Animal Babies: A Belated Book Shower Post

Any request for book recommendations triggers something in my brain, and I can’t let go until I find a book that matches it. (It’s an occupational hazard.) So when I read a few weeks ago about a virtual book-recommending baby shower for Nonlinear Girl, I started ticking through all the new-baby books I could think of, even though neither the mom nor the shower host know me from a hole in the wall. I just thought it was so practical, especially since—as the host pointed out—having a nice expansive selection of books would be a great help as the new babies’ incipient big sister gets used to the whole “big sister” concept and as the whole family copes with the chaos that was about to erupt.

Well, the shower deadline is over, and the babies were born about a week ago, but—like those times on the reference desk when I totally NAIL what the patron wants just after they’ve given up and walked out the door—I’ve finally come up with a few contributions for this virtual-shower booklist that are worthy of the fabulous suggestions listed in the shower post:

What is it like to come into the world as a baby chick? How about a whale? An opossum?

The premise for this book couldn’t be simpler: the start of life for twelve different animals, each described in just a sentence or two: “If you were a baby seahorse, you’d pop out of your father’s pouch and swim away with hundreds of sisters and brothers…If you were a soft, new porcupette, you’d say, ‘Uh-uh-uh.” But your prickly porcupine mother would say nothing at all.” The lush illustrations seem almost larger than life, with each scale on the mama snake and wrinkle on the baby deer mouse lovingly distinguished. At the end, of course, we come to the human child addressed in the text, who “rode curled beneath your mother’s heart, growing and growing,” ready to emerge and be held by loving parents. One of my very, very favorite older-sibling presents.

The first time I ever saw a Steve Jenkins book, Actual Size, I knew all I’d have to do was put it on display at my school library, and it would go, go, go right out the door, multiple times. Brothers and Sisters is another addition to the Jenkins canon of knockout gorgeous nonfiction animal books illustrated with torn-paper collage, and filled with loads of kid appeal. It’s really written for school-age kids; if I were sharing this book with a new older sibling of preschool age, I’d do a lot of paraphrasing—it’s pretty text-heavy, loaded with tidbits about sibling relations: naked mole rats dig intricate tunnels with their hundreds of brothers and sisters; nine-spotted hyena same-sex siblings fight hard and viciously, while baby crocodile siblings are generally pals who help each other escape from predators. But even for younger kids, the illustrations, and the concept that many different animals take many different attitudes towards their siblings, could be intriguing and reassuring.

Cutest. Animal. Book. EVER. Like If You Were Born a Kitten, this title is built around one simple concept: the ways different animals express affection. One line of text per page, accompanied by photos: porcupines brush noses, prairie dogs hug, manatees nuzzle, giraffes lick. Guaranteed to make you go “Awwwwww…”

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Moving On, Moving Up: Picture Books for Graduates of All Ages

From preschool to college, this is the time of year for graduations and “moving on” ceremonies; the telltale strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” are heard across the land, and everywhere relatives and assorted friends search for the perfect graduation gift. A car? Hmm, not so much. Cash or a gift card? A little impersonal, maybe. Well, how about a children’s book?

Of course, the perennial presence of Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go on the bestseller lists at this time of year is evidence that I’m not the only person to think of this, but if you want to get a little more original with your gift, you have many other options. About.com has a nice page on Children’s Books that Make Great Graduation Gifts; two of the titles on that list, Zoom and Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, are particular favorites of mine too and would make perfect presents for the graduate who could use a bit of perspective.

After some brainstorming, I thought of a few more:

Walk On! A Guide for Babies of All Ages, By Marla Frazee
This understated, charming title purports to be a guide for babies getting ready to walk (“Is sitting there on your bottom getting boring? Has lying around all the time become completely unacceptable?”) but the advice therein—about where to look for support, what to do when you fall, and how to keep your balance—will bring a wry smile, and a bit of encouragement, to anyone embarking on an exciting and scary new endeavor.

Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson
Give with a card inscribed “Draw your own path!”…and a purple crayon. And maybe a pie. You could include a hungry moose, too, but I wouldn’t advise it.

Mole Music, by David McPhail
A fable about how following your passion can have world-changing—and unseen—effects. Perfect for an aspiring musician.

Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney
There are so many ways to make the world more beautiful. The way Alice Rumphius finds is unexpected and inspiring.

On Beyond Zebra! by Dr. Seuss.
Yes, it’s another Seuss title, but this one is a less literal riff on the “moving on” theme, and a reminder that the world, and the possibilities, don’t end with “Z”.

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Early Literacy: The Mystery Unveiled

In the last few weeks I've been doing a project that has me thinking and reading a lot about the concept of early literacy. Basically, the idea is this: most kids start to actually read at about age six, but before they can do that they have to have a lot of other skills and concepts in place; just like, in order to build a house, first you need property, a foundation, materials, a blueprint, much sawing and hammering and swearing, etc. You don't just wave a wand and poof! have a house, and a kid doesn't just pick up a book and read it out of thin air.

The process of gathering and strengthening those skills is called "early literacy", or sometimes "emergent literacy." I used to hear the term "pre-literacy" used more, but the other two terms emphasize that the whole process of becoming fluent in written language is a continuum that starts from birth and keeps going through adulthood. Learning to decode the words on the page is a big milestone, but it's just one step in the process.

Literacy researchers have put together a list of six main early-literacy skills that kids need to have in place before they can read. The Multnomah County Library has made a great website on the topic that includes a page on the six early literacy skills. The American Library Association's Every Child Ready to Read @ your library site has some excellent resources for librarians who want to incorporate Early Literacy skills into storytimes and parent workshops, as well as anyone who's interested in the research that went into the Early Literacy concept.

Here are the six Early Literacy skills, in no particular order:

1. Vocabulary. The more words kids know, the more they'll be able to recognize when it comes time to recognize them on a page. So just talking to kids--using different words, talking about lots of different concepts, explaining hard words, not to mention reading books, which tend to have a wider variety of language than spoken conversation does--builds up their early literacy skills.

2. Print Motivation. I admit it: this is my favorite Early Literacy skill (yes, I am a library geek who has a favorite Early Literacy skill. My spouse's favorite is Phonological Awareness. What's yours?). It means pretty much what it says: liking books, being interested in what's in them, knowing they have good stuff inside. This is hugely important in learning to read. After all, if all you know about books is that they're boring and hard, why bother? If sharing books together is a treat, a wonder, a delight, kids will have more motivation to stay on the often-rocky road to printed literacy.

3. Print Awareness. Before you can read a book, you have to understand what a book is and how it works: it has a cover, pages which in English are turned from left to right, marks on the page which correspond to the words people say when they talk, pictures that have something to do with the words, and so on. The fun part about teaching print awareness is that you can do it anywhere--out on a walk with street signs, looking at a ceral box, in a store-- there is print all over our world, and kids get excited about finding it.

4. Narrative Skills. Stories! Telling stories! Because what else are books but stories? When you think about it, even nonfiction books are full of stories: how things were discovered or invented; what a firefighter's day is like; what you have to do to make brownies. The more kids understand the structure of stories, the more comfortable they'll be when they encounter them in print. Telling stories to kids--fairy tales, true stories about what happened today, family stories--is great for this one. And so is encouraging them to tell their own stories of all kinds, and really listening.

5. Letter Knowledge. So far, all the skills I've listed are very based in what we used to call "whole language" theory: that the most important thing you need for reading is lots of positive engagement with words and stories and books. But the truth is, even with the richest whole-language exposure in the world, you're going to have trouble reading if you can't tell the difference between a "p" and a "b" and a "d", or understand that upper-case and lower-case letters have the same sounds. The twenty-six letters of the alphabet (52, really, counting the upper-casers) are the physical building blocks of written language in English. There are lots of fun ways for kids to learn about them, from alphabet books like Chicka Chicka Boom-Boom to drawing letter shapes in sand to those good old refrigerator magnet letters.

