Tuesday, September 27, 2011

5 Simple Steps to Fostering a Love of Reading: What I've Learned As I've Watched My Girls Teach Themselves to Read

This post was inspired by an excellent blog post at Fanny Harville's Unschool Academy, which talks about linear vs. non-linear reading with young readers (specifically, her son), or "dipping" into books as opposed to reading them straight through. "Dipping" into books is a very common practice of young readers, but often not talked about, let alone understood. It can cause anxiety on the part of parents, as Fanny forthrightly discusses in her post. Go read her post; it's an important topic. I have been mulling over the whole learning-to-read-naturally in general, but especially in regard to fostering a love of reading in my girls. Here are my thoughts on the issue and what the process looks like for us. Deep breath...here goes...

We adults spend so much time worrying about our children's reading abilities, that we've created complexities where there don't need to be.

First, keep in mind two things:

Children learn to read when they have an internal incentive to do so. Sure, they can be forced into reading at home or in school, but children who are forced to read and never given the chance to foster the internal DESIRE to read, do not read well or voluntarily, for their own enjoyment. I think this is where public/private schools fail: they force kids through plodding, boring reading exercises that tend to kill the love of reading rather than foster it.

Children are hard-wired with curious minds that yearn to "de-code" the world they live in, IF they are free to de-code it in their own way. The desire to read, if fostered gently, is a natural corollary of that need to "de-code" life. It doesn't have to be a painful, unpleasant process. And it doesn't need to be forced or fretted over. We need to trust in that innate desire to learn. They will ask for the help they need. ("Mom, what does ... spell?") And parents can take opportunities to teach very brief "lessons" here and there, as the opportunity and need arises. (For example, I taught my girls their vowels to the tune of "Old MacDonald".) Do NOT belabor the point. This is about their learning in their way, not about you and your desire to impart knowledge and wisdom. (Where we, in this country, got the idea that children have to be able to read by the time they're ages five or six, I don't know. But I think it's asinine to assume that every child should be ready to read at age five.)

5 of the best, most effective ways to instill and develop a love of reading:

   1. Provide a text-rich environment.
This means having books in your home, and making frequent trips to the library. It means that your children need to see you reading books for fun. Children who witness their parents reading for pleasure absorb that this is a desired activity, especially when they see their same-gendered parent reading. (This is especially true of boys.)

   2. Strew, or strategically scatter (spread around the house, on obvious surfaces) a mixture of reading materials (e.g. magazines, specific books, maps, phone books, etc.)
A marketing strategy that works! A variety of materials gives kids experience and familiarity with text in all its various forms. And opens doors of discovery and discussion, and new interests.

   3. Read aloud to your children DAILY with expression, proper syntax and cadence.
Let me point out that audiobooks are good, but they should never replace YOU, as the read aloud adult. There is something about the physical act of reading aloud with your children sitting beside you or near you that helps their brains process the reading experience in a personal way. If your child is in a two parent home, both of you should be reading aloud to your children. It broadens their "de-coders" to hear books read "live" by different people. If you can do only one thing from this list, make it this one. Reading aloud with expression plays a HUGE role in your child's reading and language development, and is absolutely essential to foster a love of reading. This step is also key to keeping alive the love of reading in your pubescent boys, who for some reason frequently become more averse to reading for pleasure during middle grade years.

   4. Limit your children's viewing of television and their online/video gaming activity.
This is especially important in those early, pre-reading years. I know this advice will not be popular in some quarters, but TV, computers, and video gaming teach a child's brain to rely on extremely quick, constantly changing images and functions, in other words, rapid stimulation. Children who live in visual media-intense households have very little or no patience with text-rich experiences, becasue their brains haven't built those pathways. Books to media-saturated kids are boring compared to constant, ever-changing images. I have seen this time and again as the common denominator over the years with friends who lament their child's disinterest in books and reading.

   5. Find books that appeal to them, that they want to pick up and look at, regardless of the "reading level."
Yes, this includes comics. This doesn't have to be books that necessarily appeal to you and your desire to introduce them to "good" literature. If the reading level of the book they want to read is beyond their ability, or all they seem to want to read are books below their reading level, don't stress. It is the physical act of reading a desired book that is so critical. Also know that you don't have to read everything out loud. It helps keep their interest piqued if there are books that they want to read, but you won't read. I'm speaking here of kids ages 4 and up. If your baby or toddler brings you a book to read, read it, no matter what. If it's one you don't want to read, you can grab a more desirable one, and simply say "How about we read this one instead?" And if they bring you something that you know isn't going to keep them interested for long, just pull them on your lap and talk about the pictures or what's happening in the story.
There you have it: simple steps you can take to foster a love of reading. Your kids will take it from there. Relax and enjoy the ride. (But keep the books coming.)

