The Joys of Summer...Reading

This is the time of year when a children's librarian's mind lightly-- or not so lightly--turns to thoughts of summer, and, specifically, thoughts of summer reading programs. Summer reading programs have become a staple of public libraries all over the English-speaking world, and maybe beyond. The basics are simple, and don't vary too much from program to program: generally, kids are given a form of some kind with which to keep track of their reading, and then collect rewards from the library--anything from stickers to iPods--when they reach a reading goal.

The specifics vary: Usually there's a theme of some kind, with a catchy slogan, but not always. The reading goal can be expressed in number of books, number of pages, days of reading, minutes of reading, or maybe some other standard that I haven't even thought of. The materials--reading forms, posters, maybe other stuff like bookmarks, postcards or activity booklets--can be simple or elaborate. Often, the libraries incorporate programming--entertainment, visiting authors, completion ceremonies, even sleepover parties--into the summer's plans. Some libraries emphasize completion of the goal, and some focus on participation rather than finishing.

No matter what the details, though, the purpose is the same: to encourage kids to read for pleasure, and to read books of their own choosing; to build connections between families and libraries; and to address the "summer slide"-- the documented drop in reading abilities of the average kid over the long summer vacation.

I've promoted summer reading programs in three different library systems, and ran one at my old school. I even work for a summer reading program; I'm the coordinator for the amazing province-wide British Columbia Summer Reading Club. When I'm on the desk, checking lists and giving out stickers, I love seeing kids get enthusiastic about books over the summer, and I get a big kick out of seeing what they're reading. It's a great time to talk about books, swap recommendations, and just get a chance to revel in the joy of reading.

This year, Scholastic is getting in on the party, with the Scholastic Summer Challenge, a web-based program with booklists, activities, rewards--all designed to encourage kids to "Read 4 or More" books. The program kicks off tomorrow, April 30, at 1 PM Eastern time (10 AM Pacific) with a live webcast game show.

It strikes me that an enterprising kid could sign up for the Scholastic challenge and the program at their local public library--chances are, your library has a Summer Reading Program and is gearing up, even as you read, to put it into action come June. Then kids can have double the incentive, and double the fun. (And you don't even have to tell them it's good for their reading level.)

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Top 10 Picture Books: My Brother Weighs In

My erstwhile little brother (now about 6 inches taller than me), a mild-mannered lawyer by day but with an alternate identity as a spouse, parent, and children's book afficionado, sent me the following email the other night. My response was to write back that it seems the wrong person in the family went into the kidlit blogging business. Here, see for yourself:

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Hi Els!
 
I've been eagerly following the countdown of the 100 favorite picture books over at Fuse #8, and I'm trying to come up with a list of my own. I didn't vote at the time, but why not now?
 
Of course, I won't send it to Ms. Bird, since the voting's closed over there, but I thought I'd send my ballot to you, just so you'd know.
 
I decided to limit myself to books I was had read before the list came out. (Shaun Tan's The Arrival certainly would have made my list, but I only read it because I saw it on the Fuse #8 results. Truly amazing, though.) I also don't know what counts as a picture book, versus an early reader, versus a board book, versus illustrated nonfiction, versus whatever, so some of my titles may not, ahem, qualify. And, of course, I don't have a librarian's knowledge of the canon. Nonetheless, here goes:
 
You think you're embarrassed shouting at the television? Wait till you catch yourself shouting at a book. The best read-aloud. Ever.
 
2. The Osbick Bird (Edward Gorey)
Yes, it's Gorey, with everything macabre, absurd, and arbitrary that that entails. And it all serves a lovely tale of friendship and companionship.
 
Made me cry when I first read it.
 
Beautiful, silly, and heroic.
 
5. My New York (Kathy Jakobsen)
And it should be on your list, too, based on your recent blog posts. :-)
 
6. But Not the Hippopotamus (Sandra Boynton)
Boynton! BOYNTON! BOYYYYNNN-TOOOONNNNNN!!! Who cares if they're categorized as board books or whatever? Give Ms. Boynton some love, people. I suppose her votes were split twenty ways, or it fell into the wrong category, or maybe there's a snob factor at work because her lesser stuff sometimes feels less like "art" or "literature" and more like "product." I don't care. And the verses all scan. And the illustrations are funnier than Dr. Seuss'.
 
Such expressiveness.
 
8. The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (Scieszka/Smith)
Tee-hee.
 
9. Great Moments in Architecture (David Macauley)
Tee-hee, again. I worship the illustration entitled "Finding the Vanishing Point."
 
10. Good Night, Gorilla (Peggy Rathmann)
Yes, she can be on the list twice. It's a tricky feat to be both cozy and hilarious, but she pulls it off here.
 
Honorable mention:
Irving and Muktuk: Two Bad Bears (Daniel Pinkwater)
The Piggy in the Puddle (Pomerantz/Marshall)
Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch... (Noble/Ross)
To Market, To Market (Miranda/Stevens)
Max's Breakfast (Rosemary Wells)
Song of Night (Nakamura/Riley)
The Dumb Bunnies Go to the Zoo (Dav Pilkey)
 
And of course, if I chose my list tomorrow it would look different. I'd bet all of the voters felt this way.
 
