantasy life to the "real world" of sports, his now 1-year-old brother will be ready to greet me with doctor kits, tool belts, play money -- all the paraphernalia of the wonderfully rich world of fours immersed in "just pretend."

March 27, 2008

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Easter and Esther: Books for Spring Holidays

Easter and Esther: Books for Spring Holidays

The widely-celebrated Christian holiday of Easter is coming this Sunday, right on the heels of a lesser-known Jewish holiday: Purim, which falls on March 21 this year, and which is generally celebrated with costumes, merriment, noisemaking, gifts to charity, and the consumption of yummy filled cookies called hamentaschen.

If you celebrate either of these holidays for their religious significance, their kid-friendly rituals, or both, or if you observe neither of them but are just looking for some enjoyable and seasonal books, I'd recommend any of the titles below:

Hershel's mother doesn't think he can help her make Purim cookies to sell, since he is blind, but he surprises her with his ability and his creativity. Out of print but well worth tracking down at a library or used bookstore near you.

Young Tricia and her friends Stewart and Winston want to buy a wonderful Easter hat for Stewart and Winston's grandma, but first they must overcome the suspicions of the cranky shopkeeper. A heartwarming story about friends overcoming barriers of age, race, and religion.

Another adventure with those lovable rabbit siblings beloved of preschoolers. This time, Ruby insists that Max go on an egg hunt before he can eat the delicious-looking chocolate chicken.

The biblical story of heroic Queen Esther forms the basis for Purim. Gerstein retells it here in simple language, with gorgeous, gilded, Persian-influenced illustrations. (Out of print, but available used or at libraries.)

A poor single mother fulfils her dream of becoming the Easter Bunny. This charming and timeless book, first published in 1939, has a surprisingly contemporary sense, and features an ambitious but still loving mother and her twenty-one well-raised and self-reliant children.

A little bear emerges from hibernation and accidentally crashes a Purim party, only to be mistaken for a costumed human guest. Perfect for young children.

Wishing you delicious treats, delicious books, and longer, warmer days in the the week ahead!

March 18, 2008
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Who’s There? A Series of Unfortunate Knock-Knocks, With Annotations.

Who’s There? A Series of Unfortunate Knock-Knocks, With Annotations.

Last week, a friend of mine mentioned that she was thinking about applying to library school. In a rash moment, I promised that if she did, I would teach her “the secret Dewey Decimal knock-knock jokes to which only initiates are privy.” 

Upon further questioning, I was forced to admit that there are no secret Dewey Decimal knock-knock jokes for librarians. But I thought I’d better make some up, just so as to be true to my word. Herewith, the never-before-seen jokes (and some would say they should’ve STAYED that way), with some related fiction and nonfiction book recommendations to help them go down easier:


Knock knock!
Who's there?
Wire.
Wire who?
Why're the comic books in 741.5 when they're not even NONFICTION? Huh?

Comic books are in 741.5, right next to the books about drawing, because the 740’s are the section for art books. That’s where you’ll find Little Lit: Folklore and Fairy Tale Funnies, edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly, which provides a sampling of traditional tales retold in comic-book form by a jaw-dropping array of illustrators and graphic artists. Fun for kids, teens, and adults, who might recognize some of the artists from underground comic books or the covers of The New Yorker magazine.


Knock, knock!
Who's there?
Hood.
Hood who?
Hood'a thunk that books about pets would be in the 630's when books about animals in general are in the 590's? I mean, what's up with that?

Animals in general are part of Biology, which is Science, which is in the 500’s; but pets are domesticated animals, so they end up in Applied Science in the 600’s range, right between gardening and cookbooks. Simple, no? (Well, no.)

In any case, May I Pet Your Dog? by Stephanie Calmenson, illustrated by Jan Ormerod, brilliantly fills a previously unmet need: it’s a basic guide to dog behavior especially for kids who don’t have dogs themselves, and who may even be a little bit scared of them. My kid, who is quite wary of dogs despite their domesticated status, studied this book hard and has bravely used its tips when meeting dogs around the neighborhood and at friends’ houses.


Knock, knock!
Who's there?
Windy.
Windy who?
Windy number of novels started getting out of hand, most libraries moved them out of the 800's and into their very own special area. But you'll still sometimes find short story collections back there in 813.08, if the library's really retro.

Paul Jennings’s short-story collections—which have titles like Uncanny! Unreal! And Unmentionable!—aren’t horror, exactly, but some of the twists at the end are pretty…creepy. They’ll make you laugh and shudder at the same time. Perfect for tweens with a taste for the bizarre.


Knock, knock!
Who’s there?
Decimal.
Decimal who?
Decimal books sometimes get stuck behind de big books, and then no one can find them!

Little kids love little books for their little hands, but boy are they a pain to shelve. Author whose books are most likely to get put on their own little library shelf so as to avoid this problem? Beatrix Potter, of Peter Rabbit fame. If you can’t find her books in the regular “P”s section, ask the librarian.


Knock, knock!
Who’s there?
Dewey.
Dewey who?
Dewey really have to hear any more of these knock-knock jokes? 

No, we’re all done here! But if the taste for knock-knocks hasn’t been knocked out of you yet, try Knock, Knock! a brand-new compendium of fourteen jokes (guess what kind?) illustrated by children’s book artists like Judy Schachner, David Small, and Jon J. Muth. My favorite? Henry Cole’s groaningly silly “Easter Bunny” series, which starts out with “Esther. Esther who? Esther bunny.” and runs even further downhill from there.


Knock, Knock!
Nobody home; go read a book!

March 11, 2008

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A Small Fire and the "Big Bang"

A Small Fire and the "Big Bang"

Early last Friday evening, we celebrated the start of the weekend, as we often do in winter, by lighting a small fire in our big stone fireplace. The crackles and glow provided cozy background for our evening meal, then public television’s coverage of the exciting presidential election campaign. The rain was coming down hard and was expected to continue for much of the next 24 hours. No matter, we were unaffected, as long as our basement could stay dry. Heavy winds whipping across the bay behind us were unimportant, as long as no power lines went down.

Ordinarily, the fireplace has darkened well before bed-time. We draw the glass curtains, secure in knowing the fire is harmless now. But this time, for some reason, while my better half was already drifting off, I walked by the fireplace to lock the front door and found the blaze somehow rejuvenated. I woke the poor man up, though gently, with the announcement of a blazing fire. “Couldn’t be,” he mumbled, moving to see for himself. “It’s a blazing fire”, he agreed. “That is going to go on for at least an hour!” and back to bed he went.

I stood watch along with Crispy, our little terrier, who, also apparently unconcerned, was snoring softly on the couch. Too tired to read, I flicked on the TV, channel-surfing to my heart’s content until I found “Charlie Rose” on PBS, with a program devoted to some of issues that enliven contemporary physics, of all things. Amazed at myself for sticking with it for as long as the fire flamed, although there would be no reward of academic credit (I would never have taken the risk of studying physics and/or higher mathematics! Girls didn’t do that in my day!), I listened to Rose interviewing some of modern physics’ stars, including Stephen Hawking.

I’ve since forgotten the others’ names, but it doesn’t matter. What matters was my introduction to the astonishing way their minds work, what excites them, draws them on to search for more and more equations to explain the universe. All this talk of the “Big Bang,” Einstein’s incomplete equation, efforts to explain the Cosmos, gravity, supergravity, a picture of a 10 dimensional universe (I could barely fathom 3 dimensions on building plans), cosmology and particle physics, the search for a theory of quantum gravity, the black holes, string theory!

Now in the light of day, these are all just mystifying words, but in the glow of the fire, I knew what they all meant — and experienced a vertigo that made my little life concerns (the grandchildren’s flu, water in the basement, the phone company's broken promises to fix our fax line, what to make for dinner) seem like utterly absurd minutiae.

Yes, in the scope of things, I and mine are much smaller than an atom. To ease the dizziness at the thought of my and my family’s insignificance, I retreated to my own comfort zone — a fascination with individual differences, particularly among the gifted and talented. More about that will follow soon, now that my feet are back on the ground and the insistent fire is out.

March 11, 2008

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Beyond the Wheels on the Bus: Toddler Story Time Favorites

Beyond the Wheels on the Bus: Toddler Story Time Favorites

For nine years I was a school librarian, working almost exclusively with kids between the ages of 3 and 13: the heartland of childhood. I have probably a whole textbook's worth of notes and lesson plans and booklists all aimed at this age group, gleaned from that near-decade of work. But for the past six months, I've had a temporary job working with the two far ends of the youth spectrum: toddlers and teenagers. I visit high school classes to talk up books they might like and to promote the public library, and I lead a weekly story time for 1- and 2-year olds.

What I've noticed about toddlers, in particular, is that it's a serious challenge to find suitable books for reading aloud to a group of kids this age: the books need to be rhythmic, have bright pictures, not be too long, and can't have more than a few words on each page, as paying attention to the lady up at the front is really not these kids' strong point or first priority. The parents and grandparents and nannies who come to my story times have a little more latitude, as they're mostly reading one-on-one to their children, but even so they peruse the picture books and board books avidly, looking for titles that will keep their kids interested, and that won't be ripped to shreds by the time they return to the library.

