Monthly Archives: October 2006

Readers’ Rights

Over a decade ago I came across the delightful book, BETTER THAN LIFE, by Daniel Pennac. A short, but compelling reading manifesto, I’ve returned to it again and again over the years. Now I see (thanks to achukablog and a review in the Guardian) that Walker Books in the UK has come out with a new translation, introduced and illustrated by Quentin Blake, called THE RIGHTS OF THE READER .

The heart of Pennac’s book is “The Reader’s Bill of Rights” (or “The Rights of the Reader” in the new translation) which you can see here or, better yet, download in a poster illustrated by Blake here.

My only caveat is that it is important to recognize that these are rights for pleasure reading not all reading. As important as I think it is to get children to enjoy reading, I also think we need to be honest that not every kind of reading is for pleasure. Sometimes we read for very utilitarian reasons, say to understand the directions on how to fill out a form to renew a driver’s license or, in the case of my young students, on how to do a particular section of a standardized test. Not all of Pennac’s rights apply in such cases (e.g. quiting and skipping would be disasters:).

Still, I highly recommend this wonderful book (either the edition available in the US now or the Walker edition in the UK).


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Charlotte’s Wikipedia




“Awesome!” was the consensus of the class.

I agreed. A few weeks ago Alan November, a technology guru, spoke at my school and showed us a wikipedia entry started by a third grade class. Now, like many, I’m pretty skittish about wikipedia as a research tool. However, Alan made a good case for it as a teaching tool and so curious I sought out the Charlotte’s Web entry. As soon as I saw the lousy plot summary I knew I had a very cool lesson to do.

And so yesterday I asked my class what they knew about wikipedia. One child immediately told us his mother had recently used it to find an article for a conference talk she was giving. She’s a physician so presumably she found what she wanted — an example of wikipedia working. However, another child admitted that it hadn’t helped him the year before when researching the Middle Ages.

We then took a good look at that problematic plot summary. Here it is:

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.

Wilbur is the pet piglet of a young girl named Fern Arable. On the morning after he was born, he was going to be killed by Fern’s father John, because he was a runt in his litter of 11. Fern manages to persuade her father to let her raise the runt, whom she named Wilbur. Unfortunately, when he grows into an adult pig, Fern is forced to take him to the Zuckerman farm, where he will be prepared as dinner in due time.

Charlotte A. Cavatica, a spider, lives in the space above Wilbur’s sty in the Zuckermans’ barn; she befriends Wilbur and decides to help prevent him from being eaten. With the help of the other barn animals, including a rat named Templeton, she convinces the Zuckerman family that Wilbur is special by spelling out such descriptions as “Some Pig” in her web. Charlotte gives her full name as “Charlotte A. Cavatica”, revealing her as a barn spider, an orb-weaver spider with the scientific name Araneus cavaticus.

Written in White’s dry, low-key manner, Charlotte’s Web is considered a classic of children’s literature, enjoyable to adults as well as children. The description of the experience of swinging on a rope swing at the farm is an oft-cited example of rhythm in writing, as the pace of the sentences reflects the motion of the swing.



The children were outraged at the inaccuracies. “It’s Mr. Arable or John Arable, not John!” “Fern does way more than ‘persuade’ her father!” “They named Charlotte twice and it isn’t that important anyway.” “His litter size is not important!” “It was really Charlotte who saved Wilbur, not all the animals in the barn!” “Pet piglet?” “He isn’t grown up when he goes to the Zuckerman’s.” “No spoilers!”

The children and I went through it on the Smartboard, marking up things we wanted to change. (As you can see, we wanted to get rid of most of it!)


Then we rewrote it.

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” asks eight-year-old Fern Arable to her mother one spring morning. It turns out that Mr. Arable is off to “do away with” a runty pig. Horrified, Fern softens him up and manages to save the pig. She names him Wilbur and tends to him as if she was his mother until he becomes too big and moves to Mr. Zuckerman’s barn.

