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September 2009 Archives

Susan T.

A Big Hello from Susan Thomsen

Posted by Susan T. on September 17, 2009 at 8:16 AM in Introductions
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Greetings, Booklights readers! What fun it is to be visiting here over the next few weeks. I love talking about books and reading. Here's a little bio:

Susan Thomsen writes about children's books at her blog, Chicken Spaghetti, which she named after a favorite Southern casserole. Once upon a time she worked at The New Yorker in the Goings On About Town section, and later reviewed New York theater for an online city guide. She is the author of Elvis: A Tribute to the King, a gift book in the shape of a record. A member of the Authors Guild and PEN American Center, Susan lives in Connecticut with her husband, 10-year-old son, and various pets, including an orange tabby cat, two chickens, and a garter snake named Snakey. Her latest favorite children's book is The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County, and she is thrilled to be guest-blogging for Booklights.

What's your latest favorite kids' book?


Show and Tale: The Little House

Posted by Gina on September 15, 2009 at 8:55 AM in ClassicsShow and Tale
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little_house.JPGWe have an artist to thank for this week's Show and Tale pick. Chris Bishop, painter and PBS KIDS Interactive Creative Director, is a long-time fan of the 1943 classic The Little House, written and illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton and winner of the Caldecott Medal.

Chris says, "My mother, Carol, was a teacher so we had many great books growing up. As I kid I loved the colors and fine detail of the illustrations of the changing world around the house. I think it's what made me become an artist."

What books have inspired you, either by the illustrations or the colors or style of the work?


Literacy 'Lights from the Kidlitosphere: Back to School Edition

Posted by Jen Robinson on September 14, 2009 at 6:00 AM in Comics and Graphic NovelsLiteracy News
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As school starts, and summer reading season draws to a close, I've run across a number of articles from around the Kidlitosphere (the universe of children's and young adult book bloggers) that I thought readers here would find of interest. [Special thanks to Terry Doherty from The Reading Tub for pointing out some of these links.]

Literacy Lava 2 final-sml.jpgFirst up, Susan Stephenson (aka The Book Chook) and her team have produced a new installment of Literacy Lava, an electronic magazine dedicated to encouraging young readers. Here's the description of the second Literacy Lava from Susan: "Literacy Lava 2 is a free magazine that will bring you ideas: for motivating reluctant readers, for literacy on the go, for developing the imagination muscle, for linking math and literacy, for having a pirate party and a book picnic, for rhymes, games, activities and more!" You can download Literacy Lava from here.

Booklights' own Gina Montefusco brought to my attention a recent article by Phuong Ly from Catalyst Chicago. Here's the gist: "In libraries and bookstores, African-American boys are missing, both as characters in books and as readers. The two absences are related and feed off each other, according to literacy experts: If young African-American males don't see themselves in books, they aren't inclined to become readers, and if publishers perceive that black boys don't read, they won't approve books that might interest them." Also important: "Many librarians and teachers say that publishing more books for African Americans isn't merely a matter of political correctness. It's crucial to lowering the achievement gap."

BoyReading.jpgSpeaking of boys, Trevor Cairney at Literacy, families, and learning shares some thoughts about getting boys into reading through non-fiction. He says: "For many boys (like girls) the narrative form is the best way into literacy, but some boys are reluctant to read narratives... So we should seek to explore any textual form available to introduce them to reading and then gently push them to explore other forms of reading, as well as to read in more sustained ways and for all imaginable purposes." He gives several suggestions. He adds, however, "our aim in using factual forms of reading isn't meant to be an alternative to reading literature. Eventually, we should aim to have our boys loving literature too." Trevor continues with another post about encouraging kids to read what he calls "environmental print", or non-book sources of literacy. He suggests keeping an eye for print in your child's world, and pointing it out when you run across it. [Image by Taliesin, shared at MorgueFile.]

At Getting Kids Reading, Joyce Grant has a nice little post about respecting the reading bubble. She says: "When kids are actively reading, they create a quiet bubble around themselves. It's a bubble they fill with the fantasy creations they imagine as they read. It's a bubble so necessary for a reader, and yet so easily burst. If you catch your child reading, remember that bubble." I know I love my reading bubble, and find it very irritating when anyone disturbs me when I'm deep into a book.

