When Book Tastes Collide: A Cross-Generational Parable

When Book Tastes Collide: A Cross-Generational Parable 

Now that she’s progressed past Diego Saves the Tree Frogs, my daughter loves to read (when she’s not doing cartwheels across the bedroom floor or peopling imaginary worlds with little plastic people). But she doesn’t always love to read what I love to read. Or what I loved to read at her age.

Case in point: the first chapter book that I remember reading was A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. My older cousin gave me a beautiful copy, with illustrations by Tasha Tudor, for my seventh birthday. I vividly remember sitting on the back porch the morning after my birthday party, and reading right through the book until I was done. It’s remained one of my favorite books ever since; in fact, I still have the copy my cousin gave me almost thirty-five years ago.

Now, I don’t expect that my 7-year-old daughter, who has just started tackling short chapter books, is going to crack open A Little Princess and read it by herself. (And lest I seem to be setting myself up in any kind of superior way, I’ll just point out that I cannot now nor ever could do cartwheels at all, never mind toss them off serially the way she does. More crucially, she navigates what the new and revelatory anthology Can I Sit With You? refers to as “the stormy social seas of the schoolyard” with a facility that leaves me shaking my nerdly head in wonderment and retrospective envy. So my kid has it all over me in areas that are probably more important overall than the fluke of my having been a freakishly early reader.)

But my girl has the heart of a storyteller; she has a sophisticated understanding of narrative and loves a good tale. Not only that, but she loves princesses. So I was sure that she’d enjoy hearing the book—which is, after all, a metaphorical Cinderella retelling with a princess-like heroine who is also a master storyteller--read aloud. So much so that I first tried her on it when she was four years old. We got about a third of the way through before I gave it up, just about at the point where brave little Sara Crewe’s fortunes are about to turn for the worse. I could see my kid beginning to lose it, and I put the book away for later.

But now it is later. And she still doesn’t like it, not that much. 

I asked her why. Was it because it was too sad when Sara is left a poor orphan and Miss Minchin is so mean to her? No, she insisted. It was the pictures. The pictures weren’t so good. Oh, they were okay at the beginning, but the illustrator didn’t draw some things so well. And now that we’re in the middle of the book, well, she just doesn’t like the pictures. 

That explanation seemed a little shaky to me; I was sure there was more to the story. Or maybe she just needed to hear a little more. So the other day, in a last-ditch effort to get her hooked, I offered her a deal: I would read to the end of the latest Little Princess chapter, and then I’d read her a bonus story which could be anything she wanted.


Yes, anything.


Well, anything that wasn’t too long.

Okay, she said triumphantly. And she requested a picture book which I will not name here but which she knows very well I’m not crazy about.

Well, I’d promised. And, like Horton the Elephant, I meant what I said and I said what I meant. So, even though it set my teeth on edge, I read her that book. All one hundred percent. And this time around, I tried to see it through her eyes. What appealed to her about this book? Was it the illustrations? The characters? The narrator’s voice? The fairytale-like structure?

When I finished reading, I asked her. “It’s about friends,” she said simply. “I like that it’s about friends.” 

I could see that. She likes friends, and likes books about friends. I suppose I could’ve argued that A Little Princess is about friends, too, but if I have learned one thing in my years as a librarian it’s that there’s no point in trying to argue someone of any age into liking a book they don’t like.

Another thing I’ve learned is that sometimes people just can’t explain why they like—or don’t like—a book; often a particular book will speak to someone in a way that, ironically, transcends words It’s highly personal, like smell or taste or for that matter like falling in love. As an adult, and a professional book person, I can limn the ways in which Frances Hodgson Burnett’s tale of an orphan child at a London boarding school was was the perfect story to reach right into my lonely, bookish, seven-year-old heart, but at the time I just knew that I loved it.  

But I might be ready to take it out of the bedtime story pile, at least for now. This time of New Year's resolutions is a good time for me to resolve to remember that I wouldn’t want my daughter to love all the same books that I do, any more than I want her to be the exact same person that I am. I’m grateful that she has books that she loves in that ineffable, inexplicable way, and I want her to feel free to choose them for herself.

