Monthly Archives: October 2006

A Few Good Read Alouds

Marilyn asked for some fourth grade read aloud book recommendations and so here are a few. Keep in mind though that I only read aloud books that I like, nay, love. And that what I love might not be what you love. The following are by no means all of my sure fire hits, just a few off the top of my head.

First of all, one of my favorites (besides, of course, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which is in a class by itself), one I read every year, is Polly Horvath’s The Trolls. I just love reading this book aloud and every class loves it too. It has an amazing blend of odd humour, quirkiness, and pathos.

The year of its publication, I had the best time reading aloud Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux and even had a little Despereaux (there he is below reading) sitting on my shoulder as I did so. Sadly, I haven’t read it since; because it won the Newbery, every year since too many children had already read it. Maybe this year will be different.



One wonderful and sadly overlooked book is Mordecai Gerstein’s The Old Country. It was one of my students’ favorites of the year and the one they came back and asked if I’d read to the next year’s class. This year the author is visiting the school so my librarian colleague, Roxanne (aka fairrosa) is reading it to them in her library classes.

I’ve just begun (for reasons already given) Neil Gaiman’s Coraline which I last read aloud a few years back. Yesterday, I showed this neat booktrailer right before reading. The kids got very excited when I then read about some things they’d just seen in the trailer. Fun!


Filed under Reading, Teaching

Listening to Philip Pullman

Around the time of the Gates, I began walking to school. Past the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, into Central Park at its north end, out at the Guggenheim Museum and, voila, I’m there. It is a lovely route, but I’m a runner and cyclist, not a walker. No doubt it is a reaction to the weekend spaziergangs of my childhood when my parents, in order to get my sister and me through them with minimal whining, had to promise kaffee und kuchen at the end.

Cake being no longer an enticement (especially at 7 AM), I bought an Ipod and found audible books instead. Since my regular book reading is largely children’s books because of my responsibilities as chair of NCTE’s Notable Children’s Books in the Language Arts Committee, I’ve been listening to adult books with one notable exception.

This is Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. Some readers of this blog already know of my complete and total adoration of His Dark Materials. I’ve read the books many times and even traveled to London especially to see the stage production. This summer, needing to revisit The Golden Compass for Children’s Literature New England , I decided to treated myself to the first of the audio version of the trilogy which Kelly at Big A little a touts as the best audio book out there.

I haven’t listened to enough audio books to be able to determine which is best; however, there is one thing that makes this one stand out for me from all the others I’ve listened to. And it isn’t the full-cast, wonderful as that; it is that author Philip Pullman, that third person omniscient narrator himself, is the narrator. I felt, as I listened, that I was being taken through the story by the teller in a way that would be completely different with a different sort of narrator. I mean, here I was listening to Philip Pullman tell HIS story which is also Lyra’s story.

Pullman is a partisan of the third-person omniscient narrator which he thinks of as a character in itself—a disembodied “sprite.” This ringmaster of many a nineteenth-century novel can, as he told me, “go anywhere and do anything and see anything, and is both male and female, both old and young, wise and foolish, cynical and credulous, all these contradictory things at once. The narrating voice that tells ‘Middlemarch’ is just as much a made-up character as Dorothea or Mr. Casaubon.”

Miller, Laura. “Far From Narnia,” The New Yorker, Issue of 2005-12-26 and 2006-01-02

Until recently I thought there were only two possible narrators: first person or third person. That a third person narrator could be a character in the way a first person narrator is was not in my consciousness. Perhaps it was when I fell in love with Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux or the works of the mysterious Lemony Snicket that I started to be aware of this type of narrator. Certainly, once Philip Pullman himself began discussing his preference for this narrator on child_lit and elsewhere (such as in the above New Yorker profile), I began noticing it more and more. In 2005 I did a talk on literary fairy tales in which I featured George MacDonald’s The Light Princess which has a wonderful narrator of this ilk and then there’s Charles Dickens, someone whose works I’ve been listening to a lot lately, who is a literary master in so many ways, including this one.

But I’ve got to say Mr. Pullman gives Mr. Dickens a run for his money. Listening to The Golden Compass after A Tale of Two Cities and Bleak House, I was blown away by the assurance of the narration. Oh yes, the actual assurance of Philip Pullman reading, but even moreso that narrator. He is steady and true throughout. The full-cast simply makes it even more striking. There are moments throughout, big ones and tiny ones, where the narrator strikes with extraordinary deftness.

