Monday, June 30, 2014

Lentil by Robert McCloskey

We have been on summer break for a month now, but I found some photos in my files from books we loved in previous summer months. So it's summer flashback time! This time back to our first year of homeschool and the book Lentil by Robert McCloskey. I may have mentioned in my last post that McCloskey is one of my favorite children's book authors. I love that way that his illustrations and stories really capture the character of a place like Boston or rural Maine. But I had never heard of Lentil until we began Five in a Row.

Lentil takes us to the small town of Alto, Ohio and introduces a little boy named Lentil who had a happy life except for one thing. He couldn't sing. He does, however, learn to play the harmonica. When a homecoming parade is almost ruined when the band can't play, Lentil saves the day.

When I mention this book, the girls always do one thing: pucker their lips like they're sucking on a sour lemon. It's a memorable scene from the book and more memorable because we had a lemon taste testing and made lemonade. 

We also made a giant map of the town of Alto, Ohio, which turned out great, though it was a too unweildy for a good picture.
We studied this book around Memorial Day but it's also a great book to read around any patriotic holiday, like say Independence Day. We even had our own parade. I usually resist any activity involving harmonicas, but for this one, I did make an exception, as long as it was outside. 
Even the little guy got in on the fun.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Why Our Kids Need Art (and Picture Books)

"With everyone clamoring for more scientists, I should like to clamor for more artists and designers. I should like to clamor for the teaching of drawing and design to every child, right along with reading and writing. I think it is most important for everyone really to see and evaluate pictures and really to see and evaluate his surroundings." This quote by Robert McCloskey, the Caldecott award-winning author of Blueberries for Sal, Time of Wonder, and my personal favorite One Morning in Maine, has forever changed the way I think about teaching children art. 

I have always loved making art, but I had never connected learning to draw and paint and sculpt with learning to see the world. Being able to look closely at a picture and recognize what makes that picture a thing of beauty or jarring and ugly is essential for being able to make great art, but it's necessary on a bigger scope as well. Children live in a world where there is wonder and beauty, but there is also a lot of ugliness, both in the physical landscape and in people's souls. Children will become adults who have to navigate this and either bring more beauty into the world or more ugliness. If a child has climbed a mountain and seen the grace of the layered ridges that seem to go on forever, how can they see a strip mine and not see the inherent wrongness of it?
Mountains inspired by The Rag Coat By Lauren Mills
"Citing examples of deliberately misleading print advertising and television images and of the kind of runaway land development that was blighting larger and larger swaths of the American landscape, McCloskey argued that at a time when such excesses were commonplace it was essential for people to know how critically to evaluate every aspect of their visual environment. There was no better way, he concluded, to accomplish this vital goal than by teaching people how to draw from an early age." Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children's Literature by Leonard Marcus

After reading this I began to see art not as dabbling in paint and clay, but as a process of teaching my children to look closely at the world, but at the same time to see the bigger picture, the whole; to slow down our looking and truly see what makes a picture beautiful. 

I have not adopted any fancy art curriculum. I put all that money into quality art supplies instead. The art we looked at was easy to find. It was all in picture books. Children are lucky to be surrounded by so much amazing art created by truly talented artists. This was really brought home to me on a recent visit to the library at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. We shouldn't be too quick to put picture books away and move to chapter books. When else in life, will kids have access to so much art? 

pastel drawing inspired by Night of the Moonjellies by Mark Shasha
The curriculum we use Five in a Row is based on classic, wonderful picture books like McCloskey's Make Way for Ducklings. The author Jane Claire Lambert put a lot of attention into developing the art lessons and this past year, I've had a new vision for our art days. I try to do them at the beginning of the week instead of letting them slide at the end. We go through the picture book of the week looking closely at the pictures, noticing the medium the artist used, the colors, the textures, the details, thinking about how these things change the mood of the picture and what the story is trying to stay. Then we get out whatever art materials the illustrator used and we make art ourselves. Sometimes we make lovely pictures and sometimes it is more about the process. Already, I find the kids looking closer at all their books, noticing that they are painted with watercolors or that the warm colors make the pictures seem happy and bright.
collage inspired by Eric Carle's book The Tiny Seed
I recently found a free ebook of an old book Wings and the Child or, the  Building of Magic Cities by British children's book author E. Nesbit. She had more to say about the importance of surrounding our kids with beauty and teaching them to resist uglification in our world.

"Therefore I would plead with all those who have to do with children to resist and to denounce uglification wherever they may meet with it, and to remember that there is knowledge which goes hand in hand with beauty. To show a child beautiful things, and to answer as well all the questions he will ask about them, to charm and thrill his imagination with pictures and statues and models of the wonders of the world, to familiarise the child with beauty, so that he knows ugliness when he meets it, and hates it for the outrage it is to the beauty he has known and loved ever since he was very little--this is worth doing. If we would make beauty the dear rule of man's life, and ugliness the hated exception, we should make beauty as familiar to the child as the air he breathes, and if we associate knowledge with beauty the child will love them both."

Monday, June 23, 2014

First Book Love

My baby boy just turned two and it seems that we have another book-lover on our hands. While most kids sleep with stuffed animals, he brings three or four board books to bed with him each night, and then complains when things get uncomfortable in bed.

He showed almost no interest in books for the first year of his life. There was reading happening all around him, and he saw it only as an opportunity for mama to sit down and feed him. Then one day, during our nightly bedtime read-aloud, he opened up the book Goodnight Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann. He turned the pages and discovered, "These pages tell a story! And it's funny!" He laughed out loud and then immediately turned back to the beginning and demanded that we read it again. Then he discovered Mo Willem's pigeon books like Don't Let the Pigeon Eat the Hotdog. Even funnier.

As soon as my husband Brent got home each day, Gilead would drag him into the living room, yelling, "Books! Books!" Then he would push him onto the couch, grab a stack of board books and say, "Sap!," which was short for sit on lap. Brent could not move until he had read two or three books at least.

He has three older sisters who are happy to read to him. Only one of them can actually read the books, but the other two are happy enough to narrate the pictures and he's happy to listen. It's especially hilarious when his three-year-old sister asks, "You want me to read that to you, Giddy?" Then they try to work out the logistics of him sitting on her lap. She is only a couple of inches taller and two pounds heavier than him. So they try this angle and that, which never quite works out. Then he ends up sitting beside her and she "reads" him his book.

For Christmas, he received The Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle and Blue Truck has been his main man since then, though with a fair dose of Pigeon still mixed in. He practically has The Pigeon Loves Things That Go memorized. Since he is a boy that loves to sing, he also loves any book with a rhythm or sing-song quality to it like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you See? by Bill Martin and Eric Carle or We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Helen Oxenbury and Michael Rosen. For his birthday, he got a lot of big trucks and a lot of new books. He filled the trucks with the books, which makes for a convenient way to get the books to the next person who will read them to him. Happy reading, Gilly!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin

In her post Newbery/ Caldecott 2015: The Summer Predictions Edition at A Fuse #8 Production, Elizabeth Bird noticed a trend of doom and gloom in this year's children's books. I've noticed it in the past few years as I've tried to read the Newbery-winning books. There are just a lot more ghosts hanging around in kids' books lately. Things have gotten creepier. I have never really cared for scary books, and some of my kids are very sensitive about these kinds of things. So I was grumping to myself, where are the Beverly Clearys, the Elizabeth Enrights: the folks writing books about ordinary families doing life together and getting into scrapes that usually turn out all right in the end, but doing it with humor and great writing too? My kids love these kinds of books.

Then I was grabbing a big stack of audiobooks at the library that I hoped would appeal to my seven and under crowd, and I picked up The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin. This is exactly what I had been looking for in a book: the modern-day equivalent to those great old-fashioned family books like All-of-a-Kind Family and Betsy Tacy. When the book opens, the family is celebrating the Chinese New Year and the Year of the Dog. Pacey, the middle sister, hopes that this year she will find friendship and find her special talent and purpose in life. The year turns out to be eventful. She meets Melody, the new Chinese-American girl at school, and they become best friends. Together they navigate science fairs, Halloween costumes, writing contests, and Taiwanese-American family life and culture. We especially enjoyed all the stories told by the mother about various family members and growing up in Taiwan.

The reader of the audiobook Nancy Wu is really good. Books written in first person can be tricky. I have a really low tolerance for grown women narrators who try to do a little girl voice. They always seem to end every sentence in up-speak so that the character sounds ditsy even though they're not. Nancy Wu doesn't fall into this trap. She makes Pacey sound just right and does the voices of the other characters like the Chinese parents really authentically too.

After listening in the car, the girls demanded that we take the cd inside so we could finish listening over lunch. Then Ella listened to it again, this time while wearing her Chinese dress, and she asked if we could do a Chinese tea party again.

