Wednesday, April 23, 2014

"My Light Bulb Went On!"

When spring break started, my 6-year-old had all the skills to read chapter books.  She could decode.  She knew dozens (maybe more) sight words.  She had the interest - she loved nothing better than to have me read to her.  But somehow, all that didn't add up to being a reader.

By the end of spring break, 10 days later, through no effort on my part - or hers, really - it did.  In the last two days she breezed through four Princess Posey books (my older daughter was also a fan).  This morning she got ready for school quickly and then asked if she could read Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie (the first in a series that is now up to 3 books), which was also one of my older daughter's first chapter books.

When I asked her what had happened between the beginning of spring break and the end, she replied, "My light bulb went on!"

She also told me, "Reading is the best thing, next to chocolate."

Music to my ears.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Which Fictional Character Am I?

I'm a lively, talkative - no, loquacious - young girl with a great imagination.  I have a tendency to get into "scrapes," but I feel tremendous remorse about it.  I love words and poetry.  I'm a wonderful, loyal, friend.  I'm not conventionally attractive but people find my looks compelling, particularly my unusual eyes.  I was taken in by two adult siblings, one of whom is (seemingly) firm and nearly heartless, one of whom is softer but lacks the spine to stand up to the former very often.

Which famous fictional character am I?  If you said Anne Shirley, otherwise known as Anne of Green Gables, you'd be right.  If you said Rebecca Rowena Randall, aka Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, you'd also be right.

Why hasn't Rebecca had the same staying power as Anne?  Anne is beloved, even something of a cult figure.  Rebecca is known, but not read nearly as much these days.  Even the 100th anniversary edition of Rebecca, published in 2003, is already out of print.

I think the reason is the language.  Rebecca is written in much more complex language.  Kate Douglas Wiggins not only uses harder vocabulary, but treats mature themes, such as the child's attitude toward God, and addresses them with complexity.  Take this sentence: "To become sensible of oneness with the Divine heart before any sense of separation has been felt, this is surely the most beautiful way for the child to find God."

I can't imagine too many children today between the ages this book was geared for - say, 8-12 or perhaps even up to age 14 who could read this to themselves and fully comprehend it.  But it does make a perfect read-aloud.  I have stopped to explain words, paragraphs, and entire pages more often while reading Rebecca aloud than any other book I have read to my children.  But my 8-year-old has usually grasped the gist of what is going on, and often more.  And exposure to writing like this can only be a good thing.

Moreover, we shouldn't underestimate our children.  One night when my 6-year-old could not sleep, she came out of bed and listened while I read Rebecca to my older daughter.  As I floundered a little while trying to explain the sentence "Miranda Sawyer had a heart, of course, but she had never used it for any other purpose than the pumping and circulating of blood," my 6-year-old piped up, "She never loved anybody!"

Rebecca is a wonderful main character, full of life, and easily related to by children.  It is worth looking up a few words and stopping for explanations while reading in order to get to know her.

Have you read Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm?  Have your children?  Do you see similarities between her and Anne?  Do you have a preference?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

100 Years Old But Young At Heart

When my daughter brought home Daddy-Long-Legs from the library, I was delighted.  I remembered loving the book as a child and I remembered the basic premise: a young orphan girl writes letters to her mysterious benefactor, whom she calls Daddy-Long-Legs, having just seen his shadow as he left the orphanage.  But I remembered nothing else.  With plenty of time to read as I recover from pneumonia, I picked it up, and was in for even more of a treat than I had expected.

Judy's letters to her anonymous patron are so delightfully irreverent, funny and modern, that I was shocked to see that the book was written in 1912.  We have read plenty of other children's books written or set around then, including Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, the Betsy-Tacy books, and All-of-A-Kind Family, and yet none have as modern a voice as this.

Judy is a true feminist before the coinage of the word.  Inequality between the sexes is simply so plain to her, and so obviously unfair.  She  complains of not having the right to vote, saying that while she hopes to develop into a Very Useful Citizen, "Are women citizens? I don't suppose they are."   After a sermon about how women must not "develop [their] intellects at the expense of [their] emotional natures," she wisely notes, "Why on earth don't they go to men's colleges and urge the students not to allow their manly natures to be crushed out be too much mental application?"  She even laments the lack of a neutral pronoun!

And she writes this gem, a model of economy of words, "Did you ever hear about the learned Herr Professor who regarded unnecessary adornment with contempt, and favored sensible, utilitarian clothes for women?  His wife, who was an obliging creatrue, adopted 'dress reform.'  And what do you think he did?  He eloped with a chorus girl."

Judy doesn't just address serious issues. Her descriptions of college life ring true today - friends dropping by, decorating her dorm room, deep philosophical discussions.  (All except the fudge - what WAS it with fudge a hundred years ago?  In the Betsy-Tacy books they are also constantly making and eating fudge!)  She draws a picture of the farm she is spending the summer at, explaining, "The room marked with a cross is not where the murder was committed, but the one that I occupy."

The only part of the book that might bother modern sensibilities - not that this kind of thing doesn't happen today - is the ending.  Spoiler alert.  At the end, Judy - and we - find out who Daddy-Long-Legs is.  This time, I knew all along, but I'm pretty sure as a child I was surprised.  It turns out that Judy has met him in person, repeatedly, but without knowing it.  But the real twist is that Judy marries him.  The fact that she marries a father figure, someone she's literally been calling "Daddy" throughout the book, definitely gave me pause.  The power dynamic is even more skewed by his wealth and the fact that he's gotten to know her through her letters as well as in person, while she has been kept in the dark.  Early on, my daughter predicted that Daddy-Long-Legs either was Judy's real father or would adopt her at the end of the book.  I would have preferred either of those endings and when she finished, she stated she would have, too.

