12 posts categorized "Learning Difficulties" Feed

The Spaghetti Detectives: Andreas Steinhöfel

Book: The Spaghetti Detectives
Author: Andreas Steinhöfel
Pages: 176
Age Range: 10-12

9780545289757_xlg The Spaghetti Detectives is a brilliant and unusual book. It was originally published in Germany, and won author Andreas Steinhöfel the prestigious German Youth Literature Prize (the German equivalent to the Newbery Award) in 2009. It was just published in the US by Scholastic this summer, translated by Chantal Wright.

The Spaghetti Detectives is told from the viewpoint of Rico, whose mother calls him a "child proddity". Rico has developmental difficulties that make it difficult for him to do simple things, like tell left from right, or remember directions. His head "is sometimes as topsy-turvy as a barrel full of lottery balls" (Page 4). Rico lives with his single mother in a small apartment building, and doesn't really have any friends (though a couple of grown-up fellow tenants take an interest in him).

Early in the book, Rico meets Oscar, a small boy who wears a blue bike helmet (for safety) and is an actual child prodigy. Rico and Oscar's quirks seem to fit together well, and the two become friends. Rico and Oscar both end up on the trail of the notorious Mr. 2000, a child kidnapper who has been terrorizing Berlin for 3 months. It's quite a challenge for a boy who has difficulty thinking clearly and a boy who is small and physically fearful to catch a real kidnapper. But Oscar and Rico are pretty determined kids.

Rico's voice is entertaining and witty, though you also feel for him and his memory holes and "lottery balls." Here's an example:

"I went out of the shop. There was a light wind moving the leaves on the trees in the street--I've forgotten what they're called, or I never knew, but they look great. The bark on their trunks peels off like varnish on an old door and underneath you can see lighter bark that's also peeling off, and more underneath that. You have to ask yourself it does that all the way through." (Page 18)

In another instance, someone asks Rico: "Give me five." Here's Rico's response:

"I pushed my chair back, stood up, quickly said goodbye, and left. If he was about to move on to math, that would ruin everything." (Page 38)

As Rico encounters words that he doesn't understand, he looks them up. But his resulting definitions, shown in a separate font, are as quirky as he is. Like this (after Oscar apologizes to Rico for being arrogant):

"ARROGANT: When somebody looks down on somebody else. So Oscar can't be all that smart because at the end of the day he's a lot smaller than I am and has to keep looking up at me." (Page 24)

Rico and Oscar have a fun dynamic, not quite understanding one another, wanting to be friends, but (as boys will) insulting each other, too.

Wright's translation is utterly seamless. Young readers unfamiliar with German place names could almost read The Spaghetti Detectives straight through without even guessing that it doesn't take place in the US. There's hardly anything in the translation to trip up the unsuspecting young reader - very little terminology that requires additional explanation (beyond a few references to the Euro). Rico's perspective as a "proddity" is so unique that it's not a matter or whether he seems German or American. He just seems different. Funny and likable, but undeniably different.

My one concern with this book is age range. The Spaghetti Detectives is a slim book with a happy-go-lucky, cartoon-like cover and a fun title. I expected it to be an early chapter book, not an easy reader, but more a book for 3rd or 4th graders than 6th graders, say. But the slimness is deceptive. We learn early in the book of a kidnapper who has threatened to send children back to their parents in small pieces. Rico's mom works overnight in a nightclub, and is clearly a looker. Rico spends nights (and even several days in a row) in his apartment alone, though a neighbor keeps a loose eye on him. So ... not so much a book for brand new readers, I don't think. I would still classify it as middle grade - mature things are more implied than stated. I just worry a little that it looks like it's for even younger kids.

But that's more a marketing point than a comment on the book itself. And The Spaghetti Detectives would make an excellent choice for older kids who have reading difficulties. Or for prodigies. Or for anyone who sometimes finds life difficult.

The Spaghetti Detectives is a book that I hope lots of kids will find. It's a middle grade buddy story with a real mystery at its core. The plotting relies a tiny bit on coincidence, but not grievously so. And the engaging protagonists are not to be missed. I would like to see Rico and Oscar have many more adventures. Highly recommended for middle grade readers (and their parents).

