Monthly Archives: July 2010

Calling on all Claudia-Wannabes

Museums are complicated places, aren’t they?  Filled with cool objects they can transport us to other places and times.  There are big museums and small ones. Old museums and new ones. Imaginary onesLost ones. And undefinable ones like this one.

Because museums are places we go or are taken to as kids, filled with objects and ideas that are new and exciting and strange, they are featured frequently in stories for children.  Say a dramatic moment at the British Museum early on in Rick Riordan’s The Red Pyramid.  Or how about Barbara Lehman’s Museum Trip where a boy ends up in a work of art? Don’t want to spoil anything, but the one in Liam Tanner’s forthcoming fantasy Museum of Thieves is pretty amazing.  Arguably one of the most well-known of these is the classic, E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler.  Could anyone top Claudia and Jamie’s baths in the (now sadly long gone) pool in the museum cafeteria?

Actually maybe YOU could!  Because the Museum of Science and Industry of Chicago is offering one lucky person a truly remarkable chance to do what Claudia and Jamie did — live in their museum.  And not only live in it, but live to write about it.  Here’s their invite:

The Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago is looking for “you.” And by “you,” we mean an adventurous, outgoing person with a strong interest in learning about science and the world around her or him, plus the ability to write very well about your experiences. Ideally, you’re also the web-savvy sort who can keep your thumb out of frame when taking photographs. If that “you” sounds like you, or if you are simply curious about this intriguing endeavor, then you should read on.

We’re looking for someone to take on a once-in-a-lifetime assignment: spend a Month at the Museum, to live and breathe science 24/7 for 30 days. From October 20 to November 18, 2010, this person’s mission will be to experience all the fun and education that fits in this historic 14-acre building, living here full-time and reporting your findings to the outside world.

Sure, it’s a commitment. But if you are chosen and can successfully complete the Month at the Museum, you’ll walk away with a prize of $10,000, a package of tech gadgets, an honorary lifetime membership to MSI, and new knowledge and experiences that may just transform you.

Sounds pretty darn amazing to me.  Grown-up Claudias, Jamies, and anyone else who always dreamed of living in a museum go here for the details.  (Thanks to Karen Gooze Ulric for the link.)

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Kurt Scaletta’s Mamba Point

Mambo Point is the story of twelve-year-old Linus Tuttle who moves to Monrovia, Liberia in 1982 when his dad gets a job at the US Embassy there. A highly anxious kid, Linus hopes for a chance to reinvent himself in a new place (something I, an academic brat who moved frequently as a child, totally identified with).  When they first arrive the family has a dramatic encounter with a black mamba snake, mambas being among the most deadly snakes of the region. Once in their new apartment Linus sees a black mamba everywhere. He then learns about kasengs, a belief that people can have special mysterious connections to animals. As the story goes on it appears that this is the case with Linus and his black mamba.

Having served as a Peace Corps volunteer in nearby Sierra Leone a few years before this story takes place and having spent my 7th grade year on the fringe of US embassy culture in Germany I can say that those aspects of the setting are very authentically rendered. From the houseboy (as offensive as the term sounds that is what the household servants were called when I lived in Sierra Leone) to the curio seller and the music of that time and place, Scaletta’s 1982 Monrovia felt remarkably like my 1976 Freetown.  I did wonder about the parents seeming lack of interest in the local culture, but as I think about it I recall that sort of situation both in Sierra Leone and in Germany.  That is, US Embassy staff in both 1965 Germany and 1976 Freetown were highly isolated from the countries in which they resided.  In both places I recall a great effort to replicate America as much as possible.

Linus is an appealing protagonist and the interactions with “his” snake are gripping as are his complex relationships with his older brother and the few other kids he encounters.  There is a lot going on the book — cross-cultural understandings and misunderstandings, some incredibly exciting and dramatic scenes, magic of the African sort, peer and sibling relationships — a powerful coming-of-age story.  An interesting,  compelling, and different read, well worth checking out.

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Filed under Africa, Fantasy, Learning About Africa

A Few Clues from Me

Every month the Sherlock Holmes-like creators of the very fine Story Sleuths blog investigate a book to see what can they can glean from it in terms of writing for children.  Sometimes they have interviews with the authors and sometimes other folks weigh in as well. Say me. Their latest focus has been One Crazy Summer and I was delighted when they invited me to contribute this guest post. Others they’ve explored include The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianCharles and Emma, and When You Reach Me.