6. Phonological Awareness. This is the trickiest one for a lot of kids. It means being able to hear and understand that words are made up of smaller sounds, and being able to play with, break down, and manipulate those words and sounds. This all sounds very technical, but actually preschool kids practice phonological awareness all the time: when they say or hear nursery rhymes, when they play the "name game" or "Willaby Wallaby Woo," when they sing rhyming songs, even when they make up their own borderline-obnoxious games like maying meverything mith mee mame metter mat mee meginning.

So, that's it: six skills that you can encourage and teach in the comfort of your own home. Reading books together hits all of them, but there are so many ways they can be woven into the fabric of daily life. And when your kid has them mastered--at age four, at age eight, whenever they're developmentally ready and have enough of these skills under their belt--they'll be ready to read.

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Family Literacy Moments: Sleepover Party

When my daughter's two best school friends slept over last weekend, the incipient waning of her childhood hit me full force. She is eight (and two-thirds!) and her friends are both are nine already, and the three of them together were just so BIG. Physically big. They took up a lot of room. They weren't that much shorter than us grownups. The cadences of their voices, as they compared their favorite TV characters and gossiped about school, weren't those of little kids. The three of them practiced their dance moves for the upcoming school performance; they watched "High School Musical 3" and ate popcorn; they ran around screeching and generally acting like lunatics.

As they were settling down for bed, somehow the conversation turned to Jon Scieszka's The Stinky Cheese Man, which all of them had read and loved. They spent some time chuckling together over it, reminding each other of the funny parts, asking me if I remembered how that little red hen on the back cover gets all freaked out about the UPC barcode, and just generally enthusing.

I was quietly amazed. I mean, here were these Big Kids, who just an hour earlier had been doing their best to practice at being teenagers...and now they were all getting equally worked up and excited over a picture book

We turned out the lights and told them it was time to go to sleep, but the energy was still running high, and the shrieking didn't stop, so after a couple of attempts to shush them I asked if they wanted to hear a story. Maybe Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock?

"Oh, we know that one," they scoffed, their scorn for such a babyish activity as storytelling obvious in their manner (my daughter was the most scornful). Same thing when I offered to tell Mabela the Clever.

But then, in one last-ditch attempt, I suggested the story about the man whose house was too small. (the most famous book version is Margot Zemach's It Could Always Be Worse.) Two of the girls dismissed that story too, with a "We know that one already!" but, "I don't!" said the third girl, and her friends agreed to let me tell it for her sake.

But once I'd actually started, even the two initially-reluctant girls got into it, suggesting what terrible effects each new animal might have (poop! noise! feathers!). They were a more sophisticated audience than the five-and-six-year-olds with whom I've mostly shared that story, and could tell right away what the pattern was--man complains to Rabbi, Rabbi suggests bringing more animals into the house, things get worse--and predict what would happen next. And they were even patient, if not particularly forthcoming, with my teacher-ish leading questions after the story (What do you think the moral is? What changed between the beginning and the end?)

When I'd finished, my daughter, stalling for more awake time, begged for a read-aloud story, so I read them a section from a library book we had around, Cornelia Funke's A Princess, A Pirate, And One Wild Brother, a lively story of a little girl who defeats some terrible pirates. Again, all three girls were totally into it.

After that, they were finally calm enough to at least act like they were going to go to sleep. Even though they didn't actually conk out for a while, the screaming stopped, and the energy was distinctly more low-key. It made me think about the magic of story shared out loud, and how grounding and relaxing that can be, how it can bring a group of people together, even if they're divided by something as fundamental as age.

I'm grateful that telling stories, talking about books, and reading aloud together is something that she feels comfortable doing with her friends and parents together, even at the advanced age of almost-nine. I don't have any illusions that my kid will welcome a storytelling intrusion on her parties for much longer. But, come to think of it, maybe there are some advantages to having an older, more autonomous kid. Like, maybe next time  they can tell the stories...

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