Publisher: The Chicken House (@Scholastic)
Publication Date: July 1, 2011 (US publication date, the book was originally published in Germany)
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Children's Books for Adults, Books for Teen Boys and Girls, and Henry Winkler

I have four quick posts that I simply must bring to your attention today:

  • Linda Urban (author of the delightful A Crooked Kind of Perfect), has a post about Kids Books that Appeal to Grown-Ups. Certainly Linda's book falls into that category, but there are plenty of others. Share your suggestions in the comments over at Linda's. There's quite a discussion going on.
  • Meanwhile, over at Chasing Ray, Colleen Mondor is thinking about books that appeal to teenage boys. More tangibly, with about 20 other bloggers, she's planning to "create a site that is teenage boy friendly and will provide a lot of book reviews on books boys will like." How cool is that? I can't wait to see what they come up with. And if you have any thoughts on an appealing name for such a site, please head on over and share them.
  • Moving over to think of books that appeal to women and girls, Robin Brande's excellent book, Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature, was just chosen for the 2008 list of the Amelia Bloomer Project. Robin's post says: "The Amelia Bloomer Project creates a list of quality fiction and nonfiction titles that affirm positive roles for girls and women." What a perfect fit! I look forward to seeing what else ends up on the list. UPDATED to add: Rickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins also made the list.
  • I know, I know, I keep talking about Just One More Book! But today they have a podcast that I found especially interesting. Mark talks with actor / producer / author Henry Winkler about his children's books, and his dyslexia. Among other interesting tidbits, Mr. Winkler said that when he speaks to kids, he tells them something like (and I am paraphrasing a bit) "I'm in the bottom 3% academically, and look what I've accomplished. You can do it too." He also discusses how important it is for parents to understand dyslexia and let kids learn the way that they learn best. He even addresses people's impressions of celebrity children's book authors, and makes it quite clear that this is far from just a whim for him. He speaks very highly of his Hank Zipzer books co-author, Lin Oliver, and their plans for continuing the series. This is must-listen stuff, especially for parents of kids with learning differences.

OK, now you can go back to your regularly scheduled programming.

PDF Version of Helping Readers Article

As some of you know, yesterday I published a post (based on inputs from the amazing Kidlitosphere Yahoo Group), cross-posted here and in the comments at the PBS Parents Expert Q&A, about Helping Kids Learn to Enjoy Reading. By popular demand (and thanks to a suggestion from Megan Germano at Read, Read, Read), I'm making a printable PDF version of the post available for download. I hope that you'll find it useful.

My thanks, once again, to everyone who contributed to the article and to the wonderful discussions that have continued after it's publication.

Helping Kids Learn to Enjoy Reading

LogopbsparentsAs I've mentioned, I'm guest blogging this month over at PBS Parents Expert Q&A, and I am having a wonderful time. Most of the discussion has centered around the joy of reading, and favorite and recommended children's books. These are things I would talk about all day, if my schedule permitted it, and I'm thrilled to be having such lively discussion.

This week I had questions from two (apparently unrelated) parents each looking to help boys who are not just reluctant to read, but are having difficulty with it. One father called reading a "struggle" for his son, and sought ways to help his son "consider it fun and exciting rather than a challenge." Another mother said that her son finds reading very difficult, and seems to lack confidence in himself as a result. Both of these parents were looking for suggestions to make reading easier and more fun for their children.

I shared a few of own thoughts on this matter (read aloud with your children, let them read what they want to read, etc.), but I wasn't satisfied that I had given these parents enough help. So, I turned for assistance to my friends from the Kidlitosphere Yahoo Group (a discussion group for those who read, write, and blog about children's and young adult literature). This is an amazing group. Within 24 hours, I had heard back from about fifteen people, including teachers, parents and authors, with useful, concrete, and creative solutions for helping children learn to enjoy reading. In this article, I compile their suggestions, along with my own thoughts, in the hope of providing some helpful ideas for parents. There is no quick-fix, of course, no pill that your child can take to suddenly become a reader. But there are straightforward things that parents can do.

First and Foremost: Make Reading an Enjoyable Experience

The most important thing that a parent can do to help a child who is struggling with reading is make reading an enjoyable experience. If the child feels like reading is work or punishment, he or she will end up being a resistant reader instead of a joyful reader. Sixth-grade teacher Sarah (who blogs at The Reading Zone) says: "As a teacher with a whole lot of reluctant 6th grade boy readers, I can't stress enough - LET READING BE FUN! Too many parents use reading as a punishment. If I had to read any time I was in trouble, I would probably hate it, too!" Another contributor, Jill T. (who blogs at The Well-Read Child), points out that "parents must be patient and supportive. If parents get frustrated, it will only make the child more reluctant to read."

