Thursday, July 26, 2007

Junie B. Jones

Today's New York Times has an article ("Is Junie B. Jones Talking Trash?") about the Junie B. Jones chapter books by Barbara Park. I have only a passing familiarity with the series and had no idea that they were so controversial. Interestingly, at issue is Junie's grammar. The NYT sums up some of the problems: "Her adverbs lack the suffix 'ly'; subject and object pronouns give her problems, as do possessives; she usually isn’t able to conjugate irregular past tense verbs; and words like funnest and beautifuller are the mainstays of her vocabulary."

On one side of this debate is those who find the books to be funny and entertaining. These parents don't see any harm in their children reading the books and are happy their children are reading at all. Some even view Junie's grammar as an opportunity to discuss proper grammar. On the other side of the debate are parents who are outraged about the language in the books because it lays a foundation of improper grammar for children who are still learning the English language.

While I wouldn't support banning these books entirely (Park was on the ALA's 2004 list of Most Frequently Challenged Authors!), I probably wouldn't recommend these books or encourage children to read them. I have to agree with the parent in the article who is quoted as saying “No wonder we have declining literacy and writing proficiency rates in this country!” I work at a university and frequently interact with undergraduates who don't have a grasp of basic grammar or even spelling. Friends who teach courses at various universities confirm that this is increasingly widespread. It seems clear to me that many children become adults who have never learned proper grammar. Junie B. Jones is isn't to blame for this, but she does seem to be part of a larger trend of simplifying language and placing no value on correct grammar. I don't see why we would want to encourage this trend by promoting these books. Grammar, spelling and vocabulary ARE important, because they allow people to express themselves clearly. Additionally, it could be that much harder for those who don't value these things when they are interacting with those who do (such as in searching for a job).

It might seem silly to some to make such a fuss about language in a children's book, but I think this is an important issue to at least consider when deciding what books to recommend or put in front of your own child.

Monday, July 23, 2007

15 Minutes

15 Minutes by Steve Young.

Things aren't going so well for Casey Little. He's bullied at school and is stuck being a water boy for the football team even though he wants to be out on the field. But when he discovers his grandfather's old watch in the attic, everything begins to change. Casey quickly realizes that the watch has the power to send the wearer back in time 15 minutes, and it doesn't take long before he's using the watch to his advantage. Through making countless trips back in time, he becomes a valued member of the football team, befriends the popular kids at school and even gets his revenge on a bully. However, he eventually comes to realize that there might be unintended consequences of using the watch and he's forced to decide whether it's worth using the watch if it's at someone else's expense--even someone like the school bully.

This is a quick read that is not too dense (many of the chapters are quite brief). It would make a good choice for boys in upper elementary or middle school because of its action, fast pacing and relatable male protagonist. While there are themes such as learning compassion and empathy for others, Young manages to handle them in a manner that is not overly self-conscious or heavy handed, resulting in a fun and entertaining story.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Guys Read

This is a big week for me---in addition to having my birthday on Saturday (and thank you, Liz, for that lovely post. I still have our copy of A Birthday for Frances, chompo bar included!), I am also expecting the birth of my first child, a son, any day now. As I mentioned in my first post, I am looking forward to sharing my love of reading with him. However, I realize that some of the books that I loved as a child may not exactly be his cup of tea (I can't imagine that too many boys get into the Little House on the Prairie series, for example). Plus, boys tend to lag behind girls in literacy achievement and often find reading to be a chore rather than a joy. The best thing parents can do, then, is to help their sons select books that they will want to read. This is easier said than done, especially when the books that you remember as a child are now at least 20-30 years old. Some of these have remained classics for children of both sexes, while others are probably out of print and hard to find. Plus, parents will want to become familiar with titles that have been published since their childhood---but as Liz pointed out in an earlier post, the children's book market has exploded, meaning that there is a lot of bad (movie tie-in books, anyone?) out there with the good.

Liz and I have already written about ways to find books for kids, from Liz's likely-to-be-successful tips (asking a librarian, using a reference book, perusing a library's online lists) to my hit-or-miss technique of picking books off a new-arrivals shelf at the library (at least I flipped through the texts and didn't judge them solely on their covers!). But not all of these techniques will help you to select books that might appeal more to boys than to girls, and you may not have access (or the time to read) subject matter guides such as Kathleen Odean's Great Books for Boys). For those short on time or without access to a large library collection, the Internet can be a terrific resource to help locate books.

