Monthly Archives: September 2010

Refreshingly Nasty Fairies

Much as I like fairy stories I have to say that the children’s book market has been a tad saturated with those fey creatures of late. And so I was a bit dubious when I first saw Lesley M. M. Blume’s Modern Fairies, Dwarves, Goblins, and Other Nasties: A Practical Guide by Miss Edythe McFate.  Not only was it fairies, modern ones mind you, but it had one of those narrators-who-isn’t-the-actual-author — another overly popular trope.

But let me tell you, this book feels fresh and different.  Yes, reader, I liked it.  The matter-of-fact Ms. McFate not only provides us with a good deal of useful information about modern and historical fairies, but links these informational sections with a bunch of cautionary tales about their ways in New York City today.  In such fantastical places as the Lincoln Tunnel, the subway, the Staten Island ferry, Coney Island, and Carnegie Hall not-always-very-nice things happen with all sorts of creatures.  The tart and clearheaded Ms. McFate tells her stories without holding anything back — there are disappearances, deaths, and other sad fates — but she also tells them in a way that works for middle grade kids.  That is, more gloomy than violent, I’d say, sort of ghost-storyish. Nicely complementing the text are David Foote’s black and white illustrations that, although totally different in style, work somewhat like Edward Gorey’s for the Treehorn books.  (Hmm…I’ve been trying to think what this book is like — maybe it does have a bit of Heide’s sort of sensibility. Or even Lemony Snicket just a bit.)  So there you are — a new and different modern fairy book that is not YA urban fantasy, but for middle grade kids.  Here’s the book trailer to give you a bit more of a taste:

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9/11, Children, and their Books

The children who spent their first day of fourth grade with me when the towers fell downtown are freshmen in college this year while my new class of fourth graders were babies when it happened.  And so with every anniversary my classroom experience is different. No longer will I have fourth graders coming in with their own vivid memories of the day, now they will be coming in knowing about it secondhand, through other people’s stories, through the media, through books.

In 2001 books addressing anything related to the event were the last thing my students wanted.  Those were hard days for all of us with the painful signs of the missing everywhere, the smoke, the smell, the sound of fighter planes and helicopters constantly overhead, our school’s incessant bomb threats that took some children completely over the edge, school closings, anthrax scares (with a policeman coming to my classroom to check on a package I received scaring the kids even more), National Guard with machine guns out standing outside subway stations, military vehicles moving down Broadway, and more.  We had school community members who had experienced personal loss and trauma and others who were displaced from their downtown homes and jobs.   I wrote about our experiences on various online discussion groups and in response well-intentioned and concerned people from outside New York offered unsolicited book suggestions about other equally horrible events, about war — books meant to create understanding, but books that weren’t for us at that time.  In late September 2001 I wrote:

… Yesterday, our first full day in the fourth grade, I wondered all day about my end of day read-aloud. The children were thrilled to see it on the schedule, but I worried about what I should read. Finally, after looking over my sure-fire hits I stuck with my pre-Tuesday book selection, The Best School Year Ever. It is a school story, completely off the wall funny, and it has a theme of tolerance and understanding (yes, it does, really!) I started reading and immediately worried as the narrator wrote of the Herdmans being like outlaws, that if they had lived in the Wild West they would have “blown” it up. I wondered, would those words scare? I discretely looked at the faces around me, (one of my most important teacher skills is this ability, long honed) but they just looked intrigued. I read further to the description of Imogene’s science project (something unknown scratching in an oatmeal box) and they giggled. By the time I stopped, half way through the first chapter one, I relaxed; it seemed be a good choice. (But I’m sure going to keep on watching. The smoke may go away, but not the pain.)

One other book  provided us with special solace:  E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, a book that allowed us to consider life and death in a different place,  a book that each child could enter and connect to as he or she needed to.  A book I’d been starting the year with before 2001, it is one I continue to use as it brings out everything I want for children as they start their fourth grade year.  As for books about September 11th, I still don’t feel a need for them as I have so many artifacts and stories of my own.  But I realize that books can be helpful for those who haven’t the firsthand experience I had, for those who have children asking questions about 9/11, for those who want to begin a conversation with young children about that day.  For those of you, here are four books I recommend:

  • Maira Kalman’s Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey was one of the first to appear in 2002. Spectacularly beautiful it also unnerved me and my fourth graders that year, but no doubt we were still too close to the events to consider it objectively.  Kalman pulls no punches that is for sure, but for many children this book would be the right stepping-off point to talk about the day.
  • In 2003 we were graced with Mordecai Gerstein’s sublime presentation of Philippe Petit’s extraordinary tightrope stunt between the towers in 1974,  The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. This is my personal favorite of all the post-9/11 picture books for children, an exquisite memorial, celebrating this wild and unbelievable event in a place that is no longer there.
  • Jeanette  Winter’s simple yet evocative, September Roses came out in 2004, telling the story two women from South Africa and the thousands of roses they brought to New York after 9/11.  It is spare and moving and feels like a great book to start a conversation.  As with all of these books, depending on the age of the children, you may want to supplement with other materials, say a careful use of primary sources (as the images might be too disturbing for young children so I urge caution).
  • Carmen Agra Deedy, Thomas Gonzalez, and Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah came out with 14 Cows for America last year, the true story of a Kenyan Maasai village’s response to the events of September 11th.  I like the different perspective this book provides, one from outside America, and think it could generate some excellent discussion in classrooms and families.

Also at my Huffington Post blog

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Marcel’s Antecedent Perhaps?