Can you think of any old children's books that are similarly modern in tone?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Feeling Like Mama in All-of-A-Kind Family

We have been inundated with sickness here and now, just as Passover is about to begin, my older daughter is ill with the flu.  I can't help comparing myself to Mama in All-of-a-Kind Family, when four of her five daughters had scarlet fever and they had to listen to the seder from the sickroom (a converted bedroom).  Of course, she had it worse, with more sick ones and less modern medicine but still... Nothing like referring to a book to make me feel better!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Parent Problem

Authors love to get parents out of the way so that their child protagonists are free to embark on their adventures.  Often one parent is killed off (as I've written about before, it's usually the mother) and the remaining parent is of the absent-minded professor sort.  Mr. Mildew of the Tumtum and Nutmeg books and Mr. Melendy of the Melendy Quartet both come to mind as examples of the type.  Sometimes the children have a maternal figure in the form of a housekeeper or nanny, such as in the Melendy Quartet, or the Shoes books, or the Penderwicks series.  But when they don't, as in the Tumtum and Nutmeg books, it often strains credibility to believe that the children can take care of themselves and that Child Protective Services (or its British equivalent) has not appeared on their doorstep.  The neglect is supposed to be benign, but it often comes perilously close to being worse than that.  And in Under the Egg, it very clearly crosses that line. 

In Under the Egg, thirteen-year-old Theodora Tenpenny, whose father died years ago, tries to solve an art-related mystery, leading all the way back to the Holocaust, presented to her by her grandfather's dying words.  The adventure and research and plot (except for a too-neat ending) were all wonderful, but I was really disturbed by the character of Theo's mother, who is clearly mentally ill.  A mathematician who has taken refuge in her work (which is of dubious quality), she is unable to care for herself, much less Theo.  Once her grandfather dies, Theo has to care for both herself and her mother, doing everything from growing food in the garden to save money, to shopping, planning and cooking meals, fixing things in their old home, and handling the finances.  Perhaps we are supposed to be impressed by Theo's resourcefulness, but I was more struck by the fact that Theo is so obviously hungry that the gruff but kind local diner owner offers her free food (but does not call Child Protective Services!).

Theo explains why she does not seek help for herself or her mother, saying that if she did, "the Tenpennys [wouldn't be] the Tenpennys anymore.  It would just be the name on the door of a house I used to live in.  Before I went to foster care.  And then I would be really, truly, entirely alone."  That's understandable, but it sends readers the wrong message. 

The mother's condition is so serious as to bring her to the forefront of the book, rather than eliminating her as a plot point.  Moreover, the book treats mental illness too lightly, and ignores the burdens - fiscal, physical, and emotional - that such illness puts on the relatives of the sick individual.  The author either missed an opportunity to address mental illness or should have found another way of getting rid of Theo's mother.

In contrast, Theo's friend's parents are disposed of by being wealthy movie stars, too busy, too preoccupied, and too famous to take care of her, and she is taken care of by a full staff instead.  That, to me, is a preferable method of disposing of parents!

What do you think about the ways parents or parental figures are disposed of in children's books? Can you think of a children's book that deals with mental illness?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Braids in the Inkwell

A boy in my daughter's class is tormenting her.  He's not a bad kid, but he likes her and, of course, he doesn't know how to express it other than by teasing her.

In order to comfort her I resorted, of course, to books.  Unbeknownst to her,I have been saving a beautiful illustrated edition (to which I cannot find a link) of Anne of Green Gables (which she hasn't read yet) to give to her for her 9th birthday, so without mentioning the name of the book, I told her how, when Gilbert teased Anne, she broke her slate over his head.  I then offered to buy her a slate.  [Note to this boy's parents: I do not actually condone my daughter breaking a slate over your son's head.]  Laughter ensued.  Mission accomplished, at least in part.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Taking All the Fun Out of It

My third-grade daughter normally has to keep a reading log (and you know how I feel about that!) as well as write 1-2 paragraphs per week about the books she is reading, which are due on Mondays.  But the last two weeks, she had to do neither, in order to lessen the workload on the days surrounding the NYS ELA tests (another topic about which I have a lot to say).  I've been sick with what was first the flu and then pneumonia (that, plus our move into a still-being-renovated apartment account for my online absence lately), and this weekend her sister and dad were sick too.  We couldn't entertain her much.  My husband was worried that she was bored.  But I knew better.

She was thrilled.  Thrilled to have time to read just for fun.  She read two books in their entirety and started another, and possibly finished another one in there.  I read to her.  She went to the library and checked out thirteen books (nowhere near her record of 27!), ranging from classics (Daddy-Long-Legs) to junk (every balanced diet - reading or otherwise - needs some junk).

She read and she read and she read.  And she was so happy.

Sure, there's something to be said for reading deeply and analyzing what you are reading.  But there's also a lot to be said for just reading for pleasure.  Reading to be taken out of yourself.  Reading to get absorbed in a story, in someone else's life, in the rhythm of the words.  And I know that even this type of reading has all sorts of educational benefits: my daughter's vocabulary astounds me.  She never opens a dictionary.  She has learned from context.  (That's why the best SAT prep is not vocab lists but reading.)  But even if reading for pleasure had no educational value, who cares?  There's nothing wrong with reading solely for pleasure.  That's right.  There's nothing wrong with reading solely for pleasure.

With high-stakes tests and new curricula and the Common Core, reading for pleasure has all but disappeared.  The teachers no longer have time to let the children read independently, just for fun.  They no longer have time to read aloud to the class books of their own choosing.  What a loss.

Yes, some learning is boring and repetitive, of necessity (think times tables).  But if you take the fun out of reading, children aren't going to want to read any more.  I hope my daughter always finds joy in reading.  And I hope she is granted the gift of time in which to do it.