Jon Scieszka (author of The Stinky Cheese Man, a personal favorite, although he's written a lot more since that book was published in 1992) has created a website to address the issue of boys and reading. It is called Guys Read (be forewarned that the site uses flash and didn't work so well on the Firefox browser). Scieszka has put together a site that parents can use to find books that their sons might enjoy. The "Find a Book" feature allows the user to type in the title of a favorite book, author, or topic (say, dinosaurs); the database will then return a list of suggested books. The "Guys' Picks" page lists favorite books as recommended by other users of the website; the lists are roughly broken down by age group (Young Guys, Middle Guys and Older Guys). Either way, a click on the titles or author names will take you to the appropriate page on

I played around with the site for a few minutes, and although I think it's a terrific idea, there are some limitations, particularly with the "Find a Book" database search. Entering a subject in the "Books About" box is probably the best way to use this feature. Type in 'trains', for example, and you'll get 120 pages of suggestions, from The Little Engine That Could (I always loved that book not so much for its message of empowerment but for the pictures of candy and toys that the good boys and girls on the other side of the mountain were about to receive!) to the unavoidable Thomas the Tank Engine series. Other books with "train" in the title that have nothing to do with actual trains were included, meaning that the search code is not particularly sophisticated (while I'm sure that a book on Harriet Tubman would be fascinating (Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman), it's frustrating to sift through 120 pages knowing that many of the selections won't actually have anything to do with actual trains). And there doesn't seem to be any specific order to the list that the search returns---multiple editions of one title show up but are not grouped together, for example.

Other limitations with the database search become apparent with a search based on favorite author or title. I was expecting a search according to either of these categories to recommend books that are similar in some way to the favorite. However, in both cases, the search simply returned all the books by the favorite author (or author of the favorite book).

The "Guys' Picks" page lists books by a variety of authors, although they are not broken down by subject or even a specific age range (how young are "Young Guys", anyway?). But, one could definitely print out the list and then either read reviews on Amazon or as a starting point for a search at the local library. There are lots of familiar titles on the list (Richard Scarry's Things That Go, James Marshall's George and Martha books), some that I know have become popular since I was young (Mo Willems has been recommended to me by two children's librarians-in-training), and some I've never heard of. It looks like a nice mix, but again, without further information, it's hard to know as a non-librarian the age appropriateness of each title.

I'd be curious to hear what others think of this site, especially Liz and other librarians or librarians-in-training.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

A birthday for Jody

Today is Jody's birthday, so in her honor here is a round-up of my favorite picture books on birthdays.

A Birthday for Frances was a family favorite when we were children. While not all of Russel Hoban's Frances books stand the test of time well (Bedtime For Frances in particular--I don't think anyone would publish a book these days in which parents threaten to spank their child if she doesn't go to bed), this one is a timeless tale. Frances gets a chocolate Chompo candy bar for her younger sister's birthday gift, but she really wants to eat it herself. She struggles with issues of jealousy and generosity, but she manages to overcome and give Gloria her present.

Frank Asch's Happy Birthday, Moon is a beautifully illustrated, slow, sweet book about a bear who wants to give the moon a gift for its birthday. This is suitable for very young children because of its simplicity in both story and illustrations.

Vera B. Williams is the author/illustrator of two Caldecott Honor books, and Something Special For Me tells the story of Rosa, who gets to use the money her family saved all year to buy a special present for herself on her birthday. She resists buying things because her friends all have them and instead finds the perfect gift for her. If you enjoy this book, you can revisit Rosa's family in several other books by Williams.

Finally, both Eric Carle and Dr. Seuss have books with birthday themes. Carle's bright, bold illustrations in The Secret Birthday Message are a joy to look at and Dr. Suess's Happy Birthday To You features the Great Birthday Bird from Katroo, who knows just how to make a birthday fun and memorable.

So, Jody, happy birthday to YOU!

Friday, July 13, 2007

Picture books for picky kids

Jody commented in the last post that she selected books on bedtime by browsing the shelves at her library. While browsing the shelves is certainly one way to find books on a particular subject, there are other ways for parents and librarians alike to find a stronger body of books. By merely browsing the shelves, you risk ending up with books that don't represent the best of what's available. The children's literature publishing business is booming right now, and although that means more books for children are available than ever before, not all of them are worth spending much time on. And especially for parents: if your child decides she loves a book and wants you to read it over and over--it should be something you enjoy, too!

There are some great resources for librarians who are looking for picture books on a particular theme, and A to Zoo by Carolyn W. Lima & John A. Lima is probably the best. The current edition lists almost 23,000 picture books by 1200 subjects, with indexes cross-referencing books by title, author and illustrator.

