Friday, May 27, 2011

Summer: Lemonade; Winter: Hot Chocolate

I love word games.  Scrabble, Boggle, Bananagrams - I love 'em, one and all.  And, sometimes, when I am bored, I play the "make little words out of a big word" game, a kind of word game solitaire.  Lately, my daughter has been asked to do the same as part of her homework.  She finds it pretty difficult even though the teacher sends home large-print versions of each letter to be cut out, so that the children can physically move them around (like Scrabble or Bananagrams tiles) to make words.  I'm at a loss for how to help her because when I look at, say, "encyclopedia," one of her assigned words, I immediately see zillions of possibilities: cycle, lope, cope, plaid, pedal, lance, clap...

There is a new book of poetry out, Lemonade: And Other Poems Squeezed From a Single Word, (I love, love, LOVE the title!) which creates poems by playing exactly this game.  Rule-abiding as I am, however, I  must point out that poet Bob Raczka cheats, at least given the way I play - he uses letters which appear only once in the "big" word more than once in the little words he creates.  In my version, that is strictly prohibited!

Nonetheless, this is a fabulous book.  Each poem is printed in twice in a typewriter-style font, once, on the right-hand side, with the letters placed directly under their placement in the "mother" word and once, after the page turn on the left-hand side, with normal spacing.  This format lets the reader to try to decipher the poem first without seeing the "answer" on the facing page.  As other commenters have written, the poems rise above their gimmicky premise.  I can't pick a single favorite but, one is surely:



providing a nice wintry beverage counterpoint to the lemonade of the title.  Here in New York, though, it is definitely lemonade weather, the calendar notwithstanding.

What is your favorite word game?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Nate the Great Really Is Great

Most early readers are boring.  They have to be.  They have to contain short words and repeat them.  A lot. But the Nate the Great series, while not for the very earliest of early readers (like the Biscuit books) are the first early readers that I have enjoyed with my daughter.  Now, while I know I said she doesn't really like early readers and prefers to attempt chapter books, we have made an exception for this series.  She can't quite read them by herself but we can alternate pages or paragraphs with just a little help.

Nate the Great is a detective.  While eating as many pancakes as possible, he investigates mysteries of great importance reminiscent of those Encyclopedia Brown used to solve (although I remember those being both on a higher reading level and slightly more scientific), such as finding missing grocery lists.  Nate's serious tone ("I do not eat on the job.") functions as pseudo-serious for us adults reading along.

In addition to being the first early readers I can tolerate (and actually like!), they are also the first mysteries that have not scared my daughter.  When a Cam Jansen mystery involving a robbery scared her, I figured I'd solve the problem by flipping to the end of the book and assuring her that the perpetrator had been caught.  No dice.  An hour later, she came out of bed, worried that the wrong person had been caught and would go to jail.  Nate is perfect for her.

What are your favorite beginning readers or early chapter books?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cracking the Code

Watching my daughter learn to read has been both fascinating and mysterious.  Especially since, at least to me, she is doing so in a rather non-linear fashion.  Bored by most beginning readers, perhaps feeling that picture books were babyish, and entranced by the Ramona series as I've written about here, she announced that she was going to read chapter books before she read "regular" (that is, picture) books (interesting, too, that she still considers picture books the norm).  While she has not quite achieved that goal yet, she is closer every day, sometimes reading whole paragraphs of the Ramona books at a time.

I know that there are two parts to reading - comprehension and decoding.  My daughter's ability to comprehend what she is reading (both the plot and individual words - she is quite good at gleaning the meaning of new words from context) definitely exceeds her decoding ability.  But it is her decoding ability - and inability - that I find most intriguing.  She can sight-read more difficult words such as thought and library, while still having to sounding out simple words like park.  A friend says one day she will just "crack the code."  Has that been your experience or was it a more gradual process?

This post was inspired by the I Can Read Celebration currently being hosted by Playing by the Book and her post about putting yourself in the shoes of a child learning to read.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Wordplay and Wishful Thinking

My older daughter's kindergarten class has been studying the works of Lois Ehlert.  So when we spotted her latest book, Rrralph, when we were out buying birthday gifts, I couldn't resist her pleas to buy it, despite my admonition that we weren't going to buy anything for ourselves.  It didn't hurt that she, unprompted, suggested we donate it to her class in honor of her upcoming birthday.

Ms. Ehlert's distinctive collage art is appealing as always (children will have fun identifying the found objects, such as zippers and soda can tabs, which make up the dog's teeth and nose), but what makes this book different from her others is the wordplay involved.  The unseen, unnamed narrator (I'm sure for some reason that she is a girl) is convinced her dog can talk.  Example after example follows, with the dog responding correctly to questions posed by her owner.  Is it just coincidence that all those answers are homophones for dog sounds like woof and ruf, such as when the dog informs his owner that he is on the "roof" of his doghouse?

My daughter, with a few hints from me, got the joke.  We'll see how it goes over with her class in a few weeks.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Best Books for Babies Are Books About Babies

Babies, toddlers and older children are all fascinated by babies.  Babies love to look at faces, but are especially drawn to those of other babies (or even their own in the mirror).  Toddlers, many of whom are or are about to become older siblings, are proud that they can do more than babies, yet also so maternal and paternal.  When I walked my firstborn down the streets of New York I often felt like the Pied Piper of Hamelin; she was usually crying, resulting in a constant parade of concerned toddlers following us saying, "Baby cry!  Baby cry!"  And even my soon-to-be-six-year-old loves seeing her friends' new siblings.

Although I have a pretty standard set of books I choose from when I give new baby gifts, the one that every parent has told me was a hit with their child, without fail, is DK's Baby Talk.  The photographs (not illustrations) of babies of different ethnicities doing every day things such as eating and sleeping combine with the large flaps just-sized for little fingers to add up to a perfect first book.


For baby-obsessed toddlers and preschoolers, my new favorite is Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers and illustrated by Marla Frazee (yes, I'm on a Marlee Frazee jag).  The rhyming text is simple, describing different kinds of babies and the different things they do (crawl, splash, laugh) and follows them from birth through their first birthdays.  The illustrations, which also show babies of different ethnicities, are just detailed enough to reward repeated readings but not too detailed as to be too busy (or oongapotchka, as we say).  It's my three-year-old's new favorite, too - she asked me to read it four or five times today.  In a row.

What are your favorite books for and about babies?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Library Loot #5

For the kids:

Ready for their close-ups:

Not pictured: Sit In: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down by Andrea Pinkney and Brian Pinkney, One Monday Morning by Uri Shulevitz and The Queen of France by Tim Wadham, illustrated by Kady MacDonald Benton (of A Visitor for Bear fame, at least to me).   

For me:

Not pictured: Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, which I've now borrowed and returned twice as it's always on hold.  I'm about halfway through and while it's not amazing, I think I'm going to re-reserve it and attempt to finish it.  I'm particularly interested in The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared, about a father who read to his daughter every night, by phone if necessary, from fourth grade through the day she started college.  You can read a shorter version here although the name of the daughter, confusingly, is different.

As you can see, we've developed an interest in non-fiction picture books and picture books intended for older kids, such as What To Do About Alice?: How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy!, Emma's Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty about Emma Lazarus, author of the famous poem The New Colossus which is on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty (or Litterby, as my younger daughter says), and Sit In: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down which had a rather strained metaphor regarding a "recipe" for integration.  We also have a number of books about dance (the little one is fascinated by On Their Toes: A Russian Ballet School, a book so dated that it is not only about a Soviet, not Russian ballet school but I also cannot find a link to it).  Both kids are enjoying several National Geographic-type books with photos from around the world (including Play, On the Go and my favorite, actually published by National Geographic, One World, One Day, which was pictured in my last Library Loot post).  And my five-year-old requested Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11, after seeing it at a friend's house.  I'm still on the prowl for rain and umbrella books and have been searching for one I remember reading as a child about a cloud that follows a little boy and rains only on him - if it sounds familiar, please let me know!

Taking these photos also made me think about aspects of book production that I'd never considered.  How do they (whoever they are - editors?  book cover designers?) choose where to position the book's title on the spine?  A Spree in Paree's title doesn't line up with the other books at all .  Perfect Square's title nearly disappears off the spine, making the title very hard to read.

Thanks to Storied Cities, Playing by the Book, The New York Times Book Review (which I read in hard copy, I'm old school that way), the Bank Street Bookstore, the ABC Best Books for Children (recommendations by independent children's booksellers from across the nation), Marjorie Ingall's writings on her blog, in Tablet magazine and in the Forward, my mom  and other commenters, and Amazon's "customers who bought this item also bought..." feature for recommendations.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

(Gentle) Sarcasm in a Picture Book

How do pictures and words interact in a picture book?  In some, like The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman and illustrated by Marla Frazee, there are details in the illustrations which are never mentioned in the text.  In A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever, another Marla Frazee work (this time she is both the author and the illustrator) the pictures and text work together to produce sarcasm and humor perfect for children ages 5-7 (and their parents). 

James and Eamon go to stay with Eamon's grandparents for a week so they can attend a nature camp nearby.  As Eamon waits for James's arrival, his grandpa Bill extols the virtues of nature.  "Eamon thought this chat was fascinating," says the text.  The accompanying illustration, however, tells us us quite the opposite.  The fact that "James was very sad when his mother drove away" is belied by the picture of James happily waving and shouting bye to his mom.  And so on, much to the amusement of the reader. 

Just like a toddler who finds the box the present came in more interesting than the gift itself, James and Eamon find much more pleasure in each other's company than in nature camp.  In this story of friendship, the fruits of boredom and how children truly can amuse and educate themselves, the gently sarcastic interplay between the illustrations and the text is the icing on the cake.

What is your favorite example of how the words and text in a picture book complement each other?