Charlotte, a spider, lives over the door near Wilbur’s pen. She befriends him and, by weaving words such as “Terrific“ and “Some Pig” in her web, tries to convince the Zuckerman family that Wilbur is so unique that he cannot ever be killed for food.

White’s amazingly written, full-to-the-brim Charlotte’s Web is a classic all-American children’s book. Themes such as friendship, life and death, and nature make this book well worth reading.

Lastly I returned to the book’s wikipedia entry and replaced the old plot summary with ours. When I showed the children that it was on the wikipedia page for all to see the result was applause and the aforementioned, “Awesome!”

By now, less than 24 hours later, it has already been revised by someone else, but we are in the history now and you can still see our revision here!



Filed under Reading, Teaching

“Assigned” Reading

Kelly at Big A little a refers to an article in the Washington Post by Valerie Strauss, “Assigned Books Often Are a Few Sizes Too Big.” I began to write a comment on her blog, but realized I had too much to say so decided to post here instead. Basically I am highly annoyed by the piece because it conflates a range of methods and situations around classroom teaching of reading and literature in a way that only creates more confusion about an already confusing situation.

Strauss begins by noting that “If adults liked to read books that were exceedingly difficult, they’d all be reading Proust.” Okay, there is a HUGE difference between books that are studied in school and books that are read independently. And when it comes to “assigned reading” there are a million different ways this happens in elementary-college classrooms (despite implications to the contrary in the article). Does she mean books taught in class? Books read in a reading workshop classroom? Read in literature circles? Or a book read together in class? Read aloud and discussed? Each of these are different teaching methods and each requires a different sort of book. One might require books that are easier for kids to read alone while another might be just the place for a book that is harder.

At one point Strauss suggests these books are being assigned without adequate teacher support, at another that they are being taught before kids are ready for them, and still elsewhere that it is about assigning books that don’t speak to child readers. She lumps together elementary, middle school, high school, and college teaching and learning. This is a VAST range of pedagogies, learning styles, levels and more that she is reducing into one clump.

Most of all I’m troubled by her generalization (boy do I hate generalizations) that students are given material that is too hard for them. One of the bedrock ideas of my personal pedagogy is Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, which he described as “… the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.” (Vygotsky, Mind and Society, 1978.) That is, I guide my students through readings that would be perhaps a tad too challenging for them on their own. So the idea that teachers shouldn’t do this, shouldn’t assign books that need support, that are a bit beyond their students’ comfort levels disturbs me greatly. This is such an exciting way to both teach and learn. This is how we learn to appreciate literature, to dig deep into it, to learn how to read, really ,really, really read!

Strauss writes, “And elementary schools sometimes ask students to read books such as The Bridge to Terabithia, with themes about death and gender roles that librarians say are better suited for older children.” My response is: What? That book is perfectly suitable for 5th and 6th graders to read with their teachers. Alone, of course not, but assigned to read and discuss and work through with a teacher? Of course!

Then there she quotes Lucy Calkins, “Teachers studied The Great Gatsby in college and then want to teach that book because they have smart things to say about it, and they teach it in high school,” Calkins said. “Then schools want to get their middle school kids ready for high school so they teach them The Catcher in the Rye. It’s a whole cultural thing.” Sorry, but I studied (an important word here) The Great Gatsby in 11th grade and had a great time doing so. My teacher wasn’t amazing by any means, but he did enough to engage us with this book. As for The Catcher in the Rye, I can certainly see it in middle school, again with a teacher guiding the kids. Now they may find it dated and have other reasons for not engaging with it, but I can’t see it being too hard for them if they are studying (yes, studying) it with their teacher in a Vygotsky-way.

Writes Strauss, “Many teachers exclude graphic novels and comics from reading lists, even though a graphic novel was nominated for the National Book Award this year. And Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has said he learned to read through comics after his schoolmaster father disregarded others who said they would lead to no good.” Hold on here. What sort of reading lists is Strauss referring to here? Assigned reading where the books are STUDIED, discussed, and so forth? Assigned reading kids are doing independently? Again, these are all very different sorts of ways to engaged with literature in the classroom. Besides, graphic novels are a relatively new development and teachers are only beginning to explore them. Give them a break for goodness sakes!