Read Aloud

The number one thing that parents can do to make reading enjoyable is to read aloud to and with their children. Well-known reading advocate Jim Trelease wrote an entire book on this subject (reference below). Reading together should be a fun, comforting, shared experience, not work, definitely not a test. By reading aloud to your child, you can read more advanced stories than the child is ready for on his own. You can stop and discuss the ideas in the books, together. You show your child that you value reading, and that you value your time together. The benefits of reading aloud to your child are vast, and will endure for a lifetime.

For parents who have difficulty reading aloud, try reading wordless picture books and telling your child a story based on the illustrations. Or try graphic novels such as the Owly books by Andy Runton (suggested by multiple contributors). Another idea is for parents and children to listen to audiobooks together. Just make sure you have a way to pause easily, so that you can stop and discuss things. Also consider listening to an audiobook at home, and following along with the printed book. The site Just One More Book! features picture book reviews via podcast (audio file), which can also be helpful for parents.

Parent Charlotte (who blogs at Charlotte's Library) says: "My own son is not taking to reading like a duck to water. So to make it fun for him, we will read books together. I will do the bulk of the reading, but he will be responsible for some of the dialog. When it's his turn, I wait a breathe to see if he's been able to keep up with his eyes; mostly he hasn't, so I point, and he reads. Sometimes he'll read it again, with dramatic expression. This way we can read more interesting books without frustration. Shared reading also works well with graphic novels--we've read many Tintin books this way. Ricky Ricotta and Captain Underpants work well also. So do the Magic School Bus books--on every page there is something even tentative readers can read."

Writer and volunteer librarian Gregory K. (who blogs at Gotta Book) echoes the importance of reading aloud, and adds "read EVERYTHING you can, from cereal boxes to store signs to books."

Let Your Child Read the Kinds of Books that He or She Wants to Read

One of the biggest reasons why kids, especially boys, end up resistant to reading is that they are often encouraged to read books that aren't interesting to them, and they are discouraged from reading the things that they most enjoy. One of the best things that you can do if you want your child to read for pleasure is support your child's selection of reading material. If your child only likes FACTS, get him an almanac. Get sports fans biographies of sports figures. Have a kid who is fascinated by war? Find some accessible nonfiction books. Try comics, joke books, computer game manuals, books of baseball statistics, movie novelizations, sport and car magazines, quizzes and puzzles. Whatever works. Whatever your child finds interesting is worthwhile. Yes, even Captain Underpants and Gossip Girl novels. Teacher Mary Lee Hahn (who blogs at A Year of Reading) adds that home should be a "safe place for reading books that are at an appropriate or easy level (especially when/if school is a place of stress and struggle)." Liz Garton Scanlon (who blogs at Liz in Ink) adds: "About reluctant boy readers -- or girls, for that matter: the Zack Proton books seem to work some sort of intergalactic miracle."

This topic is also addressed, in the context of reluctant teen readers, in a recent Horn Book magazine article by Philip Charles Crawford. A high-school librarian, Crawford discusses kids who are not just reluctant, but actually resist reading, and says: "To help these resistant readers, I avoid stigmatizing value judgments about reading materials. I try to change the negative experience that occurs when resistant readers encounter books--the immediate revulsion they feel when presented with something they view as academic or boring. This often means putting into their hands books that many librarians, teachers, and children's book expert snub... these books have the power to engage and excite teens who would otherwise read nothing."

There are two important sub-points here: 1) fiction is not all that there is. Women (who still make up the bulk of primary caregivers, librarians, and teachers) tend to enjoy stories. But anything that gets your child reading is valid, and the child should not be made to feel that his or her reading is less valuable because it doesn't fall into a traditional fiction-sized box. Reading of any sort, if it's enjoyable, will lead to more reading. That's our purpose here.

2) Suggested reading levels are guidelines, and may not apply to all kids. Kids shouldn't be pushed (especially at home, when reading for pleasure) to read at higher levels than they are ready for. There are kids who happily read dozens of Magic Treehouse books, to the frustration of parents who would like their children to advance faster. But if the child is enjoying those Magic Treehouse books, great. They'll move past the series eventually. But if you push them to read things they find difficult, you might turn them off of reading forever.

Teacher Marcie Atkins (who blogs at World of Words) suggests: "I always tell parents of 4th grade boys that it's not as much a concern of WHAT they are reading as long as they ARE reading. I tell them get them a copy of Sports Illustrated for Kids--anything that they LIKE to read about. Parents often really want their kids to read novels, but that's not always what boys want to read. My brother was a reluctant reader, but he would cut articles out of the newspaper about the Gulf War (the first one) because he was fascinated with tanks. He hated to read, but he read knew more facts about tanks than anyone I knew.