There's been a rising awareness of the lack of diversity in kids' books. I really hope that the future holds more books like these that give us a glimpse of the ordinary daily life of people from different ethnicities and cultures. We are really looking forward to reading the sequels: The Year of the Rat and Dumpling Days.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Grown-up's Guide to Reading Children's Books Part 2

How is your summer reading going? Have you read any great children's books? I just finished A Snicker of Magic by Nathalie Lloyd, which I would recommend if you like quirky small-town Southern reads. Lloyd definitely has a way with words, and the book reminds me a lot of Because of Winn-Dixie, though it doesn't quite hit it out of the ball park like Winn-Dixie, which is one of my favorite books of all time (see below).

So for Part 2 of my Grown-up Guide to Children's books, I'm calling this the small town/ big city edition. For the big city portion, I've called in my more urbanite friends Susannah and Sugene for recommendations. Thanks, guys!

If you like books set in small towns:
Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer.
I have a total soft spot for Joan Bauer books. They're almost all about kids that are really passionate about a hobby or career and the way that brings love, hope, joy into their life. She won me over with the book Squashed, which is about a young girl obsessed with growing a giant pumpkin. But since Squashed may be a little harder to find, Hope was Here is Bauer's Newbery Honor winning novel about a girl who moves with her aunt to small-town Wisconsin to take over a diner. There's a political campaign, a romance or two, and Hope's passion for being a great waitress. Lots of heart and hope in this one.

Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright
This was my favorite book of last year, and it's the perfect book to read in the summer. I realized after reading it that it perfectly combined the things I like best in books: secret places, quirky old people, and old-fashioned stuff. Portia and her cousin Julian discover an abandoned lake-side community inhabited by an elderly brother and sister who share the story of the community at its heyday.

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate Dicamillo
Kate Dicamillo is such an amazing writer, and she has the Newbery medals to prove it. Am I partial to this because it's the story of a preacher's kid and that's my story too? Maybe.Only Dicamillo can weave together a story about a community of lonely hurting people finding ways to love and forgive each other, layer it with spiritual depth and insight, and also make it a really funny story about a dog. This short book is filled with so many memorable characters: Gloria Dump, Otis, and the Preacher Man, and of course, Winn-Dixie.And who can forget the candies that are sweet and also taste of melancholy. If you like it, you must read her novel Tale of Desperaux next.
Greetings from Nowhere by Barbara O'Connor
My friend Sugene recommended this and it's now on my to-read list. Aggie, the owner of the Sleepy Time Motel in the Great Smoky Mountains isn't expecting any guests, but when a series of families in need of a home and friends shows up, the hotel turns out to be just what they all need.

If you like books set in the big city:
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Harriet is turning 50 this year, so she's in the news everywhere. Seems like the perfect time to reread a classic set in New York City. I remember this as my favorite book of third grade. Harriet is a spy and is constantly scribbling down her opinions about people in her notebook. When she loses her notebook, will she be able to repair her friendships?

Kiki Strike by Kirsten Miller
I haven't read this yet, but it was recommended by two of my friends. So if you like spies, intrigue, and adventure, this may be the book for you. Ananka Fishbein finds a sinkhole in the park across the street. When she explores, she finds a vast underground Shadow City beneath New York City and the new girl at school Kiki Strike. Kiki puts together a team of Girl Scout rejects to explore and map the Shadow city.

Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt
Set in the 1960s in Long Island, Holling Hoodhood is trying to survive his seventh grade year. Between pleasing his dad, dealing with bullies and being forced to read Shakespeare on Wednesdays with his English teacher while the rest of his class is at Catholic school, it's a tough year. This book has a Wonder Years quality to it, a little bit nostalgic, but also quite poignant and funny. Gary Schmidt can really write. His follow-up to this book Okay for Now is also excellent, though kind of heart-breaking. In it, he follows the bully character Doug Swieteck as he moves to a new town and deals with his abusive father, his brother who has returned injured from Vietnam, and discovers friendship with his boss's daughter.

Any small town or big city books to add to this list?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Grown-up's Guide to Reading Children's Books for fun and pleasure: Part 1

If you missed my Summer Reading Challenge yesterday, you might want to check out some great reasons I think adults should read more children's books. As promised, I am here with some reading suggestions for you, my adult readers. I've linked to the Goodreads reviews, if you'd like more information on each book. Check back soon for Part 2.

If you like historical fiction:
Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson
Sixteen-year-old Hattie inherits her uncle's homestead claim in Montana and moves there by herself to attempt to prove up. This book is set during World War I, so along with the difficult conditions of homesteading, it also deals with wartime prejudice against German neighbors. Hattie is such a memorable character, you may want to follow this up with the sequel Hattie Ever After.