She ends her piece, “So should kids read Shakespeare or the comics? Graphic novels or To Kill a Mockingbird? Reading experts say they should read everything — when they are ready to understand what they are reading.” I agree, but evidently I have a different idea of what “ready to understand” and “assigned reading” means from Strauss’s.

Grrr….there are problems indeed about teaching and learning, but simplistic articles about ‘assigned” reading like this one do nothing to inform and help those outside of schools better understand the problems.


Filed under Reading, Teaching


(Since I’ve just written about historical fiction in my last post I figured I’d paste in this post of mine from child_lit, one of my rare reviews.)

Originally posted on child_lit Sat Jul 22 09:09:51 EDT 2006

Because it seems likely to be lost otherwise, I want to draw your attention to a beautifully written work of historical fiction for upper elementary and middle school, Katherine Sturtevant’s A TRUE AND FAITHFUL NARRATIVE. Taking place in Restoration London, the book is about booklover and writer Meg, daughter of a bookseller, for whom publication is sorely limited due to gender. Meg is of her time; feisty as she is, I never felt l I was reading about a 21st century girl in a 17th century world.

Sturvetant has done her research and does a lovely job giving her readers the flavor of the time, but there are two aspects to the novel that make it truly shine for me. First of all, a good chunk of the book is of Meg listening to Edward, a young man who was captured by Barbary pirates, describe his time enslaved in North Africa. It is fascinating stuff, but by having Meg react as would a girl of her time to his description of Muslim beliefs and actions and by having the young man help her to understand them better, Sturtevant has also helped today’s young readers understand them better as well.

And secondly, there is what Meg does when she writes Edward’s story for publication — adjusting points for reasons she explains to him, deciding what can be eliminated, what needs to be changed slightly, and so forth with the final objective of creating something that will attract readers. According to Sturtevant (see “Fact, Fiction, and the Stamp Act” on her website:, the problems of fact and fiction in writing were problems in the 17th century as much as they are today. And so Meg ponders, “…how I might make from such material a narrative that would both honor the teller and satisfy the needs of the told; how I might related enough of truth that our readers would scent it, and draw near, as a doe to water, but not so much that it would frighten them away with the sound of its splashing.” (p. 238 )

Hope that some of you track down this gem.


Filed under Historical Fiction, Reading

Thoughts on Historical Fiction

My relationship with historical fiction is a complicated one. I’ve gotten into intense debates on both child_lit and ccbcnet about its usefulness as a way for children to learn history, written about it in books and articles, and given speeches on it, one of which is available to read here.

Some years ago, deciding to put my money where my mouth is, I began focusing on historical fiction in my teaching by first having the kids read and critique a variety works before writing their own. What I’ve noticed that no matter how many times we talk about what is fiction and what is not, they still get very confused. And I know how easy it is even for us adults to take historical fiction (in books and film) as the truth.

My ongoing interest led me to Jane Sullivan’s article in The Age, “Making a fiction of history…” about the debate that has evidently insued by adult novelist Kate Grenville, “claming her Booker-shortlisted The Secret River is a new form of history writing.” As I read the article I wavered back and forth. On the one hand, I agree with Dr Inga Clendinnen, whose article, “The History Question — Who Owns the Past? ” is cited and who objects strongly and vociferously with Grenville’s fictionalizing of history. Admiring Clendinnen from an earlier work of hers, Reading the Holocaust, I have a lot of respect of her points, especially how we can not truly empathize with people back in time whose circumstances and even ways of thinking are completely and utterly different from ours.

On the other hand, I also think that writing history is as much an act of the imagination as is writing fiction. And while I still disagree strongly that the only way to really get kids interested in the past is through fiction (see my books if you want to know more on other ways to do so) and also think there is an awful lot of lousy historical fiction written for kids, there is also some pretty remarkable stuff too.

For example, I recently read M. T. Anderson’s THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING TRAITOR TO THE NATION. This is indeed an astonishing book. How Anderson managed to capture the tone and style of an 18th century American writer, developed the characters, the plot, the setting is nothing short of remarkable. While I wonder about audience (I see it as high school, but some seem to think younger children would enjoy it), I have no wonders about the book as an exemplary work of historical fiction. Of course, even as I am breathless in admiration, I still do hope that it isn’t used to teach history. Amazing as it is, it is still fiction.

Another recent work of historical fiction for children I much admire is Katherine Sturtevant’s A TRUE AND FAITHFUL NARRATIVE, but I’m going to write about it in a separate post.


Filed under Historical Fiction, Reading, Teaching

Fear and Fiction Conference

Yesterday I attended the fascinating and thought-provoking conference, “Fear and Fiction: The Power Of Children’s Books and The Inner Life of The Child” which was co-sponsored by the Yale Child Study Center and London’s Anna Freud Centre and held at New York City’s Bank Street College of Education.

The day began with a superb keynote speech by Steven Marans of the Yale University Child Study Center. Setting the tone of the day, Marans began with a personal story illustrating not only the fallibility of memory, but of adults to know what children truly fear. Marans remembered being 4 1/2 years old and watching the rescue of a raccoon outside his window. Telling his parents years later they looked at each other and then asked, “Do you want to know what really happened?” The real story was horrible, culminating in the shooting not rescuing of the raccoon. His parents had no idea that he had turned the true story into a fictional narrative, “How could we have known?” they asked wondering and wishing that they had so they could have helped him. Marans went on to point out that it always is hard for adults to know what are behind children’s fears. Once, a fear (say of kidnappers coming into the house) gets into a child’s mind, it is no easy matter to get it out (convince them that there is no way kidnappers will get in). And the task is even harder for adults when even the child does not identify the fears, as in Marans’ raccoon story.

Marans spoke of the “mystery of meaning.” That it is difficult for us adults to know since it is so hard for us to listen and remember. That is, we (understandably) tend to relegate our own memories of fears as children (who wants to remember them, after all?) and so it is hard to help children with theirs.

Marans said so much more, often through powerful stories of children he had observed. He spoke of adults giving children words for what they are fearing, of practicing response to the fears, of the capacity for fantasy and imaginary narratives, of the child’s opportunity to control and master scenarios, of the flexibility of fantasy life, and how “narrative creates a resolution…” unlike those in nightmares. He noted that books are children’s tools for mastery of fears even as they also entertain. He ended by talking about the remarkable and frightening movie and book, “Night of the Hunter” and quoted the book of which I only have the part, “Lord save little children….”

Next was a picture book panel featuring Martin Waddell, Robie H. Harris, and Mo Willems. Waddell focused most evocatively on his book, OWL BABIES, which others referred back to through the day. (“I want my mummy!”) Harris talked of putting chaos into order as parents try to do too. How she tries to make children’s fears bearable and discussed her book DON’T FORGET TO COME BACK! in this regard. Of particular interest were those points in the book that made her editor nervous and how they came to resolution about them. (e.g. showing the child in the belly of the moose saying “I told you so” to balance the scary image). Willems was hilarious (much joshing about talking to an audience of Freudians) and serious as he talked about LEONARDO THE TERRIBLE MONSTER, a story of failure more than of fear, he explained. He ended by telling us he always wants to be on the kids’ side and that his book about saying please was about “how to get the cookie.” Getting the cookie is what is important.

The two responding analysts were Jenny Stoker and Alicia Lieberman. Stoker was pretty dense for us non-Freudians, but Lieberman grabbed us from the start with her appreciations of the books and by connecting them to her own work with babies in foster homes. She spoke of the first universal being the fear of the loss of the mother figure (as in OWL BABIES) and of annihilation. While it is comforting to know that tantrums (like the one in DON’T FORGET TO COME BACK!) only go so far it also shows how “puny” the child’s power really is. She also highlighted the existential dilemma of Leonardo filling one whole page of his book. (She mixed the words “terrible” and “friendship” at one point, one of many Freudian slips of the day:) She ended with a personal story involving a nightmare, Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” and the line, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”.