For a struggling reader (not one who is just reluctant, but really struggling with the mechanics) I would recommend the HI-LO readers. There are many good books out there with topics that are interesting to kids that are written on a lower reading level. Sometimes kids get frustrated with the "baby books" because they are not interested in the content but they have difficulty reading anything harder."

Former reading tutor Jill T. weighs in on the topic of age-appropriateness: "I used to tutor students (children, teens, and adults who had difficultly reading), and I can't begin to tell you how this impacted their self-esteem and how often they just wanted to give up because reading was so difficult. The only other advice I can give is to try to find age-appropriate material that is also aligned with their reading and interest levels. This can be quite a challenge because a lot of the beginning reader stuff is full of bunnies and bears and themes that will turn off older kids and even embarrass them if their peers see what they're reading. When I was teaching ESL to high school students, I had a hard time finding books that were simple enough for a beginning English learner to comprehend but also age appropriate. I was able to find a lot of nonfiction books and biographies that helped me and that also interested my students, and I tried to steer clear of the ones that had "Grade 2," or "Ages 4-8" stamped on them."

Several responders pointed especially to comic books and graphic novels as a tool for making reading more fun, and a bit easier, for struggling readers.

Kelly Herold (who blogs at Big A little a) reminded me about this recent New York Times article: Superman Finds New Fans Among Reading Instructors. The gist of the article is that "a growing cadre of educators is looking to comics as part of the solution" to literacy problems. The article notes that "Proponents of comics in the classroom say that they can lure struggling readers who may be intimidated by pages crammed with text. They also say that comics, with their visual cues and panel-by-panel sequencing, are uniquely situated to reinforce key elements of literacy, like story structure and tone." There are people who question the appropriateness of comics in the classroom, but it seems clear that comics and graphic novels can be used at home to help struggling readers find stories that they enjoy, and can read a bit more easily than more dense novels.

Parent and school librarian Anna W. also recommends Sports Illustrated for Kids, and adds: "Comic books, comic books, comic books! My fourth grade son loves the new Alex Rider graphic novels, and a series called Tashi (1st or 2nd grade reading, but good enough stories for a 4th grader), and now he's working through Diary of a Wimpy Kid (also 2nd grade-ish level). He also worked his way through some leveled non-fiction (step 2 & step 3) because he was captivated by the topic... If a child is significantly below grade level, have him/her listen to grade-level books on CD. It will help develop the vocabulary and narrative skills they're not getting with reading, and it also helps some with self-esteem, being able to discuss the same books that the stronger readers have read. The trick is to find easy (easier than ability = success, speed and practice) AND interesting. And don't make it a battle -- as long as a child likes the idea of reading, he hasn't given up yet.

And, if you are stuck for book recommendations for boys, Gregory K. reminds us that Guys Read, created by new National Ambassador for Young People's Literature Jon Scieszka, is a must-visit site.

Model Reading Behavior

Another important point about encouraging kids to read is that parents should, if possible, model reading behavior. Parent Libby (who blogs at Lessons from the Tortoise) suggests: "Talk about your reading at the dinner table, go to libraries and bookstores together, let your kids see that you are happy to read, that you get pleasure from it, that it is important to you. Just saying that reading is important won't cut it; kids do what we do, not what we say. And then, maybe, let up a bit. I think some kids freeze up when they sense they're not doing well at something their parents value."

This modeling of reading behavior is especially important for fathers. If the only people boys ever see reading are their mothers and their female teachers, it's very easy for those boys to absorb the message that reading is a feminine activity. But if even some of the time your son sees his father reading instead of watching television, that message goes a long way. Author Barbara Haworth-Attard says that her son "had a special time with Dad which was the half hour before bedtime when he and Dad (and only Dad unless Dad was away) would read together. He did this until he was twelve years old because it was one on one time with Dad, plus Dad did all the voices and they snorted with laughter and it was such a fun time together. I think fun is the key. Make popcorn, get a drink, be consistent in that you do it every night and make it so special kids can hardly wait to read. It also helped that my husband liked reading, too."

Other Concrete Suggestions

Tricia Stohr-Hunt from The Miss Rumphius Effect contributed three suggestions that she likes, all from an article at Reading Rockets:

"* Encourage activities that require reading - Cooking (reading a recipe), constructing a kite (reading directions), or identifying a bird's nest or a shell at the beach (reading a reference book) are some examples.

