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Jen Robinson: August 2009 Archives

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Favorite Series Titles: Jen

Posted by Jen Robinson on August 31, 2009 at 6:00 AM in RecommendationsSeries
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I enjoyed Susan's recent post about reading by number. Judging by the comments, lots of people have a strong preference for series books. Personally, I am compulsive about reading series books in order, because I hate having any surprises spoiled. When I read adult titles, I enjoy mystery series. Even though each book might wrap up an individual puzzle, I don't like the character development to be spoiled for me, so I'll rarely read those out of order. And of course for a series like the Harry Potter books, that follows a dramatic arc across all of the books, I think that it's critical to read in order. I tend to prefer the original order in which a series is published over any arbitrary changes to follow chronological order - I'm happy to take in the information in the order that the author intended.

Susan's post got me to thinking about my favorite series reads. For the sake of simplifying the discussion, I'm going to define a series as having more than three books (trilogies are a topic for another day). After mulling this over, I came up with a few simple rules for identifying a series as a favorite. I just ask myself, did I eagerly read through all of the books (either during a short time, if the series was finished when I came across it, or as the books became available, for series that were in progress)? Did I rush out to the store to get any new installments? Did I, if applicable, buy the books in hardcover, or go to the trouble to reserve them from the library? Do I ever re-read the books? If so, then this was (or is) a favorite series.

Trixie.jpgUsing this as a guideline, my favorite series as a child were:

  • The Five books by Enid Blyton
  • The Trixie Belden series by Julie Campbell/Kathryn Kenny
  • The Melendy Family books by Elizabeth Enright (see reviews of the first two books here and here
  • The Maida books by Inez Haynes Irwin
  • The Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene
  • The Anne of Green Gables books by L. M. Montgomery
  • The Borrowers books by Mary Norton
  • The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder

gregor.jpgOf more recently published series for children and young adults, I've enjoyed and eagerly read all of the books of:

  • The Gregor the Overlander series by Suzanne Collins (reviews here, here, and here)
  • The Young Wizards series by Diane Duane (review here)
  • The Shadow Children series by Margaret Peterson Haddix
  • The Tomorrow series by John Marsden (series review here)
  • The Twilight books by Stephenie Meyer (reviews here, here, here, here)
  • The Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan (see reviews here and here)
  • The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

I may not consider all of these books great literature, though many are. A few of the childhood favorites, in particular, haven't held up for me as an adult. But all of these books met my stated criteria above for favorite series at the time that I read them. I distinctly remember grabbing up multiple Trixie Belden books from the bookstore as a kid. I still have all of my copies of the Maida books. And I'm certain that 40 years from now, I'll still have all of my Harry Potters. Other series are on target for inclusion in future favorites lists, but don't yet have more than three books published (The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins comes to mind, for example). See also the books in my series books featuring adventurous girls post. I'm expecting great things from Theodosia Throckmorton.

In case any of you are interested, I've posted a list of some of my favorite adult mystery series on my personal blog. I can think of several other series (for both adults and children) for which I went through three or five or ten books, but have let the last few books sit, unread. I'm not listing those here.

But that made me wonder: what is it that keeps a series from losing my interest? Obviously, I have to care about the characters. No matter how good the plotting is, no matter how interesting the setting, I'm not going to follow characters that I don't care about through more than 2 or 3 books. And the books have to keep surprising me in some way. Humor helps, too, though it's not 100% necessary. But I think that what it really boils down to is that the author has to have captured a world that I want to visit. This world can be anything from an old-fashioned house in the country to a camp for half-blood Olympians. But if it feels authentic, and feels like a place where I want to spend time, and is populated with people I care about, then I'll come back. There's a whole other discussion to be had about series books that have a dramatic arc, and are planned to end after five or seven books, vs. ongoing series that have no particular end in site. That, too, is a topic for another day.

What about you all? What are your favorite series titles? What makes you come back to a particular series time and time again?

Jen

Literacy 'Lights from the Kidlitosphere: Playgrounds, Princesses, and Read-Aloud

Posted by Jen Robinson on August 24, 2009 at 6:00 AM in Literacy News
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jpg_book007.jpgI've run across several recent posts from around the Kidlitosphere about encouraging young readers. I thought that I would share some of them here today.

At Moms Inspire Learning, Dawn Morris has a post about learning from Cinderella. It's actually a two-part piece, but the second part is the one that talks about books and reading. Dawn recaps the reasons why she feels "that reading is the most precious gift you can give to your child", and explains "if your daughter plays with princesses, you might be concerned that she'll focus on outer beauty alone. However, if your child reads a lot, she'll be a lot more likely to focus on the interaction between the dolls instead." I have to tell you, when I was a kid, I played with a set of US President figurines whenever I was at my grandparents' house. I didn't know anything about the Presidents, but I made my own paper dolls (of girls) in similar sizes, and just made up my own stories using my paper and plastic figures. For me, a reader pretty much from birth, it was always about the interactions.