The afternoon keynote was by Gregory Maguire. Continuing the tone set from the start, Maguire’s talk too was very personal. He quoted Roger Scruton, “Consolation from imaginary things is not an imaginary consolation.” However, much of his talk was built around the James Dickey’ poem “Falling” and personal stories tied to it, to fear, to fiction, to children, and the connections between them. It is impossible to do justice to this talk. I was so pulled in (as Maguire is a master orator as any one who has seen him will agree with) that I stopped taking notes and just listened. Just take my word that it was magnificent.

A middle-grade panel followed featuring Neil Gaiman (who was not there so his talk was read by someone else), Lois Lowry, and Pam Munoz Ryan. Gaiman’s words were powerful, but I didn’t take notes so can’t say much more. Pam spoke of moving personal stories, celebrating the importance of teachers and librarians in her and children’s lives. Lois Lowry’s talk, featuring her new book GOSSAMER, was especially moving. Continuing the trend of the day, she too gave us the personal stories that are behind this beautiful work. “Books, “ she said, “become the sort of dream worlds where the terrors dissipate and subside.” The two responding analysts were Judy Yanof and Nick Midgely.

Last was a YA panel featuring David Almond (unfortunately not able to be there so his talk was read by someone else), Chris Crutcher, and Jacqueline Woodson. Almond’s talk was personal and lovely and both Chris and Jackie spoke personally, passionately, and beautifully. Their stories were moving and extraordinarily powerful. Crutcher told an eagaging (and ultimately hopeful) story about one child he had worked with, spoke of “testing kids into comas” and that no child could be left behind because “they aren’t going anywhere” in today’s schools. Woodson talked of her daughter, of her books, and of writing “against her future fears.” As always she was powerful and brilliant. The responding analysts were Karen Gilmore and Arietta Slade.

The day was long, dense, intense, moving, thought provoking, and worthwhile. Another conference is already being planned, ”Fiction, Feelings, and Imagination: The Power of Children’s Books and The Inner Life Of The Child” to be held in London in October 2007.


Filed under Reading


As mentioned in an earlier post, I’m a huge fan of His Dark Materials. Thanks to Jurren at adbooks, I’ve just come across some very tantalizing photos of the film production here.

Philip Pullman has also just written about his visit to the production in his October message at his website.

Lastly, a good site for following all things His Dark Materials is bridgetothestars.


Filed under Reading

Learning About Africa: First in a Series

I had a peripatetic childhood; my father’s academic career took us all over the United States and Europe. However, when it came to Africa, I was no different than someone who had grown up in one spot. I remember being titillated by photographs of strangely adorned people in National Geographic, reading about Albert Schweitzer in my Weekly Reader, creating an ancient Egyptian farm out of sugar cubes, and visiting zoos all over the place full of fantastic African animals. If there was more at school or home, I don’t remember it.

In 1974 I applied to the Peace Corps requesting an assignment in Africa. As I waited to hear what my assignment would be, I developed further requirements: I wanted to learn a new language, live in a dry climate with plenty of game parks, and there should be no snakes, please.

Finally I received my invitation — to teach in Sierra Leone, a country I had never heard of. A former British colony on Africa’s west coast, Sierra Leone’s official language was English, the country was riddled with snakes, it was mostly tropical rain forest, and there were absolutely no zebras whatsoever. The invitation emphatically put my sentimental notions to rest: “Peace Corps service is not a junior year abroad nor a romantic adventure….The Peace Corps in Sierra Leone does not exist for the benefit of Volunteers, but rather for the benefit of Sierra Leoneans….So come to do a job, not to find yourself.” On August 9, 1974, I flew off to Freetown, Sierra Leone leaving behind my preconceived notions of Africa.

Two years later I came back to the United States, changed forever. And ever since I’ve looked for ways to help American children gain a deeper more complex sense of Africa, to move them beyond the exotic imagery, past the foreign Albert Schweitzer-like icons to the African people themselves, to real African art not sugar cube farms, and most difficult of all — beyond those admittedly magnificent beasts of safari lore.

One way is through books.