For example, at the start of Chapter 8, “Frustration,” Lyra is weaving one of her wild tales to the captivated gyptian children. “…His skin was all withered like an old apple, and his eyes were starting from his head. In fact, they had to push ’em back in the sockets….” At this point she is interrupted by the clearly irritated narrator with the terse paragraph, “And so on.” after which he moves us readers away from the hyperbolic Lyra and on to what is happening in the fen country. (p. 131 in the 2002 Knopf paperback box set edition.)

As Rachel Ray is wont to exclaim, “How cool is that?” (I think I need to stop with this particular tangent right here as a woman who chirps “yummy” every other minute and a man who writes about the death of God are simply not in the same universe. Any of them, mind you. )

I’m almost done listening to Great Expectations (poor old Pip) and will start George Eliot’s Middlemarch next. While I’ve read most of the Dickens more than once, this will be my first time with the Eliot. Hmm..what would it be like to hear one of those two reading their works with a full cast?


Filed under Children's Literature, Philip Pullman

Reading Aloud Framed

Dear Framed,

I’m going to be blunt here. The two of us, it just isn’t working. I’m really sorry, but the other day, I had to put you down. I told the kids I was taking a break, but I suspect it is a permanent one. Sorry.

I really tried to make it work. When I first heard about you I was so excited. Not wanting to wait until I could get you in the US, I ordered you right away from the UK. The day you arrived I dropped everything and dived in. First impressions were NOT good. I mean, you were pleasant, entertaining, but not…here it comes….as good as your big brother, Millions.

So there it is. I’m probably going to scar you for life, but I can’t help it. I mean, I mainly rushed to get you because of your big brother. I adore Millions and read it aloud the last two years with great success. There is just something in Damian’s voice that makes Millions so very special. The situation, the language (such as Damian’s hermitage), the sadness underlying the day-to-day humor (not cloying or overly sentimental), the saints, Anthony’s playground economy, the father, the Mormons, and so much more. The book is an absolute gem and a fantastic read aloud.

If you need me to pay for therapy as the result of your reading this letter, I understand and will do so gladly. I mean, what could be more traumatic than learning for real that people like your big brother best? (By the way, could please not tell your dad, Frank Cottrell Boyce about our break-up? I’m sure he wouldn’t be any happier than Mrs. Smother’s would have been when her son Tommy went on about her always liking his brother best .)

I have given you three chances and that is enough, I think. The first reading felt leadened, but after I read several glowing reviews I tried again. No luck. The magic simply wasn’t there. Then someone else I admire said she liked you better than your big brother. School was about to start and so I thought, “Hmmm….maybe reading it aloud is the answer. Maybe that is all I need to fall in love with it.”

And so I started reading you aloud a few weeks back to my 4th graders. At first it was interesting. Not only did I have to be sure they were clear on the Mutant Ninja Turtles, but on the real artists (Donatello, Raphael, Leonardo, and Michelangelo) as well. And then all the Britishisms — I moved back and forth between using the British term and checking to be sure the kids knew what it was and sometimes just instantly translating it into an American term. Words like boot, petrol, caravan, quid, and a bunch more. But that wasn’t the problem; it wasn’t when I read aloud your brother, after all. Sorry.

And so, I quit. Page 95 if you must know. I didn’t realize I’d quit at first. But when I started to think about reading it again I just couldn’t. I kept looking at your size and thinking, “I’m going to be reading that for months!” (I generally never read aloud a book over 200 pages and you are 312 — what was I thinking?) Not only that, but I realized it had been a big mistake to start the year with an untested book. That is, one I didn’t know for sure would be a surefire hit with an unknown group of kids. I realized that some of the squirrelly behavior by some of my boys was because they weren’t riveted. I’m hurting your feelings again, I know, but to start the year I need a book that engages 100% every child. You did not. I caught one girl reading another book behind her desk — clearly you were doing nothing for her and several boys were spending much of the time making faces at each other. Nope, I just couldn’t do it for several hundred more pages. No way.

So, there it is. Clearly you are beloved by so many that my abandonment will hardly register. And I’m sure some of my students will want to finish you on their own.

I must admit I hate giving up on a read aloud, but I do encourage my students not to stick with books they don’t like and while you were a perfectly entertaining (if not for me amazing) private read, you just weren’t working as a read aloud for me.

Let’s stay friends. Have lunch. I’ll call soon, I promise.