It was a Facebook friend that first introduced me to the charming video Marcel The Shell with Shoes On.  Marcel’s naive-childlike-voice immediately made me remember a 1950s arty children’s movie I’d seen long ago that had real children doing a random voice-over. My lame efforts to track it down — “1950s art film with real kids talking?” — got me zilch.  I tried to forget about it, but the recent resurfacing of Marcel (most recently here and here) kept me scratching.  I thought the filmmakers’ last name  was something like Hubble or Hussey and that the wife was Ruth.  That didn’t work, but I kept fiddling around and, hallelujah, today I found them and it!

It is MoonBird, the 1959 Academy Award winner for animation by John Hubley (who collaborated with his wife Faith —biblical, I got that at least). A good overview of the film by animator Michael Sporn is here and you can view the film itself below. I suppose it isn’t much like Marcel and could be considered a bit precious, but whatever — at least I’m not itching anymore.

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Mix-ups, Mash-ups, Pop Culture, and Scholars

The video below is the center piece of Phil Nel’s smart and witty presentation “Metafiction for Children: A Users Guide.” You are welcome to just watch the video here, but I suggest going to the presentation itself to read Phil’s Curator’s Note and others’ comments on it.  (ETA As he writes in the comments below, Phil’s now got a post at his own blog with an ever-growing book list.) And then, if you have time, snoop around In Media Res, a bit.  They are doing some very neat stuff. I’m particularly interested in their call for proposals for this, but others look fascinating too.

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Bye-Bye Summer Reading Blues

School supplies purchased? Check.
Summer reading done?
First day outfit selected?  Check.
Summer reading done?
One last cookout? Check.
Summer reading done?
Found assigned book under the bed and read it at the last possible moment? Check.
All ready for the first day of school?  Check.

Long summer breaks from school can be wonderful — they give all the players a chance to do something different, to take a break from the regimens and demands of formal teaching and learning.  Formal because summer can still be a time of learning, just not one that involves tests and grades and high-stakes assessments.  And one of the most familiar forms of summer learning is summer reading.  Concerned about children returning to school with weaker reading skills than when they left, the so-called reading slump, educators have developed a variety of solutions.  They assign single books to read, ask children to read one from a list of books, or even just say they can read any book they want as long as they read something.

Sounds sensible doesn’t it?  Well, not necessarily.  Here are some of the problems I’ve encountered:

  • The assigned book contains upsetting material.  It is one thing to read such a book together while in school and there is a teacher to support the students as they understand it, quite another to ask them to read it completely on their own and then perhaps write about it or talk about it briefly when back in school.  I am saddened when I see complaints about summer reading books of this sort because I feel that they are accidents waiting to happen. That is, they are books that are complicated, the kind that kids need to process with adults, they should be in classrooms and they should be read.  Just not as a summer reading book, I think.
  • The small list of books contains not a single title that is of interest to the child.  This may not be a problem for avid readers, but for kids who are just turning into readers when the summer begins I’m sure nothing is worse than having to read, before school begins, a book that looks long and boring.  I can only imagine these kids going through the motions of reading, but getting little out of the book except a whole lot of misery.
  • Finally, there is what happens when the kids go back to school.  Some teachers do something of substance with these assigned books, but unfortunately others do very little.  They may ask the kids to write something briefly about the book they read, discuss it briefly the first day, or actually they may not even acknowledge it.  This creates a cynical attitude on the part of the kids that does nothing to help them when they are assigned another book to read the next summer.

I should say (if it isn’t clear already) that I am not a fan of assigned summer reading.  Those who love to read will read without any requirements from me and they will read what they want to read, not what I think they should read.  Those who don’t like to read are the worry, the reason for assigned reading in the first place and my feeling is that these kids need something very personal and very open — their schools and teachers need to set up a way for them to want to read over the summer.

Those with involved parents and sensitive schools  can be helped with individual programs.  I’ve done this with my own students — working with them to find reading material for the summer that appeals (and this can be nonfiction, comics, magazines, as well as fiction), set them up to be in touch with me about the reading, perhaps encourage them to read together with their parents, and so forth. The bigger concern are those children without such individual school and home support.  Summer reading programs that give these kids books, ideally whatever books they want, strike me as the best option.  My favorite of these programs is the venerable First Books, a wonderful organization that has long seen the value in kids both selecting and owning their own books.  A new report supports this idea. Researcher Richard Allington of the University of Tennessee found that, “Spending roughly $40 to $50 a year on free books for each child began to alleviate the achievement gap that occurs in the summer.”

For children who have been in school for a few weeks, the summer reading situation is long behind them, but for those whose first day of school is still to come, I suspect that too many of them are celebrating Labor Day by laboring away, working and working to finish that assigned summer reading book.

Also posted at the Huffington Post.

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Peter Ackerman’s and Max Dalton’s The Lonely Phone Booth

I’ve walked by this phone booth hundreds of times over the years, but this may have been the first time I ever stepped inside.  A few blocks away from me, it always gave me the creeps, reeking as it did of unsavory use especially a few decades back when there was a lot more street crime in the neighborhood.  No doubt having been the victim of serious crime myself I’m prejudiced, but I’ve never felt the slightest bit of nostalgia for this particular piece of street furniture.

But that is just me.  On a larger scale this is one of the few remaining phone booths of yore, the kind Clark Kent used to change into Superman, and so of value to many.  Say Alan Flacks a familiar neighborhood gadfly who fought to keep this one in place and in working order. Remembering Alan’s efforts I was intrigued to see that it inspired a picture book, Peter Ackerman’s and Max Dalton’s The Lonely Phone Booth.   And, to their credit, they’ve made the booth something greater than its current reality. In Ackerman’s sweet story it is a heroic little phone booth in the tradition of other obsolete things, say that one uptown celebrated in The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge.   The illustrations by Max Dalton are delightful.  A quirky and charming work of retro nostalgia that would appeal to lap reading I’m thinking.

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