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Jen Robinson: September 2009 Archives

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Five Favorite Fictional Towns from Children's Literature

Posted by Jen Robinson on September 28, 2009 at 6:00 AM in Recommendations
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Charlie.jpgLast fall, inspired by a post at Charlotte's Library, I wrote about my Five Favorite Fictional Rooms from Children's Literature. That post remains one of my favorites, because it makes me happy just thinking about these favorite fictional rooms (like the chocolate room from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).

This weekend, I got to thinking about some of favorite fictional towns from children's literature. These are towns described so perfectly on the page that they feel real. Town that stand out in my memory, and that my childhood self would have loved to visit. Some of my favorites are realistic towns. The only magic that you'll find there is the magic of community. Others are clearly fantastic, from a town for wizards to an underground city to a city in the clouds. But they're all special, in one way or another. Here are my personal top five fictional towns from children's literature, with a couple of honorable mentions at the end.

anneshirleyboxedset.jpg#1: Avonlea, Price Edward Island, Canada. Avonlea is home, of course, of Anne Shirley of Green Gables. Avonlea is a fictional community, albeit one closely based on the towns of L. M. Montgomery's childhood (or so Wikipedia says). Avonlea features Green Gables, Mrs. Rachel Lynde's farm, the school where Anne was first pupil then teacher, and Marilla's church. Avonlea really shines in Anne of Avonlea, as you might expect. Remember the village improvement society, and their mishap with the wrong color paint? I think that my fondness for Avonlea is a side effect of my general fondness for Anne, Marilla, Matthew, Diana, and, of course, Gilbert. When I started thinking about favorite towns from literature, Avonlea was the first to come to mind.

#2: Gone-Away from Elizabeth Enright's Gone-Away Lake books. I wrote about the second Gone-Away book, Return to Gone-Away, recently at Booklights, and also reviewed it here. Gone-Away is a former summer community, located on the shores of a lake degenerated into a swamp, populated by two elderly residents. Here is the reader's first glimpse of Gone-Away: "They both climbed up on the little hulk and looked out over the tops of the reeds, a sea of reeds, beyond which, and around, grew the dark woods. But that was not all. Portia and Julian drew in a breath of surprise at exactly the same instant, because at the northeast end of the swamp, between the reeds and the woods, and quite near to them, they saw a row of wrecked old houses. There were perhaps a dozen of them; all large and shabby, though once they must have been quite elaborate, adorned as they were with balconies, turrets, widows' walks, and lacy wooden trimming. But now the balconies were sagging and the turrets tipsy; the shutters were crooked or gone, and large sections of wooden trimming had broken off. There was a tree sticking out of one of the windows, not into it but out of it. And everything was as still as death." (Chapter 2, Gone-Away Lake). Of course the children learn that Gone-Away is far less forbidding than it first appears. Gone-Away epitomizes summer for me. It will always have a special place in my heart.

All Harry Potter books.jpg#3: Hogsmeade from the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. Hogsmeade is a magic-filled town, located adjacent to Hogwarts. It includes the Three Broomsticks pub, Honeydukes sweetshop, Madam Puddifoot's tearoom, and, of course, the Shrieking Shack. Hogswarts students aren't allowed to visit Hogwarts until their third year, and even then they need permission from a parent or guardian (a sore spot indeed for a boy with toxic guardians). Millions of children around the world would go to the same lengths Harry does, if it meant that they could drink some butterbeer, or pick up magic tricks at Zonko's joke shop. Happily, they'll have a chance to visit a theme park version of Hogsmeade at Universal Studios next spring. I'm sure that's going to be a huge hit. Though me, I always picture Hogsmeade in the snow.

#4: Ember from Jeanne DuPrau's The City of Ember (with an honorable mention for Sparks, location of the second book in the series). Ember is an underground city, built as a last-ditch effort to protect humanity from a nuclear holocaust. The people living in Ember don't know that there ever was an outside world, and are completely dependent on light bulbs. Here's the opening description of Ember: "In the city of Ember, the sky was always dark. The only light came from great flood lamps mounted on the buildings and at the top of poles in the middle of the larger squares. When the lights were on, they cast a yellowish glow over the streets; people walking by threw long shadows that shortened and then stretched out again. When the lights were off, as they were between nine at night and six in the morning, the city was so dark that people might as well have been wearing blindfolds." (Chapter 1, The City of Ember) Who could read that, and not want to know more about Ember?

BelowTheRoot.jpg#5: Green Sky from the Green Sky Trilogy by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Green Sky is a city build high up in the branches of an enormous forest. The people there wear "shubas", which are garments with wide, wing-like panels. The shubas allow them to glide gently downward in Green Sky's heavy atmosphere (they use ladders and stairways to climb back up). Here's a hint of what Green Sky is like: "He stood on the narrow grundbranch, looking down hundreds of feet, through vast open spaces softly lit by filtering rays of greenish light, bordered and intersected by enormous branches, festooned with curtains of graceful Wissenvine. Shaking out the wing panels of his shuba, the long silken robe worn by all except the youngest infants, he launched himself downward into space." (Chapter 1, Below the Root) I've never forgotten Green Sky, first encountered when I was probably 10 years old. I reviewed the Green Sky Trilogy here.