Speaking of playing, the Book Chook (Susan Stephenson) has a nice two-part post about Literacy in the Playground (part 1, part 2). Susan notes: "Recently, I became concerned that some of the games (that kids play on the playground), particularly the skipping and clapping chants and rhymes, are not as prevalent as they used to be. I know there are many kids who enjoy them, or would enjoy them if they had access to them, so I decided to search for, and publish some." With help from friends around the Kidlitosphere, she shares a variety of suggestions (games, chants, etc.).

At Literacy, families and learning, Trevor Cairney suggests chapter books for younger children (for family read-aloud). He starts with tips on identifying whether or not your five to seven-year-old is ready to listen to chapter books, and then gets into reasons why reading chapter books together is a good idea. I especially liked this bit: "chapter books will enable you to build an even richer shared literary history with your children. Shared books will become part of your shared history within the family, and more broadly, they will help to connect your children to a literary culture that others will share with them." I think that people who don't have that shared literary culture miss out on things.

Bianca Schultz of The Children's Book Review recently published a lovely guest post from Andrea Ross of Just One More Book!! Andrea, mother of two book-loving daughters, writes from a parent's perspective about "the ways reading aloud to our children benefits ourselves as parents, our families and our relationships with each other." That's right - she focuses not on what's in it for the kids, but what's in it for the parents. For example: "The cuddly intimacy that it prompts is an obvious but overlooked benefit of taking time each day to read aloud to our little ones - regardless of how big said little ones may be!" I consider this a must-read post for parents.

Monica Edinger (who blogs at Educating Alice) recently linked to a New York Times Papercuts Blog post about surviving school summer reading lists. Julie Just reports: ""Summer reading? Good. Assigned reading? Bad." That's how Lisa Von Drasek, a children's librarian at the Bank Street College of Education in Manhattan, sums up her criticism of many summer reading lists: they're simply too short and too weighed down by good-for-you classics." I thought that this paired well with a recent guest post that our own Pam Coughlan wrote for Foreword Magazine's Shelf Space blog about summer reading. Pam said: "To me, a Summer Reading List is a selection of books that parents and kids might not otherwise know about pulled together in an easy format. So when those kids and parents come to the library and are looking for something to read--and they do ask that vaguely--the parent and librarians can direct them to some vetted books that will hopefully hold their interest." I also liked Pam's conclusion: "I believe in Summer Reading and lists and prizes. And I believe in lazy reading and informal book clubs and finishing the latest Gossip Girls book. There's room for both."

At Parents and Kids Reading Together, Cathy Puett Miller shares tips on making up for lost time, and getting into the habit of reading together when kids are older (10+). She begins: "Some families, in the midst of their whirlwind of life, never really got into the reading together habit when your children were young. It's so easy to become distracted and deal with what is most urgent rather than what might be more important. I often hear families say, "we just don't have time". First of all, let me tell you -- it's not too late. Make a conscious decision that this is a forever gift you can give your child."

At Throwing Marshmallow's, Stephanie also has a post about encouraging late/reluctant readers. It's a short post, but it includes a nice summary of "links to provide additional support for allowing your child to come to reading on his or her own timetable (something especially important if you have a right brained learner whose "normal" timetable is different from what is traditionally expected in school.)"

And finally, though not a new article, I would like to draw your attention to Elizabeth O. Dulemba's Coloring Page Tuesdays. Each week, Elizabeth makes a new coloring page available for free download. She encourages teacher, librarians, and parents to share these pages with kids. A classified archive of past pages (e.g. holiday-themed pages) is available. You can also sign up to receive weekly email alerts about newly available pages.

Have you run across any useful articles about raising readers this week? I would love to hear about them.

Jen

Revisiting Old Friends

Posted by Jen Robinson on August 17, 2009 at 6:00 AM in Classics
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21WXW4GJCQL._SL500_AA140_.jpgLast week Susan wrote about the gift of reading a wonderful book for the first time. She asked readers: "What book would you love to be able to read again for the first time?". This post inspired a host of thoughtful and (sometimes) nostalgic responses. The next day, Pam wrote about three of her favorite summer books and asked readers to share their favorites. These posts, in part (along with a post by Charlotte from Charlotte's Library), inspired me to re-read one of my own favorite books, one that is for me the very essence of summer: Return to Gone-Away by Elizabeth Enright. I previously listed Return to Gone-Away as one of my favorite children's books, and just reviewed it here. Re-reading Return to Gone-Away last week made me think about something that is, in a way, a mirror image Susan's post. It made me think about the joy that comes from re-reading an old favorite, one in which each character and scene are already familiar.