* Write short notes for your child to read - Write down his/her weekly household responsibilities for him/her to keep track of or put a note in his/her lunch bag.

* Give your child writing materials - Reading and writing go hand in hand. Children want to learn to write and to practice writing. If you make pencils, crayons, and paper available at all times, your child will be more inclined to initiate writing activities on his/her own.

Scroll down to the section on Helping your School Age Child (in the above article) for more ideas."

Make Words into a Game: Charlotte says: "We have a box of words written on pieces of paper, and every so often my son gets them out and makes stories with them. He ends up practicing reading as a result, with the added bonus of writing when he needs new words (and it's good grammar practice too, because of having to choose the right verb form and punctuation marks."

Try Reader's Theater: Author Barbara Bietz suggests: "Reader's theatre can be a fun way for parents to help kids with reading comprehension. After reading together, they can act out portions of the story or a short summary. It can be fun, even silly - and no pressure like a book report."

Visit Your Local Library: Mary Lee Hahn reminds us that regular visits to the library help reinforce the importance of reading.

Make Real-World Connections to Books: Jill T. points out: "It's always helpful if parents can find a way to use books to make real-world connections with things that their children are interested in... If I found that one of my students had a particular interest, I tried to find books about it and then point them to a place where they could actually GO to learn more and experience it first hand. For example, one student loved tigers, and the tiger at the National Zoo gave birth to tiger cubs. I found a fact book about tigers that she was able to read and also pointed her to the website where there was information about the tiger and the cubs."

Be Aware of Possible Learning Differences

If your child is having trouble reading, it may be time to have some tests done, to see if your child needs help.

Gregory K., inventor of the poetic form "the Fib", notes: "it's also a good idea to make sure that there isn't some other issue going on besides just not liking books. By this I mean things simple like a need for glasses or things like dyslexia or other developmental issues. Imagine the frustration for a child who cannot seem to make sense of the words, not knowing that it isn't a lack of intelligence or desire, but rather a slightly different mental wiring!

Most public schools have a reading specialist (in the district, perhaps) or a program where they can test and see if there is an issue. Talking to the teacher (or principal or someone!) is the best first step, in my opinion. (And that'd be true in private schools, too). I'd note that sometimes kids are clever enough that they can mask reading difficulties from the teacher, so you might be doing both teacher and student a HUGE favor if you mention concerns."

Anastasia Suen writes: "I am a former elementary school teacher, a children's book author, and the mother of a child who had a VERY hard time learning how to read. He loved books, that wasn't the problem! It was reading words that was hard. My son has dyslexia. Dyslexia is very common, 1 in 10 people have it. My son is grown up now and runs his own business (something that is also common for dyslexics!) PBS has a GREAT series about kids who find it hard to learn called Misunderstood Minds. The webpage has info about how kids learn and how to find help for kids who have trouble learning. One of the topics is Learning to Read. The Reading Responses page has lots of practical advice!"

Librarian Jenny Schwartzberg adds: "There's a wonderful new book by Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: the Story and Science of the Reading Brain, which specifically discusses dyslexia. I recommend it for anyone who is interested in how reading developed and why. It's absolutely fascinating reading."


The challenge of helping kids learn to enjoy reading is one that the members of the Kidlitosphere (the community of people who write and blog about children's books) take seriously. While I can't guarantee that this article is exhaustive (in particular, parents may need to find out more about the last topic, learning differences), I can say that these ideas all have the potential to help. In summary, to help your child learn to read and enjoy reading:

  • Make reading fun, not work.
  • Read aloud to and with your child.
  • Let your child read the kinds of books that he or she wants, even if they are non-fiction, and even they aren't officially at your child's grade level. Explore a broad range of genres, including graphic novels.
  • Model reading behavior yourself.
  • Look for other activities, like going to the library, and performing reader's theater, that make reading enjoyable and relevant.
  • Be aware of possible learning differences and vision difficulties that may be compounding the problem.

If you do these things, consistently and patiently, I truly think that they'll help, and that reading will become more enjoyable to your child. And you'll be able to share wonderful experiences along the way. I welcome your feedback.