There are more and more good books for children about Africa than when I grew up. But many still do, in my opinion, present the continent as an exotic one, focus on the animals, or on it as a place of deprivation and war. While many of these are admirable and often excellent works for children, I tend to look out for different sorts of books, ones that I feel help my privileged 4th graders make a real connection to the people of Africa.

One that I feel does so beautifully is Penda Diakite’s I LOST MY TOOTH IN AFRICA. Penda was twelve when she wrote this story about her sister’s experiences during a visit to their father’s family in Bamako, Mali. Beautifully and authentically told by Penda with gorgeous illustrations by her father, Baba Wague Diakite, this is a gem of a book. I spent some time in Bamako during my time in Africa and the images and events that Penda and her sister experience feel totally authentic to me. They are small ones, simple elements of daily life, but beautiful ones too. This is a book that helps bridge the chasm between Africa and America for children in a delightful way. I recommend it highly. (For an interesting look at the creation of this book check out this article by its editor Dianne Hess.)



Filed under Sierra Leone

Madonna and Child — the African Version


It was Uli Knopflmacher, at that magical NEH seminar I attended so long ago, who called this Garth William’s illustration from the first chapter of Charlotte’s Web, “Madonna and Pig.” When pointing this out to my fourth graders, I always need to say that it has nothing to do with the singer Madonna, celebrated children’s book author and Malawi Orphan Adopter.

But today’s post does.

What troubles me about Madonna’s adoption is what troubles me about so many of the wealthy and well-known do-gooders who drop in various parts of Africa with their media entourages in tow, start their own NGOs because they think they know and can do better, and offer sound bites of Africa that don’t do much to expand people’s understanding of the continent. Yes, they mean well. So many do.

I have this outlying point of view because I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone, a country on the opposite side of the African continent from Malawi, but one that is most likely perceived by many as very similar — a desperately poor country that needs all the help it can get.

For many years I stayed pretty quiet about my experience. People were not interested and had such simplistic responses that I learned to say nothing. Until the war. It went on for years without American media paying much attention to it. Only when they got wind of the atrocities, when the capital Freetown (where I had lived for two years) was invaded, when child soldiers became an issue, finally the media paid attention. Finally Americans noticed. Even my students noticed and so together we created the Edinger House Sierra Leone Project.

Atrocities drew the world’s attention to Sierra Leone, genocide to Dafur, and a celebrity’s adoption to Malawi. Which country will be next? Why? And will it result in a better understanding of Africa and its people? I wonder.

I’ll end with another Madonna, “The Holy Virgin Mary” by African- inspired artist Chris Ofili, which sparked quite a bit controversy here in NYC some years ago.





Filed under Africa

The Penultimate Peril is Popular!

The Quill Awards “… pair a populist sensibility with Hollywood-style glitz and have become the first literary prizes to reflect the tastes of the group that matters most in publishing-readers.” Last night the 2006 winners were announced, among them one of my favorites of last year, Lemony Snicket’s The Penultimate Peril.

Given the popularity contest nature of this particular award (determined by anyone who wants to vote at the website), I was delighted and gratified that this particular title was one of the winners. I had been surprised to see it on the nominations shortlist (decided by a board of “…. approximately 6,000 invited booksellers and librarians”) because most of the adults I know don’t care for A Series of Unfortunate Events. Kids, on the other hand, in my experience, adore it. This impression was reinforced by this announcement as I’m guessing (hoping — perhaps I’m naive) that young Snicket-fans were the bulk of the voters for this title (keeping in mind that they were by no means a large sampling of all the “readers” out there, just those who heard of the award and went to the website to vote).

Myself, I’m an adult who completely and utterly adores the series, every single book. They are clever, witty, adventurous, and tremendous fun to read. I love that kids can read them on so many different levels. Some read them for plot, some for the puzzles and clues, some for the humour, and some for an infinite number of other reasons. Additionally, I love that they are so Carrollian in spirit, full of wry wit and wisdom that I’m sure Mr. Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) would have appreciated.

I eagerly await The End!


Filed under Reading