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