Anastasia Suen
Anna W., school librarian and parent
Barbara Bietz
Barbara Haworth-Attard
Charlotte: Charlotte's Library
Gregory K: Gotta Book
Jenny Schwartzberg, librarian (read an interview with Jenny here)
Jill T: The Well-Read Child
Kelly Herold: Big A little a
Libby: Lessons from the Tortoise
Liz Garton Scanlon: Liz in Ink
Mary Lee Hahn: A Year of Reading
Marcie Atkins: World of Words
Monica Edinger: Educating Alice
Sarah: The Reading Zone
Tricia Stohr-Hunt: The Miss Rumphius Effect

A Selection of Further Reading:

A Few Recommended Titles for Reluctant Boy Readers (from Sarah):

  • The Cirque du Freak series by Darren Shan
  • Oh Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty by Joy Masoff
  • The Bone series by Jeff Smith
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney
  • Stanford Wong Flunks Big Time by Lisa Yee
  • John Feinstein sports mysteries, like Last Show and Last Dance

Special thanks to Jean Crawford, PBS Parents Director, for giving me the opportunity to guest blog as part of the PBS Parents: Expert Q&A. Questions posed there led directly to this article.

I have cross-posted this post in the comments at PBS Parents Expert Q&A. You can also download a printable PDF version of this article. Many thanks to everyone who has participated in the discussion so far. I look forward to further feedback! Please comment over at PBS if you have additional suggestions, so that more people will see your suggestions. Thanks!

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

More (Indirect) Evidence in Favor of Reading with Young Children

The San Jose Mercury News (free subscription required) carried a short AP article by Lindsey Tanner this morning about a new study of early TV-watching and future attention problems. The study, by University of Washington researchers, found that "(e)very hour each day that kids younger than 3 watched violent child-oriented entertainment their risk doubled for attention problems five years later... Even non-violent kids' shows like "Rugrats" and "The Flintstones" carried a still substantial risk for attention problems, though slightly lower. On the other hand, educational shows, including "Arthur," "Barney" and "Sesame Street" had no association with attention problems."

The study was released today in the November issue of the journal Pediatrics. A brief summary of the article and an abstract can be found here (you have to be a subscriber to the journal to download the full text).

I think that this study is evidence in favor of spending time reading with children. The more time you spend reading with your kids, the less time they'll have to watch violent television shows. OK, this is a bit indirect, perhaps, but I still think that it's true. Unless, by chance, you're reading them really violent children's books - but this seems unlikely.

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

RULES: Cynthia Lord

RULES, by Cynthia Lord, is the story of 12-year-old Catherine, whose life is defined in large part by her relationship with her autistic younger brother David. David is unable to intuit the rules of acceptable behavior, the way that other people are, and Catherine has to come up with a list of rules for him. She has other rules of her own, and these are used for chapter titles in the book.

According to her bio, Cynthia Lord is the mother of two children, one of whom has autism. Her real-world experience in, as she puts it, "living with someone who sees the world so differently than I do" allows her to give Catherine's character authenticity. Catherine rails against both her parents and fate for the problems that she has to deal with in caring for her brother. She laments especially the way David gets so much more parental attention than she does. Despite her frustration, however, she also loves her brother, and has a special bond with him that's unique to the two of them. I love the way they converse with one another using lines from Frog and Toad Together by Arnold Lobel.

As if Catherine's life wasn't complicated enough by her brother, she befriends a boy of her own age named Jason. Jason is in a wheelchair, and is unable to speak. His brain is all there, though, and he communicates by pointing at little cards in a communication book. Catherine, a budding artist, makes him more cards for his book, so that he can have a wider of range of things to talk about. She only gradually comes to see Jason as a person, and a potential friend, rather than as some sort of charity project. In some ways, her relationship with her brother has prepared her for having a friendship with someone else who is different and has trouble communicating. On the other hand, she struggles with having yet another association that makes her seem unusual to the other kids in the neighborhood.

I found RULES a fascinating window into the world of having a sibling with autism. It makes having normal rambunctious younger brothers and sisters seem easy by comparison (though it certainly didn't seem easy when I was twelve). It evokes humor and sympathy, and it explores sticking up for yourself and others vs. fitting in. I think that it will be a hit with 9 to 12 year olds, especially those with pesky younger brothers and sisters, or who have things about their families that make them different. And who doesn't, when you look deep enough?

My thanks to Cynthia Lord for sending me a signed copy of RULES. You can find Cindy's website here, with a detailed biography of her life as a writer (and pictures). Her ever entertaining blog is here.

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Two New Websites for Dyslexia Organizations

The 35-year-old Dyslexia Foundation of Memphis has recently set up a website. "The Foundation offers remediation for children with average to superior intelligence who have been founded to have one of the forms of Dyslexia." Their website has lots of useful publications about dyslexia, ADD, and other learning disabilities. I particularly enjoyed their list of famous people who are reported to have or have had dyslexia. It almost makes you wonder if you have to be dyslexic to accomplish anything. They also have an extensive set of links to other useful websites.

