Category Archives: Classic

Coming Soon from Jon Scieszka, Mac Barnett, and Matthew Myers: Battle Bunny

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I am a big fan of subversive books, say the “recommended inappropriate books for kids” featured in Lane Smith’s Curious Pages.  That said, I also have observed that kids respond better to some of these more than others, an issue I explored years ago in a Horn Book article “Pets and Other Fishy Books.” So when I ran into Jon Scieszka a few months ago and he excitedly told me about the forthcoming Battle Bunny, I was intrigued but also wary — was this a book kids would get or would it be something more amusing for adults? Then an advanced copy of the book showed up in the mail and I took it to school to see what my students thought.

First of all, let me try to explain just what it is (and how tricky it was to read aloud). If you look at the cover above you can perhaps see that it appears to be a sweet book of the Golden Book sort, originally titled Birthday Bunny, that has been erased, scribbled on, and reworked by…someone. I began by showing the cover to the kids and we discussed what that original book was; some of them knew Golden Books, but all of them appreciated that it was meant to be one of those sweet little journey books they’d all read when very small. Next we explored the scribbles — evidently someone named Alex had received the book from his grandmother for his birthday (there is an inscription on the inside front cover), wasn’t too happy, and decided to make it into a completely new story. And so he thoroughly erased the original title and put his own in instead. As for the interior, he crossed-out text, added new words and art, and turns the story into something completely different.  

The first day I tried reading the book aloud on my own— alternating between the original text and Alex’s. The next day I invited one child to join me, reading Alex’s story and then had the kids take over completely — one reading Birthday Bunny and the other reading Battle Bunny. They had a great time!  It may well be that the best way to take in the book is solo or with one other child, but I still think it was a blast to read this way. The group reacted, pointed out small things to one another, and just had a lot of fun. Jon tells me they are planning on providing a copy of The Birthday Bunny online for kids to print out and rework just as Alex did.  Great idea!

So for those like me who go for this sort of thing (and not everyone does, I know),  Battle Bunny is an excellent addition to the world of subversive books for children.

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Filed under Children's Literature, Classic, Picture Books, Reading Aloud, Reviewing

Reading Aloud The Hobbit

For years one of my favorite books to read aloud to my 4th graders was The Hobbit.  Tolkien’s narrative voice, the adventures, Bilbo, Smaug, the riddles, the wit, everything about it was just great fun.  The last time I did so was when Jackson’s Lord of the Ring movies were starting to come out so it has been a while and I’d been debating to do so again.

Regarding that movie, having not seen it yet (though I will later today) I’ve been trying very, very, very hard not to be harsh about what Jackson is doing with the story — adding in stuff from elsewhere, stretching out the one novel into three movies, changing what is a lovely singular adventure story into a massive epic…and so on.  But still…there is no way it is going to be the charming story I remember. I do get that it is what Tolkien later wanted — to rework what was originally a plain children’s story into a prequel for the LOTR, but to mind something is lost by doing so.

And so what a pleasure to come across (via Mr. Schu) Mark Guarino’s article, “‘The Hobbit’ is a tale that begs to be read aloud.” Guarino and those he interviewed capture beautifully what indeed made the book such fun to read aloud, notably that slightly intrusive omniscient third person narrator.

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Filed under Classic, In the Classroom, Reading Aloud

Jacqueline Kelly’s Return to the Willows

I was very dubious.  I’m such a fan of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows with Ratty, Mole, and Toad and their adventures.  The book has always seemed a sort of old boy’s adventure, “old boy” in the sense of those of a particular class and who went to British boarding schools and messed around in the countryside just as those delightful characters do on the riverside.  So when I heard that Jacqueline Kelly was working on a sequel my immediate reaction was why?  Those original characters are perfectly fine as they mess with their boats, so don’t mess with their book, I thought.  Leave ‘em alone.

And so I open Kelly’s Return to the Willows, intending to just take a quick look, but I kept reading intrigued and before long I’d read the whole thing. And guess what, reader?  I liked it.

First of all Kelly clearly knows and loves the original and manages, as few have before her, to pay homage while creating something new at the same time. She perfectly captures the nature of the three original heroes: Ratty, Mole, and Toad and even manages to bring out gruff old Badger a bit. And then she successfully adds in two new characters: Toad’s nephew Humphrey and a female baker rat, Matilda. Both work within the well-recreated world of Grahame’s as well as open it up for today’s young readers. I think, in fact, their additions are very sly and smart. Humphrey offers someone for young readers to latch on to as they might not our original three heroes. And Matilda — I admit I was very skeptical and a bit hostile to her at first as the original book feels so much about a bunch of school boys, but I was won over completely. She makes such good sense within that world, is lightly introduced, and then plays an important part near the end. Very nicely done indeed.

