Coming Soon: The BFG Movie

This past week, through the kindness of Walden Pond Press, I was able to attend a screening of the Steven Spielberg adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG.  I went into it knowing little, as it is one of the few Dahl titles I have not read, attributable to my working full time, doing a part-time graduate degree, running competitively (did my second NYC marathon that year), and slowly giving up on my dream of becoming a children’s book illustrator the year it came out. When I heard about the movie last year I started reading the book, but soon gave up — I found the BFG’s made-up vocabulary highly irritating. However, knowing how much others love the book, the positive responses to the movie so far, and the impressive people involved made me eager to see it.

And now I am here to report that it is delightful. I don’t know if it is a great departure from the book (I now intend to give it another try), but it worked for me. Early on the BFG explains his difficulties with language and so it didn’t bother me. Overall, it is funny, sweet, mournful, and highly satisfying at the end. There are some fabulous scenes — the BFG’s home, his dream-work, and those in the palace. The latter,  in particular the one involving frobscottle (here I am using that whimsical language myself:), provoked the biggest laughs-out-loud from me and others in the audience, some of whom were very, very young. I enjoyed what appeared to be a few subtle references to Spielberg’s iconic E.T. — at least so they seemed to me. But what really makes the movie is Mark Rylance’s BFG. The man is brilliant. I’ve seen him in a variety of productions — notably the farce Boing-Boing,  his fabulous turn as Olivia in the RSC’s Twelfth Night , and the Wolf Hall television series — and think he is truly one of the great actors of our time. In this, for all the make-up and digital enhancements, the marvelous actor comes through in spades. I’d go see it again just for him if nothing else.

 

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Orlando Now

On Thursday I will head off to Orlando for ALA’s Annual Convention. And I will, like the other attendees, be thinking about those who lost their lives a week ago in that vibrant city. I am heartsick for them and for all those who knew them, for their communities, for everyone impacted by this dreadful loss. I am furious that yet again lives were cut short. Enraged that it happens over and over and over in this country. Disgusted that it seems never ending.  Sickened that we have to prepare ourselves for the next one. Unable to comprehend that we in the US cannot keep assault weapons out of the hands of dangerous and disturbed people. That said I try to be optimistic and to hope that things will change for that better. That there will not be another one. That this from Anne Frank who would have been 87 last Sunday is true:

In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.

Words to hold close in these dark times.

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In the Classroom: The Alice in Wonderland Radio Play

One of my favorite books is Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Every year I read aloud the book with my 4th graders reading along from my large collection of illustrated editions. Along the way the children join the chorus of the songs, participate in a caucus race, and play a spot of croquet. Most years we end with a project and this year it was a radio play. My initial thought was to do a sort of audio book, but when I mentioned it to a colleague she said, “a radio play, of course” and I was immediately hooked.

First I found a 1937 script using language directly from the book and adapted it for my class. (I cut it way, way, WAY down and adjusted it so we had different scenes, each with its own narrator. Each scene was 2-3 minutes with the whole play under 20 minutes in total.) Then I introduced the concept to them. One of the most important element that would make this different from an all-cast audio book was sound effects and so I found a couple of fun videos that gave a sense of this. The children worked enthusiastically in groups to prepare and did a fabulous job. Not only are their sound effects inventive and clever, but they went beyond what I expected with their voices and accents. Indeed the whole thing is a delight. One of the thing I like so much about it is how well the children’s performances show their deep understanding and appreciation of the book itself. I like to think Lewis Carroll would approve.

To learn more about the project and listen to the radio play itself please go here.

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In the Classroom: The Problem with Reading Logs and What I Did About It

Long ago I was delighted when there was a strong movement to have students select and read their own books rather than teachers using those tomes known as basal readers. I happily jumped onto this band wagon. Wanting to be sure that all appreciated that reading at home was as important as the other homework my 4th grade students were expected to do, I had them, yes, log their nightly reading. I tried to keep it as simple as possible — they were to write down the title in their plan book once and then just write in the pages read (eg. pg 44-95) each night. Then I checked every morning, giving stickers to those who had done this.

However, over the years I discovered that doing this was most challenging for the strongest readers, the ones who read until they fell asleep. I suggested they leave the planbook open on their backpack and then log the pages in in the morning. But the whole thing, I have to admit, made me feel less and less comfortable. Other than accountability (a big buzz word in education), I didn’t see what this did for them. I had plenty of other ways to check in the weaker readers and this seemed a total pain for the strong ones.

Over the last few years I began reading more and more articles and blog posts decrying this practice, often from parents who were understandably disturbed that this practice was turning their enthusiastic young readers into kids who had to be pushed to read the designated time, to do the logging. (Here’s the latest of many.) Parents conspired with their children to lie — to write in fake numbers and then sign off. (I did not ask parents to sign off, but I gather other teachers often do.)  The result was I became much more relaxed about the assignment. I stopped checking every morning. I stopped giving out stickers. I had always been involved with the kids’ book selections, had been talking to them individually and as a class about their current reading, so the downgrading of the reading logging didn’t change what I knew about them as readers. The main reason I kept doing it at all was my colleagues all did and I didn’t want to rock the boat. And I wanted to be sure reading at home was valued — that student, parents, and teachers did not see it as a side activity — something to do if there was time after the other homework.

However, this year I finally decided it truly didn’t make any sense. For me to require this only because my colleagues did just didn’t feel right. So, at a team meeting, I told them that I was not going to do it any more (after getting the okay from my supervisor). I sent articles to them so they would understand why I wasn’t. They saw my point, but several of them still felt that requiring it was a way of being sure the children read. I should also say they were fine my not doing it — they saw it as an individual choice just as we did other things differently from one another.

What I did instead was have each child create and maintain a Book of Books (aka BoB), based on Pamela Paul’s, a journal of every book she read starting in high school. I thought it such a cool idea I wanted my kids to do that too. Not for accountability to ME, but for themselves. Additionally, I created a weekly BoB period where the children read, updated their BoBs, and met with me. At these meetings we chatted about what they had been reading and what they might read next. It was lovely. It was relaxing. It gave the information I needed about their independent reading. It gave me a space to check in with all my students. It did not single out the weaker readers. They all loved it as did I.

This past week I discussed with my class the summer reading requirement their 5th grade teachers are asking of them. They have one assigned book (A Wrinkle in Time because they will be reading When You Reach Me in the fall), are to read at least two choice books, and to record those titles. I suggested they do so in their BoBs with the hope that some may elect to maintain them beyond this year. One 5th grade colleague, seeing my post about this on Facebook, said she wanted to talk to me about it. Wouldn’t it be cool if she picked up the Book of Books for another year?

This coming week will be our final BoB period of the year. I’m going to ask the children to look through their BoBs and chose some titles to recommend to each other for summer reading. I’m also going to talk about Gene Luan Yang’s Reading Without Walls challenge as a way to select books to read over the summer.

The problem I have seen with progressive ideas in education is they start out being creative and flexible, but then are turned into orthodoxy. That seems to have happened with reading at home. What was initially such a great improvement over assigning specific books and pages has become as great a chore and not doing much for the intended outcome— turning children into life-long readers.

My students and I have loved our BoB experience and I can’t wait to do it again next year.

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Diversity Window, Mirror, or Neither?

Recently someone told me they didn’t like the lack of mention of Africa in Double Trouble for Anna Hibiscus! by Atinuke, illustrated by Lauren Tobia.  Since the continent is mentioned in the opening (“Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa. Amazing Africa.”), my guess is the complaint was really about the lack of specification of a country. Yet, this is how (to the best of my knowledge) all of Atinuke’s Anna Hibiscus books begin. It is a storyteller’s trope, a purposeful and lyrical story introduction. Indeed, the author is a professional storyteller as well as someone with a similar background to Anna, a biracial individual who spent her early years in amazing Africa, more specifically Nigeria. I am a huge, huge fan of these books — they are full of simple yet rich stories of Anna’s life with her white Canadian mother and her black Nigerian father, mostly in their urban African home. While Nigeria isn’t specified in the books, the food, the experiences, and so forth are coming from Atinuke’s personal experience and thoughtfully and accurately visualized by white illustrator Tobias.

What I’ve been brooding about is why it would be necessary to identify the country in these books. Are they windows into a different culture, mirrors for children of that culture, or are they simply stories that happen to be set somewhere else? For me, the chapter books do indeed provide a delightful, authentic, and real view of one small piece of Africa — both windows and mirrors for young readers. Windows for those far from Nigeria, for whom this is a somewhat different way of living. I’ve enthusiastically recommended them for those looking for good books set in Africa. But they are also mirrors, both for children of Anna’s background as well as other children her age who are experiencing the same sorts of ups and downs of life that she is in different environments.

Earlier this year I was teaching my annual unit on the Transatlantic Slave Trade. I read aloud the initial chapters from the first Anna Hibiscus chapter book as well as some picture books by other authors set in present day Africa, wanting my students to have a sense of the continent today, not just historical in terms of our studies. However, Double Trouble for Anna Hibiscus!  wasn’t among them as I considered it not a book about Nigeria or Africa, but a book about a little girl coping with twin baby brothers. That the situation happens to take place in Africa, that it is resolved by extended family, is secondary. The pleasure is in the relatable experience of being a single older sister to some rambunctious baby twin brothers.

This has me thinking — when is a reading a window? When is it a mirror? When is it one or the other or both depending on the reader’s circumstances?

 

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Go On, Celeb — Write a Children’s Book!

Is there a celebrity (past or present) left who hasn’t or isn’t writing a children’s book because, as the latest (Simon Cowell) evidently feels, “…all children’s books are boring – at least the ones that he’s reading to his two-year-old.”?  I vaguely recall Madonna making a similar claim a few years ago.  Doing a bit of internet research I came across this entertaining quiz from, what else?, Entertainment Weekly.  Here’s another list.

I’m trying to think of my favorites in this oeuvre, either the most horrifying or those that are actually good. Of the later, I really liked B. J. Novak’s The Book With No Pictures. (ETA — just thought of an example of one that was really, really, REALLY bad — Tyra Bank’s Modelland.) Betsy Bird had a few thoughts about some adult writers turning their hand at writing for kids. Like them, but they aren’t really by and large the sort of media celebs Madonna, Cowell, or Novak are. So what about all of you? Any thoughts?

 

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The Ongoing German Fascination with American Indians

Yesterday Debbie Reese and I had an interesting twitter conversation about the odd American Indian obsession that so many German-speakers still seem to have. Debbie has now followed up with the blog post, “Stereotypes of native peoples, in children’s books, in Switzerland” and here is mine.

It fascinates me that the German writer Karl May and his legacy still have such a hold in German-speaking countries. While unfamiliar in the US, this prolific 19th century German writer wrote a series of adventure novels set in a mythical American West that he never visited. His popularity was vast in my parents’ German childhoods as is evident from these excerpts from my father’s memoir:

As I was so rotund and it suited my mother’s pacifism at the time, I was mortified when I was surprised with a Dr. Doolittle costume for my birthday and not the Indian outfit I so badly wanted to play with the kids who read Karl May….

I was encouraged to read the “good” literature in my parents vast library and kept away from “trash.” Instead of reading and acting out, like other kids, the highly popular fantasies of Karl May, I was directed to James Fenimore Cooper’s more edifying stories about American Indians.

While today we are likely to flinch at the idea of Dr. Dolittle and Fenimore Cooper’s works being worthy reading material (I’ve written about Dr. Dolittle and its like here), in 1931 Germany it was all about literary snobbery  — the racism and stereotyping in these books were not on my grandparents’ radar at that time.  And while Lofting and Cooper’s original works no longer have the clout they had in my parents’ childhood, Karl May endures. I well remember, while living in Germany in the mid 1960s, my best friend’s obsession with his books and how she dressed up as Winnetou for Fasching (the German Carnival).  And it still goes on. You can get a taste from these articles:

Curious to see what sort of recent books were coming out on the topic in Germany I did a search on the German Amazon site. Going in to seeing the variety of books on the topic in Germany is quite a wormhole and I learned that a new Winnetou movie is in the works. A little more poking around and I found this 2015 Hollywood Reporter article, “Germany Reviving “Winnetou” Westerns for TV” and this trailer. Seems Karl May love is loud and clear still in Germany. Will be curious if the commentary in Germany around this movie considers its problematic nature.

 

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