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Notes from the Library...
by Toni E. Siegel, Children's Librarian

This is Note #6 in a series by children's librarian, Toni E. Siegel. You can scroll down to read notes on the following topics: #5 Teenage Readers: Why Kids Do and Don't Read; #4 Value Over Volume: Getting the Most Out of Each Book; #3 Recommended Picture Books from Different Cultures; #2 Can a Book Be Too Easy?: Reading Doesn't Have to be a Struggle; #1 Summer Reading

(link to Newbery/Caldecott winners and Recommended Books for more reading suggestions. Create your own home library. Thanks for supporting this site by buying books through the Creative Parents links.)

Note #6

On Reading Biographies

"When a day passes, it is no longer there. What remains of it? Nothing more than a story . . . The whole world, all human life, is one long story."
(Isaac Bashevis Singer)

People love biographies. When a child listens to tales of Grandpa's boyhood, that is biography. So is a friend's recounting the ups and downs of yesterday's soccer game. Some people even have their life stories written down and published. As the bestseller lists illustrate, biographies and memoirs are very popular. We tend to think of written biographies as being about important people, often famous, whose places in our lives are well known and who have made some contributions to our world.

Each of us has our own preference as to which contributions we are most interested in reading about. Some find the life of John Adams fascinating, while others choose Madonna.

On occasion, a person becomes famous only after writing an autobiography as happened with Frank McCourt when he wrote Angela's Ashes. Often a biographer may just want to write about a loved one, including a four-legged furry one. My Dog Skip, the Memoir of a Dog is an example.

Biographies are fun to share with your children. They can prompt questions and discussions about your own lives or about an interest which you both share. They are excellent tools for investigating history, science, the arts, and even personality traits.

Your kids might like to think about why the person succeeded. Was it because of perseverance and ingenuity, or maybe luck and audacity? There are many excellent stories about the lives of real people. These are a few of our favorites...

Elementary School

Adler, David. (several series)
Fritz, Jean. (series on American Revolutionary figures)
Golenbock, Peter. Teammates
Krull, Kathleen. Wilma Unlimited
Pinkney, Andrea Davis. Duke Ellington

Middle School

Krull, Katherine. (several collections about athletes, musicians, presidents and more)
Marrin, Albert. (many books on historical figures)
Murphy, Jim. A Young Patriot
Paulsen, Gary. Guts, a Memoir
Sullivan, George. Mathew Brady: His Life and Photographs


High School

Armstrong, Lance. It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life
Baker, Russell. Growing Up
Graham, Katherine. Personal History
McCullogh, David. (many books)
Wolff, Tobias. This Boy's Life, A Memoir



Note #5

Teenage Readers

Many people take a hiatus from recreational reading during their teens, often because they are already doing so much required reading for school. If your teenager is taking an English course he's analyzing and discussing works of literature. Chances are he's also reading for science, social studies, and even math. He may associate all reading with more study, more questions, and more analysis, not to mention short answer tests. He's reading. But it may no longer be relaxing.

When I hear parents' concerns that their teenager no longer reads for pleasure I want to say "Don't worry parents, your kids are reading, even if it's the chapters of a science text. They are deriving information from the written word. Reading newspapers and magazines, even ones written for teens, counts."

Reading is already going on in school. During the teen years parents can play a role in encouraging reading for pleasure by helping their adolescents concentrate on stories -- and not all stories have to be in books.

What are some ways to interest your teenager in stories? Talk about family history. Ask her about her life. Listen to her stories, and tell her yours. Even if she doesn't seem to be listening, she will be. Above all don't be judgmental. If your teenager wants to read books you consider junk, that's fine for now. Don't tell her that her choices aren't good enough. Read something together, even if you hate fantasy or science fiction. Watch television together and discuss the plots and characters.

There are other ways to encourage reading for pleasure. Create a family book group, or one with friends. Create a family book. If your child needs to find a community service project, help him find one that will involve reading to the elderly or to young children. There is a special challenge to reading aloud because the reader needs to bring the story alive. Your child will have the chance to experiment with expression and voices -- to do a bit of play acting. Reading picture books to young children, will also reconnect him to the stories and other interesting things that happen between the covers of a book.

Observing their parents enjoy literature tells teens that there are reasons to read for pleasure. Talk about what you are reading and see if anything catches your child's interest . Get together to watch the video of the book if it's been made into a movie and exchange ideas about your reactions.

Teens are constantly being judged, by parents, teachers and friends. These are hard years. Every day an adolescent looks in the mirror and sees someone new. Through stories, teens can enter other people's lives. When those lives bear some resemblance to their own, they gain perspective on their problems -- have conversations that they are not ready or able to have in real life and begin to look at situations in new ways. By helping your teenager appreciate the power of the story, you will create a path that eventually leads back to books.


Note #4

Value Over Volume
Reading is a partnership between reader and author

Here we are at the exciting, but "nervous" time of year when children put themselves under pressure to attract notice and "be smart" for this year's teacher.

Often children want to show off how much they read during vacation. I hear, "I read twenty books, each 250 pages!!" "I read 5 books, in just one day!!" Logically the first question I ask is which books. Frequently they don't quite remember. The books have become a blur of pages to them; a status symbol to be flaunted. They have learned that numbers impress and that big numbers make the largest impressions. They don't realize that it doesn't work in reading; that consuming books misses the point.

A contest ensues. "Don't you want to know how many books I read, Ms. Siegel?" Well, no, I don't. I want to know what you read: whether it touched you; what you thought of the main subject; would you have wanted to be part of the story; what would you have done in the story. Did you wish any of the characters could be your friend? Would you recommend the book or author to your classmates?