ForgottenDoor.jpgI was only a few pages in to my re-read of Return to Gone-Away when it literally brought tears to my eyes. It wasn't the content of the book that made me weepy-eyed. It's that I was so happy to be back reading this particular book that my emotions just bubbled over. I can only think of a few books that evoke tears from me, just from being themselves. Return to Gone-Away is one of them. Two others are The Forgotten Door by Alexander Key and Listening Valley by D. E. Stevenson (my all-time favorite book, published for adults). (You can read about some of my other favorite re-reads here.)

I love everything about these cherished books. I love the language, especially when I read particular sentences that I remember verbatim. I love the characters, and the way that they remind me anew of the things that make them special. I love re-visiting my younger self, remembering earlier reads of the same book. I literally give these books a little pat on the cover when I see them on my bedside table - I'm unable to rein in my affection. And why should I? These are the books that made me who I am.

When I read new books, I generally require a considerable amount of plot. The more complex and suspenseful, the better. But I'm reminded by Return to Gone-Away that the books I already love, the books that I read over and over again, don't need suspense at all. The re-reading experience, for me, is all about revisiting beloved characters and settings. It's about visiting old friends. It's about a personal connection between me and the particular book. I don't want the opportunity to read these particular books again as if it was the first time (as Susan discussed). Part of what makes these particular books special for me is the incremental appreciation I've built up over dozens of readings.

I like smiling when Mrs. Blake says, on page 1 of Return to Gone-Away "We'll have to think of a new name for that house right away", because I already know the outcome. I like already knowing whether or not Julian will find the missing safe, and whether or not the rope in the old dumbwaiter will break. I like shaking my head on page 9, because Foster's behavior is just so typically Foster.

This affection for particular books is more than just taking comfort in familiarity (though that's part of it). I don't think that you can just pick any old random book off the shelf, and re-read it once a year for 20 years, and have the book become meaningful to you (though that would be an interesting experiment). I think that there has to be something already in the book that makes you want to re-read it every year. Something that connects you to the book. For those books, the ones that you love enough to revisit throughout your lifetime, the connection just gets stronger every year.

This isn't to say that I disagree with Susan about the wonders of reading a great book for the first time. I envy every single person who hasn't read The Hunger Games yet, because they still have it ahead of them. And I know that sometimes childhood favorites don't hold up at all. But I also think (and I'll bet that Susan will agree) that there's something very special about re-reading a favorite book, one that is loved, in part, because it's so familiar.

HarryPotter1.jpgI'd like to believe that everyone has books like these, books that they can turn to for comfort reading on bleak days. Books that remind them of where they came from, and what mattered to them when they were younger. Parents, what books will bring tears to your children's eyes when they're 40, because they're so happy to be back reading the books again? Will it be Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone? The Penderwicks? The Lord of the Rings? Clementine? Will the teens who have read Twilight seven times already re-read it as they get older? Will reading Twilight when they are 60 help them to recapture that feeling of falling in love with a book at 12? I hope so. Because me, I feel blessed to have my favorite books as part of my life. What do all of you say?

Jen

Booklights Team Interviewed at the Reading Tub

Posted by Jen Robinson on August 10, 2009 at 6:00 AM in Introductions
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ShareAStoryLogo-color.jpgTerry Doherty is the founder of The Reading Tub, a nonprofit "that promotes literacy by encouraging families to read together", and provides hundreds of family-friendly book reviews for kids 0 to 13. Terry is also the founder of Share a Story - Shape a Future, a cross-blog "venue to share ideas and celebrate everything reading has to offer our kids." [Share a Story logo created by Elizabeth O. Dulemba.] Next year's Share a Story - Shape a Future event will be held March 8th to 14th. This past year, Terry and I have been working together on weekly Children's Literacy and Reading New round-ups, which alternate between our two blogs (for example, here). Like the Booklights team, Terry has a strong passion for helping parents and teachers to encourage kids to love books.