All the best,



Filed under Reading, Reading Aloud, Teaching

Charlotte’s Web redux

I’m pleased to say that today’s lesson went quite well. The smartboard was a bit challenging, but the kids did not seem that distracted and, happily, really picked up on the whole concept of close reading — even finding a couple of new interesting things to point out in the first chapter.

Annotating Charlotte’s Web

They will now annotate their own chapters and present the results to the class seminar-style (pencils in hand, book at the ready.)

The children’s questions always take me into new directions. One year a child asked, “How can Fern understand the animals?” Their answers included:

• Because the animals know and trust her.
• Because she was so quiet and silent and listened hard.
• Because the whole story is in Fern’s imagination.
• E. B. White did it to keep the child reader interested.
• The author needed to do something to keep Fern in the story.
• Watching something a long time makes you understand it.

I also posed the question on child_lit. Those answers (including those suggesting something about the magic of childhood and issues of faith) are in the October 1999 archives.

I always like to ask the children who the heroes of the story are. This provokes such a fascinating conversation about what it means to be a hero. It was particularly important the year of 9/11 and you can see what we did that year here.

Finally, for anyone interested in doing a study like mine with children, here are some useful resources:

Edinger, Monica. (2001). Using Beloved Classics to Deepen Reading Comprehension. New York: Scholastic Professional Books, 2001. Chapter 2, “Digging Deep with Authors: A Study of E. B. White.” In this chapter I provide detailed information on how to do this study, including and especially the close reading.

Nodelman, Perry and Mavis Reimer. (2003) . The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Third Edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. Chapter 4, “Strategies for Reading a Literary Text” has a wonderful section on Charlotte’s Web. The whole book is well worth reading, for that matter.

White, E. B. (1994). The Annotated Charlotte’s Web. Introduction and Notes by Peter F. Neumeyer. New York: HarperCollins. Peter was on child_lit and I was a bit dismayed when this book first came out, worrying that my students would now stop doing their own annotating and just look at Peter’s instead. However, his annotations are very different from ours and the book is actually a useful resource for children who become stuck. The year this book came up my class wrote Peter of their findings and he wrote back a beautiful email, commenting on what each child had discovered.

Elledge, Scott. (1984). E. B. White: A Biography. New York : W. W. Norton. This book is filled with interesting information and has some wonderful stuff that I haven’t found elsewhere.


Filed under Teaching

Reading Charlotte’s Web

Yesterday was not only the anniversary of my birth, but also the anniversary of the death of one of America’s most revered writers for children, E. B. White. And tomorrow, as I’ve done since 1990, I will be using Charlotte’s Web to introduce my 4th graders to a completely new way of reading.

This new way of reading for my students is actually a very old way of reading. It is close reading, the scholarly-sitting-around-the seminar-table-with-pencil-in-hand-to-make-notes-in-the-book’s-margins sort of reading. It is a way of reading that is exciting, revelatory, and wonderful when done with a book as moving, exquisitely written, and unique as Charlotte’s Web.

The children have brand new paperback copies of the book, all ready to mark-up, to make into their very own personal copies of Charlotte’s Web. My copy is not nearly as pretty. For it is a copy that was already beat-up when I grabbed it off a shelf in my classroom to take to Princeton University where I was to read it as part of a NEH summer seminar led by U. C.Knopflmacher.

I was ecstatic to be going; the reading list was full of beloved authors of mine like Sendak, Carroll, and Nesbit. The only one I was dubious about was White. Charlotte’s Web? That soppy book? No way was I spending a cent on a new copy.

But then there we were at that seminar table in the basement of the Firestone Library. Uli had me by the end of that remarkable first sentence, “Where’s Papa going with that axe?”, and I’ve never looked back. When I returned to school that fall, I decided to see how kids would react to such an experience. They loved it and I’ve been doing it every year since. And what do I think of Charlotte’s Web now? Only that it is the great American children’s novel.

So tomorrow my students will be (hopefully) all eager and excited to get going on this. My only worry is that I’m doing it a bit differently this year. One of my colleagues a few years ago had the brilliant idea of making enlarged copies of each page of the first chapter so the kids could see easily exactly what we were doing and do it too. (We model the first chapter for them and then they each do one on their own.) Last year I watched one colleague doing it on a Smartboard with great success so tomorrow I’m trying it on one too.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Maybe I’ll even figure out how to put a page or two up here for you all to see. (This blogging IS remarkably time absorbing!)


Filed under Reading, Teaching


I’m touched by the outpouring of birthday and blog-birth good wishes. I just hope that for all of you who come back regularly to read this blog, that I’m able to make it worth your while.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized