More About Giving Psychology Away

In the current newsletter of the Society for Research in Child Development, there is a piece entitled “Sharing Science: From the Lab to the Classroom”.  The authors, Golinkoff, et al, raise the all important question, “How would teachers, administrators, policy-makers at various levels and the lay public know about the importance of playful learning and the evidence for it if we did not share what we have learned from research? Writing for audiences outside our peers is crucial for bringing the science to where it really matters: practice.”   Theirs is another call to “Give Psychology Away”.

The authors point out how vital this “giving away of psychology” is in the current climate of parental anxiety, partly the outcrop of “No Child Left Behind” and contemporary parental fear of children’s future economic failure. Sure, earlier exposure to mathematics and reading can increase “readiness”, but these authors argue against what they call, “preschool sweatshops”, pointing out again that “LEARNING AND PLAY ARE NOT INCOMPATIBLE”; in fact, “Learning takes place when children are engaged and enjoying themselves”.

Later on in the same article, the authors announce, “the benefits of preschool education have now been heralded by President Obama…Having established that preschool education is important for school readiness, it is now incumbent upon us, researchers in the field, to use our best science to suggest how we should fashion our preschool pedagogy. "ALTHOUGH IT IS NOT THE ONLY WAY THAT CHILDREN LEARN, THE RESEARCH SUPPORTS THE VIEW THAT FREE AND GUIDED PLAY…IS ‘THE ESSENTIAL PEDAGOGICAL STRATEGY FOR YOUNG CHILDREN” (Kagan and Lowenstein).

“If we in the field don’t convey this message, we leave a vacuum for policy to be made in the absence of evidence.”

In my long tenure as a Scholastic Consultant, I have argued again and again for the meaningfulness of play in early childhood.  It is one way that I have tried to follow the injunction to “Give Psychology Away”.

More Articles About Play:

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Newbery/Caldecott/Etc. 2009: My Own Personal Scorecard

The big children’s and teen literature awards from the American Library Association were announced on Monday morning, and just like last year, I bounded out of bed and ran to the computer first thing to see who won. And…


Well, first I should say that the awards committees’ processes are shrouded in secrecy, and (unlike the Cybils) no short-lists of finalists are published before the big announcement, so speculation among children’s-book aficionados heats up mightily in the weeks before the awards ceremony.


What this also means is that on the big day, putatively knowledgeable children’s librarians and other kidlit people often find themselves (ourselves) abashed to realize that they haven’t read the new Newbery (children’s literature) Caldecott (children’s book illustration) or Printz (young adult/teen literature) winners, and might not even have them in their collections.


Which is all a long-winded way of admitting that, once I’d managed to find a news release with the award books listed, I discovered that once again I have read none of the three big medalists, and slunk off to breakfast, humbled.


I’d at least heard of the Newbery medalist, The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman, and in fact have read so many rave reviews of the book that I featured it in a post a few weeks ago and even went so far as to put in a reserve for it at the library (there’s going to be a long line after me now). I’d also heard good things about the Printz Award winner, Jellicoe Road, by Melina Marchetta, but my library doesn’t have it yet, so I’m still waiting to read it.


This year’s Caldecott winner, The House in the Night, illustrated by Beth Krommes, was totally off my radar, though, and I don’t think I’m alone. Elizabeth Bird of Fuse #8 called it (sort of), but there wasn’t the kind of talk about it that there’s been around, say, Wabi Sabi or We Are the Ship, neither of which showed up on the Caldecott honor list (though We are the Ship won a Coretta Scott King award). From what I’ve seen of it—so far, just the cover, online—it looks lovely and cozy and retro in a way I very much like. So The House in the Night is on my reserve list now, too.


Here’s a complete list of the ALA Youth Award winners. I did get to read some of the honor books and one winner (what have I been reading, that there are so many I didn’t get to??) and can heartily recommend the Caldecott honor books A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever, by Marla Frazee, and How I Learned Geography, by Uri Shulevitz.


Among the Printz honor titles for young adults, I read and was blown away--in different ways--by both The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart and Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan.


And soon after it showed up in my library, I managed to grab the newest Elephant and Piggie book from Mo Willems, Are You Ready to Play Outside?, and so was pleased, though not surprised, to see that it won this year’s Geisel Award for Most Distinguished Book for Beginning Readers!


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Mouth Matters

Which came first, the molars or the big girl bed? Last night, round about 10pm, when our little dumpling still had not dropped off to sleep (as evidenced by her "hanging out" at the gate to her room) we started to wonder if something was up. She's drooling a lot, her head feels kind of hot, maybe she's getting some molars.

Well, one flashlight and several looks inside the mouth revealed not one, not two, but three, three big, chunky molars pushing and stretching their way through her tender baby gums. Poor little peach! Good grief! It's not bothering her too terribly much, but it can't be comfortable. How long does this last? Molars aren't baby teeth, too, are they? And when, oh when, will we all get the sleep we need? Zzzzzzzzzz.

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A Love Letter to Readers: Inkheart and Its Creators

A few years ago, I was at a library conference, sharing a hotel room with another school librarian. She hit the vendor stalls the first day and came back with a beautiful, chunky, sumptuous-looking red-jacketed volume called Inkheart, and kindly offered to let me at it first, at least for the duration of the conference, since she was in the middle of another book. 


I couldn’t tell you a thing about that conference, but I still remember the delicious opening-a-box-of-candy feeling I got when I turned to the first page. Right away, from the opening epigraph to the first glimpse of Meggie, waking up with a book under her pillow, you could tell this book was a love letter to books and to those who love them. The fact that it was written and originally published in German only added to my sense that the author felt like part of a worldwide community of readers, especially reader’s (child-aged or not) of children’s books.


Today, the movie version of Inkheart opens. I’m actually not a big viewer of films based on kids’ books—my big-screen child-free moviegoing opportunities are so scarce that I like to spend them on grownup fare—but this one I very much want to see, and soon, while it still has that shiny new feeling that the book had when I first read it.


In the meantime, in honor of the film, I’m reprising part of a post I wrote in May, 2007, after hearing Cordelia Funke and her amazingly brilliant translator, Anthea Bell speak at the Serendipity children’s literature conference in Vancouver:



Anthea Bell spoke first. She is little and understated and elderly and wry and very British. She is also very brilliant, as demonstrated by her three-page list of translating credits in a dizzying array of languages, ranging from Sigmund Freud to all the Asterix books. She spoke about why she got into literary translation (it seemed like a "difficult challenge" and, she noted with some relish, she likes difficult challenges), her opinion of academic degree programs in literary translation (which runs along the lines of "I'm sure it's very fun to do, but it's not a degree that will make much difference to publishers; they just want to know if you can get the job done") and her academic background (in English Literature, not comparative lit, because at that time at Oxford you could only read one or the other and she wanted to take the philology course they had in Eng Lit).

Ms. Bell elaborated with passion about the importance of literature in translation, particularly for children, who are rarely bilingual, and who deserve the chance to read books from other cultures--books that are great, and books that are just fun and enjoyable. She quoted Samuel Johnson who, when asked what books a boy should be given to read, said basically that you should let a young boy [sic.--Samuel Johnson's sic., not Anthea Bell's] read whatever he enjoys so that he learns to like reading; he can pick up the "better" stuff (which at that time would have meant Greek and Latin works in the original) later.

Just before ceding the podium and picking her careful way back to her seat, she spoke a little about the Inkheart books ("tantalizing you," she said sweetly), the third of which Cornelia Funke has just emailed to her this week; it's sitting in her in-box, waiting for her to get back to England and get started reading it [gasps and murmurs from the crowd at this point]. "I've been asked to do a new translation of Kafka's The Castle," she said later in the presentation, "and I told them it will have to wait. [laughter and applause.] It's only fair; Kafka's been translated before."

Then Cornelia Funke got up. And she...she...well, she's about the most stunningly matter-of-factly self-confident human being I think I have sever seen in person, and that includes politicians and rock stars. She spoke without audio-visual aids and without notes. "I don't know how this will go," she smiled; "maybe you'll be really bored." But she didn't seem too worried.