Kelly delightfully maintains  that particular world of comfort, pleasant days, and slight adventure. It has been a while since I read the original, but it felt like Kelly was somewhat channelling its structure. There are smaller events to start, then a removal for Toad and another trip back (even involving a revisit to his former place of encarceration), a jolly battle yet again with those weasels and stoats, and finally a satisfyingly hearty ending.

One of the reason it works so well is that Kelly has done a very fine job with the language, somehow lightly maintaining Grahame’s style in a way that will be accessible for readers today. (One way is through her footnotes — I do wonder though if kids will bother to read them. Though I guess they did with Snicket and those are just the sort of readers who will gravitate to this book.) And, I should say, it is funny in the same way the original is. Especially, just as in the original, Toad.  Kelly gets his voice spot on.

Ultimately it is Kelly’s clear love and appreciation of Grahame’s text that makes this shine. Lovely little touches such as the Chief Weasel and Under-Stoat seeing that Toad’s nephew Humphrey gets a lavish picnic lunch even as they are about to kidnap him (and seeing he continues to be well-fed throughout his ordeal). Toad’s stint at Cambridge, his unfortunate taste for vehicles of every sort, and so forth.

Three cheers for Ms. Kelly for doing so well by Ratty, Mole, Toad, Badger, and that whole riverbank world.

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Filed under animal stories, Classic

The BEST Way to Teach Classical Writers and Books

I love today’s Nerdy Book Club post, Melissa Williamson’s “Tales of Adoration $ Appreciation.”  In it, Melissa describes her passion for Edgar Allen Poe and how she successfully communicated that passion to her students.  While as teachers we want to encourage our students to find their own passions as readers I feel there is a place to also model and share ours with them just as Melissa did with her students. She used her own enthusiasm, comics, visuals, public speaking, and more to excite her own students with the work of this classical writer.

I do something similar with Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. That is, through my excitement and the activities I do, my students become as infatuated with that book as I am. I read aloud the book, stopping along the way for my class to try out a quadrille, play a bit of indoor croquet, and explore various logic and mathematical tricks along the way.  And we always end with a project. For  years it was a new kid-illustrated and annotated version, then we did toy theater puppet shows, and last year we did book trailers.

I encourage other teachers to do this as well.  What may appear old and tired can come alive with the personal passion of a creative and talented teacher!

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Filed under Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Classic, In the Classroom, Teaching

NEH Summer Seminars and Institutes for Teachers

Betsy Bird recently posted about a fabulous NEH institute being held at her library this summer reminding me of these wonderful professional development opportunities, several of which I participated in years ago.  The first was a 6 week children’s literature seminar at Princeton University with the brilliant U.C. Knoepflmacher; it did much to change the direction of my life. A couple years later I did a folklore institute at Bank Street College (where I first met Jack Zipes) and then further on I did one more seminar on Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast at Rochester University with Russell Peck. (whose Cinderella bibliography is amazing)  All three were wonderful, intellectually stimulating, and life-changing experiences.

Among this year’s offerings is one I want to do very, very badly:  Golden Compasses as Moral Compasses: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Fairy Tales and Fantasy, a seminar at Harvard with Maria Tatar.  Here’s the overview:

What happens to children when they read and immerse themselves in other worlds? In this seminar, we will investigate how imaginative literature leads children into possible worlds, enabling them to engage in mind reading and explore counterfactuals in ways that are impossible in real life.

They are going to be looking at fairy tales, fantasy literature (Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandPeter Pan, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), and literature across cultures. You can see the schedule in detail here.  It looks amazing and it is going to take all my will power not to apply (because I’m deeply into two book projects and will need every bit of the summer to write).

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Filed under Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Children's Literature, Classic, Fantasy, Harry Potter

Teaching Kids, Books, and the Classics

My  Huffington Post blog post earlier this week on Walter Dean Myers generated some tweets including this one from NYDNBooks:

over at @huffpostbooks, teacher MonicaEdinger calls WalterDean Myers remarkable. Wonder what she’d think of this:nydailynews.com/blogs/pageview…

So what did I think about Alexander Nazaryan’s blog post “Against Walter Dean Myers and the dumbing down of literature“? My first response was that it seemed so intentionally designed to ruffle feathers that I’d take the high road and ignore it. The tweet seemed clearly a ploy to gain traffic and controversy and I didn’t want to be a pawn in that. Besides, I knew others would take on the gauntlet and they have on twitter, in the blog post’s comments, and elsewhere.