Young toddlers in a group can't be expected to follow a plot, so there are a limited number of topics that lend themselves to a book for this audience. I recently joked to a friend that all the story time books I'd been reading had one of two basic themes: either "Mommy loves you," or "There sure are a lot of animals!"

Still, I've managed to find enough books to keep everybody reasonably happy. If you have a toddler—or a group of toddlers—in your life, they might enjoy some of these titles:

A baby's day, in brief, with sound effects. Great for audience participation.

Many parents and kids already know this book but they don't care; actually, toddlers perk up visibly at the sight of something familiar. And a good book never gets old.

Most parents (and some kids) will be able to chant along with this book without even seeing the words, but the surprise ending will trip them up and make them laugh.

Great for new big brothers and sisters. Plus, the black-and-white illustrations have hypnotic baby appeal.

Similar in concept to "Brown Bear, Brown Bear," this book features a young child who meets one animal after another. As with many animal books, the read-aloud experience can be further livened up by suggesting that the audience make the appropriate noises on each page.

This book is deceptively quiet and yet has an almost hypnotic effect on toddlers. It looked like spilt milk, but it wasn't spilt milk…so what was it? Your audience may actually stop dumping books on the floor in their eagerness to find out.

Yes, yes, the wheels on the bus go round and round…but what do the tigers on the bus do? How about the skunks? Better to find out through this book than to live it in a real bus ride, that's for sure. Plus, a book that can be sung is always a nice bonus.

March 4, 2008

 

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Almost, But Not Quite "Taking Play Seriously"

Almost, But Not Quite "Taking Play Seriously"

I was delighted to see, a few Sundays ago, that the New York Times Sunday Magazine listed an article about play in its table of contents. It had a great title and distinguished author too: “Taking Play Seriously” by Robin Marantz Henig.

Putting aside the news columns and editorials that typically capture my attention in this exciting election year, I settled in to enjoy a long overdue heyday for play . . . but I was soon disappointed, largely by the tone of Ms. Marantz Henig’s piece. Above all, it conveyed her ambivalence about the actual merits of dramatic play in early childhood. And I had expected an unqualified endorsement from this highly regarded science writer.

Many of us with ties to early childhood development have been up against a thickening brick wall no matter how worthy the evidence that make-believe, fantasy play, complex pretending is a precious activity helping to prepare kids for life and academic learning. Drills and memorization in preschool and kindergarten at the expense of free play don’t bring kids closer to our goals for them, including social/emotional growth, abstract thinking, and literacy. It has been clearly demonstrated that young children’s imaginative play is a bedrock of their later learning and creative thinking.

My disappointment with the Times piece increased as I read on and encountered the author’s sometimes subtle skepticism. As even she points out, a growing body of literature convincingly argues that play contributes to brain development; but then she seems to debunk that same idea. How important can play be, she asks, if under duress, it is abandoned by children? (It has been observed that traumatized kids, including many children of alcoholics, loose the capacity for imaginative play.) Ms. Marantz Henig seems to favor the view of doubters who say play is not the only route to intellectual development; kids can live without it, implying too that there has been an over-idealization of play.

“Not everything about childhood play is sweetness and light, no matter how much we romanticize it,” she argues, adding that it can be “destabilizing” and “scary”. And then she allows a window into some possible origins of her ambivalence.

“I well remember the darker side of play from my own girlhood. Like many other klutzy kids, I hated recess, since it stripped me of the classroom competence that was such good cover for my shyness. Out in the schoolyard, there was no raising your hand with the right answer. I had to wait to be asked to play jump-rope and had to face embarrassment if I missed a skip or — worse, much worse — if nobody ended up asking me.”

It is instinctive to avoid situations that are threatening even for a girl who enjoyed so many intellectual gifts; but had she been able to play out her fears, perhaps she might have overcome some aspects of the shyness and self-doubt that apparently can still dampen her spirits. Watch the way she goes back and forth about the merits of play:

“It’s a pretty idea, the notion that play gives you hope for a better tomorrow, but science demands something a little less squishy. Science demands that if there are important long-term benefits to play, they must be demonstrated. That is why studies of play-deprived rats are so fascinating: they offer objective evidence that in at least some animals, insufficient play can have serious consequences.”

It is difficult to escape a mountain of evidence of the value of play; but it still doesn’t sit well with the author, and I worry that her doubts, expressed however subtly in this piece, might have set us back in our effort to demonstrate the undeniable importance of play for children’s healthy intellectual and social/emotional development. The lost opportunity is unfortunate.

March 4, 2008

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