Nor should she have been. She launched into the story of her literary journey (a theme all the presenters had been asked to address): growing up in a small town, books were her addiction, a "legal drug" that she couldn't get enough of. Her parents wanted her to pursue her talent for art, but she saw it as irrelevant and elitist and wanted to change the world. She became a social worker. But "you cannot live against your will do what you were born to do, and your gifts will pull and push at you and pain you" until you use them. So she entered the illustrator's program at the university after all, graduated, and got a job illustrating books.

And soon found herself bored with the picture books she was given to illustrate: "Children in classrooms, children in their rooms...German children's literature at that time was very realistic." She wanted to draw fairies and ogres, so she whipped up a little picture book of her own, which was immediately published. Nope; never had a rejection slip [mutters and groans from the audience].

And the rest is more or less history. She wrote and wrote and wrote (which she professes to find painless and joyful--provoking more envious groans from the crowd). She wrote Inkheart as a love letter to books and to her fellow reading addicts, and has been surprised to find it read and loved by many kids who formerly never read books. She lives in Los Angeles now, loves it, and is currently working on a screenplay she was asked to do by one of the producers (I think) of the Harry Potter movies--not a book of her own, but a project based on (an unnamed, super-secret) someone else's book that "very much relates to the fairy tales of the Germans". It's her first time working directly in English, and she's enjoying it, but she thinks she's only a reasonably good writer in English; not as good as she is in German.

When she sold the film rights to Inkheart she asked to be made a producer, and so she's had a say on the director and the cast (Helen Mirren is going to play Elinor), gets to see the rushes, and all that fun stuff. She feels it has "the darkness I wanted" for a film version of the book, and seems genuinely pleased with it, and with everything else in her life.

Finally, the author and translator sat down together, conversed briefly on mike, and then took questions. This was when I got to appreciate the full resplendence of Cornelia Funke's dark brown velvet skirt, and also the genuinely warm working relationship between the two writers, strikingly different as they are (short, tall; English, German; diffident, flamboyant). They obviously admire each other's talents, and feel that each is a better writer because of the other. Cornelia Funke even completely rewrote one of her early novels to make it more worthy for Anthea Bell to translate into English. "I felt so blessed that she put this beautiful glove about the hand of my language," she said.



If you want more of an Inkheart fix, here’s a link to a bunch of related articles on the Scholastic website, including a video interview with the redoubtable Ms. Funke herself.

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Making Sense of It All

Looking back on my professional life is invigorating, although it had been just plain tiring in real time. There was more than enough of a challenge in the life balancing of work and family roles. Quiet reflection, apparently, had to be postponed. The luxury of “making sense” of choices and experiences awaited a slightly slower pace, one that I can now enjoy.

I became a developmental psychologist, school psychologist, sociologist, licensed private practitioner, faculty member at a medical school, a hospital staff member and consultant, a researcher, guest lecturer, author of articles for professional journals.  I think that the greatest joys came from the reflective quality inherent in each of these undertakings. And then there was, and still is, the broader role---the sharing alluded to by psychologist, George Albee.  He was a charismatic leader, president of the American Psychological Association, and a bit of a maverick. Albee exhorted contemporary psychologists to “Give Psychology Away”.  He told us our most vital mission is to share what we know about human beings in all sorts of situations, at all sorts of ages and stages; to share these with the rest of the world, though not in a didactic or condescending way.

I didn’t exactly know it then, but Albee was encouraging exactly what I had wanted to do and be, when I “grew up.” I wanted to be “Albee’s tireless donor of psychology’s body of knowledge,” including controversial research results and their practical implications, especially as they relate to growth and development in children. The audacity of youth!

But Giving Psychology Away does not mean proselytizing or claiming to have the “true” word about human behavior in every possible circumstance. Genuine humility is essential to the task. Furthermore, a reasonable degree of emotional intelligence is needed to spread the word in a way that “speaks to” each particular listener; for the psychology “give away” is useless unless it is imbued with a sense of what it might mean to the particular recipients.