While A to Zoo can be used by parents as well, to do so would probably be more time consuming than it's worth. Parents do have the option of asking their friendly neighborhood children's librarian, who probably gets asked about books on specific themes quite often. Many libraries also maintain lists of picture books on various themes, either in print in the children's department or online. Two libraries with good online lists are the Chapel Hill Public Library and (my local and beloved library) the Monroe County Public Library. And the Waterboro Public Library in Maine has an amazing round-up of booklists by theme, covering topics from cats to trains and everything in between--and it even includes links to lists on bedtime stories!

Nighty night

For my inaugural review, I thought it would be appropriate to select a book that deals with the theme of going to bed. This is a category that has some heavyweights in its corner already (Goodnight Moon is the most obvious example) and clearly continues to be a popular topic for children’s book authors. I wanted to see what new titles were out there that might make for worthy additions to the genre.

Since I am the non-professional of the two of us, I made my selections in a very non-scientific manner: I looked through the “new picture books” shelves at my (tiny) local library and leafed through those that had something to do with sleep or night in the title. I'm sure that my sister will have one or two things to say about this method, but I imagine that is how many parents select books for their kids---without the benefit of reviews or lists or recommendations.

Of the books that I selected, the one I most enjoyed was When Sheep Sleep, by Laura Numeroff, illustrated by David McPhail (New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2006).

Laura Numeroff is the author of the best-selling If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, which was one of my sister’s all-time favorites as a little girl. This book has the same sense of each page building on the previous one. In Mouse, each action opened a new can of worms (if you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll want a glass of milk). In When Sheep Sleep, each page presents a new possible answer to the question hinted at in the title: what to do when the sheep (so useful for counting at bedtime) are already asleep?

On the first page, a little girl and her teddy bear lie awake in bed, unable to sleep. The text suggests, “When you can’t fall asleep,/Then try counting sheep!” Unfortunately, the sheep are themselves already slumbering at the foot of her bed. The text (written in rhyming verse) then suggests other animals that one could count, yet they too are all asleep. In the end, the very act of counting is enough to tire the pair out, and they fall asleep, surrounded by the various animals depicted on the previous pages.

The rhyme is gentle and often repetitive, creating a soothing rhythm perfect for helping a child settle into a quiet pre-bedtime mood. This is assisted by David McPhail’s soft pen and watercolor illustrations, which depict the animals (even pigs in their muddy pen) as soft and cuddly. As the story begins, we see that the little girl (in an adorable purple footed pajama) is playing with a variety of small stuffed animals; in the following pages, she (along with her now-animated teddy bear) is transported outside to view the same animals sleeping in their natural habitats. I didn’t notice the connection between the stuffed animals and the “real” sleeping animals during my first read-through, but it’s details like this that will allow for new discoveries during multiple readings.

A note about the nightlight

Unlike many kidlit bloggers out there, I am completely unqualified to share my opinions about children’s books. By unqualified, I mean that I have no formal training in children’s librarianship, book publishing or reviewing, or anything to do with the children’s book trade. I am, however, about to become a new mom, and have been a voracious reader since I was a small girl. Although I have enjoyed acquiring all of those necessary baby things that newborns need (and some that they don’t), I have found that I have gotten the most pleasure out of the knowledge that soon I’ll be able to start sharing my love of reading with my son. He won’t be able to understand a word I read to him at first, or even be able to really focus on the pictures, but I know that eventually it will become as cherished an activity in his life as it has in mine.

The title of this blog refers to a nighttime ritual that both my sister, Liz, (the qualified professional out of the two of us) and I engaged in as children. After I had been tucked into bed, I would often get out from under the covers and continue reading my current book by the glow of the night-light. Turns out that Liz did the same thing. Our mother was on to us, and she would usually pop her head into our rooms 15 or 20 minutes later and tell us to go to sleep. Sometimes the book was too good to put down, however, and I’m sure I caused my mother a lot of frustration on those nights that I stayed up way past my bedtime.

Although the description of this blog above (re. books that keep kids up past their bedtimes) will certainly describe many of the posts that my sister and I write, this blog is meant to be more open-ended. Many of the books I’ll review will naturally be for very young children, since I soon will become intimately involved with the phenomenon of the board book. Liz will have a different point of view, since she is currently studying to be a children’s librarian and will have access to materials, theories, etc. that will be unknown or unfamiliar to me, the lay person. It is my hope that our two unique but complimentary approaches will add something new to the kidlit blogosphere.