The Golden Triangle Dyslexia Foundation started more recently, when a group of parents from Columbus, Mississippi decided to start a program similar to the Foundation in Memphis, but closer to home. Their list of resources and links isn't quite so extensive yet, but they have a nice sidebar with links to recent news articles about dyslexia.

Both of these programs are excellent resources for information about dyslexia and other learning disabilities, especially for people in the Memphis or Columbus areas.

Children's Autism Author to Receive Barbara Jordan Media Award

I just read a press release (carried by the Houston Chronicle) about a first time author, Marvie Ellis, who won the 2005 Barbara Jordan Media Award for a children's book about autism. Barbara Jordan Media Awards are presented annually to outstanding communicators for accurate and progressive portrayals of people with disabilities. Tacos Anyone? (An Autism Story) is about a four year old boy with autism and his older brother. "The therapist teaches the older brother how to play with his younger brother, making sibling time fun again. The story is written in English and Spanish on the same page as the illustrations, depicting multiculturally diverse characters." I haven't seen this book myself, but it sounds neat!

I, Coriander: Sally Gardner

This weekend I finished listening to I, Coriander, by Sally Gardner. This book won the Nestlé Children's Book Prize in December 2005, and was also recommended to me by Kim at Kim's Book Blog. I found the book so compelling that I almost didn't mind cleaning my house this weekend, as long as I had the book to listen to while I did so (I downloaded it from Audible.com).

But seriously, I, Coriander is mostly a historical novel, with a sprinkling of magic thrown in to keep things from getting too dark. Coriander Hobie is the daughter of a 17th century London silk merchant, and grows up in a beautiful house adjacent to the Thames. Her mother is a "cunning woman" who grows herbs, and helps the locals with her potions. Coriander wears beautiful dresses, and learns to read (unusual for a young girl of the time). Coriander's young life is idyllic until a pair of mysterious silver shoes appear on her doorstep, and change everything.

Before much time passes, Coriander finds herself living under the repressive rule of black-hearted Puritans, people who perform cruel acts, and suck the joy out of life, all in the name of God. She also visits a parallel world, her mother's world, populated by fairies, and discovers an evil authority figure there, too. Coriander must pass back and forth between the two worlds, and find a way to recover a lost family treasure, save the life of a prince, save the life of a human family member, understand the secret of the silver shoes, and defeat her Puritan oppressors. No small set of tasks for a young 17th century girl.

I found Coriander's Puritan oppressors particularly disturbing. The unfairness of their behavior had me practically sputtering aloud, as they performed outrage after outrage. The book reminded me a bit of Elizabeth George Speare's The Witch of Blackbird Pond (which also features a free-spirited girl whom Puritans attempt to quench). There is a scene in which the local constable searches a house, and indulges in wanton destruction (again in the name of God), that made me positively cringe.

But I think that it says good things about the book, that I was so disturbed by portions of it. Sally Gardner brings Oliver Cromwell's London vividly to life in I, Coriander. And Coriander herself is a multi-faceted character whom I cared about a great deal by the end of the book. The supporting characters are not quite so well fleshed out, but still enjoyable.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this book to older kids who are fans of historical novels. I think that certain parts of the book might be too dark for most younger children (say, under 10). The magical elements of the book will likely draw in other readers, but for me, the real-world scenes are what make the book stand out.

The Guardian Unlimited published an excellent article about Sally Gardner back in December. The article said that writing books was a particularly big achievement for Ms. Gardner because she is dyslexic, didn't learn to read until she was fourteen, and even attended a school for "unteachable" kids when she was a child. The article says that Gardner was "bowled over and completely flabbergasted" by her Nestlé Children's Book Prize win. But I say that she deserves it 100%. I, Coriander is a book that I'll remember for a long time. Happy Reading! -- Jen

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Some Interesting Links

atching back up after a few days out of town, I came across a few blog articles worth mentioning:

  • Camille at Book Moot wrote today about Reading with Children, specifically about "crossover" books that include both Braille and written text. I also enjoyed Camille's Know-Nothing Alert, about people who challenge which books should be in the library.
  • Also on the subject of interfering with library book-buying choices, Melissa Wiley at Here in the Bonny Glen writes about the Brouhaha over Books. I think that Melissa's remarks are a call for reason in the whole debate. Liz at A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy contributes her thoughts on the subject, and includes the criteria that she uses for deciding what books to buy for her library.
  • Michele at the BLTeens blog wrote today about Bibliotherapy. She defines bibliotherapy as "when you read a book and so strongly identify with a character or situation that at the end of the book, you feel that you have learned a new strategy or a new way or looking at the situation", and includes an example of a young woman who changed her life because of reading the right book at the right time. I found it inspiring
  • Author Rick Riordan references a New York Times article about Rethinking ADHD. He says "Perhaps the half-bloods from The Lightning Thief are right. ADHD was a useful survival skill back in the old days!" You can see my review of The Lightning Thief here.
  • And Carly of Carly's Book Reviews writes about Books written after the film (in contrast to films made from books, which are much more commonly discussed). I think that this post caught my eye because Carly, like me, is a huge fan of the movie The Goonies.

Hopefully this will make up for the fact that I haven't had too much to say myself for the past few days. Happy Reading! -- Jen

Genetic Influence on Reading Ability

Thanks to Tasha over at Kids Lit for linking to an interesting article from ABC Science Online. The article is about a study published in the latest issue of The Journal of Research in Reading. The study looked at how genes influence potential reading ability in young children, and concluded that "genetic variability accounted for most of the differences in skills that predicted later reading ability" (vs. reading aloud to kids).

This is actually consistent with something that I read a while back in Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. The authors analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Eduction's Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, undertaken in the late 1990s. The ECLS measured the performance of 20,000 students, and supplemented this with detailed family interviews. A regression analysis of this data found that being read to every day at home was, surprisingly, not correlated with doing better on school test scores (although having lots of books in the home was correlated with better test scores). However, there was a strong negative correlation between adoption and school test scores (because of the genetic background of the adoptive children). Read Freakonomics to hear more about the ECLS study and its implications.

I still think that there is plenty of research out there to support the fact that reading aloud to kids will make them more likely to grow up as readers. Check out The Read-Aloud Handbook, by Jim Trelease, for a number of references (the newest edition of the Read-Aloud Handbook will be out in June, and presumably will have updated references). But I think that it's important to keep in mind that genetics play a factor, too, and that learning to read is going to be harder for some kids than for others. These kids will need all the encouragement that we can give them.

The genetic study researchers that I read about today did stress that time spent reading to children at home is important. They also pointed out that their research suggests that children who have difficulty reading are likely to have genetic roadblocks to overcome, and to in particular require extra resources to help them. You can read the News in Science article here. I would be interested to hear what you think. -- Jen

Good Books for Older Kids Who Have Reading Difficulties

Earlier this week, I wrote about Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief. I said that one of the things that I liked about the book was the way Percy's dyslexia, ADHD, and behavioral problems were integrated into the story as differences that make him who he is, rather than as negative attributes. Shortly thereafter Kellye, a reading tutor and Mom, suggested to me a couple of other good series for older kids who are struggling a bit with reading.

Kellye told me that Jenny Nimmo's Charlie Bone books have all been printed with double-spaced text at Ms. Nimmo's request, to make the books easier to read. I had noticed the double spacing, but hadn't realized that this was a deliberate tactic. Kellye said (of the double-spacing) "this proves a real benefit for children who struggle to overcome reading disorders as they are less likely to encounter the problem of the text lines running together." These books are about children who have all descended (over many years) from a magical king, and who consequently have unique and mysterious powers (called endowments). The children fall into two groups (think good vs. evil) struggling against one another. The backdrop is a gloomy boarding school in a town filled with unusual people and happenings. The main character, Charlie, is trying to find the father who disappeared when Charlie was very small. I enjoyed these books a lot, and I agree with Kellye that they would be an excellent fit for kids not quite ready to read The Harry Potter books on their own.

Kellye also recommended The Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins for pre-teens "as the stories are adventurous and fun, the series keeps them coming back for more and the reading level is and book size is not quite as overwhelming to a young reader who is ready to advance on to larger books." I haven't read the Underland Chronicles yet, but I have just checked the first one out of the library. It's about an 11-year-old boy and his 2-year-old sister who fall into fall into an amazing underground world. Here are some links to these series, both of which are in progress.

Charlie Bone / Children of the Red King series by Jenny Nimmo

The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins

If you know of other books that are especially good for older kids who want great stories, but have a bit of trouble with reading large, dense books like Harry Potter 6, let me know. I'll do a follow-up article. To me, it makes sense to remove any hurdles that are standing in the way of kids who do want to read but have difficulty with it. If these books can help, more power to them. Keep The Lightning Thief in mind, too. Thanks for visiting! -- Jen