I was introduced to this challenge early on, in fact, while still a graduate student by writing guest columns about Parenting in the New York Times Magazine. What an experience for a 20 something student who then had no children of her own! What audacity to advise conscientious parents about the process of learning to read, starting school, making friends.  I had nothing to lean on but childhood memories and the then current research and textbooks. We did spend a lot of time in guided observing of several pre-school programs. We learned not only how to watch a particular child at play and throughout the school day, but also how to assess his or her feelings, thoughts, motivations and how to predict behavior. It was my first step toward sharing the field of Child Psychology with parents and teachers, eager for answers.

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Baby baby baby

Just found out, via Facebook no less, that a good friend with a toddler younger than H is expecting her second. Super exciting. Also produces a pang of "I want that" if I'm to be completely honest. While I know, really know, that we're not ready to welcome another life into our family, I also really hope we will be ready (or, you know, as ready as we can be. You're never actually ready, of course. Never have enough money, a big enough place, enough extra energy, etc.) at some point. And I hope when that point comes, that I'll be ready and able physically. It certainly wouldn't be the worst thing if H was an only child, far from it, but... at that's not what I'm hoping for.

In other baby news, H has taken to balling up her "snuggle blanket" and tenderly holding the "little, tiny baby" that is within. It's just adorable. It's also the evolution of our popular "little, tiny baby" game wherein David or I pick up H, cradle her on her side (her feet extend way out. She is a tall girl.) and say something along the lines of "oh, little tiny baby. What a little tiny baby this is. She doesn't know how to do big girl things. She just sleeps and eats. She's so little and tiny." She loves it and requests it often. As our friend Philip remarked, "she's two and she's already nostalgic." I think it's also one of the few ways this active powerhouse of a toddler can take a rest, get a little cuddle, and feel secure and safe as she pauses for a moment. That's my theory anyway. What do you think?

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Time Flies.. and Soup Follows

My goodness... I certainly didn't intend to let so much time pass between blog posts. But here we are and hopefully that's what matters. Somehow time keeps moving and I keep running to catch up. Yesterday H marched around the apartment shouting, "President Obama, President Obama" -- very cute.

This morning David, my husband, and I were talking about how neither of us appreciates the term "terrible twos." It's so negative, so all encompassing.And H is so not terrible, in fact she's really wonderful and we keep sight of that as she violently throws nearly everything she can get her hands on. 

She clears tables, she empties bins full of Legos. The other day? She threw a bowl full of chicken noodle soup. Yeah. I think that bears repeating with bold for emphasis: She threw a bowl full of chicken noodle soup.

So, while we both cringe at the "terrible twos" moniker, it's not a totally alien concept where it came from. Our punishment system consists of "time outs" usually in the high chair. Throwing food is the major offender (though pulling poor our cat George's poor tail is also on the list). Am I crazy to think she has the self-possession to choose not to throw food? I really think she does. Of course, the time outs have become such a topic of conversation ("no time outs," "want a time out", etc.) that it's possible they've become an encourager rather than a deterrent. What do you think? How do you deal with this particular challenge? I would truly love to hear!

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My Beef About Shared Assumptions

It’s picky of me, I know; but I am frequently bothered by some shared assumptions about children’s behavior. When I was a young school psychologist, the labels “ADD” and “ADHD” had not yet been “invented”.  We called those antsy kids “figity”; and if they were not only restless but seemed to reside in their own separate world, we didn’t say they were somewhere on the Autistic Spectrum. Admittedly, we had other labels, such as “neurologically impaired” or “perceptually impaired” and three levels of retardation, depending on IQ score cut-offs. But most of us who worked with children weren’t convinced of the immutable accuracy of any such terms. They were useful for placing children in special classes or providing extra outside help. Although less so than now, there was some urgency about pigeon-holing departures from expected behavior, maybe just because we are a “categorizing” species. But many of us had not subscribed to the universal benefits of labeling children’s behavior.  I honestly believe that we tried to make sense of odd behavior, in the light of a particular child’s physical, cognitive, educational, cultural, environmental history and present circumstances. And we made recommendations based on what we had learned about available resources as well as the nature of these particular children’s needs.

O.K., it was not the good old days; but it was a time when skilled professionals and investigators could allow the facts from their observations, to take the lead in deciding what, if anything, was wrong as well as what to do about it.  Psychodiagnosticians who went by “a book”, slotting kids into convenient lists and labels were not the most respected professionals. The most sought after professionals were those who could observe, describe, even partly explain odd behavior and then consider the available options before making specific recommendations.  I am hoping that this modus operandi will return again under newly designed educational and health plans. Here’s hoping that’s not just wishful thinking.

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Sunshine State Stories

Greetings from Florida, an enchanted land where the sun shines all day, snow is nonexistent, and my daughter and her little cousin convene peacefully over Playmobils for hours at a time!

When we fled our Northwest home for this vacation (a process that involved dragging our suitcases down our icy and unplowed hill, and a hair-raising and yet agonizingly slow cab ride through snow-blocked streets with a driver who cheerfully explained that he makes most of his money trading stocks on the Internet, and then proceeded to do just that, while driving, until we made him stop) I admit that, aside from the chance to spend time with family, the warmth and the mouse-ears were foremost in my mind.

But there's much more to Florida. When I browsed through the local library catalog today in search of children's books set in the Sunshine State, I realized that my image of the state, and some of my understanding of its complex nature, has been formed by a bunch of children's books. It's such a vivid setting, it's no surprise that it's been the inspiration for some of the most notable kids' novels of recent times--and a few older ones, too, like...

Strawberry Girl, by Lois Lenski. I came upon this 1945 Newbery winner as a kid, and even then it seemed old-fashioned and unthinkably far away (I grew up in New Jersey). Flipping through my sister-in-law's copy the other day, I got a strong, visceral rush of memory, brought on by the illustrations as much as the text: Birdie and her sister walking through the forest to school in their bare feet and sunbonnets; the mean, probably abusive neighbor who lets his pigs forage wild instead of fencing and and feeding them; and of course the cover illustration, the cheerful but slightly stylized Birdie, gathering her the strawberries that her family is optimistically farming under hardscrabble conditions. For anyone who thinks Florida is mainly about beaches, retirees, and Disney, Strawberry Girl offers a humanizing window into the state's real-life history.

Hoot and Flush, both by Carl Hiaasen. It was a good day for children's literature when Florida mystery writer Hiaasen started writing kids' novels. Both of these are about kids who solve mysteries, get in trouble, go on secret missions, cope with irascable school bus enemies and quirky little sisters-- all that fun stuff. But they're also about the constant bitter struggle between Florida's land and ecosystem and the people (in Hiaasen's books, comically mean and nasty people) who want to pave it over and make money off it, by building restaurants in owl's habitats or by dumping sewage into the ocean. The kids save the day, and very entertainingly, but in the meantime you get a strong sense of the powerful forces that are constantly struggling for Florida's soul.

Tangerine, by Edward Bloor. You know that devastation of the environment thing that Florida's got going, that Carl Hiaasen writes about so engagingly? Edward Bloor's got his eye on that, too, only he turns it up to Eleven. On the surface, it's a thriller: Paul is a sort of geeky, legally blind kid who slowly uncovers the truth about his creepy, bullying football-hero older brother, Erik.  But Paul and his family have just moved into a brand-new fancy development in Tangerine, Florida, and all through the book, there's a strong sense of nature fighting back against the humans who are trying blithely to ignore its existence: there are flash floods, sinkholes. weird burning smells...Tangerine is much, much more than a "message" book (I find it weird that it didn't win an award), but the message is there, loud and clear: if you mess with the Earth, the Earth will mess with you.

Because of Winn-Dixie
and The Tiger Rising, both by Kate DiCamillo. The day after we got here, we were out shopping at a strip-mall when I looked across the street and saw a literary landmark: " A Winn-Dixie! Look, look!" I didn't really expect to go in there and find a stray dog that would change my life, as Opal does in DiCamillo's quiet masterpiece, but it did remind me that Winn-Dixie (the book) is actually set in Florida, as is a lesser-known book by the same author, The Tiger Rising, in which a quiet, shy boy discovers a tiger being kept in a cage in the woods behind the hotel where he lives. Come to think of it, both these books have a sort of juxtaposition-of-lush-nature-and-human-commerce element to them, as well. It seems to be a Florida kind of theme.

The View from Saturday and The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World, both by E. L. Konigsburg. Konigsburg is best known for her very New-York-centric From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but she lives in Florida and is very much a Florida writer. The most memorable sections of The View from Saturday, in which the lives and talents of four smart sixth-graders and their teacher coalesce in an Academic Bowl competition, take place in Florida, where one character has a moment of triumph as best man at his grandfather's wedding, and another, feeling alienated and lonely during a visit to her divorced father, experiences an epiphany while helping sea turtles on the beach (that was my favorite part of the whole book).

Konigsburg's newest novel, The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World, unfolds in the small (and invented) Florida town of St. Malo, in which the flamboyant, cranky, elderly Mrs. Zender is reluctantly preparing the contents of her house for auction, largely assisted by eleven-year-olds William Wilcox, whose mom runs estate sales, and Amadeo Kaplan, who is new in town and mightily peeved about it. Like the others listed here, this book strikes me as a Florida novel not just because it happens to be set there, but in how you get the sense that people's lives, and their treasures, and the complex and untold stories behind both themselves and their possessions, have washed up and come to rest on these seemingly tranquil, sandy shores, and that sunshine and apparent simplicity can hide truths as well as revealing them.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog that one of the highlights of this vacation has been a visit to the local library, where my 4-year-old niece proudly showed us all how to use the self-checkout machine. The library building is gorgeous, and the entrance to the children's room is especially striking and brilliant: it's a transparent Lucite arch which is also a huge aquarium filled with vibrant tropical fish. Kids (and visiting adults, too) find it endlessly fascinating, it pays homage to the local ecology, and it appeals to budding scientists and fantasy-lovers alike, because it's both naturalistic and magical. Sort of like Florida itself, and the literature it has inspired.

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Cybils Finalists!

It's here! It's here! Oh Frabjuous day! Calloo, Callay! I chortle in my joy.

No, I have not just slain the Jabberwock, nor has my beamish girl (who is not very beamish right now—she's flomped across the couch, whining that she is TOO TIRED to clean the fish tank, or even to finish her pizza. She had a sleepover last night). Rather, it is Cybils Finalist Time!

Yes, the 2008 Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards have announced their finalists in nine different genres (eleven, really, since graphic novels and fantasy/science fiction are each split into younger kid/older kid sub-categories). And a fine bunch they are, too.

I'm in awe of the panelists, who had to track down and read a truly astounding number of nominees (over 100, for some categories) to winnow them down to these short lists of five to seven titles for each category. And I'm excited about the featured titles. There are some that I've read and have loved, like, Ten Cents a Dance, a knockout historical novel that's a finalist in the Young Adult Fiction category, and Chester's Back, a Fiction Picture Book finalist that continues the adventures of Chester, a charmingly insousciant and independent cat who just won't listen to his author and tries to take over the book.

And there are some that I haven't read and now want even more to get my hands on: like We Are the Ship: The Story of the Negro League Baseball, a middle-grade nonfiction title that sounds so good it might make me overcome my antipathy to reading about sports. Then there's The Graveyard Book, which is also in a genre I don't usually go near—horror, in this case—but its description in the fantasy/science fiction finalist list is so intriguing—who would expect the story of a boy being raised by ghosts to be "full of humor [and] loveable characters"?—that I'm going to have to give it a try.

But the list I've been studying most carefully is the Easy Reader Finalists. This year, I'm a judge in this category, and since I'll be on vacation from work next week I'm looking forward to having lots of time to read the finalists, and to test-drive them on various young readers. Will I get quiet time, like Houndsley and Catina? Go to tea, like Maybelle?  Think like a pig, like Mercy? Or will I love my new toy and surprise my friend? Stay tuned!

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