And finally, here are a few honorable mentions: L. Frank Baum's Emerald City, Astrid Lindgren's Noisy Village, and Laini Taylor's Dreamdark. My fondness for these fictional towns is a testament to the power of literature.

How about you? What are your favorite fictional towns from children's literature? What other "favorites" should we discuss here at Booklights?

Jen

The E.B. White Read Aloud Awards

Posted by Jen Robinson on September 21, 2009 at 6:00 AM in Awards
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eb-white-award-final-emboss.gifPam and Susan K. have both written recently about reading aloud with kids (here and here). Pam asked readers about their favorite read-aloud chapter books, and received some excellent suggestions. I thought that this would be a good time to talk about the E.B. White Read Aloud Awards, another great source for family reading titles.

The E.B. White Read Aloud awards are awarded by the Association of Booksellers for Children. Here's the description from the ABC website:

"The E.B. White Read Aloud Awards, established in 2004, honor books that reflect the universal read aloud standards that were created by the work of the author E.B. White in his classic books for children: Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan. In the first two years of the award, a single book was selected. In 2006, in recognition of the fact that reading aloud is a pleasure at any age, the award was expanded into two categories: Picture Books, and Older Readers. Books are nominated for their universal appeal as a "terrific" books to read aloud."

The books are selected and judged by ABC Booksellers. And I, for one, think that they've been doing an excellent job. Here are the recent winners (note that the award is given for books published during the previous year, so the 2009 winners were published in 2008, etc.):

Visitor for Bear.jpgThe 2009 Award for Picture Books: A Visitor for Bear by Bonny Becker, illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton (Candlewick). A Visitor for Bear is one my all-time favorites. It's about a grumpy bear, dragged reluctantly into friendship by a determined mouse. I reviewed it here. I said: "what really made me LOVE the book is the tremendous read-aloud potential. By the second page I was reading aloud to myself in an empty house. The use of repetition, the presence of informal asides, and the varying font sizes to indicate emphasis all contribute to what is nothing less than a compulsion to read this book out loud."

masterpiece.jpgThe 2009 Award for Older Readers: Masterpiece by Elise Broach, illustrated by Kelly Murphy (Henry Holt). I read Masterpiece in part because it had won this award. It's about an unlikely friendship between a boy named James and a beetle named Marvin. While Masterpiece is about art forgery, and Marvin's adventures out in the wide world, at it's heart it is a story of friendship. My review is here. I said "Masterpiece is wonderful! It's the type of book that ought to become a classic over time, set alongside The Borrowers and A Cricket in Times Square... This is a must-read title for children and adults."

The 2008 Award for Picture Books: When Dinosaurs Came With Everything by Elise Broach, illustrated by David Small (Simon & Schuster). This one, I must confess, I have not read. But fellow Cybils organizer Kerry from Shelf Elf reviewed it back in 2007. She said: "All kids love free stuff. A lot of kids love dinosaurs. So, for many kids, a world where dinosaurs came free with everything would more or less equal total bliss. A picture book that is cute, clever and charmingly illustrated is for me, more or less total bliss." It sounds fun, doesn't it? I'll have to give this one a look.

mysteriousbenedict.jpgThe 2008 Award for Older Readers: The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers). This book is an exciting adventure story, filled with puzzles, for middle grade readers. It's about a group of talented children recruited to work as investigators for a mysterious benefactor. As I noted in my review, the book has a bit of an old-fashioned feel, but it's also funny on multiple levels. My review of this title is here, and of the sequel is here. I am eagerly awaiting book 3.

The 2007 Award For Picture Books: Houndsley and Catina by James Howe, illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay (Candlewick Press). I haven't read this title, but another book in the series, Houndsley and Catina and the Quiet Time, was shortlisted last year in the Easy Reader category of the Cybils, for which I was a judge. I liked it very much. Cybils panelist Andi from A Wrung Sponge reviewed it, saying: "Howe's language is so poetic in spite of the limited vocabulary and concrete imagery that beginning readers require... I find this book to be a gem that will hold readers of all ages in the magic. It's as sweet as a read-aloud as it is a beginning reader. You must find this and snap it up!"

The 2007 Award For Older Readers: Alabama Moon by Watt Key (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). I read Alabama Moon earlier this year, because one of my blog readers recommended it to me. It's about a 10-year old boy named Moon who is raised alone in the woods by his survivalist father. When his father dies, he has to learn to interact with other people. It's an excellent adventure story, great for boys, one that is also genuinely moving. I think that what makes this book a good read-aloud title is the strength and uniqueness of Moon's voice. My review is here.

As you can see, the ABC Booksellers have an excellent track record in picking fine titles for this award. To see the E.B. White Read Aloud Award titles from 2004-2006, click here. What titles do you think will make the E.B. White Read Aloud shortlists for 2010?

Jen

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).

Jen

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?

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