Fair Weather by Richard Peck
Richard Peck's trademark humor and rich characters. Three country kids and their grandpa get a chance to visit the 1893 Chicago's World Fair. Listen to this on audio book if you can. If you enjoy this book, you will love Peck's Grandma Dowdel series, which includes A Long Way from Chicago, A Year Down Yonder, and A Season of Gifts.

If you like Science Fiction:
The Search for WondLa by Tony DiTerlizzi
Eva Nine has lived her whole life in an underground sanctuary raised by a robot. Always taught to trust technology first, she struggles to find a new way to live in the strange world above ground. As she goes on a journey to find other humans, she finds herself caught up in a battle that threatens the future of the planet. The first thing you'll notice about these books are the amazing illustrations throughout. If you are a fan of the original Star Wars trilogy, you will find a lot to love in these books. The sequels are A Hero for Wondla and The Battle for Wondla.

Larklight by Philip Reeve
If you prefer your scifi with a side of steampunk humor, Larklight and the sequel Starcross are for you. Art and his sister Myrtle live in a 1850s Victorian house that happens to be orbiting the moon. Funny, imaginative and a little absurd.

If you like Clever Mysteries Set in Art Museums:
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg
Definitely worth rereading the classic. Claudia and her little brother Jamie decide to run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Living inside the museum, they solve a mystery about a piece of art at the museum.

Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
I just finished this new book and really enjoyed it. When Theo Tenpenny's artist grandfather dies, she discovers that he has been hiding an ancient painting in their home. Is it a Raphael and did he steal it from the museum where he worked? How is it connected to his secret work as a soldier in World War II and the Nazis?

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliet
An intriguing mystery set in Chicago. Two sixth-grade friends Petra and Calder are able to piece together disconnected events to find a Vermeer painting that was stolen on its way to Chicago's Art Institute. Balliet's books always leave me wanting to know more about famous artists.

If you are interested in social and environmental issues:
Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani
Kentucky author Silas House is well-known for his adult fiction. Here he tells the story of River, a young boy in Kentucky whose family is threatened by mountain-top removal near their home. The book is told in two voices through River's pen pal letters to Meena, an Indian immigrant living in New York City. The interweaving of the issues in their lives, commonalities and differences is really well done and thought-provoking.

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale
This is not your average princess tale. When the king divines that Miri's remote, mountain village is the home of the future princess, he sets up an academy for all of the local girls to learn to be princesses. When the academy is attacked, the girls must work together to save themselves and their mountain town. In the sequel Palace of Stone, Miri is in the big city, attending university and hearing whispers of revolution. Political intrigue and rural/urban issues make this much more complex than the title would suggest.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Why Grown-ups Should Read Children's Literature: A Summer Reading Challenge

There is some kind of condition that infects children in a library. Despite the fact that they have been happily browsing in the children’s room just moments before, the second they step foot into the adult section, they magically transform into feral cats. Soon they are crawling underneath the shelves, hissing and clawing at each other, and emitting high-pitched shrieks as they chase each other around the room. If I am not lucky enough to have another adult with me to corral them in the children’s room, my best bet is to quickly scan the nearest shelves: usually the new fiction and non-fiction, grab a few books off the shelf with attractive covers, and run for the check-out before someone is hurt in the process. 

More and more, I find myself forsaking the adult room altogether, and pulling my reading from the middle grade shelves where there is a much smaller chance the children will go feral on me.There is also a much higher chance that I might actually finish one of these books. If you are as sleep-deprived as I am, trying to read in the evening or in bed usually involves dozing off at least once. If I’m lucky, I just drop the book on the floor and not on my face. Children’s books are short (at least most of them) so you can actually finish a book, thus giving you a sense of satisfaction in actually completing something, which is rare when you are a parent of toddlers. 

Of course, when I get that question, "What are you reading?" from a more serious-minded reader, I often hesitate a minute to see if they are going to think I'm silly for loving children's books. I spent years of my life studying great works of literature, tearing books apart and putting them back together, and at the end of it found that I had forgotten how to read for pleasure's sake. It was then that I picked up my roommate's copy of Harry Potter and rediscovered what it is to read for sheer joy and no other reason. There's a reason so many adults were toting around the Harry Potter tomes: beyond being really great storytelling, it reminded us why we wanted to read in the first place: because it's fun.

C. S. Lewis said, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”A few years ago, I reread my absolute childhood favorite: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It came at a time when I was dealing with some deep emotional healing, and God used it to really speak to me about my identity. Coming back to a book you read as a child with your adult history and perspective may touch you in new ways that can be quite profound.Sometimes reading a children's book can help you connect with some deep parts of your heart that were more alive as a child or you might discover some long-lost interests and joys you’ve forgotten. You might find a book that shows you new things about hope or grace or forgiveness, topics that children's book writers feel much more freedom to write about than those heart-breakingly brilliant works of literary fiction that win all the awards.

So since summer is coming, and you'll be signing your kids up for the summer reading program at the library, (At least I hope you will be!) I thought you parents and other grown-up readers of my blog might be up for your own Summer Reading Challenge: to read a few works of children's literature  this summer. I will be back tomorrow with a Summer Reading Guide designed especially for grown-ups and organized by genre.

I wish I had some great prizes to give out. I still remember that year in Summer Reading when they were auctioning off the California Raisin doll. I didn't win, but I tried really hard. Brent tells me that his library had coupons to Pizza Hut! But let me know in the comments if you're up for the challenge, and maybe I will come up with something yet!

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Home for Abandoned Books

"Our house is old, and noisy, and full. When we moved into it we had two children and about five thousand books; I expect that when we finally overflow and move out again we will have perhaps twenty children and easily half a million. books" Shirley Jackson Life Among the Savages

I have come to jokingly refer to our house as The Home for Abandoned Books. I will fully admit here that my husband and I have a problem. We cannot seem to  leave a library without books. You may say that that's the point of a library, but our problem is that we always leave having purchased more books than we have checked out. Since we are always stopping by to pick up a book we requested on Inter Library Loan and leaving with three  25-cent books from the discard rack, the books are starting to pile up around us.

Just the other day Brent called to say that he had stopped by the library and they were giving away a whole shelf of mid-century children's books and that now his backpack was extremely heavy. Yes, no one had checked out these books for years, but there they were with their tattered covers and beautiful woodcut illustrations. How could we leave them on the shelf?

Then there are the books we love; the ones it is almost painful to leave on the shelf even when we know we own them. Every time Brent has to go to New York, he visits the giant used book store The Strand. Each time he sees a copy of The 24 Days Before Christmas by Madeline L'Engle and it pains him to leave it on the shelf even though we own two copies of the book: one his own personal copy from childhood and one beautifully illustrated hardcover our friend Susannah bought us. At a library book sale the other day, I saw a copy of Understood Betsy and even though I own a nice hardcover purchased at another library book sale, I thought," Isn't there someone we know who needs this book?" So we end up with a stack of duplicates too. So many in fact that I was able to send my cousin two dozen books for a start-up library for her classroom.
Our affliction is not limited to books either. A few years ago we discovered that libraries were clearing out their books on tape and that by buying a cheap cassette player, we could have a full library of audiobooks for practically nothing. At the time, I didn't even own a cassette player, but I just couldn't leave Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Farm, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Harriet the Spy there to be thrown away. I recently heard that a local library was giving away their books on tape, and when the librarian saw me, she helpfully rolled the whole cart over to the children's section and offered me free bags. "She didn't offer to just roll it out to your car?" Brent asked me when I got home.

We recently celebrated our eleventh anniversary by going to a library book sale without the children. It was glorious and since it was the last hour, it was fill a bag for $7.00. When two bookworms get married, there is a secondary event after the honeymoon: the merging of the bookshelves. At that point our shelves were mainly filled with books we had purchased for one class or another. We met our freshman year of college when we were next door neighbors and had three classes together, so there was a certain amount of overlap that required culling, but also a reorganizing of our lives and books: my Appalachian literature on one shelf and his collection of New England gardening and homesteading books right below. Other shelves merged completely: now we had just one fiction section, one memoir shelf whereas before we had two. As the years have passed our collection of books has shifted, grown and retracted with our interests; now it's children's books I collect and foodie and farming memoirs for Brent. We've both recently felt the need to have more books of poetry on the shelf. Of course, we now have a secondary book nook in our house for our four children. My daughter alone has a whole shelf of great works of pig literature that would never have existed if she hadn't been born.

 Every few years we have a great sifting. Whole shelves of books Brent didn't read in divinity school and ones that looked good on our shelves but we never really loved have been donated to Reader to Reader. We are starting to be more honest about what we have on our shelves. Because as any book-lover knows, you can tell a lot about a person from their bookshelves.

As long as there are libraries selling books for 25 cents, our house will be full of books with other people's names written in the covers and library bar codes on the spine. Brent says that he thinks of it as a hedge against the downfall of western civilization or maybe just the advent of the kindle. It is so easy for a digital file to vanish in an instant, but an old paper book can be passed down. It is at once a piece of the past and also full of  possibility. As long as real paper books are being discarded, we will take in the lost and wandering souls and give them a place in our lives and on our shelves.