Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Picture Book Biographies: Word Collector

My 5-year-old is a true word lover.  When she plays a game her friend invented, called Bad Mr. Nobody, in which they try to capture and defeat the eponymous fellow by using magic powers, she always chooses words as her magical device.  She doesn't let a new or unknown word go by, in conversation or when I read to her, without asking what it means.  So of course, she loved Noah Webster & His Words, which tells the story of the person whose name is almost certainly on the dictionary in your home right now (that dictionary is, as the book tells us, the second most popular book ever printed in English, after the Bible).  I was familiar with Webster's name from the dictionaries I have in my own home, but I had no idea that his work on this dictionary was part of his effort to distinguish American English from British English and to standardize spelling in the United States, thereby uniting what had only recently been 13 disparate colonies. The book's cartoonlike figures with oversized heads and spindly limbs draw children in, as do the definitions of words used in the text interspersed throughout, in dictionary format.  Not only did this book teach my daughter about the life of Noah Webster, it may very well have been her first introduction to the American Revolution.  Perfect for word lovers of all ages as well as lovers of American history.

There is another picture book biography of Webster: Noah Webster: Weaver of Words.  It, however, is geared toward a much older audience, as it is much wordier and more detailed.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Birthday Books for a Precocious 8-Year-Old Boy

No, I didn't suddenly acquire another child.  But my daughter was invited to a birthday party - for a boy!  What do I know from gifts for boys?  But this boy, he's a reader.  He's read at least some of the Harry Potter books as well as The Hobbit.  From what I know of him, he's not just reading way above his grade-level, but his maturity level is up there too. And so, our only problem was that we had too many ideas for which books to get him.

Because of my own biases, I ruled out The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, anything by Diana Wynne Jones, and some other books in darker and more fantasy-minded genres.  I also ruled out The Mysterious Benedict Society, but only because of budgetary limitations!

Instead, we ended up with the classics.  First, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, not just because it's one of the best children's books ever, but because the birthday party is a scavenger hunt at the Met! What could be more perfect?  Afraid that he'd already read it and that it was the inspiration for the party, I checked with his mom and the answer was no.  He's in for a treat!  In anticipation of the party, I also gave it to my 7-year-old for Valentine's Day.

I chose Frindle, the only one of these books that my daughter has read so far, because it is also an amazing book and because she loved it so.  It is a book about an idea and about language, not just identity, friends, and family, as so many middle-grade novels (rightfully) are.  The story of a boy who decides to call pens "frindles" and how the word takes on a life of its own - and influences his life - gets kids thinking about the power - and arbitrariness - of language and our own power to make meaning by the way we use and even coin words.  George Orwell, anyone?

The Phantom Tollbooth is filled with puns and wordplay, I thought the birthday boy would get a huge kick out of it.

Finally, every time I ask my husband for "boy" book recommendations, he cites The Great Brain, which, incidentally, I also read and loved as a kid.  A now often-over-looked classic, set in a time and place unfamiliar to many kids today (Utah in the late 19th century and early 20th), it is another great read.  I had no idea that the original illustrations were done by Mercer Mayer!

What books would you get this boy as a gift?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Library Loot #19

I fear my library addiction is getting worse.  We have so many books checked out right now (100+) that I could not possibly photograph all of them, but here are a few of the ones we checked out most recently.

Picture books:

Chapter books:

For me:

Have you read any of them?  What are you reading now?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Striking Out

So after a string of successful read-alouds, I've struck out with my last few choices.  My 7-year-old chose The Ballad of Lucy Whipple, which I knew was too hard for her and we gave up halfway. She finally admitted to me that she didn't like The Cricket in Times Square.  Then, not remembering when I read Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, just remembering that I read it and liked it, we tried that.  Big mistake.  The language - both the vocabulary, the sentence construction, not to mention the use of dialect - was way over her head and once again, we had to stop.  Same with Strawberry Girl (which I hadn't read previously).  We also gave up on Edgar Eager's Half Magic a while ago because it was both too hard (she had no context for the medieval jousting scenes and I had trouble explaining it) and, to her, scary.

Now I'm considering The Trumpet of the Swan or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (which I fear may be too scary or disturbing for her).  I've also thought of Heidi and Cheaper by the Dozen recently, both of which I loved as a kid, and the sequel to which I read every summer at our country house, but again, I can't remember at what age I first read them.  I think The Secret Garden and A Little Princess should wait a year or so.  And I returned to Eleanor Estes recently and found Ginger Pye boring, I confess.

I want a book that she can't read on her own, whether it's above her level because of vocabulary, language, or emotional or historical context - but not too hard.  And I want a book I'm going to enjoy too.

We've hit most of the other classics.  Any other suggestions are appreciated!  What are you reading to your 7-year-old/second grader?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Dr. Seuss Exhibit, Updated

I went to see the exhibit of Dr. Seuss's hats  at the Children's Center at 42nd Street, located in the Stephen A. Schwarzman building on Fifth Avenue, known to my children as the "wide library," the other day.  My 5-year-old refused to go and it was just as well.  The exhibit consisted of one display case with the dozen hats.  As I had suspected, it was certainly more interesting to adults than to children!   I took a few pictures before being reprimanded and told not to do so.  I hadn't seen the tiny sign forbidding it - honest!