Enjoy, and love to all,
James


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Sheesh. I haven't even read three of these books. Let this be a warning to older siblings every where: the little sibs can catch up mightily. Even if they work in a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT FIELD. Bravo, James! And thanks for writing my post for me ;-)

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Wonderful Town

I’m back from a whirlwind trip to my hometown, including three (yes, three) Passover seders, one jaunt to Central Park, and a long afternoon waiting in line (followed by a couple of short elevator rides) at the ultimate New York tourist destination, the Empire State Building, where I’d actually never been before. I had an excellent Szechuan dinner and saw a grown-up Broadway show with an old friend, my daughter and my cousins and I went to a circus performance, we did a lot of window-shopping and ate a lot of street food and rode a lot of subways and saw a lot of relatives.

And on the very first day, before we’d even completely slept off our jet lag, we stopped by the main branch of the New York Public Library, posed under the lions, then went inside and met the kidlitosphere’s own Betsy Bird, live on the reference desk. She is swell, by the way, and gamely discussed the Top 100 Picture Books Poll and the virtues of various blogging platforms while simultaneously keeping an eye out for real, actual patrons who might have non-blogging-related questions.

It was a great visit. I love where I live, but I miss New York.

Fortunately for someone like me, who finds comfort in virtual travel through books, there is no better place to miss than New York City. I don’t think there’s any other single locale in the world that has been the setting for more books, especially children’s books. There are probably thousands of them. I featured several last year when writing about city books for kids. Here are five more that might ease the pains of homesickness if, like me, you miss the place where the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down:

Here’s the setup: a yellow-balloon-toting little girl is visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with her grandmother, but, oh, no! balloons aren’t allowed into the building. A friendly guard saves the day by promising to look after the tethered balloon until the girl can retrieve it, but, oh, no! the balloon flies away. The guard runs after it, and the balloon leads him a merry chase through many of the city’s landmarks. Meanwhile, the girl is looking at some famous pieces of art, each of whose composition echoes the various shenanegans witnessed by the balloon and its pursuers (for example, a painting of Washington crossing the Delaware is shown opposite the scene in which a motley group piles into a small boat to chase the balloon across the pond in Central Park). Great fun, and would make an excellent to NYC for a kid who’s visiting for the first time.

This flat-out gorgeous picture book, adapted from a quilt created by the author-illustrator, is the story of Cassie and her family and their summer nights up on their roof, the “tar beach” of the title. Life is not easy for this family: Cassie’s dad, a construction worker, can’t get into the union because of his race. But at its heart, this book is a tribute to one child’s imagination, and her love of the city; over which she imagines she can fly, soaring over the buildings and bridges and transcending all the problems and worries of everyday reality.

A rebellious child of wealth skates through 1890’s Manhattan during one precious year of freedom, and never really returns. Full of fascinating glimpses of long-vanished sights, like Bryant Park before it was the site of the New York Public Library. And you just have to root for Lucinda all the way.

Tourist suggestion: read this book, and then the sequels, which are, in order, All of a Kind Family Downtown, More All of a Kind Family, and All of a Kind Family Uptown (don’t make the mistake I did and read More AOAKF right after the first one or you’ll get all confused). Then, book a tour of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum to see the tiny spaces that large immigrant families like the one in this book really lived in (though I always got the sense that this family’s apartment was slightly larger than the ones in the Tenement Museum—after all, they had that beautiful parlor that was dusted every day by a different sister!) An American family classic, right up there with the Little House books, Little Women, Betsy-Tacy, and The Birchbark House.

(Full disclosure: I have a family connection with the author. But even if I didn’t, this book would have me wishing I knew her.)

New York City feels like a place where anything can happen, where almost too much life, too much variety, too many different things and people and thoughts, are packed into one small space. Changeling gives that magic another dimension, depicting a city in which fairies and other mythical beings of all cultures, imported to New York along with immigrants from all over the globe, coexist in uneasy harmony (and disharmony) with regular folk and literary creations. I’m rereading it now, in hopes of keeping that magical feeling from fading just a little bit longer.


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Lists and Links and Links to More Lists

My kid and I are heading for my hometown, the Old Country, New York City, for a week, and I am running around like...like...well, like a frantic person running around getting ready to get on a plane. Last time my kid packed her own bags she ended up with 17 stuffed animals and no underwear, but that was a while ago, so I'm hoping for a minimum of complications.

For now, a few links:

1. 100 Top Picture Books: You know that list of my ten favorite picture books that I was agonizing about last week? Well, Ms. Bird of Fuse #8 has compiled all the lists people sent in and is releasing the results, with annotations, deliciously slowly, at the rate of five or ten titles per day. Here are her first two entries:

A couple of books from my list have shown up on the big list so far, as well as a few--like A Hole is to Dig and The Gardener--that I'm now kicking myself for omitting. (But what would I have left off to make room for those two? That's the trouble, isn't it...), and a couple of real surprises.

2. Battle of the Books: The first ever Battle of the (Kids') Books is kicking off next Monday. School Library Journal is hosting and has picked 16 contenders, including Scholastic titles The Hunger Games, Here Lies Arthur, and Ways to Live Forever. The contenders will be squared off against each other in a series of rounds to be judged by a dazzling array of  judges. Naturally, the battle will be blogged. And I was happy to read that there will be a peanut gallery.

3. It's spring, it's spring, the bird is on the wing! If you’re looking for a picture book to help express that thrill that comes with sunshine and birdsong (or to help you anticipate it, if you are bogged in rain and mud) the Scholastic website has a sunny list of spring read-alouds.

More after the plane trip and jet-lag recovery. And maybe after I have a knish or two.

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