Friday, November 29, 2013

None of the Above

A "test prep" reading passage for third-graders about how a Bangladeshi boy created floating schools for children who could not travel to school because of annual flooding was followed by several questions. The last question asked why the author most likely wrote the passage.  The correct answer was missing.  After all, the author most likely wrote this passage because he got paid to by a big corporation despite his probable lack of teaching experience.

The other questions were poorly constructed.  One asked which word best described the boy: nervous, angry, kind or scared.  Clearly, kind was the best out of those choices but kind is actually a terrible choice.  Off the top of my head, better ones include innovative, creative, and determined.

Another question asked what causes floods:

A. heavy rains
B. overflowing rivers
C. too many people
D. both AND B

At first glance the answer seems to be D.  But then I realized that it is the heavy rains which cause the overflowing rivers.  So is the answer really just A?  Or are they looking for the immediate cause, in which case the answer is B?  After all, rivers can overflow without heavy rains - if, for example, a dam breaks.  But such a possibility was not discussed in the text.  Standardized testing does not reward overthinking.  It rewards being able to predict what the testers were thinking. 

And ultimately, it rewards the companies which get paid the big bucks to create poorly designed curricula and poorly designed tests.  Yes, Pearson, I'm talking about you.

How do you feel about the rise of high-stakes testing and the increasingly lucrative privatization of the test-creation business?

Monday, November 25, 2013

Three Must-reads for Thanksgivukkah

Although this year's Chanukah-Thanksgiving convergence is rare indeed, Jewish-themed Thanksgiving books are not as rare as one might think.  These two are some of the best Thanksgiving books - actually, the best books - around.  And for good measure, I added a third, non-Jewish, but still immigrant-focused Thanksgiving book.

In Rivka's First Thanksgiving, the title character, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, tries to convince her family to celebrate Thanksgiving. She tries to explain to them that Thanksgiving is a purely secular holiday, but they require that she seek permission from the rabbi.  When he denies it, Rivka writes a letter admonishing him, explaining that the pilgrims came to America for religious freedom, just as she and her family did.  The rabbi takes her case to what is essentially an appeals court of rabbis, who grant their blessing.  The rabbi then joins Rivka's family for Thanksgiving and says a special prayer thanking G-d for "the wisdom children give us."  I love lots of things about this book, including the strong heroine, but since we are such a letter-writing family, that is one aspect that speaks to me in a special way.  A lovely book, but beware the mention of pogroms and violence back in Eastern Europe.

Molly's Pilgrim (which I've written about this novella before as an anti-bullying text) is, like Rivka's First Thanksgiving, about how modern immigrants are pilgrims seeking religious freedom.  When Molly is required to make a clothespin doll of a Pilgrim (big "P") for class, her mother helps her by dressing the doll the way they dressed in the "old country."  When Molly's classmates make fun of her, her teacher not only defends her, asserting that coming to this country for religious freedom is the very essence of Thanksgiving and that Molly and her family are indeed (small "p") pilgrims, she explains that Thanksgiving actually has its roots in the Old Testament holiday of Sukkot, something I never knew.  (By the way, author Barbara Cohen is also the author of my favorite Passover book, The Carp in the Bathtub.)

Duck for Turkey Day focuses more on how immigrants, once here, make Thanksgiving their own.  When Tuyet, a Vietnamese immigrant, tries to convince her family to serve turkey, not duck, for Thanksgiving, and fails, she tearfully confesses the truth to her teacher.  To her surprise, her classmates join in, sharing what they ate for the holiday, with their meals including things like rice and beans and not a turkey among them.  I couldn't include a photo of this book as I lent it to my daughter's kindergarten class, in which, out of 20 families, 13 countries or cultures are represented!

What multicultural Thanksgiving books are your favorites?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Eternal Lament of the Letter Z

The letter Z has it hard, being stuck at the end of the alphabet.  Lots of alphabet books play with this theme, with Z and other letters towards the back of the alphabet wishing to be bumped up to the front of the line, among them Z is for Moose, A Call for A New Alphabet, and AlphaOops!: The Day Z Went First.  But who knew that Benjamin Franklin wrote a sketch suggesting exactly that?