The Children's Center itself, however, as I may have mentioned before, contains a beautiful mural of New York City landmarks, including the Schwarzman building itself.  Note it is not drawn to scale and landmarks that are next to each other on the mural are not necessarily next to each other in reality.  The Children's Center also contains the real stuffed animals upon which the Winnie-the Pooh stories were based, which are also  probably of interest to adults more so than to kids.

Have you been to the Children's Center?  I want to get around to taking one of the free tours of the Schwarzman building, with its lion motifs throughout.  

Friday, February 8, 2013

Tigers and Tigers and Tigers, Oh My!

Tigers are enjoying a surge of popularity in the picture book world these days.  There is, of course, Caldecott Honor book Sleep Like A Tiger, in which an unnamed little girl (wearing a crown)  does not want to go to sleep. She asks her parents whether all the animals in the world go to sleep, including the tiger (note the stuffed animal in bed beside her!).  The simple but deliberate language is complimented by lush illustrations with no white space left on the page.  Finally, her (royal) parents reassure her that she does not have to sleep, she only has to stay in bed, uttering a sentence that has come out of my mouth nearly word for word and is familiar to many parents, "You can stay awake all night long."  Of course she does not end up doing so.  This book is beautiful and justly deserving of the Caldecott Honor and the other accolades it has received.  

Eric Rohmann, the illustrator of Oh, No! employs a bold, black-outlined style of art that contrasts dramatically from that in Sleep Like A Tiger (although it too, leaves no white space on the page).  The content differs dramatically too, with the tiger taking his more usual place as a jungle predator, trying to trap his prey in a hole.  At the end, the tiger gets his comeuppance.  The refrain "oh, no!," the repetitive language, and the onomatopoeic sounds give this book a rhythm all its own that is sure to appeal to the toddler and preschool set.

Read to Tiger lacks the fine-art quality illustrations of the above two books, but the illustrations are sweet and the story appealing.  A little boy is trying to read his book and keeps being interrupted by a tiger (seemingly a stand-in for a younger sibling, although I doubt children would pick up on that).  Tiger tries to be quiet but just can't help himself from choo-choo-ing as a train or hi-ya-ing as he practices karate.  A solution that pleases everyone is found in the end, with the little boy reading to Tiger, who is curled up against him.

What other books feature tigers?  Are they recent or from your childhood?

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Cover Art Abomination

Amazon has published an edition of Anne of Green Gables with a cover that turns Anne into a blonde (!!!) vixen..  Are they trying to attract a male audience for the book?  If so, the boys will be sadly disappointed by red-headed, skinny, hot-headed Anne.  The rest of us will love her just as she is.

A Shopping Cartful of Books

Okay, so it's just a toy shopping cart, but still... this girl can't be stopped!  If she keeps insisting on breaking her previous record of the number of books she's taken out from the library, we'll actually need to bring this cart!  This time it was 26.  Thankfully they are mostly thin paperbacks and light to carry.  Please, authors, no more fairy booksWeird School books, or Katie Kazoo books - she'll never keep up - or have time to read anything else!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The One Dozen Hats of Dr. Seuss

There is a new exhibit at the NYPL of a dozen hats that actually belonged to Dr. Seuss himself!  An article in the New York Times gives more details about the exhibit which will be on view only through next Monday February 11!  I wish the exhibit lasted longer and was bigger!  Dr. Seuss apparently had hundreds of hats and I wonder why only such a small fraction will be on view.  The hats were an inspiration for many books, particularly the The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, which is the one place I think fewer hats would have been better.  That book needed a little more editing... 100 hats would have been enough!

Truly Vintage Alphabet Books

Over the weekend we went to the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library (yes, they put a hyphen in New-York).  Our first stop was not the DiMenna Children's History Museum but a small exhibit on the fourth floor of a collection of not just model trains but all their accoutrements - train stations, miniature figurines, merry-go-rounds, and more.  There was a pamphlet available for a self-guided scavenger hunt and it was a blast.  Then we headed downstairs for the Children's Museum.  My older daughter loved it (her class has been having regular visits from an educator from the Society) but I was unimpressed, except by these vintage alphabet books and games.

There's a reason the Historical Society has been given the nickname "New York City's attic!"

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Why Middle-Grade Fiction?

This weekend I attended a panel discussion at the NYPL entitled Middle Grade: Surviving the YA Onslaught about how middle-grade novels are being rebranded as Young Adult (YA).  The panelists were authors Jeanne Birdsall (The Penderwicks series), N.D. Wilson (The Dragon's Tooth), Adam Gidwitz (In a Glass Grimmly) and Rebecca Stead (When You Reach MeLiar and Spy).  I was especially fascinated by how these authors considered their readers and the age of their readers as they wrote.  They didn't just write a children's book that turned out to be middle-grade fiction; they purposely chose their audience and tailored their writing to it.  That might be obvious to the writers among you but it wasn't to me.