 Questions? Concerns? Comments?

(Also check out an earlier post Reading Aloud: The "Secret" to Reading Success.)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Book Review: The Walloping Window-blind, Adapted and Illustrated by Jim LaMarche

A capital ship for an ocean trip
   Was "The Walloping Window-blind;"
No gale that blew dismayed her crew
   Or troubled the captain's mind.

This picture book is Jim LaMarche's adaptation and pictorial vision of Charles E. Carryl's fun, rollicking, nonsensical, sea shanty-ish adventure poem, first written in 1885. My girls, who groaningly interrupted me after the first stanza with "Is this a rhyming book?" soon got into the swing of the poem, greatly aided by LaMarche's funny, imaginative illustrations featuring kids as the captain and crew of the Walloping Window-blind.

This is a poem I remember from my childhood, that I'd all but forgotten until I saw this book at the library. (It was made into a folk song at some point, and I remember hearing it on an LP record when I was young.) The poem has been "adapted" (i.e. changed) slightly from the original, in places, to reflect a more universal, PC appeal. It's not something that would necessarily bother other people, but I don't, as a general rule, like it when the words of an author are "updated" for PC purposes. I understand the reason for it (mostly), but I don't approve. (She said, with her nose in the air.) To me, it's changing the historic record. In all fairness, my peevishness aside, I think the changes are well done, and in keeping with the general spirit of the poem. And I adore LaMarche's kid crew; their facial expressions are priceless.

The Walloping Window-blind
(The original version)
by Charles E. Carryl

A capital ship for an ocean trip
   Was "The Walloping Window-blind;"
No gale that blew dismayed her crew
   Or troubled the captain's mind.

The man at the wheel was taught to feel
   Contempt for the wildest blow,
And it often appeared, when the weather had cleared,
   That he'd been in his bunk below.

The boatswain's mate was very sedate,
   Yet fond of amusement, too;
And he played hop-scotch with the starboard watch
   While the captain tickled the crew.

And the gunner we had was apparently mad,
   For he sat on the after-rail,
And fired salutes with the captain's boots,
   In the teeth of the booming gale.

The captain sat in a commodore's hat,
   And dined, in a royal way,
On toasted pigs and pickles and figs
   And gummery bread, each day.

But the cook was Dutch, and behaved as such;
   For the food that he gave the crew
Was a number of tons of hot-cross buns,
   Chopped up with sugar and glue.

And we all felt ill as mariners will,
   On a diet that's cheap and rude;
And we shivered and shook as we dipped the cook
   In a tub of his gluesome food.

Then nautical pride we laid aside,
   And we cast the vessel ashore
On the Gulliby Isles, where the Poohpoo smiles,
   And the Anagazanders roar.
Composed of sand was that favored land,
   And trimmed with cinnamon straws;
And pink and blue was the pleasing hue
   Of the Tickletoeteaser's claws.

And we sat on the edge of the sandy ledge
   And shot at the whistling bee;
And the Binnacle-bats wore water-proof hats
   as they danced in the sounding sea.

On rubagub bark, from dawn to dark,
   We fed, till we all had grown
Uncommonly shrunk, - when a Chinese junk
   Came by from the torriby zone.

She was stubby and square, but we didn't much care,
   And we cheerily put to sea;
And we left the crew of the junk to chew
   The bark of the rubagub tree.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Last weekend's doings, bookish and otherwise

Todd and I saw Les Miserables live for the first time last Friday. It was wonderful performance, amazing singing, staging, etc. It would have been a magical night, except for our seats. We were high up on the extreme right and the conductor had a light that turned upward. I think the purpose of the light was to make his arms visible on the TV monitor that the actors use. But where we were, it glared in our eyes for the entire performance, flashing as the conductor waved his arms, resulting in a disco-ball effect. We finally figured out how to hunker down in our seats enough to reduce the blinding glare (which was harder for Todd because he's tall), but then of course we had to bob and weave our heads around the heads of the people in front of us in order to see what was going on. Can I just say, Javert's suicide scene Blew.Me.Away. That scene was so amazingly clever. And now I really want to read the book.

Todd's mom came from Nashville to watch the girls for our night on the town. She came bearing the gift of books for the girls: the most coveted 7th Ivy and Bean book, and some Magic Treehouse books that my girls have just started getting in to. The girls had a blast with their Gammy. She also brought bubbles and a huge plethora of bubble wands. And even 8 year old Olivia, who is starting to express scorn for "baby" activities (as she calls them), cheerfully abandoned her jaded attitude for the magic of bubble play.

