Monday, January 30, 2012

Weeding Progress Report

I wrote earlier about weeding the fiction collection of my daughter's school library.  So far, I've removed approximately 50-60 books, which is probably only about 1000 strong (excluding certain series like Magic Treehouse, Cam Jansen, A to Z Mysteries, etc.).  On principle alone I've removed any "movie novelizations" or books adapted from television shows (like one horrific take-off on Little House on the Prairie).  I've kept all the books that we have by certain authors, including Betsy Byars, Beverly Cleary, Andrew Clements, Sharon Creech and others, even though I don't see them flying off the shelves  - both because while I'm familiar with the author in general, I'm not familiar enough with each book individually to determine which should be kept and which shouldn't and because I know some students like to read as many books by their favorite author as they can get their hands on, varying quality be damned.  I've kept only one copy of classics, award winners, and other books that look worthwhile but that just aren't getting read, like Julie of the Wolves (even without circulation records, I can assure, kids are not lining up for this one) and Lois Lowry's Anastasia books, although I'm personally a big fan.  And now that I finally have access to some circulation records, I'll be going through the shelves again. 

So, how am I doing?  And when you weed, do you aim to remove a certain percentage of your current collection?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Flip Side of Reading

The flip side of reading is, of course, writing.  Here, we write a lot of letters.  My kids are forced to write (or dictate, as their abilities allow) thank you notes (3 sentence minimum!).  They write occasional letters to grandparents and cousins.  My younger daughter wrote a letter to Sasha and Malia Obama requesting a playdate (no response yet).  They write letters I call constructive criticism to the government (we got a street paved and a pedestrian walk signal lengthened - by a whole 3 seconds! - and sympathy but no results for a complaint about off-leash dogs) and corporations.  One of my proudest moments as a mother was when, upon seeing an uprooted bus map pole, my then 2-year-old shouted, "Let's write a letter!"

But best of all, we write letters to authors.  Not as many as I'd like, to be honest - often out ambition exceeds our energy or time or quite simply, our interest flags.  But we got confirmation from Amy Hest of our hunch that the subway station in Jamaica Louise James was indeed modeled on the 1 station at 86th Street, which is decorated with mosaics of neighborhood scenes done by local teens.  And recently each of my daughters received a lovely letter back from Miriam Cohen, author of many children's books.  My girls wrote to her about her Mimmy and Sophie books.  They had been particularly intrigued by a blurb in the back that said the stories were partly true and they wanted to separate fact from fiction.  Ms. Cohen graciously wrote back and let us in on some secrets about which parts were true and which were not.

Do you or your kids write to authors?  Which ones?  Have you heard back?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Library Round-up #3

Mini-reviews of some of the books we have out from the library right now.

Emma Kate by Patricia Polacco.  This book's surprise ending following a seemingly typical story about an imaginary friend is just delightful. 

Sam Who Never Forgets by Eve Rice.  An oldie but goodie.  This quiet story about a zookeeper who may have forgotten to feed Elephant for the first time is just lovely to read aloud: "But just as a tear starts to fall from Elephant's eye, just as Elephant starts to cry..."  It reminds me of A Sick Day for Amos McGee, although by rights it should be the other way around.  

Waiting for Winter by Sebastian Meschenmoser.  The punchlines here about animals who try to identify snow by the description "white and wet and cold and soft" and, of course, are mistaken, are hysterical to the preschool set, but in my opinion the lead-up to them is too long.

Frederick by Leo Lionni.  I knew this book but hadn't thought of it as a book about winter until I saw it on an NYPL winter-themed list.  A perfect choice, about a mouse who, instead of saving nuts and corn for the winter, saves sunlight, colors and words.  A book about the power of imagination and creativity to warm our souls and sometimes, even our bodies.

Polar Bear Night by Lauren Thompson, illustrated by Stephen Savage.  Another quiet book with rhythmic, repetitive prose about a polar bear cub who wanders out to see a meteor shower and then returns to the comfort of his mother's arms.  I love the atmospheric, tonal illustrations by Stephen Savage (it was a New York Times Best Illustrated Book) but my 4-year-old kept asking why the polar bear cub was changing colors. 

All the Water in the World by George Ella Lyon, illustrated by Katherine Tillotson.  The rave reviews (of both the text and the illustrations - and their interplay) are well-deserved, although I would have appreciated sidebars or an appendix with more facts to complement the poetic text.  And I couldn't decide how I felt about the narrator calling the reader "honey."

Have you read any of these?  What did you think?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Trouble With Double Yellow

My daughter's school uses the Fountas and Pinnell system of leveled readers.  The books (and children!) are rated on a scale of A (easiest) to Z.  Presumably to avoid competition and feelings of inadequacy, the school marks the books with colored stickers rather than the letters.  Of course, the kids figure out the meaning of the stickers right away!

My daughter's teacher has her reading at Level J (or, "double yellow" in sticker parlance), which are heavy on Cynthia Rylant's Henry and Mudge and Mr. Putter and Tabby books.  When she recently told me that the double yellow books are too easy for her, we decided she'd ask her teacher if she could try harder books.  But before she had a chance to do so, she came home with Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully, marked with the same double yellow stickers.

Mirette is a far cry from Henry and Mudge.  My daughter can read 95% or more of the individual words in Henry and Mudge and understands them all.  In Mirette, though, she was faced with words she either couldn't pronounce or didn't know the meaning of - or both!  And while she is pretty good at figuring out the meaning of words from context, these had her stumped, and with good reason.  Mirette contains words like vagabond and widow and boardinghouse and phrases like "traveling players."  Not something your average New York City first-grader is familiar with and not exactly in the same class as Henry and his big dog Mudge!  While it is great to read about unfamiliar things, this book is completely impenetrable to my daughter on her own.  It is far from a "just right" book, as books that are supposedly on her level should be.

While the contrast between the difficulty of Henry and Mudge and Mirette is dramatic, it's not the first time I've noticed inconsistencies among books which are ostensibly at the same level.  No leveling system can be perfect but, given these inconsistencies, how useful are these systems?  Are they popular now because they are yet another way to "objectively" evaluate student (and, by erroneous extension, in my opinion, teacher) progress?  They are helpful as general guidelines, I think, but not beyond that. 

What is your experience with leveled readers?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Collage Up-Close

In December, I accompanied my daughter's class to the exhibit The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats opens at The Jewish Museum.  The museum educator did a fabulous job and the kids were really engaged.  But I didn't have a chance to take in the exhibit the way I really wanted to.  So this past weekend, I went back, with my husband, but without kids, and took my time.  It was worth it!  While seeing a painting up close is certainly different from seeing a reproduction (seeing the brushstrokes, the thickness and texture of the paint), somehow that felt even more true to me when it comes to collage.  I, at least, can't tell from reading Ezra Jack Keats's work that the illustrations are often collage, but when you see the originals up-close, it's a different story.  The exhibit closes soon, so go if you can!

If you've already seen the exhibit, what did you think?

What other children's book illustrators work primarily in collage?  Lois Ehlert and Eric Carle come to mind.  Who else?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Retro Reading: Two Fabulous Links

Billy Parrott, an NYPL librarian, has a fabulous post about what Sally Draper would have been reading in 1964-65.   I have to agree with the commenters who suggested Marjorie Morningstar, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (two of my favorites!), Peyton Place,  and the works of e.e. cummings  and Rachel Carson.

Today Betsy Bird has a follow-up post with a challenge to identify what Sally is actually reading in photographic stills from the Mad Men TV Show.

Go, check them both out and add your thoughts!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Library Loot #13

For the kids:

Not pictured: Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner; Dreams by Ezra Jack Keats, Mama's Saris by Pooja Makhijani (we loved this book and my 4-year-old went around for days afterwards draping her dresses over one shoulder like a sari), Homer the Library Cat by Reeve Lindbergh (yes, that Lindbergh!), Love, Mouserella by David Ezra Stein, Spring Is Here by Will Hillenbrand, I Had A Favorite Dress by Boni Ashburn, Spunky Tells All by Ann Cameron and Blood and Goo and Boogers Too! by Steve Alton, Nick Sharratt and Jo Moore.

For me:

Not pictured: A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Weeding Fiction: Advice Needed!

I volunteer at my daughter's public school library and have been tasked with weeding its fiction collection (excluding picture books).  Here's my problem: unlike non-fiction, which can become obviously out-of-date, fiction doesn't age in the same way.  Sure, some old books become dated but other old books become classics.  So how do I figure out which are which (other than the obvious, well-known classics or award-winners)?

This is an urban public school which serves a primarily poor population, many of whom speak a language other than English at home.  The kids' favorite books are the Wimpy Kid books and books of that ilk.  Anything in a diary format and/or with illustrations is popular.  As I reviewed the fiction shelves, I found tons of books which I've never seen children take out: books from the 60s and 70s, historical fiction, books about Native Americans, and so on.  Those books are, to put it mildly, not exactly flying off the shelves.  But some of them are great books.  So... how do I decide which books to keep?

Any advice is appreciated.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Originals and Derivatives, Take Two

Just two more quick examples of original works and later derivative works; that is, books (or movies) that share a premise, or a style of illustration, or a plot.

Another Wendy Mass novel: 11 Birthdays.  Two kids relive their shared 11th birthday over and over and over again... until they can figure out how to break the spell.  Sounds a little like a movie that was popular a while ago, doesn't it? 

My husband came home from the library and told me that our 3-year-old had picked out her own book and that it was about fall and was by the same author as Leaves by David Ezra Stein.  Wondering why the author had done another book on the same topic, I went to see my daughter's selection.  It turned out to be The Bear's Winter House by John Yeoman, illustrated by Quentin Blake and first published in 1969.  But my husband was right - the subject matter (although not the plot) and, even more so, the illustrations, are eerily similar to Stein's.  The bears even have the same sweet, curious, gentle look about them.  Did Stein know of this book when he wrote his?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Libraries and Children's Authors in the News

There were two articles in the New York Times today I feel compelled to link to.  The first is about the Queens Library's acquisition of materials in languages other than English.  As fascinating as the main point of the article was, I was more intrigued by one librarian's comment that some of her (Chinese) patrons bring in suitcases to bring their books home, they take out so many.  Suitcases!  I hope they are the rolling kind.

The other is about the appointment of Walter Dean Myers as the national ambassador for young people's literature.  I'm familiar with the nature of his work but confess I haven't read any of it.  But the quote the article closes with caught my eye: "People still try to sell books that way - as 'books can take you to foreign lands.'  We've given children this idea that reading and books are a nice option, if you want that kind of thing.  I hope we can get over that idea."  Now, if he means that books are not merely an option but a necessity, I agree wholeheartedly.  But if he is disparaging the idea that "books can take you to foreign lands" - well, I have to object.  While his works are realistic fiction which perhaps serve a purpose of allowing their readers to explore some of the difficulties in their lives, there is a place for books that take you to different lands, too.  Not to mention that the land that Walter Dean Myers describes is very foreign to some.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Yiddish Folktale, Three Ways

In an old Yiddish folktale, a boy (or man) has a beloved item of clothing.  As he outgrows it or it becomes too worn, it is cut down and transformed - into a vest or a tie... until it can be transformed no longer.  Or can it?  The owner records the story of his coat and voila! he has made something (a story) from nothing.

We own two versions which are pretty faithful to the original - Simms Taback's Caldecott-winning Joseph Had a Little Overcoat and Phoebe Gilman's Something from Nothing.  Taback's signature cut-outs and collages, his inclusion of a little Yiddish, and his allusions to shtetl culture and the pop culture that makes reference to it (newspaper headline: Fiddler Falls Off Roof) make this one very special.  The story was also a Yiddish folksong and Taback (who died on Christmas Day 2011) includes musical notation for it.  My three-year-old sings yet another version of it at preschool.  Gilman's version shows the protagonist's house upstairs and then a house of mice below.  The mice use the scraps of fabric as they fall to the ground, giving an added meaning to the title. 

A newly published third version, I Had a Favorite Dress, by Boni Ashburn, puts a modern and girly spin on the story.  I love the mixed-media illustrations by Julia Denos with their exuberant use of color.  (I definitely want to check out more of her work, including a picture book biography of Audrey Hepburn, Just Being Audrey by Margaret Cardillo, which she illustrated.)  This version is my 6-year-old's favorite, of course.  But I was bothered by the fact that nowhere does the author acknowledge that this is a retelling of an old folktale, especially because the original story is not so well-known that the connection would be obvious, in my opinion.

I know there are lots of versions of classic fairy tales, like Cinderella.  Do you have multiple versions of the same folktale?  Which one(s)?