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Filed under Children's Literature, Teaching

Many Anne Franks

That’s my 7th grade diary given to me in 1964 by my grandmother along with a copy of Anne Frank’s diary right before we left for a year in Germany.  When we visited the recently-opened Anne Frank House a few months later I realized that my diary was just like Anne’s.  Presumably my grandmother bought it in Frankfurt (before she and my father fled in 1936) and then gave it to me years later.  I was almost twelve when I first read Anne’s diary ; it had a profound impression on me and so I’ve been always interested in related books.  As survivors die off (say my father two years ago), we grapple with how best to honor Anne and all who suffered because of the Holocaust.  I’m particularly interested in those about Anne, say:

  • Francine Prose’s excellent Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife. (This book is for adults, but is simply superb. Prose shows what a literary gem the diary is.)
  • The Anne Frank House’s engrossing Anne Frank: Her Life in Words and Pictures. (Love this one. Does a fantastic job of putting the story into context with primary sources.)
  • Sharon Dogar’s forthcoming fictional imagining of Peter van Pels’ diary, Annexed. (Still processing my feelings about this one.)

And the latest, a graphic novel version of the diary coming from the Anne Frank House.  Having read their two previous graphic novels, The Search and A Family Secret, I’m a bit dubious.  I requested them from their American publisher (thank you, Macmillan) after reading about them, but I found the writing unfortunately mediocre and so I’m extremely wary of this forthcoming graphic novel of the diary.  They (just as does Sharon Dogar) are looking for hooks to bring young people to the diary itself.  Very laudable, but I guess I’m still for giving them the real thing.

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Filed under graphic novel, Holocaust

Thoughts on Newbery: Something Old or Something New?

2. Each book is to be considered as a contribution to American literature. The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text. Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective.

That is the current criteria #2 for the Newbery award and I’ve written here before about my frustration with it. (Thoughts on Newbery: The Design Thorn.) As I complained in that post and Betsy Bird points out today, it keeps the committee from being able to recognize some of the most exciting books for children being created these days, those where art and design are intertwined with the text in original and innovative ways.

Betsy’s solution is a new award and while I’m absolutely fine with that something new, it doesn’t satisfy my problem with the something old — the Newbery.  After all, it is the most prestigious award for children’s books in this country.  It is the only one most people know. One Frederic G. Melcher proposed it to ALA and they approved it in 1922. This is from his formal agreement with the ALA board:

“To encourage original creative work in the field of books for children. To emphasize to the public that contributions to the literature for children deserve similar recognition to poetry, plays, or novels. To give those librarians, who make it their life work to serve children’s reading interests, an opportunity to encourage good writing in this field.”

“Original creative work for children.”   88 years ago Melcher and the others who created this award wanted books for children to be consider literature on the level of works for adults.  Can we agree that this is now moreso the case?  A few years back Anita Silvey wrote a provocative article asking if the Newbery had lost its way.  She felt it had because young people were not longer “rushing to read the latest Newbery winners.”  However, as many pointed out in response to the article, that wasn’t the original intent of the award at all.  Nor is it today.  If the books end up being popular, that is just grand. But the award isn’t about that; in fact, some of the least popular winners have been the most creative (say, ahem,  “my” winner).

But, to steal from Silvey, I do think the Newbery may be losing its way if it continues to leave art and design outside the circle of consideration.  Some of the most exciting and original books (and these are still very much books) for children being created today have these elements as integral parts. For those books not be recognized as the best because of this or for them to be recognized in spite of this frustrates me tremendously.

How to do it is a huge problem, I realize.  But I hope somehow it can be done so that the Newbery continues to truly recognize the most original and creative work for children of the year.

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Filed under ALA, awards, Newbery

That Summer Reading Slump

The question of the summer reading slump some kids experience came up during the NPR show on Friday.  My response was to advocate for programs that turn all kids into book owners, those programs that buy books for families and kids who might not otherwise have books in the home.  Give them fresh new books that they get to read and keep forever!