In Jill Lepore's fascinating and beautifully written biography of Franklin's sister Jane, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, she quotes from this very work, entitled The Petition of the Letter Z.  Franklin writes that Z laments "That he is not only plac'd at the Tail of the Alphabet, when he had as much Right as an other to be at the Head; but is, by the Injustice of his Enemies totally excluded from the Word WISE, and his place injuriously filled by a little, hissing, crooked, serpentine, venomous Letter called S."  Lepore writes that "The letter Z's petition is denied, however, the judges urging, 'that Z be admonished to be content with his Station, forbear Reflections upon his Brother Letters, & remember his own small Usefulness, and the little Occasion there is for him in the Republick of Letters, since S, whom he so despises, can well serve instead of him.'"

Franklin also developed a new alphabet, seeking to create a one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds.  That is, each letter would only make one sound (unlike c, as we use it) and each sound would only be represented by a single letter (that is, sounds like "ch" would not need to be represented by two letters).  Obviously, it never caught on.  But such an alphabet would have proved useful to those without formal education, like Franklin's sister Jane, as well as to those who, despite their education, find English spelling almost impossible.  Because the spelling of American English has changed over time, and because Jane Franklin's lack of a formal education meant her spelling was largely phonetic, Lepore writes in a note to the reader, "All original English spellings have been retained.  Spelling is part of the story."  I told you her writing was beautiful!  Even in a note to the reader.

And Z never seems to give up hope.

What other books do you know where Z seeks a more prominent position in the alphabet?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Charlotte Zolotow's Books Live On

For a while now, I've been meaning to post about some of my favorite authors, and Charlotte Zolotow has been at the top of the list.  Since I didn't even know she was still alive (horrible of me, I know), you'd think the news of her death wouldn't hit me so hard.  But when I saw her obituary in the New York Times today, I actually teared up.

My absolute favorite book of hers is the now-sadly-out-of-print The Sky Was Blue.  This paean to the things in this world which are eternal - the blue sky, the warm yellow sun, the green grass, the love of a mother - set against the backdrop of a little girl looking through a family album and noticing which things are different - modes of transportation, fashion - is just a perfect, reassuring gem. 


I Like To Be Little
celebrates the joys of childhood - of jumping into piles of leaves, going barefoot, skipping.  I love this book even though I very firmly believe - much to the shock of  a little girl next to me sitting outside a ball pit at a children's museum - that adults should have fun too, and that some of the things that are fun for children are still fun for adults.  Like skipping.  And ball pits.  The mother's statements that "grown-ups don't want to" sit under the table or skip or jump in the leaves may be misguided, but these joys - whether of childhood or just of life - still shine through.

In When I Have A Little Girl/When I Have A Little Boy (a flip book), the two child narrators each explain how they will raise their children differently from how they are being raised.  An exploration of how difficult it is to follow rules you may not understand and how good adulthood looks from the viewpoint of a child.

And of course, what child of the 70s (and any other decade, for that matter), doesn't love William's Doll, particularly in the musical rendition on Free to Be You and Me?

I've written about other books by Charlotte Zolotow, in particular Big Sister and Little Sister here and The Quarelling Book here.

Which of Charlotte Zolotow's books is your favorite?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Book Fair Mea Culpa

The books I bought at the school book fair.

Classics, good.
Elephant and Piggie, good.
Lego and Star Wars, bad.
I was wrong.  I was $205.20 wrong.  That's how much I spent at the school book fair.  (To justify it to myself,  I donated some of the books I purchased to either the school library or my daughters' classroom libraries.)  The quality of the books was, overall, top-notch.  Yes, there were the usual character-driven books, especially for boys (Star Wars, Ninja-something-or-other, Lego).  But the vast majority were high-quality books (both in terms of literary and physical quality, both of which are lacking with Scholastic book fairs), including both classics and new releases, including many of which I, who spends her days reading book reviews, book blogs and scouring bookstores, had never seen or heard of before.  The book fair was run by Main Street Book Company, a book fair company, which gets books from many different publishers.  It even provided a few adult titles, including cookbooks, which I thought was a nice touch.  Main Street Book Company is apparently also a provider of specifically Jewish book fairs as well.  Who knew?  I didn't even know that such companies existed.  For those of you seeking to improve your own school book fairs, the parent-organizers of ours told me they were very pleased with the service.

Full reviews will have to wait, as we haven't had a chance to even read them yet, but here's what I bought for ourselves and some initial thoughts:

Greek Myths by Ann Turnbull.  I'm particularly excited about this well-reviewed collection of Greek myths, as it fills a gap in our home library.  I may also supplement it with this version for younger children.

My five-year-old's wish list
The Barefoot Book of Mother and Daughter Tales by Josephine Everts-secker.  I'm intrigued.  And their books are always so beautiful.

The Barefoot Book of Father and Daughter Tales by Josephine Everts-secker.  Ditto.

Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Lives  by Lola Schaefer.  As I paged through this quickly between my two parent-teacher conferences, I worried that this beautiful book might be too simplistic for my math lover.  But then I spied the notes at the end, which explain  concepts like averages, and decided to go for it.

Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library by Barb Rosenstock.  All I had to see was "library" in the title and I was sucked in.  Not to mention it was on my five-year-old's wish list.

My five-year-old's wish list, continued
My Dad Thinks He's Funny by Katrina Germein.  My husband and the father of my children does think he's funny.  And he is.  How could I resist?

The Relatives Came  by Cynthia Rylant.  A classic.  And so much better than the early readers she seems to churn out daily.

About Time: A First Look at Time and Clocks by Bruce Koscielniak.  Perfect for my daughter who's interested in time and time zones.  I don't know this author at all but his other books look equally fascinating, including one about Gutenberg and the printing press.

AlphaOops!: The Day Z Went First by Alethea Kontis.  Another book in which Z complains about being last.  Look for an upcoming post about a 200+ year-old version of this lament.

Winter Trees by Carole Gerber.  This beautiful book looks like a nice complement to the equally stunning Fall Walk by Virginia Brimhall Snow, which I recently purchased.

Heidi by Johanna Spyri.  A classic.

The Magic Half by Annie Barrows.  By the same author as the Ivy and Bean series.  Selected by my 8-year-old.

So, what did you or your children buy at their school book fair this year?


So I recently diagnosed my cranky and chronically tired daughter with what I called growing-up-itis.  The diagnosis was confirmed when all physical causes were ruled out, to my relief.  But as I talked to her about her malaise, a phrase from a book came back to me: "You have a bad case.  Of what?  Of growing up."  It took me a minute to place the quote and then, I knew.  It is from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, one of my favorite books of all time.

A quick perusal of my copy of the book turned up the exact quote, which I then read to my daughter (all italics are original):

"Everything was changing.  Francie was in a panic.  Her world was slipping away from her and what would take its place?  Still, what was different anyhow?  Sh read a page from the Bible and Shakespeare every night the same as always.  She practiced the piano every day for an hour.  She put pennies in the tin can bank.  The junk shop was still there; the stores were all the same.  Nothing was changing.  She was the one who was changing.

"She told papa about it.  He made her stick out her tongue and he felt her wrist.  He shook his head sadly and said,

'You have a bad case, a very bad case.'

'Of what?'

'Growing up.'

"Growing up spoiled a lot of things."

And that sums it up perfectly.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Library (and Bookstore) Round-up #12

Mini-reviews of some of the books we currently have checked out of the library or purchased recently.

Big princess.  Tiny king.
The Tiny King by Taro Miura.  There is something just incredibly charming about this book.  The illustrations are, as you can see, truly delightful.  I wish a toy company would sell blocks to resemble those seemingly used to "build" the tiny king's castle.  The story, about a lonely, tiny king, who marries a big princess, with whom he has 10 (size unspecified) children is a gentle tale about love seeing past physical differences and how material riches and power cannot take the place of family and love.  But it is never didactic. I love how the background changes from black to cheerier colors, as in the two spreads at below, as the king becomes surrounded with people who love him and whom he loves. 

Sad king.
Don't you wish they sold blocks like these?
Happy king.
I still want those blocks.

Bembelman's Bakery by Melinda Green.  The predictability of this tale of what happens when children are left to their own devices, only enhanced, rather than diminished, my daughter's enjoyment of it.  As soon as the mother instructed the children not to get in trouble while she was gone for a few hours, my daughter gleefully exclaimed, "Trouble!"  And as soon as the children determined to bake bread, she delightedly exclaimed, "Uh-oh!  Messy!"  But all turns out well in the end.  A shame this one is out of print.

What Is Part This, Part That? by Harriet Ziefert.  When I pulled this book off the library shelf, drawn to the bold, primarily primary colored art, I knew immediately that the illustrator had to be Tom Slaughter and I was right.  The art is done in his trademark style, not just reminiscent of but a cousin or even a sibling to that in Do You Know Which Ones Will Grow?  I was surprised to see the authors were different, because both books pose sorts of riddles.  Here though, the rhyming riddles are more metaphysical, reminding us that a conversation with a friend is "part listen" and "part say" and that a bath is "part wash" and "part play."  With flaps adding to the fun, this is a great read-aloud. 

Here I Am, story by Patti Kim, pictures by Sonia Sanchez.  The art in this wordless book about a young boy who is unhappy and even angry when he emigrates from Korea to the United States is beautiful but I could not follow the story and in fact, got certain plot points completely wrong.  I had to read the note at the end to understand that the red, cherry-like item the boy grasps is a seed from his homeland and I was sure that the boy had thrown it out the window at a little girl playing on purpose, rather than dropping it accidentally as the author writes at the end.  I think a wordless book is a failure (a strong word, I know) if the author intends it to tell a particular story and that story is not made clear from the pictures.  I am also a bit mystified that the "story" (not the text, as there is none) is by Patti Kim but the art by Sonia Sanchez.  Of course, without text there is still a story, but I can't remember any other wordless book where there is an author as well as an illustrator.  Perhaps that split accounts for the fact that I found the storytelling unsuccessful.  Is the failure on my part (entirely possible!!), or the book's?

The Bear's Song by Benjamin Chaud.  I love this book!  Here the reader follows a papa bear who follows his cub, who is following a bee, into the Paris Opera House (where they cause quite a stir) and finally, to the beehive and the honey he's been seeking.  The illustrations, on over-sized pages, are filled with detail and it is fun to search for the bee on every page.  A story of parental love and the new trend of urban beekeeping - quite a combination! 

New York
Dot to Dot by Malcolm Cossons.  The stories of a grandmother and granddaughter who share a birthday and a name (Dot) but who live an ocean apart are told from each of their perspectives - just flip the book over!  A sweet book about inter-generational bonds and modern, far-flung families. 

The Favorite Daughter by Allen Say.  In this, another winning autobiographical picture book from Allen Say, his daughter is torn between her American and Japanese heritages.  But she also grapples with a school art assignment, in which she has to depict one of the most-depicted structures ever, especially in her hometown, the Golden Gate Bridge.  Her father guides her through both challenges with his gentle wisdom.  With two photographs of his actual daughter, one as a toddler and one as a young adult, punctuating Say's artwork, this book is very special. 

The Cat at Night by Dahlov Ipcar.  This beautiful book alternates scenes of how and what we see at night with what a cat sees.  Just gorgeous. Unfortunately, not a single one of her books is available for borrowing from the NYPL.

What have you and your kids been reading?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Book Fair Meanie

Do you let your child buy books at her school book fair?  What about from those Scholastic book club catalogs that get sent home?  How do you do it?  By price (i.e. a dollar limit)? By number of books? 

I must admit, I'm really a book snob.  And cheap.  Or, as I like to put it, discriminating.   My daughters already know that some books are library books - that is, books that are not worth buying.  Her school is running the book fair differently this year (and with, admittedly, higher quality books this year and last (not Scholastic) than in past years).  The children come visit the fair, write down titles they want, and give the list to their parents, who are under no obligation to buy the listed books.  My daughter is so well-trained (or perhaps I am so cruel), that she wrote "(library)" next to some of her choices, telling me that she knows I won't buy them but that she'd like to take them out of the library.  However, I'll consider buying two of her better choices, both of which are books she's already read: The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies and The Magical Ms. Plum by Bonny Becker.

How does your school run its book fairs and how does your family participate?