On Saturday we got up planning to go to the Airshow in Millington, TN. But after inching along three tenths of a mile in one hour (I'm not kidding) toward the exit, with another 3 miles to go to the airbase, we abandoned the idea and went to lunch followed by book store browsing at Hastings (where they sell new and new-to-you books), which resulted in the following very inexpensive and thrilling purchases:

  • A Coal Miner's Bride: The Diary of Anetka Kaminska by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. I borrowed this from the library the first time I read it. I really liked this fictional account of the life of an immigrant Polish girl who becomes a coal miner's wife in 1896. I love Bartoletti's work. She writes very compelling, thoroughly researched non-fiction and historical fiction (and some picture books, too). It's hard to believe I only discovered her books this year.
  • Mistwood by Leah Cypess. I read this book for the first time last September and really liked it. (See here for my brief synopsis.) I'm sending this copy to my mom.
  • Tamar: A Novel of Espionage, Passion, and Betrayal by Mal Peet. This one sounds fascinating to me. I was just introduced to his work through Cloud Tea Monkeys, so I'm eager to read this YA novel about a WWII Resistance fighter in Holland.
  • When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. I read this book before it won the John Newbery Medal, and was very happy when I heard it won. So well-written, gripping, and mind-spinning, and features a protagonist who LOVES one of my favorite-ist books ever: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. (One might say that the entire concept of the book is a loving homage to A Wrinkle in Time.)
  • Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R.L. LaFevers. The first book in the Theodosia series. I've been wanting to read this series for a while. I like books that feature clever girls solving problems. One of the things I lamented while I was growing up was the lack of adventure stories featuring girls. I'm glad to see that there are authors rectifying that now. I'm hoping Olivia will get interested in this book.
  • The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan (An Enola Holmes Mystery) by Nancy Springer. Another fascinating sounding series featuring a clever girl, the much younger sister of Sherlock Holmes. This book is actually number 4 in the series. No, I don't have any of the others. But I couldn't pass up such a good price. I'll have to get the others from the library.
  • A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly. A new-to-me author. But I've heard good things around the web about this book.
Sunday morning, we got up early and drove to the Airshow, with no traffic problems. We spent the day walking through the aircraft static displays, before hunkering down to watch the aerial displays and eat lunch. The girls did amazingly well. I was sure the day would be full of groans and complaining, but they were troopers. We found a great spot on the grass to watch the airshow. Whenever they got tired of sitting, either Todd or I would go walking with them for about 10 minutes, and then they'd happily settle down to an hour more of watching the flying stunts. The highlight of the day came at 1530 (3:30 pm), when the Blue Angels flew. Then home, supper, playing and bedtime.
After that full day, bedtime was a cinch. In fact, they asked to go to bed. Glory, glory halleluiah!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Book Review: Cloud Tea Monkeys by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham; illustrated by Juan Winjgaard

Tashi is a young girl living in a small village in the shadow of the Himalayan mountains. Every morning she walks to the tea plantation with her mother and sits in a secret spot playing and sharing her food with a band of monkeys who also spend each day there, as she waits while her mother spends the day picking tea. And now her mother is ill with a cough "hard and sharp like a stick breaking". One morning, when her mother is so sick she cannot rise from her bed to go to work, Tashi tries to take her place, dragging the her large tea basket to the plantation. When the heartless Overseer scorns her efforts, Tashi takes refuge in her secret spot and tearfully spills out her troubles to the monkeys. The male monkeys take Tashi's basket and disappear up the mountain into the mist, and return with the greenest, most fragrant tea leaves Tashi has ever seen or smelled.

This poignant tale is filled with lush, descriptive language as fragrant as the mysterious Cloud Tea.  And Juan Winjgaard's detailed, gorgeous illustrations capture the emotion and heart of the story, and so perfectly aided my daughters' understanding of key parts of the story. This is one of those perfect marriages of text and illustrations.
As I read this book aloud to my daughters, I was struck by the realistic portrayal of Tashi's and her mother's life. The writing is so descriptive I could feel the morning chill that burned away to "cruel" heat, the fear in Tashi as she listened to her mother cough, the fear of no money available for a doctor, the weight of the basket she dragged to the tea plantation, her crushing disappointment at not being allowed to pick tea in place of her mother. (You know it's descriptive when your children try to breathe in the tea clouds as you read.) And I marvelled at Winjgaard's talent for capturing all the emotional nuances of the story. My daughters sat enthralled throughout.

Other reviews:
Hope Is the Word
Pink Me

Monday, September 19, 2011

Children's Classics: The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes; illustrated by Louis Slobodkin

This is the story of Wanda, a poor immigrant girl who is left out of the games the other girls play, through her own innate shyness and their careless small cruelties.  One day, after being taunted for her differences yet again, Wanda claims to have a hundred dresses, which makes the girls turn more cruel as they know she can't possibly have them. It becomes a game: to taunt Wanda about her made-up dresses. Told in third person narrative, through the "eyes" of Maddie, one of the taunters (a girl who fears that she herself will become the taunted) this is also the story of how her experience with Wanda changes her forever.  It is a timeless story that children (and adults) can relate to today just as much as when it was written 66 years ago.

Through Estes' understated, unemotional writing, the little cruelties of the girls stand in sharp relief, and Maddie's moral dilemma is more poignant. One of the things I love about this story and what makes it so effective, is that the ending is so bitter-sweet, much like real life. Maddie learns a deep, lasting lesson, but too late to change how she treats Wanda. It is questionable how much of a lesson the other girls have learned. Again, much like real life. We, the readers, absorb the lesson, and at the same time, learn that some situations in life are not cut and dried, so to speak, but full of contradiction and nuance. We learn to be careful, because we can't always right the wrongs we do.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Book and Audiobook Review of Bunnicula: A Rabbit-tale of Mystery by James and Deborah Howe; Audiobook Narrated by Victor Garber

Silliness abounds in this story that revolves around a vampiric bunny (who "bleeds" vegetables so dry they turn white) and the family dog and cat whose reception of said bunny is not exactly warm and fuzzy.
We read this book for a homeschool kid's book club that my girls have become involved with. We also listened to the audiobooks that were so wonderfully read by Victor Garber (who played Jack Bristow in Alias, Professor Callahan in Legally Blond, etc.) He has a beautifully rich voice that gives the perfect blend of hilarity and drama to the story.
This is my new favorite book, about a family who finds a bunny at a Dracula movie, of all places. Harold, the dog (who narrates the story) finds a note attached to the bunny written in an obscure Carpathian dialect, and because Harold is a Russian wolfhound, he can read it. Harold and Chester the cat get suspicious about the bunny, whom the family names Bunnicula.
I like it because the main characters are animals. It's sort of a mystery. It's interesting to read because the boys in the story argue like my sister and I do. And the cat is smart but crazy.

You can read more tales about Bunnicula, Harold, and Chester:
Howliday Inn
The Celery Stalks at Midnight
Return to Howliday Inn
Bunnicula Strikes Again
Bunnicula Meets Edgar Allen Crow

Monday, September 12, 2011

Audiobook Review: Bless This Mouse by Lois Lowry; narrated by Bernadette Dunne

 "A resilient and quirky colony of church mice fears another Great X more than they fear cats. Under Mouse Mistress Hildegarde’s leadership, they save themselves from one danger after another—sometimes just by the skin of their tails! Can one ultimate act of bravery during the feast day of St. Francis get Father Murphy to bless these mice and keep them safe forever? (Synopsis from Goodreads)
I didn't really think that my girls would be very interested in the story, but I figured I'd play the audiobook while I had them "trapped" in the car on a long drive to a family reunion site, because I really wanted to hear it. Boy, was I wrong about their reaction. There was not a peep from the older two, as they avidly listened, and they frantically shushed their three-year-old sister if she made a peep.
We had just finished the first disc (there are two) when we arrived at our destination. And for the next two days, they speculated back and forth about what would happen next. They even asked if they could go sit in the car to finish the rest of the story. But I made them wait until the trip home. We borrowed this from the library, but now my girls are hounding me to buy it. Oh, twist my arm, please!
A wonderful listening experience. Dunne's voicing of the characters was just perfect. She gave each their own distinct voice, matching the voice with their personality and age, in a manner that was never overly dramatic: just perfect.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Books I was reading this time last year

A Curse Dark As Gold
Elizabeth C. Bunce
I really enjoyed this book. A unique twist on the Rumplestiltskin fairy tale, it is the story of a young woman who inherits her father's mill, and tries to save it and all the employees from ruin. It takes place during the age of industrial revolution. It has a delicious foreboding tone that keeps you wondering when the shoe is going to drop, so to speak. (There were a few slow spots where I wondered where the story was going, but it all worked itself out.) Definitely worth a read. 
Leah Cypess
A very intriguing story that I couldn't put down, about a shapeshifter who has been the personal guardian/bodyguard to a certain line of kings for centuries, who then loses her memory due to a traumatic event. The story is about how she negotiates her world not knowing who she is. It has magic, mystery, action, political intrigue, a little romance and a very strong heroine.
Colleen Murtagh Paratore

Gracepearl lives on an island that, during the summer months, is used to train princes in the Charming Arts. But Gracepearl doesn't really like her life on the island. She longs to leave but that would mean having to marry one of the princes, and leaving her father and her best friend and she doesn't know if she's ready for all of that. (Although the main characters are teenagers, this book would probably appeal more to the pre-teen set.)