At one point a mention was made of other media — magazines, newspapers, comics, etc.  I didn’t weigh in then, but will now — any sort of print reading seems great to me.  If a kid wants to read news accounts of sports, that is totally fine with me.  The point is that he or she reads.  Doesn’t have to be a narrative, fiction or nonfiction.  Just something that has them dealing with the shape, sound, and meaning of words; it all helps them to build stamina, confidence, fluency, and enjoyment.  Summer reading is leisure reading for all of us and I think it very important to do everything we can to support developing readers so they begin to see reading as a fun leisure activity and develop reading confidence.

And while I absolutely agree with my fellow-guests that there are books of varying quality out there and it is important to help kids and parents figure out which is which, I also feel it is very, very, very important to support young readers in their summer/leisure reading by celebrating pretty much whatever they choose to read even if it isn’t something we think is particularly well-written. Keeping kids reading over the summer is key to avoid that dreaded slump, weak readers most of all, and so for the summer I’m for every sort of book, magazine, online site, and anything else with text and words that makes a kid want to read on.

I feel differently about the school year. As an expert reader I do feel that I can help my fourth grade students learn more about books, about good books, about good writing.  I do think school is the place to teach about best, better, and not-so-great texts. And so I do read aloud books to my class and have my 4th grade students study the best together, all the while supporting them as they choose their own books to read as well. While continuing to celebrate those personal reading choices, I want to help them develop their critical capacities — to be able to recognize the elements that make one book better than another.  Because I know my students will be getting more and more assigned books to read in future years, as well as developing their scholarly acumen, I want them to have time to determine just what their own tastes are as a reader and to have plenty of time to read the books they personally love most. For more about how I teach reading go to this post.

A few years ago I wrote a parody about required summer reading.  Thought it might be worth reposting for those who missed it.  Enjoy!

To require, or not to require, that is the question:
Whether 'tis safer for the child to tackle
The tomes and texts of summer reading,
Or to rest after a year of standards,
And by resting be just fine?  To bore: to make tedious:
No more; and by saying no required reading we end
The heart-ache and the hundreds of pages down
That eyes are following, 'tis a consummation
Urgently to be wish'd.  To bore, to make tedious
To read: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
for in required reading what dreams may come
When they are reading not what they chose,
It must give us pause: there's the worry
That makes calamity of so long a summer;
For who would otherwise bear the scores of tests,
The teacher's wrong, the greater authorities correct,
The pangs of summer fun, the sandlot game's delay,
The insolence of NCLB and the spurns
That patient scoring of the unworthy tests,
When the grader himself might his intellect make
content with a book? who would a library visit,
To read and turn pages under a flickering light,
But oh that dread of something after Labor Day,
No matter the undiscover'd book in whose pages
No child is lost, or left behind
And indeed makes us happier for we have
played with others and enjoyed the sun!
But required reading make cowards of us all;
Teachers and parents unresolved
Are sicklied 'oer with the pale cast of thought,
Is casual fun of greater import and meaning
In this regard than our children's future?
And so we go --- required summer reading all!
The fair child!  Innocent, in our eyes
Be all our beliefs --- read required, read.

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Live! On Point! All About Summer Reading! For Kids! Of Course!

Today I was on the NPR program, On Point, along with Esme Raji Codell and Pete Cowdin, talking about summer reading for kids.  It was a blast! If you missed us live you can still listen to the show here.

Coming up with the requested “seven or eight” recently published titles was torture and so I ended up with nine.  (Our lists are on the website — just scroll down to see them.) Figuring the radio audience wouldn’t be as familiar with kids’ books as many of us and wanting to suggest books I know for sure are kid hits ( as I’ve read them aloud and/or given them to my students to read) my list is a mix of new, well-known, some less-so, some for slightly older kids, some for younger ones, a few quirky titles perhaps, and so on.  There’s a graphic novel (volcanoes!); one nonfiction (having just seen Philip Hoose and Claudette Colvin* at ALA accepting various awards it was on my mind); one picture book (fictionalized, but based on a real story); and the rest are novels for middle grade kids and up.  I enjoyed putting it together and had a great time doing the broadcast.  I’ve done a few radio shows, but always over the phone. Pretty neat, I have to say, to do it in an actual NPR studio.

* I first saw Phil and Claudette speak about the book last fall at the Schomburg Center here in Harlem.  Claudette had a lot to say to the teens that comprised the bulk of the audience.  Very, very moving indeed.

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Filed under Children's Literature, Reading, summer reading