Though, I have to admit, I’m grateful that she’s old enough now to read some of them on her own. Especially in those cases where our literary tastes diverge.

December 26, 2007

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First Book

First Book

I want to write today about the very first book my kid read by herself.

I’ve been thinking about a post that Adele Brodkin, a/k/a the Scholastic Grandmom Blogger, wrote last week about how over-emphasis on reading can sometimes have a paradoxically aversive effect on kids . It reminded me of a post I read a couple of months ago by Mir in her column at Maya’s Mom in which she advises parents of reluctant readers to lay off a bit and stop trying so hard to get their kids to read.

The truth is, this is a topic near and dear to my heart. It won’t be much of a surprise to hear that I was always a bookworm, and barely remember ever not having my nose buried in a book. My kid, not so much. At seven, the child of two librarians, she is quick to proclaim that she LOVES reading: she knows it's important to her parents, and she's picked up on our values. But when left to herself, more often than not she'll choose to spend hours playing with her huge collection of tiny plastic dolls and animals, or to practice her tumbling and gymnastics routines. She lives primarily in her imagination and in physical movement, not--as I did at her age--through the printed word. And she loves to watch television, when she gets a chance—especially cartoons.

It hasn’t helped that, until recently, she was still struggling with the mechanics of decoding written language, or that so many of her friends and classmates were early readers that my totally-on-grade-level-track child commented matter-of-factly to us about this time last year that she was “the worst reader” in her class.

She was in a bind: her vocabulary and her grasp of narrative were way out of line with her decoding ability. We’d been reading chapter books to her that we remembered treasuring as children, like Pippi Longstocking and My Father’s Dragon, and sophisticated picture books like the works of Kevin Henkes and Peggy Rathmann. After fare like this, she scorned short, simple, phonics-based readers like the popular Bob Books. And early readers with more depth, like the Frog and Toad series or Green Eggs and Ham (which I remember as my first solo read) were way too long and indimidating for her. She wanted to read the kind of books she loved, and there was no way that she could.

It was on a snow day, just about a year ago, that she first read a book all by herself. It wasn’t one of our family favorites, like the Robert Munsch books she’d adored as a preschooler. It wasn’t one of the battered beloved old board books, like her babyhood favorite Peek-a-Who?, that we’d recently schlepped up from the basement in hopes that the combination of brief text and fond memories would inspire her to try reading them on her own. It wasn’t even one of the funny and appealing easy readers that I’d recently taken to bringing home from work and casually scattering around the living room.

Nope. My daughter’s first solo read was one she fished out of the Book Bag she brought home weekly from her first grade classroom. One she’d picked out herself from the easiest Book Basket. One that had nothing to do with her parents’ standards or taste or childhood memories. One neither of her literary-snob parents would have chosen for her in a hundred years.

As the snow fell outside, she slowly, proudly, and with growing confidence sounded out her way through Diego Saves the Tree Frogs.

When she was done, I let out a breath (I don't think I'd breathed more than once or twice the whole time she was reading), and she declared, “I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it! I can’t believe I read a whole book!”

I am never gonna love TV-tie-in books with my whole heart. And I’m glad that my kid has retained her interest in the relatively un-merchandized literary fare we’ve been exposing her to since she was a baby. But that day, if Diego or his creators or the book’s author, Sarah Wilson, had somehow appeared on our doorstep, I would have smothered them with grateful hugs and given them a big mug of hot chocolate. With marshmallows.

December 19, 2007

Next week: Battle of the Book-Lovers: when parents’ and kids’ literary tastes don’t align.

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Eyes Wide Open

Eyes Wide Open

My first and perhaps most valuable assignment in graduate school was deceptively simple. It was to do nothing but observe. “Make yourselves invisible,” we students were told. "Be a piece of furniture in the preK classroom. Do nothing -- just watch.” I had a similar assignment in a social science methodology course. We were asked to select any one of several everyday social settings. I chose the meat department of a supermarket. My task was to take notes about the sequence of behaviors of two or three meat shoppers. I thought just what you’re thinking right now: What could there be to say about such mundane behavior? Remarkably, though, I had a full notepad in no time. One shopper surveyed the entire meat case, as I might do at a buffet before deciding where to invest my calorie intake. After the once-over, she went back to the chicken section, picked up one or two birds, studied them and their prices, moved along to pork and then several cuts of lamb, and finally returned to the chicken and settled on a roaster, with some hesitation.

She, and most people I observed, carried on a barely audible monologue; they were concentrating solely on the task of meat selection. No one asked me what I was doing there. They were too absorbed. I had succeeded at being a piece of furniture.

It wasn’t as easy to do that in the nursery school. There, my natural instinct was to engage children in conversation — to have fun with them and by the way, show the instructor how “good I was with children.” We were asked to focus totally on only one child -- not to interact with him, but to note everything he did in a 10-minute period. This went on for a whole semester. Our brief observations were soon extended to one whole morning a week.

By the end of the semester we had each closely studied the behavior of one or two assigned children and had collected a remarkably rich portrait of “our kids’” idiosyncratic behavior. Ultimately we could predict what would occur in the coming minutes, having watched friendships grow and antagonisms deepen. We knew what activities were preferred, and which avoided, by the objects of our observations.

A few graduate students complained, “Haven’t we done enough of this?” But the value of observational training became clearer to me as time went on: We were learning to forget ourselves and focus our complete attention on an individual child; to tune in to everything from mannerisms to motor, cognitive, social-emotional skills and styles; and even to the played-out fantasies of “our" children.

In time, it became possible to do that without holding strictly to the “piece of furniture” injunction. I remember the emergence of the skill of “tuning in” with almost as much delight as I remember the realization at the age of 6 that I was really reading. I highly recommend such training in tuning in for all of life’s interpersonal endeavors -- parenting included. But skip the part about being a piece of furniture, please! As parents, we need to observe, listen, tune in, and be engaged. That’s all there is to it. (Right!)

December 18, 2007

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Don't Touch That Dial!

Don't Touch That Dial!

I’ve said it many times already in this venue. I love words, books, and reading. They have enriched my life -- every year and day of it for as long as I can remember, probably longer. But I am beginning to tire of hearing and seeing all the urging of parents to try this scheme or that to get kids to read. And then there is all the worrying and hovering over whether the kids are reading, I fear that this near obsession is likely to have a paradoxical effect, particularly with adolescents.

Some years ago, well before the current “Crunch Time” warnings about reading, we were visiting a friend whose 15-year-old son wasn’t the reader his father thought he ought to be. It was clear that a lot of nagging went on in that house on a regular basis. The young man announced after dinner that he was “going over to Jimmy’s house.” “What are you going to do there?” asked his dad. The instantaneous answer: “Read, of course!”

Not a dumb kid, as you can see; and not one who was going to succumb to parental pressure or nagging. (Postscript: he turned out okay; became a teacher of deeply disturbed adolescents and then got a graduate degree in social work. I observed him at work and was astonished at his gifts–his ability to enable severely disorganized kids to calm down, get to work, and get along.)

So we have to allow for individual differences and know when to introduce kids to the pleasures of language, oral and written. We are most likely to succeed if we make the opportunities available, but not pre-scripted. There is no one right way to read to a baby or young child. The books (carefully chosen for age-appropriateness) and parental enthusiasm are all that is needed.

I watched my 3½-year-old and 9-month-old grandsons playing this past weekend. Both brothers get excited about books. There is no better gift, as far as they are concerned. Well, the materials for pretend play, like a chef’s outfit, got equal raves from the bigger guy. But fully outfitted as Chef, with spatula and strainer spoon dangling and clanging, he brought books to me to read, and his favorite self-selected game was an alphabet puzzle. My enthusiasm and applause were certainly valuable, but he chose and stuck with the game.

The baby did what he is expected to do with the sturdy books I brought: took a few hearty bites, chortled, and waved the book in the air, with first one hand and then the other, all while sitting up — significant developmental achievements. If I had insisted that he touch this and see that, it would not have been half the fun as it was with him in charge.

But here is the best news for parents who want to encourage kids to love books. You have come to the right place. Here are some of my favorite resources right here on Scholastic.com. No need to look further; so “DON’T TOUCH THIS DIAL!”

  • Grab the opportunity to enjoy Susan B. Neuman's splendid advice about books and reading with the youngest children.
  • Francie Alexander is enormously encouraging and insightful about sharing the delight of reading, particularly with older school-aged children.
  • Don't miss any of the pieces from my fellow Scholastic blogger, "Librarian Mom" Els Kushner.

December 13, 2007

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Books for a Snowy Day

Books for a Snowy Day 

When I was a school librarian, a rare Seattle snowfall was a great chance to pull out all the titles about snow from our collection, read a few, and scatter the rest on tables to be browsed during checkout time. There’s something entrancing about seeing the familiar made strange by just a few inches of snow

I remembered that sense of wonder anew when I woke up last Saturday morning to see little flakes coming down and our yard transformed by that fabled blanket of white; it was thrilling and slightly unearthly, like a whole new landscape right in front of us. 

Here are a few snowy books that can capture that magic and hold it in the reader’s mind until the next snowfall…or until the snow turns to slush and the magical becomes plain old wet yucky reality.

The Snowy Day, written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats. The classic tale of a little boy’s day spent playing in the snow. Kids love to predict what will happen to the snowball he brings inside to save. Winner of the 1963 Caldecott Medal for illustration.

Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr. This is one of those books that seems too gentle to appeal to real live children, until you read it aloud to a group of normally rowdy kindergarteners and see them just melt (no pun intended) into the story of a girl and her father who go out looking for owls one snowy night. John Schoenherr won a Caldecott Medal for the quietly luminous illustrations, and I can see why.

Snowflake Bentley, written and illustrated by Mary Azarian. Yet another Caldecott Medal winner—something about the topic of snow seems to inspire illustrators to really show their stuff. Azarian certainly does here, in a picture-book biography of a humble Vermont farm boy who made studying and photographing snowflakes his life’s work. Her woodcut illustrations are perfect for this rustic story, which may inspire your young scientist to study some snowflakes firsthand. (Tip: try to have some black cardboard on hand for optimal snowflake viewing.)

Froggy Gets Dressed, written and illustrated by Jonathan London. Poor Froggy—every time he goes out to play in the snow, he forgets part of his gear and has to be called back by his mom. The repeated call and response between the two (“FROOGGGGYYY!” “WHAAAAT!”) makes this title a blast to read aloud.

Snow in Jerusalem, by Deborah da Costa, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright & Ying-Hwa Hu. Two boys in Jerusalem —one Jewish, one Arab—argue over a stray cat they’re both feeding, until a snowfall helps them both see another way. The allegory in this tale might be obvious to adults, but kids really want to know what will happen to the cat. And I love how the book captures the sense of hope that snow can bring—a fresh layer of snow softens all those sharp edges, and promises a fresh start.

December 12, 2007

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Terrible Days and Pizzas: Books About Emotions

Terrible Days and Pizzas: Books About Emotions

My kid had a terrible tantrum last night. A real humdinger of a meltdown. She’s kind of old to have those on a regular basis, but we still get them every once in a while. She was furious, then upset, then penitent, then furious again about the consequences for her first tantrum.

After she’d calmed down some, she started recounting all the awful things that had happened to her that made this the WORST DAY OF HER LIFE.

“Wow,” I said. “It’s kind of like Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” I didn’t want to push the comparison, but it seemed to take her out of herself just a little to remember that other people have felt the way she did—enough that Judith Viorst wrote a whole book about a kid whose day goes so badly that he declares repeatedly that he wants to move to  Australia.

Here are a few other books about emotions that might help a kid who’s stuck in her (or his) own anger or misery:

When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry, by Molly Bang. Enraged over a sibling dispute, Molly runs and runs outside, then cries, then climbs a tree and lets “the wide world comfort her,” until her anger is dissipated and she returns to her house to play a game with her family. What I love about this book is the way the vibrant, bold, pulsating colors of Bang’s painted illustrations make it absolutely clear what Sophie is feeling. A rare nonjudgemental book about a child’s totally believable anger.

How Are You Peeling?, by Saxon Freyman and Joost Elders. This duo has created a whole series of books in which the characters are played by fruits and vegetables, cleverly carved to resemble animals and people. This one, which introduces a surprisingly broad range of emotions, is my favorite: who would have guessed that lemons and onions and even turnips could be so expressive? (I’m particularly fond of the sulky red pepper who illustrates the concept of pouting.) The illustrations, along with the jaunty rhyming text, also help keep the book from bogging down with seriousness or preachiness.

Pete’s a Pizza, by William Steig. [out of print, but available used and at many libraries.] It’s raining, so Pete can’t go outside to play with his friends. He’s miserable, but not for long: his parents start pretending he’s a pizza: they “knead” him on the kitchen table, sprinkle paper (for cheese) and checkers (for pepperoni) on him, and drop him on the couch to be “baked.” All the while his expression modifies from full-bore crabbiness to mildly-amused-in-spite -of-himself to total giggling enjoyment, until he leaps off the counter (where’s he’s about to be “sliced”) and runs away, only to be caught and tickled. My daughter hates to be cheered up or jollied out of what she’s feeling, but sometimes she likes reading about it, and your child might too.


December 5, 2007

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The roar of the crowd

The roar of the crowd

On a recent perfect fall Saturday afternoon, I had the pleasure of watching a group of 7 and 8 year old girls engrossed in a rousing soccer game. They were as focused as any coach could want them to be; for this was “travel soccer” in a northeast suburban town. Those chosen for these two teams are among the most focused for their age, surpassing the kids selected for intramural town teams. Anyone who wants to play has a chance; but only the most talented young athletes and those who would not be distracted by the array of cheering parents and grandparents or by the seductively perfect fall day were elected to play travel soccer.

My granddaughter’s team had been undefeated so far and it was late in the season. They were winning again, as she had apologetically predicted they would. She had been politely apologetic because her hometown team was playing my hometown team. It was difficult for her to believe my frank assertion that I would break ranks and root for her rather than the town that sends my quarterly tax bills. Such sensitivity is in part predictable for a 7 year old, a girl earnest about doing the right thing. (Remember, she’s the one who recently shared her dismay for still liking doll play -- confessing that at her age, she wasn’t "supposed to"). Probably more than ever before or ever again, 7 and 8 year old girls seek to do "the right thing."

I am no longer bound by those middle childhood “rules,” so in the second half of the game, when our girl’s team was winning by a more than comfortable margin, my attention drifted toward a younger child in the crowd. I’d say he was about 2½ or 3, and no doubt his sister was a player. The rules and goals of the game would have to elude him at his age. I imagined what he saw was a lot of running by girls and shouting by adults, including his dad, whose attention was on the playing field. The little guy didn’t complain, but in swinging on his dad’s legs and circling around Daddy, he was making a modest plea for attention.

That all changed, though, when, while playing ring-around-the-rosy with Daddy’s legs, he plopped down in a pile of colorful leaves. Then his focus was as complete as the soccer players’. He was in the world of those remarkable leaves, admiring their color, their texture, their ability to float when thrown in the air. One leaf in particular warranted even closer inspection. He felt the veins, ran his finger along them, smiled with satisfaction and continued his immersion in examining that wonder -- a reddish maple leaf, with specs of green and yellow. He traced his fingers along its crispness. No longer bored or restless, he was focused enough to qualify for any travel team.

But only he and I knew that; and he didn’t know about me. It was a good day for a toddler who had found the pleasure of focusing without the impetus of cheering crowds or medals. I hope that such pristine pleasures remain with all 5 of my grandchildren, even those engaged on public playing fields. They deserve life's quiet joys, as well as cheering crowds.

December 4, 2007

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