But I’ve changed my mind after reading some of the responses because what makes this slightly different for me is Nazaryan’s description of his students’ responses to the “classics.”  I teach younger kids in a very different sort of school, but I do agree with him that the classics, taught right and well as it appears he did, can be absolutely remarkable learning experiences; I’ve even written a book about it.  But where Nazaryan and I part ways is that I don’t think  that classics are the only thing to teach. In fact I think that there can be (and should be) opportunities for students to read and respond to a whole variety of books including those by Myers and other contemporary YA writers, exciting engagements with classics (such, as a matter of fact, those described by Nazaryan) being just one of them.

Reading to me is many things and so I think we teachers need to provide many different experiences with reading and books.  My fourth grade students read all sorts of material on their own, for themselves, for all sorts of reasons. In fact, for much of the school year  they chose the books they want to read, not me. But at a couple of points we do consider a classic together, say E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.  We grapple with it, look at the writing, the theme, and much more.  The kids do think hard and are challenged in the ways that Nazaryan challenged his students. Years ago I taught older kids The Iliad and it was an amazing experience too. And so I’m absolutely in agreement that done right kids absolutely love this. (Done poorly and you create new cohorts of people who end up hating the classics and/or think that teachers are book killers.) And so I’m with Nazaryan about providing such opportunities for kids in every sort of classroom in every sort of neighborhood. And not with him in feeling that you can do that and also encourage and support kids in their reading of Myers and other contemporary writers.

Bottom line: our classrooms are filled with all sorts of readers and need to be filled with all sorts of books, all sorts of writers, and all sorts of reading experiences.

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Filed under Classic, Huffington Post, In the Classroom

Michael Sims’ The Story of Charlotte’s Web

My personally annotated copy of Charlotte’s Web is a sad-looking thing, a paperback edition that was already showing its age in 1990 when I plucked it off my classroom library shelf to use at a Princeton University summer seminar on classical children’s literature. Having never particularly cared for the book (too soppy), I figured an old copy would do me just fine. Twenty-one years later I’m still sorry. By way of a close reading, the brilliant Uli Knoepfmacher showed me just what an extraordinary book Charlotte’s Web is and, using that tattered paperback, I’ve been doing the same for my fourth grade students ever since.

This long personal history with one of America’s great children’s books caused me to approach Michael Sims’ The Story of Charlotte’s Web with a great deal of trepidation. I was somewhat assuaged after seeing that Sims had previously annotated one of White’s and my favorite poetry collections, Don Marquis’s archy and mehitabel, but still wary.  What, I wondered, could anyone bring to White’s opus that hadn’t already been said elsewhere and, most likely, better?  Having read it I can now answer: plenty.  Sims gives White and his story a bright new light —- refurbishing known information in an engaging way and adding in here and there new (at least to me) bits as well.  Beautifully written and researched, the book is well worth anyone’s time, not just those already acquainted with Charlotte’s Web and its author.

Sims makes clear his path from the start — his focus is on the aspects of White’s life that connect to Charlotte’s Web. It may be that those more well-versed in his biography than I will feel there are missing parts, but I was most satisfied with the way Sims brought in details I knew such as White’s childhood love of nature and writing, his family, and his early love of Maine. And I enjoyed tremendously the small elements that were new to me, say  Sims’ careful consideration of what the young Andy would have read — reviewing, for example, what else was in the editions of the well-known-at-the-time St. Nicholas Magazine to which the young White contributed. And his overview of the debate going on nature writing between those who were more scientifically-inclined (e.g. John Muir) versus those who went for a more dramatic and fictionalized approach (e.g William J. Long) was new and fascinating to me.

Slowly building toward the creation of the book itself, Sims gives us White’s development as a writer at The New Yorker, his writing of Stuart Little, his family life, and his experiences as a farmer in Maine.  He also gives us a lot about spiders, both general information and a history of White’s particular fascination with them. As for the actual writing, publication, and reception of Charlotte’s Web — even though much of it was familiar to me,  I was engrossed in Sims’ telling.

And so here I am, chip off my shoulder, to recommend this book without reservations.  Michael Sims’ The Story of Charlotte’s Web is not only for  E. B. White fans and lovers of Charlotte’s Web, but for anyone who enjoys a thoughtfully researched and written work of literary nonfiction.

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Filed under Charlotte's Web, Children's Literature, Classic

App Story Time: The Three Little Classics

There was once an old storyteller whose library was full of the most beautiful books, some of them a bit worse for the wear only because they’d been so lovingly enjoyed by generations of young readers. But the old storyteller started to become worried — what was she to make of all the talk of ebooks and apps? Fearful she called three of the most familiar classics to her and said, “All of you are beloved by generations of children. No matter how they remake you, your stories stay true. And so I’m sending you three out to see what is out there in that new e-book and app world.”

The first that went off was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  “I’ll have no problem finding a way to make my story relevant and appreciated by children today.” thought the little classic to herself.  “After all, everyone knows my story.” Before she’d even gone more than a few steps she was stopped by an eager Ipad app developer who quickly outlined his idea. A bit dubious as he did seem to want to cut an awful lot, she decided to go for it. “After all,” she thought to herself. “Walt Disney and Tim Burton did some changing too and I still am here intact and appreciated.”  The app came out, the reviews were glowing, and the little classic was just about to return to the old storyteller when an old blogger came along.  “You don’t scare me!” she quavered.

The blogger simply glared at her and said, “Then I’ll blog, and I’ll blog, and I’ll blog your story away.” So she blogged

This app is full of bells and whistles, but what does it mean in terms of Lewis Carroll’s story?  Does it add anything to it?  Enhance it?  Have a whole lot to do with it?  I don’t think so.

and blogged

The movement is fun (I do like the growing and shrinking especially), but I think it was done far better by Robert Sabuda in his actual physical pop-up book.  His paper engineering seem to enhance and bring out the story in a way the app barely does. Rather, it seems ephemeral, something to be done a few times perhaps, but no more.  And some of the actions aren’t that well-connected to the story itself.  I mean, “Throw tarts at the Queen of Hearts”?  I mean, yeah, there are tarts and there is a Queen, but this seems more like looking for action rather than thinking about it in terms of the story in any major way.  Sabuda’s pop-up, on the other hand, does bring out the story in clever ways.

and blogged the app away.

Sorry, I’m still waiting for an app (and movie, for that matter) to do Carroll’s story justice.

The second little classic was Peter Rabbit.  He was even more confident than the first little classic of success.  “I’m everywhere. Babies, new parents, everyone loves me dearly.”  And he was just about to hop into that lovely garden with the carrots when an app developer waylaid him at the gate.  “You can see to it I get all the carrots I want?  I’m in.” said the little classic.  And so off the app developer went and soon returned with a lovely little app and the reviewers again were ecstatic.  The second little classic was just about to head on back to the old storyteller when the first little classic came racing along.

“Watch out!” she called out. “The big bad blogger is after me!” And sure enough, huffing and puffing after her was indeed a blogger.  The two of them clung to each other and the second little class said bravely, “You don’t scare me!”

The blogger stared at him for a moment and then said “Humph.  I don’t care.  In fact, I’m going to just blog and blog, till I blog your story away.” So she blogged

The Peter Rabbit app feels very similar to the Alice one. That is, it is pretty to look at and has movement, but doesn’t seem to do much to really bring out the story.

and blogged

People tend to have this vague idea that Peter Rabbit is some sort of twee story when it is actually nothing of the kind.  It can be seen as rather subversive, in fact, as are many of Beatrix Potter’s stories.  And that is what makes it so much fun.  And I also have to put in a plug for the lovely tiny little books themselves.  There is something about handling them physically that is part of their charm. Seems besides the point in the app which is more about fun ways to play with a book app than the inherent nature of the book itself.  I’m being churlish, I know, but …

And blogged the app away.

…I think the potential is big for books and stories and this isn’t it, yet.

The third little classic had gone no farther than down the lane when the first and second little classics ran up to him.  “Watch out!” they yelled at him.  “The big bad blogger is out to get us!”  And sure enough, right in front of him was indeed that big ol’ blogger with an enormous frown and stance that suggested she was not happy at all. The first and second little classics shivered behind the third little classic as he stood and just stared silently back at the blogger.

Finally he spoke. “I’m not afraid of you.  There have been a ton of apps about me already. It seems my story lends itself to digital storytelling better than my two friends here. And I actually think you may change your mind with this app.”  And he tossed it at the blogger who grabbed it, studied it, and then went off. The three little classics looked at each other, waited, and waited some more before finally heading home.