Terry_readingtubfinal_1.jpgThis week, Terry as kind enough to interview Gina, Susan, Pam, and me about Booklights on the Reading Tub's blog, Scrub-a-Dub-Tub. She rolled our responses into a combination profile and roundtable interview that covers everything from how Booklights began to where we'd like to go in the future. The interview even touches on Susan's and my excellent experience at last year's Newbery/Caldecott banquet, and Pam's personal quest for mental telepathy. We hope that you'll take a few minutes to check out the full interview, and tell us what you think.

kidlitosphere_button.pngWhat I think is that I am very much looking forward to meeting Terry face-to-face at the upcoming Kidlitosphere Conference in October. And I hope that we'll see some of our Booklights readers there, too. The Kidlitosphere Conference, now in its third year, is an annual gathering of people who blog about children's and young adult books (including reviewers, authors, editors, librarians, teachers, parents, and literacy advocates). New bloggers, and people who are just thinking of becoming bloggers, are very welcome to attend. It's a relatively small conference, with plenty of opportunities for discussion and socializing, making it very easy to get to know other participants. The conference does focus on issues related to blogging (ethics of receiving review copies, building readership, etc.), rather than on the books themselves. However, as with this week's Booklights Reading Tub interview, what the participants have in common is an enthusiasm for children's literature and a wish to pass along that enthusiasm to kids.

Many thanks to Terry for this wonderful interview. I think that she captures perfectly what we're trying to do here at Booklights.

Jen

Three Very Different Fairy Tale / Fable Retellings

Posted by Jen Robinson on August 3, 2009 at 6:00 AM in Picture BooksRecommendations
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I've decided to take a page from Pam's Thursday Three posts, and share with you three new picture books that illustrate the wide range available in fairy tale and fable retellings. The first is a straight up reissue of a classic story, made special by the gorgeous illustrations. The second is a multicultural reimagining of a well-known fairy tale, with added humor. And the third is a modern picture book that bears only the kernal of the original fable.

goldilocks.jpgGennady Spirin's new edition of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is a faithful rendion of the well-known story, from "Once up a time, there were three bears" to Goldilocks leaping up and running out of the house (though the bears are surprisingly cheerful at the end). But what makes this book worth a look are Spirin's lavish watercolor and colored pencil illustrations. The bears are dressed in fancy, gold-braided clothing. Their clothes match, in tone, detailed gilt headers and footers on each page, and the bears' fancy carved furnishings. Everything is conveyed with fine texture, from the bears' fur to their clothes to the grass outside. And after breakfast (most days), the bears site, and Mama Bear and Little Bear each read books (while Papa naps). As for Goldilocks - she looks like something out of an old painting, with shining hair, rosy cheeks, and an ornate hat with a feather. In short, this is one that I'm keeping for my own bookshelves. I will pair it with Eugene W. Field and Giselle Potter's Wynken, Blynken, and Nod.

tamales.jpgThe Three Little Tamales is a retelling of The Three Little Pigs, written by Eric A. Kimmel and illustrated by Valeria Docampo. In Kimmel's version, three little tamales, two sisters and a brother, run away from a Texas taqueria before they can be eaten. One builds a house of sagebrush, and another of cornstalks, but the third builds her casita out of cactus. And eventually, Senor Lobo, the Big Bad Wolf, comes around looking for some lunch. You all know, pretty much, how the story goes from there. I like that this book is a celebration of Texas, and Mexican foods, complete with a short glossary of terms. And, ok, I like that the smartest of the three tamales is a girl, and that this is handled in a completely matter-of-fact manner. Docampo's oil on paper illustrations are beautiful, with appropriate colors for prairie, cornfield, and desert. The winds that the wolf huffs and puffs are enchanting swirls of colors and textures. The tamales are adorable, especially the smart one with her big glasses, and the brother with his dramatic eyebrows and mustache (you have to see it to appreciate it). I can really see this one becoming a family favorite. See also Kimmel's book, with Stephen Gilpin The Three Cabritos, a Billy Goat Gruff retelling.

dumptruck.jpgThe Grumpy Dump Truck by Brie Spangler is quite different from the other two. It's a modern-day story about a dump truck named Bertrand who is good at his job, but constantly grumpy with his co-workers. He is "rude to the backhoe" and "a real pain to the crane", and constantly grumbles about his "itchy axle" and "sore tires". Until... a little hedgehog worker named Tilly sticks him (accidentally) with one of her quills. Plucking out the quill, she discovers all sorts of other uncomfortable things stuck in Bertrand's tire, weighing him down. Once Tilly relieves him of these things, he's a new dump truck altogether. Much like a certain lion and mouse that you might recall. This one is a bit overlay sweet at the end ("I want to do something NICE!" "Horray!"), but I think that the inherent humor of a grumpy dump truck, and a bunch of animal construction workers, outweighs this. And Spangler's digitally created illustrations are bold and eye-catching, almost like cartoons. I think that preschool boys, in particular, will find this one tough to resist.

How about you? What are your favorite fairy tale retellings and reimaginings?

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