Dawn Morris at Moms Inspire Learning writes about why parents should read young adult fiction, in the context of a review of a particular title. She says "Sometimes, books raise issues parents are not comfortable with, but they can be used to discuss important topics that never would have come up otherwise. Open communication is important, especially these days... We can't live our lives for our children. They need to make their own mistakes. But we can and should find ways to open the lines of communication, and to share our thoughts, emotions, and values. A great way to do that is to keep track of what your tweens and teens are reading. It's a wonderful way to make connections that otherwise might have gotten lost in your busy lives." I completely agree with Dawn on this point.

At Literacy Launchpad, Amy suggests that when families go on vacation, they make an extra effort NOT to take a vacation from reading. She's looking in part for inspiration from others, because she finds that she has trouble keeping up her son's reading routine when they travel. She says: "In the future I would like to be much more intentional in making books a part of our vacations, just like they are a part of our normal, everyday life at home", and shares some ideas. Literacy Launchpad also ran a recent guest post by Adrienne Carlson about ways that parents can help children to improve literacy at home.

At Throwing Marshmallows, homeschooling mom Stephanie recently wrote in response to a School Library Journal article about graphic novels. She notes: "Graphic novels (along with comic books) are wonderful for emerging readers, especially for right-brained kids. The visual aspects of the book help them formulate the picture of the story in their minds, which helps ease the process of translating the words. Not to mention that they are just plain fun." Stephanie's post isn't long, but it's a nice reminder to try out different types of books, in search of books that work well for your kids.

calvin.jpgOn a related note, another homeschooling mom, Becky from Farm School, recently mentioned that her sons are so taken with Calvin & Hobbes books that she's devised a "Calvin and Hobbes Spelling and Vocabulary" lesson plan for this year. She shares a sample vocabulary list from the comic strips, and it's remarkably advanced.

In case any of you missed it, there was a nice New York Times article by Motoko Rich a couple of weeks ago about using a reading workshop approach (in which kids choose their own books to read) to encourage young readers. While the approach itself isn't new, it was great to see these ideas discussed in the NY Times. I've seen various responses to the article, the most recent one by Karen Strong at Musings of a Novelista. Karen says: "I do like the idea of kids being able to choose some of the books they read. It can help them become life-long readers. Maybe a lot of the kids and teens think of books they read in class as "boring." Maybe it turns them off from reading as adults. Giving the choices may help them enjoy books more."

And, of course, Pam and Susan both had excellent posts about nurturing young readers here at Booklights last week. On Wednesday, Susan wrote about the ups and downs of reading aloud. She offered practical advice for parents who might be disappointed by their young kids' unwillingness to sit still for read-aloud. Her conclusion: "Go easy on yourself and your children when it comes to reading aloud. And enjoy the wonderful moments when they happen." Then yesterday, Pam used her Thursday Three feature to offer reading help for "the three people involved in your child's reading development - the teacher, the child, and yourself." I especially liked her strong suggestion that parents try to avoid The Reading Game (parental competition over kids' reading levels and books).

I hope you find some of these links useful. If you'd like more children's literacy and reading news, I hope that you'll check out this week's Children's Literacy Round-Up at The Reading Tub (scheduled for publication today).


Thursday Three: Reading Help

Posted by Pam on September 10, 2009 at 9:32 AM in Recommendations
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My kids went back to school this week - finally - and it made me think about how parents could help their child's reading during the school year. I've broken it down to the three people involved in your child's reading development - the teacher, the child, and yourself. Here are ways to help each.

1. Helping the Teacher
With class sizes growing and budgets shrinking, teachers need the help of parents more than ever. While you can't present the state-regulated curriculum, any parent can help with building reading skills. If you're good at reading aloud, offer to come in and read to the kids once in a while. Better yet, ask about that state-regulated curriculum and find books at your library that can support it. When my children were studying Native Americans, I brought in folktales to read. How Chipmunk Got His Stripes is one of my favorites. When they learned about insects, I brought in Farfallina and Marcel. You can also use the storytime to bring more depth to issues the teachers don't have time to cover in class. During the 2008 election, I was happy to share Grace for President.

There may be other ways you can help if you're not comfortable being a storytime presenter. Our school had a pull-out program for children who needed a little extra help with reading. Volunteer parents would bring the kids out in the hall for fifteen minutes, select beginning reader books, read along with them, and send the books home for them to practice in the week. This take-home reading program worked very well in giving kids a little extra attention and needed very little training. Volunteer parents also came in on occasion to help the children write stories, to run small book groups, and to prepare materials.

2. Helping Your Child
Other than potty training, I've found nothing that has tested my patience on a continual basis more than the beginning reading stage. There are wonderful successes, often followed by the third laborious rendering of the word then. It can be very frustrating for both of you. So you can help your child by remembering that she will benefit most in her reading growth by mixing up the type of reading she does. Books that are easy for her will reinforce the feeling that reading can be just pure fun. Books that are in her comfort zone will give her confidence of her skills. Books that are a challenge will push her learning to the next level. In fact, while this approach seems somewhat natural for the early reading stage, it applies throughout a person's reading life even to adulthood. It is one of many reasons that kids (and grown-ups) are never too old for picture books. Please don't be one of those parents I see in the library telling their first graders that they can't bring home a "baby book." A better approach is to let that first grader bring home some books that he chooses, and some more challenging books that you choose.

3. Helping Yourself
My last sentence leads nicely to one of the main ways that you can help yourself, and that is to avoid The Reading Game. You know it. It starts with something like, "We can't tear Jacob away from Harry Potter. What is your child reading?" This parental competition starts early ("Lizzie was smiling at us at two weeks) and goes on ("Jamal made All-Stars again!") and on ("Well, Reggie is going to Harvard, but I'm sure that's a good school too."). You'll find the competition in many factors of a child's growth, but verbal skills and reading level seem to dominate. In my thirteen years as a parent, no one has ever asked me if my kids can do long division or sing in tune or climb a tree. But from the first year, I've been asked to compare what words they were saying and then what words they recognized and then what words they were reading until it was all about reading and levels and books.

There is only one way to win this game, and that is not to play. Don't let yourself get sucked into the competition, don't let yourself feel bad, and don't let yourself push your kid based on these conversations. Also, don't let yourself get too proud either, because kids have a way of surprising you. My oldest daughter had a slow start to reading, made methodical progress in first grade, and suddenly made a huge leap in reading level. Now at thirteen, she's an excellent and voracious reader. My younger daughter started reading at four years old, and plodded along thereafter. Now in fifth grade, she's still a slow reader which has made her much less interested and less strong a reader than her sister.

My point is that The Reading Game is pretty meaningless anyway, so it doesn't pay to take it seriously. To be fair, there are a lot of honest exchange between parents about what their kids are doing that is helpful in knowing when to give a little push and when to wait it out. But I trust that you know the difference. One makes you feel connected to another mom or dad, and the other makes you feel like a failure as a mom or dad. Looking for those connections and avoiding those competitions will be one of the best ways that you can help yourself.


The ups and downs of reading aloud

Posted by Susan on September 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM in Recommendations
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What's my favorite part of the day? That's easy.

It's at night, when I get to read books with my son. I love when he snuggles in close to listen. I love when he asks questions. I love when he discovers a book for the first time. I love spending time with him in such a special way.

But, it wasn't always that way. And that's okay too.

When he was younger, he wouldn't hold still for anything, let alone a book. He wiggled. He squirmed. He was totally uninterested. It was tough on a parent like me who had been waiting for years until she had kids of her own to read to. It was hard not to feel like I was doing something wrong.

All kids develop differently, even when it comes to reading aloud.

I frequently hear from parents of kids under three years old who are trying to read to their children but find it extremely frustrating. Children at that age are wiggly, active and have trouble sitting still for anything.

Instead of reading regular picture books, try ones with only a few words per page. Read only one or two short books a night. Songs, nursery rhymes and short poems work very well with that age. So does singing a book. Also, give touch-and-feel and lift-the-flap books a try. Those kinds of books engage children directly and help teach them about books and what they're used for.

As much as you may have dreamed of reading The Cat in the Hat to your children, it's okay to wait a few years until they're ready to hear it.

Photo credit: taliesin from

The main thing to remember is to do what works for your kids. Some three year olds can sit still for a lengthy picture book, while others can't make it through anything much longer than a board book. If you have a seven year old who loves to hear picture books, go right ahead. If your four year old is enjoying chapter books, then by all means, give them a try. If your twelve year old wants to listen to you read a chapter a night, take advantage of that. There aren't any rules or rights and wrongs to reading aloud.