I appreciated the comment that they write for middle-graders because "they have all the intelligence and none of the hormones" as well as Jeanne Birdsall's idea that the author assures the middle-grade reader of "safe passage" through the book.  I love middle-grade fiction for its story-telling, its exploration of identity, friendship, and family.  I'd say middle-grade readers are ages 8-12, although the upper end of that spectrum overlaps with YA.  (I wish there were a different name for this audience, though; middle-grade has unfortunate connotations of mediocrity.)

The blog From the Mixed-Up Files, written by a group of middle-grade authors, has some great quotes about middle-grade fiction and its intended audience.

Being in middle grade is like being in limbo. You're not a little kid anymore, yet you're not a full-fledged teen. I love writing middle grade novels. It's an exciting and scary age, and the gateway to becoming who we are meant to be.  Lisa Yee

Middle grade readers are intrepid explorers: excited, unafraid, seeking the clues that will show them the way to the larger world.  Stephanie Greene

Middle grade fiction is for the young (or young at heart) person with one foot on the playground and the other foot on the path to growing up. It is for readers who are still filled with wonder but who have also begun to feel the weight of their internal and external world.  Ingrid Law

Middle grade is that age when you believe you're old enough, but often need confirmation from your parents that you really are.  Jody Feldman

Middle-grade is what Natalie Babbitt once called 'the last best years of childhood.' I have never felt anything more intensely or deeply in the rest of my life, as what I felt then, and it's those extremes of joy and sorrow, caused by events that can seem so small and insignificant to others, that I try to capture and honor in my books. Claudia Mills

To me, middle grade means that wonderful place sandwiched between easy readers for the very young and the mature, issue-centered books for young adults. Middle grade readers are still happily hunkered down in childhood, eager to move on from the more 'babyish' fare of their beginner reading days but not ready for (or even wanting) the more mature topics of teen reads. 
Barbara O'Connor

I believe the books we read at this age have a certain power. The characters can live on inside us and help us figure out who we want to be, and what we want to do with our lives. I wanted to write for this age to give something back to the next generation of readers the types of books that meant so much to me.
Wendy Mass

It's a fabulous age to write for. The kids are old enough to know that magic isn’t real, but young enough to wish that it might be. These readers are curious, creative, incredibly loyal, and just beginning to taste their own independence. And they crave characters that reflect their experiences.  Bruce Hale

Middle grade is a magical time when you're no longer a baby and not quite a teenager. The only thing that could be better than being a middle-grader is writing for them.  Laurie Friedman

Which of these quotes do you like?  What do you think is special and important about middle-grade fiction?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Doll-Lending Update

The story in the New York Times last week about an NYPL branch that was lending out an American Girl doll has resulted in tons of offers and donations of the dolls.  Sadly, the library has refused the offers.  I'm not sure why and it seems like such a shame.

Meanwhile, my daughter has discovered the existence of the dolls and may use some birthday money to buy one.  She is having a hard time deciding which one!

Does your daughter have one?

Friday, February 1, 2013

ABC Books: Works of Art, Humor, or Pedagogy?

I love alphabet books.  Like certain poetry forms, the limits imposed by the form can be one of their strengths.  But they can also get repetitive and unoriginal.  For example, I thought the non-traditional alphabet books, Z is for Moose (reviewed here) and A Call for a New Alphabet were unique and funny.  In both of those, a letter towards or at the end of the alphabet wants to be moved up in the world.  But when I saw A is for Musk Ox and A is for Salad (which, to be fair, was published the earliest of the four mentioned here), I just thought, How many of these types of alphabet books do we need?!?   A is for Musk Ox follows the pattern of Z is for Moose and A Call for a New Alphabet, as the musk ox pastes the word musk ox over the correct word for each letter (e.g., on the cover you can see that it is covering up the word apple).  A is for Salad has an "incorrect" word choice for each letter... but a picture of an animal that does start with that letter eating or doing the "incorrect thing: e.g. the F page says "F is for soup" but depicts a frog eating that soup.  These books appeal to a very narrow audience - children who already know the alphabet and are old enough to get the joke, yet young enough not to be bored or turned off by an alphabet book.  These are works of humor more than teaching tools.

In The Absolutely Awful Alphabet by Mordicai Gerstein and An Annoying ABC by Barbara Bottner and illustrated by Michael Emberly, each letter does (or names a person who does) something bad to the next letter or person.

Denise Fleming's Alphabet Under Construction also has a plot, as a mouse creates each letter of the alphabet, airbrushing the A, gluing the G, kinking the K (my favorite) and finally zipping the Z.  I prefer these, as they do have a plot.  My favorite alphabet book with a plot is Alison Murray's Apple Pie ABC which I review here

There is room on the bookshelf, of course, for all types of alphabet books.  But not my bookshelf, in my small NYC apartment.  I'll stick to my old favorites, discussed here and here, many of which are works of art more than humor or pedagogy.  The rest I'll just borrow from the library.

What would make you buy an alphabet book?  Which would you buy as a gift?  To teach your own child?  For a classroom?  For a library?