I have a hard time moving from one fiction book to another without a break in between. If I've read a fiction book well, I've made the people or animals a part of me. They have entered my world in just my way and I'm not quite ready for them to leave yet. Good books are never just printed squiggles on a page. Each is a partnership between reader and author to bring a story alive. Just like pictures hung on a wall, books need breathing space. If you crowd them together, you lose the impact of each individual one.

Here are some books I like:

Bud, Not Buddy ( Newbery Award winner, 2000) Age 9-12 -by Christopher Curtis, 1999

The story of a young boy, Bud, who, with very little to go on, flees from foster homes to find his father. The reader will cheer and giggle at Bud's adventures as he searches for his father, and ultimately for himself.

Interstellar Pig, Age 12 and up.- by William Sleator, 1995

Barney is barely surviving a boring seaside vacation with his parents when he learns that the house the family is renting has a history reaching back to a shipwrecked sailor in 1964. Then three glamorous neighbors rent the house next door and invite Barney to become part of a game called Interstellar Pig. Things become far more exciting after that.

Julie of the Wolves (Newbery Award winner, 1973), Age 10 and up. -by Jean Craighead George

A thirteen-year-old Eskimo girl is struggling to find her place in the traditional world of her people, and reconcile it with life in modern Alaska. She runs away from an arranged marriage and becomes lost in the Tundra, where she is befriended by a pack of wolves who ultimately become her family. Eventually she is forced to confront the tension between humans and wolves.

Note #3

Recommended Picture Books from Different Cultures

Here are new editions of picture books available in most bookstores and libraries:

Joseph Had a Little Overcoat (Yiddish) (2000 Caldecott winner) Joseph's overcoat is old and worn. He makes a jacket out of it, then a vest, until finally it becomes only a button (See interview with the author, Simms Taback, and send in an activity for a chance to win a signed copy)

Nadia's Hands (Pakistan) Nadia is pleased to be asked to be a flower girl in her aunt's wedding, but she is concerned about what her non-Pakistani friends will say when they see her hands decorated for the wedding with traditional henna designs.

The Golden Flower (Puerto Rico) A Taino creation story about the origin of the seas, the sky and the island of Puerto Rico.

My Rows and Piles of Coins (Tanzania) A young boy saves coins to buy a bicycle to help his parents carry goods to market. Then he discovers that he still does not have enough money.

The Night of Las Posadas (Mexican Customs in old New Mexico) At the annual Christmas celebration the husband and wife who are to play Mary and Joseph are delayed. A mysterious man and woman appear who are perfect for the parts.

The Dragon's Tale (China) A collection of fables about the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac.

The Egyptian Cinderella (Egypt) A bird (an Egyptian deity) drops a shoe into the lap of a young Pharaoh. A slave girl has the matching one.

The Ugly Duckling (Denmark) A duckling lives an unhappy year until he grows into a beautiful swan.

Paul Bunyan (United States) Recounts the life and legend of the lumberjack and his blue cow.

Snail and Buffalo (Native American) Buffalo is huge, brave and fast. Snail is small, fearful and slow. Each can do what the other can't, and they are helpful to each other.

Note #2

Can a Book be "Too Easy?"

Too often I hear, "This book is too easy for me, Ms. Siegel, I want a hard book, a long hard book." I would like to know exactly what makes a book "too easy." Is it "too easy" if you just enjoy the story without struggling over the words? Does "too easy" mean that you forgot you were reading, and, instead, you heard the author tell a story, or saw the pictures that the words made in your imagination?

Maybe "too easy" means that you were a little embarrassed because your friend was carrying a big, heavy book and yours was smaller. Many people think that a long book is harder than a short one. That is not necessarily so. Learning to read can be hard work.

It is a wonderful feeling finally to read a book that you thought would be too difficult for you. Let us not forget, however, that one of the reasons we learn to read is so we can curl up under a tree, on a couch, or in bed at night and enjoy a book. This does not make a book "too easy." It makes it fun. It makes it possible to snuggle up inside a story and laugh and cry with new friends. This summer I will be reading many books. Some will be "easy," and I'll love them. I hope all of you read some "easy" books so we can share them in the fall.


Note #1

Summer Reading-

"Summertime and the living is easy"

I am frequently asked, "What is a good book?" Generally, a discourse on good literature is not what the questioner wants. She really means, "Can you suggest a book that I will like?" The answer is "Sure, usually." Books are like food. Good food is nutritious, but desserts are important also. Many of us like the same foods; most like a variety, and each of us has personal tastes.

Summer vacation is a wonderful time for reading all those books you meant to get to during the year, but didn't-- and for experimenting with new ones. Vacations are a perfect time to read together. Parents, read to your children -- every day; children, read to your parents- every day. Remember to explore types of books you haven't tried before.

Use this time to try challenging, weighty tomes, but be sure to include those easy and light "dessert" books as well. Sometimes re-read the same books. Often there are new discoveries with each reading. Don't forget to look closely at the art of picture books. Illustrators are storytellers, too. Investigate local libraries. There are treasures to be found in many older, out-of-print books.

Here are a few suggestions:

Picture books

Anything by William Steig, Patricia Polacco, Eric Kimmel, Verna Aardema, Marc Brown, Barbara Cooney, Charlotte Zolotow, Judith Viorst and Bernard Waber. Plus there are many, many other wonderful books.

Early Readers

There are many excellent individual books, as well as series. To name a few: Frog and Toad series, Little Bear, Henry and Mudge.

Junior Fiction

The Borrowers and The Half Magic series are good summer reading. Alvin Schwartz, Bruce Colville, and Allan Aalberg write good scary ghost stories, but I don't recommend them for bedtime. The Great Brain series and Mary Poppins series are also very involving.

More summer book suggestions to come

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