And recognize that it won't always go perfectly. Sometimes your child will be in the mood to be read to and it will be a magical moment for you both. Others times they might feel tired, sick or bored (or you might) and it just doesn't work out as well. And if you're a working parent like me, there are nights where you're just not going to be able to have that time together. That's okay too. Last night, I worked late at the library, and came home to find my son sound asleep. His dad read to him, and I'm glad they got to share that.

Go easy on yourself and your children when it comes to reading aloud. And enjoy the wonderful moments when they happen.

What have your reading aloud experiences been like? I'd love to hear about them.


Show and Tale: I Stink!

Posted by Gina on September 8, 2009 at 10:24 AM in Board BooksShow and Tale
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i_stink.JPGIf a garbage truck could talk, what would it say? Make friends with a smelly, sassy garbage truck with I Stink! by Kate and Jim McMullan.

Mom-blogger Laura's a fan: "A night in the life of an NYC garbage truck, including an alphabet of gross trash ('P is for puppy poop!'). My boy loves it. Also an eco message. Best book for an urban mom like me!"

What books with unexpected main characters do you love? Any other truck books to recommend?


Two Types of Series Books

Posted by Jen Robinson on September 7, 2009 at 6:00 AM in Series
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Inkheart.jpgContinuing my post on favorite series from last week, I've spent a bit of time thinking about two types of series books. The first type of series consists of multiple books that follow one primary story arc. Examples include the Inkheart series, the Percy Jackson books, and the Lord of the Rings series. While there are, of course, multiple plot streams within each of these series, the books are meant to be read together, to tell a single, epic, story. Clues are planted in one book that aren't explained until the end. There are sometimes major cliffhangers between books. When I wrote about series books last week, I limited my discussion to series with more than three titles, to keep the number of favorites under consideration manageable. But obviously, most trilogies fall within the spectrum of these single story arc series. In general, many fantasy titles fall within this single arc, multiple-book format.

Junie.jpgThe other type of series is more episodic. Susan alluded to this in her original post, when she talked about kids who need to read even the Magic Treehouse books in order (even though there's no strong continuing arc across the books). An episodic series (like the Captain Underpants, Junie B. Jones, and Encyclopedia Brown books, to name a few) might have dozens of titles. While the books generally all feature the same primary characters, each book has an independent storyline. This is commonly observed in mystery series (for kids and adults). The same characters solve each mystery, and the story is usually wrapped up within the course of each book.

Of course the difference between these two types of series is not always black and white. For example, in many episodic series (though by no means all) the characters experience personal growth and/or changes in their personal lives from book to book. This keeps the series from becoming flat, and adds an additional incentive for readers to pick up the next title. Still, there's nothing stopping a reader from picking up and reading a title from the middle of the series - the plot won't be confusing.

Also, just because a series ends after a few books doesn't mean that it was a single arc series. All of the books might be only loosely connected, and able to be read out of order. The end point of the series could be arbitrary. It's also not uncommon for something to start out as a standalone book, and then have one of more sequels added. By definition, such books weren't originally published to tell a single story. I don't think that we can expect them to hold up together as one, consistent story arc when they weren't planned that way (though the books may still be wonderful as individual books).

Still, despite some blurriness in this classification, I do think that this breakdown of single story arc vs. episodic is helpful in thinking about series books. The different formats serve different needs. Episodic series are a huge part of various markets, from early readers to adult mysteries. There's something satisfying about reading bite-sized books, at one's own leisure, and then having new books, with familiar characters, become available later. But there's nothing like a tightly-connected continuing series for generating excitement among readers. Harry Potter and Twilight together have created thousands upon thousands of avid readers, in part because of the suspense from book to book, the compelling need to know how the series will end.

I've always remembered something that Rick Riordan said about this. He wrote on his blog, on the eve of publication of Harry Potter 7: "The series is still wonderful and I will be sad to see Harry go. On the other hand, I hope Rowling sticks to her guns and ends the series at seven. Nothing should go on forever. Even the best series must have a solid, strong ending. Again, I know many would argue with this. There are readers who would happily buy Harry Potter #28 years from now, but I think seven is plenty."

It seems to me that Riordan is talking more about the single story arc series than about episodic series like the Magic Treehouse books. For new readers who want to read 50 books from the same series, I would argue that it's great to have those 50 books available. And for me as a reader of adult mystery series, I hope that my favorite authors will keep those new mysteries coming.

All Harry Potter books.jpgBut for series based on one primary story, like the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson books, I think there's real value in limiting the number of books. One of my favorite things about the last Harry Potter book was the way that Rowling hearkened all the way back to events from the first book. She made it clear that she had planned out the whole series in some detail. Stephenie Meyer did the same thing with the last Twilight book. This approach makes the reader feel cared for and respected, in a way that a more haphazard approach to ending a series can't.

What do you all think? Have you noticed this divide in series books? Do you favor one type or another? Or do you like different ones for different times? And do you have any suggestions for a better name for these single story-arc series that I'm talking about?


Thursday Three: Penguins

Posted by Pam on September 3, 2009 at 9:44 AM in Picture BooksRecommendations
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Penquins ABC
by Kevin Schafer

Penquins ABCIf you're ready for a break from the ABC books with apples, balls and cats then have I got a treat for you. Real photos of penguins and their habitat fill this educational boardbook with A for Antarctica, B for Baby, and C for Chinstrap Penguin. Beautiful photos of the world's most amusing birds make this title more fun for adults than your standard boardbook.

The Emperor's Egg
by Martin Jenkins, illustrated by Jane Chapman

The Emperor's EggA story of the world's best father, the Emperor penguin, who incubates the egg of his mate for two months in the harsh winter of Antarctica. Oh, and can't leave his duty to eat since he's holding the egg on his feet. And you thought you had it rough at the mall with only a stroller and a pack of fruit snacks. Amateur-time. Anyway, the book is educational but in such a fun way that no one will ever notice. Kid-friendly text and beautiful illustrations make this book a delight.
Playful Little Penguins
by Tony Mitton, illustrated by Guy Parker-Rees

Playful Little PenguinsCute story about penguins playing on the ice, complete with their sleds, scarfs, and hats. The refrain has a songlike quality: "Playful little penguins in the wintry weather; that's how penguins like to move, waddling 'round together." The last part changes as the penguins do different things along the way. The drama comes when they find a baby seal and keep her safe until her mama arrives. An interesting narrative choice given that seals, ahem, eat penguins. But not this time. In case the scarves didn't clue you in, there's nothing nonfiction about this penguin title, but it's a fun book.


One card fits all

Posted by Susan on September 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM in Libraries
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As your kids head off to school, make sure they have one very important school supply: a library card.

A library card is more than a piece of plastic. It's usually the first tangible thing a child has in their own name. It gives them a sense of ownership and independence and it opens doors for children in so many wonderful ways.

One of my favorite parts of being a children's librarian is giving out those very first library cards. I love watching their faces light up with pride as they receive something that's all their own. Here's what I say:

"Take a good look at the children's reference desk. You're never interrupting a librarian at the desk... we're sitting here waiting for you to ask us a question. Come to us if you need help with homework, or the computer, or finding a book. We'd love to recommend a good book or series for you. No question is ever silly or unimportant."

Library Card.jpgSeptember is National Library Card sign-up month. It started in 1987 to meet a challenge proposed by then Secretary of Education William Bennett who said: "Let's have a national campaign... every child should obtain a library card- and use it."

Does everyone in your family have a library card? Do you remember getting your first library card? How old were you? How about your children? When did they get theirs?

What would you say to a child getting their first library card?


Show and Tale: The Giving Tree

Posted by Gina on September 1, 2009 at 11:14 AM in ClassicsPoetryShow and Tale
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giving_tree.jpgAnything by Shel Silverstein is pure magic, but his classic The Giving Tree holds a special place on a lot of bookshelves. Today's pick comes from mom Leigh:

"I love the message of the book and sharing it with my own kids," Leigh said.

Is The Giving Tree a favorite of yours? What Shel Silverstein gems have stuck with you over the years? My favorite of his is Where the Sidewalk Ends, and I always think of the girl who wanted the pancake in the middle of a huge stack, and the wonderful welcome to the book: "If you are a dreamer, come in ..."

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