As they walked in they were very surprised to find the blogger there first, sitting with the old storyteller and having tea.  “Come, come,” the storyteller said to the three of them. ” I know, Alice and Peter, that our blogger-friend here didn’t much care for your apps, but I am so happy to say that she very much liked your latest, Little Pig.  Isn’t that lovely?”

And the blogger settled in and blogged

I don’t claim to have seen many apps at all and, since I don’t yet own an Ipad (although I have access to one and do have an Iphone), figured I wasn’t going to review any of them.  But due to a post I did on others who are doing reviews quite a few app creators got in touch with me including Nosy Crow.

and blogged

Having read a bit about them already I was curious and so I took a look at their first children’s book app on my Iphone of The Three Little Pigs and was…

and blogged

…totally charmed.  The art is bright and engaging, the narration (by children) also compelling, and the way the app is set up simply encourages children to both read (I especially liked the way you could click on the different characters and get different little speech bubbles and speech each time) and play (make a character do a somersault, for instance).  It is a contemporary version of the story, but that is totally fine — it works in just the right way. It is a book app in the sense that it will, I like to think, have kids do more than just move objects around (as I feel is somewhat the case with the Alice and Peter apps).  I can see them enjoying this one over and over and over in a more substantive way than the first two apps mentioned. In fact, I am quite eager to see what Nosy Crow does next!

and blogged

Given my very narrow background of having just seen a few apps so far and read about more of them, I don’t claim to be any sort of expert on book apps. Far from it. However, these three highly praised ones did give me a small taste of that ever-growing world. And I’m glad that Nosy Crow is on the right path. I look forward to what they and others do next.

blogged them a very happy ending.

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Filed under Classic

Jane Austen Goes to the Super Bowl with Rosanne Cash

One hopes the unfortunate incident involving the lady’s corset is not repeated on this occasion.

It must be a truth universally acknowledged that Miss Rosanne Cash is possessed of the good fortune of a sharp wit equal to that of Miss Eliza Bennet. Forget about all those other Austen mashups. The best par none are Rosanne’s #JaneAustenAtTheSuperBowl tweets. Starting a few hours before kickoff, Ms. Cash kept the ball in the air for hours, soon joined by other like-minded ladies and gentlemen of twitter. Here are few more choice bon mots of hers, but better still — walk to Netherfield — I mean to Twitter to see more of hers and the many others that joined in.

Regarding the Legume Chorale, it grieves me to note that the spectacle exceeds the musicality.

Are they to be murdered on the field?! Such an ill-advised display of manhood is indeed alarming.

The extraordinary costumes worn by the gentlemen are indeed indicative of the rapaciousness of the event.

There is a uniformity of ill-favor in the appearance of the spectators. Who are their families? Tradesmen, surely.

Such lust for possession of an inanimate object so entirely lacking in aesthetic merit does not bode well.

The gentleman in the stripes? A known blackguard! I send no compliments to his mother.

Some ladies are determined to sport bonnets made of cheese. I must take to my bed.

Cross-posted at the Huffington Post.

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Filed under Classic, Huffington Post

What to Do About Classic Children’s Books that are Racist

One of my favorite childhood books was Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle. I’ve the original book and as a young teacher realized that it was…um…horribly…racist and so kept it home and did not recommend it. At one point a parent expressed shock to me that it was on the reading list for the grade above mine. When I told the teacher she showed me a version of the book in which the racist storyline had been completely removed.   I wasn’t sure what to think about that. Yes, the original version is unquestionably racist and problematic for kids, but to rework it without the author’s okay (even if he is dead)?  It made me then and still makes me very uneasy.

Now Phil Nel has picked up the gauntlet, so to speak, with his superb post, “Can Censoring a Children’s Book Remove Its Prejudices?”   In it he focuses on the way Roald Dahl’s Oompa-Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were changed over the years (with the author’s okay) and the changes made to Lofting’s book (not with his okay, he being deceased).   What I appreciate so much about Phil’s post is that he goes far beyond considering these fixes to the overall racist sensibilities in the two books — how the fixes are only surface and leave very problematic viewpoints in the books.

And then what do you with these books and kids today?  It is a hard, hard call. Phil considers very carefully a variety of responses and points out their limitations.  He concludes:  “As an educator, I’m inclined to fall back on the (albeit imperfect) solution of reading troubling texts with young people, and talking with them about what they encounter.”  Me too.

Also on my Huffington Post blog.

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Filed under Children's Literature, Classic, Huffington Post